Magnificent Seven Old West

by Tipper

ATF Universe

Part One

"Mr. Larabee!"

The smoke was so dense as to be blinding, the billowing blackness filling his lungs with burning intensity. Every breath threatened to strangle him, and the pain was becoming impossible.


Damn it, why wasn't he answering? He crawled along the floor, the acrid air burning his mouth and nostrils, searching for his friend. Like a blind man, he felt the floors and the objects littered around him hoping to feel the soft fabric of the man's trousers or his shirt. He was here, he had to be! He had seen him come in here! Coughing, Ezra willed himself to try and gulp in some more oxygen, his voice catching as he called again.

"Mr. Lar…(cough)….CHRIS!"

If possible, the smoke appeared to be getting thicker, and he had to shut his green eyes lest they burn up with the oxygen. Tears streamed down his face, and pain wracked his frame. Where the hell was Larabee? Lying closer to the floor, he gulped in what he could, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his muscles as they clamored for oxygen. God, he just wanted to collapse and give in.

With a shake, he was moving again, trying desperately to see something, anything, other than the smoke. His fingers felt across the uneven wooden planks, splinters brushing his fingers, until they came in contact with the wall. Following it upwards, he leaned into the barrier, knowing that somewhere along it there was a window. With a few shuddering breaths, he got to the feet, his eyes now completely useless and shut tight. Trying not to inhale deeply, he moved along the wall, fixated on reaching the window. He was so intent, he didn't even realize he had run into something until he fell over it.

He completely lost his balance, and would have cursed if a groan hadn't accompanied the action. A groan from someone other than himself. With hope swelling in his throat, he reached across and felt the unmistakable shape of an arm.

"Mr. Larabee!" he urged, his burning eyes still shut as if welded, his hand roughly shaking the arm. His fingers darted up the arm to the shoulder, and then to the face. The wet stickiness he felt on the man's cheek shocked him, and he drew back quickly. The man on the floor didn't respond to the touch.

"Hell and damnation!" How could this happen? How had they been caught so unawares? Where was the hell were Josiah and Vin? He coughed again, and returned his senses to the wall, again looking for the feel of a sill and cool glass. It took a few moments, but when he finally hit upon the window, it felt like finding the Holy Grail. Smiling despite the seriousness of the situation, he grasped the lower pane and heaved, throwing the window up with a grunt.

Suddenly he was surrounded by smoke as it poured out the small square, blowing past him in a wave. He himself barely realized that he was halfway out the window, hanging down, trying to breath in the fresh air. His fingers gripped the sill of the window, preventing him from falling. Finally, he risked opening his tearing eyes.

He was staring out into an alley, completely devoid of people. In the distance, he could hear the clamor of the crowd and the slosh of water as the fire brigade went to work. Gulping in as much air as he could, he screamed for help. His voice was hoarse from coughing, his throat burning, but still he screamed, trying to get anyone's attention.

A figure appeared at the top of the alley. Josiah. Ezra waved frantically, and the preacher started calling for help. Then he ran into the alley, calling up to the gambler, asking if he was okay.

"I am in a burning building on the top floor, Josiah, and you're asking if I'm alright?" he screamed back, earning a small smile from his friend. "I'm fine, for now, but Mr. Lar…" The words died on his lips as he saw Chris run into the alley carrying a ladder with Vin's help. Mary Travis followed close behind.

"Mr. Larabee?" he shouted, the confusion clear in his voice.

"We'll have you down in no time, Ezra!" Chris replied, setting up the ladder beneath the window. It landed a couple of feet short, but Ezra was barely paying attention.

"But if you're there…." He pulled himself back inside, and started feeling the floorboards where he thought the stranger was lying. There was nothing there.

"EZRA!" The scream came from Vin's lips as he saw the gambler disappear. One second he was there, hanging out of the window, and the next he was gone. Did he faint? The movements of the men on the ground suddenly intensified, and Vin scrambled up the ladder like a monkey.

Inside the room, Ezra frantically felt around the floor. He had to close his eyes again, as the oxygen coming in from outside fueled the flames below and increased the amount of smoke. He could feel himself fading as he searched, his limbs tiring, his head aching. He wouldn't last much longer.

"Where are you!" he screamed desperately. He had felt someone, he was sure. He had heard them groan. Where did that person go? "Answer me!"

The last yell did him in. He couldn't get any air into his lungs to replace the expended air, just the bitter smoke. His limbs failed him, and he felt himself fall to the floor. Gasping, he tried to drag himself back to the window, but he couldn't figure out where it was. He couldn't figure out where anything was.

Hands grasped his legs, pulling him somewhere and rolling him over. Then he felt that same someone run around to where his head lay and lift him up under his arms, dragging him more forcefully. Briefly, he felt the cooler air that indicated he was once more next to the window, and he treasured the sensation, right before he succumbed completely to oblivion.

Vin pulled the gambler up, and tipped him out of the window. Holding Ezra by the back of his trousers, he gently lowered him into Josiah's waiting arms at the top of the ladder. The large man had tied himself to the top rung with his belt, so he would have both arms free. With care, he maneuvered Ezra's small frame onto his shoulder. Once he was certain the con man wouldn't fall, he undid the belt and slowly made his way down the ladder.

Above him, Vin leant out the window much in the same way Ezra had earlier, gasping for air. Chris watched from where he held onto the ladder to stop it from slipping. Mary dashed away, looking for the town's doctor.

As soon as Josiah touched his feet to the ground, Vin vaulted out of the window and onto the rungs of the ladder. From where he still stood holding the ladder, Chris frowned up at the reckless man, but didn't say a word. He assured himself that Vin probably knew what he was doing, being so used to heights. Only Buck was more adept at jumping out of windows. An involuntary smile lit upon his lips at the errant thought, and he was shaking his head as Vin landed with a thud beside him.

Behind them, Josiah had lain Ezra on the ground, just as the town's old doctor came around the corner and into the alley, Mary on his heels. Within seconds, the doctor had the gambler's head tipped up and back, and was breathing air into his lungs. Josiah sat next to him, his eyes darting back and forth between Ezra's face, his unmoving chest and the doctor. Twice the doctor blew air into the man's lungs, and Ezra hadn't responded. Vin turned away, unable to watch. Grimacing, the old man took in another breath, and was about to administer it when Ezra started to cough violently.

"Tip him on to his side!" the old man commanded, and Josiah immediately complied. He held onto the shaking gambler, rubbing his back, his eyes filling with joyful tears as he saw the younger man gulping in the sainted oxygen. The doctor nodded and told the visiting gunslingers that their friend would be just fine.

From where they stood just behind Josiah, Vin visibly relaxed, and Chris shut his eyes in thanks. Then the black clad gunslinger looked at his best friend, and indicated with a nod of his head that they should go and try to figure out what the hell happened.

Josiah watched them go silently, and gathered the still lightly coughing gambler up into his arms, waiting for him to regain consciousness. Mary knelt down next to him, and laid a comforting hand on Josiah's shoulder.


The next day, the Regent's Hotel in the mining town of Silver Creek was just a shell. Nothing remained but the blackened timbers. The hotel's owners crawled through the wet wreckage, along with some of the luckier patrons, and searched for belongings. All in all, everyone but one old woman and her husband had apparently survived the inferno. It was surmised that the fire had actually started in their room on the second floor, and that it was simply a horrible accident. Mary Travis, on the other hand, had other ideas.

She took in the sight with flashing eyes, her rage at the senseless death and destruction burning a hole in her stomach. If they thought this was going to scare her away, they had another thing coming.

Vin, who was the one guarding her this day, shook his head at the determination he saw on her face. Guess they weren't going home anytime soon.

Slow footsteps behind Mary alerted her to the quiet presence of Chris Larabee, and he leaned on the post near her with a practiced ease. She sighed, and shook her head.

"How is Mr. Standish?" she asked politely, her mind already several steps ahead.

"He'll be just fine. Inhaled a little too much smoke is all. Probably be a bit weak for a while, but Josiah will make sure he stays out of trouble," Chris replied lightly.

"Hmmm. I don't suppose he remembers anything more about the fire."

The black clad gunslinger shrugged, and shook his head. "Says all he knows is that he was in the hotel, it was on fire, and he was searching for me. Oh, and all that nonsense about tripping over someone."

"Well," Mary shook her head in annoyance, "I did send him to find you. Doesn't explain why he was still in there half an hour later, though, or why he was up on the third floor when our rooms were on the second."

"Well, he's still a little out of it for now. ‘Course, that didn't stop him from complaining about the rooms at the boarding house that I rented," he chuckled, but Mary didn't smile.

"Well, where else does he expect us to stay now that the hotel is burned down?" she demanded, a little too caustically.

Chris raised an eyebrow, surprised at her vehemence. He'd meant the statement to lighten the mood, but it only seemed to fan her flame. "Mary, there is no need for that."

If she'd been a cat, Mary would have bristled. She whipped around to stare the taller man in the eyes, as if daring him to even try to challenge her authority. "How dare you take that tone with me." she hissed. "I am not a child. I am your employer. I will do and say what I like." Fixing him with one more glare, she stormed off back to the boarding house.

Chris just watched her leave, his mouth agape. Vin shrugged, and launched himself after her, his ever watchful eyes scanning the community for signs of danger.

A light chuckle emanated from just behind Chris, followed by the familiar southern drawl asking "Umm…What just happened there?" He looked around to see Ezra watching Mary's retreating back with amusement, and a little puzzlement. Just behind him, Josiah hovered over the gambler with a protective air.

"Ezra, what are you doing out of bed!" Chris berated, staring daggers at the preacher. Ezra merely smiled, and Josiah shrugged.

"Surely, Mr. Larabee, you don't expect me to stay in bed when there is still so much to be done in this fair hamlet. Why, a large number of bereft gentlefolk will be in need of some quick cash as a result of that horrific blaze. Purely out of the kindness of my heart, I plan to be the bearer of their salvation." He flashed a gold tooth, and Chris's eyes narrowed.

"Sounds right human of you, Ezra," Chris said quietly, "and what exactly are you planning on getting in return?"

"Oh," Ezra waved a hand at the implied dig, "merely some of the bits and baubles that they might still be hanging onto. Any pieces of jewelry or precious metals that may have survived the blaze. I plan to give them a fair price, of course, Mr. Larabee."

Chris smiled wickedly, knowing exactly what Ezra meant by a fair price. About as fair as a loan shark when it comes to collecting overdue payments. He looked up at the preacher, who still stood at Ezra's side. "Keep him away from those people, Josiah," Chris stated with finality. Josiah nodded as Ezra spluttered.

"What? Why, Mr. Larabee, surely you can not be implying that my motives are anything less than purely philanthropic," he stammered, his face a mask of surprise and feigned anger. Chris continued to smile, and started to walk in the direction of where Mary had disappeared.

Taking Ezra's arm in a firm grip, Josiah took the still muttering gambler away and directed him towards the saloon. Truth be told, Ezra just wanted to sit down, his body still exhausted from its fight to keep breathing, so he didn't fight the older man too much. He shook his head at the indignity of his leader's attitude, but wasn't surprised. In any case, at least the alcohol would take some of the bite out of his splitting headache.


"Mary!" Chris hissed angrily as he caught up to the woman as she was about to enter the telegraph office, and grabbed her arm. She shook him off and stalked inside, followed by sheepish looking Vin. Sitting down on the bench just outside, Chris steamed and wondered how the hell he'd ended up in this awful mining town anyway.

A little over a week ago, Mary had approached him and asked if she might be able to hire him and Vin for a few days to act as bodyguards. She had heard that, in the town of Silver Creek, a very prosperous mining town in the Rocky Mountains on the northern edge of the territory, there was a mystery to be solved. Apparently, people had been disappearing, whole families in fact, without a trace. At first, no one had thought much of it, since people came and went in those sort of towns all the time, but, considering the fact that this was one of the richest mining towns in the area, it began to seem a little odd. Then Mary's friend, Mr. Martin Carlisle, the editor of the Silver Creek Standard and the one feeding her the story, had disappeared himself. Needless to say, Mary wanted to be on the next stage up.

Unfortunately, Judge Orrin Travis, her father-in-law, had been in Four Corners at the time, and he forbade her to go without protection. Mary, of course, told him he was being silly. But all the Judge had to do was refuse to take care of Billy for her, and she was forced into agreeing to bodyguards. Chris and Vin were the logical choices.

She approached the men in the saloon, sidling up to them as quietly as possible, and asked if she could hire them. Before Chris could even answer, Ezra was by her side. Like a cat sensing that it was about to be fed, the gambler was making himself available to her in "any capacity." Of course, all the money that was flowing into Silver Creek didn't have anything to do with his decision. Chris agreed to go simply because he felt he needed to keep an eye on his black sheep. Vin, of course, jumped on any chance to get out of the city and see new sights.

The next morning, they had been saddled up to leave when Josiah came up on his own horse, mentioning that he had a friend in Silver Creek, and might he accompany them? Mary had shrugged, though she explained she didn't have enough money to pay for all of them. Without hesitation, the other three agreed to split their wages four ways. Sadly for the preacher, upon arriving in Silver Creek three days later, he learned that his friend, Father O'Herlihy, had died earlier that year of "complications." Unable to discern more from the old town doctor, Josiah had visited the grave with Ezra by his side, and solemnly said good bye. Still, while Mary was working on her story, he'd tried to learn from the townsfolk if they knew what might have happened to the good Father.

Meanwhile, for the last four days, Mary had been digging around the town's skeletons and earning herself a great deal of negative feeling. She was like a bulldog, driven and refusing to give up. Problem was, she had learned very little for all her intrusiveness.

But somebody had burned down that hotel. She must be frightening someone. She knew innately that it had not been an accident.

As she waited for the telegraph operator to fetch her messages, she rubbed her forehead tiredly. Vin stood by the window, watching the outside with an eagle eye, his eyes drifting over Chris's tall frame sitting on the bench without really seeing him. The tracker had hear her sigh, but he was not the sort to get involved while he was working. That was Josiah's role.

However, when she gasped in surprise, he couldn't stop himself from looking over.

"Vin!" She exclaimed happily, waving a pink piece of paper in front of him. "I think I may have a lead!" She fairly danced out of the office, and smiled brightly at Chris. For his part, the black clad gunslinger tried not to show his surprise at her sudden change in mood. "C'mon," she said to him, grinning like a Cheshire cat, "let's go find the others. I think I may have a clue as to what is happening, and I'm going to need all you to help me figure out what to do next."


Josiah watched Ezra worriedly. Since entering the bar, the gambler had withdrawn into himself, playing with the cards in his hand without really seeing them. Deciding to take a gamble of his own, Josiah cleared his throat. With lazy eyes, Ezra looked slowly up at the preacher, his green eyes shining like emeralds in the firelight.

"Yes, Josiah?"

"Are you feeling alright?"

Ezra's eyes fell again to the cards in his hands, which continued to manipulate the deck expertly. "Certainly. Never Better. Aside from a splitting headache and an aggravating sensation of absent-mindedness due to the fact that my memories of the previous day are somewhat…indistinct." He shrugged, but offered no more. Josiah frowned.

