Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in July of 2004.
[This story was once titled Mirror, Mirror and was buried last year. With NotTasha's help it has been resurrected. This story takes place at the end of Ezra's thirty days as a lawman and the decision he now must face. An unexpected visit from an old friend making that decision even harder.]
The saloon was crowded, catering to all manner of men. Every table filled, the patrons indulging in drink and games of chance or just boisterous conversation, which waned and ebbed around the saloon. The establishment sated the appetite for the nightly ritual of what some considered the Devil's games.
Ezra Standish, who some of the mock gentry, referred to as the Devil incarnate, sat back in his chair enjoying the lively atmosphere and somewhat competitive games. Unlike the other gunslingers he worked with this was his element where he knew the risks and how to survive. Like Vin Tanner's innate tracking ability, and Larabee's quick draw, Ezra's guile was his forte and poker was his life's blood. He was good at it. No, he was the best. Ezra looked up from his cards to eye the three other players seated at his table. His skills being far from challenged, the ennui cardsharp allowed his mind to deliberately examine the recent and surprising events of his life, namely his present occupation as one of the seven lawmen, who protected the small municipality of Four Corners. Being a lawman was not one of his real skills. He was just pretending at it, like any elaborate scheme. He had everyone fooled, including himself.
Standish's gaze drifted, to stop when he caught his distant reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The image that returned his gaze revealed the melancholy that had settled within him. The less than discerning patrons saw only the gambler's impassive mask, but his eyes held a sadness that he could not account for.
Ezra broke his gaze from the insightful mirror, turning his attention back to the game as he discarded two cards and accepted two. He again glanced around the bustling bar room, catching sight of several of his cohorts. Wilmington was at his usual place, attached to one of the barmaids. Josiah and Vin stood against the bar watching over the activities and prepared to intervene if things got out of hand. Ezra smiled, he had to admit it felt good to have people watching your back. He only had another week then his time of servitude would be over, and he could resume the life that had been put on hold for thirty days. There it was again--a twinge--a feeling that brought a heaviness to his heart and forced him to take a deep breath. Ezra's attention was brought back to the cards as one of the players's called.
Vin Tanner and Josiah Sanchez kept an eye on the bar, their mere presence a deterrent from any shenanigans among the more rowdy revelers. Vin eyed the gambler across the room and wondered if the urbane southerner would ever allow himself to become a part of their group. Ezra went out of his way to avoid any familiarity, not allowing the others any closer than a card game. He had proven his worth in a gunfight time and time again, and they all enjoyed the gambler's sharp wit and smooth manner.
Josiah was the first to notice the strange development between the seven gunslingers. They were all strangers, except for Chris and Buck, and Josiah and Nathan, who had histories together. A special connection was forming that none of the unique gunslingers would admit to, but that couldn't be denied. Three weeks of sharing their lives, their pain and their laughter was creating an indomitable bond. They were becoming more than just partners or friends, they were becoming family.
Standish fought the revelation more than any one of them. Vin believed it was because he had been taught all his life not to trust anyone and to only rely on yourself--The gambler's code doomed him to a life of solitude and mistrust--Ezra was afraid to let down his defenses, afraid of being hurt. The perceptive tracker believed that the unconventional conman had been hurt a lot in his young life, but Vin also believed there was more to Ezra Standish than what his arrogant façade portrayed.
Vin nudged Josiah when a large, rotund gentleman entered the saloon, stopping just inside the door. He wore a dark blue jacket and vest, sharply pressed. He removed his black hat to reveal a thick head of salt and pepper hair. The large gentleman scanned the room like a fox looking for prey, and then his gray eyes locked onto Ezra's red clad back and a smile spread across his fleshy face.
Tanner stiffened at that smile; he didn't like the look of the gentleman, who probably passed Josiah in years. The two lawmen dropped their hands to their holstered guns as their eyes followed the gentleman through the saloon.
"I would say you're cheatin', but you might shoot me with that pea shooter of yours." Only the barest hint of a southern accent tinged the gentleman's voice that boomed over Ezra's shoulder.
A knowing smile came to the Ezra's handsome face the voice dredging up a flood of memories, both good and bad. "Gentlemen," Ezra addressed the three other players at his table. "If you'll excuse me, I think this game has come its conclusion." Ezra pushed away from the table and smoothly stood and turned. "Mr. Stockton, what brings you to this neck of the frontier?"
"Now, is that any way to greet an old friend and accomplice?" Stockton pleasantly sneered. The two conmen grasped and shook hands.
Seeing that the confrontation was for once a peaceful one, Vin and Josiah regarded each other with a smile and returned their attention to the drinks that had been placed on the bar for them. Vin still didn't like the set of the man, but so long as he was a friend of Ezra's he would keep his judgment to himself, for now.
Buck suddenly materialized beside Josiah his eye on the two gamblers.
"Who's that?" Buck asked, leaning down on his elbows and looking over his shoulder. He placed a booted foot on the railing that ran the bottom of the bar.
"Don't know, but it looks like he knows Ezra," Vin replied, tossing back half his beer.
"Damn, you don't think he'll get Ez to leave, do ya?" Buck was worried. He was growing quite fond of the suave southerner and would hate to see him leave. He still held out hope that at the end of his thirty days Ezra would stay on.
"Don't know, Brother Buck. I think Ezra might leave no matter what," Josiah voiced his own concern. Every time he thought of the cardsharp leaving the ache in his heart was like that of loosing a child.
Standish and Stockton moved off to a more secluded table in the corner of the saloon. Ezra gestured to one of the waitresses to bring them a couple drinks.
"So, how long has it been, five, six years? Have you been here the whole time?" Stockton asked, waving his hand to encompass their surroundings.
"Oh, heavens no," Ezra replied. "I came out west only a short time ago. Let's just say it seemed prudent at the time to expand my horizons and depart St. Louis for awhile."
Stockton smiled knowingly. It was the bane of all gamblers. When they became too comfortable in one place, they were usually asked to move on.
"I've been here in Four Corners almost a month," Ezra added, nodding politely at the lovely barmaid as she set down a couple drinks and a bottle of whiskey.
Standish looked at his old friend, Curtis Stockton. Well, friend might be stretching it. The two men had known each other in St. Louis and accomplished quite a few lucrative cons together. Ezra owed the older conman a certain amount of loyalty. He had saved his life when one of their schemes had gone bad and the victim wanted his pound of flesh, preferably cut out of Ezra's dead carcass. Stockton was a competent conman and adequate gambler, if not a somewhat dubious friend and partner, but Ezra soon surpassed the older man in skill and charisma and the two had inevitably gone their separate ways.
