Zaltanaís Prediction

By Helen Adams

The 4th Anniversary Challenge: offered by NotTasha

ĎIím not asking for you to combine past challenges, but feel free to use any of the past yearís challenges as a starting point. Anything from September 2004 Ė August 2005 (including the RoundUp). The number FOUR is prominent in this challenge.í

  1. At least four of the guys must play important roles. The other three can be there but the focus should be on four of them.
  2. The story must take place in Four Corners.
  3. You must use five of the following words: Fore, For, Fore (or any word starting with fore-), Fourth, Forth, Foray, Forlorn, Forage, Forever, Forbid, Forgive, Forget, Formidable.
  4. One of the following devices must be important to the story: a Forklift/Pitchfork, a Fort, a Fortune Teller, Forty-Eight Hours, "For Whom the Bell Tolls", Four of a Kind, a Four Leaf Clover, a Four-poster Bed or the Fourth Amendment -- Use only ONE.
  5. Bonus: Try to make your title start with Q, X, Y or Z

Authorís Note: I felt bad about wimping out on year 3ís Challenge, particularly since Iíd all but promised I was going to write one! So, I was determined to answer the 4th and final Anniversary Challenge. This story combines all of the required elements and as penance (Josiah would be proud) for last year, I am also throwing in FOUR (naturally) of the past challenges:

  1. The August 2005 Defenestration Challenge (One of the seven must go through a window. Include the words frigorific (extremely cold) and defenestration. (I admit, I hurl something into a window rather than out through it, but what the hell.)
  2. The 2005 RoundUp River Challenge (include a body of water, "obnoxious singing" and the words devil, bauble, soliloquy, simple and freakish)
  3. The March 2005 Half Pound of Chocolate Challenge (A half pound of chocolate and the word Ďblueí must appear somewhere in the story.)
  4. The February 2005 Love Challenge Ė (Feature an unrequited love or secret crush, a jealous suitor out for one of the guys' blood, and/or one or more of the Seven playing match-maker for one of the others. Bonus points if Josiah plays an important role in the story.)

The stars of this story are Ezra, Buck, Nathan and Josiah, the story does take place in OW Four Corners, it includes the words Formidable, Forbid, Four, Forgive, and Forget (For is in there too but itís just hard to avoid!), my thematic device is a Fortune Teller, and of course, the story begins with the letter ĎZí. Oh, and if anyone cares this story was inspired by Ezraís line from "Achilles": "There is no such thing as bad luck!" Silly boyÖ J

(Moved to Blackraptor November 2009)


"Surely you donít believe in this nonsense!" Ezra protested, amusement lacing his words as he followed Josiah, Nathan and Buck toward a colorful striped tent which boasted the sign: ĎWorld-Famous Fortune Teller - Madame Zaltanaí.

Josiah glanced over his shoulder, giving Ezra a smile. "Might be interesting."

Ezra snorted. "Interesting. The so-called talent to divine the future simply by staring into a glass ball or tracing the lines of oneís hand is one of the oldest cons in the book. My own mother has used the ruse to great effect, which should certainly tell you something about the veracity of the claim. I would expect to find our young and all-too-impressionable Mister Dunne standing in line to have his fortune told, but not you gentlemen."

Nathan waved off the protest. "Take it easy, Ezra. Itís all in good fun. We know there ainít no chance this ladyís really gonna predict our future but it only costs five cents and you know we donít get many traveling circus shows through Four Corners. They usually pass us by for bigger towns like Eagle Bend or Watsonville. Figure we might as well enjoy whatever they got to show us while theyíre here."

"Besides," Buck added, "I promised the kid Iíd try everything and tell him all about it when he gets back. You know how disappointed he was that he had to testify against the McLeary gang the same week this show was coming through."

"Vin was a mite put out too," Josiah reminded. "He wanted to see the freak-show. You know they're supposed to have a two-headed snake, a man who swallows swords and a tattooed woman."

"Hear that lady has an angel tattooed on her back and a devil on her front. Whereabouts do you suppose she put the horns?"

"Figures you'd think of a thing like that, Buck," Josiah said, unable to prevent a grin as he considered the question. "The fire-eater is supposed to be pretty impressive too, I hear."

Ezra smirked. "Hardly a unique talent. All one requires is a particular kind of solvent to prevent burns around the mouth and face, a certain amount of artistic flair, and a lack of fear for singed eyebrows. I've performed the trick myself to great effect."

Three sets of disbelieving eyes fixed on him.

"There was a one hundred dollar wager involved," he explained.

Suddenly the doubting expressions vanished, replaced with nods of understanding.

"You'll do anything to make money, won't you?" Nathan chided. "Even something as dumb and dangerous as playing with fire."

"Naturally," he agreed. "So long as I have an opportunity to ensure my own safety first. I'm not a fool, gentlemen."

The others wisely kept their own counsel on this point. Resuming their original topic, Josiah told him, "We've all been looking forward to these events, Ezra, including the fortune teller. In fact, I think the only one who was glad to be going out of town this week was Chris."

Buck agreed. "He hates this shit. Thinks itís all a bunch of hooey."

Smiling a bit, Ezra shook his head. "Well, now Iíve heard it all. You mean to tell me that Mister Larabee and I have actually discovered a point of mutual agreement?"

Reaching one long arm behind him, Josiah collared the still trailing Ezra and dragged him forward to join the rest of them. "Come on. You know you want a chance to pick apart Madame Zaltanaís performance up close. Iíll even spot you a nickel for the reading. You can pay me back with a beer when we reach the saloon later."

Mollified by the idea that he would not actually have to pay for this, Ezra tipped his hat in the older manís direction and picked up his pace.

As they arrived, two people were just leaving the tent. Leonard Hunt, a farmer who owned a small piece of land just outside of town, and his fiancee Sharon Pryor, a local dressmaker.

All four lawmen tipped their hats in greeting as they passed the couple, but Buck, no more able to ignore a woman with sparkling brown eyes, honey colored curls and a sweet heart-shaped face than he would have been able to stop the sun from shining, flashed his best smile. "Howdy," he said warmly. "Fine day ainít it?"

The woman smiled back at him but her fianceeís eyes narrowed. "Passable," he grunted.

Ignoring him, Buck went on, "Why Miss Sharon, I do declare that seeing your pretty smile is enough to make a man forget heís ever had a sad thought."

Sharonís cheeks reddened at the smooth line, but Leonard nearly growled, steering her quickly away without so much as a word of greeting to anyone else.

"Buck, maybe you ought not to do things like that," Nathan suggested mildly.

He looked surprised. "Do what?"

Josiah and Ezra exchanged an amused look. "Paying such obvious tribute to another manís lady-love," Ezra explained, "may not be a particularly healthy pursuit."

Buck laughed. "You mean Leonard? Aw, he wouldnít try to hurt me! Heís a good man, and besides, everybody knows sheís head over heels for him. He ainít got anything to worry over, so giving a little compliment wonít do any harm."

"I hope youíre right," Josiah told him, pulling back the flap to Madame Zaltanaís place of business.

Forgetting all about the young couple, the four lawmen placed their payments in a small moneybox and entered the tent. Buck and Nathan helped themselves to seats in front of the fortune tellerís table, while Josiah and Ezra remained standing.

Madame Zaltana ignored the new arrivals, sitting calmly in her chair with her eyes closed and her hands spread palm-up, chin tilted toward the sky, seemingly communing with the spirits as her guests settled themselves.

Ezra smiled as he watched her swaying slightly, his ears detecting a low hum emanating from her throat. A plump middle aged woman, with scarves, robes, bangles and baubles distributed generously over her person, and makeup caked heavily over her dark skinned features, she certainly looked the part. He counted the seconds, silently applauding when she waited just long enough for the other three men to begin fidgeting and clearing their throats in impatience, then came "awake" with a great flourish. Her hands flew upward; the bracelets on her wrists jangling impressively as she gave a dramatic gasp, her kohl-rimmed eyes opening wide.

"Such powerful spirits, I have seldom detected," she intoned in a deep, slightly whispering voice that had her visitors unconsciously leaning forward. "Your auraís are clear; bright. The paths I see stretching before you are filled with danger, excitement and formidable challenges. Your fates . . . locked together!"

She paused to take a deep breath, once again swaying and closing her eyes. Buck, Nathan, and even Josiah appeared to be holding their breaths as they waited. Each man jumped when Zaltana suddenly lurched forward, eyes once again going wide. Her fingers splayed tensely atop the table as she leaned forward, the motion giving the impression that she had been punched in the stomach. Fixing her gaze upon Nathan, she pointed a plump finger at him. "You!"

Ezra nearly laughed. She was really quite a good performer, he decided. The entertainment factor had proved to be worth the price after all.

"Me?" Nathan said, swallowing.

The woman smiled darkly. "Yes; and you!" she hissed, eyes shifting to include Josiah in her proclamation. He shifted uncomfortably. Zaltana gazed intently into the crystal ball resting upon the folds of several silk scarves on the table before her. "For you, I sense an intertwining of destiny. You will soon have an unexpected encounter. An unwelcome confrontation from which you will have no chance to escape. One which will mark you; possibly causing you to be shunned by those closest to you. It cannot be changed, but you are forewarned and so you may yet escape with your lives. Beware, my friends."

Looking over his shoulder, Nathan met Josiahís eyes, a flash of worry passing between them. "Weíll sure keep an eye out for trouble, maíam. Thank you," Josiah told her.

"Yesím, we sure will," Nathan concurred. Rising from his seat, he backed quickly toward the tent flap, practically shoving Ezra off his feet in his urge to have someone else take his place before the fortune teller.

Ezra sat down calmly; dancing green eyes meeting Buckís equally amused blue ones. "Such a dark prediction makes me shudder to think what else the fates must have in store for us," he said mildly, offering his right hand to the woman. "Would you care to check my lifeline, madam, and ensure that it hasnít likewise diverged down some path of unexpected misery?"

Madame Zaltana cast him a sharp look. Ezra tilted one eyebrow slightly, and the woman smiled, giving him an almost imperceptible nod, which he returned. "In your future," she purred, accepting his hand and running her fingertips lightly across his palm, "I see love, handsome gifts and rich rewards."

"Hey, all right!" Buck approved, elbowing him in the ribs. "Thatís more like it."

"You will become the object of an amorous pursuit," she went on, studying his palm closely, "and for a time, good fortune will be lavished upon you. But take care!"

Ezra smirked and murmured, "Here it comes."

"A jealous man will bar your path to happiness, and the well meaning help of another will only further your difficulties. Nothing but misery will come of this relationship, so guard yourself closely, my young friend."

Ezra freed his hand from hers and tipped his hat saucily. "Consider it guarded, my dear."

Zaltana turned her attention to Buck. Ignoring his outstretched hand, she sat up straight, whirling her hands over the top of her small crystal globe. "For you, the spirits speak most clearly to me."

Buck dragged his chair a bit closer, eagerly waiting.

"Ahhh," she breathed, dark eyes gleaming as she looked up at him. "I see that you have a precious gift at your command."

He nodded, trying and failing to look modest. "The ladies do love me."

"Indeed," she agreed complacently, "but the gift to which I refer is that of seeing into the hearts of others."

Buck grinned. "Yes, maíam, that too. Reckon thereís a reason Iíve been the best man at eight different weddings!"

"And a reason you have broken many hearts," she replied knowingly, causing Buck to shift in his seat looking embarrassed but still rather smug. "Beware the misuse of your power, my friend, for I see it bringing great misery to someone close to you."

Madame Zaltana resumed her previous pose, closing her eyes and lifting her palms toward the heavens. Clearly, the reading was over.

"Well, that wasnít quite what I expected," Nathan commented as they left the tent and made their way toward the clearing where food tables had been set up. "I thought fortune tellers were supposed to promise everybody fame, wealth and true love. Sounds like we all got trouble of some kind brewing."

"Itís all the same nonsense," Ezra assured him with a pat on the shoulder. "I strongly suspect the lady was already well aware of our identities and assorted reputations before she even began her soliloquy from the Great Beyond. Predicting a meeting with some dangerous character for one of us is like predicting that weíll need to shave some time this week. Inevitable."

Josiah nodded. "I suppose so, and what about her prediction of dangerous love affairs and broken hearts for you and Buck?"

"Mister Wilmington is well known to be a ladiesí man and an inveterate matchmaker, but his efforts at both of those pursuits have blown up in his face on more than one occasion. Something Zaltana could have easily learned from speaking with other customers. And I could see quite clearly in her eyes that she recognized me as a fellow practitioner of gainful deception."

"She knows you con folks?" Nathan clarified.

Ezra ignored him and continued, "Just as I knew her for the well-dressed charlatan that she is. Iím quite certain she knows I am a gambler by trade which means that predicting monetary rewards would not necessarily gain my belief in her power, so instead she opted to stress a more universal desire; that of being loved. By warning me that said love could also be dangerous, she freed herself of any responsibility should I be fool enough to rush into a romance on her recommendation, only to end up with a broken heart."

"All just a bunch of hooey, huh?" Buck asked with a smile, recalling their earlier conversation.

The gambler dusted off his sleeve. "Indeed, and that makes this is an historic occasion to be sure, for Mister Larabee and I find ourselves in complete agreement."

"So then the rest of us got nothing to worry about," Nathan said, his tone as much question as statement.

Ezra smiled. "Not a thing."

 

Chapter 2

 

As the sun moved towards the western horizon, the four lawmen made their way slowly back into the main part of town, not one of them able to manage more than a plod.

Josiah, Buck and Ezra had argued against walking back; pointing out that they had all ridden their horses out to the carnival site. Nathan, however, had insisted that after eating their way through several plateloads of roasted meats, freshly baked breads, chilled fruit, steamed vegetables, deviled eggs, pies, cakes, cookies, and what had to be a half pound apiece of Mrs. Potterís hand-dipped chocolate covered nutmeats, they needed the exercise. So they walked, leading the horses, which occasionally whickered at them in what sounded suspiciously like laughter at their predicament.

"Oooh, my goodness," Ezra groaned, pressing a hand to his stomach as he finally lowered himself thankfully into a chair in front of the saloon. "I canít recall the last time I ate so much!"

"Me either," Josiah grunted, surreptitiously popping open the top button of his pants as he sat down on the edge of the boardwalk. "Made a regular pig of myself."

Taking the seat next to Ezra, Buck said, "Sure was good, though," and promptly let go a hearty belch right in the gamblerís ear.

Ezra punched him hard in the arm, an expression of revulsion on his face. "That is disgusting! I forbid you to do it again in my presence."

Giving his friends a toothy smile; Josiah let loose a volley of his own that seemed to originate somewhere in the vicinity of his toes. "Sícuse me," he said mildly as Buck guffawed.

Ezraís lips trembled with the effort not to smile. "Mister Sanchez, I wouldnít have expected such ruffian-like behavior. Mister Wilmington is having a bad influence on you."

Grinning, Josiah leaned over and tapped Buck on the knee. "He saying weíre rude again?"

Buck chuckled. "Reckon so."

Ezra turned to Nathan. "Surely I am not the only person among us raised to value good manners. What about you, Mister Jackson; havenít you anything to say?"

In reply, the healer simply said, "Better out than in," and pressed a fist to his abdomen, treating them all to a sound that made up in depth and longevity what it lacked in volume, and had Josiah and Buck dissolving into laughter again.

Ezra groaned. "I give up. Are you certain you three havenít missed your calling? Surely such a display of freakish talent deserves a position in the venue we just departed!"

"Aw, címon, Ezra," Buck teased. "Give us what you got. You ain't gonna just let the rest of us show you up, are ya?"

"I most certainly am," he returned. "A gentleman does not stoop to such behavior in public."

Flashing them a virtuous smile, Ezra laced both hands behind his head and tipped his chair back. Unfortunately, his triumph was short lived as the deep breath he took while stretching caused him to hiccup sharply, his overly full stomach clenching in protest, then releasing with a deep guttural noise that made Buckís effort sound like a whisper in comparison.

"Formidable instrument you got there, brother," Josiah told him, chuckling.

Ezra sank low in his chair, drawing a hand across his face and shaking his head. "Dear Lord," he moaned. "Mother was right. All this time spent in low company really has had a debilitating effect upon my character."

Undisturbed by the insult, the other men just laughed.

"So, what did you think of the sideshow, Ezra?" Nathan asked him, settling himself comfortably on the boardwalk across from Josiah and leaning back against a post. "Was that fire eater as good as youíve seen before?"

"Only fair," he replied, bobbing his hand in a so-so gesture. "He seemed to be afraid of his own craft, doing nothing more daring than blowing streams of fire from a lit baton with a mouthful of alcohol."

Buckís eyes brightened. "Is that all it takes? Just spit a little booze into the fire and it turns into a burst of flame like that?"

"Mm," he grunted in agreement, then seeing the speculative look in the other manís eye, told him, "I wouldnít advise trying to demonstrate the trick for JD, if thatís what youíre thinking. Not unless youíve suddenly become less than fond of that mustache."

Alarmed, Buck touched his upper lip, stroking the fluffy growth protectively. "Just wondering how itíd work, is all," he said quickly. Then the gleam returned to his eyes. "Hey, maybe you could do it for him! You said you done it before, right? And just think how much it would impress the ladies. Did you see the look on those galsí faces when Franco the Fearless was shooting flames over the crowd? They wanted to take him home and have him for dessert."

Josiah chuckled, seeing the thoughtful look on Ezraís face. "Careful, now. Remember what Madame Zaltana said. No matchmaking or foolhardy love affairs for you two until this show has gone on its way."

"Perhaps youíre right," Ezra agreed with a sigh. Then he smiled slyly at Buck. "Although, if you wish to make use of one of Nathanís practice blades, perhaps I could teach you the fine art of sword swallowing instead."

Face contorting, Buck tugged at the bandanna around his neck. "Uh, maybe JD can just catch the show next time around."

Ezra chuckled. "Coward."

Buck ignored him. "Showís scheduled to stay on another day. Anyone game for another go-round tomorrow?"

"Canít," Nathan said reluctantly. "I have to ride out to the Porter ranch in the morniní and make sure Zack is taking it easy with that busted up leg. His wife was real worried heíd try to get up and go back to work before heíd had a chance to heal right. I told her Iíd check back and bring out some more of them painkillers."

Josiah nodded. "Iím planning to head out that way myself. Muriel Kinney needs somebody to patch up a hole in her roof before the next rain comes."

"Tell you what," Nathan offered. "You ride out to the Porter place with me and help out with the chores while I see to Zack, and in return Iíll help you fix that roof."

"Many hands do lighten the workload," Josiah said in agreement, raising a pale eyebrow toward the other two men.

Ignoring the hint, Ezra gave a leisurely yawn. "Having sampled the talents of our visiting guests and more of our good ladiesí cuisine than was really good for me, I believe I shall finish my day with a few hands of poker, then call it an early night. Hopefully followed by a very late morning. After that, I shall simply follow the whim of fate."

The other men smiled and shook their heads. Some things would never change.

"How about you, Buck?" Nathan asked. "You gonna head back?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. Wouldnít mind seeing that tattooed lady again up close, or having another try at that shooting range."

"You do realize that game was fixed, donít you?" Ezra said. "I examined the sites of the supposedly well balanced rifle the barker handed me. It was off by a good eighth of an inch, and Iím certain something had also been done to warp the inside of the barrel since I fired without using the sites and still went wide of my intended mark."

"What about Tiny?" Buck protested. "He hit one of them targets dead center."

Ezra shook his head. "Of course he did. There are undoubtedly one or two perfect weapons among all the tampered ones. If there werenít, no one would ever hit the target, and everyone would realize that they were being cheated and go elsewhere. If that happened, then the show would have no opportunity to make money off of a gullible and greedy public."

