by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


After Sanchez had gone, Ezra lay slowly flexing his gaunt hands--the hands that had won him so many high-stakes games--and thinking about what he and JD and Nathan had said. His thoughts moved slowly, however, and while he wasn't in any real discomfort, he couldn't summon up very much energy for the task either. He felt an odd lightness, an emptiness, a detachment, a sensation almost of floating. These were unlike anything he'd ever known before, and by that very token he knew them to be signs that something was seriously wrong with him. He found a curious calm, an equilibrium, taking possession of him, that was greater than any trained self-possession brought into play at a poker table or in a fight. He wasn't really angry at the others any more, not even the three who had so blatantly abandoned him in his time of need. He wasn't exactly sad either, even though he supposed he projected that impression. All feeling was gone from him now. He simply didn't seem to have the strength to resist the inertia that was slowly causing him to slip away from them.

He vaguely remembered thinking about how tired he was of always being alone, how he wanted all the pain and confusion to end, wanted to be at peace. Thinking how good it would be if he could see Father and Catherine again. Yet he wasn't alone. His six cohorts had scarcely allowed him a moment to himself since they'd gotten him back. They seemed determined not to give up on him, not to leave him alone until he admitted that they had become his friends, his family. It was a peculiar sensation. He had never had a real family before--not in the sense of the families he had read about, people who stood by one another, who lent a hand when it was needed (whether asked for or not), accepted one another, cared and worried about one another. Certainly in the beginning it had never occurred to him to expect the other six to become one to him. For a long time he had shut them out, not wanting--or perhaps simply not daring--to allow them to get close. He'd resisted their honesty and loyalty, Josiah's paternalism, Nathan's judgmental attitude, Vin's insight, Buck's openness and warmth, JD's naïve willingness to trust--and Larabee: he'd known without a fragment of doubt that all he'd ever end up doing was disappointing the man, and somehow he hadn't wanted that.

Except for the Ainslies, he had never had anyone defend him before, whether from bullets or insults; never known anyone to come looking for him when he needed help. True, Maude had probably taken monetary revenge, from time to time, on those who slighted her "darlin' baby boy," but she never bothered to let him know about it--or, if she did, she certainly hadn't shared the money. Nor had he ever known what it was like to be needed. To feel that someone actually wanted him around, not merely for what he could do, but for the person he was. He found the sensation pleasing. To know that hardened, respected men cared whether he lived or died--it was a wonder he had never expected. Yet he saw that it had been a part of his life for many months. Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah had been offering it all along. What had he been holding out for? Even to have four out of the six grant him so much--he could scarcely believe he deserved it. He found himself thinking of his discovery of Dumas's Musketeers, when he was eleven and received the book as a Christmas present. He had been astonished to read of such good fellowship, such consideration and acceptance of individual differences--dark, brooding, foreboding Athos with his tragic secret past, easygoing Porthos, dapper Aramis, naïve d'Artagnan. Not unlike our own Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington. And Mr. Dunne, of course, is our Gascon. As for Aramis...did he not maintain his plan to take holy orders as soon as he could find the time? Elements there of Mr. Sanchez as well as of myself. He could accept that it might be possible for kinsmen to experience such a thing, having approached it himself during his time with the Ainslies--but four strangers, men of such diverse background? Always he had supposed that this was something born wholly of Papa Dumas's imagination. Yet now he was himself an element of just such a band--bigger, even more varied, but equally as supportive of one another, of him.

"It must be difficult to understand that if you've never known it before, never had that kind of constant in your life. But you have it now. You may not have the strength to get out on your own, but you have ours, and I think, between us, we're strong enough to pull someone your size--or even my size--out of the thickest, clingiest sand ever created. All you need to do is hang on and let us do the work. We're fighting for you, lending you our strength when you have none of your own. You've got all the strength you need, all around you. We don't intend to make it easy for you to leave." That was what Josiah had said. It had almost seemed as if he understood. JD and Nathan had said something similar, though in different words. Could they all have meant it? Was it possible he'd been mistaken? Had it really never occurred to them how different his circumstances were from theirs?

He considered the prospect of leaving and found that he didn't really want to. It would be too hard, going on alone--if there was anything to go on to. He had just begun to feel that he belonged, that he was part of something good and worthwhile, something bigger than himself. He had enjoyed the friendships, the surprising warmth that came from helping others, being accepted by "respectable" people like Mrs. Potter and Mary Travis and even the formidable Judge. He realized, with a degree of surprise, that he might actually have discovered what it was to be happy. It was difficult to be certain of that, because he'd never been happy before, not at least since he was very small, so he was ill-equipped to recognize the phenomenon when it occurred. Yet there was also a sneaking sense of familiarity, of rightness, that came with the idea. Certainly the others seemed quite resolved not to let him go. He didn't understand why they would want to stop him when they hadn't been willing to stand up for him over the affair of the saloons, yet he knew human character well enough that he was certain they did. After all, he had made a career, a life, out of reading others, calculating the odds, weighing the risks, considering the stakes. The risks inherent in accepting friendship were greater than any he had ever faced before, yet the prize that glittered before him was truly "a pearl of great price." The odds were stiff--perhaps the stiffest he had ever faced. But if he could gain the payoff, it would be well worth while. And in any case, as they had discovered at the Seminole village, seven was a formidable number even at ten to one. The deck was definitely stacked against anyone who was foolish enough to take them on, and no one and nothing was going to rob Ezra Standish of the best hand he'd ever been dealt--a royal flush in seven-card stud, and a man got only one such chance in his life if he was fortunate. He didn't care if he had to play the Devil himself; Ezra played to win.

