Ghost Of A Chance:
A Magnificent Seven Christmas Carol

Based on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"
(Old West)

by Sue Bartholomew

Disclaimer: The characters of The Magnificent Seven are owned by Trilogy, MGM and CBS. I'm not the owner, I'm just borrowing them for a while. I promise not to damage them. Much. :)


There was no doubt in the mind of Ezra Standish that Henry Dodge was dead. He had been the manís gambling partner and confidant in his early years, and he had easily identified the bullet-riddled corpse in the ill-smelling El Paso mortuary on that cold December day. Ezra had been the manís sole mourner and chief beneficiary of his partnerís few dollars, the sole remnants of a far vaster fortune lost to robbers who had happened upon the murder scene before Ezra did. This was many years ago; Ezra had succeeded in putting Henry out of his mind, for the most part, and his drive to secure a fortune for himself had relegated his former partner to the untrod pathways of his mind. It was only at this time of year that his thoughts traveled that road once again, bitter memories returning for their yearly visit right on schedule -- on Christmas Eve.

Christmas was coming fast to the small frontier town of Four Corners. On this bitingly cold, dark afternoon, the windows of the townís few stores glowed especially warm in the frosty gloom. The glass windows were decorated simply but festively, bright green strings of garland carefully arranged around their choice wares. Children were hustled by with their parents, straining to peek at the toys and candy displayed to the passersby.

The town was still struggling to overcome its violent past; the numbers traveling the boarded sidewalks could hardly be called a crowd, yet there was still an undeniable excitement in the air, all the more enervating because it was Christmas Eve. People bundled along their way, in singles and pairs, carrying packages of gifts and food; occasionally a person could be seen lugging a tied-up pine tree home to be decorated and admired. A light snow had been falling all day; small groups of laughing youngsters were scooping up handfuls of snow mixed with dirt and pelting each other merrily.

The townís enjoyment was twofold; not only was Christmas coming, but for the first time in years the citizens of Four Corners could breathe a little easier and enjoy the season. A year before the town had been prey to outlaws and troublemakers; but ever since the town had been put under their protection of seven men hired by circuit court Judge Travis, things had eased considerably. It had taken the town a while to get used to the gunslingers, but now they were familiar faces.

Their leader, Chris Larabee, had gained a reputation as a hard-drinking gunslinger; but his cool head and keen eyes had proven their worth to the town, and those who saw his black-clad form regarded him with more respect now than fear. Many of the townsfolk smiled to see the dashing ladiesí man Buck Wilmington spreading Christmas cheer as he went about decorating the town, often accompanied by the townís eager young sheriff, JD Dunne.

Down the street they could see the former preacher Josiah Sanchez hard at work repairing the abandoned church, assisted by Nathan Jackson, a former slave and the townís healer. The handsome and taciturn tracker Vin Tanner was a familiar sight , riding his mount up the street as he headed out to patrol the area, his brown curls flowing in waves from beneath his low-brimmed hat. They had all done their part in helping the town prepare for its first real holiday in years, each man perhaps reflecting on their own difficult lives, and the healing promise which the season held. If nothing else, it kept them too busy for painful memories.

The only one of the group who had not been visibly active in the preparations for the holiday was Ezra Standish, the dapper Southern gambler who had spent most of his time in one of the townís lively saloons, making a small fortune off of the holiday travelers who found themselves in Four Corners with time to kill. The closer Christmas drew, the more people arrived, and the saloon was crowded and boisterous at all hours of the day with happy, inebriated strangers. Ezra was delighted to find himself finally getting some real action -- most of the townspeople had become aware of his skill and his occasional propensity to cheat and thus avoided him. Thus, when his colleagues asked Ezra for assistance in readying the town for the holiday, their pleas were met with, "Perhaps later, when the game runs dry." But it showed little signs of slowing, a fact which resulted in frustration from the other men and pure happiness in Ezra.

Even in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, as Josiah, Buck and Nathan sought refreshment from their chores, the saloon was packed with people. As they pushed their way inside, Buck took a look around and shook his head.

"Good thing the church wonít be this crowded," he yelled to be heard above the din. "The floorsíd collapse."

"Reckon weíd just worship in the basement then," Josiah replied, removing his hat to uncover his curled salt-and-pepper hair; the air was hot and smoky. "See anybody we know?"

"You can bet Ezraís in here somewhere," Nathan said, peering through the undulating crowd. "He ainít left the tables for days 'cept to sleep, aní I bet he donít do moreín four hours before heís back at it again."

"Too bad he ainít got that energy the rest of the year," Buck commented. "Course he donít get this chance every day. Spose if I could only court pretty gals a few days a year Iíd spend that time doiní nothiní else too."

Josiah gave him a smile. "Thought you did anyway, Buck."

The younger man cocked his head, a bright devilish grin showing beneath his black mustache. "Well, Josiah, unlike Ezra, my luck donít ever seem to run out. Speakiní of which, there goes Molly -- scuse me."

Buck plunged into the crowd after a petite black-haired working girl. Josiah and Nathan looked at each other, laughed, and struggled further into the room.

"Hey! Hey! Nathan! Josiah!"

The two men looked through the haze to see JD standing up and waving his derby hat at them; he was almost in the back corner. Josiah waved back, and he and Nathan strong-armed their way through the surging throng of celebrants.

"Reminds me of a revival meetiní I went to once," Josiah muttered. "Language was a lot cleaner though."

They reached the corner, and were surprised to find JD sitting at a large round felt-covered poker table. It was empty except for JD and Ezra, but it had obviously been the earlier scene of much activity; cards, cigar stubs, empty bottles, and a few coins lay scattered over its surface. Ezra nodded to the men as they sat and helped themselves to the leftover whiskey. He still looked fairly dapper even after spending hours at the tables, every neatly groomed chestnut hair was in place; but his mood was clearly dark.

"Eveniní, boys," Josiah nodded, easing himself into his seat. "Been workiní hard, I see."

"You shoulda been here earlier," JD said with excitement as he waved a near-empty mug of milk, his thick black hair falling into his eyes in loose strands. "There were eight, nine businessmen here, all from Phoenix, an' a few other men as well. They were playiní for hours, it was really somethiní. Uh, until Ezra lost his pot, anyway."

Ezra brought his head up and glared at JD. "Must you remind me?"

"Cards went against you, huh?" Nathan muttered around his cigar as he leaned back. Ezra gave him a sour look with his green eyes, picked up one of the coins and began rolling it absently along the table.

"Let me phrase it this way," he drawled. "For the past three weeks I have faced scores of gentlemen, and in each case emerged victorious. Now, on the eve of the culmination of my endeavors, I had amassed nearly four hundred dollars. And this--" he held aloft the solitary coin "--is all that remains of it."

"Huh." Josiah shook his head. "Least you gave somebody a merry Christmas."

"Well, my holiday shall prove festive enough when I regain my fortune," Ezra said with determination as he began picking up the stray coins. "We are meeting here at nine tomorrow morning, and I shall not leave this table until I have recovered my earnings. With interest."

Josiah looked at him. "Youíre gonna play poker on Christmas?"

"And through Christmas as well, perhaps," Ezra replied solidly. "Up to the turn of the century, if I have to. These gentlemen have the time and so do I."

JD laughed a little in disbelief. "Aw, címon Ezra -- donít you wanna come out to the Seminole village with us?"

Ezra gathered his cards and began to shuffle them, his supple hands flowing with the cards as they flew from palm to palm. "I was not aware that Christmas was one of their traditional holidays."

"Donít need a holiday to show some kindness," Josiah pointed out. "Weíre just takiní Ďem some food aní clothes. Itís been a tough year, what with rebuildiní aní all. The kidsíd love to see you."

Ezra scowled. "They are dears, to be sure, but I am hardly in a cavorting mood."

"Aní Vin said heíd take us huntiní for dinner," JD urged. "You gotta come with us on that, weíre goiní up to the mountains."

"Sounds delightful," the gambler replied without enthusiasm, staring at the flying cards in his fingers. "Freezing in the hills waiting to blow some wretched creatureís brains out. How can I refuse?"

"Nettie wonít let you in the front door tomorrow night if you donít help with somethiní," Nathan observed, as he stubbed his cigar out. "You donít wanna go hungry on Christmas, do you?"

Ezra sighed and looked up, his hands never ceasing their motion. "If all goes as planned, Mr. Jackson, by tomorrow night I will be able to afford to dine in the finest restaurant in the territory."

"By yourself?" Josiah asked.

Ezra gazed at him evenly. "It would not be the first time, Mr. Sanchez. I believe I could bear it."

Nathan was shaking his head as he crossed his arms and leaned them on the table. "I donít believe you, Ezra! Donít Christmas mean nothiní to you?"

Ezra leaned back in his chair and cast his eyes at the ceiling. "Why, yes, sir, it does. Many years ago in St. Louis I made the acquaintance of a man in my profession, Henry Dodge. We formed a successful team for a while -- Henryís skill exceeded my own, and he taught me some card-playing techniques which even my mother didnít know. His skill was matched only by his desire to make his fortune, and he labored ceaselessly at it. He was well on his way to becoming wealthy, and making myself wealthy as his partner. On Christmas Eve two years later he was gunned down outside of the Silver Arrow Saloon in El Paso following an accusation of having cheated, and his money vanished. I had been away at the time; I returned to find him buried in an unmarked grave and myself impoverished once more."

He fixed them all with a steady glare and downed his whiskey.

"God," JD stammered, "thatís awful!"

"You inquired as to what this holidayís meaning is for me," Ezra replied in a barely apologetic tone. "I have given you an honest answer. If Henryís death taught me anything it was the importance of amassing what you can, when you can. His sole regret, Iím sure, was his inability to enjoy his fortune, a mistake I do not intend to repeat once I have acquired it."

He flipped the coin into the air, caught it, and stuffed it into his pocket with a determined smile. The other men watched him silently; then JD shook his head.

"Hope you change your mind, Ezra. Youíll sure miss a good time."

"Aw, let Ďim be, JD," Buck sniffed, rising as he downed the last of the whiskey. "Manís got a right to spend Christmas how he wants, even if it is pretty dang selfish."

"My thanks for the halfhearted endorsement, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said with a cocked brow as he watched the rest of them rise from their seats as well.

Josiah fixed him with a critical look. "Donít suppose youíll be at the morniní service, then?"

"Alas, no, Mr. Sanchez," was the reply. "unless youíd care to set up a table for our party by the back door."

Josiah nodded wordlessly, and Ezra felt slightly uncomfortable beneath those piercing blue eyes.

"Well, donít forget weíre always takiní donations for the poor," the preacher finally said. "Aní the doorís open if you change your mind."

Ezra nodded his thanks, still unsure of what he saw in those eyes. Then the rest of the men moved off, after nodding goodnight; both JD and Nathan spared Ezra a final glance, but the gambler was paying no attention to them. He was sitting back in his chair, rubbing his lip with the side of one finger, deep in thought as he plotted the next dayís strategy.

The air outside was cold and bracing; Buck shivered as he wrapped his coat tighter around himself.

"If Ezraís gonna be in that kinda mood heís welcome to stay here," he muttered. JD looked at him in surprise as they began to walk down the frozen street towards the church.

"I think itís awful," he said with sincerity, jamming his hands into his pockets. "Our first Christmas here, aní heís gotta play poker. He can do that anytime."

"Donít surprise me," Nathan said as he puffed on his cigar. "That man donít care about nothiní but cards aní money. Least thatís the way he acts."

"Maybe it is just an act, Nate," Josiah murmured as they trod along. "Thereís somethiní about tomorrow he donít want to face, aní if he wasnít hidiní behind the cards itíd probably be somethiní else."

Buck considered this and shrugged. "Long as he donít start courtiní my gals."

The slow clop of hoofbeats caught their attention; they looked up the street to see two figures riding towards them.

"Eveniní, boys," Josiah called out as they approached. "Pleasant trip?"

"Bout as pleasant as you can hope for around here," one of the riders, a tall man in black with piercing green eyes, replied, reining his horse in. "Least we didnít get shot at."

Josiah cocked an eyebrow. "A thing to thank God for, certainly."

"Looks like a quiet Christmas, boys," the other rider agreed, leaning back in his saddle and drawing his well-worn leather coat around him with one hand. "Seems the bad guys done holed up for the night." He saw JD and smiled a bit. "You fellers still up for some huntiní tomorrow?"

JDís face burst into an enthusiastic grin. "You bet, Vin, I canít wait!"

Buck looked with concern at the man in black. "You cominí, Chris?"

His friend pondered the reins in his hand as he thought the question over; the other men watched silently, not daring to influence his decision. They had far too much respect for his pain to attempt it.

Finally Chris lifted his head, his eyes filled with ghosts. "Donít know yet, Buck. Guess weíll all find out tomorrow."

"Weíll understand if you donít come, Chris," Nathan assured him. "It ainít somethiní that goes away easy."

Chris acknowledged his friendís sympathy with a silent nod, the spirits of his dead wife and young son still fluttering at the edges of his mind. Their murders had been a constant source of anguish for the taciturn gunslinger, but the holidays brought a singular kind of agony which even the company of the other men couldnít erase. It was a hard time, and they all knew it.

Vin looked around, counted their number. "Spose Ezraís still in the saloon?"

Buck sniffed. "Yeah, probably still sulkiní. He lost all that cash he won, musta been four hundred dollars."

Vin took a pull from his canteen and shook his head. "Well, easy come, easy go, I reckon."

JD gave a short laugh. "Oh, he ainít lettiní it go easy, Vin. Heís gonna try aní get it back tomorrow, can you believe it? A poker game on Christmas! He ainít even gonna come with us!" The young sheriff seemed genuinely dismayed.

Chris seemed less concerned. "Itís his call, JD. Heís the one whoíll have to live with the decision."

"Knowiní his ma, I donít reckon they ever gave Christmas much of a thought round his house." Nathan observed.

"Well, whatís past is past," Buck remarked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I say we live in the here aní now aní have ourselves a real good time tomorrow. Maybe Ezraíll get sick of losiní money and change his mind."

"Well, I still donít get it. Canít we do something?" JD asked, pulling his hands out to blow on them.

"Itís his decision, kid, aní it sounds like heís stickiní to it," Buck insisted. "Canít change a manís whole way of thinkiní in one night."

There was a slight pause.

"Well," Josiah whispered quietly in the winter stillness as he looked up at the dim outline of the church in front of them, "WE canít , anyway."

 

The saloon was deserted by the time Ezra made his way up to his room on the second floor. After the others had left, he had spent most of the evening trying to justify his decision to himself and had succeeded in fighting his conscience to a draw. Still, he remained resolved: tomorrow at nine, the poker game would begin.

He mentally looked over his opponents as he fished in his pocket for his room key; not a bad mix, businessmen, a doctor, a few trail herders. The only one that really worried him was that surly Charles Brecknell, not only did he have a foul disposition but he also had a gun up his sleeve similar to the one Ezra carried. As soon as the gambler noticed the faint outline of the apparatus in the manís sleeve, he knew heíd have to keep an eye on him. Only a man with a similar device wouldíve known to look for it, and as he unlocked the door and entered his small room Ezra reminded himself to be sure his own rig was in top order for tomorrow, just in case.

He glanced at the bureau as he closed the door and remembered what the bottom drawer contained, buried underneath his less-fine clothes: a strongbox, with four hundred dollars in it. Ezraís entire pitiful fortune, all he had left to work with. He dreaded using it tomorrow; it was the seed money for the saloon he dreamed of owning someday, the one which would secure his place in the world and end his poverty and roaming for good. The one place which he could finally call home.

Ezra pondered the notion as he began to undress, removing his finely tailored coat and gun belt. If it was the last thing he did, he would have his own place, a fine establishment which would not only announce his success but enable him to finally find a measure of security, after all these years of traveling from place to place. Sure, it had been fun most of the time, but there had also been too much going hungry, and getting shot at, and having to stay in two-bit towns playing games for pocket change. Two-bit towns like Four Corners.

A chuckle escaped from him as he removed his cufflinks; heíd never admit it, but heíd grown rather fond of the town, it had a spirit which he found hard to define but had been lacking in most of the other places heíd stopped at. It was fighting for its life, just like he was, maybe that was it. And they were both going to win.

He had to admit he was rather touched by the determination of the others to include him in the holiday plans; this was certainly a first since his arrival in the West. But, he reminded himself, they simply didnít understand his situation. He had to win that money back -- it was as simple as that.

Still... he cocked his head as he pulled out his silver hip flask and laid it gently on the bedside table. He really had to admit he felt a twinge of regret that heíd miss out on the festivities tomorrow. But...

He began to empty his pockets and remove his jewelry as he smiled to himself; he could almost hear his motherís voice repeating the lessons that had echoed in his ears since he was five years old, after his father had died. Donít get attached to anyone, she said. Use emotions to your advantage; people can be such sentimental suckers, but donít fall into that trap yourself. Youíll only end up weak and broke. Only associate with those who can help you; most people will just exploit your success and desert you in failure. Ezra had listened, and learned well, and it had gotten him this far without any qualms at all.

Certainly, heíd enjoyed the company of the other men, and the adventures theyíd had working together. It was an interesting change of pace to work with someone on the right side of the law for once. But lately heíd been surprised to catch himself actually thinking of the men as friends, and it left him somewhat anxious -- he had had business partners, but never friends, and he found his long held beliefs at war with these new circumstances. Forgoing the hunt and dinner for the poker game was one way to reaffirm to himself that his comfortable and familiar routine was unchanged, that he still knew himself perfectly, and that he still possessed the cool acumen which had carried him thus far. It was the right decision, and he was sticking to it.

He glanced at his pocket watch and groaned; one oíclock, and he hadnít even gotten to his supper yet. He hastily kindled a fire in the small corner stove, poured himself a brandy and sat down, gnawing at the cold turkey sandwich he had bought downstairs and eagerly anticipating the morningís gaming. The fact that it was Christmas completely slipped his mind.

Suddenly he stopped; were those footsteps approaching his door? Everyone in the saloon was supposed to be gone or asleep. He smoothly rose from his seat, Remington at the ready as he slipped beside the door, prepared to pounce. The footsteps drew closer -- closer -- then stopped right in front of his door. Ezra tensed, expecting to hear a knock, or the doorknob rattle, or maybe a crash.

Seconds passed -- a minute. Nothing. Ezraís heart was racing; he knew someone was out there. He stared at the door, amazed to find himself trembling; why the hell didnít they make themselves known?

"Iím over here, you idiot!"

Ezra jumped and spun in shock; the voice came from the opposite wall near the window. He swung his gun around, eyes wide with surprise, only to nearly drop his firearm when he saw who stood there. It was Henry Dodge.

Ezra felt his heart come up to his throat as he stared at the man before him; it couldnít be, Henry was long dead. But it sure looked like Henry -- tall, handsome, and dressed to kill, as usual. On closer inspection Ezra noticed that the figure was transparent; he could see the wall behind him through his ghostly form. Henry didnít look quite solid; his appearance shifted and ebbed, all the while emitting a pale blue glow. In the dim lamplight Ezra could see several bleeding bullet holes in Henryís chest; he swallowed in panic.

"You can put the gun down, Ezra," the apparition said wearily. "Iíve been shot to death already, remember?"

Ezra didnít move; this had to be a trick. He straightened as anger replaced fear, at least a little. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?"

Henry sighed and moved a little closer, his long face wreathed in frustration. "You disappoint me, my friend. I figured youíd at least scream."

"Stop!" Ezraís finger was on the trigger.

Henry laughed. "Go ahead and shoot. All youíll do is piss your neighbors off and ruin the landlordís very expensive wallpaper."

He folded his arms and waited with a smug smile that reminded Ezra perfectly of the annoying attitude Henry sometimes adopted. He paused, then lowered the gun and looked around.

