The Wizard of Ez

by Angie

I started this around Thanksgiving after the inevitable seasonal showing of one of my favorite movies. The title bounced around in my head and morphed. I truly wish I were a better poet so that I could have used more of the songs.

This story takes place after Ella Gains escapes.

Buck stared at the storm growing on the horizon. He and JD had been searching for Ella Gains for the past few days and he was bone weary. His traveling companion looked equally as weary, his long, dark hair hung in his face in sweat-soaked strands. From the set of his shoulders, Wilmington could tell that the kid was asleep in the saddle.

Just then, a sudden, cool breeze blew in hard from the west. JD scrambled to catch his bowler hat before the wind made off with it, now fully alert. The horses shifted uneasily as if they sensed that Mother Nature was about to let them have it with both barrels. An ominous roll of thunder rumbled across the valley and both men looked around with thoughts turning to shelter.

“Come on, JD, we better get under cover before that storm gets here. I think I saw a cabin back up the trail a little ways. It wasn’t much but it’ll be better than nothing.”

The young sheriff didn’t argue at all as he turned his horse to follow his friend.

It was just starting to rain when they reached the cabin. It had been long since abandoned for some reason. The door stood ajar and one shutter fluttered back and forth in the rising wind, squeaking loudly on its rusty hinges. The sky had quickly darkened and the wind was now whipping the cold rain into sharply driven needles of ice.

Buck jumped from Ghost and grabbed for Lady’s reins. JD was having a little trouble with the pony; she had the bit in her teeth and was determined to continue on to the warm stall she knew lay waiting for her in Four Corners. As the kid jumped down, Lady reared up, tearing the reins from Wilmington’s hands and galloping off into the darkness.

JD started after the horse, calling her name until the firm hand gripping his coat by the collar stopped him. He turned on Buck to object as an explosion of lightning, close to where the two men were standing, answered a sudden roll of thunder! Dunne ducked his head, as if that would help, and started for the cabin.

The interior of the cabin was in shambles. Animals had apparently been using it for a den at different times and there was spoor of several different kinds around the floor. Fishing in his saddlebags, Buck found a small tin filled with wax and a candlewick. Lighting the candle with a match, he set it on the mantle above the fireplace.

Ghost snorted and tossed his head at the strange accommodations. The building smelled of predators that were dangerous to both man and horse, a cougar or mountain lion had recently marked the building. A nervous swish of his tail struck his owner and caused him to turn to regard the animal.

“I know, it isn’t your stall but it beats being out in the storm, horse, so let’s make the best of the situation. Now, you just settle down over here in the corner and I’ll get that tack off of you in a few minutes.”

Turning to his young friend, he suggested softly.

“JD, why don’t you see if you can find enough wood to get a fire going in the hearth there and we can throw together a meal?” Seeing that the kid was worried sick about his mount, Buck clasped his shoulder. “She’ll be okay. As soon as the storm passes, we’ll go looking for her. Hell, she’ll probably run all the way to town and the guys will be out here looking for us before mid morning.”

With a loud sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, JD nodded and went about picking up anything on the floor that he could use for a fire. There were several broken pieces of furniture and a few pieces of firewood that had been ranked up alongside of the fireplace. The wood was old and dry, but not too rotted, perfect for a quick fire. He had a merry blaze burning within a few minutes.

The fire provided enough light for them to move about safely in the little cabin. Outside, the storm raged in all its fury. The rain poured down, mixing briefly with small hail. The thunder and lightning intensified over the cabin and rain dripped in thru various holes in the aged, rotting roof.

Buck busied himself with making a meal of the provisions he carried in his saddlebags after removing the saddle from the horse and settling him into the corner. JD used the water from his canteen to make a pot of coffee to go with their meal. After a while, they had ham and beans and a pan of cornbread to go with the coffee.

Over the noise of the driving rain came an ominous sound. JD looked up at Buck, wide eyed, as he processed what the sound meant. It sounded like a train roaring by outside of the cabin. The young sheriff’s ears popped as the air pressure changed suddenly. Ghost shifted in the corner and nickered in fear.

The cabin began to shudder and Buck grabbed JD as he tried to shout over the noise. The words were snatched away by the wind and Wilmington grabbed the smaller man and pushed him down beside the stone fireplace, wrapping his body around him for protection. With a horrifying creaking and ripping sound, the roof of the building was lifted away and a large section of the front wall collapsed.

Ghost continued to whinny and toss his head as the storm raged and the funnel cloud shredded the building around him. The roaring of the wind drowned out all sound and the frightened animal reared up on his hind legs as a ceiling beam struck his hip, tearing a gash in the skin and muscle. The horse continued to whinny and snort as he began to kick out at the wall behind him with his iron-clad hooves.

Buck looked up from his position over JD just in time to see the timber tear the flesh of his mount. The animal was working himself into a frenzy, kicking and snorting as the storm continued to unleash its fury.

