by Sevenstars & Aureleigh

Ezra settled himself in his favorite chair, making a regular ritual out of it. There was something new and different and even, somehow, a little intimidating about him: not just the atypically somber coat he had chosen to wear, but something in the very air of him, something almost grim, where ordinarily when he sat down for a game of cards he gave the impression of casualness, of simply being in search of a congenial way to kill a few spare hours. His eyes glittered and there was no hint of his usual easy smile. Even his posture was unlike the norm, not relaxed but ramrod-straight, almost wooden. Perhaps it was his way of making sure his mother wouldn't be able to make out any of his tells.

Behind that impenetrable façade, as always, his mind was running at full steam. He knew better than any of his friends what he risked, but he also knew he had to risk it. As Buck had perceptively observed, the challenge he had issued wasn't about the saloon, at root: that was only the symbol. It was about winning his mother's respect as a fellow professional, about proving that his choice to stay in Four Corners and take up lawkeeping didn't mean he had lost his edge, about finally demonstrating his adulthood and full independence. It was about showing that he wasn't going to whine around her skirts any more, looking for the love she seemed incapable of giving; he was going to deal with her on her own terms--and win.

Vin and Buck often accused him, half jokingly, of cheating. In fact he seldom did so. Cheating betrayed a lack of expertise, a failure to understand the mathematics of the game. He was simply--and inevitably, considering his years of experience--a better and more knowledgeable player than they; it was, after all, the means by which he had earned a good share of his living for many years, whereas to them it was more a way to pass the time. Of course, if he detected dishonesty in an opponent, or even had sound reason to suspect it, he considered it an excuse to freely exercise his own skill at sleight of hand. What was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. Poker was, in some ways, not unlike a con game. The basic principle of any con was to find people who were basically crooked themselves, so they didn't run to the police every time you took them. And thus, if your fellow players proved to be less than aboveboard, they had no cause for complaint in having their own chosen tactic turned back on them.

His compatriots' misapprehension was possibly in part his own fault. Had he not been the one to declare that he loathed gambling and as a matter of principle left nothing to chance? He could hardly blame them for misinterpreting the words. What distressed him far more was that they often seemed to mistake his professional demeanor for the actuality. Did they truly have no concept of how many times he had been forced to resist the urge to leap to his feet and plunge headfirst into a situation for their sake, however the muscles twitched in his legs? Did they not understand how vital it was to a man in his profession to learn to conceal all emotion, and how difficult it was to unlearn that lesson?

His declaration about abhorring gambling had come from something Maude had told him when he didn't stand much taller than her waist. She had taken him into a Natchez casino where they were playing twenty-one, red dog, wheel-of-fortune, faro--everything except poker. "Take a good look, darlin'," she told him. "This is what is known as gamblin'. Avoid it. In games like this you haven't a chance. Stick to poker."

Ezra knew that poker wasn't really a game of luck. Average players--who made up ninety-eight per cent of the total--kept it from being so. Of course, the way some men played it, it was--all bad. These were the losers by nature and by choice, the men who, if they had what it took to master the simple laws of the game (which, sometimes, they didn't), were too lazy or conceited or scared to play by them. Yet the laws of poker were perhaps the fairest and most democratic ever passed. They applied to rich and poor, strong and weak, male and female, young and old, to every nationality, race, creed, color, religion, and previous condition. There were certain things you did in poker, and certain things you didn't do, and if you stuck with those rules, sooner or later you would earn a stake. The losers didn't understand this. They got lazy and didn't bother to learn the laws, or took such a shine to themselves that they thought the laws didn't apply to them, or they were so scared of losing that they forgot how the laws worked. With a big pot on the table, buck fever had beaten more poker players than three ladies ever did.

A winning player, on the other hand, had to be an expert with five weapons: skill, courage, strategy, psychology, and patience. And he needed to know the odds. He had to have them memorized and graved into his mind and his heart. In a standard deck of fifty-two cards, with nothing wild, the law of averages, calculated by mathematicians who had tested thousands of hands, operated like clockwork and couldn't be broken by the highest authority in the land. It couldn't even be bent. Even in the simplest game of five-card draw, on the very first round, a smart player could pick up a virgin hand and know exactly what his chances were. He would know how likely it was that any of the other players had been dealt something better, and what likelihood he had of improving his hand. If he played loosely, he would come out a loser. But if he played tightly--if he played the percentages--he'd have the game more than half beaten already. The other half lay in two rules: following the "ten commandments of poker," and studying his opponents.

Of course, one of those commandments was "Never play poker with women." But that was because most of them didn't play good poker, which was why those who dealt cards at all usually dealt games like faro and twenty-one. Women, as a general thing, found poker too slow; they craved faster action and wilder games than most men were willing to play, pushing for variations that took the predictability, and therefore the science, out of it. Without the odds, and the science based on the odds, you didn't have poker; you had seven-card blind man's buff. Women were also accustomed to the concept of having exceptions to the rules made for their sake in everyday life, and found it hard to believe that such exceptions didn't exist in poker. And their curiosity was so overpowering that it was almost impossible to drive them out of a hand. They couldn't resist staying around to see how well their cunning tactics worked, even on a poor one, and the result was that while they occasionally won a big pot, they lost much more often, which forced the male players to unchivalrously relieve them of their coin.

