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By late morning the next day the saloon had been mostly cleaned up. Ezra sauntered through the doors to join Buck and JD, pleased to note his accustomed table was upright and in place, though the gambler noticed a new gouge on the edge as he sat down with Dunne and Wilmington. One of Inez's new hires, muttering curses under his breath, swept up some broken glass in a corner.
"Anybody figure out who those two drifters were?" Buck nudged a full mug of beer across the table towards Standish.
Ezra shook his head. "They made their fatal departure from town with more of a bang than their entrance." He raised his glass to his comrades before taking a sip. Ezra liberated a brace of cards from his pocket and began to shuffle. "So much for famous."
"Do you really think that's what started this whole thing?" JD asked as the gambler rippled cards through his fingers. "The Post's article about Chris?"
"Oh, I don't think so." Buck took a swig of his beer. "How much influence could one little article in one little paper have?"
Standish cut the deck repeatedly, absentmindedly positioning the cards. "Where Miss Danae's penchant for creating trouble is concerned, I wouldn't underestimate that influence," the Southerner drawled. He began to dispense the cards around the table.
"Hey, wait a minute," JD protested. Standish paused mid-deal. "You're cheating," Dunne accused, though rather than angry the young man looked extraordinarily pleased with himself.
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra spluttered. It was true, he had been employing some small slight of hand, but only to maintain the required dexterity. JD should never had noticed. "What makes you think . . ."
JD pointed to the deck of cards in Ezra's hands. "You kept a small stack on top the whole time you were shuffling, even when you cut the deck all those times." Dunne grinned.
Standish felt like he'd been hit on the back of the head with a twenty-pound sack of feed. He sat at the table blinking at his young compatriot.
Buck turned to Dunne with a look of newfound respect. "Just how did you spot that?" he asked, an amused smile beneath his bushy mustache.
"Didn't you read the Post today?" JD took a folded newspaper from the empty seat next to him and extended it to Buck. "Page three."
Ezra snatched the paper from JD before Wilmington had a chance to take it. Opening up to page three, he beheld the title of the article and read it out loud.
"How to Spot a Cheat: Lessons I Learned from Doc Holliday."
Standish skimmed the article, his mortification growing as he read giveaways to several of his preferred methods of, um, massaging what were traditionally considered the legal boundaries of the game.
Buck glanced at JD. "Who's Doc Holliday?"
"He's a dentist," Ezra snapped.
JD hastily inserted, "He's one of the best - and deadliest - gamblers this side of the continent."
"I wouldn't let him near my teeth," Standish muttered as he continued to read the article, "all that hacking and coughing up blood . . ."
The gambler stood and walked toward the door of the saloon, still engrossed in the Post. "Hey. Hey, Ezra! That's my newspaper," JD called after him. Ezra pretended not to hear.
Standish walked down the boardwalk with the pages of the Four Corners Post open in front of him. He dropped down heavily on a bench, only halfway registering that he sat next to another person already seated. "I don't believe her," he muttered to the article spread in his open arms.
"The woman has some nerve," the newspaper seemed to say in agreement.
"First she undertakes to ruin my reputation, now my livelihood." Standish continued. "If this continues as the normal state of affairs I shall be run out of town, and that is unacceptable. The Four Corners Post cannot remain in operation."
"Well, I'm doing my best." The voice replied in heated concurrence. Ezra suddenly realized that it was impossible for a newspaper to be speaking to him. He lowered the Post article in his hands. "But it's three against one. I've only got myself to rely on," his bench partner steamed, "and a son to raise. The town has been so quiet these past few days - I must be out of my mind to be thankful for a saloon fight - and little miss Post seems to have the entire town, including Chris Larabee, under her thrall." Mary Travis' normally calm and reasonable voice held some surprising venom. The Clarion owner scowled furiously, scrawling on a notepad in her lap; glancing over his shoulder Ezra saw that they sat just outside the Clarion office.
Something moist hit the gambler in the ear. What the . . ? In the street a little boy made a face at Ezra before turning and running away down an alley. Standish looked down at the apple core rolling at his feet. A glance to his right revealed that Mary also regarded the discarded produce. As she looked up and their eyes met, Ezra recalled the reason for his recent unpopularity.
"We should fight fire with fire, Mrs. Travis. Miss Claire Danae and her rag are a menace to our society and must be stopped, wouldn't you agree?"
Mary brushed a tendril of golden hair away from her face. "But how? Ezra, I'm at my wits end trying to keep up with her. And I haven't been fair to Billy. Ever since he got back I've been chasing down one story or another."
"I believe I may have a solution to out mutual problem," Ezra told the distraught mother. He gestured to the Clarion building. "Shall we have a word in private?"
Her pale eyes regarded him curiously, but she nodded. They proceeded into the office, where a fellow with a hack-job cut of his jet black hair was whittling a chunk of wood by the window.
"Hello . . . I'm an illustrator." The man rubbed his pasty chin with one hand and held up an intricately carved block with the other. "Just got into town and I'm looking for work. Name's Ichabod Stark."
"How do you do, sir?" Standish nodded curtly. The illustrator blinked.
Mary greeted the black-haired fellow. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Stark. I'm a little bit busy right now, why don't you come back a little later and we'll see what you can do. You must be hungry, just getting into town. We have several hotels; you might get a bite to eat," Mary suggested warmly. The old man put down his intricately carved block, tipped his hat and he left.
As soon as the door clicked shut, Mary rounded on the conman. "What are you getting at, Ezra?"
Ezra licked his lips and took a breath. "Only this." He put his hands up in front of him as if the proposal lay clenched in them. "If I put my skills to work for your paper, between the two of us we are certain to ruin the Four Corner's Post. Why, I can think of several ideas already to ensure that the Clarion is the publication that our citizens demand."
"I don't know, Ezra." Travis shook her blonde head doubtfully.
"You said it yourself, it's three against one," the gambler pointed out. "Mrs. Travis, need I remind you? Evening the odds is what I do."
Mary folded her arms and took a few paces as she considered. She stopped abruptly. "Nothing too underhanded," she said to him.
Ezra stuck his hand in the air, putting the other over his heart. "I promise to be as honest as Claire Danae."
"A partnership?" The Clarion owner grinned and stuck out her hand.
Ezra took the hand and gave it a firm shake. "A partnership."
+ + +
"Mary, I am merely saying that we need every competitive advantage we can lay our hands on against the Post."
"Ezra, I said no."
Standish was nothing if not persistent, Mary had to give him that. "Do you realize that photographer of theirs has figured out a way to mass reproduce photographic images in print?" the conman persisted. "They have technology on their side."
"That's just a passing trend," Mary dismissed. "People would much rather buy fine art than cold technology. And I am being competitive; I just hired that new illustrator. He does remarkable work."
"Mary, we are sitting on a gold mine here and you refuse to spend but a penny," Ezra returned to their initial subject of dispute.
What had she gotten herself into with this partnership? "Ezra, I will not send my son out to hawk newspapers."
Mary held her ground, but Ezra switched tactics. "A job is the best thing for a lad his age," he argued. "Builds a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. You wanted him to be more involved."
This was not exactly what she'd had in mind, but the Clarion owner didn't respond with an objection, which was all Standish needed to take as consent. He handed Billy a large stack of newspapers and ushered the boy out the door.
"But I want to play," Billy complained.
"You may play when all those papers are sold," Ezra sternly assured him. "Off you go now. Don't worry," the gambler turned to Mary, "it's called incentive." She fired him a doubtful look but said nothing. Mary turned and picked up a second bundle of newspapers sitting on a table behind her, then walked over to Ezra and dumped them in his arms. The Southern gentleman looked at the stack of papers between them. "And just what am I supposed to do with these?" he asked.
"Sell them, of course," Mary responded wryly. "This is a partnership, you know."
