The Tale Of A Deed, graphic by Per

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.


Back to: Part 1

15. Four Corners, 1877

I don't look for many battles
I play by my own rules
So don't you try and stop me
'Cause I ain't no ones' fool.

Under the Gun,
Molly Hatchet

JD kicked disconsolately at the leg of the empty chair across from him.

"I can't believe Vin left too."

Buck wiped beer foam from his mustache and nodded. He wasn't all that surprised. Vin had just needed an excuse. Folks thought Vin and Chris were two peas in a pod and it was true, they'd understood each other from the first, but Ezra and Vin liked each other. Under the skin, they were more alike than not. Chris had had hard times, but if he was an outsider, it was because he chose it. Not like those two.

He was sorry to see the two men go, but glad Ezra wouldn't be riding alone.

What bothered him was reactions around town. Folks talking about things being better without a no-account gambler and an Indian-lover living in town. Horace Conklin led the badmouthing, but there were plenty of others to sing the chorus. They didn't even try to keep the rest of the Seven from hearing it.

Even that, Buck could have shrugged off. What he couldn't was the editorial in Mary Travis' Clarion. She was making noises about statehood again, using Vin and Ezra as examples of the sort of men who had to go if they were to be accepted into the Union. Even Ezra's Southern roots had been mentioned.

It about made Buck sick.

He wondered what Chris would make of it all, but Chris was brooding out at his cabin and Buck wasn't in the mood to roust him out.

"Buck?"

"Yeah, kid?"

"Are you and Chris going to go too?"

He sighed.

"Well, JD, there's heap of women out there that haven't been exposed Buck Wilmington's lovin'," he joked. "I got an obligation "

JD interrupted with a derisive snort. "You are so full of crap, Buck."

He finished his lukewarm beer and stared out the window. If Ezra had been around, there would have a been a gold-toothed smile and the soothing sound of shuffling cards accompanying a sly offer to 'indulge in a game of chance.' He'd have had something sarcastic to say about Mary Travis' pretensions or a clever prank meant to puncture them.

A trio of cowboys, their horses spattered with drying mud up to knee and hock rode down the street. Buck didn't envy them. Herding cattle was hard work for poor pay most places. He grimaced. Not that playing law dog was much better. A dollar a day, room and board, and all the bullets the outlaws could shoot at them.

It had been quiet since Ezra and then Vin left. Buck kept an eye on the three cowboys as they came in and asked Inez for beer and vittles, but he knew they weren't ready to make trouble. Too sober and too tired; they'd been in the saddle since before sun-up.

"Buck. Hey, Buck," JD repeated. He jostled Buck's arm, sounding annoyed.

"Yeah, JD?"

"Thought maybe you was taking a nap," JD kidded. "What with you getting on in years."

Buck mock-glared at him. "Guess I'm so old and decrepit, you'll just have get up and get us another couple of beers."

JD rolled his eyes but rose easily and headed for the bar.

"Inez "

Two big shadows falling ahead of the men pushing through the batwing doors snapped Buck's attention back. He smiled and nodded at Tiny and Yosemite as the twins came in. They nodded back. Yosemite headed for the bar and Tiny walked over to Buck and JD's table.

"Sit down," Buck invited.

The big liveryman pulled out a chair. "Been thinking about a these three fellows that rode out of town two days back," he said abruptly.

Buck sat forward and frowned. The big livery owner was a good source of information. Anyone who came in on horseback from out of town ended up at the livery. Tiny saw a lot.

"Texas boys," Tiny said.

"They say anything?"

Tiny rested his elbows on the table and wrinkled his forehead. "Not too much. Walked around the barn, looking at all the horses. Took a real close look at Mr. Larabee's black."

"Horse thieves?" Buck asked. Chris's black, Nero, was damn fine piece of horseflesh, the last of the line he'd been breeding up before Fowler burned out his ranch along with killing Sarah and Adam.

"Don't figure it," Tiny replied. "Overheard one of them say something that got me wondering if I should tell one of you boys?"

"What?"

"Heard him say that weren't the horse they were looking for, because he didn't have a big blaze."

Buck sat back with a jolt. Damn. He knew a big, black, bad-tempered mustang with a blaze face all right. Everyone in town did. Vin and Peso had had some right set-tos in the middle of Main Street when Peso got it into his head he wanted to go back to being a wild horse. Peso was so big and flashy it was hard to miss him, not to mention that every fool who had strayed too close and been stomped, bit, or kicked would remember the ornery beast. Most cursed the day Peso had been foaled.

"Texas, hunh?" Buck muttered.

Tiny nodded.

Buck pushed his hat back and ran his hands through his hair.

"Sonovabitch."

"They left yesterday morning," Tiny told him. "One of them had a copy of the Clarion and showed it to the others."

Buck blinked once then shot to his feet, ignoring the chair that fell over behind him. "Goddamned sonovabitch stupid ass prissy know-it-all woman," he snarled. He crossed the room in long strides, caught JD's collar and started dragging him toward the door. "Come on, kid, we got to get the others. Bounty huntin' bastards have a got a day's lead on us. Trouble follows those two idiots like a hound runnin' deer."

"What?" JD scrambled to keep up and slapped at Buck's grip. "Let go, Buck! What are you talking about anyway, Inez was just getting our beers "

Buck let go but kept moving. JD trotted beside him, a worried look taking over his face.

"Buck?"

"Mrs. Travis," Buck gritted out. "That damned woman put Vin's name in her paper, yapping about him and Ezra leaving for Virginia City."

"So " JD slammed to a halt and his mouth dropped open. "Oh, shit!"

Buck nodded grimly.

"Might has well have give every bounty hunter that can read a goddamned map of where Vin and Ezra are going to be."

"This is bad," JD agreed.

Buck ducked into the jail, picked up the copy of the Clarion and flipped to the page with Mary's editorial. There it was.

Mr. Vincent Tanner, late of Texas, has resigned from the post of lawkeeper and left our beloved town for the bustling boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada. His expressed intention was to accompany former Four Corners resident and lawman Ezra Standish to that silver-mining municipality. While Mr. Tanner's skills were of great benefit to our town and we wish him well, like Mr. Standish, the time for men of their sort has passed here in Four Corners. Four Corners needs to attract upstanding, church-going citizens who will put down roots and enhance our community with new businesses and families. Our fair town is in need of lawyers, schoolteachers, and doctors, not disreputable desperados, dubious gamblers, and itinerant Indian scouts. Only with the rule of law and civilization will our territory become a State in the Union.

Buck didn't bother with the rest of it. He tore out the sheet, folded it and shoved it inside his vest. The damned article was as ungrateful as he remembered.

"JD," he said, "You go get Josiah and Nathan. Tell them bounty hunters are on Vin's trail and we're riding out. Then get your pack together and head down to the livery. Start getting our horses tacked up and I'll meet you there."

He fished the keys out of the sheriff's desk and opened the big safe sitting in the corner.

"What about Chris?" JD asked.

"We'll detour by his cabin and pick him up," Buck told him. "Now get."

JD still hesitated. "Buck, we'll be leaving the town without anyone... " He fingered his badge. "I'm sheriff."

Buck slapped his hand against the safe's top. "I don't give a flying fuck about this town right now, JD!"

He finished opening the safe and began pulling out boxes of ammunition for the various firearms their motley group carried.

JD sighed and pulled off the badge. He tossed it carelessly onto the desk. "I'll get 'siah and Nathan," he said and left.

Buck looked up and grimaced.

"Damn," he said to the empty doorway. "Sorry, kid."

When he had everything he wanted from the safe he headed for Mrs. Potter's store. They'd need plenty of supplies. Buck narrowed his eyes in thought. They'd probably end up shadowing Vin and Ezra all the way to Virginia City. A packhorse would be a good idea. They could set a faster pace that way, make up more ground on the bounty hunters.

*******

Buck rode out to Chris's cabin while the other three headed northwest. He knew Chris had a couple of extra mounts. If they switched off Nero and Darling with the spares, they could catch up fast.

Chris was hammering the planks onto a new porch along the back of his cabin as Buck rode in. The planks came from a sawmill up in timber country and cost more than the logs a man could cut himself. More than anything Buck had seen, that told him Chris was settling in to stay.

His friend was stripped to the waist to work, but his gun belt was slung over a rail within arm's reach.

"Buck," Chris greeted him as he reined in Darling.

Long shadows were stretching to the east. Chris raised an arm and wiped away the sweat that darkened and glued his blond hair to his forehead. He'd obviously been working all day.

"Chris."

Buck swung off Darling, loosened her cinch, and walked her over to the water trough.

Chris came off the porch and joined Buck beside the mare.

"Trouble?"

He sounded resigned. What else would have brought Buck out from town?

Buck pulled the piece of newspaper out of his vest and handed it to Chris. "Damn woman printed his name up for everyone in the territory to see," he said.

Chris read the article and then crumpled it in his fist.

"Damn it."

"We've got to hit the trail and catch up with those boys," Buck explained. "JD, Josiah, and Nathan are already on their way. Told 'em you and me would catch up tomorrow."

Chris's eyes narrowed as he listened.

"What else?" he demanded.

Buck stroked Darling's shoulder absently.

"Couple days back some fellows were looking for a horse at the livery, sounded like they were looking for that ornery nag of Vin's. Tiny didn't figure it out till he read the paper, then he told me about it. They're hunting Vin. Pulled out yesterday."

Chris didn't curse much. His mouth just drew into a thinner line. He looked at the sun dropping steadily down the sky. Without another word, he walked back to the half-finished porch and began picking up his tools.

Buck untacked Darling and turned her into the small corral with Chris' three mares. He carried the saddle and bridle into the barn. The saddle blanket he arranged so it the sweat would dry out of it.

"Supplies?" Chris asked as Buck joined him. They carried the rest of the lumber inside the barn where it wouldn't warp in the sun.

"Sent 'em with JD and the others. Put 'em on a packhorse we got from Tiny. Everyone's carrying extra ammo too."

"What about the town?"

Buck curled his lip. "Reckon it's so fine and civilized, they don't need our kind hanging around."

Chris raised an eyebrow.

"Sent a wire to the judge before I left," Buck admitted.

"Good enough," Chris said.

He glanced around and Buck knew he was figuring what needed to be done and what could be left until he came back. That was one thing Buck knew: Chris was coming back. Chris had put down roots.

Well, that was good as far as Buck was concerned. He'd never been stuck on one place, if he stayed somewhere it was for the people, but Chris had liked being settled while he was married. He'd like it again, if he ever started seriously courting Mrs. Travis.

Buck was astute enough to know that there wouldn't be any room for him once Chris married Mary. Sarah had made him part of their family, but Mary was a different story. She'd make his friend happy, though.

Things change, he thought to himself. Some good, like Chris finally building himself a new home and life. Some bad; Buck didn't like Four Corners much any more. Some surprising. Like a sneaky Reb gambler and a greenhorn kid turning out to mean as much as any family he'd ever had.

Chris thumped his shoulder, drawing him out of his thoughts.

"We'll leave at first light."

Buck smiled, but he felt tired. "Whatever you say, pard."

16. On the trail, 1877

And it seems to me this is one hell of a way,
For a man like me to earn that pay.

Bounty Hunters,
Molly Hatchet

Ezra sank his face deeper into the collar of his duster. Snow still trickled down the back of his neck and he cursed the fickle weather. The wind that swirled the damned snow in a shifting mist cut through his damp clothes. He shivered and hunched lower in the saddle.

Hazard stepped in Peso's tracks as they made their slow way through the near white-out of the sudden spring storm. The chestnut gelding kept crowding closer behind Vin's mustang. Ezra sympathized. The storm had hit the mountains they were crossing so fast even Vin had been taken off guard.

He flexed his numb fingers on the stiff leather reins, feeling ice crack off his gloves.

Damned weather.

Neither he nor Vin was familiar enough with this stretch of Arizona to guess where the closest shelter might be. They were just pressing on, hoping to find something before full dark. The lack of visibility wasn't helping the matter.

Hazard bumped into Peso, which made Ezra realized Vin had stopped. He looked up and saw Vin was half-turned in the saddle, looking back at him.

"Ya okay, Ez?"

Vin's hat was white with snow. It covered his shoulders and even Peso's haunches, giving the mustang a spurious resemblance to an Appaloosa. White crystals dusted Vin's eyelashes and caught in his stubble.

"Have I mentioned that I loathe cold weather?" Ezra replied.

Vin smiled. "Ya might've."

Ezra smiled back, it was impossible not to, even in the circumstances.

Vin bobbed his head. "Looks like a cabin there across the meadow."

Ezra peered through the blowing snow, trying to make out anything. He thought he could discern a darker outline against the tree line. He wouldn't have known what it was without Vin's identification.

"Then let us repair to it post haste, my friend," he declared. He trusted Vin to be right.

Cabin was, perhaps, a generous description. It was something between a shack and a large lean-to. Three walls and a slanted roof that angled down to the ground on the fourth side. Ezra didn't care. It had a roof, a stove and a stack of firewood. The wind was beginning to howl, the light had dimmed to deep, bleak blue, and he couldn't feel his toes.

Hazard just stood, splay-legged and shaking, as Ezra almost fell out of the saddle. The snow was turning to ice.

Ezra caught at Vin's arm and leaned close, shouting over the sound of the wind. "The horses are done in."

"Gotta take 'em inside with us," Vin agreed. "Get inside; try to get a fire going."

Ezra nodded sharply. He staggered past Vin and knocked as much snow as he could off the firewood before scooping up an armful and shouldering his way into the shack.

Vin led Hazard and then Peso inside after brushing as much snow off them as possible. Even Peso, normally fractious and uncooperative, cooperated. He tethered the two horses along the high side of the single room and left to bring in more wood.

Ezra fumbled and fought with the stove, barely able to see in the darkness of the windowless shack. The floor was dirt and hard as ice beneath his knees. He managed to start the fire at last using tinder he carried in a small, waterproof tin along with his lucifers. He carefully fed in a smaller piece of firewood next. Vin brought in two more loads before Ezra had the blaze securely established. He left the door open so fire could illuminate the cramped interior of the lean-to.

Vin wedged the rickety door shut with another piece of firewood and just leaned there. He was white with snow and shaking.

"D-d-d-damn," Vin cursed through chattering teeth.

Ezra dragged him over to the stove and began stripping off his outer coverings. He ignored Vin's uncoordinated batting at his hands. When he had Vin's old coat off, Ezra slid out of his own duster, stripped off his wool jacket and slid it onto Vin, hoping the bit of heat it held would help.

"Stay there," he ordered. He shuddered and pulled the damp duster back on then draped Vin's coat over a pile of firewood.

He wanted to huddle in front of the slow building heat from the stove himself but forced himself to keep moving. He fetched the saddlebags and bedrolls and dropped them beside the wooden platform built along one wall, next to an ancient wooden trunk, its leather hinges long since been eaten away by mice.

He went back and unsaddled the two exhausted horses.

The shack had been cold when they came in, but as it warmed from the stove, the horses began to steam. The dirt floor turned to mud in places. It began to stink of wet horse, wet wool and wet leather, musty dirt, spider webs, and smoke.

Ezra used the saddle blankets to rub the horses down as best he could. He could feel the heat radiating off them. He suspected that if the freak storm went on all night, he and Vin would be grateful for the two animals' added warmth.

Vin joined him in tending to the horses after a few minutes. Ezra didn't protest.

Ezra went back to the sleeping platform and pried open the old trunk. His nose wrinkled at the reek of its contents, but he didn't let his distaste stop him from pulling out two moth-eaten buffalo robes. He spread them over the bare platform. They would provide some insulation at least.

Vin untied his bedroll and tossed Ezra his ground cloth to lay over the robes. He handed Ezra the rest of his blankets then picked up Ezra's bedroll.

"Think we'd better double up, Ez."

Ezra was shivering himself and only managed a nod. He added his blankets and covered them all with his ground cloth. He looked down at the bedding vacantly once he'd finished, too tired to think of what to do next.

Vin's hand on his shoulder jolted him back to the present.

"Best get out of those wet things," Vin told him.

Ezra picked up his carpetbag and started to open it. Vin's hands closed over his. Ezra stared dully as Vin carefully tugged off his wet gloves. Vin's hands were chapped and red with cold. He wrapped them around Ezra's fingers and rubbed gently. Ezra closed his eyes as his fingertips began to tingle then sting painfully.

He let his breath out in a hiss.

Vin stopped and let go of his hands. Ezra missed his touch immediately, but went back to fumbling open his bag and pulling out dry pants and socks. He hung his duster on a hook beside the lean-to's door, added Vin's dripping coat next to it, then pried off his boots.

Vin was stripping too, oblivious to Ezra's curious gaze. His damp hair clung to his bent neck as he crouched, shirtless, by his saddlebags, drawing out dry gear. The firelight limned the sinuous lines of Vin's arms and back in glowing amber and dusky shadows.

Ezra looked away politely and hurried to throw off his own wet clothes and don dry ones. The lean-to was still cold.

He busied himself preparing a meal, knowing food would help them deal with the cold, while Vin shared the grain they carried for the horses between their two mounts. He pulled out a cast iron pan and set it on the stove. Into it, he sliced some salt pork, four potatoes, and two sorry onions. As that began sizzling, he set a small Dutch oven at the back of the stove, poured in some dried beans and added water so they could soak during the night. The scent of onions and fat mingled with smoke.

Ezra's stomach growled.

Vin chuckled and handed him the coffee pot to put on the stove.

"Smells tasty."

"Vin, you've been out in the snow too long."

"'M hungry."

When the hash was cooked, he split it between his plate and Vin's, and added several cold biscuits left from breakfast. It was a sorry meal compared to Inez' cooking or Mrs. Potter's, but Ezra choked it down and Vin didn't complain. After they ate, they spread their wet gear around as best they could so that it would dry as much as possible.

Ezra fed wood into the stove with his back to Vin.

"Ez?"

"Yes, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra responded. He stayed by the stove, building up the fire as far as the old stove would tolerate.

"Ya want to get in here with me?"

Ezra turned around. Vin was sitting on the bed platform, the blankets peeled back. He'd stripped down to his woolen underdrawers and socks.

He patted the blankets. "Come on, Ez," he coaxed.

Ezra closed the stove and slowly walked over.

A brief, awkward tussle over who would take the inside and outside and where their guns would go had them both laughing soon enough. Ezra ended up with his Remington in its holster by the wall. Vin settled for laying his mare's leg on the floor within arm's reach.

Ezra made quick work of shedding his own outer apparel down to his drawstring small clothes. Like Vin, he retained his socks. He thought wistfully of Buck's union suit. It might be undignified and sartorially questionable, but it would be warm. Warm sounded rather good when his teeth wanted to chatter.

He couldn't stop shivering. The next thing he knew, Vin had pulled him close. He lay rigid as a board, his back pressed to Vin's chest, Vin's arms locked around him, Vin's hands clasped around his. He felt Vin chuckle against his neck, warm breath and the tickle-scrape of beard provoked a shudder. Good Christ, even Vin's whiskers were cold!

"Damn, Ez, maybe you really are part snake," Vin commented. "You're surer'n hell cold-blooded."

"I am not," Ezra protested.

Just because he didn't have to have a woman every night like Buck Wilmington didn't mean he never enjoyed the divine pleasures of a womanly body. But unlike their easygoing friend, a short episode of dubious pleasure with a nameless stranger had never appealed to him. He had standards as well as a distaste for the possibility of catching a disease. He managed and when he couldn't manage, he visited one of the better class bordellos in Eagle Bend. He certainly hadn't slept with any of the girls from Wickestown or risked any of the whores in Purgatorio he thought it a miracle Chris and Buck hadn't caught anything from their periodic visits there.

He was not cold-blooded. He was merely discerning and careful.

Ezra never shared a bed or spent the night with anyone. He just didn't. He wondered if he would be able to sleep with Vin next to him, though he was grateful for the extra warmth his friend provided. He just didn't like letting anyone that close.

Still, this wasn't a stranger. This was Vin. He'd trusted his life to Vin in gunfights. He'd trusted that Vin would bring the two of them to safety when the storm hit. Ezra let his eyes shut and his body relax against Vin's. He could trust him in this too.

"That's it, Ez," Vin murmured. "That's it."

Ezra let himself drift into a comfortable daze. Exhaustion dragged at both of them. Warm at last, Ezra slipped into sleep to the rhythm of Vin's breath, the boneless weight of the other man's arm telling him Vin had succumbed too.

The crash of a chunk of wood shifting in the stove and Peso's startled snort snapped Ezra awake. The arms around him tightened and he panicked, trying to pull away from whoever it was. He could barely make out the darker forms of the horses by the sullen red glow escaping the cracks in the stove.

He shoved his elbow into his captor's ribs and began struggling in earnest. A pained grunt rewarded his effort. Then a hoarse, breathless voice rasped in his ear.

"Whoa! Easy, Ez, ease up, it's me."

Ezra went limp.

"Vin?"

"Yeah, pard." Vin coughed and loosened his grip. He laughed softly. "Ya always wake up like that?"

Ezra twisted around to face him, even though he could see no more than a reflected gleam in Vin's eyes. "No, I I'm sorry," he blurted awkwardly.

Vin kept laughing, irritating Ezra. What should be expected, anyway? Ezra didn't wake up with someone wrapped around him often he didn't wake up with anyone his reaction hadn't been that outré.

He groped through the blankets and found his Remington. "No," he said silkily, drawing it from the gun belt and letting the cold muzzle brush Vin's flank, "most of the time I just shoot whoever woke me up."

Vin jolted and exclaimed, "Damn, that's cold! Jesus, Ezra!"

Ezra laughed and slid the pistol back into his gun belt.

They listened to the night, hearing only the horses and the fire in the stove. The wind had died and there was a thick stillness to the air. Their nest of blankets was cozy and the lean-to had warmed up considerably. The presence of the horses had helped.

"Snowing," Vin commented.

"You can tell?" Ezra asked. He was still amazed by Vin's connection to nature. The man was attuned to the wilderness in a way even most Indians weren't.

"Makes everythin' sound muffled."

Ezra took his word for it.

"We'll have to stick here for maybe a day or two," Vin added.

Ezra shrugged, knowing Vin would feel the movement despite it being too dark to see. He was warm and comfortable and he knew they had plenty of supplies if they needed to camp for a few days.

Sleep beckoned irresistibly and he sank back into it with a mumbled, "Infinitely preferable to wandering about in all that hideous snow."

Then the dream overtook his sleeping mind without warning, the crackling fire in the stove burning higher and higher.

They slept in the barn to stay close to the horses. Some of the officers were offered rooms in their supporters' houses, but Ezra never accepted. He preferred to keep his distance.

Ezra gathered with the others on the last morning. They were strong, they were willing to go on fighting. Col. Mosby had only to ask. The life of a Ranger had grown harder and the cost to the people of 'Mosby's Confederacy' had become all too steep barns and homes burned, families left homeless and hungry in the midst of winter, farms devastated, crops ruined but they would keep fighting. They weren't broken yet.

Not broken, but battered, Ezra thought, looking around him at the gathered companies. Such a grouping was dangerous, but they had all come, gray ghosts riding out the predawn mists, huddled deep in their coats, eyes ever wary for a Union ambush. The word that Mosby had walked out on the talks with the Union had swept through Fauquier and Loudoun counties and all the Shenandoah Valley like smoke on the wind.

Even the other fastidious dandies in Montjoy's 'Darlings' Company D were ragged and drawn taut.

He threaded his cold, bare fingers through Peach's mane and listened in pained relief as John Singleton Mosby dismissed his Rangers. The Confederacy was dead. The war was lost. Go home.

Go home.

He thrashed in his sleep, fighting what came next, but couldn't wake up.

Smoke whipped on the last harsh breath of winter. Ezra knew the reek too well. Peach broke stride and tossed her head. He loosened his pistols in their holsters and tightened his legs against the mare's sides, cueing her forward again.

The curve of the road and a small rise hid the devastation until he was almost on it.

"No..."

In his dream he whispered denial, in his sleep it was a shout. Peso snorted in displeasure.

"No," Ezra cried and urged Peach into a run.

The trees were gone, brutally chopped down for firewood. Nothing shielded the ruins and ruins were all that remained. The barns were burned to the ground only the stone foundations remained. The house, the great sprawling white house that had been the heart of Peyton's Ford, was gone. Only smoldering black wreckage remained.

"Saville!" he shouted. "Saville!"

Peach neighed and almost balked, but Ezra forced her through the torn, tramped to bare ground garden. He circled the ruins.

The awful stench of burned flesh drew him to the remians of the summer kitchen.

"Oh, God, no, please, no," he moaned, choking. The blackened, twisted bodies could barely be identified as human, but somehow he knew them. It was the cracked glint of steel-rimmed spectacles that told him he was looking at Miz Vertilene. The larger body that half-covered her, hand clawed around the burnt away hilt of a cooking knife that was Cassiopiea.

He fell out of the saddle, ending on his knees in the ashes and mud, retching endlessly.

Ezra choked and wept in his sleep, soft sounds of distress.

"Come on, Ez, wake up. Wake up."

Someone was jostling his shoulder cautiously.

Ezra moaned and muttered, "No, please, no, not all of them. Please, merciful God, not everyone..."

"Ez!"

Ezra's eyes snapped open. His hand reached for the Remington automatically. Vin caught his wrist before he could draw.

"Ez!"

Vin had his weight pinning Ezra's wrist down. Ezra stopped fighting and let his head fall back.

"Oh God," he muttered.

"Sounded like ya was dreamin' something pretty bad," Vin observed, letting his forcible hold fall away.

Ezra brought his arm up over his eyes. "Miserable."

Vin sat up until he was arranged, legs folded indian-style, one of the blankets draped over his shoulders.

"Sometimes I dream about when I lived with the Comanche," he said quietly.

Ezra scooted up and sat with his back against the wall. The wood was startlingly cold though the lean-to seemed warm enough inside. He pulled another blanket free of the bedding and emulated Vin.

"I was under the impression you were content during your time among the natives," he offered.

He couldn't see Vin's expression, just sensed the movement of his nod.

It was all right. He didn't need to see Vin's face. It was easier to talk in this darkness. No masks were needed when no one could see the pain. Truths could be offered between them in the comfort of the night, in this enforced solitude and snowy silence, that wouldn't couldn't bear daylight..

"I was," Vin admitted. "Was one of them."

"But you left?"

Vin made a harsh, unhappy sound. "Cavalry rode into camp one mornin', killed everyone. 'Cept me. One of the soldier's saw my eyes, saw I was white."

Vin went quiet and Ezra waited. Listening to Vin was letting him distance himself from his own nightmare.

"God, Ez, the things some of those soldiers did... It was mostly women and old men in camp. Bucks were out huntin'."

Ezra bowed his head.

"Hated those sonsabitches ever since, Ez. They just rode in, shootin' and hackin' with those goddamned sabers... Ya ever seen what a cavalry saber can do to a kid?"

Ezra wanted to gag. He'd seen a man's arm cleaved off by a saber in a wild charge, the weight of the steel blade backed by all the force of a running horse. He'd seen bodies gutted and broken, torn apart by artillery fire. He'd seen them burned in his own nightmares. He'd seen more ugliness than he ever wanted to remember. He knew the tale Vin was telling from both sides.

There had been nothing pretty, nothing glorious to serving in the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia. Mosby's Rangers had been better behaved than most partisans, but the war they'd fought had been ugly and hard.

"What do you dream about, Ez?" Vin asked.

Ezra clenched one fist around a handful of blanket.

"Some of the stuff ya said when ya was sick with that poison. Sounded like ya was dreaming about the same thing."

"My cousin and I were with Mosby's Rangers at the end of the war," Ezra answered finally. He wasn't sure if he wanted to say more. He had never confided these memories to anyone, but Vin's patient stillness promised an understanding no one else had ever offered. Something like forgiveness. He hadn't known he wanted that. He licked his bottom lip. "Saville and I were... close. Both bastards, you see."

"Guess things weren't no different in Virginia than Texas," Vin muttered.

Ezra nodded. "You and me and Buck and JD," he mused.

"But you knew who your daddy was."

He laughed mirthlessly. "Indeed, I did. I suppose I can thank him for that much. When Mother didn't want me or couldn't find anyone else to take me, back to Peyton's Ford I'd go. They didn't want me there, but Peytons honored their obligations." He bit his lip then went on. "I had brothers and sisters and cousins there. It was beautiful, Vin... the most beautiful place I've ever known."

"'Til the war."

"It seemed like even the war couldn't really touch the Ford," Ezra whispered. "Not until the end, when those Union bastards started burning folks out. Any place they thought harbored sympathizers or spies, they'd ride in and take what they wanted, drag folks off to prison, leave the rest with nothing but ashes, nothing."

Mosby's patrols had learned to dread the sight of black smoke spiraling into the sky. The Union forces had pillaged the sweet Shenandoah Valley and worse. Ezra had ridden into more than one farm and seen children dead and women ravaged. The only trees left were hanging trees. The height of the irony and insult was that oft as not the farmers were Union sympathizers or neutral at least. The Rangers had hunted down the animals when they could and killed them, only to have the Federal forces retaliate against the civilians that supported them, making things worse.

"Saville left the company when the Colonel agreed to meet with the Federals. He swore he wouldn't turn in his guns or his horse," Ezra went on. "He was worried there would be no one to protect the Ford, with only the women left. I stayed. I don't know why... just I'd followed the Colonel so long I couldn't do anything else."

Restless, he slid out of the bed, pulled on his boots and padded over to the stove. He used a corner of the blanket to insulate his hand and opened the door in the stove's belly, studying the fire burning down inside. The chunks of wood were black laced with furious red and dusted in gray and white ash. Tight little flames flared higher from the air rushing in through the open door.

Ezra fed in three more chunks of wood, sliding them in where the hot coals would heat and dry them until they caught fire themselves.

Vin was still waiting patiently.

"When the Colonel dismissed us, I rode back to the Ford. Union raiders had been there parts of the barns were still smoking... They killed everyone except one old slave. They put a bullet in Herodotus but he was burying the bodies when I got there...I dream about that, about pulling the bodies out of the ashes, the way it smelled..."

"Hell," Vin breathed. "You never said nothin'."

Ezra scrubbed at his face with his hands. "Why should I? It wouldn't take away the nightmares."

"Chris "

"It wouldn't have helped," Ezra stated flatly. "I never blamed myself for what happened at the Ford, Vin. The bluebellies didn't kill my family because of me or even because I was with the Rangers. They came and they took because they could and if I'd been there I could have died, but I couldn't have stopped them." He pulled in a deep breath.

"Mr. Larabee feels things deeply, so deeply that his guilt and his anger were all that kept him alive through the pain of his losses. That isn't my way. Nothing I knew could help him... and I did not want to tell this story."

Vin caught Ezra's wrist in his hand and held it. Ezra started to jerk away, but stopped.

"What about your cousin... Saville? Did they kill him too?" Vin asked.

"No... I don't know," Ezra admitted. "The raiders took Polly. She was... we were all in love with her, a little, but Saville adored her. Those bastards violated the women before they killed them, Vin, but Polly was so beautiful, they took her with them." His voice turned harsh with remembered anger and hatred. "Saville went after them. So did I, after we finished the burying, but I never found even traces of any of them." A wave of shame rushed through him and he pulled away from Vin. "I gave up. I spent six months hunting anyone who had been in the raiding party and I killed the ones I found, but I never could find Polly or Saville."

"Ya did what ya could, Ez."

"No, I didn't."

He squeezed his eyes shut then opened them. The shadows and darkness of the lean-to were better than the scenes his memory insisted on supplying.

"I met Mother in Philadelphia and I let her persuade me to help in a con. That's how I ended up shanghaied on a clipper sailing around the Horn." God, there was a humiliating story he wasn't going to tell.

Vin's raspy voice startled him out of his own dark thoughts.

"After the soldiers took me back with them, I did everythin' I could to get away. Hated them. Iffen I'd been even a year or two older, I'd a found a way to get myself killed goin' after 'em."

Ezra held his breath.

"Joined up to scout for the South just so's I'd get a gun and a chance to shoot me some bluebellies," Vin whispered. "Didn't give a damn 'bout the Confederacy or the Union, didn't care 'bout no slaves hell, the Comanche kept slaves too just wanted a way to kill soldiers. Didn't even care if I died doin' it."

Ezra exhaled silently. "I, for one, am grateful you didn't," he declared honestly.

"After the war, I just started movin' west," Vin went on dreamily. "Hooked up with a bunch a Kiowa. Iffen I hadn't... I probably wouldn't be no better than Eli Joe or any other killer. Ain't nothin' to be proud of 'bout huntin' men like animals. Just remember, Ez, ain't none of us that hasn't got somethin' they wish they'd done different. I don't figure ya cheatin' folks was no worse than me killing 'em for a bounty."

"You've changed, though, Vin," Ezra said.

Ezra saw the movement of Vin nodding.

"I figure." Vin sighed. "Figure ya changed too, Ezra. Didn't much like ya when we met, but ya changed. I ain't sorry to say you're my friend. I figure I couldn't do better."

That left Ezra speechless. When he found his voice, all he could say was, "I'm honored."

Vin chuckled and asked, "Honored enough to give me one of those apples ya got hid in your saddlebags?"

"When the sainted dead rise from their graves, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied swiftly.

By silent, mutual agreement, the subject of nightmares and the past was closed. What had been said would be put away with the dawn. Not forgotten, but kept close and silent out of mutual respect.

Vin slipped out of the bed and padded over to the stove. He used a corner of the blanket wrapped around his shoulders to protect his hand from the hot iron handle then fed in three more chunks of wood. He stayed in front the stove with his back to Ezra, staring into the flames, until Ezra stirred out of their nest of blankets.

Ezra opened his saddebag and felt through it until he found the bag of peppermints he carried to treat Hazard. He pulled it out and held it up.

Vin had turned around and was watching him. "What ya got there, Ez?" he asked.

"See for yourself." He tossed the peppermints.

Vin caught the bag, opened it and smiled widely. He popped one of the candies into his mouth and spoke around it. "Thanks, Ez."

Ezra carefully closed the saddlebag and answered without looking up. "You're welcome, Vin."

Vin rejoined him on the bed.

"Figure we can find some place to pick up some more supplies once we come down out of the pass," he said.

"Yes."

Ezra recognized gratefully that Vin wasn't going to press for any more confidences. He'd had enough of memories. Replaying them never did any good, only stirred old sorrows. The nightmares were his last legacy of that time and place; the people he'd cared for were gone. He'd learned to look forward and leave the past in the past.

Hazard blew out a whuffling breath and stamped his feet. He nickered next and tugged at the tie binding him next to Peso. That irritated Peso into a snort and a bad-tempered kick that hit the side of the lean-to instead of Hazard. The whole building shuddered and a drift of snow whispered down into the corner.

"Damn mule," Vin muttered.

Ezra sighed.

"Hazard is to blame. He wants a peppermint."

"Hell."

Vin scrambled out of the bed, over to the horses and quickly fed a candy to both of them. He stopped and closed the stove before returning to the bed.

"Spoiled," he said under his breath.

"Hazard or Peso?" Ezra asked.

"Hell, both of 'em."

Vin began fussing with the blankets, rearranging them. He reached over and squeezed Ezra's shoulder.

"It's hours 'til daybreak, Ez. Might as well sleep 'til then. Can't do much without bein' able to see."

Ezra slid back down into the blankets.

"You expect me to rise with the sun?" he asked in disbelief.

Vin chuckled.

"Yep. Figure you can make us some vittles. I'm going to dig us out and chop some wood to replace what we used."

Ezra shuddered at the prospect. Cooking was marginally better than chopping wood in the snow, but neither one appealed to him.

"Good lord," he murmured, "what next? Housecleaning? Roof repairs?"

"Well," Vin drawled, "we might want to check the roof, if Peso keeps tryin' to kick the walls down."

Ezra pulled his blanket over his head.

"Your horse, your problem," he declared firmly. "I am going back to sleep."

If the nightmares returned that night, he didn't remember them.

17. On the trail, 1877

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time

I Walk the Line,
Johnny Cash

Not a sign of Buck's bounty hunters since they came down out of the last pass. The late storm had wiped out the marks of anyone's passage. It didn't mean they weren't still out there.

It had also put Chris in a foul mood that had remained with him as they entered the dusty bounds of Elmo[vii], Arizona.

Place hardly deserved a name, he thought sourly, as the five of them paced their horses down the single, muddy street. Stage stop, saloon, mercantile, livery, a couple of houses, and you were riding on out.

Buck crowded Darling up next to Nero and nodded toward the hitching-rail in front of the saloon. The leggy chestnut and the black mustang standing hipshot next to each other were as familiar as the men who rode them.

"Was starting to wonder if we'd ever catch up with them two," Buck commented.

"Hey, it's Hazard and Peso," JD exclaimed, spotting the horses too. "Vin and Ezra must be inside."

"Should've known Ezra'd find a saloon," Nathan muttered.

Josiah raised his eyebrows and commented, "From the looks of this town, it's probably the only place they could get anything to eat."

Nathan snorted.

They tied the horses next to Hazard and Peso and headed into the saloon. Chris's spurs rang as he pushed his way through the doors into the dingy room.

One hard look showed him everything and everyone in the room. The bartender was leaning against the bar, half-asleep. What looked like a store clerk in a white shirt with arm garters sat at the end of the bar, nursing a beer. In the back, sitting so they could watch the door and the bar, were Vin and Ezra.

Both men had plates in front of them, though it looked like Vin was finishing Ezra's meal for him.

Ezra had his cards out and was shuffling idly. They both saw Chris looming through the doorway at the same time. Ezra's eyebrows went up and Vin paused with a forkful of beans on the way to his mouth.

Chris stalked over, Nathan and Buck looming behind him, in time to hear Vin say, "Would ya look what the cat drug in."

He grinned at Chris.

"Howdy, Cowboy."

Chris growled.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said and Chris growled again.

Ezra had the easy ability to annoy him by just saying his name.

Buck moved past Chris, pulled out a chair and settled into it. He grinned at the two men. "Boys," he said, "this does not look like Virginia City."

"It isn't Four Corners either," Ezra commented. "What brings you to this hamlet?"

Buck sat back.

Vin glanced past him as JD and Josiah came in.

"All of ya?" he asked.

Chris picked up a chair and set it next to Vin's. Josiah went to the bar and collected a bottle of red-eye and glasses, handing them to JD to bring over to the table.

Buck's cheer dimmed. "You got three bounty hunters on your trail, boys. They come through Four Corners, read your name in Mrs. Travis' paper, and headed after you."

"Excuse me?" Ezra snapped. He laid his cards down on the table. The sea-green eyes were chilled and sharp and suddenly very angry.

"Missus Travis wrote an article about you and Vin resigning and leaving," JD explained as he arrived and handed glasses to the other men. "She used Vin's name. Yours too."

"Told how you was heading for Virginia City on business," Buck added. His displeasure with Mary Travis colored his voice.

Ezra tapped his finger on the top of the deck.

"We lit out after you two as soon as we figured out what was going on," Buck concluded.

Ezra shared a glance with Vin.

"Good of ya, Bucklin," Vin said.

"We shall, of course, take greater precautions in our journey," Ezra added. He picked up the cards and tucked them away in his vest pocket. "You have my gratitude, gentlemen."

Chris took the bottle of red-eye, poured himself a generous shot, and knocked it back. He handed the bottle to Buck.

"We're going the rest of the way with you," he declared.

"What about the town?" Vin asked.

"It'll still be there when we get back."

"The Lord will provide," Josiah said. "Nothing is as certain as that the vices of leisure are gotten rid of by being busy."[viii]

Even Ezra raised his eyebrow over that non sequitur. The ex-preacher looked at them placidly.

Chris couldn't stand it.

"What the hell did that mean?" he snapped.

"Just that the good citizens of Four Corners will have little time to devote to criticizing its lawmen while they are occupied doing our jobs, Brother," Josiah replied.

Vin shook his head. "We wasn't goin' to stay in town," he said. "Just stopped to pick up some supplies and get some grub."

"Indeed, I shudder to contemplate what might be considered a bed here," Ezra added. "The dubious comforts of a camp seem much more inviting."

"I done heard it all," Buck exclaimed. "Ezra P. Standish just said he'd rather rough it than stick in town."

Ezra glared at him, but Chris felt his mouth twitch into a smile as all the others roared with laughter.

He pushed his chair back.

"Boys, we better stock up as well."

It had been hard riding catching up with Vin and Ezra. Without the mountain storm to slow them down, the two of them would still be a day or two ahead. Chris and the other four had pushed hard, relying on their supplies and staying on the trail later than normal to catch up. They hadn't supplemented what they carried by stopping to hunt. They were low on everything but ammunition and water now.

Josiah stood up. "Nathan, come along. We can take care of that." He patted Ezra's shoulder. "Good to see you, son."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "How many times do I have to say it?" he asked.

Buck and JD chorused with him.

"I am not your son."

Josiah chuckled.

Chris looked around the saloon. He felt restless. Losing track of the bounty hunters bothered him more than he wanted to let on.

"I'm going to take a walk around town, check out the livery," he declared.

"We'll order up some chow for all of ya," Buck said.

Now that he saw Vin and Ezra were all right, Buck was ready to relax and take life as it came. He didn't like playing leader and once he had Chris back with them, he'd gone back to his easy going ways.

"Just make sure you don't eat it for us, too," Chris told him.

He walked out behind Josiah and Nathan, wondering if anyone else had marked that Nathan hadn't said a word to either Ezra or Vin.

*******

Ezra shuddered as Buck began another song. Buck had been in a buoyant mood since they'd ridden out of Elmo three days before. When even his store of rambling, racy stories and raunchy jokes had run dry, he'd turned to serenading them.

He didn't mind Buck's voice per se. But cheerfulness and song any time before noon was just uncivilized. Ezra preferred silence if he had to rise with the dawn, which he had once more been forced to do since Vin joined him on the trail.

At least, he comforted himself, Vin wasn't accompanying Buck with his harmonica.

Vin was riding side by side with Chris, eyes sharp, slumped comfortably in the saddle. When he caught Ezra's glare, a smile played at the corners of his mouth.

JD was riding ahead of them, checking for sign and simply burning some of that exhausting energy he hummed with. Josiah had taken drag for the day, watching their back trail.

Ezra had to admit but only to himself that it felt right for the seven of them to be together again. He enjoyed their company.

Still. Did Buck have to sing?

He could have dozed in the saddle, lulled by the quiet creak of leather and the sun against his right shoulder, as they wound their way into the high country and the distant mass of blue-hazed mountains, if Buck would quiet down.

Hoping for a little rest for his ears, he let Hazard slow into a lazy walk that had Buck and Darling moving ahead, while he ended up parallel to Nathan.

He could have used the extra sleep. His old friend insomnia had taken hold since the night he told Vin about the end of Peyton's Ford. It was an old pattern. When the nightmares were too bad, he simply stayed awake all night. It could go on for weeks and he usually managed to rest in the mornings while in town but not on the trail. He could get by without much rest, of course, but it did drag a man down.

"You still getting headaches?" Nathan asked him.

"No," Ezra replied.

"Ain't dizzy or seeing double or hearing things?"

"Beyond Mr. Wilmington's atrocious bellowing?"

"I meant things that ain't there?"

Ezra looked at Nathan. Nathan was inspecting him skeptically.

"I assure you I am in complete control of my faculties, Mr. Jackson," Ezra told him.

He decided he would rather endure Buck's singing than Nathan's interrogations and cued Hazard to pick up his pace.

As he did, he recognized the song Buck was singing and knew his face had gone pale.

"We loved each other then, Lorena.
More than we ever dared to tell;
And what we might have been, Lorena,
Had but our lovings prospered well
-- But then -- 'tis past; the years are gone,
I'll not call up their shadowy forms;
I'll say to them, "lost years, sleep on!
Sleep on! Nor heed life's pelting storms."
[ix]

"Shut up, Buck!" he snapped before he could stop himself. "Just shut up and stop singing that damned song."

Buck's mouth snapped shut and he gave Ezra a startled look.

"Look, Ezra, I don't what your problem is "

"My problem is that damned song," Ezra hissed. He leaned out from his saddle and snatched at Buck's arm. "I swear I will shoot you if you keep singing it."

Buck jerked his arm away.

Nathan pushed Peppermint between Hazard and Darling. He looked from Ezra to Buck.

"What the hell are you pitching a fit over now, Ezra?" he demanded.

"Ez don't like my choice of songs," Buck groused.

"That true?"

Ezra glared past Nathan.

Buck huffed.

Nathan said, "You don't like Buck's songs, maybe you better come up with something yourself or just keep quiet."

Ezra switched his furious glare from Buck to Nathan. He narrowed his eyes then smiled. "Of course, Mr. Jackson," he said smoothly. "I'll sing an old favorite of mine from the South."

He drew in a deep breath and began.

"Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten;
Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixie's Land!
In Dixie's Land where I was born in,
Early on one frosty morning,
Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixie's Land!"

Nathan pulled up Peppermint so cruelly the brown gelding let out a neigh of protest.

"Why you sonovabitch," Nathan snarled.

Buck halted Darling.

Ezra reined in Hazard too then pitched into the chorus and the second verse in a low voice. Finished, he smiled at Nathan and added, "We sang that in the war. I believe I remember the other verses as well, if you'd like the whole rendition?"

Nathan looked ready to tear him out of the saddle and beat him bloody. Harsh breaths whistled through his nostrils. His hands were clenched around the reins and his saddle horn. Speaking apparently defeated him.

"I didn't think so," Ezra concluded.

Buck had already forgotten his own annoyance with Ezra and now tried to play peacemaker as always.

"Something about the song I was singing mean something to you, Ez?"

"Something like that," Ezra agreed. "I find the reminder as disagreeable as Mr. Jackson does 'Dixie.'"