Seeing Buckís eyes narrow at the description, he added, "By keeping the odds in their own favor, they make a profit and the people have a good time trying to beat those odds. Perfectly harmless."

"Donít seem right, cheatiní everybody like that," Nathan said doubtfully. "I mustíve spent a good three dollars over at that fair today. Hate to think it was all spent on a pack of lies and dirty tricks."

Looking him in the eye, Ezra asked simply, "Did you enjoy yourself today?"

The healer nodded, as did the other two men.

Ezra smiled. "Well then, it was hardly a waste to spend your money. We paid to be entertained by games and assorted attractions, and we all were. We paid to be well fed, and if our current state is any indication, then we most certainly were. And who knows what may yet come of our mysterious fortune tellerís predictions?"

Slowly, Nathan smiled. "When you put it like that, I guess youíre right."

Bracing his hands upon his knees, Josiah rose. "Well, brothers, itís been a long day but what do you say to one last beer and a quick game of cards before we go our separate ways?"

"Excellent suggestion," Ezra agreed. Fishing in his pocket, he tossed Josiah a nickel. "I believe that makes us even."

 

 

~*~*~*~*~

 

At first, things were quiet in the saloon. The four peacekeepers sat at their favorite table playing a friendly game of five-card draw and enjoying a round of beer when two of the local townsmen requested entry into the game. Never one to turn away an opportunity, Ezra agreed.

By the time Nathan and Josiah decided to call it a night, three more players had joined the game and the saloon was becoming steadily more crowded as a line of would-be poker players eagerly waited their chance to challenge Ezra.

It seemed that Madame Zaltana had spent the day filling the imaginations of her visitors with notions of wealth and good fortune. As a result, men who would normally never have considered pitting their skills against those of a professional gambler suddenly felt that it was their lucky night.

Ezra was delighted with this unexpected turn of events. It was rare enough that his skills were treated with the respect and admiration they deserved, but tonight he could seemingly do no wrong. When he lost, the other players would become excited and reckless in their betting on the next hand. When he won, particularly if the pot was of a good size, it only seemed to spur those watching from the sidelines into a greater certainty that they would be the ones destined to beat him.

Playing the crowd like a virtuoso, Ezra smiled and chatted, keeping his audience and ever-changing roster of opponents entertained and in a good mood even as he relieved them of their money.

His long-standing familiarity with the citizens of Four Corners proved to be a distinct advantage. Even without having challenged some of these men across a poker table before, Ezra could guess from seeing them enact day to day business which would be likely to bet only as much as they could afford, and which might be reckless. He knew who was a good sport and who might be a potentially angry loser; as well as who could hold their liquor and who could not. He also knew which players would suffer a true financial hardship if he were to clean them out and which could afford to have their pocketbooks thinned without harm.

A few of the players were strangers who had come in from out of town to see the traveling show, but most were locals. Several proved to be surprisingly good players and Ezra openly expressed his respect and appreciation to these men for their seldom used skills. He knew full well that a happy and flattered opponent would be more likely to return for a rematch long after the lure of a fortune tellerís vision had faded from his mind.

It was poor form to count oneís winnings while still at the table, so in order to keep anyone from realizing his profit margin; Ezra made certain to take breaks at irregular intervals as the night wore on. Always assuring his fellow players that he would return shortly, he took to leaving the table for a few minutes at a time, during which he would secret part of his winnings into one of the many hideout spots on his person. A break to get a fresh libation equaled a chance to tuck a wad of money in his vest pocket. Stretching his legs and chatting with Buck, who had stayed to watch the fun, gave the opportunity to place some into his coat lining. A quick midnight snack at the bar allowed Ezra to pad the inside band of his hat. Trips to the outhouse afforded a moment to tuck winnings into the tops of his boots unobserved.

Buck finally gave up watching around one oíclock, but the night was stretching towards sunrise before the last game concluded. Ezra shook hands and exchanged cordial farewells with his opponents, gathered his winnings and headed up the staircase to his room.

Removing his jacket and guns, Ezra flopped down on his bed and smiled in satisfaction. What a night it had been.

Wriggling into a comfortable position on the feather mattress he crossed both hands over his ribcage, enjoying the feel of the slight bulge where some of his winnings were folded into a pocket. He did not have enough energy at the moment to count up the money, but if the running total he had been keeping in the back of his mind was accurate, he had made close to six hundred dollars in a single night. And with the traveling show still in town, the odds were good that he could repeat the performance again tonight. Even more amazing, so far he had not been threatened or accused of cheating even one time. Such bliss!

"Perhaps I should offer Madame Zaltana a tip for her help," he said aloud, yawning hugely. His eyelids grew too heavy to lift and he snuggled into his pillow, leaving the consideration for a later time.

 

Chapter 3


Buck Wilmington was accustomed to keeping odd hours. He could sleep anywhere, making up for long nights Ė and days - in the beds of assorted lady friends by taking frequent catnaps throughout the day. Having slept in his own bed for several solid hours after leaving the saloon, therefore, he was already up and filled with energy as the new day dawned.

The streets were quiet at this time of day, filled with the pleasant lassitude of a community just beginning to conduct its daily business. Buck smiled, knowing that a great many of Four Cornersí citizens would likely be sleeping in late today after the fun and games of yesterday.

He wondered fleetingly if Ezraís poker marathon had finished, and if so, how much money heíd managed to win. Ezra had been on fire last night and the rest of the people had seemed to be enjoying that fact as much as he had.

Thoughts of the gambler faded from Buckís mind as his ears caught the unmistakable sound of crying. Following the sound like a bloodhound on a fresh trail, he stopped in front of the dress shop. The door was ajar and Sharon Pryor was sitting on a stool just inside, soaking the material of the garment she was holding with her tears.

"Miss Sharon?" Buck said softly, trying to avoid startling her.

She jumped anyway, quickly brushing aside her tears and trying to look presentable. "Oh, B-Buck," she said, her voice trembling. "I didnít hear you come up. Is there something I can do for you?"

"No, darliní," he told her, voice filled with sympathy. "Thought maybe there was something I could do for you. You all right?"

The melting tones completely undid Sharon and the next thing Buck knew he was holding the distraught woman in his arms while she wept. Not minding a bit, he folded his arms around her slim body and patted her back soothingly. "There now, why donít you tell olí Buck all about it?"

"Leonard broke up with me!" she sobbed.

Buck was thunderstruck. He had thought the couple solid as a rock! They had been like two doves in a nest since the day they had first met, nearly eight months ago, and Buck had felt sure that they would remain that way.

Leonard Hunt had been in town picking up supplies and passing the time of day with Buck and JD when the three of them had first seen the townís new dressmaker alighting from a stagecoach. Leonard had taken one look at Sharon and fallen so hard the crash could be heard for miles; so head over heels that Buck had not even bothered to try making a move on the lady once heíd seen the look in his eyes. Sharon had been just as drawn to Leonard and when the couple had become engaged a month ago, Buck himself had bought the first round of drinks to celebrate.

"What happened?" he said blankly.

Sinking back down onto her stool, Sharon attempted to dry her eyes on the cloth she was still holding. "I donít know! I just donít understand it," she told him miserably. "Yesterday we were so happy, and then we went into that fortune tellerís tent and, and-"

She paused, her huge brown eyes welling with fresh tears, her pouty lips trembling, and Buck sternly reminded himself that this woman was nothing more than a friend who needed his help.

"Madame Zaltana?" he asked, abruptly shaking his head to bring himself back to earth. "Honey, you know that old womanís predictions ainít real, right? Whatever she told you and Leonard, it wonít really happen."

"But it is happening!" she wailed. "She said that a big change was coming, and thereíd be some kind of trouble."

Buck scratched his head. "Well, that big change couldíve just meant you two getting married, and all married folks get trouble sooner or later. Whyíd Leonard take that to mean you should break up?"

"Well," she said thoughtfully, dabbing at her eyes with the blue material she held. "Madame Zaltana said that his greatest possession might be taken away if he wasnít careful who he trusted, and she said that I was going to meet a rich man who would help me through my d-d-darkest hour!"

He grimaced. That didn't sound too different from the kinds of things the fortune teller had told him and the other lawmen, but Sharon and Leonard hadn't had Ezra's pragmatic experience to tell them it was all for show. Besides, Leonard was known to be a mite touchy about anyone threating what was his. The previous year a run of bad weather had kept him from making his autumn harvest, forcing him to mortgage his land. Leonard had been working like a man possessed ever since trying to make enough to buy back the note; especially after he had become engaged, not wanting to begin married life with a debt hanging over his head.

"Heís been acting so strangely lately," Sharon went on. "Thinking other men were making eyes at me, and that I might be looking back because I wanted somebody better. But there isnít anyone better; not anywhere!"

"Wait just a minute," he said, feeling a twinge of guilt as he remembered his friendsí warning about paying compliments to attached ladies. "You arenít really telling me that Leonard broke things off with you because of what happened yesterday, are you? Heís afraid of something that hasnít even happened?"

She nodded. "He was in a terrible mood yesterday afternoon, snapping and snarling at everyone. I finally told him that if he couldnít behave like a gentleman, he should just go home." She sniffled, but continued. "He came by when I first opened the shop this morning. I hadnít expected to see him, but he said he wanted to apologize for being unpleasant to me yesterday."

"So what happened?"

"When he found me with this," she held up the garment in her hands, which Buck could now see was a manís dress jacket, "he accused me of seeing somebody else behind his back! I told him this didnít mean anything. Mister Standish comes by all the time and has me make up his new jackets and fix damage to his other clothing. He pays me extra because he says I do the best work in town. When I told Leonard that, it just seemed to make him even more upset. He said some terrible things, and I lost my temper and said sharp words back to him. Then he told me he didnít think we should see each other any more, and he left!"

She began crying again softly, and Buck once again gathered her close. There had to be a way to fix this.

"Tell you what, honey," he said, lifting Sharonís downcast chin with his knuckle and giving her his best smile. "Iíll go round up Ezra and tell him whatís going on. He likes both you kids an awful lot so Iím sure heíd be willing to help. Iíd go by myself but if Leonardís in that jealous a mood, he might get the wrong idea if I went alone. Weíll talk some sense into him."

Her eyes brightened. "Do you really think thatís all it will take?"

"Why sure!" Buck reassured her, lifting the jacket from her hands and shaking it like a rallying banner. "Just let Ezra bend his ear for ten minutes or so and heíll surely realize that the only connection between you two is this."

"Oh, Buck, I hope youíre right."

Smiling, he patted her on the shoulder. "Of course I am. What could go wrong?"

 

~*~*~*~*~

 

"Go away," Ezra barked, pulling his pillow over his head as the pounding on his door sounded for a second time.

"Ezra, I need your help," Buck called again, a note of impatience creeping in as he rattled the knob of the locked door. "Címon, open up. Itís an emergency!"

Ezra paused at that. An emergency? Was someone taking the opportunity of most of the peacekeepers being out of town to rob the bank? Had someone been shot or otherwise injured? He remembered now that Nathan and Josiah had been planning to head out to visit outlying properties and Buck, while extraordinary good at inflicting wounds upon miscreants, was hopeless when it came to patching them up again.

Grabbing his pocket watch off the table next to his bed, the gambler groaned softly. Heíd only gone to bed two hours ago, but it looked like that was all the sleep he would be afforded today. At least he was already dressed, having never got around to removing his boots or the rest of his clothing.

Rolling off the bed, he quickly unlocked the door and pulled it open. "Well?" he said brusquely.

Buck grabbed him by the arm, practically dragging him out of the room. "Itís Sharon and Leonard," he explained. "They got in a heap of trouble after we saw Ďem yesterday, and I need your help to fix things."

Ezra stopped in his tracks, pulling his arm out of Buckís grasp. Leonard and Sharon were a nice couple, and Sharon had become a good friend. "Whatís happened to them?" he demanded. "Have they been injured? Robbed? Assaulted in some fashion?"

Buck looked shocked. "No, nothiní like that. Leonard had himself a jealous fit because of something that fortune teller told him yesterday, decided that Sharon was seeing somebody behind his back and broke off their engagement this morning. I figured you could help me talk some sense into him."

"Thatís it? The reason you dragged my out of my bed at this ridiculous hour, knowing full well that Iíd barely had time to warm the sheets?" he demanded. "Why couldnít I simply talk to the idiot at noon, or this evening, or better yet, not at all!"

Eyes wide, Buck stared at his ranting friend. "But Miss Sharon is mighty upset," he said, feeling that no other explanation was required.

Surprising himself, Ezra felt a pulse of pure satisfaction at the thought of the break-up. He couldnít help it. There was a strong likelihood that when Sharon Pryor became a farm-wife; adopting a life of endless chores and motherhood, she would give up her tailoring business entirely and he would have to look elsewhere to keep himself attired in his accustomed style. Probably at outrageous prices too. The very thought was enough to make a man weep.

"Perhaps theyíve just come to their senses," he tried. "Theyíve only known each other for a few months. If Leonard is showing himself to be jealous and impulsive at this early stage, then perhaps Zaltana unwittingly did Miss Pryor a favor. You wouldnít want her to become trapped in a marriage with an unstable man, would you?"

Buck bit his lip. "I hadnít thought of that."

"And if Leonard is that uncertain of her, he might spend his entire married life second-guessing his wifeís loyalty and his own judgment; making them both miserable."

The sag in Buckís shoulders proved that the argument made sense to him. "But I promised Sharon Iíd try to help; that Iíd get you to help."

"Why me?" he asked curiously.

Buck looked a trifle embarrassed. "Well, see, youíre sort of the, uh."

"The what?"

"The other man."

Ezra, having assumed from his demeanor that it was Buck himself being accused of prompting infidelity, did not know whether to laugh or be outraged. "Wait just one minute. Are you saying that I am the philandering cad who has been supposedly wooing Miss Pryor behind her fianceeís back?"

A twinkle of humor sparked in Buckís eyes. "Iím afraid so. Guess Leonard figures youíve been after more than a handsome wardrobe. Thatís why I thought you ought to talk to him with me. You could kind of plead a case for how much Sharon loves him. She does, yíknow."

Ezra sighed, and deliberately squelched his selfish desires for an indefinitely well stocked wardrobe. "I suppose she does at that." Fingering his wrinkled shirt with distaste, he agreed, "Very well, Mister Wilmington. I will try. Just let me go make myself a bit more presentable and we can be on our way."

 

Chapter 4

 

Josiah and Nathan had departed at the crack of dawn, missing Buck by mere minutes as they ventured out of town and headed for the first of their two neighborly visits. They were not worried over the early hour, knowing that the Porters would be up and busy with their daily routine by the time they arrived. A hard working ranch left no room for sloth.

The day was shaping up to be a fine one, the winds calm and light, the pink and gold rays of the rising sun providing a lovely counterpoint to the songs of birds leaving their nests and beginning a new day.

For a long while the two men just enjoyed the quiet as they rode, but finally Josiah broke the silence by declaring, "A morning like this renews a manís faith that there might one day be peace and love enough for the entire world."

"Does seem that way when thereís no folks around to spoil it," Nathan said, his more cynical viewpoint earning him a sour look from his companion. Seeing the glare, he shrugged. "Just sayingís all. Donít reckon most folks would really enjoy having nothing but peace and quiet all the time. Iíd be just as happy not fixing up fools who get themselves shot and stabbed, but I ainít quite ready to open up my arms and give everybody a big hug neither. Are you?"

"I suppose not," Josiah agreed with a reluctant chuckle. "Although it might be a worthwhile experiment. Maybe I should give it a try when we get back."

"On who? Chris? Buck?"

"Well, I figure Buck and JD wouldnít mind too much." He laughed and a look of mischief lit up his pale blue eyes. "Can you imagine the look on the othersí faces if I were to walk up to one of them and give them a hug for no reason at all?"

Nathan snorted. "Chrisíd likely shoot you, and didnít I just say I didnít want to be patching up any more gunshot wounds than necessary?"

Josiah simply shrugged; the smile still teasing about his lips giving proof that he was seriously considering performing a test just for the fun of it.

"Vin might put up with it," Nathan decided, as he too began to see the humor in the idea, "but heíd be steering clear of you for a while after."

"What about Ezra?"

Nathan looked thoughtful. "Donít know, really. Sípose it depends on his mood. If you did it after heíd got a letter from his mama, heíd probably cuss you out for wrinkling his coat and then give you a bill for the damage. If you tried it after heíd won a big poker game, he might just hug you back. Matter of fact, Iíll bet heíd raise you a kiss on the cheek, just to scare the hell out of you."

Josiahís laughter rang through the quiet morning. "It is difficult to predict brother Ezraís behavior, true enough."

As they rode on to the Porter land and drew nearer to the house, Nathanís grin suddenly fell, an exasperated frown taking its place as he saw Zeke Porter balancing precariously on a pair of roughly hewn crutches and issuing orders to a couple of his workers. "Dang it, I told that fool to stay off of that leg!"

Jogging his horse, Nathan galloped toward the corral with steam nearly boiling out of his ears, leaving a cloud of dust and Josiah in his wake. Josiah smiled ruefully. So much for peace on earth and good will toward men.

 

Just as Nathan had feared, the unauthorized exercise had damaged one of the barely knit bones in Zackís leg, resulting in its having to be reset. Nathanís blistering lecture on how he wouldnít be responsible for someone who would deliberately endanger his health and well-being was spoiled somewhat as his capable hands replaced splint and bandages, prepared a cup of medicinal tea, and settled the man gently back into his bed.

Zack looked appropriately chastened, but he and his wife were both smiling as they thanked Nathan and Josiah for coming and offered them breakfast in payment for their time and trouble.

"That wasnít too bad," Josiah commented as they rode out towards their second destination.

"What wasnít?" Nathan asked curiously.

Josiah smiled. "Well, I must admit that after what we heard from that fortune teller yesterday, I was preparing myself for the worst."

Nathan chuckled at his friendís teasing. Josiah didnít believe in that "sees all, knows all" stuff any more than Ezra did, but he had been aware that Nathan himself harbored some doubts. "I hate to say it but it looks like Ezra was right about that. It ainít like weíre gonna meet anybody dangerous at Muriel Kinneyís place. She and her daughters wouldnít hurt any man, Ďless it was by overstuffing him with good food until he was in danger of burstiní."

Looking thoughtful, Josiah licked his lips. Louise Prescott was a fine woman and a generous soul, but not the best cook God ever put upon the earth. He had partaken lightly of the breakfast offered and at the reminder of the Kinney matriarchís much superior cooking, found himself feeling hungry again. "We should hurry. Wouldnít want to keep the ladies waiting," he said, jogging his horse into a faster pace.

Behind him, Nathan called out, "Hey, wait up! They donít even know weíre cominí." His rich laughter rolled along on the breeze. "Josiah, donít you know gluttony is a sin? Josiah!"

 

Chapter 5

 

"What took you so long?" Buck demanded impatiently when Ezra finally sauntered towards the livery, straightening the material of his plum colored jacket with a look of satisfaction on his face.

Ezra merely raised an eyebrow as he accepted the reins of his already saddled mount and swung into the seat. "You wouldnít expect me to defend my honor and that of a lady dressed like a common vagabond, would you?"

Buck smiled a bit as he settled into his own saddle. "No, I suppose not."

"Of course not. Besides, I had to transfer most of my winnings into a safer place. Carrying it about on my person was all well and good last night in the saloon, but I wouldnít care to tempt the hand of fate by continuing to do so as I set about my daily business."

"What did you win anyway?" Buck asked curiously.