"How did you get in here?"

Henry let out an exasperated grunt and dropped his arms. "Jesus, Ezra, you see a ghost and all you care about is how I got in here? Not even a ĎHello, Henry, nice to see you, howíre things in Hellí? Sheesh!"

The gambler felt extremely awkward as he continued to stare. Finally he shook his head.

"This is all a nightmare, isnít it?" he said with a small laugh, trying to convince himself. "This is just a fevered vision, no doubt brought on by the restaurantís tainted cuisine." He began to inch away. "All right, fine. Iím just going to sit down and finish my meal--" He picked up the sandwich, glanced at it, had second thoughts, and tossed it into the fire. "No, the cursed thingís already poisoned me. Iím just going to sit here until you go away, whatever you are."

Henry nodded, folding his arms again. "Yeah, yeah, I know. They said you wouldnít believe in me. Heck, I couldíve told em that. You donít believe in anyone, Ezra, thatís your problem, and why Iím here tonight. You think it was easy getting them to let me see you? Do you know how many haunted houses Iím going to have to do because of this?"

Ezra had eased himself into his chair and was no longer looking at Henry. "You have my sympathy. Next time Iíll try to produce a more comfortable hallucination for you."

He reached over for his brandy and was shocked to find himself looking straight into Henryís eyes; the ghost had moved in an instant and was right in front of him. He jumped in spite of himself. The ghost leaned forward, pinning Ezra in the chair.

"Listen, Ezra, Iím not working the graveyard shift for the next 300 years for nothing, all right? Iím here because I can see, in ways you canít, that youíre in danger of winding up like me, and I was sort of thinking you might like to prevent that."

Ezra swallowed; he had nowhere to go, so conversation with the spirit seemed inevitable. "I assure you I protect myself quite adequately, Henry. I do not aim to get shot."

"Iím not talking about getting shot!" Henry cried angrily, causing Ezra to shrink away a bit in surprise at the anguish in his voice. "Iím talking about wasting chances and missing opportunities. Iím talking about realizing at the end of your life that you didnít spend one minute doing anything worthwhile. And Iím talking about spending eternity knowing about all the ways you couldíve made a difference, and didnít. Compared to all this, getting shot is a walk in the park."

He backed away a bit, allowing Ezra to catch his breath, his mind whirling.

"How can you talk about wasted chances?" the gambler asked, sitting up. "Why, while we worked together, I never saw anyone make as much money at the tables as you, Henry. You have no notion how I envied you--"

"Youíre wrong there, Ezra -- I DO know," Henry said emphatically. "Thatís why Iím here -- youíve got a chance to change the direction of your life, and not have to suffer as Iím suffering. It wasnít easy to get it for you, believe me, but I got it."

Ezra sat up and adjusted his waistcoat. "I suppose the fact that I must listen to all this is my payment for this chance," he muttered. Henry scowled, clearly peeved.

"Yíknow, that was your problem, Ezra, you were always such a smart-ass."

Ezra looked at him archly. "My apologies. Pray continue."

"Right. Tonight you will be visited by three ghosts -- and they wonít all be as nice as me, believe me. Especially that last guy, you really have to watch him."

The gambler sighed. "Three ghosts?"

Henry nodded. Ezra considered this for a moment, then rose.

"Well, my thanks, Henry, but I fear I will have to decline. I have a very important poker game in the morning and simply must rest."

It shouldnít have surprised him to see Henry burst into flames with frustration, but it did. For a brief instant the spirit seemed to glow red-hot, then he slowly simmered down.

"That poker game isnít important!" Henry sputtered. "Weíre talking about something a hell of a lot more valuable than a wad of bills here, Ezra. If you donít take this chance, believe me, itíll haunt you the rest of your life, and for eternity thereafter. And I can tell you, itíll be worth a lousy nightís sleep."

Ezra paused, still convinced it was all a dream of some kind and willing to do anything to get this mercurial ghost to leave. There was nothing wrong with the way he was living his life and he knew it; it was bad enough having the other men judge him, but to be spoken down to by a ghostly apparition produced by a rotten turkey sandwich--

"Fine, fine," he said with irritation, waving the spirit away. "I will agree to your arrangement."

Henry seemed so visibly relieved that Ezra was almost touched. "Great, Ezra, just great. You wonít regret it, trust me. Look for the first spirit at one, the next at two, the third at--"

"Three?"

Henry made a face. "Uh, might be three-thirty, you never can tell with him. He makes his own schedule and let me tell you, nobody wants to keep him to a clock."

Henry began to fade away, the blue glow becoming dimmer. "Time for goodbye, I suppose, Ezra. We never did get to say goodbye before, that always bothered me. You said before that you thought my last wish was to be able to enjoy my wealth, but you were wrong. You want to know what it was?"

"What?" Ezra replied, watching in fascination as the ghost vanished by degrees.

"It was for what youíve got tonight," was the almost-imperceptible response. "A chance to change it all. Take it."

The final words echoed in the empty air, and Ezra found himself alone in the cold, dim room. He stood still for a minute, looking around; all was as it had been earlier, except for the smoldering remains of his sandwich burning to ashes in the stove.

Finally he shook himself; what did that hallucination know, Ezra could take care of himself. He knew what he was doing, and he had every intention of going to the poker game in the morning. The other men could get along fine without him.

Too tired to change his clothes, he flopped into bed still dressed, and was asleep in minutes.

He woke up a short time later, and at first was very irritated to have gotten so little sleep; the turkey sandwich was no doubt to blame for his premature awakening. While he groggily rolled over to check his pocketwatch for the time he made up his mind to have a few choice words with the restaurant owner the next day. As his fingers fumbled for the timepiece he tried to guess the time; it was almost two when he went to bed, it must be at least four by now...

He picked up the watch, squinted at the face, stared at it, then shook his head and looked again. Then he shook the timepiece and held it to his ear; it was ticking perfectly. But it had to be broken, because according to the delicately fashioned hands, it was only one oí clock.

Ezra sighed in irritation; could nothing be trusted anymore? How could it be one oí clock -- unless heíd slept all day and it was one the following evening. But that was impossible, even Ezra wasnít that sound of a sleeper. His mind was wide awake now and whirring in confusion; what was wrong with his watch?

"Itís you that needs fixiní, Ezra, not that watch."

Ezra let out a yelp and lurched back in bed so fast that he banged his head on the wall behind him. As he sat rubbing the sore spot, he saw a bright light spring up from the corner of his room. And in the middle of that light on one of his finely upholstered chairs, to his astonishment, sat Nathan, looking at him in a calm, bemused way.

"Mr. Jackson!" he cried in astonished irritation, then stopped as the figure rose from the chair and approached the bed. It certainly looked like Nathan, but this man was younger than the Nathan Ezra knew, and his clothes were ragged and dirty. It struck Ezra that he had seen slaves clothed in that manner frequently, when he was a child in the old South.

"Donít worry, Ezra, I ainít gonna hurt you," the figure assured him with a smile; he seemed amused by the gamblerís bewilderment. "Aní I ainít Nathan Jackson. We figured thisíd be easier for you to take if you had familiar faces to deal with. Iím pretty happy with this, myself -- this Nathan fella is one handsome guy!"

"We--" Ezra was still rubbing his head, although it no longer hurt; he was simply too surprised to stop. This couldnít be real, but it certainly seemed real. "Then -- you must be one of those ghosts Henry was talking about."

The apparition nodded, still smiling. "Iím the Ghost of Christmas Past."

"Yes," Ezra muttered, still very much taken aback, although he had stopped rubbing his head. He vaguely motioned for the Ghost back to the chair. "Well, the sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can get back to my much-needed sleep. So I suppose youíd better have a seat and get on with it."

The Ghost chuckled. "You ainít gettiní off that easy." He motioned with his hand. "Címon, get up."

Ezra scowled at him; the amazement was wearing off now and he was becoming annoyed. "íUp"? ĎUpí to where?"

The Ghost grinned as he backed away towards the window, which upon his approach rose until it was fully open; the cold evening breeze tugged at the lace curtains, and Ezra shivered.

"I assure you, sir," he said with determination, "I have no intention of leaving this room, and certainly not through the window."

"Yeah, well, you better start haviní that intention, cause thatís just what weíre doiní," the Ghost replied, folding its arms. "I didnít haul myself all the way over here just to sit in this room all night."

"Indeed," Ezra noted, still eying the window with doubt. "And why did you bother yourself to come here?"

The Ghost leaned against the casement. "Cause you got somethiní goiní here that youíre on the verge of throwiní away, aní some folks donít wanna see that happen."

"And what might that be?" Ezra inquired as he put on his pocketwatch.

The Ghost replied with a smile. "Youíll see, if everything works out right. Now címon, weíre on a schedule here."

Still dubious, Ezra slid off of the bed and walked over to the window; he looked out to see the dark, deserted streets of Four Corners, with the white church at the end of the street.

"How, um -- how exactly does this work?"

"Well, this might be kinda tough," the Ghost admitted, as he tried to squeeze himself through the short, narrow window. "Iíll tell you, them houses in England got these nice big windows you can just climb up on aní jump right out of. Canít say Iím too fond of this American architecture."

"My heartfelt sympathy," Ezra said nervously. "Am I to understand weíre going to jump?"

"Naw -- Iím going to jump," the Ghost replied; he was now crouched on the windowsill. He quickly reached back and grabbed Ezraís arm. "You just gotta hang on."

With that, he pushed off of the windowsill; with a gasp Ezra felt himself falling, then rising through a thick white mist which obscured everything around them. After a moment of panic, Ezra realized he was moving effortlessly. He could feel his mind boggling.

"Where are we going?" he yelled above the rush of the wind.

The mist began to clear; below them stretched a shimmering river flowing through a bustling city glowing gray in the muted sunlight of a midwinter afternoon. The Ghost gestured towards the scene.

"Recognize it?"

Ezra scanned the rooftops as they swooped over them, the streets full of carriages and bustling crowds; everything was decorated for the holidays.

"New Orleans?" he replied in great surprise as they passed the French Quarter towards a less reputable-looking neighborhood.

The Ghost nodded. "Yup, thatís right."

As they flew by the jostling crowds, Ezra realized that nobody was noticing them. "We donít seem to be attracting much attention."

"Course not," the Ghost laughed. "Theyíre only reflections of the past, they donít even know weíre here."

They moved into one of the cityís more run-down areas, and Ezraís eyes grew wide. The Ghost smiled.

"Guess you remember this old place, huh?"

"Of course -- my parents and I lived here for six months, the longest we ever lived anywhere," Ezra replied in surprise as they passed a row of houses. "Itís just -- itís astonishing to see it again. This entire neighborhood was destroyed in a fire in 1869."

"Well, thatís eighteen years off yet," the Ghost assured him as they neared a white and black boarding house at the end of the street. "We wanted you to remember that money wasnít always everything to you, but we had to go back pretty far to find a time when that was the case."

There was a loud rushing sound, and suddenly they were inside the black and white building, standing in a slightly seedy-looking parlor. The walls were covered with inexpensive paper just beginning to peel at the edges; the curtains at the windows were cheap and frayed, the furniture in the first stages of overuse. A few rugs were thrown about the bare wooden floor to keep out the cold. There was a half-open door on one wall, leading into a small bedroom in which two beds, one large and one small, could be seen.

Ezra recognized it all immediately, and swallowed.

After a moment the door opened, and a slim blonde woman entered carrying a young brown-haired boy no older than five. Both were dressed in rags, and the woman was talking in a quick, light voice thick with the tone of the South.

"You were just the most perfect little boy today, Ezra darliní," she was saying as she set him down with a quick kiss. "I swear, one look at those sad eyes of yours and peopleís pocketbooks just open up like the gates of heaven."

With a broad smile of satisfaction she removed a tattered bag from her pocket and weighed it in her hand, her eyes gleaming.

The little boy seemed less than thrilled and picked impatiently at his tattered clothing. "This itches, mama."

She made a sour face as she crouched in front of him. "Sorry, sugar, but if we want people to think weíre poor, weíve got to dress the part, donít we? But donít you worry now, weíre done for the day. Now letís change quick before your papa gets home."

She picked him up again and took him into the bedroom; in an instant Ezra and the Ghost were there as well. Some time had evidently passed; the woman was now dressed in an impeccable silk walking gown, her hair neatly combed and arranged. The young Ezra sat on the bed, now clad in a neatly pressed and expensive-looking suit,waiting patiently for his mother to finish buttoning his shirt. As she reached the top button the door to the apartment opened, and a drawling voice called, "Iím back, Maude!"

Ezra felt his throat tighten as he watched the little boy leap off of the bed with an excited expression and run into the other room, shouting "Papa!" Maude followed with a smile as well.

They were back in the parlor, watching as a tall, slender man removed his expensive coat and hat and greeted his family with a grin. Ezra stared; he had forgotten what his father looked like, but there he was again, alive, young and handsome, with chestnut hair like Ezraís and bright green eyes. But the face was longer and more angular, the eyes a little older, even though at this time he was younger than Ezra was. He was dressed in high fashion, as Maude and the boy Ezra were, and as the child ran eagerly into the room the father swept him up into his arms.

"Hello, son. Hello, dear," he said, giving the boy a hug and the wife a peck on the lips. "How did it go today at the church?"

"Quite well, Iím pleased to say, "Maude replied with a happy smile, jingling the heavy purse. "When they saw Ezraís sad little face those pious pigeons just couldnít give enough. Did you have any luck finding a game?"

"As a matter of fact, there was quite a crowd at the Black Fox," her husband replied as he emptied his pockets and handed her a small wad of bills. "None of them knew me, so I was able to clean up pretty well. I think weíll be able to move back to the hotel by New Yearís."

"Thank God," Maude said with feeling as she took the money to a small strongbox on a table nearby and locked it up along with the coins. "I swear, Daniel, this place is driving me insane."

"Well, we didnít have to stay here for the holidays," Daniel replied, seating himself on the battered sofa and loosening his tie. Ezra came and crawled up on the seat next to him. "We couldíve gone to stay with my sister or one of your brothers, you know what a shame it is that Ezra never gets to see his cousins."

Maude made a face as she poured a couple of drinks from a chipped bottle. "Iíd rather stay here, thank you. Some of those children are so ill-bred, and I wonít have Ezra picking up their bad manners." She finished pouring, handed him one of the glasses and smiled. "Iím sure Iíll be fine as soon as weíre back in more proper surroundings."

"We all will be, Iím sure," Daniel replied as he downed his drink, then he smiled at his son and patted his arm. "Youíd rather be at the hotel, wouldnít you, son?"

The boy shrugged and began to fiddle with his fatherís watch chain. "I donít care."

The father looked at him in surprise. "You donít? Heís been awfully quiet, Maude, is he catching a cold?" He felt the boyís forehead.

"Oh, heís fine, Daniel," the wife insisted, sitting with her drink on a chair nearby. "Still got that church talk in his head, I suppose. The sermon was on how wonderful it is to be poor or some such and of course now heíd rather be penniless."

"Is that so?" Daniel muttered, giving his son a look of amused shock.

Ezra saw the look and took a deep breath. "Well, the man in church was sayiní how it didnít matter if you were rich or poor. Is that true?"

Maude laughed aloud, truly amused. "Gracious, son, of course not."

Ezra looked at her in childish confusion. "But he said God didnít care how much money you had. If it doesnít matter to God why does it matter at all?"

Daniel gave a proud chuckle and tousled the boyís hair. "Listen to him, Maude, the boyís a philosopher. Thereís nothing wrong with money, son, just what some people might do to get it, or what they do with it -- use it to hurt others, for example. But Iím afraid that while it might not matter to God whether we have money, it matters to Mr. Heller who owns this house, and Mrs. Clark who makes your motherís clothes, and -- well, just about everybody, really."

Maude rose and took Daniel's glass. "Well, if itís all the same to God, Iíll be rich, thank you. Let someone else have the honor of being poor."

Daniel grinned at his wifeís sarcastic tone, and looked at his son. "Just remember, Ezra, a man can be a gentleman whether heís rich or not."

He didnít see Maude roll her eyes.

He gave the boy a quick one-armed hug, then rose. "You and Ezra go to Haroldís without me, I Ďll be along soon."

Maude sighed. "Donít tell me youíre going to see that awful Mr. Chesterson again. We donít need his money anymore."

"On the contrary, my dear," Daniel corrected her, retying his tie. "With my luck running the way it is, with Chestersonís money I can easily win enough to keep us at the hotel all year, or even leave New Orleans for good. I canít risk losing the chance to finally get us on a stable footing."

The boy was eying his father in growing concern; as the man began putting his coat on the boy slid quickly off the couch and ran to him, tugging at his coattails.

"Donít go again, papa!" his small voice pleaded; but the father could only give him a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry, son, Iíll be right back. I only have to go out for a while."

"Why?" the small hands remained firmly attached to the fatherís coat.

The father seemed taken aback a bit, then he knelt and placed his slender hands on the boyís shoulders, gazing into his large green eyes with loving seriousness.

"Well, son, itís so we can have a better life. So we can move somewhere for good, and you can go to school and make friends. So the next time Christmas comes around we can spend it in our own house, and have a tree and presents."

The boy seemed to consider this. "And you wonít go away again?"

Daniel smiled. "Not unless your mother changes her mind and decides to cast me off."

Maude laughed archly. "Only if you turn preacher on me."

The father smiled again, and gave Ezra a reassuring pat on the arm. "Donít worry, son, you canít get rid of me that easily. But if we want to have that, Iíve got to work for it in the only way I know how, and that means you have to take care of your mother until I get back."

He squeezed the boyís arm, then straightened and put on the coat and hat Maude handed to him. "Iíll meet you at Haroldís."

Maude smiled. "Fine."

A quick kiss for Maude, and a quick pat on the head for Ezra, and Daniel Standish was gone. While Maude busied herself bundling the boy up to leave, the Ghost turned to Ezra, who had been watching the proceedings with an expression of quiet melancholy. As the father headed out the door, Ezra took a half-step as if to follow him, then stopped when he realized the foolishness of his action.

"Sorry, Ezra," the Ghost said with sincerity. "You couldnít stop Ďim then aní you canít now."

Ezra said nothing for a moment, merely stood staring after his father, trying to control the churning emotions which threatened to overwhelm his composure. He would, at that moment, have given anything to be able to follow his father, to talk to him, just a few words, to prove to him that Ezra had tried to be the gentleman his father would have wanted him to be. But he knew he could not honestly say that he believed his fatherís words, that you didnít need money to be a gentleman. He suddenly felt ashamed of himself, and envious of his father for sounding so sure of something that Ezra wanted to believe. Ezra was suddenly surprised -- he found himself desperately missing a man he barely knew.

He stood silent, then drew a deep breath and looked around. "Well, that was certainly a cheerful interlude. If your purpose was to depress me, I must say you have succeeded beyond my expectations."

The Ghost shook its head. "This ainít been a walk in the park, for sure, but your dad had at least one thing right -- it ainít money that hurts people, but what they do for it, aní what it does to them. If your ma had taken you to a few more church sermons that mighta sunk in. But we both know what happened instead."

 

Suddenly they were in a small, loud, smoky saloon, crowded with inebriated celebrants; a few token strings of ivy around the bar indicated the fact that it was the holidays. As Ezra strained to see through the haze he recognized himself, now a young man, playing poker at a table surrounded by several well-heeled men of the same age, all smoking, drinking and having an uproarious time.

Ezra looked around. "St. Louis?"

The Ghost nodded. "You got it. There you are, 17 years old aní rariní to go. Looks like a pretty hot game."

As they watched, the younger Ezra threw down his cards in disgust and angrily downed a nearby drink. His elder counterpart sighed. "Yes, it was. Unfortunately, I was absorbing the heat rather than generating it."

