by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


Josiah. Ezra had little respect for organized religion; as a close observer of humanity and its institutions, he had seen early on how full of contradictions and hypocrisies it was--to say nothing of how easy it was for a clever man to pull the wool over the eyes of its adherents. Before he'd met Sanchez he had viewed the vast majority of "preachers" as sanctimonious hypocrites. But Josiah had shown himself to be different from them, most particularly when he had confided, in the Seminole village, that he didn't think himself worthy of or destined for an "eternal reward;" this had both intrigued Ezra and earned his respect, moving him to confess in turn that he had run evangelical cons in his time. Josiah had seen the same things in his profession as Ezra had, and what was more, instead of taking refuge in theological double-talk, he'd had the courage to give up his cozy niche in the clergy and go roaming the world in search of truth. He had studied and compared and created a sort of make-your-own, do-it-yourself religious creed which took the best bits from various faiths, added a thing or two from his own experience, and ended up with something that was basically Christianity but lacked much of what Ezra found off-putting. He was familiar with poetry and philosophy and the wider world; he'd visited places even Ezra had never been to. His intelligence and wisdom were both equally plain to the gambler (and the two were by no means the same thing), and his compassion matched Nathan's. He had a genuine desire to help and comfort others, to make the world better by both resisting evil and passing on his own views. He always seemed to be able to find the right words to help one of the others regain his balance. And while Ezra held little brief for anyone who claimed to represent God, Josiah made no such claims. Like the gambler, he didn't heed convention; in fact, he found it a hindrance, for a brawling, gun-toting preacher who talked acceptingly of many different systems of belief and had incorporated elements of them into his own didn't fit easily into the mainstream of religion. He suited his little "flock of crows" admirably, as proficient with his sixgun as with his Bible, yet always providing the cool unbiased mind when trouble erupted within the group. He was straightforward where Ezra was subtle and even crooked, never shy about pointing out where others had "strayed," yet never posing as perfect himself either. Searching for his own balance, he contrived to provide it for the rest of them. Sometimes, it was true, he could, as Buck put it, "turn Old Testament on us," but given the childhood he'd had Ezra could hardly find it in him to be surprised at that. And if he occasionally fell into dark moods of overdrinking, or focused too narrowly on the necessity of "doing penance," at least he wasn't a hypocrite.

Chris Larabee. Taciturn, serious, intense, dangerously quiet, coldly aloof, sometimes self-righteous and quite often churlish. A hard man, a brooding man who built tight tough walls to keep everyone at bay, and who was inclined to downright meanness when he was upset. A man who, not unlike Ezra, struggled to stay in control of his emotions at all times. A difficult man to deal with because all his feelings--concern, grief, jealousy, fear, even caring--came back to anger in the end; and while he sometimes understood what he was angry at, other times he had to look for a target, which too often proved to be one of his six compatriots, if only because they were closest at hand. Frequently, perhaps more so than anyone else, it was Ezra who ended up taking the brunt of it. But, after all, Ezra was used to being on the receiving end of negative sentiments; better him than JD, or Buck, or Vin. At the same time he never denied that Larabee was a natural leader, and not uneducated; Ezra had seen him, more than once, with a book of considerable heft spread across his knees. He clove to his code, elementary though it was, and would keep his word to the point of death, even if he found himself regretting the promise he had made. He always seemed to know instinctively what to do to keep the others safe--or at least as safe as was possible in their line of work. He was hesitant to offer words of comfort, yet his mere squeeze of a shoulder was more eloquent than a lengthy speech by Ezra. Buck, who knew him well, spoke often of how different he had been in the days when his wife and son were alive. And the gambler was convinced that there were depths to him he didn't want others to see, wasn't even willing to admit to himself. He was definitely attracted to Mary Travis, to take one example, however stubbornly he resisted the concept. That was something Ezra found troubling. It was the only hint he had ever seen of hypocrisy in the leader, and it didn't suit the man. In any case, the attraction was mutual, and with the Southern reverence for womanhood, Ezra disliked the thought of the widow wasting her substance on someone who refused to respond to her. Not that he couldn't understand something of Larabee's reluctance. The man was afraid of caring too much and losing her as he had lost Sarah and Adam.  He didn't believe himself strong enough to endure that pain ever again, so he shied away from commitment.  In some ways Ezra and Chris were very much alike, shaped by cruel experience. And, on some level, terrified and dismayed at the emotional attachments they found themselves forming in and to Four Corners.

