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Shenandoah Waltz

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He stood once more in the old apple orchard, the branches of the trees full of pink spring blossoms. The farm looked just as he remembered it, the modest white clapboard house, the green valley of the Shenandoah stretched before him, its shining river glimmering in the clear sunlight. He could feel the warm air, smell the country perfume, and yet he knew it was all a dream, the farm as he knew it was long gone, along with the happiness he’d felt there, the only real happiness he’d ever known...

Sophie came out on the porch, a pretty young girl just as he remembered her, his favorite cousin and best friend, the only relation who ever acted like she gave a damn about him. Pain gripped his heart, because he knew she was gone too, none of it was real, and would never be real again. He felt himself beginning to wake up, watched as the scene faded and washed out, replaced by the familiar sensation of growing consciousness...

 

Ezra gasped, stirred; morning light poured through the fancy curtains of his rented room, announcing another day in Four Corners. He looked around for a moment, remembered where he was, sighed in frustration and plopped his head back against the pillow. He could feel the tears in the corners of his eyes, wiped them away angrily; why couldn’t he just dream about sex, like Buck?

The noise level of the saloon below alerted him to the advanced time; he groped for his pocket watch on the bedside table, checked it, muttered an oath.

Throwing aside the covers, he dragged himself into a vertical position, yawned, and rose, pulling off his nightshirt as he staggered to the washstand, fully awake now. His gaze traveled over the top of his bureau, upon which were stacked his winnings from the previous evening. That brought a self-satisfied smile; the poker players he had faced were so inexperienced that his well-oiled cheating skills had been unnecessary.

Another thought intruded: maybe he hadn’t cheated because doing so was not as much fun as it used to be. He chuckled to himself as he shaved, imagining his mother’s reaction to such a thought; cheating was part of their profession, how they survived. It wasn’t their fault, she’d say, that God made so many stupid people. It was up to the cons and gamblers to teach those people a lesson and alert them to their ignorance.

Such arguments had always eased his conscience before, he mused as he wiped his face, but now for some reason they were vaguely unsatisfying. Well, soon old Judge Travis would return and they would be free to return to their old lives, himself and the other six men who had been hired to protect this rough frontier town. Then maybe the nagging doubts would cease...

He heard the conversation picking up downstairs, could hear Buck saying something which ended with loud laughter, and JD’s contentious response. He chuckled to himself -- those two at it again?

He thought of the dream as he reached for his brush. Its sadness was lessened now, in the full light of day; he could look at it with a jaded eye and think, those days are gone, my life now is what matters. And now I’ve got to get my behind downstairs.

"It ain’t funny, Buck!" JD was insisting, with all the sincerity of embarrassed youth. Ezra smiled as he sprang down the stairs; this should be good.

"Nobody’s sayin’ it’s funny, kid," Buck was chuckling, his eyes merry as he lifted his morning beer to his mustached lips. "I think it’s downright cute."

"It ain’t cute, neither!" the younger man spat, saying the word as if it were a curse, and shooting Buck a look of extreme annoyance. "I gotta figure out how to ask Casey to the dance proper, or she won’t go with me. I gotta do this right."

Ezra reached the bottom of the stairs, looked around; no one else here yet. The morning sun streamed into the saloon, cut by the dust rising from the street as the town stirred outside.

"Salutations, gentlemen," Ezra chirped, approaching his two comrades in arms. "Getting our blood stirred so early in the day?"

"Oh, just helpin’ JD with his love life," Buck quipped, earning a swat from JD; the boy was a good two feet too far away to hit him, but the attempt seemed to satisfy him.

"If this don’t work out I ain’t gonna have no love life," JD moaned, watching Ezra reach behind the bar for a whiskey bottle and a shot glass. "Maybe you could help me, Ezra."

The gambler turned back to him, bottle and glass in hand, eying him keenly as he sat down across from Buck. "I would be happy to render my assistance, son. What’s the problem?"

"Well," JD said, fiddling with the bowler hat in his hands, "Y’know the spring dance is in three weeks, an’ I’d really like to take Casey..."

Ezra grinned at Buck. "Our boy is in love!"

Buck laughed into his mug.

"Aw, c’mon!" JD protested. "Geez, I shoulda asked the bank robber I arrested last week for advice, he’da been more help than you two!"

Ezra sipped at the whiskey, still smiling. "Sorry, son. Pray continue."

JD huffed, ran a hand through his thick black hair which promptly fell into his eyes anyway. "Well, so, I wanna ask her today, but I don’t know what to say that won’t sound, you know, stupid."

"Not much in the dime novels on that subject, huh?" Buck inquired, leaning back. JD frowned.

"Well, no, the hero never has to ask the girl anything, she just sorta goes into his arms at the end."

Ezra laughed, poured another drink. "if I had a dollar for every time that’s happened to me," he said wryly, then slapped the table. "Well, son, your pleas have touched me deeply, and you need have no fear -- I will gladly play Cyrano to your Christian."

JD blinked. "Who?"

"I’ll help you out," Ezra replied flatly.

"Great!" JD exclaimed, clearly relieved. "Boy, thanks, Ezra, you saved my life, really."

"My pleasure," Ezra grinned.

Buck seemed pleased, too; his grin was positively brilliant. "Boy, I can’t wait to go to that dance now!" he crowed. "Gonna see JD an’ Casey dancin’ -- that’s gonna be just too adorable!"

The gambler laughed, too, but JD looked suddenly stricken.

"Oh, gosh," he breathed. Buck looked at him.

"S’matter, kid?"

JD gulped, looking chagrined. "I just thought of somethin’--" he slammed the bowler hat onto the table in disappointment, cast his eyes to the floor. "--I ain’t never learned to dance."

Buck’s brow furrowed as he nodded slowly. "Well, now, that can be a problem at a spring dance."

JD’s expression suddenly brightened as he looked to Ezra.

"Say, you know any dances, Ezra? Cause you could help me with that too, maybe."

Ezra’s hand paused, the shot glass almost to his lips. His eyes flickered.

"Nothing fancy," JD persisted, "just a waltz, maybe, or the reel?"

"Sorry, son, not my department. Mr. Wilmington, I’m sure, can give you all the instruction you need."

Buck chuckled, gave Ezra a friendly swipe. "Aw, c’mon, Ezra, I ain’t never seen a Southron yet who couldn’t dance the ladies into fits of swoonin’. I bet I ain’t half as good as you."

The look he received surprised him; all the humor had gone out of Ezra’s green eyes as he looked squarely at Buck and said emphatically, "I don’t dance."

With that, Ezra rose, grabbed the whiskey bottle, and strode away, finally plopping himself down at the poker table in the corner of the saloon, where he resumed his drinking, clearly irritated.

His companions looked at him for a moment; JD was slightly stunned and Buck merely puzzled. Then Buck cleared his throat asked JD softly, "What time you wanna start learnin’, kid? He don’t dance."

JD just looked at Ezra, perplexed.

Chris walked in, his black duster swirling around his legs as he strode straight to the bar. JD jumped a little, Ezra ignored him, and Buck studied his lined face carefully; it was always hard to tell what sort of a mood Chris was in. Tight-lipped and mercurial, the gunslinger often seemed most cheerful when he was boiling over with rage, so clues were few, but as a longtime friend, Buck knew best how to negotiate his pal’s moods. Nothing much had happened recently, so he was probably all right today.

"Hey, Chris," Buck called. "How you doin’?"

"Know in a minute," Chris replied, reaching over the bar and fishing around for a moment, finally pulling out another bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. He looked up and saw Ezra brooding by himself and frowned. "Problems, Ezra?"

The gambler looked over. "I have plenty already, thank you, Mr. Larabee," he said, and resumed drinking.

Chris glared at him, then sat down with Buck and JD and began pouring the whiskey. "What’s under his saddle?"

"Aw, he’s just sore -- probably got skunked last night at the tables," Buck returned, tired of trying to figure out Ezra’s moods. "So anything goin’ on today?"

Chris took a good long drink of the whiskey, shook his head. "Nathan’s gone out to the Seminole village, to check on things. Josiah’s still recovering from that shot in the arm he got last week. and Vin’s out on patrol."

Buck’s brow creased with concern. "We got trouble comin’?"

But Chris pursed his lips, shrugged. "Naw, just rumors of some horse thieves striking the ranches. Nettie was worried, told her I’d keep an eye out."

"Hell, send JD!" Buck exclaimed, punching the younger man in the shoulder. "He’s gotta go out that way anyhow, right, kid?"

JD shot Buck a look of pure anger. Chris poured another drink and eyed the two keenly, quietly amused.

"That so?" he said.

"I ain’t goin’ out there without Ezra," JD scowled. "An’ he don’t look ready to go nowhere just yet."

Ezra turned his head at that.

"No hurry," Chris shrugged. "Vin won’t be off duty til the afternoon, that oughta give Ezra plenty of time to sober up."

There was a noise behind him, and Buck and JD were both surprised to see Ezra striding back towards them, a smile on his lips.

"On the contrary, Mr. Larabee," he drawled, thumping his nearly-empty whiskey bottle on the table next to Chris’. "I am perfectly ready to accompany our young friend on his romantic errand. I’m sure Mrs. Wells wouldn’t mind some more eyes keeping watch on her place."

JD became instantly flustered. "Uh, what -- now?"

"Indeed, before some other young swain charms her out of your arms," Ezra urged, taking JD by the scruff of his coat and hauling him out of the chair. JD grabbed his bowler hat, growing increasingly alarmed as they headed for the door.

"B-but, Ezra! I ain’t ready -- I thought we’d practice first -- I ain’t bathed yet--"

The protests faded away as they walked outside, but Chris and Buck could hear them continue as Ezra and JD headed towards the livery.

"He was sure in a touchy mood this mornin’," Buck observed, draining his beer.

Chris shrugged, poured himself another whiskey. "It’s these quiet times, give a man too much time to think." He set down the bottle, regarded Buck with piercing eyes. "I wouldn’t worry. They likely won’t stay quiet for long."

 

The deputy at the jail in Eagle Bend scowled as he glanced over the records of the prisoners he was being asked to lodge temporarily in the town facility. The convicts chained together in the farmer’s wagon out in the street were attracting attention, even in the bustling activity of the afternoon. Three large, wicked-looking men, and one who was sitting apart, taller, slimmer, with an air of dissipated refinement, like a good wine gone bad. He was ignoring the others completely, chewing on a toothpick and staring out into the street.

"These are mighty dangerous men you’re askin’ me to take care of, Mr. Larson," the deputy finally said, looking up at the stout, grizzled man before him. "Harrison, murder and robbery. Fredericks, armed robbery and attempted murder. Likens, murder of a lawman and his deputy. Kingston, murder of his wife."

"Yeah, they a sweet bunch, all right," the sheriff purred, tenderly cradling his long rifle and shooting a look at his charges. "And they’re goin’ to a place where they can play with lots of other sweeties, ain’t cha, boys?"

The prisoners glared at him, said nothing.

"Started a riot at the facility in Yuma," the sheriff continued, "which earned them a ticket to the maximum security jail in Virginia City. Damn prison wagon broke down couple of miles from here, and I had a hell of a time keepin’ ‘em in line while we got a lift to town. Had to crack a few skulls, y’see, which is why they love me so."

The deputy snorted, smiled. "That’ll teach em a lesson, all right." He folded the paper, handed it back to the sheriff. "They can stay here, but you gotta watch em. I can ask the hotel to deliver your meals, and there’s an extra bunk in the jail."

"Much obliged, son," Sheriff Larson bowed his head in thanks. "We’ll just be here overnight. Gotta get these bastards to Virginia City quick as possible. Oh, one more thing..."

He looked at the wagon, drew the deputy aside, and said confidentially, "Who delivers the meals from the hotel, a lady?"

The deputy nodded, confused. "Yeah, Mrs. Higgins."

"Hmm." Larson seemed uncomfortable. "Might want to see if you can get a man to do it. Kingston there," he indicated the tall man, "well, he hates women, and almost slit the throat of the last one who got anywhere near him."

The deputy noticed for the first time how the solitary convict was glaring openly at the women passing by; even across the distance he could feel the hostility.

"It was an ugly scene that I don’t want repeated," Larson continued. The deputy nodded.

"No problem, sir."

"Good. Now, let’s get ‘em inside and settled in. The sooner they’re behind bars again, the better it’ll be for your town."

 

"Now, are you sure you’ve got it, son?"

JD and Ezra were trotting along the tree-lined roads towards the ranch of Nettie Wells. While Ezra sat fairly relaxed in Chaucer’s saddle, JD was a bundle of nerves; the time Ezra had allowed him to bathe and shave had succeeded in only giving him more time to get nervous.

But he nodded, trying to at least look confident. "Yeah, I think so, Ezra. You sure she’ll be impressed?"

Ezra smiled with confidence; his surly mood of the morning was completely gone. "My friend, you will find that words will move a woman like nothing else. Well," he reconsidered, the smile growing, "almost nothing else."

JD blinked, afraid he’d missed something. "Um--"

"Don’t worry, son, you’ll figure it out."

They navigated the turn in the road, and the small ranch of Nettie Wells hove into view. It was a modest but well-kept spread, with a small corral, a few cows, and a tidy farmhouse with a wide porch. Its owner, Nettie, was mending the fence, clad in a weathered tan dress, denim jacket and wide hat.

A tough old woman, she had survived the death of her husband and the dangers of the West on her own, and rarely needed anyone’s protection. She had had to ask the seven for it only once, and now they liked to pop in occasionally, to see how she and her young niece Casey were doing. Usually it was Vin who did the visiting, as the ex-bounty hunter and unjustly wanted man seemed to feel a kinship with the older woman. She’d be surprised to see Ezra; they hadn’t really hit it off.

JD gulped. Ezra reached over to pat him on the back.

"Courage, son -- the fair Casey awaits!"

A stream of loud cursing poured from the open window of the cottage.

"And there she is now," Ezra smiled.

"Language, Casey," Nettie hollered, without looking up from her chore. After a moment Casey stormed onto the porch, her sturdy overalls soaked in water and black soot, her long brown hair escaping from the ponytail and curling around her face.

"Aunt Nettie, the slats of the soap barrel busted and there’s water all over the--" She stopped, startled, which caused Nettie to divert her attention to the two men trotting up the road.

"Well, good morning, boys, " she called, wiping her hands on her skirt and pulling off her rough gloves. "Catch the horse thieves yet?"

"Good day, ma’am," Ezra replied, tipping his hat in a genteel manner. "I regret to announce that the horse thieves are still at large, but I would like to present you with this thief of hearts, Mr. JD Dunne, who assists Mr. Tanner and the rest of us in protecting this area from such villainous scourges."

JD smiled nervously, touched his hat. He hadn’t formally met Nettie, really, and didn’t want to be rude, but he found himself staring at Casey, who was eying him as well.

"Pleasure, son," Nettie nodded. "I hope you’re handier with chores than your fancy friend here."

I knew she’d bring that up, Ezra thought, but kept smiling anyway.

JD grinned. "Oh, yes ma’am, I’m real handy, been workin’ with horses and such all my life."

"Then you’re a friend of mine, boy. You men want some coffee?"

Ezra threw JD a look. Now was the time.

"Uh, well, actually, ma’am," JD gulped, "I’d kinda like to talk to Casey private-like."

Nettie shrugged. "You can help her in the kitchen, if you wouldn’t mind, son. Sounds like she’s in a bit of a fix."

JD looked at Casey, who looked back, then sped into the house, leaving the door open for him to follow her. With a quick look to Ezra, JD hitched his horse and bounded inside. Nettie chuckled and went back to work.

"He gonna propose to her?"

Ezra slid off of Chaucer and casually threw the reins over the hitching post. "Not that I know of, ma’am, although it may very well turn out that way."

Inside, JD found Casey on her knees in front of the fireplace, and saw at once what had happened. She had been pouring water into a slat-bottomed barrel to distill ashes into lye for soap; beneath the slatted barrel was another one for catching the water as it poured through, and the top barrel had burst. The floor was covered in a slimy sea of grime. Now she was engaged in trying to scoop up the sodden ashes before they seeped through the floorboards. After working for a few minutes while JD stood at the door, watching her and trying to remember what Ezra had told him to say, she shot him an expectant look.

"You gonna help me or not?"

"Oh--" JD looked around, grabbed a nearby dustpan and began scooping up ashes, heedless of the black stains now wetting his only good suit.

"Dang ol’ barrel," Casey was muttering, "I knowed this was gonna happen, it almost happened the last time we made soap. Now we gotta clean the rugs an’ make a new one..."

Her words were spoken in a somewhat jittery voice; every now and then she stole a glance at JD.

"Bet I look a fright," she continued, laughing a little, wiping her brow and leaving a gray smear.

"I’ve seen you look worse," JD said quickly, then realized by the startled glance he received that this was not the thing to say.

"Uh, I mean -- you don’t look so bad," he stuttered.

She stared at him a moment longer, then went back to the cleanup, suppressing a smile.

JD gulped. He had to ask her now, before he got himself killed. "Casey, I got to ask you somethin’."

She didn’t look at him. "Hm?"

"Um--" He started to speak, then remembered to remove his bowler hat, began again, working hard to make his mouth form the unfamiliar words as he knelt on the sodden floor.

" My dear, it would give me the deepest possible pleasure if you would do me the inestimable honor of gracing me with your companionship at the impending social soiree."

There, he’d said it right, now all he had to do was wait. If Ezra was right, she’d swoon right into his arms.

Instead, she looked at him a moment, her brown eyes round, and laughed. "Gol, you sound just like your fancy gamblin’ friend."

He blinked, not sure how to take that. "So is that a yes?"

"It might be," Casey replied, rising and wiping her hands on her pants, "if I had any idea of what you just asked me."

"Well, uh, if you’d go to the spring dance with me," he explained, getting up himself.

A pause; then Casey smiled shyly, pretty even through the grime and sweat. "Sure, JD, that sounds like fun, I ain’t never been to a dance."

He’d promised himself he’d try to be mature about it, but JD couldn’t help breaking out into what he knew was a very goofy grin. "Hey, that’s great," he beamed, laughing a little with happiness. "I’ll go ask your aunt right now for permission to take you."

"Just leave off the fancy words," Casey advised, as he headed out the door. She looked after him for a moment, then returned to her work, smiling.

Outside, Ezra had greatly added to his handyman skills by consenting to hold a box of nails for Nettie. He sat on a post, hat balanced on his knee, watching as she pounded the fence back into shape.

"Yeah, gonna be a good spring, I think," she muttered, struggling to pry out an old nail from the stubborn wood. "Warm weather’s made everything come in early, if we don’t have a late frost we’ll have a pretty good head start on things."

When she received no reply, she peered over to see Ezra gazing at the apple tree in her backyard, which was in the full bloom of spring, the pink petals already beginning to fall to the earth.

"Apple lover, are ya?" she laughed, digging a nail out of the box he held. He started a little, looked at her.

