The Past Redeemed

by Sue Bartholomew

Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8 | Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37

Part 34

The next day dawned in its course. The travelers rose soon after the sun, with the usual amount of yawning, and before long the campsite was astir with activity. Today they would begin the journey home.

When Pony opened her eyes, she saw Ezra stirring in his blanket, his green eyes squinting sleepily at the faint sunlight. Pony sat up, ready to go to him, but before she could get to her feet, Josiah was at his side.

"Mornin'," she heard him say with a smile as he knelt by his friend.

"So I see," was Ezra's weak reply.

"Feel like eatin'?" Josiah inquired.

There was a pause. "Not at the present. Some water will suffice, I believe."

"Comin' up," the preacher promised, standing. As Pony watched him walk away, she stood, and noticed Nathan nearby, packing up his supplies. He was looking at Ezra with sad hesitation, as if he were almost afraid to approach him. Or unsure as to whether he wanted to, Pony couldn't tell. After a few moments he returned his attention to his saddlebags, unaware of Pony's observation.

Wonder if they'll make it up, she thought. Reckon that's up to them.

"Feelin' better?" she asked as she stepped over to Ezra, scratching her close-cropped brown hair to relieve the morning dryness.

Ezra had rolled onto his back and was rubbing his eyes with one hand. "'Better' is a relative term, my dear," he said wearily. "But I am better than dead, at any rate." He dropped his hand to his chest and looked up at her. "And have my comrades been treating you in an acceptable manner?"

Pony gave a gasping laugh as she crouched beside him. "Hell, yeah. They been so nice to me it's downright unnervin'. Makes me think they're up to somethin'."

A wan smile crept across the gambler's lips. "You will find that being devious is not among their talents. I know it's hard, my dear, but rest assured you can trust them."

She grinned. "Well, reckon if you can, I can."

Ezra was silent for a few moments, a thoughtful expression on his pale face. "I believe I am learning to," he said in a quiet voice.

"Here's the water. Mornin', Miss Pony." Josiah said as he appeared with a dripping tin cup and tipped his large-brimmed hat in the young girl's direction.

Pony nodded, unsure how to respond, as Josiah knelt once more in the dust and lifted Ezra up so he could drink.

"We goin' back to your town?" Pony asked as Ezra drank.

Josiah nodded. "Yep. We're close to Tascosa an' Vin's a wanted man there." He looked up at Pony. "But I guess Eli Joe told you all about that."

Pony furrowed her brow. "Think I heard the name a few times, but he didn't talk that kinda stuff to me. All I ever heard about was tendin' the boys til Eli went off an' died." She shrugged. "Nobody ever told me nothin', figured I was a gal so I didn't need to know."

"Hm," Josiah said, a bit sadly. "Was hopin' you'd heard Eli talk about framin' Vin. That'd help us clear his name, now that Yates is gone."

She shook her head. "Never heard a word. Maybe Gray knows about it."

They looked over to the wagon, where JD was trying to urge Gray to eat some breakfast. The old man seemed not to hear a word that was spoken to him, still staring off in silence.

Josiah shook his head as he took the empty cup away. "Gray ain't up to talkin' now. Not sure he ever will be. It's like his spirit's broke."

Pony sighed. "Always knew he hated bein' old. Never knew how much, though. Gettin' whipped by that Wilmington guy seems to have took the fight right out of 'im."

"It was he who sought the conflict, my dear," Ezra reminded her as he settled back down on the blanket. "While I sympathize with his current state, I cannot help but remember that he did try to have me killed."

"He'll have a chance to pay for what he's done," Josiah assured him as he rose. "I know a place with a good hospital for him, that'll see he stands trial once he recovers. He'll just die right off if we put him in jail."

Ezra seemed to agree with this, as he had closed his eyes and appeared to be going back to sleep.

"An' me?" Pony asked, eying him somewhat nervously.

Josiah looked down at her and smiled a little. "You can come back to Four Corners with us, long as you promise not to run."

Pony snorted. "I done enough runnin', believe me."

"Then come on along," Josiah said. "Judge Travis'll be in town, we can talk to him about what to do with you."

"Travis?" Pony's eyes narrowed. "What's he like?"

Josiah weighed the question. "Got a fair mind an' an iron hand. Not much for foolishness, so I wouldn't try to sweet talk 'im."

A hard laugh burst from Pony's lips. "Mister, I couldn't sweet talk nobody if I tried. But I won't play no games neither."

"He'll appreciate that. Might make things easier for you-guess we'll see in the Lord's good time." Josiah looked down. "You think Ezra's in any shape to ride?"

Pony shook her head. "Hell, no. Best have 'im ride in that there wagon til he's strong again."

Josiah nodded. "Thought as much. Vin's the same way." He eyes Pony gravely. "Your men sure could fight, Miss Pony. Gotta give 'em that."

Pony sighed, her eyes distant. "Yeah, they sure could. Just wonder if they ever knew what they were fightin' for."

There was no answer in Josiah's thoughtful eyes as he tipped his hat once more and walked back to the smoldering campfire. She stood for a moment, lost in contemplation over the remarkable changes she was about to face and wondering if she should be happy or terrified. Realizing that all she could do was wait and see, she shook herself from her trance, checked to make sure that Ezra was still resting quietly, and went to saddle up her horse.

Chris cursed softly to himself as he rubbed his wounded leg and sipped at the hot tin of coffee he held in his hand. Still weary and disappointed from the day before, the last thing he felt like was a long trip back to Four Corners. But with no witness now to clear Vin's name, there was little else to do but turn back, and hope another day of justice would come.

Bitterness gnawed at Chris's heart as he ran one hand through his loose blonde hair while tossing the last of the coffee away with the other. It was hard not to feel defeated, after coming all this way and not being able to do anything for Vin. Even though they were all still alive, and Eli Joe's gang had been destroyed forever, there was little sense of victory in the gunslinger's soul. He knew that as long as Vin was a hunted man, a part of Chris would be a fugitive as well.

He looked over to where Vin was sitting on the ground, patiently enduring an examination by Nathan and trying to eat a hard biscuit. Vin seemed more pale, the bruises more evident now that they had had a while to fully set in. The tracker, normally taciturn, had been downright monk-like in his silence since the fight, and Chris suspected he knew why. And hated it.

*If Yates don't clear my name, sooner or later someone's gonna come gunnin' for that bounty. An'...I ain't aimin' t'have nobody get hurt because of it.*

Yates would never be able to clear anyone's name now, although they could come up with no body to prove his death. Buck, Josiah and JD had combed the riverside, and only managed to find the bloated corpse of Hanley, washed up on the banks and already half-eaten by the desert predators. Yates' remains must have met a similar fate, somewhere else.

*DAMN it*, Chris spat to himself as he leaned forward on the rock and folded his hands, staring at nothing. He knew he could try to stop Vin from leaving, or tell the Judge not to allow it, but he had too much respect for the tracker to interfere in his decisions that way. A man had to choose his own path, even if it was solitary and dangerous.

