by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


"A con artist cannot succeed without the co-operation of his victims, Mr. Larabee," the Southerner responded slowly. "A killer or a thief merely victimizes the unwary, often by force, but my profession plays on the fact that most people want to be tricked or fooled. It is human nature, and the reason Mr. Barnum could say that there is 'a sucker born every minute.' Faith healers, fortune tellers, and quack doctors likewise steal their share from the public every year, because their victims enable them. Skilled as I may be at deceivin', controllin', or manipulatin' others, I could not deprive them of their money if they were not innately greedy, gullible, or both. It is much easier to make a livin' off others' stupidity than it is to risk one's life in the commission of more spectacular misdeeds. And there is a certain pleasure in deception for its own sake. I am, I suppose, a showman at heart."

"But not an evil man," Chris observed quietly. "I've seen enough of 'em in my life that I should be able to tell--don't you think so? You don't use force except as a last resort. You don't associate with other criminals. You don't damage anyone's property, and you're proud as hell of never takin' anyone who can't afford it. You've got a respect for human life and none of what the lawyers call malicious intent. Maybe you just figure you've been a victim most of your life, a victim of a hypocritical world of big shots. You're just tryin' to get your own back, to settle scores and get the kind of respect and recognition you figure you deserve. You want the same things we all do, Ezra. You just go at it a different way than most of us." He saw the uncertainty flicker in Ezra's eyes and pressed his advantage. "Think about it. Do you really believe you could last over a year foolin' people like Judge Travis, with his experience on the bench? Or Josiah, who's literally been all around the world? Or Nathan, who's had to learn to read people to spare himself gettin' whipped? Or Vin or me, who can't afford to not know when another man poses a threat to us? You ain't anywhere near as bad as you, or Maude, have made you believe. And you were one of the last to join this outfit, and the last one we learned to trust, but you're one of us, and we're not givin' you up without a fight. To lose a battle fair and square is one thing, and something all of us can understand, but to just fold your hand and cash in your chips--that ain't you, Ezra. And it ain't somethin' we'll ever forgive you. It's the coward's way out, and you're not a coward or you'd never take the kinds of chances you do. Hell, you'd never even been in that spot we found you in, the day we met you. You'd have played a few hands of poker, got enough money together to pay for supplies to the next town, and gotten out while the gettin' was good. Nobody had you tied to a bed overnight, makin' you stay. You chose to. Whether that was on account of your idea of what a gentleman's honor demands, or because you wanted to show you were better than those boys in the saloon, doesn't matter. You could'a left, and you stayed." He held the Southerner's confused gaze. "Now, if you can be that wrong about somethin' as basic as your courage, why can't you wrong about the rest? Why can't you admit that maybe you've been readin' yourself wrong? That maybe there's potential in you that you're too close to see, but that others can make out from watchin' the way you conduct yourself?"

He flipped his flat-brimmed hat back off his head to dangle down his back on its jaw strap, opening his face fully to the light--another symbolic act. "When I took this job, I took on more than just that. I took you and the other five. Your lives are my concern, and I mean to do everything in my power to keep you safe--even from yourselves, if it comes to that. You're a clever man, Ezra. Don't you see that if I let you go on like you've been, I've failed? Not myself, but you. I've failed to make you understand that you have a place with us, that you're a part of this outfit, that we'll take care of you just the same as we will of each other. That we need you. And if I can fail you that badly, I can fail the others the same way. I don't want to think that's possible. I don't want it to be possible. I told the Judge I couldn't do the job without the men. The men are what's most important. They come first--you come first."

"I dare say a liar and cheat may occasionally be of use," said Ezra in an oddly flat voice.

Damn the man, is he deliberately tryin' to provoke me? Is he hopin' I'll shoot him and absolve him of the need to do the job for himself? Then the gunfighter replayed the words in his mind and realized what Ezra was really saying. Even after more than a year, there was still at least some part of him that genuinely believed they only let him ride with them because he was good for a con. He was still waiting for Chris to drop him in his tracks or run him out of town. What would I do if I figured somebody was lookin' to dump me, or put me in a pine box? I'd dump 'em first. Plain self-defense. He's been waitin' for us to end the con. For one of us to get mad enough to tell him to his face what he believes we all think. That's why he pushes so hard. Why he baits Nathan and me. Why he stands off from Buck and JD and Josiah. He figures if the one person in the world who should'a seen fit to keep him in her life no matter what wouldn't, why should we?

