Dealer's Choice
(Old West)

by Sue Bartholomew

Disclaimer: The characters of The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, CBS and Trilogy. I am not profiting by their use in any way.
Author's Note: The name of Ezra's horse Chaucer was created by Kristen.
The name of Buck's horse Beauty was created by Ezra's Cat.
The name of Vin's horse Sire was created by BeckyMCat.


"Feast your eyes, gentlemen-the Desert Star Saloon, in the fair town of Tucson, soon to belong to yours truly."

The photograph was slapped onto the rustic saloon table with much aplomb, earning reactions from the small group of men seated around it ranging from awe to mild interest to outright apathy. None of the other barroom patrons on this bright autumn afternoon were paying any attention at all, a fact which fazed the dapper, well-dressed gentleman who spoke these words not in the least.

"Boy, thatís really nice, Ezra," the young, black-haired sheriff enthused, leaning over his almost-empty mug of milk to gaze at the image. "Two stories and everything!"

"Lace curtains, beveled glass, the works, huh?" muttered the burly figure who sat nearby, polishing his gun as he glanced over the picture. "Looks like quite the den of iniquity -- just your style, Iíd say."

"Ah, but itís profitable iniquity, Josiah -- the best kind," Ezra replied, grinning with delight as he produced a few more scraps of paper covered with drawn-out room plans and laid them before the others. There was a soft thump as his elegant index finger pointed out each scribbled feature. "Mahogany bar, billiards room, two fireplaces, and a full set of suites on the second floor for boarders. Thereís even space to make some additions, perhaps a roulette wheel or some faro tables."

"Put in that stuff, your customers wonít have any money for drinks," drawled the long-haired, leather-clad man who was stretched out in a chair nearby, hat pulled over his eyes, arms folded, seeming not to take notice of anything.

"Speakiní of money," Josiah remarked, looking up from his work, "how you gonna pay for this? Last I heard you only had about $300, aní this place donít look cheap."

"Ah, thatís the beauty of it," the gambler returned, gathering up his materials with a smile. "Mr. Hartley and I agreed that I could take over the place following my tenure here, provided I put down some money now. Weíre in negotiations right now, nothing finalized yet, but it appears quite promising. By the time our duties here are concluded I should be able to easily earn the balance needed for purchase of this establishment."

"If you ainít shot dead first, oí course," drawled the lounging man again, from underneath his hat. The young sheriff laughed, his mug of milk raised to his lips.

"Now, Vin, you just know Ezra ainít gonna let himself get killed now-heís gotta get his saloon first, right?"

"Right you are, Mr. Dunne, I fully intend to go to my grave an old, successful and obscenely wealthy man," the gambler replied, eying the photograph with gleeful anticipation before tucking it and the plans into his red jacket pocket. Josiah cocked his head.

"Iíd settle for just old, myself. How Ďbout you, JD?"

"I think Iíd settle for old too, aní famous maybe," the sheriff said with an eager smile after a momentís thought, setting down his empty mug. Ezra grinned as he took a seat and reached for the whiskey bottle and shot glass at the center of the table.

"I do hope you wonít be too popular to stop by my saloon, sir. A celebrity around the place would greatly enhance its appeal." He looked around as he poured. "Speaking of celebrities, whereís Mr. Larabee? Itís almost noon."

Vin didnít move. "Maybe he stopped to sign a few autographs."

JDís eyes wandered to the saloonís swinging doors. "No, wait, there he is. Boy, he doesnít look happy."

The small group turned to see a tall, lean gunslinger, dressed in a long black duster which swirled about his long legs as he strode through the doors, making straight for the table where they sat. The blue eyes which gleamed beneath his wide-brimmed black hat did indeed look stormy.

"Morniní, Chris," Josiah nodded, as the other men eyed the new arrival warily. "Have some breakfast."

"Donít mind if I do," Chris replied, reaching for the bottle and another glass. Vin watched him drink, concerned.

"We got problems, Chris?" he asked quietly, once the gunslinger had ingested his repast. Chris sighed, poured another drink.

"Any of you ever hear of the Gerardian gang?"

"Sure, Iíve heard of them," JD exclaimed, a slight look of surprise crossing his youthful features. "Theyíve been wanted for months, held up a bunch of stagecoaches and banks, and murdered some people. The authorities think theyíre part of a larger group, workiní as a ring. Iíve got a stack of papers on them a mile high back at the jail."

"Will this charming contingent be paying us a visit soon?" Ezra inquired, one hand gracefully straying to his Remington.

But Chris shook his head. "Not unless we get suddenly haunted. They were nearly all killed last week in a shootout."

The other men visibly relaxed. JD shook his head, relieved.

"Boy, Chris, you had me worried there. We sure donít need any of them around here."

The older man gave him a small smile, completely devoid of humor. "Thatís too bad, JD, cause weíre getting one of Ďem anyway. Seems he survived the shootout, and theyíre bringiní him through here on the way to the Yuma Prison-if they can get him all the way there alive."

"He gonna talk on the men who ran his ring?" Vin asked, his expression serious. Chris shrugged, poured another drink.

"They donít know yet, but the telegram from Judge Travis says thereíve been two attempts on this guyís life already. Whoever he worked for sure donít want him sayiní anything." He put down the bottle and sighed. "We gotta find a place to hide Ďim; if they canít find where heís at, then they wonít try anything and nobodyíll get hurt."

"That shouldnít be a problem," Josiah said, placing his newly polished gun in its holster. "Thereís enough places around here people never go."

Ezra flipped open his pocket watch, glanced at it, and rose. "Gentlemen, I must go relieve Mr. Wilmington on the patrol. If I have any ideas Iíll surely pass them right along."

"Maybe thereís a secret passage or something in that saloon of yours," JD suggested with a grin. Ezra paused.

"I doubt it, Mr. Dunne. But that is not a bad idea." With a tip of his black curl-brimmed hat he was out the door. Chris turned back to his drink, still scowling.

"You thinkiní on somethiní, Chris?" Vin inquired, noticing his mood. Chris looked around intently at the growing crowd.

"I just donít like this sort of job," he said finally, shifting a little in his seat. "Had something similar when I was a lawman, this guy who was gonna tell everything he knew about these men heíd worked with. His former partner and some other men bought his silence with six sticks of dynamite and the lives of three townspeople." He looked around again. "Donít need that happening here."

A loud crash interrupted the thought, as a table nearby overturned, its contents of drinks, cards and poker chips spilling to the floor. The two men who had been sitting there were seen rolling on the ground at each otherís throats, faces red, screaming obscenities.

Vin, Chris, JD and Josiah looked at each other, sighed and rose, guns drawn.

"Youíre right, Chris," Vin said, his blue eyes sweeping the carnage. "These folks are doiní a fine job of killiní each other on their own."

Then they waded forward, Chris in the lead; he had not even drawn his gun, the angry glare in his eye enough to freeze a man in his tracks. He was not in the mood for this.

"OK, break it up," Vin said, as Chris dragged one of the combatants off of the other.

"Mind your own business, dammit!" the drunken man yelled, struggling against Chrisí grip.

"Fraid this is our business, brother," Josiah rumbled, collaring the other hostile in his considerably sized hand. "Least thatís what my paycheck tells me."

"You heard Ďem," a tall, black-hatted spectator slurred, coming forward and giving the gunmen an angry glare. "Let Ďem settle it themselves, they donít need you interferiní." Several others muttered agreement; they were mostly drunk and, Vin noticed, complete strangers to the town.

"Now, gentlemen," JD said, walking forward, Colt Lightnings at the ready, "we just wanna keep this from gettiní ugly."

"Then you shoulda stayed outside, boy," another onlooker growled, earning the assent of several slightly inebriated fellows.

"Let us alone, Godammit," the man in Josiahís grip bellowed. "This ainít your concern."

"Yeah," his opponent snarled, and quickly drawing his gun fired it at Chris. The gunslinger easily ducked the poorly aimed shot and gave his assailant a swift punch in the stomach while wrenching the gun out of his hand.

"Your mama shoulda taught you better manners," he snarled, tossing the gun away. The other man recovered, looked at him through bleary eyes, and launched himself forward with all of his might; they both fell over a nearby table with a loud crash, scattering patrons and various barroom debris. As the two men began to roll on the ground, punching and kicking, a few others in the large crowd now watching drew their own guns, eager for some excitement.

JD pointed his guns at the crowd, surprised at the hostile looks he was getting.

"Ainít no cause for that," he said, hoping theyíd think twice and reholster their weapons.

"We told you bastards to leave us alone!" the man in Josiahís grasp hollered, beginning to swing ineffectually at Josiah; with a sigh of resignation, Josiah hauled back and clocked the man soundly on the jaw, sending him spiraling to the ground. As the stunned man hit the floor, one of the onlookers took the opportunity to rush the tall ex-preacher; a solid thunk, and this man fell as well. The crowd began to stir; Chris emerged from behind the smashed table, hat off, blonde hair falling into his burning eyes, a small trickle of blood running down his face. There was a loud BANG! as he fired his gun into the ceiling, resulting in a tiny shower of plaster and splinters.

"OK, showís over!" he shouted.

"Wrong, cowboy," the black-hatted spectator grinned, his bloodshot eyes gleaming. "This is just gettiní started."

The saloon erupted as some of the spectators surged forward, firing their guns, shouting, and throwing punches at anyone close by. The black-hatted man targeted Chris, who found himself crashing over the table again, trying to subdue his attacker without shooting him. Josiah quickly dragged his two unconscious foes out of harmís way, then waded into the fracas, busting heads and trying to restore order.

JD and Vin exchanged quick glances; Vin hopped up on one of the tables, sawed-off Winchester drawn and ready, and began firing warning shots over the heads of the writhing crowd, which virtually ignored them. The din increased, punctuated by the screams of the working girls and the splintering noises of breaking glass and flying chairs.

"JD, go get Ezra aní Nathan!" Vin hollered, as he squeezed off another round. Without hesitation JD plowed through the flying fists towards the doors, noticing absently that the crowd seemed to be following him into the street.

Ezra had almost made it past the bath house when he looked up to see Buck trotting up the street on Beauty. He smiled and tipped his hat.

"Uneventful patrol, Mr. Wilmington?" he called.

"Yícan say that again," the dark-haired rider replied, sighing and scratching his black mustache. "Anything happen while I was gone?"

The sound of gunshots and screams burst out of the saloon; startled, both men looked up the street to see JD jump headfirst through the saloon doors into the street, rolling and firing over the heads of the men who tumbled out after him, all tangled in a seething mass of fisticuffs. A chair came crashing through one of the windows, spraying the porch with broken glass.

Ezra sighed and looked back at Buck as he drew his Remington.

"No, Mr. Wilmington, nothing out of the ordinary, Iíd say."

Buck looked positively delighted. "Looks like I got back just in time!" he declared, and with a loud hya! urged Beauty towards the fray, firing his gun into the air. More brawlers were pouring into the street, whooping and firing their guns.

Ezra trotted up the street; a few of the combatants saw him and began to fire in his direction. Their aim was way off, the bullets spattering harmlessly in the dry dust of the roadway; still, Ezra felt compelled to take cover, in case a few of their more sober compatriots decided to join in the attack. He ducked behind a water barrel, squeezing off several warning shots which came within a few feet of the attackersí boots; they quickly got the message and ran back towards the saloon. Seeing them run, Ezra grinned to himself, then hunkered down behind the barrel to reload and continue the chase, if necessary. He was almost finished loading his weapon when something made him look up--

--right into the barrel of a gun, pointed straight at his face, not three inches away.

Everything seemed to stop; for one split second Ezra was vaguely aware of a tall man with a silver beard and deadly sober eyes pointing a gun at him. There was barely time to think, no time to react; as soon as Ezra lifted his head and met the manís eyes, his adversary pulled the trigger. Ezra only had a second to brace himself.

Click.

The gun was empty.

In an instant Ezraís arm flew up, the small Derringer concealed in his sleeve springing to his hand; a loud report, and the gunmen lurched to the ground, dark blood staining his dirty tan coat.

Ezra fell back, gasping, his eyes wide, still getting over his surprise as what had almost happened dawned on him. The sound of approaching footsteps caught his attention, and he looked up to see Nathan running over from his boarding house, both guns drawn. He glanced at the fallen stranger.

"Got Ďim, huh? Looks like heíll live, Iíll see to Ďim soon as we get this bunch quieted down. Címon, theyíre headiní over to the livery."

He ran off again, intent on restoring peace, not watching as the gambler sat for a moment, deeply shaken, before finally getting to his feet and following the healer.

*******

One Week Later

The autumn moonlight sifted quietly through the crisp, dry leaves of the sparse forest, their dying forms rustling softly in the gentle night air. Already the taste of winter lingered on the breezeís frosty breath; the brilliant colors of the leaves-nearly invisible in the darkness-foretold the coming of a harsh, bitingly cold winter. The stillness of the scene was broken only by a steady, rhythmic crunching as three riders came up the wide road, their horses crushing the fallen leaves beneath their heavy hooves.

"I tell ya what, I had about enough of this line of work," Buck groused, bundling himself up against the nipping wind and shaking his head. "These crazy hours are gonna kill me!"

JD simply laughed as he observed his friendís discontent. "Aw, címon, Buck, I thought you were at your best this time of night -- least thatís what you told me!"

Buck simply gave him an aggravated smile. "Look, JD, spendiní an eveniní with a pretty gal is one thing -- pickiní up prisoners in the dad-blamed middle of the nightís another!"

JD shrugged. "I think itís kinda nice out here..."

"Nice," Buck repeated, disbelieving, and leaned over to eyeball the third rider, who had been silent for most of the trip. "Yíhear that, Vin? Nice. Just watch, JDís gonna turn into a nature lover like you aní spend all his time roaminí in the great outdoors, communiní with the elements aní catchiní his death of cold." He sat back in his saddle. "Wish Ezra was here-bet heíd agree with me!"

"Hey, now, I think Chris did the right thing, lettiní Ezra be the one to ride with that treasury deposit to Ridge City," JD replied defensively. "Heís already been through enough after almost gettiní his head blown off last week."

"Ainít arguiní there, kid," Buck agreed. "Aní it was damn lucky for him that guyís gun wasnít loaded, else weíd be gettiní drunk at his wake right now. But at least then he wouldnít be freeziní his butt off like we are, ainít that right, Vin?"

Vin glanced at Buck but said nothing, the moonlight softly shining off of his long hair and weatherbeaten leather coat; he had not seemed to mind the cold at all.

JD looked at him. "Hey, Vin, you OK? You ainít said a word since we left town."

"Just kinda worried about this pickup, JD," was the drawling, uneasy reply, as Vinís eyes took in the dark hills and trees on either side of the road. "Sounds like it could be a mite touchy."

Buck turned his eyes back to the road, spurred his horse a little. "I know what you mean, Vin, I donít like it myself-takiní in a prisoner at night just donít seem right to me."

"Well, the telegram said thereíd be plenty of federal guards to help us escort him to the edge of town," JD remarked, trying to calm his companions down. "Aní they didnít give us much choice about when to get Ďim-they donít want the wrong people findiní out where heís at."

"Shew," Buck sigh, gazing out over the silver-topped hills. "Wonder what this guy did, to get someone so powerful mad at him."

Vinís eyes never left the murky road before them as he quietly said, "Reckon he just did what a criminal ainít supposed to do, Buck-he got caught."

They reached a clearing, surrounded by a scraggly stand of trees, all in various stages of shedding their foliage, their skeletal branches half-naked against the starry sky. Something moved in the shadows; in one motion all three men unholstered their weapons, the barrels glinting in the uncertain gloom. In response they heard a chorus of clicks, as several weapons -- many more than three -- were primed to fire.

Buck glanced at Vin and muttered, "I think weíre outnumbered."

Vin sat silently, waiting, his eyes searching the almost invisible figures lurking in the swaying shadows: six men, all on horseback, all as tense as they were.

Finally a deep voice spoke up from the depths of the darkness.

"Identify yourselves!"

Vin, Buck and JD exchanged glances; then Vin moved his horse forward a little, very slowly.

"Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, aní Sheriff JD Dunne," he said slowly, in a relaxed drawl, respectful but unruffled.

A pause. Then, "You the escorts from Four Corners?"

Vinís head bobbed a little. There was a quiet rattle as the men in the shadows all relaxed and uncocked their weapons.

"Colonel Barlowe, gentlemen," the deep voice said; its owner moved into the pool of moonlight. He was a stout, bearded man, dressed in Federal blue. "Shit, you men almost gave me a heart attack."

"We Ďbout lost a few years, ourselves," Buck responded, a little miffed as he returned his gun to its holster.

"Canít be too careful with this one," the soldier replied, nodding to an indistinct shape still concealed in the shade. "Heís got enough information to help us find some of the most wanted men in the territory-if he decides to let us in on it, that is. Bring Ďim out, Wilkins."

Two forms emerged, a soldier leading a second horse upon which rode the prisoner. Buck studied him as closely as he could in the gloom; skinny, scraggly-looking red-haired kid in handcuffs, no older than JD by the looks of it, but any signs of the youthfulness JD still carried with him had disappeared from this boyís face a long time ago. Now it just looked angry, and scared.

"Ben, these gentlemen will be your hosts for the next few days, til the next detachment can be sent from Yuma for you," Barlowe was saying, looking from the boy to Vin and the others. "Ben Tyler, late of the Gerardian Gang-actually, the only surviving member of it."

Vin, Buck and JD looked at each other somberly.

"Donít worry, son, youíre safe with us," Vin said, trying to erase the frightened look from the youthís eyes. but at these words the light only burned brighter.

"I ainít gonna be safe til Iím dead," he said, very calmly, as if it were a clear matter of fact. But there was a bitterness to his words which chilled the already frigid October air.

Buck smiled tightly. "You just keep them happy thoughts in mind, son. What do yíall say we move out?"

Soon the small party was moving down the road, the soldiers at the lead and the rear, Vin, JD and Buck riding with the prisoner. Talk was kept to a minimum, everyone being preoccupied with watching every tree and shadow for the slightest sign of trouble. JD was edgy, Buck was annoyed, and Vinís mood was hard to read; but his eyes were thoughtful, and he spent most of the ride studying the young boy who seemed so ready to believe that his life was over.

He had seen several such men before, in his long career as a bounty hunter; defiant, sullen, disgusted at allowing themselves to be captured. And Vin had been this boy, too, on the few occasions when he had been careless or unlucky enough to get caught by a bounty hunter eager to collect the five hundred dollar reward for the trackerís capture. It was never an easy feeling, the helplessness of being a captive, the uncertainty of whether this really was "it", the knowledge that maybe your luck had finally run out. But Vin had learned enough from experience to be able to escape his captors; despite his fatalist attitude, he really did not want to die. But this boy honestly didnít seem to care, and it pained Vin to see such resignation in someone so young.

He rode up next to Ben and offered him his canteen. "Thirsty?"

The boy glanced over at him, then down at the gently sloshing container, then back up at Vin again. Without a word he took the canteen from Vinís hand and lifted it to his lips, greedily sucking down the water inside and ignoring the small rivers flowing over both sides of his mouth.

Vin raised his eyebrows as Ben handed the canteen back to him. "Guess you were, huh?"

"Hell, yeah," Ben gasped, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "They didnít give me hardly nothiní since Tucson. Said I didnít deserve it Ďless I agreed to talk, but if theyíre gonna be that damned close, they can keep their stinking water."

Vin looked down as he slung his canteen back over his shoulder; then he lifted his blue eyes to meet Benís. "Heard what you got to say could make some folks mighty riled."

Ben laughed shortly; it was one of the ugliest laughs Vin had ever heard. "Yeah, aní it could make me mighty dead. Some choice I got-talk aní get shot dead the minute I step into the street or rot in jail for the rest of my life."

The tracker nodded. "Ainít no easy way to look at it-just got to make the right choice, I reckon."

Ben looked at him, his young face set in old lines.

"Ainít no right choice here, mister. Only the best choice, for me, the one thatíll keep me alive. They wanna catch those men out, they can find somebody else."

Vin gave him a steady look, then turned his eyes back to the moonswept road. "Reckon thatís your choice, Ben. But I donít know if youíll sleep any better cause of it."

The boy seemed to falter a bit, then looked away, his mind clearly not as made up as heíd let on. Then he gave a weak shrug.

"Aw, hell, I dun-"

The loud crack of a gunshot shattered the still autumn air; Ben let out a yelp as he ducked down, and Vin saw blood beginning to ooze from where a bullet had grazed the right side of his scalp. As eight men drew out their weapons, looking around for the assailant, more shots rang out from all sides; they were surrounded.

"So much for a nice ride!" Vin heard Buck cry as he fired his gun into the trees; a strangled howl indicated that at least one bullet had met its mark. The soldiers scattered, charging and firing in all directions as they bent low over the bobbing necks of their mounts; shouted orders mingled with the startled cries of the horses.

"See Ďem, JD?" Buck hollered as he jumped off of Beauty, crouching and looking around. JD had dismounted as well, and his hat was off, his thick black hair flying around as he searched the area. Bullets sprayed the nearby rocks and splintered off of the ancient trees.

"They must be behind the rocks!" JD yelled back. "God, it sounds like a whole army!"

"Just our luck this boyís so popular," Buck muttered, and began to run for cover as his eyes flew over every visible place where the gunmen could be hiding.

"Time to get you under cover, pard," Vin yelled, grabbing the reins of Benís horse; in the moonlight Vin could see dark blood running from wounds on the animalís body as the attackers kept trying to kill its rider. He looked at Ben and saw that the boy was looking wildly around, his eyes wide. Then with a sudden violent motion he clubbed Vin in the face with his bound hands, wrenched the reins from Vinís grasp and spurred his horse away down the road, desperately trying to flee the whizzing bullets.

"Hey!" Vin cried, and galloped after him, thinking, this boyís so scared all he can think of is to run away. He could hear Benís horse crashing through the dry forest vegetation; the boy had taken the horse off of the road and was plunging through the woods towards deeper cover.

Vin ducked the branches which flew towards his face as he pursued, urging Sire on over the untrodden ground. Up ahead he could see Ben still on his horse, plowing unseeingly through everything in his path, trying to get away. Finally a seemingly unbreakable wall of trees and thick brush loomed into his path; Benís horse reared and stopped, despite the boyís frantic attempts to spur it forward. It was only when he saw the faint shadow of Vin on his horse and heard the loud click of the trackerís sawed-off Winchester that he calmed down enough to turn and see the tracker staring at him, apparently not even winded, a small stream of blood trickling from his mouth.

"Take Ďer easy, there, pard," Vin cautioned, seeing that Ben was still highly excited. The boy gazed at him, still sawing his horse around, his breath coming in loud, agonized gasps.

"You gonna shoot me too?" the boy finally said; it sounded like a challenge. Vin shook his head, although the gun remained pointed at Ben.

"Not if I ainít got to," was the soft reply. "Ainít no use in runniní, Ben-theyíll find you out there. Youíd best come with us, aní stay alive a little longer."

There was silence for a few moments; Benís mount was still excited, its hooves pawing nervously at the thick cover of dead leaves on the ground. Finally he sighed, his shoulders drooping.

"Iíll go with you," he said, his flat voice devoid of hope, "but that donít mean Iíll stay alive."

Vinís eyes narrowed as he tried to guess the meaning behind the boyís words; but his reverie was interrupted by the sound coming up from behind, a horse approaching at a gallop. Whirling Sire around, he primed his gun, but relaxed when he saw the tall form of Buck emerge from the broken foliage.

"Dang nice trail youíve blazed here," the gunslinger drawled, picking a few leaves from his shirt. "Yíall can come out now, we pretty much got Ďem."

Vin relaxed; Ben didnít.

"See who they were?" Vin asked, holstering his rifle. Buck shook his head.

"Just a bunch of hired toughs, from the looks of it, though theyíre dressed up right nice for petty thugs. About five of Ďem, all told -- fraid none of Ďem are gonna be telliní us anything."

Vin sighed; not even in town yet and already there was trouble. He looked at Buck.

"Anybody get hurt?"

"Couple of the soldiers got some minor wounds, nothiní Nathan canít fix. JDís helpiní Ďem out now."

Vin nodded, then looked back at Ben; the boy had guided his horse close to Vinís and was looking fairly deflated. Buck looked at him sternly.

"Now, you gonna be a good boy aní not go off on no more joyrides?" he asked in a vaguely threatening tone. Ben eyed him glumly.

