Run of Bad Luck by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #12, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. It is based on an old Alias Smith and Jones story by Lynn Gill, recycled with permission. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Kacey Tucker is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-20-2008. Art by Shiloh

It is damnably cold out here, Ezra Standish complained to himself as he clamped his jaws tightly together to stop his teeth from chattering. He plodded along behind the tracker, the slow, thoughtful steps of Vin Tanner all the gambler thought about… besides the cold… and their recent run of bad luck.

God Himself must have taken a personal dislike to us, Standish concluded bleakly.

Vin stumbled in the dull darkness of early morning and almost fell on some obstacle buried beneath the accumulated inches of snow that blanketed the drab southwestern desert.

Ezra unfolded his arms, placing his hand on the tracker's shoulder to steady him. "Are you all right, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin nodded, then looked back over his shoulder at the gambler. Concern was etched deep into the pale, drawn skin of his face. "We're goin' t' have t' rest soon." The words came out with a thick cloud of white mist.

"Yes, I know."

"Afraid if we do, we'll freeze t' death," Tanner admitted.

Standish nodded and Tanner took the lead again, barely able to lift his boots.

Damn, it's cold, Ezra thought as he followed along behind the younger man.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As the first glow of dawn cast its pale orange glow on the horizon, Ezra swore he felt it getting colder. He stopped and felt the immediate force of his friend as Vin walked headlong into him.

"Sorry," the tracker muttered. "Guess I's sleepwalkin'."

"I do believe that it's getting colder," Ezra stated as he contemplated sitting down on a small, snow-capped boulder nearby.

"Always gets coldest at dawn," Vin informed him.

"However do you know things like that?"

Tanner smiled, which set his teeth to chattering. "Live out here long 'nough, y' figger things like that out," he managed to get past the clacking noise.

"Pray tell, have you also learned how to build a fire with no matches or flint, and everything in sight wet?"

Vin shook his head. "Come on, we gotta keep m-m-ovin'."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

By midday the sun had warmed Ezra enough for him to realize he was hungry. Very hungry. "Mr. Tanner, I must insist we find shelter before the sun sets," he said. "I don't believe either of us can survive another night like the last one."

"Ain't no place 'round here t' hole up."

Ezra sighed heavily. "Mr. Tanner, I do believe we're jinxed."

"Jinxed? Ah, come on, Ez, we're just havin' a little run 'a bad luck, that's all."

"That's all?" Standish asked, his voice rising an octave and echoing across the flat Arizona landscape and causing the tracker to cringe. "You call the last two weeks a little run of bad luck?"

"Well, yeah," Tanner replied, looking honestly puzzled.

"Mr. Tanner, we were nearly killed while delivering those prisoners to Page – if you'll recall –we ran into that bounty hunter in Williams who decided dead was easier than alive… then those crazy settlers in Wickenburg… and the other pair of bounty hunters in Mesa—"

Tanner picked up the litany. "Renegade Indians along the Gila, Mexican bandits on our way down to Casa Grande—"

The gambler interrupted him. "A bolt of lightning drove your horse off four days ago, mine apparently up and ran off two days ago – and I still contend that Peso absconded with Chaucer in the dead of night, nothing else could possibly explain my mount's sudden disappearance – and you call that a little run of bad luck? And now—"

"I know! I know!" Vin shouted back at the man. "A blizzard, in the middle 'a the desert!" Vin stopped to calm himself, then continued in his best soothing tone, "Ez, if everythin' in life was easy, well, you'd be bored."

"Everything? Oh, no, Mr. Tanner, I'm not asking for everything to be easy! Why I would be more than satisfied to settled for every other thing, or every third thing!"

Vin shook his head, muttering, "Got a feelin' yer losin' yer faith, Ez."

"Faith is for preachers, Mr. Tanner. But perhaps I have been looking at this all wrong… Perhaps it is not my luck, that's taken a turn for the worse. Maybe it's your luck that's taken such a dire turn for the bad, pulling mine right along after it?"

Vin snorted and shook his head. "Why d'ya think it's my luck that's took this here turn, why not yers? Never have these kind 'a problems when Chris and I go on these trips fer the Judge."

