THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT INTENDED TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT

 

 

 

THE ARISTOCRAT

 

 

 

A High Chaparral Story

 

 

By Kate Pitts

 

 

 

 

“Manolito Montoya, mon ami!” The unexpected greeting made Mano look up in surprise. Standing in the doorway of the saloon, silhouetted against the brightness of the Arizona sunshine, stood a tall, slender man with a shock of black hair.

 

“Philippe?” Mano asked uncertainly, squinting to see the man’s features. “Philippe de Careil, is that really you?”

 

“Oui, it most certainly is I.” Ignoring the curious stares directed at him by the locals, the fourteenth Comte de Careil strode imperiously across the room to seat himself next to Manolito, running an approving eye over his friend’s companion, a dark haired beauty by the name of Chiquita.

 

“But, what are you doing here?” Mano asked with a wave of the hand that encompassed the dim bar, the dusty street outside and indeed the entire town of Tucson. “Surely Arizona does not figure on the grand tour these days.”

 

“No, not quite.” Philippe smiled, revealing even white teeth. “I have been to visit your esteemed father.”

 

“How is Don Sebastian?” Mano queried, with a wry twist to his lips. “Eager to tell you what a terrible mistake his son has made, no doubt.”

 

“He did mention that he was a little disappointed that you had come to work for Victoria’s husband.”

 

“Ay, yi, yi.” Mano shook his head in disbelief. “I feel sure that he said much more than that.”

 

“It does not matter what he said.” Philippe dismissed Don Sebastian with a sweeping gesture. “I have come to see for myself how you and your beautiful sister are faring so far from civilization.”

 

Victoria will be delighted to see you.” Manolito told him, before turning to the barman and requesting another glass. “Let me pour you a drink.”

 

“Merci.” As Manolito picked up the whisky bottle Philippe turned his attention to Chiquita, giving the bar girl the full benefit of his not inconsiderable charm. “I see Mano has found the most beautiful young lady in the whole territory.” He said, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. “May I be so bold as to ask your name, cherie?”

 

Pushing the glass of whisky across the table Manolito smiled at his friend’s way with the women. Chiquita was already staring into his eyes with a look of rapture on her face and on the two occasions that Philippe had visited Rancho Montoya in the past he had managed to have the same effect on almost all of Don Sebastian’s female servants, whatever their ages.

 

The doors of the saloon swung inward and Manolito looked up as Buck and Blue Cannon came in out of the street.

 

“Hey, Mano.” Buck hailed him across the room. “You be wantin’ a beer?”

 

Seeing Manolito shake his head Buck paid for a beer for himself and his nephew before joining the Mexican.

 

“Philippe.” The Comte looked round from whispering in Chiquita’s ear as Manolito introduced the two cowboys’. “This is Buck Cannon and his nephew, Blue.”

 

“Monsieur Cannon.” Philippe shook hands with the older man; his gaze travelling over the dusty clothes Buck wore. “You are Victoria’s husband? The owner of the High Chaparral?”

 

“No.” Buck shook his head in denial. “That be my brother, John. This here’s his son.” He indicated the fair haired, blue-eyed young man who stood beside him. “I just work on the ranch.”

 

“I see.” Philippe extended his hand to Blue. “I am Philippe, Comte de Careil, an old friend of your step-mother’s.”

 

“Philippe is going to ride out to the ranch with us.” Mano told them. “To visit for a while.”

 

“Uh huh.” Buck took a long swallow of his drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I don’t mean no disrespect.” He said, putting his beer down on the table and addressing the Comte. “But ain’t you a little over dressed for ridin’?”

 

With a rueful glance down at his close fitting black suit, Philippe laughed. “I am perhaps attired more for a canter in the Bois de Boulogne than a gallop across the desert.” He admitted. “But I do posses a more suitable outfit. I will go to the hotel and change.”

 

“I’ll come with you.” Manolito stood up, pushing the remainder of the bottle of whisky over to Chiquita. “We’ll collect your luggage, I know Victoria will insist that you stay with us at the ranch.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

Rinsing out the last of the weeks washing, Victoria Montoya Cannon straightened up and pushed her long, black hair back from her face. A shout from the lookout at his post atop the ranch drew her attention to a distant cloud of dust that signified the approach of riders. Hastening round the side of the house she almost collided with her husband.

 

“Careful.” Big John caught his wife by the shoulders and smiled down at her. “No need to hurry it’s probably just Buck, Blue and Manolito returning from town.”

 

“Four riders.” Called the lookout loudly and, with a frown, John turned to watch as the horsemen drew closer. As they neared the entrance to the ranch he was relieved to see that it was who he’d thought and he walked out to greet them, wondering who the fourth rider could be.

 

Reining their horses in, the four men dismounted before turning to greet Big John but before any introductions could be made Victoria uttered a cry of delight as she recognised their visitor. “Philippe!” Rushing forward she threw her arms around the man. “How wonderful to see you.”

 

“Allow me to present myself.” Philippe said, returning Victoria’s hug, then turning to address her husband. “Philippe Chabot, Comte de Careil.”

 

“Mr. Chabot.” Big John reached out to shake hands with the man. “I take it you know my wife?”

 

“Philippe is an old friend of my father’s.” Victoria said, taking the Comte’s arm. “Come inside.” She instructed him. “Tell me why you are here and how you found Manolo, oh it is so good to see you.”

 

With a smile Philippe allowed himself to be led into the house. The thick walls of the building kept the heat of the day at bay and after the intense sunshine the cool, dim interior was very welcome to the Frenchman, unused to the blazing temperature of the Arizona summer.

 

“So what brings you here?” Big John asked after Manolito had related his meeting with Philippe and Victoria had served them all with tall glasses of cool lemonade. “Are you here just to visit the Montoya’s or do you have business in the country?”

 

“John.” Victoria objected, sending her husband a disapproving look. “Philippe’s reasons are no concern of ours.”

 

“It’s all right.” Philippe smiled at her. “I don’t mind telling you all why I am here.” He looked round at his host, standing by the fireplace. Manolito, Buck and Blue seated around the room, then back to Victoria, looking cool and elegant even in her working outfit of dark green skirt and white blouse. “You know there has been a war in France recently.”

 

“The Franco-Prussian war.” Big John said. “I’ve read about it.”

 

“For members of the aristocracy, like myself, times have been difficult ever since the dark days of the revolution.” Philippe told them. “But the war has devastated my estates. The chateau has had to be sold to pay off debts; strictly I am no longer the Comte de Careil. My friends, I present myself as plain Philippe Chabot, an unemployed Frenchman looking for work.”