Life had taught the gambler that he was acceptable to others only if he was in some way useful to them, that the only person to whom he could have any intrinsic value was himself. He was afraid to learn that the other six might not want him with them for his skills, because to him that would mean they had no reason to want him at all. A house of illusion, a house founded on sand, was still better than no house at all. And, Chris realized, he had contributed to Ezra's negative picture of their relationship just as surely as Nathan had. He had always tended to find the Southerner's motivations suspect, to peer under the surface as he never did with any of the others. With Buck, or JD, or even Vin, he accepted the idea that what you saw what was you got. Why hadn't he given Standish the same benefit of the doubt? He remembered the Southerner saying once that you couldn't con a truly honest man, that no prudent grifter would try. We've been a pack of damn self-righteous idiots, Larabee told himself, finding that the concept made him uncomfortable. He takes everything too much to heart, but he don't want us to know it. So he wrangles and complains and puts up a front, and we accept the distraction he throws up for us--except maybe Vin--and think that's the real Ezra Standish. He's been conning us all along, not the way Nathan thought, but sure and certain. He couldn't'a done it, if we'd been honest with him from the start. Hell, we wouldn't be us without him. It's not just that we'd be six instead of seven. It's not even all the times he's come through with some plan or trick none of the rest of us could pull off, like that time in Wickesville--and, damn, have I ever thanked him for those, or told him he'd done good? Hell, I give JD more courtesy, and God knows I was a lot less happy with the idea of havin' him in the group, at first, than I was with Ezra.

Chris wasn't sorry for any of the things he had said to Ezra in the early stages of their relationship, because he knew they were true. That was his way: call a man on his shortcomings, tell him not to do it again, and forget it. In that, though born in the Midwest, he was a true Westerner: he would accept anyone for who and what that person had been while they'd known each other, caring nothing about the past. It had been harder with Ezra, because he had nearly caused the deaths of the others. Chris didn't care--or at least hadn't cared, at the time--so much about his own life, but he hadn't been willing to accept Vin and Buck and JD being dragged down with him. The one way to lose Chris's approval--if not indeed to garner his hate, as Fowler had done--was to hurt or kill someone he loved, or someone he saw as innocent or his responsibility. Yet perhaps Ezra really hadn't known, until he saw, just how much harm he could have done by leaving. And perhaps Chris had compounded the misunderstandings between them by not letting Ezra know he realized that truth. In a sense, he'd made himself just as bad as the man he faced. It wasn't Ezra's way to explain himself. Probably he figured by now that it wasn't worth the trouble. Not to have the courtesy of explanation offered to him made him feel that he wasn't worth the trouble.

"Damnit, Ezra," he said in a tight, quiet voice, "you look back, really look back, and tell me, when did I ever call you that? Vin says if someone started talkin' about you the way you talk about yourself, he'd break his nose for him. I'm beginning to understand how he feels. You're the most hard-headed, frustrating human being I've ever met in a lifetime of bumpin' up against 'em, to say nothing of eight years bein' married to one and sixteen months leadin' the worst collection of 'em anyone was ever blessed with. I know you've been used most of your life, and I know that makes it hard for you to trust, or to think that anyone could care about you on your own account. But you're a gambling man. You know odds. You know that no matter how unlikely a thing is, it can still sometimes happen. I've heard it said no man can get a royal flush honestly more than once in a lifetime. Think of what you've got with us as a royal flush. It's real, and it's there, and you've got it. You may need to take a little while to realize it, but that doesn't make it any less than what it is. And havin' once had it dealt to you, I think you know better than to toss it in the discard." He held the gambler's eyes with his own. "I don't lie, Ezra, not even to my enemies and still less to the men I depend on to watch my back. You should know me well enough, by now, to realize that."

The poker metaphor seemed to give Ezra pause. He hesitated, tongue flicking out to touch his lips, and took a deep breath as if nerving himself. "Tell me, then," he requested evenly, "why did you ask me--or coerce me--to join you?"

"I knew I was up against a hell of a lot of opposition, with likely a lot of different skills, because if that wasn't so there was no way they could have survived so long since the end of the War. That meant I needed a team that could summon up just as many. And I figured a man clever enough to come up with that con you were playin', a man who was good at estimating just how far other men were willing to go, a man who didn't kill unless he had to, a man who stayed cool and resourceful under pressure, a man who knew his own abilities well enough to carry the arsenal you did, might be somebody I wanted on my side."

"And afterward?"

"You came back. You stood up to me, like JD and Buck and the others. You used your brains and your skills to help us beat the odds, over and over. I should'a said something long ago, to let you know I recognized your worth. I'm sorry it took almost losin' you to shake me off my high horse. I apologize for that. You've done a good job since you joined this outfit, better maybe than the rest of us had any right to expect. I don't really believe I'm better than you, Ezra, and neither do the others. It's just that you're so damn prickly, so hard to get to know. I think the only one of us who's come close has been Vin, and he ain't a man to talk about what he figures out. He thinks if he can do it anybody else should be able to."

