Monthly Rates

by K Hanna Korossy

Main character: Seven

Previously published in: Let's Ride! 10 (Neon Rainbow Press, 2006)

"That'll be twenty dollars for the month, Mr. Larabee," the saloon proprietor announced in no-nonsense tones.

Chris briskly pulled out a slip of paper from inside his coat and handed it to the man. "Here's the voucher from Judge Travis, as agreed." An economy of words... and dress, and emotion. It had become a way of life for a man to whom every indulgence was a reminder of those who weren't there to enjoy it with him. Even the places he stayed were usually the bare minimum, often a bedroll out on the prairie or in the mountains somewhere. He rarely bunked in towns, and even then not for long, pressed on by the need to stay one step ahead of the memories that followed close behind.

And here he'd just paid for lodging for a month. The second month he'd been there already. It was unbelievable.

Not that the memories hadn't found him there in Four Corners. Sometimes they chased him into the saloon for a long night of drinking, or trailed after him into his dreams in his rented bed. On occasion he could almost see Adam in one of the town's few children, or hear Sarah's voice out in the street. The moment of joy would be followed by equally strong despair, a pattern he was used to wherever he went.

But... it hadn't come as often in that town. When he talked to Mary - Mrs. Travis - he remembered again how good perfume smelled and wind-blown hair looked, and the thought didn't drive him into his usual melancholy. And even when the familiar black grief did settle into his heart, Buck turned up to cajole him out of it, or JD lightened it with his enthusiasm, or Vin just sat with him and silently shared the burden. The memories were still there, every minute of his day. But they had to vie for his attention now with six men who were carving their own niches into his thoughts and plans.

Not to mention looking up to him. How he had become the leader of their motley group, Chris wasn't sure. Didn't they know he was more lost than any of them? And yet it worked somehow and, if was honest, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It felt good to be making decisions again, to have control over something. And to share it with others he had to admit he cared about.

That scared him on occasion - it had been so long, he knew little more than that darkness inside him anymore. But hope, once rediscovered, was too powerful for him to turn his back on.

And so it was with satisfaction that Chris watched the proprietor write out a careful receipt for his monthly rent. One more month he knew where he would be, and with whom, and that there would be a little more light in his life. After that it might all be gone, but if there was one thing Chris Larabee had learned, it was to appreciate what you had while you had it. The thought should have made him feel guilty, but all he felt was a quiet, private relief.

"Thank you very much," he said with unusual emotion as the man handed him the receipt and Larabee carefully tucked it away. And allowing himself the barest trace of a smile, Chris turned and went up to his room.

Vin Tanner watched the exchange from against the far wall, for once unnoticed by Chris. Or at least unremarked - he knew better than to underestimate Chris Larabee. Still, he didn't think he had been seen, which was the only reason he was witness to the slight changes in Chris' expression, the fleeting emotions that Vin was gradually picking up in his stoic friend - momentary sorrow, brief disbelief, a bare shake of the head, and at the end, almost a smile. That was a rarity, and it made Vin smile to himself to see it.

The reaction had accompanied Chris getting the receipt for his rent, and Vin had some notion of why. They were both wanderers, he and Chris, Vin by necessity and Chris by heart. But the idea of belonging, of having a place to call home, even for a month, felt rather good. Especially for Chris, no doubt, who'd had a home torn away from him. The idea that he'd found a new one for a while, and that he was happy about it, made Vin unexpectedly glad, too.

Speaking of which, it was time to take care of his own arrangements, and as Chris disappeared upstairs, Vin straightened and wandered over to the proprietor.

"I'd like t' take care of my bill, too."

The man glanced up at him, nodded, then dove back into his books.

