The Tale Of A Deed, graphic by Auburn

The Tale Of A Deed
(Old West)

by Auburn

Disclaimer: Not mine, not profiting.
Thank yous to cobalt, who beta-ed this with great patience and care and lo_rez for constant encouragement. Ladies, it wouldn't be finished if it weren't for you.


1. Virginia City, 1873

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

No Cheap Thrill,
Suzanne Vega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Damn you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Gentlemen?"

"You win, gambler," Harrison snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

The gambler raised an eyebrow at him now.

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

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

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

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

"Ante up, sir."

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

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

He had such pretty green eyes.

2. Four Corners, 1877

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

Shape of My Heart,
Sting

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

In any case, that evening, the brawl broke out down the street in the more disreputable establishment known as Digger Dan's.

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

Casually, Ezra flexed his forearm, checking the rig that held his two-shot derringer under his sleeve. A shift of his shoulders, as though he was loosening tight muscles in his neck and back, ascertained the proper fit and weight of his Colt Richards conversion in the shoulder rig he wore beneath his coat and over his shirt and vest. He didn't check the gun belt he wore. That would have meant taking a hand away from the tabletop. Besides, he knew it was there, an old familiar weight at his hip.

In addition to the guns he had a knife in one boot top and another tucked inside his vest, along with a set of lock-picks, matches, a length of fuse and a chased silver whiskey flask he'd filled with black powder.

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

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

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

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

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

Even that provisional trust was a reliance that discomfited Ezra.

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

Vin cocked his head, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Chris Larabee?"

"Yup."

"Oh, good lord," the drummer exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Shall we?"

Vin smiled and Larabee shook his head in exasperation.

"Let's go."

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

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

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

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

Ezra sighed.

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

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

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

Vin flashed a white toothed grin at him.

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra and Vin stepped inside, flanking Chris.

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

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

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

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

Ezra grinned. "Of course, sir."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, it is my idea..."

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

"Precisely."

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

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

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

"Yes sir," the cowboy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That was a rifle," Larabee said.

"Sounded like your Yellow Boy," Vin agreed.

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

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

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

Larabee shrugged. "Vin?"

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

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

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

"Yep."

"Take Ezra with you."

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

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

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

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

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

Vin met his eyes. "Nope."

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

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

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

Ezra shrugged.

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

Vin looked around once more but found no threats.

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

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

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

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

Ezra ducked his head, still smiling.

"Perhaps," he drawled. "Sometimes."

3. Four Corners, 1877

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

Under the Gun,
Molly Hatchet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The instincts that told him he was being hunted.

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

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

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

He did have his pride, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The well-trained chestnut trotted over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Mr. Standish!" she called.

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

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

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

"Trouble, fancy man?" Nettie asked.

"Maybe," Ezra answered absently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You think he's still out there?"

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

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

"That's not necessary, I can "

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

Ezra raised an eyebrow but didn't argue further.

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

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

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

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

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

"Shy, fancy man?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Madam "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed.

He needed to get back on the trail.

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

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

Ezra nodded and sipped the coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

"Ride careful," Nettie advised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Something happen?"

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

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

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

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

"And?"

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

"Yes," Chris snarled.

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

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

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

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

"The bottom of Fiddler's Ridge."

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

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

"What happened?"

"Cinch broke."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

Chris finished his trip to the back of the saloon.

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

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

He grunted at Buck and nodded to the others.

"Brother Chris," Josiah rumbled in greeting.

Nathan bobbed his head but didn't speak.

Vin grinned and drawled, "Cowboy."

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

Vin toasted him with his mug of beer.

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

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

"Some," Chris admitted.

"Will Señor Standish want anything?" Inez asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No reason you know," Nathan declared suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

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

"Leave it," Chris ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ez," Buck said.

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

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

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

Ezra shrugged.

"Coincidence, Mr. Tanner."

"Uhhuh," Vin said.

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

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

4. Four Corners, 1877

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

Rambling, Gambling Willie,
Bob Dylan

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

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

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

"H'dy," Buck replied.

Vin silently tipped his cavalry hat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's cut."

Vin grunted.

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

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

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

"Figured."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was worrisome.

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

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

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

Buck sighed.

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

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

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

Buck thought he was getting ready to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buck grinned, unperturbed. "Restaurant or saloon?"

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

They headed across the street.

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

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

"Gentlemen," Ezra drawled, seating himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vin snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Truly a relief."

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

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

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

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

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

"Cinch was half cut."

"When? How?" Chris rapped out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sorry, 'siah." JD blushed.

Even Chris smiled and Nathan laughed softly.

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

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

Ezra gave them all a mocking salute and strolled out.

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

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

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

"Brother Nathan "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buck felt his heart swell with pride.

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

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

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

"Vin's honest."

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

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

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

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

"In a minute," Chris said.

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

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

"When you're taller than me."

"Shit."

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

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

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

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

Nathan dipped his head in acknowledgement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, this was turning ugly fast.

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

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

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

"Any time, Ez."

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

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

"Ezra..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Joe Jones," Heidegger intoned.

Buck snorted.

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

Ezra met Vin's gaze expressionlessly.

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

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

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

Buck groaned.

"Ezra."

"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"

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

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

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

Ezra looked startled by that thought, but nodded.

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

"Thank you, Vin," Ezra murmured.

"The jail?" Buck asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris glanced over the letter.

"Sonovabitch."

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

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

Ezra blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra straightened up, frowning.

"And I have no idea why."

5. Four Corners, 1877

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

Solitaire,
Suzanne Vega

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

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

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

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

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

"Huh?"

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

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

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

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

"Thank you, Mr. Hopper."

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra glanced at it and covered a flinch.

"Ez?"

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

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

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

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

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

The one who was turning into Bucklin's grocery.

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

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

Ezra ignored him.

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

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

"Indeed," Ezra agreed complacently.

"Soooo?" Vin teased.

Ezra rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazard bobbed his head up and down. Ezra chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half-wild.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nope."

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

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

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

"I could eat some," Vin allowed tranquilly.

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

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

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

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

They were the first ones in the restaurant.

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

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

Ezra grimaced theatrically. "I suppose I must."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep."

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

Vin nodded.

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

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

"Nope."

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

"Likes me," Vin said.

"I can't imagine why."

Vin grinned at him.

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

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

"Hey, boys."

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

Ezra sniffed delicately and raised his eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra sniffed again.

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

He started to rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra didn't look up from his cards.

"Apparently."

"Crap."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We stick together," Vin explained.

Ezra sighed.

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

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

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

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

Somehow, Ezra read the same thing from their faces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You've got jail duty tonight."

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

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

Buck shrugged.

"Josiah?" Vin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris nodded, almost smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

"Fine. Ask Ezra."

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

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

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

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

Mary wrote that down and waited expectantly.

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

Buck took pity on them all.

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

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

"That's enough," Chris snapped.

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

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

"I see."

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

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

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

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

Vin snickered.

"As a good Christian "

Chris laughed harshly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

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

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

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

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

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

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

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

So the cards told him.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

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

He turned over the other hands he'd dealt.

A heart flush, no face cards.

Aces and kings.

Four eights and the Queen of Hearts.

He scooped up the cards and shuffled again.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

Thrip, thrip, thrip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra gave the kid a shrewd look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I want to," JD said.

"You're falling asleep."

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

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

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

Ezra chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no one wanted their daughter to marry one.

God damn the Godwins.

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

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

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

"I wanna talk to you, Ezra."

"You are," he said dryly.

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

Ezra shrugged indifferently. "Really?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You ain't better than me."

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

"Josiah tole me what ya done last night."

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

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

Ezra laughed.

"I stole nothing from that man."

"Ya stole his life!"

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

"So you say," Nathan declared scornfully.

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

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

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

"JD wouldn't arrest ya."

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

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

It made him tired.

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

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

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

A grimace of fury took over Nathan's features.

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

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

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

"We come from the same place."

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

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

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

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

Nathan's chest heaved.

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

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

"I's a slave!"

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

"You's still white."

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra dropped to his knees.

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

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

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

"Goddamn Southerner!" Nathan shouted at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"JD," Ezra interrupted him.

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

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

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

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

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

"You sure, Ez?"

"Completely," he assured.

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

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

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

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

"Ez?"

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

"Ez?"

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

"It's over, JD."

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

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

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

*******

6. Four Corners, 1877

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

Solitaire,
Suzanne Vega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Brother Ezra."

Ezra didn't look up.

"Mr. Sanchez."

"You're up early."

Ezra turned a page.

"Remarkable observation."

Josiah closed his eyes.

"Son "

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

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

"I'm sorry, Ezra."

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

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

Ezra progressed to the next page.

"Is there something else, Mr. Sanchez?"

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

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

"I know."

"You're not making it easy."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Maude's here?"

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

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

Ezra grimaced. "Is there any doubt?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And Mr. Sanchez!"

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

Maude waved her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of course," he agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josiah almost choked on a mouthful of coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maude nodded piously.

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

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

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

"Ezra," Josiah admonished.

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

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

Josiah pointed at him. "Show some respect."

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

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

He gave the younger man a jaundiced look.

Ezra offered a small, tight smile.

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

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

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

Ezra shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I tried that, remember?"

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

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

Maude ignored her son's remark and went on blithely. "As it happens, the investors I sold part ownership to have defaulted and I find myself in possession of the Standish Tavern again." She turned a bright smile on both men. "I thought that I would offer it to you, darlin', for a small price."

A small price. Josiah shook his head. Only Maude would consider that a way of making amends to anyone. Though as a gesture toward acknowledging Ezra's desire to stay in Four Corners, it did count for something. Ezra, though, looked unimpressed.

"I'm no longer interested, Mother."

Josiah frowned. What had Maude said? A bounty? Someone wanted Ezra dead? He'd missed something or been left out. The anger that always burned like a low flame inside Josiah flared a little higher.

"Ezra?" Josiah inquired curiously. "What bounty?"

Carelessly, Ezra said, "Apparently that fool I shot had been hired to effect my demise."

"Why wasn't I told?" Josiah knew his voice was rising. Several other diners were staring at them now and the waitress, poor little Delia, was twisting her hands in her apron.

"You were hors de combat by the time Misters Larabee, Tanner, Wilmington and I searched the fellow's room and discovered the evidence. It's a trifling matter, in any case."

He slammed his palm down on the table, making everything on it jump. "Trifling!"

"Mr. Sanchez, please, you are makin' a scene," Maude reproved. "Ezra is perfectly capable of dealin' with the sort of ruffians who hire themselves out in such a manner."

Josiah wanted to object that if Ezra was in trouble all of his friends would be there to help him. He guessed neither Standish would take that into account. Maude had made certain Ezra didn't believe anyone would ever offer help without attaching a price to it. Especially his mother. Little or nothing in life had proved Maude's teachings wrong.

"Is that what you're thinking, that you'll just run away?" Josiah asked instead.

Ezra went still.

"Of course," he answered smoothly. "It's what my sort do." He offered an empty smile. "That's what I did when I left you all at the Seminole village when we met, isn't it?" The smile got colder. "I wouldn't expect anyone of you to risk your necks for mine. It would only be a good way to end up dead."

The soft light flooding in through the wavering, dust-streaked glass of the windows over the neat, calico half-curtains caught in Ezra's left eye, striking through the translucent, pale green iris. After a second, he angled his face away just enough that the illumination no longer caught in his eye.

"So you're just giving up on whatever you could have here?" Josiah demanded.

"Why not? Even Lee surrendered."

Maude drew in a hard breath. "Ezra, don't "

Ezra turned toward her and murmured softly, "My apologies, Mother. There's no use fightin' a war that's already over, I know." He caught up her hand and held it.

Maude squeezed his hand. "Do you know who has offered the bounty?"

"I've learned a name, but it means nothing to me. We both know one man wealthy enough to hire my death, though."

She paled and looked down at the wedding ring Ezra wore. Ezra looked too then met her gaze. She tightened her grip. "I'm sorry."

"You were right."

They were completely ignoring Josiah, caught up in some past that he would never be privy to.

"You should listen to me more."

Ezra dipped his head, and said, "I'm a grown man, Mother. I know what I want and what I can have."

Maude brushed her gloved fingertip across the gold band and straightened. "She was no good, Ezra."

"Fool's gold," he agreed, but he looked lost for a moment.

"It's time you moved on," Maude declared.

Ezra nodded, the glint returning to his eyes. "You're right, Mother. That's why I'm not interested in investing in the saloon now."

Maude pursed her lips. "After all the times I've begged you to leave this burg...."

"You're leaving," Josiah accused.

The gambler turned toward him and said flatly, "I don't wish to be tied to any place currently. It was all just a passing fancy." He shot his cuffs and then folded his pale hands together on the checkered tablecloth before him. "An... experiment."

Maude's mouth fell open, then her eyes began to sparkle. Josiah felt that sick twinge in his belly again. He was surprised when Maude's face set.

"Don't be foolish, Ezra. You're just saying that to assuage your pride, pretending you don't want something because I took it away from you. I know we can come to an agreement on price. If you don't have the funds in cash, there are always bits of collateral. Mining shares, land deeds."

"I don't think so." Ezra seemed to dismiss the matter. He lifted the lid on the teapot in front of Maude and studied the contents. "This looks rather strong, Mother. I can't imagine you want any more. Why don't I escort you back to the hotel? I'm sure you'll want to refresh yourself there before joining me again this evening."

Maude sighed. "Of course, darlin'. We'll talk some more when you take me to dinner."

Josiah scraped back his chair and stood when Ezra helped Maude to her feet. He dipped his head. "Mighty fine seein' you again, Missus Ashendon. I hope you talk some sense into your boy's head here. Ezra, you listen to her." He would do everything he could to convince Ezra to buy the saloon from Maude.

This was her peace offering. She had obviously realized that Ezra had found a home in Four Corners and wanted to help him keep his place here. Ezra would never accept the saloon as a gift, nor could Maude ruin her own image by offering it, but the price was a pretense anyone could see through. It warmed Josiah's heart. He would make Ezra see this for the opportunity it was: the chance to make peace with his mother.

Ezra rolled his eyes.

"Oh, Ezra will see things my way sooner or later," Maude asserted lightly. "I am his mother, after all." She threaded her arm through Ezra's and swept out, head held high.

Ezra nodded to Josiah and allowed himself be drawn away.

Josiah sat back down and asked the waitress to fetch him a bowl of beans and cornbread. He needed something to fill his belly and he needed to think.

Ezra wanted to leave. He couldn't let that happen. If any of them left, everything would fall apart. And the bounty... something had to be done about the bounty. It was bad enough Vin had $500 dollars on his head; they didn't need killers coming after Ezra too. Ezra and Maude knew who had offered it he would just have to get it out of one of them.

Josiah winced again at the thought. Getting anything out of Ezra that he didn't want to reveal wouldn't be easy. He would try to get his answers from Maude first.

Ezra couldn't leave. Maude's appearance and offer of the saloon was proof his destiny was in Four Corners. Ezra belonged with them. Josiah's redemption depended on Ezra and the other five. It was destiny that brought them all together.

Josiah knew that was superstitious. But since the day the crow that symbolized all his guilt had looked him in the eye and he'd gone to ride with six other unlikely men to save a bunch of transplanted Seminoles from ex-Confederate outlaws, he'd felt it in his heart. They all belonged together; as long as they were, they couldn't be defeated.

He believed in destiny.

*******

7. Peyton's Ford, July 1863

The Minstrel Boy to war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him;

The Minstrel Boy,
Thomas Moore
[vi]

They let the horses go at an easy pace and took a half-overgrown path instead of the wide, tree-lined road that ran up to Peyton's Ford. Ezra wore his gray Confederate uniform, despite having formally resigned his commission with the artillery after Fredericksburg. Saville wore a gray riding coat and doeskin breeches. Wisps of ground fog still clung low on the grass in the hollows as the dawn burned the mist into incandescent white fire, promising another hot summer day.

The day before had been hot. Sweat slid down Ezra's back under the gray wool uniform as he stood with the Peytons and Meriwethers and Claibornes in the family plot, watching as his brother Raleigh was buried.

He did his best to hold his gaze steady, knowing most of them were wondering why he'd survived, the unwanted bastard, while Raleigh had not. He didn't want to look down, he didn't want to think about his older brother going into the dark, wet soil of the grave. It didn't matter that the body he'd escorted home had been gently washed by loving hands, dressed and laid within that carefully shaped coffin. Ezra had already seen too many bodies, bodies in windfalls and rows, stripped and left swollen and pale on the parched clay of battlefields that once yielded other crops. He knew death like another brother now, the sick reek of it that could not be washed away no matter how many canteens he emptied. Raleigh was dead and death didn't care that he'd been anyone's favorite son. Death was like the hot sun burning the bare back of his neck: it touched everyone.

Death didn't care, but the Peytons did, he understood. Miz Vertilene stood straight and fierce in her mourning black, hot green eyes glaring at him across the grave. She'd never approved of her son giving any place to his bastard. His father and Geraldine stood next to her, eyes locked on their eldest son's coffin. The girls, Flavia, Octavia, and Livia, had stood just behind, eyes red-rimmed from tears. With them was cousin Polly Meriwether. Polly was the only one who would meet his eyes when Ezra arrived escorting Raleigh's body home.

All the other cousins and kinfolk who weren't with Lee's army or in Richmond like his mother flanked them.

Ezra found himself cataloging them, picking out the missing. There beside Geraldine was her sister Eloise and Eloise's husband Hayden Claibourne. The Claibournes were dull as dirt according to his mother. Of course, she'd never forgiven Eloise for introducing her to his father. Cousins Lally, Rolly, and Stephan stood with their parents. Rolly wore Confederate gray just like Ezra did and was on leave from J.E.B. Stuart's command in the Confederate Army of the Potomac.

Just behind Ezra's father were his uncle Gaillard Peyton and Gaillard's son Ned, both in crow-black suits. There was a still new grave next to Gaillard's wife's that held his second son Jonas, killed at Bull Run. Ned and Jonas's brother Birch was gone too, and no one knew if he was alive or not; Birch had enlisted with the Federals. Cousin Delphine was holding Ned's hand and her face was pale. Her brother stared straight ahead, showing no great emotion, as befitted a stoic gentleman.

Who else was gone? Polly's brother Thomas had bought a commission and fallen at the Battle of Fair Oaks, where the Confederate dead lay until Union details pushed them into trenches and buried them so shallowly the rain at night uncovered them again. Thomas had been a kind young man, gawky and freckled and awkward, as though he'd given over his share of attractiveness to his exquisite little sister. Ezra would have traded any of the Claibournes for him.

On Ezra's side of the grave, Uncle Saville stood next to Missus Howard the only Howard attending. The Howards were like the Standishes, though: they'd rather burn in hell than share the afterlife with the Peytons and Meriwethers. Missus Howard's husband had sold out and fled Fauquier County when she left him for Uncle Saville. Cousin Saville was standing next to him. From the corner of his eye, Ezra could see he was staring straight at Polly. The sun was bright on his unruly blond head.

Saville actually looked more like a Standish than Ezra did, he reflected moodily, more than he looked like a Peyton anyway. Since he wasn't really a Howard, he must have taken after his mama's people. Missus Howard was from Georgia, so no one knew for sure. Not the way everyone knew about Ezra's mother's family.

There was one other not in attendance. Ezra sighed. Brother Quentin, the new heir to Peyton's Ford, was still passed out in his bed, after visiting the slave barracks and drinking corn whiskey all night.

Ezra slid his eyes sidewise, watching the old reverend intoning solemn praise for Raleigh's bravery and virtue. He could almost predict which Bible passages the man would use and silently mouthed them as they were read.

He felt sick to his stomach and light-headed. He locked his knees and refused to let himself sway or waver. When was the last time he'd eaten a real meal, anyway? Days ago, it seemed, just before the wound fever finally stole Raleigh away and he'd had to tie the body to Raleigh's horse and ride hard to reach the Ford before it turned.

He was relieved he'd resigned his commission in order to take Raleigh home, instead of just taking a furlough. He couldn't bear to return to the artillery regiment again. He was an officer, but he didn't want to command anyone. He didn't want to be tied to cannon and limber, sending grapeshot and cannister into the ranks of the enemy, while the battle swirled around him. Artillery was too slow and the effects too horrific for him.

Saville grabbed his elbow and drew him away as the service drew to its conclusion. Ezra let himself be led away from the plot, down the low hill to the house and out back, where beech and oak trees older than their divided nation provided cool shade. He ended up leaning back against the rough bark of an oak's trunk, his eyes closed.

"What are you going to do now, Ezra?" Saville asked.

Ezra didn't open his eyes.

"I don't know," he admitted.

Saville's voice was light and uncertain. "I've been thinking of joining. I'd like to go with you."

Ezra slitted his eyes open. "I'm not going back," he said. He plucked at the gray sleeve on his uniform tunic. "I resigned my commission, you see." He smiled wanly. "I shouldn't even be wearin' this."

Saville sighed and looked back toward the house. The soft sound of muffled, well-bred voices whispered from the parlor and veranda as mourners tendered their regrets to the Peytons. Even in the midst of mourning, there would be young men trying to spark with Polly and the other girls. Ezra leaned his head back, feeling the harsh bark bite against his skull through his hair. It was a tiny discomfort and he almost relished it, because he could end it in an instant. Not like Saville's hopeless devotion to Polly.

He thought he should go inside, just to the kitchen, and get something to eat, but couldn't summon the pluck to face anyone besides Saville. They'd always been close, whenever Maude dropped Ezra back with the Peytons. Both bastards and only tolerated on the fringes of the family, their place made clear from the first. They were to behave as gentlemen, but they never would be.

"Mother's in Richmond," he said, trying out the idea out loud. She wanted him to join her there. They could make their fortunes there, even if the Confederacy failed. Desperate and greedy people made for rich pickings according to her. He supposed she was right, but it sounded very much like war profiteering to Ezra. "She wrote me; she wants me to help her."

He didn't have to explain any more. Saville was the only one who really knew what Maude did. Ezra had explained it all to his cousin while teaching him all the tricks of a riverboat gambler; Saville had wanted to know where he'd learned to play cards like that.

So Ezra had explained about his mother being sent to live with kin in Mississippi to hide her shame until he was born and how she had sent him back to the Peytons and run off with a riverboat gambler. He hadn't even recognized her the first time she swept back into his life, wanting to use him in a con. But she'd taught him all her gambler's tricks and more besides, providing a very different education to the one he'd picked up along with his legitimate brothers. Saville, and only Saville, knew that Maude expected Ezra to always be ready to go with her and help with her latest schemes.

Saville nodded glumly. "Father won't buy me a commission. Mama doesn't want me to go. I suppose I'm stuck here...."

"At least you can stay," Ezra said morosely. He knew the Peytons blamed him for Raleigh's death, even though he'd done everything he could to get his brother back to Fauquier Country alive. Somehow, they thought sending Ezra to war with him would spare Raleigh; that any wounds would be visited on him. Raleigh wasn't the one who was supposed to die.

Saville just looked miserable.