“JD! I have to try to calm Ghost! You stay down! Keep your head covered!” The ladies man shoved away from the corner and moved carefully across the small room to Ghost’s side. He grabbed the reins and tried to get his handkerchief threaded thru the headstall so that he could blindfold the frightened gelding. Another flash of lightening further traumatized the animal and he reared up, striking Buck a glancing blow to his head. The man sank to the floor like a sack of wet sand and lay still.

Even as the horrified young sheriff peeked up from the corner and saw his friend collapse, the funnel cloud passed the cabin and the rain returned. Ducking out from under the debris from the front wall, JD rushed to Buck’s side.

“Buck! Can you hear me? Buck! Come on, Buck, this isn’t funny! Wake up!” JD shook the unconscious form once more before realizing that Ghost was still dangerously upset and dancing within inches of his friend’s head.

Jumping up, JD caught hold of the headstall and completed the work of blindfolding the terrified animal. Using all of his weight, he pushed the horse back away from the corner and away from Buck. He passed a hand gently over the gash in the animal’s flank and winced at the injury to the fine steed.

Returning to the side of his injured friend, JD gently lifted Buck’s eyelids and peered in. He had no idea what he was looking for, but Nathan always did that whenever one of them had a head injury. He ran his hand lightly over the hideous knot on the top of the older man’s head and winced inwardly.

After dragging Buck to the center of the floor, he moved Ghost back into the corner. Carefully maneuvering the unconscious form closer to the fire, he ran over to the single bedroll and spread it out over his friend. He knelt down close to the still form, he couldn’t remember ever being as scared as he was right now.

“Come on, Buck. Come back to me, I’m scared a little.”

For something to do, he got up to try to tend to Ghost. The wound on his flank wasn’t deep, but he wanted to make sure it didn’t get infected. Using a little of the water from Buck’s canteen, he wet his handkerchief and gently cleaned the gash. He then decided that the wound needed stitches and he fetched the sewing kit from Buck’s bag.

His hands shook as he threaded the needle with a couple of feet of thread. He then took the bottle of whiskey from the bag and poured some into his cup. Dipping the needle and thread into the alcohol, he poured the rest over his hands to clean them before approaching the horse.

Ghost nickered and shifted each time the needle touched him, but he stood for the familiar touch and allowed the young man to close the gash on his flank. When it was all said and done, eight tight stitches closed the wound and JD was exhausted, physically and mentally.

Returning to the fireplace, he checked Buck. The ladies man was breathing deeply and evenly. He had no fever that JD could tell. Checking his pocket watch, he realized that it wasn’t nearly as late as he thought; he still had several hours before daylight. Stacking more wood on the fire, he leaned back against the fireplace and dozed off.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck reached up for Ghost’s headstall, he had to calm the animal before it injured itself. The funnel cloud was directly overhead and he could feel the pull it exerted on the cabin and contents. Suddenly, he felt the floor beneath him drop away!

Wrapping his hands firmly in the headstall, he clung to the animal for dear life. Looking down he saw the ground receding rapidly. Looking up, he saw only the funnel cloud. It was difficult to breath as the air was sucked from his lungs. Dizziness overwhelmed him as the cabin swirled around him and he passed out.

Opening his eyes, Buck found himself dangling from Ghost’s headstall as he lay on the ground. Untangling his fingers, he let his arm fall to the ground. Rolling over, he looked around. The soft cushion of grass felt nice under his backside and the chirping of the birds sounded sweet as he listened.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the cabin. Squinting his eyes, he tried to make sense of the strange colors of the flowers growing around the small shack. Something tickled his memory and he struggled to hold onto the thought. A pale face with long, dark hair danced into his mind’s eye, JD!

Sitting up, he took a better look around. He didn’t remember all those trees when they rode up. A gasp of horror brought him quickly to his feet. Sticking out from under the edge of the cabin wall was a pair of legs.

“Oh, my God! JD!”

Buck ran toward the cabin just as the kid ran out calling his name. He caught the frightened young man by his shoulders and held him at arms length. His eyes quickly surveyed the kid, looking for any sign of injury. Just over JD’s shoulder, he first saw them.

Children? They didn’t look like children but they were only about waist high. They crept out from behind bushes and trees, staring at the legs protruding from under the cabin. As more and more of them appeared, he became aware of the whispers.

“You killed her!”

The astonishment in the voice galvanized Buck. He drew JD protectively behind him.

“I didn’t mean to, it was an accident. I’m real sorry.”

“How are you called, sir, that we may proclaim your heroism?”

“Buck Wilmington, and this is my friend, JD.”

The small man turned and yelled to all around him. “All hail Buck and JD! Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip hooray!”

Suddenly, a glowing orb appeared and floated toward them. The crowd of little people parted, clearing a space for the rapidly expanding ball to alight. When the glow faded, a beautiful blond woman stood in the clearing.

“Mary? What are you doing here?” Buck stepped toward the woman dragging JD along.