Not that Vin slept much in the little room that was rented out to him. He usually preferred his own wagon to the claustrophobic room above the saloon. A man needed to be able to smell the air and hear what was going on around him, and be ready for a quick getaway if needed. But there were times when trouble was brewing and it was better to stay inside, or when JD had been stabbed and it had seemed right to stay close to the kid, or when Chris got into one of his rare talking moods and they had needed a place to go to pass the night away after the saloon closed. It was good sometimes to have a room he could call his own.

Truth be told, he had never intended to stick around long enough to need one. A whole month seemed an awful long stretch of time to stay in one place for a man with a price on his head. Word got around you were there and, suddenly, bounty hunters and marshals started turning up looking for you. Vin had only planned to spend a few days in Four Corners, working at the general store long enough to earn some supplies and then take off again. And then Nathan and Chris had walked into his life his very first day on the job and he'd never looked back. Not even over his shoulder.

Sure, he was taking a risk and he knew it. One of those days he still planned to make the trip to Tascosa, and Chris had already promised to go with him when he went. But until then it wouldn't hurt Vin's case that he was working as a peacekeeper for a bona fide judge. And he could hardly ask for better protection than six other good men watching his back all the time.

That wasn't really why he stayed, though, not if he was honest with himself. It was reassuring to have six others on his side, ready to defend him at any time. And it felt rather good to be on the right side of the law and to be earning a daily income, but that wouldn't have settled the wanderer inside him for so long, either. No, it was the fact that those six had also become friends, men he cared about and who amazingly seemed to care about what happened to him, and whom he wanted to look out for. And one of the six had become even more, someone Vin already trusted like a partner. It was a bond that held him like no other, not even a woman, had ever been able to. Vin just couldn't ride away from that.

The old man took his voucher and filled out a receipt, handing it to Vin. He couldn't read it, but he knew what it said and even more what it meant, and he could feel the same satisfaction curl through him that had been evident on Chris' face minutes before. A month's rent. Who would've thought?

Home was a rather nice place, after all.

Buck Wilmington stepped into the saloon, still damp from a refreshing soak at the bath house and ready for action. He took a quick, assessing glance around the place, spying Ezra at one table fleecing some fat-looking sheep and a chattering JD chewing on the ear of a patient Josiah. Buck grinned at that. He loved the kid's enthusiasm, but it also wore you down, and he was glad the youngest member of their group had found someone else to prattle on to. Of Chris and Nathan there was no sign, but Vin stood across the room, conducting some sort of business with the proprietor. There were no lovely members of the opposite sex in sight to seek companionship with, so Buck gravitated toward Vin, curious about what the tracker was doing.

"Nice evenin'," he said by way of greeting.

Vin glanced up at him, a quiet smile on his face. "Yep, it is." He carefully folded the piece of paper in his hands and stuck it inside his fringed jacket.

Buck's curiosity grew. He had already figured out that Vin had never had the chance to learn to read, and while Buck didn't think any less of the man for it - there were many kinds of intelligence - he didn't usually see Tanner with paper, either.

Vin was a private man, Buck knew that, but he also rarely took offense and simply deflected any questions he didn't want to answer, so Buck never had a second thought about asking. He nodded after the now-secreted document.

"Watcha got?"

"Receipt for rent. Got the room through the end of the month."

Oh, yeah, the deals Judge Travis had made for them. He had settled on some rate with the saloon proprietor and given the seven of them vouchers to pay for it. Buck's was in his back pocket; he'd found it while getting ready at the bath house and had promptly forgot it again. Now he pulled out the piece of paper to give it a thoughtful look.

The end of the month. Buck hadn't taken the old man very seriously when Travis had made the offer, but now here it was, staring him in the face. After one seat-of-the-pants month, he had the chance to commit himself for another. Odd - there had been a time, not too far back, when he'd had no idea where he'd be the next night, let alone a month later.

Vin's smile had grown as he watched Buck. "Strange, huh?"

