by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


Four Corners

Three Days Later

Chris Larabee left the restaurant and walked down to the jail, where he settled comfortably into one of the old Windsor chairs flanking the barrel that was used as a checkers table, extracted a cheroot from his vest pocket, bit off the end, scratched a match on his boot sole, lit up and began slowly drawing on the tobacco as his pale eyes scanned the streetscape before him. In his career as a gunfighter, both before his marriage and since his family's death, he had learned that it was best not to fall into a routine, and regardless of what any of the other six might do, he stuck to that principle. Some days he ate at the saloon, some days in the hotel dining room, some days at the café, and some days he went down to the Mexican part of town and patronized the outdoor beanery, the cantina, or the chili-and-enchilada shop there. Some days he ate a little early, some days later, and some--like today--just around noon. It was that unpredictability of habit, as much as his own alertness and speed, that had kept him alive well past an age at which most men in his line were either retired or buried.

Through the open window he could hear the creak of the swivel chair's pivot spring and the rustle of pages turning. JD was on duty just now, probably reading one of his dime novels. Nathan and Josiah, who had returned from the Seminole village two days ago, were off rotation; they'd be covering patrol later on. Buck was on circle, and Vin was somewhere around; he'd show up when he was needed, he always did.

Larabee smothered a sigh as he remembered again Buck's report of Ezra's initial reaction to the prospect of leaving town. Had he really cowed the gambler that much? He hadn't wanted to. It was true he held little brief for traitors, cowards, or men who refused to do their share, but it had certainly been no part of his plan to break the man's spirit. Out here, if you didn't have spirit, you couldn't last. And for all Standish's annoying traits, Chris had always rather liked that in him. There were so few men who had the guts not only to stand up to him but to make a habit of ruffling his feathers. Irritating though the man could be, Chris sometimes actually found him refreshing.

Other times he wondered whatever had possessed him to recruit Ezra to the team. The Southerner seemed to know exactly what to say and do to set off the gunfighter's fury, and there were days when having him around kept Chris so stirred up he couldn't think straight. He was--at least sometimes--self-serving, self-centered, lazy, arrogant, pretentious, manipulative, sarcastic, difficult, obtuse, and downright exasperating. He went his own way, didn't want or need anyone (or so he'd like to have them think), and God help you if you got in his way: he'd cut you off at the knees with that razor tongue of his without so much as raising a sweat--or his voice. His abrasive wit could be hurtful, especially to sensitive souls like JD, or Vin when he was troubled. And sometimes, too, he spoke out of anger and without thought, and said things that hurt all the more. At one time or another he'd driven every one of them to distraction (some, like Larabee himself, more than once), not excluding Josiah, who ordinarily had the patience of the mountain he resembled, and JD, who was about the least likely of any of them to give offense to his friends or take it from anything they said. He could be as stubborn and bullheaded as any of them, although usually he veiled it with sarcasm and a smile and a litany of polite refusals and excuses, all very jovial and civilized, nothing like the cold keep-away wall that Chris erected. He could never come straight out with anything or do something the easy way; he had to circle the long way around the barn before he came to the point. Thinking it over, Chris wondered if that was part of what had formed the unexpected bond between him and Vin. For all his quietness, Vin, who had lived with Indians, would have experienced their tendency to skirmish oratorically around a point, and perhaps for that very reason he understood Ezra a lot better than he let on. Certainly the tracker had once said that Ezra had something eating away at him like an old hound at a bone, and he just wasn't ready to stop hiding it behind that con-artist, stone-cold-bastard front he put up.

Of course the Southerner had never been a gunfighter in the sense that Chris or Buck had, if by that word you meant someone who made a living by being a hired gun, or who engaged in gunplay for fun or in search of a reputation. Well-armed though he was, he preferred to use his guns sparingly, and generally in defense instead of in aggression. He made his money and kept his freedom and his safety with words first, and then guns when necessary to back up those words. He was an expert shot, but it wasn't his first choice in a conflict. He far preferred to think, talk, or bluff his way out of an altercation, given a choice. After all, to be a successful gambler--or a con artist--you needed to stay in business, something you couldn't do if you were forever beating up or shooting your marks. Facility with words was a necessity to success, and Ezra's first reaction was to try to talk his way out of trouble rather than shooting. He was, first and foremost, a gambler and con man; that was how he had made his living for years and how he saw himself. Chris had met a few of the type in his career, and he knew they almost never resorted to violence--in fact, they tended to be somewhat of cowards, or at least slow to choose violent solutions to their problems. Ezra certainly qualified as a gunslinger, but it wasn't really his reputation, and he tried to avoid resorting to it, preferring to present himself as a gentleman gambler/businessman. His gun skill was almost incidental, probably in part because he was Southern, and shooting well was something all antebellum Southern males, of any social level, were expected to do. Even his original association with the other six had probably been, in his mind, a one-time job which he saw as a means to an end--or several ends: it got him out of town, which had become a somewhat "hot" location in the short term (due to gambling and conning, not gunplay); it might lead him to a gold mine; it was going to bring in some money on a job that, at the outset, didn't look nearly as "hopeless" as it turned out to be. He might have already been making plans to skip, thinking that six men with guns would be easy to dodge once he'd collected his own money and they were engaged shooting at a lot of other people.