The expression on the gamblerís face was that of a cat who had just been served a saucer of heavy cream. "A few near-worthless trinkets of jewelry; a promissory note from our friend Tiny for twenty dollars worth of free livery privileges; a deed to a few acres of property located somewhere on the outskirts of our fair hamlet, courtesy of Mister Charles Craig . . ."

"Craig; you mean that little weasel who owns the feed store? I didnít know he had any land outside of town."

Ezra smirked. "He doesnít."

"Cleaned him out, huh?" Buck asked gleefully. He had little affection for the oily store owner with the deceptively charming smile who overcharged for every item on his shelves and treated his employees like so much slave labor.

"Indeed," Ezra replied with relish. "He ran out of coin with pitiful alacrity and couldnít wait to offer up a deed he had taken off some poor soul whom I gathered had offered it up as collateral against overdue bills and then couldnít pay up. Iím sure the property is probably all but worthless, but I found myself unable to resist parting Craig from whatever I could."

Buck offered a suggestion. "Maybe you can find out who he swindled it off of in the first place and give it back to them."

"Give?" Ezra repeated archly. "Do I look like Mister Sanchez to you? I might consider selling the land back to its original owner, but donít expect me to turn into a missionary. Some profit must be made after all."

"Speaking of profit, you still havenít said how much cash you raked in last night."

The catlike expression was back, said cat now seemingly licking its whiskers. "Six hundred twenty four and one half dollars," he purred.

"Wow," Buck said, genuinely impressed. "Will all that other stuff thrown in, that means you mustíve made close to seven hundred dollars; maybe more!"

Ezra sighed happily. "I know, and whatís even better is that I will very likely do just as well tonight if the fascination with Madame Zaltanaís predictions holds out."

At the mention of the fortune teller, Buck scowled. "Yeah, well she can just keep her predictions to herself if sheís gonna go around hurting poor little gals like Sharon."

"She did nothing to Miss Pryor," Ezra argued. "If anything, it sounds to me like Sharonís fiancee was looking for an excuse to find fault and this situation was too convenient to ignore. If this were not a matter of healing a young ladyís broken heart, I would happily let the man stew in his own juices."

Surprised at the caustic tone, Buck said, "I thought you liked Leonard."

"I do. Somewhat."

"You donít sound real sure."

Ezra tossed his head impatiently. "I donít wish him ill, certainly. Heís a decent man and pleasant enough company for a short duration, though he is a terrible card player and even less capable of telling a decent joke than our own Mister Dunne."

Buck chuckled, unable to deny that fact.

"I simply feel that heís not the right man for Sharon," Ezra continued. "She deserves someone who appreciates more than just her physical beauty, which she wonít keep long anyway once she begins to spend all of her days toiling in the unforgiving sun and wind, and producing babies year after year."

Unsure what was causing this unexpectedly sour attitude, Buck said mildly, "Thought you liked babies."

"I do. Wonderful little creatures, especially when theyíre sleeping." Ezraís own sleep deprived brain seemed incapable of stopping the flow of thought from pouring straight out his mouth. "I just donít see how a man like Leonard will be able to provide for a brood of children, as well as keep his wife happy and comfortable. Not when heís already in debt, and apparently prone to behaving like a temperamental idiot when things donít go his way. Besides which, Sharon Pryor is not a farm girl by birth; she's used to having a degree of civilization about her and, as such, she deserves a man who thinks about more than wheat fields and stock pens."

Buck shrugged. "Olí Leonard is pretty single minded sometimes, but so's Sharon. When she gets to going on about books and such, she can be downright boring. Might turn a man away if she weren't so darned pretty to look at."

"I've never found her dull in the least," Ezra protested. "The two of us have had some very stimulating conversations, on a wide variety of subjects. Which is precisely my point. Sharon deserves a man who will be able to converse intelligently about music, theater, books and art. Someone who appreciates her craft enough to have discovered that there is a difference between a French knot and a French cuff."

Buck pulled his horse to a complete stop, staring at his friend with a thunderstruck expression upon his face. Ezra continued to talk for a few seconds before realizing that he was speaking only to himself and turning around to rejoin Buck. "Is something wrong with your steed?" he asked.

"Horse is fine," Buck said bluntly, "but I ainít so sure about you."

"Me?" he said, puzzled. Looking down at himself, Ezra took a quick self-inventory. Everything seemed to be in place. "Whatever are you talking about? Iím right as rain."

Buck shook his head, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Maybe Leonard wasnít so crazy after all. Iím pretty sure that nothing was going on from Miss Sharonís side of things, but what about yours?"

Ezra rose indignantly in his saddle. "How dare you make such a slanderous insinuation!"

"Thatís it, isnít it? Thatís why you didnít want to come talk to Leonard with me. You got feelings for Sharon."

"I do not," Ezra fumed. "I value Miss Pryor, certainly, but only as a friend and business acquaintance. I recognize her talents with a needle to be first-rate and of course I find her to be pleasant company. After all, what intelligent man would not appreciate a woman with such obvious charm? Her intelligence and sense of humor rival anyone in this town, and her undeniable beauty and impressive business acumen are also very admirable qualities which I, I . . . Oh, dear lord."

Buck couldnít help but chuckle at the look on Ezraís face. He looked like heíd been hit in the back of the head with a board. "Guess things like this have a way of sneaking up on a feller."

"But it canít be!" Ezra protested helplessly. "Iím not the sort of man who falls in love on a whim, especially not with another manís intended!"

"Head donít seem to have a whole lot of say about what goes on in a personís heart." Buck gave him a sympathetic smile. "And I guess I shouldnít try to force you into doing this; knowing what I do now. You want to turn back?"

Surprised, Ezra considered the offer. "No," he finally decided. "We may as well do what we came for. Whatever I feel, or do not feel, it doesnít alter the fact that this couple is more than likely just experiencing a loversí spat. They deserve a fair chance to rectify the situation."

Buck smiled. "Thatís real noble of you, Ezra. Not sure Iíd have the strength to let another man walk off with my girl without at least putting up a fight."

Exasperated, Ezra snapped, "She is not Ďmyí girl, Mister Wilmington. She never has been and probably has no wish to be. As you pointed out yourself she is in love with Mister Hunt, however undeserving he may be, and I have no reason to believe that she has any regard for me beyond a simple vendor-client relationship."

"Just needed to make sure where you stood."

Not answering, Ezra kicked his horse back into motion. After several minutes of silent brooding, he stopped again, realizing that they had reached their destination as he spotted someone plowing with great energy in the distant corner of a partially tilled field. Silently cursing Buck for putting unexpected ideas into his head, Ezra took a deep breath and muttered, "I must be out of my mind."

 

Chapter 6

 

The cheery sound of feminine laughter floating from the open front door greeted Nathan and Josiah as they rode closer to the Kinney home. "Hello, the house!" Nathan called out.

"Why Mister Sanchez, Mister Jackson, how nice to see you," Muriel Kinney greeted as she came out onto the porch, drying her hands on a dishtowel.

"Morning, ma'am," Josiah said, tugging the brim of his hat and offering her a smile. "Nathan and I were in the area and thought we'd see if you have any chores that could use a helping hand."

Seeing him glance upward, she nodded ruefully. "Aye, that roof has seen better days for certain," she agreed, her heavy brogue tickling their ears pleasantly. "And I've a new window that needs installin' in the back. Been meaning to get to it and I just never seem to find a moment."

A delighted giggle sounded from behind her and Muriel glanced over her shoulder with an indulgent smile. "The girls are playing with their new pets," she explained. Then, placing her hands upon generous hips, she tilted her head to one side and asked, "Are you just planning to sit up there all day, now, or will you be coming inside for a bite to eat and a few neighborly words before I put you to work?"

Exchanging a grin, the two men swung down and tied their horses hastily to the porch rail. The youthful laughter sounded again and Nathan asked, "What kind of critter they bring home this time, ma'am? Hope it ain't another frog. That last one seemed to be determined that he'd either get sat on or stepped on."

She chuckled. "No, thankfully I managed to convince the girls that Mister Frog would be happier livin' back in the pond with his little friends than to be cooped up in a house full of humans all day." Then she shook her head. "I'm still not convinced of the wisdom of this latest pair, but so far they've caused no real harm so I've let it go. I couldn't let the poor motherless things fend for themselves, after all."

The two lawmen stepped over the threshold into the house and immediately took a step back again when they saw the three Kinney daughters Ė twelve year old Joyce, fourteen year old Katy and sixteen year old Peggy - petting and playing with a pair of young skunks.

"Hello, Mister Sanchez," Joyce called out with a wave of her hand, a grin lighting her thin freckled face. "Mister Jackson, come see."

"They won't do anything as long as you take care not to frighten them," Muriel advised. "A lesson our old dog, Scout, learned quickly enough. Lordy, I thought I'd never get the stink out of that poor animal."

Steeling himself, Nathan edged closer to the group, knelt down and offered a cautious hand to the tiny black and white form in Katy's lap. It eyed him curiously for a moment then took an exploratory sniff. Seemingly deciding that he smelled friendly, it climbed out of the folds of Katy's skirt and came closer.

Seeing the healer shuffle back nervously made the girls giggle. "Don't worry, Mister Jackson," Peggy said. "Willoughby won't hurt you. He just wants you to pet him."

"Pet him?" he repeated dubiously. The animal waited patiently and when Nathan put out one finger and cautiously stroked its little round head, the creature's eyes closed blissfully and it made a noise that sounded almost like a purr.

The other skunk, seeing that his brother was getting all the notice, strode deliberately over to Josiah, who still stood in the doorway watching the scene with an amazed expression. Katy saw him and grinned. "Winston wants some attention too, Mister Sanchez. He'll like it if you scratch him between his shoulders."

Slowly, Josiah dropped to one knee and followed Nathan's lead, first letting the little skunk take a good sniff of his hand and then carefully petting the animal. Like his brother, Winston accepted the attention blissfully. "Well, I'll be damned," Josiah muttered, then hastily added, "Pardon the language, ma'am."

Muriel only laughed. "It's pardoned. I believe may have a uttered a few words under me breath that the good lord wouldn't have approved of when I first discovered that the girls had brought these creatures home."

"They'd been abandoned," Joyce offered. "We think their mama was killed somehow. Poor little things were all alone with nobody to take care of them."

"So you adopted them and by the looks of it, they adopted you right back," Josiah concluded, smiling as he watched Winston scuttle back over to join the others. The two small animals instantly began to roll and play like happy kittens under the watchful eyes of their caregivers. "Guess the good lord has a plan for every creature."

Muriel chuckled. "That's about the way I figured it too. Now, will you be havin' a little snack and some coffee?"

Rising slowly to his feet, taking care not to upset the animals, Nathan said, "Thanks, Mrs. Kinney, but we just came from the Porter place and they gave us breakfast. I reckon we'd best just get to work on them chores before the day gets hot."

Josiah cast a regretful look towards the stove, where a fresh pan of cinnamon rolls rested, but said, "He's right. We should get started."

"Good way to build up an appetite," she agreed. "You'll stay for lunch, then, and I don't want to hear a word of argument."

Both lawmen grinned widely and replied, "Yes'm."

~*~*~*~*~


They had decided to install the new picture window first, carefully setting it into the wooden frame and sealing it in place with mud caulking around the edges. The new addition to the house gave it a bright cheery look. When they were satisfied that the window would stay safely in place, the two men had climbed up on the roof and settled in to fix a large hole where the hand made shingles had rotted out.

Safely out of earshot, Nathan said, "Can you believe those girls? My mama would have skinned me alive if I'd ever brought home a polecat for a pet. And if she didn't, the other folks in the slave quarters would have."

"I know," Josiah said. "My father believed that all God's creatures should have a place in this world, but I don't think he would have been happy with me if I'd decided the place for a pair of skunks was inside our home. It's a wonder that Muriel allows it."

"You know that lady is a soft touch for any kind of stray. Look at the way she took to all of us."

"A miracle to behold," Josiah said, grinning a bit at the comparison. "Chris lets her order him around like an errant schoolboy. Vin and JD both let her fuss over them like a mother hen with a pair of chicks. Buck loves her for being able to dish out flattery as well as she takes it, and she decided Ezra was just heaven-sent after seeing his pretty manners and gentlemanly way with her girls."

Nathan chuckled. "Seems right fond of you and me, too."

"That she is, brother, and I'm grateful for it."

"Me too. Hey, I'm about out of shingles. You got any extra?"

Josiah looked in the canvas pouch he'd carried the supplies up in. "Nope, guess I'd better get some more. Muriel said there were extras out in the barn."

"Reckon I'll just finish up this section then, while you go."

"Be right back."

Nathan whistled softly as he stripped away a few more rotted shingles with the claw of his hammer, in preparation for the new addition. The whistling quickly gave way to singing as he worked. Nathan liked to sing but knew he didn't have much of a voice, so he usually kept the urge to himself when anyone was around. Josiah wouldn't mind, though.

As his enthusiasm for the song grew, so did the volume of Nathan's voice. Suddenly, he stopped mid-word as he felt the odd sensation of eyes boring into him. Looking up, he dropped his hammer and scrambled back. Standing only a few feet from him on the ridge of the roof, evidently having been drawn by the music, Winston and Willoughby were interestedly watching his every move.

Now that they had been noticed, the two small skunks drew closer. Winston paused when Nathan held up a hand and said, "Ah ah, no. Stay right there," but Willoughby had evidently decided that the man with the good ear scratches was his new best friend and continued to waddle down to him.

"Easy there, boy. How'd you get up here anyway?" Nathan said, getting carefully to his feet and wondering if he could make it to the ladder before the skunk reached him. He knew the wish was futile when Willoughby increased his pace, squeaking up at him hopefully. "Nice skunkie. Good little boy. Don't you go and spray me now," he crooned.

The animal continued to crowd closer, clearly wondering why the nice man didn't want to pet him again. Winston had become distracted by the sight of the ladder poking up above the rooftop and moved to investigate.

Then, disaster struck. Unaware of the two visitors to the Kinney rooftop, Josiah scrambled up the ladder calling out, "Here's your shingles, Nate," and tossed the cord wrapped bundle onto the roof, narrowly missing Winston. The small skunk hissed and tensed his muscles, stamping his front feet in alarm. Nathan called out a warning but Josiah either did not hear it or did not understand, cresting the top of the roof suddenly and causing the endangered skunk to decide that he'd had enough.

"Gaah!" Josiah shouted shielding his face with both arms as he was hit full blast with a spray of foul smelling skunk defense.

Having let go of the ladder, Josiah had no purchase as he reared back in a reflexive move to get away from the odor and his bellow of disgust changed to a yelp of alarm as he lost his balance and tumbled back down to the ground.

Nathan heard a thud, a string of vociferous swearing and a sudden crash followed by a cry of pain, all in the space of a few seconds. Forgetting all about his own danger, he stepped forward, his boot landing squarely on the tail of Willoughby. The animal squealed in painful outrage, and Nathan scrambled back, suddenly finding his heels supported by thin air as he ran out of room on the roof. Arms circling like a windmill, he fought to regain his balance.

Willoughby, already frightened by the commotion, and now angered by Nathan's assault of his tail, lifted the offended limb and copied Winston's action.


Uttering a most unmanly screech, Nathan lost his fight to stay aloft and tumbled backward over the edge of the roof. In a moment of panicked instinct, his mind flashed back to the previous day's entertainment and he tucked his limbs in, turning a somersault that would have done any member of The Amazing Alonzo's acrobatic act proud.

Fortunately, the Kinney home was only a single story dwelling so Nathan did not have far to fall, but the house was built on a grassy slope and as he impacted with the ground, Nathan could not halt his momentum, rolling and tumbling down the hillside for several feet before coming to a dizzy stop at the bottom.

Between the fright, the impact and the increasingly noxious cloud surrounding him, Nathan Jackson could take no more. Groaning, "Pets!" the abused healer's eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out cold.


Chapter 7

"You ready?" Buck asked, having caught up with Ezra just in time to hear him mutter something about having lost his mind.

Ezra walked his horse slowly toward the farmer, watching as he stomped along behind his plow horse, visibly muttering to himself while the tool gouged uneven furrows in the dirt. "Doesnít exactly seem to be in an equitable mood, does he?"

"Not exactly," Buck agreed. Coming to a stop, he cupped a hand to his mouth and called out, "Hey, Leonard!"

There was no reply. He tried again but still could not manage to distract Leonard from his own thoughts.

Before he could call out for a third time, Ezra suddenly stood in his stirrups, placed two fingers between his lips and let go a piercing whistle that made Buck clasp a defensive hand to his ear. "Damn it, Ezra. Give a man some warning next time!"

"So sorry," he said, flashing an unrepentant smile. "Well, well, it seems that Mister Hunt has finally taken note of our arrival."

Sure enough, Leonard was looking their way, shading his eyes with one hand as they rode westward to meet him. His gaze narrowed when he recognized his visitors. "What do you want?"

Ignoring the less than gracious greeting, Ezra replied, "Good morning. I hope you donít object to our dropping by at such an early hour, but it seems that this visit was something of an," he paused for a brief moment to shoot a wry look towards Buck, "emergency."

Looking uncertain, Leonard mopped his brow with a handkerchief and asked, "You saying somebody needs my help?"

"On the contrary, sir, it appears that you need our help. You and your lovely fiancee are rumored to have had a falling out of sorts. An incident that most likely would not have occurred at all had you been in possession of certain facts."

Leonardís confused look quickly gave way to a scowl as he drew himself up to his full height, demanding, "What business is it of yours?"

Unperturbed by the threat in his tone, Ezra told him, "It has come to my attention, that you may be laboring under a misapprehension concerning Miss Pryor and myself."

"In other words, we come to find out what kind of foolishness is jammed up inside that thick head of yours," Buck cut in.

Leonardís angry gaze turned to him. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean youíre acting like an ass," Buck blurted. "Sharonís not doing anything behind your back that she hasnít done in front of your eyes."

Ezra sighed. Diplomacy would never be one of his compatriot's strong suits. "Mister Wilmington, please, if you would allow me to handle this?" he interrupted. Turning back to Leonard he asked, "May we have permission to dismount so that we might discuss this matter like civilized beings?"

The farmer gave a grudging nod.

"Very good," Ezra said. Moving a few paces away from the horses, he stepped down into one of the freshly plowed furrows as he faced Leonard Hunt. The other man was as tall as Buck, and Ezra had chosen his ground quite deliberately, giving up a couple of extra inches and counting on the subconscious sense of superiority that came with looking down on another man to make Leonard lower his guard.

It appeared to be working. Leonard slowly altered his position from straightened spine and hands on hips to more of a slouch, his thumbs rising to hook the straps of his homespun overalls as he grunted, "Well?"

Ezra softened his posture as well, leaning his weight on his back leg and crossing both arms loosely over his chest. It was a non-threatening stance and he was rewarded by seeing the other man relax a bit more.

Keeping his tone light and his words purposefully casual, Ezra began, "Leonard, listen to me. Buck and I came here today because we consider ourselves friends of both you and Sharon." Seeing the manís spine begin to stiffen again, he emphasized, "Weíre friends, so when Buck happened upon poor Sharon crying her eyes out over you this morning on his way past her shop, naturally he was concerned for both of you; as was I when he told me."

Buck fought down a smile as he watched Leonard begin to fall under the spell Ezra was weaving, already looking guilty as he was told the consequences of his harsh words.

"I donít know what misguided notion you have about the lady and myself," Ezra continued, somehow managing to sound both wounded and sympathetic, "but believe me when I tell you that nothing whatsoever has happened between us."

Leonard bit his lip. "Nothing?"