"God, George, how the hell do you do it?" a smartly clad black-haired youth seated next to Ezra cried as one of the young men raked in the winnings with a broad smile. A skinny red-haired player checked his watch and stood. "Sorry, Pete, I gotta go take my ma and sisters to Christmas dinner at Uncle Frankís."

The other young men made similar noises, and the game gave every appearance of breaking up. Soon the table was cleared except for Ezra, who sat contemplating the turn of the nightís events.

"Your fatherís been dead for years now," the Ghost remarked as he and Ezra stood watching the young man who sat alone amidst the swirling crowd. "You aní your ma came to St. Louis when the War broke out, aní sheís been teachiní you all about the gambliní life aní how it was the best way to get on in the world. But you ainít lookiní too convinced just yet."

"God damn you, Dodge, you cheatiní son of a bitch!"

The words were close enough to cause the younger Ezra to lurch out of his melancholy and start with surprise. At a nearby table a burly gentleman was on his feet, confronting a well-dressed young blonde man not much older than Ezra, who sat lazily in a chair regarding his opponent with casual unconcern. Between them was a table littered with cards and a small pile of money.

"Are you impugning my honor, sir?" was the calm reply.

"Give it up, Francis, he won fair and square," a third gentleman remarked. The burly man remained unconvinced.

"Fair and square my eye!" he yelled; the crowd was watching now.

"Heís right," a third, scruffier-looking man chimed in. "I could swear them cards was shaved."

Francis faced Dodge squarely. "You, Henry Dodge, are a cheating rascal, and Iíll shout it from the rooftops."

Henry Dodge leapt smoothly to his feet. "In that case, sir, as much as I detest the idea of dueling on Christmas Day, I must ask you to step outside."

"And let you try to get away? Not a chance!" was the angry reply, and as Ezra watched in fascination the burly man charged his adversary and grabbed him by the collar. The two men twisted around violently and crashed onto Ezraís table.

"My apologies," Henry muttered as he grappled with the dissatisfied man.

"Will you give me hand here!" the burly man bellowed to his companions as he throttled Dodge. The first man hesitated, but his scruffier partner leapt up instantly and Ezra could see he had slipped on a pair of brass knuckles. His eyes grew wide; this was turning from a disagreement to an assault.

"Letís see how ya like this, pretty boy!" the scruffy man crowed, and grabbing Dodge from the burly man struck him sharply across the jaw. Dodge reeled, his mouth bleeding; the scruffy man was about to deliver another blow when a fourth party entered the fray. Dodge was truly shocked to see Ezra leap behind his assailant and clock him squarely across the back of the head with a half-empty bottle. The vessel shattered with a loud crash as the man tumbled to the ground covered with whiskey and broken glass.

As the scruffy man collapsed onto the floor, Dodge scampered to his feet and pulled his own weapon form his vest, a short, broad-bladed knife with a vertical handle which he swiftly gripped in his fist. The burly man backed away a bit at the sight of the knife; his assistant was still trying to collect himself.

"I see you accepted my apology," Henry said, as he began to inch his way towards the door. Ezra accompanied him, still brandishing the broken bottle.

"Indeed," Ezra replied, keeping a keen eye on the crowd and licking his lips. "Consider it a blow for good manners."

Their two opponents were glaring at them; the scruffy man began to show signs of recovery.

"I suggest we escape before they decide to become rude again," Dodge offered. "Unless youíd rather stay."

Ezra eyed the bar and shrugged. "I can think of better places to spend my Christmas."

With that they dashed out the door, leaving the crowd to resume its drinking and recover. The bartender shook his head and muttered, "Boy, do I hate these holiday crowds."

Outside, the two young men ran until it became apparent they were not being pursued. As soon as they slowed to a walk and caught their breath, Henry Dodge extended his hand.

"Thank you, my friend, that was excellent work. Iím Henry Dodge."

"Ezra Standish," Ezra said as he shook his companionís hand. "And youíre most welcome. After a bad run I felt like hitting somebody anyway. Did you know that fellow back there?"

His companion shook his head. "Just another man looking for a card game. I canít imagine how he could have accused me of cheating."

Ezra shrugged. "Losing can make a man say some rather indelicate--"

"No," Henry cut him off, "I mean I donít know how he figured it out. I never would have guessed he was that bright."

Ezra glanced at him, then grinned. "What was it, a marked deck?"

"Shaved. I trimmed the edges of the cards so Iíd know what they were when I dealt them." He smiled at Ezra. "I hope youíre not too shocked to find out youíve defended a rogue, Mr. Standish."

Ezra shook his head. "On the contrary, sir, Iíve learned that one must make oneís own luck to get ahead in this world."

"Ah, such a true philosophy," Henry agreed. "Your father certainly taught you the right things."

Ezra chuckled. "Actually, I owe my training to my mother -- who, come to think of it, will probably disown me when she learns how poorly I fared."

"Oh, cheer up," Henry urged, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Say -- are you doing anything tonight? Some of us are having a dance over at the empty warehouse by the river. Probably be some fast gaming there, you might be able to win your money back. Unless you have to go be with your mother or something."

They paused across the street from a brightly lit church. Ezra looked up into the early evening sky and sighed.

"My mother is deep in the pursuit of a mark and does not wish to be disturbed, so my calender is remarkably free at the moment. Lead on, Mr. Dodge."

"Capital!" Henry exclaimed; at that moment the doors of the church across the street opened, flooding them with the golden glow from within. The two young men watched in idle interest as its occupants streamed out from evening services, laughing and talking with animation as they spilled down the stairs and into the street in a happy, colorful throng. The church was located in one of the poorer parishes; many of the congregants were in clothes well past their prime. But as they wished each other Merry Christmas, they certainly seemed not to mind their less affluent condition.

Henry threw an arm around Ezraís shoulder and observed the crowd with a critical eye.

"Look at Ďem, Ezra," he said, cocking his head back, a sardonic smile on his face. "The poor, misguided fools. Praying to a God who doesnít care and thinking thatís going to make their poor lives all better. But we know better, donít we? The only things a man can count on in this life are his brains and his skill, and if he doesnít have the guts to use Ďem then he deserves what he gets. Now címon," he gave Ezraís shoulder a punch, "letís get to that dance and win you back your money."

He walked away, too busy lighting a cigar to notice Ezra gazing for a moment at the happy throng before turning to follow his companion. None of them could see the Ghost and Ezra watching them as they strode down the darkening street.

"Poor Henry," Ezra was shaking his head. "Not exactly the thoughtful type. But his talent was exceptional."

The Ghost grunted. "Yeah, a talent for selfishness. If he coulda seen past his own desires he wouldíve noticed that them church people looked a lot happier than any of the cardplayers you two ran with, aní maybe he woulda realized they had somethiní goiní. But you noticed it, didnít you?"

Caught, Ezra hrumphed and shrugged a bit. "Now, sir, I do admit they seemed to be... enjoying themselves, but..."

"But you figured you already had life figured out," the Ghost finished, folding his arms. "You didnít need nobody, unless they was like Henry and could help you make money. Aní it wasnít too long before you decided you wasnít gonna let nobody get in your way -- or your heart."

 

The scene swirled, shifted and changed; they were standing by the river on a clear winter night, a cool wind blowing through the trees. Confused, Ezra looked around; they were in one of the middle-class sections of town, outside a large, well-lit saloon. Music and laughter was pouring out of the door as customers streamed in and out.

Suddenly someone came pushing brusquely out of the establishment, and Ezra instantly recognized it as himself, a little older than before, with an angry expression on his face. He was instantly followed by a young girl of seventeen, petite and black-haired, clad in the garments of the working poor, a frayed shawl grasped around her shoulders; her face was wreathed in sorrowful determination.

The older Ezra gasped aloud. "Oh my God. Amelia."

"Yup. The only person ever to come near that wall you got built up around yourself."

Ezra didnít really seem to be listening; he was staring at the girl, who was hurrying to stand beside his younger self. Something hot was grabbing at his throat; he swallowed and turned burning eyes to the Ghost.

"Iíve seen enough," he growled.

"Thatís what you think," was the casual reply. "Unless, of course, you want to make this same mistake again."

"Ezra!"

It was the girlís voice; the older Ezraís head shot around, straight at her, even though he knew she wasnít really talking to him. She was talking to the shade of what he used to be, the young well-dressed gambler who stood puffing angrily on a cigar, staring out at the river. And not looking at her.

She was approaching him, her eyes and voice calm and gentle in the brisk winds. "Ezra, please, Iím sorry to do that, but I have to talk to you. Itís been two weeks..."

The young Ezra turned to face her, and it was already plain to see that the mask was in his eyes, the carefully tailored veil which looked out at the world but let no one in. "Well, my dear, you have committed the impropriety of entering a saloon and also forced me away from the most lucrative game of the evening. I believe an explanation is required."

She sighed, looked at him in a strange, loving way. "Ezra, please. You donít need those words with me, I know you too well. Please donít use them to shut me out the way you have everyone else, I couldnít bear it."

Ezra flinched; his younger self merely glowered, a flicker of hurt dancing in his eyes before it was quickly concealed. "My apologies, Amelia. Why are you here?"

The girl wrapped her shawl tighter around her thin shoulders, came closer. "Iíve... Iíve come to a hard decision, Ezra. I think... Iíve decided it would be best to end our engagement."

The young Ezra hardly seemed surprised, looking first at her, then out at the river. Finally he sighed and returned his gaze to her face. "Was it your father?"

"No," she said firmly. "Itís -- things have changed since we met, Ezra. These past few months Iíve hardly seen you, youíre always at the saloon with Henry, gambling."

Ezra sighed. "I am merely trying to secure our future, my dear. Surely you donít want to be a seamstress your whole life."

"Of course not," she replied. "But I can tell... youíre not letting me in anymore the way you used to. Youíve been giving all of yourself to the tables. I feel as if thereís a curtain between us now that wasnít there before."

He gave her an appraising look, then tossed his cigar stub into the river. "Thatís nonsense, Amelia. I still love you."

She paused, then turned her head towards him, the wind blowing wayward strands of hair into her sparkling eyes. "I believe you, Ezra, but Iím not a dreamer. Youíve given your heart to your profession, and I can see thereís no longer any room in there for me. Youíre far happier in that saloon than you could ever be with me, and we both know it."

They stood for a moment in silence, the din from the saloon the only noise to stir the cold air. It was clear from the young manís face that every word Amelia had said was true; they still stung, but there was relief as well as pain in his eyes.

Finally he drew a long breath. "Well, you seem to have made up your mind. God knows I canít stop you if you want to leave."

She pursed her lips and looked away. "I donít want to leave, but I think it would be best. Just -- promise me something."

He raised his eyebrows in expectation and waited, hands in his pockets.

She licked her lips in hesitation. "I know whatís behind that curtain, Ezra, and it shouldnít be hidden forever. Someday someone else may have a chance to look behind there, too, and I hope you donít turn them away. Iíd hate to think of you as being alone forever."

He considered her words, appeased to be touched. "Thatís quite noble of you, Amelia. I assure you, though, that in the future I shall seldom want for company."

"I hope thatís true," she breathed, then stood awkwardly for a moment. "Well, I should go, papaís waiting for me. Goodbye, Ezra."

"Goodbye, Miss Wilkinson."

She gave him one last look before hurrying away into the darkness. The young man looked after her, seemed to be thinking about something; then he turned and walked slowly back into the brilliant light of the saloon.

But Ezra remained, his face wreathed in sorrow as he watched Amelia retreat into the shadows. He was barely aware that the Ghost had come up beside him.

"You could have stopped her," he remarked softly, "but by now youíd pretty much had it with lettiní people into your heart."

Ezra remained silent for a moment, marveling at the ache in his heart that had lain dormant for many years. It was true, at one time he had loved her more than he had ever loved any woman, but the need to survive and succeed had driven a golden wedge between them. How could he have forgotten her? The pain in his soul provided an answer -- it was easier to blot out the past than dwell on deep regrets. But he had loved her...

He turned angry eyes to the Ghost. "I must say, youíre remarkably cruel for a spirit of Christmas."

The Ghost shrugged. "Not my fault your past was like this. Weíre just trying to make sure your future ainít the same way."

"Yes, well, Iíve had enough of your vicious sense of charity," Ezra hissed, his face flushing. "I demand to be escorted home at once."

The Ghost smiled slightly. "Well, least youíre riled up. Shows you still got some heart left. Thatís good."

"Good?" Ezra cried, enraged that the Ghost actually seemed to be enjoying this. "Youíre the one who, as you so colloquially put it, Ďgot me Ďriled upí! Have you no compassion in that translucent breast of yours? What good can seeing all this possibly do me?"

The Ghost simply stood and smiled at him, apparently highly pleased. Furious, Ezra lunged back and threw a punch at him, knowing abstractly that it was useless to fight a ghost but eager to derive satisfaction from the attempt. As he expected, the swing only connected with air, but he was unprepared for the tumble he took towards the ground as his swing threw him off-balance. He braced himself for impact with the hard dirt road--

--only to land with a solid oof on the polished floor of his room. He lay dazed for a second, then sat up quickly and looked around; it was dark, with only the soft moonlight filtering in through the curtains. Slowly Ezra climbed to his feet, wiping the tears from his eyes and glancing around in confusion as he tried to piece together what had just happened. A dream, that must have been it, obviously. Still recovering from that tainted sandwich.

Amelia...

He climbed onto the bed and lay down, exhausted and headachey from the recent surge of emotions; he only had a few moments to wonder if anything else strange was going to happen to him tonight before he fell again into a deep, weary sleep.

 

When Ezra awoke again, he was amazed to see that it was still night; he felt as if heíd been out for several hours. Memories of the current events returned with a rush, and he rubbed his head as he wondered if it really all had been a dream. Certainly the emotions had felt real...

He clawed for his pocketwatch and checked it; almost two oíclock. Recalling that Henry -- if that truly was Henry -- had said something about the second spirit coming at two, Ezra lay back and waited nervously for the hour to come. Finally the minute hand of his expensive watch hit the finely etched 12 on the watch face and began to creep past it; 2 oíclock had come, and nothing happened. Ezra remained still, unsure of what to make of it; here was positive proof that it had all been a nightmare, but he somehow felt less than reassured. Something was definitely wrong.

As he lay thinking he gradually became aware of a soft thumping noise coming from the floor at the foot of his bed. Lifting his head, he could see nothing over the high footboard, but could still hear an odd commotion going on, thuds and soft, muffled groans. Suspicious and not in the mood for pranks, Ezra silently picked up the Remington he kept by his bedside and slowly sat up, trying not to make any noise as he leaned forward to catch whoever was disturbing his repose. As he neared the point at which he could almost see over the footboard, he cocked the gun, took a quick, deep breath, and lunged forward, grabbing the footboard with one hand while thrusting his weapon forward with the other.

"Halt!" he began to say, before amazement froze the words in his throat.

There on the floor of his room, gazing up at him in bemused surprise, was Buck Wilmington -- or, Ezra guessed, a Ghost who looked like Buck Wilmington, clad in Buckís traditional dusty gear with a bright green shirt and red bandanna. In his tan hat, which now hung loosely on his back, was a bright sprig of holly. The cause of the commotion was clear, as this Ghost had in his arms a beautiful young blonde woman clad in a pink and white gown; the pair was in the beginning stages of dishevelment, and seemed slightly embarrassed at the situation.

"Hey there, pard," the Ghost winked with a smile, "just hang on, Iíll be right with ya, Ďk?"

Ezra paused for a moment, stunned, then nodded and sat back as the noises resumed.

Ten minutes later, Ezra was still sitting up in bed in an attitude of boredom, his chin propped up in one hand as he waited for the Ghost to conclude his activities. Finally his guide appeared, wearing an extremely wide smile and wiping lipstick from his face with the red bandanna.

"Sorry Ďbout that," he said cheerfully, putting on his hat, "just gettiní acquainted with the Ghost of Valentineís Day. Hey, how ya doiní, Iím the Ghost of Christmas Present."

Ezra didnít move. "Charmed. I presume youíre here to torture me with remorse as well?"

The Ghost put his hands on his hips and frowned at Ezra, shaking his head. "Yíknow, they warned me about that bad attitude of yours. Donít you see, weíre here to help you out! Let you see what you might be blowiní before you blow it! Aní see how your life touches others in ways you canít begin to suspect."

Ezra snorted as he swung his legs off of the bed. "I assure you, my luminous friend, that my presence here is hardly that crucial. Iím merely offering my services as a hired gun."

The Ghost laughed. "It mighta started out that way, Ezra, but it ainít stayed that way, aní itís got you runniní scared, donít it? Hidiní behind them cards like nothinís changed. But you got folks countiní on you now, aní if you donít believe that, well, reckon thatís what Iím here for."

"I suppose so," Ezra groaned as he stood up; for some reason he was really dreading this. He glanced at the window. "I presume weíre going out the window?"

"Naw," the Ghost chuckled as he tightened the cinch on his hat. "Thatís the sissy way. Címon."

He took Ezraís arm, and with alarming swiftness the pair rose straight towards the ceiling. Certain they were going to crash through the roof of the saloon, Ezra began to let out a yelp of terror, but before the noise escaped his throat the scene changed completely.

He looked around in surprise; they were in a clearing in one of the wooded areas outside of town. it was beautiful winter day, bright and crisp; the ground was covered with a thick dazzling layer of pure white snow.

"Boy, I just love these nice winter days, donít you?" the Ghost exulted, taking a deep whiff of the bracing air. "Really clears the sinuses."

"Enchanting," Ezra replied, wondering why he didnít feel cold. "But I fail to see how this attractive setting could have any bearing on my welfare."

"Oh, this dayís more than just attractive," the Ghost promised. "Itís Christmas Day, and trust me, friend, itís got everything to do with not just your welfare, but a whole lotta other peopleís to boot."

As the Ghost finished this Ezra became aware of a soft rumbling that quickly became louder; a herd of animals was rushing towards their location. Looking over he saw a slight slope; after a few monets a small herd of sleek deer came galloping over it through the snow, their hooves sending crystalline sprays into the air. They dashed by; a moment later, more thundering came from behind the rise, and Vin suddenly burst into view, hat off, rifle in one hand, his golden brown curls whipping behind him as he pounded after the herd, a wide smile lighting up his face as he swept by in a cloud of swirling snow.

JD was right behind him, leaning so far forward in his saddle with eagerness that he seemed in imminent danger of plunging off of it.

"We got Ďim now, Vin!" he whooped as he urged Hero onward.

"Hang on there, JD!" Buck yelled as he galloped behind him.

"Youíre just mad cause Iím beatiní ya, Buck!" was the joyous reply as the two rode out of sight. Nathan was next, smiling broadly at the brotherish quarreling, and looking behind him at Josiah and Chris who were maintaining a more leisurely pace.

"Yíall better hurry, JDís already bagged Buckís pride," Nathan called before riding ahead. The other two men smiled quietly, then Josiah turned to Chris.

"Sure glad you decided to come today, Chris, I know it meant a lot to the boys."

The black-clad gunslinger shrugged and toyed with his reins as the pair made their way across the churned-up meadow. "Just as easy to be miserable here as anywhere, I guess."

"Well, now, Ďmiserableí is what JDís gonna be if Buck gives him any more hunting tips," Josiah offered with a grin. "Iím hopiní youíre not quite that low."

Chris smiled a bit, squinted into the sun. "Thatís hard to beat, but -- I just donít figure Sarahíd want me spendiní today at the saloon like I been doiní every year. Guess this is the first time in a while Iíve had somethiní else to do."

He sighed, ducked his head as they passed by. Josiah nodded as he urged Prophet on with a gentle touch of the spur.

"Same thing for me, Chris," the former preacher agreed. "Bright day like this makes me think the Lordís workiní a new beginniní for all of us."

Chris looked at him in mock surprise. "Why, Josiah, you sound downright sentimental. Didnít know you had it in you."

