"And how’s our prisoner this mornin’ sheriff?" Wilmington asked of Baxter, as the four peacekeepers entered the jailhouse.

"Mornin’ boys," the sheriff greeted the men, as he moved over to the cell and looked at Dayton through the bars. "I imagine he had a restful sleep. Can’t say much about his appetite though."

"Perhaps he might be feeling the noose beginning to tighten around his neck," Ezra mused out loud as he seated himself at the sheriff’s desk.

Baxter smiled back at the prisoner and moved back to his desk as Nathan and Tanner went to the cell.

"Mind if I check on his arm one more time before we hand ‘im over to them Rangers?"

"Suit yerself," the sheriff waved his hand to the far wall. Tanner grabbed the key from the hook and let the healer do his job while he stood guard.

"That town of yours must be a real rowdy place if it takes seven of ya to keep things peaceful like."

"Well, folks round here seem a might more respectable than those out our way," responded the lady’s man as he stood beside the desk.

"Well ….. if you’s puttin’ it like that …… I can see why it might take that many," laughed the sheriff. Although some of the regular townsfolk around Ridge City were of the respectable type, most of the visitors that passed through were definitely not. Unfortunately for the sheriff, a good percentage of the town’s population, in any given week, were transient.

"Seems you boys are from all over," Baxter commented as he looked at the four men.

"Sir, I would consider that an understatement if ever I heard one." Standish straightened on his chair. "However, at present, the arrangements made for the protection of our little community are acceptable to all concerned."

"What he mean is," Buck moved round to the gambler and slapped him on the back. "We all get along just fine and we’re happy doing what we’re doing."

Ezra gave the lady’s man a dirty look but held his tongue. Over by the jail cell Vin Tanner snickered out loud.

"Yeah," the sheriff commented, "I can see that."

"So, is that train usually on time?" Wilmington changed the topic.

"I reckon it has been lately. If you felllas wanna come here at noon, I’ll bring the rangers ‘ere so’s you can conduct yer business in peace. There’s an office out back you can use."

"Much obliged sheriff, sounds about right." Wilmington watched as Tanner replaced the keys on the hook and moved to stand behind him.

"Everythin’ alright Nathan?"

"As good as it’s gonna get," the healer replied. "That train ride ‘ll be easier on him than another three days on a horse."

"Indeed," the gambler complained as he contemplated their return trip.

"Right then," Buck clapped his hands together and motioned towards the door.

"We’ll be back at noon," he tipped his hat to the man behind the desk.

Horace Baxter smiled his reply and watched the peacekeepers as they exited his jail. They sure are a curious bunch he thought to himself.

Nettie and Casey Wells sat at the back of the church while Josiah finished up his weekly sermon. John Dunne sat between them bundled up in his winter jacket and cap. Early October around these parts was never that cold, but most of the regular townsfolk knew the kid had been sick. Casey looked at JD and smiled.

"……… and remember not to see your failures as a sign of weakness, but as opportunities to gain knowledge and strength. Defeat is only that, when you let it be that." The preacher moved round the podium and stretched out his arms to the modest crowd.

"You must stand on your own two feet and embrace the endowment and competency that the lord blessed you with. But you must also allow yourself the privilege of companionship and take comfort in the assistance of others. All these things are part of the great cycle my friends." Sanchez looked about the room and then returned to his platform.

"The good lord blessed us with two legs, so that we might stand proudly and independently amongst our peers. But do not forget that he also blessed us with two arms to embrace our fellow man and two hands, so that we may reach out and aid our neighbors and our friends in time of need." The preacher looked out over the room then bowed his head.

"Do not forsake the grand plan brothers and sisters." He looked back at them and smiled.

"Amen, and good day to you all."

JD contemplated his friend’s words as the crowd of people began to filter out of the church. He hoped that the sermon was not directed at him alone, but he thought perhaps his actions over the past while had something to do with them. He smile and waved a ‘good day’ to Sanchez, as he and the two ladies got up to leave.

Up by the podium, Mrs. Travis was thanking Mrs. Haynes for watching Billy for a few minutes and telling her son that she would be right along. She turned to Josiah as the couple escorted the two boys out of the church. She watched the preacher for a few minutes before she spoke.

"Josiah," she called.

He looked up from the pew where he was collecting bibles.

"Good day Mrs. Travis," he smiled.