Two men less alike than Larabee and his oldest friend were hard to imagine, and Ezra sometimes wondered what had ever drawn them together in the first place. Buck was outgoing, quick to laugh, a natural charmer--of men as well as women. Friendly, talkative, the only one of their company who approached JD in energy, yet a strong man, of undeniable courage, and one who had known his share of grief and trouble. Under that carefree façade was an experienced, level-headed, dependable fighter and friend, always ready to back a partner no matter what, a lighthearted source of strength for anyone he took into his life, a big, loud, fun-loving man whom Ezra had come to like and depend on. He presented himself as easygoing and carefree, but he didn't give up, on anyone or anything. He hated cruelty and was capable of hotheaded outbursts in defense of anyone he thought was being unjustly used, including a friend being climbed by another friend, even Larabee. His caring guidance of JD, masked though it often was in rebukes and teasing, touched Ezra's heart and made him wonder what it would have been like, what he would have grown up to be, if he had had such a "big brother" when he was a boy. In some ways the two of them were very similar: both hid their deeper feelings with humor (though Ezra's tended toward the sardonic), both had and displayed a deep and genuine respect for women, and both were quite content with the "rogue" aspects of their personalities and reputations, Buck making no effort to hide or apologize for his "lovin' ways," as Blossom called them, and Ezra making little more with regard to his gambling and conning. Buck's strength, his energy, his honesty, even his temper--spectacular when it blew, but on a very long fuse unless he saw someone he cared about in danger, or witnessed anything that struck him as bullying--were a perfect balance for Chris Larabee; so perfect indeed that Ezra wondered if Chris realized just how well they fit together. His unshakeable loyalty to Larabee and his unwavering faith in the man's potential, even after the gunfighter had pushed him away, astonished and fascinated the gambler. How Buck must have been hurt, by the loss of two people he had cared for and the refusal of a third to accept his efforts at comfort, yet he remained steadfast; even after two years apart, he had never hesitated to join his old partner when the chance was offered. Ezra wondered if he would have had it in him to behave the same way, under similar conditions. And, for all his interest in the fair sex, Buck was always a perfect gentleman. There was a genuine romantic beneath the uncultured exterior, and occasionally Ezra caught a glimpse of it. Sometimes, especially since the Marcus Bentann revelations of last fall, he found himself wondering what else the rogue kept concealed in the dark under that open, life-embracing attitude.

Perhaps his greatest virtue was his attachment to their youngest. Observing JD over their time together, Ezra had come to realize, out of his keenly trained perceptions and his own negative experiences, that "the kid" wasn't anywhere near as naïve and trusting as he had seemed at first. He had grown up in an environment that had forced him to learn, from an early age, something of how to read adults and work with or around them. He had known deprivation and loss, and they had left their mark on him. It was true that he was, or had been, unfamiliar with the ways and mores of the West. But he wasn't gullible. He simply chose whom to trust, and then trusted implicitly. Over the last year he had matured unbelievably. He was no longer a green, brash boy, yet he retained a youthful innocence and enthusiasm that kept them all human--and an exuberant energy that sometimes tired them out just to watch it. He was keen to learn from everyone and willing to accept just about anyone as a potential friend. And withal he was not without true gifts. Ezra, like most Southerners, had practically grown up in a saddle, and he had a genuine respect for JD's skill with horses. Despite his inexperience, he often had premonitions that proved disturbingly accurate. There was no doubt, either, that he was quick on the draw and keen of eye, a natural with handguns if not so much with a rifle--and there, of course, they had Vin Tanner, who was far more comfortable with a long gun.

Vin. Two people who seemed to have less in common than Vin Tanner and himself would have been difficult to find. Vin was reticent almost to the point of muteness, where Ezra delighted in words and found them one of his most important weapons, to say nothing of a major stock in trade for cons. Vin was restless and uncomfortable around large numbers of people; Ezra loved the stimulation and opportunity they offered. Vin seemed to actually need periodic solitudes in the wilderness for the maintenance of his mental and emotional health; Ezra far preferred the comforts of town life to the rigors of the great outdoors. Vin was illiterate, or nearly so (the perceptive gambler had guessed at that early on, from the subtleties of his behavior); Ezra had had an education which, if unconventional, was the equal of a full four years in University. Vin dressed and lived simply, almost shabbily; Ezra delighted in fine things and didn't hesitate to spend his winnings to get them. Vin was stoic in discomfort, where Ezra didn't hesitate to let everyone within a hundred yards of him know how deplorable he found his situation. Vin worshipped his dead mother's memory, grieving inwardly for her still after twenty years (not that he ever said so, but Ezra had seen the pain shining in his eyes when he spoke of her); Ezra more often than not found his mother exasperating, and while he grudgingly respected her expertise in their dual profession, he had few fond memories of their association.

Yet, on a very basic level, the two of them were very similar. Vin had learned, early and painfully, that trusting people and caring about them came at a heavy cost; Ezra had been taught from the age of six not to let anyone in, always to maintain his mask, and the nomadic lifestyle he had lived, by insuring that no attachment he formed could possibly last, had only reinforced that teaching. Vin had spent the best part of his life emotionally and often physically solitary, having to draw on his own inner strengths; Ezra, though he had passed all his thirty-three years among other human beings--often great numbers of them--and was thoroughly comfortable so, had always felt isolated in their midst. Vin, having spent a large piece of his boyhood among the Comanches, had returned to his own people only to find that many of them scorned him for the retrograde step of having become "Indianized;" Ezra had often felt the weight of envy, hatred, or self-righteous condemnation for the sake of the professions he followed. At first the two hadn't entirely trusted each other, but it didn't take Ezra long to see how sometimes, in the early stages of the Seven's association, Vin's blue eyes had been vacant and desolate, and the gambler would sense that the tracker, like himself, ached to belong, to have friends he could count on--which perhaps fed into the unexpected bond that had grown between the two of them: by the time they had been six or eight months together, they had settled into an easy friendship of cheerful mutual hassling and quiet confidence. And Vin, although certainly a rustic, was by no means stupid. Indeed, a harder man to fool would have been difficult to find. He was as perceptive, by necessity, as Ezra was, and Ezra couldn't imagine ever taking him in with a con. He might not be especially person-oriented, might not always be able to comprehend why people behaved as they did, and his estimates were often expressed indelicately, but he was remarkably astute in his ability to read human character and especially to guess what someone was after or was likely to do. About the wilderness and its inhabitants his knowledge was encyclopedic, and Ezra, though he often pretended to ignore the tracker's sage advice, actually never failed to take it in and hold it in his heart: knowledge was power, and a day might come when he would have need of something Vin had imparted to him. He knew well how important it could be to have eyes and ears attuned to one's surroundings, to be able to assess the terrain, be it indoors or out, and he deeply respected the tracker's superiority in that direction.