Josiah chuckled thoughtfully. "Oh, I had it in me, once. Maybe it's comin' back."

A muffled crack split the clean air, followed by an enthusiastic whoop. Both men perked up and grinned a bit.

"Guess we oughta make sure that wasnít JD gettiní revenge for Buckís teasiní," Josiah commented, and the pair rode away.

In an instant Ezra and the spirit were in a clearing; Vin and JD were on the ground beside a fallen deer, a bullet hole neatly placed through its head. Vin was kneeling and trussing the animal up with rope while Nathan and Buck were still on horseback. JD was beside himself with amazement.

"Boy, that was really somethiní, Vin!" he gasped, panting heavily, his breath disappearing into tiny puffs. "Right through the head!"

"Best way to do it, JD," Vin was saying as he worked. "That way the animal donít suffer none. When we get it to Nettieís you can help me clean it."

The young sheriffís face paled a bit. "Uh, clean it?"

"Yup. Itís a big one, gonna need a lot of help with it."

JD gulped.

"Aw, címon JD," Buck laughed from his saddle. "Bet Caseyíd be impressed out of her boots."

JD scratched his head, this new thought dancing through his head. He was clearly considering it.

His task completed, Vin straightened and nodded to Nathan.

"Nathan, you aní whoever wants to go can ride on out to the village while the rest of us take this on to Nettieís. Weíll meet you there."

Nathan nodded, trying to hide his anticipatory grin as he thought of Rain, the pretty Seminole Village girl heíd been courting. "Okay."

Vin shot JD a look. "You don't got to come, JD, me aní Buck or Josiah can handle it."

JD waffled for a moment, then he set his chin. "No. No, Iíll come. Who knows, learniní to clean a deer might come in handy."

Buck smiled. "Yeah, if any lawbreakiní deer come to town youíll sure know what to do. See ya at the village, kid."

With an affectionate grin Buck rode off, ignoring the handful of snow JD tossed in his direction. Chris and Josiah rode up, still smiling.

"Looks like a fat one," Josiah observed. Vin nodded.

"Weíll be sure to bring some of the meat to the village," the tracker said. "Reckon theyíd appreciate it."

JD wiped the snow from his hands and grinned at the two older men. "Sure glad you came, Chris. Ainít this something? Iíve never been huntiní in the morniní before."

Chris smiled a little. "Itís a little different when youíre starviní, trust me."

"Or on the run," Vin added quietly.

JD scowled impatiently. "Aw, now, donít go worryiní about that today, Vin. If anyone was to try that sort of thing on Christmas, or anytime, weíd take care of Ďem."

"Amen," Josiah muttered as he took a drink from his canteen.

Vinís head was down as he adjusted his saddle straps, but there was a quiet smile on his face, and when he looked back at his friends his blue eyes shone with gratitude. "Thanks, boys. But donít go gettiní soft on me, we still gotta cart this thing to Nettieís."

"No problem," JD promised as he prepared to mount up on Hero. "Yíknow, Ezraís gonna be mighty sorry he missed this. Gotta say, it ainít the same without him."

Ezra straightened, surprised.

Josiah shrugged. "His choice, JD. but I reckon the money heís makiní will make up for his loss."

JD smiled and shook his head as he settled himself in the saddle. "Canít imagine any amount of money beatiní this, Josiah. We used to watch the rich folks celebratiní at Christmas at the mansion, giviní each other expensive gifts, but my ma always said you canít put a price on family." He looked up and frowned. "Or is that too corny?"

Vin swung himself onto Sire and smiled; the other men nodded.

"No, JD, I think that says it all," Josiah said somberly. "And who knows, maybe Ezraíll change his mind and leave the winniní to someone else."

Chris straightened and picked up his reins. "Well," he said in a flat, dry voice, "they call this the season of miracles."

They began to ride off, the deer tied behind Vinís saddle; Chris and Josiah waved and veered off towards the village while JD and Vin headed north to the ranch of Nettie Wells. None of them could see Ezra and the Ghost still standing in the clearing, watching as the clouds of snow drifted back to earth.

"Now ya see, Ezra," the Ghost observed, "you might think it donít matter where you are, but some folks seem to think it does. When weíre in peopleís lives, even for a short while, our not beiní there makes a difference."

Ezra cleared his throat. "Well, um, itís certainly admirable of Mr. Dunne to notice my absence, but heís got to understand the vagaries of my profession. In my line of work one must seize opportunity before it is gone."

The Ghost chuckled and scratched its chin. "Thatís right pretty-soundiní, Ezra, but youíre graspiní at the wrong opportunities. Youíre winniní the gold but losiní the game, aní before you know it youíll be the richest broke man around."

Ezra eyed him with annoyance. "Youíre certainly aggravating enough to be Mr. Wilmington."

"Hey, now, címon," the Ghost insisted as they began to walk, "you gonna tell me you werenít the teeniest bit touched that they missed you? Heck, JD even thinks of you as family, now when was the last time someone besides your ma ever said that?"

The gambler considered this, and his face softened. "I admit that was... unexpected..."

"There, yísee?í the Ghost replied. "You been so busy tryiní to get rich that you done got yourself a family without even realiziní it. Aní thatís important, Ezra, specially at this time of year. What most people donít realize is that, even if you got no kin, you still got a family. Thatís the family of Man that Iím talkiní about, aní itís every manís duty to see that he does right by them. Now youíre helpiní the town, aní thatís a fair start, but it wouldnít hurt ya none to take a look around and see how your group is takiní care of somethiní a whole lot bigger than itself. You men are fightiní for a bigger Family than you think."

In a flash the scene changed; they were in the Seminole village, later in the day. Vin and JD had just arrived, and were dismounting to shouts of welcome from the others, who were already enjoying the hospitality of the old chief Tastanagi and his people. Buck was busily courting any available woman within spitting distance while Josiah appeared to be in a deep discussion with a few of the village elders. Nearby, Nathan and the fiery Rain, daughter of a former slave, were sharing a private moment away from the crowds, while Chris was joining Tastanagi in welcoming the latecomers. Several fires had been lit, over which meat was roasting in the dancing flames. Everything had the appearance of a festival, and the air was alive with laughter.

"Hereís a little somethiní to add to your fires, my friend," Vin said with a smile as he handed several large, wrapped pieces of venison to the old chief. The manís weathered face broke into a wide smile which reflected far more than gratitude.

"Many thanks," he said warmly as he looked at the men. "We are pleased that you came to us today, even though we do not share your ways." He gestured to the riotous scene before them and laughed a little. "We have prepared a celebration in honor of your holy day, and as you can see, many of your friends are feeling quite festive already."

Vin smiled. "Well, with some of us it donít take much. Aní between you folks aní Nettie Wells weíll be hard put to sit upright on our horses tomorrow."

JD came up, buttoning his coat and smiling. "Mrs. Wells was real happy with the deer."

Chris nodded, pleased. "Vin teach you how to clean it?"

The young sheriff hedged a little. "Well..."

The gunslinger smiled knowingly. "Donít be embarrassed, JD, youíre just not used to huntiní--"

"Oh, it ainít that!" JD exclaimed quickly. "I mean, I did actually get to practice on it some, but -- it wasnít Vin who showed me how."

Chrisí eyebrows went up as he and Vin exchanged smiles. "Oh?"

Vin shifted his weight and laughed, putting out one hand to stress his point. "Chris, I ainít never seen a gal with a knife like that Casey. She was half done guttiní that deer before JD aní I even had our sleeves rolled up."

"You shoulda seen it," JD enthused, his eyes glowing. "Says sheís been doiní it since she came to live with Mrs. Wells. I mean, I thought Iíd have a hard time, but watchiní her do it just made it seem easy."

Chris smiled quietly. "Well, thatís one way to make sure heíd pay attention." He looked at Vin, then at the horizon. "No sign of Ezra, huh?"

The tracker shook his head. "Nope." Seeing the grim expression on Chrisí face, he added, "Maybe heíll be along to Nettieís later."

Chrisí face came up, and JD and Vin were both surprised by the sadness there.

"Is somethiní wrong?" JD asked. "I mean, I thought it was OK to let Ezra decide for himself."

"Itís OK for us, JD," Chris said quietly. "But someone hereís gonna be mighty disappointed that he didnít come."

Ezra heard this, and was confused as they watched Vin, JD and Tastanagi walk away towards the huts.

The Ghost whacked him on the arm. "There, yísee? Didnít think you might be messiní up somebody elseís day by stayiní behind, did you?"

The gambler scowled and rubbed his arm. "Of course not, but I can hardly be expected to bend my schedule to satisfy other peopleís expectations. Surely once I find out who this person is, I can explain to them the reason why I couldnít attend. If anyone understands survival, itís these people, believe me."

"Oh, they understand survival all right," the Ghost nodded. "But they also understand what that word really means, and it donít mean makiní a killiní at poker. As for explaininí yourself to this person, well, that might not be as easy as you think."

 

The scene shifted suddenly; for a moment it was so dark that Ezra couldnít make out where they were. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he realized that they were in one of the Seminole huts; Vin and JD were crouching on the floor, with Chris and Tastanagi behind them. They were smiling and talking softly with a small figure lying on a straw mat on the floor; as his vision cleared, Ezra saw that it was Toshi, the young gap-toothed boy he had met while in the village and bid goodbye to when they left after defeating the insane Colonel Anderson. Even in the darkness Ezra could see how pale the boyís skin was, how flushed his cheeks were, and the look of concern on his mother Anaweiís face as she stroked Toshiís forehead caused his stomach to tighten painfully.

"Now you make sure you listen to your Ma aní get better," Vin was saying. "Soon as I learn JD the ways of huntiní, youíre gonna be my next pupil."

A weak smile lit up the boyís face as his brown eyes shone with excitement.

"Aní Iím learniní fast," JD chimed in, with a nod, "so that means you gotta get better quick, cause Vinís not one to wait around."

"I will," Toshi promised, in a low voice; he didnít see the worry in his motherís eyes, but the men did. "Did Ezra come with you?"

Vin coughed; Chrisís jaw tightened. Ezra felt as if he had been shot, and turning to the Ghost said in a pleading voice, "I demand to leave."

The Ghost simply eyed him and didnít move.

"Sorry, son," Vin finally said, "fraid Ezra had to stay in town. Matter of business. But weíll tell Ďim to come on out aní see you, aní heíll be here before ya know it."

Toshiís smile returned, a little weaker. "Thatíd be great. I finally learned those tricks he tried to teach me."

Anawei smiled. "Heís been driving us crazy with his practicing, I even had to scold him for neglecting his chores. He seems to think the world of Mr. Standish."

Ezra tried to bolt out the door; the Ghost grabbed him in a casual grip as hard as iron and forced him back.

"Look," he said quietly, "you was so sure nobodyíd care if you went about your business, right? Well, maybe youíd like to pretend you ainít touched any lives, but you have, partner, and one of emís right there on that floor."

Ezra licked his lips, wondering how the Ghost could be so strong. "But -- I had no idea the poor boy would be ill--"

"Course not, Ezra," the Ghost replied. "We never know whatís going to happen -- thatís why we gotta take the opportunity to care when it comes, cause it might not come again."

Ezra stared at him. "What do you mean?"

The Ghost released him and sighed, leaning against the wall and taking off his hat.

The gambler looked at Toshi, then back at the Ghost. "Well -- the boy will recover, wonít he? I mean, heís just -- itís merely a--"

"Itís a fever, Ezra," the Ghost replied sadly, replacing his hat. "And unless somethiní happens, he ainít gonna see another Christmas."

Ezra went numb, and stared at the child in shock as the other men said their goodbyes and filed out. His mind flashed back to the night of the celebration after they had defeated Anderson the first time, when he had told the boy's fortune and promised him he would grow up to be a great warrior. Toshi had looked up at Ezra with adoring brown eyes and called him something no one else ever had before or ever would again, probably -- a brave man.

"Donít be sad, son," the mother was saying, as she smoothed his shaggy, sandy hair. "Maybe Mr. Standish will come later. You shouldnít get yourself so excited."

"I know, mother," Toshi was muttering. "I really wanted to show him my tricks, thatís all."

"Yes, well," Anawei soothed, "Iím sure whatever kept him away was very important. Heíll see you when itís finished."

The boy nodded a little, his small face a perfect reflection of sadness. He coughed a little and sighed.

Suddenly they were outside again, nearby the hut; Nathan and Chris were standing nearby, speaking in low tones.

"Mother says he went out a few nights ago cause he left them playing cards Ezra gave Ďim out in the rocks someplace," Nathan was saying. "Guess thatís how he got that fever, aní she says heís been gettiní worse ever since."

Chris gritted his teeth, squinted off into the distance. "Can you do anything?"

"Theyíre already doiní everything I would," Nathan noted with a sigh. "If I could find a real doctor, I might be able to get some medicine, but with the holiday aní all theyíll probably be closed til Monday. But look," he straightened up. "Iíll ride out to Eagle Bend aní see if I can find Dr. Harrison."

Chris scowled. "Thatís a long ride from here."

"Yeah, but if someone donít do somethiní..." the sentence trailed off, and both men knew where it would end.

Finally Chris nodded. "All right. Hope you find Ďim, Anawei shouldnít have to lose her son. Aní if you happen to run into Ezra out there, tell him to get his ass over here, that boy needs him."

Nathan nodded. "Yeah, canít say Iím feeliní too kindly towards Ezra right now," the healer said as he buttoned up his coat. "He about broke that kidís heart."

Chris shook his head. "Hope he thinks that damn poker game was worth it."

Nathan shrugged. "Hard to say. Manís surprised me before -- one minute I think I know just what heís gonna do, then he goes aní actually shows integrity. But Iím gonna find it mighty hard to forgive Ďim for this, if..." He swallowed, gave Chris a whack on the shoulder. "Iíll try to make it to Nettieís tonight."

"All right," Chris said quietly, and watched as Nathan hurried off towards Rain and the horses. Then he turned and walked slowly back to the rest of the group.

"There now, yísee?í the Ghost say, as Ezra stared after the two men in silence. "Even after you threw your friends over for a poker game, Nathan still stuck up for ya. Me, Iída punched your sorry face."

Ezra still seemed stunned; he directed his eyes back towards the hut where Toshi lay, as if his thoughts had never left it. A deep current of shame ran through him, unfamiliar and cold; he realized that he had not given one thought to the possibility that anyone would be waiting for him here. He was so used to it not mattering where he was, or what he did, a selfishness which had never bothered him before, because it had never hurt anyone before, not even himself. Nobody had ever cared.

But, he realized, they cared now, and it made him so uncomfortable he wanted to run as far and fast as he could to get away from it. The wall heíd so carefully built around himself was cracking; heíd often wondered idly about that, but felt he could control how and when the bricks might slowly be removed. Now they were collapsing all around him, and he didnít feel prepared for what might lie beyond the shattered walls.

He thought of Toshi, and the pain was almost overwhelming.

"Will Mr. Jackson find the doctor?" he finally asked quietly, hoping that just maybe Nathanís action would change things.

"Oh, so you do care what happens to that little feller, huh?" the Ghost said in mock surprise, folding his arms and leaning back. "Tell ya what, letís go see, OK?"

In an instant they were enveloped by a night sky; Ezra looked around and recognized the area as the front yard of Nettie Wellsí ranch. It was a clear, cold evening; the sky overhead blazed with millions of brilliant stars surrounding a full, silvery moon whose light bathed the snow-covered yard in a soft radiance. The windows of the small house glowed with light and celebration; even from the yard Ezra could smell the aromas of a lavish Christmas dinner, as the smell of roasted venison and chicken wafted through the air. In the corral nearby, five horses trotted and blew in the frosty air, their breath forming white plumes against the blackness of the night.

After a moment there came the muffled noises of a door opening, then being drawn shut again; Nettie Wells appeared from around the side of the house, her elderly frame bundled up well against the chill. She made her way quickly, with her typical feisty step, towards one of the pens near the corral; with practiced ease she lifted a bucket of scraps and dumped it over the fence. After a slight pause and some grunts and scuffles, two pigs emerged from the barn and trundled over to the welcome feast, burying their soft warm snouts in the steaming pile.

Nettie gave a satisfied nod to her accomplished deed, then set the bucket down next to the fence and began to make her way back to the house.

The front door opened, and Vin emerged, framed in darkness against the light inside before he pulled the door closed again. With slow strides he walked over to meet Nettie at the end of the porch, shaking his head as a smile creased his face.

"Mrs. Wells, youíre thí only woman I know whoíd have a houseful of fellers over and still slop the hogs yourself."

Nettie laughed, a sound rich with years and memories. "The day I ask for help when I can do for myself is the day youíll be speakiní over my grave, son," she said as she mounted the steps easily. "Partyís goiní so well itíd be a sin to spoil it with chores."

Vin chuckled and cast a look over his shoulder at the window behind them, his wide hat almost hiding his face. "Reckon it is." He looked back at her, and in the gentle moonlight Ezra could see Vinís eyes shining with gratitude. "Iíd just like to thank you, Mrs. Wells, for lettiní us come over like this. Canít say when the last time was some of us had a proper Christmas dinner."

She regarded him with amused surprise. "First real one in a long time for me as well, Mr. Tanner. Feels real good to be haviní folks over again, itís a nice break from work and liviní in general, for Casey and me. Aní you boys earned every bite, believe me. "

Vin shrugged a little, but smiled, his blue eyes soft in the moonlight. "Now youíre makiní us sound downright noble, míam. Just some rough men doiní our job, is all. But--" he paused, looked back at the warmly lit house, a thoughtful light in his eyes as he leaned against one of the wooden porch posts, his thumbs in his belt. "I seen enough to know the good men from the bad, Miss Nettie, aní theyíre good men. Been a hard life for all of Ďem, even JD, but they ainít let it beat down their hearts."

He looked out across the moonlit landscape, drew a deep breath as a gentle winter breeze tugged at his golden-brown curls. "After beiní a bounty hunter for so long I pretty much reckoned no maníd ever win my respect again, but... these are men worth respectiní, maíam, and Iím right grateful for your kindness to Ďem."

Nettie smiled. "No need for thanks, Mr. Tanner, you know you boys are welcome. Even your gambliní friend, if he ever shows himself."

Vin chuckled a bit, the moonlight sparkling in his eyes. "Well, Iím still hopiní heíll show, maíam. Heís surprised us all before."

At that moment the soft thudding of snow-muffled hoofbeats sounded on the cold night air; Vin and Nettie looked to the road, the trackerís hand surreptitiously dropping to his mareís leg. After a few tense moments Nathan rode into the bright patch of moonlight, alone. The pair on the porch relaxed, and Vin eased down the steps to greet his friend.

"Any luck?" he called, as Nathan trotted up the hitching post. The healer sighed and shook his head.

"Went to Eagle Bend, but Doc Harrisonís gone to Phoenix for the holiday, aní nobody else was around."

Vin pursed his lips in thought and looked away.

"Did manage to swing by the town aní get what supplies I could," Nathan continued, sliding off of his saddle and plopping to the ground. "Dropped a few things off for Ďem, but -- the boyís gettiní worse. When I left the village he was burniní up."

Nettieís expression was grim. "Poor boy."

Nathan nodded. "Iím spendiní the night there tonight, just wanted to let yíall know."

Vin glanced at him, gave a short nod. "Theyíll appreciate that, Nathan."

The healer shrugged, a quiet anger in his eyes. "Not much I can do, but at least..." he let the thought trail off.

Vin had a new thought. "Did yísee Ezra?"

"Nope," Nathan shook his head, "did hear some interestiní news about him, though."

Every ear, including Ezraís, perked up.

"Yíknow he was playiní that big poker game?" Nathan continued.

Vin cocked his head. "What happened, he lose his shirt?"