She was dressed in a shimmering gown with gossamer wings that lifted gracefully from the back. Her hair was drawn up on the back of her head and a rhinestone tiara rested on her head. She was breathtakingly beautiful.

“Are you the one who killed her? You dropped the house on Ella Gains?” Her brilliant blue eyes bore into his and his throat went dry.

“E-Ella Gains? The dead woman is Ella Gains? Are you sure? We’ve been looking for her for days. Right, JD?”

“That was Ella Gains. She has been committing crimes against the little people in Vista City for quite a while. You will want to be careful, her partner, the witch of the West, Maude, will be looking for you.”

An awed sound descended on the crowd as a blonde woman suddenly appeared in their midst. Her eyes were as cold as Buck remembered and she approached the trio standing in the clearing with a murderous look in her eyes.

“Who did it? Who killed her? You may as well tell me because I’ll find out. Whoever did that is going to pay. I will make them pay!” she screamed as she glared at them.

Getting no answer, she approached the body and reached for the gold spurs attached to the dead woman’s boots. Mary waived her hand and the spurs suddenly disappeared. Maude screamed and whirled around in her rage.

“She was my partner! They’re mine! What have you done with them? Mary Travis, you don’t want to cross me! I will get even! Now, what have you done with them?”

Mary gestured toward Buck’s feet. “There they are and there they’ll stay. Now you’d better get going before someone drops a house on you!”

With a scream of rage, Maude turned and stormed toward the crowd of little people. They shrank away from her, crying in terror. Suddenly, she disappeared in a puff of acrid, black smoke.

“Excuse me, Mary, but we have to get back to Four Corners. Can you point us in the right direction? I don’t recognize this part of Vista City at all. In fact, everything looks kinda funny. Did you notice that, JD? The flowers and the colors, I never seen anything like this any place around Four Corners.”

JD only shrugged, not saying anything.

“It’s easy. You can get directions at the Emerald City. You must talk to the Wizard of Ez. If you give him the gold spurs, he should be willing to help you,” she said it as if it was something everyone knew.

“Emerald City? Wizard of Ez? Ezra? I don’t remember any place like that between Vista City and home. Are you sure? This is a little too weird.”

Mary smiled gently. “You need only follow the gray, dusty road.”

“Follow the gray, dusty road?” Buck looked around the clearing and noticed the road leading out of town.

One of the little people rushed up to him. “Follow the gray, dusty road.”

Another rushed forward, leading Ghost. “Follow the gray, dusty road.”

Taking the reins in his hand, Buck looked at JD before he took a tentative step toward the road. The kid followed him without question. The crowd of little people parted around them as they walked.

“Follow the gray, dusty road. Follow the gray, dusty road. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the gray, dusty road.” The little people took up the phrase in a singsong like voice and skipped along beside the two men and the horse.

The two men and the horse followed the road out of town. Buck stared, wide eyed at the strange variety of foliage that grew along the roadside. It was all too weird. A thought popped into his mind, Ezra was behind this somehow. It was some kind of practical joke.

“JD, do you know anything about this? Are Ezra and Vin up to something?”

“I don’t know, Buck. I think we should just try to find this Wizard guy and get directions from him. I don’t like this forest though, it’s scary.”

As they rounded a bend in the road they came upon a fork in the road. Sitting on a tree stump at the intersection of the roads was a man in a buckskin jacket and slouch hat. He sat with a dejected set to his shoulders as he scowled at the two men.

“Vin? What are you doing sitting here? Why aren’t you back in town?” Buck stopped directly in front of the tracker. “Do you know how to get to the Emerald City?”

The slouch hat tipped up and looked to the right and to the left. His eyebrows bobbed for a moment and he looked up at Buck.

“Well, some people go that way.” He pointed to the left. “And some people go that way. He pointed to the right. “And, of course, some people go both ways.”

“How could they go both ways, Vin?” JD asked incredulously.

“They come by more than once.” The blue eyes turned up and studied the older man and he shrugged his shoulders. “I see it all the time.”

“Why don’t you come with us? We have to go to the Emerald City to see the Wizard to get directions back to Four Corners. You can’t just sit here.” Buck offered a hand up to the tracker.

“Okay, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The trio continued down the gray, dusty road, passing a dark, scary forest. Ghost nickered softly as he nudged Buck from behind. The mustached man looked at the trees and noticed that they had what looked like apples hanging on them. He stepped carefully up to the tree and plucked a red, beautiful looking piece of fruit.

Suddenly, a limb reached out and slapped at his hand. From the dark bowl in the trunk of the tree a voice issued.

“Cut that out! How would you like it if I walked over and plucked something off of you?”

A light breeze could have knocked him over, Buck was so stunned. He stumbled away from the trees eyeing them warily. His hand had swiped at his hip only to discover that he didn’t have his gun or his gun belt. He noticed for the first time that neither JD nor Vin had their guns.

