Chapter 31

The next two weeks just fed the twins determination to keep Ours. His recovery had been rapid once he was able to walk around and regain his strength. Vin hadn't moved back to his old room yet because John Terrell convinced him that the twins would only leave their rooms to go looking for him. It was safer for all concerned if Vin stayed close to the twins.

The little girls knew their time was running out, and their parents still refused to let them bring Vin home with them. Their clever little minds came up with numerous and reasonable, in the minds of five-year olds, arguments in favor of their one desire. Alison and Alicia pointed out that Mommy and Daddy were keeping Jamie and Annabelle, so they should get to keep someone, too. Since Mommy and Daddy got to keep one each, the twins were perfectly satisfied they were being reasonable by asking only to keep Ours. They could have asked for Our Ezra, too. So they had begun working their wiles on anyone they thought could help them. They gave up on Our Chris the first day when he had told them categorically that Vin and Ezra, for that matter, weren't going anywhere. Knowing his mind couldn't be changed, for he was too much like their daddy, they moved on to Nathan.

Nathan responded that he couldn't let them take Vin to San Francisco because Nathan had to stay in Four Corners. He was the only doctor around that area. That meant Vin had to stay where Nathan was in order to keep well. The twins fell for that until they remembered their Uncle Doctor. Since he was a doctor too, Ours would be perfectly safe with the twins in San Francisco. Uncle Doctor could take care of Ours. Nathan couldn't counter that argument, so he just shrugged his shoulders at Vin and walked off.

That was two down and four to go as Vin began to feel desperate. He knew how to face a mob, a gun, murderers, thieves, but the thought of breaking the hearts of two adorable little girls was just something he couldn't do. He was beginning to resign himself to being the only kept man of twin five-year girls. His life was over. Hanging was beginning to sound like the only way he would be free from his beloved jailers.

Vin tried everything he could think of to alienate the twins. Better to have them hate him and want to leave him behind, than have to break their little hearts by telling them he couldn't go with them. They would never understand about the bounty, but nothing he tried worked. He growled at them. They laughed. He told them to go away, and they would show back up in a half-hour asking if he was feeling better, yet. He tried refusing to play with them, but they just ran off and grabbed JD telling Vin they would be back after advising him to take his nap. Then he wouldn't be so grouchy. Vin even made a big show of making over Annabelle. The twins just told him they were glad he decided to love their baby sister, too. In short if he bluffed, they called it. He finally enlisted Josiah as his spokesman.

Gathering the little girls on his lap, Josiah told them a wonderful story from the Bible about sharing. The twins pointed out to Our Chris as he walked in the door just as Josiah finished that he needed to listen to this story. When he asked what it was about, they told him it was a story about a man who wouldn't share. When Chris asked why he needed to listen to it, the twins told him that he needed to learn to share Ours. Our Chris couldn't expect to keep Ours for himself; he had to learn to share his friends. Our Chris didn't fall for it, although the twins thought it was the perfect argument for keeping Ours. Lisha and Lison shared it with anyone who would listen to them. Vin couldn't thank Josiah or Chris enough for their help.

As the day for their departure grew closer, the twins asked their mommy if Vin could have the room next to theirs at the new house in San Francisco. Unfortunately, they asked this question while Vin was having his first cup of coffee in five weeks. It was supposed to be a celebration in honor of the return of John Terrell and Judge Travis. Satisfied justice in Brecken had been done, the two men returned to Four Corners. Everyone watched in amused sympathy as most of the coffee went up Vin's nose and out as he choked on it. The twins were kind enough to pound on his back until he stopped coughing and his face was no longer as red as the shirt he was wearing.

That left Buck, JD, and Ezra as Vin's last hopes for freedom. JD took his chance at saving Vin. As desperate as he was, Vin let JD have a go at it. JD started out really well. He explained that although Vin loved the little girls, they all did, it just wasn't right for them to keep him. They nailed JD with two sets of wide blue eyes with just the hint of tears and asked why not. JD got all flustered and handed the question to Buck. Buck tried to explain that you just couldn't keep people like pets. The twins countered by asking Buck how many times Vin had been hurt while the six men had kept him in Four Corners. That's when Vin knew he was doomed.