No one. Not even himself.

He snorted wryly as he realized it was already too late. The six of them had crept up on him and blindsided him, wearing away, little by little, the walls he'd spent a lifetime building around himself. They had gotten to him and, worse, learned how to see through him. And it confused him all to hell that he wanted them to go right on doing both.

He had told JD that circumstances altered cases. Yet he still had six other men trying to help him even though he'd done everything he could think of to push them away. Maybe the circumstances had changed. Or maybe he just needed to finally see what had been in front of him the whole time.

It occurred to him that they treated him as they treated each other. Sometimes they were thoughtless and callous, but that was because they believed he understood the dynamics of the group. They forgot, sometimes, that he didn't have their experience of life--or, say rather, that they, even Vin, didn't have his.

Mother had always said that the simplest solutions were the best ones. Maybe she was right.

Perhaps he had been wrong to feel himself betrayed. Perhaps he had overreacted. Perhaps it hadn't been malice, only thoughtlessness or Maude's expert manipulation. Or perhaps--he marvelled at the thought--they had had a high enough opinion of his abilities as to think he wouldn't need their help in order to keep the saloon. Perhaps they had actually been paying him a compliment by what they had done.

The door opened and Buck peeked in tentatively. "You awake, pard?"

"Mr. Wilmington. I might have expected you would be the next in the procession."

The rogue took that for an invitation and stepped in, shutting the door quietly behind him. He was doing his very best to tone down his energy and enthusiasm as befitted a visit to a sickroom, yet Ezra could still sense it radiating from him. It was pleasant, a warming, supportive thing. Buck was loud and crude and annoying, and tactless and humorous and kind and generous and strong. In a way he was the heart of their group, much as Larabee was the brain, or Josiah the soul, or Vin the courage, or JD the enthusiasm, or Nathan the compassion and empathy. Ezra wondered again what it would have been like to have grown up with such a personality to guide and protect and teach him, as JD was doing--or just how big a part that personality had played in getting Chris Larabee through the first terrible months after his family's murder. There was a very special kind of strength in Buck, what Vin might have called "power" or "medicine," and he gave of it freely to everyone he thought was in need of it.

Ezra wished he knew how to ask for a little of that strength to replenish his own.

Buck for his part made a regular little ritual out of finding a chair he liked, getting it positioned in just the right spot at Ezra's bedside, deciding where to put his hat. Once he was set, he didn't plan to go until he had gotten his point across. Though his friends might find it hard to believe, Buck was as intrigued by the bond that had sprung up between the seven of them as Ezra or Josiah were, and equally as prone to examine it and try to understand how it worked, perhaps because he knew that maintaining it was the best chance there was for Chris to become again at least some semblance of the man he had once been, the man who had earned Buck's undying loyalty and Sarah Connelly's consent. The dynamics of the network of interrelationships fascinated him. Chris and Vin especially, of course. Once either was set on something, it would take an act of God to change his mind, and even then he'd argue till God shut him up Himself. The only difference was that Vin had come through his trials with an almost innocent love of life, while Chris hid his need for loyalty and support with a cynical aloofness (not unlike Ezra's) that few could penetrate--yet no one ever seemed to question his readiness to put their welfare ahead of his own. Buck knew that his connection with Vin was the beginning of bringing back the real Chris Larabee, the one who had retreated deep into a shell after Sarah and Adam died. That Chris was on the road back to life again, perhaps because he, like his oldest friend, was just plain fascinated by the concept of having encountered six other men who had banded together because of a common need--the need for others like themselves who had faced hardship and tragedy of some sort and refused to succumb to it, and who refused to let the bad in the world overwhelm those who couldn't fight it on their own. Maybe it was that same stubborn refusal to let life beat them down that the two had recognized in each other. For some reason, Vin had a calming effect on Buck's oldest friend. He could accept a friend warts and all, and Chris's black moods never seemed to trouble him. The intimidating Larabee glare seemed to amuse him more than anything. He wasn't afraid of Chris, didn't hesitate to come out and say whatever he thought needed to be said, yet he trusted him completely and was there to support him silently when his demons plagued him most. He also believed the most precious things in life were friendship and kin, perhaps because he'd had so little of either, and he was fiercely loyal to the few people he permitted close to him. In that he was not unlike Ezra: a strong, solitary man who needed a family and friendship he could rely on under any circumstances and treasured them all the more for their previous rarity in his life. They had both missed having these things when they were younger, and it meant too much to them now for them not to fight for it. The difference was that Ezra either didn't understand his own requirements or didn't want to admit to them. I got to make him see that something's changed, Buck thought. That his life ain't just his now, it belongs to us, and we won't be the same if we lose any of us, him included.