"Not particularly, ma’am, but I am a lover of beauty," he smiled. She nodded, whamming in the nail.

"Yeah, I think it’s nice to have that tree there. It’s real pretty in the spring, puts a little color in the place," Nettie said as she hammered. "Planted it in 1838, when we first built the place. Casey climbed it all the time when she’d visit, just about gave her mother a heart attack, thinkin’ a branch was gonna break. But apple trees are pretty sturdy, they can take any type o’ poundin’."

Ezra smiled grimly, thinking, "Except, perhaps, for cannon fire."

His contemplative mood was shattered by JD, who came bounding out of the house bursting with glee. Ezra rose as he approached.

"Son, what have you done to your clothes?" he inquired, smiling at JD’s soiled appearance. JD was too excited to hear him.

"Mrs. Wells, may I take Casey to the spring dance at Four Corners?" he blurted, his eyes shining in anticipation of a positive response.

She laughed at his display, laying down the hammer. "Well, Mr. Dunne, I reckon I can trust Casey with any friend of Vin Tanner’s. Just don’t keep her out real late, she has chores in the mornin’."

"Oh, don’t worry, ma’am," JD said, smiling with joy, "I’ll take real good care of her. Thank you!"

Nettie smiled, shot a sideways glance at Ezra. "That’s all right, son, even this wizened old crone likes to see the young folk happy."

Ezra sighed. "Ma’am, I do hope my service to you here today had gone some distance towards earning your forgiveness for that unfortunate remark?"

She patted his arm. "Just teasing, son. If I’d really been sore do you think I would’ve let you within spittin’ distance of me? You just got some edges need smoothin’, and I reckon they’ll smooth out soon enough."

Ezra considered this while JD glanced at his watch.

"Oh, gosh, I gotta get back to the jail," he breathed. He hurriedly touched the brim of his bowler hat. "Afternoon, Mrs. Wells."

He scurried to his horse and mounted up, barely able to contain himself. Ezra rose, donned his hat, handed the nails to Nettie with a graceful bow.

"Ma’am," he drawled, then walked over to Chaucer and swung himself into the saddle.

"I’ll be in touch about the dance," JD called as they rode off. "Nice to meet you, ma’am -- and thanks again!"

"Anytime," Nettie yelled back, waving one gloved hand before returning to the fence. She smiled as she resumed hammering; this was going to be fun to watch.

On the road, Ezra turned to JD, his expression triumphant. "So, my words worked well?"

JD snorted. "Hell, Ezra, she didn’t know what I was talkin’ about and neither did I. From now on I"m stickin’ to my own words. If I’m gonna sound like an idiot I might as well know what I’m sayin’." He paused. "But thanks anyway -- they sure sounded nice. Bet you get a lot o’ girls with ‘em."

Ezra smiled. "My success with the fair ones is no secret, my friend, and I will gladly share my other secrets with you" -- here he held up a cautioning finger -- "in time."

"Yeah, well," JD replied, spurring his horse on. "I already know you can’t dance, so that ain’t no secret."

Ezra’s jaw tightened a little. "My abilities in that arena are not absent, my friend, I just choose to abstain from them."

JD looked over at him as they trotted together. "Why?"

Silence.

"Ezra?"

A long pause; Ezra drew in a deep breath.

"Let’s just say that the activity is rendered painful by an old injury," he said, looking at the younger man. JD peered at him, tried to decipher the odd light behind those green eyes. Ezra turned away before he could figure it out, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.

 

Vin leaned back, letting the chair he was sitting on thump gently against the outside wall of the saloon. His gaze traveled idly up and down the vacant evening street as he blew a shapeless tune on his harmonica. Behind him the light and life of the hotel blazed away in a cacophony of booze-soaked laughter, but tonight Vin felt more like sitting outside with his bottle of whiskey than socializing. Nobody seemed to be around anyway.

"Well, look what the winds of the desert have blown our way."

Vin peered up from beneath his wide-brimmed hat to see Nathan and Josiah walking towards him, smiling in greeting. Josiah still wore his arm in a sling, a souvenir from a particularly nasty gunfight the previous week; Nathan seemed to be watching out for him constantly, despite the fact that Josiah was clearly on the mend.

"Evenin’," Vin replied, nodding slightly to them both. "How’s the wing, Josiah?"

"It’d be a lot better if he’d slow down this night life," Nathan groused good-naturedly. "But he oughta be outa the sling tomorrow."

"One hand to shoot with and one to drink with, all I ask," Josiah smiled. Vin reached down and offered him the whiskey bottle.

"Better start gettin’ back into practice, then," he drawled.

"Much obliged, brother," said the tall ex-preacher as he accepted the gift and eased himself onto the stoop.

Nathan peered into the saloon. "Anyone else around?"

Vin studied his harmonica. "Chris is watchin’ the jail, Buck an’ JD are off somewhere, an’ I ain’t seen Ezra all night." One eye peeped at Nathan from beneath the hat. "Heard you went out to the Seminole village today."

Nathan grinned widely, sitting on the stoop as he took the bottle Josiah was stretching towards him. "Yeah, thought it was time to check up on things."

Vin nodded. "So, how is she?"

Josiah chuckled. Nathan, seeing that he had been caught, cocked a peeved smile at Vin.

"Rain, and everyone else there, are doin’ fine. She’s comin’ with me to the spring dance."

"Ah, congratulations," Josiah exulted. "By then I’ll be well enough to cut in on you at least once."

"Try it and I’ll shoot your other arm," Nathan grinned. "It’d serve you right for bein’ so ungrateful."

Josiah smiled again in reply. "Brother, don’t you know all’s fair in love and war?"

Vin pulled his hat down over his eyes, leaned back again. "That Biblical, preacher?"

Josiah shrugged. "If it ain’t, it oughta be."

Approaching footsteps caught their attention, and they looked up to see JD walking somewhat stiffly towards them.

"Evenin’, son," Josiah rumbled, offering him the bottle.

JD smiled in reply, held up a hand in refusal. "Aw, no thanks, hey Josiah, how’s your arm?"

"The arm is fine," Josiah smiled, before turning to Nathan and saying with an exasperated tone, "I can’t wait til the sling comes off so’s everyone can quit askin’ me that."

JD ignored him, looked at Vin. "Hey, Vin, Chris wants you at the jail, says he’s got somethin’ t’talk to ya about."

The chair legs thumped back onto the porch. "On my way," he said, pocketing his harmonica. "Finish off the bottle, boys, I’ll see ya tomorrow."

As Vin strode away, JD sat down next to Josiah as Nathan looked around. "Wadn’t Buck with you?"

JD took off his bowler hat, mussed his hair. "Yeah, but after the dancin’ lesson he said he wanted to go check on his horse -- seems he mighta thrown a shoe."

Josiah looked at Nathan, then over at JD. They both said in unison, "Dancing lesson?"

JD looked at them, surprised, feeling a ribbing coming on. "Well, yeah, Buck’s teachin’ me to dance so I can impress Casey. Nothin’ much, He showed me the waltz tonight, it was real simple."

Pause.

"Well, it sounded simple."

Another pause.

"Gimme that bottle, Josiah."

 

Buck hurried along, breathing quickly in the night air. Having fixed his horse’s shoe, he was hoping to get to the saloon in time to find Molly, the new working girl, and secure her for the evening. The hours spent teaching JD the waltz had been kind of fun, but he was eager to do the type of dancing they wouldn’t be seeing at the spring ball.

He looked around, noted how deserted the streets were. Odd, he thought, you’d think this warm weather’d bring out the whole town. Well, their loss.

A movement in the shadows caught his eye, and he looked to the right. In the gloom he could see a figure seated on the stoop outside of the closed general store, the orange light of its cigar glowing like an earthbound star. Buck squinted; it looked familiar...

"Ezra? That you?"

The figure barely moved. "Good evenin’, Mr. Wilmington. Or has it turned to morning so soon?"

Buck ambled over, surprised. "What’re you doin’ out here? I thought you’d be over at the hotel pluckin’ some pigeons."

Ezra took a drag on the cigar, slowly expelled the smoke into the moonlight, where it rose and swirled in a silver cloud. "Yes, well, my muse seems to have left me tonight, as has my desire to wallow in the mass of humanity."

The other man eyed him, concerned. Since Buck had known him, Ezra had never spent an evening away from the tables.

Ezra swiveled his head towards him. "Would you care to join me in my solitary meditations?"

The words were slightly slurred, and Buck realized that Ezra had been drinking -- probably the brandy he kept in his silver hip flask. Fueled by concern and curiosity, Buck shrugged.

"Hell, why not, Molly won’t be expectin’ me til later anyway."

He scooted onto the porch next to Ezra and had his suspicions confirmed when the gambler offered him his silver flask. Buck took a swig, thought, boy, that tastes good, wonder where Ezra gets this stuff, it sure ain’t from the saloon.

"I trust our young friend is catching on to the finer points of the terpsichorean arts?"

Buck thought, nodded. "He’s learnin’ to dance, if that’s what you mean. Took me a little while to get the waltz across to ‘im, but he ain’t half bad. Hell, when my ma taught me, I damn near sprained my ankle, so I guess we should be glad the boy ain’t dead."

Ezra took another draw on the cigar, blew the smoke out. "I’m sure he was most grateful to you for seeing him through the experience intact."

Buck laughed. "Well, he won’t never forget it anyway. You don’t forget when you first learned to dance. I ain’t never forgot my ma and me, waltzin’ around the parlor of the brothel while Ol’ Joe played the piano." Buck’s tone grew introspective. "I’ll always remember her lookin’ at me an’ sayin’, boy, you dance just like that, the ladies’ll never leave you alone. An’ damn me if she wasn’t right."

He took the flask back, downed another swig. "You remember learnin’?"

He looked over to see Ezra nod as he stared into the dark street. "Who taught you, Maude?

Ezra laughed and cast Buck a bitter glance. "Teaching me the social graces wasn’t in my mother’s abilities -- unless, of course, they could earn us a profit."

Buck took off his hat, ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah, she’s an amazin’ woman, but she never did strike me as the maternal type. So, who was it, then?"

His companion took another swig, swallowed hard and replied, "My cousin Sophie."

"Huh, I didn’t know you had a cousin Sophie," Buck remarked, pulling his hat back on. "Was she the one with the mustache and one eyebrow?"

Ezra chuckled. "No, that was cousin Liza. Sophie--" He paused, reflected, his voice softening. "Sophie was the prettiest, most gentle creature ever to draw God’s breath."

Buck observed him; he’d never see him look so sad. "She your sweetheart?"

He saw Ezra shake his head. "I offered to marry her, once, to protect her, but we were never involved in that carnal manner. We were more like..." He searched his vocabulary. "Companions of the soul."

Buck eyed him, knowing Ezra was drunk or he’d never open up this way; but he seemed to need to talk about it, and Buck was growing increasingly intrigued.

Ezra caught him staring. "I apologize, Mr. Wilmington -- am I boring you?"

"I can hold out long as the brandy does," Buck replied. Ezra smiled and handed it over.

"Then fortify yourself, sir. This is a long, sad story."

 

The Shenandoah Valley, Northern Virginia, 1857

"it’s just so nice of you to help me out, dear, I know I can’t thank you enough!"

The words were spoken, in a light and pleasing tone, by a slim, blonde-haired woman in full mourning, as she stood on the steps of the small white farmhouse’s porch. She smiled disarmingly up at the tall, rough-looking man in work clothes, as if desperate for him to know exactly how grateful she was.

Behind her, the Shenandoah Valley spread itself out in a breathtaking view. The farm was situated on the crest of a hill which overlooked the green rolling slopes and fertile fields of the ancient terrain, all rimmed by distant blue-green mountains. It was the middle of spring, and the sunshine bathed everything in a soft, slightly humid warmth which bore a taste of the forthcoming summer heat. The air was alive with the music of insects and birds as they busied themselves among the trees and flowers which colored the entire valley in bright greens, pinks and purples. Through it all ran the Shenandoah River, its silver waters sparkling in the Southern sun.

The man returned her smile, his weather-creased face battered but pleasant. "Don’t you worry, Maude. Long as he does his share, Ezra’s welcome to stay with us as long as he likes."

He smiled down at the slender boy who stood directly in front of him, facing the woman with a blank expression. The boy didn’t respond to his remark, or to the firm but affectionate hands which rested on his shoulders, giving him a gentle shake. He was eleven, but his green eyes looked older as they regarded the black-clad woman with resignation, an infant bitterness already growing. Darkening his expression even further were the almost-healed traces of a black eye.

"It eases my mind to hear you say that, George, it surely does," Maude replied. "And I’m sure Ezra’s going to be on his very best behavior, right, sugar?"

She tousled the boy’s hair; he simply gazed into her eyes and said with a sigh in his voice, "Yes, mama."

"Good boy," she cooed, chucking his chin, then looking back at her hosts. "Really, i can’t tell you how much this means to me, letting him come out to your lovely farm and get some fresh air. I just couldn’t let him stay in Charleston another minute, you know how congested and unhealthy that place can get." She looked back down at Ezra. "And, of course, there was that unpleasantness with his cousins Charles and James..."

She reached out to touch Ezra’s afflicted eye; he flinched away. She regarded him sadly for a moment, then tried to smile.

"I wasn’t there, of course, but when sister Mary wrote me, I could see he and the boys just weren’t going to get along."

"Now don’t you worry, Maude," the other woman soothed, "all we got is Sophie, and she’ll be right happy to finally have a playmate."

As she said this, she stroked the golden hair of her daughter who leaned against her hip, a small-boned pretty girl of eleven in a somewhat frayed but clean work dress which reached to her ankles, covered by a beige apron, also clean but stained. Sophie had not said a word since Maude and Ezra’s arrival the hour before, but had merely regarded Ezra with curiosity. He had not looked at her at all.

"You’re an angel, Grace, I can see why my Daniel, God rest his soul, said you were such a wonderful sister," Maude smiled. A distant train whistle cut the warm air, causing Maude to jump slightly.

"Oh, mercy, I’ve got to run or I’ll miss my train!" she exclaimed. She knelt before Ezra and gave him a fierce kiss, looking into his eyes with as much maternal feeling as she could muster.

"Now you be good and mind your aunt and uncle, dear," she said softly. "I’ll see you again before you know it."

Ezra looked at her for a moment, then grabbed her in a desperate hug, his arms tight around her neck, his eyes squeezed against sudden tears.

"Please don’t go again, mama," he pleaded.

Maude was taken aback; she wavered for a moment, then her lips tightened with regret. There was no other choice, none that she was willing to consider, anyway. There was no time or place for a child where she was going. She held on to her only child for a moment, then pulled back, forcing a sunny smile.

"Now you know I have to do this, son," she soothed, stroking his hair. "It’s the only way for me, for us. You’ll understand one day. For now--" she gave him another kiss "--just understand that I love you, and I’ll be back soon."

The boy gave her an you’ve -- said -- that -- before look but said nothing, just sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

"That’s my boy," Maude said, patting his cheek. "Now, I’ll write as soon as I’m in New Orleans, and you’ll be getting money from me in a week or so. Goodbye, George," she said quickly, kissing him lightly on the cheek, "Goodbye, Grace," another kiss, "Goodbye, Sophie, dear," a quick pat on the head, and she was off down the dirt sidewalk in a rush of black silk and petticoats. With a nimble hop she was in the rented conveyance; the driver gave the horse a touch of the whip, and the hack trotted off, Maude waving gaily. The group on the porch waved back, except for Ezra, who watched the buggy disappear with an expression of youthful heartbreak.

"Well, my boy," George finally said, when the hack had disappeared over the hills of the Shenandoah Valley," let’s get you settled and rested up, tomorrow’s your first day as a farm hand. You ever turned your hand to the soil before?"

"I cleaned stables at Uncle Henry’s, sir," Ezra replied, as he lifted his small satchel and followed the group into the house. "I hated it."

"Well, I hated it when I was a boy, too," George chuckled, as they entered the modest white-walled parlor and headed for the staircase. "But my father taught me, as I want to teach you, that there’s no shame in honest labor."

"Mama says there’s no profit in it either, sir."

The group stopped. George looked back at him.

"Son, that attitude will win you a ticket back to Charleston."

Ezra gulped, eyed him uncertainly, said nothing.

They moved up the stairs. "Don’t worry, son, you won’t be leavin’ as long as you do your share. And I hope you’ll see that profit isn’t the only reason a man puts his hand to his God-given work."

They climbed to the second story, then up another, smaller staircase into the attic section of the house. At the top of the stairs was a small room, its ceiling arcing overhead into a peak; inside was a small bed, a bureau with a Bible on it, and a table with a tin pitcher and ewer, all lit by a single square window.

"Here’s where you’ll sleep, son. Get unpacked, and then we’ll go over your chores while we eat dinner."

Ezra eyed the room with disinterest. "Looks just like my room in Charleston."

George cleared his throat. "Yes, well, unless you want to sleep in the bunkhouse with the hired hands, this will have to do. We’ll see you downstairs directly."

He moved towards the stairs as Grace reached out to gently smooth Ezra’s hair, giving him a gentle smile. He eyed her with a curious expression almost like suspicion as she descended the stairs after her husband. Sophie followed, still saying nothing; Ezra was opening his satchel and didn’t see her throw him a final, inquisitive glance.

It took the boy a few moments of digging through his satchel to find what he was looking for. There wasn’t much in it -- some clean clothes, a frayed edition of The Canterbury Tales, a few beaten-up toys that his cousins had discarded. Finally he brought his hand out and sat on the bed, ignoring the beautiful view of the valley outside the window as he shuffled the worn deck of playing cards and flipped them deftly through his fingers, back and forth, back and forth.

 

The sun was setting across the valley, the trees casting long shadows across the hills and fields as the bright sunshine deepened into gold. George McKenna’s farm hands were occupied with bringing in the few heads of cattle and tending to the small herds of sheep and pigs; George’s booming voice could be heard above the bleats and squeals as he yelled across the distance to the foreman, inquiring as to the conditions of the livestock. None of the sun-tanned, rough-clothed men paid any attention to the slender boy who came out of the house, crossed the expanse of spring-green grass, and plopped himself down at the foot of the nearest tree of the large old apple orchard to watch the settling dusk.

Ezra drew his knees up to is chest and crossed his arms over them, regarding the quiet beauty of the valley with deepening misery. It was all different, but it was all the same -- the same assurances that they were glad to have him there, the same list of rules to be obeyed, the same chores -- well, that was different, he’d never slopped pigs or fed sheep before, but in this case the novelty was unwelcome. He already knew he was going to hate it.

He picked up a stick laying nearby and absently poked the ground with it, thinking of his mother. How many times had she told him it was only going to be for a little while, then disappear for months. How often had she assured him that she loved him, only to wave from a carriage as he stood watching from a strange porch, surrounded by relatives who only said they wanted him. Aunt Grace and Uncle George would be no different -- their welcoming smiles would fade, they’d get involved with their work and eventually forget he was even there -- unless he did something wrong.