“Tell me that you heard that! Tell me that you heard the tree speak!”

Large, dark eyes nodded as JD clutched Ghost’s reins.

Vin laughed, “I’ll show you how to get apples.”

The young tracker stepped a little farther down the road and turned around.

“We didn’t want any of your apples anyway. We only want good apples, yours look like they might have worms in them. Come on, guys. Those apples might make us sick!”

Suddenly, Tanner was pelted with apples from several different trees. He dodged a few of them and caught others.

“Pick up what you want and let’s get going.”

Still eyeing the trees warily, Buck and JD picked up the apples and led Ghost down the road. When they were out of sight of the trees, they paused to eat the fruit and fed one to the horse.

As they came out of the dark forest they saw a little cabin. Standing outside of the cabin was a big man with his back to them chopping wood. Buck eyed the back of the man and he was familiar. He strode over and grasped his shoulder.

“Josiah, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in Four Corners? Where are Chris and Nathan?”

A puzzled look came over the preacher as he stared down at Buck.

“Do I know you, son?”

“Of course you know me! We all work together in Four Corners! You spend all your time fixing up the little church house at the end of the street. Are you feeling all right, Josiah?”

“I’m fine, my son. I have just been standing here looking for my faith. I seem to have misplaced it somewhere.”

“Misplaced your faith? You’ve always had more faith than all of us put together.”

“If you say so, my son.”

Buck watched in amazement as Josiah offered his hand to JD and Vin and introduced himself to them as if they had never met before.

The quartet made their way down the road with Buck explaining that the four of them had been together for the past year in Four Corners. Curiously, none of them remembered any of the things he spoke about.

“You really don’t remember the poetry contest, Vin? That was when Mary Travis started teaching you to read.”

“I never learned to read, mister. Are you sure you know me? I don’t remember any of the stuff you been talking about. Who is this Chris fellow you keep going on about?”

“Chris Larabee! You helped him save Nathan from hanging right after you arrived in town. You’ve been his heart and soul for the past year!”

The dumbfounded look on the tracker’s face remained.

“And Josiah, you don’t remember anything about crows? You don’t remember when that Pinkerton agent tried to frame you for murder? How about Emma Dubonet? You were all calf eyed over her when she came to town.”

“No, son, I don’t know any of those people. I don’t know anything about crows.”

Wilmington huffed in exasperation. Finally, he turned on the one person who had been with him since the beginning of this crazy adventure.

“Okay, kid, tell me that you remember Four Corners.”

The dark head shook from side to side and the shoulders hunched up and down.

“Sorry, Buck. The first time I saw you was when I came out of that house you dropped on that Ella Gains person.”

Rubbing his forehead in irritation at the headache that was building behind his eyes, Buck glared ahead. Around the bend in the road, a woman sat on a magnificent coal black steed in the middle of the road.

“Give me those spurs!”

Buck put his arm out protectively in front of the others.

“I need these spurs to get this Wizard to get me back to Four Corners. Mary said not to give them to you!”

“You’ll never make it to the Emerald City unless you give me those spurs!”

She wheeled on her mount and sped away.

The quartet continued along the path. Strange animal sounds echoed thru the dark forest all around them. Buck noticed that JD had dropped back closer to Ghost and was staring out toward the trees with a look of pure fear on his pale face.

“You okay, kid?”

“You don’t suppose there are animals in these woods, do you?”

Josiah spoke softly. “There are cougars and bobcats and bears.”

“Cougars?” Vin asked softly as he looked around him warily.

“And bobcats?” JD asked, his eyes growing impossibly wider at the thought.

“And bears?” Buck questioned as he reached again for the missing gun at his hip.

“Cougars and bobcats and bears.” Josiah stated again, firmly.

They drew closer together as they walked, each staring cautiously around them at the bushes and trees that lined the road.

Suddenly there was an angry sounding growl and someone stepped out from behind one of the trees. The figure was dressed all in black, his long duster fanning out around his ankles as he strode out into the road.

“Who are you and where do you think you’re going?”

“Chris?” Buck exclaimed as he rushed toward the man.

“Do I know you, mister?” The dark clothed man’s hazel eyes flashed anger.

“Know me? We’ve been friends for twelve years! I was at your wedding!”

The dark eyes suddenly drained of anger and filled with terrible sadness. He took a step away from the group and held out a hand as if to ward off an attack.

“Don’t talk about that! It’s too painful!”


“I don’t know you, mister, but my family was killed a few years ago.”

“I know, Chris. I was there!”

The look of fear in the hazel eyes was replaced by puzzlement.

“Where do you think you are going?”

“We’re going to the Emerald City to see the Wizard. Why don’t you come with us? Maybe he can help you get your memory back.”

The group introduced themselves to their newest member and they continued on down the road. As they came over the top of the hill they came into sight of the Emerald City. It lay some distance down the road and shimmered in the sunlight.