Curtis appraised the crude surroundings, regarding them with a mixture of disgust and predatory intent.
"Well, the Black Diamond it's not, but there must be some money in this town. You're probably making a killing at the tables." Curtis's eyes seemed to light up.
Ezra chuckled at the assumption. Since joining with the six lawmen, his priorities had changed slightly. He still chased after the all mighty dollar, just not as ruthlessly as he used to.
"Most of the town's people have learned the hard way not to play me," Ezra explained.
Stockton threw his friend a quizzical look. "Why stay then?"
"I have other interests," Ezra replied, tossing back a shot.
"Oh, I see, you have some kind of con going. Can I get in on it?
You remember how good we were together."
Ezra could have sworn he could actually see Stockton drooling. The remark bothered him more than he let on. Ezra hated for anyone to think his life was a con here, even though he wasn't sure exactly what he was doing. Stockton seemed to be doing well for himself, Ezra reflected, eyeing the older man. He was sharply dressed. A gold watch chain hung across his stomach. A large gold ring glittered on his left hand. Stockton didn't appear hampered by the frivolities of life. Ezra seemed forever caught in the circle of doubt and mistrust. He was stuck in a two-bit town doing a job he wasn't even good at...lawman...who am I kidding--One more week to go.
Ezra leaned forward and lowered his voice. "I'm afraid there is no con. I'm..." Ezra paused a moment. "Part of the local law enforcement in this town, and I would appreciate it if you'd keep our sordid past exploits to yourself during the duration of your stay."
Stockton stared at Ezra in disbelief then let loose with a belly laugh, which brought half the bar's attention to bear on them. "Now I know you're up to something. You, a lawman!" Curtis choked back his mirth. "Listen, if you don't want to let me in on it, that's fine."
"Curtis, I'm serious. It was be a lawman or go to jail for six months for jumping bail." Yeah, and that's the only reason I'm still here...why else would I have stayed? The thought jumped into Ezra's head. Yeah, why else?
The larger man sobered and looked into his friend's green eyes, seeing the truth that Ezra was allowing him to see. "Well, how long do you have to do this?"
"Hopefully, only a week more. But it's more or less up to Judge Travis as to how long my penance is to continue," Ezra explained.
Curtis slumped into his chair. "I was hoping we might get together again."
"I've given up most of that life since I've been here. Mostly for health reasons." A bemused smile came to Ezra's face. "One very serious health reason would be a Mr. Chris Larabee, who wouldn't hesitate to shoot me if I was to continue my previous questionable activities."
"Really? I didn't think anyone could intimidate you," Stockton skeptically replied.
Ezra started remembering some of the scams he and Curtis had pulled, some of which he now regretted. That life seemed like a lifetime ago, someone else's lifetime. Since coming to Four Corners and teaming up with the other six lawmen his old life no longer held the same appeal, not that he was ready to admit that to anyone else. Looking at Curtis now, he could see the man hadn't changed from when he knew him six years ago. He was still the same self-serving, egotistical conman and seemed to be relishing it.
Curtis Stockton held the glass of whiskey to his mouth and stared at his one-time partner. He couldn't believe that Ezra was no longer plying the trade that came as natural as breathing to him. How could a man change in little less than a month? Maude had asked him to check on Ezra, wondering why he was staying in one place for so long. Curtis had his own agenda for seeking out the suave southerner. He needed Ezra, needed his god-given talents.
"So, Curtis, how did you find me and why are you here?" Ezra abruptly asked.
Curtis grinned and set down his glass. "Not one for beating around the bush are you. Well, I have to be honest, not that I could ever lie to you. I ran into your mother back in St. Louis and she told me where to find you."
Ezra didn't appear surprised by this.
"And how is dear old mother?" Ezra took another swig of whiskey. Any mention of his mother always brought a tightness to his gut. They stayed in contact through letters, but it had been months since he'd last seen her. The only time Maude felt the need to have any contact with her only son was when she needed him for a con.
"Lord, as feisty an lovely as ever. I shoulda married her when I had the chance," Curtis dreamily admitted.
"You never had the chance, Curtis," Ezra good-naturedly chided.
"Ay, a man can dream can't he."
"So what brings you here? Certainly not just to reminisce about old times?" Ezra warily asked. He knew that Curtis was up to something the man was always tied to some kind of angle.
"I'm heading for California. I have some business dealings pending and I just thought I'd stop by and see ya."
"Really?" Ezra raised a single eyebrow.
Curtis Stockton had always been a small time conman, never quite reaching the big time. He won enough to buy food, women and drink, unfortunately his champagne tastes left him broke. Now, as more years lay behind him then in front, he was realizing what a fool he had been for not stashing some money away. Curtis had always believed he'd eventually hit the 'mother lode' and be set for life. Well, the 'mother lode' had turned out to be fool's gold and now Ezra was his last hope.
The two men talked and drank long into the night, ignoring Inez's
attempts to get them to leave. The dark-hair senorita finally gave up and left them both to their vises. The more Curtis talked about the cons they had accomplished, and embellishing on the ones that he had done, the more Ezra began to wonder if he hadn't made a mistake coming to this god-forsaken frontier. He could be on the road to riches now, living in San Francisco, Atlanta, or back in St. Louis; established as a prominent gentleman gambler. Now, all he had to look forward to was the occasional poker game and getting shot at by some desperado. He feared that the Judge was not going to release him at the end of his thirty days. The amount of alcohol he consumed seemed proportionate to the amount of regret that was slowly eating at his gut.
The sun had barely climbed over the horizon; its feeble radiance revealing two drunken souls traversing, rather unsteadily, the wide dusty street. Ezra was helping Curtis to the hotel. Well, actually they were holding each other up.
A dark, menacing form blocked the entrance to the hotel. Ezra tried to raise his head to see who it was, but he already knew without looking.
"You missed rounds!" the low menacing voice penetrated the gambler's muddled head.
Ezra tried to straighten, leaning Curtis against a post so that his friend didn't fall on his face. Stockton squinted up at the dark-clad gunslinger and shrunk back when Chris's icy gave fell on him.
"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, it was not intentional. I was reminiscing with an old compatriot of mine." Ezra shoved against Curtis's shoulder, pressing him back against the post to keep him from sliding down the post.