He rubbed his eye and remembered Charleston; the fight had been kind of fun, and he was pretty sure he’d left his cousins with a few bruises of their own. They’d yelled at him pretty good, and Mama was pretty mad when she had to come and fetch him, but he couldn’t be sorry about it -- they’d insulted him, and he had to defend his honor, like his father said a gentleman had to do. If it got him thrown out, well, he hated it there anyway. At least here nobody would bother him.

Ezra’s gut tightened a little when he thought of his father, although not as bad as it used to. He’d only been five when his father disappeared, but he still remembered his Mama reassuring him that everything was fine, it wasn’t anything to worry about, Daddy just owed some men some money, just a run of bad luck at the tables, he’d be back when they straightened it all out. Then later, when they found the badly decomposed body in the river, she told him it was still all right, it was all a game, the body wasn’t him, Daddy had just found a body and fixed it up to look like him so the bad men would leave him alone; they’d wait until he contacted them and then they’d meet him and be together again. When the days of waiting stretched into weeks, then months, even Mama had to face the truth. Ezra often wondered if his father really was still alive, but after six years, it hardly seemed to matter any more.

So absorbed was Ezra in his pouting that he didn’t notice the noise above him in the branches of the tree; he only looked up when he saw the pink apple blossoms falling about him like snowflakes. Curious, he looked around to notice that this tree was the only one shedding its blooms at such a fantastic rate. Puzzled, he peered upward to see Sophie sitting on a branch directly above him, watching him with her large blue eyes.

Ezra sat there for a second, surprised, then jumped to his feet and took off deeper into the orchard.

"Wait!"

Ezra slowed, turned to see Sophie drop herself down to the ground. As she walked towards him he saw that she had removed her apron, and some of her hair had escaped from its loose ponytail.

"I don’t like people spying on me," Ezra informed her, his voice cross. "Especially girls. You must think you’re a ‘possum or somethin’."

She stopped a few feet from him, brushed her hair back. "Naw, I just like to climb up there and watch the sun set when I’m done helpin’ Ma in the kitchen. It’s nice and quiet, and no one bothers me."

Ezra looked around. "Well, it’s not like Charleston, that’s for sure. Or Lexington or Richmond, for that matter."

Sophie’s eyes widened. "You’ve been to all them places?"

He nodded, smiling a little with pride. "A true gentleman seeks to stretch his horizons, that’s what my father said."

"You’re lucky," Sophie moped. "I’d love to go traveling. I’ve never been further than Winchester."

Ezra’s look of pride deflated a little. "They weren’t all that nice, really. I hated them."

The orchard opened onto a small pond surrounded by low rocks, with a deep forest beyond. The two children made their way to the water’s edge, where Ezra plunked himself onto a rock and began pitching pebbles into the pond, each one landing with a hollow plop.

"I heard Charleston’s a right pretty place," Sophie urged, sitting on a rock and picking up some pebbles herself.

Ezra shrugged. "Maybe it is, I was working in Uncle Henry’s stables all the time." he looked down at the pebble in his hand, let out a small, bitter laugh. "The horses don’t smell any better there, I can tell you that."

Sophie sent her rock into the water, then looked at her cousin. "I hope you don’t hate it here, Ezra."

He shrugged. "They told me the same thing in Charleston. Next thing I knew, Charles and James were trying to kill me." He sent his pebble flying. "Doesn’t matter where I am anymore, it’s just another place to stay until Ma comes back."

They sat in silence for a few moments, then Sophie turned to him with a smile.

"Don’t be sad, Ezra -- we can have fun while you’re here. Want to play hide and seek?"

Suspicion rose in his eyes, but she didn’t see it.

"You know that one, don’t you?" she asked, a little puzzled by his silence.

He knew that one, all right -- that was where they counted and he hid, only they never looked for him, or he counted and they went to play another game.

"Sure, I know that one," he said finally.

"Good!" She jumped up. "This’ll be fun, there’s lots of places to hide here. Only you have to stay outside -- don’t go in the house or it won’t be fair."

He nodded, thinking, of course she’d tell me that, she wants to make sure I don’t see her go in.

"I’ll count and you’ll hide, all right?"

He nodded, thinking how surprised she’d be when she discovered he knew she was trying to trick him all along. He should’ve known, they’d all done this, both the girls and the boys, acted like his best friends, and then let him know exactly where he stood in the family. At the bottom. Or more accurately, in the attic.

"Now go hide -- but don’t go in the barn, they’re fixing it up and there’s tools everywhere. I’ll count to 50."

She walked over to the nearest tree, put her face against her crossed arms and began counting. Ezra watched her for a moment, then turned and walked calmly back into the house, straight up to his room.

Once in his room, he peered out of the small square window, pleased to see that it looked out over the orchard. Good, from here he could watch her finish counting, then see her come back into the house. When she did, maybe he’d meet her on the stairs and ask if she enjoyed the game. She seemed really nice, too -- he’d almost believed her...

He picked up the playing cards and began shuffling them, casting looks out the window every few moments until he saw that Sophie had finished counting. He ducked back quickly, not wanting her to see him in the window, then checked his watch; in a few minutes she’d be coming back inside. He sat back and began to deal solitaire, smiling to himself at his own ingenuity. This time he was too smart for them.

Five minutes passed. Ten. Ezra began to grow impatient -- he really wanted to show her up, and every passing second took the edge off his victory somehow. A new thought began to creep into his mind, but he pushed it away. Nobody had ever done that before, and he saw no reason why she’d be different.

He began to think maybe she’d hurt herself somehow -- he’d surely get blamed if that happened, and after Charleston he didn’t need another black mark on his record. Rising from the bed, he peered out the window, ready to pull back if she was still out in the yard.

She was there, but she was not looking in his general direction. She was down on her hands and knees, peering into the broken slats of a large lidded barrel that sat next to the water pump.

He stood, shocked and suddenly feeling very guilty. She’s looking for me, he thought, with as much wonder as if she had sprouted wings and turned into an angel.

As he watched she rose, wiped the mud from her hands, and looked around again, obviously trying to figure out where else he might be. As she looked towards the house, he pulled away from the window, then sat on the bed, trying to think fast.

I can’t let her know I came inside, he thought, ignoring the fact that he had recently looked forward to throwing that very fact in her face. Was there any way out of the house besides the front and side doors? He didn’t see if they had a back door, and if he used the others she’d see him -- maybe he should just go hide in a closet -- but how would he explain being in the house? He needed a plan--

"Ezra! You came inside!"

He jumped, looking up in shock to see Sophie standing in his doorway, looking very hurt. She stamped her foot.

"That’s no fair!" she exclaimed, and turned on her heel to run downstairs.

"No, wait!" Ezra cried, jumping up. She went down three stairs, then turned, still angry.

"That was pretty mean," she said, clearly disappointed. With a stab Ezra realized she sounded just like he did, when his cousins tricked him.

"Well, I -- I--" What could he say? "I didn’t think you’d find me."

She stared at him crossly. "Well, of course I won’t find you if I tell you not to go in the house and you do anyway, silly!"

"No, I mean--" He gave up. Normally he was expert at lying, but for some reason it didn’t feel right this time. "I mean, I didn’t think you’d look for me."

She stared at him another moment, then walked back up into his room.

"I don’t understand," she said, still confused, but beginning to guess the truth. He sighed, feeling very awkward.

"You’re the first one who’s looked," he said simply.

Her expression changed to sympathy, then to anger, and she shook her head.

"That is so nasty! The next time I see our cousins, I’m going to be so mean to them! Now come on," she grabbed his hand and began pulling him towards the stairs, "before it grows dark. You’re going to hide and I’m going to find you if it takes all night!"

Once outside, they could see that the sun had already nearly sunk behind the mountains. The fireflies were just beginning to appear, their tiny green-yellow stars dancing over the grass.

George was walking back over the yard with Dean, his foreman. He glanced at the two children.

"Don’t stay out too much longer, kids, it’s gonna get dark soon," he mumbled around his cigar. The men passed into the house and Sophie sighed.

"Sorry, Ezra. We’ll play tomorrow night, after chores. And you’ll come with me to school, too -- it’ll be fun."

They walked to the nearest apple tree, and sat down at the base of its trunk, watching the stars come out.

"I’m sorry they were so mean to you, Ezra," Sophie finally said; he couldn’t see her face -- she was on the other side of the tree -- but she sounded sad.

He shrugged, pulled at the grass "So am I. They always acted like I was in the way."

"Not me, I like having someone else around. It gets pretty boring with just Ma and Pa and the men." A pause, then she said quietly, "I’m glad your ma brought you here, Ezra."

He watched the sky deepen, then said, "I am too," and meant it for the first time in his life.

 

Four Corners, 1879

Buck drained the last drop from the hip flask and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

"Sophie sounds like a right sweet little girl, Ezra," he said, handing the empty container back to his companion. "Didn’t hear you mention any dancin’, tho."

Ezra stretched and took in a deep breath; he was pretty drunk by now, and getting very sleepy. "That part of the tale will have to wait, I’m afraid," he drawled, his words markedly slurred. "It must be past midnight by now, and Morpheus awaits."

Buck stiffly rose from the porch and sniffed. "Well, Molly ain’t waitin’ any more, that’s for sure."

Ezra eyed him as he, too, rose, bracing himself against the nearest post. "I apologize for detaining you, sir, but please accept my gratitude for lending your ear to me."

Buck shrugged. "That’s all right, Ezra, sometimes a man just needs to talk. Well, ‘night." He turned to leave.

"One more thing, sir."

Buck turned back to him; Ezra was standing unsteadily, but his eyes were clear and serious.

"May I rely on your discretion in this matter?"

Buck deciphered this, nodded quickly. "Sure, Ezra, you bet. Lips are sealed. Need help back to the hotel?"

Ezra came down off the porch, slipping the hip flask back into his pocket. "That will not be necessary, thank you, sir. I am quite used to walking alone."

Buck peered at him for a moment, then nodded good night and walked away. Ezra stood by himself in the quiet street for a minute, looked towards the starlit sky, then turned his steps towards the hotel.

 

Vin squinted into the early afternoon sun as he and Nathan rode towards Eagle Bend. It was another warm day; looked like the early spring was going to hold after all. Returning his eyes to the landscape in front of him, he sighed slightly; although he was happy, as always, to spend time riding in the wilderness which had become his home, he was getting tired of looking for phantom horse thieves.

Despite rumors to the contrary, none had shown up, and Vin couldn’t help but wonder if they were missing important duties while chasing the toothless ghosts.

"Sure appreciate you lettin’ me come with you," Nathan was saying as they plodded along. "With Josiah’s arm still too sore to ride, woulda been a long trip to Eagle Bend by myself."

Vin gave his usual tight smile, cocked his head. "Don’t object to company, if it’s the right kind."

Nathan smiled, realizing what a compliment that was, coming from Vin. As a wanted man, Vin had to choose his companions carefully; only those he could trust fully won his confidence, and Vin trusted very few people. Only six, at the moment.

"Too bad we couldn’t stick around to watch Buck give JD some more dancing lessons," Nathan chuckled, clucking to his horse.

Vin shook his head. "Never pegged Buck for much of a dancer."

His companion shrugged. "When you got what he got, talent don’t count as much as style."

Vin nodded, pulled his hat down. The sun was climbing.

"You goin’ to the dance?" Nathan inquired.

Vin looked down, fiddled with the reins. "Too many people. Reckon I’ll just spend the night ridin’ patrol."

Nathan eyed him in disbelief. "Now, you know you got half the ladies in town sighin’ over them fine looks o’ yours."

Vin shot him a steady look. "Wouldn’t look too fine at the end of a rope." He looked around with discomfort. "Could be takin’ care of some things instead of chasin’ imaginary horse thieves."

Nathan scratched his chin. "Yeah, looks like we ain’t gonna run into ‘em out here. Maybe Buck an’ Chris’ll find somethin’."

"Mm."

They rode in silence for a while. Suddenly Vin narrowed his eyes and halted.

Nathan glanced at him, concerned. "See somethin’?"

Vin kept his eyes scanning while he dug for his telescope. "Know in a minute."

He lifted the glass up to his eye, peered through it for a moment, then quickly picked up the reins and said, "C’mon!" as he spurred Sire forward up the road. Nathan followed, trying to fight a rising sense of anxiety.

As they neared the object that caught Vin’s attention, Nathan could see his reason for concern. It was a prison wagon, empty, turned on its side, the horses gone, the back door smashed open. Near the debris lay a motionless body, face-down in the desert dust, blood covering its head and neck.

Vin and Nathan pulled up and dismounted quickly, Vin priming his sawed-off Winchester as he scanned the area for the convicts. Nathan ran to the body, knowing it was already dead, and turned it over. An older man, white grizzled beard, his head bent at an odd angle, an ugly wound near the left ear.

Nathan looked up at Vin, who was staring at the man with a grim expression.

"Neck’s broke. Been shot in the head, too -- looks like they wanted to make sure with this one."

Vin kept staring, then said, "Frank Larson."

Nathan’s eyebrows raised a little. "Knew him, huh?"

His comrade nodded. "Sheriff in Yuma. Brought some men in to ‘im on a few occasions. Real bastard, but he knew his job. Guess whoever jumped ‘im knew theirs, too."

An object nearby caught the tracker’s attention; a large wooden box lying on its side, its lock blown off. Vin walked over to it, peering at the lid; over the faded green paint he could make out the white stenciled words GUNS AND AMMUNITION. With one foot he nudged the battered lid open; the box was empty.

He looked around again, squinting. "Could have trouble here, pard."

Nathan rose. "Guess we better--"

Gunshots shattered the drowsy air, the bullets striking the overturned wagon and ground around them. Vin whirled, pumped off a few shots as he and Nathan dove for cover behind the shattered wagon.

"There’s one behind the rock," Vin yelled as Nathan peered around the corner, peeling off a few rounds.

"How many you think?" Nathan hollered back, never taking his eyes off their assailants. The wagon splintered as what seemed like hundreds of bullets drilled into its side.

"The tracks tell me four," Vin replied, still firing. "But I only see two fellers out there, the rest musta went off. Watch your back!"

Nathan craned his head, but saw no one behind them.

Vin squeezed off a round, grunted at the sound of a strangled scream. "Got one."

Nathan peered through the interior of the wagon, saw that he could see the lone gunman rising and ducking behind a rock not far away, at the top of a steep rise. Careful not to be seen himself, he waited for the opportunity, then took aim and fired. The gunman gasped, staggered, but stayed erect, and aimed his gun again.

Nathan aimed, and fired; the convict’s shoulder lurched backwards, but still he refused to fall. He was bringing his gun up again when a final shot from Vin’s mare’s leg spun him around, and he careened down the cliff, coming to rest motionless at its base.

The gunfire stopped. Cradling his rifle and eying the surroundings sharply, Vin ventured out from their shelter, every nerve on fire.

"Think we got ‘em," Nathan said, covering his back. Vin nodded.

"Reckon so. Let’s have a look."

They walked slowly at first, then with more ease as it became apparent that they had nailed all of their opponents. Vin clambered up to the first rock, Winchester still at the ready, and looked down at the huge, still form behind the stone, black-haired, face marked with a long scar under the right eye, blood oozing from a well-placed shot through the heart. Well, he thought, looks like your term’s up, and he hollered to Nathan, "This one’s dead."

Nathan was crouching beside the second convict. Another large man, hardened and muscular. After a few moments of examination, he yelled back, "This one’s still breathin’."

Vin scooted back down the hillside. "He gonna live?"

Nathan nodded. "Reckon so, if I get them bullets out. Maybe he knows where the others went, an’ we could solve this problem right quick."

His partner nodded, smiling tightly. "Good thinkin’. Let’s get ‘im back to town and see what he feels like tellin’ us."

 

The sun was already working its way towards the western mountains as Chris strode down the main street of Four Corners towards the post office, tensely puffing on his cheroot. The thoroughfare was dusty and crowded as the citizens went about their business; few gave Chris’ black-clad form and stern expression a second look. Many of the townsfolk had greeted Chris and his men with no small degree of nervousness, believing the hired guns to be little better then the desperadoes they were supposed to protect the town from. But that was some time ago; now everyone was used to them, and only grumbled when Ezra won too much money from them, or Buck stole their girlfriends.

Chris’ gaze was steady, his mind focused on the unwelcome news he had just received. As he approached the telegraph office, he saw Vin emerging from its dim interior, squinting into the sun as he pulled his hat down. The bounty hunter saw Chris approach and nodded.

"Heard we got some prairie dogs on the loose," Chris greeted him, looking around and keeping his voice down; nothing would scare the populace more than the news that there were two ex-convicts prowling the immediate vicinity.

Vin nodded, glancing around as Chris had done. "Just wired Eagle Bend, should get some information soon about who Larson was carryin’."

"JD get our guest situated?"

They stepped off from the telegraph office, began to meander down the street. "Yeah, Nathan’s lookin’ ‘im over," Vin replied. "Big ol’ cuss, took three bullets to bring ‘em down."

Chris’ eyes clouded. "Probably in for murder. We’d better get over there, see if JD needs a hand."

Vin cast an inquiring look at his partner, smiled a bit. "This gonna turn into a interrogation?"

The other man scowled, chewed on his cheroot. "Yeah, probably. Been a bad day, might as well spread it around."

 

Vin and Chris were just coming up to the jail when a cascade of loud, foul language and the sounds of violence reached their ears. They looked at each other, drew their weapons and trotted towards the door, both assuming that the convict had accosted JD. To their surprise, however, JD came rushing out of the jailhouse door, his face a mask of relief when he saw his older comrades.

"Quick!" he cried, pointing inside. "He punched Nathan!"

Inside, they found Josiah helping Nathan to his feet; the slender black man was eying the huge inmate with a look of anger as he placed a searching hand on his bleeding lip. The inmate was bare-chested, his wounds half-bandaged; one hand and both feet were manacled to the iron bed frame, but one hand was swinging free, and had apparently found a target.

"I’d advise you to take it easy, brother," Josiah was rumbling, pointing his sidearm at the glowering convict, as Nathan steadied himself beside him.

"I ain’t yer Gah-damn brother," the convict roared in reply," an’ I ain’t takin’ nothin’ easy til you get that darky outta here!"

"Someone’s woke up a mite grouchy," Chris observed, walking up to the open cell door. "You fellas need any help?"

Nathan reassured Josiah with a nod that he was not seriously hurt, then peered sideways at Chris. "He’s the one needs the help, but he ain’t gonna get it from me if he keeps tryin’ to take my head off!"

Vin looked at the young sheriff. "Chain his other hand, JD."

JD could only shake his head and throw out his hands in frustration. "Can’t, Vin, he’s already wearin’ all the handcuffs I got!"

"Guess we’ll have to appeal to his better nature, then," Chris said, and turning to the cell pointed his gun at the man simmering inside.