Even Mary Travis leaned over from where she was sitting next to Alexandra and asked Vin if he'd been to San Francisco. He tried to stare her down for asking that in front of the twins, but she only smiled at him and patted his hand. Chris grinned at him from across the table. Vin decided then and there that Mary and Chris were perfect for one another. They both had a mean streak in them a mile wide. Serve them both right when they stopped tiptoeing around and finally got together.

Vin actually hadn't planned on shooting anyone until the next day. Vin was sitting on the bench outside the church Josiah was renovating, and John Terrell was lounging on the steps next to Chris. They were watching the twins and Jamie and Billy chase JD and Casey all over the inside of the building. It was a genial conversation until Buck and Ezra joined them. Nathan, Josiah and Judge Travis had decided to move their conversation outside and let the "kids" have the church. They joined the others on the steps. Buck pulled an empty chair from out of the church and sat down on it when the judge refused it.

"You got a plan yet?" Vin wanted to know what plan Ezra was going to use to extricate him from the twins without the threat of tears. None of the men fancied dealing with the twins' tears. Ezra just smiled an enigmatic smile, and dusted a spot on the bench next to Vin before he sat down.

"We may not have to deal with that. Mr. Wilmington just informed me that he has a plan that will work."

Vin leaned his head to the side and sent a skeptical look in Buck's direction. "Buck's got a plan? Is it any better than yesterday's?"

Buck was suitably affronted. "I didn't say I had a plan to keep you here. I just said I had a plan that would be good for everyone." He grinned at Chris who looked at Vin. Chris shook his head. He'd heard Buck's plan earlier, and he knew the tracker wouldn't like it at all. Neither would the gambler or JD for that matter. Chris had to hand it to him though. Buck had surpassed even Chris's wildest imaginings.

"See, I got it figured out. Instead of keeping you, John here can marry you off to one of the twins. Then he can marry Ezra to the other one. JD can marry Annabelle."

"Give me your gun." Vin held his hand out to Chris. When Chris shook his head no, Ezra promptly placed his derringer in it.

"Put that down and listen." Buck just didn't realize how close he was to being shot. Or, he refused to realize his danger, then maybe not. "The judge won't let you shoot an innocent man in front of him."

Vin and Ezra snorted, and Terrell smiled. Chris yelled for JD to hold the noise down in the church. They answered him with a chorus of giggles and squeals louder than before. John Terrell waited to hear the rest of Buck's outrageous idea. It was preposterous, but John just had to hear it all. He wanted to see how the others would retaliate.

"What are the advantages of marrying my babies to three gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, who are old enough to be their fathers? I would have to have an excellent explanation for my wife, you understand? She might object to the age difference." He grinned at JD who'd walked to the door and had been filled in by Nathan. The squeals and giggles continued inside the church.

"Well, sure they're gonna have to wait until the girls grow up, an' Ezra will be a little long in the tooth by then, but he'll age well. Look at his ma. An' Vin and JD, they'll be in their prime, ready to settle down by then." Ezra didn't like the long in the tooth comment. He wasn't that much older than Vin.

"Sides you don't have to worry about someone wanting them for their money." Vin looked at Ezra. Buck was actually beginning to make sense here. JD moved away from Buck and over next to Ezra and Vin. Buck continued, "Ezra can always spot any con man, an' Vin here can shoot 'em before the criminals can even get within spittin' distance of the girls. An' JD can arrest any one who's still alive."

Chris had his head down and was laughing silently when he heard his name mentioned. "And when Chris and Mary finally stop tryin' to avoid the obvious an' get married, the brides can live with them in the summer when they're not in school or with you. See, it all works out for the best."