"Are you still thinking about that…person you tripped over in the hotel room?"

Ezra's face hardened, but he didn't make eye contact again. "Please do not patronize me, Mr. Sanchez."

Josiah flinched at the use of his last name.

"Now, Ez, I wasn't…."

"Of course you were, Mr. Sanchez. Frankly, if I were in your place, I, too, would be questioning my sanity. Nevertheless, I was the one in that room, and I can say with absolute conviction that there was someone else there. Who he was or where he went, I can not say, but he was there." Ezra said all this without looking up, but the tension in his voice betrayed the anxiety he felt about the whole subject.

Josiah didn't respond, just nodded in what he hoped was a sage like manner. Ezra fell back into silence.

"Can you explain something else to me, Ezra?"

The gambler sighed, and turned his head to look out the window of the saloon. "If it is within my power, Mr. Sanchez."

"Why exactly did you think Chris was in that room? It wasn't one of the hotel rooms we had rented. Hell, I'm not even sure why you were in the hotel at that moment anyway."

Ezra didn't respond for a couple of seconds. He spotted Chris, Mary and Vin walking in their direction through the dirty panes, and noticed that Mary seemed unusually happy. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he took in his leader's sullen expression.

"Because, Josiah, I followed our Mr. Larabee in there," he explained simply. "Or at least, I thought I did," his voice wavered uncertainly. He shut his eyes, trying to clear his still smoke filled brain.

Mary had asked him to fetch Chris so she could tell him what she'd found out that day, and Ezra had been sure he'd just seen Chris from across the street entering the hotel. He'd jogged to catch up to him, and had just seen him disappear up the stairs. It had confused him when Chris hadn't stopped on the second floor, where their rooms were, but had continued up. Then his memory wavered. He'd been following the black clad man, then woken up to find himself in that smoke filled room. The realization that he might have been knocked out first hit him like a ton of bricks.

Josiah watched the gambler's eyes widen in surprise, and look at him fully.

"Josiah…" Ezra began, but he never finished as gunshots suddenly exploded all around them.

Outside, Chris jumped on Mary, bringing her to the ground, shielding her with his body. Vin dove to the side, behind a rather small water trough. He had his Mare's Leg up immediately, and was desperately trying to figure out where the shots were coming from. All around them, people screamed and ran, the incredibly busy street suddenly empty of people.

Ezra and Josiah crouched down by the windows of the saloon, also searching for the source of the gunfire. But just as quickly as it had started, it stopped. After a few minutes, like frightened prairie dogs, the people inched their heads out of the holes they'd crawled into. Slowly, Chris took himself off of Mary, his eyes darting around the still quiet street. Hs eyes caught the glint of metal from a bullet embedded in the earth just inches from his waist. On the ground, her head in her arms, Mary willed herself to stop shaking. Unfortunately, her body had other ideas as the adrenaline rush of fear continued to course through her.

Swearing in frustration, Vin gingerly came out of his hiding spot. He walked over to Mary and Chris, and helped the lady up out of the cold dirt. Ezra and Josiah were next to them in seconds, forming a four sided square around the newswoman. Straightening her hair in an attempt to appear calm, Mary only had to glance at Ezra's understanding countenance to know that he saw right through her.

"Let's go inside," she whispered, a little unhappy at the weakness of her voice. Still forming a tight defensive posture, they moved into the darkened interior of the saloon, the folks outside watching them leave with fear angered eyes. It was clear they wanted her gone, so that life could go back to normal.

Just as they were sitting down in a table near the back, Mary in the corner, the Sheriff and his young deputy stalked into the room. When the officers spotted them, they made a bee-line towards the outsiders. Ezra pulled out his cards, and absently began shuffling them, his face serene. Vin watched the windows, and Josiah watched the customers with Ezra. Only Chris and Mary were paying attention to the lawmen as they approached.

"What just happened out there!" The Sheriff boomed, looking at Chris and Mary in tandem. Under the table, Mary's hand gripped the gunslinger's, and he squeezed it to provide her strength.

"I should think it was obvious, Sheriff Monroe. Somebody just shot up the town," she replied matter-of-factly.

"They were shooting at you, Ms. Travis, and don't try to deny it," he argued tightly.

The boy deputy shifted his gaze along the other men, lingering a few extra minutes over Vin and Ezra. A buffalo hunter and a gambler – odd company you keep Mrs. Travis, he thought. In the end, he let his eyes rest on the top of the gambler's black riverboat hat, as if waiting for something. Mary sat straighter in her hard backed chair, her clear blue eyes taking on the quality of steel.

"I don't plan to. However, perhaps it is not me you should be looking to, Sheriff, but the men responsible. Probably the same men who burned down the hotel," she challenged.

The Sheriff stared at her for a second, too surprised to speak.

"How did you know it wasn't an accident?" he asked finally.

Mary's eyebrows shot up, as did Josiah's. Even Ezra paused in his shuffling, and everyone but the gambler turned to look at the law man.

"You mean I was right?" she answered, dumbfounded. Chris looked at her out of the corner of his eye, and took another drink.

The Sheriff frowned, and his Deputy scowled. The boy still hadn't taken his eyes off the gambler, and he had seen the slight interruption in the man's otherwise smooth demeanor. He smiled tightly.

Scratching his head under his hat, the Sheriff shook his head and rested a hand on his gun. "As a matter of fact, yes. The hotel smells so strongly of paraffin right now, we're surprised it didn't go up faster than it did. But then, the suspected arsonist had to make sure he got out in time, didn't he…Mr. Standish?" He let the import of his words sink in as his cold gray eyes rested on the gambler. Ezra stopped shuffling, feeling the eyes on him even though he didn't look up, and tucked his cards away. A frown creased his forehead for a moment before fading.

"What?" Mary asked, confused.

"We were wrong when we thought the old couple started the fire. We found a couple of buckets in the wreckage near the base of where the stairs had been, both stained black with spent lamp fluid. Its pretty obvious that someone threw them down the stairs from the third floor, the liquid already lit, and then found another way out. But perhaps the hotel went up a little too quickly, ‘cause we heard he nearly died in the attempt." This time, the implication was obvious, and Chris stood up, his own hand on his gun. Vin's Mare's Leg was resting on his arm, pointed towards the two lawmen.

"I can assure you gentlemen that Mr. Standish had nothing to do with that fire," Mary stated. "For one thing, there is no motive, and, you said it yourself, he nearly died from inhaling all that smoke."

The Sheriff shrugged, and the Deputy moved closer to Ezra's chair. "All I know," the Sheriff declared, "is that you lot rolled into town asking a lot of questions that ain't got answers, and, since then, our best hotel has burned down and people are running scared in the streets because of gunfire. I took the liberty of checking you and your companions out, Mrs. Travis, and was quite interested to note that you seem to enjoy hanging out with three murderers…and a notorious cheat and con artist."

"May I ask what you are implying, sir?" Mary demanded, her voice low with barely suppressed anger.

"I heard you were a reporter for some little nothing paper somewhere, Widow Travis. Maybe you're desperate enough for press and money that you feel the need to create your own news." Mary's mouth opened in righteous indignation, but the Sheriff cut her off, turning his attention back to the gambler. "Say, would you know anything about who fired those shots just now Mr. Standish?"

Before Ezra could answer, Josiah was on his feet answering for him. "You are walking down the wrong road, Sir."

"Very wrong," Vin agreed, moving forward.

"I think perhaps you had best back off now, Sheriff, before you take on more than you can handle," Chris concurred, the menace clear in his voice.

Ignoring them, the Sheriff continued to direct his questions to Ezra. "Plus, you haven't made an adequate explanation for why you were up on the third floor in any case, have you, sir? After all, weren't your rooms on the second floor?" The gambler shut his eyes.

"Sheriff Monroe, now, I don't know exactly who put you up to this, but while Ezra Standish here is many things, he would never ever endanger a person's life. Moreover, he'd be the first in line to make sure anyone in danger got to safety," Mary decreed, standing up herself. That only left Ezra still in his chair, yet to say a word.

"Well, I'm sorry to say that I don't know him, or any of you, that well, so, if you don't mind, I need to do my job. Mr. Ezra Standish…." Finally, Ezra tipped his hat back in order to look up, his clear green eyes meeting the Sheriff's calmly as the other man continued to speak, "you are under arrest for suspicion of arson, reckless endangerment, discharging a firearm without cause…."

"This is absurd!" Mary shouted.

"That's enough, Monroe!" Chris barked, coming around the table to tower over the shorter Sheriff, a knife appearing like magic in his hand. "I will not let you put an innocent man in jail, and never one of mine," he hissed. The older man visibly quivered, and the Deputy reacted by pulling his gun.

"Okay, nobody move!" The young man yelled, his high pitched voice betraying his youth. With a smooth move, Josiah was behind the boy, holding a gun to his back.

"I'd put that down, son," the larger man requested quietly. The boy's jaw twitched in astonishment. Vin turned to point his sawed off Winchester at the boy.

"Josiah, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, please…enough," Ezra demanded, his voice tight with irritation.

"Ezra," Chris admonished, but Ezra stopped him.

"Mr. Larabee, we are not going to get very far in this town if you insist on cutting down the only visible law in the area. Now, while I do not relish the thought of spending the day in a miserable cell, I'd rather that than have you being hanged for teaching this fool sheriff a lesson in manners. Please don't substantiate his slanderous statements by doing something you will regret." The gambler's smooth voice had the necessary soothing effect, and the men and Mary were all now watching him curiously. Ezra, for his part, took the opportunity to stand and face his accuser. A slight smile creased his features as he realized he was taller than the stout man.

"You can't be serious, Ez," Vin shook his head.

"This is obviously a simple mistake, my friends. However, if Mrs. Travis would be so kind as to telegraph her father-in-law and explain to him the situation, I'm sure we can have this resolved before the night is out." He looked over at Mary as he spoke, then to Chris. The black-clad gunslinger remained livid, whether at Ezra or at the sheriff still, the gambler wasn't sure. Nevertheless, after a moment, Chris nodded curtly.

Releasing a small sigh of relief, Ezra removed the Remington from his hip, then the Colt from his shoulder harness, and handed them handle first to the Deputy.

"And the derringer," Monroe stated. Ezra paused, his eyes darting to the man's face in surprise. Vin frowned, the bad feeling in his gut becoming even stronger. The gambler looked at Chris, then back at the sheriff.

"I saw you without your jacket at the doctor's, Mr. Standish, when I came to question you about the fire. I know it's there," the sheriff reminded him. Shaking his head, Ezra ejected the tiny gun from his wrist. Before he could hand it over, Chris grabbed his hand, took the gun, and handed it to Mary. The Deputy complained, but the Sheriff waved him off. With a grimace, the sheriff pulled the shackles from his belt, and Ezra dutifully put his wrists forward.


The whole group followed their friend to the jail, as the townspeople all stopped to watch. Some made rude comments, but a harsh look from Vin or Chris quickly quieted them. As they reached the structure, Ezra hesitated, put off by the obviously decrepit nature of the building. It had not been painted in years, and grasses grew out of the corners both inside and out. Insects and a small rodent dashed from sight at their approach. His reward for stopping was getting pushed forward roughly by the Deputy.

Suddenly the Deputy found a hand gripping his neck from behind, and Josiah's voice in his ear telling him exactly what to expect should even one hair on Ezra's head fall out of place. The younger man's face paled several shades before the one-time preacher was finished. It's amazing how many horrors you can borrow from the bible, Josiah mused as he let the boy go.

Inside, The Sheriff led Ezra to the only cell with a door still on its hinges, and gestured him inside. As soon as he had the shackles removed, Ezra moved to the small bunk and kicked the dust out of it. After a minor fit of coughing which irritated his sore throat and chest, he carefully sat down.

Mary approached the bars, her face tense with emotion. "I'm going to go and write Orrin now. We'll have you out of here in no time, Mr. Standish," she promised. Ezra smiled, and nodded.

Chris indicated for Ezra to come forward so he could whisper something. As the gambler complied, the Deputy stepped forward as if he would stop them, but one dark look from Josiah stilled him. He stood back with the Sheriff, who pretended not to care. Shaking hands betrayed the older man's discomfiture, however.

Chris leaned forward towards Ezra's ear. "If you haven't heard from us by the time the sun goes down, get yourself out of here. We'll meet you with the horses and get the hell out of this town. I trust these men to see justice done as much as I trust Buck to stop bedding married women." The gambler tipped his hat at the command, and backed away. Mary looked ready to argue, but changed her mind as Chris turned his steel blue eyes on her. Instead, she nodded. When it came down to it, she wouldn't risk Ezra's life for a story, even a good one.

Chris turned, and indicated for them to leave. He, Vin and Mary drifted out of the door, and headed towards the telegraph office. Josiah stood inside the room for a few extra minutes longer, watching Ezra watch him through the bars. Josiah knew that there was something very wrong about this whole thing, but Ezra's cool gaze was silently asking him to be patient. Finally, the gambler dropped his eyes and a crooked smile creased his features as he turned away to sit down again. Josiah sighed, sent a dirty look towards the Sheriff and Deputy, then went to follow the others.

With a grimace, Ezra waved away the dust cloud that had encircled his head as he plopped down again. Swinging his legs up, he moved to lie down and drop his hat brim over his eyes when the sound of throat being cleared stopped him. He tipped up his hat and turned eyes to the Sheriff. From the other side of the bars, Monroe grinned evilly, Ezra's Colt Richard's Conversion in his hand. The boy deputy stood by the door, watching his friends move down the street, before turning and nodding to the Sheriff. Ezra's eyes widened at the abrupt change in attitude of the men – confidence fairly exuded from them.

"Don't get too comfortable Standish. You're not going to be here long. And don't even consider shouting, unless you want a 45 millimeter slug in you heart," Monroe sneered.


Vin's eyes searched the area around the office expertly, but his mind was in the jail. There was something very wrong here, but he couldn't see what it was. Motion out of the corner of his eye drew his attention once more to the dilapidated structure at the end of town. The Sheriff wandered out, and turned to say something to the Deputy who must have been just inside the door. Then he continued to walk away towards the livery across the street.

Chris leaned on the hitching post to the left of the tracker, and noted Vin watching the Sheriff. Josiah was inside the telegraph office with Mary.

"Something on your mind, cowboy?" he asked quietly.

Vin shook his head, turning his attention back to the rest of the street. "Something smells about this whole business," he muttered. "I think we should get Ezra out as soon as possible."

Chris straightened, and looked at the jail. "Well…let's give the judge a little time to respond, first. Else, Mary may not forgive me for making her leave before she's finished her nosing around," he said. Vin snorted.

"How long is a ‘little time' exactly?'"

Chris smiled, his attention on the sharpshooter. "Oh, I don't know…maybe fifteen minutes?" Vin laughed, and relaxed more comfortably against the railing.

Then the jail exploded.

Part Two

The blast was deafening, as were the screams of the people in the immediate aftermath. The rush of air blew down anyone close to the jail, and several others staggered. Vin fell back into Chris, who stopped him from tripping onto his face. Josiah and Mary charged out of the office, the newswoman's mouth open in shock.