Ezra levered himself away from the oak, deciding he really did have to eat soon. He knew Hera and Cassiopeia were still in charge of the kitchens. The black cook and the housekeeper would feed him until he burst if he slipped in and asked. He brushed awkwardly at the back of his uniform, trying to knock of any clinging bark.

"Here," Saville said, plucking a bit out of Ezra's hair.

"Thank you."

"We going inside now?"

"One thing I have learned," Ezra said grimly, "is to never waste the opportunity to eat a good meal. You wouldn't like rations, Saville. Abominable stuff, not fit to be called food." When there were rations, he didn't add. Soldiers learned to forage quickly when their supplies ran out.

Saville settled in beside him as he headed for the summer kitchen.

"The partisans quarter with folks all over the county and over in Loudoun, too," Saville commented. "I bet they eat fine."

Ezra stopped and raised an eyebrow at his cousin. "Mosby's partisans?"

Saville's blue eyes sparkled as he nodded. "You could join if you resigned your commission, Ezra. Some boys ride with him that are just on furlough. I know they'd take you, you've got your own horse and gun and you know Fauquier as good or better than anyone else. You were even an officer, that's got to count."

Ezra laughed. "I was an officer by courtesy, Saville." He studied Saville and shook his head. "This is what you've been angling toward since you brought me away, isn't it?"

Saville had the grace to look abashed. "I wouldn't have mentioned it if you had told me you were going back to the regular army, Ezra, really. I'm going to join them. It would just be so much better if you came with me."

Ezra scrubbed his hands over his face and into his hair, disarranging it completely. He felt tired and achy and a million years older than Saville. He might be only sixteen years old, but Fredericksburg had burned the last of his youth out of him. He'd helped rain fire down on the Federals from Marye's Heights, until the slaughter made him kneel and vomit, and then he'd gone back to the cannon and helped load it again.

Saville just didn't know. Ezra had to look away. He didn't know, but once he joined Mosby's rangers, he'd learn the same way Ezra had. For every instant of glory, there were a hundred graves.

"Ezra?"

John Singleton Mosby already had quite a reputation, not just in the Old Dominion, but all through the South and even in the North. Saville would fit right in with his men and still have a chance to check in on Polly periodically. It wouldn't hurt to watch out for him, though; he could ride along when Saville went to join up, make up his own mind when he met some of the rangers. It sounded better than Richmond.

"When do you want to leave?" he asked.

"Tomorrow morning. I hear Major Mosby is gathering the rangers outside Rectorstown."

Ezra thought of Miz Vertilene and Geraldine's glares and shuddered. One night was about all he could endure of that anyway.

"All right," he said.

Polly was the only one who saw them off in the dim, chilled pre-dawn. She was wrapped in a heavy shawl, with her dark red hair in a long braid as she stood on the porch. Ezra had his saddlebags and bedroll slung over his shoulder and a burlap sack of sandwiches and supplies provided by Cassiopeia in one hand. He kissed her cheek gently before going down the steps.

Saville kissed her cheek as well and whispered something that made Polly blush furiously. Surreptitiously, she slipped something into Saville's hand. Ezra pretended not to see.

"Come home safe," Polly whispered.

"Don't worry, Polly," Saville said confidently. "We'll teach those bluebellies to stay off our land. They'll never catch Maj. Mosby. We'll be fine."

"Ezra?" she called.

Ezra shrugged and smiled at her. "Saville's lucky and I'm smart," he said lightly. "I expect we'll show the Federals a thing or two."

"I'll pray for you both," she said, wrapping her shawl closer around her.

"It's never amiss," he said and headed for the barn. Behind him, Saville and Polly spoke a moment longer, then his cousin rushed to catch up with him.

One of the barn slaves, Herodotus, had Ezra's Peach and Saville's half-Tennessee Walker Shep saddled and waiting. They were almost the only horses left in the barns, except for his father's aging hunter, the plow horses, and a carriage team. All the breeding stock had been sent into the hidden hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains with trusted caretakers, kept out of the hands of either army.

"They's all set to go, Mistah Ezra," Herodotus said, stroking Peach's silky neck fondly.

"Thank you," Ezra said. He tied on his saddlebags and bedroll, then swung into the saddle. He looked down at the close-cropped gray head of the old slave and wondered.

"You know you could probably go north if you wanted to, don't you, Herodotus?" he asked.

Herodotus gave him a sharp, contemptuous look. "Wouldn't be no different there than here," he said. "Not really. I ain't fool enough to think livin' in the North gonna get me treated like a white man there."

Ezra shrugged. "I suppose not," he said. He reined Peach around. " Saville, you ready?"

Saville mounted. "Indeed, I am, cousin," he said.

"Then let's ride before the heat of the day catches us," Ezra said. He nodded to Herodotus as they clattered away.

They cantered past the hayrick and the empty pastures, jumped a stone fence and skirted a cornfield to reach a narrow path that would take them toward Rectorstown. It crossed a hill that offered them the panorama of Peyton's Ford and much of Fauquier County.

As they topped the hill, he pulled Peach up and looked back to the stone house that had been extended with two white clapboard wings, the fieldstone barn and out buildings, the empty paddocks and the fields that stretched away, rolling and rich with ripening grain. There, where the ground dipped down toward the stream and a line of oaks shaded the hollow, were the slave cabins, hidden from the big house. The thin lines of smoke from their hearths were already faded, the fires smothered as the slaves went to their work.

Ezra stroked Peach's shoulder.

It was as beautiful a picture as Ezra had ever seen. Green and lush and peaceful as far as the eye could see. He prayed that it would never be touched by the war he and Saville were riding off to rejoin.

Saville's horse stirred restlessly, stamping its front hooves as he too paused to look back a last time.

"We'll be back," Saville said confidently.

Ezra wasn't so sure.

"What did Polly give you?" he asked.

Saville smiled. He drew a braided knot of dark red hair from inside his shirt. "A token," he said reverently.

"You need to find something special to keep it in."

"I will."

Ezra looked east one last time then turned Peach away, riding down into a deep, still-shadowed ravine half choked with deerberry, dogwood, hemlock and flowering mountain laurel. The path was narrow and sometimes he had to duck, as branches brushed against his legs and Peach's flanks, leaving streaks of dampness or catching at his hat. Wood sorrel and tickseed, corn-cockles and leather flowers bloomed along the edges of the path, wild and delicate emblems of another summer. Speedwells and ladies-tresses grew farther back in the cool undergrowth, along with solomon's seal and touch-me-nots.

Ezra took a deep breath. This was his home, this land, these valleys and hills and all the people here. He felt alive and happy here. He didn't want to go to Richmond. He wanted to defend this place.

Behind him on the trail, Saville cursed softly as a branch slapped him in the face.

With a laugh, Ezra caught a spray of mountain laurel blossoms and braided them into Peach's light sorrel mane.

Under her hooves, a spotted touch-me-not was crushed, looking like it had just been spattered with fresh blood.

*******

8. Four Corners, 1877

A gambler's share
The only risk that you would take
The only loss you could forsake
The only bluff you couldn't fake

Still The Same,
Bob Seger

Vin was whistling The Battle Hymn of the Republic as he stepped inside the dim confines of the Saloon. An odd choice for an ex-Reb, he acknowledged, but it had a good tune. He could almost play it on his harmonica. Though the other boys would argue that.

He stepped sidewise, an old habit that kept him from being silhouetted in the doorway, and listened to the familiar sounds of the barroom while he waited for his eyes to adapt. Crowded tonight. The volume and tone didn't shift, always a good sign. If everyone in a saloon went quiet or started talking louder, well, that usually meant trouble was looking at you. He had spent enough time as hunter and then hunted that it was automatic to scan the room, checking for threats once he could see. He did it without much thought. Ezra and Chris did it whenever they walked through any door, too. Just like breathing, if you wanted to go on doing that.

A deep breath brought him all the scents of the saloon and one that didn't belong, but that he'd smelled before. Perfume. Vin wrinkled his nose. Damn. What was it Ezra had said that was. Then he remembered. Gardenias.

The perfume would have told him Maude Standish was in the room even if he hadn't spotted her blonde head bent over a hand of cards at Ezra's usual table. He had seen her, of course, smiling and flirting and dealing the cards with her pretty white hands. He thought Ezra was just a little smoother with the cards, maybe because his hands were bigger, but Maude had the patter down. She could fleece a man and have him thanking her for taking the time.

He didn't really want to sit down and lose all his money to the woman, but he figured Ezra could use someone to take his side. Ezra would make snide remarks and even curse her, but Vin had seen through that. Ezra would let Maude walk all over him too, because she was his ma. She wasn't Vin's ma, though, and wouldn't mind warning her off this time.

He signaled Inez with one hand, pointing to Ezra's table, and sidled through the evening crowd. The Saloon had been twice as crowded since Digger Dan's had been wrecked. The hot press of bodies, unwashed and smelling of dust, sweat and horse, had Vin longing to leave before he'd even reached his friends. The barmaid-manageress was there with his mug of beer, though, right behind him, and a long swallow of cool, sharp liquid had Vin relaxing faintly.

Ezra didn't look up from his cards, but a small smile curled his lips and he twitched a shoulder toward the empty chair beside him. "Sit down, Mr. Tanner."

Maude did look up and smiled brightly. She sure was a pretty woman. "Why, hello, Mr. Tanner. Do, please, join us."

Vin nodded and slid into the chair that put him between Ezra and Chris. Opposite them sat Maude, JD, Josiah, and Buck. The only one of their group missing was Nathan. Vin wasn't too surprised. Nathan didn't think highly of gambling and probably didn't want anyone remembering how he'd let Maude Standish represent him as a doctor that time.

"Ma'am," Vin muttered.

JD grinned at him, Josiah rumbled, "Brother Vin," and Buck flapped a hand at him, then returned to stroking his mustache while studying his cards.

Chris eyed his mug of beer and said, "That all you're drinkin'?"

"Yup."

"Hell," Buck said, tossing in a card. "I'll take one. Might as well get drunk, Vin, then you got an excuse for the way these two " he nodded at Ezra and Maude, " are gonna clean you out."

Ezra silently discarded two cards. JD folded. Josiah drew three. Chris and Maude both held pat. Smoke curled up from Chris's cheroot, the sweet scent of the tobacco familiar as leather and gunpowder. Chris was squinting at Maude, the crows' feet at the corners of his eyes deep. She watched him cautiously and a tiny smirk tipped the corner of his thin lipped mouth.

Vin observed a moment more and commented, "Can't get cleaned out iffen I don't play," before swallowing some more beer. He sat back a little. "Figure I'll watch you do the losin'." He slumped a little lower in the hard chair, searching for a position that wouldn't have his back aching all night.

"It's a wise man who knows his own limits," Josiah mused.

From the toothy grin he got every time he looked Maude's way, Vin thought he ought to be paying a bit more attention to his own advice. He gulped down some more beer and watched Buck lose a week's pay, then Josiah match the other three's ante and call.

Maude smiled sweetly as she laid down her hand. "Gentlemen, I believe that beats anything you have," she said.

Josiah dropped his cards with a sigh. Chris nodded and slid his cards together. Maude reached for the pot.

"Not quite, Mother," Ezra drawled. He smiled widely and set down his own cards face up.

Four Kings and a queen. That beat Maude, who glared at the cards like they'd turned into cockroaches.

She smiled, though, and pushed the pot toward Ezra.

"Ezra, you " Maude stopped

"Just staying sharp, Mother," Ezra said, flashing his gold tooth in smug smile.

Vin's eyes widened as Maude flushed red. Ezra had cheated. Ez only cheated when someone else at the table was cheating too. That meant he'd out-cheated Maude. He'd bet that rankled and she couldn't say a word without admitting what she'd been doing. He glanced around the table. Chris was smirking, so he'd figured it out too. No one else seemed to have picked up on it.

"Maude, are you all right?" Josiah asked solicitously. "You look rather flushed."

Chris choked on his whiskey and Vin hid a grin. Ezra rolled his eyes.

Maude fanned herself with her hand. "It's a bit stuffy in here, Josiah," she said. "That's all."

"Perhaps I could get you a drink."

"A sherry would be lovely," Maude agreed.

"There's red-eye, bourbon, some of my scotch, tequila and beer, Mother," Ezra said. "No sherry. This isn't St. Louis or New Orleans."

"Inez has got some brandy back there too," Buck added.

Maude patted Josiah's arm and ignored Ezra. "A brandy might be quite restorative, Josiah. I would greatly appreciate it."

Josiah looked a bit like a stunned ox as Maude smiled brilliantly at him. He scraped his chair back so fast it almost fell over, then fumbled it back on four feet as he shot to his. "It would it would be my pleasure," he almost stuttered.

"Dear God, do exert a modicum of restraint, Mother," Ezra muttered after the preacher was out of earshot.

Maude smiled the same smug smile Ezra sometimes did. "Just keeping my skills sharp, darlin'," she said.

"The man is a colleague," Ezra pointed out. "Without any fiscal resources."

"Practice, Ezra."

"Practice on someone else," Chris interrupted harshly.

Maude flinched. "Yes, well, I would never hurt Mr. Sanchez," she said quickly. She reached for the cards and Chris lifted them away from her hands and gave them to Ezra.

"Think we'd do better with a different dealer."

Ezra flashed Chris an unreadable green-eyed glance, but had his poker face on. No telling what he thought about Chris's action. He took the cards, though, and began an almost liquid shuffle.

"Mr. Tanner, are you in?"

"Nope."

"Five card stud, jokers wild?" Ezra asked the rest of the table and received nods. He began dealing.

Maude picked up her cards and remarked, "The Tavern seems to be doing a landmark business. I had no idea when I offered it to you this afternoon, Ezra. Perhaps I should rethink selling it."

"Digger Dan's got tore up bad the other night, so everyone's coming here," JD explained. "Oh, hey, you're going to sell the Saloon back to Ez?"

"Mother has offered me the opportunity to purchase the premises once more," Ezra said. He tossed in his bet. "I've explained I'm no longer interested in saloon-keeping."

Chris's eyebrow went up, but he said nothing. He matched the bet.

"You're just cutting off your nose to spite your face, Ezra," Maude said crossly. She stayed in the game too.

The piano player started something that might have been Greensleeves. Vin wouldn't have sworn it was, though. It could have been Rule Britannia the way Charlie played, even though Ez had imported a piano tuner from Ridge City not long before. Ezra had vowed he would have had to shoot Charlie the next time he started playing if something wasn't done, between the man's ineptitude and the piano's sour notes. Vin had sat outside on the sidewalk and listened after the tuner fellow left. It had still been early, before noon, and the Saloon had been empty except for Ezra and Inez. Ezra had sat down and played something real fine. Real music that had sent a shiver up Vin's spine. He hadn't played anything on the piano since then, though.

"Really, darlin', you shouldn't be so stubborn," Maude went on. She fanned her cards closed and laid them face down on the green baize.

Buck folded with a grimace. "Ain't nothin' I can do with that," he said light-heartedly. He smiled at Maude. "Just how much are ya tryin' to get out of Ez, ma'am?"

"A fair sum, but not usurious," Maude said.

JD tossed in a chip to stay in the game.

"Ezra's got the money," he said innocently. "He won real big at that poker tournament in Eagle Bend, remember?"

"Alas, I invested those funds in restoring my painfully depleted wardrobe, JD," Ezra commented. He stroked the sleeve of his bottle-green velvet jacket fondly. "Maintaining a proper appearance in this backwater is a sore trial."

"Oh, come on, Ez, you won enough to buy "

"JD," Buck said, clamping one hand onto the back of the kid's neck. "Don't you go makin' the man feel worse, hear me?"

JD twisted and gaped at Buck. "But "

Buck was smiling but his eyes were serious. "Reckon it costs a pretty penny to kit himself out fancy as a peacock."

Buck probably guessed Ezra had all of the money he'd won in Eagle Bend stashed away somewhere, but Buck respected that Ezra didn't mean to hand it over to Maude. She'd be more likely to let the whole matter go if she didn't think he had any money.

"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington, indeed," Ezra said imperturbably.

JD's mouth gaped open another instant, then he snapped it shut.

"Cards?" Ezra inquired.

"Two," Chris said.

Ezra dealt.

"Two, darlin'," Maude said as well.

JD discarded three cards, muttering, "Gimme three."

"Dealer takes one," Ezra commented and checked his new card.

"Ezra, dear, I know you've become attached to this " Maude seemed to struggle for a suitably contemptuous word that wouldn't insult the men at the table with her and failed, finally stalling over, " burg. As your mother, of course, I want you to be happy. I've come to realize that staying here and running a a saloon seems to be what you want. I regret my previous efforts to remove you."

"Really, Mother?" Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Ten dollars."

Chris tossed in two five dollar gold pieces.

"Don't act like that's so unbelievable," Maude snapped.

"Only because it is."

"Oh!"

"Are you in or out, Mother?'

Vin hid another grin behind his beer mug.

"In," she declared, matching the bet and adding another five dollars.

JD folded. "I've got to pay Yosemite for re-shoeing Dusty."

Ezra raised the ante another five dollars, Chris matched and Maude smiled and did so too.

Josiah arrived back at the table carrying a balloon glass a quarter filled with brandy. Ezra raised an eyebrow at the preacher, who looked faintly abashed. "Inez gave me the spare key to your room," Josiah explained.

"Along permission to help yourself to my belongings?" Ezra asked frigidly.

Josiah handed the glass to Maude, who sniffed daintily then swallowed some of the brandy. "Didn't reckon you'd object to sharing with your own mother, son."

Vin shook his head.

"I'm a bastard, Mr. Sanchez, but I assure you mother made it clear who my father was," Ezra snapped. "You are not he."

Maude flinched. The others looked discomforted as well. Ezra was usually a little more tolerant of Josiah's paternal leanings. But Maude brought out the worst in him sometimes. Vin figured she stirred up stuff Ezra would rather forget.

"That was uncalled for, Ezra," Josiah said.

Ezra had his hackles up, though, and said in clipped tones, "Did we not have this conversation this afternoon?"

The brusque question visibly rocked Josiah. The big man sat down with a wince-making thump. Vin expected his chair to creak and split, but it held.

Ezra flicked his hand toward the pot. "I stand."

Chris nodded.

Maude pressed her lips together and laid out her cards. Two queens, two tens, and an ace.

"Mr. Larabee?'

"Kings over jacks," Chris said, displaying his cards.

Ezra nodded, completely unsurprised. Bastard probably stacked the deck. "The pot is yours, Mr. Larabee." He didn't bother showing his own hand.

Maude started in on Ezra a little later, working on him and trying to use the other men at the table to support her arguments. Vin had another beer and Ezra had Inez bring over his private bottle of Scotch. He tipped a measure into Chris and Buck's glasses in an uncommon bout of generosity and raised an eyebrow at Vin, holding the bottle. Vin shook his head. He'd stick with his beer and keep a clear head. JD preferred to stay with beer too and shook his head when Ezra offered some of the bottle to him. Josiah, Ezra ignored.

Sipping the glowing liquor from a heavy shot glass, Ezra shuffled one-handed and listened to his mother.

"Two thousand dollars, Ezra."

Buck opened his mouth, then shut it. Vin suppressed his own reaction. Two thousand for the Saloon was more than a good deal. It was too easy, too sweet. He was glad Buck hadn't said anything.

"That's more than fair, Ezra," Maude complained. "Honestly, it's robbery."

Ezra slapped the deck of cards down.

"Oh, I wouldn't want to rob you, Mother."

Maude narrowed her eyes. "Are you still sulking over what happened in Baltimore?"

"Recent occurrences have naturally brought the incident to the forefront of my mind," Ezra replied.

"It was for your own good."

Ezra shrugged. "Of course. I'd said I wished to sail to China many, many times," he drawled sarcastically. "In manacles."

"You weren't in manacles!" Maude exclaimed.

He sipped his Scotch and said, "I don't recall you being on board."

Everyone was staring at Maude now. She looked around for a sympathetic face and found none, not even Josiah's.

"Maude?" the big man rumbled.

"It's it's water under the bridge," she said weakly. "Besides, Ezra could have picked the locks."

Ezra stared at his mother a beat, then chuckled. "It was a useful lesson."

"You sailed to China, Ez?" JD asked.

"No, the ship never made it that far," Ezra answered. His lips thinned. "We were boarded and brought in as prize to an island north of Jakarta." He rubbed his wedding ring again.

Vin had caught Ezra doing that sometimes, when the subject of the past came up. Despite undeniably curiosity, he'd never been foolish enough to ask Ezra about it.

"I wagered the last thing I had of any value and won enough to eventually make my way back to Baltimore from there."

Vin would never ask about the ring. Some things were so bad a man would kill rather than talk about them. Chris had once threatened to cut Buck's throat for talking about his dead wife and son. He didn't think Ezra would get that wild, but pushing for something that private would be plain cruel. He'd never tell anyone about the day the Army attacked the Comanche village and killed everyone there but him, or what it had been like his first year back in the white world. Better to be like the wild things, to live in the moment and the next and let the past crumble into dust.

"You've always been clever, Ezra," Maude said. She sounded genuinely proud and not the least ashamed that she'd somehow sent her son into danger. "Now, stop this foolish game-playing and take my offer. I won't go a cent below two thousand, but if you're short of cash I'll accept the shares you have in the Allegheny Railroad Spur or the deed to the farm at Bell Hill."

Ezra walked a card over and through his fingers. "Both gone."

"You lost Bell Hill?" Maude asked. Genuine emotion flashed over her features, pain, shock, anger, and regret. Then her poker face, complete with coy smile, was back in place. "Tut, tut, Ezra, haven't I taught you better than to wager more than you afford to lose?"

"Indeed you have, but Bell Hill was never important to me. I sold it for funds to travel West. I needed a good horse and a stake." He added dryly, "I sold it to your cousin Matthew, so it's still in the family, Mother, though neither of us are welcome there."

"Well," she murmured. Her fingers twitched and clenched, reaching for a phantom deck of cards. She adjusted a blond ringlet at her temple. "They're such dull people, Ezra, why would we want to visit?" She smiled and dismissed the past effortlessly. "What about the land deed you won in Virginia City, darlin'? You wrote me from Fort Laramie that you'd done well there before moving on. Surely you still have that?"

Ezra cocked his head. "A stretch of useless dirt somewhere called Stairstep Canyon." He tapped his forefinger against the deck of cards. "Utterly worthless. There's no ore there, Mother," he said. "I had it checked."

"Then you should be happy to trade it to me for your Saloon," Maude said promptly.

"No, Mother, I wouldn't," Ezra replied. "I told you I've decided to move on." He picked up the deck, shuffled it quickly one more time and began dealing another hand to everyone, ignoring the shocked silence and stares.

Josiah didn't look surprised. Disappointed and angry, but Vin guessed he'd heard the news already.

Buck reached over and used one finger on JD's chin to close his faintly open mouth. "You're gonna catch flies that way, boy."

"But, Buck," JD protested immediately, "Ezra can't leave!" He swung back to Ezra and ignored the cards dealt onto the table before him. "You can't go. It's because of Nathan, isn't it? You just can't leave, Ez, you belong here with us. Who will watch your back if you go?"