Buck was sitting there beaming, extremely proud of the way he had just gotten the best of four of his friends at one time. Chris and Ezra exchanged looks with Vin and JD. They stood up in unison. Josiah moved out of the way as Nathan stood and shut the door to the church. The children shouldn't have to witness any more violence. Chris grabbed the right arm of Buck's chair and Ezra the left arm. Vin grabbed Buck's hat off his head, and JD helped Vin grab the chair's back legs as all four men heaved Buck into the water trough directly in front of them. As Buck came up soaking wet and sputtering water, the four men walked past him laughing all the way. Vin plopped Buck's hat on his wet head, and the other men on the steps got up and joined them on the way to the saloon. Buck's bellow of outrage brought Casey and the four children to the door of the church.

Lisha stated the obvious, "Our Buck, you're all wet."

Lison added, "Why are you takin' a bath out here?"

Casey and the boys just laughed as Buck stomped off shaking water everywhere threatening revenge.

Chapter 32

It was the day before the Terrells were to leave Four Corners. It had been exactly six weeks since Vin had been shot and baby Annabelle had been born. The seven were to escort the family to the nearest train depot where their private car would take them to San Francisco. They were having a goodbye party at the hotel. It was positively overflowing as practically everyone in town was there, and still no one had been able to convince the twins they couldn't keep Vin. All of the adults were wondering what they would do to avert the disaster that was eminent when the little girls found out they were not going to get their way this time.

Everyone dreaded the cries of disappointment when the twins realized they were not keeping Vin, everyone except Ezra that is. He alone had remained unruffled and unusually silent whenever the twins had approached him about taking Vin with them. He had listened to all their reasons, had pointed out the problems in a few of them, and even offered them his undying support. Vin had almost begun to wonder until he started watching Ezra closely. Chris had also been watching the gambler closely. He came to the some conclusion as Vin. Ezra was pulling a con on the little girls.

It was probably the hardest con he'd ever planned. Ezra had to convince two little girls whom he loved that they didn't want to take his friend home with them. It didn't really matter if he was trying to avoid hurting the little girls. What mattered was that he would still have to lie to the twins, something that he had scrupulously avoided until now.

Ezra had always avoided his conscience. Remorse was an emotion that was a liability in his profession. It was one he had managed to shove into the far corners of his mind, that is until he came to Four Corners. The six men who had been his companions for nearly a year, no the men who had become his family, had unleashed that little voice inside his head that actually questioned his less than honorable intentions. Unless he was using his skills to con some disreputable personage, Ezra often found his conscience rearing its head asking him pointed questions at the oddest of times. He was still his scoundrel self on the outside, but he was becoming a regular, he hated to even think it, 'Robin Hood'. He would go to his grave before he admitted it to anyone, though.

Now he had to extricate the tracker from the clutches of the twins. Vin and Chris (well everyone for that matter) thoroughly believed he could pull it off with the least amount of distress for the twins. Ezra was both humbled and impressed that the others would place such confidence in his skills. There had been times that Ezra had felt he didn't quite fit in, or that the others really didn't trust him. Lately though, he had begun to feel that he was actually a viable member of the group.

Some people might think conning two five year olds was as easy as taking candy from a baby. Ezra knew that it was the most difficult, especially if he ever wanted the children in question to ever trust him again. Besides, he'd had far too many lies to deal with when he was a child to inflict the pain they caused on the twins. He simply loved the little girls too much to do that, so he had to call on every skill he had to make the twins decide that Vin was kept from them in a fair and honest manner. Ezra had planned this to the smallest detail. The timing had to be perfect.

Every time Vin or Chris would start to ask him what the plan was, he would cut them off. Their apparent innocence in the endeavor would only serve to convince the twins that all was done with no trickery whatsoever, and Ezra really intended no subterfuge at all. It just would require all of his gambling skills in reading people to pull this off. He planned it so perfectly, that when the opening came, he set his plan into motion with the ease born of years of plying his craft.

Most of the townspeople had come and gone. The knowledge that Four Corners would be getting its own train depot and the Terrells were considering building a small house for visits had excited the people of Four Corners to no end. They went about their business with the promise of future dollar signs in their eyes. Safety no longer plagued their minds too much since the seven had proved that no one would harm their town while they were around. They left the goodbye party leaving everyone feeling quite genial and content with themselves, except for Vin and the twins. The suspense was killing him, and the twins had mentioned every five seconds what they would do in San Francisco as soon as they got there with Vin.