She looked at him thoughtfully as she moved over beside him and sat down. Josiah checked to make sure there were no other people around before joining the young woman on the seat. He waited patiently for a few minutes before she spoke.

"How does someone offer their help when another refuses to discuss his problems?" She looked at him and smiled.

"Well," he said after careful thought.

"If a man ain’t ready to listen Mary, there ain’t a whole lot you can do until he is ready."

Josiah Sanchez could see in her eyes, of who she was speaking. He could also see her concern, and her questions. For a moment he was torn between his responsibility to his friends, and his credibility as a preacher and confidante.

"But I ……" she started to say.

"I know Mary," he replied after a few moments. He rested his hand on hers and smiled.

"But you just got ta let him be. He’s tryin’ ……." Sanchez raised his head high before lowering it and taking a deep breath.

"He is trying to separate a past and a present that might not be too different but in between there’s a lotta history. Don’t mean he can’t or don’t want to figure things out Mary. It just means he’s got a whole lotta thinkin’ ta do. But until he has things worked out for himself, there can be little room for anyone …. or anything."

She looked at the preacher solemnly for a few seconds before a slight smile worked its way across her face.

"Sort of like ….. being accountable to himself," she mimicked Chris’ words for the preacher. Sanchez smiled at her.

"There’s more ways ta helpin’ your friends and neighbors than just reaching out yer hands. Trust me on this Mary. Sometimes time and space can do just as good a job as a helping hand. He’ll let you know when he’s ready."

The widow looked intently at her friend. She smiled softly, mouthed her ‘Thank You’, and took comfort that she had someone to talk to that understood some of these things.

"What you suppose is takin ‘em so long?" questioned the healer. He and Tanner sat outside the jail, while Standish paced back and forth.

"Perhaps the train was later than expected," put in the gambler as he passed.

"And that whistle I hear was … what ……," the healer threw back.

"Sit down Ezra," the tracker snapped as Standish attempted to passed them yet again.

"You’s wearing a track of yer own in the boardwalk. If ya don’t sit ‘own the next train ‘ll be passing right close."

The gambler looked at his friend sternly, but was distracted by the group of men who approached from across the street.

"Ah gentlemen," the southerner greeted the three Texas Rangers. Beside them stood the sheriff and a rather reserved looking gentleman in a suit and tie.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Ezra P. Standish," he directed his comments to the shy man. "And you might be?"

"Daniel Hampton, Attorney at Law, " the man offered his hand and the two formalized their introduction with a handshake.

"This way," Baxter prompted the men inside.

Wilmington got to his feet and smiled as the men filed into the jailhouse. The largest of the rangers wandered over to the cell and quickly took in the prisoner while his two colleagues made themselves comfortable at the back of the room. The tracker took up a position at the opposite end of the office and tipped his hat slightly to cover his face in shadow. Mr. Hampton put his briefcase on the desk, opened it and retrieved some papers.

"Would anyone care for some coffee?" Baxter asked. No one answered his offer, although a few motioned their negative reply.

"Well then," it was obvious how out-of-place the man felt, "the office is in the back if you need it. I’ll just go and see to ma rounds." And with that the sheriff quickly exited his jail.

"So I reckon you boys are pretty anxious ta get this fella back ta Texas," the lady’s man tried to cool any tension that might be in the air. He looked over at the big ranger by the cell.

"We’ll be spending the night in town and heading back on the morning train tomorrow," the man answered. He slowly moved across the room and offered his hand.

"Name’s Kent, Frank Kent."

"Buck Wilmington," he answered as they shook hands.

"I understand you boys ain’t lawman,…. But that you do a mighty fine job protecting your part of the territory."

"The judge seems ta think so, suppose that’s why he keeps us around."

"And which one of you will be talkin’ to Mr. Hampton?" he looked around at the other three peacekeepers.

"That would be me my good man," Ezra offered as he stood up.

Kent eyed the lawyer and nodded his head towards the office out back. Daniel Hampton acknowledged the look and returned his papers to their place in his briefcase.

"Shall we retire to the back office Mr. Standish," he headed across the room.

"By all means Mr. Hampton," Ezra started to follow. "I’d like to get this over with and be done with the whole matter."

"Well those two seem suited for each other," the Ranger commented as he watched the two men leave.

"Ain’t too many men you can say that about where Ezra’s concerned," laughed Jackson.

Kent looked at the healer cautiously.