Nathan shook his head. "Nope, he won. Real big, from what the barkeep told me, almost a thousand dollars, on top of what he already had."

Nettie gasped; Vin seemed amused. Ezra was stunned -- he had never won more than three hundred at once in his life. Was this true? My God, heíd have over twelve hundred dollars, enough for that saloon heíd been dying to own. All from one game...

As they pondered this, the front door opened and Casey stepped quickly onto the porch, gathering up a huge handful of snow that had accumulated on the railing. She gave a quick smile to the others.

"Hi," she said in a preoccupied, breathy voice, then ducked back inside, the snow cradled carefully in one hand. The others exchanged glances, but did not even want to venture a guess as to what she was up to.

"Musta been one hell of a game," Vin grunted, going back to Ezraís incredible stroke of fortune and trying to picture it.

Nathan shrugged. "Guess so. One of the men got real mad, Ezra had to haul him outta town before he left."

Vin looked up. "Left?"

"Yup. Seems him aní the other players went off for a big celebration. Real shame, too, cause the barkeep thinks one of them men was a doctor, but he didnít know where they went or who the man was, aní there ainít no doctors stayiní at the hotel. I looked all over town but I couldnít find Ďem. So I left a message for Ezra at the saloon aní came out here."

Vin patted Nathanís shoulder.

"You did all you could, pard. Now címon aní get some of Nettieís fine cookiní before you go to the village."

"Thereís plenty left, Mr. Jackson," Nettie smiled. Nathan returned the smile and tipped his hat.

"Much obliged, maíam. Been a long ride."

They were stomping up to the front steps when the front door to the house burst open, and Casey flew in a giggling streak down the front steps, stumbling a bit in the snow as she whirled around and began scooping up a handful of the wet, white substance. JD was close on her heels, a wide determined grin on his face as he chased her down the steps. As he passed the group they could see that his collar had been yanked back and that bits of snow were clinging to the long black curls hanging at the base of his neck.

"Dangit, Casey, just you wait!" the young sheriff laughed as he spilled down the stairs, digging his bare hands into the snow and heaving clumps at his laughing assailant. "Iíll teach you to put snow down my back when I ainít lookiní!"

"You gotta catch me first, city boy!" she responded with glee, falling backwards as she focused her attention on making the largest snowball she could. As the two chased each other around the yard, exchanging laughing insults and challenges along with their harmless snowballs, the rest of Nettieís guests wandered onto the porch to watch the melee.

"Nathan," Josiah nodded. "Whatís the good word?"

Nathan sighed. "The good word ainít so good. Couldnít find the doctor, but I got some things here that might help, aní Iíll be spendiní the night there. Oh, aní Ezraís rich now."

Buck snorted. "Well, reckon HE had a merry Christmas. Guess he made the right choice stayiní in town after all."

They watched as JD and Casey tumbled together in a heap of laughter. Vin and Nettie exchanged smiling glances, then Nettie took a step forward.

"Casey, thatís enough -- I wonít have you roughhousiní aní breakiní Mr. Dunneís arm when heís a guest aní all. Now come inside before you two get pneumonia."

As the group on the porch watched the young people pick themselves up out of the snow, still giggling and sniffing from the cold, Josiah cocked his head and looked at Buck.

"Ezra might have his money, Buck, but I donít think Iíd call him rich."

They all began to amble back inside; Casey and JD were the last to go in.

"That was fun," the young girl laughed, unsuccessfully trying to brush the clinging snow from her soaking clothes.

JD nodded as he slicked his damp hair back. "Yeah, reminds me of Boston, weíd have snow there three feet deep. You could get lost in it."

When they reached the bottom of the porch stairs, she paused to wring out the hem of her sodden skirt. After a moment she looked up to see him staring at her standing in the winter moonlight, the flakes of snow melting in her long brown hair.

His expression was serious. "Casey?"

She found herself staring at him too; he looked so different now, almost glowing in the gentle white light, glittering drops of water clinging to his long eyelashes, his silky black hair. It took her a moment to realize he was expecting a response.

She cleared her throat. "Um, yes, JD?"

He seemed to hesitate, unsure;when he spoke his voice was quiet. "Well, I -- I just wanted to say, I'm real glad your aunt invited us over."

She nodded, still staring at the way the moonlight lit up his hazel eyes. "Uh-huh."

He shifted a little and coughed, shooting a quick glance at the porch. "Do you think itíd be all right -- I mean, I ainít got no money for gifts, aní I just -- I mean, I wanted to ask you..." He trailed off.

"JD?"

He looked up, biting his lip. "Hm?"

"If you donít kiss me quick I think Iíll just bust."

JD stood still for a moment, then smiled with joy, and they went into each otherís arms in a sweet embrace, brief but full of tenderness and youthful passion. As JD drew back he looked incredibly relieved.

"I was hopiní thatíd be all right with you," he smiled. "Now, next year I swear youíll get a real gift."

She gazed into his eyes with a smile and took his hand. "Funny, JD, I canít think of anythiní else Iíd rather get."

They stood still for a moment, holding hands and looking at each other in the soft moonlit glow; then the front door opened, and Buck appeared.

"JD, boy, if you donít hustle yourself in here weíre gonna eat all this delicious apple pie ourselves, aní while I donít mind that at all I do have to keep myself trim for the ladies."

JD and Casey exchanged guilty smiles and mounted the porch. JD gave his older friend a suspiciously happy smile as he passed him by; Buck replied with a knowing expression which said, you ainít fooliní olí Buck for a minute. They entered the warm glow of the house, and Buck threw one last look out at the cold, starlit night.

"Now how come that snowball-fight routine never worked for me?" he muttered to himself as he slowly pulled the door closed. The yard was empty now, except for Ezra and the Spirit.

"Sure looked like a good time to me," the Ghost commented as they stood together. "Ainít no thousand-dollar poker game, but that didnít seem all that important to me, did it seem important to you?"

Ezra barely heard, he was still trying to sort out everything that he had seen and heard. Nathan was going to see to Toshi, so maybe the boy would be all right. He had been feeling very strange watching the other men; it reminded him of the times when, as a lonely child forced to live with unfeeling relatives, he had watched the other children celebrate Christmas without feeling truly a part of their warm circle. But, he knew, he was a part of this circle, there was no need here to be outside. It would be so simple to change his plans, abandon the card game, and join in. Unlike the lonely child, the lonely man had a choice.

He had been in the process of nearly reconsidering his plans until he learned of the outcome of the poker game. A thousand dollars, almost... heíd been playing for years and had only saved four hundred. With that money he could shake off the dust of Four Corners, buy that saloon, take care of himself and his mother in style. The hazy disappointments of childhood swirled and vanished in the cold reality of adult life; he could hardly afford to lose control of his emotions and allow them to override his better judgment. He had always taken care of himself first and foremost, and what better revenge could the lonely boy have than to live in ease for the rest of his life?

His gaze traveled up across the expanse of the snow-covered lawn, now churned up with the evidence of laughter and love; he studied the soft yellow glow of the lighted windows, heard the muffled noises of talk and fellowship inside, and sighed. This was not going to be easy.

Finally he noticed that the ghost seemed to be waiting for him to say something; so he drew himself up and took a deep breath, blinking. "Well, all I can say is that they seem to be having a perfectly fine time without my presence, and as it appears my staying in town resulted in quite a windfall, I would say we have all come out of this Christmas ahead."

The Ghost chuckled and stood before Ezra, shaking his head. "Youíre a gold-loviní weasel, Ezra Standish, but I donít believe the only thing youíve gotten out of all this is a mess of money at the poker table. What you men have built is somethiní special, aní it was built for a special purpose, even if youíre too gold-blind to see it."

Ezra tried to laugh. "I believe you overestimate our association, my good spirit. We are only a band of hired guns, nothing more."

A smile appeared behind the Ghostís mustache. "I was hopiní youíd say that, Ezra, cause you couldnít be more wrong if you said today was the Fourth of July. Aní I think itís time to show you some folk who think you men are a whole lot more than just hired guns workiní for a buck."

He grabbed Ezraís arm in a tight grip; before the startled gambler could protest, they were soaring through a thick haze of clouds. The earth was gone, and nothing seemed to exist except the clouds and the rush of the wind.

"Hang on there," the Ghost warned, "weíre gonna be makiní some fast stops, aní youíll want to remember what you see."

 

The haze parted, and a series of images swirled and flowed before them, each clear and distinct yet melting into each other in rapid succession. Ezra saw a brightly lit Christmas tree situated in a comfortable middle-class parlor; Mary Travis was laughing as Billy eagerly tore into one of his gaily-wrapped presents while Orin and Evie Travis watched, their mature faces beaming with joy. As the boy removed a shiny train from the box, he gave an animated cry of joy and leaped into Maryís arms; she gave him a quick kiss and hugged him tightly, unashamed of the tears in her eyes. For a moment Ezra could almost feel her happiness, her gratitude that the boyís nightmare over his fatherís death was over -- and hers as well.

The scene faded, washed away, was replaced by a smaller, more modest image; a bedroom, plain but warm, a fireplace with a low fire in it, and a small stocking hanging on the mantle. The door opened, a woman walked in surrounded by the glowing halo of the lighted hallway; she crossed to the small bed, peered at the little girl who lay on it, and bending over the quiet form gave her a gentle kiss before tucking her in. Terry Greer then gently stroked her daughter Oliviaís cheek for a moment, looking at her in deep contemplation, a serious light in her brown eyes. She turned her face to the moonlight streaming in through the window, tears of happiness glistening on her cheeks; then she gave a final, loving smile to her daughter before rising and silently slipping out again, gently closing the door.

The images were coming faster now, so fast that Ezra could scarcely keep up with them; but he did, each one registering sharply in his mind. There was a festively decorated house, and a group of laughing women celebrating around a beautiful tree; Ezra recognized them as the working girls he and the other men had rescued from Wickestown, he could even see the lovely and strong Lydia giving a quick hug and kiss to the shy, girlish Nora, now recovered from her beating at the hands of their former pimp. It was incredible to see her a lovely young woman, full of hope and promise again.

Another change; now they saw a succession of men, some old, some young, all bearing the scars of hard work and misery, but recovering now, in the arms of their loved ones and families. Ezra realized he knew them all, but the last time he had laid eyes on them they had been covered in dirt and weariness, wearing prisonerís uniforms and walking out of hellhole prison from which the Seven had just released them. The scenes were rapid and constantly moving, here a man sitting in a modest home with a careworn woman and a young boy, now another, older man walking to church with his arm around his female partnerís waist, now a younger man surrounded by his parents and siblings; and more, several more, all happy, all full of gratitude and joy, because none of them had thought they would live to see this day. And now they were home.

Other scenes swirled by, all containing images of people the men had helped in ways large and small, and all seemingly having a happy Christmas. Finally the scenes faded; the wind slowed, then stopped, and they were standing in a snowswept street. Ezra staggered a little; it had all been a bit dizzying.

"Interestiní tour, huh?" the Ghost grinned. "Now, I donít wanna hear no more of that lip of yours. You men have made a big difference in them peopleís lives, aní you were part of that. Iíd think a maníd be proud of that, aní not try to deny it."

Ezra had recovered, and sighed in exasperation. "Look, my ectoplasmic friend, I am quite happy that our efforts have aided these people in restoring their lives. I would add the caveat, however, that we should reserve the right to better our own lives as well, and I do not think these fine folk would deny us the opportunity to improve our venues if the situation permits."

The Ghost folded his arms and leaned back, regarding Ezra with a critical eye. "Meaniní if you get rich you oughta have the right to head on out?"

Ezra started a bit; was he really saying heíd leave the group if he won that money? He hadnít really thought much about it, but now that the matter crossed his mind, it seemed foolish, if not dangerous, to be in possession of such a fortune and not take advantage of it. It was what he had been working toward since the day he left the South.

The gambler sighed, trying to work out his confusion; he began to pace in the snow as the Ghost watched in bemused silence.

"After tonight I donít know what to think anymore," he confessed, rubbing the back of his neck in thought, his voice agitated and unsure. "Iíve lived this way my whole life, you canít ask a man to forsake his most dearly held beliefs for an ill-defined ideal just like that. And I must admit," he said in a sterner voice, stopping in front of the Ghost and lifting up an accusing finger, "to a small degree of resentment concerning your attitude towards my chosen way of life. How I comport myself is entirely my choice, and it should be noone elseís concern, least of all a satyritic apparition such as yourself."

The Ghost laughed, much to Ezraís consternation. "Nice little speech, Ezra, but you ainít even convinced yourself with that one, let alone me. Aní your life may have been yours alone once, but it ainít that way no more, is it? Itís mixed in somewhere else now."

He turned, and Ezra followed his gaze to see Chris and the others coming out of Nettieís house, talking and laughing as they pulled on coats and hats in preparation for departure. The Ghost looked back at Ezra with a smile, noting with satisfaction the thoughtful look on the gamblerís face as he regarded the men he had spent the last several months with.

Ezra suddenly realized he was being observed and quickly waved the Ghost away. "A touching thought, to be sure, but I can hardly flatter myself to believe that my presence or absence would truly make that much of a difference to our operation. We have gotten along well enough, I suppose, but they would not deny myself, or any of the others, the right to move on if the chance arose. For our purposes, one gun is as good as another."

 

The Ghost stared at him somberly as the wind picked up, blowing gusts of snow around them; Ezra watched as the warm scene of fellowship before him was swallowed up in a rushing swirl of thick white waves. Soon their entire surroundings were obscured, leaving just the two of them standing on the snowy ground.

"I know youíd like to think that, Ezra, but it just plain ainít so aní you know it," said the Ghost as he stood back, hitching his thumbs into his belt and tilting his head to eye his companion in a serious, appraising manner. "There was a reason you men came together, aní itíd be a sin for you to go aní pull apart what you men have built before your task is done. You canít just act like youíre alone anymore, cause you ainít, aní weíre just tryiní to make you see what it is youíre close to losiní here, because before you know it, itís gonna be too late."

At the Ghostís last words there was a ferocious clap of thunder and a blinding flash of lightning; as Ezra instinctively ducked, he heard the thunder crackle and rumble away, taking with it the echo of the Ghostís words: too late... too late... too late...

 

Ezra looked around. The Ghost was gone; the wind had stopped, and all was cold, dark and still. He couldnít tell where he was, but it seemed to be out in the desert somewhere; there was no moon, stars, or light of any kind. He shivered, suddenly afraid, and became aware that the small hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.

Then he heard them: footsteps, soft and crunching in the icy snow, advancing towards him from behind. Finally they stopped, not ten feet away. Swallowing hard, Ezra turned slowly, an empty sense of fear clutching his heart.

Despite the lack of moonlight, the figure before him was bathed in a white glow, faint but cold and harsh. It was Chris, or looked like Chris, clad in his long black duster and wide-brimmed black hat, leaning slightly to one side as if sizing him up for a gunfight. The darkness of his clothing absorbed every ounce of life and light from the air around him; it seemed to be made of the blackness of eternity, or oblivion. But his eyes... Ezra knew Chris Larabeeís green eyes could pretty much drill through iron, but the eyes of the Ghost standing before him were infinitely more penetrating, almost glowing in their intensity.

Ezra caught himself staring, and swallowed again before asking as the wind tugged at his clothes, "Are you the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?"

The Ghost moved finally, walking forward with a small, deadly smile as he said in Chrisí voice, "Good guess."

The gambler nodded, not at all happy with his accuracy. He shuddered as the wind returned, colder now. "And may I presume we are to see my life in the future?"

The Ghostís smile grew more chilling as he reached out and took Ezraís arm with a surprising gentleness. "Not exactly, Ezra. Not exactly."

There was a crack of thunder and a blinding flash of brilliant light; as his eyes cleared, Ezra realized that they were standing in the middle of the main street of Four Corners. A few moments of observation made it plain, however, that things had drastically changed; all of the shops and homes Ezra was familiar with were looted, boarded up and deserted, and only a few miserable people prowled the splintering sidewalks. His gaze flew up and down the street, lighting on familiar landmarks, all vacant now -- the opera house, the building where Nathan lived, the boarding house. The Clarion looked as if it had been long abandoned; at the end of the street Ezra could see the charred, overgrown remains of the church, its blackened skeleton rotting in the winter sun.

As Ezra looked at the silent wreckage, he felt a strange sickness in his gut, a peculiar sensation of loss and bereavement. The last time he had seen the streets in daylight, they had been full of people, all excited with the holidays; now it was bleak and empty, obviously on the way out. He wondered at the strange feeling; after all, it wasnít as if Four Corners was anything more to him than another stopping place, another venue for working his trade. But... to see the Clarion closed, Mrs. Potterís store empty, its windows broken, the saloon where they had all drank and laughed together now all but shuttered, it felt to Ezra as if he were learning of the destruction of his old neighborhood in New Orleans all over again, the irretrievable end of a place he had felt secure. His home.

"All right," the gambler finally said, licking his lips and regarding the Ghost with impatience, "will I be getting any answers to whatís going on, or is this some sort of morbid game of charades?"

The Ghost gave him a small smile, his arms folded in a casual pose. "Reckon that oughta be obvious, Standish, even to you. Townís dyiní."

"I can see that," Ezra insisted, feeling a headache coming on, "but we have clearly missed some crucial step here. How could the town have gotten like this? Mr. Larabee and the others would never have permitted it."

"Reckon not, but they ainít here," the Ghost replied.

Ezra cast him a skeptical glance. "I hardly believe that he and the others would simply abandon their posts."

The Ghost shrugged. "Why not? You did, after winniní all that money."

The gambler blinked, wondered why he felt a twinge of guilt.

The Ghost saw his expression and smiled; they began to walk along the empty street, listening as the wind howled through broken windows and rotting timbers.

"Yep, you were long gone when all the fuss happened. Seemed the boys finally ran into some bad guys they couldnít handle, and the town went insane during the gunfight. Church got burned, some of the local trash got excited, and, well, you can see the rest. Four Corners ainít been the same since." He cast a sideways glance at Ezra. "They understood when you left, but they really could have used you that day."

Ezra blinked, taken aback for a moment. But only a moment. He had always followed his own ambitions, and was not about to let this black-clad phantom tell him how to run his life, despite the hollow feeling burning in his stomach at the townís condition. "Well -- yes, but my situation was unique. I mean, even if I did decide to pursue my ambitions with my winnings, one could hardly call it an abandonment of duty. I would simply be moving on to better things."

The Ghost nodded a little, his black hat bobbing in the harsh sun. "You think takiní that money and runniní would be moviní on to better things, Ezra?"

Feeling defensive, the gambler drew himself up. "Of course. With a fortune of that size it could hardly be otherwise."

"Oh, I think it could be otherwise, Ezra," the Ghost smiled. "I really think it could."

 

The deserted street vanished in a rush as a violent winter wind swirled around them; before Ezra could even blink, they were somewhere else entirely. He realized that it was Nettie Wellsí ranch again, on another Christmas afternoon. The sun was valiantly trying to poke through the sifting gray-gold clouds which scudded across the December sky; snowflakes drifted and sparkled in the sunlight as they slowly fell onto the already whitened ground. Ezra saw that smoke was curling from the ranch houseís chimney; another party, he supposed. Perhaps he would now find out what had happened, and where he was in all this.

The front door opened, and Nettie stepped out, wiping her hands on an apron and looking down the road. She did not appear much older, but there seemed to be a weariness about her now; some of her energy was gone, the lively heartiness replaced by a solemn determination which had little joy in it.

Ezra followed her gaze, and saw two riders trotting up the road; he instantly recognized them as Josiah and Nathan. Nathanís clothing resembled Josiahís now, a mixture of Native American and white styles; he now had a beard which did little to disguise the somewhat haunted look in his eyes. Josiah looked pretty much the same, but like Nathan and Nettie he seemed to have a cloud following him, an unspoken tragedy which shouted its presence without a sound.