"Your solicitude is touching, Mr. Dunne, but I shall simply endeavor to guard my own person as I have always done." Ezra's dry tone softened and he added, "I know you can rely on the rest of your friends to secure your own safety in any contretemps that ensue in the aftermath of my departure. My presence has always been somewhat superfluous."

"Super what?" Buck whispered to Chris.

The man in black removed the cheroot stub from his mouth and stubbed it out in his empty shot glass. "Extra," he explained.

"That ain't right," Buck concluded.

"This is about Nate," JD insisted. "Ez, you know last night was was just well, it wasn't no reason to just up and leave all of us."

"Last night was a reminder that Mr. Jackson finds my very existence on this earth nearly intolerable, Mr. Dunne."

"Nate been giving you trouble, Ezra?" Chris asked quietly.

"No more than I expect."

Maude was listening quiet as a mouse. Josiah just glowered and poured himself a whiskey. Buck looked thoughtful.

"You plannin' on tellin' me you was goin'?"

"Of course, Mr. Larabee." Ezra's gold tooth flashed as he smiled widely at Chris. "I know you would track me down like a rabid dog if you thought I'd run out on you. I intend to take my own leave once Mother quits our present locale. Perhaps by the end of the week."

Chris stirred at the cheroot's butt with his forefinger. "I see."

"Do you, Mr. Larabee?"

"Can't hold you or any of the others here if you want to go," Chris said. A sardonic smile twisted his lips briefly. "I've been ready to move on a few times myself. Reckon I can understand."

"Yes," Ezra agreed. He smiled at Vin and said, "Of course, there is also the matter of the bounty placed on me. Mr. Tanner's life could be endangered by my proximity in the circumstances."

"Ez," Vin said softly, "you know that don't make no difference to me. A few more bounty hunters don't bother me none, not when it's a friend's skin on the line."

"I never thought for one moment that it did, Mr. Tanner."

Vin caught Ezra's eyes and wouldn't let him look away. "Just don't want ya goin' 'cause of me."

Ezra drew in a harsh breath and nodded. Vin sat back, satisfied.

"I don't want you to go," JD said.

"Thank you, JD," Ezra replied. He picked up his cards. "Shall we play, gentlemen? Mother?"

Buck swallowed the last of the Scotch Ezra had poured for him. "Reckon I'm goin' to miss ya and your good liquor, Ez. And all them fancified words of yours. I ain't never known no one slicker'n you."

Ezra's dimple flashed. "I take that as a compliment, Mr. Wilmington."

"Hell, I knew ya would."

Maude stared at him. "You are serious, aren't you?"

"Quite serious," Ezra agreed.

She took a deep breath. "That puts a different light on things. Will you come back to St. Louis with me? There are opportunities there, darlin'...." Her brazen delight in the prospect of filching a fortune was almost charming.

Vin shook his head. The woman had no more morals than a magpie.

Ezra shrugged. "I don't think so. I'm sure you can manage to lighten a few pockets without me."

"Well, of course, I can. I merely hoped you might want to help your mother."

"I'm an ungrateful son, Mother, as you've often told me."

They played out the rest of the hand and Ezra won, but the evening had turned sour as a crabapple. Josiah kept drinking steadily and finally lurched to his feet and left without a word.

"Hope he makes it back to the church," Buck observed. He shoved his own chair back and stood. "I better make rounds. I can check on 'siah on my way." He found his hat and smiled at Maude. "Ma'am, it's been a mighty pleasure just to sit and admire your loveliness."

"Mr. Wilmington, you are always a charmer."

"'Night, boys," Buck said to the rest of them and started away.

JD set his cards down and said, "I think I'll call it quits." He got up with a nod toward Maude and raised his voice over the hubbub in the rest of the bar. "Hold up, Buck."

Maude looked at the three men left at the table with her and clearly decided it wasn't worth the trouble to stay and play any longer. Ezra wasn't letting her cheat, Chris could scare her off her game, and Vin wouldn't play. "Mr. Dunne, would you be a gentleman and escort me back to my hotel along your way?" Maude asked JD.

JD looked a little surprised, but nodded. "Sure, Mrs. Standish." He offered her his hand as she came to her feet.

"It's Ashendon, dear," Maude corrected.

"Sorry."

"Don't worry about it," Maude said and patted his arm. She glanced back at Ezra. "Don't gamble too long, darlin', you're looking quite peaked tonight."

"Good night, Mother," Ezra said.

With JD on one side and Buck on the other, Maude cut a swath through the crowded bar to the doors. They passed Nathan coming in and Maude greeted him amiably. Vin shook his head. Why Nathan didn't get his back up around Maude but couldn't tolerate Ezra was a mystery.

Nathan wended his way toward their table. Vin sensed the instant Ezra noticed his approach. The gambler went tense and quickly brushed his hands over his coat sleeves and straightened his cuffs. Bad sign. Ezra wasn't half the dandy he made out and only really fussed with his coats when he was feeling threatened. Vin had finally figured it out. All that messing with his clothes covered up Ezra checking the fit and readiness of his hidden derringer and the rest of his dirty tricks. Ezra brushing his coat-sleeves was just like Chris resting his hand on the handles of his Colts.

Ezra poured himself another shot of Scotch and knocked it back as Nathan arrived.

"Chris, Vin," Nathan greeted them and took the seat Maude had been using.

Vin gave him a small nod. Chris just turned the empty shot glass with the black stub of his cheroot before him. His eyes were glittering the way they did when he was pissed but keeping it under control.

Nathan didn't say anything to Ezra and Ezra watched him silently. Not fearfully, but still the way a man watches an enemy. It wasn't that smiling, I'm-too-pleased-with-myself-to-be-bothered-by-anything-anyone-says way that Ezra had always affected around Nathan. It was dark and just as hostile as Nathan often was. Vin filed away the thought that Ezra had finally reached his limits. He really needed to find out what had happened from JD.

"Nathan," Chris drawled slowly.

"I see that woman's back in town," Nathan said, oblivious to the currents in the air. "Guess we better make sure her and Standish don't take the town for everything in the bank."

"I ain't worried about Maude," Chris said. He flicked the cheroot butt gently with one finger, then succeeded in flipping it out of the glass and over the edge of the table. That done, he drew another one from inside his shirt pocket, shaved off the end with a knife, and carefully lit it. The first long breath he exhaled in twin streams aimed right at Nathan. "Looks like she's getting what she wanted since the first time she showed up here."

Nathan waved the smoke away from his face with a big hand, looking irritated. "Them things is nasty, Chris, don't be sending their smoke at me," he complained.

Ezra snorted indelicately and slumped down in his chair. He had the deck of cards in his left hand again, dancing them through his fingers the way a priest would finger his beads. His other hand, the one with the derringer strapped to rig under his sleeve, lay on the green baize. Coincidentally pointed toward Nathan Jackson.

"You don't like it?" Chris snapped. "You know where the door is."

Nathan frowned. "What're you talkin' about?"

"Don't bother, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled. His accent was thicker than Vin had ever heard it. Nathan's head whipped around so the ex-slave could stare at him. He pushed the Scotch bottle sidewise to stop in front of Chris.

"While I applaud your effort to keep the peace, the time for palliating matters between Mr. Jackson and myself has passed. Our basic disagreements are moot in the circumstances and addressing them in your usual intimidating manner can only lead to further bad feelings on Mr. Jackson's part." His lip curled as he looked at Nathan. "Perhaps you should share the good news with him, instead. Just don't share my Scotch."

Nathan's hand clenched into a fist. "Ezra, ya sonova "

Ezra gave him a dead-eyed look and said tonelessly, "Considering that my mother just left this establishment, you should choose your words with care, Mr. Jackson, or suffer the consequences."

"Stop," Chris snapped.

"He don't get to threaten me, goddamnit!" Nathan yelled, leaning forward.

"Shut up, right now, Nathan," Chris said, low and sibilant as a snake ready to strike.

Vin scraped his chair back and got ready to grab Ezra's arm if he popped the derringer out.

Nathan shivered, then clamped down on his temper and sat back in his chair. "Fine. You want to take his part, that's fine."

"Ain't no part to take," Vin rasped out, surprised by the temper coiling inside him, too. "No one's gonna disrespect my mama's name 'fore me and I reckon Ez feels the same."

"The man bad-mouths his mother all the time," Nathan objected.

"Mebbe, and mebbe he's got his reasons, but that don't mean anyone else can," Vin said slowly. "They're family. You ain't." To him, that was all that needed to be explained.

Ezra gazed at Nathan and ignored Chris and Vin. "I told you last night I was done with suffering your attacks on me," he said. "Try to bear that in your mind or you will find yourself unpleasantly surprised, sir. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Nathan gritted out.

Ezra nodded and turned to Chris. "Mr. Larabee, there are a few matters I would like to discuss with you before I take my leave. If you would join me in my rooms upstairs?" He glanced at Nathan. "I find I've lost my enthusiasm for gambling or drinking tonight."

Chris raised an eyebrow, but just shoved his chair back and got up. "Sure, Ezra. Got a few things I'd like to say to you too." He picked up the Scotch bottle and followed Ezra to the back stairs that led to the rooms for rent above the Saloon.

"Keep an eye out," Chris instructed Vin.

"Always do, cowboy."

"G'night, Ez," Vin called as the two men left.

"Good evening, Mr. Tanner."

Vin rocked his chair further back and looked at Nathan closely. The other man was still seething with anger. Nate spent a lot of his time angry, Vin thought. He spent a lot of time telling folks how they ought to be living their lives, too. It sure got tiresome after a while. He still liked the man, though. Vin had never met anyone so driven to help folks even if they didn't want helping. If he hadn't been born a slave, Nathan would have made fine doctor because he did have the healing touch. Most of the time, he didn't seem real bitter about his past, even after learning how his mama died a while back. Nate didn't seem bitter around him, Vin corrected himself. But then, Nathan had always been real grateful to Vin and Chris for saving him from that hanging party. Maybe Nate didn't show the same face to everyone else.

"Hope you're happy, Nate," Vin said at last.

"I don't know why we put up with that weasel," Nathan complained. "Damn gambler."

"Won't be puttin' up with him much longer."

"Good." Nathan frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Soon as Maude finishes her visit, Ezra's movin' on." Vin picked up the abandoned deck of cards and began flipping them face up. They caught on his callouses and wanted to slip and slide away from his fingers. He kept going until he found the one he wanted, the ace of spades, Ezra's signature card, and then tucked it inside his coat pocket. "She offered to sell him the Saloon."

Nathan's mouth had dropped open.

"He ain't gonna to take it?"

"Nope."

"Thought owning this place was the man's dream."

Gamblers didn't stick in one place long, weren't welcome or ran out of marks, and packed up to hit the next town. Orphans and bastards learned that getting and keeping things wasn't for them, and once something was gone, there was no use shedding tears over it. Vin figured Ezra was good at moving on, just the way he was.

Maybe the man had the right idea. He'd been feeling mighty restless lately too. Tired of this place and most all of the folks he saw everyday, except Chris and Ez and the rest of the boys. He'd never liked feeling hemmed in. A man like him was a fool to stay in one place too long.

Vin finished his beer. "Was." He nodded at Nathan and got up. "I'm goin' to get some air."

He paid his tab on the way out, grumbling when Inez told him Buck had stuck him with his tab again, too. He stepped outside and pulled in a deep breath of cool night air laced with stovepipe smoke.

He raised his hands over his head and stretched as hard as he could, straightening his damned curved spine as far as it would go. Time to take a walk, before he crawled in the back of his old freight wagon and the bedroll there.

A faint flicker of candlelight lit the single stained-glass window on the church. Josiah was praying again. Vin shook his head. It wasn't going to work this time.

He strolled down the sidewalk, enjoying the stillness of the empty streets, then ducked his head into the jail. Buck had his chair tipped back against the wall, his boots on the desk, and was snoring fit to stampede a herd of buffalo. Vin grinned. One scuff of his boot and Buck would be wide awake, aiming a sawed-off shotgun at his head. He slipped back without disturbing the man, walking the quiet way his Comanche mentors had taught him.

There were lights still on at the Ritz hotel. Vin didn't know which room Maude was in, but she was probably still awake. Figured she'd be a night owl like Ezra, though she probably didn't shoot holes in the doorjamb when someone woke her up in the morning, though.

He wondered what she was really up to this time. Selling Ezra the Saloon, well that sounded right fine, but she wouldn't do it without making a profit. They'd have to keep an eye out until she left.

He halted abruptly as he stepped into the alley behind the livery where he had his wagon.

They probably wouldn't see Maude in Four Corners again. Ezra was all that had ever brought her to the town and when she left, Ez was going too.

Vin rubbed his chest, feeling unaccountably empty.

"Should've ate another piece of pie at supper," he told himself.

It wasn't anything more than that. He wasn't going to get sentimental over a fancy-dressed gambler. He wasn't going to lose any sleep over him, either. That hollow, achy feeling was probably just indigestion. He swung up into the back of the wagon, under the heavy canvas cover, and shed his clothes in the dark, then crawled into his bedroll. He pulled his sawed-off Winchester mare's leg under the buffalo robe cover with him before he went to sleep. His dreams were of a trapped, green-eyed Coyote spirit and Josiah's crows.

He crawled out of his bedroll the next morning, shivering and bleary eyed, cursing the way his buckskin pants had gone stiff with cold and damp overnight as they hung up on his faded long johns. The pre-dawn hour held just enough light for him to fumble around and find his boots. Little puffs of steam formed with each cursing breath. Damn, living in town had made him soft. Back when he lived with the tribe, he'd have wrapped a buffalo robe around him and padded out to the fire without anything else on and never felt the chill. Of course, he'd been no more than a tyke back then and he remembered some of the older bucks hadn't been so fond of the cold either.

Lord, he needed coffee. Something stronger than tar and hot to melt the cold out of his aching bones. He was going to be like one of those old men in front of the feedstore, playing checkers with palsied, swollen hands, half crippled with the arthritis at this rate.

Vin slipped out of his wagon, pulled on his old boat and shook his head at that last thought. Hell, he knew better than to think he was going to live to be an old man. Not with a price on his head and a peacekeeper's job. He'd always figured he'd die young and hadn't let it bother him. There'd never been anyone to care much either way, so he'd gone his own way until he ended up in Four Corners working with six other loners.

He'd gotten kind of used to having friends. He sure didn't appreciate Nathan messing all that up. He was going to miss Ezra something awful. It just didn't set right.

He headed for the restaurant, meaning to get that coffee before he got Peso out of the livery and rode out.

Stepping up onto the boardwalk, he spotted something that brought him to a halt. There in front of the livery, where Nathan had his little clinic up above, were Nathan and Maude Standish. Nathan had his head bobbing and Maude was talking fast.

Vin narrowed his eyes and shivered again.

He didn't like that. He didn't like it at all.

9. Four Corners, 1877

Believe me when I say
I'm gonna come back for you some day
Believe me when I say
The flame will never die.

The Flame Will Never Die,
Sonny Landreth and Beausoliel

Morning found Ezra facing his mother again, bleary-eyed and almost wishing that just for once he hadn't deliberately aimed high when someone came hammering at his door. Maude looked like she'd been up for hours, which was unsettling, since by preference she didn't rise any earlier than Ezra did.

"Darlin', are you feelin' ill?" Maude asked. "Look at you, you haven't even shaved yet."

Ezra leaned against the doorway, effectively blocking Maude from pushing into his room from the hall. He'd thrashed his way out of his warm, soft feather bed, pulled on trousers and a shirt and made it to the door, still holding his Richards Conversation in one hand. He wiped at his face with his free hand.

"I don't generally shave myself in my sleep," he said.

"You shouldn't sleep so late -"

Ezra wanted to ask her if she thought she was fooling him with the surreal maternal act. Waking up a little more, he decided she didn't and was playing to whoever might over hear their little hallway spat.

"Mother," he interrupted. "I am awake now, so what brings you to my door before noon?"

She drew herself up and sniffed.

"I thought we might have breakfast together. We could discuss the sale of the Saloon. Or you could tell me where you mean to go when you leave here, if you really mean to," she said.

Ezra sighed. "We certainly aren't going to discuss selling the Saloon, because I have no intention of purchasing it, not if you offered it to me for a dollar and a kiss. Considering who is offering that bounty for my head, in this case, you'll have to forgive me if I hesitate to tell you where I'm going. Once burned, twice shy, after all."

Maude drew in a harsh breath and placed her gloved hand over her breast. "Ezra P. Standish, how dare you! I did you a favor !"

"I can live without your favors, Mother," Ezra snapped. "In fact, I'd prefer to."

Maude slapped him.

"You'd be dead if I hadn't got you out of Baltimore."

"Yes, and you'd have been considerably poorer," he snapped back. He ignored the stinging heat in his cheek. He narrowed his eyes. "I remember the letter you left for me word for word."

He could. He could picture the paper with the clarity of the instant he first beheld it.

My dearest son,

As you are reading this, the ship you are on board is sailing for the distant land of China. Ezra, I do advise you not to try to disembark at any port before arriving there, for the captain and his crew have been quite generously recompensed to ensure that you remain their passenger until then. I fear they might employ rather stringent methods were you to attempt any escape. You are a clever boy and I am sure that you feel you could make your way to Baltimore and your inamorata again, even without funds or proper attire, but it would be for naught.

Lorena has returned to her father's domicile.

When I realized that Lorena was the daughter of William Godwin, I felt it was my God-given duty to reassure him that his daughter was safe and well cared for as your bride, despite the circumstances of your elopement. Of course, I knew he would wish to retrieve her and so I did offer to exchange your whereabouts for a trifling sum, since Mr. Godwin is a man of remarkable means.

Mr. Godwin has such great plans for his daughter, Ezra, plans that do not include marriage to you. I'm afraid your removal became essential. As I understood that your infatuation with Lorena would certainly mean that you would fight any annulment, I accepted William's generous offer to aid in your separation. I am sure that once you have recovered from this ridiculous conceit that you are are in love with the girl, you will see that I was merely looking after your best interests.

Ezra, I do believe that William Godwin would not hesitate to have seen his daughter made a widow if he could not see your marriage to Lorena undone. He made his intentions abundantly clear when we met. You will be safe once your ship puts to sea, however, and William, assured of your absence, has been remarkably generous. I know that you will be reassured to realize that your abandonment of our previous endeavor in Baltimore has not left me financially undone, thanks to the finder's fee I persuaded the dear man to part with, along with the funds he provided to arrange your journey to China.

We will not see each other soon, but I know that in time you will come to appreciate the measures I have taken in this matter.

Your devoted mother,
Maude Standish

He had come to onboard that ship, sick with whatever she'd used to drug him, sicker at heart as he realized what had happened. He had memorized that letter. The clipper's cramped cabin held nothing else to distract his mind as it sailed south for Cape Horn. Each time he'd read it, he'd felt sicker. He couldn't find any way out of the trap his mother had snapped closed on him. God, he'd ached, thinking of Lorena. Did she know he hadn't left her willingly? Was she waiting for him? He had stared out the porthole at the gray, heaving swells each day, damning Maude with all his soul and believing with all his heart that Lorena would still love him when he returned to her.

He'd dreamed of Lorena. She had had tiny hands, soft as the petal of a white rose. He'd felt like a champion when he had slipped the wedding ring onto her finger. She'd insisted he wear a ring too. The plain gold band had symbolized everything to Ezra. He kept it on his finger still, his last tangible reminder of his short-lived marriage and ultimate disillusionment. Each time he touched it, he remembered.

Maude's letter grew had grown tattered at the edges, worn along the folds, stained from his fingers. Yet he couldn't leave it alone. He'd survived the War, when everyone, except for Maude, who mattered to him had died or disappeared. It was his last tangible connection to her. Her crass choice to use him for her profit once more hadn't really surprised him, but it had cut, cut deep. Each time he'd opened the letter and read it again, the pain had stabbed deeper.

He'd kept that letter with him through a pirate raid on the Java Sea. He'd carried it next to his skin and gambled his wedding ring for enough money to pay for berth on a ship sailing for Hawaii and won. If his wedding ring was a talisman of faith, then Maude's letter was a burning brand, a goad urging him to find his way back to Baltimore, and not just as penniless fool.

He'd worked and schemed hard, taken outrageous chances and clever gambles. He'd won a cargo of silks in Hawaii, parlayed it into a fortune in San Francisco and every night he read his mother's letter.

But he hadn't learned its ultimate lesson until he saw Lorena again. That was when he had finally lost Maude's letter. Among other things.

Maude raised her chin defiantly.

"I won't apologize."

"You never have," he said darkly and closed his door in her face.

He leaned back against the door and let his head hang for a moment. Anger and betrayal weren't emotions he cared to relive. He'd trusted in love and paid the price, not once but twice. He'd sworn he wouldn't repeat his mistakes.

"Ezra!" Maude shouted. "Ezra!"

"You're making a scene, Mother," he muttered under his breath.

He fumbled behind him and shot the bolt that would keep her out. Through the door he heard her stamp her heel in frustration before leaving. Then he walked to the bed and sat down on the edge. The mattress sank obligingly under his weight. Ezra set the Richards Conversion on the foot of the bed and dropped his face into his hands.

It was all coming back. All the memories he'd locked away when his last dream fractured into dust. It had taken almost two years to make it back to Baltimore with a small fortune and ownership of Bell Hill, sure Lorena would be waiting and they would spend the rest of their lives together. Almost two years, but two months would have been too long; only two months had passed before Lorena had accepted the annulment of their marriage, followed her father's wishes, married another man. She hadn't recognized Ezra when he saw her on a Baltimore street. She hadn't remembered him until he spoke to her.

Some last, hopeful part of him had died inside then.

It was Maude who brought him to Baltimore after the war. He'd been too worn and tired to object to her plans. She'd been the only family he had left by then. He felt nothing for the girl he was supposed to seduce, it was Lorena Godwin who fired his heart; she was everything his younger self had desired when he first saw her. He hadn't been fool enough even then to dismiss her father's fortune, but it had been Lorena, her porcelain blond prettiness and innocence, that had captured his heart. Despite all he'd already seen, he'd believed in love, in the sweet infatuation and dizzy desire he felt in her presence.

He'd walked away from Lorena lost to him now forever found a drink and a game and another one, until he woke broke in a gutter, sick and bitter, weeks later. All that had been left was Bell Hill. He'd sold it and never looked back.

He'd encountered his mother in Philadelphia later, fleecing a businessman Ezra was gambling against. He'd fallen into the old pattern of running cons with her and they'd spent six months together, ranging from Savannah to Louisville to New Orleans. They'd worked together until things went wrong in Vicksburg. Maude had made off with what remained of the money he'd brought from San Francisco and Ezra had gone back to gambling, working his way west with the vague intention of re-establishing himself in San Francisco. He hadn't cared about anyone or anything in those days, not even himself, hadn't allowed anything except his horse to matter, until the day he found himself in Four Corners and met Chris Larabee.

He lifted his head and caught a glimpse of himself in the oval mirror mounted on the dressing table. The dim light seeping past the closed curtains caught his shadowed reflection in the wavery glass. Ezra almost laughed. Small wonder his mother had been unhappy with his appearance. His hair was sticking up, he did need a shave, and there was a crease from his pillow incised in his cheek. The shirt he'd pulled on, without buttoning or even slipping the tails inside his trousers was he plucked at one cuff to be sure and chuckled inside out.