Even if the path he chose was wrong.

He looked over at Vin, who was now sitting calmly as Nathan rewrapped his bandages, apparently lost in thought. It would be damn difficult to stay in Four Corners and not have Vin around, he thought with a painful twinge in his gut. He'd miss the tracker's quiet, steady companionship, the knowledge that there was always a reliable presence watching your back. But "miss" didn't exactly seem like the right way to put it-Chris felt that there would be an odd, vacant quality to their number without Vin, an emptiness of the soul no words could describe.

The final fight with Yates flashed through Chris's mind, and he scowled at the memory. Anger beat against his heart; he had kept himself from doing what he truly wanted-to shoot Yates, as he had shot Eli Joe-and still Yates had died. He felt an infuriating frustration grip at him; if that was the way it was going to go, maybe he should have just shot Yates like he wanted and to hell with restraint. It had ended up the same anyway.

He looked down at his hands, remembering how satisfying it had been to have Yates in his grasp. He'd wanted to kill him for what he did to Vin-maybe he should have. But with that thought came an answering idea, just as strong: If he had gone ahead and killed Yates, things would not be the same. True, the outcome of Vin's bounty would have been unchanged, but Chris would have had to live with the blood of Yates on his hands as well as Eli Joe's.

His shooting of Eli had been quick, instinctual, done with no thought other than to save Vin. The killing of Yates would have been murder, plain and simple, done to assuage Chris's fury, dooming Vin for no better reason than the satisfaction of Chris's momentary rage. Then afterwards, the crushing knowledge that the brutality he had tried to leave behind remained in him still.

And Chris realized he would not have been able to live with that.

Chris lifted his green eyes to where Vin was standing up, with Nathan's help, now bandaged and ready to travel. His spirits lifted a little; Yates was dead, but Vin was still alive, and Yates' blood was not on Chris's hands. As long as Vin lived, Chris knew the tracker would fight to be free, no matter where that fight took him.

Maybe he'd even let Chris along for the ride...

"He's all set t'go," Nathan said as he guided Vin over to the large rock where Chris sat.

"Thanks, doc," Vin breathed through gritted teeth as he gingerly sat down next to Chris, holding his shirt, hat and coat in one hand. "Though I ain't gonna thank you fer makin' me ride in that damn wagon."

Nathan threw him a grin. "You could use your horse, but I'd just be stitchin' you back up again. It's up to you." He walked away towards the wagon with a triumphant smile.

Vin shook his head as he pulled his hat on. "Sure hate the idea of bein' carted around like a sack of rocks."

"Might not be so bad," Chris offered, leaning back. "Least you got some shade an' you won't be eatin' dust."

Vin sighed and glanced at Chris. "He's lettin' you ride with that shot-up leg. I ain't so bad off."

His friend eyed him seriously. "I heard men say that who wound up in a pine box not long after. Hate to think you'd end up the same way just for bein' stubborn."

Vin glanced at him, still frustrated but accepting, and sighed. "Yeah, reckon you're right. Besides," he continued, leaning forward on his knees and looking away as the morning breeze tugged at his long brown curls, "I got some hard thinkin' to do, an' it'll be easier to do it lyin' down than in the saddle gettin' cooked by the sun."

The other man watched him for a few silent moments. Finally Chris sighed in disgust and looked away, the pain twisting his gut.

"Didn't want it to come to this, Vin," he said, watching as JD and Buck began packing up camp.

Vin nodded. "Hell, neither did I. Four Corners been like a home to me." He paused and looked at Chris, a somber expression in his bright blue eyes. "But a home's a dangerous thing for a fugitive to have, Chris. You an' me an' the others, we can hold our own in a fight. But Mary, an' Casey, an' Inez..." His voice railed off and he shook his head slightly. "Don't seem right to put them townfolk in harm's way on account of me."

"Don't seem right to leave 'em, neither," Chris pointed out quietly.

Vin nodded in agreement, his eyes sad and distant. "No, it don't. So I'll probably need every minute I can get in that dang wagon to make up my mind. When we get back to town..." he looked back over at Chris. "I'll let you know what I come up with."

Chris said nothing, not liking the foreboding sensation at the back of his mind.

It was time to pack up and go home. There was a general bustle as Buck put away the cooking gear while JD made room in the back of the wagon for Ezra and Vin. It was discovered that one of the criminals' horses had disappeared during the night; it was quickly chalked up to a loose tether and forgotten. There were other matters more pressing.

"We're gonna have to stop for supplies," JD announced as he pushed the few remaining boxes towards the front of the wagon, going easy on his bandaged arm.

"There's a store in the last town we passed, one of us can go in," Josiah noted as he finished saddling his horse. "We'll be stoppin' there anyway."

JD looked up as he jumped out of the wagon. "Why's that?"

In reply, Josiah glanced over at where Nathan was helping Gray onto his hor se. The old man was still handcuffed and bruised from his fight, but able to ride. He put up no resistance, his expression still one of bitter defeat.

"Got some things need takin' care of," was all Josiah said, in a solemn voice.

When all was ready, Vin limped over while hanging onto Chris's shoulder, still moving slowly and in a great deal of pain. Nathan and Chris helped the tracker climb slowly up into the wagon; inside, JD gave him a hand getting settled onto the blanket-covered boards. The grim expression on Vin's bruised face indicated that he was hating every minute of this.

Josiah arrived soon afterwards, carrying Ezra in his arms as Pony walked behind him. The gambler was awake, and did not seem to be enjoying his treatment any more than Vin was. As Josiah began to hand Ezra to JD in the wagon, Nathan stood by, watching with an uncertain expression, concern mixed with hesitation.

JD bent over to grip Ezra's shoulders and ease him into the wagon. As the young man tried to get a grasp on Ezra, his hands slipped, and for a moment the gambler was falling toward the ground. Then another arm shot out to catch Ezra, another hand gripped the gambler's tightly in an instinctual attempt to keep him from further harm. The brief moment of danger passed, but for a instant no one could move as Ezra stared in surprise into the equally amazed eyes of his savior, Nathan.

The other men held their breaths, well aware of the tensions which still remained between the two men. There seemed to be none of that anger now as Ezra and Nathan regarded each other, Ezra still in Nathan's grasp, one hand tightly clutching the healer's to stop his fall. Both of them seemed too stunned to speak.

Finally Ezra licked his lips. "An, ah, an admirable display of reflexes, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan nodded slowly, as if still trying to believe that Ezra had not thrown him off. "Yeah. Uh, thanks."

There was another moment of silence. JD was watching along with everyone else, then finally stepped forward.

"God, I'm sorry, Ezra, guess my busted arm's still sore," JD said as he leaned over and took hold of the gambler under his arms. "Okay, Nathan, you can let go, I got 'im."

"Sure," Nathan nodded, releasing Ezra into JD's hands. He stepped back and watched as Ezra disappeared into the wagon, still bewildered.