He saw Ezra's eyes widen a touch and realized he was on the right track. Under that surface veneer of sophistication and coolness and flash, self-possession and self-confidence, the Southerner was really frighteningly insecure. He'd fought like a wildcat much of his life not to lose his aloof, loner attitude, had used his education and his skills as a con man to intimidate people into keeping their distance. Chris could understand that. When he thought about it, he could see that Vin and Ezra, especially, must be just as surprised and scared as he was by what had happened between the seven of them. Having family brought responsibilities neither was accustomed to. Caring about what happened to others or what they thought or felt made you vulnerable. Both still tended to have a hard time accepting the idea that someone might want to do something for them without wanting anything in return, Ezra because Maude had taught him that no one did anything for free, Vin because someone, somewhere along the way, had tried to convince him he didn't deserve it. Yet both were learning to accept the fact that they were no longer alone.

Buck? Hell, Buck had been made for a complex set of relationships like theirs; he plain thrived in a family setting, as Chris had seen during their partnership before the fire, possibly because of the more or less communal life he had lived in the various bordellos where his mother had worked. JD was just like him: both needed to know that someone was there for them, and they both tended to wear their hearts on their sleeves, though JD, with the insecurities of youth, tended to try to hide it, or to be embarrassed when he realized he'd let his mask slip--but he didn't try to apologize for the fact itself. Josiah and Nathan, of course, were natural-born nurturers, the chief difference between them being that one tended the physical and the other the spiritual. Both of them had prospered with their new responsibilities and become as fiercely protective of their friends as Chris was. But Ezra had never had what the rest of them had--Josiah's early religious training, Buck's and JD's loving mothers, Vin's devotion to the Tanner name, Nathan's and Chris's sound family foundation--to launch him in life and give him a bulwark against what Shakespeare would have called "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." He required a special kind of handling such as Chris's other men didn't. He needed to be praised and recognized when he'd done well, and coaxed and coerced when he was doubtful. It would never be easy, dealing with him; he'd probably never completely lose all his doubts. But wasn't it worth it in the end? Josiah would talk of "saving his soul." Maybe he wouldn't be too far off the target. Larabee had never thought of himself as being in the soul-saving business, but this man was his, just as the others were, and he would defend him against anything that threatened him, including the ghosts from his own past. After all, he had a good deal of experience with ghosts; he knew how it had to be done.

When Sarah and Adam were alive, Chris Larabee had cared little for the world beyond the boundaries of his own land. He had left that world alone and expected it to return the favor, and for the most part it had done so. He had wanted nothing but the joy he had found in his safe, quiet, happy home, his family, and the friend who stood beside him. He wouldn't have traded any of it for anything in the Universe, and by the same token he refused to risk it. He, who had earned a living by his gun since he was seventeen, had given up that life and all the wealth and fame it could bring, for the sake of his wife, his son, and his friend. He had risked death often enough before (though never as recklessly as later), but with his marriage--indeed, almost from the moment he first met Sarah--he no longer wanted to. He wouldn't take that chance, regardless of how low the odds might be against him. He had too much to lose.

Then he and Buck returned from Mexico to a burned house and a shattered life, and for a long time after that the only thing he had left to him was his reputation, and he had given a lot of attention to keeping and even amplifying it. There had been no place in his life for human relationships. The tragic, horrific death of his family haunted him, leaving him with only loneliness and simmering fury. He hadn't exactly wanted to die (except for a few times during the first raw period of shock), but he'd lost his purpose, his reason to live, and everything he'd ever had to hold onto. A man only fears when he has something to lose, and Chris hadn't, anymore. Just his reputation. And because that was the only thing he had, he'd wanted to go out, if he went, fighting. So he stepped into every brawl he could find, guns and fists alike, and faced down odds of ten or fifteen to one with an air of frightening calm that communicated itself to everyone watching and served only to make his reputation bigger. The stories, as stories do, had spread and grown, and he became a figure of half legend, notorious and feared, written up in newspaper accounts and dime novels alike as his past was resurrected and cobbled onto his present. Tales were told of how he'd killed a dozen different young hopefuls who called him out, wanting to make names for themselves, and of the four different gunmen who tried him--one in Silver City, two in Sonora, and one in Santa Fe--and didn't live to boast of it; of the gambler he'd killed on a riverboat just below Kansas City; of how he'd been in Missouri one time and a couple of would-be badmen cornered him, both dying before they could fire a shot; of the time some thugs tried to rob him in a gambling den in Abilene--two of them died very quickly, the rest backed off. There was a story (a true one, as it happened) of how he was once cornered in a buffalo wallow by some Kiowas, left three dead and one wounded, took the survivor's gun and set him afoot to tell the story to his people. Two weeks later he stopped three tough white men from abusing a Kiowa boy, bought him a horse, gave him the gun he'd taken and sent him home. And once he rode into Jack Mansfield's hideout down in Mexico after a horse one of Mansfield's boys had stolen from him. He rode that horse out of there, too, killed the man who took it. The fellow made a fool of himself and went for his gun. The story was that Chris even made Mansfield--an outlaw who led a tough gang, and you couldn't lead a tough gang without being pretty bad yourself--back water. For three years he looked every danger in the eye without a flinch, fearless and defiant and often downright stupid. All this he could do because he no longer had a reason to fear death. That was what his family's loss had done: turned him cold and bitter and certain that there was nothing left in the world worth caring about--certainly not his own life, which no longer seemed to have any value.

