by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


Four Corners, New Mexico Territory

Three Months Later

Vin Tanner rode in from the morning patrol circuit a little before eleven, stopped at Yosemite's stable to put up his horse, and paused a moment at the threshold, considering what to do next. He knew Chris would be on duty at the jail, but since he had nothing unusual to report from his ride, there wasn't any pressing need for him to go there. What he wanted right now was something to eat and a cup of hot coffee, or maybe a cold beer. Miz Potter somehow always seemed to know when he was down for the dawn swing, and she'd sent Amelia around to his wagon last night with some cold roast chicken, a Mason jar of canned tomatoes sweetened with sugar and filled out with little squares of bread, two quince-jelly sandwiches, a handful of oatmeal cookies and a canteen of cold tea sweetened with honey for an extra kick of energy. "Mama says this is for your breakfast while you're out tomorrow," the little girl had told him sternly, "and you're not to eat it till then!" And a bemused Vin had taken her at her word and enjoyed the food in his saddle. It constantly amazed and gratified him how, even more than a year after the Seven had brought her husband's killer to justice, the woman still fussed over them like they were her grown-up sons. If she kept on the way she was goin', she'd find they'd et her plumb out of business afore too long. Though Ez said she was a lot better off than a lot of folks around town maybe realized, and Vin was willing to grant that in anything connected with money, their resident con man was likely to know what he was talking about.

Nonetheless, like the country boy he was, Vin was accustomed to a hot and hearty morning meal, and that was what he wanted now. And something to lay the summer dust out of his throat. So, after a little thought, he set off for the former Standish Tavern. Inez would have opened the doors an hour or so ago, the kitchen would be up and running, and maybe one or two of the boys--besides Ez, of course--would have stopped by for midmorning coffee.

It was a good feeling to be back in Four Corners again after their escort job with the wagon train. Vin still felt a little shy with Chris on account of that whole pickle with Charlotte Richmond, and wondered what the hell he'd been thinkin' about at the time. Shit, the kind of trick he'd pulled was more what you'd 'spect of Buck. He'd always figured he knew better than to go sniffin' around other men's quail. And yet white women had been a mystery to him most of his life. The years during which boys learn about girls and courtship he had spent for the most part among the Comanches, and much of his manhood had been passed in environments--on the buffalo range, on the trail of this or that "miscreant," as Ezra would call them--where females of any kind were few and far between, and the ones he did encounter were likely to be, to put it delicately, for rent. Respectable ones bewildered him. They weren't practical like Indian women, or Mexican women like Inez, or whores. They weren't straightforward and determined like Mary Travis. They always seemed to want something from him that he either couldn't give or didn't know how to.  They never seemed to say what they really meant, or express their desires straight out, and they functioned by rules that were completely beyond Vin's ability to penetrate. The result was that he tended to be shy of them, never sure how to talk to them or what to say, and unable to relate satisfactorily to them or fathom their motives as he could those of men.  His experience with Charlotte was a prime example of how poor his judgment was about them.  Looking back, now, he was beginning to understand that she'd just been using him to make Will jealous. At the time, it hadn't occurred to him that this might be the case. And he'd near about gotten all the boys in trouble, not just his own self. Damn, he had to try to get it through his head that he wasn't alone no more. Like Josiah and Buck kept tryin' to tell him, he had a family now. And that was a thing that worked two ways. It meant he had folks who cared and worried about him, who would watch his back and go lookin' for him if he didn't get back when he was supposed to, but it also meant he had folks he had to give mind to when he was tryin' to figure what he should do.

He made his way along the shaded boardwalks, nodding and touching his hat to the townsfolk he passed, savoring the warmth that enwrapped his heart at the respect and friendliness they showed him. The spirits had been lookin' after him sure when they'd guided him to this town. Never in his life since Ma left him had he had anything like what he'd found here, and he was determined not to lose it. It was true he still wasn't one for bein' inside, never felt comfortable with walls and people crowdin' around him--probably never would--and often, especially at times when a lot of folk came into town, he felt a need to get away, to find his center out in the hills and get to breathin' easy again. But this was home, and these six men were his family, and he wasn't fixin' to give up on 'em.

"Mr. Tanner! Mr. Tanner, you headin' for the saloon?"

Vin paused mid-step, realizing he was crossing the open doorway of the telegraph office. "Yeah, Wyatt, reckon I am," he agreed, eyeing the spare elderly man who kept the key days and the yellow flimsy he held in one hand.

"That's a load off my mind, then," said Wyatt. "Got an urgent telegram just come in for Mr. Standish, but I can't leave the key to take it to him, and Jasper's still down with the measles." Jasper was his grandson and served as the office delivery boy.

"Sure thing, I'll take it." Vin leaned in through the door and plucked the message from Wyatt's extended hand.

"Much obliged to you, Mr. Tanner. Everything lookin' okay out on the circuit?"

"Nothin' to see but coyotes and a hawk," Vin assured him, and continued on his interrupted way.

As he'd figured, the saloon, though otherwise quiet--it was too early for the midday crowd--did harbor three of his partners, comfortably gathered around their usual table in the back corner. Ezra was there, working on his customary late breakfast, and Buck and JD had stopped by to keep him company. A quick hint of a frown crossed Vin's face as he noticed that the gambler wasn't displaying his usual appreciation of Inez's cooking. Seemed he'd been off his feed ever since they came back from leavin' off them emigrants on their land. Tanner found that puzzling. It wasn't like he'd been on the takin' end of Chris's anger the way Vin had--for a change.

There was a coffeepot on a cork mat in the center of the table, and the rich aroma of its contents made Vin forget all about a beer. Inez gave him a dazzling smile of greeting from behind the bar and produced a thick white china mug from a shelf underneath it. "Sit," she told him, "and I will bring food."

Vin smiled shy thanks, accepted the cup and joined his friends, pulling out his usual chair. "Hey, Vin," JD greeted him, "how was patrol?"