"Guess you weren't gonna let 'im fall after all, huh?" said a voice at Nathan's elbow, and he turned to see Josiah standing beside him, a quiet smile on his broad face. Nathan smiled and shrugged.

"Just didn't want to do no more stitchin', I guess," he said, his voice betraying a deeper emotion than his words. "Least he's talkin' to me."

The preacher gave his old friend a careful look. "And if he keeps talkin', will you try an' listen?"

There was a pause, then Nathan smiled again, a little, and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, think I will."

Josiah grinned back and set his hat on his head. "Then let's go home, my friend. I believe we all have some healing to do."

Part 35

The journey home began as a slow one. There was concern that Vin and Ezra might get jostled too much in the wagon if a faster pace was adopted, so they covered relatively little ground the first day out. They were also encumbered by the added duty of caring for two prisoners and the horses left behind by the slain outlaws. The horses proved to be more bothersome; Gray seemed content to ride wherever he was led, too demoralized by his defeat to do anything but brood, and Pony knew enough not to make trouble.

Nathan took care to ride close to the wagon, ordering frequent stops to check on its two invalid passengers. Vin was very sore and weak but alert, and bore the wagon's bouncing with stoic silence. Ezra had slipped again into unconsciousness as soon as the trip began, and remained in that state during the entire day. Nathan often caught the tracker studying Ezra's cuts and bruises with an odd, troubled look on his face, and the healer wondered if Vin knew something the rest of them hadn't figured out yet.

As it turned out, the healer did not have to wonder for long. That evening they stopped at sunset, and after the horses were unsaddled and supper was eaten, the group settled down to relax around the small campfire. Ezra had been awake for dinner, but was soon asleep again, still exhausted by his ordeal. Once she was assured that he was all right, Pony joined the men by the fire, being careful to seat herself at the edge of the small circle. She was well aware that she was still being watched.

The tired group had stayed silent, sipping coffee and resting after a hard days' ride, when Vin's quiet voice stirred the warm twilight air. "Miss Pony?"

She looked up, still unnerved at being called 'Miss'. "Yeah?"

Vin shifted in the place where he sat on the ground, his back against a boulder. His shirt was off, allowing his bandaged chest and arms more freedom. "D'you mind if I ask about what happened to Ezra?"

"Yeah, I'd like to know too," JD said, a hint of dread in his voice.

She hesitated, her young face anxious. "Well-before I tell you, you got to know I swear I didn't take no part in it." She said this emphatically, expecting them to question every word she would say.

Josiah, however, gave her a sad smile. "It's all right, Miss. We seen how you took care of Ezra, an' how he trusted you. You don't got to be afraid to tell the truth."

Pony was still wary, and glanced at Chris, who was sitting on rock next to Vin, his hands wrapped around a cup of coffee and his green eyes watching her intently. "You ain't gonna like it."

There was a moment of silence.

Chris stirred, his expression softening just a bit. "Go ahead," he urged quietly; it sounded more like a request than a command.

Pony searched those green eyes carefully, decided she was safe, and nodded, biting her lip.

"He was tortured, wasn't he?" Vin asked, his blue eyes serious in the dim firelight.

Buck and JD looked shocked, Josiah sorrowful as Pony paused, then nodded.

Vin sighed. "Figured as much. Them bruises an' cuts, I seen some of the tribes break folks that way."

Buck was breathless with surprise. "Damn, I thought he got jumped by robbers or somethin'. Who the hell would torture Ezra?"

"Hanley," Pony replied gravely, her brown eyes sweeping the small group. "An' it was cause he was tryin' to help you all."

The men stared at her without speaking; Josiah, who had already known, looked down at the ground in grief. Confusion and regret played across their faces, their eyes asking for more yet dreading to hear it.

She saw their expressions and sighed. "Reckon I best start at the beginnin'," she said, taking a deep breath. "Hanley'd been plannin' to get Yates since Eli Joe was killed. We left Gray in town to keep an eye on you all, an' some of us followed you while the rest of us went to get more guns. That's when we ran into Ezra in Sutler's Forge."

"Sutler's Forge?" Nathan said in surprise. "He told us he was goin' to St. Louis to see his mother."

The young girl shrugged. "Got no notion of what he meanin' to do. But he was handy in a fight, so we offered to let him ride with us, an' he agreed. He didn't know what we was up to, Hanley didn't tell nobody until it was too late to back out. I think Ezra just thought we'd be tolerable company to ride with."

"Why would Ezra lie about St. Louis?" JD asked, his voice hurt.

Josiah shrugged. "Maybe he just wanted to do some thinkin', JD."

"He was powerful busted up about that saloon," Nathan added, his voice heavy with the memory.

Pony cocked her head. "Was that it? I know somethin' was eatin' him, but he never said what. Just that he'd had some friends that hurt him mighty bad -an' I reckon that'd be you."

JD groaned. "Oh damn, I KNEW it!"

"We didn't mean to do Ezra no harm, Miss Pony," Josiah assured her. "I guess we were just blind to what he was goin' through."

"An' he never said a word to none of us that he was hurtin' that way," Buck remarked.

Nathan's mouth twitched. "Maybe he said it to me," he said bitterly, l ooking away, "an' I just didn't hear it."

Pony scowled at all of them. "Well, he sure was right riled at you, but-I've seen the way bad men treat other folks, an' from what I've seen you ain't bad men. Anyway, when you was all in danger, he didn't have the heart to let you come to no harm, so whatever bad feelin's he had weren't strong enough to drown out the good ones." She looked at JD. "Hell, Trent was about to cut you to bits, but Ezra fired his gun an' stopped the whole thing."

JD's eyes widened. "I-I remember that! That was Ezra? He was that close?"

Pony nodded. "He made out like it was a accident, but later on I figured out he'd meant to do it. Then Gray showed up an' fingered him, an' Hanley gave him to Dark Sun."

Buck scowled. "Knew that guy was bad news, even before he winged me." He threw Gray an angry look, but the dazed outlaw didn't notice as he sat next to the wagon staring at nothing.

"Ezra could've saved his own hide an' let you get killed," Pony said, "but he wouldn't do it. Kept sayin' It was against his honor, an' he couldn't live knowin' he'd let you all get killed. An' Dark Sun..." her voice trailed off and she shuddered, suddenly cold in the warm night. "He had voices in his head urgin' him to hurt folks, an' he liked doin' it. Then Hanley left Ezra for dead an' we rode out here. I...I didn't want to leave him, but I'da been shot dead sure if I'd tried to help 'im, an' Ezra made me promise to look after you all."

There was a pause, and she looked at each man in turn, her brown eyes large and serious. "I'm bettin' Ezra didn't want you to hear any of this, but I reckon you got a right to know what happened to your friend. Reckon he was too proud to tell you his heart was broke, but it was, just the same."

The group fell silent, each member absorbed by their own somber thoughts as they gazed into the fire or up at the stars now coming into view one by one. Only the sharp crackling and popping of the blaze disturbed the warm evening air. The hard expressions illuminated in the warm orange glow signified deep feelings of regret and admiration.