He thought about what Maude had said and about the story she had told as recounted by Chris. He didn't always understand her, or the casual disregard she displayed toward her only son. He had never been able to work out how a mother could behave like that. Now he could, at least partly. And he knew that she had been largely responsible, whether by commission or omission, for making Ezra who he was, for creating a personality that was so tender and vulnerable under its practised hard exterior. Maybe if she'd been a better mother, he wouldn't have been so easily hurt. But Buck would never disrespect Ezra by speaking ill of his mother. He had never tolerated anyone treating his own as less than a lady, and he would do no less by a friend's.

And in any case, in the end, she had saved his life. Had shot Miranda Kane down where she stood, risked being branded a murderer, rather than let the woman kill Ezra. Buck could forgive her a great deal for that.

Did Ezra know yet what she had done? Nathan had said he was probably too far gone in the fever to be aware of what was going on around him at the time. He hadn't said anything to suggest that he had seen or heard any of it or remembered it if he had--although with Ezra that was no particular guarantee. Yet as far as Wilmington was aware none of the others had told him about it; he knew he hadn't. It had seemed more the sort of thing that should be private between mother and son.

He considered Maude's expressed opinion regarding her son's state and knew she'd hit it dead on. Yet he thought, too, that there was more to it than the prospect of losing what she described as "paradise." Certainly that played a part in the problem. But Ezra wasn't mad at the rest of them, not even about the saloon--just at himself. He figured he'd fallen into trusting them, let himself get conned--just as Maude had probably warned him he would. He figured he had lost everything that made it possible for him to operate as he had up until their meeting, which left him with very little visible prospect for the future even if he recovered physically and left. It was easier for him to just let his weakened body have its way with him, and slip into a sleep from which he wouldn't wake. Well, I ain't lettin' him do it no more'n I let Chris destroy himself after the fire. They're both worth better'n that. They both got more to do in life than that. They just need somebody to show 'em it's true.

"Please tell me you haven't come to apologize, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra broke in on his thoughts.


"Your predecessors have already tendered their several regrets over their behavior durin' rivalry with Mother," Ezra explained. "And possibly it was overdue. But you have nothin' to apologize for."

"I was in town," Buck pointed out. "I should'a come to your place."

"You were preoccupied with affairs of your own, just as Mr. Tannah and Mr. Larabee were. At least you didn't choose the competition, as the others did. Therefore I see no necessity for you to apologize."

"Still don't make me feel too good about myself," Buck insisted. "Feel like I let you down." He watched Ezra covertly. Buck might present a façade of harmless, almost clownish good fellowship, but a man didn't survive in the West as long as he had, let alone doing some of the things he'd done--for a living and for relaxation--without developing a lot of insight into human character. Ezra was a tough nut to crack because he was terrified of the prospect of self-betrayal. From childhood he had learned that if you permitted others to see where your weaknesses lay, gave them a means to exploit you, they would take advantage of it. He preferred not to be exploited. He was too proud to admit to having needs like other people, too well trained in his profession to betray his vulnerabilities. And he had been burned too often to expect anything from anyone. He was also too independent for his own good, reluctant to ask for help even if he needed it. Buck had often used sweet talk to win over a lady; what he needed to do now was to find a way of doing the same for a man. Only sweet talk wouldn't work, not with Ezra. He would have to have straightforwardness and honesty, however unused he was to them. He was so keen and experienced a reader of humanity that he would know in an instant if he was being lied to.

"You did not, I assure you," the Southerner told him. "But I fear you and the others may have let yourselves down. Was I in error, or do I recall you tellin' me that Mr. Larabee presented Judge Travis with an ultimatum?"

"What do you remember me sayin'?" Buck returned.

"Somethin' to the effect that if His Honor would not release you to go in search of me, Mr. Larabee proposed to resign. Please tell me he didn't carry out his threat."

"Can't do that, pard," Buck told him. "Be a lie if I did, and no courtesy to you. Resign is just what he done, and the rest of us too."

"I wish you hadn't," said Ezra quietly. "You had found a place in Four Corners. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez particularly were part of the fabric of the town, or on their way to becomin' so. You were earnin' acceptance, respect, the protection of the citizens. I am surprised at you, Mr. Wilmington. What of the many lovely ladies whose charms you have so often extolled to us? What of your continued campaign to woo and win Miss Rosillos? And what of your protégé Mr. Dunne--did you think of him when you made this choice?"

"Was his choice too," Buck replied. "And, yeah, I'll miss the ladies, 'specially Inez, but there are plenty more in the world I ain't got acquainted with yet. Anyhow, you shouldn't be usin' that word 'you.' The word is 'we' or 'us.' You're part of the outfit. I tried to tell you that too. Reckon you wasn't awake enough to hear it."

"But why?" Ezra insisted. "I don't understand it."