He had pushed the other six men away at first, wanting to avoid the possibility of any other such loss. But they had refused to be pushed. Buck had told Mary the story of the fire, wanting her to understand what moved him, what had molded him into a man who could proudly call himself "the bad element." Vin and JD had wormed their way under his skin. Josiah had shown him how it was possible for a man to regain faith in something greater than himself, whether it was God or other men. Nathan, who had suffered privations he could scarcely imagine, had risen above them. Ezra--the only one of them who had actually performed criminal, if not capital, acts--had proved that it was never too late for a man to change. While never denying his right to grief or questioning how genuinely crippling it was, they had shown him how to move past it. He knew they had all suffered losses too, and had survived them and pressed on, becoming men he was truly honored to know and lead. Why couldn't he do the same? They had shown him, every day of their association, through their actions and their loyalty, that detachment from the world, resentment and all-consuming, indiscriminate rancor, were craven cowardice. They encouraged and supported him in his quest for justice and closure, yet they refused to allow him to go on holding the world at arm's length. Buck had tried to tell him that Sarah and Adam wouldn't want him to do it, that it was no way to honor the memories of his dead, and Chris had come close to killing his old friend for telling the truth. But now he saw it for what it was, genuine concern and a perception of reality that had been hidden from him by the fog he had moved in for so long. They'd been right, all of them, in what they had been saying without trying to speak the words: that the way he had chosen was no way to thank these six friends who stood so unquestioningly beside him. That it was no way to live. Sometimes he found himself wondering just how he had ever gotten so many people in his life that he cared about. The other six, Mary, Billy, Mrs. Potter and her kids, Nettie and Casey. He had promised himself he would never do this again, had fought for three years to turn his heart into ice so it wouldn't hurt any more, but he just didn't have it in him to shut out the people he had met in Four Corners. And the longer he was there with them, the more he was able to remember the good times with Sarah and Adam rather than always feeling that gaping hole in his chest trying to swallow him down into blackness. Sometimes he even found himself imagining how his first family would have reacted to this new one. It was, he was surprised to discover, a sensation he liked. Actually, it was the best he'd felt since he'd lost his family. As he had given Ezra a second chance, so he had been given one himself. He thought about the sense of cold paralyzing loss that had possessed him up on the side of Pike's Peak when it had seemed possible that Ezra would never be found. Not his usual refuge of anger, but real grief. It wasn't just his sense of responsibility, but something more. After all this time, he had found something he wanted to live for. Six men, a town, a job, a woman and a boy. It surprised him, yet he saw that his fierce protectiveness, his willingness to face the gates of Hell to keep them all safe, was simply and purely that: caring. He just hoped it wasn't too late to convince them that he wanted to change.

Vin had said that what the Southerner was doing was "thinking himself to death." Maude--who should certainly be in some position to know--had said that the reason he was doing it was that he had "seen Paradise, and knew he couldn't go back to his life as it was before," that he "couldn't bear the prospect of a life without meaning, without warmth, without the trust and support and love that he believed he would obtain" from the men he rode with. Why didn't I see before how alike we are? Larabee wondered. Was it just on account of I had my "paradise" before I ever met him, and he found his after? Or was it that my "paradise" was somethin' I could see and touch--my land and house, my wife and son, my horses, Buck at my side--and his is more like what Josiah would call redemption or salvation, a realization that there's more to life than money? That doesn't mean it's any less real for him than it was for me.

And, God, how I know what it's like to lose paradise...

"I never made friends easy," he said. "There aren't many people in the world I find worth liking. Even before the fire. But think about this. Nobody makes me ride with you. Not the Judge, not Buck, not Vin--nobody. I don't let a man stand at my side if I don't trust him. No matter how loco he makes me, no matter how often I say something stupid--or don't say anything at all even though I should." He held the Southerner's eyes, not with his usual intimidating glare, but with a sincerity not to be mistaken. "Ain't a one of us don't sometimes make it hard for the others. We're a set of independent bastards and we can't change that, because we can't go back and change our own pasts. But we can try to keep in mind that every new day is the beginning of the rest of our lives. That it's never too late for a man to change who he's turning into."