"Real quiet, JD." The plainsman let Dunne tip the coffeepot over his mug and leaned back contentedly, balancing his chair on its two rear legs and savoring his first long sip of the steaming beverage it held. Inez always made the coffee in the proverbial Mexican style--black as sin, hot as hell, and sweet as love. To Vin, whose sweet tooth was a matter of notoriety among his six friends, that was just plumb perfect.

"Good mornin', Mr. Tanner," said Ezra politely, apparently doing his best to take advantage of the distraction the tracker's arrival provided him and hide part of his breakfast under the rest. Damn, and Inez had fixed him friccasseed chicken on toast, which was something she never did for any of the others. And here he was tuckin' half of it under his scrambled eggs. Vin hated the notion of shovin' his nose into others' business, but he hated more the thought that Ez was gettin' sickly or somethin' and hidin' it out of pride or on account he didn't want to seem to be runnin' out on his job. Looked like he was maybe gonna have to have words with the gambler, soon's he'd filled his belly.

Inez came sweeping out of the kitchen with a tray of mush and grits, fried eggs and potatoes, sausage cakes, soda biscuits and gravy, fried apples, and a stack of sourdough pancakes garnished with little pitchers of honey and warmed sorghum syrup and a dish of butter. "This I kept warm," she told Vin, "but if you want more, I will make it."

"Naw, I reckon this'll do me, thanks, Inez."

Buck snorted over his coffee. "This from the man Miz Nettie says could take a bath in a shotgun barrel for all he eats enough for three."

"But I et in the saddle, Bucklin," Vin told him, happily diving into the pancakes. "Miz Potter sent me over some grub last night."

"Oh, well," said the rogue, "that explains it. This ain't but second breakfast. Damn, boy, I wish I knew where you put it all. If you could teach the women that trick you got, you'd get rich. Ain't a lady I ever met didn't fret on her weight and her waist. That's how come they wear corsets."

Vin flushed slightly, ducking his head to hide the color behind his curtain of hair. JD punched his friend sharply on the shoulder. "There's a reason they call 'em unmentionables, Buck," he pointed out.

"They ain't unmentionable but in polite company," the gunslinger retorted easily, "and I don't see none of that here."

"I must beg to differ, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra objected evenly, washing down a nibble of hot buttered biscuit and apricot preserve with a swallow of coffee. "I personally would associate with nothin' less than true gentlemen."

"Three to one, Buck," JD crowed. "Thanks, Ezra."

"You are quite welcome, Mr. Dunne." And the Southerner went back to pushing his food around the plate.

"Where's Nate and Josiah at?" Vin inquired after he'd taken the first edge off his hunger. "Didn't hear no hammerin' from the church whilst I's comin' up here."

"They took it in mind to ride out to the Seminole village for a day or two," Buck explained. "Chris give 'em leave last night after you'd turned in. Said there wasn't no word of trouble about and no big money due in on the stage for a few days, so they just as well to take advantage of it."

Vin nodded, accepting that. Nathan rode out to visit Rain at least once every month, and usually Josiah went with him. Likely Nathan would be the first of 'em to get hisself hitched, 'lessen Chris surprised everybody by admittin' what most the town already knew, that Mary had her cap set for him and he was more'n a bit took with her. Which he might well, after that near thing with Gerard Whitman; often a man didn't know what he had till he'd come close to losing it. Vin could testify to that from recent experience. "Anythin' go on whilst I been out?"

"Too early in the day and the wrong time of the week, I reckon," Buck replied. "Only excitement we had so far today was the Chapman boys chasin' their sow out of the truck patch with sticks. She squeezed her way under the front yard fence and spilled two cowboys on their butts when their horses reared up at her dashin' betwixt their front and back legs."

"Yeah," JD agreed, laughing, "they was just about ready to turn her into pork chops till Buck stopped 'em. He said they'd have to pay for her if they killed her, and a full-grown breedin' pig her size would cost close to forty dollars, plus they'd be killin' her increase too, just like rustlers steal the increase of the cows they take, so the Judge might end up makin' 'em pay damages for that. You should'a heard him takin' on, Vin, he was layin' out as good a con as Ezra does. No offense meant, Ezra."

"None taken," the gambler murmured, picking halfheartedly at eggs rapidly going cold.

"That puts me in mind, Ez," said Vin, reaching into his coat pocket, "Wyatt gimme this telegram for you, said it 's urgent."

The Southerner hesitated an instant before accepting the flimsy in its envelope, more with the air of one relieved to find an acceptable excuse to stop pretending to eat than as if he was expecting it or eager to read it. He tore it open, scanned the lines printed across the form, and went as white as his own shirt front. Buck, ever alert for an opportunity to tease, had been watching him curiously and was the first to react. "Ezra? Hey, pard? Ezra! You okay? Inez! Inez, we need some brandy over here, pronto!"

Ezra didn't seem to feel the big hand that had gripped his shoulder and was shaking him sharply. His hand went slack and the telegraph form fluttered erratically to the recently-mopped floor like a leaf falling in November. JD dived under the table to recover it as Inez came flying over from the bar with a bottle of the Sazerac de Forge that Standish imported for his exclusive use. Buck snatched it from her hand, yanked the cork out and held the bottle under Ezra's nose like smelling salts. Ezra's head snapped back, his eyes widening, as the fumes hit him. JD gulped down the last of his coffee and passed the mug to his best friend, who quickly poured a stiff jot of brandy into it and shoved it into Ezra's hands. "Okay, pard, belt that down," he ordered, "and tell us what the trouble is."

Ezra's hands were shaking so badly that it took both of them to grasp the mug securely, but the forcefulness with which Buck's directive was issued apparently got through to his numbed mind, since he did what he was told, gasping in shock as the strong liquor hit his stomach. "Good Lord," he coughed, "are you attemptin' to strangle me, Mr. Wilmington?"

"No, just tryin' to fetch you back to us, pard," the big man told him, "and that was about the only way I could see to do it. I ain't seen anythin' as white as you since the last snow. What is it? That telegram?" Like all of them, he knew that the only telegrams, or letters, Ezra ever got were from Maude. "Your ma send you some bad news? Somebody after you? Don't you give it no mind, pard, he won't get past the six of us."