More, he found he took a kind of comfort in Vin. The two of them were the greatest loners in the bunch, forced to develop emotional self-sufficiency by the peculiar circumstances of their upbringing, yet on some level longing for closeness, and somehow, out of the perceptiveness they had had to develop to survive and succeed, each had seen that in the other; after an initial interval of unease and suspicion as they tried to get past outward appearances, they had become friends. Ezra knew that Vin still thought of Chris as his closest friend and always would; he had no such bond with the tracker as Chris did, that fascinating ability to exchange volumes of information with a look and a few spoken phrases. Yet Vin would never understand the true extent of what his friendship--the friendship of a man so inwardly complete, so fully at peace with himself--meant to Ezra. Tanner was so easygoing he could tolerate almost anyone, and he actually seemed to enjoy Ezra's company, even if (as was plainly the case) he didn't always understand him. (And, strangely enough, he was likelier to pick up the meaning of Ezra's discourse than JD was, though how he did it the gambler wasn't sure. Perhaps it had something to do with his astonishing ability to follow a trail that would have been invisible to an ordinary man.) That crooked little smile of his was oddly warming and comforting, and his soft Texas drawl could be wondrously reassuring when Ezra was worried or doubtful. His self-control and self-possession were remarkable to the gambler, who knew something of the gift himself: no matter what provocation he was offered, his temper never seemed to get away from him--just a quick flareup that immediately disappeared beneath a laconic façade equal to the best poker face Ezra had ever seen. Nor was that the only manifestation of the dichotomy that was Vin Tanner. He was a hunter of man and beast, a man who could bring himself to a focus of unequalled narrowness or leap gracefully from roof to roof like a lean two-legged mountain lion, yet when he was at ease, lounging in a chair on the boardwalk or bantering with one of the others in the saloon, it was possible to forget that part of him--almost impossible, indeed, to credit that it could exist--and see only the dry-humored, slightly awkward young man, hardly more than a boy, with the peculiar canted posture, the shy, slow smile and the polite greeting for every passerby. There was definitely far more to Vin Tanner than most people realized. Still waters and all that, not that Ezra was surprised. He certainly hadn't found it difficult to believe that Vin could be cunning and ruthless where his friends' safety and even happiness was concerned. What had astonished him was to discover in the tracker a sense of humor that wasn't above simple tricks and even rather complex practical jokes--never malicious ones, just creative attempts, usually successful, to amuse himself at their expense. Vin even had the ability to run a very decent con, though it wasn't a polished skill--clearly as much a natural gift as any of Ezra's own, perhaps more, since he'd never enjoyed the advantage of a seasoned grifter for a teacher. There was a part of Ezra, too, that genuinely envied the tracker. Life and its choices were very simple to him. There was right, and there was wrong. There were friends, and there were enemies. And there was a memory, a bright nostalgia, for the affection and tenderness he had known for five short years and drawn upon for strength ever since. Nothing of the kind had ever passed from Maude to Ezra. How could hands that had surely been intended to love and nurture a tender young soul so easily warp it beyond repair?

Like the relatives who had been his reluctant caregivers, Maude had always seemed to find his presence distasteful, summoning him to her side only when she needed him for a con or to appear respectable among the peers of her latest male conquest, and he had become convinced that he must somehow warrant her repugnance. How could it be otherwise? She was older and wiser. She knew so much more than he did. Yet for all the eccentricity of their relationship, for all the perverted maternal teachings she had imparted to him, she had also been the one constant in an unstable life. Tied to him by a bond she didn't want to acknowledge but could never completely sever, she swung around him in an eccentric orbit like some sort of rogue planet, now near, now far, but always eventually looming close again. Unpredictable as she was, she remained the one thing he could truly call his own. An anchor sunk in shifting sands, but an anchor nevertheless.

Yet she had at least taught him self-sufficiency, self-reliance. And if he were to be frank with himself, he knew he owed her an immense debt of gratitude. Not merely for training him in the professions which had been his good support for ten years, but because, if Maude were not what she was, would he be what he was? Would he ever have been in Four Corners to begin with? Would he have stumbled into this surprisingly congenial line of work, with these men who were--or should that be, had been?--becoming closer to him than he had ever felt to any of his blood kin? For that alone, he should go to her side when she needed him.

Still, he was at a loss to understand why she had seemed so determined to break him. Why she had seemed to take a kind of vicious pleasure in destroying his dream. For all her cavalier neglect of him in his boyhood, she had never been cruel, had never deliberately set out to hurt him.

He hoped she would still be alive when he got there so he could ask her why.

