II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Ezra stood just inside the doorway of the lobby-bar, leaning on the frame of the archway, and watched as Stuart James and Maude laughed and conversed animatedly over Sunday dinner. A frown furrowed his brow at the sight. One thing Maude had taught him was to listen to his own instincts. Often, she had said, those who suspected you or otherwise wished you ill betrayed their intent in signals you were unaware of perceiving, yet on some level could still sense. When you felt that something was askew, it very often was. It was better to abandon a con midway, and escape, than to hang on stubbornly until past the danger point. There would always be another day and other fools. She had also taught him to recognize another deceiver, because such people might prove to be minions of the law, or the victim, seeking to assemble evidence against you. He didn´t know just what there was about James´s interest in his mother that disturbed him, but he knew something did.

Of course, Maude was hardly likely to forget her own teachings; the very fact that she hadn´t was partly at the root of her uncertainties about his settling down here. She could probably see through whatever James was trying to do even better than Ezra could. Still, he wondered why it had taken the man ten full days to make an opportunity to introduce himself to her.

“Yer ma looks like she´s havin´ herself a good time,” came a soft raspy drawl behind his right shoulder, and Ezra just barely restrained a flinch.

“Mr. Tanner,” he said evenly. “Has it ever occurred to you that you are not in the wilderness, and that it might be polite to give some warnin´ of your approach?”

The hunter shrugged, his blue eyes veiled. “Sorry,” he said, not sounding in the least as if he was. “Would´a figured you´d be the kinda feller t´always know what ´s goin´ on around you.”

Ezra sighed; it was a telling shot. In his business you didn´t last long without developing keen senses and the habit of alertness. “You are correct, of course. The fault was at least partly my own. I was...preoccupied. Might I buy you a drink in acknowledgment of my error?”

“Sure,” Vin agreed, and they walked back to the rear corner table near the door to the Officers´ Club which Ezra had claimed as his own since his mother´s arrival. The saloon was somewhat quieter than it was on most other days, not so much because of any community observance of the Sabbath as because the travelling season was now, on the last day of September, winding sharply down. George brought Ezra´s bottle of Hermitage whiskey and two glasses.

“Go together right good, don´t they?” Vin continued after they´d taken their first sips, tilting his head toward the restaurant to clarify the reference.

“I must admit they present a handsome appearance,” Ezra agreed. “And Mr. James is an educated man; Mother will at least find him more amusin´ than she has most of the others she has encountered durin´ her stay here.”

“What´s it been now, ten days? Wouldn´t ´spected no lady like yer ma to linger around Jamesburg.”

Again Ezra sighed. “I trust she will depart before too much more time has passed. I was somewhat surprised, indeed, that she did not board Friday´s stage to Denver. I can recall none of her visits to me endurin´ for such an extended period.”

“How long´s it been since you seen her?” Vin asked.

Ezra had to think about the question. “We were...associated for approximately a month in Nashville in the spring of 1859. Close to a year and a half, I should estimate.”

Vin nodded thoughtfully. Ezra tipped a penetrating look at him. “How is it that you are not lingerin´ in Mr. Larabee´s vicinity?”

The hunter shrugged. “Weren´t invited. He´s over to Miz Travis´s havin´ Sunday dinner. And Bucklin´s off celebratin´ with Miss Blossom.”

“Celebratin´?” Ezra repeated, his brows climbing.