For all that, Chris had sized him up from the first as a man with a lot of guts and cleverness, since it took brass to face down an entire room as he'd done. Chris knew how to read men, and he saw that Ezra was truly a fighter, under the talk and show. He could be quarrelsome, but not recklessly so. It always struck Larabee (at least when he wasn't on the receiving end of it) as calculated--that he was reading his opponent and gauging just how far he could go, and whether he held the upper hand. He would never push a fight in a no-win situation, and he was willing to flee, if the opening was there to escape in one piece. He would certainly have shot someone in the saloon the day they met; that wasn't bluff. He would have preferred not to, and had certainly had every intention of getting out of there bloodlessly if they'd let him, but he would have dropped the next man who came at him. He'd had Chris, Vin, Buck and Nathan pegged as neutrals, and thus no threat to him, which allowed him to subtract them from the equation of his problems; much of the earliest friction between him and Nathan probably came from the fact that, when Larabee and Tanner first moved to intervene, the healer pointedly ignored the whole situation--although his having since assumed the role of Ezra's "moral compass" didn't help. The gambler hadn't had any sense that they were likely to help him, merely that he need not fear them shooting him, if things fell apart. He was reading the room, measuring his chances, and getting the hell out of there--whatever it took. He had, after all, just been passing through that town, needing some quick cash, and stopping in that saloon was purely a fluke incident. Certainly that "dusty backwater," as he often called it, would never have been a destination of his, especially with the town falling apart in chaos, as it was then.

He wasn't a coward. Chris had never believed he was. He knew a professional gambler's arsenal necessarily must include courage. He knew that a man with Ezra's level of skill risked being accused of cheating, being called on it, being forced into a gunfight, every time he sat down at a poker table. If Ezra weren't willing to face that possibility, he would have given up cards long ago. But that was in the nature of self-preservation, which was, after all, the first law of nature. To employ that courage in the interests of others--why had Chris believed he would have that in him? And he had. He'd run out once, briefly, but he'd come back. That said something very important about him. And where children were concerned, especially, he was about the softest touch on two feet. You're a damn fraud, Ezra, the gunfighter thought. I guess a con artist always is. But I've got a notion you didn't realize just how you were foolin' yourself.

The Southerner still kept his conning skills as sharp as ever, was still looking out for a way to make his fortune, but more and more he was showing his honorable side, employing his skills to help others rather than rook them. Of course, if you pointed this out to him, he would pretend to be insulted. The others realized that, and teased him about his outwardly selfish attitude and nefarious habits, yet they knew he could be counted on. And more and more often, now, he actually seemed to be happy, to have a contentment about him that had been missing in the beginning. Maybe he was finally settling in. Chris found that he was glad to think that the gambler was allowing himself to become part of something bigger than he was. Had he been searching all along for the opportunity? Was that what Larabee had sensed in him, that unadmitted, perhaps unrealized, need to belong? He had always tried to give the impression that he needed no one--tried and, for a long time, succeeded. He made it hard to see the real man beneath the nonchalant, self-sufficient exterior. Yet the gunfighter was beginning to understand now that Ezra was nowhere near as self-confident as he tried to appear. He had been--as Josiah claimed they all were--a seeker for a long time; only what he was seeking wasn't anything near as concrete as the revenge Chris wanted, or the clean slate Vin desired. It was something much harder to define and to acquire: acceptance, friendship, a home.

Thinking it over, and especially since his first meeting with Maude, Larabee found he could hardly blame Ezra for being the man he was. From an early age he'd been taught to look out for number one, to believe that everyone had an angle, everyone wanted something from him. It must have been a colossal risk--a risk exceeding anything he had ever taken at a poker table--for him to go as far in trusting them as he had. After all, at a poker table he risked only losing money, or perhaps his life. In this group he risked losing his heart. Chris knew what that was like. He had fought against it himself, fought and lost. He had also seen it in Vin, whose heart he seemed to know on some level so deep it couldn't even be described as instinct. In the earliest stages of his membership in the group, Vin had been wary and suspicious, not trusting any of them--except Chris--right away. Though he seldom said anything to substantiate the idea, Chris quickly guessed that he had been let down in the past and was used to having no one to depend on but himself. Finding that he was suddenly surrounded by people who cared what happened to him and were willing to watch his back was a huge adjustment for someone who was used to facing life alone. Probably it was much the same with Ezra, perhaps to a greater degree--which might have something to do with the closeness Larabee saw developing between the tracker and the gambler. Maude's unfeeling usage of her son, her cavalier dismissal of his dream, his hard work, his efforts to change himself and his life, told Chris volumes about the Southerner and aroused an unaccustomed pang of sympathy for the man. He had suffered through hard times himself, but he had at least had Buck to help him through the worst. Ezra apparently didn't have anyone at all--till he found the six of them. For him as for Vin--who at least had the memory of love and closeness from his mother--it must be a difficult concept to adjust to.

His mother. Maude. Damn. When Buck gave him the news he had been almost as stunned as Ezra had. Maddening ways aside, the woman had a vitality and spirit he liked--was, perhaps, the source of similar attributes in her son. She put him in mind of the much younger Southern belles he had encountered during the War--and of Sarah and Mary. She was a paradox--a strong woman, capable and intelligent, resourceful and endlessly clever, yet poised and dainty in her ways, refined and ladylike in her bearing. He couldn't approve of the way she had treated Ezra in his boyhood, or the way she treated him now; her conduct during the War of the Saloons, as it had been described to him later, disgusted him. She always behaved as if her son owed her something. Difficult as he was to read, she was worse; even Chris, as skilled as he was at estimating people, found it hard to figure her out. Yet he certainly didn't wish her ill. And, like Buck and Vin and JD--like Ezra himself--he found it hard to get his mind around the concept of her being in peril of her life. He couldn't imagine any sickness having the plain gall to batten onto her. Hell, he'd always figured she'd likely talk it to death before it could take hold.