"No," said Ezra in a numb voice, "it isn't from Mother. It's..." He trailed off, looking bewildered.

Ordinarily Buck had more respect for his friends' privacy than to read their correspondence, but whatever this was had obviously so unsettled Ezra that he was unable to respond coherently to questioning. "Gimme that, son," he ordered JD, and spread the flimsy on the tabletop, reading aloud as Vin, Inez, and JD listened.


"Damn," Buck whispered harshly, clearly almost as stunned by the news as Ezra was. One of the things that had immediately struck all of them about Ezra's mother was her vitality. It was difficult--impossible--to imagine her ill, let alone seriously ill.

JD laid his hand over the Southerner's forearm and squeezed comfortingly. He knew what it was to grow up with just one parent and then to be threatened with the loss of her even before it actually happened. His throat closed up as he thought of his own mother. He couldn't speak, only try to demonstrate his sympathy through his touch. Vin did likewise from the other side, gripping the gambler's shoulder.

"Trinidad," Buck repeated, his eyes going briefly distant as he reviewed his mental map of the neighboring state, a place long familiar to him after his stint as a lawman there in his younger days. "If you take the stage road and push some you can make it in two days. JD, you run down to the stable and get Gambit saddled up. I'll head over to the store and get some supplies together, though with all the stations along that road Ez should be able to stop off for a hot meal when he wants to. Vin, you see after him while we're gone."

JD was out the swinging doors like a shot. "I--I can't," Ezra whispered unsteadily. "I c-can't go..."

"Why the hell not?" Buck demanded, half angrily. "She's your mother, pard. That's all that matters."

"It's not..." Standish hesitated, searching for words. "I promised--promised Mr. Larabee...I wouldn't run out..."

"Aw, hell," Buck groaned. "Pard, Chris never meant that promise to be a chain on you. Anyhow, this ain't runnin' out. This is family business. Chris used to have a family himself. He'll understand why you got to go. You just leave him to ol' Buck, and go up and get yourself packed. Vin, you give him a hand, okay?"

The tracker nodded wordlessly, and Wilmington shoved back his chair and strode out the doors. Inez paused a moment to stroke the Southerner's colorless cheek before returning to her station behind the bar.

"C'mon, Ez," Vin urged, speaking softly, as he might to an injured or frightened animal. "Let's go on up and get your gear together."

Too stunned to resist, Ezra permitted himself to be escorted up to his room. Vin settled him in the rocking chair, located his saddlebags, and began swiftly ransacking the room for the gambler's two towels, shaving mug, tooth powder, housewife, coils of linen collars and cuffs, stationery and ink-powder, collapsible drinking cup, and travelling case--an eight-by-four oblong, two inches thick, that held his hairbrush and comb, shaving brush, toothbrush, nail-brush, celluloid soapbox, razor, strop, scissors, and mirror. These he followed with what he knew from experience Ezra considered the bare minimum of clothing--three sets of underwear, three shirts, two neckties, a vest, four pairs of socks, six handkerchiefs, a second pair of boots, and a jacket, choosing the black one Standish kept for Sundays, just in case. He expected the Southerner to keep up a steady rattle of directions regarding the proper way to pack his bags, but Ezra was apparently still in shock and not up to speaking. Vin did his best to see to it that everything was stowed neatly and accessibly, though he wasn't sure he put them where Ezra would have. He made sure the bags were equipped with the standard stake rope and hobbles, gun-cleaning kit and ammunition for Ezra's Remington revolving rifle and three handguns, rough-shoeing kit, cup, plate, butcher knife and eating knife, fork, spoon, folding leather bucket, camp ax, bottle of tinder, and elementary cooking utensils. After he'd double-checked their contents and buckled them shut, he looked for his friend's trail blankets, which Standish always sent to the laundress after any protracted journey away from town, and rolled them into a neat cylinder with his oilcloth and India-rubber sleeping spread, wrapped it in Ezra's white tarp and tied it. "Reckon that'll do it," he decided, and reached into the wardrobe for the smart corduroy riding jacket the gambler preferred to wear on the trail if he had any warning of a long ride to come. "Best put this on, pard, you don't wanta dirty up that purty red coat."

"I suppose not," Ezra agreed softly. "Although such mundane considerations seem rather...inconsequential at this point." He slowly shucked out of his suit-coat and accepted the corduroy one. "It's...inconceivable, you know," he added. "I cannot recall her ever bein' in less than the most sterling health."

"You want some company?" Vin offered quietly.

That seemed to get Standish's attention as nothing else had. He looked up quickly, his eyes widening as he read the sincerity in the tracker's gaze. "I--I thank you for that offer, Mr. Tanner, and I am deeply grateful. But with Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sanchez, and now myself absent for an uncertain length of time, the town will be short enough of peacekeepers. I would not wish to deprive Mr. Larabee of your inestimable support at this juncture. It would be unfair and ungentlemanly of me to behave in so--selfish a manner."

"Ain't nothin' selfish about it," Tanner told him. "Just thinkin' you might could use a friend with you." I want to go with you, was what he really wanted to say. We're even more alike now than we was when I's thinkin' on it up in Discovery. We both know what it's like to feel that Chris ain't sure he can depend on us. We both know what it's like to be feared for our mas' lives. But he couldn't bring himself to speak the words aloud.

For the first time Ezra smiled, but it was a sad, gentle smile, not his usual gold-toothed smirk or angelic, innocent beam. "I assure you, Mr. Tanner, you will be with me every mile, in my heart."

Vin held his eyes a moment, then nodded. "All right. C'mon, JD and Bucklin's likely got your horse and supplies ready by now, let's go down and get you on your way."

Buck was indeed just tying a cotton sack of trail supplies to the fork of Ezra's saddle as they stepped out the door, while JD held Gambit's head and soothed him with quiet words and skilled hands, and Inez stood at the edge of the boardwalk and watched. Wilmington left the horse in the boy's care, took Ezra's gear from Vin and quickly, deftly fastened it in place behind the cantle, where JD had already tied a nosebag full of grain and a small bag that held Gambit's own currycomb, body brushes, dandy brush, sponge, hoof skip, mane comb, and grooming rags. "Here's the telegram, so you'll know what doc you're lookin' for when you get there," Buck said, folding it neatly and tucking it into Ezra's coat pocket. "Now you be sure and wire us if you need us, okay?"