"And you are?"

"Nathan Jackson sir." He stepped forward and offered his hand. Kent looked at the outstretched hand but did not move to shake it. Jackson slowly withdrew it.

"Nathan’s our healer," Buck quickly put into the cool conversation. "If it weren’t fer him, Dayton would be dead,"

"It’s real difficult ta tend yer own bullet wound with one hand. Wound got all infected, enough ta bring the man down. Another day and there wouldn’a been much I could do."

As Frank Kent listened to Jackson’s story he looked into his eyes and saw the conviction in his words. It was obvious the man knew what he was talking about and that his friends took comfort in that fact. He was a valued member of their team and the color of his skin didn’t matter much to them. He held out his hand to complete the handshake Jackson had offered before.

"Good ta know ya Mr. Jackson," he said.

Nathan met the hand and smiled as the two men shook.

"And the gentleman in the corner," the ranger indicated to Tanner. Vin held up his hand briefly in acknowledgement.

"Oh, that’s our tracker."


"Nope, just spent a lotta time with ‘em. Tadell’s not much on big cities. Kinda spooks ‘im with all these folks around."

"Think I’ll check on him to see how he’s doin’," added the healer as he moved over to Vin’s position and took a seat.

"Interesting group of people Mr. Wilmington."

"And the others are just as entertaining as us. Name’s Buck though, if ya don’t mind," the lady’s man smiled. "Get enough of that mister crap from Standish."

Kent just nodded and smiled as he took a seat behind the sheriff’s desk.

"You boys part of that Frontier Battalion out of Fort Worth?" Wilmington asked as he too seated himself.

"Yeah. ….. Good ta have the organization re-instated after all that lawlessness after the war. And now that the state’s got its own constitution and all."

"Must make things easier for you ta do yer jobs, especially with filth like Dayton around."

"Havin’ the support of our state legislature and law abiding citizens like you and your men. That’s what really makes our job easier Buck."

"Always glad ta help ma friend."

The big black horse trotted slowly back into town and came to a stop outside the jailhouse. His rider dismounted, tied the horse up, and looked intently at the young man asleep on the porch.


"JD," Larabee called again.

The kid jumped at the second choir that hailed his name.

"What …."

"Maybe it’s time you headed back to the clinic. I’m done checkin’ on things outside a’ town. I’ll take over now."

John Dunne sat up in his chair and tried to be more alert.

"Oh, I’m alright Chris. Besides, Josiah said I can go back ta ma room fer tonight."

The gunslinger mounted the steps and slapped Dunne on the back.

"Well that’s good kid. Means you’re gonna be alright. Less a’ course you go and do somethin’ stupid again."

The kid looked at Larabee with surprise written all over his face.

"Ah, not you too."


"I didn’t expect it from you Chris."

"What are you talkin’ about JD?"

"All the others I can see."


"I mean, …… they’re always buggin’ about somethin’."

"JD," Chris growled the name and finally got the kid’s attention.

"Eh, … I mean. Well, Buck and Nathan, even Josiah, hell they all try ta take care of me in one way or another. Not that I don’t mind it sometimes. But, well …..… kinda makes a fella uncomfortable havin’ his men friends coddling him worse than his mother ever did."

"JD?" the question was clear in the gunslinger’s voice. Not that he hadn’t been accused of a wide range of things in his life, but coddling another man. Chris Larabee could never be accused of that.

"What in the hell are you talkin’ about boy?"

"You tryin’ ta baby me is all. I don’t ……."

"Son, I ain’t tryin’ ta pamper ya." He looked at him curiously.

"Ain’t nothin’ wrong with acceptin’ a little helpin’ hand or a kind word now and then."

As the words escaped his mouth they made a quick return trip to his ears, and straight to his heart. He listened to his own words and realized their meaning even before the kid did. He smiled.

"Ain’t nothin wrong with a man admittin’ he might need a little helpin’ hand now and then, or acceptin’ a kind word sent his way meant to cheer him up."

A little embarrassed by the words he had spoken the gunslinger shift his stance.

"Well, if you’re alright here for a while, I’ll take ma horse to the livery and get a cool drink. Be back in half hour."

As Dunne watched Chris leave, the meaning of his words struck home. He wasn’t trying to comment on the boy’s recovery or his lack of attention. He was merely showing concern in a "Larabee’ sort of way. Funny! Dunne thought to himself. Chris don’t go in fer preachin’. An I know he weren’t at Josiah’s sermon this mornin’. Sounds pretty familiar though. He smiled.