He hoped Ezra had been in time. He hoped she'd end up being less seriously stricken than that doc up in Trinidad seemed to think she was. He hoped she'd be all right.

If she wasn't...he didn't like to think what that might do to Ezra. For all the rough times she'd given him, the gambler genuinely loved her. He longed almost pathetically to gain her recognition and respect, to be granted some clear sign that she felt a genuine affection for him. He wrote to her regularly, every week or two, and often seemed disappointed that she responded about one time out of five. He wanted her to think--and to tell him--that he had done well, that he had made her proud. Chris found it puzzling that she apparently never had. Southerners, in his experience, tended to be much more open in the expression of their feelings than were people from above the Mason-Dixon Line; that was one reason they were so famous as duellers. Of course, Maude was a gambler and a con artist, and had trained herself to conceal her true character and inward thoughts. Maybe by now it was second nature for her to continue to do so where others could see, even if they were her son's day-to-day associates. Still, you'd think that she'd open up to him in private. It was something he desperately needed. All the painful little insecurities that were so much a part of his makeup stemmed as much from what he perceived as her rejection, or at least her bare tolerance, as from anything else, including what respectable society thought of people who followed either of his professions.

The gunfighter frowned to himself as he remembered stopping in at the post office a couple of days ago and being told by the clerk that a letter had come for the gambler. The postmaster had asked where Ezra was, and whether he'd be picking up his mail. Chris had recognized the handwriting as Maude's and had noticed that it was postmarked from Colorado Springs. That didn't exactly surprise him, since he knew the town was a popular health resort among the well-to-do and famous--just the kind of people she'd be eager to practise her cons on. The postmark was dated two days before Ezra had left town. She must've written it just before she took out, he decided. He explained the Southerner's absence and got the postmaster to hand the missive over to him with the promise that he'd see Ezra got it. If her condition was as serious as the telegram had suggested--worse, if she died--the last thing he'd be needing, in the shock that would follow naturally upon such a situation, would be to read some chatty or derogatory message written just before whatever had happened happened. Chris hadn't opened it himself--Ezra deserved at least some measure of privacy. He wished to hell the man would get in touch and let them know what was going on up there.

Some subliminal awareness turned his head in time to see Vin approaching from the direction of Yosemite's stable; most likely he'd been checking on his horse, as they all did at various times during the day. He caught the almost imperceptible hesitation in the tracker's progress and smothered a sigh, nodding toward the other chair in silent invitation. Damn. Vin was still skittish around him even after more than a week back in town, two since they'd left the emigrants on their land. What the hell were you thinkin' about, Larabee? You as good as told him you didn't think you could count on him any more, and you know that's a damn lie. He's the other half of you, he has been since that first day. How can you not count on him? How can he think that you don't? The problem was that it was always difficult to talk to Vin about anything that touched his secret inner places. He'd been hurt so often in his life that he was very tender inside and had a habit of hugging old pains--and new ones--to himself, like a child with a rag doll. Like Ezra, he was inclined to run from closeness, the difficulty being that Ezra did it with words, and Vin did it physically. And when you did succeed in getting him to sit down and listen, you could about talk your lungs out and he'd barely say a word; you could never be sure he was comprehending you.

I can't lose him, Larabee thought desperately. I gotta find some way to make him see we're still...friends ain't a strong enough word. But how?

"Saloon don't seem right somehow," the Texan observed quietly.

Chris nodded. "I know. I keep lookin' toward Ezra's table and expectin' to see that red coat, or his gold tooth flashin', or the cards whippin' through his hands as he shuffles. When I don't, I feel like I just caught my toe in a rough place in the boardwalk. He ain't been gone a week and it's--'too quiet' ain't the right way of sayin' it. Just...wrong."

"Done noticed it afore, like when you's in Jericho," Tanner agreed. "Or if one of us is hurt, like JD them times, and not hangin' with the rest. Like a piece of each of us is missin' right along with him."

Chris sighed. "Yeah. Reckon that's a good way to put it." Like a piece of me feels like it's missin' now, thinkin' I screwed up what we've got.

Vin tilted his chair back on its hind legs, watching Larabee out of the corner of his eye. As always, he seemed to know, without knowing how he knew, what was most on the gunfighter's mind: their absent friend. The same was true of himself. It still surprised him some to realize anew, as he did at intervals, just how much the friendship and presence of the other six meant to him--and none more than Ezra. In the beginning, Vin had been a little intimidated by him--his fine clothes, his speech, his languid manner. Men like Chris or Buck he understood; men like the gambler simply weren't a part of life as he had lived it. He couldn't imagine how he--a scruffy, half-Indianized buffalo hunter/bounty hunter--could have anything in common with a sophisticated Southern-gentleman gambler. He had been certain, at first, that Ezra would light out one day, when the pickings got slim or his fancy clothes started wearing out, and the other six would be lucky if he didn't choose to disappear right before some big dust-up. But keen perception and an ability to judge human character had always been necessary survival traits for Vin, and it hadn't taken him long to realize that there was a lot more to Ezra than he wanted to let people know about. Having learned to see past the stoicism Indians put on in the white world, the tracker found that as he became used to the Southerner he was likewise able to peer past the mask he presented, and to comprehend how truly vulnerable Ezra was inside--like himself.