“That’s it! We’re almost there! Come on, let’s get moving.”

Maude stared into her crystal ball. She had to do something to slow them down. She waived her wand and murmured softly.

“Poppies. Poppies. Pleasing to the eye. Their fragrance will cause them to sleep. Sleep!” She laughed as the flowers opened in the sunlight.

The field to their left was filled with bright, red flowers. Buck could see that the road curved around the field and decided to take a shortcut across, thru the flowers. The others followed close behind.

Suddenly, Buck’s knees felt weak and he began to sway on his feet.

“Does anyone else feel strangely? All of a sudden, I’m just so tired!” Slipping to his knees, he toppled onto his chest in the flowers.

Vin and Josiah looked at each other and swayed slightly before sliding to the ground and curling up on their sides. JD sprang onto Ghost and kneed the horse out to the edge of the field. Chris grabbed Vin and tried to pull him to his feet before yelling at the kid.

“Get back in here and help me!”

Even as he spoke, Chris was overcome by the flowers and collapsed, his head coming to rest on Vin’s side. JD stared in fear at the inert bodies as Ghost danced beneath him.

“Help! Somebody help! Please?”

Suddenly, a light snow began to fall. The horse tossed his head and snorted as if he understood that this was the help the humans needed. As JD watched, the others began to twitch and stir in their sleep.

When all four men were sitting up and rubbing their eyes with their hands, JD nudged the horse back up the hill into the flowers.

“What happened?” Buck asked as he climbed to his feet and drew Josiah up beside him.

“It was the flowers, they did something to all of you.”

Staring down at the flowers for a moment, Buck turned to look back at the jade tinted buildings in the distance.

“Well, whatever it was is over now. Let’s hurry!”

The group jogged across the field as JD remained astride the horse.

They arrived at the gate to the city and Buck rang the bell. A door in the gate opened and a funny looking man all dressed in green stuck out his head.

“What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you read the sign?”

“What sign?” Buck asked as he searched the gate again.

The odd looking man looked at the gate and reached back inside. Coming back around with a sign, he hung it on the gate and slammed the little door closed.

“What does it say?” Vin asked, staring at the markings on the sign, puzzled.

“It says, ‘Bell broken, please knock.’ Josiah read aloud.

Buck sighed and pounded on the gate with his fist.

The little door opened again. “What do you want?”

“We need to see the Wizard.” Buck explained.

“Nobody sees the Great Wizard of Ez!”

“But Mary Travis told us to come here! She said he would help us!”

“Mary Travis sent you?” The man’s eyes widened. “Well, that’s different! Come on in!”

The gate opened and the group filed inside. They followed the odd looking man down the street, looking around in wonder at the various buildings of Emerald City. They made their way toward the largest building at the center of the city.

Emerald City Saloon and Gaming Hall, the sign on the front read. Buck shook his head. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Ezra in a place like that. Just as he was preparing to enter the swinging doors that would take him inside, he heard a gasp of shock from the people behind him.

Whirling around, he turned his gaze skyward as everyone was looking upwards. Something small and dark flew thru the sky, looking to Buck like a large crow.

‘Surrender Buck’ the skywriting read before the crow disappeared. The citizens of the town looked at each other with looks of confusion. Some ran toward the saloon and others ran into houses and businesses along the street.

Buck turned and walked into the saloon with the others following close behind him. The crowd of citizens was gathering around the large gaming table in the center of the room. At the head of the table sat none other than Ezra P. Standish.

The angry look on the mustached face parted the crowd like the Red Sea. Buck stood at the edge of the gaming table directly across from Ezra.

“I might have known I would find you at the bottom of all this.”

The green eyes came up and brushed over the man at the other side of the table. His hands never stopped cutting and shuffling the cards in his hands as he spoke.

“Do I know you, Sir?”

“I’m getting a little tired of everyone asking me that! I know all of you and I don’t know what kind of scam you’re running but you better get up from there and let’s get back to Four Corners before the Judge sends out the army looking for us.”

“What is your name, sir? Who is this Judge? And why do I want to go to Four Corners when I have a perfectly good gaming hall right here?”

“My name is Buck, the judge is the man who hired us to protect the town and Four Corners is where we live. Mary said you could give us directions on how to get back.”

“I don’t ‘give’ anything away. If you want something from me, you will have to win it from me. Please, sit down gentlemen. The game is five card draw, jacks or better to open.”

A beautiful young woman moved forward and placed identical stacks of chips in front of each of them. Buck stared after the woman as she came around the table until she reached his side. He reached out and caught her by the arm.

“Millie? What are you doing here?”

“Do I know you, Sir?”

With a sigh and a roll of his blue eyes, he gave up.

Several hands later, Ezra asked if they would like a drink. Nodding absently, Buck studied the cards in his hand. He almost missed noticing the pretty, dark haired woman who set the mug of beer at his right hand.

“Inez? You work for him, too?”