"Yícan ease up, Buck, he ainít goiní nowhere again," Vin replied, holding one hand up slightly. He turned and gave Ben a sympathetic gaze. "Reckon this boyís had enough of people gettiní after him tonight."

The boy returned the look with one of surprise and gratitude, although he still seemed sullen.

Buck shrugged. "Sorry, kid, but I got other things I could be doiní tonight, aní itís puttiní me on edge. Letís all get back to town now aní get you tucked away nice aní safe, OK?"

They began to ride back to where the rest of the party was recovering.

"Looks like Ezraís gonna have to cut his holiday short," Buck said after a while, as they picked their way back to the road.

"Donít guess heíll mind that much," Vin replied, carefully guiding Sire while leading Benís horse by the reins. "You know how heíd hate to miss out on all this fun."

"Yeah, just what he needs," Buck grunted. "Another chance to get killed."

*******

Ezra Standish was in a really bad mood.

By all accounts, the exact opposite should have been the case; he was in Ridge City, a thriving metropolis much more exciting than Four Corners, the dusty crossroads town he was used to spending his time in. As he sat on this bright fall morning at the gambling table of the Silver Dollar Hotel, surrounding by a noisy mob of drunken revelers and fellow gamblers, he should have been having the time of his life. He was even winning -- not an unaccustomed circumstance for Ezra, certainly, but one which never failed to put a smile on his face wide enough to reveal his sparkling gold tooth. But he wasnít smiling today.

Because no matter what he did, he couldnít stop thinking about it.

It was there before his eyes as he rode out the previous day, accompanying a small transport of funds from the Four Corners bank. It was in Chris Larabeeís voice as the darkly clad gunslinger said, take a few days off, have some fun, we donít need you goiní crazy on us, we got enough of that already around here. It was lurking in the back of his mind as he attempted to forget its presence with a beautiful raven-haired working girl in the soft moonlit shadows of his rented hotel room. It was in his dreams, over and over, as if his mind was afraid he might not be paying attention.

The long silver barrel of a gun. Pointed right at his face, not three inches away.

It had happened so fast, yet as Ezra remembered the moment, everything had seemed to be moving very slowly. It was almost as if he could see the event from an vantage point outside of himself, yet still feel the icy horror which flooded his body as he stared down the gun barrel. He could not remember being particularly frightened; he was more appalled, appalled that this was how it as all going to end, there would be no more life after this, his dream of owning a saloon was over, his aspirations all for naught. The entire world shrank to the small black hole staring at him; everything else faded away, except for the dull, deafening thud of his heartbeat pounding in his ears. And pervading every cell of his body, choking his heart with a relentless frigid fist, was the single, absolute belief: I am about to die.

It had not been the first time Ezra had faced down the barrel of a gun; he suspected he held the group record for getting shot at, if you counted the time an entire congregation of defrauded faithful wised up to him and chased him out of Virginia City. But those times -- too numerous to even begin to count -- had all been the result of Ezraís chosen profession, his skill at cards, his techniques of moving the odds in his favor, or his endeavors to utilize his mental acuity to teach the gullible a lesson. Cheating and conning, some might name it, but it was his calling, and Ezra knew that, whatever dangers it held, he could not see himself doing any other line of work, and the pleasure was definitely worth the occasional risk.

This time was different. He had had a choice, and it was beginning to look as if it might have been the wrong one. Well, it hadnít been much of a choice really -- if he hadnít joined Chrisí gang he wouldíve wound up in jail for bail jumping. But it wouldnít have been a long sentence, probably, and eventually he would have been freed, or been able to cut a deal, able to go back to his previous life. He recalled that, at the time, jail had not seemed a wise decision; he had thought: get the pardon, spend a month keeping the peace in Four Corners, what harm could it do? Make some money, have some laughs, and get out.

Or, he now realized, get killed.

He took a drink as he sat at the gambling table; it was rather early, but what the hell. He still felt it, that awful doomed sensation shooting through him like a lightning strike, that unshakably certain knowledge that his life was over, for good, and his existence about to be obliterated without leaving any evidence that he had ever lived at all. The danger had passed, but the feeling remained, and its memory was strong enough to cause him to do an inordinate amount of serious thinking.

Of course, he had known when he accepted this lawkeeping job that risk was part of the package, but up until the gunfight he had not seriously thought he might actually die. He was used to having at least a small amount of control over his situation, usually knew who was gunning for him, a cheated opponent, a jealous suitor, a defrauded congregation. He could at least guess their actions, anticipate what they might do. And he might even get away with a little profit, or at the very least his life.

But this job-Ezra sighed and poured another whiskey, happy to be alone at the table for the moment. With this job, you never knew who youíd be fighting, what they might do, where the next bullet might be coming from. To be fighting alongside the others under cover was one thing; having a gun shoved in your face while youíre crouched behind a water barrel was another. It was only by the sheer luck of an empty gun that he was able to sit here today and get drunk. How long would that luck hold out?

He slowly sipped at the whiskey, his green eyes casually sweeping the room. Even at this time of day the saloon was crowded with travelers, guests, and the townís idle, all drinking and gambling in a gold-colored smoky haze. Music and laughter mingled with the clink of glasses and the slap of cards as fortunes were made, lost and drunk away. It was Ezraís world, all of it, a place where he felt comfortable and in control, and one he had hoped to return to. A world he was now half in and half out of, and his balance was becoming precarious.

He reached into the pocket of his red jacket and pulled out its contents: two pieces of paper, one a handsome sheet of fancy hotel stationary, the other a yellow telegram. He looked first at the telegram, short, to the point: PRISONER ARRIVED AND STORED AWAY AS PLANNED STOP ESCORT PARTY SHOT AT NEAR BLACK WOLF RIDGE EVERYONE OK STOP LOOKS LIKE ANOTHER FUN ONE STOP DETACHMENT ARRIVING FOR HIM FRIDAY STOP MEET VIN AT RENDEZVOUS POINT FRIDAY DUSK TO ESCORT PRISONER & DETACHMENT OUT OF TOWN STOP CHRIS LARABEE. Ezra smiled to himself, thinking, hope Ben Tyler enjoys the accommodations of the church basement, where they had decided the boy would be the safest. Hopefully Josiahís solved that rat problem...

He then glanced at the stationary: his motherís letter from St. Louis. He grunted; hell of a time for this to arrive. Heíd gotten it last week and had been carrying it with him ever since, mulling it over.
 

Golden Lion Hotel
St. Louis, MO
October 3 1880

Son,

I received your kind letter on the 28th, and let me assure you that any concerns for my situation are completely unfounded. The judge has agreed to be lenient with me, so long as I promise to mend my ways and not try to swindle anyone again. Naturally I agreed, and all is now well. Except that I must now find another place of residence in which to practice, but you need not worry about that-this grand country is quite wide, after all, and there are plenty of opportunities for those with the intelligence to find them!

I also received a letter from Mr. DeWitt the other day; he seemed most interested in a business venture with you, either bonds or railroad stock. He seems confident that it can be done with minimum risk of detection, and will prove quite profitable. I am enclosing his letter to me and urge you to consider his offer. Ezra, you have no idea how you worry your mother with this dangerous lawkeeping venture youíve involved yourself with! Itís very noble of you, Iím sure, but of what use is that if you do not survive the experience? Certainly our profession has its hazards but they are not as potentially deadly as the activities Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington and your other friends are involved in. Surely they would understand if you elected to excuse yourself from their company -- youíve done your part, I daresay, and Judge Travis has already granted you the pardon you needed. Surely they can find someone else to help protect the town.

I will write to you next week. Please think about this, son. I know you will do the right thing.

Your mother,
Maude
 

Trouble was, her argument made perfect sense, and he found part of himself agreeing with it, especially in light of the recent events. It would be very easy to have her write a letter proclaiming some false emergency, under whose pretense he could ride away from the barroom brawls and gun-toting criminals, the split-second encounters that might signal the end of his life. Sure, the other men would be disappointed, might even miss him, and he might miss them. But heíd be alive, and that was the important thing.

Wasnít it?

Ezra narrowed his eyes as he observed the throng around him, puzzled by his ruminations. He thought of the Desert Star, his own saloon, so close now, a dream just within his grasp. So close, yet it could all be shattered by one stray bullet that wouldnít care how long heíd saved or how desperately heíd yearned. A life of privation and uncertainty had made sure that Ezraís chief goal would be to be rich and safe, and he had been working on that goal the day Chris Larabee and his small band had wandered into the Four Corners saloon and messed everything all up.

He leaned on the table, one hand at his chin, trying to figure it out; he still didnít know just what it was that had stopped him from coming back before, when he had had the chance to ride away from the danger. That crazy Colonel Anderson and his renegade Confederates were attacking the Seminole village, an attack made possible by the fact that Ezra had been investigating a nearby gold mine instead of doing his duty as lookout; he could still remember the shame heíd felt then as he rode away, determined to save himself and escape the responsibility of his mistake. They had no right to expect any more from him anyway...

But he hadnít gotten far-the others, men he had barely known, were in danger, and something had turned him around and sent him away from the life heíd known and loved into an entirely new one. For the first time, he found himself depended upon and, to a degree, trusted, and another way of life had begun to seem possible, one that was frightening and unsure but oddly appealing. It had taken some getting used to, but he was becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of working with these men.

But was he willing to die with them, or for them, as well?

He sat up, a grunt of disgust growling deep in his throat; he hated these brooding moods, he always wound up with a headache and he wasnít having any fun. He reached for the whiskey bottle and began scanning the room, looking for a bored out-of-towner who might be overburdened with capital and underburdened with brains. Perhaps a good round of cards would help clear his head...

His glass was filled; he was about to set down the bottle when something hard and cold was shoved into his back. He froze; NOW what?

"Ezra Standish?" said a voice behind him, low and smooth.

"Perhaps," was Ezraís reply, turning his head a bit as he set down the bottle; sounded familiar...

"The Ezra Standish who swindled the fair town of Green Mill for six hundred dollars in 1872?" The gun was shoved deeper into his back; he arched away a little, trying to think. A few patrons nearby turned to watch, mildly interested.

"Sir," Ezra proclaimed, irritated at this rude use of his person, all the while working his memory-God, he knew that voice-, "I refuse to parlay with you further until you either state your business or remove your weapon from my ribs."

"Iíll state my business," the stranger replied, giving the gun another push for emphasis.

Ezra waited. Then the pressure on his back disappeared, and the tone of the voice became considerably lighter.

"Where the hellís my cut from Green Mill, you smooth-talkiní son of a bitch?"

Ezraís face lit up in astonishment, and he whirled and jumped out of his seat to gaze in shock at the tall, slightly older, well-dressed gentleman who stood before him.

"Good glorious Lord in Heaven," he exclaimed, a wide smile splitting his face. "Julian!"

The two men laughed, warmly shook hands and clasped shoulders as the onlookers returned to their respective games, disappointed at the lack of gunfire.

The other manís swarthy face was vastly amused as he holstered his weapon. "I thought that was you, Ezra-how the hell are you?"

"Sir, my situation has greatly improved now that your ugly face has appeared in this wilderness," Ezra replied with delight, offering his friend a seat; Julian sat down and accepted the bottle and glass Ezra slid over to him. "Though I must say Iím amazed to see you so far from the fair shores of the Mississippi."

"Ah," Julian scoffed, laying aside his top hat and smoothing down his long black hair. "The gaming on the riverboats dried up for me a long time ago, Ezra-you remember Lucius Morgan?"

Ezra shook his head with a chuckle. "That fat lawman from Natchez?"

"Thatís him. He pretty much saw to it that my presence would be unwelcome on all the boats from New Orleans to St. Paul. I, um, guess he didnít take my attentions to his daughter with sufficient good grace."

"Well, the situation seems to have worked in your favor," Ezra noted; Julian did look wonderful, the latest cut of clothes, tasteful but impressive jewelry, hair in the latest style, even a very well-groomed mustache. "It seems the St. Clair fortune has been on the rise since I saw you last."

Julian laughed. "I think weíve both done pretty well just to have lived this long, Ezra." He sipped his drink and looked at his friend, his black eyes softening. "Iíve often wondered what happened to you, Ezra-itís been what, ten years almost, and not a word? Now you must explain your rudeness, sir, we worked together too long and made too much money for such shabby treatment."

Ezra laughed, feeling his mood improve tremendously. "I do apologize, sir, youíre right -- I owe you too much to let you wonder any longer."

"Damn straight," Julian replied, giving his head a quick shake. "Youíd still be starving in New Orleans with Maude if we hadnít teamed up. Say, how is your mother? She still-?"

"Oh, God, yes," Ezra replied, with a theatrical groan. "Still very much alive and active-she visited me here not too long ago, in fact. Sheís in St. Louis right now, although that may soon have to change, thanks to the purveyors of justice there."

"Ha!" Julian exclaimed, downing his drink. "Remarkable woman, your mother, Ezra-I didnít have to teach you much at all to improve on her training. So tell me, how long have you been-"

"Mr. St. Clair?"

Ezra looked up to see a large, thick-necked man standing close to Julian. He was clad in simple but sturdy clothes and carried a broad-brimmed hat in one hand; a well-worn riding crop was sticking out of one pants pocket. Julian turned to see him, but did not seem at all startled or intimidated by the manís brutal appearance.

"Oh-Bullock! What is it?"

"I got some men lined up for you outside."

"Oh-all right, Iíll be right there."

The man nodded, placed his hat back on his close-shaved head, and wandered back out through the crowd. Julian downed his drink.

"Sorry, Ezra, I have to go attend to business. Will you be in town long?"

"Three more days, it looks like-the restaurant down the street, the Wolfshead Grill, has the most delightful menu. Iíd be happy to meet you there for lunch."

"Capital!" Julian rose and picked up his top hat. "Hopefully this wonít take too long."

"Hmm." Ezra poured himself another drink. "Not a complicated matter, I hope?"

"Oh, no," Julian shook his head, glancing towards the doorway. "Had a bit of an accident the other day, lost five men. Just need to replace them. Iíll see you at the Grill, then."

He tipped his hat, his white teeth glowing against his tan skin, then turned and plowed through the crowd. Ezra watched him go, then sat back to finish his drink, in a much better mood than before. This would certainly help distract him from that incident last week, and maybe it would help him make that decision which seemed to be becoming more urgent.

*******

As long as any of the citizens of Four Corners could remember, the old white church had stood at the end of the townís main street, its bell tower reaching into the heavens, waiting to call one and all to worship. Once, they guessed, it was a beautiful, active place, where streams of the faithful came and went on a regular basis. Now, however, there were few who could recall exactly when the last service had been held, the old wooden doors locked, and the building abandoned to the elements, a lonely stained-glass shell. Lately it had become a reminder of the townís troubles, a tangible relic of its shattered soul.

Then Chris Larabeeís gang had come to town, and one of its number had taken a shine to the old church, perhaps, as many supposed, because his faith was as much in need of restoration as the buildingís peeling walls. They had seen Josiah Sanchez in town a few times before, on occasion, knew him as a friend of Nathan Jackson, the former slave who had established himself as the townís amateur healer. Some whispered of Josiahís past: that he was a murderer several times over, that he had once been a man of God but had turned from the faith, that he just as often opened his ammunition box as his Bible these days. But nobody complained when Josiah took the church under his wing; it was just an empty building, after all.

Now it was a common sight to see Josiahís tall, muscular frame lying on the battered roof pounding in shingles, or scraping paint off of the once-white walls, or lugging timber and tools up the short stairway into the sanctuary. They often saw the other hired guns there, too, going in and out, the black-clad Chris Larabee, the taciturn tracker Vin Tanner, the young sheriff JD Dunne, Nathan, the rowdy ladyís man Buck Wilmington, the dapper gambler Ezra Standish. It seemed to have become a second meeting ground for that crew, after the saloon, and the townspeople figured if they had to be anywhere, a church was as good a place as any, and thought nothing of the constant comings and goings.

Which was why Ben Tyler was sitting in the chilly church basement on this bright autumn morning, having his scalp examined.

"Ow!" Ben flinched as Nathan gently pushed aside his hair to better see the fresh stitches on the boyís head.

"Sorry, kid," the healer muttered, bending over closer to the candle which flickered fitfully in the basementís windowless gloom. "Powerful hard tísee in here, aní I gotta make sure them stitches ainít infected."

"Mmmrrgh," was the boyís reply, as he glanced around. "Why couldnít you guys have found me a place with windows?"

"Now thatís right ungrateful of you, son," rumbled a voice nearby; Ben raised his eyes as much as he could with Nathan trying to keep his head still, to see the imposing form of Josiah step into the candlelight, carrying a box. "If you saw what the jail was like youíd be begginí to sleep down here."

"íSides," Nathan remarked, as he let go of Ben and wiped his hands, "No windows means they canít see you from outside. You look OK, Iíll check Ďem again tomorrow."

Ben slowly sat up straight, the rickety cot he was sitting on creaking with every movement as he rubbed his head gingerly. He looked around at the large, dark room, illuminated only by a few oil lamps; in the uncertain shadows he could make out some old cots folded up against the bare walls, a lot of nondescript junk, and some dusty cobwebs shimmering in the corners of the cross-beamed ceiling. A damp, musty odor pervaded the area, the smell of rotting books and disintegrating beliefs.

"The jail is worse than this?" he asked, lifting his eyebrows in skepticism as he eyed the two men.

"Yup," Nathan replied, rising. "íSpecially if JD gets his hands on another joke."

"JD," Ben mumbled. "Uh, heís the sheriff, right? From last night?" He laughed a little and scooted back on the cot, trying to get comfortable. "Boy, I seen a lot oí law, but I never saw someone my age weariní a badge."

"Well, youíll be seeiní a lot of JD," Josiah said, placing the box on the floor next to Benís cot. "Weíre all gonna be down here keepiní an eye on you, aní watchiní the door too, to make sure no one tries to cut short your visit."

Ben Ďs smile faded. "If they want me theyíll find me. Last night wasnít the first time someone tried to kill me."

"Cause you might tell on Ďem?" Nathan asked as he repacked his medical supplies.

"Are you crazy? I ainít telliní on nobody," Ben said sharply, his tone defensive. "Last night is as close as I wanna come to haviní my head blown off. Iím keepiní my mouth shut. They want to find the guys I worked for, they can look for Ďem themselves. "

"Looks like theyíre gunniní for you no matter which way you go," Nathan observed, tying the straps of his kit closed. Ben shrugged.

"Yeah, but once they find out I ainít gonna squeal, theyíll leave me alone. They got better things to do, believe me -- aní so do I."

He looked away, his eyes troubled. Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances; both men wore looks of concern. Josiah crouched in front of the boy, his hands loosely folded.

"Son," he said softly, "I know youíve had a hard time, aní youíve seen a lot of things no boy your age has any business seeiní. But if you can fix it soís the men whoíre after you wonít go on hurtiní folks-well, then maybe some good can come out of your sufferiní."

Ben eyed him silently for a moment, arms crossed, then shook his head.

"I donít want to be no martyr, sir," he said with resolution, pulling himself back even farther on the cot. "What happens to other people ainít my business. Iím done sufferiní."

Josiah considered this, shrugged as he rose. "Your choice, Ben. Hope you reconsider-we got enough bad guys runniní around, a few less of Ďem would sure help a lot." He gave the box a slight kick. "Brought you some books from upstairs-uplifting reading material, you might say."

Ben gave the box an appraising glance from his perch. "What is it, Bibles?"

The ex-preacher chuckled. "Not quite-mostly some old books aní back-issues of the town paper the former owners decided to leave behind. Thought you might want somethiní to pass the time til Friday."

"Oh." Ben nodded. "OK, uh, thanks."

"Donít mention it." He turned to Nathan. "Iím gonna go find Chris, fill Ďim in. Viníll be by to relieve you at one."

Nathan nodded, and he and Ben watched as Josiah nodded good-bye to them and strode up the concrete cellar steps, cautiously pushed open the cellar doors, disappeared in a blaze of brightness, and was gone.

Nathan looked at Ben. "You better take it easy. Iím gonna just sit over here aní read, you let me know of you start to feel dizzy or anythiní like that, OK?"

Ben nodded, and began to paw through the box of books and papers as Nathan made his way to the wooden chair and table by the cellar door.

"Iíll let you know, donít worry," he muttered to himself. "Iím takiní real good care of myself from now on."

 

"So we got our guest all comfortable, huh?"

Vin leaned forward in his chair, keeping his voice low as he addressed the tall, black-clad man across from him. The precaution seemed hardly necessary; the saloon they were in was packed with noisy morning revelers, and the din was reaching near deafening proportions. The table the two men shared was in a corner, far from the main body of the room; no one was paying any attention to them, half-hidden as they were by the smoky haze which hung pall-like in the unmoving air. The man across from him didnít seem too concerned either, as he regarded his shot glass of whiskey through a fall of unruly blonde hair; after a moment he lifted ice-blue eyes to the long-haired tracker and gave a short nod.

"Yup, heís all set," was the quiet reply; but Chrisí replies were usually quiet. He downed the whiskey, grimaced at its bite. "God, Vin, the last thing we need is for the damn government to pull this on us-as if we didnít have enough to do around here, now we gotta babysit their prisoners."

Vin shrugged, fiddled with his hat. "Just for a few days, til they fetch him to Yuma. You see him yet?"

Chris shook his head. "Not since I got back this morniní."

His companion gave him a glance, his blue eyes sympathetic. "Kidís scared out of his mind, thinkiní his friends are gonna shoot Ďim."

Chris grunted, poured another whiskey, a tight smile on his lips. "Well, what are friends for?" He set down the bottle and gave Vin a piercing look. "Guess you know how he feels."

Vin gave the slightest wince, looked away into the swirling crowd, his eyes deep in thought. "I know what itís like to watch every shadow, thinkiní someone you used to work with is gonna jump out any minute aní blow your head off." He sighed, looked back at Chris. "Ainít no life for a boy his age, Chris."

"Not much of one for a man, either," Chris replied, sitting forward over his drink and looking around. "Damn bastards, why do they always pick on kids..."

"He ainít exactly a kid," Vin remarked, putting on his hat. "Colonel told me heíd been in this gang since he was a little boy -- probably more hardened than them hotel thieves JDís got locked up."

Chrisí expression darkened; criminals recruiting children. He shook his head as he lifted his glass to his lips. "Hell of a world, Vin."

"Yup." The tracker stood, hitched his thumbs into his belt. "Time for me to relieve Buck on patrol. Yísend Ezra that telegram?"

Chris nodded, folding his hands. "He knows about Friday. Iím starting to think we should get him back here, things could get mighty interesting."

Vin gave his head a quick shake. "Just once Iíd like to be bored."

Chris watched him go, plunging through the swirling smoke into the harsh afternoon sunlight. He sat for a minute, thinking, hoping that Friday would come soon and this latest problem would end. He felt fairly sure there were plenty more lined up ready to take its place.

In the saloon, few people paid any attention to Vinís exit, and fewer still bothered with the whispered conversation between two well-dressed, tough-looking men seated by the bar.

"Look, thatís him, that long-haired guy going out the door."

"God, youíre right, Hal! Just like on that poster in your pocket. Huh -- hides himself in plain sight, donít he?"

"He was pretty damn plain last night, lemme tell ya. I was lucky to get away without gettiní my head shot off. But he was in the escort, Iím sure of it."

"Ha. So, whatíll we do?"

"Wait a bit, til he gets down the street a ways, then weíll follow him. Weíve got to be careful aní grab Ďim where no oneíll see us-then take Ďim to the ranch aní see if he feels like telliní us where that damn kid is. Bullockís just outside of town, weíll meet up with him aní go from there."

"Sounds good to me. Boy, Julianís gonna be real pleased with us-that $500 bounty and the kid thrown in, maybe."

"Ainít no maybe about it, Jack. If Bullock wants that guy to talk, heíll talk. I ainít seen a man yet he couldnít break."

"Thatís true! Boy, I canít wait for this. Well, letís go -- youíre paying the tab, right?"

*******

The laughter of the two men echoed off of the elaborately decorated hallway walls as they climbed the softly carpeted stairs to the second floor of Ridge Cityís most expensive hotel. Julian was shaking his head in disbelief at his companionís words, his face wreathed in amusement.

"God, Ezra, I canít believe you got out of that escapade in one piece!" Julian chuckled as he removed his silk hat with one hand and dug for his key with the other.

Ezra was no less amused, but his green eyes flashed with mock indignation. "I assure you, sir, this situation was considerably less complicated than our caper in Kansas City-and far more lucrative, I might add!"