Ezra had passed most of his life east of the Missouri, or at worst on the Missouri (the year he turned twenty-six he had spent a full season afloat, New Orleans up to Fort Benton and back again), and it was only his desire to see San Francisco that had inspired him to consider striking out overland at all. Well, it was true, there had been that regrettable misfortune in New Orleans, and the misunderstanding in St. Louis, and he'd been forced to leave Kansas City rather sooner than he'd planned--and then the business in Cheyenne, and Fort Laramie where he'd had to jump bail...then the side trip to Dodge City to throw off possible pursuit, after which he had worked his way back to the mining camps of Colorado and paused to winter over in Denver before going on, planning for Santa Fe. Four Corners had been, originally, a way stop on that road, a place to replenish his dwindling finances--and then Chris Larabee had happened to him. He still hadn't decided whether that was the worst of bad things or the best of good. To be sure, the town was a backwater, at least compared to most of the places he had visited in his travels. But he'd stayed there, now, for over a year--longer than he'd been anywhere in his entire life, including his peripatetic childhood. And as that time lengthened he had found himself, more and more often, wondering whether it was where he was destined to live out the rest of his life. Yes, Mr. Larabee had told him "never to run out on me again," but Ezra felt sure that if he ever really wanted to go, Larabee would be relieved to see the back of him. Certainly he doubted that the gunfighter would go to the trouble of pursuit, abandon the town whose welfare had been placed in his trust--Larabee had a downright exasperating tendency to take his responsibilities seriously.

Why did he stay? More to the point, why didn't he feel, any longer, a shudder of near horror at the continued prospect of doing so? As an educated man, Ezra was naturally given on occasion to philosophic reflection. He knew that change was inevitable in the world and in himself. He couldn't afford not to have some place of refuge prepared, or at least decided upon, for the day that must come when his draw lost its speed, his hands their nimbleness. Even the maddening Maude had established a headquarters for herself in St. Louis and no longer ran her cons there. It wasn't dissimilar to the custom of certain outlaw gangs, which were careful never to molest the law-abiding inhabitants of localities contiguous to their favorite hideouts, and thereby gained their gratitude and protection. But there was more to it than that. Ezra's peculiar childhood had guaranteed that a part of him would long for order and routine. He had learned from an early age, not merely from Maude but from bitter experience, that the best way to protect himself was to keep others at arm's length--not something most of them made very difficult. He had learned that sometimes--often--not even the people who claimed they loved you were to be trusted. By the time Larabee roped him into the Anderson affair, he'd convinced himself that caring about other people wasn't worth it. Now, for the first time in his adult life, he felt that he had found a place where he could belong, where he succeeded in giving as much as he took, where his innate gifts were respected and appreciated (if sometimes grudgingly), and where, perhaps, he dared give of himself and reveal his still surprisingly tender and vulnerable heart. He had never been much use to society; if he was honest with himself, he had to admit that he was often little better than a parasite, although he had frequently taken a smug pride in his role as a teacher of sorts, one who made others stingingly aware of their own follies and greed. For as far back as he could well recall, he had been learning that the only way he had value to others, including--perhaps particularly--his mother, was if he had money, or could help them make some. Money was everything, and without it he was worthless. Most of his life had involved getting people mad at him and then putting as much distance as possible between them and himself as fast as he could. But over the past year things had changed--he had changed. No matter how his conditioning fought it, Ezra had come to realize that the men he rode with trusted him, expected him to back them up, and, in turn, were ready to do the same by him. Suddenly he had found a purpose in life, something more than the mere accumulation of money. He had found a way to leave something behind him when his mortal existence ended, a good name, something every gentleman longed to have and many literally died for. And when he considered the importance of timing--chance--in the formation of his current associations, his gambler's superstitiousness couldn't help but kick in. If he had been a day earlier or later, if he hadn't chosen to play the shooting match as a con--

In part, at first, he had stayed on, after Judge Travis's thirty days had expired, because of Chris's command that he not run out again. This was, after all, a man he didn't want angry at him. And there were six others to bear part of the load, and he got room and board and a dollar a day to sit at the tables and gamble. In the beginning, he figured he could stick it out for a little while to build up his stake, and then take off. With such a large group around he had never seriously expected to have to do any actual work, or to be placed in any real position of risk; he hadn't anticipated that they would so quickly garner a reputation that would fetch so many others to challenge them--though that was in part Steele's fault for publicizing their existence. He had never asked for support from any of these men; there had been times when he'd been convinced he didn't want it. He also didn't like the prospect of being indebted: he'd seen too much of the grief that could be brought about by the monetary kind of obligation. And yet Larabee had spoken of being reliable, being accountable in a pinch, not deserting one's comrades, not giving your word and saying you'd do something and then quitting. The words had resonated to a part of Ezra that he had thought long lost, or perhaps nonexistent, the part of him that was devoted to the Southern code of honor and gentlemanly behavior. He had, after all, agreed, or implied that he agreed, to defend the Seminole village, to stick till the job was done. In the West, a man's word had to be good; that was why it was such a deadly insult to call him a liar. Men who worked at the kinds of jobs the West had to offer, in a country that was often sparsely populated, had to know, beyond any doubt, that they could count on other men--not merely friends, people with a personal motivation, but all men--to be there in a pinch, to be dependable.

Or could it be that he had stayed because, for once in his life, someone had wanted him to stay? Of course he had worked hard to come up with a plausible cover story, because he would never say that to anyone who asked.