"NO!" Josiah screamed, running towards the smoking black hole where the jail once sat. Chris tackled him before he got too close, and the preacher threw him off with a mighty heave. Then Vin was on him, and Mary stood in front of the supine man as he struggled with the youngster. Catching her terrified visage, Josiah relented and stopped fighting the tracker. Once back on his feet, he staggered closer to the building at about the same time that the Sheriff came on the scene.

All that was left was black rubble, with a few small fires shooting up in places. The smell of death seemed to pervade the air, and Mary turned into Chris's arms. Vin looked up at the sky, trying to see past the smoke that billowed upwards to the peaceful blue up above. Unable to reach the calm he saw up there, he shut his eyes.

Josiah stood looking at the wreckage, too afraid to get any closer. Too afraid of what he might see. Next thing he knew, his legs buckled out from under him and he was sitting on the ground. His mind begged him to believe that the boy hadn't been in there, that he had somehow gotten away. Ezra was too quick, too clever…he had to have gotten away.

Off to the side, he could hear Mary crying, and some others. He heard Chris shouting at the sheriff in anger. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Vin's ashen face, the tracker's eyes filled with so much anguish it nearly killed the older man.

"My boy…." Josiah begged, staring into the open gray eyes of his friend. Vin simply shook his head.

And for the first time in many, many years, Josiah Sanchez broke down and cried.


Several hours later, a very subdued group sat in the saloon. They had left Josiah at the boarding house, in an exhausted slumber. Mary had her head in her hands, still unable to stop the tears from coming. Absently, she wiped them away, before placing her head back in her hands.

Chris stared at the drink in front of him, his eyes cloudy from not having blinked. The shot glass of Red Eye seemed to mock him his pain, but he couldn't take his eyes off of the amber liquid. In his mind, he was already completely drunk. He couldn't understand why he suddenly felt so broken. When had that lazy, good for nothing, money grubbing gambler begun to mean more to him than an extra gun?

Vin remained vigilant, watching the crowd, his Mare's Leg resting in his arms. He couldn't think about the idea that Ezra might be gone. The whole thing was too unreal. He shook himself, wishing he knew why the man's death was having such a tremendous impact on him. He'd seen a lot of death in his time but this was…somehow…different. It was almost as bad as the time when….No. Nothing was as bad as watching his mother die. She was his only family, his connection to the world. Nothing and no one could ever replace her. He risked a glance at Chris, and the hollowness of the thought echoed in his ears. When had his connection to the others happened? When had he started thinking about them as necessary to his life? And now, another piece of his only recently found balance was dead. He saw his best friend finally risk a blink, and the tracker's eyes widened as he recognized the familiar expression of a man trying not to lose control. Suddenly, Vin had to blink quickly to dispel the wetness that rudely invaded his eyes.

The crowd of people glanced over occasionally, most watching the outsiders with a mixture of compassion and utter hatred. A fire, a gunfight, and an explosion all in the same two days, and all related to these outsiders. The folk of Silver Creek wanted the newswoman and her escort gone.

When the sheriff cleared his throat near the table, both Vin and Mary jumped. Vin immediately felt embarrassed for losing his concentration, and Mary tried to clear bloodshot eyes so she could see the portly man standing in front of her. Chris didn't move.

"Yes, Sheriff?" she asked, once she was sure her voice wasn't going to warble.

"I…um…I've come to offer my condolences for the loss of your, um, companion."

"Friend, Sheriff," Mary corrected.

"Brother," Vin whispered, but neither man nor woman heard him.

"Yes, well, look…my Deputy was a good man. He certainly didn't deserve…." He stopped, shaking his head. "Anyway, I'm sorry."

Mary nodded, but didn't thank him. If the Sheriff noticed the slight, he didn't acknowledge it.

"So, um, I suppose this means you folks'll be leaving now, huh?"

Mary appeared puzzled by the question, but, after glancing at the two unresponsive men, she lowered her eyes to the table in defeat. "Yes, Sheriff, I imagine that would be right. We have to tell the rest of his family what happened, and, quite frankly, I don't think we could stay here any longer. We'll probably be leaving in the morning." As she spoke, she looked at the other two, but, as before, neither even flinched. She sighed, and turned a tear stained face to the old lawman.

The Sheriff was watching her kindly, and nodded once to show his understanding. With a tip to his white hat, he left. Mary looked at Chris, willing him to speak. Slowly, he turned haunted blue eyes to stare into hers.

"We aren't leaving, Mary," he whispered.

"What? But…" She frowned as he leaned in closer. She felt his callused hand grip hers hard, warning her to be quiet.

"Let him and all this town think we're leaving for now," he explained, his voice low. "But we are going to find out who killed Ezra and why. Then we are going to find out why this whole town is so damn terrified all the time, and where all the missing residents are, including your friend. You know as well as I that it is all tied together. Do you still have all of Martin Carlisle's papers?"

Slowly, Mary nodded. "Yes, but we already went through them. Oh!" she exclaimed, causing a few people to turn their way. Chris gripped harder. She winced in pain. "Sorry," she begged quietly, and he released his hold. "Before all this happened, I think I got a lead from a friend in another town through the telegraph," she whispered, pulling out the pink piece of paper from a hidden pocket in her skirt. "He gave me an idea of who might be behind this. I think that if I were to go through Martin's paper's again, I might be able to make some real connections."

Chris nodded slightly, briefly. "Good. Vin," he looked up at the tracker. Vin leaned over, to put his ear near the gunslinger's. "I want you to take Josiah and go to the next town as soon as possible. I don't trust the telegraph operator anymore than I trust that sheriff. Write to the others, tell than what has happened, and get them up here. Tell them to come in disguise. And wire the judge again, and ask him to have some Marshals standing by."

Chris spotted Mary shaking her head out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look at her.

"If the person behind this is who I think it is, we'll need more than a few Marshals. They're too easily corrupted. Tell Orrin to make sure the cavalry is nearby," Mary stated.

Chris raised a brow, and Vin smiled. "Can he do that?" Vin whispered.

Mary smiled slightly. "My father-in-law has many friends, Mr. Tanner," she replied.

Vin raised his eyebrows at Chris, who merely lowered his eyes, not willing to be impressed.

"So who do you think is behind this, Mary?" Vin asked, moving to sit next to her.

Mary took a deep breath, and glanced once more at the noisy bar. No one seemed to be paying them much mind, but, just in case, she placed her elbows on the table, raising her hands so as to rest her forehead on fingers. This way, she effectively hid her face from everyone but Chris and Vin.

"Have you ever heard of Augustus Pratt, or, more to the point, his son, Tiberious?"

"Tiberious?" Vin repeated, his voice betraying his sarcasm at such a silly name.

Mary nodded, not surprised, then looked at Chris. He thought for a minute, and frowned. "Is Augustus Pratt that rich Georgian banker?"

Mary smiled, and narrowed her eyes. "Yes, but to call him rich would be an understatement. The man could own half the West if he so desired, and certainly he could own all of Four Corners several times over. He is brilliant and shrewd, but, unfortunately, the same could not be said for his son. Tiberious Pratt is, to put it mildly, something of a lunatic. Like his father, he is extremely intelligent, but he is rumored to be slightly unsettled in the mind."

"You mean he's nuts," Vin rephrased, and Mary nodded.

"Augustus had him in homes for a while, but Tiberious would just escape and find his way back. Its even rumored he tried to kill his father the last time he went home. Finally, his father couldn't stand it any longer, handed his son an enormous amount of cash, and sent him West. Tiberious popped up all over the place, but never for a very long time, and, in some ways, he's become something of a myth because he seems so elusive. It is a journalist's dream." She gave a crooked smile, and Chris nodded for her to continue.

"Anyway, my newsman friend wrote to say he heard that the boy may have bought some land up here in Silver Creek. In fact, its rumored he bought out all the mine owners, though he kept them on as managers. Now, I don't know if any of this is true, or just rumor, but Tiberious is supposed to be insane and rich. If anyone could cow a town of this size and wealth, it would be he," she finished, her hushed tones unable to hide her excitement of such a story.

Chris leaned back, and looked at Vin. The sharpshooter frowned, but shrugged.

"Of course," Mary continued, her tone lowering, "that doesn't tell us exactly what he may be doing, or why, to this town. Or why Ezra…." She swallowed as the memory of his trusting green eyes staring at her from behind those bars washed across her mind. She took a deep breath, and pressed her hands into her face. When she finished rubbing her eyes, she looked up to see that Vin had gone. Chris downed the shot in front of him, and stood.

"Let's go look at Carlisle's papers again."


Josiah was not in the room when Vin went to look, but his saddlebags were. A slight pang of fear crossed his chest, until he saw the note on the beside table. It contained only one word, making it easy for even a fledgling reader like Vin to make out – "livery." Efficiently, Vin scooped up the packed bags and added them to his own. He quickly made his way to the livery, taking the route behind the buildings to avoid being seen.

He crept in the back way and looked around. The stable boy was there, obviously watching and listening to someone talk. Vin hid the saddlebags behind a wall, then melted out of the shadows into the main room, making the boy jump.

"Ah, am I to assume that Mr. Tanner has joined us?" Josiah intoned from the stall which held Chaucer. The preacher was trying to brush the skittish horse down, but the Chestnut was having none of it. He kept rearing and kicking at the stall door, and the young stable boy would jump back. Roughly, Josiah grabbed the horses mane and brought him down again. Vin just watched amazed as the horse made to bite the large man, but stopped at a look from the preacher, combined with a hand motion. Still, the horse refused to be quieted, despite the older man's work.

"Josiah?" Vin asked, stepping forward.

"Young Seth here came to fetch me, to say he was afraid Chaucer here would injure himself. Apparently, the foolish horse has been tearing up its stall since the explosion, trying to get out. As I was the only one in the room, I offered my services. However, while I have used some of Ezra's hand tricks on the beast, I can not mollify him."

"Better than he was before, Mr. Joe," Seth praised.

Vin smiled at the adoration the boy obviously felt for the ex-priest, a common occurrence. But horses were not Josiah's specialty. As such, the preacher dutifully gave way to Vin's expertise. Within a few moments, the tracker had the horse at least calm, though its muscles still twitched.

"He knows, Josiah," Vin whispered as he stroked the horse's side. "I don't know how, but he knows. I'm not sure how long we can keep him calm."

Josiah didn't answer from where he stood near Seth. The boy watched them both curiously. Vin turned to favor Josiah with tired looking gray eyes, his mouth clenched closed.

"What do you suggest, then?" Josiah queried.

Vin shrugged, and felt Chaucer's muscles tense again. The horse swung his head and bared his teeth at the tracker, then tried to take a bite out of his arm. The sharpshooter jumped back.

"Damn ornery horse!" he chastised. When Chaucer turned away again, looking almost disgusted by the tracker, Vin shook his head and moved to exit the stall. Chaucer stepped back to hide in the shadows, turning its back on the men.

Josiah watched Chaucer, his heart filled with empathy. The horse was too human for its own good.

"He used to run with the mustangs once, Ezra told me," Vin mused as he reached Josiah's side. "Perhaps we should just let him go."

After a few minutes, Josiah nodded slowly and turned to the boy. "Seth, you may want to get out of here for a while. Chaucer may not be as docile when we open the door. Here," digging into his pocket, Josiah produced a quarter and placed it in the boys palm, "go buy yourself some candy. When you come back in an hour, Chaucer will be gone by then." The priest smiled, and Seth thanked him, nodding his understanding.

The boy turned to leave, but stopped himself just before reaching the outer doors. He licked his lips, as if unsure he should say something, then stood straighter as if he'd made his mind up. Vin and Josiah glanced at each other, and waited. Seth turned to face them, his fourteen year old face alive with determination.

"You're friend, that gambler…I liked him. He was real nice to me, and showed me card tricks whenever he came to take care of Chaucer. Always treated me like an equal, you know? I like his horse too. He never gave me no trouble until…." He shook his head, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth as he regarded the chestnut beast. "Look, I just wanted you to know that…that I'm really sorry about everything."

Vin watched him turn again to the door, then barked his name, stopping the youth again. Seth glanced back at him suspiciously, a small amount of fear in his eyes.

"Seth," Vin asked quietly, not sure what kind of response he'd get, but hoping anyway, "were you here when the Sheriff came in, right before the explosion?"

Seth watched him for a minute, blinking quickly. Then he gave a quick nod.

"Why did he come here?"

Seth turned to look at the door, then ran back to Vin. His voice was so low, Vin had to strain to hear. "I don't know, mister. He just came in and stood near the back, as if he were waiting for something." He swallowed, and looked around again. "You gotta be careful. He's part of it. They all are. Leave, while you still can. Please!" He stared at Josiah and Vin, his eyes terrified. Then, before either man could reply, he jetted out of the barn.

Josiah looked at Vin curiously, then frowned when he saw the younger man nod slowly at something and turn to go to the back of the room. When he returned with the saddlebags, Josiah shook his head.

"I can't leave yet, brother Vin," he stated.

"We're not leaving, Josiah. We're just going to go a little ways away and write to get us some help. Chris don't trust the people here, and, from what we just heard, he's obviously right. We'll be back in time to hear the rooster crow in the morning."

Josiah sighed, and turned to look at Chaucer. Vin followed the gaze, and the horse looked up, its teeth bared.

"We'll let him go once we're out on the range a bit," Vin announced. The preacher nodded, and took his saddlebags from Vin.


They released Ezra's pride and joy maybe ten miles outside of town, and watched quietly as the horse sprinted away. Chaucer flew across the landscape, his movements haphazard, stopping only once atop a ridge half a mile from the men. He glanced back, the disappeared down the other side.

Josiah watched the spot for a moment, tears streaming down his face, and Vin turned away.

"C'mon, Josiah," Vin exhaled, and nudged his horse forward. With a heavy heart, Josiah turned his own horse to follow.


Chaucer bounded down the hillside, and took off North. He knew Ezra was alive. He'd be there when the man needed him. The horse let his instincts control his movements, and it soon became clear that he was headed towards the large hill north of the town.


The black bag covering his head was stifling in the heat of the summer air. Combined with everything he'd been through in the last two days, Ezra felt near fainting when they finally sat him down and pulled it off of his head. He was pretty sure that somewhere along the way, someone had thought it would be a good idea to stuff cotton in his brain. It certainly felt fuzzy.

He blinked and squinted in order to focus on the candlelit room, and realized he was in another cell. The difference was this one was made completely of cold reddish stone, as if it had been carved out of a mountain, although the iron bars marking the door were clearly not natural. Blinking away the sweat that still poured down his face, he raised his shackled hands in a poor attempt to brush his matted hair from his forehead.

"Sam! Why is he still shackled? Release him, this instant!" a petulant voice called, its tones suggesting a young man. Looking up, Ezra regained his focus enough to spot a gangly looking blond man watching him from the opposite side of the small cell. His companion wore the clothes of a gentleman, his blue gray suit of far richer quality than Ezra's red wool one. All that silk and linen -- this was obviously not a prisoner. Then his view was blocked by a stocky, armor plated guard with a long black moustache who unlocked the metal clamps on his wrists.

Bemusedly, the gambler tried to work out what the hell happened.