He looked up at the tracker, reminded that he wasn't the only one used to living a day at a time. Vin had a price on his head and was probably taking a big chance sticking around. Ezra doubtless didn't stay anywhere after he'd won everybody's money away from them, and Chris... Buck hadn't known Chris to spend two nights in a row the same place since he'd lost Sarah and Adam, not unless he was sleeping off a sizable hangover. And yet there they all were, paying the monthly rate instead of the daily, getting downright domesticated. "Yeah," was all he answered Vin, nodding.

A parting nod and Vin slipped away from him and out of the room, returning to his wagon for the night. Why he even needed a room, Buck wasn't sure, except... maybe it was a way of putting down stakes. Saying he was there to stay just as the rest of them were.

Buck leaned against the counter, sweeping the room again with a sharper gaze than before. It was a sight fuller and more relaxed than when he'd first arrived in that flea-bitten town. The people were beginning to believe that they were safe, that there was law in the town - law that Buck and six others provided. He shook his head in wonderment. He had hated being a sheriff, so how the heck had this happened?

His gaze lighted on JD, who had apparently used up even Josiah's boundless patience and now sat by himself, looking a little forlorn as he poured himself a finger of whiskey.

Oh, yeah, he remembered.

Chris had needed a lot of looking after that first year following the loss of his family. Even once he had pulled himself together and Buck no longer had to put him to bed each night and sober him up each morning and put up with his grief-filled rages, they never talked about how Buck usually seemed to be heading the same way as Chris and was ready to move on each time Chris was. He just... did it.

And now, finally, he was beginning to see glimpses of his old friend returning. Chris didn't need looking out for any more, not in the same way. And, coincidentally, a young, brash kid by the name of JD Dunne had suddenly dropped into Buck's path. Growing up back east without a daddy, he already had two strikes against him, but Buck had quickly determined that he would teach the kid where the business ends of a weapon and a woman were.

It kind of felt nice, to find a place among the six other peacekeepers of the town, but even more so it felt good to have a place at someone's side again, and to laugh together.

Buck plopped the folded voucher onto the bar in front of the proprietor. "Fix me up, too," he said firmly, and watched as the man marked him off in the book and wrote out a receipt. Buck put it away, nodded his thanks, and then strode over to JD's table to settle himself in Josiah's vacated chair.

"What're you doin' here by yourself? Haven't I taught you anything?" he demanded.

JD actually jumped, giving him a startled look. "Buck! I was just-"

"Yeah, I saw what you were just doing - drinkin' over here by yourself. The company not good enough for ya?"

"But Josiah-"

"You're gonna turn into a maudlin drunk, kid. Can't even do this right." He poured himself a whiskey as he spoke.

"I wasn't-"

"Always better to share a drink with a friend, you got that?"

JD was glowering at him, but that last bit made his eyes widen. "Yeah," he finally said, tentatively. "Uh, you stayin'?"

The kid meant that evening, but Buck was thinking longer-term. "'Course I'm stayin'." At least for another month, and at the moment, that felt like forever. Buck leaned back comfortably to nurse his own drink.

JD's wariness disappeared and he leaned in toward Buck, drink forgotten. "I was just telling Josiah about this new story I read from that fella that writes all the westerns? It was great! Seems there was this outlaw called Texas Joe-"

Well, he could see why Josiah had left, but this wasn't so bad. The grin that lingered on Buck's face had nothing to do with JD's story as he watched the young man spin his tale. Maybe in another month he could whip the kid into some kind of shape. But for now, he was rather enjoying the would-be gunslinger's enthusiasm.

A month more... Yeah, that wasn't bad at all.

Buck had been busy with the proprietor when Josiah had gently interrupted JD's story to call it a night. He almost regretted it when the youth's expression fell, but he knew from experience that Dunne could go on for hours if uninterrupted. The hand Josiah had injured earlier that week still twinged and ached, too, and his old bones were beginning to follow suit. Ah, to be young again; he almost smiled at JD.

One more glance at the proprietor showed the man still occupied and, finally, Josiah had left the piece of paper on the counter for him to find later, and returned to his church.

