The Brief But Heroic Saga of Ezra & Elijah Standish

by The Cohorts

Marlsburg was about the size of Four Corners and just as sadly lacking in proper amenities. They passed a couple of boarding houses but it wasn't until they reached what appeared to be the only hotel that Ezra called a halt to their little three-horse procession. He slid off his horse, grabbed one of his carpetbags and handed his reins up to Vin.

"Mr. Tanner, if you would see the horses to the livery, I'll arrange for our accommodations for the night."

Vin disdained to take the reins from Ezra's hand and shifted in his saddle, hooking his right leg casually over the saddle horn. "Hell, Ezra. You see to the horses while I 'arrange for our accommodations.' You're the one insisted on this damn packhorse so you could bring half your wardrobe. You brought two of the horses, you can take care of 'em."

"Mr. Tanner, no civilized man embarking on a three-day journey ending in a possible fortnight's stay in a strange town would do so with only a bedroll and what little could be stuffed into a pair of saddlebags."

Vin grinned. "'Less he had to leave in a hurry with the law or maybe an entire clan of pissed-off losers behind 'im."

Ezra remembered a few too many times when he'd had to replace his wardrobe due to a hasty departure. "But we had no such impediment to judicious packing on this occasion. Did you even bring a change of clothes?"

Vin looked at the packhorse with amused exasperation. "Brought a clean shirt and long johns. We're goin' ta Claybourne ta guard witnesses not court the mayor's daughter - well, except Buck maybe."

Ezra ignored him and went on. "While I might be responsible for two-thirds of the horses, your horse creates two-thirds of the trouble."

"Nothin' wrong with a spirited horse," Vin shot back, giving Peso an affectionate pat as the gelding tossed his head impatiently.

"I find a horse with manners creates much less fuss when he encounters new lodgings or traveling companions. Your 'spirited' equine has terrorized our poor gentle beast of burden this entire journey." Ezra retorted. "Now, as I didn't complain when you arranged for our accommodations last night, it's only fair. . ."

"You did nothin' but complain. The ground was too rocky, the creek bank was infested with snakes, the rabbit was tough, the coyotes kept you awake, the birds woke you up, the . . . "

Ezra held up his hand in mock surrender. "Even you will agree that finding accommodations superior to what you provided won't be terribly difficult. While this hotel isn't first class, you won't suffer as I did last night. I'll see we each get a soft bed, a hot bath and a decent meal including meat that can be separated from the bone without claws and fangs. As you kindly did your best to supply supper last night, I'll buy tonight, if you'll see to the horses."

"Yer buyin'?"

Ezra grinned. He had him now. Vin would not only see that all the horses were taken care of, he might be impressed enough with Ezra's generosity to carry most of the luggage up to their room while Ezra saw to it they were first in line for the hot water. He wouldn't remind Vin that as room and board were part of their verbal contract with the judge, he expected compensation for their meals and rooms while they were running this particular errand. He fully intended to submit an expense voucher after the trial.

He watched as Vin led the horses down the street to the livery that, praise the gods of sanitation, was not located too close to the hotel. He had been rather looking forward to embarking on this little adventure with Josiah. He'd always found Josiah a fascinating if sometimes murky conversationalist. Fate had assigned Vin as a last minute substitute but it had worked out surprisingly well. Vin's mother had clearly never told him appearances were everything. So even as Ezra strove to appear to be more than he was, Vin appeared less than he was without trying at all. He was actually an erudite man who had experienced relatively little of what Ezra had and much that Ezra had not. Such a difference in background could lead to engaging conversation when both parties were willing. In this case, they had been. So despite Vin's undiscerning nature when it came to bed, board and attire, and what Vin apparently found to be a slight tendency on Ezra's part to complain, they had gotten along quite amiably. Ezra turned toward the hotel, cheerfully considering how their conversation would be even more engaging in a comfortable setting over a well cooked meal.

Four men were crowded around the hotel desk when Ezra entered the lobby. He hoped they wouldn't be ordering baths as well as rooms or it might take hours to get hot water. They didn't appear to be men overly concerned with bathing, but even Vin was known to bathe on occasion so it was hard to tell. He stood by idly shuffling his deck of cards until he overheard one of the men rattle off a list of names, the last of which was Vin Tanner. Hearing Vin's name spoken by strangers hardly boded well so Ezra put on his best look of casual curiosity and sidled closer to the desk.

There were six wanted posters spread out on the desktop, facing the bespectacled clerk on the other side. The biggest of the men stared at Ezra with no little menace in his expression. "Don't get any ideas, mister. These bounties are ours."

Ezra stepped back in a show of fear. "Most certainly. I have no interest in apprehending murderers and stage robbers. My only interest is knowing if this gang is in the vicinity so I can take measures to avoid them."

The man looked Ezra over and seemed satisfied he was harmless. "Ain't a gang. We're on our way to Claybourne and figured that we might as well try our luck with a few wanted posters for men rumored to be in these parts. You never know when good fortune might come our way."

Ezra nodded. "Yes, I see. However, it takes a more adventurous man than I to believe an encounter with murderers the likes of . . ." He stepped closer to peruse the posters. ". . . Jake DuBois or Vin Tanner would constitute good fortune. You can be sure that if I see anyone meeting their descriptions, I'll leave it to you gentlemen to see they get their just deserts." He looked over to the clerk. "Now, if you can assure me that none of the ruffians on these posters is a guest in this hotel, I would like to book a double room - a suite if you have it. And my cousin and I will need to bathe before dinner. Can you arrange that?"

The clerk's relief at getting back to the ordinary needs of passing travelers was evident. "Yes, certainly Mr. . . ." He spun the register around after Ezra signed it. "Standish. In fact, the suite has a small connecting space where two guests can bathe in complete privacy. I'll have someone start taking hot water up immediately. Our dining room will be open until 9. If you have additional bags, I can send one of our boys after them."

Ezra nodded pleasantly. "My cousin is seeing to our horses. If you'll give me our room key, we'll bring the bags up ourselves and free your boys to bring us extra hot water."

With the key safely in his pocket, Ezra made his way to the livery. There was a well worn sign on the entrance proclaiming the owner had gone home for supper and would be "back soon." Inside, Vin had unloaded their gear and was filling buckets with fresh water as the horses nibbled the hay he'd put in the racks for them. "Vin, we have a problem." Ezra quickly explained the interests of the four men at the hotel.

Vin shrugged. "Okay, you stay at the hotel. I'll make camp outside town and we can meet out by the north road in the morning."