Larabee glared at the inebriated pair. He still didn't trust Standish and believed that the gambler would leave as soon as the Judge released him, which of course was fine with him, or so he thought. Chris looked over at the other man trusting him even less. He had watched the pair earlier in the saloon, and the older conman had immediately caused the hairs on Chris's neck to prickle. Larabee glared down at his fancy dressed lawman, something akin to worry trembled through him, which he immediately dismissed.
Chris was angry, but not just because Ezra had missed rounds, although that had added more kindling to his fiery temper. He didn't like the company Ezra was keeping, and felt powerless to do anything about it. Ezra had run out on them once before, but had returned, that had taken a lot of guts, maybe more than it took to leave. Chris knew there was more to the slick cardsharp than he portrayed and was willing to give the man a chance. But when he looked into Ezra's arrogant visage only to see that familiar defiant smirk, all reason went to hell.
"I don't give a damn, you'll pull double duty tomorrow, and if it happens again I'll have your ass in a sling," Chris angrily remarked.
Ezra's good-humor faded, and he was about to protest until the street tilted to the right and his stomach objected to the motion.
"Yes, sir," Ezra bit out as he grabbed Curtis under the arm and retreated into the hotel.
"That the guy you were talkin' about? Your boss?" Curtis whispered into Ezra's ear.
"Mr. Larabee is not my boss," Ezra grunted as he mounted the stairs leading to Curtis's room. "He's more like my warden."
Chris and Vin sat outside the jailhouse watching Ezra and his friend converse outside the saloon. It had been almost noon before either man had appeared. Apparently, Curtis hated mornings as much as Ezra. Maybe it was an inherent conman trait.
"What 'cha think about Ez's friend?" Vin quietly asked the dark-clad gunslinger who sat beside him. Chris pushed his black hat back and stared off at the two gentlemen.
Vin had not missed the sudden frown that flashed across his friend's countenance. "Think Ez will leave?" Vin asked, probing the dark waters of emotion that rolled just beneath the surface of the somber gunslinger.
"Guessin' it depends on how much influence this Stockton character has," Chris replied.
"The man's a snake," Vin abruptly said.
"Well, sometimes snakes run together."
Vin's head snapped around to stare at Chris. "You don't believe that. Ezra's not a snake."
Chris shrugged. Ezra had turned into a loyal and fine lawman, maybe he should say something to him. It was just so damn hard to talk to that man. "Well, either way Standish is a big boy. He can take care of himself," Chris answered back as he pushed himself out of the chair and disappeared into the jailhouse.
All day Ezra and Curtis were seen traversing the town. People started to think that the two conman were plotting some dishonest escapade, but most of the time the two men were just talking about old times and thinking up get-rich-schemes, which would never be put into practice.
Larabee approached the nefarious duo on the boardwalk.
"Ezra, I need you to deliver this package to Cedar Ridge," Chris said, holding out a plain, brown wrapped box.
"Isn't there anyone else available?" Ezra asked the annoyance heavy in his words.
"No, and it's your turn anyway," Chris curtly replied. Why did he always question every order?
The two lawmen glared at each other for a moment. To an outsider, it appeared like the two men were about to draw on each other, but held back for reasons only they understood.
Curtis decided to interrupt the standoff. "Ezra, go on, it's okay I'll amuse myself for awhile."
Ezra dragged his gaze away from Larabee and looked over at Curtis, who wore a look similar to a cat before it eats the canary. He didn't want to leave the devious conman unfettered amongst the unsuspecting inhabitants of the town. He switched his gaze back at Chris's glaring and distrustful visage and figured it would serve Larabee right. Reluctantly, Ezra reached out and took the package, tipped his hat and headed for the stable.
Chris glared coolly at Stockton, turned on his heel and walked away.
Curtis pulled out his watch and checked the time. He then looked over at the saloon and his smile grew.
Larabee stepped out of the saloon, pulling his duster tight as a cool evening breeze snatched it open. His eyes narrowed as a lone rider plodded up the street. He recognized the rigid stance and leaned against the supporting post, waiting for the cardsharp to approach.
Ezra spotted the somber leader and sighed as he guided his horse over to the saloon. "Mr. Larabee?" he greeted.
"Have a good trip?"
"It was successful," Ezra brusquely replied.
Chris pursed his lips then quickly glanced over his shoulder into the saloon. "Your friend has been cleaning out everyone he plays," Chris angrily remarked. "Put an end to it, or I will." Chris stepped off the boardwalk and swept past the suave gambler and his mount, heading toward the jailhouse.
Ezra bowed his head and exhaled, allowing his shoulders to slump. Would he ever get into Larabee's good graces? He had thought there might have been a chance that the two of them could become friends, but lately that possibility seemed less and less likely.
Standish walked into the saloon, stepping aside as a rather downtrodden man walked past. He looked over to see Curtis raking in a large pile of money and grinning from ear to ear.
Ezra slid into the empty chair next to his friend. "Curtis, I generally allow the people I play to leave the table with a little money still in their pockets."
"I know, it's not good to clean a person out completely, but I figure I'm leaving soon so what does it matter," Curtis cheerily explained.
Ezra rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "Common courtesy, and I still have to make a living here."
Stockton sat back in his chair. "You're not seriously thinking of staying on here?"
Doubt clouded Ezra's face for a moment. He didn't know what he wanted to do. Sometimes he wished that the Judge would just extend his time and take the option out of his hands, but he didn't understand why?
"I have not decided yet what my future plans will be," Ezra finally replied.
"Well, you know you're welcome to come to California with me. It would be like old times." The older conman hadn't pushed the issue, but he really needed the young cardsharp. Curtis could see his friend's indecision and decided to change the subject, best not to push.
"So, Ezra, can you get a high stakes poker game together?" Curtis asked.
"I believe the stage that arrived this morning might have held some interesting prospects."
"Good, good," Curtis said, unconsciously rubbing his hands together. "Should we try for say tomorrow night."
"Well, I think I'm going to call it a night then," Curtis suddenly said as he rose out of the chair and grabbed his hat. "See ya in the morning, Ez."
Ezra only nodded and watched as the older man left the saloon. Why was it so hard for him to make a decision? It should be easy, go with Stockton to California, make it rich and live a life of leisure. It sure would make his mother happy. Why didn't he feel the excitement that usually came with moving on to bigger and better places? Why would anyone want to stay in this backwater town, working for a dollar day, risking their life? And why would anyone want to put up with the tyrant Chris Larabee? There were too many 'whys.'