Chris's face was unreadable, but his eyes blazed with anger at the criminals who had done this to one of his men. Their deaths had robbed Chris of the power to punish them, but his expression indicated his hope that they had perhaps found divine retribution elsewhere.

"I'm never gonna forgive myself," JD finally said in a mournful voice.

"I don't reckon that's what Ezra would want, JD," Josiah said softly, and turned his gaze at Pony. "We're obliged t'you, Miss, for lettin' us know about all this. Rest assured we'll find a way to make it up to 'im about the saloon."

Pony gave him a sharp look. "What passed between you men is your own business, I guess, so you go about fixin' it however you want. But..." She sighed. "You oughta know, I ain't never seen no gang get along like you fellers, helpin' each other out an' all instead of fightin' for all the gold an' glory. It'd be a real shame if Ezra lost that after fightin' so hard for it."

The men she addressed glanced at each other, as if realizing what their bond meant, to Ezra and to all of them.

Josiah gave her a slight smile. "No need t'go paintin' us as saints, Miss Pony. We're just wanderin' sinners, like Ezra, lookin' for some momentary peace. Guess maybe we've found it by joinin' together, an' we won't let Ezra forget he's part of that too."

Nathan smiled. "Much as he might hate to admit it, sometimes."

Pony nodded, her expression thoughtful. "Hell, when you've learned not to trust folks it's hard to get back to doin' it again." She laughed a little, the sound tinged with bitterness. "Took 'im quite a few tries to get through to me."

Vin leaned back and put his arm behind his head. "Well, we're right glad he did, Miss Pony. You been a big help to us already."

She looked at him and tossed her head, a faint grin on her lips. "Ain't quite decided if you all are as crazy as Ezra or not. I think maybe you are."

Josiah smiled and tipped his hat. "Miss Pony, we shall take as the greatest of compliments."

She grinned, and returned to gazing at the fire.

JD sighed for the tenth time in frustration as he rolled over in his bedroll. Sleep wasn't coming, and he had a nagging feeling it was going to be a long night.

He settled on his right side, positioning his wounded arm so that it caused him the last amount of pain. It was still very sore, and he told himself that was why he couldn't sleep. But he knew the real reason, and his attempt at self deceit soon met a miserable defeat.

With a self-loathing sigh he surrendered and sat up, resting his arms on his knees as he looked around. The campsite was still in the moonlight, the cooling air disturbed only by occasional snoring from his friends and the irregular noises made by the horses. It was a tranquil scene, peaceful and soothing to behold, and so at variance with the violence of the day just past hat JD marveled to look at it.

In the soft silver light he could make out the slumbering forms of all of his friends, and a sincere gratitude flooded the young man's soul, that they had all survived the day's battle. They were a bit busted up, sure, but nothing that wouldn't mend in time. He shook his head as he thought about it, running one hand through his thick, unkempt black hair; the gun battle had been frightening, exhausting, bloody and confusing, nothing at all what the dime novels had depicted. Certainly not what JD had expected, when he'd first come out West. Still, never once in that awful fight had he wished he were somewhere else. This was his home, and his friends, and he had never been so sure that he was doing the right thing. That they had all survived was a Godsend, and JD's soul offered a heartfelt prayer that their luck would hold.

But still, everything wasn't quite right yet. His hazel eyes drifted over the moonlit landscape, and settled on a slender, blanket-wrapped form over by where the fire had been. Ezra, JD thought, and felt an immense sadness well through him. It had almost torn him in two to see how bad off Ezra was; he didn't know what had happened to him, but the result was, the gambler had almost died. And then he would never have known how sorry JD was for deserting him and hurting his feelings, because JD hadn't had the guts to tell him.

The young man sat for a moment and contemplated the situation. Ever since he had laid eyes on Ezra's bloody, half-dead form, he had been consumed with a regret of startling intensity. Now, after everything that Pony had told him, he felt ready to die from shame. Not only had he hurt Ezra, he'd let him leave town without owning up to his thoughtlessness, with the result that Ezra thought nobody cared about what happened. He rubbed his face in anger; the dime novels also never said anything about complicated things like this.

He shifted a little, glancing reluctantly in Ezra's direction, unnerved by the uncomfortable churning in his soul. *Maybe if I go see him*, he thought, *just really know that he's going to be okay, I'll feel better.*

That sounded like a good course of action, and he wasn't going to get any sleep anyway so he might as well stretch his legs. Silently he slid out from his bedroll and stood, hatless in the cool desert wind. After a few moments, he began walking carefully towards the area where Ezra slept, taking pains not to disturb the other men.

Ezra was curled up by the edge of the camp, not far from where the fire had been. JD paused for a moment, glancing at the unconscious form of Pony, hoping he wouldn't scare her if she woke up. But the girl seemed to be in a very deep sleep, and JD reasoned that if he moved very carefully and didn't make any noise, he'd be fine. Besides, he thought, she didn't seem to be the timid type.

He walked over to where Ezra was sleeping and stood there studying his friend, suddenly unsure of what to do next. God, he thought, looking at him, he looks terrible. The pale moonlight washed away what little color Ezra still had; the numerous bruises and cuts appeared black in the darkness, and very painful.

A sudden heaviness in JD's heart weighed him down, and he crouched slowly beside the gambler, his breath coming in painful gasps. God, Ezra, he thought, I'm sorry. Maybe if I'd told you before you left, this wouldn't have happened to you. I didn't know what to say then, an' I still don't. You'd know, you're so good with words. But now I wouldn't be surprised if you never wanted to say another of them words to any of us ever again.

He sniffed and dragged one sleeve across his nose; this sure wasn't helping any. Looking at Ezra like this was only making him feel worse. He prepared to rise; maybe he'd just better go back to his bedroll.

As he went to stand, however, he looked down once more at Ezra, and saw the gambler's half-open eyes glittering in the gentle moonlight, gazing at him.

Startled and a little guilty, he stopped, and bent towards him, whispering, "Ezra?"

He heard Ezra draw a slow breath and saw him lick his lips. "JD," he said in a soft drawl, "is there...any water?"

JD looked around quickly, finally spying a canteen lying near to where Pony was dozing. Moving quietly, he stole over and retrieved it, personally grateful that he could do his wronged friend a small service.

"Here you go, Ezra," he whispered, kneeling beside the gambler and opening the canteen.

"Much obliged," Ezra muttered, lifting his head an inch or two. JD reached down and held him steady while he drank, sadly taking notice of every gash and bruise. It hurt as much as if he had received the wounds himself.

When Ezra finished, JD carefully helped him lay back down, then sat back, watching him as he pushed the stopper back into the canteen. His heart was hammering, his tongue tied into nervous knots, but he knew if he didn't say something now, he'd regret it.

"Ezra?" he said softly as the other man settled back in his blanket. He had to do it now before Ezra fell asleep again.

The green eyes turned to him, and JD was relieved to see no anger on his friend's drawn face. "Yes, JD?"

