by Sevenstars

A table opened up and the quartet nailed it, Buck purposely shoving aside a trio of hopefuls; Vin turned piercing eyes on them as they ventured a protest, and Nathan shifted just enough to give them a look at the knife harness on his back. A waiter scurried up to take their order, returning moments later with a bottle and four glasses. "Yonder, cowboy," Tanner murmured as the man left. "Ain't that--?"

Larabee followed the direction of his friend's gaze and picked out another four-man group a few tables away. Three of them were young, in their twenties, wary-looking, range-dressed, with hard, expressionless, light-colored eyes that scanned the room constantly in an interlocking pattern like a trio of lighthouse beams; whiskey glasses sat before them but were barely touched, and their hands were as soft and well-kept as Ezra's. The fourth was perhaps forty, with very fair skin, receding brown-black hair and a matching beard clipped in the style of Ulysses S. Grant, deep blue-gray eyes. He wore a brass-buttoned blue suit coat above tight-fitting gray pants running smoothly into highly-polished high-heeled boots--not Western boots, but the kind an Easterner would choose. An octagon-link double-plate gold chain crossed a vest checkered black and white and gray over an elaborately tucked and hemstitched linen shirt, with a silk scarf tied in a four-in-hand knot at the collar and held by an eighteen-karat sulphate-of-copper pin. A cameo ring with two clasped hands on it decorated the hand that lay beside the table's whiskey bottle and the hand-blocked silken felt hat that would have set a cowboy back six months' pay. What marked him out, over all, was his thin acquisitive Yankee nose, the broad streak of white hair that reached up from his left temple where it had grown back over an old saber lick, and his nervous habit of constantly turning his empty shot glass over and over in his fingers, occasionally tapping it gently against the tabletop when it began to slide down in his grip. Darcy's description had been exact.

"Looks like he's fetched along some help," Buck murmured. "Them three ain't packers."

"Bet you what they is, is who run Miss Darcy's mules off," Nathan agreed.

Buck's eyes flashed and his lips drew tight a moment. "All right, Chris," he said, catching his old partner's frown. "I know we ain't got nothin' to nail 'em by, that's why we're havin' to do this like you said. Don't mean I gotta like it."

"If Blackner's here," Vin observed quietly, "reckon Miss Darcy'n'them gotta made it too. Lessen he fetched 'em some kinda trouble since we left 'em."

"Not too likely, not on a well-travelled trail in broad daylight," Chris reminded him. "Miss Cullin's probably been held up seein' to her cargo, makin' delivery, collectin' her pay and seein' it's put away somewhere safe. If she's in town, she'll be along. She knows how she has to play it."

"You reckon she will?" asked the tracker, whose experience with, and knowledge of, white women was severely limited by his raising and his characteristic shyness.

"I trust her to go along with a plan just like I'd trust Mary, and for the same reason," his friend replied. "She wouldn't have gotten as far as she has if she was stupid, and the way she dealt with that rattler nest shows she can see what has to be done in any given situation."

Vin nodded slowly. He understood that. He trusted Mary as well, trusted her to keep the secret of his illiteracy until he had conquered it. He respected her courage and defiance of convention. Respected Darcy's too. He sensed that Darcy, like himself, knew what it was to stand on society's edge, to fight for acceptance and yet be resolved not to give up on the core of who she was. JD had told the tracker of her brief marriage. Vin hadn't the smallest atom of doubt that it had been a marriage of love and mutual respect. Losing her man must have damn close to killed her. Having him had been the only thing that had made her willing to accept even a kind of conventionality. She probably wouldn't have gone back to the packing business if he had lived. Yet Vin could imagine her as a loyal and indispensable wife and a hell of a mother. She'd have fought for her young with the ferocity of a grizzly--or Buck Wilmington protecting "his" Kid. She'd have taught them to stand up for themselves, to be whoever they were, and not to be afraid--of life, of anything on two feet or four, of failure or censure or anything but the prospect of being less than they had it in them to become. Vin liked that.