"Sure wish Iíd been there to see it," the first man smiled, still shaking his head as they padded up the hallway, his dark eyes searching the golden numbers on the white doors. "Sounds like youíve learned quite a bit since we parted company."

"Well, my arrests have been far less frequent, at any rate." Ezra allowed, looking around at the opulent surroundings. "I must say I am impressed with your choice of apartments-your level of success must far exceed my estimations."

"Iím pleased to say it probably does, my friend," Julian replied, as he stopped before one of the last of the shining doors and inserted his key into its gleaming lock. "Iíve learned quite a few things since we last met, as well."

The door swung silently open; inside the heavy curtains blocked out most of the light, but even in the gloom Ezra could see the richly appointed furnishings, the softly flocked wallpaper, the huge marble fireplace-trappings which dwarfed Ezraís hotel apartment in Four Corners almost into nonexistence. As Julian placed his hat on the finely carved mahogany table beside the door, Ezraís eyes drank in the sight, a familiar hunger stirring within him.

"Make yourself at home, Ezra, it shouldnít take long for me to check out, then we can head out to my ranch," Julian was saying, as he walked into the bedroom chamber and emerged toting a few expensive-looking suitcases. "Youíre welcome to stay there as long as you like, of course, and we can get drunk and hash out old times like the two old jailbirds we are."

Ezra roamed through the rooms, noting how beautiful it all was. "I daresay we were still quite fortunate, Julian; if weíd been caught at half the things we did, weíd probably be breaking rocks at Alcatraz right now."

Julian flashed a white smile at him. "We got caught enough to learn our lessons, though, didnít we? Thatís what separates the talented men from the amateurs. Though Lord knows, that railroad stock swindle couldíve sent us both up the river... damn, left a bag in the other room..."

Julian thumped his luggage down next to the door and went back into the bedroom as Ezra wandered to the sitting room table; a stack of papers there caught his eye.

"Say, Ezra," came Julianís voice from the bedroom, "Iím anxious to hear what the hell youíre doing in Ridge City. I thought for sure youíd wind up in Charleston or New Orleans. Is the gaming good here or something?"

Ezra opened his mouth, then quickly closed it; something was telling him, in undeniably urgent tones, not to tell Julian about his present lawkeeping duties. Well, Ezra could understand that, he and Julian had been arrested together many times in the three years theyíd worked as a team; if Julian knew he was a lawman in Four Corners now, it would just make him uncomfortable. Besides, who knew how much longer Ezra would stay there?

"Oh," he said aloud, tilting his head to better study the stack of papers, "just passing through, really. My current residence is in a charming hamlet called Four Corners." What the hell were these...

"Sounds like a real hole," Julian moaned from the other room. "Look, if youíre not too involved with anything right now, why donít you come work with me? God knows I could use you, itíd be just like old times-only now we both know enough not to get caught."

Ezra hadnít really heard; he was picking through the papers, puzzled. They were wanted posters, dozens of them, from every state and territory, for all sorts of amounts. An odd feeling tightened in Ezraís gut, but he didnít see the poster announcing Vinís status as a wanted man. Whew.

Footsteps announced Julianís reappearance; Ezra looked up, a few posters still in his hand.

"Interesting collection youíve amassed here," he said, trying not to sound too curious. "Are you planning an exhibition?"

Julian chuckled and came over, a pleased look on his face.

"Ugly brutes, arenít they?" Julian muttered, picking up a few himself. "No, this is just sort of a sideline, part of my operation. Iíve got some of my men scouring the area for bounties, it really pays off. And it hasnít proved to be too difficult, either -- some of these criminals are real idiots."

Ezra nodded, wishing the tight feeling in his gut would go away. He looked around. "And am I to understand that you paid for all this... with bounties?"

His friend laughed, gently taking the posters from Ezraís grasp. "Now, Ezra, the bounties help, but my men would have to work nonstop to bring in enough scum to pay for suites like these. No, the bulk of my income comes from what you might call grateful clients. When we get to my ranch Iíll fill you in more-youíll have to know it all if weíre to work together. Shall we go?"

Julian gathered up the papers and strode away; Ezra tried to quell his unease as he watched his friend stuff the tattered posters into his suitcase. Well, what was wrong with Julian engaging in a little bounty hunting, it was a perfectly legal activity, even Vin would agree to that. As they left the hotel room Ezra threw it one last glance -- a tantalizing glimpse of the life heíd always dreamt of -- before the white door closed, locking it away from view.

 

Vin eyed the autumn sky with concern as he guided Sire down the leaf-strewn mountain road. The bright blue expanse had become dotted with increasingly large, dark clouds; looked like a storm was working its way over. Damn.

Well, at least the weather was holding for now; it was only occasionally that the dazzling late-morning sun was blotted out by the scudding clouds, and the brightly colored fall leaves painted the surrounding hillsides in a brilliant array of scarlets, golds and yellows. There was only a touch of the approaching winter in the warm breeze which wafted across the landscape; Vin watched as the leaves on the path before him swirled and danced in the wandering gusts, softly rattling as they moved along.

He thought again of Ben Tyler as he scanned the countryside for any sign of trouble, and sighed. Damn shame, to be in such a fix at his age; either way Vin looked at it, the kid had a rough life to look ahead to. Either a lifetime in prison, or a lifetime of looking over his shoulder. Neither prospect was pleasant.

He took a drink from his canteen; almost empty, heíd have to fill it up soon. As he spurred Sire in the direction of the nearest spring, Vinís mind wandered to the question of why a kid like Ben would join a gang in the first place; from what heíd been told heíd been in it since he was a boy, and Vin knew of very few gangs that included children in their ranks, at least in the territory. It must have been a truly sad life, the tracker thought, and now the boy was paying for it. But had he really had a choice?

Horse and rider came to a rolling stream, its waters singing over the smooth-stoned bed; recent rains had swelled it considerably, increasing the speed of its flow as well as its depth. Vin looked around at the shady trees swaying in the wafting breezes, their dry leaves rustling in a mingled chorus; something bothered him...

He dismounted carefully, still looking around as he unstrapped his canteen and approached the river. The breeze had picked up, and the song of the trees was loud enough to drown out any advancing footsteps. Vinís sharp blue eyes searched the rocks and trees as he bent over the rushing river and dipped his canteen into it.

Behind him...

Vin dropped the canteen and whirled, one hand drawing his mareís leg from its holster in a single easy move. In a blink the gun was primed, and Vin squeezed its trigger without hesitation, firing point-bank at the figure which loomed behind him ten feet away.

The figure let out a cry and toppled, clutching its leg with one hand while firing at Vin with the other. The tracker leapt up and ran forward, his hat flying off. Two more men rushed towards him from either side; as Vin fired at one the other slammed into him with a mighty crash, sending them both tumbling into the swollen river. Vin struggled to surface, but found himself held down by his foe, who seemed to be very large. He clawed and kicked at his opponent, increasingly desperate for air; the Winchester was wrenched from his grasp and disappeared.

After what seemed to Vin an eternity, two beefy fists closed around his collar and hauled him out of the stream; whipping the water out of his eyes, the tracker got a fleeting impression of an ugly, thick-necked brute who appeared quite delighted with his catch. As Vinís hand flew for the knife he kept tucked into his waistband, something hard smashed into the back of his head; the world exploded in a flash of red, then black, and Vin felt nothing more as he slumped in his captorís grip.

The three men were silent for a moment, all panting. Then the wounded man spoke up, his voice full of pain.

"Goddammit, he shot me!"

The second man registered a look of disgust as he lowered the mareís leg with which he had cold cocked Vin.

"Well, shit, Jack, whatíd you expect with all that noise you were making? Who taught you how to sneak up on people, your grandmother?"

"You two shuttup!" the large man bellowed in annoyance as he dragged Vinís limp form out of the water. "Letís get Tanner tied up and on his horse. The sooner we get back to the ranch the better." He looked at the wounded man, who was sitting up and examining his bleeding leg. "Youíre damn lucky Julian didnít see that."

Jack shuddered a little; the other man looked smug, but Bullock shot him a lethal look as well.

"Donít go giviní yourself any airs neither, Hal. After botching that job on the kid last night you should be happy to still be breathiní."

Hal grimaced as he sloshed out of the river. "Hell, Bullock, I couldnít get Tyler myself after all the others were killed, could I? ĎSides, this guy knows where he is, and I donít think youíd be a man to want to miss a job like this one."

Bullock gave a glance at the soaked, unconscious form of Vin, who lay supine on the glistening rocks. A small smile slowly crept over his face.

"All I got to say, boys," Bullock finally said, "is itís a good thing that wanted poster said dead or alive, Ďcause I just hate to have restrictions on my work."

A short way up the river, half-hidden by the brightly painted leaves of the shoreline bushes, a canteen and a soggy leather hat bobbed against the streamís rocky shore, forgotten as their owner was bound and borne away.

*******

JD hurried down the street, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, which wasnít easy in his well-worn three-piece suit and beaten-up bowler hat. Iíve really got to get myself some new clothes, he thought as he headed nonchalantly towards the church. Except for the hat. The hat stays.

The young sheriff was a little nervous; he wasnít expecting to have a turn watching over Ben until tomorrow, something which pleased him since he had no idea how to relate to a criminal his own age. Heíd hoped to have a little time to figure out what to say to the poor kid, or the best way to approach him; of course, he felt sorry for Ben, but really it was his own fault for being in a gang in the first place. He shouldíve known he might get caught.

So it was with dread that JD heard Chris tell him that Vin hadnít returned from patrol at noon as had been planned, so JDís turn was coming a little sooner than expected, since Ezra hadnít responded yet to the telegram asking him to come back to town now. JD wasnít all that worried about Vin-well, maybe a little worried, but if anyone knew how to watch their back it was Vin-but he didnít like being suddenly thrown into this situation without being prepared. But, maybe it would provide some valuable on-the-job training-a good lawman had to be ready for unexpected circumstances, after all.

He walked around the side of the church, glancing around carefully to make sure he wasnít being followed or watched. Then he leaned down and knocked on the cellar door.

A pause; then Nathanís voice, low and tense. "Who is it?"

"Itís JD, Nathan."

Another pause; then the shuffling of a bolt. the door swung open a little, revealing a blinking and bewildered Nathan.

"JD?"

"Yeah," the sheriff smiled in greeting. "Yíknow, we should have a password or somethiní..."

"Get on in here aní weíll discuss it."

"Oh, yeah."

JD scampered down the cellar stairs as Nathan swung the door closed and locked it. It took his eyes a few moments to get used to the gloom; he could see Ben slouched on the cot, flipping through some old newspapers, and gave him a small, shaky wave.

"Been wonderiní when someone was gonna show up. Whereís Vin?" Nathan asked as he followed JD down the stairs, a puzzled look on his face. JD shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets.

"Uh, I dunno, he hasnít come back yet. Chris sent me over to fill in until he shows up."

"Hmmm." Nathan looked very worried as he walked back to the chair heíd been sitting in and picked up his book. "Ainít like Vin to be this late gettiní back."

JD didnít like the sick feeling he was getting in his stomach, the one he always got when there was something he ought to worry about. "Oh, well, he donít carry a watch, maybe he just lost track of the time."

"Maybe," Nathan nodded, not sounding at all convinced. "Well, heís all yours. Been a real good boy so far. Let me know when Vin shows up, Iíll be over at the general store, then the saloon."

His young friend nodded. "OK."

Nathan clomped up the stairs and disappeared through the doors. JD made sure to slide the bolt shut once they were closed, then came back down. He smiled a little when he saw Ben watching him intently over his newspaper.

"Uh, hi," JD said.

"Youíre the sheriff from last night," Ben replied, laying down the newspaper and sitting up. JDís smile grew a little wider, as it always did when his office was recognized.

"Yep, that was me. See?" He flipped his lapel over to display the shiny, slightly battered silver sheriffís star pinned underneath it.

"Huh." Ben shook his head. "Youíre the youngest lawman I ever saw. Howíd you get that badge?"

"Well," JD said proudly, sauntering towards Ben, "see, Judge Travis, heís the circuit judge for this area, aní he wanted somebody to fill the job, aní he said himself I was the bravest man in the room, so he gave it to me."

Benís eyebrows went up. "Nobody else wanted it, huh?"

JD deflated a bit, but quickly recovered. "Well, no, but hey, I wasnít gonna turn it down. Itís all I ever wanted to do. Here, look-" he pulled a small book out of his pocket and showed it to Ben. "See? Thatís Bat Masterson. Heís kind of my hero."

Ben eyed the book with interest; JD handed it to him, and he flipped through it. "This one of them dime novels?"

"Yup. Thatís my favorite, ĎBat Masterson and The Red Coach Robbery.í"

"Huh." Ben scanned a few pages. "We coulda whupped this gang eight ways to Sunday." He turned to the first page, saw something written on the inside cover, tilted his head to read it. "íTo Jonathan Daniel, Merry Christmas, Love, Your Mother.í" He looked at JD, a sarcastic grin on his face. "Awwwwww."

JD scowled at him and snatched the book away. "Donít you make fun of that! This book was the only present she ever had the money to give me."

He looked up to see Ben eying him, the sarcastic look gone, replaced by a softer expression.

"Hell, youíre lucky then. I got nothiní from my mother."

JD studied him. "Sheís, uh--"

Ben nodded, looked away; JD could have sworn he saw him swallow in the dim lamplight. "Yep, she aní my pa both."

"Oh." JD suddenly felt very awkward. "Gosh, Iím real sorry to hear that, uh, Ben. That how you wound up in the gang?"

Ben gave a sour chuckle, looked back at him, his eyes glistening in the darkness. "Guess you could say that, since they was both in it when I was born."

JD felt his mouth drop a little; he sat down on the cot, surprised. "You mean youíve been in this gang your whole life?"

The other boy nodded, staring into the gloom as he sat back, folding his arms. "You bet, lawman, aní I made a pretty good liviní at it too. Til now, that is."

JD tried to imagine spending an entire lifetime committing crimes; he couldnít. Finally he looked up.

"Were your parents killed in that shootout last week?"

Ben lifted his head to give JD a look so bitter he could almost feel it.

"God, youíre nosy," he finally said, in a choked voice. "Leave me alone."

With that, he turned his face to the wall and fell silent. JD mumbled an apology, kicking himself inside as he rose and made his way to the chair by the door to settle down and wait for Vin. As he sat, he thought of his own childhood, rough and full of deprivation but never devoid of hope or love. Had Benís been like that? He found himself eying the huddled form on the cot with more sympathy than he had expected, and regarded the tattered book in his hand with more reverence than ever.

He sat and began to read, but as time went on he began to get increasingly worried; the expectation that Vin would show up soon began to be replaced by a suspicion that something really was wrong. One hour turned to two, then almost three; JD checked his scratched silver pocketwatch and felt a small surge of panic: Vin was now four hours late returning. There was little hope now that heíd just lost track of time.

He had been staring at his book and worrying when there came a tap on the cellar door. JD looked up, set the book down quickly and drew his gun, rising in one smooth motion from his chair. He glanced over to see Ben regarding the door with fear; JD gave him a nod, as if to say, "Donít worry, itís all under control", even though his heart was probably pounding as hard as his guestís. With a light step JD moved up the cellar stairs until he was right under the door, and he said quickly, "Who is it?" Maybe it was Vin...

"Itís Nathan, JD. Open up."

JD sighed and holstered his gun, reaching up with the other hand to draw back the bolt. Nathan quickly sped inside, a box in one hand.

"Is Vin back yet?" JD asked, as Nathan locked the door. The healer turned anxious eyes to him and shook his head.

"Nope, aní Chris is mighty worried. Last I saw he was saddliní up Valor, with a pretty mean look in his eye. Here," he gave JD the box, "brought yíall some dinner."

"Thanks-in a box?" JD opened it and peered inside.

"Well, canít be cartiní food through the streets and lettiní everybody know we got someone down here." He walked over to Ben. "How you feeliní, Ben?"

The boy gave him a quick nod, an uncertain smile on his face. "Iím OK. Hungry, though."

"Here," JD trotted over with the box and handed Ben a few pieces of chicken, wrapped in a grease-spotted cloth. "Youíll like it, Nathanís a really good cook."

"Right now I donít care if heís the worst in the world," Ben replied, tearing into the food without regard for manners. he looked up. "Hey, whoís this Vin guy youíre all so worried about?"

"Oh, you remember, you met him last night," JD prodded, removing his own meal from the box before placing it on his chair.

"He the guy with the mustache?"

"No, thatís Buck. Vin was the other one."

"Oh, yeah," Ben said as he munched, nodding. "He was all right. I still canít figure out why he didnít shoot me, he sure couldíve."

"Vin wouldnít do that, without good reason, anyway," JD replied. sitting down and unwrapping the food. "But if he shot at you youíd know. Iíve never seen him miss."

"Huh." Ben wiped his mouth on his sleeve."Doesnít sound like the type youíd need to worry about."

"Well, that ainít the whole story," Nathan offered, leaning on one of the piles of junk which littered the room. "Vinís a wanted man, aní thereís always a possibility he mighta been took."

Benís eyes widened for a moment. "Heís a wanted man? Really?"

"Now, he didnít do nothiní wrong," JD insisted, his hazel eyes burning. "Itís all a mistake, one weíre gonna get cleared up someday."

But Ben didnít seem to be listening; he was looking away, his mind working something out. Nathan studied him.

"Ben?"

The boy looked at him quickly, an almost guilty look on his face.

"You think you might know somethiní about this?"

Ben sat for a moment, clearly torn; his eyes dropped to the food in his hand as he tried to sort it all out. JD watched as Nathan moved to crouch in front of the boy, his face serious.

"Now, Ben, you know youíre safe here. If you got any idea what mighta happened to Vin, weíd all be powerful grateful if you let us know."

Ben stared at him for a moment, still unsure. JD moved closer, trying not to scare the boy too much.

"Ben, Vin helped you out by not shootiní you," he pointed out. "If he gets caught heíll hang, so I figure you owe him one."

This seemed to do it; Ben swallowed and said slowly, "Thereís a guy who runs another gang like mine; he did bounty huntiní on the side. I think he has a place out by Jasperís Pass, Iím not sure exactly where. Tell your friend whoís lookiní that he might want to look there."

JD and Nathan glanced quickly at each other; then Nathan nodded.

"Much obliged, Ben, Iíll sure let Chris know. Heíll be mighty grateful for you helpiní us out."

Ben gave a weak shrug. "I hope you find Ďim. This guy donít pay much attention to the Ďaliveí part of Ďdead or aliveí, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, lotta that around here." Nathan rose and hurried towards the cellar door. "Iíll try aní catch Chris-Buck should be around to take over Ďround 8."

JD nodded. "OK-maybe by then Viníll be back aní weíll all have been worried for nothiní."

Nathan gave a quick shake of his head. "Iíd like to think so, JD, but somethiní tells me it ainít gonna work out that smooth."

He sped up the stairs and out into the street; JD locked the door once again, and gave a look to Ben as he thumped back down the old wooden stairs. The boy had turned his face back to the wall again, and seemed to be deep in thought, an expression on his face which indicated that he didnít want to talk. So JD settled back down in his chair and resumed his reading, or what passed for it, since his eyes hardly saw the words. All he could think about was the weird feeling he had that Nathanís words would be proven true before too much time had passed.

 

Buck was leaning against one of the wooden posts outside of the saloon, staring out into the late afternoon sky, quietly smoking a cheroot and blowing the smoke into the hurrying autumn wind. It had become almost overcast, the grey-and-white clouds moving quickly across the sky as if trying to get out of the way of something even darker behind them. The wind had picked up quite a bit, scattering leaves and small bits of debris up the nearly deserted streets. His eyes wandered from the sky to the mountains beyond the town. The mountains Vin was supposed to return from hours ago.

Buck didnít like it at all; Vin had an uncanny way of telling time without a watch, a trait picked up from his years in the wild, no doubt. If heíd been a little late returning, well, maybe heíd gotten absorbed in his patrol and lost track of time-tho that was a big maybe, since it had never happened. But if he was gone this long, something was definitely wrong. But neither Buck nor any of the others was about to voice the concern-there was no need to, since they all felt it whether it was voiced or not.

Footsteps behind him caught his attention; he turned to see Josiah emerge from the saloon, drink in one hand.

"Any sign of Ďim?"

Buck shook his head. "Nope."

He saw the larger man purse his lips and look down, only partially successful at hiding his concern. Then he looked back up and sighed.

"Damn, Buck, this is mighty peculiar. First Ezra leaves Ridge City without a trace, now Vinís gone. Weíre gettiní plumb short-handed around here."

The rhythm of pounding hoofbeats sounded above the wind; Josiah and Buck looked up the street to see Chris, mounted on Valor, tearing up the road. He saw the two men and reined in; even in the overcast gloom Buck could see a familiar intensity in his eyes.

"Guess I donít have to ask where youíre goiní," Buck remarked.

"Keep an eye on things til I get back, Buck," Chris replied, as his horse danced nervously.

"Could you use some help?" Josiah inquired, stepping into the street. "Four eyesíd be betterín two."

Chris glanced at the former preacher, paused, then nodded.

"Reckon Vin might need some prayers, Josiah."

The other man gave a quick nod and hurried away to the livery. Chris looked at Buck.

"Weíll be back soon," he said. Buck smiled tightly.

"Hope so-weíre runniní out of people to send after ya." He tilted his head back to gaze at the scudding clouds. "Might have a storm brewiní-you two be careful ridiní around out there."

He saw Chris give a cursory glance at the sky, but knew nothing short of the Apocalypse would keep the gunslinger from finding out what happened to Vin.

Soon Josiah came thudding up the street on Prophet, his face set in determination. Chris turned to Buck.

""Nathan tells me Ben thinks someone out by Jasperís Pass might have Ďim-thatís where weíll be headed. Aní check the telegraph office to see if thereís any word from Ezra."

Buck nodded. "Sure will, pard. Good luck."

Chris returned the nod, then he and Josiah tore off towards the mountains; the sun burst through for a moment, lighting the peaks with an eerie golden glow against the dark clouds. Buck watched them go and sighed; Ezra and Vin, both missing. Well, he chuckled to himself as he headed towards the church, who knows, maybe they both got lost in the same place.

*******

The clouds were just starting to overwhelm the sun as Ezra and Julian approached the hill which overlooked Julianís ranch; but the wind was still soft and warm, and the ride had been mostly very pleasant. They had easily filled the journey with tales of the last ten years; Julian had plenty of stories of narrow escapes, and a few times he didnít quite get away, and Ezra found himself thoroughly enjoying his old friendís company. It was almost as if the intervening years had not passed at all.

As Julian related a story concerning a beautiful Madame of Biloxi, Ezra looked at him and recalled how easily they had worked together. They had made quite a team, really, and his friend hadnít changed all that much, just gotten a little older and wiser in the ways of the world, as Ezra had. Working together again seemed very appealing. The promise of quick money, a safe life -- all the things heíd wanted and thought heíd have to wait years to get, all now within easy reach. It was a very heady idea, one which Ezra knew he should jump at. Such opportunities rarely presented themselves twice.

And yet... Ezraís mind turned back and forth on the subject, torn between old yearnings and new obligations. Something in him didnít want to let go of his present life so fast, even if it was more threatening than heíd anticipated. Maybe Iíd better wait to decide, he finally thought, til after I hear what Julian has to say. Maybe something in there will tip the balance.

The sun was beginning to head southward when Julian finally said, "There she is, Ezra!"

They topped the rise; Ezra felt a sense of awe as he looked down over the complex, arranged neatly against the backdrop of the tree-covered foothills, now a riot of bright fall colors. The house itself was huge, bigger than any ranch house Ezra had ever seen; as they rode in he noted its wide inviting porch, the handsome barn, the large paddock full of galloping horses. There was even a separate cookhouse, a thick curl of gray smoke lazily wafting out of its chimney.

There were men everywhere, all husky and well-dressed, and a few women who appeared to be of the sporting variety, also finely attired. They all regarded Julian with respect and even deference, Ezra noticed as they trotted to the stable, and he grinned in reply and tipped his hat politely to the charmed giggles of the girls.

"My friend, this is astonishing," Ezra had said as they dismounted; hands immediately rushed up and led the horses away to be unsaddled and rubbed down. "Have you been living here long?"

"Actually, no," Julian had replied, pulling off his riding gloves as they approached the house. "Iím really not here all that often, only when business permits. I travel a wide circuit, you see, and my affairs often take me far afield. Come inside and Iíll tell you about it over a brandy."