 

As his wife and brother-in-law exclaimed in sympathy and offered their support Big John looked searchingly at the erstwhile Comte. There was something about the man that unsettled him and somehow he felt that the story he’d just been told had more to it. As his wife turned to him, as he guessed she would, and asked if he had work for Philippe his gut instinct was to say no, but he could rarely deny Victoria when she looked at him with the pleading look she wore now and he found himself offering the Frenchman a job on the ranch.

 

“You must stay here in the house with us.” Victoria told Philippe, clapping her hands in joy at her husband’s decision. “Come, I’ll show you to your room.”

 

Watching as she led the man away John felt his brother’s gaze on him. He looked across at Buck and realised that his brother was as suspicious of Philippe as he himself was. A frown furrowed his brow as he moved across the room and sat down on the chair, had he just made a big mistake, he wondered?

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Supper that evening was a noisy affair, Philippe, Mano and Victoria reminiscing about events that had taken place when the three had last been together at the Rancho Montoya. Buck and Blue enjoyed the conversation, laughing at some of the more outlandish exploits of Mano and Philippe and nobody seemed to notice that Big John just concentrated on clearing his plate and left the table as soon as he possibly could. Strolling out into the cool night air, John saw his foreman, Sam Butler, leaning on the corral and strolled over to join him.

 

“Pretty night, ain’t it?” Sam remarked, as his boss came to stand beside him.

 

Raising his eyes to the heavens John gazed for a moment at the multitude of shimmering stars gleaming in the inky blackness of the night sky. “Sure is.”

 

“Heard you hired yourself on a new hand.” Sam said, turning to look at the rancher. “A Frenchman, ain’t he?”

 

“His name’s Philippe Chabot.” John told him. “He’s a friend of Manolito and Victoria. I’m not sure how much use he’ll be to you, Sam, from what I’ve been told he’s not exactly used to life on a ranch.”

 

“You want me to go easy on him?”

 

Big John shook his head. “No. All the hands on the Chaparral have to pull their weight. I can’t afford to carry anyone. If he’s not taking his full share of the workload within a few days you’d better let me know.”

 

“Will do.” Sam told him and the two men stood in companionable silence for a while enjoying the peace of the evening until the quiet was broken by laughter and they looked round to see Philippe and Manolito come out of the house, drinks in hand.

 

“John!” Mano hailed his brother-in-law. “I wondered where you had disappeared to.”

 

“Just came out for a breath of fresh air.” John answered, walking back to join him. “Now, I’m going to turn in for the night.”

 

“So early?” Asked Philippe with a grimace. “Why the night is yet young, in Paris the restaurants would only just be opening for the evening trade.”

 

“Well, this isn’t Paris.” John said with a frown. “I expect everyone up and working at first light tomorrow and if you want that job that means you as well.”

 

“He is right.” Manolito told his friend as John disappeared inside. “We should get to our beds.”

 

“Perhaps one more drink?” Philippe suggested, holding his glass up and with a grin Manolito led the way back to the brandy bottle.

 

One drink led to another and as dawn broke over the Chaparral, it was two very reluctant men who dragged themselves up to face the day. Sam Butler, issuing orders to his men wasn’t pleased at the state of the new hand when he arrived and Philippe’s new job didn’t get off to a very good start when, riding out to the herd as he had been instructed, he was forced to stop several times along the way and empty the contents of his churning stomach.

 

“Mon Dieu.” He remarked to Manolito as he mounted up again after one such stop. “Never again.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Despite the shaky start to his employment Philippe proved a willing worker who was eager to learn and by the end of the week Sam was able to tell Big John that he thought the Frenchman was working out okay. John though, remained unsure of the man.

 

With business to conduct in Tucson early the following week, John left the ranch in Sam’s capable hands and rode into town accompanied by Buck and two of the Chaparral’s hands Pedro and Reno. The ride was long, hot and dusty and the first place the four headed when they arrived was to the saloon for a long, cool beer to slake their thirst.

 

“Afternoon, Mr. Cannon.” Jim Reynolds the bartender greeted John as he stepped up to the bar. “Four beers is it?”

 

“Please.” John felt in his pocket for his change purse and pulled out some coins in payment as the man filled the glasses.

 

“Say, did those fellers find you all right?” The bartender asked, putting the beers in front of the rancher and accepting the money.

 

“What fellers?” John asked curiously.

 

“Four men.” Jim told him, scratching his bald head. “They was in here day before yesterday, asked where they could find the High Chaparral.”

 

“No one’s been out to the ranch.” Buck put in, reaching out to take his glass of beer. “What did these men look like, Jim?”

 

“They was just regular fellers.” Jim said, frowning in concentration as he tried to recall anything out of the ordinary about the men. “Ceptin’ I think one of them was a foreigner.”

 

“A foreigner?” John felt a strange apprehension at this revelation. “Any idea from where?”

 

“Well he weren’t English.” The bartender told him with certainty. “’Cause I knowed a few Englishmen in my time and his way of talkin’ was different. Had a kind of odd name as well.”

 

“Like what?” Buck asked, draining his glass and pushing it toward Jim for a refill.

 

“One of the other fellers called him Pierre.” Jim said, pronouncing the name Pea-Air.

 

“French.” John turned to his brother with an anxious look. “Doesn’t that seem a little too much of a coincidence, first this Philippe turns up out of the blue and now there’s another Frenchman asking the location of the Chaparral.”

 

“Seems a mite strange.” Buck agreed. “Wonder where these fellers went?”

 

John picked up his drink, a thoughtful look on his face. As the men had been told where the Chaparral was why hadn’t they arrived there? Could it just be a coincidence that one of them was French? “Any idea where Philippe was working today?” He asked his companions.

 

“He rode out with Blue and Mano this morning.” Reno told him. “They were going to check the herd up by Eagle Creek.”

 

“I’ll be as quick as I can at the bank.” John told them, finishing his drink. “Then I think we ought to ride back, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

“Il fait tres chaud.” Philippe remarked, taking off his hat and wiping his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. “It’s very hot.” He translated, seeing the puzzled look in the pale blue eyes of the young man next to him.

 

“Sure is.” Blue Cannon acknowledged, his gaze turning away from the Frenchman and out to where the heat caused the landscape to shimmer hazily. “Guess you’re not used to temperatures like this?”

 

“It is a lot cooler in Northern France.” Philippe told him. “And though I have visited Mexico in the past I was never foolish enough to venture outdoors in the noon sun.”