Daring to move a bit closer, Ezra laid a hand on the young manís arm, trying not to flinch as he felt the rock hard solidity of it. Letting his eyes widen a bit as he conjured up the saddest expression he could manage, he said, "If I had been the one to win Sharonís affections, I would consider myself the luckiest man in all of Four Corners. In all of the territory! Sheís a beautiful woman, Leonard; smart, funny, sweet and so talented at her craft that it makes my heart fairly break to think of her shop closing its doors." He sighed deeply, letting some real regret show as he listed that last virtue. "But unfortunately for me, I am not the man she cares for. I know it, and you know it. Surely you donít think I would attempt to steal what so clearly does not belong to me."

The wounded look made a quick comeback, and Leonard responded like a trained dog to its masterís whistle. "No, no of course not," he said, thumping Ezraís shoulder with one meaty hand. Tossing his hat back, the farmer raked his other hand through sweat dampened strawberry blond locks. "Dang it, I donít know whatís got into me lately. I've just been so worried about getting the deed to my land back that Iím imagining knives in the back behind every bush.

Ignoring the mixed metaphor, Ezra said, "And do you truly believe that Sharon would ever wield such a knife?"

"No, of course not! I donít know how I couldíve even thought those things I said to her," he agreed forlornly, blue eyes shining with regret. "Reckon it all started with that snake Craig tryiní to steal her away from me, just like heís tried to steal everything else. When that gypsy woman said Iíd lose everything if I didnít keep my eyes open, I kind of lost my head."

"And I stirred up that beehive by saying pretty words to your girl yesterday," Buck chimed in with a wince. "Didnít mean anything by it, you know."

Leonard nodded. "Sure, Buck. Donít know what I was thinking. Hell, if you couldnít turn Sharonís head and a man like Craig couldnít either, I shouldíve known that she would never cozy up to somebody like Ezra."

As the farmer gave a soft snort, seeming to imply that anyone should have known better than think such a foolish thing, the gamblerís green eyes narrowed. Ezra Standish was no stranger to insults, and normally he prided himself upon the ability to keep his composure under even the most trying circumstances, but this was too much. He had been rousted out of his warm bed at an ungodly hour, forced to put up with a long ride and uncomfortable emotional revelations, single-handedly rescued a dubious romance, and put said relationship back on the road to happiness. At no personal profit whatsoever! And now, now he was being casually declared third rate competition behind Buck Wilmington and the odious Charles Craig?

Ezraís brain issued a half-hearted command to his mouth to remain quiet, but the tired organ was absolutely no match for his rarely roused temper.

"Let me see if I understand this," he said slowly, each word positively frigorific. He stepped up out of the plow furrow and came several inches further into Leonardís personal space, causing the surprised farmer to step back a pace. "Not only are you too self-obsessed to recognize the love of a fine woman when itís placed right in the palm of your hand, but you consider Buckís self-described animal magnetism more of a draw for said woman's attention than anything I might be able to offer?"

"W-well, the gals do sort of flock to him," Leonard said uncertainly.

Beside him, Buck nodded, unable to prevent a grin.

Ezra was not finished. He took another step forward. "Then," he hissed. "To heap insult upon injury, you also feel that any woman would more understandably wish to associate with that miserable self-serving wretch, Charles Craig, than to spend time in my company! This is not to be borne, sir."

Again Leonard fell back, too startled by the fury of the advancing gambler to remember that he had an advantage in height and weight.

Buck simply stood and watched, his mouth falling open, too stunned by Ezraís sudden ire to do anything. His friend looked like he was about to challenge Leonard to a duel or something.

Pressing his point, Ezra struck where a blow would do the most good. "Everyone in town knows that you mortgaged your property in an attempt to pay off your debts, but until now I had no idea that you were actually stupid enough to have handed over the deed to a man like Craig. And for what? The price of a few sacks of feed?" He made a rude noise. "I suppose you were hoping that heíd magnanimously tear the deed in half and give it to you for a wedding gift!"

Suddenly, Ezra's mouth twisted into a mocking smile and Buckís eyes widened as he remembered their earlier conversation and put the pieces together. "No, Ezra, donít tell him!" he ordered, making a grab for Ezraís wrist as the gambler pulled a document out of his coat pocket, but it was too late.

"Hereís your precious deed," Ezra snarled. "Your dear friend, Mister Craig, put it up as collateral in a poker game last night, so it seems he no longer has anything to offer your fiancee. And by a most interesting coincidence, neither do you. Whoís the better prospect now, Mister Hunt?"

The paper flapping in the air was like a red flag waving before a bull. Leonardís square jaw tightened and anger flashed in his eyes. "You son of a bitch! You came out here pretending to want Sharon and me together and all the time you were carrying that with you. You been after my land and my girl all along, havenít you?"

Without waiting for a reply, the farmerís large fist reared back and drove straight for Ezraís face. The gambler ducked the blow and let go a roar that was a combination of exasperation and outrage as he leapt forward, tackling his opponent around the waist and driving them both into the dirt.

Fists began to fly in earnest, Ezra seeming to have no regard at all for the condition of his formerly immaculate coat and trousers as he wrestled through the field with his opponent.

With a declaration of, "Aw, shit!" Buck dove into the melee, ducking and skirting blows as he tried his best to separate the two outraged combatants. He managed to get them both on their feet again, only to find himself in the middle, unprepared when Leonardís long arm swing out and caught him square in the chin just as Ezraís rapidly moving left hand missed its intended mark, clobbering him in the back of the head.

"Ow!" Ezra yelped, pulling his throbbing hand back as the impact against Buckís skull sent a shot of pain straight up his arm.

"Oh, no!" Leonard said at the same time as Buck staggered, wove, stumbled and then collapsed to the dirt at his feet, unconscious.

 

Chapter 8

 

A bucket of cold water gushed over Nathanís head and shoulders, bringing him back to consciousness just in time to hear a voice say, "Phew, he smells even worse than Scout did!"

"Now Joyce, you shouldnít say unkind things," a second voice scolded. "You know Ma wouldnít approve."

"Well he does," the girl muttered, lowering her voice but not giving up the argument.

Nathan ignored the conversation and sat up, groaning as he felt the aches in his battered body and then coughing as he inhaled the foul odor wafting from his skin and clothing. "What happened?" he rasped, wiping his face with his sleeve.

The girls exchanged a guilty look.

"Iím sorry for getting you all wet, Mister Jackson," Peggy apologized. "It seemed like the best way to wake you without moving you. You fell off the roof and we were afraid you might be hurt."

"Are you?" Joyce asked worriedly.

Rubbing his aching head with one hand, the healer slowly stretched and flexed each of his joints to test the damage to his body. Everything was sore but seemed to be working, so it seemed he had managed not to break anything on the way down. "Donít seem to be."

Nibbling her lower lip, Peggy said, "Weíre so sorry, Mister Jackson. Mister Sanchez told Ma that Winston and Willoughby, um . . ."

"Skunked us," Nathan supplied sourly. Getting slowly to his feet, he groaned again. "Yeah, they came up on the roof while I was working. Josiah scared Ďone, then I stepped on the other. It was an accident but I guess they figured they needed to defend themselves."

"Weíre very sorry," Joyce apologized again. "Are you really all right?"

Stretching his back, Nathan offered her a weak smile. "I ainít gonna be running any races today but I reckon I feel a mite better than I smell." Remembering that his friend had also taken a tumble, he asked, "Is Josiah very bad off? I heard him yelliní earlier after he fell off of that ladder."

Peggy put out a hand when Nathan stepped forward and swayed, his balance not quite reset yet. Her nose wrinkled at the close proximity, but she bravely ignored his odor as she steadied him and replied, "He didnít have very far to fall, but he wrenched his left ankle when he hit the ground, and he had skunk spray in his eyes. When we left to find you, Ma was washing them out with clear water."

"Heís all right, I think," Joyce reassured, seeing Nathanís worried look, "except for his hand. Ma said youíd probably better take a look at that."

"Whatíd he do to it?"

"His eyes were stinging so badly that he couldnít see and he tripped," she replied. "He put a hand out to catch himself and shoved it right through that new window you just put up."

Nathan sighed. "Iíd better go see to him, then find a creek and try to wash some of this smell off before it sets."

"Ma told Katy to heat up a tub of wash-water," Peggy told him, keeping a steadying hand on his arm as he took a few careful steps forward. "Weíve got some blankets you can wrap up in until your clothes are washed and dried."

"I offered to get some of País old clothes out, but Ma says they wouldnít fit," Joyce told him.

Nathan nodded. He had never met the late Mister Kinney, but he had seen the wedding picture Muriel kept on a shelf in the parlor. By the looks of it, the man must have been about JDís size. There was no way the clothing would be big enough to fit either Josiah or himself. A blanket would just have to do. Stifling a sigh, the healer trudged up the hill, trying his best not to breathe deeply.

 

When they reached the house they found Josiah sitting in the kitchen with a forlorn look on his face. His eyes were bloodshot and watery, his left foot was propped up on what looked to be a milking stool, and his left hand rested in a bowl of red tinged water. The other hand was clutched tightly around the folds of a cheerful pink and yellow daisy quilt that was wrapped around his body.

Josiahís discomfort at being so flimsily attired in a house full of females was obvious and it was only the knowledge that he would soon be in a similar state that kept Nathan from laughing. "Howís the hand?"

"Hurts," Josiah grunted. "I put it through the window."

Nathan nodded. "The girls told me. Reckon weíll have to buy Ďem a new one next payday. We didnít finish shingling the roof either."

"Never mind that," Muriel scolded them, entering the room with a flowered blue and green blanket for Nathan. "If those two wee rascals hadnít snuck out of the house and gone up after you, everything would be fine and dandy, so donít go blaming yourselves. Itís my fault if itís anyoneís at all. I should have known better than to allow my girls to make pets out of wild animals, and I canít say enough how sorry I am that youíve been hurt. It was a kind act of yours, cominí all the way out here to do our chores, and weíre grateful."

"But the window," Nathan began.

She silenced him with a wave of her free hand. "Pish. That space has been standing empty for some time; it wonít hurt us to board it back up a while longer. As for the roof, Iím sure we can hire someone to come out from town and patch up whatever is left to do. Knowing you, youíve already managed to do a good bit of work up there." Holding out the blanket, she gave Nathan a stern look that stifled any further objections he might have made. "You just finish up in here and get yourself changed. Sing out when youíre ready and Iíll pop back in for those clothes. I donít know as I can get the odor out entirely, but Iíll give it a good fight."

As she departed, Nathan came closer to examine his friendís injured hand and Josiah grimaced as he got a strong whiff of skunk. "Is that you or me?"

"Me," Nathan sighed. "One of them critters sprayed me after you fell. Smell knocked me right off the roof."

Seeing the twinkle in his brown eyes, Josiah chuckled. "You okay?"

"Bruised up a little, and I got a feeling nobodyís gonna want my company any time soon, but yeah, Iím all right."

Josiah snorted. "Guess weíll be in social purgatory together then."

"We can use the time to brush up on our card playiní. Give Ezra a surprise next time we all ante up together," Nathan suggested, gently picking a few small bits of glass out of the wounded hand and noticing that the wrist joint was swollen and clearly painful as Josiah hissed when he moved it. Examining a particularly deep cut in the palm, he added, "Looks like Iíd better deal."

Appreciating the attempt at distraction, Josiah asked, "You suppose Ezra and Buck have made out any better with their predictions than we have with ours?"

A startled look crossed the healerís face. "Shoot, I never thought of that. That old lady said we was gonna have a run-in that would mark us, didnít she?"

"Mark us and cause us to be shunned," Josiah corrected. "Iíd say Madame Zaltana called it pretty close. Makes me wonder if we all mightíve underestimated her abilities."

"Guess weíll find out when we get back to town," Nathan said, frowning as he tried to recall exactly what the fortune teller had predicted for the other two lawmen. "Meantime, better let me have a look at those eyes. Open wide."

 

Chapter 9

 

"Thatís it, my friend. Open your eyes," Ezra coaxed, kneeling next to Buck in the freshly turned dirt and lightly slapping his cheek as his eyelids began to flutter.

Kneeling on the opposite side of his body, Leonard Hunt lightly grabbed Buckís shoulder and gave it a shake. "Come on. Wake up, now."

Buck groaned as he struggled back toward consciousness. Suddenly, he lurched into a sitting position, swinging both fists in wild unaimed punches. Ezra scrambled out of the way and fell back, landing on his butt in the dirt but managing not to be struck. Leonard was not as lucky, taking a hard blow to the face.

"Damn it, Buck, cut it out. Youíre okay!" Leonard shouted, covering his freshly bruised cheekbone with a wince.

Buck stilled, blinking owlishly. "Whaí happened?"

Getting slowly to his feet, Ezra automatically began dusting off his dirt-encrusted clothing with one hand. The other was tucked up close to his body, still throbbing fiercely from its collision with the back of Buckís hard skull. Giving up on the attempt to clean himself off, he offered the hand to help Buck to his feet. "It seems that your attempt at peacemaking backfired," he explained. "You stepped right in the middle just as Mister Hunt and I struck at one another."

"Oh, yeah, you were fighting," he remembered, turning in a slow circle as he searched the ground, nearly losing his balance again as he turned.

Ezra caught him as he swayed to one side. "Easy, Mister Wilmington, I donít think youíre quite steady yet. What are you looking for?"

"My hat."

Hooking one finger around the stampede string at Buckís throat, Ezra pulled the item forward, drawing the hat up from his friendís back. Pulling it into place, he said lightly, "There you are. Better?"

Buck straightened the headwear and gave Ezra a vacant smile. "All set. We going out to Leonardís now?"

Exchanging a worried frown with Ezra, Leonard tapped Buck on the shoulder, earning himself a surprised look from the confused man.

"Hey, Leonard," Buck said. "Whatíre you doing out here?"

"Youíre standing in my field," he explained patiently.

Buck looked around; dark blue eyes wide and dazed. "Nice place you got here."

Snorting a laugh, Ezra said, "I think weíd better take a little ride out toward the Porter and Kinney homes and see if we canít find Mister Jackson." Licking at his own bloody lip and lightly dashing at a rivulet seeping down from a cut over his eyebrow, he agreed with himself, "Definitely a wise idea. Perhaps a short visit to the creek to clean up first."

"You're a mess," Buck said matter-of-factly.

"I'm sure that I am." Amused expression darkening into a frown, he told Leonard, "If you wish to discuss the repurchase of your land, you know where to find me."

Leonardís face was caught somewhere between anger and astonishment. "You want to sell the place back to me?"

The fight had gotten Ezraís blood up and evaporated the final traces of sleepiness from his brain, but now that the heat of the moment was over, his temper had cooled. "I have no earthly desire to engage in farm labor and when Mister Craig put this," he patted his coat where he had redeposited the deed, "in last nightís pot, my only thought was to impoverish the bastard. I had no idea to whom it actually belonged and no intention of keeping it."

"So, where does that put me?" Leonard crossed his arms over his chest and lifted his chin with a defiant expression.

"Presumably, in a position to negotiate with the new owner of your property," Ezra replied coolly, noting that in spite of his belligerent stance Leonard was shifting from one foot to the other, easily giving away his nervousness. There was a reason this man never won at poker. "How much money did you owe Craig?"

The two men stared daggers at one another for several seconds, and then Leonard dropped his gaze, ducking his head and said in a low voice, "About seven hundred dollars."

Ezra brows climbed a fraction. "That total seems rather exorbitant. Word around town was that you had been working to repay the debt for several months already."

With a defeated sigh, Leonard said, "I have. I didnít originally intend for him to get his hands on that deed at all, you know."

"What happened?" Ezra asked, curiosity overtaking his irritation.

"Had to mortgage my land to the bank last year after my crops failed. Didnít have anything left to get going again, so I took a chance and borrowed the money. Then I fell behind on the payments and Craig bought the note from the bank. Told me I could add on any supplies I needed from the feed and seed to the bill, then take a couple of months to get back on my feet before I started in on paying him back. It sounded like a real good deal at first."

Suddenly feeling unexpectedly sorry for the gullible young man, Ezra asked, "I take it he charged interest on the items you purchased?"

Leonard nodded, meeting his eyes with a shamed expression. "With all that extra stuff added on the bill really went up, and then he started charging even more interest than the bank had on everything. I been working like a slave trying to make up the difference, but I just kept falling further and further behind. I owe more right now than I did when I first borrowed it."

"Does Sharon know?" Buck blurted. He had been following the conversation silently, bobbing his head back and forth between Ezra and Leonard each time one of them would speak. The concentrated frown on his face proved that he had not forgotten what he considered the most important element in this entire situation.

"She knows I owe some, but I havenít told her the rest." He ducked his head once again. "Knew I shouldíve held off on asking her to marry me. She donít need a man she canít depend on to take care of her."

Hearing the paraphrasing of his own earlier complaints to Buck, Ezraís sympathy for the young man grew. "Which is the real reason Madame Zaltanaís prediction frightened you into using me as an excuse to end your engagement," he guessed. Seeing Leonardís astonishment, he pressed his point. "Did it ever occur to you that your fiancee might wish to share your burden, rather than be protected from it?"

"I canít expect Sharon to pay my way!" he cried. "What kind of a man would that make me?"

Ezra shook his head. "Perhaps one who understands the true meaning of the vow: For better or worse, richer or poorer." Not waiting for a reply, he turned Buck toward the horses. "Come, Mister Wilmington. Let us go search out Nathanís services while our prideful companion here reconsiders his position."

"Okay," Buck said, staggering to his horse and mounting up after two unsuccessful tries to get his foot in the stirrup. Staring at the blue sky overhead and then at the surrounding countryside, he asked Ezra, "Where we heading again?"

Amusement returned to Ezraís green eyes as he settled into his own saddle and retrieved the reins, wincing as he grasped them in his left hand and felt another spike of pain shoot up his wrist. Quickly moving the reins to his right hand, he replied, "Why donít you just allow me to lead for the time being?"

"Okay," Buck said again cheerfully.

Eyeing the red haired man still staring at him, Ezra said, "If you truly wish to maintain your pride at the cost of your love, then I believe youíve made a very poor bargain, my friend. Sharon deserves better."

As they rode away, leaving the farmer standing in his field, Buck surprised Ezra by reaching over to pat his back. "Knew you cared," he said.

Turning to study Buckís face, Ezra soothed himself with a reminder that the man had been struck senseless only a few minutes earlier. "Mister Wilmington, you donít know what youíre talking about. I simply have no wish to see Leonard do something that both he and Sharon will regret for the rest of their lives."

The look that Buck shot him was entirely too shrewd for a man who only moments before had appeared to be suffering from a head injury, but all he said was, "Sure."

"Well then, what about me?" Ezra demanded. "The debt Leonard still owes on this land is considerable. I can hardly afford to let such a financial opportunity slip through my fingers, but would you really have me sit around this rural hamlet for the next ten years waiting for Leonard to pay off the marker? Especially, when I would be able to collect the money in a far more timely fashion by simply persuading him to allow Sharon to help."

"Could always sell to somebody else," Buck suggested, his entirely too practical answer earning him a scowl. "Youíd make your money right away and then none of this would be your problem."

Ezra drew himself up straighter. "That would hardly be civilized. Not when weíve already promised Miss Pryor that we would aid in her difficulties."

Buck grinned; kindly failing to remind Ezra that he had personally made no such promise. Rubbing the back of his head, Buck let the matter drop as his throbbing skull regained his attention. What the hell had hit him anyway?