"But I was under the assumption that you would-"
-do all the actual work. She saw how Standish responded to physical labor. "If you can send my son out to peddle newspapers, I don't see why you should be too high and mighty to do the same," Mary pointed out.
"It's not that at all." Ezra protested. Mary didn't believe him for a second. "Given my current disfavor among the residents of our fair town - thanks to Claire Danae and the Four Corners Post - I merely thought that folk might be more inclined to buy their newspaper from a beautiful lady such as yourself."
"I was going to-"
"Now, now, allow me to perform whatever task needs completing. This is a partnership after all."
The Clarion owner stared at Ezra, knowing she'd been outmaneuvered. She stepped forward and took the bundle of papers back. "You'd better get your horse saddled, then," Mary said as she carried them towards the door.
Ezra grinned as he pushed the door open for her. "And where am I going?"
Mary smiled back at him. "To interview Nettie Wells."
+ + +
"You want an interview with me?" The old woman stuck her pitchfork into the ground, keeping one gloved hand on the handle. "Whatever for?" she asked.
Ezra tried his best not to wrinkle his nose at the oppressive stink of the pig manure Nettie had been shoveling. "Mary seems to think our readers would be interested in the story of your life in the early days of Four Corners, given the number of homesteaders who have just recently moved out to our municipality."
"'Our readers?' I never figured you for one honest job, much less two."
"Well, it currently happens that my interests and the interests of the Clarion coincide, so as of now, yes, Mary Travis and I are working in tandem."
"You got something against that Claire Danae?" Nettie chuckled at Ezra's surprised expression. "Oh, I heard about that new paper. Casey brought one up with her last time she was in town. The Post don't think too much of you, Mr. Standish."
Ezra bristled at the reminder. "Do you consent to this interview or not, Mrs. Wells?" he asked curtly.
"Sure, why not. How often does an old biddy like me get asked for an interview for a newspaper? What do you want to know?"
"Perhaps we can move somewhere where the air is not so, ah, pungent?"
"Come on and sit on the porch. I'll fix us a cup of coffee," Nettie offered.
A short time later saw Ezra and Nettie in front of the house. Standish sat on the edge of a wooden chair, notebook and pencil in hand, while the skinny frame of Nettie Wells reclined in a rocker as she sipped a steaming mug of coffee.
". . . Four Corners was just an outpost in the wilderness when my husband came out here. He had nothing but a few pots and pans in a wagon and a pair of horses. And me, of course. But we made do with what we had." The old lady nodded, remembering. "You had to back then - there weren't no stores or any trains to bring supplies. You helped each other out. You . . . your neighbors. And those who was out traveling on their own too, of course. I remember in those days there was always somebody stopping in for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee," Nettie sipped from her own mug, "and when it rained we were a place for them to sleep for the night that wasn't under some bush." The old woman's chair rocked back and forth under her reminiscing. "It was pleasant to have company. Folk could get lonely out here in the wilderness."
Nettie paused to allow Ezra to catch up writing down her words. The last sentence gradually became a smudged blur on the page as Standish's pencil wore down to the wood. He took out a small blade and began to sharpen his writing implement.
"It must have been a remarkable experience, Mrs. Wells." Ezra truly did find her story a little interesting, despite himself. "Just how much of the territory was settled at the time?"
The old lady's forehead wrinkled in thought, considering. "Hard for me to say; that was still back before Four Corners truly became a town. I wish I still had that map. One of those lone travelers I was telling you about," Nettie responded to Ezra's questioning look, "he stopped in to get out of a storm. Had a beautiful map, said he made it himself. Was very proud of it. I don't know how he could have forgotten it when he left the next day, but he did." Nettie Wells looked off into the distance. "Poor man. I think traveling all alone for so long must have had an ill effect on him. Fellow didn't seem quite right in the head. Kept looking over his shoulder, like someone was after him. My husband was glad to see that one go, I recall."
"What ever happened to the map?" Standish asked.
"Oh, I gave it away. A friend of mine, after my husband died, was a great help to me. Inconvenienced himself terribly to see after me. Anyway, he saw that map one day and took a shine to it. Since he fancied it and it didn't mean anything to me, I let him take it."
"Does he still have it?"
"No, he died years ago," Nettie said.
Ezra had finished sharpening his pencil. He asked Nettie a few more questions about how and when the town began to take shape, then concluded the interview and thanked the old lady for her time. Nettie nodded at him from her rocking chair and said goodbye. Standish was halfway down the porch steps when behind him Nettie commented, "I wonder whatever happened to that poor man's treasure map."
The Southern gambler faltered and tripped on the last step. He caught himself and turned back to Nettie. "Treasure map?" Ezra choked.
"That's what the fella used to call it, always talking to himself." The white-haired woman waved a hand. "Oh, we didn't pay him no mind. He was crazy, y'know."
"Of course, of course." Ezra licked his lips. "And this gentleman to whom you gifted it - um, what was his name again?"
"Alfred. Alfred Gruber."
"Ah yes, Mr. Gruber," Standish nodded and wrote the name on his notepad. "Did he have any family that might have inherited this map? For the purposes of our interview, of course."
Nettie shook her head. "Not that I ever knew of. The man died alone, more's the pity."
"Yes, tragic," Ezra murmured. He touched his fingers to the rim of his black hat and walked over to free his horse from the hitching rail in front of Nettie's house. As Standish mounted and turned his horse to Four Corners, the old woman called out one last farewell.
"I appreciate your letting me know about Vin. Tell him I expect to see that handsome face of his in my kitchen to tell me all about it. When there's some quiet time in town."
Ezra rode back from Nettie's ranch allowing his horse to find its way through instinct rather than guiding the animal himself. As he rode he composed his article for the Clarion which was to be the product of the interview he had just conducted. He flipped through pages of his notes, then stopped when he realized he was muttering to himself.
Just like Nettie Wells' loony houseguest. Certainly the treasure he referred to with that map had been the complete fabrication of a madman, or else why had he not returned for it when he realized it was missing?
"If I possessed a map leading to untold treasure, there'd be no force on earth that could separate it from me." Standish voiced his thoughts aloud again and chuckled. Fortunate that no one besides his horse was around to hear, or he'd be labeled as eccentric as the Post's missing millionaire.
Ezra's horse ground to a halt as Standish yanked on the reins.
Could Nettie Wells' rambling drifter of so many years ago be the same babbling old man that the wagon train had lost? No, the odds are atrocious, Standish dismissed. "Yet it is not entirely implausible," the gambler murmured. His mind running in circles around the idea, Ezra pulled a fresh page to the front of his notes and started to write. According to Claire Danae's articles the man had started out with the wagon train in Ohio. Most everything else was mere rumor, except that the homesteaders Ezra had talked to confirmed that the man - old man, they'd said - had talked to himself. Talked of gold. What if he was looking for gold he had lost, upwards of thirty years ago? Lost because he no longer owned the map that led to it. But if that was the case, where was he now? Where was the treasure, and where was the map? Ezra stared at the scribblings on the page:
Post's missing millionaire
lost treasure map
somewhere in town
It was no help whatsoever. Standish tore the page from the notepad, stuffing the paper into a pocket. But perhaps this friend of Nettie Wells', this Alfred Gruber, could still be of assistance even from beyond the grave. Ezra spurred his horse onward, back to town, the new prospect of gaining wealth had putting him in his best mood since Claire Danae and the Post arrived in Four Corners.
+ + +
There was a certain quiet serenity to be enjoyed up on the church roof. Josiah heaved a satisfied sigh, leaning back and wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. A large wooden mallet hung from the preacher's hand. The storm that had blown through Four Corners recently had revealed one of God's eternal truths: no matter how fortified you thought yourself, the tempest could always find its way through the cracks. So Josiah had spent that evening running around the church catching water with buckets, and finally this morning he had begun the task of repairing the leaks in his roof.
Yes sir, Josiah nodded as a cool breeze caressed his forehead, one felt a closeness to God up here. Nothing but Josiah, his hammer and God's blue sky.