But there were exceptions to all rules except the mathematical ones, and Maude Standish was one of them. She had all a woman's strengths--expertise in guile and cunning, powers of insight and intuition denied to men--and none of the female weaknesses. Whether by innate character or through the experiences of her life, she had an unholy amount of patience, and she knew that no one was going to hand her anything on a platter, much less contravene the laws of chance for her. And her feminine curiosity, if it existed, was under her iron control. Like any woman who set out to compete with men at their own kinds of game, and succeeded, she had to be not only as good as they were, but better. It was entirely possible that she was the best poker player Ezra had ever met. That was what made this game a true test, and what would make his victory, if he gained one, so much more than monetary.

It was a great risk to take, perhaps more than he should; one of the other commandments, after all, was "Don't play if you can't afford to lose." Yet the loss that would matter wouldn't be one that would show. Only he, and perhaps his six friends, would ever really know what lay on the table besides the money. The principle was much the same as bluffing: if no one called, they would never know how strong or weak was the hand by which they had been defeated.

And the challenge of it was more than he could resist; something, perhaps, toward which he had been moving from the first day Maude took over his tutelage in the science of poker and the fine art of the con. What could be a better test of a player's abilities than to challenge the person who knew him best, the one who had taught him most, if not all, of what he knew? One of the biggest thrills in poker, after all, was getting inside the minds of your fellow players and using what you found there to beat them at their own game. That was why men who liked and understood other people made the best players. Almost any man whose success depended on that gift--a politician, a city banker, a big-spread operator--would qualify, and so would one like Ezra who had no regular means of support, but lived by his wits. It took a lot of nerve to call a big raiser when you had a medium hand, but Ezra had seen it done successfully thousands of times, and in almost every case, the caller succeeded because he understood the motives of the raiser. Maybe the man was a four-flusher at heart, though he tried to hide it from his friends. Maybe he was driven by a secret urge to win every hand regardless of what he held. Maybe he'd been a consistent loser and was trying to get even in just one hand. Or if you were playing stud and your opponent raised with no pairs showing, while you had a pair with your hole card, you had to ask yourself how he was thinking: did he have a better pair, or was he trying to make you crawfish? If you had watched him long enough, or knew him well enough, you'd be able to tell, and could make your own play accordingly.

With a solid player of Maude's rank and experience, the game would come into its own as a battle of wits--or, if one of them chose to play it that way, of skill at cheats. Each hand would be an adventure to be remembered. In such a game, a cautious player could be caught with his stirrups loose and beaten with a losing hand. Good players could be talked into folding winning hands because other good players raised them. Psychology was king, and while it was possible to win a goodly sum--Ezra had done it in his career--a large part of it would be pure luck. And that was the only instance in which luck really determined the winner in poker.

"Dealer's choice?" Maude suggested.

"Of course," Ezra agreed, and gestured to Inez for a deck. When it came, he broke the seal, shuffled and cut, and passed it across the table. "As the party challenged, you must of course deal first."

She hadn't been expecting that, he thought. She shuffled the deck herself, gave him the cut, and said, "Five-card draw. Jacks or better to open, nothin' wild." She drew a packet of bills from her reticule. "Fifty dollars." That was the traditional blind wager always made in draw. He matched it.

Many old-timers believed draw to be the toughest kind of poker, not just because all the cards were concealed but because there were so many ways to cover your tracks by faking on the draw itself. The draw, and the betting that went on before and after it, were your only clues to what the other players were holding. Since this offered so many opportunities for psychological manipulation, really conservative players often preferred stud, which was more scientific. But if either of the Standishes had been conservative, they probably wouldn't have been professionals.

Ezra drew in the cards he'd received. Eight of hearts, seven of diamonds, jack of spades, seven of hearts, jack of hearts. Two pair, including the jacks that would entitle him to open, with an eleven to one chance of any improvement if he discarded the eight, and the same of drawing to a full house, getting either another jack or a third seven. Since the privilege of opening ordinarily went left from the dealer, and a two-handed game put each player on both the left and the right of the other, he did so. "Five hundred dollars."

There was a chorus of gasps from various parts of the crowd. At ten times his blind wager, it was both impressive and a declaration of the cutthroat way he meant to play. Ordinarily a draw player would take his time building up to a big bet, taking several hands to get the measure of his opponent. But, of course, Maude and Ezra didn't need to do that. Now she must decide if he was bluffing. If she thought so, she could fold, the ante money would go to him, and they could start over. If not, she could either call or raise.

She counted out five hundred-dollar notes and placed them in the pot. "Call. How many cards?"