"I shall endeavor to keep your injunction in mind, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra agreed, "and I thank you for savin' me precious time by accumulatin' what I shall need for my journey. When I return I shall reimburse you for your outlay."

"Wasn't no outlay, pard. Soon's Mr. Bucklin heard where you was headed and why, he said it come under our board-and-room deal with the Judge, and not to give it no thought. You give Maude our best, now, and tell her we're expectin' to see her come back here with you so's she can rest up and get better." He seized the Southerner's hand and wrung it, then impulsively yanked the smaller man to him and enveloped him in a comforting bear hug. Ezra stiffened at first, then leaned gratefully into Wilmington's strength, shivering, for a moment before he was released.

Inez darted down to take the Southerner's face between her palms and kiss him on the lips. "Vaya con Dios, Señor Ezra. I will pray for your mother."

JD handed over Gambit's reins. "She'll be just fine, Ezra, I know it. That doctor up there just don't know what he's dealin' with."

"I sincerely trust not," Ezra murmured, smiling weakly at the kid's transparent attempt to hearten him. He gathered the lines and shoved his toe into the stirrup as Vin gave him a parting pat on the back. The spirited chestnut was already moving as the gambler settled his body into the saddle.

The three men and the woman watched until Ezra and his horse were just a tiny dot moving at the far limit of vision, and then Buck sighed, straightened his shoulders, and adjusted his hat. "C'mon, boys," he invited, "let's go have us a drink to Maude's health. I'm buyin'."


Northbound Stage Road

Ezra's filial instincts urged him to reach his mother's side without delay, but his common sense told him he had to conserve Gambit's strength. He compromised by adopting the long, steady, reaching trot that was good for six miles an hour sun to sun--the gait commonly used by posses until the fugitive was in sight but out of gunshot. It was a good gait for the horse, but a bad one for the man. He automatically rode it the way he'd been taught as a boy, posting, as JD did. And, to keep himself from concentrating on the discomforts of the ride, or fretting about his mother's condition, he deliberately turned his mind to other subjects.

His entire adult career had been built on deception of one kind or another, but he had always made it a rule not to deceive himself. He felt ashamed to admit that for a fleeting instant, back in town, he had actually considered not undertaking this journey, had found himself thinking, Serve you right to die alone, Mother, after what you did to me--but he faced up to the fact that he had. After all, what mattered in the end wasn't what you considered doing; it was what you did. That was why you couldn't arrest a man for something you thought he might be planning, only after he had carried out the plan.

He had seen clearly enough that his relationship with Maude baffled his associates, especially Vin and JD. Sometimes it baffled him as well. All his life he had craved intimacy with her, wanted her to share herself, to be more open with him, and had gotten only caprice and cavalier neglect. As a child, his feelings toward her had been dominated by hurt and confusion; as a young man, by anger. Often he would listen to Buck and the boy--and sometimes Tanner--talking about their mothers and feel a painful twinge of envy. None of the three had had things easy, but they had always known their mothers cared about them--that they were, indeed, the light of the women's lives. Ezra had never had that comfort. He had never fully been able to understand the way Maude's mind worked, why she did what she did, even now, with an adult's perspective and many years' experience as a judge of human character. And he found himself dismayed by the way he was reacting to their latest confrontation.

When he had first lost the tavern to her, Ezra had been determined not to let it bother him. Yes, he had lost the money he'd put up, but he'd lost, and won, as much in a single night at cards, and more than once, in his career. It wasn't a serious setback. He would have to start over again, but he would recover. He had survived worse; he would survive this. And he would be damned if he would give Mother the satisfaction of seeing just how badly she had hurt him. Why should he? Did he think she would express regret? She never had before. More likely she would gloat, and that he knew he couldn't stand. Besides, there was another side to the situation. He had lost a saloon. Vin Tanner had lost the only way he knew by which he could clear his name. How could Ezra dare to assume that his loss meant anything in comparison to that? At least, even all throughout the climactic shootout, he had never been in danger of a noose around his neck, as the tracker had been and still was.

So he had kept quiet, and assumed his well-practised poker face, and tried to act as if he had shrugged the whole thing off and wasn't troubled at all. Then, a couple of weeks later, Don Paolo had come to town. And Buck Wilmington had stepped forward and offered himself as Inez's champion, stood up to defend a woman he barely knew, just because he believed it was the right thing to do. And what had Ezra done? Taken bets on the fight like a crass Yankee miser. Not until he found out that Buck would be expected to use a sword, rather than the guns he knew, had it occurred to him to think beyond the prospect of rebuilding the stake he had lost. He remembered how it had felt to hear that news. He'd never before believed that a man's heart really could drop down onto his stomach.

Buck had prevailed and survived, and Ezra was thankful for it--more so, perhaps, than he would ever let the big rogue know. But from that day on till this, his self-image had been slipping. What right did he have to think of himself as being on a par with men so noble? What right did he have even to ride with them? They were all so completely unlike him. Even Buck, scoundrel that he was, hadn't a dishonest, dishonorable bone in his body. Not one of them could lie or cheat or steal if his life depended on it. How had they been able to accept him even as readily as they had? How was it that they trusted him to watch their backs, to help them carry out their plans, to offer insight or deduction? He, a confessed con man! What did they see in him--or he in them? At times it seemed their sole purpose and desire was to drag him into danger and discomfort, and their delight was to see just how miserable they could possibly make him. However had he become so...attached to them? He knew Maude couldn't answer that question--could he?

What was almost worse, he had begun to realize that he was lying to himself--which, however heavily he might rely on untruth and deception in his dealings with others, he had always tried to avoid. It did matter that he'd lost the saloon. It did matter that he had been betrayed--yet again--by his mother: he should have expected something of the kind, but that didn't make it any less hurtful. And it was more than merely money or a saloon that he had lost. It was his dream, the dream he'd been working toward and hugging to himself for a dozen years. If a man didn't have a dream, what reason did he have to live?