The interior of the house was astounding, decorated in the very latest and most sumptuous taste. Crystal table lamps, finely upholstered furniture and thick tassled drapes were everywhere; the opulence was dazzling, and Ezra was amazed to discover that he felt very comfortable in its presence. Perhaps this would be the right choice, after all...

Julian gave him a quick tour; everything in the house was splendid, and the guest room Ezra was to stay in was filled with furniture which made his own sleeping quarters -- appointed with the best rented furniture Four Corners could offer -- look downright shabby. A tour of the grounds was equally impressive; the aroma from the cookhouse promised the best meal Ezra had had in weeks. The horses in the paddock were all of excellent stock, although Julian admitted none of them could hold a candle to Ezraís horse Chaucer. Ezra noticed that the tour did not include the barn, but perhaps there was nothing to see there.

"Yes, Iíve missed the place," Julian said later, as they sat finishing their brandy and cigars. He stubbed out his smoke and leaned forward on the mohair sofa, towards Ezra who sat nearby on one of the identical chairs. "But I suppose we should dispense with the small talk and get down to business. What do you say, Ezra-would you like to come and work for me?"

Ezra quickly swept the room with his eyes; since his arrival the charms of Four Corners had been growing dim indeed, and it seemed an increasingly wise idea to grab this all now, while he was still alive to enjoy it. But there was something he couldnít quite put his finger on about all this... he smiled.

"Before I assent, my friend, I should like to know exactly what game Iím dealing myself into."

Julian laughed in an understanding fashion, leaning back as he reached for the nearby decanter. "I donít blame you for that, Ezra, you canít be too careful, you know. But I know youíll fit right in here, unless you arenít the same man I raised hell with ten years ago."

He poured himself another brandy and swirled it in his glass, regarding it with his black eyes as he spoke.

"Unless my memory is faulty you used to voice a desire to run a saloon someday. Is this still true?"

Ezraís ears perked up. He began to reach into his jacket pocket for the picture and plans of the Desert Star. "Itís still quite true, I assure you-"

"Excellent!" Julian leaned forward again, not noticing Ezraís actions and charging ahead, excited. Ezra paused, then took his hand out of his pocket; perhaps this wasnít the time.

"I have an establishment in San Francisco called the Bay Queen-beautiful place, right on the waterfront. Iím presently looking for a proprietor for it, and the jobís yours if you want it. Two main rooms, two full bars, mirrors on the wall, the works. Iíve recently put in some improvements, two roulette wheels, four faro tables, carpeting, and a stage show. Youíd love it."

"Amazing," Ezra muttered, conjuring up a mental image; it certainly sounded more lucrative than the Desert Star. "What sort of monetary remuneration are you offering?"

"Oh-" Julian lit another cigar. "You can name your price, really. Youíll want for nothing, I can promise you that. And all youíll have to do is keep an eye on things and make sure the other businesses are behaving themselves."

Ezra looked up, puzzled. "Howís that?"

The other man seemed surprised at having to explain. "Oh, you know, all the smaller operations in the area that weíve allowed to stay open, they have a tradition of showing their gratitude. Financially, you see. In return we let them stay open and help them out if they have trouble. Course they always complain about the money but they know what the alternative is."

Ezra sat for a moment, thinking; this hardly sounded like a normal job offer. A cold feeling was creeping up his back; he fought it down and smiled.

"Um, Julian, who is this Ďweí you keep referring to?"

His friend shot him a look, thought a bit, then sat up with a confidential smile. "Well, I guess I can let you in, since Iím sure weíll be working together. In case you havenít noticed, Ezra, this is one large territory weíre sitting in, and it takes men of vision and power to run it. Now these men, they have only so much time and energy, which they must devote to affairs of state. Do you follow me?"

Ezra nodded, not liking where this seemed to be headed. A very uncomfortable sensation was coming over him, one of disbelief at the words coming from his old friendís mouth. God, it canít be possible...

"Now, there are things these men have to do to make sure this territory runs smoothly, things they canít do themselves. Say, for instance, they need more money for their various personal projects, or want to get rid of an opponent whoís obstructing their progressive ideas. They canít very well go rob a bank or shoot someone, can they?"

Julian laughed; so did Ezra, which was an amazing feat considering the lump in his throat.

"Thatís where myself, and others, come in. We do their work for them, you see, and they reward us quite handsomely. Thereís risks, of course -- last week one of our contingents got ambushed and almost wiped out by the law, and now thereís only one member left who might talk and put us all in jail. But thatíll be taken care of shortly. It gets dirty sometimes, you see -- probably have to kill any lawmen watching him, that sort of thing -- but you understand, Iím sure, that we canít let this person live."

This was all said in a completely calm tone, with no more concern than if Julian was discussing a horserace instead of robbery and murder; but Ezra felt as if heíd been run over by an omnibus. His mind raced to their partnership ten years earlier; they had swindled plenty of people, but never physically harmed anyone, except for some rambunctious fistfights, none of which ended in serious injury. They had been out for money, not blood; now Julian was awash in it, and didnít seem to mind at all.

Julian looked up, saw Ezraís shocked expression and held out a consoling hand, as if trying to push down his fears.

"Now, donít worry, you wouldnít be handling any of the rough elements-Iíll see to it that you have some good help, strong men like Iíve got. You already met Bullock -- remarkable man, got him straight off the street five years ago. With any luck I can find you a right-hand man whoís just as good. Now, what do you think?"

Ezra paused, his eyes still wide. Then he quickly drained his full snifter and gave a shake of his head.

"I must say, Julian," he finally replied, "I had no idea your position was so... complex."

Julian shrugged. "Not really -- itís actually quite a bit like what we used to do ten years ago-just as illegal but a hell of a lot more profitable. Of course, thereís drawbacks -- once youíre in, youíre in for life, though thatís not a bad thing in my opinion. Hell, look around you -- I think I could stand living to an old age in this manner!"

Ezra pursed his lips. "And if one did want to, as you say, Ďget outí?"

His companion peered at him, then took the cigar from his lips and blew the smoke up into the air. "Well, then youíd probably wind up like this couple I knew about ten years ago, whoíd been in this ring for, oh, eight years at the time. Nice couple, real sharp, had a kid and everything, though we generally donít like that. But this kid was sharp too, learned the trade in no time. Anyway, they tried to sneak off with the kid. Got caught, of course, and, well, we knew we couldnít trust them anymore. So, that was that. Happened not too far from here, actually. They werenít in my gang, but in the same area, you see, and I had a hand in... well, I guess you could say the executions. We made the kid watch the killings, to teach him a lesson, you know. But we did let him live."

Ezra gulped, hoping he didnít look too pale. "How magnanimous of you."

He casually took another drag on his cigar, shaking his head. "I still canít figure those people out, they had everything they couldíve wanted and they threw it away. And their kidís proved to be no better, though he earned his keep for a long time. Heís the same kid I was just talking about, the one whose gang got killed last week. Well," he leaned forward and flicked the ashes off of his smoke, "guess he wonít be missing his parents for long, once we find out where he is."

He sat for a moment, quietly puffing his cigar, not noticing how Ezra was staring at him. My God, Ezra thought as it completely dawned on him, this isnít some business venture, itís open criminality. Heís talking about killing people and it doesnít even bother him. Like heís used to it.

Who are you, you bastard, and what have you done with Julian?

Finally Julian noticed his silence, and glanced at him. "Well, Ezra? You wonít turn this down, Iím sure."

Ezra opened his mouth, not sure what he was going to say, when the door behind him burst open and one of the hands ran in.

"Scuse me, Mr. St. Clair, but Bullock and the boys are back. Looks like they got another one."

"Excellent!" Julian hopped up, his eyes gleaming. "See, Ezra, this bounty huntingís a piece of cake. Címon out to the porch, you can see how this all works."

Julian gave Ezraís shoulder a whap; but Ezra stopped him, realizing that now was the time to extricate himself before this went any further.

"Julian, I -- your offer is quite generous, but I fear I cannot accept it now. Prior obligations, you understand."

His friend stopped, eyed Ezra for a moment before taking the cigar out of his mouth. "Seriously?"

"I fear so," Ezra said emphatically. "In fact, I should probably return home tonight. Perhaps I can enjoy your hospitality another time?"

There was a very long pause as Julian pondered Ezraís words; Ezra watched him carefully, dying to get on his horse and away from there. He was beginning to notice something very claustrophobic and dangerous in the atmosphere of the ranch, a tainted air that Ezra felt was slowly choking him.

"Itís up to you," Julian said slowly, putting a tight hand on Ezraís shoulder. "But you must swear confidence to what I told you earlier, Ezra, for your sake as well as mine. Our network is very large and, well, if you ever tell anyone what I told you, weíd know. And I couldnít save you. Understand?"

Ezra hadnít even considered telling anyone about all this; his only thought was to leave as quickly as possible. But he couldnít move, not even to nod.

"Mr. St. Clair!"

"Coming," Julian called, then looked back to Ezra.

"Sorry to see you go, Ezra, Iíll see you off after we get this latest catch locked up."

He patted Ezraís shoulder and walked away; Ezra gulped to himself, relieved. Lord, was it going to feel good to be back in Four Corners, even if it meant getting shot at. He heard the clamor of voices out on the porch; Julian was obviously very excited about the prey the bounty hunters had brought in. Ezraís blood chilled as he cast a glance out of the fancy lace curtains of the front window; he wasnít sure if it was because of the possible fate awaiting the unfortunate captive, or the sound of his longtime friend exulting so over anotherís downfall.

Indistinct shapes moved across the fine drapery; Ezra squinted, moved quickly to the window, peered closer, his mouth going completely dry.

Oh my God...

"Sorry we took so long gettiní back, Mr. St. Clair," Bullock was saying, as Hal hauled Vin off of his horse. "Bastard tried to cut out on us twice, aní keepiní Ďim in line wasnít easy."

"Yes, I can see heís a lively one," Julian replied, as he studied Vin; the tracker was filthy, his clothes torn and bloodied from several cuts and bruises. His hands had been bound tightly behind him, and they stayed that way as his captor forced him upright; but the blindfold which had covered his eyes was whipped off, uncovering a pair of calm but defiant blue eyes.

"Whatíll we get for this one?" Julian asked, puffing on his cigar as he ignored Vinís expression. Bullock grinned widely as he strode over to Vin and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head back. One of the other men pulled Vinís wanted poster from his pocket and handed it to Julian, who eyed it with pleasure.

"Five hundred dollars, And youíll love this, sir -- seems he was in the posse that took Ben Tyler in last night."

"Really!" Julian grinned around his cigar as he casually walked down the wooden steps of the porch towards Vin, meeting his gaze with icy black eyes.

"You wouldnít feel like telling us where that boyís hid, would you?"

Vinís gaze was placid, a small smile on his face despite the blood.

"Sorry, mister," he said quietly, "but my ma raised me never to talk to trash."

Julian eyed him for a moment, then burst out laughing.

"Damn, boy, youíve got a mouth! Weíll see how long you keep it after Bullock gets done with you. Take him out to the barn and get to work, the sooner we find that kid the better."

Bullockís face split in a gleeful smile. "Yes, sir. Címon, Tanner."

Vin was dragged away towards the barn; Ezra watched him go through the window, a sickening horror spreading through him. He saw Julian say something to another man who seemed to be wounded, and then turn and head back up the stairs. Ezra swiftly moved away from the window, his mind racing as he scooped up his snifter and poured a brandy, trying to appear nonchalant, though his eyes were darting furiously as his mind worked.

"God, what a break, Ezra! Looks like weíll have that kid in no time. Did you get a chance to see the man they brought in?"

Ezra kept his back to him as he set down the decanter, licking his lips. "Missed it, Iím afraid."

"Heís a scruffy son of a bitch, like they all are. Well, letís get your horse saddled -- I canít see you back to Ridge City now, but--"

"Actually," Ezra cut him off, turning to face him as he calmly swirled his brandy. "I believe I may stay after all, at least for one night, if thatís agreeable."

His host seemed pleasantly surprised. "Well-hell yes, itís agreeable! Wonderful, Ezra, Iím delighted that you changed your mind. After dinner we can play a few hands of poker, Iíll bet you havenít lost your touch. Iíll be losing quite a bit to you tonight, Iím sure."

He gave Ezraís shoulder a hearty whack and walked into the adjoining room. Ezra watched him go, then glanced in the direction of the barn as the plan heíd worked out ran once more through his mind.

"I certainly hope so, my friend. I certainly do hope so."

 

The tall trees were swaying gently in the cool gusts of the approaching storm as Chris and Josiah trotted along the dusty road, their eyes scanning the area for any sign of Vin. little was said; they were retracing the route normally used on patrol, a route lined with caves, trees, shallow forests-many places which could easily hide evidence of wrongdoing. But the sun was beginning to go down, its pale light now and again breaking through the thickening gray-bottomed clouds; soon it would be too dark to look, if the weather didnít hamper their efforts first.

"Jasperís Pass is up ahead," Chris yelled above the wind. "Weíll head on up there next."

Josiah nodded, the fringes of his Indian-style vest flapping in the breeze. Theyíd been riding hard since leaving town, and come up with nothing.

They rode on for a while, silent, each man trying not to think of the possibilities, among them that Vin might already be on the way to Tascosa and a hangmanís noose.

Chris had been staring at the ground; suddenly he stopped and peered at something closely.

Josiah halted Prophet. "Find somethiní?"

Without replying Chris dismounted and knelt in the grass, rubbing it a little with his hand. He held it up; it was stained a dark brownish-red.

The former preacher set his lips. "Blood?"

Chris rose and nodded, his eyes searching the countryside. "Still fairly fresh, couldnít be moreín six hours old." He studied the ground, his gaze lifting to the east. "Seems to be a trail of it-letís see where it ends up."

Josiah leaned forward, trying to see; there was, indeed, a thin trickle of red near where Chris had stood; the line seemed to grow a little wider as it led away, a trail not yet obliterated by the elements. Silently the two men turned their mounts towards the east, following the trail and somewhat dreading what they might find at the end of it.

The marking grew easier to follow as they rode, a widening line of red running over the grasses and rocks. Soon the rush of water could be heard; the ground became harder, the dry dust replaced by hard, flat rocks and large stones. Finally the trail stopped, terminating in a spattered red circle along the banks of a swollen, bush-lined stream. There was no one in sight.

"Damn," Chris muttered in frustration, as he slid off his horse. Josiah dismounted as well, keenly disappointed that they had found the beginning of the trail, not its end.

"Looks like someone had a fight, or a shootout," Josiah remarked, observing the drying pool of blood. "Couldíve been anybody, tho."

Chris walked to the edge of the stream, the water lapping lightly at the toes of his dusty black boots. His eyes flew up and down the river, intently peering through the bright fall foliage for something, anything...

"Josiah!"

The other man looked up from where heíd been studying the blood to see Chris wade into the shallow river, plunging into the brush along its banks. He leapt up and ran to the shoreline, watching his partnerís black shape half-vanish in a dappled burst of yellow foliage. He was digging something out of the tall grasses and weeds, hardly paying any attention to how wet he was getting.

Finally he turned around and slogged back to land, carrying something dark and dripping in his hands. As he got closer Josiah could plainly make them out; a battered canteen and Vinís leather hat.

"They were in the weeds back there," Chris panted as he emerged from the river. "Those Goddamned bastards mustíve jumped him here and dragged him off."

Josiah sighed as he took the hat and canteen from Chrisí grasp, turning them over; it was Vinís hat all right, there was the neatly stitched-up hole left by a bullet from one of Stuart Jamesí toughs. No blood on them; maybe it wasnít Vin whoíd been hurt. But there was little doubt that Vin would never travel without these articles unless he was forced to, and whoever had forced him to hadnít taken him on a picnic.

He lifted his head and looked at Chris with calmly determined eyes.

"Guess I know where weíre headed, then."

Chris nodded, a killing rage burning in his eyes.

"Jasperís Pass."

*******

The storm had been raging for a few hours as Julian dealt the final hand of the evening; the delicate chimes of the porcelain mantle clock was easily drowned out by the distant rumble of thunder, an indication that the worst was yet to come.

The evening had passed pleasantly, despite the sheets of rain which had been pouring over the sturdy ranch house for the past two hours; as Ezra and Julian sat in the well-lit parlor, gambling away the night, brief flashes of brilliant lightning occasionally lit up the windows, revealing the water cascading down the panes.

"Good night to be inside," Julian said around his cigar, shaking his head as he picked up his cards. "Damn glad you decided to stay, Ezra-youíd have had a hell of a time riding back to town in this."

Ezra nodded as he drained his drink and studied his cards, although his mind was far away from the game. All evening heíd chatted and drank with Julian, hoping that his friend wouldnít notice the agitation in his eyes. But Ezra was nothing if not adept at hiding his emotions; it was a skill carefully honed at thousands of gaming tables across the country, and Julian suspected nothing.

It amazed Ezra at how repugnant the beautiful ranch house now was; it had all seemed so attractive at first, but now he knew that every silken drapery and mahogany table had been bought with the suffering and blood of other people. The luxury which surrounded them had come at a price far more dear than mere money, a price Ezra knew he would never be able to condone. Conning and cheating were one thing; murder, quite another. Ezra knew he had little to boast about in the morals department, but he felt certain he would never buy his success at the cost of innocent lives, as Julian had done.

While the black-haired gambler laughed and played, Ezraís mind was working at breakneck speed, his stomach tied into a sickening knot. God, what were they doing to Vin? Was he even still alive? Did the others know he was missing-and if they did, could they find him in this weather? And what would they think if they saw Ezra here, playing cards with the man responsible for Vinís capture? But mostly, Ezra desperately hoped that he would soon have a chance to get them both as far away from Julian as possible.

"Wonder how Bullockís doing with that prairie rat," Julian muttered, picking up a card. "Heís been at it for hours now. Want a card?"

Ezra shook his head, still appalled at Julianís blase attitude towards another personís suffering. "Iíll stand, thank you. Who is that fellow, anyway?"

Julian shrugged. "Wanted poster says heís Vin Tanner-not that that matters much. Heíll be at the end of a rope before long, if Bullock doesnít do him in. I only hope he tells us where that Tyler brat is hiding before heís finished."

"Hmm." Ezra licked his lips. "You know, I believe I may have heard of this Tanner person."

"Oh?" Julian looked up for a moment and took a puff on his cigar. "That notorious, is he?"

"Not especially," Ezra proceeded cautiously. "If I recall correctly, the rumor is that he is innocent of the charges against him."

He watched Julianís reaction; the other man considered this, then shrugged.

"Thatís for the authorities to decide. I donít care if heís Jesus Christ as long as I get my bounty." Julian cocked his head for a minute and smiled a little. "Come to think of it, Christ had a bounty on his head too, didnít he? Well, fortunately for me, Tannerís worth a hell of a lot more than 30 pieces of silver, and the vultures can argue whether heís guilty or not."

Ezra smiled a little, too, hoping Julian wouldnít see the shock in his eyes. "Yes, well, just thought Iíd mention it. I donít suppose men in your line of work worry much about such matters."

Julian grunted as he blew out another cloud of smoke and gave Ezra a sharp look. "Not when it comes to things like this, Ezra. Thereís no such thing as right and wrong in this world, only rich and poor. I know where my interests lie, and Iím sure you do too. Now, speaking of money, Iím afraid youíll be owing me quite a bit for this night, unless thatís one fantastic hand youíre holding."

"Oh-" Ezra laid down his cards; he hadnít even really looked at them. "Your luck is holding well, my friend."

Julian laughed as he gathered up the cash at the center of the table. "Indeed it is-I almost feel guilty, taking this from you, what with the money Iíll be getting from Tanner."

A crack of thunder split the air, rattling the windows slightly. Julian looked up.

"Damn, itís really coming down." Julian tapped the deck of the cards, evening them out before slipping them back into their box. "Well, Ezra, I hate to be a rude host, but I fear my health demands an early bedtime."

Ezra watched him rise and stretch. "No problem, my friend. I believe I shall sit up a little longer, and enjoy your fine home."

"My pleasure," Julian smiled. "If you get bored, and the rain lets up, feel free to go out to the barn and watch Bullock at work. The manís a marvel. Well, good night."

"Good night."

Julian sauntered out, the lazy smoke of his cigar trailing after him in the dim light of the parlor. Ezra watched him go, then listened as another crack of thunder rippled over the quiet house. The rain sounded torrential now, sweeping over the roof in rhythmic, drumming gusts. There was no sign of its letting up.

But Ezra was going out to the barn anyway.

 

Chris shook the water from his eyes and plodded on, knowing that Josiah was behind him somewhere, guiding his own horse through the rain which was slashing through the chilly night air, soaking everything in sight. Dammit, the house had to be around here somewhere.

They had just reached the foothills of Jasperís Pass when the rain started; it had been light at first, but soon grew so heavy that the hills disappeared into a vaguely discernible mist-shrouded form. Trails became mud-choked morasses, slippery and difficult to climb; the sun had set, making it virtually impossible to see through the darkness and rain. But neither man had voiced the slightest intention of giving up.

He heard the thick splatter of mud-sotted hoofbeats, and turned to see Josiah plod up to him, small rivers of water running from his wide-brimmed hat and clothes.

"How much further you want to go, Chris?" he yelled, as thunder sliced the air. Chris looked at him, his face illuminated by a flash of lurid white light.

"Til we find him, " was the brief reply. "Thereís some hills up ahead, and some woods; we can make camp there if it gets too rough."

Josiah nodded. "And just how rough is too rough?"

"If we both get killed."

"Thatís what I thought."

They rode on, towards the woods.

 

Ezra splashed across the ranchís front lawn, his collar turned up against the rain; he looked around, it was very dark, no sentries out. The lightning strikes were becoming more frequent; the storm was getting closer. Heíd have to hurry.

As he neared the barn, he could hear sounds inside, and he braced himself; it sounded like the men inside were enjoying themselves a good deal, and Ezra knew he wouldnít like what he was about to see. If only Vin was conscious enough not to let on that he knew him... He put his hand on the barn door and pushed it open, slipping inside.

The barn was large and poorly lit; Ezra found himself in front of an empty stall, assailed by the odor of damp hay and the faint smell of manure. A single lamp glowed against the darkness, off in the corner; Ezra peered past the maze of wooden posts to see Bullock, a riding crop in his hand, turn and look in his direction.

"Whoís there?" he bellowed, in an annoyed tone.

Ezra didnít reply, stepping instead around the posts and into the small pool of lamplight. He took in the scene and halted, his heart leaping into his throat.

They were in one corner of the barn, its hard floor barely covered with a scattering of hay; along with Bullock was one other man, another of Julianís goons. The lamp was hanging on a post, its feeble light struggling to overcome the darkness of the huge building, and the even deeper human darkness of its inhabitants. Both of them were studying Ezra; behind them, ignored for the moment by his captors but of intense interest to Ezra, was the bound and bleeding form of Vin.

They had tossed Vinís coat into the corner and tied him to one of the barnís rough wooden posts, securing his hands above his head before setting to work. Even in the dim light Ezra could see the dark bruises and blood on the trackerís face and clothes; his shirt hung open in tatters, its blue folds stained purple. He was still standing, but his head lolled down on his chest, his long golden-brown hair partly obscuring his face. His eyes were closed, but he didnít seem unconscious, and even from where he stood Ezra could hear his labored breathing.

Ezra felt a chill deeper than the autumn night, but his face remained impassive.

"Oh, itís you," Bullock growled. "Youíre Julianís pal."

"How kind of you to remember, Mr. Bullock," Ezra replied, stepping closer. "Have I missed anything?"

Vin twitched and tried to raise his head.

"Nah, this slime ainít said a damned thing," Bullock said with a growl, and drove his fist into Vinís stomach for emphasis; Vin gasped and doubled over. Ezra winced, feeling gut-punched himself.

"Well, how fortunate for me," Ezra said with a relaxed smile, coming forward. He noticed that the hard floor of the barn around the post was dotted with old, dark stains -- Vin was not the first victim of this manís brutality. "Iím delighted not to have missed the fun. How long have you men been out here?"

Bullock looked at his companion. "I dunno, six hours, maybe."

Ezraís eyebrows went up. "You two must be exhausted."

"You can say that again," the other man said. "And starved."

"Well, tell you what," Ezra stepped closer. "Iíd be delighted to watch our friend here while you go take a break. Your efforts will doubtless yield better results once youíve refreshed yourselves."

Bullock and the other man exchanged glances.

"Whattya think?"

"I dunno," Bullock said, eying Ezra with suspicion. Ezra drew himself up.