"Oh, this is just perfect," Standish muttered as a light powder began to swirl down around them. He swatted at the flakes in front of his face like he was chasing off a swarm of gnats. "What do you suggest we do now?"

Vin stopped and huffed out a breath. "Well, I hate t' admit it, but I run out 'a ideas." The tracker stopped and glanced around at the snow-covered desert. It was beautiful in its own eerie way, caps of snow sitting daintily on the tops of the saguaro… cholla cactus transformed into lacy works of imagination… the hills— "The hills!"

"Could you be perhaps be a bit more specific, Mr. Tanner?"

"The hills, Ez, the hills!"

"Mr. Ta– Vin, are you quite all right?"

"'M fine, Ezra! 'M better 'n fine! Y' remember that story we heard up in Prescott? Before that rancher showed up, thinkin' you was the one who'd led his daughter int' sin."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I had quite forgotten that particular unpleasantness," he said, frowning.

"Y' remember, the story 'bout the robbers who took the Tombstone bank?" Standish's expression remained frozen in a frown, so Vin continued, "They hid out in a cave, gave the sheriff the slip, but he caught up to 'em in Winslow? Three 'a 'em were killed and one went t' prison."

Standish's brow wrinkled. "If it's all the same to you, Mr. Tanner, I would rather forget this entire trip, but I do seem to recall hearing something like that, yes. Why?"

"Why? Hell, Ezra, those are the hills the cave's supposed t' be in!" the tracker exclaimed, pointing to a series of white humps rising out of the otherwise flat desert.

The gambler peered at the hills for a moment, then said, "Do you have any idea how difficult it would be to find one little cave in all those hills?"

Vin frowned. "Well, I don't know 'bout you, but I'd rather freeze t' death lookin' fer it 'n sittin' out here on some rock."

Standish's expression turned thoughtful. "You do have a point."

"Only if y' sit on a cactus," Vin replied.

Ezra shot his friend a disgusted look and waved him off in the direction of the low hills. "Yes, well, if that is your feeble attempt at levity… Remind me to freeze to death standing up, won't you?"

Vin grinned and took the lead, heading for the hills and, hopefully, shelter.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"We are never going to find this elusive cave of yours, Mr. Tanner."

"Quit sayin' that. 'M apt t' start believin' y', and I don't like the idea much."

"Oh, I don't know," Ezra commented as he struggled along, "I've heard freezing isn't such a bad way to go. You simply become overwhelmingly sleepy, and—" A wide yawn stopped Standish's monologue.

"Well, I'll be damned."

"What?" Ezra asked, still finishing the yawn.

"Would y' look at that?" Tanner pointed to a dark opening in the hillside.

"I don't believe it," Standish breathed, reaching up to rub at his eyes, expecting that to erase the hopeful image.

"Well, I sure as hell do!" Vin grabbed the gambler's jacket and began dragging him toward the opening. Ezra allowed himself to be pulled along toward the cave until they reached the entrance, then he planted his feet firmly and stopped, jerking the tracker to a halt.

"Now what?" Tanner asked with a long-suffering sigh.

"You don't think there might be… bears, or other… creature in there, do you?"

Vin paused for a moment, considering the question, then shook his head in frustration. "Ain't no bears this far south. It's a desert, 'member?"

"Well, yes," the gambler said, trying to look dignified. "But you could've fooled me," he added, more to himself than to Vin as he allowed the tracker to drag him into the mouth of the cave.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ezra stared suspiciously into the darkness while Vin busied himself building a fire out of the remains of kindling and wood they found lying inside the lip of the cave, and stored on ledges back away from the opening.

"Indians 'round here must use this place on a regular basis," Tanner said.

"Oh, that's just wonderful," Ezra said on a sigh. "No doubt they'll drop in and want their firewood, and we'll be here instead. Who do you suppose, Apaches? I wonder what Apaches do to prisoners. I would be willing to wager it isn't pleasant, whatever it is."

"Y' wouldn't want t' know," Vin said, adding, "just keep y' up at night with bad dreams. Real bad…"

Ezra shot the tracker a glower that would have made Larabee proud. "Oh, most reassuring, Mr. Tanner. Thank you so much for that unwelcome nugget of information."

