by Sevenstars

At the gunfighter's impatient nod, he continued. "In order to clear your names, we must somehow contrive to extract either a written and signed confession, or an officially witnessed oral one, from Blackner. Should any of you attempt to explain what we know to Pennoyer or his deputies, the odds are against their listenin'. Blackner has seen Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Dunne in Miss Cullin's company, believes them to be in her employ, and is unlikely to accept them as disinterested parties. But myself he knows as a professional gambler and therefore as a financial opportunist. If I confront him and demand that he purchase my silence, he will have no reason to suspect a trap. Meanwhile, we will have arranged for one of the deputies to be at hand, and I will maneuver Blackner into admittin' his act."

Josiah glanced at Chris. "It can work, brother. Remember, 'The guilty flee where no man pursueth.' "

"And if we hand the arrest to a deputy instead of Pennoyer," Nathan added, "the mine owners might take it in their heads to back a new sheriff. You promised Pennoyer you'd bring him down. This is the best way to do it. Don't shoot him--shatter them political dreams Ezra told us he's got, and leave him alive to know he's ruined."

Vin said nothing, but the light in his eyes, when Chris looked around at him, was one of unholy delight in the subtlety of Ezra's plan. "Where do you figure to set the meet?" the gunfighter asked.

"The Pacific Hotel, where I am stayin', possesses its own barn for the horses of guests. Since it is private, evenin's seldom see any noticeable activity around it, as they might in the vicinity of a public boardin' stable. I shall see to it that the night hostler is provided with a gratuity sufficient to tempt him from his duties. There is a capacious grain locker and an even larger saddle room where the deputy may conceal himself. If you believe I may require backup, or merely desire the satisfaction of bein' present, the loft will provide an agreeable location for you to give ear to our exchange without the law's minion bein' aware of your presence and seekin' to re-arrest you."

Larabee nodded thoughtfully. "It sounds good." He smiled coldly at the Southerner. "Like you said last night, 'the devil's in the details,' right?"

"Precisely so," Ezra agreed smugly. "While Blackner and his wretched underlings--" he almost spat the words out, shooting a glance at the dead livestock-- "are absent from their lodgings today, I shall deposit a note under his door. I am already mentally draftin' its contents, and I can assure you it will leave no doubt in his mind as to the power I wield over him. The authenticity of my knowledge and my trained facility at prevarication should be sufficient to lower his guard to the point that he will not hesitate to condemn himself out of his own mouth."

For a moment Chris wondered at the gambler's willingness to volunteer for the job. He might be the one best suited to it, as he had already pointed out, but Larabee still sometimes thought about how he'd run out at the Seminole village. On the other hand, that hadn't really had anything to do with his personal courage; a professional gambler had to possess that quality, because every time he sat down at a poker table he ran the risk of his skill or his cheats getting him into a gunfight. It had been, rather, a matter of the prospect of financial gain--which Ezra had never suggested he didn't desire--over what had probably seemed an unnecessary and overcautious routine. From the first Chris's highly trained perceptions of human character had seen something in the gambler, some potential even Standish hadn't realized was there. That was one reason he'd been willing to take a chance on him at all. And, now that he stopped to think about it, he realized that this was hardly the first occasion on which the Southerner had freely offered to place himself in a pivotal role. He had taken on the mantle of a Mexican "Pablo Revere" of sorts during the James excitement, a stage driver when the Seven were trying to protect Billy Travis, even a woman when they needed to extract Mary from Wickes's clutches. With grim amusement the gunfighter wondered if there might not be a frustrated actor somewhere within Ezra's personality.

"All right," he said, nodding. "Set it up." The unspoken words I trust you brought a sudden new gleam to the smaller man's emerald eyes. Chris looked at Darcy, still struggling to deal with her loss and not disgrace herself in the process. "Buck, Josiah, take care of her."

"No!" Darcy pulled out of Wilmington's unprepared arms and whirled to face him. Her voice was even, without any hint of hysteria, but thin and tight with fury. "I'm done playing by Blackner's rules, Mr. Larabee. I'm done with sneaking around in the dark and hiding behind other people. Damn you, I'm better than he is! And I'm not some helpless little Eastern piece of fluff that needs looking after! This was my trouble from the first and it's mine still. He's gone too far now. He's struck at innocent creatures that depended on me to care for them and keep them safe. He's done me the same way someone would be doing you who used Buck, or JD, or Vin as a weapon against you, and by all that's alive on this world, he won't do it any more!"