"Excuse me. That's my corner you're standing on." The accusation carried up on the tail of that same breeze, straight to Josiah's ears. The preacher turned his eyes down to the street.
Uh oh. Mary Travis stood in front of Claire Danae, who had taken residence on the street corner opposite Bucklin's General Store. Bundles of newspapers swung from both ladies' balled fists.
+ + +
Claire hefted her load of newspapers to give her hand a reprieve from its weight. "I don't see your name on it, Mrs. Travis. I was here first," she pointed out.
The Clarion's owner looked down at her shoes, but that didn't hide the angry grit of her teeth. The expression on her face when she looked back up could only vaguely be said to resemble a smile. "Well, if you want to play that game, Miss Danae, actually I was here first."
Claire hoped her return smile came across a lot less forced. "Not today."
"Why don't you find yourself a corner of your own?" Mary suggested. "I hear there's a wonderful intersection three hundred miles east."
"I'm comfortable right here, thank you."
Mrs. Travis glared at Claire a second longer before she turned and stalked to the other side of the street, where she began to hawk her wares. So, it was to be war, was it? The Four Corners Post reporter was up to the challenge.
"Bar Room Brawl Leads to Bodies in the Street!"
"Dangerous Duo Terrorize the Town!"
A portly and badly dressed gentleman approached Mary. He gazed up and down at the Clarion's headlines.
"I'd like-" the fellow began, but was interrupted by Claire's sweetly seductive voice.
"A fine distinguished gentleman like yourself surely would like to read the Four Corners Post, sir. We have the best headlines in town. Can I offer you a look?"
The portly gentleman waddled halfway across the street, intrigued, before Mrs. Travis' entreating tones enticed him to stop. "Sir, the Clarion is more than just a headline. It has fascinating stories of interesting people and events, too. And beautiful illustrations, I might add."
"The illustrations are lovely-" the gentleman began, but was interrupted as Claire called to him, "The Post will give you all that and more. Photography is the wave of the future." She took a step out into the street. "You'll see the genuine article in our images. And it won't cost you but a few pennies. That's less than the Clarion."
"Surely," Mary glared snidely at the brunette and measured a couple of paces towards the potential customer, "a discerning gentleman such as you recognizes that quality is worth a little more. The Clarion is no cheap rag."
Claire's mouth dropped open indignantly before she snapped it shut in a firm set. "Of course, you could purchase the Clarion, sir, but you'll get preached at more than if you spent an hour in that church there. The Four Corners Post is facts, not just opinion." She was now close enough to the portly man to show him her wares.
"The Post is all flash and no substance," Mary shot back, coming up on the man's other side.
"Are you insinuating something about my stories?" Claire asked.
"I'm just saying your stories aren't so well endowed with those 'facts' of yours."
+ + +
Josiah was distracted from Claire's response to that - though he thought he caught the words "paper-peddling hussy" - by a beige cloud rising about the rooftops of the building, billowing down the street. Dust, Josiah realized, a mysteriously contained storm of it traveling towards the preacher and the newspaper ladies down on the street. As it drew nearer, Josiah heard a noise like thunder growing louder with the approach of the cloud. Before he had time to puzzle out the meaning of that, shouts and screams began rising from the street like the dust, and then a stagecoach appeared careening around a corner. The six-horse rig charged at breakneck speed down the middle of the road being pulled by a half dozen wide-eyed and crazed horses but, Josiah realized with horror, no one in the driver's seat!
The portly man with poor taste in clothes saw the runaway carriage and quickly abandoned his quest for a newspaper. He clapped one hand to his hat, sprung hastily out of the road onto the boardwalk and vanished into a storefront. Mary and Claire were so intent on their argument that they didn't even looked up when their potential customer disappeared.
"Mary! Claire! Look out!" Josiah bellowed from the roof.
+ + +
Mary broke off in her argument with the Danae woman to look up at Josiah. He pointed down the street toward the oncoming stage and both reporters immediately saw the danger. Mary turned and began running to the safety of the boardwalk. She spared a backward glance for her competitor, then stumbled to a halt. Claire had dropped her newspapers to pull the pad and pencil from her pocket, and the Post reporter stood in the street jotting down notes, directly in the path of the runaway stagecoach. Mary looked to the horses bearing down with the stage. She looked at the Post reporter. She looked to the stage. She glared at Claire. Mary rolled her eyes as she turned around and grabbed the brunette's arm, yanking Claire out of harm's way.
Josiah had slid down the ladder and was running into the street. The shrieking, terrified horses had caused a cacophony of action to surround them as left and right in front of Sanchez citizens fled from the peril, while far behind the coach a parade of men attempted unsuccessfully to catch and subdue the team of runaway horses. Buck and JD were atop their own horses charging after the fast-flying coach, trying to get up to the lead horses, but the coach was careening so fast and wild that they couldn't get up and around it.
Like Saint Michael standing against the gales of hell, Josiah stood between the oncoming stage and the panicked citizens of Four Corners. The crazed beasts bore down with all indication that they intended to trample whatever stood in their way. With a mighty roar, the preacher heaved his mallet at the team of horses. The wooden hammer bounced off the skull of the second lead horse. The animal slowed, weaving its steps. The rest of the team skidded to a halt. Josiah grabbed the lead horses' reins as the one wavered in small steps around the street.
The only sound to be heard was the sound of the dust settling on the streets of Four Corners.
Then a small child began to cry. The wail awoke the shocked townspeople and a roar of voices engulfed the street. Mary and Claire were the first to remerge on the street, but were soon joined by a hoard of concerned and curious citizens. Buck and JD finally caught up and reigned their mounts to a halt.
"Nice throw, pard," Buck complimented Sanchez.
Josiah shrugged humbly. "It's all in the reflexes."
"That was wonderful, Josiah!" Claire Danae left Mary's side to approach the preacher, her notepad and pencil in hand. Mary crossed her arms and glared at the brunette. "I only wish I knew where Tommy was so I could get a picture the man who single-handedly stopped a runaway carriage."
Josiah snatched from his head the bandanna that had been there to keep sweat from his eyes as he had been repairing the roof of the church, seeming to be uncomfortably aware of Mary Travis' indignantly raised eyebrows and the sniggering of the two mounted peacekeepers up on their horses. "Well, uh, Miss Claire, I really, uh, I really don't think I . . . oh, look! Here comes the stage driver."
Mary turned as the crowd of townspeople parted to let the driver through. The diminutive little man still panted with the exertion of running after his team. He looked extremely embarrassed as he took the rig's reins from a relieved Sanchez.
"I don't know how they got away," the driver apologized sheepishly. "I noticed some wear in the harness rigging and just left to get a replacement. I was only gone for a few minutes."
"Have they ever bolted on you before?" Claire asked, successfully diverted from the idea of photographing Josiah.
"Them sweet animals? No, ma'am. Never." The driver shook his head and looked down the street behind him. "I only hope nobody was hurt because of them."
"Oh no! Billy!" Mary called out, suddenly remembering her son, out on the street selling newspapers. "Billy where are you?"
"He's over there, Mrs. Travis!" JD pointed to where her son was running up the side of the street, gathering copies of the Clarion that the wind from the uncontrolled stagecoach had blown to and fro as he ran. Mary rushed to him and picked him up, hugging him to her. "Billy! Are you alright?"
"I'm okay." Billy said. He squirmed when Mary didn't set him down right away. "Aw, Ma!"
The driver and his horses passed mother and son on the way back to the Stage Company. Mary glanced at Claire walking beside the driver and asking him questions, before scuffing up Billy's hair with her fingers and taking her son inside one of the buildings.
+ + +
At the church end of town, a few people went back about their business but most still milled around the street, talking and murmuring among themselves. Now that the harrowing experience was over several folk found themselves laughing at their close encounter with danger. Josiah's weak knees weren't amused yet.