 

“Hey!” Manolito’s call caused both men to turn to where the Mexican was hunkered in the shade of an overhanging rock, a fire burning before him with a coffee pot heating over it. “You two want some coffee?”

 

“Coming.” Blue called back and led the way over to Manolito who was pouring the strong, black liquid into cups. The three settled back against the rock, looking out at the thin trickle of running water that was Eagle Creek and the few cattle that stood around it. Off to one side their hobbled horses stood quietly, shaded from the heat of the sun by the same rock formations that sheltered the men.

 

“Merde!” Philippe exclaimed, taking a sip of his coffee and pulling a disgusted face. “That is terrible.”

 

“I can offer you no fine champagne or superior cognac.” Manolito told him with a flashing smile. “You will just have to settle for my poor coffee.”

 

“Fine champagne…” Philippe said softly, a dreamy look settling on his face. “Did I ever tell you about the time myself and a charming young mademoiselle from Marseille drank champagne with Queen Victoria of England at Windsor Castle?”

 

“Many times.” Manolito said with an exaggerated yawn. “But you have a new audience in Blue, my friend, so tell your story.”

 

As Philippe launched into his account, Blue listening with fascination and Mano leaning back against the rock and closing his eyes, they were unaware that they were being trailed. In amongst the rock formations four pairs of eyes were fixed on the hobbled horses and the faint gossamer trail of smoke from Mano’s fire.

 

“You want us to take them now?” The speaker, a tall, heavily built man with sparse ginger hair and a full beard, spoke in a sibilant whisper.

 

“Non!” The leader of the group was smaller than the rest, probably in his late thirties but possessing a boyishly handsome face under a mop of blonde curls. “They will return to their horses shortly, we will shoot then, but remember, I want Philippe Chabot alive.”

 

“And the other two?”

 

“Let them live for now, I have no quarrel with them.”

 

The big man grunted, though it was plain to see he wasn’t in agreement with his boss. Moving quietly back he relayed the instructions to the other two who looked no happier at the idea that there would be no killing.

 

Dousing the fire, Mano drained his coffee and stowed the cup away in his saddlebag. “Time to get to work.” He announced, standing up and stretching. “Save the rest of your stories for another time.”

 

“D’accord.” Philippe got to his feet with a smile at Blue. “Remind me to tell you someday about the time I went shooting in Scotland with Prince Albert.”

 

Mano shook his head in amusement as the three men headed towards the horses. As soon as they were clear of the rocks a sharp retort sounded, cracking through the hot, still air and a small cloud of dust rose up from beside Blue’s feet.”

 

“Throw down your weapons!” The order came from above them, part way up the rocky slope. “Or we will pick you off one by one.”

 

Looking at his companions Mano shrugged. “We don’t have much choice.” He said, fingers reaching for his revolver.

 

Wordlessly Blue and Philippe followed suite, removing their weapons from their holsters and tossing them onto the dusty ground. As they did so three men made themselves seen among the rocks and while one kept his gun trained on the three Chaparral men the others scrambled down and picked up the discarded guns.

 

“Tie up the Mexican and the fair haired one.” At the command Philippe gasped and looked up to see a fourth person emerge from hiding. “Pierre Toubon!” He exclaimed.

 

“C’est moi.” The curly haired man acknowledged, descending the rocks to stand in front of Philippe. “It has been a long time, Monsieur Chabot, and I have journeyed far but at last we meet again.”

 

“Murderer!” Philippe spat at him. “You betrayed my family.”

 

“Au contraire.” Pierre returned, with a grim smile, wiping saliva from his cheek. “It was you who were responsible. A traitor, a spy for both Prussia and France I believe, I just made sure that your family paid the price for your actions and I am here now to collect the money that you stole from La France.”

 

“If I had any money you think I would be here?” Philippe gestured at the landscape around him. “Looking after cows? I stole nothing.”

 

“I think you have a great deal of money.” Pierre said coolly. “And before I take you back to France to start trial I intend to recover it for my government.”

 

“I don’t have anything.” Philippe insisted, a trace of panic edging his words. “I swear.”

 

“I would hardly take your word.” Pierre laughed. He looked around him, eyes lighting on Blue and Mano as they stood before the three men he had hired to help him. “Very well.” A slow smile spread across his lips. “You will surrender to me the money or I will let my men kill your friends.”

 

Philippe stood in silence for a moment, as Manolito and Blue waited anxiously for his reply. “Very well.” He agreed at last. “But the money is not here at the High Chaparral, I left it with my old friend Don Sebastian Montoya.”

 

Manolito looked up at the mention of his father’s name, a prickle of alarm raising gooseflesh along his arms despite the heat.

 

“Then we will go to the home of Monsieur Montoya.” Pierre told him. “And just in case you were thinking of trying to double cross me we will take your friends as insurance. Any trouble and they die.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

  

Arriving back at the Chaparral, John and Buck found the ranch quiet, most of the hands at work. Victoria came running from the house at their approach, surprised to see them return so soon.

 

“Have Mano and Blue got back yet?” John asked, swinging down from his horse and turning to address his wife.

 

“No.” Victoria told him with a puzzled frown. “But they are not due back yet are they?” John pushed past her without replying and headed inside. “What is wrong?” Victoria asked worriedly, hurrying after him. “Has something happened? Why are you back so quickly from Tucson?”

 

“We don’t know if anything’s happened.” Buck told her, coming into the house behind them. “But it sure seems like there’s something funny going on.”

 

“This Philippe Chabot.” John said. “You wouldn’t know if he has an acquaintance called Pierre?”

 

Victoria shook her head. “Why?”

 

“Seems a Pierre and three other fellers showed up in Tucson looking for Philippe.” Buck answered before his brother could reply. “They got told that Philippe was here yet they ain’t showed up to find him.”

 

“I think Buck and I ought to take a ride out to Eagle Creek.” John said. “Just to check that everything’s all right.”

 

“You think these men mean trouble?” Victoria asked anxiously.

 

John shrugged. “I don’t know.” He told her. “It may be nothing.” But the worried look on his face told his wife that he didn’t believe his own words and within thirty minutes John and Buck were riding away from the Chaparral once more.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

“You left money at Rancho Montoya?” Manolito hissed as he rode alongside Philippe, Blue just in front of them.

 

“No.” Philippe whispered back, shooting a glance back at their captors who rode behind, guns at the ready. “It is as I said, there is no money.”

 

“Then why bring my father into it?” Mano asked. “Why not tell them you had hidden the money somewhere?”

 

“Rancho Montoya is two days ride from here.” Philippe said softly. “I needed the time to think what to do.”