 

Chapter 10

 

Nathan and Josiah had both washed themselves thoroughly at the Kinney home and Murielís efforts at the washtub had managed to remove at least some of the sharp stench from their clothing, but the odor still clung to them stubbornly. As they had neared the creek on their way home, neither man had been able to resist a chance to bathe again.

"You hear something?" Nathan asked curiously, cocking his head to one side, a bar of strong soap pausing against his chest mid-scrub.

Josiah right hand stilled in its vigorous rubbing of his scalp. His left was heavily bandaged and held out away from his body in an effort to keep it dry. "Like what?"

"Listen."

In the distance, a familiar voice rang out, "Oh, do you remember Sweet Betsy from Pike, who crossed the big mountains with her lover, Ike? With two yoke of cattle and a big yellow dog, one Shanghai rooster and an old spotted hog."

The two bathers grinned at one another as they recognized a second voice, southern accented and very irate demanding, "Mister Wilmington, please stop that obnoxious caterwauling. You have been singing that same verse over and over for the past mile and a half. Canít you at least come up with a different song?"

There was a pause, then Buckís voice rose up again. "Come and sit by my side if you love me."

"Anything but that!" Ezra snapped.

There was a laugh, and then the two riders came over the ridge that had been blocking their friendsí view, Buck singing loudly, "I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee. Going to Louisiana, my true love for to see." He cut himself off with a broad grin as he recognized the two men dabbling in the creek. "Howdy, boys."

They greeted him in return; then Josiah returned to his efforts to rinse the soap and hopefully some of the smell out of his salt and pepper curls.

Nathan stared in concern as he got a look at Ezraís face. One eye was swollen halfway shut, his lower lip was twice its normal size on the left side and he sported a nasty looking gash over one eyebrow. Some effort had clearly been made to mop away any blood, but a few residual streaks still colored his cheek and chin. Buck, likewise, was sporting a purpling bruise right on the edge of his chin. "Have you two been fighting?" he asked in surprise.

"Not with each other," Ezra clarified. Then, glancing at Buck, added, "Well, not intentionally."

"Not intentionally," the healer repeated. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"Leonard Hunt picked a fight," Buck supplied, flashing Ezra a look of great sympathy as he added matter-of-factly, "Heís in love with Sharon."

"Very much so," Josiah agreed, squeezing water out of his hair. "Thatís why theyíre getting married."

"I believe that Buck was referring to me," Ezra corrected with a sigh.

Josiah and Nathan both turned shocked stares upon him.

Seeing their expressions, Ezra protested, "Itís not what you think. The couple in question is having a bit of a dispute. Leonard has taken the idea into his head that Sharon is stepping out on him. Sharon asked Buck to convince him otherwise and Buck, in turn, asked me. We went to talk some sense into him, but a few unpleasant words led to a physical altercation. Buck took a blow to the head during these events and as a result he isnít quite thinking straight."

"Iím fine," Buck countered. "Was a little loopy for a minute or two but Iím okay now."

Rinsing the last of the soap from his hands, Nathan picked up his still-damp shirt and put it back on. "You sure? Head injuries can be pretty dangerous. You be sure and let me know if anything donít seem right for the next few days."

Buck nodded. "Will do."

Satisfied, Nathan turned his attention back to Ezra. "Now finish your story, why would Buck sparking Sharon make Leonard thing that youíre in love with her?"

Buck laughed. "No, no, I ainít sparking her. Ezra is, or at least thatís what Leonard thinks."

Ezraís face took on a shade more color than usual. "It seems that I may have lavished slightly more praise upon the lady than I should have, a fact which led both Buck and Leonard to the erroneous conclusion that I am enamored of her."

"Are you sure that youíre not?" Josiah asked curiously. "You do spend an awful lot of time in her shop."

Nathan nodded. "You bought more new clothes than any three men could wear since she come to town. Always exchanging books and such with her too."

Ezraís eyes narrowed. "Donít you start," he warned. Dismounting, he let go a hiss of pain as his injured wrist brushed against the edge of the saddle. "Iím in quite enough misery as it is without you two . . . dear God, what is that smell?"

"Must be a polecat around here someplace," Buck said, nose wrinkling as he too left his saddle and led his horse to the creek for a drink. As the wind shifted, putting him downwind of Josiah, he eyed the other man suspiciously. Leaning closer he took a good sniff. "And it seems you boys found Ďim."

"Them," the older man replied. "Twins answering to the names of Winston and Willoughby Kinney."

Astonishment warred with amusement in Ezraís face. "Are you saying that Muriel Kinney has taken to adopting skunks?" They nodded glumly and the gambler laughed outright. "And did you come to be on a first name basis with these creatures before or after they perfumed you?"

Nathan scowled. "Before. They was real tame at first. Kinda cute, even, but they followed us up on the roof and things got messy."

"It seems that Nathanís singing voice acted as a sirenís song," Josiah told them, grinning unrepentantly as the healer shot him an exasperated look and the other men both snickered.

"Hell, and I thought Buckís singing was bad," Ezra chortled.

Buck punched him lightly in the shoulder, then asked, "Howíd they get up there anyway? I didnít think skunks could climb that high."

"Me either, especially didnít expect to find them up there in broad daylight," Nathan declared. "I thought they was mostly night critters."

"Thereís a large tree next to the Kinney home, as I recall," Ezra said. "Likely they used it to reach you. Almost any member of the weasel family, including the western spotted skunk, can climb, and while they are largely nocturnal they have been known to go out of their way to investigate if something intrigues them."

Buck snorted. "Well, I reckon youíd know, you being a close personal relation and all."

Ezra made a face at him but otherwise allowed the comment to pass unchallenged, knowing it was made in retaliation for his own barb.

As Josiah and Buck finished comparing notes on their luckless morning, Nathan examined Ezraís bruised face and arm, not having missed the way he was favoring his left wrist. Ezra tolerated the procedure grudgingly, doing his best to hold his breath in defense against the healerís proximity.

"Looks like you and Josiah are gonna be a matched pair," Nathan commented as he borrowed Ezraís tie and Buckís neck cloth, using them to bind a pair of short sticks to the front and back of Ezraís hand, immobilizing the appendage. "You each got a sprained left wrist, and your face is about as banged up as his hand."

"Itís all very strange," Josiah commented thoughtfully.

"What is?" Buck asked.

Josiah gestured toward Ezraís injury with his own bandaged limb. "I was thinking about Madame Zaltana. We were talking about her earlier. She predicted Nathanís and my fortune almost exactly, and it seems like she came pretty close on yours as well."

"Nonsense," Ezra scoffed. "She claimed that I was going to reap riches and become the object of someoneís ill-considered affection. I havenít noticed any secret admirers lurking about, have you?"

Nathan pressed the point. "No, but she said Buck was gonna use his matchmakiní skills the wrong way and cause a friend misery. Seems to me youíre pretty miserable after getting between Sharon and Leonard."

"I did not get Ė oh, whatís the use?" he said in exasperation. "As I was saying, my fortune was dependent upon my beginning an ill-advised romantic pursuit. In spite of Mister Wilmingtonís best efforts to convince me otherwise, I am not in love with our local dressmaker."

"Youíre sure?" Josiah pressed.

Ezra nodded. "I must admit that her charms, both physical and otherwise, are most attractive and the notion did tempt my imagination when Buck suggested it this morning. But yes, Iím quite sure. While I have no wish to lose our friendship or business relationship, I have no desire to marry her. Sharon deserves a man who is willing to be permanently devoted to her, and I am not that man."

"Glad to hear you say that, brother," Josiah said with a smile. "Iíve got a notion you may change your mind about getting married some day but if Sharonís not the one, itís good that you realize it before anyone gets hurt."

Touching his swollen lip, Ezra snorted softly. "Where were you this morning?"

"Well, that old gypsy might have messed up your love prediction a little, but she got the other part right," Buck persisted. "You made a pile of money last night, and stand to make even more off that deed."

Ezraís face brightened at the reminder of his winnings. "Very true," he agreed thoughtfully, "and the more I think about how much trouble this document has already caused, the less desire I have to maintain extended possession of it."

"What are you thinking?" Nathan asked suspiciously, watching a sly smile creep over Ezraís lips.

"Madame Zaltana is really quite a convincing actress. She clearly has experience in how to read a mark, seen in the way that her predictions to us were vague enough to suit anyone but carefully trimmed to fit each of us individually. With a little research and some good showmanship, Iím sure that most patrons easily believe she has the ability to outline their destinies. After we spoke with her yesterday, I had the peculiar sense that Iíd missed something. This conversation has given me an idea as to how we might resolve this entire mess between Sharon and Leonard."

"We?" Josiah said in surprise.

Ezra nodded, his smile growing. "If I am correct, then itís time that the four of us paid another call on our visiting fortune teller."

 

Chapter 11

 

As the four riders moved slowly back into town, Nathan commented, "Thought weíd never get here. I canít wait to get some fresh clothes on."

"That makes two of us," Josiah replied with feeling. "I plan to head over to the bath house for a soak before we talk to Zaltana."

Nathan nodded. "Hot wateríd be good for that sore ankle of yours and I can bandage that hand up better now that weíre home too."

"Iím sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but your ablutions will have to wait."

All three of the other men reacted in disbelief to Ezraís calm statement. He held up his own bandaged hand to stop their noises of protest. "I know, and I am sorry. Believe me, I too would like nothing better than to retreat to the safety of my feather bed and forget this wretched day ever happened, but it will be far more useful if you remain as-is for the time being."

"What for?" Josiah asked. "You figure Madame Zaltana will be more willing to help us if she sees what her predictions have done?"

"Something like that," he agreed placidly. Not bothering to explain, Ezra kneed his horse into a canter and headed for the outskirts of town, in the direction of the traveling show. Resignedly, the others followed.

 

The show grounds were alive with human traffic. Performers, sideshow barkers, vendors and throngs of eager visitors all milled together, happily exchanging money for services and attractions that the people of Four Corners were rarely afforded.

The lawmen left their horses at one of the hitching rails assembled for the event, and made their way forward. Nathan led the way, walking with a grim expression but holding his head high and lending Josiah a supporting arm as the other man limped along beside him. The crowd parted easily before them, noises of disgust and the hasty fanning of hands in front of noses giving away the reason.

Buck flashed Ezra a grin as he watched the scene, realizing exactly why Ezra had asked the other men not to clean up right away. Leaning close, he whispered, "You know theyíre gonna get you back for this, right?"

Ezra smiled back as widely as his bruised features would allow. "I would expect nothing less."

As they reached the tent, they saw that a long line was formed outside of it, dozens of people eagerly clutching their nickels as they waited to have their future seen by the mysterious Madame Zaltana.

"Looks like weíre gonna have to wait a while," Nathan said, making no effort to hide his disappointment as he plucked at the front of his reeking shirt.

"Nonsense," Ezra said breezily. Waiting only long enough for the most recent customer to make her exit, he strode right up to the head of the line, raising his right hand for attention. "Excuse us, ladies and gentlemen. My fellow peacekeepers and I request your patience and understanding as we regretfully interrupt your entertainment. We have a matter of utmost urgency to discuss with Madame Zaltana."

Picking up the thread, Buck moved to stand behind his friend and stood tall, casually resting his hand upon his gun belt as he said seriously, "Official business."

An unhappy rumble lifted from the crowd, but their interest was clearly piqued. Had there been a crime committed? Was the fortune teller guilty of some misdeed? Or, an even more exciting possibility; was Zaltana about to be asked to use her amazing powers to divine the identity of a criminal?

"Please do not be alarmed. We will pursue this matter most expeditiously and allow you to resume your activities. Mister Sanchez, Mister Jackson, would you please guard the entrance while Mister Wilmington and I speak with the lady?"

Exchanging a sour look, the two pungent lawmen took up their position, causing the crowd to fall back another step as the wind shifted.

Inside the tent, Madame Zaltana was waiting for them, chin resting upon her steepled fingertips and a knowing smile upon her face. Gesturing gracefully from Buck and Ezra to the two chairs before her table, she gave a throaty chuckle. "So," she crooned, "you have returned. Did the events foreordained not please you, my friends?"

"Please us!" Buck all but shouted. He grabbed Ezra by the chin, forcing a squawk of protest from the manhandled gambler. "Does this look like a good time to you? And what about Josiah and Nathan? I canít get within ten feet of them without my eyes watering. Does that sound like a pleasure?"

Slapping the other manís hand away, Ezra shot Buck a glare. "Do you mind?"

Zaltana waved her hands airily. "The Fates are not mine to control. If the events I foresaw were not to your liking, I am sorry but how am I to know what visions they will send to me?"

Ezra snorted a laugh. "Madam, let us not waste one anotherís time. You and I both know that the events you Ďpredictedí for us were almost inevitable, given our assorted professions and reputations. I am a gambler, so fortune would almost certainly come my way sooner or later. Buck is a hopeless romantic and our other two friends are inveterate do-gooders, all traits that would easily lend truth to your words. The rest was simply coincidence."

Her kohl rimmed eyes widened in a look of total innocence. "But my friend, how was I to know any of these things about you?"

"Any one of a dozen outside sources could have provided such information," he said smoothly. "Not everyone in this town approves of us, but they all know us and most of them like to talk."

"What makes you speak so cynically, my young friend?" she purred, stroking the top of her crystal ball. "Do you not believe that there are truths beyond the narrow scope of human understanding?"

"I do, indeed. I simply do not believe that you are privy to them, Madame Zaltana." He smiled then, tipping his head to one side and raising a knowing eyebrow. "Or would you prefer that I simply call you Anna?"

The fortune teller sat up straighter, startling Buck into an exclamation of surprise when her mysterious manner and deep heavily accented words suddenly disappeared as she demanded, "Where did you hear that name?"

Ezra chuckled. "Youíve really become quite good at this over the years, my dear. It took me all night and part of this morning to realize why you seemed familiar when we spoke yesterday. Do you happen to remember a marvelous scheme you concocted about, oh, eighteen years ago in Montgomery involving investment in a revolutionary new model of cotton-gin?"

Her features tightened. "What do you want? I know youíre the law in this town, but if you intend to arrest me for something that you claim happened more than a decade ago, I can assure you-"

Over her protest, Ezra interrupted, "You may also recall that you had a partner in that particular con, a young woman by the name of Maude Selkirk. Not that Selkirk was a genuine moniker, of course. My mother has adopted any number of sobriquets over the years."

Suddenly, the light dawned. "The kid," she said in a tone of revelation. "Maudeís little boy. That was . . .?"

He smiled broadly; wincing a bit as the motion pulled at his swollen lip, allowing his gold tooth to wink at her in the dim light. "Me," he acknowledged, giving her a half-bow from his chair. "Yes, indeed. I was ten years old at the time and absolutely fascinated by watching you and my mother work. I learned a great deal from both of you; I really must thank you for the opportunity."

Brow wrinkling, she guessed, "So this law enforcement job of yours. Itís . . ."

"Quite genuine, I assure you," he said quickly. "I took the job to avoid prosecution by a certain judge who held an outstanding warrant. Much to my surprise, I turned out to be rather proficient at the task so I stuck with it."

"What better choice for a lawman than one who understands how the other half thinks, eh?"

Ezra gave her a small grin. "Exactly."

The woman laughed, relaxing a bit. "Your mother must have been pleased."

Ignoring the sarcastic comment, he plunged forward. "I must compliment you on your performance here, Anna. You still have an amazing ability to read people. I was almost convinced by your fortune telling routine myself."

"So all this really is just a con?" Buck interrupted, having listened to the exchange with increasing disappointment. He grimaced at his own question, realizing that he had sounded nearly as naïve as JD. "Guess I knew that, but somehow I was kind of hoping Ezra was wrong."

"It isnít a con," Zaltana said, looking miffed at the accusation. "Itís a performance art, like acting or singing. I base the readings on what I know or can guess about the people who sit in that chair. Their lifestyles, attitudes, how likely they are to believe what I tell them. How the customers choose to interpret what I say is up to them, but youíd be surprised how often Iím right. Sometimes I wonder if I donít really have a touch of the gift, after all."

Admiration in his tone, Ezra said, "If anyone in the world could, it would be you, Anna. Watching you ply your trade back in the day truly was like viewing the creation of a work of art. In all these years, Iíve never forgotten it, and itís clear to me that your talents have only increased."

She blushed, and in spite of her heavy features and deeply made up face, suddenly showed a clear flash of the beauty she had been as a young woman. "You certainly grew into all that boyish charm, didnít you?" she commented. To Buck she added, "Even as a child he was able to turn a personís head with pretty words."

"I believe it," Buck agreed with a chuckle.

Getting back to business, she leaned forward, resting her arms upon the table. "Now, I donít think you came by just to reminisce about old times. Why donít you tell me what youíre after before you cause me to lose all of my customers?"

Ezra nodded. "As a matter of fact, it is about two of your customers that weíve come. Do you recall the young couple who visited you just before my comrades and I?"

Vaguely waving a hand, she said, "I see so many. Itís difficult to keep track of them all."

"Pretty little gal who owns the dress shop and her fiancee, a big red-headed farmer?" Buck supplied. "You told them their happiness was in danger."

Ezra reached into his vest pocket and pulled forth a bright twenty-dollar gold coin. The womanís eyes fixed on the shining object with the fascination of a magpie as he began to dance it back and forth along his knuckles.

"Was he a large young man who was afraid heíd lose his farm?" she asked. Buck nodded eagerly. "And I believe his fiancee was supposed to enlist the aid of a rich friend to help him through his difficulties."

Ezra smirked. "I see your memory has not dimmed over the years since I saw you last either. That is correct."

The fortune teller made a grab for the money, but Ezra pulled it back, nicking the edge of the coin with his fingertip and making it spin like a top on the edge of his knuckle before again sending it on its dance. "It would take you four hundred fortunes to earn the sum of this coin," he said lightly. "And it occurred to me last night that I owed you a tip for the willing throng your predictions sent to my tables last night."

Interested, she gestured for him to go on.

"If you could make use of your Ďpowersí to convince our young friends that you did not see their entire fortune at the initial reading, then I will consider this coin and another just like it to be money well-spent."

He flipped the coin in her direction and the fortune teller caught it with hands that had not slowed one whit with age.

"Youíll get the second when the job is done," he told her.

A smile flickered across her face. "I would expect nothing else. I always knew youíd grow up to be a good businessman, Ezra. Now, tell me what you have in mind."

 

~*~*~*~*~

 

Ezra and Buck emerged from the tent a few minutes later, Buck calling back over his shoulder in a slightly too-loud voice, "Thanks, Zaltana. We never would have figured it out without your help!"

As they walked away, Ezra also pitched his voice to carry over the crowd as he said in a tone of amazement, "Incredible gift; simply astounding. We are fortunate indeed to have such a talented presence in our midst."

The two exchanged a subtle grin as they observed the excited crowd gathering closer to the tent flap, its number having already grown as word of the peacekeepersí interest spread from person to person.

Josiah smirked. "Guess the old lady must have told you what you wanted to hear," he said, keeping his voice low until they were well away from the crowd. "Sheíll likely be raking in customers and cash all day long, thanks to you."

"Letís just say that I owed her a favor," Ezra told him. "And incidentally, sheís not as old as you might think; somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty; perhaps fifty-five."

"How do you know?" Nathan asked curiously.

Buck chuckled. "Turns out they know each other, or used to. Seems that when Ezra was a little guy, Maude and Madame Zaltana worked as partners down south."

"Them two ladies was conning folks together?" Nathan said, reading between the lines. "Dang, thatís why you were so quick to reassure us yesterday that her predictions didnít mean anything."