All his associates had dreams. Chris Larabee to find the murderer of his family; Vin to wipe the black mark from the name his mother had taught him to treasure as his dearest possession; Nathan to learn everything he could about doctoring; Josiah to understand what God wanted of him and how he could best serve both the Divine and his fellow man; JD to become such a man as the older brothers he had gained, the best friends a man could have in the world; even Buck had one now, petty as it might seem--to break down Inez's resistance. And when Ezra thought about it, none of those dreams were as selfish as his own--not even Buck's, because it required him to be, or become, more than what he sometimes showed on the outside.

The Southerner also found himself feeling angry, bitter, and confused over the whole business of the War of the Saloons. He could understand drifters and casual passers-through choosing the Ritz over his own establishment, and he could see Stuart James and his cowhands preferring it as a poke in the eye to the seven men who had brought about Lucas's fall. But he had hoped for--expected--gratitude and loyalty from the townsfolk and his own associates. Hadn't he risked his life for them more times than he could count? Hadn't he shed his blood in their cause? How could they have all abandoned him so callously? Did all he had done mean nothing to them? Oh, he could accept that Larabee and Tanner had been otherwise occupied at the time, and at least they hadn't deliberately chosen his mother's casino. He had no problem with their actions. And he knew that Buck had been focused on his difficulty with that prevaricating female Miss Lucy. He forgave the three of them. But Josiah, and Nathan, and especially JD!--they'd all turned their backs on him and left him to twist in the wind, after everything the four of them had been through together. In a way he could see Sanchez, who had been besotted with Maude from the moment they met, and the healer, who he knew had never really approved of him, and who lacked even the preacher's broad experience to armor him against the skilled blandishments of an experienced con woman such as she undoubtedly was. But JD--he had been the first to take JD's hand, to accept him as an equal and a member of the group; couldn't the young man have done something to return the favor? Or had Mother been right all along, and were gratitude and loyalty merely words without any meaning? No, that couldn't be true. If it was, there was no plausible reason for them to all have hung together for more than a year now, seven utterly dissimilar individuals bound together by a strange combination of chance, courage, conscience, and Chris Larabee--these men with whom he had shared life and laughter and bullets.

And yet they had ignored him in his hour of need.

Well, maybe it was fair. He had run out on them first, after all.

Yet they had seemed to forgive that. They had accepted him, worked with him, asked his advice. And he, as he now realized, had blossomed in the warmth of that acceptance and trust as he had never thought he could.

And for all that, when the Nicholses came to town, it had been he who jumped on top of their armored wagon with a bottle of whiskey and a lit cigar, and demolished the juggernaut when no one else could see a way to do it. Why? Had he so quickly forgotten the way the town and his so-called friends had betrayed him?

Nothing made sense any more.

And so the gambler slid ever farther down a slippery slope of depression, though it was so insidious a process that he didn't realize he was doing so. It had crept up gradually until, by the time he realized he might have a problem, it had him in a hammerlock. It had begun with a general, unfocused feeling of sadness, a sensation of boredom with his life's routines, fatigue, a loss of energy, a need to sleep more than usual: ordinarily eight or occasionally ten hours was enough, regardless of how late he had retired, but now he found himself lying abed twelve or fourteen, unless someone roused him to go on patrol. (Of course none of his associates thought anything of it: they had long ago resigned themselves to the ongoing love affair between Standish and his feather bed and down pillow.) At first he wasn't sure what was wrong. He knew he didn't feel himself, though he tried, as much as possible, to hide his symptoms from anyone else. This last week or so it seemed to be worsening. He felt atypically guilty and self-reproachful, irritable and worthless; he was losing interest even in poker, and when he did muster up enough energy to play, his concentration was slipping. He found it hard to bear the company of others. His appetite was falling off; not even Inez's splendid cooking or Mrs. Potter's delectable pies could tempt him as they formerly had. He could tell by the way his clothes fit that he was dropping weight. He wasn't often angry, though once in a while he exploded when trifling things went wrong. Occasionally he experienced a spurt of unusual restlessness, or woke up at four A.M. and found it impossible to get back to sleep. But most of the time he was just listless; he didn't storm or cry, he showed no enthusiasm, he almost never laughed at small jokes. He couldn't keep his mind on his work. He just withdrew. He shrank from contact with the men who had dominated his life this last year-plus, and preferred to spend his time alone. Everything he did--moving, thinking, making decisions--was done in slow motion. He had begun to feel that he didn't care about what was happening in his life, or about doing anything to make it better. Of course, he didn't let the other regulators know what was going on inside him. Even after all this time together, he was reluctant to trust them with his deepest, most personal secrets. He had known most of his life that to show a weakness was to leave oneself open to hurt. So he didn't show it. He was a con artist, after all, and deception was his stock in trade. He was good at it. He put up a front, pretending still. Yet he found himself brooding over the past and how things had turned out, pessimistic about the future, to a degree he had never been before in all his life, not even after...No, he wasn't going there, he told himself, and shook his head sharply to clear it.

Better think of something else. Ezra had spent much of his life avoiding his conscience--had, in fact, tried to convince himself he didn't have one. Remorse was a liability, not so much in poker--at least the way he played it--as in grifting. And he had managed to successfully shove it off into the dark back cupboard of his mind until he drifted into Four Corners. There the six men who had been his companions--no, who had become his family--over this last year had unleashed that little voice inside his head that questioned his less-than-honorable intentions to the point where, unless he was using his skills against some disreputable miscreant like Wilkes or the Nicholses, he often found it rearing its head and asking him pointed questions at the oddest of times. He also found himself, God help him, worrying about their welfare. You couldn't look after Number One if you were busy worrying about someone else.