"I don't know as I do either, pard," Buck admitted. "Sometimes I think of the way we all came together and it's enough to almost get me believin' some of the things Josiah says. All I know is, it happened and it's real, and we got somethin' growin' that's like nothin' I ever saw before. And you're a part of it. I know you've spent the biggest part of your life alone, but you don't gotta do that no more. You ain't alone now, and you ain't just you. You're one of us, you're part of us, you're ours. You belong with us and to us and we don't mean to give you up, not ever. What hurts you hurts us, what happens to you happens to us, and your problems are the same as ours. You just gotta admit that to yourself. 'Cause it's the truth. It's how things are."

"No one ever considered my life worth givin' up their livelihood before," Ezra observed, "or their position, or their office."

"I know they didn't. That's on account of nobody you knew ever had anythin' goin' for 'em like we've got. And you know what? I pity 'em that. You're a part of our lives now, hoss, my life and the others' too. And I'll go on tellin' you that till you understand it and start livin' like it was true."

"I cannot choose but to accept it as truth," Ezra told him. "Seein' that you all have sacrificed so much for me, I am obligated to do so. But it is...difficult to take to heart. Intellectually, I see that it must be so. Emotionally--I have no points of reference for what you are offerin' me." He sighed. "And I'm so terribly tired..."

"I know you are," Wilmington agreed. "I know this has all been rough on you, and I know it's gonna take you some time to change who you are and how you live. But you've already made a big step the right way, just helpin' us look after the town all these months, usin' your skills on the side of the law. The main thing you gotta remember is that we ain't gonna turn on you if you show us where the cracks in your armor are. If you need help, or you don't understand how to act, you gotta say so, and we'll help. You gotta try to believe we care about you, Ez. That's all there is to it." He clamped his big hand over the Southerner's shoulder and hid his wince at the feel of the bones lying delicate as a bird's just under the skin. "And you gotta start lookin' after yourself better. Get some meat on you. Hell, right now a good wind could blow you away."

He felt Ezra stir under his hand, then lean into his palm as if seeking comfort. "Will you answer a question for me, Mr. Wilmington?"

"I'll try," Buck replied cautiously.

"I know that the woman who ordered me abducted is dead," the gambler told him. "I overheard Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Tanner discussin' their sessions with the local constabulary. And I know, of course, that she intended to extort some payment from Mother in return for my release. What was it, and did she obtain it?"

Buck hesitated, but to his credit he didn't try to turn the question aside, or even avoid the Southerner's eyes. "I'd tell you if I could, pard, but I don't figure that's my place. It's somethin' that was between the two of them, and your ma should be the one to explain it to you if she wants to. I can tell you this, though. Nobody got hurt in the doin' except the ones that held you. The way the deal worked out, it was a lot the way you operate when you're at home."

Ezra considered this. "Home," he repeated softly after a moment. "I haven't had one in longer than I can clearly remember, you know. I believe the closest I have come to knowin' such a thing was the six months I passed in the Valley of Virginia when I was eleven."

"That's where you thought you were when we found you," Buck recalled. "You asked Vin how come he was there. I never been there myself, but I heard of it. Knew a lovely little lady who was born in Winchester. She said it was about as close as you could come to God's country without goin' to Heaven."

"It is, veritably, a beautiful vista--or it was, before the War," Ezra agreed. "I have only heard what was left of it afterward. I had no desire to return and view the ruins. I preferred to keep my memories intact and unsullied."

"Tell me about it," Buck suggested. Get to thinkin' of somethin' beautiful, somethin' you loved, and maybe you'll see that you got reasons to hang on. "And I'll tell you about Kansas City, that's where I mostly grew up. Lord, hoss, you'd'a loved that place. Always somethin' goin' on. Speculation everywhere and money in everybody's pockets."

"I have visited the city on occasion," the Southerner admitted, "although not recently, of course. I remember Mother takin' me there for the first time...when was it? I was only a child...1855, perhaps?"

"Ma and me'd been there four years then," Buck told him. "Hell, we might've even passed each other on the street, you and me."


Vin Tanner wasn't a man good or comfortable with words, except in his shy attempts at poetry; he could think fine things, but when he went to speak them the words all ran away. It was, he sometimes thought, one of the reasons he felt comfortable around Ezra: a sort of respectful envy for the Southerner's easy facility with language, the nearly poetic way he could speak, the rhythms of his voice. He just loved listening to Ezra talk. He dreaded the possibility of having to take his part in persuading the gambler not to give up on them. Yet he knew it was a responsibility he couldn't dodge. He owed it to Standish to do everything he could, as a friend, to save him--even if it was from himself.