"What happened?" he asked Nathan, keeping his eyes on the prisoner.

"I got one bullet out of ‘im, was about to get the other two, but he woke up first," the healer explained, regaining his composure.

"We were about to do unto him what he did to Nathan, when you arrived," Josiah finished, giving the convict a menacing smile. "Divine intervention, you might call it."

Chris frowned, addressed the prisoner. "Now, you gonna be a good boy and let him treat you, or do you get buried here instead of a Federal prison yard?"

The prisoner glared at him so intensely that Chris felt he could reach out and touch the hatred, and pointed to Nathan.

"That darky touches me again, I’ll send him straight to Hell."

"You’ll die if he doesn’t treat you," Chris pointed out evenly.

The convict didn’t blink. "You think that matters to me?"

They stared at each other for a few moments. Memories flickered across Chris’ mind, memories of the prison where he’d been unjustly incarcerated. The others had freed him, but not before he had seen the kind of beasts the facility had turned the inmates into. He hadn’t seen this man there, but he’d seen enough like him to know there was little they could do to ease his aggression or change his mind.

"Have it your way," Chris said evenly, and turned to leave.

Nathan gathered up his supplies and followed Josiah out of the cell, pressing a handkerchief to his slowly swelling lip. As they passed JD, he gave the young man a glance.

"He passes out again, let me know."

JD nodded, surprised. "You’re gonna remove the other two bullets?"

Nathan winced, glanced at the handkerchief. "I was thinkin’ of puttin’ back the one I took out."

They walked out into the street. JD cast Vin a nervous look, then eyed the prisoner.

"I ain’t never had to chain a man down before, Vin," he confessed. "Is he a murderer?"

"Know soon enough," Vin drawled. "I’m goin’ over to the telegraph office to see if we got any word yet. Tell Chris I’ll meet him at the saloon when I hear."

JD nodded, and Vin slipped out.

Chris stepped outside of the cell, swung the door shut as he looked the convict in the eye.

"You wouldn’t happen to know where your other two friends went, would you?"

The convict glared at him, spat, said nothing. Chris leaned into the bars, his eyes piercing, his voice soft but sharp.

"OK, friend, we can play this out. You think I don’t know what it’s like to be chained up and treated like a dead dog. But I’ve been in the same hell as you, maybe worse, and I know it don’t have to make you an animal. A man can fight that, if he’s got a mind to."

The prisoner continued to eye him maliciously, his face set in a hateful, stony stare. Chris turned, headed for the door.

"I’ll be back later, maybe those wounds’ll loosen his tongue up a bit," he said to JD. "I’ll ask Josiah to come over an’ help you keep an eye on him."

JD nodded, still looking at the convict with trepidation. "He sure is a mean one, Chris."

The other man cast a backwards glance at the prisoner, who was still looking at them both with a murderous glint in his eye. "Don’t worry, kid, Federal men should be by for him soon. "

JD shook his head. "I sure hope so. Vin said to tell ya he’s gone to the telegraph office, and when he finds out about those men he’ll meet you in the saloon."

Chris nodded, narrowed his eyes as he stared out into the bright, dusty street. "Sounds good, cause I have a feeling that by then I’m gonna need a good stiff drink."

 

The afternoon sun was casting its long, hot rays into the Four Corners saloon as Chris began working through his second bottle of whiskey. Where the hell was Vin?

It was quiet in the saloon, as was usual in the late afternoons before the men left their work or homes to come in for a relaxing drink or round of cards. Chris sat at a table by himself, while Ezra lounged nearby, absorbed in the latest issue of Harpers Weekly. Buck sat opposite him, cleaning his guns and listening to the piano player tuning the instrument in preparation for the evening’s revelries.

"You’re being mighty diligent in the care of your weaponry," Ezra observed, never taking his eyes off of the paper. Buck sighed in frustration.

"Gotta be ready if trouble breaks out. ‘Sides, I got nothin’ else to do -- thanks to you, Molly’s mad at me now."

Ezra glanced at him as he turned the pages of the paper with a loud rattle. "Would you like me to explain the situation to the young lady?"

Buck shook his head. "Naw, in her mood she’d just go home with you, and why should you have all the fun?" He blew out his breath in pique. "At this rate I’ll be goin’ to the dance with JD."

"I believe Mr. Dunne already has a date," Ezra replied flatly. Buck shot him a look and continued with his chore.

The saloon doors swung open, and Nathan entered, his lip still slightly swollen.

"Hey, Chris, I saw Vin comin’ down the road, I think he’s heard somethin’."

"Good," Chris muttered, then looking closely at the healer. "Lip OK?"

Nathan nodded. "Yeah, just a cut. Lucky I didn’t have to stitch it up -- you ever try to sew your own lip?"

Buck winced, sucked in his lip unconsciously.

Vin entered behind Nathan, holding a piece of paper, a tense look on his face. Chris eyed him calmly, not moving. "Got the story?"

The bounty hunter nodded, tossed the paper to Chris as he sat down. "All four were murderers, or tried it. There’s their names, an’ some descriptions."

Chris studied the telegraph paper, muttering its contents aloud. "Being transferred from Yuma to Virginia City... James Harrison, murder and robbery... Paul Fredericks, armed robbery and attempted murder..."

"That’s the feller we killed today," Vin explained, helping himself to the whiskey. "Harrison’s the one we got locked up."

"Looks like the last two are the ones we’re lookin’ for, then," Chris said grimly, peering at the paper. "George Likens, murdered a lawman and his deputy, and Lafayette Kingston, murdered his wife."

Buck snorted in amusement, chuckling, and looked at Chris.

"I’m sorry, Chris, but -- Lafayette Kingston? What sorta sissy name is that?"

Chris eyed him sternly. "Not too sissy to kill a woman, Buck."

His friend nodded, trying to sober up. "Yeah, I know, it’s tragic and all, but still, I’d shoot myself before I went through life with a name like Lafayette." He looked to Ezra for agreement, only to stop in surprise.

Ezra was staring over the newspaper in his hands, completely motionless, with a wild, blank look in his eyes. His face was slack with shock and as white as Buck had seen on any living man. His mouth was hanging slightly open, as if something momentous had just struck him and the full weight of it had yet to sink in.

Buck frowned; he’d never seen Ezra look so completely stunned. "Ezra? Somethin’ in the paper?"

With a single motion Ezra leapt from the chair, overturning it with the violence of his action, and bolted straight past the others out of the saloon, leaving everything behind. Chris’ eyes narrowed.

"What the hell?"

Nathan stepped outside, looking down the street. "I dunno, but he looked like he was in shock. He’s headin’ for the jail."

"Better get down there," Buck decided, grabbing his hat. "Judging from the look on his face, he’s gonna kill someone, and the least we should do is get JD and Josiah outta the way."

 

JD sighed as he looked over his cards at Josiah. "So, you think I should get Casey anythin’ for the dance? Some flowers maybe?"

The huge ex-preacher grinned as he plucked a card from his hand and laid it down. "I got some poetry I could lend you, but you might be a bit young for it."

The door blasted open, and Ezra blew in, his face set in rage. JD and Josiah both looked up, startled by the commotion.

The gambler paused in front of the desk, eying the cell where Harrison slept with thinly disguised fury. He gestured to JD.

"Might I have the keys, son?"

JD blinked. "The keys?"

Ezra turned wide, blazing eyes to him. "NOW."

Taken aback by the look on Ezra’s face, JD fished the keys from the desk drawer and tossed them to his comrade. Maybe Chris sent him over to interrogate the prisoner.

Without a word of thanks, Ezra strode to the outer barred area and unlocked it, then continued to the cell door. Harrison awoke and regarded him with hostility.

"You one of those damn lawmen too? I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you."

"Oh, I think you do," Ezra said, barely controlling the rage in his voice as he unlocked the cell and stepped inside. Behind him, JD and Josiah were watching, puzzled.

As soon as he was within range, Harrison aimed a blow at Ezra with his free arm. Without appearing to think about it, Ezra intercepted the blow and wrenched the arm outward. There was an audible snap, and the convict let out a surprised howl.

"Now then," Ezra said, his face livid as he released the broken arm and grabbed Harrison’s shirt, "Perhaps you’d like to tell me where Lafayette Kingston is?"

The convict stared at him, then said, "Go to hell, you--"

Ezra reared back and slammed his fist into Harrison’s face, once, twice, three times, then yanked the convict’s bleeding visage to within inches of his own, which was now almost purple with fury.

"TELL ME WHERE HE IS, YOU YANKEE SON OF A BITCH!" he screamed, and began pummeling the convict again.

JD and Josiah leapt up; JD’s mouth was wide open as he watched Josiah barrel towards the cell.

The others came in, led by Chris. JD eyed them in shock.

"Christ, Chris, what’s going on?"

Ezra was drilling his fist repeatedly into the man’s face and wounded shoulder, barely leaving off when Josiah tried to haul him away from the chained man’s bed. His demands for the location of Kingston had degenerated into barely intelligibly screams of rage; his fist and clothes were spattered with Harrison’s blood.

"Easy, brother, easy!" Josiah cried, as he finally succeeded in yanking the still-struggling Ezra away from the now-unconscious convict. After a moment Ezra calmed down enough for Josiah to let him go; he was breathing heavily with exertion, sweat pouring down his face, his eyes still wild with emotion. They were all staring at him; none of them had ever seen the usually laid-back gambler so completely lose control of himself.

"You OK now?" Josiah asked, putting a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. The other man looked at him for a moment, stumbled a bit, as if he was just coming to himself; he drew a trembling hand across his eyes and nodded.

Nathan sped into the cell and examined Harrison’s injuries. He shot a surprised glance at Ezra.

"Gonna have to set this arm, and some of his face bones are broke too," he announced. "Damn, Ezra, where was you when he was swingin’ at me?"

Ezra barely glanced at him, just moved out of the cell in something like a daze. Chris barred his exit, sizing him up sternly.

"Wanna tell us what the hell that was all about?"

Ezra raised weary eyes to him; all the energy had drained out of him, and he looked very tired. "We have to find Lafayette Kingston," he said finally.

"We agree on that," Chris observed. "Doesn’t explain why you just tried to kill a man."

Ezra said nothing, and finally walked back outside. Buck and Chris exchanged glances and followed him.

 

They found Ezra seated on a barrel next to the general store, leaning over with his head in his hands, trying to collect himself.

"That was some show, pard," Buck commented, walking up to him. "I ain’t never seen you get that riled before, not even when you lost that $200 dollars last week."

Ezra didn’t move. "I am not in the mood for conversation, gentlemen."

"That’s too damn bad, Ezra," Chris said, his voice sharp with anger. "What the hell got into you?"

Ezra brought his head up to glare at Chris; his eyes looked wet. "This is a personal matter, Mr. Lar--"

"I figured that out!" Chris shot back. "But if we’re going to find those other convicts, I can’t let you beat our only lead half to death. You give me an explanation or you’re out of the posse."

Ezra eyed him steadily. "I am not in the habit of revealing my business to all and sundry, sir."

"It’s our business if you’re gonna go off like a damn fool for no good reason," Chris replied. "And if there is a good reason I think we got a right to know it."

Ezra pursed his lips and dropped his gaze, thinking.

Buck sighed, exasperated; his patience was rapidly wearing out. "Look, Ezra, will you quit the dramatics and just tell us what the Sam Hill is goin’ on here?"

The gambler lifted his eyes to them for a moment, drew a deep breath, then looked away. "Lafayette Kingston killed his wife."

"Yeah, well, see, we already know that," Buck pointed out. "And while I despise the bastard too, I’m not willin’ to--"

Ezra cut him off, looked them in the face with a haunted, drawn expression. "His wife was my cousin, Sophie."

Chris saw Buck give a small start; this clearly meant something to him.

"You sure it’s him?" Buck breathed at length.

Ezra jumped up in a sudden burst of energy, angered. "Come on, Buck -- how many Lafayette Kingstons who killed their wives could there be? I know he was sent to Yuma, it has to be him."

Ezra walked a short distance away, facing down the alley; he rubbed his face, trying to wipe the nightmare away. When he spoke, his voice was thick with sorrow.

"It’s like New Orleans all over again."

After a pause he heard Buck say, "New Orleans?"

Ezra nodded, not turning around. "That’s where I was when Mother told me. It was 1868, we were at one of the hotels; I was at a table, having a rather good run as I recall, when she came up to me with her face all white and gave me the telegram." He drew a shaky breath, swallowed. "I swore I’d kill the bastard, but by the time I got to Denver they’d already sent him to prison. I figured that’d be the last I’d hear of him, but now he’s come back to haunt me once again."

After a moment he became aware that Chris was standing next to him.

"So it’s revenge, then," Chris said, his voice softer now. "I can understand that."

The gambler nodded slowly, still staring down the alley into the past. "I believe you can, Mr. Larabee. And you must also understand that I will do whatever I can to find this vermin, and if that means I have to ride alone to do so, then I will."

"Keep your head and that won’t be necessary," Chris replied. "Now let’s get to the saloon and figure out how to do this. We’re going to have to cover a lot of territory."

He gave Ezra a quick, supportive slap on the shoulder, and turned to go. After a moment, Ezra followed him, his expression still thoughtful.

They began the walk back. Buck regarded Ezra warily.

"You OK now?"

Ezra ruffled his hair and nodded. "I really need some whiskey."

They walked in silence for a few steps.

"We’re gonna have to tell the others," Buck said. "They got a right to know, too."

He heard Ezra sigh, and saw him nod out of the corner of his eye. More silence followed.

"Tell you what," Buck piped up, when they were almost at the saloon, "if I find that sonuvabitch first, I’ll hold him down and let you get in some good punches."

Ezra was quiet for a moment.

"And if I find him first, my friend," he finally replied," you can help me bury what’s left of the body."

 

The evening festivities in the saloon were in full swing, but the men at the corner table barely noticed as the crowd swirled before them, full of whiskey and high spirits. Only Buck seemed to pay the other people any mind, and that was mostly because Molly, the blue-eyed working girl with the tight black curls, was trying to goad him by flirting with every man in sight, and succeeding admirably. Vin watched it all with a small smile, leaning his chair back on its two rear legs and sipping at a shot glass of whiskey.

Chris had a map of the territory spread out among the whiskey glasses and bottles on the table, indicating to the others where the next day’s patrols would be held, the best to capture the remaining two convicts.

"Buck," Chris was saying, "you an’ Ezra stake out this area--" he traced it out on the map with one long finger. "Keep a sharp eye out, there’s lots of places for these convicts to hide."

Buck nodded, one eye on Molly as she draped herself over a dusty rancher at the bar. "I don’t think we need to worry about Kingston, Chris, we oughta just point Ezra in the general direction and let ‘im go."

"Man’s emotion can cloud his vision," Josiah pointed out, slowly sipping his drink. Buck shrugged, and looked back to the poker tables, where Ezra was holding high court and appeared to be having the time of his life.

"Seems to have gotten over whatever it was that was eatin’ him," Nathan observed, chewing the apple he’d brought with him.

"Don’t think so just yet," Chris replied, folding his hands. "Seems Kingston killed one of his cousins."

Nathan, Josiah and Vin looked up at that, surprised. Buck pursed his lips.

"You don’t say," Josiah finally softly, then nodded. "That would explain a few things."

"You sure it’s safe to have him in the posse?" asked Nathan. "He could go off again an’ get himself killed."

Chris paused, gave Buck a sharp look.

"He said he’d keep his head. Buck seems to know the whole story, that’s why I think it’s best you two ride together, you can keep an eye on ‘im."

Vin gave Buck an appraising look. "Got to hear some of Ezra’s colorful past, huh?"

The gunslinger frowned. "Wasn’t all that colorful, honestly. Maybe next time he’ll tell me some of the fun stuff."

"Now Vin," Chris continued, "--after the Federal men take Harrison off our hands, you an’ JD can ride up the canyon here, near where you found the wagon. Maybe you can track where they went from there."

Vin eyed the map, nodded, rocking gently back and forth in the tilted chair.

"Nathan and I will take the desert off to the east, and Josiah can keep an eye on things here."

Josiah rubbed his arm and scowled. "I do hate to miss all the fun."

"Aw, don’t worry," Buck said, giving a dark laugh, "I’m sure this ain’t the last roundup we’ll ever have to do."

"We know anything about these men?" Nathan asked, taking the last bite out of his apple.

"Ezra says Kingston don’t like women," Vin said softly, eying his whiskey glass with great interest. "Reckon we’ll ride over to Nettie’s tomorrow, let her know what’s up."

Buck fidgeted, noticing that Molly was still circulating, although now she was giving him less hostile glances. "Chris, we through?"

His friend nodded. "Yup, been a long day."

"And a longer night, too, hopefully," Buck retorted, clearly pleased. He hopped up and pushed his way through the sotted crowd to where Molly was lounging by the piano.

As the men stood up, a burst of merriment erupted from the poker tables; they looked over to see Ezra sharing a hearty laugh with a fellow player. Nathan shook his head.

"Funny to see him laughin’, after he almost killed that man in the jail today," he said. Chris and Josiah exchanged glances.

"I think what you’re lookin’ at, Brother Nate," Josiah said as he put on his hat, "is a man laughin’ so he don’t scream."

 

The night air was chilling as the last of the saloon patrons staggered out; the location of the moon indicated that the time was well after two. Molly was one of the last to go, her tattered shawl pulled tight around her slim shoulders; she was followed closely by Buck, who had tried unsuccessfully to win back her favor all evening.

"Aw, c’mon, Moll, at least let me walk ya home!" he begged, as she stalked down the steps and into the deserted street.

"I can walk myself home, Buck Wilmington," she shot back, still walking, trying to sound angry. "I ain’t ready to forgive you yet."

Buck stood on the porch for a moment, then jammed his hat on and muttered, "Women!" before jumping off the porch after her.

Inside, the saloon was almost deserted, the lights burning low as the barkeep and his few assistants were blowing out candles and sweeping up. One of the helpers, a thin young man with a pock-marked face, was surprised to see Ezra still seated alone at the poker table, holding a half-empty shot glass and staring at nothing.

"Scuse me, Mr. Standish," he said, pausing with the broom in his hand.

Ezra turned his head, looked at him blearily.

"Closin’ time, sir."

The gambler gave a bitter chuckle. "So soon? My, how the time does fly." He tipped the glass back, set it down with a heavy thud, and made no further moves.

The assistant grew restless; if he didn’t clear the place out, the boss was going to kill him. He was relieved when Ezra finally lurched to his feet.

"Have a good night, sir?" he asked, resuming his sweeping.

Ezra blinked, looked at his winnings. "Hm, I hadn’t noticed."

"Well, it sure looked like you were having fun."

"Oh, yes," Ezra replied without emotion, gathering the bills and coins up into clumsy wads and stuffing them sloppily into the pockets of his green jacket. "Never enjoyed myself so much in my entire life."