"Sir, I can assure you, your... catch... is safe in my hands. Would you want your boss to know you didnít trust one of his oldest and dearest friends?"

"Címon, Bullock," said the smaller man. "Julian wouldnít trust a traitor."

The bigger man nodded slowly, still harboring a glint of mistrust in his small eyes.

"Well... OK. Feel free to get a few licks in yourself, if ya want. Weíll be back shortly."

He handed the bloody riding crop to Ezra and they left, stepping out into the pouring rain. Ezra tossed away the weapon with loathing and crept swiftly to the door, peering through it to watch as the two misty figures made their way through the rain and into the cookhouse on the other side of the complex.

Quickly Ezra ran to the post, his heart pounding. "Mr. Tanner?"

Vin groaned and lifted his head, but didnít open his eyes. Impatient, Ezra lightly slapped his face.

"Mr. Tanner, I must ask you to regain your faculties at once. We have not a moment to lose."

The tracker took a deep breath and opened his eyes, blinking. After a pause, he focused on Ezra and frowned.

"Ezra?" he croaked. "What the hell-"

"I fear you must save your inquiries for later, sir," Ezra said in a hurried tone, deftly untying the rope which bound Vinís hands to the pole. "Can you ride?"

Vin nodded; the ropes came free, and he fell forward a bit. Ezra caught him, waited until Vin seemed to balance himself.

"Iíd ride with both legs broken to get the hell out of here," Vin replied in a husky voice, pulling himself together quickly despite the wounds. After a moment he pushed himself free of Ezraís steadying grip, nodding to indicate that his equilibrium was returning, and went to put his crumpled coat on.

"Iím delighted to hear it," Ezra replied, as they moved towards the stables where their horses were tethered. "Julian has intentions to dispose of our young guest, and we must alert the others at once."

Vin grabbed Ezraís arm. "íJulianí -- you know that guy?"

Ezra paused long enough to shoot Vin a melancholy look as he opened the barnís back door. "I believe I did once, Mr. Tanner, but that is no longer the case."

They quickly saddled their mounts; Ezra watched Vin cautiously, but the tracker appeared to be regaining his strength, though his movements still seemed sluggish. Outside, they could hear the rain continue to roar down from the sky; thunder crashed through the air constantly now; the storm was overhead.

"I believe we should ride for the hills in the west," Ezra said, as they mounted up.

Vin thought for a moment. "Yeah, thatís Jasperís Pass. Rain should hide us til weíre in the woods."

He reeled a bit in the saddle; Ezra glanced at him.

"Are you quite all right, sir?"

Vin recovered, nodded. "Hell, yes. Letís go."

They shot out into the night, towards the woods, two dark figures in the swirling, wind-blown rain. The lightning was constant now, flashing in every corner of the sky as the air was rent with a cacophony of crackling roars. Both men bent over the necks of their mounts as they made for the hills, Vin hanging on tightly as dizziness assailed him. Ezra looked back; no one was following them.

The hills loomed closer, the storm raged on; Ezra could feel himself getting soaked to the bone, but for once paid his ruined clothes little heed. He looked over to check on Vin; the trackerís pale face was set in grim determination as he clutched his reins tightly. Blood still trickled down his face, running thin in the pouring rain.

They began the ascent into the hills, the mountsí hooves slicing into the muddy road in a series of thick splashes. The lightning continued, illuminating the tall trees ahead in bright whiteness, freezing the raindrops for a moment in their descent to the ground.

Ezra turned to Vin. "If we--"

A bullet whizzed past his face; startled, he turned to see two horsemen some distance behind them, pounding away from the ranch. The two men exchanged glances, Vin hunched further over his horse, and Ezra drew his gun and began firing behind them, at the indistinct shapes coming rapidly closer.

They raced onwards, the bullets flying thicker now; Vin felt one nick his arm, heard Ezra continue to return fire. He heard a strangled scream in the distance, and Ezra grunt; one down. Lighting arced across the sky; the thunder grew louder, drowning out all other sound, until Vin and Ezra could no longer hear the hoofbeats of each othersí horses. Vin threw one more glance at Ezra, saw him still firing at their lone pursuer, his face lit with the explosions of the sky. But horse and rider seemed silent, the only sound reaching Vinís ears that of the heavens ripping themselves apart.

Lightning arced across the sky, striking a tree in the forest ahead of them; it teetered, groaned and began a long, slow fall across their path. Seeing his chance, he gave a shout to Ezra, saw the gambler turn and see what Vin saw, and urge his horse forward as well. The huge tree was falling slowly enough, and they were close enough, that both of them would be able to clear it easily and escape their pursuer. Vin turned forward in his saddle and spurred Sire onward, racing underneath the falling timber before its carcass came crashing to the ground, blocking the road to their pursuer.

Vin continued to ride as the thunder crashed and rolled around him, over the rain-slicked grasses and through deep stands of water; his head began to swim, he could feel his grip on the reins loosening. He closed his eyes, felt Sireís muscles churning as the horse plunged forward, seemingly aware of its masterís plight; they rode on for what seemed like miles.

Finally he stopped, exhausted; the rain was beginning to let up. He lifted his throbbing head, fought the pain as he looked round.

Ezra was nowhere in sight.

Blinking against the oncoming darkness, he scanned the woods and hills; no one. Then he whirled Sire around, began to ride back; Ezra needed his help. But before he got far he felt the world lurch and spin beneath him; everything went black as he slumped against Sireís neck. Then, through the darkness, voices, two men, God, had Julianís men found him? Shouts sounded dully in his ears, he was falling, but didnít hit the ground.

Someone caught him, lowered him down gently to the rain-soaked forest floor; he felt careful hands brush the wet tendrils of hair from his face, saying his name in a worried voice. He opened his eyes just enough to see a familiar, black-clad figure bending over him, anxious blue eyes looking into his. Then everything faded into darkness, save for the diminishing roar of the thunder and the spoken words of the men, whose meaning he was too far gone to comprehend.

"Lord, Chris, what happened to him?"

"Who knows, Josiah, but thank God heís alive-letís get Ďim back to town."

*******

Nathan yawned and leaned back in his chair, listening as the rain slackened off outside; since the church basement had no windows it was impossible to tell for sure, but it seemed that what had been a downpour was slowing to a trickle. He pulled out his watch, tried to tell the time in the low, dancing light of the single lamp; three oíclock. Hell of a time to be awake.

He glanced over at the cot where Ben Tyler slept and sighed; thank God the kid had decided to help them find Vin. Yet he couldnít forget the fear that was still in the boysí eyes; what had they done to him, he wondered, to cause such a light to burn in the eyes of one so young. Heíd seen such expressions many times, back on the plantation, young men -- boys, really -- beaten down so often that the fire flickered fitfully in their haunted eyes before either bursting into outraged flame or vanishing forever. Ben, it seemed, was still deciding on his path; but he had taken an encouraging first step.

Suddenly he cocked his head-was someone running towards the church? He stood up quickly, his gun in his hand without a thought as he slid silently up the cellar stairwell. The footfalls came right up to the door, followed by a brief pounding.

"Nathan! Nathan!" It was JD.

Nathan snatched the lock open and yanked at the door, to see a partially dressed, dripping JD standing in front of him, without his hat, his eyes still bleary with sleep.

"They found Vin," JD gasped. Nathan felt his heart stop.

"He hurt?"

JD nodded, still catching his breath. "Itís bad. They took Ďim to your room, Chris wants you over there quick as you can."

Nathan holstered his weapon, giving JDís arm a slap of gratitude as he hurried past him and into the damp drizzle, splashing down the street to get his medical supplies. JD looked after him, then slipped won into the cellar, locking the door behind him.

"Whatís all the damn noise about?"

JD turned to see Ben struggling to a sitting position, rubbing his eyes. A grin broke out on his face as he approached the cot.

"Great news-they found Vin. Heís beat up pretty bad but I think heíll make it. Aní he owes it all to you, Ben."

Ben grunted. "The beating or the fact heís still alive?"

JD frowned. "Well -- the fact heís alive, of course. Theyíd have never found him if you hadnít told them where to look, Chris wanted me to tell you that. But why would you blame yourself for his gettiní beat up? I donít get it."

Ben thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Forget it-itís too late for this. Iím goiní back to sleep."

He turned over on his cot, finished with talking. JD watched him for a moment, shrugged, and sat in the chair to await Nathanís return -- a long wait, he guessed, but it was sure good to know Vin was OK. Now they could all stop worrying.

 

The first thing Ezra felt was pain. Searing, burning pain running all the way through his chest. As he struggled back to consciousness, images returned to his mind, disjointed and confused; riding through the night, the rain,Vin shouting something, riding ahead. Then his left side exploded with pain, a bullet slamming into it with agonizing precision, its force knocking him off of Chaucer into the mud-soaked grass; then, darkness, until now.

His mind righted itself; he could feel more now, he was on a bed, a very uncomfortable bed. New questions intruded-where the hell was he? Did Vin get away? Maybe he was in Nathanís room, the man did have very cheap furniture...

"Ezra?"

Julianís voice; Ezra opened his eyes, waited for his vision to stop swimming, and saw Julian sitting by his bedside. Looking around, he saw that they were sitting in a very plain bedroom, certainly not on the ranch; the walls were unfinished board, the filthy windows unadorned with curtains. The morning sun was just beginning to rise, its soft light gently overwhelming the lamp which blazed on the rickety-looking table nearby.

"Take it easy, Ezra, youíve been shot in the side," Julian continued. "Thirsty?"

He tried to sit up, looked down to see that his jacket and vest were gone, and his shirt was soaked with dried blood. A crude bandage bound his wound, but it still felt like it was bleeding; it also felt like heíd broken a rib or two in the fall.

"Youíre lucky, the bullet went clean through," Julian was saying, as he poured Ezra a drink and handed it to him. The gambler accepted it, looking around.

"A fortunate circumstance indeed," he croaked, wincing at how dry his throat was. "Where are we?"

"Oh, just temporary quarters, until we can get that damned rascal rounded back up," Julian replied, sitting down again and crossing his legs. "Canít have Tanner leading a posse back to my ranch and catching us all out, can we?"

Ezra sighed inwardly; so Vin got away then. Heíd be back in Four Corners by now, hopefully.

"Well, you must tell your marksman to be more careful," Ezra said, after draining the glass. "I almost had the varmint before he brought me down."

Julian took the glass from him, tilting his head as he looked at his supine friend. "Got away from you, did he?"

"Yes, indeed," Ezra replied with fervor. "I was trying to warn your men off when I was hit."

"Hmm." Julian nodded. "You shot one of my men, you know."

"Then I suppose, sir, that we are even," Ezra said, trying to sit up; God, was he sore.

Julian looked at him, then said, "Ezra?"

The other man looked back at him. "Hmm?"

"Whereís Ben Tyler?"

Ezra started a bit, but hid it and laughed.

"How in the world should I know, Julian?"

Julian chuckled too, though there was a sinister glint in his black eyes.

"Oh, I donít know -- maybe because youíre one of the lawkeepers of Four Corners, and you knew Tanner all along, and helped him escape?"

A cold feeling went through Ezra as he watched Julian rise, go to the chair where Ezraís red jacket lay drying, and picked something up off of the rough, splintered wood.

Maudeís letter and Chris Larabeeís telegram.

"It took a while to decipher, of course, but once we got it figured out it was pretty plain reading," Julian said casually, sitting down once again and looking over the wrinkled, stiff pieces of paper. "íMr. Tannerí... íViní... all add up to Vin Tanner, unless I miss my guess. And this passage about your lawkeeping duties at Four Corners is very interesting, too, considering thatís where we picked up Vin Tanner, who was in the posse that took Tyler into custody. And I see here that youíre meeting Tanner at a rendezvous point to escort a prisoner-Ben Tyler, I suppose, since heís the only prisoner I know of who was attacked by an ambush near Black Wolf Ridge the night before this message was sent." He looked at Ezra. "Personal knowledge, you see. Shall I go on?"

Ezraís heart was pounding madly; he licked his lips. "Julian, I-"

Julian raised his hand quickly. "Save it, Ezra. You knew Tanner from the start, and helped him escape even though you knew how important he was to my operation. He held the key to my finding Tyler and ending this whole unpleasant business. Iíve got my men combing the area for Tanner, but he seems to have vanished." Julian smiled a bit. "So now Iíve just got you."

Ezra felt his entire body go numb as he realized the meaning behind Julianís words.

"Oh, donít look so anxious, Ezra," Julian chided. "Youíve got nothing to worry about. Just tell me where Tyler is and youíre off the hook. Iíll even let you go, once weíre done here and move on. You wonít repeat what I told you, Iím sure, since you know whatíll happen if you do. So help me out here. Where are you men keeping the boy?"

His mind worked furiously; there was no use denying the allegations, since Julian wouldnít believe him anyway. And getting away would be impossible -- he was weak and in pain, and surrounded by men who would see to it he wouldnít get any farther than the front door. He knew how hopeless his situation was; but he also knew what his answer had to be. He cleared his throat.

"I must apologize, Julian, I really cannot help you."

Julian sighed, gave him a steady look. "Ezra, Iím not quite sure you understand. This is a very important matter for me -- powerful men are depending on me to find and silence this boy. He could put us all in jail. This is a crucial game to me, Ezra, one I cannot afford to lose. I must have the odds in my favor, by any means necessary. Do you understand now? Any means -- even those I donít want to use. Please reconsider."

Ezra pursed his lips, his green eyes intense as he gazed at his old friend. He thought of that poor kid alone in the church basement, and of the other men, back at Four Corners, who were all counting on his silence; he knew that, once Julian knew where Ben Tyler was, he would stop at nothing to get at the boy, including murdering the townís law. A quick image of the others lying shot dead in the streets rushed through his mind; he shuddered.

Finally Julian sighed and got up, going to the rough wooden door and pulling it open. He motioned to somebody outside; the huge form of Bullock filled the frame, looking expectantly at his boss.

Julian threw Ezra a look that almost seemed sympathetic. "Mr. Standish is feeling a tad uncooperative, Bullock. Take him down to the mine and see if you canít rectify that, would you?"

Before he stepped out, Julian turned to Ezra, an almost sad look on his face.

"I urge you to change your mind, Ezra. I truly do."

Then he was gone, leaving Ezra to stare through pain-filled eyes at the hulking form of Bullock, who was regarding the wounded gambler with a most anticipatory expression. Ezra felt a familiar sensation return, the same one heíd felt when he was staring down the silver barrel of a gun pointed straight at his face, a week earlier.

Only this time, the gun was loaded.

 

Chris Larabee leaned on the wooden railing of the second-story balcony of the battered gray boarding house, watching Four Corners bestir itself in the clear morning light. The autumn air was frosty, and there were few people about, just a few wagons lumbering down the street, here and there a huddled figure splashing through the deep puddles the rain had left behind. But the scene before him mattered little anyway, since Chris wasnít really paying attention to them.

Behind him, he could hear Buck pacing back and forth,just as worried as Chris was but unable to keep still. Perhaps he was impatient as well; theyíd already decided to go after whoever did this to Vin, it was only a matter of finding out who their target was. And only Vin could tell them that.

Chris could still see Vin slumping from his horse in the rain, bloodied and unconscious; at first he thought maybe Vin had encountered a wild animal while fleeing his attackers, but it soon became clear that the marks on the trackerís body came from the human derivation of the species. Another image entered Chrisí mind, Vin lying in Nathanís bed, motionless, his shirt removed to reveal his chest and arms covered with deep gashes and bruises. It had been obvious to all of the men that these wounds were not the result of a quick attack, but systematic torture, a fact which infuriated Chris all the more.

He and Josiah had hung in the corner, watching as Nathan cleaned the wounds and bandaged them up; Buck and JD had come when they could, as long as someone was keeping an eye on Ben. Finally, all was done, and Nathan had said there was nothing else to do but wait until Vin woke up.

So here Chris was, leaning on the wooden balcony, watching the world go by and contemplating the various imaginative ways he was going to kill Vinís tormentors. But maybe killing was too good for them...

Nathanís door flew open; Chris turned, and Buck ran up from the other end of the balcony where his pacing had taken him.

"Heís kinda groggy, but heís awake," Nathan said, holding up a cautioning hand. "Take it easy with your questions Ďtil heís all the way back."

Chris and Buck nodded, and followed Nathan into the small room.

Vin was sitting up on one elbow, the other hand slowly rubbing the sleep from his eyes; both arms and his chest were swathed in white bandages. He was still pale, although considerably less so than the night before; but the angry blue and green bruises appeared stark and ugly in the bright morning light. As the other men entered he looked up and winced.

"Hey there, Vin," Buck said quietly, his voice saturated with relief. "Dang glad to see ya, we thought youíd run into a pack oí coyotes or somethiní."

The tracker dropped his arm and shook his head, blinking to clear his eyes. "More like a pack of wolves." He looked up. "How the hell did you boys find me?"

"Ben gave us an idea where you might be," Chris said, his blue eyes and tight smile revealing his relief at Vinís recovery. "Damn glad he was right."

Vin tried to sit up; Nathan rushed to his side to help.

"Easy now, donít you go rippiní them stitches."

Vin gritted his teeth as he sat up. "Iím all right, Nathan, just want to stretch a bit. I feel like I been dragged through a cactus patch."

"You remember what happened?" Buck asked, his face serious. "Cause Chris aní I got a hankeriní to go teach the bastards what done this to ya some manners."

Vin continued to shift around in the bed, trying to get comfortable. "Bunch of hired guns lookiní for Ben Tyler," he said. "Leaderís name is Julian. He-"

Suddenly Vin broke off, looked around. Buck frowned.

"Whatís wrong?"

Vin peered at the others, an anxious light in his blue eyes. "Whereís Ezra?"

Chris, Nathan and Buck exchanged puzzled glances. Buck shrugged.

"Last we heard, he was in Ridge city. Ainít heard from him yet, reckon heís on a hot streak or somethiní."

Vin became slightly agitated; he looked at Chris. "You didnít find Ďim with me?"

Chris scowled and shook his head. "We didnít find nobody but you aní Sire."

The tracker sat back for a second, rubbing his closed eyes with one hand.

"Shit," he breathed. "Aw, shit."

Chris stepped forward, his expression one of concern.

"Vin?"

Vin sat up again, looking at the other men intently.

"Look, I donít know how the hell he got there, but Ezra was the one let me loose."

They all blinked with surprise. Buck was astounded.

"Ezra was there? Whatíd he do, jump gangs?"

Vin shook his head. "Impression I got was he knew this Julian feller, or used to -- he wasnít actiní like they was all that close any more. Said Julian was fixiní to get Ben Tyler, aní we had to get back aní warn you all." He grimaced and looked away. "We were beiní shot at while we were ridiní away from the ranch, he musta been hit."

Silence fell for a moment; Chrisí face was dark. He looked at Vin.

"Can we take Ďem?"

Vin sat for a moment, then shook his head again, running one hand through his tangled curls.

"Donít think so, pard, there musta been thirty men on that ranch, aní probably more I didnít see. Aní if they got any brains at all theyíre long gone from there anyhow."

"They wonít be leaviní the area," Nathan offered hopefully. "Not while Benís still alive."

Chris pursed his lips, then looked at Vin.

"There any more to this, Vin?"

The tracker winced and gingerly rubbed his head.

"I spent most of my time there gettiní the tar beat outta me. They wanted to know where Ben was. Donít reckon theyíll let Ezra off easy, even if he knows this Julian."

"Lessín they donít know heís one of us," Buck said.

"Guess thatís his only chance," Chris said, his eyes distant. Then he straightened and looked at Vin.

"Take it easy, Vin, weíll be back later."

Vin nodded, his eyes still worried as Buck and Chris filed out.

On the balcony, Chris stood for a moment, staring at the horizon. Buck came up next to him.

"You think heíd talk, Chris?"

There was a long pause; Chris stood motionless, his eyes still on the sky. Finally he shook his head slowly.

"Honestly donít know, Buck. Ezra can be a damn stubborn man, aní we can only hope he knows to be stubborn about this. Problem is, it might get him killed." He looked at Buck, a painful light in his eye. "We better move Ben, just in case."

Buck nodded, his own expression somber.

Suddenly Nathanís door opened again; the healer leaned out and motioned to Chris.

"Chris, Vinís askiní for you."

Buck and Chris strode back into the room, to see Vin standing, a bit unsteadily, by the window, peering at something. He saw Chris and motioned him over, pointing to the street below.

"Chris, Buck, címere!" There was an urgent expression in his eyes; he was totally awake now. The two men moved over, peering through the dirty window to the town outside.

"See that fellar, in the green duster?"

Both men looked; walking down the plank sidewalk of Four Corners was a tall, burly stranger in a tan hat and dark green coat, studying the street with an intent look.

"Yeah," Buck muttered.

"He was at the ranch, the one Ezra aní I were at."

"Probably lookiní for you," Chris muttered, observing the man with deadly intensity; Buck could see he was desperately fighting the urge to run down there and blow the manís head off.

"Looks like heís goiní to the saloon," Nathan said, looking through one of the other windows. "Think heíd tell us anythiní if we asked him real polite?"

Vin shook his head. "I got the idea these meníd die before they let anythiní slip. Aní anyway, we ainít got the men to face what theyíve got. Theyíll be dug in good, wherever they are."

Chris watched the man enter the saloon, his mind working. Finally he gave the others a dry smile.

"Maybe we can find a way to dig Ďem back out."

*******

Julian smiled with satisfaction as he reset the small sleeve gun and readjusted the straps holding it to his arm. This really is a fascinating little device, he thought, I wonder where Ezra picked it up.

He discharged the apparatus again, the noise of the Derringer as it slid into his hand echoing off of the unfinished board walls of the small houseís front room. There was little in the environment to absorb the noise; the chamber held nothing but the small table Julian was sitting at, and a few meager chairs besides. The cottage only had two rooms, and Julian had really hated the idea of leaving his ranch to come back here, of all places; but he couldnít risk having Tanner lead the authorities back to where they were, so lighting out had been a regrettable necessity. Hopefully it would all be solved soon.

A puzzled look crossed his handsome face as he reset the sleeve gun; wonder how Bullockís doing, he thought, heís been at it for six hours now. Ezra was certainly being muleheaded about this; why hadnít he just told Julian where Tyler was, and save them all this bother? He felt a tinge of regret that heíd had to turn his old friend over to Bullockís tender care, but that was Ezraís fault, really. If heíd just cooperated none of this would be happening.

The puzzle was, why was he being so stubborn in the first place? Ezra a lawkeeper-it seemed unthinkable, especially in light of the three years theyíd spent together breaking laws from South Carolina to Missouri. What would Ezra care about some dusty half-dead town, or Ben Tyler -- there had to be more to it. Maybe they were offering him a cut in some protection deal.

He was in the process of unstrapping the sleeve rig when one of his men, looking slightly frightened, appeared at the door.

"Mr. St. Clair? Thereís a rider coming up."

Julian looked up, concerned. "Do we know him?"

"Yes, sir," the man gulped. "Itís McCormick."

Julianís face went a little white, and he softly muttered "Damn!" as he hastened out of his seat and through the door.

Outside the bright autumn morning was maturing into early afternoon; the trees which surrounded and almost hid the small house were bursting with bright leaves which were fluttering to the ground in twisting showers of color. Julian stood in front of the house and waited anxiously as the sound of horseís hooves disturbed the quiet air; after a moment, a rider appeared though the tangle of overgrowth and trotted through the tall, unkempt grass. The tall manís long white coat glowed in the sunshine, covering a dark suit of expensive make; his white beard and hair were neatly trimmed and meticulously cared for. His expression was not friendly.

"Well, Mr. McCormick," Julian called, as the man neared, "lovely day for a visit."

"Good day, Mr. St. Clair," McCormick replied, reining in; his tone was cold. "I have a message from our mutual friend."

"I suspect itís about the Tyler boy," Julian guessed. "Tell our friend itís being taken care of."

"Is he dead?" the man snapped. The dark-haired gambler fidgeted a bit; boy, did he hate this guy.

"Not yet, but--"

"Then itís hardly taken care of, is it?" McCormick leaned forward, his green eyes intense. "Our friend has instructed me to inform you that Ben Tyler must not make it to Yuma Prison alive. He has charged me to tell you that, if Tyler is not disposed of, you will be, and the method of disposal will not be particularly pleasant to you."

Julian glared at him. "Anything else?"

"Yes," McCormick leaned back. "I presume you know that trying to escape your punishment, should you fail, will be useless. The boy dies, or you die. Good day, sir."