The two men fell silent for a few moments, then Ezra whined, "I am cold and hungry, and even with this cave for shelter, we cannot truly get warm, or acquire something to eat. How long can a man go without food? Winter lasts a while, you know."

"Snow'll let up… sooner or later. Indians survive out here, ranchers 'n' settlers, too."

"Yes, well, be that as it may, if that excuse for a horse of yours hadn't absconded with—"

"How many time I have t' tell y', Peso didn't steal yer damn horse."

An eerie wail echoed out of the darkness deeper inside the cave.

"What was that?" Ezra whispered, his revolver already in his hand.

"Don't know," Vin said, frowning, his Mare's Leg in his hands.


"Nope. Didn't sound 'xactly… human."

"What exactly did it sound like?"

Vin cringed as the sound echoed out of the darkness a second time. "Can't rightly say."


Vin shot the gambler a frustrated glare. "Look, y' want t' know so bad, why don't y' go find out? If it is a bear, y' can shoot it 'n' we'll eat it fer supper."

"I'm not that hungry. However, if you want to go have a look, I would be more than happy to prepare the fire."

Another wail drifted out of the darkness. "Well, whatever it is, it's gettin' closer," Vin observed.

Standish's eyes rounded. "What now?"

Vin thought for a moment, then said, "We wait fer it t' get here, or we go lookin' fer it in there… Or we head out 'n' face the snow out there again."

"That's it?"

Vin huffed out a breath. "It's three choices, what more d' ya want?"

"A fourth," the gambler said flatly.

A faint, cackling laugh drifted out of the blackness, followed by the dim trace of a torch fire.

"Y' see that?" Vin asked.

"I believe so," Standish said. "I have never heard of a bear carrying a torch, have you?"

"Only the two-legged kind," was Tanner's half-growled reply.

"Then it must be Indians."

Vin shrugged. If Ezra was determined to be paranoid, he might as well give him a few more options. Besides, he was getting tired of bears and Indians. "Maybe it's a crazy old miner, or a couple 'a desperate outlaws, or maybe it's—"

The light flickered off and the laughter faded while the men stood anxiously near their fire.

"Any other suggestions, Mr. Know-it-all?" Ezra asked.

"Yeah, one 'a us needs t' go back out there 'n' find out who it is."

Ezra wrinkled his nose. "I don't know. I have an uneasy feeling about this…"

"Don't 'xactly feel like jumpin' fer joy myself, but it might be nice t' know if there's a group 'a Indians back there tryin' t' decide which of our scalps they're going t' lift first."

"I suppose you're right. And I think we ought to be fair about this," Standish said. "We should flip a coin."

"Thanks just the same, Ez, but I know how that always turns out."

"Still, I think we should… just to be fair."

The tracker rolled his eyes and nodded, then waited while Ezra dug out a coin. "Call it," the gambler said, flipping it into the air.

"Heads," Vin replied.

Ezra caught the piece of silver and lifted his hand. It was tails. "Well, I think I was right, Mr. Tanner. My luck seems to be doing just fine. You're, however… "

"Hand me a branch I c'n use fer a torch," the tracker replied with a heavy sigh.

Standish bent down and rummaged through one of his saddlebags before picking out one of the longer, thin branches from the stack near the now well-burning fire.

"Y' gonna be at that all day?" Tanner asked, glancing a little nervously over his shoulder to watch the blackness.

Ezra ignored the remark, wrapping a bandanna he'd taken out of his saddlebags around the smoking black tip and tying it in place. Dipping the torch back into the fire he let the cloth begin to burn before he handed it back to the tracker. "Here," he said, the concern in his eyes saying all that was necessary.

"Hell, probably just the wind comin' through a crack someplace," Tanner concluded.

"Yes, well… be careful," Ezra cautioned, then watched the tracker disappear into the black void that lay just beyond the first twenty feet of the cave mouth. Occasionally the gambler thought he could see a glimmer from the torch, but it didn't last long enough for him to be sure.

After several minutes, he couldn't stand the silence anymore and called, "Mr. Tanner? See anything?"