He had been marched out of the Silver Creek jail almost instantly upon the departure of his friends via a hidden back door. Immediately the young deputy had thrown the black bag over his head and shackled his wrists. Others must have been waiting there for them because someone other than the fat sheriff forced him on top of a horse (not Chaucer, much too bony), and instantly spurred it and some other horses into a gallop. Had he been able to see, he might have tried to escape, but as it was, he was still too surprised by the whole charade to even think.

Then he heard the explosion. His horse reared, nearly throwing him, but someone must have grabbed the reins and calmed the beast. The bonus of the black cloth covering his face was that no one could see his panic. Instinctively, he knew that it was the jail that had been blown up. The others would think he was dead. Josiah would think he was dead. He was on his own.

Then again, maybe not.

As "Sam" the guard moved away, he found himself looking again at the young man opposite him. The man smiled, his teeth glittering whitely in the dark room. Blond shaggy hair capped his head, and, wait, was that gray at the temples? This boy like man was not as young as he seemed. Indeed, the more Ezra looked at him, he realized that the young man was probably about the same age as he, maybe even older. There was also something very familiar about him.

For his part, the blond man watched him in an almost eager anticipation, as if the next words out of Ezra's mouth would instantly turn to gold before his eyes.

"Ummm, hi," Ezra tried, a little uncomfortable under the scrutiny. With his right hand, he pushed the hair back from his scalp and raised an eyebrow at his…captor?

"Hi!" the man replied brightly. "You're Ezra, right? Maude's son?"

This made Ezra jump slightly, and all sorts of thoughts raced through his mind about how he should answer. Had Maude swindled this boy? Should he disavow all knowledge of her, or was that too late? Should he say they were estranged?

The boy frowned when the gambler didn't respond immediately. He was sure this was Ezra. Maude had showed him a picture of him when he saw her in St. Louis last year. But then, maybe Ezra didn't remember him.

"Ezra," he scolded, "don't say you don't remember me. Maude told me all about you when I last saw her, and I must say, she had me laughing so hard that I nearly peed my pants. I just know you couldn't have changed that much. C'mon, you must remember me!"

This time, Ezra frowned, but mostly at the idea that Maude had been telling stories about him again. But he quickly masked the expression and licked his dry lips, trying to divine what he could about his captor. All he could discern, however, was a genteel southern accent, and it wasn't enough. The gambler sighed.

"I'm terribly sorry, my friend, but I appear to have misplaced your name. I'm afraid my mind is still a little addled due to the rather difficult passage I took to get out here."

The blond's mouth formed an "oh" and he turned to look disapprovingly at someone. Following his gaze, Ezra noticed the deputy standing on the other side of the bars. The boy blushed and looked away. The well dressed man's eyes narrowed in silent command, and a different portly guard cuffed the boy harshly on the back of his head. Stocky Sam never changed his expression where he stood at attention by the entrance. Meanwhile, the blond man turned bright blue eyes back to his newest toy.

"I must apologize for your treatment, Ezra, but these ruffians are not as couth as I have demanded them to be. I mean, do they look like castle guards to you? No! They look like booze filled pus bags in armor plating, pretending to be stoic. Not fooling anyone are they."

Booze filled puss bags? Ezra swallowed at childish description, and attempted to smile sympathetically at the man opposite him. And did he say, "castle" guards? Ezra looked around at the cold stone room, and tried to imagine just where the hell he was.

"Anyway, it is all you can expect out here. Not like Georgia, huh, Ezra? Now, the guards back there knew how to look serious." The blond smiled as a flash of recognition seemed to glint in the gambler's eyes.

"I haven't been to Georgia since I was eight…"Ezra muttered, puzzled. Surely not…please tell me its not him, he begged silently.

"Ah ha! I knew you'd remember with a little help. I mean, I know its been over twenty years, but you were practically my brother during that time when Maude wooed daddy. Here, how ‘bout this. Remember the time we went frog fishing in the pond on my daddy's estate, and I pushed you in? You looked so funny, all covered in slime! And, boy, was Maude ever mad you'd ruined your suit. I recall her words so clearly…." The blond man's voice rose in timber as he attempted to imitate Maude's voice. "Do you know how hard it is to find a quality suit for an eight year old boy? All my work, ruined because you had to fall into a pond. Why do I even bother? I mean, really!" The young man laughed, his long limbs shaking with mirth.

"Oh God," Ezra murmured, his heart in his throat. He knew exactly who this was…and the thought filled him with dread. Swallowing to bring some liquid to his dry throat, he spoke a little louder when he asked, "Tibby?"

Tiberious Pratt grinned so widely, Ezra swore he could see the man's wisdom teeth. "Yee-Haw!" Tiberious yelled, jumping up and proceeding to dance over and around where Ezra sat. Considering the cell was barely four foot square, the amount of movement the man could make was impressive. Inwardly, Ezra recoiled as Tiberious eventually plopped himself next to Ezra and threw an arm around his shoulder.

"I knew it was you! Despite the funny last name, I knew. When the Sheriff sent me those drawings he'd made of you and those others, I recognized you instantly. Damn I'm good."

"Yes, you certainly are…." Ezra replied darkly as Tibby continued to bounce up and down next to him.

"We're going to have so much fun, Ezra! It'll be just like old times. You're going to love it here!"

"Umm…Yes, about that, Tibby. Where is here exactly?"

Tiberious grinned again, and tapped a finger to the side of his nose to indicate that it was a secret. Inwardly, Ezra sighed. "All right," the gambler acquiesced, "then, how about telling me what here is?"

This time Tiberious didn't even hesitate, and his eyes lit up with self-love. "This, Ezra now Standish, is something that every boy wants, but only I had the guts to create. This, my oldest friend, is my castle!" He swept his arm around in a wide arc, which only caused Ezra to raise his eyebrows in puzzlement as he looked around at the poorly lit stone cell. It contained two small stone benches carved into the walls, and nothing else. Tiberious laughed.

"No, no, not the cell, you fool. What's on top of the cell. You see, I decided that, since my father used to be King of the South, well, at least until that ridiculous war took away all his slaves and ruined his estate, I would be King of the West. So, I bought this mountain that was riddled with mines and caverns and am turning it into my fortress. It's from here I plan to rule." His eyes narrowed shrewdly, and Ezra had to work to keep from either laughing at the absurdity of the statement or recoiling in disgust at the insanity he could plainly see in the man's ice blue eyes.

Tiberious stood then, and held out a hand to Ezra. "Come, I'll show you." After a moment's hesitation, Ezra took the proffered limb gingerly in his own and stood. The other man didn't notice the slight, turning to walk out with Ezra's hand firmly embraced in his own. The gambler could do little more than follow.

As he exited the cell, Ezra was surprised to find they were at the top end of a long narrow stone passage. Extending away into the darkness was a whole row of cells, complete with prisoners. The multitude of faces watched curiously, combined with a marked wariness. He saw children, old people, teenagers, and adults of every kind, whites, blacks, Indians and Hispanics, all watching him as best they could from their awkward angles. Eyes glittered in the sparse candlelight, and not one person spoke.

"My God…" Ezra couldn't help the gasp. Tiberious nodded, as if pleased at the exclamation.

"These are my workers, Ezra. They live here when they're done for the day."

"Who…who are they?" Ezra asked, even though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.

The man still gripping his hand shrugged. "People from the town who tried to stop me, or who thought they were better than me, or richer than me….mostly, it's the people who annoyed me. Now they work for me," he finished simply, proudly. "Father may not have slaves anymore, but I don't understand the logic of that. Tradition and history tell us that slaves have been integral to the foundation of every great empire, from the Ancient Chinese to the modern British, and what is this paltry Union of states to think they can survive without it, or ever become great? Some folks are made to work for others, you know? And I'm just starting my collection!" His laugh grated like that of a whining infant, and Ezra flinched at the horrible noise as it reverberated down the passageway. Various faces disappeared as if to hide, but a few remained, including a man in a priestly garb. He seemed to be watching Ezra intently.

Looking away, Ezra noticed that he had been placed in the first cell along the block, and, consequently, the one with the most light. He also had it all to himself. In some of the other cells, whole families seemed to be crushed into the small space. He tried not to think about what that must be doing to them.

In the direction opposite, where Tiberious steered them, the space opened up into a chamber about twice the size of his cell, with two torches lit and blackening the reddish gray walls. A guard's table with four chairs filled the space, and a checkers board sat on it.

Tiberious pulled Ezra into the room, shadowed by large Sam, the boy deputy and the portly guard. He stopped when he saw the checkers board.

"I thought I said no games, Sam."

"Yes sir, I know, but it can get awfully quiet down here and I just thought…."

"I don't pay you to think, Sam. You are a castle guard, and guards do not play games on duty. Fact is, you and Chet are getting way to lazy down here." He looked over at the boy deputy and smiled. "That's why I'm appointing Dirk to join you down here. Maybe his youthful vigor can wake you boys up."

The deputy's mouth dropped open. He didn't want to be down here! He was supposed to be one of the keep guards. Sam and the portly guard, Chet, scowled when Tiberious' back was turned. All they needed was another smelly body bothering them.

Not caring one way or another how the guards felt, Tiberious scooped up the board, letting the pieces scatter all over the floor, and tucked it under his arm. "I am going to have this burnt. I do not want to see anymore games down here again, do you understand?" The self-proclaimed king's voice took on the quality of steel, and his gaze rested slowly upon each man. All three nodded, after which Tiberious ordered the former deputy, Dirk, to go get himself a uniform and report back to Sam immediately. Ezra shook his head at the ludicrousness of it all.

Tiberious still held Ezra's hand tightly, and when he looked back to the gambler, his eyes were open and childlike again, and a happy grin shone on his face. How many personalities does this nut have? Ezra wondered, trying to smile back.

With a fluid motion, they left the room and were immediately met on the other side by two more guards, this time in red livery. Gold filigree patterned the guards tunics, and the two burly men looked more like the medieval knights which Ezra was sure Tiberious was aiming for. The blond man continued to grin as the walked though another passage, this one considerably better lit. Within about twenty feet, they were in what was obviously a central chamber, a central hole in the ceiling allowing the smoke of all the torches to escape.

For the first time Ezra realized that, despite probably being fairly far underground, he wasn't very cold. In fact, as he considered this fact, he noticed that the ground beneath his feet was warm. He looked down curiously, but saw only stone.

Tiberious saw the look, and chuckled. "Warm, isn't it? I chose this mountain for that fact. There are hot springs off to our right," he indicated a brightly lit passageway, and the gambler was surprised to realize that what he thought was smoke creeping out of the top, was probably more like steam. Tiberious continued his tour, describing his theory that they lived on top of an ancient volcano, and that lava actually flowed beneath their feet. It heated the whole mountain, which made it so eminently livable.

They wandered down a few more passages, steadily making their way upwards, with Tiberious explaining his grand scheme to Ezra the whole time, never once releasing the other man's hand. Eventually, they reached a large wooden door patterned with various medieval looking symbols, and Tiberious stopped and knocked. It swung open before them on silent hinges, pulled by yet another liveried guard, this one in red and blue. The man bowed deeply as they walked through, not that Ezra noticed.

The room they entered was huge and cavernous, extending upwards at least three stories. The cold red stone walls and floor were hidden behind a deep red stained wood, which halted about halfway up. At the top, evening light streamed through gothic arched windows to light the room below. Enormous iron chandeliers hung from the ceiling, hanging from buttressed stone arches, each filled with hundreds of candles, all lit. Bright tapestries covered the walls, and a long wooden table that could seat at least fifty guests graced the center of the room. At the far end, a stone throne was carved into the wall, surrounded by heavy brocaded red curtains. Torches lined the walls at intervals, and several guards and servants (slaves?) stood at attention along the walls. On either side, about halfway up the walls, two balconies hung out over the room, the passageways leading to them hidden behind more red curtains. Ornamenting it all, pure veins of quartz ran up and down the pillars holding up the ceiling, and silver and copper lined the edges of the chairs, the wood walls, and all over the throne, all, presumably, from the mines that Tiberious had bought to create this place.

For the first time in his life, Ezra was completely and utterly speechless.

"My Great Hall," Tiberious said simply, his lips twitching in amusement at Ezra's obvious loss for words. "This was built first. I've also carved out the kitchens, my chambers, storage rooms, and cut out part of the mountain to create some gardens. There are a couple natural springs that I diverted and pipe in to feed it all. I have plans for guest rooms, better guard quarters, improved fortifications, and, of course, more living space for me and my future wife, whomever she may be. Of course, I could always pick more than one!" He laughed heartily, and Ezra smiled awkwardly in response.

"And all this was carved out…."

"By the workers in the dungeons. Just as all the servants are my workers. This was just a big empty water carved cave when I bought it, and now look at it. A real castle, Ezra, not just the sand ones we used to build on the beach down South. Oh no, I don't plan on just play acting a King anymore." He grinned, and gripped Ezra's hand tighter. The gambler was worried that he was beginning to lose feeling in the limb. That, and he could feel the sweat building on it, betraying his nervousness where he hid it so well on his face. Luckily, Tiberious either didn't seem to notice, or he simply didn't care.

"I also own several other mountains in the area, which I still use as mines, but, eventually, when they wear out, I plan on creating a whole city out of this place. It will be the greatest city in the world when I am finished!"

Prattsville? Ezra mused, his lips twitching at the absurd thought. Tibby City? Tiberious mistook the smile on Ezra's face for wonder and joy, and he squeezed Ezra's hand in excitement.

"Come let me show you the rest," Tiberious encouraged, continuing to drag Ezra with him and heading for the throne. Swallowing, the gambler decided it was time to find out exactly what his role was to be in this insane world.

"Tibby, may I ask where it is you expect me to fit in all this?"

Tiberious nodded as they reached the far end of the table. Ezra noticed that two places had been set, presumably for Tibby and himself. The blond man sighed, and wiped his free hand under his nose.

"I was wondering when you were going to ask that, old friend. You see, for all that I'm surrounded by people, I find myself to be somewhat lonely for intelligent conversation. While some of the people I have granted an audience to have been amusing, I get bored of them too easily. But I was never bored with you Ezra."

Great, the gambler thought angrily. I knew you for less than a month, you idiot, and you tortured me the whole time. Damn it mother, how do you get me mixed up in these things? Tiberious was oblivious to the dark look that passed over his "old friend's" face.

"See, I figure, every good King needs a jester, right? Someone to keep them happy while the world moves around them. You're going to be mine. Tonight, for example, I thought we could play some of that poker you're so good at. I almost beat Maude last time I played her, so I figure I should be able to beat you."

Ezra rolled his eyes at the unintentional insult, but didn't interrupt.

"Plus, I thought you could show me all the new tricks you've learned, and then, I figure, with all the schooling I know you got, you probably have lots of stories, songs, poems and jokes stored up in that head of yours just demanding to be recited. And, besides all that, we can just play lots of games and stuff. You can teach me how to box, too. Maude told me about that. Sounds like you're pretty good, huh?" Tiberious waggled his eyebrows at the gambler, who just shrugged and nodded in reply. The blond grinned widely for the hundredth time since Ezra had first seen him. Didn't the man's cheeks get tired?