Here was where mathematics came into play. The odds against drawing a pat hand were approximately two and a half to one for a pair, twenty to one for two, forty-five to one for three of a kind, 250 to one for a straight, 500 to one for a flush, 690 to one for a full house, 4000 to one for four of a kind, 65,000 to one for a straight flush, and 650,000 to one for a royal flush. If he asked for one, she would know there were several things he might be trying to improve: the two pair he had, a four straight (inside, one end, or both ends; though one of the commandments of poker was not to draw to an inside straight, the odds were only eleven to one, which wasn't really bad, and a canny player might well break it, depending on what the odd card was, if he thought that overplaying his hand might help his cause), a four flush, a four straight-flush (again inside or with one or both ends open). The best odds he would have, out of such a hash, would be of making anything better out of a four-straight flush with both ends open: one in three. The worst would be if his four straight-flush were inside or one-ended and he was trying to complete it: one in forty-seven. But until he saw what Maude chose to discard, he couldn't estimate the strength of her hand, so he must make his decision based solely on faith, his knowledge of the odds of pat hands, and his familiarity with her. Since almost anything could beat two pair, his best tactic would be to try to improve them--unless he thought he could trick her into thinking he'd been dealt something better. But to draw one could mean he already had a fairly strong hand: an open-end four-straight, which he had one chance in six of turning into a straight, or a four-flush, one in five and a half of filling. Either the flush or the straight, if completed, could beat three of a kind, two pair, or one pair. "One, please," he decided.

She flicked it across as he discarded his eight. Two of spades, nothing. "Dealer takes three."

That usually meant a weak hand, one pair--unless she'd had something better and was deliberately taking a chance on making it stronger yet, which was generally rather bad poker. He watched her for tells as she gathered in her cards. "Your bet," she observed.

His hand was still weak, but he could bluff. It would be wiser to fold. He'd still have $2550, enough to start another round firmly. Ordinarily the secret to winning more games than you lost was to be patient and wait till a fighting hand--say a flush or better--came along, then underplay it if it was a big one and overplay it if second-rate. Maude, of course, knew that. So every once in a while he would need to mix it up, to keep her from picking up his pattern. He decided to set out as he meant to go. "Call."

She now owed one thousand dollars. She could bet that much, or raise. If the former, they would show their cards, and high hand would take the pot. If the latter, he would have to match it--and he had only $1550 before him now--or fold and let her win.

"Fold," she said, and again he heard the gasps, this time chiefly from the spectators who were positioned to see her hand.

He drew in the pot. It was a small triumph; he had won only $550, bringing his stake up to $3650, an increase of not quite eighteen per cent. Since it was his turn to deal, he gathered in her cards, and as he drew them toward him, turned them for a look. She'd had a full house, sixes over kings. She'd drawn either three sixes or a six and two kings, against ninety-seven to one odds. She'd had him whipped after the draw, but not before it. He didn't believe for a minute that he had bluffed her successfully. A full house was one of the three highest hands, not something to fold on. She was softening him up. Probably intending to do the same thing she'd done before--draw him out and then hand him a decisive licking and send him away with his tail between his legs. But this time he had an advantage: he wasn't working from a position of bonded indebtedness, he no longer had a mortgage she could buy--or even a business she could sabotage. It was all a matter of odds and skill. The better player would win.

Ezra intended to be that better player.

The game went on. Ezra did better than average, slowly increasing his stake, but Maude won her share of pots. He saw nothing to suggest that she did any bottom-dealing when it was her turn. Still, draw was slow, and after an hour or so they both tired of it. Ezra suggested a change to five-card stud, the most scientific poker variant of all. Besides having all the action any player could ask for, and the capacity to put your five weapons to the stiffest tests the game could muster, it allowed for a steeper rise in the value of the pot, since instead of two betting rounds there were four.

On the first hand Ezra got a low pair back to back: five of clubs showing, five of diamonds in the hole. Maude had the jack of hearts showing. In stud the highest card showing opened, so Maude did. Ezra raised. Maude raised him back, which suggested her hole card was a jack or an ace. Ezra re-raised, testing both her cards and her courage. She called, which convinced him she had a higher hand than he did--but with three cards still to come, either of them had a decent chance of improving.

Ezra's guiding principle in stud was not to stay in any hand unless his hole card, or the one open card, equalled or topped anything showing on the board. That was because the player with the high cards had just as much chance to improve as anyone else did, and since he (or in this case she) had the high cards going in, he had the best chance to win once all the cards were dealt. Against all odds, the Southerner got the five of hearts on the next deal. Maude got the eight of hearts. But only Ezra knew that he was now holding three of a kind, which would beat her hand even if it was, as he believed, a pair of jacks. His best strategy now was to get as much into the pot as he could possibly contrive. He checked to her, hoping she would figure he had only the two fives that showed, with a high card in the hole. She did, and bet the limit. That meant he'd been right, and could read her whole hand as easily as if it were turned up: she had a concealed pair that beat fives--either eights or jacks, and most likely the latter. He called, which would tend to confirm the fact that all he had was those two fives and an odd high card in the hole.

Maude now had cause to feel pretty secure when her fourth card showed, no matter what it was. As it turned out, it was the eight of spades. Ezra had the ace of spades--his signature card. He knew he was still holding the high hand; the best his mother could have was two pair. And since her pair was higher, she must bet or check.

Like nine players out of ten in such a situation, she chose the former. Her play was to find out for sure if he had three fives. If he raised, he would tip his hand. So he called, and made it seem a reluctant move. His hope was to convince her that he still had just two fives, or at best two pair, aces and fives. And if she had two pair, as he believed, he still had her beat. The odds against her making a full house were too high to worry him. She, for her part, was taking the chance that his hole card was neither ace nor five, because if it was, and he had two pair, his aces would beat her jacks, the rule being that the higher of the two pair was the winner. All he had to do was sit back and wait for the fifth card--the killer.