Ezra shook his head. "Actually, that is incorrect. I was basing my comments on similar performances Iíd seen in the past, including my motherís, and I still consider my words to be valid in spite of the bizarre number of coincidences weíve encountered. Madame Zaltanaís true identity didnít occur to me until just a short while ago."

"Why should it have?" Josiah asked practically. "Especially if you havenít seen her since you were a boy."

With a shrug, he admitted, "The passage of years and her current appearance and demeanor did keep me from recognizing her immediately. I assumed that she seemed familiar only because her performance is much like other so-called gypsy fortune tellers Iíve seen. I had to speak with her again to be certain. Fortunately, once we had reminisced over old times she proved quite amenable to the idea of assisting us."

"Meaning sheís only gonna help us out because she knows you can identify her and spoil her con." Nathan concluded sourly, eyes narrowing.

Ezra tsked, giving the healer a soulful look. Placing his hand dramatically over his heart, he declared, "Mister Jackson, I am shocked. Blackmail? It is deeply wounding that you could even think that I would employ such a tactic."

"What heís saying is, he didnít have to," Buck supplied with a grin, enjoying the drama. "Zaltana agreed to help out for forty bucks and that little boost we gave her business back there."

Nathan gave Buck a disapproving look. "Bribery? Howís that better than blackmail?"

"Just think of the money as prepayment for services soon to be rendered," Ezra replied serenely.

"So whatís she planning to do about Leonard and Sharon?" Nathan asked, giving up the argument for the time being.

Ezra simply smiled and said, "Youíll see."

Circumspection was not Buckís style. He rubbed his hands together gleefully and revealed, "Zaltanaís going to meet us in town this evening after this place closes down for the day and help Ezra put on a little performance. All we have to do is get Leonard and Sharon to come by the saloon at the same time and then sit back and watch the show." He chortled happily. "Those two kids are gonna be on their honeymoon by the end of the week if we have anything to do with it."

"Which reminds me," Ezra said, stopping in his tracks and facing Josiah. "If this works, we may have to move quickly before Leonard can do something foolish again. As our closest local equivalent to a clergyman, is it within your rights to perform a marriage ceremony?"

Surprised, the older man scratched his head. "Well, I donít see any reason why I couldnít. I may have given up the collar but I still have a few credentials. Besides, in lieu of the circuit judge being present all a couple needs to make it legal is to have the records clerk issue a marriage license, get a couple of witnesses to sign it and then have someone notarize the document. Mary Travis could do that."

"Excellent," Ezra declared, beaming. "Iím sure that Sharon would prefer to have a proper ceremony; something with a few flowers and frills involved, but that should be relatively simple to arrange."

Buck nudged him with a grin, "You gonna give the bride away?"

The gambler shot him a rueful look. "It seems that I may have to, just to prove once and for all that I have no personal interest in the lady."

 

As the quartet reached their horses, Nathan said, "We got a few hours until the traveling show closes down. You mind if we go get cleaned up now?" He cast Ezra a hard look. "Donít think for one minute that we donít know why you made us wait."

Ezraís expression was pure innocence. "Whatever do you mean? I was simply attempting to set the pieces of this game in motion before any more time was wasted. Besides," he added with a small grin, "you cannot deny that the two of you made a most effective guard against eavesdroppers. Iím sure no one dared get close enough to hear a word."

The black manís nostrils flared and he took a step forward, only to be stopped by a hand planted firmly in the middle of his chest.

"Easy, brother," Josiah said smoothly. "Ezra was only trying to do what was best for everyone."

Two sets of disbelieving eyes fixed on him, while Ezra puffed up like a peacock. "Indeed," he said smugly. "Iím delighted to find that at least one of my colleagues has faith in the purity of my intentions."

Josiah gave him a toothy smile and laid his good hand upon Ezraís shoulder. "Of course, and I believe that such a display of peaceful intention and love for your fellow man should be shown proper appreciation."

Ezra drew himself up taller, raising his chin and looking as if he were ready to pose for a statue of angelic virtue. He failed to notice Nathanís irritated expression transform into a gleeful grin. Buck did not. A smile formed as he crossed his arms and simply waited to see what would happen.

Both observers burst into loud guffaws when the damp, skunk-infused preacher suddenly lunged forward and wrapped both arms around Ezra, balancing his own weight on his uninjured ankle as he pinned the surprised manís arms in place and lifted him off the ground in a tight bear hug.

"Unhand me!" Ezra demanded, fighting to keep his nose from being buried in Josiahís shirtfront as Nathan joined in the embrace, squashing the gambler firmly between them. Buck was keeled over, resting both hands on his knees and wheezing for air, he was laughing so hard.

Tightening his grip, Josiah rumbled, "Next time you need us to help you with something; you will let us in on the entire plan, right?"

"Yes," Ezra squeaked, face going red with the effort to hold his breath while being squeezed in the powerful double grip.

"Before you put it in play," Nathan added firmly. "Promise?"

Unable to prevent it, the oxygen deprived gambler sucked in a deep breath which made his face go a little green. Desperately, he declared, "Yes, yes, I promise!"

Deciding that heíd had enough, the two men released their hold. "Good," Josiah said calmly. "Now, I think Iíll head on back to town and get that bath."

"Me too," Nathan said with a grin.

Buck wiped at his tearing eyes. "Think Iíll go find me a beer and cool off. Care to join me, pard?"

Straightening his wrinkled and abused wardrobe with supreme dignity, Ezra replied, "A libation would be most welcome. Just allow me a few minutes to change and burn these clothes first."

Buck released a fresh gale of laughter, slapping his friend hard on the back. "Iíll wait. First roundís on me."

 

Chapter 12

 

Just as they reached the batwing doors of the saloon, Buck and Ezra were stopped in their tracks by a feminine voice urgently calling their names. They turned to find Sharon Pryor hurrying toward them; a hopeful yet anxious look on her face.

"Miss Pryor," Ezra greeted, self consciously brushing at his soiled attire, noticing as he did so that he had somehow managed to lose a shirt button. Between his damaged clothing, missing tie and colorfully bruised face, he was sure he must be a sight quite unfitting for the eyes of a lady. Attempting to keep her from getting a good look, he inched behind Buck, using his larger body as a shield.

"Howdy, Miss Sharon," Buck said, his automatic smile at her appearance dimming as he remembered that he did not yet have any good news to report.

Sharon slumped a bit as she registered his expression. "It didnít work, did it?"

"Iím afraid things didnít go quite as smooth as I expected," Buck agreed, apology in his tone.

"Oh, dear. I was so sure that between the two of you-" Her words cut off with a gasp as Buck shifted and inadvertently gave her a full view of Ezra. Reaching out a trembling hand, she touched the gamblerís face, avoiding contact with his swollen lip and black eye as she tilted his face to assess the damage. "Did Leonard do this to you?"

"We had a bit of a disagreement," he hedged.

Gently lifting his splinted hand, she whispered, "And this?"

"That was an accident," Buck cut in helpfully.

Ezra nodded. "Just bad timing, really. Mister Wilmington attempted to intercede in the altercation and my fist collided with his stone-like cranium."

"Are you all right?" she asked, including them both in the question.

"Quite well, my dear," Ezra told her. "It looks worse than it feels, Iím sure."

Buck agreed, "Just a headache. Iíll be fit as a fiddle come tomorrow."

"And Leonard?" she asked softly.

Patting her on the shoulder, he replied, "Maybe a little less pretty than youíre used to, but heís fine."

Ezra took a deep breath, steeling himself against her possible reaction as he added, "Before you begin to think too poorly of your fiancee, I must regretfully admit to having goaded him into throwing the first punch."

"You mean you wanted to start a fight?" she clarified dubiously.

"Well, not initially," he said. "My only thought when we arrived was to convince Leonard of how ridiculous it was to suspect that there could be anything more than friendship between you and I. He believed that all too easily."

Sharonís eyes widened at the note of bitterness in the last remark. "Are you saying that you . . . that is, were you fighting over . . . me?"

Ezra mentally slapped himself. He was doing it again! How was he ever supposed to convince anyone that he had no personal interest in Sharon if he persisted in allowing himself to sound like a lovesick schoolboy every time he spoke of her?

Seeing the disconcerted look on his face, Buck decided to pick up the thread. "That isnít exactly right," he told Sharon. "See, Ezra had just about convinced Leonard that he was barking up the wrong tree, but . . ."

"But?"

Ezra winced as he confessed, "It seems that your fiancee is not the only man prone to losing his temper when his pride gets in the way of his good sense."

"Meaning?"

Buck grimaced. "Meaning that everything was going great until Leonard basically said that any man in town, including me or Charles Craig, would be a more likely rival for your heart than Ezra."

"What a terrible thing to say!" Sharon replied. "Why if I hadnít met Leonard, I would have been proud to have you sparking me, Ezra."

He smiled; the smarting insult he had felt when Buck reminded him of the reason for the fight fading into pleasurable warmth. "Most kind of you to say."

Sharonís brown eyes sparked as her own temper was roused. "And to imply that I would even consider allowing Charles Craig to court me. The very idea! He tried, you know, before Leonard and I became engaged, but I refused to have anything to do with him."

"Glad to hear it," Buck approved. "Anyhow, thatís what started the fight. Ezra here didnít take too kindly to being called second rate. Then we found out that Leonard had already had a tussle with Craig over buying back his-" He cut himself off abruptly, suddenly remembering that Sharon knew nothing of the history between her fiancee and the store owner. Unsure if he should continue he looked to Ezra for support.

Ezra nodded. "We should tell her the rest. Itís only right that she should know."

"Know what?" the girl demanded worriedly. "What business could Leonard possibly have with Mister Craig? They donít even like each other."

Ezra pulled the somewhat crumpled deed from his inside coat pocket. "You were aware that Leonard had mortgaged his farm to the bank last year?"

"Yes, of course. He had to, but heís been working very hard to buy it back," she said almost pleadingly, a small worry line forming between her brows.

"He has indeed, but it is not the bank to whom he has been paying back the money," Ezra told her gently. "Craig bought the note behind his back and has been charging your fiancee an exorbitant rate of compound interest against it."

Sharonís face paled and Buck immediately stepped forward to steady her. "Letís go inside a minute. I think you need to sit down."

"In the saloon? Oh, I couldnít," she protested.

"Just for a minute," he urged, moving her inside and urging her down into the first empty seat he came to. Gesturing to the bar, he called. "Can we get a glass of water over here? The ladyís feeling a little faint."

The bartender obligingly brought the drink, asking kindly if Sharon was all right.

"Yes, Iím fine," she said though she clearly was not. Once the bartender had retreated, she faced the two lawmen with pleading eyes. "Why didnít he tell me? He never said a word about it!"

Taking her hand in his, Ezra said, "I know this is a shock, but Iím sure his intentions were honorable."

"He thought he could work off the note and get everything back to where it should be before you ever had reason to know," Buck told her, patting her other hand. "He didnít want you to have to worry."

Color suddenly infused her cheeks. "Didnít want me to worry?" she repeated, anger in her voice. "As if I wouldnít suspect that something might be wrong when he asked me to marry him, but refused to set a date? As if his suddenly snapping and snarling at every man we met wouldnít seem strange to me? As if making horrible accusations and then breaking off our engagement wouldnít worry me?"

Abruptly, she burst into tears.

"Oh, honey, itís gonna be okay," Buck soothed, instantly moving closer and offering her a shoulder to cry on. "Ezra here has a plan to fix everything. See? Heís already got the deed to Leonardís farm away from Craig, easy as pie, and heís gonna find a way to give it back to Leonard."

She sniffled and looked at Ezra. "You have the deed?"

He again held up the paper. "Right here. It seems that our universally unpopular feed store owner is not as good a poker player as he fancies himself to be."

"And youíre just going to give it to Leonard?" Sharon clarified uncertainly. "Thatís very kind of you, but why? It hardly seems fair to you."

Ezra shot a sour look towards Buck. "I donít believe I ever said anything about giving this property away." Seeing the girlís resigned nod, he thought quickly and added, "Not that such a gesture did not occur to me, of course. I had considered presenting it as a wedding gift, but given the current state of affairs, that hardly seems ideal. Leonard has far too much pride to accept anything that smacks of charity, particularly from someone he views as a rival for your affections."

"Weíre not getting married now anyway," she reminded sadly. "Between what youíve told me and what that fortune teller said yesterday, Iím not sure Leonard will ever change his mind."

"Do not give up hope," Ezra said, smiling into her brimming eyes. "I had not intended to tell you this until later, but weíve just spoken with Madame Zaltana and she wishes to see both you and Leonard again. It seems that she saw something further relating to the two of you after you departed her tent yesterday."

Her brow furrowed uncertainly. "She did?"

"Sure did," Buck confirmed. "All you two got to do is meet her here tonight to find out what she has to say."

Sharon slowly shook her head. Standing, she moved toward the door. "No, no I canít. I appreciate what youíre trying to do; what youíve already done, but talking that gypsy woman into pretending that she saw something better in our future isnít going to make Leonard l-love me again." She brushed away the tears sliding down her face. "Itís too late."

Before they could summon an argument, she had fled. Buck half rose to go after her, but then slumped back into his chair. "Damn."

Propping his head on his right hand, Ezra sighed, "That went well."

"Whoíd have figured that little Sharon was clever enough to guess what we were planning to do?" Buck said glumly.

"I should have known," the southerner replied. "Wasnít I telling you just this morning that one of the traits I find most appealing about Miss Pryor is her intelligence?"

Gesturing to the bartender again, Buck ordered a couple of beers. "So what do we do now?"

Straightening from his despondent slouch, Ezra decided, "We go ahead as planned. Sharon might have seen through our ruse, but I doubt the same will be true of Leonard. We just need to decide how to lure him into town tonight to set the plan in motion."

"I got an idea on that."

"Please, enlighten me."

Buck gave the bartender a coin and a nod of thanks as he brought the drinks, then said, "Leonard probably donít want to see either one of us out at his place again, right?" Ezra nodded. "Right. So, what we need to do is get Nathan to head over there for us."

"Why Nathan?"

"Because he can make up something about wanting to check and see if Leonard got himself hurt in that fight this morning."

Ezra sipped from his mug, wincing slightly as the alcoholic liquid touched his sore lip. "Sounds reasonable so far."

"Sure it is. Then, see, Nathan can tell Leonard that he stopped in to see Zaltana again; maybe claim that he asked her to lift the curse thatís on him. I figure Leonard will buy the idea that Nateís luck ainít running too good once he gets close enough to catch a whiff."

The gambler grinned. "I doubt Mister Jackson will find that argument compelling but it works for me."

Buckís eyes sparkled. "Me too. Anyway, Nathan can tell Leonard that you went with him to Zaltanaís tent and she had a vision about you losing something valuable."

"Which, in turn, will lure Mister Hunt to my poker table with the intention of winning back his deed," Ezra filled in. "Very clever, particularly if I can coax enough players to my table beforehand to ensure that I will not lose much by giving up the document."

"What do you mean?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I mean that as much as certain members of our merry band might wish otherwise, the ĎPí in Ezra P. Standish does not stand for philanthropist. We are talking about giving up a seven hundred dollar pot, Mister Wilmington. A certain profit margin must be maintained."

Buck shook his head. "Guess I shouldnít be surprised youíd feel that way, especially since youíll have to let everyone in town think that you lost at poker to Leonard."

A pained look stole over the gamblerís bruised features. "I hadnít even considered that! Well, I suppose the sacrifice must be made. It will be necessary to arrange for Leonard to go on enough of a winning streak beforehand to make him believe that he is the one destined to beat me at my own game."

"Right," Buck said enthusiastically. "So, any other problems you can think of before we get this going?"

"Two, actually. Firstly, I am not certain that Mister Jackson would be a willing party to our deception, and second, what about our well-paid fortune teller? She will come here tonight expecting to earn that second double eagle for telling a revised fortune, and trust me, if she is anything like I remember her, Anna will not take kindly to being denied her expected earnings."

Stroking his mustache thoughtfully, Buck tried, "Could just give her the money and apologize for wasting her time."

Ezra gave him a look that suggested he had gone crazy.

"Okay, maybe not," Buck chuckled. "What do you think we should do then?"

Considering the plan, Ezra replied, "Perhaps Nathan need not be so detailed in his story. It might be more useful if he were to make a friendly call, as you suggest, pass the time of day and then simply invite Leonard back to town for a drink. The plan would be easy to execute and less dependent upon a talent for prevaricating, which we both know Mister Jackson does not possess."

Buck grinned. "That mean he canít tell a straight-faced lie to save his soul?"

"Thatís exactly what it means," Ezra agreed ruefully. Rising from his seat, he said, "Iíd better go and find him. I need him to reexamine my wrist and bandage it properly anyway. While he treats me, I can fill him in on his role in our little deception."

"Him and Josiah are probably still over at the bathhouse."

Ezra smiled. "Perfect. Iíll just go gather some fresh attire and kill two birds with one stone."

"Good luck," Buck said, hoisting his beer in salute.

Ezra quickly polished off his own drink. "Thank you. I imagine Iíll need it."

 

Chapter 13

 

Nathan grimaced as he crossed the outer boundary of the Hunt farm, wondering how he had allowed himself to be talked into this. He was usually wary of Ezraís schemes, but somehow shortly after the man had walked into the bathhouse with a meek request to have his injured hand bound up after he finished bathing; Nathan had found himself agreeing to help play Cupid. He barely even knew this young couple, and yet here he was.

Meek . . . yes that was probably what had done it. Ezra Standish never acted so humbly and he, fool that he was, had taken it to mean that the man must be in a lot of pain. He had slipped unnoticed into the soothing agreeable demeanor that tended to help calm a patient into accepting medical care without emotional trauma. He had barely even registered the request that was slipped into the conversation while he worked to splint and bandage the damaged limb. It wasnít until after Ezra had finished getting dressed and left with some vague words about wanting a nap before the evening began, that Nathan realized what he had promised to do.

Josiah had witnessed the entire thing, but had somehow felt it unnecessary to call his attention to what was happening. When asked why, he had only smiled and said that Nathan should just be grateful that Ezra had kept his word and told them his plan up-front.

"Oh well," Nathan muttered aloud. He supposed it wouldnít kill him if he had to tell a few white lies. The idea of a nice young couple splitting up because theyíd been duped didnít sit well anyway. It was good to think he might be able to help them.

Not seeing Leonard in his fields, Nathan rode towards the small neat farmhouse built on the northern edge of the property. There he found his quarry sitting on a bench seat on the porch staring morosely out at nothing, so engrossed in his thoughts that he fairly jumped out of his skin when Nathan called his name.

"Oh, uh, howdy Mister Jackson. I didnít hear you ride up."

Nathan smiled down at the embarrassed man from the back of his horse. Even after three separate bathing attempts and a change of clothes he still smelled faintly of skunk. Staying in the saddle would be more polite until he was invited to come closer. "Hey, Leonard. Just came by to make sure youíre all right."

"Why wouldnít I be?"

"Well, I ran into Buck and Ezra a while ago and they told me about the fight. Ezraís pretty banged up, so I figured you might be too, Ďspecially since I didnít see you out working."

The farmer scowled darkly. "Ribs are a little sore, I guess, but Iím all right. Just figured Iíd take the afternoon off. Not much need to break my back getting the back forty plowed and planted now that Iíve lost this place anyhow. Or didnít Standish tell you that part?"

Ignoring the caustic tone, he opted for sympathy. "Ainít much of anything Ezra wonít gamble to win, even a farm he donít have any use for." Leonard nodded, looking despondent. "Got any idea what he plans to do with it?"

Leonard scratched distractedly at a scabbed over cut on his jaw. It was clear by looking at him that Ezra had managed to get in a few good licks of his own during their battle. "I donít know. He said he might be willing to sell it back to me, but . . ."