Ezra's gaze leisurely swept the saloon. It was still early and there were only a few patrons enjoying the quiet atmosphere of the saloon. Whenever Ezra's thoughts turned to leaving, the faces of six men would appear in his mind, like a jury passing judgment. He felt something for each of these men, but he didn't know what it was. Josiah had mentioned that they were predestined to be together and at first Ezra thought the ex-preacher had dipped into the sacrosanct wine. Now, he wasn't so sure. It might explain the ache in his gut whenever he thought of leaving and never seeing those six men again.
Ezra and Curtis stepped out of the restaurant into the early afternoon sunshine. Curtis stretched and patted his well-earned girth.
"Now, that was some damn fine eatin'" Curtis remarked.
"Yes, surprisingly this is one of the finest dining establishments in the area," Ezra concurred.
Curtis habitually eyed the people that walked by. Most were cowhands, who barely had two nickels to rub together. A few wore the façade and clothing that spoke of success. His brows went up as a well-dressed individual stepped into view and started walking toward them.
"I wonder if you've lost any of your other natural talents, considering your present lifestyle," Curtis good-naturedly taunted. "I seem to remember you were an exceptional pick pocket." The smile on Curtis's face didn't hide the obvious dare.
Ezra scoffed and gave his friend a crooked smile. "I'm a lawman. Last time I checked pick-pocketing was illegal."
"Oh, come on, just show me you still have the knack." Curtis paused. "You afraid of Mr. Larabee?"
Yes, he was, but Ezra's face hardened at the insinuation. "What do you have in mind?"
"That gentleman coming toward us. I bet he's carrying a fat wallet," Curtis surmised.
"That's Mr. Wilson, head of the bank," Ezra mentioned to his friend, who was eyeing the man like a pig on a spit. Stockton was good, he could spy a potential mark a mile away.
Ezra eyed the banker coming toward them with a measure of apprehension. It had been a long time, and who would it hurt, and actually he wanted to prove that he was still a competent conman himself, why this was important eluded him. He would return the wallet immediately, so why did a sudden sick feeling rise up in the pit of his stomach? Ezra flexed his fingers as the banker neared. Curtis went to the left of the financier as Ezra went to the right, smoothly bumping into the shorter man.
"Excuse me, Mr. Wilson," Ezra politely exclaimed, patting the man's chest.
"That's quite alright, Mr. Standish, no harm done." Mr. Wilson continued on, heading for the saloon.
Ezra flashed Curtis the pilfered wallet. Standish was secretly impressed with himself. He hadn't been certain that he still had the skill. The doe-skin wallet in his hand was proof-his fingers hadn't lost their touch.
Stockton took the wallet and gaped in amazement. He hadn't even seen when Ezra did it and thought for a moment that his friend had failed.
Stockton glanced across the street to see Larabee and his Buckskin-clad friend exiting the jail.
"Oh, oh, it's your Mr. Larabee," Curtis mentioned in a low voice.
Standish flinched and looked over his shoulder to see Chris and Vin in one of their silent discussions by the jail. Chris glanced over and seemed to stare critically at the cardsharp. Did Larabee suspect something?
With Ezra's attention momentarily diverted Curtis quickly removed the money from the wallet. When Ezra turned back around Curtis handed the stolen and empty wallet back to him.
"Ah, Ez, I have business to attend to at the post office. I'll catch up with you later."
Ezra nodded, still a little disturbed by what he had done and the sudden appearance of Chris. He looked at the wallet feeling suddenly very self-conscious about it. 'Why the hell am I doing this?' Why not, you're good at it...it's the only thing you're good at,' was the answer that came back to him. Ezra squeezed the wallet. It had been only a trick, a prank. Lord, Ez, just admit it, Wilmington is the prankster of the group, you were showing off. He knew he was the better conman, but while he wasted his time in Four Corners, Curtis was out in the world pulling cons, exploiting his talents in numerous gambling halls and living the good life. His hand started going numb from squeezing the wallet. Why was he feeling so guilty?
Ezra stepped into the saloon. He spied Mr. Wilson standing against the bar, sharing a drink with a rancher whose name at the moment escaped him.
"Sir, you seemed to have dropped your wallet." Ezra held out the worn leather billfold.
Wilson patted his pockets, and then reached for the wallet. "Why, thank you, Mr. Standish."
Ezra tipped his hat and turned to walk out. What a relief to be free of the stolen property. As Ezra reached the batwing doors, an angry shout stopped him in his tracks.
"Where is my money? You thief!"
Standish spun around, stunned by the broadcasted accusation. Ezra quickly composed himself, a mask of indifference falling firmly in place. He took several steps toward the irate banker. "I did not take your money, sir," Ezra drawled, trying to sound calm.
JD, Chris and Vin entered the saloon startled by Mr. Wilson's ranting and accusations that echoed throughout the saloon.
Upon seeing JD, the banker rushed toward him. "Sheriff, I want Mr. Standish arrested for theft."
The three lawmen turned and stared at their fourth. Ezra stood rigidly, his mind running wild, confused about what just happened and putting the pieces together. He'd been conned.
Standish reflexively stepped back from the suspicion he saw in everyone's faces. Ezra blinked, disturbed by his own feelings of guilt, but even worse was that he had let his friends down. Ezra's poker face hid the churning feelings inside, but somehow, Chris and Vin could sense his shame. He hoped they could also sense his regret.
JD shifted uneasily between Chris and Vin, not sure what he should do. Finally, the young sheriff made a decision, one he hoped wouldn't ruin his growing friendship with the suave southerner. JD stepped away from Chris and Vin. "Sorry, Ez, I need to search you."
A flicker of anger flashed across the cardsharp's face. He knew that JD had no option and didn't blame the conscientious gunslinger. Ezra threw his arms up in disgust as JD stepped in front of him. Ezra could see the embarrassment in the young gunslinger's eyes and forced a gentle smile on his face.
JD quickly padded the cardsharp down and checked his pockets. When he finished he stepped back with a relieved sigh.
"Ezra doesn't have it," he announced.
"Of course not. He probably stashed it away somewhere. I demand a more thorough search. Check his room," Wilson demanded.
Ezra will never forget his astonishment when Chris stepped in. "Look, he's the one who found your damn wallet. You got no beef with Ezra. It's ended."
Chris turned to Ezra. "Where'd you find it?"