 

“Silence.” Pierre’s voice called out as he rode up beside the two. “Plotting again, Philippe?” He asked with a venomous look at the other Frenchman.

 

“As I recall it was you who did the plotting.” Philippe said evenly. “Plotting to betray your friends.”

 

“Friends?” Pierre gave a harsh laugh. “Enemies of my country. They deserved to meet Madame Guillotine.”

 

“And Claudette?” Philippe asked bitterly. “Did she deserve her fate, Pierre?”

 

“She betrayed France.” Pierre answered coolly, though he averted his gaze.

 

“She was my wife.” Philippe said loudly, anguish in his voice. Manolito looked at him in surprise and Blue turned his head as he heard the words. “I will never forget what you had done to her, never.”

 

Pierre didn’t reply, just let his horse drop back to join his three comrades and they continued on through the heat of the afternoon, heading towards Sonora. After a while Manolito once again managed to bring his horse close to Philippe’s. “I didn’t know you had married.” He said quietly.

 

“It didn’t last very long.” Philippe looked over at him and Mano saw the sorrow in his friend’s eyes. “Claudette was taken from me after just six months.”

 

“She died?” Mano asked sympathetically.

 

“Non.” Philippe shook his head. “She is still alive, though after what that animal did to her…” He stopped abruptly as one of Pierre’s men galloped alongside and Mano was left to wonder what had happened to Claudette and how Pierre was involved as around them the heat of the day began to cool as afternoon turned to evening and the sun started to sink behind the distant mountains.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Some of the cattle that Blue, Manolito and Philippe had rounded up that morning still grazed beside the sluggish waters of Eagle Creek when John and Buck rode up in the gloaming of the early evening.

 

“They was here all right.” Buck reported after dismounting for a quick scout around the area. “They had a fire alight over by them rocks, the ashes are still warm.”

 

“Well, they’re not here now.” Big John looked around him worriedly. “And they can’t have headed back to the ranch or we’d have seen them.”

 

“They had visitors, John.” Buck informed him, pushing his hat back from his forehead as he looked up at his brother. “There’s prints from at least seven horses and a whole mess of footprints over by the rocks.”

 

“Four extra horses. Could be those four men.”

 

“Could be.” Buck agreed. “Whoever it be, they all rode off together in that direction.” He pointed out into the desert to the south of where they were standing. “Towards Mexico.”

 

“Well, I’m pretty sure Blue and Mano didn’t go willingly.” Big John’s eye’s followed his brother’s pointing finger to the darkening desert.

 

“We’d best be ridin’ after them.” Buck swung up into the saddle and pulled his horse around. “They need our help.”

 

“Which is why we’re going back to the ranch.” John told him. “It’s going to be completely dark soon and we can’t track them by night. We’ll go back, get supplies, fresh horses and a couple of men. We’ll start out after them at first light.”

 

“That could be too late!” His brother protested angrily.

 

“The fact that they took Blue and Mano along with them instead of killing them here means there must be some reason for keeping them alive.” John said. “I think they’re probably safe enough for a while.”

 

“And if you be wrong, John?”

 

“Then I’m the one that will have to live with it.” The big replied grimly as he wheeled his horse about and started back towards the ranch. Buck remained where he was for a moment, staring off into the desert, then with a shrug he galloped after his brother.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Night had descended, dark and cloudy. With no moon to guide the way Pierre and his companions had been forced to a halt in a rocky canyon. Two of the men dismounted and began to set up camp, lighting a small fire and unrolling bedrolls on the hard ground. At a nod from Pierre the other man, the one with ginger hair, helped the three prisoners down from their horses and, while Pierre kept his gun trained on them, led them over to sit down against the rocks, some distance from the fire. Securely tying them up, the ginger headed man moved away a little.

 

“You stay and guard them.” Pierre told him. “I will send Rogers over with some food when it is cooked and Jackson will relieve you later.”

 

The man nodded in agreement and stood back against the rock, his eyes on the Chaparral men as Pierre walked away to join the others.

 

With the arrival of the night the air had grown chill and Mano, Blue and Philippe huddled together, envying the three men sat around the fire. None of it’s warmth reached back as far as them and, unable to move, the three were soon uncomfortably cold. Their discomfort was made worse by the tempting smell of roasting beef that soon began to drift across and when Rogers made his way over to give the ginger headed man a plate of food all three felt the pangs of hunger.

 

“There you go, Red.” Rogers first handed over a blanket, which the man slung around his shoulders before reaching out to take the beef.

 

“Thanks.” He picked up the meat in a brawny hand, chewing appreciatively while Rogers watched the captives.

 

“Don’t know why Toubon brought those two along.” Rogers said softly as he took the plate back, glancing at the fire where Pierre was laid out, apparently asleep. “Reckon we could have made the Frenchie talk without too much trouble.”

 

“Toubon pays the wages.” Red wiped his greasy hands on his shirt, then leant back against the rock.

 

“Not that we’ve seen much in the way of wages.” Rogers said scornfully. “He’d just better be right about the money he says Frenchie’s got.”

 

“He don’t pay up, he dies too.” Red replied laconically, not a trace of emotion in his voice.

 

Rogers laughed softly and walked away.

 

“Nice pair of feller’s.” Blue whispered to Manolito who was sitting close beside him, watching Red.

 

“We must hope Philippe comes up with a plan.” Mano said, turning to the Frenchman. “You have thought of anything yet, amigo?”

 

“No.” Philippe hissed. “Keep your voice down, mon ami, I don’t wish Monsieur red beard there to hear us.”

 

“I would like to know exactly why we are in this predicament.” Mano said lowering his voice and shifting a little nearer to the Frenchman. “I think you owe us that much, my friend.”

 

“I suppose I do.” Philippe conceded, with a nod. He looked at his two companions, both waiting to hear his story and sighed. “You know of course that my country has been at war.” He began. Mano and Blue nodded. “Well, I was recruited by my government as an agent to pass information about Prussia to France. I have an acquaintance with Helmuth Moltke, who was in charge of the Prussian military. It was easy enough to convince him that I admired the way he was conducting the war. In a way it was true, they were extremely efficient and France was woefully ill prepared.”

 

“So you were a spy as Toubon said you were.” Manolito said softly.

 

“I was, but it was for France, not for Prussia. Pierre Toubon was a friend of mine, a friend of my family. He was a powerful man and knew many of the French generals and later, after the siege of Paris, he was very involved in the French Resistance movement.”

 

“So how come he thinks you were spying for Prussia?” Blue asked, puzzled by this tale of European intrigue.