Maude got the jack of diamonds. This gave her two pair up and suggested that she was holding a full house. That was a very good hand indeed, and she would bet the limit, which was good poker. As for Ezra, he drew the nine of clubs. This was no visible improvement of his hand, and his best strategy--and also good poker--would be to call, just to keep her honest. But instead he broke his own rule and raised. If that didn't let her know he had three fives, nothing would--although she might still figure him for two pair. Unless she had a full house, her play was to call. And she did.

His fives beat her two pair, and it had been a battle for both of them, the kind that made stud the game of games. And the protracted struggle had also improved his finances considerably: he was now up to $5300. He only had to win another nine hundred and he would have doubled his stake, which, under the rules of their duel, would oblige her to bet the saloon.

On the next hand, however, Maude won with a five-high straight over his three aces, taking back over a thousand dollars of that. And so it went, with the victory seesawing back and forth between them, though Ezra managed to keep winning enough to stay in the game. Whether his mother was deliberately letting him do that, setting him up for the kill, was another question.

Once Maude started out with the ace of hearts showing, then drew the jack and ten. She stayed to the end, trying to fill a flush, which, since the only other heart showing was Ezra's trey, she had a very good chance of doing. But when that fifth card proved to be the king of clubs, she turned her cards down in disgust, and Ezra, who had just two aces--diamonds and clubs--raked in the pot. When he gathered her hand in, her hole card turned out to be the queen of hearts. In the heat of the battle, she had overlooked an ace-high straight, thinking it was a busted flush. It was a mistake worthy of the greenest novice, and not something a veteran expert such as herself would ordinarily do. Either she was badly rattled or she really was trying to bait him past the point of no return.

And he didn't believe the former for a minute.

On and on the struggle went, the hours ticking slowly past. The spectators watched in courteous silence, only breaking it when the winner of each hand was revealed. What he heard in those intervals convinced Ezra that there were side bets being laid and collected. Not that he minded, of course; he had done the same thing himself, if not ordinarily on poker games. Eventually they made another change and started playing seven-card stud, the big brother of the five-card version, the fastest of the standard poker games where five-card was the most scientific. With an ante and five betting rounds, this was the favorite game of those who craved action, with chips piling sky-high in the middle of the table. The fact that three cards were dealt down--two before the betting began, the third last of all--threw science out the window. It wasn't a game Ezra ordinarily played, for that very reason. But both of them wanted to finish this duel, and the night was running thin.

At last the critical point was reached. Ezra had doubled his stake, and a bit beyond: his last win brought his total up to $7200. It was more than enough to cover the value of the saloon. The time had come for the showdown hand: no conventional betting, just the stakes in the center of the table and the cards dealt until all had come out. Either player would have the option of folding at any time, depending upon how their individual hands developed and what chance they thought they had of winning; if one did, the remaining player would take the pot. But if both stayed until that last card, the ranking hand would determine the winner.

Maude gave Inez the key to her dressing-case and sent the younger woman over to the hotel, with JD as escort, to get the deed to the saloon. When they returned, she laid it down on the baize tabletop. "I trust you are aware that it is ungentlemanly to resort to blackmail," she said.

"Blackmail, Mother? I was unaware of any such phenomenon. We made an agreement. Circumstances have brought us to the point of exercisin' the eventuality decided upon." He shoved his money into the pot, hearing a low growl from Chris as he laid his entire stake at hazard, not merely the amount necessary to match Maude's wager. "I believe it is your deal."

"Considerin' the situation," she said, "I would rather a neutral party assume that duty, so there can be no question of dishonesty. Inez, since you are aware that your position is secure regardless of which of us triumphs, would you do us the honor?"

The lovely bartender seemed taken aback by the request, yet she understood why it was made. "Si,Señora Standish."

Maude shuffled; Ezra cut, then shuffled again; and finally a random cowboy, a stranger to everyone in the room, was selected to cut a second time. Inez sat down midway between the two Standishes, with Buck right behind her, and began dealing. One card down to Maude, one to Ezra. Second card down. One card up. Ezra carefully edged his hole cards up for a look. Ace of clubs, seven of spades. The seven of hearts was showing. He had a low pair.

Maude drew the queen of diamonds up--her signature card. If her hole cards were also queens, she had a right to be enthusiastic about her chances. If Ezra didn't get a queen on the next deal, she had a bare prospect to make four of a kind, and a good one to make a full house, which even in seven-card stud was a very good bet to win.

Her next card was the nine of clubs; Ezra's was the deuce. If she had three queens, she still held a strong hand, better than her son's, which hadn't been improved a whit. If she didn't--if her hole cards were random, say a ten and a seven--she still had the chance of drawing to an inside straight. He, with a two and seven showing and three cards to come, could do so only if one of his hole cards came between them, which, of course, they didn't, but she didn't know that. Or, since he had a couple of clubs, he could hope for a flush--but so could she. This was exactly the reason that science was unreliable in seven-card stud.