Getting to know the gambler hadn't been easy. You had to take a lot of time at it--if he'd let you--before you realized who he really was. You had to be willing to take the trouble to get beyond the apparent nonchalance/indifference/cynicism, the feints and sarcasm, and find and appreciate the man who had built that careful façade. Vin was glad he'd had the patience to accept the challenge. He suspected he was the only one of the group who had. He had actually found the process enjoyable, and now he counted Ezra as a true friend. They didn't talk about it, but he thought they understood each other, in a strange way. Both of them wore masks to keep the world at bay; Vin's was silence and solitude, Ezra's was fine manners and fancy talk and his flashy wardrobe. Yet, where it counted, they were very much alike. And as time went on, Vin had learned to read the Southerner better. He had come to recognize the long-suffering sigh that was contradicted by the sparkle in the green eyes, and the dimpled grin, so openly playful, so honestly happy, and so very different from Ezra's usual self-deprecating smirk, or the tight-lipped smile that was more a sign of displeasure and anger than anything else.  He enjoyed the occasional glimpse of green eyes lit up with secret amusement that was almost never explained and rarely shared. He enjoyed the way Ezra’s elegant, fine-boned hands handled a deck of cards with such easy, careless grace, or a gun with deadly accuracy.  He found himself listening closely to that honey-smooth Southern drawl, not caring what was said, just savoring the sound of the voice itself. He had found that when it was just the two of them, on the trail or doing patrol, Ezra had an easygoing attitude, and a relaxed approach that meshed nicely with Vin's own nature. And he had never once seen Ezra shirk any task he'd been assigned.  He might complain about it, eloquently and at length, but he never failed to do his duty.  He knew how to take care of himself as well as any of the rest of them did; his fancy clothes and gentlemanly airs hid more iron than just the Remington on his hip, the Colt under his coat or the deadly little derringer tucked up his sleeve. Hell, the man had worn a dress, which was something Tanner doubted any of the others would have been willing to do even if they'd thought they could pull off the part.  It often troubled the tracker that Chris and Nathan especially, and to a lesser extent Josiah, seemed to hold Ezra to a different standard, to judge him more harshly, say and do things to him that they'd never dream of doing to each other.

It must have taken a lot of guts for Ezra to take that first step, to learn to trust. Vin knew; he'd been there. For the first couple of months he'd tried to keep from thinking about how comfortably the seven of them worked together, how the others all seemed to accept him, how good it felt when Chris talked of him as "one of his men." He hadn't wanted to count on any of it because he'd been sure it wouldn't last. In that, he sensed, he and Ezra were alike. He comprehended part of what made the gambler tick, and was fascinated by the part he hadn't figured out yet. They were both intensely private people who had been hurt often in the past and had learned to be slow and cautious in giving their trust, who had had to depend upon themselves only. Vin had spent five years as "a duty" taken in by his father's sister but never made to feel loved, then gone on to the Comanches where, although both loved and accepted, he had never been able to settle fully. And in the end he had been torn away from them, as his mother had been torn away from him, even more cruelly. He had learned early on not to put his trust or his heart in people or places, because they were fleeting and certain to be taken from him, and to cling stubbornly to the few things he owned--like Peso and his wagon and his jacket--because so much of who he was was tied up in them. Ezra might have had his mother far longer, might have her still, but only in the sense that she wasn't dead; probably he hadn't spent much more actual time with her than Vin had with his. Instead he'd been passed from one relative to another, claimed by Maude only when she needed him or on those rare occasions when she'd snared a husband capable of supporting both of them in style. He too had learned to mistrust people and places, though he dearly loved his "things," if only because they, at least, had never betrayed or deserted him. He also loved money, not so much for its own sake as because he didn't understand how life could go on without it, or that some problems couldn't be solved with it. To him it equaled control, security, maybe even love. And he had learned, or at least been led to believe, that no one in the world really needed him, not even his mother. The experience had severely stunted his ability to empathize, to understand how others were feeling, because he himself had seldom if ever known anyone he loved enough to care whether they lived or died--or anyone who showed any sign of loving him enough to care whether he did.