 

“Because the General that I reported to, General Arcaro, was killed at the battle of Sedan where the Emperor Napoleon himself was captured. There was nobody left to verify my story and when Paris fell Moltke sent me a message of thanks for my support which Pierre intercepted…”

 

“So how does Claudette come into this?” Mano asked, as his friend fell silent, staring up at the night sky. “And why does Toubon assume that you have all this money?”

 

“I had returned home to Careil during the dark days when Paris was under siege.” Philippe said softly and his voice quavered slightly as he spoke. “There I married Claudette Sevin, a young woman who I had been courting before the war. Within three months she informed me that I was to be a father, it was the happiest moment of my life.” He stopped a moment and bowed his head, trying to regain composure before continuing. “When Pierre intercepted the letter he let it be known in the area that my family were involved, that they too had betrayed their country. One night a mob of men marched on my father’s house and took him and my mother to a home made guillotine.”

 

Blue shuddered as Philippe once again stopped talking, the horror of the incident only too easy to imagine.

 

“I took Claudette as soon as I heard.” Philippe continued again, his voice angry now as he looked over at Pierre Toubon. “We headed for the coast intending to make our escape by sea to England but we were pursued by Toubon’s men and Claudette was captured. I thought they had killed her and I continued on alone and did eventually escape to England with the help of a friend of my father’s. I heard later that Toubon, that animal, let my wife be abused by his men and that the experience had so traumatised her that she now resides in an asylum for the insane. My child was lost…”

 

“I am sorry.” Manolito said after a long pause in which he could feel Philippe’s sobs though the man made no sound. After a few minutes the Frenchman looked round at Manolito and Blue and gave a hollow smile, his emotions once more under control.

 

Pierre believes that I have money that was promised to me by Moltke in that letter.” He continued. “I do not. In fact I have nothing, I have had to sell my lands and my chateau by arrangement with friends in France. I cannot go home where I am labelled a traitor, I have lost everything and I just wanted to start a new life here where I had such good friends from my youth.”

 

The three men sat in silence for the rest of the night, occasionally dozing for a few minutes. There had seemed nothing to say once Philippe had finished his story, no words that could erase the terrible events of the past. Blue was shaken by the tale, his soft heart hurting for Claudette and Philippe’s unborn child. Mano worried more about their current problem and what would happen to them and to Rancho Montoya once Toubon realised that there was no money, and he fervently hoped that Big John was by now on their trail.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

It was still dark as Big John and his brother saddled up their horses and loaded up a packhorse, they hadn’t slept much and there was no conversation between them now, each busy with their own thoughts as they led the three animals out of the corral. The sound of the bunkhouse door heralded the appearance of the ranch foreman, Sam Butler, and his brother Joe. Yawning and stretching they joined the Cannon brothers for a quick consultation before going to saddle their own horses.

 

“John.” The sound of his wife’s voice behind him startled Big John, he had thought her asleep when he slipped from the bed twenty minutes ago. “You will be careful?”

 

“Of course I will.” He turned around to smile at her reassuringly, a little startled to see that she wore only her nightgown and a thin robe, her dark hair tousled around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”

 

“Yep, don’t you worry none.” Buck came to stand alongside his brother, the reins of his horse held loosely in his hand. “We’ll find Blue and Mano.”

 

“But you are going up against four men!” Victoria’s dark eyes were clouded with worry as she looked at her husband and brother-in-law. “And you don’t even know why they have Mano and Blue.”

 

“Four of them and four of us.” Buck said, with a glance over at Joe and Sam who were walking towards them, leading their horses. “That kinda makes it an even match I reckon.”

 

“I feel sure that this is all tied up in the appearance of your friend Philippe.” John’s tone was grim. “If anything happens to Blue or Manolito because of him I’ll…”

 

“Now don’t go upsetting Victoria.” Buck jumped in quickly, seeing fear cross his sister-in-law’s pretty face. “It’ll be fine, you jest wait and see.”

 

“We’re ready.” Sam interrupted, coming out of the corral behind Joe and closing the gate firmly behind him.

 

“Then we’d better get going.” John bent to give his wife a quick kiss, squeezing her arm reassuringly before swinging into the saddle.

 

As the other three men mounted, Victoria looked up at them all, unable to shake the feeling of foreboding that had settled in her heart. “Good luck.” She whispered softly under her breath as the five horses trotted out through the gate, John pausing to exchange a few words with Pedro who was posted there on watch. “Come back safely.” She watched for a spell as the men spurred their horses and rode away while above them the sky grew lighter as dawn approached and the first fingers of the sun’s fiery rays began to show above the horizon. In a few minutes they were out of sight and with a deep sigh Victoria returned to the house to begin her long wait for their return.

 

By the time the riders reached Eagle Creek the sun was up, just the last few remnants of the dawn clinging to the sky in a rosy hue. The trail John and Buck had found the previous evening was easily visible and they swung out to follow it, heading away from the Chaparral and into the already rising heat of the desert

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

As morning dawned over the little group of captives, and the men who held them prisoner began to stir, Philippe leaned closer to Manolito. “We need to delay them.” He whispered. “Give Monsieur Cannon a little extra time to catch up with us.”

 

“And you have a suggestion how to do that?” Mano asked, his eyes on the man who was guarding them. “They will not need much of an excuse to kill us, I fear.”

 

“Perhaps I could pretend that I am a little mauvais, a little ill.”

 

“They’re not going to care about that.” Blue put in, sitting up a bit straighter and flexing his legs, as much as his bonds allowed, in an effort to ease the aches from a night spent in such a cramped position. “They haven’t fed us, haven’t offered us anything to drink…”

 

“True.” Mano looked over to the fire where Rogers was brewing coffee. “And with the heat of the day we will need water…”

 

“You are right.” Philippe looked around, his eyes searching for Pierre as he spoke. “I will get us some water at least. Hey, Toubon!” He called loudly, seeing the other Frenchman emerge from behind a rock. “Viens ici!”

 

Pierre looked up at the shout, his face creasing into an angry frown at Philippe’s peremptory tone. For a moment it looked as though he would ignore the summons, but then, muttering something under his breath, he headed over to the captives.

 

“We need water.” Philippe said as Pierre drew close. “The day is already hot and we are thirsty.”

 

“You are no position to make demands.” Pierre sneered, looking down at the bound men. “You get nothing.”

 

“You want the money, then you give us what we need.” Philippe responded defiantly as Pierre began to turn away. “You must remember, mon ami, the Montoya hacienda is well guarded and you will need my cooperation to get inside.”

 

“I will kill your friends if you do not do as I say.”