"Could have just said."

"I thought I did."

Buck laughed. "Yeah, but it's usually Chris that threatens to shoot me for opening my mouth."

Nathan interrupted, "You think Buck singing something you don't like is the same as reminding me you're a no-account Reb bastard?"

"I was making a point, one Mr. Wilmington seems to have grasped," Ezra replied. He had his most placid, blank expression on.

Nathan spat into the dirt.

Ezra raised an eyebrow to Buck.

Buck shook his head. "Ain't ya too young ta been in the War, Ezra?"

"I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, many Southern boys younger than I was followed the call of glory to an early grave in the War of Northern Aggression."

"Should've figured you for fightin' for the South," Nathan snapped. "'Cept I didn't figure ya for havin' the guts."

"War's over," Larabee said, commanding Standish and Jackson to cease and desist their sniping as he and Vin reached them.

Ezra nodded.

"I believe I'll ride with JD for a while," he said. He rode away at a trot, knowing if he stayed it would only mean quarreling with both Nathan and Chris.

*******

Chris glared after the Southerner and cursed under his breath. He'd swear the man went out of his way to get under Nathan's skin. No, that wasn't fair. Ezra didn't need to do much more than catch Nathan's attention to irritate him. They just couldn't get along.

Nathan let his mount fall back into tandem with Buck's gray.

"Ya sure about that, cowboy?" Vin asked quietly.

"Sure about what?" Chris asked in confusion, drawn from his own thoughts.

Vin nodded toward the angry glare Nathan bent at the bland-faced gambler riding ahead of them.

"Ya sure the war's over?"

Vin had been riding quietly beside Chris, listening without commenting until now.

Chris narrowed his eyes then shrugged. "Man's got a right to the way he feels."

"Yep, but Ez ain't the only one of us that wore the gray," Vin said quietly.

Chris thought about that.

"Ran into some of you Texas boys back then. You with them?"

Vin nodded. "Yep."

"Sharpshooter."

"Yep."

"You never said."

"War's over for me." Vin cocked his head. "For Ez too. Nate needs to figure that out instead of goin' after Ezra for singing 'Dixie'. Three years is too long to ride with a man ya can't trust at yer back."

"Hell, I trust Ezra. Just not with my money."

"I's talkin' about Nate."

Chris gave him a sharp look. The silent question in his eyes was, You don't trust him or you don't trust him to watch Ezra's back?

Vin's answer was just as silent, a thoughtful look that said maybe it was some of both. Once Vin decided someone was a friend, he'd kill himself to take care of that friend. Somewhere along the way, the Texan had decided Ezra Standish was a friend. That meant Vin would be there for the gambler if anyone tried to hurt him, including one of the other five men who made up their group.

Nathan had been taking out his resentments against Ezra from the first day they rode together.

Nathan might be looking at an unpleasant surprise some day soon.

Chris kept his eyes on the trail for a while, then remarked quietly, "Didn't Ezra say only a fool would have fought for the South?"

"Yep."

Chris smiled.

Vin smiled back. "Guess he figures he was a fool."

"You think he was?"

Vin sighed, his blue eyes focusing on on distant memories. "I's younger than JD when I joined up. Jus' did it 'cause I hated the bluebellies so much for takin' me back from the tribe... Figure Ezra, his reasons had to be better'n that."

Chris glanced at the Texan curiously. Vin's face was shaded under his old slouch hat, the sharp angle of his jaw blurred by blond-brown whiskers. His expression was serene. They all knew Vin had lived with the Comanches for a time. None of them had thought about why he'd left the tribe. Must have been ugly. A white boy raised by Indians, even if he remembered white ways enough to get along, wouldn't have had it easy. Sounded like he hadn't always been the calm man they knew; sounded like he'd been bitter.

"Probably wasn't even old enough to shave," Chris said to himself. He could imagine a younger Vin, all angles and elbows, whip-thin and angry, clad in buckskin and butternut under a faded Confederate gray coat. He'd seen boys like that. He'd shot boys like that. A lifetime ago.

These days when the Texan used those keen eyes to sight down his rifle, they were on the same side. Funny that none of them had spoken much about the war before. Three years of riding side by side, bleeding and cursing and laughing, and he hadn't known Vin fought for the South. Or maybe he hadn't wanted to know about Vin and Ezra, so he'd never asked. It wasn't like he encouraged personal questions himself, he acknowledged with a quirk of his lips. It could be the others had known, had talked about it, just not with him.

It occurred to him now that Ezra might have left them at the Seminole's village because he recognized men he'd known among Anderson's Ghosts. It could be damn hard to shoot at men you'd fought beside. Ezra had come back, though. He'd even put that cannon ball through the Confederate flag. Damn, how had they all missed what that had meant?

He glanced at Vin again. Vin didn't miss much. So maybe Vin had seen and guessed but stayed silent about it just the way Ezra had.

It seemed pretty clear Vin and Ezra had been sharing some memories from back then since they'd left good and bad. Chris thought he understood. There were things he could only talk about with Buck, because Buck had been there.

The clop of hooves on hardpan heralded Josiah's return from watching their back trail. Moses whinnied when he saw his stablemates. Josiah bridled him up, settling into an easy walk next to Vin on Peso.

Vin nodded to him.

"Any sign?" Chris asked.

Josiah shook his head. "Nothing on our trail, brothers, but I have a bad feeling. Perhaps it would be wise to scout ahead."

"Ambush?" Chris asked.

Josiah lifted his big shoulders in a shrug of uncertainty. "I saw a crow this morning. It sat on a rock and looked in my eyes," he said.

Chris grimaced, hating the shiver that ran up his spine. Josiah's damn crows. Every time the big man started talking about those damn birds some piece of hell popped loose.

"Damn it," he muttered. "Close up."

He legged Nero into a fast trot that brought him parallel to Buck and Nathan. Vin and Josiah cued their mounts forward, staying with him.

Vin let loose a sharp, piercing whistle.

Up ahead, Ezra's arm shot out, catching JD's hands on Dusty's reins. The Southerner pulled up Hazard and Dusty until the rest of their band reached them. Watching him, Chris thought he was an idiot for not noticing the way Ezra rode, the way he responded under fire, the way he understood cannons and black powder it all shouted military service. He'd just let Ezra's slick exterior and fast talk distract him.

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra inquired softly, noting Chris's intent stare.

"Nothing, Ezra."

Ezra's eyebrows rose.

Chris felt compelled to say something. "Josiah's seeing crows."

"A disturbing development," Ezra murmured.

From the other side of their little group, Nathan said, "Guess we need to keep a close eye out." He looked at Ezra and Chris tensed himself for another outburst, but this time Nathan was doing his part. "You feelin' light-headed or more tired than usual, Ezra?"

Ezra seemed ready to ignore the question for a moment, then shrugged. "I will admit to tiring earlier than I am wont to."

Chris looked at him closely. He was thinner than usual, still. Pared down fine, those pale green eyes set in shadowed hollows. Damn. Ezra faked it so well, he made it entirely too easy to forget only a week before he'd been sick as dog.

"Should've listened to me," Nathan carped.

Chris saw Ezra's lips thin. A flash of exhaustion and anger slipped past his mask and he closed his eyes. He looked startled briefly as he opened them and caught Chris studying him.

"I'm fine, I assure you," Ezra said.

"Figure you'd know," Chris agreed with a dip of his head.

The seven looked across the scrub-dotted flats to where the first rocks marked the foot of the mountains they meant to pass through. The twisted red stone barred with ochre and umber broke through the stubborn greenery clinging to the foothills. It was harsh country. Deep gashed ravines, winding canyons, stony peaks and lonely mesas that towered above the desert. Easy to get lost in. Easy to get killed in.

Vin slipped his telescope out of his coat and studied the notch they meant to take.

Chris thought how much better it would be to find some shade and water before the searing sun reached its zenith and pinned them under its heat out in the open. Shade and shelter would also provide cover.

"Could get dry gulched in there and never see it coming," Buck commented, squinting into the distance.

"They would have to drop us all, Brother," Josiah said. The wide brim of his sombrero protected his pale eyes from the glare, but they were still slitted as he peered into the distance.

"Why?" JD asked.

"Because none of us would allow them to make off with Mr. Tanner's corpus, any more than we would allow them to take him into custody, and without that to return to Tascosa there would be no reward," Ezra explained.

"Plenty of bounty hunters ain't too careful 'bout who else they shoot," Vin said.

Unsaid was that it was a similar incident, set up by Eli Joe, that had left him framed for murder. He hadn't known the body he took into Tascosa was Jess Kincaid and not the outlaw he'd been hunting. No one believed he'd found the body already dead. Bounty hunters weren't picky as long as they got paid and it looked like Vin Tanner had gotten lazy or greedy and murdered a man by mistake.

"Got any suggestions?" Chris asked.

Buckskin shifted as Vin shrugged fluidly. "There's plenty of Apache trails we could take."

"Plenty of Apaches too," Buck added.

"Ain't got nothin' they'd want."

Ezra snorted indelicately. "Savage they may be, but I believe most Indians have as keen an appreciation of fine horseflesh as any white man, Vin. Our horses alone would excite their envy and avarice."

"You'd know about avarice," Nathan muttered.

Ezra ignored him.

Vin lowered his telescope and twisted in the saddle.

"It's your trip, Ez, I figure it's your call," he said, surprising Chris.

He'd been about to make the decision of what they would do and it suddenly became clear it wasn't his decision. The five of them had joined Vin and Ezra. They were the ones who would choose.

Chris shook his head at himself. He'd got too damn used to being the one in charge.

Ezra licked his bottom lip then nodded. "It will mean no hunting and cold camps, will it not?" he asked.

"Yep."

Ezra glanced at the rest of them. He smiled sardonically and turned Hazard's head north.

"Lead on, Vin."

Without another glance to the cool promise of the mountains' green, they all changed course and threaded their path into the forbidding desert.

*******

Vin had found them a waterhole late in the afternoon. They'd filled their canteens and anything else that would hold water, including their bellies, then let the horses have their fill. They let their mounts graze off the tender greenery surrounding the waterhole while eating a cold meal of jerky, apples, and day-old biscuits before saddling up again to find a dry camp for the night.

Camp turned out to be a sandy hollow among the towering rock spires that littered the land, completely hidden until you were right on it. They picketed the horses close and laid out their bedrolls as the lowering sun colored the cloud-piled sky vermilion and mauve, indigo and incandescent rose. Palest green-amber tinted the horizon above the sharp purple-black silhouette of mountain peaks.

With no fire for light, they'd laid out their bedrolls close and begun to settle in without fanfare. Vin set his out next to Ezra's then perched on an old snag next to him. Buck was sitting on a small boulder watching sun go down. JD had his back propped against Buck's knees. Nathan had stretched his tall frame out flat and was staring up at the sky, watching the stars flash in and out of the scudding clouds as the sky darkened slowly. Josiah settled himself with his back against his saddle and fingered the indian-beads strung along with his old wooden cross.

Swift and unexpected, thunderheads were gathering over the distant mountains. The sunset dyed their darkened bellies crimson and fiery orange and deep, sickly green. Volleys of blinding streaks of violet and yellow-white lightning forked down to the land. The ominous growl of thunder followed on each flare's heel.

"I'll take the first watch," Chris said. He scooped up his canteen, rifle and an extra ammunition belt and headed for the look-out Vin had pointed out as they rode in. "Ezra, you've got it after me."

"I shall arrive in a timely fashion, never fear," Ezra replied tranquilly.

He fished through his saddlebags and withdrew three more apples. He tossed one to JD, who caught it one handed and smiled.

"Thanks, Ez."

"You're welcome, JD."

He juggled the other two apples briefly. "Josiah?" he called.

Josiah looked up from his murmured prayers.

Ezra sent an apple flying through the air toward him. Josiah caught it easily.

"You'll have to share with Mr. Jackson," Ezra added.

He held up the apple left in his hand. "This is the last, I'm afraid." He brought out his little knife and began paring slices off, offering the first one to Vin.

Vin took it with a smile.

"Well, now, this is a mighty tasty looking apple," Josiah said with a toothy grin. "Nathan is going to have to at least sit up to get any of it."

"Tight-fisted four flusher," Nathan muttered. "Keep your damn apples."

Ezra raised his eyebrows at Vin.

Josiah just laughed. "All the more for me, Brother."

JD had already bit into his apple, the crisp-wet sound distinct and unmistakable. The smell filled the dry air in contrast to scents of horses and dust and sweat that clung to them all. Chewing noisily, he held it up for Buck to take.

Buck accepted the apple distractedly, still watching the lightning storm. "No rain," he remarked as a rolling crack of thunder reached them.

Vin blinked as lightning streaked down the sky again. "Nope."

The rumble of it reached them again and he felt Ezra flinch beside him. The little paring knife slipped, slicing a line of dark blood across one pale fingertip.

Buck was still staring at the horizon, mesmerized by the brilliance against the darkening shades of the sunset, the jagged incandescence that flared against the eye and sky so fast only its fading ghost registered. The taste of the dry storm rode on the evening wind, sharp and bitter and wild.

Vin drew it deep into his lungs.

A boom of thunder and another quiver ran through Ezra beside him. He glanced to the side. Ezra was watching the lightning, his face colorless, his eyes strangely light, blind looking.

"God damn," Buck breathed.

Multiple strikes dyed the sky a glowing purple. The booming cannonade reached them heartbeats later.

"Some folks believe such a display is a signal of the Lord's wrath," Josiah intoned. He'd sat up to watch along with the others.

"Is that what you think, Josiah?" JD asked. He reached up and retrieved the forgotten apple from Buck's lax fingers.

"I can't see wrath in such beauty, JD."

JD took another crunching bite of the apple and shrugged.

"You don't see the glory and majesty of it?" Josiah asked. "The sheer magnificence?"

"Just a damn good way to start a wild fire," Nathan said from his bedroll. "Wish it would go ahead and get over with so we could all get some sleep."

Flash.

Faces leached bone pale and black shadowed, like spectres.

Crack.

The harsh rumble hit their eardrums from so close it vibrated through the earth and into their bones.

This time is was Buck who flinched.

"Sounds like artillery," he said flatly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw Ezra nod once.

Buck turned toward them, face just a dim blur in to the blinding afterglare of the lightning strike.

"You must have been in the artillery, right, Ez?" Buck said. "That's how you know so much about cannons and powder and dynamite."

"Yes," Ezra replied.

"Where'd you serve?"

"Where my superiors sent me."

Ezra carved another slice out of the apple and offered it to Vin on the point of his little knife. A dark smear marred the creamy flesh of the fruit. Blood from Ezra's finger.

Vin plucked it off the knife.

"Where?"

"Fredericksburg."

The fruit was just as sweet as ever.

Buck looked away. "God damn."

They watched the storm play out in silence until Nathan spoke.

"You kill a lot of coloreds riding with your Reb brothers?"

Vin settled his hand over Ezra's, feeling how the elegant fingers had locked tight around the little knife. He squeezed gently.

"Don't know 'bout Ez," he rasped out, "but I shot plenty of colored soldiers if they was wearing blue. Saw plenty of them fight beside boys in gray too."

It was too dark to read anyone's face, but the surprise sounded clear in JD's voice. "You were in the Confederate Army, Vin?"

"Yeah, kid."

JD muttered something that had Buck cuffing him hard.

"The hell it is," Buck snapped.

"Can't believe you fought for folks that kept slaves," Nathan said contemptuously. "Thought you was better than that, Vin."

Thought you was a better man too, Nate, Vin reflected silently. That war wasn't about you. Wasn't about slaves.

"Nathan?" JD asked.

"Yeah?"

"You ain't going to hit Vin too, are you?"

"What do you mean 'too', JD?" Josiah asked.

JD was silent.

"JD? What were you talking about, boy?" Buck prompted him.

"Sorry, Ezra, I know I said I wouldn't say anything," JD said contritely.

"What con has he got you covering up for him now?" Nathan interrupted.

"Nothing, Nathan, nothing except you coming into the jail and accusing him of something he had nothing to do with then hitting him from behind. I heard the whole thing, you know."

"JD "

"You don't think too highly of me either, do you?"

"JD, please " Ezra tried to stop him.

"Nope, I'm sorry, Ez, but I got a right to be mad too, the way he thinks of me," JD insisted. "I guess there just aren't many folks that live up to Nathan's standards. You don't. I don't, since he thinks I'd let you get away with murder. I guess, if Vin fought for the South, that makes him no good too."

"Now, that ain't true, JD," Nathan objected. "I just think Ezra's got his weaseling ways and he'd pull the wool over your eyes if he wanted to."

"I don't think so," JD stated firmly. "I'm not stupid. I'm not blind either."

"There's no need to quarrel over anything, Brothers."

JD huffed out a disgusted breath. "You're right about that, Josiah," he declared. "There's no use saying anything, 'cause Nathan ain't ever going to change his mind."

Ezra rose gracefully from beside Vin. His voice remained smooth and composed. "I believe I will relieve Mr. Larabee early."

He began to pick his way out of the dark camp.

Buck called after him, "I'll come get you later, Ez."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. I will be waiting."

Silence settled uneasily between the rest of them until Chris slipped back into camp.

"What the hell's wrong with all of you?" he demanded irritably.

"Nothin', stud," Buck replied.

Nothing any of them could change after this many years together, anyway, Vin thought. He slipped off the snag and into his blankets, pulling them over him to ward off the night chill of the high desert. He wondered why Nathan had come with the others. Habit probably, he decided.

He was sorry the man had come.

He didn't trust him any more. He kept thinking about that little bottle he found behind the Ritz. It looked just like Nathan's medicine bottles. The label was written in the same green ink. Every time Nathan opened his mouth, it reminded Vin of just how ugly things could get if what he thought was right.

Leaving Four Corners, he'd thought he'd left that problem behind. With Ezra and him gone, it wouldn't matter what Nathan did. Or had done. But now the healer was back with them, still going after Ezra, and Vin was worried again.

18. Virginia City, 1877

I limit the straddles, and you shuffle and deal.
When will the dealer reveal how he feels?
Is the lucky beginner just a five-card stud?
Is this winning streak going to be nipped in the bud?

No Cheap Thrill,
Suzanne Vega

Seven tired men rode into Virginia City. Seven tired, dangerous men wearing guns and riding good horses, steady and wary as a wolf-pack quartering new territory.

"Gunmen," someone watching them whispered and the rumor ran through town ahead of them.

The men felt the eyes on them and at least one of them was always watching the second and third story windows, the roofs and alleys. Hats were pulled low over their eyes. Sidearms were loose in in their holsters. The horses moved slowly, at their own pace. They rode with a pair ahead and a pair behind, three side by side in the center.

"You know the town, Ezra," Chris said.

Next to him, Ezra replied, "It has been three years." He glanced around and shrugged. "The whole place has been rebuilt since the fire in '75."

On Chris's other side, Buck shifted in his saddle with a creak from the leather. "Well, then, boys, you listen to ol' Buck. The first thing we find is a livery. Someone there'll tell us where there's a good saloon "

"Looks like there's plenty of saloons," JD piped up. He was riding drag next to Vin. He wasn't intimidated or impressed by the three and four story buildings of the city. They still didn't compare to Boston or New York.

" and you can always find out where the best hotels and whorehouses are from a bartender," Buck finished.

"Damn, Bucklin, is that all ya can think about?" Vin teased. His shoulders were hunched. He didn't like the feel of houses looming over him like cliffs stuffed full of people like wasps in a hive.

"I wonder if Miz Rose's Social Parlor is still standing?" Ezra remarked. "She did run an excellent establishment. It was at one of her gaming tables that I acquired the very deed that brings us here."

"See?" Buck exclaimed triumphantly.

Chris shook his head.

They rode on into Virginia City, most of them impressed despite themselves. The Richest Little City in the West some people called it. There were hotels and stores, saloons, gambling dens, sporting houses, theaters, music halls, and five police precincts. Compared to most Western towns it was amazingly populous.

They passed the six-story International Hotel. They passed by saddleries, bootmakers and tailorshops. A painted glass window advertised a barbershop next to a bathhouse. There were restaurants advertising different fare. Imposing brick banks sat next to the offices of assayers and surveyers. Signs advertised boarding houses as well as the hotels and saloons, music halls and theaters. Another stretch of street hosted hatshops, dressmakers, mercantiles, emporiums, and jewelers. Vin spotted a carpenter's and furniture store with fancy tables and chairs visible through a plate glass window. Then there were laundries and blacksmiths, along with more saloons. It was overwhelming.

Vin looked at it all and shuddered.

"Too damn many people."

He'd thought Four Corners was getting crowded.

Ezra heard him and said, "We will slip out of town and check the property tomorrow, Vin. Then, perhaps a day's negotiations, and we'll leave."

"Sounds good to me," Josiah said.

Vin guessed Josiah thought they'd be riding back to Four Corners all together, but he didn't read that in Ezra's pale green eyes. Didn't mean it wouldn't happen, but it wasn't foreordained.

He hoped Ezra was right about it not taking long to sell the deed and leave. He didn't like Virginia City. It stunk and pinched and crowded at him the way the few cities he'd glimpsed in the east had during the war.

*******

Buck's advice proved out. They left their tack and gear with the horses at the livery after impressing on the stable boy what would happen if any of it disappeared before they returned for it. They wandered into a saloon several doors down and ordered beers.

Josiah gave the bartender the evil eye when he looked at Nathan and started to open his mouth. After a second, the bartender recovered and filled two mugs to overflowing, which he shoved across the bar to them. Josiah slapped a couple of coins down in the skim of spilled beer. Nathan just stood with his arms crossed, frowning and shaking his head at everything. Josiah scooped up the two mugs and they headed for a table in a dim, ill-lit corner.

Buck and JD found their way to the piano and the piano player after garnering their drinks. A pleasant melody was started up by the piano player and Buck hooted good-humored laughter over something JD said.

Vin sat down at the bar and Chris took the stool next to him, both of them carefully checking that the mirror behind the bar gave them a clear reflection of the rest of the room and the doors.

Ezra patted his shoulder once as he walked past and ordered, "Three beers, my good man."

Three froth-topped beers were drawn into clean glass mugs and sent sliding down the bar to them with just enough force that they stopped in front of each man.

"Bravo," Ezra breathed and his gold tooth glinted as he smiled.

Ezra sweet-talked the bartender, learning more than just the name of a reputable nearby hotel. Vin watched as a quiver of eagerness seemed to run through the gambler as the names Stanford and Hearst, McKay and Crocker came up. Corcoran, the man with the new silver strike was described, along with Magnusson, a railroad tycoon, and Finster, another miner whose fortunes were waxing. Easy to forget just how good Ezra was at charming anything he wanted out of people. Real soon, he knew where all those men were staying, how long they'd been in town, and where they went to have 'fun'.

Vin frowned into his beer. There was something there, about that thought, that Ezra could make just about anyone trust him. He could convince you black was white if he bothered. He'd never tried it on Vin or the others.

"Problem?" Chris asked from his place beside him.

Vin shook his head.

"Just ponderin' on somethin'."

Chris took a deep swig of cold beer.

"Let me know when you figure it out."

Vin took a sip of his own beer, savoring the sharp flavor. Towns did have some good points, he had to admit. Ice houses and cold beer being among them. Washed the trail dust out of a man's throat real well.

"You ever wonder why Ez never tried to con any of us?" he asked at last.

Chris raised an eyebrow. "The man's run more than one scam in the last three years, Tanner."

"Not on any of us. Hell, not even on any of the good town people."

Chris appeared to think about it before slowly nodding agreement.

"Either he figured we'd see through it and shoot him "

Vin coughed and Chris had the grace to half smile because he had made that threat more than once.

" or he didn't figure we had anything worth conning us out of," Chris finished with a shrug.

Vin shook his head. "Then why'd he stick so long?"

"Why's he leaving now?" Chris snapped back.

Vin stared into his mug. The skim of foam on the beer was dissolving. He sloshed it, watching the dark amber liquid wash up the sides of the glass and then down again.

"Got to fold your cards when you're sittin' in a losing game," he said finally. "Figure he already went bust once with the Saloon and everythin'... " He finished the beer in one long draw, throat working, and set the mug down quietly. "A man comes back to a place he calls home and if it ain't, then one day, he doesn't."

Chris studied him thoughtfully, but said nothing as Ezra strolled over, looking smug and pleased with himself.

"Gentlemen, if your thirst has been quenched, I have obtained the name of a fine establishment where we can rest our weary bones on something other than cold, hard earth," Ezra said.

Chris swallowed the last of his beer and shoved away from the bar. "Let's go."

Buck's head came up as soon as Chris moved. He and JD fell into step following them out the door. Josiah and Nathan were right behind. Vin suppressed a grin. Beside him, Ezra chuckled quietly.

"Impressive, isn't it?"

Vin had to admit it was. Something about the way the seven of them always knew each other's moves made the group more intimidating than a collection of seven men, no matter how individually dangerous, should have been.

*******

The hotel offered baths to Ezra's delight. He wallowed in the decadent luxury of hot water, expensive soap, thick towels and privacy. He could have visited a barber shop for his shave, but preferred to have control of any sharp implements in close conjunction to his throat and did it himself.

He'd retrieved his carpetbag and saddlebags from the livery and dressed once more in a manner that befitted a gentleman gambler. Smooth-faced, wearing his favorite jacket, the lace at the edges of his cuffs arranged just so, and smelling of sandalwood rather than sand, he strolled downstairs from his room, intent on a good drink, a good meal, and then finding a good game. According to the check-in clerk, Miz Rose's establishment still did good business. He might stop in there later in the evening.

The desk clerk called his name before he had a chance to look for any of those things.

"Mr. Standish!"

Ezra paused. "Yes?'

The clerk pulled several envelopes from the desk and waved them. "You've got messages."

Ezra sighed. Perhaps he should have stayed at the International or the Gold Hill Hotel instead of choosing this one. He'd wanted a place that wouldn't be too intimidating or unaffordable for the other six men. So instead of a bellboy bringing him his messages, he had to rely on the clerk.

He accepted the slips of paper and read them. The contents brought a smile to his face. He'd been in town no more than a few hours and already the news had reached the interested parties.

The clomp of boots brought his gaze up in time to behold Buck, Vin, and Chris striding into the lobby. The three men had cleaned up too, though Vin had neglected to shave again.

"What's got ya grinning like a cat in a creamery, hoss?" Buck exclaimed.

Ezra laughed and waved the messages. "Invitations to dine and discuss my business prospects here in Virginia City," he replied. He fingered the slips. "From Misters Corcoran, Finster, and an agent of Mr. Magnusson."

"Well, howdy-do," Buck said. "Don't miss a trick, do they?"

Ezra grinned at him. "Oh, I don't know, Buck, I might have a few things to teach them."

"You taking them up on the invite?" Vin asked.

"I thought I would accept Mr. Corcoran's invitation."

"Think a couple of us ought to tag along," Chris said.

Ezra raised his eyebrows.

Buck shook his head, a smile curling beneath that lush mustache. "Not me, hoss. This ol' boy is going to check out Miz Rose's place." A spark of good-natured mischief gleamed in his dark blue eyes. "Any place that Ezra Standish remembers so fondly must be mighty fine, I'm thinking."

Chris slapped the back of Buck's head.

"Get your head out of your pants, Buck."

"That's just what I had in mind, stud."

Vin choked and snorted at that, while Ezra and Chris stared at the taller man in dismayed silence.

"Good lord, man," Ezra finally articulated. "Go on, get it out " Vin snorted again and Ezra glared at him, " of your system," he continued smoothly. "I would be delighted if Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner chose to accompany me. They have some sense of propriety. You, on the other hand, have raised uncouth to an art form."

"What'll propriety get ya, Ez?" Buck asked, grinning. "You three are going to be choking on cigar smoke and slick words all night, while I'm lazing in a sweet smellin' bed with a sweet lookin' gal, getting all uncouth."

With a tip of his hat, Buck strutted out of the hotel lobby.

Ezra stared after him and sighed. "There is a terrifying logic to Mr. Wilmington's arguments."

"Yep," agreed Vin. Suppressed mirth brightened his blue eyes.

Chris just shook his head. "He isn't ever going to change, that's for sure."

"Would you want him to, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.

Chris smiled. "Hell no."

"I thought not." He gestured to the doors. "Gentlemen, shall we proceed to Mr. Corcoran's lodgings?"

"That would be?" Chris asked as they started walking.

"Why, the International, of course." Ezra glanced slyly at Vin. "We may even introduce Mr. Tanner to the wonders of the 'rising room' they have there."

Vin stopped stock-still on the sidewalk. He looked at Ezra suspiciously. "The what?"

"A remarkable contraption meant to take the place of stairs, my friend," Ezra told him.

"Now, what the hell is goin' to take the place of stairs?" Vin asked Chris plaintively. "They goin' to make folk use a ladder?"

Chris laughed and shoved Vin forward into a walk again. "You'll just have to see, won't you?"

"Ain't goin' to like it, I know that," Vin declared.

Ezra shared a glance with Chris and they both chuckled.

"Oh, undoubtedly," he said and shifted the topic to Vin's sense of the weather in the Sierra Nevadas and whether it would be clear to ride out to Stairstep Canyon the next day.

*******

Asa Corcoran dressed like Ezra, albeit less colorfully. A shock of Irish red hair slicked down by hair oil still distracted attention from his shrewd hazel eyes. Nothing else about the businessman was remarkable; he was neither tall nor heavy nor ugly. His face and hands were spattered with freckles, a fair skinned man's legacy from a youth spent laboring outdoors. The fruit of that labor was evidenced in the plush surroundings of the International Hotel: the gas lamps, fine wallpaper, fine furniture polished to loving gleam, the glitter of crystal and china and silver on pristine linen.

He welcomed Ezra to his table with a smile, expanding his invitation to include Vin and Chris as they were introduced. A faint lilt colored his voice, a hint of amusement, as he smiled at them. Chris thought the man had noticed the careful way Ezra introduced them:

"My associates Vin and this is Mr. Larabee."

"Please, join me, gentlemen," Corcoran said.

Ezra gave him that gold-toothed shark's grin and took a seat. Damned if it wasn't the Southern gentleman, the educated planter's son, who matched Corcoran story for story as they dined on an array of fancy foods with French names Chris couldn't even pronounce. It all tasted fine, even the rich sauces, and was a far cry from bacon, beans, and biscuits.

He watched Vin, worried his friend would be intimidated or bothered by the assortment of elaborate silverware, but Vin just winked at him. It took an instant for Chris to realize Vin was subtly following Ezra's cues and another to see that Ezra was well aware and deliberately leading Vin through the maze of manners. At the same time, Ezra kept up his side of the conversation, trolled for information, picked his way through the meal, and silently laughed at Chris's consternation when that jade gaze locked with his.

Corcoran seemed surprised and pleased by Ezra and Ezra if Chris read him right was more respectful than mere avarice would have indicated. Usually Ezra saw the rich as marks, yet he seemed to like Corcoran.

"Now, laddie, how can I persuade you to part with that trifling bit of land?" Corcoran asked over brandy and cigars after the sumptuous meal served by the International's staff.

Ezra savored another swallow of Corcoran's smooth, imported French brandy, and replied, "That remains to be seen, sir, though I must say this fine spirit is an excellent start."

Chris inhaled the heady fumes from the balloon glass in his hand and had to agree. Corcoran was treating them to the good stuff.

The conversation drifted to the South and the cities of Richmond and Savannah before and during the war. Corcoran had made his first fortune running guns and supplies bought in Britain through the blockades to the Confederates.

Ezra calmly steered the conversation away from the war to horses. Racing, breeding, training Corcoran had an Irishman's love for a fine animal. He mentioned new race for Thoroughbreds being held in Louisville.

"They're calling it the Derby," Corcoran said with a shake of his head. "Held the first one in '75." He chuckled. "As though Churchill Downs will ever be as famous as The Curragh."

"You've attended both?" Ezra asked.

"Aye, and the fine meetings at Ascot, as well," Corcoran declared. "Damn the English, but they do have some grand horses." Thanks to the brandy, Corcoran's 'fine' sounded more like 'foine'. "No finer than you Americans, I must admit. I'd pit the horse that won your Kentucky Derby against anything England can offer."

"Chris, here, used to breed horses," Ezra mentioned.

"Not for racing," Chris demurred. "Saddle horses and cow ponies."

Corcoran looked at him closely. Chris remembered that the man had hired Pinkertons to find Ezra. That agent had probably sent him reports on all the lawmen in Four Corners, including himself. Otherwise, Corcoran would surely have asked him why he'd given it up.

"Seen some real beauties runnin' wild in Utah Territory 'n up to Wyoming," Vin spoke up. "Used to do a little horse huntin'."

You bet you did, Chris thought. His mouth quirked into a smile. If that's what you wanted to call raiding with the Comanche.

"I suppose that's how you got that damned mule Peso?" he asked.

Vin grinned. "Nope. Picked him up from a cowboy in Fort Worth. Said if I could ride 'im I could have 'im for a peso."

Ezra chuckled. "When will you be returning Peso to his erstwhile owner then?"

"What?" Vin frowned at both Chris and Ezra. Even Corcoran was smiling, sensing they were teasing Vin over the horse.

"He means we've all seen Peso toss your ass in the mud and that don't count as riding him," Chris said.

Vin glared at him. "I seen you pile off Nero once or twice, cowboy."

Chris held his hand up. "All right, all right."

Corcoran poured himself another measure of brandy and held the decanter up. The heavy, cut crystal glittered in the lamplight. "Gentlemen?"

"Had enough, but it sure is smooth," Vin answered.

Chris held out his snifter.

Ezra shook his head, lifted his snifter and swirled the dark amber liquid still in it.

Corcoran poured for Chris.

"My agent informs me you're a card player, sir," he addressed Ezra.

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I've been known to sit down to hand or two of cards."

Chris choked on his brandy. Vin helpfully thumped him between the shoulder blades, making it worse. Remembering some of the manners his mother and Sarah had hammered into him, Chris didn't wipe his chin with the back of his hand. He fumbled, found his napkin and blotted the brandy with it.

When he had control, he found Ezra and Vin looking at him with identical expressions of absolute innocence.

"Are you all right, Chris?" Ezra inquired.

"Swallowed wrong," he replied hoarsely. You sonovabitch.

"Gotta be more careful, cowboy," Vin told him cheerfully. This was what he got for teasing Vin about his damned horse.

Chris turned the full force of the Larabee glare on him. Vin smiled, completely immune. He switched to Ezra, who just blinked and cocked his head attentively. Sonsabitches, both of them, Chris thought.

"Then maybe you would be interested in doing a spot a gambling for that piece of paper?" Corcoran asked with a smile.

Ezra smiled back, dimples flashing, green eyes laughing.

Vin shook his head and advised Corcoran. "It ain't gambling the way Ez plays, Mr. Corcoran."

"I do prefer to leave as little to chance as possible, sir," Ezra agreed. "I am a professional."

"Ah, well, then it might be best if I didn't bet any of my mining shares, aye?" Corcoran said. He didn't appear disturbed.

"Indeed, sir," Ezra replied.

Corcoran finished his own brandy and scraped his chair back. "There are several excellent gambling halls here in Virginia City, but the vultures would be after us both if we showed our faces in them. There are plenty who would like to buy that land from you, if only to thwart me."

"Do you know Miz Rose's Social Parlor?"

It was Corcoran's turn to chuckle. "You have foine taste in more than horseflesh, I'm thinking. Miz Rose is a woman of discretion. She keeps a private gaming room too. We'll finish the night in an entertaining fashion there, however the cards fall."

"Shall we repair there, then?" Ezra inquired. "I owe the lady a thank you from my last sojourn here."

Chris pushed his chair back and stood. "Mr. Corcoran, thank you for your liquor and the fine meal."

"It was real good," Vin added.

"A sumptuous repast," Ezra agreed.

"Anything to close a deal," Corcoran told them with a friendly smile.

"We will talk further once my associates and I have inspected the land in question, sir," Ezra assured him. "For now, let us forego business and seek out another sort of pleasure."

Chris caught Vin's gaze. Are you coming?

Vin shrugged. "It's been a while, cowboy, and I surer 'n hell ain't what's that word Ez uses? averse," Vin said in a quiet aside. He added to Ezra, "Didn't know ya thought about more 'n cards and money, Ez."

"Gentlemen," Ezra chided them repressively.

"There is his horse," Chris said.

Vin shoved a sharp elbow into Chris's ribs as they stepped out the International's doors onto the sidewalk. It was a far cry from Four Corners. Even long after dark, Virginia City sparked with life, lamps burning, crowds ebbing and flowing from the various saloons and music halls, the theaters and restaurants.

Corcoran and Ezra walked out behind them.

Chris noticed Ezra looking around him as they walked down the sidewalk. A satisfied smile played over the gambler's boyish face. Ezra was completely comfortable in these surroundings, among the throngs of people and in the elegantly appointed hotel they'd just left. This was his natural milieu and he'd given it up when he stayed in Four Corners. Chris still hoped Ezra would ride back with them, but it didn't seem likely. Maybe it wouldn't even be the best thing for Ezra.

Ezra noticed his interest.

"You appear pensive, Chris."

Chris. Not Mr. Larabee. Ezra was relaxed. Of course, that formality made more sense now that Chris knew Ezra had been an officer. Their unofficial little band had followed Chris from the first and Ezra had been according him the respect due a commanding officer. Since he'd resigned from the Four Corners' peacekeepers, maybe he now felt he could use Chris's first name.

"Just thinking, Ezra," he replied.

"Nothing too vexing?"

"No, just figuring a few things out." He grinned at Ezra, which made him falter a step. "You're paying when we get to this Miz Rose's place, aren't you?"

Ezra laughed.

"I'll stand a round of drinks," Ezra told him. The gold tooth glinted. "Anything else, gentlemen, will be between you and the ladies of the establishment."

Vin and Corcoran both chuckled.

*******

Miz Rose's Social Parlor occupied a pleasant, three-story clapboard house situated near the border of the redlight district. A capacious barn sat behind it, where a visitor with a horse could leave it to be cared for by a stablelad and kept in a stall, discreetly out of view. Pots of flowers graced the porch and several windowsills. The soft glow from the lamps inside made its way through lace curtains and the sounds of a piano drifted to the street.

Corcoran used the lion-faced iron knocker just once.

A squat fellow of remarkable musculature with a fighter's scarred eyebrows and a smashed potato nose, dressed in a gray three-piece suit, opened the door immediately. Washed-out blue eyes recognized Corcoran then a gap-toothed smile crossed the otherwise scowling face.

"Aye and it's Master Corcoran come to call," the doorman exclaimed.

He waved them all in with a dramatic flourish that didn't hide the way he inspected Ezra, Chris, and Vin. They all noticed the Colt he wore in a shoulder holster much like Ezra's.

"Welcome to Miz Rose's, sirs."

They took off their hats as they stepped into the foyer, a bit of manners none of them ever felt compelled to use in most bordellos, but Rose McClanahan's house seemed to demand it.

"Liam," Corcoran said, "these are Misters Standish, Larabee and..." His words trailed off when he came to Vin, who hadn't been introduced beyond his first name.

"Vin," Vin said tranquilly to the doorman.

A crooked smile lit the man's face. "And it's welcome you all are."

A second man, this one six-foot-six and made like a freight train, hard as iron and coal-black, nodded his shaved pate at Corcoran from a doorway farther down the hall.

"Mista Corcoran," came the rumbling, soft greeting, in a Deep South accent far richer than Ezra's. This man was dressed in another three-piece suit, obviously tailored just for him. Liquid dark eyes catalogued Chris and Vin then settled on Ezra. White teeth flashed in the formerly solemn face. "Why, Mista Standish, it's fine to see you again."

"Likewise, Tiberius," Ezra replied seriously.

"Miz Rose will be mighty pleased to see you."

"We were hoping she might have the gaming room available," Ezra confided, his winsome, cajoling smile forming.

"There ain't no one using it," Tiberius said. He nodded to Liam, silently but clearly informing the Irishman he would take over with the four visitors.

"You gentlemen just go on in the front parlor. Miz Rose is talking to Cook; I'll fetch her."

"There's no rush, Tiberius," Ezra said. "We have all night."

Chris grinned at Vin over that. Their gambler had taken over thoroughly. He was even subtly herding Corcoran ahead of them.

"Oh, Tiberius? Another associate of mine expressed the intention of visiting earlier? Buck Wilmington. A tall, dark haired fellow with a mustache."

Tiberius chuckled. "Oh, that one. I believe Mista Wilmington is upstairs visiting with Miz Helen and Miz Jeannie. He already done visited with Miz Clarissa."

Corcoran goggled while Chris just chuckled, familiar with Buck's ways. Ezra and Vin were unruffled as well. Vin did murmur, "Wonder sometimes if Bucklin ain't part rabbit," making Ezra's gold tooth flash as he laughed quietly.

They proceeded into the parlor. Flocked wallpaper covered the walls and dark green velvet upholstered the horsehair stuffed cushions of the claw-footed settees. Turkey carpets covered the wax-polished floor. A full-length portrait of Rose herself dressed in a china-blue ballgown hung over the mantle of a marble-faced fireplace. The piano in the farthest corner gleamed like a black mirror. Seven women in evening dresses only slightly more provocative than was acceptable were drifting around the room and two others were settled on either side of a weedy fellow in a brown-checked suit.

Weedy glanced up and nodded to Corcoran, while two of the unoccupied women closed in on the mining magnate.

"Asa!" they cooed.

"Corcoran," Weedy greeted him. "Who're your friends?"

"Why these would be Mr. Standish, Mr. Larabee, and Mr. Vin, Finster," Corcoran replied.

Weedy's eyes sharpened. "Standish?"

Ezra nodded to him.

A tall, sloe-eyed woman had caught Chris's eye. The slow, sensual smile on her red lips reminded him of his favorite whore in Purgatorio. He matched her hungry smile with one of his own. Like Vin said, it had been a while.

His attention snapped back to Ezra briefly.

"Tonight I shall devote to a game or two of chance, then other matters ," a milk-pale redhead had reached Ezra's side and the gambler gave her a bemused smile, " so I'm afraid talking of any business will just have to wait, Mr. Finster." Ezra nodded at the two girls beside Finster. "You do understand, sir?"

Weedy Finster nodded sullenly. He sent a glare toward Corcoran, presumably for getting to Ezra first.

"You're welcome to join our play, of course," Ezra added.

Just behind Chris, Vin chuckled. Of course. Ezra might like Corcoran, but he'd have no scruples over taking Finster's or anyone else's money in a poker game. Ezra played poker the way Vin shot a long gun with a natural genius honed by a lifetime's experience and practice.

"Señor Larabee?" the dark-eyed whore said to him. She stroked her hand down his bicep. Unlike so many working girls, she didn't suffer from an up close inspection. She was dark, but her skin was clear and fine-grained. The flesh beneath her gown was lush, but didn't strain it.

"What's your name?" he asked her huskily, feeling his body already reacting to the knowing way her hand moved along his arm.

"Soledad," she told him, leaning close so that he could feel the warmth of her body and smell the perfume she wore.

"You have anything to drink upstairs, Soledad?"

"Sí," she told him with a smile.

Her fingers twined through Chris's and she tugged him toward the doorway and the stairs. He followed her without protest.

"Enjoy yourself, Mr. Larabee," Ezra called sardonically.

"Plan to."

"How about that poker game, Mr. Standish?" Corcoran asked

Chris looked back over his shoulder in time to see the madam of the house enter the parlor from the doors at the other end of the room. He paused. Soledad leaned against him and traced her fingers over his belt buckle in a distracting manner.

Miz Rose wore a bottle-green sarcenet dress with jet buttons and black braid at the collar and cuffs. Her russet-shaded hair had been braided into a coronet on her head and she carried herself like it was a crown. The white threading through it reminded Chris of a roan mare he'd owned once. That was a comparison he'd never make out loud. Buck might be the ladies' man, but Chris did know that much about women.

He lingered in the doorway, watching Ezra greet Rose with apparent delight. They were approximately the same height; when Ezra would have kissed her hand, Rose leaned in and bussed his cheek.

Rose wasn't a beauty, her features were a little too plain for that, but she was tall and straight and her hazel were eyes large and intelligent. The way she looked at Ezra reminded Chris of Miss Nettie and Vin. Which wasn't a bad thing, because while Ezra had a mother, he sure as hell could use someone that acted like one.

"Mr. Standish, Tiberius told me you were here," Rose said. She waved the redhead clinging to Ezra's arm off. "Maeve, get these gentlemen drinks."

"I couldn't visit Virginia City without seeing you, Miz Rose," Ezra replied. He dipped his head and added, "Your warning to get out when I did probably saved my hide."

Rose chuckled and turned to greet Corcoran. "Hello, Asa."

"Rose, my dear," Corcoran said with real pleasure. "We came to beg for the use of your gaming room."

She gave him a knowing look then said with a laugh, "Of course. It's yours for the night, boys."

Her attention moved to Vin and Chris. "And you are?"

"Friends of Ezra's," Vin answered easily.

A sleek blonde with an uncomfortable resemblance to Mary Travis had attached herself to Vin. Chris almost expected to see a blush on Vin's handsome features, but Vin's shyness obviously didn't extend to whorehouses. He threw off a two-fingered salute Chris's way then wrapped his arm around the blonde's waist.

"That's Vin and the fellow lurking in the door with one of your lovelies is another of my associates, Mr. Larabee," Ezra introduced them.

Rose looked from Chris to Soledad, raised an eyebrow, then waved them on their way. "I'm sure we can get better acquainted later, Mr. Larabee."

Ezra's amused chuckle made Chris smile as he let Soledad lead him up the stairs. Ezra's voice trailed after them.

"Shall we repair to the gaming room for the nonce?"

