1. Virginia City, 1873

Ante up. And don't be shy.
Who is that man who is catching my eye?
What's underneath all of the deadpan face?
Sitting so pretty with a criminal grace?

No Cheap Thrill, Suzanne Vega

Rose McClanahan had come west with her husband as a fifteen-year-old bride and saw him dead and buried after a bar fight as a sixteen-year-old widow. She'd made her own way since then, working in saloons across the west, in the brothels of the Barbary Coast, and finally, in her own sporting establishment in Virginia City.

She considered that she knew men: miners, cowboys, bankers and gunslingers, ex-slaves and ex-soldiers, macks and preachers and lawmen, wild boys and hardened killers. They all came around when they needed to scratch that itch. Some were rough and some were cruel, and most didn't treat a woman for hire as anything better than a bottle of whiskey or new pair of boots. A few, though, were kind and easy, and treated every whore just like a lady, and not like she was something dirty for selling them what they wanted.

She knew Walter Harrison and Sven Karkinnen, the businessman and the farmer; both men had passed more than one night in the beds of one of her 'girls'. Harrison liked to leave bruises. Sven liked to just get it done.

She didn't know the green-eyed gambler who had spent the night playing poker with them and a handful of other men, but she'd known a few men like him. Real gentlemen, in and out of bed, whether they had a cent in their pockets or not.

This one was smooth and polite and all disarming charm, entertaining and distracting his marks while he relieved them of their funds. Rose kept a close eye on him the first night when he had shown up. The way he made those cards dance no one would ever know if he cheated them or not. But he hadn't made trouble, hadn't won so much anyone would call him on it, just emptied a bottle of Scotch and gone upstairs at last with Priss, the dusky octoroon girl from New Orleans.

Sometimes, Rose wondered about that- how it was always the Southern boys Priss went with and smiled over the next morning.

Tonight, he'd been playing with that seeming carelessness, controlling the game and the players without them ever knowing it. However much anyone else lost, though, Harrison and Karkinnen broke just even enough to stay in the game.

Now, Rose know Sven. He wasn't a stupid man, but he wasn't that good a poker player, not like the businessman. Losing at poker was how Harrison ended up holding the mortgage on Sven's farm. Harrison, who had been a miner and maybe other things before becoming a businessman, wasn't a bad player, but not in the gambler's class.

The gambler had been proving that steadily all night, taking a series of pots that had resulted in Harrison anteing up whatever collateral he had on this last hand, including the mortgage on Karkinnen's farm and a deed to a stretch of worthless canyon north of town. Rose wasn't sure what the man was up to, but she knew he was playing with a purpose.

"Four kings, sir, and an ace, beat eights and sevens."

Deft fingers fanned out the winning hand on the green baize. Yellow light from the oil lamps struggled through the haze of smoke in the room, catching red glints in the gambler's light brown hair and the square-cut ruby ring on one finger. A plain gold wedding band adorned his other hand. He smiled, his light expression and voice never betraying how closely he was watching the black-bearded miner-turned-businessman across the table from him. Harrison's ugly scowl and massive shoulders didn't bother him, nor the big fists, but he stayed alert and ready.

"Damn you."

The gambler's smile remained. Men like him learned fast that a good night at the tables could go bad in an instant. Tonight had been good and would remain so, so long as Harrison's big hands, now clenched in fists on the table, stayed there ... and didn't end up wrapped around his throat. Should events proceed in that direction, Rose guessed he would have not the slightest qualms about using the pistol she'd glimpsed in a shoulder-rig under his finely tailored coat.

"The Devil most certainly has, sir." The gambler's drawled words hung in the air, thick and slow as cold honey, his glass green eyes holding Harrison's expressionlessly. His sort would face the Devil without blinking.

Harrison sat back, uncurling his fists. Rose nodded to herself, guessing the big man was biting back the accusation he'd been about to make. The empty, careless look in the gambler's eyes said he wouldn't be averse to ending the game with an exchange of bullets. The miners and whores of Virginia City saw many hard men pass through; men who were looking for trouble and others who wanted to make a name, but the only ones they walked carefully around were the ones who didn't care. The gambler, for all his manners and finery, was a man who didn't give a damn whether he lived or died or killed.

Harrison was just smart enough to see the same things in him that Rose recognized. Wisely, he silently backed down. He hadn't lost so much that it would be worth going up against the Southerner.

Rose thought she might warn the gambler to watch his back if he meant to stay in town much longer. Harrison held grudges and could afford to hire his vengeance out. He'd done it before when he had walked away from a game a loser.

She looked at her watch-brooch. Only an hour or so until dawn. The three men had been playing for hours. Harrison's face was flushed with anger and whiskey, and his black hair that he usually kept slicked down shot up in odd tufts around his ears. His suit was rumpled and his tie was gone.

The gambler, of course, looked as poised and pristine as when he sat down seven hours before. A glass of Scotch sat by his elbow, the only refreshment he'd taken during the marathon poker game.


"You win, gambler," Harrison snarled.

"Indeed, I do, regularly," the gambler declared smugly. He raked in his winnings, cash, chips, the deed and the mortgage.

"Hope you got some use for a worthless stretch of Stairstep Canyon and a hardscrabble farm," Harrison said sourly as he rose from the table.

"None at all," the gambler admitted. He stroked his hand down the arm of his claret-colored wool coat and straightened the lace at the end of his shirt cuffs. "Farming ... " He shuddered theatrically. "Gentlemen do not stoop to menial labor."

He eyed Sven Karkinnen. "My apologies, sir. I understand you are one of those good honest folk who till the land."

The tow-headed Fin just shrugged. He had already bowed out of the last hand before Harrison proffered the mortgage on his farm. Sven had a broad, raw face, reddened by daily toil in the sun. He didn't play badly for a man with such rough and calloused hands, though he came nowhere near the skills of the professional or Harrison. It was desperation and the gambler's clever dealing that had kept him in the game this far.

The gambler raised an eyebrow at him now.

"Sir? One more game, perhaps?" He tapped one smooth finger against the mortgage still lying on the baize. Sven's pale blue eyes seemed to study him for a long moment before he nodded.

"Thank you, sir," the gambler said with a dimpled grin. "Lady Luck has smiled on us both tonight, perhaps this last hand will tell who she favors most."

He began shuffling the cards, obviously relishing the feel of the pasteboards fanning through his fingers.

Rose smiled as the gambler stroked his thumb over his worn wedding band and dealt Sven an unbeatable hand. A real gentleman, this one, she thought.

"Ante up, sir."

She signaled one of the sleepy girls who had been watching to come over to her side. "See to it a hot bath and breakfast are waiting for Mr. Standish in Priss' room, Genny, dear," she instructed the young whore. "Then go tell Sam to have his horse ready for him by noon."

If the gambler had any sense, he'd ride out of Virginia City and keep going, after tonight's little performance. Otherwise, one of Harrison's goons would find a way to put bullet in his back and Rose thought that would be a shame.

He had such pretty green eyes.

2. Four Corners, 1877

He deals the cards as a meditation
And those he plays never suspect
He doesn't play for the money he wins
He doesn't play for respect

Shape of My Heart, Sting

For numerous reasons, Four Corners' resident, unofficial lawmen usually spent their drinking time at the Standish Tavern, and because of that, trouble seemed to find its way there more often that not. Some days, Inez Recillios, who managed the saloon for its current owner, cursed their very existence, along with the constant presence of one or more of them.

In any case, that evening, the brawl broke out down the street in the more disreputable establishment known as Digger Dan's.
Ezra lifted his head and listened, his ears just catching the sound of fighting over the genial hubbub of the saloon he sat in. He shuffled and dealt without looking to his fellow players – Jacobs the bank clerk, two of the ranch hands who came in on most pay days, Clem and O'Shea, and Paulson, a drummer trying to sell barbed wire. The drummer had stopped off the stage to spend a night in a hotel and offer his wares around the area. Ezra had decided someone needed to warn the man to stay away from the James and Royal spreads – plenty of cattlemen still considered barbed wire anathema. But Ezra wasn't one to do something for nothing, so he'd set about lightening the man's wallet considerably first.

Casually, Ezra flexed his forearm, checking the rig that held his two-shot derringer under his sleeve. A shift of his shoulders, as though he was loosening tight muscles in his neck and back, ascertained the proper fit and weight of his Colt Richards conversion in the shoulder rig he wore beneath his coat and over his shirt and vest. He didn't check the gun belt he wore. That would have meant taking a hand away from the tabletop. Besides, he knew it was there, an old familiar weight at his hip.
In addition to the guns he had a knife in one boot top and another tucked inside his vest, along with a set of lock-picks, matches, a length of fuse and a chased silver whiskey flask he'd filled with black powder.

Ezra believed in playing the odds most of the time. Or to be more exact, manipulating those odds in his favor. For the last three years he'd indulged in manipulating or just plain cheating the odds for the six other men he worked with. Not, he thought darkly, that all of them appreciated it. Yet, with the chances they'd all taken, at least one of them should have been moldering in Four Corner's version of Boot Hill.

He had, for years, believed in looking out first and foremost for himself. Camaraderie was something he had left behind with his Confederate gray uniform when Lee surrendered.

He smiled at the two cowhands and began the next hand, but with half his attention still tuned to the sound of trouble. His shift of the town patrol didn't start until midnight, when he would check through the streets and then relieve Mr. Larabee at the jail, but that didn't mean he might not be called on before that. Buck was ensconced at Miss Maggie's, JD was at the boarding house sleeping the sleep of the innocent and the just, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez were respectively at the clinic over the livery and the half-restored church. Vin Tanner, alone, was slouched in a chair at the Seven's regular table, sharp blue eyes ever watchful.

Vin would only stroll out of the saloon and back to the freight wagon he called home when Ezra put away his cards and headed for the jail. The ex-bounty hunter had never said anything, but Ezra had noted Vin made a point of taking his ease in the saloon when Ezra played if one of the others wasn't present.

Ezra had found Vin the most perplexing of the six men he worked beside in the beginning but had, over time, learned to respect him. Vin was not a man who would ever let his own interests or desires draw him away from a responsibility. Since Ezra was one of the lawmen in Four Corners, his well being fell within Vin's self-appointed responsibility. Under the circumstances, Ezra trusted Vin Tanner to watch his back without fail.

Even that provisional trust was a reliance that discomfited Ezra.

His gaze slid from the men at the poker table with him to meet Vin's eyes, knowing the man was hearing the ruckus from beyond the saloon just as he was. Vin had the eyes and ears of a wild thing, but if Ezra could hear something over the din of the saloon's patrons, it was loud. Ezra raised an eyebrow.

Vin cocked his head, then nodded.

Ezra didn't bother checking the pot at the center of the table. He knew its paltry contents to the penny. He could let it go without much regret.

He laid his cards down on the green baize, face down.

"Gentleman, you'll have to play out this hand without me," he said, sliding his chair back. The drummer looked up from his cards, broad face creasing into a suspicious frown. The two cowboys just shrugged. There would be other nights and with the gambler gone, they might even come out of this night ahead.

Ezra sighed. Time to earn his pay, he supposed. Four Corners was still a rowdy town, though far from its wild and woolly worst three years before, when the only law had been a drunken coward with a sheriff's badge. It hadn't been a town for decent folks back then.

Vin was uncoiling over in the corner while Ezra excused himself. They were both part of the reason Four Corners had changed, though neither of them wore a badge. Working for the Judge was enough authority for them.

"Where you going?" the drummer asked. He couldn't fathom a gambler walking away from a game that had been going his way. Just folding his hand. It didn't seem natural.

Ezra smiled. "I have another calling here in town, sir, and I believe it is about to be calling. – Good night, gentlemen."

Ezra rose and settled his hat on his head. He gave Jacobs an ironic, two fingered salute because he'd noticed the man's anxiety then headed for the saloon's front door. Behind him, he heard the drummer ask, "What did he mean?"

One of the cowboys answered carelessly, "Hell, Standish is one of Larabee's boys. Goddamn bunch is tighter than a pack of wolves."

"Chris Larabee?"


"Oh, good lord," the drummer exclaimed.

Ezra chuckled at the description. Their leader would be pleased to hear his reputation as a bad man remained unblemished.

Ezra joined Vin on the way to the batwing doors that led outside, threading nimbly past tables of townsmen and drunken cowboys, ignoring the ever-present haze of smoke and dust in lamp-lit air, the scent of leather and dirt and sweat grimed bodies mingled with stale beer, kerosene, and tobacco. From behind the bar, Inez paused while filling a beer glass and watched the two men leave. They walked in stride and reached the batwing doors at the same moment Chris Larabee stopped in front of them.

The blond man flicked his eyes around the room, cataloguing it, checking for threats. He didn't bother glancing at Ezra or Vin. They were his men.

"Trouble down at Digger Dan's," Larabee said laconically.

"So we apprehend," Ezra commented. He brushed his coat sleeve.

Vin absently checked his sawed off Winchester was loose in its holster. Ezra pushed one of the doors open and gestured Vin through ahead of him. The hinge squeaked painfully.

"Shall we?"

Vin smiled and Larabee shook his head in exasperation.

"Let's go."

The night air held a chill that seemed harsher than it should have been for April. The difference between the overheated and crowded saloon and the outdoors made Ezra need to cough, but he smothered the impulse.

The three of them walked down the sidewalk toward the main street. Larabee's spurs sounded now and then or one of the rough boards beneath their boots would groan. The three men didn't bother talking. After so long working together, they didn't need to. They turned right at the corner that faced the jail and drifted down the block to the other saloon. The noise grew louder and louder as they approached.

Lamplight poured out of the saloon's doorway, juddering shadows on the street reflecting the fight inside. Two men came tumbling out the doorway in a tangle of limbs and curses, throwing punches and rolling off the sidewalk onto the dusty street where several horses were tied up to the hitching rail. The man on the bottom landed on his shoulder in a fresh deposit of manure and slid with a remarkably loud and profane curse. The other man found himself under the feet of a blaze-faced sorrel, his face full of dirt. His curses too rang out as he scrambled to get away from the horse's heavy, iron-shod hooves.

Ezra paused beside Larabee and Vin, observing. The two fighters found their feet, weaving, glared at each other and headed back into Digger Dan's. A loud series of crashes and a pistol shot ensued.

Ezra sighed.

"As entertaining as that was, I suppose it is our duty to proceed inside and 'keep the peace'?" he murmured.

"Iffen ya mean we should go break it up 'fore anyone gets hurt, yeah," Vin said.

"I believe that is what I said," Ezra said peevishly.

Vin flashed a white toothed grin at him.

Larabee groaned in exasperation. "Would you two quit jabbering and come on?" he snapped and strode forward.

Ezra followed, saying, "I should take exception to that, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner does not 'jabber'. Good lord, most of the time the man has less to say than you do."

Vin elbowed him lightly. "Notice ya didn't say nothin' 'bout yourself, Ez."

Ezra rolled his eyes as they reached the boardwalk on the other side of the street and cautiously approached the entrance to the second saloon. "Nothing I could say would change Mr. Larabee's opinion of me."

Larabee pushed his way into Digger Dan's, taking in the free-for-all with jaundiced hazel eyes. Broken glass carpeted the board floor, along with poker chips, pieces of chairs and puddles of beer. Dan, the bartender, huddled back against the bar, watching in horror as the drunken cowboys took apart the bar in the course of trying to take each other apart in a clamor of shouts, profanity, thuds, bangs and the cracks of breaking furniture. Cowboys were tough anyway; with enough rotgut in them, they hardly noticed the blows they were exchanging. Whatever had started the fight, it was every man for himself at this point and they were using whatever came to hand – broken table legs, whiskey bottles, teeth, chairs and boots. The pistol shot had probably been Dan, trying to protect his liquor stock with an old .44.

Ezra and Vin stepped inside, flanking Chris.

"Delightful," Ezra observed dryly, as Vin ducked a flying beer mug that shattered against the doorjamb.

"Okay, boys, let's break it up," Larabee ordered.

"Couldn't we simply allow them to exhaust themselves?" Ezra asked plaintively.

"Worried you're going to ruin another coat, Ezra?" Larabee asked.

Ezra grinned. "Of course, sir."

"Well, quit worryin' and get to workin'."

Vin snickered. The three men waded into the melee, dodging and trading punches, subduing the cowboys with ruthless efficiency. It didn't hurt that the cowboys were stupid drunk while Larabee, Ezra and Vin were sober. Nor that Ezra had plenty of dirty tricks and Vin had learned more than a few useful moves during his time with the Comanches. Larabee just used whatever came to hand, including a half full bottle of red-eye and the spurs on his boots.

The fight petered out as Larabee slung a redheaded cowhand into the bar with thump, Vin grabbed a stool and brought it down over an oversized miner's head and shoulders, sending him to his knees, and Ezra stuck his derringer up another big cowboy's nose. Anyone left on their feet managed to stagger toward the door. Larabee stood in the center of the room and let them go.

Ezra grinned at the cowboy. Except for his mussed hair and a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, he looked untouched.

"I'm smaller than you, sir," Ezra said. "But so is a bullet. Do you really wish to find out how much damage I can do ... even without a one?"

The cowboy's eyes were crossed, trying to focus on the derringer's muzzle.

The redheaded cowhand groaned loudly, twisted sidewise, and began emptying his stomach onto the saloon floor.

"Aw, hell," Vin said. A glance around the remnants of the saloon showed that they had nearly a dozen knocked out, passed out, or just dazed fighters to lock up. The jail was going to be full up and every one of them was going to be hungover and puking come morning. Ezra guessed that Vin didn't want to get stuck with clean up duty.

Ezra's man held his hands up and open. "Don't want no more trouble," he mumbled in a nasal tone.

Ezra stepped back, taking the derringer away from the man's face, but remaining ready for a renewed attack. He lifted his eyebrows at Larabee. "I assume you mean to incarcerate all these individuals, Mr. Larabee?" He wasn't looking forward to carting these hooligans over to the jail.

Vin looked at the big cowboy, the only one still on his feet, while absently rubbing his skinned knuckles. Ezra followed his gaze, considered and flashed a grin at him. He'd read the former bounty hunter's thoughts and they coincided with his own.

"That's the plan, Ezra," Larabee said.

"Then may I offer a suggestion to ease the difficulty of transporting their limp and less than cooperative carcasses?"

Larabee considered the bodies strewn around the bar. How were they going to drag the whole lot of them over to the jail?

Ezra decided the big cowboy wasn't going to do anything else and returned his derringer to its rig beneath his coat sleeve.

"Since this ... gentleman ... is still on his feet, I propose a quid pro quo: he pays Dan a share of the damages to the saloon and carries his fellow belligerents to the jail, accompanied by one of us, and in exchange we waive his night in jail." He wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth with a moue of distaste. "One of us will remain here to ascertain none of the remaining fellows absconds before their own ferry ride to the Hades of our jail."

Larabee gave the gambler a narrow-eyed look. "I suppose you're figuring to be the one that stays here?"

"Well, it is my idea ..."

"You just don't want to have drag these sorry sonsabitches anywhere."


"Hell, cowboy," Vin said, "it's good idea. I ain't lookin' to get puke on my boots, either."

"You see?" Ezra said, with a flashing grin. "Mr. Tanner shares my delicate constitution."

Larabee threw up his hands. "Fine." He glared at the big cowboy, until the man's shoulders slumped in resignation and he nodded his agreement. "You want to give us a hand, you can call that time served."

"Yes sir," the cowboy said.

Larabee pointed at the big man Vin had downed last. "Start with him."

The cowboy went to pick up the other man, but the limp giant proved an awkward burden. The second time his head hit the floor, Larabee cursed and turned on Ezra. "Get his feet, Ezra. You ain't bein' paid to just watch."

Ezra sighed and complied. "If you can call our 'wage' being paid ... Lord, what a behemoth."

Vin offered, "I'll give you a hand, Ez." They each took a foot, while the cowboy caught up the man's shoulders and started backing toward the doorway. Since the doors were broken and lying in pieces on the sidewalk, they went right through, and paused. Vin looked up. "Maybe we could throw him over a horse and walk it over t'the jail?"

"Excellent suggestion, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

The cowboy took this as permission to set down his burden and let go. The miner's head and upper body thumped down on the boards without warning. The sudden jolt and weight staggered Ezra and Vin, almost taking them to their knees. The gunshot at the same instant wiped any thought of berating the cowboy for his carelessness from their minds.

Ezra jerked and let out a harsh breath. Vin dropped the miner's foot. He grabbed Ezra's coat sleeve and pulled him back inside the saloon. Ezra had drawn his Remington, but held his fire. The lamplight from the saloon wrecked their night vision and left the rest of the street in black shadows.

Larabee was just inside the doorway gun in hand as Ezra and Vin scrambled in. The cowboy they'd drafted bolted in behind them with a yelp, but no further gunshots followed.

Vin hissed out a curse as his bare hand landed on a piece of broken glass.

"You all right, Vin?" Larabee asked without looking at him. He was plastered against the wall, peering out toward the dark street.

"Cut m'self," Vin said in disgust. He pulled the glass out and wiped his palm against his buckskin trousers, adding another stain to his collection. "You okay, Ez?"

"I'm fine, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied tightly. He was crouching next to the doorway opposite Larabee, also looking out. Vin joined him, mare's leg in hand. He glanced down and Ezra looked up, grinning. He was enjoying himself. He usually confined his predatory instincts to the poker table, but underneath the indolent facade, he was a hunter too. He'd never admit it out loud, but he enjoyed the dangerous aspects of their job.

"That was a rifle," Larabee said.

"Sounded like your Yellow Boy," Vin agreed.

"A not uncommon armament," Ezra commented. "I believe it was fired from the sidestreet beside the Clarion building. – Any enemies you haven't mentioned to us yet, Mr. Larabee?"

"What? You and Vin were the ones out there. Cheat someone willing to take a shot at you lately, Standish?"

"I have told you before, Mr. Larabee. I do not cheat."

Larabee shrugged. "Vin?"

"Could be a bounty hunter takin' a potshot at me," Vin said doubtfully.

"I suppose it could even have been one of the inebriated combatants from earlier, seeking retribution on our erstwhile beast of burden," Ezra speculated. He didn't even wait for the demand that he talk straight, adding, "It could have been one of these drunken jackasses taking a shot at that lump who agreed to help us carry the drunks to jail."

A nod indicated Larabee accepted this. "Vin, think you can sneak out the back and circle round, see if anyone's still there?"


"Take Ezra with you."

Ezra followed Vin back and out into another alley. Neither man spoke until they reached the street and checked it thoroughly. Whoever had been there was gone. Vin couldn't follow sign in the dark and Ezra doubted anything would be left by morning.

He watched as Vin squinted at the front of Digger Dan's from where the shooter had stood. The unconscious miner they'd dropped still sprawled on the boardwalk in the spill of light from the broken doors. Ezra imagined the three of them carrying the man out, lit clear as day. He in his bottle-green coat and low-crowned riverboat hat, the big cowboy bareheaded, and Vin dressed in his buckskins and cavalry slouch hat. No mistaking any one of them for someone else. Using a rifle made it unlikely it was any temperamental drunk. A drunk would have waved a pistol around. He saw Vin reaching the same conclusions.

The shot had been fired at Vin or him, except Vin hadn't moved at the critical instant, and he had.

Vin seemed to nod to himself. "Come on, Ez," he said. "Whoever he was, he's gone now."

"That seems likely," Ezra agreed quietly. He stopped Vin with his hand on Vin's arm. "Mr. Tanner. He was shooting at one of us, wasn't he?"

Vin met his eyes. "Nope."

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"Pretty sure he was shooting at you, Ez."

Ezra turned back toward Digger Dan's, studying the line of sight. So Vin had been thinking the same things he had, thinking of the way he'd dropped under the sudden weight of the miner in the same instant the bullet had been fired.

Ezra shrugged.

"A poor loser, I imagine," he said with a soft chuckle. "They're a hazard of my profession." He clapped his hand against Vin's shoulder. "Let us return before Mr. Larabee becomes alarmed."

Vin looked around once more but found no threats.

"Maybe you should be a bit more careful for a while," he offered as they walked back down the street to the saloon. They both stayed in the shadows without thinking about it, their footfalls soft and light.

"Mr. Tanner, you know that I am always careful," Ezra said.

Vin's peal of laughter carried into Digger Dan's where Larabee was waiting, causing the grim gunslinger's lips to curl upward and calling forth Ezra's dimpled smile beside him.

"Yer a damn liar, Ez," Vin said fondly.

Ezra ducked his head, still smiling.

"Perhaps," he drawled. "Sometimes."

3. Four Corners, 1877

It's all just one big gamble
Trouble is my name
But I just keep on movin'
God knows I'm not to blame.

Under the Gun,
Molly Hatchet

Ezra's leggy chestnut gelding Hazard usually only acted up when someone else tried to ride him. The half-Thoroughbred was spoilt as a pet for good reason. He was as steady a mount as Ezra had ever owned, fast on the straight, nimble-footed in the mountains, and with more bottom than most Indian ponies. On the trail, his gait was so smooth a man could sleep in the saddle. Ezra could anyway – anyone else would find themselves tossed on the side of the trail while Hazard headed back to wherever the gelding thought Ezra was.

Hazard was spookier than Vin's evil black stud today. The chestnut kept dancing sidewise and had even tried a couple of experimental crow hops, startling Ezra, though he easily kept his seat.

"Hazard, my friend," he said in irritation, "if you continue this behavior I shall be forced to consider acquiring a different mount."

One of the chestnut's ears flicked back to listen to his rider even as he sidestepped again.

Ezra deliberately loosened his grip on the reins, letting Hazard move off the trail. His irritation was replaced with caution. He knew the way Hazard's head came up meant the horse sensed something. He began scanning his surroundings with greater than usual care.

He was more than halfway between the Ruperts' homestead and Four Corners. The closest dwellings were Nettie Wells' ranch and one of the Royal ranch's empty line cabins. Despite Hazard's misbehavior, Ezra had been enjoying his patrol of the outlying homesteads and farms. His route had taken him into the upcountry pasture lands beyond Four Corner's semi-arid locale. The spring sun had warmed his shoulders as he rode, the breeze had been cool and filled with the scent of green spring grass and mountain snow, and Mrs. Rupert had pressed a delicious dried-apple tart on him. The meadow before him was stippled with bright wildflowers, indian paintbrush, larkspur, poppies, bluebonnets and daisies so bright he was tempted to gather a posy for Mrs. Travis or Inez.

The prospect of Mr. Larabee or Buck Wilmington believing he was sparking their chosen ladies dissuaded him, though. Instead, he'd resolved to quietly tell JD to bring Casey Wells up to the meadows. It was time that courtship moved forward.

But for now, the prickling at the back of his neck had him suddenly as antsy as his horse. Someone was watching him. Riding out in the middle of a flower strewn meadow no longer held any appeal.

A trace of caution might be in order. Ezra cued Hazard forward at a slow walk, staying just inside the tree line and tracing his way around the stretch of meadow, blessing the good sense that had seen him leaving behind his gambler's colors and donning a black coat and gray trousers before he rode out. He wasn't sure when he'd begun foregoing his brighter, better attire while on patrol, but it had saved him in haberdashery bills. Providing an easy target had grown tiresome after a few shoot-outs, so he'd quietly modified his riding attire. He still wore the robin-red coat and fine vests in town, of course. He had an image to maintain.

Since he generally rode patrol alone – they all did – none of the others had even noticed his sartorial emendations.

He kept Hazard at a cautious pace, paralleling the trail within whatever cover was available. No matter how he looked, he couldn't spot anyone on his trail, but instinct insisted something was out there. Ezra hadn't survived the war, being shanghaied to China, the Barbary Coast and the Sydney Ducks, along with three years as a lawman in a hellhole New Mexico Territory town, without learning to trust his worst instincts. The ones that told him men were more dangerous than a cougar when they hunted.

The instincts that told him he was being hunted.

Hazard, now that Ezra was alert, had settled down, stepping carefully. Ezra pulled his hat down tighter and rode with one hand holding the reins. With his other he blindly fingered the tie-down holding his Remington rifle in the saddle scabbard, releasing it.

Briefly Ezra debated riding straight for Four Corners but shook his head. He might have called Nettie Wells an old crone once, but he respected her. She'd settled that ranch before there was a town of Four Corners. She outlived and buried her husband, her sons and some grandsons. She'd held out when Royal tried to run her off her ranch. She'd even paid back the money Vin had persuaded Ezra to provide to pay off her mortgage. It wouldn't be right to forego checking on her just because he had an itch at his back.

Vin would want to know if the feisty old woman who had unofficially adopted him needed anything. JD would want to know if Casey, Nettie's niece, was all right. Mr. Larabee would, of course, want to know that Ezra had ridden his complete patrol. Ezra wasn't about to explain to any of them that his horse had got him so spooked he'd hightailed it back to town without finishing his duties.

He did have his pride, after all.

On the far side of the meadow, Ezra reined Hazard east instead of south, choosing a cross country route toward the Wells' spread that was actually shorter than the regular trail but made for harder going.

Less than half a mile out Ezra guided Hazard over a ridge and down a sharp slope. The sure-footed gelding stepped over without balking. Ezra loosed the reins, letting them slide through his fingers so that Hazard could drop his head down. At the same time, he leaned back sharply and pushed his legs forward and straight, providing a counter balance as they descended. The hill was stable; the gelding's iron-shod hooves sank into the dirt instead of sliding on mud, only rarely disturbing a rock that tumbled ahead of them.

Only a few feet ahead of the bottom of the slope the girth on Ezra's saddle parted without warning. The rig slid forward over Hazard's withers, startling the chestnut. Ezra kicked his feet out of the stirrups desperately and grabbed for his rifle.

"Gawd dammit!" he managed to utter as Hazard demonstrated his displeasure over the displaced saddle by throwing himself up and sidewise with a wild whinny.

Ezra hit the ground with a bone jarring thud, a sharp stone tearing through his pants and into the back of his thigh while all the air expelled from his lungs in a rush.. He kept hold of the rifle and rolled away from the gelding's flying hooves. The chestnut threw himself down the slope, bucking and snorting, tearing up muddy divots until the he was free of the saddle. Then with a final, torso-twisting kick, Hazard came to a standstill, quivering, blowing and switching his tail in irritation.

The saddle tumbled awkwardly to rest at the base of the incline. Ezra's black, low-crowned riverboat hat followed it.

Ezra laid on the ground, blinking up at the deep blue dome of the sky above him, the color so pure it almost hurt the eye, wondering if his lungs were going to start working again any time soon. Every bone in his body felt jarred. He didn't bother moving, just catalogued his aches and pains, until he managed to draw in a deep breath.

No real damage, he decided. Bumps and bruises and scrapes, the usual compliment of a fall from horseback. Hazard's hooves hadn't connected with him.

God dammit, what the hell had happened to his cinch? He'd checked all his tack when he cleaned it. He was going to have words with Tiny when he got back to the damned livery in town. That was the last time he let the blacksmith-cum-hostler tack up Hazard, even if he had to get up before sunrise to do it himself.

The cool of the earth was soaking into his backside and the hot feel of blood on the back of his left leg had Ezra deciding it was time to get up. He'd just lifted his head enough to spot where his saddle had landed when a shower of stones pattered down the hill past him. He let his head fall back and caught the silhouette of a horse and rider at the top of the slope.

Ezra held still, waiting. Then the silhouette lifted a rifle to his shoulder and Ezra moved fast, ignoring the rocks digging into him. He tightened his grip on the Remington he'd pulled out of the saddle with him when he fell, rolled onto his stomach and let off a shot in the direction of the horse and rider at the top of the slope. Not aiming, he just wanted to buy time. There was no cover anywhere near where he'd fallen.

He had the Remington's stock cradled against his shoulder a second later and squeezed off another, better aimed shot, just as a bullet hit the ground a foot from where he lay. A puff of dirt flew up, followed by the crack of the rider's rifle. Ezra fired again.

The rider jerked in the saddle, dropping his rifle from a suddenly limp arm. He kneed his mount hard and disappeared back beyond the skyline.

Ezra scrambled to his feet and down the slope, whistling for Hazard.

The well-trained chestnut trotted over.

Ezra scooped up his hat, ignored his saddle and grabbed a handful of Hazard's mane at the withers. The chestnut held stock still as Ezra vaulted onto his bare back, the rifle still in his other hand.

He gathered up the reins in his free hand, kneed Hazard hard and bent low over his neck as the half-Thoroughbred bolted into a run. Ezra didn't like it, but he sent the gelding threading through the trees, wanting their cover. He set him heading for Nettie Wells' place, crouched and clinging tight like an Indian, riding the way he once had as raider clad in ragged Confederate gray.

He risked a look over his shoulder and saw no sign of pursuit as they topped the last rise before reaching the Wells' place. It was a chance, but he took it and slowed Hazard to an easy, ground eating lope, as the house and barn came into sight. He didn't want to frighten either woman.

Hell, he didn't want Nettie blowing his head off with that old Spencer carbine of hers, the way she might if he came racing in with a rifle in his hand.

The old woman was out on her porch as he slowed Hazard and came into the yard. Ezra saw the pale sheen of her white hair in the shadows of the roof overhang and then the gleam of the well cared for carbine cradled over her forearm. He grinned to himself. He'd called that right.

"Heard you riding in," Nettie called out as horse and rider reached the yard.

As he pulled Hazard up and turned back to study the way he'd come, Casey came out of the barn, clad as usual in men's overalls, her dark braids bouncing.

"Mr. Standish!" she called.

"Miz Wells, Miss Casey," Ezra greeted them politely.

"Get back in that barn, Casey!" Nettie shouted at her.

Ezra watched the treeline, looking for any movement, anything that would tell him someone was still behind him. Hazard danced beneath him, coat slick and dark with sweat, jingling his bit. Ezra moved with him without conscious thought.

"Trouble, fancy man?" Nettie asked.

"Maybe," Ezra answered absently.

He didn't have Vin's eagle eye, but he was relatively sure nothing was out there. He watched a moment longer, then swung his leg over Hazard's withers and gracefully dropped to his feet. He flipped the reins over the chestnut's head and wrapped them once around the hitching post in front of the weathered porch. No use doing more than that; Hazard had a knack for untying knots with his lips and teeth, as well as unlatching stall and barn doors. But Ezra knew his mount was weary enough to stay in place for once. Hazard never wandered out of earshot anyway.

He patted one sweat slick shoulder. "Hold on but a moment more, my friend, and I shall see to you," he murmured.

"So what's got your feathers all ruffled?" Nettie asked.

Ezra looked up at her and grinned. "My saddle parted ways with myself and Hazard at Fiddler's Ridge," he explained. He rubbed his aching leg. "I had a most abrupt and unpleasant meeting between my fundament and terra firma."

The old woman snickered at that and Ezra's dimples flashed. Then his expression darkened. "As I was recovering my breath, a rider came over the ridge and took a shot at me," he added in disgust. "I managed to discourage him, then remounted Hazard and proceeded here."

He noticed Nettie eyeing the Remington Revolving rifle he still held in one hand. Ezra knew that he had not impressed the tough frontier-woman originally, she had no use for a gambler or a con man. He'd proved to her there was a fighting man beneath his fine clothes and words, though. He could use that revolving rifle and use it well. Discourage indeed. He saw her chuckle at his words.

"You think he's still out there?"

Ezra considered, but shook his head. "I doubt it, Mrs. Wells. I believe I winged him. I was concerned whether you had any trouble here?"

"Nope," Nettie answered. She nodded at his dirty garments and bleeding leg. "You'd better clean up and let me take a look at that. Casey can see to your horse."

"That's not necessary, I can – "

"You can do as you're told," Nettie ordered. "That horse needs to be cooled down and that niece of mine is just the child to take care of it. Now get."

Ezra raised an eyebrow but didn't argue further.

Nettie propped the Spencer next to the door and came off the porch. She unhitched Hazard and patted Ezra's arm as she passed. "You get over to the pump and wash up, fancy man."

Ezra kept the Remington with him as he walked over to the outside pump. He propped it within reach, doffed his jacket, frowning over a tear in the elbow and the dirt and grass stains, then rolled his sleeves to the elbow and grasped the pump handle. Ice-cold water gushed out of the spout into the bucket sitting at the ready once he'd worked it a handful of times.

Nettie arrived at his side a few minutes later with a sliver of lye soap and a cloth and bit of towel. When Ezra had finished she grinned at him.

"All right, Standish, come on in the cabin so I can take a look at that leg."

Ezra immediately protested, "It's fine. I'll have Mr. Jackson tend to it when I return to town, if it's necessary." He might consider it necessary if his leg actually dropped off. He could clean the cut and bandage it up without enduring another of the black healer's two-for-the-price-of-one lectures on his moral deficiencies. He was deeply tired of standing in for every slave-owning, whip-wielding Southerner Nathan Jackson had ever resented or feared.

"Shy, fancy man?"

"It wouldn't be proper, madam," Ezra retorted. He could feel himself beginning to flush.

Nettie laughed out loud. "Lord, boy, I've had younguns and my younguns have had younguns. You think I ain't seen everything a man's got under his britches?" She snorted. "Now, you do as I say."

With a roll of his eyes Ezra scooped up his jacket and rifle and followed Nettie. He caught a glimpse of Casey patiently leading Hazard around the fenced-in garden. Her laughter carried clearly as she batted the gelding away from her frayed straw sunbonnet. Ezra paused, watching with a trace smile, unsure if the contrary horse would behave for the girl. The chestnut just bobbed his head and tried to steal her bonnet again, a sign of approval on his part.

Inside the dim cabin, Nettie steered him past the blackened woodstove and over to the kitchen table and said, "Drop those fancy pants."

Ezra glared at her. Nettie grinned at him wickedly. With a sigh, he gave in and began unbuckling his belt. He ended up braced against the table while the old woman washed the dirt out of the gash and doused it with whiskey. His fingers turned white where he gripped the table's edge as the alcohol burned into raw flesh.

He held his breath and traced the whorls and grain on the table top with his eyes until the pain eased, then twisted his head around to see what Nettie was doing next. "You used that rotgut poison Mr. Larabee drinks, didn't you?" he asked.

"It does the job," she said pragmatically. She smeared an herb-scented salve onto his leg and began wrapping a bandage around it. "You want a shot?"

Ezra shuddered. "Good lord, no. When I decide to kill myself, dear lady, I shall use a pistol, not that – that vile impersonation of good spirits."

Nettie chuckled as she tied off the bandage. She got to her feet slowly. Ezra jolted forward a step though as, he would swear, she patted his ass. His eyebrows shot up. Good lord, if she'd ever taken such a liberty with Mr. Tanner, the Texan would have shot through the roof and kept running until he passed the Mexican border. Vin was the most deathly shy fellow around women that Ezra had ever encountered.

"Madam – "

"Ain't no madam," Nettie replied. "You can pull up your pants, Mr. Standish."

Ezra pulled his pants up over his drawers and fumbled the buttons closed while Nettie put away her supplies. Once his belt was fastened, he picked up the bowl of dirtied water and took it out, conscientiously emptying it where it would benefit the little plot of flowers in the corner of the garden.

While he stood there, looking past the anemic roses, Casey led Hazard over. She'd brushed the dried sweat and salt from his coat, watered him, and now needed to get back to her regular chores.

"Here, Mr. Standish," she said, handing him Hazard's reins and taking the empty bowl out of his hand. "I'll take that back inside."

"Hazard and I both thank you for your efforts, Miss Wells," Ezra said automatically.

The gelding nibbled at Ezra's shirtsleeve, investigating his vest, looking for the peppermints Ezra usually carried just for the horse. Disappointed when none were forthcoming, Hazard blew snot all over Ezra's sleeve. Ezra merely sighed in disgust and pushed Hazard's nose away.

"It wasn't nothing," Casey said with a smile at the normally fastidious gambler. She pushed her sunbonnet back off her head so that it hung by its string around her neck. Her tanned cheeks and the freckles over her nose were testimony to how often she did that.

Ezra cringed over the double negative, but held his tongue. Educating anyone on the graces of the English language was not his job. His job was to return to Four Corners and report to Chris Larabee – who would be looking for Ezra to ride in soon.

He sighed.

He needed to get back on the trail.

"Miss Wells," he murmured and led Hazard back to the cabin's porch.

Nettie was already waiting. The lean, leathery old woman handed Ezra a flecked, blue enamel cup filled with steaming coffee. Her still sharp, pale eyes scanned the horizon. "I reckon you need to be headin' on into Four Corners," she said.

Ezra nodded and sipped the coffee.

A few minutes later, he set the empty cup on the porch rail, donned his worse for wear jacket and mounted Hazard.

Nettie handed him the Remington, commenting, "Sorry I don't have any ammunition for that."

Ezra shrugged gracefully. "It is no matter, Mrs. Wells. Please accept my thanks for all the help you have offered."

"You're welcome, Mr. Standish," Nettie said with a sharp nod.

Ezra tipped his head since his hands were full. "Good day, ma'am."

"Ride careful," Nettie advised.

Ezra chuckled and reined Hazard around, legging him into a steady trot that covered the ground toward Four Corners at a fast pace.

He rode into town as the sun was dropping below the blue-black silhouette of the mountains, his shadow dissolving into the dusk. He came in from the south, letting Hazard slowly walk past the once abandoned church Josiah Sanchez had nearly finished restoring. The defrocked preacher spent many long hours repairing the roof, not so casually watching the comings and goings in town, and had recently finished the steeple and installed a new bell. Ezra often contemplated the irony that the steeple was most often used as a sniper post and the bell was more often rung to warn the townsfolk to take cover than to call them to worship.

He raised his eyes to the church as he passed but the doors were closed. Presumably Josiah had abandoned his labors for the day in favor of the Saloon.

He passed the Grain Exchange next and Hazard pricked up his ears. Tiny's livery and his twin Yosemite's smithy stood just beyond the Exchange building. The gelding was eager for the rest and grain that would be waiting for him there.

Ezra reined Hazard to a stop before the livery doors and tiredly slid off his mount. Every ache and bruise on his body flared to life and he stood for a moment with his eyes closed. Hazard's impatient snort brought him back to life and he led the horse inside.

He had Hazard in his stall, the bridle off, and had fetched a curry brush from the tack room when the sound of spurs told him Mr. Larabee had arrived. Ezra went on brushing Hazard.

Despite his volatile temper and lethal reputation for quick violence, Chris Larabee did know how to control himself. He'd learned how to command men in the army, though that experience hadn't been as useful in acting as leader of Four Corner's regulators as one might have thought. None of his men considered themselves subordinate to anyone or anything. Chris had no rank beyond what Buck, JD, Vin, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra accorded him of their own free will. Which was damn little, much of the time.

With Ezra, especially, it was two hard heads butting against each other too often. Ezra took some warped delight in winding up Chris's temper and setting him off. Chris had learned that dealing with Ezra took patience. Trying to force him into anything made Ezra balk like a Missouri mule, but given enough time the man would come around on his own. Even his irritating ways and sarcastic barbs served a purpose. Ezra usually did something infuriating just when Chris was about to snap at one of the others, drawing Chris's ire toward himself.

No matter how many times Chris threatened to shoot him or spouted something vicious and cutting, Ezra just smiled smugly and let it roll off him, water from a duck's back. Even Buck, Chris's oldest friend, couldn't shrug off his temper the way Ezra did. Without him in the mix, the rest of them might have been forced away by Chris's black moods and constant anger.

So Larabee took in the gambler's disheveled appearance, the flash of white bandage under his torn pant's leg, and frowned, but said nothing. He leaned his arms along the top of the stall door and watched while Ezra ducked under the gelding's neck and began brushing his other side. Instead of demanding an immediate explanation, Larabee pulled one of his cheroots out of his coat pocket and rolled it between his fingers. He didn't light it, not in a barn. There was nothing on this earth Chris hated and respected so much as fire.

The soft rustle of straw, the rhythmic susuruss of the brush over the gelding's smooth hide, the dim, shadowed reaches of the barn filled with mingled scents of horse and alfalfa, leather and liniment and dust, combined to soothe away any impatience.

Ezra finished his task and moved on to the next. A hoof pick appeared magically from his pocket and he checked each of the gelding's hooves, ascertaining that Hazard's shoes hadn't been loosened or lost a nail, using the pick to clean out anything lodged between the frog and the hoof wall. Then he ran his hands up and down each leg, feeling for any undue tenderness, swellings or heat.

Satisfied, he rose and returned the curry brush and pick to the tack room, along with his bridle. Chris leaned against the stall and let him brush past without comment until Ezra returned with a bucket of grain.

"Something happen?"

Ezra dumped the grain into Hazard's manger and replied, "Any number of things, Mr. Larabee."

Chris couldn't see his raised eyebrow in the dark barn, but Ezra knew he heard it in the dry tone of that answer. Chris had mellowed in the last year, though. Once he would have grabbed Ezra by the throat and tried to shake an answer out of him. Ezra would have popped his derringer and pointed it at some vulnerable portion of the man's anatomy an instant later.

Chris gritted his teeth and said, "Anything I should know about?"

Ezra exited the stall and latched it conscientiously. "Possibly."


"And I could use a drink and a bath, but I suppose you want to know now." Ezra's teeth flashed.

"Yes," Chris snarled.

"Very well. My patrol was routine and there had been no signs of trouble anywhere along it, yet I found myself convinced I was being followed shortly before I took the trail down from Rupert's range to Miz Wells' spread," Ezra said. He scooped up his Remington from beside the stall.

They fell into step with each other as they headed out of the barn and turned down the street in the direction of the Saloon.

Chris paused and finally lit his cheroot. The flare of light from the match caught Ezra without his usual blandly controlled expression. He knew he looked tired, with a tightness around his eyes and mouth that Chris's sharp eyes would know meant he was in pain and hiding it. It took more effort than usual to slide his smooth mask back into place and he knew it had taken too long. Chris shook out the match, though, and pulled in a mouthful of sweet smoke without comment.

"Where'd you hit the dirt?" he asked.

"The bottom of Fiddler's Ridge."

Chris nodded. "That where you lost your saddle?"

Ezra chuckled. "I didn't lose it, Mr. Larabee. I left it behind. I found myself in a sudden, tearing hurry."

"What happened?"

"Cinch broke."

Chris put it together. "I don't have to get Nathan to dig a bullet out of ya, do I?"

Ezra cocked his head. "No, though not for some fellow's lack of trying. I sometimes forget how perspicacious you are, Mr. Larabee."

Chris shrugged and continued down the boardwalk. "Not hard to figure, Ezra. Not much would make you abandon your gear except someone shooting at you."

They walked in something like contentment and passed through the spindled batwings together. Chris headed for the table in back where Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Vin were sitting, nodding silently to Inez where she was lighting a row of oil lamps set on the bar. He caught Ezra's arm as the other man started to head for the stairs. Ezra raised his brows at Chris questioningly.

"I'll give you a few minutes to wash up and send Nathan upstairs," Chris said.

"Not necessary," Ezra maintained. "I impacted some rather sharp rocks when I parted from my saddle, but Miz Wells insisted on seeing to me. There's no need to disturb Mr. Jackson's evening."

Or have him poking and prodding at me, physically and verbally, Ezra thought and guessed Chris understood. He seemed prepared to let Ezra go anyway, probably because he'd sometimes felt the same way himself about their resident healer.

"Fine. Get back down here and I'll buy you a drink."

"Now that is an offer I can't refuse," Ezra said with another fast smile. It showed off his gold tooth. Then his eyes narrowed. "As long as it isn't that foul red-eye you insist on inflicting on yourself."

"You'll drink what I buy, Ezra," Chris growled.


Ezra ducked away from him and headed for the room he rented above the saloon. The job as regulator came with room and board along with their dollar a day, but Ezra preferred the ambiance of the bar to the boarding house. That's what he said. Chris suspected the gambler simply disliked the landlady at the rooming house as much as she disapproved of him and could afford not to put up with the Bible-spouting harridan.

Chris finished his trip to the back of the saloon.

Buck grinned at him and kicked back an empty chair. "Sit down, stud."

Chris took the chair next to Buck, the one that let him see the doors and the bar, while the wall guarded his back. None of the others ever took it.

He grunted at Buck and nodded to the others.

"Brother Chris," Josiah rumbled in greeting.

Nathan bobbed his head but didn't speak.

Vin grinned and drawled, "Cowboy."

"Shut up, you irritating bastard," Chris told him casually. Three years and the sonovabitch Texan still called him that when he knew Chris would rather work as a damned clerk than break his back working cattle.

Vin toasted him with his mug of beer.

"Ez looked a little beat-up," he observed quietly.

Buck's eyebrows shot up. "He find some trouble out there?"

"Some," Chris admitted.

"Will Señor Standish want anything?" Inez asked.

Her dark, sharp eyes had noticed Ezra's state on their entrance. Chris suppressed a smile. Despite Buck's determined efforts to woo her, if Inez had a soft spot for anyone, it was Ezra. The lovely senorita was a bit of renegade herself, spurning the man who wanted to marry her and fleeing Mexico; she recognized a like spirit in Ezra. Ezra spent most of his time in the Saloon too, whether drinking or gambling, and his brand of flirting was much subtler than Buck's. He'd been remarkably gracious when he lost ownership and Maude had installed Inez as the new manager, never once blaming her for taking the job, despite the circumstances.

That was Ezra, though. He never blamed anyone for doing what they had to do and quietly demanded the same respect. Not everyone gave it to him ... Chris hadn't, for a long time. Things had changed from when he'd first recruited the sly southerner to ride with them, though. He had slowly realized Ezra was loyal, in his own contrary fashion. What some people might think was cowardice was simply a man too smart to get himself hurt when he could think of a safer way to achieve his ends. Chris had learned to respect that; hell, it was what he'd known their group needed when he watched Ezra conning a bunch of drunk cowboys the very first day in Four Corners.

"You got a plate of something, I imagine he'd eat when he gets back down here," Chris told her.

She rewarded him with a sultry smile and a swish of her hips as she hurried away. His attention switched back to his friends when Buck growled.

"Get your eyes off her ass, Chris. You got your own woman."

But Mary Travis didn't give him much opportunity to watch her ass. Though she'd got spittin' mad enough to walk away from him plenty of times. Damn, the woman had a temper. Thought she knew best for everybody and everything, too.

Chris smiled despite himself. He poured a shot of whiskey, knocked it back, and ignored Buck's rolling laughter.

Josiah was watching him inquiringly, pale blue eyes curious and serene. "What did our Brother Ezra run up against?" he asked. The man must have been a commanding sight when he preached to his flock. Big, but he seemed even bigger, with a stubborn lantern jaw and a voice like God's own thunder and a streak of mean under all the philosophical bullshit. Many a man had been more frightened by Josiah's fists than the prospect of a fire and brimstone fate.

"Said his cinch broke coming down Fiddler's Ridge on the way out to Nettie's and he had to leave the saddle behind when someone started taking shots at him," Chris explained.

Nathan started shaking his head. "You believe him? Hell, he's probably up to something and you know it, Chris. The man's got more twists and turns in him than a nest of rattlers."

Chris put his glass down. "No reason for him to lie about it, Nate."

"No reason you know," Nathan declared suspiciously.

Vin cast a jaundiced look at the healer. "Nice of ya t'ask iffen Ez was all right."

"I saw the man walk by," Nathan said defensively.

"Like that means anythin'." Vin slammed his beer mug down. "He looked like he was favorin' his leg, Chris."

"Told me Nettie took care of it for him," Chris admitted.

"Damn fool!" Nathan cursed. He started to get up.

"Leave it," Chris ordered.

"Fine!" Nathan said. "Let him get gangrene. Serve him right. Man's got no sense, losing his saddle, cheating good folks, lyin' like the damn Southern snake he is."

"Now, that's a bit rough, Nate," Buck objected.

Vin met Chris's eyes and a quiet message flashed between the blue and the hazel, both men feeling the same way. Chris could almost hear the words. I've had about as much as I want to hear. I'm headin' out.

Chris said, "Vin, take Buck out with you in the morning, see what you can find, pick up Ezra's rig if it's still out there."

"Aw, hell, Chris, you gonna make me ride out in the mornin'?" Buck protested.

Chris glared at him, slit-eyed. Buck settled down. The tall cowboy always did. He'd drag himself out of whatever saloon girl's bed he'd wheedled himself into for the night and ride out with the dawn.

Inez arrived with a platter of food and another plate piled high with tortillas and Ezra came down the stairs, looking fresh as daisy in his gambling finery. He took a seat next to Vin and smiled at Inez. "Gentlemen," Ezra greeted them all. He might have spent the day lazing in a chair on the boardwalk in front of the jail, reading one of his books and playing solitaire, rather than being shot at and riding cross country.

"Ez," Buck said.

Chris caught Inez' eye. "Another glass and another bottle," he said. She returned a moment later with a bottle of Ezra's imported Scotch.

"Gracias, Señorita Recillos," Ezra said as he poured himself a measure of the liquor.

Vin got up and patted Ezra's shoulder. His fine face looked serious as he said, "That's twice, Ez."

Ezra shrugged.

"Coincidence, Mr. Tanner."

"Uhhuh," Vin said.

"There's nothing to worry about," Ezra insisted, looking to each of them at the table.

Chris winced and considered burying his face in his hands and howling. Nothing to worry about ... They were jinxed now.

4. Four Corners, 1877
So all you rovin' gamblers, wherever you might be,
The moral of this story is very plain to see.
Make your money while you can, before you have to stop,
For when you pull that dead man's hand, your gamblin' days are up.

Rambling, Gambling Willie, Bob Dylan

Buck and Vin rode back into town around noon with Ezra's saddle balanced over the back of Buck's gray mare. Vin's foul-tempered mount wouldn't tolerate anything odd slung over his hindquarters.

They found Tiny working with Yosemite in the smithy behind the livery barn, holding one of the livery horses while his twin put new shoes on it. Buck had the saddle thrown upside down over his shoulder with the stirrups dangling behind his back, holding it by the saddle horn. He stood with it there, watching, with the thumb of his free hand tucked into the watch-pocket of his tan leather vest. Vin left Ezra's saddle blanket draped over the gate of Hazard's box stall, then followed and found a wall to lean against.

"Boys," Tiny greeted them, stroking his big hand down the sorrel's neck, holding it still and calm. Yosemite didn't look up from where he was crouched over with the horse's left hind pulled between his legs as he nailed a shoe on.

"H'dy," Buck replied.

Vin silently tipped his cavalry hat.

"That Mr. Standish's saddle?" Tiny asked in between the ringing sounds of Yosemite's hammer.

"Yep," Buck said. "You tacked up Hazard for him yesterday, didn't you?"

Tiny nodded thoughtfully. "Started to, then left Sam, my boy, to finish. I want the boy to learn, but I don't want 'im gettin' his head kicked in. Mr. Standish's horse is mite contrary, but he ain't mean. Figured workin' with him would do Sam some good."

Yosemite hammered in the last nail and let the horse's hoof down. He straightened with a groan and a hand to the small of his back. "All done."

Tiny nodded and started to lead the horse over to the corral. Vin and Buck nodded to the blacksmith and followed him. When he had turned the horse in and latched the pole gate, he dusted his hands and turned back to Buck and Vin. "Something happen with that tack?" the liveryman asked.

Buck swung the saddle over the top rail of the corral fence. Vin ambled over and lifted one of the skirts to show the end of the cinch hanging from the billet strap. He pointed at the way half the parting was uneven and torn from stress and the other was smooth and clean. Tiny peered at it and whistled.

"It's cut."

Vin grunted.

"Sam didn't do that," Tiny declared.

"Nope," Vin agreed. He scratched his unshaven chin. "Sam'd maybe loosen up the latigo, use the wrong knot, something no one could ever prove, 'cause he knows saddles."

Tiny glared at them. "I sure as hell didn't, either. That tack was fine when I got it out of the tack room for Mr. Standish. Checked it myself."


Buck sighed. "No one's saying you didn't, Tiny. We just need to figure out how someone got to it after Sam finished."

Tiny rubbed his neck. His shoulders slumped. "Sam would've hitched Mr. Standish's horse out front. I told him I wanted him to muck out all the stalls before lunch."

Buck glanced at Vin. "Ez probably came over, found Hazard waitin' and just headed out," Buck said. His eyes were narrowed as he thought about it. Messing with a man's tack was low. Buck knew he didn't think hard about things the way some of the others did, but he wasn't stupid. He knew right from wrong. He didn't like someone messing with a friend. That was just plain wrong.

Vin grinned at him. "We ought to look for someone with Hazard's teeth marks in his ass. That horse don't take to most folks."

Buck chortled along with Tiny. No one who had to handle the half-Thoroughbred escaped a nip from him. Hazard considered it a game. If he couldn't steal your hat, he'd try to bite. If you didn't have a sweet to bribe him, he'd try to bite. Raise your voice or turn your back, and that head was snaking out, big yellow teeth ready to sink into you. The horse sulked too, if Ezra used another mount. Buck had to admit, though, he'd never seen a horse any better behaved under gunfire. Shooting from horseback was a fool's game, but Ezra could shoulder his rifle and use it while on Hazard's back and the gelding wouldn't even twitch.

Whoever had sabotaged Ezra's rig probably had the marks of Hazard's teeth on him someplace.

They left with a promise from Tiny that he'd find a new cinch to replace the cut one and check the rest of the saddle for any other interference.

They questioned Sam next, but Tiny's scrawny redheaded boy wasn't able to help. He'd finished with Hazard and hitched him to the rail outside the barn and headed inside to finish shoveling manure into a wheelbarrow at the back. Ezra had strolled in, thanked him for taking care of the job then presumably rode out, around ten minutes later. He'd heard Hazard neigh once but figured the chestnut was just protesting the extra knot Sam had used to hitch him.

Quietly, casually, they drifted around town, listening to gossip, laughing at jokes, slipping in a question here and there. Buck did most of the talking. Vin didn't talk a lot and no one marked that, because the lean sharpshooter never did. Buck was the gregarious one, a man with a smile and a laugh as big as he was, six foot four of mustached, blue-eyed ladies' man. He made it easy to underestimate him, easier to like him. It'd been made easiest of all to forget Buck had been a soldier, a Texas Ranger and a drifting gunslinger over the years. Buck had never hunted bounties like Vin, but he would have done well at it. Chris Larabee hadn't made him a partner back in the day, before Cletus Fowler burned out his ranch and family and soul, for nothing.

They checked into Bucklin's Grocery Store since it was closest to the livery and Buck made his usual joke about the store being named for him. The clerk allowed he might have seen a big man watching the livery the last few days, but beyond a vague 'big, dark' the clerk wasn't much help.

They checked with the desk clerks at the Gem, the Ritz and Virginia's Hotel without hearing of anyone in town to match the 'big, dark' description. No one had been asking about Standish. No one had suffered any extraordinary losses at the poker table with him. Hell, Ezra had been a good boy lately, hadn't made trouble in months.

It was worrisome.

Buck leaned against a post holding up the balcony in front of Potter's General Mercantile and looked down the busy street toward the erstwhile Standish Tavern. He was chewing on the end of his mustache, dark blue eyes narrowed. Wagons moved down the street, harness jingling, riders weaving around them, pedestrians crossing here and there. Women with their skirts gathered in hand, children darting around, playing incomprehensible games, men with dust on their boots and hats shading their eyes. A brown and white cow dog sat on the back of a buckboard sitting in front of Watson's Hardware, growling at passersby. In front of the Saloon, five horses stood, lazily switching their tails against the flies, tied up and waiting patiently for their riders to return. The town hummed with life.

Strangers arrived every day, on horseback, in wagons, on the stage. New businesses, new buildings were popping up, and they weren't bordellos and bars. Four Corners was turning safe and respectable.

Of course there were still nights like the one that had dismantled Digger Dan's. There were still bar fights and hold-ups. Cowhands and miners still spent their hard earned pay at the Standish Tavern.

Buck sighed.

He looked over at Vin. The Texan's eyes were distant as the blue sky. Yep, there was the problem. He was seeing the same thing in Ezra's eyes lately. Things were changing. They'd stayed together, working as regulators for Judge Travis all this time, but it was coming to an end. The town was settling, growing, and their presence wasn't as needed. It was a feeling in their bones, a need to be gone, to be moving on.

Some day soon, Vin Tanner would ride out. Maybe he'd head for Tascosa to clear his name or hang for murder. Maybe he'd just keep moving west, wandering into the wild places he loved.

Then there was Ezra. The gambler was quieter these days, seldom complaining about his duties and never mentioning San Francisco or New Orleans. That should have meant the man had settled in, found his place with them, accepted that he was part of something. Yet Buck had seen those green eyes look past the saloon, past the stage stop and beyond. Ezra had the same look as Vin lately, like he was trying to see past the horizon.

Buck thought he was getting ready to go.

After all, there just wasn't much to hold a man like Ezra Standish in Four Corners. There never had been, but he'd stayed. Vin had stayed too, despite the bounty on his head. Chris had stayed because the job looked like a good way to get himself killed. Three years had changed them all, though. Some for the better, like Chris finding new reasons to live, and JD growing up. Buck was proud they'd all stayed together long enough to see JD Dunne turn into a man worthy of the badge he wore.

JD didn't need six nursemaids, though, and Four Corners didn't really need seven lawmen anymore. Chris had promised to side Vin if he went back to Texas. Buck figured he'd hit the trail when Chris did. Back Vin and Chris' play if they hit Tascosa. There were worse ways to die. Ezra might even see his way to taking another detour on the way to California.

Josiah and Nathan would stay a while longer, he thought. Josiah would stay until the town got a real preacher to take over his beloved church. Nathan still had his rooms over the livery where he would go on selling herbs and setting bones. How long people would go on coming to him once a real doctor set up a practice in Four Corners was questionable, though.

Vin turned his head and spat over the edge of the sidewalk. A small frown pleated his brow. "Too damn many people," he commented.

Buck looked at the crowded street again, watching as a ranch hand from the James' place came out of Watson's with a small keg of nails balanced on his shoulder. The cow dog on the buckboard yipped at him happily.

Buck straightened and made a feinting move for Vin's hat. He wasn't going to spend his day moping. That wasn't in his nature.

Vin danced back, making him miss and nearly stumble off the sidewalk. "You mess with my hat, Bucklin, I'll shoot ya," he warned Buck. A smile stretched across his face. "And you're a mighty big target."

"Don't know what ya mean," Buck said loftily. "It's time we got some eats inside us, before the wind just picks you up and plumb blows you away, Tanner. I'm wasting away here. My stomach's so empty it thinks my throat's been cut."

Vin shook his head. "Yer stomach may be empty, but you're full of something, Buck."

Buck grinned, unperturbed. "Restaurant or saloon?"

"Restaurant," Vin said promptly. His eyes brightened. "Pie."

They headed across the street.

Apparently, the rest of the lawmen of Four Corners had similar ideas about lunch. Chris had a table staked out and a cup of coffee in front of him when Buck and Vin came inside. A few minutes later, JD shot through the doors and headed for them. Nathan and Josiah ambled inside following in JD's wake. Finally, came Ezra Standish, immaculate in his blue-striped white shirt, burgundy brocade vest, pin-striped gray trousers and robin's-red coat. Not a hair was out of place, his boots were shined, his cravat perfectly straight. That armory he always wore was there too, of course, hidden under the gambler's plumage.

He didn't fool the other six. They knew he'd just risen and was still half asleep. Nothing short of a gunfight or a fire would wake Ezra before the sun passed its zenith and he'd ingested a cup or two of coffee. On the trail, he'd just saddle up Hazard and sleep while he rode, trusting the chestnut to stay with the rest of them. Buck and Josiah would ride on each side of him. It wasn't any trouble and Ezra would take the night watch without complaint while they slept.

"Gentlemen," Ezra drawled, seating himself.

The new waitress, a thin girl Buck thought hailed from Tennessee, brought another cup and set it in front of the gambler. She hurried back a minute later, carrying a big pot of coffee hot from the stove. Everyone held out a cup for her to fill.

"Thank ya, darlin'," Buck said with a wink and a smile. The waitress blushed and asked what they wanted.

Vin immediately asked, "What kind of pie do you got today, Miss?"

"Dried apple and mince and pecan," the waitress said. "There's one the cook made with canned peaches, too."

"Mr. Tanner and I will have that one, dear," Ezra said.

Buck hooted with laughter. Gunfights, fire, or ... pie. Those green eyes were bright with hungry avarice. If Vin weren't even worse about peaches than Ezra, the gambler might have angled to get the entire pie. Instead, he'd allied with Vin to keep it away from the rest of them.

"Now you got that outta the way, you think the rest of us could get something?" Chris griped.

Ezra gestured gracefully. "Please, Mr. Larabee, proceed."

Vin snorted.

Seven meals were ordered from the restaurant's limited menu and the men sat back to wait and talk. The shared meal had become a daily event long ago, letting the disparate men keep up with each other.

"Found your rig," Buck said. "Tiny's fixin' up a new cinch."

"Much appreciated, Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Tanner."

"Find any sign of whoever took a shot at Ezra?" Chris asked.

Nathan made a derisive noise and rolled his eyes. Josiah shook his head but said nothing. JD drummed his fingers against the tabletop and ignored Nathan. JD did that more and more. Some of his respect for Nathan had slipped away as he became more reliant on his own judgment.

"Tracks," Vin said shortly. "Maybe some blood." He shifted his shoulders in his coat, uncomfortable with his inability to provide more. "Headed east, maybe toward Ridge City."

"I thought I'd winged him," Ezra commented imperturbably.

"Asked around town," Buck said. "Nobody heard anything 'bout anyone havin' it in for ya, Ez."

"Truly a relief."

Josiah leaned forward and questioned, "You have no idea why someone would shoot at you, Brother?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I am a gambler, Mr. Sanchez."

JD laughed. "Not to mention all the miscreants you've helped lock-up since you came to Four Corners. Or put up at Boot Hill."

Ezra lifted his napkin to his lips and dabbed. "Yes, well, unfortunately, most malefactors do seem to come from rather large families, don't they?" he commented, neatly folding the napkin and setting it beside his plate. "It seems more likely the man was a mere bandit, seeking to take advantage of a lone rider."

Vin's head-shake had Chris asking, "What?"

"Cinch was half cut."

"When? How?" Chris rapped out.

"Looks like someone must've done it between when Sam finished saddling Hazard and Ezra got to the livery," Buck explained. "The kid was in back, mucking out stalls. Could've been anyone."

"Is there anyone new in town ...?" Josiah wondered.

"How the hell would we know?" Buck said. "Can't keep track of everyone coming into town no more. Place is turnin' into a damn anthill." Buck's own dissatisfaction with Four Corners shone through.

Chris frowned, then dismissed it. "Nathan, you want to take note if someone comes in with a shot arm? If Ezra winged him, this guy might need some doctoring."

"If you want me to," Nathan agreed. His dark eyes slid over to Ezra, who was frowning at nothing. "Gotta get out to the Jefferson's farm and check on that burned hand of Mrs. Jefferson's."

"I'm just saying ... " Chris noted.

Talk settled into the usual routine and they steadily worked their way through the meal. Pie was served with more coffee. Vin always ate an amazing amount for such a scrawny-looking man, Buck thought, but Ezra was just as contradictory. Buck had never figured out how someone with such a picky appetite carried the muscle he did. The man did love his pie, though; he and Vin demolished the promised peach confection with an alarming dedication. Despite his careful table manners, Ezra did not let Vin get ahead of him, either, eating fully half the pie in equal time.

"Excellent, truly excellent," Ezra sighed after swallowing the last bite. He smiled at the little waitress. "Please convey my compliments to the cook, along with those for your kind services, dear."

"Yes sir," the girl said, retreating back toward the kitchen.

Vin sat back in his chair with a sigh and sipped his coffee. JD waved his fork wildly as he assayed another joke, sending a bite of apple pie flying onto Josiah's plate.

The ex-preacher eyed it and said, "JD, thank you, but I would have asked for apple if I wanted it."

"Sorry, 'siah." JD blushed.

Even Chris smiled and Nathan laughed softly.

"Gentlemen, you'll excuse me?" Ezra murmured. He slid his chair back and rose, straightening his clothes absently. Gold cufflinks flashed as he shot his cuffs. "The stage has come in and there are plump-pursed pigeons to be plucked." His gold submolar glinted as he graced them all with his best, wickedest smile.

"Go get 'em, Ez," Buck urged.

Ezra gave them all a mocking salute and strolled out.

"Shouldn't encourage him, Buck," Nathan said immediately.

"What?" Buck asked. He smiled genially at the healer. "Ez is just doing what comes natural to him. Ain't nothing wrong – "

"Nothing wrong with cheating people out of their money, lying, stealing, lazing around while living off of others hard work and sweat?" Nathan interrupted. "Fine."

"Brother Nathan – "

JD shoved his chair back with his hands on the edge of the table. "Ez don't lie, he ain't lazy or a thief, Nathan – you know it." He narrowed hazel eyes at the tall man sitting across from him.

"He took that money, back when the Governor come through here," Nathan shot back.

"Hell, that was years back," Buck objected. He looked down the table to where Chris sat.

His old friend was rolling a cheroot between his fingers, pale eyes moving between them. Chris had that thoughtful look he got when he was weighing whether he'd need to draw down on a man or could just intimidate him into backing down. Buck shivered. He never liked seeing Chris look at any of them that way.

He wanted Chris to tell Nathan to shut it, he didn't want the man to shoot anyone.

JD popped to his feet and leaned over the table. It was about the only way the shorter, younger man could loom over Nathan.

"Nathan, he wouldn't have done that if we hadn't all practically dared him," JD said quietly. "Then he took a bullet to save Mary Travis, when he could have ridden out and never looked back." He stood tall and the sheriff's star he wore flashed silver.

Buck felt his heart swell with pride.

"The funny thing is, if we'd have trusted Ez with that $10,000, he'd have guarded it with his life."

"You're too trustin', JD," Nathan insisted. "He's a gambler."

"Vin was a bounty hunter," JD said. He flashed an apologetic look at Vin. "Most folks count them a hell of lot lower than a gambler, Nathan."

"Vin's honest."

"Hung for a sheep as a lamb," Josiah intoned. They all looked at him.

"Huh?" Buck breathed. What the hell did Josiah mean by that?

Josiah sighed and explained, "Brother Ezra believes that if one is to be punished for the crime, one may as well commit it."

Buck thought about that and grinned. "Well, hell, you know, he may be right." He got up and ruffled JD's black hair just for the hell of it as he passed. "I'm for the saloon. I got me some sinnin' to do and they got some pretty gals waitin' to help me. Chris?"

"In a minute," Chris said.

Buck grabbed JD's collar and tugged. "Come on, kid. I'll buy you a beer."

JD slipped loose, spun and swatted at Buck, laughing, "When are you going to quit that crap, Buck?"

"When you're taller than me."


"It's still a crime," Nathan insisted in the quiet tone of a man who knows no one is listening to him.

"Let it go, Brother," Josiah advised. He got up too and patted Nathan's tense shoulder. "Let it be."

Nathan set his jaw and nodded. "Best be on my way," he said.

"Double check your tack and ride careful," Chris told him. "We don't know if whoever went after Ezra was after him or if he was just the easiest of us to go after yesterday."

Nathan dipped his head in acknowledgement.

Josiah said, "You tell the Jeffersons if they need a hand, I'd be willing to come out and do for them."

"I'll do that, Josiah," Nathan told him with a smile. He nodded to the rest of them and went.

Buck noticed that everyone bid Nathan good-bye except Vin, who leveled a stony stare at Jackson. Typically, he didn't say anything. Buck decided it would be better to hold his own tongue, too, for once.

Chris stood up and stretched, lean and mean as a black cat, tucked the unlit cheroot in his shirt pocket then headed for the door. The rest of them followed as he stalked across the street and into the Standish Tavern's warm, dim confines.

Hours later, they were still ensconced at their regular table, the one in the corner that let Vin, Chris, and Ezra, when he joined them, sit with their backs to the wall. Buck and Josiah took the seats flanking them. Only JD and Nathan ever took the other seats. Chris had a bottle of red-eye sitting in front of him and had finally lit the cheroot. Smoke curled up from it and merged into the haze caught under the ceiling.

Buck and Vin and JD were all drinking beers. Josiah was drinking red-eye too, which might mean trouble. A liquored-up Josiah wasn't a pretty sight. The Preacher was a mean and violent drunk, as bad as Chris in his way. Buck just hoped nothing set him off tonight.

Ezra was holding court and teaching his victims the fine art of poker as played by a man who had memorized the odds of any hand before he was out of short pants. He had Heidegger, the German who managed the Ritz and three businessmen playing, along with a dark-haired drifter. His long-fingered hands flew, the cards danced and Ezra's gold tooth flashed as he laughed and cajoled his opponents.

Buck flirted with Peggy, one of the newer saloon girls, a pert redhead with wandering fingers. He whispered pretty talk in her little ear, making her giggle where she perched on his knee. Inez slapped down a fresh beer for him, sloshing foam over the mug's brim. Her dark eyes flashed fiercely at him and her lip curled when she looked at Peggy.

Buck shrugged it off. He'd spent almost two years trying to cajole Inez into his bed. The Mexican barmaid had repeatedly scorned him and Buck had found his pleasures elsewhere. He loved women, whether they were old as Nettie Wells, girls like Casey, soiled doves or ladies. As far as he was concerned, females were the greatest delight on earth. Their voices were sweeter, their hands gentler, their hearts were bigger. Growing up in a whorehouse had been an education, not just in all the vices and pleasures available, but in the world of women. Buck knew that women could endure things that broke strong men. When they were good, they were better than men, and when they were bad, they were pure evil. Most importantly his mama had taught him that when a woman said no, even if he didn't think she meant it in her heart, he had to pay attention.

He hadn't been able to convince Inez to say yes, not without making promises he wouldn't keep, so he confined himself to saloon girls and the demi-reps at Miss Maggie's house. Which just infuriated Inez, now that he'd stopped pursuing her.

Buck shrugged. Women were wonderful, perverse creatures put on earth to confound most men. Inez didn't want him but she didn't want him to stop wanting her. Now, Peggy, she was just fun.

"What do you say you and me head back to your room?" he asked her.

Peggy tugged on the loose bandanna hanging around his throat. "You gotta promise to take your boots off," she whispered.

"Darlin', I'll take off everything," Buck told her with a leer. "But fair's fair, sweetheart, you gotta too."

JD was telling Vin and Chris another excuse for a joke. The half-unwilling quirk to their mouths told the story. Boy's jokes were painful to listen to, but there was something about his determined enthusiasm that amused a man anyway. Vin and Chris weren't men to start belly-laughing at anything anyway.

Josiah was starting to weave in his chair, staring beetle-browed at something only he saw. That was a bad sign. Buck knew they all had their demons, and whiskey tended to stir them up, but Josiah's were about the worst.

Chris was a bad-tempered sonovabitch, drunk or sober, but he holed up in a corner and brooded if left alone. Vin got talkative and tetchy, but didn't drink enough to make it a problem. Ezra got plumb mean and sorry for himself, and he'd cut you to pieces with his razor tongue when he was swimming so deep in the bottle his knees couldn't hold him up, but like Chris, all he really wanted was to be left alone. JD couldn't hold his drink long enough to be drunk, he just passed out; while Nathan would drive a man into shooting him someday, telling everyone everything wrong they ever done and what they should have done instead. Buck himself got loud, well, louder, and maybe too damn friendly.

But Josiah ... Josiah was the worst of them, calling down Old Testament wrath and acting it out on whoever and whatever touched off his temper. Josiah was a destructive bastard, just about unstoppable when he got a gutful and likely to kill some 'sinner' with his bare hands sooner or later.

Tonight, Josiah had that brooding look Buck had learned to dread, the way he dreaded Chris's black, suicidal rages after Cletus Fowler and his men burned out Chris's ranch and killed his wife and son. Buck didn't know who or what Josiah had lost or killed, but he recognized that something dogged the man fierce. Riding with them, rebuilding the church, saving Ezra's soul, all of it was some kind of penance. Some nights it just got away from Josiah and then he took it out on anyone that got in his way.

Buck wrapped his arm around Peggy's waist and stood up with her, causing the redhead to squeal and throw her arms around his neck. He had no intention of being around when Josiah blew up. Let someone else handle Josiah tonight, he was going to be wrapped up in pretty Peggy's soft white legs.

Something, maybe the way Vin's head swiveled toward the poker table, maybe the harsh scrape of a chair over the floor, snapped Buck's attention to Ezra.

The gambler was smiling at the dark-haired drifter. Shit. The other players had all shoved away from the table. Heidegger was glaring at the drifter with sheer disgust. Money, cards and chips were scattered across the green baize. Buck recognized the tight smile Ezra sported. It wasn't the dimpled, little-boy-shy smile Ezra sometimes let slip when he was most pleased not was it the cheerful shark grin he wore when he'd just executed a prank or a con. It was that placeholder smile he donned while he decided where he was going to shoot someone. Which meant something had gone seriously wrong at the table.

Because the thing about Ezra, Buck mused, was he didn't get mad and just shoot at someone. Get him riled and he'd like as not smile at you sweet as sugar, then turn around and get you back in as humiliating a way as his fertile imagination could invent. Ezra was deadly with his guns, hard as Chris or Vin when it came to survival, but he just didn't shoot unless he thought he was out of other options. If he shot though, he shot to kill. It didn't bother him later, either.

Buck swiftly put Peggy down. "Get on upstairs, darlin', I'll be along," he said, pushing her out of the way. No, he didn't like the way that drifter was grinning at Ezra one bit.

He absently tucked the tail of his coat behind his gun butt, a gesture as automatic as breathing, and headed for Ezra's table. Buck didn't have to look to know the others were coming too, sliding through the crowd toward their fellow regulator. The tension was rising through the saloon, voices ringing louder as others dropped. The hairs at the back of Buck's neck were starting to stand up.

He had that feeling he got when things were going to turn ugly.

"Keep your god damned hands where I can see 'em, you cheatin' bastard!"

Ezra's voice could have frozen the furnaces in hell. "Would you care to repeat that, sir?"

That drifter lurched to his feet, his chair falling backwards. His hands dropped toward his guns. "Yeah. I said you're a cheatin' bastard, gambler!"

Ezra sat back in his own chair, seemingly unperturbed. His hands stayed in clear view on the table.

"Mein Gott," Heidegger mumbled. He inched his chair and himself further out of the line of fire, his eyes finding Buck and the others in the crowd.

A heavy hand clamped down on Buck's shoulder, squeezing painfully. "What devilment hath our brother brought forth this night?" Josiah breathed over Buck's shoulder, the raw reek of the red-eye on his breath enough to choke on.

Buck cringed. It looked like Josiah had found his target for the night, a robin's-red target on Ezra's back.

"Damn it, Preacher," Buck muttered. He shrugged Josiah's hand away.

Ezra raised his hand and stroked his smooth shaven chin. "While it is true that my birth bears the stamp of illegitimacy," he said thoughtfully, "I must take exception to your characterization of me as a 'cheat'." His gold tooth gleamed as he smiled again. Nothing gave away what he might do next.

"What's going on?" JD asked, arriving at Buck's other side and looking at the confrontation at Ezra's table. Buck grabbed his arm and held him back, not wanting to distract Ezra or set off the drifter.

"Ya gonna do somethin' about it, pretty boy?"

"I think you want me to," Ezra said.

The drifter hawked and spat, his spittle landing on the baize next to Ezra's left hand, leaving a dark stain on the felt. "I figure you're too gutless to stop me from doin' whatever I please. Hell, there ain't no one in this pissant town to stop me from doin' exactly what I come here to do." He grinned.

Ezra's gaze didn't leave the man. "You might find yourself surprised on that count, if you linger here," he observed, a hint of amusement in his tone.

"You ain't gonna be around to care," the drifter declared. A muscle in his cheek twitched, then he laughed loudly and started to draw his gun.

Two quiet pops followed, as Ezra brought his right hand away from his face, his derringer popped into it, and he aimed and fired in a smooth blur. The drifter dropped with his Colt only half drawn from the holster and two .22 caliber holes in him.

Ezra set the derringer on the table. Buck blinked. That wasn't Ezra's old derringer. This one was a neat little Remington .22 with horn-inset grips, two barrels and a spur, no trigger guard, barely three and a half inches long. Little thing like that hardly made a sound when fired, compared to most guns.

"Why do you court the sins that stain your soul, Ezra?" Josiah boomed out. He stumbled forward past Buck, heading for Ezra.

"Why do you think my soul is any concern of yours, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra replied wearily. He tucked the empty derringer into a jacket pocket and rose. His eyes moved to JD. "Sheriff Dunne? Are you satisfied my actions fall within the definition of self-defense?"

JD nodded, smiling nervously. "Oh, sure, Ezra. Everyone saw. He said he was going to kill ya and then he went for his gun first."

"Did you cheat that man, Ezra?" Josiah bellowed. He'd reached the table and picked up a handful of bills, crumpling them in his fist and shaking it at Ezra. "Did you provoke him into his damnation by your foul pursuit of coin?"

Ezra's eyes narrowed and he purred dangerously, "No, Mr. Sanchez, I had no need to cheat that fool. He was playing to lose and a blind man could have beat him in the circumstances."

"I don't believe you," Josiah accused.

"That's your prerogative, sir," Ezra told him.

His perfect poise only infuriated Josiah further. The ex-Preacher upended the table and threw it away from them both. Josiah reached for Ezra and Buck grabbed for the big man, not sure if he was afraid that Ezra would let Josiah hurt him or do something drastic to stop him. Ezra's popgun was empty, which meant he'd use either his Richards Conversion or the gun at his hip. The knives he carried would never stop Josiah, unless Ezra slit his throat.

Damn, this was turning ugly fast.

"Aw, hell," he heard Vin mutter and Chris cursing steadily, but none of them moved fast enough.

Ezra danced back from the broken table, Josiah slipped on the poker chips lost on the floor, and JD slammed the ivory-gripped butt of one of his brand new, twin .38 Colt Lightnings down on the Preacher's skull. Josiah swayed and dropped onto his knees, his big hands still held out toward Ezra and flexing. He twisted his head around and looked back at JD. His pale eyes rolled up and he crashed down next to the dead man.

"My thanks, JD," Ezra said sincerely. His poker face slipped briefly and Buck saw an expression of pain and regret flash across his handsome features as he looked down. Whether it was meant for Josiah or the man he'd killed, Buck couldn't guess.

"Any time, Ez."

Chris and Vin managed to intimidate their way through the crowd. Chris wiped his hand over his face. "Damn."

Ezra knelt and began to gather up the money on the floor.

"Ezra ..."

"Mr. Larabee." Ezra didn't look at him.

Chris toed Josiah's whiskey soaked body and got no response beyond a moan.

"We can't leave him here," JD said.

"In a minute, JD." Chris looked around the crowd. "Anybody know who this fool was?" This time he nudged the dead man with the toe of his boot.

The body rolled onto its back, displaying the neat dark hole drilled between his eyes and the other one on his chest, with its slowly spreading bloodstain on his shirtfront. Damn, Ezra could shoot.

Heidegger stepped forward. "This man checked into the hotel today." He gave the body a scornful look. "He was not a good poker player," he added, obliquely defending Ezra.

"What name did he use?" Vin asked. He was studying the drifter. Something about the man had Vin puzzled.

"Joe Jones," Heidegger intoned.

Buck snorted.

Vin crouched and plucked at the brown-and-white checked shirt Jones wore. "This is too new." He lifted the man's hand and checked for calluses. "He's dressed like a cowhand, but he was a gunman," Vin said.

Ezra met Vin's gaze expressionlessly.

Chris addressed Heidegger. "Make sure no one gets into his room. We'll need to check it out." He raised his voice for the benefit of the crowd looking on. "Find out if he had any people to let know he's dead."

Heidegger nodded precisely. "I will do that," he said, and slipped away.

Chris grabbed Buck's arm. "Come on, stud. You and me will have to drag Josiah out of here."

Buck groaned.


"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"

"You made this mess, so you can get the body down to Silas's."

Ezra opened his mouth to protest, then just closed his eyes tightly for a second and nodded. Silas the undertaker was used to being dragged out of his bed at all hours.

"Have Silas check for a wound in his arm."

Ezra looked startled by that thought, but nodded.

"I'll go with Ez and meet ya back at the jail," Vin declared.

"Thank you, Vin," Ezra murmured.

"The jail?" Buck asked.

"We'd better let Josiah sleep it off in one of the cells," Chris said. "No use letting him tear up the church again."

"He's got a couple bottles of whiskey hid behind the alter," JD added.

"Oh, hell, you're right," Buck swore.

Between them, he and Chris gathered up the big preacher and dragged him out of the saloon. JD held the doors open and then sped ahead of them to unlock the cell and set up a bucket.

As they crossed the street, Josiah's bootheels dragging through the dirt, Buck caught a glimpse of Ezra and Vin. Ezra had the dead man slung over his broad shoulders the way you'd carry a deer carcass and Vin was walking beside him, one hand on his sawed-off Winchester.

JD had a lamp lit and was sitting on the edge of the desk, kicking his heels, when they got to the jail. They slung Josiah onto the bunk in the first cell none too gently. JD locked it as soon as Chris and Buck were out.

"I don't like doing that," Chris said.

Buck slapped JD on the back. "Did I tell ya, ya done good, kid?"

JD grinned. "Just keepin' the peace, Buck." His grin faded as he looked at Josiah's unconscious form in the cell.

Buck sighed. Not much he could say to excuse Josiah. The boy knew they all had feet of clay – even Chris – by now, anyway.

He went and fed a few chunks of wood into the stove that kept the jail from freezing inside instead. Then he set to brewing a pot of coffee while they waited for Vin and Ezra to get back from the undertaker.

JD paced and Chris dropped into the chair behind the desk and moodily thumbed through the wanted posters. As usual, JD had removed and burned any on Vin. It wasn't anything any of them ever discussed. Just something they did, the way they stood for Nathan if anyone gave him trouble over his color. The way any of them would look out for the others when trouble came sniffing for them.

Ezra and Vin arrived in silence. Vin shared a glance with Chris, who silently rose, and all of them headed out to Heidegger's hotel. JD stayed behind to keep an eye on Josiah.The German led them up to Jones' room and let them inside.