It was really a bit unsettling the way they were able to read each other's minds or predict what one of them would do in a given set of circumstances. It also made Ezra feel a part of some grander scheme. It was almost comfortable to know someone as well as you knew yourself, and to know that they knew you the same way. He was beginning to suspect that he and this strange new family of his had a purpose to fulfill, and that a higher power than Lady Luck was somehow responsible. Being of necessity keenly perceptive toward human character, he saw that where one was weak, the others were strong. None was perfect, yet together they formed an almost unbeatable group.

True, it was sometimes difficult to accept the fact that he seemed to have gained friends he could trust with more than his life, who (except perhaps for Nathan) accepted him as he was, with all his faults and idiosyncracies intact, and encouraged him to go on being the man he was--or perhaps more accurately a better version of that man. Friends with whom he could share a joke, a word, a look, and not have to wonder if they understood or not. Friends--not just one or two, which would be wondrous enough, but six--who would ride with him into Hell and still accuse him, half seriously, half playfully, of cheating when he proved once again that he was the better poker player. Yet he felt very fortunate that he had found this dusty little town. Life with his six friends was certainly never dull.

There had been times, during the worst loneliness of her protracted absences, when Ezra had actually wished for a different mother. But in hindsight he realized that she really had reared him the best way she knew how. She had taught him to survive, to read a mark, to cheat--only when necessary--and had imparted the skills that would ensure he would rarely need to do so. She had made him the man he was, a man Chris Larabee could recruit (whatever had moved him to do so) for his desperate cause. Above all, she had taught him never to pass on a sure thing, and being one of the Seven was the surest thing he had encountered yet. Together they complemented each other's strengths and eliminated any weaknesses. They had become family to him, and though he was perplexed, annoyed, and just plain scared to death at the fact, he found he needed them to be so. Needed them, and wanted them to continue.

Chris had once told him never to run out on him again. It had been a turning point in Ezra's life. Larabee had known Ezra was a con man and gambler, someone he should never have trusted out of his sight. Yet since the day he had returned to save the others, Ezra had begun to realize that he was tired of being alone and depending only on himself. He had wanted to be found, and had needed to know he was the kind of man who could and would put his life on the line for someone or something more important than his own aggrandizement. He had needed to know he wasn't the "third kind" he had described to the children in Tastagnani's village.

It was strange, he reflected, how neatly his six compatriots could be divided into two groups: those he respected, and those he simply liked. The first: Chris Larabee, Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez. The second: Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, JD Dunne.

He had never really meant all the venomous things he had said about Nathan when their association first formed. Color prejudice of that kind was not a thing a gentleman allowed himself to experience. A person of Ezra's upbringing and social level knew well that blacks were the backbone of the society in which he lived (or had lived, before the War). They might not do all its work, as had been the case in Ancient Rome--the South had its goodly share of white shopowners, craftsmen, and yeoman farmers--but the work they did do had made possible the existence of a moneyed leisure class, a group that had given the region its special tone. And every person born into that group, as well as much of the middle class, literally grew up in the care of blacks, often loved. It was true that in the South, only slaves had "masters;" a white man, whatever his condition, rarely worked for hire--yet this was really only a slightly amplified version of the general attitude of the day, that every American was expected to look forward to being his own master, be it through a farm or some kind of business. It was, after all, only poor whites and blacks themselves who used the word "nigger;" a man of Ezra's level would invariably say "nigra," "colored," "servant."

Oddly enough, the South in Ezra's boyhood had been less devoted to segregation than was the North (and Ezra, having travelled in both, was in some position to know): white and Negro children played happily together there, particularly on the plantations, and quite ordinarily became close; slave women often nursed their masters' babies, and travellers recorded numerous instances of Negroes riding in stagecoaches and railroad carriages with whites. Negroes belonged to the same churches as their masters, attended the same services (though they sat in the gallery or the back rows), and joined with them in singing hymns; they attended the white camp meetings, too, and added fervor to the occasion with their shouts and singing. They were among the spectators at horse races and cockfights and cheered their favorites as loudly as the whites did. At taverns the Negro ate in the same room with the white, though at a different table, and on some of the small farms even that rule went by the board. There were, moreover, free Negroes, especially in the larger cities, who lived almost exactly as whites did: they invested capital, made loans to white men, and even owned slaves; they went to the theater (sitting in the colored gallery), attended the races, subscribed to the newspapers, took a keen interest in city affairs, politics, the criminal court, militia musters, and firemen's parades, and were likely to be on terms of friendship with at least several whites. Such Negroes belonged to the aristocracy of the free people of color and didn't attend "darky dances and parties." A free Negro with a craft or trade was welcomed and allowed to work unmolested, where in the North his white counterparts often resorted to violence against him, and there was a small but relatively prosperous class of such free black craftsmen, including barbers, mechanics, carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths, as well as farmers and fishermen. To this day, post-War bitterness seemed to be aimed chiefly at the Yankees: although Ezra had heard that, with Reconstruction finally at an end, laws were being enacted to keep the Negro separate from the white, Southern Negroes still went to the polls in large numbers, encouraged by white leaders of opposing parties who eagerly solicited their votes; blacks shared railroad cars and dining rooms with whites, sat on juries and in the legislature with them, and were treated as equals.