"So that’s it then," Wilmington raised his hand in a final handshake as Kent responded.

"Would appear everything’s in order Buck. You and your boys have a good trip back."

The lady’s man looked over his shoulder and took in his fellow peacekeepers, as they waited on the boardwalk in front of the jail.

"Won’t be as comfy as your ride, but we’ll make do."

"Pleasure knowin’ you fellas," he waved to the three men, and smiled at Buck before heading back inside the jail.

"Well," he joined his friends, "now that’s all done we can think about headin’ home."

The four peacekeepers headed back towards their rooming house.

"Mighty fine idea," Tanner quipped.

"What’a matter Vin?" Buck mused. "Big city got you all spooked."

"That’s what you told Kent ain’t it."

"Well yeah, but didn’t figure on it bein’ too true."

"Reckon I just don’t cotton ta the attitude of some folks ‘round ‘ere is all."

"The occasions when we are in agreement Mr. Tanner are rare," Standish looked at the tracker and smiled. "In this case however, I must concur with your assessment."

"One more night in this town ‘ll be plenty for me," added Jackson.

"Then we’ll ride out tommorra mornin’ after some chow," Wilmington concluded.

"I’ll go let the stableman know we’ll be pulling out early."

"I’ll come with ya Vin. I need ta check on the availability of a certain Miss Jillian." The lady’s man smiled to his companions as he and Tanner headed down the side street.

"Don’t reckon that man’ll ever quit."

"The validity of that statement is without question Mr. Jackson," the gambler smiled at his friend as they continued on down the main street.

"You meetin’ up with that friend of yours? The one you met last night."

"Indeed. We have arranged a …" The gambler spied his friend coming out of the hotel two doors down and smiled his greeting as the man saw him.

"And there he is now."

As the three men grew closer together Addison Maynard took note of Jackson and a grin crept across his face.

"Still keeping up with tradition I see Ezra."

Ezra’s smile wavered and was replaced with confusion.

"I’m not sure I follow your meaning Addison."

Maynard indicated to the man that stood behind the gambler and tapped his friend’s arm.

"Standish you old dog. You always were good with the face. Can’t remember ever being able to read you if you didn’t want me to."

"I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage sir. I am quite sure we are on different pages in the book."

Maynard grinned at Standish and tapped his shoulder again.

"Shall we meet here at seven and discuss it over hors d'oeuvres?"

Ezra was still a little confused, but pulled out his pocket watch to check the time.

"That would be acceptable," he indicated to the hotel dinning room.

"Will ‘your boy’ be joining us?" Addison grinned.

Ezra Standish didn’t let his emotions show through his well-trained face very often, but in the past month his temper had been tested once too often. First it was Jimmy Dayton and his vile treatment of the fairer sex. Then his companions for not letting him finish the ‘job’ he had started. Yesterday it had been a bookstore owner with an obvious bias for ‘the colored race’. And now it was a man whom he had called friend for fifteen years.

Ezra was a common sight around the Maynard home during the comings and goings of his own Mother. The men had practically grown up together and gotten into the usual mischief that boys will get in to. They had spent many hours on the Maynard Estate as teenagers and both knew the acreage well. Standish himself, had been a resident during one particularly long absence of his own dear Mother. For a time they had been like brothers, then his Mother had returned and they saw each other less frequently.

His father had died in the first year of the war and the young Addison had accompanied his Mother back to his grandfather’s estate. On their last visit together, the men had been ‘making merriment’ when the man’s grandfather had interrupted Ezra with one of Addison’s cousins. The two had been dancing while slightly inebriated, and the young lady had torn her skirt. The older gentlemen hadn’t accepted the gambler’s explanation of his granddaughter’s tattered attire, and Standish had been forcible removed from the property never to return.

The gambler restrained himself, but his tone was none too pleasant.

"This gentleman is my associate Addison. I take no comfort in your reference."

"Alright Ezra," he whispered. "We all know they’re ‘supposed’ to be free now. It’s good of you to keep up appearances."

Maynard looked over Jackson again.

"Does he do good work. Looks strong enough."

"Addison," Standish’s temper was beginning to show itself more readily.

"Ezra," Jackson put his hand on the gambler’s shoulder. "It ain’t worth it. Let it be."