Heidegger stood in the doorway and watched along with Buck as the other three quickly and thoroughly searched the room.

Vin was the one who found the letter. He immediately handed it to Chris to read. He wasn't completely sure of his reading ability, though Mary Travis and later Ezra had tutored the once illiterate tracker.

Chris glanced over the letter.


Ezra looked up from unbuckling the man's saddlebags. "Something perturbing, Mr. Larabee?" He opened the saddlebag and took a deep breath.

"Hell yes it's perturbing," Chris said angrily. He waved the sheet of paper. "This is a description of you, along with your name and a couple of aliases."

Ezra blinked.

"Well, that would explain why I didn't recognize the man," he said matter-of-factly.

Chris glared at him. "Why don't you sound surprised?"

Vin looked from one man to the other. "'Cause this is three times, ain't it, Ez? Someone's after your hide."

Ezra grimaced, then upended the saddlebag, sending several packets of greenbacks out on the bed.

"Men are seldom paid this much to merely find anyone, Mr. Larabee. I believe Mr. Tanner is correct. Someone wants me dead."

Ezra straightened up, frowning.

"And I have no idea why."

5. Four Corners, 1877

Black on red and the red on the black
It's the tic of a tired mind
Come and sit down, won't you
Try your luck
See if you unwind.

Solitaire, Suzanne Vega

Vin grinned as he caught sight of Ezra squinting against the painfully bright sunlight. Ezra was lingering just inside the batwing doors of the Saloon, waiting for his eyes to adapt and surveying the street. Nothing outside looked suspicious, but an instant's precaution could keep a man alive. He watched as Ezra slipped his gold pocket watch out and opened it, checking the time with a sigh.

The morning stage had already come through. The afternoon stage wouldn't arrive for another two hours. No prospect of new suckers for Ezra to toll into the Saloon until then.

Vin had been draped on the bench sitting next to the wall, dozing. He fell into step with Ezra as he stepped outside and strolled with him across the street and past Watson's.

"Where we goin', Ez?" he asked.

Ezra slanted him an sardonic glance. "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" [i]


"You make a most curious shadow, Mr. Tanner."

Vin ignored the edge in Ezra's voice. Having someone gunning for you could make a man moody. He knew from experience. "So? Where we goin'?"

Ezra stopped and gestured at the door he stood before. "I am going to the Post Office," he said. The small bell hung around the doorknob chimed as he stepped inside. He left it open. Vin stayed outside. Small spaces made him sweat. He listened and watched through the window though, as Ezra took only minute to hand a packet of letters over to Hopper, the lanky postmaster, and pay the postage.

Hopper rubbed one spidery hand over his bald pate and flicked through the envelopes on the desk set back behind the counter with the other. "Got some letters that come in with the morning stage, Mr. Standish," he said. He plucked three envelopes out and handed them to Ezra with a nervous smile.

"Thank you, Mr. Hopper."

He tipped his hat and exited out onto the sidewalk again.

Ezra glanced at the letters and tucked two of them inside his coat. His hand folded tight around the third letter. Vin glanced down, trying to see what would have Ezra so bothered.

It came from St. Louis. The paper looked like the expensive stuff fancy hotel's had. Vin took a deep breath and recognized the scent of gardenias that still clung to it. Real distinctive, just like the copperplate hand that addressed it.

Ezra regarded it much as he would have a coiled rattlesnake.

"What ya got there?" Vin asked, nodding at the envelope.

Ezra glanced at it and covered a flinch.


Ezra forced a smile. "Merely a letter from my mother, Mr. Tanner."

Vin's step hitched. He idolized the vague memories he had of his own ma, but he'd met Maude. He knew that Ezra's mother was a subject best avoided. The woman was trouble. That was the long and the short of it.

Ezra tucked Maude's letter next to the two others and proceeded down the sidewalk, past the alley that led to the Chinese laundry and the front of Eakins & Sons, Undertakers, where Silas would have the departed Joe Jones already in a coffin.

Vin kept a sharp eye out as they crossed the next street and passed the Gem. Ezra never seemed to hurry, tipping his hat to the ladies as they passed, but he never stopped moving, either. Vin touched his hat brim each time Ezra did, smiling. He had pretty good idea where Ezra was going. Folks were more like wild critters than most of them would like to think; they preferred to stick with the same ways, the same trails and waterholes. Ezra was no different – there were things he did as predictably as the sun rose.

He would never tell Ezra that. The gambler prided himself on his ability to fool people. He'd think he was slipping, getting sloppy, if Vin said he could read him. Truthfully, Vin couldn't read Ezra's poker face, the man didn't have any real tells when he was playing. Vin had learned to pay attention to Ezra in those moments when his friend wasn't putting up a front. That was the man he could predict, the one he'd learned to value, the one only a few people ever saw.

The one who was turning into Bucklin's grocery.

Vin followed him, hanging back out of the way as Ezra purchased four apples, a paper twist filled with peppermint candies, and another with several strips of venison jerky. The candies were hidden inside his vest. The apples, Ezra divided between Vin and himself, slipping his two into his coat pockets. The jerky he carried in its small package. Vin waited until they were crossing the street to the livery, exactly as he'd known they would, before starting to needle Ezra.

"Thought ya couldn't stand jerky, Ez?"

Ezra ignored him.

"Said ya'd rather chew on one of your own boots, 'cause it'd be softer," Vin went on.

Ezra had once actually said just that while they were all on the trail of some rustlers. They'd made a cold camp, no fire, and Josiah had handed out jerky and hardened biscuits to all of them. Ezra had given the crumbling, hardened rounds and the heavily peppered, half-rancid jerky a look of horror, made his declaration, and pulled out his flask of Scotch to chase away the prospect.

"Indeed," Ezra agreed complacently.

"Soooo?" Vin teased.

Ezra rolled his eyes.

The livery was cool and dim, chaff hanging golden on the air where the sunshine fell through the open doors, filled with the smell and sounds of horses. Tiny kept it tidy, the stalls mucked out regularly and filled with clean, fresh straw. Days when Vin wanted to rest in quiet, undisturbed, he slipped up into the loft and napped in the sweet smelling hay. He'd found Ezra up there more than a few times. Ezra understood Vin's fondness for high places.

They were barely inside when a marmalade barn cat slipped out of the shadows and began twining itself around Ezra's legs. Ezra scooped up the normally half-wild animal, which began purring loudly. The package of jerky was opened and pieces were pared off with a small penknife and fed to the cat.

"Ya got a friend for life there, Ez."

"Cats are fickle creatures, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said softly. He scratched under the cat's chin then began stroking it. "You should remember that."

Hazard stuck his head over the stall door and whinnied impatiently.

Ezra fed the last of the jerky to the cat and went over to his horse. He slid his hands over the chestnut's fine-boned head fondly. "No, my friend, I haven't forgotten you," he murmured. "Have I ever forgotten you?"

Hazard bobbed his head up and down. Ezra chuckled.

In the stall next to Hazard's, Peso slammed a hoof into the wall and neighed.

Vin fished one of the apples Ezra had purchased out of his battered buffalo coat, dusting it off to Ezra's visible disgust, and headed over to the other stall. "Shut up, ya stupid mule," he told Peso. The black stud neighed again and added two hard strikes against the back wall for emphasis before sidling over to the gate and snatching the apple.

"Why do you keep that beast, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked. He pared one of his apples with the same penknife and fed the slices to Hazard. A small smile played at the corners of his mouth.

Vin hid his own smile by biting into the second apple. Ezra knew why Vin kept his bad-tempered mount.

Ezra produced the last apple, sliced it into pieces and shared them between Hazard and Peso. Vin ate his own apple, appreciating the tart sweetness, even if it wasn't very fresh. Fruit was something he hadn't had much of during a hardscrabble childhood begun on a poor Texas farm or at the orphanage he'd gone to after his mother died of fever. After he'd ended up with the Comanches, there had been berries, even wild honey stolen from the hive, but nothing like the peaches and apples and oranges whites had.

The barn cat was still stropping against Ezra's legs, hoarse purr buzzing, while Peso delicately lipped the apple slices from Ezra's palm. Vin shook his head. Ezra had animal magic. He'd seen Ezra slip scraps to a stray dog behind the Saloon more than once, too. The same dog growled and bristled at anyone else that tried to come near it, no matter how well intentioned.


Maybe that was why Ezra got along so well with him, too.

The first time Maude had shown up in Four Corners, they'd all been amazed. None of them had ever considered that Ezra had family, for all his fine ways. He seemed as solitary as that barn cat. 'Course it turned out that barn cat would have made a better mother than Ezra had had.

Vin nibbled the apple core down to nearly nothing and fed it to Hazard, giving the chestnut's velvet nose a pat. Ezra whispered something into Peso's attentive ear. Finished, he stroked the black stud's ear and stepped away.

"Shall we repair to the restaurant, Mr. Tanner, or could we part ways for a brief period?" he asked. He drew a handkerchief out and wiped his fingers fastidiously. "I believe our fine steeds have been propitiated for the nonce."

Vin shook his head. "I'm stickin'."

Ezra shook his head sadly. "You're not going to follow me into the privy, too, are you?"


"And for this Lord, I am truly thankful," Ezra intoned, raising his eyes to the sky. The impish smile was back.

"'Sides, thought ya just said we's headin' for the restaurant," Vin said.

"Don't tell me, Mr. Tanner. You're hungry."

"I could eat some," Vin allowed tranquilly.

"I don't believe Judge Travis and the town council could have been aware of what it would mean to promise you a dollar a day, plus room and board, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with mock seriousness. "I fear you and Mr. Wilmington may put Mr. Hardy's restaurant out of business with your appetite."

"That mean ya don't want any pie today, Ez?"

A small smile lifted Ezra's mouth. "Don't be ridiculous, Mr. Tanner. You're not getting all of it."

Once more, Ezra led the way, Vin ambling in his wake. He insisted they wash up before entering the restaurant. Vin would have forgotten on his own, though between Ezra and Miz Nettie he'd picked up some nice manners when he bothered. He didn't see the need to bother, though, most of the time.

They were the first ones in the restaurant.

Both men ordered coffee. Vin stretched out, kicking his boots against the legs of the chair on the opposite side of their table. The slight scrape made Ezra give him an annoyed look. Vin slouched lower in the chair. Anything to ease his back, which couldn't take sitting at attention like some fool bluebelly soldier. He knew Ezra had figured it out a second later as the gambler relaxed and dispensed with his own rigidly correct posture.

"Ya goin' to read that letter from your Ma?"

Ezra grimaced theatrically. "I suppose I must."

Ezra brought out the letter and slit it open with his penknife, sliding the sheets of onion skin out of the envelope carefully. Vin watched him read out of the corner of his eye. Ezra read swiftly, finishing one sheet and moving on to the next. The tip of his tongue appeared, pink and quick, licking at his bottom lip thoughtfully. Vin waited. He might tease the man, but he wouldn't push Ezra to share anything he didn't want to reveal.

Ezra laid the second sheet with the first on the red-and-white checked tablecloth and picked up his coffee cup. He sipped and stared out the window at the dusty street. Vin twisted his neck to check what he was watching.

Across the street, Buck strolled out of the Saloon and greeted Chris as the serape-clad gunslinger drew his all black gelding Nero up in front.

Chris leaned crossed arms over his saddle horn and dipped his head, listening to Buck. Buck hopped off the sidewalk and walked over to stand near the tall gelding's shoulder. Chris's flat-brimmed hat shaded his face and hid all his expression, but he looked relaxed. Buck's face was an open book, good-natured and unworried, as he spoke.

Chris nodded once. Buck slapped Nero's shoulder, bringing up a small puff of dust, and Chris cued the horse forward at an easy walk, heading for the livery. Buck ambled across the street toward the restaurant.

"Apparently Mr. Larabee's morning patrol was peaceful," Ezra commented.


"It looks like Mr. Wilmington is about to join us."

Vin nodded.

Ezra eyed him, green eyes glinting. "Perhaps he will take over minding me?"

Vin knew what he was thinking. Ezra would get Buck back in the Saloon, wait until the ladies' man was occupied with one of the saloon girls, and slip away. It was pretty much what Vin would do.


"Why hasn't Mr Larabee shot you yet?"

"Likes me," Vin said.

"I can't imagine why."

Vin grinned at him.

Buck pushed his way into the restaurant, smiled broadly when he saw them, then joined them by picking up a chair from the next table and dropping into it next to Ezra. His dark hair stuck up in a coxcomb, he needed a shave, and had either missed one of the buttons on his homespun shirt or lost it.

He slapped Ezra's shoulder, earning him a venomous glare, and waved for the waitress.

"Hey, boys."

Vin's nose twitched. What was that smell on Buck? Something flowery. "Ya wearin' perfume now, Buck?"

Ezra sniffed delicately and raised his eyebrows.

Buck shook his head. "I ain't got no perfume on, Tanner," he protested.

Of course. After they'd hashed over why someone would have hired 'Joe Jones' to shoot Ezra, all of them had followed Ezra back to the Saloon, except poor JD. He had stayed with Josiah at the jail. Vin had sat with Chris, while Ezra had gone back to playing poker like nothing had happened, and Buck had loped up the stairs to rejoin his dove. Apparently, he'd been with her since then.

"You smell rather noticeably of lilac," Ezra offered.

Vin started to say Buck smelled just like the whorehouse in Galveston he'd been in once, but thought better of it. Buck might laugh or he might take it wrong, considering his mother's profession.

"That little redheaded filly likes nice smellin' stuff," Buck said.

Ezra sniffed again.

"You might consider a visit to the bathhouse, Mr. Wilmington. Animal magnetism or not, that scent could become rather repellant." Ezra picked up the letter from Maude and refolded the sheets. He slipped them back into the envelope. "It's certainly succeeded in reducing my appetite to nonexistence."

He started to rise.

Vin caught Buck's dark blue gaze and inclined his head toward Ezra, followed by a small head-shake. He would lay his own odds that it was that letter that had wrecked Ezra's appetite and not the lingering memento of Buck's latest darling. He knew damn well Ezra was trying to slip away without saying anything about it.

"Not so fast, Ez," Buck said good-naturedly. His hand snaked out and caught Ezra's wrist, holding him in place. "Chris is goin' to be back here in a minute or two and he wants to talk to ya."

Ezra settled back into his seat with a put-upon sigh.

Vin decided it would be better to work on Ezra before Chris showed up. Once Maude's name came up, Chris would start glowering at Ezra, and the southerner would clam up tighter than ever.

"What'd yer Ma say?" he asked.

Ezra pulled that old, beat up deck of cards he carried around out and began shuffling. "Mother," he said, accent thickened, "has decided ta grace Four Corners with her ineluctable presence." The faded and battered cards cascaded back and forth between Ezra's hands.

"Your Ma's comin' here again?" Buck asked curiously.

Ezra didn't look up from his cards.



Basically, Vin agreed with Buck's reaction. Chris came in before he had to say anything, though. Ezra displayed no reaction to Buck's thoughtless exclamation.

Chris had stopped somewhere after the livery, probably his room at the boarding house. He'd gotten rid of the old serape and had washed up. His blond hair was a shade darker when damp and he'd slicked it back. He looked loose and comfortable and was even wearing a dark blue shirt instead of his mourning black. For once, the man wasn't dwelling on the pain of his lost family.

By unspoken but mutual agreement, Chris took the chair at the head of the table. Taking in Ezra's blank face and Buck's abashed expression, Chris shot a questioning look at Vin. Vin shrugged, silently telling his friend it wasn't anything too serious.

Chris accepted that without need for further communication, the silent bond between them providing all he'd wanted to know. He turned his sharp eyes back to Ezra. Unlike the tie between Vin and him, understanding Ezra was work for Chris. Ezra worked to make it that way. Chris didn't help matters either, Vin thought. Both men preferred to hold things back and keep what they felt and even what they thought inside.

"Ezra," Chris said, "have you given any more thought to who might be behind hiring Jones?"

Ezra shrugged gracefully. "Contrary to Mr. Jackson's estimations, the list of my nefarious misdeeds is not so long that I cannot name all who might wish me ill. Yet I find myself baffled."

"So we just have to keep an eye out."

"My unknown nemesis has confined his attempts to myself, so it seems unnecessary to involve yourselves in the matter," Ezra said. He nodded to Vin and Buck. "Though I am, of course, overwhelmed with gratitude that you might consider doing so."

Chris made a bad-tempered noise of disagreement. "To hell it's unnecessary." He put a vicious emphasis on the final word. "If someone takes one of us out, then there will be others gunning for the rest of us soon enough."

"We stick together," Vin explained.

Ezra sighed.

"Very well, gentlemen." Buck gave Ezra another apologetic look and said, "What about Maude?"

Chris went still. "What about Maude?" he echoed dangerously.

"I received a letter informing me of her impending arrival," Ezra explained. "She should be on tomorrow or the next day's stage out of Ridge City."

Vin caught Chris's eyes and read the same thought in them that Buck had so awkwardly spilled. Could Ezra's mother know something about the attempts on his life?

Somehow, Ezra read the same thing from their faces.

"It's not a bet I'd take any odds on," he said wryly.

"Think you can get some answers out of her?" Chris asked.

He didn't think too highly of Maude, for all her clever charm and beauty, but no man felt comfortable disrespecting another man's mother. It was impossible to say what Ezra would consider an insult toward Maude; despite being a gentile son of the south, Ezra had a remarkably pragmatic outlook on life, he saw his mother for what she was quite clearly. But she was still his mother.

"I shall endeavor to, Mr. Larabee, but you should be well aware that when it comes to manipulation, my mother is my better. She wins; she always does." He smiled bitterly and gestured to the building across the street. "Otherwise the Standish Tavern would still be mine."

"Why ain't you ever tried to buy it back from her, Ez?" Buck asked from genuine curiosity.

Ezra's smile faded and he answered in a clipped, tired tone. "Because my mother would rather see it burned to the ground, I think. As I would, before I would go begging to her."

None of them had anything to say to that. Buck began describing his exploits with Peggy the night before in lascivious detail. It never bothered him that no one listened to these stories. Buck just liked to talk. Vin didn't mind. He liked listening to other folks. Chris ignored Buck. Those two had known each other since the War Between the States and Chris knew every story Buck had to tell, even if the names changed. Ezra was distracted, probably trying to brace himself against whatever chaos his mother would trail into his life this time.

When they finally ordered their meals, Chris spoke to Ezra before Buck could start up again.

"You've got jail duty tonight."

"I don't believe so, Mr. Larabee."

Chris narrowed his pale eyes. "I changed the schedule. You're taking over for Buck and he's riding your patrol tomorrow." He looked at Buck. "Any objections?"

Buck shrugged.

"Josiah?" Vin asked.

"Patrol and jail duty tomorrow," Chris said meanly.

Vin nodded and the others accepted the change without comment. Chris didn't give a good god damn if Josiah got drunk every day and twice on Sunday, but the big man had earned his wrath – and the extra duty as punishment – for letting his drinking interfere with his duties.

"Figure he's repentin' mighty hard right now, after drinkin' all that red-eye," Buck commented.

Vin wasn't quite as complacent. Josiah's rage could have made things much, much worse the night before. But it wasn't his place to say anything. That was Chris's job.

Ezra sure as hell would never ask for an apology. He wouldn't believe one anyway. He'd just pretend nothing had happened. Ezra was too good at twisting words and fooling people to put much faith in them.

Their meals arrived, still so hot steam twined off some of it, and smelling delicious. Vin dug in, as did Buck. Ezra and Chris were more restrained. Ezra picked at his meal, pushing the greens around with his fork and meticulously dicing bits of pork chop into smaller and smaller pieces without eating any of it. Just the thought of a visit from his ma put the man off his feed. It was a good thing he hadn't grown up with her all the time, or he'd have starved to death as a kid.

Ezra remarked, "I suppose that leaves me free to greet Mother when she arrives tomorrow." He pushed his plate back and set his napkin next to it.

Chris set down his fork. "Damn. – I'm going to ride out to my cabin, check things there. I'll be back by tomorrow."

"Just in time to make sure Four Corners survives, too," Ezra said.

Chris nodded, almost smiling.

The restaurant door swung open and they all looked to it and got to their feet to greet the entrance of Mary Travis, pretty as a picture in a lace-edged periwinkle blue dress. She swept over to them with a determined smile, clutching a notebook and pencil in one hand. She went straight for Chris, acknowledging Buck, Vin, and Ezra with a gracious smile.

"Chris," she said, "I need to know what happened at the Saloon last night. This person, 'Joe Jones', exactly how did he die?"

"Mary, don't you have anything better to do?" Chris demanded quietly.

Mary defiantly set her pencil to the notebook page. "This is important. The people of this town depend on the Clarion to provide the news. I need the details for the next issue's article."

Chris clenched his teeth. Vin could see the muscles move in his jaw. He contemplated making a small, whispered bet with Ezra on how soon the blond widow would have that vein in Chris's forehead throbbing visibly. Vin could usually get Chris going after a couple of minutes and Ezra could manage it in a flat two when he tried, but Chris had a lot more patience with Mary than he did with them.

"Fine. Ask Ezra."

The pretty newspaperwoman turned her blue eyes on Ezra, who managed a slit-eyed glare that rivaled one of Larabee's own at their leader, before he smiled genially at her. "Mrs. Travis, I hope your day is as lovely as your countenance."

Mary smiled back. Mary Travis was a lady and when in her presence Ezra was even more the Virginia gentleman, but the Baltimore belle had steel in her spine too. She generally got what she wanted.

"It will be perfectly satisfactory, Mr. Standish, if you will only explain to me how this man was shot last night."

"The man took exception to my skill at games of chance, my dear," Ezra said lightly.

Mary wrote that down and waited expectantly.

Ezra raised his eyebrows as though that had been explanation enough. Actually, if she'd ever seen Ezra shoot, instead of always watching Chris, it would have been.

Buck took pity on them all.

"The fool called Ezra a cheat and drew on him. Ez had to put him down."

"Oh." She wrote a few more lines. "That's all?"

"That's enough," Chris snapped.

"And Mr. Sanchez is in jail ...?"

"Josiah needed to sleep off a little oh-be-joyful," Buck said.

"I see."

She glanced from one to another of them and seemed to deflate a little as she realized none of them meant to say another word on the matter. The story didn't seem much different than the rumors flying about town this morning, but she sensed there was something more. It must be frustrating for her.

"If there isn't anything else?" Chris said shortly. He was still on his feet. "I need to be riding."

Mary slanted a charming glance his way. "Will I see you at church tomorrow, Mr. Larabee?" she asked.

Chris gave the widow a deadpan look. "Not unless someone takes a shot at the Preacher."

Vin snickered.

"As a good Christian – "

Chris laughed harshly.

"I stopped being a 'good Christian' after Shiloh, Mrs. Travis," he said. "Nothing I've seen since has convinced me to change my ways back."

She blushed and bit her lip, taking a step back before raising her chin defiantly and looking to the other men at the table. "And you gentlemen, won't any of you be at services?"

"My dear lady," Ezra said gently, "you do us all too much credit. For myself, I know I will be ensconced in my featherbed come morning, clasped deep in the arms of Morpheus. Mr. Wilmington, as always, will be 'otherwise' occupied and Mr. Tanner attends to his worship in the still and silent places, rather than cheek by jowl with the madding crowd."[ii]

Vin squirmed uncomfortably but nodded in agreement. He hated being cooped up anywhere and with a bunch of snooty townsfolk was about the worst. Besides, he wasn't sure if he believed in Josiah's God more than the spirits the Comanches believed in and had taught him about. He sure hadn't experienced much Christian treatment in his life.

"Well," she murmured. "What about JD and Nathan?"

"The boy'll likely be there," Buck told her happily. JD would attend just to keep company with Casey, since Miz Nettie made an effort to bring her niece into town to worship every week. Vin was glad she'd never expected him to escort her.

"And the righteous Mr. Jackson," Ezra muttered.

Nathan would be there. He made a point of showing up. Maybe it was loyalty to Josiah, who he'd known longer than the others, or maybe he really did have faith. Vin didn't know. He thought Nathan liked walking into the same church as a white man, though. The ex-slave did a lot of things just because he could.

Mary smiled, a little strained, and made noises about getting back to the newspaper office. Chris took the hint and offered to escort her there. The three men left watched them go, with varying degrees of indulgent affection. Seeing his friend come to life again with the widow probably pleased Buck the most; he was a romantic anyway. Vin liked seeing anyone happy and people he liked even more. He thought Mary had enough sass to stand up to Larabee.

Ezra's smile had a cynical edge, but it was there.


Ezra finally managed to shed Vin long after lunch, when he made his way to the jail and took over there. The sun hadn't set yet, but the jail was dark, so he busied himself lighting several lamps. Then he laid a fire in the stove and started it. If he had to sit around, deprived of pitting his skills against whoever wanted to play cards at the Saloon, he would do it in comfort. He saw no reason to mortify his flesh with cold when it wasn't necessary.

He cleared the desktop and laid out an intricate game of solitaire, Beleaguered Castle[iii], which he played for some time. He began by playing it straight, winning and losing by luck and expertise, but grew bored. Eventually he began practicing his less than honest skills with the cards, stacking the deck to create various layouts, some that gave him the game easily, others that were deliberately unwinnable.

Even that paled and he began practicing phantom poker hands as daylight faded into twilight outside. The nights were still long, but the cards were all the company he needed, until rosy-fingered dawn painted the horizon and he could sleep again.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

The pasteboards were warm, faintly pliable yet crisp beneath his fingertips, as he shuffled and dealt, shuffled and dealt again. He laid out the ace of spades first and smiled. The deck was old, a set of Steamboats, the edges shaved and the corners cut more than once. An etching of a glorious river queen was printed in faded green on the backs, sailing the Mississippi. He'd had this particular deck since he left Baltimore the last time, disillusioned and alone, intent on losing himself in the West.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

He ran his thumbs over the corners of the deck idly, reading the feel of the subtly trimmed aces, moving them through the deck, holding them back or laying them out where he wanted. He'd trimmed the cards himself, taking off just enough to give the aces a visually imperceptible wedge shape. Only a trained hand could feel the difference. Practice, he told himself, kept eyes and hands and mind nimble.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

The deck was marked in more than one fashion. He never used it with his compatriots or at the tables. No one would want to play with cards so old and battered, but he kept them. They were his reminder of who he really was.

It was a lesson he had learned young. Every man died alone. The only choice lay in whether he died in comfort or without. Dead in the mud or dead in a warm feather bed, there was no escape. No one would mourn a bastard and a gambler, a soldier in a losing war, a fool who still wore a wedding ring when the marriage and the woman were only bad memories.

If he gave up his card sharping ways, if he walked down to Josiah's church and repented every misdeed, every dead man on his conscience, the blood would still have been spilled. He would still be the same.

So the cards told him.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

Sensitive fingertips found the raised dots on the cards' backs, the bumps hidden in the pattern of the print, and he flipped the cards over, predicting their fall: King of Hearts, Queen of Clubs, Jack of Hearts, Nine of Clubs, Ten of Spades. Straight.

He turned over the other hands he'd dealt.

A heart flush, no face cards.

Aces and kings.

Four eights and the Queen of Hearts.

He scooped up the cards and shuffled again.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

Footsteps on the creaky boards of the sidewalk outside heralded relief from his solitude. Ezra didn't lift his head. Those quick, light footfalls told him who it was.

"Hey, Ez," JD said as he pushed his way into the jail backwards, using his back to open the unlatched door, since his hands were full with a heavily-laden tray.

"Good evening, Mr. Dunne," Ezra greeted him. He studied the covered plates on the tray as JD brought it over and set it on the corner of the desk. There were enough for two. He smiled and swept his cards out of the way, tucking them back in the inside pocket of his vest.

JD started laying out dishes between them. "Mrs. Potter made up supper and sent it over for you," JD explained. He lifted a towel off a plate and revealed a pile of golden crisp fried chicken, inhaling the aroma luxuriantly.

Dishes with an array of other delights were were soon laid out, including fluffy mashed potatos topped with heavy gold butter melting into them, a boat of gravy, baked apples, wildberry chutney, airy biscuits and a pot of dark honey, green beans with onion and bacon, and finally two generous slices of pecan pie.

Despite himself, Ezra's mouth began to water. Gloria Potter, bless her generous heart, was the best baker in Four Corners. The widow had held onto her Mercantile store in the aftermath of her husband's murder and treated all of the town's regulators as though they'd saved it for her. She often pressed a piece of pie or some treat from her store on one of them. Vin and JD and Buck soaked it up and Ezra had to admit, if only to himself, that he didn't mind her kindly efforts either.

"I thought you could use some company," JD said.

Ezra gave the kid a shrewd look.

JD folded. "Okay, Ez, I thought that if someone's out to get you, you shouldn't be sitting here all by yourself. I don't want anything happening to you."

"Amazing how I survived into adulthood without benefit of any of our little band holding my hand," Ezra observed sardonically.

JD nodded, though Ezra knew the young man hadn't been oblivious to his sarcasm.

"It's better now, isn't it?"

Ezra shook his head. How had JD survived this long without being disillusioned? The answer came to him immediately. They'd all done everything they could to let JD go on believing in the basic goodness of life. It wasn't love of Four Corners that had held him to the place, nor Chris or Buck or Vin. It was that strange tie between the seven of them and the urge to protect each other, despite their differences, JD most of all.

JD began serving himself and out of self-defense, Ezra did as well. After they'd finished, he began tutoring JD on all the ways to spot a marked card. It served to pass the time, until the dark-haired sheriff started yawning.

"You should return to the boarding house, JD," Ezra told him gently. "There's no need to stay with me."

"I want to," JD said.

"You're falling asleep."

"I could nap in one of the cells." A delighted grin flashed over the young man's face. "I made Josiah clean all of them. Turned over the mattress tick and there's a new blanket too."

"Lord, the miscreants will be lining up to be arrested, just to experience the untold luxuries of Four Corners' jail," Ezra drawled.

"They might, if they got fed Mrs. Potter's cooking," JD said.

Ezra chuckled.

JD ducked into the first cell, leaving the door hanging open and sprawled onto the bunk. In a few moments, he was still, sleeping.

Ezra returned the empty plates and silverware to the tray, indulging himself in one last, cloud-light biscuit drenched in honey.

With the debris policed up and the desk neat again, Ezra sank back down in the best chair. He reached inside his vest to draw out his cards again. His fingers encountered the crackle of paper and he was reminded of the two letters he hadn't yet perused.

One bore the name of a fellow gambler, a man he'd met in Kansas, and sometimes corresponded with still. Their letters tended toward updating each other on what towns to avoid and news relevant to their itinerant professions.

The second letter came from San Francisco. He'd never mentioned his business interests in San Francisco to his fellow lawkeepers; he'd used another name there and preferred to keep those dealings private.

Nothing could be much more disturbing than the news of his mother's impending arrival. He drew the envelopes out and set them on the desktop.

He turned up the wick on one the oil lamps and then opened the missive from San Francisco.

The news in the report sent in care of Ezra Standish pleased him. The hotel-casino he'd invested in under the name Elijah Stanton was doing well, despite the ban on gambling in California. His share of the profits continued to be banked for him. The Chinese girl and her family were proving to be the best employees there, to the surprise of his co-owner, who had been dubious of Ezra's suggestion that Li Pong be found a place working there that didn't involve prostitution. The only disturbing news was that several Pinkerton agents had been inquiring about Ezra Standish, wanting to find him. Ezra's partner thought he should be on the look out.

Ezra folded up the report and sighed. The Pinks. He had no notion why Pinkerton agents would be hunting him. If they had his name, they would find him soon enough, too. His continuing presence in Four Corners was no secret. He had seen no need to hide; he was, after all, a member of the community, a lawman of sorts.

He set the San Francisco letter aside and opened the last one.

It was short and to the point. Pinkerton agents were hunting Ezra Standish from Dodge to Deadwood and had picked up his trail in Fort Laramie. Someone named Magnusson, from back East, had put a bounty on his head, too. Powell advised him to change his name and hit the trail.

Magnusson. He wouldn't have surprised if the name had been Godwin. He wondered if Magnusson worked for them.

Ezra touched his wedding ring unconsciously, unaware he'd crumpled Powell's letter in his fist.

"Gawd dammit," he murmured and gritted his teeth. Mother, Pinkertons, the Godwins, Magnusson – whoever he was – what more did they all want from him? He'd accepted that he'd lost. He'd left. Wasn't that enough?

Of course not. When had he ever been or done enough?

In the cell, JD snuffled in his sleep. Ezra controlled the impulse to throw something, to yell his anger out, to walk away from the jail and drink himself blind. With stiff, awkward movements, he rose and went to the woodstove. He opened it and fed both letters to the flames inside, then added another chunk of wood. No use leaving anything that connected him with Elijah Stanton sitting around. He might need to resume that identity someday.

Perhaps someday soon, he thought. Ezra dusted his hands and stepped away from the heat. Powell was right. It was past time he moved on. He had let himself fall into a rut, let himself start thinking of Four Corners as home, just as he once had thought of the Ford that way. But Peyton's Ford had never been his, never would have been, and Four Corners wasn't either.


It was time to take his leave. He would speak to Mr. Larabee tomorrow. He had earned Judge Travis' pardon for jumping bail after the incident in Fort Laramie after the first thirty days in Four Corners. A small smile quirked Ezra's lips. How had any of them survived inflicting the rule of law on what had been little more than an outlaws' waystation back then? He glanced at JD's sleeping form, the thatch of lank black hair for once uncovered by his ridiculous bowler hat.

He could admit it to himself, he thought: he would miss JD Dunne and Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington. He would miss Mr. Sanchez's sometimes cock-eyed wisdom and Mr. Larabee's unflinching determination and Mr. Jackson's ... Ezra paused. Now that was just maudlin. There was much to admire about Nathan Jackson, he was on the whole a decent man, but other than his skill at snapping dislocated shoulders back into their sockets and sewing up knife wounds or digging out bullets, Nathan hadn't endeared himself to Ezra Standish, son of the south. Ezra didn't see himself missing Nathan's diatribes or his vile tasting herb concoctions. But he supposed he had grown used to the man, the way he'd grown used to having companions.

He retrieved a blanket from the other cell and laid it over JD without disturbing him.

Wearily, he returned to the desk and sat down, laying out a new solitaire game, a simple one, while he thought. He'd spoken often of going to San Francisco, of the pleasures and games in New Orleans. It would be wise to stay away from those locales if he was being hunted. St. Louis was his mother's latest playing field and he had no wish to become involved in any of her schemes again. He could try his luck in one the railhead towns in Kansas, but they were all like Dodge, and there were the Pinks looking for him. Perhaps he would go as far as Seattle. No one knew him in Oregon and the loggers would be easy marks ... Or he could turn east and ride into Texas, visit Galveston or Fort Worth. The gambling was good in Fort Worth.

Texas made him think of Tascosa. Perhaps he could sojourn there for a time. A man of his talents might discover something on the unpleasantness surrounding Mr. Tanner and the murder of Jess Kincaid. It would be quite satisfying to see the bounty lifted from Vin's head.

He flipped a red six on a black seven and scolded himself. You've grown soft, Ezra. Small wonder Mother is appalled at you and thinks your skills need sharpening. Where was the profit in risking his skin for someone else? Because JD was asleep, he let himself snort indelicately. Where was the profit indeed? If there was anything Maude Standish knew, it was where to find a dollar and how to make it hers. Thank heaven he'd never let her know about the investments in San Francisco or Mother would have found a way to help herself to those too.

It was a wonder his father had escaped her mercenary clutches. Being married already had probably been all that saved the man. Of course, Mother had only been fifteen when she met Edward Peyton. She hadn't learned all her tricks.

Father had been too powerful and too arrogant to fall for her completely. He'd taken what he wanted and damn the consequences. Only his sense of noblesse oblige made him care for his family and his bastards. At least, he'd never treated Ezra any worse or any better than his other sons. Ezra had been brought up to be a Southern gentleman, even if he was a bastard.

But no one wanted their daughter to marry one.

God damn the Godwins.

When the door slammed open, he pulled the Richards Conversion from the underarm rig and thumbed the hammer back reflexively. Good lord, he had to start thinking. He'd been a fool to sit here all night, right in front of the door, for anyone to stroll in and shoot down.

Nathan Jackson stopped short just inside the jail, staring into the dark muzzle of Ezra's gun. Despite the noise, JD slumbered on.

"That was a remarkably foolish entrance, Mr. Jackson," Ezra remarked, uncocking the gun and replacing it.

"I wanna talk to you, Ezra."

"You are," he said dryly.

"It's all over town you done killed a man for callin' ya on cheatin'." Nathan glared

Ezra shrugged indifferently. "Really?"

Nathan grabbed for Ezra's shoulder, but he slid away, and looked at the man narrow eyed.

"Do not lay hands on me again, Mr. Jackson," Ezra hissed.

It wasn't enough he had to be reminded of the Godwins tonight, now he had to endure one of Nathan's sermons? No. He had had enough. That was his weak shoulder, he would not endure Nathan shaking him by it.

Nathan stepped back at his tone, then stopped himself. Ezra smiled nastily. Oh, yes, Nathan remembered when offering even a hint of violence toward a white man would have earned him a thrashing with a bullwhip at best or a bullet through the head. Nathan Jackson had bowed for Massa and shivered at that tone of voice as boy and man, before he ran for the North. Some things never fade from a man's memory.

"You ain't Massa no more, Ezra," Nathan growled.

Ezra tipped his chin up, meeting Nathan's dark eyes with his own pale gaze. "No, and I won't be your whipping boy for the Massa you wish was here," he declared.

"You ain't better than me."

"I am better educated, a better horseman, and a better card player than you, Mr. Jackson," Ezra contradicted. A little of his anger eased. "You are a better knife thrower, a better healer – " he stopped and let out a bark of laughter, remembering an embarrassing incident with a set of rapiers, " – even a better fencer."

"Josiah tole me what ya done last night."

"Josiah," Ezra said derisively, "was so drunk Mr. Dunne was forced to lock him up for the night."

"For tryin' to stop you from stealin' from that man!" Nathan insisted and clenched his fists.

Ezra laughed.

"I stole nothing from that man."

"Ya stole his life!"

"You should check your details, Mr. Jackson," Ezra told him. "I stole nothing. I shot a man who had drawn on me first, after declaring his intention to kill me."

"So you say," Nathan declared scornfully.

"Perhaps you would accept the word of Herr Heidegger or any number of other people who were either at my table or in the saloon at the time, since mine carries no weight," Ezra said.

He could feel the anger building again, goaded by Nathan's contempt. He found himself loathing the man for the first time. He'd always accepted Nathan's resentment, much as he tolerated Chris Larabee's bouts of temper; they were things that were part of the two men and he understood that. Tonight, his patience was too worn away for understanding, though.

"If I had killed that man without reason, I would be in one of these cells, rather than guarding them."

"JD wouldn't arrest ya."

"He has done, if you will remember," Ezra reminded him dryly.

He'd dallied in a jail cell he could have escaped with ease, because he'd thought the six other men might need a clever gambler to help them beat Stuart and Lucas James. Instead of picking the lock and retrieving Hazard to go on his way, he'd helped them bring in Lucas James and seen him hang for murdering Gloria Potter's husband. He'd accepted the offer of a pardon from Judge Travis in exchange for serving thirty days as a peacekeeper. He'd risked his life repeatedly. But no matter what he did, he was still a no good Southern gambler in most peoples' eyes, including Nathan Jackson's.

It made him tired.

"A thief, a cheat, a slaver, a murderer, " he said softly. "You think I treat you differently for your color, Mr. Jackson?" He circled the desk and approached the taller man. "You're right." He slipped the petite, seven-inch push dagger he carried in his belt out and held it concealed in his hand, gesturing with the other to draw Nathan's eyes away. The ivory handle was warm in his palm.

He grabbed Nathan's shirtfront and pulled him close, despite his greater bulk.

"Any other man who had said those things to me or of me," he said intensely, "I would have called out and shot dead. Any white man."

A grimace of fury took over Nathan's features.

"Darkies ain't good enough to meet on the 'field of honor', hunh?" he growled.

"You're a fool, Mr. Jackson," Ezra breathed. He thought of bringing the dagger up, setting the point against Nathan's Adam's apple. "I put a knife through the throat of more than one Negro soldier back in Fauquier County. They died with just as much 'honor' as a white man, bled just as red, died just as dead. Killing is killing."

He still held the dagger hidden in his hand. He could touch the dagger tip to dark skin and draw a bead of scarlet blood. Just one little push would slide it up through Nathan's throat, cutting his windpipe and vocal cords, and parting the great artery with one sidewise flick. He'd killed men that way, seen them crumple, unable to even scream, as their hearts pumped their lives out in great arcing gouts of blood. He was angry enough to do it. Yet he didn't. He knew Nathan, knew where he'd come from in ways none of the other men in their band ever could. That was why he had tolerated so much from him until now.

"We come from the same place."

He'd had enough of making allowances for Nathan, though. He wasn't Chris Larabee, but he did have a temper, he did have his own kind of pride, and he was through swallowing it just because he understood Nathan's resentment of him.

The whites showed around Nathan's eyes, reminding Ezra of a spooked horse. He could feel the tension running through the larger man's body, the effort it took not to move. He showed his teeth in a fierce grin. How do you like it, Nathan? Do you remember now, what it meant to keep yourself from striking back when every lineament of your being cried out for it?

"We ain't from the same place," Nathan contested bitterly. "Ya ain't never lived with seein' your kin beat or bought or sold off jus' like cattle. You's white. You lived up t'the big house."

"Among my Father's other bastards, Mr. Jackson, there were two of color. Hester and Hippolyte. My Father – " and Ezra invested the word with all the scorn in his soul " – stood my brothers and my cousins and me out in the field along with all his slaves in the heat of the day and had us watch while he whipped Hester until her back ran with blood. Then he put a bullet through Hippolyte's head for tryin' ta help her run away instead of goin' ta the man he'd sold her to. She was twelve years old, Mr. Jackson, and I never saw her again."

Nathan's chest heaved.

"Why didn't ya do somethin' ta stop him?" he accused.

Ezra stepped back and shook his head. "Why didn't you do something, Mr. Jackson, all the times you saw someone whipped?"

"I's a slave!"

"I was a boy. A bastard raised on sufferance."

"You's still white."

"If you think that meant anything then you're still a slave," Ezra said, turning his back on Nathan in deliberate gesture of complete contempt. He stopped short, spotting JD sitting up on the bunk, his face gone white. Ezra pressed his eyelids closed. Dear God, the boy must have heard and seen it all.

"I ain't a slave and we ain't the same!"

He opened his eyes, parted his lips to make some apology to JD for forgetting he was there. JD's eyes widened, focused beyond Ezra. It was all the warning he had as Nathan drove a fist into his kidneys.

"Don't you turn your back on me! You had everything!"

"Nathan!" JD shouted, leaping to his feet and out of the cell. "No! Stop!"

Ezra dropped to his knees.

Nathan's boot slammed into his hip. He rolled with the impact and landed on his back, staring up at the enraged black man. Before he could even catch his breath, JD barrelled into Nathan's chest head first. Nathan staggered back until his shoulders hit the jail door. JD took a place between Ezra and Nathan, his fists raised in a pugilists' pose.

"Stop!" the sheriff yelled again. "Don't make me have to hit you, Nathan!"

Ezra used the edge of the desk to pull himself to his feet, registering a vague relief he hadn't fallen into the hot stove.

"Goddamn Southerner!" Nathan shouted at him.

Ezra schooled his features into a mask that showed no pain.

"Get out, Mr. Jackson," he said quietly, only a small hitch in his breath betraying the pain in his back. "I'm through making allowances for you."

"Don't want your damned 'allowances'! Worthless cracker trash is all you are!" Nathan snarled. He made an abortive lunge toward Ezra, but JD danced in front of him. A big fist started to swing on JD, but Nathan recovered himself enough to stop. He sent a final, vicious look Ezra's way. "To hell with you, Ezra Standish!"

He pulled the door open and let it fall closed with a crash as he strode out of the jail. Ezra gingerly perched on edge of the desk, rubbing his aching hip and finally catching his breath.

"Jesus, Ezra, are you okay?" JD exclaimed softly, coming over to his side. "I can't believe he did that. I mean, Nathan, Nathan's usually so calm. He hates violence, really, 'cause of having to fix folks up all the time, and he just hit you from behind – "

Ezra tuned out JD's half panicked babble. He couldn't believe he'd lost his temper and his control so far that he'd revealed that horrible memory. Just the words had made him relive it, the sweat running down his back as he stood with the others under the burning noon sun, the dust of clay on his feet, his cousin Saville's hand hot in his where no one could see. He closed his eyes and saw it all again. Heard it. The sound of ninety-seven slaves breathing, afraid to speak, the sound of his father's horse snapping at a horse fly, the sound of the whip coming down on flesh, and then ... Hester's screams and Hippolyte cursing until his father put the gun to his head and fired. Then the silence that came afterward, in the ringing hollow of shock that follows a bullet. Oh God, he remembered it all.

" – I never seen him so mad. Why was he so mad? It wasn't your fault. He always acts like anything you do is wrong – "

"JD," Ezra interrupted him.

JD took a deep breath, looking at him with eyes full of worry.

"I would take it as ... a true favor and a great kindness ... if you would speak of this to no one," Ezra said.

"He shouldn't have done that, though," JD said seriously.

Ezra smiled. The first thing JD had learned on arriving in the West had been Chris Larabee's dictum. You don't shoot a man in the back. Evidently, JD understood that to mean you don't hit them in the back, either. Nathan had just shaken JD's world.

"But it's done, JD. It's past. We should forget it." He patted the younger man's shoulder. "No harm done."

"You sure, Ez?"

"Completely," he assured.

"Well, if you say so," JD said, wanting to be convinced. Their little group was his family. The boy didn't want to see them tear each other apart.

Ezra wished he could rearrange things, make them the way JD would want, but the determination to leave had crystallized. Nathan only made it easier. He'd never meant to stay so long.

It had been a mistake, all of it, a fool's game. He knew a moving target was harder to hit.

He looked past JD to the door Nathan had left through. It had finally come to blows. It had been inevitable, really. His gaze drifted down to the ivory-handled push dagger still lying lost on the floor under the stove legs.


He whispered, "C'est le commencement de la fin."


He looked at JD's quizzical expression and smiled sadly.

"It's over, JD."

He would stay only long enough to find out what Maude wanted this time. After that – his saddlebags were always packed.

He soothed JD absently, saying all the right words without – quite – lying. His back ached. He wondered if he'd be pissing blood in the morning. Well, he'd drawn first blood. Finally, he let JD convince him to lie down in the cell, because he couldn't bear the boy's concern any longer. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.

He didn't sleep. If he slept before dawn, he would hear Hester's screams again.

6. Four Corners, 1877

When deuces are wild you can follow the queen.
I'd go too except I know where she's been.

Solitaire, Suzanne Vega

Josiah found the man he was looking for far earlier than he had anticipated. Ezra was lounging in front of the Saloon, sitting in a chair he'd brought out onto the boardwalk where he could watch the stage stop. Since it was before noon, Josiah could only assume Ezra was waiting for something or someone expected on the next stage.

He pulled his hat off and seated himself on the rough bench next to Ezra's seat.

Ezra had his feet stretched out, polished square-toed boots in the way of anyone passing along the sidewalk. An empty blue enamel coffee cup sat next to his hat on the bench between them.

For once his hands were busy with something besides his cards: a book, leather-bound, the pages like onion-skin, the print small and dense.

Josiah knew Ezra was aware of him, but the gambler didn't lift his eyes from the pages of his book. He sighed. Ezra always made him work for what he wanted. Ezra was a contrary man, determined to care for nothing, when inside he had a wealth of goodness. Josiah just wished Ezra would let that goodness lead him, instead of his lesser instincts. He sighed again.

Getting stupid drunk and threatening the man certainly was no way to encourage Ezra's better angels.

Time to get to it. He took a deep breath.

"Brother Ezra."

Ezra didn't look up.

"Mr. Sanchez."

"You're up early."

Ezra turned a page.

"Remarkable observation."

Josiah closed his eyes.

"Son – "

Ezra snapped the book closed and turned angry eyes on Josiah. "I am not, I have never been, and do not wish to be your son, Mr. Sanchez. Have I not, repeatedly, expressed my distaste for that epithet?"

The level of venom in Ezra's quiet voice surprised Josiah. Apparently, he'd done more damage the other night than he even remembered.

"I'm sorry, Ezra."

Ezra gave him a look of disbelief. "Since you have failed to amend your habit in any respect before this, your apology holds little value." He opened the book again and flicked rapidly through the pages until reaching his place once more.

Josiah watched him read. Ezra ignored him. Josiah waited. He knew he had more patience than Ezra in most instances. He noticed JD emerge from the jail periodically and saw the way the boy – no, man, now – discreetly checked on Ezra. Once JD caught his eye and Josiah winced, remembering the morning before, cleaning up the cell he'd been in and the rest of them for good measure.

Ezra progressed to the next page.

"Is there something else, Mr. Sanchez?"

Josiah tightened his big hands over his knees. This was penance too, along with yesterday's hangover, and a night spent on his knees seeking God's grace and enlightenment. The last thing he could afford do was let Ezra push him into losing his temper again.

"I'm trying to apologize to you, Ezra."

"I know."

"You're not making it easy."

Ezra touched his fingertip to his tongue then used it to flick over a page. "I don't believe it is supposed to be," he said quietly.

Josiah squeezed the bridge of his nose. Ezra was very angry. He would have to try again. "I am sorry, Ezra. I get drunk. I don't mean – "

"In vino veritas," Ezra interrupted him, speaking softly.

Damn. At least Ezra was speaking to him again, though. He would have to work with that.

"'Bacchus hath drowned more men than Neptune.' I misunderstood the situation." [iv]

"So you did," Ezra agreed. He tipped his head, listening.

Josiah caught the echo of hoof beats after another moment, then the vibration in the earth that he recognized. Presently, a six-horse team brought the morning stage into town in a roiling cloud of dust.

Ezra watched the stage roll swiftly by down the street toward the stage company offices and as the horses were pulled up with a screech from an ungreased axle as the driver set the brake. Jade-green eyes narrowed. They were the greenest eyes Josiah had ever seen on a man or woman, painfully expressive when the younger man didn't guard himself, empty as a stone statue's when he did.

"Very well, Mr. Sanchez," he said, turning back to Josiah and offering his hand. "I accept your apology. 'No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of folly.' Consider the entire matter forgotten." [v]

Josiah took Ezra's hand and shook it. Ezra didn't offer his hand to just anyone; his hands were his livelihood.

"I don't suppose you'd care to aid me in a few moments?" he asked. The charming, inveigling smile was back and aimed at Josiah.

Josiah knew he was going to regret it, but he had to agree. Ezra might have accepted his apology, but only on the surface. He wouldn't let Josiah back in – as much as he'd ever let him in – without exacting some sort of payment from him. Ezra would test him to judge the truth of his remorse. If Josiah failed, Ezra would go on working beside him and joking and in general acting normal, but it would be an act.

Josiah didn't want that to happen. Ezra was a man who was too much alone, even in the midst of a crowd at the saloon. His trust was such a fragile thing, hard won and easily broken, Josiah had to wonder at what the man's past had been like. Not the easy life Nathan castigated Ezra for living, he thought.

"The Lord smiles when a man helps his brother," Josiah said.

Ezra got to his feet, set his hat on his neat brown hair, brushed invisible dust from his sleeves, and straightened his cuffs. Josiah got up too.

"Come along, then, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said, starting down the sidewalk toward the stage stop.

Ahead of them, the stage rocked from side to side as the driver tossed bags down from the roof to the shotgun rider. The horses stamped restlessly in their traces, sweating and hot in the bright morning sun. From the other side of the stage, a woman's voice rose in indignation.

"Be careful with those bags, sir, I implore you!"

The Virginia accent was familiar from previous visits. Josiah shot Ezra a look and saw the man's lips were pressed tight, his expression set.

"Maude's here?"

"I will lodge a complaint with the stage company if any of my belongings are harmed due to your carelessness!"

"Lady, these feel like they got rocks in 'em," the driver said from on top the stage. The shotgun rider just grunted as the last bag dropped into his arms.

Ezra grimaced. "Is there any doubt?"

A wide grin split Josiah's face as they rounded the back of the stage and he caught sight of Ezra's mother on the sidewalk in front of the stage company. Maude Standish Whaley von Strucker Hawkins Delhomme was a vision to the ex-preacher. She was dressed a la mode in a deep-blue traveling dress edged in navy-blue braid, a confection of lace and feathers perched upon her elaborately coiffed butter-blond hair. The leather bags being unloaded from the stage were dyed a blue that matched her attire.

She was a pure dream, Josiah thought. He knew he had a weakness for lovely women, but there was a part of him that could never believe anything so lovely could be less than good. Adam's sin was his; any Eve could lead him around by the nose. It seemed like all his critical faculties flew out the window when a woman like Maude smiled at him. He knew it for a fault in his character, but he could not repair it; in his own way, women were as much his downfall as they were Buck's.

The pinched expression of distaste she'd turned on the stage employees disappeared as soon as she saw Ezra and Josiah. A sparkling smile of delight lit her lovely features. "Ezra!" she called, swishing toward them with her lace-gloved hands outstretched.

Ezra doffed his hat and inclined his head, his expression unreadable. "Mother."

"My darlin' boy," Maude exclaimed, catching his free hand between hers and leaning up on tiptoe to buss him on both cheeks.

The affectionate action made Ezra narrow his eyes. Josiah huffed out a sigh of sorrow. It was a sad thing when a man didn't trust his own mother.

Maude turned her bright smile on Josiah, just about taking his breath away.

"And Mr. Sanchez!"

Josiah swept his hat off and bowed toward her. "Missus Standish."

Maude waved her hand.

"It's Ashendon now," she corrected. "But never mind. – Ezra, you'll see my things are delivered to the hotel – the best hotel this little mudhole boasts – won't you?" She linked her arm with Josiah's and batted her lashes at him. "Mr. Sanchez will escort me somewhere where I can wash this abominable dust from my throat, won't you?"

Josiah grinned down at her, infatuated and enthralled by Maude's charm as always. "It would be my great pleasure, ma'am." He knew she was a grifter, but couldn't keep from liking her. He felt sure her acquisitive nature and insistence on proper appearances were defenses. He wanted to save her, as much as he found himself wanting her, each time she passed through Four Corners. He believed there was more to Maude than even her son knew.

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Of course, Mother."

"Don't sulk, Ezra, it's not becomin'. I'm here to see you."

"Sulkin' would not be a proper response to that news, Mother," Ezra replied. "Runnin' for my life might be."

"Don't be silly, Ezra," Maude remonstrated lightly.

An unwilling smile twitched Ezra's lips. "I wasn't."

Maude laughed in delight, though her blue-green eyes showed a certain amount of irritation. She laid her small hand over Josiah's far larger one. "Mr. Sanchez? I swear I am utterly parched."

Josiah caught Ezra's gaze over her head, but he just shrugged. Josiah guessed this was the favor Ezra had desired: Josiah was to run interference between mother and son. Much as he adored Maude's charming company, Josiah didn't relish the job. Maude wanted her son to leave Four Corners and was seemingly horrified – or terrified – by his position as a peacekeeper. Josiah was convinced she was simply afraid her son would be hurt and had made some bad choices in trying to convince him to leave. She wasn't used to being thwarted, so she'd acted badly. It just seemed impossible that such a beautiful woman didn't mean well.

He wasn't sure anyone could convince Ezra of that.

Behind him, as he led Maude down the sidewalk past Jerry's Everything Store and the Ritz, he heard Ezra arranging for her bags and trunk to be carried to the Ritz. He imagined Maude would manage to get Ezra to pay for her stay there too.

"Josiah," Maude said once they were out of Ezra's vicinity, "my dear man, will you help me?"

"Of course," he agreed.

A twinge in his stomach reminded him of the 'help' he'd given her, along with Nathan and JD, the first time she arrived in Four Corners. She'd manipulated the three of them into helping her win a 'saloon war' between her and Ezra, then bought The Standish Tavern's mortgage from the bank. Ezra had accepted the entire thing with equanimity, clearly expecting no more from them or his mother than exactly what he'd got. Maude had just made it so easy to go along with her that none of them had given a thought to the consequences.

Maude's bright smile rewarded him. She patted his arm. "I knew I could count on you, Josiah."

He immediately felt better. She'd thought Ezra would tire of Four Corners and leave without the saloon to hold him. Like all mothers, she wanted the best for her son. She was mistaken, of course, Ezra belonged with them and Four Corners was his home, but she meant well. Josiah genuinely believed that.

He opened the door to the restaurant for her and followed her in. Her perfume, gardenias, teased his nose as she passed through the doorway. Josiah inhaled deeply, delighted by the delicate wisp of scent. He couldn't help his fascination with her; women like Maude were rare in the West. Mary Travis was a lady, through and through, just as Gloria Potter was, but both women had eschewed the refined masks of the East to survive. Maude was like a butterfly that needed protecting. She just didn't understand life out here. Lord, he only hoped she didn't mean to have him help her persuade Ezra to leave with her. Much as he wanted to please her, he couldn't do that.

Josiah wrinkled is brow at that thought. He was on thin enough ice with Ezra these days as it was. It wasn't beyond Ezra to have placed him in Maude's company as a test, to see if Josiah would go along with her. Considering Ezra's respect for his mother's skills, it was a test he would expect Josiah to lose.

Maude fussed and cajoled and succeeded in procuring for herself a pot of tea, while Josiah made do with a cup of bitter coffee. When she had her cup prepared to her exacting standards, Maude leveled her gaze at Josiah again. Her eyes had more blue in them than Ezra's. She had the knack of looking at a man with them that made him think he was the only thing she could see.

"Mr. Sanchez – Josiah& #150 whatever Ezra has told you, I know that I love my boy," she began. "He is my only child, and with his talents, why he could be and do anything!"

"Ezra's a fine man," Josiah agreed cautiously. "He's doing good work right here in Four Corners."

"Oh, that," Maude dismissed. She leaned forward. "Ezra could become a man of wealth and power, Josiah, if he would only apply himself." She sat back and seemed to rein in her enthusiasm. "Well. I know it's his choice, of course, what he does. Ezra's a man now, not my sweet little baby."

Josiah almost choked on a mouthful of coffee.

Maude saw and smiled a softer, warmer smile. "Oh, Josiah, he was such sweet baby," she said. "He was so good."

Josiah nodded, his thoughts wandering back to his own past. His Juanito had been a good baby ... He remembered burying his nose in Juanito's shock of fine black hair and inhaling that baby-smell. Hair like his mother's, brown eyes like hers; his Juanito had been nothing like Ezra Standish. Juanito's dimples had disappeared into sullen sneers some time after his mother died. Josiah had been too busy drinking his own pain away to care what was happening to his son. He hadn't sobered up until after the hanging.

"Children are the lord's blessing," Josiah said. He'd wasted all his chances with Juanito. He didn't want to see Maude lose touch with her son that way. Never wanted to stand at a grave and see a parent's grief again, for all he saw it in Chris Larabee every day. It ate away at everything left inside.

He knew it was why he tried so hard to steer Ezra onto a better path. Juanito was dead. Ezra still had a chance to become the sort of man Josiah should have helped his son become. Josiah didn't want Ezra make the mistakes his son had.

"Why, I believe that is God's honest truth," Maude agreed. She slipped a lace-trimmed silk handkerchief from her sleeve and delicately dabbed at her eyes. "Oh, Josiah, I haven't been a good mother to him, it's true."

"I sure you did everything you could, Mrs. -" He fumbled, trying to remember her latest husband's name.

"Ashendon," Maude supplied. She sniffed in a lady-like manner. "But you must call me Maude, dear Josiah. I feel so close to you, I know you are a fine man. Only a good man, a man of God, would be willing to help me try to atone for the way I've treated my darlin' boy." Her chin wobbled just a trifle as she added, "I just pray I'm not too late."

Josiah caught her hand between his and held it. "Maude. I will do all that is in my power."

Thank the lord, she wasn't proposing some wild scheme that would have her and Ezra in contention again. He felt confident he could help them both. His faith in God Almighty had wavered and failed more than once, before he repented his anger and bitterness, but he still knew the Lord's work when he saw it. Doing it often eased his own sorrows. Uniting Ezra and Maude as loving son and mother would be a joyous occasion.

"God's grace will suffice." Yes, he knew that God would show him the way.

Maude nodded piously.

"I knew I could count on you, Josiah," she said.

A soft scuff of shoe leather on the board floor heralded Ezra's arrival. Raised eyebrows were his only response to seeing his mother's hand clasped in Josiah's calloused grip. "For what, Mother?"

"Don't act so suspicious, Ezra," Maude responded.

"Ezra," Josiah admonished.

"Good lord, Mother, what do you expect from me?" Ezra replied, taking a seat beside his mother.

Side by side there was some resemblance between them. Ezra was a handsome man with smooth, even features. Maude's smile was echoed in the deep crease of his dimples. They shared the same fair complexion. Ezra must have favored his father, though, in many ways. Maude and Ezra's greatest resemblance lay in their easy charm, sharp eyes and sharper intellects, in the Old Dominion drawl – not the same looks.

Josiah pointed at him. "Show some respect."

Ezra's lip curled. "I am," he drawled in clear disgust.

Josiah opened his mouth to tell Ezra that he wouldn't tolerate his attitude toward Maude and snapped it closed again, catching the cynical glint in the gambler's eyes. Ezra expected him to take Maude's side. It didn't matter whether Ezra was right or not, Josiah would confirm all of Ezra's doubts about their friendship. This was just the sort of imbroglio Ezra excelled at engineering. Josiah had almost stepped right into the trap.

He gave the younger man a jaundiced look.

Ezra offered a small, tight smile.

"Mother is an extraordinary woman, Mr. Sanchez." Cynicism and fondness tempered his words. "She's made her way on her own ... merits. I'm just bearin' that in mind."

Maude cocked her head and seemed to study her son. Ezra gazed back at her with a calm Josiah hadn't observed in him before. Not in regard to his mother, who seemed to trail turmoil behind her like the tail of a comet.

"It's a hard world, Ezra, and I've been unkind, perhaps, in tryin' to teach you to make the best of it," Maude said.

Ezra shrugged.

Maude stroked Ezra's cheek, then just held her hand against it. Ezra didn't draw back.

"I'd like to make it up to you, Ezra, a little. That's why I've come."

Ezra raised an eyebrow and asked, "What has precipitated this amazing about-face, Mother?"

"When I was in St. Louis I heard a rumor that a bounty had been placed on your head," Maude explained.

"How kind of you to come so far just to warn me," Ezra commented. "I suppose you've come to tell me I should shake the dust off my boots and leave this fair hamlet? Discretion being the better part of valor."

Maude frowned briefly. "Well, I wish you would think about it, Ezra, but I know how stubborn you can be. Since you seem determined to waste your days here, owning a saloon wouldn't be the worst choice you could make."

"I tried that, remember?"

Josiah had been keeping silent. Now, he winced. He hoped they weren't going to start quarreling over the way Maude had deliberately wrecked Ezra's first attempt to go legitimate. Ezra had dismissed the entire episode as Maude making sure he stayed sharp and laughed it off, but he was a master of concealing his real feelings. Her intentions must have been good, Josiah thought, but the boy had been hurt. He must have been. All his friends had failed him, hadn't seemed to care whether he succeeded or failed. Well, Buck had been somewhat distracted, convinced he was about to be a daddy and nerving himself up to propose to that woman. Vin and Chris had been contending with Eli Joe, hoping to catch the outlaw that had actually killed the man Vin was wanted for murdering. But he and Nathan and JD had gone right along with Maude's plans, helping put The Standish Tavern out of business.

That had been a bad week for all of them. No one had really paid much attention to Ezra losing the Saloon. When Chris shot Eli Joe, Vin lost his best chance of proving himself innocent. They'd all been worried the Texan would give up and leave before any more bounty hunters came after him.

Maude ignored her son's remark and went on blithely. "As it happens, the investors I sold part ownership to have defaulted and I find myself in possession of the Standish Tavern again." She turned a bright smile on both men. "I thought that I would offer it to you, darlin', for a small price."

A small price. Josiah shook his head. Only Maude would consider that a way of making amends to anyone. Though as a gesture toward acknowledging Ezra's desire to stay in Four Corners, it did count for something. Ezra, though, looked unimpressed.

"I'm no longer interested, Mother."

Josiah frowned. What had Maude said? A bounty? Someone wanted Ezra dead? He'd missed something or been left out. The anger that always burned like a low flame inside Josiah flared a little higher.

"Ezra?" Josiah inquired curiously. "What bounty?"

Carelessly, Ezra said, "Apparently that fool I shot had been hired to effect my demise."

"Why wasn't I told?" Josiah knew his voice was rising. Several other diners were staring at them now and the waitress, poor little Delia, was twisting her hands in her apron.

"You were hors de combat by the time Misters Larabee, Tanner, Wilmington and I searched the fellow's room and discovered the evidence. It's a trifling matter, in any case."

He slammed his palm down on the table, making everything on it jump. "Trifling!"

"Mr. Sanchez, please, you are makin' a scene," Maude reproved. "Ezra is perfectly capable of dealin' with the sort of ruffians who hire themselves out in such a manner."

Josiah wanted to object that if Ezra was in trouble all of his friends would be there to help him. He guessed neither Standish would take that into account. Maude had made certain Ezra didn't believe anyone would ever offer help without attaching a price to it. Especially his mother. Little or nothing in life had proved Maude's teachings wrong.

"Is that what you're thinking, that you'll just run away?" Josiah asked instead.

Ezra went still.

"Of course," he answered smoothly. "It's what my sort do." He offered an empty smile. "That's what I did when I left you all at the Seminole village when we met, isn't it?" The smile got colder. "I wouldn't expect anyone of you to risk your necks for mine. It would only be a good way to end up dead."

The soft light flooding in through the wavering, dust-streaked glass of the windows over the neat, calico half-curtains caught in Ezra's left eye, striking through the translucent, pale green iris. After a second, he angled his face away just enough that the illumination no longer caught in his eye.

"So you're just giving up on whatever you could have here?" Josiah demanded.

"Why not? Even Lee surrendered."

Maude drew in a hard breath. "Ezra, don't – "

Ezra turned toward her and murmured softly, "My apologies, Mother. There's no use fightin' a war that's already over, I know." He caught up her hand and held it.

Maude squeezed his hand. "Do you know who has offered the bounty?"

"I've learned a name, but it means nothing to me. We both know one man wealthy enough to hire my death, though."

She paled and looked down at the wedding ring Ezra wore. Ezra looked too then met her gaze. She tightened her grip. "I'm sorry."

"You were right."

They were completely ignoring Josiah, caught up in some past that he would never be privy to.

"You should listen to me more."

Ezra dipped his head, and said, "I'm a grown man, Mother. I know what I want – and what I can have."

Maude brushed her gloved fingertip across the gold band and straightened. "She was no good, Ezra."

"Fool's gold," he agreed, but he looked lost for a moment.

"It's time you moved on," Maude declared.

Ezra nodded, the glint returning to his eyes. "You're right, Mother. That's why I'm not interested in investing in the saloon now."

Maude pursed her lips. "After all the times I've begged you to leave this burg ...."

"You're leaving," Josiah accused.

The gambler turned toward him and said flatly, "I don't wish to be tied to any place currently. It was all just a passing fancy." He shot his cuffs and then folded his pale hands together on the checkered tablecloth before him. "An ... experiment."

Maude's mouth fell open, then her eyes began to sparkle. Josiah felt that sick twinge in his belly again. He was surprised when Maude's face set.

"Don't be foolish, Ezra. You're just saying that to assuage your pride, pretending you don't want something because I took it away from you. I know we can come to an agreement on price. If you don't have the funds in cash, there are always bits of collateral. Mining shares, land deeds."

"I don't think so." Ezra seemed to dismiss the matter. He lifted the lid on the teapot in front of Maude and studied the contents. "This looks rather strong, Mother. I can't imagine you want any more. Why don't I escort you back to the hotel? I'm sure you'll want to refresh yourself there before joining me again this evening."

Maude sighed. "Of course, darlin'. We'll talk some more when you take me to dinner."

Josiah scraped back his chair and stood when Ezra helped Maude to her feet. He dipped his head. "Mighty fine seein' you again, Missus Ashendon. I hope you talk some sense into your boy's head here. – Ezra, you listen to her." He would do everything he could to convince Ezra to buy the saloon from Maude.

This was her peace offering. She had obviously realized that Ezra had found a home in Four Corners and wanted to help him keep his place here. Ezra would never accept the saloon as a gift, nor could Maude ruin her own image by offering it, but the price was a pretense anyone could see through. It warmed Josiah's heart. He would make Ezra see this for the opportunity it was: the chance to make peace with his mother.

Ezra rolled his eyes.

"Oh, Ezra will see things my way sooner or later," Maude asserted lightly. "I am his mother, after all." She threaded her arm through Ezra's and swept out, head held high.

Ezra nodded to Josiah and allowed himself be drawn away.

Josiah sat back down and asked the waitress to fetch him a bowl of beans and cornbread. He needed something to fill his belly and he needed to think.

Ezra wanted to leave. He couldn't let that happen. If any of them left, everything would fall apart. And the bounty ... something had to be done about the bounty. It was bad enough Vin had $500 dollars on his head; they didn't need killers coming after Ezra too. Ezra and Maude knew who had offered it – he would just have to get it out of one of them.

Josiah winced again at the thought. Getting anything out of Ezra that he didn't want to reveal wouldn't be easy. He would try to get his answers from Maude first.

Ezra couldn't leave. Maude's appearance and offer of the saloon was proof his destiny was in Four Corners. Ezra belonged with them. Josiah's redemption depended on Ezra and the other five. It was destiny that brought them all together.

Josiah knew that was superstitious. But since the day the crow that symbolized all his guilt had looked him in the eye and he'd gone to ride with six other unlikely men to save a bunch of transplanted Seminoles from ex-Confederate outlaws, he'd felt it in his heart. They all belonged together; as long as they were, they couldn't be defeated.

He believed in destiny.

7. Peyton's Ford, July 1863

The Minstrel Boy to war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him;

The Minstrel Boy,
Thomas Moore

They let the horses go at an easy pace and took a half-overgrown path instead of the wide, tree-lined road that ran up to Peyton's Ford. Ezra wore his gray Confederate uniform, despite having formally resigned his commission with the artillery after Fredericksburg. Saville wore a gray riding coat and doeskin breeches. Wisps of ground fog still clung low on the grass in the hollows as the dawn burned the mist into incandescent white fire, promising another hot summer day.

The day before had been hot. Sweat slid down Ezra's back under the gray wool uniform as he stood with the Peytons and Meriwethers and Claibornes in the family plot, watching as his brother Raleigh was buried.

He did his best to hold his gaze steady, knowing most of them were wondering why he'd survived, the unwanted bastard, while Raleigh had not. He didn't want to look down, he didn't want to think about his older brother going into the dark, wet soil of the grave. It didn't matter that the body he'd escorted home had been gently washed by loving hands, dressed and laid within that carefully shaped coffin. Ezra had already seen too many bodies, bodies in windfalls and rows, stripped and left swollen and pale on the parched clay of battlefields that once yielded other crops. He knew death like another brother now, the sick reek of it that could not be washed away no matter how many canteens he emptied. Raleigh was dead and death didn't care that he'd been anyone's favorite son. Death was like the hot sun burning the bare back of his neck: it touched everyone.

Death didn't care, but the Peytons did, he understood. Miz Vertilene stood straight and fierce in her mourning black, hot green eyes glaring at him across the grave. She'd never approved of her son giving any place to his bastard. His father and Geraldine stood next to her, eyes locked on their eldest son's coffin. The girls, Flavia, Octavia, and Livia, had stood just behind, eyes red-rimmed from tears. With them was cousin Polly Meriwether. Polly was the only one who would meet his eyes when Ezra arrived escorting Raleigh's body home.

All the other cousins and kinfolk who weren't with Lee's army or in Richmond like his mother flanked them.

Ezra found himself cataloging them, picking out the missing. There beside Geraldine was her sister Eloise and Eloise's husband Hayden Claibourne. The Claibournes were dull as dirt according to his mother. Of course, she'd never forgiven Eloise for introducing her to his father. Cousins Lally, Rolly, and Stephan stood with their parents. Rolly wore Confederate gray just like Ezra did and was on leave from J.E.B. Stuart's command in the Confederate Army of the Potomac.

Just behind Ezra's father were his uncle Gaillard Peyton and Gaillard's son Ned, both in crow-black suits. There was a still new grave next to Gaillard's wife's that held his second son Jonas, killed at Bull Run. Ned and Jonas's brother Birch was gone too, and no one knew if he was alive or not; Birch had enlisted with the Federals. Cousin Delphine was holding Ned's hand and her face was pale. Her brother stared straight ahead, showing no great emotion, as befitted a stoic gentleman.

Who else was gone? Polly's brother Thomas had bought a commission and fallen at the Battle of Fair Oaks, where the Confederate dead lay until Union details pushed them into trenches and buried them so shallowly the rain at night uncovered them again. Thomas had been a kind young man, gawky and freckled and awkward, as though he'd given over his share of attractiveness to his exquisite little sister. Ezra would have traded any of the Claibournes for him.

On Ezra's side of the grave, Uncle Saville stood next to Missus Howard – the only Howard attending. The Howards were like the Standishes, though: they'd rather burn in hell than share the afterlife with the Peytons and Meriwethers. Missus Howard's husband had sold out and fled Fauquier County when she left him for Uncle Saville. Cousin Saville was standing next to him. From the corner of his eye, Ezra could see he was staring straight at Polly. The sun was bright on his unruly blond head.

Saville actually looked more like a Standish than Ezra did, he reflected moodily, more than he looked like a Peyton anyway. Since he wasn't really a Howard, he must have taken after his mama's people. Missus Howard was from Georgia, so no one knew for sure. Not the way everyone knew about Ezra's mother's family.

There was one other not in attendance. Ezra sighed. Brother Quentin, the new heir to Peyton's Ford, was still passed out in his bed, after visiting the slave barracks and drinking corn whiskey all night.

Ezra slid his eyes sidewise, watching the old reverend intoning solemn praise for Raleigh's bravery and virtue. He could almost predict which Bible passages the man would use and silently mouthed them as they were read.

He felt sick to his stomach and light-headed. He locked his knees and refused to let himself sway or waver. When was the last time he'd eaten a real meal, anyway? Days ago, it seemed, just before the wound fever finally stole Raleigh away and he'd had to tie the body to Raleigh's horse and ride hard to reach the Ford before it turned.

He was relieved he'd resigned his commission in order to take Raleigh home, instead of just taking a furlough. He couldn't bear to return to the artillery regiment again. He was an officer, but he didn't want to command anyone. He didn't want to be tied to cannon and limber, sending grapeshot and cannister into the ranks of the enemy, while the battle swirled around him. Artillery was too slow and the effects too horrific for him.

Saville grabbed his elbow and drew him away as the service drew to its conclusion. Ezra let himself be led away from the plot, down the low hill to the house and out back, where beech and oak trees older than their divided nation provided cool shade. He ended up leaning back against the rough bark of an oak's trunk, his eyes closed.

"What are you going to do now, Ezra?" Saville asked.

Ezra didn't open his eyes.

"I don't know," he admitted.

Saville's voice was light and uncertain. "I've been thinking of joining. I'd like to go with you."

Ezra slitted his eyes open. "I'm not going back," he said. He plucked at the gray sleeve on his uniform tunic. "I resigned my commission, you see." He smiled wanly. "I shouldn't even be wearin' this."

Saville sighed and looked back toward the house. The soft sound of muffled, well-bred voices whispered from the parlor and veranda as mourners tendered their regrets to the Peytons. Even in the midst of mourning, there would be young men trying to spark with Polly and the other girls. Ezra leaned his head back, feeling the harsh bark bite against his skull through his hair. It was a tiny discomfort and he almost relished it, because he could end it in an instant. Not like Saville's hopeless devotion to Polly.

He thought he should go inside, just to the kitchen, and get something to eat, but couldn't summon the pluck to face anyone besides Saville. They'd always been close, whenever Maude dropped Ezra back with the Peytons. Both bastards and only tolerated on the fringes of the family, their place made clear from the first. They were to behave as gentlemen, but they never would be.

"Mother's in Richmond," he said, trying out the idea out loud. She wanted him to join her there. They could make their fortunes there, even if the Confederacy failed. Desperate and greedy people made for rich pickings according to her. He supposed she was right, but it sounded very much like war profiteering to Ezra. "She wrote me; she wants me to help her."

He didn't have to explain any more. Saville was the only one who really knew what Maude did. Ezra had explained it all to his cousin while teaching him all the tricks of a riverboat gambler; Saville had wanted to know where he'd learned to play cards like that.

So Ezra had explained about his mother being sent to live with kin in Mississippi to hide her shame until he was born and how she had sent him back to the Peytons and run off with a riverboat gambler. He hadn't even recognized her the first time she swept back into his life, wanting to use him in a con. But she'd taught him all her gambler's tricks and more besides, providing a very different education to the one he'd picked up along with his legitimate brothers. Saville, and only Saville, knew that Maude expected Ezra to always be ready to go with her and help with her latest schemes.

Saville nodded glumly. "Father won't buy me a commission. Mama doesn't want me to go. I suppose I'm stuck here ...."

"At least you can stay," Ezra said morosely. He knew the Peytons blamed him for Raleigh's death, even though he'd done everything he could to get his brother back to Fauquier Country alive. Somehow, they thought sending Ezra to war with him would spare Raleigh; that any wounds would be visited on him. Raleigh wasn't the one who was supposed to die.

Saville just looked miserable.

Ezra levered himself away from the oak, deciding he really did have to eat soon. He knew Hera and Cassiopeia were still in charge of the kitchens. The black cook and the housekeeper would feed him until he burst if he slipped in and asked. He brushed awkwardly at the back of his uniform, trying to knock of any clinging bark.

"Here," Saville said, plucking a bit out of Ezra's hair.

"Thank you."

"We going inside now?"

"One thing I have learned," Ezra said grimly, "is to never waste the opportunity to eat a good meal. You wouldn't like rations, Saville. Abominable stuff, not fit to be called food." When there were rations, he didn't add. Soldiers learned to forage quickly when their supplies ran out.

Saville settled in beside him as he headed for the summer kitchen.

"The partisans quarter with folks all over the county and over in Loudoun, too," Saville commented. "I bet they eat fine."

Ezra stopped and raised an eyebrow at his cousin. "Mosby's partisans?"

Saville's blue eyes sparkled as he nodded. "You could join if you resigned your commission, Ezra. Some boys ride with him that are just on furlough. I know they'd take you, you've got your own horse and gun and you know Fauquier as good or better than anyone else. You were even an officer, that's got to count."

Ezra laughed. "I was an officer by courtesy, Saville." He studied Saville and shook his head. "This is what you've been angling toward since you brought me away, isn't it?"

Saville had the grace to look abashed. "I wouldn't have mentioned it if you had told me you were going back to the regular army, Ezra, really. I'm going to join them. It would just be so much better if you came with me."

Ezra scrubbed his hands over his face and into his hair, disarranging it completely. He felt tired and achy and a million years older than Saville. He might be only sixteen years old, but Fredericksburg had burned the last of his youth out of him. He'd helped rain fire down on the Federals from Marye's Heights, until the slaughter made him kneel and vomit, and then he'd gone back to the cannon and helped load it again.

Saville just didn't know. Ezra had to look away. He didn't know, but once he joined Mosby's rangers, he'd learn the same way Ezra had. For every instant of glory, there were a hundred graves.


John Singleton Mosby already had quite a reputation, not just in the Old Dominion, but all through the South and even in the North. Saville would fit right in with his men and still have a chance to check in on Polly periodically. It wouldn't hurt to watch out for him, though; he could ride along when Saville went to join up, make up his own mind when he met some of the rangers. It sounded better than Richmond.

"When do you want to leave?" he asked.

"Tomorrow morning. I hear Major Mosby is gathering the rangers outside Rectorstown."

Ezra thought of Miz Vertilene and Geraldine's glares and shuddered. One night was about all he could endure of that anyway.
"All right," he said.

Polly was the only one who saw them off in the dim, chilled pre-dawn. She was wrapped in a heavy shawl, with her dark red hair in a long braid as she stood on the porch. Ezra had his saddlebags and bedroll slung over his shoulder and a burlap sack of sandwiches and supplies provided by Cassiopeia in one hand. He kissed her cheek gently before going down the steps.

Saville kissed her cheek as well and whispered something that made Polly blush furiously. Surreptitiously, she slipped something into Saville's hand. Ezra pretended not to see.

"Come home safe," Polly whispered.

"Don't worry, Polly," Saville said confidently. "We'll teach those bluebellies to stay off our land. They'll never catch Maj. Mosby. We'll be fine."

"Ezra?" she called.

Ezra shrugged and smiled at her. "Saville's lucky and I'm smart," he said lightly. "I expect we'll show the Federals a thing or two."

"I'll pray for you both," she said, wrapping her shawl closer around her.

"It's never amiss," he said and headed for the barn. Behind him, Saville and Polly spoke a moment longer, then his cousin rushed to catch up with him.

One of the barn slaves, Herodotus, had Ezra's Peach and Saville's half-Tennessee Walker Shep saddled and waiting. They were almost the only horses left in the barns, except for his father's aging hunter, the plow horses, and a carriage team. All the breeding stock had been sent into the hidden hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains with trusted caretakers, kept out of the hands of either army.

"They's all set to go, Mistah Ezra," Herodotus said, stroking Peach's silky neck fondly.

"Thank you," Ezra said. He tied on his saddlebags and bedroll, then swung into the saddle. He looked down at the close-cropped gray head of the old slave and wondered.

"You know you could probably go north if you wanted to, don't you, Herodotus?" he asked.

Herodotus gave him a sharp, contemptuous look. "Wouldn't be no different there than here," he said. "Not really. I ain't fool enough to think livin' in the North gonna get me treated like a white man there."

Ezra shrugged. "I suppose not," he said. He reined Peach around. " – Saville, you ready?"

Saville mounted. "Indeed, I am, cousin," he said.

"Then let's ride before the heat of the day catches us," Ezra said. He nodded to Herodotus as they clattered away.

They cantered past the hayrick and the empty pastures, jumped a stone fence and skirted a cornfield to reach a narrow path that would take them toward Rectorstown. It crossed a hill that offered them the panorama of Peyton's Ford and much of Fauquier County.

As they topped the hill, he pulled Peach up and looked back to the stone house that had been extended with two white clapboard wings, the fieldstone barn and out buildings, the empty paddocks and the fields that stretched away, rolling and rich with ripening grain. There, where the ground dipped down toward the stream and a line of oaks shaded the hollow, were the slave cabins, hidden from the big house. The thin lines of smoke from their hearths were already faded, the fires smothered as the slaves went to their work.

Ezra stroked Peach's shoulder.

It was as beautiful a picture as Ezra had ever seen. Green and lush and peaceful as far as the eye could see. He prayed that it would never be touched by the war he and Saville were riding off to rejoin.

Saville's horse stirred restlessly, stamping its front hooves as he too paused to look back a last time.

"We'll be back," Saville said confidently.

Ezra wasn't so sure.

"What did Polly give you?" he asked.

Saville smiled. He drew a braided knot of dark red hair from inside his shirt. "A token," he said reverently.

"You need to find something special to keep it in."

"I will."

Ezra looked east one last time then turned Peach away, riding down into a deep, still-shadowed ravine half choked with deerberry, dogwood, hemlock and flowering mountain laurel. The path was narrow and sometimes he had to duck, as branches brushed against his legs and Peach's flanks, leaving streaks of dampness or catching at his hat. Wood sorrel and tickseed, corn-cockles and leather flowers bloomed along the edges of the path, wild and delicate emblems of another summer. Speedwells and ladies-tresses grew farther back in the cool undergrowth, along with solomon's seal and touch-me-nots.

Ezra took a deep breath. This was his home, this land, these valleys and hills and all the people here. He felt alive and happy here. He didn't want to go to Richmond. He wanted to defend this place.

Behind him on the trail, Saville cursed softly as a branch slapped him in the face.

With a laugh, Ezra caught a spray of mountain laurel blossoms and braided them into Peach's light sorrel mane.

Under her hooves, a spotted touch-me-not was crushed, looking like it had just been spattered with fresh blood.

8. Four Corners, 1877

 A gambler's share
 The only risk that you would take
 The only loss you could forsake
 The only bluff you couldn't fake
 Still The Same, Bob Seger

Vin was whistling The Battle Hymn of the Republic as he stepped inside the dim confines of the Saloon. An odd choice for an ex-Reb, he acknowledged, but it had a good tune. He could – almost – play it on his harmonica. Though the other boys would argue that.

He stepped sidewise, an old habit that kept him from being silhouetted in the doorway, and listened to the familiar sounds of the barroom while he waited for his eyes to adapt. Crowded tonight. The volume and tone didn't shift, always a good sign. If everyone in a saloon went quiet or started talking louder, well, that usually meant trouble was looking at you. He had spent enough time as hunter and then hunted that it was automatic to scan the room, checking for threats once he could see. He did it without much thought. Ezra and Chris did it whenever they walked through any door, too. Just like breathing, if you wanted to go on doing that.

A deep breath brought him all the scents of the saloon and one that didn't belong, but that he'd smelled before. Perfume. Vin wrinkled his nose. Damn. What was it Ezra had said that was. Then he remembered. Gardenias.

The perfume would have told him Maude Standish was in the room even if he hadn't spotted her blonde head bent over a hand of cards at Ezra's usual table. He had seen her, of course, smiling and flirting and dealing the cards with her pretty white hands. He thought Ezra was just a little smoother with the cards, maybe because his hands were bigger, but Maude had the patter down. She could fleece a man and have him thanking her for taking the time.