“Yeah.” Vin wasn´t sure it was any place of his to explain further, but Buck had been practically bubbling over with pleasure when he´d told the hunter of the offer Chris had received. He knew that no one could ever fully replace Sarah and Adam in Larabee´s heart; hell, he didn´t want anyone to. What he did want was for his oldest friend to begin letting go of them, putting the past behind them and learning to live his life again. Three years was long enough to mourn--society expected no more in Chris´s situation, certainly, and to keep at it with the intensity his friend displayed was probably more than was good for him. Buck knew what it was to lose a loved one; he´d seen his own mother die, and it hadn´t been easy. That had been, in its way, a crueller loss than Chris had suffered, because she had had so much of the molding of his life and character. But he had done his grieving and moved on. He remembered her with love and always would, just as he did, and would, Chris´s family, but he knew instinctively that obsessing over any of them would only cripple him in the end. It would be good for Chris to find someone new; it was what Sarah and Adam would want for him. As Buck had told Vin on the restaurant´s back porch, loving another person didn´t mean you were betraying anyone from your past, or taking anything away from what you had, now or then, with them. Love was capable of almost infinite variations. Chris either didn´t know that yet, or wasn't willing to admit it to himself, but with the right people to help him, he could. Buck approved of Mary Travis. She was intelligent and spirited, as Sarah had been--Chris couldn´t establish any genuine kind of relationship with a woman who wasn´t, though he might still the hungers of his body as opportunity offered. But she wasn´t someone whose appearance would constantly be reminding him of the woman he´d had before. She was blonde where Sarah had been vivid; her eyes and complexion were lighter, her features finer, she was taller and more slender, there was an air of coolness about her rather than the glimmer of mischief that had always danced in Sarah´s eyes. And she knew what it was to lose a spouse to the hatred of others; she could help Chris through his bereavement as Buck couldn´t, and Chris could help her through hers. Buck knew people, especially women, and he knew Chris Larabee. He knew there was something going on between the two of them even if neither one had realized it yet. This invitation--its issuance and acceptance--gave him hope that they might, at least, have taken the first steps toward recognizing the destiny that linked them. And so he had gotten Chris spiffed up and seen him off, and then gone in search of his favorite girl to share his own happiness with someone who knew him fairly well.

Left without either of his two closest associates to keep company with, Vin had wandered aimlessly around the settlement for a while, checked on Peso, and then decided to see if Ezra was about the saloon. The low volume of patronage promised him an opportunity he hadn´t had till now to study and consider the gambler. Tanner had encountered Standish´s type before--like prostitution, gaming was something that inevitably attached itself to military posts, if somewhat intermittently owing to the Army´s patterns of pay. But he´d never really been closely associated with one of them. He recognized, as Chris did, that Ezra´s familiarity with the local population, his trained facility at drawing others out, and his ownership of the bar made him a fountainhead of potentially useful information, and therefore a valuable ally to be cultivated. He also understood that as much as Ezra might try to paint himself as aloof and amoral, there was much good in the man. He wouldn´t have come down to the river and taken Nathan Jackson´s part if that wasn´t true.

Vin had watched (if surreptitiously), as fascinated as the children themselves, as Ezra entertained groups of Jamesburg´s small juvenile population--there were, according to Chris, forty-two of them, counting Billy Travis--with his card tricks and sleight of hand. He had noticed the way the Southerner behaved with them, always treating them with respect, as if their opinions mattered, and welcoming among his little disciples all sorts and conditions, from Mr. and Mrs. Potter´s offspring to the children of the poorest prostitute in the settlement. He had observed, too, that animals--even his own ill-tempered Peso--seemed quite at ease with Standish, never shy or defensive. Vin knew that you could fool grown folks, but never animals or children, because they operated more on instinct than on logical thought. So did Vin, and he was absolutely sure Ezra was a decent man at root. Maybe he couldn´t be trusted with money or cards, but with your heart or your life, yes.