"You let him call you by your christian name Ezra, for shame."

Standish moved closer to his old friend and forced him against the wall.

"I let ‘my friend’ call me anything he wants to Addison."

The gambler backed off a little as Jackson pulled on his shoulder. Maynard straightened his jacket and looked at the two men as reality slowly set in.

"Perhaps it’s been too long Ezra. Maybe you’ve changed too much for us to become … reacquainted." He stepped back and started to turn away.

"Perhaps my grandfather was right when he called you a bad influence on moral society."

Addison Maynard took one more look at his old friend and walked back into the hotel.

The gambler followed the departing man with his eyes and then lowered them while he straightened out his own coat.

"I must apologize for the words my colleague used, Mr. Jackson," he looked up at the healer and smiled.

Nathan Jackson’s gentle smile crept across his face as he absorbed the full meaning of what had just happened. Two years ago it might have been Ezra standing there making ‘comments’ about the color of his skin. Now his friend was defending him from a man he obviously knew quite well.

"Nothin’ to apologize for Ezra, you ain’t done nothin’ wrong."

"You continually surprise me my friend," the gambler commented as they continued their walk.

"Don’t reckon I need to get ma feathers ruffled every time someone ‘forgets’"

"The distinction between oblivion and enlightened Mr. Jackson is comprehension."

"Friendship helps too."

The two men smiled at each other.

"Indeed my friend. Mutual regard for one’s associates is paramount. Shall we just say that I am privileged to surrounded by the illuminated variety."

"I guess we all are Ezra."


"Yeah Billy?"

The young boy sat on the big rock swapping the fishing pole from one hand to the other. He looked back at the man and smiled.

"I like you being my friend Chris."

Larabee returned the boy’s smile with an even bigger one. He swapped hands with his own pole and put his arm around the small shoulders.

"Well I like being your friend Billy."

They looked at each other for a while before the younger Travis hid his face from Larabee. The gunslinger could tell something was wrong and set his pole down beside the boy and moved a little closer.

"What’s wrong Billy?"

Travis raised his chin slightly.

"Can I ask a question."

"Well, I ….."

"Ma says I’m not supposed to ask you?" he interrupted.

Chris thought for a moment. What kind of things went through a boy’s mind? What could he talk to Mary about, that she would answer like that? Larabee shook his head. When it comes to me, a million things.

"Well, Billy." He considered the boy and tried to ease the tension in the air.

"This’ll be our secret. It doesn’t hurt to ask a question. If I can answer it I will. If I don’t have an answer …. Well then I guess you won’t get one."

The boy looked at the man and smiled, yet the smile slowly faded as he thought about his question again. He looked Chris right in the eye.

"It’s hard for you to be with Ma and me isn’t it? ……. I mean ‘cause of the son and all."

Larabee looked into the boy’s eyes then turned away to hide his own. Mary had been right to steer her son away from this question. The gunslinger took a deep breath and looked back at his young companion. Five months ago he wouldn’t have been able to answer the question, but he’d had a lot of time to think on the enlightenment he had been blessed with. He smiled.

"Well Billy. ….. It’s not easy sometimes. Sometimes I’ll do stuff with you and it reminds me of .. Adam."

"Like fishin’?"

Larabee lowered his head and looked at the water.

"Yeah, like fishin’. We only got ta go a few times. He was only little ya know."

"So yer memory ain’t confusin’ when we do this."

Looking back at the young Travis, the gunslinger smiled. He would try and explain what he was trying to say.

"Last night when I had dinner with you and your Ma. It was real nice. Your Ma makes a real tasty chicken."

"She sure does," Billy interrupted excitedly as he remembered the meal and licked his lips.

The gunslinger smiled at the boy’s reaction.

"Well I was real comfortable with you and your Ma because it didn’t remind too much of…. my family. I mean …. it did …. but well …."

"It was different?" the boy questioned.

Larabee looked at him and smiled. Yes, it had been different ….. and the same all at the same time. But he had tried not to fight memories. He had let them remind him of good times, and he had smiled. He had accepted them and allowed them to blend with the new ones he was making. He had indeed listened to the south wind. It did blow true as Standish had said.

"Yeah Billy, it was different and the same all at once. And I hope your Ma invites me again some time."