*******

Buck was in the gaming room when Tiberius showed Chris inside several hours later. His old friend was desultorily playing cards with Vin and Corcoran along with Miz Rose. Ezra was nowhere to be seen.

Buck's shirttails were hanging out, his dark hair stood on end and a blissful smile had his mustache turned up. His big body was slumped down in the chair and he radiated a pleasantly exhausted air. Since Chris was feeling agreeably satiated himself after leaving Soledad and washing up, he could imagine just how wrung out Buck must be.

"Lookin' pretty happy, stud," Buck commented as Chris slid into a seat next to him.

Chris just chuckled and accepted the bottle Vin nudged across the table toward him.

"My girls do aim to please," Rose remarked.

"I'd say they was right on target," Vin murmured. He was sprawled just about bonelessly in his chair, staring at his cards with a sleepy, half-lidded stare and a faint smile. A reddened lovebite peeked out from under his shirt collar, right at the base of his throat.

Corcoran had shed his coat and vest. Even his string tie was undone. A cowlick at the back of his head had triumphed over the hair oil. His sleeves were rolled up. "Deal you in, Mr. Larabee?" he asked around the cigar clenched between his teeth.

Chris nodded and pulled out one of his own cheroots. Vin wrinkled his nose.

"Where's Ezra?" he asked.

"Went upstairs with a gal a bit ago," Buck said with a smile and a waggle of his eyebrows.

"He'd already cleaned out that Finster fella," Vin added. "Don't figure he's got enough left to even try to buy that land off Ez anymore."

Corcoran let loose a rolling laugh. "I do believe your fine laddie won enough off my rival to pay our way here all night."

"Sounds like Ezra." Chris poured himself a drink and smiled. Kentucky Bourbon. Never got that in Four Corners or any of the other towns they passed through regularly.

Rose looked at the other men at the table, flipped a chip into the center and said, "I call."

She fanned out her cards and set them where everyone could see.

"Hell, you're 'bout as bad as Ez," Vin sighed. He tossed his own hand in.

Corcoran followed suit. "I should know better than to gamble with you, my dear."

"Yes, you should, Asa," she replied.

Buck's eyes were twinkling. He set down his own cards one by one. "Some of Ez's luck must of rubbed off on me," he declared, revealing a third king that beat Rose's two pair.

Rose laughed comfortably, while Buck rubbed his hands together then gleefully scraped the chips over to his side of the table.

Chris lit his cheroot while Corcoran shuffled and dealt again.

"So, you're all lawmen?" Rose asked Chris.

He plucked the cheroot out of his mouth and answered, "We get paid by a Federal judge to keep the peace. Sheriff's one of us, so it's official, even if we don't wear any badges."

Rose checked her hold out card and tossed in her ante.

"I'm glad Mr. Standish has some friends to watch his back," she said. "The last time he was here, he had that look in his eyes, it made me think he wanted that damned Walter Harrison to kill him."

Chris froze with his hand on his ante. He raised his eyes and met Buck's suddenly solemn gaze. The first time he'd seen Ezra, the man had been playing a con that could have got him killed. He'd always thought Ezra had just miscalculated for once, pushed his luck too far, but that hadn't been it at all.

"Aw, hell," Vin muttered.

So Vin understood too. Every gunfight, every crazy risk, every damn fight he'd provoked with a growly cowboy or Chris himself... it had all been on purpose. Ezra wouldn't put his gun to his head, anymore than Chris would, but he'd been hunting the same sort of end. No wonder he'd come back to the Seminole's village.

No wonder he'd stuck after his thirty days in Four Corners, either.

Chris shook off the revelation and tossed in his chips. It was all past now, anyway.

"He looks much better now," Rose went on. "I see he took off the wedding ring too."

Chris really wished the woman would stop pointing out things he'd seen without seeing. He could picture the pale line around Ezra's finger where the golden band had been as long as he'd known the man. He couldn't say when it came off, but it was damn recent.

Curious, he wondered if Vin knew anything he didn't. One glance told him no. Vin's lips were parted, his gaze very thoughtful.

Buck shook his head at him and tossed his cards away. "So much for luck."

Vin and Corcoran both anted up and the game went on. They were all a bit quieter. Corcoran didn't venture to question them and Rose went back to being entertaining.

Vin took the pot.

Corcoran bid them all goodnight and retired with his regular girl maybe ten minutes later. Chris, Vin and Buck went on playing, along with Rose, waiting for Ezra. As late as it was, there didn't seem much point to heading back to the hotel. They could meet the others in the morning for breakfast before riding out.

Three hands later, Ezra rejoined them. He looked sleepy and pleased and shrugged out of his coat before sitting down.

"Gentlemen. Miz Rose."

A pretty octoroon girl in a rose-colored dress padded in behind Ezra. Her expression resembled a cat that had been in the cream.

Chris almost choked when she leaned over Ezra's shoulder and kissed him. The contrast of Ezra's fairness and her café au lait skin was striking. Ezra's green eyes flashed to Chris and defied him to comment. The girl tucked Ezra's cufflinks into his vest pocket.

"Come back tomorrow night?" she asked in a New Orleans drawl.

"If I can, my dear Priss," Ezra promised.

Priss ran her hand through Ezra's hair, ruffling it, and languidly strolled back out. All five men watched the sway of her hips and Buck even sighed.

"Damn," he breathed, "that gal likes you, Ez."

Ezra just shrugged, but Chris knew he'd liked her too. Ezra didn't tolerate just anyone taking liberties with his person, but Priss had touched him in a way that was intimate beyond the carnal and Ezra hadn't objected in the slightest. In fact, he looked as relaxed and happy as Chris had ever seen him.

Buck rocked back in his chair. "Better not let Nathan see ya with that gal, Ez," he remarked. "He'd be hotter 'n a jumpin' bean on the Devil's griddle."

"I expect you are correct, Buck," Ezra agreed. A smile still played around the corners of his mouth. "I consider tonight worth whatever lectures our compatriot may see fit to inflict on us tomorrow, though."

Buck stroked his mustache. "Got to agree with ya there, pard." He grinned at Rose. "Ain't visited so fine a house since I was a tyke in Kansas City. Don't suppose you ever met Miz Bettina Baudry?"

Rose smiled widely. "Why, yes, we once shared the same employer in Galveston, I believe. I remember her fondly."

"Yep," Buck agreed. "So do I."

"For different reasons, one imagines," Ezra murmured.

Rose slapped the back of his head lightly. The rest of the table laughed.

Chris found himself studying Ezra's hands and the still visible line where the wedding ring had been.

Finally, Ezra said, "I assure you I am not dealing off the bottom of the deck, Mr. Larabee."

Chris blinked at him. "What?"

"You have been watching my dealing like a hawk, sir."

"I was wondering something, Ezra."

"Well?"

"You ever been married?"

Ezra's eyes narrowed.

Rose caught his hand up and touched the base of his ring finger. "Now, don't be angry with them," she admonished. "I was the fool that mentioned this earlier."

"I know it isn't any of my business," Chris admitted.

"But you want to know."

Chris shrugged, shamefaced. He should have asked something like this long ago. He wasn't much of a friend.

Ezra ran the pad of his thumb over his lower lip.

Chris was sorry now that he'd asked, watching the shadows slip back into Ezra's eyes. Ezra's smooth mask slid into place, but it wasn't effortless. The jade gaze drifted from Chris to Buck and then Vin.

Vin's eyes were full of understanding and acceptance. He didn't need any explanations. Buck squirmed, not impatient, just not liking pressing anyone for something that hurt. Meanwhile, Chris wanted to squirm himself, under the weight of Rose McClanahan's glare.

"Very well, gentlemen," Ezra said softly. He held out his hand, spreading the lean fingers and seeming to study the recently bared digit. The movement should have drawn everyone's eyes from his face. It didn't and Chris saw the flash of sorrow in Ezra's eyes.

"I was, indeed, married. Very briefly and against the lady's father's wishes." He smiled, but it was empty. "We were both very, very young."

"How young, Ez?" Buck asked gently.

"It was just after the war, Buck, and I was all of eighteen. Lorena was of the same age."

Buck stilled then sighed and dropped his hand onto the tabletop. "Aw, hell, Ez. I'm sorry."

Chris looked at Buck curiously, wondering what the apology was for.

"That song... Must stir up some memories," Buck went on.

Chris was still befuddled, but Ezra was nodding. His smile was a little more real.

"I know, Buck. I owe you an apology for my rather truculent reaction."

Buck smiled back. "You ain't like Larabee here most of the time, so I knew I must've rubbed you on a real raw spot." He hesitated. "You want to tell us about her. Or what happened?"

Ezra sighed. "In the interests of addressing this matter only once and never again," he conceded.

"Ya ain't gotta," Vin said.

Ezra poured himself a shot of the bourbon then handed the bottle to Chris. Chris poured himself a measure and passed the bottle to Buck. Buck added to his own drink and filled Vin's glass. That emptied the bottle. Rose discreetly slipped away from the table, carrying the empty away.

"I met Lorena Godwin in Baltimore. Her father was wealthy beyond even my mother's dreams, but not the sort of man she would chance running a con on. His power and vindictiveness were well known to most anyone," Ezra began.

As he spoke, he gathered up the cards and shuffled them quietly.

"When I first saw Lorena I was smitten, quite embarrassingly overwhelmed in retrospect. I ignored my mother's teachings and began secretly courting her. When we realized that her father would never countenance our wedding, we eloped."

Ezra's hands faltered briefly along with his smile.

"I made the mistake of informing my mother of the marriage and our location."

"What happened?" Chris asked roughly.

Ezra looked up at him, then his lashes veiled his eyes.

"She sold the information to Mr. Godwin and arranged my involuntary voyage to China, while Lorena was returned to the bosom of her family."

They waited and finally Ezra finished. "The marriage was annulled. By the time I returned to Baltimore, Lorena had been married to a man of her father's choice for several years, our youthful indiscretion nearly forgotten."

Chris picked up his glass and tossed back a slug. Buck and Vin did too. Ezra raised his eyebrows at them before tipping back his own glass. They all knew that no matter how lightly he'd told the tale, Ezra had felt what happened deeply. A man didn't wear a wedding ring all those years because he hadn't cared.

As he set the shot glass down on the green baize, Ezra shrugged and murmured, "But that was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."[x]

He picked up the deck and shuffled again, cascading the cards from one hand to the other. "Well, my friends? Shall we continue?"

"Deal," Chris said and tossed his ante into the center of the table, followed by Buck and Vin.

Ezra's hands flashed as he doled out the cards.

Buck picked up his hand and groaned. "Damn, Ezra. This ain't a hand of poker, it's a curse."

Ezra grinned at Buck across the table and shrugged. His gold tooth glinted.

"Then may I suggest you fold, Buck?"

Buck tossed another chip into the pot.

"Now, Ez, you know I'm goin' to stick, no matter what."

Vin added his bet.

"Yep."

Ezra fingered his own chip, then threw it in.

"I'm in."

He looked at Chris inquiringly.

"Chris?"

Chris shoved all his chips into the center of the table.

"All the way," he said with a wide grin, picturing the hand of cards Ezra had just dealt him.

A royal flush in spades. A hand of cards he could literally take to the bank in a town like Virginia City.

Buck and Vin looked at him in disgust and tossed their cards in.

Ezra eyed him.

"You, my friend," he said at last, laying his cards down, "win."

Chris grinned and agreed.

Yes, my friend, I win.

His luck had changed three years ago and he'd been winning ever since. He just needed to remember that. He hoped Ezra did too.

The four of them kept playing another hour then stretched out and caught a little sleep. Vin napped in his chair, leaning back against a wall. Ezra claimed a settee that was too short for Chris or Buck, while they managed head to foot in the longer one. None of them were comfortable, but the rest of the house was asleep and it seemed churlish to wake anyone to get a room and bed for no more than a couple of hours.

They stayed until Rose sent Tiberius in to rouse them, then wolfed down the massive breakfast Cook served in the kitchen. Ezra quietly settled the bill for all of them before they left. The four of them managed to slip back into their hotel rooms, wash, shave, and change, before JD came knocking on their doors. If Josiah or Nathan noticed the conspiratorial looks passing between the four of them as they ate a second breakfast, they didn't mention it. JD was too excited by the prospect of seeing Ezra's valuable property to notice anything, for which Chris was grateful. He didn't want to explain that the four of them had spent the night at a whorehouse, drinking and playing poker between visits upstairs.

It wasn't exactly professional, considering they meant to ride out at daybreak. They were all lucky Miz Rose's liquor was good enough they weren't suffering from hangovers.

A glance at Vin's paler than usual face made Chris amend that thought. As much as they'd drunk, they just weren't suffering yet. The hangovers were on their way. A throb began behind his eyes.

His hand met Ezra's as they both reached for the coffee pot.

"Would you all finish breakfast so we can go?" JD demanded.

"Lord, kid, that land ain't goin' nowhere," Buck said.

JD stole piece of ham off Buck's plate and dodged a half-hearted swat.

"You're getting old, Buck," the kid laughed.

Ezra sighed. "I predict this is going to a long day, Chris," he said dolefully.

Chris pulled the coffee pot his way.

He agreed. But he had no idea how long.

19. Stairstep Canyon, 1877

Well load up your guns its time to fight
It just don't matter who's wrong or right
Load up your guns get a man in your sights
This canyon's gonna burn

Devil's Canyon,
Molly Hatchet

Each man double checked his tack before swinging into his saddle. The horses were head-high and restless after a half-day stalled, doing nothing but eating. Each one of them had been groomed to a sleek shine, including the always recalcitrant Peso. Even their tack had been saddle-soaped and oiled.

Ezra slipped the stable boy a gold double-eagle for the obvious extra care he'd taken.

He furtively fed Hazard a peppermint when the others weren't looking, only to glance up and find Vin smiling at him. He stroked the gelding's neck fondly and shrugged.

JD began whistling as they rode north out of town, gigging the horses into a trot as they passed the city limits.

Virginia City sat in the foothills. The pines had been logged off, leaving muddy slopes of the same infamous blue-gray as the sticky stuff that had annoyed the goldminers in Six Mile Canyon until they found out it held silver ore assayed at two thousand dollars a ton. For all that, Virginia City was no eastern town. The wilderness still dominated its surroundings. Snow-cloaked mountains with skirts of green pines loomed beyond the rooftops and inclined streets. A day's ride in the wrong direction could leave a man lost and shivering as the cold mountain night came down.

Vin shook himself like a dog when they climbed out the stink of coal fires, stables, and people and a cold wind off the high western peaks sent a shiver through all of them. The sun was up, but the shadows were still cold and black in the lee of the pines and in the dark depths of the ravines. Each of them was glad of the coat he wore, despite the cloudless sky that promised a beautiful day.

Somewhere above them a hawk screamed.

Ezra rested his rein hand on the pommel of his saddle and scanned the sky for it. A flash of white on the tail told him it was a redtail. The hawk spiraled higher, searching for prey.

"So, Ezra, you know where we're going?" Nathan asked.

"A wagon track should split off from the main road north within another half-mile," he told them all. "At present, Mr. Corcoran is freighting everything in and out of his Swedish Hat Strike via mule-teams. The track will take us right through Stairstep Canyon. Apparently the only other access to the mine is too steep for a locomotive."

Chris geed Nero into motion again. "Let's keep moving."

Nathan pushed Peppermint forward, leaving Ezra a length behind.

"Why don't they dynamite it?" JD asked as they rode on.

"They're deep rock mining, JD," Ezra explained. "If they dynamited the mountain, they might destabilize the entire mine. From what Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Finster were saying last night, the Swedish Hat is weak and wet. They're using Deidesheimer's square-set timbers to shore up the tunnels, but they're already pumping water out of the mine. A shift in the mountain might flood everything."

"Oh."

"Hey, kid, get up here!" Buck called.

JD gave Ezra and Josiah an apologetic smile and set Dusty to a trot that caught him up to Buck and Nathan.

"Where did you learn so much about mines, Brother?" Josiah asked.

"Miners make money and then they gamble it at my table, Josiah," Ezra told him, smiling. "They tend to talk while they do so. I listen."

The tack creaked and Hazard shook his head with a soft jingle, mouthing the snaffle bit. Up ahead, Buck rode beside JD and Nathan, the three of them talking. Behind, Vin and Chris rode in companionable silence.

"Will you invest in Virginia City?' Josiah asked.

Ezra glanced to the side at him then shook his head. "San Francisco. That's where all the silver money is going, Josiah," he said thoughtfully. "It's a city built on trade, not just ore. What do you think will be here in twenty years, when the mines are played out?"

Josiah nodded slowly.

Ezra went on, "Virginia City seems different, because the strikes have been so big and the mines have been producing for twenty years, but it's still a boomtown, 'siah, and boomtowns all go bust." He sighed. "Twenty years from now it'll be another ghost town."

"So where do you plan to be twenty years from now, so- Ezra?'

Ezra shrugged gracefully. "Rich or dead, 'siah."

With a click of his tongue, he set Hazard to a faster pace until he'd drawn level with Buck, JD and Nathan. He didn't feel like arguing with the preacher. Josiah would tell him money didn't make a man happy and he would argue that poverty conferred neither happiness nor virtue. If he had to choose, he would certainly prefer to suffer loneliness or sorrow in comfort than in want. Friends might not be for sale, but he knew very well company could be bought. Good company at that, as Rose's Social Parlor proved.

The wagon track forked off the main road exactly as described and they made good time. It was easy going for the horses; the track followed an incline built for mules pulling heavy-weighted supply wagons. The ruts cut and twisted through Digger and Sugar pines, Mountain hemlock and green brush, subalpine meadows lush with grass and wildflowers, while bypassing any larger granite outcroppings.

They spooked a pair of does riding through one of the meadows. The deer bounded into the brush with a white flicker of their tails. The sudden movement startled the men and JD drew his pistol.

Buck laughed. "Put that away, JD."

Vin stopped Peso next to them and added, "Ya don't shoot does unless ya got to, kid. Those two ain't even had their fawns yet."

"When do you have to?" JD asked.

"When you get hungry enough," Buck said.

JD grimaced at Buck and holstered his pistol.

They continued up the increasingly steep track another half mile until the pines thinned out and they were faced with an imposing rock face with a single opening: Stairstep Canyon. They followed the trail up into it.

The Canyon lived up to its name. On south side of its mouth a snow-fed stream rushed over mossy rocks. A gentle slope rose from one side of the stream across the canyon to its far wall. A few lodgepole pines grew where the sun reached the base of the canyon, their two-needle bundles distinguishing them from the commoner Sugar pines' three-needles. Past the first, sparse stand of pines, the canyon's bottom formed a natural terrace, with only a thin and unproductive layer of sandy soil over a base of granite. Only the hardiest grass and plants thrived in the poor dirt.

As they rode up through the canyon, the odd terracing effect repeated, providing a perfect venue for laying a railroad track that could safely switchback its way up to the mountain where the Swedish Hat mine drove deep into the earth's bones. The watercourse meant the track would never be undermined by rain and erosion nor would the granite crumble beneath freight of tons of ore.

Buck reined in Darling and pulled his hat off. He looked around.

"Damn, I ain't ever seen a more useless stretch of land," he declared.

"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "It's only value lies in traversing it."

"Only you could make a fortune off nothing for doing nothing," Nathan commented. He smiled sardonically.

"I beg to differ; my skills at poker is certainly not nothing."

Nathan rolled his eyes.

"So where were the four of you last night?" JD asked. He turned in his saddle to look at Vin, Chris and Ezra as well as Buck. "I couldn't find any of you."

Buck grinned devilishly. "Visitin'."

"You don't know anyone in Virginia City," JD accused.

"But I make friends right quick," Buck responded slyly.

"But what about the rest of you?"

Vin ducked his head. Chris just looked at JD. Ezra chuckled.

"Met that fella Corcoran," Vin offered. "Seemed all right."

"That's it?" JD sounded disbelieving.

"Ez played some poker. Cleaned out a fella," Vin added.

"Yep," Buck said. "Mixed a little business with pleasure after that, didn't ya, Ez?"

Ezra shrugged. "It was an enjoyable evening, certainly."

Buck reached over and cuffed Ezra's shoulder.

"That gal Priss sure acted like she enjoyed it."

"Buck, you have the discretion of a billboard," Ezra reproved him. He checked his shoulder to make sure Buck hadn't stained the tan jacket with oil from his reins.

Josiah shook his head in mock sorrow, while Nathan gave out with an unwillingly amused sound. JD looked at Ezra wide-eyed then switched his gaze to Vin, who blushed.

"Miz Rose has a real nice place," Vin admitted.

"Well, boys," Buck said. He waved his hat at their surroundings. "We're here. Now what?"

Ezra frowned and looked around. He'd felt compelled to inspect the tract of land before he parted with the deed. Now that he'd reached Stairstep Canyon, he hadn't any real plans. There was nothing to see beyond rocks, pines, and the muddy double ruts left by wagon wheels.

Buck's stomach growled audibly.

"'Cause, I'm thinking we set down and eat something, then head on back town," Buck offered. A twinkle lit his dark blue eyes. "I'm planning on getting a little better acquainted with Miz Clarissa tonight."

Vin sighed and Ezra knew his friend would prefer to stay in the mountains, but they hadn't packed enough supplies for more than a day or two.

"There doesn't seem to be much point to lingering," Ezra admitted. He nodded toward the stand of lodgepole pines offering shade and a faintly more comfortable stopping place than the open stretch they were stopped in.

"Looks good," Chris said.

Ezra cued Hazard to turn toward the trees. "Shall we "

The bullet whined through the air between Vin and him, followed by the crack of a rifle firing.

"Sonovabitch!" Buck exclaimed

"Which way?" Chris demanded as all seven horses launched into a run toward the pines.

"Up canyon," Vin yelled back.

More gunfire was following them. Peppermint stumbled with a wild neigh, but kept running. Ezra spotted the graze crossing over the big brown gelding's rump. Blood ran crimson from the groove cut through the unfortunate animal's skin.

"That came from behind us!" he shouted to Vin as they thundered toward the partial cover of the pine grove.

JD and Dusty were stretched out low and running ahead, followed by Chris and Buck in close formation, the three already closer to the grove than the others. Nathan and Peppermint were slowing and Josiah and Moses couldn't match the speed of Peso or Hazard.

Ezra urged Hazard faster. The Thoroughbred responded like the born racer he was, mane whipping into Ezra's face. Without so much as a hitch in his pace, Hazard changed leads and poured on the speed to catch the others. Beside them, Vin and Peso kept pace, hooves thundering over the earth.

Ahead of them, Ezra spotted JD and Dusty jumping a deadfall that was too close, while Buck pulled up Darling. The gray mare sat back on her haunches like a cow pony in a roping competition and slid to a stop. Dry pine needles exploded into the air under her hooves. Chris and Nero followed JD's path, but plunged off at the last second before reaching the deadfall. Chris lost his hat to a low hanging limb and cursed viciously.

In a split second, Ezra scanned the grove, looking for a clear path the rest of them could follow, but there was no room, not at the speed they'd set. Hazard and Peso swept past Josiah and Nathan's mounts. Then they were coming even and into the pines. The sudden shade after the brilliant sun almost blinded Ezra.

"Chris!" he shouted. "Out of the way!"

He didn't need to look to know Vin had seen and understood exactly what he had, nor considered even briefly that Vin would ride Peso into one of the trees. There was just room for two horses to come into the grove along with Buck and Chris, then the deadfall JD had jumped, and a clear path that would let them slow and stop.

Chris whipped his head around, saw what Ezra had seen and sent Nero into the brush next to the deer trail, out of the way.

Ezra tightened his legs around Hazard's barrel and bent low, urging the gelding faster. "Up and over, my friend," he whispered and Hazard's ears flicked back then forward as he thundered into the trees and lifted over the deadfall effortlessly. An instant later, the thunder of Peso's hooves paused for a second as Vin jumped the deadfall behind them.

Ezra was already reining Hazard in, the gelding spinning nimbly on his hind feet, while Ezra unlimbered his rifle.

He wasn't surprised to see Vin had his own rifle out already.

JD was at his side, starting back toward the others.

"Wait," Ezra said.

Another rifle barked nearby, Josiah's, and then Buck's joined it.

Chris called to them, "Ezra, JD, get up to the top of the grove, keep under cover, and make sure no one comes at us from that side. We're taking fire from two groups."

Ezra kicked out the stirrups and dropped off Hazard. He tossed the reins to Vin then headed up the deer trail.

"Go on, JD," Vin called in a low voice. "I got the horses."

Behind them, Peppermint was neighing, obviously in pain from the crease on his rump. Nathan was cursing softly, an unusual happenstance. Ezra sympathized. He took anything that happened to Hazard personally too.

JD caught up to him as they reached the edge of the trees. They crouched and slipped up to the clear ground, trying to stay under cover.

Without a word, JD took the boulder on the left. Ezra snaked up to the twisted pine that grew almost horizontally from beside the rock. Damp soaked through the fallen pine needles into his elbows and knees.

Ezra slid up to the trunk, inhaling the clear incense of the pine on the cool air with the stray thought that he definitely preferred being pinned down in a cool, shady place than in one of the arid rock arroyos around Four Corners.

He peered over the trunk, pressing so close bark ground into his cheek.

Where were they?

Rocks, bare ground, a single straggling pine, more rocks... Ezra scanned with an expert eye.

"Ez?"

"Stay down, JD," he said absently, still searching.

A shadow moved that shouldn't have. Ezra focused his gaze on a pile of boulders near the canyon wall. It could have been anything from a bird to a squirrel he knew, but he also knew the bird would have flown and the squirrel would have retreated. He squinted against the glare.

More movement. He followed it and the brown resolved itself into a boot and leg.

"JD, move slow and look along the canyon wall. There's a streak of reddish rock coming down. Two men to the left, in the rocks," he directed.

He brought his rifle up and let the barrel sit on the crotch between the pine's trunk and a barren, broken off branch. It made a fine shooting tripod. He nestled the stock into his shoulder, cheek against the smooth polished wood, and leveled the sights on that leg.

JD peered over the boulder.

"I don't oh, yeah, I see them," JD muttered. He brought up his rifle.

On the far side of the grove, Chris's Yellow Boy had joined Josiah and Buck's irregular firing. Ezra listened even while he kept an eye on the jumble of rocks at the base of the canyon wall.

"I could wing that one fellow's leg," JD offered.

"So could I," Ezra stated.

"So?"

"So, it'd be a mite more useful to just wait some," Vin said, cat-footing up behind them. JD jerked his head up, only to be pushed back down by Vin's hand.

"How many, Ez?" Vin asked.

"Two, at least, Mr. Tanner," Ezra told him. His finger rested on the rifle's trigger. A small stone dug into his shin. He ignored it.

"Got five, maybe six, coming up the canyon," Vin said. "Can't make a run at us here without getting picked off, though."

"Any clue to who they are?" Ezra asked idly.

"Nope. Could be after me or you. Hell, they could be a posse of husbands huntin' Buck," Vin replied with a low chuckle. He was crouched on his heels, Winchester in one hand, Ezra's saddlebags and canteen in the other. He set the saddlebags between JD and Ezra then placed the canteen on top.

"Anything else?" Ezra asked. He watched Vin out of the corner of his eye.

"Horses are tied up just down the trail. Nathan says Peppermint can run if we need to ride. Chris is cussin' just about ever' one. Want to go easy on what ya got in your canteens; looks like we might be stuck here for a while."

"Joy," Ezra muttered.

Vin chuckled again.

"So why don't I shoot one of the ones up here?" JD demanded.

"Ya wanta tell 'em, Ez?"

"Should we take a shot now, Mr. Dunne," Ezra explained, "it will reveal our presence and location, while only wounding and perhaps lending fury and determination to our foes."

"Iffen ya just wait," Vin continued, "they might get stupid and try sneaking in behind us. That's when ya shoot 'em."

"Precisely," Ezra agreed.

"I guess," JD said. "It just seems like we should be doing something."

"Ya are," Vin told him.

He patted Ezra's shoulder.

"Goin' back 'n tell Chris you and JD got us covered up here," Vin said softly. "Then I'll be back."

"We shall be waiting," Ezra replied.

Vin slipped back down the trail as silently as he'd come.

"Well, JD, it sounds as if we may be here for a while. Perhaps some conversation might alleviate the potential for boredom."

"Did I tell you the joke about "

"Or not," Ezra interrupted him. "Perhaps it would be wiser to cleave to the rule that silence is golden."

JD shook his head. "None of you appreciate a good joke."

Ezra laughed softly under his breath. "Oh that must be it."

*******

Vin slipped over the deadfall carefully. He didn't want to catch a foot in the tangle of branches and wrench something.

Josiah gave him a nod as he passed where Nathan had the other four horses tied up. The healer was slathering some stinking salve onto his mount's rump. He looked fiercely unhappy and ignored Vin.

Vin shrugged.

Chris and Buck were situated where they could cover each other and watch the approach to the pine grove. Vin snaked up beside Chris even more carefully than he'd approached Ezra and JD. There were eyes watching for movement here.

"Well?" Chris demanded.

"They got some good cover. Spotted at least two fellas up in some rocks, just waitin'."

"So we're pinned here."

"Been in worse spots," Vin said.

A bullet whined through the air, exploding bark and raw splinters out of the pine Chris was crouched behind. Buck's rifle barked immediately in answer.

"Determined sonsabitches," Chris muttered. He glanced at Vin, lifting an eyebrow. "Any ideas?"

Vin shrugged. "Sit tight for now. Come dark, me 'n Buck 'n Ez can sneak out, cut a few throats, open up a way up canyon," he told Chris.

Chris narrowed his eyes and glared. "What about me?"

Vin grinned. "Larabee, ya ain't got but one way 'n that's forward. Need to do this quiet. Now, Buck, he knows how to pussyfoot from slippin' in to 'visit' all of them married women 'n Ezra, hell, ya know he's a born sneak."

"Don't know if our brother would appreciate your description, Vin," Josiah called softly from his own post.

"But he is slicker'n a greased weasel," Buck added. The wide, white grin flashed under his mustache.

"So we wait," Chris said. He jerked his head toward their attackers. "What if they don't?"

"Guess ya'll get to shoot 'em then," Vin replied serenely.

He wasn't too worried. They had been taken by surprise, but that was past now and the numbers were about even. The men out there didn't have any idea of what they were facing.

Outlaws, bounty hunters, even gunfighters and lawmen, most of them were more interested in saving their own skins than anyone riding with them. Unless they were family... like those Nichols brothers or the Daltons, Youngers and James boys. They were trouble. Even those Earps that were down in Tombstone feuding with Behan and the McClanahans were most dangerous because they sided each other no matter what.

"Jesus, I could be back home digging post holes," Chris muttered. He fired down the canyon.

"Ain't you glad you're here?" Buck laughed.

The sporadic gunfire stopped. In the lull that followed, the endless whisper of the wind through the pine tops was the only sound, until Larabee set his hand down on a pine cone and let loose with a few choice curses. That set Buck to laughing again, a sound that must have seemed strange coming from a group of men pinned down by gunfire only moments earlier.

Chris tossed the cone away and sank down to wait.

Nathan duckwalked over to Josiah's side and settled in. He handed over a canteen. Josiah took two sips and capped it.

Behind them, the horses were calming, restless feet rustling in the pine needles coating the ground, snorting and twitching their hides, unhappy to be tied so closely in place and still saddled.

"You in there! Send out Standish and Tanner! We got nothing against the rest of you! It's them we want!"

The shout echoed off the canyon walls and slowly faded.

"Guess that answers that question," Buck said.

Vin pursed his lips and spat.

"Not exactly a surprise," Chris responded.

Give us Tanner and the gambler. The rest of you ride away. They're all we want!"

"Sinners want ice water in hell," Josiah bellowed back. "You won't get that either!"

Chris got a tight smile on his face at that. He shook his head.

"Might be we could use some of Ezra's tact, 'bout now," Vin offered.

Chris kept shaking his head. "They're after his hide too."

"You got no way out! They worth dying for!?"

"You boys are the one's going to be doing the dying," Buck muttered, a thread of anger running through his voice.

"We don't give up our own!" Chris shouted. "You figure those bounties are worth dying for!?"

A quick, unaimed shot that went over their heads was the only answer.

"Oh, good, remind 'em 'bout the money," Vin murmured.

Chris slapped his arm. "Get back up to the other side and switch off watching with Ez and JD."

Vin slithered back into the brush. Chris was right. The four men were in a position to hold the front approach pretty much as long as the ammunition held out. He'd be of more use back with the other two.

Nathan caught his eye as he went and asked in a low voice, "They both still okay?"[xi]

"Yep."

"Don't let that gambler run out on us," Nathan added. "We wouldn't be in this trouble if it weren't for him. Bastard Reb's nothing but bad blood."

Vin froze.

"You got a problem with me too, Nathan?"

Josiah set a big hand on Nathan's shoulder as he swung around, glaring, at Vin.

"Neither one of us asked ya to trail us here," Vin added.

"It ain't the same," Nathan muttered.

Vin dismissed him, "Yeah, ain't that the truth," and clambered back over the deadfall again.

Right then, he was damned glad to be partnering Ezra and JD and away from Nathan and Josiah. He was even madder at Josiah than Nathan. Nathan and Ezra had never got along, but Josiah was always trying to act like Ezra's Pa. Vin figured Ezra had been better off without one. Josiah never once stood up for the Southerner. Hell, he'd shoved temptation into Ezra's hands and helped bring down his dream. Done it while calling himself a friend, which was worse than Nathan's ingrained hostility, to Vin's thinking.

Small wonder Ezra always held himself a little apart. One or all of them had said, 'I'd trust him in a gunfight, but not with my money' or something like it more than once. Ezra'd learned the same lesson from them. He'd trust them in a gunfight, but not with his dreams. Not again.

As for Nathan, it was time for him to get over where Ezra came from or what side of the war he'd fought on. Weren't like no one else in the world had ever suffered. Buck didn't let having a whore for a mama make him bitter. JD and his mama hadn't been treated much better than slaves, but it hadn't poisoned him.

Poison.

Vin still didn't want to think it, but the way Nathan acted... Saying things like Ezra had bad blood. Vin wanted to think the man had been fooled by Maude. He wanted to, but it was real hard.

Bad blood.

Vin snorted at that. Damn Nathan for a shortsighted jackass. That was the same thinking that couldn't get past the color of a man's skin or his accent or whatever church he prayed in. Just damn foolishness.

He stopped and poured a little water from his own canteen into his hat and let Hazard, Peso and Dusty drink. Ezra would probably be horrified at the thought of messing up his hat that way. Vin jammed the damp headgear back over his hair.

Ezra would be horrified, but he'd do it. The man didn't have it in him to be mean to an animal. 'Course, he probably had Hazard trained to swig out of the canteen.

Vin was still chuckling over his whimsy, temper restored once more, as he reached the other two men.

"Well, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked.

"Ya hear?"

"Indeed."

"They must be crazy to think we'd just let them have you," JD exclaimed.

"Nope, just don't know us."

"Few men are gifted with such loyal compatriots, JD," Ezra added.

"Looks like we sit, for now," Vin told them.

*******

The afternoon dragged. On the other side of the grove, gunshots were exchanged desultorily by both sides. Just reminders that they were still there and ready to fight.

Vin took over watching for Ezra, while Ezra delved in his saddlebags and withdrew a loaf of bread, a small jar of butter, a heel of ham, a quarter of a round of soft farmer's cheese, and half a cherry pie wrapped in brown paper. He shared this between JD and himself, setting aside a generous portion for Vin.

"Where'd you get all that?" JD asked in amazement as item after item appeared from the saddlebags.

Ezra's smile flashed. "The cook at the establishment Misters Tanner, Wilmington and Larabee sojourned at with me last night kindly provided lunch for all of us before we took our leave this morning. The lovely lady who manages the house insisted, did she not, Vin?"

"Yep," Vin agreed, without taking his eye away from his rifle sights. "Right good vittles too. Make sure you leave me some of that pie, JD."

JD snatched his fingers back from the slice he'd been fingering. The slice Ezra had saved back for Vin.

"Aw, Vin, I'm hungry," JD protested, flushing a little.

"Should've brung your own."

"Well, what about Ez? He's eating a second piece!"

"He brought it. It's his, he's the one sharing with ya and me."

JD pouted until Ezra relented with a sigh and shoved the last quarter of pie his way.

"Just don't think ya are goin' to con me the way ya just did Ez," Vin told him as JD wolfed it down.

JD grinned around a mouthful, cheek bulging and mumbled, "Love cherry."

"Don't talk with your mouth full, JD," Ezra said.

"You tell 'im, Pa," Vin gibed.

Ezra groaned. "Merely trying to introduce a modicum of manners to our young compatriot, Mr. Tanner, does not qualify me for Mr. Wilmington's paternal type inclinations."

He began stowing leftovers back in his saddlebags.

"It's too late for the rest of you, but JD may still be civilized."

"Tamed, don't ya mean?"

Ezra's feral grin said no. "Not in the least, sir. Civilization is no more than a thin veneer over Man's baser impulses. Manners do not make anyone less a man."

Vin was silent.

Finished, Ezra crept into place next to Vin and picked up his own rifle. "I shall take over now."

Vin propped his own weapon against the tree, turned and sat with his rear on the ground and his back propped against the pine. JD handed him a tin plate with a rough sandwich and the piece of pie.

He nodded his thanks and began eating.

After a few minutes, he swallowed and said, "Reckon you're right, Ez."

"Of course."

Vin slumped down a little lower, pulled his hat over his eyes, and relaxed.

"Jiminy, Vin, are you going to sleep?" JD asked.

Vin lifted his hat brim and opened one eye. "That's the idea, kid."

"But how can ya sleep?"

"Ain't got nothin' better to do. Know Ez has got his eye on them up there. Boys've got things under control. Got to sleep when ya can, might need to stay awake all night. Right, Ez?"

"Indeed, Vin, you know how fond I am of taking my rest, though I do prefer it to be in rather greater comfort than we are afforded here."

JD drummed his fingers on his knee and shook his head. "I don't see how you can do it. I mean, I couldn't sleep if you paid me."

"Something I'm hardly likely to do," Ezra said dryly.

Vin pulled his hat back down. "I'll spell ya in couple hours, Ez."

"That would be acceptable."

Precisely two hours later by Ezra's pocket watch, Vin pushed his hat off his face and took his place watching. JD was dozing, sitting with his head dropping forward then jerking up periodically. A soft snuffle accompanied the motion. His black hair hung in lank locks over his eyes and a shadow of beard darkened his chin and cheeks.

Vin glanced at him and said low, "Boy's goin' to have a crick in his neck."

Ezra nodded as he made his way carefully back into the trees far enough he could stand straight and stretch his cramped, tired limbs.

A headache throbbed just behind his eyes, courtesy of squinting into the sun and the long night before.

He allowed himself one long draw of water from his canteen, knowing the water would help far more than the contents of his silver flask.

The day had warmed enough that his heavy winter coat was uncomfortable. Ezra shrugged it off and folded it into comfortable pillow before stretching out on a relatively flat stretch of earth. The bed of pine needles made a useful cushion, though a few stabbed through his trousers until he wriggled around and found just the right position, one knee bent and one leg extended.

Then, like Vin, he pulled his hat over his face and let himself drop into a half-drowse.

Two hours later, a soft word brought Ezra awake.

"Ez."

"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"Ready to take over?"

Ezra rolled to his feet in a smooth motion and dusted the pine needles off. He glanced at JD, who had curled over on his side and was still fast asleep.

Another stretch, then he twisted and turned his head, trying to loosen the muscles in his shoulders, before picking up his coat and rejoining Vin.

"Have our friends been quiet?" he asked.

Vin handed him his telescope.

"Like mice."

Ezra took up the scope and carefully surveyed the rock fall where the two bounty hunters were laired. He found a man sitting on top one of the boulders with his rifle laid over his knees.

"Tsk, tsk."

"Ain't got no idea anyone's watchin' them," Vin stated.

"So it would appear."

"Figure now there's some shadows, I can do some scoutin'."

Ezra nodded.

"Ya hear a coyote yip three times, I could use a distraction," Vin added.

Ezra unlaced the other side of his saddlebag and pulled out a red paper wrapped cylinder. "I think that can be supplied."

Vin snickered. "Damn, Ezra, what else have ya got in those bags?"

"A gentlemen should always be prepared for any situation," Ezra declared, laughter in his voice. He tucked the stick of dynamite back into the bag. "Now get out of here."

"Goin'."

Ezra waited until Vin had faded into the trees then extended his leg and kicked JD's boot.

"Mr. Dunne!"

JD snuffled.

Ezra kicked again, more vigorously.

"Mr. Dunne!"

"What, hunh, oh ," JD mumbled and blinked confusedly at his surroundings. "Ezra?"

"While it is all very well to take Mr. Tanner's advice to heart, it's time to rise and shine, JD," Ezra told him.

JD yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Can't believe I fell asleep."

"Yes, well, it's time someone went and checked the horses."

JD nodded and did as he was bid, returning with that engaging smile in place. The somnolent late afternoon drifted on, the two parties' guns quiet as each attempted to outwait the other. JD filled the time talking about Casey Wells and his intentions toward her. More than gigging for frogs or out-riding each other was on his mind. Ezra listened patiently, interjecting a word or two here and there, reminding the young man Casey was still young and sheltered for all her tomboy ways. There were other young men in Four Corners who were waking up to Casey's attractions, including the ranch she would inherit from her aunt. He quietly and kindly reminded JD his prospects with her were not guaranteed.

JD agreed glumly.

"Not that she'll do better than you," Ezra assured him quite honestly. JD was the sort of young man he would have wanted his sisters and cousins to marry had they survived the war

Dusk was settling its darkened cloak over the canyon, hiding the distance in violet shadows, when Vin returned on silent feet.

His face was a dim blur, but his teeth flashed as he smiled and settled cross-legged on the ground.

"There's more than them two in the rocks. Another bunch up at the head of the canyon," he said.

"And this is pleasing how?" Ezra asked.

"They can stay there," Vin said. He leaned forward, hands on his buckskin clad thighs. "Found a trail up the side of the canyon. We'll have to lead the horses, but come dark, they'll never see us. We'll just disappear." He grinned again, enjoying the prospect of frustrating the bounty hunters. Like the Indians he'd lived with, Vin loved a good trick, and vanishing right under the hunters' noses qualified.

Ezra felt a slow grin spread across his own face. Vin wasn't the only one who enjoyed fooling folks.

"You really found a trail up the side of the canyon?" JD asked.

Vin nodded. "Goin' to go tell the others."

"You're welcome to that job," Ezra told him with a chuckle.

He rose, nodded to them and padded away.

They waited until full dark, then hurriedly gathered the horses and made their preparations. Ironshod hooves were wrapped in cloth or leather to muffle the sound of metal against stone. Dirt was rubbed over pale or shiny surfaces faces, hands, Peso's blaze, Chris's silver conchos. Chris and Buck stowed their spurs in their saddlebags.

Buck whispered apologies to Darling as he grubbed dirt over her gray coat. "You're just too fine, Darlin', just like the moon," the big gunslinger murmured, stroking her muzzle fondly. The sweet-tempered mare seemed undisturbed by her rider's strange behavior.

At last they moved out, slow and quiet, in single file behind Vin, each man leading his mount. Once, Moses tried to throw up his head and bugle a challenge to the strange horses he smelled on the wind, but Josiah was there, using his big hand to squeeze the horse's nostrils shut.

Vin's trail was narrow and steep, barely wide enough for a mountain goat in places. The horses gamely picked their way up. They weren't Indian ponies, but each one had proved as sure-footed and tough over the years. Vin knew they could make it and the horses trusted their riders enough to try.

Peppermint balked once, where the trail literally disappeared and the animals were forced to make a scrambling hop to the next ledge.

Nathan didn't dote on his mount the way Ezra, Vin, and JD did theirs. He didn't have Chris or Buck's riding expertise or Josiah's patience either. Nathan wasn't unkind or a bad rider, but to the former slave, horses were just a means of transportation. Peppermint's strength and even temper satisfied Nathan and he eschewed the sublime bond the others had forged, thinking it foolish and sentimental.

The horse was still hurting and cranky from the crease on his rump too. It all combined to make the normally steady animal refuse to follow Nathan.

Ezra held his breath. He'd elected to fall into last place. He had confidence that Hazard would do whatever he required, but thought Moses or Peppermint might need someone pushing from behind. He hesitated to offer his assistance to Nathan, though, wary of exciting the other man's temper when a loud word might draw their hunters' attention to them while they were silhouetted against the wall of the canyon.

A scatter of rocks tumbled off the edge of the trail under Peppermint's shifting feet. The sound seemed abnormally loud in the darkness.

Nathan was exhorted Peppermint, tugging on the reins from the other side of the jump, but Ezra could hear the annoyance burning through his low voice. So could Peppermint, who balked stubbornly and began trying to back down the trail.

"Damn it, Nathan," Chris breathed.

"I'm doing the best I can," Nathan hissed back angrily.

JD came down the trail, squeezing past the rock wall and Darling, then Nero, and leaving Dusty tied loosely to the saddle horn on Peso.

He came to stop just behind Nathan.

"Here, Nathan, let me try," he whispered. He reached around the other man and took Peppermint's reins in his hand. Nathan grunted in frustration and got out of the way. They all knew JD had a talent for sweet-talking horses, honed in the stables where he'd worked as a boy back East.

"Come on now, Pepper, easy, come on," JD breathed softly, tugging the reins just enough to keep the gelding's attention. "Yeah, that's it, you don't want stand here all night. It's not that bad, you can make it, the other's made it, right? That's it."

Peppermint bobbed his head and took two steps forward. JD took three steps back. "Go on, Nate, get back up the trail and give us some room," JD directed in the same soft voice. He let the reins hang loose between gentle tugs. "Come on, Pepper."