What meant most to Tanner, though, was the sense he was beginning to get of Ezra´s past. In the six-day window of opportunity that had been afforded him to observe the interaction between the gambler and his mother, he felt he had absorbed more of the man behind Standish´s mask than he had in the whole three months before that. Ezra was a facile talker who wouldn´t use one word where five would do, but it wasn´t till you had a moment of quiet to analyze what he´d said that you realized how very little he had actually revealed about himself. He never talked of his personal life, his feelings, his attitudes and thoughts. Vin didn´t either. That made the hunter sensitive to others who had hidden pain. And, particularly in the near-decade since he had gone back to his own people, he had found that his survival often hinged on his ability to estimate character accurately. Standish was very good at maintaining his disguise, but Vin could see the hint of ancient hurt occasionally glimmering deep in the Southerner´s emerald eyes--especially when he´d just gone a round with Maude. Having suffered pain of his own in the past, the Texan guessed that Ezra too harbored a wounded soul. Both of them were leery of allowing anyone else to get too close; they kept a very large part of who they were concealed from the world. Neither permitted himself to be easy to get to know. Vin´s defense was silence and stoicism; Ezra´s was a mixture of self- assuredness, glib talk, and gentlemanly aloofness. Behind those walls each was uneasy, insecure, reluctant to trust, stripped of most of the illusions held by more fortunate people. Each held to an agenda that he hoped would preserve him from suffering further injury and loss, ward him from any more of the kind of misery and heartbreak he had endured before.

Vin knew about all that. For most of his life he had been alone in the midst of others. He could still scarcely believe how fortunate he had been in finding Chris--a man who seemed to complete some missing part of his soul, a man to be the brother he had never had, a man he knew, without question or any actual corroboration, would be there to watch his back and offer help if he needed it. A man who believed in him, who had sworn himself to the task of helping clear Vin´s name. The Texan had never known such a bond before; over the slow course of his life he had convinced himself that he didn´t need or want it. Now he knew that he had--did--yet the sensation of being part of a team was strange and troubling. There was a part of him that remained afraid, that fought to stand alone and defend its vulnerabilities from the hurt only other human beings could inflict. Chris, he knew, understood this: Buck´s story of his family´s deaths had made it clear to Tanner that the older man was familiar with suffering, with the bitter resolve never to let himself get too close to anyone again, the fear of being hurt another time, of having his soul ripped down the middle and laid bare for the whole world to peck at, like buzzards over a dead buffalo. Buck too, for all his cheerful loudness and his genuine enthusiasm for life, had some familiarity with the phenomenon, if only as it reflected from his friend. About JD, Josiah, and Nathan Vin wasn´t as sure, though he suspected it might be the same with them: he knew of Josiah´s occasional tendency to seek solace in a jug, had seen the age-faded shackle scars graved deep into the skin of Nathan´s wrists, had watched the moments of unexpected melancholy obscure JD´s usual exuberance. And then there was Ezra. Thinking it over, contemplating the observations he had made since Maude´s arrival, Vin believed he was another of the same kind; he just had a better, or at least a different, way of hiding it, and it took his mother´s presence to disorganize him to the point of letting his shield slip out of line. The mystical Indian part of Vin´s soul wondered if this similarity between the seven of them had anything to do with the union they had forged that day. He thought again of the sense he had had, the day he crossed the Red on his flight from Belknap, that his mother wanted him to come north, to take the route that would lead him to Denver by way of Nettie´s ranch--and, after he´d gotten there, that she wanted him to stay. In so doing he had taken a step that had led, inevitably, to his association with JD and Josiah, his meeting with Chris, Buck, and Ezra, his assistance in saving Nathan´s life. Ma had known, just as he´d always figured she did, what lay down the road. She had seen these men in his future; she wanted him to be with them. He wasn´t sure yet just why, but there was no doubt of the fact itself in his mind.