"I'm afraid that won't do. Those men are headed for Claybourne and will be using the north road. In fact, for all we know they're in the employ of the man we're protecting that bookkeeper from. Even if you avoid them here, they could still find you in Claybourne, especially if they see you with the witness. Chris and Buck are two days behind us fetching Stanton's housekeeper from Victorville. We'll have to telegraph home and send for a replacement. It was a bad idea to have you come on a mission requiring interaction with federal marshals anyway."

Vin shook his head. "Didn't have no choice after Josiah busted his ankle falling off the damn ladder. JD'd already left to take Nettie and Casey to that weddin'. Wouldn't a been right to send Nathan when the sickness the new settlers brought spread to the reservation. And none of 'em can get here in time now. The train with that Shelby feller and the marshals comes in early the morning after next. If we don't lollygag, we'll get there by tomorrow afternoon. Anyone else would be two or three days late."

"We won't do Shelby any good if you end up dead or in jail. I'll simply have to do guard duty alone until Chris and Buck arrive."

"Ezra, you just said those men might be workin' for Stanton. The marshals are going on with the train, leaving him to us. You can't protect him against those odds." Vin stood with his arms folded, looking as resolute as the rhetorical immovable object.

Ezra folded his own arms and moved forward, determined to become an irresistible force. He hadn't really expected to get Vin to back off but he'd had to try. "All right then, I have another idea. You can hide in plain sight."

Vin looked at him quizzically. "You know, I can do that in the wilderness. Don't blend in so well in town."

Ezra grinned. "Ah, but by the time I finish with you, you will." First, we get rid of that 'I was a buffalo hunter' buckskin jacket and that hat. What'd you do, pose for that wanted poster in your favorite clothes?" He loosened his string tie and handed it to Vin "Here, tie your hair back."

Ezra reluctantly fingered his own hat with a sigh. Lord knew what was in Vin's hair. Finally he plopped it on Vin's head. "That'll do for now. It's getting dark, we'll go up the back stairs to our suite."

"Suite?" Vin adjusted Ezra's hat so that it fit closer over his forehead. "I reckon I'm moving up in the world." He swept a path with his hand before he picked up his share of their baggage. "Lead on, my good man."

* * *

A half hour later they were soaking in two tubs of steaming water. A half hour after that, Vin had his eyes closed, and looked to be asleep when Ezra set the shaving tray on his tub. He directed a slit-eyed glance Ezra's way. "You gonna give me a shave, Ezra?"

Ezra held up the ivory handled razor. "You have shaved before haven't you, Vin? I mean a real shave with a sharp razor that doesn't leave behind an inch of stubble?"

"Oh, I reckon I could give it a try. Long as you don't expect me to follow it up with that perfume you and Buck slap on your faces."

Ezra shook his head, wondering for a moment whether to be offended that Vin thought he and Buck used the same "perfume." But no, Vin's lack of discernment was a product of his rustic upbringing. "Heaven forbid that I'd offer to share my expensive toiletries with a barbarian. Let's just do this a step at a time. Shave first, then the hair."

"Hair, yer gonna cut my hair?" Vin looked decidedly skeptical.

"If you'd had the foresight to cut your hair before you posed for that wanted poster, you could use long hair as a disguise now. But we have to work with what we're given."

"Ezra, you do know I didn't pose for that poster dontcha? I reckon the guy who worked for the newspaper in Tascosa drew it from memory. Too bad he had a good one."

"Something of a gift as an artist as well I'm afraid. Well, even he won't recognize you after we're done here. Hurry up with that razor. I don't have any hair cutting scissors so I'm going to have to make do with my nail scissors and that razor."

"You had much practice?" Vin took a long look at Ezra's hair. "Well, I reckon yours don't look bad. If you can do that, I guess I'll let you do mine."

Ezra didn't bother to tell Vin he'd never think of cutting his own hair.

* * *

An hour later Ezra was trying to decide which of his ensembles he was least reluctant to sacrifice to the cause. He finally chose the dark blue with the gold brocade vest and his coarsest white shirt. That would leave him three jackets, two vests and six shirts. They could buy Vin a couple more shirts in Claybourne. He wasn't sure what to do about Vin's scruffy boots. Even with a liberal application of his own boot polish, they still made a sad contrast to the black trousers Ezra was lending him. Well. Claybourne was three or four times the size of Four Corners. There might be a presentable pair of boots to be had.

Vin came into the bedroom wearing just a towel around his waist. He spotted the clothes Ezra had laid out on the bed and clutched the towel firmly. "I ain't wearin' yer underwear."

Ezra picked up the offending garments. "They're clean, they're silk and they'll make the clothes fit better. You aren't wearing those filthy, ragged, long johns under my clothes."

"Then I reckon I won't wear any at all 'cause I sure as hell ain't wearin' another man's underwear."

Ezra paled at the thought of Vin naked under his second best pair of tailored trousers. He sighed. "You said you brought a clean pair."

"Pretty clean. Only wore 'em once."

Ezra tried not to shudder. They'd have to get Vin some gentlemen's undergarments in Claybourne as well. He'd probably have to burn those trousers.

As Vin reached out to finger the gold brocade vest, Ezra noticed another flaw in his appearance that would have to be rectified. He rummaged through his toiletry kit and came up with the necessary items.

Vin watched him closely, then grinned. "Hell, Ezra, you gonna give me a manicure too?"

* * *

They were just finishing a surprisingly decent meal of stuffed pork chops, green beans and new potatoes in the hotel dining room when the four would-be bounty hunters came in for their own supper. Ezra and Vin had taken a small table in a corner near the entrance where between them they could see the whole dining room without turning. Ezra gave Vin a barely perceptible sign as they maintained the appearance of two travelers in deep conversation.

The biggest of them recognized Ezra and stopped at the table. "Mr. Standish, would your friend be willing to take a look at our posters? Perhaps he might have seen one of these men during his travels."

Ezra gestured toward Vin. "This is my cousin Elijah Standish. Mr. . . . I'm afraid I didn't catch your name."

"Braddock, Rance Braddock. Now about those posters." He started to reach into his inside coat pocket.

Ezra made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "I'm afraid we've been traveling together, intent on our business for the past few weeks. If either of us had seen the ruffians in those posters, we certainly would have warned the other."

"Well, traveling salesmen run across lots of different kinds of people, I just thought . . ."

Ezra looked at the man in unfeigned surprise. "Traveling salesman? Do we really look like the sort of men who carry around sample cases and visit farmers and shopkeepers?" He took a sip of his wine to cover his chagrin at this man's assessment of his station in life. He choked on it when Vin spoke up.