Ezra gazed dispassionately back at the shootist. 'Why the hell had he done it?' Ezra saw the anger and distrust on Mr. Wilson's face...the man had greeted him civilly on the street only moments ago. Now Chris was here defending him.
"I found it alongside the boardwalk outside the Mercantile," Ezra calmly replied to Chris's question. Unfamiliar emotions ran rampant behind the cardsharp's mask of confidence. Regret, humiliation, failure.
Larabee eyed the southerner critically. He wanted to believe him, he really did. But since Stockton had arrived, Chris's growing faith in the gambler was starting to wither. Was Ezra reverting back to his old ways?
Chris turned to the bank manager. "We'll keep an eye out for your money. Probably just some kids grabbed it when they saw the wallet."
Mr. Wilson glared at Ezra and snorted, walking out of the saloon.
Standish met up with Curtis as he was stepping out of the post Office. He grabbed the larger man by his jacket and after taking a quick glance around dragged Curtis into a nearby alleyway. Ezra slammed Stockton against the wall, revealing the extent of his anger.
"Why'd you take that money?" Ezra growled. "It was only supposed to be a trick."
"I'm truly sorry, Ez."
"Do you know what you could have cost me?" Ezra's green eyes blazed with fury.
Stockton glanced past his angered friend and out into the street and smiled. "No, what? Your life here in this backwater town? Your pretense at being a lawman?" Curtis pulled out of Ezra's grasp and straightened his coat. "I'd say I was doing you a favor."
Ezra exhaled and stared back at Stockton, his thoughts shuffled through what Curtis had said. Did he care that much about his life here and about the people he worked with?
"Why did you take the money?" Ezra dejectedly asked.
"I needed some capital for our big game tonight."
Ezra was feeling bad. He still could see the disgust and anger on Wilson's face. It was a look he had once been familiar with, and would hardly have given a second thought a month ago. But now, that look, the one that said you're nothing but a no-account, lying gambler cut into his very soul. Ezra still couldn't believe that Chris had stood up for him, even though he had actually committed a crime. Damn, he was ruining everything, maybe everyone would be better off if he went with Curtis to California.
"I don't think it would be wise to run a game after what has transpired," Ezra said.
Stockton's face grew dark. Standish had changed, but Curtis still needed the talented gambler. He had done alright for himself through the years, but he wasn't getting any younger. He wanted to make a
big play so he would have enough money to invest in San Francisco. The only way he was going to get the amount he needed was with Ezra's help.
"Listen, old buddy, I hate to do this, but I need your help," Stockton said, his words coming out rough and hard. "My poker playing has never been on par with yours. I need you to cheat and help me win big."
"I don't cheat."
Stockton smiled then grew serious again. "You don't understand. I'm not asking, I'm telling you."
Ezra stared back at Curtis incredulously. Was he serious? "I'm not going to cheat for you."
"Well, now we have a problem for which I have a solution. You will help me win, and win big, or I'll pin the theft of Mr. Wilson's money on you." Stockton smiled at Ezra's look of disbelief. "You know I can do it. What would your friends and the whole town think then?"
Ezra swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. He'd been deceived. It was his own fault. Since starting to trust the six other lawmen he had forgotten not everyone could be trusted. He had started believing that there was good in people, it took someone like Stockton to bring him back to reality.
Ezra hadn't had to cheat in a very long time. But to enable Curtis to win, he would have to. Ezra scrutinized Curtis and knew the man would do what he said.
"Okay, I'll do it," Ezra disgustedly conceded. Damn, what had he got himself into?
Stockton threw a brotherly arm across Ezra's shoulders. He had pegged the younger gambler right. Ezra wouldn't admit it, but he was seeking the respect of the other lawmen. When Stockton realized this he knew he could use it to his benefit. "There now, that's my old partner. Maybe you'll even consider leaving and coming with me to California."
Ezra closed his eyes. "Maybe," Ezra softly remarked, he would not go with Stockton to California, but he thought it might be better if he left Four Corners. His feeling of self-worth was back at the bottom of the abyss, which he had been slowly climbing out of.
Standish shifted uneasily in his chair as he palmed another card and shuffled the deck. Stockton sat opposite him, conversing freely and cheerfully with the four other players. They had been playing for over two hours and Stockton's demeanor had become more obnoxious as his pile of money grew. The other players didn't seem to suspect anything and only believed that the older man was riding a streak of good luck.
Ezra looked over his shoulder to see Chris and Vin scrutinizing him and his heart kicked in an extra beat. He would be relieved when this game came to its conclusion.
Chris stared intently at the card game being played. He had never seen Ezra so nervous before, and his gut clenched as he watched the urbane southerner deal another round. He couldn't tell how Ezra was doing it, but he knew he was cheating for Stockton. Stockton laughed out loud and the sound was all it took to kick Chris into action.
Larabee came up beside Ezra and bent over, laying his hands, palms down on the table. "Shut down this game now," Chris growled into Ezra's ear.
Ezra kept his eyes on the cards. Somehow Chris knew he was cheating. His life here was over.
"Gentlemen, this game is over," Ezra said, fighting to keep his voice steady.
The four other players mumbled their protests until Chris straightened and nailed them each with his icy stare. The threatening gunslinger turned and walked back to the bar.
"Shit, Ez, I don't have near enough," Stockton complained, counting his money.
"Shut up!" Ezra hissed. "You will be on the next stage out of town." His voice was low, but the words traveled clearly across the table. Ezra rose from the table and headed for the stairs.
Larabee knew. Somehow the intuitive lawman knew he was cheating. Ezra had probably lost any amount of respect he had managed to earn from the stalwart leader.
Chris stepped out of the jail and froze in his tracks. Caught in a slice of early morning glow was Standish, his despondent form leaning against the stagecoach. The shock of seeing Ezra up at sunrise vanished under a feeling of dread for the reason.
"Kinda early for ya," Chris smoothly said, keeping any accusation out of his voice.
Ezra lifted a wary gaze and pushed away from the stage. "I'm accompanying Mr. Stockton, at least as far as Ridge City."
Chris folded his arms across his chest. He hoped Ezra wasn't planning on leaving. "I'm ridin' shotgun this trip. We're hauling the Army payroll," Chris informed him.
Ezra's brows arched, but before he could comment Stockton materialized in front of him carrying his grip.
"Ay, Ez, you change your mind about coming with me?" Stockton asked.
Chris exhaled his exasperation, turned and headed toward the front of the stage.