"Mr. Larabee," said Ezra gravely, all the mockery gone out of his eyes and the casual note out of his quiet drawl. "Miss Cullin makes a valid point. This--this--" for a moment even his prodigious vocabulary almost failed him, or perhaps it was simply the depth of his emotions-- "barbarous despoliation strikes at the heart of who and what she is, at her ability to carry out the profession she has chosen to follow, at her responsibilities toward the animals--and people--whose guardianship is her duty. You cannot in honor deny her the right--and it is a right, not a privilege--to see her enemy brought to his knees." For a long moment the two pairs of green eyes met, and Chris saw something in Ezra's that he hadn't seen since the day Cletus Fowler rushed into that burning barn rather than allow the name of his employer to be forced out of him. He didn't mention Sarah and Adam; he didn't have to. Larabee knew they were what he was thinking of. Darcy's loss might in no sense compare to his own in magnitude, yet on its own level it was not dissimilar. He understood something of what she was feeling. Innocent animals had died, in terror, understanding nothing of why, because she, whom they trusted, had made an enemy. It was her duty to settle the score. Though the law might not see their deaths as murder, as it did those of Chris's family, she did, and she would far rather know that the man who'd paid to have them killed was headed for a noose than simply win a civil judgment from him. The gunfighter thought again of the easy way she'd taken charge last night, no bluster, no overt domination, just the personality of a natural leader doing what it did best, what it had been made to do. It occurred to him that he and Darcy were more alike than he had ever thought possible. And that he respected her as he did few men and fewer women--not because he thought himself superior to the general run of humanity, but because experience had shown him that, while every individual had certain gifts, those that made a leader were the rarest of all. There were obligations--of honor, if a man wanted to use that word--that went with being a leader, as there were obligations that went with choosing to head a family. Whether you were male or female didn't really have anything to do with it. He knew it, and Darcy knew it. He met her stormy eyes and acknowledged that understanding without a word passing between them. "What have you got in mind?" he asked.

"Ezra's right about Pennoyer and his deputies not listening to you," Darcy told him. "But once I report this, they'll have to admit that I've lost valuable property and have cause to bring civil suit against whoever's behind it. If two men who 'work' for me--" and she nodded to Josiah and JD-- "say they can prove who that is, they should be able to get the law on the scene when we need it."

"But you'll be there too," Larabee guessed.

"The only way you'll keep me away," she replied grimly, "is to get me arrested--and you don't dare show your faces in camp till we get Blackner." A thin humorless smile crossed her face. "You need me for this as much as you do Ezra, and I'm not getting cut out of the deal."

"No," the gunfighter agreed quietly, "you're not."

+ + + + + + +

The note Ezra slid under the door of Blackner's room at the Empire House, while couched in his usual elaborate prose, was surprisingly to the point:

Mr. Blackner--

I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to acquire knowledge of some six million motives for the recent tragic murder of Roger Halkett. Unless you desire me to disclose those reasons to the authorities, I advise you to discuss your options with me tonight, at ten o'clock, in the barn of the Pacific Hotel. Come unaccompanied or you may well find yourself with two swords of Damocles, rather than one, suspended over your head.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra himself was at the barn and on watch an hour ahead of time. Chris, Vin, Buck, and Nathan were up in the loft, the gunfighter and the tracker keeping watch out the two hay doors at its opposite ends, using their advantage of height to make sure Blackner did indeed come alone--though the note should have been sufficient to make it clear to him that any backup he brought might take the opportunistic option and demand to be bought off as well.

Standish's dual profession had taught him patience. A con had to be permitted to run until it was ripe; a pigeon at the poker table had to be played along until he was ready to stake everything. At a quarter to ten he saw JD and Josiah arrive with one of the deputies and slip into the barn through the back door. With grim amusement he pictured the preacher's big hand muffling the deputy's impatient questions and JD's quick fingers relieving him, if necessary, of his gun. I must find the time to teach that young man some basic sleight of hand, he told himself. He may not have a gambler's facility at bluffin' or holdin' the odds in his head, but I suspect he possesses more than a modicum of the manual dexterity necessary to success at such maneuverin'. I dare say he might be facile at lock-pickin' as well. Though he couldn't see them, he knew Miramontes and his sons would be in place too, thrown out in a ring all around the barn, covering possible escape routes. And Darcy was in the hostler's little cubbyhole of an office, with her Winchester. Retain your composure, my dear, he thought. I realize how very satisfyin' you would find it to put half an ounce of lead through the coward's worthless guts and watch him suffer as your stock suffered, but experience over this last year or so has shown me that the gratification is richer by far when you permit society to assume the responsibility. For one thing, it will give Mr. Blackner ample time to reflect on the fact that you have won--which is precisely what he has been strivin' to prevent. His humiliation will be all the more chastening, and your revenge sweeter, if he understands fully what you have caused him to lose by your astute acceptance of our aid.