"A gentleman does not debase himself by engagin' in menial labor." Vin sounded so much like Ezra, it was as though he'd been taking lessons.

Braddock merely nodded. "No offense intended. It's just that there would seem to be little else for two men clearly not engaged in hard labor to do in these parts."

Before Ezra had sufficiently recovered from his wine mishap to respond, Vin spoke up again. "Our cousin Efrem is comin' into Claybourne on the train. We're meetin' him. He's gotten himself a mail order bride and it's our job to polish him up a mite before he meets her."

Braddock nodded again, and moved on to join his friends at a larger table on the other side of the dining room.

Ezra leaned in Vin's direction and spoke quietly. "Our cousin Efrem? Mail order bride? What are you thinking?"

Vin ignored him. "Elijah? You been tellin' folks my name is Elijah?"

"Good, solid Biblical name. Shows our parents have similar upbringing. You have a problem with it?"

"Ezra, what do you think Eli Joe's real name was?"

Ezra hadn't given that any thought at all. "All the better. Means you won't forget it."

"Won't forget it?"

"Nothing worse than running a con and forgetting what alias one is using. When I was thirteen my mother introduced me to everyone as Jameson Buchanan, grandson of a wealthy industrialist. When I failed to introduce myself by that name on one occasion, her con suffered a serious setback. Believe me, it was years before I heard the end of that one. If Elijah is the given name of your worst enemy, you won't forget it."

Vin shrugged. "You got a point. Elijah it is. I reckon I musta passed as yer cousin. Ain't as hard as I expected." He took a sip of the wine Ezra had insisted on instead of the beer Vin wanted to order. "Fact is, I could get used ta some of it. This stuff is right tasty."

Ezra looked Vin over, trying to see him through the eyes of strangers who knew the real Vin Tanner only by way of that unfortunately accurate wanted poster. He'd done a damn good job if he did say so himself. Ezra's clothes were a pretty good fit on Vin, though they had more of a catalog and less of an individually tailored look. His face was baby smooth and his hair only slightly longer than Ezra's own. His nails were short and clean, his hands as smooth as Ezra's lanolin could make them. He wore Ezra's big, turquoise ring on his left hand. It had taken a little persuasion to get Vin to admit his sawed-off would ruin the lines of his outfit. Ezra had fitted him with his own rig, leaving himself with his shoulder holster and derringer. Although they didn't look alike, sharing at most a general similarity in height and build, it wouldn't be hard to persuade people they were cousins.

Ezra took another sip of his own wine. A most fortunate vintage actually. "Now, what was that about our cousin Efrem and his mail order bride?"

* * *

Ezra regretfully passed up the possibilities of a night of poker in one of the two local saloons. The four bounty hunters were staking out both places, hoping to get themselves a careless murderer. In any event, he and Vin needed to ride out before dawn. Vin's plan sounded like a good one but it required, at the very least, his discarded clothes see the services of an expert laundress. They needed to get to Claybourne early enough to do a little shopping, drop by said laundry and get a feel for the place.

* * *

They ate a most dissatisfying breakfast of jerky and biscuits on horseback. With only a couple of brief stops to rest and water the horses, they made it to Claybourne shortly after noon. Their first stop was the telegraph office where they sent a wire to Chris and Buck in Victorville.

Their next stop was a laundry where, over Vin's objection, Ezra insisted on leaving Vin's entire paltry wardrobe.

"That shirt's my clean one. Don't need ta leave it."

"Mr. Tanner, clean is a relative term. While your plan to pass off Mr. Shelby as our country cousin is admirable, it won't work unless he's willing to dress himself in your simple clothing. It has a worn look even poor quality new clothes won't have. I promise you, he isn't going to be willing to put any of this stuff on unless it's properly laundered. Beating it against a rock in a cold stream doesn't count."

Vin rolled his eyes. "I don't get paid enough to endure these indignities."

Ezra stopped short, raising one eyebrow.

Vin gave him a knowing grin. "It's easier when I can imitate something I've heard you say."

"Are you mocking me?"

"Yep. This job just keeps getting better and better."

The next stop was a haberdasher. Blessed be railroad commerce because the place had a passable supply of shirts, hats and undergarments, although there was no silk. And to Ezra's surprise, Vin didn't complain about supplementing his wardrobe. In fact, he even seemed to enjoy the feel of Egyptian cotton. Ezra decided to buy himself a new hat and let Vin keep the old one. Although he was relatively sure Vin's hair was clean now, it most assuredly hadn't been when Ezra had first made loan of his hat last night. Better to be safe and let whatever might have escaped from Vin's head go back there.

Ezra got a little more resistance at the boot maker. There wasn't time to have a pair custom made and the ready-made didn't meet Vin's standard for comfort. This from a man who had no qualms about sleeping on dirt, bathing in ice cold streams and eating salt pork and beans every meal for a week at a time. The most Vin would allow was for his own boots to be dyed and polished. It was not a very convincing effort and Ezra turned over in his mind stories about the sorry state of baggage handling on the western stage lines to explain the gap in his cousin's wardrobe.

The gun shop was their final stop. As they expected, there wasn't enough expense money left to buy Vin a rig that comported with his wardrobe. They had to settle for extra ammunition for Ezra's rigs. He was unsettled about the reduction in his firepower and he could tell Vin was also.

* * *




Buck handed the telegram to Chris. "Looks like we got the trouble the judge expected. Wonder what Josiah has in mind posing as Ezra's relative? Trying to make it look like a family reunion?"

"With Ezra involved, who knows?" Chris ran his hand through his hair. "Guess they're saying we need to pass Mrs. Talbot off as Shelby's mail order bride. Got any ideas on that?"

Buck grinned lewdly. "I always have ideas when it comes to an attractive woman."

"Attractive? You think she's attractive?"

"Chris, you've got to look below the surface. That lady's got potential if we loosen her up some. Get her out of those widow's weeds, let down that auburn hair. Get her to smile more."

Chris had to wonder if Buck's experience with Hilde was responsible for his willingness to look below the surface. For most of the years he'd known him, Buck had been insatiable in his pursuit of pretty women. While they weren't always great beauties, Chris couldn't remember a time when Buck had devoted much effort pursuing women who needed refurbishing to be considered attractive. But he wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. If Buck was willing to help carry out Ezra and Josiah's plan, so much the better. "Glad to hear you volunteer. You're in charge." Even as he said them, Chris grinned at the futility of his next words. "And don't forget, if the lady's pretending to be engaged, no despoiling the goods prior to delivery."