Ezra watched the black duster swirl around Chris's retreating form. "I'm not going to California with you. I'm just making sure you don't cause anymore trouble," Ezra explained. He really didn't know why he was going with Curtis, maybe he hoped by leaving the town for awhile he would be able to make a clear decision.
Chris climbed up onto the stage and sat next to the driver as Ezra and Curtis climbed inside.
They were a couple hours into the trip. Stockton had remained unusually quiet. He could tell that Ezra was deep in thought, and hoped he could somehow prod the young man's indecisiveness his way.
Curtis stretched out as much as the coach would allow. "So, you're going to stay on in that dried up little town?"
A faintly amused grin appeared on Ezra's clean-shaven face. "You know Curtis, before you came to town I had planned on leaving. I felt inadequate as a lawman... and as a friend. But you have showed me I have a reason to stay." If the others will allow me, Ezra thought to himself.
"To protect the town from people like you and me," Ezra seriously replied.
Stockton slumped down in his seat, defeated. "You really have changed."
Ezra's smile grew. "Yes, yes I have."
Gun shots forced everyone into action. The coach driver whipped up the team as Larabee raised his rifle and took aim at the three road bandits, who were bearing down on the stagecoach. Chris spared a grin as one of the bandits fell from his horse.
Ezra drew his revolver and peered out the window to see the two remaining outlaws closing in on the back of the stage.
Ezra aimed and fired at the outlaw, who was reaching out to grab the railing on the back of the stage. The outlaw lost his grip, and his life as he fell off his horse. Larabee shot the last outlaw and scanned the terrain for any further trouble. He didn't think to look right under his nose.
There was no warning as the harnessing pole broke off from the axle. The team of horses pulling the driver from his seat. Chris grabbed hold of the seat as the coach continued out of control.
Ezra knew something was wrong. The bandits had all been taken out, yet the stage continued its frantic rate of speed.
The coach felt as if it were going to shake apart. Ezra felt the jarring thump as the right side wheels shatter and the stagecoach tipped over to one side, slamming Ezra against the side.
The crippled transport slid along the ground then came to a bone jarring halt. The stage teetered momentarily then tipped over, onto its side, further rattling its contents.
Ezra winced as his arm made hard contact with the coach side, feeling the bones in his lower arm break. He squeezed his eyes shut and took deep breaths to try and ease the pain that raced up his arm.
A muffled groan forced Ezra to slowly open his eyes. He looked over to see Curtis slowly untangling himself. Except for a slight bruise over his left eye, the man looked unharmed. Ezra brought his feet up to his chest and slammed them into the turned up floor. He kicked again as the wood splintered, finally kicking through the thin flooring.
Standish staggered to his feet outside of the coach, still holding his injured arm close. He stepped aside and looked down as Stockton grunted and huffed his way through the opening he had made. Ezra squinted and rubbed his eyes as his vision momentarily blurred. Suddenly the image of Chris flashed into his brain and a panic look came to his face. Ezra raced around the fallen vehicle frantically calling.
"Chris, Chris!" Ezra yelled as he came around the stagecoach. He froze at the sight that met him. Chris was laying unconscious, his legs pinned under the tipped over stage. "Dear Lord." Ezra fell on his knees beside the motionless gunslinger. He could see the slow rise and fall of Chris's chest and breathed a sigh of relief.
Ezra raised his head at Curtis's gleeful chuckles. The older conman was huddled over the opened strong box, running his fingers through the money.
A soft moan brought Ezra's attention back to the injured gunslinger. "Chris, can you hear me?" Ezra lay a hand on Chris's shoulder, trying to assure the man that he was not alone, and feeling the inadequacies of the gesture.
Blue eyes fluttered open, and Chris looked into a face full of concern and regret.
"Ezra, what happened?" Chris asked as he tried to sit up and hissed as pain shot up from his legs.
"Stay still, you're trapped under the stage."
Chris glanced down. "Aww hell," he groaned, bringing his arm up and throwing it over his eyes.
"Don't worry. I'll get you out."
Chris dropped his arm and stared at the southerner in mild disbelief. It wasn't that he didn't think Ezra was capable; he just wasn't sure if Ezra would want to.
Standish began to search wildly around the stage. He saw the team of horses a few yards away. The tongue still dangled between them from their harnesses. He found the driver, his neck obviously broken a short distance away. Ezra calmly approached the massive steeds. They appeared exhausted and Ezra talked softly as he neared, not wanting to startle the agitated animals.
"Easy boys, I just want to get you out of those harnesses. Ezra eased himself between the horses, and with one hand started undoing the small link chains and ropes. The lead horse shoulder the gambler as he reached down to release the harness from the pole. Ezra hissed as pain awakened in his arm. He went down on one knee, grabbing his injured arm. Tears squeezed out of the corner of his eyes as he tried to regain control. When his breaths started coming out even he slowly stood and patted the nervous animal on its neck.
After finally releasing the last of the horses from the harnessing pole, Ezra bent down and grabbed hold of the unchained pole with his good arm. He slowly dragged the make-shift lever back toward the stage.
Larabee looked over as Ezra came around the front of the coach. He didn't know how long the cardsharp was gone or how much time had passed. Pain shot up his legs every time he moved any part of his body. He kept fighting to remain conscious, but wasn't sure he was being successful.
Standish knelt down beside his trapped leader. The stage was resting on the bottom half of Chris's legs, and he hoped they weren't crushed. Ezra looked over to see Curtis still hovering over the money like a vulture over a fresh kill.
"I'll have you out momentarily, Mr. Larabee," Ezra explained as he examined the stage and the best place to put the pole. He kicked a rock into place and wedged the stout pole under the stage, a foot away from Chris's legs. His injured arm throbbed from the constant movement. Ezra knew he wouldn't be able to lift the stage enough to get Chris out. He looked back over at Curtis. "Curtis, I need your help," he called out.
Stockton ignored his request, continuing to count the money and laugh inanely.
Ezra strode over to the portly man. "I said, I need your help to free, Mr. Larabee," he said, emphasizing each and every word through clenched teeth.
Curtis held up a handful of bills. "Look at this Ezra, all our dreams right here. We can load the saddlebags, grab the horses and ride on out of here." Curtis's eyes glowed with greed. "You could build that saloon you've always wanted. Hell, you can build a dozen saloons," Curtis laughed.