No one had succeeded in convincing them that they were not going to be able to keep Ours. They had taken to following him around the party telling everyone they needed to say goodbye to the former bounty hunter. The townspeople, who had finally discovered what the twins' intentions were, thought it was the most interesting thing that had happened in their town since the late Marshall had tried to throw the seven out. Most played along with the twins and told the embarrassed man that they would miss him. The ladies especially made a point of speaking to Vin, some just to be able to say that he had spoken to them in that shy but polite voice he had. Finally a desperate Vin informed Mrs. Potter that he would definitely not be going anywhere. The twins were aghast with shock. Since there were so few people left in the main room of the hotel where the party had been held, his protest had been heard by everyone. Ezra knew it was time to act. He moved into action just as the twins were getting worked up.

"Yes, you are!" Lisha practically shouted.

"You promised!" Lison pointed out.

"I did no such thing!" was Vin's exasperated reply. All three were getting ready to launch into a grand mall fight right in front of everyone. Alexandra Terrell put her hand on her husband's arm and Mary stopped Chris when both men would have intervened. Alexandra did so because she wanted this settled before she had to endure the journey tomorrow with two broken-hearted and, more than likely, wailing little girls. If they spent the trip crying and pouting, they would only upset Jamie and the baby. Mary stopped Chris because she knew that Ezra had something planned because she saw that look enter Ezra's eyes just as he walked toward the fighting trio.

"Ladies, ladies, is this anyway to behave at a social gathering? I can understand Mr. Tanner being out of sorts since his injury, but I have never seen my two favorite and beautiful young ladies ever behave in such an unladylike manner before. I do believe I am shocked." Even Vin had to stop and think about it before it sunk in that Ezra had just stopped him, an adult, from having a brawl with two five year olds. If there was a hole somewhere he could crawl into he would. His face must be a very bright shade of red against the dark navy shirt he was wearing. Vin caught Ezra's eyes and immediately straightened up. The con man was about to con Vin right away from the twins. He forgot about any embarrassment as anticipation coursed through his veins. Watching Ezra work was like watching Chris Larabee win a gun fight without ever having to draw his gun. Vin looked over and saw both Chris and Mary were anticipating the same thing. It didn't take long for a hush to run through the room until only the four people in the center of the room were the only ones who could be heard.

The indignant twins weren't aware of their audience yet. Lisha told Ezra in a shocked voice, "Ours just said we couldn't keep him."

"We can keep him, can't we Our Ezra?" asked Lison.

The twins looked at the con man like he was their last hope. Ezra smiled at them as he knew he was Vin's last hope right now. He couldn't wait to collect on this later.

"Ladies, there is only one way to do this fairly."

He sank to eye level with the twins. They nailed him with a skeptical look, but they were listening to him.

Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and held them out. "Ladies, high card keeps him." It was simple, to the point, and entirely left to chance. Vin almost passed out. Chris almost had a fit. Josiah, Buck, and Nathan had to make sure they were looking anywhere but at one another. JD stood there with his mouth open, and Mary and Alexandra were speechless. John Terrell's face lit up in unholy glee. He had a fleeting thought that he'd love to see Ezra in a boardroom facing some of the sharks Terrell dealt with on a daily basis. Nettie just patted Vin comfortingly on the back. She sure would miss her surrogate son.

The Terrible Two looked at Ezra, then Vin, then each other. This was going to be easy. They turned as one to their parents and Our Chris to see if this was acceptable. Before Chris could even utter the protest he could see on Vin's shocked face, John Terrell spoke.

"If it's the only fair way to decide who gets to 'keep' Vin, then I have no objections. Chris?"

"I guess if your daddy agrees, then so do I." He couldn't look at Vin, but he could feel the look that had narrowed and now sized him up as a target. He hoped to God that Ezra knew what he was doing, or they were both dead men.

He caught Ezra's eye and the gambler mouthed, "Trust me."

The twins looked up at Vin and noticed the rapid blinking and liplicking that indicated some serious thought on the tracker's part. They smiled and turned to Ezra.