He didn't really want to sit down and lose all his money to the woman, but he figured Ezra could use someone to take his side. Ezra would make snide remarks and even curse her, but Vin had seen through that. Ezra would let Maude walk all over him too, because she was his ma. She wasn't Vin's ma, though, and wouldn't mind warning her off this time.

He signaled Inez with one hand, pointing to Ezra's table, and sidled through the evening crowd. The Saloon had been twice as crowded since Digger Dan's had been wrecked. The hot press of bodies, unwashed and smelling of dust, sweat and horse, had Vin longing to leave before he'd even reached his friends. The barmaid-manageress was there with his mug of beer, though, right behind him, and a long swallow of cool, sharp liquid had Vin relaxing faintly.

Ezra didn't look up from his cards, but a small smile curled his lips and he twitched a shoulder toward the empty chair beside him. "Sit down, Mr. Tanner."

Maude did look up and smiled brightly. She sure was a pretty woman. "Why, hello, Mr. Tanner. Do, please, join us."

Vin nodded and slid into the chair that put him between Ezra and Chris. Opposite them sat Maude, JD, Josiah, and Buck. The only one of their group missing was Nathan. Vin wasn't too surprised. Nathan didn't think highly of gambling and probably didn't want anyone remembering how he'd let Maude Standish represent him as a doctor that time.

"Ma'am," Vin muttered.

JD grinned at him, Josiah rumbled, "Brother Vin," and Buck flapped a hand at him, then returned to stroking his mustache while studying his cards.

Chris eyed his mug of beer and said, "That all you're drinkin'?"


"Hell," Buck said, tossing in a card. "I'll take one. – Might as well get drunk, Vin, then you got an excuse for the way these two – " he nodded at Ezra and Maude, " – are gonna clean you out."

Ezra silently discarded two cards. JD folded. Josiah drew three. Chris and Maude both held pat. Smoke curled up from Chris's cheroot, the sweet scent of the tobacco familiar as leather and gunpowder. Chris was squinting at Maude, the crows' feet at the corners of his eyes deep. She watched him cautiously and a tiny smirk tipped the corner of his thin lipped mouth.

Vin observed a moment more and commented, "Can't get cleaned out iffen I don't play," before swallowing some more beer. He sat back a little. "Figure I'll watch you do the losin'." He slumped a little lower in the hard chair, searching for a position that wouldn't have his back aching all night.

"It's a wise man who knows his own limits," Josiah mused.

From the toothy grin he got every time he looked Maude's way, Vin thought he ought to be paying a bit more attention to his own advice. He gulped down some more beer and watched Buck lose a week's pay, then Josiah match the other three's ante and call.

Maude smiled sweetly as she laid down her hand. "Gentlemen, I believe that beats anything you have," she said.

Josiah dropped his cards with a sigh. Chris nodded and slid his cards together. Maude reached for the pot.

"Not quite, Mother," Ezra drawled. He smiled widely and set down his own cards face up.

Four Kings and a queen. That beat Maude, who glared at the cards like they'd turned into cockroaches.

She smiled, though, and pushed the pot toward Ezra.

"Ezra, you – " Maude stopped

"Just staying sharp, Mother," Ezra said, flashing his gold tooth in smug smile.

Vin's eyes widened as Maude flushed red. Ezra had cheated. Ez only cheated when someone else at the table was cheating too. That meant he'd out-cheated Maude. He'd bet that rankled and she couldn't say a word without admitting what she'd been doing. He glanced around the table. Chris was smirking, so he'd figured it out too. No one else seemed to have picked up on it.

"Maude, are you all right?" Josiah asked solicitously. "You look rather flushed."

Chris choked on his whiskey and Vin hid a grin. Ezra rolled his eyes.

Maude fanned herself with her hand. "It's a bit stuffy in here, Josiah," she said. "That's all."

"Perhaps I could get you a drink."

"A sherry would be lovely," Maude agreed.

"There's red-eye, bourbon, some of my scotch, tequila and beer, Mother," Ezra said. "No sherry. This isn't St. Louis or New Orleans."

"Inez has got some brandy back there too," Buck added.

Maude patted Josiah's arm and ignored Ezra. "A brandy might be quite restorative, Josiah. I would greatly appreciate it."

Josiah looked a bit like a stunned ox as Maude smiled brilliantly at him. He scraped his chair back so fast it almost fell over, then fumbled it back on four feet as he shot to his. "It would – it would be my pleasure," he almost stuttered.

"Dear God, do exert a modicum of restraint, Mother," Ezra muttered after the preacher was out of earshot.

Maude smiled the same smug smile Ezra sometimes did. "Just keeping my skills sharp, darlin'," she said.

"The man is a colleague," Ezra pointed out. "Without any fiscal resources."

"Practice, Ezra."

"Practice on someone else," Chris interrupted harshly.

Maude flinched. "Yes, well, I would never hurt Mr. Sanchez," she said quickly. She reached for the cards and Chris lifted them away from her hands and gave them to Ezra.

"Think we'd do better with a different dealer."

Ezra flashed Chris an unreadable green-eyed glance, but had his poker face on. No telling what he thought about Chris's action. He took the cards, though, and began an almost liquid shuffle.

"Mr. Tanner, are you in?"


"Five card stud, jokers wild?" Ezra asked the rest of the table and received nods. He began dealing.

Maude picked up her cards and remarked, "The Tavern seems to be doing a landmark business. I had no idea when I offered it to you this afternoon, Ezra. Perhaps I should rethink selling it."

"Digger Dan's got tore up bad the other night, so everyone's coming here," JD explained. "Oh, hey, you're going to sell the Saloon back to Ez?"

"Mother has offered me the opportunity to purchase the premises once more," Ezra said. He tossed in his bet. "I've explained I'm no longer interested in saloon-keeping."

Chris's eyebrow went up, but he said nothing. He matched the bet.

"You're just cutting off your nose to spite your face, Ezra," Maude said crossly. She stayed in the game too.

The piano player started something that might have been Greensleeves. Vin wouldn't have sworn it was, though. It could have been Rule Britannia the way Charlie played, even though Ez had imported a piano tuner from Ridge City not long before. Ezra had vowed he would have had to shoot Charlie the next time he started playing if something wasn't done, between the man's ineptitude and the piano's sour notes. Vin had sat outside on the sidewalk and listened after the tuner fellow left. It had still been early, before noon, and the Saloon had been empty except for Ezra and Inez. Ezra had sat down and played something real fine. Real music that had sent a shiver up Vin's spine. He hadn't played anything on the piano since then, though.

"Really, darlin', you shouldn't be so stubborn," Maude went on. She fanned her cards closed and laid them face down on the green baize.

Buck folded with a grimace. "Ain't nothin' I can do with that," he said light-heartedly. He smiled at Maude. "Just how much are ya tryin' to get out of Ez, ma'am?"

"A fair sum, but not usurious," Maude said.

JD tossed in a chip to stay in the game.

"Ezra's got the money," he said innocently. "He won real big at that poker tournament in Eagle Bend, remember?"

"Alas, I invested those funds in restoring my painfully depleted wardrobe, JD," Ezra commented. He stroked the sleeve of his bottle-green velvet jacket fondly. "Maintaining a proper appearance in this backwater is a sore trial."

"Oh, come on, Ez, you won enough to buy – "

"JD," Buck said, clamping one hand onto the back of the kid's neck. "Don't you go makin' the man feel worse, hear me?"

JD twisted and gaped at Buck. "But – "

Buck was smiling but his eyes were serious. "Reckon it costs a pretty penny to kit himself out fancy as a peacock."

Buck probably guessed Ezra had all of the money he'd won in Eagle Bend stashed away somewhere, but Buck respected that Ezra didn't mean to hand it over to Maude. She'd be more likely to let the whole matter go if she didn't think he had any money.

"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington, indeed," Ezra said imperturbably.

JD's mouth gaped open another instant, then he snapped it shut.

"Cards?" Ezra inquired.

"Two," Chris said.

Ezra dealt.

"Two, darlin'," Maude said as well.

JD discarded three cards, muttering, "Gimme three."

"Dealer takes one," Ezra commented and checked his new card.

"Ezra, dear, I know you've become attached to this – " Maude seemed to struggle for a suitably contemptuous word that wouldn't insult the men at the table with her and failed, finally stalling over, " – burg. As your mother, of course, I want you to be happy. I've come to realize that staying here and running a – a saloon seems to be what you want. I regret my previous efforts to remove you."

"Really, Mother?" Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Ten dollars."

Chris tossed in two five dollar gold pieces.

"Don't act like that's so unbelievable," Maude snapped.

"Only because it is."


"Are you in or out, Mother?'

Vin hid another grin behind his beer mug.

"In," she declared, matching the bet and adding another five dollars.

JD folded. "I've got to pay Yosemite for re-shoeing Dusty."

Ezra raised the ante another five dollars, Chris matched and Maude smiled and did so too.

Josiah arrived back at the table carrying a balloon glass a quarter filled with brandy. Ezra raised an eyebrow at the preacher, who looked faintly abashed. "Inez gave me the spare key to your room," Josiah explained.

"Along permission to help yourself to my belongings?" Ezra asked frigidly.

Josiah handed the glass to Maude, who sniffed daintily then swallowed some of the brandy. "Didn't reckon you'd object to sharing with your own mother, son."

Vin shook his head.

"I'm a bastard, Mr. Sanchez, but I assure you mother made it clear who my father was," Ezra snapped. "You are not he."

Maude flinched. The others looked discomforted as well. Ezra was usually a little more tolerant of Josiah's paternal leanings. But Maude brought out the worst in him sometimes. Vin figured she stirred up stuff Ezra would rather forget.

"That was uncalled for, Ezra," Josiah said.

Ezra had his hackles up, though, and said in clipped tones, "Did we not have this conversation this afternoon?"

The brusque question visibly rocked Josiah. The big man sat down with a wince-making thump. Vin expected his chair to creak and split, but it held.

Ezra flicked his hand toward the pot. "I stand."

Chris nodded.

Maude pressed her lips together and laid out her cards. Two queens, two tens, and an ace.

"Mr. Larabee?'

"Kings over jacks," Chris said, displaying his cards.

Ezra nodded, completely unsurprised. Bastard probably stacked the deck. "The pot is yours, Mr. Larabee." He didn't bother showing his own hand.

Maude started in on Ezra a little later, working on him and trying to use the other men at the table to support her arguments. Vin had another beer and Ezra had Inez bring over his private bottle of Scotch. He tipped a measure into Chris and Buck's glasses in an uncommon bout of generosity and raised an eyebrow at Vin, holding the bottle. Vin shook his head. He'd stick with his beer and keep a clear head. JD preferred to stay with beer too and shook his head when Ezra offered some of the bottle to him. Josiah, Ezra ignored.

Sipping the glowing liquor from a heavy shot glass, Ezra shuffled one-handed and listened to his mother.

"Two thousand dollars, Ezra."

Buck opened his mouth, then shut it. Vin suppressed his own reaction. Two thousand for the Saloon was more than a good deal. It was too easy, too sweet. He was glad Buck hadn't said anything.

"That's more than fair, Ezra," Maude complained. "Honestly, it's robbery."

Ezra slapped the deck of cards down.

"Oh, I wouldn't want to rob you, Mother."

Maude narrowed her eyes. "Are you still sulking over what happened in Baltimore?"

"Recent occurrences have naturally brought the incident to the forefront of my mind," Ezra replied.

"It was for your own good."

Ezra shrugged. "Of course. I'd said I wished to sail to China many, many times," he drawled sarcastically. "In manacles."

"You weren't in manacles!" Maude exclaimed.

He sipped his Scotch and said, "I don't recall you being on board."

Everyone was staring at Maude now. She looked around for a sympathetic face and found none, not even Josiah's.

"Maude?" the big man rumbled.

"It's – it's water under the bridge," she said weakly. "Besides, Ezra could have picked the locks."

Ezra stared at his mother a beat, then chuckled. "It was a useful lesson."

"You sailed to China, Ez?" JD asked.

"No, the ship never made it that far," Ezra answered. His lips thinned. "We were boarded and brought in as prize to an island north of Jakarta." He rubbed his wedding ring again.

Vin had caught Ezra doing that sometimes, when the subject of the past came up. Despite undeniably curiosity, he'd never been foolish enough to ask Ezra about it.

"I wagered the last thing I had of any value and won enough to eventually make my way back to Baltimore from there."

Vin would never ask about the ring. Some things were so bad a man would kill rather than talk about them. Chris had once threatened to cut Buck's throat for talking about his dead wife and son. He didn't think Ezra would get that wild, but pushing for something that private would be plain cruel. He'd never tell anyone about the day the Army attacked the Comanche village and killed everyone there but him, or what it had been like his first year back in the white world. Better to be like the wild things, to live in the moment and the next and let the past crumble into dust.

"You've always been clever, Ezra," Maude said. She sounded genuinely proud and not the least ashamed that she'd somehow sent her son into danger. "Now, stop this foolish game-playing and take my offer. I won't go a cent below two thousand, but if you're short of cash I'll accept the shares you have in the Allegheny Railroad Spur or the deed to the farm at Bell Hill."

Ezra walked a card over and through his fingers. "Both gone."

"You lost Bell Hill?" Maude asked. Genuine emotion flashed over her features, pain, shock, anger, and regret. Then her poker face, complete with coy smile, was back in place. "Tut, tut, Ezra, haven't I taught you better than to wager more than you afford to lose?"

"Indeed you have, but Bell Hill was never important to me. I sold it for funds to travel West. I needed a good horse and a stake." He added dryly, "I sold it to your cousin Matthew, so it's still in the family, Mother, though neither of us are welcome there."

"Well," she murmured. Her fingers twitched and clenched, reaching for a phantom deck of cards. She adjusted a blond ringlet at her temple. "They're such dull people, Ezra, why would we want to visit?" She smiled and dismissed the past effortlessly. "What about the land deed you won in Virginia City, darlin'? You wrote me from Fort Laramie that you'd done well there before moving on. Surely you still have that?"

Ezra cocked his head. "A stretch of useless dirt somewhere called Stairstep Canyon." He tapped his forefinger against the deck of cards. "Utterly worthless. There's no ore there, Mother," he said. "I had it checked."

"Then you should be happy to trade it to me for your Saloon," Maude said promptly.

"No, Mother, I wouldn't," Ezra replied. "I told you I've decided to move on." He picked up the deck, shuffled it quickly one more time and began dealing another hand to everyone, ignoring the shocked silence and stares.

Josiah didn't look surprised. Disappointed and angry, but Vin guessed he'd heard the news already.

Buck reached over and used one finger on JD's chin to close his faintly open mouth. "You're gonna catch flies that way, boy."

"But, Buck," JD protested immediately, "Ezra can't leave!" He swung back to Ezra and ignored the cards dealt onto the table before him. "You can't go. It's because of Nathan, isn't it? You just can't leave, Ez, you belong here with us. Who will watch your back if you go?"

"Your solicitude is touching, Mr. Dunne, but I shall simply endeavor to guard my own person as I have always done." Ezra's dry tone softened and he added, "I know you can rely on the rest of your friends to secure your own safety in any contretemps that ensue in the aftermath of my departure. My presence has always been somewhat superfluous."

"Super what?" Buck whispered to Chris.

The man in black removed the cheroot stub from his mouth and stubbed it out in his empty shot glass. "Extra," he explained.

"That ain't right," Buck concluded.

"This is about Nate," JD insisted. "Ez, you know last night was – was just – well, it wasn't no reason to just up and leave all of us."

"Last night was a reminder that Mr. Jackson finds my very existence on this earth nearly intolerable, Mr. Dunne."

"Nate been giving you trouble, Ezra?" Chris asked quietly.

"No more than I expect."

Maude was listening quiet as a mouse. Josiah just glowered and poured himself a whiskey. Buck looked thoughtful.

"You plannin' on tellin' me you was goin'?"

"Of course, Mr. Larabee." Ezra's gold tooth flashed as he smiled widely at Chris. "I know you would track me down like a rabid dog if you thought I'd run out on you. I intend to take my own leave once Mother quits our present locale. Perhaps by the end of the week."

Chris stirred at the cheroot's butt with his forefinger. "I see."

"Do you, Mr. Larabee?"

"Can't hold you or any of the others here if you want to go," Chris said. A sardonic smile twisted his lips briefly. "I've been ready to move on a few times myself. Reckon I can understand."

"Yes," Ezra agreed. He smiled at Vin and said, "Of course, there is also the matter of the bounty placed on me. Mr. Tanner's life could be endangered by my proximity in the circumstances."

"Ez," Vin said softly, "you know that don't make no difference to me. A few more bounty hunters don't bother me none, not when it's a friend's skin on the line."

"I never thought for one moment that it did, Mr. Tanner."

Vin caught Ezra's eyes and wouldn't let him look away. "Just don't want ya goin' 'cause of me."

Ezra drew in a harsh breath and nodded. Vin sat back, satisfied.

"I don't want you to go," JD said.

"Thank you, JD," Ezra replied. He picked up his cards. "Shall we play, gentlemen? Mother?"

Buck swallowed the last of the Scotch Ezra had poured for him. "Reckon I'm goin' to miss ya and your good liquor, Ez. And all them fancified words of yours. I ain't never known no one slicker'n you."

Ezra's dimple flashed. "I take that as a compliment, Mr. Wilmington."

"Hell, I knew ya would."

Maude stared at him. "You are serious, aren't you?"

"Quite serious," Ezra agreed.

She took a deep breath. "That puts a different light on things. Will you come back to St. Louis with me? There are opportunities there, darlin' ...." Her brazen delight in the prospect of filching a fortune was almost charming.

Vin shook his head. The woman had no more morals than a magpie.

Ezra shrugged. "I don't think so. I'm sure you can manage to lighten a few pockets without me."

"Well, of course, I can. I merely hoped you might want to help your mother."

"I'm an ungrateful son, Mother, as you've often told me."

They played out the rest of the hand and Ezra won, but the evening had turned sour as a crabapple. Josiah kept drinking steadily and finally lurched to his feet and left without a word.

"Hope he makes it back to the church," Buck observed. He shoved his own chair back and stood. "I better make rounds. I can check on 'siah on my way." He found his hat and smiled at Maude. "Ma'am, it's been a mighty pleasure just to sit and admire your loveliness."

"Mr. Wilmington, you are always a charmer."

"'Night, boys," Buck said to the rest of them and started away.

JD set his cards down and said, "I think I'll call it quits." He got up with a nod toward Maude and raised his voice over the hubbub in the rest of the bar. "Hold up, Buck."

Maude looked at the three men left at the table with her and clearly decided it wasn't worth the trouble to stay and play any longer. Ezra wasn't letting her cheat, Chris could scare her off her game, and Vin wouldn't play. "Mr. Dunne, would you be a gentleman and escort me back to my hotel along your way?" Maude asked JD.

JD looked a little surprised, but nodded. "Sure, Mrs. Standish." He offered her his hand as she came to her feet.

"It's Ashendon, dear," Maude corrected.


"Don't worry about it," Maude said and patted his arm. She glanced back at Ezra. "Don't gamble too long, darlin', you're looking quite peaked tonight."

"Good night, Mother," Ezra said.

With JD on one side and Buck on the other, Maude cut a swath through the crowded bar to the doors. They passed Nathan coming in and Maude greeted him amiably. Vin shook his head. Why Nathan didn't get his back up around Maude but couldn't tolerate Ezra was a mystery.

Nathan wended his way toward their table. Vin sensed the instant Ezra noticed his approach. The gambler went tense and quickly brushed his hands over his coat sleeves and straightened his cuffs. Bad sign. Ezra wasn't half the dandy he made out and only really fussed with his coats when he was feeling threatened. Vin had finally figured it out. All that messing with his clothes covered up Ezra checking the fit and readiness of his hidden derringer and the rest of his dirty tricks. Ezra brushing his coat-sleeves was just like Chris resting his hand on the handles of his Colts.

Ezra poured himself another shot of Scotch and knocked it back as Nathan arrived.

"Chris, Vin," Nathan greeted them and took the seat Maude had been using.

Vin gave him a small nod. Chris just turned the empty shot glass with the black stub of his cheroot before him. His eyes were glittering the way they did when he was pissed but keeping it under control.

Nathan didn't say anything to Ezra and Ezra watched him silently. Not fearfully, but still the way a man watches an enemy. It wasn't that smiling, I'm-too-pleased-with-myself-to-be-bothered-by-anything-anyone-says way that Ezra had always affected around Nathan. It was dark and just as hostile as Nathan often was. Vin filed away the thought that Ezra had finally reached his limits. He really needed to find out what had happened from JD.

"Nathan," Chris drawled slowly.

"I see that woman's back in town," Nathan said, oblivious to the currents in the air. "Guess we better make sure her and Standish don't take the town for everything in the bank."

"I ain't worried about Maude," Chris said. He flicked the cheroot butt gently with one finger, then succeeded in flipping it out of the glass and over the edge of the table. That done, he drew another one from inside his shirt pocket, shaved off the end with a knife, and carefully lit it. The first long breath he exhaled in twin streams aimed right at Nathan. "Looks like she's getting what she wanted since the first time she showed up here."

Nathan waved the smoke away from his face with a big hand, looking irritated. "Them things is nasty, Chris, don't be sending their smoke at me," he complained.

Ezra snorted indelicately and slumped down in his chair. He had the deck of cards in his left hand again, dancing them through his fingers the way a priest would finger his beads. His other hand, the one with the derringer strapped to rig under his sleeve, lay on the green baize. Coincidentally pointed toward Nathan Jackson.

"You don't like it?" Chris snapped. "You know where the door is."

Nathan frowned. "What're you talkin' about?"

"Don't bother, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled. His accent was thicker than Vin had ever heard it. Nathan's head whipped around so the ex-slave could stare at him. He pushed the Scotch bottle sidewise to stop in front of Chris.

"While I applaud your effort to keep the peace, the time for palliating matters between Mr. Jackson and myself has passed. Our basic disagreements are moot in the circumstances and addressing them in your usual intimidating manner can only lead to further bad feelings on Mr. Jackson's part." His lip curled as he looked at Nathan. "Perhaps you should share the good news with him, instead. Just don't share my Scotch."

Nathan's hand clenched into a fist. "Ezra, ya sonova – "

Ezra gave him a dead-eyed look and said tonelessly, "Considering that my mother just left this establishment, you should choose your words with care, Mr. Jackson, or suffer the consequences."

"Stop," Chris snapped.

"He don't get to threaten me, goddamnit!" Nathan yelled, leaning forward.

"Shut up, right now, Nathan," Chris said, low and sibilant as a snake ready to strike.

Vin scraped his chair back and got ready to grab Ezra's arm if he popped the derringer out.

Nathan shivered, then clamped down on his temper and sat back in his chair. "Fine. You want to take his part, that's fine."

"Ain't no part to take," Vin rasped out, surprised by the temper coiling inside him, too. "No one's gonna disrespect my mama's name 'fore me and I reckon Ez feels the same."

"The man bad-mouths his mother all the time," Nathan objected.

"Mebbe, and mebbe he's got his reasons, but that don't mean anyone else can," Vin said slowly. "They're family. You ain't." To him, that was all that needed to be explained.

Ezra gazed at Nathan and ignored Chris and Vin. "I told you last night I was done with suffering your attacks on me," he said. "Try to bear that in your mind or you will find yourself unpleasantly surprised, sir. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Nathan gritted out.

Ezra nodded and turned to Chris. "Mr. Larabee, there are a few matters I would like to discuss with you before I take my leave. If you would join me in my rooms upstairs?" He glanced at Nathan. "I find I've lost my enthusiasm for gambling or drinking tonight."

Chris raised an eyebrow, but just shoved his chair back and got up. "Sure, Ezra. Got a few things I'd like to say to you too." He picked up the Scotch bottle and followed Ezra to the back stairs that led to the rooms for rent above the Saloon.

"Keep an eye out," Chris instructed Vin.

"Always do, cowboy."

"G'night, Ez," Vin called as the two men left.

"Good evening, Mr. Tanner."

Vin rocked his chair further back and looked at Nathan closely. The other man was still seething with anger. Nate spent a lot of his time angry, Vin thought. He spent a lot of time telling folks how they ought to be living their lives, too. It sure got tiresome after a while. He still liked the man, though. Vin had never met anyone so driven to help folks – even if they didn't want helping. If he hadn't been born a slave, Nathan would have made fine doctor because he did have the healing touch. Most of the time, he didn't seem real bitter about his past, even after learning how his mama died a while back. Nate didn't seem bitter around him, Vin corrected himself. But then, Nathan had always been real grateful to Vin and Chris for saving him from that hanging party. Maybe Nate didn't show the same face to everyone else.

"Hope you're happy, Nate," Vin said at last.

"I don't know why we put up with that weasel," Nathan complained. "Damn gambler."

"Won't be puttin' up with him much longer."

"Good." Nathan frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Soon as Maude finishes her visit, Ezra's movin' on." Vin picked up the abandoned deck of cards and began flipping them face up. They caught on his callouses and wanted to slip and slide away from his fingers. He kept going until he found the one he wanted, the ace of spades, Ezra's signature card, and then tucked it inside his coat pocket. "She offered to sell him the Saloon."

Nathan's mouth had dropped open.

"He ain't gonna to take it?"


"Thought owning this place was the man's dream."

Gamblers didn't stick in one place long, weren't welcome or ran out of marks, and packed up to hit the next town. Orphans and bastards learned that getting and keeping things wasn't for them, and once something was gone, there was no use shedding tears over it. Vin figured Ezra was good at moving on, just the way he was.

Maybe the man had the right idea. He'd been feeling mighty restless lately too. Tired of this place and most all of the folks he saw everyday, except Chris and Ez and the rest of the boys. He'd never liked feeling hemmed in. A man like him was a fool to stay in one place too long.

Vin finished his beer. "Was." He nodded at Nathan and got up. "I'm goin' to get some air."

He paid his tab on the way out, grumbling when Inez told him Buck had stuck him with his tab again, too. He stepped outside and pulled in a deep breath of cool night air laced with stovepipe smoke.

He raised his hands over his head and stretched as hard as he could, straightening his damned curved spine as far as it would go. Time to take a walk, before he crawled in the back of his old freight wagon and the bedroll there.

A faint flicker of candlelight lit the single stained-glass window on the church. Josiah was praying again. Vin shook his head. It wasn't going to work this time.

He strolled down the sidewalk, enjoying the stillness of the empty streets, then ducked his head into the jail. Buck had his chair tipped back against the wall, his boots on the desk, and was snoring fit to stampede a herd of buffalo. Vin grinned. One scuff of his boot and Buck would be wide awake, aiming a sawed-off shotgun at his head. He slipped back without disturbing the man, walking the quiet way his Comanche mentors had taught him.

There were lights still on at the Ritz hotel. Vin didn't know which room Maude was in, but she was probably still awake. Figured she'd be a night owl like Ezra, though she probably didn't shoot holes in the doorjamb when someone woke her up in the morning, though.

He wondered what she was really up to this time. Selling Ezra the Saloon, well that sounded right fine, but she wouldn't do it without making a profit. They'd have to keep an eye out until she left.

He halted abruptly as he stepped into the alley behind the livery where he had his wagon.

They probably wouldn't see Maude in Four Corners again. Ezra was all that had ever brought her to the town and when she left, Ez was going too.

Vin rubbed his chest, feeling unaccountably empty.

"Should've ate another piece of pie at supper," he told himself.

It wasn't anything more than that. He wasn't going to get sentimental over a fancy-dressed gambler. He wasn't going to lose any sleep over him, either. That hollow, achy feeling was probably just indigestion. He swung up into the back of the wagon, under the heavy canvas cover, and shed his clothes in the dark, then crawled into his bedroll. He pulled his sawed-off Winchester mare's leg under the buffalo robe cover with him before he went to sleep. His dreams were of a trapped, green-eyed Coyote spirit and Josiah's crows.

He crawled out of his bedroll the next morning, shivering and bleary eyed, cursing the way his buckskin pants had gone stiff with cold and damp overnight as they hung up on his faded long johns. The pre-dawn hour held just enough light for him to fumble around and find his boots. Little puffs of steam formed with each cursing breath. Damn, living in town had made him soft. Back when he lived with the tribe, he'd have wrapped a buffalo robe around him and padded out to the fire without anything else on and never felt the chill. Of course, he'd been no more than a tyke back then and he remembered some of the older bucks hadn't been so fond of the cold either.

Lord, he needed coffee. Something stronger than tar and hot to melt the cold out of his aching bones. He was going to be like one of those old men in front of the feedstore, playing checkers with palsied, swollen hands, half crippled with the arthritis at this rate.

Vin slipped out of his wagon, pulled on his old boat and shook his head at that last thought. Hell, he knew better than to think he was going to live to be an old man. Not with a price on his head and a peacekeeper's job. He'd always figured he'd die young and hadn't let it bother him. There'd never been anyone to care much either way, so he'd gone his own way until he ended up in Four Corners working with six other loners.

He'd gotten kind of used to having friends. He sure didn't appreciate Nathan messing all that up. He was going to miss Ezra something awful. It just didn't set right.

He headed for the restaurant, meaning to get that coffee before he got Peso out of the livery and rode out.

Stepping up onto the boardwalk, he spotted something that brought him to a halt. There in front of the livery, where Nathan had his little clinic up above, were Nathan and Maude Standish. Nathan had his head bobbing and Maude was talking fast.

Vin narrowed his eyes and shivered again.

He didn't like that. He didn't like it at all.

9. Four Corners, 1877

Believe me when I say
I'm gonna come back for you some day

Believe me when I say

The flame will never die.

The Flame Will Never Die
, Sonny Landreth and Beausoliel

Morning found Ezra facing his mother again, bleary-eyed and almost wishing that just for once he hadn't deliberately aimed high when someone came hammering at his door. Maude looked like she'd been up for hours, which was unsettling, since by preference she didn't rise any earlier than Ezra did.

"Darlin', are you feelin' ill?" Maude asked. "Look at you, you haven't even shaved yet."

Ezra leaned against the doorway, effectively blocking Maude from pushing into his room from the hall. He'd thrashed his way out of his warm, soft feather bed, pulled on trousers and a shirt and made it to the door, still holding his Richards Conversation in one hand. He wiped at his face with his free hand.

"I don't generally shave myself in my sleep," he said.

"You shouldn't sleep so late -"

Ezra wanted to ask her if she thought she was fooling him with the surreal maternal act. Waking up a little more, he decided she didn't and was playing to whoever might over hear their little hallway spat.

"Mother," he interrupted. "I am awake now, so what brings you to my door before noon?"

She drew herself up and sniffed.

"I thought we might have breakfast together. We could discuss the sale of the Saloon. Or you could tell me where you mean to go when you leave here, if you really mean to," she said.

Ezra sighed. "We certainly aren't going to discuss selling the Saloon, because I have no intention of purchasing it, not if you offered it to me for a dollar and a kiss. Considering who is offering that bounty for my head, in this case, you'll have to forgive me if I hesitate to tell you where I'm going. Once burned, twice shy, after all."

Maude drew in a harsh breath and placed her gloved hand over her breast. "Ezra P. Standish, how dare you! I did you a favor – !"

"I can live without your favors, Mother," Ezra snapped. "In fact, I'd prefer to."

Maude slapped him.

"You'd be dead if I hadn't got you out of Baltimore."

"Yes, and you'd have been considerably poorer," he snapped back. He ignored the stinging heat in his cheek. He narrowed his eyes. "I remember the letter you left for me word for word."

He could. He could picture the paper with the clarity of the instant he first beheld it.

My dearest son,

As you are reading this, the ship you are on board is sailing for the distant land of China. Ezra, I do advise you not to try to disembark at any port before arriving there, for the captain and his crew have been quite generously recompensed to ensure that you remain their passenger until then. I fear they might employ rather stringent methods were you to attempt any escape. You are a clever boy and I am sure that you feel you could make your way to Baltimore and your inamorata again, even without funds or proper attire, but it would be for naught.

Lorena has returned to her father's domicile.

When I realized that Lorena was the daughter of William Godwin, I felt it was my God-given duty to reassure him that his daughter was safe and well cared for as your bride, despite the circumstances of your elopement. Of course, I knew he would wish to retrieve her and so I did offer to exchange your whereabouts for a trifling sum, since Mr. Godwin is a man of remarkable means.

Mr. Godwin has such great plans for his daughter, Ezra, plans that do not include marriage to you. I'm afraid your removal became essential. As I understood that your infatuation with Lorena would certainly mean that you would fight any annulment, I accepted William's generous offer to aid in your separation. I am sure that once you have recovered from this ridiculous conceit that you are are in love with the girl, you will see that I was merely looking after your best interests.

Ezra, I do believe that William Godwin would not hesitate to have seen his daughter made a widow if he could not see your marriage to Lorena undone. He made his intentions abundantly clear when we met. You will be safe once your ship puts to sea, however, and William, assured of your absence, has been remarkably generous. I know that you will be reassured to realize that your abandonment of our previous endeavor in Baltimore has not left me financially undone, thanks to the finder's fee I persuaded the dear man to part with, along with the funds he provided to arrange your journey to China.

We will not see each other soon, but I know that in time you will come to appreciate the measures I have taken in this matter.

Your devoted mother,
Maude Standish

He had come to onboard that ship, sick with whatever she'd used to drug him, sicker at heart as he realized what had happened. He had memorized that letter. The clipper's cramped cabin held nothing else to distract his mind as it sailed south for Cape Horn. Each time he'd read it, he'd felt sicker. He couldn't find any way out of the trap his mother had snapped closed on him. God, he'd ached, thinking of Lorena. Did she know he hadn't left her willingly? Was she waiting for him? He had stared out the porthole at the gray, heaving swells each day, damning Maude with all his soul and believing with all his heart that Lorena would still love him when he returned to her.

He'd dreamed of Lorena. She had had tiny hands, soft as the petal of a white rose. He'd felt like a champion when he had slipped the wedding ring onto her finger. She'd insisted he wear a ring too. The plain gold band had symbolized everything to Ezra. He kept it on his finger still, his last tangible reminder of his short-lived marriage and ultimate disillusionment. Each time he touched it, he remembered.

Maude's letter grew had grown tattered at the edges, worn along the folds, stained from his fingers. Yet he couldn't leave it alone. He'd survived the War, when everyone, except for Maude, who mattered to him had died or disappeared. It was his last tangible connection to her. Her crass choice to use him for her profit once more hadn't really surprised him, but it had cut, cut deep. Each time he'd opened the letter and read it again, the pain had stabbed deeper.

He'd kept that letter with him through a pirate raid on the Java Sea. He'd carried it next to his skin and gambled his wedding ring for enough money to pay for berth on a ship sailing for Hawaii and won. If his wedding ring was a talisman of faith, then Maude's letter was a burning brand, a goad urging him to find his way back to Baltimore, and not just as penniless fool.

He'd worked and schemed hard, taken outrageous chances and clever gambles. He'd won a cargo of silks in Hawaii, parlayed it into a fortune in San Francisco and every night he read his mother's letter.

But he hadn't learned its ultimate lesson until he saw Lorena again. That was when he had finally lost Maude's letter. Among other things.

Maude raised her chin defiantly.

"I won't apologize."

"You never have," he said darkly and closed his door in her face.

He leaned back against the door and let his head hang for a moment. Anger and betrayal weren't emotions he cared to relive. He'd trusted in love and paid the price, not once but twice. He'd sworn he wouldn't repeat his mistakes.

"Ezra!" Maude shouted. "Ezra!"

"You're making a scene, Mother," he muttered under his breath.

He fumbled behind him and shot the bolt that would keep her out. Through the door he heard her stamp her heel in frustration before leaving. Then he walked to the bed and sat down on the edge. The mattress sank obligingly under his weight. Ezra set the Richards Conversion on the foot of the bed and dropped his face into his hands.

It was all coming back. All the memories he'd locked away when his last dream fractured into dust. It had taken almost two years to make it back to Baltimore with a small fortune and ownership of Bell Hill, sure Lorena would be waiting and they would spend the rest of their lives together. Almost two years, but two months would have been too long; only two months had passed before Lorena had accepted the annulment of their marriage, followed her father's wishes, married another man. She hadn't recognized Ezra when he saw her on a Baltimore street. She hadn't remembered him until he spoke to her.

Some last, hopeful part of him had died inside then.

It was Maude who brought him to Baltimore after the war. He'd been too worn and tired to object to her plans. She'd been the only family he had left by then. He felt nothing for the girl he was supposed to seduce, it was Lorena Godwin who fired his heart; she was everything his younger self had desired when he first saw her. He hadn't been fool enough even then to dismiss her father's fortune, but it had been Lorena, her porcelain blond prettiness and innocence, that had captured his heart. Despite all he'd already seen, he'd believed in love, in the sweet infatuation and dizzy desire he felt in her presence.

He'd walked away from Lorena – lost to him now forever – found a drink and a game and another one, until he woke broke in a gutter, sick and bitter, weeks later. All that had been left was Bell Hill. He'd sold it and never looked back.

He'd encountered his mother in Philadelphia later, fleecing a businessman Ezra was gambling against. He'd fallen into the old pattern of running cons with her and they'd spent six months together, ranging from Savannah to Louisville to New Orleans. They'd worked together until things went wrong in Vicksburg. Maude had made off with what remained of the money he'd brought from San Francisco and Ezra had gone back to gambling, working his way west with the vague intention of re-establishing himself in San Francisco. He hadn't cared about anyone or anything in those days, not even himself, hadn't allowed anything except his horse to matter, until the day he found himself in Four Corners and met Chris Larabee.

He lifted his head and caught a glimpse of himself in the oval mirror mounted on the dressing table. The dim light seeping past the closed curtains caught his shadowed reflection in the wavery glass. Ezra almost laughed. Small wonder his mother had been unhappy with his appearance. His hair was sticking up, he did need a shave, and there was a crease from his pillow incised in his cheek. The shirt he'd pulled on, without buttoning or even slipping the tails inside his trousers was – he plucked at one cuff to be sure and chuckled – inside out.

Well, he wasn't going to get any more sleep. He slipped off the reversed shirt and padded over the chilly floor to the window. He opened the curtains enough to light the room then went to his washstand, pouring water from the pitcher into its matching basin to start his morning ablutions.

Preferring not to meet up with Maude again he slipped down the back stairs and through Inez' kitchen and headed for the livery. He would pay Tiny for replacing his cinch and take Hazard out. The chestnut needed to stretch his legs. Ezra just wanted to get away for a while.

Halfway down to the livery, a feminine shriek split the air from behind Mrs. Potter's building.

Ezra froze, listening as Mrs. Potter's normally soft voice echoed up the alley.

"Get out, get out, get out! Stop it! Horrible, destructive monster! Do I have to get my husband's shotgun – !"

That was it. Trouble. He sprinted down the alley.

"Leave that alone! No! Get, get. Get out!" Mrs. Potter cried.

Ezra drew his Remington and rounded the corner cautiously, searching for Mrs. Potter and whoever was assaulting her.

Ezra peered over the fence around the Potter's vegetable garden, noting that the wire and stick gate at back had been pushed open and down. Then he spotted the villain in all its four-footed anti-glory. With a noiseless laugh he took his finger off the trigger and eased his gun back into its holster.

A wet snort and the thump of hooves accompanied Gloria Potter's furious, "Stupid, stupid beast!" as Conklin's new milk cow – a raw-boned brindle creature with too much Brahma blood to stay behind any fence – continued destroying the tiny garden.

The normally soft-voiced and matronly lady was flushed scarlet, her hair half out of its bun, clutching a straw broom.

Ezra slipped into the garden and joined the lady, carefully side stepping several platter-sized, runny, greenish-black cow patties.

Conklin's cow bellowed, startling both of them. Mrs. Potter waved the broom threateningly.

"My dear Mrs. Potter," Ezra said, coming to stop beside her, "I feared you had been beset by some nefarious individuals."

"I've been beset by this – this – this creature," she exclaimed furiously. Catching a glint of humor in Ezra's green eyes, Mrs. Potter drew herself up and patted at the fly-away wisps of hair waving about her flushed face. "It's just infuriating. That horrible little man won't keep his cow from getting out and rampaging through half the gardens in town."

"Intolerable," Ezra agreed.

Conklin despised Ezra and Ezra returned the bookkeeper's opinion in kind. Not that Conklin held any of the Seven in high regard. He'd done his utmost to see them ousted from Four Corners.

Conklin's cow dipped its head and tore off the top of a plant and began chewing. Ezra blinked. Something white was looped over the animal's left horn.

"Three nights now, Mr. Standish," Mrs. Potter said. "Three nights, it's got into my garden and just ...," she sniffed, "just wrecked everything." She waved the broom. "And now look what it's done."

"Got in someone's laundry, apparently," Ezra observed. That appeared to be lace along the edge of the bit of white unmentionables caught on the cow's left horn. "I assume you've spoken with Mr. Conklin over this matter?"

"That – that abysmal little toad," Mrs. Potter muttered. "He won't do anything. He threatened to have Sheriff Dunne arrest me if anything happens to his cow."

"That seems a trifle out of proportion over a milk cow," Ezra noted dryly.

"That's not a milk cow," Gloria Potter grumbled, glaring at the flop-eared beast standing in the middle of her carrot patch, a pair of silken lady's bloomers draped over one horn. "It's a Spawn of Satan."

Ezra looked at the animal and agreed. It stared back and snorted green slobber at him, making him step back. Mrs. Potter shoved the sharp bristle ends of her broom in the cow's face.

Between the two of them they shooed the recalcitrant animal out of the remains of the garden. Ezra helped restore the fence and gate, grimacing when a strand of barbed wire caught his coat sleeve and tore through it, his shirt and into his arm. Mrs. Potter noticed and insisted on taking him inside where she washed out the puncture and offered to sew up his coat.

Ezra was thinking about Conklin's cow and what to do about it. It was a pleasant distraction from his own troubles. One last chivalrous deed done before he left Four Corners forever. Tempting as it was to simply shoot the beast, Ezra knew that wouldn't serve. He wished to leave Mrs. Potter with less trouble, not more, and Horace Conklin would blame her if someone were to kill it.

He left Mrs. Potter and finished his journey to the livery, saddled Hazard and rode out of town, still considering the problem of Conklin's cow. Something needed to be done. Possibly, he needed to enlist Vin. Vin had a taste for practical jokes and knew how to keep a confidence.

Even while he rode he kept a wary eye out, alert for any dangers, more so than usual. Thankfully, the outing was uninterrupted.

Conklin would need to be the one who did in the belligerent bovine, he decided. Something would have to be arranged to enrage the little townsman so far that he lost his temper and acted impulsively. Ezra grinned as he thought about it. He was sure he could count on the cow to do its part; he simply needed to orchestrate the prank the way he would a con.

He cued Hazard to turn and headed back for town. He had a cow to catch and relocate. He also needed to find Mr. Tanner and arrange a small distraction. As he had predicted, Vin proved most amenable to the plan. The two of them were indulging in a soothing libation inside the saloon several hours later when the ruckus exploded.

Ezra and Vin shared a smiling look and rose to stroll after the bar's other patrons to the sidewalk and observe the commotion.

There in the middle of the street was Horace Conklin's cow, festooned with papers from the bookkeeper's files. Papers were crumpled under her feet, punctured on her horns and stuck to her sweaty flanks. In addition, she appeared to have been splattered with some sort of oil, perhaps kerosene, and green ink. The sparkly bits were probably broken glass. The pair of faded-to-pink long underwear that was tangled around and dragging after one hind leg had even Ezra raising an eyebrow. The cow had outdone herself in her search for the sweetened grain he'd placed in judicious spots throughout Conklin's rooms

Horace Conklin stood in the street, sans hat, sans jacket and most definitely sans dignity. He clutched an old .45 in one shaking hand and shook it at the snorting, unhappy cow.

Vin nudged Ezra with his elbow and tipped his head. Down the street, Mrs. Potter and Mary Travis both stood on the sidewalk, watching. Mrs. Potter managed a look of sympathy, but Mary had her hand over her mouth and her shoulders were shaking with laughter.

"Looks like Old Man Conklin's going to do that poor old bossy in," Vin commented.

"Yes, it does," Ezra said. "In fact, I would lay odds on it." He excused himself and began working his way through the crowd watching the confrontation between man and cow, taking bets on every variation that could be imagined, from whether Conklin would shoot the cow to what size the long johns dragging in the mucky street were.

Across the street, he noted pale blond hair and an elegant green ensemble moving among a group of be-suited townsmen, Maude doing much the same among as he was. Ezra grinned despite himself.

The cow shook her head and began ambling back toward the bookkeeper's small office, intent, Ezra imagined, on returning to the mixture of grain and molasses he'd slipped inside and painted here and there.

"No, no, no!" Conklin shouted. "No you don't!"

He leveled his gun at the cow with shaking hands and pulled the trigger.

Ezra winced as the cow screamed in pain. "Damn it," he muttered.

He caught Vin's eyes across the street and desperately shook his head. He knew that Vin would, like him, want to administer the mercy of a bullet to the wounded creature, but Conklin already suspected the two of them of all manner of nefarious doings. If either of them stepped in, it would only make matters worse. It didn't matter to him, he was leaving, but Vin would be staying. He hated that the animal was suffering, though. He hadn't anticipated that Conklin wouldn't be able kill the cow cleanly. He hadn't even taken a bet on it.

The cow was still bellowing, stumbling down the street, away from the crowd of bystanders who had gone painfully silent.

His mother was collecting money from several gentlemen, he noted ruefully. Mary Travis looked a little sick and Mrs. Potter's face was set.

Conklin fired twice more at the cow, missing both times.

Down the street, Larabee stepped out of the jail as the cow ran past. His head swiveled toward the crowd and Conklin in the middle of the street, then back to the cow. In a flicker, his Colt was drawn and a single shot fired. The brindle cow dropped into the dusty street.

A gasp ran through the crowd. It wasn't as impressive – or frightening – as seeing Larabee kill a man, but it would be another addition to his legend. He flipped the empty shell out of the revolver and reloaded before slipping the Colt back into its holster. Then he stalked down the sidewalk, spurs ringing in the near silence. When he drew level with Conklin, he stopped. His pale eyes settled on the flustered bookkeeper.

"Better get that carcass outta the street before it starts stinkin'," Larabee said. He drew a cheroot out of his shirt pocket and lit it. The spent match he flicked into the dirt.

Conklin's mouth fell open and he heaved for breath twice before he squawked in outrage, "You shot my cow!"

Smoke trickled out of Larabee's nostrils. He dipped his head just once.

"Hell, Horace, you shot 'er first," someone in the crowd heckled.

Conklin's face darkened to a beet-like hue and his hands curled into fists. Unfortunately, one hand still held his gun and his finger was on the trigger. The gun went off, firing a bullet into the dirt next to the bookkeeper's foot. He jumped into the air and dropped the gun. Everyone exploded into laughter.

Larabee just narrowed his eyes at Conklin.

"Clean up your mess or I'll lock you up for creating a public nuisance and disturbing the peace," he drawled.

Vin strolled over to Ezra's side. He tipped his slouch hat back. The crowd began breaking up and Ezra hurried to collect on his bets and in a few cases, pay off. He ended up on the sidewalk next to Larabee, counting his winnings, before tucking them inside his vest pocket. Vin was propping up a post on the gunslinger's other side. Conklin was darting around the street, picking up ragged bits of paper.

Ezra glanced at Larabee, trying to see if the man was in one of his towering rages or not.

"I shall stop by the livery and arrange for Tiny's mule team to drag the sad creature's remains out of town," he said quietly.

Larabee turned his head slowly and squinted at Ezra. His teeth were clenched on the cheroot.

"Lot of folks're plum glad to see the last of her," Vin commented.

Larabee tapped some ash off the cheroot. "Why am I sure you two had something to do with this?"

Ezra raised his eyebrows. "Moi?"

Vin snickered. "Hell, cowboy, you killed the cow, not Ez."

Larabee's lips twitched into a near smile and he murmured darkly, "Somehow ... somehow it was you two."

Maude swished over in a flutter of silk and lace.

"Mother," Ezra acknowledged her. Vin touched his fingers to his hat-brim. Larabee just gave her a measuring look.

"Darlin'," she said and bussed Ezra on the cheek. "That was quite profitable."

Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter joined them. This time all three men doffed their hats in greeting.

"I shouldn't be enjoying this so much," Mary remarked. The glint in her blue eyes suggested she didn't feel too guilty. Not after the cow had scattered her laundry to hell and gone that morning.

Mrs. Potter just smiled at Ezra and Vin. "You boys come by my kitchen later. I'll have a pie for you both."

Vin brightened. "Peach?"

She nodded.

"With strawberry-rhubarb for Mr. Standish here, of course," she promised.

Maude's eyebrows had risen, but she didn't comment.

The neigh of an unhappy horse drew their attention to two riders coming up the street. Buck and JD. Buck's Darling didn't pay any mind to the dead animal in the street, but the smell of blood had JD's Dusty balking. JD reined her up and then walked her in a wide circle around the carcass. The two riders drew their horses to stop before the small group on the sidewalk.

Buck tipped his hat. "Ladies."

JD swept his bowler off and gave the dead cow a worried glance. "What happened?"

"Cow got on Chris's nerves, I guess," Vin drawled.

Buck shook his head and laughed. "Got a feelin' there's a story here," he said.

Vin winked at him.

"Ezra," Larabee prompted.

Ezra detached Maude's hand from his elbow. "Excuse me, ladies, but I have a small errand to run. Mrs. Potter, I will look forward to your latest confection all afternoon." He tipped his hat and headed for the livery.

"What's he gettin' this time?" he heard Buck demand.

"Strawberry-rhubarb pie, Mr. Wilmington," Mary Travis supplied with a smile.

"Probably be best if ya don't ask why, Bucklin," Vin told him.

"Oh, I can figure that out easy enough," Buck laughed.

The last bit of conversation Ezra caught was JD's plaintive, "Who wants to eat rhubarb, anyway?"

Ezra chuckled to himself. None of the other men would touch his pie, while Vin might be forced to share the peach one. He was looking forward to dinner. Perhaps, if Lady Luck kept smiling on him, Maude would leave go of her notion of selling him the saloon and allow him to simply enjoy her company, along with that of his compatriots, for once.

He snorted indelicately.

Not likely. She was up to something, he just didn't know what – not yet.

10. Four Corners, 1877

Do it again when you find you're
All done
Like an idiot savant
Shuffle up your luck
You see you almost won
Now wrestle down what you want

Suzanne Vega


Vin's voice rose above the thump of his boots on the stairs up to Nathan's rooms above the livery. The raw wooden boards echoed sharply, far different than his normal silent footfalls. Only two things ever made Vin raise his voice like that. Since no one was shooting, Nathan knew that meant someone was sick.


Vin slapped the door open with a jar and held it as two more, heavier sets of boots hit the stairs. Nathan bolted out of his chair at the table where he'd been reading. Vin was panting, hatless, without his old kerchief. Even his shirt had been pulled out of true. A spot of blood marked where his lip had been split, while the skin over one cheekbone was darkening from a blow.

"What is it?" Nathan asked as he approached Vin. He meant to take a look at Vin's eyes and check the pupils.

"Ezra," Vin said.

He looked about as worried as Nathan had ever seen him.

"Something bad's wrong. He's off his head."

Nathan froze. "He do that?" he asked, meaning the split lip.

Vin ignored the question and looked back out the door to the stairs. The shadows of the men coming up fell across the floor ahead of them.

Buck and Josiah came through the door, hefting Ezra between them. Nathan caught his breath. Ezra wasn't fighting them. He was seizing. It was frightening to see a man's eyes roll as white as a spooked horse's.

"Hell," Nathan muttered.

Buck glanced up. One blue eye was swelling shut. He'd taken a blow to the nose, too, and his mustache was matted with blood. "Nate, he's gone stiffer'n a board. That's got to be bad," Buck gritted out nasally.

"Get him on the bed now!" Nathan commanded. "Josiah, Buck, I need you to hold him down, but you gotta ride with it or he's going tear something or even break a bone."

"Nathan, you know what it is?" Vin asked.

Nathan ignored him. He took one look at Ezra's dilated black eyes and nodded to himself.

Ezra was trembling, limbs jerking and twitching, sweat running off his flushed face. When Nathan found his pulse, it was racing. He could see Ezra wasn't even really aware of them.

"Nate, damn it," Vin snapped, catching at Nathan's shoulder.

"Maybe. He ain't ever had any fits before, the way some folk do. Don't figure it's natural to him, the way him suffering headaches is."

"He looks like a horse that's been loco-ed," Buck observed.

He was crouched at the head of the bed, using his weight to hold Ezra's shoulders down. Blood from his nose dripped onto his big hands and Ezra's no longer pristine white shirt. "He started sweatin' and shakin' and talkin' real crazy about the cards. Then he tore out of the saloon. Fell down in the alley jerkin' and kickin'."

Nathan nodded. "I think you're right, Buck."

"Ezra's got too much sense to eat locoweed," Vin objected. "He don't mess with nothin' he don't know on the trail. The man knows better."

"No one said he knew he was," Buck snapped. His expression had gone dark. "Hell, we know someone's out to get him."

"You think he was poisoned." It was a statement more than a question. Vin stepped back – his expression had gone cold and tight. His eyes narrowed.

This was the man who had ridden with the Comanches and hunted bounty, Nathan thought. Vin would show no mercy to anyone who had harmed someone he considered one of his own.

The prospect of what Vin might do made Nathan shudder.

He hid that and concentrated on doing what needed to be done. "Vin, you stoke up that stove and get me some water heating on it," he instructed.

That would keep Vin out of his way without actually throwing him out. From the look on Vin's face, he wouldn't have any more luck doing that than he would have getting rid of Buck if it were JD sick. He studied Ezra another moment. The seizure had ended and Ezra was lying upon the bed in an exhausted, trembling sprawl.

Vin sent one more deeply worried look toward Ezra then started building up the fire in the stove.

"Josiah, help get the rest of his clothes off."

He picked up the wooden spoon he used when mixing up decoctions and handed it to Buck.

"He starts another fit, you get this between his teeth and hold his tongue down or he could swallow it and choke."

Buck looked horrified.

"This is important, Buck," Nathan insisted. "A man can die like that. And you keep your fingers out of his mouth. Ain't nothin' meaner than a man's bite. If he's off his head he could break your fingers."


Vin closed the door in the stove's belly with a sharp clang and headed out, grabbing up the bucket as he went.

Josiah began unbuckling Ezra's gun belt, murmuring softly as he worked.

"Easy now, son, easy. Just stay calm, everything is going to be fine, we're taking care of you, Brother, just stay easy, you're safe. Nothing and no one's going to hurt you here, you're right here in Brother Nathan's clinic, we've got your back. Just be still, that's it, easy, easy, you let us take care of you now."

"Raleigh?" Ezra mumbled, the words slurred around the spoon, only half-intelligible. "Raleigh? Saville? Saville! Oh, sweet Lord, what have those bluebelly bastards done?"

"You're in Four Corners," Josiah whispered as he worked. "None of that's real, you hear me, Brother? That's all the past you're seeing, you just go on and let it go. It can't hurt you no more. You just have to rest easy, Ezra, just trust us ...."

Next the shoulder holster came off. Nathan helped him ease Ezra's jacket away, dropping the claret-colored wool garment carelessly to the floor. Ezra was oblivious. His lips were moving and his darkened eyes were flickering, seeing something beyond any of their ken. Josiah got the derringer rigging off and set it with the rest of his guns, moving on to his boots. Nathan started on the shirt.

Ezra's body quaked and jerked and he began mumbling, his legs kicking, breath coming hard. "No, no, elevate, damn you! Elevate the damn gun or you'll put the ball through our own lines!"

"Damn, damn," Nathan muttered. How much poison had Ezra got in him?

He looked up at Josiah. "Any of you know what he's eaten today?"

"Hell, Nate, he ate the same thing as the rest of us," Buck answered. "'Cept he didn't eat half as much as bird, just like always." He looked at Josiah for confirmation and the preacher nodded. "We all set down at the restaurant earlier and ate dinner together, except for you, just like always."

Nathan nodded. The group usually gathered at least once a day over a meal, but he'd ridden out to the McCauley's to check their boy and change the bandages on the gash a bull had torn out of his hip. They'd insisted he stay and eat with them.

"Roast and greens, hashed potatoes, bread, carrots, and pie after," Josiah agreed.

"Good pie," Buck added. "Hell, I even managed to get a piece of the peach away from Vin, since Ez had that one Mrs. Potter baked for him. Strawberry-rhubarb. Man ate three slices."

"Did anyone else eat any of it?" Nathan asked.

"Nope," Buck said immediately. "JD and me got more sense than to eat any dessert made with a root. He offered some to Maude, since she brought it over, but she said she had to think of her figure."

"It's the stalk that's used," Nathan corrected absently. He looked at Josiah.

"Strawberries give me hives."

"So Ezra was the only who – "

Ezra's body locked and arched, a keening sound escaping him. Almost as fast as Larabee would have drawn his gun, Buck had the spoon inside Ezra's mouth, holding his tongue down the way Nathan had just told him to. Every muscle in Ezra's sturdy body was drawn tight. Tendons stood out at his neck, his fingers curled into white knuckled fists, his back arched like a bow. Josiah threw himself across Ezra's legs and Nathan dove across the room to add his weight to hold down his shoulders.

Ezra's seizure segued into a wild, desperate, thrashing fight against all of them, accompanied by a venomous babble in a dozen different languages. Just as he seemed to be quieting, the door slammed open again, admitting Chris Larabee, black duster swirling around his legs, JD right behind him. The door bounced against the wall with a screech from the hinges and Ezra screamed and seized again.

"Oh, Jesus, Jesus," Nathan exclaimed. "Chris, get over here, hold him down." A man's heart couldn't take this too long. He had to get something down Ezra to calm him. "JD, get out of the way. No. Go get Maude."

Larabee sent a pale-eyed, questioning glance at Nathan but complied without question. JD opened his mouth, looked at Ezra, and ran back out. Nathan went to his glass-doored cabinet and opened it, searching through the finger-sized bottles corked and sealed and labeled in his own carefully laborious script. Part of him noted the cabinet wasn't locked when he always kept it keyed closed. He found the little, square-sided brown medicine bottle shoved in the back, dust thick on its shoulders.

He wrapped his hand around it and headed for the bed. The uncharacteristic disorder in the cabinet plagued him. He knew what had happened. The bottles had been pushed around, the dust rubbed off various labels; at least one was missing.

Vin sidled into the room, water sloshing over the lip of the bucket he carried. He looked first at Ezra, then Nathan, then made his way to the stove and began pouring water into the big, cast iron kettle Nathan kept there.

Ezra was was pleading with someone.

"Herodotus? Where are they? Where – Polly, Cassiopeia, Miz Vertilene, Saville, my uncles, my father, my sisters ...?"

Nathan grimaced.

"Tell me they got away, please, it doesn't matter if the Yankees burnt everything," Ezra whispered. "Please tell me someone took them away, tell me they went to town ... No, I don't care how long it's been, I'm riding after them. Saville will need help getting Polly back from those bastards ... You bury the others, Herodotus, I can't wait ... Then I'll kill every one of the murderin' Union scum I can find!"

"Ah, hell, Ez," Buck whispered.

Nathan almost hesitated. He didn't have to do anything. The others wouldn't know. If he told him there hadn't been anything to do for whatever poison Ezra had been given, they would accept it. Ezra had been a thorn in Nathan's side since they day they first faced each other. But Vin and JD had accepted him and Chris had given him a second chance. Nathan had tried to tell Ezra how wrong the way he lived was, but nothing touched the gambler. As far as Nathan could see, he was a weasel through and through, born bad like most bastards.

But he only hesitated an instant though. It didn't matter who Ezra was or had been, only that he was sick now and Nathan's job was to help him. He'd doctored worse men than Ezra Standish.

It was more than that. He did know what Ezra had been given and that it must have been too much. Hell, if Ezra died, there'd be plenty of folks in town who would wonder, knowing how often he and Nathan had quarreled. He could find himself with a noose around his neck again too easy, with Vin Tanner watching through icy eyes instead of saving him.

That other bottle should have been sitting right next to the one he held now. It was a decoction of sometimes poisonous herbs, taught to him by an old brujera he'd met coming west after the war. The ancient crone had been some mixture of Seminole and Spanish and black, with maybe some Acadian French, without two teeth left in her mouth, but she'd showed Nathan the way of drying the berries and boiling them into a thick syrup. One drop to make a man's heart run, she'd told him. Three to show him all his demons. Six to let those demons kill him.

She'd taught him what to look for and make up to counteract the demon brew, too. "Catch thems demons in molasses, it do." The ingredients were common enough in the delta country and along the Mississippi but Nathan hadn't seen some of them since he came west. The little bottle in his hand was all he had left.

Vin dropped the blackened kettle onto the stove with a harsh clang. Ezra jerked and cried out again at the noise.

"Damn it, Nathan, do something!" he shouted.

"You got something, Nate?" Buck asked, the mixture of hope and confidence in his voice sending a shaft of shame through Nathan.

Nathan nodded and held the bottle up. He studied Ezra next. They had to wait until the fit was done before Nathan tried pouring any of the precious antidote down his throat.

"What is it?" Larabee demanded.

He had climbed right onto the bed and crouched over Ezra with his knees on wrists and his hands pinning down his shoulders. In any less dire situation, Buck would have come out with some salacious and insulting remark about their comparative positions. Not now. Ezra bucked under the combined weight of Josiah and Larabee, threatening to throw them both off.

"Jesus and Joseph, the sonovabitch is strong for his size," Larabee growled.

Buck laughed. "Ez likes to fool ya. Sort of like a certain tow-headed squirt I met a long time back."

Nathan saw the look that passed between Chris and Buck then. Old friends like those two could part a hundred times and still know each other when they met again; they were as bound together by past pain as by any good times. Once they'd both been innocent boys, hard as it was to see now.

Ezra went limp again abruptly.

Nathan pounced. "Buck, keep his tongue pushed down, that'll make this easier."

He broke the wax seal over the cork with one hand. With the other he pushed his fingers into the hinge of Ezra's jaw, levering it open enough to pour the thick syrup over his tongue and down his throat. The instant he had emptied the bottle, Nathan tossed it aside.

"Out now," he told Buck. With the spoon gone, he pushed Ezra's mouth shut and stroked his fingers over his pale throat. The beginning of new whiskers, grown out since Ezra had shaved, rasped against Nathan's fingertips.

"Come on, swallow, swallow," Nathan coaxed. He kept his other hand on Ezra's jaw, holding his mouth shut so none of the medicine would trickle out. "Come on, you sonovabitch."

Ezra tried to thrash his head away. His face pursed into an expression of disgust. He was trying to spit it up.

"No, pard, don't ya do that," Buck gentled. He reached up and pinched Ezra's nostrils closed.

After a second of struggling for breath, Ezra swallowed and tried to open his mouth again. Nathan let go, as did Buck.

"Good boy," Buck crooned and wiped sweat-matted hair away from Ezra's forehead.

Nathan frowned, wondering where Buck had learned that trick, only to glance up and see Chris's eyes gone dark with old pain. He realized Buck had probably been right there with Chris and his wife whenever Adam had been sickly.

Maude arrived in a swirl of green silk skirts and blonde ringlets. She was speaking quickly, even as she entered through the door Vin had left agape. "Mr. Jackson, is my boy here -" Her eyes had found Ezra and she lost color. Suddenly her real age showed through the delicately applied paint and powder. She took a step forward. "Ezra – "

"No!" Ezra bellowed, rearing up against Chris and Buck's hands. "Get away from me, get away, getawaygetawaygetaway!"

They wrestled him back down onto the bed. Maude stared, shock plain on her face, her mouth open. Josiah rose and stepped between where she stood and the bed, blocking her view with his bulk.

"Maude – "

Maude looked at him. Her lips trembled, then firmed. "Josiah," she whispered. She lifted one gloved hand to her chest and pressed it there. "Oh, Josiah, what's happening to him?"

"He's been poisoned," Vin snapped.

Blue eyes seared her with a very pointed look that had Nathan afraid Vin wouldn't wait on getting proof. Vin's instincts were telling him Maude had something to do with this. If Ezra didn't recover soon, Vin wouldn't let the law stop him from exacting his own version of justice on whomever he blamed. That would probably be Maude and anyone else she implicated before Vin finished with her.

Maude being a woman wouldn't make much difference to Vin, or Chris either, Nathan knew.

Damn Standishs were nothing but trouble, even when they weren't causing it.

Maude looked stunned and dismayed. Josiah wrapped his arms around her.

"It's going to be all right, Maude," Josiah said comfortingly. "Nathan knows what needs to be done. Ezra will recover."

Maude looked to the side of him, at her writhing, cursing, sick son and visibly shuddered. "There's nothing I can do, is there? Oh, Josiah, I don't think I can stand to see my darlin' boy like this. I just – It's just too much. Please, could you escort me back to my hotel room? I think I should lie down."

Nathan couldn't help rolling his eyes.

Maude must have felt the hostility ratcheting up in the room from the other men. She said, "I know you all think I am a terrible mother. I should be here for Ezra, but I just can't abide anyone sick. I just can't."

"Then you better get out," Chris snapped at her.

Ezra began choking.

Chris scrambled off him. Nathan grabbed Ezra's shoulders and rolled him to the side just in time for Ezra to double over and throw up over the side of the bed. The reek immediately hit all their noses.

Maude gasped and ran out of the room.

With a sad look back at Ezra, Josiah followed her. "I'd best make sure she makes it back to the hotel," he told them.

Nathan finished the job of stripping Ezra down after they'd left and drew a sheet and blanket over him. Maude's click-clacking heels were still echoing when JD crept in. One hand pleated the narrow rim of his bowler hat and the other swept his long, dark bangs away.

"Is he – ?"

"Nate's got some medicine down him," Buck reassured his friend. He didn't mention that Ezra had likely vomited it all back up.

It reminded Nathan of what needed cleaning up. "Vin," he said. "There's some rags in the first drawer of the chest. Get me some so I can mop this up."

Vin silently did as he'd asked.

Ezra kept shuddering and mumbling. A hand to his forehead told Nathan he was burning up. He needed to be cooled down.

"You all watch him now," he instructed Buck and Chris.

He went to his worktable and found a simple basin that he filled with water from the pitcher on the washstand, then fetched another cloth from the chest he'd sent Vin to originally.

Ezra tried to scramble off the bed suddenly, reaching for guns that weren't there and batting at Buck and Chris as they caught him. Vin and JD joined in gently as possible – considering Ezra was fighting with tooth and nail and every dirty trick he knew – dragging him back to the bed.

Nathan watched and turned back to the chest, pulling out some long soft bandages. "We're going to have to tie him down."

"Nathan – ," Vin started to protest.

Buck spoke up, words overlapping Vin's warning tone. "He ain't going to like that."

"Ain't got no choice," Nathan said decisively. He wasn't even taking any pleasure in it. This wasn't about punishing Ezra, it was about keeping him safe from himself until he had his wits back. "Vin, help me do this."

Vin backed up, shaking his head hard. "No. I ain't doing it."

"Then get the hell out of my way," Nathan snapped.

Chris silently took the bandages from Nathan's hands. Together, after much fighting, they tied Ezra's ankles and wrists to the legs of the bed. Vin watched silently. Disapproval and anger radiated from him, no need for the benefit of words.


The suicide king cut his throat.

Ink green blood slid off the card and stained Ezra's fingertips, drip drip dripping onto the fuzzy new grass sprouting from the table top. He jerked back, cards fluttering into flight away from his hands, painted faces laughing, swords and pikes and flowers scattering.


Flame hiss in the lamps, slow in and out of breath the sound of the walls, deep bellows breathing, fetid hungry wheezing in the belly of the beast. Putrid light sweating from the pores, poisonous, thick and sticky.

EEEZZZRAAaaahhhhh the sound distorted into a gaping hole filled with red clay and the breath of the earth, full of wet wiggling things. Sickening things with worm shapes and legs, legs crawling into his skin, stinging, biting, burrowing.

He brushed desperately at his sleeve, clawed wet flesh free, peeled open to silky slick sinew and shining bone, wanting them off, not registering the hands catching at his shoulders and wrists. His stomach rebelled and he hit his knees on the rough plank floor, retching over and over. The lines in the wood writhed and slid up his hands, catching him, black barbed-wire thorns cutting into his wrists and holding him down.


Bullwhip snap crack and jerk, screaming a razor running through his memory, hot words shriveling in his mouth, black ugly inside blurring, buck and strain. Heavy horsefly insect buzz sliding maggots into his ears, tiny voices mewling ezraezraaaezzzzraaaaeeeeeezzzzzzzzzzzzrrraaaaaaaezzzzzzzzzzzz.

Smoke phantoms pluck and pull at him, hot talons slide in and out of him, heat roaring words that scribe into the grain of a board, arcane and fascinating. He tried to trace the signs with his hands, the secret just within reach, but thick slow cold molasses wound his limbs up and drew him out, drawn taut, shredded open and hollow.

Head full of echoes.

Skewered and undone, unravelling into the fire, consumed

Sssrassrarssssraaaaasirrah sirrah! Hurrah hurrah.

Wheat to the scythe, feeding the guns, row on row on row and march BOOM march BOOM aim fire BOOM unending feast BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.

Eaten alive.

Sugar sick sweat taste seizing him, jerk twist hold breaking him, searing candent clawing white molten whitewhitewhitenothingwhiteezzzzraaaaaaaa.

Flayed and dissolved. 


Nathan rested his broad hand on Ezra's forehead, frowning over the clammy heat he still felt after two days. Quietly, he wrung out the cloth he just doused in the basin of water sitting on the floor beside the cot and used it to wipe his patient's face again. Ezra whimpered and turned his face away, but didn't wake.

Nathan paused with the rag at Ezra's temple, a trickle of lukewarm water sliding down into the southerner's matted hair, and waited. When Ezra didn't tense into another convulsion or begin thrashing against the restraints that held him, Nathan went back to trying to bring his temperature down.

A single candle flickered on the far side of the room, dashing shadows against the walls. Heavy blankets were tacked over the clinic's windows to hold back the light when the sun rose. Even the single flame's light pained Ezra's dilated eyes. Vin had been the one to notice that earlier. Ezra had been much quieter since they darkened the room, resting instead of thrashing and fighting hallucinations.

"You shouldn't have made such a pig of yourself," Nathan told the unconscious man. "If you hadn't ate so much of that pie, you wouldn't be so sick."

He ignored the hard fact that if Ezra had shared the strawberry-rhubarb delicacy with anyone else, they too would have been poisoned.

Nathan knew it had to have been the pie, but he hadn't said anything to the others. Mrs. Potter hadn't poisoned Ezra and he knew it. He had as good an idea of who had done as the others did, but he wasn't about to point any fingers. Not when that bottle was missing from his collection.

He rubbed his eyes tiredly. When Maude had approached him he hadn't really thought about why she was asking him questions. She had a knack for convincing a man she was interested in whatever he was saying. He loved healing. None of the others, not even Josiah, had any interest in his studies. He'd let her lead him into talking about that old brujera and her potions without realizing what she'd wanted.

"Damn," he muttered.

A gust of wind outside made the door rattle in its loose frame. The draft that rushed under it and along the faded-to-gray floorboards made the candle flicker wildly. Nathan grimaced. Shadows jumped and ran along the walls. Ezra stirred restlessly.

"Damn wind."

It made everything, man and beast, irritable and jumpy, that wind. Put a man's hackles up as though something was hunting him. It had been rising all day, whispering dust into every crevice, catching at hats and sending them tumbling down the street, tugging at tempers already rubbed raw, like some beast howling in the night.

Ezra had vomited and screamed himself hoarse the first night. The second day, Vin and Buck had sat with him. Ezra had been quieter since then, but a loud noise or bright light still triggered a seizure. Nathan had begun worrying. So far, he'd drizzled water into Ezra's mouth from a cloth, but he knew that wouldn't be enough for much longer. Ezra needed to come around soon.

Chris came back up the stairs late, after even the Saloon had closed up, knocking softly before entering. The others had come and went as their patrols allowed, spelling Nathan while he went out or bringing him meals.

Chris looked at Ezra and grimaced. Ezra looked unnatural lying there, unshaven and dishevelled, pale with fever. His face was hollowed out, shadowed, bruised-looking. The candle's light made Chris himself look harder, worn and weathered, a figure made up of leather and wire with agate eyes and a burnt cinder instead of a heart.

"He doing any better?"


"What do you reckon it is?"

"Figure it looks like thornapple, but I've heard of other things that act the same. Locoweed. Datura. Hell, you can boil up morning glory seeds, that'll make you so sick you see things," Nathan explained.

Chris looked at Ezra again. His brows were drawn together over those light eyes, crow's feet creased deep where they fanned from the corner's of his eyes. He shook his head faintly. "He going to be all right?"

Ezra mumbled something incoherent.

"Since it didn't kill him," Nathan shrugged. He dropped the damp cloth back into the basin. Water sloshed over the lip. He stared at it, at the still trembling water and the stain darkening the floor. His hand was damp and the draft chilled it. That wind kept rising, moaning around the buildings and plucking at his nerves. He blurted out, "Thing like this, a man gets crazy, gets himself killed 'fore he can sweat the poison out of him."

Chris frowned harder.

"I don't like it."

"Damn fool probably brought it on himself," Nathan heard himself say.

He knew it wasn't true, but the habit was too ingrained. He couldn't make himself see Ezra fairly, no matter how he tried. Every time Ezra opened his mouth and said something outlandishly highfalutin' in his educated, silk-and-molasses drawl Nathan would hear every Southerner he'd ever hated and the rage that festered in him would spark to life again. He knew it was wrong. He knew Ezra had never even owned a slave. Yet he couldn't change that his first reaction to him would always be anger.

Chris's head jerked up and that penetrating gaze caught Nathan and held him. He wished he'd bit his tongue. Chris didn't say anything. He just leaned against the wall on the other side of the bed from Nathan, watching Ezra sweat his way through more nightmares.

"You might as well sit in a chair if you're going to stay in here all night," Nathan said into the silence between gusts of wind outside.

Chris folded his arms and dipped his chin. Nathan went back to bathing Ezra's face.

The candle had burned down half an inch when a scuffed footstep outside the door interrupted them. Chris' hand dropped to the butt of his gun and Nathan looked up, half-startled.

The door opened slowly and a familiar Texan twang murmured, "Vin coming in."

Chris visibly relaxed.

Nathan tensed up. Vin had been watching him for days now, it seemed, leveling that steady, thoughtful regard on him whenever he slipped into the clinic to visit Ezra. The candle flame whipped to the side, threatening to blow out, before Vin got the door levered shut again.

The night air, chilled and carrying the faint memory of the high mountain snows clung to Vin's old coat, mixed with the scent of stove smoke, horse and dust.

"Everything quiet out there?" Chris asked.

"Right peaceful," Vin agreed.

He picked up a chair and set it close to the bed and the wall. His hat and coat came off, tossed onto the cot in the corner. Then he sat down and leaned back like a man who wasn't moving again for some time, the chair rocked onto the back two legs and his shoulders braced against the wall.

Chris raised an eyebrow at him. Nathan caught that, but couldn't interpret the look that passed between them next, nor the tiny tip of Vin's head in his direction. After a heartbeat, Chris nodded.

"I'll be at the boarding house," he told them. He bent and twitched the blanket higher over Ezra's shoulders, his thin-lipped mouth quirking into small smile. "Get better, you conniving sonovabitch."

Ezra's eyes opened and blinked at Chris, but didn't really register him. "Hot," he muttered. He squirmed against the restraints, trying to shrug off the scratchy wool blanket.

Chris nodded. "Yep." He squeezed Ezra's shoulder. "Wish you'd been wrong," he said quietly.

Ezra's glazed look drifted from Chris to Nathan. He stiffened then started fighting the restraints.

"Easy, there, Ez," Vin drawled. He rocked his chair back onto four legs, boots hitting the floor in a flurry of dust and leaned forward.

"Vin," Ezra rasped out.

A wide, white smile lit Vin's lean, stubbled face. "Good to have ya back, Ez," he declared. He pulled his Bowie knife out of its sheath. The blade flashed.

Ezra opened his mouth and said, "Have I offended you in some fashion, Mr. Tanner?"

"Split my lip," Vin told him. He flipped back the blanket and set the knife against the bandages tying Ezra down.

"Hey, what're you doing?' Nathan protested. He started to come out of his chair.

Vin looked up and the flat, blank look in his normally bright blue eyes stopped him. A slight movement from Chris reminded him of who else was there. He decided to hold his tongue.

Vin cut first one wrist free then moved down to Ezra's ankle.

"I suppose there is some explanation for this indignity?" Ezra asked. He was craning his neck up to watch Vin and his knife. "You have my sincerest apologies for any violence I've done to your person, Mr. Tanner, though honestly I have no recollection of such an action." He lifted his freed hand and rubbed at his face.

"What do you remember?" Chris asked.

Ezra looked up and then frowned.

"You ... shot a cow?"

Vin snorted and began sawing through the restraints on Ezra's other ankle.

Ezra went on, his frown growing deeper. "After that, I recall sharing a meal with most of our compatriots. Mrs. Potter's pie was splendid ... " He sighed. "I sat down to a game in the Saloon and the cards ... " Ezra blinked hard and shook his head. He turned his eyes to Nathan. "I believe I must have been drugged."

"Poisoned," Vin said.

"Good lord," Ezra murmured.

Chris grinned at him. "You even threw a fit and blacked Buck's eye the first day."

Ezra groaned and covered his eyes with a long-fingered hand that had a faint tremble to it. "Oh Lord. The first day – ? How long have I been non compos mentis?"

"You been sick two days," Nathan told him. He'd pulled himself together and needed to get back to what he knew. "Let me look at your eyes."

Ezra slid his hand away and looked at Nathan. "How you can see anything in this room with only a candle is beyond me," he remarked petulantly. His normally smooth voice rasped and faded as he spoke, threatening to disappear entirely.

Vin cut through the last restraint, freeing Ezra's other arm. The Bowie knife went back in its sheath. "You want something to drink, Ez?"

"Once more, Mr. Tanner, you display that impeccable timing. I would be undyingly grateful even for water."

Nathan studied Ezra's eyes. They were still dilated some, but it was dark in the room, and he could see a clear border of pale green around them. He felt for Ezra's pulse next, ignoring that he flinched when Nathan pressed his fingers into a bruised wrist. Fast, but not dangerous. He asked him a few more questions, just to make sure Ezra was thinking straight again – or as straight as that sidewinder ever had thought.

Vin brought over a tin cup of water and steadied it when Ezra's hand wanted to shake too much to hold it to his lips. Ezra drank about half of it, then waved the cup away.

He sank back in the bed, licked his lips then repeated, "Poisoned?"

"Uh hunh," Vin confirmed.

Ezra looked past Vin to Chris. He raised his eyebrows.

"I've still got it," Chris said.

"Good," Ezra replied wearily.

Nathan wondered what they were talking about. Something he hadn't been privy too. That always pissed him off. He could see Ezra was flagging, anyway, so he spoke to break up whatever was passing between Chris and Ezra.

"You all need to get out of here. Ezra needs to rest. I want you to get."

Chris touched Ezra's shoulder again. "We'll talk some more tomorrow."

"As you wish, Mr. Larabee," came the tired answer, Ezra's easy agreement proof he wasn't recovered. He closed his eyes.

"Nate, Vin," Chris said and headed for the door.

"Good night, Chris."

Vin acknowledged his friend with a murmured, "'Night, cowboy."

Nathan looked at Vin expectantly. Vin just strolled back to his chair and got comfortable.

"Think I'll stick," Vin said.

"That's not necessar – "

Vin tipped his head up. "Can't sleep in my wagon with the wind flappin' at the canvas anyway." His smooth shrug was belied by the rock-hard stubborn set of his jaw. "Why don't you go on and take a rest."

"I wish you both would leave or be quiet," Ezra complained softly. "My head is splitting."

Nathan opened his mouth, but before he could get anything out, Vin's glare shut him up. It was vicious and promised mayhem if he provoked Vin. He'd never, ever had Vin turn such a look on him.

"I'll be quiet as a churchmouse, Ez," Vin said to Ezra.

"I think that's poor as a churchmouse, Vin," Ezra murmured. He rolled onto his side. "Though that would seem to fit as well."

Vin chuckled but his eyes never left Nathan. He just watched, waiting until Ezra's breathing smoothed out into sleep again. Then he strode over to the cot, picked up his coat and drew something from its pocket. Somewhere down the street a shutter began banging monotonously as the wind picked up again. Light reflected off the little red-brown bottle Vin held between his fingers. He held it up for Nathan to see.

Nathan caught his breath.

"Don't say a damn word, Nate. Just don't."

He shoved the bottle back into his coat.

Vin looked at him and shook his head. "I found that in the garbage behind the Ritz."

The Ritz was where Maude was staying. Vin must have spent the last two days searching for whoever had poisoned Ezra – whenever he wasn't sitting with his friend.

"You think Maude – " Nathan started to say.

"What do you think, Nathan?" Vin asked, but there was more in his words than just the question.

"He's her son," Nathan protested.

"Birthin' someone don't make them a mother," Vin said. "I'm tellin' ya now, don't let her in here with him alone. I'll tell the others tomorrow."

Nathan bobbed his head. He felt light-headed with relief, his hands and feet tingling as though he could feel the blood rushing through his veins. Vin wasn't accusing him.


The flash of panic that had overcome him when he saw that bottle faded, but the worry didn't. The solid mundanity of his clinic, the faint smells of herbs and carbolic mingled with hay and horse from the livery below grounded him and reminded him of what he had to lose at the same time.

With a sigh, he picked up the basin of water from the floor by the bed and took it away. He fed a couple of pieces of wood into the stove, lit a lamp off the candle, then took it into the next room and his own bed.

Lord, he was tired. Relieved that Ezra had finally come around and seemed to have beat back his demons. Disturbed that he'd let his own demons push and pull him into falling into Maude Standish's scheme. He was also, were he honest with himself, afraid. Afraid that Vin would decide Nathan had taken deliberate part in poisoning Ezra.

It hadn't been deliberate, had it?

Nathan set the lamp on his dresser and sat down on his quilt-covered bed. He dropped his face in his hands. He'd still been seething with anger when Maude approached him. The confrontation with Ezra only the night before and the news that Ezra was leaving had got all tangled up in his mind. He'd wanted ... He didn't know what he'd wanted. Somehow, Maude had made it seem like if he helped her, Ezra wouldn't go.

Which made no sense at all, because he wanted Ezra gone. The man was a bad influence, an immoral parasite whose only redeeming features were his speed with a gun and absolute fearlessness in a gunfight. He was a perpetual reminder of the life Nathan had endured before he ran north.

Some days, Nathan hated him.

God, some days, Nathan hated them all; Chris Larabee and his unending grief that denied anyone else had ever suffered, Josiah with his proverbs and penance, JD and Buck for the easy way they enjoyed life, and Vin – Vin for being able to pick up a rifle and shoot those men that would have hung Nathan. Because raised Comanche or not, Vin was white and that counted more than being half savage, illiterate, or even being wanted for murder.

White counted more than all of Nathan's skills and learning when weighed against the color of his skin.

Every one of them had risked their lives for him over the last three years, including Ezra, but Nathan still felt separate. They didn't see his color anymore.

Funny that he still did.

What would they see if they thought he'd helped Maude poison Ezra?

11. Four Corners, 1877

Well, I don't know for sure, believe he's gone to Mexico,
You could hear...
Hear the rumblin' in the track,
When old Reuben's train comes back,
You could hear...
Hear the rumblin' in the track

Reuben's Train (Traditional)

"Now this is the way it goes," Buck insisted. "Buffalo gals, won't ya come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon?"

JD shook his head. "I still ain't singing it, Buck."

The poppy-yellow sun was just rising over the painted façades of Main Street's stores and the chill of the desert night still clung to the air in the shadows. Hell, JD's teeth wanted to chatter. He shivered and wished he hadn't left his coat inside the jail. It would begin warming up soon, he comforted himself.

"I danced with a gal with a hole in her stockin', And her heel kep' a-rockin' and her toe kep' a-knockin'," Buck sang, grinning, "I danced with a gal with a hole in her stockin', And we danced by the light of the moon."

JD could picture that. Buck would dance with every woman at a dance, even the married ones and the girls too young to put their hair up. Sure, he'd dance by moonlight, and he wouldn't care if his partner was poor or rich.

"Come on, JD, sing."


Buck had a good singing voice and wasn't afraid to belt out a song. JD always got red in the face and stumbled over the words if he knew anyone was listening. Then his voice would crack like twelve-year old's. It was just too embarrassing.

Buck dropped his voice but went on with the song. He was leaning back against the jail, the iron-barred windows behind his dark head, a cup of coffee from the pot on the jailhouse stove in one hand. He had come to check on JD after finishing his early patrol – about a half an hour earlier now – the dew damp still dark on the toes of his boots.

The wind had died back about dawn, leaving the town coated in dull red dust, trash in the streets and tumbleweeds piled against every north-facing wall. Young Jeff Potter was across the street from his mother's store, sweeping off the sidewalk in front of Watson's Hardware to earn a few bits. The sound of straw over wood mingled with Buck's voice and snatches of birdsong drifting up from distant creek bottoms.

Vin's lean form ambling down the sidewalk caught JD's eye as he came past Virginia's. The long buckskin fringe of his coat swung, almost gilded where the sun touched his shoulder. JD raised a hand and waved. Vin nodded.

"How's Ezra?" he asked when Vin was in earshot.

Vin's solemn features flashed into a white grin. "Grumpy."

The split in Vin's lip had almost disappeared, unlike Buck's shiner. The bruising there was just fading into green and yellow.

Buck sat up straight, almost losing his coffee. "He's awake?"


"No more talkin' crazy?"

"No more'n before," Vin said. He draped himself against a porch post.

"Well, hallelujah," Buck exclaimed. A grin to match Vin's creased his handsome features. "If that ain't the best news today."