For a moment the thought of his own saloon in San Francisco plucked at an old string. Ezra shook his head. What was Stockton thinking? For that matter, what was he thinking? It wasn't that long ago when he would have taken Curtis up on his offer. Anger at himself darkened his features. Ezra placed a bruising grip on Stockton's arm and hauled him to his feet.
"I need your help and that money is not yours." Ezra's smooth drawl had taken on a decidedly icy tone, one that immediately got Curtis's full attention.
"You have changed, haven't you? Well, I for one am not going to let good fortune pass me by," Curtis explained, wrenching himself free from Ezra's grasp.
Ezra took a couple steps back and released his derringer. "You will apply your immense weight to that pole, or I'll put your dead weight on it."
Stockton glared menacingly back at the man he had once called partner. He knew Standish was capable of many things. Curtis allowed the money he held to flutter to the ground. He stomped over to the pole and begrudgingly applied his upper body to the end of the pole. The stage creaked as it slowly rose off the ground. Ezra laid his derringer down and grabbed a handful of Chris's shirt. He watched as the coach slowly rose off the gunslinger's legs. Ezra pulled and dragged the semi-conscious man out from under the stage.
As soon as Larabee was clear, Curtis released the pole, allowing the stage to drop. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow. Curtis watched as Ezra managed to prop the dark-clad gunslinger against a log. Stockton snorted and shook his head, what a waste, he thought as he returned to the money.
Standish gasped at the pain that raged through his arm and seemed to radiate into his back. He leaned up next to Chris. With his teeth, Ezra uncapped a canteen he had found in the stage and brought it to the gunslinger's lips, allowing Chris to take a couple sips. Ezra could see that Chris's left leg was probably broken.
"How you doing, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked, his voice hoarse with his own pain.
"Better," Chris gasped.
"I'm sure our associates will be looking for us soon," Ezra assured. He knew they were supposed to wire them when they reached Ridge City.
Chris opened his eyes and looked over at the dust-covered gambler, noticing how he held his arm close to his chest.
"What's...wrong...with your arm?" Chris gasped. His leg hurt like hell, but he was grateful to be out from under the weight of that stage.
"Nothing, just a sprain," Ezra lied.
"How about your friend?" Chris asked.
Ezra guffawed sharply. "He has the luck of the devil and came through this unpleasant incident unscathed."
"Some people have all the luck," Chris mused out loud.
Ezra stared back at Larabee and the two men shared a small chuckle.
"So Ez, who is this guy?" Chris asked, looking toward the elder conman, who was now shoving money into a saddlebag.
"That Mr. Larabee, is a reflection of my past life," Ezra regretfully replied. 'And maybe my future,' he thought to himself.
"It's what a man is now that counts, Ez," Chris intoned.
Ezra looked over his shoulder and glared at his self-indulgent friend. He had allowed Curtis to busy himself with filling the bags, but Ezra had no intention of letting him leave with the money.
Chris's eyes slowly closed unable to fight his growing fatigue.
"You rest, Mr. Larabee," Ezra soothed.
Stockton patted the saddlebags as he flung them over his shoulder. He looked over at the two men and hoped to convince Ezra to join him. Now that he had the money he didn't need the young gambler, although together they probably could double or even triple the money in mere weeks. He had discovered that he held a certain fondness for the younger man, something he'd never felt for anyone before. Maybe one day he'd tell Ezra this.
Ezra stood as Curtis approached, deliberately placing himself in front of Chris.
Curtis was no fool, Ezra was twice the gunman he was. He took Ezra's stance as a threat and pulled his revolver.
"What are you doing, Curtis?" Ezra calmly asked. He chastised himself for leaving his derringer on the ground. With his uninjured arm he could draw his own revolver, but the pain would slow his reaction time.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime and I'm not going to let you throw it away. Move aside and let me kill Larabee. We'll hide the money and return to town. Then all we'll have to do is tell everyone that we were ambushed and that Larabee and the driver were killed. We'll hang around for a few days, and then you'll decide to accompany me to California. We'll be rich and no one will be the wiser."
Standish's heart raced. He glanced over his shoulder at the unconscious gunslinger. Chris and him were like oil and water, but the stalwart gunslinger had given Ezra something few people ever had, respect and a second chance. Ezra turned, bringing his steady gaze to bear on Curtis. "I have the utmost respect for this man, and I will not allow you to kill him."
Curtis frowned and his jaw muscles clenched. He had thought that Ezra would come around. How could the man pass up on so much money? "I thought you hated Larabee."
"Mr. Larabee and I may have our differences, but I consider him a friend, even if the feeling is not mutual," Ezra stiffly replied. This was the first time that the suave gambler had ever admitted to himself or anyone that he considered Chris his friend.
"You're a fool. You think him or those others consider you a friend? People like us don't have friends, we have associates, partners, marks. You're going to end up just like me in twenty years, alone and broke that's what you'll get for your loyalty." Curtis held up the loaded saddlebag. "This is your one chance at the life you always dreamed of."
What Curtis said hit a chord deep within Ezra's heart. There were many times when he believed he would end up alone, it was how he had gone through most of his life, but since meeting the six other gunslingers he was beginning to believe that his life could change and for the better. "I'm sorry Curtis. That money belongs to people who trust me to protect it."
"Your mother would be disappointed," Curtis threw out.
"Even my mother would not condone cold-blooded murder," Ezra growled.
"You may think you're too good for people like me, but you're not good enough for people like him." Curtis nodded toward Larabee.
Ezra grinned faintly. "That may be true, but I'm willing to stick around and find out."
Curtis's face softened. "I don't want to kill ya, Ez, but I'm going to kill Larabee. I don't need him coming after me like some mad dog, so step aside," Curtis growled.
Standish stood his ground, staring defiantly at the older man. He was willing to die for this and this revelation coursed through him. He'd never been willing to die for anything in his life, there had never been anything in his life worth dying for until now.
Curtis knew when he was licked. For a brief span of time he regretted what he had to do, but the heaviness of the saddlebags spoke to him and he couldn't let sentimentality get in the way of his dreams.
Ezra saw the decision come to Curtis's eyes. Ezra took the bullet through the shoulder and crumbled to the ground. Before his world went dark Ezra heard another shot and a deep sadness gripped his heart. He hoped the others would forgive him the loss of their leader.
Curtis watched Ezra fall, a twinge of remorse biting into his cold heart; they would have made a mint together. He turned his attention to the dark-clad gunslinger, and his eyes widen as he found himself looking into the barrel of a gun and two of the coldest eyes he'd ever seen. Stockton didn't have time to even register his shock as a bullet tore into what was left of his heart. He was dead before his mass hit the ground.