"OK, but JD shuffles the cards, Our Ezra." They were five not stupid.

Vin's shoulder's drooped. He was doomed; he just knew it. JD gulped as everyone looked at him.

"Why me?" was his question. He didn't want to be in Vin's line of fire if the twins got the high card.

"You don't know how to cheat!" The twins answered in unison.

"So much for my innocent baby girls. What will you teach my children next, gentlemen?" Alexandra Terrell then held up her hand. "No, I'd really rather not know."

"Sometimes ignorance is bliss." Mary echoed Alexandra's sentiments perfectly.

Ezra winked at Vin. Vin rolled his eyes and said, "I need to sit down." He walked over to the chair by the window and flopped down. He refused to watch.

Chris and Buck began to laugh at Vin's apparent disgust at the absurd scene unfolding in front of him. They were gambling over him like he was a pile of money. Nettie and Alexandra walked over to sympathize with the tracker while the others gathered around while JD shuffled the cards.

Ezra spoke, "Let's go over this to be certain we all understand the wager." The twins stared at him. "Wager, it's what we are betting." The twins sighed in understanding. "Whoever draws the high card keeps Vin. Agreed?"

"Yes!" Ours was all the twins wanted.

"Now we shake hands. That means we accept whatever the cards say." The twins each shook Ezra's hand.

JD kept shuffling, but the twins were getting antsy. They wanted to choose now.

"It's 'nuf, JD." Lisha was ready.

"Now, JD." Lison agreed with her sister.

JD had only managed to shuffle the new deck twice before the twins demanded to draw the cards. That was one thing Ezra was counting on. A slightly shuffled new deck held better odds for him finding the higher card, especially since Chris and John were holding the twins at his level. They couldn't see the cards from the bottom, and if they drew from where they normally had in the past weeks, they were more likely to draw a lower card. Ezra had played this game over and over with the girls noting just what the odds were until he knew the exact conditions that held a winning card for him. He silently laughed at Vin for doubting him. Ezra knew just where to draw from the deck, and true to their nature the impatient twins drew right from their favored place. The girls had grabbed the same card. They held up a queen. Everyone held his or her breath. Vin put his head in his hands. The twins were smiling and hugging their daddy and Chris. Ezra put his hand out. Vin got up and crossed over to stand by the gambler. He couldn't stand the suspense.

"Will you just draw a card?"

"Patience, Mr. Tanner. Didn't your dear mother ever teach you its virtues?"

"Draw, Our Ezra." The twins didn't give a hangnail for anyone right now except Ours. They knew Our Ezra had to draw a king or a big "A". They had played the game enough with Ezra to know those were the only cards that could beat a queen.

Ezra picked the card and slowly turned it over. Vin almost passed out for the second time that day. The twins demanded to know what it was.

"Well!" said Lison.

"Do we get to keep Ours?" asked Lisha.

"Ezra?" growled Chris.

Ezra held up an ace of hearts.

The twins yelled, "No!" They knew, however, that they had made a deal, and everyone said a deal was a deal. They remembered Daddy saying, 'Once you shook hands; it was a done deal.' They didn't like it at all, but they weren't babies who cried just because they didn't get their way. Were they? One more try wouldn't hurt.

"Are you sure the big "A" beats a queen?" Daddy and Our Chris would never lie to them either. The two men solemnly nodded their heads yes.

The twins look at Vin. Tears were glistening in their eyes as they valiantly tried to hide their disappointment.

"We don't get to keep you." Lisha knew Vin hated tears.

Lison sniffled, 'We love you, but you have to stay here."

Vin knew exactly what to do. Say nothing, and just hug them. He grabbed both little girls in a bear hug. He mouthed a silent thank you to Ezra who touched his forefinger to where the brim of his hat would be.

Buck couldn't stand the thought his darlin' twins might be crying, so he did what he did best. Cajoling heartbroken women was his specialty. He enveloped the twins from behind and pulled them gently from Vin.

"Now, you aren't cryin' are you? Why that will make all of us uncles cry, an' that would be downright ugly. You know how I feel about ugly, don't you?"