 

“Then you will not get the money at all.” Philippe stated, a small smile playing on his lips. “For without them you have nothing to bargain with, I care not for my own life. Without Claudette nothing matters to me. Food and water, Pierre, or I do not help you.”

 

Pierre looked down, fury written on his face. Spitting on the ground he walked a few paces away from the Chaparral men, then turned back angrily. “Very well.” He said coldly. “You will get what you want.”

 

Watching as the Frenchman strode away, issuing orders to Red to give the prisoners food and drink, Mano smiled wryly. It was just a small concession that Philippe had won but as well as helping them keep their strength up it bought them a few more precious moments.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Big John Cannon watched as Buck slid from his horse and knelt to examine the ashes of the burnt out fire closely. “Well?” He asked impatiently as his brother remounted.

 

“They camped here all right.” Buck took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his black bandana. “And I reckon from the direction they rode off they’re heading for the border. ’Ain’t nuthin’ else that way.”

 

“They could be making for the Montoya place.” Sam put in, leaning slightly forward in the saddle to look at the trail heading away from the camp. “That’s just across the border.”

 

“Why’d they be ‘goin there?” Buck asked with a frown, jamming his hat back on his head and reaching for his water bottle. “Think Don Sebastian is involved somehow?”

 

“I don’t know.” Big John scanned the horizon, which seemed to shift and move like liquid in the heat haze. “Philippe is a friend of the Montoya’s and he’d been there before he came to the Chaparral…there’s obviously some link.”

 

Wiping the neck of his canteen Buck took a long swallow of tepid water before replying. “Think they mighta gone under their own steam? Just offered to show these fellers the way or sumthin’”

 

“No.” John shook his head slightly. “They wouldn’t just have taken off like that, they had a job to do. I still think the Frenchman and his friends have taken them by force.”

 

“Then we best get movin’.” Buck pulled his horse around. “This trail’s gettin’ older while we’re talkin’. We’re still a long ways behind.”

 

“If we take it that they are heading for the Montoya hacienda.” Sam said, bringing his horse alongside his employer’s. “We can hurry it up, no need to keep checking for the trail.”

 

John nodded, scanning the desolate landscape around them. “Sun’s powerful today.” He cautioned, feeling the heat of it burning his back, even through his shirt and vest. “Can’t take it too quick or we risk exhausting the horses. Could ride a little faster though.”

 

“Then let’s go.” Buck touched his heels to his horse’s flank and the men rode on, the sun’s relentless rays turning the desert around them into an ocean of discomfort, waves of dry, scorching, air rolling over them as they rode. Drops of moisture trickled slowly down overheated brows and shirts clung clammily to backs made damp with perspiration. The riders did their best to ignore it all, intent on catching up with the men they sought.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

As Pierre called the small group to a halt and ordered one of his men to water the horses, Manolito leaned close to Philippe. “It seems to me that it must be a very large amount of money involved.” He whispered. “To bring Toubon so far to get it.”

 

“It is a considerable amount.” Philippe told him softly. “But not what I would call a fortune.”

 

“Yet he has trailed you all the way from France?” Mano looked puzzled. “A little odd wouldn’t you say?”

 

“He thinks I’m a traitor. He wants to take me back for trial…” Philippe’s forehead creased thoughtfully. “Or so he says.” He looked across to where the curly headed Frenchman sat astride his horse. “You are right, mon ami, it does seem strange.”

 

“Silence!” Pierre shouted back, noticing the two men’s whispered conversation.

 

With a shrug Manolito moved away, leaving Philippe still staring contemplatively at Pierre and as they rode onward through the desert he continued to watch his former friend closely.

 

As the afternoon shadows began to lengthen and the heat of the day cooled to a more comfortable level the riders entered an area of high craggy hills, the trail little more than a narrow pathway between them. The close proximity of the rocky edifices seemed to unnerve Pierre and he held his gun tightly, eyes darting from side to side as he rode. Rounding an outcrop of stone that shielded the trail from view the little group were startled to find their way blocked by a group of around ten riders, dirty looking, unkempt men wearing sombreros and carrying menacing shotguns.

 

“Mon Dieu!” Philippe muttered under his breath. “What now?”

 

“Banditos.” Mano informed him and a lazy smile touched his lips. He had recognised the head of the bandit group that faced them, a sometime friend of his, Enrique Garcia.

 

“Just a group of Mexican bandits.” Red called across to Pierre, seeing the look of apprehension on the Frenchman’s face. “Leave ‘em to me, I speak a bit of the language.”

 

As the Chaparral men and their captors drew closer, Mano saw a spark of recognition cross Enrique’s swarthy face and, almost imperceptibly, shook his head. He didn’t want Pierre Toubon to realise that the son of wealthy Don Sebastian Montoya was one of his captives. But meeting Enrique and his men was the biggest stroke of luck he could have hoped for. The bandit leader’s nod of acknowledgement let Mano know that Enrique would ask no questions, but he knew that they would be followed from here.

 

“You know them?” Blue hissed the question, keeping a close eye on their captors to be sure they didn’t overhear.

 

Mano nodded. “I don’t want anybody hurt.” He said softly. “So we go on with Pierre for now. Besides…” He gave a sideways glance at Philippe, who was watching Red talk with Enrique. “I have a feeling that there is something else involved here, not just money and I would like to know what.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

As Pierre and his men rode away with their captives Enrique Garcia sat watching them. He had accepted without question the red bearded man’s claims that Manolito and the two other captives had stolen money from Pierre Toubon. Red beard had said that Toubon was taking the three in to the sheriff, which Enrique knew to be a lie; the nearest lawman was back in Tucson.

 

“Senor.” The call from one of his men made the bandit leader turn sharply. “Here is Juan and he’s riding fast.”

 

Enrique’s younger brother, Juan, had been scouting behind the bandit group, keeping an eye open for anything unusual in the area. The fact that he was riding up so fast was alarming and, his attention diverted from Manolito Montoya, Enrique wheeled his horse about and rode to meet his brother.

 

“Americano’s!” Juan told him tersely as the two drew level. “Four riders back about an hour or so down the trail.”

 

“Interesting.” Enrique looked back to where Toubon’s party was disappearing into the distance. “I think I’ll come take a look at these men.”

 

Swiftly issuing orders to some of his gang to follow Manolito, keeping well out of sight, Enrique headed back along the trail with Juan and the rest of his men.

 

Knowing the trails and rocks intimately it wasn’t long before the bandits were perched high above the valley where the Cannon party were riding. From this vantage point Enrique could clearly see the man who led the four riders.