The gun in Larabee's outstretched arm shook and he dropped it to his side, gasping at the sudden exertion. He looked over to see Ezra lying in a heap a few feet away.
"Ezra!" he cried out the fear driving down the pain he felt from his leg. Chris reached out as far as he could and grabbed hold of the gambler's jacket. Pulling the smaller man close, he searched for a pulse, exhaling in relief as he felt the life beat inside. Chris pressed his bandana against the bleeding wound eliciting a groan from the gambler.
"Ezra, c'mon pard," Chris urged.
Ezra's green eyes fluttered open and he looked into Chris's smiling face. "Good lord, did we both go to hell?"
Chris laughed. "No, we're both still here."
Ezra struggled to sit up, taking hold of the bandana to maintain pressure on his wound. He looked over to see Stockton lying dead nearby. A twinge of sadness clouded his sight. Stockton had been a part of a life he wasn't sure he wanted to live anymore. Maybe the death of Stockton would be the beginning of something new for him.
"You know, we do consider you a friend," Chris absently exclaimed.
Ezra turned his head to look at the man. "Mr. Larabee, were you playing possum?"
The two men were quiet for a moment. Chris reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a piece of paper handing it to Ezra.
"Your pardon," Chris explained. "The Judge sent it two days ago."
Ezra's eyebrows lifted. "Why are you just now giving it to me?"
Chris scratched at his ear, growing a little uncomfortable. "Guess I was a little worried you'd leave. Planned on giving it t'ya if'n you decided to go with Stockton."
Chris hated to admit he had had doubts about whether Ezra was going to stop Stockton from taking the money, or join him. He was relieved to discover that his first impression of the arrogant trickster was correct--Ezra was a good man.
Standish stared at the liberating piece of paper, the words telling him more than just his prescribed pardon. This paper was giving him a new lease on a new life. Ezra reverently tucked the precious document into his coat pocket.
"You belong with us and I want you to stay." Chris spoke hesitantly, knowing the words had to be said. "You're a better man than you give yourself credit."
Ezra bowed his head, he wasn't use to such blatant sentiment. He'd always been taught to suppress his emotions, never let them know what you're thinking', his mother's words reverberated through his head. Both men were spared any further discomfort as the sound of horses and the anxious calls of their fellow lawmen brought smiles to their faces.
Buck, Josiah and Nathan came around the toppled stage to find their two injured friends grinning up at them.
"Gentlemen, your timing isn't quite as impeccable as our Mr. Tanner's, but it's adequate," Ezra intoned.
Nathan jumped down from his horse and went to Chris's side.
"Damn, Chris what did you do?" Buck demanded coming up alongside Nathan.
"I was trapped under the stage." Chris looked over at Ezra whose eyes were examining some spot on his jacket. "Ezra got me out."
The three lawmen stared in disbelief at the gambler.
"Buck, Josiah I'm going to need your help setting this leg," Nathan said.
"You need to check Ezra. He was shot and his arm is broke," Chris snitched, trying to delay the inevitable.
Ezra glared at his fearless leader, mouthing the word, 'coward' at the same time trying to find some avenue of escape, which was instantly obstructed by the large hand of Josiah.
Nathan's eyes glanced over at Ezra, and his heart calmed as he watch Josiah take control of the wily gambler. "Can't you two go anywhere without getting yourselves hurt?" Nathan forced a cup of water and herbs down Chris, with Ezra enjoying the sight of the deadly gunslinger being subjugated by the kindhearted, yet determined healer. His enjoyment was short-lived as Josiah applied more pressure to his wound and checked for an exit. Ezra hissed and looked over at the amusement now showing on Chris's face.
"Josiah, Buck I'm goin' to need you all's help," Nathan suddenly said.
Josiah and Buck took hold of Chris's upper body as Nathan grabbed Chris's lower leg and pulled until the bones aligned. Chris released a primal scream that caused the hairs on everyone's neck to stand on end.
Chris lay panting, trying not to move and ride out the pain as it seared through like a branding iron.
"Josiah I need some wood for splints, Buck, make sure he doesn't move." Nathan looked toward Ezra. "You're next, Ez."
"I'm fine, Mr. Jackson." Ezra pushed himself away, Chris's pain-filled scream still ringing in his ears.
"Oh, really, is that why you're bleeding all over," Nathan quipped with his usual irritation.
Nathan lashed out and grabbed the skittish conman. Ezra hissed as the agile healer took hold of his injured arm, pulling the bones back in place.
"Unkind, Mr. Jackson," Ezra gasped.
"Sorry, Ez," Nathan replied the grin on his face causing Ezra to doubt his sincerity. "When I get you two back to town I'm not letting you out of my sight for a week," Nathan threatened as he placed another bandaged over Ezra's wound.
Buck and Josiah both broke out laughing at the identical expressions of horror that graced Ezra and Chris's faces. "Oh Gawd, we did go to hell," Ezra quipped.
Chris sat inside the deserted saloon, his broken leg propped up on a chair. He had asked Buck and Vin to bring him here, the small confines of Nathan's clinic were staring to drive him crazy. He pushed back his hat at the sound of a chair scraping on the floorboards next to him. Ezra eased his sinewy form down into the chair, cautious of the arm that now resided in a sling.
"You managed to escape," Chris intoned.
Ezra looked over his shoulder at the batwing doors, expecting the caring, but repressing healer to enter at any moment searching for his absconded patients. "I'm sure it's only a temporary reprieve. Mr. Jackson, all good intentions aside, is worse than a mother bear with cubs."
Chris chuckled; he was more at the good-hearted healer's mercy, because he couldn't get around too fast with a broken leg.
Ezra exhaled and slumped down in his chair, hoping to get a certain amount of peace.
"So, you stayin?" Chris abruptly asked. Ezra's thirty days were up and he was officially pardoned. There was nothing keeping him here-or was there?
Ezra glanced over Chris's shoulder to look at his reflection in the mirror over the bar. The tension and despair of the previous days had given way to a serenity that he had never known. For the first time in his life he had a place to call home, and friends he could depend on and who for some inexplicable reason cared about him. He would stay as long as they would have him.
"For now," Ezra coolly replied, not hiding the amused grin on his face.
Chris shook his head and laughed at the elusive gambler. He suspected life would be very interesting from now on.
The End (Nov 2000)