Inez flipped out two more. Ezra drew the ace of diamonds. He now had two pair, a low hand but better than he'd started out with. Maude got the king of hearts. She had a possible straight; a possible flush, if both her hole cards were hearts, diamonds, or clubs; or a possible three or four of a kind or full house. He still had the prospect of improving his hand to three of a kind, a flush in clubs, a full house or four of a kind. If she had two queens in the hole, which was possible, she now needed a queen or a nine to make a full house--and if she got it, only four of a kind or a straight flush could beat her. But since Ezra wasn't showing either, her chances of making it were, as far as she could know, still good. She stayed.

Sixth card. Ezra drew the jack of diamonds. Maude got the ten of hearts. Her full house, if she was angling for one, was beginning to look doubtful; but--supposing she had two queens hidden--a nine, a ten, or the case queen could still do it. She might also have a possible flush if her hole cards were hearts, but not if they were anything else; or a straight if one of them was a jack.

Inez dealt the last card, face down. No flicker showed in Maude's expression as she checked to see what it was.

Ezra, for the second time that night, drew his signature card, the ace of spades. He had a full house, aces over sevens, nothing showing. Maude had a king, queen, ten, and nine showing. If she'd gotten a jack, any jack, she'd have a straight, and he'd have won. She also had two hearts, a diamond, and a club showing; if her hole cards were hearts, she'd have a flush, and again he'd have won. If she had the full house--two queens from the first deal, then a king, ten, or nine from the last--he'd still win, because he had aces over. But if she had two queens from the first deal and the case queen from the last, then she had four of a kind, and he was beaten once again. There were three chances in four that he wasn't.

That last ace--his ace--wasn't logical. It was too pat. It was exactly the sort of thing she might have rigged the deck for, if she wanted to hand him a really stunning public defeat. But, with the deck shuffled once and cut twice since she'd last had her hands on it, did she have the skill for that?

Unlikely things often did happen in poker. The only way to find out was to show his hand.

He turned his hole cards slowly. Seven of spades. One pair, the whisper went around. Ace of clubs. Two pair, aces high. Ace of spades. Full house.

Maude turned her cards down. She was too much of a professional to overreact, but her expression, such as there was of it, suggested that she was caught between being miffed at losing and being genuinely proud of her son's skill. "The pot is yours, darlin'."

Buck let out a whoop that shook the rafters, swept out a joyous arm to punch Chris's shoulder, and knocked JD's bowler off on the way. Vin's hand came down on Ezra's shoulder and squeezed hard. Josiah was thumping him on the back--"To everything there is a season--" Inez pulled the unwary JD to her as he ducked down after his hat and kissed him soundly, then released her blushing victim and kissed Ezra too, to be closely followed, much to his astonishment, by Mary. Nathan's face relaxed slowly in a genuine smile of congratulation. JD grabbed Ezra's hand in both his own and began pumping it, laughing and chattering non-stop. "Dang, Ezra, I knew you could do it--I knew it--your luck wouldn't go so sour twice--"

Chris appeared at the kid's back and held out his own hand. "We're all glad for you, Ezra. You done real good."

Ezra blinked. "I did nothin' at all, Mr. Larabee. It was Miss Rosillos who dealt the hands, and a stranger who cut the deck."

"All the same, you stayed, and that made the difference," Chris observed. "You buyin' drinks now? Seems like the house owes a round."

Ezra looked once again at his hand, at his mother's smooth unreadable face, and suddenly it all seemed to sink in: she'd surrendered. He had won. The saloon was his again, and this time she couldn't take it away.

"Indeed," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, to the bar, if you please; the Standish Tavern is re-opened for business."

Inez scurried to take up her position behind the counter as the audience surged forward to claim its share of the largesse. Someone began banging out "Johnny in the Low Ground" on the piano. No one, except perhaps Vin, noticed Maude quietly gathering her cards and slipping them into her reticule.

Ezra's friends surrounded him, pulled him to his feet, and urged him to their favorite table in the corner. A bottle of the best whiskey in the house appeared in the middle of it, followed by a tray of glasses. Buck assumed the role of dispenser of drinks and poured generously for everyone. "Here's a toast to the new management!" he proclaimed, and they all drank, even JD, who still thought whiskey tasted like medicine, and wrinkled his nose over it but took a polite little sip. Ezra smiled modestly and rolled his neck and shoulders, easing the stiffness of long-held tension. "Hey, hoss, you gonna keep that same name for it?" the rogue continued.

"Why should I do otherwise?" Ezra replied. "It is the name I gave it originally, after all."

"Well, yeah," Buck admitted, "but I just figured you'd rather not have to live with the association, you know, of havin' had it out of your hands these last few weeks."

"The victory is all the sweeter for the knowledge of the identity of the person overcome, I assure you, Mr. Wilmington," said Ezra.

Buck thought that over for a moment. "Yeah, I reckon it would be at that," he agreed with a grin. "Figure to give your friends a break on their drinks?"

"Certainly not," the Southerner told him, but with a twinkle in his eye that took all the sting out of the refusal. "A business must make its profit. Of course I shall honor Judge Travis's agreement regardin' meals, now that I am a member of the business-ownin' community, but only if you choose to invest in future improvements will I allow you a discount." He winked slyly. "On the other hand, I am willin' to carry a tab past the first of each month, should finances press."