There was no answer.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin eased into the darkness, thankful for the red-orange light the torch cast on the imposing stalagmites and stalactites. The formations reminded him of huge wolves' teeth, and he fought the urge to shudder. He honestly didn't think there were any Indians in the cave, planning to attack them, but something had made that sound, and someone had lit that light they'd seen.

A slight wind stirred the flame and Vin felt his heart quicken with the thought of losing the precious light. He cupped his hand around the fire and continued on deeper into the cave.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Mr. Tanner? Come on now, Vin, this isn't funny. Answer me!" Ezra called again. Where the hell is he?

The gambler looked back down at the fire that was now comfortably blazing and wondered if he should go in after the tracker.

Five more minutes, he decided. Five more and then I'll go looking. And if this is some stupid prank… I'll shoot him.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin stopped, straining to hear past the soft hiss and pop of the burning branch he carried. He was sure he'd heard voices a moment before, but now there was nothing.

He looked at the torch. Ten minutes, if I'm lucky, he concluded. It was time to head back to Ezra.

The tracker turned around and started back the way he'd come.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"That's it," Ezra said, grabbing up the second stick he had already prepared. Sticking it in the fire, he let the strip of shirt catch, then headed off.

"Vin, I'm coming in! Where are you?"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

There! Vin froze. He had heard voices!

Easing the Mare's Leg out of his holster, he let the weapon settle comfortably into his grip before he started forward again.

More than one voice, too. Ezra had been right; there was someone else in the shelter with them after all.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Standish knelt and held the burning branch close to the ground. He could clearly make out Vin's boot prints in the powdery dust that covered the floor of the cave. Standing, he walked several yards farther in, then repeated the procedure. The prints were still there, still going forward.

"Why am I doing this?" he asked himself.

But he knew the answer. Vin Tanner was a friend.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The branch was nearly consumed when Vin felt the cold hand descend onto his shoulder.

"Ahaaaa!" he yelled.

"Ahaaaa!" came an echoed reply.

Then several chuckles filled the space, echoing off the walls of the cave.

Tanner spun, bringing the Mare's Leg up only to find himself pointing it into empty blackness.

"Ezra?" he called. "That weren't funny!"

A strong gust of ice-cold wind wrapped around the tracker, snuffing out the flame and leaving him in pitch blackness.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Standish dropped the torch as he yelled. The cold hand on his shoulder was gone, but so was his light.

"Who's there?" he demanded in the blackness. The eerie laugh from earlier was his only reply. "Mr. Tanner?"

No, even if he was mad at me, Vin wouldn't… "Look, whoever you are, my friend and I mean you no harm. We were just trying to keep from freezing to death out in the storm."

Squatting down, Ezra felt around for the abandoned torch, his hand bumping into something hard and cold. He jerked his hand away, but then the gambler's curiosity kicked in and he investigated further, finding a lantern. He shook it and smiled, the sloshing sound telling him it was nearly full of fuel.

Rummaging through his layers of clothes to find the matches he carried, Ezra drew one out and struck it against the stone wall of the cave. He quickly lit the lamp and blew out the match.

Shrugging his shoulders against a cold wind that blew past him, Standish realized for the first time that it wasn't really all that cold inside the cave, not once he'd gotten away from the entrance. In fact, it was actually quite comfortable here.

The light cast from the lantern afforded him a better look at the cave, and the gambler was awed by the size of the place, and the weirdly-shaped rock formations that clung to the walls. He turned the flame down to conserve as much of the fuel as he could.

There was no sign of Vin.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin squinted as hard as he could, but it did nothing to improve his sight in the pitch black interior of the cave. The tracker had never experienced anything so totally black, and he fought to keep his fear from overwhelming him. It was like being blind.

Rummaging through his pockets, he cursed quietly at the lack of matches. Now what do I do? he thought silently. How c'n I find m' way back t' Ezra?

"Ez!" he yelled, more in frustration than in the hope the man might hear him.

"Vin?" came a faint reply.

"Ezra, c'n y' hear me?" he yelled again.

"Yes, I can. Keep talking, I will attempt to find you."

"Talkin'? Hell, Ez, 'm yellin'!"

"Well, keep yelling then," came the slightly irritated reply.

Vin grinned in the blackness. That was Ezra all right.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

After fifteen minutes of chasing echoes, Ezra was getting worried. What if he wasn't able to find Vin?