The boy bent down, trying to sweep under the tables. "Don’t mind sayin’, sir, I’d trade my job for yours any day. Must be one hell of a life."

Ezra picked up his hat and gazed at the disheveled table, the scattered cards, the empty whiskey bottles, and nodded. "Yes, son, it is. A hell of a life, indeed."

He stepped down, passed the boy, dug into his pocket, and flipped him a gold coin. "Here, no reason I should have all the fun. Buy yourself a new broom."

The boy caught the coin, surprised. "Jesus, thanks, Mr. Standish. G’night."

Ezra nodded, and staggered upstairs to bed.

 

Molly was walking too damn fast, Buck thought; at this rate he’d never catch up to her, she was already halfway out of town.

"Molly, dammit, you can’t stay mad forever!"

"Yes I can!" she called back; he was going to have to work for her forgiveness, even though she knew she was going to give it to him anyway.

They were walking out of town now; the buildings were spreading farther apart, separated by rocks and stands of thorny brush and trees. Buck sighed, exasperated; was he going to have to get his horse?

Finally he stopped; this was too damn much, it was too damn late, and even Molly wasn’t worth it. He’d try again tomorrow; once he turned on the Wilmington charm, she’d have to give in.

"Fine, then!" he yelled, putting his hands on his hips in frustration. "You just keep on walkin’! I’m goin’ home!"

"Then go for God’s sake!" an angry voice yelled from a dark window nearby, "We’re tryin’ to sleep!"

"Fine! I’m goin’!" Buck yelled back; the whole town was against him, it seemed. He spun on his heel and huffed away.

She whirled, amazed to see him striding back into town; this wasn’t working out the way she wanted at all. She watched him go for a minute, then stamped her foot in anger, muttered, "Oh, shit!" and resumed her journey home. Men!

Suddenly she stopped; a slight rustling in the stand of trees next to her small shack caught her attention. Had Buck doubled back? She turned to confirm her suspicion, but was puzzled to see Buck still striding away, now a small figure against the tall, dark buildings. A weird feeling crept up her spine; she felt strangely afraid.

"Buck?"

Something hard fell against her and pushed her to the ground. She struggled, got in one ear-splitting scream before the assailant clamped his hand over her mouth and put a knife to her throat.

Buck spun around, peering up the dark street; that sounded like -- In the distance he saw two figures writhing in the dirt, their indistinct forms blended together in the gloom, the night air wafting the muffled sounds of anguished struggle.

Buck’s blood froze, remembering Vin’s words: Kingston didn’t like women.

His heart pounding, Buck drew both of his guns and charged up the street, yelling furiously and firing into the air. "Hey! HEY!"

As he got closer, he saw the larger figure, a tall man dressed in gray convict’s clothing, look up, startled, make a stabbing motion, then plunge into the trees; after a moment there came the pounding of hooves and the sound of a horse galloping away into the night.

Buck skidded to a stop, fired at the retreating shadow, knowing there was no chance in hell that he’d hit him, but it felt good to try. People were emerging from their houses now, carrying lanterns and muttering in confusion. Buck stared after the figure, panting in fury and exhaustion, then whirled around to see Molly lying in a heap, her faded dress torn and stained a deep red.

"Aw, Jesus, Moll," he moaned, kneeling beside her; she was whimpering softly and clutching weakly at her throat. There was blood everywhere, gushing with alarming swiftness from an ugly gash on one side of her neck.

"Buck--" she gasped in a hoarse whisper. He took her in his arms; she was trembling violently. After a second she moaned, her eyes rolled up, and she went limp. He stood frozen for a moment, then lifted her as gently as possible and headed with hurried steps to the boarding house where Nathan stayed, his blood thudding in his ears. You’re in trouble, Kingston, he thought wildly as he pounded up the street. You got two of us mad at you now.

 

The sun was just beginning to peep over the horizon as Nettie stepped from her barn into the crisp morning air, lugging the two pails full of feed for the chickens. She squinted at the morning sky; clear and blue, no rain today. Should be able to get a lot of work done.

As she crossed the yard towards the coop, her mind ticked off the chores that needed to be done that day, the repairs which never seemed to end, the small things that needed tending to. It was hard work, but she loved it, and had been doing it all of her long life. Things would be a bit quiet today, what with Casey away at a schoolmate’s house, but Nettie didn’t mind the solitude; the young girl needed some time away from work and chores, and Nettie was pleased to see her making friends. She thought of JD, and chuckled to herself; it was nice to see her sparking some beaux, too!

The thundering of hooves caught her attention as she was scattering the feed to the chickens; she looked up, puzzled -- who the hell would that be at this hour? She looked up the crooked road leading to her house and was surprised to see Vin Tanner pounding towards her house, bent low over his horse’s neck. As he drew nearer she could see he wore an expression of tense anxiety.

"Mornin’, son!" she called, puzzled by his face. "Everything all right?"

Vin reined to a stop, touched the brim of his hat. "Mornin’, ma’am. Fraid we got trouble."

Nettie frowned. "Them horse thieves?"

Vin shook his head, his breath coming hard and forming small, short-lived puffs in the morning cold. "Worse. We got a coupla convicts on the loose. One of ‘em tried to kill a woman in town last night."

Nettie’s eyes widened a bit, then she smiled dismissively. "Don’t fret over me, son! I ain’t never yet missed a man that I aimed at, and Casey’s not too shabby either. We’ll be fine."

Vin fiddled with his reins, not liking to argue but unable to see any way around it. "I’m sure that’s so, ma’am, but I’d sleep a heap easier knowin’ you an’ Casey was in town an’ safe. One of these men likes to kill women, and you out here--" he looked around at the solitude of the farm--"you’d be a perfect target."

Nettie paused. "How long these men gonna be a problem?"

Vin gave her his a small, reassuring smile. "Not too long, I reckon. Day ‘r two at most."

She scanned the farmyard, considering, then sighed. "Well, I’ll miss a lot of chores, but I reckon it’s about time I treated myself to a trip to town."

Vin nodded, clearly relieved. "I’ll take you an’ Casey back to town."

The old woman looked up. "Oh, Casey ain’t here -- she’s at a friend’s house."

The tracker scratched his chin. "We’ll have to send word to her, then. I’ll keep an eye on things while you pack up."

She noticed with concern the way he kept scanning the area, his eyes alert.

"These men must be pretty mean, to have you all so worried, " she observed.

Vin gave her a grim look. "We got cause to think they might be."

"Hmm." She finished feeding the chickens. "That girl who got hurt -- she gonna be all right?"

Vin shifted in his saddle, then gazed towards the horizon, too uncomfortable with the answer to look her in the eyes. His expression indicated that he was seeing memories he didn’t like.

"When I left, Nathan was still with her," he said finally, turning sad eyes to her. "She’d lost a lot of blood. It didn’t look good."

Nettie shook her head in sympathy. "Poor girl -- what’d he do to her?"

He gave her a steady look, seemingly devoid of emotion; but the eyes shone with pain and empathy, and his throaty voice was weighed with disgust at the convict’s actions.

"He cut her throat."

 

Buck paced nervously in front of the closed door of Nathan’s room, his head down, his face set and serious. It seemed like days since he’d banged on Nathan’s door, holding Molly’s limp, blood-soaked body in his arms, hoping that the healer could somehow save her life; yet it had been only a matter of hours. The black night sky had brightened into dawn, and Four Corners was just beginning to awaken, the stirring citizenry hardly concerned over the fate of a half-dead working girl. They spared hardly a glance at the clinic as they went about their early morning chores; but Buck was consumed with guilt and anxiety, trying desperately not think about the black-haired girl on the other side of the door, and failing miserably.

The others had been concerned, of course, and Vin’s first impulse was to warn Nettie and Casey. JD had been alerted to the convict’s possible proximity to the town, and was anxious for the arrival of the Federal men who would escort the hapless Harrison back to prison. When Vin returned, he and JD were to track the fourth convict. Kingston, Buck had decided, would be left for himself and Ezra, and Chris had had no quarrel with that.

Nathan had dispensed little information since taking Molly into his care, and Buck was not about to leave without knowing whether she was going to survive Kingston’s attack. Buck had repeatedly told himself that Molly was going to be fine, but if she wasn’t... the various fates he’d been planning for Kingston gave him both satisfaction and grim amusement.

Finally he paused, sweeping off his white hat and pulling his hand through his disheveled black hair in weariness, gazing blankly out into the street. As he stood for a moment, resting, he saw Ezra approaching from the hotel, and grunted in surprise -- what was he doing awake before noon?

"You’re up awful early," Buck noted, wincing inwardly at the hoarseness of his own voice. Ezra replied with a small, bitter smile.

"Rising early is no trouble, sir, when one does not retire," he said. Buck eyed him sharply.

"I know what you mean," he said, putting his hat back on. "You hear about Molly?"

Ezra’s eyes grew serious as he nodded. "Seems Mr. Kingston has been ignoring the rules of civilization again," he said tightly, his gaze traveling to Nathan’s closed door. "Will she recover?"

The gunslinger scowled, dropped his eyes to the ground, kicked at the dirt. "Don’t rightly know yet. She’s still in there with Nathan. I think I scared him off in time, but--" He faltered, paused, took a deep breath, then his head shot back up, his expression one of anger and frustration.

"Hell, Ezra, I seen men do things to other men that’d make your blood run cold, and figured it’s just human nature. But I ain’t yet figured out what would make a man want to hurt a woman."

His companion gazed at him in sympathy for a moment, then looked away, squinting into the brightness of the morning. After a pause, he looked back.

"Mr. Wilmington, you do not understand this man because you regard women as creations of beauty and gentleness, as all decent men do. In order to understand him, you must think as he does, and regard women as he does -- as animals to be butchered."

Buck shivered, his eyes cold. "He thinks that, does he?"

Ezra nodded slowly. "The evidence would seem to indicate it."

His companion glanced at the closed door, his jaw set, a deadly expression on his face.

"Time we set his mind to a new way of thinkin’, then."

Ezra nodded, his face solemn. Buck stared at the door for a moment, then threw his arms out in impatience.

"This waitin’ is drivin’ me crazy!" he exclaimed, plopping himself on the wooden steps which led to the building’s second story. He pulled his hat off again, turning it in his hands.

"Perhaps a diversion to take your mind off of the situation," Ezra suggested, producing his pack of cards. Buck looked at them, shook his head.

"Naw, ain’t in the mood."

Ezra shrugged at the refusal, began shuffling the cards from one hand to the other absently.

Buck looked away, then looked back, a new idea forming behind his eyes. "Say, tho, you never did tell me about you an’ Sophie dancin’."

Ezra started a bit, his hand paused in mid-shuffle. "You wish to hear about that now ?"

His companion leaned forward. "Ezra, if I keep thinkin’ about that girl in there with her throat ripped out, I am going to go crazy . So have a seat and start talkin’."

The gambler seemed to hesitate, then pursed his lips in acquiescence and leaned against the wall close to where Buck sat, still fingering the cards. "Let’s see," he said. "The time she taught me to dance -- that was, ah, towards the end of summer. August, I believe. We were playing poker..."

Buck burst out laughing, despite his anxiety. "You taught that poor little girl to play poker ?"

Ezra eyed him in irritation, and said in explanatory tones, "I assure you, sir, merely a harmless diversion to pass the summer days. We played with this very deck--" he held up the frayed cards in his hand, then regarded them wistfully. "She had the mind for it, but not, I fear, the morals."

 

The Shenandoah Valley, 1857

The two children sat next to the pond, its waters steaming faintly in the August heat. Although the sun was well on its way to the horizon, the late summer warmth still hung in the air, causing even the green leaves of the nearby apple trees to droop with heaviness. In the distance came the lazy calls and mindless profanity of the farm hands as they drove in the cattle and slogged home from the hot work. Ezra and Sophie ignored them, as the men ignored the children; their tasks were finished, and they were out of mind until the next day.

It had been a long summer, full of hard work and seemingly endless chores; but somehow, Ezra and Sophie had managed to find time to enjoy themselves when all the work was through. Every late summer afternoon found them playing in the apple orchard, or investigating the pond, or combing the nearby woods for all sorts of natural wonders. Together they had climbed every tree in the orchard, played every game they knew of, and watched the sun set over the mountains from the shelter of the apple trees. On rainy days they had stayed inside or sat on the porch, Ezra reading aloud from his copy of The Canterbury Tales while Sophie practiced her needlework. The boy still loathed the backbreaking labor which left his hands dirty and blistered and his muscles sore, but the days seemed to pass quickly nevertheless, and now the summer was drawing to a close.

Ezra shooed away a fly as he finished dealing the cards on the flat rock which served as a makeshift poker table. In the middle sat a small assortment of rocks and pebbles, which represented the accumulated wealth of the two players.

"All right now," Ezra said finally, as he laid the remaining cards on the rock and picked up his hand. "Pick up your cards like this and see what you’ve got. Remember what I told you."

She brushed a wet strand of blond hair from her eyes and picked up the cards with a small bit of difficulty, trying to keep them together. Her blue eyes darted across the cardboard forms and she let out a delighted gasp, her face breaking into a huge smile.

Ezra sighed in exasperation as he rolled his eyes upwards. "Sophie!"

She looked up, confused. "What?"

"Don’t smile when you look at your cards, that’s a dead giveaway that you’ve got a good hand!"

She glanced at her cards, then at him, then back again. "I can’t be happy?"

"Well, sure you can, but you have to hide it. Look like this." His face assumed a perfectly detached air as he examined his hand. She stared at him.

"You look bored."

He smiled. "That’s the point! That way you can fool people into thinking you’ve got a great hand, even when you don’t. Then they fold before you do, and you win. You can really get rich that way."

She considered this, fiddled with her cards. "Ain’t that kind of like lying?"

He sighed again, losing patience. "It’s exactly like lying. That’s where the skill comes in."

She scanned her cards again, the enthusiasm clearly draining away. "I don’t think I’d be very good at this, Ezra. I’m a awful liar."

"Well, then, don’t think of it as lying. Think of it as -- using your opponent’s credulity to your advantage." He said these words with exaggeration, and she laughed.

"You been into that prize dictionary again," she said, shuffling her cards.

He shrugged, clearly proud. "Well, your school was the first one I ever won a prize at, guess I’d better get to using it. I’m going to need to know lots of words if I’m going to be a gentleman."

She had stopped shuffling the cards, and was now trying to build a small house with them on the uneven surface of the rock. She looked up at him. "Why do you want to be a gentleman?"

He gathered up the remaining cards and began shuffling them, not even looking at his hands as he tilted his head in consideration of the question. "Oh -- well, so’s I can be rich and buy a house for my mama and me, and she won’t ever have to go away again. So I can go right up to Charles and James and tell ‘em they were wrong when they said I’d never be one. So I can travel, and get respected wherever I go."

"Do you have to play cards to be a gentleman?" Sophie asked, absorbed in her house of cards. She’d gotten it up to the second story.

"You sure do!" Ezra insisted. "Every gentleman I’ve ever seen played cards. Mama says it’s the best way to get rich, and I’ll be rich in no time at all. You should see me play poker with Stan and Billy, I’ve made five dollars off of them already!"

Sophie looked up in horror. "You played cards with our hands? Pa won’t like that."

Ezra looked a little guilty. "Well, actually, Sophie, I’ve played with your pa, too."

Her blue eyes opened wide. "When?"

"At the Fourth of July party, after the fireworks. You’d gone to bed."

She sat for a moment, amazed at how much Ezra was able to get away with. Finally she blinked.

"Did you win?"

Ezra made a face. "Well, no, actually, your pa’s pretty good. But I learned from him, and that’s what a gentleman does -- learns from his mistakes."

She carefully finished her card house, then looked over it at Ezra. "Then aren’t you a gentleman already?"

He laughed, sat back in the grass, rearranging his legs. "Heck no, Sophie -- a gentleman’s rich!"

"Well, they don’t have to be, do they?" Her eyes were thoughtful as she knocked down her card house and began building it again. "I think my Pa’s a gentleman, and he ain’t rich."

"Well, uh--" He started to argue, then had to stop and think.

"An’ I think you’re a gentleman, and you ain’t rich." She smiled and threw a card at him. "Yet!"

Ezra ducked the card and laughed, then looked at her thoughtfully, his eyes serious. When she looked at him, he smiled again, then looked at the deck of cards in his hands, fiddling with them uncertainly.

"Nobody’s ever called me a gentleman before," he said finally, a tad overwhelmed.

"Well, I don’t know why not," she persisted, intent on her house of cards and apparently unaware of the effect her words had on her cousin. "You’re much more of a gentleman than that mean ol’ James or Charles, and they’ve got tons of money. I think being a gentleman starts with what you got to begin with, and the money just adds on to it."

Ezra stared at her, mulling over this new thought, then asked, "But if it’s not the money, then how do I know when I’m a gentleman?"

Sophie pursed her lips in thought, pausing with a card in one hand. "Well, I guess a gentleman isn’t supposed to work, and I know you don’t like to work, so that’s one way to tell."

"Your pa works," Ezra pointed out, not disagreeing with her first statement.

"Yeah, but he likes it. It don’t count if you like it." She screwed up her mouth, still thinking. "And you’re nice, most of the time..."

He smirked; she was still sore about the frog he’d put in her pocket. But she was smiling now, so it must be all right.

"Aaaand -- you want to learn, and travel, and make your ma happy. Those seem like things a gentleman should do."

He nodded, amazed at the proud feeling that was slowly spreading through him. He’d never thought about it that way before, but it all seemed to make sense.

"And remember when you got those bullies at school to leave Matt Baker alone? That showed you were brave, and I think that’s something a gentleman should definitely be."

He shrugged that off. "I just know what it’s like to get picked on, that’s all."

"Yes, but it was very chiv -- chiv--"

He smiled. "Chivalrous. And I think that word only works when you’re brave with ladies."

"But that’s important too!" she insisted, sitting up and placing her hands on the rock. "A gentleman has to know all about how to act around girls."

Ezra laughed; this was getting to be too much. "Well, you’ve got me there, Soph, I can’t be a gentleman. I don’t know anything about how to act around girls; heck, you’re the only girl I know."

Her brow puckered in confusion. "I thought you stayed with Aunt Georgia and Uncle Ben in Lexington. They got daughters, don’t they?"

"Sure -- but they never paid any attention to me. All they cared about was their beaux, and their balls, and dancing. I hardly ever saw them."

"You mean you didn’t get to go to any dances?" Her eyes seemed sad, for some reason.

But Ezra just laughed and shook his head. "No, and I don’t care. It seemed boring, with all those men and women swooning over each other. And I don’t know any dances, so I’d have had nothing to do but watch anyway."

She gasped, seemingly in horror, but with a smile on her face, and bounced up, energized. "Oh, Ezra, don’t say that! It’s fun to dance, I’ve been to three of them when our cousins got married. Please let me teach you, and then you’ll know everything about being a gentleman!"

He looked up in surprise. "You want to teach me to dance?"