"You suppose he wants some breakfast?" JD asked. "I could get something from the hotel kitchen and take it over."

"He's sleepin'," Vin laughed. "Now, me, I could use some vittles. I wanted to tell you boys, don't leave Maude alone with him. Nate already knows."

JD frowned in confusion. "Why shouldn't Maude visit with Ezra?"

He genuinely had no idea what Vin had in mind. Buck's hard expression meant JD's mentor did.

"Figure she might bamboozle Ez into something 'cause he's sick, Vin?"

Vin nodded. "Somethin' like that," he agreed.

"Can't let that happen," Buck stated. "None of us stood for him last time she pulled one of her tricks. Figure we owe him."

JD winced.

Buck slapped his shoulder.

"Don't look so guilty, JD. She fooled ya, same as she did 'siah and Nate. It's what a woman like Maude does, same as Ez – 'cept Ez is on our side."

JD still felt guilty. There'd been a few too many times they hadn't acted like they were on Ezra's side. That was the problem. That was probably why he was leaving.

Vin straightened up. "You two want to join me?" he asked.

JD shook his head.

Buck leaned back again and lifted his coffee cup. "Too early for me, hoss. Might see ya for dinner. Maybe take some over to Nate's, make sure Ez gets something more than those nasty teas and broths Nate sets so much store by."

Vin brushed two fingers along the brim of his hat, a gesture they'd all picked up from Ezra, and headed for the restaurant.

Buck sipped his coffee and began humming 'Buffalo Gals' again.

JD sat back and watched as the town slowly woke up; stores opened and a buckboard pulled by two mules rattled in from the south. He smiled. The sunlight inched across the sidewalk, touching his boots, and he curled his toes, waiting for the warmth to soak through the leather.


Buck nudged JD in the ribs as a man stepped down from the morning stage. As always, he used just a little more force than was comfortable and almost tipped JD out of his chair.

"Damn it, Buck!" he exclaimed, floundering himself back upright.

"Look there."

JD looked but didn't see anything out of the ordinary about the stage passenger. Just a fairly broad man of average height wearing an Easterner's suit of gray-checked wool. A bowler hat that matched the suit sat straight on his head. When he turned his head toward the jail, he revealed a pink-tinged face dominated by a broken nose and a flourishing walrus mustache.

The stage driver handed a single case down to him and he nodded, saying something. The driver pointed to the jail, where JD and Buck were ensconced. The man in the bowler hat nodded again and started down the street toward them.

"How'd you know he was coming to the jail, Buck?" JD demanded.

Buck chuckled. "Hell, boy, I didn't. I just couldn't believe there's another fella on the face of the earth that wears one of them silly hats."

"I like him already," JD responded immediately. With the ease of years' practice, he ducked the hand Buck swiped at his head. "Too slow, old man," he jeered.

Buck got his feet as the stranger stepped up onto the sidewalk. For a brief moment, the two men measured each other.

"Something we can do for you, mister?" Buck asked casually.

The stranger looked from him to JD. His eyes focused on JD's badge.

"I was told the sheriff was here?"

JD stood up. "I'm the sheriff. JD Dunne," he introduced himself.

He received the same stare Buck had. JD gave it back. He noted the man had a shoulder holster under his coat like the one Ezra wore. His own gaze hardened a little.

"Emmet Hoskins," the stranger replied and extended his hand.

He had a good handshake.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Hoskins?" JD asked.

Hoskins reached into his jacket and withdrew a packet of papers. "I'm with the Pinkerton Agency, Sheriff Dunne," he explained.

Buck took a step to the side that had Hoskins flanked between him and JD with a clear firing line. He did it as casually as a man shifting his weight to get more comfortable and Hoskins didn't even notice. JD did. He and Buck worked together as naturally as a man's right and left hands after so long.

"Ain't had much luck with Pinkertons here," Buck observed. "Last one was murdering bastard. Killed women. Tried to make it look like a friend of ours did it."

Hoskins blinked at that disconcerting revelation. "Ah. I'm not here to make any trouble."

"That's good," Bucked stated. He dropped his hand down to his gun belt.

Hoskins followed the movement. He nodded.

"Buck," JD warned him.

Buck just shrugged. His hand stayed at his gun belt.

JD looked at Hoskins expectantly. The Pinkerton agent impressed him. Buck's posturing hadn't cowed him in the least. Either he had more grit than a sandy river bottom or his intentions were honest and aboveboard.

Hoskins held up the papers. "The Pinkerton Agency has been retained by Mr. Charles Corcoran of San Francisco to find a man named Ezra Standish."

Buck didn't blink. Just exhaled slow and hard, stirring the hairs of his mustache. JD fought hard to keep his face blank.

Hoskins waited a moment.

"I've been given to understand Mr. Standish makes Four Corners his home," he said. "He is apparently a professional gambler and sometimes uses various other names. Eli Simms, Elijah Simpson, Evan Stanton. He's a difficult man to trace."

"Reckon so," Buck drawled. "Don't know anybody named any of those names."

Hoskins took a deep breath.

"The sheriff in Ridge City claimed a man named Standish was among the lawmen here."

"The only man hereabouts wearing a badge is JD." Buck inclined his head toward JD.

The rest of them were technically in the hire of Judge Orin Travis. They were a misfit lot. JD had tried asking some of them why they wouldn't take up deputy badges then he'd put together his own explanations.

Buck had sworn he wouldn't wear a badge again when he left the Rangers. He didn't talk about it.

Vin had given him a sharp, pale look when JD asked him. "You forget I'm a wanted man?" he'd growled and gone about saddling Peso.

Chris. Well, JD wasn't stupid enough to think Chris would wear a deputy's badge and take orders from anyone, especially a green kid. Chris was their leader and JD knew pinning on a silver star didn't make any difference to that.

Ezra had just laughed. "Oh, my dear boy, I'm not sure whether that prospect is more hilarious or horrifying," he'd replied through his chortles.

Nathan wouldn't take a badge. There'd be more trouble from a man of color as deputy than his authority would cure. JD didn't like it, but he saw the truth and so did Nathan.

Josiah muttered something about hangings, Matamoros, and the sins of the father, then went and got drunk. JD didn't ask again.

That left him, so he wore the star. But he was well aware he couldn't have done it without the other men watching his back. He took his responsibilities seriously, but he'd learned the line between law and right from his friends.

Buck's dark blue eyes were locked on Hoskins, waiting for him to respond.

Hoskins nodded and turned to JD.

"I see," Hoskins said quietly. "Sheriff?"

JD shrugged. "This man wanted for something, Mr. Hoskins? Because if he isn't, finding him isn't part of my job."

Being sheriff didn't mean running errands for strangers or turning on his friends. Ezra was in no shape to take care of himself. If Hoskins was a threat, then the Pinkerton agent would find he'd broken some law of the town that would see him locked up until Ezra could ride out or Judge Travis' circuit reached Four Corners.

"Mr. Standish is the possessor a deed to a parcel of land called Stairstep Canyon. Mr. Corcoran wishes to purchase it," Hoskins explained. He thumbed his mustache in a gesture much like Buck's. "The land in question is the only stretch fit to run a spur line to his newest silver mine."

JD sucked in a breath and Buck began cursing steadily.

Hoskins waited until Buck finally fell silent.

JD asked the question because he had to.

"Many folks know about that?"

"I believe that by now it is common knowledge in Virginia City. The previous owner of the property, Walter Harrison, was jailed briefly for fraud when it was discovered he had attempted to forge a deed to land he no longer possessed."

Buck began cursing again under his breath.

"You're serious?' JD asked.

Hoskins frowned. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Just – never mind." JD glanced at Buck, who nodded.

"Look, Hoskins, why don't we head over to the Saloon and wash some the dust out of your throat?" Buck said amiably.

JD swept his hat up and set it on his head.

"Wait, damn it," Hoskins exclaimed. "Do you know where Mr. Standish is? I've been trying to catch up with him for the last two months and I'm tired of chasing a will-o-wisp."

"Yeah, we know where our favorite weasel is," Buck admitted. "Thing is, someone's been tryin' to kill him. Now, if there's folks that know about this here deed that's so valuable, maybe we got a reason." He clapped his hand on Hoskins' shoulder and guided him – with some force – down the sidewalk. "Now I think you just might know something about that too."

"I have no idea why someone would want to kill your Mr. Standish," Hoskins said.

"Well, hell, you ain't met him yet," Buck laughed.

JD trailed behind them, thinking on what this could mean. He remembered Ezra's Ma at the poker table, sweet talking everyone, offering Ezra his lost saloon for a thief's price. Offering to take that worthless deed if he didn't have that price. JD reckoned it was the deed that had brought her to Four Corners.

Well, he'd learned that some folks were just plain bad since he came west. Being someone's ma didn't make Maude any better than she was. She was pretty and smart and fun to be around, but she was no good. Not mean, really, but no good, JD thought sadly.

An hour later, Buck left to slip down to Nathan's rooms over the livery and tell Ezra about Hoskins. JD stayed with the Pinkerton man. Hoskins checked into Virginia's Hotel – JD made a note of his room number – and then visited the Telegraph office.

Hoskins even handed him the reply Corcoran sent with a wry smile. JD waved him on his way with a grin and sent a couple of telegraphs of his own – one to the Pinkertons and one to Ridge City.

Just because Hoskins said he'd been there didn't mean he had. Ezra had taught JD that.

"Always check the easy lies first, JD. If you know a man is lying, you must ask yourself why. When you know that, you will know what that man is going to do. Being fast with your guns won't save you from being shot in the back from ambush, but knowing what your enemy means to do will."

He thought Ezra would be pleased that he'd remembered that quiet, half-drunken lesson in survival. Just like every one of his friends, Ezra had taught him lessons the other man had learned the hard way. JD had absorbed them, cherishing the priceless gifts they'd each offered him in their own ways.

So he waited in the Telegraph office for his answers, because as Ezra said: it was always best to be sure.

Waited and worried on the way things were changing. There was one lesson JD had learned that Ezra just never had. It wasn't a bad thing to accept the gift of friendship or let those friends watch your back or just keep you company. Ezra was the odd man out and JD thought he just didn't know how to be anything else.

As long as he was around, though, JD would do his part and watch out for him, just like Ezra would do for him.

12. Four Corners, 1877

Turning on the charm
Long enough to get you back
You're still the same
You still aim high

Still The Same, Bob Seger

Larabee stood in the doorway of Ezra's room and watched Maude Standish pick the lock to Ezra's trunk. The blond woman was so intent on her task she hadn't heard him arrive. She knelt in a pool of yellow skirt on the old braided rug set before the trunk that Ezra kept at the foot of his featherbed. Once she had the trunk open, Maude began tearing through it, clearly searching for something.

Larabee had a good idea what the woman wanted to find.

"It ain't there," he said.

Maude jerked and fell back, scrambling around to face the door. She laid her hand over her breast and assumed a look of shock and innocence. The first wasn't hard, but the latter didn't impress Larabee.

"My, Mr. Larabee, you gave me quite a start," Maude declared. She gathered her skirt into better order and tried to present a more dignified appearance than being sprawled on the floor.

Larabee gave her a hard look.

"That sort of thing happens, when you get caught trying to steal something," he said.

"Steal – ? Oh, you've taken a terrible misapprehension. No," Maude said quickly, "I was merely trying to-to fetch something for my darlin' boy. A book, something for him to read until that Mr. Jackson declares him well enough to return to his own abode."

Larabee curled his lip. "Plenty of books right there by lamp," he said, nodding his head at the small table beside the old rocking chair Ezra had set beside the window.

Several leather-bound volumes were stacked there, next to an oil lamp with a green glass shade. A length of blue grosgrain ribbon marked the gambler's place in the top one, a copy of something by Samuel Johnson. A thin coat of the ever-present dust testified that no one had touched anything since Ezra had sickened.

Maude stood and smiled at him.

"Ezra requested I retrieve a specific volume," she said.

"It ain't there," Larabee said again, still leaning against the door jamb.

"No," Maude admitted and got to her feet. "My poor darlin' must be confused, he's been so ill. He told me it was in his trunk." She dusted off her skirt and offered Larabee a bright, patently false smile. "I shall just tell him to make do with one of these." She picked up the Johnson book and swept past Larabee into the hall. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to Ezra's bedside, Mr. Larabee."

"Don't bother coming back and looking again, Mrs. Standish," Larabee said to her retreating back.

Maude stiffened. "What do you mean, Mr. Larabee?"

"That deed you're so interested in getting your hands on," Larabee replied. "Ezra figured you'd try something. He gave me the deed and some other papers before he got sick." A cold smile touched his lips. "Told him I'd keep'em safe 'til he was on his feet."

"Well, really," Maude huffed.

"Matter of fact," Chris told her, "I think I might run you in."

Maude spun and glared at him. "You wouldn't dare."

A slow smile lifted Chris's mouth, an unaccustomed expression that sparked a glint of panic in Maude's eyes.

"If you don't want to come with me to the jail, then you better join me and the boys downstairs. You better have an explanation."

He started walking toward her. Maude opened her mouth then retreated toward the stairs. She descended to the Saloon ahead of him. After one longing look at the doors, she crossed the floor to the table where JD, Josiah, Vin and Buck were sitting.

They all stood for her, though Vin rose so slowly Maude began tapping her foot.

"What's going on?" JD asked. Nervousness made his voice almost crack.

"Your barbarian of a leader – ," Maude started.

"Caught her tryin' to steal something of Ezra's," Chris interrupted.

Vin went still.

Buck shook his head. "Now, if that don't beat all."

Josiah frowned at Chris. "Are you sure, Brother Chris? That is a strong accusation."

He shrugged. "Watched her break into his room, then pick the lock on his trunk. She was looking for something." Chris waited a beat and added, "It wasn't there. Ezra gave it to me for safekeeping."

Maude's hands had clenched into fists.

Josiah looked at her sadly. "Maude, maybe you better sit and tell us what's really going on?" he told her. One big hand swept a curve-backed chair out for her.

Maude looked at all of them, trying to find an ally. JD was staring at her solemnly and Buck's usual good-humor had disappeared. Even Josiah looked disillusioned. With a sharp sigh, she seated herself.

"Why don't you tell them what you were after, Maude?" Chris suggested.

"A book for my son," she snapped.

He shook his head. She hadn't been looking for a book. She'd been looking for a deed. The night before Ezra had been poisoned, he'd handed it to Chris and asked him to keep it. "I had considered it worthless, but Mother's interest indicates I should re-evaluate. Her determination and resourcefulness should never be underestimated."

Chris hadn't believed Maude would go so far as trying to steal the deed, but he'd accepted the papers and taken them out to his ranch for safekeeping. As usual, Ezra had been right.

"Try again," he said.

Maude glared at him.

"Try again."

"Fine. I wanted the deed," she snapped.

Josiah sighed and dropped his hand onto the table top with a violent thump. "Maude, you disappoint me."

"Why'd you want the deed?" Chris asked.

Buck glanced at JD. When JD bit his lip, Chris's old friend spoke up. Buck sounded tired and saddened. "That deed is worth a damn sight, Chris. Bunch a miners and railroad bigwigs need it to lay a spur line to the biggest silver strike to hit Nevada in the last five years."

Maude's expression had set and her fingers were flexing on the plain wood tabletop. Chris almost expected her to hiss.

He raised an eyebrow at Buck. "How'd you find that out, Buck?"

"Pinkerton fella showed up at the jail this morning, hunting Ez. One of the railroad men, Corcoran, hired them to find Ezra so they could buy the deed off him," Buck explained. He looked hard at Maude. "Seems like quite a few folk have heard about it, since the fella Ez won the deed off of tried to sell it until it came out he'd lost it in a poker game."

"Where's this fella now?" Vin asked softly.

"Hoskins – that's the Pinkerton – said this fella Ez won the deed off of was in the hoosegow," Buck explained.

"The Pinkerton agent is put up at Virginia's," JD added. "I wired back East, made sure he was who he says he is."

Vin gave a short nod.

Chris met Buck's eyes briefly and almost smiled. JD had come a long way from the green Easterner that tumbled off the stage into Four Corners and the lives of six dangerous men. The naïveté had rubbed away, but the fundamental decency remained unstained. JD still looked like a kid, but three years on he deserved the badge he wore and knew how use his brain as well as his speed with his Colt Lightnings. Buck, more than any of them, had the right to be proud of that.

JD went on, "We figured Nathan wasn't going to let Hoskins in to see Ez today. So he said he'd get a room and wait. He sent a telegraph to Mr. Corcoran in Virginia City. Got one back too. Showed it to me. It told him to offer Ez whatever he wanted."

Vin leaned forward with his elbows on the table. "Is that what you were figuring?" he asked Maude harshly. "You'd con Ez out of that deed in exchange for the Saloon you stole from him? 'Course, he saw through ya, so ya decided ya'd just steal it instead?"

"Brother Vin – ," Josiah cautioned.

Vin's fierce, low voice went on, overriding Josiah. His words sent a cold chill down Chris's spine.

"Or maybe ya figured this Corcoran fella'd pay enough that it'd be worth killin' Ez for that deed. We know ya ain't 'bove marryin' for money. Maybe ya ain't 'bove murderin' to inherit it neither."

The only sound that followed was the hard creak of stressed wood where Josiah's hand was locked on the edge of the table as he drew in hard, harsh breaths. The grizzled older man was fighting hard to hold his temper.

To Chris, it felt like the hollow instant before a gunfight.

JD's lips parted, but no words came. His wide hazel eyes flickered from Vin's set visage to Buck's slowly hardening expression and Josiah's stormy frown until they met Chris's across the table. The boy looked horrified. JD hadn't seen the ugliness the rest of them had. Maybe it wasn't in him to imagine the level of greed necessary for someone to poison their own child. Chris knew it could happen. Worse did.

"Damn," Buck breathed. The hard glint in his blue eyes showed he believed it.

Chris wasn't sure – he didn't want to think it, but Ella Gaines proved there were women worse than the baddest outlaws – and Maude was Ezra's logical heir.

Maude just sat frozen, whiter than a Chinese doll.

Buck scraped his chair back and stood. "I'm thinking maybe someone needs to be guarding Ezra." Or maybe he just didn't want to sit at the table with Maude any longer.

"That isn't such a bad idea," Chris agreed.

"You sit down!" Josiah bellowed, pointing a shaking finger at Buck.

Vin flicked a glance at Buck. "I already done told Nathan to keep her away from him."

"How dare you?" Maude erupted. She reached for her reticule but Vin's hand snaked across the tabletop faster than Chris could think, wrapping hard around her wrist.

"Lord God, Vin Tanner, you take your hands off that woman," Josiah thundered. He lurched to his feet, big hands clenching into fists. "You got no call making accusations like that."

Vin's hand stayed on Maude's wrist. "You check her bag, Chris, see if she's got one of them bitty hold-out guns in there – then I'll let go of her."

"Hold up, Josiah," Chris snapped.

Josiah's fist was already moving and would have knocked Vin ass over teakettle if Buck hadn't latched onto his arm and pulled him away.

"Now, ease up, hoss," Buck urged.

JD dragged his seat back and got to his feet, but seemed unsure which way to jump.

Chris cautiously opened Maude's velvet bag and slid out the neat little two-shot derringer. Mother-of-pearl inlaid on the butt, silver-chased curliques on the barrel. No sight to catch on anything, but derringers were meant for close up work, not target shooting. It was a pretty little thing for a gun, made up special for a woman. Plenty of men couldn't even fit their finger through the trigger guard.

Josiah made a pained sound as Buck released the hold on him.

"Damn," JD whispered.

Chris covered the little pistol with his hand and leveled an icy glare at Maude. "Are you stupid enough to think you could shoot one of us and get away with it?" he asked. If she was then Vin's charge seemed much more likely. He'd never thought Maude was crazy before, but ...

Vin slowly let go of Maude's wrist and settled back in his chair.

"There, 'siah, see?" he stated. "I don't aim to get plugged."

"Maude," Josiah said sorrowfully.

She was rigid, lips set in a straight, bloodless line. Her eyes snapped with fury. They'd all be dead if a look had been enough, Chris reckoned.

"I have nothing to say to any of you," she snapped.

"I think you better do that from the jail then," Chris replied.

Maude lifted her chin and glared. "On what charge?"

"Attempted murder."

"Because that buckskin-clad savage is afraid of a mere woman?" Maude demanded scornfully.

"You're no 'mere' anything, Mrs. Standish," JD said, surprising all of them with his harshness. He stepped around Buck's empty chair and set his hand on her shoulder. "You'd best come along now."

"This is an outrage!"

Chris watched JD pull Maude to her feet.

"Reckon we're all outraged right now, ma'am," JD replied. "Buck, I'd appreciate if you'd walk with us down to the jail. We don't want Mrs. Standish making any accusations or trying for my guns. We'll stop by the Clarion and ask Mary to help do things proper." He wrapped his hand around one of Maude's wrists, just as Vin had. "Chris, if you'd bring that little gun down later, we'll lock it up as evidence."

"You can't do this," Maude protested. She jerked against JD's hold, only to find herself backed into Buck's solid presence. "You can't! Mr. Dunne – "

"Ma'am, I am the sheriff," JD reminded her.

Buck took hold of Maude's other arm.

"Don't be making a scene here, Maude," he added in a low voice that hinted at steel underneath. Between him and JD, they propelled the stiff and uncooperative woman out of the saloon.

Through it all, Josiah stood aside, like someone lost.

With a sigh, Chris picked up the mug of beer Buck had left and finished it. He had a bad taste in his mouth.

He looked up at Josiah. "Josiah – "

Josiah held up his hand in a plea for silence. His forehead pleated into a frown and he closed his eyes for a heartbeat. "She did it again," he said. His shoulders slumped under the weight of assumed guilt. "Brother Vin ... forgive my anger."

Vin shrugged. "Ain't nothin' to forgive."

"I was blinded by my own needs," Josiah explained. "I wanted to see Maude and Ezra reconciled, as though that would make up for all my mistakes as a father."

Chris nodded to himself. He'd always suspected Josiah had had a family once. Maybe Ezra reminded him of his child, maybe it was just Ezra was the only one of them with a still living parent, but Josiah had cast mother and son in place of his own family. He was seeing ghosts and not them.

"I understand that now, Brother," Josiah went on, "but I do not believe Maude tried to kill Ezra. She is a flawed mother, but not a monster. To kill your own child – that is a sin only the desperate or evil can contemplate."

"Folks kill other folks for a lot of strange reasons, 'siah. Brought in a bounty once for a murder in Reno – he said he shot the man just to watch 'im die." Vin looked tired and older than his years, slumped down in his chair. "Money makes more sense than that. Least ways, Ezra'd figure it would."

Josiah just shook his head, jaw set.

"Maude's not a murderess." Chris tapped his finger on the derringer.

"Ezra wasn't shot," Josiah pointed out. He rolled his wide shoulders, head coming forward into a stubborn stance.

"She needs to do some explaining," Chris declared quietly. He tried to quell both men with a cold glance, but Vin was immune to intimidation and Josiah had that determined expression.

"Brother Ezra needs to know what you've done with Maude," Josiah decided. He nodded at Chris less than respectfully and strode out.

Chris twisted his mouth and glared at Vin. "What about you?"

"What about me, cowboy?" Vin asked, unruffled.

"You got anything more to say?"

Vin's eyes were usually as easy to read as his expression. Maybe he'd been taking lessons from Ezra. His expression this time was as impassive as the professional gambler's. His eyes hid his thoughts. Chris couldn't read him.

"Got somethin' I'm thinkin' on," Vin said. "Ain't sayin' 'til I know for sure. It's some bad. If I'm right." He shoved his chair back and stood up. "Really want to be wrong 'bout this one, Chris."

"You let me know," Chris replied.

Vin settled his hat onto his long hair. "I'm takin' Ez's patrol. Going to stop in at Nettie's."

"See you for supper then."

Nettie would insist Vin sit down to dinner with her and Casey.

"Yep." Vin dipped his head and walked away.

Chris looked down at the engraving-decorated derringer. A flick of his forefinger had it spinning on its side. It came to stop pointing between chairs instead of where anyone had been sitting.

He let out a breath and chuckled to himself.

It didn't mean a thing. He still had a bad taste in his mouth and Vin's cryptic evasions hadn't helped his mood.


JD slanted a dirty look at the blond woman sitting prim and rigid inside the cell. He switched his attention back to Buck while impatiently kicking his bootheels against the side of the desk he sat on. Buck had propped himself near the door, slowly drinking coffee from a white-flecked enamel cup. His dark blue eyes rested on Maude. A frown creased his forehead.

Chris topped his own mug up from the coffee pot on the jail stove and sat down behind the desk. Once he shuffled a pile of Wanted posters to the side, it made an excellent boot rest. He reminded himself to take care to not kick over the oil lamp burning at the corner of the desk.

"How long do you think you can keep me locked up in here?" Maude demanded.

Chris sipped his coffee.


Buck had made the coffee. Chris took another sip, savoring it. He made a drinkable camp coffee himself and so did Nathan. Vin and Josiah brewed up a bitter, tar-like brew and JD's pots were always weak. Buck and Ezra were the only ones who could brew a good cup of coffee and rousting Ezra early enough to do so wasn't worth the trouble.

"Until you tell us the truth," he said eventually.

"That's so damn low," JD exclaimed, glaring at Maude again, "trying to kill your own son – "

"I didn't try to kill Ezra!" Maude shouted. She jumped to her feet and began pacing. A blonde strand came loose from her elaborately upswept hair and trailed down the center of her back. She didn't notice.

"If you didn't, you know who did," Chris said.

Maude swung around and directed a look of absolute hatred at him. No doubt she would happily have killed Chris right then.

"I didn't. I never meant to hurt Ezra. He told me it was – "

"He who?" Buck pounced.

The jail door swung open to admit Josiah and Nathan. Nathan looked worried and unhappy enough that Chris swung his feet off the desk and demanded, "Ezra?"

"Vin's with him, Brother Chris," Josiah answered.

Chris frowned. He didn't like the feeling he got off the two men who had just arrived. He didn't like much of anything that had happened in the last few days and there wasn't even anyone to shoot over it.

"Did you tell him we got Maude locked up?"

Josiah glanced at Nathan then shook his head. "Changed my mind. Thought we should talk on this, get it straight, before burdening the man with ... thinking that. Hoskins was there for a while, trying to persuade Ezra to sell the Stairstep Canyon deed to Mr. Corcoran."

Nathan nodded from the place he'd taken a few steps away from Buck.

"You can't just lock Maude up on Vin's say so, Chris," Nathan said.

"Thank you, Mr. Jackson," Maude commented.

"Maybe," Chris said, "but we're not letting her loose until she starts telling the truth, beginning with that damn deed."

"Well?" Buck prompted Maude.

She was staring at Josiah. "Did he – did Ezra sell?"

"That's all you can ask?" JD exclaimed in contempt. "You ain't a mother." He shook his head, dark long bangs flapping into his eyes. The scorn in his voice was echoed in his expression. "I don't what you are, but I'm keeping you in there and away from Ez. Can't see how he even grew up, having you to depend on.."

"It's all black and white, isn't it, Mr. Dunne?" Maude replied. She sounded tired. Her normally impeccable posture had succumbed to exhaustion and her shoulders slumped. She walked back to the little cot set against the wall under a high, barred window and sat down. "Good and evil."

She smiled, an empty and unamused expression Chris recognized from his own mirror some mornings.

"No mitigating circumstances, no reasons are good enough if you deem an action evil. Anyone who crosses your moral borderline is absolutely evil."

"I didn't say that," JD said in a small voice.

Maude shook her head. "I didn't try to kill my son, Mr. Dunne. I ... miscalculated. I learned that the deed he had in his possession was no longer worthless and saw an opportunity. I thought that he would be happy to secure the ownership of the saloon again. I would sell the deed for a tidy profit. Everything would be fine."

"It didn't bother ya to lie to Ez, to cheat him out of the money that deed's really worth?" Buck demanded.

"No, it did not, Mr. Wilmington," Maude snapped back. A glint of anger – and pride – shone in her blue-green eyes. "Ezra is well aware of my proclivities. Indeed, he would – he would have done as much to me. Most people are sheep, but not Ezra."
"Never said he was, but he's a curly wolf, not a mad dog," Buck said. "And, like Vin would say, wolves are loyal to their pack at least." He straightened up from his slouch against the wall. "Hell, I've heard enough. Chris, I got the night patrol." He stalked over to the stove, opened it and dumped the dregs of his coffee inside with an almighty sizzle and stink. The empty mug was roughly set on the shelf next to the stove with the can of coffee beans and JD's little jar of sugar.

As he pulled on his coat, he looked back and met Chris's eyes. "You going to stay here with JD tonight?"

"Buck, I don't need no damn babysitter," JD protested.

Chris nodded.

Buck gave a sharp nod back and walked out.

Chris turned his eyes back to Maude, who looked like a wilted yellow flower stuck in the dingy cell.

"Ezra won't tolerate this, you know," Maude said.

He ignored her. "Nathan."

Nathan's eyes flashed from Maude to Chris. "Yeah?"

"You figure out whatever poisoned Ezra?"

"I got a pretty good idea," Nathan responded cautiously.

"What do you figure?"

Nathan glanced at Maude again, looking conflicted. Then he shoved his hands deep in his pockets and hunched his shoulders faintly. "Well, it can kill a man, if he takes enough. Almost killed Ezra. But a little bit, would just make him damn sick, give him sweats and crazy dreams." He pursed his lips. "Ezra could have just got more than – " he looked at Maude again, " – someone meant for him."

"There!" Maude said triumphantly. "Mr. Jackson knows I didn't mean to kill Ezra. Now let me out of here."

"Nah-anh," JD contradicted. "You're staying right in there where we can keep an eye on you, until Ez decides if he wants to press charges."

"You don't have any evidence."

Chris slammed his coffee cup down. One of the Wanted posters fluttered off the desk and the lamp flame flickered wildly. JD caught at the rocking glass chimney before it could fall and break. He snatched his fingers away from the hot glass an instant later and sucked on them thoughtlessly, soothing the mild burn.

"Tell it to the judge," Chris snarled, sick of Maude and worrying about Ezra and the damn dumb greed swirling around a fucking piece of paper. "He'll be coming through – in three weeks."

He turned on Josiah next.

"You. Not one word. Get out of here and get some sleep. You have the early morning patrol."

Josiah gave Maude a hangdog look. "I'm sorry, Maude, but it may be for the best if you stay here. I'll get Inez to bring you some things from your hotel room in the morning."

"Mr. Sanchez! Josiah!" Maude screeched. "You're abandoning me here?"

"If someone makes another try at killing Ezra and you're here, no one can blame you," Josiah explained. "I am sorry, Maude."

"Traitor," she hissed then turned her back on Josiah and the room.

Nathan wouldn't meet Chris's eyes and followed Josiah out into the night, leaving only JD and the silently fuming Maude. Chris considered her for a minute and decided to ease up.

"JD, why don't you go down to the Gem and see if you can get three suppers put together for us and bring 'em back," he said. "No reason to starve anyone here."

"Don't bother trying to play the gentleman for me, Mr. Larabee," Maude sniped.

"I wasn't."

He pulled a couple of coins out of his pocket and tossed them to JD then inclined his head toward the door. JD flashed a grin and left with a bang.

Alone with Maude, Chris fed a few more pieces of wood into the stove and said, "I don't know if you tried to kill Ezra or not, but you almost did. Think about that."

Maude didn't answer.

With a sigh, Chris picked up a bit of kindling and began whittling it, not sure what he meant it to be. The thin shavings of soft pine dropped onto the floor and on his thighs. The sharp clean scent mingled with the kerosene in the lamp, the coffee, and the musty smell of the jail itself. He smoothed his thumb over the raw wood, trying to feel the grain. The pine was paler than his tanned hands, pale as Maude's hair. He couldn't decide what to carve. He hoped Ezra would just sell that damned deed to Hoskins or Corcoran or whoever and get this mess over with. He was sick of it.

He kept whittling at the wood in his hands until JD came back and all he had in the end was a handful of sweet smelling, curling shavings. 

13. Four Corners, 1877

"You got to know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em,
"Know when to walk away; know when to run.
"You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
"There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

The Gambler, Kenny Rogers (written by Don Schlitz)

"You have my mother in the jail," Ezra said slowly, staring at Vin. Wry disbelief, admiration and bemusement colored his tone.

He had locked up Maude himself once, but never imagined any of the others would. He'd simply chalked her nonappearance at his sickbed to her aversion to any sort of illness or weakness. A small spark of anger mingled with the other emotions, directed at the six men who had failed to mention Maude's incarceration before this. Why had stayed silent? Did they think he had been oblivious to her absence?

Ezra finished knotting his black string-tie, settled his bottle-green coat around his shoulders, and started for the door.

"Nathan say you could leave?" Vin asked.

Ezra paused. "I believe Mr. Jackson expressed the opinion that I was welcome to walk out of this place ... if I could." He spread his arms and turned, flashing a dimpled, cocky smile at Vin to show he was back to himself and ready to stroll out the door. "Since you were kind enough to fetch my present attire from my room, I am about to do just that."

"Nate's probably going to skin me for that," Vin expressed.

"Oh, I doubt that, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. He opened the door and gestured sweepingly for Vin to precede him. "After three days in these confines together, Mr. Jackson will no doubt be extremely relieved to be shut of my company."

As I am of his, Ezra finished the thought. Nathan had been curiously close-mouthed around him these last days. Ezra didn't know what to make of the new attitude after so long as Nathan's scapegoat.

Frankly it made him suspicious. Bitten back comments and excessive concern were not Nathan's usual modus operandi. Nathan wasn't a man who experienced much guilt in Ezra's estimation, but he would swear the healer was feeling guilty about something.

He'd come to the tentative conclusion that Nathan was refraining from continuing their quarrels simply because Ezra had announced his imminent departure. Nathan probably saw no more point in browbeating him. Ezra wasn't about to reform or conform to Nathan's ideals in his remaining time in Four Corners – they both knew it.

While some small voice inside insisted that Nathan's odd behavior owed itself to something more than that, Ezra muffled it. It didn't matter and he didn't care. Soon he would be away.

With the arrival of Mr. Hoskins and his news about Ezra's deed, his next destination was clear. He would leave for Virginia City once he had dealt with the matter of his mother. There he would sell the critical stretch of Stairstep Canyon for the most advantageous price. After that ... With a fat wallet he might journey anywhere. Europe beckoned, a beacon of civility and culture after his long sojourn in the Western wilderness. He'd never been to Paris.

"Hey, Ez," Vin asked as he came down the stairs behind Ezra, "why're ya calling me Mister Tanner again?"

"Am I?" Ezra replied.

He tugged at his shirt cuff, then brushed his coat sleeve. The feel of his derringer rig back in place brought a faint smile to his face. He'd rather be walking through town in nothing but a tablecloth and boots again than without his guns.

He knew why he started calling Vin by his surname again. It helped distance him from the man. Formality was an armor he did not forego with many. It was time to rebuild some walls. When he left, he would need to remember to watch his own back again.

With a sigh, he started down the sidewalk in the direction of the jail.

Maude would be seething by now. He really wasn't looking forward to this.

"Hell yeah."

"My apologies."

Vin caught up and walked parallel to him. Ezra was amused to note Vin subtly trying to herd him toward the inside of the sidewalk, as if he was a lady in need of protection. Ezra merely lengthened his stride. After three days confined in Nathan's clinic, he wanted real sun and fresh air, not the shadows under the overhang. He wanted to move, to be out and about, in a way that made him understand desire for the wilderness. Unfortunately, his first order of business was visiting Maude.

In the jail.

His lips quirked into a reluctant smile. JD had actually arrested her. That young man had come a long way if he could stand up to Maude Standish. Mother was losing her touch. She considered JD a wet-behind-the-ears boy, but hadn't been able to sweet-talk her way out.

He paused before the jail door, straightening his shoulders and taking a deep breath before stepping inside.

Maude shot to her feet from the cot. "Ezra, darlin', you've come to effect my emancipation from this vile cell."

"Well, Mother, that remains to be seen," he replied.

Vin was a warm presence behind him. Ezra might have wanted to speak to Maude alone, but he knew Vin wasn't going to allow that. He moved a few paces forward, letting Vin slip in silently.

"Hey, Ez," JD exclaimed, jumping to his feet and coming around the desk. Delight showed in the wide smile and shining eyes.

Ezra braced himself for the hug JD obviously wanted to give him. JD stopped a pace away and held out his hand.

Ezra took it, then slid his hand up and locked around JD's wrist, just as JD did the same. Somehow, that warrior's hand grip they'd seen Vin and Chris use had come to mean much more than a mere handshake. The bond it symbolized was more than mere formality.

"Jiminy, I'm happy to see you," JD blurted out.

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You saw me yesterday, JD, when you brought me lunch at Mr. Jackson's clinic."

JD shot a dark look at Maude. She returned it with interest. Ezra shared a laughing glance with Vin that Maude saw. Her lips pressed together. Two spots of high color flared over her cheekbones, a sure sign she was furious, Ezra knew.

JD said, "I'm not too fond of your Ma right now, Ez. I'd appreciate it if you'd talk to her and decide if you want us to keep her locked up."

"Perhaps if I had been informed before this, I might have relieved you of this onerous duty before this, JD."

JD shrugged. "You were pretty sick, Ez."

Ezra smiled. JD had visited each day, he knew, even those days he didn't remember.

"Ezra!" Maude snapped impatiently.

He rolled his eyes. "JD, why don't you go on over to the Saloon and see if Inez has something fixed for lunch? I need to speak with my Mother. Tell her I'm yearning for her enchiladas con pollo."

JD slanted a look past Ezra to Vin then nodded. "I'll be back in an hour or so," he promised.

"No need to hurry," Ezra assured him.

JD laughed and was out the door.

Maude turned her glare on Vin next, her chin coming up. Truly a remarkable woman, Ezra reflected. There she stood in a dusty Western jail cell, arrested on the suspicion of poisoning her own son, held there for days, yet she presented the appearance of a perfect lady. Her hair was dressed in a classically smooth chignon. Her lips were delicately rouged. She wore fine dress of watered-silk in a shade of Prussian blue, snow white lace adorning her wrists and the high neck. Garnet earrings dangled from her ears, matching the garnet and pearl broach at her throat.

Ezra took off his hat and set on the desk. The room was too warm, heat shimmering off the well stoked stove, after the brisk air outside. He didn't consider shrugging off his wool coat though. If Maude could maintain her appearances, so could he.

"Mother," he said, approaching the bars separating them.

"Ezra, I refuse to speak while that uncouth savage is in the same room," Maude hissed at him.

"I consider Mr. Tanner a true gentleman, Mother. Moreover, he, as I am, is free to leave. You are not. I implore you to reconsider this – " he paused delicately, " – intransigence."

Another seething look sent Vin's way and she acquiesced.

"Very well, Ezra."

He waited, eyebrows raised.

Maude gritted her teeth.

"Oh, for the love of Heaven, Mother," Ezra finally said in exasperation. "Say you did, say you didn't. Say something. I've spoken with Mr. Hoskins of the Pinkerton Agency, I know that the deed you tried to extract from me has assumed a remarkable value. The only question is whether you were willing to kill me for it."

Maude drew in a pained breath. She even squeezed her eyes shut. A tear trickled down her cheek. She wiped at it fussily when she opened her eyes.

"Ezra, how can you ask me that?" she asked.

Ezra cocked his head. "I know you, Mother. You've never resorted to violence or drugs, but you can be quite resourceful when pressed."

Vin stirred restlessly, looking from Maude to Ezra and back. He tucked his thumbs into his belt, leaning hip-shot against the wall, head tipped. A small snort of amusement escaped him.

"You don't think she did it, do ya?" he asked.

Ezra smiled faintly. "No," he admitted.

"Of course, I wouldn't," Maude said. She stepped right up to the bars and held out her hand to Ezra. A brilliant smile lit her features. "You know I'd never hurt my darlin' boy."

Ezra slanted her a sardonic look. "I didn't say that, Mother. I don't believe you meant to kill me. That doesn't mean you didn't try to drug me, just as Mr. Tanner has theorized."

Maude jerked her hand back and curled it into a fist.


Vin tipped his head a little further in a silent question.

"No doubt you miscalculated the dosage or failed to anticipate that none of my compatriots would indulge in that particular delicacy," Ezra stated.

Maude blinked while Vin gave a tiny nod.

"I imagine you intended to abscond with the Stairstep Canyon deed while we were all incapacitated," Ezra continued. He smiled at Maude. "A shame your plan went awry, Mother, but such often do when you rush matters."

Maude licked her lips. She straightened her shoulders. "Very well. You win, Ezra. I'm proud of you. Now let me out of here."

"Not just yet," he said. "I want to know the rest of it."

"What – What rest?"


He directed a silencing glance at Vin.

"The rest of it, Maman," Ezra said in French. "You are seldom so foolish or so obvious. This is more than besting me in a contest of wits, more than acquiring a potentially lucrative item. You would never resort to such desperate measures for such reasons."

"Ez," Vin said. "Ya want to talk a lingo I can speak?"

Ezra held up his hand toward Vin and kept his gaze locked with Maude's.

Maude replied in French as well.

"You must either sell the deed to me or to someone poste haste, Ezra."

"And why is that?"

"I entered into an agreement with a more than well-to-do businessman in St. Louis. It was really a very good deal, Ezra. He paid me $10,000 dollars to sign a contract agreeing to sell him the Stairstep Canyon land if it were to fall into my hands. $10,000 just for signing that contract."

"Mother – "

"I promised him I would get the deed from you, Ezra. There was no reason for him to – "

"Establish a bounty on my head? Did you even stop to think – " Ezra stopped. He pinched the bridge of his nose. His head was throbbing again. "Of course not," he muttered.

"Ezra, please, just let me take the deed," Maude pleaded. "We can split the profit. Even the $10,000."

She actually wrung her hands, probably at the thought parting with any of that lovely lucre.

"Please. Magnusson will cancel the bounty once I wire that I have the deed. That's why I had to get it from you. Otherwise, he'll have you killed. He told me so before I left St. Louis."

"You poisoned me to save me?" Ezra exclaimed in disbelief.

"Yes," Maude replied simply.

He stared at her, trying to gauge whether she was lying. He sighed and fished the keys out of the desk.

"Ez," Vin protested as he began unlocking the cell. "She's done admitted feedin' ya poison. You're lettin' her out?"

Ezra paused with his hand on a bar. He rested his forehead against the cool iron briefly then twisted to face Vin. "She has explained her reasons," he said tiredly. "That's enough for me."

He turned back, away from Vin's disapproving expression, and inserted the key. The lock wanted to stick and he had to take deep breath against the impulse to force the key. Instead he jiggled it with a delicate touch and the lock obligingly gave way. He pulled the door open and waved his mother out of the cell.

Maude stopped in front of him. "Ezra," she murmured as she brushed her fingers along his temple in a rare display of affection. Her hand lingered.

"Go on, Mother. I suggest you take the afternoon stage."

"The deed ...?"

Ezra laughed despite himself. "I shall dispose of it myself."

Maude stroked a strand of his hair away and then withdrew. "You've always been stubborn, son."

"Go on, Mother, before I decide I'm safer with you under lock and key."

She nodded then stopped in front of Vin. "Mr. Tanner."

Vin glared at her.

"I don't believe in relying on luck, Mr. Tanner," she said coolly. "I have tried to teach Ezra to never rely on it. Don't force him to."

Vin narrowed his eyes then dipped his head just once. "Got somethin' better than luck," he rasped.

Maude nodded decisively then swept out of the jail.

Ezra watched her disappear out into the bright day and shook his head. He would never fully understand his mother. His heart felt a bit lighter, however. In her defense, she hadn't intended him any real harm. She'd just been following her nature.

"Chris ain't goin' to be too happy 'bout ya lettin' her loose," Vin observed.

Ezra shrugged.

"Ya goin' to tell 'em what she said?"

"I believe I shall have to," Ezra agreed.

"Ya feelin' all right?" Vin asked suddenly. He peered at Ezra closer, probably seeing the mild wince and squinted eyes.

Ezra sighed. "My eyes are still sensitive, it seems. I have a slight headache."

"Reckon a drink of somethin' might help?"

"What an absolutely splendid offer, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said swiftly. He straightened his shoulders. The Saloon would be pleasantly dim in addition. "Let us proceed to the Saloon and indulge in a small libation."

Vin rolled his eyes. "Didn' say nothin' about buyin' ya any li-bay-shuns, Ez."

"Mr. Tanner -"

"Vin. Ya call me Vin and I'll buy ya a drink."

Ezra glanced at him sidelong. "Very well. Vin."

Vin's mouth curled into a pleased smile. Ezra could suppress his own dimpled response as they exited the jail.

"No doubt I shall need it once Mr. Larabee learns I've sent Mother on her way," he murmured.

"Ya can always say you're still off your head," Vin teased.

"I may, Vin, I may."


Ezra listened to the stage clatter out of town as he moved about his room above the Saloon. Despite his impulse to watch it and his mother go, he did not approach the window. Instead, he studied the room he'd lived in for most of three years – excepting the months he'd repaired to the Rafferty boarding house after losing the Saloon to Maude. Astounding, he thought. Three years in this simple room.

The soft afternoon light slanted through thin curtains illuminating the room's spare contents. Ezra's beloved featherbed took up much of the room, covered in a softly faded star-patterned quilt. The sun warmed the fabric's colors, calicos and paisleys and plaids, each piece so different yet fitted together so meticulously they formed a beautiful whole. Ezra brushed his hands over the quilt regretfully.

Like so much, he would be leaving it behind.

There was no use to brooding over it.

He knelt and pulled a carpetbag from under the bed. His saddlebags were waiting by the door, along with his bedroll. He kept them always ready. Life as a lawman hadn't changed the habits learned during the war. Those habits had served him just as well in Four Corners as they had during all his itinerant years of traveling and gambling.

Into the carbetbag went his handkerchiefs, socks, cravats and small clothes. Next a selection of carefully folded shirts, linen and silk, then his pants, vests, and finally four of his favorite jackets: the robin's red, bottle-green, black and, after a moment's quiet consideration, the tan. There were times a man might wish to be well tailored without presenting such a memorably colorful profile.

Next the elements of a hygienic life, his razor and strop, cup and brush, face cloth and towel, ivory-backed hairbrush and comb, the small mirror that matched them, the carved horn soap keeper, the bottle of hair oil he disliked using because it made the dust stick. Each fitted into its place in a worn brown leather case he'd acquired from a cotton planter in Vicksberg. Boot brush and polish, neats'-foot oil, the nearly empty bottle of sandalwood cologne he preferred, the special lotion he used to keep his hands soft and flexible, the liniment he used on his and Hazard's muscles. Everything carefully capped or closed and put away.

He hesitated over the half-full bottle of laudanum he'd used to dose himself into insensibility the last time he'd had a headache. He tucked it away with a shrug. Better to be prepared.

He considered his books regretfully. A gambler needed to travel light. He decided he would leave them for the others. Perhaps JD might improve his taste if exposed to something other than those loathsome dime novels. The copy of Dumas' The Three Musketeers would make a fine parting gift for Mr. Tanner, an expression of his confidence and respect for the tracker's new skills.

From the wardrobe, he drew out his sandy-gray duster and checked that his riding gloves were still in the pocket.

He knelt and opened his trunk, choosing what among the contents he couldn't part with. A tiny carving of a running mustang, thrown away by Mr. Larabee, that Ezra had picked up on a whim, wouldn't take much room. A smooth polished stone the size of a plate with the impression of some vast beast's paw given him by Vin. "Wolf-spirit, maybe, or maybe there were giant wolves like them giant lizards ya told us about back before there was people." Well, it was rather large, but he could find room for it. Several rings, including a turquoise one, won at the tables. A small packet of letters he written to Lorena but held onto – he'd meant to give them all to her when he reached Baltimore and felt only relief he'd never sent them. One of JD's hideous dime novels that Ezra had tucked away for no discernable reason. A silver St. Christopher's medal Maude had given him as part of a con once.

Not much, he reflected, not much for three years, much less a life.

Ezra shrugged.

He slipped the various items into the carpetbag with the exception of the letters. Those he took in hand and ducked down the back stairs, into Inez' kitchen, and fed into her stove. He watched the edges curl, catch and blacken for a moment before closing the stove.

"What are you doing, Señor Standish?" Inez asked from behind him.

Ezra suppressed a reflexive jump and turned around.

"Burying something that died years ago."

"In my stove?"

"Figuratively speaking, my dear."

Inez' eyes betrayed her curiosity, but she asked nothing more. "Will you be wanting dinner here?" she asked instead.

"That would be splendid," Ezra told her.

He smiled. Inez was a lovely woman, one he might have fallen in love with in other circumstances. Forthright, clever, brave, lovely to look upon, honest yet practical, the list of her virtues would beggar the vocabulary of many men. Not Ezra Standish, of course. He hadn't pursued her for more reasons than one. Buck's interest was of concern, but Inez herself deserved more than a dalliance and a dalliance was all Ezra had to offer. He'd never intended to stay in Four Corners so long, he sought no commitment, for his heart had gone cold after Lorena.

The drug Maude had slipped into his pie might have almost killed him, but he'd faced down some of his demons while under its influence. Ezra felt lighter than he had in years, freed from the dark, pained ache he'd held locked inside. Freed from Maude and her expectations too, he acknowledged. She'd failed and he could find it in him to forgive her, because he saw her for what she was. Lorena had only followed her own nature too. No more and no less and what he had loved for so long was only the dream of her and not the woman.

He'd spent night after night dreaming of Lorena, of what could have been and what was. He'd nursed his disillusionment. He'd watered it with hidden tears like Blake's wrath, walled it away in the darkness and let it grow. He had been as consumed by his past as Chris Larabee. He'd drifted into a life too much like his mother's, let fate whipsaw him back and forth, because he thought it didn't matter. He had convinced himself he didn't care. Had convinced himself he was as cold and careless as the mask he presented to the world.

He realized now that he did care. What he did mattered not just to him but to his friends – and his friends mattered, what they thought and what happened to them, to him. Lorena, much as he had loved her, much as that memory could still pain him, didn't. It was time to put those memories away, just as it was time to move on from Four Corners. Lorena no longer had any hold on his loyalties or his love.

Ezra caught up Inez' hand, a hand that was rougher than his own, worn with washing and work, and placed a gentle kiss on her palm.

Inez' eyes widened.

"Señor Standish – "

Ezra let go and stepped back.

"I mean to ride out in the morning, Señorita Recillos," he said, still smiling. "I want you to know that you have been a delight in my life here."


Feeling reckless, Ezra added, "I regret never courting you, my dear. Your heart is a prize well worth winning."

A deep blush darkened Inez's cheeks.

With a last, laughing salute, he exited the kitchen, heading into the Saloon proper rather than return to his room. He still needed to speak with Chris Larabee, to explain why he'd let Mother go and reacquire the strongbox of papers, including the Stairstep Canyon deed.


"He's over at the jail," Buck told him.

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"JD told him you and Vin were talking to your Ma." Buck shook his head. "He wasn't too happy when we got over there and all of you were gone. Better be careful."


"Why'd you go letting her out, Ez?"

Ezra's ebullient mood dimmed. His smile took on a cynical edge. "She didn't do anything I shouldn't have expected. It was merely the manner of it that came as a surprise."

Buck's mouth turned down.

Ezra sighed. "I suppose I better face up to Mr. Larabee."

"Hell, sit down, have a beer. He'll find you soon enough if you stay right here," Buck said.

He appreciated the invitation, but shook his head. "No. I need to settle the matter with him."

"You sure it can't wait until he's come off the prod, Ezra?"

"Unfortunately." Ezra managed a weak smile. "I'm leaving tomorrow, you see."

Buck's beer mug thumped down onto the table, the contents splashing out.

"What the hell?"

"I believe I informed everyone of my plans before my unpleasant illness," Ezra said. "I really can't waste the opportunity to sell this deed of mine for a substantial profit, you know. I may well decide to invest in an establishment in Virginia City."

He waited for Buck's protest, but it didn't come.

"You up to taking the trail?" was all Buck asked.

"I'm perfectly recovered." Ezra hesitated then held out his hand. "It has been a privilege, sir."

Buck took Ezra's hand. His grip was firm and steady. They shook without any posturing, just a simple gesture between two men with nothing to prove.

"I guess I didn't reckon you were really going to go, Ez."

"Someone was going to, sooner or later," Ezra observed.

Buck's blue gaze turned distant, his thoughts bent to something far outside the Saloon. "Reckon so. It's been building."

His attention returned to Ezra.

"You'll do, Ez. If you're ever in need, you let old Bucklin know."

Ezra nodded, covering the warm feeling those words gave him with a smile and tip of his hat before leaving the Saloon.

He found Chris in front of the jail, a long lean shadow leaning against the wall. One of his cheroots dangled from his lips and smoke trickled dragon-like from his nostrils. A hard, dangerous man who seemed increasingly incongruous in the bustling hamlet of Four Corners. People on the sidewalk gave him plenty of room. Chris ignored them.

Ezra stopped in front of him and waited.

"Saw her get on the stage," Chris said at last. He flicked ash from the cheroot onto the street.

Ezra nodded. He licked his bottom lip. "I suppose you want to know exactly what happened?"

Chris nodded sharply.

"She merely meant to incapacitate me and anyone else who consumed the dosed pie," he explained. "My refusal to part with the deed in question had confounded her plan. She became rather desperate, as she had already entered into an agreement with a rather ruthless gentleman – I do use the term loosely in this case – to supply said deed, including accepting a payment on that score."

Chris eyed him closely then an evil grin lit his severe features. "Looks like you outwitted her this time, Standish," he said. "I suppose you want that strongbox back?"

Ezra blinked. He had come out the winner this time, hadn't he? Maude hadn't succeeded. He had been so distracted by the various attempts on his life, as well as his hellish three-day derangement, that it truly hadn't occurred to him. There was still the matter of the bounty, but once he sold the deed, Magnusson would withdraw it.

Though Magnusson might turn those funds over to putting a price on Maude's head. So be it. Just because he hadn't seen fit to have her charged with attempted murder didn't mean he forgave her for the misery she'd inflicted on him. Ezra had no doubt she could look out for herself in any case. It was her truest talent.

Those thoughts flashed through his mind before he answered, distracting him into speaking without his usual circumspection.

"Indeed, as I intend to leave for Virginia City tomorrow morning."


Chris pushed away from the wall and loomed over Ezra, the smile stripped away like a dream. Oh, there was that Larabee temper. Buck had been right. Chris was on the prod. All it had taken was a reminder of change. Chris didn't like change and Ezra didn't blame him. But that didn't mean he was staying.

"There's little point to dragging these things out. I never meant to stay here this long. You know that."

Chris frowned. "If I say no?"

Ezra brushed his coat sleeve then lifted his chin and met Chris's eyes. "I'm leaving in the morning, sir. You have no say."

Chris's expression darkened. Ezra recognized the fury gathering behind his set jaw and narrowed eyes. Chris hated being defied for any reason. He expected to be obeyed and usually he was, but Ezra hadn't enlisted in Larabee's army for life. He enjoyed butting heads with the man, forcing him to look at his assumptions twice, but he'd never appreciated the constant threat of violence that simmered under the gunfighter's precarious control.

"You're still employed by the judge – "

"Consider this my resignation," Ezra snapped. "Travis pardoned me years ago."

He watched Chris clench his teeth.

"Go on then, you stupid stubborn bastard."

"My belongings, sir."

Chris dug into his pocket and threw a key at Ezra. "Here. It's in my room at the boarding house. Get it yourself. Just get out of my sight."

Ezra snatched the key from the air. "Very well, Mr. Larabee. I'll take my leave of you." He flipped the key back at Chris. It fell onto the bare boards of the sidewalk. "Believe me, I don't need this to deal with the locks in this town."

Chris dropped the half smoked cheroot onto the sidewalk next to the brassy glint of the key and ground it out with his heel. He ignored Ezra.

Pushing Chris's control had been a game for too long to stop now, it seemed, even if his reasons had changed. Damn it, he hadn't wanted to take his leave on such a sour note. It offended his sense of manners, as well as his genuine respect for Chris. It was useless to talk to Chris while he was on a tear, though. The only option was to wait and try to speak with him in the morning. Providing Chris didn't dive into a bottle and end up suffering a hangover, Ezra might venture to express his farewells then.

Ezra tightened his slipping hold on his own temper. Oh yes, it was time to get away from Four Corners. They'd all rubbed along for years, but he was finally rubbed raw. His mask was cracking and his moods were suddenly as volatile as Chris's. Some of it was the aftermath of the poisoning, but he couldn't blame the scene with Nathan on that nor his failing patience with Josiah. No, he had let himself get soft. He'd let these men inside. He'd let himself start feeling again when he knew better.
He resisted the urge to apologize. He knew why the gunfighter was angry. Because he hurt, when he'd sworn he'd never let himself care enough to hurt again. Ezra knew.

"I'll miss you too, Mr. Larabee," he declared.

Chris glared at him.

Ezra touched two fingers to the brim of his hat in a last, mocking, salute and walked away.

14. On the trail, 1877

Never use your threes and twos
follow superstition
otherwise you are going to lose
compulsion makes you listen

Solitaire, Suzanne Vega

Ezra had been on the trail a half day when he caught the first hint of someone behind him. Hazard topped a small rise and he looked back.

Four Corners was long out of sight, of course, broken near desert concealing any hint of civilization; Hazard's long strides had eaten up the miles toward the pass through the Animas Mountains. Ezra scanned the horizon for anything out of place only out of habit.

He found it and frowned.

A faint spot of haze in the distance, so elusive it almost disappeared when he tried to focus on it. A buzzard launching itself from an old snag, flapping laboriously into the seared pale sky.

He urged Hazard off the trail and up a ridge that offered him a clear view of the trail behind him. There were enough trees that they weren't skylined. Ezra loosened his rifle in its scabbard and waited.

That faint spot of haze was dust from a rider following the same northwest trail Ezra was on. Of course, there was no reason someone shouldn't, but Ezra sat and watched. If that someone was after him, he wanted to know it.

The dark figure of horse and rider trotted into the sun from the lee of a bluff, still too distant for Ezra to recognize. The rider was setting a steady, ground-eating pace where the trail was good, keeping his mount at a running walk.

Ezra narrowed his eyes.

The horse looked familiar. He raised his hand to add to the shade of his hat-brim, trying to see a little better. He knew that loose-limbed rider.

He untied his canteen from the saddle and had a sip of water while he waited.

Eventually the sound of hoofbeats reached him. Hazard threw up his head and snorted. The gelding's ears came forward. Ezra patted his shoulder. "Easy, my friend," he murmured. A few loose stones spilled down the ridge, dislodged by Hazard's shifting feet.

The hoofbeats slowed to an easy walk and the rider topped the same rise Ezra had earlier. The black horse's blaze showed clearly. The rider lifted his slouch hat and waved it.

Ezra lifted his own hat.

His pursuer launched the black horse up the ridge without hesitation. A shower of stones rolled out from the big mustang's feet, stirring more dust. Ezra guided Hazard away from the edge of ridge, leaving room for the other man and his mount.

Vin halted Peso as soon as they reached the top. A light sheen of sweat shone on the big horse's neck and flanks. He snorted and bobbed his head at Hazard, who nickered in reply.

Vin pushed his hat back, wiped his forehead, and settled the hat back into place.

Ezra thought of asking him what he thought he was doing, but it seemed clear enough. Peso was loaded with full saddlebags. Vin's bedroll was tied behind the cantle of his saddle. Instead he offered Vin his canteen.

Vin took it and drank sparingly.

"Hell, Ez," he said finally, "a horsefly bite ya on the ass or ya worried Virginia City's gonna disappear iffen ya don't get there fast?"

"Boomtowns have been known to dry up and blow away in mere weeks," Ezra observed.

He'd ridden hard and fast to put Four Corners as far behind him as he could as fast as he could. It was the only way he knew to go. He'd said his good-byes the night before.

"Virginia City's a bit more than a boomtown," Vin replied.

Ezra shrugged.

He set Hazard to descend the slope back to the trail. He let the gelding choose his own pace and path down.

Vin and Peso followed a moment later. Vin handed him the canteen back and Ezra secured it.

They rode silently for half an hour, until Vin nodded to stand of trees. "Creek there. Horses could use some water."

Ezra nodded.

They walked the horses through the spring-greened trees down to the narrow freshet. Both of them scanned their surroundings unconsciously. Vin slipped off Peso and led the mustang to the edge of the cold water, stepping carefully on the larger stones. He loosened the cinch on his saddle then patiently let the horse drink.

Ezra stayed on Hazard, keeping watch, but loosened the reins and let his mount wade into the stream to drink.

When Peso had had his fill, Vin ground hitched him and checked his feet and legs. After that, Vin crouched and splashed his own face with water and then topped up his own canteen.

Vin held up his hand and Ezra gave him his canteen too.

As he handed it back, Vin said, "Don't think we want to stop here too long."


"Bear's been clawing up a couple of trees over there," Vin explained. "Marks on the trunks are pretty fresh. Could still be around. Don't want a run in with one of 'em right now. They're pretty testy when they wake up after a long winter."

"Well, Mr. Tanner, I'd suggest that we refrain from dallying here any longer," Ezra commented.

He wasn't particularly worried. Peso and Hazard were unconcerned. One fresh whiff of bear and the two usually reliable horses would have been coming out of their skins.

Vin gave a short nod. He tightened the cinch again after elbowing Peso to make him exhale, then swung back into the saddle.
They talked casually after that, with comfortable periods of silence between the words sometimes, until the two of them made camp.

Vin picked the campsite, a niche in a steep rock face that gave shelter from the wind and reflected the warmth of their fire. The orange light of the flames flared over the stone, but was invisible from the trail, hidden by the pines that covered the rest of the slope. At the bottom of the incline a stream rushed over bare boulders, too cold to support more than a spot or two of lichen.

They'd climbed high enough into the mountains that the warmth from the fire was welcome. The evening was cool, the only sounds the sleepy shifting of the horses, the wind soughing through the pine needles, and the uneven crackling and hiss-pops from the fire.

Ezra dumped the dregs of his coffee before settling on his bedroll.

Across the small fire that provided the only light, Vin sat with his back braced against his saddle. He was fingering his harmonica. Not playing it, just smoothing his fingers over the instrument.

Beyond the circle of the firelight, the night and the land stretched in a vast, velvet blackness so deep and untouched by man that Ezra imagined he could hear the earth breathe. Vin and he might be the only two people left ... It was a strange fancy for a man who had always been more at home in the clamor and crowds of cities and towns. Ezra smiled to himself, amused by the odd whimsy and the thought that Vin would be his choice as companion if such were to come to pass.

Ezra let his curiosity win out.


Vin's keen eyes met his gaze. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. He tucked the harmonica back into his shirt pocket.

"Could tell ya Four Corners'll be boring without ya," he drawled.

"True, I'm sure," Ezra agreed.

"I been thinkin' on movin' on lately, besides."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. He wasn't surprised that Vin had been restless too. Whatever piece of Texas Vin had been born on, it had no hold on him. Vin was a wandering soul. Everything in his life had shaped him into a nomad. Scouting, buffalo hunting, living with the Indians, living on the run – it had all made Vin into a man who was as uncomfortable staying in one place as Ezra himself.

It was a good excuse.

Ezra didn't buy it.

Vin ducked his head. "Hell, Ez, I just didn't want ya ridin' out alone. A man needs a friend to watch his back."

Somewhere in the distance, a pack of coyotes gave tongue to a yammering, yipping exultation. A piece of pine in the fire crumpled into ash and a spot of pitch ignited with a loud snap and shower of sparks. The sound of the wind through the tops of the high pines rose, reminding Ezra of the rush of the Pacific tide. He shifted his hips to the side to escape a sharp rock jabbing through his bedroll.

"Mr. Larabee – "

"Chris's been takin' care of himself fine," Vin interrupted. "He's still got Buck and the others there."

He let the silence stretch long moments before saying anything.

"It was kind of you to accompany me."

Vin snorted. He reached over and fed another piece of wood into the fire.

"Ain't kind, Ez, just what I wanted to do."

Ezra leaned his head back and stared at the dark, glittering glory of the star-strewn sky. If each star had been a diamond, he wouldn't have traded this moment for them.

"I'm gratified immeasurably by your company nonetheless."

Vin shrugged fluidly and settled deeper into his own bedroll. "I like ridin' with ya, Ez. 'Sides, I know ya ain't used to havin' a price on your head and I am."

A snort of amusement escaped Ezra.

"What perfectly ridiculous pair of outlaws we make."

Vin chuckled. "Yep."

"Vin ..."

"Yeah, Ez?"

"Thank you."

"Better get some sleep, Ez. Lot of miles between here and Nevada."

Ezra made sure his Remington was within easy reach then pulled his blanket over his shoulders and let his eyes close. The early start and the long ride had exhausted him. If it hadn't been for Magnusson's annoying bounty, he might have waited a few days more and let his strength recover from the poisoning. As it was, Maude's warning had cemented his decision to leave immediately.

He needed to sell the deed to Stairstep Canyon before it got him killed. He'd thought that by leaving he could at least be sure none of his comrades would be endangered by the unforeseen consequences of the careless good deed he'd indulged in when he passed through Virginia City.

Sleep slowing his thoughts, he wondered drowsily if the big Fin had managed to hold onto his farm. Perhaps he would find out once they reached Virginia City.

They ...

Ezra sighed very softly. What mixture of worry and happiness Vin's decision to ride with him evoked. He hoped Vin hadn't made a mistake in leaving Four Corners to come after him.

He slept.

15. Four Corners, 1877

I don't look for many battles
I play by my own rules
So don't you try and stop me
'Cause I ain't no ones' fool.

Under the Gun, Molly Hatchet

JD kicked disconsolately at the leg of the empty chair across from him.

"I can't believe Vin left too."

Buck wiped beer foam from his mustache and nodded. He wasn't all that surprised. Vin had just needed an excuse. Folks thought Vin and Chris were two peas in a pod and it was true, they'd understood each other from the first, but Ezra and Vin liked each other. Under the skin, they were more alike than not. Chris had had hard times, but if he was an outsider, it was because he chose it. Not like those two.

He was sorry to see the two men go, but glad Ezra wouldn't be riding alone.

What bothered him was reactions around town. Folks talking about things being better without a no-account gambler and an Indian-lover living in town. Horace Conklin led the badmouthing, but there were plenty of others to sing the chorus. They didn't even try to keep the rest of the Seven from hearing it.

Even that, Buck could have shrugged off. What he couldn't was the editorial in Mary Travis' Clarion. She was making noises about statehood again, using Vin and Ezra as examples of the sort of men who had to go if they were to be accepted into the Union. Even Ezra's Southern roots had been mentioned.

It about made Buck sick.

He wondered what Chris would make of it all, but Chris was brooding out at his cabin and Buck wasn't in the mood to roust him out.


"Yeah, kid?"

"Are you and Chris going to go too?"

He sighed.

"Well, JD, there's heap of women out there that haven't been exposed Buck Wilmington's lovin'," he joked. "I got an obligation – "

JD interrupted with a derisive snort. "You are so full of crap, Buck."

He finished his lukewarm beer and stared out the window. If Ezra had been around, there would have a been a gold-toothed smile and the soothing sound of shuffling cards accompanying a sly offer to 'indulge in a game of chance.' He'd have had something sarcastic to say about Mary Travis' pretensions or a clever prank meant to puncture them.

A trio of cowboys, their horses spattered with drying mud up to knee and hock rode down the street. Buck didn't envy them. Herding cattle was hard work for poor pay most places. He grimaced. Not that playing law dog was much better. A dollar a day, room and board, and all the bullets the outlaws could shoot at them.

It had been quiet since Ezra and then Vin left. Buck kept an eye on the three cowboys as they came in and asked Inez for beer and vittles, but he knew they weren't ready to make trouble. Too sober and too tired; they'd been in the saddle since before sun-up.

"Buck. Hey, Buck," JD repeated. He jostled Buck's arm, sounding annoyed.

"Yeah, JD?"

"Thought maybe you was taking a nap," JD kidded. "What with you getting on in years."

Buck mock-glared at him. "Guess I'm so old and decrepit, you'll just have get up and get us another couple of beers."

JD rolled his eyes but rose easily and headed for the bar.

"Inez – "

Two big shadows falling ahead of the men pushing through the batwing doors snapped Buck's attention back. He smiled and nodded at Tiny and Yosemite as the twins came in. They nodded back. Yosemite headed for the bar and Tiny walked over to Buck and JD's table.

"Sit down," Buck invited.

The big liveryman pulled out a chair. "Been thinking about a these three fellows that rode out of town two days back," he said abruptly.

Buck sat forward and frowned. The big livery owner was a good source of information. Anyone who came in on horseback from out of town ended up at the livery. Tiny saw a lot.

"Texas boys," Tiny said.

"They say anything?"

Tiny rested his elbows on the table and wrinkled his forehead. "Not too much. Walked around the barn, looking at all the horses. Took a real close look at Mr. Larabee's black."

"Horse thieves?" Buck asked. Chris's black, Nero, was damn fine piece of horseflesh, the last of the line he'd been breeding up before Fowler burned out his ranch along with killing Sarah and Adam.

"Don't figure it," Tiny replied. "Overheard one of them say something that got me wondering if I should tell one of you boys?"


"Heard him say that weren't the horse they were looking for, because he didn't have a big blaze."

Buck sat back with a jolt. Damn. He knew a big, black, bad-tempered mustang with a blaze face all right. Everyone in town did. Vin and Peso had had some right set-tos in the middle of Main Street when Peso got it into his head he wanted to go back to being a wild horse. Peso was so big and flashy it was hard to miss him, not to mention that every fool who had strayed too close and been stomped, bit, or kicked would remember the ornery beast. Most cursed the day Peso had been foaled.

"Texas, hunh?" Buck muttered.

Tiny nodded.

Buck pushed his hat back and ran his hands through his hair.


"They left yesterday morning," Tiny told him. "One of them had a copy of the Clarion and showed it to the others."

Buck blinked once then shot to his feet, ignoring the chair that fell over behind him. "Goddamned sonovabitch stupid ass prissy know-it-all woman," he snarled. He crossed the room in long strides, caught JD's collar and started dragging him toward the door. "Come on, kid, we got to get the others. Bounty huntin' bastards have a got a day's lead on us. Trouble follows those two idiots like a hound runnin' deer."

"What?" JD scrambled to keep up and slapped at Buck's grip. "Let go, Buck! What are you talking about anyway, Inez was just getting our beers – "

Buck let go but kept moving. JD trotted beside him, a worried look taking over his face.


"Mrs. Travis," Buck gritted out. "That damned woman put Vin's name in her paper, yapping about him and Ezra leaving for Virginia City."

"So – " JD slammed to a halt and his mouth dropped open. "Oh, shit!"

Buck nodded grimly.

"Might has well have give every bounty hunter that can read a goddamned map of where Vin and Ezra are going to be."

"This is bad," JD agreed.

Buck ducked into the jail, picked up the copy of the Clarion and flipped to the page with Mary's editorial. There it was.

Mr. Vincent Tanner, late of Texas, has resigned from the post of lawkeeper and left our beloved town for the bustling boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada. His expressed intention was to accompany former Four Corners resident and lawman Ezra Standish to that silver-mining municipality. While Mr. Tanner's skills were of great benefit to our town and we wish him well, like Mr. Standish, the time for men of their sort has passed here in Four Corners. Four Corners needs to attract upstanding, church-going citizens who will put down roots and enhance our community with new businesses and families. Our fair town is in need of lawyers, schoolteachers, and doctors, not disreputable desperados, dubious gamblers, and itinerant Indian scouts. Only with the rule of law and civilization will our territory become a State in the Union. 

Buck didn't bother with the rest of it. He tore out the sheet, folded it and shoved it inside his vest. The damned article was as ungrateful as he remembered.

"JD," he said, "You go get Josiah and Nathan. Tell them bounty hunters are on Vin's trail and we're riding out. Then get your pack together and head down to the livery. Start getting our horses tacked up and I'll meet you there."

He fished the keys out of the sheriff's desk and opened the big safe sitting in the corner.

"What about Chris?" JD asked.

"We'll detour by his cabin and pick him up," Buck told him. "Now get."

JD still hesitated. "Buck, we'll be leaving the town without anyone ... " He fingered his badge. "I'm sheriff."

Buck slapped his hand against the safe's top. "I don't give a flying fuck about this town right now, JD!"

He finished opening the safe and began pulling out boxes of ammunition for the various firearms their motley group carried.

JD sighed and pulled off the badge. He tossed it carelessly onto the desk. "I'll get 'siah and Nathan," he said and left.

Buck looked up and grimaced.

"Damn," he said to the empty doorway. "Sorry, kid."

When he had everything he wanted from the safe he headed for Mrs. Potter's store. They'd need plenty of supplies. Buck narrowed his eyes in thought. They'd probably end up shadowing Vin and Ezra all the way to Virginia City. A packhorse would be a good idea. They could set a faster pace that way, make up more ground on the bounty hunters.

Buck rode out to Chris's cabin while the other three headed northwest. He knew Chris had a couple of extra mounts. If they switched off Nero and Darling with the spares, they could catch up fast.

Chris was hammering the planks onto a new porch along the back of his cabin as Buck rode in. The planks came from a sawmill up in timber country and cost more than the logs a man could cut himself. More than anything Buck had seen, that told him Chris was settling in to stay.

His friend was stripped to the waist to work, but his gun belt was slung over a rail within arm's reach.

"Buck," Chris greeted him as he reined in Darling.

Long shadows were stretching to the east. Chris raised an arm and wiped away the sweat that darkened and glued his blond hair to his forehead. He'd obviously been working all day.


Buck swung off Darling, loosened her cinch, and walked her over to the water trough.

Chris came off the porch and joined Buck beside the mare.


He sounded resigned. What else would have brought Buck out from town?

Buck pulled the piece of newspaper out of his vest and handed it to Chris. "Damn woman printed his name up for everyone in the territory to see," he said.

Chris read the article and then crumpled it in his fist.

"Damn it."

"We've got to hit the trail and catch up with those boys," Buck explained. "JD, Josiah, and Nathan are already on their way. Told 'em you and me would catch up tomorrow."

Chris's eyes narrowed as he listened.

"What else?" he demanded.

Buck stroked Darling's shoulder absently.

"Couple days back some fellows were looking for a horse at the livery, sounded like they were looking for that ornery nag of Vin's. Tiny didn't figure it out till he read the paper, then he told me about it. They're hunting Vin. Pulled out yesterday."

Chris didn't curse much. His mouth just drew into a thinner line. He looked at the sun dropping steadily down the sky. Without another word, he walked back to the half-finished porch and began picking up his tools.

Buck untacked Darling and turned her into the small corral with Chris' three mares. He carried the saddle and bridle into the barn. The saddle blanket he arranged so it the sweat would dry out of it.

"Supplies?" Chris asked as Buck joined him. They carried the rest of the lumber inside the barn where it wouldn't warp in the sun.

"Sent 'em with JD and the others. Put 'em on a packhorse we got from Tiny. Everyone's carrying extra ammo too."

"What about the town?"

Buck curled his lip. "Reckon it's so fine and civilized, they don't need our kind hanging around."

Chris raised an eyebrow.

"Sent a wire to the judge before I left," Buck admitted.

"Good enough," Chris said.

He glanced around and Buck knew he was figuring what needed to be done and what could be left until he came back. That was one thing Buck knew: Chris was coming back. Chris had put down roots.

Well, that was good as far as Buck was concerned. He'd never been stuck on one place, if he stayed somewhere it was for the people, but Chris had liked being settled while he was married. He'd like it again, if he ever started seriously courting Mrs. Travis.

Buck was astute enough to know that there wouldn't be any room for him once Chris married Mary. Sarah had made him part of their family, but Mary was a different story. She'd make his friend happy, though.

Things change, he thought to himself. Some good, like Chris finally building himself a new home and life. Some bad; Buck didn't like Four Corners much any more. Some surprising. Like a sneaky Reb gambler and a greenhorn kid turning out to mean as much as any family he'd ever had.

Chris thumped his shoulder, drawing him out of his thoughts.

"We'll leave at first light."

Buck smiled, but he felt tired. "Whatever you say, pard."

16. On the trail, 1877

And it seems to me this is one hell of a way,
For a man like me to earn that pay.

Bounty Hunters, Molly Hatchet

Ezra sank his face deeper into the collar of his duster. Snow still trickled down the back of his neck and he cursed the fickle weather. The wind that swirled the damned snow in a shifting mist cut through his damp clothes. He shivered and hunched lower in the saddle.

Hazard stepped in Peso's tracks as they made their slow way through the near white-out of the sudden spring storm. The chestnut gelding kept crowding closer behind Vin's mustang. Ezra sympathized. The storm had hit the mountains they were crossing so fast even Vin had been taken off guard.

He flexed his numb fingers on the stiff leather reins, feeling ice crack off his gloves.

Damned weather.

Neither he nor Vin was familiar enough with this stretch of Arizona to guess where the closest shelter might be. They were just pressing on, hoping to find something before full dark. The lack of visibility wasn't helping the matter.

Hazard bumped into Peso, which made Ezra realized Vin had stopped. He looked up and saw Vin was half-turned in the saddle, looking back at him.

"Ya okay, Ez?"

Vin's hat was white with snow. It covered his shoulders and even Peso's haunches, giving the mustang a spurious resemblance to an Appaloosa. White crystals dusted Vin's eyelashes and caught in his stubble.

"Have I mentioned that I loathe cold weather?" Ezra replied.

Vin smiled. "Ya might've."

Ezra smiled back, it was impossible not to, even in the circumstances.

Vin bobbed his head. "Looks like a cabin there across the meadow."

Ezra peered through the blowing snow, trying to make out anything. He thought he could discern a darker outline against the tree line. He wouldn't have known what it was without Vin's identification.

"Then let us repair to it post haste, my friend," he declared. He trusted Vin to be right.

Cabin was, perhaps, a generous description. It was something between a shack and a large lean-to. Three walls and a slanted roof that angled down to the ground on the fourth side. Ezra didn't care. It had a roof, a stove and a stack of firewood. The wind was beginning to howl, the light had dimmed to deep, bleak blue, and he couldn't feel his toes.

Hazard just stood, splay-legged and shaking, as Ezra almost fell out of the saddle. The snow was turning to ice.

Ezra caught at Vin's arm and leaned close, shouting over the sound of the wind. "The horses are done in."

"Gotta take 'em inside with us," Vin agreed. "Get inside; try to get a fire going."

Ezra nodded sharply. He staggered past Vin and knocked as much snow as he could off the firewood before scooping up an armful and shouldering his way into the shack.

Vin led Hazard and then Peso inside after brushing as much snow off them as possible. Even Peso, normally fractious and uncooperative, cooperated. He tethered the two horses along the high side of the single room and left to bring in more wood.

Ezra fumbled and fought with the stove, barely able to see in the darkness of the windowless shack. The floor was dirt and hard as ice beneath his knees. He managed to start the fire at last using tinder he carried in a small, waterproof tin along with his lucifers. He carefully fed in a smaller piece of firewood next. Vin brought in two more loads before Ezra had the blaze securely established. He left the door open so fire could illuminate the cramped interior of the lean-to.

Vin wedged the rickety door shut with another piece of firewood and just leaned there. He was white with snow and shaking.
"D-d-d-damn," Vin cursed through chattering teeth.

Ezra dragged him over to the stove and began stripping off his outer coverings. He ignored Vin's uncoordinated batting at his hands. When he had Vin's old coat off, Ezra slid out of his own duster, stripped off his wool jacket and slid it onto Vin, hoping the bit of heat it held would help.

"Stay there," he ordered. He shuddered and pulled the damp duster back on then draped Vin's coat over a pile of firewood.

He wanted to huddle in front of the slow building heat from the stove himself but forced himself to keep moving. He fetched the saddlebags and bedrolls and dropped them beside the wooden platform built along one wall, next to an ancient wooden trunk, its leather hinges long since been eaten away by mice.

He went back and unsaddled the two exhausted horses.

The shack had been cold when they came in, but as it warmed from the stove, the horses began to steam. The dirt floor turned to mud in places. It began to stink of wet horse, wet wool and wet leather, musty dirt, spider webs, and smoke.

Ezra used the saddle blankets to rub the horses down as best he could. He could feel the heat radiating off them. He suspected that if the freak storm went on all night, he and Vin would be grateful for the two animals' added warmth.

Vin joined him in tending to the horses after a few minutes. Ezra didn't protest.

Ezra went back to the sleeping platform and pried open the old trunk. His nose wrinkled at the reek of its contents, but he didn't let his distaste stop him from pulling out two moth-eaten buffalo robes. He spread them over the bare platform. They would provide some insulation at least.

Vin untied his bedroll and tossed Ezra his ground cloth to lay over the robes. He handed Ezra the rest of his blankets then picked up Ezra's bedroll.

"Think we'd better double up, Ez."

Ezra was shivering himself and only managed a nod. He added his blankets and covered them all with his ground cloth. He looked down at the bedding vacantly once he'd finished, too tired to think of what to do next.

Vin's hand on his shoulder jolted him back to the present.

"Best get out of those wet things," Vin told him.

Ezra picked up his carpetbag and started to open it. Vin's hands closed over his. Ezra stared dully as Vin carefully tugged off his wet gloves. Vin's hands were chapped and red with cold. He wrapped them around Ezra's fingers and rubbed gently. Ezra closed his eyes as his fingertips began to tingle then sting painfully.

He let his breath out in a hiss.

Vin stopped and let go of his hands. Ezra missed his touch immediately, but went back to fumbling open his bag and pulling out dry pants and socks. He hung his duster on a hook beside the lean-to's door, added Vin's dripping coat next to it, then pried off his boots.

Vin was stripping too, oblivious to Ezra's curious gaze. His damp hair clung to his bent neck as he crouched, shirtless, by his saddlebags, drawing out dry gear. The firelight limned the sinuous lines of Vin's arms and back in glowing amber and dusky shadows.

Ezra looked away politely and hurried to throw off his own wet clothes and don dry ones. The lean-to was still cold.

He busied himself preparing a meal, knowing food would help them deal with the cold, while Vin shared the grain they carried for the horses between their two mounts. He pulled out a cast iron pan and set it on the stove. Into it, he sliced some salt pork, four potatoes, and two sorry onions. As that began sizzling, he set a small Dutch oven at the back of the stove, poured in some dried beans and added water so they could soak during the night. The scent of onions and fat mingled with smoke.

Ezra's stomach growled.

Vin chuckled and handed him the coffee pot to put on the stove.

"Smells tasty."

"Vin, you've been out in the snow too long."

"'M hungry."

When the hash was cooked, he split it between his plate and Vin's, and added several cold biscuits left from breakfast. It was a sorry meal compared to Inez' cooking or Mrs. Potter's, but Ezra choked it down and Vin didn't complain. After they ate, they spread their wet gear around as best they could so that it would dry as much as possible.

Ezra fed wood into the stove with his back to Vin.


"Yes, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra responded. He stayed by the stove, building up the fire as far as the old stove would tolerate.

"Ya want to get in here with me?"

Ezra turned around. Vin was sitting on the bed platform, the blankets peeled back. He'd stripped down to his woolen underdrawers and socks.

He patted the blankets. "Come on, Ez," he coaxed.

Ezra closed the stove and slowly walked over.

A brief, awkward tussle over who would take the inside and outside and where their guns would go had them both laughing soon enough. Ezra ended up with his Remington in its holster by the wall. Vin settled for laying his mare's leg on the floor within arm's reach.

Ezra made quick work of shedding his own outer apparel down to his drawstring small clothes. Like Vin, he retained his socks. He thought wistfully of Buck's union suit. It might be undignified and sartorially questionable, but it would be warm. Warm sounded rather good when his teeth wanted to chatter.

He couldn't stop shivering. The next thing he knew, Vin had pulled him close. He lay rigid as a board, his back pressed to Vin's chest, Vin's arms locked around him, Vin's hands clasped around his. He felt Vin chuckle against his neck, warm breath and the tickle-scrape of beard provoked a shudder. Good Christ, even Vin's whiskers were cold!

"Damn, Ez, maybe you really are part snake," Vin commented. "You're surer'n hell cold-blooded."

"I am not," Ezra protested.

Just because he didn't have to have a woman every night like Buck Wilmington didn't mean he never enjoyed the divine pleasures of a womanly body. But unlike their easygoing friend, a short episode of dubious pleasure with a nameless stranger had never appealed to him. He had standards as well as a distaste for the possibility of catching a disease. He managed – and when he couldn't manage, he visited one of the better class bordellos in Eagle Bend. He certainly hadn't slept with any of the girls from Wickestown or risked any of the whores in Purgatorio – he thought it a miracle Chris and Buck hadn't caught anything from their periodic visits there.

He was not cold-blooded. He was merely discerning and careful.

Ezra never shared a bed or spent the night with anyone. He just didn't. He wondered if he would be able to sleep with Vin next to him, though he was grateful for the extra warmth his friend provided. He just didn't like letting anyone that close.

Still, this wasn't a stranger. This was Vin. He'd trusted his life to Vin in gunfights. He'd trusted that Vin would bring the two of them to safety when the storm hit. Ezra let his eyes shut and his body relax against Vin's. He could trust him in this too.

"That's it, Ez," Vin murmured. "That's it."

Ezra let himself drift into a comfortable daze. Exhaustion dragged at both of them. Warm at last, Ezra slipped into sleep to the rhythm of Vin's breath, the boneless weight of the other man's arm telling him Vin had succumbed too.

The crash of a chunk of wood shifting in the stove and Peso's startled snort snapped Ezra awake. The arms around him tightened and he panicked, trying to pull away from whoever it was. He could barely make out the darker forms of the horses by the sullen red glow escaping the cracks in the stove.

He shoved his elbow into his captor's ribs and began struggling in earnest. A pained grunt rewarded his effort. Then a hoarse, breathless voice rasped in his ear.