Unlike the other six - well, except for Vin, who often slept in his wagon out in the street - Josiah had accommodations other than the rooms above the saloon. He chose to spend the nights in the Lord's house, feeling the presence of his God. It brought his weary heart comfort.

Of course, there were pews and bedrolls to sleep on, and they had suited him just fine during rebuilding and in the days after they had first defeated Colonel Anderson and his men. But with the judge's offer of employment had come free room and board, and Josiah didn't see any reason not to take him up on it. He had rented a cot from the saloon and set it up in the back room of the church to sleep on. Even that was more comfort than he was used to - almost a home.

He hadn't really had one, not since leaving his father's house, but then that had never really been a home. Nothing had given him quite the sense of belonging and contentment as that cot and table and a shelf for his books in the old church he was restoring. Even with the abandonment of his sister and later, for a while, of his God, the Lord had been gracious enough to grant him this unexpected little haven.

Another month... Josiah marveled at the thought, shaking his head. He had fully intended to rebuild the church and then move on, to let someone more worthy than he take its charge and care for the souls of the growing little town while he continued his penance elsewhere. But it wasn't good for man to be alone, and God had been exceedingly good to him, altering his path so that it joined that of six other honorable men. Six friends. Josiah didn't deserve it, but he was grateful. For the first in a long time, he had found real companionship and some measure of peace.

Almost at the church, he looked up to see Nathan sitting by the front door, watching for him.

He smiled. "Brother Nathan, what brings you out this time of night?"

The "doctor" of the town nodded at Josiah's hand. "That cut of yours. I've been trying to find you all day to change the bandages."

Oh, yes; Nathan's bag sat by his feet. Josiah wasn't being very observant that night. "Come in," he said and gestured simply, holding the door for the black man and following him in.

It took a minute to light the lamp, and then Nathan was already sitting him down, unwrapping the white strip that bound his hand.

It wasn't a terrible injury - the plane had simply slipped and sliced a long gash across the back of his hand and two fingers. A few months before, Josiah would have just doctored it himself, no one else interested or able to help. But even a simple wound could fester and turn gangrenous, and so he had willingly given it to Nathan's care as soon as the man had noticed and pounced on it. For all his lack of training, the healer had done an excellent job, and already the wound was just an angry, scabbed line.

Still, Nathan checked it carefully, then dabbed something on it before re-wrapping the hand. "Should be good as new in another week or so," he predicted.

"That's fine, thank you."

Nathan gave him a smile and put away his things, heading back to the door. "Good night, 'Siah."

"Nathan." Jackson stopped and turned around again to look at him. "Rent's due today."

One corner of his friend's mouth turned up. "I know. A month. Isn't it somethin'?"

Josiah nodded soberly. "Indeed it is, my friend."

An understanding tip of Nathan's hat and he left, the door closing quietly behind him.

Indeed it was. Josiah flexed his bandaged hand thoughtfully. It still hurt a little, but he himself felt surprisingly well.

Humming a hymn under his breath, Josiah rose to prepare for bed.

Sure enough, it was time to pay the rent. One month was what the judge had given them a voucher for the last time he had been there. Just the thought of it had allowed Nathan to settle into his room, to set it up for doctoring and make it his own.

His own... It was a strange thought for an ex-slave. Not so long ago, even his body hadn't been his own, or his family. All he'd had was his mind, the one place no master could take from him, and there he had been free and dreamed of a life - one very close to this one, in fact.

Not that it was complete, not yet. Someday he still dreamed of becoming a full-fledged, official doctor instead of a pretender who practiced what he had observed. And his dreams held a wife and a bunch of kids, maybe his and Rain's children, although the thought made him blush. But there in that little town he had found people who didn't care what color he was, who not only accepted him and worked alongside him as an equal, but outright needed him. It was a mighty fine start.