"Chris, you ought to know by now that when Buck Wilmington helps out a lonely widow, she's better off for it. Besides it ain't like she's really Shelby's intended. Be more realistic if she looks like a satisfied woman."

"I think she's supposed to look satisfied after the wedding, not before she meets the groom."

* * *

The train was almost on time the next morning.

Ezra had a leisurely late breakfast at the saloon, joined midway by Vin who slid into the seat next to him to make a sandwich with two of Ezra's slices of toast, a fried egg and a slab of ham. Talking around his purloined luncheon in a most disgusting manner, Vin filled Ezra in on his morning's explorations.

"I'm thinking you were right about Braddock workin' for Stanton. Saw two of his men at the depot to meet the first two trains this mornin', one eastbound, one westbound. I figure they don't know what train Shelby's comin' in on or even from what direction. His third man was hangin' around the telegraph office when I walked past at 7 to pick up our laundry." Vin patted the satchel at his feet, indicating it contained the clothes they'd need for Shelby. "He was still there when I passed just now. Seems like 3 hours is a long wait for an answer to a telegram. Reckon they've bought off the operator and are checkin' all the messages both comin' and goin'. Good thing we didn't try to explain things to Chris and Buck in the one we sent."

Ezra tried to keep his mind on what Vin was saying but he was seriously distracted by the blob of egg yolk that appeared ready to drop from Vin's sandwich onto Ezra's third best vest. Finally, he could bear it no longer. He grabbed Vin's wrist with one hand and with the other wrapped a napkin around the sandwich, vowing not to order his eggs sunny side up for as long as Vin was wearing borrowed clothes. Vin just gave him an unrepentant grin, removed the napkin and licked the oozing yolk from all the edges of the sandwich.

They still had a half hour until Shelby's train was due but decided they'd better scout things out beforehand. One never knew when a train might be early. During their casual stroll to the depot, they kept up a running banter suggestive of family members lightly disagreeing about the details of a cousin's upcoming nuptials, while keeping an eye out for anyone who looked to be in Stanton's employ. They took up a position at the edge of the platform, leaning casually against a pair of support posts. Ezra dusted his fingers along the sleeve of his favorite plum-colored jacket, pleased with the contrast of his pristine white sleeve against the dark hue.

He surveyed Vin through eyes half-closed against the morning sun, eyeing him from head to toe. Vin had managed to maintain his dissimilarity to his wanted poster, though a close look revealed he also bore a distinct dissimilarity to the gentleman his clothes proclaimed him to be. The barber had done an admirable job in putting the finishing touches on Ezra's initial attempt to tame Vin's shaggy tangle. It was neatly trimmed, gently curling over his collar. However, his new white shirt, that had fairly sparkled when they'd purchased it yesterday, now seemed a bit dingy and had coffee stains on the ruffle at his left wrist. Ezra sighed. Remaking Vin was like playing a minuet on an out-of-tune saloon piano. The melody was recognizable but lacked the elegance it would have had on a baby grand. Worst were the boots Vin had refused to give up. The dye and polish had helped but they were still especially sour notes in the Tanner symphony. However, all in all, no one would connect Elijah Standish with the scruffy bounty hunter depicted in the wanted poster.

Ezra spotted Braddock and one of his men coming in their direction before Braddock noticed them. Ezra stepped forward and stopped him with a cheery greeting. "Ah, Mr. Braddock, we meet again. Do you have family arriving on this train or are you still hoping to apprehend one of those miscreants from your posters? If it's the latter, we would appreciate some kind of signal should gunplay become imminent. We'd hate to get caught in a crossfire so close to Cousin Efrem's wedding day. He's bound to be nervous enough about meeting his intended."

Braddock looked distracted and stopped only long enough to respond briefly. "Just some friends due in today who failed to let us know their time of arrival. If we see any 'miscreants,' I'll try to give you and your cousins a warning to duck before we open fire."

Ezra tipped his hat. "We'd appreciate it."

They heard the train long before they could see it. But at last a small speck appeared on the horizon, growing larger with every passing moment. They straightened, standing as close to the platform as they could. The moment the train huffed to a stop, they were moving, swinging up into the nearest car and quickly moving car to car until they found their quarry. Shelby turned out to be a nervous man dressed in formal clothes. He looked more like a banker than a mere bookkeeper. He was flanked on either side by a federal marshal while a third guarded the door to the compartment.

Ezra hastened to show the guard the letter of introduction Travis had sent with them. He then had to explain the absence of a person meeting Josiah's description. "As it was important to have only a trusted person to replace Mr. Sanchez, I brought my cousin Elijah." The marshal looked skeptical, though no more skeptical of Vin than Ezra. Ezra hastened to elucidate, "We thought it wise not to look like hired guns. We don't want Stanton's men to notice us. He has at least two here at the depot right now, possibly more as we've made the acquaintance of four of them. We hope to pass off Mr. Shelby as part of our family."

Once briefed on the situation, Shelby quickly agreed to the ruse. However, he balked at the clothes Vin produced from the satchel he'd been carrying. He held them up with no little distaste. Ezra hastened to assure him they'd been freshly laundered.

Shelby fingered the front of the shirt. "Is that a blood stain?"

Vin's response was not particularly comforting. "Don't worry, the bandana will cover it."

Shelby still looked skeptical but retired to the back of the compartment to change. He came back carrying his own clothes and looking considerably less like a banker and more like someone facing foreclosure. He rubbed his hand over his face, which was covered with at least a week's growth of beard. "Judge Travis suggested I forego shaving until the morning of my testimony. I suppose wearing these rustic clothes is in accord with my lack of suitable grooming."

Ezra stole a quick look at Vin who was starting to look insulted.

However, Vin merely commented cryptically, "Well, at least you can wear yer own underwear." He reluctantly handed Shelby his rig with the sawed-off rifle. "Put this on but don't even think of using it. At least if yer wearing it, I might be able to get hold of it in a fight. I'm used to a real gun with some decent firepower."

Ezra hastened to get their plan in motion. "Gentlemen, I realize the three of you will be leaving with the train when it pulls out. I have ascertained there will be a short delay to pick up water and fuel and to let the passengers get some food for the rest of the trip. If you . . . " Ezra pointed at the marshal who best matched Shelby in size and coloring, "would please put on Mr. Shelby's clothes. You can check into the hotel, escorted by your two comrades wearing their badges. Change back into your own clothes in the hotel room and return to the train unnoticed. Stanton's henchmen, believing Mr. Shelby to be holed up in the hotel, might disclose themselves in trying to break in."