Then, without warning, both had found themselves part of something much bigger than their individual selves, something for which nothing in their lives before had ever prepared them, and which they still couldn't always understand or accept--a tight circle of friends, of family, against whose unaccustomed bonds they continued to struggle occasionally, fearing what it would mean if they allowed themselves to get too comfortable. They actually understood each other very well, even if they didn't talk much about it, and trusted each other because both were only too familiar with the experience of betrayal. Their rapport often puzzled their friends, yet to them it seemed as natural as breathing. And each was content to respect and maintain the other's privacy. When he was with Ezra, Vin could just sit back and listen if he was feeling sociable, and he wasn't expected to make small talk. He admired Ezra's agile, devious mind and sly, wicked sense of humor, his amazing ability to accurately read almost any person or situation, and he understood the isolation and loneliness Ezra often felt because he had felt it too. He could even comprehend Ezra's tendency to put on a poker face and claim he was fine even if he was hurt or sick. The gambler didn't want to show weakness or make his distress apparent to anyone. Vin could see that: blood on the trail brought predators, and sickness showed frailties that could get a man targeted by the human kind. Ezra had been trained never to let the chinks in his armor show; it was inevitable that he would extend that training to physical as well as emotional signage. He found it very difficult, very threatening, to be vulnerable, and in that, he and Vin were very similar, as they were in their reluctance, or ineptitude, at saying what they really felt. Yet, like Vin, Ezra really felt comfortable with the idea of becoming more and more a part of the group--and that scared him. He didn't want to show them how true it was, didn't want to commit, because his past experience had taught him that nothing--especially relationships--lasted. He might seem to be completely in control at all times, but underneath that façade he was terribly insecure. Being the skilled tracker he was, Vin had a keen understanding of the value of camouflage, but Ezra was the true master of it. He hid his true self so successfully behind that bland, amoral, uncaring persona that most people who had occasion to deal with him saw only what he wanted them to see. He'd even fooled the keen-eyed Texan for a while--and that was no easy task; it was one reason Vin felt a genuine respect for him. Sometimes Tanner thought that Ezra was as truly confused about his real character as was anyone he tried to throw off the scent--which troubled him. It reminded him too keenly of his own loneliness and reluctance to trust. Yet for all his painful past, Vin at least had been taught from an early age to retain a core of essential optimism regarding the human race; he could remember his ma telling him, when he was just a little feller, "There's always going to be people that hurt you, so what you have to do is keep on trusting and just be more careful about who you trust next time around." Though the maxim hadn't had the force of her final, dying admonition about "being a Tanner," it had made a deep impression on him. He had followed her teaching, and it had enabled him to accept the other six men as his friends, but all Ezra had learned from his ma--and his experiences in life--was cynicism and the necessity of self-concealment.

He wondered just how much Maude had really had to do with the making of Ezra's character. He understood that it was she who had taught him much of what he knew about both conning and gambling, and he knew that when Ezra was a small boy she had dragged him from one relative to another, not letting him stay with her. Vin realized that Ezra must have found that painful: like any child, he had wanted to be with his mother. But at least he still had her, and a part of Vin could understand why Maude had done it: in a profession that often kept her out till all hours at night and sometimes demanded quick decamping, she couldn't afford to burden herself with a small child. Once her son got old enough to look after himself part of the time and to understand the urgency of their work's various demands, she had reclaimed him, and--to hear him talk of it--they had had a pretty good time for a decade or so. Vin had been fascinated, listening to Ezra's stories of Europe, New York, Saratoga, Newport, New Orleans, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, the riverboats. Not that he had any desire to live in any of those places himself, but Ezra was a born tale-spinner, as Vin supposed a successful con man had to be, and he made it sound like a fairyland, like something out of the books Vin's Ma had read him when he was just tiny.

It dismayed Vin, even as it intrigued him, to see how the relationship between mother and son had changed now that Ezra had become a man. Maude seemed scornful of everything Ezra did and said, and Ezra--when he saw her, that first time she came to town, he got a look in his eyes that Vin had only ever seen in a man who'd just been gut-shot. She was vain, selfish, arrogant, and inconsiderate; she could mask her scorn well with her honeyed words and languid drawl, but Vin knew she didn't have much use for, well, himself, for one--thought her son wasn't keeping anywhere near the kind of company he was suited to. She almost seemed to take delight in baiting the gambler, seeking out the most vulnerable places in his soul and sinking her claws deep into them; she claimed she was "keeping him sharp," but Vin had his doubts. And Ezra...he actually seemed to resent her. Resent her. How could a man resent his own mother, especially when he owed her everything that had allowed him to earn his livelihood all these years? When without her he would never have existed?

Yet even through his reverence for womanhood, Vin admitted that Maude was not without stain. And it puzzled him. Did she really not know as much about being a mother as she seemed to? Had she ever been what Vin remembered of his own ma? Had she ever cradled her son in her lap when he was small, sung to him, crooned to him, read to him, played games with him? Ever tucked up her skirts and gone wading with him in the nearest branch or pond, helping him catch polliwogs? Ever prepared some treat he loved and watched as he dived voraciously into it? It was hard to build a mind-picture of her doing any of those things. But it was sometimes--often--hard, as well, to think of Ezra as a little boy, and of course he must have been one, twenty-five years ago. So that was no test.

He'd ought to' ve made it up to Trinidad long since, even iffen he weren't pushin', Vin thought. Wisht he'd send a wire and let us know he's all right, let us know how his ma's doin'.