And a busy life. He was the only one of the seven who had another full job on the side, unless you counted JD's attempts at sheriffing and Josiah's pastoring, but it was one he wouldn't have traded for anything.

He had actually been the first of the seven to settle in Four Corners, setting up shop to treat the sick in lieu of a real doctor. But it had been by no means steady work, and he hadn't even bothered to unpack, unsure how long he could stay and how much he could pay for. And then there were the customers who weren't satisfied even with his best.

Forget friendship. Nathan wouldn't even have been alive if not for Chris and Vin. But the friendship had come along with it, even the southerner in their group, Ezra, looking at him with respect now, instead of seeing him as an ex-slave.

It had been an amazing month, that was for sure. And now he had been promised at least another. For someone whose early life had been one long unwilling commitment, this was one contract Nathan entered willingly.

The town was quiet that evening, far from the rough and wild place he had first rode into some weeks before. Hard to believe it was the same place, sometimes. A man passing him in the street gave him a polite nod, and that was hard to believe, too. For the first time in his life, he was being treated like the worthwhile person Nathan had always believed himself to be.

If only his daddy could have seen him...

Nathan sighed and dropped that fruitless wish as he climbed the steps of the saloon. It was getting to be late, but the light and sound spilled out as strongly as ever through the swinging doors.

Buck and JD were sitting at one of the tables, JD unsurprisingly doing most of the talking, and they both stopped to nod a greeting to him as he came in. He also saw he hadn't gone unnoticed by Ezra's watchful eye, but the gambler was deep in a game and wouldn't interrupt that for anything short of the building burning down around his ears.

Maybe not even then, Nathan thought to himself with a grin.

He stepped up to the saloon proprietor, offering the man the voucher Judge Travis had given him. "Come to pay the rent," he said cheerfully.

Nathan received only a dour look in response. The proprietor wasn't the friendly sort by any means, but there were also still a few in town who weren't as willing as others to forget skin color. Nathan knew it, but he didn't care, unwilling to let the man's prejudice ruin his comfortable good mood. Just the fact that he could get a room like any white man was a sign of how far things had come. Still, Nathan kept a close eye on the notation the proprietor made, and read carefully the receipt he was handed. All was in order, but his gaze lingered on the date. One month. Thirty more days of knowing where he would sleep that night, that he would have food to eat, that he would have guaranteed work. That he could continue being part of the best thing he'd ever done in his whole life. It was really something to look forward to.

Another glance around the room. JD had apparently run down and was beginning to doze where he sat. Just like Nathan's little brothers, the youngest of their group seemed to have limitless energy until it suddenly ran out. Buck was eyeing his sleepy companion with unmistakable fondness as he polished off his drink, no doubt getting ready to put JD to bed. Nathan was glad someone had taken the kid under wing because he had a lot to learn still, but the five of them had watched with amusement as the relationship between Buck and JD had clearly become that of big brother-little brother.

Ezra looked like the only one at his table who also wasn't getting sleepy, but Nathan knew the pickings were better when your fellow players got tired and careless, and Ezra would keep on as long as he had someone to milk- uh, play. As the southerner won another round and pulled in an armful of chips, he surprised Nathan with a sly wink.

Nathan couldn't help a quiet laugh. Oh, yeah, he was definitely looking forward to the next month. If for nothing else, then to see what these six came up with.

Or rather, the seven of them.


"Huh?" JD Dunne blinked at the image of Buck towering over him. When had his friend stood up?

"I think it's time for bed, kid." A nudge at his arm sent his elbow sliding off the arm of the chair, and he nearly knocked his chin against the table as he fell forward. At least it woke him up, and he made a face at Buck.

"Only reason I'm tired is 'cause I had that extra long patrol today. You never told me what was so important that I had to take yours, too."

A quick, too-bright smile. "Uh, never mind, JD, but I'll make it up to ya. I'll take yours tomorrow."

"Day after tomorrow," JD corrected.