The old saying that "Anyone could enter through the planter's door, while the middle class made inferiors and 'niggers' go around back" had a biting truth. The pre-War planter, like the early Presidents of the same class, never cared what worse-disposed men wanted or believed; he deliberately gave each man his due, according to his worth or attainments. A slave was a slave, and was treated as such, but the planter was more disposed than the poor white to regard blacks as human beings. He could value a good Negro above a bad white man; he could, and did, take Jews and European Catholics on their personal merits. And, perhaps because the planter's mores were aped by the lesser folk of his region to the best of their ability, it was the Northern middle class (which dominated that part of the country), far more than the Southern one, which was inclined to use Negroes unfairly: in the South it was the poor white who nourished his pride on the supposed inferiority of the black. (Unfortunately it seemed that a great many of these had attained positions of power now, with so many of the planter class killed in the War; which was perhaps at the root of the segregationist sentiment.) Most of Ezra's kin were not great planters, but decent middle-class folk, some dwelling in the country, many in towns, a few in the cities, particularly Charleston: prosperous farmers, small businessowners, a few professionals--attorneys, a doctor, a preacher, a teacher at a boys' military academy. They never presented him with any direct experience of large-scale slavery, but all of them had, at the very least, a cook and a maid, sometimes bond (owned or rented), sometimes free, just as the Yankee middle class whom they resembled in means and style of life would have country bound-girls, neighbors' daughters, or immigrants to fill the same places; and most sent their clothes, except for the most delicate, out to a black laundress or had one come in by the week. Those with sizeable properties also had a butler or waiter if they lived in town and a Negro farmhand if not. Indeed, as a barely tolerated guest in his various relatives' houses, Ezra had more than once been foisted onto the servants, who, perhaps knowing or sensing that he was in his own way as marginal as they, had treated him with a kindness and acceptance that had resonated in his battered heart regardless of his reluctance to let them in. His several "mammies" had been more of mothers than his own, black playmates more of brothers than blood kin to a lonely boy left on his own and largely unwanted by his family.

Having learned something of Nathan's past had instilled in the gambler a quiet indignation at the way the man had been treated. His experiences were atypical of the institution as a whole, at least as Ezra had been aware of it. It was true--and probably Nathan himself would have been forced to admit it, if he were to be completely honest--that when he talked he was what the Old South would consider "uppity." He pulled no punches, said precisely what he thought, and looked a man straight in the eye. That attitude, if he had employed it as a slave, would have been guaranteed to earn him punishment. Very possibly the brutality he had experienced was at least partly a result of his increasing self-awareness, as he reached his teens, and his growing realization that he was a man, not property, which had ultimately led to his flight North. Yes, Nathan was quiet, humble and unassuming--the universal defense of the colored man. But he was also proud, and had probably had anything but a "yes, massa" attitude in his younger days. Thus he had likely earned the abuse he suffered simply by daring to stand up as a man. Yet his master had clearly not been a gentleman; gentlemen didn't beat slaves. (Probably, Ezra reflected, a former overseer who'd saved enough to set out on his own, or perhaps the son of one--and a sadist eager to prove his power over his bondsfolk, possibly because he wasn't accepted by the local society. It was intriguing to the gambler that these, who were often New Englanders, were more prejudiced against, and crueller to, the blacks than any Southerner would think of being. And it was New England that had produced the most vehement Abolitionists. The irony of it was priceless.) And not particularly intelligent, either. Mistreating such valuable property was economically counterproductive. After all, the very fact of owning large numbers of bondsfolk presupposed a need for them, a dependence upon their labor and the wealth gained from it. Why misuse the source of one's wealth? That made no more sense than Chris Larabee failing to keep his guns in top condition, or Ezra letting his hands get damaged. In any case, slaves were costly, a true capital investment. By the time Ezra had been old enough to understand such things, the merest field hand sold for a thousand dollars, skilled "yard" slaves--craftsmen--cost three to twenty-five times that, and intelligent, trusted house workers carried price tags that were almost literally out of sight. "Mechanics"--blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, and the like--were considered first-class hands, as were stablemen, hog and cattle tenders, teamsters, cooks, seamstresses, and house servants, and if they had been for sale, which they generally weren't, they'd have been worth more than the best field worker. True, the cruder sort of planter could and did prohibit his slaves all recreation, could at whim forbid a woman to marry, force a series of mates on her until she proved fertile, or take her as a concubine, and could dispose of children, even his own, as he saw fit. But it made no more sense to systematically starve, injure, or kill one's slaves than one's farm stock, and for exactly the same reason: they were a necessity to the maintenance of one's standard of living, besides having an intrinsic monetary value and taking considerable time, money, and trouble to replace. Even emotional abuse, such as the arbitrary parting of families, was generally considered unwise, because it contributed to unrest and discontent, and indeed many of the better sort of masters worked diligently to purchase the spouses of their own blacks. If a slave wasn't working out, it was a wiser course to simply sell him and replace him with a more tractable personality than to keep him on and make a visible martyr and rallying point of him with physical misuse. Nathan had passed his youth in Alabama; his owner would still have had the option of selling him "down the river," perhaps to the cane plantations in Louisiana, which were acknowledged by all to be very unhealthy places to work. That the man chose not to do so argued at a sadistic personality, the kind of person who would keep a horse he couldn't get along with, or a dog that didn't like him, simply because of some perverse resolve--"I'm gonna break him, by God; I'll show him who's boss." The sort who would ride with spurs bloody and his horse's mouth worked raw.

No, a master with perception and brains didn't resort to such tactics. Indeed, laws throughout the South required owners to feed their slaves properly, clothe and house them adequately, and refrain from brutal or cruel punishment, and although blacks weren't allowed to testify in court against whites, they were entitled to representation by counsel in capital cases, and it was definitely not unknown for a white man to go to prison for killing a black. Courts were anxious that no Negro be held in slavery if there was any doubt as to the legality of his status. Between house servants and field hands there was a broad line of demarcation, but even among the latter, rough and comparitively unmannered as they were, valuable characteristics were by no means wanting. The headman, selected for his intelligence and integrity, was always a man of importance in his own eyes as well as his master's; consequential plowmen weren't unknown, a good cradler was as conceited as a coachman, and an adept at the drawing-knife or in the manufacture of doormats and white-oak baskets didn't stand back for "ole masser" himself. Many a planter boasted of a certain picked slave who ran the cotton gin or sugar mill, and his overseer probably relied on Negro "drivers"--men of consequence who ranked directly under him--to get satisfactory work out of the hoe gang. Occasionally a trusted slave would even have free white workers under his command, as in lumbering operations run as an adjunct to a plantation. Any decent manager made provision to furnish not only employment but also food, clothing, and shelter for his slaves, and to care for them in sickness and old age; Southerners, not without cause, often pointed out that this no such courtesy was extended the white industrial worker of the mechanized North. Most slaves married and lived with the same spouse until death--it was said that only one couple in six was separated by sale--and most children grew up in two-parent households (in the New Orleans market, it was said, less than ten per cent of all sales were of children twelve or under), for public opinion frowned on the practise of breaking them up unless bankruptcy loomed, though it was fairly common to sell teenagers away from their families. And while slaves were property, a man whose Negroes ran away was subject to almost as much criticism, spoken or not, as one who whipped them; for as long as the people were decently treated, they were easily content, and runaways were considered a sign of poor treatment. It had long been observed that when a master was kind, the slaves seemed to feel genuine affection for him and were apparently content with their lives of servitude.