Well, he wasn't going to get any more sleep. He slipped off the reversed shirt and padded over the chilly floor to the window. He opened the curtains enough to light the room then went to his washstand, pouring water from the pitcher into its matching basin to start his morning ablutions.

Preferring not to meet up with Maude again he slipped down the back stairs and through Inez' kitchen and headed for the livery. He would pay Tiny for replacing his cinch and take Hazard out. The chestnut needed to stretch his legs. Ezra just wanted to get away for a while.

Halfway down to the livery, a feminine shriek split the air from behind Mrs. Potter's building.

Ezra froze, listening as Mrs. Potter's normally soft voice echoed up the alley.

"Get out, get out, get out! Stop it! Horrible, destructive monster! Do I have to get my husband's shotgun !"

That was it. Trouble. He sprinted down the alley.

"Leave that alone! No! Get, get. Get out!" Mrs. Potter cried.

Ezra drew his Remington and rounded the corner cautiously, searching for Mrs. Potter and whoever was assaulting her.

Ezra peered over the fence around the Potter's vegetable garden, noting that the wire and stick gate at back had been pushed open and down. Then he spotted the villain in all its four-footed anti-glory. With a noiseless laugh he took his finger off the trigger and eased his gun back into its holster.

A wet snort and the thump of hooves accompanied Gloria Potter's furious, "Stupid, stupid beast!" as Conklin's new milk cow a raw-boned brindle creature with too much Brahma blood to stay behind any fence continued destroying the tiny garden.

The normally soft-voiced and matronly lady was flushed scarlet, her hair half out of its bun, clutching a straw broom.

Ezra slipped into the garden and joined the lady, carefully side stepping several platter-sized, runny, greenish-black cow patties.

Conklin's cow bellowed, startling both of them. Mrs. Potter waved the broom threateningly.

"My dear Mrs. Potter," Ezra said, coming to stop beside her, "I feared you had been beset by some nefarious individuals."

"I've been beset by this this this creature," she exclaimed furiously. Catching a glint of humor in Ezra's green eyes, Mrs. Potter drew herself up and patted at the fly-away wisps of hair waving about her flushed face. "It's just infuriating. That horrible little man won't keep his cow from getting out and rampaging through half the gardens in town."

"Intolerable," Ezra agreed.

Conklin despised Ezra and Ezra returned the bookkeeper's opinion in kind. Not that Conklin held any of the Seven in high regard. He'd done his utmost to see them ousted from Four Corners.

Conklin's cow dipped its head and tore off the top of a plant and began chewing. Ezra blinked. Something white was looped over the animal's left horn.

"Three nights now, Mr. Standish," Mrs. Potter said. "Three nights, it's got into my garden and just...," she sniffed, "just wrecked everything." She waved the broom. "And now look what it's done."

"Got in someone's laundry, apparently," Ezra observed. That appeared to be lace along the edge of the bit of white unmentionables caught on the cow's left horn. "I assume you've spoken with Mr. Conklin over this matter?"

"That that abysmal little toad," Mrs. Potter muttered. "He won't do anything. He threatened to have Sheriff Dunne arrest me if anything happens to his cow."

"That seems a trifle out of proportion over a milk cow," Ezra noted dryly.

"That's not a milk cow," Gloria Potter grumbled, glaring at the flop-eared beast standing in the middle of her carrot patch, a pair of silken lady's bloomers draped over one horn. "It's a Spawn of Satan."

Ezra looked at the animal and agreed. It stared back and snorted green slobber at him, making him step back. Mrs. Potter shoved the sharp bristle ends of her broom in the cow's face.

Between the two of them they shooed the recalcitrant animal out of the remains of the garden. Ezra helped restore the fence and gate, grimacing when a strand of barbed wire caught his coat sleeve and tore through it, his shirt and into his arm. Mrs. Potter noticed and insisted on taking him inside where she washed out the puncture and offered to sew up his coat.

Ezra was thinking about Conklin's cow and what to do about it. It was a pleasant distraction from his own troubles. One last chivalrous deed done before he left Four Corners forever. Tempting as it was to simply shoot the beast, Ezra knew that wouldn't serve. He wished to leave Mrs. Potter with less trouble, not more, and Horace Conklin would blame her if someone were to kill it.

He left Mrs. Potter and finished his journey to the livery, saddled Hazard and rode out of town, still considering the problem of Conklin's cow. Something needed to be done. Possibly, he needed to enlist Vin. Vin had a taste for practical jokes and knew how to keep a confidence.

Even while he rode he kept a wary eye out, alert for any dangers, more so than usual. Thankfully, the outing was uninterrupted.

Conklin would need to be the one who did in the belligerent bovine, he decided. Something would have to be arranged to enrage the little townsman so far that he lost his temper and acted impulsively. Ezra grinned as he thought about it. He was sure he could count on the cow to do its part; he simply needed to orchestrate the prank the way he would a con.

He cued Hazard to turn and headed back for town. He had a cow to catch and relocate. He also needed to find Mr. Tanner and arrange a small distraction. As he had predicted, Vin proved most amenable to the plan. The two of them were indulging in a soothing libation inside the saloon several hours later when the ruckus exploded.

Ezra and Vin shared a smiling look and rose to stroll after the bar's other patrons to the sidewalk and observe the commotion.

There in the middle of the street was Horace Conklin's cow, festooned with papers from the bookkeeper's files. Papers were crumpled under her feet, punctured on her horns and stuck to her sweaty flanks. In addition, she appeared to have been splattered with some sort of oil, perhaps kerosene, and green ink. The sparkly bits were probably broken glass. The pair of faded-to-pink long underwear that was tangled around and dragging after one hind leg had even Ezra raising an eyebrow. The cow had outdone herself in her search for the sweetened grain he'd placed in judicious spots throughout Conklin's rooms

Horace Conklin stood in the street, sans hat, sans jacket and most definitely sans dignity. He clutched an old .45 in one shaking hand and shook it at the snorting, unhappy cow.

Vin nudged Ezra with his elbow and tipped his head. Down the street, Mrs. Potter and Mary Travis both stood on the sidewalk, watching. Mrs. Potter managed a look of sympathy, but Mary had her hand over her mouth and her shoulders were shaking with laughter.

"Looks like Old Man Conklin's going to do that poor old bossy in," Vin commented.

"Yes, it does," Ezra said. "In fact, I would lay odds on it." He excused himself and began working his way through the crowd watching the confrontation between man and cow, taking bets on every variation that could be imagined, from whether Conklin would shoot the cow to what size the long johns dragging in the mucky street were.

Across the street, he noted pale blond hair and an elegant green ensemble moving among a group of be-suited townsmen, Maude doing much the same among as he was. Ezra grinned despite himself.

The cow shook her head and began ambling back toward the bookkeeper's small office, intent, Ezra imagined, on returning to the mixture of grain and molasses he'd slipped inside and painted here and there.

"No, no, no!" Conklin shouted. "No you don't!"

He leveled his gun at the cow with shaking hands and pulled the trigger.

Ezra winced as the cow screamed in pain. "Damn it," he muttered.

He caught Vin's eyes across the street and desperately shook his head. He knew that Vin would, like him, want to administer the mercy of a bullet to the wounded creature, but Conklin already suspected the two of them of all manner of nefarious doings. If either of them stepped in, it would only make matters worse. It didn't matter to him, he was leaving, but Vin would be staying. He hated that the animal was suffering, though. He hadn't anticipated that Conklin wouldn't be able kill the cow cleanly. He hadn't even taken a bet on it.

The cow was still bellowing, stumbling down the street, away from the crowd of bystanders who had gone painfully silent.

His mother was collecting money from several gentlemen, he noted ruefully. Mary Travis looked a little sick and Mrs. Potter's face was set.

Conklin fired twice more at the cow, missing both times.

Down the street, Larabee stepped out of the jail as the cow ran past. His head swiveled toward the crowd and Conklin in the middle of the street, then back to the cow. In a flicker, his Colt was drawn and a single shot fired. The brindle cow dropped into the dusty street.

A gasp ran through the crowd. It wasn't as impressive or frightening as seeing Larabee kill a man, but it would be another addition to his legend. He flipped the empty shell out of the revolver and reloaded before slipping the Colt back into its holster. Then he stalked down the sidewalk, spurs ringing in the near silence. When he drew level with Conklin, he stopped. His pale eyes settled on the flustered bookkeeper.

"Better get that carcass outta the street before it starts stinkin'," Larabee said. He drew a cheroot out of his shirt pocket and lit it. The spent match he flicked into the dirt.

Conklin's mouth fell open and he heaved for breath twice before he squawked in outrage, "You shot my cow!"

Smoke trickled out of Larabee's nostrils. He dipped his head just once.

"Hell, Horace, you shot 'er first," someone in the crowd heckled.

Conklin's face darkened to a beet-like hue and his hands curled into fists. Unfortunately, one hand still held his gun and his finger was on the trigger. The gun went off, firing a bullet into the dirt next to the bookkeeper's foot. He jumped into the air and dropped the gun. Everyone exploded into laughter.

Larabee just narrowed his eyes at Conklin.

"Clean up your mess or I'll lock you up for creating a public nuisance and disturbing the peace," he drawled.

Vin strolled over to Ezra's side. He tipped his slouch hat back. The crowd began breaking up and Ezra hurried to collect on his bets and in a few cases, pay off. He ended up on the sidewalk next to Larabee, counting his winnings, before tucking them inside his vest pocket. Vin was propping up a post on the gunslinger's other side. Conklin was darting around the street, picking up ragged bits of paper.

Ezra glanced at Larabee, trying to see if the man was in one of his towering rages or not.

"I shall stop by the livery and arrange for Tiny's mule team to drag the sad creature's remains out of town," he said quietly.

Larabee turned his head slowly and squinted at Ezra. His teeth were clenched on the cheroot.

"Lot of folks're plum glad to see the last of her," Vin commented.

Larabee tapped some ash off the cheroot. "Why am I sure you two had something to do with this?"

Ezra raised his eyebrows. "Moi?"

Vin snickered. "Hell, cowboy, you killed the cow, not Ez."

Larabee's lips twitched into a near smile and he murmured darkly, "Somehow... somehow it was you two."

Maude swished over in a flutter of silk and lace.

"Mother," Ezra acknowledged her. Vin touched his fingers to his hat-brim. Larabee just gave her a measuring look.

"Darlin'," she said and bussed Ezra on the cheek. "That was quite profitable."

Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter joined them. This time all three men doffed their hats in greeting.

"I shouldn't be enjoying this so much," Mary remarked. The glint in her blue eyes suggested she didn't feel too guilty. Not after the cow had scattered her laundry to hell and gone that morning.

Mrs. Potter just smiled at Ezra and Vin. "You boys come by my kitchen later. I'll have a pie for you both."

Vin brightened. "Peach?"

She nodded.

"With strawberry-rhubarb for Mr. Standish here, of course," she promised.

Maude's eyebrows had risen, but she didn't comment.

The neigh of an unhappy horse drew their attention to two riders coming up the street. Buck and JD. Buck's Darling didn't pay any mind to the dead animal in the street, but the smell of blood had JD's Dusty balking. JD reined her up and then walked her in a wide circle around the carcass. The two riders drew their horses to stop before the small group on the sidewalk.

Buck tipped his hat. "Ladies."

JD swept his bowler off and gave the dead cow a worried glance. "What happened?"

"Cow got on Chris's nerves, I guess," Vin drawled.

Buck shook his head and laughed. "Got a feelin' there's a story here," he said.

Vin winked at him.

"Ezra," Larabee prompted.

Ezra detached Maude's hand from his elbow. "Excuse me, ladies, but I have a small errand to run. Mrs. Potter, I will look forward to your latest confection all afternoon." He tipped his hat and headed for the livery.

"What's he gettin' this time?" he heard Buck demand.

"Strawberry-rhubarb pie, Mr. Wilmington," Mary Travis supplied with a smile.

"Probably be best if ya don't ask why, Bucklin," Vin told him.

"Oh, I can figure that out easy enough," Buck laughed.

The last bit of conversation Ezra caught was JD's plaintive, "Who wants to eat rhubarb, anyway?"

Ezra chuckled to himself. None of the other men would touch his pie, while Vin might be forced to share the peach one. He was looking forward to dinner. Perhaps, if Lady Luck kept smiling on him, Maude would leave go of her notion of selling him the saloon and allow him to simply enjoy her company, along with that of his compatriots, for once.

He snorted indelicately.

Not likely. She was up to something, he just didn't know what not yet.

10. Four Corners, 1877

Do it again when you find you're
All done
Like an idiot savant
Shuffle up your luck
You see you almost won
Now wrestle down what you want

Solitaire,
Suzanne Vega

"Nathan!"

Vin's voice rose above the thump of his boots on the stairs up to Nathan's rooms above the livery. The raw wooden boards echoed sharply, far different than his normal silent footfalls. Only two things ever made Vin raise his voice like that. Since no one was shooting, Nathan knew that meant someone was sick.

"Nathan!"

Vin slapped the door open with a jar and held it as two more, heavier sets of boots hit the stairs. Nathan bolted out of his chair at the table where he'd been reading. Vin was panting, hatless, without his old kerchief. Even his shirt had been pulled out of true. A spot of blood marked where his lip had been split, while the skin over one cheekbone was darkening from a blow.

"What is it?" Nathan asked as he approached Vin. He meant to take a look at Vin's eyes and check the pupils.

"Ezra," Vin said.

He looked about as worried as Nathan had ever seen him.

"Something bad's wrong. He's off his head."

Nathan froze. "He do that?" he asked, meaning the split lip.

Vin ignored the question and looked back out the door to the stairs. The shadows of the men coming up fell across the floor ahead of them.

Buck and Josiah came through the door, hefting Ezra between them. Nathan caught his breath. Ezra wasn't fighting them. He was seizing. It was frightening to see a man's eyes roll as white as a spooked horse's.

"Hell," Nathan muttered.

Buck glanced up. One blue eye was swelling shut. He'd taken a blow to the nose, too, and his mustache was matted with blood. "Nate, he's gone stiffer'n a board. That's got to be bad," Buck gritted out nasally.

"Get him on the bed now!" Nathan commanded. "Josiah, Buck, I need you to hold him down, but you gotta ride with it or he's going tear something or even break a bone."

"Nathan, you know what it is?" Vin asked.

Nathan ignored him. He took one look at Ezra's dilated black eyes and nodded to himself.

Ezra was trembling, limbs jerking and twitching, sweat running off his flushed face. When Nathan found his pulse, it was racing. He could see Ezra wasn't even really aware of them.

"Nate, damn it," Vin snapped, catching at Nathan's shoulder.

"Maybe. He ain't ever had any fits before, the way some folk do. Don't figure it's natural to him, the way him suffering headaches is."

"He looks like a horse that's been loco-ed," Buck observed.

He was crouched at the head of the bed, using his weight to hold Ezra's shoulders down. Blood from his nose dripped onto his big hands and Ezra's no longer pristine white shirt. "He started sweatin' and shakin' and talkin' real crazy about the cards. Then he tore out of the saloon. Fell down in the alley jerkin' and kickin'."

Nathan nodded. "I think you're right, Buck."

"Ezra's got too much sense to eat locoweed," Vin objected. "He don't mess with nothin' he don't know on the trail. The man knows better."

"No one said he knew he was," Buck snapped. His expression had gone dark. "Hell, we know someone's out to get him."

"You think he was poisoned." It was a statement more than a question. Vin stepped back his expression had gone cold and tight. His eyes narrowed.

This was the man who had ridden with the Comanches and hunted bounty, Nathan thought. Vin would show no mercy to anyone who had harmed someone he considered one of his own.

The prospect of what Vin might do made Nathan shudder.

He hid that and concentrated on doing what needed to be done. "Vin, you stoke up that stove and get me some water heating on it," he instructed.

That would keep Vin out of his way without actually throwing him out. From the look on Vin's face, he wouldn't have any more luck doing that than he would have getting rid of Buck if it were JD sick. He studied Ezra another moment. The seizure had ended and Ezra was lying upon the bed in an exhausted, trembling sprawl.

Vin sent one more deeply worried look toward Ezra then started building up the fire in the stove.

"Josiah, help get the rest of his clothes off."

He picked up the wooden spoon he used when mixing up decoctions and handed it to Buck.

"He starts another fit, you get this between his teeth and hold his tongue down or he could swallow it and choke."

Buck looked horrified.

"This is important, Buck," Nathan insisted. "A man can die like that. And you keep your fingers out of his mouth. Ain't nothin' meaner than a man's bite. If he's off his head he could break your fingers."

"Sonovabitch."

Vin closed the door in the stove's belly with a sharp clang and headed out, grabbing up the bucket as he went.

Josiah began unbuckling Ezra's gun belt, murmuring softly as he worked.

"Easy now, son, easy. Just stay calm, everything is going to be fine, we're taking care of you, Brother, just stay easy, you're safe. Nothing and no one's going to hurt you here, you're right here in Brother Nathan's clinic, we've got your back. Just be still, that's it, easy, easy, you let us take care of you now."

"Raleigh?" Ezra mumbled, the words slurred around the spoon, only half-intelligible. "Raleigh? Saville? Saville! Oh, sweet Lord, what have those bluebelly bastards done?"

"You're in Four Corners," Josiah whispered as he worked. "None of that's real, you hear me, Brother? That's all the past you're seeing, you just go on and let it go. It can't hurt you no more. You just have to rest easy, Ezra, just trust us...."

Next the shoulder holster came off. Nathan helped him ease Ezra's jacket away, dropping the claret-colored wool garment carelessly to the floor. Ezra was oblivious. His lips were moving and his darkened eyes were flickering, seeing something beyond any of their ken. Josiah got the derringer rigging off and set it with the rest of his guns, moving on to his boots. Nathan started on the shirt.

Ezra's body quaked and jerked and he began mumbling, his legs kicking, breath coming hard. "No, no, elevate, damn you! Elevate the damn gun or you'll put the ball through our own lines!"

"Damn, damn," Nathan muttered. How much poison had Ezra got in him?

He looked up at Josiah. "Any of you know what he's eaten today?"

"Hell, Nate, he ate the same thing as the rest of us," Buck answered. "'Cept he didn't eat half as much as bird, just like always." He looked at Josiah for confirmation and the preacher nodded. "We all set down at the restaurant earlier and ate dinner together, except for you, just like always."

Nathan nodded. The group usually gathered at least once a day over a meal, but he'd ridden out to the McCauley's to check their boy and change the bandages on the gash a bull had torn out of his hip. They'd insisted he stay and eat with them.

"Roast and greens, hashed potatoes, bread, carrots, and pie after," Josiah agreed.

"Good pie," Buck added. "Hell, I even managed to get a piece of the peach away from Vin, since Ez had that one Mrs. Potter baked for him. Strawberry-rhubarb. Man ate three slices."

"Did anyone else eat any of it?" Nathan asked.

"Nope," Buck said immediately. "JD and me got more sense than to eat any dessert made with a root. He offered some to Maude, since she brought it over, but she said she had to think of her figure."

"It's the stalk that's used," Nathan corrected absently. He looked at Josiah.

"Strawberries give me hives."

"So Ezra was the only who "

Ezra's body locked and arched, a keening sound escaping him. Almost as fast as Larabee would have drawn his gun, Buck had the spoon inside Ezra's mouth, holding his tongue down the way Nathan had just told him to. Every muscle in Ezra's sturdy body was drawn tight. Tendons stood out at his neck, his fingers curled into white knuckled fists, his back arched like a bow. Josiah threw himself across Ezra's legs and Nathan dove across the room to add his weight to hold down his shoulders.

Ezra's seizure segued into a wild, desperate, thrashing fight against all of them, accompanied by a venomous babble in a dozen different languages. Just as he seemed to be quieting, the door slammed open again, admitting Chris Larabee, black duster swirling around his legs, JD right behind him. The door bounced against the wall with a screech from the hinges and Ezra screamed and seized again.

"Oh, Jesus, Jesus," Nathan exclaimed. "Chris, get over here, hold him down." A man's heart couldn't take this too long. He had to get something down Ezra to calm him. "JD, get out of the way. No. Go get Maude."

Larabee sent a pale-eyed, questioning glance at Nathan but complied without question. JD opened his mouth, looked at Ezra, and ran back out. Nathan went to his glass-doored cabinet and opened it, searching through the finger-sized bottles corked and sealed and labeled in his own carefully laborious script. Part of him noted the cabinet wasn't locked when he always kept it keyed closed. He found the little, square-sided brown medicine bottle shoved in the back, dust thick on its shoulders.

He wrapped his hand around it and headed for the bed. The uncharacteristic disorder in the cabinet plagued him. He knew what had happened. The bottles had been pushed around, the dust rubbed off various labels; at least one was missing.

Vin sidled into the room, water sloshing over the lip of the bucket he carried. He looked first at Ezra, then Nathan, then made his way to the stove and began pouring water into the big, cast iron kettle Nathan kept there.

Ezra was was pleading with someone.

"Herodotus? Where are they? Where Polly, Cassiopeia, Miz Vertilene, Saville, my uncles, my father, my sisters...?"

Nathan grimaced.

"Tell me they got away, please, it doesn't matter if the Yankees burnt everything," Ezra whispered. "Please tell me someone took them away, tell me they went to town... No, I don't care how long it's been, I'm riding after them. Saville will need help getting Polly back from those bastards... You bury the others, Herodotus, I can't wait... Then I'll kill every one of the murderin' Union scum I can find!"

"Ah, hell, Ez," Buck whispered.

Nathan almost hesitated. He didn't have to do anything. The others wouldn't know. If he told him there hadn't been anything to do for whatever poison Ezra had been given, they would accept it. Ezra had been a thorn in Nathan's side since they day they first faced each other. But Vin and JD had accepted him and Chris had given him a second chance. Nathan had tried to tell Ezra how wrong the way he lived was, but nothing touched the gambler. As far as Nathan could see, he was a weasel through and through, born bad like most bastards.

But he only hesitated an instant though. It didn't matter who Ezra was or had been, only that he was sick now and Nathan's job was to help him. He'd doctored worse men than Ezra Standish.

It was more than that. He did know what Ezra had been given and that it must have been too much. Hell, if Ezra died, there'd be plenty of folks in town who would wonder, knowing how often he and Nathan had quarreled. He could find himself with a noose around his neck again too easy, with Vin Tanner watching through icy eyes instead of saving him.

That other bottle should have been sitting right next to the one he held now. It was a decoction of sometimes poisonous herbs, taught to him by an old brujera he'd met coming west after the war. The ancient crone had been some mixture of Seminole and Spanish and black, with maybe some Acadian French, without two teeth left in her mouth, but she'd showed Nathan the way of drying the berries and boiling them into a thick syrup. One drop to make a man's heart run, she'd told him. Three to show him all his demons. Six to let those demons kill him.

She'd taught him what to look for and make up to counteract the demon brew, too. "Catch thems demons in molasses, it do." The ingredients were common enough in the delta country and along the Mississippi but Nathan hadn't seen some of them since he came west. The little bottle in his hand was all he had left.