The gelding gathered his feet together. The muscles in his haunches bunched and he vaulted the small gap smoothly, then headbutted JD in the chest. JD caught at the cheekpiece of his headstall to keep from falling. He laughed under his breath and rubbed Peppermint's nose.

"Told you you could do it," he whispered.

"Got to keep movin'." Vin's whisper was relayed down the trail.

JD handed the reins back to Nathan and made his way back up the trail.

Moses and Hazard both cleared the gap without hesitation and the rest of the climb went without incident.

*******

The moon was rising as they cleared the canyon rim, bathing the mountains in silver light, throwing sharp black shadows. Looking down, Ezra pointed out the orange glow of a campfire where the head of the canyon bottlenecked closed.

"They may have some people on the rim too," he mentioned.

"If they guess we've gotten out, they'll either trail us or head back and try to ambush us again on the way into Virginia City," Chris said.

"Speaking of that, anyone got an idea of the best way back down the mountain?" Buck asked quietly.

"Figure we'll just head down hill," Vin replied.

"Should've known," Buck muttered, shaking his head.

"Hey, Ez, still got that dynamite?"

"Dynamite!" Chris exclaimed. "Ah, shit!"

Buck added a couple of choice epithets.

"Of course, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. He grinned, a hungry expression in the cool moonlight.

"Reckon you could light it up and drop it over the edge?"

"Certainly."

"Damn, you two are menaces," Buck said.

Ezra was busy withdrawing the dynamite from his saddlebag. He trapped the tip of his tongue between his teeth as he worked, inserting the fuse by moonlight. The others withdrew a respectful distance and busied themselves taking the muffling rags off their mounts' hooves. Vin calmly came over and did that job for Ezra.

Satisfied, Ezra swung comfortably into Hazard's saddle. The cold had begun to bite through his coat and he wanted to keep moving. He cued Hazard to walk to the very edge of the rim, where he could see the black well of the canyon, the crystal glitter of the mountain stream, the colorless stretches of sparsely grassed open spaces. The yellow-orange flare of the bounty hunters' campfire drew the eye, the only color in the night.

He waited, listening to the quiet creaks from the tack as each of his friends mounted. The horses breathed rhythmically, a comforting sound that went with the muffled clink of a mouthed snaffle or a switching tail.

He pulled out his matches and struck one, the sharp sulphur stink strong in the clean mountain air. The hiss of the flame seemed loud. Ezra set the flame to the end of the fuse until it caught. He shook out the match and tucked it in his coat pocket and waited for the fuse to burn down.

"For Christ sake, Ezra, throw it," Chris urged.

"In a moment," Ezra replied imperturbably. He didn't want the fuse blowing out in the wind as the stick fell.

"Damn fool is going to blow us all up," Nathan muttered.

"Brother Ezra, perhaps it is time -"

Ezra waited until there was no more than a inch left on the fuse, nodding to Josiah's words, and lofted the dynamite far out over the canyon. The instant the stick left his hand, he urged Hazard away from the rim.

The others were already turning east, moving ahead of him.

He counted seconds off in his head, urging Hazard to a trot, and smiled as the explosion ripped through the night. The clap of sound, of earth and rock upheaved, echoed through the mountains, sure to be heard as far as the Swedish Hat. Dust roiled into the starlit sky, but the walls of the canyon held the force of the dynamite close. None of it touched the seven men riding away. Hazard's ears flicked backward, but the gelding had grown used to loud noises in conjunction with his rider.

"That should keep our friends convinced we're still in the canyon," Ezra opined as he rejoined the other six men.

"They'll be busy trying to figure out what the hell happened for a while, that's for sure," Buck agreed.

Wraith-like, they threaded through dark stands of incense cedar and more pines, slowed by care for the horses, until Vin found a deer trail that crossed the spine of a high ridge and dropped them down into a fertile open valley as the stars faded into the first pallid wash of dawn. They rode wordless down the high meadows in the gray hour before sunrise. Colorless grass swished round the horses's fetlocks.

The scent of wood smoke drifted up the valley. They passed several sleepy cows bedded down in the grass with their calves.

"Figure someone's got a homestead up here," Vin said quietly. "Might want to ride in slow and easy."

The tired men offered no argument. The scent of a cooking breakfast pulled them through a half-grown apple orchard, past a fenced vegetable garden to a well-built log house. A steep-roofed barn and several outbuildings completed the picture of a tidy and successful farm.

Even in the bleak pre-dawn light, it was a handsome site, the house built where it looked down on a fenced meadow. A pair of draft horses occupied the nearest corral. The seven riders drew up in front of the stripped-pine porch. A black and white collie-mix exploded off the porch in a wild flurry of barks, darting at the horses' legs, then backing off as a single, lazy hoof flashed out, nearly catching the dog in the ribs.

The faint glow of an oil lamp marked a curtained window. Smoke curled pale and sinuous from the stovepipe. Frying bacon teased their nostrils and empty bellies.

"Hello the house," Chris called out.

The front door opened a moment later, disgorging a brawny blond man cradling a shotgun in the crook of his arm. He held a lantern up with his other big, work-reddened hand. He was dressed in wash-faded coveralls and a plaid flannel shirt, the sleeves already rolled up over the hard muscles of his forearms.

Pale eyes squinted at them from a sunburned face.

"Who ya be?" he asked. He surveyed them suspiciously.

The Scandanavian lilt to his voice caught Ezra's attention, drawing him out of a half-doze. He lifted his head and peered at the big farmer. Though the last time he'd seen him, the man had been dressed in a Sunday go-to-town suit, he hadn't changed much in three years.

He urged Hazard a step or two forward.

"Mr. Karkinnen?" he asked.

"Kyllä?"[xii]

Ezra took off his hat, nodding to the man. "Ah, we've just come over the top from Stairstep Canyon. While I realize you have no reason to trust us, I assure you we did not even realize we had trespassed until the delicious smells of your morning meal reached us." He rubbed his jaw. The rasp under his fingers reminded him with a stab of distaste that he needed a shave. It only added to his feeling of unpleasant dishevelment. "We would consider it a kindness if you allowed us to rest and water our mounts here while we break our own fast."

Weariness thickened his accent as he added with a slight smile, "Of course, if it is your desire, we will move on."

Karkinnen lifted the lantern higher, casting its yellow light over Ezra's face. The others were no more than insubstantial outlines, more shadow than form, waiting with weary patience. Karkinnen frowned, studying Ezra.

"You come in now. I remember you," he declared. He nodded. "Come sit. My Annike will make you breakfast."

He pushed the door open with a broad shoulder and set the shotgun inside.

"Come, come, Mr. Standish, you and your friends, come in and warm yourselves." He raised his voice. "Annike!" A flood of Finnish followed. A woman's voice answered him. He turned back to them, smiling widely.

"You have breakfast with us."

"That is a kind offer, sir, that I for one am not about to turn down. Allow us a moment to see to the horses and clean up."

Karkinnen nodded. "Kyllä. I send out on of my nephews, Paavo, to help."

"Tell your lady wife that the food smells superb," Ezra added.

Karkinnen hung the lantern on an iron hook set high next to the doorway, nodded again, and went back inside.

"Hell, Ezra, you know him?" Buck asked, bemused humor in his voice.

"I am as surprised as yourself," Ezra said. He dropped out the saddle with a jar that he felt from his knees all the way up his spine. "I am amazed he remembers me."

"You remembered him," Chris said.

Ezra shrugged as he led Hazard to a water trough. He looped the reins over the saddle horn and began loosening the cinch.

"I hadn't thought of the man for years until this matter of the deed raised its head," he answered.

The others dismounted, aching and sore, gloved fingers fumbling stiffly at cinches, leaning tiredly against the warm companions that had brought them so far. The collie had retired to the porch. Their breath formed soft plumes as they spoke.

"So you met him when you were in Virginia City?" JD asked. He was seeing to Dusty, exhaustion slowing his movements.

"Yes."

Hazard dropped his nose into the water and pulled it back out, spraying water from his nostrils noisily. His tack jingled as the gelding snorted once more and began drinking the cold water. Ezra waited patiently until Hazard had taken his fill then led him over to the hitching rail and secured the reins. He patted the gelding's shoulder fondly.

Chris took up the questioning while watering Nero. "How?"

Beside him, Vin did the same silently. He thumped a fist into Peso's nose when the mustang tried to snake his head over and take chunk out of Nero's ear. Nero ignored the byplay.

"Playing cards, how else?"

Ezra drew off his own gloves and began futilely batting at his clothes, trying to knock off the dust and dirt.

"Don't seem to have held it against you," Chris speculated. "Must not have lost too bad."

"Not to me, anyway," Ezra said. He shrugged as he gave up on his clothes.

The front door of the house swung open and a lanky, towheaded teenager ambled out. He was still knuckling the sleep from his eyes and wore an oversized coat.

He looked up at the group of men just finishing with their horses as the ashen light strengthened and his mouth fell open. They were muffled in heavy coats, hats pulled down low, dangerous ghosts coalescing out of the darkness.

"Uncle -," the boy stopped and swallowed hard. His prominent Adam's-apple bobbed. "Uncle says come in."

His eyes were round as the seven men walked up onto the porch and into the lantern light, color warming their figures.

Boots thudded against the porch. Cold radiated off them, the smell of the night and the trees, the clear perfume of the wild. They passed Paavo with quiet nods, shrugging out of coats and hats, revealing tied down gun-rigs and dusty clothes in the lantern light.

Paavo quietly pointed out the hooks inside the door where they were to hang their coats and hats.

"Thank you, young sir," Ezra said.

"You're Mr. Standish?" Paavo asked, staring at Ezra.

Ezra straightened his cuffs. "I am."

"Uncle told us what you did," Paavo said.

Ezra cocked his head. "What did I do?" he asked as Paavo led them through the front room to the kitchen that took up the entire back of the house.

The kitchen was lit with oil lamps, the light warming it along with the fire burning in the fireplace at one end. Gingham curtains covered the windows. A large marmalade cat was curled on a braided rug before the stone hearth.

"Uncle said you saved us," Paavo replied.

"Your uncle is exaggerating, I'm afraid," Ezra said lightly.

A red-checked oilcloth covered the long table along with white-flecked blue enamelware in places for all seven men and the family. Karkinnen was already seated at the head of the table, holding a toddler with flax pale hair and apple cheeks on his knee and sipping coffee. The heavy pot was resting on an iron trivet within easy reach. Cups were set out at each place.

A tall woman bustled in front of a massive stove at the far end of the kitchen. She turned and smiled brilliantly at the men as they filed in. Heavy blonde braids were pinned on top her head.

The smile never faltered, even as she noticed Nathan.

"Ma'am," Buck said, smiling back at her with all his charm. His smile widened as he spotted two young women in the kitchen, both with long flaxen braids and shy smiles and blushes.

"Come, come," Karkinnen said, gesturing them to the table. He grinned at Ezra. "Sit down. Introduce your friends." His shrewd eyes took in the other six men, cataloguing the differences between them and the air of danger that bound them all. Ezra watched as he relaxed, reassured by the air of integrity Chris and the others exuded.

"Thank you," Ezra replied easily.

Ezra nodded to Vin, who stood between Chris and him.

"My friend Vin."

Vin smiled at Karkinnen and the toddler and added a shy nod toward the ladies. "Vin Tanner."

The girls giggled behind their hands and received a glare from the lady of the house.

Ezra continued, indicating each man as he spoke. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne "

"Everybody calls me JD."

" Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez. They accompanied me yesterday when I endeavored to inspect Stairstep Canyon," Ezra finished.

Karkinnen pushed his chair back and rose, still carrying the child. He walked over the woman at the stove and set his free hand on her shoulder. She smiled up at him.

"This is my wife, Annike." He boosted the toddler higher in his arm. "My son Jyri."

He pointed to the two blonde girls who were, Ezra thought as he nodded to them, probably twins.

"Hekka and Rikke Seppänen, my nieces. "

Paavo had disappeared behind them and now returned leading two more children and carrying a baby. The baby was fussing and red faced and the two small figures were still in their nightclothes, eyes heavy with sleep. They stared up at the seven strangers in amazement.

Annike swept over and plucked the baby from Paavo.

"My other son, Lasse," Karkinnen went on, indicating the baby. "And these two sleepy ones are Kalle and Freya Seppänen. They are my Annike's sister Tilde's youngest. Their father Matias works the farm with me."

Ezra smiled at the children.

Annike handed the baby off to Rikke and began bussing hot food to the table. Hekka helped her. Karkinnen watched her obvious affection. His attention switched to Ezra and his expression grew serious.

"I would not have this," he said quietly, "if you had not helped."

Ezra made a gesture of negation. "I did nothing, sir. The cards merely fell your way. It was luck."

"I could not marry Annike until I owned my land again," Karkinnen insisted. "I would not have Lasse and Jyri. Matti and Tilde could not have brought their family here. I know my good fortune. You made my luck."

"This is a fine house and family you have," Josiah said as Annike urged them all to sit.

Grace was said quickly and plates were filled. It was the Mexican influenced staples the seven men had grown used to eating, but even the odd dishes were delicious. They ate with a single-mindedly intensity that marked how long it had been since their uncomfortable, bolted meal in the pine grove the day before. Annike smiled, went back to the stove and set more food cooking.

She patted Ezra's shoulder as she went.

Karkinnen had sat Ezra to his right, where he could speak with him easily. Chris took the seat on the other side of the table with Buck next to him. Vin sat next to Ezra, then Josiah. Nathan and JD took seats opposite them. JD ended up across from young Paavo.

Ezra wouldhave preferred to keep the entire matter to himself, but half way through the meal, Josiah leaned forward, caught Karkinnen's eye and bluntly asked, "How did you and Ezra meet, Mister Karkinnen?"

Karkinnen grimaced. "I was desperate. I'd borrowed money to send for Annike and her family and lost the deed to this farm to Harrison. I went to Virginia City to try to buy it back from him when I could. He refused to sell."

"So how'd Ezra get involved?"

"Merely as a bystander, JD." Ezra concentrated on buttering a biscuit then biting into it.

Karkinnen poured another cup of coffee.

"I followed Harrison. He was playing poker with several other businessmen and Mr. Standish here."

"Of course," Josiah commented.

"I am a gambler, Mr. Sanchez, after all," Ezra murmured. He caught little Kalle watching him and winked, eliciting a giggle.

"Harrison still wouldn't sell me the deed back," Karkinnen went on. "Mr. Standish invited me to sit in the game."

Nathan glared at Ezra. Ezra drew his brows together, confused. Then he understood. Nathan believed he had seen Karkinnen as a no more than a mark with a wallet to be lightened. He had argued that if Karkinnen had the money to buy or try to buy his farm back, he certainly was heeled enough to sit in on a game. Harrison had been irritated, which had been reason enough to offer the Fin the chance to play against him.

The farmer wasn't the sort of man Ezra targeted for his cons or even his more ruthless poker games. That place was occupied by arrogant, greedy men like Walter Harrison. He'd already been irritated with the man before Karkinnen appeared. Afterward, he'd decided on a whim to implement his own sort of justice.

A good deed.

The thought still made him uncomfortable. He didn't think of himself as a generous or kind man. Anything he did, he did to benefit himself, just as Maude had taught him. Helping Karkinnen hadn't gained him much materially other than Harrison's funds and the land that was now causing so much furor but he'd taken great satisfaction from humiliating Harrison.

Harrison had reminded him of Lorena's father William.

"Surprised he didn't clean you out," Nathan muttered.

Karkinnen looked shamefaced. "He could have. I have never seen such a skilled player. I could not believe that I had actually won money when the night was through."

Buck paused between swallowing a piece of sausage and reaching for his coffee cup. He swallowed hard, looking at Ezra with approval. "Ez, you got a soft heart, you know that."

Chris smiled to himself.

"Soft head is more like it," Ezra mumbled. He tried one of the little smoked fish Annike had brought to the table.

Vin didn't hesitate. More fish went onto his plate.

"Real good, ma'am," he said to Annike. Annike urged more fish on him.

Vin ate with gusto.

"You played all night?" Josiah asked, pausing in his own steady emptying of his plate.

"All night," Karkinnen confirmed.

It had taken all night to alternately coax and goad Harrison into growing tired and drunk and desperate enough to wager the deed to the farm. Once he'd won it from the miner turned businessman, it had been child's play to lose it to Karkinnen. The expression of fury and frustration on Harrison's face had made the effort worthwhile though.

The blue-eyed smiles of the Karkinnen and Seppänen families insured he still felt that way, though it was mixed with embarrassment over their gratitude.

"Your Mr. Standish here," Karkinnen told Josiah, "won the deed to my farm from Harrison."

"So how did you get it back?" JD asked.

"Why I bet and lost it on the very next turn of the cards, JD," Ezra told him.

"Ain't sure I believe it," Nathan said.

"Nor should you, Mr. Jackson. To deliberately lose is anathema to professional of my calibre," Ezra agreed.

"Just depends on your definition of winnin' and losin'," Vin said unexpectedly. He smiled slyly. "See, takin' that deed this fella Harrison wouldn't sell back and makin' him watch Mr. Karkinnen here get it back, I'd say that was winnin'. Harrison sure did lose out. Didn't even get the money for the land, did he?"

Ezra knew his smooth mask had slipped a little. Vin had surprised him by understanding and explaining what he'd done perfectly. He gathered his composure and shrugged.

"The man must be quite irate by now, considering that Stairstep Canyon has suddenly become so valuable."

"Looks like you're going to make a nice profit off of your good deed, Ez," Buck said.

Karkinnen and Paavo were both staring at Ezra.

"The other deed," Karkinnen repeated. "The one everyone needs to put in the spur to the Virginia & Truckee line."

"You're going to be rich," Paavo blurted.

"I devoutly hope so," Ezra replied seriously.

Karkinnen began laughing. Josiah joined him. Buck almost choked on a biscuit, until Nathan thumped his back. Even Chris chuckled.

They relaxed and finished the meal without any more talk of Ezra's motives, for which he felt grateful. Afterward, Karkinnen insisting they call him Sven showed them around the farm. Paavo was dispatched to the barn to see his chores; JD volunteered to help him. Nathan lingered to ask Annike about the dried herbs hanging from the rafters.

Buck disappeared looking for the privy.

Ezra occupied Kalle and Freya and Jyri with magic tricks in exchange for teaching him a few words of Finnish. They giggled and corrected him, Jyri sitting on his lap and fingering his gold watch chain in fascination. Sven and Josiah fell into a deep conversation regarding the proper pitch a roof needed to shed snow rather than collapse under its weight.

Chris smoked a cheroot out on the porch.

Hekka came out and shooed the three smaller children into the house.

Vin sat down on the steps next to Ezra.

The sun was well up. It was time to go.

"Goin' to sell to Corcoran when we get back?" Vin asked.

"Yes," Ezra replied tranquilly.

"Was a good thing you did here."

Ezra drew his old deck of cards out and shuffled them. He ducked his head, trying to hide the smile on his lips. "Just don't make too much of it. I did after all win all of Harrison's money that night for myself."

Buck came around the side of the house, walking beside Rikke, big hands moving as he talked to her. The girl laughed along with Buck at whatever he told her.

Chris stubbed out his cheroot.

"It's time."

Ten minutes later, they were all in the saddle, taking their leave of the Karkinnens.

Annike and Hekka came out, handing each man a burlap bag filled with a rich assortment of supplies for their lunch. Freya and Kalle waved from the porch, where they sat with the collie mix, all safely out of reach of the horses' milling hooves.

Ezra winked at them, wondering when they'd find the peppermints he'd slipped into their pockets.

Sven reached up and shook his hand. "Come back any time. All of this I have, I owe to you."

Ezra shook his head. "You owe it to your hard work."

"You gave me a second chance," Sven insisted.

Ezra blinked at him. He'd never considered it that way. How strange. A second chance. The same thing Chris Larabee had given him. He never thought he deserved it. He thought Sven Karkinnen had.

"If so, I'm pleased you didn't waste it."

The Karkinnen farm was half a continent away from Peyton's Ford. The two places were very different, but Ezra felt a sense of comfort and rightness to the neat farm snugged deep in the small mountain valley that he'd only ever known once before. His pleasure in the small part he'd played in preserving it was deep and abiding.

"You should watch out for Harrison," Sven said. He looked worried and serious. "His luck turned sour after you beat him. He lost most of his businesses. His wife went back to her family in the East. Even here, we heard how he raged when he found out about the railroad spur."

"I am always careful, of course."

Sven glanced at Vin. "Harrison isn't right in the head."

"We got Ez's back," Vin assured Sven.

He nodded. "I think if he sees Mr. Standish, he will try to kill him. He blames him, you see."

"Thank you for the warning," Ezra said. He tipped his hat toward the ladies and nodded to the man and boy. "Sven. Paavo."

Chris caught each man's eyes in turn, ending with Ezra. Ezra nodded back.

"Thank you for your hospitality," Chris called. He touched his heels to Nero's side and set out at a trot.

Buck and JD followed immediately.

Nathan looked around the farm a last time as though he still found it unbelievable that Ezra had had a hand in the Karkinnens having it. He looked confused briefly, but the old self-certainty firmed his expression the instant he saw Ezra watching him. He brought his chin up then gigged Peppermint into reluctant motion.

That left Josiah, Vin and Ezra.

They each tipped their hats in salute and slowly rode out of the yard after the others.

"You continue to surprise me, Ezra," Josiah said.

"I endeavor to never be boring."

"Ya ain't that," Vin chuckled.

Josiah went on, "I am reminded of another wise man's words. 'A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.'"[xiii]

20. Virginia City, 1877

He may play the jack of diamonds
He may lay the queen of spades
He may conceal a king in his hand
While the memory of it fades

Shape of My Heart,
Sting

The desk clerk smiled at Ezra as he walked into the foyer, but the balding man's smile faded into alarm when Chris, Buck, Vin, Josiah, JD and Nathan followed him. They were an intimidating collection and not the sort of people who usually graced the gilt and velvet luxury of the International Hotel.

Ezra had sent a boy to the International with a note for Corcoran, offering to meet him and complete discussion of the sale. The boy returned with Corcoran's agreement to meet that afternoon. Ezra had changed into his bottle-green jacket and black trousers, sent his clothes to the laundry without much hope they would be salvaged, and set out in the company of his friends.

They were with him because Chris had insisted. They'd rode back to Virginia City from the Karkinnen farm unmolested, but none of them were ready to discount the bounty hunters. Those men had proved clever and determined. Ezra and Vin wouldn't be safe until they left town.

Ezra smiled back at the clerk as he approached the desk.

"I'm meeting -"

"He can't come in here," the desk clerk blurted out, pointing at Nathan.

Ezra glanced back at Nathan and pulled his brows together in a frown. Nathan straightened to his full height, his expression hardening. He folded his arms and stood with his chin lifted. Only the flare of a nostril betrayed the bitter anger boiling under Nathan's surface, and that only because Ezra knew how to read him.

Nathan's gaze flickered toward Ezra briefly, then he stared at the desk clerk silently. Insolently. Ezra suppressed even the hint of a smile. No one would appreciate his reflection that Nathan must have made a terrible slave with all that pride.

"Pardon me?" Ezra asked, switching his attention back to the bespectacled clerk.

The clerk indicated Nathan. "Him. He can't be in here."

"Who?" Ezra asked devilishly.

"The black "

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra interrupted, raising his brows in mock-disbelief. "Really, while his customary choice in his attire's colors can become tiresome, I really don't think it's grounds for denying him entrance to any establishment."

Buck and JD sniggered.

Chris flipped his duster back, revealing the gunfighting rig he wore.

The clerk gulped. "No no, I meant the nigger."

"The... nigger," Ezra repeated slowly.

Nathan exhaled audibly.

"He'll have to wait outside, round back," the clerk insisted.

Ezra and the others had gone still. They stared at the clerk, hard looks from suddenly hard men, that made him shrink back.

"It's it's policy!"

"I don't give two damns for your policy," Chris gritted out. "He's with us."

"Can't you can't you, ah, just "

"Boys, we're leaving," Chris declared.

A door behind the clerk leading back to the offices opened. Ezra kept an eye on it for danger as he spoke.

"I came here to meet one of your guests. Be sure to tell Mr. Corcoran why I left," he said silkily. "I'm sure he'll be pleased to learn the property he wished to purchase went to Mr. Finster because your hotel didn't welcome one of my companions." He gave a short nod, straightened his cuffs checking the derringer rig at the same time and headed for the front doors with the others.

One of the gilt mirrors on the walls showed the office door opening. Ezra tensed. The reflection revealed a rotund man in a three-piece suit hurrying out and after them.

Ezra paused.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," the round man called out, "please, wait. We don't want to do anything precipitate. Please, come inside, sit down, there's been a small misunderstanding."

Chris swung around, duster flaring, and glared.

"Misunderstanding?"

"Yes, yes, a misunderstanding. Stanley isn't the most well, let's just say he's my cousin's boy and needs the job, shall we?" the rotund man said.

He extended his hand to Nathan. "I'm Willis Benford, the manager."

Nathan shook his hand, but his expression remained aloof and suspicious.

Benford offered his hand to Ezra next.

"Any friends of Mr. Corcoran's are always welcome at the International," he declared.

Ezra shook the soft, plump hand, startled to realize his own hand was hard in comparison, with calluses from riding and gun-work. His nails were neat and clean, but not buffed to a high gloss. Once more, he was reminded that he had changed.

Benford insisted on shaking hands with all of them, though he quailed faintly before grasping Chris' hand.

"Please, come and relax. I'll have someone from the kitchen bring you some coffee. Unless you'd prefer tea?" Benford paused. "Or something more substantial?"

"Coffee would be welcome," Josiah rumbled. He planted himself on a spindle-legged settee, his size and rough clothes presenting a striking contrast to the delicate, velvet-upholstered piece of furniture.

The others made themselves comfortable as well, sprawling in comfort rather than sitting straight and proper as Ezra would have.

Benford fussed over them another minute or two. He sent a bellboy to let Corcoran know Ezra was there, another back to the kitchen for coffee, nodded to them, then dragged Stanley away from the desk with a firm hand on his arm. Another clerk took over and Benford quietly excoriated Stanley.

"Good job, Ezra," Chris said.

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"Money talks."

*******

Nathan shook the man's hand, but he didn't forgive. He knew damn well it was the threat of Chris's guns and Ezra's gentle blackmail that brought the manager out and let him stay.

He didn't like it. He had come to take the acceptance he found in Four Corners for granted. There were bigoted jackasses in Four Corners too, but they were individuals and he could walk into any store or bar without giving a thought to his color.

Without the other men with him today, he would have been thrown out. Nathan seethed over that. Maybe given a beating to teach him 'manners'. It hardly mattered that he hadn't been. It was the prospect that burned.

While part of him was grateful to Chris for his declaration, another part resented it deeply. His presence was tolerated because he was with a group of white men.

"He's with us."

It should have warmed Nathan's heart to be so accepted by his friends. But all he could think of was that he had what he had thanks to them. He hated it.

It was humiliating to depend on the other men. He was still no better than servant or slave.

Treated like damned dog, he thought bitterly.

And Ezra, playing his little games, acting like he didn't know what the desk clerk meant. He wanted to slap Ezra down. How dared he make light of the frustration and anger Nathan felt? Nathan ignored that fact that he knew Ezra had been mocking the clerk, not him. He couldn't take his bitterness out on the world, so he let his feelings focus on the Southerner.

It wasn't fair. The others thought Ezra had done some wonderful thing, stealing that deed from this Harrison fellow and letting Karkinnen win it back. Just because the Karkinnens were good folks, that didn't make it right. Didn't they understand Ezra hadn't meant to do anything good? He'd been out to help himself, that's all. Harrison had paid good money for the deed to Karkinnen's farm, he didn't have to sell it back. Ezra had stole it. It was clear as water to Nathan.

He shook his head.

He couldn't tell any of them that. JD had always been taken in by Ezra. Buck was too self-centered to care, as long as he had his women, he didn't care what anyone did. Josiah still thought he was going to save Ezra's soul. The ex-preacher would use this as proof Ezra was redeemable. Damn fool.

Then there was Chris and Vin. Nathan had always thought they saw through Ezra. He'd been shocked when Vin rode out after Ezra without much more than a good-bye. 'Course, now he knew better. Damn Rebs stuck together.

Chris was the one that disappointed him. Chris was acting like Ezra was just as good as Buck or Vin, treating Ezra like a friend, like he trusted him. Nathan had always taken a certain satisfaction in the way Chris treated Ezra, the way Ezra was the outsider of their group. He'd enjoyed seeing Chris lay into that 'old Southern boy'. Chris might not have used a whip, but his words and fists had been hard enough.

He'd seen Ezra take it and never wondered why once. He'd never considered why Ezra let Nathan excoriate him until Ezra finally snapped that night in the jail.

He felt a brief stab of shame over his own actions that night, but didn't let it take hold. It was Ezra's fault, he told himself.

He absently fingered the brass tacks along the edge of the velvet covering the arm of his chair, picking at the edges with a ragged nail.

It was all Ezra's fault things had changed. He wasn't sorry a bit that he'd helped Maude, he just wished she'd got that deed. Ezra didn't have any right to make money off it.

Nathan nodded to himself.

He'd felt some bad about Maude making Ezra so sick, worried the man might die and what would happen, but no harm had been done. If Vin really thought Nathan had had a part in it, the tracker would have said something by now. Not that he cared what Vin thought. Vin was just a half-illiterate savage. If he weren't white, no one would ever let him in the front door.

The memory of Vin and Chris walking out and saving him from hanging for no more reason than it was wrong was pushed ruthlessly back. Nathan told himself they hadn't done it for him. They hadn't even known him.

"Nathan?"

Nathan jerked his head up, brought back to the hotel foyer by Josiah's deep voice.

"Are you all right, Brother?"

Nathan produced a tight-lipped smile.

"Fine, Josiah, just fine."

*******

Their coffee arrived and they sat back to enjoy it while waiting for Corcoran. The hotel foyer was quiet, comfortable, and empty except for the seven men.

The quiet was interrupted by the arrival of a new guest and his entourage. Ezra was pouring himself a second up of coffee as two bellboys were sent after the luggage.

He looked up curiously, studying the figure at the center of the sudden whirlwind of activity invading the peace of the hotel's foyer.

Buck sat up straight.

"Whoooo-weeee!" he declared with a wide grin and gleaming eyes as he stared across the foyer. The rest of the seven twisted in their seats or craned their heads to see what had Buck so impressed. "That is the prettiest filly I have ever seen."

A well-dressed, barrel-chested man in his fifties stood at the desk. Benford and the desk clerk were both fawning over him. Next him on one side was stocky fellow with that well-scrubbed, gimlet-eyed look of a Pinkerton guard. A few steps behind, a slim blond man in impeccable clothes was watching everything with a lopsided smirk.

The object of Buck's delight stood just to the side of the older man.

Shining red hair was piled high on her head in a mass of ringlets and curls that emphasized her long neck and perfect carriage. The elegant forest-green travelling dress she wore matched her jade green eyes. She was remarkably beautiful, with the pale, remote profile of a cameo.

"The Lord truly smiled on us all when he shaped that divine creation," Josiah commented.

Even Chris nodded, smiling faintly.

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut, but the small gathering at the desk hadn't changed when he opened them. The redhead was still obviously with the older man, patiently enduring until he had browbeaten the manager to his satisfaction. The guard and the younger man hadn't changed.

Ezra pushed his seat back. His eyes were bleak. "If you will pardon me, gentlemen, I believe I see someone I once knew," he murmured.

He straightened his shoulders like a man going to his execution and walked across the lobby toward the blond man.

Recognition flickered across the blond's features as Ezra approached. They looked each other over cautiously.

"Saville," Ezra said at last.

"Ezra," the blond replied and extended his well-manicured hand.

Vin had drifted up behind Ezra, close enough he was clearly with him, but just far enough back he didn't seem to be interfering.

Ezra motioned him forward. "Saville, this is a... collea- a friend of mine. Vin. Vin, this is Saville Howard, my cousin."

Saville shook hands with Vin. His sharp eyes said he'd noted the way Ezra omitted Vin's last name. Vin and Ezra noted the shoulder rig Saville wore.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," the blond southerner said.

"I had thought that every one at the Ford was dead," Ezra said quietly. "No one knew what had become of Polly... only that Yankee cavalry had carried her off."

The memory of riding up the long drive to find the blackened, burnt shells of the buildings that had been his home had never faded. Everyone in Virginia had known the penalty they might pay for quartering Mosby's men, but it had still been a shock. His people hadn't been arrested and removed they'd been killed. The only ones left alive were a few house slaves who had fled the conflagration only to return to the only place they had ever known. It was from Herodotus the barn slave that Ezra had heard the story. He could never forget it, nor standing in the Peyton family plot, staring down at the sunken graves, graves with no markers to even tell who lay where.

Saville's expression hardened, his pale blue eyes turning ice cold. "They did. I found them," he said. His accent matched Ezra's exactly. "None of them ever touched another woman or child."

Ezra's eyes were equally cold. Mosby's Rangers had done some hard things, but they hadn't raped and murdered civilians. If he had ever had a clue to who had raided Peyton's Ford, he would have hunted them down like dogs himself.

"Good." He didn't care how Saville had found them or killed them; he just wished he had a hand in it himself.

He tipped his head toward the businessman and the redhead. "And Polly?"

Saville's jaw clenched, but his tone remained smooth and mannered. "Mister Magnusson treats her well, Cousin. I make sure of that."

Ezra's face went blank as he extracted what Saville meant. He opened his mouth to speak, to ask how Saville could bear to see the woman he'd loved since childhood give herself to another man... and snapped it shut. He could read the anguish in his cousin's eyes and understood Saville endured for Polly's sake. He would not judge their choices.

He nodded once and Saville's expression eased.

"I believe you are the reason we are here," Saville remarked. His accent was thicker than Ezra's, but the cadences were the same, shaped by the place of their youth.

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

"Mister Magnusson deals in railroads, land, and metal," Saville said.

"He's here 'bout the deed," Vin drawled.

Saville gave Ezra a sharp look that said, How much do you trust this man? Ezra smiled at him and nodded once, a small motion, one only a man as sharp as Saville or Vin himself would have seen. Beside him, crow's feet crinkled at the corners of Vin's blue eyes as he smiled a slow, sweet smile.

"Magnusson," Ezra echoed.

The man who had put on bounty on his murder so that he could obtain Stairstep Canyon from Maude. What was Polly doing with such a man? What was Saville? He took a deep breath, but running through his mind were so many questions. Those, and had Maude known about Polly and Saville? Had she kept that secret for some profit of her own? For sheer cruelty because he had loved his Peyton cousins, despite her bitterness toward the family?

Saville raised an eyebrow. "You know the name, cuz?"

Ezra glanced at the man in question and nodded shortly.

"The name, yes." He tipped his head, considering. "Mother recently did some business with him in St. Louis."

"I was in Philadelphia seeing to... another matter while Mr. Magnusson was in St.Louis," Saville said.

The cool light in his blue eyes reminded Ezra of all the years that had passed since he'd seen his cousin last. This Saville was and wasn't the same young man he'd known. His cousin had been a soldier. This Saville had the eyes of a killer. He didn't care. Ezra easily believed Saville had killed the men who took Polly, but doing it and perhaps seeing what had been done to her had burnt something out of him.

Saville's lips quirked into a sardonic smile. "Polly was there. She didn't mention your mother. Was Maude using a different name?"

Ezra answered his smile just as cynically. "I have no idea. She was busy trying to sell the man a piece of property I happen to own unknown to me."

"Howard!" Magnusson called impatiently. His florid face showed his irritation. He gestured for Saville to rejoin their party.

"My master calls," Saville muttered bitterly.

"Will you be free later tonight?" Ezra asked impulsively. "Can you get me in to see Polly?"

"He won't want her to leave the hotel, but we're usually in adjoining suites. I'll tell her to beg off dinner. She can say she's too tired," Saville answered. He sent another jaundiced glance at his employer. "Magnusson won't stay with her. Once he's gone out, you can come up to the suite."

"Which room?"

Saville laughed. "I have no idea. I'll leave a message at the desk for you."

Ezra nodded. "I have an engagement presently," he said.

Saville started to walk away then paused.

"Ezra."

"Yes?'

"What name are you using?"

Vin muffled a chuckle.

"Ezra Standish."

Saville nodded. "I'll remember."

Ezra watched him walk away, following Magnusson and Polly as they swept up the stairs, followed by bell boys, porters, guards and finally, Saville. At the first landing, Polly looked back to find her cousin.

Her familiar green gaze, the same shade he saw in the mirror, caught on Ezra and widened. No hint of emotion stained the perfection of her features, even as Magnusson tugged her arm. Ezra knew she'd recognized him.

Grimly, he dipped his head in acknowledgement.

Polly, pretty Polly, had learned to hide her heart. Only her eyes gave her away and Ezra mourned what he saw there.

Whatever Saville had done, he hadn't saved her.

*******

The door opened at Ezra's light knock. He glimpsed Saville smiling at him before Polly pulled him inside the suite and into her embrace. He closed his arms around her, closed his eyes and felt the warmth of her, the silk of her hair against his cheek, the delicate scent of an expensive perfume. Saville closed and locked the door behind him. Polly tucked her face against Ezra's neck and held on.

Ezra opened his eyes and looked around the room. It would have done justice to any fine home in the east. The wallpaper was silk, the color ashes-of-roses. It was decorated as an elegant sitting room. A silver tray held china and serving dishes from a catered meal on a gleaming cherrywood table. The curtains were drawn over the windows. Gas lamps lit the room. On one side an open door led into the bedroom. On the other a door into an adjoining portion of the suite was closed, the key sitting in the lock.

A cut-glass decanter and tumblers sat on the polished top of a stand on the far wall opposite the enameled stove.

Saville strolled over and poured a measure of golden liquor into two tumblers. He lifted his and took a sip. "To you, Cuz. You look good."

Ezra gently disengaged Polly's hands from his coat and stepped back. He couldn't resist stroking his hand over her hair though. It was down from the high coiffure, in the simple braid she'd always favored.

"My dear, you are still a picture," he told her.

She smiled at him. There were no tears wetting her face, but her lashes were spiky with suspicious moisture.

"Ezra, it's so good to see you again," she replied.

Saville held up the other tumbler.

Ezra walked over and took it from his hand. "Thank you, Saville, you look well yourself." He turned his smile back to Polly. "Not the ravishing picture that Polly presents, of course. My companions were nearly overwhelmed by your beauty this afternoon. I thought I might have to physically restrain Mr. Wilmington from rushing over to introduce himself, before I mentioned we were related."

Polly smiled back, but didn't blush. She'd changed dresses since the afternoon. She wore a mauve watered-silk gown with a ruche of silk along the low neckline. There was daring look to the gown, uncomfortably like the gowns the girls at Miz Rose's wore. Ezra suspected it had been made and donned to please Magnusson. He wouldn't speak of it though, so long as she didn't.

Ezra refused to judge.

Instead, he sipped the fine Scotch Saville had offered him, sure that it was in fact Magnusson's, and took satisfaction in that.

Saville gave him a sardonic look. His cousin had always been able to read him. Not the way Maude did, but there had always been a likeness in the way they thought, a result of their shared education and social status. A twitch at the corner of Saville's mouth spoke of his own dissatisfaction with the situation, his reluctant acceptance, and quiet relief that Ezra meant to say nothing about it.

"So... Standish?" Saville questioned.

Ezra shrugged. "Mother and I ran into some trouble in Vicksburg. A name change was in order. I've been a Standish for several years now," he explained.

Saville nodded. He as much as anyone knew what Maude was like.

His gaze was distant as he murmured, "I had no idea, believe me."

Polly touched Ezra's arm and drew him over to the comfortable sofa. He sat next to her.

"I've missed you so," she said.

Ezra took her hand in his. A brilliant sapphire ring caught his eye. A gift from her patron, he imagined. Nothing of value had been left at Peyton's Ford. "I looked for you..."

Polly's face didn't lose its smile, but Ezra saw the tiny flinch.

"Seeing you today was a gift," Ezra assured her.

Polly let him steer the conversation away from the past, from the raw wounds they all still carried. She gently quizzed him about his own life since the war, politely abandoning certain subjects as Ezra made it clear they were not to be spoken of.

Saville was quieter than he had been as a younger man, but perhaps was allowing Ezra and Polly this time. If Magnusson was the controlling type, there would be much fewer opportunities for them to spend any time together. Saville would be freer to come and go as he wished.

"And now, Ezra?" Polly asked.

He smiled despite himself.

"Until three years ago, I followed the path of least resistance," he admitted. "I made my living with the cards or cons when Mother and I happened to pass through the same city."

Saville looked curious. "What happened three years ago?"

Ezra laughed. "I fell into bad company."

Seeing Saville and Polly's confusion, he explained with some amusement. "I had vacated Virginia City rather precipitously after conducting a highly lucrative series of games and found myself in Fort Laramie, where I was arrested and jailed on a trumped-up charge, with most of my funds redistributed to the local deputy and his cronies. Having little faith that any trial would better exemplify justice, I jumped bail."

Polly was holding her hand over her mouth. Her eyes were full of amusement.

Saville shook his head. "Cuz, cuz, cuz," he murmured.

Ezra grinned back, dimples flashing.

"Oh, it gets better," he assured them. "Being low on funds as a consequence of my most insalubrious sojourn in Fort Laramie, I struck an unconscionable streak of bad luck. In retrospect it seems as though Fate her fickle self was nudging me along. Nothing seemed to go right until I found myself executing a foolish little con in a backwater town on the border between New Mexico Territory and Sonora, pretending to be drunk to win a shooting contest."

"Still a good shot, Ezra?" Saville asked with an odd twist to the words. "You were always good with those pistols of yours, the best in Montjoy's Darlings."

"That skill has received a plethora of practice during my recent exploits," Ezra admitted.

He brushed his hand over the supple leather of the gun belt he wore. He had never drawn against Chris Larabee and never wanted to the man was greased lightning but he suspected he was a faster draw than the five other men in their band. JD had the raw talent, but skill came with practice and the young man lacked the controlled temperament that distinguished the fastest draws. Buck was fast but made nothing of it, perhaps because he would always be in Chris's shadow, more likely because he had no taste for killing. Ezra downplayed his own speed, preferring to rely on his wits; he'd rather have a name as an unscrupulous gambler than a fast gun. He'd never liked killing and a gunfighter's reputation made it an inevitability.

"What happened?" Polly demanded like a child being told a bedtime story.

"I shot the center out of an ace, came within a breath of being done in by some infuriated cowhands, and drew the attention of the infamous Mr. Chris Larabee. Mr. Larabee was in search of gunhands to help defend a transplanted group of Seminoles from a group of " Ezra barely paused as he changed the story, fearing it would stir bad memories for Polly, " renegades. The fools were under the impression the Seminoles were in possession of a gold mine."

Polly's eyes widened. "You helped protect them, didn't you?" she said.

It warmed Ezra to know she thought he would protect anyone other than himself as a matter of course. Polly always had thought the best of him. She'd thought the best of everyone.

"In the end," he told her. No need to go into the whole abandoning the others to inspect the mine and only changing his mind at the last minute. Polly had surely been disillusioned enough by her life. Let her still see him as her brave cousin. It harmed nothing.

"Our little band of seven did succeed in repulsing the Seminoles' attackers. Remarkable, really. We rode back to Four Corners meaning to go our separate ways. Fate had other ideas, however. Mr. Larabee rode to the rescue of the newly assigned Federal judge." Ezra paused, then added theatrically, "The very same judge from Fort Laramie, where I had jumped bail."

"Oh dear!"

"I found myself in the most extraordinary position. Judge Travis offered to pardon me for the bail jumping and the charge in Fort Laramie, if I remained in Four Corners, along with the others, for a period of thirty days, acting as law men."

Saville paused with his Scotch half way to his lips. An expression of genuine surprise played over his handsome features, the most expression Ezra had seen on his face yet.

"Despite my better instincts," Ezra concluded, "I accepted and found myself remaining in the position after the Judge provided my pardon. I have continued in his service, along with the others, until I resigned in order to see to business here in Virginia City."

"The fellow you were with this afternoon," Saville asked, "is he one of these other men from Four Corners?"

"Vin?"

"Yes."

"He is," Ezra replied. "They're all here. They insisted on coming with us."

"Tell us about them," Polly directed.

Ezra complied happily for the next hour.

The stroke of that hour drew their reunion to a close. Polly's head came up, her warm smile dissolved into a coolly alert expression, and Saville nodded.

She kissed Ezra's cheek. "Charles will undoubtedly be returning soon. I think it's best if you're not here, he can be quite frighteningly jealous."

"Indeed?"

Ezra shot an inquiring look Saville's way. Saville inclined his head, the lamplight gilding the fair curls that made him look so boyish still.

Polly caught their wordless exchange and patted Ezra's hand. "He's never raised his hand to me, dear Cuz," she assured him.

Unspoken was the implication that anyone interested in his mistress his property might become the target of his 'frightening' jealousy. Ezra found himself not wanting to know how Saville fit into the picture.

"I stand reassured."

"Good night, dear Ezra," she said.

"Good night, Pretty Polly," he replied.

Saville opened the door and checked the hall. He followed Ezra out.

"Have you somewhere we could talk privately?" Saville asked.

"Magnusson won't look for you?"

"No."

"Then come back to my hotel. It isn't so expensive as this, but I might introduce you to the others beside Vin."

"You trust them?" Saville questioned. Urgency sounded in his quiet voice.

"Implicitly."

"Then perhaps they should hear what I have to tell you."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, but asked no more as they slipped quietly out of the hotel.

*******

"You're Ezra's cousin?" Buck asked Saville.