"Whoa! Easy, Ez, ease up, it's me."

Ezra went limp.


"Yeah, pard." Vin coughed and loosened his grip. He laughed softly. "Ya always wake up like that?"

Ezra twisted around to face him, even though he could see no more than a reflected gleam in Vin's eyes. "No, I – I'm sorry," he blurted awkwardly.

Vin kept laughing, irritating Ezra. What should be expected, anyway? Ezra didn't wake up with someone wrapped around him often – he didn't wake up with anyone – his reaction hadn't been that outré.

He groped through the blankets and found his Remington. "No," he said silkily, drawing it from the gun belt and letting the cold muzzle brush Vin's flank, "most of the time I just shoot whoever woke me up."

Vin jolted and exclaimed, "Damn, that's cold! Jesus, Ezra!"

Ezra laughed and slid the pistol back into his gun belt.

They listened to the night, hearing only the horses and the fire in the stove. The wind had died and there was a thick stillness to the air. Their nest of blankets was cozy and the lean-to had warmed up considerably. The presence of the horses had helped.

"Snowing," Vin commented.

"You can tell?" Ezra asked. He was still amazed by Vin's connection to nature. The man was attuned to the wilderness in a way even most Indians weren't.

"Makes everythin' sound muffled."

Ezra took his word for it.

"We'll have to stick here for maybe a day or two," Vin added.

Ezra shrugged, knowing Vin would feel the movement despite it being too dark to see. He was warm and comfortable and he knew they had plenty of supplies if they needed to camp for a few days.

Sleep beckoned irresistibly and he sank back into it with a mumbled, "Infinitely preferable to wandering about in all that hideous snow."

Then the dream overtook his sleeping mind without warning, the crackling fire in the stove burning higher and higher.

They slept in the barn to stay close to the horses. Some of the officers were offered rooms in their supporters' houses, but Ezra never accepted. He preferred to keep his distance.

Ezra gathered with the others on the last morning. They were strong, they were willing to go on fighting. Col. Mosby had only to ask. The life of a Ranger had grown harder and the cost to the people of 'Mosby's Confederacy' had become all too steep – barns and homes burned, families left homeless and hungry in the midst of winter, farms devastated, crops ruined – but they would keep fighting. They weren't broken yet.

Not broken, but battered, Ezra thought, looking around him at the gathered companies. Such a grouping was dangerous, but they had all come, gray ghosts riding out the predawn mists, huddled deep in their coats, eyes ever wary for a Union ambush. The word that Mosby had walked out on the talks with the Union had swept through Fauquier and Loudoun counties and all the Shenandoah Valley like smoke on the wind.

Even the other fastidious dandies in Montjoy's 'Darlings' Company D were ragged and drawn taut.

He threaded his cold, bare fingers through Peach's mane and listened in pained relief as John Singleton Mosby dismissed his Rangers. The Confederacy was dead. The war was lost. Go home.

Go home.

He thrashed in his sleep, fighting what came next, but couldn't wake up.

Smoke whipped on the last harsh breath of winter. Ezra knew the reek too well. Peach broke stride and tossed her head. He loosened his pistols in their holsters and tightened his legs against the mare's sides, cueing her forward again.

The curve of the road and a small rise hid the devastation until he was almost on it.

"No ..."

In his dream he whispered denial, in his sleep it was a shout. Peso snorted in displeasure.

"No," Ezra cried and urged Peach into a run.

The trees were gone, brutally chopped down for firewood. Nothing shielded the ruins and ruins were all that remained. The barns were burned to the ground – only the stone foundations remained. The house, the great sprawling white house that had been the heart of Peyton's Ford, was gone. Only smoldering black wreckage remained.

"Saville!" he shouted. "Saville!"

Peach neighed and almost balked, but Ezra forced her through the torn, tramped to bare ground garden. He circled the ruins.

The awful stench of burned flesh drew him to the remians of the summer kitchen.

"Oh, God, no, please, no," he moaned, choking. The blackened, twisted bodies could barely be identified as human, but somehow he knew them. It was the cracked glint of steel-rimmed spectacles that told him he was looking at Miz Vertilene. The larger body that half-covered her, hand clawed around the burnt away hilt of a cooking knife – that was Cassiopiea.

He fell out of the saddle, ending on his knees in the ashes and mud, retching endlessly.

Ezra choked and wept in his sleep, soft sounds of distress.

"Come on, Ez, wake up. Wake up."

Someone was jostling his shoulder cautiously.

Ezra moaned and muttered, "No, please, no, not all of them. Please, merciful God, not everyone ..."


Ezra's eyes snapped open. His hand reached for the Remington automatically. Vin caught his wrist before he could draw.


Vin had his weight pinning Ezra's wrist down. Ezra stopped fighting and let his head fall back.

"Oh God," he muttered.

"Sounded like ya was dreamin' something pretty bad," Vin observed, letting his forcible hold fall away.

Ezra brought his arm up over his eyes. "Miserable."

Vin sat up until he was arranged, legs folded indian-style, one of the blankets draped over his shoulders.

"Sometimes I dream about when I lived with the Comanche," he said quietly.

Ezra scooted up and sat with his back against the wall. The wood was startlingly cold though the lean-to seemed warm enough inside. He pulled another blanket free of the bedding and emulated Vin.

"I was under the impression you were content during your time among the natives," he offered.

He couldn't see Vin's expression, just sensed the movement of his nod.

It was all right. He didn't need to see Vin's face. It was easier to talk in this darkness. No masks were needed when no one could see the pain. Truths could be offered between them in the comfort of the night, in this enforced solitude and snowy silence, that wouldn't – couldn't – bear daylight..

"I was," Vin admitted. "Was one of them."

"But you left?"

Vin made a harsh, unhappy sound. "Cavalry rode into camp one mornin', killed everyone. 'Cept me. One of the soldier's saw my eyes, saw I was white."

Vin went quiet and Ezra waited. Listening to Vin was letting him distance himself from his own nightmare.

"God, Ez, the things some of those soldiers did ... It was mostly women and old men in camp. Bucks were out huntin'."

Ezra bowed his head.

"Hated those sonsabitches ever since, Ez. They just rode in, shootin' and hackin' with those goddamned sabers ... Ya ever seen what a cavalry saber can do to a kid?"

Ezra wanted to gag. He'd seen a man's arm cleaved off by a saber in a wild charge, the weight of the steel blade backed by all the force of a running horse. He'd seen bodies gutted and broken, torn apart by artillery fire. He'd seen them burned in his own nightmares. He'd seen more ugliness than he ever wanted to remember. He knew the tale Vin was telling – from both sides.

There had been nothing pretty, nothing glorious to serving in the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia. Mosby's Rangers had been better behaved than most partisans, but the war they'd fought had been ugly and hard.

"What do you dream about, Ez?" Vin asked.

Ezra clenched one fist around a handful of blanket.

"Some of the stuff ya said when ya was sick with that poison. Sounded like ya was dreaming about the same thing."

"My cousin and I were with Mosby's Rangers at the end of the war," Ezra answered finally. He wasn't sure if he wanted to say more. He had never confided these memories to anyone, but Vin's patient stillness promised an understanding no one else had ever offered. Something like forgiveness. He hadn't known he wanted that. He licked his bottom lip. "Saville and I were ... close. Both bastards, you see."

"Guess things weren't no different in Virginia than Texas," Vin muttered.

Ezra nodded. "You and me and Buck and JD," he mused.

"But you knew who your daddy was."

He laughed mirthlessly. "Indeed, I did. I suppose I can thank him for that much. When Mother didn't want me or couldn't find anyone else to take me, back to Peyton's Ford I'd go. They didn't want me there, but Peytons honored their obligations." He bit his lip then went on. "I had brothers and sisters and cousins there. It was beautiful, Vin ... the most beautiful place I've ever known."

"'Til the war."

"It seemed like even the war couldn't really touch the Ford," Ezra whispered. "Not until the end, when those Union bastards started burning folks out. Any place they thought harbored sympathizers or spies, they'd ride in and take what they wanted, drag folks off to prison, leave the rest with nothing but ashes, nothing."

Mosby's patrols had learned to dread the sight of black smoke spiraling into the sky. The Union forces had pillaged the sweet Shenandoah Valley and worse. Ezra had ridden into more than one farm and seen children dead and women ravaged. The only trees left were hanging trees. The height of the irony and insult was that oft as not the farmers were Union sympathizers or neutral at least. The Rangers had hunted down the animals when they could and killed them, only to have the Federal forces retaliate against the civilians that supported them, making things worse.

"Saville left the company when the Colonel agreed to meet with the Federals. He swore he wouldn't turn in his guns or his horse," Ezra went on. "He was worried there would be no one to protect the Ford, with only the women left. I stayed. I don't know why ... just I'd followed the Colonel so long I couldn't do anything else."

Restless, he slid out of the bed, pulled on his boots and padded over to the stove. He used a corner of the blanket to insulate his hand and opened the door in the stove's belly, studying the fire burning down inside. The chunks of wood were black laced with furious red and dusted in gray and white ash. Tight little flames flared higher from the air rushing in through the open door.

Ezra fed in three more chunks of wood, sliding them in where the hot coals would heat and dry them until they caught fire themselves.

Vin was still waiting patiently.

"When the Colonel dismissed us, I rode back to the Ford. Union raiders had been there – parts of the barns were still smoking ... They killed everyone except one old slave. They put a bullet in Herodotus but he was burying the bodies when I got there ...I dream about that, about pulling the bodies out of the ashes, the way it smelled ..."

"Hell," Vin breathed. "You never said nothin'."

Ezra scrubbed at his face with his hands. "Why should I? It wouldn't take away the nightmares."

"Chris – "

"It wouldn't have helped," Ezra stated flatly. "I never blamed myself for what happened at the Ford, Vin. The bluebellies didn't kill my family because of me or even because I was with the Rangers. They came and they took because they could and if I'd been there I could have died, but I couldn't have stopped them." He pulled in a deep breath.

"Mr. Larabee feels things deeply, so deeply that his guilt and his anger were all that kept him alive through the pain of his losses. That isn't my way. Nothing I knew could help him ... and I did not want to tell this story."

Vin caught Ezra's wrist in his hand and held it. Ezra started to jerk away, but stopped.

"What about your cousin ... Saville? Did they kill him too?" Vin asked.

"No ... I don't know," Ezra admitted. "The raiders took Polly. She was ... we were all in love with her, a little, but Saville adored her. Those bastards violated the women before they killed them, Vin, but Polly was so beautiful, they took her with them." His voice turned harsh with remembered anger and hatred. "Saville went after them. So did I, after we finished the burying, but I never found even traces of any of them." A wave of shame rushed through him and he pulled away from Vin. "I gave up. I spent six months hunting anyone who had been in the raiding party and I killed the ones I found, but I never could find Polly or Saville."

"Ya did what ya could, Ez."

"No, I didn't."

He squeezed his eyes shut then opened them. The shadows and darkness of the lean-to were better than the scenes his memory insisted on supplying.

"I met Mother in Philadelphia and I let her persuade me to help in a con. That's how I ended up shanghaied on a clipper sailing around the Horn." God, there was a humiliating story he wasn't going to tell.

Vin's raspy voice startled him out of his own dark thoughts.

"After the soldiers took me back with them, I did everythin' I could to get away. Hated them. Iffen I'd been even a year or two older, I'd a found a way to get myself killed goin' after 'em."

Ezra held his breath.

"Joined up to scout for the South just so's I'd get a gun and a chance to shoot me some bluebellies," Vin whispered. "Didn't give a damn 'bout the Confederacy or the Union, didn't care 'bout no slaves – hell, the Comanche kept slaves too – just wanted a way to kill soldiers. Didn't even care if I died doin' it."

Ezra exhaled silently. "I, for one, am grateful you didn't," he declared honestly.

"After the war, I just started movin' west," Vin went on dreamily. "Hooked up with a bunch a Kiowa. Iffen I hadn't ... I probably wouldn't be no better than Eli Joe or any other killer. Ain't nothin' to be proud of 'bout huntin' men like animals. Just remember, Ez, ain't none of us that hasn't got somethin' they wish they'd done different. I don't figure ya cheatin' folks was no worse than me killing 'em for a bounty."

"You've changed, though, Vin," Ezra said.

Ezra saw the movement of Vin nodding.

"I figure." Vin sighed. "Figure ya changed too, Ezra. Didn't much like ya when we met, but ya changed. I ain't sorry to say you're my friend. I figure I couldn't do better."

That left Ezra speechless. When he found his voice, all he could say was, "I'm honored."

Vin chuckled and asked, "Honored enough to give me one of those apples ya got hid in your saddlebags?"

"When the sainted dead rise from their graves, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied swiftly.

By silent, mutual agreement, the subject of nightmares and the past was closed. What had been said would be put away with the dawn. Not forgotten, but kept close and silent out of mutual respect.

Vin slipped out of the bed and padded over to the stove. He used a corner of the blanket wrapped around his shoulders to protect his hand from the hot iron handle then fed in three more chunks of wood. He stayed in front the stove with his back to Ezra, staring into the flames, until Ezra stirred out of their nest of blankets.

Ezra opened his saddebag and felt through it until he found the bag of peppermints he carried to treat Hazard. He pulled it out and held it up.

Vin had turned around and was watching him. "What ya got there, Ez?" he asked.

"See for yourself." He tossed the peppermints.

Vin caught the bag, opened it and smiled widely. He popped one of the candies into his mouth and spoke around it. "Thanks, Ez."

Ezra carefully closed the saddlebag and answered without looking up. "You're welcome, Vin."

Vin rejoined him on the bed.

"Figure we can find some place to pick up some more supplies once we come down out of the pass," he said.


Ezra recognized gratefully that Vin wasn't going to press for any more confidences. He'd had enough of memories. Replaying them never did any good, only stirred old sorrows. The nightmares were his last legacy of that time and place; the people he'd cared for were gone. He'd learned to look forward and leave the past in the past.

Hazard blew out a whuffling breath and stamped his feet. He nickered next and tugged at the tie binding him next to Peso. That irritated Peso into a snort and a bad-tempered kick that hit the side of the lean-to instead of Hazard. The whole building shuddered and a drift of snow whispered down into the corner.

"Damn mule," Vin muttered.

Ezra sighed.

"Hazard is to blame. He wants a peppermint."


Vin scrambled out of the bed, over to the horses and quickly fed a candy to both of them. He stopped and closed the stove before returning to the bed.

"Spoiled," he said under his breath.

"Hazard or Peso?" Ezra asked.

"Hell, both of 'em."

Vin began fussing with the blankets, rearranging them. He reached over and squeezed Ezra's shoulder.

"It's hours 'til daybreak, Ez. Might as well sleep 'til then. Can't do much without bein' able to see."

Ezra slid back down into the blankets.

"You expect me to rise with the sun?" he asked in disbelief.

Vin chuckled.

"Yep. Figure you can make us some vittles. I'm going to dig us out and chop some wood to replace what we used."

Ezra shuddered at the prospect. Cooking was marginally better than chopping wood in the snow, but neither one appealed to him.

"Good lord," he murmured, "what next? Housecleaning? Roof repairs?"

"Well," Vin drawled, "we might want to check the roof, if Peso keeps tryin' to kick the walls down."

Ezra pulled his blanket over his head.

"Your horse, your problem," he declared firmly. "I am going back to sleep."

If the nightmares returned that night, he didn't remember them.

17. On the trail, 1877

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time

I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash

Not a sign of Buck's bounty hunters since they came down out of the last pass. The late storm had wiped out the marks of anyone's passage. It didn't mean they weren't still out there.

It had also put Chris in a foul mood that had remained with him as they entered the dusty bounds of Elmo[vii], Arizona.

Place hardly deserved a name, he thought sourly, as the five of them paced their horses down the single, muddy street. Stage stop, saloon, mercantile, livery, a couple of houses, and you were riding on out.

Buck crowded Darling up next to Nero and nodded toward the hitching-rail in front of the saloon. The leggy chestnut and the black mustang standing hipshot next to each other were as familiar as the men who rode them.

"Was starting to wonder if we'd ever catch up with them two," Buck commented.

"Hey, it's Hazard and Peso," JD exclaimed, spotting the horses too. "Vin and Ezra must be inside."

"Should've known Ezra'd find a saloon," Nathan muttered.

Josiah raised his eyebrows and commented, "From the looks of this town, it's probably the only place they could get anything to eat."

Nathan snorted.

They tied the horses next to Hazard and Peso and headed into the saloon. Chris's spurs rang as he pushed his way through the doors into the dingy room.

One hard look showed him everything and everyone in the room. The bartender was leaning against the bar, half-asleep. What looked like a store clerk in a white shirt with arm garters sat at the end of the bar, nursing a beer. In the back, sitting so they could watch the door and the bar, were Vin and Ezra.

Both men had plates in front of them, though it looked like Vin was finishing Ezra's meal for him.

Ezra had his cards out and was shuffling idly. They both saw Chris looming through the doorway at the same time. Ezra's eyebrows went up and Vin paused with a forkful of beans on the way to his mouth.

Chris stalked over, Nathan and Buck looming behind him, in time to hear Vin say, "Would ya look what the cat drug in."

He grinned at Chris.

"Howdy, Cowboy."

Chris growled.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said and Chris growled again.

Ezra had the easy ability to annoy him by just saying his name.

Buck moved past Chris, pulled out a chair and settled into it. He grinned at the two men. "Boys," he said, "this does not look like Virginia City."

"It isn't Four Corners either," Ezra commented. "What brings you to this hamlet?"

Buck sat back.

Vin glanced past him as JD and Josiah came in.

"All of ya?" he asked.

Chris picked up a chair and set it next to Vin's. Josiah went to the bar and collected a bottle of red-eye and glasses, handing them to JD to bring over to the table.

Buck's cheer dimmed. "You got three bounty hunters on your trail, boys. They come through Four Corners, read your name in Mrs. Travis' paper, and headed after you."

"Excuse me?" Ezra snapped. He laid his cards down on the table. The sea-green eyes were chilled and sharp and suddenly very angry.

"Missus Travis wrote an article about you and Vin resigning and leaving," JD explained as he arrived and handed glasses to the other men. "She used Vin's name. Yours too."

"Told how you was heading for Virginia City on business," Buck added. His displeasure with Mary Travis colored his voice.

Ezra tapped his finger on the top of the deck.

"We lit out after you two as soon as we figured out what was going on," Buck concluded.

Ezra shared a glance with Vin.

"Good of ya, Bucklin," Vin said.

"We shall, of course, take greater precautions in our journey," Ezra added. He picked up the cards and tucked them away in his vest pocket. "You have my gratitude, gentlemen."

Chris took the bottle of red-eye, poured himself a generous shot, and knocked it back. He handed the bottle to Buck.

"We're going the rest of the way with you," he declared.

"What about the town?" Vin asked.

"It'll still be there when we get back."

"The Lord will provide," Josiah said. "Nothing is as certain as that the vices of leisure are gotten rid of by being busy [viii]."

Even Ezra raised his eyebrow over that non sequitur. The ex-preacher looked at them placidly.

Chris couldn't stand it.

"What the hell did that mean?" he snapped.

"Just that the good citizens of Four Corners will have little time to devote to criticizing its lawmen while they are occupied doing our jobs, Brother," Josiah replied.

Vin shook his head. "We wasn't goin' to stay in town," he said. "Just stopped to pick up some supplies and get some grub."

"Indeed, I shudder to contemplate what might be considered a bed here," Ezra added. "The dubious comforts of a camp seem much more inviting."

"I done heard it all," Buck exclaimed. "Ezra P. Standish just said he'd rather rough it than stick in town."

Ezra glared at him, but Chris felt his mouth twitch into a smile as all the others roared with laughter.

He pushed his chair back.

"Boys, we better stock up as well."

It had been hard riding catching up with Vin and Ezra. Without the mountain storm to slow them down, the two of them would still be a day or two ahead. Chris and the other four had pushed hard, relying on their supplies and staying on the trail later than normal to catch up. They hadn't supplemented what they carried by stopping to hunt. They were low on everything but ammunition and water now.

Josiah stood up. "Nathan, come along. We can take care of that." He patted Ezra's shoulder. "Good to see you, son."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "How many times do I have to say it?" he asked.

Buck and JD chorused with him.

"I am not your son."

Josiah chuckled.

Chris looked around the saloon. He felt restless. Losing track of the bounty hunters bothered him more than he wanted to let on.

"I'm going to take a walk around town, check out the livery," he declared.

"We'll order up some chow for all of ya," Buck said.

Now that he saw Vin and Ezra were all right, Buck was ready to relax and take life as it came. He didn't like playing leader and once he had Chris back with them, he'd gone back to his easy going ways.

"Just make sure you don't eat it for us, too," Chris told him.

He walked out behind Josiah and Nathan, wondering if anyone else had marked that Nathan hadn't said a word to either Ezra or Vin.


Ezra shuddered as Buck began another song. Buck had been in a buoyant mood since they'd ridden out of Elmo three days before. When even his store of rambling, racy stories and raunchy jokes had run dry, he'd turned to serenading them.

He didn't mind Buck's voice per se. But cheerfulness and song any time before noon was just uncivilized. Ezra preferred silence if he had to rise with the dawn, which he had once more been forced to do since Vin joined him on the trail.

At least, he comforted himself, Vin wasn't accompanying Buck with his harmonica.

Vin was riding side by side with Chris, eyes sharp, slumped comfortably in the saddle. When he caught Ezra's glare, a smile played at the corners of his mouth.

JD was riding ahead of them, checking for sign and simply burning some of that exhausting energy he hummed with. Josiah had taken drag for the day, watching their back trail.

Ezra had to admit – but only to himself – that it felt right for the seven of them to be together again. He enjoyed their company.

Still. Did Buck have to sing?

He could have dozed in the saddle, lulled by the quiet creak of leather and the sun against his right shoulder, as they wound their way into the high country and the distant mass of blue-hazed mountains, if Buck would quiet down.

Hoping for a little rest for his ears, he let Hazard slow into a lazy walk that had Buck and Darling moving ahead, while he ended up parallel to Nathan.

He could have used the extra sleep. His old friend insomnia had taken hold since the night he told Vin about the end of Peyton's Ford. It was an old pattern. When the nightmares were too bad, he simply stayed awake all night. It could go on for weeks and he usually managed to rest in the mornings while in town but not on the trail. He could get by without much rest, of course, but it did drag a man down.

"You still getting headaches?" Nathan asked him.

"No," Ezra replied.

"Ain't dizzy or seeing double or hearing things?"

"Beyond Mr. Wilmington's atrocious bellowing?"

"I meant things that ain't there?"

Ezra looked at Nathan. Nathan was inspecting him skeptically.

"I assure you I am in complete control of my faculties, Mr. Jackson," Ezra told him.

He decided he would rather endure Buck's singing than Nathan's interrogations and cued Hazard to pick up his pace.

As he did, he recognized the song Buck was singing and knew his face had gone pale.

"We loved each other then, Lorena.
More than we ever dared to tell;
And what we might have been, Lorena,
Had but our lovings prospered well
-- But then -- 'tis past; the years are gone,
I'll not call up their shadowy forms;
I'll say to them, "lost years, sleep on!
Sleep on! Nor heed life's pelting storms."[ix]

"Shut up, Buck!" he snapped before he could stop himself. "Just shut up and stop singing that damned song."

Buck's mouth snapped shut and he gave Ezra a startled look.

"Look, Ezra, I don't what your problem is – "

"My problem is that damned song," Ezra hissed. He leaned out from his saddle and snatched at Buck's arm. "I swear I will shoot you if you keep singing it."

Buck jerked his arm away.

Nathan pushed Peppermint between Hazard and Darling. He looked from Ezra to Buck.

"What the hell are you pitching a fit over now, Ezra?" he demanded.

"Ez don't like my choice of songs," Buck groused.

"That true?"

Ezra glared past Nathan.

Buck huffed.

Nathan said, "You don't like Buck's songs, maybe you better come up with something yourself or just keep quiet."

Ezra switched his furious glare from Buck to Nathan. He narrowed his eyes then smiled. "Of course, Mr. Jackson," he said smoothly. "I'll sing an old favorite of mine from the South."

He drew in a deep breath and began.
I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten;
Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixie's Land!
In Dixie's Land where I was born in,
Early on one frosty morning,
Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixie's Land!"

Nathan pulled up Peppermint so cruelly the brown gelding let out a neigh of protest.

"Why you sonovabitch," Nathan snarled.

Buck halted Darling.

Ezra reined in Hazard too then pitched into the chorus and the second verse in a low voice. Finished, he smiled at Nathan and added, "We sang that in the war. I believe I remember the other verses as well, if you'd like the whole rendition?"

Nathan looked ready to tear him out of the saddle and beat him bloody. Harsh breaths whistled through his nostrils. His hands were clenched around the reins and his saddle horn. Speaking apparently defeated him.

"I didn't think so," Ezra concluded.

Buck had already forgotten his own annoyance with Ezra and now tried to play peacemaker as always.

"Something about the song I was singing mean something to you, Ez?"

"Something like that," Ezra agreed. "I find the reminder as disagreeable as Mr. Jackson does 'Dixie.'"

"Could have just said."

"I thought I did."

Buck laughed. "Yeah, but it's usually Chris that threatens to shoot me for opening my mouth."

Nathan interrupted, "You think Buck singing something you don't like is the same as reminding me you're a no-account Reb bastard?"

"I was making a point, one Mr. Wilmington seems to have grasped," Ezra replied. He had his most placid, blank expression on.

Nathan spat into the dirt.

Ezra raised an eyebrow to Buck.

Buck shook his head. "Ain't ya too young ta been in the War, Ezra?"

"I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, many Southern boys younger than I was followed the call of glory to an early grave in the War of Northern Aggression."

"Should've figured you for fightin' for the South," Nathan snapped. "'Cept I didn't figure ya for havin' the guts."

"War's over," Larabee said, commanding Standish and Jackson to cease and desist their sniping as he and Vin reached them.

Ezra nodded.

"I believe I'll ride with JD for a while," he said. He rode away at a trot, knowing if he stayed it would only mean quarreling with both Nathan and Chris.


Chris glared after the Southerner and cursed under his breath. He'd swear the man went out of his way to get under Nathan's skin. No, that wasn't fair. Ezra didn't need to do much more than catch Nathan's attention to irritate him. They just couldn't get along.

Nathan let his mount fall back into tandem with Buck's gray.

"Ya sure about that, cowboy?" Vin asked quietly.

"Sure about what?" Chris asked in confusion, drawn from his own thoughts.

Vin nodded toward the angry glare Nathan bent at the bland-faced gambler riding ahead of them.

"Ya sure the war's over?"

Vin had been riding quietly beside Chris, listening without commenting until now.

Chris narrowed his eyes then shrugged. "Man's got a right to the way he feels."

"Yep, but Ez ain't the only one of us that wore the gray," Vin said quietly.

Chris thought about that.

"Ran into some of you Texas boys back then. You with them?"

Vin nodded. "Yep."



"You never said."

"War's over for me." Vin cocked his head. "For Ez too. Nate needs to figure that out instead of goin' after Ezra for singing 'Dixie'. Three years is too long to ride with a man ya can't trust at yer back."

"Hell, I trust Ezra. Just not with my money."

"I's talkin' about Nate."

Chris gave him a sharp look. The silent question in his eyes was, You don't trust him or you don't trust him to watch Ezra's back?

Vin's answer was just as silent, a thoughtful look that said maybe it was some of both. Once Vin decided someone was a friend, he'd kill himself to take care of that friend. Somewhere along the way, the Texan had decided Ezra Standish was a friend. That meant Vin would be there for the gambler if anyone tried to hurt him, including one of the other five men who made up their group.

Nathan had been taking out his resentments against Ezra from the first day they rode together.

Nathan might be looking at an unpleasant surprise some day soon.

Chris kept his eyes on the trail for a while, then remarked quietly, "Didn't Ezra say only a fool would have fought for the South?"


Chris smiled.

Vin smiled back. "Guess he figures he was a fool."

"You think he was?"

Vin sighed, his blue eyes focusing on on distant memories. "I's younger than JD when I joined up. Jus' did it 'cause I hated the bluebellies so much for takin' me back from the tribe ... Figure Ezra, his reasons had to be better'n that."

Chris glanced at the Texan curiously. Vin's face was shaded under his old slouch hat, the sharp angle of his jaw blurred by blond-brown whiskers. His expression was serene. They all knew Vin had lived with the Comanches for a time. None of them had thought about why he'd left the tribe. Must have been ugly. A white boy raised by Indians, even if he remembered white ways enough to get along, wouldn't have had it easy. Sounded like he hadn't always been the calm man they knew; sounded like he'd been bitter.

"Probably wasn't even old enough to shave," Chris said to himself. He could imagine a younger Vin, all angles and elbows, whip-thin and angry, clad in buckskin and butternut under a faded Confederate gray coat. He'd seen boys like that. He'd shot boys like that. A lifetime ago.

These days when the Texan used those keen eyes to sight down his rifle, they were on the same side. Funny that none of them had spoken much about the war before. Three years of riding side by side, bleeding and cursing and laughing, and he hadn't known Vin fought for the South. Or maybe he hadn't wanted to know about Vin and Ezra, so he'd never asked. It wasn't like he encouraged personal questions himself, he acknowledged with a quirk of his lips. It could be the others had known, had talked about it, just not with him.

It occurred to him now that Ezra might have left them at the Seminole's village because he recognized men he'd known among Anderson's Ghosts. It could be damn hard to shoot at men you'd fought beside. Ezra had come back, though. He'd even put that cannon ball through the Confederate flag. Damn, how had they all missed what that had meant?

He glanced at Vin again. Vin didn't miss much. So maybe Vin had seen and guessed but stayed silent about it just the way Ezra had.

It seemed pretty clear Vin and Ezra had been sharing some memories from back then since they'd left – good and bad. Chris thought he understood. There were things he could only talk about with Buck, because Buck had been there.

The clop of hooves on hardpan heralded Josiah's return from watching their back trail. Moses whinnied when he saw his stablemates. Josiah bridled him up, settling into an easy walk next to Vin on Peso.

Vin nodded to him.

"Any sign?" Chris asked.

Josiah shook his head. "Nothing on our trail, brothers, but I have a bad feeling. Perhaps it would be wise to scout ahead."

"Ambush?" Chris asked.

Josiah lifted his big shoulders in a shrug of uncertainty. "I saw a crow this morning. It sat on a rock and looked in my eyes," he said.

Chris grimaced, hating the shiver that ran up his spine. Josiah's damn crows. Every time the big man started talking about those damn birds some piece of hell popped loose.

"Damn it," he muttered. "Close up."

He legged Nero into a fast trot that brought him parallel to Buck and Nathan. Vin and Josiah cued their mounts forward, staying with him.

Vin let loose a sharp, piercing whistle.

Up ahead, Ezra's arm shot out, catching JD's hands on Dusty's reins. The Southerner pulled up Hazard and Dusty until the rest of their band reached them. Watching him, Chris thought he was an idiot for not noticing the way Ezra rode, the way he responded under fire, the way he understood cannons and black powder – it all shouted military service. He'd just let Ezra's slick exterior and fast talk distract him.

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra inquired softly, noting Chris's intent stare.

"Nothing, Ezra."

Ezra's eyebrows rose.

Chris felt compelled to say something. "Josiah's seeing crows."

"A disturbing development," Ezra murmured.

From the other side of their little group, Nathan said, "Guess we need to keep a close eye out." He looked at Ezra and Chris tensed himself for another outburst, but this time Nathan was doing his part. "You feelin' light-headed or more tired than usual, Ezra?"

Ezra seemed ready to ignore the question for a moment, then shrugged. "I will admit to tiring earlier than I am wont to."

Chris looked at him closely. He was thinner than usual, still. Pared down fine, those pale green eyes set in shadowed hollows. Damn. Ezra faked it so well, he made it entirely too easy to forget only a week before he'd been sick as dog.

"Should've listened to me," Nathan carped.

Chris saw Ezra's lips thin. A flash of exhaustion and anger slipped past his mask and he closed his eyes. He looked startled briefly as he opened them and caught Chris studying him.

"I'm fine, I assure you," Ezra said.

"Figure you'd know," Chris agreed with a dip of his head.

The seven looked across the scrub-dotted flats to where the first rocks marked the foot of the mountains they meant to pass through. The twisted red stone barred with ochre and umber broke through the stubborn greenery clinging to the foothills. It was harsh country. Deep gashed ravines, winding canyons, stony peaks and lonely mesas that towered above the desert. Easy to get lost in. Easy to get killed in.

Vin slipped his telescope out of his coat and studied the notch they meant to take.

Chris thought how much better it would be to find some shade and water before the searing sun reached its zenith and pinned them under its heat out in the open. Shade and shelter would also provide cover.

"Could get dry gulched in there and never see it coming," Buck commented, squinting into the distance.

"They would have to drop us all, Brother," Josiah said. The wide brim of his sombrero protected his pale eyes from the glare, but they were still slitted as he peered into the distance.

"Why?" JD asked.

"Because none of us would allow them to make off with Mr. Tanner's corpus, any more than we would allow them to take him into custody, and without that to return to Tascosa there would be no reward," Ezra explained.

"Plenty of bounty hunters ain't too careful 'bout who else they shoot," Vin said.

Unsaid was that it was a similar incident, set up by Eli Joe, that had left him framed for murder. He hadn't known the body he took into Tascosa was Jess Kincaid and not the outlaw he'd been hunting. No one believed he'd found the body already dead. Bounty hunters weren't picky as long as they got paid and it looked like Vin Tanner had gotten lazy or greedy and murdered a man by mistake.

"Got any suggestions?" Chris asked.

Buckskin shifted as Vin shrugged fluidly. "There's plenty of Apache trails we could take."

"Plenty of Apaches too," Buck added.

"Ain't got nothin' they'd want."

Ezra snorted indelicately. "Savage they may be, but I believe most Indians have as keen an appreciation of fine horseflesh as any white man, Vin. Our horses alone would excite their envy and avarice."

"You'd know about avarice," Nathan muttered.

Ezra ignored him.

Vin lowered his telescope and twisted in the saddle.

"It's your trip, Ez, I figure it's your call," he said, surprising Chris.

He'd been about to make the decision of what they would do and it suddenly became clear it wasn't his decision. The five of them had joined Vin and Ezra. They were the ones who would choose.

Chris shook his head at himself. He'd got too damn used to being the one in charge.

Ezra licked his bottom lip then nodded. "It will mean no hunting and cold camps, will it not?" he asked.


Ezra glanced at the rest of them. He smiled sardonically and turned Hazard's head north.

"Lead on, Vin."

Without another glance to the cool promise of the mountains' green, they all changed course and threaded their path into the forbidding desert.


Vin had found them a waterhole late in the afternoon. They'd filled their canteens and anything else that would hold water, including their bellies, then let the horses have their fill. They let their mounts graze off the tender greenery surrounding the waterhole while eating a cold meal of jerky, apples, and day-old biscuits before saddling up again to find a dry camp for the night.

Camp turned out to be a sandy hollow among the towering rock spires that littered the land, completely hidden until you were right on it. They picketed the horses close and laid out their bedrolls as the lowering sun colored the cloud-piled sky vermilion and mauve, indigo and incandescent rose. Palest green-amber tinted the horizon above the sharp purple-black silhouette of mountain peaks.

With no fire for light, they'd laid out their bedrolls close and begun to settle in without fanfare. Vin set his out next to Ezra's then perched on an old snag next to him. Buck was sitting on a small boulder watching sun go down. JD had his back propped against Buck's knees. Nathan had stretched his tall frame out flat and was staring up at the sky, watching the stars flash in and out of the scudding clouds as the sky darkened slowly. Josiah settled himself with his back against his saddle and fingered the indian-beads strung along with his old wooden cross.

Swift and unexpected, thunderheads were gathering over the distant mountains. The sunset dyed their darkened bellies crimson and fiery orange and deep, sickly green. Volleys of blinding streaks of violet and yellow-white lightning forked down to the land. The ominous growl of thunder followed on each flare's heel.

"I'll take the first watch," Chris said. He scooped up his canteen, rifle and an extra ammunition belt and headed for the look-out Vin had pointed out as they rode in. "Ezra, you've got it after me."

"I shall arrive in a timely fashion, never fear," Ezra replied tranquilly.

He fished through his saddlebags and withdrew three more apples. He tossed one to JD, who caught it one handed and smiled.

"Thanks, Ez."

"You're welcome, JD."

He juggled the other two apples briefly. "Josiah?" he called.

Josiah looked up from his murmured prayers.

Ezra sent an apple flying through the air toward him. Josiah caught it easily.

"You'll have to share with Mr. Jackson," Ezra added.

He held up the apple left in his hand. "This is the last, I'm afraid." He brought out his little knife and began paring slices off, offering the first one to Vin.

Vin took it with a smile.

"Well, now, this is a mighty tasty looking apple," Josiah said with a toothy grin. "Nathan is going to have to at least sit up to get any of it."

"Tight-fisted four flusher," Nathan muttered. "Keep your damn apples."

Ezra raised his eyebrows at Vin.

Josiah just laughed. "All the more for me, Brother."

JD had already bit into his apple, the crisp-wet sound distinct and unmistakable. The smell filled the dry air in contrast to scents of horses and dust and sweat that clung to them all. Chewing noisily, he held it up for Buck to take.

Buck accepted the apple distractedly, still watching the lightning storm. "No rain," he remarked as a rolling crack of thunder reached them.

Vin blinked as lightning streaked down the sky again. "Nope."

The rumble of it reached them again and he felt Ezra flinch beside him. The little paring knife slipped, slicing a line of dark blood across one pale fingertip.

Buck was still staring at the horizon, mesmerized by the brilliance against the darkening shades of the sunset, the jagged incandescence that flared against the eye and sky so fast only its fading ghost registered. The taste of the dry storm rode on the evening wind, sharp and bitter and wild.

Vin drew it deep into his lungs.

A boom of thunder and another quiver ran through Ezra beside him. He glanced to the side. Ezra was watching the lightning, his face colorless, his eyes strangely light, blind looking.

"God damn," Buck breathed.

Multiple strikes dyed the sky a glowing purple. The booming cannonade reached them heartbeats later.

"Some folks believe such a display is a signal of the Lord's wrath," Josiah intoned. He'd sat up to watch along with the others.

"Is that what you think, Josiah?" JD asked. He reached up and retrieved the forgotten apple from Buck's lax fingers.

"I can't see wrath in such beauty, JD."

JD took another crunching bite of the apple and shrugged.

"You don't see the glory and majesty of it?" Josiah asked. "The sheer magnificence?"

"Just a damn good way to start a wild fire," Nathan said from his bedroll. "Wish it would go ahead and get over with so we could all get some sleep."


Faces leached bone pale and black shadowed, like spectres.


The harsh rumble hit their eardrums from so close it vibrated through the earth and into their bones.

This time is was Buck who flinched.

"Sounds like artillery," he said flatly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw Ezra nod once.

Buck turned toward them, face just a dim blur in to the blinding afterglare of the lightning strike.

"You must have been in the artillery, right, Ez?" Buck said. "That's how you know so much about cannons and powder and dynamite."

"Yes," Ezra replied.

"Where'd you serve?"

"Where my superiors sent me."

Ezra carved another slice out of the apple and offered it to Vin on the point of his little knife. A dark smear marred the creamy flesh of the fruit. Blood from Ezra's finger.

Vin plucked it off the knife.



The fruit was just as sweet as ever.

Buck looked away. "God damn."

They watched the storm play out in silence until Nathan spoke.

"You kill a lot of coloreds riding with your Reb brothers?"

Vin settled his hand over Ezra's, feeling how the elegant fingers had locked tight around the little knife. He squeezed gently.

"Don't know 'bout Ez," he rasped out, "but I shot plenty of colored soldiers – if they was wearing blue. Saw plenty of them fight beside boys in gray too."

It was too dark to read anyone's face, but the surprise sounded clear in JD's voice. "You were in the Confederate Army, Vin?"

"Yeah, kid."

JD muttered something that had Buck cuffing him hard.

"The hell it is," Buck snapped.

"Can't believe you fought for folks that kept slaves," Nathan said contemptuously. "Thought you was better than that, Vin."

Thought you was a better man too, Nate, Vin reflected silently. That war wasn't about you. Wasn't about slaves.

"Nathan?" JD asked.


"You ain't going to hit Vin too, are you?"

"What do you mean 'too', JD?" Josiah asked.

JD was silent.

"JD? What were you talking about, boy?" Buck prompted him.

"Sorry, Ezra, I know I said I wouldn't say anything," JD said contritely.

"What con has he got you covering up for him now?" Nathan interrupted.

"Nothing, Nathan, nothing except you coming into the jail and accusing him of something he had nothing to do with then hitting him from behind. I heard the whole thing, you know."

"JD – "

"You don't think too highly of me either, do you?"

"JD, please – " Ezra tried to stop him.

"Nope, I'm sorry, Ez, but I got a right to be mad too, the way he thinks of me," JD insisted. "I guess there just aren't many folks that live up to Nathan's standards. You don't. I don't, since he thinks I'd let you get away with murder. I guess, if Vin fought for the South, that makes him no good too."

"Now, that ain't true, JD," Nathan objected. "I just think Ezra's got his weaseling ways and he'd pull the wool over your eyes if he wanted to."

"I don't think so," JD stated firmly. "I'm not stupid. I'm not blind either."

"There's no need to quarrel over anything, Brothers."

JD huffed out a disgusted breath. "You're right about that, Josiah," he declared. "There's no use saying anything, 'cause Nathan ain't ever going to change his mind."

Ezra rose gracefully from beside Vin. His voice remained smooth and composed. "I believe I will relieve Mr. Larabee early."

He began to pick his way out of the dark camp.

Buck called after him, "I'll come get you later, Ez."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. I will be waiting."

Silence settled uneasily between the rest of them until Chris slipped back into camp.

"What the hell's wrong with all of you?" he demanded irritably.

"Nothin', stud," Buck replied.

Nothing any of them could change after this many years together, anyway, Vin thought. He slipped off the snag and into his blankets, pulling them over him to ward off the night chill of the high desert. He wondered why Nathan had come with the others. Habit probably, he decided.

He was sorry the man had come.

He didn't trust him any more. He kept thinking about that little bottle he found behind the Ritz. It looked just like Nathan's medicine bottles. The label was written in the same green ink. Every time Nathan opened his mouth, it reminded Vin of just how ugly things could get if what he thought was right.

Leaving Four Corners, he'd thought he'd left that problem behind. With Ezra and him gone, it wouldn't matter what Nathan did. Or had done. But now the healer was back with them, still going after Ezra, and Vin was worried again.

18. Virginia City, 1877

I limit the straddles, and you shuffle and deal.
When will the dealer reveal how he feels?
Is the lucky beginner just a five-card stud?
Is this winning streak going to be nipped in the bud?

No Cheap Thrill, Suzanne Vega

Seven tired men rode into Virginia City. Seven tired, dangerous men wearing guns and riding good horses, steady and wary as a wolf-pack quartering new territory.

"Gunmen," someone watching them whispered and the rumor ran through town ahead of them.

The men felt the eyes on them and at least one of them was always watching the second and third story windows, the roofs and alleys. Hats were pulled low over their eyes. Sidearms were loose in in their holsters. The horses moved slowly, at their own pace. They rode with a pair ahead and a pair behind, three side by side in the center.

"You know the town, Ezra," Chris said.

Next to him, Ezra replied, "It has been three years." He glanced around and shrugged. "The whole place has been rebuilt since the fire in '75."

On Chris's other side, Buck shifted in his saddle with a creak from the leather. "Well, then, boys, you listen to ol' Buck. The first thing we find is a livery. Someone there'll tell us where there's a good saloon – "

"Looks like there's plenty of saloons," JD piped up. He was riding drag next to Vin. He wasn't intimidated or impressed by the three and four story buildings of the city. They still didn't compare to Boston or New York.

" – and you can always find out where the best hotels and whorehouses are from a bartender," Buck finished.

"Damn, Bucklin, is that all ya can think about?" Vin teased. His shoulders were hunched. He didn't like the feel of houses looming over him like cliffs stuffed full of people like wasps in a hive.

"I wonder if Miz Rose's Social Parlor is still standing?" Ezra remarked. "She did run an excellent establishment. It was at one of her gaming tables that I acquired the very deed that brings us here."

"See?" Buck exclaimed triumphantly.

Chris shook his head.

They rode on into Virginia City, most of them impressed despite themselves. The Richest Little City in the West some people called it. There were hotels and stores, saloons, gambling dens, sporting houses, theaters, music halls, and five police precincts. Compared to most Western towns it was amazingly populous.

They passed the six-story International Hotel. They passed by saddleries, bootmakers and tailorshops. A painted glass window advertised a barbershop next to a bathhouse. There were restaurants advertising different fare. Imposing brick banks sat next to the offices of assayers and surveyers. Signs advertised boarding houses as well as the hotels and saloons, music halls and theaters. Another stretch of street hosted hatshops, dressmakers, mercantiles, emporiums, and jewelers. Vin spotted a carpenter's and furniture store with fancy tables and chairs visible through a plate glass window. Then there were laundries and blacksmiths, along with more saloons. It was overwhelming.

Vin looked at it all and shuddered.

"Too damn many people."

He'd thought Four Corners was getting crowded.

Ezra heard him and said, "We will slip out of town and check the property tomorrow, Vin. Then, perhaps a day's negotiations, and we'll leave."

"Sounds good to me," Josiah said.

Vin guessed Josiah thought they'd be riding back to Four Corners all together, but he didn't read that in Ezra's pale green eyes. Didn't mean it wouldn't happen, but it wasn't foreordained.

He hoped Ezra was right about it not taking long to sell the deed and leave. He didn't like Virginia City. It stunk and pinched and crowded at him the way the few cities he'd glimpsed in the east had during the war.


Buck's advice proved out. They left their tack and gear with the horses at the livery after impressing on the stable boy what would happen if any of it disappeared before they returned for it. They wandered into a saloon several doors down and ordered beers.

Josiah gave the bartender the evil eye when he looked at Nathan and started to open his mouth. After a second, the bartender recovered and filled two mugs to overflowing, which he shoved across the bar to them. Josiah slapped a couple of coins down in the skim of spilled beer. Nathan just stood with his arms crossed, frowning and shaking his head at everything. Josiah scooped up the two mugs and they headed for a table in a dim, ill-lit corner.

Buck and JD found their way to the piano and the piano player after garnering their drinks. A pleasant melody was started up by the piano player and Buck hooted good-humored laughter over something JD said.

Vin sat down at the bar and Chris took the stool next to him, both of them carefully checking that the mirror behind the bar gave them a clear reflection of the rest of the room and the doors.

Ezra patted his shoulder once as he walked past and ordered, "Three beers, my good man."

Three froth-topped beers were drawn into clean glass mugs and sent sliding down the bar to them with just enough force that they stopped in front of each man.

"Bravo," Ezra breathed and his gold tooth glinted as he smiled.

Ezra sweet-talked the bartender, learning more than just the name of a reputable nearby hotel. Vin watched as a quiver of eagerness seemed to run through the gambler as the names Stanford and Hearst, McKay and Crocker came up. Corcoran, the man with the new silver strike was described, along with Magnusson, a railroad tycoon, and Finster, another miner whose fortunes were waxing. Easy to forget just how good Ezra was at charming anything he wanted out of people. Real soon, he knew where all those men were staying, how long they'd been in town, and where they went to have 'fun'.

Vin frowned into his beer. There was something there, about that thought, that Ezra could make just about anyone trust him. He could convince you black was white if he bothered. He'd never tried it on Vin or the others.

"Problem?" Chris asked from his place beside him.

Vin shook his head.

"Just ponderin' on somethin'."

Chris took a deep swig of cold beer.

"Let me know when you figure it out."

Vin took a sip of his own beer, savoring the sharp flavor. Towns did have some good points, he had to admit. Ice houses and cold beer being among them. Washed the trail dust out of a man's throat real well.

"You ever wonder why Ez never tried to con any of us?" he asked at last.

Chris raised an eyebrow. "The man's run more than one scam in the last three years, Tanner."

"Not on any of us. Hell, not even on any of the good town people."

Chris appeared to think about it before slowly nodding agreement.

"Either he figured we'd see through it and shoot him – "

Vin coughed and Chris had the grace to half smile because he had made that threat more than once.

" – or he didn't figure we had anything worth conning us out of," Chris finished with a shrug.

Vin shook his head. "Then why'd he stick so long?"

"Why's he leaving now?" Chris snapped back.

Vin stared into his mug. The skim of foam on the beer was dissolving. He sloshed it, watching the dark amber liquid wash up the sides of the glass and then down again.

"Got to fold your cards when you're sittin' in a losing game," he said finally. "Figure he already went bust once with the Saloon and everythin' ... " He finished the beer in one long draw, throat working, and set the mug down quietly. "A man comes back to a place he calls home and if it ain't, then one day, he doesn't."

Chris studied him thoughtfully, but said nothing as Ezra strolled over, looking smug and pleased with himself.

"Gentlemen, if your thirst has been quenched, I have obtained the name of a fine establishment where we can rest our weary bones on something other than cold, hard earth," Ezra said.

Chris swallowed the last of his beer and shoved away from the bar. "Let's go."

Buck's head came up as soon as Chris moved. He and JD fell into step following them out the door. Josiah and Nathan were right behind. Vin suppressed a grin. Beside him, Ezra chuckled quietly.

"Impressive, isn't it?"

Vin had to admit it was. Something about the way the seven of them always knew each other's moves made the group more intimidating than a collection of seven men, no matter how individually dangerous, should have been.


The hotel offered baths to Ezra's delight. He wallowed in the decadent luxury of hot water, expensive soap, thick towels and privacy. He could have visited a barber shop for his shave, but preferred to have control of any sharp implements in close conjunction to his throat and did it himself.

He'd retrieved his carpetbag and saddlebags from the livery and dressed once more in a manner that befitted a gentleman gambler. Smooth-faced, wearing his favorite jacket, the lace at the edges of his cuffs arranged just so, and smelling of sandalwood rather than sand, he strolled downstairs from his room, intent on a good drink, a good meal, and then finding a good game. According to the check-in clerk, Miz Rose's establishment still did good business. He might stop in there later in the evening.

The desk clerk called his name before he had a chance to look for any of those things.

"Mr. Standish!"

Ezra paused. "Yes?'

The clerk pulled several envelopes from the desk and waved them. "You've got messages."

Ezra sighed. Perhaps he should have stayed at the International or the Gold Hill Hotel instead of choosing this one. He'd wanted a place that wouldn't be too intimidating or unaffordable for the other six men. So instead of a bellboy bringing him his messages, he had to rely on the clerk.

He accepted the slips of paper and read them. The contents brought a smile to his face. He'd been in town no more than a few hours and already the news had reached the interested parties.

The clomp of boots brought his gaze up in time to behold Buck, Vin, and Chris striding into the lobby. The three men had cleaned up too, though Vin had neglected to shave again.

"What's got ya grinning like a cat in a creamery, hoss?" Buck exclaimed.

Ezra laughed and waved the messages. "Invitations to dine and discuss my business prospects here in Virginia City," he replied. He fingered the slips. "From Misters Corcoran, Finster, and an agent of Mr. Magnusson."

"Well, howdy-do," Buck said. "Don't miss a trick, do they?"

Ezra grinned at him. "Oh, I don't know, Buck, I might have a few things to teach them."

"You taking them up on the invite?" Vin asked.

"I thought I would accept Mr. Corcoran's invitation."

"Think a couple of us ought to tag along," Chris said.

Ezra raised his eyebrows.

Buck shook his head, a smile curling beneath that lush mustache. "Not me, hoss. This ol' boy is going to check out Miz Rose's place." A spark of good-natured mischief gleamed in his dark blue eyes. "Any place that Ezra Standish remembers so fondly must be mighty fine, I'm thinking."

Chris slapped the back of Buck's head.

"Get your head out of your pants, Buck."

"That's just what I had in mind, stud."

Vin choked and snorted at that, while Ezra and Chris stared at the taller man in dismayed silence.

"Good lord, man," Ezra finally articulated. "Go on, get it out – " Vin snorted again and Ezra glared at him, " – of your system," he continued smoothly. "I would be delighted if Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner chose to accompany me. They have some sense of propriety. You, on the other hand, have raised uncouth to an art form."

"What'll propriety get ya, Ez?" Buck asked, grinning. "You three are going to be choking on cigar smoke and slick words all night, while I'm lazing in a sweet smellin' bed with a sweet lookin' gal, getting all uncouth."

With a tip of his hat, Buck strutted out of the hotel lobby.

Ezra stared after him and sighed. "There is a terrifying logic to Mr. Wilmington's arguments."

"Yep," agreed Vin. Suppressed mirth brightened his blue eyes.

Chris just shook his head. "He isn't ever going to change, that's for sure."

"Would you want him to, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.

Chris smiled. "Hell no."

"I thought not." He gestured to the doors. "Gentlemen, shall we proceed to Mr. Corcoran's lodgings?"

"That would be?" Chris asked as they started walking.

"Why, the International, of course." Ezra glanced slyly at Vin. "We may even introduce Mr. Tanner to the wonders of the 'rising room' they have there."

Vin stopped stock-still on the sidewalk. He looked at Ezra suspiciously. "The what?"

"A remarkable contraption meant to take the place of stairs, my friend," Ezra told him.

"Now, what the hell is goin' to take the place of stairs?" Vin asked Chris plaintively. "They goin' to make folk use a ladder?"

Chris laughed and shoved Vin forward into a walk again. "You'll just have to see, won't you?"

"Ain't goin' to like it, I know that," Vin declared.

Ezra shared a glance with Chris and they both chuckled.

"Oh, undoubtedly," he said and shifted the topic to Vin's sense of the weather in the Sierra Nevadas and whether it would be clear to ride out to Stairstep Canyon the next day.


Asa Corcoran dressed like Ezra, albeit less colorfully. A shock of Irish red hair slicked down by hair oil still distracted attention from his shrewd hazel eyes. Nothing else about the businessman was remarkable; he was neither tall nor heavy nor ugly. His face and hands were spattered with freckles, a fair skinned man's legacy from a youth spent laboring outdoors. The fruit of that labor was evidenced in the plush surroundings of the International Hotel: the gas lamps, fine wallpaper, fine furniture polished to loving gleam, the glitter of crystal and china and silver on pristine linen.

He welcomed Ezra to his table with a smile, expanding his invitation to include Vin and Chris as they were introduced. A faint lilt colored his voice, a hint of amusement, as he smiled at them. Chris thought the man had noticed the careful way Ezra introduced them:

"My associates – Vin – and this is Mr. Larabee."

"Please, join me, gentlemen," Corcoran said.

Ezra gave him that gold-toothed shark's grin and took a seat. Damned if it wasn't the Southern gentleman, the educated planter's son, who matched Corcoran story for story as they dined on an array of fancy foods with French names Chris couldn't even pronounce. It all tasted fine, even the rich sauces, and was a far cry from bacon, beans, and biscuits.

He watched Vin, worried his friend would be intimidated or bothered by the assortment of elaborate silverware, but Vin just winked at him. It took an instant for Chris to realize Vin was subtly following Ezra's cues and another to see that Ezra was well aware and deliberately leading Vin through the maze of manners. At the same time, Ezra kept up his side of the conversation, trolled for information, picked his way through the meal, and silently laughed at Chris's consternation when that jade gaze locked with his.

Corcoran seemed surprised and pleased by Ezra and Ezra – if Chris read him right – was more respectful than mere avarice would have indicated. Usually Ezra saw the rich as marks, yet he seemed to like Corcoran.

"Now, laddie, how can I persuade you to part with that trifling bit of land?" Corcoran asked over brandy and cigars after the sumptuous meal served by the International's staff.

Ezra savored another swallow of Corcoran's smooth, imported French brandy, and replied, "That remains to be seen, sir, though I must say this fine spirit is an excellent start."

Chris inhaled the heady fumes from the balloon glass in his hand and had to agree. Corcoran was treating them to the good stuff.

The conversation drifted to the South and the cities of Richmond and Savannah before and during the war. Corcoran had made his first fortune running guns and supplies bought in Britain through the blockades to the Confederates.

Ezra calmly steered the conversation away from the war to horses. Racing, breeding, training – Corcoran had an Irishman's love for a fine animal. He mentioned new race for Thoroughbreds being held in Louisville.

"They're calling it the Derby," Corcoran said with a shake of his head. "Held the first one in '75." He chuckled. "As though Churchill Downs will ever be as famous as The Curragh."

"You've attended both?" Ezra asked.

"Aye, and the fine meetings at Ascot, as well," Corcoran declared. "Damn the English, but they do have some grand horses." Thanks to the brandy, Corcoran's 'fine' sounded more like 'foine'. "No finer than you Americans, I must admit. I'd pit the horse that won your Kentucky Derby against anything England can offer."

"Chris, here, used to breed horses," Ezra mentioned.

"Not for racing," Chris demurred. "Saddle horses and cow ponies."

Corcoran looked at him closely. Chris remembered that the man had hired Pinkertons to find Ezra. That agent had probably sent him reports on all the lawmen in Four Corners, including himself. Otherwise, Corcoran would surely have asked him why he'd given it up.

"Seen some real beauties runnin' wild in Utah Territory 'n up to Wyoming," Vin spoke up. "Used to do a little horse huntin'."

You bet you did, Chris thought. His mouth quirked into a smile. If that's what you wanted to call raiding with the Comanche.

"I suppose that's how you got that damned mule Peso?" he asked.

Vin grinned. "Nope. Picked him up from a cowboy in Fort Worth. Said if I could ride 'im I could have 'im for a peso."

Ezra chuckled. "When will you be returning Peso to his erstwhile owner then?"

"What?" Vin frowned at both Chris and Ezra. Even Corcoran was smiling, sensing they were teasing Vin over the horse.

"He means we've all seen Peso toss your ass in the mud and that don't count as riding him," Chris said.

Vin glared at him. "I seen you pile off Nero once or twice, cowboy."

Chris held his hand up. "All right, all right."

Corcoran poured himself another measure of brandy and held the decanter up. The heavy, cut crystal glittered in the lamplight. "Gentlemen?"

"Had enough, but it sure is smooth," Vin answered.

Chris held out his snifter.

Ezra shook his head, lifted his snifter and swirled the dark amber liquid still in it.

Corcoran poured for Chris.

"My agent informs me you're a card player, sir," he addressed Ezra.

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I've been known to sit down to hand or two of cards."

Chris choked on his brandy. Vin helpfully thumped him between the shoulder blades, making it worse. Remembering some of the manners his mother and Sarah had hammered into him, Chris didn't wipe his chin with the back of his hand. He fumbled, found his napkin and blotted the brandy with it.

When he had control, he found Ezra and Vin looking at him with identical expressions of absolute innocence.

"Are you all right, Chris?" Ezra inquired.

"Swallowed wrong," he replied hoarsely. You sonovabitch.

"Gotta be more careful, cowboy," Vin told him cheerfully. This was what he got for teasing Vin about his damned horse.

Chris turned the full force of the Larabee glare on him. Vin smiled, completely immune. He switched to Ezra, who just blinked and cocked his head attentively. Sonsabitches, both of them, Chris thought.

"Then maybe you would be interested in doing a spot a gambling for that piece of paper?" Corcoran asked with a smile.

Ezra smiled back, dimples flashing, green eyes laughing.

Vin shook his head and advised Corcoran. "It ain't gambling the way Ez plays, Mr. Corcoran."

"I do prefer to leave as little to chance as possible, sir," Ezra agreed. "I am a professional."

"Ah, well, then it might be best if I didn't bet any of my mining shares, aye?" Corcoran said. He didn't appear disturbed.

"Indeed, sir," Ezra replied.

Corcoran finished his own brandy and scraped his chair back. "There are several excellent gambling halls here in Virginia City, but the vultures would be after us both if we showed our faces in them. There are plenty who would like to buy that land from you, if only to thwart me."

"Do you know Miz Rose's Social Parlor?"

It was Corcoran's turn to chuckle. "You have foine taste in more than horseflesh, I'm thinking. Miz Rose is a woman of discretion. She keeps a private gaming room too. We'll finish the night in an entertaining fashion there, however the cards fall."

"Shall we repair there, then?" Ezra inquired. "I owe the lady a thank you from my last sojourn here."

Chris pushed his chair back and stood. "Mr. Corcoran, thank you for your liquor and the fine meal."

"It was real good," Vin added.

"A sumptuous repast," Ezra agreed.

"Anything to close a deal," Corcoran told them with a friendly smile.

"We will talk further once my associates and I have inspected the land in question, sir," Ezra assured him. "For now, let us forego business and seek out another sort of pleasure."

Chris caught Vin's gaze. Are you coming?

Vin shrugged. "It's been a while, cowboy, and I surer 'n hell ain't – what's that word Ez uses? – averse," Vin said in a quiet aside. He added to Ezra, "Didn't know ya thought about more 'n cards and money, Ez."

"Gentlemen," Ezra chided them repressively.

"There is his horse," Chris said.

Vin shoved a sharp elbow into Chris's ribs as they stepped out the International's doors onto the sidewalk. It was a far cry from Four Corners. Even long after dark, Virginia City sparked with life, lamps burning, crowds ebbing and flowing from the various saloons and music halls, the theaters and restaurants.

Corcoran and Ezra walked out behind them.

Chris noticed Ezra looking around him as they walked down the sidewalk. A satisfied smile played over the gambler's boyish face. Ezra was completely comfortable in these surroundings, among the throngs of people and in the elegantly appointed hotel they'd just left. This was his natural milieu and he'd given it up when he stayed in Four Corners. Chris still hoped Ezra would ride back with them, but it didn't seem likely. Maybe it wouldn't even be the best thing for Ezra.

Ezra noticed his interest.

"You appear pensive, Chris."

Chris. Not Mr. Larabee. Ezra was relaxed. Of course, that formality made more sense now that Chris knew Ezra had been an officer. Their unofficial little band had followed Chris from the first and Ezra had been according him the respect due a commanding officer. Since he'd resigned from the Four Corners' peacekeepers, maybe he now felt he could use Chris's first name.

"Just thinking, Ezra," he replied.

"Nothing too vexing?"

"No, just figuring a few things out." He grinned at Ezra, which made him falter a step. "You're paying when we get to this Miz Rose's place, aren't you?"

Ezra laughed.

"I'll stand a round of drinks," Ezra told him. The gold tooth glinted. "Anything else, gentlemen, will be between you and the ladies of the establishment."

Vin and Corcoran both chuckled.


Miz Rose's Social Parlor occupied a pleasant, three-story clapboard house situated near the border of the redlight district. A capacious barn sat behind it, where a visitor with a horse could leave it to be cared for by a stablelad and kept in a stall, discreetly out of view. Pots of flowers graced the porch and several windowsills. The soft glow from the lamps inside made its way through lace curtains and the sounds of a piano drifted to the street.

Corcoran used the lion-faced iron knocker just once.

A squat fellow of remarkable musculature with a fighter's scarred eyebrows and a smashed potato nose, dressed in a gray three-piece suit, opened the door immediately. Washed-out blue eyes recognized Corcoran then a gap-toothed smile crossed the otherwise scowling face.

"Aye and it's Master Corcoran come to call," the doorman exclaimed.

He waved them all in with a dramatic flourish that didn't hide the way he inspected Ezra, Chris, and Vin. They all noticed the Colt he wore in a shoulder holster much like Ezra's.

"Welcome to Miz Rose's, sirs."

They took off their hats as they stepped into the foyer, a bit of manners none of them ever felt compelled to use in most bordellos, but Rose McClanahan's house seemed to demand it.

"Liam," Corcoran said, "these are Misters Standish, Larabee and ..." His words trailed off when he came to Vin, who hadn't been introduced beyond his first name.

"Vin," Vin said tranquilly to the doorman.

A crooked smile lit the man's face. "And it's welcome you all are."

A second man, this one six-foot-six and made like a freight train, hard as iron and coal-black, nodded his shaved pate at Corcoran from a doorway farther down the hall.

"Mista Corcoran," came the rumbling, soft greeting, in a Deep South accent far richer than Ezra's. This man was dressed in another three-piece suit, obviously tailored just for him. Liquid dark eyes catalogued Chris and Vin then settled on Ezra. White teeth flashed in the formerly solemn face. "Why, Mista Standish, it's fine to see you again."

"Likewise, Tiberius," Ezra replied seriously.

"Miz Rose will be mighty pleased to see you."

"We were hoping she might have the gaming room available," Ezra confided, his winsome, cajoling smile forming.

"There ain't no one using it," Tiberius said. He nodded to Liam, silently but clearly informing the Irishman he would take over with the four visitors.

"You gentlemen just go on in the front parlor. Miz Rose is talking to Cook; I'll fetch her."

"There's no rush, Tiberius," Ezra said. "We have all night."

Chris grinned at Vin over that. Their gambler had taken over thoroughly. He was even subtly herding Corcoran ahead of them.

"Oh, Tiberius? Another associate of mine expressed the intention of visiting earlier? Buck Wilmington. A tall, dark haired fellow with a mustache."

Tiberius chuckled. "Oh, that one. I believe Mista Wilmington is upstairs visiting with Miz Helen and Miz Jeannie. He already done visited with Miz Clarissa."

Corcoran goggled while Chris just chuckled, familiar with Buck's ways. Ezra and Vin were unruffled as well. Vin did murmur, "Wonder sometimes if Bucklin ain't part rabbit," making Ezra's gold tooth flash as he laughed quietly.

They proceeded into the parlor. Flocked wallpaper covered the walls and dark green velvet upholstered the horsehair stuffed cushions of the claw-footed settees. Turkey carpets covered the wax-polished floor. A full-length portrait of Rose herself dressed in a china-blue ballgown hung over the mantle of a marble-faced fireplace. The piano in the farthest corner gleamed like a black mirror. Seven women in evening dresses only slightly more provocative than was acceptable were drifting around the room and two others were settled on either side of a weedy fellow in a brown-checked suit.

Weedy glanced up and nodded to Corcoran, while two of the unoccupied women closed in on the mining magnate.

"Asa!" they cooed.

"Corcoran," Weedy greeted him. "Who're your friends?"

"Why these would be Mr. Standish, Mr. Larabee, and Mr. Vin, Finster," Corcoran replied.

Weedy's eyes sharpened. "Standish?"

Ezra nodded to him.

A tall, sloe-eyed woman had caught Chris's eye. The slow, sensual smile on her red lips reminded him of his favorite whore in Purgatorio. He matched her hungry smile with one of his own. Like Vin said, it had been a while.

His attention snapped back to Ezra briefly.

"Tonight I shall devote to a game or two of chance, then other matters – ," a milk-pale redhead had reached Ezra's side and the gambler gave her a bemused smile, " – so I'm afraid talking of any business will just have to wait, Mr. Finster." Ezra nodded at the two girls beside Finster. "You do understand, sir?"

Weedy – Finster – nodded sullenly. He sent a glare toward Corcoran, presumably for getting to Ezra first.

"You're welcome to join our play, of course," Ezra added.

Just behind Chris, Vin chuckled. Of course. Ezra might like Corcoran, but he'd have no scruples over taking Finster's or anyone else's money in a poker game. Ezra played poker the way Vin shot a long gun – with a natural genius honed by a lifetime's experience and practice.

"Señor Larabee?" the dark-eyed whore said to him. She stroked her hand down his bicep. Unlike so many working girls, she didn't suffer from an up close inspection. She was dark, but her skin was clear and fine-grained. The flesh beneath her gown was lush, but didn't strain it.

"What's your name?" he asked her huskily, feeling his body already reacting to the knowing way her hand moved along his arm.

"Soledad," she told him, leaning close so that he could feel the warmth of her body and smell the perfume she wore.

"You have anything to drink upstairs, Soledad?"

"Sí," she told him with a smile.

Her fingers twined through Chris's and she tugged him toward the doorway and the stairs. He followed her without protest.

"Enjoy yourself, Mr. Larabee," Ezra called sardonically.

"Plan to."

"How about that poker game, Mr. Standish?" Corcoran asked

Chris looked back over his shoulder in time to see the madam of the house enter the parlor from the doors at the other end of the room. He paused. Soledad leaned against him and traced her fingers over his belt buckle in a distracting manner.

Miz Rose wore a bottle-green sarcenet dress with jet buttons and black braid at the collar and cuffs. Her russet-shaded hair had been braided into a coronet on her head and she carried herself like it was a crown. The white threading through it reminded Chris of a roan mare he'd owned once. That was a comparison he'd never make out loud. Buck might be the ladies' man, but Chris did know that much about women.

He lingered in the doorway, watching Ezra greet Rose with apparent delight. They were approximately the same height; when Ezra would have kissed her hand, Rose leaned in and bussed his cheek.

Rose wasn't a beauty, her features were a little too plain for that, but she was tall and straight and her hazel were eyes large and intelligent. The way she looked at Ezra reminded Chris of Miss Nettie and Vin. Which wasn't a bad thing, because while Ezra had a mother, he sure as hell could use someone that acted like one.

"Mr. Standish, Tiberius told me you were here," Rose said. She waved the redhead clinging to Ezra's arm off. "Maeve, get these gentlemen drinks."

"I couldn't visit Virginia City without seeing you, Miz Rose," Ezra replied. He dipped his head and added, "Your warning to get out when I did probably saved my hide."

Rose chuckled and turned to greet Corcoran. "Hello, Asa."

"Rose, my dear," Corcoran said with real pleasure. "We came to beg for the use of your gaming room."

She gave him a knowing look then said with a laugh, "Of course. It's yours for the night, boys."

Her attention moved to Vin and Chris. "And you are?"

"Friends of Ezra's," Vin answered easily.

A sleek blonde with an uncomfortable resemblance to Mary Travis had attached herself to Vin. Chris almost expected to see a blush on Vin's handsome features, but Vin's shyness obviously didn't extend to whorehouses. He threw off a two-fingered salute Chris's way then wrapped his arm around the blonde's waist.

"That's Vin and the fellow lurking in the door with one of your lovelies is another of my associates, Mr. Larabee," Ezra introduced them.

Rose looked from Chris to Soledad, raised an eyebrow, then waved them on their way. "I'm sure we can get better acquainted later, Mr. Larabee."

Ezra's amused chuckle made Chris smile as he let Soledad lead him up the stairs. Ezra's voice trailed after them.

"Shall we repair to the gaming room for the nonce?"


Buck was in the gaming room when Tiberius showed Chris inside several hours later. His old friend was desultorily playing cards with Vin and Corcoran along with Miz Rose. Ezra was nowhere to be seen.

Buck's shirttails were hanging out, his dark hair stood on end and a blissful smile had his mustache turned up. His big body was slumped down in the chair and he radiated a pleasantly exhausted air. Since Chris was feeling agreeably satiated himself after leaving Soledad and washing up, he could imagine just how wrung out Buck must be.

"Lookin' pretty happy, stud," Buck commented as Chris slid into a seat next to him.

Chris just chuckled and accepted the bottle Vin nudged across the table toward him.

"My girls do aim to please," Rose remarked.

"I'd say they was right on target," Vin murmured. He was sprawled just about bonelessly in his chair, staring at his cards with a sleepy, half-lidded stare and a faint smile. A reddened lovebite peeked out from under his shirt collar, right at the base of his throat.

Corcoran had shed his coat and vest. Even his string tie was undone. A cowlick at the back of his head had triumphed over the hair oil. His sleeves were rolled up. "Deal you in, Mr. Larabee?" he asked around the cigar clenched between his teeth.

Chris nodded and pulled out one of his own cheroots. Vin wrinkled his nose.

"Where's Ezra?" he asked.

"Went upstairs with a gal a bit ago," Buck said with a smile and a waggle of his eyebrows.

"He'd already cleaned out that Finster fella," Vin added. "Don't figure he's got enough left to even try to buy that land off Ez anymore."

Corcoran let loose a rolling laugh. "I do believe your fine laddie won enough off my rival to pay our way here all night."

"Sounds like Ezra." Chris poured himself a drink and smiled. Kentucky Bourbon. Never got that in Four Corners or any of the other towns they passed through regularly.

Rose looked at the other men at the table, flipped a chip into the center and said, "I call."

She fanned out her cards and set them where everyone could see.

"Hell, you're 'bout as bad as Ez," Vin sighed. He tossed his own hand in.

Corcoran followed suit. "I should know better than to gamble with you, my dear."

"Yes, you should, Asa," she replied.

Buck's eyes were twinkling. He set down his own cards one by one. "Some of Ez's luck must of rubbed off on me," he declared, revealing a third king that beat Rose's two pair.

Rose laughed comfortably, while Buck rubbed his hands together then gleefully scraped the chips over to his side of the table.

Chris lit his cheroot while Corcoran shuffled and dealt again.

"So, you're all lawmen?" Rose asked Chris.

He plucked the cheroot out of his mouth and answered, "We get paid by a Federal judge to keep the peace. Sheriff's one of us, so it's official, even if we don't wear any badges."

Rose checked her hold out card and tossed in her ante.

"I'm glad Mr. Standish has some friends to watch his back," she said. "The last time he was here, he had that look in his eyes, it made me think he wanted that damned Walter Harrison to kill him."

Chris froze with his hand on his ante. He raised his eyes and met Buck's suddenly solemn gaze. The first time he'd seen Ezra, the man had been playing a con that could have got him killed. He'd always thought Ezra had just miscalculated for once, pushed his luck too far, but that hadn't been it at all.

"Aw, hell," Vin muttered.

So Vin understood too. Every gunfight, every crazy risk, every damn fight he'd provoked with a growly cowboy or Chris himself ... it had all been on purpose. Ezra wouldn't put his gun to his head, anymore than Chris would, but he'd been hunting the same sort of end. No wonder he'd come back to the Seminole's village.

No wonder he'd stuck after his thirty days in Four Corners, either.

Chris shook off the revelation and tossed in his chips. It was all past now, anyway.

"He looks much better now," Rose went on. "I see he took off the wedding ring too."

Chris really wished the woman would stop pointing out things he'd seen without seeing. He could picture the pale line around Ezra's finger where the golden band had been as long as he'd known the man. He couldn't say when it came off, but it was damn recent.

Curious, he wondered if Vin knew anything he didn't. One glance told him no. Vin's lips were parted, his gaze very thoughtful.

Buck shook his head at him and tossed his cards away. "So much for luck."

Vin and Corcoran both anted up and the game went on. They were all a bit quieter. Corcoran didn't venture to question them and Rose went back to being entertaining.

Vin took the pot.

Corcoran bid them all goodnight and retired with his regular girl maybe ten minutes later. Chris, Vin and Buck went on playing, along with Rose, waiting for Ezra. As late as it was, there didn't seem much point to heading back to the hotel. They could meet the others in the morning for breakfast before riding out.

Three hands later, Ezra rejoined them. He looked sleepy and pleased and shrugged out of his coat before sitting down.

"Gentlemen. Miz Rose."

A pretty octoroon girl in a rose-colored dress padded in behind Ezra. Her expression resembled a cat that had been in the cream.

Chris almost choked when she leaned over Ezra's shoulder and kissed him. The contrast of Ezra's fairness and her café au lait skin was striking. Ezra's green eyes flashed to Chris and defied him to comment. The girl tucked Ezra's cufflinks into his vest pocket.

"Come back tomorrow night?" she asked in a New Orleans drawl.

"If I can, my dear Priss," Ezra promised.

Priss ran her hand through Ezra's hair, ruffling it, and languidly strolled back out. All five men watched the sway of her hips and Buck even sighed.

"Damn," he breathed, "that gal likes you, Ez."

Ezra just shrugged, but Chris knew he'd liked her too. Ezra didn't tolerate just anyone taking liberties with his person, but Priss had touched him in a way that was intimate beyond the carnal and Ezra hadn't objected in the slightest. In fact, he looked as relaxed and happy as Chris had ever seen him.

Buck rocked back in his chair. "Better not let Nathan see ya with that gal, Ez," he remarked. "He'd be hotter 'n a jumpin' bean on the Devil's griddle."

"I expect you are correct, Buck," Ezra agreed. A smile still played around the corners of his mouth. "I consider tonight worth whatever lectures our compatriot may see fit to inflict on us tomorrow, though."

Buck stroked his mustache. "Got to agree with ya there, pard." He grinned at Rose. "Ain't visited so fine a house since I was a tyke in Kansas City. Don't suppose you ever met Miz Bettina Baudry?"

Rose smiled widely. "Why, yes, we once shared the same employer in Galveston, I believe. I remember her fondly."

"Yep," Buck agreed. "So do I."

"For different reasons, one imagines," Ezra murmured.

Rose slapped the back of his head lightly. The rest of the table laughed.

Chris found himself studying Ezra's hands and the still visible line where the wedding ring had been.

Finally, Ezra said, "I assure you I am not dealing off the bottom of the deck, Mr. Larabee."

Chris blinked at him. "What?"

"You have been watching my dealing like a hawk, sir."

"I was wondering something, Ezra."


"You ever been married?"

Ezra's eyes narrowed.

Rose caught his hand up and touched the base of his ring finger. "Now, don't be angry with them," she admonished. "I was the fool that mentioned this earlier."

"I know it isn't any of my business," Chris admitted.

"But you want to know."

Chris shrugged, shamefaced. He should have asked something like this long ago. He wasn't much of a friend.

Ezra ran the pad of his thumb over his lower lip.

Chris was sorry now that he'd asked, watching the shadows slip back into Ezra's eyes. Ezra's smooth mask slid into place, but it wasn't effortless. The jade gaze drifted from Chris to Buck and then Vin.

Vin's eyes were full of understanding and acceptance. He didn't need any explanations. Buck squirmed, not impatient, just not liking pressing anyone for something that hurt. Meanwhile, Chris wanted to squirm himself, under the weight of Rose McClanahan's glare.

"Very well, gentlemen," Ezra said softly. He held out his hand, spreading the lean fingers and seeming to study the recently bared digit. The movement should have drawn everyone's eyes from his face. It didn't and Chris saw the flash of sorrow in Ezra's eyes.

"I was, indeed, married. Very briefly and against the lady's father's wishes." He smiled, but it was empty. "We were both very, very young."

"How young, Ez?" Buck asked gently.

"It was just after the war, Buck, and I was all of eighteen. Lorena was of the same age."

Buck stilled then sighed and dropped his hand onto the tabletop. "Aw, hell, Ez. I'm sorry."

Chris looked at Buck curiously, wondering what the apology was for.

"That song ... Must stir up some memories," Buck went on.

Chris was still befuddled, but Ezra was nodding. His smile was a little more real.

"I know, Buck. I owe you an apology for my rather truculent reaction."

Buck smiled back. "You ain't like Larabee here most of the time, so I knew I must've rubbed you on a real raw spot." He hesitated. "You want to tell us about her. Or what happened?"

Ezra sighed. "In the interests of addressing this matter only once and never again," he conceded.

"Ya ain't gotta," Vin said.

Ezra poured himself a shot of the bourbon then handed the bottle to Chris. Chris poured himself a measure and passed the bottle to Buck. Buck added to his own drink and filled Vin's glass. That emptied the bottle. Rose discreetly slipped away from the table, carrying the empty away.

"I met Lorena Godwin in Baltimore. Her father was wealthy beyond even my mother's dreams, but not the sort of man she would chance running a con on. His power and vindictiveness were well known to most anyone," Ezra began.

As he spoke, he gathered up the cards and shuffled them quietly.

"When I first saw Lorena I was smitten, quite embarrassingly overwhelmed in retrospect. I ignored my mother's teachings and began secretly courting her. When we realized that her father would never countenance our wedding, we eloped."

Ezra's hands faltered briefly along with his smile.

"I made the mistake of informing my mother of the marriage and our location."

"What happened?" Chris asked roughly.

Ezra looked up at him, then his lashes veiled his eyes.

"She sold the information to Mr. Godwin and arranged my involuntary voyage to China, while Lorena was returned to the bosom of her family."

They waited and finally Ezra finished. "The marriage was annulled. By the time I returned to Baltimore, Lorena had been married to a man of her father's choice for several years, our youthful indiscretion nearly forgotten."

Chris picked up his glass and tossed back a slug. Buck and Vin did too. Ezra raised his eyebrows at them before tipping back his own glass. They all knew that no matter how lightly he'd told the tale, Ezra had felt what happened deeply. A man didn't wear a wedding ring all those years because he hadn't cared.

As he set the shot glass down on the green baize, Ezra shrugged and murmured, "But that was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."[x]

He picked up the deck and shuffled again, cascading the cards from one hand to the other. "Well, my friends? Shall we continue?"

"Deal," Chris said and tossed his ante into the center of the table, followed by Buck and Vin.

Ezra's hands flashed as he doled out the cards.

Buck picked up his hand and groaned. "Damn, Ezra. This ain't a hand of poker, it's a curse."

Ezra grinned at Buck across the table and shrugged. His gold tooth glinted.

"Then may I suggest you fold, Buck?"

Buck tossed another chip into the pot.

"Now, Ez, you know I'm goin' to stick, no matter what."

Vin added his bet.


Ezra fingered his own chip, then threw it in.

"I'm in."

He looked at Chris inquiringly.


Chris shoved all his chips into the center of the table.

"All the way," he said with a wide grin, picturing the hand of cards Ezra had just dealt him.

A royal flush in spades. A hand of cards he could literally take to the bank in a town like Virginia City.

Buck and Vin looked at him in disgust and tossed their cards in.

Ezra eyed him.

"You, my friend," he said at last, laying his cards down, "win."

Chris grinned and agreed.

Yes, my friend, I win.

His luck had changed three years ago and he'd been winning ever since. He just needed to remember that. He hoped Ezra did too.

The four of them kept playing another hour then stretched out and caught a little sleep. Vin napped in his chair, leaning back against a wall. Ezra claimed a settee that was too short for Chris or Buck, while they managed head to foot in the longer one. None of them were comfortable, but the rest of the house was asleep and it seemed churlish to wake anyone to get a room and bed for no more than a couple of hours.

They stayed until Rose sent Tiberius in to rouse them, then wolfed down the massive breakfast Cook served in the kitchen. Ezra quietly settled the bill for all of them before they left. The four of them managed to slip back into their hotel rooms, wash, shave, and change, before JD came knocking on their doors. If Josiah or Nathan noticed the conspiratorial looks passing between the four of them as they ate a second breakfast, they didn't mention it. JD was too excited by the prospect of seeing Ezra's valuable property to notice anything, for which Chris was grateful. He didn't want to explain that the four of them had spent the night at a whorehouse, drinking and playing poker between visits upstairs.

It wasn't exactly professional, considering they meant to ride out at daybreak. They were all lucky Miz Rose's liquor was good enough they weren't suffering from hangovers.

A glance at Vin's paler than usual face made Chris amend that thought. As much as they'd drunk, they just weren't suffering yet. The hangovers were on their way. A throb began behind his eyes.

His hand met Ezra's as they both reached for the coffee pot.

"Would you all finish breakfast so we can go?" JD demanded.

"Lord, kid, that land ain't goin' nowhere," Buck said.

JD stole a piece of ham off Buck's plate and dodged a half-hearted swat.

"You're getting old, Buck," the kid laughed.

Ezra sighed. "I predict this is going to a long day, Chris," he said dolefully.

Chris pulled the coffee pot his way.

He agreed. But he had no idea how long.

19. Stairstep Canyon, 1877

Well load up your guns its time to fight
It just don't matter who's wrong or right
Load up your guns get a man in your sights
This canyon's gonna burn

Devil's Canyon, Molly Hatchet

Each man double checked his tack before swinging into his saddle. The horses were head-high and restless after a half-day stalled, doing nothing but eating. Each one of them had been groomed to a sleek shine, including the always recalcitrant Peso. Even their tack had been saddle-soaped and oiled.

Ezra slipped the stable boy a gold double-eagle for the obvious extra care he'd taken.

He furtively fed Hazard a peppermint when the others weren't looking, only to glance up and find Vin smiling at him. He stroked the gelding's neck fondly and shrugged.

JD began whistling as they rode north out of town, gigging the horses into a trot as they passed the city limits.

Virginia City sat in the foothills. The pines had been logged off, leaving muddy slopes of the same infamous blue-gray as the sticky stuff that had annoyed the goldminers in Six Mile Canyon until they found out it held silver ore assayed at two thousand dollars a ton. For all that, Virginia City was no eastern town. The wilderness still dominated its surroundings. Snow-cloaked mountains with skirts of green pines loomed beyond the rooftops and inclined streets. A day's ride in the wrong direction could leave a man lost and shivering as the cold mountain night came down.

Vin shook himself like a dog when they climbed out the stink of coal fires, stables, and people and a cold wind off the high western peaks sent a shiver through all of them. The sun was up, but the shadows were still cold and black in the lee of the pines and in the dark depths of the ravines. Each of them was glad of the coat he wore, despite the cloudless sky that promised a beautiful day.

Somewhere above them a hawk screamed.

Ezra rested his rein hand on the pommel of his saddle and scanned the sky for it. A flash of white on the tail told him it was a redtail. The hawk spiraled higher, searching for prey.

"So, Ezra, you know where we're going?" Nathan asked.

"A wagon track should split off from the main road north within another half-mile," he told them all. "At present, Mr. Corcoran is freighting everything in and out of his Swedish Hat Strike via mule-teams. The track will take us right through Stairstep Canyon. Apparently the only other access to the mine is too steep for a locomotive."

Chris geed Nero into motion again. "Let's keep moving."

Nathan pushed Peppermint forward, leaving Ezra a length behind.

"Why don't they dynamite it?" JD asked as they rode on.

"They're deep rock mining, JD," Ezra explained. "If they dynamited the mountain, they might destabilize the entire mine. From what Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Finster were saying last night, the Swedish Hat is weak and wet. They're using Deidesheimer's square-set timbers to shore up the tunnels, but they're already pumping water out of the mine. A shift in the mountain might flood everything."


"Hey, kid, get up here!" Buck called.