"Oh, yes, please?" she begged. "You taught me to play cards, I should teach you something -- and then, later on when you’re a rich gentleman, I can point you out to Charles and James and say, ’There goes Ezra dancing away with your girlfriends -- now don’t you feel silly for saying he’d never be a gentleman?’"

Ezra grinned; the picture was an inviting one. He peered at her. "You’d really help me with this?"

She gave a short giggle, surprised. "Well, of course, silly. You’re my friend."

This was the first time anyone had ever said this to Ezra, and he paused before smiling at his cousin in gratitude. He wasn’t about to let her know that, of course, and without another word he jumped up and brushed off his pants.

 

"So what do we do?" he asked, as she shook out the folds of her faded pink calico work dress. She walked around the rock and came to stand in front of him, her lips twisted in thought.

"Hmm, let’s see -- first, we have to hold hands like this." She took his left hand with her right and held it out to the side, somewhat stiffly. He winced -- like most boys, he really didn’t take much to holding hands with a girl, even if it was Sophie. Still, if it was part of the process...

"Now I put my left hand on your shoulder--" She did so; it was easy, since she was only a little shorter than he was. "And you put your right hand on my waist."

His eyes widened. "Do I have to?"

She gave him an impatient look.

"All right, all right," he relented, and placed one awkward hand on her waist. "Now what?"

"Now we take one big step to the right," she said, and moved to do so. He did as well, only instead of moving together, they went in opposite directions. She stumbled a bit and laughed.

"Oops, sorry -- I go to my right, you go to your left."

He nodded. "Oh."

They got back into position.

"All right, now, this is one--" they took a long stride, then stopped. "Now, after ‘one’ you do two small steps, like this--" She picked up her right foot a bit, then set it down, then repeated the move with her left foot. "You just stand in place and take little steps."

He watched her feet, trying to imitate her actions. "Uh-huh. Then what?"

"Then we do it again, going the other way, one big step and two little ones. See, it goes one-two-three, one-two-three--"

They moved back and forth, a bit clumsily as Ezra got the hang of it, trying to stay in coordination with her. Still looking at his feet, he said, "So do we just go back and forth for the whole dance?"

"Well -- one, two--" she was counting under her breath "--see, the gentleman is supposed to lead the lady -- you use your hands to tell her where you want her to go. If we were at a dance, we’d be going around and around in a big circle, all around the room."

"Oh, I see," Ezra was moving easier now, the glides becoming smoother. "Well, might as well give that a try, too."

"You can do it," she gasped. "Just don’t put us in the pond!"

They began to whirl around the yard, moving in long graceful strides through the trees, around the pond, past the water pump and back again, Sophie humming a waltz tune to keep them in step. As he grew more practiced and confident, Ezra found himself standing straighter and moving with an easy elegance he had not known was in him. The moves now seemed natural, effortless, as if they had always been inside of him and were merely waiting to be born. As they twirled through the orchard, he felt something new flooding his senses, a feeling of exhilaration at the discovery that he was capable of such things, things his other cousins had told him he wasn’t worthy of. He felt a growing awareness of his own potential, as if it seemed possible that he could really be more than just a burden on others, the odd person out, the poor relation with no father or name. He looked at the girl who had given him this gift, a surge of gratitude overwhelming him. She saw his look and smiled.

"Do you like it?" she asked, running out of breath; it was too hot to dance for long.

He nodded.

"You’re really good," she continued.

Ezra was panting now too. "How does this end?"

"Oh, well, when you hear the music finish up, you twirl me under your arm like this--" She let go of his waist, lifted her right hand high and spun around. "Then I curtsy, and you bow." She dropped a curtsy, a little awkward but still charming. He hesitated, then executed the most graceful bow he could, imitating how he’d seen it done; it seemed flawless, and he found he liked doing that, too.

"Then we clap, and it’s over."

They stood for a moment, trying to catch their breath; the sun had gone down, but the air was still stifling.

"That was fun," Ezra finally managed to say, wiping his brow on the back of his arm, then said with all sincerity, "I really appreciate you teaching me that."

"Oh, that’s all right, Ezra, it was fun," she remarked. "I couldn’t let you become a gentleman without knowing how to dance."

He gazed at her, touched by her concern, then said, "Know any more dances?"

Her face screwed up in disappointment. "No, sorry, they never let me stay up past the waltz."

They heard the side door bang open, and turned to see Grace standing in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron.

"Sophie, Ezra, c’mon in, it’s getting dark and I’ve got some apple pie waiting for you!"

Sophie sighed in disappointment, although the pie sure sounded good. "Coming, Mama."

They gathered up their playthings and headed for the house, Ezra still gazing at the orchard, thinking about what had taken place there. Something inside him felt different, but he couldn’t quite tell what. It was a good kind of different, at least, not at all the way he’d felt before, but still puzzling.

"Maybe later we can get Mama to play us some waltzes on the piano," Sophie was saying as they came into the house. "We could practice in the parlor, if we promise to be careful."

As they sat at the table eating dessert, Grace couldn’t help chuckling over the children’s’ behavior.

"I saw you two dancing out there," she smiled. "That was right cute. You’re quite a waltzer, Ezra."

He smiled before shoveling in another forkful of pie. "Thank you, ma’am."

George came in, still in his sweat-stained work clothes, a cigar clamped in his teeth, which he removed to give his wife a quick kiss before sitting down. As he did so, Ezra noticed a letter in George’s hand, and recognized the handwriting. He froze.

"Well, son," his uncle said, looking at the boy as he placed his napkin in his lap, "got some good news. Your Ma’s coming to get you tomorrow, she’s finally settled down in New Orleans."

Grace gave a happy gasp. "Oh, Ezra, isn’t that wonderful? She’ll be so happy to see you again, I know she must have missed you dreadfully."

Ezra’s eyes were round; he knew he should be happy at this, but all he could feel was a queer numbing coldness. He looked across the table at Sophie, and saw that she was looking at him with a sad, wide-eyed expression.

He gulped, looked at George. "Do I have to go?"

His uncle had put a bite in his mouth, and now looked at him as he chewed, puzzled. "Well, I’m afraid so, son. You belong with your Ma."

"We’ve loved having you here, Ezra," Grace added, patting his hand warmly, "but I’m sure you miss your mama, and she misses you, and it’ll be good for you two to be together again."

Ezra sat for a moment in miserable silence, staring at the half-eaten piece of pie in front of him, which now looked completely unappetizing.

"Please, Daddy, can’t Ezra stay?" Sophie pleaded, a hitch in her voice, her blue eyes beginning to fill with tears.

Her father looked at her with fond sternness. "Now, honey, you know I can’t feed a growing boy along with all the other mouths around here. I already had to let two of the hands go. And besides," he gave Ezra an uncomfortable look, unhappy at what he had to say next, "well, I’m sorry, son, but you just aren’t a farm hand. If I was going to keep you on, you’d have to work twice as hard as you do now, and we both know that’s not gonna happen. Your heart isn’t in it, that’s all. You don’t belong on a farm, and you never will. You belong with your Ma in New Orleans."

Ezra winced, stared at his plate, knowing that his uncle was right; he’d hated every minute of farm work he’d done there.

"Now don’t be sad," Grace soothed, pained at the children’s’ unhappiness. "You’ll see each other again, I’m sure. Ezra’s welcome to visit, certainly, and who knows, we might make it to New Orleans."

"That’s right," George agreed, munching on his pie.

After a moment Ezra lifted his eyes to Grace and said quietly, "May I be excused, please? I’ve got to go pack."

She gazed sadly at him for a moment, then nodded. "Of course, dear."

He slipped off of his seat and plodded up to his attic room. After sitting in awkward silence for a moment or two, Grace turned back to her husband.

"Does Maude say anything else in her letter, dear?"

George shook his head, glancing at the missive. "Not really. Something about a cotton gin investment."

 

The next day was gray and warm; some of the clouds were ominously dark as they scudded across the valley sky. Ezra stood uncomfortably on the porch, satchel at his side, watching the approaching carriage with a strange mixture of dread and anticipation. George and Grace had been kind to him all morning, fussing over his every move, and had even given him a brand-new bag of marbles as a going-away present. Sophie had been watching him quietly, her sad eyes red and puffy; neither of them knew what to say, so they said nothing, communicating their sorrow through sad glances at each other. Now she stood next to Grace, clutching her mother’s skirt and eying the carriage somberly.

Finally it rolled up, stopped, and out popped Maude, still in her black silks, but with a mile-wide smile on her face. As soon as she was out of the carriage, she flew up the lawn, her arms outstretched towards her son.

"Ezra, sugar!" She scooped him up and smothered him with kisses, emitting maternal words of affection. He returned the embrace as best he could, but she noticed the lack of enthusiasm, and pulled back with a puzzled look on her face.

"What’s the matter, son, didn’t you miss your Mama? She sure missed you!" She gave him another quick kiss.

"Of course he did, Maude," Grace assured her. "He’s just sad, he an’ Sophie had a real nice time together."

Maude smiled at Ezra. "Oh, how nice! I’m so glad you two got along. Now don’t you worry, honey, we’ll come out for a visit real soon, you’ll see Sophie again."

She straightened and picked up Ezra’s satchel.

"Now we’ve got to run, there’s a storm comin’. I cannot express my thanks to you kind folks, really. Say goodbye, Ezra."

He faced his aunt and uncle. "Goodbye, Uncle George." He stuck out his hand, which his uncle shook warmly.

"Goodbye, son. Come back any time, we’ll play cards again. He’s got a real talent for it, Maude, he almost beat me."

Maude laughed, cast a wary look at the dark clouds. "Yes, he’s got Daniel’s gift, no doubt about it. It’ll come in real handy for him, I’m sure."

"Goodbye, Aunt Grace." Ezra took his aunt’s hand and kissed it, executing a small bow. Grace laughed, delighted, and Sophie smiled a little.

"He’s got Daniel’s charm, too, I see," the older woman said, mussing Ezra’s hair. "Goodbye, dear."

He looked at Sophie, who stared back at him. He didn’t have a clue as to what to say, and she didn’t either. He opened his mouth, closed it, thought a bit, then simply said, "Bye."

She sniffed, her eyes wide. "Bye."

Maude took Ezra’s hand and began gently leading him towards the carriage. Sophie pulled away from her mother a little, watching them go.

"Thanks again for everything, George, Grace, you’ve been angels, both of you. Ezra, you’re going to just love our new place, it’s right off the river, you can look out and see the paddle wheel boats goin’ down--"

"Ezra !"

He turned to see Sophie jumping off the porch towards him, her skirts flying as she ran. She threw her arms around him, embraced him tightly; after a moment’s hesitation, he returned it, unashamed of the emotion.

She pulled away, took his hands, talked through her tears. "Please write me the minute you get to New Orleans, I want to hear all about it!"

He nodded. "I will -- and you keep practicing the cards, I want to be able to play you when I come back to visit."

Her face lit up. "Oh, I almost forgot -- you left one of your cards on the lawn last night, remember, the one I threw at you?"

She pulled it out of her pocket and handed it to him. He turned it over, glanced at the ace of spades, and slipped it into his satchel.

"Thanks," he said, trying to smile. She shrugged.

"Can’t be a gentleman without a pack of cards, I hear," she laughed. He laughed, too, and they embraced again as thunder rumbled in the distance. Then he picked up his satchel and followed his mother into the carriage. Sophie stayed on the lawn while her parents remained on the porch, and they watched as Maude and Ezra climbed into the conveyance and drove away, waving. They all waved back, Sophie sniffling a little. There was a crack of thunder, closer now. Grace looked into the sky and clucked her tongue.

"C’mon in now, Sophie. Looks like bad weather’s on the way."

George and Grace turned and went inside. Sophie remained on the lawn a moment longer, watching the carriage until it became a small black spot in the distance, then ran inside as the first fat raindrops fell.

 

Four Corners, 1879

Buck stretched and sighed as Ezra finished speaking. Some time had passed, and the two were now sitting on the same step, Ezra smoking a long cheroot and staring thoughtfully into the air. His eyes were distant, as if still looking across the valley back at the disappearing farmhouse, and Buck felt a definite sympathy.

"That’s right sad, Ezra," he finally said. "You ever go back there?"

Ezra opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment the door opened and an exhausted Nathan emerged, blinking against the sunlight. Buck jumped up immediately.

"She OK? Can I see ‘er?"

Nathan held up one hand to quiet his friend, gently closing the door. Once it was shut, he turned to the others, speaking in hushed tones.

"She’s gonna be fine."

Buck blew out a long breath of relief, smiled at Ezra, who seemed pleased as well.

"Looks like you done the right thing, Buck," Nathan continued, drawing the other two away from the door so they could converse more freely. "Whoever tried to cut her throat only did the job halfway. If you hadn’t scared ‘im off, that poor girl’d be dead."

Buck shrugged that off.

"Now, she’s still pretty weak an’ scared, best to let her sleep for a while. Maybe this afternoon she’ll be awake, an’ you can see her then. But cheer up," he slapped Buck on the back. "You saved her life."

Buck nodded, not seeming too thrilled. "Thank you, Nathan."

The healer nodded, went back inside. Buck stood still for a moment, looking inside himself at something, then blinked and glanced up at Ezra, as if just noticing him. He straightened.

"Well, what say we go get somethin’ to eat, and then go nab that bastard?" he said cheerily, stepping out into the street. Ezra followed, smiling in bemusement.

"I must say, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said as they strode towards the hotel, "you seem rather a reluctant hero."

Buck didn’t look at him. "Aw, hell, Ezra, I almost got that poor girl killed -- can’t take credit for savin’ her life, too! Way I see it, I got her into this mess by not goin’ after her, and it don’t feel right thinkin’ I’m a hero when I’m the one who put her in danger in the first place."

Ezra absorbed this, cast a wary eye at Buck. "Sir, it is far too early in the day for such complicated musings. Let’s just blame the bastard."

Buck turned this idea over in his mind, then shrugged. "Sounds good to me -- at least I can shoot him ." He paused, finally looked at his companion. "Thanks for the story, Ezra, I appreciated that. Helped to take my mind off things."

Ezra nodded in acknowledgement.

"Never answered my question, though -- did you ever go back to your uncle’s farm?"

The gambler winced, took a last drag on the cheroot. "Once the war started, we left New Orleans for St. Louis, and stayed there for the duration. Traveling to the Shenandoah Valley was too dangerous, you see."

Buck nodded. "Yeah, I remember that, we didn’t move around much neither. So did you go back after the war?"

They were outside the saloon now; Ezra paused, one hand on the swinging door, and regarded his friend with bitter eyes.

"After the war, Mr. Wilmington, there was no farm to go back to."

He gazed at Buck for a moment, then pushed through the doors. Buck stood for a moment, his expression thoughtful, then followed Ezra into the saloon.

 

JD licked his lips and looked nervously at the rapidly rising sun as he rode along the dusty, tree-lined road. Nettie had said that the house where Casey was staying with her friend was close to town and easy to find, but he hadn’t found it yet, and was starting to get the uneasy feeling that he was lost.

Shoot, he thought as he dug into his pocket for the directions he’d scribbled down, Chris’d have his hide if he wasn’t back in town in time to meet with the others and then go off with Vin after the convicts. And if he had to tell them it was because he got lost -- he shuddered and pushed the thought away. He was going to find this house if he had to climb the trees and scan the entire territory.

He squinted at the scrawled directions, urging Hero forward with a slight touch of his spurs. Everything sure seemed right -- he lifted his head and peered down the road, then was relieved to see a thin wisp of smoke curling over the trees. Chimney smoke, maybe -- only one way to find out. He crammed the scrap of paper in his pocket and with a loud "Hya!" spurred his horse down the road. Perhaps Chris wouldn’t kill him today after all.

 

Casey smiled at herself as she twisted in front of the mirror, pleased at the unfamiliar reflection of herself in a dress. She squirmed as she tried to get a better view of the half-finished garment; although the morning sunlight was pouring through the room’s only window, it was hampered by the casement’s heavy brocade drapery, and it was hard to see perfectly in the dim light. The small parlor she stood in was littered with scraps of cloth and boxes of patterns; a well-worn dress dummy stood in the corner. As she craned her neck to see the back of the dress in her reflection, she let out a giggle, still trying to get used to the image staring back at her.

"Lord, Tilda, Aunt Nettie’d never recognize me in this get-up," she laughed, fingering the pink folds and speaking to the red-haired girl who sat nearby, who was eying her approvingly while holding an open copy of Godey’s Ladies Book in her lap.

"Well, ain’t that the point, Case?" her friend replied. "Gal’s got a right to get dressed up special for her beau, I figure. An’ when my ma gets done with that dress, you’ll look like you done stepped outta a Paris fashion magazine."

"Hmmm." Casey pursed her lips and studied herself, trying to stand straight. "Do I look like one of them gals, Tilda?"

Her friend studied the pictures in the book, then looked at Casey. “You sure do, Casey. The corset helps a lot.”

Casey groaned and placed one hand over her stomach, feeling the whalebone ribs of the corset underneath. "Dang, Tilda, I hate this thing! How’m I gonna dance if I can’t breathe?"

A knowing smirk crossed Tilda’s freckled face. "I’ve been to a few dances, darlin’, and let me tell you, when it’s you an’ him waltzin’ around, you ain’t gonna be thinkin’ about breathin’."

Casey seemed unconvinced, turning back to the mirror. "Dang hard to think about anythin’ when you’re passed out."

A knock came on the door. "Girls?"

Tilda looked up as Casey continued to fiddle with the dress. "Yes, mama?"

"There’s a young man riding up the road, it looks like Casey’s beau."

The two girls shot looks of gleeful surprise at each other, then flew to the large window nearby, drew its heavy curtains aside and peeped out. JD could be seen closing in on the house, Hero kicking up huge clouds of dust behind him. Tilda squealed. "That him, Casey? He’s cuuuute !"

Casey eyed her friend sharply. "Now he’s mine, Tilda. You already got Frank Colby."

Tilda considered this. "Well, if Frank don’t work out, and you an’ JD don’t work out, then c’n I have ‘im?"

Casey turned her eyes back to the young man bearing down on the farm, his black hair whipping in the warm spring wind. Her expression softened.

"We’ll work out," she said quietly, and pulled away from the window.

 

JD reined in at the small farmhouse’s front door, studying it as he dismounted Hero and tossed the reins over the hitching post. Pine-board house, one chimney, red shutters -- this had to be the place. He straightened his hat and tried to appear authoritative as he approached the door; he was there on official sheriff-type business, after all, and he wanted his appearance to command respect for his position.

His knock on the door was answered by a thin, older woman, holding a half-finished shirt in her hands. Her expression was pleasant but puzzled.

"Morning, ma’am," JD said, removing his hat and standing as straight as he could. "My name is JD Dunne, and I’m the sheriff of Four Corners, just down the road."

She smiled. "Morning, sonny, what can I help you with?"

Rats.