Mother would be disappointed in the alarmingly domesticated attitudes he was developing. She was disappointed in him, he knew; she'd made it plain on her first visit to Four Corners that she vehemently disapproved of the new vocation he had acquired. If truth were known, he was sometimes disappointed in himself. Life in the town had saddled him, quite unexpectedly, with a conscience, and there were many things he'd done in his career that he could no longer reflect upon with satisfaction. And he knew how far he had departed from the life he'd been trained to lead, the goals he'd been expected to aim for. Still, if his talents were indeed "God-given," as Mother had so often said, they had nevertheless been given to him, and therefore it was surely his prerogative to choose in what way and place he would employ them? Was it not his life to live? If he was using his natural gifts to save or better people's lives, how could that be a waste? He had, much to his own astonishment, found that not only had his life changed considerably since the day he rode into Four Corners, but that he took a certain surprising but definite degree of satisfaction in the role of peacekeeper. And that he had, even, an undeniable facility for it--especially when he was teamed with the other six. He had never suspected that this might be true, and it intrigued him mightily to discover it. People could, he had come to realize, rise to higher things on the steppingstones of their dead selves. He had never suspected himself of having such depths, such potential, and he was eager to find out what other hidden facets to his own personality he might uncover.

There were certain situations in which he was actually better equipped than any of his compatriots to decide what to do, or to carry out the plans they made--like that incident in Wickesville. He had even known Chris Larabee to say that he counted on Ezra to know what he was doing--which, he had to confess, was a compliment he had enjoyed receiving, though he didn't think Larabee had intended for him to hear it. He knew, too, that the gunfighter was beginning to depend on his assessments of a place or person as a check to his own estimates. Larabee might be often churlish, but he wouldn't have survived this long without a healthy measure of intelligence and practicality, and he understood that Ezra, who resorted to violence only when all other avenues had been closed to him, had trained himself to a keen perception of the world around him and an ability to pick up on the subtlest hints.

Fortunes could be won and lost at the gaming table literally on the turn of a card, and Ezra had experienced both eventualities in his decade of gambling. At first glance it might seem that his high-rolling days were behind him now. But the longer he stayed, the less certain he was of that. Four Corners had many things to recommend it. It had a good location, having begun as a stop on an established and well-known trail; there were two good rivers nearby, mountains with timber and water, and to the north and south and east thousands of square miles of high plain covered with nourishing grasses--and wealth could be garnered from land and cattle, as Stuart James and Guy Royale abundantly proved. The railroad was on its way, and would bring new settlers and business. Meanwhile, the stage brought enough travellers overburdened with cash to keep Ezra's pockets well lined; the hotel and restaurant served decent food, the seamstress who tailored his clothes knew her business, the mail service and Wells Fargo express were reasonably dependable, the telegraph provided a link to the greater world and Mary Travis's newspaper kept everyone well informed. There were definitely possibilities to the place. It might not be ill-considered to make some investments, as finances permitted...after he had regained the saloon he still considered his.

Up until he came there, "home" had been whatever hotel room he happened to occupy, whatever saloon he found congenial. Yet gradually he realized that, for better or worse, the town had indeed become home--the home he had never had. And he genuinely liked the place, in spite of its dust and inconveniences and the dangers and discomforts of being a peacekeeper. He had found a kind of respect there, however grudging it might be--a respect founded not on the skill of his hands or the agility of his mind and tongue, but on a courage and selflessness he had never guessed he might possess. He was privileged to be working with the finest group of men he had ever met--men who treated him as an equal and a valued companion. He had a new kind of game to play--a game of friendship and trust, played for higher stakes than any poker hand, but worth the risk in the payoff that he had hoped he might gain. He amounted to something--an outcome some of his relatives had maintained would never occur. (At least one had gone so far as to say he was born to be hung.) What reason did he have to feel self-pitying? Perhaps Larabee would never completely lose the disdain and suspicion he must inevitably feel toward one who had run out on him, but it didn't matter, really. Whether Ezra ever succeeded in overcoming the gunfighter's first impressions wasn't all that important. He could live with it. He had lived all his life with the same handicap; by now he half doubted his ability to function under unstinting acceptance. Familiarity bred, not contempt, but a kind of comfort. You became accustomed to things being a certain way and you allowed for them.

Sometimes he thought life would have been much easier had he never been one of the Seven. They had ruined him; in that, Mother was right. Somehow running cons no longer seemed right--except, of course, when it was for the sake of one of them, or the town. And there were still times when he caught himself thinking or speaking of Four Corners as "home" and felt a momentary chill. Home. He had never really had one--not at least since his father had vanished from his life. Yet was not that all the more reason to want and need one?

And the group. God help him, he wanted to be part of this group. He didn't know why, unless it was simply that he had never really been a part of anything...worthwhile. Or that its dynamics were so utterly fascinating to observe and take part in. For all their imperfections, the seven of them had melded into a force to be reckoned with.

He had been on his own many times in his life--in some ways all his life. And he had never really felt lonely, because loneliness exists only for those who encounter it suddenly. He had a fine horse, a good saddle, two pair of custom boots, five personally tailored jackets--black, plum, royal blue, forest green, and his favorite deep red--and an assortment of shirts, waistcoats, and trousers to go with them, three high-quality handguns and an elegant Remington revolving rifle, some $2500 in cash cached under the loose floorboard beneath his bed, an amount varying from two to six hundred dollars on his person, and several pieces of discreet but valuable jewelry acquired over his ten years as a successful gambler. And himself, though he hardly placed any great value on that. He had never really considered the possibility of anything more, or rather anything that wasn't simply an increase of what he owned. As for friendship, it had remained an unknown country. He had had associates, partners in cons, even comrades in arms, but he had never been this close to anyone, never known what it was to have friends. He had never guessed there would be so much pain involved in it--or such astonishing fulfillment. He marvelled, sometimes, that these six exceptionally fine men, the truest, finest gentlemen it had ever been his pleasure to know, had let him in at all--a no-account scoundrel masquerading as a Southern gentleman. (He snorted in wry amusement. Now that had to be the best con of his life--certainly it was the longest running!) Or that they permitted him to go on associating with them. He was gratified by their unspoken permission, but he couldn't understand it. Nathan had once said that Chris had recruited him because he thought a liar and a cheat would be useful. At least someone had believed he might be good for something.