With that, horse and rider whirled and rode away, the white coat swallowed up in the dense tangled foliage. Julian watched him go, seething and a bit uneasy. This complicated matters, and he liked things simple. Well, they were simple, really-Tyler had to be found. And he had only one way to do that at the moment.

He turned and headed for the mine.

 

Julian felt fortunate that he knew exactly where the old mine was; hidden by years of overgrowth, it could be easily missed by those who did not know its exact location. The rectangular mouth was mostly concealed by thick vines and the gnarled trunk of a long-dead tree; as Julian approached it he could hear the noises made by the men and horses concealed inside.

He stepped through the mouth and blinked, his eyes adjusting to the dimness; the entrance room was large enough to hold some of their horses and equipment, the rest being hidden in the hills nearby. One of the men jumped up.

"Need a light down, sir?"

Julian nodded. "Any news?"

The hired gun picked up a lit torch off of one of the nearby walls. "Last I heard Bullock was haviní a hell of a time. Guy keeps passiní out. But heís kept at it pretty steady, shouldnít be long now."

Julian nodded silently, and they began their descent.

None of them knew exactly who built the mine; it had been long abandoned when Julian and his men used the area as a hideout years ago, and they could find nothing in it of value, just some rusted, useless bits of equipment and tools. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to dig it out and shore it up; as the light of day receded behind them, they passed under several rough-hewn wooden support beams, all solidly bolted into place. Soon only the flickering torch lit the craggy stone walls; a cold, damp mustiness pervaded the air, along with the faint smell of sulfur.

They took several turns; gradually sounds reached their ears, the noise of something being struck repeatedly, in a steady, rhythmic fashion; a sharp, whistling noise preceded each blow. Finally they ducked a little, going through a low door, and entered the main chamber.

The room was large and square; at one end was a pit, loosely boarded over. Some large iron rings hung suspended from the ceiling on short chains, their purpose long obscured; a pulley hung over the pit, covered with cobwebs and rust. On the ground in one corner, out of the light, were several large, dark stains, once red but now deepened to a murky brown. A few feeble torches lit the room in a leaping, fitful glare; some men were sitting or standing around in various attitudes of interest or boredom, watching the activities of the large man in the corner, who had paused in his labors, a bloodied riding crop in one hand. On the ground nearby sat a gory knife and a small bottle of smelling salts.

"Bullock!" Julian called. The man turned and looked at him.

"How are things proceeding?"

Bullock grunted and wiped his lip; he was perspiring heavily despite the clammy chill in the air. "Huh-ask Ďim yourself." He stepped away from the object of his labors, now fully revealed in the dim, dancing light.

Ezraís bound wrists had been tied tightly to one of the iron rings suspended from the ceiling; it was just low enough that he could have stood on his feet, but it was obvious that any strength to do so had left him long ago. His shirt hung in red-stained tatters, his chest and arms covered with dark bruises and lacerations; particular attention had been paid to the area of his wound. His head hung down, obscured by the shadows.

Julian came within a few feet and stopped; if there was any remorse in his heart it failed to show on his face. "Ezra?"

There was a pause; then, very slowly, Ezra lifted his head, to reveal a visage covered with cuts and bruises. Dark circles were beginning to form around his eyes; a few streaks of blood coursed down his face, mingling with the sweat glistening in the meager torchlight. He gazed at Julian through bleary eyes full of anger, defiant despite the violent trembling which shook his entire body.

"Julian," he said in a gasping, tremulous voice,"what a surprise."

The other man shook his head. "My friend, it pains me to see you like this."

Ezra threw him a skeptical glance and began to cough, the sulfuric air rasping in his throat. Julian picked up a nearby canteen and put it to Ezraís lips; after a few swallows Ezra turned his head away, and Julian eyed him keenly.

"I hope you feel slightly more willing to share your knowledge with us?"

Ezra coughed a little once more and looked up, more aware now, his eyes glinting in the yellow light.

"Ah, yes, the... matter of the Tyler boy," he muttered slowly , licking his lips. "I fear that, despite your manís most... arduous efforts, that confidence will... remain unbroken. My apologies."

There was a long, tense moment of silence; then Julian sighed, frustrated. "Dammit, Ezra, what the hellís the matter with you? Do you think Iím enjoying this? Why not do us both a favor and just tell me where Tyler is -- of what possible concern is the boy to you?"

Ezra faltered for a moment, looking down as he searched for a response; finally he looked up, his expression serious.

"I canít explain it to you, Julian,... hell, I canít explain it to myself... suffice it to say, I have... a duty--"

"Oh, drop the noble act, will you?" Julian cut him off angrily, beginning to pace. "You canít fool me, Ezra, Iíve known you too long, remember? You and I, we never gave a damn about the law, made a living out of skirting it, in fact. So spare me your notions of duty and justice. We both know what lies those are." He stopped, walked up to within a few paces of him, his black eyes intense.

"What is it, really-are they offering you something? Money? Power? You think I canít top anything theyíre paying you? Name it and itís yours, Ezra, my bosses will see to it, if you cooperate. Just think about it, Ezra -- a few words from you, and this--" He took the bloodied riding crop from Bullock and held it up, "--will all be over. Youíll be a rich man, richer than they could ever make you. I know itís what you want, and itís yours, all in exchange for next to nothing, free of charge. What could they possibly be giving you that could be better than that?"

They locked eyes for a moment, black eyes staring into green ones full of pain and resolve; Ezra could not help glancing from Julian to the worn, bloody riding crop held before his eyes, and back again. There was something in the light behind those green eyes, a memory stirring through the agony, of a decision made on the outskirts of a Seminole village, long ago, he had to go back, they needed him, and he, he had realized with surprise, needed them. He was part of something now, and he couldnít just ride away... Ezra took a deep, shaky breath and eyed his old friend steadily.

"Iím sorry, Julian," said Ezra in a weak voice, "but I fear... I must decline. The price of your... Ďfreeí offer... is far too high for me." He kept his gaze on Julian a moment longer, then looked away.

Julian glared at him, baffled and increasingly exasperated.

"Ezra, how can you take such complete leave of your senses? I know youíre not an idiot, yet a golden opportunity is staring you in the face, and you refuse to save yourself and take it! Is this all you want? To be a two-bit, half-starved hired gun? Are you telling me--" he walked around to meet Ezraís half-lidded gaze; the gambler was slipping away again, "are you telling me youíd rather cast your lot with that lowlife Tanner and those other scum? That youíd pass up my offer for theirs? All for some dried-up cow town and some brat you donít even know? In the name of God, why?"

Ezraís eyes began to close; Julian grabbed him by the hair and wrenched his head back, causing them to open again.

"WHY?"

There was silence as Ezra stared at his former partner, unable to answer further; Julian released Ezraís hair with a slight push and looked around fervently.

"Listen, Ezra," Julianís tone became urgent, "we could both die if Tyler lives, do you hear me? Iím in the same boat you are, and youíre the only one who can save us. Iím not in the habit of begging, Ezra, but Iím begging now. Let go of that damn stubbornness and save us both."

Ezra looked up, panting a bit; it was a long time before he spoke, and his words were sluggish and slowly formed. "The only way... I can do that, Julian, is if you free me... and accompany me back to Four Corners. We... can protect you-"

But Julian was shaking his head, a disbelieving look on his face. "Have you learned nothing, Ezra? Unlike you, I harbor no illusions about the best way to use my talents, and I highly prefer my present lifestyle to a prison cell-or the gallows. Iíll ask once more, Ezra."

More silence. There was conflict in Ezraís eyes, mortal fear battling with a newfound strength; he continued to tremble, but remained silent. Finally Julian turned to Bullock, his expression grimly determined.

"Continue your work, Bullock. It is highly urgent that you get results, so I release the matter to your discretion. As long as he talks--" Julian paused, glanced at Ezra in a somewhat reluctant manner before continuing, "--you need not worry about sparing his life."

With that, Julian and the other man walked back out through the small doorway. Pleased, Bullock returned his gaze to Ezra, who was staring after Julian with a look of sad surprise, a different kind of pain shining in his green eyes. Then the eyes closed, and he slumped towards the floor, his body swinging gently from the iron ring.

Bullock grunted. "Somebody wake that guy up. Itís about time I got started."

 

The saloon was alive with the swirling, drunken mass of humanity who normally occupied its red-painted walls; as the man in the green coat slouched at the bar and sipped his whiskey, he silently wondered why anybody would live in the rustic, boring hell that was Four Corners. He could hardly wait to find Tanner and get the hell out of there.

A loud noise burst behind him, accompanied by an incoherent, shouted greeting to the denizens of the bar; startled, the man turned to see a tall, mustached gunslinger hanging off of one of the saloon doors, clearly inebriated and in a most cheerful mood.

"Heyyyy, everybody, how the hell are ya?" the man shouted, before staggering up to the bar to plop himself right next to the green-coated man, rubbing shoulders with him in a familiar way.

"Howdy, pard, love yer coat, that imported?" He gave a wide smile to the bartender. "Charlie, gimme a whiskey-aní one for my friend here!" He slapped the other man on the back broadly. "Youíre my friend, right, pal?"

"Uh-"

"Good, cause I could use one right now," the mustached man slurred, grabbing the whiskey bottle from the barkeep and pouring himself a drink; the whiskey ran over the edges of the glass and created a considerable puddle before he righted the bottle and raised the dripping glass.

"Iím tellin ya what, pard," he continued after downing the whiskey, "Iím so pissed off now I could chew glass-hey, I tell you I like that coat? Whatís your name, friend?"

"Uh-Ken," the other man stammered, eager to escape the manís hammerlock on his neck.

"Hey, Ken, Iím Buck Wilmington, nice to know ya," Buck said heartily, giving him another friendly smack. "You a smart man, Ken?"

Ken paused, nodded, thinking, Wilmington-thatís one of the names from Standishís letter that St. Clair told us about.

"Thass good, cause Iím lookiní for some smart friends to replace the really dumb ones I just let go," Buck shook his head, then looked around, dropping his voice. "I told Ďem it was a mistake to take in thet Tyler boy, told Ďem weíd all pay fer it-aní do you think they listened to olí Buck?" He banged his fist on the counter, his voice raised to a yell. "Hell, no!"

"Thatís too bad, mister," Ken replied, riveted; there was no way heíd leave now.

"Damn right, son!" Buck poured another sloppy drink and downed it. "Now lookit, we got two men missiní on accounta that boy-Iíve half a mind to go out to thet barn aní plug Ďim myself!"

Ken bent forward. "Barn?"

Buck sniffed loudly, stumbled a bit, and gave Ken a bleary look.

"Yeah, oh, well, itís a secret but I know I can trust you, Ken, on account of you beiní such a fine dresserín all-izzat wool?"

"What barn?" Ken said sharply, impatient. Buck glanced around, then leaned in very close.

"This olí barn out by Red Needle Road, bout a mile outta town," he hissed, weaving back and forth as he spoke. "House got blowed down a long time ago, but thet barn, now thatís standiní there with near forty men inside, all guardiní that boy. Anybody wants him, theyíll need an army to do it -- an army, aní thatís a fact. I tolí Ďem itís a waste of manpower, but do they listen to olí Buck?" He banged the counter again.

"Yeah, I know," Ken said hastily, to avoid another outburst.

Buck smiled at him. "I bet you do, son." Suddenly his expression fell. "Oooh, Lord."

Ken studied him. "Whatís wrong?"

"Ooooo-I think Iím gonna be sick-" He began to totter, and looked at Ken beseechingly.

"You got a bag or anythiní in that coat, Ken? Or a nice deep pocket mebbe?"

"Sorry, mister, I gotta go," Ken blurted, and scurried out of the saloon, not looking back to notice his newfound friend suddenly recover and watch his retreat with a wide, perfectly sober smile.

*******

"Now, Vin, donít go beiní so stubborn on me!"

Nathanís room was awash in the golden glow of the midafternoon sun as he glared in annoyance at the tracker, who was sitting on the bed buttoning his blue shirt over his bandaged chest. Vin gave him a quietly amused look.

"Ainít the patient got no rights, doc?" he asked, a small smile on his bruised face. "Reckon yíall are gonna need every gun, aní I got enough strength back to do my share."

The door opened, and Chris entered, his face serious. He looked first at Vin, then at Nathan.

"He giviní you trouble?" he asked, his expression lifting a little. Nathan grunted and shook his head.

"He was just fine til he heard yíall were gonna go out tonight aní get the gang what jumped Ďim. Now it looks like Iím gonna hafta lock Ďim in."

"Look, itís up to me," Vin insisted, standing up, his blue eyes burning. "Iíve held my own tore up worseín this, aní Ben needs to know that you canít drop out of a fight just cause things might get rough."

Chris studied his friend carefully; Vin was still pale, but the sluggishness of the morning was gone.

"You sure?" he asked finally, though he knew the answer.

"Hell, yes," Vin replied, pulling on his leather coat. "Ainít nobody gonna deny me my right to find the men whoíre causiní all this fuss aní put a stop to Ďem. They hurt enough people."

Nathan chuckled. "Aní if you can get your hands on the men who beat you up, donít reckon youíll be too gentle on them neither."

The trackerís eyes glinted. "Reckon not."

Both men looked to Chris, who still seemed uncomfortable with the idea. He leaned back against the door and folded his arms.

"Thereís lots of bounty hunters in this gang, Vin. Weíll have our hands full aní canít keep Ďem from cominí after you, if they see you. If you come Iíll have to ask you to stay close to one of us in case you get into any trouble-no goiní off on your own."

Vin sighed in exasperation. "Dammit, Chris, I ainít crippled!"

"You ainít hanginí from the end of a rope, neither," Chris replied, arms still folded. "Iíd like to keep it that way. Those are the terms, Vin."

The trackerís expression was one of frustration, but gratitude lurked there as well. he toyed with his hat for a moment, then looked at Nathan.

"That OK with you, doc?"

Nathan recognized the determined gleam in Vinís eyes, and shrugged, the smile on his face an indication of how impressed he was with his friendís determination.

"Yeah, but if I have to sew you back up again Iím gonna charge you for every stitch."

Vin smiled a bit, then looked back at Chris. "When we leaviní?"

Chris glanced out of the window. "íBout dusk -- reckon theyíll be attackiní at night."

"Sure hope I can get my mareís leg back -- feel plumb naked without it." Vin murmured, checking his gun. He glanced up. "Hey, whereíd Ben wind up at?"

"Molly Haversí house, that workiní girl from the saloon who Buckís so sweet on. Figured nobodyíd notice him goiní in there. One of the Federal menís gonna keep an eye on Ďim when we leave."

"Hm." Vin looked away. "Wonder if I could see the kid before we leave, show Ďim Iím all right. That those men donít have to win."

Chris shrugged. "Some of Julianís men might still be around-can you get over there without beiní seen?"

A confident smile was the only reply.

 

The green-coated rider spurred his horse furiously along the leaf-covered mountain road. Perhaps he was pushing his horse a little too much, and taking jumps he shouldnít have, but he knew his news was too important to wait.

The path soon became choked with underbrush and long-fallen trees, evidence of its highly sporadic use. But Ken easily skirted the debris, and soon came upon a wild, thick overgrowth of tangled bushes and trees; barely visible behind the thick foliage was the small, ramshackle house. Pacing in front of the dilapidated structure was a dapper, handsome figure, arms crossed, head down, obviously highly anxious about something. He looked up when the rider cleared the concealing brush.

"Mr. St. Clair!" Ken called, hopping down from his horse. The figure looked up with a start, then walked towards him.

"Find out anything?" Julian asked in an edgy tone. Ken smiled, still panting from the ride.

"Yes, sir, I did. I found out where theyíre keepiní the boy."

Julian closed his eyes for a moment, as relief swept over him. Then he gave Ken a keen look. "Where?"

"Old barn out on Red Needle Road. This guy Wilmington told me-he was piss- drunk aní riled up. Said they got forty men guardiní Ďim."

"Wilmington..." Julian trailed off; from Ezraís letter, of course. But... Julian pulled away, rubbing his chin in thought. Could be a trap...

"The boy dies, or you die."

He couldnít take any chances.

He turned to Ken. "All right, go up to the hills where the other men are and tell them weíre going out there tonight to finish this. Iíll need every man."

"Yes, sir."

Ken mounted up and rode back into the brush; as the hoofbeats died away, Julian felt a good deal lighter. This was going to work out after all.

"Mr. St. Clair?"

Julian turned to see Bullock trudging up from the mine, blood spattered on his hands and clothes; Julian had left him three hours ago, and it looked as if he had not been idle.

"We got a problem," the large man said, once he was close enough. "That guy passed out half an hour ago, aní weíve been workiní on bringiní Ďim around with no luck. I donít think weíll be able to get any more out of Ďim."

Julian pursed his lips, gazed at the trees for a moment, then looked back. "Did he say anything at all?"

"Nothiní we could use. Somethiní about his mother, but I couldnít make it out."

Julian chuckled. "Ah, yes, his mother. Sheíd be mighty disappointed if she knew what her son passed up. Well, donít worry about it, Bullock -- Ken found out all we need to know. Go round up your men and bring them out, weíll be moving into the hills to prepare for an attack tonight. Hopefully by this time tomorrow this whole mess will be over and we can move on to more healthful surroundings."

Bullock nodded, but didnít move. "What about Standish?"

Julian stood silent for a moment, his black eyes thoughtful as old memories mixed with new realities. Then he sighed.

"Well, I donít suppose he has to suffer any more. Put a bullet through his head and drop the body down the pit, would you?"

Bullock nodded, watching as his boss shook his head.

"Damn shame, you know that, Bullock? He had such potential, really, I canít understand why heíd throw it all away like this. Well, guess weíll never know. Meet us in the hills when youíre ready. And be sure the men bring everything -- we wonít be coming back."

With that, Julian turned and went into the house. Bullock watched him go, then directed his steps back into the mine. He looked at the men gathered around the entrance.

"Weíre moviní up to the hills to join the others," he barked; the men stood and began to gather their gear. He picked up a torch and wended his way down the passage, making the appropriate turns until he emerged into the square room. The few men who were there looked up at him, including one who was trying to revive a limp and bloodied Ezra.

"Forget him," Bullock said. "Julian says weíre moviní up to the hills. Go get your things aní be ready to move out."

The others scampered out without a word, taking their torches, not bothering to watch as Bullock drew his pistol, cocked it and walked slowly over to his unconscious victim. There were more bruises and lacerations on the gamblerís skin, more blood staining his clothes than before, and Bullock could only feel frustration at the fact that all of his methods had failed to yield any results at all before Standish had passed out for the last time. If the guy had just stayed conscious, he thought angrily. Then he wouldnít have gotten shown up by that lousy little creep Ken. He had lost, and Bullock desperately hated to lose. He stood, contemplating his defeat for a long time before discharging his gun into the air.

"Why should you get any breaks?" he snarled, then holstered his weapon and walked out, leaving the chamber in total darkness.

 

Buck sighed as he gazed around the small, dingy room. It wasnít often he was bored at Molly Haverís house, but he was bored now.

Molly had left for her usual rounds at the saloon; Ben sat silent on the bed, staring at nothing, while Buck kept vigil by the door, gun in hand. Situated as it was on the very edge of town, the old house had been abandoned for years when Molly moved in; its remote location and nondescript character made it the perfect hideout.

Buckís eyes wandered over the dark surroundings, the unpainted gray clapboard walls, the tattered magazine pages stuck to them for decoration, the battered stove, the few broken sticks of furniture. The heavy curtains shut out the dying sunlight, which still leaked around the draperyís edges in a brilliant halo of orange fire; besides this, the only light was from a few battered oil lamps. The quiet ticking of a half-broken clock echoed in the languid silence.

Finally Ben looked up. "Whereís that JD kid?"

Buck sighed, bored, wishing Molly was still around. "Oh, heís probably over at the jail fixiní to help us get that gang. Donít think heíll be here tonight."

"Oh." Ben scratched his knee. "Is that true, the judge made him sheriff cause nobody else wanted to be?"

Buck laughed and sat up. "Yeah, thatís what happened. Damn fool kid, I tried to talk Ďim out of it, but heís too dang stubborn to listen to me."

"Huh." Ben grunted, then cocked his head. "Wonder what made him do it?"

Buck looked at him. "Do what?"

"You know, take the job. Iíve killed enough sheriffs to know it ainít the safest thing to be, aní heís gotta know that too. But he did it anyway, aní I was just wonderiní why."

Buck sniffed and rubbed his mustache. "Hell, I dunno, kid. Guess heís just got more guts than sense. But JDís just dumb-lucky enough to live through all this -- I reckon heíll bury us all."

Ben nodded, leaning his head against the wall. "When I was in the gang, they treated me like dirt cause I was so young. Then I come here, aní thereís a guy no olderín me weariní a star aní gettiní called Ďsirí." He laughed. "Never thought Iíd see that. Wonder whatís it like?"

Buck shrugged. "I did marshalliní for a while, aní itís a pain in the ass. But it does a manís heart good to know youíre helpiní folks, aní it makes gettiní shot at almost worthwhile. Plus," he smiled, "women find it completely irresistible."

Ben sighed and was about to reply when a soft knock sounded at the door. Buck leapt up and drew his gun, flattening himself against the wall.

"Buck, you in there? Itís Vin."

Ben could see the surprise on Buckís face as he unlocked the door. Vin slipped in silently, looking around.

"Hi, Ben."

Ben nodded, his eyes round, staring at Vinís bruises.

"Damn, Vin, howíd you get over here without nobody spottiní you?" Buck asked as he locked the door again. Vin smiled.

"Sorry, Buck, youíll have to live with the Cheyenne for a while to learn that secret." He walked over and stood close to Ben, eying the boy with concern. "How you doiní, pard?"

"Iím OK, " Ben said in a small voice, still staring. "My God-did they do that to you?"

Vin winced a little. "Yeah, they whupped me around a bit, but they didnít lick me. Thatís what I came here to tell you, Ben -- these men can be beat, if youíve a mind to beat Ďem."

The boy looked away, not convinced. "Iím glad you got away, but -- that donít mean theyíre beat."

"No, thatís true," the tracker allowed, glancing at the floor before looking up again. "It ainít a quick aní easy battle by a long shot. But every battle we win moves us closer to winniní the war."

Ben didnít say anything; Vin crouched down by the bed.

"Nathan tells me you told Ďem where they might find me, aní you were right. Wanted títhank you for that."

Ben shrugged. "Well, lucky guess, really."

Vin smiled a little, rubbed his hands. "Say, Ben, you ever hear tell of a fellar named Julian?"

Ben hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah, heís the one whose place I was telliní Nathan about. The one who had you, I guess."

"Yeah, that was him all right-slick little weasel," Vin muttered. "You know if heís got any other places around here, where he mighta gone if he had to leave that ranch?"

Benís face went white in the dim lamplight; he quickly shook his head.

"Nope, sorry."

Vin and Buck looked at each other. "Now, Ben--"

"Look," Ben said angrily, "you all talk mighty big about how I should do the right thing and all that. But all I see is you gettiní beat up, and shot at, while doiní what you think is right, aní it donít seem to me like thatís a very smart thing to do. You can throw your speeches around all you want, but itís me thatís gotta live with what I do, aní I ainít very eager to say nothiní thatís gonna get me shot."

He huffed and looked away, folding his arms angrily. Vin studied him sadly for a moment, then stood up.

"You got a right to your own life, Ben," he said quietly. "But right now thereís a man out there whoís likely hurtiní bad to save your life. Might not be too hard on ya to consider puttiní yourself on the line for him, aní the other men these folksíve hurt. I know it ainít no fun beiní hunted, Ben, but the trailís a lot easier to ride when you ainít got your conscience loadiní you down. But Iíll leave it up to you."

He turned and made his way to the door. He and Buck spoke softly for a moment, then Vin put his hand on the doorknob. After a moment Benís voice broke the still air.

"Wait."

Both men stopped, looked at him. Benís face was pale, and he looked very unsure.

"I-" he stopped, sighed. "Youíre right, dammit. Theyíve won long enough."

 

Chris waited impatiently for the other men by the edge of town; the sun had almost set, the fall sky a brilliant carpet of bright oranges, yellows and reds. A determined light shone in Chrisí eyes; he was going to settle all this once and for all, and with luck and a little good shooting, Julian and his men would soon be put out of commission for good.

Nathan and Josiah rode up, Nathanís saddlebags bulging with supplies and bandages.

"You bout ready?" Chris asked, leaning over his saddle. Josiah smiled.

"Yup. Just wanted to say a quick prayer before we left, just in case my shootinís off."