He studied the blond dandy that had strolled into the bar along Ezra. They certainly dressed alike. Both wore black flat-brimmed riverboat hats, dark green frock coats, dark trousers, and polished boots. No spurs. Come to think of it, Buck had never seen Ezra wear spurs. Didn't need them, since that gelding of his would do everything but stand on its head for him.

Saville had a bottle of whiskey and several shot glasses held in his other hands. He was threading his way through the semi-crowded saloon to the table where Ezra and the others were seated. Buck had caught up with him after stepping out back briefly to make room for more beer.

Saville raised an eyebrow and Buck saw the resemblance.

"I believe that has already been established," Saville said.

Yep. Sounded like Ezra too.

It wasn't obvious, but studying on it, Buck saw the way both men moved and held themselves. Neither of them tall, but compact and muscled like cats, never awkward or gawky. Saville's hands were exactly like Ezra's, pale, long-fingered, deft. He managed five shot glasses smoothly.

"And that gal, she's really cousin to you both, too?"

Saville gave him a sharp glance. There was a difference. Ezra's eyes were greener than spring grass. His cousin had eyes like a frozen mountain lake, a cold pure blue. Those eyes told Buck the same thing Ezra had that afternoon.

"Yes."

Leave her alone.

Or else.

Buck shrugged. She was beautiful, but there were plenty of women in Virginia City who weren't taken or related to a man he called friend.

He nodded to Saville, hoping the man could read that from his face. He didn't want to get crossways with Saville. Ezra's cousin might wear fancy clothes and use fancy words too, but he exuded a silent air of menace. He seemed as dangerous or more so than Ezra. The gun he wore under his coat looked too natural to not be a regular part of his wardrobe. Buck knew men back East didn't always go armed, so Saville wore that gun because he used it.

He pulled out the chair next to Chris and clapped his friend on the shoulder as he sat down.

"Buck," Chris growled in warning.

Buck just grinned at him. Ezra shook his head. His antics always amused Ezra, enough so that the normally controlled gambler would sometimes join in, if the mood struck him.

Saville set down the whiskey and glasses.

He poured a shot in each glass and pushed them toward anyone who didn't already have a drink. JD was sticking to milk again. Vin and Josiah both had beers.

Buck picked his glass and tried the whiskey. "Thank you," he told Saville after it slid down his throat like silken fire.

Saville addressed Ezra. "You know Magnusson wants that land you own? He means to choke off the Swedish Hat and force Corcoran to sell him shares in exchange for a way to get the ore out."

"I'm not surprised," Ezra replied. "I've decided to sell to Corcoran, so Magnusson will have to find something else to leverage his way into the Swedish Hat."

He lifted his glass. Lamplight splintered through the honey-colored Scotch, warming the green of Ezra's coat and sparking embers in his hair. He'd let it grow out some in the last few months and a swath of fell across his forehead.

"Then do it soon," Saville told him seriously. He looked around the table at the others. "You don't know how ruthless Magnusson can be."

Vin shook his head. His fingers played over the lip of his beer mug unconsciously. "Got a good idea," he contradicted. His blue eyes were sharp, darker, different from Saville's icy gaze, but just as hard. "Man put a bounty on Ezra's head, made a deal with Maude to buy that deed once Ez is out of the way. Had a man draw down on him in the saloon after taking pot shots at him a couple times."

Saville frowned at Ezra.

"You didn't say anything about your Mother."

"I mentioned she'd tried to sell the deed without my knowledge."

"About that... I need to speak to you privately," Saville said.

Ezra raised his eyebrows but nodded.

He raised the shot glass once more. "To you and Polly and finding you both alive after so long," Ezra toasted.

Buck didn't miss the faint, pained flinch Polly's name brought to Saville's normally impassive features. There was a story there, he knew, but one he would never hear. He didn't need to. No Southern boy could be happy to see a woman of his family living as a rich man's mistress. Working for that same man had to grate. All Buck needed was to know whether either of them would turn on Ezra the way his mother had.

"Now, hoss, tell us some embarrassin' stories about Ezra," Buck requested.

Buck listened as Saville spun out a tale or two of the mischief Ezra had got up to whenever Maude left him with his father's people. The two boys had run wild it seemed. Unsaid was the truth that no one had cared enough for two bastards to rein them in. He watched and saw genuine fondness for each other between Ezra and Saville and a shared devotion to Polly, who had been their sometime companion in devilment.

The memories were obviously bittersweet. The time and place they recalled was not just past, it was razed to the ground, the people they remembered all dead. Even the slaves whose names they spoke with more affection than many of their family were gone.

Buck's gaze wandered to the other men at the table. Vin was still sipping his flat beer, quietly watching their backs. JD looked fascinated, stopping both men with a spate of questions over each prank or event. Chris had a smile on his lean face. He was enjoying himself, taking an almost paternal pleasure in their group. Josiah looked a little lost, nursing his whiskey as a dark mood overtook him. Buck imagined Josiah was finally accepting that Ezra had had a father. There was no place for Josiah to play that role with the gambler. Ezra neither needed nor wanted the sort of mentoring Josiah longed to give. Ezra was a man grown, with a past he didn't need to be more or less ashamed of than any of the rest of them.

Considering some of the things Josiah had shouted and cried during the worst of his drunken binges, Buck suspected Ezra had less to apologize for than the wayward preacher did. Josiah's penance was no joke. Buck would never say a word, but he suspected Josiah had ridden with the comancheros during the war, taking part in the worst sort of renegade activity along the Texas and Arizona border.

He lifted his glass to his lips. Another sip of Scotch. A droplet caught in his mustache. Buck unselfconsciously licked it off. Drinking with Ezra had taught him to savor the taste of good liquor.

He looked at Nathan last. Nathan had been silent since Ezra introduced Saville.

Nathan's face was set. It hardened with less than hidden, fulminating anger the longer Ezra and Saville spoke.

Ezra's Virginia drawl had slowed and thickened through the evening. So had Saville's, until the two men were speaking with the same rhythm and style. Saville had a vocabulary to match Ezra's, though he was less grandiloquent in his usage. But flaunting the words was as much a part of Ezra's persona as his gambler's red coat and no more a part of the real man beneath it. Buck had had the privilege of meeting the real Ezra.

He reflected sorrowfully that Nathan had never let himself meet that man. Nathan had come close; he'd ridden with Ezra, fought with and beside him, patched the man up after many a reckless exploit, even laughed and joked with him during the good times. Ezra had given Nathan chance after chance, had been patient when Buck, as easygoing as he himself was, would have decked the man. Nathan had refused to see past the accent and attitude.

His loss, Buck believed. He shrugged. He believed in letting folks go their own way, even if he didn't agree with them, as long as they weren't hurting anyone else. Nathan wasn't hurting anyone but himself. If Buck ever thought different, he'd come down on the healer harder than Chris Larabee ever had or would.

The saloon crowd thinned out after a couple of hours. Saville checked his pocket watch and sighed. He pushed his chair back from the table.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I have a morning appointment with my employer. It's been a pleasure, but dawn waits for no one."

"It's a good thing it doesn't wait for Ezra," Buck quipped, "or the sun would never come up."

They all chuckled. Ezra lifted his hand and sketched a check mark in the air. One for Buck.

"Ezra?" Saville motioned toward the saloon doors. "Could you give me a moment?"

Some of the pleasure Ezra had been letting himself show drained away, Buck noticed. The gambler excused himself and followed his cousin out onto the boardwalk.

Before Buck could ask any of the others what they thought of Saville, Nathan burst out, "Did you hear them two? Talking about owning slaves, living like little princes off the sweat of good folks? That fellow, he's just another no good Southerner, just like Ezra!"

Buck gaped at him. That wasn't what he'd heard.

"Brother Nathan "

"No," Nathan interrupted.

Josiah's soothing wasn't going to help. Nathan had worked himself into a real lather. He shook his head and slapped his hand down on the table. An empty shot glass jumped and fell onto its side. It rolled toward the edge until JD caught it.

"No, I don't like it, I don't want nothing to do with it or them," Nathan insisted. "I don't know why we're here, helping Ezra make a fortune off another man's bad luck." He snorted. "Luck! More likely, Ezra cheated that Harrison man. That's why he had to hightail it out of Virginia City before, same as Fort Laramie and everywhere else he's passed through."

"Shut up, Nathan," JD snapped.

"You telling me to shut up, boy!?" Nathan demanded.

Buck clamped his hand down on Nathan's shoulder. Nathan was at least a head taller than JD, heavier, and mean in a close fight. Buck wasn't about to let him take his anger out on JD.

"Yeah, Nathan, I am," JD replied in a hard tone. He set the shot glass back on its base, paused, and finally looked up. "What's wrong with you? Even if you don't like Ezra's cousin, you can't be happy he found out he's got family alive he thought was dead? Why do you always have to lay into Ezra, anyway?"

Nathan exhaled hard through his nose. He opened his mouth and closed it. Buck gave his shoulder a hard squeeze. He shook his head. Nathan reached for the Scotch bottle.

Chris pulled it away. "I think you've had enough, Nate."

Nathan snatched at the bottle again.

"Enough," Chris stated.

"That's rich, coming from you," Nathan said. His eyes widened as he realized what he'd let slip out.

Chris narrowed his eyes. "I should know then," he replied.

Vin finished his beer.

Wordless, he left the table and headed for the door. Whether he wanted to check on Ezra, just get out of the building, or away from Nathan couldn't be discerned. Vin could be just as much a mystery as Ezra.

"It's time we all quit and headed back to the hotel and our beds," Josiah said. "'Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.'"

"I ain't drunk," Nathan insisted.

"Just makes it worse, pard," Buck told him.

He caught Chris's eyes. A nod confirmed that Chris would help him drag Nathan out if necessary. The man was going to make a fool of himself otherwise.

"Come on, Nate."

"Don't you see, those two are just the same?" Nathan appealed to them. He stabbed a finger toward the doors. "No good. Rebs. Think they're better than a black man, treating me just the same as a slave."

"Damn, Nate, how many Southerners'd share a bottle of Scotch with a slave?" Buck exclaimed.

"I ain't surprised you don't care," Nathan said scornfully. "I just thought Chris knew better. He's the one that's always kept Ezra in line." He raised his chin. "Now you're acting like Ezra's your friend just like Vin."

Chris stared at Nathan. "Ezra is my friend."

Nathan shook his head again. "You all are going to be sorry, that's all I can say," he mumbled.

Josiah got up and laid an arm over Nathan's shoulders. "You have to let it go, Brother," he advised. "Let go of your anger or it'll poison you and everything you do. Ezra's just a man. So is his cousin. They aren't to blame for where they grew up."

Buck nodded his agreement, burying the pain of Nathan's scornful accusation. He'd thought Nathan knew him better than that.

Josiah began guiding Nathan away from the table.

"Nathan's just drunk, right, Buck?" JD asked.

"Sure hope so," Buck told him.

Chris just shrugged, but Buck knew his old friend didn't think so. Chris knew drunk and he knew Nathan hadn't had enough to excuse the things he seemed to think. Even if he was drunk... there was that saying Josiah sometimes spouted.

In vino veritas.

That was the one.

Buck sighed. He felt every year, every ache and pain, of his rough and tumble life. He hated ugly and Nathan was getting uglier with every day. He was damned glad Ezra had been out of earshot when Nathan started in this time. It would have been one less reason for Ezra to come home with them after he sold the deed.

He scrubbed at his face, whiskers rasping, then smoothed his mustache. Maybe Josiah had the right idea. They'd all turn in, catch some shut-eye, and things would look better in the morning.

"Come on, kid," he told JD. "It's past your bedtime."

JD rolled his eyes. "God, Buck, that's getting old."

*******

"Ezra," Saville said when they were alone. "You have to be careful."

Ezra nodded. He was tired. Seeing Saville and Polly again had been a surprise. He'd spent most of his meeting with Corcoran distracted. He'd only half listened to Corcoran's bragging. What did he care if the man knew the Governor of Texas?

Now, he wished Saville would get to the point.

"Damn it, Ezra!" Saville exclaimed.

He grabbed Ezra's arm and leaned close.

"I know what Magnusson will do, don't you understand? I'm the one that does it for him. I'm the one who hired the men to kill Ezra Standish."

Ezra stared at his cousin. He didn't jerk away, didn't step back, he just searched Saville's face for the truth. He imagined if Saville did mean to kill him, there wouldn't be time to do more than curse. From a saloon down the street, the tinkling notes of a piano competed with too many voices, occasionally drowned out completely by a shout of laughter.

"You didn't know it was me."

"No, I didn't," Saville confirmed. He let go and paced to the edge of the sidewalk. He stopped with his back to Ezra, shoulders stiff. "I spent the afternoon sending out telegrams, stopping the contract, but I can't be sure everyone has heard. You're still in danger."

Saville half-turned. The light from the saloon door fell across his jacket, a swathe of green color along one arm, while the rest of him remained in shadow.

The shot made Saville stagger. The bullet hit his chest. The second shot plowed into Saville's shoulder and the third snapped his head back before he fell. Blood spattered against Ezra's cheek.

Saville's hat came off as he fell and the light touched his pale hair.

The man who had shot him gasped and cursed.

Ezra spun on his heel, searching for the assassin. He found him in the shadows down the sidewalk. The man was staring at Saville's body. His pistol had lowered.

"Damn it." He looked up at Ezra, seemed to recognize him, and started to lift his pistol.

Ezra drew his Remington and shot him.

Behind him, the saloon doors crashed open.

Ezra turned his gun toward the potential threat, but found himself facing Vin. His nerves were strung so tight his finger started to close on the trigger anyway. Vin pushed the Remington's muzzle aside with one hand.

"Easy, Ez," he said quietly. His mare's leg was unholstered and held at ready. His gaze found Saville's body and the other man where he'd fallen. "You got him."

The others crowded out behind Vin.

Chris gave a keen look to the fallen assassin. JD tumbled out onto the street, looking around for anyone else. Nathan pushed past them and crouched beside Saville. Josiah walked down the sidewalk and checked the other body.

Ezra stared blindly at the green of Saville's coat, almost the same shade as his own, and the blonde hair that was so different. Saville's black riverboat hat lay in the street. A shudder ran through him.

"He shot the wrong man," Ezra murmured.

Josiah knelt beside the body, crossed himself, and began to pray.

Ezra wouldn't look at Nathan. He looked past him, focusing on the forlorn hat. He still saw Nathan shake his head. He stiffened. Vin crowded closer to him and Buck was on his other side suddenly, wrapping a comforting arm around Ezra's shoulders.

He couldn't endure comfort yet, though.

Ezra shook off Buck's arm and reholstered his Remington after replacing the bullet he'd fired.

"I have to go tell Polly," he said.

He didn't know what was in his voice, it sounded normal to him, but JD flinched visibly. He tried to summon a reassuring smile and knew he failed.

"All right, pard, we're just going to come with you," Buck said quietly.

Chris laid his hand on Ezra's arm briefly. "Go on. Josiah and I will take care of things here."

Ezra hesitated.

"Thank you."

He wanted to drop down to his knees and pick up Saville's body. He wanted to deny it so badly. His cousin couldn't be dead. The cloying smell of blood reminded him it was true. If he touched Saville's hand, so much like his own, it would already be cooling. If he stopped, if he let himself feel it, he would never be able to move again.

Saville was dead because of him and that damned, cursed deed. Everything good that came of it seemed poisoned by what it cost. He could finally have the fortune he'd schemed to have, but Maude would betray him again. He could find Saville and Polly, only to see one cousin dead in his place and have to tell the other why.

He ignored the crowd of curious saloon patrons pressing out onto the sidewalk.

Vin snarled something under his breath in Comanche, forcing some of the gawking on-lookers back.

"JD, " Chris called softly. "Stay here with us. Nathan "

Nathan got to his feet. "I'll go with them."

"Ezra, we'll get him to a good undertaker and let you know," Chris assured him.

He managed to nod.

Ezra ignored everyone else and started for the International. Buck and Vin walked beside him. The echo of his boots told him that Nathan followed.

Somewhere a piano was still playing.

*******

Knocking on the door of Magnusson's suite, Ezra suddenly felt grateful for Buck and Vin's company, even for Nathan's dark, looming presence. His cheek itched. He touched it. Saville's blood, dried on his skin, flaked onto his fingertips.

He stared at the dark flakes on his otherwise clean hands.

Buck hammered the door with his fist again.

A thump and a vitriolic curse sounded on the other side of the door. It opened abruptly, revealing Magnusson, his white hair disarranged, wrapped in deep purple silk smoking jacket. Beneath it, his shirt was loose and unbuttons. The suspenders on his pinstriped trousers hung loose over his hips.

He glared at the four of them while belting the smoking jacket closed.

"This damn hotel better be on fire or I'll have your damn heads for disturbing me," Magnusson snarled.

"The hotel's not on fire," Ezra said flatly.

Magnusson started to slam the door in his face. Buck reached past his shoulder and held it open effortlessly. "Hold on, hoss."

"What the hell do you want?" Magnusson demanded. His eyes narrowed. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"

"Ezra Peyton," Ezra said. He pushed past Magnusson into the suite and started for the door into the bedroom. "Polly Merriwether's cousin, sir," he added over his shoulder.

"So you just bull your way into my rooms? The woman's grown, she's here of her own choice!" Magnusson shouted. "I already employ one of her 'cousins'."

He grabbed Ezra's shoulder.

Ezra's temper snapped. He let Magnusson pull him around, popped his derringer, and shoved it under the man's chin. Magnusson froze, feeling the muzzle dig into his double chin.

"Remove your hands from my person, sir," Ezra snarled.

"Stop that, Ezra!" Nathan yelled.

Ezra ignored him.

Buck pushed Nathan toward one of the settees. His voice was gentle, filled with understanding, as he walked over. Buck's face was always open, showing every feeling.

His sympathy and sorrow showed through now. Ezra saw that, but he wanted to ignore it. He wanted to be angry. It was so much better than the aching pain that filled him when he let himself think.

Buck said quietly, "Whoa, there, Ez."

"Shut up, Buck," Ezra replied, not taking his eyes away from Magnusson. "I should kill him just on principle."

"You don't want to do that."

"Oh, I want to," Ezra said. He pulled the derringer back. "But I won't unless he makes me."

Buck took hold of Magnusson's arm and dragged him away from Ezra. "You got any sense you ain't gonna push your luck with Ez tonight," he told Magnusson harshly. "He's gonna be as mean as a hurtin' rattler." He guided him over to the settee and pushed him down next to Nathan.

Vin arranged himself against the closed door. He folded his arms and gave Ezra a nod. No one would be coming through the door until Ezra was done. Ezra felt a spurt of gratitude through the grief that filled him.

"Where's Polly?" he demanded. He inclined his head toward the door. "Is she in there?"

"Why?" Magnusson asked.

"I need to tell her something."

He walked over to the door, knocked and called, "Polly? Polly, it's Ezra."

The door opened and revealed Polly. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders, russet and red, dark as burgundy in the shadows, scarlet by candle flame. She wore a thin satin dressing gown the color of cream, pale as her skin. Her feet were bare.

She carried her head high.

"Ezra?" she asked softly. She looked from him to Magnusson, then to Buck, Nathan and Vin men she didn't know. Her expression gave away no embarrassment, for all that they had to know what they had interrupted, what that made her. "Why are you here?"

Her expression softened as she really looked at him. She touched his cheek.

"Is that blood?"

His voice died in his throat, the words that would destroy her caught, strangling him. Ezra nodded.

Polly looked around again, this time seeing who wasn't there.

"Ezra?"

"Ezra?" Magnusson echoed suddenly. He started to his feet, but Buck shoved him back down. "You're Standish!"

Ezra pressed his eyes closed. He forced the words out, unable to look at her as he spoke.

"Saville's dead."

"What!?" Magnusson shouted.

"Sit the fuck down!" Buck growled.

Ezra opened his eyes and looked at Polly. Her eyes had dilated black. Her lips were parted. Her fair skin seemed suddenly gray. She swayed and he put out a hand to steady her, only to realize he still held his derringer.

"No," Polly whispered.

Ezra tossed the gun onto the nearest chair.

"No."

Polly's voice had risen. She shook her head.

"No, no, he's not."

Ezra reached for her and she took a step back.

"He's not, he's not!"

"He was shot down in the street," Ezra gritted out. His own grief was swamped by anger. He pointed at Magnusson. "Shot by a man hired to kill me so your patron could buy that damned deed from my mother."

Polly covered her mouth with both hands, still shaking her head. "You're wrong. It's not true," she cried. "Saville! Saville!"

"He's dead, Polly," Ezra stated flatly. "I was there."

"Nonononononnono!" Polly's denial rose into a shriek. Tears flooded from her eyes. She clawed at her face, prompting Ezra to move finally. He clasped her wrists, trying to stop her, and she began screaming.

She fought like a wildcat, scratching and kicking, writhing against Ezra and then Buck as the big man joined them. Buck took hold of her with a gentle firmness, murmuring nonsense in her ear, while Ezra stumbled back. Fresh blood ran from his lip where one of her wild blows had caught him.

The keening rose and rose, setting the hair on the back of his neck on end. She finally stopped fighting Buck and stood trembling, harsh sobs jerking her body against him. A lock of her hair was caught in Buck's mustache. He leaned his face against her head, still whispering comfort that she didn't hear.

Polly stared at Ezra. She didn't see him. Her eyes were blind. They were both caught, unable to move or think beyond the pain.

"Saville," she whimpered. "Saville."

Nathan brushed past Ezra.

"Buck, help me get her sitting down," Nathan directed. He looked around and spotted the sideboard with the liquor. "She's going into shock."

Buck carried Polly to the nearest chair, the same red-upholstered one Ezra had tossed the derringer into, and sat her down. Polly wept, oblivious.

Nathan poured a generous portion of Scotch into a glass and brought it back over. "Here, let's get this in her," he said.

Forgotten briefly, Magnusson spoke.

"Standish. I'll pay you good money for that deed. We can still do business."

Nathan knelt in front of Polly and held the glass of liquor to her lips.

Ezra shuddered. He turned and stared at Magnusson. His fingers curled convulsively.

"What?" he croaked.

Vin came across the room fast, catching Ezra's hand before he drew the same gun he'd used to kill Saville's assassin.

"Just forget this mess," Magnusson insisted.

"Forget it."

Magnusson smiled, thinking he'd persuaded Ezra.

"Forget it," Ezra repeated.

"We'll work out a price. I can be damned generous. If you're half as clever as your mother," Magnusson went on, "I know we can do business. I'll need someone to take Saville's place." His pale eyes sharpened. "You're obviously sharper than he was "

"Ez, don't," Vin warned.

His hand tightened on Ezra's wrist, holding his arm down. Ezra jerked his arm, muscles bunching and straining.

"Let go," Ezra hissed.

" I can use a man like you."

Polly grabbed the glass away from Nathan and threw it at the wall. It hit with a loud thud, leaving a dent and a dark stain against the silk paper.

"Get away from me," she said distinctly. Her soft Southern voice was hoarse, a razored rasp from the screams that had cut at her throat with the pain she felt. She glared venomously at Nathan. "Don't touch me. Don't you touch me."

Nathan drew back with an angry grimace. "Fine," he snapped. "You get you a white doctor to take care of your pretty self. If you can find one that'll treat a whore."

Buck came around the chair with a roar. He slammed his fist into Nathan's jaw before Nathan could bring up his hands. As Nathan staggered back, Buck wrapped a big hand around the front of Nathan's shirt and drew him up close.

"You never, ever talk to a woman like that in front of me again," Buck shouted furiously. He shook Nathan hard.

Ezra shook, torn between killing Magnusson and ripping Nathan apart for what he'd just said. Only Vin's hand held him in place. Or maybe it was holding him together. He thought he might shatter in another moment.

Magnusson had the gall to laugh. "You're an opinionated, boy, for a darkie," he exclaimed.

Buck glared at Nathan and slowly let go of his shirt.

"Buck, I didn't mean "

"Leave it alone, Jackson," Buck interrupted. He stalked away, his whole carriage stiff with anger.

Nathan shook his head. He glanced around, looked at Polly and Ezra, then Magnusson. Vin's whole attention was bent on Ezra, who stared back at Nathan with absolute loathing. Polly curled deeper into the chair. Her hands were clenched, pushing into the cushion under her.

"If you ever speak of my cousin in such a fashion again, Mr. Jackson, I will not call you out," Ezra bit out. "I'll shoot you like a dog."

"Damned right," Buck muttered.

Nathan sneered at Ezra. "I got a right to say what I think. Don't matter how you dress it up, you know she ain't no better than that," he declared self-righteously. "Don't think I'm going to call her no lady, which she ain't, any more than you're any gentleman, Ezra."

Ezra jolted at Nathan's words.

"Get out, Nathan," Vin whispered. He'd clamped one hand on Ezra's shoulder and kept the other firmly on his wrist.

Nathan headed for the door.

"I ain't staying where I ain't wanted anyhow," Nathan muttered as he went. "You all deserve whatever you get. Wish Maude had given you all of that brew I told her about. Least then you wouldn't be striking a deal with this fellow over your cousin's dead body."

Magnusson began laughing.

"Did she fuck you too, Standish, back on the old plantation?" Magnusson asked with a sick sort of good humor. The scene seemed to be entertaining him now. "It's Standish, isn't it, not Peyton. Maybe my little dove has a taste for bastards. I know she was sleeping with Howard. Or was it any cousin? Did she give you aid and comfort "

Polly rose out of her chair and took two long steps toward Magnusson, clutching something in her hands.

Ezra tore his arm away from Vin. "You sick sonova "

Sharp knocking from the hall snapped everyone's attention to the door.

In the half second between the fist hitting the door again and a yell of, "Open up!" Polly brought her arms up, revealing Ezra's derringer in her hands.

"No, darlin', don't !" Buck shouted, seeing the small gun in her hand.

"It's all his fault," Polly said calmly.

Magnusson's mouth had half fallen open.

Vin wrapped his arms around Ezra from behind, pinning him in place to keep him from throwing himself between Polly and Magnusson.

"He deserves to die."

"Polly " Ezra whispered in despair.

"You don't know how much I hate him, Ezra," she said with an eerie calm. "I have to do this."

The hammering on the door went on.

"Open up in there! Open up! Mr. Magnusson! Open up!"

Nathan pulled the door open. Chris and JD and a uniformed police officer forced their way inside then froze.

"Arrest her!" Magnusson shouted. "She means to kill me!"

"Miss "

Polly smiled like a death's-head.

She pulled the trigger.

The sharp, small report of the .22 echoed through the room. Red bloomed from the wound on Magnusson's chest, blood staining his smoking jacket darker. He dropped to his knees. Blood frothed from his mouth with an ugly wheeze, then he folded into an awkward sprawl on the Turkey carpet. His pale blue eyes glared unseeing at Polly, who stood stock-still.

She still held the derringer in her hands. One shot remained in it. A small wisp of smoke curled from one of its twin barrels.

"Damn," Buck grunted, looking at the body.

Ezra hung his head.

21. Virginia City, 1877

And if I told you that I loved you
You'd maybe think there's something wrong
I'm not a man of too many faces
The mask I wear is one

Shape of My Heart,
Sting

Vin kept his hand on Ezra's shoulder, but released his arm. He could feel the muscles under his palm drawn taut with the frightful effort it took for Ezra to remain in control. Little shudders, invisible to the eye, were running through him.

"Christ All Mighty," the police officer exclaimed. He was hefty fellow, brown of hair and eye, average height, heavy-boned but not hard. He had on his uniform, but the sleeves were rolled up and his collar was unbuttoned. A pillow crease still indented his unshaven cheek. JD had probably found him napping at the police station.

Vin caught Chris' eye and tried to convey that he should keep the policeman from making things worse.

"Ma'am, you better hand me that little gun."

JD gaped at the body and Polly from behind Chris' shoulder. "Damn, he's really "

Chris held up a hand, halting JD's words.

Polly shook her head and took a step back. "No."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I just saw you shoot a man, an unarmed man," the officer said. "I have to arrest you."

"Just give up the gun," Chris growled. "We'll go down to the police station and work this out."

Red-eyed but tearless, Polly stared at Chris.

"I don't know you."

"He's a friend of mine, Polly," Ezra said. His normally smooth voice rasped and caught. Vin tightened his hand, not to hold him in place, but to remind Ezra that he was there. He wasn't alone.

Polly looked at Chris again. "Mr. Larabee?"

Ezra offered a tiny smile.

"He is, just as I described him."

"Sir, if you please let me do my job "

Ezra shook his head. "Please," he said, "just let me talk to her. She's my cousin."

"Penhall," Chris murmured, "give him a minute. She's not going anywhere."

"Polly, dear," Ezra soothed, stepping toward her and holding out his hand. "Kindly return my derringer. We have to make arrangements for Saville... You'll get bail. I won't abandon you."

Vin heard the sincerity in Ezra's voice. It wasn't an act. Ezra would ride through the fires of hell for his cousin, driven by the guilt he still felt over what had happened during the war.

"You ain't alone," he added matter-of-factly to Ezra's declaration.

Vin let his eyes drift to Magnusson's body sprawled on the floor. The purple smoking jacket had fallen open, revealing his shirt and the bullet hole. It looked disconcertingly small, just a singed at the edge black mark no bigger than the tip of his finger. But Magnusson's barrel chest was still. The man had just kept pushing. To Vin's way of thinking, he had asked for it that was why he'd been holding onto Ezra. He hadn't considered that Polly might act; he should have, Saville was her blood too, and close, he knew that from what Ezra had told him.

Too late to worry about what ifs now.

"Please, Polly."

Polly stood like a soldier, straight and head high. Her beautiful green eyes were focused on Ezra and Ezra alone. She didn't see Vin right beside him. There might have been no one else in the room.

"No, Ezra," she replied.

"Polly," he said sadly. "We can get though this "

Buck crept closer behind Polly, ready to grab the derringer away from her in another moment.

Vin grimaced. That little peashooter of Ezra's didn't make much of a hole, but up close it worked just fine. It had killed Magnusson. He'd seen Ezra use it before and figured they wouldn't find much mess under the body either. Little bullet like that just sort bounced around inside a man, tearing up his innards worse than a through and through wound. He sure hoped she didn't use the other bullet on one of them.

Hell, it was selfish, but he was damned glad that police officer had been there to see it was Polly that pulled the trigger, considering that she'd used Ezra's derringer.

His temper was slowly burning too. Nathan had flat out said it. He'd helped Maude poison Ezra. No matter how many times Vin had contemplated the possibility, the revelation made in unthinking bitterness was a betrayal of more than just Ezra. Nathan had betrayed who they all were, not to mention his own calling as a healer.

Maybe Ezra had always sensed the possibility in Nathan and tried to steer clear of his ministrations because that. Vin knew he could never look at Nathan the same way.

"I can't, Ezra," Polly said softly. "I'm sorry, I can't."

She lifted the derringer and put the muzzle against her temple.

"Good-bye."

She pulled the trigger.

Her head snapped away from the impact. Her body jerked once then crumpled. The derringer hit the carpet with a small thud in the echoing room.

Ezra jolted back a step, like he'd been hit. Vin braced him, breathless with shock himself.

"Dear God," Chris murmured softly.

"Hell's Bells," Penhall added, shaking his head.

The room stank, close with the reek of burnt gunpowder, lamp oil, blood, bowels, sweat and the mixed stench of fear, pain, and grief that came off the men still standing. Vin couldn't stand it.

"JD, open a window."

JD skirted around the bodies. He pushed aside the heavy, velvet drapes and levered up a window. The night air that swept in was a sharp relief.

"Somebody tell me what the hell is going on here?" Penhall demanded suddenly.

Buck stared down at Polly's body.

Her hair fanned across the carpet in bloody tangles. One arm stretched out, bare where the sleeve of her dressing gown rode up, pale fingers half curled on emptiness. Slowly thickening blood drooled from her nose and mouth. A trickle ran from her ear.

He saw Buck shake his head. "Damn. Damn it. What god damn waste."

Vin agreed.

"This is the fourth dead body tonight," Penhall pointed out. "Someone has to have an explanation." He was retreating from his shock and horror into officiousness.

Vin didn't blame the man for that. It was a horrible scene.

One Ezra didn't need to be staring at any longer.

"Don't look no more, Ez." Vin pulled him around. Ezra moved obediently. He studied Ezra's face.

Those fine features were as smooth and blank as Vin had ever seen. He didn't look like a man who had ever smiled or ever would again. Everything had been wiped away, hidden and locked up inside the man. Even the tremors were gone, as ruthlessly suppressed as anything Vin had ever seen. He blinked slowly, lashes rising to show dilated eyes. That and the pallor the warm lamplight almost hid were all that betrayed Ezra felt anything at all.

He'd shut down.

Vin wanted to pull him close, give him the comfort of a human touch. He would have for Buck or JD, even Josiah. But not Ezra; Ezra wouldn't welcome it. Ezra would handle his grief alone, the way Chris did, and never mind it would be easier to share it: he didn't know how.

"We can tell you part of it," Chris told Penhall. His eyes were on Vin and Ezra. The line between his brows deepened at what he saw. Chris worried anyway, but Vin thought it was with good reason this time.

Chris didn't know the half of it; he hadn't heard Nathan.

Vin was afraid Ezra had. Ezra was too sharp not to understand exactly what Nathan's words meant. He wouldn't be thinking on it now, but later that clever mind would remember if he'd heard. Vin hoped he hadn't. You didn't couldn't live and work beside a man who had done that even once.

Vin wasn't about to.

"Then, for Christ's sake, tell me," Penhall said. That might have set Chris off, if the man hadn't looked and sounded so tired.

Instead, Chris scrubbed at his face and began wearily, "The two outside the saloon were Saville Howard and a contract killer. The killer was trying to shoot Ezra here. Saville is was his cousin. They looked enough alike in the dark, the killer shot Saville by mistake. Ezra shot him in self-defense."

"Is that what happened?" Penhall asked Ezra.

"Saville had his hat on." He spoke flatly, like he was reading from a newspaper report of something that happened an ocean away. "When it came off, the killer realized he'd made a mistake. I shot him when he started to raise his gun again."

Penhall nodded, accepting that. "What about here?"

Ezra closed his eyes.

"None of us thought this'd happen," Buck said, taking over. "Miss Polly, she and Saville, come here with him." Buck's lip curled as he indicated Magnusson's sprawled body. "She didn't have no other family but Ezra and his cousin, the rest of 'em died in the war. We were here to tell her 'bout their cousin and come to find out, this here Magnusson they worked for, he was behind trying to kill Ez. Instead, Saville got shot. She just went off her head, got hold of Ez' derringer and shot him." He ran a big hand through his hair, ending up massaging the back of his neck. "You saw what she did after."

"Temporarily unbalanced by grief," Penhall agreed quietly. "But why did someone want you dead, Mister?"

Ezra replied tiredly, "I am in possession of a deed to a parcel of land coveted by Mr. Magnusson, among others. My intention is to sell it to Mr. Asa Corcoran. I can only assume Mr. Magnusson sought to stop that transaction in the hope that my heirs would be more wont to do business with him instead."

"Mr. Corcoran, hunh? Will he back you up on this?"

"If he wants Stairstep Canyon, he will." Ezra's words carried an edge of cynicism that had been absent recently.

Vin watched him walk into the bedroom and return with a sheet from the bed, which he carefully placed over Polly. He knelt, one knee on the carpet, for a long moment, his hand hovering over her hair. When he finally stroked the red hair away from her face, the powder blackened hole in her temple became apparent. Then he pulled his hand away and let the makeshift shroud drop over her face.

There was a terrible finality to the way Ezra rose and walked away. He stopped in front of Penhall. "Do you have any more questions, sir?"

The policeman flinched before that relentless, hollow courtesy and step aside. "No, sir."

"Good." Ezra nodded. "Any of these gentlemen can direct you to my present lodgings."

He glanced over at JD, who managed to look devastated over a woman he'd only glimpsed and never met, who looked like Ezra must feel inside. Maybe that was why Ezra's eyes softened. JD's sincerity touched them all; he still felt, still believed in the things the rest of them were too jaded to admit even to themselves that they still cared about. It wasn't that JD hadn't seen enough of life to know how ugly it got either, Vin knew. Three years could have rubbed the shine off most anyone.

JD had held onto his goodness.

"Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked softly.

"Yeah, Ezra?"

"Did you find a proper undertaker for my cousin?"

JD shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded jerkily. "Beasley's. We woke 'em up and had Saville's body taken there. Looked like they did folks up real fine. There were some pictures in the office... Josiah's there, with uhm, with the body."

"Thank you," Ezra said gently. "Perhaps you would accompany me there? I should see to the arrangements for Saville." He swallowed. "For Polly too. I want them buried beside each other."

"Sure, Ezra," JD replied.

Buck gave him a little push and he started over toward Ezra.

"I'll show you where the place is."

Nathan leaned against the wall by the door, mouth pinched, arms crossed over his chest. He'd been silent since the last gunshot.

Ezra straightened the front of his dark green coat. He ran a finger along the chain of his pocket watch so that it hung just right. Vin could tell he wasn't even thinking about what he was doing.

"Thank you, John Daniel."

He brushed his hand over his coat sleeve and froze.

Vin winced.

Ezra's pale hand remained on his arm, feeling the empty derringer rig strapped to his arm under the fabric.

Ezra looked up. "Officer Penhall?"

"Yes?"

Ezra finished tugging his shirt cuffs straight. His chin came up.

"The derringer in question is mine. If you do not require it as evidence, I would appreciate its return."

Penhall glanced at the little Remington two-shot lying on the carpet next to the edge of the sheet over Polly. The barrel gleamed silver.

Buck gawped at Ezra. "You want that damned thing back?"

"It's a tool, Mr. Wilmington. There's no fault in it, only the use it was put to. I've grown used to it and don't wish to replace it with another," Ezra answered.

Nathan opened his mouth. Vin stared fiercely at him, prepared to physically silence him. Nathan's eyes caught his and he settled back against the wall. Vin nodded. Good. Nathan needed to hold his tongue and stay away from Ezra. Vin and he were going to have words and soon.

"It won't remind you " Buck stopped. He made a gesture that included everything, the room, the night, the dead.

"I fear I'll need no reminders of this night."

Ezra nodded to them all and opened the door. A crowd, including Benford and one of the desk clerks, had gathered in the corridor. Ezra gave them a hard look until they gave way.

"Mr. Dunne, if you would?"

"Coming, Ezra," JD blurted. He hurried out after Ezra.

Ezra paused in the doorway. "Gentlemen... "

"Go on, Ezra," Chris said. "One of us will stay here until the undertaker arrives."

Ezra bowed his head. "Thank you."

After they'd gone, Buck looked across the room and asked Chris, "You figure he's going to be okay?"

Chris raised an eyebrow. "Would you be?"

Buck sighed. "Guess not."

"Yeah," Chris agreed wearily. "Vin?"

Vin switched his gaze from Nathan to Chris.

"Yeah?"

Chris frowned at him, his eyes flickering toward Nathan. Vin shook his head. Later.

Penhall ducked his head out the door and drew Benford inside. He consulted with the hotel manager, then let the man bustle out. His attention switched back to the four men in room.

"I'd appreciate getting your names and your stories," he said.

Vin narrowed his eyes at Nathan. "Go ahead, Nate, why don't you go ahead have your say. You got a right," he sneered. He wanted to hear what Nathan said. He wanted to make sure Nathan didn't twist things around.

Wasn't that a hell of a thing, he thought to himself. Ezra was the gambler, the con artist. Nathan was the upright, moral do-gooder. But here he was, worrying that Nathan would lie. If he did, Vin wasn't going to let him get away with it. Buck would back him. Buck had seen and heard everything and Buck wasn't too happy with Nathan, either.

22. Virginia City, 1877

Those who speak know nothing
And find out to their cost
Like those who curse their luck in too many places
And those who fear are lost

Shape of My Heart,
Sting

Penhall and the undertaker didn't finish until past sun-up. They ended up at the nearest police station, wearily telling the story over and over again, while he laboriously wrote it down. Dawn faded the lamps, the gray light outside slowly revealing the street. Virginia City didn't get as quiet and still as Four Corners at night, but the bustle picked up at sunrise. Wagons rolled by outside, glimpsed through a barred window, stove fires were stirred, voices echoed and a mule brayed in protest to the snap of bullwhip.

Penhall handed each of them a paper and told them to read it.

Vin took his over to the window. Someone had made curtains for the jail, plain gingham, with tiny, perfect stitches along the hem. He brushed them back to let in the light on his paper and studied the words carefully. He wasn't putting his name on anything without knowing it said what he'd said.

Buck glanced at his and signed it with a flourish. He sat down in a straight chair by the wall, leaned his head back and began snoring.

Penhall poured coffee and sipped it while he waited for them. Dark whiskers covered his jaw, neck, and cheeks. Cup in hand, he walked over to the door and propped it open.

Vin finished reading. Chris was signing his statement at the desk. He joined him and took the pen, dipping it into the inkwell and tracing his name onto the paper with a spurt of pleasure that hadn't faded since he'd learned to do it. No more X. No more asking anyone to read something for him.

Nathan signed his paper last.

Penhall nodded as they left. "There's a restaurant down the street, Goody's Kitchen, if any of you're hungry. They open early for the miners."

Chris touched his hat brim. "Thanks." He kicked Buck's boot. "Come on, Buck."

Buck woke with a snort, almost falling out of the chair, and stumbled after Chris. Nathan followed. Vin gave Penhall a nod and trailed them out.

Even the fresher air outside didn't improve Vin's mood. It had been a bad night. Worse for Ezra, of course. Normally, he loved the earliest hours. This morning he ached with exhaustion. His eyes burned, his arms and legs felt leaden, and a sour taste crept up his throat from his stomach.

Buck was trying to convince Chris to stop in the restaurant for a breakfast.

Vin stared at Nathan's back.

Chris threw up his hands. "Fine, damn it, shovel some chow into the endless pit you call a stomach!"

"Aw, Chris, come on."

They stopped in front of the restaurant. The smells from inside made Vin's stomach lurch unpleasantly. Grease and eggs and pork.

"Vin?" Buck asked.

He expected Vin to join him. Normally, Vin would have, but he didn't want to eat until he'd settled matters with Nathan.

Hell, he didn't want to sit down and eat with the man right now.

"Think me and Nathan'll go on back to the hotel," he said. He looked at Nathan hard. "We got something to talk about."

Nathan started to protest. "I "

"We're going to talk, Nathan," Vin growled, temper slipping past his own mask of control. "Today. Now. You want to eat, you eat later."

Chris raised an eyebrow but didn't interfere. Buck was ignoring Nathan, had been since Nathan called Polly Merriwether a whore. That had struck Buck on the raw.

He gave Nathan a none too gentle push between the shoulder blades, down the sidewalk in the direction of their hotel. Nathan stumbled and looked put out.

Vin settled his hat deeper on his head, brushed the brim in a salute to Buck and Chris and moved after Nathan, a grim expression on his face.

*******

Vin pushed Nathan into the room ahead of him.

"What the hell're you doing?" Nathan shouted. He backed away a couple of a steps at Vin's expression.

One bootheel rucked up the braided rug by the bed. The curtains were wide open. A shaft of sunlight gleamed off the brass bedstead and warmed the leather of the saddlebags hung over the foot. It wasn't the luxurious International Hotel, but Vin liked Nathan's simple room a hell of a lot more.

Vin glared at him. "Ya were in it with Maude, weren't ya?"

"I what? No. What do you you got no right to be accusing me of poisoning Ezra!" Nathan protested, his voice rising.

"Ya goin' to lie now too?"

"You gone plumb crazy, Vin!"

Vin kicked the door shut behind him with a bang. He stalked forward. "Naw, I just wish I was," he snarled. "I ain't wrong, though."

Nathan glared back, straightening to this full height, trying to loom over Vin the way he did Ezra. Vin wasn't impressed or intimidated. Come to think of it, Ezra never was either.

"I saw ya with Maude, ya see. I found that bottle one of your nasty little bottles. I gotta figure ya either gave it to her or told her where to get it."

Nathan's eyes flashed around the room. His breath came in heaves. He said nothing.

Vin stalked around him.

"Makes me sick, thinkin' on it," he went on.

"Ya got no proof," Nathan blurted.

"Got all the proof I need outta your own mouth." Vin paused. "Ya remember what ya said."

Nathan pressed his lips together.

"Don't matter. I do. Ya said: 'Wish Maude had given you all of that brew I told her about.'"

"So what?"

Vin stared at him, anger dissolving into contempt.

He said carefully, "Ezra almost died anyway. If Maude'd given him more, he would've. He went through hell. What the damn kind of 'friend' does that to a man behind his back? Why didn't ya just stick one of your knives in him instead?"

Nathan took off his coat and laid it over the foot the bed. He fingered a button, frowning. "I wasn't trying to kill him," he said softly.

"Maude wasn't tryin' to kill him," Vin contradicted. "I wanta hear why. Don't like her, but I can almost understand her thinkin'. But not you damn, Nathan, what were ya thinkin'?"

Nathan's head came up. "Was thinking it weren't right for him to make a fortune off that deed. Here his Ma is, trying to do for him, give him that saloon back, and him saying no. She told me she needed that deed."

"She couldn't tell Ezra that, ask him for his help 'stead of tryin' to trick and fool 'im?" Vin asked in wonderment.

"That's jist their way," Nathan protested.

"I don't believe ya."

"What do you mean?" Nathan looked nervous.

"Ya ain't sayin' somethin'." Vin cocked his head, thinking about it. He nodded to himself. "Wasn't enough to just take somethin' away from Ezra, help her hurt him. What'd Maude offer ya, Nathan? What'd ya get?"

"Didn't get nothin'," Nathan grumbled.

"Ain't that too damn bad," Vin said. "What did ya think ya was goin' to get?"