Tanner knew, too, what it was to feel an obligation to prove oneself. It was one of the things that had made him so willing to give time and effort to being a mentor to JD. He wasn´t very much older than the kid was, and close enough to that part of his life to be able to remember with painful clarity how important it was not to screw up. He´d spent six years among the Comanches struggling first to adjust to new rules and ways, then to prove himself worthy of their trust--not because they had demanded it of him or seemed in any way suspicious of his sincerity, but out of his own insecurities. Because of that, he felt a keen sense of identity and understanding with what JD was going through. He knew how it felt to question your own worthiness, and found himself feeling flattered that someone else actually looked up to him and thought he had knowledge and skills worth passing on. On that basis, he felt he could recognize another questing soul when he encountered it. He believed that Ezra was looking for a place to belong, even if--like Chris with Mrs. Travis--he either didn´t know it himself or wasn´t willing to admit it. Because he knew how painful that process could be, Vin had resolved that he would help Ezra to find it. How exactly he could do this he wasn´t certain, but he believed that showing some willingness to associate with the man when he had no business-related reasons to do so would be a definite start. He wasn´t a talker, wasn´t comfortable with the concept of being one--but, as he´d realized, Ezra wasn´t either. The words were a smokescreen. What Standish needed was to know that there were people willing to be with him, people who would seek out his company without expecting to get anything from the association. Association. Ezra himself had used that word in connection with his last meeting with his mother. “We were...associated for approximately a month in Nashville in the spring of 1859.” It seemed a peculiar choice of language, even to Vin whose sparing speech tended to be very direct. Yet Ezra knew so many words, didn´t that mean that if he used a certain one, it was because that word expressed exactly the shade of meaning he wanted? Tanner wondered just what the implication was. Association. Not a visit, such as they were having now--sort of. How precisely had they been associated?

Ezra for his part found that he felt no particular need to erect his usual defense of glib talk. Vin´s presence here, while not conventionally entertaining, was somehow calming. The Southerner wondered if this was what he gave to Larabee. Certainly the older man seemed to have changed a good deal from what his reputation had him, since he and the hunter had met. He was still stern, moody, edgy, he still brooded, still had a tendency to speak harshly and bluntly. Yet Standish, who knew masks well, sensed that a change was taking place. It might not have come to full flower yet, might take a while to present itself openly, but it was definitely happening.

He toyed with his shot glass and contemplated the lean young man on the other side of the table. Was Vin here only because his two close teammates, the man he worked for and that man´s oldest comrade, were otherwise engaged today? Or was there some other cause for him to have sought out Ezra´s company? The Southerner had lived too many years dependent on the accuracy of his estimations of human character to resist the temptation to continue analyzing others´ motives even when there was no clear reason to do so. Vin, he guessed, was a very self-sufficient person and one who was well accustomed to being alone. He was comfortable with aloneness, in the sense of being without human companionship, as Ezra could never be; Ezra was a creature of towns and riverboats and saloons, a man most at home where there were others of his own species close by, physically at least. Surely it wouldn´t have been all that inconvenient for Tanner to find himself something to do for a few hours. He could have gone hunting, or even ridden out to Wells Ranch to see his friends there; he´d had better than twenty- four hours´ warning that Larabee had been issued an invitation he didn´t share, and his horse Peso could make the journey in four or less. Why hadn´t he?

Ezra knew that Larabee sought him out chiefly for the information he could provide, and he was content that it should be so. He understood the concept of payoff. For the new Division Super, the payoff for associating with the Southerner was intelligence that helped him to carry out his job. It was a fair exchange. Yet Ezra was puzzled at the sense of satisfaction he got from offering that intelligence. What was his payoff? Merely the emotional stroke he got from feeling useful to someone legitimate? Why should that be so incredible? He had always gained a certain gratification, a kind of fulfillment--over and above the money--from successfully completing a con or winning a hefty pot. No, it was more than that. He felt he was helping to make a difference in the lives of others. That wasn´t something he had ever experienced before, and he found, to his astonishment, that he enjoyed it.

He brooded on the dump Larabee and his companions had found, and on the meaning the man had attached to it. A part of him found it difficult to believe that anyone could be so depraved. Yet, as he had said, his own boyhood had been lived hearing stories of similar banditry. There was a precedent. This West was a bigger country than those he had known up to now, a rough and violent land where everything tended to extremes. Mountains were high, prairies were wide, streams roaring, the buffalo by the thousands and tens of thousands. It was a land where nothing was small, nothing simple. Everything, including the lives of men, ran to extremes. Why not their plots as well?