JD gave Ezra and Josiah an apologetic smile and set Dusty to a trot that caught him up to Buck and Nathan.

"Where did you learn so much about mines, Brother?" Josiah asked.

"Miners make money and then they gamble it at my table, Josiah," Ezra told him, smiling. "They tend to talk while they do so. I listen."

The tack creaked and Hazard shook his head with a soft jingle, mouthing the snaffle bit. Up ahead, Buck rode beside JD and Nathan, the three of them talking. Behind, Vin and Chris rode in companionable silence.

"Will you invest in Virginia City?' Josiah asked.

Ezra glanced to the side at him then shook his head. "San Francisco. That's where all the silver money is going, Josiah," he said thoughtfully. "It's a city built on trade, not just ore. What do you think will be here in twenty years, when the mines are played out?"

Josiah nodded slowly.

Ezra went on, "Virginia City seems different, because the strikes have been so big and the mines have been producing for twenty years, but it's still a boomtown, 'siah, and boomtowns all go bust." He sighed. "Twenty years from now it'll be another ghost town."

"So where do you plan to be twenty years from now, so- Ezra?'

Ezra shrugged gracefully. "Rich or dead, 'siah."

With a click of his tongue, he set Hazard to a faster pace until he'd drawn level with Buck, JD and Nathan. He didn't feel like arguing with the preacher. Josiah would tell him money didn't make a man happy and he would argue that poverty conferred neither happiness nor virtue. If he had to choose, he would certainly prefer to suffer loneliness or sorrow in comfort than in want. Friends might not be for sale, but he knew very well company could be bought. Good company at that, as Rose's Social Parlor proved.

The wagon track forked off the main road exactly as described and they made good time. It was easy going for the horses; the track followed an incline built for mules pulling heavy-weighted supply wagons. The ruts cut and twisted through Digger and Sugar pines, Mountain hemlock and green brush, subalpine meadows lush with grass and wildflowers, while bypassing any larger granite outcroppings.

They spooked a pair of does riding through one of the meadows. The deer bounded into the brush with a white flicker of their tails. The sudden movement startled the men and JD drew his pistol.

Buck laughed. "Put that away, JD."

Vin stopped Peso next to them and added, "Ya don't shoot does unless ya got to, kid. Those two ain't even had their fawns yet."

"When do you have to?" JD asked.

"When you get hungry enough," Buck said.

JD grimaced at Buck and holstered his pistol.

They continued up the increasingly steep track another half mile until the pines thinned out and they were faced with an imposing rock face with a single opening: Stairstep Canyon. They followed the trail up into it.

The Canyon lived up to its name. On south side of its mouth a snow-fed stream rushed over mossy rocks. A gentle slope rose from one side of the stream across the canyon to its far wall. A few lodgepole pines grew where the sun reached the base of the canyon, their two-needle bundles distinguishing them from the commoner Sugar pines' three-needles. Past the first, sparse stand of pines, the canyon's bottom formed a natural terrace, with only a thin and unproductive layer of sandy soil over a base of granite. Only the hardiest grass and plants thrived in the poor dirt.

As they rode up through the canyon, the odd terracing effect repeated, providing a perfect venue for laying a railroad track that could safely switchback its way up to the mountain where the Swedish Hat mine drove deep into the earth's bones. The watercourse meant the track would never be undermined by rain and erosion nor would the granite crumble beneath freight of tons of ore.

Buck reined in Darling and pulled his hat off. He looked around.

"Damn, I ain't ever seen a more useless stretch of land," he declared.

"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "It's only value lies in traversing it."

"Only you could make a fortune off nothing for doing nothing," Nathan commented. He smiled sardonically.

"I beg to differ; my skills at poker is certainly not nothing."

Nathan rolled his eyes.

"So where were the four of you last night?" JD asked. He turned in his saddle to look at Vin, Chris and Ezra as well as Buck. "I couldn't find any of you."

Buck grinned devilishly. "Visitin'."

"You don't know anyone in Virginia City," JD accused.

"But I make friends right quick," Buck responded slyly.

"But what about the rest of you?"

Vin ducked his head. Chris just looked at JD. Ezra chuckled.

"Met that fella Corcoran," Vin offered. "Seemed all right."

"That's it?" JD sounded disbelieving.

"Ez played some poker. Cleaned out a fella," Vin added.

"Yep," Buck said. "Mixed a little business with pleasure after that, didn't ya, Ez?"

Ezra shrugged. "It was an enjoyable evening, certainly."

Buck reached over and cuffed Ezra's shoulder.

"That gal Priss sure acted like she enjoyed it."

"Buck, you have the discretion of a billboard," Ezra reproved him. He checked his shoulder to make sure Buck hadn't stained the tan jacket with oil from his reins.

Josiah shook his head in mock sorrow, while Nathan gave out with an unwillingly amused sound. JD looked at Ezra wide-eyed then switched his gaze to Vin, who blushed.

"Miz Rose has a real nice place," Vin admitted.

"Well, boys," Buck said. He waved his hat at their surroundings. "We're here. Now what?"

Ezra frowned and looked around. He'd felt compelled to inspect the tract of land before he parted with the deed. Now that he'd reached Stairstep Canyon, he hadn't any real plans. There was nothing to see beyond rocks, pines, and the muddy double ruts left by wagon wheels.

Buck's stomach growled audibly.

"'Cause, I'm thinking we set down and eat something, then head on back town," Buck offered. A twinkle lit his dark blue eyes. "I'm planning on getting a little better acquainted with Miz Clarissa tonight."

Vin sighed and Ezra knew his friend would prefer to stay in the mountains, but they hadn't packed enough supplies for more than a day or two.

"There doesn't seem to be much point to lingering," Ezra admitted. He nodded toward the stand of lodgepole pines offering shade and a faintly more comfortable stopping place than the open stretch they were stopped in.

"Looks good," Chris said.

Ezra cued Hazard to turn toward the trees. "Shall we – "

The bullet whined through the air between Vin and him, followed by the crack of a rifle firing.

"Sonovabitch!" Buck exclaimed

"Which way?" Chris demanded as all seven horses launched into a run toward the pines.

"Up canyon," Vin yelled back.

More gunfire was following them. Peppermint stumbled with a wild neigh, but kept running. Ezra spotted the graze crossing over the big brown gelding's rump. Blood ran crimson from the groove cut through the unfortunate animal's skin.

"That came from behind us!" he shouted to Vin as they thundered toward the partial cover of the pine grove.

JD and Dusty were stretched out low and running ahead, followed by Chris and Buck in close formation, the three already closer to the grove than the others. Nathan and Peppermint were slowing and Josiah and Moses couldn't match the speed of Peso or Hazard.

Ezra urged Hazard faster. The Thoroughbred responded like the born racer he was, mane whipping into Ezra's face. Without so much as a hitch in his pace, Hazard changed leads and poured on the speed to catch the others. Beside them, Vin and Peso kept pace, hooves thundering over the earth.

Ahead of them, Ezra spotted JD and Dusty jumping a deadfall that was too close, while Buck pulled up Darling. The gray mare sat back on her haunches like a cow pony in a roping competition and slid to a stop. Dry pine needles exploded into the air under her hooves. Chris and Nero followed JD's path, but plunged off at the last second before reaching the deadfall. Chris lost his hat to a low hanging limb and cursed viciously.

In a split second, Ezra scanned the grove, looking for a clear path the rest of them could follow, but there was no room, not at the speed they'd set. Hazard and Peso swept past Josiah and Nathan's mounts. Then they were coming even and into the pines. The sudden shade after the brilliant sun almost blinded Ezra.

"Chris!" he shouted. "Out of the way!"

He didn't need to look to know Vin had seen and understood exactly what he had, nor considered even briefly that Vin would ride Peso into one of the trees. There was just room for two horses to come into the grove along with Buck and Chris, then the deadfall JD had jumped, and a clear path that would let them slow and stop.

Chris whipped his head around, saw what Ezra had seen and sent Nero into the brush next to the deer trail, out of the way.

Ezra tightened his legs around Hazard's barrel and bent low, urging the gelding faster. "Up and over, my friend," he whispered and Hazard's ears flicked back then forward as he thundered into the trees and lifted over the deadfall effortlessly. An instant later, the thunder of Peso's hooves paused for a second as Vin jumped the deadfall behind them.

Ezra was already reining Hazard in, the gelding spinning nimbly on his hind feet, while Ezra unlimbered his rifle.

He wasn't surprised to see Vin had his own rifle out already.

JD was at his side, starting back toward the others.

"Wait," Ezra said.

Another rifle barked nearby, Josiah's, and then Buck's joined it.

Chris called to them, "Ezra, JD, get up to the top of the grove, keep under cover, and make sure no one comes at us from that side. We're taking fire from two groups."

Ezra kicked out the stirrups and dropped off Hazard. He tossed the reins to Vin then headed up the deer trail.

"Go on, JD," Vin called in a low voice. "I got the horses."

Behind them, Peppermint was neighing, obviously in pain from the crease on his rump. Nathan was cursing softly, an unusual happenstance. Ezra sympathized. He took anything that happened to Hazard personally too.

JD caught up to him as they reached the edge of the trees. They crouched and slipped up to the clear ground, trying to stay under cover.

Without a word, JD took the boulder on the left. Ezra snaked up to the twisted pine that grew almost horizontally from beside the rock. Damp soaked through the fallen pine needles into his elbows and knees.

Ezra slid up to the trunk, inhaling the clear incense of the pine on the cool air with the stray thought that he definitely preferred being pinned down in a cool, shady place than in one of the arid rock arroyos around Four Corners.

He peered over the trunk, pressing so close bark ground into his cheek.

Where were they?

Rocks, bare ground, a single straggling pine, more rocks ... Ezra scanned with an expert eye.


"Stay down, JD," he said absently, still searching.

A shadow moved that shouldn't have. Ezra focused his gaze on a pile of boulders near the canyon wall. It could have been anything from a bird to a squirrel he knew, but he also knew the bird would have flown and the squirrel would have retreated. He squinted against the glare.

More movement. He followed it and the brown resolved itself into a boot and leg.

"JD, move slow and look along the canyon wall. There's a streak of reddish rock coming down. Two men to the left, in the rocks," he directed.

He brought his rifle up and let the barrel sit on the crotch between the pine's trunk and a barren, broken off branch. It made a fine shooting tripod. He nestled the stock into his shoulder, cheek against the smooth polished wood, and leveled the sights on that leg.

JD peered over the boulder.

"I don't – oh, yeah, I see them," JD muttered. He brought up his rifle.

On the far side of the grove, Chris's Yellow Boy had joined Josiah and Buck's irregular firing. Ezra listened even while he kept an eye on the jumble of rocks at the base of the canyon wall.

"I could wing that one fellow's leg," JD offered.

"So could I," Ezra stated.


"So, it'd be a mite more useful to just wait some," Vin said, cat-footing up behind them. JD jerked his head up, only to be pushed back down by Vin's hand.

"How many, Ez?" Vin asked.

"Two, at least, Mr. Tanner," Ezra told him. His finger rested on the rifle's trigger. A small stone dug into his shin. He ignored it.

"Got five, maybe six, coming up the canyon," Vin said. "Can't make a run at us here without getting picked off, though."

"Any clue to who they are?" Ezra asked idly.

"Nope. Could be after me or you. Hell, they could be a posse of husbands huntin' Buck," Vin replied with a low chuckle. He was crouched on his heels, Winchester in one hand, Ezra's saddlebags and canteen in the other. He set the saddlebags between JD and Ezra then placed the canteen on top.

"Anything else?" Ezra asked. He watched Vin out of the corner of his eye.

"Horses are tied up just down the trail. Nathan says Peppermint can run if we need to ride. Chris is cussin' just about ever' one. Want to go easy on what ya got in your canteens; looks like we might be stuck here for a while."

"Joy," Ezra muttered.

Vin chuckled again.

"So why don't I shoot one of the ones up here?" JD demanded.

"Ya wanta tell 'em, Ez?"

"Should we take a shot now, Mr. Dunne," Ezra explained, "it will reveal our presence and location, while only wounding and perhaps lending fury and determination to our foes."

"Iffen ya just wait," Vin continued, "they might get stupid and try sneaking in behind us. That's when ya shoot 'em."

"Precisely," Ezra agreed.

"I guess," JD said. "It just seems like we should be doing something."

"Ya are," Vin told him.

He patted Ezra's shoulder.

"Goin' back 'n tell Chris you and JD got us covered up here," Vin said softly. "Then I'll be back."

"We shall be waiting," Ezra replied.

Vin slipped back down the trail as silently as he'd come.

"Well, JD, it sounds as if we may be here for a while. Perhaps some conversation might alleviate the potential for boredom."

"Did I tell you the joke about – "

"Or not," Ezra interrupted him. "Perhaps it would be wiser to cleave to the rule that silence is golden."

JD shook his head. "None of you appreciate a good joke."

Ezra laughed softly under his breath. "Oh that must be it."


Vin slipped over the deadfall carefully. He didn't want to catch a foot in the tangle of branches and wrench something.

Josiah gave him a nod as he passed where Nathan had the other four horses tied up. The healer was slathering some stinking salve onto his mount's rump. He looked fiercely unhappy and ignored Vin.

Vin shrugged.

Chris and Buck were situated where they could cover each other and watch the approach to the pine grove. Vin snaked up beside Chris even more carefully than he'd approached Ezra and JD. There were eyes watching for movement here.

"Well?" Chris demanded.

"They got some good cover. Spotted at least two fellas up in some rocks, just waitin'."

"So we're pinned here."

"Been in worse spots," Vin said.

A bullet whined through the air, exploding bark and raw splinters out of the pine Chris was crouched behind. Buck's rifle barked immediately in answer.

"Determined sonsabitches," Chris muttered. He glanced at Vin, lifting an eyebrow. "Any ideas?"

Vin shrugged. "Sit tight for now. Come dark, me 'n Buck 'n Ez can sneak out, cut a few throats, open up a way up canyon," he told Chris.

Chris narrowed his eyes and glared. "What about me?"

Vin grinned. "Larabee, ya ain't got but one way 'n that's forward. Need to do this quiet. Now, Buck, he knows how to pussyfoot from slippin' in to 'visit' all of them married women 'n Ezra, hell, ya know he's a born sneak."

"Don't know if our brother would appreciate your description, Vin," Josiah called softly from his own post.

"But he is slicker'n a greased weasel," Buck added. The wide, white grin flashed under his mustache.

"So we wait," Chris said. He jerked his head toward their attackers. "What if they don't?"

"Guess ya'll get to shoot 'em then," Vin replied serenely.

He wasn't too worried. They had been taken by surprise, but that was past now and the numbers were about even. The men out there didn't have any idea of what they were facing.

Outlaws, bounty hunters, even gunfighters and lawmen, most of them were more interested in saving their own skins than anyone riding with them. Unless they were family ... like those Nichols brothers or the Daltons, Youngers and James boys. They were trouble. Even those Earps that were down in Tombstone feuding with Behan and the McClanahans were most dangerous because they sided each other no matter what.

"Jesus, I could be back home digging post holes," Chris muttered. He fired down the canyon.

"Ain't you glad you're here?" Buck laughed.

The sporadic gunfire stopped. In the lull that followed, the endless whisper of the wind through the pine tops was the only sound, until Larabee set his hand down on a pine cone and let loose with a few choice curses. That set Buck to laughing again, a sound that must have seemed strange coming from a group of men pinned down by gunfire only moments earlier.

Chris tossed the cone away and sank down to wait.

Nathan duckwalked over to Josiah's side and settled in. He handed over a canteen. Josiah took two sips and capped it.

Behind them, the horses were calming, restless feet rustling in the pine needles coating the ground, snorting and twitching their hides, unhappy to be tied so closely in place and still saddled.

"You in there! Send out Standish and Tanner! We got nothing against the rest of you! It's them we want!"

The shout echoed off the canyon walls and slowly faded.

"Guess that answers that question," Buck said.

Vin pursed his lips and spat.

"Not exactly a surprise," Chris responded.

"Give us Tanner and the gambler. The rest of you ride away. They're all we want!"

"Sinners want ice water in hell," Josiah bellowed back. "You won't get that either!"

Chris got a tight smile on his face at that. He shook his head.

"Might be we could use some of Ezra's tact, 'bout now," Vin offered.

Chris kept shaking his head. "They're after his hide too."

"You got no way out! They worth dying for!?"

"You boys are the one's going to be doing the dying," Buck muttered, a thread of anger running through his voice.

"We don't give up our own!" Chris shouted. "You figure those bounties are worth dying for!?"

A quick, unaimed shot that went over their heads was the only answer.

"Oh, good, remind 'em 'bout the money," Vin murmured.

Chris slapped his arm. "Get back up to the other side and switch off watching with Ez and JD."

Vin slithered back into the brush. Chris was right. The four men were in a position to hold the front approach pretty much as long as the ammunition held out. He'd be of more use back with the other two.

Nathan caught his eye as he went and asked in a low voice, "They both still okay?"[xi]


"Don't let that gambler run out on us," Nathan added. "We wouldn't be in this trouble if it weren't for him. Bastard Reb's nothing but bad blood."

Vin froze.

"You got a problem with me too, Nathan?"

Josiah set a big hand on Nathan's shoulder as he swung around, glaring, at Vin.

"Neither one of us asked ya to trail us here," Vin added.

"It ain't the same," Nathan muttered.

Vin dismissed him, "Yeah, ain't that the truth," and clambered back over the deadfall again.

Right then, he was damned glad to be partnering Ezra and JD and away from Nathan and Josiah. He was even madder at Josiah than Nathan. Nathan and Ezra had never got along, but Josiah was always trying to act like Ezra's Pa. Vin figured Ezra had been better off without one. Josiah never once stood up for the Southerner. Hell, he'd shoved temptation into Ezra's hands and helped bring down his dream. Done it while calling himself a friend, which was worse than Nathan's ingrained hostility, to Vin's thinking.

Small wonder Ezra always held himself a little apart. One or all of them had said, 'I'd trust him in a gunfight, but not with my money' or something like it more than once. Ezra'd learned the same lesson from them. He'd trust them in a gunfight, but not with his dreams. Not again.

As for Nathan, it was time for him to get over where Ezra came from or what side of the war he'd fought on. Weren't like no one else in the world had ever suffered. Buck didn't let having a whore for a mama make him bitter. JD and his mama hadn't been treated much better than slaves, but it hadn't poisoned him.


Vin still didn't want to think it, but the way Nathan acted ... Saying things like Ezra had bad blood. Vin wanted to think the man had been fooled by Maude. He wanted to, but it was real hard.

Bad blood.

Vin snorted at that. Damn Nathan for a shortsighted jackass. That was the same thinking that couldn't get past the color of a man's skin or his accent or whatever church he prayed in. Just damn foolishness.

He stopped and poured a little water from his own canteen into his hat and let Hazard, Peso and Dusty drink. Ezra would probably be horrified at the thought of messing up his hat that way. Vin jammed the damp headgear back over his hair.

Ezra would be horrified, but he'd do it. The man didn't have it in him to be mean to an animal. 'Course, he probably had Hazard trained to swig out of the canteen.

Vin was still chuckling over his whimsy, temper restored once more, as he reached the other two men.

"Well, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked.

"Ya hear?"


"They must be crazy to think we'd just let them have you," JD exclaimed.

"Nope, just don't know us."

"Few men are gifted with such loyal compatriots, JD," Ezra added.

"Looks like we sit, for now," Vin told them.


The afternoon dragged. On the other side of the grove, gunshots were exchanged desultorily by both sides. Just reminders that they were still there and ready to fight.

Vin took over watching for Ezra, while Ezra delved in his saddlebags and withdrew a loaf of bread, a small jar of butter, a heel of ham, a quarter of a round of soft farmer's cheese, and half a cherry pie wrapped in brown paper. He shared this between JD and himself, setting aside a generous portion for Vin.

"Where'd you get all that?" JD asked in amazement as item after item appeared from the saddlebags.

Ezra's smile flashed. "The cook at the establishment Misters Tanner, Wilmington and Larabee sojourned at with me last night kindly provided lunch for all of us before we took our leave this morning. The lovely lady who manages the house insisted, did she not, Vin?"

"Yep," Vin agreed, without taking his eye away from his rifle sights. "Right good vittles too. Make sure you leave me some of that pie, JD."

JD snatched his fingers back from the slice he'd been fingering. The slice Ezra had saved back for Vin.

"Aw, Vin, I'm hungry," JD protested, flushing a little.

"Should've brung your own."

"Well, what about Ez? He's eating a second piece!"

"He brought it. It's his, he's the one sharing with ya and me."

JD pouted until Ezra relented with a sigh and shoved the last quarter of pie his way.

"Just don't think ya are goin' to con me the way ya just did Ez," Vin told him as JD wolfed it down.

JD grinned around a mouthful, cheek bulging and mumbled, "Love cherry."

"Don't talk with your mouth full, JD," Ezra said.

"You tell 'im, Pa," Vin gibed.

Ezra groaned. "Merely trying to introduce a modicum of manners to our young compatriot, Mr. Tanner, does not qualify me for Mr. Wilmington's paternal type inclinations."

He began stowing leftovers back in his saddlebags.

"It's too late for the rest of you, but JD may still be civilized."

"Tamed, don't ya mean?"

Ezra's feral grin said no. "Not in the least, sir. Civilization is no more than a thin veneer over Man's baser impulses. Manners do not make anyone less a man."

Vin was silent.

Finished, Ezra crept into place next to Vin and picked up his own rifle. "I shall take over now."

Vin propped his own weapon against the tree, turned and sat with his rear on the ground and his back propped against the pine. JD handed him a tin plate with a rough sandwich and the piece of pie.

He nodded his thanks and began eating.

After a few minutes, he swallowed and said, "Reckon you're right, Ez."

"Of course."

Vin slumped down a little lower, pulled his hat over his eyes, and relaxed.

"Jiminy, Vin, are you going to sleep?" JD asked.

Vin lifted his hat brim and opened one eye. "That's the idea, kid."

"But how can ya sleep?"

"Ain't got nothin' better to do. Know Ez has got his eye on them up there. Boys've got things under control. Got to sleep when ya can, might need to stay awake all night. Right, Ez?"

"Indeed, Vin, you know how fond I am of taking my rest, though I do prefer it to be in rather greater comfort than we are afforded here."

JD drummed his fingers on his knee and shook his head. "I don't see how you can do it. I mean, I couldn't sleep if you paid me."

"Something I'm hardly likely to do," Ezra said dryly.

Vin pulled his hat back down. "I'll spell ya in couple hours, Ez."

"That would be acceptable."

Precisely two hours later by Ezra's pocket watch, Vin pushed his hat off his face and took his place watching. JD was dozing, sitting with his head dropping forward then jerking up periodically. A soft snuffle accompanied the motion. His black hair hung in lank locks over his eyes and a shadow of beard darkened his chin and cheeks.

Vin glanced at him and said low, "Boy's goin' to have a crick in his neck."

Ezra nodded as he made his way carefully back into the trees far enough he could stand straight and stretch his cramped, tired limbs.

A headache throbbed just behind his eyes, courtesy of squinting into the sun and the long night before.

He allowed himself one long draw of water from his canteen, knowing the water would help far more than the contents of his silver flask.

The day had warmed enough that his heavy winter coat was uncomfortable. Ezra shrugged it off and folded it into comfortable pillow before stretching out on a relatively flat stretch of earth. The bed of pine needles made a useful cushion, though a few stabbed through his trousers until he wriggled around and found just the right position, one knee bent and one leg extended.

Then, like Vin, he pulled his hat over his face and let himself drop into a half-drowse.

Two hours later, a soft word brought Ezra awake.


"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"Ready to take over?"

Ezra rolled to his feet in a smooth motion and dusted the pine needles off. He glanced at JD, who had curled over on his side and was still fast asleep.

Another stretch, then he twisted and turned his head, trying to loosen the muscles in his shoulders, before picking up his coat and rejoining Vin.

"Have our friends been quiet?" he asked.

Vin handed him his telescope.

"Like mice."

Ezra took up the scope and carefully surveyed the rock fall where the two bounty hunters were laired. He found a man sitting on top one of the boulders with his rifle laid over his knees.

"Tsk, tsk."

"Ain't got no idea anyone's watchin' them," Vin stated.

"So it would appear."

"Figure now there's some shadows, I can do some scoutin'."

Ezra nodded.

"Ya hear a coyote yip three times, I could use a distraction," Vin added.

Ezra unlaced the other side of his saddlebag and pulled out a red paper wrapped cylinder. "I think that can be supplied."

Vin snickered. "Damn, Ezra, what else have ya got in those bags?"

"A gentlemen should always be prepared for any situation," Ezra declared, laughter in his voice. He tucked the stick of dynamite back into the bag. "Now get out of here."


Ezra waited until Vin had faded into the trees then extended his leg and kicked JD's boot.

"Mr. Dunne!"

JD snuffled.

Ezra kicked again, more vigorously.

"Mr. Dunne!"

"What, hunh, oh – ," JD mumbled and blinked confusedly at his surroundings. "Ezra?"

"While it is all very well to take Mr. Tanner's advice to heart, it's time to rise and shine, JD," Ezra told him.

JD yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Can't believe I fell asleep."

"Yes, well, it's time someone went and checked the horses."

JD nodded and did as he was bid, returning with that engaging smile in place. The somnolent late afternoon drifted on, the two parties' guns quiet as each attempted to outwait the other. JD filled the time talking about Casey Wells and his intentions toward her. More than gigging for frogs or out-riding each other was on his mind. Ezra listened patiently, interjecting a word or two here and there, reminding the young man Casey was still young and sheltered for all her tomboy ways. There were other young men in Four Corners who were waking up to Casey's attractions, including the ranch she would inherit from her aunt. He quietly and kindly reminded JD his prospects with her were not guaranteed.

JD agreed glumly.

"Not that she'll do better than you," Ezra assured him quite honestly. JD was the sort of young man he would have wanted his sisters and cousins to marry had they survived the war

Dusk was settling its darkened cloak over the canyon, hiding the distance in violet shadows, when Vin returned on silent feet.

His face was a dim blur, but his teeth flashed as he smiled and settled cross-legged on the ground.

"There's more than them two in the rocks. Another bunch up at the head of the canyon," he said.

"And this is pleasing how?" Ezra asked.

"They can stay there," Vin said. He leaned forward, hands on his buckskin clad thighs. "Found a trail up the side of the canyon. We'll have to lead the horses, but come dark, they'll never see us. We'll just disappear." He grinned again, enjoying the prospect of frustrating the bounty hunters. Like the Indians he'd lived with, Vin loved a good trick, and vanishing right under the hunters' noses qualified.

Ezra felt a slow grin spread across his own face. Vin wasn't the only one who enjoyed fooling folks.

"You really found a trail up the side of the canyon?" JD asked.

Vin nodded. "Goin' to go tell the others."

"You're welcome to that job," Ezra told him with a chuckle.

He rose, nodded to them and padded away.

They waited until full dark, then hurriedly gathered the horses and made their preparations. Ironshod hooves were wrapped in cloth or leather to muffle the sound of metal against stone. Dirt was rubbed over pale or shiny surfaces – faces, hands, Peso's blaze, Chris's silver conchos. Chris and Buck stowed their spurs in their saddlebags.

Buck whispered apologies to Darling as he grubbed dirt over her gray coat. "You're just too fine, Darlin', just like the moon," the big gunslinger murmured, stroking her muzzle fondly. The sweet-tempered mare seemed undisturbed by her rider's strange behavior.

At last they moved out, slow and quiet, in single file behind Vin, each man leading his mount. Once, Moses tried to throw up his head and bugle a challenge to the strange horses he smelled on the wind, but Josiah was there, using his big hand to squeeze the horse's nostrils shut.

Vin's trail was narrow and steep, barely wide enough for a mountain goat in places. The horses gamely picked their way up. They weren't Indian ponies, but each one had proved as sure-footed and tough over the years. Vin knew they could make it and the horses trusted their riders enough to try.

Peppermint balked once, where the trail literally disappeared and the animals were forced to make a scrambling hop to the next ledge.

Nathan didn't dote on his mount the way Ezra, Vin, and JD did theirs. He didn't have Chris or Buck's riding expertise or Josiah's patience either. Nathan wasn't unkind or a bad rider, but to the former slave, horses were just a means of transportation. Peppermint's strength and even temper satisfied Nathan and he eschewed the sublime bond the others had forged, thinking it foolish and sentimental.

The horse was still hurting and cranky from the crease on his rump too. It all combined to make the normally steady animal refuse to follow Nathan.

Ezra held his breath. He'd elected to fall into last place. He had confidence that Hazard would do whatever he required, but thought Moses or Peppermint might need someone pushing from behind. He hesitated to offer his assistance to Nathan, though, wary of exciting the other man's temper when a loud word might draw their hunters' attention to them while they were silhouetted against the wall of the canyon.

A scatter of rocks tumbled off the edge of the trail under Peppermint's shifting feet. The sound seemed abnormally loud in the darkness.

Nathan was exhorted Peppermint, tugging on the reins from the other side of the jump, but Ezra could hear the annoyance burning through his low voice. So could Peppermint, who balked stubbornly and began trying to back down the trail.

"Damn it, Nathan," Chris breathed.

"I'm doing the best I can," Nathan hissed back angrily.

JD came down the trail, squeezing past the rock wall and Darling, then Nero, and leaving Dusty tied loosely to the saddle horn on Peso.

He came to stop just behind Nathan.

"Here, Nathan, let me try," he whispered. He reached around the other man and took Peppermint's reins in his hand. Nathan grunted in frustration and got out of the way. They all knew JD had a talent for sweet-talking horses, honed in the stables where he'd worked as a boy back East.

"Come on now, Pepper, easy, come on," JD breathed softly, tugging the reins just enough to keep the gelding's attention. "Yeah, that's it, you don't want stand here all night. It's not that bad, you can make it, the other's made it, right? That's it."

Peppermint bobbed his head and took two steps forward. JD took three steps back. "Go on, Nate, get back up the trail and give us some room," JD directed in the same soft voice. He let the reins hang loose between gentle tugs. "Come on, Pepper."

The gelding gathered his feet together. The muscles in his haunches bunched and he vaulted the small gap smoothly, then headbutted JD in the chest. JD caught at the cheekpiece of his headstall to keep from falling. He laughed under his breath and rubbed Peppermint's nose.

"Told you you could do it," he whispered.

"Got to keep movin'." Vin's whisper was relayed down the trail.

JD handed the reins back to Nathan and made his way back up the trail.

Moses and Hazard both cleared the gap without hesitation and the rest of the climb went without incident.


The moon was rising as they cleared the canyon rim, bathing the mountains in silver light, throwing sharp black shadows. Looking down, Ezra pointed out the orange glow of a campfire where the head of the canyon bottlenecked closed.

"They may have some people on the rim too," he mentioned.

"If they guess we've gotten out, they'll either trail us or head back and try to ambush us again on the way into Virginia City," Chris said.

"Speaking of that, anyone got an idea of the best way back down the mountain?" Buck asked quietly.

"Figure we'll just head down hill," Vin replied.

"Should've known," Buck muttered, shaking his head.

"Hey, Ez, still got that dynamite?"

"Dynamite!" Chris exclaimed. "Ah, shit!"

Buck added a couple of choice epithets.

"Of course, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. He grinned, a hungry expression in the cool moonlight.

"Reckon you could light it up and drop it over the edge?"


"Damn, you two are menaces," Buck said.

Ezra was busy withdrawing the dynamite from his saddlebag. He trapped the tip of his tongue between his teeth as he worked, inserting the fuse by moonlight. The others withdrew a respectful distance and busied themselves taking the muffling rags off their mounts' hooves. Vin calmly came over and did that job for Ezra.

Satisfied, Ezra swung comfortably into Hazard's saddle. The cold had begun to bite through his coat and he wanted to keep moving. He cued Hazard to walk to the very edge of the rim, where he could see the black well of the canyon, the crystal glitter of the mountain stream, the colorless stretches of sparsely grassed open spaces. The yellow-orange flare of the bounty hunters' campfire drew the eye, the only color in the night.

He waited, listening to the quiet creaks from the tack as each of his friends mounted. The horses breathed rhythmically, a comforting sound that went with the muffled clink of a mouthed snaffle or a switching tail.

He pulled out his matches and struck one, the sharp sulphur stink strong in the clean mountain air. The hiss of the flame seemed loud. Ezra set the flame to the end of the fuse until it caught. He shook out the match and tucked it in his coat pocket and waited for the fuse to burn down.

"For Christ sake, Ezra, throw it," Chris urged.

"In a moment," Ezra replied imperturbably. He didn't want the fuse blowing out in the wind as the stick fell.

"Damn fool is going to blow us all up," Nathan muttered.

"Brother Ezra, perhaps it is time -"

Ezra waited until there was no more than a inch left on the fuse, nodding to Josiah's words, and lofted the dynamite far out over the canyon. The instant the stick left his hand, he urged Hazard away from the rim.

The others were already turning east, moving ahead of him.

He counted seconds off in his head, urging Hazard to a trot, and smiled as the explosion ripped through the night. The clap of sound, of earth and rock upheaved, echoed through the mountains, sure to be heard as far as the Swedish Hat. Dust roiled into the starlit sky, but the walls of the canyon held the force of the dynamite close. None of it touched the seven men riding away. Hazard's ears flicked backward, but the gelding had grown used to loud noises in conjunction with his rider.

"That should keep our friends convinced we're still in the canyon," Ezra opined as he rejoined the other six men.

"They'll be busy trying to figure out what the hell happened for a while, that's for sure," Buck agreed.

Wraith-like, they threaded through dark stands of incense cedar and more pines, slowed by care for the horses, until Vin found a deer trail that crossed the spine of a high ridge and dropped them down into a fertile open valley as the stars faded into the first pallid wash of dawn. They rode wordless down the high meadows in the gray hour before sunrise. Colorless grass swished round the horses's fetlocks.

The scent of wood smoke drifted up the valley. They passed several sleepy cows bedded down in the grass with their calves.

"Figure someone's got a homestead up here," Vin said quietly. "Might want to ride in slow and easy."

The tired men offered no argument. The scent of a cooking breakfast pulled them through a half-grown apple orchard, past a fenced vegetable garden to a well-built log house. A steep-roofed barn and several outbuildings completed the picture of a tidy and successful farm.

Even in the bleak pre-dawn light, it was a handsome site, the house built where it looked down on a fenced meadow. A pair of draft horses occupied the nearest corral. The seven riders drew up in front of the stripped-pine porch. A black and white collie-mix exploded off the porch in a wild flurry of barks, darting at the horses' legs, then backing off as a single, lazy hoof flashed out, nearly catching the dog in the ribs.

The faint glow of an oil lamp marked a curtained window. Smoke curled pale and sinuous from the stovepipe. Frying bacon teased their nostrils and empty bellies.

"Hello the house," Chris called out.

The front door opened a moment later, disgorging a brawny blond man cradling a shotgun in the crook of his arm. He held a lantern up with his other big, work-reddened hand. He was dressed in wash-faded coveralls and a plaid flannel shirt, the sleeves already rolled up over the hard muscles of his forearms.

Pale eyes squinted at them from a sunburned face.

"Who ya be?" he asked. He surveyed them suspiciously.

The Scandanavian lilt to his voice caught Ezra's attention, drawing him out of a half-doze. He lifted his head and peered at the big farmer. Though the last time he'd seen him, the man had been dressed in a Sunday go-to-town suit, he hadn't changed much in three years.

He urged Hazard a step or two forward.

"Mr. Karkinnen?" he asked.


Ezra took off his hat, nodding to the man. "Ah, we've just come over the top from Stairstep Canyon. While I realize you have no reason to trust us, I assure you we did not even realize we had trespassed until the delicious smells of your morning meal reached us." He rubbed his jaw. The rasp under his fingers reminded him with a stab of distaste that he needed a shave. It only added to his feeling of unpleasant dishevelment. "We would consider it a kindness if you allowed us to rest and water our mounts here while we break our own fast."

Weariness thickened his accent as he added with a slight smile, "Of course, if it is your desire, we will move on."

Karkinnen lifted the lantern higher, casting its yellow light over Ezra's face. The others were no more than insubstantial outlines, more shadow than form, waiting with weary patience. Karkinnen frowned, studying Ezra.

"You come in now. I remember you," he declared. He nodded. "Come sit. My Annike will make you breakfast."

He pushed the door open with a broad shoulder and set the shotgun inside.

"Come, come, Mr. Standish, you and your friends, come in and warm yourselves." He raised his voice. "Annike!" A flood of Finnish followed. A woman's voice answered him. He turned back to them, smiling widely.

"You have breakfast with us."

"That is a kind offer, sir, that I for one am not about to turn down. Allow us a moment to see to the horses and clean up."

Karkinnen nodded. "Kyllä. I send out on of my nephews, Paavo, to help."

"Tell your lady wife that the food smells superb," Ezra added.

Karkinnen hung the lantern on an iron hook set high next to the doorway, nodded again, and went back inside.

"Hell, Ezra, you know him?" Buck asked, bemused humor in his voice.

"I am as surprised as yourself," Ezra said. He dropped out the saddle with a jar that he felt from his knees all the way up his spine. "I am amazed he remembers me."

"You remembered him," Chris said.

Ezra shrugged as he led Hazard to a water trough. He looped the reins over the saddle horn and began loosening the cinch.

"I hadn't thought of the man for years until this matter of the deed raised its head," he answered.

The others dismounted, aching and sore, gloved fingers fumbling stiffly at cinches, leaning tiredly against the warm companions that had brought them so far. The collie had retired to the porch. Their breath formed soft plumes as they spoke.

"So you met him when you were in Virginia City?" JD asked. He was seeing to Dusty, exhaustion slowing his movements.


Hazard dropped his nose into the water and pulled it back out, spraying water from his nostrils noisily. His tack jingled as the gelding snorted once more and began drinking the cold water. Ezra waited patiently until Hazard had taken his fill then led him over to the hitching rail and secured the reins. He patted the gelding's shoulder fondly.

Chris took up the questioning while watering Nero. "How?"

Beside him, Vin did the same silently. He thumped a fist into Peso's nose when the mustang tried to snake his head over and take chunk out of Nero's ear. Nero ignored the byplay.

"Playing cards, how else?"

Ezra drew off his own gloves and began futilely batting at his clothes, trying to knock off the dust and dirt.

"Don't seem to have held it against you," Chris speculated. "Must not have lost too bad."

"Not to me, anyway," Ezra said. He shrugged as he gave up on his clothes.

The front door of the house swung open and a lanky, towheaded teenager ambled out. He was still knuckling the sleep from his eyes and wore an oversized coat.

He looked up at the group of men just finishing with their horses as the ashen light strengthened and his mouth fell open. They were muffled in heavy coats, hats pulled down low, dangerous ghosts coalescing out of the darkness.

"Uncle -," the boy stopped and swallowed hard. His prominent Adam's-apple bobbed. "Uncle says come in."

His eyes were round as the seven men walked up onto the porch and into the lantern light, color warming their figures.

Boots thudded against the porch. Cold radiated off them, the smell of the night and the trees, the clear perfume of the wild. They passed Paavo with quiet nods, shrugging out of coats and hats, revealing tied down gun-rigs and dusty clothes in the lantern light.

Paavo quietly pointed out the hooks inside the door where they were to hang their coats and hats.

"Thank you, young sir," Ezra said.

"You're Mr. Standish?" Paavo asked, staring at Ezra.

Ezra straightened his cuffs. "I am."

"Uncle told us what you did," Paavo said.

Ezra cocked his head. "What did I do?" he asked as Paavo led them through the front room to the kitchen that took up the entire back of the house.

The kitchen was lit with oil lamps, the light warming it along with the fire burning in the fireplace at one end. Gingham curtains covered the windows. A large marmalade cat was curled on a braided rug before the stone hearth.

"Uncle said you saved us," Paavo replied.

"Your uncle is exaggerating, I'm afraid," Ezra said lightly.

A red-checked oilcloth covered the long table along with white-flecked blue enamelware in places for all seven men and the family. Karkinnen was already seated at the head of the table, holding a toddler with flax pale hair and apple cheeks on his knee and sipping coffee. The heavy pot was resting on an iron trivet within easy reach. Cups were set out at each place.

A tall woman bustled in front of a massive stove at the far end of the kitchen. She turned and smiled brilliantly at the men as they filed in. Heavy blonde braids were pinned on top her head.

The smile never faltered, even as she noticed Nathan.

"Ma'am," Buck said, smiling back at her with all his charm. His smile widened as he spotted two young women in the kitchen, both with long flaxen braids and shy smiles and blushes.

"Come, come," Karkinnen said, gesturing them to the table. He grinned at Ezra. "Sit down. Introduce your friends." His shrewd eyes took in the other six men, cataloguing the differences between them and the air of danger that bound them all. Ezra watched as he relaxed, reassured by the air of integrity Chris and the others exuded.

"Thank you," Ezra replied easily.

Ezra nodded to Vin, who stood between Chris and him.

"My friend Vin."

Vin smiled at Karkinnen and the toddler and added a shy nod toward the ladies. "Vin Tanner."

The girls giggled behind their hands and received a glare from the lady of the house.

Ezra continued, indicating each man as he spoke. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne – "

"Everybody calls me JD."

" – Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez. They accompanied me yesterday when I endeavored to inspect Stairstep Canyon," Ezra finished.

Karkinnen pushed his chair back and rose, still carrying the child. He walked over the woman at the stove and set his free hand on her shoulder. She smiled up at him.

"This is my wife, Annike." He boosted the toddler higher in his arm. "My son Jyri."

He pointed to the two blonde girls who were, Ezra thought as he nodded to them, probably twins.

"Hekka and Rikke Seppänen, my nieces. "

Paavo had disappeared behind them and now returned leading two more children and carrying a baby. The baby was fussing and red faced and the two small figures were still in their nightclothes, eyes heavy with sleep. They stared up at the seven strangers in amazement.

Annike swept over and plucked the baby from Paavo.

"My other son, Lasse," Karkinnen went on, indicating the baby. "And these two sleepy ones are Kalle and Freya Seppänen. They are my Annike's sister Tilde's youngest. Their father Matias works the farm with me."

Ezra smiled at the children.

Annike handed the baby off to Rikke and began bussing hot food to the table. Hekka helped her. Karkinnen watched her obvious affection. His attention switched to Ezra and his expression grew serious.

"I would not have this," he said quietly, "if you had not helped."

Ezra made a gesture of negation. "I did nothing, sir. The cards merely fell your way. It was luck."

"I could not marry Annike until I owned my land again," Karkinnen insisted. "I would not have Lasse and Jyri. Matti and Tilde could not have brought their family here. I know my good fortune. You made my luck."

"This is a fine house and family you have," Josiah said as Annike urged them all to sit.

Grace was said quickly and plates were filled. It was the Mexican influenced staples the seven men had grown used to eating, but even the odd dishes were delicious. They ate with a single-mindedly intensity that marked how long it had been since their uncomfortable, bolted meal in the pine grove the day before. Annike smiled, went back to the stove and set more food cooking.

She patted Ezra's shoulder as she went.

Karkinnen had sat Ezra to his right, where he could speak with him easily. Chris took the seat on the other side of the table with Buck next to him. Vin sat next to Ezra, then Josiah. Nathan and JD took seats opposite them. JD ended up across from young Paavo.

Ezra would have preferred to keep the entire matter to himself, but half way through the meal, Josiah leaned forward, caught Karkinnen's eye and bluntly asked, "How did you and Ezra meet, Mister Karkinnen?"

Karkinnen grimaced. "I was desperate. I'd borrowed money to send for Annike and her family and lost the deed to this farm to Harrison. I went to Virginia City to try to buy it back from him when I could. He refused to sell."

"So how'd Ezra get involved?"

"Merely as a bystander, JD." Ezra concentrated on buttering a biscuit then biting into it.

Karkinnen poured another cup of coffee.

"I followed Harrison. He was playing poker with several other businessmen and Mr. Standish here."

"Of course," Josiah commented.

"I am a gambler, Mr. Sanchez, after all," Ezra murmured. He caught little Kalle watching him and winked, eliciting a giggle.

"Harrison still wouldn't sell me the deed back," Karkinnen went on. "Mr. Standish invited me to sit in the game."

Nathan glared at Ezra. Ezra drew his brows together, confused. Then he understood. Nathan believed he had seen Karkinnen as a no more than a mark with a wallet to be lightened. He had argued that if Karkinnen had the money to buy – or try to buy – his farm back, he certainly was heeled enough to sit in on a game. Harrison had been irritated, which had been reason enough to offer the Fin the chance to play against him.

The farmer wasn't the sort of man Ezra targeted for his cons or even his more ruthless poker games. That place was occupied by arrogant, greedy men like Walter Harrison. He'd already been irritated with the man before Karkinnen appeared. Afterward, he'd decided on a whim to implement his own sort of justice.

A good deed.

The thought still made him uncomfortable. He didn't think of himself as a generous or kind man. Anything he did, he did to benefit himself, just as Maude had taught him. Helping Karkinnen hadn't gained him much materially – other than Harrison's funds and the land that was now causing so much furor – but he'd taken great satisfaction from humiliating Harrison.

Harrison had reminded him of Lorena's father William.

"Surprised he didn't clean you out," Nathan muttered.

Karkinnen looked shamefaced. "He could have. I have never seen such a skilled player. I could not believe that I had actually won money when the night was through."

Buck paused between swallowing a piece of sausage and reaching for his coffee cup. He swallowed hard, looking at Ezra with approval. "Ez, you got a soft heart, you know that."

Chris smiled to himself.

"Soft head is more like it," Ezra mumbled. He tried one of the little smoked fish Annike had brought to the table.

Vin didn't hesitate. More fish went onto his plate.

"Real good, ma'am," he said to Annike. Annike urged more fish on him.

Vin ate with gusto.

"You played all night?" Josiah asked, pausing in his own steady emptying of his plate.

"All night," Karkinnen confirmed.

It had taken all night to alternately coax and goad Harrison into growing tired and drunk and desperate enough to wager the deed to the farm. Once he'd won it from the miner turned businessman, it had been child's play to lose it to Karkinnen. The expression of fury and frustration on Harrison's face had made the effort worthwhile though.

The blue-eyed smiles of the Karkinnen and Seppänen families insured he still felt that way, though it was mixed with embarrassment over their gratitude.

"Your Mr. Standish here," Karkinnen told Josiah, "won the deed to my farm from Harrison."

"So how did you get it back?" JD asked.

"Why I bet and lost it on the very next turn of the cards, JD," Ezra told him.

"Ain't sure I believe it," Nathan said.

"Nor should you, Mr. Jackson. To deliberately lose is anathema to professional of my calibre," Ezra agreed.

"Just depends on your definition of winnin' and losin'," Vin said unexpectedly. He smiled slyly. "See, takin' that deed this fella Harrison wouldn't sell back and makin' him watch Mr. Karkinnen here get it back, I'd say that was winnin'. Harrison sure did lose out. Didn't even get the money for the land, did he?"

Ezra knew his smooth mask had slipped a little. Vin had surprised him by understanding and explaining what he'd done perfectly. He gathered his composure and shrugged.

"The man must be quite irate by now, considering that Stairstep Canyon has suddenly become so valuable."

"Looks like you're going to make a nice profit off of your good deed, Ez," Buck said.

Karkinnen and Paavo were both staring at Ezra.

"The other deed," Karkinnen repeated. "The one everyone needs to put in the spur to the Virginia & Truckee line."

"You're going to be rich," Paavo blurted.

"I devoutly hope so," Ezra replied seriously.

Karkinnen began laughing. Josiah joined him. Buck almost choked on a biscuit, until Nathan thumped his back. Even Chris chuckled.

They relaxed and finished the meal without any more talk of Ezra's motives, for which he felt grateful. Afterward, Karkinnen – insisting they call him Sven – showed them around the farm. Paavo was dispatched to the barn to see his chores; JD volunteered to help him. Nathan lingered to ask Annike about the dried herbs hanging from the rafters.

Buck disappeared looking for the privy.

Ezra occupied Kalle and Freya and Jyri with magic tricks in exchange for teaching him a few words of Finnish. They giggled and corrected him, Jyri sitting on his lap and fingering his gold watch chain in fascination. Sven and Josiah fell into a deep conversation regarding the proper pitch a roof needed to shed snow rather than collapse under its weight.

Chris smoked a cheroot out on the porch.

Hekka came out and shooed the three smaller children into the house.

Vin sat down on the steps next to Ezra.

The sun was well up. It was time to go.

"Goin' to sell to Corcoran when we get back?" Vin asked.

"Yes," Ezra replied tranquilly.

"Was a good thing you did here."

Ezra drew his old deck of cards out and shuffled them. He ducked his head, trying to hide the smile on his lips. "Just don't make too much of it. I did after all win all of Harrison's money that night for myself."

Buck came around the side of the house, walking beside Rikke, big hands moving as he talked to her. The girl laughed along with Buck at whatever he told her.

Chris stubbed out his cheroot.

"It's time."

Ten minutes later, they were all in the saddle, taking their leave of the Karkinnens.

Annike and Hekka came out, handing each man a burlap bag filled with a rich assortment of supplies for their lunch. Freya and Kalle waved from the porch, where they sat with the collie mix, all safely out of reach of the horses' milling hooves.

Ezra winked at them, wondering when they'd find the peppermints he'd slipped into their pockets.

Sven reached up and shook his hand. "Come back any time. All of this I have, I owe to you."

Ezra shook his head. "You owe it to your hard work."

"You gave me a second chance," Sven insisted.

Ezra blinked at him. He'd never considered it that way. How strange. A second chance. The same thing Chris Larabee had given him. He never thought he deserved it. He thought Sven Karkinnen had.

"If so, I'm pleased you didn't waste it."

The Karkinnen farm was half a continent away from Peyton's Ford. The two places were very different, but Ezra felt a sense of comfort and rightness to the neat farm snugged deep in the small mountain valley that he'd only ever known once before. His pleasure in the small part he'd played in preserving it was deep and abiding.

"You should watch out for Harrison," Sven said. He looked worried and serious. "His luck turned sour after you beat him. He lost most of his businesses. His wife went back to her family in the East. Even here, we heard how he raged when he found out about the railroad spur."

"I am always careful, of course."

Sven glanced at Vin. "Harrison isn't right in the head."

"We got Ez's back," Vin assured Sven.

He nodded. "I think if he sees Mr. Standish, he will try to kill him. He blames him, you see."

"Thank you for the warning," Ezra said. He tipped his hat toward the ladies and nodded to the man and boy. "Sven. Paavo."

Chris caught each man's eyes in turn, ending with Ezra. Ezra nodded back.

"Thank you for your hospitality," Chris called. He touched his heels to Nero's side and set out at a trot.

Buck and JD followed immediately.

Nathan looked around the farm a last time as though he still found it unbelievable that Ezra had had a hand in the Karkinnens having it. He looked confused briefly, but the old self-certainty firmed his expression the instant he saw Ezra watching him. He brought his chin up then gigged Peppermint into reluctant motion.

That left Josiah, Vin and Ezra.

They each tipped their hats in salute and slowly rode out of the yard after the others.

"You continue to surprise me, Ezra," Josiah said.

"I endeavor to never be boring."

"Ya ain't that," Vin chuckled.

Josiah went on, "I am reminded of another wise man's words. 'A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.'"[xiii]

20. Virginia City, 1877

He may play the jack of diamonds
He may lay the queen of spades
He may conceal a king in his hand
While the memory of it fades

Shape of My Heart, Sting

The desk clerk smiled at Ezra as he walked into the foyer, but the balding man's smile faded into alarm when Chris, Buck, Vin, Josiah, JD and Nathan followed him. They were an intimidating collection and not the sort of people who usually graced the gilt and velvet luxury of the International Hotel.

Ezra had sent a boy to the International with a note for Corcoran, offering to meet him and complete discussion of the sale. The boy returned with Corcoran's agreement to meet that afternoon. Ezra had changed into his bottle-green jacket and black trousers, sent his clothes to the laundry without much hope they would be salvaged, and set out in the company of his friends.

They were with him because Chris had insisted. They'd rode back to Virginia City from the Karkinnen farm unmolested, but none of them were ready to discount the bounty hunters. Those men had proved clever and determined. Ezra and Vin wouldn't be safe until they left town.

Ezra smiled back at the clerk as he approached the desk.

"I'm meeting -"

"He can't come in here," the desk clerk blurted out, pointing at Nathan.

Ezra glanced back at Nathan and pulled his brows together in a frown. Nathan straightened to his full height, his expression hardening. He folded his arms and stood with his chin lifted. Only the flare of a nostril betrayed the bitter anger boiling under Nathan's surface, and that only because Ezra knew how to read him.

Nathan's gaze flickered toward Ezra briefly, then he stared at the desk clerk silently. Insolently. Ezra suppressed even the hint of a smile. No one would appreciate his reflection that Nathan must have made a terrible slave with all that pride.

"Pardon me?" Ezra asked, switching his attention back to the bespectacled clerk.

The clerk indicated Nathan. "Him. He can't be in here."

"Who?" Ezra asked devilishly.

"The black – "

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra interrupted, raising his brows in mock-disbelief. "Really, while his customary choice in his attire's colors can become tiresome, I really don't think it's grounds for denying him entrance to any establishment."

Buck and JD sniggered.

Chris flipped his duster back, revealing the gunfighting rig he wore.

The clerk gulped. "No – no, I meant the nigger."

"The ... nigger," Ezra repeated slowly.

Nathan exhaled audibly.

"He'll have to wait outside, round back," the clerk insisted.

Ezra and the others had gone still. They stared at the clerk, hard looks from suddenly hard men, that made him shrink back.

"It's – it's policy!"

"I don't give two damns for your policy," Chris gritted out. "He's with us."

"Can't you – can't you, ah, just – "

"Boys, we're leaving," Chris declared.

A door behind the clerk leading back to the offices opened. Ezra kept an eye on it for danger as he spoke.

"I came here to meet one of your guests. Be sure to tell Mr. Corcoran why I left," he said silkily. "I'm sure he'll be pleased to learn the property he wished to purchase went to Mr. Finster because your hotel didn't welcome one of my companions." He gave a short nod, straightened his cuffs – checking the derringer rig at the same time – and headed for the front doors with the others.

One of the gilt mirrors on the walls showed the office door opening. Ezra tensed. The reflection revealed a rotund man in a three-piece suit hurrying out and after them.

Ezra paused.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," the round man called out, "please, wait. We don't want to do anything precipitate. Please, come inside, sit down, there's been a small misunderstanding."

Chris swung around, duster flaring, and glared.


"Yes, yes, a misunderstanding. Stanley isn't the most – well, let's just say he's my cousin's boy and needs the job, shall we?" the rotund man said.

He extended his hand to Nathan. "I'm Willis Benford, the manager."

Nathan shook his hand, but his expression remained aloof and suspicious.

Benford offered his hand to Ezra next.

"Any friends of Mr. Corcoran's are always welcome at the International," he declared.

Ezra shook the soft, plump hand, startled to realize his own hand was hard in comparison, with calluses from riding and gun-work. His nails were neat and clean, but not buffed to a high gloss. Once more, he was reminded that he had changed.

Benford insisted on shaking hands with all of them, though he quailed faintly before grasping Chris' hand.

"Please, come and relax. I'll have someone from the kitchen bring you some coffee. Unless you'd prefer tea?" Benford paused. "Or something more substantial?"

"Coffee would be welcome," Josiah rumbled. He planted himself on a spindle-legged settee, his size and rough clothes presenting a striking contrast to the delicate, velvet-upholstered piece of furniture.

The others made themselves comfortable as well, sprawling in comfort rather than sitting straight and proper as Ezra would have.

Benford fussed over them another minute or two. He sent a bellboy to let Corcoran know Ezra was there, another back to the kitchen for coffee, nodded to them, then dragged Stanley away from the desk with a firm hand on his arm. Another clerk took over and Benford quietly excoriated Stanley.

"Good job, Ezra," Chris said.

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"Money talks." 


Nathan shook the man's hand, but he didn't forgive. He knew damn well it was the threat of Chris's guns and Ezra's gentle blackmail that brought the manager out and let him stay.

He didn't like it. He had come to take the acceptance he found in Four Corners for granted. There were bigoted jackasses in Four Corners too, but they were individuals and he could walk into any store or bar without giving a thought to his color.

Without the other men with him today, he would have been thrown out. Nathan seethed over that. Maybe given a beating – to teach him 'manners'. It hardly mattered that he hadn't been. It was the prospect that burned.

While part of him was grateful to Chris for his declaration, another part resented it deeply. His presence was tolerated because he was with a group of white men.

"He's with us."

It should have warmed Nathan's heart to be so accepted by his friends. But all he could think of was that he had what he had thanks to them. He hated it.

It was humiliating to depend on the other men. He was still no better than servant or slave.

Treated like damned dog, he thought bitterly.

And Ezra, playing his little games, acting like he didn't know what the desk clerk meant. He wanted to slap Ezra down. How dared he make light of the frustration and anger Nathan felt? Nathan ignored that fact that he knew Ezra had been mocking the clerk, not him. He couldn't take his bitterness out on the world, so he let his feelings focus on the Southerner.

It wasn't fair. The others thought Ezra had done some wonderful thing, stealing that deed from this Harrison fellow and letting Karkinnen win it back. Just because the Karkinnens were good folks, that didn't make it right. Didn't they understand Ezra hadn't meant to do anything good? He'd been out to help himself, that's all. Harrison had paid good money for the deed to Karkinnen's farm, he didn't have to sell it back. Ezra had stole it. It was clear as water to Nathan.

He shook his head.

He couldn't tell any of them that. JD had always been taken in by Ezra. Buck was too self-centered to care, as long as he had his women, he didn't care what anyone did. Josiah still thought he was going to save Ezra's soul. The ex-preacher would use this as proof Ezra was redeemable. Damn fool.

Then there was Chris and Vin. Nathan had always thought they saw through Ezra. He'd been shocked when Vin rode out after Ezra without much more than a good-bye. 'Course, now he knew better. Damn Rebs stuck together.

Chris was the one that disappointed him. Chris was acting like Ezra was just as good as Buck or Vin, treating Ezra like a friend, like he trusted him. Nathan had always taken a certain satisfaction in the way Chris treated Ezra, the way Ezra was the outsider of their group. He'd enjoyed seeing Chris lay into that 'old Southern boy'. Chris might not have used a whip, but his words and fists had been hard enough.

He'd seen Ezra take it and never wondered why once. He'd never considered why Ezra let Nathan excoriate him until Ezra finally snapped that night in the jail.

He felt a brief stab of shame over his own actions that night, but didn't let it take hold. It was Ezra's fault, he told himself.

He absently fingered the brass tacks along the edge of the velvet covering the arm of his chair, picking at the edges with a ragged nail.

It was all Ezra's fault things had changed. He wasn't sorry a bit that he'd helped Maude, he just wished she'd got that deed. Ezra didn't have any right to make money off it.

Nathan nodded to himself.

He'd felt some bad about Maude making Ezra so sick, worried the man might die and what would happen, but no harm had been done. If Vin really thought Nathan had had a part in it, the tracker would have said something by now. Not that he cared what Vin thought. Vin was just a half-illiterate savage. If he weren't white, no one would ever let him in the front door.

The memory of Vin and Chris walking out and saving him from hanging for no more reason than it was wrong was pushed ruthlessly back. Nathan told himself they hadn't done it for him. They hadn't even known him.


Nathan jerked his head up, brought back to the hotel foyer by Josiah's deep voice.

"Are you all right, Brother?"

Nathan produced a tight-lipped smile.

"Fine, Josiah, just fine."


Their coffee arrived and they sat back to enjoy it while waiting for Corcoran. The hotel foyer was quiet, comfortable, and empty except for the seven men.

The quiet was interrupted by the arrival of a new guest and his entourage. Ezra was pouring himself a second up of coffee as two bellboys were sent after the luggage.

He looked up curiously, studying the figure at the center of the sudden whirlwind of activity invading the peace of the hotel's foyer.

Buck sat up straight.

"Whoooo-weeee!" he declared with a wide grin and gleaming eyes as he stared across the foyer. The rest of the seven twisted in their seats or craned their heads to see what had Buck so impressed. "That is the prettiest filly I have ever seen."

A well-dressed, barrel-chested man in his fifties stood at the desk. Benford and the desk clerk were both fawning over him. Next him on one side was stocky fellow with that well-scrubbed, gimlet-eyed look of a Pinkerton guard. A few steps behind, a slim blond man in impeccable clothes was watching everything with a lopsided smirk.

The object of Buck's delight stood just to the side of the older man.

Shining red hair was piled high on her head in a mass of ringlets and curls that emphasized her long neck and perfect carriage. The elegant forest-green travelling dress she wore matched her jade green eyes. She was remarkably beautiful, with the pale, remote profile of a cameo.

"The Lord truly smiled on us all when he shaped that divine creation," Josiah commented.

Even Chris nodded, smiling faintly.

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut, but the small gathering at the desk hadn't changed when he opened them. The redhead was still obviously with the older man, patiently enduring until he had browbeaten the manager to his satisfaction. The guard and the younger man hadn't changed.

Ezra pushed his seat back. His eyes were bleak. "If you will pardon me, gentlemen, I believe I see someone I once knew," he murmured.

He straightened his shoulders like a man going to his execution and walked across the lobby toward the blond man.

Recognition flickered across the blond's features as Ezra approached. They looked each other over cautiously.

"Saville," Ezra said at last.

"Ezra," the blond replied and extended his well-manicured hand.

Vin had drifted up behind Ezra, close enough he was clearly with him, but just far enough back he didn't seem to be interfering.

Ezra motioned him forward. "Saville, this is a ... collea- a friend of mine. Vin. Vin, this is Saville Howard, my cousin."

Saville shook hands with Vin. His sharp eyes said he'd noted the way Ezra omitted Vin's last name. Vin and Ezra noted the shoulder rig Saville wore.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," the blond southerner said.

"I had thought that every one at the Ford was dead," Ezra said quietly. "No one knew what had become of Polly ... only that Yankee cavalry had carried her off."

The memory of riding up the long drive to find the blackened, burnt shells of the buildings that had been his home had never faded. Everyone in Virginia had known the penalty they might pay for quartering Mosby's men, but it had still been a shock. His people hadn't been arrested and removed – they'd been killed. The only ones left alive were a few house slaves who had fled the conflagration only to return to the only place they had ever known. It was from Herodotus the barn slave that Ezra had heard the story. He could never forget it, nor standing in the Peyton family plot, staring down at the sunken graves, graves with no markers to even tell who lay where.

Saville's expression hardened, his pale blue eyes turning ice cold. "They did. I found them," he said. His accent matched Ezra's exactly. "None of them ever touched another woman or child."

Ezra's eyes were equally cold. Mosby's Rangers had done some hard things, but they hadn't raped and murdered civilians. If he had ever had a clue to who had raided Peyton's Ford, he would have hunted them down like dogs himself.

"Good." He didn't care how Saville had found them or killed them; he just wished he had a hand in it himself.

He tipped his head toward the businessman and the redhead. "And Polly?"

Saville's jaw clenched, but his tone remained smooth and mannered. "Mister Magnusson treats her well, Cousin. I make sure of that."

Ezra's face went blank as he extracted what Saville meant. He opened his mouth to speak, to ask how Saville could bear to see the woman he'd loved since childhood give herself to another man ... and snapped it shut. He could read the anguish in his cousin's eyes and understood Saville endured for Polly's sake. He would not judge their choices.

He nodded once and Saville's expression eased.

"I believe you are the reason we are here," Saville remarked. His accent was thicker than Ezra's, but the cadences were the same, shaped by the place of their youth.

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"Mister Magnusson deals in railroads, land, and metal," Saville said.

"He's here 'bout the deed," Vin drawled.

Saville gave Ezra a sharp look that said, How much do you trust this man? Ezra smiled at him and nodded once, a small motion, one only a man as sharp as Saville or Vin himself would have seen. Beside him, crow's feet crinkled at the corners of Vin's blue eyes as he smiled a slow, sweet smile.

"Magnusson," Ezra echoed.

The man who had put on bounty on his murder so that he could obtain Stairstep Canyon from Maude. What was Polly doing with such a man? What was Saville? He took a deep breath, but running through his mind were so many questions. Those, and had Maude known about Polly and Saville? Had she kept that secret for some profit of her own? For sheer cruelty because he had loved his Peyton cousins, despite her bitterness toward the family?

Saville raised an eyebrow. "You know the name, cuz?"

Ezra glanced at the man in question and nodded shortly.

"The name, yes." He tipped his head, considering. "Mother recently did some business with him in St. Louis."

"I was in Philadelphia seeing to ... another matter while Mr. Magnusson was in St.Louis," Saville said.

The cool light in his blue eyes reminded Ezra of all the years that had passed since he'd seen his cousin last. This Saville was and wasn't the same young man he'd known. His cousin had been a soldier. This Saville had the eyes of a killer. He didn't care. Ezra easily believed Saville had killed the men who took Polly, but doing it – and perhaps seeing what had been done to her – had burnt something out of him.
Saville's lips quirked into a sardonic smile. "Polly was there. She didn't mention your mother. Was Maude using a different name?"

Ezra answered his smile just as cynically. "I have no idea. She was busy trying to sell the man a piece of property I happen to own – unknown to me."

"Howard!" Magnusson called impatiently. His florid face showed his irritation. He gestured for Saville to rejoin their party.

"My master calls," Saville muttered bitterly.

"Will you be free later tonight?" Ezra asked impulsively. "Can you get me in to see Polly?"

"He won't want her to leave the hotel, but we're usually in adjoining suites. I'll tell her to beg off dinner. She can say she's too tired," Saville answered. He sent another jaundiced glance at his employer. "Magnusson won't stay with her. Once he's gone out, you can come up to the suite."

"Which room?"

Saville laughed. "I have no idea. I'll leave a message at the desk for you."

Ezra nodded. "I have an engagement presently," he said.

Saville started to walk away then paused.



"What name are you using?"

Vin muffled a chuckle.

"Ezra Standish."

Saville nodded. "I'll remember."

Ezra watched him walk away, following Magnusson and Polly as they swept up the stairs, followed by bell boys, porters, guards and finally, Saville. At the first landing, Polly looked back to find her cousin.

Her familiar green gaze, the same shade he saw in the mirror, caught on Ezra and widened. No hint of emotion stained the perfection of her features, even as Magnusson tugged her arm. Ezra knew she'd recognized him.

Grimly, he dipped his head in acknowledgement.

Polly, pretty Polly, had learned to hide her heart. Only her eyes gave her away and Ezra mourned what he saw there.

Whatever Saville had done, he hadn't saved her.

The door opened at Ezra's light knock. He glimpsed Saville smiling at him before Polly pulled him inside the suite and into her embrace. He closed his arms around her, closed his eyes and felt the warmth of her, the silk of her hair against his cheek, the delicate scent of an expensive perfume. Saville closed and locked the door behind him. Polly tucked her face against Ezra's neck and held on.

Ezra opened his eyes and looked around the room. It would have done justice to any fine home in the east. The wallpaper was silk, the color ashes-of-roses. It was decorated as an elegant sitting room. A silver tray held china and serving dishes from a catered meal on a gleaming cherrywood table. The curtains were drawn over the windows. Gas lamps lit the room. On one side an open door led into the bedroom. On the other a door into an adjoining portion of the suite was closed, the key sitting in the lock.

A cut-glass decanter and tumblers sat on the polished top of a stand on the far wall opposite the enameled stove.

Saville strolled over and poured a measure of golden liquor into two tumblers. He lifted his and took a sip. "To you, Cuz. You look good."

Ezra gently disengaged Polly's hands from his coat and stepped back. He couldn't resist stroking his hand over her hair though. It was down from the high coiffure, in the simple braid she'd always favored.

"My dear, you are still a picture," he told her.

She smiled at him. There were no tears wetting her face, but her lashes were spiky with suspicious moisture.

"Ezra, it's so good to see you again," she replied.

Saville held up the other tumbler.

Ezra walked over and took it from his hand. "Thank you, Saville, you look well yourself." He turned his smile back to Polly. "Not the ravishing picture that Polly presents, of course. My companions were nearly overwhelmed by your beauty this afternoon. I thought I might have to physically restrain Mr. Wilmington from rushing over to introduce himself, before I mentioned we were related."

Polly smiled back, but didn't blush. She'd changed dresses since the afternoon. She wore a mauve watered-silk gown with a ruche of silk along the low neckline. There was daring look to the gown, uncomfortably like the gowns the girls at Miz Rose's wore. Ezra suspected it had been made and donned to please Magnusson. He wouldn't speak of it though, so long as she didn't.

Ezra refused to judge.

Instead, he sipped the fine Scotch Saville had offered him, sure that it was in fact Magnusson's, and took satisfaction in that.

Saville gave him a sardonic look. His cousin had always been able to read him. Not the way Maude did, but there had always been a likeness in the way they thought, a result of their shared education and social status. A twitch at the corner of Saville's mouth spoke of his own dissatisfaction with the situation, his reluctant acceptance, and quiet relief that Ezra meant to say nothing about it.

"So ... Standish?" Saville questioned.

Ezra shrugged. "Mother and I ran into some trouble in Vicksburg. A name change was in order. I've been a Standish for several years now," he explained.

Saville nodded. He as much as anyone knew what Maude was like.

His gaze was distant as he murmured, "I had no idea, believe me."

Polly touched Ezra's arm and drew him over to the comfortable sofa. He sat next to her.

"I've missed you so," she said.

Ezra took her hand in his. A brilliant sapphire ring caught his eye. A gift from her patron, he imagined. Nothing of value had been left at Peyton's Ford. "I looked for you ..."

Polly's face didn't lose its smile, but Ezra saw the tiny flinch.

"Seeing you today was a gift," Ezra assured her.

Polly let him steer the conversation away from the past, from the raw wounds they all still carried. She gently quizzed him about his own life since the war, politely abandoning certain subjects as Ezra made it clear they were not to be spoken of.

Saville was quieter than he had been as a younger man, but perhaps was allowing Ezra and Polly this time. If Magnusson was the controlling type, there would be much fewer opportunities for them to spend any time together. Saville would be freer to come and go as he wished.

"And now, Ezra?" Polly asked.

He smiled despite himself.

"Until three years ago, I followed the path of least resistance," he admitted. "I made my living with the cards or cons when Mother and I happened to pass through the same city."

Saville looked curious. "What happened three years ago?"

Ezra laughed. "I fell into bad company."

Seeing Saville and Polly's confusion, he explained with some amusement. "I had vacated Virginia City rather precipitously after conducting a highly lucrative series of games and found myself in Fort Laramie, where I was arrested and jailed on a trumped-up charge, with most of my funds redistributed to the local deputy and his cronies. Having little faith that any trial would better exemplify justice, I jumped bail."

Polly was holding her hand over her mouth. Her eyes were full of amusement.

Saville shook his head. "Cuz, cuz, cuz," he murmured.

Ezra grinned back, dimples flashing.

"Oh, it gets better," he assured them. "Being low on funds as a consequence of my most insalubrious sojourn in Fort Laramie, I struck an unconscionable streak of bad luck. In retrospect it seems as though Fate her fickle self was nudging me along. Nothing seemed to go right until I found myself executing a foolish little con in a backwater town on the border between New Mexico Territory and Sonora, pretending to be drunk to win a shooting contest."

"Still a good shot, Ezra?" Saville asked with an odd twist to the words. "You were always good with those pistols of yours, the best in Montjoy's Darlings."

"That skill has received a plethora of practice during my recent exploits," Ezra admitted.

He brushed his hand over the supple leather of the gun belt he wore. He had never drawn against Chris Larabee and never wanted to – the man was greased lightning – but he suspected he was a faster draw than the five other men in their band. JD had the raw talent, but skill came with practice and the young man lacked the controlled temperament that distinguished the fastest draws. Buck was fast but made nothing of it, perhaps because he would always be in Chris's shadow, more likely because he had no taste for killing. Ezra downplayed his own speed, preferring to rely on his wits; he'd rather have a name as an unscrupulous gambler than a fast gun. He'd never liked killing and a gunfighter's reputation made it an inevitability.

"What happened?" Polly demanded like a child being told a bedtime story.

"I shot the center out of an ace, came within a breath of being done in by some infuriated cowhands, and drew the attention of the infamous Mr. Chris Larabee. Mr. Larabee was in search of gunhands to help defend a transplanted group of Seminoles from a group of – " Ezra barely paused as he changed the story, fearing it would stir bad memories for Polly, " – renegades. The fools were under the impression the Seminoles were in possession of a gold mine."

Polly's eyes widened. "You helped protect them, didn't you?" she said.

It warmed Ezra to know she thought he would protect anyone other than himself as a matter of course. Polly always had thought the best of him. She'd thought the best of everyone.

"In the end," he told her. No need to go into the whole abandoning the others to inspect the mine and only changing his mind at the last minute. Polly had surely been disillusioned enough by her life. Let her still see him as her brave cousin. It harmed nothing.

"Our little band of seven did succeed in repulsing the Seminoles' attackers. Remarkable, really. We rode back to Four Corners meaning to go our separate ways. Fate had other ideas, however. Mr. Larabee rode to the rescue of the newly assigned Federal judge." Ezra paused, then added theatrically, "The very same judge from Fort Laramie, where I had jumped bail."

"Oh dear!"

"I found myself in the most extraordinary position. Judge Travis offered to pardon me for the bail jumping and the charge in Fort Laramie, if I remained in Four Corners, along with the others, for a period of thirty days, acting as law men."

Saville paused with his Scotch half way to his lips. An expression of genuine surprise played over his handsome features, the most expression Ezra had seen on his face yet.

"Despite my better instincts," Ezra concluded, "I accepted and found myself remaining in the position after the Judge provided my pardon. I have continued in his service, along with the others, until I resigned in order to see to business here in Virginia City."

"The fellow you were with this afternoon," Saville asked, "is he one of these other men from Four Corners?"



"He is," Ezra replied. "They're all here. They insisted on coming with us."

"Tell us about them," Polly directed.

Ezra complied happily for the next hour.

The stroke of that hour drew their reunion to a close. Polly's head came up, her warm smile dissolved into a coolly alert expression, and Saville nodded.

She kissed Ezra's cheek. "Charles will undoubtedly be returning soon. I think it's best if you're not here, he can be quite frighteningly jealous."


Ezra shot an inquiring look Saville's way. Saville inclined his head, the lamplight gilding the fair curls that made him look so boyish still.

Polly caught their wordless exchange and patted Ezra's hand. "He's never raised his hand to me, dear Cuz," she assured him.

Unspoken was the implication that anyone interested in his mistress – his property – might become the target of his 'frightening' jealousy. Ezra found himself not wanting to know how Saville fit into the picture.

"I stand reassured."

"Good night, dear Ezra," she said.

"Good night, Pretty Polly," he replied.

Saville opened the door and checked the hall. He followed Ezra out.

"Have you somewhere we could talk privately?" Saville asked.

"Magnusson won't look for you?"


"Then come back to my hotel. It isn't so expensive as this, but I might introduce you to the others beside Vin."

"You trust them?" Saville questioned. Urgency sounded in his quiet voice.


"Then perhaps they should hear what I have to tell you."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, but asked no more as they slipped quietly out of the hotel.

"You're Ezra's cousin?" Buck asked Saville.

He studied the blond dandy that had strolled into the bar along Ezra. They certainly dressed alike. Both wore black flat-brimmed riverboat hats, dark green frock coats, dark trousers, and polished boots. No spurs. Come to think of it, Buck had never seen Ezra wear spurs. Didn't need them, since that gelding of his would do everything but stand on its head for him.

Saville had a bottle of whiskey and several shot glasses held in his other hands. He was threading his way through the semi-crowded saloon to the table where Ezra and the others were seated. Buck had caught up with him after stepping out back briefly to make room for more beer.

Saville raised an eyebrow and Buck saw the resemblance.

"I believe that has already been established," Saville said.

Yep. Sounded like Ezra too.

It wasn't obvious, but studying on it, Buck saw the way both men moved and held themselves. Neither of them tall, but compact and muscled like cats, never awkward or gawky. Saville's hands were exactly like Ezra's, pale, long-fingered, deft. He managed five shot glasses smoothly.

"And that gal, she's really cousin to you both, too?"

Saville gave him a sharp glance. There was a difference. Ezra's eyes were greener than spring grass. His cousin had eyes like a frozen mountain lake, a cold pure blue. Those eyes told Buck the same thing Ezra had that afternoon.


Leave her alone.

Or else.

Buck shrugged. She was beautiful, but there were plenty of women in Virginia City who weren't taken or related to a man he called friend.

He nodded to Saville, hoping the man could read that from his face. He didn't want to get crossways with Saville. Ezra's cousin might wear fancy clothes and use fancy words too, but he exuded a silent air of menace. He seemed as dangerous or more so than Ezra. The gun he wore under his coat looked too natural to not be a regular part of his wardrobe. Buck knew men back East didn't always go armed, so Saville wore that gun because he used it.

He pulled out the chair next to Chris and clapped his friend on the shoulder as he sat down.

"Buck," Chris growled in warning.

Buck just grinned at him. Ezra shook his head. His antics always amused Ezra, enough so that the normally controlled gambler would sometimes join in, if the mood struck him.

Saville set down the whiskey and glasses.

He poured a shot in each glass and pushed them toward anyone who didn't already have a drink. JD was sticking to milk again. Vin and Josiah both had beers.

Buck picked his glass and tried the whiskey. "Thank you," he told Saville after it slid down his throat like silken fire.

Saville addressed Ezra. "You know Magnusson wants that land you own? He means to choke off the Swedish Hat and force Corcoran to sell him shares in exchange for a way to get the ore out."

"I'm not surprised," Ezra replied. "I've decided to sell to Corcoran, so Magnusson will have to find something else to leverage his way into the Swedish Hat."

He lifted his glass. Lamplight splintered through the honey-colored Scotch, warming the green of Ezra's coat and sparking embers in his hair. He'd let it grow out some in the last few months and a swath of fell across his forehead.

"Then do it soon," Saville told him seriously. He looked around the table at the others. "You don't know how ruthless Magnusson can be."

Vin shook his head. His fingers played over the lip of his beer mug unconsciously. "Got a good idea," he contradicted. His blue eyes were sharp, darker, different from Saville's icy gaze, but just as hard. "Man put a bounty on Ezra's head, made a deal with Maude to buy that deed once Ez is out of the way. Had a man draw down on him in the saloon after taking pot shots at him a couple times."

Saville frowned at Ezra.

"You didn't say anything about your Mother."

"I mentioned she'd tried to sell the deed without my knowledge."

"About that ... I need to speak to you privately," Saville said.

Ezra raised his eyebrows but nodded.

He raised the shot glass once more. "To you and Polly and finding you both alive after so long," Ezra toasted.

Buck didn't miss the faint, pained flinch Polly's name brought to Saville's normally impassive features. There was a story there, he knew, but one he would never hear. He didn't need to. No Southern boy could be happy to see a woman of his family living as a rich man's mistress. Working for that same man had to grate. All Buck needed was to know whether either of them would turn on Ezra the way his mother had.

"Now, hoss, tell us some embarrassin' stories about Ezra," Buck requested.

Buck listened as Saville spun out a tale or two of the mischief Ezra had got up to whenever Maude left him with his father's people. The two boys had run wild it seemed. Unsaid was the truth that no one had cared enough for two bastards to rein them in. He watched and saw genuine fondness for each other between Ezra and Saville and a shared devotion to Polly, who had been their sometime companion in devilment.

The memories were obviously bittersweet. The time and place they recalled was not just past, it was razed to the ground, the people they remembered all dead. Even the slaves whose names they spoke with more affection than many of their family were gone.

Buck's gaze wandered to the other men at the table. Vin was still sipping his flat beer, quietly watching their backs. JD looked fascinated, stopping both men with a spate of questions over each prank or event. Chris had a smile on his lean face. He was enjoying himself, taking an almost paternal pleasure in their group. Josiah looked a little lost, nursing his whiskey as a dark mood overtook him. Buck imagined Josiah was finally accepting that Ezra had had a father. There was no place for Josiah to play that role with the gambler. Ezra neither needed nor wanted the sort of mentoring Josiah longed to give. Ezra was a man grown, with a past he didn't need to be more or less ashamed of than any of the rest of them.

Considering some of the things Josiah had shouted and cried during the worst of his drunken binges, Buck suspected Ezra had less to apologize for than the wayward preacher did. Josiah's penance was no joke. Buck would never say a word, but he suspected Josiah had ridden with the comancheros during the war, taking part in the worst sort of renegade activity along the Texas and Arizona border.

He lifted his glass to his lips. Another sip of Scotch. A droplet caught in his mustache. Buck unselfconsciously licked it off. Drinking with Ezra had taught him to savor the taste of good liquor.

He looked at Nathan last. Nathan had been silent since Ezra introduced Saville.

Nathan's face was set. It hardened with less than hidden, fulminating anger the longer Ezra and Saville spoke.

Ezra's Virginia drawl had slowed and thickened through the evening. So had Saville's, until the two men were speaking with the same rhythm and style. Saville had a vocabulary to match Ezra's, though he was less grandiloquent in his usage. But flaunting the words was as much a part of Ezra's persona as his gambler's red coat and no more a part of the real man beneath it. Buck had had the privilege of meeting the real Ezra.

He reflected sorrowfully that Nathan had never let himself meet that man. Nathan had come close; he'd ridden with Ezra, fought with and beside him, patched the man up after many a reckless exploit, even laughed and joked with him during the good times. Ezra had given Nathan chance after chance, had been patient when Buck, as easygoing as he himself was, would have decked the man. Nathan had refused to see past the accent and attitude.

His loss, Buck believed. He shrugged. He believed in letting folks go their own way, even if he didn't agree with them, as long as they weren't hurting anyone else. Nathan wasn't hurting anyone but himself. If Buck ever thought different, he'd come down on the healer harder than Chris Larabee ever had or would.

The saloon crowd thinned out after a couple of hours. Saville checked his pocket watch and sighed. He pushed his chair back from the table.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I have a morning appointment with my employer. It's been a pleasure, but dawn waits for no one."

"It's a good thing it doesn't wait for Ezra," Buck quipped, "or the sun would never come up."

They all chuckled. Ezra lifted his hand and sketched a check mark in the air. One for Buck.

"Ezra?" Saville motioned toward the saloon doors. "Could you give me a moment?"

Some of the pleasure Ezra had been letting himself show drained away, Buck noticed. The gambler excused himself and followed his cousin out onto the boardwalk.

Before Buck could ask any of the others what they thought of Saville, Nathan burst out, "Did you hear them two? Talking about owning slaves, living like little princes off the sweat of good folks? That fellow, he's just another no good Southerner, just like Ezra!"

Buck gaped at him. That wasn't what he'd heard.

"Brother Nathan – "

"No," Nathan interrupted.

Josiah's soothing wasn't going to help. Nathan had worked himself into a real lather. He shook his head and slapped his hand down on the table. An empty shot glass jumped and fell onto its side. It rolled toward the edge until JD caught it.

"No, I don't like it, I don't want nothing to do with it or them," Nathan insisted. "I don't know why we're here, helping Ezra make a fortune off another man's bad luck." He snorted. "Luck! More likely, Ezra cheated that Harrison man. That's why he had to hightail it out of Virginia City before, same as Fort Laramie and everywhere else he's passed through."

"Shut up, Nathan," JD snapped.

"You telling me to shut up, boy!?" Nathan demanded.

Buck clamped his hand down on Nathan's shoulder. Nathan was at least a head taller than JD, heavier, and mean in a close fight. Buck wasn't about to let him take his anger out on JD.

"Yeah, Nathan, I am," JD replied in a hard tone. He set the shot glass back on its base, paused, and finally looked up. "What's wrong with you? Even if you don't like Ezra's cousin, you can't be happy he found out he's got family alive he thought was dead? Why do you always have to lay into Ezra, anyway?"

Nathan exhaled hard through his nose. He opened his mouth and closed it. Buck gave his shoulder a hard squeeze. He shook his head. Nathan reached for the Scotch bottle.

Chris pulled it away. "I think you've had enough, Nate."

Nathan snatched at the bottle again.

"Enough," Chris stated.

"That's rich, coming from you," Nathan said. His eyes widened as he realized what he'd let slip out.

Chris narrowed his eyes. "I should know then," he replied.

Vin finished his beer.

Wordless, he left the table and headed for the door. Whether he wanted to check on Ezra, just get out of the building, or away from Nathan couldn't be discerned. Vin could be just as much a mystery as Ezra.

"It's time we all quit and headed back to the hotel and our beds," Josiah said. "'Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.'"

"I ain't drunk," Nathan insisted.

"Just makes it worse, pard," Buck told him.

He caught Chris's eyes. A nod confirmed that Chris would help him drag Nathan out if necessary. The man was going to make a fool of himself otherwise.

"Come on, Nate."

"Don't you see, those two are just the same?" Nathan appealed to them. He stabbed a finger toward the doors. "No good. Rebs. Think they're better than a black man, treating me just the same as a slave."

"Damn, Nate, how many Southerners'd share a bottle of Scotch with a slave?" Buck exclaimed.

"I ain't surprised you don't care," Nathan said scornfully. "I just thought Chris knew better. He's the one that's always kept Ezra in line." He raised his chin. "Now you're acting like Ezra's your friend just like Vin."

Chris stared at Nathan. "Ezra is my friend."

Nathan shook his head again. "You all are going to be sorry, that's all I can say," he mumbled.

Josiah got up and laid an arm over Nathan's shoulders. "You have to let it go, Brother," he advised. "Let go of your anger or it'll poison you and everything you do. Ezra's just a man. So is his cousin. They aren't to blame for where they grew up."

Buck nodded his agreement, burying the pain of Nathan's scornful accusation. He'd thought Nathan knew him better than that.

Josiah began guiding Nathan away from the table.

"Nathan's just drunk, right, Buck?" JD asked.

"Sure hope so," Buck told him.