Buck nodded righteously. "Day after tomorrow."

JD sighed. Why did he bother? "Forget it. Just forget it. By then it'll be some other lady. Don't you ever think about anything else?"

Buck seemed to give that considerable thought, but nothing seemed forthcoming.

JD almost sighed again. "Never mind." And they called him a kid? "I think it's time for bed."

"I said that already."

"Huh?" He squinted at Buck. They were beginning to sound like some dance-hall act.

"Never mind. Upsy-daisy." And Buck grabbed a fistful of his back collar and pulled him to his feet, half-choking him in the process.

JD just loved his friend sometimes.

Then again, that was the same friend who had taken a sword blow for him; who had polished his shooting skills and taught him about women, as unbelievable as that education had been; who had sat up with him that whole night after Hill's men had stabbed him so he wouldn't be alone. Buck could be an incredible nuisance on occasion, but that didn't make him any less JD's best friend.

Which reminded him. "We still on for fishing tomorrow?" he asked around a yawn.

"Sure, kid, as early as you want. Already talked with Chris." A pause, then something in Buck's voice changed. "Hey, you know, rent's due today."

He roused again. What-? Rent? Already? Seemed he'd just paid... Well, that's right, he had. He'd used the last of his money to cover a few days' rent while he waited to see what happened to the group that had assembled to face Colonel Anderson and his men. The money was almost gone by the time Judge Travis arrived and offered him first a sheriff's job, then that of being one of the town's peacekeepers. He'd even given JD the money to cover the final week of that month, and JD had put the last of that down the day before.

Still, it had seemed so temporary, as daily as his rent. Any minute he'd half-expected somebody in the group to get tired of hanging around and take off, the others following his lead. And truly, none of them seemed quite as devoted to the group or the town as JD was. But it didn't matter because they were men of their word and they had all stayed. The judge had left them vouchers for the next month the last time he had been through, an unbelievably long time but still so far away then.

And now it was here. He was paying by the month this time instead of the day, a whole month of not having to worry about his new family splitting up and going their own ways. JD couldn't believe it. Life couldn't have gotten much better than that, to have a place guaranteed for a while and to even be paid for staying with the men he'd looked up to and actually befriended. Even Chris treated him like one of the gang now.

And then there was Buck, who had become the constant pal he'd never had. It was everything JD could have wished for when he'd buried his only family, his mother, back east and then gone west and found a much larger one instead.

The voucher was in his inside breast pocket - he'd tried it in a lot of safe places before settling on that one. He wanted it with him, the reminder that he had a home for a while, and some brothers. Now JD pulled out the slip of paper and, glancing at Buck, walked with steady steps up to the proprietor.

"I wanna settle up for the next month."

The man didn't say anything, just took the voucher, studied it, and wrote something down in his book. Then he filled out a receipt and handed it back to JD.

Another token, and just as valuable as the first. JD stared at it for a long moment, then gently slipped it back into his breast pocket.

Buck's hand shook his shoulder, that and the expression in his eyes the only signs the bigger man knew how JD was feeling and felt the same way. Out loud he said, "You're gonna get sick of that room, kid, stayin' there for so long."

So long... Actually, it sounded like heaven. All those dime novels had never led him to even remotely imagine anything like this. For once, JD didn't smile, just shook his head solemnly at his friend. "No, I won't, Buck. Wouldn't even dream of it."

And with contentment that filled him clear down to his toes, JD smiled a good night at his friends and went up to his room and his very own bed.

A grin played around Ezra Standish's mouth as he watched Wilmington herd a drowsy and protesting Mr. Dunne toward bed. The two men behaved as children sometimes, but in their line of business, Ezra couldn't begrudge them some levity. Some would even say their relationship was almost enviable.

Not someone like Ezra, of course. He preferred far more... lucrative ways to pass the time. Speaking of which, it was beginning to seem that the evening's entertainment was over, one of his fellow card players actively yawning now. No doubt some sort of soporific effect of the room, although he himself felt fresh as a daisy.