"We'll be constant companions from now on, Ezra. Just like brothers again. Oh, it's going to be so much fun." By this time, they had reached the curtains behind the throne, and yet another guard pulled back them back for them. A wood paneled passageway extended away from them, leading to another door. This one swung open before they'd even stepped inside. Beyond, Ezra could see more rooms, more opulence, more unreality. He had to get out of here.

"Of course, I can't keep you up here with me, Ezra, so you'll have to stay in the dungeons with the others. I'll also expect you to be working when not with me, but, don't worry, I'll make sure you just get light jobs. I don't want you tiring yourself out." The man chuckled wickedly, as he pulled the gambler along behind him. Ezra just blinked at the information. In the back of his mind, he was cataloguing everything he saw – the number of guards, servants, the passages they traveled and where they went. He particularly kept an eye out for the hidden doors he knew existed. Tiberious as a child used to love the idea of secret passageways and escape routes, Tiberious the adult would most assuredly have put a few in his "castle." These would be the quickest ways out of the castle, come time to leave.

For now, though, Ezra knew he'd just have to wait.


It was two days later when Buck and JD rolled into town, looking like a pair of out of work miners. Nathan arrived an hour later, also pretending to be looking for work. He headed straight to the doctor's office. Several hours later, all six men and Mary were gathered in the disused tack room above the livery, with Seth keeping a lookout below.

The boy had volunteered when he'd overheard Josiah and Vin speaking about Chris's plan upon their return at four in the morning on the day they lost Ezra. Had they known the poor boy slept in the livery, they probably would have been more careful. Too late, Seth surprised them by jumping down and demanding that they let him help. His best friend was one of the missing, Seth said, and he wanted to get him back.

He told them that the sheriff and the doctor were both involved, as was almost everyone with money in the town. Everyone else just kept their heads down and tried not to attract attention to themselves. So, he became their lookout, and told them the best places to hide.

Now, two days later, the six and Mary were discussing their next move. Buck, Vin, Mary and Chris sat in the middle, muttering about what they'd learned, while an unusually quiet JD sat with Josiah and Nathan. The preacher still looked lost, and it was clear he was simply waiting for instructions. Nathan had his arm around him, trying to give his best friend as much comfort as possible.

JD just didn't want to talk to anyone. Since reading the telegram from Vin – "Ezra dead. Come quickly. Disguised." – he'd been unable to do little more than blink. Buck had done all the work to get them here. Now, the kid held Josiah's hand and, like the preacher, simply waited for instructions.

"My friend, Martin Carlisle, had two other big stories he was following besides the missing persons one that he wrote me about," Mary said, her eyes on the little black leather bound book she had in her hands where she wrote down her notes. "It is my supposition that, based on what we know about Tiberious Pratt, the stories are actually all connected. I don't think Martin knew that, or, if he did figure it out, it may be what led to he and his family disappearing as well."

"He had a family?" Buck asked. Mary nodded.

"A wife, Jane, and a daughter, Millie." Buck grimaced at Mary's words, and shook his head.

"Anyway," Chris broke in, "from the man's notes, we know that someone did indeed buy up all the mines in the area, someone who had to have had an enormous amount of cash. Martin guessed that, if anyone didn't want to sell, they simply disappeared, effectively abandoning their claims for the mysterious buyer to take over. He didn't know that the mysterious buyer was Pratt."

"And we do?" Nathan wanted to know.

Mary pursed her lips, and flipped a few pages in the notebook. "Martin was also, like all of us, fascinated with Pratt. He learnt that the man was supposed to be coming to the area about two years ago, but, having never caught site of him, gave up. I'm not sure why. Maybe he was warned away? Anyway, from what I've learned from some other sources, it is definitely Pratt who bought the mines. I had them check with the land surveyors office in the Territorial Seat."

"The other big story besides the mine buyouts was one about corruption in the town. Martin was on the verge of breaking into what he thought was a ring of big money that was controlling the town. He thought that the sheriff was at the head." She grinned weakly, and shook her head. "I thought Sheriff Monroe was an idiot. Turns out, my instincts were wrong."

"We were all fooled, Mary," Vin said quietly. He and Ezra were experts at reading people, and they had both missed it. Now, every time the sheriff turned those fat, glassy blue eyes on him, the tracker couldn't help but shiver.

They had laid low for the two days that they waited for the others, but it was obvious from the fact that they'd paid up the rooms at the boarding house until the end of the week that they hadn't left. The sheriff gave them a wide berth, as did the rest of the town. No one spoke to them at all. But that didn't stop the townsfolk from looking.

"So, what's the plan?"

"Buck, you and JD are going out to see if you can find work tomorrow at the mines. See what you can learn from the workers. Josiah and I are going to look around at the other mines, see if anything seems odd. Nathan, you stay in town as close to that doctor as possible. Does he seem interested in keeping you on?"

"Yeah. Said he could always use help. The man is one big ball of stress, Chris. I don't know how he stays functioning."

"Good. I want you to keep an eye on the townsfolk, and its sheriff. Be alert in case anything seems to be happening." Finally, Chris turned steel blue eyes to his best friend. "Vin, I want you to get Mary out of here. Take her to Fort Myerson to wait with the cavalry."

Mary looked up, startled. "What?"

"Its too dangerous, Mary, and I can't spare anyone to protect you."

"Don't be absurd, Chris. First of all I can take care of myself…."

"Mary, please…."

"And secondly, you need me. I am the only one whom Fort Myerson will respond to when we need to call up the cavalry."

"You don't have to be here to do that, Mary. We can get word to you at the Fort. Its only a day's ride, right?"

"I'm not leaving, Chris. Ezra was my friend too." She said the last statement quietly, and Josiah felt JD flinch slightly at the words. The preacher looked over at the kid, and squeezed the boy's hand tightly.

"Mary, you're leaving," Chris stated.

"No. Vin and I can go out with you to the mines. You need him to inspect the ground, see if he sees anything unusual in the way the land is being treated. Martin wrote that a lot of the local streams and rivers had dried up, seemingly without cause. Vin and I could look into that."

"Mary, I have no qualms in forcing you to leave." Chris stood up, towering over Mary in her seat. She didn't blink. Instead, she rubber her hands lazily across her skirts to smooth them, and a slow smile lit upon her face. Instantly, Ezra's derringer was in her hand, pointed at the taller man. Chris couldn't have jumped more than if a rattler had suddenly appeared in her hand.

"Try and make me," she stated firmly, cocking the small weapon.

"Looks like we're heading out with you all tomorrow, cowboy," Vin grinned.


Ezra looked with disgust at all the dirt accumulating under his nails, and swore quietly under his breath. He along with about twenty others were in the gardens of the "castle," and he was, saints preserve us, pulling weeds. He tugged at another offensive dandelion, all the time silently chanting the old nursery rhyme about kings having their heads popped off. As he flicked the head off his latest version of Tiberious Pratt, he noticed that the yellow flower landed on the black boots of the priest. The Father was weeding the next bed over, but seemed to spend quite a lot of time watching Ezra.

The gambler hadn't had the opportunity to speak with many of his fellow prisoners in the last couple of days, but he was acutely aware that he was indeed one of the lucky ones. He, along with the older and much younger "workers," tended the gardens, while everyone else worked the mines or carved out more of the castle. Tibby gave him garden duty because it was the lightest work – but he'd already seen one old woman faint from heat exhaustion. God knew what life was like for the others down below. It was enough to make him realize that he wouldn't be able to break out unless he was sure he could bring them all with him. Unfortunately, a plan to get everyone out meant that it would take him much longer to escape.

The black booted priest plucked the yellow flower head from his black boot, and tossed it back at Ezra. The gambler caught it deftly and dropped it into his compost bucket. A few minutes later, the priest stood next to him, helping to weed Ezra's bed.

"Excuse me, son, but are you Ezra Standish?" The priest whispered urgently. "Of the town Four Corners?"

Ezra paused in his movements, his brow furrowing in puzzlement. "Do I know you sir?"

"No, but I know you," the father replied, glancing around quickly to make sure no one saw them talking. None of the guards looked to be paying attention. The heavy heat had made them indolent.

The priest leaned in closer to Ezra, and smiled lightly. "My name is Father O'Herlihy. I'm a friend of Josiah Sanchez's. Are you here because Martin Carlisle found you?"

Ezra didn't answer for a minute, and when he did, it was to throw a puzzled look at the older man. "We were told you were dead. We…Josiah and I, we visited you grave."

"Dead? So that is how they got rid of me. I should have guessed. Poor Josiah." The father shook his head in despair, and pulled another weed roughly from the ground.

Ezra shrugged. "As to your second question, we did indeed come because of Martin Carlisle. He was writing to our local paper's editor, Mary Travis, about the large number of missing people. We came when we learned of his own disappearance."

Father O'Herlihy had stopped in his actions while Ezra spoke. He brushed a dirt encrusted palm across his face and looked over at a little girl about two beds away. The waif couldn't have been more than six.

"But you haven't spoken to him in person. He didn't find you." The Father's face pinched with sadness at this knowledge. A dark look passed over Ezra's face as he worked out the preacher's meaning.

"When exactly was he supposed to find us?"

"Martin escaped five nights ago. He found a way out through the mines, and decided that our best chance was for him to go and get help. He spoke of Mary Travis, and of her father-in-law, the judge. He knew she'd come. His plan was to hide out in his old room on the third floor of the St. Regent's Hotel in Silver Creek and wait for her." He paused again, and a tear ran down his face as he continued to watch the little girl. As if knowing she was being watched, the waif looked up and stared at them. She smiled, and Father O'Herlihy smiled back.

Ezra absorbed the words quietly, and figured out without being told that the little girl was Martin Carlisle's daughter.

He also knew realized with horror just who it was that he'd tripped over when the hotel was on fire.

The man in black that he had mistaken for Chris must have been one of Tiberious's assassins, who, after having knocked Martin down, had burned down the hotel. Ezra had merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time. As Vin would say, Ezra was damn lucky not to have gotten killed himself. Still, that did not change the fact that Martin Carlisle was dead. And the Father knew that as well as he. That poor little girl.

Father O'Herlihy turned deadened green eyes back to the gambler. "May I assume, then, that you are not here as part of some master plan to free us?" He said the words almost mockingly, and Ezra couldn't raise his own eyes to meet the other man's.

Ezra gritted his teeth. "No sir. I'm afraid I am as dead to the outside world as you are right now."

Father O'Herlihy nodded, and moved away. As he knelt down next to a new bed, he glanced back at the young man whom he knew his friend cared for very deeply. "Poor Josiah," he mumbled to himself.

Ezra stood and looked over around the garden again. It was a walled garden, about a hundred feet square, filled with many indigenous and exotic plants. Tiberious was obviously emulating the English walled garden, as roses crept up the walls on all sides, and other traditionally English flowers graced many of the beds – convolvulus, herb bindweed, harebells, hyacinths.… His eyes lit upon one in particular, and his smiled slowly.


Slowly, he made his way over to the tall, beautiful pink flowers, passing the Father on the way.

"Courage, Father O'Herlihy, Courage," he whispered brightly as he walked passed. "A master plan is on its way."

Part Three

Vin knelt down near the dry stream bed, his face confused. He looked up at the distant hills then back at Mary.

"Despite the heat, this stream looks as if it would be too big to dry out without help. I'm wondering if, maybe, its been diverted for some reason."

"Martin said that the river that feeds the town was abnormally low this year, but didn't do more than merely comment on it," she replied, squinting through the glare to the mountains beyond. "What do you want to bet that this is not the only abnormally dried up stream bed in the area?"

For the first time since he knew her, Vin saw a side of Mary he never knew existed. For one thing, she was wearing men's breeches today instead of a skirt, something he'd never thought he'd see in the normally very proper woman. Even more odd, the black striped pants she wore looked an awful lot like Ezra's, cuffed at the ankle. Obviously, the gambler's derringer was not the only thing Mary had "borrowed" from his saddlebags. No one had said anything to her this morning about it, but Vin could tell they had all been a little shocked. She had always been tough, but this last few days had proved to Vin that she did, indeed, know how to take care of herself.

Adjusting the hat on her head, a soft Stetson similar to Buck's, Mary looked pointedly at Vin as if to say they should go further. The tracker nodded, and mounted up again on Peso.

In the distance, several figures on horseback watched them quietly. The sheriff and a few of his men were keeping an eye on the newswoman, but were warned against stopping her unless they absolutely had to. Father O'Herlihy was not the only one to know that Mary Travis's father-in-law was a circuit judge.

Hidden behind the rocks behind the sheriff, Nathan watched the corrupt lawman with the same concentration. His fingertips lingered over his guns, just waiting.


The sun was low on the horizon when Chris and Josiah met up with JD and Buck in the rooms above the stables. As before, Seth stood lookout below.

Buck exhaled loudly in frustration as Chris asked him what they had learned. "We hit five mines today, Chris, and they all turned us away. Whoever heard of a prosperous mine turning men away? I've always been told that places like this Silver Creek had jobs to spare."

"Did you have the opportunity to talk to anyone about it?"

"Buck tried his charms on a serving girl, but, for some reason, she just ignored him." JD smiled wryly, a sight which both Buck and Josiah were gratified to see, though they didn't let on how much the kid had been scaring them. Buck cuffed him on the top of the head, knocking off the boy's hat. JD picked it up and slapped his pseudo brother across the chest with it.

"Anything else?" Chris sighed, annoyed at the antics already. His patience had been worn very thin this day. He and Josiah seemed to only hit brick walls as they tried to inspect the mines on their own. Many were solidly blocked off, or completely abandoned. Often, they looked as if they had been deliberately dynamited. They had returned hoping the others had learnt more.

Buck nodded slowly, and sat down on a stool. "We chatted with some of the men on their lunch breaks. They were not exactly talkative, but we did get the impression that they were all afraid that they would be losing their own jobs soon. They said that the mine owners had found cheaper labor somewhere, but that they didn't know where."

"Cheaper labor?" Chris asked, his eyes narrowing. Buck nodded.

"Considering the number of missing people, Chris, one could make a very good guess as to whom that cheaper labor might be."

"The cheapest kind," JD spat nastily, his Boston roots showing.

"Slaves," Josiah muttered, his face paling.

Buck nodded. "Why not? You said yourself that this Pratt guy is from the South. Maybe he's reinventing the wheel out here."

"Well, that might explain the laid off workers," Chris nodded, "but not the large number of disused mines Josiah and I saw today. I can't believe all those mines went defunct in the same year. There has to be a reason."

"Vin and I may be able to help with that one," Mary interrupted as she, Vin and Nathan climbed up the small ladder into the loft. Blood was splattered across her arm, and Vin had a nasty scar on his head. Nathan just looked exhausted.

"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded, immediately standing to give her his stool. Mary took his seat wearily with a grateful nod, and Vin sat down heavily on the floor next to Josiah.

"We got a little too close to the answer to this whole crazy mess," Vin explained, sighing. Nathan handed him a clean cloth to hold against his head which he accepted gratefully.

"We followed one of the empty stream beds back to one of the biggest hills in the area, when Vin noticed something odd. Now, this is going to sound a little strange, but, it looks like someone has carved windows into the rock," Mary said, rubbing her dusty face on her sleeve. Buck handed her his bandanna.