"Fine!" Nathan shouted, throwing up his hands. "She promised me some of the money when she sold it. She didn't get it, so I didn't get nothin'!" He turned away from Vin. "Was goin' to use it to fix up my clinic, maybe even move it to a better place. Ya'll are always complaining 'bout them stairs... She said there might even be enough for me to find a school that'd teach me, learn real doctoring."

Vin couldn't believe Nathan hadn't seen through Maude. She would've disappeared with the deed and never given him a cent. What did Nathan think he was going to do? He couldn't complain to the law, couldn't turn to the rest of the Seven after betraying one of them. Damned if greed and bitterness didn't blind even the best men. Maude had taken advantage, but the fault had been there in Nathan all along.

There was more to it. Nathan could have given Maude something that would have just put Ezra to sleep and let her search his room. He'd deliberately chosen something that wouldn't just incapacitate the Southerner, but punish him. He'd compounded the wrong by not owning up to it afterward.

Even now, Vin couldn't see any regret in Nathan. He wasn't sorry for what he'd done. Somehow, for Nathan, since he'd done it to Ezra, it wasn't wrong.

Vin shook his head.

Nathan gave him a defiant look.

"Ya really think that justifies what ya done?" Vin asked, as disgusted as he'd ever been.

"It don't matter," Nathan insisted. He paced over to the window that faced down onto the main street. "He's still going to make a mint off that deed. He never done a lick of work to deserve that."

"He never done nothin' to ya to deserve bein' poisoned!"

Nathan's big hands curled into fists.

Vin pushed his thumbs under his gun belt. He looked at Nathan Jackson with eyes gone pale and ice-cold; the same look he gave an opponent in a gunfight. "Ya know," he said, in a quiet, almost careless tone, "I don't regret helpin' keep ya from hangin'." He paused and waited until Nathan's dark eyes met his own. "Didn't know ya then. But I sure wouldn' do it t'day."

Nathan flinched. Before he could open his mouth and say anything else, Vin gave a sharp nod and walked out of the hotel room. He let the door slam behind him and headed for the restaurant. He figured Buck would be plowing through a plate of steak and eggs, swilling down coffee to compensate for the sleep they'd all lost. He hoped Ezra was sleeping and figured JD or Josiah would be with him if he wasn't. He needed to talk to Chris and Buck before he faced any of the others. Needed their advice on whether to say anything to Ezra and the rest. He needed a goddamned drink too, to get the dirty taste of betrayal out of his mouth.

*******

JD bit his lip, blinking hard. He snuck a look at Ezra. Ezra was still sitting where he'd been when Nathan and Vin burst into the room next door. His legs were stretched out straight, one booted foot hooked over the other at the ankle. One elbow was braced against the small table between the window and the bed. JD sat on the foot of the bed, elbows on his knees.

Ezra's hand hung over the chair's arm, dangling his silver hip flask. He'd stripped off his wool coat and the arm-garters that held his sleeves up earlier, along with the derringer rig. The clever, spring-loaded contraption had been tossed onto the bed with the garters in an uncharacteristic display of carelessness. The green coat lay on the floor.

He lifted the flask to his lips in a slow, deliberate movement. JD watched, almost hypnotized, by the way the long, lace-edged cuffs of Ezra's boiled-white shirt drifted over his fingertips with the movement. Ezra closed his eyes as he took a swallow, seemingly to savor the whiskey. Ezra had pulled the curtains against the light, but his shirt still almost glowed in the dim confines of the hotel room.

The Southerner had the smoothest face JD had ever seen. No expression touched it. Not a hint of feeling was allowed to show. Not when Saville was gunned down, not when his cousin killed herself in front him with his gun. Nothing. He'd smiled and joked when Maude had stolen his saloon and accepted the revelation that she'd poisoned him with apparent equanimity.

Now this.

JD felt so sick he thought he should be looking for the chamber pot.

The hotel walls were thin, board and plaster. Nathan's voice had carried clearly. Vin's words were harder to hear, but it didn't matter. They had heard enough.

He'd been sitting with Ezra in the near dark room, watching him sip his whiskey and stare at the mirror over the washstand and hoping the man would lie down and try to sleep. JD had stuck with him since they left Beasley's, awed by Ezra's calm. Ezra had arranged and paid for both Saville and Polly's burials, chosen the coffins, picked the verses he'd asked Josiah to read over the graves, and walked out the undertaker's office without flinching once. When they'd reached the hotel, he'd asked the desk clerk for some stationary and sent a note to Corcoran. Then they'd gone upstairs.

Josiah's age had been showing, as he smothered yawns and apologized before going to his room.

Ezra had waved him off and said nothing when JD followed him into his own room. They hadn't said anything, but JD thought Ezra must not have minded him being there or he'd have thrown him out.

JD's eyes had been half-closed when they'd heard the door to Nathan's room bang open.

"Ez," he said softly, trying to find some words any words that would undo what they'd just overheard. Something that would make what Nathan had done acceptable. Some way Ezra could forgive the man, because without that forgiveness, they were done for.

JD knew, if he thought about it, that the seven of them wouldn't stay on in Four Corners forever. Whenever he'd let himself think about it, he'd figured one of them would get unlucky in a gunfight someday.

He would rather be burying one of them than this.

Nothing was ever going to be the same.

"Ez," he tried again.

"Ez ra, JD," the gambler corrected tiredly. "Two short syllables. Your own chosen appellation numbers the same." He essayed another sip of whiskey. "Surely you can remember that?" The emotions he wouldn't let show on his face leaked into his silky voice, threading bitterness through the molasses drawl.

JD swallowed. "Ezra. He he didn't mean it the way, the way, you know, it sounded. Nathan ain't like " He trailed off softly, unable to convince himself either. "He ain't like that."

Ezra tipped his head back. His eyes were still closed.

"Nescit vox missa reverti,"[xiv] he murmured, almost to himself.

"Huh?"

"It doesn't matter, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Jackson's actions are his choice to make, as are mine. Or yours."

"So why didn't you just say that?" JD was slightly annoyed.

Ezra's habit of muttering things in other languages made him feel stupid each time he asked for an explanation. Though, unless he was drunk, Ezra never acted as if anyone's gnorance mattered. He always explained, but JD had an idea that Ezra's explanations weren't word for word. The gambler's mind followed twisted paths.

"I did " Ezra laughed sourly. "I said what I said didn't matter."

"And what Nathan said, does that matter?"

Ezra made a gesture with his free hand, a careless brushing away of the matter, that showed off his long, pale fingers. The ring he always wore was gone. Not the ruby. It was still on his other hand, a glint of blood and gold, like a sunset in a grassfire. The wedding band no one had ever seen Ezra take off had disappeared.

"Nathan is as he is, JD," Ezra said when the silence had grown too oppressive.

JD wanted to leap to his feet and shout.

Ezra continued, seemingingly unaware of JD's frustration, "As I am or Josiah or Mr. Larabee. It is in his nature to judge as it is to heal. Once he has made a judgment, he will not change it. Such is his strength of will."

"You mean he ain't ever going to see he was wrong?"

Ezra looked at him steadily. "I meant you should not dismiss him over this matter. He is a loyal friend to you."

"To me, yeah," JD acknowledged. "But how many times have you saved Nathan? Why can't he "

"I don't know, Mr. Dunne," Ezra interrupted wearily. "It no longer matters, though."

"Are you what are you going to do, Ezra?"

Ezra sipped his Scotch.

"Ez?"

Ezra dropped the empty flask on the floor. He flipped the cap into the washbowl under the mirror. It arced through a shaft of light streaming through a curtain gap and landed with a clink of metal on china.

"I'm going to sell Corcoran that damned canyon, bury my cousins and go on, JD," he said finally. He pulled out his pocket watch, flipped the lid open and looked at the time. "For now, I imagine we both should attempt to sleep for a few hours."

With that, Ezra rose and walked to the dresser next to the wash stand. He stripped off his cuff links and laid them down. His tie pin and watch followed. The worn deck of cards he always carried he used new decks when he played for money, so that one had to have sentimental meaning came next, then the shoulder harness and Colt Richards revolver in it and at the last his gunbelt.

His green eyes raised and caught JD's in the mirror's reflection.

"Mr. Dunne. It is time for you to go."

JD got to his feet slowly. "Ezra... you know I'm real sorry, don't you?"

Ezra stripped off his vest.

"Yes, I know."

"About about everything."

"I know," Ezra said. He pushed one hand through his hair.

"Okay."

JD hesitated at the door. He opened his mouth twice and closed it. Nathan. God, that was worse than anything. He didn't understand it. He was never going to understand it.

"Go on, JD," Ezra said. "This will all be over soon. Everyone will return to Four Corners, where all of you will resume your appointed roles...As will I."

"You're coming back?"

Ezra sighed. "Why not?" A sardonic smile lifted his mouth. "It will serve to annoy and unnerve Mr. Jackson."

"I want you to come back."

"Well, I wouldn't want disappoint you," Ezra replied gently.

"It wouldn't be the same without you, Ezra."

"It won't be anyway."

JD nodded reluctantly and opened the door. He left Ezra pulling off his boots, head bowed and seemingly intent. A moment later he heard the lock click closed behind him.

He leaned his forehead against the wall and felt like crying.

Ezra was right. Nothing was going to be the same.

He felt like crying, but no tears came. JD hardened himself against them, against the pain of disillusionment. He known the men he counted as family weren't without sin and fault, but he'd believed in their loyalty to each other. He'd believed they would never turn on each other or fail each other deliberately.

Now that belief was gone for good.

JD pulled himself away from the wall and walked away. Ezra had the right of it. If you trusted anyone too much, counted on them, they were bound to fail you somehow. Maybe they'd die, like his Ma, or drown themselves in a bottle and take out their anger on the world like Chris, maybe they'd laugh at you like Ezra or hide things like Vin and Josiah, ignore you to frolic in a whorehouse like Buck, things that they couldn't hardly help. Maybe they'd turn on you like Nathan or trick you like Maude. Hell, maybe they'd shoot an innocent woman like Annie Nechaus, like he had in that damned bank hold-up. Whatever, Ezra was right. Letting anyone too close just meant they could hurt you.

He didn't figure he could stop caring about folks like Ezra and Buck and Vin; he didn't know how. He'd stay friends with Josiah and Chris and he loved Casey he knew that but no one else was going get to him.

That way no one would ever do to him what Nathan had done to Ezra.

*******

Vin blew in the door of the restaurant like ill wind. Buck glanced up, saw his scowl, and hurriedly swallowed his last bite of steak. He forked up the last of his eggs and reached for a biscuit to mop his plate. Vin didn't show his temper often. It meant trouble. Trouble usually meant missing meals, so he wanted to finish eating.

"Hey, Tanner," he greeted him.

Vin jerked a chair back and settled across from him and Chris. He spread his hands flat on the table top, pressing down hard.

"Problem?" Chris asked. He'd finished his plate of potatos, ham, and flapjacks. The empty plate was pushed aside. A cup of coffee sat in front of him on the red-checked tablecloth.

"Nathan."

Buck gulped down his last biscuit. Either he was going to need the food or he was about to lose his appetite. He noticed Chris didn't look surprised. Which meant whatever it was went back further than Nathan shooting his mouth off the night before.

"This what's been bothering you?"

Vin's mouth turned down and his shoulders hunched. He nodded.

"You better spit it out," Buck said. He finished his coffee and waved for a waitress to bring them some more. "He get in another set-to with Ezra?"

Vin waited until the waitress had filled Buck's cup and set down one for him. A mist of steam twisted up from the dark liquid as it tipped from the spout of the pot and streamed into the cup.

"Thank you, darlin'," Buck said.

She smiled at him. He grinned back. Women were treasures. This one had brown hair and freckles dusted over her cheeks like brown sugar. Given his druthers, Buck would be in bed licking her whole body to see if those freckles tasted as sweet as they looked.

Vin took a deep breath and blew it out his nose. A thin line of white framed his hard-set mouth. Buck's attention switched back to him and the new problem. The pretty waitress was forgotten.

"Nathan was in it with Maude."

"In what?" Buck asked despite guessing. The food in his belly felt suddenly heavy and sour.

Chris had gone still as stone beside him. Buck could almost feel the cold anger radiate off him.

Vin looked at him hard.

"Poisoning him."

"That what you had to talk to him about?" Chris rapped out.

Vin dipped his head once.

"He admit it?"

"Wasn't even sorry," Vin told them, his voice hard as gravel.

"God damn," Buck mumbled. He pushed his plate back. "God damn sonuvabitch." He wished he'd done more than hit Nathan once last night. He looked up from the tablecloth and met Vin's angry gaze. "He poisoned Ez?"

"Gave Maude a bottle of something from his clinic, told her to use it on him," Vin said. His hands clenched. "He thought she was going to take that deed and give him a share after she sold it."

Chris growled under his breath. "Stupid bastard."

Buck was still trying to understand. "Why?"

Money? Money? Ezra had looked about a half step from dying and Nathan had been right there seeing to him, only he'd been responsible? Didn't Nathan understand Ezra was one of them, the same way Nathan was? Not that Buck would have wanted to see a dog suffer the way Ezra did. Why did Nathan even have something that would drive a man loco like that? It was wrong, all wrong.

Why hurt Ezra like that?

"Why didn't he give her one of them teas that make a body throw up or live in the privy?" Buck asked plaintively. "Why not just give him some laudanum, put Ez to sleep for a while? Wouldn't have taken Maude long to steal that deed."

"I ain't sure we want to know, Bucklin."

"Wish I didn't already." Buck pushed his coffee cup away then ran his fingers through his hair. "Jesus. That sonuvabitch." He glanced at Chris. "What the hell do we do?"

Chris pulled a cheroot out and rolled it between his fingers, staring past Vin at the street through the restaurant's window. A muscle twitched along his lean jaw.

"Ezra know?" he asked.

Vin shrugged uneasily. "He knows Nathan."

Buck could see the usually laconic tracker picking the words. Vin wasn't sure and that made it harder.

"Ezra sees and hears more than most folks," Vin said slowly. "Maybe he just wonders, like I did."

"Why'd you decide to push it today?" Chris asked. He put the cheroot in his mouth, clenched his teeth on the end, but didn't light it.

Vin gave him a keen look. "Buck didn't hear it and I don't know if Ez was paying any attention then, but Nathan said enough last night to make me sure."

"You think we should tell Ezra?"

Buck wasn't sure. Maybe it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie. Ezra had taken enough kicks from fate lately. He didn't need to face another.

"You don't think he'd want to know?" Chris raised an eyebrow.

Chris would want to know. Chris would want to know and beat the living shit out Nathan. If he didn't just shoot him. Chris, of all of them, could empathize with Ezra right now. Maybe that was why Vin had come to them.

"Just don't know if it'd be good for him to know just yet," Buck said.

Chris grunted.

"What about JD and Josiah? Do we tell them?" Vin asked.

"Damn," Buck muttered.

Chris just shook his head silently.

Buck sighed and nodded. He agreed. Hell, Nathan was Josiah's friend. Knew him before any of the rest of them showed up. Wouldn't do any good, telling him what Nathan had done. If Josiah couldn't forgive it, then that friendship would be over, and if he did, Buck didn't think he could look at Josiah the same afterwards. He knew he didn't want JD finding out. It would hurt the boy nigh to as bad as it would Ezra.

Chris stood up. He dropped a handful of coins on the table to pay for breakfast then stalked out onto the sidewalk. Buck and Vin followed. They stopped with Chris, who was lighting his cheroot.

Buck leaned his hip against a sidewalk railing. Vin stared longingly at the snow-capped mountains.

"Hell."

Buck waited for the rest. Vin slumped against the wall, looking as tired as Buck had ever seen him. Something like this aged a man not physically it chipped away at the heart. Damn Nathan. He had poisoned more than just Ezra.

"Chris?" he prompted.

Chris exhaled a pale stream of smoke. It curled up and away, dissipating quickly. The harsh scent of cheap tobacco lingered.

He looked at them both. "We keep quiet. For now." The steel that ran through Chris Larabee hardened his voice and expression. "Get through the funerals, get Ezra back home. If we have to, we tell him then."

Vin looked doubtful, but nodded. Buck thought Chris had the right idea.

"Nathan?" he asked.

Chris' eyes narrowed. His mouth thinned. "He gets his second chance, just like anyone else."

Vin snorted, a disgusted sound.

"I didn't say we trusted him," Chris added softly.

"Good," Vin declared. He looked as fierce and furious as when he'd swept into the restaurant. "'Cause I ain't gonna." His chin came up. "Ever."

"Wasn't asking you to," Chris said.

Buck pushed away from rail. "You leave Nathan at the hotel?"

"Yeah."

"Reckon I got some words for him, too."

Chris took another drag on his cheroot.

"We both do, Buck."

Nathan Jackson was about to bear the brunt of a black storm in the form of a furious Chris Larabee. Buck slapped his hands against his thighs. Then he was going to find out Buck Wilmington didn't take kindly what he'd done either. If he came out of that with dry pants and all his teeth, they'd wait and see what happened. Four Corners still needed its healer until a doctor set up shop; it was Nathan's home, they couldn't drive him out, but he'd set himself apart by his actions as far as Buck was concerned.

They'd all seven ride back, but Nathan had ended the Seven.

23. Virginia City, 1877

Did you know $500 will get your head blown off?

Bounty Hunters,
Molly Hatchet

'I am the resurrection and the life,' saith the Lord.'

There was no resurrection. This was the second time he'd surrendered his family to death. There was no hope in the empty flesh that remained. Let the earth take it.

'The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.'

Josiah spoke with feeling, his voice rich and rumbling. Ezra paid little attention. He'd helped picked the passages from the bible, but already forgotten them. He was barely aware of the men standing beside him.

He pressed his fingertips into the felt edge of his hat.

The graves were side by side. Not surprising, in a city of hard rock miners, the undertaker had known a stonecarver. Cash had lent urgency to the man's work; the matching gravestones were finished, waiting to be set in place after the the coffins were interred under the earth.

Simple stones with simple words.

Ezra's new wool jacket black itched through through the lining and his silk shirt and vest. He ignored it. It did, at least, keep him warm. Towering gray clouds skudded across the sky, threatening rain before the gloomy day ended. The wind was picking up. It carried a chill that insinuated itself under every opening.

The stones were light gray with flecks of darker inclusions. Granite, Ezra thought, but he wasn't sure. He'd been in a daze when he picked them out. Josiah had suggested inscribing a Bible verse on the headstones. Ezra had bitterly asked if perhaps he thought Leviticus would be germane.

"The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father. She shall be burned with fire."[xv]

That and JD's hand on his arm, restraining him from lashing out further, were all he remembered of that scene. He'd emptied his Scotch flask the night before once he was alone. The whiskey hadn't helped much, but he'd suffered a hangover the next morning. Today he was so sober it hurt.

The stones were inscribed identically with the names and dates and JD's description.

Saville Howard. Polly Merriwether. Beloved Cousin.

The cemetery was empty except for the seven men and the gravediggers. Ezra kept his eyes averted from the graves and looked at the pile of still moist, dark soil between them. He imagined the worms working through it. They probably didn't mind the cold day. The earth was cold. That's why they called it the cold, cold grave.

A strong gust of wind rushed through the cemetery, moaning through the stones and the wooden crosses. It sent a trickle of soil falling back into one of the holes. The pages of Josiah's bible flapped wildly.

Ezra wondered morbidly what kind of sign it would be if the pages were to rip right out and blow away?

His mind wanted to run away from the present. Cold, cold. Cold clay. Clay cold lips... wasn't that from something he'd read once?

Just one kiss.

He grimaced. Of course. The Unquiet Grave. He shook off the fancy. Better Rest in Peace. The dead should stay buried and in the past. How many really welcomed Lazarus when he shambled out of the cave?

He lifted his face into the wind. The first mist of rain touched his cheeks, cleaner than tears. The heavy, dark-bellied clouds rolled over the dome of the heavens, steadily dimming the light. The tops of the mountains were already hazed behind veils of distant downpours. Josiah's words picked up speed, he noted sardonically. Well, no one wanted to get wet, did they? He'd have to hand the sextons and extra coin to work in the mud.

"We therefore commit these bodies, our brother and sister Saville and Polly, to the ground," Josiah intoned. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life."

Ezra stepped forward, bent and grasped a large clod of earth. Earth to earth. Damp particles crept under his fingernails. He squeezed it. Moisture seeped between his fingers. He had to force his hand open. The clod dropped with a hollow thud onto Saville's coffin.

He hid a flinch.

Another handful of soil but this time he refrained from making a fist and let it fall in a slow, pattering rain onto the top of Polly's coffin. Dust to dust.

Each of the other men followed suit, Nathan last because Vin or JD stayed between him and Ezra.

Josiah closed his bible and tucked it inside his black suit coat. Josiah and JD had both bought suits for the funeral, which touched Ezra, though he felt it only distantly. Mr. Larabee already wore mourning anyway. Nathan's clothes were dark as well. Buck and Vin both wore a black ribbon tied around one arm. He appreciated that too.

They were all waiting for him.

Ezra nodded to the two sextons, who moved forward with the shovels impatiently. One glanced at the sky and shook his head. A shovel blade slid into the pile of loose earth with a familiar sch-schuck followed by the sound of dirt hitting the coffin top. Ezra fished four bits from his pocket and handed it to the second man.

"For your extra trouble if you get wet," he said.

Buck's hand set between Ezra's shoulder blades, urging him away.

"Come on, Ezra, there ain't no more to do here. Let's get inside before we all end up soaked," he said.

Ezra let himself go along. Buck and Vin flanked him, even after they walked back into town. Before they could steer him into a saloon though, he stopped.

"Gentleman, I appreciate your company, but I have an engagement with Mr. Corcoran."

"The man can't wait a day after the funeral?" Buck exclaimed.

"I'm the one who insisted," Ezra admitted. "I want to be done with this as soon as possible."

Chris, waiting by the saloon's doors, nodded. He obviously understood.

"I'll come along," Vin said.

Ezra waved him off.

"You've done enough. I can handle this by myself, thank you."

Vin hesitated before acquiescing. "Ya gonna be at the International?"

"No, the law offices of Wilkerson and Parrish. On Siddons Street."

Ezra had specifically asked in his note to Corcoran that they meet somewhere other than the hotel. He never wanted to step foot within it again. He wished he could burn the memory of the place from his mind the way he'd burnt his green jacket the next morning.

"This gonna take long?" Vin asked.

"Perhaps an hour or two," Ezra replied.

He touched his fingers to his hat brim and started away.

The rain had materialized, emptying anyone without pressing business from the normally busy streets. It beat a tattoo on the tin roofs and shakes and quickly darkened the buildings where it touched. Ezra stayed on the sidewalk under the overhang. He hurried, not because it mattered if he was late or even if he got wet, but just to finish the next step necessary before he could quit Virginia City forever.

*******

He knew exactly how much he wanted for the property and the lawyer's nervousness would have amused him in other circumstances. He shook hands with Corcoran when he arrived and then Wilkerson after knocking the worst of the water off his hat and hanging it on the rack by the door. Several lamps were burning to compensate for the darkness of the day.

Wilkerson showed them into his office and offered them chairs and a drink. Corcoran accepted the drink. Ezra declined. He wanted to keep his wits as sharp as possible.

"I appreciate you doing this on such a sorrowful day," Corcoran told him in an aside. Ezra found he believed the man.

"Business won't wait for my personal feelings," he acknowledged with an eloquent shrug.

"'Tis an ugly thing, greed," Corcoran said.

Wilkerson brought forth the papers and handed them to Ezra to look over. "If you gentlemen are both in agreement on the sale price, we can conclude this here today." A sheen of sweat reflected off his high forehead. "I have a notary and witnesses available."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I believe I'll read this through first."

"Of course, of course."

Beside him, Corcoran chuckled at the lawyer.

The rain rattled fiercely against the windows. Wilkerson courteously lit two more lamps to beat back the gloom. The only sound in the room was the shuffling of papers.

Ezra checked every paper carefully, looking for anything not as it should be. It all seemed in order. The sum in question was far more than he'd ever garnered from even his most successful cons. It would make his mother sick to think he'd obtained honestly.

Ezra looked at the price for Stairstep Canyon again. The fortune and wealth he'd always wanted.

Easy come, easy go.

There were things he couldn't buy with money, though he'd have given it all for them. He couldn't have the people he'd lost or the idealism of his youth. He could save something though.

He straightened the papers in his hands and looked at Corcoran.

"This is a generous sum," he said.

"Aye, it is."

"But not as much as I could get from Finster."

Corcoran's eyes narrowed. His voice hardened. "It's as high as I'll go, laddie."

Ezra nodded placidly. "I realize that. To offer me more would impact the liquid assets necessary to establish and run the mine as well as the initial outlay you'll need to build the railroad spur."

"I'd thought better of you, Mr. Standish," Corcoran said. "So you've changed your mind and are going to sell to Finster and let him squeeze me."

Ezra held up his hand.

"On the contrary, sir. I'm about to offer you a better deal."

Corcoran waited.

Ezra glanced at Wilkerson, who swallowed hard. The lawyer's Adam's-apple bobbed.

"This is under attorney-client privilege, I assume?"

"Oh, yes sir," Wilkerson assured them both. "Nothing goes beyond this room until the papers are filed and registered at the courthouse."

"Get on with it, laddie."

"I'm prepared to take a one-fourth cut in the price you've offered me for the property," Ezra said baldly.

Wilkerson's mouth dropped open. "One one-fourth?" he echoed. It was comical.

Corcoran looked puzzled.

"In exchange for?" he asked.

Ezra set the papers on Wilkerson's desk and folded his hands together. He spoke smoothly.

"You mentioned your close friendship with the Governor of Texas when we last met. I am in need of a... favor from him. A simple matter that he could arrange with no more than a signature," he explained. "My friend Vin..."

He hesitated. Did he have the right to do this? Should he? He knew Vin wanted to clear his name, but Saville's murder had just driven home how easy it would be for a bounty hunter to simply shoot Vin as things were. Ezra's resolve firmed. If he could do this, he would. Vin could deck him afterward if he wanted to. At least Ezra wouldn't be cutting Vin's body down from a rope in Tascosa and going on the run with the rest of their fellows after exacting bloody vengeance.

He met Corcoran's eyes.

"I really must insist this remain between us."

"Understood."

Ezra dipped his head.

"My friend Vin," he went on, "is a wanted man in Texas. He is innocent of the charge, of this I have no doubt. I also have no doubt that were he to taken back to Tascosa for trial, he would hang. In essense, I am offering you one-fourth of the price you would pay me for the Canyon in exchange for getting your friend the Governor to provide a pardon for him." Ezra thought for a moment and added, "No, not just a pardon. A declaration that he is innocent."

Corcoran sucked in a deep breath.

"That's a lot of money, laddie, to give up for a friend."

Ezra shrugged again.

"It's not a gamble. If you can't persuade the governor, then the original price is to be paid."

"Tis the carrot and the stick!" Corcoran laughed.

"Then you'll do it?"

"For a quarter of the money I'm to pay you? I'd be mad if I didn't try. I can't guarantee anything, though."

"Either way, I win."

"You're a clever businessman, Mr. Standish," Corcoran said. "This will take some time."

"Not too much, sir," Ezra corrected. "A few telegrams should be sufficient. Provide me an assurance that the matter will be taken care of and we can finish this deal today, leaving the final quarter payment in escrow until the pardon is delivered."

Corcoran drew a cigar case out of his vest and offered it to Ezra, who demurred. He extracted one, cut off the end and lit it. When he had the cigar burning to his satisfaction, he looked at Wilkerson. "Draw up the new papers."

Wilkerson scrabbled his desk open and began working.

He exhaled a perfect smoke ring and looked satisfied.

"We have an agreement?" Ezra asked.

"It's a deal, laddie."

Corcoran offered his hand and Ezra took it.

"I'll need your friend's proper name and the details," he said.

"Vin Tanner. Accused of murdering one Jess Kincaid in Tascosa. There's a $500 bounty for him, dead or alive."

Corcoran stood up.

"Time to take a stroll down to the telegraph office."

Ezra agreed. He had several contacts in Texas who would confirm that matter if it came to fruition. He would not rely entirely on Corcoran's word, though he did believe the man to honest. He didn't know the Governor.

"Wilkerson, you'll have the papers finished when we return, aye?" Corcoran asked.

"Yes sir."

"Good. Mr. Standish?"

"After you, sir."

24. Virginia City, 1877

take what's wrong and make it go right
weave it like a prayer
wonder if you'll spend the night?
playing solitaire?

Solitaire,
Suzanne Vega

Ezra fanned out his cards over the tabletop in the saloon the Seven had made their own. A half empty bottle of Scotch sat at his elbow. His hair fell in his eyes, irritating him, reminding him again that he'd meant to have it cut. He tipped the last card in the opposite direction and the cards cascade back across the table.

He was bored. He had no interest in sitting in another game though he'd been approached several times. He knew the others were getting impatient with him. He'd said he wanted to sell the deed and leave Virginia City post haste, but after a week he still lingered. They didn't know he wanted to leave just as badly.

He was waiting for Asa Corcoran to tell him whether the Governor of Texas had gone along with the plan.

None of them knew that, of course.

Chris arrived at his table and loomed over him.

"Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked. He gathered the deck together and began shuffling again.

Chris sat down next to him.

"You want to tell me what the hell we're waiting around for?" he demanded.

Ezra flipped out the ace of spades, followed by the king of spades, the king of hearts, the jack of clubs, jack of hearts, king of clubs, and the joker face up. He looked at the familiar pasteboard faces. For so long, they had been the only faces he relied on. The only ones he wanted to know. But that had changed.

Then it all had changed again.

He picked up the cards, lingering over the joker. He'd always considered the ace of spades to be his card, but maybe the joker fit him better. He pushed away the bitter thought.

It had been a week.

It seemed his gamble hadn't panned out.

The loss would garner him a nice sum of money, yet it didn't ease his regret much.

Tiredly, he looked up at Chris' concerned face. "Nothing, apparently," he answered. He slid the cards inside his vest. "We can leave tomorrow."

Chris tipped his head.

"That's it?"

Ezra capped the Scotch bottle and tossed a handful of coins down. "That, I'm afraid," he replied, "is it."

"All right. We'll ride out in the morning."

Ezra offered him a weak smile.

They walked back to the hotel together. Chris stopped at the doors. "I'll find the others and tell them." He clapped Ezra on the shoulder. "We'll all feel better when we're back on the trail."

Ezra nodded then walked into the hotel foyer. He headed straight for the stairs. It wouldn't take long, but he wanted to repack his saddlebags. Then he would visit the mercantile and stock up on supplies. Extra ammunition seemed like a wise investment. Lord knew, he had the money now.

As he passed by the front desk, the clerk jerked his head up from a doze. "Mr. Standish?" he called.

Ezra paused.

"You got a bunch a messages. Couple of telegrams too."

Ezra strolled over to the desk and held out his hand. "Well?"

"Oh. Oh, yes," the clerk muttered. He delved under the desk and found the messages then handed them over.

"Thank you," Ezra murmured, distracted by the contents of the first telegram.

'Tanner cleared. Bounty cancelled. Halston.'

Ezra caught his breath and flipped to the next one.

'Warrant recalled. Tascosa still dangerous. Loengard.'

"Dear God," he breathed. He flipped to the messages, found one from Corcoran and a sealed letter on the International's stationary. Impatiently, he tore it open.

Mr. Standish,

The deed is done. Mr. Tanner's name is cleared. The Governor owns shares in the Swedish Hat and was pleased to be of service.

In accordance with your preference, Mr. Tanner was not just pardoned. A trial was held and your friend was declared innocent of all charges. The widow of Mr. Kincaid testified that her husband was murdered by the ranch foreman, a man who has since disappeared. Apparently, they had been engaged in an adulterous liaison, since terminated. With her paramour gone, the lady found it expedient to tell the truth under oath.

Telegrams have been sent out through out the state, recalling the wanted posters on Mr. Tanner, but in all honesty, it would be wisest if he didn't return to Texas too soon. The actual papers with the Governor's signature have been dispatched by courier to Four Corners, as you specified.

It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Standish.

Yours sincerely,
Asa Corcoran

Ezra read the letter a second time. A smile creased his face. The Governor was an imaginative man apparently. How else to clear a man when the witnesses were dead? Prove someone else guilty. He wondered how much it had cost to bribe Jess Kincaid's widow, while admiring the plan. Who would question such an embarrassing tale? Why after all would a woman lie about the murder of her husband?

He would never mention that suspicion to Vin.

He wasn't sure he should mention his part in this at all. Perhaps it would better to just return to Four Corners and allow the good news to come as a surprise? Vin didn't need to know he'd had a hand in this at all.

He folded the letter and slid it inside his vest.

"Good news?" the clerk asked.

Ezra raised his eyebrows at the question, but then grinned. "Indeed, sir. Most excellent news." He tossed the man a coin and proceeded up to his room with a jaunty spring to his step.

*******

"All right, Ezra," Buck said as they ambled down the trail, "talk."

"Talk, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra repeated. "About what, pray tell?"

"Well, let's see," Buck replied, "how about why you been so down in the mouth for days and then suddenly this morning you're grinning like a fox in the henhouse?"

"I'm a rich man, isn't that enough?"

"Nope. You been rich all week."

Ezra just smiled secretively.

"Damn it, Ezra!" Buck exclaimed. "I ain't ever seen you get up in the morning and smile. It ain't natural." He turned in the saddle and appealed to Chris and Vin. "You all know it's enough to make a man nervous."

"Man's got a point, Ezra," Chris said easily.

Vin caught Ezra's gaze. Ezra couldn't suppress his grin as he thought of the news that would be waiting in Four Corners for them.

"All right, that's it. That's what I'm talking about!" Buck waved his arm at Ezra. "He's got that fox in a henhouse grin on his face again. That can't be good, can it?"

"Come on, Buck, can't Ez just feel good?" JD asked.

"Hrmph."

Ezra settled into a pleasant half doze as they rode. Buck was on one side of him and JD rode on the other. He still ached over Saville and Polly, but the knowledge that Vin needn't hide from bounty hunters and lawmen eased the pain. With Magnusson dead he had no worries for himself, though he supposed writing a will designating someone other than his mother would be a wise course.

He'd received two more telegrams from contacts in Houston. News of the trial and guilty verdict naming William Purdue as the murderer of Jess Kincaid had been published in the Houston, Fort Worth, and Galveston papers. The news had gone out to Tascosa. All of Texas knew the story now. Vin's name was mentioned as an innocent man falsely accused in an attempt to direct attention away from Kincaid's widow and Purdue. The Governor was being praised for his dedication to the cause of justice in Kincaid and Vin's names.

It made Ezra grin every time he thought about it. The Governor had turned his little favor into a real circus, one that painted him in the most flattering of lights. Ezra didn't care. The circus of news coverage meant that everyone would know Vin was no longer wanted.

The news would be waiting for them when they reached Four Corners. He would stay long enough to enjoy the celebration sure to follow. Then, he knew, he would move on. JD wouldn't be able to keep silent over what Nathan had admitted to Vin. Once the story came out, it would be too awkward with both of them in town. Nathan was still needed; Ezra was the one who would move on.

Ezra would remain in touch. When enough time had passed, when the bitterest memories had faded, he might even return.

25. Four Corners, 1877

jack on queen and the ten on the jack
it's a happy repetition.
you and your fate in a kind of
checkmate
and you are your only competition.

Solitaire,
Suzanne Vega

Vin could see the soft haze on the horizon, just a faint discoloration in the sky that marked a town in the distance. Smoke from stoves and fireplaces, dust from dirt churned under hooves and feet and wheels. Man's mark on the land tainting even the sky.

They'd passed through the same trails they'd ridden on the way to Virginia City, seven men riding together but essentially apart.

Once, as they crossed a rich stretch of grazing country, they had seen a small herd of mustangs. Vin had watched them through his telescope, smiling at the way their proud heads came up, ears pricked, as they watched the Seven in return. When the men had approached too close, the herd had spooked away, galloping in a thunder of hooves, heads high, manes and tails flying. It had been a stud herd, young ones, yearlings and two or three year olds, all exiles from other herds banded together for safety, too old be tolerated by a stallion but still too young to establish their own herd by stealing mares or fighting. Among them had been long-legged blue roan, sleek and proud, with the broad, scooped face of an Arabian or Spanish Barb, taller than Nero at the shoulder. The young horse had lingered longer than any of the others, and then streaked away, showing his heels to all the rest.

"Quite the beauty," Ezra had commented. He'd unconsciously stroked Hazard's neck. "I would guess from his lines that some rancher is missing a pureblooded mare from his stock."

Vin had nodded. The blue roan was just too big to be a mustang. Some broomtail stud had probably filched the roan's dam with colt still beside her and he'd grown up wild. It would take a skilled horsehunter to catch him now, but it would be worth it.

They'd watched until the last of the mustangs were out of sight, then ridden on.

The final pass through the mountains where he and Ezra had waited out a spring snowstorm was behind them. They'd left freshly chopped wood and a sack of supplies at the line shack where they'd sheltered, bread on the waters for the next needy traveler. Four Corners was no more than a hard day's ride ahead.

As they came down the mountains into familiar country, the horses stepped a little more eagerly, anticipating their return. They all felt it, a kind of relaxation at the thought of a well known place, a place they belonged, and the comfort it promised. All of them were looking forward to getting back to that.

Even if it was an illusion.

Maybe that was why none of them were ready for the ambush.

It was a perfect site. The easiest trail down to the road into Four Corners dropped between a series of towering, broken red rocks and massive boulders scattered at their bases. In one place, it bottlenecked into a narrow corridor that forced the riders into a single file. Even at high noon, the steep walls trapped shadows at their bases. The contrasting glare left a man looking up half blind.

The only warning he had was a movement, a shadow, in the corner of his eye, high along a rock face above them. Instinctually, he tightened his legs around Peso as he opened his mouth to shout a warning. Peso balked sulkily. The bullet burned through Vin's arm with a shock of agony before he heard the rifle's report.

Peso leapt into action, bolting past Chris and Nero. Vin's knee scraped painfully against the unforgiving rock wall, his buckskin pants shredding as the horse forced his way through the too narrow passage.

Vin ignored the impulse to clamp his hand over the wound in his bicep. He could feel the hot blood running from the searing wound, but knew he needed to wait until he had some cover.

"Bastards," Chris snarled. He fired his pistol toward the high rocks where the ambusher had fired from, though it was too far to hit anything.

The rest of them pushed their horses forward, eager to escape the defile before someone else was shot. Stones churned under hooves. Gunfire poured down, aimed mostly at Vin. He leaned close to Peso's neck and urged the mustang faster.

"Move!" Buck shouted sounding frustrated and scared.

Vin cast a look behind him. Ezra was half-turned in his saddle, his rifle butt snugged to his shoulder, calmly lining up a shot.

"In a moment, Mr. Wilmington," he replied.

The stone behind him shattered in a spray of sharp shards as a bullet impacted. Hazard was rock steady. Ezra squeezed the trigger. Somewhere above them someone in the rocks cried out. Ezra was already urging Hazard forward at a reckless pace, Buck and Darling on his heels.

Josiah yelled in pain and Vin cringed. He'd been careless. Now his friends were suffering for it. The crack-crack-crack of at least three rifles echoed off the stones

Abruptly, the rock aisle opened out into a dry streambed littered with gravel and head-sized fieldstones. No cover anywhere. An eroding slope of stone-laced clay angled up on the right, deep runnels incised in its face from run-off. Vin sped Peso toward it, praying the mustang wouldn't step wrong and break a leg.

Another bullet kicked his hat off.

He slapped the ends of his reins against Peso's haunches and yelled.

"Hey yah, hey yah!"

The others thundered behind him.

They took the slope in a wild, heedless rush. There was no discussion, no time or need.

No choice. They had to escape the killing floor of the streambed that lacked even a shadow to hide in. Stone and dirt caved away under the horses' lunging feet, clattering and pattering down to the streambed, dust rising in a choking cloud around them. The horses breathed like bellows, harsh and hard, straining to reach the top before the earth caved out from beneath them completely.

JD's mount went to her knees. Buck yelled wordlessly. The mare struggled, pushing and throwing herself upward. JD jumped out of the saddle to help her. Stones tumbled down past them, knocked loose by Pepper and Moses' climb. Buck reached far out of his saddle and caught Dusty's headstall, curling his fingers into the cheekstrap and pulling her head up as he and Darling scrambled past.

The extra pull almost took Buck out of his saddle, but JD's mare made it to her feet. She scrambled the rest of the way up with a wild, desperate neigh. JD kept his hands locked around one rein and let her drag him, half running up the slope with her.

At the top, as the mare balked and shook her head violently, JD took a running step and vaulted back into the saddle.

Dusty took off after Buck and Darling as Chris and Ezra reached the top, both of them riding with the reins in one hand, firing blindly back toward the rocks that hid their ambushers.

Vin couldn't get his rifle out of the saddle scabbard, afraid his wounded arm would make him lose it. He cursed in Kiowa and Comanche. He lifted his reins and clamped them between his teeth, then reached across his body with his good arm to at least draw his sawed-off mare's leg.

They passed an angled rock that blocked their ambushers' shots, but never slowed. They wanted the high ground and knew their attackers would be trying to find a new vantage point too.

Sweat darkened and matted the horses' coats. Nostrils flared wide, ears pinned back. Riders hunched low and forward in the saddles, moving as fluidly as a part of each animal, guns in hand. Up and up they raced for the top of a low mesa that would let them circle behind the ambushers.

Vin rested the mare's leg along his thigh, finger curled through the trigger guard. He tasted blood and the hot, dry burn of dust in his throat and felt sweat running down his face. He blinked hard, trying to clear his eyes.

Ezra reined Hazard in beside his wounded side. The chestnut gelding moved smoothly, still easily within his limits, displaying the stamina that counted for as much as speed in the long run.

"How bad is it?" Ezra asked, raising his voice to be heard.

Vin glanced to the side and felt a grin split his face. Ezra was coated from head to foot in pale reddish dust, the skin of his face a streaked mask dominated by his pale green eyes.

"Ain't goin' to kill me," he replied.

Ezra met his gaze another moment, then nodded acceptance.

"Josiah?" Vin asked.

"I don't know," Ezra answered. A flash of worry showed through. He tightened his hand on the Remington rifle he still held ready and lifted his head as they topped out on the mesa, a flat stretch of scrub brush, tough bunch grass and uneven stone.

"There!" Chris shouted, pointing to the northeast as they came around to face toward the view of the defile they'd almost been trapped in.

Five riders were spurring toward them, sharp dark shadows in the blaze of the sun.

Suddenly furious, Vin dug his heels into Peso's sides and set him on a forward course.

"Hey yah," he shouted again.

Barely an instant later, Hazard raced after him, with Chris, Buck and JD on the trail just behind.

One of the figures fired a rifle at them, but Vin didn't care.

The riders disappeared into a hidden dip in the mesa top. Vin sent Peso racing over the edge, raising the sawed-off mare's leg and before him.

Ezra and Hazard plunged over beside him and the hairs on the back of his neck lifted to the wild, eerie sound of a Rebel yell coming from Ezra's throat. It was a sound like no other, half battle cry and half cougar's scream. No mercy.

Vin threw his head back and howled his own Comanche cry and fired at the closest target. The man tumbled off his mount in an awkward drop, dead. Ezra fired his rifle. Chris's Yellow Boy, Buck's rifle and JD's joined them and the other riders tried to pull up and fire at them. Two more men fell and a horse screamed, falling and throwing its rider into a pile of rocks.

One of the riderless horses collided with Buck and Darling, whinnying in panic as it tried to shed the body dragging from the boot caught in a stirrup. Buck lost his rifle trying to stay in the saddle.

JD ducked low as an Indian along Dusty's neck, the game mare dancing back with her front hooves off the ground as he pulled up and fired his pistol under her neck in a feat of horsemanship that would have been slightly more impressive if he had hit his man.

Three more riders had joined the melee. Vin fired at one and missed. So did his target.

The crack and roar of the close quarters, horseback gunfight filled his ears. Shouts and cries, the horrible shriek of a crippled animal, his own breath and Peso's, the deep boom of the mare's leg when he fired again, drowned out the pain his arm and the thud of blood through his heart. His lungs burned, gunsmoke catching in his throat like a strangler's noose.

Ezra spun Hazard in a tight circle. His rifle was abandoned, replaced by his pistol. His riverboat hat was gone too. Hazard darted between two of the enemy, freezing them for a lethal instant at the gall of the move. That was the way of the partisan rangers in the war. Forward, on horseback, with pistols, riding over the enemy in a pell-mell fight that relied on shock as much as numbers or guns.

His first shot hit the man on his right in the chest. His second wounded the other man high in the shoulder, rocking him back in the saddle. Then Ezra was past. JD took down the man Ezra had wounded as he twisted in the saddle, intent on back-shooting Ezra. JD fired into him three times without pause.

Vin almost fell as Peso jumped a body sprawled on the dirt. Chris' Colt barked behind him a last time.

Abrupt silence followed, broken immediately by the shriek of a horse. The animal was trying to rise, but one foreleg was shattered just below the knee. It swung like a wild pendulum. Bile flooded Vin's mouth at the sight. The horse, a yellow buckskin, tried to rise again. It screamed in agony when the broken leg folded forward under its weight.

Vin leant to the side and vomited a thin line of bile. His head swam. He clutched at his saddle horn with his hand, barely keeping his seat.

A single shot sounded. The buckskin's head dropped to the ground and it stilled into merciful silence. Vin swallowed hard, his mouth flooding with more nauseated spit. He managed to bring his head up and saw that JD had done what was necessary. The young man was reloading his Colts, his face schooled into a harsh mask, nothing soft left in him.