Attention was given to the maintenance of physical and emotional health. Most slaves worked a five-and-a-half-day week, with Sundays and holidays off, and the option of using this "free time" to hire out and earn money with which to save for their freedom. During the hottest months it was common to decree a midday rest of two hours or more. There was generally a curfew in force, but no attempt to forbid visits to kin and friends on neighboring estates, or to bar dances and parties organized by the Negroes themselves. Christmas and New Year's, corn-shuckings, hog-killing, barbecues and picnics at laying-by time, coon hunts, and slave weddings--sometimes performed by the master himself, sometimes by a preacher, black or white, with all the trimmings--were occasions for jollity. The best slave cabins were far superior to the ramshackle hovels of the poorest whites, sometimes log, sometimes frame, with one, two, or even three rooms, occasionally double. Slave children did no work till they were six, and only miscellaneous chores till they were ten, after which each young boy was sent to some plantation artisan or craftsman to try to learn his trade; if, after being tried at each of the skilled occupations in turn, he showed no aptitude for any of them, he became a field hand, and, in the opinion of the other Negroes, lost his claim to any social standing at all. Yet even field hands could count on their mistress to nurse them when they were ill, and their master to care for their aged and their babies. When a Negro died he was interred in the family burial ground; it was "where he belonged." House servants were frequently taught to read and write, and despite the adverse laws enacted in the wake of the Turner rebellion, there were estates on which Negroes were regularly provided with schooling; as long as they didn't boast about their accomplishments or show impudent pride, the community viewed it as harmless and the law ignored it. The prospect of liberty was used as a stimulus to work and good spirits: many planters allowed their slaves to raise their own patches of brown Nankeen cotton, which couldn't be improved upon by stolen white "field" cotton, for pocket money; many set as a day's work an average stint and paid the workers for whatever they did over that amount; and quite a few Negro families made tidy sums from chickens, hogs, and garden crops raised on their own little patches of ground, sometimes selling their produce to the master for his kitchen. Particularly, but not exclusively, in the cities, it was common for masters to lease their slaves out at $100 to $140 for six to twelve months; maintenance was then a charge on the person hiring them rather than on the owner, and as the slave was obligated to give the master only a certain percentage of his wage, he could accumulate a tidy nest egg. Several thousand slaves bought themselves free by such measures; hundreds were freed each year by individual masters, often as a provision of their wills. And while a Southern gentleman might foolishly gamble away his family fortune at cards or the races, might be ruthless to his wife, might even have a high-brown mistress and innumerable half-caste children, still the aristocratic code didn't ostracize him unless he practised cruelty toward his slaves, or associated with the slave traders who were beyond the pale of his closely-linked society and shunned by it as a coarse and evil horde. Plunging ever more deeply into indebtedness on plantations no longer flourishing or able to indulge the extravagances of the past, still many masters refused to stoop to extricating themselves from their financial stress by selling off their devoted servants. They would rather sign more notes at the bank, mortgage their estates to the hilt, and run the risk of foreclosure.

And for all that he had suffered, Nathan hadn't allowed it to embitter him. Indeed, the mere fact that he had maintained his humanity was testimony to the man's immense moral and emotional courage. Apart from that, he had chosen a helping profession--one that was by no means easy to master, and certainly demanding and stressful to follow--and had learned everything he knew completely on his own, by books and experiment, with only a few helpful people along the way to smooth his path by teaching him to read, gifting him with books and instruments. He had a remarkable facility for easing pain, a gracious and gentle manner that would have done credit to any white doctor Ezra had ever encountered. And he would offer his help to anyone, however thick their Southern accent. As young JD said, he'd "even patch up the folks he put holes in himself."

It was true that for all his fond memories of certain individual blacks in his childhood, Ezra's conditioning was such that he couldn't feel inclined, at first, to embrace a strange freed man, Nathan, as an equal. When Nathan went to fix his dislocated shoulder, his reaction was instinctive and real--for an instant there was pure murder in his soul that a Negro had refused his "No" and then dared to lay hands on him. That was simply not done in his boyhood, and at that point, Nathan was no friend, nor even (for all their testing under fire together) completely trusted. By that same token, however uneasy their relationship sometimes was now, it had gotten to where it was because, simply put, Nathan was "his"--or more rightly, "theirs," one of the Seven. In a very real sense, it was the old familial pattern falling into place once more. Definitely Ezra had grown into genuine respect for Nathan, didn't doubt him in the slightest in a fight, and respected what the healer had proven he knew. There was a great deal to like about Nathan, and Ezra wasn't immune to that. And he also took a perverse enjoyment in their frequent verbal sparring, liked occasionally pushing Nathan's buttons. Sometimes it seemed almost a game, this process of resisting Nathan's indelicate proddings towards morality--much like the constant teasing and arguing of Buck and JD.

No, Ezra didn't hate Nathan for being black, or a former slave. Hate was, on the whole, counterproductive and a waste of one's emotional energy. It had been purely a panic response. He had seen that Chris Larabee was trying to shanghai him into a job he didn't want and sincerely doubted his ability to perform--he was a gentleman gambler and con artist, not a gunfighter, after all--and since he couldn't fight his way out of it, his only alternative had been to talk his way out. Having learned, by necessity, to size people up quickly, he had looked at the others, realized that none of them except perhaps Vin was likely to be from the former Confederacy (and Vin by his speech was clearly not of the upper classes), and decided that he could fool them into thinking he held attitudes he didn't. It had been, on the most basic level, a spontaneous con. Get them so disgusted with him that they'd throw him out, leave him alone, let him make his own way out of Four Corners.


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