The hand trickled to an end, but it felt almost like a victory by default, and Ezra felt little pleasure as he pulled in the small handful of chips. "Shall we play another, gentlemen?" he offered pleasantly. But he knew a lost cause when he saw one, and wasn't surprised as his fellow players begged off, muttering goodbyes as they tottered off to bed. Well, Four Corners was hardly New Orleans: the night life seemed to die off just when Ezra was getting his second wind.

In fact, it was the kind of place he normally wouldn't have stayed in longer than a night or two - long enough to relieve the locals of their disposable income and then move on before his reputation got around. That was a gambler's life, the way his good mother had taught him. So why was he lingering in that woeful little town, hardly big enough to appear on any map, risking his life daily for wages he could have earned in an hour at the table?

If only he knew.

The thought troubled him, whenever Ezra got bored enough to think about it. His mother would have certainly been shocked to see his... domestication, for want of a better word, though that one made him cringe. It was true, though. There was no good reason he could think of, short of temporary insanity, for having accepted Judge Travis' offer.

That still didn't explain why he stayed. A man's word was a fluid thing, given and taken back as needed. It certainly didn't bind him to that dusty little town.

But... maybe it did to the six men he rode with.

Dunne was almost too young to be away from home, although he had no home to return to. Tanner and Larabee seemed to be on the run from various tormentors, both real and of the mind. Sanchez was working off some sort of wrath of God, and Wilmington simply seemed willing to go where his friends did. As for Jackson... As discomfiting as it had been to deal with the ex-slave in the first place, Ezra had been surprised to find him an intelligent man and competent healer who would not abandon a person in need. They all had their weaknesses that tied them to this place, and they were quite mad, every one of them, of course, but that was all the more reason they needed a clear-thinking, clever, experienced facilitator in their midst, was it not? As for why that had to be him, at the risk of his own physical and financial well-being...

Well, there was the saloon, of course. There was money in it and he was just the person to capitalize on that. Plus there were always opportunities in a growing town, with new people passing through and new businesses arriving. And...

And Chris Larabee had looked him in the eye on top of that hill overlooking the Indian village, and told Ezra to never run out on him again. The admonition had filled him with an unfamiliar shame, one he had no desire to feel again. He had given his word that he would stay and he would, at least for the month. The judge had given them all vouchers for rooms for at least that length of time, and Ezra was not one to pass up a free offer. After that he could leave that godforsaken little town behind, if he so chose.

Still, there was something... unexpectedly appealing in having men at your back whom you could trust. They had already rode and fought together several times, and as loath as Ezra was to place his faith in anyone other than himself, he had no doubts that he could trust this unusual group with his life, if necessary. They had already pulled him out of the fire once or twice, he had to admit. Trust like that was a precious commodity in his business, doled out sparingly. To find not one, but six worthy of it was something he would surely be a fool to pass up. And Maude Standish had not brought a fool into this world.

So, Ezra stood languidly from the table, there were ample reasons to stay, even if they were not the kind that would have been evident to such as his mother. A good gambler always surveyed all the possibilities and chose the one with the most potential, and his current situation offered a great deal of potential. Perhaps not monetarily, not yet, but there were other things in the world besides money - although he would have denied it to anyone who asked.

Not knowing whether to frown or smile at the thought, Ezra did neither, merely adjusted his hat and coat before he crossed the almost-empty saloon to the proprietor cleaning up at the bar. He stopped in front of the short, portly man, and took out the piece of paper from his billfold, giving it a considering look. A month. Why not take the chance? The rewards could be even greater than he foresaw.

Ezra dropped the voucher onto the scarred, polished wood, surprised by the odd satisfaction the simple act gave him.

"I wish to take care of my bill, sir. I will be staying another month."

After that... who knew?

The End