Despite the sadness in the air, Nettie smiled as she greeted her visitors. "Merry Christmas, boys. Glad you could make it."

Nathan returned her smile as he reined in. "Canít miss your cookiní, Miss Nettie. Not that Rain ainít a fine cook, but she still canít beat your biscuits."

"Be happy to give her the recipe, if she wants to try," was the easy reply, but it had a tinge of strain to it. The old woman sighed. "Guess she decided to stay with Anawei today."

Nathan nodded with a sigh as he slid to the ground. "Yup, this dayís always hard on her. Losiní Toshi to that fever on Christmas just about broke her heart, donít think sheíll ever get over it."

Ezra felt himself go colder than the winter day could ever make him. So Toshi died anyway -- my God, that poor kid, he thought. His gut tightened as he remembered the boy, his quick mind, his youthful spirit, so much like himself at that age yet still innocent enough to admire a man like Ezra. He could still hear the boy asking bravely if he could come with them when they were leaving the village; despite his youth and the horrors he had seen, Toshi was still ready to face whatever lay beyond his home's borders. But the gambler had insisted that he stay and protect the village like the brave warrior he knew the child to be; leaving home and throwing yourself on the mercy of the world, Ezra knew, was no way for a young boy to spend his youth. The boyís lively intelligence and openness had borne deeper into Ezraís heart than he had realized, and he marveled at the depth of his grief. Another childhood gone.

He turned to the Ghost, his eyes burning with anger. "How could this be allowed to happen?"

The Ghost seemed completely unperturbed as he regarded Ezra coolly, his arms crossed. "Donít look at me, I didnít kill the kid."

Ezra felt his face turn hot. "He was only a child! A very promising one, I might add, who hardly deserved this monstrous fate."

"Easy, now, Ezra," the Ghost replied calmly. "Youíre gettiní awful hot over a kid who wasnít worth the price of a poker game to you."

Ezra stammered a little, staggered by the accusation. "What -- why, Iíll have you know I was quite fond of that boy."

The Ghost laughed bitterly. "What a load of bull, Standish. You had the chance to see him before he died, aní you decided youíd rather win some money. So donít give me any crap about caring about him."

"Well -- but -- if Iíd known--"

"You never know, do you, Ezra?" the Ghost shot back, unfolding his arms and regarding him sternly. "If you learn anything from tonight, I hope itís that you canít always just assume that you can dispense friendship at your convenience. Youíve got to take every opportunity as it comes, and not put it off with the thought that there will always be another chance. Because pretty soon youíll find yourself all out of chances."

Taken aback by the Ghost's words, Ezra found himself speechless, and after a moment of confusion turned his attention back to the ranch. Perhaps he could learn more there.

Nettie was shaking her head. "Poor thing, I know what sheís feeliní. Buried a few children of my own."

"It ainít never easy," Nathan agreed as he followed Josiah. "But Rainíll do what she can, aní meanwhile she sends her best."

Nettie smiled. "Thatís sweet of her." She peered up the road. "Will the others be cominí?"

Nathan nodded. "Oh yeah, Buckíll be here. Just said he had somethiní to do first. Aní Chris is with Vin up in the mountains."

The old woman nodded. "Well, come on inside. Reckon itíll be a while before they show up."

Josiah was about to voice his agreement when the door opened and Casey stepped onto the porch. Ezra was shocked; she had grown into a beautiful young woman, but her face bore the weight of a lifetime. She smiled at Nathan and Josiah, but there was no youthful life in her eyes.

"Merry Christmas," she whispered, smiling, as she kissed them both. They murmured something in response, took her hands and spoke softly; the tones were hushed but friendly, but Ezra could not make out what they were saying.

"Well, letís go on inside," Nettie said, herding them all towards the door. "Itís gettiní colder, aní it wonít do for us all to come down with anything. I do hope Mr. Tanner, Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington are all right."

"My guess, maíam," Nathan said as he passed into the house, "is that none of Ďem are thinkiní much on the weather right now."

They went inside and closed the door, and the yard fell silent once more. Ezra blinked; he was obviously missing something -- he surmised that JD was inside, and Vin and Chris must be hunting in the mountains. But where was he in all this? He turned to the spirit.

"How much time has passed since--?"

"Two years," the Ghost replied. "Lot of changes in that time."

"Obviously," Ezra said, looking around. "Nathanís dressing habits have altered considerably."

"Well, thatís what happens when you go to live in an Indian village," the Ghost replied lazily. "He aní Josiah have been there, oh, bout two years, tho Josiah wanders off quite a bit. His heart broke when that church burned down, you know."

"Yes," Ezra muttered sadly, thinking about how dedicated the former preacher had been to rehabilitating that church. He had rather admired Josiahís grit; the man had barely healed from the wounds he received at the hands of Anderson and his crazed men than he was up on the roof pounding nails. He was determined to see that church renewed no matter the cost in toil or pain, and Ezra could only marvel at that sort of endeavor, because he knew he himself could never attempt it. And now it was all gone, and the gambler felt a sympathetic pain in his heart for his friend.

The Ghost noted his thoughtful expression and hitched his thumbs in his gunbelt. "Well, you donít got to be sad. You were safe aní sound outta town when the gunfight occurred. Long as you were OK, what difference does a burned-down church make?"

Ezra glanced back at him. "Where was I?"

"Why, you were out seekin' your fortune," the Ghost replied, as if it was obvious. "After winniní that pile, you were a rich man, so it was goodbye Four Corners. Judge Travis understood, even wished you well. Itís what you always wanted, right?"

Ezra bit his lip, thinking. The answer had been fairly clear before, but it did not seem to come as easily as it used to.

"Right?"

The gambler decided that he was not about to let this bothersome specter see his discomfort, and squared his shoulders. "I fail to see the point of ridiculing my desires. It seems plain that my departure has had little effect on the others--" he wondered at the burning in his gut as he said this "--so I must question your harsh judgment of my actions. We all seem to have turned out just fine."

The Ghost stared at him in a very unsettling manner, and Ezra watched as a grin slowly spread over his face.

"You got no idea," the Ghost finally said, "how much Iíve been hoping youíd say that."

With a bang and a flash the scene changed; they were now standing in a clearing in the middle of a very thick forest. The sky had become cloudy, and a steady fall of snow was drifting to the ground in a tranquil scene of winter beauty. Time had flown; judging by the daylight, Ezra guessed it to be midafternoon. Given the setting, he supposed that they were going to come upon Chris and Vin hunting, and he looked around expectantly.

"You may like to think," the Ghost was saying, as he folded his arms and ignored the white dusting his ebony clothing was accumulating, "that your decision to leave town didnít make any difference. That would make everything neat and uncomplicated, wouldnít it? But you couldnít be more wrong, aní itís my job to show you just what sort of impact that one selfish act had on the lives of the men you worked with. Then itíll be up to you whether it was worth it or not."

The soft crunching of horseís hooves gently stirred the frigid air, and through the trees Ezra could see a rider slowly making his way towards the clearing. As he got closer, Ezra realized that it was Chris, still wearing all black and still as cautious as ever; as he rode he kept a sharp eye on every tree and rock, alert as a cat. Ezra presumed he was hunting, then noticed that he had no gun in his hand.

Suddenly Chris sat straight up in his saddle, instantly at the ready as the noises of another horse reached his ears and those of Ezra and the Ghost. Then he relaxed, and Ezra was amazed at the tormented expression which then appeared on his face. It was a curious mixture of joy and pain, and Ezra looked to see what could possibly be causing Chris Larabee so much anguish.

The other horseman appeared; it was Vin, looking much rougher and more haggard that Ezra had ever seen him. His hair was longer and his clothes bore the evidence of many years of hard living. As the tracker slowly guided Sire to stand near Chris, his face bore the same tormented look that Chrisís did, as if he were overjoyed to see Chris and deathly frightened at the same time.

But he tried to replace it with a small smile as he said in a low voice, "Hey, cowboy."

Ezra saw Chris start and take a hard swallow, not even trying to smile as his face twitched with deep emotion, his voice rough. "Hey, Vin."

Vinís eyes shifted to behind Chris. "See anybody else out there?"

"Hell, Vin," Chris replied, shifting in his saddle. "Ainít nobody on this whole Goddamned mountain but us. No Federal commanderís gonna send his troops out to look for you on Christmas."

The tracker nodded, but looked less than reassured. "I can tell you, the blues were pretty thick between here aní the border. Thought for sure they saw me a couple of times, didnít want Ďem followiní you here aní catchiní you out too." He paused and eyed Chris warmly. "God, Iím glad you made it, though. Been a long lonely year. Howíre the boys?"

Chris shrugged, still not trusting himself to talk much. "Oh, fine. Theyíll be up later."

Vinís eyes grew wide. "Aw, dammit, Chris, they know thatís too dangerous. I ainít runniní from no piss-ant bounty hunters no more, this is the Federal army thatís after me. They get caught with me theyíll be hung."

The other man remained calm. "They know the risks, Vin. But they ainít seen you in a year, aní besides, if any trouble starts we can handle it." A sad smile spread across his pale face. "Itíll be just like old times, us fightiní together again."

A wistful look crossed Vinís face, then he lowered his head. "But this time weíll be fightiní against the law, not for it."

"Theyíd do it for you. We all would."

Vin looked up, his blue eyes bright with pain. "I know. Just wish I could see you boys moreín once a year. Things in Mexico are pretty grim."

Chris watched him carefully, then cleared his throat. "Vin, look -- when Buck and I are through up here, weíll come down--"

Vin was already shaking his head. "We talked about this, Chris. I canít let you do that. This ainít like Tascosa. They think I killed a Federal soldier."

Chris nodded in sad frustration, toying with the reins and looking off into the snowy woods. "I know," he sighed, then looked back. "Still donít regret stoppiní that lynch mob from hanginí you, but I reckon things just went from bad to worse. If there werenít so many people in that damn square we might know who really shot that soldier."

Vin smiled a bit, snowflakes clinging to his long lashes. "Canít fault you aní the others for saviní my hide, Chris. Most other men wouldíve just let me swing aní not risk their own necks."

Chris looked at him seriously, his eyes glinting like steel in the winter light. "Wonít none of us let the others fall, Vin. That wonít ever change, no matter what else does."

The tracker returned his gaze, a warm gratitude filling the depths of his blue eyes. Then he sighed. "Yeah, I know. But since then itís been nothiní but runniní aní fightiní, aní I canít put you boys through that hell."

Chrisís eyes grew grim as he leaned forward. "Vin, weíre already in hell. Might as well be there together."

The other man regarded him with surprised gratitude, then slowly nodded. "Guess we are. Yíknow," he said softly, allowing his gaze to wander to the snow-covered forest around them and the white flakes falling silently to the ground, "I was just thinkiní as I was ridingí up here, how much this reminds me of the times weíd ride home through the mountains in the winter, just the seven of us aní the falliní snow. Seemed like it was only us in the whole world, aní that was just fine. It was mighty odd," Vin continued, looking back at Chris, and his blue eyes were warm with remembrance, "but that always made me feel like there werenít anythiní in the world we couldnít lick, long as we were together..."

Chris leaned over in his saddle and nodded sadly, his eyes distant, looking at something long gone. "Yep. I remember."

Vin looked down at the worn reins in his hands, shook his head. "Sure do miss that." Then he looked up again. "Howís Buck doiní?"

Chris looked into the distance and winced. "Still the same. Been keepiní a close eye on Ďim, his drinkinís not as bad as before, but heís still lettiní the rage get to Ďim."

Vin looked away into the gently falling snow and let out a mournful grunt. "Never thought youíd be takiní care of Buck." He looked back at Chris. "Maybe itíll stop when you find Brecknell."

Ezraís head snapped up; Brecknell -- that was the name of one of the men he was to play poker with, the surly man with the sleeve gun like his own. What did he have to do with all this?

Chris was nodding. "I hope so. Donít know how much longer he can go on like this."

The snow was falling thicker now; both men sat quietly, watching the delicate flakes blanket the rough ground. Finally Vin sighed.

"Well, you tell Ďim for me," he said softly, "that when you boys do find that sonuvabitch I hope you give him hell for me."

Chris nodded somberly, a cold light in his green eyes.

Vin looked up, another thought behind his eyes. "Ever hear from Ezra?"

The gambler listened intently, but Chris was shaking his head.

"Nope, still nothing. Like he vanished or something. Guess heís too busy beiní rich to think on us anymore."

"Huh," Vin said, tilting his head. "Wouldíve thought heíd at least answer Buckís telegram."

"Said they couldnít find him," Chris replied. "Canít find his mother either. Guess they just donít want to be found."

Vin grunted. "I always thought he had a lot of grit under that fancy exterior. But it donít seem right of him to forget his friends like that."

Chris scowled as he sat up. "Donít reckon we ever were his friends, Vin. He preferred to go it alone, aní thatís what heís doiní, so I say we leave Ezra Standish where he is and solve our own problems."

His comrade looked thoughtful, nodded, then squinted at the sky.

"You better go," Vin breathed, his voice soft in the falling snow. "They might be trackiní me."

Chris turned to him. "Two make better odds than one."

"Dammit, Chris," Vin said fervently, "I canít let you go aní get yourself killed. Buck needs you, aní so do the others. Youíre all they got left to remind Ďem. Iíll be fine, I been fine for two years now, aní if I donít come back next year--"

He stopped, his expression stricken; Chrisís was too, as both men realized the possibility that they might never meet again. Vin swallowed and continued, his voice stronger now.

"If I donít come back youíll know I went down fightiní."

They stared at each other in silence, each man knowing the wisdom of Vinís words but fighting to accept it. Finally Chris drew in a fierce, angry breath.

"Youíll come back," he said. "Youíre a Tanner."

The two men clasped arms tightly, said nothing more; but their emotions lay plain on their faces, friendship battling with grief. Vinís eyes were wet; Chrisís burned with a rage too deep for tears. Finally they separated; a last look, then Vin gave a small wave and rode quickly away into the cover of the falling snow. Chris watched him go, stood still for a long time, then muttered an oath and turned Valor around to head back down the mountain.

 

The Ghost looked at Ezra, who was watching Chris ride away in confusion as he tried to sort out what he had seen. But only one person had the answers, and he looked at the Ghost.

"Vin Tannerís hiding out in Mexico?"

"Yep," the Ghost replied casually; they began to walk through the forest, the snow falling around them. When no further explanation seemed forthcoming, Ezra came up beside him and practically grabbed him in anxiety for information.

"I donít understand," he admitted. "Whatís he doing down there? And what the devil does that Brecknell fellow have to do with all this?"

The Ghost stuck his hands into his duster pockets as he walked. "Well, for starters, there is no Charles Brecknell. His real name is Laurence Lancaster -- least thatís what his wanted posters call him."

Ezra wasnít all that surprised. "Heís on the run as well?"

"For armed robbery," the Ghost affirmed, stepping over a fallen branch. "Heís been gambliní his way from Cedar City in the Utah territory tryiní to get south. Hittiní little towns like Four Corners, tryiní not to get noticed. You takiní his kitty away when you won that money made him mighty sore."

"Yes -- but--" Ezra ducked a low-hanging limb as he tried to remember. "Didnít Mr. Jackson say I threw him out of Four Corners?"

"Sure you did, for causiní a fuss in the saloon, but none of you knew he was a wanted man, aní it didnít take long for him aní some of his pals to come back lookiní for you," the Ghost replied. "You werenít there, of course -- youíd already left for San Francisco. But the other men were, and Vin got collared by a bounty hunter during the gunfight. The other men tried to stop the hanging, a soldier got killed, Vin got away and heís been on the run ever since. It was pretty easy to pin the killing on him and up the bounty on his head to $3000."

Ezra stopped, astonished. "$3000?"

"Well, sure," the Ghost replied. "Not only is the army looking for him, every bounty hunter in the Southwest is too. So naturally, he keeps a pretty low profile. Thatís only the second time heís seen Chris Larabee in two years. So I guess that poker game produced more than your fortune, didnít it?"

Ezra felt something clutch at his throat as he turned wide eyes towards the Ghost. "You mean, all this has happened because of that accursed poker game?"

The Ghost folded his arms and looked up before turning his gaze back to Ezra, as if trying to explain a complicated matter to a small child. "No, Ezra, it wasnít the poker game, it was what you did after the poker game. You were already planning to leave when you returned to Four Corners that Christmas and found out about Toshi. But by the time you got out to the village, the boy was dead."

Ezra let out a soft moan, picturing himself riding into the village and finding himself too late to help. He could almost see the kid, waiting for him as Ezra had waited for his mother when he was a child; Ezraís hope was doomed to disappointment, and he had always felt sorry for himself over it, but Toshi had suffered a far crueler fate.

"So, after that happened," the Ghost went on, "you decided to bury the pain and guilt by turning to your old standby, gettiní rich. You still had the money, and the chance, so rather than try to deal with the situation, you decided to leave. You thought if you got rich enough fast enough the pain would go away, that money was the only reliable cure; you didnít need the other men to help, in fact you decided it was better to avoid further hurt and cut yourself off from them altogether. And you left, and they had one less gun to guard their backs when Brecknell and his men showed up."

He waved his arm after Chris and Vin. "I donít suppose the lives of these men matter all that much as long as you were comfortable and made your pile."

"Well," Ezra sputtered, "I certainly wouldnít have wished this on them. They may be a tad uncouth and uncivilized, but they are honorable men -- I know Tanner would never kill a Federal soldier."

"He didnít," the Ghost remarked, turning to Ezra, "someone else killed that man, but who cares? Itís blood they want, not justice. The kind of justice you men fought for once, before that gunfight changed everything. And Iím not just talking about Tanner, either."

Ezra gulped. "Thereís more?"

"Oh, yes," the Ghost grinned. Ezraís eyes grew wide and he took a step backwards.

"I refuse to go on," he said, a tremor of fear in his voice. "Iím starting to doubt the veracity of this, this canít possibly all be because of me."

"Thatís an easy attitude to take, Standish," the Ghost said; the snow was blinding now. "Easy, but wrong, and if you donít see it all youíll never understand how wrong it is."

The snow slowed, then stopped; the white curtain melted away to reveal the Four Corners cemetery. The sun was well on its way to the western horizon; the clouds had parted enough to allow for a dazzling winter sunset ablaze with pinks and purples. Ezra looked around, puzzled; what were they doing back in Four Corners? The area was completely deserted, and he was about to turn to the Ghost and voice his question when a faint voice reached his ears.

"Itís Christmas again, kid."

Ezra whirled, shocked; that sounded like Buck, but where was he? Searching the graveyard, he finally saw a dark form seated next to one of the newer headstones, tucked away in the corner. Curious, Ezra moved closer, fighting down an increasingly painful anticipation of what he would find; but he had to know.

As he drew closer, he saw that Buck was looking rather peaked and worn; the face was thinner, and had lost its youthful ardor Ezra had always known it to possess. Buck was sitting casually, knees drawn up, hands barely crossed over them; but his eyes were red, and his voice low and laden with deep grief. When Ezra got close enough to read the tombstone it confirmed his worst fears, and he gripped the fenceposts in horrified realization.

The sharply chiseled letters read JONATHAN DANIEL DUNNE 1860-1880.

"Oh my God," he whispered, as he deciphered the scene. He turned anguished eyes to the Ghost, who only watched him impassively.

"How could you be so heartless to show me this?" he demanded, his throat burning with grief and rage. The Ghost remained calm.

"Now how is this heartless, Standish?" he asked in surprise. "You men werenít friends or anything, right? Just a bunch of hired guns. I thought youíd be curious, thatís all. Didnít think youíd actually give a damn."

Ezra found he was trembling; my God, JD was dead, the kid didnít deserve that, what happened? Before he could ask any questions Buck began to speak again, and Ezra listened closely, hoping for some answers.