And although very few people had ever taken the trouble to make Vin feel that he was valued, he could recall no instance in his life when he had been tempted to end it all. Life had often been hard, but it was precious. In a very real sense, Vin's credo was "While there's life, there's hope." He found it difficult to understand how anyone would want to give up the most precious of mortal possessions, the one without which there was no prospect of others. Yet he knew it happened; he had seen it among the Comanche and Kiowa. What truly astonished him was to see Ezra doing it. The Southerner had always seemed just as tenacious as any of them, just as much a scrapper, if in the most gentlemanly fashion. What had changed him? Vin remembered the first time he'd seen Ezra conscious after the fever began to leave him, remembered the shudder he had barely been able to conceal at the look in those vivid green eyes, always before so full of life and intelligence, always bright with the complex thought processes going on behind them, always alert. It had been like being stared at by a dead man. Ezra had looked like a pale, empty shell, ready to crumble into dust. And Vin Tanner, who feared almost nothing in the living world--certainly nothing he could see and shoot at--had been afraid. Downright terrified, in fact.

If any of his friends could be relied upon for accurate intuition and good judgment of character, it was Ezra. Vin knew that. The Southerner was seldom wrong about people. How could he be so terribly wrong about himself? He knew Ezra hadn't had things easy, for all the gentlemanly façade he liked to project. That was one reason the two of them got along so well. It wasn't that Ezra had ever said so, exactly, but Vin had a sense for these things, just as he had a sense for terrain or for what a hunted man or animal was likely to do next. The very fact that he too had had a difficult childhood had made him somehow open to those who had endured something similar. He had watched Ezra with his ma, and listened between the lines of the stories he told, and had come around to the notion that the gambler's whole life had been marked by people ignoring his needs or telling him he was no good and likely to end up hung. It had taken the rest of them what seemed like forever to get him to even begin letting his guard down enough to realize they weren't out to take him down or make his life miserable. Yet Tanner had thought Ezra was happy with them, in Four Corners, being a peacekeeper--happy for maybe the first time in his life. Why had he resolved to die, as Vin believed he had? Was it somehow connected to the business of the saloons? If it was, then his friends were as much at fault as his mother. And while Maude was unlikely to apologize for what she had done to him, his friends could and should. They were obligated to do it; they owed Ezra that, for all the times he'd stood by them, risking his life at an occupation he had never really wanted or been trained for. We gotta make him believe he's worth wantin' around, Vin thought. And he remembered what he'd been thinking the day the telegram came for Ezra. Four Corners was his home, the first he'd had since Ma died, and the six men he worked with were the family he'd never really had in blood, the brothers he'd often dreamed of, much as the Comanches had been. He wasn't fixin' to give up on 'em, all or one. If he had to drag Ezra back, kickin' and screamin', to the land of the living, that was what he'd do.

He just wished there was some way of doin' it other than by words.

He listened to the sound of voices coming through the bedroom door, Buck's baritone rumble and Ezra's lighter, softer tenor. At least it sounded like Bucklin had got Ez interested in whatever subject they'd gotten onto; he hadn't heard Ez talk so much since--when had it been? A week before he'd left town for Trinidad? More? Stupid, stupid, stupid. You call yourself a tracker, why didn't you see how his trail was layin'? He ain't been hisself since the Nicholses.

I can't let him down now. I gotta find a way of gettin' through to him.

He did something then that he hadn't done in a while: he opened his mind to the power of his guardian, the Wolf. He'd been shy of doing it these last years, on account of having gone back to living as a white man. It had always been known among the Comanches that when Indian children were taken into the white world, they lost the power to hear the words of the spirits, just as white children taken into the Indian world and reared as members of the tribe gained it (as he himself had done) in spite of never having had it before. For that reason he'd pretty well figured that the spirits wouldn't be able to make themselves heard in his heart anymore, even if they wanted to. But Vin knew his own limitations, and, like Josiah, he had seen things in his briefer lifetime that could be described as miracles, things that could only be explained as the result of a greater power intervening in mortal affairs, or at least helping human beings to find their hidden potential. He knew that only the aid of something outside himself could provide him with what he needed now. My brother, help me, he thought, in the Comanche tongue. You led me to these men, help me now to save the life and soul of one of them. Give me the words he will understand and heed, make my tongue quick and eloquent like his. Show me what to say to him. Help me prove to him that he is wanted, that he is our brother, that we would not be whole without him. You know the dreams my father, Eagle-That-Sees-Afar, had for me; you know this man was part of them. Why would that be true, if there were not things remaining for him to do, in my life, in our lives? His heart is bad, and we must make it good again. Help me to do that.

Calm stole over him, and with it a feeling of confidence and self-assurance. When Buck came out, he was ready.

"You get anywhere with him?" Chris asked.

The big man shrugged. "Hard to tell with Ezra. 'Least I got him talkin' again."

Vin slipped past both of them and into the room before they were fully aware of what he was doing. The door shut softly behind him. Ezra looked around with a faint imitation of his usual smile, but Vin didn't return it. His face was as solemn and unreadable as an Indian's. "You made up your mind yet?"

The gambler blinked. "Regardin' what, Mr. Tanner?"

"Whether you're stayin' with us or givin' up," Vin replied bluntly. "Ain't like you to give up, Ez. Can't recall I ever seen you do it."

"You have, once," Ezra observed. "When I ran out on you at the Seminole village."