"Aní Iím all set, in case the Lord aní Josiah ainít on speakiní terms this week," Nathan added, nodding at his saddlebags.

Hoofbeats announced another rider; JD reined in, his Colts gleaming in the dying sunlight. He grinned, a little nervously.

"Boy, thisíll be something, if it works," he said, shaking his head.

"Itíll work," Chris assured him, pulling his hat low. "If this Julian wants Ben as bad as we think he does."

JD blew out a quick breath. "Benís sure gonna be happy when this is all over with."

"Fraid that boyís trials will just be beginniní, JD," Josiah said sadly, patting his horseís neck. "But maybe we can ease Ďem up a little."

As the last rays of the sun brushed the mountains, Vin and Buck arrived. Chris gazed at Vin.

"Ready for this?"

"Donít worry, Iíll catch Ďim if he falls off," Buck offered.

"Howís Ben?" JD asked, leaning over to speak to Buck and Vin.

"Still scared," Vin said, toying with his reins. "But heís talkiní more. Says he might know where Ezra is."

The other men started as one, and looked at Vin in surprise.

"Thatís great!" JD exclaimed. "Where?"

"Some mine in the hills-he donít know exactly where yet," Buck said, a tad frustrated. "Says he ainít been there since he was a kid. But he said he might remember by the time we get back."

"Maybe one of Julianís meníll feel like talkiní too," Nathan offered. Chris brought his head up, his eyes burning in the last glimmers of daylight.

"Weíll just have to be sure to keep a few of Ďem alive."

With that, he turned his horse to Red Needle Road and rode off, followed by the other five men, their horses kicking up soft plumes of dust which swirled in the cold air for a moment, then blew away.

*******

For a few brief, painful moments, Ezra was conscious.

He wasnít really sure, at first, if he was or not; the darkness which met his half-open eyes was every bit as unfathomable as that dreamless void he had just left. Everything was dark and still; there was no sound save the rusty squeak of the chain which suspended the iron ring his bound wrists were tied to. At first all he was truly aware of was the pain; every cut and bruise burned, and his bullet wound throbbed relentlessly. His mind was clouded and confused; for a moment he had trouble remembering exactly what had happened.

Then fragmentary images returned; Bullock looming over him, striking him endlessly with that damn riding crop, shouting questions -- God, did he break? He couldnít remember saying anything, but he knew there were a few times when he thought, the hell with it, give them what they want, it doesnít matter anymore. Anything to stop this.

But... no, he was pretty sure he hadnít said anything, except he recalled trying to ask them to tell his mother what had happened to him if he died. Whether they heard him, or even understood what he said, was anyoneís guess. And he knew Julian had been there, asking him questions too, mostly about why Ezra was being so closemouthed. But that all seemed like a dim, distant event; had he even given Julian an answer? How could he, when he didnít know himself? He only knew that something, from somewhere-probably the same place that had urged him to ride back to the Seminole village, against all of his self-serving instincts-had given him the strength to resist.

Would he need that strength again? Ezraís heart pounded at the thought that his ordeal might not be over-where had they all gone, anyway, and would they be coming back soon? What if they did-he knew he would probably be unable to withstand further abuse. He felt totally drained, and realized that there was a very real possibility that he was going to die.

His weary mind pondered the idea; he lacked the strength to push it away. Damn it, wasnít he just trying to figure out a way to avoid just such a situation? He didnít want to die, why had he brought himself to this? What had prevented him from doing what any sane person would do -- save himself, and the hell with anyone else?

He could only guess at the answer, too exhausted to try and analyze it. The Seminole village drifted before his eyes, Chris Larabee grabbed his collar, Ezra waited, fully expecting him to say, you let us down, get lost, we donít need you here. Heíd been kicked out of hundreds of places, distrusted and despised, and was used to it. Instead, it was, donít ever run out on me again. Chris hadnít been smiling when he said it, but still. Another chance, something no one else had ever bothered to give him. They had all allowed him to stay, shown faith in him. Amazing. How could he betray their trust, and let them down again...

He remembered vaguely... there had been a question, a question of whether it would be worth his life to stand beside Chris and the others. It had seemed so complicated in the gold-hued comfort of the saloon; but now, forced to make the choice under the most arduous of circumstances, the answer seemed so damn clear he was astounded. Where the feeling came from, or why it was so strong, Ezra had no idea. He only knew that what he had been doing with the other men was not a waste or a mistake, as long as there was men like Julian around.

His head began to swim once more; Ezra gasped, felt the ropes biting into his wrists. If he could just work them loose -- but the slightest attempt to free himself produced the singular sensation that his hands were being cut off. He stopped, gasped, wished he could stop shivering, wished the pain would stop, just wished this would all be over. Would they ever even know what happened to him? Wearily he leaned his head on his right arm and closed his eyes, just to rest for a moment. Maybe then he could figure a way out of this.

Suddenly, to his surprise, the pain did stop; shocked, he opened his eyes and realized the ropes had fallen away. Damn, he thought, bringing his arms down and looking around; the chamber was lit, though how Ezra couldnít quite figure out. Without pausing to investigate, he ran -- rather swiftly, and with unexpected strength -- down the tunnel and out into the warm sunlight.

Chris and the others were all there, waiting for him, with Chaucer all saddled up and ready to go. How had they found him? Ezra didnít even pause to wonder why his clothes were no longer torn or bloodstained; he just wanted to get the hell out of there. With a quick nod to Chris, he climbed onto Chaucer, and they rode back to Four Corners.

It was a much shorter ride than Ezra had anticipated, and before he knew it they were back in town. He excused himself from the company of the other men in the saloon, wanting only to go and relax after his ordeal. With no effort at all he climbed the stairs to his room; when he entered he was amazed to see that night had fallen. Well, what the hell; he was suddenly very tired, and it seemed the perfect time to get some rest.

In a few moments Ezra had changed into his nightshirt -- a much nicer one than he remembered owning, but he wasnít going to wonder about that right now -- and slipped into his bed with a gratified sigh. What a letter to Mother this was going to make. He turned down the lamp and settled in, thinking only how he couldnít recall his bed ever being this warm or soft or comfortable. Within a few moments he relaxed and drifted off into a deep, sweet sleep.

A sharp squeaking echo bounced off of the walls of the old mine, as Ezraís unconscious body sagged towards the floor; it rolled along for a short while, faded, and died out.

 

Julian felt himself growing more and more nervous as they neared the barn on Red Needle Road; it was damned difficult to move a body of men this size, and heíd hated having to wait until it got completely dark. But this had to be done right. He silently cursed the fact that he could not have ridden Ezraís horse; damn fine animal, but it had refused to be mounted by him or anyone else. So, they had left it behind; one of his men could go back for it later. But he did have the sleeve gun; perhaps that would come in handy tonight.

Only the starlight lit the way as they moved without talking down the barren desert road; the hoofbeats of forty horses pounded softly on the sifted dust. Soon, soon, Julian thought as they traveled on; soon Tyler would be dead, his boss would reward him, and he could move on. Maybe he should go back to the South...

An indistinct shape loomed ahead on the right at the base of some low hills; Julian sat up straight and held up one hand, signaling a halt. With eerie precision the column shuffled to a stop, thirty-five predatory men waiting to swoop down on their prey. Julian pulled out his gun; the others did too. Then he spurred his horse forward, the others following behind, moving as a single shadow in the darkness.

The shape drew closer; a huge old barn, standing sentinel next to the shattered remains of a ranch house, long since destroyed by the unforgiving forces of the desert. A single light glowed from the buildingís interior; a few horses were outside, munching hay. Behind the barn towered the gentle slops of the nearby hills, covered with brush and small trees.

They were a short distance away when Julian signaled another halt; he motioned for them to dismount, and the men did so. No words were exchanged as they cocked their guns and spread out, moving silently across the rough, Bullock in the lead while Julian remained mounted, watching from behind. He rarely participated in these operations, trusting his men to carry them out; but this was too important to leave to chance.

Bullock crept along stealthily, amazingly so for one of his girth; he had appropriated Vinís mareís leg and was holding it up as he approached the barn door, as some of the men trotted out around the back to cover the back door. He nudged it a little; it wasnít locked.

Turning, signaled to Julian: weíre ready to go. Julian waved back: get the hell on with it. Bracing himself, Bullock reached up to push the door open--

--the door slid back violently with a loud crash, and Bullock found himself staring into the mouth of a rifle, held by a grimly smiling Vin.

"Howdy, pard! Miss me?"

Bullock stumbled back in shock, firing his gun; surprise spoiled his aim, and the bullets went wide. Then he recovered, gave a ferocious yell and charged at Vin, his weapon raised; a single blast from Vinís rifle sent the huge man flailing backwards, blood pouring from the gaping wounds in his chest.

Amid shouts and gunfire, Federal soldiers began to pour out of the barn, some on foot, others on horses, led by Chris and the other men. Some of the outlaws cursed and fired back, only to be struck down; others ran, finding cover in the wrecked skeleton of the old farm. Vin paused only long enough to hand his rifle to one of the soldiers, bend down and wrench his Winchester from Bullockís limp grasp before running on, not sparing one more glance at the twisted corpse.

JD let out a whoop of glee as he rode down a tall desperado; with a yell he leapt from his horse and tackled the man, clubbing him with his Colt. Buck rode by, in pursuit of another felon.

"Nice jump, JD! Iíll be sure to tell Bat!"

JD smiled, but his victory was cut short when another outlaw tackled him from the side, and he was soon engaged in a rough-and-tumble fistfight.

Vin ran forward, firing, staying close to the others and trying to see if Julian was among his men. Chris rode nearby, returning fire to some sheltered opponents who lay crouched behind the fragments of a wall.

"Chris!" Vin yelled, ducking and shooting.

"Yeah?" Chris replied, squeezing off another round.

"Keep an eye out for a sharp-dressed feller with black hair -- Look out!"

Vin dropped prone to the ground and fired; a sniper whoíd been perched in a tree nearby let out a cry and fell to the earth, landing with a thud.

"Thanks!" Chris yelled, aiming and firing again.

Vin leapt up, nodded. "If ya see that fellar, donít kill Ďim-heís the boss!"

Chris shook his head quickly. "You sure ask a lot of a man!"

The melee continued; groans, cries and gunshots rent the night air; overwhelmed, some of the outlaws were surrendering, but most were attempting to escape, only to be hunted down by a second band of soldiers who swooped down from the hills. Josiah and Nathan were at the head, firing and riding hard.

JD staggered to his feet, smiling in triumph despite the blood pouring from his nose; he looked down the road and saw a single figure on a horse, watching the fracas. The horseman paused, then whirled and began riding away.

JD waved his arms to Chris. "Chris! Chris!"

The black-clad gunslinger sawed his horse around, gazed at JD. Blood was running down the side of his face, but he seemed undeterred.

The young sheriff pointed down the road. "Someoneís getting away!"

JD saw Chris glance at the retreating figure, then at the small concealed band of gunmen who crouched before him behind the ruined wall; they were between him and the road. With a look of untrammeled fury, Chris leaned over his horseís neck and spurred him forward, yelling and firing as he rode. His opponents rose to fire, only to be cut down by the blazing bullets or duck as Chris jumped his horse over the wall, sailing over them; by the time he landed on the other side and tore towards the road, there were none left to stop him.

Julianís mind was racing nearly as fast as his horse; he was terrified, his heart pounding as if it would burst, just get away, it all went wrong, dammit, I knew this was a trap, God, theyíre going to kill me, where can I go, doesnít matter now, dammit, just ride.

Hoofbeats behind him; someone was following, I wonít let them take me alive, he drew his gun and turned to fire. The darkness made it hard to see; was that a man on that horse or a specter? He pulled the trigger once, twice, six times, trying to hit the black figure which seemed to melt into the black landscape. The gun was empty; he threw it away. Just ride.

His horse was tiring; Julian dug into the animalís side furiously, urging more speed. The other horseman was beside him; with a ferocious yell the rider leapt onto him, dragging him from his bleeding mount, into the hard dirt of the road.

They grappled; Julian stared at his assailant, a fearsome-looking man in black with intense blue eyes and a devilís expression. The stranger hauled back, struck him across the mouth; Julianís head snapped back, he gritted his teeth in fury, no, dammit, nobody was going to stop him now, he wasnít defeated yet.

With a sharp snap of his arm, the sleeve gun slid into his hand.

He thought perhaps this might cause the black-clad stranger to back off, as he pointed the weapon in his opponentís face; instead, the man let out a fearsome, howling snarl and slammed Julian into the ground, grabbing his gun arm in an unbreakable grip, twisting and pounding the arm onto the ground until the Derringer fell useless from Julianís grasp. Letting go of Julianís arm and grabbing Julianís collar in a choking grip, the man drove his fist fiercely across Julianís face, once, twice, three times, until Julian lay stunned and bleeding, unable to fight any further.

Chris slowly got up, sore and bloody but ready to resume the battle if Julian showed the slightest inclination to move. He turned to see Josiah and two of the federal soldiers ride up; as they neared, he gave Julian one last look of angry disgust,then stooped and picked up the Derringer from the dirt.

"Oh, my God," one of the soldiers cried as they got close enough to see, "thatís Julian St. Clair!"

"Looks like you caught the ringleader, Chris," Josiah said in a quiet, impressed tone as he dismounted.

Still panting, Chris glanced over at the soldiers as they approached with handcuffs.

"Take it easy on Ďim, boys," he gasped. "I got some questions for this one." He handed the Derringer to Josiah, who eyed it with surprise.

"Ezraís?"

Chris nodded wordlessly, his eyes bright with anger as he watched them wrestle Julian into the restraints. Then he looked over his shoulder at the fight which still raged behind them, with decreasing intensity.

"Howís it goiní back there?"

"Still moppiní up. Buck took a hit, not bad though, aní JDís bloodied his nose. Soldiersíre roundiní Ďem up pretty quick. Looks like itís about over."

Chris watched as Julian was hauled to his feet and led away, then took the Derringer from Josiahís hand and palmed it, eying the preacher intently.

"Not quite yet it ainít," he said quietly, and walked back to his horse.

 

The captured outlaws sat quietly in angry shame as the fight finally died down completely; a few random gunshots announced a few diehard holdouts, but for the most part the affair was over. As Chris, Josiah and Colonel Barlowe approached them, the gunslinger noted their number; ten, counting Julian, out of thirty-five counted by the lookout. Either Chrisí men and the soldiers were remarkable marksman, or most of Julianís men had decided to die rather than be captured. Either way was fine with Chris.

"Handsome bunch, ainít they?" Barlowe chuckled, looking over the dirty, blood-smeared bunch as they sat on the ground in handcuffs. "Chris, I want to thank you for helpiní us catch these men. Thisíll go a far way towards gettiní things in the territory settled."

Chris nodded silently, his eyes searching the line sharply for one prisoner in particular.

Julian sat at the end, his finery dirty and stained, staring into the darkness with mute fury. Chris paused in front of him, kicked the bottom of his boot to attract his attention. Julian looked up at him, black eyes full of defiance.

Chris held up the Derringer. "Donít reckon youíd like to tell me where the owner of this is?"

Julian said nothing, just stared at him; Chris bent down and very slowly grabbed Julianís collar and pulled him forward. until the two men were almost touching noses. The killing look on Chrisí face was unmistakable.

"Iíll ask nice one more time," he said softly, tightening his grip on Julianís collar. "Whereís Ezra Standish?"

The remnants of Julianís gang muttered to each other angrily.

"Hey, that Standish creep didnít tell us nothiní, why should we-" one of the men said, before being hastily shushed and kicked by his fellow gunmen. Julian shot the man a look, then returned his eyes to Chris. The smug contempt in the manís black eyes made Chrisí blood boil; his men werenít going to talk, and he knew it. Chrisí grip on Julianís collar tightened quickly, as he prepared to haul him to his feet and begin a less subtle method of questioning.

"Chris!" It was Barlowe. The gunslinger gave him a cold eye.

"I know how bad you want to question these men, Chris, but theyíre Federal prisoners now aní you gotta let us handle it. Weíd best get these men locked up -- then weíll take it from there."

Chris paused, his fists still crushing Julianís collar, his eyes burning. Then, slowly, Chris released him and stood up; then he and Josiah turned and walked away.

"Damn army law," he muttered, still furious.

"Least we know Ezra didnít talk," Josiah offered, as the prisoners were hustled to their feet behind them. Chris nodded, a faraway look in his eyes as he tapped the Derringer on the palm of his hand.

"Gotta admire his grit. Just hope it didnít get Ďim killed."

Vin ran up. "Counted thirty-five-we got Ďem all."

"Feel all right?" Josiah inquired. Vin shook his head and gave a small whoop.

"You bet, pard, roundiní these varmints upís the best medicine I could ask for."

They approached the area where Nathan was seeing to the wounded along with the army doctor; JD was grinning widely, despite his bloodied nose, and Buck was adjusting the sling his left arm was cradled in.

"Yíokay?" Vin asked him as they neared.

"Aw, hell yeah, just caught one in the wing," was the somewhat pained reply. Nathan looked up from where he was wrapping a soldierís arm.

"Hey, Vin, you find that guy you was lookiní for?"

The bounty hunter nodded wordlessly, his expression turning serious. Nathan looked down as he tied off the wrapping, then back at him.

"And?"

Vin paused, then sighed, looking away as regret shone in his blue eyes.

"He died too quick."

"Any of Ďem say where Ezra is?" JD asked anxiously, as he removed the cold compress heíd been holding to his nose. Nathan, Buck and Vin looked up, this question in their eyes as well. Chris gritted his teeth and looked away; Josiah sighed.

"No, aní I donít think theyíll be doiní much talkiní, least while their boss is around. They know whatíll happen if they do."

"Huh," the youth replied, gingerly touching one slightly swollen nostril. "Kinda funny how Ben aní the guys who were tryiní to kill Ďim are now both gonna be targets. Now theyíll see how it feels."

They watched as the soldiers rousted the prisoners to their feet and began marching them towards a small wagon that had been hidden in the barn. In the distance a gunshot went off; all of the men jumped a bit, but Julian seemed particularly anxious. He started violently, realized he was in no danger, then closed his eyes in despair, sighing to himself.

"I think at least one of Ďem already knows," said Vin; then they all moved to mount their horses and ride back to town.

*******

The first tinges of morning were just beginning to pink the eastern horizon as Chris and his men rode back into town, leading a small contingent of soldiers and the remaining elements of Julian's gang. The only light in town still burning was at Molly Haver's house; as the group plodded by, none of them saw the curtain on the window lift up a little, then drop down again.

They rode silently to the jail; JD dismounted and hurried to unlock the door as the soldiers wrestled the manacled prisoners off of their horses. Chris hauled Julian down himself; the two men glared at each other, then Julian pulled away, and followed the others inside.

As they were processing the sullen, silent outlaws, JD was surprised to see Molly sweep in, her tattered wrapper trailing in the cold night air. He, and the others, were even more amazed to see Ben, accompanied by the soldier guarding him, right behind her, his young face alive with anger. Chris, who'd been talking with Barlowe at a nearby table, stood up, puzzled.

"Sorry, Chris, but he just insisted on comin' down here," Molly said, a bit flustered. Chris and Ben exchanged glances; the black-clad gunslinger knew why Ben was there, and had no desire to stop him. The youth's gaze went from Chris to the jail cells at the end of the room; both cells were full of men, but the boy was staring at the tall, dark-haired man in the fancy, soiled clothes, who was returning his gaze with equal acrimony.

Ben slowly walked towards the cell; the other men watched, nobody moving a muscle to stop him. Finally he stopped, the bars preventing him from going any further.

"Come to gloat, I presume?" Julian said, standing up. "Enjoy it while you can, Tyler, because you'll be dead by this time tomorrow."

Ben shook his head. "Didn't come to gloat, Julian. Just to prove to myself you really were finished. It's not often a man gets the chance to see his nightmare locked up for good."

Julian chuckled. "You got that wrong, son. Your nightmare's just starting. You think I'm the only one you have to worry about? You think you'll get to Yuma alive?"

But Ben shook his head, his gaze steady. "That don't bother me no more. I sure don't want to die, but if I do I'll go easier knowin' you can't hurt nobody now. Like you hurt my parents, an' me. I been tryin' to forget it, but now I know that ain't right. I should remember, an' try to stop it from ever happenin' again."

Julian's face went white; he stepped as close as he could to the bars, his expression one of near desperation.

"I'd advise you to reconsider, Ben, for both our sakes. Don't be a fool and die a martyr's death. You must know that even if you caught us all out today, there'd just be more of us tomorrow. Why risk your life to stop us when you know you can't?"

Ben shrugged. "I might not be able to stop you, Julian, but maybe I can slow you down a little. I figure it's worth at least a try."

He turned away; Julian grabbed his arm through the cell bars, a last act of supplication. Chris and the others out their hands on their guns, but remained where they were.

"Ben, please," Julian hissed. "Don't throw our lives away for nothing."

Ben gave him a bitter smile. "Sorry, Julian, but we both know you're just as dead as I am. I might be throwin' my life away, but I don't think it's for nothin'. Can't say the same for yours."

He walked away; Julian stared after him, then slowly sat down, a stricken expression distorting his handsome features.

"I think I know where your friend is," Ben said to Chris, an edge to his voice. "I been thinkin' on it all night-there's this old mine up in the hills that they used to use as a hideout. If they left the ranch I bet they went there."

JD looked up as he finished his paperwork; Buck and Vin, who had been leaning on a table nearby, straightened to listen.

"It's way up in the hills an' really hard to find-I think I'd have to take you there."

Chris and Vin looked at each other.

"You sure you can find it again?" Vin asked, tilting his head. Ben's face went hard.

"Hell, yes, Mr. Tanner. I wasn't sure about how to get there at first, but I ain't never forgot the place." He threw a final, angry glance back at Julian's cell.

"It's where that bastard killed my parents."

 

Dawn was breaking across the sky as the small party wound its way through the grass-choked road, four riders and a small wagon moving silently in the misty blue air. Chris and Vin rode ahead, keeping a lookout in case any of Julian's gang members had escaped unnoticed and were following them. Josiah drove the wagon, accompanied by Buck, a rifle clutched in his one good arm. Buck looked around and said to the back of the wagon, "You sure about this, kid?"

Ben's face appeared cautiously behind him. "Yeah, this is right-it should be just ahead."

JD trotted behind, looking around anxiously at the surrounding weed-cluttered hills. Nathan sat beside Ben in the wagon, nervous, his gaze straying to the wagon's other contents: his bulging kit of medical supplies, the cotton ticking from one of the cots in the church basement, and two blankets. As they drew closer to the mine, Nathan wondered uncomfortably whether they'd be using the blankets to cover Ezra, or wrap Ezra's body.

Finally they rounded a huge bushy tree, and came upon a tumbledown house sitting vacant and dark in the growing light. Vin and Chris dismounted, guns ready; there was no sign of anyone left at the camp, but there were hiding places everywhere. As JD and Nathan dismounted, a horse whinnied from nearby; the men snapped to attention, instantly alert. Then JD blinked.

"That sounded like Chaucer," he said softly. Vin and Chris traded glances, then crept slowly forward until they were almost around the house; there, tied to a tree by the small building, was Ezra's horse. It looked at them and blew in greeting.

The men relaxed a little; JD and Buck prepared to stand watch, while Ben hopped out of the wagon.

"Lead the way, pard," Vin said; the boy was eying the mouth of the mine with dread, but took a deep breath and went forward. Chris and Vin lit their torches, then followed him, with Josiah and Nathan, the latter carrying his medical bag and a blanket, close behind.

The entrance was littered with tools and equipment abandoned in the flight, some scraps of food, a broken gun. The small band pushed further in, Ben guiding them; the newborn dawn was soon swallowed up by perpetual night, broken only by the flickering torches.

The descent seemed long; Ben hesitated a few times, unsure, trying to remember which way to go. But as they penetrated further his pace grew faster, until they were almost running. Finally they ducked through a low door and entered the square room; its small space was filled with the shimmering glow of the torches, and five people stopped in horror.

Ezra had not regained consciousness; he still hung from the iron ring, his bloody wounds and bruises stark and ugly in the wavering torchlight.

"Lord Almighty," Josiah breathed; Vin pushed forward, knife at the ready, and in one swift movement cut Ezra down. Josiah and Nathan were quickly beside him, Nathan spreading the blanket onto the cold, slimy ground; Ezra slumped into Vin's arms, and Josiah helped him ease the gambler onto the floor as gently as possible.