"Thatís a good thing, ainít it?" Nathan pressed when the man trailed off, looking no happier than before.

"Donít know," he said again. "He sure caught on to the fact that Craig had been charging daily interest awful quick."

Nathan smiled ruefully. "Not much that man donít know about the ways of makiní a quick dollar, thatís for sure."

"Yeah," Leonard agreed sourly. "Thatís why I reckon heíll probably just do the same thing if I try to buy this place back from him, so whatís the use? I lose no matter how you look at it."

Feeling slightly strange to be defending the mercenary gambler whom he so often disparaged, Nathan argued, "Ezra ainít a bad man, Leonard. I seen him be real kindhearted to good folks, and downright mean to bad ones. Reckon heís just a contrary sort. What Iíd guess is that if he took that deed off Craig for the pure pleasure of it, like he told me, then itíd probably satisfy him clear through to sell the place back to you at a reasonable price. Heíd do it just to make that man squirm when he hears about it."

"You really think so?" the farmer asked, seeming hopeful for the first time.

"Could be. Course youíll never know unless you talk to him, so seeingís how youíre takiní the day off anyway, why donít you let me check those sore ribs, then you can ride back to town with me. Iíll treat you to a beer and help you talk things over with Ezra. You just see if I ainít right."

Leonard chewed his lip for a few seconds, visibly struggling. "I suppose I could give it a try."

"Sure you could," Nathan encouraged. "And then you can go tell your girl that you two have worked out a good deal and apologize for treating her the way you did this morning. She didnít deserve hurtful words just because you made a mistake you couldnít see your way out of."

Startled by the blunt rebuke, the young man looked up with wide eyes. "How did . . .?"

"Buck told me."

He sighed gustily. "Mightíve known." Rising slowly, he motioned Nathan down off his horse. "Címon inside. I got some things to get ready before we head into town."

 

Chapter 14

 

As the last orange and gold rays of sunset were falling over the town, the tavern began to fill with life. Just as they had the day before, the men of Four Corners were gathering quickly around Ezra Standishís poker table, eager to have a turn at playing him. The sight of his bruised face and bound hand made a few men hesitate but then they quickly seemed to decide that his infirmity only made their own chances at winning that much better. Ezra did nothing to dissuade their assumption, gleefully relieving them of their overconfident wagers.

Glancing around and giving the assembled crowd a nod and smile, Ezra heaved an internal sigh. Life would be far less entertaining, not to mention lucrative, for him once the traveling show had gone on its way.

It had not escaped his notice that Leonard Hunt was present. He had been here when Ezra came downstairs after a short nap; taken to refresh himself after his arduous morning. The man was currently standing over at the far corner of the bar talking with Buck and Nathan. Nathan had completed his task with admirable efficiency it seemed and he, Buck and Josiah had been taking turns for the last two hours keeping Leonard busy. Ezra had personally gone out of his way to avoid speaking to the man, wanting to delay any discussion of the repurchase of the Hunt farm. First, he preferred to see whether Madame Zaltana could successfully execute their plan. For as pleasant as the thought of gaining a steady source of income against a property he had done virtually nothing obtain was; he preferred to keep his freedom unfettered by long term commitments of any kind.

An ironic twist tilted the gamblerís lips as he recalled a certain 30 day law keeping obligation that he had agreed to; a commitment that was now stretching into its third year.

Josiah had departed a short while ago, seeing that the other men had the situation in hand and not wanting to give the other patrons of the saloon more reason to grumble over his presence. None had been brave enough to demand that he or Nathan leave the premises, but they had clearly been unhappy with the close quarters.

The gambler smiled as he noticed Leonard lift the same half-full glass of beer heíd been nursing for the better part of an hour, then lower it again as he became distracted by one of Buckís tall tales before he could take more than a sip. Ezra could see that his compatriots were doing a fine job monitoring the farmerís alcohol consumption. Leonard did not spend enough time in saloons to be a truly seasoned drinker and they wanted him no more than happily tipsy. It would do no one any good if the unwitting star of their upcoming drama were to pass out before he could even begin the show.

"Aces full, gentlemen," he announced as another player called. "My pot, it appears."

The other players groaned good-naturedly and two of them exited the table, declaring themselves tapped out. Another two eagerly took their place. For another forty five minutes the game went on, with Ezra losing a quick hand to excite the other players into betting higher, then pulling in the results of another large win. Fighting the urge to check his pocket watch, he wondered what could be keeping the fortune teller.

As if conjured by his thoughts, the batwing doors suddenly slammed apart, causing two cowboys to jump out of the way in order to avoid being hit. Between the doors, Madame Zaltana stood, her form outlined by the moonlight, the loose folds of her clothing and scarves fluttering in the breeze, her dark eyes seeming to spark as they reflected the light from the lanterns inside the building.

The crowd fell completely silent and Ezra had to bite his tongue hard to keep a straight face. God that woman knew how to make an entrance!

In a deep hushed voice Zaltana intoned, "I am looking for a man. The spirits have revealed to me that I will find him in this place."

Every man standing took an involuntary step back.

Ignoring the nervous reaction, Zaltana glided into the room. Her eyes searched the faces of several men, causing paling complexions in more than one. Finally she neared the end of the bar, gaze flicking quickly to Buck, who gave her a very small nod. Centering her attention on the man next to him, she jabbed a long-nailed index finger into Leonardís chest and hissed, "You."

"Me?" he squeaked.

She scanned his features, staring intently as though attempting to memorize every line. Slowly, she nodded. "Yes, yes you are indeed the one. My reading for you was incomplete, my young friend. The spirits came to me in a dream and revealed that there was more in store for you than I initially foretold."

Leonard appeared stricken. "You mean it gets worse?"

Zaltana frowned, moving closer to stare straight into his shocked blue eyes. "Perhaps," she purred menacingly. Then, backing away to a more comfortable distance, she took his hand in hers. Studying the palm closely, she said, "Or perhaps it will get much, much better."

"Better?" he whispered.

"When last we spoke, I could see much ill luck in your past and unhappiness in your present," she reminded sorrowfully. "It pained me to have had to share such a reading with you, but what could I do? I must reveal what the Fates have shown."

He nodded glumly.

"However," she continued, allowing the word to linger in the silence for a few seconds, "I now see that your future was clouded from my eyes by the difficulties in your present. That is why I have sought you out tonight, to bring you hope."

She paused, taking a deep breath and tipping her head back as her eyes closed. Still holding his hand in both of hers, her voice grew deeper still, the inflection flattening into a strange sing-song rhythm as she told him, "That which the past has taken can yet be restored to you. A great fortune may be won if you have the courage to reach for it." Her eyes flew open again, pinning him with her gaze. "But guard your bounty well, my friend, for if your actions cause it to be lost, there will be no regaining it."

As the farmer nodded dumbly, the fortune teller bowed slightly and spun on her heel, causing her colorful robes to flutter about her body. With supreme dignity, she swept from the room without another word.

For a long moment, silence reigned, but then the room suddenly exploded with sound as everyone began speaking at once.

Knowing that they would all be occupied for the next little while, Ezra stood and told his fellow poker players, "I feel the need for a short break to collect myself after the excitement weíve just experienced. I shall return shortly, gentlemen."

As he moved away from the table, he smirked to see his opponents all rushing over to join those questioning Leonard. Waiting only long enough to ensure that he would not be noticed, the gambler slipped from the saloon and hurried away down the boardwalk, ducking into the darkness of the alley next to it. There he found his old friend, calmly leaning against the side of the building with her arms folded across her chest.

"So?" she asked significantly in her normal voice, a small smile playing across her lips.

Placing both hands on her shoulders, Ezra planted an enthusiastic kiss upon her lined cheek. "Beautiful!" he said happily. "That crowd was eating out of your hand."

She chuckled. "It was fun. I havenít had the opportunity to play to such a large audience in ages. What happened to the girl, anyway? Werenít they both supposed to be here?"

Ezra sighed. "Unexpected complication. It seems our Juliet is not quite so easily fooled as Romeo in there."

"Figured out what you were planning to do, eh?" she said, shaking her head. "Iím not surprised, really. Do this job long enough, you can always tell the real marks from the ones just in it for a laugh. Farm boy in there was buying every word I said yesterday but his girlfriend didn't look convinced."

Ezra smiled. "Well, I doubt thereís anyone in that building who wasnít convinced by the performance you just gave." Pulling the promised twenty dollar gold piece from his pocket he pressed it into her palm, shaking her hand in both of his. "Thank you, Anna. It was truly a pleasure to see you work again after so many years."

Patting him on the arm, she said. "The pleasure was mine, dearie. If you ever find yourself wintering in San Francisco, stop by the Hilman hotel and pay me a visit."

"I would enjoy that."

"So would I," she said, "but if you do come, do me a favor and donít tell anyone that your mother and I are old friends."

"Why ever not?"

A mischievous smile lit her face. "Because it would do my reputation worlds of good to have people thinking that a dried up old woman like me can still attract a handsome young man like you to her boudoir."

A hearty laugh burst from the surprised gambler, forcing him to clap a hand over his mouth to keep anyone from hearing the sound and discovering them.

Pushing gently against his chest, she said, "Go on, now. Youíd better get back in there before all our hard work turns out to be for nothing. Give Maude my regards next time you see her."

"I certainly will. Have a safe journey tomorrow," he paused and then smiled and gracefully inclined his head as he addressed her, "Madame Zaltana."

Even as he stepped back up on the boardwalk, the fortune teller melted into the shadows and seemed to disappear before his eyes.

 

Chapter 15

 

Buck was grateful when Madame Zaltana finally made her appearance. He liked Leonard and considered him a friend, but the man was not the best conversationalist. It had been real work to keep him distracted for such a long time.

Once the excitement of his surprise public fortune began to die down, Buck could see that there would be no keeping Leonard on a leash any longer. So, instead he simply gave him a nudge in the right direction. As Ezra reappeared at his table, he suggested, "Hey, Leonard. What do you say you go join the game over there? From what that old lady just said, it sounds like maybe youíre due for some good luck."

"We-ell," he said slowly, clearly thinking about it. "I dunno. I donít usually do too good at poker."

Nathan, equally fed up with Leonardís company, added a tiny shove to the persuasion. "Aw, go on. You said it yourself earlier. You got nothing to lose. Why not take a chance?"

"You know, youíre right," he decided, straightening his sleeves with a determined air.

Suddenly realizing that there was one consideration they had not covered in making up this plan, Buck asked, "Uh, you got anything to ante up with?"

Leonard nodded. "My payment to Craig was due at the end of the week. I brought it along as a down payment in case Standish meant what he said this morning."

Buck grinned in relief. "Betting the same money you were getting cheated out of for the chance to win enough to buy that self-same farm. Sounds like destiny to me!"

"I never thought of it that way. Youíre right, Buck. Iím gonna do it!"

As they watched the suddenly determined young man push through the crowd to reach Ezraís table, Nathan and Buck each blew out a deep breath. "This is gonna give me gray hair before my time," Nathan muttered. "You goiní with him?"

"Guess Iíd better keep an eye on things. You?"

Patting him on the shoulder, the healer rose. "I done my part. Find me when itís all over."

Buck sighed. "Youíre a real pal, Nate."

 

~*~*~*~*~

By the time Leonard Hunt had "won" enough money, courtesy of some less than random dealing and reverse bluffing, to seem as if he might soon have a chance of winning back his farm, Ezra was fighting a pounding headache. Leonard was such an atrocious player that he had been forced to give up more than half his eveningís profit just to keep others from cleaning the man out before it was time. This process had dragged on for nearly two hours, and Ezra had had enough.

When the last of the other players folded, leaving only himself and Leonard in the game, Ezra withdrew the deed from the inner pocket of his red wool jacket. "All right, Mister Hunt. Let us be serious now. We both know that this document is the only reason you sat down here tonight. Correct?"

Staring at him defiantly, the farmer replied, "Yes."

"I can appreciate that. My own fate has often rested upon the turn of a card and I respect your courage in facing me on my own ground." He stroked the paper slowly with the tip of his finger, pretending to debate. "Youíve proven to be a surprisingly challenging opponent, so while the winnings before you match only about half the value of this paper, I am willing to take a chance that your lucky streak will come to an end with the next turn of the cards. What do you say, Mister Hunt? Winner take all?"

Leonard checked his cards, nibbled his lower lip for several seconds, tapped his fingers on the felt tabletop, checked the cards again, and decided. "Youíre on."

The gathered crowd muttered appreciatively, feeling that the farmer had made a bold move. Most of them were simply curious to see whether the fortune teller had been right. For if she was, how much better might their own chances be of having their foretold futures come true?

Ezra had to fight to keep from rolling his eyes as he watched Leonard tap his front teeth with a fingernail, grin, then promptly stifle the expression under an attempt to look cool and nonchalant. Good God, how many tells could one person have? Even if he had not personally dealt the man a Straight Flush to ensure his win, he would still have known almost precisely what cards Leonard held by his mannerisms. To think that everyone would soon believe that his own skills had been insufficient to beat this idiot! It was positively demoralizing.

"Call," Leonard said breathlessly, shoving the last of his three hundred or so dollars into the pot and slapping down his cards Ė Jack, Ten, Nine, Eight and Seven of clubs.

Shaking his head, Ezra offered a wan smile. "It seems Lady Luck is indeed smiling upon you tonight, Mister Hunt." He laid down his own hand. "Queens and Sixes, a Full House. The deed is yours."

Amidst the roar of congratulations and backslapping, Leonard, grinning brightly enough to light the entire town, sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.

Ezra, not as obviously, did the same, grateful that the ordeal was finally over. Rising to his feet, he offered his hand to the other man. "Well played, my friend."

Looking a bit surprised by the gesture, Leonard also stood and shook hands firmly. "Thanks, Ezra. You played a good game too. I reckon this was just meant to be."

He smiled blandly. "Iím sure youíre right."

Shooting Ezra a quick conspiratorial wink, Buck slapped Leonard hard on the back and said, "Well, what are you waiting for? Arenít you gonna go tell Sharon the good news?"

"Youíre right," the farmer said, clutching the deed and jumping out of his chair so quickly that he knocked it over. "I need to see her right away!"

He and Buck hurried out together and the crowd slowly dissipated, the interest in challenging Ezraís poker skills seemingly having died with Leonardís win. With a sigh, the gambler gathered the cards and gave them a slow one handed shuffle before dealing a game of solitaire.

Josiah was right. Saving souls Ė or romances in his case Ė certainly had its hazards.

 

Chapter 16

 

The dress shop was locked, a sign in the window proclaiming it to be closed, when Leonard and Buck arrived to spread the good news. Ignoring the sign, Leonard pounded vigorously on the door. Sharon lived in the rooms behind the shop. If she were home, there would be no way for her not to hear his knocking.

A few moments passed before a lamp illuminated the interior of the shop. "Sharon, itís me," Leonard called as the woman came into view. "I need to talk to you."

For a moment, she studied him through the glass without opening the door. Then slowly, the bolt slid aside and she stepped out onto the threshold. "What do you want, Leonard? Itís late."

Still puffed up by his success at the poker table, Leonard failed to notice the coolness in her tone. "I know it is, but I got some news. Wonderful news! You arenít going to believe it!"

"Oh?" she said, crossing her arms over her chest and easily preventing him from the attempt to hold her hand.

Beside him, Buck bit his lip as he observed the less than warm reception, suddenly wondering if his coming along on this errand hadnít been a bad idea.

Jubilantly waving the paper in his hand, Leonard announced. "I got the farm back! Itís all mine, free and clear."

Surprise melted Sharonís icy demeanor a bit. "How? What happened?"

Puffing up even further, he proudly told her, "I played Ezra Standish for it, and I won. Seems your friendís not as good a poker player as he likes to make everybody think." Seeing her frown at his boast, he admitted, "Or maybe I got lucky. Reckon this was just meant to be."

"Meant to be," she repeated flatly.

"Yep. See, that fortune teller came by the saloon earlier and told me I had to take a chance and that if I did everything would turn out all right. She wasnít joking either! Oh, honey, you should have seen it. Once I started playing, nobody could beat me!"

After thinking over his claim for a moment, Sharon raised a delicate eyebrow to Buck. "Didnít you tell me earlier that Ezra won that same deed from Mister Craig last night?"

Buck had been doing his best to shrink back into the shadows unnoticed. At the question, he stopped, realizing that his stealthy exit attempt had failed. "Reckon I did."

Her chin raised. "And tonight he just happened to lose it again, to Leonard."

He nodded, giving her an innocent look as he said, "Amazing the way these things happen, ainít it?"

Sharonís lips pursed, but a dimple appeared in her cheek and her eyes twinkled, giving away her amusement. "It certainly is." Turning her attention back to Leonard, she simply said, "Congratulations. You must be thrilled."

"You know what this means, donít you?" he said anxiously, reaching out to capture her hand as her posture relaxed. "I donít owe anything to anybody now. I got my land and weíre free and clear! Now you can just go ahead and sell this place, and we can get married!"

Buck pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing as he saw Sharonís brown eyes flash at Leonardís words. Poor bastard. He had been so close.

In her best pair of high heeled kid boots the top of Sharonís head came no higher than mid-chest on the two men before her, yet she seemed to grow inches as she advanced on Leonard. "Sell my shop so we can get married. So thatís all there is to it? Just pack my things and give it all up? My livelihood, the shop I spent my inheritance money to get started and have spent eight wonderful months building and nurturing into a thriving business. You expect me to just forget all about it because you have your land now?"

"B-but, Sharon honey. I-I-I thought," he stuttered, not knowing what to make of the outraged woman before him.

Coming still closer, she jabbed him in the chest with a finger much the way the fortune teller had done earlier that evening. "For weeks now, youíve been behaving like an uncouth, ill-mannered ruffian; not at all like the man I fell in love with, and you wouldnít even tell me why! I put up with all of it because I care so much about you, but then today you accused me of improprieties a well-brought-up lady would never think of committing, simply because you were in a foul mood!"

"But I didnít mean-"

She cut him off. "Do you have any idea how much that hurt me? Do you? To call off our wedding without a word of explanation to me, without even bothering to ask how I felt! And if that wasnít enough, you had to start a fist-fight with Mister Standish -- my friend -- who was only trying to do a good turn for both of us. Now you tell me that you come back into town without a word of apology to anyone and spent your evening drinking and gambling in the saloon!" She paused to take a breath, smoothing her dress and hair as she visibly fought for composure. Voice lowering, she looked up to meet Leonardís stricken eyes with her own brimming ones and said, "Now you have what youíve been after all along, and so what I want doesnít matter a particle, does it?"

"Aw, sweetheart, itís not like that," he pleaded.

Lips trembling, she turned her face away and moved back inside the doorway of her shop. "Iím afraid it is. You have what youíve been working for, Leonard, and Iím glad of it," she said softly, "but I think youíd better leave now."

"But Sharon!"

"Come on," Buck said, drawing him away as the shop door closed firmly behind its owner. "Sheís a little over excited right now. Best leave things alone before you go digging your grave any deeper."

Surprised by the comment, Leonard jerked to a stop in the middle of the street and turned to face him. "You think this is all my fault too?"

Buck straightened to his full height, looking the other man square in the eye. All trace of his usual good cheer was wiped from his expression as he asked, "Was a single word of what she just said any less than the Godís honest truth?"

"Well, she . . . that is, I . . ."