Billy Travis smiled at his companion. He liked that idea very much. This big, strong man had cornered a piece of his heart and he was well on his way to forming a permanent bond.

"I’d like ……" he started to say, but a tug on his line surprised him. His attention quickly diverted to the water.

"I got one Chris," Billy tugged on his fishing pole. "I got one."

The gunslinger moved his pole aside and smiled at all the excitement.

"Easy, remember like I taught ya. Don’t go pullin’ too hard or he’ll get away."

"I remember," the boy said cautiously as he secured the pole and pulled on the string. Slowly the fish appeared at the end of the line and Billy grabbed hold of it.

"Wow Chris, look at the size of it."

"It’s a real beauty Billy. Let’s get him on your string now."

Together the two unhooked the fish, butchered the animal and ran it through the boy’s string. Yeah, Chris thought as he looked at the excited little boy. New memories are good.

"Ya know … Mrs. Travis done taught me some regular words," the tracker commented as he closed the book. "Don’t reckon I could ever ‘siffer this many all stuck together like that though," he concluded as he set it back on the table between himself and Nathan. Vin and the healer had been looking over the books he had purchased for Josiah.

"Don’t have much problem with the words so much as the things they’s about," Jackson responded as he picked up the book and shook his head.

"Maybe Ezra’s right about flying fantasies …."

"That’s flights of fancy Mr. Jackson." Standish corrected as he entered the room.

"Well no matter what you call it, ain’t no other reason why Josiah cotton’s to ‘em that much." Nathan responded as he placed the last book in his saddlebags and cinched them up.

"Everyone’s got a right ta dream don’t they."

Standish and Jackson looked at each other and then focused their gaze on the tracker. Tanner never said much to anyone in order just to carry on a conversation. It was just his way they figured. Probably too long being alone, or with those who didn’t speak his language. But on the occasions when Vin did choose to speak, it was usually direct and to the point. That too was just his way. Direct and to the point.

"Indeed they do Mr. Tanner," Standish quipped as his familiar broad smile crept across his face. He recognized the poetry and profound implication of the tracker’s remark.

Nathan too was smiling. He shook his head, then took in the gambler’s immaculate appearance. His smile quickly turned to a questioning frown.

"Thought you said you wasn’t gonna meet that friend of yours for dinner."

"Well gentlemen I thought perhaps I might entertain some ‘true’ friends with dinner this evening."

Tanner and Jackson looked at each other questioningly. Not only was the offer uncustomary for Standish, but the ‘true friends’ designation had them suspicious, and perhaps a little curious.

"You can’t go inta no tap house lookin’ like that. Someone’s fer sure gonna beat you up."

Standish grinned and nodded his head.

"That is why I would suggest we retire to the eatery located in the Grand Hotel."

Tanner got to his feet and slapped the gambler on the back.

"Seems ta me you’re the one with flights of fantasy around here. Ain’t no way that place is gonna let me or Nathan in."

Standish stopped smiling as he looked at his companions. He briefly considered correcting the statement once again, but thought better of it. Tanner and Jackson looked at him and then back at each other. Their suspicions slowly grew to looks of wonder as they gazed back at the gambler. That, all too familiar, devilish smile, was written all over the southerner’s face.

"If you gentleman would endeavor to clean yourselves up ….. as much as possible …. I have made arrangements for our dining pleasure."

"Don’t try ta eat too much brother," Josiah muttered as he set down his own utensils to pat the kid on the back.

"Your body required time to get used to real food again JD. You haven’t been eatin’ hardly anythin’ but broth for the past three weeks. Wonder you ain’t withered away by now."

"I had more than broth this week Josiah," Dunne responded as he caught his breath. He set about cutting another piece of meat to accompany the mashed potatoes on his fork.

"Casey brought me some of Mz Nettie’s rabbit stew yesterday. " He smiled as he took another bite.

"Biscuits too," he added over the mouthful of food.

"Well don’t be surprised if your stomach starts complaining that it’s full real soon." Sanchez returned to his own meal as he laughed at his young friend’s enthusiasm for the food he was consuming. He knew all too well the desire to fill one’s belly when given the opportunity to do so after a long period without. The preacher’s attention averted to his leader as Larabee entered the saloon and looked around. Spotting his men he advanced on the table and sat down.

"Evening Chris," Josiah greeted the man in black.

Dunne nodded his head as he placed another fork full of food in his mouth. The gunslinger acknowledged his men with a nod of his own head.