Vin dropped the blackened kettle onto the stove with a harsh clang. Ezra jerked and cried out again at the noise.

"Damn it, Nathan, do something!" he shouted.

"You got something, Nate?" Buck asked, the mixture of hope and confidence in his voice sending a shaft of shame through Nathan.

Nathan nodded and held the bottle up. He studied Ezra next. They had to wait until the fit was done before Nathan tried pouring any of the precious antidote down his throat.

"What is it?" Larabee demanded.

He had climbed right onto the bed and crouched over Ezra with his knees on wrists and his hands pinning down his shoulders. In any less dire situation, Buck would have come out with some salacious and insulting remark about their comparative positions. Not now. Ezra bucked under the combined weight of Josiah and Larabee, threatening to throw them both off.

"Jesus and Joseph, the sonovabitch is strong for his size," Larabee growled.

Buck laughed. "Ez likes to fool ya. Sort of like a certain tow-headed squirt I met a long time back."

Nathan saw the look that passed between Chris and Buck then. Old friends like those two could part a hundred times and still know each other when they met again; they were as bound together by past pain as by any good times. Once they'd both been innocent boys, hard as it was to see now.

Ezra went limp again abruptly.

Nathan pounced. "Buck, keep his tongue pushed down, that'll make this easier."

He broke the wax seal over the cork with one hand. With the other he pushed his fingers into the hinge of Ezra's jaw, levering it open enough to pour the thick syrup over his tongue and down his throat. The instant he had emptied the bottle, Nathan tossed it aside.

"Out now," he told Buck. With the spoon gone, he pushed Ezra's mouth shut and stroked his fingers over his pale throat. The beginning of new whiskers, grown out since Ezra had shaved, rasped against Nathan's fingertips.

"Come on, swallow, swallow," Nathan coaxed. He kept his other hand on Ezra's jaw, holding his mouth shut so none of the medicine would trickle out. "Come on, you sonovabitch."

Ezra tried to thrash his head away. His face pursed into an expression of disgust. He was trying to spit it up.

"No, pard, don't ya do that," Buck gentled. He reached up and pinched Ezra's nostrils closed.

After a second of struggling for breath, Ezra swallowed and tried to open his mouth again. Nathan let go, as did Buck.

"Good boy," Buck crooned and wiped sweat-matted hair away from Ezra's forehead.

Nathan frowned, wondering where Buck had learned that trick, only to glance up and see Chris's eyes gone dark with old pain. He realized Buck had probably been right there with Chris and his wife whenever Adam had been sickly.

Maude arrived in a swirl of green silk skirts and blonde ringlets. She was speaking quickly, even as she entered through the door Vin had left agape. "Mr. Jackson, is my boy here -" Her eyes had found Ezra and she lost color. Suddenly her real age showed through the delicately applied paint and powder. She took a step forward. "Ezra "

"No!" Ezra bellowed, rearing up against Chris and Buck's hands. "Get away from me, get away, getawaygetaway getaway!"

They wrestled him back down onto the bed. Maude stared, shock plain on her face, her mouth open. Josiah rose and stepped between where she stood and the bed, blocking her view with his bulk.

"Maude "

Maude looked at him. Her lips trembled, then firmed. "Josiah," she whispered. She lifted one gloved hand to her chest and pressed it there. "Oh, Josiah, what's happening to him?"

"He's been poisoned," Vin snapped.

Blue eyes seared her with a very pointed look that had Nathan afraid Vin wouldn't wait on getting proof. Vin's instincts were telling him Maude had something to do with this. If Ezra didn't recover soon, Vin wouldn't let the law stop him from exacting his own version of justice on whomever he blamed. That would probably be Maude and anyone else she implicated before Vin finished with her.

Maude being a woman wouldn't make much difference to Vin, or Chris either, Nathan knew.

Damn Standishs were nothing but trouble, even when they weren't causing it.

Maude looked stunned and dismayed. Josiah wrapped his arms around her.

"It's going to be all right, Maude," Josiah said comfortingly. "Nathan knows what needs to be done. Ezra will recover."

Maude looked to the side of him, at her writhing, cursing, sick son and visibly shuddered. "There's nothing I can do, is there? Oh, Josiah, I don't think I can stand to see my darlin' boy like this. I just It's just too much. Please, could you escort me back to my hotel room? I think I should lie down."

Nathan couldn't help rolling his eyes.

Maude must have felt the hostility ratcheting up in the room from the other men. She said, "I know you all think I am a terrible mother. I should be here for Ezra, but I just can't abide anyone sick. I just can't."

"Then you better get out," Chris snapped at her.

Ezra began choking.

Chris scrambled off him. Nathan grabbed Ezra's shoulders and rolled him to the side just in time for Ezra to double over and throw up over the side of the bed. The reek immediately hit all their noses.

Maude gasped and ran out of the room.

With a sad look back at Ezra, Josiah followed her. "I'd best make sure she makes it back to the hotel," he told them.

Nathan finished the job of stripping Ezra down after they'd left and drew a sheet and blanket over him. Maude's click-clacking heels were still echoing when JD crept in. One hand pleated the narrow rim of his bowler hat and the other swept his long, dark bangs away.

"Is he ?"

"Nate's got some medicine down him," Buck reassured his friend. He didn't mention that Ezra had likely vomited it all back up.

It reminded Nathan of what needed cleaning up. "Vin," he said. "There's some rags in the first drawer of the chest. Get me some so I can mop this up."

Vin silently did as he'd asked.

Ezra kept shuddering and mumbling. A hand to his forehead told Nathan he was burning up. He needed to be cooled down.

"You all watch him now," he instructed Buck and Chris.

He went to his worktable and found a simple basin that he filled with water from the pitcher on the washstand, then fetched another cloth from the chest he'd sent Vin to originally.

Ezra tried to scramble off the bed suddenly, reaching for guns that weren't there and batting at Buck and Chris as they caught him. Vin and JD joined in gently as possible considering Ezra was fighting with tooth and nail and every dirty trick he knew dragging him back to the bed.

Nathan watched and turned back to the chest, pulling out some long soft bandages. "We're going to have to tie him down."

"Nathan ," Vin started to protest.

Buck spoke up, words overlapping Vin's warning tone. "He ain't going to like that."

"Ain't got no choice," Nathan said decisively. He wasn't even taking any pleasure in it. This wasn't about punishing Ezra, it was about keeping him safe from himself until he had his wits back. "Vin, help me do this."

Vin backed up, shaking his head hard. "No. I ain't doing it."

"Then get the hell out of my way," Nathan snapped.

Chris silently took the bandages from Nathan's hands. Together, after much fighting, they tied Ezra's ankles and wrists to the legs of the bed. Vin watched silently. Disapproval and anger radiated from him, no need for the benefit of words.

*******

The suicide king cut his throat.

Ink green blood slid off the card and stained Ezra's fingertips, drip drip dripping onto the fuzzy new grass sprouting from the table top. He jerked back, cards fluttering into flight away from his hands, painted faces laughing, swords and pikes and flowers scattering.

"Ez?"

Flame hiss in the lamps, slow in and out of breath the sound of the walls, deep bellows breathing, fetid hungry wheezing in the belly of the beast. Putrid light sweating from the pores, poisonous, thick and sticky.

EEEZZZRAAaaahhhhh the sound distorted into a gaping hole filled with red clay and the breath of the earth, full of wet wiggling things. Sickening things with worm shapes and legs, legs crawling into his skin, stinging, biting, burrowing.

He brushed desperately at his sleeve, clawed wet flesh free, peeled open to silky slick sinew and shining bone, wanting them off, not registering the hands catching at his shoulders and wrists. His stomach rebelled and he hit his knees on the rough plank floor, retching over and over. The lines in the wood writhed and slid up his hands, catching him, black barbed-wire thorns cutting into his wrists and holding him down.

RAHRAHRAHRAHRAAHRAAAAAAAHHHHHHH.

Bullwhip snap crack and jerk, screaming a razor running through his memory, hot words shriveling in his mouth, black ugly inside blurring, buck and strain. Heavy horsefly insect buzz sliding maggots into his ears, tiny voices mewling ezraezraaaezzzzraaaaeeeeeezzzzzzzzzzzzrrraaaaaaaezzzzzzzzzzzz.

Smoke phantoms pluck and pull at him, hot talons slide in and out of him, heat roaring words that scribe into the grain of a board, arcane and fascinating. He tried to trace the signs with his hands, the secret just within reach, but thick slow cold molasses wound his limbs up and drew him out, drawn taut, shredded open and hollow.

Head full of echoes.

Skewered and undone, unravelling into the fire, consumed

Sssrassrarssssraaaaasirrah sirrah! Hurrah hurrah.

Wheat to the scythe, feeding the guns, row on row on row and march BOOM march BOOM aim fire BOOM unending feast BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.

Eaten alive.

Sugar sick sweat taste seizing him, jerk twist hold breaking him, searing candent clawing white molten whitewhitewhitenothingwhiteezzzzraaaaaaaa.

Flayed and dissolved.

*******

Nathan rested his broad hand on Ezra's forehead, frowning over the clammy heat he still felt after two days. Quietly, he wrung out the cloth he just doused in the basin of water sitting on the floor beside the cot and used it to wipe his patient's face again. Ezra whimpered and turned his face away, but didn't wake.

Nathan paused with the rag at Ezra's temple, a trickle of lukewarm water sliding down into the southerner's matted hair, and waited. When Ezra didn't tense into another convulsion or begin thrashing against the restraints that held him, Nathan went back to trying to bring his temperature down.

A single candle flickered on the far side of the room, dashing shadows against the walls. Heavy blankets were tacked over the clinic's windows to hold back the light when the sun rose. Even the single flame's light pained Ezra's dilated eyes. Vin had been the one to notice that earlier. Ezra had been much quieter since they darkened the room, resting instead of thrashing and fighting hallucinations.

"You shouldn't have made such a pig of yourself," Nathan told the unconscious man. "If you hadn't ate so much of that pie, you wouldn't be so sick."

He ignored the hard fact that if Ezra had shared the strawberry-rhubarb delicacy with anyone else, they too would have been poisoned.

Nathan knew it had to have been the pie, but he hadn't said anything to the others. Mrs. Potter hadn't poisoned Ezra and he knew it. He had as good an idea of who had done as the others did, but he wasn't about to point any fingers. Not when that bottle was missing from his collection.

He rubbed his eyes tiredly. When Maude had approached him he hadn't really thought about why she was asking him questions. She had a knack for convincing a man she was interested in whatever he was saying. He loved healing. None of the others, not even Josiah, had any interest in his studies. He'd let her lead him into talking about that old brujera and her potions without realizing what she'd wanted.

"Damn," he muttered.

A gust of wind outside made the door rattle in its loose frame. The draft that rushed under it and along the faded-to-gray floorboards made the candle flicker wildly. Nathan grimaced. Shadows jumped and ran along the walls. Ezra stirred restlessly.

"Damn wind."

It made everything, man and beast, irritable and jumpy, that wind. Put a man's hackles up as though something was hunting him. It had been rising all day, whispering dust into every crevice, catching at hats and sending them tumbling down the street, tugging at tempers already rubbed raw, like some beast howling in the night.

Ezra had vomited and screamed himself hoarse the first night. The second day, Vin and Buck had sat with him. Ezra had been quieter since then, but a loud noise or bright light still triggered a seizure. Nathan had begun worrying. So far, he'd drizzled water into Ezra's mouth from a cloth, but he knew that wouldn't be enough for much longer. Ezra needed to come around soon.

Chris came back up the stairs late, after even the Saloon had closed up, knocking softly before entering. The others had come and went as their patrols allowed, spelling Nathan while he went out or bringing him meals.

Chris looked at Ezra and grimaced. Ezra looked unnatural lying there, unshaven and dishevelled, pale with fever. His face was hollowed out, shadowed, bruised-looking. The candle's light made Chris himself look harder, worn and weathered, a figure made up of leather and wire with agate eyes and a burnt cinder instead of a heart.

"He doing any better?"

"Some."

"What do you reckon it is?"

"Figure it looks like thornapple, but I've heard of other things that act the same. Locoweed. Datura. Hell, you can boil up morning glory seeds, that'll make you so sick you see things," Nathan explained.

Chris looked at Ezra again. His brows were drawn together over those light eyes, crow's feet creased deep where they fanned from the corner's of his eyes. He shook his head faintly. "He going to be all right?"

Ezra mumbled something incoherent.

"Since it didn't kill him," Nathan shrugged. He dropped the damp cloth back into the basin. Water sloshed over the lip. He stared at it, at the still trembling water and the stain darkening the floor. His hand was damp and the draft chilled it. That wind kept rising, moaning around the buildings and plucking at his nerves. He blurted out, "Thing like this, a man gets crazy, gets himself killed 'fore he can sweat the poison out of him."

Chris frowned harder.

"I don't like it."

"Damn fool probably brought it on himself," Nathan heard himself say.

He knew it wasn't true, but the habit was too ingrained. He couldn't make himself see Ezra fairly, no matter how he tried. Every time Ezra opened his mouth and said something outlandishly highfalutin' in his educated, silk-and-molasses drawl Nathan would hear every Southerner he'd ever hated and the rage that festered in him would spark to life again. He knew it was wrong. He knew Ezra had never even owned a slave. Yet he couldn't change that his first reaction to him would always be anger.

Chris's head jerked up and that penetrating gaze caught Nathan and held him. He wished he'd bit his tongue. Chris didn't say anything. He just leaned against the wall on the other side of the bed from Nathan, watching Ezra sweat his way through more nightmares.

"You might as well sit in a chair if you're going to stay in here all night," Nathan said into the silence between gusts of wind outside.

Chris folded his arms and dipped his chin. Nathan went back to bathing Ezra's face.

The candle had burned down half an inch when a scuffed footstep outside the door interrupted them. Chris' hand dropped to the butt of his gun and Nathan looked up, half-startled.

The door opened slowly and a familiar Texan twang murmured, "Vin coming in."

Chris visibly relaxed.

Nathan tensed up. Vin had been watching him for days now, it seemed, leveling that steady, thoughtful regard on him whenever he slipped into the clinic to visit Ezra. The candle flame whipped to the side, threatening to blow out, before Vin got the door levered shut again.

The night air, chilled and carrying the faint memory of the high mountain snows clung to Vin's old coat, mixed with the scent of stove smoke, horse and dust.

"Everything quiet out there?" Chris asked.

"Right peaceful," Vin agreed.

He picked up a chair and set it close to the bed and the wall. His hat and coat came off, tossed onto the cot in the corner. Then he sat down and leaned back like a man who wasn't moving again for some time, the chair rocked onto the back two legs and his shoulders braced against the wall.

Chris raised an eyebrow at him. Nathan caught that, but couldn't interpret the look that passed between them next, nor the tiny tip of Vin's head in his direction. After a heartbeat, Chris nodded.

"I'll be at the boarding house," he told them. He bent and twitched the blanket higher over Ezra's shoulders, his thin-lipped mouth quirking into small smile. "Get better, you conniving sonovabitch."

Ezra's eyes opened and blinked at Chris, but didn't really register him. "Hot," he muttered. He squirmed against the restraints, trying to shrug off the scratchy wool blanket.

Chris nodded. "Yep." He squeezed Ezra's shoulder. "Wish you'd been wrong," he said quietly.

Ezra's glazed look drifted from Chris to Nathan. He stiffened then started fighting the restraints.

"Easy, there, Ez," Vin drawled. He rocked his chair back onto four legs, boots hitting the floor in a flurry of dust and leaned forward.

"Vin," Ezra rasped out.

A wide, white smile lit Vin's lean, stubbled face. "Good to have ya back, Ez," he declared. He pulled his Bowie knife out of its sheath. The blade flashed.

Ezra opened his mouth and said, "Have I offended you in some fashion, Mr. Tanner?"

"Split my lip," Vin told him. He flipped back the blanket and set the knife against the bandages tying Ezra down.

"Hey, what're you doing?' Nathan protested. He started to come out of his chair.

Vin looked up and the flat, blank look in his normally bright blue eyes stopped him. A slight movement from Chris reminded him of who else was there. He decided to hold his tongue.

Vin cut first one wrist free then moved down to Ezra's ankle.

"I suppose there is some explanation for this indignity?" Ezra asked. He was craning his neck up to watch Vin and his knife. "You have my sincerest apologies for any violence I've done to your person, Mr. Tanner, though honestly I have no recollection of such an action." He lifted his freed hand and rubbed at his face.

"What do you remember?" Chris asked.

Ezra looked up and then frowned.

"You... shot a cow?"

Vin snorted and began sawing through the restraints on Ezra's other ankle.

Ezra went on, his frown growing deeper. "After that, I recall sharing a meal with most of our compatriots. Mrs. Potter's pie was splendid... " He sighed. "I sat down to a game in the Saloon and the cards... " Ezra blinked hard and shook his head. He turned his eyes to Nathan. "I believe I must have been drugged."

"Poisoned," Vin said.

"Good lord," Ezra murmured.

Chris grinned at him. "You even threw a fit and blacked Buck's eye the first day."

Ezra groaned and covered his eyes with a long-fingered hand that had a faint tremble to it. "Oh Lord. The first day ? How long have I been non compos mentis?"

"You been sick two days," Nathan told him. He'd pulled himself together and needed to get back to what he knew. "Let me look at your eyes."

Ezra slid his hand away and looked at Nathan. "How you can see anything in this room with only a candle is beyond me," he remarked petulantly. His normally smooth voice rasped and faded as he spoke, threatening to disappear entirely.

Vin cut through the last restraint, freeing Ezra's other arm. The Bowie knife went back in its sheath. "You want something to drink, Ez?"

"Once more, Mr. Tanner, you display that impeccable timing. I would be undyingly grateful even for water."

Nathan studied Ezra's eyes. They were still dilated some, but it was dark in the room, and he could see a clear border of pale green around them. He felt for Ezra's pulse next, ignoring that he flinched when Nathan pressed his fingers into a bruised wrist. Fast, but not dangerous. He asked him a few more questions, just to make sure Ezra was thinking straight again or as straight as that sidewinder ever had thought.

Vin brought over a tin cup of water and steadied it when Ezra's hand wanted to shake too much to hold it to his lips. Ezra drank about half of it, then waved the cup away.

He sank back in the bed, licked his lips then repeated, "Poisoned?"

"Uh hunh," Vin confirmed.

Ezra looked past Vin to Chris. He raised his eyebrows.

"I've still got it," Chris said.

"Good," Ezra replied wearily.

Nathan wondered what they were talking about. Something he hadn't been privy too. That always pissed him off. He could see Ezra was flagging, anyway, so he spoke to break up whatever was passing between Chris and Ezra.

"You all need to get out of here. Ezra needs to rest. I want you to get."

Chris touched Ezra's shoulder again. "We'll talk some more tomorrow."

"As you wish, Mr. Larabee," came the tired answer, Ezra's easy agreement proof he wasn't recovered. He closed his eyes.

"Nate, Vin," Chris said and headed for the door.

"Good night, Chris."

Vin acknowledged his friend with a murmured, "'Night, cowboy."

Nathan looked at Vin expectantly. Vin just strolled back to his chair and got comfortable.

"Think I'll stick," Vin said.

"That's not necessar "

Vin tipped his head up. "Can't sleep in my wagon with the wind flappin' at the canvas anyway." His smooth shrug was belied by the rock-hard stubborn set of his jaw. "Why don't you go on and take a rest."

"I wish you both would leave or be quiet," Ezra complained softly. "My head is splitting."

Nathan opened his mouth, but before he could get anything out, Vin's glare shut him up. It was vicious and promised mayhem if he provoked Vin. He'd never, ever had Vin turn such a look on him.

"I'll be quiet as a churchmouse, Ez," Vin said to Ezra.

"I think that's poor as a churchmouse, Vin," Ezra murmured. He rolled onto his side. "Though that would seem to fit as well."

Vin chuckled but his eyes never left Nathan. He just watched, waiting until Ezra's breathing smoothed out into sleep again. Then he strode over to the cot, picked up his coat and drew something from its pocket. Somewhere down the street a shutter began banging monotonously as the wind picked up again. Light reflected off the little red-brown bottle Vin held between his fingers. He held it up for Nathan to see.

Nathan caught his breath.

"Don't say a damn word, Nate. Just don't."

He shoved the bottle back into his coat.

Vin looked at him and shook his head. "I found that in the garbage behind the Ritz."

The Ritz was where Maude was staying. Vin must have spent the last two days searching for whoever had poisoned Ezra whenever he wasn't sitting with his friend.

"You think Maude " Nathan started to say.

"What do you think, Nathan?" Vin asked, but there was more in his words than just the question.

"He's her son," Nathan protested.

"Birthin' someone don't make them a mother," Vin said. "I'm tellin' ya now, don't let her in here with him alone. I'll tell the others tomorrow."

Nathan bobbed his head. He felt light-headed with relief, his hands and feet tingling as though he could feel the blood rushing through his veins. Vin wasn't accusing him.

Yet.

The flash of panic that had overcome him when he saw that bottle faded, but the worry didn't. The solid mundanity of his clinic, the faint smells of herbs and carbolic mingled with hay and horse from the livery below grounded him and reminded him of what he had to lose at the same time.

With a sigh, he picked up the basin of water from the floor by the bed and took it away. He fed a couple of pieces of wood into the stove, lit a lamp off the candle, then took it into the next room and his own bed.

Lord, he was tired. Relieved that Ezra had finally come around and seemed to have beat back his demons. Disturbed that he'd let his own demons push and pull him into falling into Maude Standish's scheme. He was also, were he honest with himself, afraid. Afraid that Vin would decide Nathan had taken deliberate part in poisoning Ezra.

It hadn't been deliberate, had it?

Nathan set the lamp on his dresser and sat down on his quilt-covered bed. He dropped his face in his hands. He'd still been seething with anger when Maude approached him. The confrontation with Ezra only the night before and the news that Ezra was leaving had got all tangled up in his mind. He'd wanted... He didn't know what he'd wanted. Somehow, Maude had made it seem like if he helped her, Ezra wouldn't go.

Which made no sense at all, because he wanted Ezra gone. The man was a bad influence, an immoral parasite whose only redeeming features were his speed with a gun and absolute fearlessness in a gunfight. He was a perpetual reminder of the life Nathan had endured before he ran north.

Some days, Nathan hated him.

God, some days, Nathan hated them all; Chris Larabee and his unending grief that denied anyone else had ever suffered, Josiah with his proverbs and penance, JD and Buck for the easy way they enjoyed life, and Vin Vin for being able to pick up a rifle and shoot those men that would have hung Nathan. Because raised Comanche or not, Vin was white and that counted more than being half savage, illiterate, or even being wanted for murder.

White counted more than all of Nathan's skills and learning when weighed against the color of his skin.

Every one of them had risked their lives for him over the last three years, including Ezra, but Nathan still felt separate. They didn't see his color anymore.

Funny that he still did.

What would they see if they thought he'd helped Maude poison Ezra?