Ezra was a gambler and a con artist; he had never deluded himself otherwise. He knew, on the deepest level, that he was little better than a parasite upon the legitimate community, and it had never bothered him that this should be true. Yet he operated within a certain framework of ethics. He never employed his talents to victimize the poor, nor did he clean his marks out completely; even in a poker game, he was always careful to leave his fellow players enough money to pay their board and keep, always refused to accept their stage or train or steamboat tickets as a stake. He had killed--more than once-- but it had never been murder. And never in his life had he harmed a woman or a child. The enormity, the sheer monstrosity, of the personality that would do so baffled and sickened him.

And, as he had begun to realize over the past several days, he had benefited from it, indirectly. Not until Larabee had begun cleaning up the settlement had it occurred to him to consider how truly attractive it had been to every stripe of desperados heretofore. Hell, he had pondered more than once on the suspicion that the place served as a rendezvous for the breed. Looking back over the six months of his life here, he recalled how frequently he had observed the same faces at the bar and elsewhere about the town. He had thought their visits oddly random, not attuned to the paydays of the Army, the Company, or James´s ranch, and the amount of money they displayed not in keeping with any legitimate wage scale. He had seen fit, on more than one occasion, to lighten their burdens personally; even when he didn´t, a good deal of their money had been spent on food, lodging, liquor, and faro on his premises--or had come to him by way of rent paid by Willoughby or the Potters, who got it from the visitors or from other residents with whom they dealt. That he had not suspected the exact means by which the visitors acquired their money was only slight comfort to him. He had been blinded by his good fortune. He should have guessed that their gains were obtained in some less than legitimate fashion. He had thought, more than once, of the way they set his trained perceptions on edge. He had acknowledged that there were undercurrents flowing around his thriving little business that he wasn´t privy to, and he hadn´t liked the feeling. He certainly knew of the horse thefts and stage robberies. He should have made the connection, should have realized that these financially fortunate “drifters” who kept reappearing on his premises weren´t drifters at all. He had prospered from the deaths of innocents, and that made him feel tainted. He found himself wanting to think of some way he could repay what he had gained from the tragedies. He knew Buck would probably say it wasn´t his fault, it had nothing to do with him, he didn´t owe anything for it. And Wilmington was entitled to his opinion. Just as Ezra was entitled to his. Mr. Sanchez would probably talk of penance and atonement. To Ezra, it was simply a question of profit and loss.

He recognized that it would probably be impossible ever to discover the identities of all the victims and to trace their connections to any heirs they might have left, even if he could correlate his gains with particular raids--or even remember exactly how great they had been. Therefore, it seemed that the only means open to him of balancing the scales would be somehow helping to bring the marauders--or better yet, the masterminds of the scheme--to justice.

Vin watched Ezra´s shuttered face, the flicker of the veiled emerald eyes, and wondered, What´cha thinkin´, Ez? The man´s ability to conceal his thoughts and emotions fascinated the hunter, who had learned to do the same among the Comanches. He tried putting himself in the gambler´s place and thought immediately of what was going on in the restaurant. It had been Ezra who had first suggested, and supported by his logic, the idea of James being the mastermind behind the raiders. If it was true, then, as Standish had pointed out, the rancher had to be one of the more ruthless people to have walked the earth since the death of John Murrell. Vin wouldn´t have appreciated the idea of his own mother associating with someone like that.

“Strikes me yer ma´s a pretty smart lady,” he observed. “Don´t reckon it´s too likely she´ll fall for no line of James´s bullshit.”

“What?” Ezra looked up, startled, and seemed to backtrack, as if he had to play the words over again in his head and get a sense of what Tanner had said. “Oh, rest assured, Mr. Tanner, I have no apprehensions for Mother´s safety, be it physical, financial, or otherwise. I sincerely doubt that Mr. James knows with what he is dealin´. At least he is affordin´ her some amusement.”

There it was again, that hint of things hidden beneath the surface. Vin reconsidered the situation. “Cain´t be too easy for you to have to be nice to´im´n´all,” he mused. “Makin´ him welcome in your buildin´, what with you bein´ the first of us to´ve figured out what he´s been up to…”

Standish snorted. “That, Mr. Tanner, is the very least of my worries. I certainly hope I have absorbed a lifetime of lessons sufficiently as to be able to divorce my personal feelin´s from the necessities of business.”