And sometimes he found himself thinking about what might happen if he ever failed in his obligations to them. If one of them got hurt helping or protecting him. If a shot of his went wide and hit one of them instead. Would they blame him, reject him, run him off? He was, after all, still very much a novice--at peacekeeping and at working as part of a team. How could he know, beyond doubting, that he wouldn't one day fail them? That their loyalty to him would survive such a test? If they hadn't seen fit to support him in a simple business undertaking, how could he expect them to stand by him if life and death were at issue?

It was unlike him to dwell so on what might happen. You did the best you could, made such provisions in your plans as fit the obstacles you seemed likeliest to encounter; life was, in that, very much like poker, a question of knowing and playing the odds. Guilt, too, was an unfamiliar sensation to him, and an unpleasant one, yet experiencing it made him feel he understood Mr. Larabee better. The gunfighter had spent years pursuing his own self-destruction, and he resented the responsibility demanded by the faith the others had placed in him. It scared him, and it lost him his freedom to seek the thing he thought he most wanted. Selfish. He has called me selfish. Does he understand how incredibly selfish he has been? Does he know that he has not thought beyond himself, beyond his own pain, for far too long? Buck knows it. Vin knows it. Josiah knows it. And I. I may be a sarcastic, self-aggrandizing bastard, but at least I have not succumbed to self-pity...

Until now. Why am I dwelling on what Mother did to me? Why, when others have lost so much more than I? When I know it is within my power to rebuild my fortunes and make my dream a reality? When I should be thanking whatever powers there be for the opportunity I have been given?

No one had ever offered him a second chance before. He well knew how rare it was for anyone to receive such a gift--more so for anyone like himself. He owed Chris for that. Owed it to him to somehow make him see that friends he could trust and a good woman who loved him were gifts to be treasured, blessings to give thanks for--not burdens to flee from. It was something he himself had found difficult to accept, and he could understand how the gunfighter, bleeding inside from a loss such as Ezra had never suffered, would find it even more so. But he must accept it, or lose his soul. A second chance, an opportunity to start over, was a rare and precious thing. Who should know that better than Ezra? Yes, Larabee must accept it.

As, perhaps, Ezra must accept the place into which he had fallen (or been coerced by Larabee and Judge Travis), the opportunity that had so unexpectedly been granted him to make something worthwhile of himself and his life.

And thus, his thoughts circling through his brain like the Worm Ourobouros, he rode on north. He stopped for the night in Watsonville but slept restlessly and was up and on his way again at an hour he would ordinarily have considered positively indecent. He rode fifteen hours almost without rest, pausing only for Gambit's sake at midday, and at last crossed Raton Pass, an old Indian trail that provided a route over the Raton Range, and had become the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail after the Cimarron Branch was abandoned because of its dangerous desert stretches. At the crest the road picked up Raton Creek, and followed it by easy grades down to the flat by way of "Uncle Dick" Wootton's former toll gate, though the old mountain man had sold his right-of-way to the railroad last year and retired. A dozen miles beyond lay Trinidad, built on a foothill chain of the Culebra Range, six thousand feet high, guarding the northern approach to the pass, overlooked to the west by the Sangre de Cristos, to the north by the Spanish Peaks, and to the south by Fisher's Peak, an unusual volcanic landmark with a stairstep top. Its deviously angled streets gave it a foreign aspect, which Ezra had noticed when he came through this same route last year, heading south. Originally an Indian ceremonial ground, later a conduit for Spanish explorers and conquistadores, long a favorite campground for trappers, traders, and hunters en route from the east to Santa Fe and Taos, the site had also served as a bivouac for Colonel Kearney's Army of the West during the Mexican War. About twenty years ago a pair of Hispanic sheepmen from New Mexico had built the first cabin there, being soon joined by others from the same region and an assortment of Eastern Anglo settlers, traders, and desperadoes of all descriptions, who had given it the name of a "tough place." For many years there had been constant friction between the Anglos and the Mexicans, culminating on Christmas Day, 1867, when a wrestling match (ethnically divided) developed into a free-for-all riot during which the Mexican wrestler was killed. Following a jailbreak, a pursuit, a brush with a war party of Utes, and the imposition of martial law, order was finally restored, though hostility continued to linger. And although political partisanship might have had a lot to do with it, the town had also been described (by the Republican Pueblo Daily Chieftain) as being of low morals because most of its voters were Democrats. The chief unifying factor, if there was one, came from the Utes, whose hunting grounds lay close at hand, subjecting the town to frequent alarms; it had never been attacked, but war parties on their way to or from raids on traditional foes often camped on the surrounding hills, and during these unwelcome visits it was customary for the citizens to arm themselves and post guards.