Could they find their way back to the mouth of the cave if he did?

Could he find his way back now?

"Vin!" he called.


"Keep talking, Mr. Tanner, I cannot find you by smell, you know!" Ezra snapped.

Vin grinned. "Ah hell, Ez, I run out a' things t' say a while back."


"Sing?" came the echoed response.

"Sing! Sing! It will keep you making noise!"

"All right, but y' better not make fun of me," Tanner replied before launching into a slightly off-key version of Simple Gifts.

The constant noise helped the gambler determine the right direction to take and he carefully maneuvered through the cave until he rounded a sharp turn and found the tracker across the space from him.

"E'ah!" Tanner hooted. The moment of excitation quickly faded when Vin looked down and saw he was only a foot away from a wide, deep crevasse that separated him from the gambler. He yelped and scurried back several steps.

"How'd you get over there?" Standish asked.

"Don't know."

Ezra frowned. "We must have taken two different paths, but I was following your boot prints…" he said, trailing off.

"Yeah, well, we both know what kind 'a tracker y' are, Ez. Maybe y' were followin' one 'a the other ones who's in here."

"Other ones? You saw someone?"

"No, but I sure as hell felt 'im 'n' heard 'im. Damn nasty laugh he's got, too."

Ezra shook his head. "Look, I might have a little trouble telling the difference between old and new animal tracks, but I do know boot tracks when I see them. Those were your tracks I was following."

"Well, I didn't walk on air t' get over here," Tanner argued. "How're y' goin' t' get over?"

"Me? Question y' should be askin' is how yer gettin' back over here."

"I was afraid you'd say that," the gambler muttered.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It didn't take the two peacekeepers long to determine that Vin must have walked on air to get across the space, as neither of their searches turned up another way around the impasse. The lantern was half-empty when Ezra finally re-joined the tracker with the bad news.

"What am I going to do?" the gambler asked.

"Don't know, Ez."

"You're sure I have to get over there?"


The gambler studied the crevasse. "Well, I suppose I have no alternative but to attempt to jump across it."

Vin nodded silently. The gaping hole was a good ten feet wide, probably a foot or two more, but it was safer to think ten. "Think y' c'n make it?"

"I don't see that I have much of a choice."

Vin nodded. "Take off yer jacket 'n' your boots. Y' c'n tie them up 'n' toss 'em over. That'll lighten y' up some."

Standish nodded and quickly stripped out of his sheepskin jacket. Prying his boots off, he laid them in the center of the coat. His gunbelt and revolver followed next, then his decks of cards and the Derringer rig. Folding the coat up carefully, he used his belt to cinch it closed. Standing, he took the free end of the belt and wound the bundle up and let it go. The lump sailed easily across the space and landed at Tanner's feet.

"Y' ready?"

Standish rubbed his palms along his thighs. "As I'll ever be…"

"Get a good runnin' start."

"I plan to."

"Try not t' land on the lantern."

"Mr. Tanner?"


"Will you please shut up?"


"That's all right."

Vin chewed on his lower lip while the gambler stalked several paces back into the darkness. The lantern clutched in one hand.

"Here I come!" Standish yelled as he rushed forward.

The lantern flickered again, then sputtered and went out just as Ezra reached the lip of the crevasse.


"Ezra!" Vin yelled as he heard the metallic clunk as the lantern hit and rolled to a stop against his boot.

Vin shook the lamp, then dug frantically through Ezra's jacket for a match with which to relight it. The pale light filled the cave and Tanner shivered. He was alone.


A soft moan echoing up from below was his only reply.

"Damn," the tracker breathed.

Without much thought, Vin scooped up the bundle, gripped the lantern tighter and walked to the edge of the crevasse. Leaning down, he shined the light in as far as it would go. On his side, the rock formation slopped off in a gradual, smooth arc, disappearing into the darkness. The other side was a broken, jagged, drop off. Sitting down on the edge, Vin gritted his teeth and allowed himself to slip off the lip.

Picking up speed as he slid down the rock face, Vin used the heels of his boots to slow himself down, but the slope gave way to open space and he soon found himself falling.