"Boys …."

"Will you be requiring a meal Senor Larabee," interrupted the pretty waitress.

"No thank you Inez."

She smiled at him before retreating back to her place at the bar.

"Something wrong Chris?"

The gunslinger looked at the big man and smiled.

"No …." He shook his head.

"I ate earlier at the restaurant. Just wanted to let you two know I’ll take watch tonight."

Dunne and Sanchez looked at each other a little puzzled. With the others out of town and the kid being sick, night watch had fallen to Josiah. And it wasn’t like Larabee to volunteer for anything.

"What’s up Chris?"

"Ain’t nothing up Josiah. Just feelin’ like a ride is all."

"Now I know you did the rounds this mornin’ while I was preparing my sermon." He glanced at the kid rather than look Larabee in the eye.

"And young Billy Travis showed me the fish that the two of you caught out at the pond this afternoon."

"Seems to me ……"

Josiah was stopped short in his remarks by that ‘let it be’ look the gunslinger reserved for special occasions. Yet in his careful study of his leader’s face, the preacher saw something curious. Something new. He scrunched up his eyebrows showing his curiosity, but was distracted by a moan. Another glance at the kid told him all he needed to know.

"Well now John Dunne ….." He patted the kid on the arm and smiled.

JD just looked at the two men at the table. His cheeks were puffed out and his face was red. He looked anxious.

"You take it easy there brother. Don’t you be giving back any of that food now …. you hear."

The kid stood up slowly and looked around. Deciding he’d best head straight for the largest opening, he covered the distance between table and the door quicker than ever before. Josiah did his best to restrain his laughter while Chris looked at him with a smirk on his face.

"Care to explain that," the gunslinger questioned.

"I did warn him not to cram all that food into his belly. Been so long since he ate a full meal…… I guess it’s been too long … he just couldn’t wait."

Chris smiled as he got to his feet.

"Guess it’s a good thing I’m takin’ the night shift." He turned to leave.

"You make a betta nurse maid that I ever would."

Not sure if that was a compliment or an insult, Sanchez scoffed at the words and waved Larabee off as he headed out the door.

The restaurant was about two thirds full of patrons and the staff busied themselves providing service to the tables that were spread around the establishment. The headwaiter looked curiously at the three men as they entered the business and removed their hats. His comments were directed to the two men behind the first.

"I’m sorry ….. gentlemen. We can not serve … you .. without the proper attire."

Tanner and Jackson looked down at their clothing then at each other. They were clean, and as tidy as ‘they’ could make themselves. Especially since they had arrived in town by horse, and were travelling light. Standish was concentrating on the man in front of him who had obviously not been informed of the agreement he had secured earlier that day. He rested his hand on the man’s shoulder and drew his attention.

"If you will check with the proprietor my good man, I believe you will find that arrangements have been made to accommodate my friends and I."

The disbelief in the man’s eyes was obvious as he eyed Tanner and Jackson, yet his digestion of Standish allowed him to, at least briefly, consider the possibility that this wasn’t a joke. He straightened his posture and smiled.

"If you would be so kind as to wait here a moment .. sir." He gestured his compliance and headed out to the back of the restaurant.

"Just what’s we gettin’ into here Ezra," the tracker questioned?

"I can assure you Mr. Tanner," he answered without turning around.

"Everything has been taken care of."

"Maybe this ain’t such a good idea Ezra," added the healer.

"Gentlemen.. please. ….. " The southerner still hadn’t turned around. A small smile crept across his face as the proprietor of the restaurant followed the headwaiter back towards them.

"Trust me."

Now coming from anyone else this might have been a stretch for these two men, but coming from one Ezra P. Standish. Well, the words ‘Trust Me’ virtually sent shivers down each spine concurrently. Vin was about to voice his concern again when Ezra added another command.

"And be sure not to say a word ….. no matter who says anything to you."

Jackson and Tanner looked at each other with dread in their eyes as the two well-dressed men joined them.

"Mr. Standish … Hello again sir," the smaller man took the gambler’s hand and shook it vigorously. He briefly glanced at Jackson and Tanner and then just as quickly averted his eyes.

"Please sir .. you must forgive George," he directed Ezra to a large table at the back of the room.

"This way please."