Ten o'clock came and went. Ezra frowned at his watch. Can I have read the man so poorly as this? That he might suspect I am bluffin' I can understand, but how would he form such an estimation without first seein' who I am? He glanced uneasily toward the barn. Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Dunne will not be able to restrain the deputy's impatience much longer. That damnyankee bastard is puttin' our entire plan at risk.

Then he saw it--a figure in a blue suit coat and broad-brimmed hat, face obscured by the dark shrubbery of a beard, cautiously issuing forth from the rear service door of the hotel. Something metallic gleamed in its hand. Ah, indeed, the Southerner gloated, realizing at a glance what Blackner was trying to do. You have been waitin' for me, thinkin' to ambush me as I proceeded to our rendezvous. Now it occurs to you that I may already be within. He watched, his eyes gleaming, as Blackner slowly catfooted up to the barn door--and jumped at the soft hooting of an owl from somewhere over his head. Thank you, Mr. Tanner, the gambler thought. So he did indeed come alone. Except, of course, for Colonel Colt's darlin' babe. The lantern hanging over the door shed just enough light for Ezra to make out the shape of the small handgun--it was a Colt "Cloverleaf" House Model, a solid-framed four-shot revolver chambered for the same .41 cartridge his own derringer carried, with a high-eared hammer and three-inch barrel.

Blackner pressed his ear to the surface of the door for a long moment, as if hoping to hear the sound of his summoner impatiently pacing the runway. Then he depressed the thumb latch of the small man-door cut into the big half-leaf, and vanished inside. Ezra smiled thinly and drew his own Remington sidegun, whose range and power were far superior to those of the Cloverleaf, and began circling around to the rear of the building. A deft manipulation of the latch and he was in, slipping past the door of the grain room and the shoulder of the saddle lockup, shooting a quick searching glance toward the latter's door, on which he personally had picked the lock so Josiah and JD could station themselves and the deputy inside. A hazel eye met his through the crack and immediately withdrew.

At the center of the runway Blackner stood facing the front door, his arm poised for a quick shot at anyone entering. Ezra thumbed back the Remington's hammer with a loud, distinct triple click. "You are a transparent yankee fool, Mr. Blackner," he said quietly. "Kindly drop your weapon."

He saw the older man's shoulders jerk. "How did you--"

"You are hardly the first of your sort that I have had occasion to deal with, sir," the gambler interrupted coldly. "I have found the species to be depressin'ly predictable. Anyone who will kill once for the sake of filthy lucre will hardly hesitate to kill again. Fortunately I myself am never reluctant to do the indicated thing. Now," his voice hardened, "I shall not again request you politely to drop your weapon."

There was a momentary pause, and then the miniature revolver hit the packed clay surface with a soft thump. "Better," Ezra observed meagerly. "Now turn around."

Blackner did so as Ezra slowly moved into the faint halo of light shed by the reflectored lantern mounted just inside the door. "Standish!"

The Southerner sketched a mocking salute with his left hand, showing his teeth in a predator's grin. "Your servant, sir."

"Somehow I doubt it," Blackner growled bitterly. "Now just what did you mean by that note you left under my door?"

"Ah," Ezra rebuked gently, a hint of laughter bubbling under his voice, "you scarcely need me to tell you that, or you would not have responded to it. However, I have always believed that when a man pays to see the cards, he has the right to have them revealed to him. The night before Mr. Halkett's premature demise, I was in the suite next door to his listenin' as the two of you discussed your fascinatin' plan to defraud his employers, and possibly other mine owners as well, of some thirteen and three-quarters million dollars' worth of refined ingots through the stagin' of an apparent slide on the outward trail. Very creative, I must say. It is unfortunate, is it not, that Mr. Halkett was so avaricious as to insist upon an equal share in the proceeds? Had he been content with the small gratuity you had agreed to bestow upon him, in return for his co-operation in obtainin' the Tam's contract for your company, he might have survived. Tell me, sir, did you intend from the beginnin' to kill him?"

"What difference does it make?" snarled Blackner. "He's dead."

"So he is," Ezra agreed. "And now you have merely exchanged one...business associate...for another. I, however, lack Mr. Halkett's level of greed. I may appreciate the opportunity to live well, but I understand that a gentleman can spend only so much money in a normal lifetime without wishin' to seem...garish and ostentatious in taste and manner. For myself, a ten per cent partnership in your lovely endeavor will be quite satisfactory."