"Nathan!" Larabee's voice as it bellowed from down the street held not at all the feeling of relief. Buck and JD reeled their horses around and spurred them to the sound of Chris' yell. Josiah ran after them.
As he drew up the road a large gathered crowd came into view, their collective voices ringing of concern and anger. Sanchez caught up to Claire and the stagecoach driver, who were slowing as they approached the mob of citizens ahead. "What's going on here?" Josiah asked them. They both shrugged and shook their heads, as unknowing as the preacher. Somewhere from the hub of the crowd Chris' voice arose. "Nathan! Somebody get Nathan, damn you!"
Atop their horses, Wilmington and Dunne were able to see to the center of the throng. JD blanched when he did, and an oath fell from Buck's lips. "Nathan!" he bellowed.
Jackson sprinted down the road, a small black leather bag swinging from his hand. "Move, everybody! Let me through please," he pushed through the crowd. Claire darted in behind Nathan as the mob shifted to receive the healer.
Through the mass of moving bodies Josiah was finally able to glimpse the cause of everyone's distress. Black attire grayed by dust, Larabee knelt on one knee beside the unmoving figure of ten-year old Timothy Brown. The boy's clothes and face were covered in dust. Blood trailed from his nose and ears. One of his shoes was missing.
Josiah exhaled a horrified prayer and shoved forward to stand at the inside of the circle of concerned citizens next to Claire. As Nathan knelt beside little Timothy, the Post reporter moved forward as if to do the same, but she drew back at the frantic and angry glare of Chris Larabee. Her pencil and notepad were still in her hands, but she held them in a white-knuckled grip with no apparent inclination to use them.
The crowd silenced as Jackson checked for a pulse and listened for a heartbeat against the boy's delicate frame. Buster Hedgecock displaced several townspeople to join the center circle. The fat news editor was covered in dust. Must have had quite a close brush to the runaway carriage. Behind Buster trailed Tom Poppin, his large camera clutched to his chest. The grizzled photographer took stock of the scene and grimly began setting up for a photograph. Josiah edged along the crowd to stand next to the pair as Poppin disappeared beneath the darkcloth. "A little inappropriate, don't you think?" Josiah asked the photographer with soft disapproval.
"It's news," Buster Hedgecock snapped. He lowered his voice as several heads turned in their direction. "We've got the right to make a living."
Josiah frowned, but a voice from beneath the darkcloth stalled the angry comments he'd been about to reply. "People have gotta see," Tom Poppin's muffled response seemed to come from the camera itself. What it was that people were supposed to see was interrupted as Nathan finished his examination of the injured boy.
"He's alive," Nathan announced shortly to the crowd. Instant relief lasted only until the healer added: "Maybe not much longer, though."
Murmurs and sobs rose from the gathering. Claire hid her mouth behind the notepad she gripped, but tears glistened in her eyes. Tom Poppin came out from beneath his black fabric, the bear-like photographer looking sad and grim. Even Buster had the grace to frown worriedly.
"Bring him to the clinic," Nathan instructed Larabee, calmly ignoring the distraught crowd. "Easy, now." The team leader had no problem accepting the order from Jackson. Chris lifted the little boy's poor battered form and concerned men and woman quickly cleared a path for the small, sad procession as Larabee followed Nathan down the street to the clinic.
"That's so terrible," a woman sobbed as she watched them depart.
"Poor little Timmy," Mrs. Potter agreed, holding a white-laced handkerchief to her eyes.
"That damned runaway stagecoach's what did it," a farmer muttered angrily. "Them horses oughta be shot."
"No!" protested the stagecoach driver, who the entire time had been wringing his hands in distress at the fringes of the gathering. "They're sweet animals, normally, gentle as can be. Something musta spooked 'em." The driver stood in front of the horses and coach in question like a lawyer before his accused client.
Josiah noticed Vin moving unobtrusively along the conveyance, slipping in between the horses to examine each one of them.
While the driver attempted to defend his team against the assembled mass as the townspeople passed outraged comments amongst themselves, Josiah joined Tanner at the stagecoach.
"Find anything interesting, brother?" the big preacherman asked quietly.
The stoic tracker did not rush his answer. He had made his way up the rigging up to the lead horse. The animal twitched nervously as Vin put his hand on its flank, but Tanner murmured quietly and rubbed the horse's nose to soothe it.
"This is why they ran," Vin pointed to the hindquarters of the animal. A livid burn the size of a man's finger swelled on the horse's flank. "A hot fireplace poker would be my guess."
Josiah nodded in agreement. "If that's the case," the preacher pondered. "That would mean . . ."
"Somebody set those horses running on purpose," a woman's voice finished for him. Josiah looked over his shoulder. Claire stood there, looking at the round brand on the horse's behind. She had apparently found poor little Timmy's missing shoe. Her hands worried the leather unconsciously.
"Ah! You hear that? I told you it wasn't my horses' fault!" the driver exclaimed.
"What'd they say?" somebody in the back yelled out.
"Foul play!" a man in the front responded loudly. The cry was picked up by the congregation and murmured like a prayer, or a curse. "Foul play." Mrs. Potter and several of the mothers in the crowd gravitated toward each other and began whispering, alarm plain on their faces. More than one man shook his fist in the air and called threats with dangerous bravado.
Buck and JD, who had been riding around in a useless attempt to disperse the crowd, gave up entirely. Josiah heaved a sigh, echoed behind him by Tom Poppin.
"Gonna be blurred beyond seeing," the photographer muttered as people bumped into his camera.
+ + +
Street fires were just being lit as Ezra stabled his horse and made his way to the Clarion offices with no real mind on what he was doing. But as he approached to Nathan's clinic, Claire Danae was descending the stairs, talking with the tall healer. Ezra slowed his gait to an arrogant swagger. Claire reached the bottom step precisely as the Southern gambler did so. She faltered just a little but recovered herself quickly.
"Where have you been, Mr. Standish?" Claire smiled bittersweetly. "I heard you're working for the Clarion now. I'm afraid you're not going to make a very good reporter if you keep missing excitement like this."
Ezra returned an insincere smile of his own, resisting the urge to ask her what the hell she was talking about. "My, my, Miss Danae. I am astounded you have the courage to speak to me. Aren't you afraid I might rob you of your angelic virtue?"
Claire crossed her arms. "Skunks don't scare me."
"We never fear our own kind."
The irritating brunette recoiled indignantly, but rather than engage in more verbal sparring Claire nodded to Nathan and stalked down the boardwalk, pulling a pencil from behind her ear and scribbling on her notepad. Another defamatory article about Ezra, no doubt. Jackson set a hand on Ezra's shoulder and shook his head. "Take it easy, Ezra. Claire was just here to check on Timmy. The whole thing hit her pretty hard."
"And what 'whole thing' would that be?" Standish asked. Nathan told him about the runaway stagecoach leading to the injury of the young boy and Vin's discovery of foul play. "How is the boy?" Ezra inquired earnestly.
Nathan led Ezra up to the clinic where the boy lay wrapped nearly head-to-toe in bandages. His eyes were closed, but his chest rose and fell steadily in deep sleep. The Timmy's mother was sitting by the bedside, murmuring to her child. Her eyes were teary and red rimmed. A small brown shoe lay in her lap.
"Is he going to make it?" Ezra asked quietly.
Nathan nodded. "It's a bit of a miracle, but I think so."
Ezra strolled up the dimly lit boardwalk in contemplation, heading back to the Clarion's office. So deep in thought was the gambler that he failed to notice the two men walking the opposite direction until they knocked into him.
"Excuse me!" Standish said, although he wasn't quite sure it was he who should apologize.
"Watch where yer goin', gambler." The way the man said it sounded like a curse. The two continued on their way, mumbling loudly about thieving gambling bastards who have their way with women.
That was hurtful. He had Claire Danae to thank for the damage to his reputation, lest he forget. Let them all snivel for forgiveness once he found his millions, Ezra decided as he finished walking to his destination.