Chris just shrugged, but Buck knew his old friend didn't think so. Chris knew drunk and he knew Nathan hadn't had enough to excuse the things he seemed to think. Even if he was drunk ... there was that saying Josiah sometimes spouted.

In vino veritas.

That was the one.

Buck sighed. He felt every year, every ache and pain, of his rough and tumble life. He hated ugly and Nathan was getting uglier with every day. He was damned glad Ezra had been out of earshot when Nathan started in this time. It would have been one less reason for Ezra to come home with them after he sold the deed.

He scrubbed at his face, whiskers rasping, then smoothed his mustache. Maybe Josiah had the right idea. They'd all turn in, catch some shut-eye, and things would look better in the morning.

"Come on, kid," he told JD. "It's past your bedtime."

JD rolled his eyes. "God, Buck, that's getting old."

"Ezra," Saville said when they were alone. "You have to be careful."

Ezra nodded. He was tired. Seeing Saville and Polly again had been a surprise. He'd spent most of his meeting with Corcoran distracted. He'd only half listened to Corcoran's bragging. What did he care if the man knew the Governor of Texas?

Now, he wished Saville would get to the point.

"Damn it, Ezra!" Saville exclaimed.

He grabbed Ezra's arm and leaned close.

"I know what Magnusson will do, don't you understand? I'm the one that does it for him. I'm the one who hired the men to kill Ezra Standish."

Ezra stared at his cousin. He didn't jerk away, didn't step back, he just searched Saville's face for the truth. He imagined if Saville did mean to kill him, there wouldn't be time to do more than curse. From a saloon down the street, the tinkling notes of a piano competed with too many voices, occasionally drowned out completely by a shout of laughter.

"You didn't know it was me."

"No, I didn't," Saville confirmed. He let go and paced to the edge of the sidewalk. He stopped with his back to Ezra, shoulders stiff. "I spent the afternoon sending out telegrams, stopping the contract, but I can't be sure everyone has heard. You're still in danger."

Saville half-turned. The light from the saloon door fell across his jacket, a swathe of green color along one arm, while the rest of him remained in shadow.

The shot made Saville stagger. The bullet hit his chest. The second shot plowed into Saville's shoulder and the third snapped his head back before he fell. Blood spattered against Ezra's cheek.

Saville's hat came off as he fell and the light touched his pale hair.

The man who had shot him gasped and cursed.

Ezra spun on his heel, searching for the assassin. He found him in the shadows down the sidewalk. The man was staring at Saville's body. His pistol had lowered.

"Damn it." He looked up at Ezra, seemed to recognize him, and started to lift his pistol.

Ezra drew his Remington and shot him.

Behind him, the saloon doors crashed open.

Ezra turned his gun toward the potential threat, but found himself facing Vin. His nerves were strung so tight his finger started to close on the trigger anyway. Vin pushed the Remington's muzzle aside with one hand.

"Easy, Ez," he said quietly. His mare's leg was unholstered and held at ready. His gaze found Saville's body and the other man where he'd fallen. "You got him."

The others crowded out behind Vin.

Chris gave a keen look to the fallen assassin. JD tumbled out onto the street, looking around for anyone else. Nathan pushed past them and crouched beside Saville. Josiah walked down the sidewalk and checked the other body.

Ezra stared blindly at the green of Saville's coat, almost the same shade as his own, and the blonde hair that was so different. Saville's black riverboat hat lay in the street. A shudder ran through him.

"He shot the wrong man," Ezra murmured.

Josiah knelt beside the body, crossed himself, and began to pray.

Ezra wouldn't look at Nathan. He looked past him, focusing on the forlorn hat. He still saw Nathan shake his head. He stiffened. Vin crowded closer to him and Buck was on his other side suddenly, wrapping a comforting arm around Ezra's shoulders.

He couldn't endure comfort yet, though.

Ezra shook off Buck's arm and reholstered his Remington after replacing the bullet he'd fired.

"I have to go tell Polly," he said.

He didn't know what was in his voice, it sounded normal to him, but JD flinched visibly. He tried to summon a reassuring smile and knew he failed.

"All right, pard, we're just going to come with you," Buck said quietly.

Chris laid his hand on Ezra's arm briefly. "Go on. Josiah and I will take care of things here."

Ezra hesitated.

"Thank you."

He wanted to drop down to his knees and pick up Saville's body. He wanted to deny it so badly. His cousin couldn't be dead. The cloying smell of blood reminded him it was true. If he touched Saville's hand, so much like his own, it would already be cooling. If he stopped, if he let himself feel it, he would never be able to move again.

Saville was dead because of him and that damned, cursed deed. Everything good that came of it seemed poisoned by what it cost. He could finally have the fortune he'd schemed to have, but Maude would betray him again. He could find Saville and Polly, only to see one cousin dead in his place and have to tell the other why.

He ignored the crowd of curious saloon patrons pressing out onto the sidewalk.

Vin snarled something under his breath in Comanche, forcing some of the gawking on-lookers back.

"JD, " Chris called softly. "Stay here with us. Nathan – "

Nathan got to his feet. "I'll go with them."

"Ezra, we'll get him to a good undertaker and let you know," Chris assured him.

He managed to nod.

Ezra ignored everyone else and started for the International. Buck and Vin walked beside him. The echo of his boots told him that Nathan followed.

Somewhere a piano was still playing.

Knocking on the door of Magnusson's suite, Ezra suddenly felt grateful for Buck and Vin's company, even for Nathan's dark, looming presence. His cheek itched. He touched it. Saville's blood, dried on his skin, flaked onto his fingertips.
He stared at the dark flakes on his otherwise clean hands.

Buck hammered the door with his fist again.

A thump and a vitriolic curse sounded on the other side of the door. It opened abruptly, revealing Magnusson, his white hair disarranged, wrapped in deep purple silk smoking jacket. Beneath it, his shirt was loose and unbuttons. The suspenders on his pinstriped trousers hung loose over his hips.

He glared at the four of them while belting the smoking jacket closed.

"This damn hotel better be on fire or I'll have your damn heads for disturbing me," Magnusson snarled.

"The hotel's not on fire," Ezra said flatly.

Magnusson started to slam the door in his face. Buck reached past his shoulder and held it open effortlessly. "Hold on, hoss."

"What the hell do you want?" Magnusson demanded. His eyes narrowed. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"

"Ezra Peyton," Ezra said. He pushed past Magnusson into the suite and started for the door into the bedroom. "Polly Merriwether's cousin, sir," he added over his shoulder.

"So you just bull your way into my rooms? The woman's grown, she's here of her own choice!" Magnusson shouted. "I already employ one of her 'cousins'."

He grabbed Ezra's shoulder.

Ezra's temper snapped. He let Magnusson pull him around, popped his derringer, and shoved it under the man's chin. Magnusson froze, feeling the muzzle dig into his double chin.

"Remove your hands from my person, sir," Ezra snarled.

"Stop that, Ezra!" Nathan yelled.

Ezra ignored him.

Buck pushed Nathan toward one of the settees. His voice was gentle, filled with understanding, as he walked over. Buck's face was always open, showing every feeling.

His sympathy and sorrow showed through now. Ezra saw that, but he wanted to ignore it. He wanted to be angry. It was so much better than the aching pain that filled him when he let himself think.

Buck said quietly, "Whoa, there, Ez."

"Shut up, Buck," Ezra replied, not taking his eyes away from Magnusson. "I should kill him just on principle."

"You don't want to do that."

"Oh, I want to," Ezra said. He pulled the derringer back. "But I won't unless he makes me."

Buck took hold of Magnusson's arm and dragged him away from Ezra. "You got any sense you ain't gonna push your luck with Ez tonight," he told Magnusson harshly. "He's gonna be as mean as hurtin' rattler." He guided him over to the settee and pushed him down next to Nathan.

Vin arranged himself against the closed door. He folded his arms and gave Ezra a nod. No one would be coming through the door until Ezra was done. Ezra felt a spurt of gratitude through the grief that filled him.

"Where's Polly?" he demanded. He inclined his head toward the door. "Is she in there?"

"Why?" Magnusson asked.

"I need to tell her something."

He walked over to the door, knocked and called, "Polly? Polly, it's Ezra."

The door opened and revealed Polly. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders, russet and red, dark as burgundy in the shadows, scarlet by candle flame. She wore a thin satin dressing gown the color of cream, pale as her skin. Her feet were bare.

She carried her head high.

"Ezra?" she asked softly. She looked from him to Magnusson, then to Buck, Nathan and Vin – men she didn't know. Her expression gave away no embarrassment, for all that they had to know what they had interrupted, what that made her. "Why are you here?"

Her expression softened as she really looked at him. She touched his cheek.

"Is that blood?"

His voice died in his throat, the words that would destroy her caught, strangling him. Ezra nodded.

Polly looked around again, this time seeing who wasn't there.


"Ezra?" Magnusson echoed suddenly. He started to his feet, but Buck shoved him back down. "You're Standish!"

Ezra pressed his eyes closed. He forced the words out, unable to look at her as he spoke.

"Saville's dead."

"What!?" Magnusson shouted.

"Sit the fuck down!" Buck growled.

Ezra opened his eyes and looked at Polly. Her eyes had dilated black. Her lips were parted. Her fair skin seemed suddenly gray. She swayed and he put out a hand to steady her, only to realize he still held his derringer.

"No," Polly whispered.

Ezra tossed the gun onto the nearest chair.


Polly's voice had risen. She shook her head.

"No, no, he's not."

Ezra reached for her and she took a step back.

"He's not, he's not!"

"He was shot down in the street," Ezra gritted out. His own grief was swamped by anger. He pointed at Magnusson. "Shot by a man hired to kill me so your patron could buy that damned deed from my mother."

Polly covered her mouth with both hands, still shaking her head. "You're wrong. It's not true," she cried. "Saville! Saville!"

"He's dead, Polly," Ezra stated flatly. "I was there."

"Nonononononnono!" Polly's denial rose into a shriek. Tears flooded from her eyes. She clawed at her face, prompting Ezra to move finally. He clasped her wrists, trying to stop her, and she began screaming.

She fought like a wildcat, scratching and kicking, writhing against Ezra and then Buck as the big man joined them. Buck took hold of her with a gentle firmness, murmuring nonsense in her ear, while Ezra stumbled back. Fresh blood ran from his lip where one of her wild blows had caught him.

The keening rose and rose, setting the hair on the back of his neck on end. She finally stopped fighting Buck and stood trembling, harsh sobs jerking her body against him. A lock of her hair was caught in Buck's mustache. He leaned his face against her head, still whispering comfort that she didn't hear.

Polly stared at Ezra. She didn't see him. Her eyes were blind. They were both caught, unable to move or think beyond the pain.

"Saville," she whimpered. "Saville."

Nathan brushed past Ezra.

"Buck, help me get her sitting down," Nathan directed. He looked around and spotted the sideboard with the liquor. "She's going into shock."

Buck carried Polly to the nearest chair, the same red-upholstered one Ezra had tossed the derringer into, and sat her down. Polly wept, oblivious.

Nathan poured a generous portion of Scotch into a glass and brought it back over. "Here, let's get this in her," he said.

Forgotten briefly, Magnusson spoke.

"Standish. I'll pay you good money for that deed. We can still do business."

Nathan knelt in front of Polly and held the glass of liquor to her lips.

Ezra shuddered. He turned and stared at Magnusson. His fingers curled convulsively.

"What?" he croaked.

Vin came across the room fast, catching Ezra's hand before he drew the same gun he'd used to kill Saville's assassin.

"Just forget this mess," Magnusson insisted.

"Forget it."

Magnusson smiled, thinking he'd persuaded Ezra.

"Forget it," Ezra repeated.

"We'll work out a price. I can be damned generous. If you're half as clever as your mother," Magnusson went on, "I know we can do business. I'll need someone to take Saville's place." His pale eyes sharpened. "You're obviously sharper than he was – "

"Ez, don't," Vin warned.

His hand tightened on Ezra's wrist, holding his arm down. Ezra jerked his arm, muscles bunching and straining.

"Let go," Ezra hissed.

" – I can use a man like you."

Polly grabbed the glass away from Nathan and threw it at the wall. It hit with a loud thud, leaving a dent and a dark stain against the silk paper.

"Get away from me," she said distinctly. Her soft Southern voice was hoarse, a razored rasp from the screams that had cut at her throat with the pain she felt. She glared venomously at Nathan. "Don't touch me. Don't you touch me."

Nathan drew back with an angry grimace. "Fine," he snapped. "You get you a white doctor to take care of your pretty self. If you can find one that'll treat a whore."

Buck came around the chair with a roar. He slammed his fist into Nathan's jaw before Nathan could bring up his hands. As Nathan staggered back, Buck wrapped a big hand around the front of Nathan's shirt and drew him up close.

"You never, ever talk to a woman like that in front of me again," Buck shouted furiously. He shook Nathan hard.

Ezra shook, torn between killing Magnusson and ripping Nathan apart for what he'd just said. Only Vin's hand held him in place. Or maybe it was holding him together. He thought he might shatter in another moment.

Magnusson had the gall to laugh. "You're an opinionated, boy, for a darkie," he exclaimed.

Buck glared at Nathan and slowly let go of his shirt.

"Buck, I didn't mean – "

"Leave it alone, Jackson," Buck interrupted. He stalked away, his whole carriage stiff with anger.

Nathan shook his head. He glanced around, looked at Polly and Ezra, then Magnusson. Vin's whole attention was bent on Ezra, who stared back at Nathan with absolute loathing. Polly curled deeper into the chair. Her hands were clenched, pushing into the cushion under her.

"If you ever speak of my cousin in such a fashion again, Mr. Jackson, I will not call you out," Ezra bit out. "I'll shoot you like a dog."

"Damned right," Buck muttered.

Nathan sneered at Ezra. "I got a right to say what I think. Don't matter how you dress it up, you know she ain't no better than that," he declared self-righteously. "Don't think I'm going to call her no lady, which she ain't, any more than you're any gentleman, Ezra."

Ezra jolted at Nathan's words.

"Get out, Nathan," Vin whispered. He'd clamped one hand on Ezra's shoulder and kept the other firmly on his wrist.

Nathan headed for the door.

"I ain't staying where I ain't wanted anyhow," Nathan muttered as he went. "You all deserve whatever you get. Wish Maude had given you all of that brew I told her about. Least then you wouldn't be striking a deal with this fellow over your cousin's dead body."

Magnusson began laughing.

"Did she fuck you too, Standish, back on the old plantation?" Magnusson asked with a sick sort of good humor. The scene seemed to be entertaining him now. "It's Standish, isn't it, not Peyton. Maybe my little dove has a taste for bastards. I know she was sleeping with Howard. Or was it any cousin? Did she give you aid and comfort – "

Polly rose out of her chair and took two long steps toward Magnusson, clutching something in her hands.

Ezra tore his arm away from Vin. "You sick sonova – "

Sharp knocking from the hall snapped everyone's attention to the door.

In the half second between the fist hitting the door again and a yell of, "Open up!" Polly brought her arms up, revealing Ezra's derringer in her hands.

"No, darlin', don't – !" Buck shouted, seeing the small gun in her hand.

"It's all his fault," Polly said calmly.

Magnusson's mouth had half fallen open.

Vin wrapped his arms around Ezra from behind, pinning him in place to keep him from throwing himself between Polly and Magnusson.

"He deserves to die."

"Polly – " Ezra whispered in despair.

"You don't know how much I hate him, Ezra," she said with an eerie calm. "I have to do this."

The hammering on the door went on.

"Open up in there! Open up! Mr. Magnusson! Open up!"

Nathan pulled the door open. Chris and JD and a uniformed police officer forced their way inside then froze.

"Arrest her!" Magnusson shouted. "She means to kill me!"

"Miss – "

Polly smiled like a death's-head.

She pulled the trigger.

The sharp, small report of the .22 echoed through the room. Red bloomed from the wound on Magnusson's chest, blood staining his smoking jacket darker. He dropped to his knees. Blood frothed from his mouth with an ugly wheeze, then he folded into an awkward sprawl on the Turkey carpet. His pale blue eyes glared unseeing at Polly, who stood stock-still.

She still held the derringer in her hands. One shot remained in it. A small wisp of smoke curled from one of its twin barrels.

"Damn," Buck grunted, looking at the body.

Ezra hung his head.

21. Virginia City, 1877

And if I told you that I loved you
You'd maybe think there's something wrong
I'm not a man of too many faces
The mask I wear is one

Shape of My Heart, Sting

Vin kept his hand on Ezra's shoulder, but released his arm. He could feel the muscles under his palm drawn taut with the frightful effort it took for Ezra to remain in control. Little shudders, invisible to the eye, were running through him.

"Christ All Mighty," the police officer exclaimed. He was hefty fellow, brown of hair and eye, average height, heavy-boned but not hard. He had on his uniform, but the sleeves were rolled up and his collar was unbuttoned. A pillow crease still indented his unshaven cheek. JD had probably found him napping at the police station.

Vin caught Chris' eye and tried to convey that he should keep the policeman from making things worse.

"Ma'am, you better hand me that little gun."

JD gaped at the body and Polly from behind Chris' shoulder. "Damn, he's really – "

Chris held up a hand, halting JD's words.

Polly shook her head and took a step back. "No."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I just saw you shoot a man, an unarmed man," the officer said. "I have to arrest you."

"Just give up the gun," Chris growled. "We'll go down to the police station and work this out."

Red-eyed but tearless, Polly stared at Chris.

"I don't know you."

"He's a friend of mine, Polly," Ezra said. His normally smooth voice rasped and caught. Vin tightened his hand, not to hold him in place, but to remind Ezra that he was there. He wasn't alone.

Polly looked at Chris again. "Mr. Larabee?"

Ezra offered a tiny smile.

"He is, just as I described him."

"Sir, if you please let me do my job – "

Ezra shook his head. "Please," he said, "just let me talk to her. She's my cousin."

"Penhall," Chris murmured, "give him a minute. She's not going anywhere."

"Polly, dear," Ezra soothed, stepping toward her and holding out his hand. "Kindly return my derringer. We have to make arrangements for Saville ... You'll get bail. I won't abandon you."

Vin heard the sincerity in Ezra's voice. It wasn't an act. Ezra would ride through the fires of hell for his cousin, driven by the guilt he still felt over what had happened during the war.

"You ain't alone," he added matter-of-factly to Ezra's declaration.

Vin let his eyes drift to Magnusson's body sprawled on the floor. The purple smoking jacket had fallen open, revealing his shirt and the bullet hole. It looked disconcertingly small, just a singed at the edge black mark no bigger than the tip of his finger. But Magnusson's barrel chest was still. The man had just kept pushing. To Vin's way of thinking, he had asked for it – that was why he'd been holding onto Ezra. He hadn't considered that Polly might act; he should have, Saville was her blood too, and close, he knew that from what Ezra had told him.

Too late to worry about what ifs now.

"Please, Polly."

Polly stood like a soldier, straight and head high. Her beautiful green eyes were focused on Ezra and Ezra alone. She didn't see Vin right beside him. There might have been no one else in the room.

"No, Ezra," she replied.

"Polly," he said sadly. "We can get though this – "

Buck crept closer behind Polly, ready to grab the derringer away from her in another moment.

Vin grimaced. That little peashooter of Ezra's didn't make much of a hole, but up close it worked just fine. It had killed Magnusson. He'd seen Ezra use it before and figured they wouldn't find much mess under the body either. Little bullet like that just sort bounced around inside a man, tearing up his innards worse than a through and through wound. He sure hoped she didn't use the other bullet on one of them.

Hell, it was selfish, but he was damned glad that police officer had been there to see it was Polly that pulled the trigger, considering that she'd used Ezra's derringer.

His temper was slowly burning too. Nathan had flat out said it. He'd helped Maude poison Ezra. No matter how many times Vin had contemplated the possibility, the revelation – made in unthinking bitterness – was a betrayal of more than just Ezra. Nathan had betrayed who they all were, not to mention his own calling as a healer.

Maybe Ezra had always sensed the possibility in Nathan and tried to steer clear of his ministrations because that. Vin knew he could never look at Nathan the same way.

"I can't, Ezra," Polly said softly. "I'm sorry, I can't."

She lifted the derringer and put the muzzle against her temple.


She pulled the trigger.

Her head snapped away from the impact. Her body jerked once then crumpled. The derringer hit the carpet with a small thud in the echoing room.

Ezra jolted back a step, like he'd been hit. Vin braced him, breathless with shock himself.

"Dear God," Chris murmured softly.

"Hell's Bells," Penhall added, shaking his head.

The room stank, close with the reek of burnt gunpowder, lamp oil, blood, bowels, sweat and the mixed stench of fear, pain, and grief that came off the men still standing. Vin couldn't stand it.

"JD, open a window."

JD skirted around the bodies. He pushed aside the heavy, velvet drapes and levered up a window. The night air that swept in was a sharp relief.

"Somebody tell me what the hell is going on here?" Penhall demanded suddenly.

Buck stared down at Polly's body.

Her hair fanned across the carpet in bloody tangles. One arm stretched out, bare where the sleeve of her dressing gown rode up, pale fingers half curled on emptiness. Slowly thickening blood drooled from her nose and mouth. A trickle ran from her ear.

He saw Buck shake his head. "Damn. Damn it. What god damn waste."

Vin agreed.

"This is the fourth dead body tonight," Penhall pointed out. "Someone has to have an explanation." He was retreating from his shock and horror into officiousness.

Vin didn't blame the man for that. It was a horrible scene.

One Ezra didn't need to be staring at any longer.

"Don't look no more, Ez." Vin pulled him around. Ezra moved obediently. He studied Ezra's face.

Those fine features were as smooth and blank as Vin had ever seen. He didn't look like a man who had ever smiled or ever would again. Everything had been wiped away, hidden and locked up inside the man. Even the tremors were gone, as ruthlessly suppressed as anything Vin had ever seen. He blinked slowly, lashes rising to show dilated eyes. That and the pallor the warm lamplight almost hid were all that betrayed Ezra felt anything at all.

He'd shut down.

Vin wanted to pull him close, give him the comfort of a human touch. He would have for Buck or JD, even Josiah. But not Ezra; Ezra wouldn't welcome it. Ezra would handle his grief alone, the way Chris did, and never mind it would be easier to share it: he didn't know how.

"We can tell you part of it," Chris told Penhall. His eyes were on Vin and Ezra. The line between his brows deepened at what he saw. Chris worried anyway, but Vin thought it was with good reason this time.

Chris didn't know the half of it; he hadn't heard Nathan.

Vin was afraid Ezra had. Ezra was too sharp not to understand exactly what Nathan's words meant. He wouldn't be thinking on it now, but later that clever mind would remember – if he'd heard. Vin hoped he hadn't. You didn't – couldn't – live and work beside a man who had done that even once.

Vin wasn't about to.

"Then, for Christ's sake, tell me," Penhall said. That might have set Chris off, if the man hadn't looked and sounded so tired.

Instead, Chris scrubbed at his face and began wearily, "The two outside the saloon were Saville Howard and a contract killer. The killer was trying to shoot Ezra here. Saville is – was his cousin. They looked enough alike in the dark, the killer shot Saville by mistake. Ezra shot him in self-defense."

"Is that what happened?" Penhall asked Ezra.

"Saville had his hat on." He spoke flatly, like he was reading from a newspaper report of something that happened an ocean away. "When it came off, the killer realized he'd made a mistake. I shot him when he started to raise his gun again."

Penhall nodded, accepting that. "What about here?"

Ezra closed his eyes.

"None of us thought this'd happen," Buck said, taking over. "Miss Polly, she and Saville, come here with him." Buck's lip curled as he indicated Magnusson's sprawled body. "She didn't have no other family but Ezra and his cousin, the rest of 'em died in the war. We were here to tell her 'bout their cousin and come to find out, this here Magnusson they worked for, he was behind trying to kill Ez. Instead, Saville got shot. She just went off her head, got hold of Ez' derringer and shot him." He ran a big hand through his hair, ending up massaging the back of his neck. "You saw what she did after."

"Temporarily unbalanced by grief," Penhall agreed quietly. "But why did someone want you dead, Mister?"

Ezra replied tiredly, "I am in possession of a deed to a parcel of land coveted by Mr. Magnusson, among others. My intention is to sell it to Mr. Asa Corcoran. I can only assume Mr. Magnusson sought to stop that transaction in the hope that my heirs would be more wont to do business with him instead."

"Mr. Corcoran, hunh? Will he back you up on this?"

"If he wants Stairstep Canyon, he will." Ezra's words carried an edge of cynicism that had been absent recently.

Vin watched him walk into the bedroom and return with a sheet from the bed, which he carefully placed over Polly. He knelt, one knee on the carpet, for a long moment, his hand hovering over her hair. When he finally stroked the red hair away from her face, the powder blackened hole in her temple became apparent. Then he pulled his hand away and let the makeshift shroud drop over her face.

There was a terrible finality to the way Ezra rose and walked away. He stopped in front of Penhall. "Do you have any more questions, sir?"

The policeman flinched before that relentless, hollow courtesy and step aside. "No, sir."

"Good." Ezra nodded. "Any of these gentlemen can direct you to my present lodgings."

He glanced over at JD, who managed to look devastated over a woman he'd only glimpsed and never met, who looked like Ezra must feel inside. Maybe that was why Ezra's eyes softened. JD's sincerity touched them all; he still felt, still believed in the things the rest of them were too jaded to admit even to themselves that they still cared about. It wasn't that JD hadn't seen enough of life to know how ugly it got either, Vin knew. Three years could have rubbed the shine off most anyone.

JD had held onto his goodness.

"Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked softly.

"Yeah, Ezra?"

"Did you find a proper undertaker for my cousin?"

JD shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded jerkily. "Beasley's. We woke 'em up and had Saville's body taken there. Looked like they did folks up real fine. There were some pictures in the office ... Josiah's there, with – uhm, with the body."

"Thank you," Ezra said gently. "Perhaps you would accompany me there? I should see to the arrangements for Saville." He swallowed. "For Polly too. I want them buried beside each other."

"Sure, Ezra," JD replied.

Buck gave him a little push and he started over toward Ezra.

"I'll show you where the place is."

Nathan leaned against the wall by the door, mouth pinched, arms crossed over his chest. He'd been silent since the last gunshot.

Ezra straightened the front of his dark green coat. He ran a finger along the chain of his pocket watch so that it hung just right. Vin could tell he wasn't even thinking about what he was doing.

"Thank you, John Daniel."

He brushed his hand over his coat sleeve and froze.

Vin winced.

Ezra's pale hand remained on his arm, feeling the empty derringer rig strapped to his arm under the fabric.

Ezra looked up. "Officer Penhall?"


Ezra finished tugging his shirt cuffs straight. His chin came up.

"The derringer in question is mine. If you do not require it as evidence, I would appreciate its return."

Penhall glanced at the little Remington two-shot lying on the carpet next to the edge of the sheet over Polly. The barrel gleamed silver.

Buck gawped at Ezra. "You want that damned thing back?"

"It's a tool, Mr. Wilmington. There's no fault in it, only the use it was put to. I've grown used to it and don't wish to replace it with another," Ezra answered.

Nathan opened his mouth. Vin stared fiercely at him, prepared to physically silence him. Nathan's eyes caught his and he settled back against the wall. Vin nodded. Good. Nathan needed to hold his tongue and stay away from Ezra. Vin and he were going to have words and soon.

"It won't remind you – " Buck stopped. He made a gesture that included everything, the room, the night, the dead.

"I fear I'll need no reminders of this night."

Ezra nodded to them all and opened the door. A crowd, including Benford and one of the desk clerks, had gathered in the corridor. Ezra gave them a hard look until they gave way.

"Mr. Dunne, if you would?"

"Coming, Ezra," JD blurted. He hurried out after Ezra.

Ezra paused in the doorway. "Gentlemen ... "

"Go on, Ezra," Chris said. "One of us will stay here until the undertaker arrives."

Ezra bowed his head. "Thank you."

After they'd gone, Buck looked across the room and asked Chris, "You figure he's going to be okay?"

Chris raised an eyebrow. "Would you be?"

Buck sighed. "Guess not."

"Yeah," Chris agreed wearily. "Vin?"

Vin switched his gaze from Nathan to Chris.


Chris frowned at him, his eyes flickering toward Nathan. Vin shook his head. Later.

Penhall ducked his head out the door and drew Benford inside. He consulted with the hotel manager, then let the man bustle out. His attention switched back to the four men in room.

"I'd appreciate getting your names and your stories," he said.

Vin narrowed his eyes at Nathan. "Go ahead, Nate, why don't you go ahead have your say. You got a right," he sneered. He wanted to hear what Nathan said. He wanted to make sure Nathan didn't twist things around.

Wasn't that a hell of a thing, he thought to himself. Ezra was the gambler, the con artist. Nathan was the upright, moral do-gooder. But here he was, worrying that Nathan would lie. If he did, Vin wasn't going to let him get away with it. Buck would back him. Buck had seen and heard everything and Buck wasn't too happy with Nathan, either.

22. Virginia City, 1877 

Those who speak know nothing
And find out to their cost
Like those who curse their luck in too many places
And those who fear are lost

Shape of My Heart, Sting

Penhall and the undertaker didn't finish until past sun-up. They ended up at the nearest police station, wearily telling the story over and over again, while he laboriously wrote it down. Dawn faded the lamps, the gray light outside slowly revealing the street. Virginia City didn't get as quiet and still as Four Corners at night, but the bustle picked up at sunrise. Wagons rolled by outside, glimpsed through a barred window, stove fires were stirred, voices echoed and a mule brayed in protest to the snap of bullwhip.

Penhall handed each of them a paper and told them to read it.

Vin took his over to the window. Someone had made curtains for the jail, plain gingham, with tiny, perfect stitches along the hem. He brushed them back to let in the light on his paper and studied the words carefully. He wasn't putting his name on anything without knowing it said what he'd said.

Buck glanced at his and signed it with a flourish. He sat down in a straight chair by the wall, leaned his head back and began snoring.

Penhall poured coffee and sipped it while he waited for them. Dark whiskers covered his jaw, neck, and cheeks. Cup in hand, he walked over to the door and propped it open.

Vin finished reading. Chris was signing his statement at the desk. He joined him and took the pen, dipping it into the inkwell and tracing his name onto the paper with a spurt of pleasure that hadn't faded since he'd learned to do it. No more X. No more asking anyone to read something for him.

Nathan signed his paper last.

Penhall nodded as they left. "There's a restaurant down the street, Goody's Kitchen, if any of you're hungry. They open early for the miners."

Chris touched his hat brim. "Thanks." He kicked Buck's boot. "Come on, Buck."

Buck woke with a snort, almost falling out of the chair, and stumbled after Chris. Nathan followed. Vin gave Penhall a nod and trailed them out.

Even the fresher air outside didn't improve Vin's mood. It had been a bad night. Worse for Ezra, of course. Normally, he loved the earliest hours. This morning he ached with exhaustion. His eyes burned, his arms and legs felt leaden, and a sour taste crept up his throat from his stomach.

Buck was trying to convince Chris to stop in the restaurant for a breakfast.

Vin stared at Nathan's back.

Chris threw up his hands. "Fine, damn it, shovel some chow into the endless pit you call a stomach!"

"Aw, Chris, come on."

They stopped in front of the restaurant. The smells from inside made Vin's stomach lurch unpleasantly. Grease and eggs and pork.

"Vin?" Buck asked.

He expected Vin to join him. Normally, Vin would have, but he didn't want to eat until he'd settled matters with Nathan.

Hell, he didn't want to sit down and eat with the man right now.

"Think me and Nathan'll go on back to the hotel," he said. He looked at Nathan hard. "We got something to talk about."

Nathan started to protest. "I – "

"We're going to talk, Nathan," Vin growled, temper slipping past his own mask of control. "Today. Now. You want to eat, you eat later."

Chris raised an eyebrow but didn't interfere. Buck was ignoring Nathan, had been since Nathan called Polly Merriwether a whore. That had struck Buck on the raw.

He gave Nathan a none too gentle push between the shoulder blades, down the sidewalk in the direction of their hotel. Nathan stumbled and looked put out.

Vin settled his hat deeper on his head, brushed the brim in a salute to Buck and Chris and moved after Nathan, a grim expression on his face. 


Vin pushed Nathan into the room ahead of him.

"What the hell're you doing?" Nathan shouted. He backed away a couple of a steps at Vin's expression.

One bootheel rucked up the braided rug by the bed. The curtains were wide open. A shaft of sunlight gleamed off the brass bedstead and warmed the leather of the saddlebags hung over the foot. It wasn't the luxurious International Hotel, but Vin liked Nathan's simple room a hell of a lot more.

Vin glared at him. "Ya were in it with Maude, weren't ya?"

"I – what? No. What do you – you got no right to be accusing me of poisoning Ezra!" Nathan protested, his voice rising.

"Ya goin' to lie now too?"

"You gone plumb crazy, Vin!"

Vin kicked the door shut behind him with a bang. He stalked forward. "Naw, I just wish I was," he snarled. "I ain't wrong, though."

Nathan glared back, straightening to this full height, trying to loom over Vin the way he did Ezra. Vin wasn't impressed or intimidated. Come to think of it, Ezra never was either.

"I saw ya with Maude, ya see. I found that bottle – one of your nasty little bottles. I gotta figure ya either gave it to her or told her where to get it."

Nathan's eyes flashed around the room. His breath came in heaves. He said nothing.

Vin stalked around him.

"Makes me sick, thinkin' on it," he went on.

"Ya got no proof," Nathan blurted.

"Got all the proof I need outta your own mouth." Vin paused. "Ya remember what ya said."

Nathan pressed his lips together.

"Don't matter. I do. Ya said: 'Wish Maude had given you all of that brew I told her about.'"

"So what?"

Vin stared at him, anger dissolving into contempt.

He said carefully, "Ezra almost died anyway. If Maude'd given him more, he would've. He went through hell. What the damn kind of 'friend' does that to a man behind his back? Why didn't ya just stick one of your knives in him instead?"

Nathan took off his coat and laid it over the foot the bed. He fingered a button, frowning. "I wasn't trying to kill him," he said softly.

"Maude wasn't tryin' to kill him," Vin contradicted. "I wanta hear why. Don't like her, but I can almost understand her thinkin'. But not you – damn, Nathan, what were ya thinkin'?"

Nathan's head came up. "Was thinking it weren't right for him to make a fortune off that deed. Here his Ma is, trying to do for him, give him that saloon back, and him saying no. She told me she needed that deed."

"She couldn't tell Ezra that, ask him for his help 'stead of tryin' to trick and fool 'im?" Vin asked in wonderment.

"That's jist their way," Nathan protested.

"I don't believe ya."

"What do you mean?" Nathan looked nervous.

"Ya ain't sayin' somethin'." Vin cocked his head, thinking about it. He nodded to himself. "Wasn't enough to just take somethin' away from Ezra, help her hurt him. What'd Maude offer ya, Nathan? What'd ya get?"

"Didn't get nothin'," Nathan grumbled.

"Ain't that too damn bad," Vin said. "What did ya think ya was goin' to get?"

"Fine!" Nathan shouted, throwing up his hands. "She promised me some of the money when she sold it. She didn't get it, so I didn't get nothin'!" He turned away from Vin. "Was goin' to use it to fix up my clinic, maybe even move it to a better place. Ya'll are always complaining 'bout them stairs ... She said there might even be enough for me to find a school that'd teach me, learn real doctoring."

Vin couldn't believe Nathan hadn't seen through Maude. She would've disappeared with the deed and never given him a cent. What did Nathan think he was going to do? He couldn't complain to the law, couldn't turn to the rest of the Seven after betraying one of them. Damned if greed and bitterness didn't blind even the best men. Maude had taken advantage, but the fault had been there in Nathan all along.

There was more to it. Nathan could have given Maude something that would have just put Ezra to sleep and let her search his room. He'd deliberately chosen something that wouldn't just incapacitate the Southerner, but punish him. He'd compounded the wrong by not owning up to it afterward.

Even now, Vin couldn't see any regret in Nathan. He wasn't sorry for what he'd done. Somehow, for Nathan, since he'd done it to Ezra, it wasn't wrong.

Vin shook his head.

Nathan gave him a defiant look.

"Ya really think that justifies what ya done?" Vin asked, as disgusted as he'd ever been.

"It don't matter," Nathan insisted. He paced over to the window that faced down onto the main street. "He's still going to make a mint off that deed. He never done a lick of work to deserve that."

"He never done nothin' to ya to deserve bein' poisoned!"

Nathan's big hands curled into fists.

Vin pushed his thumbs under his gun belt. He looked at Nathan Jackson with eyes gone pale and ice-cold; the same look he gave an opponent in a gunfight. "Ya know," he said, in a quiet, almost careless tone, "I don't regret helpin' keep ya from hangin'." He paused and waited until Nathan's dark eyes met his own. "Didn't know ya then. But I sure wouldn' do it t'day."

Nathan flinched. Before he could open his mouth and say anything else, Vin gave a sharp nod and walked out of the hotel room. He let the door slam behind him and headed for the restaurant. He figured Buck would be plowing through a plate of steak and eggs, swilling down coffee to compensate for the sleep they'd all lost. He hoped Ezra was sleeping and figured JD or Josiah would be with him if he wasn't. He needed to talk to Chris and Buck before he faced any of the others. Needed their advice on whether to say anything to Ezra and the rest. He needed a goddamned drink too, to get the dirty taste of betrayal out of his mouth.


JD bit his lip, blinking hard. He snuck a look at Ezra. Ezra was still sitting where he'd been when Nathan and Vin burst into the room next door. His legs were stretched out straight, one booted foot hooked over the other at the ankle. One elbow was braced against the small table between the window and the bed. JD sat on the foot of the bed, elbows on his knees.
Ezra's hand hung over the chair's arm, dangling his silver hip flask. He'd stripped off his wool coat and the arm-garters that held his sleeves up earlier, along with the derringer rig. The clever, spring-loaded contraption had been tossed onto the bed with the garters in an uncharacteristic display of carelessness. The green coat lay on the floor.

He lifted the flask to his lips in a slow, deliberate movement. JD watched, almost hypnotized, by the way the long, lace-edged cuffs of Ezra's boiled-white shirt drifted over his fingertips with the movement. Ezra closed his eyes as he took a swallow, seemingly to savor the whiskey. Ezra had pulled the curtains against the light, but his shirt still almost glowed in the dim confines of the hotel room.

The Southerner had the smoothest face JD had ever seen. No expression touched it. Not a hint of feeling was allowed to show. Not when Saville was gunned down, not when his cousin killed herself in front him – with his gun. Nothing. He'd smiled and joked when Maude had stolen his saloon and accepted the revelation that she'd poisoned him with apparent equanimity.

Now this.

JD felt so sick he thought he should be looking for the chamber pot.

The hotel walls were thin, board and plaster. Nathan's voice had carried clearly. Vin's words were harder to hear, but it didn't matter. They had heard enough.

He'd been sitting with Ezra in the near dark room, watching him sip his whiskey and stare at the mirror over the washstand and hoping the man would lie down and try to sleep. JD had stuck with him since they left Beasley's, awed by Ezra's calm. Ezra had arranged and paid for both Saville and Polly's burials, chosen the coffins, picked the verses he'd asked Josiah to read over the graves, and walked out the undertaker's office without flinching once. When they'd reached the hotel, he'd asked the desk clerk for some stationary and sent a note to Corcoran. Then they'd gone upstairs.

Josiah's age had been showing, as he smothered yawns and apologized before going to his room.

Ezra had waved him off and said nothing when JD followed him into his own room. They hadn't said anything, but JD thought Ezra must not have minded him being there or he'd have thrown him out.

JD's eyes had been half-closed when they'd heard the door to Nathan's room bang open.

"Ez," he said softly, trying to find some words – any words – that would undo what they'd just overheard. Something that would make what Nathan had done acceptable. Some way Ezra could forgive the man, because without that forgiveness, they were done for.

JD knew, if he thought about it, that the seven of them wouldn't stay on in Four Corners forever. Whenever he'd let himself think about it, he'd figured one of them would get unlucky in a gunfight someday.

He would rather be burying one of them than this.

Nothing was ever going to be the same.

"Ez," he tried again.

"Ez – ra, JD," the gambler corrected tiredly. "Two short syllables. Your own chosen appellation numbers the same." He essayed another sip of whiskey. "Surely you can remember that?" The emotions he wouldn't let show on his face leaked into his silky voice, threading bitterness through the molasses drawl.

JD swallowed. "Ezra. He – he didn't mean it the way, the way, you know, it sounded. Nathan ain't like – " He trailed off softly, unable to convince himself either. "He ain't like that."

Ezra tipped his head back. His eyes were still closed.

"Nescit vox missa reverti," [xiv] he murmured, almost to himself.


"It doesn't matter, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Jackson's actions are his choice to make, as are mine. Or yours."

"So why didn't you just say that?" JD was slightly annoyed.

Ezra's habit of muttering things in other languages made him feel stupid each time he asked for an explanation. Though, unless he was drunk, Ezra never acted as if anyone's gnorance mattered. He always explained, but JD had an idea that Ezra's explanations weren't word for word. The gambler's mind followed twisted paths.

"I did – " Ezra laughed sourly. "I said what I said didn't matter."

"And what Nathan said, does that matter?"

Ezra made a gesture with his free hand, a careless brushing away of the matter, that showed off his long, pale fingers. The ring he always wore was gone. Not the ruby. It was still on his other hand, a glint of blood and gold, like a sunset in a grassfire. The wedding band no one had ever seen Ezra take off had disappeared.

"Nathan is as he is, JD," Ezra said when the silence had grown too oppressive.

JD wanted to leap to his feet and shout.

Ezra continued, seemingingly unaware of JD's frustration, "As I am or Josiah or Mr. Larabee. It is in his nature to judge as it is to heal. Once he has made a judgment, he will not change it. Such is his strength of will."

"You mean he ain't ever going to see he was wrong?"

Ezra looked at him steadily. "I meant you should not dismiss him over this matter. He is a loyal friend to you."

"To me, yeah," JD acknowledged. "But how many times have you saved Nathan? Why can't he – "

"I don't know, Mr. Dunne," Ezra interrupted wearily. "It no longer matters, though."

"Are you – what are you going to do, Ezra?"

Ezra sipped his Scotch.


Ezra dropped the empty flask on the floor. He flipped the cap into the washbowl under the mirror. It arced through a shaft of light streaming through a curtain gap and landed with a clink of metal on china.

"I'm going to sell Corcoran that damned canyon, bury my cousins and go on, JD," he said finally. He pulled out his pocket watch, flipped the lid open and looked at the time. "For now, I imagine we both should attempt to sleep for a few hours."

With that, Ezra rose and walked to the dresser next to the wash stand. He stripped off his cuff links and laid them down. His tie pin and watch followed. The worn deck of cards he always carried – he used new decks when he played for money, so that one had to have sentimental meaning – came next, then the shoulder harness and Colt Richards revolver in it and at the last his gunbelt.

His green eyes raised and caught JD's in the mirror's reflection.

"Mr. Dunne. It is time for you to go."

JD got to his feet slowly. "Ezra ... you know I'm real sorry, don't you?"

Ezra stripped off his vest.

"Yes, I know."

"About – about everything."

"I know," Ezra said. He pushed one hand through his hair.


JD hesitated at the door. He opened his mouth twice and closed it. Nathan. God, that was worse than anything. He didn't understand it. He was never going to understand it.

"Go on, JD," Ezra said. "This will all be over soon. Everyone will return to Four Corners, where all of you will resume your appointed roles ...As will I."

"You're coming back?"

Ezra sighed. "Why not?" A sardonic smile lifted his mouth. "It will serve to annoy and unnerve Mr. Jackson."

"I want you to come back."

"Well, I wouldn't want disappoint you," Ezra replied gently.

"It wouldn't be the same without you, Ezra."

"It won't be anyway."

JD nodded reluctantly and opened the door. He left Ezra pulling off his boots, head bowed and seemingly intent. A moment later he heard the lock click closed behind him.

He leaned his forehead against the wall and felt like crying.

Ezra was right. Nothing was going to be the same.

He felt like crying, but no tears came. JD hardened himself against them, against the pain of disillusionment. He known the men he counted as family weren't without sin and fault, but he'd believed in their loyalty to each other. He'd believed they would never turn on each other or fail each other deliberately.

Now that belief was gone for good.

JD pulled himself away from the wall and walked away. Ezra had the right of it. If you trusted anyone too much, counted on them, they were bound to fail you somehow. Maybe they'd die, like his Ma, or drown themselves in a bottle and take out their anger on the world like Chris, maybe they'd laugh at you like Ezra or hide things like Vin and Josiah, ignore you to frolic in a whorehouse like Buck, things that they couldn't hardly help. Maybe they'd turn on you like Nathan or trick you like Maude. Hell, maybe they'd shoot an innocent woman like Annie Nechaus, like he had in that damned bank hold-up. Whatever, Ezra was right. Letting anyone too close just meant they could hurt you.

He didn't figure he could stop caring about folks like Ezra and Buck and Vin; he didn't know how. He'd stay friends with Josiah and Chris and he loved Casey – he knew that – but no one else was going get to him.

That way no one would ever do to him what Nathan had done to Ezra.


Vin blew in the door of the restaurant like ill wind. Buck glanced up, saw his scowl, and hurriedly swallowed his last bite of steak. He forked up the last of his eggs and reached for a biscuit to mop his plate. Vin didn't show his temper often. It meant trouble. Trouble usually meant missing meals, so he wanted to finish eating.

"Hey, Tanner," he greeted him.

Vin jerked a chair back and settled across from him and Chris. He spread his hands flat on the table top, pressing down hard.

"Problem?" Chris asked. He'd finished his plate of potatos, ham, and flapjacks. The empty plate was pushed aside. A cup of coffee sat in front of him on the red-checked tablecloth.


Buck gulped down his last biscuit. Either he was going to need the food or he was about to lose his appetite. He noticed Chris didn't look surprised. Which meant whatever it was went back further than Nathan shooting his mouth off the night before.

"This what's been bothering you?"

Vin's mouth turned down and his shoulders hunched. He nodded.

"You better spit it out," Buck said. He finished his coffee and waved for a waitress to bring them some more. "He get in another set-to with Ezra?"

Vin waited until the waitress had filled Buck's cup and set down one for him. A mist of steam twisted up from the dark liquid as it tipped from the spout of the pot and streamed into the cup.

"Thank you, darlin'," Buck said.

She smiled at him. He grinned back. Women were treasures. This one had brown hair and freckles dusted over her cheeks like brown sugar. Given his druthers, Buck would be in bed licking her whole body to see if those freckles tasted as sweet as they looked.

Vin took a deep breath and blew it out his nose. A thin line of white framed his hard-set mouth. Buck's attention switched back to him and the new problem. The pretty waitress was forgotten.

"Nathan was in it with Maude."

"In what?" Buck asked despite guessing. The food in his belly felt suddenly heavy and sour.

Chris had gone still as stone beside him. Buck could almost feel the cold anger radiate off him.

Vin looked at him hard.

"Poisoning him."

"That what you had to talk to him about?" Chris rapped out.

Vin dipped his head once.

"He admit it?"

"Wasn't even sorry," Vin told them, his voice hard as gravel.

"God damn," Buck mumbled. He pushed his plate back. "God damn sonuvabitch." He wished he'd done more than hit Nathan once last night. He looked up from the tablecloth and met Vin's angry gaze. "He poisoned Ez?"

"Gave Maude a bottle of something from his clinic, told her to use it on him," Vin said. His hands clenched. "He thought she was going to take that deed and give him a share after she sold it."

Chris growled under his breath. "Stupid bastard."

Buck was still trying to understand. "Why?"

Money? Money? Ezra had looked about a half step from dying and Nathan had been right there seeing to him, only he'd been responsible? Didn't Nathan understand Ezra was one of them, the same way Nathan was? Not that Buck would have wanted to see a dog suffer the way Ezra did. Why did Nathan even have something that would drive a man loco like that? It was wrong, all wrong.

Why hurt Ezra like that?

"Why didn't he give her one of them teas that make a body throw up or live in the privy?" Buck asked plaintively. "Why not just give him some laudanum, put Ez to sleep for a while? Wouldn't have taken Maude long to steal that deed."

"I ain't sure we want to know, Bucklin."

"Wish I didn't already." Buck pushed his coffee cup away then ran his fingers through his hair. "Jesus. That sonuvabitch." He glanced at Chris. "What the hell do we do?"

Chris pulled a cheroot out and rolled it between his fingers, staring past Vin at the street through the restaurant's window. A muscle twitched along his lean jaw.

"Ezra know?" he asked.

Vin shrugged uneasily. "He knows Nathan."

Buck could see the usually laconic tracker picking the words. Vin wasn't sure and that made it harder.

"Ezra sees and hears more than most folks," Vin said slowly. "Maybe he just wonders, like I did."

"Why'd you decide to push it today?" Chris asked. He put the cheroot in his mouth, clenched his teeth on the end, but didn't light it.

Vin gave him a keen look. "Buck didn't hear it and I don't know if Ez was paying any attention then, but Nathan said enough last night to make me sure."

"You think we should tell Ezra?"

Buck wasn't sure. Maybe it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie. Ezra had taken enough kicks from fate lately. He didn't need to face another.

"You don't think he'd want to know?" Chris raised an eyebrow.

Chris would want to know. Chris would want to know and beat the living shit out Nathan. If he didn't just shoot him. Chris, of all of them, could empathize with Ezra right now. Maybe that was why Vin had come to them.

"Just don't know if it'd be good for him to know just yet," Buck said.

Chris grunted.

"What about JD and Josiah? Do we tell them?" Vin asked.

"Damn," Buck muttered.

Chris just shook his head silently.

Buck sighed and nodded. He agreed. Hell, Nathan was Josiah's friend. Knew him before any of the rest of them showed up. Wouldn't do any good, telling him what Nathan had done. If Josiah couldn't forgive it, then that friendship would be over, and if he did, Buck didn't think he could look at Josiah the same afterwards. He knew he didn't want JD finding out. It would hurt the boy nigh to as bad as it would Ezra.

Chris stood up. He dropped a handful of coins on the table to pay for breakfast then stalked out onto the sidewalk. Buck and Vin followed. They stopped with Chris, who was lighting his cheroot.

Buck leaned his hip against a sidewalk railing. Vin stared longingly at the snow-capped mountains.


Buck waited for the rest. Vin slumped against the wall, looking as tired as Buck had ever seen him. Something like this aged a man – not physically – it chipped away at the heart. Damn Nathan. He had poisoned more than just Ezra.

"Chris?" he prompted.

Chris exhaled a pale stream of smoke. It curled up and away, dissipating quickly. The harsh scent of cheap tobacco lingered.

He looked at them both. "We keep quiet. For now." The steel that ran through Chris Larabee hardened his voice and expression. "Get through the funerals, get Ezra back home. If we have to, we tell him then."

Vin looked doubtful, but nodded. Buck thought Chris had the right idea.

"Nathan?" he asked.

Chris' eyes narrowed. His mouth thinned. "He gets his second chance, just like anyone else."

Vin snorted, a disgusted sound.

"I didn't say we trusted him," Chris added softly.

"Good," Vin declared. He looked as fierce and furious as when he'd swept into the restaurant. "'Cause I ain't gonna." His chin came up. "Ever."

"Wasn't asking you to," Chris said.

Buck pushed away from rail. "You leave Nathan at the hotel?"


"Reckon I got some words for him, too."

Chris took another drag on his cheroot.

"We both do, Buck."

Nathan Jackson was about to bear the brunt of a black storm in the form of a furious Chris Larabee. Buck slapped his hands against his thighs. Then he was going to find out Buck Wilmington didn't take kindly what he'd done either. If he came out of that with dry pants and all his teeth, they'd wait and see what happened. Four Corners still needed its healer until a doctor set up shop; it was Nathan's home, they couldn't drive him out, but he'd set himself apart by his actions as far as Buck was concerned.

They'd all seven ride back, but Nathan had ended the Seven.

23. Virginia City, 1877

Did you know $500 will get your head blown off?

Bounty Hunters, Molly Hatchet

'I am the resurrection and the life,' saith the Lord.'

There was no resurrection. This was the second time he'd surrendered his family to death. There was no hope in the empty flesh that remained. Let the earth take it.

'The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.'

Josiah spoke with feeling, his voice rich and rumbling. Ezra paid little attention. He'd helped picked the passages from the bible, but already forgotten them. He was barely aware of the men standing beside him.

He pressed his fingertips into the felt edge of his hat.

The graves were side by side. Not surprising, in a city of hard rock miners, the undertaker had known a stonecarver. Cash had lent urgency to the man's work; the matching gravestones were finished, waiting to be set in place after the the coffins were interred under the earth.

Simple stones with simple words.

Ezra's new wool jacket – black – itched through through the lining and his silk shirt and vest. He ignored it. It did, at least, keep him warm. Towering gray clouds skudded across the sky, threatening rain before the gloomy day ended. The wind was picking up. It carried a chill that insinuated itself under every opening.

The stones were light gray with flecks of darker inclusions. Granite, Ezra thought, but he wasn't sure. He'd been in a daze when he picked them out. Josiah had suggested inscribing a Bible verse on the headstones. Ezra had bitterly asked if perhaps he thought Leviticus would be germane.

"The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father. She shall be burned with fire." [xv]

That and JD's hand on his arm, restraining him from lashing out further, were all he remembered of that scene. He'd emptied his Scotch flask the night before once he was alone. The whiskey hadn't helped much, but he'd suffered a hangover the next morning. Today he was so sober it hurt.

The stones were inscribed identically with the names and dates and JD's description.

Saville Howard. Polly Merriwether. Beloved Cousin.

The cemetery was empty except for the seven men and the gravediggers. Ezra kept his eyes averted from the graves and looked at the pile of still moist, dark soil between them. He imagined the worms working through it. They probably didn't mind the cold day. The earth was cold. That's why they called it the cold, cold grave.

A strong gust of wind rushed through the cemetery, moaning through the stones and the wooden crosses. It sent a trickle of soil falling back into one of the holes. The pages of Josiah's bible flapped wildly.

Ezra wondered morbidly what kind of sign it would be if the pages were to rip right out and blow away?

His mind wanted to run away from the present. Cold, cold. Cold clay. Clay cold lips ... wasn't that from something he'd read once?

Just one kiss.

He grimaced. Of course. The Unquiet Grave. He shook off the fancy. Better Rest in Peace. The dead should stay buried and in the past. How many really welcomed Lazarus when he shambled out of the cave?

He lifted his face into the wind. The first mist of rain touched his cheeks, cleaner than tears. The heavy, dark-bellied clouds rolled over the dome of the heavens, steadily dimming the light. The tops of the mountains were already hazed behind veils of distant downpours. Josiah's words picked up speed, he noted sardonically. Well, no one wanted to get wet, did they? He'd have to hand the sextons and extra coin to work in the mud.

"We therefore commit these bodies, our brother and sister Saville and Polly, to the ground," Josiah intoned. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life."

Ezra stepped forward, bent and grasped a large clod of earth. Earth to earth. Damp particles crept under his fingernails. He squeezed it. Moisture seeped between his fingers. He had to force his hand open. The clod dropped with a hollow thud onto Saville's coffin.

He hid a flinch.

Another handful of soil but this time he refrained from making a fist and let it fall in a slow, pattering rain onto the top of Polly's coffin. Dust to dust.

Each of the other men followed suit, Nathan last because Vin or JD stayed between him and Ezra.

Josiah closed his bible and tucked it inside his black suit coat. Josiah and JD had both bought suits for the funeral, which touched Ezra, though he felt it only distantly. Mr. Larabee already wore mourning anyway. Nathan's clothes were dark as well. Buck and Vin both wore a black ribbon tied around one arm. He appreciated that too.

They were all waiting for him.

Ezra nodded to the two sextons, who moved forward with the shovels impatiently. One glanced at the sky and shook his head. A shovel blade slid into the pile of loose earth with a familiar sch-schuck followed by the sound of dirt hitting the coffin top. Ezra fished four bits from his pocket and handed it to the second man.

"For your extra trouble if you get wet," he said.

Buck's hand set between Ezra's shoulder blades, urging him away.

"Come on, Ezra, there ain't no more to do here. Let's get inside before we all end up soaked," he said.

Ezra let himself go along. Buck and Vin flanked him, even after they walked back into town. Before they could steer him into a saloon though, he stopped.

"Gentleman, I appreciate your company, but I have an engagement with Mr. Corcoran."

"The man can't wait a day after the funeral?" Buck exclaimed.

"I'm the one who insisted," Ezra admitted. "I want to be done with this as soon as possible."

Chris, waiting by the saloon's doors, nodded. He obviously understood.

"I'll come along," Vin said.

Ezra waved him off.

"You've done enough. I can handle this by myself, thank you."

Vin hesitated before acquiescing. "Ya gonna be at the International?"

"No, the law offices of Wilkerson and Parrish. On Siddons Street."

Ezra had specifically asked in his note to Corcoran that they meet somewhere other than the hotel. He never wanted to step foot within it again. He wished he could burn the memory of the place from his mind the way he'd burnt his green jacket the next morning.

"This gonna take long?" Vin asked.

"Perhaps an hour or two," Ezra replied.

He touched his fingers to his hat brim and started away.

The rain had materialized, emptying anyone without pressing business from the normally busy streets. It beat a tattoo on the tin roofs and shakes and quickly darkened the buildings where it touched. Ezra stayed on the sidewalk under the overhang. He hurried, not because it mattered if he was late or even if he got wet, but just to finish the next step necessary before he could quit Virginia City forever.


He knew exactly how much he wanted for the property and the lawyer's nervousness would have amused him in other circumstances. He shook hands with Corcoran when he arrived and then Wilkerson after knocking the worst of the water off his hat and hanging it on the rack by the door. Several lamps were burning to compensate for the darkness of the day.

Wilkerson showed them into his office and offered them chairs and a drink. Corcoran accepted the drink. Ezra declined. He wanted to keep his wits as sharp as possible.

"I appreciate you doing this on such a sorrowful day," Corcoran told him in an aside. Ezra found he believed the man.

"Business won't wait for my personal feelings," he acknowledged with an eloquent shrug.

"'Tis an ugly thing, greed," Corcoran said.

Wilkerson brought forth the papers and handed them to Ezra to look over. "If you gentlemen are both in agreement on the sale price, we can conclude this here today." A sheen of sweat reflected off his high forehead. "I have a notary and witnesses available."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I believe I'll read this through first."

"Of course, of course."

Beside him, Corcoran chuckled at the lawyer.

The rain rattled fiercely against the windows. Wilkerson courteously lit two more lamps to beat back the gloom. The only sound in the room was the shuffling of papers.

Ezra checked every paper carefully, looking for anything not as it should be. It all seemed in order. The sum in question was far more than he'd ever garnered from even his most successful cons. It would make his mother sick to think he'd obtained honestly.

Ezra looked at the price for Stairstep Canyon again. The fortune and wealth he'd always wanted.

Easy come, easy go.

There were things he couldn't buy with money, though he'd have given it all for them. He couldn't have the people he'd lost or the idealism of his youth. He could save something though.

He straightened the papers in his hands and looked at Corcoran.

"This is a generous sum," he said.

"Aye, it is."

"But not as much as I could get from Finster."

Corcoran's eyes narrowed. His voice hardened. "It's as high as I'll go, laddie."

Ezra nodded placidly. "I realize that. To offer me more would impact the liquid assets necessary to establish and run the mine as well as the initial outlay you'll need to build the railroad spur."

"I'd thought better of you, Mr. Standish," Corcoran said. "So you've changed your mind and are going to sell to Finster and let him squeeze me."

Ezra held up his hand.

"On the contrary, sir. I'm about to offer you a better deal."

Corcoran waited.

Ezra glanced at Wilkerson, who swallowed hard. The lawyer's Adam's-apple bobbed.

"This is under attorney-client privilege, I assume?"

"Oh, yes sir," Wilkerson assured them both. "Nothing goes beyond this room until the papers are filed and registered at the courthouse."

"Get on with it, laddie."

"I'm prepared to take a one-fourth cut in the price you've offered me for the property," Ezra said baldly.

Wilkerson's mouth dropped open. "One – one-fourth?" he echoed. It was comical.

Corcoran looked puzzled.

"In exchange for?" he asked.

Ezra set the papers on Wilkerson's desk and folded his hands together. He spoke smoothly.

"You mentioned your close friendship with the Governor of Texas when we last met. I am in need of a ... favor from him. A simple matter that he could arrange with no more than a signature," he explained. "My friend Vin ..."

He hesitated. Did he have the right to do this? Should he? He knew Vin wanted to clear his name, but Saville's murder had just driven home how easy it would be for a bounty hunter to simply shoot Vin as things were. Ezra's resolve firmed. If he could do this, he would. Vin could deck him afterward if he wanted to. At least Ezra wouldn't be cutting Vin's body down from a rope in Tascosa and going on the run with the rest of their fellows after exacting bloody vengeance.

He met Corcoran's eyes.

"I really must insist this remain between us."


Ezra dipped his head.

"My friend Vin," he went on, "is a wanted man in Texas. He is innocent of the charge, of this I have no doubt. I also have no doubt that were he to taken back to Tascosa for trial, he would hang. In essense, I am offering you one-fourth of the price you would pay me for the Canyon in exchange for getting your friend the Governor to provide a pardon for him." Ezra thought for a moment and added, "No, not just a pardon. A declaration that he is innocent."

Corcoran sucked in a deep breath.

"That's a lot of money, laddie, to give up for a friend."

Ezra shrugged again.

"It's not a gamble. If you can't persuade the governor, then the original price is to be paid."

"Tis the carrot and the stick!" Corcoran laughed.

"Then you'll do it?"

"For a quarter of the money I'm to pay you? I'd be mad if I didn't try. I can't guarantee anything, though."

"Either way, I win."

"You're a clever businessman, Mr. Standish," Corcoran said. "This will take some time."

"Not too much, sir," Ezra corrected. "A few telegrams should be sufficient. Provide me an assurance that the matter will be taken care of and we can finish this deal today, leaving the final quarter payment in escrow until the pardon is delivered."

Corcoran drew a cigar case out of his vest and offered it to Ezra, who demurred. He extracted one, cut off the end and lit it. When he had the cigar burning to his satisfaction, he looked at Wilkerson. "Draw up the new papers."

Wilkerson scrabbled his desk open and began working.

He exhaled a perfect smoke ring and looked satisfied.

"We have an agreement?" Ezra asked.

"It's a deal, laddie."

Corcoran offered his hand and Ezra took it.

"I'll need your friend's proper name and the details," he said.

"Vin Tanner. Accused of murdering one Jess Kincaid in Tascosa. There's a $500 bounty for him, dead or alive."

Corcoran stood up.

"Time to take a stroll down to the telegraph office."

Ezra agreed. He had several contacts in Texas who would confirm that matter if it came to fruition. He would not rely entirely on Corcoran's word, though he did believe the man to honest. He didn't know the Governor.

"Wilkerson, you'll have the papers finished when we return, aye?" Corcoran asked.

"Yes sir."

"Good. Mr. Standish?"

"After you, sir."

24. Virginia City, 1877

take what's wrong and make it go right
weave it like a prayer
wonder if you'll spend the night?
playing solitaire?

Solitaire, Suzanne Vega

Ezra fanned out his cards over the tabletop in the saloon the Seven had made their own. A half empty bottle of Scotch sat at his elbow. His hair fell in his eyes, irritating him, reminding him – again – that he'd meant to have it cut. He tipped the last card in the opposite direction and the cards cascade back across the table.

He was bored. He had no interest in sitting in another game though he'd been approached several times. He knew the others were getting impatient with him. He'd said he wanted to sell the deed and leave Virginia City post haste, but after a week he still lingered. They didn't know he wanted to leave just as badly.

He was waiting for Asa Corcoran to tell him whether the Governor of Texas had gone along with the plan.

None of them knew that, of course.

Chris arrived at his table and loomed over him.

"Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked. He gathered the deck together and began shuffling again.

Chris sat down next to him.

"You want to tell me what the hell we're waiting around for?" he demanded.

Ezra flipped out the ace of spades, followed by the king of spades, the king of hearts, the jack of clubs, jack of hearts, king of clubs, and the joker face up. He looked at the familiar pasteboard faces. For so long, they had been the only faces he relied on. The only ones he wanted to know. But that had changed.

Then it all had changed again.

He picked up the cards, lingering over the joker. He'd always considered the ace of spades to be his card, but maybe the joker fit him better. He pushed away the bitter thought.

It had been a week.

It seemed his gamble hadn't panned out.

The loss would garner him a nice sum of money, yet it didn't ease his regret much.

Tiredly, he looked up at Chris' concerned face. "Nothing, apparently," he answered. He slid the cards inside his vest. "We can leave tomorrow."

Chris tipped his head.

"That's it?"

Ezra capped the Scotch bottle and tossed a handful of coins down. "That, I'm afraid," he replied, "is it."

"All right. We'll ride out in the morning."

Ezra offered him a weak smile.

They walked back to the hotel together. Chris stopped at the doors. "I'll find the others and tell them." He clapped Ezra on the shoulder. "We'll all feel better when we're back on the trail."

Ezra nodded then walked into the hotel foyer. He headed straight for the stairs. It wouldn't take long, but he wanted to repack his saddlebags. Then he would visit the mercantile and stock up on supplies. Extra ammunition seemed like a wise investment. Lord knew, he had the money now.

As he passed by the front desk, the clerk jerked his head up from a doze. "Mr. Standish?" he called.

Ezra paused.

"You got a bunch a messages. Couple of telegrams too."

Ezra strolled over to the desk and held out his hand. "Well?"

"Oh. Oh, yes," the clerk muttered. He delved under the desk and found the messages then handed them over.

"Thank you," Ezra murmured, distracted by the contents of the first telegram.

'Tanner cleared. Bounty cancelled. Halston.'

Ezra caught his breath and flipped to the next one.

'Warrant recalled. Tascosa still dangerous. Loengard.'

"Dear God," he breathed. He flipped to the messages, found one from Corcoran and a sealed letter on the International's stationary. Impatiently, he tore it open. 

Mr. Standish,

The deed is done. Mr. Tanner's name is cleared. The Governor owns shares in the Swedish Hat and was pleased to be of service.

In accordance with your preference, Mr. Tanner was not just pardoned. A trial was held and your friend was declared innocent of all charges. The widow of Mr. Kincaid testified that her husband was murdered by the ranch foreman, a man who has since disappeared. Apparently, they had been engaged in an adulterous liaison, since terminated. With her paramour gone, the lady found it expedient to tell the truth under oath.

Telegrams have been sent out through out the state, recalling the wanted posters on Mr. Tanner, but in all honesty, it would be wisest if he didn't return to Texas too soon. The actual papers with the Governor's signature have been dispatched by courier to Four Corners, as you specified.

It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Standish.

Yours sincerely,
Asa Corcoran

Ezra read the letter a second time. A smile creased his face. The Governor was an imaginative man apparently. How else to clear a man when the witnesses were dead? Prove someone else guilty. He wondered how much it had cost to bribe Jess Kincaid's widow, while admiring the plan. Who would question such an embarrassing tale? Why after all would a woman lie about the murder of her husband?

He would never mention that suspicion to Vin.

He wasn't sure he should mention his part in this at all. Perhaps it would better to just return to Four Corners and allow the good news to come as a surprise? Vin didn't need to know he'd had a hand in this at all.

He folded the letter and slid it inside his vest.

"Good news?" the clerk asked.

Ezra raised his eyebrows at the question, but then grinned. "Indeed, sir. Most excellent news." He tossed the man a coin and proceeded up to his room with a jaunty spring to his step. 


"All right, Ezra," Buck said as they ambled down the trail, "talk."

"Talk, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra repeated. "About what, pray tell?"

"Well, let's see," Buck replied, "how about why you been so down in the mouth for days and then suddenly this morning you're grinning like a fox in the henhouse?"

"I'm a rich man, isn't that enough?"

"Nope. You been rich all week."

Ezra just smiled secretively.

"Damn it, Ezra!" Buck exclaimed. "I ain't ever seen you get up in the morning and smile. It ain't natural." He turned in the saddle and appealed to Chris and Vin. "You all know it's enough to make a man nervous."

"Man's got a point, Ezra," Chris said easily.

Vin caught Ezra's gaze. Ezra couldn't suppress his grin as he thought of the news that would be waiting in Four Corners for them.

"All right, that's it. That's what I'm talking about!" Buck waved his arm at Ezra. "He's got that fox in a henhouse grin on his face again. That can't be good, can it?"

"Come on, Buck, can't Ez just feel good?" JD asked.


Ezra settled into a pleasant half doze as they rode. Buck was on one side of him and JD rode on the other. He still ached over Saville and Polly, but the knowledge that Vin needn't hide from bounty hunters and lawmen eased the pain. With Magnusson dead he had no worries for himself, though he supposed writing a will designating someone other than his mother would be a wise course.

He'd received two more telegrams from contacts in Houston. News of the trial and guilty verdict naming William Purdue as the murderer of Jess Kincaid had been published in the Houston, Fort Worth, and Galveston papers. The news had gone out to Tascosa. All of Texas knew the story now. Vin's name was mentioned as an innocent man falsely accused in an attempt to direct attention away from Kincaid's widow and Purdue. The Governor was being praised for his dedication to the cause of justice in Kincaid and Vin's names.

It made Ezra grin every time he thought about it. The Governor had turned his little favor into a real circus, one that painted him in the most flattering of lights. Ezra didn't care. The circus of news coverage meant that everyone would know Vin was no longer wanted.

The news would be waiting for them when they reached Four Corners. He would stay long enough to enjoy the celebration sure to follow. Then, he knew, he would move on. JD wouldn't be able to keep silent over what Nathan had admitted to Vin. Once the story came out, it would be too awkward with both of them in town. Nathan was still needed; Ezra was the one who would move on.

Ezra would remain in touch. When enough time had passed, when the bitterest memories had faded, he might even return.

25. Four Corners, 1877

jack on queen and the ten on the jack
it's a happy repetition.
you and your fate in a kind of

Solitaire, Suzanne Vega

Vin could see the soft haze on the horizon, just a faint discoloration in the sky that marked a town in the distance. Smoke from stoves and fireplaces, dust from dirt churned under hooves and feet and wheels. Man's mark on the land tainting even the sky.
They'd passed through the same trails they'd ridden on the way to Virginia City, seven men riding together but essentially apart.

Once, as they crossed a rich stretch of grazing country, they had seen a small herd of mustangs. Vin had watched them through his telescope, smiling at the way their proud heads came up, ears pricked, as they watched the Seven in return. When the men had approached too close, the herd had spooked away, galloping in a thunder of hooves, heads high, manes and tails flying. It had been a stud herd, young ones, yearlings and two or three year olds, all exiles from other herds banded together for safety, too old be tolerated by a stallion but still too young to establish their own herd by stealing mares or fighting. Among them had been long-legged blue roan, sleek and proud, with the broad, scooped face of an Arabian or Spanish Barb, taller than Nero at the shoulder. The young horse had lingered longer than any of the others, and then streaked away, showing his heels to all the rest.

"Quite the beauty," Ezra had commented. He'd unconsciously stroked Hazard's neck. "I would guess from his lines that some rancher is missing a pureblooded mare from his stock."

Vin had nodded. The blue roan was just too big to be a mustang. Some broomtail stud had probably filched the roan's dam with colt still beside her and he'd grown up wild. It would take a skilled horsehunter to catch him now, but it would be worth it.

They'd watched until the last of the mustangs were out of sight, then ridden on.

The final pass through the mountains where he and Ezra had waited out a spring snowstorm was behind them. They'd left freshly chopped wood and a sack of supplies at the line shack where they'd sheltered, bread on the waters for the next needy traveler. Four Corners was no more than a hard day's ride ahead.

As they came down the mountains into familiar country, the horses stepped a little more eagerly, anticipating their return. They all felt it, a kind of relaxation at the thought of a well known place, a place they belonged, and the comfort it promised. All of them were looking forward to getting back to that.

Even if it was an illusion.

Maybe that was why none of them were ready for the ambush.

It was a perfect site. The easiest trail down to the road into Four Corners dropped between a series of towering, broken red rocks and massive boulders scattered at their bases. In one place, it bottlenecked into a narrow corridor that forced the riders into a single file. Even at high noon, the steep walls trapped shadows at their bases. The contrasting glare left a man looking up half blind.

The only warning he had was a movement, a shadow, in the corner of his eye, high along a rock face above them. Instinctually, he tightened his legs around Peso as he opened his mouth to shout a warning. Peso balked sulkily. The bullet burned through Vin's arm with a shock of agony before he heard the rifle's report.

Peso leapt into action, bolting past Chris and Nero. Vin's knee scraped painfully against the unforgiving rock wall, his buckskin pants shredding as the horse forced his way through the too narrow passage.

Vin ignored the impulse to clamp his hand over the wound in his bicep. He could feel the hot blood running from the searing wound, but knew he needed to wait until he had some cover.

"Bastards," Chris snarled. He fired his pistol toward the high rocks where the ambusher had fired from, though it was too far to hit anything.

The rest of them pushed their horses forward, eager to escape the defile before someone else was shot. Stones churned under hooves. Gunfire poured down, aimed mostly at Vin. He leaned close to Peso's neck and urged the mustang faster.

"Move!" Buck shouted sounding frustrated and scared.

Vin cast a look behind him. Ezra was half-turned in his saddle, his rifle butt snugged to his shoulder, calmly lining up a shot.

"In a moment, Mr. Wilmington," he replied.

The stone behind him shattered in a spray of sharp shards as a bullet impacted. Hazard was rock steady. Ezra squeezed the trigger. Somewhere above them someone in the rocks cried out. Ezra was already urging Hazard forward at a reckless pace, Buck and Darling on his heels.

Josiah yelled in pain and Vin cringed. He'd been careless. Now his friends were suffering for it. The crack-crack-crack of at least three rifles echoed off the stones

Abruptly, the rock aisle opened out into a dry streambed littered with gravel and head-sized fieldstones. No cover anywhere. An eroding slope of stone-laced clay angled up on the right, deep runnels incised in its face from run-off. Vin sped Peso toward it, praying the mustang wouldn't step wrong and break a leg.

Another bullet kicked his hat off.

He slapped the ends of his reins against Peso's haunches and yelled.

"Hey yah, hey yah!"

The others thundered behind him.

They took the slope in a wild, heedless rush. There was no discussion, no time or need.

No choice. They had to escape the killing floor of the streambed that lacked even a shadow to hide in. Stone and dirt caved away under the horses' lunging feet, clattering and pattering down to the streambed, dust rising in a choking cloud around them. The horses breathed like bellows, harsh and hard, straining to reach the top before the earth caved out from beneath them completely.

JD's mount went to her knees. Buck yelled wordlessly. The mare struggled, pushing and throwing herself upward. JD jumped out of the saddle to help her. Stones tumbled down past them, knocked loose by Pepper and Moses' climb. Buck reached far out of his saddle and caught Dusty's headstall, curling his fingers into the cheekstrap and pulling her head up as he and Darling scrambled past.

The extra pull almost took Buck out of his saddle, but JD's mare made it to her feet. She scrambled the rest of the way up with a wild, desperate neigh. JD kept his hands locked around one rein and let her drag him, half running up the slope with her.

At the top, as the mare balked and shook her head violently, JD took a running step and vaulted back into the saddle.

Dusty took off after Buck and Darling as Chris and Ezra reached the top, both of them riding with the reins in one hand, firing blindly back toward the rocks that hid their ambushers.

Vin couldn't get his rifle out of the saddle scabbard, afraid his wounded arm would make him lose it. He cursed in Kiowa and Comanche. He lifted his reins and clamped them between his teeth, then reached across his body with his good arm to at least draw his sawed-off mare's leg.

They passed an angled rock that blocked their ambushers' shots, but never slowed. They wanted the high ground and knew their attackers would be trying to find a new vantage point too.

Sweat darkened and matted the horses' coats. Nostrils flared wide, ears pinned back. Riders hunched low and forward in the saddles, moving as fluidly as a part of each animal, guns in hand. Up and up they raced for the top of a low mesa that would let them circle behind the ambushers.

Vin rested the mare's leg along his thigh, finger curled through the trigger guard. He tasted blood and the hot, dry burn of dust in his throat and felt sweat running down his face. He blinked hard, trying to clear his eyes.

Ezra reined Hazard in beside his wounded side. The chestnut gelding moved smoothly, still easily within his limits, displaying the stamina that counted for as much as speed in the long run.

"How bad is it?" Ezra asked, raising his voice to be heard.

Vin glanced to the side and felt a grin split his face. Ezra was coated from head to foot in pale reddish dust, the skin of his face a streaked mask dominated by his pale green eyes.

"Ain't goin' to kill me," he replied.

Ezra met his gaze another moment, then nodded acceptance.

"Josiah?" Vin asked.

"I don't know," Ezra answered. A flash of worry showed through. He tightened his hand on the Remington rifle he still held ready and lifted his head as they topped out on the mesa, a flat stretch of scrub brush, tough bunch grass and uneven stone.

"There!" Chris shouted, pointing to the northeast as they came around to face toward the view of the defile they'd almost been trapped in.

Five riders were spurring toward them, sharp dark shadows in the blaze of the sun.

Suddenly furious, Vin dug his heels into Peso's sides and set him on a forward course.

"Hey yah," he shouted again.

Barely an instant later, Hazard raced after him, with Chris, Buck and JD on the trail just behind.

One of the figures fired a rifle at them, but Vin didn't care.

The riders disappeared into a hidden dip in the mesa top. Vin sent Peso racing over the edge, raising the sawed-off mare's leg and before him.

Ezra and Hazard plunged over beside him and the hairs on the back of his neck lifted to the wild, eerie sound of a Rebel yell coming from Ezra's throat. It was a sound like no other, half battle cry and half cougar's scream. No mercy.

Vin threw his head back and howled his own Comanche cry and fired at the closest target. The man tumbled off his mount in an awkward drop, dead. Ezra fired his rifle. Chris's Yellow Boy, Buck's rifle and JD's joined them and the other riders tried to pull up and fire at them. Two more men fell and a horse screamed, falling and throwing its rider into a pile of rocks.

One of the riderless horses collided with Buck and Darling, whinnying in panic as it tried to shed the body dragging from the boot caught in a stirrup. Buck lost his rifle trying to stay in the saddle.

JD ducked low as an Indian along Dusty's neck, the game mare dancing back with her front hooves off the ground as he pulled up and fired his pistol under her neck in a feat of horsemanship that would have been slightly more impressive if he had hit his man.

Three more riders had joined the melee. Vin fired at one and missed. So did his target.

The crack and roar of the close quarters, horseback gunfight filled his ears. Shouts and cries, the horrible shriek of a crippled animal, his own breath and Peso's, the deep boom of the mare's leg when he fired again, drowned out the pain his arm and the thud of blood through his heart. His lungs burned, gunsmoke catching in his throat like a strangler's noose.

Ezra spun Hazard in a tight circle. His rifle was abandoned, replaced by his pistol. His riverboat hat was gone too. Hazard darted between two of the enemy, freezing them for a lethal instant at the gall of the move. That was the way of the partisan rangers in the war. Forward, on horseback, with pistols, riding over the enemy in a pell-mell fight that relied on shock as much as numbers or guns.

His first shot hit the man on his right in the chest. His second wounded the other man high in the shoulder, rocking him back in the saddle. Then Ezra was past. JD took down the man Ezra had wounded as he twisted in the saddle, intent on back-shooting Ezra. JD fired into him three times without pause.

Vin almost fell as Peso jumped a body sprawled on the dirt. Chris' Colt barked behind him a last time.

Abrupt silence followed, broken immediately by the shriek of a horse. The animal was trying to rise, but one foreleg was shattered just below the knee. It swung like a wild pendulum. Bile flooded Vin's mouth at the sight. The horse, a yellow buckskin, tried to rise again. It screamed in agony when the broken leg folded forward under its weight.

Vin leant to the side and vomited a thin line of bile. His head swam. He clutched at his saddle horn with his hand, barely keeping his seat.

A single shot sounded. The buckskin's head dropped to the ground and it stilled into merciful silence. Vin swallowed hard, his mouth flooding with more nauseated spit. He managed to bring his head up and saw that JD had done what was necessary. The young man was reloading his Colts, his face schooled into a harsh mask, nothing soft left in him.

Sweat ran in his eyes, blurring his vision, stinging like lye. He swayed, blinking, vision graying out with sudden exhaustion. A hand caught at his coat and pulled him upright. He shook his head and looked up, finding JD beside him, reaching over to steady him. Vin hadn't heard him approach.

They reined their horses around. Ezra guided Hazard to Vin's other side. The gelding was blowing hard, little shudders running through him. Peso and Dusty were no better off, their sides heaving in and out from the brutal sprint up the mesa and the race into the fight.

A new sound brought Ezra's head and gun up along with JD's. Vin followed their gaze and watched dully as Josiah and Nathan were silhouetted against the blue-white sky as they rode over the rise to join them. It was then he realized the two men hadn't been with them in the fight.

Chris and Buck were side by side. Buck was murmuring soothing words to Darling. The gray mare snorted and danced in place, ears still pinned back, not liking the bodies sprawled so close to her hooves. Nero hung his fine head and stood with his front legs braced wide. Lather dripped from his neck and shoulders. Chris had his Colt aimed at the last of the bounty hunters still in a saddle.

"Just stay right there," he commanded. His eyes never left the bounty hunter, but his attention shifted. "About time you got here," he snapped at Josiah.

"It seems you didn't need us, Brother."

Josiah drew his Schofield and used it to cover the bounty hunter. Buck dismounted and rolled a body off his lost rifle, cursing softly about jarred sights and a crack in the stock.

Josiah's movement drew Vin's gaze to the already dirty bandage wrapped around Josiah's calf and he remembered thinking Josiah had been hit earlier. He wondered when there had been time to bandage it. Josiah didn't look much better than Vin himself felt. His face was gray under the tan and dirt. Nathan must have stopped and insisted on seeing to it before they caught up to the rest of them.

One of the bodies shifted and moaned, the man trying to rise onto hands and knees. Vin thought it was the fellow who had been thrown early in the melee. His head was matted with blood and he appeared dazed and unaware of anything outside his instinct to regain his feet.

Nathan dropped off Pepper, pulled his bag of medicines out of his pack and started toward the semi-conscious bounty hunter.

"Leave him," Chris commanded. "See to Vin. Buck, help me tie these two bastards up. I mean to get some answers before we take them back to Four Corners." He added darkly, "If we bother."

Buck shoved the damaged rifle into his saddle scabbard then drew a length of rope from his saddlebag. He paused to get his canteen and take a drink, first spitting into the dirt near one of the bodies then swallowing some more. "I say leave 'em for buzzard bait."

Vin straightened in his saddle as Nathan veered toward him, Ezra and JD.

"Don't need no help," he gritted out. JD's hand was still firm at the small of his back, keeping his steady. Ezra reached over and fingered the wet stain soaking his sleeve.

"You're bleeding like a stuck pig, Mr. Tanner," he said hoarsely.

Chris stalked over to the fallen bounty hunter. He grabbed the man's shoulder and pulled him onto his feet. "Get over there with your friend," he said and prodded the man toward Buck and the other survivor.

Nathan reached them and demanded, "Get off that horse and let me see to you."

"The hell I will," Vin snapped. He reined Peso back from Nathan and glared. "You ain't touching me."

JD protested, "Vin - "

"You need to have that wound seen to," Ezra finished.

"Listen to some sense, you stubborn jackass," Nathan said, stepping forward again. He reached for Vin's wrist.

Vin's temper snapped. He lifted the mare's leg and leveled it at Nathan. "Get your damn hands off me," he rasped out. The heavy gun wavered. "Ez, you can - "

Nathan used one big hand to slap the mare's leg right out of Vin's hand. He froze as two distinct clicks sounded. JD and Ezra both held their pistols aimed at him now, the hammers back.

"Step away," Ezra told him. His gun didn't waver.

Buck, busy tying up the one healthy prisoner, looked up in distraction. Josiah's attention shifted from watching the prisoners to the scene a few feet away. The Schofield's muzzle dropped a little.

"You ain't giving the orders, Ezra," Nathan denied.

Chris heard the confrontation begin. He turned in time to see JD and Ezra draw their guns. "God damn them," he snarled and started their way, forgetting the bounty hunters.

The second bounty hunter stared past Chris' shoulder with narrowed eyes, blood still dripping down the side of his head, then glanced at his fellow where he remained only half-tied by Buck. Buck's attention was all on the rest of the Seven too. The rope in his hand was slack. That fellow's faint headshake didn't deter the bloodied bounty hunter.

"You want me to shoot you, Nathan?" JD asked.

"You wouldn't."

"He won't need to," Ezra said.

Nathan looked from Ezra to Vin and finally stopped at JD. He swallowed hard, Adam's-apple moving up and down visibly above the top button of his collarless shirt. Then his chin came up as his mouth set in an angry line. He flung the sack of medical supplies on the ground before Hazard's feet before lifting his empty hands out from his body and waving them.

"Fine!" His glare encompassed the three younger men. "Bleed to death. Die of blood poisoning. Lose your whole arm to gangrene. You ain't my problem no more."

"Damn you, Jackson!" Chris shouted.

He reached Nathan, caught his arm and swung him around in a single, violent movement that ended in his fist hitting Nathan's face hard enough to send him to the ground. Nathan was taller and heavier than Chris, but speed, meanness and sheer force of personality made the gunfighter the tougher man. Nathan landed on his ass with an inelegant thump and a loud grunt.

Chris stared down at him fiercely. One hand opened and closed convulsively, as though unsure whether to clench into a fist again or go for the gun holstered at his hip. The tail of his black duster flared in the wind. His shadow fell long and ominous over Nathan.

"I told you you got one more chance," Chris declared. "You just wasted it."