A few deep breaths, and JD felt ready, although he felt the need to stare at his hands as he talked, too unnerved to look Ezra in the eye. "Well, I-I wanted to let you know, what happened with the saloon, I never wanted it to be that way. I wasn't thinkin', an' I'm real mad at myself that you got hurt cause of it."

He sighed, saying to himself, this is sounding so damn stupid. "I just-I couldn't tell you before, an' I should've. I know this don't make it right, but I had to come an' tell you." He steeled himself, and lifting his head met Ezra's gaze directly, in the hope that it would let the gambler know how sincere he was. "I'm sorry, Ezra."

There was a soft rustling sound as Ezra shifted in his bedroll a little to look at JD, a serious expression on his face.

"I know this could not have been easy for you, JD," he finally said, his voice rough. "Rest assured your apology has been accepted."

JD felt the tension rush out of him, and he breathed a quick sigh as he relaxed.

"Thanks, Ezra," he said with a weary smile. "That's really been eatin' at me. It..." He stopped, sighed, thought about it, then continued, "We been workin' together for what, six months now, an' after all we been through it don't feel right to be fightin' with each other." He drew one hand through his hair and laughed a little. "That sounds silly, don't it?"

Ezra closed his eyes. "On the contrary, son, I know exactly what you mean."

JD nodded, noting the heavy tone of understanding which flavored Ezra's words.

"Yeah," he whispered, getting to his feet, "yeah, well...thanks, Ezra. I'm sure glad you're gonna be okay. An' if I can do anything for you, anything at all, you just name it."

Ezra smiled a little as he opened his eyes and peered at his young friend. "I believe there is still the matter of your investment in the Standish Tavern, but we can wait to discuss that matter until we reach home."

JD grinned; it was sure great to see the old Ezra back, even if it meant he'd probably be poorer for it. But that didn't matter now, not at all.

"Great," he whispered. "See you in the mornin'."

"I'll be there," Ezra muttered in reply, and closed his eyes again. JD stood for a moment, feeling a hundred pounds lighter, then turned and made his way back to his bedroll, confident that he could rest now. Within moments of crawling back into his bedroll, JD managed to fall asleep, and was soon dreaming of the past and future, and of seven men riding together into the jaws of adventure.

By the middle of the next day they reached the outskirts of the nearest town. After setting up camp and finding Vin and Ezra some shade to rest in, Buck and Josiah gathered up the wagon, the extra horses, and Gray, and went into town. Pony did her best to say goodbye to the only other surviving member of her gang; he only nodded and smiled a bit, but gave no sign of truly understanding what she said or who she was.

In several hours they came back, having sold the horses and bought supplies for the trip back to Four Corners. Josiah had made arrangements with the local marshal to allow Gray to recover at the local mission hospital ward under the custody of the priests there, whom Josiah had known for many years.

Buck sent a wire on to Four Corners informing the citizen he'd left in charge of their return, asking particularly if he could send word if Judge Travis had arrived, and if Molly was all right.

A message was also sent to Judge Watkins in Tascosa, informing him of the death of Yates and the fact that there would now be no trial for the impostor marshal. Vin's name was never mentioned; Watkins had known nothing of the tracker's involvement, and now that Vin's bounty was still in effect, it was desired that nobody in Tascosa find out where he was.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully. Within a few days Vin recovered sufficiently to ride again, and Ezra regained enough strength to complain good-naturedly about the fact that JD did not seem to want to leave him alone. The color was slowly coming back to his skin, and on the evening of the fourth day he was able to sit by the campfire, his back leaning against a rock, and share dinner with the rest of the men. The talk remained light; none of them felt ready yet to discuss Ezra's experiences, least of all Ezra. The time would come eventually.

By the time they crested the hill and looked once more on the town of Four Corners a few days later, the weary party could only exchange looks of relief and sadness. It had been a very long journey in more ways than one, fraught with disappointment as well as discovery. But they had all survived, and there was not a doubt among them that as long as they rode together, they could face whatever destiny had in store without fear. Ezra, now recovered enough to ride proudly beside his comrades, felt this perhaps most of all.

They spurred on their horses, and rode into town.

Part 36

The air in the grain exchange was hot and dusty, but no one in the makeshift courtroom moved as all eyes remained riveted on the scene before them.

Four days had passed since the seven had come back home. All was pretty much as they had left it; beyond a few bar brawls and an attempted robbery of the tobacco shop, things had rolled on quietly in their absence.

Molly had been delighted to see Buck again, and wasted no time in showing him just how delighted she was. When the handsome drifter showed his face again, it was filled with a smile that threatened to become permanent.

Ezra went back to his room in Virginia's Hotel, and none of the men saw him in the Standish Tavern during the following days. JD reported that the gambler had not been seen in any of the town's saloons, and they could only assume that he was still thinking over what to do now. They saw little of him during those days, as he spent most of his time in his room resting, and while there was no longer any tension when Ezra met with them, they could tell that he was still wary and preoccupied. So they bided their time, hoping that the wariness would fade and he would fully rejoin their circle.

Vin had likewise been quiet and thoughtful, spending long hours riding alone with his own decision to make. They all suspected the nature of his thoughts, and gave him the privacy he needed, knowing the difficult choice he faced. Chris was more edgy than usual, and seemed torn between persuading his friend to stay, and letting him follow his own path.

But when Judge Travis declared that he was ready to pronounce Pony's sentence, the seven men were all present. Ezra was still pale and appeared tired, but sat ready to intervene on her behalf if necessary. There were some other spectators as well, curious local folk who'd heard that a dangerous criminal girl who'd killed a dozen men was going to be sentenced to hang. The seven men ignored them.

Now Judge Travis stirred and removed his spectacles, his wise grizzled face lined with years of hard-earned wisdom as he studied the young girl now standing before him in her worn but now-clean jeans and shirt. His steely gray eyes fixed on her, their depths revealing a spirit of stern justice.

"Margaret Ann Sullivan," he pronounced in a deep, grave tone, addressing Pony by her true name, "it has come to the attention of this court that for the past four years you have run with a gang headed by an outlaw calling himself Eli Joe. You are now under arrest for your involvement in this gang. Do you understand?"

Pony swallowed, but did her best to hide her nervousness, feeling it was best to take the punishment she had coming. It was better than running, anyway. "Yes, sir," was all she said.

The Judge glanced down at a paper before him. "You have signed a document outlining your involvement, which according to you consisted mostly of caring for your comrades. Your sworn testimony indicates that you have only been actively involved in the gang's criminal activities for a period of five mon ths, and in that time have not fatally wounded another human being."

Pony tensed, hoping they'd believe her. There had been a time when a reputation as a killer would have pleased her, but now she only wanted it to end. "Yes, sir, that's the truth."

Judge Travis eyed her. "Miss Sullivan, it is up to this court to determine what is true and what isn't."

She gulped and nodded, chastened.