Vin landed with a thud, and a cloud of fine powder billowed up around him, prompting a sneeze. Standish lay sprawled nearby.

"Ez?" Tanner questioned, moving stiffly over to join the man. Reaching out, he checked the gambler for any broken bones, letting out half the breath he was holding when he found none.

Rolling Ezra onto his back, Vin frowned at the purple bruise on the man's forehead. "Hey, Ez? Damn. Wish I'd thought t' bring the canteen with me," he said softly to keep himself from worrying too much.

"Here ya go, help yourself."

Vin jumped, a small yelp escaping. He spun to find a rather old man squatting nearby. A lantern identical to the one he now had sat at the man's feet and he held out a canteen to the startled tracker.

"Huh, thanks," Vin said, stepping forward. "Meanin' no offence, y' understand, but who the hell are ya?"

The old man chuckled. "Call me Hank, son."

"Y' live here?"

The chuckle grew into a stretching giggle while Vin removed his bandanna, soaked it with water and applied it to Ezra's forehead, causing the gambler to groan.

"What do ya take me for, son, a complete fool? O' course I don't live here. I'm just visitin'."

"Visitin'?" Vin asked.

"Now, don't ya go tellin' me you and your friend there ain't here to do just like me."

"Get out 'a the snow?" Vin asked hopefully.

"Snow? Ya sure you didn't tap your noggin on the way down, yourself? Snow… I'm here for the gold, son! Gold! Ain't you?"

Vin shook his head. "Nope."

"Ya ain't?"

"Nope." Vin turned his attention back to Ezra when the gambler groaned a second time and shifted his legs.

"Mr. Tanner?"

"Yep. C'mon now, wake up, we got company."


"Ezra Standish, meet Hank." Vin looked at the old man. "Hank, this here's Ezra Standish, and I'm Vin Tanner."

"Ya sure ya ain't here lookin' for the gold?"

"Nope. Like I told y', we come in t' keep from freezin' t' death out there in the desert. We heard someone laughin' 'n' thought we'd better find out who it was 'n' got lost. That's all."

"Ya heard 'em?" the old man asked hopefully.

"Heard who?" Vin asked, helping Ezra to sit up.

"Why the ghosts, o' course!"

"Of course," Standish echoed, gently touching the growing lump on his head. "Ouch! Why in heaven's name did you turn the lamp off?" he demanded of the tracker.

"Turned–? Ez, I wouldn't turn the light off when y' was tryin'– 'M ashamed 'a y', thinkin' I could. 'Sides, you had the lantern, 'member?"

"Oh. I'm… I'm sorry, just… don't yell. This is worse than the morning after a jug of Kansas corn liquor."

Vin fought back a smile.

"Have you seen them varmints?" Hank asked.

"What?" Vin replied.

"The ghosts! Ya usually this slow, boy?"

Tanner ground his teeth together. "Look, Hank—"

"Well, there's three of 'em. Three of the meanest, ornery, foul-tempered spirits the good Lord ever missed sendin' to Hell."



"What is he rambling on about?"


"There are no such things… are there?" the gambler slurred before he slumped forward, Vin just managing to catch him before he landed on his face for a second time.

"Ez? Ezra?" Vin asked, shaking the man's shoulder slightly. The green eyes cracked open to glare at him. "How do y' feel?"

"Like I have been kicked in the head by a buffalo."

"Buffalo?" Vin asked with a grin he couldn't suppress.

"Well, something decidedly larger than a horse."

That brought a full-fledged smile to the tracker's face. "Y' must be gettin' better, yer complainin' again. Think y' could eat some beans?"

"Eat? Beans? Mr. Tanner, I'm so hungry I could eat boot leather."

Hank chortled.

"What, pray tell, do you find so amusing about my sorry situation?" Ezra asked suspiciously.

"Oh, just that I've done that a time o' two… eaten boot leather, that is."

"Well, if you don't mind, I think I'll take the beans this time," Standish replied, sniffing at the pot the old man was warming over a small fire.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The three men ate in silence, the two peacekeepers savoring their first real meal in three days. As Vin scraped the last of the gravy off his plate he asked, "C'n y' show us a way out 'a here?"

"Ya mean out of the cave?"