The Mexican barmaid opened her mouth to answer and Buck held up his hand.

“I know, I know. Do I know you, Sir? Never mind.”

They played into the night. One by one, Ezra wiped out Chris, Josiah, Vin and JD. Finally it came down to one hand of cards. Buck opened his cards to find a pair of nines, an eight, a four and a king.

His eyelids were heavy and felt like they were sticking to the lower lid each time he blinked. Holding only the pair, he tossed out the three cards and lifted his eyes to Ezra. The gambler tossed off only one card and picked up the deck.

“Three to you and the dealer takes one. Seeing as we have been at this for quite a while, I will just raise you everything you have in front of you and call.”

Pulling the three cards across the table, he picked them up and slid them into his hand. A six, a queen and another nine, he placed the cards in his hand and pushed all of his chips toward the center of the table.

A smile lifted the sides of the gambler’s mouth, showing the gold incisor. His eyes raked over the pot and he gazed over at the mustached man.


Buck spread his cards on the table and looked into the green eyes that were silently appraising him. Ezra laughed as he lowered his cards. The first three cards were eights and Wilmington felt a surge of hope. His hopes were quickly dashed as the other two cards came into view, a pair of deuces.

“I’m sorry gentlemen but it appears that you have nothing to bargain with. Perhaps you would care to try again tomorrow? You may use the accommodations upstairs for the night and I will rejoin you after I have sufficiently rested.”

Buck scrubbed his face with his palms and pushed up to his feet. He followed Millie as she guided the group to the available rooms. They split up and took the three rooms offered. Buck found himself sharing the room with JD. Josiah and Vin took the second room and Chris took the third room alone.

By the time Buck awoke in the morning, JD was gone. He made his way down to the gaming room and sought his friends. They were scattered around the room at different tables, playing games with different people.

“Mr. Buck, may I have a word with you?” The wizard, Ezra, approached. “As I was enjoying my morning repast, it occurred to me that you might be able to acquire something for me that I would be willing to exchange for the directions you desire. You see, my darling mother has the deed to a certain piece of property that I have been trying to take possession of for some time. If you can bring me the deed, I will give you the directions you require.”

“That’s all? Just the deed? And what am I supposed to use to use as a stake in this game with your mother?”

“I will provide you with a minimal stake. You will have to do better against her than you did against me last night. I will tell you that she has a weakness when playing seven-card draw. If you can get her to let someone else deal, you will at least have a fair shot at beating her. If you cannot persuade her to let someone else deal, however, she will cheat and rob you blind.”

“All right, I accept your offer.”

“There is one other thing. You must not, at any cost, let her get her hands on those golden spurs.”

“Why? What is it about them that is so special?”

“They have a special magic. If she gains control of them, there won’t be an honest gaming hall any where in this part of the territory. She’ll use their magic to control everything.”

Buck and the others left just before lunchtime to make their way to Maude’s gaming hall on the other side of Emerald City. The sign above the entrance read ‘World Famous Ritz.’ Gay music poured from the player piano somewhere inside the large establishment.

They had only been inside the building for a couple of moments when Maude zeroed in on them. Gliding quickly across the room, she drilled her cold, blue eyes into Buck.

“What are you doing here? Did that son of mine refuse to give you the directions back to your precious Four Corners? I could have told you he would do that. Have you decided to surrender the golden spurs? Perhaps I would be able to get you the directions if I had them in my possession.”

“I came to challenge you to a game of seven-card draw. I need to raise money to bankroll another game against your son. I almost beat him last night and I mean to go back and beat him as soon as I have the money.”

With a swish of her skirts, Maude led him to a table and sat down. She pulled a fresh deck of cards and began to shuffle them. Buck surrendered his money and was given a stack of poker chips. A mug of beer was set at his hand and he nodded at the serving girl. At least she wasn’t familiar to him.

“If you don’t mind, Ma’am, I would prefer a neutral dealer," he said as she pushed the cards toward him to be cut.

“Are you implying something, Sir?” Her sapphire eyes flashed cold.

“Not at all. I just feel that it would be fair to have a neutral dealer. Perhaps the young lady over there in the gingham dress?”

“Fine. Casey, join us, please?”

Buck’s eyes widened as the brown-eyed tomboy sat down at the table and accepted the cards. He carefully refrained from comment, as he was sure that he knew what her response would be if he should ask her if he knew her.

Several hours passed. The pile of chips shifted back and forth between them. Finally, Buck decided to push his luck. He had an ace, a king and a pair of threes showing. His hole cards were a three and another king. Reaching down toward the floor, he removed the spurs and laid them on the table.

“Are you raising with those? And if you are, what do you expect me to put up against them?” She was fairly foaming at the mouth at the sight of the spurs.

“The deed to the property your son covets.”

“I’ll put up that deed when monkeys fly!” she hissed, her hands itching to reach across the table for the spurs. “I will offer you the deed to this fine establishment.”