"We were on our way up to look when somebody suddenly decided to take pot shots at us. We hid, and I clumsily hit my head as we got behind some rocks," Vin looked properly chagrined, but Mary grinned.

"He means that he couldn't prevent several tons of tiny rocks from falling on us, dislodged by the other men's bullets. One of them knocked off his hat and knocked him out for a little bit. Turns out he's not a God." She chuckled, earning a disgruntled look from Vin.

"So what happened?"

"Our very own Angel saved us," Mary smiled at Nathan, who blushed.

"I saw the sheriff follow them out of town with about three men, so I followed," the healer shrugged. "When they started shooting, I took them down, with Mary's help. She's pretty good with a gun when she needs to be."

"And the blood on your sleeve?"

"Oh, the sheriff wasn't quite dead when we got to him. I tried to ask him some questions, and he rudely got blood all over my jacket," Mary shrugged, looking down at her arm. Chris looked at Vin, who just shook his head. He didn't believe it either, and he had been there. Mary had grabbed the dying man by his lapels and demanded he tell them what was going on. The sheriff had just stared at her, wide-eyed, before fainting into oblivion. Nathan had tried to stop him from dying, but it was too late.

"Afterwards, we managed to get close enough to the peak to see that there were indeed windows carved into the rock, all at different levels. And not just functional ones, either. The ones near the top looked like they'd been carved to mimic gothic arches. We also got a glimpse of something around to the side under an overhang that looked like a walled garden." Mary shrugged to indicate that she couldn't be sure, not having been able to get close enough to see inside.

"We were going to look around some more when ten more men came out of nowhere, all wearing armor plates on their chests," Vin added. "They chased us for several miles before we finally lost them. I can't believe they didn't roast under all that metal, but I'm sure glad they wore it ‘cause it definitely slowed them down."

"Armor plates?" Buck repeated curiously.

"You mean, like old fashioned knights?" JD added.

"No, at least, not exactly. More like those fancy guards you see standing in front of the ambassador palaces back east," Mary explained. JD nodded, but the others just looked at each other. Besides JD and Mary, Ezra was the only other person they knew who had ever lived on the east coast.

"So, what exactly were they guarding?" Buck asked.

Mary turned her clear blue eyes to Chris, and a strange tension filled the room. She smiled crookedly, "Would you believe, Tiberious Pratt's fortress?"


The poker game had lasted most of the night, with Ezra letting Tiberious win about half the hands. This, he assumed, was what his mother had done in Saint Louis, to keep Tiberious placated. Still, the game put extra cash in the gambler's pockets, something he knew he was going to need later.

They were in one of the anterooms off of Tiberious's chambers, with only one guard in attendance. Ezra spared him a glance, happily noting the half lidded appearance of the liveried man. Then he looked back at his "old friend."

Tibby yawned, and took another long drink from his glass of Bourbon, finishing it. Ezra drank from his flask, which his captor had returned to him.

"Can I get you another drink, Tibby?" Ezra asked, watching as Tiberious's eyes drooped. He'd already gotten the man one drink, and had laced it with the tiny amount of Digitalis he'd made earlier from the Foxglove leaves. He'd also encouraged the guard in the room to have some, using Tibby. He'd bet the Georgian man that Tibby's guards couldn't hold their liquor like real guards. Of course, the blond man had risen to the challenge, and ordered the guard to drink. Now both men were fading under the drug.

"No, no, I think maybe…" Tiberious yawned again, and fell face forward onto the table. The guard by the door promptly collapsed to the ground at the same time. Ezra prayed the clatter of the man's armor didn't echo outside of the small room. When no one immediately appeared, the gambler stood and repositioned the two men. He also made sure they still had pulses. Digitalis had to be administered in very small doses, or else it would be fatal. Finding slow but steady heartbeats on both, he sighed in relief and continued in his work.

The guard he propped up in a chair by the door. Tiberious he picked up and carried into his room, tucking the man into bed after pulling off his boots. Later, once Ezra was finished with his nosing around, he would alert a guard and have the man take him back to his cell. For now, he just wanted to make it appear as if all was well to anyone just glancing in.

Nodding at his handiwork, the gambler turned around and began his inspection of the room. He found the first secret door almost instantly, betraying just how predictable Tiberious Pratt really was. All he had to do was knock a little on the wood paneling near the man's bed until he heard the hollow ring. The catch was even easier, as a torch sat in the wall right above the spot. Tugging on it, Ezra found himself looking down a narrow, dark hallway. With a sigh, he pulled the torch out of its holder, and braved the darkness.

He moved around the castle like this for more than three hours, looking into various rooms, skirting down hallways just behind groups of marching guards, and looking for all the possible escape routes. He was nearly caught only once, when he was in the walled garden. He'd found an exit along the far wall, behind a light gathering of yellow roses. Just as he was opening the door, he nearly jumped at the sounds of voices on the far side. They were talking about some skirmish this afternoon, in which the sheriff was killed.

Biting his lip, Ezra listened to the story. A buffalo hunter, a woman in men's clothes, and a black man had gotten away from them. The gambler shut his eyes, amazed that the others were still here. His "death" must not have rattled them as much as he thought -- unless, of course, they were now looking for his killer. He should have known they'd stay. Still, apparently, Tiberious had ordered that they be captured as soon as possible and brought to him. This meant that Ezra would have to act even more quickly.

As the voices faded, Ezra pushed the door open wider and found himself looking at what was obviously a temporary stable. He'd already seen the permanent one, down near the entrance to this monstrosity of a fortification. That meant this was the back door escape route. It looked like a remuda, with most of the horses and a couple of wagons saddled and ready to go. Only a couple of men guarded it, and tended the horses. Perfect.

He checked the time on his watch – four a.m. The workers were taken out at eight in the morning and returned at six. Then another long night. But now Ezra knew the Guard's motions at night, and had determined the best route out to the garden using some of Tiberious's secret passages from the dungeons. This time tomorrow, it would either happen or all hell would break loose.

Quietly, Ezra crept back to Tiberious's chambers, his heart pounding in anticipation. As he reentered the quiet room, and looked down at the sleeping man, his thoughts wondered whether he should have just killed him with the Digitalis. Indeed, he still had the chance to kill him now. All he had to do was borrow the guard's weapon and at least this problem would be solved.

Absently, Ezra's hands pushed back the hair on his forehead, his heart now beating with a different sort of anxiety. He looked over at the guard, still lying in the same position in the chair near the main door. The man had a dirk on his belt, the silver metal glinting in the firelight. It would be so easy.

Shaking himself, Ezra moved away from the bed and towards the guard. With one last look at Tiberious sleeping in the bed, he turned to the door and opened it. He smiled brightly at the guard on the other side, who returned the gaze impassively.

"Everyone seems to have fallen asleep in here, my friend. Perhaps you would be so kind as to return me to my own cell?"


As Ezra fell into an exhausted nap in his cell, bits and pieces of Silver Creek were coming alive in the early morning. A couple of hours later, the sun peeked over the horizon, and, with the cock's crow, the seven Four Corners' residents awoke from a restless night of their own. A few hours later, everyone but JD and Buck, who were still unknown to the town and Pratt's men, rode out of the mining town in the direction of Fort Myerson. They were followed for a while, but then the tail fell away, apparently satisfied that the outsiders were leaving.

Chris glanced over at Mary, still dressed in Ezra's trousers, her golden hair tucked neatly up inside the soft hat. Her face had the quality of iron – determined and absolutely certain of who and what she was. He'd never met any woman who was as intent as Mary at holding on to her convictions. Hell, he'd never met a man like her either. She was unique….and absolutely beautiful. She spared a glance his way, and smirked. He smirked back, his blue eyes crinkling in amusement.

As evening descended, they reached the fortifications, and were greeted by the Union Blue, it having taken them almost the whole day to get here. Only Vin held back a little at the gates, but a comforting hand from Nathan spurred him through the gates. The tracker did not exactly have a friendly relationship with the Army, but some things were just too important. They needed them, and the army were going to be under Larabee's command – one of the Judge's orders.

The Colonel saluted Chris as he rode in, which the man in black lazily returned.

"Colonel Sayers at your service Mr. Larabee."

Chris nodded, and looked at the gathered men. Almost fifty men stood before him, watching and waiting.

"Men, Judge Orrin Travis has called upon you to help wipe a scourge from our proud country. Mr. Tiberious Pratt has managed to not only create his own fortress and army in these parts, but he has enslaved over a hundred people to do so, including woman and children. I don't know about you, but I didn't just fight in the ugliest war in history to allow some fool idiot from the South do it all over again out here." Chris sat straight in the saddle, his men and Mary arranging themselves behind him in a v-shape. The army men agreed loudly, and saluted.

"Colonel," Chris turned his attention to the man before him. "Can your men be saddled and ready to leave within a few hours?"

"Ride through the night?" the Colonel frowned.

"Pratt's home is a fortress, our best weapon will be surprise. I want to be able to attack them first thing tomorrow morning, before they even know what is happening. Can your men do that?"

The Colonel tilted his head, and smiled confidently. "Of course we can do it, sir. Just say the word."

Chris pursed his lips into a smile, and looked back at Vin and Mary. Dismounting, he moved and shook Sayers' hand. In the background, upon a shouted order from a sergeant, the cavalry immediately dispersed to prepare for the long ride.


Another day of working in the garden, followed by another long night of poker filled the tired gambler's day. Tiberious and his guard had woken without even realizing what had happened, although the Georgian spent much of the day complaining about his awful headache and upset stomach. Luckily, those untoward effects of the drug didn't seem to make Tiberious any less eager to play.

Ezra had informed Father O'Herlihy of his plan in the garden, and had instructed him to tell the others what was happening at dinner. He also pointed out the secret exit, and when Ezra asked him if he thought the two guards outside might be a problem, the Father had simply grinned wickedly in response. Obviously not, the gambler noted.

Now all he needed was to distract the dungeon guards. He checked his watch. Two hours till dawn. It was now or never.

Somewhat impatiently, the gambler listened to the guard's conversation, waiting for his opportunity as he played with the cards in his hands. His ears perked up as the youngest one started moaning in earnest about being so bored "he could just die!" A small smile crept across the gambler's face.

"C'mon Sam," the youngest one whined, "there has to be something to do other than sit here. Ever since Pratt took the board away all we've done is sit around watching the moonlight creep across the wall like dead men. I sure as hell didn't think this was what being a castle guard meant." He threw his black gloves across the room to punctuate his point. Sam sighed heavily, and shrugged.

"Why don't you just sit down, Dirk, and get some shut eye, like old Chet here." The burly man indicated his sleeping companion with a jerk of his head. Chet sat in his chair, his head hanging limp over the back, snoring like a buzzsaw. Dirk sneered.

"Yeah," the young man replied sarcastically, like anyone could sleep with all the racket he's making." He looked at Sam, who merely raised his black bushy eyebrows in response. Dirk frowned, and sat heavily in the third chair around the tiny guards table.

"Bored, bored, bored," he muttered. "I should have brought another game board, or something. I could have snuck it by."

"Ahem," Ezra cleared his throat, leaning forward nonchalantly on the black bars of his cell. Both Sam and Dirk looked his way, the younger man out of his chair instantly as he saw the cards in the gambler's hands.

"Can I interest you boys in a game of chance?" he asked politely. Dirk paused halfway to the cell, and looked back at Sam. The older man frowned, and shook his head.

"You're not allowed out of your cell, Mister Standish, and iffin we did let you out, you ain't got no money. But, if you'd like to give us those cards, we'd be mighty appreciative." Sam said all this through a tight smile, and stood to join Dirk near the door to Ezra's cell.

The gambler backed off, still shuffling the cards in his hand, and sat down on the little bunk. Setting the cards down beside him, he reached down and pulled out the roll of money he kept hidden in his boot, and started silently counting off the bills.

"Hey!" Dirk yelled, slamming himself loudly against the bars and rattling them. "Where'd you get that?"

Ezra looked up, an innocent look on his face. "Why, Mr. Pratt had the decency to let me keep this. You see, I played with him the other night and managed to make a fairly good profit off the man. Of course, he knows I have this money, and if I were to complain that you took it from me, I doubt he would be pleased." He paused, noting Sam's grim expression and Dirk's slightly confused one. He smiled brightly, his gold tooth glinting in the paltry amount of candlelight in the enclosed room. "However, should you win this money from me, I wouldn't have any cause to complain, now, would I?"

Sam took a step back from the cell, fuming at the fact that, just because Pratt liked this no good swindler, he couldn't just go in there and steal both the cards and the money from the man. Then he looked at Dirk's pleading face, and over at Chet. The other guard had awakened with all the noise, and was listening intently. At the silent question from Sam, Chet smiled and nodded.

"I love a good game of cards, Sam, and I wouldn't mind testing my skills against a professional type like that Standish. I might have some moves he ain't seen yet." Chet said, waggling his eyebrows. He was getting a crick in his neck from sleeping in his damn hard-backed chair anyway.

"Alright," Sam mumbled begrudgingly, fishing the keys off of the hook nearby. Dirk whooped, excited to be playing a real gambler for once. This would surely make the time pass real quick! Chet rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, stood, and rested a lazy hand on his gun as Sam let Ezra out of the cell.

"Don't try nothing funny now," Chet threatened, his light mood replaced by a harder tone. "I got my eye on you, and so does Sam."

Ezra's eyes widened in surprise, and he placed his hands out in front of him in supplication. "Sir, I hardly doubt that a mere gambling man such as myself could ever hope to prevail against three powerful men such as yourselves, and I swear that trying something "funny" is the last thing on my mind. I simply feel the same burdens of ennui as you, and wish to pass the time in a more productive manner." With a smile to accent the statement, he sat in the empty fourth chair at the table, and started shuffling. Around him, the three guards took up their positions in their own chairs, and couldn't help but be mesmerized by the speed with which Ezra handled and dealt the cards.

"Five card stud, gentleman. Deuces and one-eyed jacks wild." The gambler intoned, like a monk beginning a chant.


A little over an hour later, Ezra was frowning in frustration at the cards in his hand. With a muttered "deplorable" he threw the hand down and crossed his arms over his chest.

Chet grinned as he raked in another large pot, making his winnings three times that of anyone else at the table. Dirk grimaced at the guard, and Sam shook his head in disgust. So far, he and the former deputy had lost nearly everything in their pockets to the portly guard, and had even lost some intangibles like cleaning up the cells and digging graves that they'd bet on top of the cash. Ezra, though he had started out fairly strong early on, had also been losing steadily. Nevertheless, there was still a little cash still in front of him.

"Damn, guess this is my lucky night!" Chet said, stacking the bills into piles.

"If you say so," Ezra responded sarcastically. This brought all three men's eyes to him. The gambler refused to make eye contact, his irritation evident.

"Excuse me? What does that mean?" Chet retorted.

Ezra raised his lazy green eyes to stare the portly guard straight in the face. "All I am saying, sir, is that it would be a grand fallacy to suggest that luck was the main reason for your good fortune."