Ezra said nothing, which might or might not be a good sign, but Chris could see that his attention was focused, that he was listening. If he was only hearing as well, perhaps there was still some chance for his leader to get through to him. "For all the insults I hand you, do I let anyone else do it? No. Because, somehow or other, the seven of us have become a family, and that's the way families are. You never had brothers or sisters, but I did, and I can tell you. Nobody can ever annoy you or get under your skin quite like the people you care about. Nobody can ever be quite as merciless about seein' a brother's flaws as another brother, or as willing to point 'em out. But if some outsider tries to do it, that brother is just as insulted as the target is. And he'll be the first to seek retribution--even before the one who's had his faults pointed out to him, because that one's likely to think he deserved it, since he's been hearin' it all along in his own house. I did it with my own brothers and had it done to me, and I guess it never occurred to me that you might not understand it the way I did. But you've lived with families of cousins; think about what you saw go on between them, and you'll know I'm telling you the truth." He allowed himself a sigh. "I didn't go out lookin' for any of this, and if you'd told me it was gonna happen I'd have backed off like I never have from a man with a gun--or men either. I guess I thought if I could convince everybody I didn't care enough to hurt like that again, I'd make it true. But I didn't. I convinced you, maybe, but I didn't change what was goin' on inside of me. And in the end that only made it worse, thinkin' I might have lost one of my own again. Lost you, Ezra." What he still couldn't say aloud--what he hoped Ezra could hear regardless--was: I lost one family already. I won't lose another. Or any member of it--not even to his own actions, or lack of 'em.

His tone hardened a bit. "Get it through that thick Southern skull that you've got people in your life now who give a good God damn about you, about your stayin' alive, about your well-being--and I don't mean just your body, either. I know sometimes we don't act very much like it, but I guess that's partly because we can't really get our minds around the concept of a man bein' raised the way you were, and we forget you don't understand.

"That's why you gotta talk to us, Ezra. Maybe not all of us if you don't want to, but pick someone. Josiah, or Vin. You're so damn private about everything, so good at hidin' things, how are we to know? We should, but sometimes we just get blindsided by somethin', or we're busy with affairs of our own, and we miss that you're troubled. It doesn't mean we're not all here for you, that we won't do everything we can to help you--but we gotta know you need it first. You gotta let us know, especially when we're the ones that cause the hurt. You're not alone, you know, not any more. You got us. None of us ever really expected we'd end up stayin' together after we beat Anderson, and I guess that's one of the things that took us unawares. And except maybe for JD, there's none of us really good at expressin' how we feel, but I don't want you ever gettin' the idea that we don't care. You got that poker face down to an art, but we're all learnin', Ezra." He shook his head at Ezra's shadow of a grin, realizing that the gambler believed he'd just been complimented. "But we can't help you if we don't know what's wrong. You gotta start trustin' us and talkin' to us. And that means you gotta stay. You're one of us, we need you and we want you to stay."

He reached out and laid his hand on the smaller man's thin silk-clad shoulder, feeling it flinch reflexively under him. He didn't tighten his fingers, just let them lie there. "Don't give up on us, Ezra. You're not leavin'. We won't allow it. These last weeks without you just made it clear to us that you're as much a part of us as anyone. So put the notion right out of your mind. We got somethin' buildin' here that may be the savin' of all of us, and no one in this outfit is gonna let any of the others slip away. And I figure you've got more guts and more curiosity than to let yourself go before you've got it all figured out."

"Do you indeed?" murmured Ezra. "Tell me, then, Mr. Larabee, if you know me so well--why do you suppose I have stayed on? The formidable Judge havin' forgiven me my transgressions, why do you imagine I have not long since departed for greener pastures?"

Chris grinned. "I think you stay for the same reason the rest of us do. Because we belong. Because God, or Fate, or something, may have finally realized it messed up, and this is the way it makes up for it, by gettin' the seven of us together. Josiah likes to call us 'brother this' and 'brother that,' and I think he's right. Whether we like it or not, we seem to have a family here. You're a man who's always alert to the main chance, ain't you? So there's no sense not takin' advantage of that. Havin' people who care about you's not a bad thing, and neither is lettin' yourself care back. Might be different from what's gone on in the past, might scare you sometimes, but it ain't bad." He saw the lingering uncertainty and added, "I'd be lyin' if I said it was easy. Most of us are too damn stubborn to ask for water if we were on fire. It's taken a lot of gettin' used to, and there'll be more to come. A lot of give and take, a lot of forgivin' and learnin' to tolerate. But a man wastes too much life tryin' to keep everything inside and deal with all his problems on his own. He's better off when he's got others to back him up. I know; I was guilty enough of it. But I can tell you that since the seven of us got together I've honestly been tryin' to let go of the darkness."

"I fear my experience with family to date has not been particularly positive," Ezra observed.

"That's their loss, then," the gunfighter retorted. "All you need is to convince yourself that it's worth the try. Takin' chances is what you do for a living, isn't it? Take another chance on us. Families drive you insane and there's no getting rid of them. But a real family doesn't have to be made up of blood; look at Buck and JD and you'll see that. And that kind of family--not the ones like raised you, but the one you've found with us--you can trust them never to run out on you."