Reaching for the spurs, Buck shrugged his shoulders. “Never mind then. I’ll just raise and call.” He picked up a couple of high value chips and tossed them into the pile with one hand while pulling the spurs back with the other.

As quick as a lightning strike, she changed her mind. “Wait! I will put up the deed!”

Pulling the paper from the bodice of her gown, she dropped it on the pile and fired a cold smile across the table. Buck pushed the spurs back toward the pot and settled back on his spine. Both players looked to Casey to deal the final card. Maude’s look held something vaguely threatening and the hairs on Wilmington’s neck stood on end.

“When I win this hand, would you consider running away with me, little missy? I’ll have the money to live like a king and you will be my queen.”

The force of the considerable Wilmington charm caused Casey’s stomach to quiver as the excitement built. If the stranger won, he would take her away from the drudgery of being in the service of the cold matriarch. If Maude won, she would continue to spend each day serving in the saloon and having nothing to call her own.

Maude drilled into the mousy, brown haired girl’s eyes. She knew that the card she needed to win was on the bottom of the deck. If Casey would slip it to her, she would have the spurs and still have the deed to the property she was keeping from her baby boy.

Casey glanced one last time at the mustached man and made up her mind. She dealt the top card to Buck and the next card to Maude. The angry glare from the woman caused her to shiver slightly as she folded the rest of the deck under her hands and stared at her lap.

Slowly, carefully, Buck lifted the corner of the final card. He already had a fair full house, but if the final card could improve his hand… A slow, deliberate smile bloomed under his mustache as he saw the final card. Pulling the first and last hole cards and turning them face up on the table, he looked across the table at Maude.

Her blood ran cold at the sight of the three kings and pair of threes. Throwing a hard stare at the dealer, she placed both hands on the table and stood up.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ll never make it out of here with the deed or the spurs.”

From the folds of her skirt, Maude pulled a gun and pointed it at Buck. Even as the victorious look settled on her fine features, the sound of another gun being drawn caused her to falter.

“You don’t want to go doing that, Ma’am.” Chris said from behind her. In the corner near the blackjack table, Josiah and Vin pointed weapons at her. Standing near the door with the reins to Buck’s horse tucked into his pants and a pair of weapons in his hands, JD smiled softly.

Buck reached out and removed the spurs and the deed from the table. Shoving the deed into his shirt, he took Casey by the arm and drew her to her feet.

“Let’s get out of here, little missy.”

Backing away from the table without taking his eyes off of Maude, he reached Ghost and pushed the girl into the saddle. Chris nodded at him as he began to make his way around toward the door. The others also made their way to the door, keeping their weapons trained on the woman.

When they got out of the building, Chris looked at Buck. “You better get out of here and get back to the Wizard. We’ll cover your back. Get going!”

“Where did you get the guns?” Buck stared at the mare’s leg in Vin’s hand.

“The Wizard said we might have need of them. Now get going!”

Buck swung up into the saddle behind Casey and turned the horse around. Wrapping his arm around her slim waist, he leaned into the horse and galloped off at a ground-consuming pace. He wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and Maude.

Arriving at the Emerald City Saloon, he slid out of the saddle and pulled Casey down with him. Hitching Ghost to the post, Buck looked back for the others. A few moments later, all four of them rode in, laughing loudly as they slid out of the saddles.

“You should have seen the look on her face after you left, Buck, I didn’t know there were that many shades of red possible on one person’s face. She went completely ballistic after you rode out.” JD’s voice was breathless with excitement.

As the kid hitched up the horses, Vin began to sing softly.

“Ding dong, she lost the deed. Yes she did, she lost the deed. Ding dong she lost the golden spurs.”

Buck chuckled. As JD turned from the horses, he caught sight of Casey and something clicked. You could almost hear their hearts thumping loudly as they drank in the sight of each other. As the group entered the saloon, applause broke out around them.

The Wizard, Ezra, looked up from the table and raised his eyebrows. Buck reached into his shirt and withdrew the deed. The gambler raised his hand to receive the deed.

“Not so fast. First you give me the directions to Four Corners. Then you get the deed.”

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a piece of paper and lowered it to the table. As he did, a pair of queens fell from his sleeve.

“Pay no attention to those cards up my sleeve. I would never use them in an honest game. I abhor gambling and as such leave nothing to chance. Now sir, the deed, if you don’t mind.”

Buck slid the deed across the table and moved his fingers to the paper being slid in his direction. Suddenly, Ezra snatched up the deed and bolted out of the saloon. Leaping onto the saddle of his horse, he raced out of the Emerald City.

Lifting the paper carefully, Buck opened it and looked inside. Slamming his hand onto the table, he wanted to curse out loud. Vin moved up alongside and looked at the paper.

“It’s blank,” the tracker whispered.

Looking from the paper, he noticed a book sticking out of the pocket of Tanner’s pants.

“Hey, Vin. What have you got there?”