The marshals agreed to the plan. While the smallest of them changed into Shelby's suit, the three "cousins" walked through several cars and exited some distance away. They strolled toward the saloon, carrying on a spirited speculation about Efrem's mail order bride.

They hadn't quite gotten to their destination when the sound of a gunshot ripped through the air. Vin and Ezra spun around, guns drawn, in time to see the Shelby impersonator go down, an ugly splotch of red marring the shoulder of Shelby's suit. One of the marshals threw himself over the downed man, while the second frantically returned fire.

Vin and Ezra grabbed Shelby's arms and dragged him toward the shelter of the covered walkway. They backed him up to the wall of the saloon and stood together in front of him. Vin pointed to the rooftop of the restaurant across the street, but Ezra saw no one. The shooter must have fired, hit his target and made his escape.

Ezra eased along the boardwalk, getting closer to the action while appearing to be no more than a curious onlooker. He watched closely as the two marshals labored over the prostrate body in the middle of the street. He heard the nearby sound of a bullet being chambered in a rifle and twisted quickly, ending up with his gun pressed to Shelby's chest. Shelby quickly dropped Vin's sawed-off.

"Jesus, Sh . . . Efrem." Ezra could feel two hot spots of anger burning crimson on his cheeks. "Don't sneak up on a man like that. You'll get yourself killed. Then I'll be in serious trouble with my employer."

As Vin picked up his rifle and returned it to the holster on Shelby's right hip, Shelby gestured with a shaky hand toward the commotion in the street. "That was supposed to be me." He swallowed hard. "You think he's dead?"

Ezra shook his head. "He's still breathing and the wound's too high on the shoulder to be fatal. I think they're playing it up."

They watched as the marshals hefted the wounded man, retreating back toward the train station. The way they held the body, and the defeated slump of their shoulders proclaimed to anyone watching that they were now guarding a dead man.

Ezra nodded in admiration. "Quick thinking. Maybe that will convince Stanton's employees they've killed one of the main witnesses against him."

Ezra turned to his comrades but before he could speak, Vin looked at Shelby and said, "Shall we retire to the saloon for a libation?" Switching to a more Vin-like cadence, he added with a nod in Ezra's direction, "He's buyin'."

* * *

It was two full days after receiving Ezra's telegram that Chris, Buck and Virginia Talbot reached Claybourne. Watching Buck unfold himself from Virginia's buggy reminded Chris there were times when Buck's obsession with the fairer sex was a blessing. He hadn't even asked Chris to take his turn driving the buggy despite the fact that Buck's long legs were a tighter fit that Chris's would have been. Buck had to work a kink out of his knee before he could even straighten enough to give Virginia a hand out. Once she'd disembarked safely, Buck handed the reins to Chris.

"The lady wants to freshen up at the hotel before meeting her intended. Perhaps I can even arrange for a bath." In response to Chris's raised eyebrow, Buck added, "Don't worry, I'll stand outside the door. After all, the lady is engaged to Ezra's cousin and I wouldn't want to damage the reputation of one of Maude's future in-laws."

Chris grinned. He foresaw some difficulty in making a liaison between Virginia and Stanton's bookkeeper look plausible with Buck hovering around. No one would believe he was a chaperone. Buck had done a good job in outfitting the lady though. Praise be she didn't quite look like a barmaid, which is what Chris had expected. However, she no longer looked like a somber housekeeper or a schoolmarm either. The hat Buck had procured did an admirable job of hiding her face when she kept her head at the right angle but it had been a tad bright to match her widow's weeds. Chris thought it was the hat that had eased her into the rest of the charade. Chris watched the two of them proceed down the boardwalk arm and arm, Virginia barely reaching Buck's shoulder. Thank goodness, she wasn't really a mail order bride or Buck would have ruined their ability to deliver on the contract.

After seeing to the three horses and the buggy, Chris set out to find the saloon mentioned in Ezra's wire. He needed to cut the trail dust and a meal wouldn't be out of order either. If they weren't there now, one of them would show up eventually. Chris passed five saloons before finding the Brandywine, which, as its name suggested, was slightly on the genteel side for a place that relied on drinkers and gamblers to sustain it. It was also the closest to the rail station and probably attracted patrons waiting to transfer to or from the stage line. Whatever the reason, it was crowded at the moment with diners and drinkers. He'd check for Ezra and Josiah and grab a quick meal at the establishment across the street if they weren't there.

He shouldered through the crowd, heading for the bar, scouting the tables as he went. He spotted Ezra at a table in a back corner with two other men, neither of them Josiah. Ezra looked over and acknowledged him with the subtlest of nods. He couldn't get a look sufficient to determine if one of the other men was the bookkeeper. According to Travis's original communications, the man was about 5'10", skinny, dark hair and wore spectacles. Both the men at Ezra's table had dark hair and could be the right size. One of them had his back to Chris but the fact that he was dressed in a dark blue jacket that looked just like one Ezra owned suggested this might be the witness posing as Ezra's cousin. He could see the third man in profile. He had dark hair but no glasses and was dressed more like Buck or Vin than Ezra. Chris hoped Ezra wasn't working a mark when he was supposed to be guarding the witness.

Due to the arrival of a westbound train and a southbound stage, the place was almost empty by the time Buck and Virginia came in. Buck made a point of passing near Ezra's table but didn't stop. Ezra gave no sign of recognition, a sure sign they should give him room to operate. Buck must have interpreted Ezra's lack of acknowledgement the same way because he escorted Virginia to a table near the opposite end of the bar. Chris took his beer and settled into a table next to Buck's so they could talk without looking like they'd met there intentionally.

After they gave their food orders, Buck tipped his chair back and whispered, "You know why Vin's here 'stead of Josiah?"

Chris looked around. The place was relatively empty now except for the bartender, the barmaid who'd taken their order, the three of them, the three at Ezra's table and a table of burly men who looked like teamsters. "What the hell are you talking about? Vin ain't here. That skinny guy with Ezra is wearing the kind of clothes Vin wears, but it ain't Vin."

"Chris, believe me, men don't wink at me all that often. When I passed that table, the fella in Ezra's blue jacket turned a pair of baby blues in my direction and winked. I'd passed by before it sunk in it was Vin. But it was, sure enough. Don't know what they're up to but I'm thinking Vin is Cousin Elijah."

Chris tried to get a better look at the man in the blue jacket but his back was still to them. "Come on Buck, I'd recognize Vin and I can't think of anything that would get him into those fancy duds of Ezra's, much less into a barber's chair. Besides nothing would make him part with his sawed-off."