At the Clarion, Mary was setting up the presses. Her new illustrator, Ichabod Stark sat in the corner, hunched over a block of wood. The old codger was digging his small knife with a look of wide-eyed intensity, his lips pressed so tightly they disappeared.
"Is he all right?" Standish asked his editor.
Mary glanced at the manic little man in the corner. She shrugged.
"What's he carving?"
"A dramatic representation of the stagecoach hurtling like a train of death through town." Mary answered, watching chips fly like big gnats around the illustrator. "A very dramatic representation. He's actually quite good. Have a look at the map he carved for your feature." She handed him a smallish block, which Ezra could see was the relief of Four Corners' territory. The map was simple and decorative, its landmarks cleverly and expertly rendered. But it wasn't the map Standish was looking for.
"Exceptional." Ezra handed the block back to Mary, followed by his feature article that he had composed on his ride back to town. She took and read with a critical eye, but by the time she had finished the news editor was nodding with satisfaction.
"This is excellent, Ezra." She actually sounded surprised. "I'll get it set up for page two."
"The story turned out to be much more interesting than I had previously surmised." Ezra's eyes began cataloging the myriad of cabinets in Mary's office.
"See, I told you so," Mary smiled.
"In fact, Mrs. Wells was telling me of a friend of hers who passed away some years ago. I thought he would make a exceptional follow up story."
"Sure, that's a fine idea." She carefully placed the square wooden block of Ichabod Stark's handiwork. "You're really getting into this aren't you?"
"I'm beginning to see the appeal." Ahh. This had to be the one. "Is this where the obituaries are stored?"
The Post's inflammatory headline exacerbated nerves already heightened from yesterday's incident. Folks were looking for someone to blame, and if feelings had been hostile towards Ezra before, they were downright malevolent today. The Southern gambler, however, was blissfully distracted by other pursuits.
An exhaustive search of the Clarion's store of obituaries had yielded no results. Ezra's hopes had been dashed to find that apparently Nettie's friend Alfred Gruber had made his procession to the Great Beyond before the newspaper's debut, but Mary revived them when she mentioned that there had been a time when town records had been kept at the jailhouse. He'd barely even noticed the mistrustful climate circulating among the citizenry of Four Corners as he'd left his room first thing in the morning.
They had long been a fixture of the jailhouse, the stack of boxes whose only function as far as Ezra had ever considered was to keep dust from collecting on the floor. The gambler had stood in their presence at least once a day since taking the job of peacekeeper but he'd never stopped to wonder what the dozen or so wooden crates contained. Now he looked them over like a man might examine a bit of Fool's Gold he suspected might be genuine.
The heads of the nails securing the lids to the boxes were rusted, yet they still resisted Ezra's prying as he attempted to open a smallish crate on the top of the pile. Standish searched around the jailhouse for a tool, anything he could wedge between the crate and the lid, but the room was devoid of anything resembling a lever. Frustrated, Ezra slammed his fist on one of the boxes. A reverberating clang followed the action. Standish peeked over the stack. In between the boxes and the wall, lying on a floor covered in dust and cobwebs, was a crowbar.
Ezra threw himself over the crates and snatched up the tool. Motes of dust flew into the air as Standish cracked the first lid.
Four boxes later, Ezra was staring into the face of Alfred Gruber's death certificate. The crude but official document contained no information useful to Ezra's search, but another page was attached to the notice by a dog-eared fold. He pulled the yellowed paper to the front.
It was a list. Upon Alfred Gruber's death his possessions had reverted to the town. In Ezra's hand was a list of those items.
"Whatcha up to there, Ezra?"
Standish stuffed the paper lightly into his pocket. He turned with a casual air. Vin stood in the doorway, leaning up against the frame, his arm above his head.
Returning the death notice to its place in the crate, Ezra replaced the lid. "Oh, just perusing a bit of research for the Clarion. What, ah, what brings you around?"
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Had to get off the street." The sharpshooter levered himself away from the doorframe and loped over to the desk. "Folk out there are wound tighter than a new watch spring. Everyone's whisperin' to each other and tossing suspicious looks at anybody they don't know. And to some they do."
Standish took half a step away from the pile of crates and abruptly realized that his red coat was filthy. He began to slap the dust from his left sleeve. "Yes, I don't imagine that the front page of the Post has anything to do with that." At least Claire Danae had decided not to out and out blame the gambler for this one. "Have we, ah, discovered any leads?"
Leaning back on the edge of the desk, Vin crossed his arms loosely across his chest. He shook his head. "Nothing. I can't see what anybody'd want to set a stagecoach running outta control for."
It was beyond Ezra as well, but that list was burning a hole in the gambler's pocket; he had to get out of here and examine his find. "Well, Mr. Tanner, I will leave you to your solitude. Enjoy."
Ezra retrieved his hat from atop a crate, dusting out the inside rim before placing it on his head. He fingered its brim, with a nod to Vin.
"Take it easy, pard," Tanner said in farewell. "Hey, I read the Clarion today. Nice job on that article 'bout Nettie Wells. Didn't know you had that in ya."
"Oh, uh . . . thanks. It was actually a pleasure." Sort of. "Good day, Vin."
Ezra exited the jailhouse and closed the door behind him. Eagerly he pulled the inventory of Alfred Gruber's last possessions from his pocket and unfolded the yellowed page.
But the streets were far from empty, Ezra realized before he could begin reading from the list. People milled around town in small groups, like sagebrush tumbling about in the wind. Speaking of a foul air, here came Claire Danae walking up the boardwalk. She seemed to be involved in a heavy conversation with her boss, Buster Hedgecock. One could almost say they were arguing.
Ezra didn't need Claire to get a look at this list and get curious. The last thing he wanted was news of his treasure map to make the front page. Standish took a few hurried steps in the opposite direction of the curly-haired reporter and slipped down an alleyway. When he was sure he'd put enough distance between himself and any nosy onlookers Ezra stopped. He sat down on a grain barrel and again pulled the list from his pocket. Ezra read:
Upon the demise of one Alfred Gruber, the possessions of said man remain unclaimed. Therefore the goods of one Alfred Gruber, revert to the town of Four Corners. These items to be sold at auction at the Grain Exchange on the afternoon of August 10, 18--, at 3.
Following was an itemized list of everything one Alfred Gruber, had owned at the time of his death. Ezra skimmed down the catalog of the dead man's belongings. No mention of a map, but at the end of the list, written in a different hand, was the addendum:These items unclaimed and unsold after auction:
Sofa, red. Cushions missing.
Coffee pot, tin. Dented sides, handle detached at base.
Pipe, eagle carved on pot, broken stem
Map, Four Corners and surrounding territory. Series of 3 sml holes burned into BR corner.
Aha! The so-called "treasure map" that a wandering lunatic had left with Nettie Wells, who in turn had gifted to Alfred Gruber. Standish wondered if Gruber had ever investigated the possibility of the map truly leading to a hidden wealth. Whether it had occurred to him or not, it was evident from the man's meager list of possessions that the man had never found the so-called treasure. Still, Ezra easily could envision Mr. Gruber standing over the map, studying his gift, smoking that eagle-carved pipe. Perhaps some ash had spilled out of the pot and burned those three holes into the bottom right corner?
But what happened to it after it failed to sell at auction? Ezra finished reading to the bottom of the page; turned the paper to examine the back. No note of where the coffee pot, the pipe, the map had ended up. Would they have been discarded as so much junk? Foisted off on some poor individual, or worse, burned as rubbish? Either way, Ezra's hunt for his treasure map had just peaked and hit a dead end all in the same turn.
Damn. As though his week couldn't get any worse.
+ + +
Digger Dan's Saloon was not Buster Hedgecock's favorite establishment in Four Corner's, but the dark corner table at which he sat was perfect for his intrigue with Mrs. Travis' new illustrator.