"Weren't givin' up," said Vin. "Not to my mind. You figured the job was done. You hadn't agreed to nothin' beyond it. Anyhow, givin' up means lettin' go and ridin' out. You figured you had other business in them parts." He walked slowly over to the window and leaned against the frame, the light throwing half his face into craggy relief under the shadowing brim of his hat.

"The gold mine," said Ezra sadly. "I doubt I shall ever live that down."

"Told you, I don't hold that ag'in' you," the tracker repeated, "and neither do any of th'others. Not even Chris, really. You're who y'are, Ez. We know that. Can't exac'ly blame you for bein' what your life's made of you. You been out here long enough to know a man's past don't need to decide his future. Plenty men been wanted back East that come West and made new lives for theirselves. Hell, look at how you fought your ma over the saloon. Hung on to the last, even when you was sellin' drinks for a penny. That ain't givin' up."

"No, but that was another matter altogether," the gambler declared. "The motivation was the same as it was at the village. The pursuit of wealth. No more than that."

"Lot more'n that," Vin countered. "Was your dream. You got a right to a dream. Buck says any man worth a god damn's got one. Reckon he's right."

"My dream pales in comparison to your life, Mr. Tanner. Even I am not so lost to greed as to think the success of my business is worth your death. That is why I capitulated when I did."

Tanner nodded sadly. "Know it. Wisht you hadn't had to. Figure you losin' out is kinda my fault. Might've had a chance to keep the saloon if you hadn't been helpin' me."

"I don't regret my decision," said Ezra firmly. "Nor should you. The choice was my own to make, and I made it. For all my faults, and they are many, I do not stand idly by and let men die who have fought at my side. I saw that I could continue as I had begun, and perhaps outlast Mother, or I could abandon the battle, and very probably tilt the scales in your favor. The alternative I chose was the one I deemed likeliest to produce a positive outcome. The odds demanded it. It was a sound gamble. I weighed the risk and found it satisfactory."

Vin frowned to himself. For all Nathan's occasional implications that he was a coward, and even his own attempts to make others believe it, Ezra constantly seemed to be taking risks--whether stupid or well-calculated ones depended on your point of view. Doubtless to him it was usually the latter; Vin had noted that whenever he got an attack of heroism, there was inevitably some kind of goal in his mind. But he didn't always weigh the risks in a reasonable way. He didn't believe his own life had the kind of intrinsic value that made its consideration imperative. He might wager it, but he wouldn't necessarily think that its loss would mean anything to anyone except himself. "Ain't you the man who claims he detests gamblin'?" the tracker demanded. "Ain't satisfactory if you get yourself killed. Ain't even satisfactory if you give up somethin' you've give most of your life to. Or are you thinkin' your dream don't pull no weight with us? If it didn't, why'd we all want to help Chris find out the truth about his family? You reckon his dream's got more worth than yours?"

"Should it not?" Ezra retorted mildly. "Murder was done. It is right and proper that he should seek closure and justice. His goal and mine are quite different."

"Not so much," said Vin. "All's it's about is turnin' a corner in your life, endin' one part of it and startin' a new one. Iffen Chris knew he'd settled that score, he could quit mournin', 'cause he'd know he'd done his duty. He'd know that whoever it was hates him so much wouldn't be hittin' at him through his family another time, and he could maybe think on lettin' Mary and Billy further into his life, stop just driftin' along from one day to the next. Iffen you had your saloon, you could put down some roots, maybe think some on the future, maybe make up for some of them things you done other places. Seems like you got this notion fixed in your head that who you are and what you want don't matter to nobody but you. Seen it when you 's half outta your head the day we found you. Seen it the way you done with that whiskey bottle and the Nicholses' wagon. Reckon one of these days I'm gonna have to clout you one and get you to understand. You can't go on doin' things like that, Ez. And you can't be givin' up your life just on account you think you ain't worth nothin'. 'Cause it ain't true. 'Member when I 's comin' in off the trail, after I stopped them two boys that was trailin' you. Thinkin' how bad you'd looked last I'd seen you, thinkin' maybe you hadn't made it. Thinkin' you mightn't be around no more...made Four Corners seem a heap less invitin'. Lonelier, somehow."

"I've already been assured that I would be missed," Ezra observed. "Several times, in fact. You must forgive me, Mr. Tanner, if I find it a difficult concept to integrate. It is not somethin' I have been accustomed to, until recently. The habits and attitudes of a lifetime are not so easily unlearned. I'm far more familiar with the sensation of bein' mistrusted, bein' someone no one will miss and many are eager to see the last of."

Vin nodded. "That's one of them things makes you and me alike. Know what it feels like not to be trusted. Recollect when we was tryin' to find Chanu, the way Buck's voice sounded when he ast me if I knowed'm. Hell, a man that's hunted bounty for a livin' knows a heap better'n a gamin' man could what it is to not be thought too highly of." He saw the comprehension touch the Southerner's emerald eyes. Gambling, in the West, was a respected occupation, ranking (except among the most conservative religionists) almost equal to medicine and a lot higher than dentistry or undertaking; that was why there was no prejudice against a gunfighter working simultaneously as a lawman and a house gambler. But a bounty hunter was different; his was considered a despicable profession, with little to recommend it except the money.