"I'm tellin' you, pard, that's Vin. That third guy is wearing Vin's clothes, maybe he's got that sawed-off strapped to his hip." Buck picked up his beer and took a healthy swallow. "I seem to recall it was Vin who hustled Ezra into wearing that purple dress. Ezra's probably waited all this time to get a little revenge."

"Revenge hell. If that is Vin, Ezra probably thinks he's doing him a favor."

Buck nodded. "Reckon you're right. If I was competing with Vin for a woman - not that I'd ever have to - I'd sure rather have him look like his old self than the guy who winked at me just now."

Chris was still turning over in his mind the likelihood of that being Vin when two well-dressed men came in and ordered bourbon at the bar. The moment Virginia saw them, she slid from her chair into Buck's lap, put her arms around his neck and started kissing him. Buck seemed a little surprised but hid it well. It wasn't as though having a woman in his lap was a novel experience. Chris saw her whispering in Buck's ear, too softly to overhear. Buck reacted by looking over her head at Chris, then moving his eyes in the direction of the two men.

They acted as though they were in deep conversation but the taller of the two was scouring the room, obviously looking for someone. He gave no evidence of recognizing either Virginia or the man with Vin and Ezra. Shortly thereafter, the two men finished their drinks and walked out without another look at anyone. Once they were out of sight, Virginia slid over to the chair next to Buck where she could talk to both of them.

"The tall one was Demarest, Stanton's lawyer. The little, fat, one is his clerk, Partington, I think. They're the only two men aside from Stanton himself who will recognize Mr. Shelby and me on sight. Do you think he saw me?" Virginia was clearly frightened but kept her composure.

Chris was about to suggest they all take the opportunity to leave, when two men with guns drawn entered from the back. Four more came in from the front, also with guns drawn, and headed straight for Ezra's table. The two who'd come in from rear entrance kept their guns trained on the other occupied tables. A few of the teamsters started to rise and the men gestured with their revolvers for them to sit down.

"Don't make yourselves part of our problem and you won't get hurt."

Buck put his arm around Virginia protectively and drew her to him. "Don't want no trouble, mister. Can't have my fiancée in the middle of any shooting. Whatever your trouble is, we ain't part of it. Why don't you let me take her out of here?"

"Just stay put. We'll finish our business and nobody else gets hurt."

Chris leaned back, looking casual, keeping his right hand on the table, but making sure he was in a position to draw without getting tangled up in any of the furniture. He looked at Buck, then over to the bar. Buck nodded slightly and whispered to Virginia. Chris knew if lead started flying Buck would protect the woman, then dive into the action. Now they just had to wait until Ezra gave them enough distraction to take out the six men without getting anyone else hurt.

Ezra and Vin had moved together to block the third man from the intruders. They were following instructions to disarm, each placing a revolver on the table in front of them.

"Mr. Standish, I'm very disappointed with you and your cousin - if indeed you're actually related. You've made us look bad in our boss's eyes, parading around here openly with his bookkeeper. You've made us lose our bonus pay. Now if you'll move aside, we'll take care of our little problem and perhaps we won't have to kill the two of you. Then again, it wouldn't bother us much if you force our hands. Now move aside."

As the man gestured with his handgun, momentarily pointing the barrel to the side, Chris tensed. In a blur of motion, there were two derringers pointed at the four men - two outstretched arms with ruffles at the wrist and a pearl handled pocket pistol in hand. Chris took advantage of the momentary distraction to draw his gun and slip up behind the two men who'd been guarding the rest of the room. They didn't resist when he grabbed their revolvers with his free hand and tucked them in his waistband. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck crouched at the end of the bar, gun drawn, Virginia out of sight.

Ezra and Vin's four adversaries reacted as though they'd been accosted by children pointing toy guns. "There are more of us and we've got bigger guns. You'll only get two shots off between you before we take you."

Chris moved forward to back them up and was vaguely aware of Buck doing the same behind him. He waited for the half-expected response and got it, but with a Texas twang.

"Then you best discuss amongst yourselves which two of you is going to die."

"Are, Cousin Elijah," Ezra chided. "Are - plural."

"Oh, yeah," Vin corrected himself, "You are going to die."

And they did.

Chris had been living by his gun long enough to anticipate the tightening of a man's finger on the trigger. His own first shot preceded the three fired by his partners by such a tiny sliver of time that most onlookers would have sworn they were simultaneous. The unlucky front man took two bullets. It was only after he started to go down that the fourth man become a decent target. The other two got in the way of .45 caliber bullets fired by Vin and Ezra. When it looked as though the threat on that front had been handled, Chris whirled to make sure the two men he'd disarmed didn't try anything although he knew Buck would have them covered unless the lady was in danger. In any event, they'd clearly lost their will to fight and were headed for the kitchen door. Buck stopped them with a few bullets fired into the floor ahead of them. One of the men was fast enough that the third shot took out the toe of his boot, bringing him to an anguished halt and tripping up the man behind him.

As Chris approached to check on the status of the four men on the floor, Ezra threw himself on Shelby, taking him down as a bullet came through the front window and passed harmlessly where his head would have been. Almost simultaneously, Vin fired one of the revolvers they had placed on the table. Chris saw the man Virginia identified as the law clerk fall back, the gun in his hand going off, pointed harmlessly at the boardwalk just outside the window.

Ezra raised his head, looking around to make sure it was safe. He stood up and slapped Vin lightly on the shoulder. "Nice shot, pard."

"Dreadful. I was aiming for the big guy but the little feller got in the way."

Chris suddenly felt as though he was living in some kind of familiar stage play in which the parts had been unexpectedly recast.

Chris checked outside as Buck shoved his two prisoners forward and asked, "There any unbought law in this town or do we have to guard these two ourselves until Travis gets here?"

Ezra dusted off his clothes after helping Shelby to his feet. "There are two federal marshals guarding Stanton at the jail. They've been instructed not to be drawn away from there for any reason so it's been up to us to keep Cousin Efrem here out of the hands of Braddock and his men. We were doing fine until now. We've run into Braddock half a dozen times in the past couple of days and he never did anything to make us believe our ruse was less than successful."

Chris took charge of the prisoners while Buck retrieved Virginia from behind the bar. "According to Virginia, the two men who were in here earlier were Stanton's lawyer and his clerk. They were the only ones aside from Stanton who could have recognized Shelby and Virginia." He shot a look at the crumpled figure outside the window. "I guess we don't have to worry about the clerk now."

As Buck approached with Virginia, Chris looked over the man wearing Vin's clothes. "I take it this is Aaron Shelby." Shelby put out his hand and Chris shook it.