"Mr. Stark, this will be worth your while," he leaned on one elbow and said conspiratorially. "Monetarily, if you know what I mean."
Ichabod Stark did not respond. He just blinked, his crazy black scruff of hair standing out in every direction. Buster ran his hand over his own well-groomed head and cleared his throat. "You are interested in this job, aren't you, Mr. Stark? If I'm just wasting my breath, let me know!"
After a long silence, perhaps for the gruff newspaper editor's words to sink past his skull and into his brain, the wild-looking illustrator nodded. "Yessir. Sounds like my kinda work."
Buster sat back and harrumphed in satisfaction. "Good, good. And, it goes without saying, tell no one about this. We never met, got it?"
Slowly Stark nodded. The constant stare never diminished. It was making Buster uncomfortable, so shot back his glass of rye whiskey and thought of Mary Travis' face when she saw tomorrow's edition. He started laughing. Stark blinked, then, slowly, joined in.
+ + +
Darkness enrobed Ezra's room where the gambler lay in his bed, staring into the quiet stillness.
The seconds ticked from his pocketwatch on the nightstand into the silence. The saloon downstairs had cleared out long ago and the timepiece's barely audible tick rang loudly in Ezra's ears. He shut his eyes in attempt to ignore the sound, but before the gambler's closed lids traipsed fitful images of maps and gold.
He opened his eyes again, searching the murky shadows for answers to the questions that kept him awake. There had to be some record of the outcome of the auction that had dispersed Alfred Gruber's earthly goods. Yet further investigating the jailhouse had yielded no results, and Ezra couldn't fathom where else such information would have been stored. If it had ever been documented in the first place.
Besides, even if he could find the map, there was nothing to say that the Post's missing millionaire and Nettie Wells' erstwhile boarder were one and the same.
But what if! the gambler thought. Think of all that gold. Forget about the saloon, he could buy the whole town with a million dollars of gold! He had to find that map.
The shadowy stillness took his thoughts and made them tangible. Maybe there was something in the Clarion's files, some record hidden away in the back of some drawer. Unlikely. But . . . what if? Ezra threw his blankets off and reached for his boots.
The Southerner dressed silently without lighting a lamp, eschewing his more fashionable attire for utilitarian black. Out of habit he reached for the derringer on his dresser, but after a moment consideration, put the small pistol back. It was not as though he was going to meet anyone on his foray to the Clarion's office in the very wee hours of the night.
He crept down the stair, making his way silently by touch and memory out to the moonlit streets of Four Corners. He made his way slowly down the blackened boardwalks, trying not to stub his toes on the shadowed planks. Without the streetfires or lamps being lit, the dark obscured more than Ezra had given credit. But he continued onward anyways, visions of gold twinkling in the night sky.
The Clarion office lay just ahead. He checked the door. Locked. Mrs. Travis, how very untrusting of you. Ezra felt around in his pockets for any item that might be useful in a situation like this. He came up with two cards. Ah, yes, the gambler remembered, the ace of spades and the king of hearts; that game had ended very profitably. Holding both cards together to increase their rigidity, Ezra jimmied them between the door and the jam. Surely, Mary was attempting to keep out Claire Danae and anyone associated with the Post, and would hardly mind if her partner let himself in.
The lock clicked. Ever so slowly and carefully Ezra opened the door, endeavoring not to jostle the little bell above it. A speck of guilt nagged at Ezra as he slipped through, but he squashed it. He only wanted a quick peek, anyway.
A flaw in his plan became blazingly apparent. It was damned dark in the office. How the hell was he going to find any missing paperwork like this? Moonlight? He thought not.
Again Ezra searched his pockets, looking for a stray match. Instead he came up with a crumpled piece of paper. What? Oh, Standish remembered, it was the page that he'd written his theories about the treasure map on. Well, he certainly had no use for that now, he could burn it for light. That was if he ever found a match.
Moonlight did reveal a small rectangular box resting on a desk by the window. Ah, matches. And how handy, there was a small oil lamp directly next to them. Ezra set the crumpled page on the desk and picked up the box of matches. He'd had one out and was prepared to strike it when the absurdity of what he was doing struck him.
I should just go back to bed, he thought. He half turned to walk away, then turned back. Or . . . I could light up the lamp and take a quick look. No, this is ludicrous. Anybody who sees the light is going to get suspicious. But who's going to see the light? Everyone's asleep. Maybe just for a minute.
As Ezra moved to strike the head against the rough side of the box, movement from outside the window caught his eye. Ezra froze and the figure went by without spotting him.
Who in tarnation would be walking the streets at this hour? The peacekeepers didn't even keep patrol at this hour of night, because no one except the insane would be up at this hour.
Curiosity piqued, Ezra slowly set the match on the desktop and stealthily slipped back out after the figure roaming the boardwalk. In the stillness of the very early morning, Ezra heard a low murmur emanating from the dark shape. The Southerner snuck closer to hear what the man was saying.
"I can't believe I'm getting paid for this . . . If we found our gold we wouldn't have to take stupid jobs . . . Stupid, fun, jobs . . . Yeah. Which one d'ya wanna light? . . . The hedgehog said to get that small vacant one away from town . . . Who's in charge here, you or the hedgehog? . . . Do you smell feathers burning?"
The man muttering to himself in the shadows paused in front of the hotel two doors down from the Clarion. The brim of his hat kept the moonlight from touching his face; all Ezra could make out was the glint in his eyes. Standish held his breath, his black clothes rendering him invisible in the shadows.
"See the lawdogs anywhere? . . . Nope, nope . . . Sleeping like hound dogs, hee hee. . . Let's torch it."
Ezra's right hand reached for his revolver, but wrapped around only air. Damn! His firearms were in his room, he remembered angrily. Standish had never conceived he would need them at three in the morning. But whatever foul deed this madman plotted was certainly devastating for Four Corners.
The insane criminal slipped into the shadows of the night like a wisp of smoke in the wind. Where had the miscreant vanished? Ezra held his breath and listened. There, from the alley next to the hotel. A faint, constant murmur. Standish cautiously entered the pitch-black gap. The nonsensical muttering grew louder as Ezra snuck closer, his arms stretched in front of him to warn of any obstacles.
Bang! Ezra's foot impacted against a small, hard object on the ground. Ezra stifled a curse and froze.
"Someone's there!- Shut up!"
The mumbling ceased. Ezra held his breath.
"There's no one there . . . I thought I heard something . . . Probably a cat."
After a few more moments, Ezra began to advance again, this time making sure he knew what his feet were heading into. The rantings of his mystery pursuant had quieted again.
By the time Ezra had emerged from the alley, the man was again nowhere to be seen. Ezra might have looked further, but a peculiar odor began to fill his nostrils. Did he detect something burning? Feathers, maybe?
He glanced left and gasped. The back of the hotel was alight with flames!
"Fire-!" Ezra bellowed, but no sooner had his shout rang into the awesome quiet than something hard hit Ezra on the back of his head and blackness engulfed the night.
+ + +
Mary Travis lay wrapped in dreamless slumber when something woke her.
She pushed down her coverlet and sat up in bed, her blonde head cocked to listen to the darkness. Something had roused her, but what? Billy breathed steady and quiet, peacefully asleep next to her bed. Why did she seem to remember a phantom shout? She stepped onto the cold wood planking of her bedroom and padded softly to the window. The dimly moonlit street could have been painted on canvas, it was so still. Still, but the feeling that something was amiss would not dissipate. Mary left the bedroom and stepped into the Clarion office, checking the street from the main window. Quiet as a crypt . . . Mary began to return to her room, inhaling a deep breath of cool night air. A bitter, woodsy odor mingled with the breath. Smoke?
Mary hastened to the front door. It was slightly ajar. Hadn't she locked that? She stepped out of the office and the smell of smoke intensified. She glanced right and an orange light flickering in the blue night grabbed her attention.