 

“That’s John Cannon.” He told Juan, recognising the big man in the brown vest and white hat as he rode along far beneath him. “From the High Chaparral ranch.”

 

“You want we should stop them?” Juan asked, hand reaching for his gun. “The Chaparral is a big place I hear, they must have plenty of money.”

 

“No.” Enrique reached for his brother’s arm, staying his hand. “I heard that John Cannon married Manolito’s sister, the beautiful Victoria. Seems to me that Senor Cannon must be on Mano’s trail.”

 

“So what are you going to do?”

 

“Nothing.” Enrique said with a smile, shifting back from the edge of the rocks. Just wait and see what happens. I owe Manolito a favour so if he’s in trouble perhaps I can help.”

 

Juan shrugged, a petulant look crossing his face as he followed his brother back to where they had left their horses with the rest of the men. He wasn’t too happy about Enrique’s course of action but he knew better than to challenge the older man.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

John and his party caught sight of Pierre and the captives just before dusk, and, after a quick consultation, decided to keep well back out of sight, hoping that darkness would force the Frenchman to make camp.

 

“I don’t just want to ride in on them.” Big John told the others as they gathered round. “That will just lead to gunplay and they hold the aces, they have Blue and Manolito.”

 

Buck, Sam and Joe nodded their agreement and the four held back a little to allow Pierre to get further ahead.

 

As darkness fell, John slipped from his horse and pulled his rifle from the scabbard. “We walk from here.” He whispered, mindful that sound carried a long way in the night air. “Tie some sacking around the horses’s hooves to muffle the sound and no talking.”

 

Dismounting the other three men did as they were bid and the party moved forward again, guns held ready in case they should be spotted.

 

They heard the Frenchman and his cronies before they saw them. Pierre appeared to be issuing orders and faintly, on a gentle breeze, they caught the smell of wood burning.

 

“Ground tie the horses’s.” John ordered softly. “Then take to the rocks. Sam, you come with me. Joe, go with Buck. Watch out for any guards they might have posted.”

 

“And if we see Blue and Mano?” Joe hissed, as he straightened up from tying his horse.

 

“There’s four of us, four of them.” John said sombrely. “With luck at least two will be asleep soon. You and Buck take one of the guards. I’ll take the other. Sam, you cover the sleeping men.”

 

“And if they ‘ain’t sleepin’?” Buck asked.

 

“Then it’s one man each.” John told him. “But let’s hope that luck’s on our side.”

 

Silently, the four men crept up into the rocks, circling around until they came in sight of the Frenchman’s camp. A fire was burning brightly, three men sat around it eating, their faces glowing orange and strangely eerie in its light.

 

“There’s Blue Boy and the others.” Buck whispered to Joe, pointing off to one side where Philippe, Manolito and Blue sat together, their feet and arms tied.

 

“Looks like that’s their guard.” Joe murmured, his gaze on the tall, thickset man with the red beard, standing close to the captives, just visible in the dancing light from the fire’s flames.

 

“Guess we wait a while.” Buck settled back against the rocks, watching the campsite below as Pierre and his men began to set out their bedrolls.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

“Sam!” Big John shook his foreman’s arm gently. “It’s time.”

 

“What?” Sam straightened up with a yawn. Weary from the early start and the hard day’s ride he had almost dozed off. Rubbing his eyes tiredly he looked down at the camp below him. The fire had died down to little more than a pile of glowing embers and around it three men lay still and quiet in their bedrolls.

 

“Seems to be only one guard.” John whispered. “Luckily for us these men seem to be pretty incompetent.”

 

“You want me to cover the three sleeping beauties?”

 

John nodded, and began to start down towards the camp. “That’s the idea.” He said softly. “Let’s hope Buck and Joe see us moving.”

 

Creeping quietly round behind the red bearded man Buck was hoping that his brother was nearing the camp as well. Just in case he wasn’t, he’d sent Joe off to cover the three sleeping men. He smiled grimly to himself as he neared the guard, the man was half asleep, his head lolling forward onto his chest.

 

Moving swiftly, Buck thrust the barrel of his gun into the small of red beard’s back while at the same time clamping a gloved hand over the man’s mouth. “Don’t move, mister.” He said softly. “Or I’ll kill you and that’s a promise. Now drop the gun.”

 

Caught unawares, the bearded man didn’t bother to struggle and threw down his weapon just as the tall figure of Big John loomed up out of the darkness.

 

“Nice of you to join me.” Buck told him with a grin. “P’raps you could just tie this feller up for me.”

 

John obliged quickly, tying red beard and using the man’s own bandana as a gag. “You release Mano, Blue and Philippe.” He told his brother as he secured the gag in place. “I’ll go and see if Sam and Joe need a hand.”

 

Buck nodded in agreement, reaching into his boot and withdrawing a knife with which to cut the bonds that held the Chaparral men captive.

 

“I am very glad to see you, my friend.” Mano said with a smile as Buck cut the ropes from his wrists and he felt them drop away. “Though I did hope you might have got here a little more quickly.”

 

“Rode as fast as we could.” Buck rejoined, bending to release his nephew. “You all right?”

 

“Hungry, thirsty, cold and tired.” Mano told him, but his tone was jocular as he helped Blue to his feet and then watched as Buck cut Philippe’s bonds.

 

“And you, Blue Boy?” Buck turned an anxious look on his nephew, reassured by the youth’s answering smile.

 

“Just fine, Uncle Buck.”

 

“Then we best go join your Pa and the other’s.” Buck slipped his knife back in his boot and headed towards the campfire, the other three following him slowly.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Beside the fire, Sam had roused the three men from sleep while Joe had kept them covered with his gun. As Buck and the former captives walked over, Big John was busy tying up Jackson while Sam bound Rogers’ feet.

 

“You have made a big mistake, gentlemen.” Pierre blustered as Sam turned from Rogers and pulled the Frenchman to his feet. “Monsieur Chabot there is a spy, a traitor to his country.”

 

“A spy, eh?” Buck turned to look at Philippe, standing quietly beside Manolito. “That true?”

 

“I was a spy, that much is indeed true. But I worked for France not against her.”

 

“Philippe’s told us all about it.” Mano shot an angry glare at Pierre. “I believe him and as for that man there, he is nothing short of a murderer.”

 

“Who’d he murder?” Buck asked, his interest roused.

 

“My parents.” Philippe told him, his voice heavy with grief. “And my unborn child.”

 

“I don’t guess the Sheriff will be much interested in murders in France.” Buck said heavily, sympathy in his eyes as he looked at Philippe. “But perhaps we can find some way for justice to be done.”