The primary road ran more or less north-south, linking the town to New Mexico, Walsenburg, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and ultimately Denver; the railroad followed it for the sake of the easy grade. Another bore eastward across the sparsely-settled prairieland to Kansas, and a third pointed northeast to La Junta and the Arkansas Valley. Coal had been mined in the district since '67, when one Frank Bloom was said to have developed the deposits solely to promote the sale of the stoves he handled; now, with two railroads in the area, the demand had increased, and many of the working men of the town were employed as coal miners. The presence of shipping facilities had stimulated the already existing cattle business, and it was undergoing a steady boom. The organization of Las Animas County in 1866, and the selection of the town as its seat, had had a positive effect as well. At the time of its incorporation and official christening (in honor of Trinidad Baca, the daughter of a pioneer settler) in '76, its population had already reached 2000, which made it a veritable metropolis in comparison to Four Corners. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had finally reached the area in April of that year, almost five years after first incorporating itself in the county. The D&RG had originally been intended to serve El Paso and Mexico City, but the only way to get there was by Raton Pass, and the AT&SF knew that; so a series of legal battles ensued, punctuated by occasional shooting, until, only the previous year, the D&RG had decisively lost the last and toughest of them. The Santa Fe was now forging on toward the Territorial capitol, and since the D&RG terminated in the new town of El Moro, seven miles downstream and on the other side of the river, which it had created for that purpose, while the AT&SF had elected to go through the original community, there was a good deal of interchange between the two as people changed trains; but the lines co-existed uneasily, glaring at each other across the breadth of their separate facilities.

What was worse, less than a day's ride to the west lay the wild country near the headwaters of the "Picketwire" River (as many Americans called the Purgatoire), where there were many caves in which fugitive badmen found refuge, and from which they would inevitably ride in search of loot or relaxation. Since such miscreants by their nature avoided any unnecessary exertion of their energies, there was little doubt in Ezra's mind that they often found both in and around Trinidad. As he reached the outskirts of the town, he found himself resurrecting an earlier thought: Whatever in the name of common sense can Mother have been doin' here to begin with? The place is quite as overrun with undesireables as ever Four Corners was when we first arrived there. Perhaps they may be somewhat more discreet about their presence, but I have no doubt of its existence.

He paused at the first livery stable he came to and asked the owner for directions to Dr. Francis Pickett's office. The man sent him down a nearby residential street and stood watching in puzzlement as the weary chestnut turned that way. It seemed strange that so obvious a gentleman should be asking after Dr. Pickett when he could have had his choice of ten other doctors in town. Everyone in Trinidad knew about Pickett. He was a wreck, a shameless alcoholic, abortionist, and discredited refugee from complaints of the Medical Society of Missouri. He'd seen better days, certainly--had graduated from St. Louis Medical School--but they were long behind him now. Nobody went to him any more except the poorest citizens--the Mexicans, the low-grade prostitutes, the transient families and those of the hopeful miners and provers-up whose shacks and tents lined Animas Street. Gossip had it that he survived not so much on what they paid him as on a remittance sent out regularly by his family to keep him as far away from them as they could contrive. And in the last three years, ever since the railroad came, the whisper was that he had found a new vice: opium, which had come with the Chinese following the steel down from Denver through Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Well, he told himself with a shake of his head, it ain't no lookout of mine. Reckon the man knows what he's doin'.


Following the stableman's directions, Ezra made his way to a little board-and-batten house isolated off from its neighbors by an overgrown empty lot and much in need of a fresh coat of paint. No fence defined the property, only a plain iron hitching post at the end of the rough-gravel path. He dismounted stiffly and paused a moment to pat Gambit's neck, not noticing the flutter of a yellowed lace curtain at the front window as someone within took note of his arrival. "I know you are tired, old friend. I should have left you at that stable. But I couldn't bear the thought of wastin' even the few moments it would take me to leave instructions regardin' your proper care. Be patient until I have assured myself that Mother is alive, and then I will see to you, or send someone to do it."

Not troubling to dust himself off, he walked slowly up the path and mounted the low front gallery, nearly stumbling on a broken step. There was no sign of a doorbell, so he banged his fist briskly against the panelled and grained door. At first he thought no one was going to answer. Fully three minutes passed before it was opened by a spare, stringy man with the floridly mottled pink skin that betrayed heavy, habitual drinking, the unseeing, unwavering gaze typical of hopeless alcoholics, watery pale blue eyes and thinning dishevelled gray-brown hair. His blue striped shirt was collarless and in need of washing, his blue broadcloth vest hung open and he wore no jacket--and no shoes, only thin heelless felt slippers. He hadn't shaved, and his heavy shoebrush mustache was overdue for a trimming. Ezra's nose wrinkled reflexively at the aura of long-consumed alcohol, unwashed flesh, and bad cooking that hung like a miasma about him. Surely this cannot be Dr. Pickett? Mother would never permit herself to be placed in the care of such a...a derelict.

"What do you want?" the man demanded.

"My name is Ezra Standish," the Southerner replied, maintaining a gentlemanly demeanor with an effort. "I received a telegram from a Dr. Francis Pickett that my mother was in his care and...and not expected to live. Where is she?"

"Standish?" the other repeated, as if trying to place the name, and then his eyes widened. "Oh, of course, Standish. Right through here and down the hall, first door on your left."

Ezra brushed past him with a flinch and strode as quickly as saddle-weary muscles would permit down the dim, narrow passageway, turning in at the indicated point. He knocked softly at the closed door and waited, his heart thundering, for the sound of his mother's honeyed drawl graciously inviting entrance. When it didn't come, he hesitated, then quietly turned the plain china knob and stepped in.