Vin sat forward and clasped his hands around his shot glass. “But you ain´t seemin´ like yourself,” he said. “You got somethin´ chewin´ on you?”

The Southerner cocked an eye at him. “Pray tell, what concern should it be of yours, Mr. Tanner?”

The hunter shrugged. “Didn´t mean no ´fense,” he muttered. “Just know some what it´s like to have things chasin´ theirselves around in your head to where you cain´t hardly tell which is the head and which is the tail.”

Ezra sighed, knocked back the last of his whiskey and refilled his glass, and asked with his eyes whether Vin wanted the same done for himself; at the younger man´s headshake he set the bottle down and began toying idly with the filled tumbler, as if fascinated by the play of the light on the brown-amber liquid. “Tell me, Mr. Tanner, do you ever pause to regret anythin´ you have done in the past?”

“Don´t see it does a body no good,” Tanner replied. “Cain´t change what´s been and over with. Best you can do is try´n´learn from it, not make the same mistakes again.”

“A pragmatist,” Standish observed, and Vin guessed from the tone that it wasn´t intended as an insult. “But possibly there are…acts for which you wish you might atone, were the opportunity afforded you?”

Vin had to work the words out in his head before he thought he could reply. “I reckon…there´s a thing or two I´d like to say to my ma, iffen I could,” he admitted quietly.

Ezra sighed and slouched back in his chair, graceless as Vin couldn´t recall ever seeing him. When he spoke again, it was in a soft rambling voice that suggested he had all but forgotten he wasn´t alone. “I have lived all my life as a…a parasite of one kind or another,” he said. “My entire adult experience has involved battenin´ off the follies of others. And I have regretted nothin´ of it, though there are doubtless many who would aver that I should blush for shame at some of the things I have done. Yet these six months here in Jamesburg, I verily believe, have changed me. The money I have garnered has always gone to obtain the trappin´s of the good life--fine clothes, fine food, the best hotels. I have lived for the day, knowin´ that the morrow may bring a downturn in my fortunes, and never paused to wonder what the recipients of that money would think, if they had any means of knowin´ how it was acquired. Now I find myself on the opposite side of the transaction, and I am astonished to discover how it troubles me. Almost since I first became proprietor of this establishment, I have noticed that certain men-- certain groups of men, includin´ those unfortunates who attempted to deprive Mr. Jackson of his life, on the day we first met- -appear repeatedly on my premises, always well supplied with the coin of the realm. My instincts and my experience should have informed me that no such individuals as they appeared to be can have earned such amounts legitimately--or even by the exercise of skills such as I possess. Indeed, I believe that on some level I was always aware of this, yet I ignored the misgivings I experienced, and took their money, directly or indirectly, without any twinge of conscience. Now that I realize by what means it must have been obtained, I find that I am…disgusted. I feel as if I have somehow taken part in their nefarious activities, or at the very least encouraged them in the doin´.” He lifted the glass, turning it in his fingers, studying the way it caught the light, and then tossed the entire contents down his throat with a shudder. “To think of the sufferin´ of innocent women and children by which I, indirectly, have improved my fortunes…”

Vin frowned. “I ain´t plumb sure what all them words mean, Ez. But I seen you with the kids around the settlement and I know. You ain´t nowheres near as bad as you like to make out. Young´uns and animals, they can tell. It weren´t your fault what them fellers done. You didn´t know.”

“I should have known,” Ezra insisted.

“Why?” Tanner demanded. “Chris didn´t, and he´s been out here a helluva longer time´n what you have. Bucklin didn´t, and so´s he. I didn´t. How´d you´ve knowed? What reason´d you have to think them wagon trains you seen go on through here didn´t get where they was goin´ to? These fellers is smart. They been doin´ this a spell and they done worked the kinks out of the plan long since. Hell, for all you´d´a knowed, them boys you been talkin´ about wasn´t nothin´ more´n the horse thieves´n´stage robbers that Mr. Steele done told Chris about.”