"Seein's you're the one likeliest to be winnin' most of our money," Nathan observed, "that'll be kinda like takin' it out of one pocket and puttin' it in the other." But there was none of his usual condemnation in the tone.

"I don't expect to have the skill to remove a bullet and stitch a wound, Mr. Jackson," Ezra retorted evenly, "so why should any of you expect to be a master at poker? Experience will always tell in the end. That is, after all, much of the reason why Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington have survived to this point. We all have our professions, and we are skilled at them. One profession to each man is enough, and all he should expect."

"Where'd Maude go?" asked JD suddenly. In the confusion and hilarity following the sudden letdown of the game's end, and the clamor attendant upon the settling of the last round of side bets, no one had noticed when she slipped out of the room.

"You can hardly expect her to take part in the celebration of her own defeat, Mr. Dunne," Ezra pointed out. "Mother is many things, but masochism is not among her vices."

JD's brows drew together. "Mass-what?"

"A disorder characterized by the attainment of pleasure from pain suffered by oneself," the gambler explained, "as opposed to sadism, which involves garnerin' it from seein' others suffer."

The youngest regulator made a face. "Sounds sick."

"Oh, it is," Ezra agreed. "They both are. And while there are said to be some persons who reap joy from both, it is far more common to revel in either one or the other." The tone of this declaration made it plain which class he thought his mother belonged to.

Chris didn't say anything, but he smiled quietly to himself as he sipped at the warm smooth liquor.


"You leavin', Maude?"

The woman looked up from tipping the porter who had brought her luggage downstairs and piled it neatly on the edge of the boardwalk to await the westbound stage. "Good mornin', Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner," she said smoothly. "Yes, I feel the time is ripe for me to seek other fields, at least for the present. It will be better for both Ezra and myself if I allow him some time alone with the prize he has gained."

"Only you're still thinkin' he's made a mistake," the gunfighter guessed shrewdly.

"Speakin' bluntly? Yes, I am. This field of endeavor, this--peacekeepin'--is as far from what he was trained to do as the planet Uranus. He will assuredly never garner his fortune by it, and may well meet a premature demise. He knows better than to give in to such humanitarian impulses. He knows he must look after number one, because if he doesn't, who else will?"

"He's got us to look after him," said Chris evenly.

"It seems to me that you failed at that quite recently."

"How were we to know that telegram was a fake?" he retorted. "If we know there's a threat to him, any threat, we'll protect him, just like he'll protect us. We may not catch everything, like this last time, but we'll catch most of it--and as long as we find out the truth in time, we'll see that what has to be done will be." Their two sets of green eyes locked, and he wondered again at this woman: proud, strong, intelligent, fiercely independent--much like Mary. Why couldn't she have made a legitimate place for herself in the world, as Mary had done? He could think of few limits on how far she could have gone, if she'd tried. As always she looked trim and immaculate, with no hint showing in her face of the sleep--or the property--she had lost last night, neat and spruce in a bottle-green travelling dress that brought out the color of her eyes, and a flower-trimmed straw hat. "I'm not a man to give my word lightly, Maude. But I give it on that."

Maude studied the two of them, wondering not for the first time at the convoluted circumstances that had brought her son into the orbit of these men. He had certainly thrown in his lot with an odd assortment of creatures, but they did watch his back, and--except perhaps for Mr. Larabee--they were a likeable lot. She had seen, in Colorado Springs, that they cared for him, that they would be fierce in his defense, and perhaps fiercer yet in avenging him should it come to that.

"You told me you had had a son," she said slowly. "Had he survived, surely you would have imparted to him anything from your experience that you considered vital to his success in the world. Are you and I truly so far apart? I did the best I knew to teach my boy how to survive in a world that I knew would eat a weak man up by inches. I knew the doors that were closed against him and myself both, and tried to equip him for the consequences. That we cannot have a--a conventional lovin' relationship I accept as a part of my own choice. To my mind, it seemed more adviseable to make him strong, and risk that he would come to despise me, than to love him too openly and too much, and see him fall."

"He don't have a lot of good to say about you, that's sure," Chris observed.

"Do you imagine I don't know that? He rails against me perhaps not so much for what I did not do, as for what we did not have--which, in his mind, was everything. Normal family, home, security. He thinks that if I had only given in--sacrificed myself--perhaps we, he, could have had that. I daresay much of his resentment of me is sourced in the notion that all I had to do was return to the family fold, and our troubles would have been over. He may not understand, or may not wish to, my pride and what it would have taken from me, to attempt to redeem my youthful 'indescretions.' Now, of course, it's far too late, and I would never do it in any case, but the old resentment still lingers, and the hurt at bein' so often left behind. Sometimes, I think, he does see how hard it has been for me, and those are the times when you see him soften toward me; but it's a difficult thing for him to remember." She shrugged. "I waste no time on regrets. They profit no one, Ezra and myself least of all. I do not believe in charity or anything 'weak,' but keep in mind that I am, and was, a woman utterly alone, thrown upon my own resources."

"Ain't somethin' everybody is, ma'am," Vin murmured, "least of all your boy, now. We got him, and he's got us."