The little water-blister of disturbance the four had created by their entrance melted back into the whirlpool of activity that was the Varieties. Half an hour or so passed. The regulators settled into the place they had selected, maintaining a quiet awareness of all that went on around them, keeping an unobtrusive eye on Blackner's table and on the door. Presently Ezra's game ended and the gambler raked in the cards, squared them and began shuffling. Vin caught Chris's eye on him, inclined his head by the barest fraction, rose and slipped out through the crowd like a wisp of smoke. Ezra caught sight of his buckskin back disappearing out the door and laid down the deck. "Gentlemen, if you will be so kind as to deal me out for this hand?" He scooped his chips into his coat pocket and edged his way toward the batwings.

The rain had ceased, but the activity level on the street was only slightly diminished. Ezra drew in a deep breath of cool, damp air. He was reminded of Cheyenne in '76. It had been the trailhead for the goldfields of Deadwood, south terminus for the Black Hills Stage Road, where hopefuls disembarked from the Union Pacific--and also the headquarters for the burgeoning north-range cattle business, the goal of fully half the trail drives from the Wyoming and western-Montana ranges. The mingling of two kinds of economy had given it a pulse all its own.

The Southerner drew his gold cigar case out of his inner pocket, pausing a moment to wryly scan the gilt lettering on the blue velvet lining, which spelled out the name of the St. Louis tobacconist's shop where he had purchased it. Another life, he thought, and found he was no longer as eager to return to it as he had been a year ago. No longer eager at all, if the truth were known--and however much he might con others, Ezra Standish made it a point to be honest with himself. He drew out a mellow black cigar, stuck it in his teeth while he snapped the case closed and returned it to its place, snipped the end off it with the gold cigar cutter on his watch chain, and reached into his pocket again for the silver match case with his intertwined initials engraved on it--a Christmas present from his mother over a decade ago. In the flare of the match his peripheral vision caught a patch of light brown back in the shadow between the alley mouth and the front window of the Varieties. "Good evenin', Mr. Tanner," he drawled softly, not turning around. "You appear to have been somewhat delayed in your arrival. I had expected to see you no later than sundown."

"Nate's horse throwed a shoe," Vin replied.

"Ah. I comprehend. I trust that all else proceeds without difficulty? That Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Dunne are emplaced as was agreed, and Miss Cullin is either in town or will shortly be so?"

"Chris figures she's in, just bein' held up makin' delivery of her goods. You see Blackner?"

"Indeed. He and his entourage entered the establishment at approximately seven o'clock; I presume they had been occupied until then with acquirin' lodging and sustenance."

"He's waitin' on her too," Vin said.

"I concur. We believe him to have been still to the rear of her position when I departed; havin', as he did, a greater number of mules, his caravan would inevitably be somewhat retarded in its advance. He would have no positive means of ascertainin' the effect of his latest delayin' tactic upon her unless, and until, he was assured that she had arrived here."

"Seen a outfit I reckon was his comin' up trail ahind her yesterd'y," the tracker told him. "You find out anythin' about him yet?"

"My dear friend, I have been in this bustlin' metropolis for some twenty-nine hours now. I admit that there is much of its underlyin' texture of which I remain unappraised, but as to the questions whose answers I came here to seek--surely by now you know my skills well enough to realize that I have had time and to spare to do my part?"

"Didn't mean no 'fense, Ez."

"And none was taken."

There was a pause while Vin allowed the gambler the chance to sift through the information he had gathered and organize it for coherent presentation. When he first met the others, he had been unable to understand Ezra Standish. It had seemed impossible that he could have anything at all in common with the languid, fancy-dressing, fancy-talking Southerner. But gradually he had come to realize that they were really much alike. Ezra too had had to learn to be constantly aware of his surroundings, to pick up on subtle clues, and to draw quick, accurate conclusions from what he observed. He had had to train himself to the habit of physical courage. He had had to learn to think fast and act faster, to reason with diamond clarity, and to follow his instincts. In a life filled with ups and downs, he had taught himself to meet and learn from the downs and profit by the ups. His fastidious ways masked a stern practicality, almost a fatalism. He could read people as well as Vin could read sign. And he was a lot tougher, both physically and emotionally, than he looked.