Ezra slowly turned the words over in his mind. Their sheer volume was almost enough to convince him of Larabee's sincerity: the man might not be as laconic as Vin, but he wasn't given to explaining himself. Or to apologizing, either, as he had done for his unthinking arrogance and his failure to give heed to the Southerner's needs. Had he ever even told Buck he was sorry for that incident in the barbershop? Not that Buck, who knew where he was coming from, would ever have demanded or even expected it. Still, it was unlike him to admit to having been wrong, in part because a man in his line could never allow himself to get a name for self-doubt; like Ezra, the appearance, at least, of unshakeable confidence was vital to his success.

The gambler had never really stopped to think that they might have something so basic in common.

Vin had gone a long way toward convincing Ezra that he did have personal value to his fellows, but he would never have fully believed it if he hadn't heard the same thing, in different words, from Larabee. He studied the older man's contained expression, with particular attention to the eyes. He had made a life's work of reading other men, and found it possible, now, to gauge them with almost unfailing accuracy. Why had it taken him so long to read the men he rode with, the men with whom he associated more closely than he ever had with anyone in his entire life before? He realized that he had done them a discourtesy. He had doubted their sincerity when it had been on display for him all along; he'd only needed to look for it.

They had all told him the same thing today, only in different words. Larabee, who was equally as uncomfortable as he (for all his easy surface garrulity) with honest, intimate, soul-searching talk, had found, by indulging in it, perhaps the most telling means he could have for demonstrating that he shared in that truth. After all these months together, why shouldn't Ezra be able to accept it? Did he think this was simply another poker game, and his fellow players bluffing? That was foolishness. A man bluffed only when someone else had something he wanted, or when he felt himself to be in danger. What danger did Ezra P. Standish pose to six men as formidable as these? What did he have that they could covet? Mr. Larabee was right: unlikely things did happen--that was what odds were about; to let you know just how unlikely they were. He had been given a second chance at the Seminole village; wasn't this merely an outgrowth of what he had learned that day? He remembered that he had himself compared the seven of them to a royal flush. That Chris, without knowing of this, had done likewise impressed him, once again, with the realization that these men seemed to know how he thought--and Heaven knew he'd done his best to keep them from figuring it out. If they had succeeded despite his best efforts, didn't that mean, as he'd mused during that journey, that they had come together--or been brought together, as Josiah maintained--for some special purpose? And if they had, who was he to resist the will of the Cosmic Dealer? That was a kind of deal no mortal could influence; he must simply play what he got the best way he knew.

They were actually worried about his well-being. They thought of him as one of them, they trusted him, they liked him--and they wanted to stand well in his eyes, to feel that he didn't hold a grudge over the saloon business. His opinion had never carried such weight in anyone's life before, and he couldn't remember ever knowing anyone who gave a damn whether he lived or died--except his mother, of course, but even that was sometimes debatable. It made him feel warm inside. Was any of it true? Tanner had certainly seemed sincere enough. Had Ezra been able to con the perceptive tracker so entirely? He had been working cons for so long, it was difficult to tell whether he was still in the midst of one or not. The fact that six other men--indeed, most of a town, to say nothing of a Federal Circuit-Court Judge--took him at face value wasn't entirely a recommendation; he had fooled larger audiences many times before. But this was different. These six men particularly depended on their perceptions of humanity in ways none of his marks had ever found necessary. Vin especially didn't place his faith just anywhere, and his life experiences had taught him how important it was to know where he could trust. It had never before occurred to Ezra just how much Vin had risked by bonding himself to Chris Larabee and the rest of them. Not merely his life or freedom, whether at the hands of visiting outlaws or chance bounty hunters, but the death of his heart if one of them betrayed the trust he had given. Surely if he can dare so much, I can accept that there is a place for me among them. After all, if I end up scorned and betrayed, it is only what I have been taught all my life to expect. Only more of the same thing to which I have grown accustomed.

Is that why I am so hesitant? The prospect of losin' somethin' that is so unfamiliar, and at the same time so pleasant?

But do I really believe they would betray me? Surely I know I need have no fear that men such as these will ever waver. They have proven their resolve time and time again, in other sorts of circumstances. Why should I believe they would be less staunch in matters of the interpersonal, than they are in battle?

"I am aware that I tend to push certain issues," he said slowly. "I force the boundaries of my relationship with you--with all of you--because I cannot believe what I think you will tolerate from me. I don't mean to sound self-pityin', you understand, but I am so accustomed to expectin' the worst, I can't seem to break free of doin' so, and I am not open to the truth that is right before me. Perhaps my entire perspective has been warped by previous experience. But I think now I am beginnin' to understand that even Mr. Jackson, acerbic though he often elects to be with regard to my morals and profession, would not continue patchin' me up if he did not care. I don't truly need to test any of you, but I find it difficult to stop. The habits of a lifetime."