The notion of his friend suffering a loss similar to his own troubled the sharpshooter, and he deliberately turned his mind from it, to a consideration of the peculiar dynamics of this group of which he had so unexpectedly become a part--all because of Chris. Vin respected Chris, even admired him (which was a sentiment he had felt toward very few men in his life); he respected Larabee's judgment, was proud to call him friend (and be called so in return), and genuinely cared about the older man's welfare. Yet Chris had gotten so used to pushing people away, it was possible he no longer realized he was doing it. And Vin knew, too, that while neither of them was willing to admit to it, Chris and Ezra needed each other's respect--and friendship. It often dismayed the tracker that Larabee often seemed so willing to accept himself--a man who had lived among Indians, lived as an Indian (with all that that implied), killed for bounty and taken in his fellow man as a rancher might take in a wolf or coyote--and not Ezra, whose offenses were far milder. It didn't seem fair to him that, because he and the gunfighter were so very much alike, had caused far more deaths than Ezra had probably ever thought of (and probably with less reason, in more than one instance), Chris should tolerate him better than he did the Southerner. True, Vin hadn't committed the murder that had led to his want, but if he hadn't been a certain kind of person, done certain things before that murder occurred, why would Tascosa have found it so easy to believe him capable of Kincaid's death? What if, some day, some part of his past rode into town that Chris didn't like? Would Chris be there to cover his back? He and Ezra were both trying to change from what they'd been, wanting to be judged for who they were now, who they were trying to become, not who they'd been. Larabee was doing it too, and Nathan, and Josiah, and even Buck. Why did they all seem to find it so much harder to forgive Ezra his past transgressions than they did one another's, Vin's included? Because he had played upon others' trust in ways none of the rest of them had? Because they thought his doing so meant that he must necessarily be playing everything as a con? That wasn't right. Josiah said that if a man repented his sins and sincerely tried to do better, God would forgive him. What made Nathan, say, think he was entitled to set himself up to be more biased than God? Vin wished he could say all this to the rest of them as easily as he could think it, but he didn't like being in situations where he had to serve as other people's consciences. His own wasn't that clear for him to feel comfortable in the role. It seemed to him that the facts of a thing should be plain to anyone as intelligent as his friends, if only they would take the time to stop and think about it. Words shouldn't be needed; the situation itself should be enough.

Vin had never had anyone to push away. Always, in the end, they went first. That was why he'd found it so difficult to understand Hank Connelly and Chris's failure to support him. His own experience, by not offering him much opportunity to stand up for family, had made the concept of defending your own all the more vital to him. Yet--again like Ezra--though he'd had no blood sibs of his own, he had studied the dynamics of sibling groups from without: the cousins he'd lived with till he could bear his aunt's tyranny no longer, the Comanches who had taken him in, even some of the men he'd known on the buffalo range, like the Masterson brothers, or tracked for bounty. He understood--as perhaps Ezra didn't--that in a large family there were always sure to be bumps and rough spots, fights and disagreements and moments when you really didn't approve of what a brother or sister did or was. Still, you loved that person, gave your protection, your help through the hard times. It was good to like the person you loved, though not possible a hundred per cent of the time. That didn't make the love any less real. Did Ezra understand this as he did? The gambler, like himself, was afraid to warm up to others, but Vin thought for different reasons. Vin feared losing the people he had come to care for, where Ezra was more likely afraid that he'd be disappointed, abandoned in his time of need. Certainly Maude had apparently set enough of a precedent that way. We gotta find us some way of makin' him see we ain't like her, ain't like all them kinfolks that wronged him. Soon's he comes back, we gotta go to work on it.

A shout from the north end of the street turned both their heads to see Buck on his gray approaching at full tilt, waving his free arm over his head, his hat bouncing down his back by its long jaw strap, and behind him a hundred yards or so the half-past-one stage from Colorado, like a maroon cannonball preceding its cloud of dust. That dust caught up and wrapped around it as it pulled up in front of the Gem, enveloping it in a haze of yellow, as Buck came on and leaped off his horse before the jail. Vin and Larabee stood up, recognizing that something out of the ordinary was in hand. "Holdup?" Chris asked.

"No," Buck replied, "but I met the stage on the road, and the Judge is on board. Says he wants to see us all, soon as we can get together."

The leader and the tracker looked at each other in surprise. This wasn't the time of the month that Travis was due in, and when he did come, it was supposed to be from the opposite direction. "I'll go meet him," Chris decided. "Buck, you get Nathan, he should be at the clinic. Vin, go down to the church and fetch Josiah."

Tanner nodded and set off at a jog, wondering if this was in some way connected to Ezra. That stage had its terminus at Trinidad, providing the chief connection between Four Corners and Denver; it travelled the same route the gambler would have been taking, and of course Judge Travis would have immediately recognized one of his own peacekeepers if he had encountered him.

In fifteen minutes they had assembled at the jail, where JD had politely vacated the swivel chair so Travis could have it. He noticed right away that there was someone missing, which, considering that the missing one was the flashiest in appearance of their company, was to be expected. "Where's Standish?"

"He was called out of town. Family business," Chris explained, and Vin felt the apprehension ease; if Travis didn't know where Ezra was, that cut way down on the possibility of his being aware that the man was in some kind of trouble. "What was it you needed to tell us, Judge? We weren't expectin' you for a couple of weeks yet."

"I've been up in Denver, testifying before a Congressional fact-finding committee," Travis replied. "Word reached me there that the necessary approvals have finally gone through for the annuities owed to Kojay's people and the other bands on the Reservation." The peacekeepers signified their understanding. The treaty which had been signed by the headmen of the assorted Apache groups dwelling on the tract, Kojay among them, had specified that they would be supplied not only with rations, blankets, instruction in the ways and skills of the white man, and the other usual things, but with cash compensation for the lands they had surrendered. The total figure, to be paid out over some twenty years, was supposed to come to well over a thousand dollars per person, but there had been some kind of wrangle in Washington over that provision of the agreement, and while the goods had been forthcoming on a steady basis, the money hadn't, up to now. The Apaches weren't making a fuss over it because money was alien to their traditional culture--they'd have been far more upset if the beef issue had failed to appear--but the Seven knew that Travis, as befitted a man devoted to justice, had been firing off letters regularly to various figures back East, urging them to live up to the whole of the bargain they'd made. "When's it comin'?" Buck asked.