"Now then," he continued, picking up another piece of paper and examining it, "I have gathered as much documentation as possible in relation to the activities of Eli Joe and his gang, and I have found no evidence to contradict what you have sworn to be true."

Pony hesitated, wondering if she should relax. Behind Ezra and the others, the spectators sighed in disappointment.

"In addition," Travis continued, taking off his spectacles, "I have oral testimony from the lawkeepers of this town that you have aided them in their fight against Eli Joe's men at the risk of your own life, and have displayed ample desire to rehabilitate yourself. Since you have all survived to be here today, I cannot help but accept this evidence as valid."

He paused, lay down the paper and folded his hands, his worn face now handsome and thoughtful. "This court wishes to encourage those who have strayed down the criminal path to turn their steps on a more acceptable course. Therefore, it is my decision to remand you to the custody of Chris Larabee and his men for a period of one year, to be spent in a suitable rehabilitative environment."

Pony's breath caught in her throat. "You mean I ain't goin' to jail?"

The Judge glanced at her. "Not unless they wish to put you there, Miss Sullivan."

She let out a smiling gasp of joy and looked over to the men, who were all wearing expressions of great relief.

"I am sure that will not be necessary, Your Honor," Ezra said with a smile.

Josiah stood. "Your Honor?"

Judge Travis looked up at him as he put his spectacles back on. "Yes, Mr. Sanchez?"

Josiah took a few steps forward, coming to stand next to Pony. "There's an orphanage nearby, run by some women of the community. The little ones are a handful, an' they could sure use some help. With your permission, I'd like to place Miss Sullivan there, where she can help children who have also been wounded by life's misfortunes."

The Judge looked sharply at Pony. "Is that agreeable to you, Miss Sullivan?"

Pony seemed slightly thrown, and cleared her throat before she spoke. "Sure, I mean, yes, sir. I...I had a baby brother once, an' didn't have no trouble carin' for him before he died from the typhoid. An' maybe I can let them kids know they don't have to give up hope an' end up like I did."

Travis nodded and shifted in his chair. "Mind the law in the future, Miss Sullivan, and there will be no need to be ashamed of who you are. From what I've been told, you have made excellent progress already, and I wish you luck in the future." He lifted the heavy wooden gavel and banged it once on the old desk. "Court dismissed."

There was a general stir as the spectators and began to file out; half of them had already left, angered that there would be no hanging. The seven men gathered around Pony, offering her their encouragement.

"Now you best not be lettin' me down," Chris warned as he looked at her seriously. "Josiah tells me them women don't cotton to troublemaking."

Pony's eyes were just as serious. "Don't you worry none, Mr. Larabee. I kinda had my fill of troublemakin'."

"This new life ain't gonna be easy," Josiah warned her as they began to walk from the courtroom. "It's a lot of hard work. An' they've agreed to help you with your schoolin', long as you keep up your end of the bargain. But I reckon you an' them poor children can maybe help each other find some new hope in life."

Pony thought about it and nodded as they stepped outside into the sunlight. "I'd sure like to try that, Josiah." She hesitated, then smiled awkwardly. "Thank you."

Josiah grinned. "We'll talk more about it later," he said, and they all moved off the porch. When they had all walked away, Pony saw that Ezra had stayed behind, and was gazing at her with a bright, proud expression on his pale face.

She laughed. "See you've got to smilin' again."

"I believe I have reason to smile, my dear," he said as he gracefully held out his elbow. She stared at it, puzzled, and he gently took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm, holding it there as they walked down the wooden steps into the street.

"What's this all about?" she asked, frowning.

"I am escorting you, Miss Sullivan," Ezra replied. "You'll have to learn such aspects of polite society, now that you are returning to civilization. You may decline, of course, but rest assured it is a gesture of the utmost respect."

She paused, then shrugged. "Oh," was all she said, and seemed to accept it as they walked down the street. "Guess I'll just have t'get used to it."

"I have no doubt you will succeed admirably," Ezra said, his smile returning. "Now, as I was saying, my reasons to rejoice are numerous. With your help I was able to survive and return to the company of my comrades, for which I am profoundly grateful."

She looked up at him. "You ain't angry at 'em no more?"

Ezra hesitated. "I cannot deny that some pain still lingers, my darling girl, but I believe I can better bear it now. I have come to understand that our association is too valuable to throw away on the mere triviality of hurt feelings." He glanced up the street at the distant facade of the Standish Tavern as they stopped walking. "Some wounds will take longer to heal than others, but now I believe that healing will take place."

Pony smiled. "I'm right glad t'hear that, Ezra. You done so much for me, it's nice you got somethin' outta all this too."

He looked at her as they began walking again. "You mustn't underestimate yourself, my dear. It took courage to make the choices you have made, and courage is a trait I highly admire. Turn your energies to productive ends, Miss Sullivan, and I am certain you will surely amaze us all."

She laughed. "Damn, I ain't amazin', Ezra. I'm just a poor ignorant gal tryin' to make somethin' useful outta herself."

Ezra's gaze traveled up the street, to finally fix on the the six other men who had paused in the street to wait for him. JD had turned back to call after Ezra, then seeing that he was talking to Pony, gave him a small wave and turned back.

Ezra smiled and turned his eyes to Pony, their green depths shining with deep emotion. "And I am just a wandering gambler, my dear," he replied, "but I believe there may yet be hope for us both."

Part 37

The inebriated crowd at Digger Dan's was in full throat later that evening, as the drunken denizens unwelcome at the town's other saloons found shelter beneath Dan's rough-hewn roof. As the seedier members of the community drank, traded filthy jokes, and drank some more, Ezra sat at a corner table, watching it all with unseeing eyes as he contemplated his future.

Several times he turned away offers of a card game, or more friendly solicitations from the ill-looking working girls. He wanted time alone to think.

So much had happened since he'd last sat here, he thought as he sipped sparingly at the shot of whiskey in his hand. Then, his heart had been full of bitter anger, his only thought that of fleeing the pain by leaving the town and the other men behind forever. He never would have believed then that he would come back, nursing wounds borne in the name of the friendship he had tried so hard to deny. But then, it had been a pretty unbelievable journey.

He placed the drink back down, and glanced at the doors, thinking of Nathan. Their last meeting here was full of harsh words, ending in mutual discord. Even after being rescued from the desert, Ezra had felt sure he could never be fully at ease with Nathan again, a feeling he knew Nathan shared.

And yet, in that moment where he was in peril of falling, it was Nathan who had reached out to save him, and Ezra had accepted the help without anger or revulsion. It was almost instinctual; there had been no time to think about past grievances. Ezra had been in trouble, Nathan helped him, and Ezra had trusted him enough to reach out for and accept his help. In the end it had really been very simple, and yet few things stirred him as profoundly as this.

Perhaps that was it, Ezra thought as he pulled out his cards and began to shuffle them idly. He was still very sore and stiff, but his fingers remained as nimble as ever, and the cards blurred as they danced back and forth in a soft, hypnotic rhythm.