Buck introduced his companion. "And this is Mr. Shelby's mail order bride. Virginia Talbot, meet Aaron Shelby."

"Mr. Shelby and I are acquainted." Virginia said a little shyly as Shelby looked at her with unfeigned, though somewhat surprised, admiration.

Buck looked a little perturbed when Virginia responded to Shelby's admiration with a coy look and fluttering lashes. He hastily changed the subject. "Do we take it from your cryptic telegram that the telegraph operator is in the employ of Mr. Stanton?"

Vin nodded, "We think so. We seen Braddock and his friends hanging around there too much to believe they're waitin' fer telegrams. 'Course we didn't know fer sure when we wired you, but we didn't want to take any chances. We thought a little subtlety was in order."

Chris fixed Vin with a hard stare. "Did that haircut affect your brain? Are you gonna talk like that until it grows back? And speaking of that, why the hell are you walking around looking like Ezra? In fact, why are you here at all? Where's Josiah?"

Vin grinned and ran his hands through his short hair. "Josiah busted his ankle getting off the church roof just when one of the rungs of the ladder decided to give out. Weren't nobody else available, so I came along with Cousin Ezra here. Braddock and his friends had a copy of my poster. Ezra spotted it back in Marlsburg."

"You aren't getting to like those clothes, are you?"

Vin stretched out his arm and brushed the dust off his sleeve in a spooky imitation of Ezra. "Don't know Chris. I think I look pretty damn fine. And Ezra's spare derringer rig came in right handy. Could be this little adventure will give me a whole new outlook on life."

Chris groaned. "Tell me you're kidding."

Vin ran his hands down the brocade vest and fingered the gold tie tack. "Hell, Chris. There's no way I could dress like this on a dollar a day. And we both know the only fools I can beat at poker are JD and Buck - and Josiah when he's into a bottle pretty good."

Chris didn't answer right away; he was mesmerized by Vin's hands. "Vin, did you get a manicure?"

* * *

Not for the first time Ezra bemoaned his haphazard choice of a career in law enforcement. People had started to gather in town for the trial and here he was for the third night in a row walking the hallway that separated the two suites making up the entire third floor of the hotel. The hotel was sufficiently quiet that he could hear the merriment in the saloon next door. The strains of the saloon ditties being hammered out on the piano were loud enough that had he actually been trying to sleep in the suite in which he and his two "cousins" were registered, he almost certainly would have demanded a refund of some kind. As it was, it just made him itchy. He fancied he could hear the slap of the pasteboards on the baize-covered tables accompanied by the rustle of cash and the clanking of gold and silver coins.

He sighed as he reached the top of the stairway and walked down to the landing. No outsider had used those stairs for three days. He himself had supplied their room service, picking up six meals three times a day from the dumbwaiter near the stairs, leaving the trays of empty dishes in exchange. He always had one of the others providing backup as the enclosure was large enough for a man JD's size to secret himself. So far they hadn't been challenged and Ezra didn't expect them to be. With four of his hired guns dead and two locked in cells adjacent to his own, Stanton was unlikely to have sufficient resources close at hand to attempt an armed run on the hotel. The federal marshals had been unable to deny Stanton access to his attorney so Demarest had undoubtedly informed him of the specter in black sitting at the window overlooking the street with one or two gunmen always holding high ground on the hotel roof. No, it seemed more likely Stanton's lawyer would be seeking a sharpshooter to take out the witnesses as they were walked from the hotel to the courthouse. However, they couldn't count on anything; they hadn't relaxed their guard.

They had contemplated the possibility of the judge being a target as that would delay the trial sufficiently to give Stanton and his lawyer time to regroup and come up with another plan to take out the witnesses. But the federal marshals had replaced the suspect telegraph operator with someone more reliable and Chris had gotten a wire to Travis. The judge was a wily old bastard; he'd be okay.

Ezra heard screams before he smelled the smoke. At first he suspected a ruse he had used to good stead himself on several occasions. But the number of people screaming and scurrying around below suggested real danger. He carefully made his way down to the landing, still expecting to be fired upon. His caution in that regard was unfounded, but what he saw as he looked down the second half of the stairway was much worse. The hallway and half the staircase were fully involved in flame. Failing to find suitable sharpshooters, Demarest must have simply hired men willing to put dozens of people, even the whole town, at risk by burning down the hotel. Ezra just hoped he hadn't covered his bets by stationing gunmen on the roofs of the saloon and the mercantile adjacent to the hotel. Both were also three-story buildings and would offer sufficient cover for shootists trying to prevent anyone on the third floor from exiting by way of a window or the roof.

His fears proved prophetic. When he tried to exit through the trapdoor to the roof, he not only heard bullets taking divots out of the shingles near the trapdoor, but found flames had made the exit impassable. The alleys between the buildings were hardly more than six feet wide, and would have made the pitching of flaming objects onto the hotel roof an easy task. He thought he heard Buck and Vin returning fire from their positions on the hotel roof but they wouldn't be able to keep the shooters busy and put out the flames blocking the roof exit. It was up to him to find an alternative exit from the third floor. As he dropped back down to the hallway floor, the smoke drove him into the first door he found as he blindly reached out for doorknobs. The room in which he found himself was only slightly clearer than the hallway but he made it to a window overlooking the saloon next door easily enough.

He wasted a precious moment trying to unlock it before he gave up and smashed the glass panes with a nearby chair, clearing the jagged remains away as he went. A moment later he was perched on the window sill, steeling himself to take the only option open to him. He wouldn't have hesitated to take a running jump from the hotel roof over to the top of the saloon. Even a standing start would have caused no hesitation. But here he was crouched outside a small window contemplating a six-foot expanse from a precarious perch below his intended landing point on the saloon roof. Although the shooting had ceased, the creaking of the beams beneath the floor and the increase in the smoke billowing behind him made him realize contemplation was futile. He flexed his knees once then leaped. At first he thought he'd made it. He landed heavily on his ribcage and arms with only his lower legs dangling over the side. But the roof of the saloon had a steep pitch and they must have been watering it down to make sure the fire didn't spread because it was slippery. With nothing substantial to grab onto, he was making all too rapid progress toward a drop to the alley below. He comforted himself with the thought that it was only a three-story drop - unlikely to be lethal. He could survive a broken ankle - or two.

He had almost convinced himself that a fall would be merely a painful inconvenience when a hand locked on his right wrist immediately followed by one on his left. He looked up into the cheerful blue eyes of his erstwhile cousin. He couldn't imagine what was anchoring Vin in place firmly enough for him to support his own weight much less Ezra's until he heard Buck's voice booming over the commotion from below.