He nodded. "Mmm, hm. Thatís what I thought, and it's something you better think about hard if you want to have any hope of fixing this mess. Women are the most wonderful, sensitive creatures ever put on this earth. They ainít pretty little china dolls you can put on a shelf when you donít want to pay them any mind. They ain't children who can be given a pat on the head and shooed off to play when you don't feel like talking. They got dreams and worries of their own, Leonard, and feelings that can get hurt mighty easy if a man don't take care to treat 'em right. You got to respect that. All of it."

"I never meant to hurt her. Never!" he said miserably. "God, Buck. How could this have happened? I gotta try to talk to her again."

Buck had to grab him by both arms to keep him from charging straight back to the dress shop. "Whoa there, hoss! I donít think sheís ready to listen to you just yet."

"But what am I gonna do?"

"Letís you and me head back over to the saloon. You can buy me a drink with some of that money you won and Iíll see about sending in reinforcements."

He frowned. "What kind of reinforcements?"

"Youíll see. Trust me?"

Slumping in defeat, the younger man nodded.

"Good," Buck said, patting the man consolingly on the shoulder. "Weíll fix this. Youíll see."


~*~*~*~*~


As they passed back through the batwing doors, Buck caught Ezraís surprised gaze and steered his charge over to sit. "Whereíd everybody go?" Buck asked, noting that Ezra was sitting alone playing a complicated looking version of solitaire.

"Business appears to have dried up," the gambler replied wryly. "I didnít expect to see you two back here so soon."

As concisely as he could, Buck told him what had happened with Sharon, concluding, "And now she donít want nothing to do with him."

Beside him, Leonard moaned miserably, "Itís all my fault."

"I would certainly agree with that," Ezra said dryly, giving Leonard a disapproving stare. "One can hardly blame the girl for being upset over recent events, not to mention justifiably outraged by your assumption that she would drop everything and come running into your arms the moment you snapped your fingers."

The farmer slumped further into his seat. "I thought sheíd be happy. She knew when she agreed to marry me that it would mean moving out to my place."

"To do what, precisely? Cook your meals, mend your clothing, keep the house organized?"

"Exactly," he said eagerly, and then his face fell when both Buck and Ezra exchanged a pitying look. "What?"

"There some reason she couldnít do those things and still run her shop part-time?" Buck asked. "You donít live that far out and youíve told me yourself that itíd be nice to have a little extra money when things get tight."

The farmer looked rather horrified. "Well sure, but I didnít mean I wanted my wife to work. Women donít support the family, it ainít respectable! And what about when we have kids? She supposed to keep working after sheís a mother?"

"Mine did," Buck said simply, not elaborating. "Course I didnít have a pa around, so she didnít have a choice, but she did all right by us."

Ezra added, "My mother did have a husband, several of them in fact, and she worked through all of those marriages. Still does and she thoroughly enjoys it." Smiling at Leonardís shocked expression, he said, "The days of striking a woman on the head with a club and dragging her off to your cave are long over, Mister Hunt. Society has evolved considerably, and while it may not be the current fashion as yet for females to work alongside their mates after marriage, it does happen from time to time. I offer you Mary Travis and Gloria Potter as examples. Both of these charming and highly respectable ladies aided their husbands in establishing businesses here in town and took over those businesses quite capably after they were widowed. If Sharon wishes to keep working for a time, why should you not allow it?"

"Meeting her halfway might go a long ways towards getting you back in her good graces," Buck said reasonably.

Leonard sighed heavily. "I guess, but how am I supposed to talk to her about it? She shut the door in my face, remember?"

Buck waved off his objection. "That donít mean anything. Weíre sending in reinforcements, remember?"

He looked smugly at the gambler, who quickly held up a hand. "You can just derail that train of thought right now, my friend. I am through playing matchmaker to the foolish and lovelorn of this community."

"Címon, Ez," he wheedled. "If anybody can talk Sharon into giving him another chance, you can."

Shooting him a narrow green-eyed glare, he huffed, "And why should I do that?"

A warm and all too knowing smile spread over Buckís face. "Cause like it or not, youíre one of the good guys."

They stared at one another in a silent battle of wills, Buck never losing his satisfied smirk. Finally, with a groan of pure frustration, Ezra swept his cards up in a single broad gesture and stood. "Sometimes I think Mother is right about me. I am going soft."

"Youíre really going to help after everything thatís happened?" Leonard said in astonishment.

Ezra gave him a stiff nod. "I am. If only to see an end to this foolishness. In fact, why donít you go wait over at the church? Tell Mister Sanchez that I sent you there and that he should expect either myself or your fiancee to join you both soon. Youíll know how successful my endeavor was by which of us shows up."

For the first time, Leonard gave Ezra a genuinely friendly smile. "No offense meant, but I really hope I donít see you for a while."

Ezra chuckled. "I think that is a point we can both agree on, my friend."


Chapter 17


Josiah settled himself more comfortably on the hard seat of the pew nearest the front of his church, watching the man a row behind him fidget with the hat in his hands as he talked. He had been in the back room reading a book when heíd heard the church door open and Leonard Huntís voice calling out a tentative hello. Coming back to greet him, he had invited Leonard to sit down and asked what brought him by, suspecting he knew the answer already. With no more invitation than that, the distraught young farmer had plopped down into a pew and proceeded to pour out his entire sad tale.

"All things considered, Iíd have to say that I agree with Buck and Ezra," Josiah said when the story finally wound down. "If your heart is divided between your land and your woman, and her heart is divided between her work and you, the simplest compromise seems like it would be for you to marry but both keep working, at least for now."

Leonardís face fell. His voice carried a note of betrayal as he said, "I never thought you would say that."

"Why not?" Josiah asked reasonably. "I know what Iím talking about from personal experience."

"You were married?" Leonard asked in astonishment. Then he colored as he said, "I mean, I just never thought-"

Josiah chuckled. "No, I havenít been married. Not that I couldnít have been, but I was actually referring to my mother. She worked hard her whole life and never got anything in return; went straight from her fatherís house to her husbandís, as many young women do. My father was a missionary and she followed him from place to place, picking up after him and keeping his life running smoothly, raising his children and living for whatever her family wanted or needed. That was her whole life and I have to tell you, Leonard, that while I have no doubt whatsoever of how much she loved the three of us, I canít remember a time when she seemed truly happy."

"Really?" he said in a small voice.

Josiah nodded. "My father never allowed her to make any decisions about where we went or what we did as a family. She never got a chance to discover who she was as a person. She was Michaelís daughter, Johnís wife, Josiah and Hannahís mother; but she never had a chance to be just Maryanne. I think she always felt incomplete because of that. Is that what you want for your Sharon?" He paused, giving the distraught-looking farmer a moment to think about it. "She has something thatís just hers, something she loves and considers to be a part of her identity. Do you really want to take that away just for the sake of your pride?"

"No," he said quietly. Pulling the deed from inside his coat, he smoothed it between his fingers. "I wanted this back real bad, Mister Sanchez. Itís my home, my living, everything I hoped to give to Sharon. Kind of a symbol of the life I wanted us to share together. When Craig had it, that life just seemed to keep pulling further and further away. Craig is richer than I am, better looking, smarter, and he had my land. He wanted Sharon too, and I just didnít see how she could help considering it. It was the same when I heard that Standish had taken over ownership. Maybe worse, because he and Sharon are already friends."

Josiah rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. "So, to you, Sharonís business represents another way in which you may be lacking in her eyes?" Seeing by the startled look in Leonardís eyes that he had read correctly between the lines, he followed the thought through. "She set up that shop not long after you started having trouble with your crops, and sheís made a rousing success of it. She has a steady income and likely will continue to do well, no matter how much rain may fall or sun may shine, while your income is far less certain. So youíre afraid that maybe she doesnít actually need you, and that you have nothing substantial to hold her with. Is that it?"

The farmer slumped miserably in his seat. "I guess it is."

"Oh, Leonard. How could you think that?"

Josiah smiled and Leonard jumped to his feet at the soft words. Sharon entered the church slowly, her expression very tender as she approached her befuddled fiancee.

"Darling, if a fortune was the only important element in marriage then I would have stayed in Hartford and married the man my father chose for me before he died." She laid a hand upon his cheek. "But I didnít. I came west and started a business that keeps me busy and content, made good friends whom Iím discovering will go to great lengths to help me when I need them."

Josiah gave her a nod of acknowledgment as she smiled in his direction.

Taking a step closer, into the circle of Leonardís arms, she went on, "And I found a man, a strong, wonderful, devoted man, who loved me enough to be jealous of every other man who looked interested in me, and too much to understand that I could never look back at any of them so long as I had him." Stretching up, she kissed him lightly. "If my giving up my shop is the only way for you to feel sure of me, then Iíll do it."

Pulling back enough to look into her eyes, he shook his head. "If it means that much to you, I canít let you. I'm sorry I've been such a jealous fool. I been thinking that . . . well, that maybe you could hire an assistant and then just work half days or something. Then you could keep the shop open and still have enough time for everything else."

Her face lit up with joy. "Oh, Leonard, that would be wonderful. It's a perfect solution. But are you sure you wouldnít mind?"

He smiled and stroked her hair with one large callused hand. "Reckon I wouldnít mind at all as long as it keeps you happy." Looking at her earnestly, he added, "Do you think you could forgive me and maybe go back to being my fiancee?"

Eyes shining, she said, "Of course I forgive you. And Iíd really much rather be your wife." Looking to Josiah again, she asked, "What do you think, Mister Sanchez?"

Grinning widely enough to show every tooth, the preacher slapped his hands down upon his thighs and declared, "I think itís been far too long since I had a chance to conduct a wedding!"

From the back of the church, Ezra Standish stuck his head in, a grin on his face. "Did I hear someone order up a wedding?"

"Why, yes, brother, I believe you did!" Josiah boomed, having caught a glimpse of the man peeking in a moment earlier and remembering Ezraís earlier grilling on whether or not he could conduct a legal ceremony.

"Excellent!"

Sharonís bright laughter rang through the small church while Leonard simply watched with his mouth hanging open as Buck, Ezra, Nathan, Mary Travis, Joseph Clarke the local records clerk and telegraph operator, and a half dozen other men and women trooped inside the small church. All of them came bearing trappings for a wedding including flowers, candles, ribbons and in the case of Mister Clarke, a sheet of parchment paper bearing legal consent for marriage within Territorial strictures. Two women came to borrow the bride, promising to have her back in two shakes.

Grinning as widely as if he had engineered the entire event himself, Buck asked the flabbergasted groom, "You ainít planning to swoon, are you?"

"Got some smelling salts handy if he does," Nathan offered, brandishing a small bottle.

"No need of that," Ezra quipped. "Just give him a hug. I promise you, that olfactory experience will bring him around in a hurry!"

Nathan pantomimed a punch in the gamblerís direction but could not help but smile at the teasing.

Turning to Leonard, Ezra said, "Last chance to run, Mister Hunt."

Finally accepting that this was really happening as he looked around the church at the transformation that was magically taking place as it was quickly decorated, smiled gratefully. "Not a chance." He held out a hand to shake first Ezraís, then each of the other menís hands. "I canít believe you did all this. Thank you."

"Do you have a ring for your bride?" Ezra asked him. "If not, Iím sure that I can provide something suitable for only a small-"

Josiah cut in, "What he means is, weíll ask one of the ladies to loan you a ring to use for the ceremony until you can get a proper one for Sharon. We did kind of spring this on you, after all."

Face coloring brightly, the young man said, "No need." Reaching inside his collar he fished up a long leather cord upon which was threaded a small gold and diamond ring. "My maís. I been carrying it around like this ever since I decided to ask Sharon to marry me. Even after I . . . well, after this morning, I just couldnít bring myself to take it off again."

"Well, all right then," Buck said happily. "How about a best man?"

Taking the hint, Leonard grinned, "Will you take the job, Buck?"

"Donít mind if I do."

Ezra snorted. "Nine times a groomsman, never a groom. Isnít that taking things a bit far, Mister Wilmington?"

He chuckled. "Just taking out a little insurance, is all."

There was a small commotion at the back of the room and then a pretty red haired young woman hurried up to them. "Is she ready?" Ezra asked her. At the girlís eager nod, he escorted her to the proper place for a bridesmaid. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen, it seems itís time to begin."

A few seconds of chaotic scurrying commenced as everyone took their places. Josiah stepped behind the pulpit, Buck took his place to the right of Leonard in front of the podium and Nathan hurried to join the other witnesses in the pews. Three people stood off to the side and quietly sang a hymn as Ezra escorted in the bride.

Sharon had changed her plain print dress for a lovely cream and blue gown from her shop. She was lovely to behold as she glided forward, face filled with happiness and love. Leonard looked as though he had just been handed the moon and stars.

As they reached the pulpit, Ezra disengaged Sharonís arm from his own and held her hand for a moment. Kissing her gently on the cheek, he smiled into her eyes and said softly, "Farewell, Miss Pryor." Laying her hand upon Leonardís arm, he stepped back and took a seat next to Nathan.

Josiah began, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God to join this man and this woman in the bonds of holy matrimony."

Speaking in the barest whisper so as not to disturb the ceremony, Nathan asked, "What was that back there? You kissing her goodbye."

Ezra heaved a small sigh and admitted just as softly, "Let us just say that I was letting go of a barely realized hope, and leave it at that. In a few moments, Miss Pryor will be gone forever, and only Mrs. Hunt will remain."

Flashing him a look of surprised empathy, Nathan gave his forearm a pat then turned his attention back to the front.

As he watched the ceremony continue, studying the beauty of Sharonís face as she confidently declared, "I do," to Josiahís list of vows, and the joyous disbelief in Leonardís plain face as he whispered those same words, the slightly melancholy look on Ezraís face faded into one of contentment. Sometimes it was good to know that one had done the right thing, even when it came at some personal cost.


Epilogue

 

Three horses walked down the main street of Four Corners and came to a stop in front of the saloon with no persuasion from their riders. The riders exchanged a look of amused surprise at the action. "Weíre getting to be creatures of habit," Chris Larabee chuckled. "Even the horses got us figured out."

Vin Tanner grinned and swung down from his saddle, giving his steed a pat on the neck. "Who am I to argue with a smart horse?"

JD Dunne followed suit. "Me either. I could use a beer. Howdy, Ezra!"

From his tipped-back chair on the boardwalk outside the saloon, Ezra doffed his hat to the returned trio. "Gentleman, itís good to have you back. How fared the brothers McCleary?"

"Judge sentenced all three to hang," Vin told him in satisfaction, leaning his backside against the hitch rail as he paused to relate the story. "They done robbed their last stagecoach."

He nodded. "I had no doubt that would be the case with the three of you providing testimony against them."

Chris helped himself to a second chair resting just outside the saloonís batwing doors. "Any trouble here?"

"Whatíd you do to your hand?" JD cut in, perching on the barrel Ezra had been using as a footstool.

The gambler shot the young man an annoyed look as his boots were batted aside to make room for JDís posterior. Holding up his bandaged hand to examine the fingernails peeping out of the end, he said, "I had a small accident. Mister Jackson says it should be fine in another day or two."

"You manage to Ďaccidentallyí punch yourself in the face too?" Chris asked, eyeing the colorful patterns surrounding the gamblerís mouth and eye.

"The result of a minor disagreement with one of our local citizens," he said vaguely. "Mister Wilmington put a stop to it. Iím afraid there really was nothing dramatic to report during your absence. There have been no robberies, deaths, saloon brawls or other events to seriously upset the tranquility of our little burg."

"No trouble with those show folks?" Chris clarified suspiciously.

The gambler smiled. "None worth speaking of. The traveling show has done just that, moving on to new destinations and leaving fond memories and lighter pocketbooks behind them."

"Sure sorry I missed it," Vin said wistfully. "Hear them shows are a real kick in the pants."

Ezra simply grunted.

"So, nothing exciting at all happened while we were gone?" JD reiterated, sounding a bit disappointed.

"Well, we did have a wedding in town night before last," Ezra replied, a smile playing about his lips. "Quite a whirlwind event, actually. The bride and groom left for a weekís honeymoon to Denver on this morningís stage."

Grinning a bit, Vin glanced around. "That ainít why Buckís not here, is it? Some daddy with a shotgun finally make an honest man of him?"

Ezra burst out laughing, causing the other three men to join in. "Good lord, wouldnít that have given Mrs. Travis an interesting front page!" Holding up his hand he pretended to paint a headline across the sky. "Ladies Lament as Lothario Leaves Lovelorn Locality. Official memorial service to be held on Sunday."

The other three chuckled wickedly. "So where is Bucklin anyway," Vin asked. "Figured heíd be here."

"He has volunteered to replace a pane of glass that got broken at the Kinney home by Josiahís accidental defenestration while he and Nathan were fixing the roof on Friday morning," Ezra explained. "Muriel Kinney was in town this morning to purchase a replacement and she charmed him into volunteering for the chore. I believe it may have been the promise of fresh baked crumb cake that pushed him over the edge. That, and the reassurance that the Kinney daughtersí latest pets have been returned back to the wild from whence they came."

Chris laughed. "What was it this time? Racoon, bear cub, more frogs?"

"Skunks," he said significantly. The other men guffawed as he related the tale of Josiah and Nathanís experience at the Kinney home. "Our two odoriferous friends decided to give the new Mister and Mrs. Hunt a wedding gift and the rest of us a pleasant holiday from their company by volunteering to finish plowing and planting Leonardís field for him while the couple is on their honeymoon."

JD, still chuckling over the thought, said, "So Sharon and Leonard tied the knot, huh? I thought they hadnít even set a date yet."

"They hadnít," he agreed, "but Leonard had a stroke of good fortune and managed to clear the note on his land more quickly then he had anticipated. In a fit of romantic zeal, the young couple decided to make their relationship permanent. Josiah did the honors and the rest of us attended as witnesses."

Vin smiled. "Thatís real nice." Then, a look of consternation came over his face. "If Miss Sharon went and got married that mean sheís gonna close up her store? Shoot, I was hoping to buy Miz Nettie one of them fancy aprons she had up her window last week for a birthday present."

Smoothing the lapels of his brand new sapphire blue jacket and drawing their attention to it, Ezra said smugly, "Iím sure youíll have that opportunity. Sharon has decided to remain in business for the time being. She was kind enough to finish the alterations on this lovely garment before she departed this morning, free of charge. That was a most pleasant surprise."

JDís brow wrinkled. "Wait a minute. She got married and you got the wedding present?"

"Certainly not," he scoffed. "I provided the tickets to the honeymoon destination as my gift to them. Really, it was the least I could do after Mrs. Hunt worked so hard to finish this."

"But why was it free?" the young man persisted.

Ezra smiled. "Payment for services already rendered."

"What services?" Chris asked, looking as if he wasnít altogether sure he wanted to know the answer.

He waved off the question. "Nothing of any great significance. You can ask Mister Wilmington for the details when he returns, if you wish. My involvement in the matter was really Buckís doing anyway. Heíd be a much better source of information."

Realizing that was all they were going to get as Ezra once again tipped his chair back, closing his eyes and basking contentedly in the warmth of the sun shining across the boardwalk, the other three men exchanged an amused look.

Slapping him on the knee to get his attention, Vin said, "Címon inside, Ez. Iíll buy you a beer and you can tell us more about that travelliní show."

Launching himself gracefully from his chair, Ezra agreed, "An excellent idea. You really missed quite an entertaining production. The fortune teller alone was worth the price of admission."

"Heard they had a fire eater," JD said eagerly. "Man, I wish I couldíve seen that. It must have been amazing."

Draping an arm around his shoulders, Ezra drew him inside the saloon saying, "As a matter of fact, the trick is not all that complicated. Why, for only a small fee, I could put on a display that would easily rival . . ."

 

The End

 

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