JD had said earlier that Ezra should have trusted them enough to tell them his problems, an action Ezra had dismissed as weakness. But Ezra could find no weakness in that moment in which he and Nathan had reached out for each other; rather, it seemed to him to be a moment of strength, one whose nature he still didn't fully understand. It had been a signal of apology and forgiveness, and far from feeling diminished by it, he felt liberated. Perhaps he could learn to fully trust these rough men he now rode with, and accept that theirs was an association created out of more than mere circumstance. A soft smile lit his pale face; it would be most interesting to see how this experiment unfolded.

He lifted his head and glanced around the room with a sigh. He truly loathed the company at Digger Dan's, but he had not yet screwed up the courage to try and return to the Standish Tavern. There were still too many painful memories there, the wounds from its loss were still too fresh. His dream had been denied, and it would still be a long time before he would be rich enough to realize them again. The other men would never patronize a place like Dan's, but surely they would understand why Ezra simply couldn't bear to enter his former establishment just yet.

He sighed and reached for his drink, wondering if he should just head over to Virginia's and turn in. He was feeling very tired.

"Hey, mister, this seat taken?"

Startled, Ezra looked up with wide green eyes, the drink forgotten. There before him stood Nathan, a small, slightly nervous smile on his face.

The gambler stared for a moment at Nathan, then shook himself. "Indeed not. Make yourself at home."

The healer nodded and sat down, looking around. "Little rough 'round the edges, ain't it?"

Ezra finally got hold of his drink and hoisted it to his lips with a sarcastic glint in his eyes. "An apt description, Mr. Jackson, though I have hope that its denizens may discover the art of bathing soon." He swallowed the drink. "What brings you to this charming corner of town?"

Nathan looked back at him, a slightly hesitant look on his face. "Got somethin' t'say that kinda got lost last time I was here. Figured I best come an' try again."

Ezra's expression grew serious. "You have my full attention."

The healer looked down, cleared his throat, then lifted his eyes to meet Ezra's. "Just wanted to say, I'm sorry for what happened with your saloon. I let my pride do the talkin' when I worked with your ma, an' it ain't caused nothin' but grief. An' when I came here t'talk to you that night..." He paused and shook his head. "I ain't proud of what I said then, either."

Ezra said nothing for a few moments, then drew a deep breath as he squarely faced his comrade. "I was not on my best behavior at the time as well, Mr. Jackson. I would also like to offer my apologies, and a proposal that we put this entire unpleasant matter behind us and turn our thoughts instead to the future."

Nathan smiled, clearly relieved. "I'll drink to that."

Ezra winced. "Not here, I'd suggest. The quality of liquor is truly appalling."

"Well, come on back to the Standish Tavern then," Nathan urged quietly. "You know the stuff they serve there is good, an' Inez sure misses you."

There was sad hesitation in Ezra's eyes as he looked down at the table. "She is a remarkable woman, but...I still find the idea of entering that business rather..distasteful."

Nathan nodded, understanding in his eyes. "I know. Well, we'll be waitin' for you, you know that."

Ezra sighed. "It may be a long wait, my friend."

Nathan smiled a little. "Well, long as the Judge keeps us on, I reckon we got the time."

"Hey there, is this where the big poker game's at?"

It was Buck's voice, strong and boisterous. Ezra felt a wave of amazement sweep over him as the tall gunslinger strode towards his table, closely followed by JD and Josiah. There was a general bustle as they all found seats at the table.

"Gentlemen, you're far afield tonight," Ezra said in a tone of bewilderment as they settled in.

"Things got kinda dull across town, thought we'd drop by," Josiah said with a grin as he leaned back.

"Yeah, I ain't never been in here, thought I'd see what I was missin'," JD said brightly as he thumped his bowler hat on the table. At that moment a beer bottle whizzed by behind his head, crashing against a nearby wall.

"Another few inches in the other direction, son, and you would have found out," Ezra observed. He studied their group. "Shall we make reservations for Chris and Vin as well?"

Buck sniffed. "Naw. Vin went out ridin', an' Chris ain't in the mood for company."

The gambler's expression turned wistful; they all knew that Vin had a hard decision to make, and he nodded. "I see. Well, let us hope Vin decides to remain in our august company. He has suffered enough of a loss, as it is."

Josiah nodded. "I've been prayin' that he be guided to the right path, Ezra, but in the end it's up to him. But he knows he'll always have six souls watchin' out for 'im, no matter where he goes." He looked at Ezra and smiled. "Just like you."

Ezra felt strong emotion threaten his composure. "Please, no maudlin sentimentalities, Josiah. I don't believe I have the strength for it."

"Now, Ezra," Buck said seriously, folding his hands and leaning forward to address the gambler more closely, "Pony told us some of what you been through, an' we mean t'let you know how obliged we are to you for it. Least you can do is hush up an' take it like a man."

Ezra stared at him, surprised and a little curious. "My apologies," he finally said softly. "Pray continue."

"She said you had a chance t'get out of what they done to you, an' you didn't take it cause then we'd get killed," Nathan said, studying Ezra closely.

"An' that it was you that fired that gun an' warned us when they tried to jump me in the desert," JD continued. "That was really somethin', Ezra. You saved my life, an' I won't forget that."

"We know we done you some wrongs that might be hard to forgive, Ezra," Josiah added in a hushed tone, eying the gambler steadily with his blue eyes, "but we hope you know how grateful we are for what you went through t'save our skins, an' how proud we are right now to be your friends."

A long silence filled the air, during which Ezra found himself unable to speak. He could only stare at the table, the powerful emotion returning. It was almost the same as the sensation which had consumed him when he was lying wounded in the desert, agonizing over the bond he had felt was one forever. But now instead of mourning, the feeling was one of deep joy, that the bond was not only still intact but stronger than ever. Perhaps it would endure forever. But for now, he was grateful just for this night.

"Gentlemen," he said at last, in a soft, slightly choked voice, "I am...certainly moved by this show of comradeship. I assure you that any grievances between us have been forgotten, and-" He took a deep breath and lifted his eyes to look at them, a smile brightening his green eyes as his voice became firmer, "-when I reclaim the Standish Tavern-as I promise you I will-the first round of drinks will be on me."

Buck laughed and slapped the table. "Now that's a maudlin sentimentality I can live with any day! Cut them cards an' let's have a game."

The other men relaxed and laughed. Ezra met the eyes of each in turn; JD appeared beside himself with relief, Josiah and Nathan pleased as well. Ezra felt a pleasant calm settle over his soul; it was as if a huge weight had lifted from his shoulders. He had not been this happy in a very long time.

"How's the whiskey here, Ezra?" Josiah asked as he reached for the bottle and a glass.

Ezra placed his hand on Josiah's arm, stopping him. "A step below turpentine, I fear, Josiah." He thought for a moment, then very slowly rose and picked up his hat. "May I suggest we take our game to the Standish Tavern?"

The other men sat silent for a moment, surprised.

"You sure, Ezra?" Nathan finally asked warily.