Nathan hawked a bloody gobbet of spit into the dirt and returned Chris' glare. "He don't want me near him, what am I supposed to do?"

Chris drew in two loud, deep breaths through his nose. When he had control, he answered.

"Nothing. That's what you're good for now, Jackson. Nothing."

Ignored by everyone, the bloody-faced bounty hunter swayed and dropped to his knees next to one of his dead comrades. He fell forward and his hand landed on the body. No one paid any attention. He fumbled and drew the gun still holstered on the corpse's hip.

"To hell with you, Larabee," Nathan muttered bitterly. He stayed on the ground. "To hell with all of you."

Josiah tried to play peacemaker one last time. "Brothers, this is not the time or place - "

"I ain't your brother!" Nathan shouted furiously. "Ain't none of them your brother, Josiah, any more than Standish is your damn, horsethievin', no-good son that got hung!"

Five pairs of eyes turned toward Josiah. He looked like a man staring at a knife sunk in his gut, only he was staring at Nathan.

"Juan?" he shouted. "Juan! You taunt me with Juan's name, Nathan!" The fury in his is voice and his face made all of them flinch.

Nathan scrambled to his feet, abruptly more frightened of Josiah than Chris. The preacher's lips moved, but no more words issued, just a sense of malevolent black anger boiling through him. "What did you do, Nathan Jackson?" he suddenly bellowed. "I know you did something to turn our friends against you. I held my tongue, but no more. No more."

"Josiah? Josiah, no - I'm sorry," Nathan blurted out. "I shouldn't've said - "

"What did you do?" Josiah demanded, riding Moses toward Nathan and looming over him, backlit by the sun. He pointed a finger at Nathan. "What. Did. You. Do?"

A raucious chorus of caws startled all of them. One shadow after another swept over the mesa top as nine crows flapped over it. The birds sounded like they were complaining, then two dropped out of the air to land next to one of the bodies. The cries became something like hoarse laughter. The others flew on.

One hopped toward the dead man's head, wings still outspread, light flashing off shining jet feathers. Vin winced as the sharp black beak darted toward the corpse's open eyes.

The second crow launched itself back into the air with a harsh protest. Vin looked to see what had spooked the bird.

He watched in detached disbelief as the bounty hunter on the ground suddenly moved with speed and precision, bringing up a gun and aiming it at Chris' back. He could do nothing, couldn't even get his mouth open in time to yell a warning.

Buck shouted. The man he'd been tying tackled him, taking him down in a flurry of limbs, both bodies rolling into a flattened mesquite bush, fighting for possession of Buck's gun.

Nathan spotted the threat next. Anger, instinct, friendship - who knew what motivated him? - prompted his reaction. No warning for Chris, no explanation. He pulled a throwing knife from the harness on his back and threw it with deadly skill.

Chris dived for cover as Nathan drew the knife, skidding on hands and knees in the dirt.

He rolled onto his back and drew one of his Colts.

Three gunshots filled the air in the same instant Nathan's knife sank hilt deep in the bounty hunter's chest. Two bullets tore through his neck and shoulder. His own shot plowed into the earth harmlessly. Scarlet blood flooded down the man's chest for another instant, darkening as it soaked into his shirt and vest. His mouth dropped open. The gun in his hand fell to the earth with a thud. Then he folded at the knees and sprawled across the earth beside the pistol, all life fled. A stir of dust lifted as he collapsed only to sift down onto his unknowing face as everything stilled again.

Vin clutched at his saddle horn and blinked at the scene. Josiah and Chris joined Buck in subduing the last bounty hunter. He looked at the two men still mounted and at his sides.

JD and Ezra had both fired. A wisp of smoke wound up from the barrel of Ezra's Remington where it rested on his saddle horn. The inconstant breeze tugged at his uncovered hair, trying to lift it away where sweat matted russet strands to his temples. He quirked an eyebrow at Vin, catching his interest.

JD looked paradoxically exhausted and alert, slumped in his saddle and chewing on his lip as he watched Chris and Josiah separate Buck and the last bounty hunter. His Colt was already back in its holster. He seemed completely unmoved by the killing, unconcerned by the scattering of bodies on the ground. That damned bowler hat still sat at a jaunty angle on his lank dark hair, barely shading his eyes.

Vin managed a tired grin. "Nice shootin'," he rasped out.

JD grinned back, dipped his head and saluted with two fingers brushed over the bowler's brim.

Nathan strolled over to the body then leaned down to retrieve his knife.

Ezra gave Vin a measuring look then nodded to himself. "It's time someone saw to that arm, my friend." He dismounted, leaving Hazard ground-tied, and approached Peso.

Vin accepted his help coming off of Peso, grateful Ezra didn't make a big thing of it. His legs felt as uncertain under him as a newborn calf's.

"You're kind of wobbly on your pins there, hoss," Buck commented, arriving at his other side and curling an arm around Vin's waist to steady him. He guided Vin over to a cracked boulder. Ezra retrieved the sack of supplies Nathan had abandoned.

"JD?" Chris called. He had the bounty hunter firmly and securely bound.

Nathan was fussing over Josiah, who was talking to him in a voice too low to overhear. Deep creases wrinkled Josiah's forehead and Nathan kept his head down.

"Yeah?" JD answered.

"You up to rounding up the loose horses?"

JD patted Dusty's sweaty neck. "Sure." He reined her around and started her at a trot toward the nearest stray.

Ezra crouched by Vin's side. "The coat must come off first," he said. Buck sat beside Vin and braced him unobtrusively as Ezra helped him struggle out of the old buffalo hide coat. The sleeve on his injured arm caught and had to be peeled away, sending a shooting pain through it that him clenching his teeth.

Ezra laid the coat aside and began slicing Vin's shirtsleeve off using his little pearl-handled knife. "Stay still," he directed as he worked.

Vin looked at his blood soaked arm and decided looking at Buck would be better. He turned his head and blinked. Buck was a picture. One eye was rapidly blackening, the dark bruising blooming down over his cheekbone too. His lip was split and swelling. Little bits of mesquite were still caught in his thick, tangled hair. Thorns were lodged in his coat and even his neckerchief. It was a good bet a few more were stuck in other less comfortable areas as well.

He snickered at that thought, then caught his breath as Ezra prodded the hole through his bicep.

"Just a moment, Mr. Tanner."

Ezra went to Hazard and retrieved his canteen, a square-sided bottle of Scotch from his saddlebag and one of his fine white shirts. Vin flinched, guessing at least some of the Scotch would be used on the wound.

"Hope you mean to give me a drink of that," he commented.

Ezra chuckled and handed him the bottle. "Don't drink too much."

"Yeah, leave some for me," Buck said.

Vin opened the bottle and took a long draw on it.

Ezra cut up his shirt, wet a piece of it with the canteen's water, and began cleaning around the wound. He worked with a delicate touch, intent on the job, his tongue tip resting on his bottom lip.

It still hurt.

Vin locked his attention on the rock he sat on, noticing the pebbly texture of the stone, the gray-brown color, the lichen dried white and rough on it, and the web of hair line cracks that spread across it. If he looked closer, it wasn't a solid color at all, but a hundred different shades all mixed up, with little flecks of white and black and shiny stuff in it. There were veins of white that looked almost like crystal, glittering with golden specks. Looked almost like gold, except it weren't. Ezra had showed him some a fellow used in a con, called it quartz and mica.

Ezra reached up and took the Scotch bottle out of Vin's hand. He pulled Vin's arm up and poured the expensive alcohol into the bullet hole. Vin jerked and bit back a howl as it burned through his raw flesh. Ezra splashed more Scotch on his narrow dagger and used it as a probe, sending another bolt of pain through Vin.

Buck locked his big hands on Vin's shoulders and kept him from pulling away out of instinct.

"Just a moment more, Vin," Ezra murmured without looking up. He twisted the blade delicately and withdrew it, pulling out a long string that the bullet had drawn into the wound from Vin's shirt. With a moue of distaste, Ezra flicked the bloody thread into the dirt.

Ezra's smooth hand rested on the ball of Vin's shoulder for a second, touching him the way he touched Hazard, not even conscious of the affectionate gesture. His fingers were only an inch away from the warm weight of Buck's hands.

He looked up, his green eyes faintly apologetic. "I know that hurt."

Vin shrugged with his good shoulder. "Gotta be done." Wounds had to be cleaned. That thread could have cost him his whole arm or if he was unlucky his life. Wound fever killed as many men as the wounds themselves.

"I'm going to clean it one more time," Ezra told him.

Vin nodded. He closed his eyes and waited for the burn. At least Ezra didn't make him wait. The Scotch washed into his wound fast. He stiffened and endured. Eventually the pain peaked and settled into a throb that matched his heartbeat.

Ezra delved through Nathan's supplies. He read a couple of labels and dismissed the contents. Finally, his fingers found a small tin. A moldy scent came from the greenish-blue salve inside.

Ezra scooped out a generous portion on two fingers and carefully worked it into the wound. Vin had to admit that though it stunk, the salve felt almost good. Ezra made sure the wound was completely coated all the way through to the exit in the back of Vin's arm, then wrapped strips of his shirt into a tight bandage over it all. Blood immediately stained the white fabric, but the seepage soon slowed.

"I'm sorry," Ezra said. "That's the best I can do."

"It's fine," Vin replied.

Ezra sat back on his heels and looked at the bandage. The bloodstain wasn't growing. That was good. Vin moved his hand, trying to gauge how much movement he had. The bleeding was stopping, at least. He'd felt a lot worse and seen men suffer much more. He had feeling in his hand and everything still worked, even if it did hurt like the devil.

"Yes, well, I've never had occasion to impersonate a physician, so my skills are minimal,"

Ezra acknowledged. "We could perhaps stop at Miz Wells' ranch and solicit her help to improve on my paltry efforts."

"Nope," Vin said. "This'll do."

"You did a good job, Ez," Buck added.

Ezra raised his eyebrows.

Vin nodded.

With a shrug, Ezra picked up the Scotch bottle and took a long drink straight from it. He handed it to Buck next. Buck ignored his split lip and drank deep.

"You all right?" Chris asked, joining them.

A quick glance assured Vin that Josiah was watching the prisoner.

"Yep. Ez makes a good doctor."

Ezra rolled his eyes, the whites flashing against the background of his dirty face. He took the Scotch back from Buck and gulped down some more.

"Lord," he muttered, shaking his head. "Worse even than being a lawman."

Chris chuckled.

Ezra handed him the bottle.

JD clattered in, leading three horses. "Everything okay?" he asked.

"Fine," four voices chorused with accompanying chuckles.

JD secured the horses and rode out again after the rest.

Chris had a shot of the Scotch before handing the sadly depleted bottle back to Ezra, who contemplated it wistfully.

"Terrible waste of fine spirits," he murmured.

"I resent that," Vin responded.

Ezra raised his face and looked at him innocently. "I was referring to Buck and Chris imbibing, not you."

"Just for that - " Chris snatched the bottle back and emptied it.

Ezra glanced over at the bound prisoner. He frowned. Chris followed his glance.

"Think it's time we asked some questions?"

"Indeed, Mr. Larabee," Ezra answered. "I am perplexed by these men's persistence. There is no more bounty for myself and Mr. Tanner's name has been - " He stopped.

Vin leaned forward.



"What about my name?"

Ezra hesitated, nodded to himself, and said quietly, "Very well." A sly smile turned his lips up. "Your native appellation has been restored to honor, Mr. Tanner. These men, if they were in pursuit of you, would have been sadly disappointed on arriving in Texas."

Vin wished Ezra wouldn't talk so twisty. Between the liquor and his bullet wound, he just wasn't up to untangling all those five dollar words.

"What are you talking about, Ezra?" Chris demanded.

"Why, the clearing of our friend's name," Ezra replied. The gold tooth glinted. "It seems another man has been convicted of the poor rancher in Tascosa's murder, which in turn confirms Vin's oft declared innocence. There is no longer a bounty on his head."


Vin tried to get to his feet. Darkness threatened at the edges of his vision. Buck dragged him back down onto the boulder.

"Ezra," Vin tried again. "How - how do you know?"

Ezra ducked his head, looking embarrassed. "Well, I offered Mr. Corcoran a discount on the purchase price for the deed to Stairstep Canyon if he were to convince the Governor of Texas to exert his influence toward clearing Vin's name or at least pardoning him." He brushed his thumb over his lower lip.

"You what?" Vin demanded.

"There was no guarantee you could be cleared, Vin," Ezra said earnestly. "I knew you wanted that, but I thought - I thought that if you were pardoned, there would be no more bounty and at least - " Green eyes flicked down and then up.?- At least you wouldn't be shot down in the street like Saville."

Vin's heartbeat thudded in his ears. He couldn't get it straight in his head. Ezra had ... Somehow Ezra had conned someone into getting the bounty taken off his head. No, he'd said more than that. He'd said Vin's name was cleared.

He just couldn't believe it. Not yet. He locked gazes with Ezra and saw apprehension and satisfaction and determination all shining in his friend's eyes.

"Wait a minute," Buck exclaimed, laughter running through his loud voice, right next to Vin's ear it seemed. "Wait a minute, boys. Did we just hear what I think we heard?"

"I don't know, Buck, did we?" Chris replied, joining in the amiable teasing with a smile tugging at his mouth too.

Josiah and Nathan strolled over and looked on curiously.

"Well," Buck drawled, "I'd swear on a stack of bibles I just heard Ezra Standish say something about giving up good money to help out a friend."

"Sounded like that to me too," Chris agreed.

Underneath pale dust and the dirt, Vin watched as Ezra Standish of the perfect poker face actually blushed.

Buck burst into delighted laughter and pointed. "Lookit 'im, he's redder'n a rooster's comb!"

Ezra shot Buck a glare. "The curse of an Irish complexion," he muttered. His attention returned to Vin. "In Virginia City, I was awaiting news of whether my venture on your behalf had succeeded. I thought it better to simply keep the matter to myself until I was sure. The pertinent papers should have arrived in Four Corners by now."

"Ya said ..." Vin cleared his throat and started again. "Ya said cleared. Not pardoned. Cleared?"

Ezra nodded and swiftly assured him, "Cleared. The Governor reopened the investigation, sent a man to Tascosa, and found out that Kincaid's wife had been less than faithful with the ranch foreman, a man named Purdue. Purdue killed Kincaid. It seems like he was in league with Eli Joe in some way." He smiled a touch cynically. "Though that hardly matters now. Mrs. Kincaid confessed all, a trial was held, and Purdue found guilty. No two men can be guilty of the same murder, so by default your innocence had to be accepted."

"What happened to this Purdue fella?"

"I have no idea," Ezra admitted with a careless shrug.

"Damn, that is the finest news I heard in years!" Buck shouted. He wrapped an arm around Vin's shoulders and squeezed in his exuberance.

It hurt like holy hell. Vin thought he'd pass out from the pain in his arm. He shoved an elbow into Buck's ribs. "Let go, ya blame idiot!" he gasped out.

Buck released him and apologized sheepishly. "Sorry, Vin. I just plain forgot." He patted Vin's back lightly.

As the pain faded, Vin smiled widely. "Guess I can forgive this one time, considerin'," he allowed.

"That was a good deed done, Ezra," Josiah stated. "I'm proud of you."

"Merely a slip, sir," Ezra replied lightly. "Mr. Jackson will tell you I'm the devil's minion still."

Nathan stiffened up. "Reckon you had your reasons," was all he said.

"How's it feel to be a free man, Vin?" Buck asked, still dterminedely ignoring Nathan.

"Was always a free man," Vin corrected gently. "Free or bound, that's in your head and heart, always. It's only your body that others can chain or lock away."

He struggled to his feet then held out his good hand. "Ezra ... I ain't got any fancy words like yours." Ezra clasped hands with him, half-smiling. "I ain't ever goin' to forget. I can promise that." He tightened his hand on Ezra's, staring straight into those pale jade eyes.

"It was ... my pleasure, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

"Aw, Jesus, god damn sonovabitch," an unknown voice groaned. A stream of steadily darker epithets followed from the tied-up bounty hunter, who had obviously overheard their conversation.

Chris' eyes narrowed and he strode over to the man. Ezra and Vin followed.

"Shut up," Chris snarled at the man.

He turned his face up and glared at Chris, but quit cursing.

Buck limped over. Josiah and Nathan joined them too, resulting in the six of them looming over the bound man lying in the dirt. They stared down at him grimly.

Vin finally asked, "You was after me?"

The bounty hunter shot an apprehensive look at Chris before answering. "Yeah, Tanner. Nothin' personal." He grimaced. "Helluva lot more trouble'n you were worth."

"Why'd ya keep comin'? Ya followed us all the way to Virginia City an' all the way back here. Seems stupid to me."

The bounty hunter relaxed back into the ground. "Me too, especially if the gambler there ain't lyin' about that bounty bein' gone. Ain't heard about that."

Chris crouched beside the man. The tails of his duster dragged in the dirt.

"Who was in charge of your bunch?"

"Soames over there. The one that your man threw the knife into."

"Any reason we shouldn't leave you here in the same shape as him?" Chris asked.

"Ya show me papers provin' he - " a whiskered chin lifted toward Vin, " - ain't wanted no more and I'll never bother none of ya again. Hell, I'll tell ya who hired the bunch of us in the first place."

Chris' interest sharpened.

"Keep talkin' and you'll keep breathin'."

JD trotted Dusty in, trailing four more horses. He tied them up with the rest and began loosening cinches. Chris watched JD work for a few moments. The breeze lifted again, drying the sweat on their bodies, and carrying the distant sound of the crows' complaints again.

Chris looked back down. "Well?" he demanded.

The bounty hunter nodded and swallowed hard. "Yeah. Feller from Virginia City sent out a wire, tellin' about a bounty on that one. Met him in Bitter Creek." This time he nodded at Ezra. "Guaranteed money for killin' him. Even had this little dime novel mentioning him, told where we could find him. So we headed out, but he was already gone when we got into Four Corners. Then we heard Tanner was around and it started soundin' worth it to trail the two of 'em, get 'em both."

"Ya know who this fellow was?" Vin asked.

"Called himself Harrison."

"Damn," Ezra breathed.

"Ya know him, Ez?"

"The man I won the deed from."

"Well, hell."

Buck prodded the man with the toe of boot. He asked, "So why'd you just keep coming after our friends?"

"Soames got crazy mad after you all just disappeared out of the canyon. Then we heard the money for the gambler wasn't bein' offered no more. Hell, we were out a chunk from trailin' after him and Tanner all that way. Soames swore we'd get back here and at least get the money for Tanner's head. He figured if we killed Tanner and wounded some of the rest of you, you'd hole up long enough for us to take the body back to Texas and disappear."

Josiah shook his head and said lugubriously, "The Lord our father must find you a sore disappointment, boy."

"It was all Soames' fault."

"Uh hunh," Buck grunted. He looked over at Chris. "I figure we take him in, let Judge Travis decide what to do with him?"

Chris nodded.

The bounty hunter stared at Ezra. "Never figured a gambler for bein' tough as old boots."

Chris raised his gaze to the horizon and seemed to consider it.

"If we push, we can still make Four Corners before dark," he said.

"JD!" Buck shouted.


Josiah addressed the bounty hunter, a toothy grin lightening his expression. Vin couldn't make heads nor tails of what he said though. Sounded like, "Al teestakel ba kankan ella bema sheyesh do."[xvi] It wasn't close to anything he understood.

"Ez?" he whispered. "What'd 'siah say?"

"I'm afraid I'm not conversant with Hebrew, Vin."

Josiah glanced at them and proclaimed: "Don't look at the jug, brothers, don't look at the jug alone."

"He's cracked," Vin decided.

Laughter rippled through Ezra. He muffled the sound, but Vin was leaning on him and felt it.

"Leave the saddle on one of them nags," Buck instructed JD. "We're going to move out right quick."

"Got it," JD replied.

Ten minutes later they had the bounty hunter tied to his horse's saddle. The rest of the bounty hunters' horses had been stripped of their tack and set loose. Vin was back on Peso, favoring one side, but well able to keep up. Ezra rode beside him. Buck and JD ranged ahead. Josiah rode just ahead of Nathan; Pepper's nose sometimes brushed against Moses' haunches. Chris rode in the rear, watching over them all.

They rambled into town shortly before dark, the sunset throwing their shadows black and elongated before them. The horses were walking slowly. All of them sat low in the saddle, rocking along with each weary stride. The bounty hunter hunched down, shoulders rounded and head drooping, his mount on a lead rein behind Buck.

The seven men unconsciously let their horses spread into a parallel line as they rode down the main street. A few old-timers sitting in front of the feedstore, playing checkers and smoking pipes, looked up as they passed. Someone was ringing a dinner bell not too far away. In front of the stage stop, a skinny brown dog lifted its head from his paws and watched them, lazily thumping his tail against the ground.

None of them looked up.

Vin's arm throbbed dully, reminding him of the wound every time he moved. He hated to admit it, but getting off Peso and sitting down somewhere sounded better and better. He was exhausted.

Pleasure and melancholy drifted through him as he looked around. This dusty border town with its faded signs and false front stores, shopkeepers and ranchers, drought-dry summers and harsh winters, had been his home. He glanced at the others, taking them all in, realizing that this would likely be the last time they ever rode into town all together.

There was Chris, leading them from wherever he rode, brooding and fast to fury, but as driven by his sense of responsibility as he was by his slowly fading grief. Vin snorted. The Man in Black. Lord knew the man cultivated that image. He had a streak of showman in him, just like Ezra, wearing those silver conchos and California spurs. An unlit cheroot stub was clenched between Chris' teeth and he scanned the street, looking for trouble.

Right beside Chris there was Buck. That was the way it always was, always would be. Nothing would put Buck off; nothing would ever jar his faith and loyalty once given. His mustache received a quick finger smoothing and he grinned and doffed his hat toward a lady on the sidewalk as they passed. Buck just enjoyed being alive so much he made everyone else feel the same. His big red neckerchief glowed in the rich light of the sunset.

JD rode just beyond Buck, his bowler pulled down low, dark brows drawn level in a faint frown. JD was like yearling horse, just coming into his strength, just learning how much he had it in him to be. This trip had rubbed a good bit of his brand new shine off, but underneath JD was sound. He'd do to ride the river with any day.

Far over on the other side of JD he could just see Josiah slouched in Moses' saddle, lantern jaw fringed in gray whiskers, lecturing Nathan on something. Josiah was a smart one, but all his stillness and understanding was made up to tie down the demons that lived in him. Fresh blood was staining the bandage on Josiah's leg. Nathan gestured to it and his clinic, clearly arguing.

Nathan ... Vin looked at Nathan and looked away. Nathan rode straight in his saddle, shoulders back and head high. Even now, Nathan couldn't see what he had done or what it meant the way Vin did. Nothing any of them said would ever dent Nathan's sheer pigheaded opinion. Nathan knew what he thought and figured that was right and no one else knew as much. Even if deep in the night in his own heart Nathan regretted anything, he couldn't bend enough to ever apologize.

Finally, right beside him, his most unexpected friend. The black riverboat hat had been found and clamped back on his head. He looked ready to ride on all night, despite the wear to his clothes and the dirt still streaking his face. On the outside, Ezra looked like some bright feathered bird, but underneath that he was all grace and grit, full of surprises and a wicked sense of humor that refused to respect anything too much. He was as tough and tricksy and resilient as Coyote.

Vin straightened in his saddle.

For another moment, they all rode together into Four Corners.

Then Buck and Chris pulled up their horses in front of the jail, along with the bounty hunter.

JD caught sight of Casey Wells and Miz Nettie in front of Potter's Store. He lifted his hat and waved to her, then kicked Dusty into a trot.

"Young love," Ezra murmured.

Vin chuckled.

Ezra slapped at his thigh, bringing up a cloud of dust. "I think a visit to the bathhouse is mandatory, once we've put up the horses."

Getting clean sounded pretty good to Vin. He nodded agreeably.

He caught a glimpse of Sam's red head ducking back into the livery as they rode up. Tiny strolled out with his stable boy in tow a moment later. Josiah dismounted stiffly, handed Moses' reins to Sam and limped over to the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic. Nathan helped him climb, leaving Pepper for Tiny.

The liveryman led Pepper inside the barn, grumbling about the still healing gouge in the brown gelding's hindquarters, followed by Sam tugging Moses along.

Vin and Ezra were left alone in the street. The last reddish-honey light of the sunset hung in the air, bars of it reaching almost horizontally between darkened buildings, looking thick enough to cup in a man's hand. They just sat for a long, silent interval, until Hazard started playing with his bit again, restless and ready to head for his well known stall.

Peso snorted and Vin patted his neck.

A soft glow of lantern light poured from the livery's half open door, accompanied by the sweet scent of hay.

Ezra sighed.

"Looks like we'll have to see to our own steeds." He flicked a questioning glance at Vin's bandaged arm. "Perhaps you could go ahead and persuade Mulligan at the bathhouse to put on some extra hot water? I'll deal with Peso."

Vin thought of arguing and decided it wasn't worth the trouble. He didn't want to wrestle his heavy saddle off of Peso with his arm hurting and weak. It would probably take him longer than Ezra would take caring for both horses.

"All right," he said. "I'll stop and ask Inez to put together some vittles for us too."

"An excellent thought." Ezra slipped off Hazard and waited for Vin to dismount. He took Peso's reins and started for the barn. "I'll bring your pack and saddlebags to the bathhouse."

Vin nodded.

Ezra disappeared into the livery with the horses.

Vin was left standing alone in the darkened street as dusk slid finally into evening. If he looked up he could see the stars littering the sky. He smelled food cooking somewhere close and his stomach growled.

Free and clear, he thought. Hell of a thing. No one after him any longer. It was going to take some time to sink in.

He grinned and headed for the bathhouse. He had the time.

Free and clear.

26. Four Corners, 1877

I'll see you, I'll call you, I'll raise you
Bit it's no cheap thrill
It will cost you, cost you, cost you
Anything you have to pay.

No Cheap Thrill, Suzanne Vega

They settled in again and from the outside little seemed changed. Josiah worked on his church early in the morning before the heat got too strong, each hammer stroke ringing through the cool air. Buck dallied with his bevy of ladies, his infectious laughter spilling out of the saloon or the restaurant or the jail most days. JD squired Casey around town, once more wearing his silver star on his vest. Chris rode out to his shack and finished adding on his porch, then drifted back and forth between there and town over the next week. Nathan saw to his patients in the clinic over the livery, kept busy catching up with every illness real and imagined that had cropped up in his absence.

Vin carefully, reverently read through each of the papers in the package that had been waiting at the jail, tucked the copies that declared him innocent, no longer wanted dead or alive in Tascosa in a tin lockbox in his freight wagon, then got blind, stupid, passed-out drunk for the first time in years. He woke up puking from the hangover in the room next to Ezra's over the saloon and moved his few belongings in a few days later.

Ezra read books in front of the jail most days and presided over his poker games at his table in the saloon at night.

Vin and Buck about fell down laughing the first time Lovitt the bank manager ran into Ezra after coming back. Lovitt had always treated Ezra like something to wipe off his boot. Now that Ezra had more money in the bank than just about everyone else combined, Lovitt just couldn't be nicer to him.

Ezra treated him with the same courtesy he extended to Mrs. Travis, though a glint of malicious pleasure showed in his eyes.

But that was the surface and beneath it the seven were subtly divided.

Ezra didn't ride patrol. He hadn't accepted the offer to return to his lawkeeping activities. Rafe Moseley, one of the young men who had taken their place while the seven were absent, took up Ezra's duties permanently, even accepting a deputy's position from JD. Rafe's hot head had cooled off since his father was arrested for killing his sister Clare; he made a good deputy.

Chris and Buck spent more time together, falling back into the pattern of their old friendship. The rapport between Vin and Chris never returned to the levels they'd enjoyed before he left to follow Ezra to Virginia City. In any case, Buck could provide something Vin never could: memories of Sarah and Adam. Chris seemed to crave talking about his wife and child finally, remembering all the good.

Josiah was distant, more interested in his church than interacting with any of them. He stopped drinking entirely and stayed away from the saloon. He spent time with Nathan, which set him apart from all the others too.

JD devoted his every spare moment to wooing Casey, displaying a new determination that seemed to impress her. Buck refrained from teasing him.

Chris sent the judge a telegram, taking Nathan off the payroll.

Vin kept an eye on Nathan and waited, feeling something gather in the air like an impending thunderstorm.

But the storm broke on a hot afternoon when Vin wasn't even in Four Corners, two weeks after they returned. 


Sam the stable boy bolted into the saloon like the devil was on his tail. The various patrons jerked around to face the sudden appearance of the panting boy, as the batwing doors swung hard enough to hit the wall, the hinges shrieking protests over their ill-treatment.

Sam ignored everyone and headed straight for the table where Buck, JD, and Ezra were drinking desultorily and enjoying Inez' frijoles and enchiladas con pollo. Nathan sat alone at another table. That had become the routine.

"Mr. Standish," the boy panted. "Mr. Standish, pa says ya gotta come down to the livery. It's yer horse, sir. Pa says something's terrible wrong -?

Ezra's face paled. He set his fork down on the plate with loud clink. "Hazard?"

Sam's head bobbed. "Yes sir -?

Ezra's chair was shoved back and the gambler out of it before the boy could finish speaking.

"Ah, damn!" Buck exclaimed, surging to his feet along with JD, quickly followed by Nathan. Ezra was already gone.

As they headed out of the saloon, the horrible sound of a horse screaming ripped through the still afternoon streets of Four Corners.

JD froze for a moment and his head turned toward Buck. "You don't think that was Hazard, do ya, Buck?" he asked.

"Hell, boy, we'd best go find out," Buck said. Ezra was already far down the street, plum colored coat flickering into the sunlight as he left the covered boardwalk and sprinted down the dusty street.

"Damn fool always has thought more of that horse than good folks," Nathan muttered, strolling out of the saloon behind them.

JD and Buck ignored him and headed toward Tiny's livery.

After a moment, Nathan shook his head and walked in the same direction. His clinic was upstairs, after all.

Tiny caught Ezra's arm as he came in the livery.

"Mr. Standish – "

Ezra shook him loose.

The entire barn shook and echoed with the fury of the maddened horse. The rest of the animals were restless and frightened, whinnying and kicking at the stalls, wanting to get away. Hazard was wildest of all, the high bone-shuddering sounds of his furious distress echoing off the walls. Hazard was throwing his body against the stall, not just kicking.

Ezra slowed, trying to understand what could have set the gelding off. Could there be a snake in the stall bedding? Had someone snuck in and abused him? Hazard was sly and stubborn, but he wasn't barn cranky.

"Hazard," he breathed out, hoping to catch the gelding's attention. "Hazard?"

He fumbled in his vest for the packet of peppermints he kept for his steed. Normally Hazard would have his head extended over the stall door, smacking his lips at the prospect.

Hazard reared in the stall and struck at the door violently, bugling at the top of his lungs. His copper-red coat ran dark with sweat and white lather dripped from his flanks. The horse's great dark eyes rolled white. The big yellow teeth snapped at air. He came down and wagged his head wildly, staggering from side to the side, knees stiff.

Ezra took a step closer, hoping Hazard might be beginning to calm. He shuddered himself. As he stepped closer, he could see in the stall. There were holes kicked in on two sides. A board from the back wall dangled, half split in two, vicious, almost seven inch splinters stabbing out from the raw wood. The straw was churned and stomped into a flattened layer. Broken pieces of the manger and hayrack were scattered over it. Blood ran down Hazard's forelegs. Even his shoulders and head were cut up from throwing himself against the stall.

What the hell had happened?

"There, my friend," he murmured soothingly. He sidled a few steps closer. Maybe it would help if he got Hazard out into one of the corrals. If it was something in the stall ... "Nothing will harm you. You trust me. Nothing – "

Hazard's eyes rolled again. He rushed at the stall gate, hitting it with a crash that nearly broke the hinges. He staggered back, reared and struck at the gate. This time one hoof hooked over the top. The shoe caught in the iron gate latch with a spark and screech of metal on metal. Caught, Hazard screamed again, trying to jerk back. The iron shoe, ably and securely hammered into place just three days before by Yosemite, tore away at the nails.

Ezra watched in sickened horror as the trapped horseshoe tore away, taking a crippling chunk of Hazard's hoof wall with it.

"Hazard," he whispered, knowing it would do no good.

The gelding came down on his forelegs, shrieked and reared again. This time he went over backwards. His head slammed into the back wall. The torn plank ripped deep, bloody furrows over Hazard's neck and withers.

His chest bellowed in and out, pulling in wheezing, whistling breaths.

Ezra dug his fingers into his palms and prayed. Stay down. Just stay down, Hazard. Don't hurt yourself any more.

Tiny touched his shoulder. "Don't know what's got into him, Mr. Standish," the liveryman murmured. "Ain't never seen the like of it. Think he's locoed, but you know I'm careful with my hay. Won't buy nothing that looks like it might have jimsonweed in it, nope, not that or mold."

"I know," Ezra replied. He watched Hazard keenly and winced as the gelding staggered to his feet again. The horse flinched as he put his wrecked hoof down. Several stalls down, Moses neighed in nervousness.

That set Hazard off again.

He screamed and attacked the wall, striking at it. This time his leg slid through one of the kicked-in holes. As he reared back, a terrible crack sounded.

"No!" Ezra shouted. He knew it was too late. He'd heard a horse break its leg before. In despair he noticed Hazard had ruined his good foreleg.

The gelding neighed in agony, trying to tear his leg out of the rough edged hole.

"Dear God," Tiny whispered. "He's – "

Ezra drew his Remington. He stared at it in his hand. The barrel gleamed dully. It felt so heavy. Reluctantly, he checked the cylinder, as though it would have mysteriously become unloaded some time during his day.

The bullets were there.

He closed his eyes and drew in a harsh breath. Hazard's spasmodic shrieks cut through his thoughts. His hands wanted to shake, but he willed them steady. He would not add to the suffering animal's misery. He would do what was right.

He opened his eyes. His hands closed the cylinder on the Remington without looking. He stepped up to the stall gate. Lifted the gun. Cocked it. Followed the bobbing headed keenly until he could predict its next, thrashing rise. Aimed.

He pulled the trigger.

The shot echoed through the livery in the hollow silence that followed the cessation of the frenzied neighs and thuds. The livery's wooden walls still seemed to vibrate with the booming, punishing blows of the maddened animal's hooves.

The stillness was awful.

Tiny set his hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"Ya done what ya had to," he tried to console him.

Ezra dropped the Remington in the dirt, swung around and punched Tiny in the jaw. His knuckle split open. He didn't know or care. Tiny hit the ground. It was sheer surprise more than the blow, though that hadn't been pulled.

Ezra ignored him and tore open the stall latch. He left the gate hanging open and stepped inside directly to the gelding's motionless body.

He dropped to his knees in the straw next to Hazard's head.

"I'm sorry, my friend, I am so very sorry," he whispered. He stroked his fingers along one ear, then the delicate hollow above the horse's dulling eye. "So sorry." He traced the swirl of hairs at the center of Hazard's forehead and stroked down the softer than velvet skin along his nostril.

He lifted the heavy head and set it in his lap, patting the dead gelding's neck as though he might still feel it. His shoulders hunched and he bent forward, shaking, his hands still smoothing over Hazard's head compulsively, oblivious to the blood leaking from the bullet hole in the horse's head. .

"I'm sorry, I sorry ..."

He wanted to weep. He wanted to cry like he hadn't since he'd been a raw boy feeding the cannons on Marye's Heights, sick to his heart. He wanted to and he couldn't. There was nothing but miserable, airless sobs in him. He had no tears left to give.

Nathan walked into the barn in the aftermath, too curious to stay outside. The silence and the gunshot meant an animal had been put down.

If it was Hazard, he wanted to see Ezra's face.

He almost tripped on Tiny, who was lying on the floor of the barn, propped up on one elbow. He was rubbing his jaw and staring at Hazard's stall.

"You all right?' Nathan asked.

He knelt next to the hostler without waiting for an answer, taking his chin in one hand and angled his face so he could check the man's eyes.

"Surprised is all," Tiny muttered, looking a touch embarrassed. "Didn't know he could hit that hard."

Nathan gave him a hand getting to his feet.

The barn door creaked open and a red-thatched head poked in nervously. Sam's eyes darted around. Before he could summon the nerve to enter, he was pushed ahead, allowing Buck and JD to walk into the barn.

"Where's Ezra?" JD asked. He looked nervous and worried himself.

Tiny nodded toward the stall.

Buck sucked in a breath.

"Did he – ?"

Tiny nodded.

"Aw, damn."

Buck caught JD's arm before he could head for the stall. "Best leave him alone, JD."

"But – "

"Give him some time, kid."

Nathan started toward the stall. He had a few things to say about hitting an innocent liveryman, even if Tiny didn't.

"You stop right there," Buck said harshly.


Buck glared at Nathan. "Stop. You ain't going near Ezra right now."

"He might be hurt ..." Even to Nathan's ears that sounded weak. Buck wouldn't believe it.

"He might be a lot of things, but none of them is going to want you anywhere around," Buck snapped. "Now get, you hear me?"


JD's expression was harder than Buck's. He looked like a younger, dark-haired Chris Larabee. "Go," he commanded.

Nathan's eyes widened. JD even sounded like Chris Larabee.

With a last glance toward the open stall, Nathan left. He brushed between Buck and JD, who didn't move an inch. As he walked past, JD swiveled around to watch him, the way he would watch a potential enemy, keeping his and Buck's backs covered.

Ezra walked out of the stall covered in blood, making Buck worry for minute that Nathan had been right and Ezra had been hurt. Then he saw how the stains smeared across Ezra's jacket and trousers, already darkening, and guessed the blood came from Hazard. Straw clung to his knees. He winced, guessing how much Ezra had to be hurting.

He'd never seen anyone any fonder of an animal than Ezra was of Hazard. Hadn't seen a horse any more loyal, either.

Ezra rested his hand against the wall, leaning into it, oblivious to Buck and JD. Finally, he straightened and seemed to notice their presence.


His voice was hoarse. He looked pale and strained.

Buck shoved JD toward him. "Stick close," he muttered under his breath. To Ezra he offered the only comfort he could. "You want to go on, Ez, I'll take care of what needs doin'."

Ezra blinked at him then inclined his head. "Thank you, Buck."

JD fell into step with Ezra as he headed for the door. "You want to get a drink, Ezra?" he asked quietly.

"JD, I want to get blind, stupid, passed-out drunk," Ezra replied roughly.

JD patted his arm, ignoring the blood on the fabric of Ezra's jacket. "We can do that."

They weren't going to leave him alone.

JD kept his hand on Ezra's arm. They took the back way behind most of the stores to get to the saloon. He just figured it was easier than explaining to anyone who saw them and asked what had happened.

They were in the alley when he sensed someone behind them.

He started to turn.

The plank hit the back of his head, sending him crumpled to his knees, struggling to maintain consciousness.

Ezra staggered aside.

He turned and stared a the man who had just clubbed JD down.

Walter Harrison, a plank in his right hand, sporting a bushy beard, stood glaring gimlet-eyed at Ezra.

"Standish," he growled. His hand tightened on the plank. "How'd you like it?"

Sickness and fury warred inside Ezra, joined by a stab of worry for JD. JD was still on his hands and knees, slowly shaking his head and mumbling. He understood without need of details that Harrison was responsible for Hazard's suffering at the livery, for the bounty hunters who had plagued them to Virginia City and back, and maybe more.

His hand dropped to his gunbelt and he remembered in shock that he hadn't recovered his Remington from the livery floor.

Harrison noticed and laughed.

"I been watching you, gambler," he went on. "Watching you since I found out you was here. That deed was mine. You shouldn't've got rich off it. Nothing ever went right after you took that deed from me. Nothing. If I'd got it back, everything would be fine. My Bessie wouldn't have gone back east. I had three mining claims, all of them making me a fortune and then when you stole that deed from me it all went away. The mines just played out. I know it was your fault! I know it! You've got to pay!" He kept talking faster and faster, his voice rising and madness creeping visibly over his features. A bubble of spit worked out his mouth and ran into his beard.

"It was worthless," Ezra said dully. "Until a few weeks ago, you could have bought it back for the price a drink."

"I didn't know!" Harrison howled.

"Neither did I."

"No, you did. You did." Harrison's big head bobbed up and down manically. "You knew. Somehow. I know you did. Your kind is always cheating and swindling. You're no good. Should have shot you back then. Told my boys to get you but you lit out of town. I should have got that deed back. You shouldn't have got away. It all fell apart after you showed up. It was your fault! It was!"

JD groaned and vomited into the dirt. Harrison hefted the plank tighter.

"I lost everything!"

Ezra shifted. He wanted Harrison's attention on him, not JD. JD was in no condition to defend himself. The sharp-sour reek of vomit caught at the back of his throat, making his own stomach roil in sympathy.

"I been watching you, Standish," Harrison said slyly. "Been watching." He nodded to himself. Another line of spittle escaped his mouth. He rotated his shoulder stiffly. "You're a lucky sonovabitch. I took a shot at you one day. I'd have got you too if that damn horse had spooked away like a normal animal. God damn devil horse ... It bit me twice."

Ezra flinched inside. Hazard ... So Harrison had been responsible for the cut cinch too.

"Your luck's coming to an end today. So how do you like it? You took everything away from me, everything, so now I took what you cared about. Got the idea from seeing you go off your head in the saloon. Guess someone else didn't like you much either, hey? Poisoned you." Harrison shook his head in disappointment. "But you just didn't die. You should've died. I wouldn't have had to give that devil horse locoweed if you had."

JD was still wretching, oblivious to the confrontation above him. His bowler hat lay upside down a few feet away. Ezra thought he saw blood matted in the black hair at the back of JD's head.

"You poisoned my horse," Ezra said icily.

Harrison lifted the plank higher. He eyed JD. "I been watching. Bet this kid means something to you. I seen you with him and that long-haired one. Thought sure that bunch of bounty hunters would take care him."

"You are the lowest, most loathsome scum I have had the misfortune to encounter in a life spent plumbing the depths of human behavior," Ezra drawled. He took a step that put him between Harrison and JD. "You have attempted murder, commited assault on a sworn officer of the law, and victimized an innocent animal for the twisted, insane idea of revenge. Whatever misfortunes you have suffered, you have been the architect of them, not I."

"No, it's your fault – "

Harrison hefted the plank high and began to swing at Ezra's head.

Ezra reached inside his jacket and drew the Richards' Conversion he carried in his shoulder holster. He had never replaced the derringer Polly used in Virginia City.

Harrison's eyes widened as Ezra wove away from his assault and brought the gun up lightning quick.

"Cheat!" he howled.

He rushed at Ezra, moving away from JD. At the end of the alley, Buck appeared. Ezra saw him from the corner of his eye and felt a measure of relief. Whatever happened, Buck would protect JD.

"Put the plank down, Harrison," he said, dodging another swing. He wanted to shoot the man and restrained himself by the thinnest of threads, the acknowledgement that Harrison was mad.

"Going to kill you!" Harrison yelled, saliva spraying from his mouth.

Ezra ducked another swing and cursed. His back was against the wall of the saloon. Harrison seemed blind to the gun Ezra aimed at him. The man was too intent on killing him to recognize any sense or danger. As Harrison raised the plank high to bring it down of Ezra's head, Ezra decided he'd had enough. Mad or not, he wasn't about to let Harrison hit him.

He shot Harrison in the gut. It was quite deliberate. He knew how much a gut wound could make a man suffer. It wouldn't kill him immediately.

It didn't stop Harrison. The man was too far gone.

"Kill you, kill you, kill you, kill you ..." he repeated, bringing the plank down.

"No you ain't," Buck said from behind him. Buck set his gun to the back of Harrison's head.

"Kill all of you!" Harrison roared, rearing back.

Buck pulled the trigger. One of Harrison's eyes bulged out from the pressure of the bullet boring through his skull in a split second. The other disappeared in a spray of blood and other wet matter. The angle meant most of it hit the wall over Ezra's shoulder, but a spatter of it landed on his face and in his hair. He blinked in shock, watching as more scarlet blood flooded from Harrison's nose and mouth.

The plank fell from nerveless fingers. It hit Ezra's shoulder anyway, but without the murderous force Harrison would have given it. Harrison spewed another gout of blood and dropped to the alley dirt at Ezra's feet.

"You okay, Ez?" Buck asked worried. He glared to the corpse between them.

Ezra managed to nod. He wasn't, but it didn't matter. He wasn't hurt.

Buck sent a skeptical look his way before hurrying to JD's side. He bent close. "Hey, kid, come on now, you in there?"

"Buuuck?" JD slurred.

Buck patted JD's back gently. "Right here, kid."

Ezra slid down the wall until he was resting on the dirt, his knees bent sharply, one boot nudged against the brawny shoulder of Harrison's corpse. He let his head drop back against the wall. His finger was still curled around the Colt Richards' trigger. He couldn't make it release.

The sky above the alleyway was cloudless, searing blue. Infinity. It made his eyes ache and burn. He shuddered violently, seeing the black specks circling high, high above town.


His face itched. He didn't touch it. He knew it was Harrison's blood, but it felt exactly the way Saville's had. He swallowed hard and wondered if he wasn't going to throw up, too. The alley reeked already, the air fouled with the fetor of garbage and urine, joined now with blood and vomit, gunsmoke and the stench of voided bowels from the body. A little more stink would be lost in it.

Saliva flood his mouth and he spit to the side hurriedly.

Buck looked up.


Ezra clawed at the wall behind him with his free hand, pulling himself back onto his feet. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I'll get Nathan," he croaked.

"JD ain't going to want him."

Ezra stared at him dully, not understanding. Then he remembered and another stab of pain ran through him. Oh yes. JD had taken his part over Nathan's in the matter of the poisoning. But he wouldn't let JD suffer for that loyalty.

"Mr. Jackson is still the closest thing we have to a doctor here and Mr. Dunne took a severe blow to the head," he insisted.

Buck looked down at JD, who was still only semi-conscous.

"All right, you go on an get him."

Ezra fumbled twice then managed to reholster the Colt Richards. His body felt disconnected from his head as he walked back toward the livery. He thought he'd heard Nathan in the barn while he was sitting with Hazard ... The man was probably upstairs in his clinic.

He walked straight down the main street, unaware of the horrified looks and the way anyone near drew back from his appearance.

Nathan opened the clinic door and stared in shock.

Ezra's face was a mask of cracked, drying blood dominated by his glazed green eyes.

"JD's hurt," Ezra rasped curtly.

Nathan stared at him.

"Buck's with him."

"Where?" he asked.

"Alley. Back of the saloon," came the curt reply. Ezra was already turning away.

"He shot?" Nathan called. He picked up his bag of medicines, trying decide what he'd need to treat JD. From the amount of blood on Ezra someone was dead. That usually meant shot, though knives made for bloodier fights, but JD didn't fight with knives and neither did Ezra. He added, "What happened?"

"Hit over the head."

Nathan stomped down the stairs behind Ezra, irritated by his close-mouthed answers. Irritated by everything about him, as usual. He'd bet whatever trouble JD had run into it had been because of the gambler.

"He pass out?"

"I ... don't know."

"You ain't a lot of use," Nathan said scornfully. He hurried past Ezra. He didn't notice him stop and just lean against the wall. He wouldn't have cared if he had. Ezra was the reason everything had gone to hell. Nathan blamed him for the way the rest of the seven treated him like some kind of pariah.

Even Josiah didn't look at him the same anymore. Nathan had finally explained everything about Maude and the demon's brew he'd told her to use on Ezra as they rode back to Four Corners. Josiah had said very little. But there'd been a sort of gentle respect in Josiah's attitude toward Nathan before. That had gone.

It was all Ezra's fault, Nathan had decided.

Vin met Chris riding back into town. It had been a while since they'd spent any time together and it felt good. The old, easy understanding between them was still there, just less intense.

Vin figured that was a good thing.

Chris didn't need anyone to pull him out of his despair anymore. Vin didn't need the promise of company when he finally rode back to Tascosa to face a noose. They'd both made it through their desperate times. Now they were just two men that liked and respected and understood each other. But neither of them needed the other man to stand up any more; they could stand on their own.

It felt good.

He glanced over at Chris. A quirky smile lifted the his friend's lips. Understanding and the same thoughts showed through his eyes. He nodded and tipped his hat at Vin.

The feeling of peace lasted until they spotted Tiny and his team of mules pulling an open freight wagon with a dead horse in the bed. The liveryman was hunched over on his seat, the harness ribbons loose in his fingers, letting the mules set their own pace out of town.

Tiny loved horses. It was what made him one of the best livery man Vin had known, but it meant the death of a horse hurt him. That alone would explain the man's slumped shoulders. But the way Tiny looked up as they rode up next to the wagon and shook his head before running a big hand over his face, convinced Vin something worse had happened than an animal just dying.

Maybe something a lot more than that, too.

They spurred forward to meet the wagon then reined around to pace it in the same direction. Chris drew Nero up alongside the wagon, nodding to Tiny.

Peso balked and neighed in protest at the reek of death and the flies already buzzing in hellish numbers over the dead horse. Vin winced and soothed the mustang, turning his face away from the back of the wagon. Something in him screamed that he knew the dead animal.

"Trouble?" Chris asked Tiny.

Tiny nodded.

Vin guided Peso to walk along outside of Nero and Chris. The wagon creaked over the road, groaning a little as a wheel dropped into a rut. The high hum of the flies made Vin's nerves crawl.

"Mr. Standish had to shoot his horse."

The shock made Vin sit back in the saddle and pull Peso up. He stared at the bloodied, dull creature in the wagon bed and his brain finally matched it with the high-headed, chestnut gelding he'd snuck an apple to only that morning when he'd come in to saddle Peso.

"Aw, Jesus, Ez," he muttered.

Chris glanced back and grimaced. "Hell."

"What happened?" Vin asked roughly.

Tiny's expression of sorrow deepened. "Got fed loco weed by someone. Went plumb crazy. Wrecked the stall." He rubbed at his chin. Vin noticed a dark bruise blooming there. "Broke a leg, done some bad damage to one of his hooves, got all cut up. Wasn't nothing anyone could do," he explained slowly. The regret in his eyes was leavened with respect. "Mr. Standish did what had to be done before his horse could tear himself up worse." He looked down at the reins in his big hands. "He didn't say much, but I don't figure I ever seen anyone take it any harder than him."

Vin glanced back at Hazard's body and nodded to himself. Doing that would just about kill Ezra.

"You know who did it?" Chris demanded. "Who poisoned that horse?" He was as coldly furious as Vin was sad.

"Figure it was the feller that attacked the sheriff," Tiny replied. "He's dead. Heard a couple stories. Mr. Standish or Buck Wilmington shot him dead. Don't know for sure, Sam gets things mixed up sometimes and I was busy getting the carcass out of the barn."

"JD?" Chris snapped.

"Heard they had him over to Mr. Jackson's clinic," Tiny said. He looked up. "One of you want to tell Mr. Standish I got his gun in the tackroom? ... He just left it after ..."

"Yeah, we'll do that, Tiny," Vin promised. Chris was already intent on getting to town and finding out the rest of what had happened. Vin knew they weren't going to make any difference. Whatever had happened was done.

Chris pulled Nero around and set him toward Four Corners at a gallop.

Vin tipped his hat to Tiny, then set Peso after Chris.


He found Ezra holed up in his room. A filthy, blood-soaked coat lay on the floor. The pitcher on the washstand was empty and the bowl full of dirty water. The towel crumpled next to it was stained too.

Ezra was in his shirt sleeves, sitting in his rocker, just staring out the window. Whatever effort he'd made to clean up had run out of steam before he finished. Vin could see muck in his hair.

Vin stepped into the room and just stood. Ezra didn't acknowledge him.

He nodded to himself.

"JD's going to be okay, Ez," Vin told him. They stopped first at the livery, going upstairs to Nathan's familiar domain to check on their youngest. JD was in bed, a wet cloth over his forehead, a pot of willow bark tea cooling on the stove. Buck was sitting with him. It had been such a familiar scene Vin had felt dizzy.

He'd looked away from JD and saw Nathan staring at him.

Nathan's eyes were dark with anger and blame. Vin knew just who he was blaming too. He stepped over to JD's side, patted his shoulder and told him he was happy to hear he would all right. Then he'd left, knowing Chris would stick with Buck for a while before going over to the jail and spelling Josiah. There was nothing else to do. Things were long past fixing.

He'd stopped into Tiny's tackroom afterwards, after he led Peso inside the livery. He hesitated and stared at the ruined stall for a long moment before going on and untacking his own horse. He spent several extra moments grooming the mustang, acknowledging his own attachment, until Peso grew impatient and tried kick him through a wall. With a slap to the rump, Vin had exited Peso's stall. He'd left his tack with Sam to clean up and retrieved Ezra's Remington.

He set it next to Ezra's gunbelt, which was tossed carelessly on the top of his dresser.

"A blow to the head can be quite serious," Ezra said.

"Yep." He was glad Ezra was at least talking. He moved into the room and began gathering together a simple change of clothes.

Ezra turned his head far enough to watch what Vin was doing.

"May I inquire why you are making free with my belongings, Vin?" he asked after some time.

"Just getting you something to wear after we get done at the bathhouse."

Ezra tipped his head back.

"I don't wish to go out."

"Did ask what ya wished."

"Ah." Ezra turned back to the window. The rocker squeaked softly. "Not the green," he murmured. "I've taken a scunner to that color."

Vin looked at the green coat in his hands and realized it was the same shade Ezra had worn the night his cousin was killed. He hung it back up and pulled out a bluish-gray garment instead.

Vin set the gathered clothes on the quilt-topped bed. He walked over and set his hand on Ezra's head. He could remember his mother doing that when he was small, before she died of the fever. He remembered how it felt somehow like she was laying some special protection over him. Ezra's head bowed.

He couldn't come up with anything comforting to say. Only, "Some things are just bitter, Ez. Just bitter all the way through." He thought of other things he wanted to say, but none of them were right. Not yet.

Ezra's hand tightened around the arm of the rocking chair. He nodded.

"I know," Vin said. "I know."

"My soap is in a gold and ivory keeper in the top drawer of the dresser," Ezra murmured.

Vin went and retrieved the soap while Ezra rose from the rocker. He carried the clothes and the soap and walked slowly beside his friend until they reached the bathhouse.

Mulligan took one look at Ezra and nodded to Vin. He pointed to the backroom where a man could wash up in private. Vin set a coin on the counter. Mulligan snatched it up. "The boy'll be back with towels and extra hot water," Mulligan promised. "Ya need soap?"

"Nope. Just leave us alone."

Mulligan nodded. He darted another look at Ezra and his face twisted. Ezra ignored everything. Vin pushed him forward and he went.

Vin paused and glanced back. He fished out another coin and tossed it to Mulligan. "Go get a bottle of Scotch from Inez."

Mulligan nodded.

Vin figured that maybe, if he got drunk enough, Ezra might sit the tub and finally let out some of the grief that he'd been carrying around since Virginia City – since the war really – either that or he'd just drink himself into passing out. Either way, Vin would be around to watch his back.

Sometime during the night, he would get a promise out of Ezra; a promise to stay in Four Corners until Vin returned. He knew Ezra would want to go now, but there was something Vin meant to do before that and when Ezra left he meant to be riding beside him.

He just hoped that what he meant to do would work out right.

27. Four Corners, 1877

I know that the spades are swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart

Shape of My Heart, Sting

"JD, you realize that this is utter drivel, don't you?" Ezra asked. He lifted the dime novel in his hand with an expression of distaste. The cover showed a cowboy all in black with a bandanna over his eyes and two pistols in his hands. The Blind Gunfighter Returns was printed in florid type above the picture.

JD didn't open his eyes.

"It could happen, Ez."

"Oh, of a certainty," Ezra exclaimed scornfully. "Why just ask Mr. Larabee and I'm sure he'll tell you how accurately he can shoot with his eyes closed! A blind gunfighter. Ridiculous."

They were sitting on the sidewalk outside the jail, waiting for the heat of the day to pass.

"You tired of reading to me?" JD asked.

Ezra hesitated. "No," he said.

He studied JD. Was he still a little pale? He looked thinner. Ezra knew JD had found it difficult to keep anything down for over a week after Harrison hit him upside the head. Perhaps his appetite was still impaired. He would have to see about making sure Buck wasn't eating most of JD's meals.

"No," he repeated firmly.

He opened the dime novel again, only grimacing slightly at the purple prose that described the brave American gunfighter's quest for revenge on the evil Mexican Don who had him blinded for courting the Don's daughter. Or something like that. The fictional character's fate served as a reminder that it was never a good idea to interrupt the privacy of a lady's bath, whether she was the virgin goddess of the hunt or a fiery Spanish senorita.

The tale had progressed to the gunfighter's meeting with a mysterious guitar player also in search of vengeance.

Pure tripe.

He began reading again. JD insisted he was recovered, but privately admitted that he was still suffering from a headache that only got worse when he tried to read. Ezra had agreed to read to him and over the last week it had become something of a habit.

The novel had progressed to the gunfighter's discovery that his inamorata had indeed betrayed him to her father when a dusty horse and rider, trailed by a second horse, resolved themselves out of the shimmering heat haze. Ezra paused and cocked his head, watching as they made their way closer, slowly becoming recognizable.

The blaze-faced mustang ambled down Main Street looking weary. On his back, Vin slouched down in the saddle, looking equally worn. His hat was tipped low over his face.

The blue roan on the lead rope dallied to Vin's saddle horn looked the worst of them. The horse was gaunted, ribs clear along its sides, flanks sunken. It still snorted and balked at the end of the lead rope, eyes rolling white at the surrounds of the town.

People scattered away from the roan as it neighed and danced at the end of the rope, kicking and striking with its forelegs at anything too near.

"That's some horse," JD breathed from beside Ezra. He'd opened his eyes and sat forward with his forearms on his knees. His gaze was bright with approval of the roan.

Ezra agreed. Even used-up and dirty, nothing could hide the animal's spirit or its clean conformation nor the deep, slate-blue gleam on its dark coat. A genuinely beautiful horse that any man would envy owning. He cocked his head. Yes, it was the mustang they'd all admired as they passed through Arizona.

Vin had apparently returned along their trail to do some horse hunting.

"Mr. Tanner should make a fine profit from his catch."

Vin drew Peso up in front of the jail. He ignored the roan's antics serenely.

"Glad you're still around, Ez."

"I did agree to remain," Ezra replied.

He spotted a small nod on JD's part and saw Vin's lips curl into a smile. JD looked quite satisfied, too. So satisfied that Ezra realized the sheriff had been playing up his infirmity to keep Ezra from leaving. He felt a spark of indignation, but pride in JD's subtle and successful con overtook that feeling.

"Might I inquire to your plans for that fine piece of horseflesh?" he asked Vin.


Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"What do you plan on doing with him, Vin?"

Vin's smile flashed white.

"Goin' to take him down to Tiny's, put him into one of the corrals, and after that he's your problem, Ez."

Ezra stared at the grinning Texan. "My problem, sir?" he repeated.


He looked at the blue roan again, cataloguing the long, sound legs, the depth of the horse's chest, the proud arch of his neck and the high carriage of his tail, the back neither too long or too short, the hindquarters laded with muscle, and small ears set wide apart on the broad, sculpted head that promised intelligence as well as spirit. The horse was faultless. Probably not more than three years old, the roan didn't even sport the old scars that a life in the wild eventually would inflict.

The roan was truly magnificent.

"Know it ain't Hazard," Vin said.

Ezra jerked his gaze back to Vin's suddenly serious face.

"But a man needs a good horse. He's got all the speed and bottom ya'll ever need. Figure you can break and train him yourself." Vin paused. "Or I can help ya."

"Vin, this is – it's too much. I can't – "

"Yeah, you can, Ezra," JD said firmly. "You have to."

Ezra glanced at JD. JD looked back at him calmly, a quiet, determined wisdom in his gaze and his young face that was very much like Vin's and that told Ezra JD understood everything.

He licked his lower lip nervously.

No, the roan wasn't Hazard. Nothing would take the chestnut's place or erase his sorrow over what had happened. But the roan was a gift from a friend and he would be a knave and a churl to refuse it.

The roan swung around on the long lead and tried to kick Peso. The black mustang shifted just far enough out of the way to avoid the blow. Vin moved fluidly with him, at one with his mount.

Ezra took a deep breath.

"I'd appreciate that, Vin."

Vin smiled again, slow and pleased, before nodding his head to both JD and Ezra and headed for the livery.

The roan blew out one last, blasting neigh then obeyed the insistent tug of the lead with a toss of his head.

"Guess you'll have to stay a little longer, until you get your horse broke," JD said.

Ezra chuckled at the satisfaction in JD's voice.

"For a while, JD." He cuffed JD's arm lightly. "Were you in on this plan with Mr. Tanner?"

JD grinned at him. "Nope. I heard him making Chris and Buck swear they wouldn't let you take off before he come back, though. I just, you know, exaggerated how much my head was hurting. I really do like listening to you read, Ezra. And I knew you wouldn't leave as long as you were worried about me."

"Why on earth would I worry about you, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked.

JD just laughed. 


"So, Ez, what're you goin' to name him?" Buck asked.

Ezra, seated across the table from him, raised his eyebrows. "That seems a trifle premature."

Buck leaned back in his chair. He spread his arms wide. "Hell, you been working with him for a week now. You got to have some sort of idea."

Ezra glanced at the other men at the table with them. "Gentlemen?"

"You could call him Blue," JD offered disingenuously.

"I could," Ezra agreed, pursing his lips. As if he would name his mount something so ... plebian.

JD's eyes glinted. He dodged Buck's half-hearted swipe at his hat and settled back in his own chair.

"Kid, you know Ezra ain't goin' to name that horse nothing any ordinary person would," Buck laughed.

Ezra buffed his fingernails against his silver brocade vest. "I have always considered myself out of the ordinary."

One seat away, just beyond Vin, Chris chuckled into his mug of beer. The day's heat had even the whiskey drinkers with a large mug of something in front of them. JD had his milk. Josiah was nursing a tall glass of plain water. He hadn't been drunk since coming back from Virginia City.

Josiah tipped his head back and recited: "'Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible. He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength; He goes out to meet the weapons.'"

"Uh hunh," Buck grunted.

"From the Book of Job."

"You figure that roan is goin' to 'leap like a locust' when Ezra gets around to tryin' to fork him for the first time?" Buck asked.

"You don't, Brother?"

"Hell, yes. That stud's goin' to go up like a rocket." Buck laughed. "I'd lay money on it."

"Oh, really, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra pounced on the prospect of a wager. "What do you wager?"

Buck's mouth fell open and an expression of sheer dismay overtook his handsome features. He looked at his other companions for a little help and garnered no more than toothy grins and Vin's outright laughter. He closed his mouth.

"All right, Ezra. Twenty bucks says the wild horse throws you at least once before he's broke to ride."

Ezra's gold tooth flashed.


Vin just shook his head and JD giggled.

Chris raised an eyebrow at Buck and told him, "Don't think I'm going to cover that bet, Buck."

Buck grabbed up his beer and hid his face behind the mug after taking a long swig.

Chris looked over at Ezra. "You want to take him out to my ranch, do the work there? Bit quieter."

Ezra considered the offer. The solitude of Chris' ranch would be better for gentling the skittish roan. Vin's gift was too fine a horse not to have drawn attention already. He had no intention of putting on a rodeo for the entertainment of a mob of loutish observers. They could be too distracting.

He nodded. "I'd appreciate that."

Chris rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw. "You planning on getting him cut?' he asked.

JD flinched and Buck crossed his legs.

Ezra nodded regretfully. An uncut stud was just too stroppy to use as a regular mount. They were too much like Buck Wilmington; let them get downwind of a mare in season and that was all they were interested in.

"He's an awful fine horse," Chris said. "Seems a shame."

"Unfortunately, as you know, stallions are simply too contentious to make good saddle horses," Ezra replied.

He sensed Chris had an idea. It wouldn't be an offer to buy the stud; Chris knew Ezra needed and wanted the roan as his new mount. Which left him curious over what Chris did have in mind.

Chris nodded. "Got a proposition for you, Ezra." He leaned forward with his forearms on the table. "I got three mares that are ready to foal in the next two, three weeks. And I know for a fact Tiny told Buck Darling was getting ready to come in season, 'cause he wanted her out of the barn so that big Percheron stud he got don't kick his barn down trying to get to her."

Ezra waited and Buck exploded, "Don't you go offerin' up my Darlin' for breeding, hoss. Hell, she gets in foal, what am I goin' to ride? You think about that?"

Chris waved a hand. "Fine." He ignored Buck's continuing splutters and met Ezra's eyes. "I'm thinking that we breed your stud to my mares before you get him gelded. With any luck, one of the foals is a good colt I can use for stud instead of trying to buy one. You get your choice of one of the others. Leave the foal with me or sell it, whatever you please."

It would mean returning to Four Corners eventually. Chris knew that. He was offering Ezra a part in his fledging horse ranch. Of course, Ezra had the money to buy his own ranch or any other business he desired now. Chris was offering something else.

Something Ezra realized he was going to accept. Though he wasn't going to make it too easy.

"One for you, one for me, and the third?" Ezra asked. He raised an eyebrow.

Chris grinned. "Well, I'm the one taking the gamble here, providing the mares and doing the raising. I figure I need to show a profit."

Ezra couldn't help laughing. Chris knew exactly how to sweeten the pot. He was promising Ezra he wouldn't have to do any of the work.

"All right, Chris," he agreed. "We'll try it. It did seem a shame to end what appears to be a fine bloodline. Let's hope he breeds true." He extended his hand over the table to Chris and shook. "I'll pony him out to your place tomorrow and begin working with him until your mares are ready. After that, the poor fellow will see the end of his procreative days."

"I used to be a pretty good hand at gelding," Chris offered. He leveled a look at Buck. His lips curled up as Buck rolled his eyes at the silent innuendo that he should have practiced his skills on more than horses.

"So, Ezra," JD asked, "What are you going to call your horse?"

"I shall decide when I have finished training him, JD."

"You don't mind if I come out and watch?"

"Of course not," Ezra told him. He sat back and withdrew a deck of cards from his vest. In the mean time ... "Could I interest any of you gentlemen in a game of chance?"

Ezra leaned against the pole fence next to Chris, idly scratching behind the still nameless blue roan's ear. While not fully broke yet, the two of them were well on their way to an excellent partnership. The roan already let Ezra handle him without fuss.

He had already done his enthusiastic duty for the three sleek mares grazing with their foals in the paddock beyond the corral too. Now he was nibbling at Ezra's pockets, searching for the treats he'd learned Ezra would have for him.

"When are you going to try getting in the saddle?" Chris asked tranquilly. His arms were resting folded on the top cross pole while he looked past his mares toward the horizon.

They were facing east, away from the setting sun that streaked the sky with fire that lit embers in the coats of the bay mare and the two chestnuts.

Ezra had spent the last weeks out at Chris's ranch each day, even spending some nights there, slowly teaching his horse to trust him. He'd taught the roan to lead, to accept a halter and then a hackamore. After that, he'd introduced the roan to a light snaffle bit. Once the roan was accustomed to wearing the bridle, Ezra had started laying a blanket over the roan's back each day. The next step had been letting Ezra lay over his back for a minute, then a few minutes, then as long as Ezra stayed there.

Ezra had actually swung astride the roan days before, but that had been bareback. The saddle was what the roan didn't like. Ezra had patiently kept working with him until it was possible to tack him up without a fight. He thought they might be ready for the next step.


"Going to tell Buck?"

"Hmmn." Ezra thought about it. There was the bet ... He shrugged. "If I see him tonight at the saloon, I'll mention it."

"Vin'll be out here tomorrow anyway."

Ezra nodded. Vin had spent long hours at the ranch, helping him with the roan. He rubbed the roan's nose then pushed him back. "Enough, you greedy fiend," he told the horse fondly. The roan snorted then trotted to the far side of the corral, where he turned and watched the mares and foals with pricked ears.

Two of the gangly-legged colts tore across the paddock, drawing up just in time to avoid hitting the fence, before turning and galloping back to their dams' sides, necks and bottle-tails carried high. Ezra watched them with real pleasure. He wondered if the next year's foals would be as fine and decided he would have to return in time to admire them. The thought surprised him. His determination to leave Four Corners soon hadn't dimmed, yet for the first time he knew without any doubt he would return to a place. He would return to Four Corners. How curious that, after all that had passed, that place would still be Four Corners.

As long as Chris or Buck or JD or Josiah still remained in Four Corners, Ezra would return. He would return, knowing he would find himself welcome. It was a pleasant thought and a smile accompanied it.

"My grandfather always said he didn't need anything more to entertain him in life than to watch a bunch of foals or a litter of kittens playing," Chris remarked.

Ezra watched the foals' antics as the dusk deepened. "I never knew either of my grandfathers," he disclosed. It wasn't painful; one seldom missed what one had never had. "My Peyton grandfather passed away in his mistress' bed some time before my birth – an end I've always admired – and my Standish grandfather died of a heart seizure after my uncle Davis was killed in a duel with my father. That effectively ruined the Standishs." He sighed. "Your grandfather sounds like a much more pleasant man than either of mine."

Chris laughed quietly. "He was a charmer, they say, but worthless as the teats on a boar hog according to my grandmother."

Ezra chuckled.

Chris pushed away from the fence and stretched. "May as well come inside and have supper. Ain't got nothing but beans and bacon, of course."

"Amazing what I've become accustomed to making do with," Ezra said.

Chris headed for the dark bulk of his cabin. Ezra followed and slipped inside the cabin behind him, waiting as Chris lit one his oil lamps and adjusted the wick then slipped the fragile glass chimney back over it. The warm light illuminated the cramped interior of the cabin, the quilt-covered cot in the corner, the flour sack curtains and rickety furniture.

Chris went over to the stove and built up the fire. Ezra leaned against the doorjamb and stayed out of his way as Chris went about making dinner.

"Stupid to ride back to town in the dark," Chris mentioned as they ate.

Ezra shrugged.

"You can lay out your bedroll on the porch like Vin does. I know it's cramped in here," Chris went on. "I need to build on to the cabin and put in a bigger barn. More paddocks. More fence." He grimaced. "Even if I had the money ..."

"About that, Chris," Ezra said, setting his spoon beside his tin plate and ignoring the last piece of bacon rind. "I have a proposition, as you put it, myself. I would like to invest in your horse breeding venture. I'm sure that with sufficient funds you will be successful."

Chris blinked at him. Ezra smiled. He'd finally managed to rock Chris' poise.

"You're serious, Ezra?"

"Of course. I find myself reluctant to give up all ties to ... to our little band of reprobates," Ezra explained. "Horses are one of the few honest areas of expertise I possess, I respect your own knowledge and I am at the moment rather more than flush."

Chris cocked his head, clearly thinking about it.

"How much are you talking about investing?"

"Enough to accomplish the improvements you mentioned."


"You needn't make your decision too swiftly. The offer will remain open," Ezra finished quietly.

He rose from his place at the table and slipped outside onto the porch.

He was laying out his bedroll by the dim but sufficient light of the stars when Chris stepped out and joined him.

"What kind of say in this partnership do you figure to get for your money?" Chris asked. He pulled a cheroot out and lit it.

Ezra glanced over at him, but couldn't see much more than a black silhouette and the bright red ember at the end of the cheroot.

"From day to day? None. I don't expect to even be here, Chris," he said. "I might offer a suggestion or perhaps acquire some additional stock where the opportunity presented itself, but essentially I would be a silent partner." He added, "I just want some place to come back to sometimes."

The ember flared brighter as Chris inhaled then almost blinked out.

"You already got that," Chris murmured. "You and Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah. Even Nathan, I guess."

Even Nathan. Not even Ezra. Ezra repressed a snort of amusement at how Nathan would like that. At the same time something clenched inside him slowly relaxed.

"Yes," he agreed softly. Even Nathan.

"You stay in the saddle tomorrow and we'll ride into Four Corners and get the papers drawn up making you a partner."


Ezra looked up at the small stained-glass window in the church and waited for Josiah to notice him. Josiah was replacing a rotten floor plank behind the altar. It kept him on his knees, back bent, as he carefully pried and levered the nails free, setting them aside to save and use again.

Josiah straightened eventually, setting his hammer and pry bar aside and pressing his hands to the small of his back. A soft groan escaped him. He twisted his neck from side to side working out some of the kinks and stiff muscles, then climbed to his feet.

"Hello, Ezra."

Ezra perched on the edge of one of the restored pews. "Hello, Josiah," he replied. He looked around the church. They'd all joked that Josiah's church was an unending penance, that he'd never finish, but he would. The church was almost finished. The roof where Josiah had spent so much time would no longer leak. The interior showed the care and time Josiah had lavished on it. All it really needed was a fresh coat of whitewash and a minister. Replacing the flooring was just make-work.

"I hear Buck owes you twenty dollars."

Ezra nodded.

"Named that horse yet?"

"Not yet."

Josiah smiled as though that didn't surprise him at all. He joined Ezra at the pew and sat down with a sigh and creak from his knees. "A man should grow wiser as he grows older, Ezra," he said.

"And have you, Josiah?" Ezra asked.

A rumble of laughter escaped Josiah. "What do you think, Ezra?"

Ezra steepled his fingers and cocked his head, looking over his hands at Josiah and appearing to consider the matter deeply. A smile tugged at his mouth. "Well ..."

Josiah smiled back at him.

"What was your son like?" Ezra asked. He turned his head and looked up at the yellow and red glass in the window after he spoke, making it clear he would let it go if Josiah chose to ignore the question.

Josiah shifted beside him.

"Juan was ... wild," Josiah said quietly. "Unhappy." He sighed tiredly. "The truth is he was bad. When they hung him ... He wasn't innocent."


"You aren't like him, Ezra."

"I'm no innocent."

"Not the same."

Ezra slanted a glance at Josiah. Josiah's expression was a little distant, a little fond, mostly weary. Remembering his son obviously pained him. It didn't seem that he saw Ezra as a reincarnation of his son and that was a relief. Ezra didn't like playing stand-in for a dead man, nor what it might say about how Josiah thought of him.

"You'll be leaving soon," Josiah said into the silence.


"I was angry at first. I thought your leaving would destroy what we had here."

Ezra had known.

Josiah pursed his lips. "Now I think you're right, Ezra," he declared. "We've enjoyed the wine; let's leave the bitter dregs in the bottle."

"Will you stay when the church is finished?" Ezra asked.

"I don't think so, Ezra," came the answer. "My penance isn't done."

"Was what you did so bad?"

"Bad enough, Ezra. I've done evil in my time."

"You've made up for it, Josiah."

Josiah shook his head. "You don't know, Ezra. 'Just as the sand-dunes, heaped one upon another, hide each the first, so in life the former deeds are quickly hidden by those that follow after.'"[xvi]

"Marcus Aurelius?"

Josiah smiled.

Ezra got up.

"Maybe we'll run into each on the trail somewhere," he said.

"I'll look forward to it, Ezra."

He left Josiah watching the changing light pass through the window, the colors slowly creeping over the altar. The church door closed behind him without even a creak from the well-oiled hinges.

Nathan confronted him on his way into the saloon, grabbing his arm when Ezra would have passed him with a polite nod and gone on inside.

"Hear you conned Chris into some fool notion of going into business with you," Nathan accused.

"Unlike yourself, I feel no hesitation in investing my money with a friend," Ezra replied. "Even should this venture fail, I won't regret it." It was the only reproof he would ever allow himself toward Nathan over the loss of his saloon.

Nathan didn't even register it.

"You're up to something," he insisted, glaring at Ezra.

"My latest nefarious intentions are to join Vin and enjoy a drink and some of Señorita Recillios' excellent cooking." He looked pointedly at the large hand still locked on his bicep.

Down the street, Chris and Buck were loading supplies onto a rented wagon in front of Watson's Hardware. Ezra had transferred the money from his account to Chris that morning at the bank. Chris had immediately grabbed Buck and set out to begin his ranch improvements.

He saw Chris pause and turn to stare at the saloon. He started toward them a step, but Ezra shook his head.

Nathan turned and noticed Chris standing and watching. Buck stood by the side of wagon, not going back inside the hardware store for another load. He was waiting too.

Nathan released his arm and immediately poked him in the chest. "You got some folks fooled right now, Ezra, but I ain't."

Ezra heaved a theatrical sigh, miming utter boredom. "Are you finished, Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan spat over the edge of the sidewalk and strode away.

Ezra rolled his eyes then tipped his hat toward Chris and Buck before slipping into the welcoming dimness of the saloon.

"I guess ya figure it's time to ride out," Vin said after sitting down at the table with Ezra. Inez slipped out from behind the bar and brought over a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. She set them down silently on the table between the two men, brushed her hand over Ezra's shoulder and then Vin's, before leaving them. Her mouth turned down a little as she walked away.

Ezra casually shuffled the cards in his hands, sighed, and said, "Yes, Vin." He looked around the dim interior of the Saloon, then let his gaze stray to the brilliant light shining through the windows and the batwing doors. The ever-present dust that hung the air glittered like false gold. "Whatever it was that held me to this place once my thirty days were up ... is gone now."

Vin picked up the whiskey bottle and tipped a shot of the amber liquid into Ezra's glass and then into his own. "Reckon I feel some the same," he said quietly. He knocked back about half of the whiskey then set the glass down again. "Ain't the same no more."

Ezra picked up his glass and sipped.

"I will miss it," he admitted.

The smell of horse manure, the streets that were either a mire of mud or desert dusty, the peach pies at the restaurant, the earnest Widow Travis with her ink-stained fingers and flaxen head, his feather bed in his room above the saloon, his companions at least sometimes watching his back ... He had spent three years in Four Corners, risking his life nearly daily for a farcical stipend and the pleasure of calling himself a lawman. He'd never stayed anywhere so long before. It had grown ... comfortable.

Vin smiled that lopsided smile of his.

"Four Corners or the seven of us?"

Ezra shrugged gracefully. "For me, they were one and the same." He absently continued to shuffle with one hand. The mark from his wedding ring had disappeared. He no longer noticed its absence. He found he didn't regret the life he had dreamed of sharing with his young wife. He wouldn't have been happy long with Lorena.

He had, at various moments, been happy in Four Corners.

He wasn't any longer.

"Ya'll be missed."

Ezra eyed Vin. "Mr. Tanner, you are an abysmal liar," he said sardonically. He leaned back in his chair, smiling his best game smile. "The most that may be said is that should this sleepy hamlet be plagued by malefactors once more, my gun or my God-given talents might be missed – briefly. Mr. Mosely does a more than adequate job in my place."

"Ain't true, Ez," Vin insisted, his voice a low rasp. His blue eyes were intent. "We's your friends. Wouldn't matter none to us if you couldn't hold a gun or a card."

Ezra laughed out loud.

"Friends, Mr. Tanner?" He shook his head in denial. "Perhaps it is cynical of me, but I have observed that in most cases friendship entails a rather different standard in what is expected from me than from those so-called personages." His lips turned down in a frown and his hands sent the cards rippling in a waterfall back and forth. "Nor would I debase the word further by using it to describe the case of myself and Mr. Jackson."

"Ya know 'bout Nathan," Vin said sadly.

Ezra had learned to expect the hidden blow and the quick suspicion of everyone in his life. It didn't surprise him when it came.

Ezra's hands stilled. Long lashes dipped over his eyes. Silently, he nodded. "I am afraid that young Mr. Dunne and I were present in the next room when you confronted Mr. Jackson in Virginia City." He began shuffling absently again. "It was an unpleasant revelation for our stalwart compatriot. A blow to his faith in his fellow man."

"Reckon for ya too."

Ezra shifted his shoulders in something that wasn't quite a shrug. "I was considerably less surprised."

Disappointed. He'd been disappointed, but not surprised. He'd known his mother knew almost nothing of poisons. Nathan had been the obvious choice to provide one. He hadn't cared to have his suspicions confirmed, believing it would serve no real purpose. He hadn't trusted Nathan in regards to himself for some time.

Vin shook his head. "Don't understand why's he's so mad at ya, when he's the one that done wrong."

"Of course you do, Vin," Ezra reproved. "You're too versed in human nature not to recognize his reaction." He shrugged eloquently. "Quos læserunt et oderunt."[xvii]

"What's that one mean?"

"Whom they have injured they also hate."

Vin grunted. "I guess so."

Ezra sipped his drink and caught Inez' eye.

"Dinner, Mr. Tanner?" he asked.


He motioned Inez over.

"So when are you going?"

"Tomorrow morning."


Ezra felt vaguely put out by Vin's easy acceptance of his plans, despite his reluctance to quarrel with him over those plans. He'd expected a little more from Vin. He managed a sour smile. It was perverse of him to want Vin to ask him to stay, since Vin, of them all, understood why he needed to go most.

It was time and past time.

To linger any longer would only serve to taint what had been in his memories.

"So what are ya goin' to call that horse?"

"Jester," Ezra decided, arriving at the name as he spoke.

Vin smiled sweetly.

"Reckon that's a good one."

28. Four Corners, 1877

Now these towns, they all know our name.
six-gun sound is our claim to fame.
I can hear them say...
Bad Company, and I won't deny.
Bad. Bad Company, til the day I die. 'til the day I die...

Bad Company, Bad Company (Bandits)

Ezra rode out before dawn, Jester eager and untried under him and his pack tied behind his saddle.

The blue roan had just settled into a smooth running walk when Vin trotted Peso up beside them.

Ezra considered the lopsided smile Vin gave him by the gray, pre-morning light. He should have realized, but hadn't allowed the thought – the hope – to take hold.

"Got a problem?" Vin asked.


"Which way we going?"

"Whichever way we want to," Ezra replied and Vin laughed.

"How about we head some place green?"

They turned the horses north.

Eventually, Ezra reined in his mount at the top of a ridge and looked back at the little blot that was Four Corners, and commented, "Fuimus Troes."[xviii]

The bright horizon heralded the sunrise, the mountains along the horizon a jagged, black knife-edge cut against the sky. Four Corners remained in those mountains' shadow, still and quiet, only the warm light of lanterns from a few windows and the pale twist of smoke rising from stovepipes, giving any evidence of occupation.

"You quotin' that Homer fella again?" Vin asked. Peso snorted, clouds of steam forming from the black gelding's breath. Vin patted the horse's shoulder.


"He one of them Greeks?"

Ezra smiled and said, "No, Virgil was a Roman. He wrote a tale called The Aeniad. A story of Aeneas, a heroic son of Ilium, the city the Greeks besieged in Homer's Iliad."

"You gonna tell me the story?"

"It's a good story, Vin."

Vin settled deeper into Peso's saddle and clucked to him. Peso struck a ground eating walk, Ezra's new mount matching him stride for stride. The air, still cold with the bite of night, seemed to fill their lungs the way it never did in town.

"Guess you better get started."

"Well," Ezra said happily, "it begins: 'Arms and the man'..."

The End

Story notes
(1) Magnificent Seven canon is so historically erratic, I've felt justified in picking a likely time frame and tweaking a few contradictory statements, like Nathan's age, to improve the story's consistencies.
(2) I have seen Digger Dan's Saloon referred to as Digger Dave's. I'm honestly unsure which is canonically correct. I've chosen Digger Dan's as I find it more euphonious. And if it was Dave's? Well, it's been taken over by cousin Dan.
(3) Peyton's Ford is completely imaginary, though I have placed it in the historically important and very real Fauquier County of Virginia, heart of the Old Dominion and Mosby's operations. The atrocity at it isn't modeled on any event.
(4) As far as I can tell, no one named Standish served in Mosby's Rangers. Several individuals named Howard were on the rolls, but none with the first name of Saville. More than one artillery officer, as well as cavalry officers and enlisted men, migrated to the partisans, for a multitude of reasons.
(5) Stairstep Canyon and the Swedish Hat Silver Strike are complete inventions as well and I have played fast and loose with both geography and geology. Though a new, major strike would have been very important in Virginia City in 1877, when the famous Comstock Lode was starting to show signs of playing out.
(6) I have taken the names of a few historical figures in vain, but only in passing and not as part of the story.

Auburn, Aug 13, 2004

[i] Who shall guard the guards themselves? Juvenal.
[ii] Since this is set in 1877 and 'Far From the Madding Crowd' was first published in 1874 (I think), I believe it is quite possible for Ezra to have obtained and read a copy, incorporating it into his lexicon. The opening seems to me to be something he would think of since the subject was church attendance.
[iii] Rules to Beleaguered Castle are in Goren's Hoyle Encyclopedia of Games, Greystone Press, Hawthorn Books, Inc. (NY), copyright 1961. It's played with a regular 52 card deck and resembles Free Cell more than traditional Solitaire.
[iv] Dr. Thomas Fuller (1654 – 1734), Gnomologia, 1732.
[v] Aristotle.
[vi] Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Sung to the tune of 'The Moreen'.
[vii] A purely fictitious place, any resemblance to any real locations named Elmo is coincidental and unintentional.
[viii] Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD), Moral Letters to Lucilius, 64 A.D.
[ix] Lorena by Reverend H.D.L. Webster
[x] Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, IV. i. 40
[xi] 'okay '- c.19th century, popularized during President Van Buren's re-election campaign in 1840.
[xii] Finn. Yes.
[xiii] St. Basil 329-379, Bishop of Caesarea
[xiv] The word once spoken can never be recalled. Horace.
[xv] Leviticus 21:9
[xvi] Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180), Roman Emperor
[xvii] Seneca.
[xviii] We were Trojans. Virgil.
[xix] Heb. Don't look at the jug, but what is in it; never judge a book by its cover.



  • Summary: An act of generosity on Ezra's part has unintended consequences for the Seven.
  • Fandom: Magnificent Seven
  • Rating: Mature
  • Warnings: none
  • Author Notes: 
  • Date: 8.13.04
  • Length: 140231 words
  • Genre: gen
  • Category: Western, Action/Adventure, Drama, Angst
  • Cast: Ezra Standish, Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington, J.D. Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, Mary Travis, Maude Standish
  • Betas: cobalt and rez-lo
  • Disclaimer: Not for profit. Transformative work written for private entertainment.

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