"Donít know if itís Christmas where you are, kid, if youíre anywhere," Buck was saying quietly, and Ezraís heart ached at the lost tone in his voice. "Sure hope you are, but I donít reckon I really believe in that anymore. Josiah says you are, but he donít sound so sure either. But hell, even if you canít hear me, it wonít hurt none to just set aní talk to you for a while. You donít mind neither way, right?"

He paused, looked down, drew a breath. "We all still miss ya somethiní awful, kid. Still donít seem possible that we wonít never have to keep you from goiní aní gettiní yourself into trouble. Used to drive me up a wall with them crazy dime-novel notions of yours. God, JD," he dragged one hand roughly across his eyes. "I sure could use some of them notions right now, cause the real-life ones ainít too good."

Ezraís trembling grew worse; he turned to the Ghost and grabbed his coat. "Get me out of here."

The specter threw him an angry glance. "Are you going to disrespect his grief by pretending it wonít exist if you canít see it?"

The gambler was speechless, unwilling to admit that his own grief was threatening to overwhelm him. Heíd kind of liked JD; despite the boyís occasionally annoying inexperience, he had an innocent bravery which Ezra found refreshingly different from the types of men he usually encountered in his travels. He could still remember his grudging admiration the day Judge Travis walked into the Four Corners saloon and asked for a volunteer to be sheriff; Ezra had ducked down and tried not to be noticed, but JD had stepped forward without hesitation, ignoring the danger, his eyes shining with excitement, ready for whatever lay ahead, while Ezra stayed in the shadows.

Ezra recalled that he had been trying to convince JD that they should all move on; the boy seemed genuinely disappointed that they were splitting up, an attitude which Ezra found both naive and oddly touching. Of course, once he became sheriff, JD had arrested him on the Judgeís orders for bail jumping at Fort Laramie, and Ezra had been pretty sore about that, but he had to admire the boyís courage, because Ezra knew the answer when Travis asked if the boy was the only brave man in the bar that day. Now, just like Toshi, he was gone, and listening to Buckís mourning only worsened the horrible, unfamiliar feeling in Ezraís own gut.

"Sorry, kid," Buck sniffed loudly, trying to compose himself. "I -- I reckon youíd like to know, Chris aní me, weíre still lookiní for the bastard that done this to you, aní we ainít gonna stop til heís put away for good. You got my blood oath on that, kid. Brecknellís gonna rue the day he gunned you down."

Ezraís blood froze; Brecknell again?

"I know youíd hate it, JD," Buck was saying, taking off his hat and running one shaking hand through his black hair, "but I canít stop dwelliní on the day you got hit. Chris aní the others, theyíre tryiní to help, but they canít do nothiní. Cause the only thing thatíd really help is for you..." he paused, his throat constricting; he fought a hitching sob, struggled to talk, "...is for you to be sittiní there in the sheriffís chair when I walk in to the jail, lookiní ready to take on the world in that dang stupid hat. Remember the fights weíd have over that hat? You said youíd never change it cause Bat Masterson wore one just like it. God, kid," he sighed, lifting his tear-stained face to the sky, "far as Iím concerned you had Bat beat all to hell."

Ezra listened in anguish; more than once he had to restrain himself from trying to help Buck, realizing that there was nothing he could do. He had never seen Buck -- or anyone, really -- so distraught. Throughout his life Ezra had made it a point to avoid such intense emotions -- they clouded the mind and affected the judgment, after all -- but here he was forced to face them, and the depth of Buckís grief struck Ezra to his soul. Of all the men, Ezra had felt closest to the good-natured gunslinger, and to see him transformed into the bitter, angry person before him twisted something in Ezraís stomach. He found himself grieving not only for JD, but for Buck as well, for it was obvious that the Buck Wilmington he had known had been dead for two years as well.

So intent was Ezra on his reverie that he didnít notice the approach of Chris Larabee; but suddenly there he was, standing in the cemetery close to Buck, watching silently, waiting for the proper moment to speak. Buck finally noticed him too; he lifted his head but didnít look at him.

"Chris," he said simply, sniffing.

"Buck," was the quiet reply. "Want me to come back?"

"Uh--" Buck looked around, as if he wasnít sure where he was. "Uh, no, Iím -- Iím OK. Itís just -- just such a goddamned shame."

He wiped his face with the bandanna but didnít rise, just sat next to the grave for a moment.

"JD wouldnít want you to keep beatiní yourself up like this," Chris observed.

Buck laughed, an ugly, hollow sound. "Yeah, I know. Heíd say, címon now, Buck, none of them men in the novels ever acted this way. But I -- I just keep thinkiní Chris, that there was somethiní I coulda done -- if weíd just known Brecknell had that sleeve gun--"

Ezra felt himself go completely numb.

"Donít go blaminí yourself for that, Buck," Chris urged. "There was no way any of us coulda known about that. It wasnít your fault he used it when JD tried to arrest him."

Buck shook his head, becoming agitated. "Well, it might not have been my fault, Chris, but it was my arms that boy died in, aní it was my hands that dug his grave, aní I ainít never gonna forget seeiní him put in the ground if I live to a thousand. So donít even try helpiní me. I canít be helped."

Chris stood silent; Ezra was stunned at the bitterness in Buckís voice. Finally the black-clad gunslinger cleared his throat, his expression hesitant.

"You been drinkiní again, Buck?"

Buck shot the black-clad gunslinger a savage look and staggered to his feet, his face turning red with fury.

"God damn you, Chris Larabee," he hissed, coming to within an inch of his old friendís face, "God damn you for even THINKINí Iíd come to the boyís grave drunk. I oughta blow your brains out for sayiní it." And he drew back and took a swing at Chris; the other man blocked it, and grappled with the gunslinger for a moment, ending up in a rough embrace.

Buck clutched at Chris, his anger spent but his grief still tearing at him, as the two men slowly sank to their knees in the frozen dust. Chris was steadying Buck, trying to keep him from falling as the trembling gunslinger made an effort to gather himself back together. Ezra watched, feeling drained himself; he had never seen Larabee so gentle with any human being before.

"Just worried about you, thatís all," Chris said in a low voice. "Címon now, Buck? Buck? You know Iíd never think youíd hurt JDís memory. But I know what grief can do to a man -- eat out his soul from the inside til thereís nothiní left. Donít turn that grief on yourself, Buck, listen to me. Turn it on Brecknell, and save it for when we catch him, and then you can give it all to him, for JD."

Buck choked a few times, then sniffed loudly and drew himself up, detaching himself from Chrisís arms. He sat back on his heels and wiped his eyes with his bandanna, nodding as he cleared his throat.

"Yeah, youíre right, Chris," he whispered in a tear-roughened voice. "Sorry, I just... forgot who to get mad at, for a second there."

Chris placed his hand consolingly on Buckís back as he stood. "Itís OK, Buck, I know. if you donít want to come to Nettieís weíll understand."

Buck shook his head as he stood, his knees still a little shaky. "No, no, Iím OK. JD, heíd want Casey to know his friends ainít gonna desert her, or Nettie neither. Aní besides, I ainít ashamed to say you boys are all thatís keepiní me goiní now, that aní puttiní Brecknell to an early, painful death."

His friend smiled a bit. "Then I reckon weíd best eat first."

They walked out of the cemetery towards the horses. Buck looked at Chris. "Did you see Vin?"

"Yup." The muscles in Chrisí jaw twitched.

"He OK? You tell Ďim weíll be up tonight?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah, but be careful, Vin thinks they might be tailiní him. I told Ďim after we took care of Brecknell weíd join him in Mexico. Maybe Josiah can come too, but I donít want to ask Nathan to leave Rain."

They reached Valor and Beauty, and prepared to mount up.

"Hell, Chris," Buck said as he put one foot in the stirrup, "Nathan ainít gonna stay behind on this."

"Guess youíre right," Chris agreed as he swung himself up and gathered his reins. "Spose itíll almost be like old times."

Buck was in his saddle; he glanced at the tombstone shining in the light of the soft pink winter sunset, and his face grew dark.

"I donít think so, Chris," he said quietly, and tipped his hat in the direction of the grave before turning Beauty around and riding up the empty street. Chris glanced first at Buck, then at the cemetery; Ezra saw his expression turn to one of respect mingled with an almost uncontrollable sadness as he looked back at JDís quiet resting place. Then Chris looked at the retreating form of Buck, and the gambler could see his face take on an air of concern as he considered his friendís tenuous state. A moment of reflection, then Chris Larabee spurred Valor forward into the gathering Christmas night, and he was soon swallowed up by the wintry gloom.

Ezra watched as they were swallowed up by the falling darkness, then looked back at the cemetery, a blank expression on his face; but his eyes were filled with a numb horror. He walked slowly through the gate, across the snow-covered ground, and stood in front of JDís grave, still not able to believe that the young sheriff was dead. No, that simply wasnít possible; JD had too much life to be dead, too much ahead of him to be a cold body, lying under an uncaring blanket of dirt and snow.

But Ezra blinked, shut his eyes, shook his head. And JD was still dead.

After an eternity of staring at the horrific headstone in mounting shame, he murmured, "I could have stopped it. If Iíd just..." he swallowed, then turned anguished eyes to the Ghost, who was standing nearby. "It was me Brecknell wanted, wasnít it?"

"Of course," the Ghost replied, leaning on the rickety picket fence. "But JD did just fine as a substitute, and managing to ride off with Vin as well soothed Brecknellís pride just fine. Of course, if you had been there you could have helped the men fight off Brecknell and his group, warned JD about the gun, probably stopped Vin from getting captured. But youíd already decided that what happened to them didnít matter half as much as what happened to you."

Ezraís breath was coming in short, angry gasps as he stalked up to the Ghost. "Yes, but dammit, I never thought it would come to this! Why didnít they tell me JD was dead? Why am I not with them trying to find that bastard? I should be here now, not in San Francisco. They donít deserve this, none of them do."

The Ghost smiled. "Suddenly feeling all chummy, are we?"

The reply was an angry scowl. "Of course, damn you. These men are--"

He caught himself, surprised; was he really going to say "my friends"? Impossible, but the words were on his tongue. Why would he call them friends, they were business acquaintances only, the other men old Travis had hired with him to protect the town. When this was over, maybe before, heíd move on as he always had, nothing to keep him here certainly, these men were no different than all the others heíd run into. They were drifters like him, outcasts and vagabonds, caring for nothing beyond the next day.

But... no, that wasnít right. He couldnít say that Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and the others were like anyone heíd ever met before. They gave a damn about other people, about justice, a trait so rare in Ezraís experience that he hadnít recognized it until now, when he thought about it. Theyíd be the last to call themselves saints, certainly, but Ezra realized that when they rode together, something was there, something heíd never noticed before, intangible and undefinable but powerful beyond anything they could claim alone. It wasnít just Chris, or Vin, or Buck, it was all of them together, a combined force which moved among them and through them to bind them in a united stand against whatever they had to face. Maybe only now, as he witnessed the absence of that unity, could he see where it had existed and understand what had been lost.

He shook his head, trying to clear the confusion; something in him was aching and lost, but he didnít know what, this was all too much. He could hear his motherís voice again, the old words: Donít get close to anyone, donít accept friendship. Theyíll only die, or leave, like your father, like Amelia. Itís not worth the pain, best to stay away, why get hurt again, moneyís the only thing that lasts, that you can count on. Get rich and youíll have all the friends you need, and if theyíre not real friends so what, at least they wonít hurt you. Youíll be safe that way.

Ezra thought of what he had seen, stared at the forlorn little cemetery plot in front of him, and realized that for the first time since he could remember he didnít care if he was safe. Something far more important than his safety was in jeopardy, and he didnít understand it or even like it, but he knew it was right. Maybe he and the other men werenít really friends; they were more than that, although exactly what, Ezra couldnít say. Whatever was tying him to the others went deeper than friendship; Ezra had never had a brother, but he supposed this might be what brotherhood felt like, and the intensity of this feeling surprised him and scared the hell out of him at the same time.

He became aware that the Ghost was looking at him patiently, and he swallowed, wincing at the dryness in his throat.

"As I was saying," he continued, his voice slightly hoarse, "these men are my friends and I hardly feel that this should be the reward for all they have done."

The Ghost shrugged. "Thatís kind of out of my hands, Ezra. And itís a little late for you to give a damn. Time to do that was when you were making the decision to go to San Francisco."

A sharp wind began to blow down the street and through the bleached, broken tombstones; it seemed to pause and caress JDís gleaming marker before moving on. Ezra stared at the bleak headstone, felt an uncomfortable burning sensation crawl up his throat and try to choke him. He slowly shook his head.

"It canít be too late," he insisted. "There has to be something I can do. Please," he turned his gaze towards the Ghost, his green eyes ablaze with desperation, "tell me that I came back and helped them. Give me that reassurance, I feel as if theyíre already dead."

The Ghost looked at him somberly, took off his hat and let it hang down his back. His blond hair fell across his eyes as he looked at Ezra with a drilling glare. "The chance you had to be with these men and help them is past, Ezra. You dealt yourself out of this particular hand, content to walk away with your winnings. But only you would know how much that fortune cost you."

 

Ezra stared at him, frightened by the darkness which immediately fell around them. After a second the gloom lifted; they were somewhere on the plains, a wild, unkempt hillside of tall prairie grass and gnarled trees blasted by the desert winds. The sky was clear, and a full moon was out; its silvery rays illuminated a bleak landscape; they seemed to be on the outskirts of a small frontier town.

Nearby was a large building standing dark against the starlit sky, a few windows blinking at them with unsteady lamplight. In the distance stood a collection of smaller buildings; on the near horizon stood the mountains, their jagged peaks black and dangerous-looking in the moonlight. Nobody was about on this bitterly cold night, but the wind carried the faint tunes of a church choir singing Christmas carols; somewhere in the town, its inhabitants were celebrating. But that was far away; here there was only darkness, cold, and loneliness.

Ezra looked around, saw a few neat rows of rough polished blocks standing in the waving grass. He took a step back, horrified; they were in a graveyard, the most desolate one he had ever seen. Some of the stones had names carved on them, but many bore only the word "Unknown" and a number.

He gave a puzzled look to the Ghost. "Why are we here?"

He received a disgusted look. "Now Ezra, Iíd think even you could figure this one out."

"Donít play games with me now, dammit!" Ezra replied fiercely. "I thought you were going to show me my future."

The Ghost stood back, his green eyes boring into Ezraís soul. "Iíd love to, Ezra. Cept you didnít have one. Weíre here," he continued, raising a finger to point, "because YOUíRE here."

Ezra felt every sense in his body go numb; the Ghost was pointing to one of the nameless headstones, which one he couldnít even tell. but that didnít matter; his mind reeled, that couldnít be. He lunged forward and grabbed the Ghost by his black lapels, shaking him.

"Thatís not possible!" he screamed, against the wailing wind. "I canít be dead! They need my help!"

"They needed it when you decided to leave, too," the Ghost returned, unfazed by Ezraís action. "But after Toshiís death you didnít care, figured youíd be safer from further hurt in Frisco. You didnít think you needed anybody, and thatís why there was noone to help you when you needed it. You didnít think someone might rob you, and beat you into unconsciousness, and leave you to rot on a deserted mountain road. You didnít think that the others would never find out what happened to you, because there wasnít enough left to identify when you were found."

The Ghost pointed to the large building. "That's a hospital over there, and this is where they bury the paupers, people who die with no family or name that they know of. Every once in a while they'll find someone dead in the desert and put them here too. Like you."

Ezraís eyes were round as he heard the words; his grip loosened, and he released the Ghost, his face frozen in terror.

"Oh my God," he whispered, then grabbed the Ghost again, throttling him despite the fact that Ezra knew he couldnít harm the spirit. "Youíre lying!"

"Sorry, Ezra," the Ghost replied, with Chris Larabeeís smile, "but we ainít showed you nothing tonight but the truth. You never got to Frisco, youíve been dead for two years, and nobody ever knew. You died alone, just like you lived, and lie forgotten in a pauperís grave."

Ezra stood still for a moment, his eyes locked with the spiritís; he searched those icy green eyes desperately, but found only truth in their eternal depths. He began to shake violently; his fists loosened, then tightened once more as another question leapt to his mind.

"My mother?" he asked in a pleading, strangled whisper.

The Ghost Ďs gaze was level. "Sheís still alive, and searching for you. But sheíll never find you, and itís going to break her heart. "

Ezra let out a choking gasp and released the Ghost; he stumbled backwards a bit and looked out at the small sea of faceless markers, feeling his blood freeze in his body. So this was where his life had ended -- an unmarked grave in an unknown town, and his riches lining the pockets of a thief -- just like his former partner Henry Dodge, he realized, and shuddered. Ezra sank to his knees in the frozen grass, clutching his head in despair; and he realized that the piercing agony he felt was not due to his loss of the money, or his lonely fate. It was the idea that his decision to leave the Seven had lead to its destruction, and that there was no longer any way he could help them. The only good thing he had ever done with his life was now irretrievably lost.

Vin might be gunned down or hung; Buck might go mad with mourning and drink himself into an early grave; Chris and the others could only try to stay alive and preserve what they could of their former strength. But it would never be the same, and there was nothing Ezra could do about it. He had ridden away from the group once before, the first time they fought together; but he had reconsidered, ridden back, and helped them defeat their enemies. This time there would be no redemption, and he felt utterly damned.

An idea struck him; his head whipped up, and he clutched at the hem of the Ghostís black duster which was whipping wildly in the winter wind.

"This isnít it, is it?í he gasped, standing on his knees. "For Godís sake, tell me I can change this!"

"Course you can change it, Ezra," the Ghost replied, heedless of the icy blast and gazing at Ezra with an unrelentingly piercing stare. "Thereís always a second chance. The only time itís too late is when youíre in your grave."

The wind began to howl, the grass slicing through the air like a million sharp-tounged whips; a thick darkness descended as the stars, the moon, the town all vanished in a swirling blackness which seemed to emanate from the Ghostís black clothing. Ezra grabbed at him, terrified; was he going to be left here, without hope of erasing what he had seen? His hands closed around the spiritís garments, but they turned to smoke in his grasp and seemed to melt away; there was nothing substantial for him to hold on to, and Ezra found himself falling into the void. He let out a loud cry, thinking his heart would burst; just as it seemed that the rushing wind would deafen him and the darkness blind him forever, he slammed into something hard and cold, and let out a yell as he did so. Then he realized that he had stopped moving.

 

Something was on top of him; he flailed a bit, throwing it off, and saw that it was the fancy bedspread which had apparently fallen with him from the bed. He lay still for a moment, blinking and looking around wildly; he was lying on the cold wooden floor of his rented room above the saloon. The chamber was dim, but he could see the pearly glow of a winter morning creeping softly through the lace curtains. A sharp gasping sound reached his ears; he searched for its source in confusion until he realized it was his own ragged breathing.

Ezra sat up slowly, trembling, still partially wound in the bedspread. His wide green eyes searched the room; everything was as it should be, there were his things on the bureau, the stove, cold and dark now, the ashes of his turkey sandwich quietly rotting inside. He leaned his back against the bed and ran one shaky hand across his face; my God, he thought, was it all a dream?

He ran over the entire event, feeling his horror mount as he recalled every detail. He knew it was an insane notion, but every fiber of his soul spoke to him of the reality of what had happened. But -- he could change it now. None of that had to happen, if he could just act quick enough. He staggered to his feet, wiped the tears from his eyes as he grabbed his pocketwatch; almost nine. What if he was too late? How long had he been gone? Was it even Christmas any more?

Ezra steadied himself and went to the window; it was a beautiful clear day, just as he remembered from his vision with the Ghost of the Present. Pushing aside the curtains, he pulled up the sash and looked outside; a few people were about, and up the street he could hear the piano playing at Josiahís morning worship service.