Ezra's manner grew more confident as he straightened his hat and pulled down his vest with a firm jerk. "Quite sure, Mr. Jackson."

"But I thought you didn't like goin' in there no more," JD observed with a puzzled frown.

Ezra looked at them all and thought, But now I will not be going in there alone. But he was not ready to voice this notion aloud, even now. Perhaps someday.

Instead, he said, with equal truth, "She has been without her true and future owner long enough, JD. It is time we became reacquainted. Shall we proceed?"

The other men rose with smiles of anticipation, and they all filed out of the dim and dirty saloon without looking back. Ezra was the last to leave, but he did not spare the dark home of the past a second glance. He was moving on to a brighter place, and his thoughts were filled only with hope for the future and the imperfect men he would share it with.

He could hardly wait.

The twilight wind was biting as Chris guided his horse along the rocky desert path. He had been riding a long time and was very tired, but still felt as if he hadn't been out nearly long enough. His mind was churning over the events just past, and those which could lay ahead. Neither subject had been pleasant.

As Valor stepped skillfully among the small rocks and scrubby cactus, Chris mused on the few weeks just past. It was some comfort to know, at least, that the demons within him had been tamed, that he was not still a heartless killer. The temptation had definitely been there, but he had found the strength from somewhere to wrench aside its burning grasp and turn away. Perhaps that power had come from his memories of Sarah, perhaps from his friendship with the other men, he didn't know. It was there-that was all he needed, for now.

His leg twinged; he winced and rubbed it, wondering when the pain would stop. Not for a long time, he thought with a grim smile, if this bullet wound was like the others he'd suffered. A long reminder of the fight they had faced, and the hard victories won. And what was lost.

He reached the top of a rise overlooking the desert and reined in. The sun was setting now, the sky ablaze with brilliant golds and pinks, glowing and glorious. Chris sat and just watched for a moment, trying to let the beauty calm his heart. If only he knew what the next day would bring.

A horse nickered nearby. Chris tensed as he looked along the cliff and saw a figure seated some distance away, watching the sun set as he had been doing. Recognition set in, and he spurred his horse forward, hoping the figure would find his company welcome.

Vin sat on the rim of the cliff, back against a rock, hat off as his long curls danced in the cool breath of the desert dusk. He didn't turn his head as Chris rode up, which did not surprise Chris at all.

"You out ridin'?" Vin asked as he watched the sun sink towards the mountains.

Chris climbed down and walked slowly forward. "Seemed like a good idea."

The tracker slowly nodded. "Yeah, always good for thinkin'." He laughed. "I been doin' so much of that my head's about to bust."

Chris sighed as he crouched next to Vin. "You got a lot to think about."

There was a pause, and Vin nodded. "Yeah, I did." He turned to face Chris. "An' I made up my mind, Chris. I ain't leavin'."

Great relief flooded through Chris's soul, followed closely by concern. He ducked his head for a moment to check the emotion twitching his cheek, then lifted his head to look at his friend. "Have to say I'm glad, Vin. We sure need you."

Vin smiled and went back to the sunset. "You fellers ain't bad to have around in a fight neither." He sighed, his blue eyes reflecting an inner sadness. "Wish I knew the townfolk'll be safe, if anyone comes for me. But I just figured leavin' would only mean breakin' my duty to you all, an' least if I stick around I can help protect 'em when they need it."

"We'll take care of them," Chris promised.

Vin nodded. "I know." He looked at Chris somberly. "I ain't ready to give it all up yet. Somethin's tellin' me it just wouldn't be right."

Chris sat down. "I'm glad you listened to that voice, Vin. With the railroad comin' in, things'll be gettin' tougher. Reckon then this town'll find a use for all of us."

There was slight movement as Vin nodded his head. The sun touched the mountains and began to slide behind it, its fiery brilliance crowning the peaks before disappearing.

"I'm damn sorry about Yates, Vin," Chris said finally as the sunlight began to fade.

Vin shook his head. "Maybe you don't have to be, Chris. I ain't so sure he's dead."

Chris's eyes widened a bit as he looked at his friend. "He was a stubborn son of a bitch, Vin, but I ain't so sure he was that stubborn."

The fringe on Vin's jacket flapped a little as he shrugged. "You didn't find no body, an' one of the horses that belonged to Eli's gang disappeared before we left. Can't help but wonder if he got outta that river somewhere an' rode off."

Chris thought about this. "He sure wasn't in any shape to go far."

"There's little farms an' ranches thereabouts," Vin said softly, as if thinking aloud. "I know it sounds crazy to think on, but..." His voice trailed off, and he looked at Chris. "My gut tells me he's alive, Chris. An' if he is, soon as we're through here I'm goin' down there t'find 'im."

With a final flicker of red-gold light, the sun slid behind the distant hills, lighting the sky with a blazing mural of color in its final throes. In that light, Chris studied the face of his friend, the still-healing bruises and pale skin contrasted with the determination burning in those blue eyes.

Finally he nodded. "It does sound crazy," he admitted, "but I've seen crazier things happen out here."

Vin sighed and shook his head as the clouds overhead began to lose some of their fiery color. "Lord, me too. An' a lot of it's been since I hooked up with you, Larabee." He picked up his hat and stood. "Hope I don't regret decidin' to stay around."

"You won't," Chris promised. "Least we can promise you won't get bored."

Vin laughed a little. "Ain't worried about that."

They began to walk back to where the horses were tethered.

"Reckon you'll need another pair of eyes to find Yates?" Chris asked.

Vin smiled, kicking at the ground as they walked. "At least, if he's as shifty as he was time around."

"You know you got my help," Chris replied as they mounted up. "An' maybe more, if we all get out of this job alive."

Vin settled in his saddle and picked up the reins, glancing overhead as the stars began to slowly pierce the shrouding light of day. "I'm thinkin' we will, Chris. Even Ezra'd make that bet."

Chris laughed. "Yeah, he would. Sure surprised us all, didn't he? Got a lot of grit under all them fancy duds."

Vin nodded as they began to move out, the horses' hooves clopping slowly on the hard ground. "Yup. Man can find a lot of strength t'fight, when it's somethin' worth fightin' for. Guess Ezra found that, whatever it was."

No words were spoken for a few moments as they rode along.

"Maybe we all have," Chris finally said softly.

Vin glanced over at his friend and smiled slightly in agreement.

Chris grinned back and gathered up the reins. "Now let's get on home."

They began to trot over the rough, rocky terrain, the sandy soil crunching rhythmically beneath their horses' hooves as they rode. A soft blue glow filtered over the desert as night reclaimed its domain. The stars began to pepper the azure sky, their brilliance reflected in the torches and fires of Four Corners as it lay in the distance before them. The small orange points of light lay ready to guide them home, to the five other men who shared their destiny, and they rode forward allowing no more cares to burden their hearts. The past had been settled in its place, and tomorrow's trials and hardships would take care of themselves. They would face those trials together, which was all any of them really needed to know.

And for tonight, it was enough.