The twins looked at Buck. "Ya hate ugly." They knew Our Buck didn't like tears any better than Ours or Our Ezra. Even Our Chris looked suitably distressed for them. Josiah, Nathan, and JD solemnly shook their heads that Our Buck was right about the crying, so the little girls had to sacrifice. They would leave Vin with their other uncles, and they wouldn't cry. Yet. Maybe Mommy and Daddy could be talked into a cat? And, there was always tomorrow. Ours could change his mind. They smiled at all of the adults. It made them all nervous, and the twins knew it.

"Who wants cake? It's chocolate." Miz Nettie always knew just what to say. Chocolate cake was their favorite.

"Does it have choclit icin'?' Lisha was pragmatic if nothing else. When there was cake, you had to eat it.

"We like choclit!" Lison shared her sister's sentiments. Chocolate always made disappointment easier to bear, but they still hadn't totally given up.


Alexandra remembered the promise she'd made in case this happened. "Gentlemen, Mary, Nettie, the twins want to invite you to their birthday party. It's three days after Christmas. Do you think we might arrange something in case you can't come to San Francisco?"

Vin and Ezra would have agreed to anything right then; they both felt guilty for having hurt the twins. Chris took one look at them and knew how they felt. He looked at the others. Then he answered for the seven and Mary and Billy.

"Wild horses couldn't keep us away."

Chapter 33

The group left early the next morning on the three-hour trip that it would take to reach the train station where the Terrell's private train was waiting. As Alexandra, Nanny Beth, Annabelle, Mary, and Dr. Connors rode inside the carriage, John Terrell rode Mary's horse along side with the seven. Billy had given up his coveted position with Chris in order to let Jamie ride with him. Billy didn't lose out, though. He rode with Buck. The twins were with the two men they always rode with. Lison was smiling and waving at everyone from Ezra's horse, and Lisha had Vin all to herself. The two little girls had consoled themselves with the fact that they would soon have not only Ours for Christmas, but they would have the other six as well. They had become very covetous of their seven protectors. If only they would come and work for Daddy, everything would be perfect. That was their next grand scheme. Girls could never be idle when there were so many adults' lives to plan.

The departure at the train was still filled with tears as the little girls decided if they didn't let go of Our Ezra and Ours, they wouldn't have to leave them behind. They were still hanging their heads out of the window, held firmly by Daddy and Mommy as the train pulled away. The twins were blowing kisses to the seven men, Mary, and Billy. Vin and Ezra sheepishly looked at one another, and then did what any other manly man would do. They pretended to catch the kisses. They turned to find the Buck and JD doing the same thing. Mary had this incredibly big grin on her face. Chris, Nathan, and Josiah grinned knowingly at their friends. Billy just looked disgusted.

Vin shrugged his shoulders at the kid and grinned. "Force of nature, kid. You just gotta thank God He put 'em here on earth."

Ezra just patted Billy on the head as he urged his horse ahead of Chris. "A gentleman should always leave a young lady with the impression that she is singularly the most important lady in his life."

"Hey, Buck and them were doin' it, too!" That was JD's story, and he was sticking to it.

"Females! You got to love them, boy!" Billy rolled his eyes at Buck's outrageousness.

The boy looked up at his idol. Chris grinned down at him. "One day, son, you're going to really like girls a lot. Trust me."

If Chris said so, then he saw the look that passed between his ma and Chris. Things might not be so bad after all.

The group stopped to have lunch and rest before they started home, and the train continued on to San Francisco. Nanny had no problem putting the four children down for their naps. Even the baby seemed tired from the ride to the train. Dr. Connors was also napping in a chair by the window. John and Alexandra finally had a moment alone where they weren't wondering or worrying about a child, a kidnapping attempt, preventing small hearts from breaking, new homes, trials, etc. They finally had a few moments peace in which to talk, and they used those few moments to discuss something that had been on their minds ever since Alexandra had heard of the seven men in Four Corners.

Before she spoke, Alexandra made herself comfortable in the big chair with her husband. "They wouldn't accept the money?"