He saw a man walking down the street, huddled against the cold. Leaning out of the window Ezra cried, "Excuse me, sir?"

The man stopped, looked up at Ezra in annoyance. "What?"

"This may sound like a foolish question, but -- it is Christmas, isnít it?"

The man looked at him for a moment, then waved him away. "Go back to bed and sleep it off, you lousy drunk!"

"No, wait!" Ezra called as the man began to walk away. "I realize how absurd this is, but I, ah, do need to know."

The man paused, sighed, and looked up at Ezra. "Course itís Christmas. You think Iíd be going to open my butcher shop at this time of the day if it wasnít?"

Ezra heaved a sigh of relief, dug a coin out of his pocket and tossed it at the man. "My thanks, sir."

The man picked up the coin, delighted now, and smiled up at Ezra. "Donít mention it. Hey -- wanna buy a goose?"

"No, thank you!" Ezra replied, and quickly closed the window. The man shrugged, pocketed the coin, and went to tell his wife about that crazy Southern guy who yelled at him from the saloon.

Ezra felt giddy with hope as he swiftly completed his ablutions; it was still Christmas, he wasnít too late, there was still time. And he knew where he had to start.

 

The activity in the saloon was already picking up as he ran headlong down the stairs, almost tripping in his agitation. He struck the bottom steps very loudly and clumsily, attracting the attention of some of the patrons. He quickly recovered upon reaching the bottom of the stairs and saw Chris and the others sitting at a corner table, enjoying a quiet drink before heading out to the hunt.

He stood for a moment, not wanting them to see him just yet, and looked at the six men talking and laughing as they sat together. A strange feeling came over him as it realized that, even if it was all a dream, what that dream told him was true; God help them, there was something there when they were together. Even across the room Ezra could feel it, because he knew he was a part of it; it reached over and drew him in, saying, you belong here, too. Here was a home that could not be destroyed, a family that would stand beside him. And maybe someday heíd understand what was behind it; for now, its mere existence was enough, and he felt almost overwhelmed with emotion.

Somebody stood up; it was JD, mug of milk in hand. "Ezra! Over here!"

Ezra staggered a little, but tried to walk as nonchalantly as he could over to the table. but he couldnít help staring at JD, who seemed honestly happy that Ezra had shown up.

"Boy, sure glad we saw you before we left this morning," JD was saying as Ezra approached. "Some of us were, um, kind of wondering if youíd changed your mind about cominí with us."

"JD, now, let the man alone," Buck said as he worked his way through a particularly hard-boiled egg. "Ezraís got the right to make his own decisions, no matter how wrong-headed they are."

JD looked back at Buck and shrugged a bit, embarrassed. "Oh, hey, I didnít mean nothiní. Honest, Ezra, I was just--" He turned back to face Ezra, and found the gambler staring at him with a very strange, joyful light in his eyes.

The young sheriff stood still for a moment, waiting for Ezra to explain, wondering if heíd done something really wrong. But Ezra didnít speak, didnít move, didnít do anything. Finally, feeling a little uneasy at the intensity of Ezraís stare, JD said defensively, "What?"

Ezra blinked. "Ah, forgive me, Mr. Dunne, itís just such a pleasure to see you looking so, um, fit."

JD laughed as he sat down. "I looked this way yesterday, Ezra. But thanks anyway, I guess."

Josiah sat back in his chair and cocked his head. "Youíre lookiní mighty inspired today, Ezra. Wouldíve liked to have you at services today."

"Yes, well," Ezra smiled, "I regret my absence, Mr. Sanchez, I had a rather... long night."

"Decide to come huntiní with us?" Vin inquired over his black coffee.

"Alas, Mr. Tanner, I cannot join you this morning," was Ezraís reply, as he scanned the room for the men he was to meet for poker. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nathan, cigar in hand, nudge Buck with a look which said, "Told you so!"

A dignified elderly gentleman came up on Ezraís right; he looked very pleased to see Ezra and extended his hand. "Ah, Mr. Standish, merry Christmas, sir. I trust you are prepared to try and win your money back today?"

Most of the other men thought they knew the answer, and had gone back to breakfast; so they were only half listening when Ezra said, "Unfortunately, sir, I will be unable to participate today. My apologies."

JDís head snapped up, followed by the rest of the men; Vin and Chris sat quietly, their eyes calmly puzzled.

"So you are cominí, then?" Nathan asked, astonished.

"Not right now, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, his voice tight as he found who he was looking for. "There are a few matters I must attend to first."

Without further explanation he strode over to the large poker table where several of the men were sitting. One of them, a dour-looking man in a beaten leather jacket, eyed Ezra suspiciously as he walked straight up to him.

"Somethingí I can do for you, Standish? Besides take more of your money, I mean?"

A few of the other men laughed, but Ezraís eyes were on fire as he glared at the man.

"As a matter of fact, there is, Mr. Brecknell -- or should I say, Mr. Lancaster," Ezra replied, his voice tight. "You may surrender yourself for arrest."

The manís head shot up and he stared at Ezra for a second. Then he bolted for the door, knocking several patrons over in his haste to escape. He had almost reached it when Ezra tackled him, and both men fell to the ground in a tangle of flailing fists. As Chris and the others leapt to their feet and rushed over, guns at the ready, they saw a derringer spring from Lancasterís sleeve, aimed at Ezraís head; but Ezra seemed to have expected it, and with one violent motion wrenched the gun from the fugitiveís grasp, pointing it straight into his face and cocking the hammer.

"Shall we try that again?í Ezra panted. He looked up as JD appeared, amazed.

"Mr. Dunne," he breathed, satisfied at the stunned look on Lancasterís face, "if you will have the goodness to telegraph Cedar City in the Utah territory I believe you will find that Mr. Lancaster here is wanted for armed robbery in their area."

JD blinked, then assumed his sheriffís air as he pulled out his guns. Ezra hauled the man to his feet and shoved him into Josiahís waiting grip.

"That was somethiní, Ezra," JD said in admiration as he prepared to follow Josiah and Lancaster to the jail. "Howíd you know he was a robber?"

Ezra shrugged. "Consider it a Christmas miracle. Oh--" he glanced at the derringer in his palm, remembered that it once was to end JDís life, and gripped it tightly in his fist before handing it to the young sheriff. He looked at JD seriously. "Be good enough to see that he doesnít get that back, would you?"

"Uh, sure," JD said, slightly bewildered, and pocketed the gun. He turned to the others. "Weíll meet you guys on the mountain."

Vin nodded. "Canít start the hunt without you, JD."

The young man smiled, then dashed out after Josiah and the felon. Buck breathed a sigh of relief.

"Whew, nice job, Ezra, sure you donít wanna come punch out a few deer for us?"

Ezra searched the poker crowd again, looking for another face. "Mr. Wilmington, Iím afraid there is a more pressing matter I must attend to... ah, am I right in thinking that one of you gentlemen is a doctor?"

The elderly gentleman looked up. "Thatís me, Mr. Standish."

"Ah." Ezra walked up to him quickly. "Sir, may I procure your services today? I have a matter of vital medical importance which must be attended to immediately. I will pay whatever you see fit, but we must hurry."

The other man considered it. "Well, I hadnít planned on practicing today. What seems to be the problem? Are you ill?"

Ezra shook his head. "Not me. Itís for a -- um, Iíve had it on good authority that there is a fever striking the Seminole village. I fear I know someone who might be affected."

Nathan looked up. "Really? Whereíd you hear that?"

"Oh--" Ezra shrugged and waved one hand, "just call it a highly reliable source." He looked back at the doctor. "Will you accompany me, sir?"

The man hesitated, then shrugged. "Very well, but I must insist on cash payment, and a good meal when I return."

Ezra was so visibly relieved that every witness wondered what could have caused him such distress. "Sir, for this favor you shall receive a meal at the finest restaurant in the territory."

Vin got to his feet. "Maybe we should all go."

"No, no," Ezra insisted, "the doctor will be quite sufficient , Iím sure. Mrs. Wells is counting on that hunt for the meat, and besides, you must all be there to instruct Mr. Dunne in the art of mountain hunting. I shudder to consider the consequences should he be unleashed on our wildlife unsupervised."

Buck thought about this and shrugged. "Well, OK, sounds good. But, are you really throwiní over your poker game?"

Ezraís eyes traveled to the men he was to play against, who were standing nearby, waiting for his answer. The thought of the money fluttered through his mind, almost a thousand dollars. Heíd never see that kind of money again probably, and part of him protested at the idea of bypassing such an opportunity.

Then he looked at Buck and the other men, who were also waiting for his reply. He cleared his throat.

"Yes, Mr. Wilmington, Iím afraid the muse of fortune will have to do without me today. I believe I shall accompany you gentlemen to Mrs. Wellsí soiree after all."

The poker players made varying noises of disappointment over the missed chance to take any more of Ezraís money and wandered back to their table. Buck and the others exchanged glances of mild surprise; Nathan seemed particularly astonished, but then they all shrugged. The man had a right to change his mind, even if it did seem all but inexplicable.

"Right, then, weíll see you at the village then, Ezra," Vin said, finishing his coffee and tying his coat. The others rose, taking final bites and gulps and muttering similar sentiments as they moved towards the door.

The doctor turned to Ezra. "I shall meet you at the livery, Mr. Standish. I must say, though, youíre a brave man to walk away from the chance to regain your fortune. You might have won quite a bit of money today."

Ezra watched as Chris and the other men filed out, felt that odd sensation of belonging again. He looked back at the doctor and smiled a bit.

"That may be so, sir, but I have a feeling that what I might have lost would have been infinitely more precious."

 

The crowd at Nettie Wellsí ranch was becoming loud and boisterous, but she never for one minute regretted inviting seven men into her small ranch house. They had overflowed the table and were seated on every chair and box available, all talking, laughing and sharing the adventures of the day. Since Ezra had missed it, JD excitedly related his first experience at mountain hunting, and seemed very pleased at the gamblerís praise for his assistance in bringing down the deer they were feasting on. Ezra also congratulated Vin on being able to kill the deer so cleanly with just a shot through the head, although he offered no explanation as to how he could have known the tracker had done this.

"Gentlemen," Josiah had intoned at the beginning of the feast, lifting his glass, "may I propose a toast of thanksgiving, that we are all able to gather here tonight healthy and whole. May the Lord see fit to do the same for us next year."

Although they were mostly hardened gunmen who had seen too much of the worldís brutality, they all agreed with this and voiced their assent as they drank the toast. JD, though, stopped to wonder why Ezra had to pause and look away for a moment before downing his glass. The gambler seemed to recover quickly, though, and JD concluded that maybe he didnít like the wine. It was a fair guess, for JD had no way of knowing that Ezra was lifting his glass to the memory of Henry Dodge, and was swearing to himself that he would not waste the chance his old friend had given him.

Ezra had been fairly reticent most of the evening, spending his time listening to the other men talk and reflecting on how thankful he was that none of the future he had witnessed would transpire. He noticed Vin and Chris sitting together quietly off to the side, not saying much, just enjoying the rare peace, and Ezra felt eternally grateful that Chris would never have to watch Vin ride away alone to an uncertain fate, perhaps never to return, all because of Ezra's selfishness. He laughed with the rest of them as Buck and JD teased each other throughout dinner, and was truly glad that the horrific image of Buck dissolving in tears and rage over JDís grave as a result of Brecknell's brutality would remain only an unrealized nightmare. He shuddered at the thought of his mother spending her remaining years in agonized wonder over his disappearance, and resolved to write her a long-overdue letter, perhaps including an invitation to visit. None of the other men had any idea why the flashy gambler looked so wistful, and guessed he was still sore about losing his money the day before.

"Boy, Ezra," Buck was saying around a mouthful of apple cobbler, "that Toshi sure seemed happy to see you."

"Yeah, he mustíve shown you that card trick of his a million times," JD added, as he dug his fork into some stuffing, being careful not to bump his arm into Buck, who was sitting very close to him in the small living room.

"Good thing you took that doctor to Ďim, tho," Nathan remarked. "That fever of his coulda been pretty bad."

Casey looked up from where she sat cross-legged on the floor, a plate of food in her hands. "Is he gonna be OK?"

"Yeah, heís a tough little feller," Vin assured her, leaning against the wall nearby with his plate. "Doc gave him some stuff aní said heíll be better real soon."

"Long as he donít bug Ezra no more," JD smiled. "I swear, Ezra, you were with him all day, itís a wonder he didnít wear you out."

Ezra had eaten silently and said nothing during this exchange, but his green eyes turned thoughtful. Finally he shrugged, affecting disinterest. "The boy has quite a bit of intelligence. Such a gift should be encouraged."

"Iíll say you encouraged it," Chris said quietly from his chair nearby. "The doctor said Toshi would've been dead by tomorrow if he hadn't treated him."

"Yeah, how about that," Nathan said with admiration, "Ezra saved a life. Maybe we should switch jobs."

Ezra gave him a skeptical glance. "Iíll stick to the tables, thank you, Mr. Jackson. I still fully intend to attain affluence someday."

"Plus itíd be awful hard to get bloodstains outta them nice duds," Josiah noted lightly as he scraped his plate.

"That, too," Ezra nodded.

Nettie appeared wiping her hands on her apron. "Casey, Iím goiní out to dump them scraps to the hogs. Do me a favor and keep an eye on things, would you, dear?"

"Yes, maíam," Casey replied, and Nettie slipped out. Ezra watched as Vin slipped out too a few moments later, and the gambler knew he was going to talk to Nettie and thank her for giving them all a place to come to for Christmas dinner. He would have to thank her himself as well.

"Hey, Ezra," JD said, looking over, "I telegraphed Cedar City like you said, aní sure enough that guy was wanted for robbiní a bank. Had a description and everything."

Ezra smiled as he lifted his drink to his lips. "Well, well. Imagine that."

"Yeah, said heís been makiní trouble in towns all over the map," JD remarked. "Good thing you knew he was there."

Ezra shrugged. "You receive the most remarkable information in my line of work, Mr. Dunne. Iím just pleased heís on his way back to Cedar City to be tried."

At this point Casey rose to her feet and quietly slipped out of the front door. Ezra noticed this and, remembering that Casey was planning to put snow down JDís back, leaned over towards Buck, who was sitting very close to the young sheriff.

"Um, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck looked at him. "Hmm?"

"I believe you may want to situate yourself a bit further from Mr. Dunne."

The other man looked confused. "Why?"

Ezra looked expectantly at the door. "Call it gamblerís intuition."

Buck scowled at him, puzzled, and didnít move.

Nathan sat back and smiled. "Well, folks, I think overall this been a right good Christmas."

"Amen, brother," Josiah said. "Even got you boys to church, aní Iíd call that a miracle all by itself."

"Itís looking really good," JD said, finishing his meal. "You shoulda been there, Ezra. Josiah an' Nathan, they got the place lookiní practically new."

"Iím sure they have," Ezra replied with a smile, remembering. "Long may it stay that way."

"Well, Iím feeliní a mite frustrated, to tell yíall the truth," Buck stated, putting down his plate. "Dayís almost over aní I ainít kissed a pretty gal once."

"You kissed Casey," JD pointed out in a slightly insulted tone. Buck grinned a bit.

"Thatís true, JD, but I was thinkiní of someone a bit more... mature."

Chris chuckled and regarded his old friend. "Buck, am I always gonna have to watch out for you?"

Buck shot Chris a defensive look. "I look on it as my Christmas duty to give the gals a little of the Wilmington charm. Might as well be generous with what I got."

Only Ezra noticed when Casey slipped back in, one hand held behind her back and a devilish gleam in her eye. He scooted away from JD a bit, then glanced at Buck, who had ignored his advice to move, and shrugged. Heíd tried, anyway.

In a lightning move Casey yanked open the back of JDís collar and dumped the snow sheíd been holding in her hand down his shirt. With a yelp JD leapt to his feet, vainly grappling for the snow and almost knocking Buck off of his chair in the process. The gunslinger flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance, but was soon sprawled on the floor, shooting Ezra a decidedly astonished look. The gambler merely shrugged, his raised eyebrows and blank expression saying, "I tried to warn you."

"Dang it, Casey!" he yelled, and catapulted after her as the other men laughed.

"This oughta be good," Nathan chuckled as he got up and headed for the porch; from outside came the shouts and squeals as the two young people began battling it out. Eager to watch the fray, they all filed outside, shaking their heads in amusement.

The winter night was crisp and cold, the black velvet sky ablaze with stars just as Ezra remembered. Casey and JD were chasing each other around the yard, laughing and falling and getting up, while the others watched from the porch.

"Thatís one way to get your winter exercise," Nathan remarked.

"Thanks, Iíve got a few ideas of my own," Buck replied.

"Looks like JD learned a few things about huntiní today," Vin noted as JD got close enough to his prey to pelt her with a large handful of snow.

Ezra looked over to see Chris standing apart, watching the snowball fight; his expression was more wistful than amused. The gambler walked over to him, Chris nodded at the happy scene.

"Tonight itís snowballs," he said softly. "Tomorrow heíll be fighting with bullets. Seems a shame nights like this one canít last."

Ezra nodded, tilted his head back to look at the starlit sky, and said nothing. he knew what Chris was thinking, that after the peace and fellowship of this day the world would intrude again, and theyíd have to return to the task of defending Four Corners from the various forms of evil that came its way.

"That is a shame, Mr. Larabee," Ezra finally drawled softly, "but I have a reason to hope that he -- that we all -- will survive. In fact," he looked at Chris and smiled, "I would bet on it."

The gunslinger gave him a puzzled smile in return, but said nothing.

Finally Nettie clapped her hands. "All right, now, thatís enough, Casey. Letís not give poor Mr. Dunne pneumonia."

Casey and JD got up, sniffling and laughing, as the men began to go back inside. Ezra was the last to go in; as he crossed the threshold he looked back, saw JD and Casey approaching the porch, exchanging smiles. He wasnít sure if the romantic interlude he had witnessed with the Ghost of Christmas Present would happen this time, but his hope that it would was enough to make him gently close the door behind him so as to allow the two their privacy.

As he did so, his thoughts turned sadly to Amelia, the girl he had rejected so long ago in St. Louis; what was she doing now, he wondered as he took his seat. He hoped that JD would not make the same mistake that Ezra had made as a young man, and his hopes were realized when it took a full three minutes for Casey and JD, both flushed and rather embarrassed, to make their reappearance.

It was nearly midnight when the men finally said their goodnights, expressing their thanks as they climbed onto their mounts. The clear sky had given way to high, silvery clouds; a few flakes drifted lazily to the whitened ground. As they waited for the last goodbyes to be said, Ezra mused on everything that had happened, and the choice he had made. It would take a long time, he knew, to accept what he had learned, going as it did against a lifetime of caution and isolation; but he also knew that he didnít have to be frightened of what lay ahead. There would be pain, and hardship, and loss -- all the things he had been convinced he was not able to handle. But what they had together, and the cause which they fought for, would endure far beyond anything he might suffer today, and he realized that he found greater peace by joining this fight than he would in a lifetime of ease and safety. Strange, that such a perilous situation would make him feel so secure, but he could not deny the fact that it did. It was a mystery indeed.

"Well, boys," Chris said as he mounted Valor and gathered up the reins, "better go get ready for another day on the job."

As they waved goodbye and headed down the road, the snow began to fall in a gentle silent shower of white. The men rode along, quietly enjoying the pure beauty of the midnight scene, Ezra glancing at Vin and remembering what the tracker had said during his vision of the future, about feeling the strength among them whenever they rode together through the snowy hillside forests. They had not gone far when Ezraís quiet voice was heard in the wintry air, as soft and lilting as the Christmas snow.

"May I suggest," he said, "that we ride home through the mountains?"

THE END

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