"The first installment is to be delivered next week. Since it's Federal money, the Army will provide the basic escort for it. But the Army isn't on the ground as you gentlemen are, and the escort troops don't know this country. Understandably, Washington decided to make a lump-sum payment of all the monies that would have been distributed if the annuity provision had been approved at the outset, seven years ago. That means that instead of fifty dollars per Indian, we're looking at three hundred and fifty. The amount is calculated on the basis of the head-count that was taken when the Apaches first moved onto the Reservation, at which time there were almost 1550 of them. The figure that was quoted to me comes to $541,450."

JD whistled softly. "Damn," Buck muttered. "That's a lot of money."

"It is," Travis agreed, "and that's exactly the reason I wanted to warn you it was en route. Even most banks don't have that kind of money as total assets, let alone cash on hand. Though Washington gossip isn't likely to filter this far west, it's almost inevitable that somewhere along the line someone will notice the escort and the strongboxes they're guarding and begin to put two and two together. All they'll need to do is cull out one or two of the enlisted men in the detail and get them drunk enough to talk, and the fat will be in the fire. What's more, Four Corners is the town closest to the Reservation itself, and as such will naturally be the next-to-last stop the escort will make. I'll need you to render assistance to them--guiding, scouting ahead, watching for any sign that security has in fact been compromised."

Chris looked somber. "Reckon we can do that. What size escort are we lookin' at?"

"I don't know, but my guess would be a full troop, given the amount they're expected to safeguard. The Government will certainly recognize, as you did, that a prize of that size may prove an irresistible temptation to the outlaw element. Still, the journey from here to the Reservation involves some rather difficult country, and ambush is a possibility. That's why I wanted to call on your familiarity with the terrain."

"You figurin' to let the other law in these parts know 'bout this, Your Honor?" Nathan inquired. "Eagle Bend and Watsonville and maybe Ridge City got as much right as we do to have warnin' of what's comin' down on 'em."

"Yes, I want to send messengers to all those places, rather than risking someone tapping into the telegraph lines or getting hold of the file copies of my wires," the Judge agreed. "I won't expect any of you to do that; just provide me with the names of some men you know of who are trustworthy and have good horses--they'll be compensated for their time, of course. I did want to give the news to you first, because of the pivotal role you and this town will play in the distribution of the money." He paused. "When do you expect Ezra to return?"

"We don't know," Larabee admitted. "He got a wire from Trinidad on Wednesday. Seems his mother's up there in some doctor's care, and he don't hold out much hope."

Travis frowned. "His mother? In Trinidad? You're sure?"

"I read the telegram myself, Judge," Buck volunteered. "That's what it said."

The Judge's frown deepened. "Then someone is either very confused, playing a cruel trick, or setting you up. My train was delayed in Colorado Springs on the way down from Denver; a freight pulled a drawbar eight miles down track and a dozen cars went into the ditch when the shattered draft gear got under the trucks, and the whole track had to be cleared while they sent out men and equipment to attend to it. We stayed at the Colorado Springs Hotel overnight. I saw Mrs. Standish in the dining room, as near as I am to you, and as healthy as any of us. That was Friday night."

Chris came alert like a wiry black hound, thinking of the letter even then safely tucked away under the hearthstone in his shack. "You're sure?" he asked in his turn, his voice hard and sharp.

"I don't forget faces, Chris. You should know that from my first encounter with Ezra," Travis reminded him.

For a moment Larabee was rigid and still, only his eyes giving warning of the rapidly turning gears in his brain. Then he whirled and strode out of the building.

The others followed in a ragged line, catching up as he stormed into Wyatt's telegraph office and bent over the pad of forms set out on the counter. He wrote rapidly and tore off the leaf. "Send that," he ordered, "and don't waste time about it."

Wyatt adjusted his steel-rimmed spectacles and scanned the message for length.


"Eight words plus address and signature. That'll go at no charge, Mr. Larabee." He bent over his key and his fingers began clicking out the call signal. The six peacekeepers waited until a response came back, then watched as he rapidly sent the message and got the acknowledgment.

"I hope to hell she's using that name," Chris muttered, "or it'll never reach her. JD, stay here and fetch the reply when it comes. We'll be at the saloon."

The kid nodded without a word, plopped down on a bench and pulled his current dime novel out of his jacket pocket.

Patrols were forgotten as the five peacekeepers waited around their usual table. Drinks were ignored, talk desultory. Then JD came flying in with the answer. Chris tore it open and read aloud:


Larabee grated out an oath, crumpled the flimsy savagely into a ball and hurled it across the room. "He's in trouble."

"Somebody wanted him out of town, away from us, away from the ground he knows," Josiah murmured. "And they wanted him disorganized enough, focused enough on what he thought was Maude's imperilled health, that he wouldn't suspect the truth until it was too late."

"Damn," said Buck softly. And then, to Chris: "What do we do now, pard?"

"We go see the Judge," Larabee decided. "Whatever they planned--whoever they are--there's no chance of our stopping it now. But if they've harmed one of ours, they'll pay for it."

"Do you think...that he's dead?" JD asked tentatively.