"I know about habits," said Chris. "Got a few nasty ones of my own I need to work on breakin'. Don't say it'll be easy. Don't say it'll come all at once. Don't say I won't go on makin' mistakes sometimes, keepin' my mouth shut when I ought to say somethin', sayin' the wrong thing when I talk. But as long as we can reach an understanding..." He paused a moment. "In the War we used to call it an accommodation. All the officers knew the pickets would swap things between the armies, or the men would crawl out of their trenches at night and sit talkin' in the dark. It was against regulations for them to fraternize, but the longer the fighting dragged on, the harder it was for them to forget that they were all from one country, all revered the same Foundin' Fathers, all held to the same faith, the same set of laws, the same basic beliefs. So we--the officers--we turned a blind eye and pretended we didn't know what was happening. It wasn't hurtin' anything that mattered, and it made it just possible that, no matter who won in the end, we could learn to live side by side without bitterness."

"That seems a laudable end to strive for," Ezra agreed. "I believe I shall take the chance. As you took one on me."

And Chris Larabee...smiled. Not that thin, hard-edged smile that suggested the imminence of gunplay or flying fists, but a soft, slow, genuine smile that changed his whole face and brought a warm sparkle to his pale eyes. For almost the first time in their association Ezra got a glimmering of the man who had won Sarah Connelly's love and Buck Wilmington's loyalty.

"That's the man," said Chris quietly. "You make it hard as hell to deal with you, but I think it's worth it in the end for all of us, don't you?"

"Agreed," said Ezra, and slowly extended his hand. The gunfighter took it in his own and they shook on the bargain.


Four Corners

From that day the turnaround in Ezra's condition was notable and swift. In three days he was up and walking about the room, sitting at the table to eat, and playing penny-ante with Nathan and JD. In four he was joining the rest of them downstairs. In five he was dressing with his usual care, fussing over his hair and the hang of his coat and the way his cravat was folded and tied. In six Nathan pronounced him strong enough to head home.

They took the train to Trinidad, while Maude stayed behind a few days in Colorado Springs to mend her own finances, which she had been obliged to neglect in her concentration on winning her son's release, and later in overseeing his care and recovery. "I shall follow you shortly," she promised. "I believe it is time I consulted with Inez regardin' the saloon. I have no doubt as to her competence, but I feel I ought to examine the books personally."

Ezra didn't say anything to this, but Vin noticed how the muscles in his jaw tightened as he clenched his teeth.

They took their time on the trail down from Trinidad, making almost a holiday of it, lazing along at forty miles a day, doing a little fishing by the way, telling stories and playing cards around the campfire at night. None of them wanted to speculate on whether there would be a place waiting for them when they got to Four Corners. But even if there wasn't, they would have possessions to pick up and affairs to close out before they left.

As luck would have it, Reuben Potter and Billy Travis, coming back from checking their rabbit traps, were the first townsfolk to see them coming in. The two boys stared in joyous amazement and took off for town at full pelt, shrieking the good news to their mothers and everyone else within earshot.

Buildings emptied as if an earthquake threatened. Men, women, and children swarmed around the horses of their returning protectors, grasping stirrups, reaching up to shake hands. Mary boosted her son into Chris's waiting arms, to ride the rest of the way to the saloon on his saddle pommel. Casey came running from Watson's hardware at such a speed that she lost her hat. Her Aunt Nettie followed more slowly, as befitted a person of her years and status, but her weathered face was wreathed in a special smile for Vin Tanner, and her sharp old eyes were warm with welcome. Mrs. Potter delayed long enough to fill her apron with fresh oatmeal cookies. Yosemite and his boys met them halfway and took their horses on to the stable with the promise that their gear would be delivered shortly. Even the more dignified citizens, like Virgil Watson, Brewster the banker, and Heinrich Heidegger, the German to whom Maude had sold the Ritz, came out on their boardwalks to wave or nod in greeting. Riders who'd been on their way in or out lifted their hands to their hatbrims in salute.

Inez and the bartender had their table cleared and drinks waiting. No one, of course, had expected Judge Travis to still be lingering in town; he had, after all, a whole circuit to cover. It was Inez who asked, "And will you be staying, Señores?"

"We still got jobs?" JD asked. "What about that Indian money?"

"Judge Travis decided that because it was theirs, he was within his rights to call upon them to help protect it," the woman explained. "He sent a messenger to Kojay and they made a plan. The Apaches themselves took the shipment to the Agency by ways they knew, and the Army detachment served as a decoy. There was an attempt made, but they beat it off, and the money arrived safely where it was supposed to go."

Buck laughed. "That old fox. Should've figured on it, after the way he agreed to trickin' James."

"Or Kane," Josiah agreed. "His Honor is a man of surprisingly inventive mind."

"Who is Kane, Padre?" Inez inquired.

"Just someone who did somethin' he shouldn't of, years back," Nathan told her. "Had the bad luck to fall foul of the Judge and lived to wish he hadn't."

Chris smiled thinly in satisfaction. "Looks like this is still our town, boys," he said. "Let's get cleaned up and have somethin' to eat, and then we'll figure out who's on duty where."