 

“Non!” Pierre cried suddenly, catching them all by surprise as he lunged forward and grabbed Blue. In his hand had appeared a knife, which he must have been carrying in a hidden scabbard and he held the sharp blade to Blue’s throat.

 

“Let him go.” Buck growled menacingly, catching a flash of fear in his nephew’s blue eyes. “So help me if you harm that boy I’ll…”

 

“You can’t get away.” John warned, stepping a little closer to his son and Pierre. “Just put the knife down.”

 

“Any nearer and I slit his throat.” Pierre said angrily then laughed harshly. “Not as swift and clean as Madame Guillotine but just as effective.”

 

Pierre, please don’t…” Philippe pleaded softly. “This young man has done you no harm, it is me that you want.”

 

“And the money.” Pierre brought the tip of the blade a little closer to Blue’s neck, drawing forth a drop of bright blood. “You and I will go on to Montoya’s home. Get me the money and I let…” He broke off in mid-sentence with a grunt, a sudden grimace of pain contorting his features. The knife slipped from his hand and Blue pulled quickly away from him.

 

For a moment nobody moved or spoke, all staring in shock at Pierre who lay crumpled on the ground, a knife buried up to the hilt in the very centre of his back.

“How…” John began, then stopped as from behind a rock stepped Enrique Garcia, the man who had thrown the knife and repaid the favour he owed to Manolito Montoya.

 

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

“Pierre!” Philippe’s cry broke the silence as he fell to his knees beside his one time friend. Gently, almost tenderly, he lifted the mortally wounded man, reaching to brush away some of the desert soil that clung to the Pierre’s blonde curls.

 

“It seems you have won.” The injured man choked out, a wry smile twisting his bloodless lips. “You get to keep the money.”

 

“There never was any money, mon ami.” Philippe said softly, sadness tingeing his voice as he spoke. “I told the truth at the start, I have no money.”

 

“Oh, well.” Pierre raised his shoulders slightly and spread his hands in a hint of a Gallic shrug. “The money was to have been just a bonus anyway. The real reason I traced you here was to kill you.”

 

“Kill me!” Philippe looked shocked at the revelation. “But why? I thought you wanted to take me back to trial as a traitor.”

 

“I could not do that.” The ghost of a laugh escaped from the dying man. “The truth is already known, Philippe. An associate of General Arcaro had the proof all along. Your name has been cleared.”

 

“Then I can go home!” Philippe exclaimed joyfully, looking up at Manolito with a smile. “Back to France.” A groan from Pierre brought his attention back to the other Frenchman and he looked down at him in puzzlement. “But why did you want to kill me?”

 

Pierre hesitated, turning his head away from Philippe. “There are reasons…” He whispered. “At least…”

 

“Might as well tell him.” Buck put in from where he stood listening, his arm around his nephew. “You ‘aint got nuthin’ to lose now.”

 

Nodding resignedly Pierre looked up at Philippe. “You know that Claudette is in an asylum near Paris.” He stated, his voice weakening as he spoke. Philippe nodded in agreement, his lips pressed tightly together at the mention of his wife, and Pierre took a deep breath. “What you don’t know.” He said quietly. “Is that her child…your child…did not die. Claudette had a son.”

 

“A son?” Philippe repeated, stunned at the revelation. “But where…I mean what…how…a son?”

 

“I took the boy.” Pierre confessed, his voice so weak now that Philippe had to strain to hear him. “I intended to raise him as my own.” His eyes softened as he spoke of the child. “I named him Olivier after my father. But then, your name was cleared and I was frightened you’d come back home to France.”

 

“Come back and find out the truth?”

 

“And claim the boy yourself.” Licking dry lips, Pierre looked his former friend in the eyes, pleading for forgiveness. “I am sorry but I couldn’t give the child up.”

 

“So you came to kill me?”

 

Pierre nodded, his eyes closing. As Philippe gently lay the wounded man down on the ground he gave a sudden, convulsive shudder, expelled a gasp of air and was still.

 

“He’s gone.” Manolito said softly, kneeling to feel for any sign of life.

 

Philippe nodded, getting to his feet and gazing down at Pierre’s body as if in a daze.

 

“Are you all right?” Mano asked, looking up at him anxiously.

 

“All right.” Philippe laughed suddenly, happiness suffusing his face as he answered. “Did you hear him, Mano? I have a son! Claudette and I have a son!”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

“I wish you Good Luck, my friend, or as you would say Bonne Chance.” Manolito shook Philippe’s hand warmly as they stood beside the waiting stagecoach on the dusty Tucson street. “I hope that you find the child.”

 

“Oh, I will.” Philippe told him with certainty. “If I have to search all of France, I will find my son.” He turned to say goodbye to Big John, Victoria, Blue and Buck who were standing on the sidewalk watching. “I cannot thank you enough, John.” He told the big man. “For funding my journey home to France.”

 

“Think nothing of it.” John said gruffly, with a quick glance at his wife. “Victoria insisted that you be given the means to find your son.”

 

“I will repay you one day.” Philippe turned a grateful smile on the beautiful young woman standing beside her husband. “And I will let you know how things work out.”

 

“Please do.” Victoria left John’s side and walked over to Philippe, reaching up to kiss him lightly on the cheek. “Goodbye, I will be thinking of you.”

 

“Au revoir.” Philippe boarded the stage and took his seat, leaning out of the window to address Manolito. “Did your father reward the bandit leader?”

 

“He did.” The Mexican grinned, his even white teeth gleaming in his tanned face. “I told Enrique to tell Papa that he had saved me from certain death and he was most grateful. It was not exactly the truth but my esteemed parent is not short of a few peso’s”

 

“I’m glad he got something.” Buck put in, putting a fond arm around his nephew as he spoke. “If it wasn’t for him, we coulda lost Blue here.”

 

“Papa arranged for a good, catholic funeral for Pierre as well.” Mano added softly, looking up at Philippe. “It seemed the right thing to do.”

 

“I’m glad.” The Frenchman was sombre for a moment thinking of all that had happened. “He was a good friend once.”

 

“The others we took to the Sheriff.” Blue told him. “They’ll probably end up in prison.”

 

Philippe nodded with satisfaction. “It is no more than they deserve.” He held out a hand to Manolito as the stage driver climbed aboard. “Au revoir, mon ami. I hope all goes well for you in the future.”

 

“Goodbye.” Manolito shook hands once again then stood back to watch as the stagecoach pulled out in a cloud of dust and Philippe began his long journey back to France.

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 © Kathleen Pitts 2002

 

 

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