What was almost more important, he and Ezra had pasts that matched in significant ways. They had both grown up effectively alone in the midst of other people. They both found it hard to trust. They both had deep insecurities, an underlying, lingering expectation that, in the end, the others might some day find reason to turn on them. Their dignity and independence meant a lot to them. They were both looking for a home, acceptance, a place where they could be wanted and liked for just the men they were, where their special gifts and talents were needed and appreciated. Yet they had a great, quiet pride, they lived each by his own individual code (no matter how incomprehensible those codes might be to others), and once their loyalty was gained they would defend the objects of it to the death.

Vin doubted he would ever understand Ezra completely. His relationship with his mother, for one thing, bewildered the tracker, who revered the memory of his own as Josiah revered his saints. Yet he had come to count on the Southerner and to like him. Chris was, and would always be, his best friend, the one with whom he shared a mystic, soul-deep understanding such as he would never have believed could exist if anyone had ever tried to describe it to him. He and Chris were brothers, not by blood but on a far higher level; each of them supplied something the other desperately needed. But Ezra...Ezra was, in some sense, Vin's mirror image. Under the dimples and the green eyes, the leisurely cackle and innocent gold-toothed smile, there was a lonely child. A child that defended itself with a cloak of nonchalance and high-flown language and disinterest in everything but monetary gain. A child too often hurt, abandoned, ignored--afraid to get close, afraid to care and trust. Vin knew what that was. He'd been there. Ezra had been slowly drowning in his own loneliness and despair until Chris gave him a chance--and then a second chance. Vin would never forget the look in the gambler's eyes after Chris had told him, "Don't ever run out on me again." Again. Larabee hadn't even known, then, about Judge Travis and what waited in Four Corners, yet he had assumed that there was more to come and that Ezra would be part of it--would want to be part of it. And even though it had taken a threat to his freedom to set him on the road, Ezra had. He'd stayed on even after the Judge pardoned him, and done his job and sometimes more than his job. He had found at least two people in the world--Chris and the Judge--whom he could genuinely respect. On occasion he balked and fought, resisting union with the others. He seemed to think they expected him to change. What he didn't understand was that he already had. Or perhaps he had simply become, openly, what he had always been. The potential had been there, deeply buried under layers of cynicism and sarcasm (Vin had never really known what sarcasm was, till he met Ezra). But he had found the place he had been meant for, the job he was born to do, just as Vin had. He would never be able to fit in completely, any more than Vin would be able to live always in town without having to get out at intervals and revitalize his spirit by communing with the wilderness that had been his comfort since boyhood. There was a dark introspection under that casual, devil-may-care attitude. He would always wonder, on occasion, if he was conning himself into believing he was something he wasn't. He would always feel, deep inside, that the others, given sufficient cause, would betray him, turn their backs on him, that he was the one who would be sacrificed if things went badly enough awry. He didn't understand yet that Chris had more endurance than that--and that he hated to lose almost as much as the Southerner did. All he knew was that the pattern always ended the same way, in loneliness and despair. Even that pain had its own comforting, familiar boundaries.

All his life Ezra had been either tolerated or used as a tool to reach the ends of others--but they had never promised him anything more than that. He had learned that he had value only so long as he was useful. He believed he understood how things worked. Everyone was out for number one. Love, friendship, loyalty, were transitory at best, outright lies at worst. You needed to be able to counterfeit them as you did sincerity, yet remain untouched by them. Relationships did exist; they could start slowly or quickly, but always they burned brilliantly for a short time and then fizzled and dimmed. All things ended in their time, even--especially--good things. In the end there was pain and aloneness. Survival came first, last, and always. Anyone who disagreed was foolish and naive. Such were the beliefs on which Ezra had built his life. His insecurities went deep. They had shaped the man he was--the man who could fill a role none of the others could. And so they had value.

Since he had settled in Four Corners, he had made it his business to ensure that honest games were played there. Once, right after he bought the saloon, he had said that "the only individual permitted to cheat in my establishment will be myself." He might not own the place any more, but he still didn't--unless he saw someone else being taken for a mark. His skill was enough. It kept him warm and dry and well-fed, and it brought him respect. And security. Chris had given him protection, direction, and a kind of friendship when he had none. The others had fallen into line. Ezra would be mortally insulted at the comparison, but Vin couldn't help thinking of how, if you offered scraps to a starving dog, you would have a loyal companion for life.