"Way I see it, every man's born with some kinda talent," Vin went on. "There's maybe one or two particular things he finds it plumb easy to learn and do. With you, it's playin' cards and talkin' folk into things they maybe wouldn't do if you give 'em time to think on it, or gettin' 'em to give up information without quite knowin' what they're doin', like you done in Jericho. With me, it's trackin' and shootin'. Reckon that's how come y'all put as much value on me as you do. Couldn't track the bad guys down, or take 'em long distance, without you had me." He shrugged, turning his face away from the man in the bed to gaze out at the rear yard of the cottage and the beckoning mountains. "Been doin' pretty much the same ever since I been a man. Trackin' down varmints for bounty, or men for bounty, or killin' buffalo--all comes down to the same thing, usin' my gifts. Shit, it's on account of I'm good at 'em that I done got myself wanted in Texas. Don't bother me none."

Indignation tinged the gambler's retort. "But you are valued for far more than that, Mr. Tanner. How can you not believe that? Look at the good you have done for Mr. Larabee. Consider Mr. Wilmington's frequent assertions that you have brought back at least somethin' of the man he knew four years ago, the man who was his partner and friend. Do you believe that Mr. Wilmington is given to utterin' untruths? I do not--certainly not when it touches on somethin' so close to his heart. You are not in the habit of judgin' men lightly, I know. In your profession, you cannot afford to do so. Do not misjudge yourself--or your genuine worth to your companions."

Vin swung his head back around. "If you can say that to me and mean it, how come you can't believe we care about you for more'n just what you can do? That you got value for who you are?"

For a moment Ezra actually seemed stunned into silence. "Mistah Tannah," he said at length, his drawl heavy, "you are an unregenerate, underhanded, natural-born grifter. I shudder to think of the uses to which Mother would have put your 'God-given gifts' had she been privileged to encounter you in your formative years."

Vin grinned. "Comin' from a feller that knows the game as good as you do, Ez, I'll take that as a compliment."

"It was hardly intended as such, I assure you," the Southerner told him. "And you don't have betrayal in you. You would never have run out as I did."

"One time, and you come back," said Vin. "That's somethin' you ain't ever 'splained none. How come you done it, anyhow?"

He saw the emerald eyes shutter off; not in a secretive way, but as if Ezra was perplexed and pensive, trying--for the first time where someone else could see, but not the first time ever--to get a handle on his own motivations. "Tell you why," Vin pressed on. "Same reason I hang on in one place 'stead of runnin' for the hills or goin' back to Tascosa. Same reason Josiah done went to work fixin' up the church 'stead of goin' back to that old mission where we found him at. Same reason JD don't go on to Texas and try to join the Rangers, or Chris ain't out searchin' for whoever hired Fowler. 'Cause we found where we belong at. Ain't had a whole lot of friends in my life, Ez. Had me a lot of lonely times when I's a young'un. Lots of time spent by myself on the trail. Come to where I was used to it, got to thinkin' it was the natural way for things to be. But now I know better. Seems like things are goin' good for me. Got some friends. Seems like a fine thing. Like it this way. Want to keep it for a spell. Reckon I knowed my life was changin' that first minute I seen Chris standin' on t'other side of the street. Reckon you done likewise some time in them first few days we knowed you, only it kinda crept up on you some, 'stead of whoppin' you over the head like it done me. Don't make it any less true." He stepped away from the window and came to stand over the gambler, then sank down on his heels beside the bed, bringing their eyes to a common level. "You got a place with us, Ez. And we don't nowheres near think you're as bad as you make yourself out. Hell, if some stranger was to come along and start talkin' about you the way you do about yourself, I'd be obliged to knock him down--or maybe call him out. Only reason I let you get away with it is that you're my friend. But maybe, I'm thinkin', I'd be a better friend if I belted you once or twice." Then he grinned slyly. "Only I ain't fixin' to do it till you get your strength back."

Ezra's lips quirked. "That seems hardly a declaration designed to instill in me any resolve to improve my state, Mr. Tanner."

The tracker sobered again. "Ain't no guarantees in livin'. You know that same as me. But there's a good side to it. Means things can always change for the better. I know you ain't been made to think folks got much let to trust you. Me, it's just th'opposite around. Got to thinkin' you just can't trust folks. Sometimes figure I'd been better off to 'member it. Trust 'em, they turn on you. Or use you. Or leave you. All you get out of trustin' is hurt. Ain't worth it." His eyes drilled Ezra's. "But I know better'n that now. Know I was wrong thinkin' it. Was just I run up ag'in' the wrong folks, or was with 'em at the wrong time. Reckon same's true of you. Now we found somethin' good, found the right folks, the ones that make our lives right. You ain't leavin' me if I got anythin' to say for it, Ez. And th'others ain't havin' no part of you doin' it neither."