"Uh, is Casey Wells here? I got a message for her from her aunt."

Her eyes traveled over his figure, and JD got the definite impression that he was being sized up. But she continued to smile, in fact seemed even more friendly.

"She sure is, Mr. Dunne. C’mon in."

She stepped aside, and JD followed her into the house. The interior was dim in the bright sunlight, but JD could see that they were in a hallway which ran the width of the house; the back door was open, allowing a breeze to pass through the entryway. As they passed one open door, JD peered inside to see a sewing room, filled with bolts of cloth, patterns and a rack of dresses. The woman walked to a closed door nearby and knocked.

"Casey, Mr. Dunne’s here to see you."

A burst of smothered giggles erupted from the other side, followed by a series of muffled thuds and bumps as the room’s occupants rushed to the door, still laughing. JD sighed, looked at the floor in irritation. Girls.

"I can’t see you now, JD!" Casey yelled, not opening the door. She seemed highly amused.

JD, however, was growing exasperated. "Aw, c’mon, Casey, it’s important! Can’t you at least open the door?"

"No! I’m in my new dress and you can’t see it til the dance!"

"Why the hell not?" he cried, staring at the door in disbelief.

"Cause it’s sposed to be a serprise, an’ if you’re gonna swear at me you can just get back on your horse an’ ride on outta here!" came Casey’s testy reply. This was followed by another giggle, probably from her friend, he thought.

JD stood still for a moment, then realized that he had no time to play games. He held his hands up, as if that would help emphasize what he was going to say.

"OK, look, your aunt wanted me to tell ya that she’s staying in town cause there’s some men on the loose that might be dangerous, an’ I’m supposed to take you back with me."

Silence. The door cracked open, and Casey’s face appeared, its expression serious; she was careful to keep as much of her body behind the door as possible, so JD couldn’t see what she was wearing.

"Is she OK?"

JD hastened to reassure her. "Oh yeah, she’s fine, Vin just thought that she an’ you’d be safer in town til we get these men rounded up. I can come back for you if you ain’t ready."

She ducked her head back, whispered something to her friend, then reappeared.

"Tilda an’ I gotta finish fittin’ my dress. Can you come by tonight after supper?"

He nodded, eager to get going. Vin had probably left already. "Sure, that’s fine."

She smiled at him, then shut the door, bursting into another round of high-pitched laughter. JD looked at the closed door in confused vexation, and stepped towards the front door, tipping his hat to his hostess.

"Thank you, ma’am. Look, um, you an’ your daughter might want to go into town, too. There’s some bad men on the loose, and it might be safer."

She smiled at his concern. "Thanks for the advice, sheriff, but I got a husband and three sons lookin’ after Tilda and me. We’ll be fine."

He nodded to her, then hurried outside to Hero, mounted up, and galloped back towards town, completely unaware that Casey and Tilda were watching him go.

"He came to get you," Tilda sighed as JD disappeared up the road. "That is so romantic."

"Yeah," Casey agreed, a small smile playing on her lips. "An’ you should see ‘im throw a knife."

 

Chris sat in the splintered wooden chair in front of the sheriff’s office, watching the town awaken with apparent disinterest as he waited for the Federal prison wagon to arrive from Virginia City. As he leaned back in the chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, he let his gaze travel up and down the dusty road, slowly filling with people, and wondered if it was too early to send over to the saloon for a bottle of whiskey.

He rubbed his eyes, felt them smart with fatigue; he’d spent half the night with Buck trying to calm him down after Molly got stabbed, and none of them had gotten much sleep. He’d been relieved when Nathan showed up at the jail with the news that she would be all right; he only needed one revenge-crazed man on his team right now, and Ezra was filling the bill at the moment.

Can’t really blame him, Chris thought as he squinted up the street; he suspected that this Sophie was someone special to Ezra, and he could sympathize with the gambler’s feelings on this matter, if on nothing else. The pain Chris carried over the unsolved murder of his own wife and son was a chronic torment, so prevalent that it seemed like a second shadow now, following him everywhere. It was impossible for him not to feel at least some kinship with Ezra over his loss, even if he did often feel that the con man was slick and unreliable. Chris knew how anger could drive a man, and envied Ezra’s ability to at least have a target for his rage. Chris could only live on, do his sworn duty to the town and the six other men who protected it, and look for the day when he might be allowed a small piece of justice for his murdered family.

A commotion up the street caught his attention, and he peered from under his black wide-brimmed hat to see a huge dark wagon lumbering towards the jail, driven by two burly men in Union uniforms carrying rifles. He didn’t move, choosing to sit quietly as they pulled up.

One of the drivers, a squat clean-shaven man with beady eyes, regarded the black-clad gunslinger suspiciously. "You the law?"

Chris returned his stare steadily, still not moving. "Part of it."

"We’re here for Harrison."

Chris jerked his head a bit towards the open door of the jail. "What’s left of him is in there."

The two drivers looked at each other, then clambered down, still holding their rifles. Chris rose and led them into the jail, casting a look at Nathan who was emerging from the cell area.

"He can travel," Nathan assured him. "Everything’s healin’ like it should."

Chris nodded shortly. "Good."

The two Federal men seemed surprised at Nathan’s presence. The second driver, a tall sallow man with a sparse blonde beard, cast Chris a shocked glance.

"You lettin’ a coon doctor your pris’ners?"

Chris turned steely eyes to the man and said evenly, "I’d show a little more respect if I were you, son, or I might have to ask Mr. Jackson here to sew your mouth shut."

This was said in a mildly threatening tone, and the tall man seemed unsure whether Chris might not actually do it. Nathan shot the man a look, nodded his thanks to Chris, and walked out into the street.

The first driver was losing patience. "Shut up, Willy, and let’s get the prisoner so’s we can get the hell out of here."

Chris shot a parting glare at the tall soldier, then scooped the keys up from the desk and strode towards the back of the jail. Harrison was sitting up on his bunk, his face heavily bruised, one arm in a sling, glaring at the men with all the hostility he could muster.

The squat man stared at him. "Jesus Christ, what happened to him?"

"Fraid we got a naughty one here," Chris said pleasantly as he unlocked the door. "Threw a punch at two of my men. One of ‘em didn’t take too kindly to it."

The tall one regarded the battered convict without sympathy. "Well, after what him an’ them other cons did to Frank Larson, can’t say I’m sorry. Let’s go, Harrison."

They jerked the huge man roughly to his feet and kept their rifles trained carefully on him as they moved out towards the wagon. The convict threw one last glance of hatred at Chris, who merely eyed him calmly as they dragged the man away.

"Wire us if you catch Likens and Kingston," the squat man said as they bundled Harrison into the back of the wagon, slamming the door shut and securing it with a huge padlock. Chris nodded, seeing Josiah approaching him on the boardwalk out of the corner of his eye.

"Pleasure doing business with you, boys," Chris smiled, tapping the brim of his hat with one finger. "Nice to see the army doin’ such a fine job with its recruitment."

The tall man glared at him, while the squat man simply scowled and flapped the reins. Chris stood watching them drive up the street, leaning with one arm on a nearby wooden post as Josiah reached him.

"The scourge has been driven from Babylon, huh?’ he rumbled, looking after the wagon.

"Yup," Chris replied. "Now we got room for plenty more." He straightened, saw a small piece of paper in Josiah’s hand. "What’s that?"

The older man’s face turned grim as he handed it to Chris. "Mary got this today, thought you ought to see it."

Chris frowned as he took the paper, regarding it with rising dread as Josiah continued.

"Two women were found murdered on the road from Eagle Bend yesterday, their throats cut just like Molly’s."

Chris scanned the words, slumped in anger, then looked at Josiah in mute outrage, his eyes burning.

Josiah looked away, sighed wearily. "River’s turnin’ red with blood, Chris."

The intensity of Chris’ gaze was unsettling. "Time to cut it off at the source, then."

 

JD pulled off his bowler hat and mopped his brow on his sleeve as he guided Hero through the rough rocky terrain, trying to keep up with Vin as they tracked the convicts. The two men had passed few words since beginning their search several hours earlier, but that hardly surprised the young sheriff; ever since this morning, when they had all learned of the two murders near Eagle Bend, the task of finding Likens and Kingston had taken on a deadly intensity.

JD knew that somewhere to the west Chris and Nathan were engaged in their hunt for the criminals, while Buck and Ezra had started their search by following the tracks leading from the trees near Molly’s shack. As JD jammed his hat back on, he thought of the expression on Ezra’s face at the meeting that morning when they were all told about the two dead women, and shivered. It was the same look he’d seen on the gambler’s face when he tried to beat Kingston’s whereabouts out of Harrison, only this morning there had been no one near who could offer answers or ease Ezra’s rage.

It was the first time JD could recall that Ezra did not say a single word the entire time they were all together; after the gambler had heard the news, he’d sat off to the side while the other men laid their plans, staring thoughtfully out of the saloon window with that awful look on his face. After they were all through, Ezra had simply gotten up and followed Buck -- who had seemed just as mad, but was a lot more vocal about it -- out to the livery, without uttering a syllable to anyone.

Now here they were, picking their way across the desert in the rising heat; they’d gone back to where the destroyed prison wagon had been and worked their way from there, being careful to distinguish the tracks each man had made. Vin was riding slowly, his head down, his eyes glued to the trail as he cradled his sawed-off Winchester in one arm, ready for trouble should it come looking for them. JD could see nothing in the dust and rocks which would indicate that anyone had been by, but to Vin, it seemed, it was if the convict had left a trail of paint. All they had to do was follow it, and hopefully the bloodletting would soon end.

JD scanned the environment while Vin kept his eyes on the trail, just as the tracker had asked him to, and feel uneasy with the thought of two bloodthirsty convicts possibly stalking them. He had been relieved when Buck and Ezra consented to meet him at Tilda’s house later that day so that there would be three of them to escort Casey back to Four Corners, instead of just JD. Normally, the young sheriff had complete confidence in his blossoming gunslinging abilities, but the two murders had convinced him to swallow his pride and ask for help.

They’d been moving along fairly swiftly, and were now approaching a small hillock of large rocks, scrub and bare trees; its steep sides and huge boulders could have hidden a dozen men, and JD had been regarding it nervously when he heard the faint but distinct whinny of a horse, somewhere on the other side of the hill.

Vin stopped instantly, his head snapping up and his hand sliding down to the trigger of his rifle. JD guided his horse next to Vin, then reined in as well.

"Tracks lead up the hill to them rocks," Vin whispered, keeping his eyes on the terrain before them. JD nodded, and they both slid off their horses and crept up towards the foot of the rise. JD smoothly pulled out his Colts and cocked them, licking his lips.

Vin held his Winchester at the ready, crouching low as he began ascending the hillside, his boots hardly making a sound as he carefully approached the rocks at the crest. JD covered him, following his partner at a distance, his ears straining for any noise which might hint at an ambush, or a trap, or anything which might indicate that anyone was up there at all. He heard nothing, except what seemed to be an unusually loud buzzing of flies.

The horse whinnyed again, louder; Vin ducked, paused, then continued stealthily walking towards the outcropping, proceeding in a slow, cautious manner that nearly drove JD insane with suspense. If they were going to be attacked, he wished it’d happen soon, and get it over with. He shadowed Vin, keeping a good twenty paces behind him, Colts at the ready.

Vin’s eyes darted rapidly, seeking any sign of movement; he could feel his heartbeat quickening as he neared the boulders, which might conceal Likens, or Kingston, or both of them. His hands wrapped around the Winchester, taking solace from the weapon’s solid heft; he knew he could get at least one of them, and hoped JD could nail the other before they were both killed.

As he neared the top of the hill, which looked to be fairly level, he could see the remains of a fire pit, although it appeared cold, and a few tin eating implements scattered around the area. Vin crouched lower to the ground and gripped the rifle tighter as he neared the edge of the rocks; in a second he’d be able to see around them, and whoever was up there could see him, too. Just a few more steps -- he took a deep breath -- With lightning speed, he primed his rifle, brought it up to firing position, and stepped quickly around the edge of the boulders into the clearing beyond.

JD unconsciously ducked as Vin jumped around the boulders, expecting both of them to be showered with bullets. Instead, he saw Vin pause, peer at something, then stand straight up as he let his rifle dangle harmlessly against his leg.

"It’s all right, JD," he called, still staring at whatever was behind the rocks. JD blinked, dropping his guns a bit.

"Someone up there?"

Vin nodded grimly, not altering his gaze.

"Wha -- is he dead?"

His comrade studied his subject for a moment. "Seein’ as how he ain’t got a head, I reckon so."

JD gasped, then began climbing the rocks towards Vin, who shook his head and held up one hand, as if to keep him away.

"Now, JD, I don’t think you wanna see this. Y’ain’t got the stomach yet."

The youth pursed his lips impatiently, continuing his trek. "Aw, c’mon, Vin, I’ve seen dead men before. I’ll be OK, honest, an’ you’re gonna need help with the body. God, you all treat me like a kid."

Vin seemed to grow more apprehensive as JD drew nearer, glancing furtively at the unseen body. "Naw, really, JD, take my word for it an’ go see to that horse. This feller’s tore up awful bad."

JD sighed in exasperation as he reached the crest. "Vin, thanks for the concern, but I gotta get used to this stuff sometime if I’m gonna make it out here. It won’t be easy, I know, but I’m ready to try. I want to try. OK?"

Vin looked at him, then at the body behind the rock, shrugged a bit, and stepped back. JD nodded his gratitude, took a steadying breath, and strode around the boulders, taking a good look at what they concealed. His eyes widened a bit, the color draining from his face.

"Oh my God," he muttered as he stumbled backwards a bit. He threw a quick glance at Vin before plunging into the nearby scrub, where he became loudly and violently sick.

Vin leaned against one of the large boulders and waited, the Winchester slung over one shoulder, one thumb hitched into his belt. He supposed that he should’ve been amused at the kid’s predicament, but found himself oddly envious instead. It must be nice, he thought, to still be able to get sickened at the sight of a man’s mangled body, to not have seen so much bloodshed and brutality that a corpse became just another lifeless object, worthy of no more regard that the rocks around it. Hang on to that humanity, kid, he thought, as the tips of his lips curled tightly; around here, it’s usually the first thing to go, and the thing you’ll miss the most.

JD reappeared, pale and shaken, wiping his lips on his pocket handkerchief. He was trying not to look at the corpse, but couldn’t keep from casting furtive glances at it, fascinated by the gore. All he could really perceive was a huge pool of dried blood, some torn bits of a gray convict’s uniform, and a vague form of dark red and white which bore a distant resemblance to a human being.

"God, Vin," he breathed, gulping, "what happened to him?"

Vin straightened, swinging the Winchester down as he got closer and inspected the body, or what was left of it. "Cougar. Then buzzards, an’ maybe coyotes too. Judgin’ by what’s left, I’d say he’s been dead since yesterday."

JD coughed, trying not to gag. "Which one d’ya think it is?"

The tracker’s eyes traveled up and down the remains. "Hard to tell with no face, but I’m guessin’ Likens. Telegram from Eagle Bend said Kingston was tall, an’ this feller looks like a shorty to me."

JD nodded, having mostly regained his composure. He walked forward a bit and peered over the edge of the hill to see the horse down below, its reined tethered to a small tree. It looked up at JD and blew softly. JD felt a twinge of sympathy for the animal, then went back to Vin.

"Well, at least we know we only got one convict left to catch," he said.

His companion let out a sigh, squinting up at the sun. "We better get the horse an’ head back to town, tell Josiah what’s happened."

They began to descend, JD gestured at the corpse. "What about him?"

Vin spared it one last look. "Reckon we’ll let the government clean him up. He ain’t our problem anymore."

The young man grimaced, then turned his attention to the rocky path in front of him as they climbed down. As they reached the horses, JD gave Vin a shamefaced glance.

"Um, I’m sorry I lost it up there, Vin. You were right."

Vin eyed him, his face without expression as he adjusted his tack. "It’s OK, kid, don’t fret over it. Part of growin’ up."

JD laughed and shook his head as he removed his canteen from his saddle, knowing the horse would be thirsty. "Well, it’s still downright embarrassin’. I’m glad the others weren’t here, they’d laugh me right out of the territory. You’re lucky things like that don’t bother you."

Canteen in hand, he hurried around the hill to where the horse stood, and Vin could hear him talking softly to it as he gave it some water. The tracker stood for a moment, then slid the Winchester back into its saddle holster as he thought, Kid, there’s lots of reasons a man gets used to the sight of blood, but bein’ lucky ain’t one of ‘em.

 

Buck splashed his face with the cold river water and lifted his head, his hand dangling loosely as he rested his arm on one knee. The coolness sure felt good after spending almost the entire afternoon with Ezra tracking Kingston in the blazing sunshine, but it did little to ease his frustration over the fact that, having followed him to the river, they had lost the trail.

It made the tall gunslinger slightly nervous to think that Kingston might be watching them at that very moment as they paused by the water’s edge, letting Chaucer and Beauty drink while the men refilled their canteens and refreshed themselves. However, he took comfort in the knowledge that the convict couldn’t kill both of them at the same time, and he knew that neither he nor Ezra would have the slightest hesitation in killing Kingston should the convict attack them.

He dipped his hands into the clear water, wetting them, and then dragged them through his black hair, cooling his scalp. Damn, Kingston would have to find a shallow river near town to hide his tracks in -- he could’ve ridden for miles in the water before stepping again onto dry land.

The gentle crunching of bootsteps on gravel caught his attention and he froze. He knew Ezra was somewhere upriver, refreshing his canteen and searching for any sign of Kingston; basically, Buck was now alone, and a target. His muscles tensed as the noise grew nearer, but he made no move to indicate he’d heard the sound; he’d need the element of surprise if he was going to move fast enough to drop Kingston before he was shot, or jumped. One hand snaked slowly towards his gun as he listened to his instincts, waiting for the right moment to strike. After a few more moments he decided it was time; he whirled, whipped out his gun and pointed it at the intruder--

--who turned out to be a mildly surprised Ezra. The gambler took a step backwards and held his hands up in surrender, his dripping canteen hanging by its strap from one hand. Buck let out a relieved gasp, drooped a bit as the tension left him, and shot Ezra a reproving look.

"Dang, Ezra, can’t you stop bein’ sneaky just once?"

His companion eyed him without contrition and unscrewed the top of his canteen. "Did you not find the water sufficiently relaxing, Mr. Wilmington?"

His tone was weary, and Buck knew his companion was disappointed with their inability to find Kingston, as well as with Chris’ demand that they capture Kingston alive so that the convict could stand trial for the murders of the two unfortunate women. As Buck reholstered his pistol, he let his eyes scan the surroundings, a mixture of rocky hills and small stands of trees, and shook his head.

"Guess I’m a bit on edge, with all these hidin’ places Kingston’s got for himself," Buck said as he rose, picking up his hat and shaking the hot dust from it. "See anything up the river?"