11. Four Corners, 1877

Well, I don't know for sure, believe he's gone to Mexico,
You could hear...
Hear the rumblin' in the track,
When old Reuben's train comes back,
You could hear...
Hear the rumblin' in the track


Reuben's Train (Traditional)

"Now this is the way it goes," Buck insisted. "Buffalo gals, won't ya come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon?"

JD shook his head. "I still ain't singing it, Buck."

The poppy-yellow sun was just rising over the painted façades of Main Street's stores and the chill of the desert night still clung to the air in the shadows. Hell, JD's teeth wanted to chatter. He shivered and wished he hadn't left his coat inside the jail. It would begin warming up soon, he comforted himself.

"I danced with a gal with a hole in her stockin', And her heel kep' a-rockin' and her toe kep' a-knockin'," Buck sang, grinning, "I danced with a gal with a hole in her stockin', And we danced by the light of the moon."

JD could picture that. Buck would dance with every woman at a dance, even the married ones and the girls too young to put their hair up. Sure, he'd dance by moonlight, and he wouldn't care if his partner was poor or rich.

"Come on, JD, sing."

"Nope."

Buck had a good singing voice and wasn't afraid to belt out a song. JD always got red in the face and stumbled over the words if he knew anyone was listening. Then his voice would crack like twelve-year old's. It was just too embarrassing.

Buck dropped his voice but went on with the song. He was leaning back against the jail, the iron-barred windows behind his dark head, a cup of coffee from the pot on the jailhouse stove in one hand. He had come to check on JD after finishing his early patrol about a half an hour earlier now the dew damp still dark on the toes of his boots.

The wind had died back about dawn, leaving the town coated in dull red dust, trash in the streets and tumbleweeds piled against every north-facing wall. Young Jeff Potter was across the street from his mother's store, sweeping off the sidewalk in front of Watson's Hardware to earn a few bits. The sound of straw over wood mingled with Buck's voice and snatches of birdsong drifting up from distant creek bottoms.

Vin's lean form ambling down the sidewalk caught JD's eye as he came past Virginia's. The long buckskin fringe of his coat swung, almost gilded where the sun touched his shoulder. JD raised a hand and waved. Vin nodded.

"How's Ezra?" he asked when Vin was in earshot.

Vin's solemn features flashed into a white grin. "Grumpy."

The split in Vin's lip had almost disappeared, unlike Buck's shiner. The bruising there was just fading into green and yellow.

Buck sat up straight, almost losing his coffee. "He's awake?"

"Yep."

"No more talkin' crazy?"

"No more'n before," Vin said. He draped himself against a porch post.

"Well, hallelujah," Buck exclaimed. A grin to match Vin's creased his handsome features. "If that ain't the best news today."

"You suppose he wants some breakfast?" JD asked. "I could get something from the hotel kitchen and take it over."

"He's sleepin'," Vin laughed. "Now, me, I could use some vittles. I wanted to tell you boys, don't leave Maude alone with him. Nate already knows."

JD frowned in confusion. "Why shouldn't Maude visit with Ezra?"

He genuinely had no idea what Vin had in mind. Buck's hard expression meant JD's mentor did.

"Figure she might bamboozle Ez into something 'cause he's sick, Vin?"

Vin nodded. "Somethin' like that," he agreed.

"Can't let that happen," Buck stated. "None of us stood for him last time she pulled one of her tricks. Figure we owe him."

JD winced.

Buck slapped his shoulder.

"Don't look so guilty, JD. She fooled ya, same as she did 'siah and Nate. It's what a woman like Maude does, same as Ez 'cept Ez is on our side."

JD still felt guilty. There'd been a few too many times they hadn't acted like they were on Ezra's side. That was the problem. That was probably why he was leaving.

Vin straightened up. "You two want to join me?" he asked.

JD shook his head.

Buck leaned back again and lifted his coffee cup. "Too early for me, hoss. Might see ya for dinner. Maybe take some over to Nate's, make sure Ez gets something more than those nasty teas and broths Nate sets so much store by."

Vin brushed two fingers along the brim of his hat, a gesture they'd all picked up from Ezra, and headed for the restaurant.

Buck sipped his coffee and began humming 'Buffalo Gals' again.

JD sat back and watched as the town slowly woke up; stores opened and a buckboard pulled by two mules rattled in from the south. He smiled. The sunlight inched across the sidewalk, touching his boots, and he curled his toes, waiting for the warmth to soak through the leather.

*******

Buck nudged JD in the ribs as a man stepped down from the morning stage. As always, he used just a little more force than was comfortable and almost tipped JD out of his chair.

"Damn it, Buck!" he exclaimed, floundering himself back upright.

"Look there."

JD looked but didn't see anything out of the ordinary about the stage passenger. Just a fairly broad man of average height wearing an Easterner's suit of gray-checked wool. A bowler hat that matched the suit sat straight on his head. When he turned his head toward the jail, he revealed a pink-tinged face dominated by a broken nose and a flourishing walrus mustache.

The stage driver handed a single case down to him and he nodded, saying something. The driver pointed to the jail, where JD and Buck were ensconced. The man in the bowler hat nodded again and started down the street toward them.

"How'd you know he was coming to the jail, Buck?" JD demanded.

Buck chuckled. "Hell, boy, I didn't. I just couldn't believe there's another fella on the face of the earth that wears one of them silly hats."

"I like him already," JD responded immediately. With the ease of years' practice, he ducked the hand Buck swiped at his head. "Too slow, old man," he jeered.

Buck got his feet as the stranger stepped up onto the sidewalk. For a brief moment, the two men measured each other.

"Something we can do for you, mister?" Buck asked casually.

The stranger looked from him to JD. His eyes focused on JD's badge.

"I was told the sheriff was here?"

JD stood up. "I'm the sheriff. JD Dunne," he introduced himself.

He received the same stare Buck had. JD gave it back. He noted the man had a shoulder holster under his coat like the one Ezra wore. His own gaze hardened a little.

"Emmet Hoskins," the stranger replied and extended his hand.

He had a good handshake.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Hoskins?" JD asked.

Hoskins reached into his jacket and withdrew a packet of papers. "I'm with the Pinkerton Agency, Sheriff Dunne," he explained.

Buck took a step to the side that had Hoskins flanked between him and JD with a clear firing line. He did it as casually as a man shifting his weight to get more comfortable and Hoskins didn't even notice. JD did. He and Buck worked together as naturally as a man's right and left hands after so long.

"Ain't had much luck with Pinkertons here," Buck observed. "Last one was murdering bastard. Killed women. Tried to make it look like a friend of ours did it."

Hoskins blinked at that disconcerting revelation. "Ah. I'm not here to make any trouble."

"That's good," Bucked stated. He dropped his hand down to his gun belt.

Hoskins followed the movement. He nodded.

"Buck," JD warned him.

Buck just shrugged. His hand stayed at his gun belt.

JD looked at Hoskins expectantly. The Pinkerton agent impressed him. Buck's posturing hadn't cowed him in the least. Either he had more grit than a sandy river bottom or his intentions were honest and aboveboard.

Hoskins held up the papers. "The Pinkerton Agency has been retained by Mr. Charles Corcoran of San Francisco to find a man named Ezra Standish."

Buck didn't blink. Just exhaled slow and hard, stirring the hairs of his mustache. JD fought hard to keep his face blank.

Hoskins waited a moment.

"I've been given to understand Mr. Standish makes Four Corners his home," he said. "He is apparently a professional gambler and sometimes uses various other names. Eli Simms, Elijah Simpson, Evan Stanton. He's a difficult man to trace."

"Reckon so," Buck drawled. "Don't know anybody named any of those names."

Hoskins took a deep breath.

"The sheriff in Ridge City claimed a man named Standish was among the lawmen here."

"The only man hereabouts wearing a badge is JD." Buck inclined his head toward JD.

The rest of them were technically in the hire of Judge Orin Travis. They were a misfit lot. JD had tried asking some of them why they wouldn't take up deputy badges then he'd put together his own explanations.

Buck had sworn he wouldn't wear a badge again when he left the Rangers. He didn't talk about it.

Vin had given him a sharp, pale look when JD asked him. "You forget I'm a wanted man?" he'd growled and gone about saddling Peso.

Chris. Well, JD wasn't stupid enough to think Chris would wear a deputy's badge and take orders from anyone, especially a green kid. Chris was their leader and JD knew pinning on a silver star didn't make any difference to that.

Ezra had just laughed. "Oh, my dear boy, I'm not sure whether that prospect is more hilarious or horrifying," he'd replied through his chortles.

Nathan wouldn't take a badge. There'd be more trouble from a man of color as deputy than his authority would cure. JD didn't like it, but he saw the truth and so did Nathan.

Josiah muttered something about hangings, Matamoros, and the sins of the father, then went and got drunk. JD didn't ask again.

That left him, so he wore the star. But he was well aware he couldn't have done it without the other men watching his back. He took his responsibilities seriously, but he'd learned the line between law and right from his friends.

Buck's dark blue eyes were locked on Hoskins, waiting for him to respond.

Hoskins nodded and turned to JD.

"I see," Hoskins said quietly. "Sheriff?"

JD shrugged. "This man wanted for something, Mr. Hoskins? Because if he isn't, finding him isn't part of my job."

Being sheriff didn't mean running errands for strangers or turning on his friends. Ezra was in no shape to take care of himself. If Hoskins was a threat, then the Pinkerton agent would find he'd broken some law of the town that would see him locked up until Ezra could ride out or Judge Travis' circuit reached Four Corners.

"Mr. Standish is the possessor a deed to a parcel of land called Stairstep Canyon. Mr. Corcoran wishes to purchase it," Hoskins explained. He thumbed his mustache in a gesture much like Buck's. "The land in question is the only stretch fit to run a spur line to his newest silver mine."

JD sucked in a breath and Buck began cursing steadily.

Hoskins waited until Buck finally fell silent.

JD asked the question because he had to.

"Many folks know about that?"

"I believe that by now it is common knowledge in Virginia City. The previous owner of the property, Walter Harrison, was jailed briefly for fraud when it was discovered he had attempted to forge a deed to land he no longer possessed."

Buck began cursing again under his breath.

"You're serious?' JD asked.

Hoskins frowned. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Just never mind." JD glanced at Buck, who nodded.

"Look, Hoskins, why don't we head over to the Saloon and wash some the dust out of your throat?" Buck said amiably.

JD swept his hat up and set it on his head.

"Wait, damn it," Hoskins exclaimed. "Do you know where Mr. Standish is? I've been trying to catch up with him for the last two months and I'm tired of chasing a will-o-wisp."

"Yeah, we know where our favorite weasel is," Buck admitted. "Thing is, someone's been tryin' to kill him. Now, if there's folks that know about this here deed that's so valuable, maybe we got a reason." He clapped his hand on Hoskins' shoulder and guided him with some force down the sidewalk. "Now I think you just might know something about that too."

"I have no idea why someone would want to kill your Mr. Standish," Hoskins said.

"Well, hell, you ain't met him yet," Buck laughed.

JD trailed behind them, thinking on what this could mean. He remembered Ezra's Ma at the poker table, sweet talking everyone, offering Ezra his lost saloon for a thief's price. Offering to take that worthless deed if he didn't have that price. JD reckoned it was the deed that had brought her to Four Corners.

Well, he'd learned that some folks were just plain bad since he came west. Being someone's ma didn't make Maude any better than she was. She was pretty and smart and fun to be around, but she was no good. Not mean, really, but no good, JD thought sadly.

An hour later, Buck left to slip down to Nathan's rooms over the livery and tell Ezra about Hoskins. JD stayed with the Pinkerton man. Hoskins checked into Virginia's Hotel JD made a note of his room number and then visited the Telegraph office.

Hoskins even handed him the reply Corcoran sent with a wry smile. JD waved him on his way with a grin and sent a couple of telegraphs of his own one to the Pinkertons and one to Ridge City.

Just because Hoskins said he'd been there didn't mean he had. Ezra had taught JD that.

"Always check the easy lies first, JD. If you know a man is lying, you must ask yourself why. When you know that, you will know what that man is going to do. Being fast with your guns won't save you from being shot in the back from ambush, but knowing what your enemy means to do will."

He thought Ezra would be pleased that he'd remembered that quiet, half-drunken lesson in survival. Just like every one of his friends, Ezra had taught him lessons the other man had learned the hard way. JD had absorbed them, cherishing the priceless gifts they'd each offered him in their own ways.

So he waited in the Telegraph office for his answers, because as Ezra said: it was always best to be sure.

Waited and worried on the way things were changing. There was one lesson JD had learned that Ezra just never had. It wasn't a bad thing to accept the gift of friendship or let those friends watch your back or just keep you company. Ezra was the odd man out and JD thought he just didn't know how to be anything else.

As long as he was around, though, JD would do his part and watch out for him, just like Ezra would do for him.

12. Four Corners, 1877

Turning on the charm
Long enough to get you back
You're still the same
You still aim high

Still The Same,
Bob Seger

Larabee stood in the doorway of Ezra's room and watched Maude Standish pick the lock to Ezra's trunk. The blond woman was so intent on her task she hadn't heard him arrive. She knelt in a pool of yellow skirt on the old braided rug set before the trunk that Ezra kept at the foot of his featherbed. Once she had the trunk open, Maude began tearing through it, clearly searching for something.

Larabee had a good idea what the woman wanted to find.

"It ain't there," he said.

Maude jerked and fell back, scrambling around to face the door. She laid her hand over her breast and assumed a look of shock and innocence. The first wasn't hard, but the latter didn't impress Larabee.

"My, Mr. Larabee, you gave me quite a start," Maude declared. She gathered her skirt into better order and tried to present a more dignified appearance than being sprawled on the floor.

Larabee gave her a hard look.

"That sort of thing happens, when you get caught trying to steal something," he said.

"Steal ? Oh, you've taken a terrible misapprehension. No," Maude said quickly, "I was merely trying to-to fetch something for my darlin' boy. A book, something for him to read until that Mr. Jackson declares him well enough to return to his own abode."

Larabee curled his lip. "Plenty of books right there by lamp," he said, nodding his head at the small table beside the old rocking chair Ezra had set beside the window.

Several leather-bound volumes were stacked there, next to an oil lamp with a green glass shade. A length of blue grosgrain ribbon marked the gambler's place in the top one, a copy of something by Samuel Johnson. A thin coat of the ever-present dust testified that no one had touched anything since Ezra had sickened.

Maude stood and smiled at him.

"Ezra requested I retrieve a specific volume," she said.

"It ain't there," Larabee said again, still leaning against the door jamb.

"No," Maude admitted and got to her feet. "My poor darlin' must be confused, he's been so ill. He told me it was in his trunk." She dusted off her skirt and offered Larabee a bright, patently false smile. "I shall just tell him to make do with one of these." She picked up the Johnson book and swept past Larabee into the hall. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to Ezra's bedside, Mr. Larabee."

"Don't bother coming back and looking again, Mrs. Standish," Larabee said to her retreating back.

Maude stiffened. "What do you mean, Mr. Larabee?"

"That deed you're so interested in getting your hands on," Larabee replied. "Ezra figured you'd try something. He gave me the deed and some other papers before he got sick." A cold smile touched his lips. "Told him I'd keep'em safe 'til he was on his feet."

"Well, really," Maude huffed.

"Matter of fact," Chris told her, "I think I might run you in."

Maude spun and glared at him. "You wouldn't dare."

A slow smile lifted Chris's mouth, an unaccustomed expression that sparked a glint of panic in Maude's eyes.

"If you don't want to come with me to the jail, then you better join me and the boys downstairs. You better have an explanation."

He started walking toward her. Maude opened her mouth then retreated toward the stairs. She descended to the Saloon ahead of him. After one longing look at the doors, she crossed the floor to the table where JD, Josiah, Vin and Buck were sitting.

They all stood for her, though Vin rose so slowly Maude began tapping her foot.

"What's going on?" JD asked. Nervousness made his voice almost crack.

"Your barbarian of a leader ," Maude started.

"Caught her tryin' to steal something of Ezra's," Chris interrupted.

Vin went still.

Buck shook his head. "Now, if that don't beat all."

Josiah frowned at Chris. "Are you sure, Brother Chris? That is a strong accusation."

He shrugged. "Watched her break into his room, then pick the lock on his trunk. She was looking for something." Chris waited a beat and added, "It wasn't there. Ezra gave it to me for safekeeping."

Maude's hands had clenched into fists.

Josiah looked at her sadly. "Maude, maybe you better sit and tell us what's really going on?" he told her. One big hand swept a curve-backed chair out for her.

Maude looked at all of them, trying to find an ally. JD was staring at her solemnly and Buck's usual good-humor had disappeared. Even Josiah looked disillusioned. With a sharp sigh, she seated herself.

"Why don't you tell them what you were after, Maude?" Chris suggested.

"A book for my son," she snapped.

He shook his head. She hadn't been looking for a book. She'd been looking for a deed. The night before Ezra had been poisoned, he'd handed it to Chris and asked him to keep it. "I had considered it worthless, but Mother's interest indicates I should re-evaluate. Her determination and resourcefulness should never be underestimated."

Chris hadn't believed Maude would go so far as trying to steal the deed, but he'd accepted the papers and taken them out to his ranch for safekeeping. As usual, Ezra had been right.

"Try again," he said.

Maude glared at him.

"Try again."

"Fine. I wanted the deed," she snapped.

Josiah sighed and dropped his hand onto the table top with a violent thump. "Maude, you disappoint me."

"Why'd you want the deed?" Chris asked.

Buck glanced at JD. When JD bit his lip, Chris's old friend spoke up. Buck sounded tired and saddened. "That deed is worth a damn sight, Chris. Bunch a miners and railroad bigwigs need it to lay a spur line to the biggest silver strike to hit Nevada in the last five years."

Maude's expression had set and her fingers were flexing on the plain wood tabletop. Chris almost expected her to hiss.

He raised an eyebrow at Buck. "How'd you find that out, Buck?"

"Pinkerton fella showed up at the jail this morning, hunting Ez. One of the railroad men, Corcoran, hired them to find Ezra so they could buy the deed off him," Buck explained. He looked hard at Maude. "Seems like quite a few folk have heard about it, since the fella Ez won the deed off of tried to sell it until it came out he'd lost it in a poker game."

"Where's this fella now?" Vin asked softly.

"Hoskins that's the Pinkerton said this fella Ez won the deed off of was in the hoosegow," Buck explained.

"The Pinkerton agent is put up at Virginia's," JD added. "I wired back East, made sure he was who he says he is."

Vin gave a short nod.

Chris met Buck's eyes briefly and almost smiled. JD had come a long way from the green Easterner that tumbled off the stage into Four Corners and the lives of six dangerous men. The naïveté had rubbed away, but the fundamental decency remained unstained. JD still looked like a kid, but three years on he deserved the badge he wore and knew how use his brain as well as his speed with his Colt Lightnings. Buck, more than any of them, had the right to be proud of that.

JD went on, "We figured Nathan wasn't going to let Hoskins in to see Ez today. So he said he'd get a room and wait. He sent a telegraph to Mr. Corcoran in Virginia City. Got one back too. Showed it to me. It told him to offer Ez whatever he wanted."

Vin leaned forward with his elbows on the table. "Is that what you were figuring?" he asked Maude harshly. "You'd con Ez out of that deed in exchange for the Saloon you stole from him? 'Course, he saw through ya, so ya decided ya'd just steal it instead?"

"Brother Vin ," Josiah cautioned.

Vin's fierce, low voice went on, overriding Josiah. His words sent a cold chill down Chris's spine.

"Or maybe ya figured this Corcoran fella'd pay enough that it'd be worth killin' Ez for that deed. We know ya ain't 'bove marryin' for money. Maybe ya ain't 'bove murderin' to inherit it neither."

The only sound that followed was the hard creak of stressed wood where Josiah's hand was locked on the edge of the table as he drew in hard, harsh breaths. The grizzled older man was fighting hard to hold his temper.

To Chris, it felt like the hollow instant before a gunfight.

JD's lips parted, but no words came. His wide hazel eyes flickered from Vin's set visage to Buck's slowly hardening expression and Josiah's stormy frown until they met Chris's across the table. The boy looked horrified. JD hadn't seen the ugliness the rest of them had. Maybe it wasn't in him to imagine the level of greed necessary for someone to poison their own child. Chris knew it could happen. Worse did.

"Damn," Buck breathed. The hard glint in his blue eyes showed he believed it.

Chris wasn't sure he didn't want to think it, but Ella Gaines proved there were women worse than the baddest outlaws and Maude was Ezra's logical heir.

Maude just sat frozen, whiter than a Chinese doll.

Buck scraped his chair back and stood. "I'm thinking maybe someone needs to be guarding Ezra." Or maybe he just didn't want to sit at the table with Maude any longer.

"That isn't such a bad idea," Chris agreed.

"You sit down!" Josiah bellowed, pointing a shaking finger at Buck.

Vin flicked a glance at Buck. "I already done told Nathan to keep her away from him."

"How dare you?" Maude erupted. She reached for her reticule but Vin's hand snaked across the tabletop faster than Chris could think, wrapping hard around her wrist.

"Lord God, Vin Tanner, you take your hands off that woman," Josiah thundered. He lurched to his feet, big hands clenching into fists. "You got no call making accusations like that."

Vin's hand stayed on Maude's wrist. "You check her bag, Chris, see if she's got one of them bitty hold-out guns in there then I'll let go of her."

"Hold up, Josiah," Chris snapped.

Josiah's fist was already moving and would have knocked Vin ass over teakettle if Buck hadn't latched onto his arm and pulled him away.

"Now, ease up, hoss," Buck urged.

JD dragged his seat back and got to his feet, but seemed unsure which way to jump.

Chris cautiously opened Maude's velvet bag and slid out the neat little two-shot derringer. Mother-of-pearl inlaid on the butt, silver-chased curliques on the barrel. No sight to catch on anything, but derringers were meant for close up work, not target shooting. It was a pretty little thing for a gun, made up special for a woman. Plenty of men couldn't even fit their finger through the trigger guard.

Josiah made a pained sound as Buck released the hold on him.

"Damn," JD whispered.

Chris covered the little pistol with his hand and leveled an icy glare at Maude. "Are you stupid enough to think you could shoot one of us and get away with it?" he asked. If she was then Vin's charge seemed much more likely. He'd never thought Maude was crazy before, but...

Vin slowly let go of Maude's wrist and settled back in his chair.

"There, 'siah, see?" he stated. "I don't aim to get plugged."

"Maude," Josiah said sorrowfully.

She was rigid, lips set in a straight, bloodless line. Her eyes snapped with fury. They'd all be dead if a look had been enough, Chris reckoned.

"I have nothing to say to any of you," she snapped.

"I think you better do that from the jail then," Chris replied.

Maude lifted her chin and glared. "On what charge?"

"Attempted murder."

"Because that buckskin-clad savage is afraid of a mere woman?" Maude demanded scornfully.

"You're no 'mere' anything, Mrs. Standish," JD said, surprising all of them with his harshness. He stepped around Buck's empty chair and set his hand on her shoulder. "You'd best come along now."

"This is an outrage!"

Chris watched JD pull Maude to her feet.