Worsted draperies had been drawn across the windows, blocking out even the fading light of dusk. Only the drab-colored paint of the Hennessey cottage bedroom set--sleigh bed, bureau, washstand, and wardrobe of French Empire type, table, chair, and towel rack with spool turnings--helped him to locate its various components. There was no lamp burning, though a green-shaded nickel one did stand on the table. A faded red rug covered the floor, cushioning his steps as he slowly moved further in, his eyes searching for any sign of life. A flowered quilt on the bed served to conceal the details of the form it covered, but Ezra's breath hitched in his throat and his heart gave a sharp knock as he noted the long banner of creamy blonde hair fanning out across the shoulder of the inmate. Up until that moment he had dared to believe in some part of his mind that it had all been a terrible mistake, but seeing that hair he knew it wasn't. The sleeper seemed to be lying on her side, her back turned toward him, an arm in a ruffled muslin nightgown showing outside the quilt. "Mother?" Ezra whispered. There was no response.

Removing his hat, he moved closer to the bed, wondering if he should touch her, try to rouse her--wondering if she would be glad to know he was there, or if she even knew he had been sent for. The only sound he could hear, apart from his own heartbeat, was the faint, regular, reassuring whisper of her breathing. At least there was some cause for comfort in that. She was alive and she didn't seem to be congested or delirious. He wondered again exactly what her ailment was. In all the years he'd known her, he could truly say that he had never seen her ill for so much as an hour.

A floorboard creaked under his weight, and he stopped short, as much in astonishment as out of guilt or reluctance to disturb, as that supposedly sleeping shape abruptly rolled over to face him, a short-barrelled Webley Bulldog revolver competently held in its hand. Shock and bewilderment froze him an instant as he realized the face wasn't his mother's. It was younger, longer, more hollow-cheeked, the eyes blood-brown rather than the familiar green so like his own. She sat up, smiling grimly, holding the Bulldog on him as the unoccupied hand brushed back what he now saw was a blonde wig from her brow. Then his instincts woke up. Trap!

He reacted on reflex, snapping his arm out to engage the hidden spring-clip derringer rig. A blow struck him between the shoulderblades, nearly driving him to his knees, and a sinewy hand flashed into view from over his shoulder to clamp itself to his wrist, wrenching, squeezing, twisting painfully. Ezra's lithe body twisted as he swept out a leg, trying to catch his attacker's ankles and bring him down. They tussled almost in silence, careening into the table and knocking it over with a crash, shattering the lamp and spilling kerosene on the rug. Ezra smelled horse, leather, wool, fresh sweat; he heard an unmistakeably Southern voice cursing in a harsh furious monotone, and a woman's voice repeating, "Get the gun! Get the gun! Get him down!"

Ezra struggled to tear the offending hand from his own or turn the derringer to bear on his unknown foe. The other man was bigger than he, taller by at least two or three inches, with the added leverage lent by the greater length of limb, and the lean, rawhide-tough muscles of a range worker. But Ezra for all his pampered appearance was no pushover. Teeth clenched, he ignored the shooting agony in his wrist and pushed at the other's hand, trying to aim the derringer back over his own shoulder. He almost made it--until the half-forgotten woman snatched up the blue porcelain pitcher from the washstand and broke it over his head. As his muscles went slack, the little hideout gun tumbled from his relaxing grip, and his assailant, moving quickly to recover his own balance, inadvertantly kicked it under the bed. An instant later a hard fist slammed into Ezra's temple and darkness took him.

Breathing hard, Cole Newbolt, who had been hiding in the wardrobe ever since first entering the room to warn his employer of Standish's arrival so she could don her wig and slip into the bed, let the unconscious gambler slide to the floor and paused to recover his Stetson, rake his thick curls off his brow and set the hat firmly in place atop them, and tuck his green plaid shirttails back into his pants. "Damn," he gasped, "that boy's better'n I figured he was."

"You should have known," Miranda Kane retorted. "You were the one who went down to Four Corners to check him out."

"Reckon I didn't quite believe what they told me about him," Newbolt admitted. "Never knowed of no card sharp that could fight as dirty as he just done." He looked up. "What do we do with him now?"

"It's getting dark. We'd better take him out tonight, while there's less chance of anyone getting a look at him. Lock him in Pickett's barn while I get dressed. And make sure you search him. If he had one hideout, he probably has more."

"I reckon," Newbolt agreed. He glanced toward the door. "What about Pickett? You really meanin' to pay him that five hundred dollars you promised him?"

Miranda smiled thinly. "On that kind of money a man in his condition, with his record, could finish himself off pretty fast. I think we should guarantee that he does just that before he starts having twinges of conscience."

Newbolt grinned. "Figured you'd say that. How'll we do it?"

"Oh, there must be all kinds of things in his supply cabinet that we can use to put him down without being obvious about it. One of my father's aunts used to take digitalis for her heart. The doctor always told her to be very careful about the dosage because too much of it could kill."

The man nodded. "Make it look like his heart give out under the strain? Yeah, I reckon folks in these parts'd believe that, 'specially if we leave some whiskey around or find his opium stash and set it out where it'll be spotted."

"I knew there was a reason I kept you on the payroll, Cole," Miranda told him. "But see to Standish first. Pickett isn't going anywhere."



Pawn Index

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