Chet narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, well, I guess skill's involved too. Didn't think I was that good, huh?" he sneered. "Or maybe you're not as good as you thought you were."

"I assure you, sir, that my "skills," as you so quaintly put them, far outstrip yours. However, I did not feel the need to put them to use in order to steal from your friends this evening, as you so aptly did." Ezra's words struck a chord in the other two guards, and both Sam and Dirk turned to look at Chet suspiciously.

The portly guard's face reddened, and he leaned across the table. "You saying I cheated, fancy man?" he hissed.

Ezra shrugged. "All I am saying, sir, is that I am an expert at what I do. In comparison, your handiwork tonight was more on the level of the tortoise taking part in the fifty yard dash against the hare."

Chet spluttered at the obvious insult, not caring that the others were both watching him angrily as he suddenly leaned over and grabbed Ezra across the table by his lapels. The gambler instinctively grabbed the guard's arms around the wrists, and pushed Chet off of him. Unfortunately, this didn't stop Chet from spitting in his face. "You, how dare you! Well, you know, I remember that story, the tortoise and the hare, and if I remember right, the tortoise was the one who won, right? Well, this tortoise," he stuck a thumb into his chest for emphasis, "is going to have the last laugh too," he jeered and sat back.

"Indeed," Ezra replied quietly, straightening his jacket lapels and no longer making eye contact.

"Wait, so you did cheat?" Dirk demanded, trying to understand what just happened. Sam's face darkened as he looked at the portly guard.

"What?" Chet replied, looking at them for the first time. "No, I was just saying I was better than Standish at his…no, wait, I meant…." He brought a hand to his face, and Sam grabbed his wrist. With barely contained rage, the older guard tugged at the little corner of white he saw sticking out of Chet's sleeve, and pulled out the Ace of Spades.

"Tried to cheat me, huh?" Sam hissed, as Chet stared with utter confusion at the card. Where the hell had that come from? He looked at the gambler, who was studiously stacking the cards back into a pile.

"No, Sam, really, you gotta believe me!" Chet begged as Sam dragged him out of his chair and threw him against the wall. Dirk joined in by taking one of Chet's arms and wrenching it upwards behind the man's back. With his face nose to nose with the portly man, Sam started reciting all the nasty things he was going to do to Chet when this night was over. No one noticed Ezra as he quickly sidled up to the men and just as quickly stepped away.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ezra admonished, all hint of anger gone from his voice. "Please, there is no need to fight. Chet there is telling you the truth." The three guards started at the voice and turned to look at Ezra, who leaned casually against the wall with a gun in each hand, pointed directly at them.

"I am afraid to say that, while Chet did win as a result of cheating, I was the one who cheated for him. I'm afraid sometimes it is the hare that has the last laugh. Now," Ezra's falsely light tone fell, and his voice took on a dangerous quality that made the three guards shiver, "If you would be so kind as to drop your remaining weaponry on the floor and take you place inside my cell, I would be most obliged." His lips curled across his teeth, the jeer broadening only slightly as the men unhappily complied.

As Ezra locked the door, he nodded once more to them. "Thank you for a most enjoyable game, boys. I'll have to remember to mention your kindness to me when I see Pratt." With a sly grin, he moved down the hall and started to unlock the doors to the other cells. Laughter and thanks met him at every turn.

When he reached Father O'Herlihy's cell, he handed him the keys and placed a hand on his shoulder. The priest looked at him with a puzzled air.

"Father, I need to go on ahead to prevent anyone from getting in the way of these people's emancipation." He winked, and the Father grinned. "Nevertheless, I will leave markers on the walls," he held up the cards, "you will simply need to follow them to find your way out. You'll find that I am steering you to Pratt's gardens by a somewhat more interesting route that normal. Trust the cards to lead the way. I'm relying on you to get these people out, onto those horses and wagons, and away from here as fast as possible. If there aren't enough, send a contingent on ahead to bring back help. Head south, and you should be in Silver Creek in a few hours. I saw the town's lights through one of the windows last night in that direction, and it doesn't look as far away as Pratt wanted us to believe. When you reach town, find Josiah. He'll make sure you are all protected. Okay?"

"No," the old man replied, shaking his head worriedly, "Where will you be?"

Ezra smiled, and shook his head. "Don't worry about me, I'll be close on your heels. Believe me, I am no hero. Now, as soon as I have left, wait ten minutes then follow." Before the Father could argue again, Ezra tipped his fingers to his riverboat hat and jogged back up the hall to the main door. As quietly as the heavy door would allow, he opened it and disappeared through. The priest watched him go, his brow furrowed.

"Be careful, Ezra. Josiah would kill me if anything happened to you," he whispered quietly. Sighing, he turned to finish releasing the people in the cells. Those already released stood and waited impatiently, waiting for the Father to lead them. Jane Carlisle gripped her daughter's hand tightly as she began silently counting the minutes.


Ezra dispatched of the guards outside the door and around the corner from the dungeons quickly, barely pausing to take a breath. So far he had managed not to alert anyone, but he knew he had little time before the main contingent of guards would be waking up for their daily routine. As soon as he was sure the passage to the gardens was clear for the others, he made his way to the guardroom, stopping only briefly in the kitchens for some matches and an iron bar. Most of Tiberious's men slept in the guardroom, leaving only thirty or so on watch during the night, six of whom Ezra had knocked out already, providing him with a fairly nice arsenal of weapons. He planned on trapping the fifty daytime guards in the guardroom. As for the rest of the night guards, well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

Two guards stood guard just outside the room, both looking exhausted from the long night. Of course, Ezra himself had slept no more than two hours in the last forty eight, but, so long as he didn't focus on that fact, he felt pretty good. Light headed was normal, right?

Unfortunately there was about twenty feet of dead space before he could even get close to the guardroom door. Gingerly, he took the pouch of herbs he'd collected from the garden from his waist and prayed that this worked. Pulling a match out, he lit the contents and held his breath.

After a couple of minutes, one of the guards started sniffing, his face screwing up in concentration. First he looked over at his fellow guard, who merely looked back impassively.

"Is that you?" the first guard asked.

"I'm sorry?" Then the second guard caught the stench. "Oh lord!" He put a finger to his nose and looked back at his partner. "No, it most certainly is not! My god, smells like something died!"

The first guard looked around, still sniffing. "Well, then where is it coming from?"

The second guard imitated the other man's sniffing, and looked towards the passageway where Ezra was hidden around the corner. He pointed, "Go check it out. Maybe an animal got in or something, and died."

"Great," the first guard muttered, his face still screwed up. With an air of annoyance, he moved and disappeared around the corner. He saw the smoking pouch on the ground, and knelt to look at it. He only had a second to look up before Ezra smacked him in the head with a rifle he had borrowed from one of the other guards.

The clatter of the falling guard put the other one immediately on alert. "Arliss?" he called, looking towards the corridor. He took a couple of steps towards the passage, then stopped. He could still smell the odor, but it was fading. He backed away, and raised a fist to knock loudly on the heavy oak door leading to the guardroom. He never had the chance.

At that instant, Ezra came around the corner, rifle raised and pointing at the second guard's head. Shaking his head at the guard, he whispered for the man to drop his weapon to the floor slowly.

The second guard watched him for a moment, then moved to place the weapon down. Ezra followed him, never losing his aim on the other man's head. As soon as the gun touched the floor, the guard rolled, screaming for help at the top of his lungs and tried to aim his gun at Ezra. The rifle shot from the gambler's gun was as effective as it was loud, ending the threat quickly. Movement from inside the door was plainly heard in the aftermath, and Ezra was at the door in seconds, gripping the handle desperately. He shoved the rifle through the handle, preventing it from being turned. It wouldn't hold the men inside for long. Running back to the corridor, Ezra grabbed the iron bar he'd stolen from the kitchens, and shoved it inside the handle in place of the rifle. The wood and metal of the gun was ruined already from the fierce actions of the men on the other side, so Ezra picked up the dead guard's weapon instead.

Lastly, he pulled down the torch on the wall and lit the wood paneling covering the walls and floor on fire, knowing that the red stain that Tiberious was so fond of would catch almost instantly. He also set fire to the door. If nothing else, this would slow down the others trying to free the guards inside.

Muttering swears at himself for losing the element of surprise, the gambler ran towards the nearest secret passage he'd scoped out the night before.


Father O'Herlihy and his motley crew were not more than a mile on the road away from the castle when they met their first obstacle. He and the others hid nervously inside a small copse of trees, watching as the group of five castle guards rode past on their watch. In a minute, the men would easily spot them in the gray light of dawn.

Two of the former prisoners on either side of the Father raised the rifles they'd stolen from the two men who'd been guarding the remuda. The fear in the air was palpable amongst the large group. The rifle shots would quickly bring more guards out to recapture the workers. Under his breath, Father O'Herlihy prayed for a miracle.

Suddenly, one of the five guards halted in his movements and stared out at the lightening landscape, away from the others. At a shout, the rest of the liveried men all turned their mounts to look down the slight rise at whatever had sparked the first man's interest. At almost the same time, the group of guards spun around and took off at a gallop back towards the mountain castle.

One of the rifle men looked towards the priest, his look questioning. Father O'Herlihy was about to reply that he didn't know what it meant, when the rumble of hoof beats reached their ears. Breaking away from the trees, the group of former prisoners moved forward and, before they even got close to the rise, saw what had frightened away the guards.

"Is that…the cavalry?" Jane Carlisle asked in wonder, sneaking up behind the priest. Several other prisoners whooped with joy. What an incredible sight! Union Blues descended upon them quickly, led by a man dressed all in black. Father O'Herlihy dismounted and raised his hands to stop them.

Chris was about to demand the group identify themselves when he heard Josiah yell "Father O'Herlihy!"

The ex-preacher was off his horse instantly and embracing the man. Mary was the next person off, embracing a woman who hugged her tightly in return.

"Josiah?" Chris asked, needing an answer quickly. Sanchez shrugged, and looked to the friend whom he though he'd lost.

"My name is Father O'Herlihy, sir, and, up until about an hour ago, we were all prisoners of an insane man named Tiberious Pratt."

"You escaped?" JD stuck in, the amazement clear on his face. It had been a major worry of Chris's that, if they stormed the castle, these people would be caught in the cross fire. Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to come up with a better plan without more knowledge.

The Father nodded happily, and looked at the preacher, "Yes, thanks to your young friend, Josiah. He's an impressive young man. I understand what you see in him."

Josiah just blinked, and his heart skipped a beat. Chris and the others were all off their horses instantly, surrounding the hapless priest.

"My…friend?" Josiah whispered.

Father O'Herlihy took a step back, and suddenly remembered what Ezra had told him in the garden two days ago. "The one you call son, Josiah. Ezra is alive." Mary's startled cry was echoed in the minds of the others. Josiah closed his eyes.

Chris was on him before the priest could even take another breath, grabbing him roughly by his robes. "Where is he!"

"Still in the castle. He said he'd be right behind us, but I think he may be trying to finish off Tiberious on his own. You have to help him."

Chris's heart caught in his throat, and looking around he quickly say the others were as anxious as he. He commanded Colonel Sayers to have ten men escort the former slaves back to Silver Creek, from whence they had just come after laying down the law there. Mary offered to go with the townsfolk, to make sure they were all okay. As soon as she had heard Ezra was still alive, the newswoman suddenly felt very odd, as if she no longer belonged with the six others. With a shy smile to Chris reminiscent of her true personality, she tossed him Ezra's derringer, which he caught deftly.

"Bring him home, boys."

Chris inclined his head to her, but his mind was already several miles away. He was barely aware as she rode off with the former prisoners, and he looked down the line at the grim faces of his fellow warriors. In a single motion, they spurred the horses into a gallop, rifles up.

With about forty men still at their back, the six prepared to storm the castle, and make themselves whole once more.


Ezra raced to the store rooms beyond the kitchens, desperately trying to avoid the now very alert guard. He knew he had failed in his actions, and that the fifty guards in the guard room had probably already been freed. As he threw open the doors to the basement rooms, he headed immediately towards the barrels of gunpowder in the corner.

Tiberious had made one rather stupid error in designing his precious keep. He'd stored enough gunpowder in this fairly central room to bring down the whole edifice. Picking up a smaller barrel, the gambler pulled out the cork and started to lay a line away from one of the larger barrels. He'd made it through two store rooms and almost to the kitchen door leading to the outside, when he heard a voice commanding him to stop in his actions. Spinning around, Ezra found himself face to face with three guards, all training rifles at his head.

For a moment, the gambler considered letting them shoot him, hoping that they might spark the powder. Or that he'd have enough time before he died to light it himself. Before he could decide however, the decision was made for him as one of the guards got impatient and shot him in the shoulder.

The powder keg fell uselessly to the floor, splitting open and spilling black powder everywhere. Moments later, Ezra was surrounded by the guards, pulling him away from his goal. Dismay filled his heart, and all he could do was pray that Father O'Herlihy had had enough time to get away. Somehow, though, he doubted it.

Minutes later, he was in the great hall, staring into the livid features of Tiberious Pratt. Gathering what courage he had left, Ezra met the other man's cold stare with one of his own, all the while gripping his bleeding shoulder. The wound was no more than a graze, but that didn't stop it from hurting any less.

"What have you done, Ezra," Tiberious spat.

"Let you win at poker?" Ezra quipped in return, raising an eyebrow.

"Let me…Oh, very funny. Where are my workers?"

"Your slaves are free, Pratt. Let out hours ago. If I were you, I'd vacate this absurd pile of rocks before they bring the law down on you."

Tiberious Pratt listened to the words with his head cocked to one side, then started to laugh. "And what law would that be, Ezra? Silver Creek? Perhaps you didn't figure this out when I had you brought here, but the law here is me. I own it."

"Not all of it. My friends…."

"Will be dead before the day is done. As will you." The blond man moved to his throne and sprawled his skinny body across it. "Tell me, brother, how would you prefer to die? Hanging? Shot through the heart? Or maybe…poisoned?" He held up the small pouch of foxglove leaves that had been found in Ezra's jacket pocket and waved it. "Clever of you, Ezra, and when were you planning on using this?"

Ezra merely smiled in return, which caused Pratt's own permanent leer to falter slightly. He turned to a guard and ordered the man to bring him a glass of red wine from his rooms. Licking his lips, the gambler watched as Tiberious crushed the leaves in his hand as he waited for the guard. Minutes later, the madman was depositing the leaves into the blood red liquid, his leer back in full force. Handing the glass back to the guard, he indicated that it be brought to Ezra.

With his uninjured arm, the gambler took the glass in a slightly shaking hand. He looked up at Tibby, who pursed his lips in anticipation.

"Bottoms up, Ezra. Here's hoping that your next life is better than this one."

Ezra looked down at the leaves floating in the wine, and shrugged. "I, uh, hate to imbibe such a delicious looking concoction alone, Tiberious. Seems awfully rude. How about joining me?" He grinned widely, flashing his tooth.

With a shake of his head, Tiberious waved a hand at Ezra to drink it down. Offering a quick prayer for salvation to whomever might be listening, Ezra raised the glass to his lips.