Buck was the one who was always ready to offer the Southerner his trust and support, simply because, to Buck, loyalty was the core virtue, the one from which all others sprang. JD liked him because Ezra always treated the kid as an equal, a vital part of the team. A bond existed between him and Josiah because both of them were intelligent, well-schooled men who had spent their lives searching and questioning--Josiah struggling to understand the nature of God, Ezra to find something he could depend on, someone who wouldn't leave him to twist in the wind alone. But between the gambler and the tracker there was a connection that was belied by their outward differences, yet couldn't be denied by either of them. Both of them understood what it was like to be the odd man out, despised and distrusted--Ezra for his cons and skill, Vin for his years among the Comanches--watching from the outside and never really venturing in to join the rest, yet aching for the chance to do so. Both had always been alone--well, maybe not always, but from an early age they had learned that everything in life was transitory.

Yet Ezra was a fighter. He was a warrior among his kind as Vin had been among the Comanches, as Chris and Buck had been in the hierarchy of gunfighters and Union officers, as JD had been with the other, bigger boys, as Nathan had been among slaves, as Josiah had been in the priesthood and in a dozen wars in as many lands. Sometimes defeat and resignation might tempt him, but in the end he would always go down scrapping--and, given a chance, not alone. No one he perceived as "the enemy" would be permitted to see how much he was hurting. And that was what gave him his place among them.

Vin knew, too, that Ezra approved of the plan Chris had originated. It appealed to the con man in him. Maude would be proud. Her "darlin' baby boy" was wearing off on his associates. All this time she--and he--had thought they were trying to change him, when in reality it was they who were accomodating him. Somewhere along the line his dirty, underhanded, bottom-of-the-deck double-dealings were becoming an accepted part of their repertoire. Or perhaps it was simply that all of them were changing, learning from each other, learning indeed to work together, becoming a sort of seven-headed, fourteen-armed, fourteen-legged but single-minded entity that always knew it could depend on all its component parts, that didn't have to hesitate over the other fellow being there because each of them knew he would be there, because he always was. You don't have to look at your right foot to know it's there. You know what it can do, and you allow it to do that, because that's what it's suited for. Each drew from the rest--strength, support, ideas, observations. Sometimes there were difficulties in communication--most especially, with Ezra, between himself and Nathan, himself and Chris. But on the deepest level they no longer mattered. What mattered was the bond, forged and tested in a score of fights. Together the seven of them, in only a little over a year's time, had been through more than most men ever dream of in a lifetime.

"What you think of her, Ez?"

The gambler, drawing slowly on his cigar, coughed as the rhythm of his breathing caught momentarily. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Tanner?"

"Miss Darcy. She ain't like nobody we've met till now, not even Casey. JD done told me you close to fell all over yourself with Southron charm first time you met her. Said you's grumblin' like a ol' bear till you seen her. Said you's talkin' books till me'n'Chris got there."

"Young Mr. Dunne ought to learn to mind his business," Ezra complained. "I find that attention to mine occupies my entire store of both diligence and opportunity."

Vin shrugged. "Just askin'. You don't gotta answer iffen you don't care to, pard."

Ezra took the cigar out of his mouth and contemplated its glowing end thoughtfully for a moment before carefully removing the ash. "I assure you, once again, I take no offense. It was merely the unexpectedness of the question." A pause. "She is, indubitably, an original. She has a surprisin'ly fine mind. She is close to the expert level as a poker player, if not indeed on it. She is also clearly a businesswoman and a discernin' and perceptive judge of human character. I believe Mother would find much to approve of in her. Mother, like myself, has passed her life skatin' on the edges of convention; she appreciates those who have the courage and creativity to do likewise." He chuckled lightly. "Had anyone proposed the possibility to me a year or two past, I would have laughed them to scorn, but I believe I genuinely admire her."

"Buck's gone as hell on her," Vin observed. "Not like he is on Inez, more like if she was his kid sister. He ever gits his hands on Blackner's neck, it'll take me'n'Chris'n'Josiah to haul him off. 'N'JD, iffen him'n'Bucklin hadn't already done 'dopted each other, he'd be thinkin' she knowed just about ever'thin' there was to know."