"Fire!" Her scream shattered the stillness. "Fire! Wake up! The hotel's on fire!"
In moments the street filled with panicked citizens, running to the scene in the nightgowns and various states of half-dress. JD stopped in the middle of the street and gaped, while Buck, clad in his pink longjohns, pushed past his dumbfounded friend to grab one end of a water trough. Vin took the other side and the two men heaved its contents onto the flames.
Chris had managed to pull on his trousers and his boots before arriving at the burning building. He took in the situation from the hotel burning like a giant's campfire to the half-awake, half-naked citizens staring and he roared: "Get a bucket chain started, now!"
"We need buckets!" Mrs. Potter wailed, running in aimless circles.
"The church!" Josiah exclaimed. He had just run up, but having heard Mrs. Potter's statement he turned and began running back the direction he had just come. Mrs. Potter and a couple others hurried after him to assist.
"I got a couple at the store," Watson of Watson's Hardware shouted and rushed to get them.
Screams and cries of help emanated from the hotel. Josiah came back from the church laden with pails, and the bucket chain began to form. Meanwhile Chris had rushed into the inferno of the hotel lobby. Vin, Nathan and Buck also followed to help people inside, while JD and Josiah organized folk on the outside.
Mary grabbed a pail and made herself part of the line. She took a bucket full of water from someone, restraining the sneer that wanted to appear when she realized it was Claire Danae. The person Mary passed the water to was Tom Poppin, for once not seeming inclined to take a picture of the action. The photographer passed the bucket onto Josiah, who threw its contents onto the blaze.
The heat licked Mary's face oppressively. The roar of the flames and the screams of panic assaulted her ears. People on upper floors were throwing themselves out the hotel windows, others braved the front door and the flames. Nathan emerged carrying a woman out the front door. A chair crashed through the front window and then Buck rushed out with a pair of children in his arms. Through the opening, Mary could see that Vin and Chris had torn down the draperies and were beating at the flames with the heavy fabric.
Everyone knew the importance of extinguishing the blaze before it spread any further. If the flames engulfed the second floor, the hotel was done for. If the hotel yielded to fire, the town could easily be lost to the inferno also.
Mary couldn't say how long she labored, taking buckets full of water from Claire, passing them on to Tom. But after a seeming eternity, the blaze surrendered to the townsfolks' efforts.
Echoes of the flames burned before Mary's eyes before fading into darkness. Now that the fire's growling and hissing had been stopped, a profound hush fell over the town of Four Corners. Mary bent forward, her hands braced on her thighs, and breathed deeply. Then she wished she hadn't as smoke and ash filled her lungs and she coughed. The Post reporter held her sleeve to her face as she too coughed.
How bad was it? Mary wiped sweat from her forehead as she took stock of the scene. All over people were coughing, and many who had jumped from the building were limping or nursing broken bones. Nathan, dressed only in trousers, suspenders hanging at his sides, went from one person to the next assessing injuries and assigning treatments. In this context, Mary could see him doing the same for wounded soldiers back during the war. Thank God the blaze had not taken any lives, Mary thought.
The Post's fat little editor stalked toward his employees. His rotund figure was wrapped in a nice clean robe. Obviously he hadn't been fighting the fire at all. But he gaped at the hotel, and if Mary didn't know better she'd have said that the sight made him angry. "You gonna get a photograph or what?" Hedgecock's too-loud voice seemed obscene in the stillness of the early morning as he recovered himself to gruff at Tom Poppin. The photographer left to get his equipment.
A photograph. Mary wasn't sure Four Corners would want such a gruesome remembrance of tonight's tragedy. The fire had devastated the first floor and dark scorch marks encroached the second floor ceiling as well. It would be by the grace of God if the whole building did not collapse.
Hedgecock turned to Claire, the reporter's brown curls hanging in limp hanks around her face. Ignoring her dirty and disheveled nightwear and her haggard appearance, Buster barked at Claire, "I want the story on my desk in an hour and type set by dawn!"
Mary's eyes widened in disbelief. "Buster, are you serious?" Claire sputtered at her editor, voicing the Clarion reporter's thoughts. "Look around you, it's the middle of the night-"
"And don't even think about going to bed!" Hedgecock snapped. "I am looking around - are you? This is front page news, this is what we do. Are you going to slack off and let the competition get the edge?" He delivered the question with a pointed look at Mary, standing just a few feet away, still recovering from the heat and smoke. Claire's weary gaze went from Post editor to Clarion editor. Pursing her lips tightly, she spun and pushed tiredly through a trio of ash-covered citizens to where Buck and Josiah assisted Nathan with the wounded. Reaching up behind damp hanks of hair to her ear for a pencil that wasn't there, the reporter began to question the lawmen.
With a baleful glare at Buster, Mary garnered her energy and weaved her way through the townsfolk, who were voicing concerned questions of their own to Chris. Black must stick to the man; he was covered from head to toe in dark soot and ash. Off behind him to the side, near an alley the led to the rear of the hotel, stood Vin and JD.
"How did the fire start?" Travis heard someone ask.
"It was intentional!" the hotel owner, wringing his hands before the spectacle of his ruined livelihood, cried. "What else could it be?"
The man's exclamation rousted a buzz of speculation from the crowd before Larabee glared the hotel owner into silence. Chris spotted the blonde reporter. "You were the first one out here, Mary," he pointed out. "Did you see anyone?"
Tensions between her and the gunfighter forgotten in the light of the near-tragedy, Mary shook her head and answered Chris. "Something woke me up, but by the time I saw the fire there was nobody around."
"Anybody here see anything?" Chris raised his voice to address the crowd. No witness to the fire's origin could be found. Everyone had been sound asleep when the fire started. "Maybe it was just an accident," a bleary-eyed townsperson suggested.
Vin didn't look convinced. His face darkened with smears of ash and soot, the lanky tracker drew cautiously closer to the perilously decrepit hotel front, studying the pattern the flames had left with a dubious eye. "The fire started in the back of the hotel," Tanner declared.
Motion from the alley leading to the rear of the establishment drew the Clarion reporter's attention, as in a stumbling run out of the crevasse came a figure dressed all in black. The shady figure coughed a dry, smoky rasp and then looked up. Mary gasped as she recognized the figure. It was Ezra!
+ + +
JD's jaw dropped, and the entire assembly's attention snapped to the alley as a flashbulb went off at the precise moment the gambler made his unexpected appearance from behind the hotel. Standish blinked in the face of the bright sudden light. Tom Poppin backed up for a wider shot of the street as the buzz of murmuring that had been circulating through the crowd sputtered off and went dead.
"Is, ah, is everyone all right?" the Southern conman ventured into the silence.
Smoke from the photographer's flashbulb rose in sinuous spirals before dissolving into air already hanging thick over the scene. Dawn was lazily overtaking night. Deep blue shadows skulked in every alley, behind every nervous movement, calm and menacing.
"What the hell are you doing back there, Standish?" a harsh voice grated out of the hush.
"I didn't see you fighting the fire, gambler," another voice, faceless in the dark, cried out. "Where were you?"
Standish eyed the scene warily. "I was, uh, following an insane miscreant who bludgeoned me over the head," he rubbed the base of his skull, "immediately after setting fire to this fine establishment." The stripe of dust down the front of his black shirt and trousers seemed to corroborate Ezra's story, yet there was something that seemed odd about the Southerner that JD couldn't pinpoint.
A bare-chested cowboy stepped out of the crowd and shook a finger at the gambler. "Why're you fully dressed, Standish?"
Dunne, standing between Ezra and the mob of tense citizens, felt a tickling itch as sweat trailed down the dirt and ash that stuck between his shoulderblades, under his untucked, unbuttoned shirt. That was what JD had noticed but not realized the implications of. While folk milled out on the street in various states of half-dress - some men, in their haste to fight the fire, didn't even take the time to pull their boots on - Ezra was the only person completely clothed. And wearing entirely black.