Five days later the southbound stage arrived with Maude on board. Josiah met her at the hotel and saw her settled, but Ezra didn't show himself until several hours later. He had traded patrols with Vin and stayed out most of the day, then cloistered himself in his room, taking the most painstaking care with his appearance. When one of the girls knocked on his door with the word that his mother was playing poker downstairs, he thanked her politely and started down.

Maude looked up from her cards as her son appeared on the other side of the table. "Why, Ezra, darlin', whatever took you so long? I expected you to have the courtesy to come and welcome me much sooner."

"I refuse to be maneuvered into guilt, Mother," Ezra replied evenly. He had dressed in his black Sunday coat, which apart from its somberness made him look taller and slimmer than he really was, with a new crimson satin waistcoat in blazing contrast beneath, and his best frilled-front Irish linen shirt, the cuffs secured with gold-and-onyx initial buttons. His gray pinstriped trousers reached to his insteps, stylishly uncreased and turned up to form cuffs for convenience. A cameo stickpin nestled in his purple tie. He looked as magnificent as any of his friends had ever seen him, but what was more, Chris and Vin, back at their regular table, could sense a new kind of confidence radiating from him, something they had never seen him display when dealing with his mother. He glanced at the pot in the center of the table, then reached over and took the cards from her hand. "Gentlemen, she folds."

"Ezra!" Maude snapped.

"This game is over," Standish continued, ignoring her. "Kindly resolve amongst yourselves the issue of the pot. My mother has a prior engagement."

"I have no such thing!" said Maude.

"Yes, you have," he replied, still in that same calm voice. "There is a matter unsettled between us, to wit, the ownership of this saloon."

"I beg your pardon! That question was decided unequivocally after I obtained the mortgage on the establishment. It is my property."

"But the means by which you obtained that mortgage are both legally and ethically dubious," Ezra observed, "and whereas I am well aware that you have never permitted either prospect to stop you, you were not then dealin' with me. In any case, you would not have had the opportunity to obtain it if the obligations of my position as a peacekeeper--and as a friend--had not demanded that I abandon our competition midway." He reached into his coat pocket and slapped a wad of bills down on the table. "This saloon, with buildin', lot, and equipment, would be valued, at my estimate, at five thousand dollars. I have here thirty-one hundred in cash. I propose that we commence play until I have either doubled or lost my stake. If the latter, you will have again stripped me of my life's savin's, and I shall accept my state as destined. If the former, you agree that on the next hand you will put up the saloon." His eyes glittered like chips of glass. "You owe me this, Mother. I nearly lost my life on your account."

For the first time Maude seemed confused or startled. "What do you know of it?"

"As much as I need to," Ezra retorted with dignity. He tapped a forefinger against the little pile of bills. "Of course, if you are short, you can always stake the property now. But you will play, Mother, because if you do not, I shall willingly arrest you for coercion and fraud."

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Don't provoke me, Mother," Ezra warned, his voice tight. "I remind you that this is my town. I have resources here that you lack, and I will employ them."

Maude was experienced enough to know when the odds were against her. And--as Ezra had perhaps counted on--she was confident enough in that experience and her own seniority, to say nothing of the fact that her son had learned most of what he knew from her, to think that he would be an easy conquest. "Very well," she agreed frostily.

The word spread through the town like the cholera. In minutes men--and women too, working girls from the other saloons and from Virginia's--had begun filtering in to witness what promised to be a memorable match. Someone woke Josiah and Nathan. Buck arrived from the jail. JD, who had been on street patrol, saw the people flowing through the doors and went to find out what had drawn them. Even Mary Travis appeared with her trusty reporter's tablet and a supply of sharpened pencils, having hurried Billy over to stay with the Potters. Everyone remembered the War of the Saloons and understood that this was less a game than a duel. Those who knew Ezra best, like his partners, knew it was something else besides that. It was Ezra's last, best hope of freeing himself from the apron strings that had been wrapped around his soul all his life.

"You reckon Ezra's got a chance, Buck?" JD whispered as he and his big friend got themselves strategically positioned to watch the game.

"I reckon the two of 'em are pretty well matched," Buck agreed. "Ez may have learned most of what he knows from his ma, and she's got the years on him, but he's been on his own most of ten, and that'll make a difference; she may not know all his tells, or recognize 'em if she sees 'em. I'm just kinda surprised it took this long to happen."

"How so?" asked JD.

"It's kinda like havin' two really good guns in the same bunch," the man explained. "You can't take the seven of us as bein' typical, on account of the way we all got together in the first place, but usually when you've got two men with big reputations, sooner or later they can't help but try and find out who's better. Wolves and stallions do the same thing, and bulls, and 'most every animal there is. You almost never see an animal challenge another it's not pretty evenly matched with, unless it's some green young'un wantin' to prove himself. Ezra's been livin' under Maude's shadow all his life, and there's a lot of other issues between 'em too, like all them times she left him behind with his kin. This ain't about the saloon, not entirely. It's about settlin' who each of 'em is and what they owe each other."


Pawn Index

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