Tanner nodded. "Don't want t' spend the whole winter down here. No offense."

"None taken, boy. I'll be happy to escort ya back to the top in the mornin'."

"Morning?" Ezra asked. "How can you possibly tell if it's nighttime or daytime?"

The old miner tapped the side of his head. "I can feel it, right here."

Standish's eyebrows climbed. "Really?"

"Sure… that and them ghosts."

"The ghosts tell you what time it is?" Ezra questioned, his head starting to pound again.

"Well, they don't walk up and say, 'Hank, it's three o'clock in the afternoon,' but ya can set your watch to the fuss they kick up."

"Fuss?" Vin asked.

Hank stared at the tracker. "Boy, ya go 'round repeatin' everything a man says, he's gonna get right tired o' your company."

Ezra choked on his last bite of beans, drawing a glare from Tanner. "Sorry, it went down the wrong way," the gambler explained.

"What sort 'a fuss?" Vin asked, shooting the old man one of Larabee's I'm-feelin'-as-mean-as-a-snake glares.

"Why, all that wailin' 'n' laughin', o' course. Didn't ya get down here followin' 'em?"

"Of course," Ezra said.

"Well, there ya go. They start up just 'bout sunset and keep it up for an hour or two before they settle down fer the night. Then they'll start up again in the morning, just about sunrise, and pester me for another couple o' hours."

"Wonderful," Standish muttered.

"Hank," Vin said, "what makes y' so sure they're ghosts?"

"'Cause I ain't never been able to get near 'em. If they was real men, I would've found 'em long 'fore now. It's the ghosts of them men that was killed."

"Here?" Ezra asked, his gaze spontaneously darting around the cave.

"Naw, not here; in Winslow."

"Them bank robbers?" Tanner asked, the situation slowly fitting into place.

"Yep. I knew you boys knew about the gold!"

"Accordin' t' what we heard, the gold was never found. Y' mean yer here lookin' fer it?"

"O' course I am! Ya don't think I'd be in this here hole for no reason at all, now do ya?"

Vin smiled indulgently. "Hank, what makes y' think they left the gold here? If they were able to sneak out 'a the cave, don't y' think they'd hide the gold with 'em? There's a lot of territory 'tween here 'n' Winslow t' hide it in."

"Nope, they left that gold right here… somewhere. That fourth outlaw, the one that went to prison, he said they stashed the gold here."

Standish chuckled. "Of course he did, so everyone would be looking here and not where they really hid it. Then, when he gets out of prison, or escapes, he can go back and retrieve it himself."

Hank frowned. The two men were making far too much sense. "If they didn't hide the gold here, why are them three ghosts here?"

"There's no such thing as ghosts," Vin stated.

"Well, there sure is, son. Ya just wait 'til dawn." And with that the older man scampered over to his bedroll and drew a blanket up over himself, refusing to talk to the two peacekeepers.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Well, what do you think?" Ezra asked when he heard Hank snoring.

"I think we get him t' take us back t' the mouth 'a the cave 'n' we leave," Vin said, already having had his fill of mines, old men, and fanciful stories. "Tucson can't be too far from here."

"Vin… Do you think, maybe, that there might be ghosts in this cave? I mean, you must admit that there's been some pretty strange things happening here."

"Ezra," Vin said, sounding disappointed.

"Well, how do you explain how you got across that crevasse."

"I can't explain it."

"Well, neither can I. I just don't think we should rule out any possibilities, yet."

Vin snorted and shook his head. "Yer just interested in the gold."

"Gold is a fascinating topic, Mr. Tanner."

Vin stretched out near the fire, resting his head on his arm and said, "You 'n' the ghosts have a good night."

"That is not funny, Mr. Tanner."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was a high-pitched laugh that roused Vin from the dream he was having. As the last images of the saloon girl faded, he frowned. If that's Ezra, tryin' t' be funny, I'll flatten 'im.

He opened his eyes. Hank was still snoring nearby, but Standish was gone.

Scrambling to his feet, Vin quickly added a few more pieces of wood to the fire to rekindle the blaze. Maybe Ezra just had to— The thought was cut short when the eerie laughter swelled to fill the enclosed space.