"There's no need to use that tone, mister. Look, it's late. Why don't we all-" Dunne attempted to divert the crowd from the insinuation of the cowboy's question, but it was too late. The murmuring started back up, louder and angrier than before.
"Gambler scum!" a short man shouted, followed by a woman's shrill cry of, "Debauched trickster!"
JD sputtered and tried to calm the incensed townspeople but, afforded an outlet for their fear and outrage, nobody listened to the young sheriff. Four Corners' other peacekeepers, on the outside of the semi-circle that had former around the alley, found themselves blocked as, sensing the growing threat within, they tried to reach their comrades. Suddenly Dunne wished they had all taken more seriously the Four Corners Post's libel against Ezra.
A wooden bucket flew out of the crowd, aimed at Ezra's head. Standish lifted his arm and the deflected pail bounced off his shoulder, but at the same time an item he held in his hand came into clear view of the public. A box of matches.
Gasps from the assembly! Talking ceased. Nobody moved. An air of repressed tension held all in place.
Ezra's eyes went wide as he noticed the incendiaries. "I, I assure you this is not how it looks."
The bare-chested cowboy didn't care to hear an explanation. He shoved past JD, knocking the overbalanced sheriff to the ground, and walloped Standish square in the jaw. As if a spring holding them back had been released the cowboy's action, the crowd surged forward in a rush of anger and adrenaline. Struggling to get to his feet, Dunne could do little more than trip up a few of them as he avoided being trampled.
Ezra, wrestling with the cowboy, had nowhere to go as the mob reached for him. Then the nearest two enraged townsmen were pulled back as the rest of the Seven finally broke through, knuckles and elbows clearing a path for them. Chris yanked on the shoulder of the bare-chested cowboy and delivered a right-handed jab that sent the man reeling. Nathan and Josiah's fists drove the frenzied crowd back while Buck pulled JD to his feet. Yet despite the formidable peacekeepers' efforts, the citizens of Four Corners were too riled by the violent events of late and weeks of derogatory articles against Ezra to give up. "String 'im up!" some twink cried out.
The mob threatened to engulf the lawmen. Fortunately there was not a weapon to be had among them, but neither amongst the Seven, and their wild punches could only hold the crowd at bay for so long.
"What are we gonna do?" JD shouted as he ducked a fist, only to have the breath knocked out of him as a tall man in a nightshirt elbowed the young man out of his way in a bid for Standish. The tall man fell to Larabee's cutting chop.
Grabbing the Southerner's arm, Chris pulled Ezra through the throng, shoving anyone away who got too close. The rest of the Seven formed a protective barrier behind them.
"We're taking him to jail," Chris growled, fire burning in his eyes.
"I didn't set that fire," Ezra protested, halting.
"I don't think you did," JD heard Chris tell Ezra in a lower tone. "But these people need someone to blame and right now, you're it. You wanna stay out here with them?"
The gambler didn't look too happy about that, but a quick glance at the angry mob squelched any further objections.
They fought their way to the jailhouse. Larabee shoved Standish through the door, then slammed it shut behind him. Turning to address the crowd, Chris had to shout to be heard. "Alright, everyone clear out! We'll straighten this out in the morning. All you people without a place to sleep tonight, get a room in some other hotel." The gunfighter's menacing glare stood out against his soot-darkened face. "We got six still standing."
+ + +
Mary watched the rest of the peacekeepers disappear one by one into the jailhouse. Somebody suggested breaking down the door, but the crowd's angry momentum was spent, leaving folk just tired and dirty. The darkened streets began to clear as people returned to their homes. Only a few dark-eyed rabble-rousers lurked behind.
As the crowd withdrew, Travis spotted Claire Danae and Buster Hedgecock standing near the boardwalk. The angry tones of Buster's voice carried over to Mary's ears, followed by Claire's crisp reply: "I said no, I'm not doing it. If you're so eager to get their perspective, then you go in there! In the meantime, I have a story to write." The reporter flounced off in the direction of the Post building, leaving her editor to scowl and shuffle to catch up.
So Buster wanted a few words from the town's seven lawmen did he? Good luck. Actually it wasn't a bad idea, and Mary would have loved to burst into that jailhouse and bombard the men with questions, but at this time of night, tired and on-edge, Mary didn't think she would fare any better than the Post editor. Besides, she had a deadline.
Smoke still wafted from the ruined wreck of the hotel as Travis returned to the Clarion building. The ghostly aroma hung in the air, a sad haunting in the night. Whorling scuff marks marred the sooty street. Mary picked up a trampled box of matches. She couldn't be sure in this light, but were those . . . inky fingerprints down each side of the box?
"Ma!" Billy stood in the doorway of the Clarion office. Mary ran to her son and hugged him. "Ma, what happened?" he asked.
"There was a fire at the hotel, honey. It's okay now. Everybody's going to be okay."
"Did Mr. Standish start it?"
"No," Mary assured Billy. "No, we don't know who started the fire. Some people are too quick to jump to conclusions. I'm sure Mr. Standish had nothing to do with it."
The Clarion owner sent her son back to bed. Though exhaustion tugged at her eyelids, Mary resisted the urge to return to slumber herself. If the Four Corners Post was going to have the news out by dawn, then so would the Clarion.
She cleaned herself off as best she could with just a damp towel, and her washbasin was black with soot when she was done. When the paper was printed, she'd visit the bathhouse. Feeling grimy and tired, she put on her work dress and sat down at her desk, wondering what to write.
There was hardly anything she could write about the fire that most of the town didn't already know from being there. Claire Danae might word her article differently, but really she would just be writing the same story as Mary. What Mary needed was an edge, an angle that the Post wouldn't have.
The blonde editor leaned on her elbows and steepled her fingers. Of course the Post would point to Ezra as the arsonist. Perhaps Mary should take up his defense, decry the idea that Standish had anything to do with it. The problem was, could Mary really be sure Ezra had nothing to do with burning down the hotel? The evidence against him seemed overwhelming. Why would the gambler be wandering the streets in the middle of the night? What possible motive could he have to torch any building in Four Corners? If it had been her, she would have gone for the Post office!
An idea began to form in her head. Ezra did like to fight dirty. What if he had started the fire to help the Clarion by creating a sensational story? No, she shook her head, banishing the thought before it went any further. The gambler could certainly be underhanded, but she refused to believe he would do anything to put Four Corners in serious jeopardy. Even if she had no other proof than her gut.
But her gut wasn't a credible source, so Mary was back to square one. She stared at her desk, determined to put pencil to paper and write anything just to get started. It was then she noticed a crumpled sheet of paper sitting in the middle of the desk's workspace. It was too dark to read, so she reached for the box of matches she kept on the desk.
They weren't there. Mary scratched her head, puzzled. She walked back to her room where she had left the inky, trampled matchbox she had found on the street. She struck it on her desk and lit the oil lamp, then picked the wrinkled note up and smoothed it out. It was scribed in Ezra's handwriting; the Clarion editor recognized it from the article he had written about Nettie Wells. She read:
Post's missing millionaire
lost treasure map
somewhere in town
Mary sat down hard in the chair at the desk. A hidden treasure map?! When had Ezra made this discovery? Why hadn't he said anything to her about it? And what was the note now doing on her desk? Could this be the real reason Ezra had been out tonight? He must have realized what a fantastic story this would be! The buzzwords were all there: millionaire, treasure map. This was just the edge Mary needed! Maybe it would even distract the incensed citizens from last night's fiasco. And best of all, it would be stealing that Danae woman's story right out from under her nose.
The thought thrilled Mary so much that she didn't even bother to delve into further possibilities. Mary lit another lamp and took out a fresh sheet of paper. The details were a bit sketchy, but that didn't matter. The important words were there, Mary just had to confabulate some editorial to go around them.
Half an hour later, as the sun's ray began to poke their fingers over the horizon, Mary put on her apron and prepared to set up the press for her front page.