The room grew quiet as the five men made their way across the dining hall. All eyes seemed to glued on the only two men who were obviously so out-of-place in an establishment such as this. Nathan had always done his best to stand up for himself, but it was clear that he felt extremely self-conscious right now. The tracker on the other hand seemed ready to bolt at any second. Only the hand on his shoulder quieted the ‘wild, panicked’ look in his eyes.

"Right here sire."

Vin looked at the chair that Ezra was pointing to, sat down, and returned the gambler’s smile. What he just call me? Ran through his mind.

"This will do nicely Mr. Peters." Ezra commented to the owner as he pointed Nathan to his seat and took his own across from his two friends. Both men seemed a little surprised at the thickness of their friend’s accent all of a sudden.

"It’s Lester sir…… Everything has been prepared as you ordered. The chief will need a few minute to prepare before we begin. Is there anything else I can do for you sir."

"It sounds as though you have everything in order my good man. That should be all for the moment."

"Very good sir." The man bowed his head and then stepped away from the table dragging his headwaiter with him. The two spoke quickly as they headed to the back of the establishment.

"What you up to Ezra," Jackson whispered to the gambler as he leaned across the table.

"And how come you called me a sire," added Tanner as he joined them at the center of the table.

"Gentlemen," Standish smirked.

"Just don’t say a word to anyone. Sit back and enjoy."

Ezra leaned back in his chair and glanced at his friends. They, in turn, stared into the mischievous green eyes questioningly. They’d seen that look before. It made them both nervous enough not to question what it was that their companion was up to.

His gun hand moved quickly to the gunslinger’s weapon as the knob turned and the door opened. Seeing it was the preacher, Larabee relaxed and set down his book. Sanchez made his way across the room, poured himself a coffee from the pot on the stove, grabbed the extra chair, and seated himself across the desk from his leader. The two men stared at each other for a few minutes.

"Go ahead …," Larabee finally said.

"Say what’s on your mind."

Josiah smiled and lowered his head. Both men knew how stubborn the other could be when they had a mind to be. Sanchez however, was still stuck on the gunslinger ‘volunteering’ for night shift.

‘You needin ta get something off your chest maybe," he said raising his chin again.

Larabee looked into the preacher’s eyes then finally smiled.

"Don’t reckon I got much to say." He lowered his own head and took a sip of his coffee.

Josiah sat back in his chair and studied the man before him. They exchanged no words over the next twenty minutes as the leader completed two more pages of his book and Sanchez finished his coffee. Between each sip he looked intently at the man on the other side of the desk. Between each sip he tried to rediscover that ‘something new’ he had seen in the saloon four hours earlier.

When it was empty, Sanchez set the cup down loudly and straightened in his chair. Larabee looked up into the rugged face and dancing blue eyes. His cocked his head in curiosity. The preacher only smiled as he got to his feet and headed for the door. He opened it widely and stopped. Without turning he spoke softly.

"I see you’re finally beginning to understand her message."

The gunslinger watched the door close and smiled gently to himself. He nodded his head slowly in acceptance of the facts his friend had stated so bluntly. Yeah, …….maybe I am.

"You’re makin’ this all up!"

"No I ain’t Buck," the healer exclaimed as he drew his horse up beside the Lady’s man.

"I ain’t seen nothin’ like it. I swear. The look on that man’s face was … was …"

"Heaven," concluded the gambler. "I dare say Addison has never been threatened like that before in his entire life."

"And just what would you have done if that manager had called the sheriff" questioned the healer.

"Reckon we’d be sittin’ in jail ‘bout now instead of headin’ home," Vin added.

Standish looked at the tracker and smiled.

"I defy you to tell me you did not enjoy yourself last night Mr. Tanner."

"Reckon I ain’t never had that kinda respect from anyone before. Reckon I never will again. Just don’t understand why they’d treat me like that when you spent the whole night calling me a stud horse."

"What…." Wilmington blurted out.

Standish chuckled at the tracker’s interpretation of the word sire. Jackson laughed too, although he had caught on after a while as to what Ezra was actually implying by the use of the word.

"That ain’t exactly what he was leaning to Vin," the healer spoke through his laughter.

"Tell … me …. again … Ezra," Buck said slowly as he slowed his horse to come in step with the gambler’s mount.

"Maybe by the time we get back," Nathan sidled up to the tracker and smiled, "we’ll all understand."

The three men turned curious faces towards the gambler as Ezra Standish snickered and shook his head.


Continued in