"Reckon we're all outraged right now, ma'am," JD replied. "Buck, I'd appreciate if you'd walk with us down to the jail. We don't want Mrs. Standish making any accusations or trying for my guns. We'll stop by the Clarion and ask Mary to help do things proper." He wrapped his hand around one of Maude's wrists, just as Vin had. "Chris, if you'd bring that little gun down later, we'll lock it up as evidence."

"You can't do this," Maude protested. She jerked against JD's hold, only to find herself backed into Buck's solid presence. "You can't! Mr. Dunne "

"Ma'am, I am the sheriff," JD reminded her.

Buck took hold of Maude's other arm.

"Don't be making a scene here, Maude," he added in a low voice that hinted at steel underneath. Between him and JD, they propelled the stiff and uncooperative woman out of the saloon.

Through it all, Josiah stood aside, like someone lost.

With a sigh, Chris picked up the mug of beer Buck had left and finished it. He had a bad taste in his mouth.

He looked up at Josiah. "Josiah "

Josiah held up his hand in a plea for silence. His forehead pleated into a frown and he closed his eyes for a heartbeat. "She did it again," he said. His shoulders slumped under the weight of assumed guilt. "Brother Vin... forgive my anger."

Vin shrugged. "Ain't nothin' to forgive."

"I was blinded by my own needs," Josiah explained. "I wanted to see Maude and Ezra reconciled, as though that would make up for all my mistakes as a father."

Chris nodded to himself. He'd always suspected Josiah had had a family once. Maybe Ezra reminded him of his child, maybe it was just Ezra was the only one of them with a still living parent, but Josiah had cast mother and son in place of his own family. He was seeing ghosts and not them.

"I understand that now, Brother," Josiah went on, "but I do not believe Maude tried to kill Ezra. She is a flawed mother, but not a monster. To kill your own child that is a sin only the desperate or evil can contemplate."

"Folks kill other folks for a lot of strange reasons, 'siah. Brought in a bounty once for a murder in Reno he said he shot the man just to watch 'im die." Vin looked tired and older than his years, slumped down in his chair. "Money makes more sense than that. Least ways, Ezra'd figure it would."

Josiah just shook his head, jaw set.

"Maude's not a murderess." Chris tapped his finger on the derringer.

"Ezra wasn't shot," Josiah pointed out. He rolled his wide shoulders, head coming forward into a stubborn stance.

"She needs to do some explaining," Chris declared quietly. He tried to quell both men with a cold glance, but Vin was immune to intimidation and Josiah had that determined expression.

"Brother Ezra needs to know what you've done with Maude," Josiah decided. He nodded at Chris less than respectfully and strode out.

Chris twisted his mouth and glared at Vin. "What about you?"

"What about me, cowboy?" Vin asked, unruffled.

"You got anything more to say?"

Vin's eyes were usually as easy to read as his expression. Maybe he'd been taking lessons from Ezra. His expression this time was as impassive as the professional gambler's. His eyes hid his thoughts. Chris couldn't read him.

"Got somethin' I'm thinkin' on," Vin said. "Ain't sayin' 'til I know for sure. It's some bad. If I'm right." He shoved his chair back and stood up. "Really want to be wrong 'bout this one, Chris."

"You let me know," Chris replied.

Vin settled his hat onto his long hair. "I'm takin' Ez's patrol. Going to stop in at Nettie's."

"See you for supper then."

Nettie would insist Vin sit down to dinner with her and Casey.

"Yep." Vin dipped his head and walked away.

Chris looked down at the engraving-decorated derringer. A flick of his forefinger had it spinning on its side. It came to stop pointing between chairs instead of where anyone had been sitting.

He let out a breath and chuckled to himself.

It didn't mean a thing. He still had a bad taste in his mouth and Vin's cryptic evasions hadn't helped his mood.

*******

JD slanted a dirty look at the blond woman sitting prim and rigid inside the cell. He switched his attention back to Buck while impatiently kicking his bootheels against the side of the desk he sat on. Buck had propped himself near the door, slowly drinking coffee from a white-flecked enamel cup. His dark blue eyes rested on Maude. A frown creased his forehead.

Chris topped his own mug up from the coffee pot on the jail stove and sat down behind the desk. Once he shuffled a pile of Wanted posters to the side, it made an excellent boot rest. He reminded himself to take care to not kick over the oil lamp burning at the corner of the desk.

"How long do you think you can keep me locked up in here?" Maude demanded.

Chris sipped his coffee.

"Well?"

Buck had made the coffee. Chris took another sip, savoring it. He made a drinkable camp coffee himself and so did Nathan. Vin and Josiah brewed up a bitter, tar-like brew and JD's pots were always weak. Buck and Ezra were the only ones who could brew a good cup of coffee and rousting Ezra early enough to do so wasn't worth the trouble.

"Until you tell us the truth," he said eventually.

"That's so damn low," JD exclaimed, glaring at Maude again, "trying to kill your own son "

"I didn't try to kill Ezra!" Maude shouted. She jumped to her feet and began pacing. A blonde strand came loose from her elaborately upswept hair and trailed down the center of her back. She didn't notice.

"If you didn't, you know who did," Chris said.

Maude swung around and directed a look of absolute hatred at him. No doubt she would happily have killed Chris right then.

"I didn't. I never meant to hurt Ezra. He told me it was "

"He who?" Buck pounced.

The jail door swung open to admit Josiah and Nathan. Nathan looked worried and unhappy enough that Chris swung his feet off the desk and demanded, "Ezra?"

"Vin's with him, Brother Chris," Josiah answered.

Chris frowned. He didn't like the feeling he got off the two men who had just arrived. He didn't like much of anything that had happened in the last few days and there wasn't even anyone to shoot over it.

"Did you tell him we got Maude locked up?"

Josiah glanced at Nathan then shook his head. "Changed my mind. Thought we should talk on this, get it straight, before burdening the man with... thinking that. Hoskins was there for a while, trying to persuade Ezra to sell the Stairstep Canyon deed to Mr. Corcoran."

Nathan nodded from the place he'd taken a few steps away from Buck.

"You can't just lock Maude up on Vin's say so, Chris," Nathan said.

"Thank you, Mr. Jackson," Maude commented.

"Maybe," Chris said, "but we're not letting her loose until she starts telling the truth, beginning with that damn deed."

"Well?" Buck prompted Maude.

She was staring at Josiah. "Did he did Ezra sell?"

"That's all you can ask?" JD exclaimed in contempt. "You ain't a mother." He shook his head, dark long bangs flapping into his eyes. The scorn in his voice was echoed in his expression. "I don't what you are, but I'm keeping you in there and away from Ez. Can't see how he even grew up, having you to depend on.."

"It's all black and white, isn't it, Mr. Dunne?" Maude replied. She sounded tired. Her normally impeccable posture had succumbed to exhaustion and her shoulders slumped. She walked back to the little cot set against the wall under a high, barred window and sat down. "Good and evil."

She smiled, an empty and unamused expression Chris recognized from his own mirror some mornings.

"No mitigating circumstances, no reasons are good enough if you deem an action evil. Anyone who crosses your moral borderline is absolutely evil."

"I didn't say that," JD said in a small voice.

Maude shook her head. "I didn't try to kill my son, Mr. Dunne. I... miscalculated. I learned that the deed he had in his possession was no longer worthless and saw an opportunity. I thought that he would be happy to secure the ownership of the saloon again. I would sell the deed for a tidy profit. Everything would be fine."

"It didn't bother ya to lie to Ez, to cheat him out of the money that deed's really worth?" Buck demanded.

"No, it did not, Mr. Wilmington," Maude snapped back. A glint of anger and pride shone in her blue-green eyes. "Ezra is well aware of my proclivities. Indeed, he would he would have done as much to me. Most people are sheep, but not Ezra."

"Never said he was, but he's a curly wolf, not a mad dog," Buck said. "And, like Vin would say, wolves are loyal to their pack at least." He straightened up from his slouch against the wall. "Hell, I've heard enough. Chris, I got the night patrol." He stalked over to the stove, opened it and dumped the dregs of his coffee inside with an almighty sizzle and stink. The empty mug was roughly set on the shelf next to the stove with the can of coffee beans and JD's little jar of sugar.

As he pulled on his coat, he looked back and met Chris's eyes. "You going to stay here with JD tonight?"

"Buck, I don't need no damn babysitter," JD protested.

Chris nodded.

Buck gave a sharp nod back and walked out.

Chris turned his eyes back to Maude, who looked like a wilted yellow flower stuck in the dingy cell.

"Ezra won't tolerate this, you know," Maude said.

He ignored her. "Nathan."

Nathan's eyes flashed from Maude to Chris. "Yeah?"

"You figure out whatever poisoned Ezra?"

"I got a pretty good idea," Nathan responded cautiously.

"What do you figure?"

Nathan glanced at Maude again, looking conflicted. Then he shoved his hands deep in his pockets and hunched his shoulders faintly. "Well, it can kill a man, if he takes enough. Almost killed Ezra. But a little bit, would just make him damn sick, give him sweats and crazy dreams." He pursed his lips. "Ezra could have just got more than " he looked at Maude again, " someone meant for him."

"There!" Maude said triumphantly. "Mr. Jackson knows I didn't mean to kill Ezra. Now let me out of here."

"Nah-anh," JD contradicted. "You're staying right in there where we can keep an eye on you, until Ez decides if he wants to press charges."

"You don't have any evidence."

Chris slammed his coffee cup down. One of the Wanted posters fluttered off the desk and the lamp flame flickered wildly. JD caught at the rocking glass chimney before it could fall and break. He snatched his fingers away from the hot glass an instant later and sucked on them thoughtlessly, soothing the mild burn.

"Tell it to the judge," Chris snarled, sick of Maude and worrying about Ezra and the damn dumb greed swirling around a fucking piece of paper. "He'll be coming through in three weeks."

He turned on Josiah next.

"You. Not one word. Get out of here and get some sleep. You have the early morning patrol."

Josiah gave Maude a hangdog look. "I'm sorry, Maude, but it may be for the best if you stay here. I'll get Inez to bring you some things from your hotel room in the morning."

"Mr. Sanchez! Josiah!" Maude screeched. "You're abandoning me here?"

"If someone makes another try at killing Ezra and you're here, no one can blame you," Josiah explained. "I am sorry, Maude."

"Traitor," she hissed then turned her back on Josiah and the room.

Nathan wouldn't meet Chris's eyes and followed Josiah out into the night, leaving only JD and the silently fuming Maude. Chris considered her for a minute and decided to ease up.

"JD, why don't you go down to the Gem and see if you can get three suppers put together for us and bring 'em back," he said. "No reason to starve anyone here."

"Don't bother trying to play the gentleman for me, Mr. Larabee," Maude sniped.

"I wasn't."

He pulled a couple of coins out of his pocket and tossed them to JD then inclined his head toward the door. JD flashed a grin and left with a bang.

Alone with Maude, Chris fed a few more pieces of wood into the stove and said, "I don't know if you tried to kill Ezra or not, but you almost did. Think about that."

Maude didn't answer.

With a sigh, Chris picked up a bit of kindling and began whittling it, not sure what he meant it to be. The thin shavings of soft pine dropped onto the floor and on his thighs. The sharp clean scent mingled with the kerosene in the lamp, the coffee, and the musty smell of the jail itself. He smoothed his thumb over the raw wood, trying to feel the grain. The pine was paler than his tanned hands, pale as Maude's hair. He couldn't decide what to carve. He hoped Ezra would just sell that damned deed to Hoskins or Corcoran or whoever and get this mess over with. He was sick of it.

He kept whittling at the wood in his hands until JD came back and all he had in the end was a handful of sweet smelling, curling shavings.

13. Four Corners, 1877

"You got to know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em,
"Know when to walk away; know when to run.
"You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
"There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

The Gambler,
Kenny Rogers (written by Don Schlitz)

"You have my mother in the jail," Ezra said slowly, staring at Vin. Wry disbelief, admiration and bemusement colored his tone.

He had locked up Maude himself once, but never imagined any of the others would. He'd simply chalked her nonappearance at his sickbed to her aversion to any sort of illness or weakness. A small spark of anger mingled with the other emotions, directed at the six men who had failed to mention Maude's incarceration before this. Why had stayed silent? Did they think he had been oblivious to her absence?

Ezra finished knotting his black string-tie, settled his bottle-green coat around his shoulders, and started for the door.

"Nathan say you could leave?" Vin asked.

Ezra paused. "I believe Mr. Jackson expressed the opinion that I was welcome to walk out of this place... if I could." He spread his arms and turned, flashing a dimpled, cocky smile at Vin to show he was back to himself and ready to stroll out the door. "Since you were kind enough to fetch my present attire from my room, I am about to do just that."

"Nate's probably going to skin me for that," Vin expressed.

"Oh, I doubt that, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. He opened the door and gestured sweepingly for Vin to precede him. "After three days in these confines together, Mr. Jackson will no doubt be extremely relieved to be shut of my company."

As I am of his, Ezra finished the thought. Nathan had been curiously close-mouthed around him these last days. Ezra didn't know what to make of the new attitude after so long as Nathan's scapegoat.

Frankly it made him suspicious. Bitten back comments and excessive concern were not Nathan's usual modus operandi. Nathan wasn't a man who experienced much guilt in Ezra's estimation, but he would swear the healer was feeling guilty about something.

He'd come to the tentative conclusion that Nathan was refraining from continuing their quarrels simply because Ezra had announced his imminent departure. Nathan probably saw no more point in browbeating him. Ezra wasn't about to reform or conform to Nathan's ideals in his remaining time in Four Corners they both knew it.

While some small voice inside insisted that Nathan's odd behavior owed itself to something more than that, Ezra muffled it. It didn't matter and he didn't care. Soon he would be away.

With the arrival of Mr. Hoskins and his news about Ezra's deed, his next destination was clear. He would leave for Virginia City once he had dealt with the matter of his mother. There he would sell the critical stretch of Stairstep Canyon for the most advantageous price. After that... With a fat wallet he might journey anywhere. Europe beckoned, a beacon of civility and culture after his long sojourn in the Western wilderness. He'd never been to Paris.

"Hey, Ez," Vin asked as he came down the stairs behind Ezra, "why're ya calling me Mister Tanner again?"

"Am I?" Ezra replied.

He tugged at his shirt cuff, then brushed his coat sleeve. The feel of his derringer rig back in place brought a faint smile to his face. He'd rather be walking through town in nothing but a tablecloth and boots again than without his guns.

He knew why he started calling Vin by his surname again. It helped distance him from the man. Formality was an armor he did not forego with many. It was time to rebuild some walls. When he left, he would need to remember to watch his own back again.

With a sigh, he started down the sidewalk in the direction of the jail.

Maude would be seething by now. He really wasn't looking forward to this.

"Hell yeah."

"My apologies."

Vin caught up and walked parallel to him. Ezra was amused to note Vin subtly trying to herd him toward the inside of the sidewalk, as if he was a lady in need of protection. Ezra merely lengthened his stride. After three days confined in Nathan's clinic, he wanted real sun and fresh air, not the shadows under the overhang. He wanted to move, to be out and about, in a way that made him understand desire for the wilderness. Unfortunately, his first order of business was visiting Maude.

In the jail.

His lips quirked into a reluctant smile. JD had actually arrested her. That young man had come a long way if he could stand up to Maude Standish. Mother was losing her touch. She considered JD a wet-behind-the-ears boy, but hadn't been able to sweet-talk her way out.

He paused before the jail door, straightening his shoulders and taking a deep breath before stepping inside.

Maude shot to her feet from the cot. "Ezra, darlin', you've come to effect my emancipation from this vile cell."

"Well, Mother, that remains to be seen," he replied.

Vin was a warm presence behind him. Ezra might have wanted to speak to Maude alone, but he knew Vin wasn't going to allow that. He moved a few paces forward, letting Vin slip in silently.

"Hey, Ez," JD exclaimed, jumping to his feet and coming around the desk. Delight showed in the wide smile and shining eyes.

Ezra braced himself for the hug JD obviously wanted to give him. JD stopped a pace away and held out his hand.

Ezra took it, then slid his hand up and locked around JD's wrist, just as JD did the same. Somehow, that warrior's hand grip they'd seen Vin and Chris use had come to mean much more than a mere handshake. The bond it symbolized was more than mere formality.

"Jiminy, I'm happy to see you," JD blurted out.

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You saw me yesterday, JD, when you brought me lunch at Mr. Jackson's clinic."

JD shot a dark look at Maude. She returned it with interest. Ezra shared a laughing glance with Vin that Maude saw. Her lips pressed together. Two spots of high color flared over her cheekbones, a sure sign she was furious, Ezra knew.

JD said, "I'm not too fond of your Ma right now, Ez. I'd appreciate it if you'd talk to her and decide if you want us to keep her locked up."

"Perhaps if I had been informed before this, I might have relieved you of this onerous duty before this, JD."

JD shrugged. "You were pretty sick, Ez."

Ezra smiled. JD had visited each day, he knew, even those days he didn't remember.

"Ezra!" Maude snapped impatiently.

He rolled his eyes. "JD, why don't you go on over to the Saloon and see if Inez has something fixed for lunch? I need to speak with my Mother. Tell her I'm yearning for her enchiladas con pollo."

JD slanted a look past Ezra to Vin then nodded. "I'll be back in an hour or so," he promised.

"No need to hurry," Ezra assured him.

JD laughed and was out the door.

Maude turned her glare on Vin next, her chin coming up. Truly a remarkable woman, Ezra reflected. There she stood in a dusty Western jail cell, arrested on the suspicion of poisoning her own son, held there for days, yet she presented the appearance of a perfect lady. Her hair was dressed in a classically smooth chignon. Her lips were delicately rouged. She wore fine dress of watered-silk in a shade of Prussian blue, snow white lace adorning her wrists and the high neck. Garnet earrings dangled from her ears, matching the garnet and pearl broach at her throat.

Ezra took off his hat and set on the desk. The room was too warm, heat shimmering off the well stoked stove, after the brisk air outside. He didn't consider shrugging off his wool coat though. If Maude could maintain her appearances, so could he.

"Mother," he said, approaching the bars separating them.

"Ezra, I refuse to speak while that uncouth savage is in the same room," Maude hissed at him.

"I consider Mr. Tanner a true gentleman, Mother. Moreover, he, as I am, is free to leave. You are not. I implore you to reconsider this " he paused delicately, " intransigence."

Another seething look sent Vin's way and she acquiesced.

"Very well, Ezra."

He waited, eyebrows raised.

Maude gritted her teeth.

"Oh, for the love of Heaven, Mother," Ezra finally said in exasperation. "Say you did, say you didn't. Say something. I've spoken with Mr. Hoskins of the Pinkerton Agency, I know that the deed you tried to extract from me has assumed a remarkable value. The only question is whether you were willing to kill me for it."

Maude drew in a pained breath. She even squeezed her eyes shut. A tear trickled down her cheek. She wiped at it fussily when she opened her eyes.

"Ezra, how can you ask me that?" she asked.

Ezra cocked his head. "I know you, Mother. You've never resorted to violence or drugs, but you can be quite resourceful when pressed."

Vin stirred restlessly, looking from Maude to Ezra and back. He tucked his thumbs into his belt, leaning hip-shot against the wall, head tipped. A small snort of amusement escaped him.

"You don't think she did it, do ya?" he asked.

Ezra smiled faintly. "No," he admitted.

"Of course, I wouldn't," Maude said. She stepped right up to the bars and held out her hand to Ezra. A brilliant smile lit her features. "You know I'd never hurt my darlin' boy."

Ezra slanted her a sardonic look. "I didn't say that, Mother. I don't believe you meant to kill me. That doesn't mean you didn't try to drug me, just as Mr. Tanner has theorized."

Maude jerked her hand back and curled it into a fist.

"Ezra!"

Vin tipped his head a little further in a silent question.

"No doubt you miscalculated the dosage or failed to anticipate that none of my compatriots would indulge in that particular delicacy," Ezra stated.

Maude blinked while Vin gave a tiny nod.

"I imagine you intended to abscond with the Stairstep Canyon deed while we were all incapacitated," Ezra continued. He smiled at Maude. "A shame your plan went awry, Mother, but such often do when you rush matters."

Maude licked her lips. She straightened her shoulders. "Very well. You win, Ezra. I'm proud of you. Now let me out of here."

"Not just yet," he said. "I want to know the rest of it."

"What What rest?"

"Ez?"

He directed a silencing glance at Vin.

"The rest of it, Maman," Ezra said in French. "You are seldom so foolish or so obvious. This is more than besting me in a contest of wits, more than acquiring a potentially lucrative item. You would never resort to such desperate measures for such reasons."

"Ez," Vin said. "Ya want to talk a lingo I can speak?"

Ezra held up his hand toward Vin and kept his gaze locked with Maude's.

Maude replied in French as well.

"You must either sell the deed to me or to someone poste haste, Ezra."

"And why is that?"

"I entered into an agreement with a more than well-to-do businessman in St. Louis. It was really a very good deal, Ezra. He paid me $10,000 dollars to sign a contract agreeing to sell him the Stairstep Canyon land if it were to fall into my hands. $10,000 just for signing that contract."

"Mother "

"I promised him I would get the deed from you, Ezra. There was no reason for him to "

"Establish a bounty on my head? Did you even stop to think " Ezra stopped. He pinched the bridge of his nose. His head was throbbing again. "Of course not," he muttered.

"Ezra, please, just let me take the deed," Maude pleaded. "We can split the profit. Even the $10,000."

She actually wrung her hands, probably at the thought parting with any of that lovely lucre.

"Please. Magnusson will cancel the bounty once I wire that I have the deed. That's why I had to get it from you. Otherwise, he'll have you killed. He told me so before I left St. Louis."

"You poisoned me to save me?" Ezra exclaimed in disbelief.

"Yes," Maude replied simply.

He stared at her, trying to gauge whether she was lying. He sighed and fished the keys out of the desk.

"Ez," Vin protested as he began unlocking the cell. "She's done admitted feedin' ya poison. You're lettin' her out?"

Ezra paused with his hand on a bar. He rested his forehead against the cool iron briefly then twisted to face Vin. "She has explained her reasons," he said tiredly. "That's enough for me."

He turned back, away from Vin's disapproving expression, and inserted the key. The lock wanted to stick and he had to take deep breath against the impulse to force the key. Instead he jiggled it with a delicate touch and the lock obligingly gave way. He pulled the door open and waved his mother out of the cell.

Maude stopped in front of him. "Ezra," she murmured as she brushed her fingers along his temple in a rare display of affection. Her hand lingered.

"Go on, Mother. I suggest you take the afternoon stage."

"The deed...?"

Ezra laughed despite himself. "I shall dispose of it myself."

Maude stroked a strand of his hair away and then withdrew. "You've always been stubborn, son."

"Go on, Mother, before I decide I'm safer with you under lock and key."

She nodded then stopped in front of Vin. "Mr. Tanner."

Vin glared at her.

"I don't believe in relying on luck, Mr. Tanner," she said coolly. "I have tried to teach Ezra to never rely on it. Don't force him to."

Vin narrowed his eyes then dipped his head just once. "Got somethin' better than luck," he rasped.

Maude nodded decisively then swept out of the jail.