"No, none of them would take a dime for themselves. Nathan allowed me to purchase and send for medical supplies and equipment, but it wasn't nearly enough. Josiah let me order supplies to help rebuild the church, but he took nothing for himself. He did allow me to purchase supplies in the twins' names for the reservation for winter."

"What about the others, John?"

"They all refused any money for themselves, but Ezra made a suggestion that Buck and the others agreed to if I promised neither Chris nor Vin would ever know of it."

"They want Vin cleared, and the man who had Sarah and Adam Larabee killed brought to justice?"

"Do you know why I married you?"

Alexandra laughed at her husband. "You married me because I told you to go away the first time I met you. I was a challenge."

"There was that and your beauty and brains." Alexandra acknowledged the compliments by pretending to hit her beloved husband with a cushion. "Most of all, it is also your uncanny ability to read people correctly. Melanie never fooled you, did she?"

"She never fooled you either, but get back to the point. What are we to do about these men? We like and respect them, our children adore them, and we owe them our lives. That is something no amount of money can ever repay."

"I think we do whatever we can to help them in ways they either know nothing about, or in ways they cannot refuse. The first step is to exonerate Tanner."

"How do we do that if Eli Joe is dead?"

"I have had the Pinkerton agency begin an investigation looking for any witnesses. They have already wired me that not everyone in Tascosa believes Vin Tanner is a murderer. Several lawyers say the fact that Eli Joe actually tried to kill Tanner makes Vin's story look more plausible. We wait for the reward and the investigators to turn up any evidence to dispute the case. They never had a real trial; the evidence for the case was circumstantial; we just need more doubt to muddy their case in Vin's favor. I have a very reputable lawyer from the town working on it. Now, we have to wait."

"But it's hopeful?"

"Yes, and if all else fails, I play the trump of the railroad leaving Tascosa behind for more favorable climates."

"John, that's blackmail. That may backfire on us."

"It's only a last resort, love. We try the legal way first, money under the table if all else fails."

"And Larabee?"

"I have the Pinkerton's looking into this one very carefully and discreetly. I know you want Mary with Chris, but we have to find out who would kill his family just to get to him.'

"Nothing will ever come of it if he thinks he will endanger Mary or Billy. You know that."

"Yes, I know that. My men will look into it without endangering anyone. If we can't use our money and power to help people we care about, why bother? Chris reminds me of Mark, only more responsible."

Alexandra leaned over and kissed her husband. "And that my dear is why I married you."

They were silent in each other's company for a while, but John wanted to know one more thing.

"Do you really believe it is him?"

"More now than when I first saw the sketch of him in that dime novel."

"Alex, your older sister is dead. You can't be certain it's him. Just because he looks like her."

"It's him. I knew it the first time I looked into his eyes. The way he talks about her, describes her, he has to be her son."

"A lot of men could fit that description."

"But the names are the same. The dates match the information we have compiled. It has to be him, even Uncle Neil believes it. He says he looks just like her, reacts just the way she did to things. He has her smile, her sense of humor. I know it's him, John."

"Then why didn't you tell him? Why not let him know you think you are his aunt? Why didn't you tell him you and your uncle have been looking for him since you received your sister's letter telling you she was dying and where you could find her?"

"Because the time wasn't right. He was worried about too many other things. This will change his life, and I don't know if he wants it changed. Maybe when we see him at Christmas and we can give all of them the news they want to hear, then maybe he will be happy to know he has family. The only family he knows now are his six friends. I can't and won't take that from him, John. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I do, and I trust your judgment, but maybe you should trust in the man he is. He might resent the fact you kept this from him. Have you thought about that?"

"I have, and it's a chance I will take. When I tell him, I want irrefutable evidence. I want to be able to answer every question he has, and I want him to believe and be happy about it. Will you help me?"

"Alex, my love, I'd do anything for you. Do you have to ask?"

As she leaned back in his arms getting more comfortable, Alexandra laughed. "No, but I do like to hear you say it anyway. John, did you see the look on Vin's face when Ezra pulled those cards from his pocket and told the twins 'high card' wins him? God, I thought I would die laughing." They talked well into the afternoon, sharing stories about the seven, magnificent men they had come to accept as their friends.