“That would have been heinous enough,” Ezra murmured. “I am, after all, a lessor of space and services to the Company, yet I have been benefitting from raids upon its property.”

Vin frowned. “Folks been sayin´ things to you, have they?”

“Most assuredly not,” Ezra retorted indignantly. “I do comprehend the manner of keepin´ a secret, Mr. Tanner. Only we six, and Mrs. Jackson, are aware of the suspicions we hold--unless Mr. Dunne has shared them with someone at Wells since his return home.” He sighed again. “But often the individual is his own severest critic.”

Tanner reflected on his own sour hindthoughts about how he should have seen something suspicious in Eli Joe´s willingness to stake so rare and coveted a thing as a Volcanic carbine at dice--and his lack of any negative reaction at losing it. “Reckon I can understand that,” he agreed. “But it weren´t your doin´. You wasn´t part of it. Man ain´t responsible for what nobody does ´ceptin´ his ownself.”

“That is your opinion, Mr. Tanner, to which you are entitled,” Standish replied. “There are some who believe that to see an evil done, and take no action to remedy it, is to be as severely at fault as the perpetrator.”

Vin recognized the sentiment as being at the root of his Aunt Myra´s fixation with the sins of her children and neighbors. Lingering bitterness over his own sufferings lent iron to his voice when he retorted, “You didn´t see them boys make the raids. You didn´t know.”

There was a hint of genuine sadness in Standish´s eyes, the first Vin could ever recall seeing there, as he replied. “I fear I find that fact to be but little comfort to me, Mr. Tanner. I know it is true, but I cannot resist the notion that I in some way enabled them.”

“By ownin´ this place?” Vin guessed. “By rentin´ the Potters their space? Hell, Ez, if you wasn´t here they´d got what they wanted from James, likely was all along. And if Jamesburg weren´t here they´d´a just gone to Denver or Fort Laramie. ´Least this is a small enough settlement that you noticed ´em, maybe a lot quicker´n anyone in them places would´a. And you was the one that figured out James´s connection--not me, not Bucklin, not Chris: you. You reckon we´d´a done it if you hadn´t been here? You´re doin´ your part to take ´em down, Ez, don´t you never doubt it. If weren´t for you we might not even know who we was tryin´ to put our hands on.”

Ezra sighed. “I suppose so,” he agreed in a subdued voice, but Vin sensed the guilt and unhappiness lingering still. He reached across the table to lay his fingertips lightly on the back of the Southerner´s wrist.

“It weren´t your doin´, Ez,” he repeated fiercely, “no more´n it was ourn, or Josiah´s, or Nathan´s, or JD´s. It was James and Royale and them bastards that works for ´em-- nobody else. They was the ones made the plan and done the job, and they´s the ones that has to pay for it. And they will, and you´ll have a piece of it. You wait and see.” He held Standish´s gaze with his own. “I ain´t plumb sure what all you done afore you come here that´s got you beatin´ up on yourself, and I don´t care. This here´s a country where a man´s past don´t matter. Matters who he is and what he does now. Hell, ain´t that why folks like Miz Nettie and the Potters--honest folks that ain´t got no call to blame theirselves for nothin´ they done--come all the way out here, so´s they can make a new start? You can too. You will. You are. You´re a lot better man than you think you are. I knowed a lot of men in my time, and I see it. So does Bucklin, and Chris, and their Colonel. You know that´s true. You hang onto it.”

Ezra said nothing for a moment. “I shall endeavor to do so,” he agreed at length. “You make an eloquent and passionate advocate, Mr. Tanner, the elemental nature of your language notwithstandin´. Had you been privileged to enjoy an education such as mine, I believe there would be no limit to what you might accomplish.”

Vin ducked his head. “Like I said afore, don´t do nobody no good broodin´ on might´a-beens. Better to just accept the cards you get dealt and make the best you can of ´em.”

“That,” said Standish, “rest assured, I intend to do.”


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