“Oh, hey. I won this from the Wizard. He said it would help me to learn to read.” He showed off the reading primer.

Making his way across the room, he bumped into Josiah. The preacher was sitting in a corner with a book opened on the table before him. He glanced up at Buck and smiled.

“What are you reading there, Josiah?”

“I had a talk with the Wizard before we left this morning and he told me something odd. He said that I had plenty of faith, that I just needed to read this to reinforce it when I felt it waning.”

Buck reached out and picked up the Bible and shook his head. ‘Who would have guessed that Ezra P. Standish even owned a Bible, much less that he would give it away like that?’

Looking down the bar, Buck noticed the bartender. His brow furrowed as he stared at the back of the man for a couple of minutes before walking down to see his face.

“Nathan? What are you doing here? Who’s watching over Four Corners if we’re all here? What about your clinic? How can you just go off and leave your patients?”

“Do I know you, Sir? I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I’ve been tending bar here for the Wizard for a long while now.”

Buck threw up his hands in frustration and walked away.

He found Chris sitting at the bar and teasing the pretty barmaid. Sliding onto a stool, he caught the woman’s eye and tapped the bar in front of him. She moved to draw him a beer and set it in front of him before moving away.

Chris spoke suddenly. “You said that you were at my wedding. I didn’t remember anything about the wedding or my family. I had been lost in that dark forest for so long that I had forgotten what they even looked like. The wizard gave me something that brought it all back.”

In his hand, he clutched a small locket. Buck had seen it before; he knew that it held the only surviving photo of Sara Larabee. As he watched his friend staring into the locket, he felt that Chris had found the courage to leave the darkness behind him and move on with his life.

“Well, I’m glad that you all got something out of all this. I just wish I had gotten the directions I needed from him before he got away.”

A warm glow lit the top of the stairway and a golden orb floated lightly to the gaming room floor. Everyone in the room came to their feet as the orb materialized into Mary Travis, still in the shimmering gown and tiara.

She stepped slowly toward Buck and looked at him with a gentle look in her pale, blue eyes. All around her, the faces of the saloon patrons were filled with awe.

“I guess I have to find my own way home. He left without giving me the directions.”

Her smile was kind as she touched his shoulder. “You have always had it within you to get home. You need only accept it and use it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

“You wouldn’t have believed me. Now, close your eyes and click the spurs together. Say out loud, ‘there’s no place like home,’ and when you open your eyes, you will be back in Four Corners with Nathan and the others.”

“You’re kidding, right? Just click the spurs together and say ‘there’s no place like home’ and I’ll be there? It’s some kind of joke, right?”

“Just try it, Buck. Close your eyes.”

She gripped his forearm as he closed his eyes.

“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

“Chris, he’s coming around! Easy Buck, don’t try to move around too much just yet.”

The blue eyes opened and a puzzled look scrawled across the mustached face as he took in the faces leaning over him. He turned his head slightly and took in the familiar contours of the clinic before he let himself relax against the pillows.

“Oh, Nathan I had the craziest dream.”

JD, Vin, Josiah and Ezra raced into the clinic and gathered around the bed.

“Hey, Buck, you really had us worried for a couple of days there.” The kid’s voice was a whisper as he reached out to touch Wilmington’s hand for a moment.

“What happened?”

“You got hit on the head when Ghost reared up at the lightning. You’ve been unconscious for the past two days,” Nathan explained quietly.

“Two days? I had the craziest dream. You were all there and Ezra was the Wizard of some place called the Emerald City and it was a really fancy gaming hall. And Maude was there and she had the hotel thing up and running again. And Mrs. Travis had this magical ability; she turned into a golden, glowing orb and floated from place to place. And I had these golden spurs and Maude wanted them to run all the gaming halls in this part of the territory.”

Chris tossed a worried glance at Nathan.

“What’s he talking about? He doesn’t sound right in the head, Nate.”

Jackson moved closer to his patient and peered into his eyes closely. He ran his hands lightly over Buck’s head, checking the goose egg where Ghost’s hoof had clipped his skull.

“I don’t know, Chris. Sometimes after a hard blow to the head, they have weird dreams and hallucinations. I think he’ll be okay in a few days. It was just a dream, Buck. Lay back and take it easy for a while. And the rest of you get on out of here! A man can’t get any rest with all of you standing over him!”

One by one they filed out of the room except for Ezra.

“If I may, Mr. Jackson, I would like to be permitted to sit with Mr. Wilmington for a while until he goes to sleep? You look as if you are in need of sustenance and respite yourself.”

The healer smiled slightly and nodded. “Okay, Ezra and thank you. I’ll be back to check on him in a couple of hours.”

After the door had closed and the room grew quiet, Ezra pulled up the chair and sat close to the bed. Leaning forward, he looked at Buck with growing interest.

“So, tell me about this dream. You say I was a Wizard of some kind?”

Buck launched into the story and Ezra sat in rapt attention.


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