"He alive?" Vin asked quickly, as Nathan pressed his fingers to Ezra's neck. After a year-long minute, the healer nodded, his face relieved but still grim as he reached for his medical bag.

"I'll do what I can for 'im here, but we best get 'im back to town right quick."

Vin nodded, then stood and looked at Chris, who was leaning on the doorway, watching. The gunslinger's face bore the same tight, furious expression Vin had seen a hundred times before; the two locked eyes, and Vin nodded, knowing a similar light was in his own eyes. Julian St. Clair was in for a long morning.

Nathan swiftly and carefully untied Ezra's torn wrists; as he tossed the blood-smeared rope aside and began unpacking his supplies, the gambler moved a little and let out a weak groan. Josiah knelt on one knee beside him, his eyes soft with concern; Ezra was beginning to shake violently, a delayed reaction to his ordeal. Reaching down, Josiah gently began to smooth Ezra's hair-the only part of him that looked like it didn't hurt. After a few moments the gambler's eyes blinked open a little, their expression bleary and confused. They stared blankly at the preacher for a moment, and Chris heard Ezra say in the smallest whisper, "Josiah?"

Josiah's huge face broke into a grin. "Yeah. Welcome back."

Nathan pulled a battered basin from his bag and emptied the cold water from his canteen into it.

"It's OK," Nathan said softly, trying to calm him; Ezra turned half-closed eyes to him, eyes full of relief and pain. There was an uncertain light in his eyes, as if he were trying to convince himself that this was not all a dream. Then Nathan saw a question forming in those green eyes, and he gave Ezra a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry, we took care of them men. They ain't gonna bother nobody ever again. Just rest easy now, everything's gonna be fine."

Ezra closed his eyes for a moment, not believing that it was really over. Then they fluttered open again, searching the room, straining to see in the uneven light. After a moment they settled on Vin, who crouched down beside Josiah and gave the gambler a nod.

"Hey there, pard," he said quietly, a soft smile on his lips, in contrast with the anger in his blue eyes. Visibly relieved, Ezra licked his lips and tried to speak, but Nathan held up a warning hand.

"Don't you even think on talkin', now!" he said as lightly as he could. Ezra shot him a look of woozy annoyance, then looked back at Vin, whose expression had become more serious.

"Nathan's right, you just take 'er slow for now," he said with a nod. "Y'can talk my ear off later, when you're all healed up."

He gave him a final, small smile, then stood up to give Nathan room to work, staying close by in case he was needed. The healer's eyes examined the bleeding wounds covering Ezra's chest and arms; the bullet wound through his side was swollen and purple. Nathan was not a swearing man, but even he muttered, "God damn..."

Josiah had taken his own canteen out, quickly unscrewing the top and lifting Ezra's head as easily as he could.

"Careful," he intoned as he placed the opening on Ezra's lips; the gambler seemed to ignore him, sucking greedily at the precious liquid. When he had almost drained the container, Josiah pulled it back; Ezra closed his eyes and coughed a little as Josiah gently laid his head back on the blanket. The trembling was still there, but had lessened considerably.

Nathan reached over to pick up a dark brown bottle from his collection; as he turned back to Ezra, he saw the gambler eying Ben curiously.

"Mr. Tyler, I presume," he said faintly. Ben's eyes were wide.

"God, Mr. Standish, I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head slightly in horror. "God..."

Ezra sighed and closed his eyes; his words were slowly formed and punctuated by deep breaths. "My poor choice of friends... is hardly your fault. However, if you see fit... to express your contrition... over a game of chance..."

"Hush up now and drink this," Nathan commanded with mock annoyance, placing the bottle to Ezra's lips and lifting his head slightly; the gambler obliged, taking several swallows before Nathan took it away. The healer looked at Chris.

"Gimme some time to bind 'im up an' we can go."

Chris nodded, looking as if he were ready to explode.

The room fell silent as Nathan carefully bathed Ezra's wounds in cold water and spread salve on them before wrapping them up; as time passed, Ezra's trembling subsided, and he soon gave every indication of being fast asleep. After a short while the work was done, and the healer gave a nod to Josiah as he moved to pack up his supplies. Josiah stood and very carefully lifted Ezra and the blanket in his arms; the gambler's head fell gently against his shoulder, but he showed no signs of waking.

They moved out slowly; Vin and Ben were the last to leave, Ben staring forlornly at the faded dark stains in the corner. Vin put his arm on the boys' shoulder and gently led him away; the torchlight faded away as they moved down the tunnel, and the room slipped once again into darkness, its silence never to be disturbed again.

Outside, JD and Buck waited anxiously, watching as the pink sky brightened to purple, then a clear, gentle blue. Neither spoke much, watching the hills instead and keeping their worries to themselves. Finally they heard the faint click of footsteps on the stone passageway; they turned to see Chris and Vin lighting the way with torches, several bright, indistinct shapes bobbing behind them.

"Well?" Buck said at length, exasperated. The question was answered a moment later, when Josiah emerged, cradling Ezra in his arms.

"Holy shit," JD gasped, unaware of his profanity. Buck simply stared, then turned away, too angry and disgusted to utter a sound.

"We gotta get him back to town," Nathan said, as Ezra was slowly eased onto the cotton ticking and covered with another blanket. The healer shoved his medical bag onto the floor of the wagon and climbed in, his eyes full of concern as he studied Ezra's pale, bruised features. It was going to be a long road.

Buck untied Chaucer and led him to the back of the wagon, tying his bridle to the vehicle; the horse seemed to look at its master with a sad light in its gentle brown eyes, and whinnied softly. The men quickly mounted up as Buck and Josiah swung themselves back into the driver's seat; Buck looked at Vin and noticed his dark expression.

"Don't worry, pard, you got the pig that did this," he said, his own face hard. Vin winced and looked away.

"I know," he said sadly. "I was just wishin' I could kill 'im again."

 

As they neared town, Chris rode ahead, his eyes blazing; the others knew what was happening and said nothing as the gunslinger pulled farther and farther in front of them, driving Valor like the wind.

They reached Four Corners; Ben was quickly spirited back to Molly's as Josiah and Nathan conveyed Ezra to his room above the saloon. As Buck saw to the wagon, he and Vin watched as Chris pounded his horse down the street towards the jail. Buck shot JD a glance.

"I wouldn't go down there just yet, JD. I think Chris an' this Julian fella got a little unfinished business."

Chris wasn't exactly sure just what he was going to do to St. Clair; the possibilities seemed endless as he rode down the street, but unfortunately they were also all illegal. Dammit, if only he could step outside the law-there had to be something he could do to the man who'd seen fit to brutally beat two of his men.

He reached the jail, leapt off of his horse, charged onto the porch, feeling the rage boil through him in a bottomless flood of passion. He felt ready to burst as he rammed open the door, knowing that, law or no law, he was going to make sure that Julian St. Clair suffered. He could explain later.

He was three or four steps into the jail when he noticed that the cell door was open, and all of the soldiers clustered around a figure lying on the floor; one soldier was holding back the prisoners, who all wore looks of sleepy shock. Puzzled, Chris stepped closer. Barlowe saw him and came forward.

"Damnedest thing, Chris, I don't know where he got the knife-"

Chris gave him a puzzled look, took a few more steps, and saw.

Sprawled on the cold jail floor, tightly clutching a bloody knife, was Julian St. Clair, his blind eyes staring at the ceiling. His throat had been neatly slit, and his fine, soiled clothes were drenched in blood.

"He must've done it while the others were sleepin'," one of the soldiers said. "Never made a sound until we heard 'im hit the floor. But by then he was dead."

Chris stared at the corpse in frustration as his anger drained out of him; all he could think was, you're a lucky man, St. Clair. You went to Hell before I got my hands on you.

*******

The sun was dropping down in the sky as Vin, Josiah and Ben carefully made their way through the back alleys of Four Corners; although all danger to the boy seemed past, none of them wanted to take any chances. But this trip, they felt, was necessary, and soon Ben would be leaving for Yuma Prison.

"Weíre glad you agreed to this, son," Josiah said, as they neared the back door to the saloon.

"Well, I feel so bad for what happened to Mr. Standish on account of me, I just wanted to make sure heís OK," Ben replied, skirting a water barrel.

"Iím sure heíll be right glad you wanted to say goodbye, even if he ainít awake to hear it," Vin said. "But thereís more to this than just leave-takiní."

They arrived at their destination; Vin carefully opened the door and slipped inside, followed by Ben and Josiah. Inside they found themselves near the back of the saloon, the noise and din masking their steps as they slipped unnoticed up the back staircase.

They walked halfway down the hall; then Vin paused and gently rapped on one of the polished wooden doors. A soft scuffle was heard inside, and the door was quietly pulled open; JDís face appeared.

"Oh, hi," he whispered, slipping out into the hallway and shutting the door. "Hi, Ben."

"Hey, JD," Ben replied, staring at the silver star pinned to JDís vest.

"Howís Ezra?" Vin asked, as they moved down the hallway a little.

"Oh, heíll be fine, Nathan got him all fixed up. He asked me to watch Ďim for a bit til he gets back," JD said, his voice a little louder. "Itís gonna take a while for it all to heal -- I guess they got him pretty bad. But it donít look like anything permanent. Heís sleepiní now."

"OK if we go in?" Josiah asked. "Ben wanted to say goodbye."

JD thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. "I guess so, but heís out pretty deep. I donít think heíd wake up if you blew up his bed."

"Weíll leave the dynamite outside, then," Josiah smiled. JD nodded and stepped downstairs for a quick drink as the others moved towards the room and gently opened the door.

The room was dark, the only light streams of sunshine leaking around the pulled-down shades. The faint illumination glinted off of the medicine bottles which sat clustered on Ezraís dresser; nearby was a basin full of water and some red-stained rags. They slipped in and closed the door, moving away from it as their eyes adjusted to the dim atmosphere, finally finding themselves at the foot of the large, ornately carved bed.

When their eyes became fully accustomed to the gloom, they could see Ezra lying in the middle of the bed, curled up on his right side in an attitude of complete repose, his face burrowed deep into his feather pillow; his expression was one of drowsy tranquility. White bandages encircled his wrists; through his nightshirt, more bandages could be seen wound around his chest. He appeared to be in the midst of a very heavy, healing slumber, and it looked as if he had not moved in hours.

"I hope you can remember this, Ben," Vin said softly. "Your courage saved this manís life, aní mine when you told Ďem where to find me, aní I want you to think on that when you leave here tonight. Yí ainít got a easy road ahead of you, but I hope this smooths the way some."

Ben nodded, then gave a short, self-depracating laugh. "I sure wonít forget this, but -- youíre makiní me sound like some damn hero, Mr. Tanner. I just wanna make sure them bastards donít ruin nobody elseís life like they ruined mine."

"Your life ainít ruined, Ben," Josiah whispered. "Seems to me you got some important work ahead of you, aní there ainít nothiní like settiní your hand to a task for shininí a life right back up again."

Ezra stirred in his sleep, moving a little as he dug his face deeper into his pillow; small noises escaped his throat as the bedclothes rustled softly with his movement. After a few moments he was still once more, and a faint smile touched his lips, a reflection of some pleasant dream.

Vin motioned to the others; they crept out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind them.

In the hallway they encountered JD coming back up the stairs, a mug of milk in one hand. He smiled at Ben.

"Hey, Ben, good luck in pris-uh, good luck."

Ben laughed a little. "Thanks, JD, looks like Iím gonna need it."

"Hey, Iím glad you stopped by, I wanted to give you this," the young sheriff replied, and dug something out of the pocket of his checkered coat. He handed it to Ben; it was a small, brand-new book, "Bat Masterson and The Red Coach Robbery".

The boy grinned. "Thanks, JD."

JD shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Yeah, well, I saw it at Watsonís and thought you might like some readiní material. It sure helped me when I needed it, made me wanna be a lawman. Aní itís a pretty good story, too."

Ben nodded to him, and they moved down the stairs. Ben stuffed the book into his pocket.

"You guysíve all gone through such trouble for me, I wish I could pay you back somehow," Ben said, as they reached the bottom of the stairs and headed for the exit. Vin gave him a smile as he reached for the doorknob.

"Just put us out of work, Ben. Thatís all we ask."

 

A few days later, Nathan made his way carefully up the stairs of the saloon, bearing a tray of soup and tea. He hoped Ezra would be awake; he'd hate to disturb him, but the gambler had to eat. Nobody else would be with Ezra now; the danger of any problems had past, and now all Ezra had to do was rest and heal.

He reached the door and gently opened it; inside it was warm and dark. Looking down, he saw that Ezra was still sleeping, although it was no longer the profound slumber of the days before. He slipped inside, closed the door, and tiptoed to the dresser to set down the tray.

"Mmmm."

The slight sound caused Nathan to turn; Ezra was slowly waking up, clutching dreamily at the bedcovers as he lay on his side. He opened his eyes a bit and saw Nathan.

"Hey," Nathan said quietly, walking over. Ezra remained on his side, still too weighed down by weariness and sleep to move much. "How you feelin'?"

His patient heaved a slow, deep sigh and slid one bandaged hand beneath his pillow. "As if I've been in this damn bed for far too long," was the mumbled reply, although he didn't seem to be in any hurry to get out of it. Nathan chuckled.

"Only been a few days," he remarked. "You need every minute of it, though. But now that you're up, we better see 'bout gettin' some food inside you."

Ezra had buried his face in the pillow; now he emerged enough to peep at Nathan with one annoyed eye.

"Must I?"

"Yup. Doctor's orders."

"Eeerg."

Nathan brought the tray over, and saw Ezra trying to pull himself up in bed.

"Stop right there!" he barked, setting the food down by the bed. "Y'ain't up to that yet."

Ezra couldn't really argue, as he had made no headway towards sitting up. Nathan picked up Ezra's other pillow and placed it under Ezra's head as the gambler settled on his back. Ezra heaved a sigh of great frustration.

"I can feed myself," he grunted. Nathan eyed him, then handed him a small book which lay next to the tray on the table.

"Hold this."

Ezra pursed his lips and took the book in his hand. As soon as Nathan released it, Ezra held it aloft for a moment in a shaky grip; then it plopped onto the bed, still in Ezra's grasp.

"You're still gettin' your strength back," Nathan said with sympathy, noticing Ezra's embarrassed expression. "Don't worry, I won't tell nobody. I just don't want to have to treat your burns on top of everything else."

Ezra had to accept the situation, and settled back with a frown. "I do this under protest."

"Hell, so do I," the healer replied, picking up the bowl and spoon. "Like I ain't got nothin' better to do than stuff your face. Hope you like chicken soup."

"I hate it."

"That's good, keeps the blood movin'," Nathan smiled. "Open up."

Ezra took a spoonful, made a face. "Who made this, Buck?"

"It's from the restaurant. I think it's damn good, myself, an' I'll eat it if you don't. But I ain't haulin' myself up here twice, so it's this or nothin'." Ezra eyed him, then sighed shortly. "You'd starve an invalid?"

"You'd turn down perfectly good food?"

His patient gave him a peeved look, and acquiesced. Ezra ate the soup in silence; as Nathan was putting the bowl away, the gambler settled back on the pillow and closed his eyes for a moment.

Nathan saw this. "You wanna skip the tea?"

His companion opened his eyes again and coughed. "No, forgive me, Mr. Jackson-just-rather fatigued at the present."

Nathan smiled grimly, stirring the warm liquid. "Yeah, I know. You gonna be tired for a while yet, trust me."

His voice was slightly bitter; Ezra cocked his head, puzzled, then realized.

"Ah-yes. Um..."

The healer saw his embarrassment and tried to wave it off. "Aw, don't fret on it, now. Long time ago. Got other things to worry about now. Want any sugar in this?"

"No, thank you." Ezra was looking at him thoughtfully, then he leaned his head back. Nathan glanced up, saw his expression.

"You look like you got somethin' on your mind."

Ezra blinked, cleared his throat. "Oh, no."

Nathan sighed. "Look, won't nobody blame you if you do. You been through a lot, an' it ain't somethin' you'll just bounce back from. You been havin' nightmares or somethin'?"

The other man winced a bit, but shook his head. "Not exactly, no. It's just..." he took a deep breath, picked at his bedclothes as he kept his gaze down. "It will come as a shock to no one, Mr. Jackson, that you and I have very little in common, besides our region of origin."

Nathan sat back a bit and nodded. "I spose so."

"There is a difference between us that lies quite broad and deep," Ezra continued thoughtfully, still not looking at him. "Yet... throughout my experience in the mine, I realized that I had never felt so helpless and angry at any other point in my life. To be trussed up like an animal and abused in such a manner makes one feel most..." He paused, gazed at the ceiling in thought, his eyes troubled. "Inhuman."

The other man nodded slowly, feeling his own blood run hot at the memory of the times he'd been beaten. "Yeah, it ain't somethin' you get over quick, I know that."

Ezra nodded, and finally brought his eyes up to meet Nathan's. His expression was completely serious.

"Mr. Jackson, I do not believe that the gulf that separates us will ever be completely bridged. But knowing that you have suffered as I have and far worse, I'm sure and that you still maintained the sort of humanity which I have seen in you, then you must allow me to express my respect. To be under the heavy hand of brutality for a brief while is bad enough, but I have no idea how you managed to live your entire life this way."

The healer became slightly embarrassed and shifted a bit. "Aw, hell, Ezra, don't make me into no hero. I was just survivin', that's all, same as you. There ain't nothin' noble about it, it's just the way things is. But I think I know what you're sayin'." He smiled a bit and nodded. "Thanks."

Ezra shrugged. "Not at all, sir, merely an honest observation. I won't insult you by saying that my experience was in any way equal to what you went through, but... I think it has given me something of a new appreciation of your character. Since my attackers have been disposed of, perhaps you will allow me to return the favor to you some day."

Nathan shook his head. "Hell, Ezra, the men who whupped me are long gone."

"Hmm, pity. Still," Ezra rubbed one of his wrists, "the carriers may be dead, but the disease lives on, I'm afraid."

There was a moment of silence as the two men regarded each other, then Nathan lifted the mug.

"You wanna drink this tea?"

"Oh-certainly. Is there lemon in it?"

"Lemon?" Nathan laughed and shook his head. "You ain't in Ridge City no more, y'know."

Nathan held the mug up to Ezra's lips; after a few long swallows, Ezra signaled that he had had enough, and Nathan took it away.

As Ezra licked his lips and settled back onto the pillow he looked up at him. "Was Ben Tyler in here at some point, or did I dream that?"

"Naw, he was here. Wanted to say goodbye. You were out, but he visited anyway."

"Hmph. Awfully decent of him, I must write the lad a note."

Nathan chuckled. "Yeah, you do that, once you get strong enough to lift a pen."

He stood and gently pulled the extra pillow out from under Ezra's head. "Time to get some more rest. We'll change them bandages later."

Ezra yawned, settling back in; his eyes were already sliding shut. "Thank you, Mr. Jackson. When I buy my saloon you must remind me to give you a free drink."

The other man smiled. "That's fine, long as you don't water your booze."

"I shall make no promises," Ezra muttered, turning back onto his side and burrowing into the warm covers. Nathan chuckled, then turned down the lamp and gathered up the tray. Ezra had curled up once more; he was already asleep when Nathan turned back to him. He stood in the warm stillness for a moment, thinking; imagine Ezra feeling even the slightest bit of kinship to him. Nathan knew that the gambler was a slippery sort; it would be interesting to see if this new idea would stick to him.

Nathan picked up the tray, checked one last time on Ezra, then slipped quietly out, softly shutting the door behind him.

 

Vin leaned his chair against the outside wall of the jail and felt the back of it thump softly on the well-worn brick. He let his gaze wander idly up and down the street, now doused in the sunshine of a November afternoon; some people were going to and fro, wearing jackets and wrappers against the faint chill in the air.

It had been pretty quiet since the breakup of the St. Clair gang, not that any of the men minded, since they had been shorthanded while Ezra recovered. Vin chuckled a little to himself, thinking about how it hadnít been long before Ezra and Nathan were arguing over how soon the gambler could resume his normal activities in the saloon. As soon as he was healthy enough, Ezra was back at the poker tables, using his battered appearance to full effect and enjoying the sympathetic attention he was getting from the working girls. The other men had been impressed by Vin and Ezraís show of strength in the face of Bullockís interrogation, and showed it by throwing a rambunctious late-night poker binge in their honor. Ezra was touched by this gesture, and demonstrated his gratitude by getting completely and happily plastered.

As Vin mused on the on the memory of seeing Buck and JD at the saloon piano that night groggily trying to work out the words to "My Darling Clementine," he saw that among the walkers and riders a familiar red jacket had appeared, its wearer trotting on his horse through the street towards the saloon. Vin studied Ezraís face as he neared; the gambler still had a few small red scars, but otherwise bore few signs of his ordeal. He saw Vin as he passed and reined in, smiling.

"Good day, Mr. Tanner. Enjoying our exotic climate?"

"Ainít complaininí," was the laconic reply. "Howíd the testifyiní go?"

Ezra let out a sigh of exasperation and put one hand on his hip in indignation.

"Mr. Tanner, if I ever have to put in another deposition on anyone again, I would appreciate your strangling me. I have never been so bored in my entire life-nothing but sitting around that hot, dusty courthouse for two days, then waiting while some illiterate spends hours crossing tís and dotting iís. It was a wonder I maintained my sanity."

The tracker chuckled, thumped the chair against the wall again. "But at least youíll be helpiní put those men away."

Ezra sighed. "True, although at times I felt compelled to show the rascal my scars to prove my story. But I feel we can rest assured that they will not be seeing the fair light of freedom for a long, long time."

Vin nodded with satisfaction, looked up at Ezra quietly.

"Yíknow, Ezra, I donít know if I ever thanked you proper for bustiní me outa that damn barn. You paid pretty dear for that, aní I donít let a debt like that go forgotten."

The gambler hrumphed a bit, turning his embarrassed gaze down towards his hands. "I assure you no thanks are necessary, sir. However, should your gratitude become unbearable, I will be happy to discuss your remuneration over a hand of poker."

Vin smiled.

"Hey, Ezra!"

Both men turned to see JD trotting down the porch from the telegraph office. Ezra nodded.

"Mr. Dunne. How are things in the world of law and order?"

JD made a face. "Pretty boring, actually. Did you give the Judge them papers?"

"Indeed I did, and he was most grateful. He asked me to inform you that he will in touch with you within a week."

JD nodded, then turned to Vin. "Hey, thanks for watchiní things for me."

"No problem, pard," Vin said, rising.

Ezra sat back and picked up the reins. "Did I miss anything in my travels?"

JD looked down the street, thinking. "Well, Yuma sent a telegram -- Benís all settled in, aní heís already given Ďem enough information for them to start roundiní up some of the men theyíre after. Oh, aní we went aní helped the army clean out St. Clairís place. Boy, did he live fancy. Theyíre gonna put the ranch up for auction once the govermentís through with it."

He looked back to see Ezra gazing down the road, a thoughtful look on his face. JD felt instantly awkward.

"Oh, uh, hey, Ezra, Iím sorry-shoulda known betterín to bring that up, after what happened to Ďim. I mean, Julian beiní an old friend of yours aní all."

Ezra sighed and gave JD a reassuring look. "At ease, Mr. Dunne. I believe the Julian I knew died a long time ago. Now, if youíll excuse me, gentlemen, I believe I shall retire to the saloon."

A loud burst of shouting and gunfire erupted into the November air; the three men looked down the street to see a crowd of men tumble out of the saloon, yelling, clawing at each other and firing their guns into the air. Discernible in the melee, trying to separate the battling parties, was the black-clad, hatless form of Chris, Josiahís burly frame, and Buck, who was trying to maintain a hammerlock on one of the assailants. A chair came crashing through one of the windows.

Vin, JD and Ezra exchanged looks. Vin sighed and pulled out his mareís leg.

"Time to earn our keep, boys," he said, and ran towards the saloon. Ezra quickly dismounted and tethered Chaucer while JD drew his Colts and checked his ammunition, shaking his head.

"Boy, what rotten luck, Ezra -- Iíll bet the last thing you wanted to do after all youíve been through was get shot at again so soon."

Ezra paused, looked up the street to see Nathan running at full speed towards the saloon, guns drawn and ready. He gave JD a wide smile, his gold tooth flashing in the autumn sunlight.

"On the contrary, Mr. Dunne, there is nowhere Iíd rather be," he said, drawing his Remington and cocking it. "Shall we?"

JD nodded, and they ran down the street and into the fray.

THE END

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