Ezra sighed. "Your collective stubbornness is quite astonishin'," he confessed. "Sometimes I find it... frustratin'... that y'all are always there. Always attemptin' to persuade me to heed what Mr. Lincoln called 'the better angels of my nature.' I understand it is your way of--of bein' there for me, but it is an unfamiliar experience. I cannot refrain from attemptin' to analyze what gain you hope to realize from my continued presence."

"I can answer you that one," Tanner told him. "Just one thing. A friend. 'Siah'd say a brother. Somebody who'll be there for us, same as we are for you. Somebody we trust and like even if we don't always understand you or agree with you. Somebody we know's got our interests at heart, and Miz Travis's, and the Judge's, and the town's. Ain't to say you won't slip up sometimes, we all do that. But you know, Buck told me once every man's got a job and a place in life; just sometimes it takes him a spell of searchin' till he finds it. Reckon me and you and the rest of us done found ours." A pause to emphasize what followed, and then: "You think on this some. You go on and slip away from us, ain't that runnin' out again? You're the man's so 'shamed for doin' it one time, what you figure it'd be if you done it a second? And why'd you be 'shamed to start out with, if you didn't know it weren't the right thing to do?" He pushed to his feet. "You think," he repeated, and silently strode out of the room.

Ezra lay back against his pillows, stunned by the tracker's uncharacteristic if rustic eloquence. He didn't realize that Chris Larabee had entered the room until the gunfighter quietly cleared his throat over by the door and shifted weight on the balls of his feet, bringing a sweet chime from his fancy California spurs. He actually started at the sound, inwardly rebuking himself for being so obvious about it--Ezra, your nerves are quite undone. "Your pardon, Mr. Larabee, I did not see you in the shadow there."

"No harm done," said the leader, and walked across to the bedside. He saw Ezra's eyes seal off and wondered why it was that the gambler always seemed to expect some admonishment, or slight, or punishment from him. Where with Vin alone he was totally comfortable, he always assumed a guarded manner (if a polite and pleasant one) around the leader. I never wanted that. I just wanted to-- What did I want? To make him see himself the way I did? Hell, how could I expect him to do that? After the way he's lived, the way he was brought up, what kind of basis would he have to start from?

Chris reversed the chair Josiah had used, straddled it and folded his arms across the backrail--a position from which it would be difficult to draw his gun with any kind of speed. It was a symbolic declaration of his honorable and unhurtful intentions, one he hoped that Ezra, who was so skilled at reading body language, would recognize. "Good to see you sittin' up and takin' notice again," he said. "Couple times there we all thought you were gone for good. But you just kept comin' back. Should'a figured on it. You Johnny Rebs always were the most stubborn humans God made."

"It was not an easy choice to reach," Standish admitted. "I have learned not to linger where I am not wanted; on occasion that knowledge has been my only preservation. It is...not easy to accept that I may actually have found people who think my company desireable." A pause, then: "I fear I have been remiss in expressin' my appreciation for your...tolerance of me. It has meant more to me than perhaps I have been willing to admit, to have found this--this place which everyone assures me is mine. I am...gratified that you have permitted me to remain in your company."

"It ain't my company, Ezra. It's our company. And that's damn cold. Do you really think we're just usin' you for our own ends?"

"Why should I think otherwise?" the gambler retorted mildly. "Mr. Tanner tells me that no one blames me for bein' what my life has made of me; why should anyone be surprised that I incline to a certain...healthy suspicion of others' motives? I am a con artist, sir. Deception has been the way of my life and livelihood."

Chris was used to defensive barbed retorts, walls of long words that could push him to fury--could handle them. Didn't like them, but he at least knew what to do about them. It was resignation, watching Ezra fold in on himself and give up, that he couldn't deal with. He'd thought the man had more guts than that. For all that his career of conning must often have involved separating himself from the scene of his misdeeds as quickly as practicable, it took a certain amount of grit to follow the professions he did.

"Never could quite get a handle on why you do what you do," the gunfighter admitted. "I know it's what Maude taught you, but you didn't have to follow that line, did you? You're smart, you're well read, you can talk to anybody about anything--better than Buck, even, and he's the best I ever knew before I ran up against you. Seems like you could'a done a lot of honest things, if you'd wanted to."

Ezra looked puzzled, as if this was the very last question he had expected anyone to ask him. A genuine interest in his motivations must, indeed, be a rare thing in his experience; most of his victims, once they realized they'd been fooled, would probably have gone no farther than the obvious. He tried to shrug it off. "Surely the answer should be self-evident, Mr. Larabee. All of you have remarked upon my hunger for financial security--often negatively. Honest work is tedious and time-consumin', and often less than lucrative."

Chris snorted. "Don't give me that. You put the same amount of attention into a friendly penny-ante game as you do into takin' another professional, and what you win is hardly enough to pay your laundry bill."

The gambler hesitated, and Larabee found himself wondering: was it possible that this insightful man was really so uncertain of his own motives? That he was so totally unaccustomed to self-analysis? Chris waited patiently. You gotta see that there's more to you than you think there is, Ezra. Maybe you won't believe it if we tell you it's there, but if we can get you to look far enough inside yourself to find it, you'll accept it.


Pawn Index

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