"And I reckon you're not quite as bad as you paint yourself, any more than he is," Larabee added. "You did

teach him as best you could--if you'd done less, those brief sparks of goodness he shows, when he quits tryin' so hard to keep up a front, might not exist at all. Reckon we owe you one for that. We wouldn't be us without him." A pause, then: "And it made all the difference you bein' there, up at the Springs. None of us could'a done what you did. So we owe you thanks for his life."

"He is my son, after all," she pointed out. "I am not utterly lost to the requirements of maternal duty. I have never forgotten that he grew nine months in my body, or that he came from the love I will never recapture. I simply could not allow him to grow soft."

"Like he will if he ever knows what cards you're carryin' in your reticule?" guessed Chris.

Maude caught her breath. "What do you know of them, Mr. Larabee?"

"What you just let slip," the gunfighter told her, with a thin smile. "Vin said he noticed you pullin' 'em out of play after that last hand. Why would you do that, if you didn't want anybody knowin' you had him beat?"

Maude looked at him with new respect. "You have a certain gift for bluff, Mr. Larabee--greater than I would have supposed, considerin' your profession. Perhaps I merely wished to save myself embarrassment. You saw how I mistook an ace-high straight for a busted flush."

"Kinda hard to mistake four queens for anything," Vin drawled.

"And is that what you think I was holding, Mr. Tanner?"

The tracker shrugged. "Don't need to think it. Know it. Ez had a full house, ain't but two hands can beat that. Cinch you didn't have no straight flush, not with what you was showin'."

For just a moment Maude's shoulders slumped. "I knew I should have burned them," she muttered, and, darting a quick glance around, drew the missing cards from her bag. Queen of diamonds, queen of spades, queen of clubs, queen of hearts. "And if I ever learn that Ezra has discovered this, I assure you, you will both regret it."

Chris looked at her with a new comprehension. Like many men, he was uncomfortable with words of love, and despite his deep attachment to Sarah, he had been far better at expressing his emotions by what he did, rather than what he said. He realized, now, that Maude, who was as tough-minded and practical as many men--more so than some--operated by the same rule. She couldn't tell Ezra in so many words that she loved him, or was proud of him, or regretted placing him in danger, or approved of the change he had made in his life. She could only show him. Indeed, given how long they'd followed "the game," making subtle amends of this kind was probably far more the style of mother and son alike than any blatant public apology would be. The gunfighter eyed the quartet of ladies with a gleam in his eye. "Reckon sometimes even you forget yourself, Maude. Seems like you're human after all."

"His point was not inaccurate," the woman observed. "It was my doin' that he found himself in a situation that proved nearly fatal. Had I not been so careless, years ago, as to have fallen afoul of the law and been forced to shill for it, Miranda Kane would have had no quarrel with me, and no cause to seek out Ezra to use as her pawn."

" 'Siah says it's all God's plan," Vin mentioned. "Maybe he's right. Maybe it had to happen like it done so's the two of you could get past what happened the last time you was in town. Ez can quit hatin' you now. Ain't good a man should hate his ma."

"On the other hand," Chris added, "you did save his life at the hotel, too." He levelled a challenging gaze at Maude. "You best not be plannin' to hold any of this over his head, Maude. Don't matter what you done; that just evens the score. You hurt him again, it won't matter to me you're his mother. He won't do me and the boys much good if you keep rippin' the heart out of him."

A small, smug smile appeared on the woman's face as she returned the cards to their hiding place. "I think you and I are quite evenly matched, Mr. Larabee. Each of us knows somethin' about the other that is better not publicly revealed."

Larabee's brows lifted. "And that would be?"

"That you care about my boy--more than I dare let him know I do. A fact of which I'm certain he would take joyous advantage, if he were ever to have it confirmed by the testimony of another--even if that other were myself." She glanced toward the Standish Tavern, where a flash of maroon in the doorway testified that Ezra was awake and moving about, and a quiet sigh lifted her shoulders a moment. "He isn't my 'darlin' baby boy' any more; in one sense, he never has been. He is a grown man, and he makes his own decisions. Even though I think this choice, this life, beneath him and ill-advised, if I hope to have any place in his future, if our relationship is to continue, I must accept that." She returned her attention to the two regulators just as the stage came thundering into view at the far end of the street. "Take care of him, gentlemen."

"Count on it," said Chris.

They stood a while and watched as a couple of passengers disembarked and claimed their luggage, the fresh team was brought up and hooked into place, and Maude's trunks were hefted onto the roof and secured. Chris handed her up the steps and shut the door behind her as she settled into a vacant seat, sweeping her glance around at her fellow travellers, choosing her marks. Then he stepped back and waved to the driver. "Let her go, Jim."

The whip nodded and yelled at his team, and they took off with a lunge, heaving some three tons of inertia-bound wood and metal and human flesh into motion. The men kept it in sight until it disappeared beyond the last straggling buildings of the main drag, then turned, as if animated by a common impulse, and crossed over to the saloon that was Ezra's once more.

The Southerner had resurrected the swamper's stepladder from the back storeroom and was standing atop it with a hammer in his hand, carefully and deftly driving a stout tenpenny nail into place in the center of the backbar's top frame while Inez steadied his perch from below. "Thought you didn't demean yourself with no manual labor, Ez," Vin observed.