The question brought them all up short. The gunfighter, with an obvious effort, focused his keen intellect on it and considered the possibility. "No," he said slowly after a moment. "If that was what they wanted, they could have made an opportunity for it easily enough--sent someone to get into a game with him and goad him into a fight, or slip him some poison like with those two lawyers from Kansas last year, or just bushwhack him while he was on patrol. No. They wanted him alive, and if they've gone to all the trouble of setting this up, they've got some reason to keep him that way."

"Means we got a chance to get him back, if we don't waste no time at it," Vin observed.

"That's what I was thinking," Chris agreed. "Let's go."

Travis had headed over to the Clarion, as he always did as soon after arriving in town as he could. They found him in Mary's parlor, listening as Billy recited something he'd memorized out of his reader. He looked up inquiringly as the six men strode in, all sixguns and coattails and grim expressions. Larabee laid it out for him with characteristic bluntness. "Maude's in Colorado Springs, sure enough. She says she hasn't seen Ez since she was here last. That wire he got was a scam of some kind. We're going after him."

It was the first time he'd said it aloud, but it surprised none of the others. Travis for his part looked troubled. "You can't do that, Chris. Quite apart from the needs of the town, there's the annuity money coming in. You'll have to go to Trinidad, which will take you two or three days up and as much back, setting aside whatever it takes for you to get on Standish's trail. I can't allow you to be absent at this juncture."

"We can't afford not to be," Chris retorted. "The longer we wait, the better the chance their trail gets too cold to follow." He drew himself up, shoulders taut, nostrils flared. "Nobody messes with a man of mine, Judge. Nobody. And nobody keeps me from him when he's in danger, either."

The older man stood from his chair, as stiff and resolute as his chief regulator. "Then am I to take this as your resignation?"

Chris hesitated just half a heartbeat before he replied. "If that's the way it has to be, I guess you are. I didn't ask for this job or these men, but I've got 'em now. I couldn't do the job without the men. They have to come first with me, always. Maybe if I'd had another choice I wouldn't have signed Standish on to begin with, but I did, and he's mine, and I won't let him down."

"I see," said Travis quietly. His steel-gray eyes raked the others, gathered behind their chief like clouds behind a thunderhead. "What about the rest of you?"

Buck stepped up on his oldest friend's left. "I stand with Chris."

"I stand with Buck," JD added, positioning himself at his mentor's flank.

Vin said nothing, only moved forward to stand at Chris's right. For an instant the green eyes flicked toward him and warmed with relief.

Nathan and Josiah exchanged a look, sighed, and joined the rest of the group. "Might be Ezra's needin' me to patch his sorry hide back together," the healer observed.

"Might be he'll be needing the comfort of Scripture," the preacher added.

Travis was silent a moment. "Very well."

"All right, then," said Chris. "Come on, boys. We've said what we came here for."

As they left the building he was issuing orders. "There's no point leaving now, we'll be losing the light in a few hours. JD and Buck, go have Yosemite check our horses' shoes, and look over our gear while he's doing it. Nathan, gather what you'll need and then get supplies together. Josiah, you'd better telegraph Maude. Tell her we need her to stay put until we can check things out in Trinidad."

They scattered to obey, leaving only Vin. "You ever been up that way, cowboy?" Chris asked his best friend.

"Time or two," the Texan agreed. "Some bad territory up back of the town. Caves and canyons and such with a heap of bad'uns roostin' in 'em."

"I'd heard that. Probably one reason they picked it. Good hideout country?"

"Some of the best I seen. Or worst, dependin' how you look at it."

The office door opened behind them and Vin rolled a quick glance that way. "Reckon I'll go give Bucklin and the kid a hand with Peso. You know he don't take to havin' his feet looked at."

"All right." Larabee watched him go, not turning. He knew who was standing there, watching him.

"You didn't have a choice," said Mary softly. "You have to go. I know that."

"There's always a choice," he retorted, his voice rough. "Just sometimes each one's got stickers to it, like bein' in between two walls of prickly pear in the brasada."

"But your going doesn't necessarily endanger anyone here," she replied evenly, "and your staying may endanger Ezra's life. You were right. You couldn't have done this job, this last year and some, without these men. You owe it to them to go when they need you."

"It shouldn't matter as much as it does," he said in a low growl. "Hell, it's just another town. I've passed through a hundred like it since I set out on my own, twenty-five years ago."

"Not like it," Mary observed. "Not really. You know that."

And now he did turn. "Mary--"

"Don't." She was there before he could finish the thought, her fingers on his lips. "Don't say it now. Now you need to save all your attention, all your energy, for your men. They'll need you. Afterward...there'll be time enough then to decide what's to come next. But know this: even if you aren't our regulators, you'll all have a place here, always, in recognition of everything you did while you were. Before you came, we were hanging on by a thread. Now we have a chance to survive. We're growing already. You did that. We won't forget."

"That wasn't what I was thinkin' about," he said.

"I know."

Just for a moment his expression softened, his mouth twisting wryly. "I'll bet you do. Do you know you're the most headstrong, exasperating, full-of-yourself woman I've ever met?"

"Considering how headstrong, exasperating, and full of themselves six other men are that I know," said she, smiling, "I'll take that as a compliment."

"I'll be back," he said quietly then. "We'll all be back and we'll bring Ezra home with us. Never doubt it."

"I don't. Not for a minute."

"Those people who've got him don't have the first notion what they're callin' down on their heads," he went on.

"No, they don't."

"We'll get him," Chris repeated. "And I'll see you after."

"Watch your back," she said, her voice almost light.




Pawn Index

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