"And yourself?" Ezra prompted gently. "Turn about is fair play, after all, Mr. Tanner."

"She'll do," was the laconic reply.

Ezra nodded. He knew that was an abbreviation for "do to ride the river with," a phrase originated on the early cattle drives up from the tracker's native Texas. Crossing a big herd over a river in freshet was the next hazard to a night stampede: high water, quicksand, treacherous banks, muscle cramps, suckholes, undercurrents, swift water, floating logs, and the ever-present danger of a midstream mill made the operation a threat to even the most expert swimmer. It took courage to face up to the possibilities and skill and imagination to cope with them--traits Vin, as a hunter of beasts and men, would also have found valuable. "Indeed," he agreed. "Well, we shall see if our combined expertise is not up to the task of relievin' her of Mr. Blackner's continued harassment. Now, as to the man himself--"

"What you got?" Vin asked at once.

"His reputation as a freight carrier is well known," the Southerner began. "Despite his fascinatin' habit of collectin' lesser companies, he apparently refrains from any attempt to charge his clients more than the traffic will bear. He delivers his cargoes on time and undamaged, pays his employees well and allows them considerable autonomy. This is, indeed, only the second occasion on which he has been known to pay a personal visit to the camp; the first was last season, soon after the larger minin' concerns had commenced their excavations. It is generally agreed that he wished to assure himself of the community's viability. There is, however, some hint of a link between himself and Roger Halkett, who superintends the Tam o'Shanter property, the second most lucrative deep shaft in the gulch. The informed money is on the likelihood that he will secure the contract to move at least that mine's refined ingots, if no other's."

"What kind'a link?" the Texan inquired.

"That I have not yet determined," Ezra admitted, "although I believe they may have either attended the same institution of higher learnin', or served under arms in the same Yankee regiment. Halkett is unmarried and maintains a suite at the Pacific Hotel, where I also am currently lodged--you may wish to inform Mr. Larabee that my room number is 107. I have some hope of initiatin' personal contact with him, possibly at suppertime, or even professionally; he is known to be a follower of chance and frequents the card rooms both here and at his hotel with dependable regularity."

"Where's Blackner stayin' at?"

"The Empire House, which is the other first-class hostelry in the camp, albeit somewhat smaller," the gambler replied. "At least one of his, shall I say, security officers shares his suite there; where the other two are domiciled I have not attempted to determine."

"Best keep clear of them three. They's sidewinders," was Vin's blunt estimation.

"You need not appraise me of that, my friend. I have encountered the type on numerous occasions in my wanderin's, and not merely in the line of duty." He paused a moment, then added, "The cost of livin' in these environs is quite outrageous, and I know that you gentlemen possess a deplorable honesty which tends to somewhat restrict your level of income. The tables have been kind to me since my arrival, and as I am here in at least a semi-official capacity, I consider it only reasonable that some portion of my profits should be employed in the furtherance of the mission we are all resolved to conclude." He reached into his coat pocket. "Here is four hundred dollars in house markers. That should be sufficient to provide all of you with the basic necessities for several days. You need not cash them in if you prefer not to draw attention to yourselves; they lack value outside the gulch, but within it they are accepted everywhere as legal tender, bein' custom-produced and marked with the name of the establishment." He glanced sharply around to make sure the exchange wouldn't be observed before turning casually and holding out his hand. Vin quickly accepted the offering and dribbled the celluloid discs into his coat pocket.

"Thanks, pard."

"You need not express any such sentiments to me, Mr. Tanner. Regardless of my profession, past or present, I continue to consider myself a gentleman. Mr. Blackner clearly is not, or he would permit Miss Cullin the uncompelled opportunity to decide whether she wishes to divest herself of her business." He straightened against the post that supported his shoulder and tossed his cigar aside. "Speakin' of whom, I believe I discern her approachin'. Mr. Sanchez's proportions and Mr. Dunne's distinctive headgear are, in combination, quite unmistakeable. We had best return to our posts and prepare for the next act in the drama."

Vin nodded. "Watch your back, Ez."

"The same to you, my friend, and to Mr. Larabee and the others." Ezra straightened his jacket, took a last deep breath of clean air, and pushed back into the Varieties. Vin gave him a moment and followed.


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