The sun was burning out of the east when the group of riders arrived at the ruined hillside. Their leader dismounted and examined the rail ends protruding from the scree. “Just as she described it,” he remarked. “I think the girl would make a good scout someday, if she wasn't going to be the next Governor.”
The other riders spread out to look for ambushers. “Lieutenant,” one of them said, leaning down a little, why do you think we haven't seen the wizard or his apprentice? Shouldn't we have passed them on our way here? And where are the prisoners?”
“How the hell should I know?” The man addressed bent down to retrieve something from the dirt and inspected it. It was the front half of an arrow, and there was dried blood on it. “Looks like we're not the first to get here. Don't just sit there. See what you can find.”
After that he stepped closer to the protruding rails and scrutinized the ground around them. He picked up two pieces of metal and laid the longer one across the broken rails. Holding the other one in his hand like a hammer, he rapped smartly eight times on the crossbar, listening to the way the metal sounded. Then, after a moment's thought, he hammered out seven groupings of Morse, smiling slightly as he finished.
“What was that banging, Lieutenant?” Another of the men had returned and dismounted.
The lieutenant took a swig from his canteen. “Just sending our regards to the Honcho. What did you find?”
“Looks like two sets of tracks. One of 'em starts suddenly as if they dropped out of the sky and started walking. I know, I know, we must have missed the back trail somehow. The other set was someone arriving on a horse from over that way, to the east.”
“Send a couple of the men to scout it out, sergeant. The rest are with me.”
“Yessir.” He saluted smartly and swung back into his saddle to tell the others.
The lieutenant examined the arrow again. “Too many questions,” he remarked to himself. “Who shot you? Who did you strike? And where is the body?”
The arrow did not answer.
“Evers, Wilson,” said the lieutenant. “Head back to the outpost and bring some more men to watch this spot. I'll stay here with the others until you get back.”
Wilson, a tall man with sandy hair sticking out from under his Stetson, appeared troubled. “Do you think they got the wizard, Lieutenant?”
“No, Corporal, I do not.”
“Why not, sir?”
“Because unless they're idiots, they would have made him leave his staff behind. And whatever else the Texans are, they're no fools. Get going.”
After Evers and Wilson had departed, he took another sip from his canteen and held up the arrowhead again. “I hope you know what you're doing, old man.”
Behind a boulder and wrapped in darkness, Xander hoped so too. He'd heard enough. Struggling to his feet, he fished out his bottle of stickum and applied some to the staff. He wasn't sure that he could hold on all the way back to Denver, but there was no other choice. The few field dressings those men had in their saddlebags were not going to be enough for his wound, and he might not survive the bouncy trot back.
I must be getting old, he thought. Back in the day, no T-rat would've got the drop on me like that. Serves me right for not paying attention.
A wave of dizziness passed through him and he staggered a bit, then he gritted his teeth and tool hold of the staff and began to weave the pathspace tighter through the swizzle. Lester, you're going to have to hold on by yourself until I can get patched up. I'd be no use to you now.
He un-wove the invisibility spell and turned up the swizzle flow. In a few moments, the staff was singing its bass roar again and he rose into the sky.
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