Ezra watched her disappear out into the bright day and shook his head. He would never fully understand his mother. His heart felt a bit lighter, however. In her defense, she hadn't intended him any real harm. She'd just been following her nature.

"Chris ain't goin' to be too happy 'bout ya lettin' her loose," Vin observed.

Ezra shrugged.

"Ya goin' to tell 'em what she said?"

"I believe I shall have to," Ezra agreed.

"Ya feelin' all right?" Vin asked suddenly. He peered at Ezra closer, probably seeing the mild wince and squinted eyes.

Ezra sighed. "My eyes are still sensitive, it seems. I have a slight headache."

"Reckon a drink of somethin' might help?"

"What an absolutely splendid offer, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said swiftly. He straightened his shoulders. The Saloon would be pleasantly dim in addition. "Let us proceed to the Saloon and indulge in a small libation."

Vin rolled his eyes. "Didn' say nothin' about buyin' ya any li-bay-shuns, Ez."

"Mr. Tanner -"

"Vin. Ya call me Vin and I'll buy ya a drink."

Ezra glanced at him sidelong. "Very well. Vin."

Vin's mouth curled into a pleased smile. Ezra could suppress his own dimpled response as they exited the jail.

"No doubt I shall need it once Mr. Larabee learns I've sent Mother on her way," he murmured.

"Ya can always say you're still off your head," Vin teased.

"I may, Vin, I may."

*******

Ezra listened to the stage clatter out of town as he moved about his room above the Saloon. Despite his impulse to watch it and his mother go, he did not approach the window. Instead, he studied the room he'd lived in for most of three years excepting the months he'd repaired to the Rafferty boarding house after losing the Saloon to Maude. Astounding, he thought. Three years in this simple room.

The soft afternoon light slanted through thin curtains illuminating the room's spare contents. Ezra's beloved featherbed took up much of the room, covered in a softly faded star-patterned quilt. The sun warmed the fabric's colors, calicos and paisleys and plaids, each piece so different yet fitted together so meticulously they formed a beautiful whole. Ezra brushed his hands over the quilt regretfully.

Like so much, he would be leaving it behind.

There was no use to brooding over it.

He knelt and pulled a carpetbag from under the bed. His saddlebags were waiting by the door, along with his bedroll. He kept them always ready. Life as a lawman hadn't changed the habits learned during the war. Those habits had served him just as well in Four Corners as they had during all his itinerant years of traveling and gambling.

Into the carbetbag went his handkerchiefs, socks, cravats and small clothes. Next a selection of carefully folded shirts, linen and silk, then his pants, vests, and finally four of his favorite jackets: the robin's red, bottle-green, black and, after a moment's quiet consideration, the tan. There were times a man might wish to be well tailored without presenting such a memorably colorful profile.

Next the elements of a hygienic life, his razor and strop, cup and brush, face cloth and towel, ivory-backed hairbrush and comb, the small mirror that matched them, the carved horn soap keeper, the bottle of hair oil he disliked using because it made the dust stick. Each fitted into its place in a worn brown leather case he'd acquired from a cotton planter in Vicksberg. Boot brush and polish, neats'-foot oil, the nearly empty bottle of sandalwood cologne he preferred, the special lotion he used to keep his hands soft and flexible, the liniment he used on his and Hazard's muscles. Everything carefully capped or closed and put away.

He hesitated over the half-full bottle of laudanum he'd used to dose himself into insensibility the last time he'd had a headache. He tucked it away with a shrug. Better to be prepared.

He considered his books regretfully. A gambler needed to travel light. He decided he would leave them for the others. Perhaps JD might improve his taste if exposed to something other than those loathsome dime novels. The copy of Dumas' The Three Musketeers would make a fine parting gift for Mr. Tanner, an expression of his confidence and respect for the tracker's new skills.

From the wardrobe, he drew out his sandy-gray duster and checked that his riding gloves were still in the pocket.

He knelt and opened his trunk, choosing what among the contents he couldn't part with. A tiny carving of a running mustang, thrown away by Mr. Larabee, that Ezra had picked up on a whim, wouldn't take much room. A smooth polished stone the size of a plate with the impression of some vast beast's paw given him by Vin. "Wolf-spirit, maybe, or maybe there were giant wolves like them giant lizards ya told us about back before there was people." Well, it was rather large, but he could find room for it. Several rings, including a turquoise one, won at the tables. A small packet of letters he written to Lorena but held onto he'd meant to give them all to her when he reached Baltimore and felt only relief he'd never sent them. One of JD's hideous dime novels that Ezra had tucked away for no discernable reason. A silver St. Christopher's medal Maude had given him as part of a con once.

Not much, he reflected, not much for three years, much less a life.

Ezra shrugged.

He slipped the various items into the carpetbag with the exception of the letters. Those he took in hand and ducked down the back stairs, into Inez' kitchen, and fed into her stove. He watched the edges curl, catch and blacken for a moment before closing the stove.

"What are you doing, Señor Standish?" Inez asked from behind him.

Ezra suppressed a reflexive jump and turned around.

"Burying something that died years ago."

"In my stove?"

"Figuratively speaking, my dear."

Inez' eyes betrayed her curiosity, but she asked nothing more. "Will you be wanting dinner here?" she asked instead.

"That would be splendid," Ezra told her.

He smiled. Inez was a lovely woman, one he might have fallen in love with in other circumstances. Forthright, clever, brave, lovely to look upon, honest yet practical, the list of her virtues would beggar the vocabulary of many men. Not Ezra Standish, of course. He hadn't pursued her for more reasons than one. Buck's interest was of concern, but Inez herself deserved more than a dalliance and a dalliance was all Ezra had to offer. He'd never intended to stay in Four Corners so long, he sought no commitment, for his heart had gone cold after Lorena.

The drug Maude had slipped into his pie might have almost killed him, but he'd faced down some of his demons while under its influence. Ezra felt lighter than he had in years, freed from the dark, pained ache he'd held locked inside. Freed from Maude and her expectations too, he acknowledged. She'd failed and he could find it in him to forgive her, because he saw her for what she was. Lorena had only followed her own nature too. No more and no less and what he had loved for so long was only the dream of her and not the woman.

He'd spent night after night dreaming of Lorena, of what could have been and what was. He'd nursed his disillusionment. He'd watered it with hidden tears like Blake's wrath, walled it away in the darkness and let it grow. He had been as consumed by his past as Chris Larabee. He'd drifted into a life too much like his mother's, let fate whipsaw him back and forth, because he thought it didn't matter. He had convinced himself he didn't care. Had convinced himself he was as cold and careless as the mask he presented to the world.

He realized now that he did care. What he did mattered not just to him but to his friends and his friends mattered, what they thought and what happened to them, to him. Lorena, much as he had loved her, much as that memory could still pain him, didn't. It was time to put those memories away, just as it was time to move on from Four Corners. Lorena no longer had any hold on his loyalties or his love.

Ezra caught up Inez' hand, a hand that was rougher than his own, worn with washing and work, and placed a gentle kiss on her palm.

Inez' eyes widened.

"Señor Standish "

Ezra let go and stepped back.

"I mean to ride out in the morning, Señorita Recillos," he said, still smiling. "I want you to know that you have been a delight in my life here."

"Oh."

Feeling reckless, Ezra added, "I regret never courting you, my dear. Your heart is a prize well worth winning."

A deep blush darkened Inez's cheeks.

With a last, laughing salute, he exited the kitchen, heading into the Saloon proper rather than return to his room. He still needed to speak with Chris Larabee, to explain why he'd let Mother go and reacquire the strongbox of papers, including the Stairstep Canyon deed.

*******

"He's over at the jail," Buck told him.

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"JD told him you and Vin were talking to your Ma." Buck shook his head. "He wasn't too happy when we got over there and all of you were gone. Better be careful."

"Ah."

"Why'd you go letting her out, Ez?"

Ezra's ebullient mood dimmed. His smile took on a cynical edge. "She didn't do anything I shouldn't have expected. It was merely the manner of it that came as a surprise."

Buck's mouth turned down.

Ezra sighed. "I suppose I better face up to Mr. Larabee."

"Hell, sit down, have a beer. He'll find you soon enough if you stay right here," Buck said.

He appreciated the invitation, but shook his head. "No. I need to settle the matter with him."

"You sure it can't wait until he's come off the prod, Ezra?"

"Unfortunately." Ezra managed a weak smile. "I'm leaving tomorrow, you see."

Buck's beer mug thumped down onto the table, the contents splashing out.

"What the hell?"

"I believe I informed everyone of my plans before my unpleasant illness," Ezra said. "I really can't waste the opportunity to sell this deed of mine for a substantial profit, you know. I may well decide to invest in an establishment in Virginia City."

He waited for Buck's protest, but it didn't come.

"You up to taking the trail?" was all Buck asked.

"I'm perfectly recovered." Ezra hesitated then held out his hand. "It has been a privilege, sir."

Buck took Ezra's hand. His grip was firm and steady. They shook without any posturing, just a simple gesture between two men with nothing to prove.

"I guess I didn't reckon you were really going to go, Ez."

"Someone was going to, sooner or later," Ezra observed.

Buck's blue gaze turned distant, his thoughts bent to something far outside the Saloon. "Reckon so. It's been building."

His attention returned to Ezra.

"You'll do, Ez. If you're ever in need, you let old Bucklin know."

Ezra nodded, covering the warm feeling those words gave him with a smile and tip of his hat before leaving the Saloon.

He found Chris in front of the jail, a long lean shadow leaning against the wall. One of his cheroots dangled from his lips and smoke trickled dragon-like from his nostrils. A hard, dangerous man who seemed increasingly incongruous in the bustling hamlet of Four Corners. People on the sidewalk gave him plenty of room. Chris ignored them.

Ezra stopped in front of him and waited.

"Saw her get on the stage," Chris said at last. He flicked ash from the cheroot onto the street.

Ezra nodded. He licked his bottom lip. "I suppose you want to know exactly what happened?"

Chris nodded sharply.

"She merely meant to incapacitate me and anyone else who consumed the dosed pie," he explained. "My refusal to part with the deed in question had confounded her plan. She became rather desperate, as she had already entered into an agreement with a rather ruthless gentleman I do use the term loosely in this case to supply said deed, including accepting a payment on that score."

Chris eyed him closely then an evil grin lit his severe features. "Looks like you outwitted her this time, Standish," he said. "I suppose you want that strongbox back?"

Ezra blinked. He had come out the winner this time, hadn't he? Maude hadn't succeeded. He had been so distracted by the various attempts on his life, as well as his hellish three-day derangement, that it truly hadn't occurred to him. There was still the matter of the bounty, but once he sold the deed, Magnusson would withdraw it.

Though Magnusson might turn those funds over to putting a price on Maude's head. So be it. Just because he hadn't seen fit to have her charged with attempted murder didn't mean he forgave her for the misery she'd inflicted on him. Ezra had no doubt she could look out for herself in any case. It was her truest talent.

Those thoughts flashed through his mind before he answered, distracting him into speaking without his usual circumspection.

"Indeed, as I intend to leave for Virginia City tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow?"

Chris pushed away from the wall and loomed over Ezra, the smile stripped away like a dream. Oh, there was that Larabee temper. Buck had been right. Chris was on the prod. All it had taken was a reminder of change. Chris didn't like change and Ezra didn't blame him. But that didn't mean he was staying.

"There's little point to dragging these things out. I never meant to stay here this long. You know that."

Chris frowned. "If I say no?"

Ezra brushed his coat sleeve then lifted his chin and met Chris's eyes. "I'm leaving in the morning, sir. You have no say."

Chris's expression darkened. Ezra recognized the fury gathering behind his set jaw and narrowed eyes. Chris hated being defied for any reason. He expected to be obeyed and usually he was, but Ezra hadn't enlisted in Larabee's army for life. He enjoyed butting heads with the man, forcing him to look at his assumptions twice, but he'd never appreciated the constant threat of violence that simmered under the gunfighter's precarious control.

"You're still employed by the judge "

"Consider this my resignation," Ezra snapped. "Travis pardoned me years ago."

He watched Chris clench his teeth.

"Go on then, you stupid stubborn bastard."

"My belongings, sir."

Chris dug into his pocket and threw a key at Ezra. "Here. It's in my room at the boarding house. Get it yourself. Just get out of my sight."

Ezra snatched the key from the air. "Very well, Mr. Larabee. I'll take my leave of you." He flipped the key back at Chris. It fell onto the bare boards of the sidewalk. "Believe me, I don't need this to deal with the locks in this town."

Chris dropped the half smoked cheroot onto the sidewalk next to the brassy glint of the key and ground it out with his heel. He ignored Ezra.

Pushing Chris's control had been a game for too long to stop now, it seemed, even if his reasons had changed. Damn it, he hadn't wanted to take his leave on such a sour note. It offended his sense of manners, as well as his genuine respect for Chris. It was useless to talk to Chris while he was on a tear, though. The only option was to wait and try to speak with him in the morning. Providing Chris didn't dive into a bottle and end up suffering a hangover, Ezra might venture to express his farewells then.

Ezra tightened his slipping hold on his own temper. Oh yes, it was time to get away from Four Corners. They'd all rubbed along for years, but he was finally rubbed raw. His mask was cracking and his moods were suddenly as volatile as Chris's. Some of it was the aftermath of the poisoning, but he couldn't blame the scene with Nathan on that nor his failing patience with Josiah. No, he had let himself get soft. He'd let these men inside. He'd let himself start feeling again when he knew better.

He resisted the urge to apologize. He knew why the gunfighter was angry. Because he hurt, when he'd sworn he'd never let himself care enough to hurt again. Ezra knew.

"I'll miss you too, Mr. Larabee," he declared.

Chris glared at him.

Ezra touched two fingers to the brim of his hat in a last, mocking, salute and walked away.

14. On the trail, 1877

Never use your threes and twos
follow superstition
otherwise you are going to lose
compulsion makes you listen

Solitaire,
Suzanne Vega

Ezra had been on the trail a half day when he caught the first hint of someone behind him. Hazard topped a small rise and he looked back.

Four Corners was long out of sight, of course, broken near desert concealing any hint of civilization; Hazard's long strides had eaten up the miles toward the pass through the Animas Mountains. Ezra scanned the horizon for anything out of place only out of habit.

He found it and frowned.

A faint spot of haze in the distance, so elusive it almost disappeared when he tried to focus on it. A buzzard launching itself from an old snag, flapping laboriously into the seared pale sky.

He urged Hazard off the trail and up a ridge that offered him a clear view of the trail behind him. There were enough trees that they weren't skylined. Ezra loosened his rifle in its scabbard and waited.

That faint spot of haze was dust from a rider following the same northwest trail Ezra was on. Of course, there was no reason someone shouldn't, but Ezra sat and watched. If that someone was after him, he wanted to know it.

The dark figure of horse and rider trotted into the sun from the lee of a bluff, still too distant for Ezra to recognize. The rider was setting a steady, ground-eating pace where the trail was good, keeping his mount at a running walk.

Ezra narrowed his eyes.

The horse looked familiar. He raised his hand to add to the shade of his hat-brim, trying to see a little better. He knew that loose-limbed rider.

He untied his canteen from the saddle and had a sip of water while he waited.

Eventually the sound of hoofbeats reached him. Hazard threw up his head and snorted. The gelding's ears came forward. Ezra patted his shoulder. "Easy, my friend," he murmured. A few loose stones spilled down the ridge, dislodged by Hazard's shifting feet.

The hoofbeats slowed to an easy walk and the rider topped the same rise Ezra had earlier. The black horse's blaze showed clearly. The rider lifted his slouch hat and waved it.

Ezra lifted his own hat.

His pursuer launched the black horse up the ridge without hesitation. A shower of stones rolled out from the big mustang's feet, stirring more dust. Ezra guided Hazard away from the edge of ridge, leaving room for the other man and his mount.

Vin halted Peso as soon as they reached the top. A light sheen of sweat shone on the big horse's neck and flanks. He snorted and bobbed his head at Hazard, who nickered in reply.

Vin pushed his hat back, wiped his forehead, and settled the hat back into place.

Ezra thought of asking him what he thought he was doing, but it seemed clear enough. Peso was loaded with full saddlebags. Vin's bedroll was tied behind the cantle of his saddle. Instead he offered Vin his canteen.

Vin took it and drank sparingly.

"Hell, Ez," he said finally, "a horsefly bite ya on the ass or ya worried Virginia City's gonna disappear iffen ya don't get there fast?"

"Boomtowns have been known to dry up and blow away in mere weeks," Ezra observed.

He'd ridden hard and fast to put Four Corners as far behind him as he could as fast as he could. It was the only way he knew to go. He'd said his good-byes the night before.

"Virginia City's a bit more than a boomtown," Vin replied.

Ezra shrugged.

He set Hazard to descend the slope back to the trail. He let the gelding choose his own pace and path down.

Vin and Peso followed a moment later. Vin handed him the canteen back and Ezra secured it.

They rode silently for half an hour, until Vin nodded to stand of trees. "Creek there. Horses could use some water."

Ezra nodded.

They walked the horses through the spring-greened trees down to the narrow freshet. Both of them scanned their surroundings unconsciously. Vin slipped off Peso and led the mustang to the edge of the cold water, stepping carefully on the larger stones. He loosened the cinch on his saddle then patiently let the horse drink.

Ezra stayed on Hazard, keeping watch, but loosened the reins and let his mount wade into the stream to drink.

When Peso had had his fill, Vin ground hitched him and checked his feet and legs. After that, Vin crouched and splashed his own face with water and then topped up his own canteen.

Vin held up his hand and Ezra gave him his canteen too.

As he handed it back, Vin said, "Don't think we want to stop here too long."

"Why?"

"Bear's been clawing up a couple of trees over there," Vin explained. "Marks on the trunks are pretty fresh. Could still be around. Don't want a run in with one of 'em right now. They're pretty testy when they wake up after a long winter."

"Well, Mr. Tanner, I'd suggest that we refrain from dallying here any longer," Ezra commented.

He wasn't particularly worried. Peso and Hazard were unconcerned. One fresh whiff of bear and the two usually reliable horses would have been coming out of their skins.

Vin gave a short nod. He tightened the cinch again after elbowing Peso to make him exhale, then swung back into the saddle.

They talked casually after that, with comfortable periods of silence between the words sometimes, until the two of them made camp.

Vin picked the campsite, a niche in a steep rock face that gave shelter from the wind and reflected the warmth of their fire. The orange light of the flames flared over the stone, but was invisible from the trail, hidden by the pines that covered the rest of the slope. At the bottom of the incline a stream rushed over bare boulders, too cold to support more than a spot or two of lichen.

They'd climbed high enough into the mountains that the warmth from the fire was welcome. The evening was cool, the only sounds the sleepy shifting of the horses, the wind soughing through the pine needles, and the uneven crackling and hiss-pops from the fire.

Ezra dumped the dregs of his coffee before settling on his bedroll.

Across the small fire that provided the only light, Vin sat with his back braced against his saddle. He was fingering his harmonica. Not playing it, just smoothing his fingers over the instrument.

Beyond the circle of the firelight, the night and the land stretched in a vast, velvet blackness so deep and untouched by man that Ezra imagined he could hear the earth breathe. Vin and he might be the only two people left... It was a strange fancy for a man who had always been more at home in the clamor and crowds of cities and towns. Ezra smiled to himself, amused by the odd whimsy and the thought that Vin would be his choice as companion if such were to come to pass.

Ezra let his curiosity win out.

"Why?"

Vin's keen eyes met his gaze. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. He tucked the harmonica back into his shirt pocket.

"Could tell ya Four Corners'll be boring without ya," he drawled.

"True, I'm sure," Ezra agreed.

"I been thinkin' on movin' on lately, besides."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. He wasn't surprised that Vin had been restless too. Whatever piece of Texas Vin had been born on, it had no hold on him. Vin was a wandering soul. Everything in his life had shaped him into a nomad. Scouting, buffalo hunting, living with the Indians, living on the run it had all made Vin into a man who was as uncomfortable staying in one place as Ezra himself.

It was a good excuse.

Ezra didn't buy it.

Vin ducked his head. "Hell, Ez, I just didn't want ya ridin' out alone. A man needs a friend to watch his back."

Somewhere in the distance, a pack of coyotes gave tongue to a yammering, yipping exultation. A piece of pine in the fire crumpled into ash and a spot of pitch ignited with a loud snap and shower of sparks. The sound of the wind through the tops of the high pines rose, reminding Ezra of the rush of the Pacific tide. He shifted his hips to the side to escape a sharp rock jabbing through his bedroll.

"Mr. Larabee "

"Chris's been takin' care of himself fine," Vin interrupted. "He's still got Buck and the others there."

He let the silence stretch long moments before saying anything.

"It was kind of you to accompany me."

Vin snorted. He reached over and fed another piece of wood into the fire.

"Ain't kind, Ez, just what I wanted to do."

Ezra leaned his head back and stared at the dark, glittering glory of the star-strewn sky. If each star had been a diamond, he wouldn't have traded this moment for them.

"I'm gratified immeasurably by your company nonetheless."

Vin shrugged fluidly and settled deeper into his own bedroll. "I like ridin' with ya, Ez. 'Sides, I know ya ain't used to havin' a price on your head and I am."

A snort of amusement escaped Ezra.

"What perfectly ridiculous pair of outlaws we make."

Vin chuckled. "Yep."

"Vin..."

"Yeah, Ez?"

"Thank you."

"Better get some sleep, Ez. Lot of miles between here and Nevada."

Ezra made sure his Remington was within easy reach then pulled his blanket over his shoulders and let his eyes close. The early start and the long ride had exhausted him. If it hadn't been for Magnusson's annoying bounty, he might have waited a few days more and let his strength recover from the poisoning. As it was, Maude's warning had cemented his decision to leave immediately.

He needed to sell the deed to Stairstep Canyon before it got him killed. He'd thought that by leaving he could at least be sure none of his comrades would be endangered by the unforeseen consequences of the careless good deed he'd indulged in when he passed through Virginia City.

Sleep slowing his thoughts, he wondered drowsily if the big Fin had managed to hold onto his farm. Perhaps he would find out once they reached Virginia City.

They...

Ezra sighed very softly. What mixture of worry and happiness Vin's decision to ride with him evoked. He hoped Vin hadn't made a mistake in leaving Four Corners to come after him.

He slept.

On to: Part 2

Please let Auburn know if you enjoy this story.

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[i] Who shall guard the guards themselves? Juvenal.
[ii] Since this is set in 1877 and 'Far From the Madding Crowd' was first published in 1874 (I think), I believe it is quite possible for Ezra to have obtained and read a copy, incorporating it into his lexicon. The opening seems to me to be something he would think of since the subject was church attendance.
[iii] Rules to Beleaguered Castle are in Goren's Hoyle Encyclopedia of Games, Greystone Press, Hawthorn Books, Inc. (NY), copyright 1961. It's played with a regular 52 card deck and resembles Free Cell more than traditional Solitaire.
[iv] Dr. Thomas Fuller (1654 1734), Gnomologia, 1732.
[v] Aristotle.
[vi] Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Sung to the tune of 'The Moreen'.

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