"Hold on there, hoss. We gotcha."

Slowly Vin was dragged back from the edge taking Ezra with him. It was only when he had achieved a relatively stable position near the top of the roof did he see the chance Vin had taken to save him. There were no sturdy ropes securing his friend to some immovable anchor point. The only thing that had kept Vin from following Ezra over the edge was their sturdy friend Buck with one arm wrapped around the saloon's stovepipe and the other around Vin's ankle.

The three of them sat there on the roof ridge, breathing heavily though Ezra really didn't think his breathing should have been affected at all. His friends had done all the work.

They had recovered enough to start looking for a way down when they were startled by the sounds of beams cracking and falling as the entire hotel collapsed. From his vantage point, Ezra could see that the efforts of the firefighters, who had surprisingly elaborate equipment, were being directed at stopping the fire from spreading to the saloon and the mercantile. When the pumper directed its spray to the roof of the saloon, the three of them scrambled out of the way, using the trap door from the roof to effect their escape.

* * *

An hour later saw the three men, still smoky and dusty, sharing pitchers of beer with whiskey chasers in the saloon farthest from the smoldering fire. Ezra was buying, of course. He knew his friends wouldn't want tearful professions of gratitude but they would always accept free alcohol. They had gone through three pitchers and a bottle of quite serviceable whiskey when Vin slapped the table, almost toppling the empty bottle.

"We forgot Chris!"

Ezra looked at him blankly.

"Did you check the other suite before you flew over to the saloon?"

"If you'll recall Mr. Tanner, fortunately for me, you and Buck took that flight before I did. I don't believe you checked the other suite either."

"Well, one of us should have." Buck slapped himself on the forehead almost as hard as Vin had slapped the table. "Oh shit, how could we have forgotten?"

Ezra hadn't had enough to drink for his thinking to have gotten fuzzy but he still couldn't figure what his two rescuers were worried about. They'd saved him. There was nothing else of importance to worry about. "You both realize don't you that Chris was nowhere near the hotel. He was with our witnesses outside town. That was the whole purpose of the ruse. He didn't even come in today."

Vin's laughter was a cross between a drunken giggle and a snort, probably a result of the fact that he'd downed more than his share of the whiskey. "Course, we know Chris weren't in the hotel." He pointed an accusing finger at Ezra. "But he really liked that hat and now it's burned up. He ain't gonna be happy. It was yer idea to use it and I heard him tell you ta make sure nobody stole it."

Before Ezra could protest that no one had stolen it, Buck, who had probably emptied two of the beer pitchers on his own, nodded somberly. "Yep, he's had that hat a long time. It's part of his in... in... inscrutableness."

"Inscrutability," Ezra corrected automatically before he examined what they were so concerned about. The hat? They were going on about the stupid hat? Posed by the window on a chair with a couple of pillows, the black duster and a rifle borrowed from one of the marshals, the hat had served its purpose but Chris could certainly find more suitable headgear. Ezra shook his head. Clearly these two couldn't hold their liquor. Luckily, if any of Stanton's men should wander in they'd assume the three of them were in their cups over losing the witnesses in the fire.

* * *

Ezra deeply enjoyed the look on Stanton's face when the judge denied his attorney's opening motion for dismissal based on lack of evidence. He enjoyed it even more when the lawyer's protests were met with the appearance of the witnesses in court. Although there were a few other witnesses of lesser consequence, it was Shelby and Virginia who would be putting the lock on the cell door and it was their appearance that had Stanton's face turning alternately red with anger and white with fear. Yes, it was almost worth the ruination of his wardrobe by way of fire, smoke and Vin Tanner to see that face. Of course, he fully intended to present Judge Travis with a bill from his tailor.

More amusing than rewarding was seeing Buck's reaction to the budding romance between Virginia Talbot and Aaron Shelby. Ezra thought he should have been proud of his success in transforming the prim widow into a fetching mail order bride but Buck obviously felt the fruits of his labors were being harvested by an undeserving rival.

* * *

"Well, boys our work is done. What say we have a few beers then head on home?" Buck started across the street between the courthouse and the row of saloons.

Chris waved him back. "What say we head toward home and save the beers for our first stop? We should be able to make it to Marlsburg in time for a late supper."

Vin agreed. "Buck, they do a mean stuffed pork chop in the hotel there. Steaks looked good too. And maybe Ezra can pick out some of that good wine to go with them."

Chris and Buck looked at each other. Finally Buck said, "Hell, he's got his clothes back but he still ain't right in the head. You reckon this Elijah thing is like a sickness that'll take some time to run its course?"

"Let's just hope it wears off before we get home. Inez doesn't stock enough good brandy for two Standishes."

Chris listened as Vin caught up to Ezra at the livery door. "Ezra, you know its awful complicated bein' like you. Don't reckon I could carry it off without plumb wearing myself out. But you know this Egyptian cotton underwear, it's right nice. You think maybe the next time you send fer somethin' fancy in St. Louis, you might get me some of that. Maybe even some of the silk stuff."

Buck laughed and nudged Chris. "I reckon I was right Chris, this thing is gonna take some time to wear off."

"It damn well better. We had ourselves a right balanced pack with a fox and a coyote. Don't wanna be stuck with two foxes."

Buck danced around until he was in front of Chris, walking backwards. "Why that's practically poetic old pard. I reckon I'm the lone wolf."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Lone wolf, hell. You're some lonely widow's lapdog who comes out at night to run with the big dogs."

"You might have something there Chris. If there's big bad wolf in this pack, it's you. Me, I don't mind a little luxury."

Buck walked over to Ezra and put his arm around his shoulders. "Ezra, old friend. I'm thinking that when a lovely young lady unwraps the manly package that is Buck Wilmington, she might appreciate finding something smooth and silky to run her fingers down. So maybe you could send for a few of them silk long johns for me too."

"Be glad to, Buck." Ezra turned toward Chris. "Mr. Larabee, shall I put an order in for you as well?"

"Just the hat Ezra. Just the hat. And no fancy headgear. I want a hat exactly like the one you let burn up." Chris turned and headed to the livery, pretending not to hear Ezra ask if it was all right if the replacement was dust free. However, a sudden thought made him turn on his heel and sternly address all three of his companions.

"Don't let me hear any of you touting the joys of silk underwear to JD, Nathan or Josiah." He stopped to fix Ezra and Vin with what he hoped was a withering stare - though both of them tended to be gallingly wither-proof. "Last thing we need is the bad guys finding out Four Corners is protected by a bunch of shootists in delicate underthings."