"The word is 'menial,' Mr. Tanner, not 'manual,' " was the reply, as a couple of last light taps settled the nail where it was wanted. "The latter signifies simply anythin' done with the hands. The former implies low, mean, unpleasant tasks such as would be suited to the least dexterous or intelligent class of servant." He handed the hammer down to Inez and she passed up to him in turn a flat, rectangular wooden object which, when mounted on the waiting nail, turned out to be a small frame encasing Ezra's full house from the night before. "An innocent enough vanity, I dare say," he observed, noting their surprise, "and perhaps a lucky charm for the house. After all, if we contrive to have a 'full' one, say, three nights out of seven, we shall certainly make a profitable venture of the place." He carefully adjusted the frame, leaning perilously back on the step to make sure it was straight, and then descended, dropping gracefully to the floor from the next-to-lowest level. "And did my darlin' mother get safely off?"

"You knew she was goin'?" asked Chris. "Surprised you weren't there to see her leave."

"A wise man knows better than to rub his victims' faces in their misfortune," Ezra replied, his gold tooth winking in the dimness. "Mother will be quite all right, you know. Indeed, I don't doubt we shall soon enough be seein' her descend once again, like the fabled Furies, upon our peaceful little burg, sowin' confusion and distress in her train. Are you havin' somethin' to drink, gentlemen?"

"Coffee," Chris decided, and Vin nodded assent.

"Three cups, my dear," Ezra told Inez, and they adjourned to their table in the corner.

"Helluva way to talk about your Ma, Ez," the tracker muttered as he slacked into his favorite chair.

Standish's innocent grin broadened. "And of course you would inevitably be of that opinion, Mr. Tanner, considerin' the imperishable and incorruptible status of your own. But you must understand the character of our relationship. There is no changin' who Mother and I are. Our dyad has been shaped by years of betrayals, quarrels, rivalries, misunderstandin's, abandonments, and unsaid words. That is not to say our bond is not strong. We accept what it has become, and by doin' so understand that we will always love each other, in the eccentric and sometimes bewilderin' fashion that each of us finds easiest to deal with." He plucked his own aromatic brandy-spiked mug off the tray Inez brought, sniffed deeply of the steam and sipped contentedly. "She is a good mother, you know--accordin' to her own lights. She has always done her best for me. She has taught me everythin' she knows--well, perhaps not quite everythin', but certainly more than enough to enable me to make my way in life. She has given me opportunities she never had. She wishes me well. And sometimes--occasionally--she can still take an uncharacteristic risk, as she did in the hotel, or make an unexpected sacrifice, as she did last night."

The tracker and the gunfighter exchanged startled glances. "What do you know about what went on in the hotel?" Chris demanded.

"Merely what an intelligent observer might deduce, from fragments of conversation overheard and a dim, fevered memory of voices and gunshots," said the gambler calmly. "I know Mother was there, and another woman whose speech was not unfamiliar to me. I know that woman is dead. Clearly, if a person meets a violent end, someone killed him--or, in this case, her. I sincerely doubt that any of you gentlemen was responsible; you're far too chivalrous."

Larabee narrowed his eyes, squinting thoughtfully at the younger man. "And last night?"

The gold tooth flashed. "You have just confirmed it, Mr. Larabee. You forget, perhaps, that I have played far more games of poker in my life than yourself. I know how players bet and why. I know she had four queens. I knew it from the beginnin'. No doubt she thinks I am unaware of her rather transparent little subterfuge, but it did not escape me that she was careful not to permit the contents of her hand to become public knowledge."

Chris frowned. "Now, damn, Ezra, I know you used to con for a living, but don't that kind of defeat the purpose of what you were tryin' to do, knowin' she had you beat and chose to give up?"

"Not at all, Mr. Larabee," the Southerner retorted with a smile. "The significance of the act remains the same. By foldin' a winning hand, Mother in effect tendered her apology to me--or, at the least, admitted that she had indeed placed my life in danger, as I maintained. You should be aware, by now, that we are not people who speak our minds--even to each other--where others can overhear. I never wished to shame her, only to know that my sense of fitliness had been vindicated. She knows me well enough to have understood that." He stood, tipping his hat. "And now, if you will excuse me, Miss Rosillos and I must review the business books. I shall take up my patrol at three o'clock, as previously arranged." He and the Latina vanished through the door of the little office, which opened off the kitchen passage.

"Well, hell," said Vin querulously, after a moment.

Chris shook his head in wry admiration. "Those Standishes. Every time you think you got 'em pegged, they'll take you by surprise all over again. I wonder if we'll ever figure 'em out?" But his lips curved in a triumphant smirk as he reached for his coffee cup.

"What's got you lookin' like the coyote that ate the jackrabbit, cowboy?" the tracker inquired.

"Think about it," Larabee suggested. "I got him. He's got a stake in this town now, somethin' that'll tie him to it. He's got somethin' real, somethin' he can't pick up and take with him, somethin' he's been dreamin' of and workin' toward most of his life. He won't be runnin' out again. I got him."

Vin wondered whether Ezra was still close enough to overhear, because if he did he would almost certainly realize that he'd let himself in for a lot more than simply the normal concerns of a businessowner. Chris raised his cup in the direction of the framed cards. "Here's to a full house--seven nights out of seven."




Pawn Index

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