Sweat ran in his eyes, blurring his vision, stinging like lye. He swayed, blinking, vision graying out with sudden exhaustion. A hand caught at his coat and pulled him upright. He shook his head and looked up, finding JD beside him, reaching over to steady him. Vin hadn't heard him approach.

They reined their horses around. Ezra guided Hazard to Vin's other side. The gelding was blowing hard, little shudders running through him. Peso and Dusty were no better off, their sides heaving in and out from the brutal sprint up the mesa and the race into the fight.

A new sound brought Ezra's head and gun up along with JD's. Vin followed their gaze and watched dully as Josiah and Nathan were silhouetted against the blue-white sky as they rode over the rise to join them. It was then he realized the two men hadn't been with them in the fight.

Chris and Buck were side by side. Buck was murmuring soothing words to Darling. The gray mare snorted and danced in place, ears still pinned back, not liking the bodies sprawled so close to her hooves. Nero hung his fine head and stood with his front legs braced wide. Lather dripped from his neck and shoulders. Chris had his Colt aimed at the last of the bounty hunters still in a saddle.

"Just stay right there," he commanded. His eyes never left the bounty hunter, but his attention shifted. "About time you got here," he snapped at Josiah.

"It seems you didn't need us, Brother."

Josiah drew his Schofield and used it to cover the bounty hunter. Buck dismounted and rolled a body off his lost rifle, cursing softly about jarred sights and a crack in the stock.

Josiah's movement drew Vin's gaze to the already dirty bandage wrapped around Josiah's calf and he remembered thinking Josiah had been hit earlier. He wondered when there had been time to bandage it. Josiah didn't look much better than Vin himself felt. His face was gray under the tan and dirt. Nathan must have stopped and insisted on seeing to it before they caught up to the rest of them.

One of the bodies shifted and moaned, the man trying to rise onto hands and knees. Vin thought it was the fellow who had been thrown early in the melee. His head was matted with blood and he appeared dazed and unaware of anything outside his instinct to regain his feet.

Nathan dropped off Pepper, pulled his bag of medicines out of his pack and started toward the semi-conscious bounty hunter.

"Leave him," Chris commanded. "See to Vin. Buck, help me tie these two bastards up. I mean to get some answers before we take them back to Four Corners." He added darkly, "If we bother."

Buck shoved the damaged rifle into his saddle scabbard then drew a length of rope from his saddlebag. He paused to get his canteen and take a drink, first spitting into the dirt near one of the bodies then swallowing some more. "I say leave 'em for buzzard bait."

Vin straightened in his saddle as Nathan veered toward him, Ezra and JD.

"Don't need no help," he gritted out. JD's hand was still firm at the small of his back, keeping his steady. Ezra reached over and fingered the wet stain soaking his sleeve.

"You're bleeding like a stuck pig, Mr. Tanner," he said hoarsely.

Chris stalked over to the fallen bounty hunter. He grabbed the man's shoulder and pulled him onto his feet. "Get over there with your friend," he said and prodded the man toward Buck and the other survivor.

Nathan reached them and demanded, "Get off that horse and let me see to you."

"The hell I will," Vin snapped. He reined Peso back from Nathan and glared. "You ain't touching me."

JD protested, "Vin - "

"You need to have that wound seen to," Ezra finished.

"Listen to some sense, you stubborn jackass," Nathan said, stepping forward again. He reached for Vin's wrist.

Vin's temper snapped. He lifted the mare's leg and leveled it at Nathan. "Get your damn hands off me," he rasped out. The heavy gun wavered. "Ez, you can - "

Nathan used one big hand to slap the mare's leg right out of Vin's hand. He froze as two distinct clicks sounded. JD and Ezra both held their pistols aimed at him now, the hammers back.

"Step away," Ezra told him. His gun didn't waver.

Buck, busy tying up the one healthy prisoner, looked up in distraction. Josiah's attention shifted from watching the prisoners to the scene a few feet away. The Schofield's muzzle dropped a little.

"You ain't giving the orders, Ezra," Nathan denied.

Chris heard the confrontation begin. He turned in time to see JD and Ezra draw their guns. "God damn them," he snarled and started their way, forgetting the bounty hunters.

The second bounty hunter stared past Chris' shoulder with narrowed eyes, blood still dripping down the side of his head, then glanced at his fellow where he remained only half-tied by Buck. Buck's attention was all on the rest of the Seven too. The rope in his hand was slack. That fellow's faint headshake didn't deter the bloodied bounty hunter.

"You want me to shoot you, Nathan?" JD asked.

"You wouldn't."

"He won't need to," Ezra said.

Nathan looked from Ezra to Vin and finally stopped at JD. He swallowed hard, Adam's-apple moving up and down visibly above the top button of his collarless shirt. Then his chin came up as his mouth set in an angry line. He flung the sack of medical supplies on the ground before Hazard's feet before lifting his empty hands out from his body and waving them.

"Fine!" His glare encompassed the three younger men. "Bleed to death. Die of blood poisoning. Lose your whole arm to gangrene. You ain't my problem no more."

"Damn you, Jackson!" Chris shouted.

He reached Nathan, caught his arm and swung him around in a single, violent movement that ended in his fist hitting Nathan's face hard enough to send him to the ground. Nathan was taller and heavier than Chris, but speed, meanness and sheer force of personality made the gunfighter the tougher man. Nathan landed on his ass with an inelegant thump and a loud grunt.

Chris stared down at him fiercely. One hand opened and closed convulsively, as though unsure whether to clench into a fist again or go for the gun holstered at his hip. The tail of his black duster flared in the wind. His shadow fell long and ominous over Nathan.

"I told you you got one more chance," Chris declared. "You just wasted it."

Nathan hawked a bloody gobbet of spit into the dirt and returned Chris' glare. "He don't want me near him, what am I supposed to do?"

Chris drew in two loud, deep breaths through his nose. When he had control, he answered.

"Nothing. That's what you're good for now, Jackson. Nothing."

Ignored by everyone, the bloody-faced bounty hunter swayed and dropped to his knees next to one of his dead comrades. He fell forward and his hand landed on the body. No one paid any attention. He fumbled and drew the gun still holstered on the corpse's hip.

"To hell with you, Larabee," Nathan muttered bitterly. He stayed on the ground. "To hell with all of you."

Josiah tried to play peacemaker one last time. "Brothers, this is not the time or place - "

"I ain't your brother!" Nathan shouted furiously. "Ain't none of them your brother, Josiah, any more than Standish is your damn, horsethievin', no-good son that got hung!"

Five pairs of eyes turned toward Josiah. He looked like a man staring at a knife sunk in his gut, only he was staring at Nathan.

"Juan?" he shouted. "Juan! You taunt me with Juan's name, Nathan!" The fury in his is voice and his face made all of them flinch.

Nathan scrambled to his feet, abruptly more frightened of Josiah than Chris. The preacher's lips moved, but no more words issued, just a sense of malevolent black anger boiling through him. "What did you do, Nathan Jackson?" he suddenly bellowed. "I know you did something to turn our friends against you. I held my tongue, but no more. No more."

"Josiah? Josiah, no - I'm sorry," Nathan blurted out. "I shouldn't've said - "

"What did you do?" Josiah demanded, riding Moses toward Nathan and looming over him, backlit by the sun. He pointed a finger at Nathan. "What. Did. You. Do?"

A raucious chorus of caws startled all of them. One shadow after another swept over the mesa top as nine crows flapped over it. The birds sounded like they were complaining, then two dropped out of the air to land next to one of the bodies. The cries became something like hoarse laughter. The others flew on.

One hopped toward the dead man's head, wings still outspread, light flashing off shining jet feathers. Vin winced as the sharp black beak darted toward the corpse's open eyes.

The second crow launched itself back into the air with a harsh protest. Vin looked to see what had spooked the bird.

He watched in detached disbelief as the bounty hunter on the ground suddenly moved with speed and precision, bringing up a gun and aiming it at Chris' back. He could do nothing, couldn't even get his mouth open in time to yell a warning.

Buck shouted. The man he'd been tying tackled him, taking him down in a flurry of limbs, both bodies rolling into a flattened mesquite bush, fighting for possession of Buck's gun.

Nathan spotted the threat next. Anger, instinct, friendship - who knew what motivated him? - prompted his reaction. No warning for Chris, no explanation. He pulled a throwing knife from the harness on his back and threw it with deadly skill.

Chris dived for cover as Nathan drew the knife, skidding on hands and knees in the dirt.

He rolled onto his back and drew one of his Colts.

Three gunshots filled the air in the same instant Nathan's knife sank hilt deep in the bounty hunter's chest. Two bullets tore through his neck and shoulder. His own shot plowed into the earth harmlessly. Scarlet blood flooded down the man's chest for another instant, darkening as it soaked into his shirt and vest. His mouth dropped open. The gun in his hand fell to the earth with a thud. Then he folded at the knees and sprawled across the earth beside the pistol, all life fled. A stir of dust lifted as he collapsed only to sift down onto his unknowing face as everything stilled again.

Vin clutched at his saddle horn and blinked at the scene. Josiah and Chris joined Buck in subduing the last bounty hunter. He looked at the two men still mounted and at his sides.

JD and Ezra had both fired. A wisp of smoke wound up from the barrel of Ezra's Remington where it rested on his saddle horn. The inconstant breeze tugged at his uncovered hair, trying to lift it away where sweat matted russet strands to his temples. He quirked an eyebrow at Vin, catching his interest.

JD looked paradoxically exhausted and alert, slumped in his saddle and chewing on his lip as he watched Chris and Josiah separate Buck and the last bounty hunter. His Colt was already back in its holster. He seemed completely unmoved by the killing, unconcerned by the scattering of bodies on the ground. That damned bowler hat still sat at a jaunty angle on his lank dark hair, barely shading his eyes.

Vin managed a tired grin. "Nice shootin'," he rasped out.

JD grinned back, dipped his head and saluted with two fingers brushed over the bowler's brim.

Nathan strolled over to the body then leaned down to retrieve his knife.

Ezra gave Vin a measuring look then nodded to himself. "It's time someone saw to that arm, my friend." He dismounted, leaving Hazard ground-tied, and approached Peso.

Vin accepted his help coming off of Peso, grateful Ezra didn't make a big thing of it. His legs felt as uncertain under him as a newborn calf's.

"You're kind of wobbly on your pins there, hoss," Buck commented, arriving at his other side and curling an arm around Vin's waist to steady him. He guided Vin over to a cracked boulder. Ezra retrieved the sack of supplies Nathan had abandoned.

"JD?" Chris called. He had the bounty hunter firmly and securely bound.

Nathan was fussing over Josiah, who was talking to him in a voice too low to overhear. Deep creases wrinkled Josiah's forehead and Nathan kept his head down.

"Yeah?" JD answered.

"You up to rounding up the loose horses?"

JD patted Dusty's sweaty neck. "Sure." He reined her around and started her at a trot toward the nearest stray.

Ezra crouched by Vin's side. "The coat must come off first," he said. Buck sat beside Vin and braced him unobtrusively as Ezra helped him struggle out of the old buffalo hide coat. The sleeve on his injured arm caught and had to be peeled away, sending a shooting pain through it that him clenching his teeth.

Ezra laid the coat aside and began slicing Vin's shirtsleeve off using his little pearl-handled knife. "Stay still," he directed as he worked.

Vin looked at his blood soaked arm and decided looking at Buck would be better. He turned his head and blinked. Buck was a picture. One eye was rapidly blackening, the dark bruising blooming down over his cheekbone too. His lip was split and swelling. Little bits of mesquite were still caught in his thick, tangled hair. Thorns were lodged in his coat and even his neckerchief. It was a good bet a few more were stuck in other less comfortable areas as well.

He snickered at that thought, then caught his breath as Ezra prodded the hole through his bicep.

"Just a moment, Mr. Tanner."

Ezra went to Hazard and retrieved his canteen, a square-sided bottle of Scotch from his saddlebag and one of his fine white shirts. Vin flinched, guessing at least some of the Scotch would be used on the wound.

"Hope you mean to give me a drink of that," he commented.

Ezra chuckled and handed him the bottle. "Don't drink too much."

"Yeah, leave some for me," Buck said.

Vin opened the bottle and took a long draw on it.

Ezra cut up his shirt, wet a piece of it with the canteen's water, and began cleaning around the wound. He worked with a delicate touch, intent on the job, his tongue tip resting on his bottom lip.

It still hurt.

Vin locked his attention on the rock he sat on, noticing the pebbly texture of the stone, the gray-brown color, the lichen dried white and rough on it, and the web of hair line cracks that spread across it. If he looked closer, it wasn't a solid color at all, but a hundred different shades all mixed up, with little flecks of white and black and shiny stuff in it. There were veins of white that looked almost like crystal, glittering with golden specks. Looked almost like gold, except it weren't. Ezra had showed him some a fellow used in a con, called it quartz and mica.

Ezra reached up and took the Scotch bottle out of Vin's hand. He pulled Vin's arm up and poured the expensive alcohol into the bullet hole. Vin jerked and bit back a howl as it burned through his raw flesh. Ezra splashed more Scotch on his narrow dagger and used it as a probe, sending another bolt of pain through Vin.

Buck locked his big hands on Vin's shoulders and kept him from pulling away out of instinct.

"Just a moment more, Vin," Ezra murmured without looking up. He twisted the blade delicately and withdrew it, pulling out a long string that the bullet had drawn into the wound from Vin's shirt. With a moue of distaste, Ezra flicked the bloody thread into the dirt.

Ezra's smooth hand rested on the ball of Vin's shoulder for a second, touching him the way he touched Hazard, not even conscious of the affectionate gesture. His fingers were only an inch away from the warm weight of Buck's hands.

He looked up, his green eyes faintly apologetic. "I know that hurt."

Vin shrugged with his good shoulder. "Gotta be done." Wounds had to be cleaned. That thread could have cost him his whole arm or if he was unlucky his life. Wound fever killed as many men as the wounds themselves.

"I'm going to clean it one more time," Ezra told him.

Vin nodded. He closed his eyes and waited for the burn. At least Ezra didn't make him wait. The Scotch washed into his wound fast. He stiffened and endured. Eventually the pain peaked and settled into a throb that matched his heartbeat.

Ezra delved through Nathan's supplies. He read a couple of labels and dismissed the contents. Finally, his fingers found a small tin. A moldy scent came from the greenish-blue salve inside.

Ezra scooped out a generous portion on two fingers and carefully worked it into the wound. Vin had to admit that though it stunk, the salve felt almost good. Ezra made sure the wound was completely coated all the way through to the exit in the back of Vin's arm, then wrapped strips of his shirt into a tight bandage over it all. Blood immediately stained the white fabric, but the seepage soon slowed.

"I'm sorry," Ezra said. "That's the best I can do."

"It's fine," Vin replied.

Ezra sat back on his heels and looked at the bandage. The bloodstain wasn't growing. That was good. Vin moved his hand, trying to gauge how much movement he had. The bleeding was stopping, at least. He'd felt a lot worse and seen men suffer much more. He had feeling in his hand and everything still worked, even if it did hurt like the devil.

"Yes, well, I've never had occasion to impersonate a physician, so my skills are minimal," Ezra acknowledged. "We could perhaps stop at Miz Wells' ranch and solicit her help to improve on my paltry efforts."

"Nope," Vin said. "This'll do."

"You did a good job, Ez," Buck added.

Ezra raised his eyebrows.

Vin nodded.

With a shrug, Ezra picked up the Scotch bottle and took a long drink straight from it. He handed it to Buck next. Buck ignored his split lip and drank deep.

"You all right?" Chris asked, joining them.

A quick glance assured Vin that Josiah was watching the prisoner.

"Yep. Ez makes a good doctor."

Ezra rolled his eyes, the whites flashing against the background of his dirty face. He took the Scotch back from Buck and gulped down some more.

"Lord," he muttered, shaking his head. "Worse even than being a lawman."

Chris chuckled.

Ezra handed him the bottle.

JD clattered in, leading three horses. "Everything okay?" he asked.

"Fine," four voices chorused with accompanying chuckles.

JD secured the horses and rode out again after the rest.

Chris had a shot of the Scotch before handing the sadly depleted bottle back to Ezra, who contemplated it wistfully.

"Terrible waste of fine spirits," he murmured.

"I resent that," Vin responded.

Ezra raised his face and looked at him innocently. "I was referring to Buck and Chris imbibing, not you."

"Just for that - " Chris snatched the bottle back and emptied it.

Ezra glanced over at the bound prisoner. He frowned. Chris followed his glance.

"Think it's time we asked some questions?"

"Indeed, Mr. Larabee," Ezra answered. "I am perplexed by these men's persistence. There is no more bounty for myself and Mr. Tanner's name has been - " He stopped.

Vin leaned forward.

"Ez?'

"Yes?"

"What about my name?"

Ezra hesitated, nodded to himself, and said quietly, "Very well." A sly smile turned his lips up. "Your native appellation has been restored to honor, Mr. Tanner. These men, if they were in pursuit of you, would have been sadly disappointed on arriving in Texas."

Vin wished Ezra wouldn't talk so twisty. Between the liquor and his bullet wound, he just wasn't up to untangling all those five dollar words.

"What are you talking about, Ezra?" Chris demanded.

"Why, the clearing of our friend's name," Ezra replied. The gold tooth glinted. "It seems another man has been convicted of the poor rancher in Tascosa's murder, which in turn confirms Vin's oft declared innocence. There is no longer a bounty on his head."

"What?"

Vin tried to get to his feet. Darkness threatened at the edges of his vision. Buck dragged him back down onto the boulder.

"Ezra," Vin tried again. "How - how do you know?"

Ezra ducked his head, looking embarrassed. "Well, I offered Mr. Corcoran a discount on the purchase price for the deed to Stairstep Canyon if he were to convince the Governor of Texas to exert his influence toward clearing Vin's name or at least pardoning him." He brushed his thumb over his lower lip.

"You what?" Vin demanded.

"There was no guarantee you could be cleared, Vin," Ezra said earnestly. "I knew you wanted that, but I thought - I thought that if you were pardoned, there would be no more bounty and at least - " Green eyes flicked down and then up.?- At least you wouldn't be shot down in the street like Saville."

Vin's heartbeat thudded in his ears. He couldn't get it straight in his head. Ezra had... Somehow Ezra had conned someone into getting the bounty taken off his head. No, he'd said more than that. He'd said Vin's name was cleared.

He just couldn't believe it. Not yet. He locked gazes with Ezra and saw apprehension and satisfaction and determination all shining in his friend's eyes.

"Wait a minute," Buck exclaimed, laughter running through his loud voice, right next to Vin's ear it seemed. "Wait a minute, boys. Did we just hear what I think we heard?"

"I don't know, Buck, did we?" Chris replied, joining in the amiable teasing with a smile tugging at his mouth too.

Josiah and Nathan strolled over and looked on curiously.

"Well," Buck drawled, "I'd swear on a stack of bibles I just heard Ezra Standish say something about giving up good money to help out a friend."

"Sounded like that to me too," Chris agreed.

Underneath pale dust and the dirt, Vin watched as Ezra Standish of the perfect poker face actually blushed.

Buck burst into delighted laughter and pointed. "Lookit 'im, he's redder'n a rooster's comb!"

Ezra shot Buck a glare. "The curse of an Irish complexion," he muttered. His attention returned to Vin. "In Virginia City, I was awaiting news of whether my venture on your behalf had succeeded. I thought it better to simply keep the matter to myself until I was sure. The pertinent papers should have arrived in Four Corners by now."

"Ya said..." Vin cleared his throat and started again. "Ya said cleared. Not pardoned. Cleared?"

Ezra nodded and swiftly assured him, "Cleared. The Governor reopened the investigation, sent a man to Tascosa, and found out that Kincaid's wife had been less than faithful with the ranch foreman, a man named Purdue. Purdue killed Kincaid. It seems like he was in league with Eli Joe in some way." He smiled a touch cynically. "Though that hardly matters now. Mrs. Kincaid confessed all, a trial was held, and Purdue found guilty. No two men can be guilty of the same murder, so by default your innocence had to be accepted."

"What happened to this Purdue fella?"

"I have no idea," Ezra admitted with a careless shrug.

"Damn, that is the finest news I heard in years!" Buck shouted. He wrapped an arm around Vin's shoulders and squeezed in his exuberance.

It hurt like holy hell. Vin thought he'd pass out from the pain in his arm. He shoved an elbow into Buck's ribs. "Let go, ya blame idiot!" he gasped out.

Buck released him and apologized sheepishly. "Sorry, Vin. I just plain forgot." He patted Vin's back lightly.

As the pain faded, Vin smiled widely. "Guess I can forgive this one time, considerin'," he allowed.

"That was a good deed done, Ezra," Josiah stated. "I'm proud of you."

"Merely a slip, sir," Ezra replied lightly. "Mr. Jackson will tell you I'm the devil's minion still."

Nathan stiffened up. "Reckon you had your reasons," was all he said.

"How's it feel to be a free man, Vin?" Buck asked, still determinedly ignoring Nathan.

"Was always a free man," Vin corrected gently. "Free or bound, that's in your head and heart, always. It's only your body that others can chain or lock away."

He struggled to his feet then held out his good hand. "Ezra... I ain't got any fancy words like yours." Ezra clasped hands with him, half-smiling. "I ain't ever goin' to forget. I can promise that." He tightened his hand on Ezra's, staring straight into those pale jade eyes.

"It was... my pleasure, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

"Aw, Jesus, god damn sonovabitch," an unknown voice groaned. A stream of steadily darker epithets followed from the tied-up bounty hunter, who had obviously overheard their conversation.

Chris' eyes narrowed and he strode over to the man. Ezra and Vin followed.

"Shut up," Chris snarled at the man.

He turned his face up and glared at Chris, but quit cursing.

Buck limped over. Josiah and Nathan joined them too, resulting in the six of them looming over the bound man lying in the dirt. They stared down at him grimly.

Vin finally asked, "You was after me?"

The bounty hunter shot an apprehensive look at Chris before answering. "Yeah, Tanner. Nothin' personal." He grimaced. "Helluva lot more trouble'n you were worth."

"Why'd ya keep comin'? Ya followed us all the way to Virginia City an' all the way back here. Seems stupid to me."

The bounty hunter relaxed back into the ground. "Me too, especially if the gambler there ain't lyin' about that bounty bein' gone. Ain't heard about that."

Chris crouched beside the man. The tails of his duster dragged in the dirt.

"Who was in charge of your bunch?"

"Soames over there. The one that your man threw the knife into."

"Any reason we shouldn't leave you here in the same shape as him?" Chris asked.

"Ya show me papers provin' he - " a whiskered chin lifted toward Vin, " - ain't wanted no more and I'll never bother none of ya again. Hell, I'll tell ya who hired the bunch of us in the first place."

Chris' interest sharpened.

"Keep talkin' and you'll keep breathin'."

JD trotted Dusty in, trailing four more horses. He tied them up with the rest and began loosening cinches. Chris watched JD work for a few moments. The breeze lifted again, drying the sweat on their bodies, and carrying the distant sound of the crows' complaints again.

Chris looked back down. "Well?" he demanded.

The bounty hunter nodded and swallowed hard. "Yeah. Feller from Virginia City sent out a wire, tellin' about a bounty on that one. Met him in Bitter Creek." This time he nodded at Ezra. "Guaranteed money for killin' him. Even had this little dime novel mentioning him, told where we could find him. So we headed out, but he was already gone when we got into Four Corners. Then we heard Tanner was around and it started soundin' worth it to trail the two of 'em, get 'em both."

"Ya know who this fellow was?" Vin asked.

"Called himself Harrison."

"Damn," Ezra breathed.

"Ya know him, Ez?"

"The man I won the deed from."

"Well, hell."

Buck prodded the man with the toe of boot. He asked, "So why'd you just keep coming after our friends?"

"Soames got crazy mad after you all just disappeared out of the canyon. Then we heard the money for the gambler wasn't bein' offered no more. Hell, we were out a chunk from trailin' after him and Tanner all that way. Soames swore we'd get back here and at least get the money for Tanner's head. He figured if we killed Tanner and wounded some of the rest of you, you'd hole up long enough for us to take the body back to Texas and disappear."

Josiah shook his head and said lugubriously, "The Lord our father must find you a sore disappointment, boy."

"It was all Soames' fault."

"Uh hunh," Buck grunted. He looked over at Chris. "I figure we take him in, let Judge Travis decide what to do with him?"

Chris nodded.

The bounty hunter stared at Ezra. "Never figured a gambler for bein' tough as old boots."

Chris raised his gaze to the horizon and seemed to consider it.

"If we push, we can still make Four Corners before dark," he said.

"JD!" Buck shouted.

"Yeah?"

Josiah addressed the bounty hunter, a toothy grin lightening his expression. Vin couldn't make heads nor tails of what he said though. Sounded like, "Al teestakel ba kankan ella bema sheyesh do."[xvi] It wasn't close to anything he understood.

"Ez?" he whispered. "What'd 'siah say?"

"I'm afraid I'm not conversant with Hebrew, Vin."

Josiah glanced at them and proclaimed: "Don't look at the jug, brothers, don't look at the jug alone."

"He's cracked," Vin decided.

Laughter rippled through Ezra. He muffled the sound, but Vin was leaning on him and felt it.

"Leave the saddle on one of them nags," Buck instructed JD. "We're going to move out right quick."

"Got it," JD replied.

Ten minutes later they had the bounty hunter tied to his horse's saddle. The rest of the bounty hunters' horses had been stripped of their tack and set loose. Vin was back on Peso, favoring one side, but well able to keep up. Ezra rode beside him. Buck and JD ranged ahead. Josiah rode just ahead of Nathan; Pepper's nose sometimes brushed against Moses' haunches. Chris rode in the rear, watching over them all.

They rambled into town shortly before dark, the sunset throwing their shadows black and elongated before them. The horses were walking slowly. All of them sat low in the saddle, rocking along with each weary stride. The bounty hunter hunched down, shoulders rounded and head drooping, his mount on a lead rein behind Buck.

The seven men unconsciously let their horses spread into a parallel line as they rode down the main street. A few old-timers sitting in front of the feedstore, playing checkers and smoking pipes, looked up as they passed. Someone was ringing a dinner bell not too far away. In front of the stage stop, a skinny brown dog lifted its head from his paws and watched them, lazily thumping his tail against the ground.

None of them looked up.

Vin's arm throbbed dully, reminding him of the wound every time he moved. He hated to admit it, but getting off Peso and sitting down somewhere sounded better and better. He was exhausted.

Pleasure and melancholy drifted through him as he looked around. This dusty border town with its faded signs and false front stores, shopkeepers and ranchers, drought-dry summers and harsh winters, had been his home. He glanced at the others, taking them all in, realizing that this would likely be the last time they ever rode into town all together.

There was Chris, leading them from wherever he rode, brooding and fast to fury, but as driven by his sense of responsibility as he was by his slowly fading grief. Vin snorted. The Man in Black. Lord knew the man cultivated that image. He had a streak of showman in him, just like Ezra, wearing those silver conchos and California spurs. An unlit cheroot stub was clenched between Chris' teeth and he scanned the street, looking for trouble.

Right beside Chris there was Buck. That was the way it always was, always would be. Nothing would put Buck off; nothing would ever jar his faith and loyalty once given. His mustache received a quick finger smoothing and he grinned and doffed his hat toward a lady on the sidewalk as they passed. Buck just enjoyed being alive so much he made everyone else feel the same. His big red neckerchief glowed in the rich light of the sunset.

JD rode just beyond Buck, his bowler pulled down low, dark brows drawn level in a faint frown. JD was like yearling horse, just coming into his strength, just learning how much he had it in him to be. This trip had rubbed a good bit of his brand new shine off, but underneath JD was sound. He'd do to ride the river with any day.

Far over on the other side of JD he could just see Josiah slouched in Moses' saddle, lantern jaw fringed in gray whiskers, lecturing Nathan on something. Josiah was a smart one, but all his stillness and understanding was made up to tie down the demons that lived in him. Fresh blood was staining the bandage on Josiah's leg. Nathan gestured to it and his clinic, clearly arguing.

Nathan... Vin looked at Nathan and looked away. Nathan rode straight in his saddle, shoulders back and head high. Even now, Nathan couldn't see what he had done or what it meant the way Vin did. Nothing any of them said would ever dent Nathan's sheer pigheaded opinion. Nathan knew what he thought and figured that was right and no one else knew as much. Even if deep in the night in his own heart Nathan regretted anything, he couldn't bend enough to ever apologize.

Finally, right beside him, his most unexpected friend. The black riverboat hat had been found and clamped back on his head. He looked ready to ride on all night, despite the wear to his clothes and the dirt still streaking his face. On the outside, Ezra looked like some bright feathered bird, but underneath that he was all grace and grit, full of surprises and a wicked sense of humor that refused to respect anything too much. He was as tough and tricksy and resilient as Coyote.

Vin straightened in his saddle.

For another moment, they all rode together into Four Corners.

Then Buck and Chris pulled up their horses in front of the jail, along with the bounty hunter.

JD caught sight of Casey Wells and Miz Nettie in front of Potter's Store. He lifted his hat and waved to her, then kicked Dusty into a trot.

"Young love," Ezra murmured.

Vin chuckled.

Ezra slapped at his thigh, bringing up a cloud of dust. "I think a visit to the bathhouse is mandatory, once we've put up the horses."

Getting clean sounded pretty good to Vin. He nodded agreeably.

He caught a glimpse of Sam's red head ducking back into the livery as they rode up. Tiny strolled out with his stable boy in tow a moment later. Josiah dismounted stiffly, handed Moses' reins to Sam and limped over to the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic. Nathan helped him climb, leaving Pepper for Tiny.

The liveryman led Pepper inside the barn, grumbling about the still healing gouge in the brown gelding's hindquarters, followed by Sam tugging Moses along.

Vin and Ezra were left alone in the street. The last reddish-honey light of the sunset hung in the air, bars of it reaching almost horizontally between darkened buildings, looking thick enough to cup in a man's hand. They just sat for a long, silent interval, until Hazard started playing with his bit again, restless and ready to head for his well known stall.

Peso snorted and Vin patted his neck.

A soft glow of lantern light poured from the livery's half open door, accompanied by the sweet scent of hay.

Ezra sighed.

"Looks like we'll have to see to our own steeds." He flicked a questioning glance at Vin's bandaged arm. "Perhaps you could go ahead and persuade Mulligan at the bathhouse to put on some extra hot water? I'll deal with Peso."

Vin thought of arguing and decided it wasn't worth the trouble. He didn't want to wrestle his heavy saddle off of Peso with his arm hurting and weak. It would probably take him longer than Ezra would take caring for both horses.

"All right," he said. "I'll stop and ask Inez to put together some vittles for us too."

"An excellent thought." Ezra slipped off Hazard and waited for Vin to dismount. He took Peso's reins and started for the barn. "I'll bring your pack and saddlebags to the bathhouse."

Vin nodded.

Ezra disappeared into the livery with the horses.

Vin was left standing alone in the darkened street as dusk slid finally into evening. If he looked up he could see the stars littering the sky. He smelled food cooking somewhere close and his stomach growled.

Free and clear, he thought. Hell of a thing. No one after him any longer. It was going to take some time to sink in.

He grinned and headed for the bathhouse. He had the time.

Free and clear.

26. Four Corners, 1877

I'll see you, I'll call you, I'll raise you
Bit it's no cheap thrill
It will cost you, cost you, cost you
Anything you have to pay.

No Cheap Thrill,
Suzanne Vega

They settled in again and from the outside little seemed changed. Josiah worked on his church early in the morning before the heat got too strong, each hammer stroke ringing through the cool air. Buck dallied with his bevy of ladies, his infectious laughter spilling out of the saloon or the restaurant or the jail most days. JD squired Casey around town, once more wearing his silver star on his vest. Chris rode out to his shack and finished adding on his porch, then drifted back and forth between there and town over the next week. Nathan saw to his patients in the clinic over the livery, kept busy catching up with every illness real and imagined that had cropped up in his absence.

Vin carefully, reverently read through each of the papers in the package that had been waiting at the jail, tucked the copies that declared him innocent, no longer wanted dead or alive in Tascosa in a tin lockbox in his freight wagon, then got blind, stupid, passed-out drunk for the first time in years. He woke up puking from the hangover in the room next to Ezra's over the saloon and moved his few belongings in a few days later.

Ezra read books in front of the jail most days and presided over his poker games at his table in the saloon at night.

Vin and Buck about fell down laughing the first time Lovitt the bank manager ran into Ezra after coming back. Lovitt had always treated Ezra like something to wipe off his boot. Now that Ezra had more money in the bank than just about everyone else combined, Lovitt just couldn't be nicer to him.

Ezra treated him with the same courtesy he extended to Mrs. Travis, though a glint of malicious pleasure showed in his eyes.

But that was the surface and beneath it the seven were subtly divided.

Ezra didn't ride patrol. He hadn't accepted the offer to return to his lawkeeping activities. Rafe Moseley, one of the young men who had taken their place while the seven were absent, took up Ezra's duties permanently, even accepting a deputy's position from JD. Rafe's hot head had cooled off since his father was arrested for killing his sister Clare; he made a good deputy.

Chris and Buck spent more time together, falling back into the pattern of their old friendship. The rapport between Vin and Chris never returned to the levels they'd enjoyed before he left to follow Ezra to Virginia City. In any case, Buck could provide something Vin never could: memories of Sarah and Adam. Chris seemed to crave talking about his wife and child finally, remembering all the good.

Josiah was distant, more interested in his church than interacting with any of them. He stopped drinking entirely and stayed away from the saloon. He spent time with Nathan, which set him apart from all the others too.

JD devoted his every spare moment to wooing Casey, displaying a new determination that seemed to impress her. Buck refrained from teasing him.

Chris sent the judge a telegram, taking Nathan off the payroll.

Vin kept an eye on Nathan and waited, feeling something gather in the air like an impending thunderstorm.

But the storm broke on a hot afternoon when Vin wasn't even in Four Corners, two weeks after they returned.

*******

Sam the stable boy bolted into the saloon like the devil was on his tail. The various patrons jerked around to face the sudden appearance of the panting boy, as the batwing doors swung hard enough to hit the wall, the hinges shrieking protests over their ill-treatment.

Sam ignored everyone and headed straight for the table where Buck, JD, and Ezra were drinking desultorily and enjoying Inez' frijoles and enchiladas con pollo. Nathan sat alone at another table. That had become the routine.

"Mr. Standish," the boy panted. "Mr. Standish, pa says ya gotta come down to the livery. It's yer horse, sir. Pa says something's terrible wrong -?

Ezra's face paled. He set his fork down on the plate with loud clink. "Hazard?"

Sam's head bobbed. "Yes sir -?

Ezra's chair was shoved back and the gambler out of it before the boy could finish speaking.

"Ah, damn!" Buck exclaimed, surging to his feet along with JD, quickly followed by Nathan. Ezra was already gone.

As they headed out of the saloon, the horrible sound of a horse screaming ripped through the still afternoon streets of Four Corners.

JD froze for a moment and his head turned toward Buck. "You don't think that was Hazard, do ya, Buck?" he asked.

"Hell, boy, we'd best go find out," Buck said. Ezra was already far down the street, plum colored coat flickering into the sunlight as he left the covered boardwalk and sprinted down the dusty street.

"Damn fool always has thought more of that horse than good folks," Nathan muttered, strolling out of the saloon behind them.

JD and Buck ignored him and headed toward Tiny's livery.

After a moment, Nathan shook his head and walked in the same direction. His clinic was upstairs, after all.

*******

Tiny caught Ezra's arm as he came in the livery.

"Mr. Standish "

Ezra shook him loose.

The entire barn shook and echoed with the fury of the maddened horse. The rest of the animals were restless and frightened, whinnying and kicking at the stalls, wanting to get away. Hazard was wildest of all, the high bone-shuddering sounds of his furious distress echoing off the walls. Hazard was throwing his body against the stall, not just kicking.

Ezra slowed, trying to understand what could have set the gelding off. Could there be a snake in the stall bedding? Had someone snuck in and abused him? Hazard was sly and stubborn, but he wasn't barn cranky.

"Hazard," he breathed out, hoping to catch the gelding's attention. "Hazard?"

He fumbled in his vest for the packet of peppermints he kept for his steed. Normally Hazard would have his head extended over the stall door, smacking his lips at the prospect.

Hazard reared in the stall and struck at the door violently, bugling at the top of his lungs. His copper-red coat ran dark with sweat and white lather dripped from his flanks. The horse's great dark eyes rolled white. The big yellow teeth snapped at air. He came down and wagged his head wildly, staggering from side to the side, knees stiff.

Ezra took a step closer, hoping Hazard might be beginning to calm. He shuddered himself. As he stepped closer, he could see in the stall. There were holes kicked in on two sides. A board from the back wall dangled, half split in two, vicious, almost seven inch splinters stabbing out from the raw wood. The straw was churned and stomped into a flattened layer. Broken pieces of the manger and hayrack were scattered over it. Blood ran down Hazard's forelegs. Even his shoulders and head were cut up from throwing himself against the stall.

What the hell had happened?

"There, my friend," he murmured soothingly. He sidled a few steps closer. Maybe it would help if he got Hazard out into one of the corrals. If it was something in the stall... "Nothing will harm you. You trust me. Nothing "

Hazard's eyes rolled again. He rushed at the stall gate, hitting it with a crash that nearly broke the hinges. He staggered back, reared and struck at the gate. This time one hoof hooked over the top. The shoe caught in the iron gate latch with a spark and screech of metal on metal. Caught, Hazard screamed again, trying to jerk back. The iron shoe, ably and securely hammered into place just three days before by Yosemite, tore away at the nails.

Ezra watched in sickened horror as the trapped horseshoe tore away, taking a crippling chunk of Hazard's hoof wall with it.

"Hazard," he whispered, knowing it would do no good.

The gelding came down on his forelegs, shrieked and reared again. This time he went over backwards. His head slammed into the back wall. The torn plank ripped deep, bloody furrows over Hazard's neck and withers.

His chest bellowed in and out, pulling in wheezing, whistling breaths.

Ezra dug his fingers into his palms and prayed. Stay down. Just stay down, Hazard. Don't hurt yourself any more.

Tiny touched his shoulder. "Don't know what's got into him, Mr. Standish," the liveryman murmured. "Ain't never seen the like of it. Think he's locoed, but you know I'm careful with my hay. Won't buy nothing that looks like it might have jimsonweed in it, nope, not that or mold."

"I know," Ezra replied. He watched Hazard keenly and winced as the gelding staggered to his feet again. The horse flinched as he put his wrecked hoof down. Several stalls down, Moses neighed in nervousness.

That set Hazard off again.

He screamed and attacked the wall, striking at it. This time his leg slid through one of the kicked-in holes. As he reared back, a terrible crack sounded.

"No!" Ezra shouted. He knew it was too late. He'd heard a horse break its leg before. In despair he noticed Hazard had ruined his good foreleg.

The gelding neighed in agony, trying to tear his leg out of the rough edged hole.

"Dear God," Tiny whispered. "He's "

Ezra drew his Remington. He stared at it in his hand. The barrel gleamed dully. It felt so heavy. Reluctantly, he checked the cylinder, as though it would have mysteriously become unloaded some time during his day.

The bullets were there.

He closed his eyes and drew in a harsh breath. Hazard's spasmodic shrieks cut through his thoughts. His hands wanted to shake, but he willed them steady. He would not add to the suffering animal's misery. He would do what was right.

He opened his eyes. His hands closed the cylinder on the Remington without looking. He stepped up to the stall gate. Lifted the gun. Cocked it. Followed the bobbing headed keenly until he could predict its next, thrashing rise. Aimed.

He pulled the trigger.

*******

The shot echoed through the livery in the hollow silence that followed the cessation of the frenzied neighs and thuds. The livery's wooden walls still seemed to vibrate with the booming, punishing blows of the maddened animal's hooves.

The stillness was awful.

Tiny set his hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"Ya done what ya had to," he tried to console him.

Ezra dropped the Remington in the dirt, swung around and punched Tiny in the jaw. His knuckle split open. He didn't know or care. Tiny hit the ground. It was sheer surprise more than the blow, though that hadn't been pulled.

Ezra ignored him and tore open the stall latch. He left the gate hanging open and stepped inside directly to the gelding's motionless body.

He dropped to his knees in the straw next to Hazard's head.

"I'm sorry, my friend, I am so very sorry," he whispered. He stroked his fingers along one ear, then the delicate hollow above the horse's dulling eye. "So sorry." He traced the swirl of hairs at the center of Hazard's forehead and stroked down the softer than velvet skin along his nostril.

He lifted the heavy head and set it in his lap, patting the dead gelding's neck as though he might still feel it. His shoulders hunched and he bent forward, shaking, his hands still smoothing over Hazard's head compulsively, oblivious to the blood leaking from the bullet hole in the horse's head.

"I'm sorry, I sorry..."

He wanted to weep. He wanted to cry like he hadn't since he'd been a raw boy feeding the cannons on Marye's Heights, sick to his heart. He wanted to and he couldn't. There was nothing but miserable, airless sobs in him. He had no tears left to give.

*******

Nathan walked into the barn in the aftermath, too curious to stay outside. The silence and the gunshot meant an animal had been put down.

If it was Hazard, he wanted to see Ezra's face.

He almost tripped on Tiny, who was lying on the floor of the barn, propped up on one elbow. He was rubbing his jaw and staring at Hazard's stall.

"You all right?' Nathan asked.

He knelt next to the hostler without waiting for an answer, taking his chin in one hand and angled his face so he could check the man's eyes.

"Surprised is all," Tiny muttered, looking a touch embarrassed. "Didn't know he could hit that hard."

Nathan gave him a hand getting to his feet.

The barn door creaked open and a red-thatched head poked in nervously. Sam's eyes darted around. Before he could summon the nerve to enter, he was pushed ahead, allowing Buck and JD to walk into the barn.

"Where's Ezra?" JD asked. He looked nervous and worried himself.

Tiny nodded toward the stall.

Buck sucked in a breath.

"Did he ?"

Tiny nodded.

"Aw, damn."

Buck caught JD's arm before he could head for the stall. "Best leave him alone, JD."

"But "

"Give him some time, kid."

Nathan started toward the stall. He had a few things to say about hitting an innocent liveryman, even if Tiny didn't.

"You stop right there," Buck said harshly.

"What?"

Buck glared at Nathan. "Stop. You ain't going near Ezra right now."

"He might be hurt..." Even to Nathan's ears that sounded weak. Buck wouldn't believe it.

"He might be a lot of things, but none of them is going to want you anywhere around," Buck snapped. "Now get, you hear me?"

"JD?"

JD's expression was harder than Buck's. He looked like a younger, dark-haired Chris Larabee. "Go," he commanded.

Nathan's eyes widened. JD even sounded like Chris Larabee.

With a last glance toward the open stall, Nathan left. He brushed between Buck and JD, who didn't move an inch. As he walked past, JD swiveled around to watch him, the way he would watch a potential enemy, keeping his and Buck's backs covered.

*******

Ezra walked out of the stall covered in blood, making Buck worry for minute that Nathan had been right and Ezra had been hurt. Then he saw how the stains smeared across Ezra's jacket and trousers, already darkening, and guessed the blood came from Hazard. Straw clung to his knees. He winced, guessing how much Ezra had to be hurting.

He'd never seen anyone any fonder of an animal than Ezra was of Hazard. Hadn't seen a horse any more loyal, either.

Ezra rested his hand against the wall, leaning into it, oblivious to Buck and JD. Finally, he straightened and seemed to notice their presence.

"Gentlemen."

His voice was hoarse. He looked pale and strained.

Buck shoved JD toward him. "Stick close," he muttered under his breath. To Ezra he offered the only comfort he could. "You want to go on, Ez, I'll take care of what needs doin'."

Ezra blinked at him then inclined his head. "Thank you, Buck."

JD fell into step with Ezra as he headed for the door. "You want to get a drink, Ezra?" he asked quietly.

"JD, I want to get blind, stupid, passed-out drunk," Ezra replied roughly.

JD patted his arm, ignoring the blood on the fabric of Ezra's jacket. "We can do that."

They weren't going to leave him alone.

*******

JD kept his hand on Ezra's arm. They took the back way behind most of the stores to get to the saloon. He was chattering that it would be easier than explaining to anyone who saw them and asked what had happened. Ezra didn't care. He wasn't paying attention. It felt like he'd just gutted himself.

Just a horse, he told himself. Damn it. He'd just never imagined ending it that way. Hazard had been his companion for years, of course he'd grown attached to the animal, but he needed to pull himself together. Appearances were everything. He was making a spectacle of himself, acting so ridiculously hurt over a mere horse. He feared he was upsetting JD, prompting the nonstop monologue he was ignoring as they walked along.

They were in the alley when he sensed someone behind them.

He started to turn.

The plank hit the back of JD's head, sending him crumpling to his knees.

Ezra staggered aside.

He turned and stared a the man who had just clubbed JD down.

Walter Harrison, a plank in his right hand, sporting a bushy beard, stood glaring gimlet-eyed at Ezra.

"Standish," he growled. His hand tightened on the plank. "How'd you like it?"

Sickness and fury warred inside Ezra, joined by a stab of worry for JD. JD was still on his hands and knees, slowly shaking his head and mumbling. He understood without need of details that Harrison was responsible for Hazard's suffering at the livery, for the bounty hunters who had plagued them to Virginia City and back, and maybe more.

His hand dropped to his gunbelt and he remembered in shock that he hadn't recovered his Remington from the livery floor.

Harrison noticed and laughed.