Hank shifted in his bedroll and pulled the blanket down to peer out. "Shut-up, ya pesky, no-accounts! Cain't ya see I'm trying t' sleep!" The laughter died off. "Damn ghosts…"

Vin watched the man fall back to sleep before he took one of the burning branches and walked over to the nearest tunnel and called, "Ezra?"

A soft echo seemed to reply. Vin gripped the branch tighter and stepped into the tunnel, taking several steps before he called again.

"Mr. Tanner?"

"Where are y', Ez?"

"I don't know… exactly."


The voice that responded rang with barely-held-in-check anger. "Look, I had to—"

"'M comin' in a little farther, just keep talkin' 'n' I'll find ya."

"I remember what happened the last time we did this. You keep talking and I'll find you."

Vin shrugged and started. "Think we should be able t' get t' Tucson in a day. We c'n wire the others—"


"Ez?" Vin called. When there was no reply, he stalked forward.

"Hold it right there," a voice said, the circular press of a gun barrel between Vin's shoulder blades making him jump. "Get your hands up."

Vin slowly raised his hands. The man reached up and took the burning branch. In the pale light, the tracker caught sight of Ezra standing along the wall of the cave, one knee drawn up nearly to his chest.

"Let go!" Standish yelled at some unseen assailant. Vin watched in fascination as Ezra stomped his foot, then raised his leg to repeat the action. "Vin?"

"Ez? There's nothin' there!"

"Tell that to whatever has hold of my leg!"

Vin turned around to find no one standing behind him, either. "What the hell's goin' on here!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


The rough shake of his shoulder jarred the gambler enough to force him to blink. "Mr. Tanner?"

"Come on, Ez, we have t' keep lookin'. We're goin' t' freeze fer sure if we don't get t' that cave, and yer not helpin' much, draggin' along like y' are."


"Yer ears freeze?" the tracker asked. "That cave." Tanner pointed to a black spot in the middle of the otherwise white hillside. "The one I told y' about."

Standish shivered twice before he looked at his companion. "But we were in that cave."

"Ez, y' all right?" Vin asked, the concern in his voice serious.

"We were in there! Just a moment ago…" Standish trailed off, the utterly confused expression on Vin's face enough to convince him it was futile.

"We've been out here, freezin' ourselves blue, lookin' for that cave. Think y' must've been sleepwalkin', 'n' y' had some kind 'a dream."

"I did? Yes, well, I guess I did at that," Standish said, looking more than a little embarrassed.

"Well, come on, would y', I'm gettin' frostbit standin' out here."

The pair climbed the remainder of the way to the mouth of the cave, Ezra pausing as he reached the opening. Vin had stepped inside and was exploring the space that was still lit by the rapidly fading sunlight.

Taking a deep breath, the gambler stepped into the gray, snow-free space.

"Look at this," Vin said, holding up a handful of kindling. "Indians 'round here must use this place."

Ezra didn't respond, the comment too near to the one in his dream for his comfort.

Vin frowned. "What's the matter with ya? Y' look like y' seen a ghost or somethin'."

"Do not even think that!"

"What? Ghosts? Now, who'd believe in that nonsense?"

The two peacekeepers jumped, swinging toward the sound of the voice.

Hank cackled. "Well, it sure took you boys long enough to find the place!"

"Y' know us?" Vin asked, his Mare's Leg in his hands.

Ezra simply stood, looking too pale for the tracker's liking.

"Well, o' course I do, boy!" Laughter filled the space as the old miner faded back into the darkness.

"Hey, wait!" Vin called, lunging after him.

Ezra reached out to stop his companion.

"He might have food, or know where the hell we are, or—"

"He's a ghost," Standish stated.

"What? Aw, hell, Ezra, he's just an old miner. A crazy old coot, from the looks 'a things, but he's real enough. Now, one 'a us has t' go in there t' find 'im."

Ezra sighed. "Oh, we do, do we?"

"Yep," Vin replied.

"All right, we'll flip for it," Ezra said, having no intention of going anywhere, no matter what the outcome of the coin toss was.

The tracker thought for a moment, then, with eyes narrowed, he said, "Fine, but I reckon from the look on yer face we better use my coin."