"I don't have that kind of money," snapped Blackner. "Even if I were liquid, my total assets don't even equal two hundred thousand."

"I am aware of that, sir," Ezra informed him coldly. "I took some pains to inquire into you. In my profession, one learns the value of patience. I am willin' to wait until your caravan has been...tragically lost...on the trail. Of course, by that time, it is entirely possible that those four gunmen currently accused of implementin' Mr. Halkett's murder will have been recaptured and executed, which is unfortunate. But my own aggrandizement has more value to me than the lives of men of whom I know so little." He tilted his head. "Was it always your plan that they should take the fall, or merely bad luck that they happened on the scene?"

Blackner sighed, apparently deciding there was no good reason not to answer. "I knew I had to offer Pennoyer and the mine owners some kind of sacrifice," he admitted. "Pennoyer's a buffoon, but his--handlers--are rich, powerful men. If Halkett's murder went unsolved long enough, it might occur to them to start nosing into his affairs and associations. You know yourself he wasn't the luckiest poker player. He was living on the edge of his means, if not quite beyond them. I was willing to gamble on the authorities not being able to find the remains of my train and concluding that everything had been washed down into the river. But I had to give myself time to set everything up and get out of the country. Thirteen million dollars spread around shrewdly can buy a hell of a lot of good cover--and, at need, security. If I have to, I'll be able to protect myself well enough that not even the Pinkertons will have a chance at taking me." He paused a moment, running his tongue over his teeth. "On the other hand, I'm not wasteful. If you heard us that night, you heard me complaining about a certain rival of mine. I've already taken steps to--persuade--her to sell out to me, but she's as hardheaded as her own pack mules. If somebody hadn't broken those gunslingers out of the jail--and I'd give my eye teeth to know what kind of friends they had in camp who were willing to do it--I'd have seen to it myself. Then I'd have had them in the palm of my hand, and I could have made sure they were willing to put her out of the way. I'd a lot rather have her alive to know I've won, but I don't want to leave her in a position to, maybe, buy up what I have to leave behind me when I go, and benefit, in the end, almost as much as I do."

Ezra heard a faint rustling from the hayloft, probably Buck reflexively reacting to the implied threat of death to a member of the sex he respected and revered. If Blackner heard it too, he must have dismissed it as the movements of a rodent. "It is rather a pity, sir, that you were not alive in the days of the buccaneers," the gambler mused. "You have a ruthlessness that would do credit to Teach himself." At the inquiring lift of the man's eyebrows, he amplified: "You may know him better as Blackbeard. A distant ancestor of mine, so family tradition has it, was the governor of the Carolina colony and protected him from official retribution. I, on the other hand, will cheerfully surrender you to it unless you agree to the proposition I have tendered you."

"And if I don't?" Blackner challenged. "You don't really have any proof, Standish. It's your word against mine."

"That may be," the gambler agreed. "But even if it is, should the law decline to prosecute you or the verdict turn out in your favor, the record will stand. Once you and their bullion vanish into oblivion, the mine owners will remember. You will need time to get clear and obscure your trail. They may not allow you that time." He saw Blackner considering that prospect. "And in case you are contemplatin' havin' me silenced," he added, "allow me to observe that a transcript of what I overheard is already concealed in a safe place and will be passed on to the trustworthy hands of my mother should I meet with a violent end. Now, Mother has her faults, as none knows better than I. But I am her sole issue and she will not tamely permit my murder to pass. And you may believe me, sir, when I inform you that she has an intellect even more creative than my own. It might almost be preferable to risk the wrath of the law than to spend your life wonderin' how she will choose to extract payment for mine. I dare say she would find some means of strippin' you of all your ill-gotten gains and givin' you the opportunity to savor your state before she surrendered you to the vengeance of the law--or the mine owners."

The shot clearly told. "All right," said Blackner with a sigh. "Ninety per cent of the loaf is still better than fifty. Ten per cent it is. That would be $1,376,400 for you. What kind of arrangement do you want to make to pick it up?"

Ezra smiled sweetly, his gold tooth gleaming. "Oh, that will not be necessary," he said, and raised his voice slightly. "Mr. Sanchez, you may bring the deputy out now."

The saddle-room door creaked sharply and the preacher stepped into view, preceded by a flushed young man with a disc-shaped pewter badge pinned to his vest and a generation-old but very businesslike Colt Third Model Dragoon .44 in his hand. JD appeared from behind Josiah's massive bulk, his Lightnings out and levelled. "Elliott Blackner," said the deputy, "you're under arrest for the murder of Roger Halkett."