"I been watching you, gambler," he went on. "Watching you since I found out you was here. That deed was mine. You shouldn't've got rich off it. Nothing ever went right after you took that deed from me. Nothing. If I'd got it back, everything would be fine. My Bessie wouldn't have gone back east. I had three mining claims, all of them making me a fortune and then when you stole that deed from me it all went away. The mines just played out. I know it was your fault! I know it! You've got to pay!" He kept talking faster and faster, his voice rising and madness creeping visibly over his features. A bubble of spit worked out his mouth and ran into his beard.

"It was worthless," Ezra said dully. "Until a few weeks ago, you could have bought it back for the price a drink."

"I didn't know!" Harrison howled.

"Neither did I."

"No, you did. You did." Harrison's big head bobbed up and down manically. "You knew. Somehow. I know you did. Your kind is always cheating and swindling. You're no good. Should have shot you back then. Told my boys to get you but you lit out of town. I should have got that deed back. You shouldn't have got away. It all fell apart after you showed up. It was your fault! It was!"

JD groaned and vomited into the dirt. Harrison hefted the plank tighter.

"I lost everything!"

Ezra shifted. He wanted Harrison's attention on him, not JD. JD was in no condition to defend himself. The sharp-sour reek of vomit caught at the back of his throat, making his own stomach roil in sympathy.

"I been watching you, Standish," Harrison said slyly. "Been watching." He nodded to himself. Another line of spittle escaped his mouth. He rotated his shoulder stiffly. "You're a lucky sonovabitch. I took a shot at you one day. I'd have got you too if that damn horse had spooked away like a normal animal. God damn devil horse... It bit me twice."

Ezra flinched inside. Hazard... So Harrison had been responsible for the cut cinch too.

"Your luck's coming to an end today. So how do you like it? You took everything away from me, everything, so now I took what you cared about. Got the idea from seeing you go off your head in the saloon. Guess someone else didn't like you much either, hey? Poisoned you." Harrison shook his head in disappointment. "But you just didn't die. You should've died. I wouldn't have had to give that devil horse locoweed if you had."

JD was still wretching, oblivious to the confrontation above him. His bowler hat lay upside down a few feet away. Ezra thought he saw blood matted in the black hair at the back of JD's head.

"You poisoned my horse," Ezra said icily.

Harrison lifted the plank higher. He eyed JD. "I been watching. Bet this kid means something to you. I seen you with him and that long-haired one. Thought sure that bunch of bounty hunters would take care him."

"You are the lowest, most loathsome scum I have had the misfortune to encounter in a life spent plumbing the depths of human behavior," Ezra drawled. He took a step that put him between Harrison and JD. "You have attempted murder, commited assault on a sworn officer of the law, and victimized an innocent animal for the twisted, insane idea of revenge. Whatever misfortunes you have suffered, you have been the architect of them, not I."

"No, it's your fault "

Harrison hefted the plank high and began to swing at Ezra's head.

Ezra reached inside his jacket and drew the Richards' Conversion he carried in his shoulder holster. He had never replaced the derringer Polly used in Virginia City.

Harrison's eyes widened as Ezra wove away from his assault and brought the gun up lightning quick.

"Cheat!" he howled.

He rushed at Ezra, moving away from JD. At the end of the alley, Buck appeared. Ezra saw him from the corner of his eye and felt a measure of relief. Whatever happened, Buck would protect JD.

"Put the plank down, Harrison," he said, dodging another swing. He wanted to shoot the man and restrained himself by the thinnest of threads, the acknowledgement that Harrison was mad.

"Going to kill you!" Harrison yelled, saliva spraying from his mouth.

Ezra ducked another swing and cursed. His back was against the wall of the saloon. Harrison seemed blind to the gun Ezra aimed at him. The man was too intent on killing him to recognize any sense or danger. As Harrison raised the plank high to bring it down of Ezra's head, Ezra decided he'd had enough. Mad or not, he wasn't about to let Harrison hit him.

He shot Harrison in the gut. It was quite deliberate. He knew how much a gut wound could make a man suffer. It wouldn't kill him immediately.

It didn't stop Harrison. The man was too far gone.

"Kill you, kill you, kill you, kill you..." he repeated, bringing the plank down.

"No you ain't," Buck said from behind him. Buck set his gun to the back of Harrison's head.

"Kill all of you!" Harrison roared, rearing back.

Buck pulled the trigger. One of Harrison's eyes bulged out from the pressure of the bullet boring through his skull in a split second. The other disappeared in a spray of blood and other wet matter. The angle meant most of it hit the wall over Ezra's shoulder, but a spatter of it landed on his face and in his hair. He blinked in shock, watching as more scarlet blood flooded from Harrison's nose and mouth.

The plank fell from nerveless fingers. It hit Ezra's shoulder anyway, but without the murderous force Harrison would have given it. Harrison spewed another gout of blood and dropped to the alley dirt at Ezra's feet.

"You okay, Ez?" Buck asked worried. He glared to the corpse between them.

Ezra managed to nod. He wasn't, but it didn't matter. He wasn't hurt.

Buck sent a skeptical look his way before hurrying to JD's side. He bent close. "Hey, kid, come on now, you in there?"

"Buuuck?" JD slurred.

Buck patted JD's back gently. "Right here, kid."

Ezra slid down the wall until he was resting on the dirt, his knees bent sharply, one boot nudged against the brawny shoulder of Harrison's corpse. He let his head drop back against the wall. His finger was still curled around the Colt Richards' trigger. He couldn't make it release.

The sky above the alleyway was cloudless, searing blue. Infinity. It made his eyes ache and burn. He shuddered violently, seeing the black specks circling high, high above town.

Buzzards.

His face itched. He didn't touch it. He knew it was Harrison's blood, but it felt exactly the way Saville's had. He swallowed hard and wondered if he wasn't going to throw up too. The alley reeked already, the air fouled with the fetor of garbage and urine, joined now with blood and vomit, gunsmoke and the stench of voided bowels from the body. A little more stink would be lost in it.

Saliva flood his mouth and he spit to the side hurriedly.

Buck looked up.

"Ez?"

Ezra clawed at the wall behind him with his free hand, pulling himself back onto his feet. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I'll get Nathan," he croaked.

"JD ain't going to want him."

Ezra stared at him dully, not understanding. Then he remembered and another stab of pain ran through him. Oh yes. JD had taken his part over Nathan's in the matter of the poisoning. But he wouldn't let JD suffer for that loyalty.

"Mr. Jackson is still the closest thing we have to a doctor here and Mr. Dunne took a severe blow to the head," he insisted.

Buck looked down at JD, who was still only semi-conscous.

"All right, you go on an get him."

Ezra fumbled twice then managed to reholster the Colt Richards. His body felt disconnected from his head as he walked back toward the livery. He thought he'd heard Nathan in the barn while he was sitting with Hazard... The man was probably upstairs in his clinic.

He walked straight down the main street, unaware of the horrified looks and the way anyone near drew back from his appearance.

*******

Nathan opened the clinic door and stared in shock.

Ezra's face was a mask of cracked, drying blood dominated by his glazed green eyes.

"JD's hurt," Ezra rasped curtly.

Nathan stared at him.

"Buck's with him."

"Where?" he asked.

"Alley. Back of the saloon," came the curt reply. Ezra was already turning away.

"He shot?" Nathan called. He picked up his bag of medicines, trying decide what he'd need to treat JD. From the amount of blood on Ezra someone was dead. That usually meant shot, though knives made for bloodier fights, but JD didn't fight with knives and neither did Ezra. He added, "What happened."

"Hit over the head."

Nathan stomped down the stairs behind Ezra, irritated by his close-mouthed answers. Irritated by everything about him, as usual. He'd bet whatever trouble JD had run into it had been because of the gambler.

"He pass out?"

"I... don't know."

"You ain't a lot of use," Nathan said scornfully. He hurried past Ezra. He didn't notice him stop and just lean against the wall. He wouldn't have cared if he had. Ezra was the reason everything had gone to hell. Nathan blamed him for the way the rest of the seven treated him like some kind of pariah.

Even Josiah didn't look at him the same anymore. Nathan had finally explained everything about Maude and the demon's brew he'd told her to use on Ezra as they rode back to Four Corners. Josiah had said very little. But there'd been a sort of gentle respect in Josiah's attitude toward Nathan before. That had gone.

It was all Ezra's fault, Nathan had decided.

*******

Vin met Chris riding back into town. It had been a while since they'd spent any time together and it felt good. The old, easy understanding between them was still there, just less intense.

Vin figured that was a good thing.

Chris didn't need anyone to pull him out of his despair anymore. Vin didn't need the promise of company when he finally rode back to Tascosa to face a noose. They'd both made it through their desperate times. Now they were just two men that liked and respected and understood each other. But neither of them needed the other man to stand up any more; they could stand on their own.

It felt good.

He glanced over at Chris. A quirky smile lifted the his friend's lips. Understanding and the same thoughts showed through his eyes. He nodded and tipped his hat at Vin.

The feeling of peace lasted until they spotted Tiny and his team of mules pulling an open freight wagon with a dead horse in the bed. The liveryman was hunched over on his seat, the harness ribbons loose in his fingers, letting the mules set their own pace out of town.

Tiny loved horses. It was what made him one of the best livery man Vin had known, but it meant the death of a horse hurt him. That alone would explain the man's slumped shoulders. But the way Tiny looked up as they rode up next to the wagon and shook his head before running a big hand over his face, convinced Vin something worse had happened than an animal just dying.

Maybe something a lot more than that too.

They spurred forward to meet the wagon then reined around to pace it in the same direction. Chris drew Nero up alongside the wagon, nodding to Tiny.

Peso balked and neighed in protest at the reek of death and the flies already buzzing in hellish numbers over the dead horse. Vin winced and soothed the mustang, turning his face away from the back of the wagon. Something in him screamed that he knew the dead animal.

"Trouble?" Chris asked Tiny.

Tiny nodded.

Vin guided Peso to walk along outside of Nero and Chris. The wagon creaked over the road, groaning a little as a wheel dropped into a rut. The high hum of the flies made Vin's nerves crawl.

"Mr. Standish had to shoot his horse."

The shock made Vin sit back in the saddle and pull Peso up. He stared at the bloodied, dull creature in the wagon bed and his brain finally matched it with the high-headed, chestnut gelding he'd snuck an apple to only that morning when he'd come in to saddle Peso.

"Aw, jesus, Ez," he muttered.

Chris glanced back and grimaced. "Hell."

"What happened?" Vin asked roughly.

Tiny's expression of sorrow deepened. "Got feed loco weed by someone. Went plumb crazy. Wrecked the stall." He rubbed at his chin. Vin noticed a dark bruise blooming there. "Broke a leg, done some bad damage to one of his hooves, got all cut up. Wasn't nothing anyone could do," he explained slowly. The regret in his eyes was leavened with respect. "Mr. Standish did what had to be done before his horse could tear himself up worse." He looked down at the reins in his big hands. "He didn't say much, but I don't figure I ever seen anyone take it any harder than him."

Vin glanced back at Hazard's body and nodded to himself. Doing that would just about kill Ezra.

"You know who did it?" Chris demanded. "Who poisoned that horse?" He was as coldly furious as Vin was sad.

"Figure it was the feller that attacked the sheriff," Tiny replied. "He's dead. Heard a couple stories. Mr. Standish or Buck Wilmington shot him dead. Don't know for sure, Sam gets things mixed up sometimes and I was busy getting the carcass out of the barn."

"JD?" Chris snapped.

"Heard they had him over to Mr. Jackson's clinic," Tiny said. He looked up. "One of you want to tell Mr. Standish I got his gun in the tackroom?... He just left it after..."

"Yeah, we'll do that, Tiny," Vin promised. Chris was already intent on getting to town and finding out the rest of what had happened. Vin knew they weren't going to make any difference. Whatever had happened was done.

Chris pulled Nero around and set him toward Four Corners at a gallop.

Vin tipped his hat to Tiny, then set Peso after Chris.

*******

He found Ezra holed up in his room. A filthy, blood-soaked coat lay on the floor. The pitcher on the washstand was empty and the bowl full of dirty water. The towel crumpled next to it was stained too.

Ezra was in his shirt sleeves, sitting in his rocker, just staring out the window. Whatever effort he'd made to clean up had run out of steam before he finished. Vin could see muck in his hair.

Vin stepped into the room and just stood. Ezra didn't acknowledge him.

He nodded to himself.

"JD's going to be okay, Ez," Vin told him. They stopped first at the livery, going upstairs to Nathan's familiar domain to check on their youngest. JD was in bed, a wet cloth over his forehead, a pot of willow bark tea cooling on the stove. Buck as sitting with him. It had been such a familiar scene Vin had felt dizzy.

He'd looked away from JD and saw Nathan staring at him.

Nathan's eyes were dark with anger and blame. Vin knew just who he was blaming too. He stepped over to JD's side, patted his shoulder and told him he was happy to hear he would all right. Then he'd left, knowing Chris would stick with Buck for a while before going over to the jail and spelling Josiah. There was nothing else to do. Things were long past fixing.

He'd stopped into Tiny's tackroom afterwards, after he led Peso inside the livery. He hesitated and stared at the ruined stall for a long moment before going on and untacking his own horse. He spent several extra moments grooming the mustang, acknowledging his own attachment, until Peso grew impatient and tried kick him through a wall. With a slap to the rump, Vin had exited Peso's stall. He'd left his tack with Sam to clean up and retrieved Ezra's Remington.

He set it next to Ezra's gunbelt, which was tossed carelessly on the top of his dresser.

"A blow to the head can be quite serious," Ezra said.

"Yep." He was glad Ezra was at least talking. He moved into the room and began gathering together a simple change of clothes.

Ezra turned his head far enough to watch what Vin was doing.

"May I inquire why you are making free with my belongings, Vin?" he asked after some time.

"Just getting you something to wear after we get done at the bathhouse."

Ezra tipped his head back.

"I don't wish to go out."

"Did ask what ya wished."

"Ah." Ezra turned back to the window. The rocker squeaked softly. "Not the green," he murmured. "I've taken a scunner to that color."

Vin looked at the green coat in his hands and realized it was the same shade Ezra had worn the night his cousin was killed. He hung it back up and pulled out a bluish-gray garment instead.

Vin set the gathered clothes on the quilt-topped bed. He walked over and set his hand on Ezra's head. He could remember his mother doing that when he was small, before she died of the fever. He remembered how it felt somehow like she was laying some special protection over him. Ezra's head bowed.

He couldn't come up with anything comforting to say. Only, "Some things are just bitter, Ez. Just bitter all the way through." He thought of other things he wanted to say, but none of them were right. Not yet.

Ezra's hand tightened around the arm of the rocking chair. He nodded.

"I know," Vin said. "I know."

"My soap is in a gold and ivory keeper in the top drawer of the dresser," Ezra murmured.

Vin went and retrieved the soap while Ezra rose from the rocker. He carried the clothes and the soap and walked slowly beside his friend until they reached the bathhouse.

Mulligan took one look at Ezra and nodded to Vin. He pointed to the backroom where a man could wash up in private. Vin set a coin on the counter. Mulligan snatched it up. "The boy'll be back with towels and extra hot water," Mulligan promised. "Ya need soap?"

"Nope. Just leave us alone."

Mulligan nodded. He darted another look at Ezra and his face twisted. Ezra ignored everything. Vin pushed him forward and he went.

Vin paused and glanced back. He fished out another coin and tossed it to Mulligan. "Go get a bottle of Scotch from Inez."

Mulligan nodded.

Vin figured that maybe, if he got drunk enough, Ezra might sit the tub and finally let out some of the grief that he'd been carrying around since Virginia City since the war really either that or he'd just drink himself into passing out. Either way, Vin would be around to watch his back.

Sometime during the night, he would get a promise out of Ezra; a promise to stay in Four Corners until Vin returned. He knew Ezra would want to go now, but there was something Vin meant to do before that and when Ezra left he meant to be riding beside him.

He just hoped that what he meant to do would work out right.

27. Four Corners, 1877

I know that the spades are swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart

Shape of My Heart,
Sting

JD, you realize that this is utter drivel, don't you?" Ezra asked. He lifted the dime novel in his hand with an expression of distaste. The cover showed a cowboy all in black with a bandanna over his eyes and two pistols in his hands. The Blind Gunfighter Returns was printed in florid type above the picture.

JD didn't open his eyes.

"It could happen, Ez."

"Oh, of a certainty," Ezra exclaimed scornfully. "Why just ask Mr. Larabee and I'm sure he'll tell you how accurately he can shoot with his eyes closed! A blind gunfighter. Ridiculous."

They were sitting on the sidewalk outside the jail, waiting for the heat of the day to pass.

"You tired of reading to me?" JD asked.

Ezra hesitated. "No," he said.

He studied JD. Was he still a little pale? He looked thinner. Ezra knew JD had found it difficult to keep anything down for over a week after Harrison hit him upside the head. Perhaps his appetite was still impaired. He would have to see about making sure Buck wasn't eating most of JD's meals.

"No," he repeated firmly.

He opened the dime novel again, only grimacing slightly at the purple prose that described the brave American gunfighter's quest for revenge on the evil Mexican Don who had him blinded for courting the Don's daughter. Or something like that. The fictional character's fate served as a reminder that it was never a good idea to interrupt the privacy of a lady's bath, whether she was the virgin goddess of the hunt or a fiery Spanish senorita.

The tale had progressed to the gunfighter's meeting with a mysterious guitar player also in search of vengeance.

Pure tripe.

He began reading again. JD insisted he was recovered, but privately admitted that he was still suffering from a headache that only got worse when he tried to read. Ezra had agreed to read to him and over the last week it had become something of a habit.

The novel had progressed to the gunfighter's discovery that his inamorata had indeed betrayed him to her father when a dusty horse and rider, trailed by a second horse, resolved themselves out of the shimmering heat haze. Ezra paused and cocked his head, watching as they made their way closer, slowly becoming recognizable.

The blaze-faced mustang ambled down Main Street looking weary. On his back, Vin slouched down in the saddle, looking equally worn. His hat was tipped low over his face.

The blue roan on the lead rope dallied to Vin's saddle horn looked the worst of them. The horse was gaunted, ribs clear along its sides, flanks sunken. It still snorted and balked at the end of the lead rope, eyes rolling white at the surrounds of the town.

People scattered away from the roan as it neighed and danced at the end of the rope, kicking and striking with its forelegs at anything too near.

"That's some horse," JD breathed from beside Ezra. He'd opened his eyes and sat forward with his forearms on his knees. His gaze was bright with approval of the roan.

Ezra agreed. Even used-up and dirty, nothing could hide the animal's spirit or its clean conformation nor the deep, slate-blue gleam on its dark coat. A genuinely beautiful horse that any man would envy owning. He cocked his head. Yes, it was the mustang they'd all admired as they passed through Arizona.

Vin had apparently returned along their trail to do some horse hunting.

"Mr. Tanner should make a fine profit from his catch."

Vin drew Peso up in front of the jail. He ignored the roan's antics serenely.

"Glad you're still around, Ez."

"I did agree to remain," Ezra replied.

He spotted a small nod on JD's part and saw Vin's lips curl into a smile. JD looked quite satisfied too. So satisfied that Ezra realized the sheriff had been playing up his infirmity to keep Ezra from leaving. He felt a spark of indignation, but pride in JD's subtle and successful con overtook that feeling.

"Might I inquire to your plans for that fine piece of horseflesh?" he asked Vin.

"Yep."

Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"What do you plan on doing with him, Vin?"

Vin's smile flashed white.

"Goin' to take him down to Tiny's, put him into one of the corrals, and after that he's your problem, Ez."

Ezra stared at the grinning Texan. "My problem, sir?" he repeated.

"Yep."

He looked at the blue roan again, cataloguing the long, sound legs, the depth of the horse's chest, the proud arch of his neck and the high carriage of his tail, the back neither too long or too short, the hindquarters laded with muscle, and small ears set wide apart on the broad, sculpted head that promised intelligence as well as spirit. The horse was faultless. Probably not more than three years old, the roan didn't even sport the old scars that a life in the wild eventually would inflict.

The roan was truly magnificent.

"Know it ain't Hazard," Vin said.

Ezra jerked his gaze back to Vin's suddenly serious face.

"But a man needs a good horse. He's got all the speed and bottom ya'll ever need. Figure you can break and train him yourself." Vin paused. "Or I can help ya."

"Vin, this is it's too much. I can't "

"Yeah, you can, Ezra," JD said firmly. "You have to."

Ezra glanced at JD. JD looked back at him calmly, a quiet, determined wisdom in his gaze and his young face that was very much like Vin's and that told Ezra JD understood everything.

He licked his lower lip nervously.

No, the roan wasn't Hazard. Nothing would take the chestnut's place or erase his sorrow over what had happened. But the roan was a gift from a friend and he would be a knave and a churl to refuse it.

The roan swung around on the long lead and tried to kick Peso. The black mustang shifted just far enough out of the way to avoid the blow. Vin moved fluidly with him, at one with his mount.

Ezra took a deep breath.

"I'd appreciate that, Vin."

Vin smiled again, slow and pleased, before nodding his head to both JD and Ezra and headed for the livery.

The roan blew out one last, blasting neigh then obeyed the insistent tug of the lead with a toss of his head.

"Guess you'll have to stay a little longer, until you get your horse broke," JD said.

Ezra chuckled at the satisfaction in JD's voice.

"For a while, JD." He cuffed JD's arm lightly. "Were you in on this plan with Mr. Tanner?"

JD grinned at him. "Nope. I heard him making Chris and Buck swear they wouldn't let you take off before he come back, though. I just, you know, exaggerated how much my head was hurting. I really do like listening to you read, Ezra. And I knew you wouldn't leave as long as you were worried about me."

"Why on earth would I worry about you, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked.

JD just laughed.

*******

"So, Ez, what're you goin' to name him?" Buck asked.

Ezra, seated across the table from him, raised his eyebrows. "That seems a trifle premature."

Buck leaned back in his chair. He spread his arms wide. "Hell, you been working with him for a week now. You got to have some sort of idea."

Ezra glanced at the other men at the table with them. "Gentlemen?"

"You could call him Blue," JD offered disingenuously.

"I could," Ezra agreed, pursing his lips. As if he would name his mount something so... plebian.

JD's eyes glinted. He dodged Buck's half-hearted swipe at his hat and settled back in his own chair.

"Kid, you know Ezra ain't goin' to name that horse nothing any ordinary person would," Buck laughed.

Ezra buffed his fingernails against his silver brocade vest. "I have always considered myself out of the ordinary."

One seat away, just beyond Vin, Chris chuckled into his mug of beer. The day's heat had even the whiskey drinkers with a large mug of something in front of them. JD had his milk. Josiah was nursing a tall glass of plain water. He hadn't been drunk since coming back from Virginia City.

Josiah tipped his head back and recited: "'Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible. He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength; He goes out to meet the weapons.'"

"Uh hunh," Buck grunted.

"From the Book of Job."

"You figure that roan is goin' to 'leap like a locust' when Ezra gets around to tryin' to fork him for the first time?" Buck asked.

"You don't, Brother?"

"Hell, yes. That stud's goin' to go up like a rocket." Buck laughed. "I'd lay money on it."

"Oh, really, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra pounced on the prospect of a wager. "What do you wager?"

Buck's mouth fell open and an expression of sheer dismay overtook his handsome features. He looked at his other companions for a little help and garnered no more than toothy grins and Vin's outright laughter. He closed his mouth.

"All right, Ezra. Twenty bucks says the wild horse throws you at least once before he's broke to ride."

Ezra's gold tooth flashed.

"Done."

Vin just shook his head and JD giggled.

Chris raised an eyebrow at Buck and told him, "Don't think I'm going to cover that bet, Buck."

Buck grabbed up his beer and hid his face behind the mug after taking a long swig.

Chris looked over at Ezra. "You want to take him out to my ranch, do the work there? Bit quieter."

Ezra considered the offer. The solitude of Chris' ranch would be better for gentling the skittish roan. Vin's gift was too fine a horse not to have drawn attention already. He had no intention of putting on a rodeo for the entertainment of a mob of loutish observers. They could be too distracting.

He nodded. "I'd appreciate that."

Chris rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw. "You planning on getting him cut?' he asked.

JD flinched and Buck crossed his legs.

Ezra nodded regretfully. An uncut stud was just too stroppy to use as a regular mount. They were too much like Buck Wilmington; let them get downwind of a mare in season and that was all they were interested in.

"He's an awful fine horse," Chris said. "Seems a shame."

"Unfortunately, as you know, stallions are simply too contentious to make good saddle horses," Ezra replied.

He sensed Chris had an idea. It wouldn't be an offer to buy the stud; Chris knew Ezra needed and wanted the roan as his new mount. Which left him curious over what Chris did have in mind.

Chris nodded. "Got a proposition for you, Ezra." He leaned forward with his forearms on the table. "I got three mares that are ready to foal in the next two, three weeks. And I know for a fact Tiny told Buck Darling was getting ready to come in season, 'cause he wanted her out of the barn so that big Percheron stud he got don't kick his barn down trying to get to her."

Ezra waited and Buck exploded, "Don't you go offerin' up my Darlin' for breeding, hoss. Hell, she gets in foal, what am I goin' to ride? You think about that?"

Chris waved a hand. "Fine." He ignored Buck's continuing splutters and met Ezra's eyes. "I'm thinking that we breed your stud to my mares before you get him gelded. With any luck, one of the foals is a good colt I can use for stud instead of trying to buy one. You get your choice of one of the others. Leave the foal with me or sell it, whatever you please."

It would mean returning to Four Corners eventually. Chris knew that. He was offering Ezra a part in his fledging horse ranch. Of course, Ezra had the money to buy his own ranch or any other business he desired now. Chris was offering something else.

Something Ezra realized he was going to accept. Though he wasn't going to make it too easy.

"One for you, one for me, and the third?" Ezra asked. He raised an eyebrow.

Chris grinned. "Well, I'm the one taking the gamble here, providing the mares and doing the raising. I figure I need to show a profit."

Ezra couldn't help laughing. Chris knew exactly how to sweeten the pot. He was promising Ezra he wouldn't have to do any of the work.

"All right, Chris," he agreed. "We'll try it. It did seem a shame to end what appears to be a fine bloodline. Let's hope he breeds true." He extended his hand over the table to Chris and shook. "I'll pony him out to your place tomorrow and begin working with him until your mares are ready. After that, the poor fellow will see the end of his procreative days."

"I used to be a pretty good hand at gelding," Chris offered. He leveled a look at Buck. His lips curled up as Buck rolled his eyes at the silent innuendo that he should have practiced his skills on more than horses.

"So, Ezra," JD asked, "What are you going to call your horse?"

"I shall decide when I have finished training him, JD."

"You don't mind if I come out and watch?"

"Of course not," Ezra told him. He sat back and withdrew a deck of cards from his vest. In the mean time... "Could I interest any of you gentlemen in a game of chance?"

*******

Ezra leaned against the pole fence next to Chris, idly scratching behind the still nameless blue roan's ear. While not fully broke yet, the two of them were well on their way to an excellent partnership. The roan already let Ezra handle him without fuss.

He had already done his enthusiastic duty for the three sleek mares grazing with their foals in the paddock beyond the corral too. Now he was nibbling at Ezra's pockets, searching for the treats he'd learned Ezra would have for him.

"When are you going to try getting in the saddle?" Chris asked tranquilly. His arms were resting folded on the top cross pole while he looked past his mares toward the horizon.

They were facing east, away from the setting sun that streaked the sky with fire that lit embers in the coats of the bay mare and the two chestnuts.

Ezra had spent the last weeks out at Chris's ranch each day, even spending some nights there, slowly teaching his horse to trust him. He'd taught the roan to lead, to accept a halter and then a hackamore. After that, he'd introduced the roan to a light snaffle bit. Once the roan was accustomed to wearing the bridle, Ezra had started laying a blanket over the roan's back each day. The next step had been letting Ezra lay over his back for a minute, then a few minutes, then as long as Ezra stayed there.

Ezra had actually swung astride the roan days before, but that had been bareback. The saddle was what the roan didn't like. Ezra had patiently kept working with him until it was possible to tack him up without a fight. He thought they might be ready for the next step.

"Tomorrow."

"Going to tell Buck?"

"Hmmn." Ezra thought about it. There was the bet... He shrugged. "If I see him tonight at the saloon, I'll mention it."

"Vin'll be out here tomorrow anyway."

Ezra nodded. Vin had spent long hours at the ranch, helping him with the roan. He rubbed the roan's nose then pushed him back. "Enough, you greedy fiend," he told the horse fondly. The roan snorted then trotted to the far side of the corral, where he turned and watched the mares and foals with pricked ears.

Two of the gangly-legged colts tore across the paddock, drawing up just in time to avoid hitting the fence, before turning and galloping back to their dams' sides, necks and bottle-tails carried high. Ezra watched them with real pleasure. He wondered if the next year's foals would be as fine and decided he would have to return in time to admire them. The thought surprised him. His determination to leave Four Corners soon hadn't dimmed, yet for the first time he knew without any doubt he would return to a place. He would return to Four Corners. How curious that, after all that had passed, that place would still be Four Corners.

As long as Chris or Buck or JD or Josiah still remained in Four Corners, Ezra would return. He would return, knowing he would find himself welcome. It was a pleasant thought and a smile accompanied it.

"My grandfather always said he didn't need anything more to entertain him in life than to watch a bunch of foals or a litter of kittens playing," Chris remarked.

Ezra watched the foals' antics as the dusk deepened. "I never knew either of my grandfathers," he disclosed. It wasn't painful; one seldom missed what one had never had. "My Peyton grandfather passed away in his mistress' bed some time before my birth an end I've always admired and my Standish grandfather died of a heart seizure after my uncle Davis was killed in a duel with my father. That effectively ruined the Standishs." He sighed. "Your grandfather sounds like a much more pleasant man than either of mine."

Chris laughed quietly. "He was a charmer, they say, but worthless as the teats on a boar hog according to my grandmother."

Ezra chuckled.

Chris pushed away from the fence and stretched. "May as well come inside and have supper. Ain't got nothing but beans and bacon, of course."

"Amazing what I've become accustomed to making do with," Ezra said.

Chris headed for the dark bulk of his cabin. Ezra followed and slipped inside the cabin behind him, waiting as Chris lit one his oil lamps and adjusted the wick then slipped the fragile glass chimney back over it. The warm light illuminated the cramped interior of the cabin, the quilt-covered cot in the corner, the flour sack curtains and rickety furniture.

Chris went over to the stove and built up the fire. Ezra leaned against the doorjamb and stayed out of his way as Chris went about making dinner.

"Stupid to ride back to town in the dark," Chris mentioned as they ate.

Ezra shrugged.

"You can lay out your bedroll on the porch like Vin does. I know it's cramped in here," Chris went on. "I need to build on to the cabin and put in a bigger barn. More paddocks. More fence." He grimaced. "Even if I had the money..."

"About that, Chris," Ezra said, setting his spoon beside his tin plate and ignoring the last piece of bacon rind. "I have a proposition, as you put it, myself. I would like to invest in your horse breeding venture. I'm sure that with sufficient funds you will be successful."

Chris blinked at him. Ezra smiled. He'd finally managed to rock Chris' poise.

"You're serious, Ezra?"

"Of course. I find myself reluctant to give up all ties to... to our little band of reprobates," Ezra explained. "Horses are one of the few honest areas of expertise I possess, I respect your own knowledge and I am at the moment rather more than flush."

Chris cocked his head, clearly thinking about it.

"How much are you talking about investing?"

"Enough to accomplish the improvements you mentioned."

"Hunh."

"You needn't make your decision too swiftly. The offer will remain open," Ezra finished quietly.

He rose from his place at the table and slipped outside onto the porch.

He was laying out his bedroll by the dim but sufficient light of the stars when Chris stepped out and joined him.

"What kind of say in this partnership do you figure to get for your money?" Chris asked. He pulled a cheroot out and lit it.

Ezra glanced over at him, but couldn't see much more than a black silhouette and the bright red ember at the end of the cheroot.

"From day to day? None. I don't expect to even be here, Chris," he said. "I might offer a suggestion or perhaps acquire some additional stock where the opportunity presented itself, but essentially I would be a silent partner." He added, "I just want some place to come back to sometimes."

The ember flared brighter as Chris inhaled then almost blinked out.

"You already got that," Chris murmured. "You and Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah. Even Nathan, I guess."

Even Nathan. Not even Ezra. Ezra repressed a snort of amusement at how Nathan would like that. At the same time something clenched inside him slowly relaxed.

"Yes," he agreed softly. Even Nathan.

"You stay in the saddle tomorrow and we'll ride into Four Corners and get the papers drawn up making you a partner."

*******

Ezra looked up at the small stained-glass window in the church and waited for Josiah to notice him. Josiah was replacing a rotten floor plank behind the altar. It kept him on his knees, back bent, as he carefully pried and levered the nails free, setting them aside to save and use again.

Josiah straightened eventually, setting his hammer and pry bar aside and pressing his hands to the small of his back. A soft groan escaped him. He twisted his neck from side to side working out some of the kinks and stiff muscles, then climbed to his feet.

"Hello, Ezra."

Ezra perched on the edge of one of the restored pews. "Hello, Josiah," he replied. He looked around the church. They'd all joked that Josiah's church was an unending penance, that he'd never finish, but he would. The church was almost finished. The roof where Josiah had spent so much time would no longer leak. The interior showed the care and time Josiah had lavished on it. All it really needed was a fresh coat of whitewash and a minister. Replacing the flooring was just make-work.

"I hear Buck owes you twenty dollars."

Ezra nodded.

"Named that horse yet?"

"Not yet."

Josiah smiled as though that didn't surprise him at all. He joined Ezra at the pew and sat down with a sigh and a creak from his knees. "A man should grow wiser as he grows older, Ezra," he said.

"And have you, Josiah?" Ezra asked.

A rumble of laughter escaped Josiah. "What do you think, Ezra?"

Ezra steepled his fingers and cocked his head, looking over his hands at Josiah and appearing to consider the matter deeply. A smile tugged at his mouth. "Well..."

Josiah smiled back at him.

"What was your son like?" Ezra asked. He turned his head and looked up at the yellow and red glass in the window after he spoke, making it clear he would let it go if Josiah chose to ignore the question.

Josiah shifted beside him.

"Juan was... wild," Josiah said quietly. "Unhappy." He sighed tiredly. "The truth is he was bad. When they hung him... He wasn't innocent."

"Ah."

"You aren't like him, Ezra."

"I'm no innocent."

"Not the same."

Ezra slanted a glance at Josiah. Josiah's expression was a little distant, a little fond, mostly weary. Remembering his son obviously pained him. It didn't seem that he saw Ezra as a reincarnation of his son and that was a relief. Ezra didn't like playing stand-in for a dead man, nor what it might say about how Josiah thought of him.

"You'll be leaving soon," Josiah said into the silence.

"Yes."

"I was angry at first. I thought your leaving would destroy what we had here."

Ezra had known.

Josiah pursed his lips. "Now I think you're right, Ezra," he declared. "We've enjoyed the wine; let's leave the bitter dregs in the bottle."

"Will you stay when the church is finished?" Ezra asked.

"I don't think so, Ezra," came the answer. "My penance isn't done."

"Was what you did so bad?"

"Bad enough, Ezra. I've done evil in my time."

"You've made up for it, Josiah."

Josiah shook his head. "You don't know, Ezra. 'Just as the sand-dunes, heaped one upon another, hide each the first, so in life the former deeds are quickly hidden by those that follow after.'"[xvi]

"Marcus Aurelius?"

Josiah smiled.

Ezra got up.

"Maybe we'll run into each on the trail somewhere," he said.

"I'll look forward to it, Ezra."

He left Josiah watching the changing light pass through the window, the colors slowly creeping over the altar. The church door closed behind him without even a creak from the well-oiled hinges.

*******

Nathan confronted him on his way into the saloon, grabbing his arm when Ezra would have passed him with a polite nod and gone on inside.

"Hear you conned Chris into some fool notion of going into business with you," Nathan accused.

"Unlike yourself, I feel no hesitation in investing my money with a friend," Ezra replied. "Even should this venture fail, I won't regret it." It was the only reproof he would ever allow himself toward Nathan over the loss of his saloon.

Nathan didn't even register it.

"You're up to something," he insisted, glaring at Ezra.

"My latest nefarious intentions are to join Vin and enjoy a drink and some of Señorita Recillios' excellent cooking." He looked pointedly at the large hand still locked on his bicep.

Down the street, Chris and Buck were loading supplies onto a rented wagon in front of Watson's Hardware. Ezra had transferred the money from his account to Chris that morning at the bank. Chris had immediately grabbed Buck and set out to begin his ranch improvements.

He saw Chris pause and turn to stare at the saloon. He started toward them a step, but Ezra shook his head.

Nathan turned and noticed Chris standing and watching. Buck stood by the side of wagon, not going back inside the hardware store for another load. He was waiting too.

Nathan released his arm and immediately poked him in the chest. "You got some folks fooled right now, Ezra, but I ain't."

Ezra heaved a theatrical sigh, miming utter boredom. "Are you finished, Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan spat over the edge of the sidewalk and strode away.

Ezra rolled his eyes then tipped his hat toward Chris and Buck before slipping into the welcoming dimness of the saloon.

*******

"I guess ya figure it's time to ride out," Vin said after sitting down at the table with Ezra. Inez slipped out from behind the bar and brought over a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. She set them down silently on the table between the two men, brushed her hand over Ezra's shoulder and then Vin's, before leaving them. Her mouth turned down a little as she walked away.

Ezra casually shuffled the cards in his hands, sighed, and said, "Yes, Vin." He looked around the dim interior of the Saloon, then let his gaze stray to the brilliant light shining through the windows and the batwing doors. The ever-present dust that hung the air glittered like false gold. "Whatever it was that held me to this place once my thirty days were up... is gone now."

Vin picked up the whiskey bottle and tipped a shot of the amber liquid into Ezra's glass and then into his own. "Reckon I feel some the same," he said quietly. He knocked back about half of the whiskey then set the glass down again. "Ain't the same no more."

Ezra picked up his glass and sipped.

"I will miss it," he admitted.

The smell of horse manure, the streets that were either a mire of mud or desert dusty, the peach pies at the restaurant, the earnest Widow Travis with her ink-stained fingers and flaxen head, his feather bed in his room above the saloon, his companions at least sometimes watching his back... He had spent three years in Four Corners, risking his life nearly daily for a farcical stipend and the pleasure of calling himself a lawman. He'd never stayed anywhere so long before. It had grown... comfortable.

Vin smiled that lopsided smile of his.

"Four Corners or the seven of us?"

Ezra shrugged gracefully. "For me, they were one and the same." He absently continued to shuffle with one hand. The mark from his wedding ring had disappeared. He no longer noticed its absence. He found he didn't regret the life he had dreamed of sharing with his young wife. He wouldn't have been happy long with Lorena.

He had, at various moments, been happy in Four Corners.

He wasn't any longer.

"Ya'll be missed."

Ezra eyed Vin. "Mr. Tanner, you are an abysmal liar," he said sardonically. He leaned back in his chair, smiling his best game smile. "The most that may be said is that should this sleepy hamlet be plagued by malefactors once more, my gun or my God-given talents might be missed briefly. Mr. Mosely does a more than adequate job in my place."

"Ain't true, Ez," Vin insisted, his voice a low rasp. His blue eyes were intent. "We's your friends. Wouldn't matter none to us if you couldn't hold a gun or a card."

Ezra laughed out loud.

"Friends, Mr. Tanner?" He shook his head in denial. "Perhaps it is cynical of me, but I have observed that in most cases friendship entails a rather different standard in what is expected from me than from those so-called personages." His lips turned down in a frown and his hands sent the cards rippling in a waterfall back and forth. "Nor would I debase the word further by using it to describe the case of myself and Mr. Jackson."

"Ya know 'bout Nathan," Vin said sadly.

Ezra had learned to expect the hidden blow and the quick suspicion of everyone in his life. It didn't surprise him when it came.

Ezra's hands stilled. Long lashes dipped over his eyes. Silently, he nodded. "I am afraid that young Mr. Dunne and I were present in the next room when you confronted Mr. Jackson in Virginia City." He began shuffling absently again. "It was an unpleasant revelation for our stalwart compatriot. A blow to his faith in his fellow man."

"Reckon for ya too."

Ezra shifted his shoulders in something that wasn't quite a shrug. "I was considerably less surprised."

Disappointed. He'd been disappointed, but not surprised. He'd known his mother knew almost nothing of poisons. Nathan had been the obvious choice to provide one. He hadn't cared to have his suspicions confirmed, believing it would serve no real purpose. He hadn't trusted Nathan in regards to himself for some time.

Vin shook his head. "Don't understand why's he's so mad at ya, when he's the one that done wrong."

"Of course you do, Vin," Ezra reproved. "You're too versed in human nature not to recognize his reaction." He shrugged eloquently. "Quos læserunt et oderunt."[xvii]

"What's that one mean?"

"Whom they have injured they also hate."

Vin grunted. "I guess so."

Ezra sipped his drink and caught Inez' eye.

"Dinner, Mr. Tanner?" he asked.

"Yep."

He motioned Inez over.

"So when are you going?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Okay."

Ezra felt vaguely put out by Vin's easy acceptance of his plans, despite his reluctance to quarrel with him over those plans. He'd expected a little more from Vin. He managed a sour smile. It was perverse of him to want Vin to ask him to stay, since Vin, of them all, understood why he needed to go most.

It was time and past time.

To linger any longer would only serve to taint what had been in his memories.

"So what are ya goin' to call that horse?"

"Jester," Ezra decided, arriving at the name as he spoke.

Vin smiled sweetly.

"Reckon that's a good one."


28. Four Corners, 1877

Now these towns, they all know our name.
six-gun sound is our claim to fame.
I can hear them say...
Bad Company, and I won't deny.
Bad. Bad Company, til the day I die. 'til the day I die...

Bad Company,
Bad Company (Bandits)

Ezra rode out before dawn, Jester eager and untried under him and his pack tied behind his saddle.

The blue roan had just settled into a smooth running walk when Vin trotted Peso up beside them.

Ezra considered the lopsided smile Vin gave him by the gray, pre-morning light. He should have realized, but hadn't allowed the thought the hope to take hold.

"Got a problem?" Vin asked.

"No."

"Which way we going?"

"Whichever way we want to," Ezra replied and Vin laughed.

"How about we head some place green?"

They turned the horses north.

Eventually, Ezra reined in his mount at the top of a ridge and looked back at the little blot that was Four Corners, and commented, "Fuimus Troes."[xviii]

The bright horizon heralded the sunrise, the mountains along the horizon a jagged, black knife-edge cut against the sky. Four Corners remained in those mountains' shadow, still and quiet, only the warm light of lanterns from a few windows and the pale twist of smoke rising from stovepipes, giving any evidence of occupation.

"You quotin' that Homer fella again?" Vin asked. Peso snorted, clouds of steam forming from the black gelding's breath. Vin patted the horse's shoulder.

"Virgil."

"He one of them Greeks?"

Ezra smiled and said, "No, Virgil was a Roman. He wrote a tale called The Aeniad. A story of Aeneas, a heroic son of Ilium, the city the Greeks besieged in Homer's Iliad."

"You gonna tell me the story?"

"It's a good story, Vin."

Vin settled deeper into Peso's saddle and clucked to him. Peso struck a ground eating walk, Ezra's new mount matching him stride for stride. The air, still cold with the bite of night, seemed to fill their lungs the way it never did in town.

"Guess you better get started."

"Well," Ezra said happily, "it begins: 'Arms and the man'..."

THE END

If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Auburn would love to hear from you.

divider

[vii] A purely fictitious place, any resemblance to any real locations named Elmo is coincidental and unintentional.
[viii] Seneca (5 BC 65 AD), Moral Letters to Lucilius, 64 A.D.
[ix] Lorena by Reverend H.D.L. Webster
[x] Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, IV. i. 40
[xi] 'okay '- c.19th century, popularized during President Van Buren's re-election campaign in 1840.
[xii] Finn. Yes.
[xiii] St. Basil 329-379, Bishop of Caesarea
[xiv] The word once spoken can never be recalled. Horace.
[xv] Leviticus 21:9
[xvi] Heb. Don't look at the jug, but what is in it; never judge a book by its cover.
[xvii] Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180), Roman Emperor
[xviii] Whom they have injured they also hate. Seneca.
[xix] We were Trojans. Virgil.

Story notes

(1) Magnificent Seven canon is so historically erratic, I've felt justified in picking a likely time frame and tweaking a few contradictory statements, like Nathan's age, to improve the story's consistencies.
(2) I have seen Digger Dan's Saloon referred to as Digger Dave's. I'm honestly unsure which is canonically correct. I've chosen Digger Dan's as I find it more euphonious. And if it was Dave's? Well, it's been taken over by cousin Dan.
(3) Peyton's Ford is completely imaginary, though I have placed it in the historically important and very real Fauquier County of Virginia, heart of the Old Dominion and Mosby's operations. The atrocity at it isn't modeled on any event.
(4) As far as I can tell, no one named Standish served in Mosby's Rangers. Several individuals named Howard were on the rolls, but none with the first name of Saville. More than one artillery officer, as well as cavalry officers and enlisted men, migrated to the partisans, for a multitude of reasons.
(5) Stairstep Canyon and the Swedish Hat Silver Strike are complete inventions as well and I have played fast and loose with both geography and geology. Though a new, major strike would have been very important in Virginia City in 1877, when the famous Comstock Lode was starting to show signs of playing out.
(6) I have taken the names of a few historical figures in vain, but only in passing and not as part of the story.

Auburn, Aug 13, 2004

divider

HOME    |    AUBURN'S FIC    |    TITLES    |    AUTHORS    |    UNIVERSES

This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
email us
with corrections and additions