"Your Highness!" a voice yelled, slamming into the great hall. Ezra took the opportunity to throw the drink into the face of the man next to him and dive under the table. The new guard didn't notice the commotion, his eyes wildly searching the room for his "king." "Your Highness, the army is here. They've made it inside, and are on their way to this room. Half of our men have surrendered already!"

"What?!" Tiberious demanded, jumping up, Ezra momentarily forgotten. The sounds of shouting and gunfire quickly became audible beyond the now open doors, and Tiberious shrunk back into the throne. The new guard ran back out, his duty done. The other guards, nervous, moved to follow, all except the one at which Ezra had thrown the wine and one under the west balcony. Both had pulled their guns and were shooting haphazardly in the direction of where Ezra was hiding behind the heavy wooden chairs of the table. So far the gambler's luck had held as he scrambled.

Tiberious looked around wildly, terrified. How had this happened? He looked at Ezra, whose back was exposed to him and him alone. Apparently, the gambler didn't believe Tiberious to be a real threat. The blond man slowly drew a familiar Remington from his gunbelt and leveled it at his old friend's back.

"Drop it!" a voice yelled from above. Looking up, Tiberious saw a long haired man on the east balcony overlooking the room, a sawed off Winchester pointed directly at the blond man's heart. The Remington clattered to the floor. At almost the same instant, Josiah entered the room, his guns raised at the two guards.

"Mister Tanner! You are truly amazing. Impeccable timing as always!" Ezra called happily from his hiding place. He stood up, and the smile on his face suddenly disappeared. "Vin, look out!"

The warning came just in time for Vin to prevent himself from being pushed off the balcony by a liveried guard. The two guards in the room took the moment of distraction to jump Josiah, who quickly found himself embroiled in a nasty fistfight.

Tiberious spared one more glance at the craziness in front of him, then vaulted off the throne and out the back. Without thinking, Ezra took off after him, stopping only long enough to pick up the gun.

Vin dispatched his attacker with a few solid blows, followed by unceremoniously tossing the man from the balcony. He then raised his rifle and shot one of the men attacking Josiah. A second later, the other guard was unconscious as well. With a nod to the tracker, Josiah took off after his wayward boy.

Pulling back the curtain, he was unprepared to find the hallway on fire, the flames begun by a torch on the wood floor. Gritting his teeth, the ex-preacher took a running jump over the bulk of the flames and dove into the far room. He glanced back to see Vin watching him.

"I'll get everyone out!" Vin yelled, and Josiah favored him with a two fingered salute. Getting to his feet, the large man jogged through the small antechamber into the bedroom just in time to see the trap door on the floor swing close. Growling in frustration, Josiah ripped around the room trying to find the catch that would release it again. The fire behind him spread quickly, engulfing the small antechamber in minutes.


Ezra took the stairs two at a time in his haste to catch up to Tiberious. He had somehow missed this secret route in his initial inspection, but he was pretty sure where it was leading – the kitchens. The stairs wound downwards in a tight spiral until it finally leveled out along a straight passage, the same red stained wood paneling marking the corridor the whole way. At the far end, Ezra just managed to spot the Georgian push open the wooden door into the room beyond. Seconds later, he pushed his way through into the same room, his gun raised before him.

Tiberious brought the iron fire stoker down across the gambler's gun arm with painful precision, causing Ezra to not only lose the gun, but to seriously bruise the limb as well. With a cry, Ezra fell forward into the room, clutching at his abused arm, which gave the other man enough time to bring the iron rod up and across the gambler's back.

Ezra collapsed to the floor under the blow, but had the presence of mind to roll away from what might have been a third and final blow from the Georgian. Swearing, Tiberious brought the rod up over his head in Samurai fashion, the anger and frustration on his face twisting the pale visage into something quite hideous. Using one of his favorite moves, Ezra used the opening to sweep the madman's legs.

Tiberious fell to the floor with a crash, losing his grip on the stoker. The iron rod skittered across the flagstone floor of the kitchen. Getting to his feet, Ezra searched for the Remington, but couldn't see where it disappeared to. Desperately he grabbed for the first available weapon with his remaining good hand, a butcher knife. Behind, Tiberious swore frantically, also getting to his feet and looking for the fire stoker.

Ezra held the huge knife before him like a sword as the other man turned to face him, the ugly black rod now back in his hand. Slowly, they circled each other, the twisted mask of Tibby's face an odd contrast to the stony countenance of the gambler.

"You're not better than me, Ezra," Tiberious announced. "I was the best fencer in Georgia."

"How wonderful for you," Ezra replied sarcastically, but inwardly he trembled. How could he possibly win this? The fire stoker had a much longer reach, and Tiberious obviously knew how to handle it well. The other man continued to favor a twisted leer, confidence practically oozing out of his body. The two continued to circle each other, neither wanting to make the first move.

Finally, impatience overcame the blond man, and he dove in with the iron rod, aiming for Ezra's side. Quicker on his feet, Ezra jumped aside just in time to avoid the blow, and spun around the man's back. In the same motion, he brought the butcher knife down into his opponent's lower right side. The scream from the blond man seemed to pierce the gambler's ear drums, and Tiberious pulled away quickly, escaping to the other side of the room. He held his now profusely bleeding side, tears running down his face. Ezra still held onto the butcher's knife, but the gambler's hand shook in horror at what he had just done. His was an act of desperation, but the amount of blood that the knife had created was more than he'd ever seen in his life. Bullets, throwing knives, even the bayonets he used during the war were nowhere near as nasty as this.

Tiberious knew he was dying now, knew that his life was rapidly being drained out of him. With red fogged eyes, he looked down at the puddle of blood forming at his feet, and saw Ezra's dropped Remington lying barely a six inches away. With his last measure of strength, the blond man knelt down and picked it up. Standing slowly, he cocked it and pointed it directly at Ezra's head. The gambler just closed his eyes, his body frozen in shock.

When the shot rang out, the gambler flinched, then stood amazed at the fact that he was still alive. Almost lazily, he drew up his eyelids in time to see Josiah lower his still smoking gun. The older man stood just inside the secret passage leading to Tiberious's chambers, hunched over due to the low ceiling. He looked over at Ezra then, and smiled lightly, and entered the room properly. The gambler leaned back against the table behind him, dropped the bloodied knife to the floor, and brought a hand to his face.

Josiah moved over to the younger man quietly, desperately wanting to draw him into a hug just as he did so often with JD. But Ezra was not the type, so instead he made do with laying an arm across the smaller man's shoulders.

When Ezra hugged him instead, emitting a small sob of relief, Josiah closed his eyes in thanks, and wrapped his arms around the smaller man so tightly, the gambler nearly couldn't breathe. But, as the pain, exhaustion and smell of blood and burning wood hit him, Ezra returned to himself and pushed away. Josiah let go, and took a step back, recognizing the change immediately.

The gambler pushed his hand through his brown hair, and looked back through the door leading to the madman's chambers. He frowned at the flames he could see flickering through the opening.

"Is that a fire?" he asked, still shaking slightly, grabbing at his grazed shoulder again. At least the bleeding has lessened, he thought inanely.

Josiah nodded, "The wood Pratt lined this place with goes up faster than a tinderbox. His rooms were fully alight by the time I figured out how to get through that trap door. There is no way we're getting out that way."

"Good thing there is another door, then," Ezra chuckled, looking around. His eyes glazed over the form of the dead man, not seeing him where he lay near the back of the room. However, his eyes did catch the pile of gunpowder on the ground, where he had dropped it. Obviously, no one had had time to clean it up.

"How long before the fire reaches the kitchens Josiah?"

The ex-preacher looked to where Ezra was facing, and raised his eyebrows at the broken powder keg and the black line leading away into another storage room.

"There a lot of those?"

"More than enough. He was using dynamite to carve out this lovely monstrosity," Ezra replied.

Grinning, Josiah looked down at the younger man and shrugged. "Everyone else should be out by now, son. Perhaps its best if we follow their example? Quickly?"

Favoring him with his best smile, Ezra jogged over to the back door and wrenched it open to reveal a rough courtyard with large wooden doors on the opposite side. Both men jumped down onto the stone ramp leading to the door and the cobblestoned ground below, and began running for their lives.

About halfway across, Ezra lost his footing and collapsed bodily into the ground. Josiah was next to him instantly, pulling him up. They reached the second door that led to the outside world, Josiah still gripping Ezra's good arm. Pulling open the small door hidden within the larger, Josiah practically threw the gambler through then jumped after.

Ezra was on his knees again, and was having some trouble getting himself to stand. For some reason, his body was acting sluggishly. Josiah pulled him up again, and started dragging him down the scrub covered hillside, but both knew they were moving too slowly.

"You brought him!" Ezra cried happily, if somewhat irrationally, interrupting Josiah's singular thoughts of getting them to safety. The ex-preacher stopped short, and turned to look at Ezra, who was staring out to the left with a huge grin on his face. Following the gaze, Josiah watched slack-jawed as the familiar Chestnut horse whinnied loudly and galloped over to join them.

Pulling himself free of Josiah's grip, Ezra ran to the horse and vaulted himself up onto Chaucer's back without pause. Holding his good arm out to Josiah, Ezra waited for the preacher to get over his shock.

"C'mon Josiah! We have to get out of here now!"

Shaking himself, Josiah took a running jump and, with Ezra's help, got onto the bareback horse behind him. Seconds later they were galloping south towards where Josiah knew the rest of the cavalry waited past the forest edge.

They made it several miles away before the explosion rocked the earth, sending heavy tremors through the ground at their feet. Chaucer danced a bit in confusion, but was soon back on track.

Over with the cavalry, the horses neighed worriedly, dancing at the strange feeling below. Chris looked up at the mountain with an startled expression as enormous puffs of rock smoke blew out of the mountain. Parts of it collapsed in on itself, undoubtedly those places that Pratt had hollowed out. Not that he or the others had time to admire the place. Their actions had been efficient and precise – get in, get the men, get Ezra, and get out.

"Where?" JD asked, pulling up next to Chris. The man in black scanned the road, then pointed towards the chestnut horse galloping towards them at breakneck speed, the red coat of the front rider obvious against the brown poncho of the man holding on behind him.

Vin mirrored Josiah's open mouthed expression of earlier as he recognized the horse they two men rode. "How the hell?" he muttered. He patted Peso's neck, wondering if the black gelding would be as steadfast as that damn chestnut stallion. Chaucer may not be the fastest or strongest horse Vin had ever seen, but he was by far the most intelligent …and the most stubborn -- just like his rider. He was grinning widely when the two men finally pulled up.

In the background, Pratt's mountain continued to collapse and settle, the rumbling of landslides echoing across the landscape, but none of the seven men from Four Corners even noticed. Ezra was accosted the second he was off the horse, first by Buck who picked him up in a fierce bear hug, then by JD, who began to embarrass the gambler when he seemed unable to let go. Nathan immediately started fussing over the gambler's still bleeding shoulder and exhausted appearance, but he was unable to keep the grin from his face even as Ezra insisted they were nothing. Behind him, Vin couldn't stop laughing. The tracker raised a hand up to muss the gambler's thick hair, to which Ezra feigned a frown. Before he could retaliate, though, Vin smacked him on the bruised shoulder, claiming tit for tat for that time when the lady bounty hunters were in town, and Ezra'd smacked his own broken arm. The gambler growled at the pain, and promised retribution with a grin. Last, Chris came forward and shook Ezra's hand, his normally stoic countenance grinning brightly. With an almost solemn air, he handed Ezra his derringer, which the gambler took with an equally solemn nod.

As if the floodgates had been opened, JD started raining down questions on the gambler, asking what had happened and what the hell they had all seen inside that mountain. Ezra answered as best he could, but exhaustion was really beginning to wear him down. Chaucer nuzzled up to the man, smelling his hair and his clothes, and the gambler leaned heavily back against the horse's warm side. Josiah reached in and grabbed the younger man right before he slipped to the ground, too tired to stay awake a minute longer.


Silver Creek felt like a different town two days later as Ezra and Buck charmed the people in the saloon and Vin and Chris relaxed outside. It finally felt alive. The townsfolk grinned at the outsiders, and children played on the street, their laughter echoing between the clapboard buildings. Father O'Herlihy and Josiah debated philosophy on the steps of the church, and Nathan had temporarily taken the place of the now imprisoned doctor, doing what he could to help heal those who had been trapped by Tiberious's greed.

Mary spent a lot of time with Jane Carlisle and Millie, encouraging her to do as she did and take over editing the Silver Creek Standard now that Martin was gone. Jane still mourned her husband, but was proud enough to declare her intention that the first paper she would put out would not only be a tribute to her husband's memory, but would celebrate the men and women (she winked at Mary as she said this) who had saved their town. Mary grinned.

The newswoman was still smiling when she joined Chris and Vin on the boardwalk outside the saloon, smoothing her skirts down as she sidled up to the gunslinger.

"So," she asked casually, "are we ready to got yet? I do have a newspaper to put out, you know."

Chris looked at her through half lidded eyes, then looked over at Vin. The tracker appeared to be napping in his chair, his soft hat pulled over his eyes. In the background, Buck's loud laughter and the squeal of a woman floated out to the saloon, followed by a distinctively Southern tinged comment that was rewarded by even more laughter from the crowd. Grinning now, Chris turned his face to look out at the street.

"Yeah, I reckon we're almost done here," he replied lethargically. Truth be told, they had done very little since returning. The cavalry under Colonel Sayers had taken care of all the prisoners, and a new sheriff had been elected to make sure that everything else was put back to normal. In fact, except for Nathan, they'd pretty much just lazed around, waiting for Mary to give them the go ahead to get on home.

Running footsteps caused him to look up again, and Vin pushed back his hat to reveal his cool gray-blue eyes. Puffing a little, JD met them, waving an unmistakable pink telegraph paper in his hand.

"There's trouble back home, Chris. Orrin wants us back there as soon as possible!" Nodding at Mary, the boy ran into the saloon to alert Buck and Ezra. Moments later, he sped out again to go and fetch Nathan and Josiah.

Chris sighed and pushed himself off the railing. Vin stood up and stretched, and headed off to the stables. He waved at Seth and another young boy named Caleb, the stable boy's best friend who they had rescued from the castle. Seth acknowledged the wave with one of his own, and he and Caleb disappeared into the livery to prepare the horses, followed a few minutes later by the tracker.

Ezra wandered out of the saloon, brushing down the sleeves of his dark green jacket with his good hand, squinting at the bright light of day. "Well," he drawled, "I suppose the vacation had to end at some point."

Buck grinned, and patted the man's shoulder as he followed him out. "Oh come on now Ezra, admit it. You'll be happy to get home. At least life is predictable there."

"Mr. Larabee, please tell our esteemed colleague that, in the immortal words of Mister JD Dunne, he is full of crap."

"Buck?" Chris smiled.

"Yes Chris?" the ladies man replied joyfully.

"Ezra wants me to tell you that he loves ya."

Ezra's sidelong glance of disgust only caused the boys and Mary to laugh harder. But looking over, Josiah easily caught the sly grin that crossed the gambler's face when the others weren't looking. Yes, the preacher thought as he bid goodbye to Father O'Herlihy, it would be good to get home.

The End