Blackner startled visibly and whipped around as if to assess the practicality of flight. The door of the hostler's room swung back and Darcy appeared, her blue eyes hot behind her spectacles, lips tight, Winchester held easily at waist level. There was a second sharp rustle from the hayloft, and then a tall shape dropped down through the feeding hatch, one of Agustín Miramontes's twin sixguns (borrowed from its rightful owner) in hand, indigo eyes black with suppressed anger. The deputy recognized Buck and for an instant seemed about to refocus his attention, then apparently remembered that the confession he had overheard absolved Wilmington and his companions of all guilt. Nathan descended the ladder alongside the door, stepped away from it, and folded his arms loosely, his face inscrutable as a tribal idol's yet somehow challenging. Vin followed him slowly, his own saddlegun--recovered with his tack from the barn--hanging from his hand; he moved to the side and took up a position midway between Buck and the ladder, the .45-70 held with casual expertness. Chris descended last of all and walked over to join the gambler as the deputy, supported by Josiah, moved in to search and handcuff his prisoner. "Good going, Ezra," the gunfighter said quietly.

Standish felt a lift of warmth. He had come to understand over the past few months that if Chris Larabee considered you fit to ride with him, you were by definition the best; no other confirmation was needed. Their leader's praise was rare, but when it came, all the more signal. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee."

Blackner's eyes widened. "You're with him?"

"And we are all with Miss Cullin," Ezra agreed evenly. "And you, sir, are one of the easiest gulls I have yet to hoodwink in a career of larceny. I have always believed that a man ought to think with his brain, sir, not with his pocketbook. Incidentally, sir, I believe you owe me your eye teeth." He smiled again at Blackner's look of dawning astonished comprehension. "You did state, in the presence of the witnesses here assembled, that you would give them to know the identity of the person who engineered the jailbreak last night." A mocking half-bow: "He stands before you."

The freighter's cheeks flushed as he understood just how he had been manipulated, even as far back as the confrontation at the Varieties. "Double-crossing son of a bitch!" he spat at Larabee, as Josiah jerked his arms around behind him and the deputy snapped the cuffs on his wrists.

"Yeah," said Chris with a tight grin. "I am, ain't I." Then his eyes narrowed. "But at least I don't murder my partners. Deputy, get him the hell out of here."

"I'll help you, brother," Josiah offered, "just in case some of this sinner's employees catch sight of us and misunderstand the situation." His hand descended firmly on Blackner's shoulder and turned him toward the door.

Darcy stepped in with fluid swiftness, reversed her Winchester, and drove the steelshod butt into Blackner's middle. "That was for my mules, soltura trastero," she snapped as he folded and sank to his knees, wheezing and gasping for breath. "And that," she added, bringing her foot around in a deft kick and knocking his legs out from under him, then lifting it in a short uppercut to his jaw, "was for Sugar. I just wish you could hang six times more."

Buck moved in and gently drew her into the angle of his free arm, his other hand still holding the borrowed .44 trained between the eyes of the agonized freighter. "It's all right now, darlin'," he said soothingly, his voice almost as deep as Josiah's. "He won't hurt nobody again, man or beast."

"And he will compensate you for your loss, my dear," Ezra added, holstering his Remington and reaching into his jacket. "I find that it is distasteful to me to retain even so much contact with him as the money his oily damnyankee fingers have handled. He lost a round two thousand dollars to me two nights ago. That amount of money should suffice to purchase five times the mules whose slaughter he decreed." The young woman looked up at him with wide astonished eyes as he gently placed twenty gold-backed hundred-dollar notes--gold certificates, not the mistrusted and often steeply discounted "greenbacks"--in her hand. JD was grinning broadly from Chris's left flank as he put up first one Lightning, then the other. Vin nodded once, his elemental sense of justice appeased.

Josiah reached down, twisted his big fingers through the bunched fabric of Blackner's coat and shirt collars, and hauled the man to his feet. He gave him a small shake, as a terrier might a rat, before frog-walking him toward the door. The deputy paused a moment, looking toward Chris. "If you'll let me have a couple hours to explain all this to the sheriff, Mr. Larabee," he offered, "you and your men can come by and pick up your weapons any time."

The gunfighter's thin smile widened. "Hell," he said, "I wouldn't miss it. You guarantee he'll be there?"

The deputy grinned suddenly. "I'll make sure of it, sir."


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