Ezra took a draw from his canteen and shook his head as he swallowed, his green eyes narrow in the bright afternoon.

"I fear not. And judging by the length of this tributary, he may have departed it at any number of places. I believe we shall have to call on Mr. Tanner’s skills to flush this devil from his den."

Buck’s head bobbed in agreement as he pulled out his watch and checked it, then squinted at the descending sun. "Reckon we oughta go meet JD at Mrs. Weikert’s house, then see if we can find Vin once we’re back in town. Might be able to make some progress before the sun goes down. Hell, maybe he an’ JD found Likens, an’ you can whomp on him for a while."

They began to walk back to where the horses were still sipping at the running water. Ezra considered Buck’s words and gave a quick shake of his head, his expression dubious.

"I pray we can find a less violent means of persuasion this time around. As a professional, I must maintain the implements of my trade."

"Y’didn’t seem so worried about that yesterday," Buck remarked, bending to pick up his canteen from where it had been filling up in the river. He gave it a few shakes to remove the excess water and capped it, a smile playing on his mustached lips. "Gotta admit, I didn’t know you had it in ya. You beat the hell outta that guy."

They reached the horses; Chaucer lifted its head at Ezra’s approach and blew softly in greeting, licking its lips. Ezra said nothing for a moment as he stood, the reins held loosely in his hands, stroking the animal’s neck, lost in thought. Finally he turned to Buck.

"Mr. Wilmington, as you know, I try to avoid the senseless violence which seems to be increasingly necessary for us to survive in this environment, and I must confess that I am ashamed that I allowed my animal passions to prevail, even if it was but for a brief moment."

Buck shrugged. "Seems you had cause, Ezra. Hell, if it was me, I’da done the same thing. Calm reasonin’ don’t seem to work with these gents, y’know."

His companion nodded, still absently running his hand over Chaucer’s glistening brown coat. "I agree, Mr. Wilmington -- certainly you, or Mr. Larabee, or Mr. Tanner might have used such brutality to achieve your ends. But before yesterday, I never dreamed that I would have."

Buck blinked, a bit startled. "Aw, c’mon, Ezra, I’ve seen you rough up men before. You ain’t as practiced as Chris or me at it, maybe, but you sure’s hell ain’t no shrinkin’ violet."

The gambler’s head came up, and he eyed Buck sharply. "Mr. Wilmington, throwing a punch or firing a gun is one thing. Yesterday--" He paused, looking for the words, "--yesterday, I committed an act of savagery such as I have never believed myself capable of. My reason left me, sir, and that reason is the one thing I have depended on my entire life, the only reliable aspect of my existence. To be without the one possession which you believed would never leave you--" He sighed, looked at the ground, then at Buck, a tired gleam in his eye. "I don’t mind telling you, sir, that this situation is rendering my emotional condition a good deal more uncertain than usual, and I am finding it quite hard to bear. "

Ezra fell silent, his hand gliding gently over Chaucer’s hide as he stared with unseeing eyes at his saddle. Buck pondered for a moment, trying to figure out the best thing to say. Josiah or Nathan would know just what to do, he thought, but situations like this usually left Buck stumped. He cleared his throat.

"Well, Ezra, I reckon a man’s got instincts for certain times in his life, an’ you ain’t needed your meaner ones til now, that’s all. I guess they might be a mite disturbin’ if a man ain’t used to ‘em, like you, but that don’t mean you gotta worry about havin’ ‘em. It’s all in knowin’ when an’ where to use ‘em, and I’d say you got that part down pretty good."

Ezra leaned on his saddle and absorbed the words, still staring at the horizon.

"Now, I reckon we oughta go meet JD, then get on back to town so’s I can check up on Molly an’ then get to work on findin’ Kingston," Buck continued, walking to the side of his horse and putting one boot in his stirrup. "Once we catch ‘im you can relax again an’ spend your time figurin’ out how to take people’s money instead of workin’ for a livin’."

Ezra chuckled, cast a grateful look at Buck as he stepped back and prepared to mount Chaucer. "Thank you for your perspective, Mr. Wilmington. I sincerely hope I shall never have to aim my fury in your direction."

Buck laughed as he hoisted himself into the saddle and gathered up the reins. "Well, if we don’t get goin’ it’ll be JD’s fury we’ll have to worry about, and I hate to think what he’s like in a passion. He’d probably bad-joke us to death."

Ezra swung gracefully onto his saddle, and within moments the two men were trotting along the river in the general direction of Mrs. Weikert’s house. After a few moments, Buck clucked his tongue and shook his head.

"Tell you what, tho, none of us blame you for beatin’ the tar outta Harrison. Chris sure didn’t like him, I can tell ya that."

Ezra shrugged. "Convicts are not generally blessed with the social graces."

"Hmm." Buck spurred his horse on. "What I can’t see is how Sophie would ever marry a fella that was bound for the big house. From what you said she’d be a damn sight too smart for that."

"One’s intelligence rarely has any bearing on the workings of one’s heart, my friend," Ezra observed, pacing Chaucer carefully. "You must remember, after the war there were precious few men available for the fair ones of the South, and with the farm gone and my uncle dead, she needed a man’s protection, or so she believed."

"Yeah, you mentioned that about the farm. Damn shame, an’ about your uncle, too." Buck pursed his lips and scowled in sympathy, shaking his head as he rode along with one hand on his hip.

Ezra took a deep breath, shifting in his saddle. "I fear General Sheridan’s tactics to render the Valley incapable of supporting the Confederate army were quite thorough. Sophie told me they never went back after evacuating in the fall of ‘64."

Buck shot him a startled look. "You saw her again?"

His companion nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips. "Once, at the wedding of my cousin Simon in ‘67. It was a total surprise, I had no idea she’d be there."

Buck grunted as they moved onto rockier ground, heading away from the river towards the roadway. "Guess she didn’t write to ya, huh?"

The other man gave him a slightly insulted look. "On the contrary, sir, we corresponded frequently until the war started. I wrote her a few times after we moved to St. Louis, but only got one letter in return, and then heard nothing for four years."

Buck scratched his ear. "Yeah, we had kin in South Carolina, an’ I recall we didn’t hear from them for the longest time, what with the damn fightin’ and all. You musta been worried sick."

Ezra nodded, his eyes on the road ahead. "I was quite concerned -- Virginia saw a great deal of the fighting. As it turned out, they spent the last year of the war in Richmond, and she met Kingston while nursing in one of the hospitals there."

"Richmond," Buck muttered, blowing out a quick breath and shaking his head in sympathy. "Poor kid. I remember hearin’ when that place fell at the end of the war. Whole town went crazy, with the people evacuatin’, all the buildings burnin’, an’ mobs lootin’ what was left. She musta been scared outta her mind." He looked at Ezra. "Kingston was in the war, huh?"

Ezra nodded, bobbing slightly as he rode. "Wounded at the battle of the Wilderness. He was one of the unfortunates who were caught in the brushfire which ended by burning many of the injured soldiers alive."

Despite Buck’s loathing of Kingston, he shuddered at the image this evoked. Then he gave Ezra a quizzical glance.

"You sure know a lot about this guy."

Ezra gave a slight shrug, indifferent about his expertise. "Once we reestablished contact, Sophie couldn’t wait to tell me of her true love. I think she wanted to reassure me that my offer of marriage to her was unnecessary."

Buck laughed as he quickened his horse’s pace. "Boy, you sure moved fast." His comrade inclined his head in thought. "Perhaps I was a bit hasty, but it was done with the purest intentions, I assure you. My uncle had died in ‘65, and I wanted to be sure that she would be all right. By the time we were corresponding again, however, she was almost engaged to Kingston, and when I saw her she’d been married to him for over a year."

"Huh." Buck peered at Ezra. "Was he at your cousin’s wedding, too?"

Ezra drew in a sharp breath and dipped his head.

"Oh, yes," he said softly. "He was there."

 

Lexington, Kentucky, 1867

The afternoon rain had stopped, and only a light drizzle was falling as the hackney coach pulled up to the well-lit town house, its wheels and leather covers shining with moisture. As the conveyance made its way up the curved cobblestone driveway, one of its occupants squinted with disinterest at the handsome home and heaved a sigh of pure boredom.

Ezra had grown into a handsome young man, slender and elegant, his well-groomed chestnut hair complemented by his large green eyes. Although only twenty, his bearing indicated a man of more advanced years, a trait he found particularly useful when trying to persuade people of his veracity. Usually he enjoyed socializing, as it gave him the opportunity to sharpen his already considerable conning skills, skills which he had discovered were both enjoyable and profitable. A bad run of luck at the tables, however, had left him in a gloomy temper, and tonight he was not in the mood to be agreeable.

"I fail to see the need for this charade, Mother," Ezra griped to the well-dressed woman beside him as he adjusted the cuffs of his finely tailored suit. "It was always my impression that you loathed this particular branch of our family tree."

Maude Standish gave her son a critical look as she straightened her fashionable hat, then turned her gaze out the window, her eyes regarding the house like a hungry beast of prey.

"Now, son, you may be a man now, but remember Mother always knows best. It’s true Harold and Emily have never cared for my company, and Simon turned out no better, but they are kin, and what’s more important, they are rich kin." She took a deep breath of anticipation, her eyes shining. "This house will be full of Kentucky’s most illustrious names tonight, and if nothing else we should be able to win enough at the tables to pay for your suit."

"Yes, well, forgive my impertinence," Ezra remarked as the front door drew near, "but I fear I must question the wisdom of spending our last dollars on finery when we each already possessed suitable attire. You know that we’ll lose our rooms if we fail to make the payment again."

The coach stopped, and Maude gathered her handbag and fan, taking a moment to give Ezra a quick pat on the hand and a dazzling smile.

"The proper appearance is essential, darling, you know that. After tonight we’ll have plenty for the rent, and more besides. Now, remember, you’re attending West Point this fall, having graduated at the top of your class--"

"What school?" His expression was still skeptical. She paused for a moment, then waved her hand dismissively.

"I don’t know, make one up -- no one will check, trust me. Find yourself a seat at the card game for after the dance, and I’ll see about making some inways with the more well-heeled guests."

The coach door opened, and the coachman, a stout man in a sopping and ill-fitting uniform, held out one gloved hand to assist Maude onto the shining pavement. With as much grace as she could muster -- which was a considerable amount -- Maude Standish climbed out of the carriage, her face lit by the most confident of smiles. Ezra followed, eying the building as if it were a charnel house, and dropped a few coins into the cabbie’s hands. The man peered at the amount, then at Ezra.

"No tip?"

The young man assumed an air of sophistication, trying to disguise the fact that the cabbie now possessed the last of their money.

"Sir, your abilities leave much to be desired," he sniffed, his tone dripping with disdain. "See to improving yourself, and you will be compensated accordingly."

The coachman’s expression turned ugly, but he pocketed the coins and walked back to the hack, muttering various invectives concerning Ezra’s parentage.

They were a few steps up the walk when Maude suddenly whirled around and grabbed Ezra’s arm.

"Oh, son, the--"

He understood at once and dove back to the coach, opening the door and retrieving the wedding present from the floor. The coachman, who had almost pulled away, shot him a nasty look and touched the horse with the whip. As the hack rattled away, Ezra trotted up to rejoin his mother, who shook her head.

"Thank you, son, that was close."

He weighed the box in his hands as they mounted the steps leading up to the handsome front door. "Which of our belongings are we bestowing upon them?"

She adjusted one of her earrings and glanced covertly at the door. "The silver candlesticks from our room."

Her son sighed and gave her a look of patient exasperation. "I believe those belonged to the landlord."

She shrugged, lifting the golden knocker and tapping genteelly on the door. "It’s a bad neighborhood, so many thieves about, we came home and they were missing. Tragic, wouldn’t you say?"

The door opened, flooding the two with golden light. Maude turned to the doorman, smiling as she graciously handed him their invitations. Beyond the foyer they could see the huge parlor, already full of people chatting and dancing. Soft music wafted into the moist spring air, along with the clinking of glasses and the restrained laughter of the respectable classes. Ezra felt himself growing more optimistic as they were admitted into the house and his gaze traveled over the elegantly dressed inhabitants; this could be quite lucrative after all, even if they did have to rub some less than congenial elbows.

After divesting themselves of Maude’s wrap and Ezra’s cloak and hat, they greeted the newlyweds, who regarded them with the polite confusion of a couple who has talked with so many people that they had lost track of who was who. Having dispensed with that duty, Maude sent Ezra off to circulate while she flitted from guest to guest in search of a halfway decent mark.

His green eyes worked quickly as he strode towards the refreshment table, sizing up the gentlemen who were likely to join the game that night. They did, indeed, all look at least moderately wealthy, and he hoped that his years of practice would pay off later. Even if his talents did not match his opponents’, he’d absorbed enough extra knowledge in recent years to turn the odds to his favor, and he had no compunction against using it, even on relatives. Survival was survival, after all.

As he stood at the punch bowl filling his glass and trying not to stare too hard at the tempting food laid out nearby -- neither he nor Maude had eaten all day -- he heard a voice at his elbow.

"Good Lord, Ezra Standish, is that you?"

He recognized the voice immediately, and turned to see a tall, ugly man with long mustachios regarding him with surprise. Ezra smiled amiably and stuck out his hand.

"My dear cousin Charles, how are you, sir? It has been too long."

Charles nodded as he shook Ezra’s hand, his face still robed in disbelief. "I suppose so -- what the hell are you doing in Kentucky?"

He means what the hell am I doing here, Ezra thought as he quickly studied his older cousin. Still rich, I see, in good health, doesn’t look like he was in the war, and it seems his unfortunate complexion problem still hasn’t cleared up. "Well, my mother and I just had to pay our respects before heading to New York."

Charles nodded, still somewhat bewildered. "Oh yeah, I heard her sayin’ somethin’ about West Point. Maybe they can teach you how to fight there."

Ezra’s eyes flashed as he paused, his glass at his lips. He’s still an ass, too. "Let me assure you, sir, my pugilistic skills have advanced considerably since the days of my youth."

Charles stared at him, his eyes widening a bit at the vaguely threatening tone of Ezra’s voice. "Uh-huh."

"However, I wage my battles on a far more civilized level at the present time," Ezra continued, leaning towards his cousin. "Might I interest you in a game of chance later on this evening? I am quite anxious to show that I bear no ill will towards you nor your charming brother."

Charles considered this, and nodded, the light in his eyes less than friendly. "It’d be my pleasure, Ezra. James is here, too, somewhere."

"Well, he may join our company as well," Ezra replied heartily, draining his glass. "I must say with all honesty that I have dreamed of playing against you two for a long time."

Charles seemed unsure how to take this, and finally stammered, "Same here."

Ezra smiled broadly and lifted his cup in farewell. "To tonight, sir, and we shall see whom Lady Luck shall grace with her presence."

The other man nodded, forcing a smile. Ezra chuckled to himself, his mood improved; it would be worth spending all of their money and going without food if he could only skunk Charles and James tonight. Maude would be happy; he was sure he could beat them, at least, and they might have enough to buy a little food. When Charles didn’t leave, Ezra glanced at him to see that he was staring at the door with an expression of mild disgust, shaking his head.

"Oh, God," he whispered loudly to Ezra, "the poor relations are here."

Scowling at his cousin’s intolerance, Ezra casually let his eyes travel to the door, idly curious as to who he could be talking about.

A couple had entered, a tall, long-faced blonde man with a cane escorting a slim blonde woman whose eyes scanned the room, looking for a familiar face. They were dressed neatly but with far less elegance than the rest of the crowd; even Maude and Ezra outshone them. As the couple paused, apparently uncertain what to do next, Ezra studied the woman’s face and felt an electric shock of recognition thrill through his body, sparking every nerve. For a moment the entire crowd disappeared, and he found himself staring openly, feeling the blood rush to his head in surprise. God, she was so different, but he could not be mistaken.

It was Sophie.

She had grown into a remarkably pretty woman, her hair still a light golden blonde, now done up in a simple but attractive style which heightened her calm, graceful appearance. Ezra watched as her blue eyes flickered through the room, looking for a friendly face, and marveled at how grave they now seemed. She hadn’t seen him yet.

"Did ya hear me, Ezra?"

Ezra didn’t turn his head, only breathed, "What?"

"I said, looks like he was dumb enough to get himself in the war. James and me, we hired substitutes, an’ when they stopped that, well, those draft officers weren’t above takin’ a few dollars--"

Ezra handed him his glass, still directing his gaze at the young woman. "Yes, yes, a fascinating tale I’m sure," and he was walking away, leaving Charles to stand awkwardly at the punch bowl holding his empty glass and looking after him, perplexed.

It seemed to take forever to cross the crowded room, and as he did so, his mind raced, a million thoughts tumbling through it at once, and chief among them was the hope that she would not discover his true situation. She’d changed so much since those days in the Shenandoah Valley, and he had too; it was easy to dissemble in the letters, but he wondered how he could lie to her face, tell her everything was wonderful now, that he had become the well-respected gentleman he’d dreamed of being. It would be the con of a lifetime, and he knew that it would break his heart.

She saw him coming through the crowd as he neared her; as he watched her face grew puzzled for a moment, then lit up with joy. She whirled, grabbed her escort’s arm while saying something to him in an excited tone, then stood waiting for him to win his battle with the crowd. As he approached her he felt himself swallow, and fought to control his emotions, determined to present a collected front.

When he was close enough, she held out her hands, a smile illuminating her delicate features. "Ezra!"

He managed a suave smile, hoping that the strain didn’t show as he took her hands in his and raised them to his lips, kissing them with an air of the utmost gentility.

"Sophie, my dear, what a pleasure to--"

With a laugh of pure delight she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. Thrown a little off balance, he laughed as well, and returned the embrace, holding her tightly. So much for a collected front.

"I’m so glad to see you again!" she cried, giving him an extra squeeze before pulling back, her hands still in his. He laughed again, a small laugh to cover the emotions which threatened to overwhelm him, and studied his cousin with shining eyes, unable to speak.

"What an unexpected pleasure," he finally managed to stammer, blinking to clear his vision. She regarded him for another moment, then looked back to her escort.

"Lafe, you must meet my cousin Ezra. Ezra, this is my husband, Mr. Lafayette Kingston."

The tall blonde man came forward, supported a bit by the cane, although he didn’t seem to need it. Ezra bowed slightly as he shook Lafe’s hand, muttering the traditional pleasantries as he stared him in the eye. The young gambler had discovered that he had a knack for being able to read people, and as he directed his powers of observation towards Sophie’s husband, he felt an uncomfortable sensation crawl up his spine.

"My very great honor, sir," Kingston said in a deep, rich voice as he bowed gracefully. "Your lovely cousin has mentioned you often with great affection."

"The honor is mine, Mr. Kingston," Ezra replied, giving Sophie a grateful glance. "I believe we all agree that she has impeccable taste in men."

They laughed, Ezra still studying Kingston closely; there was something about him that seemed wrong, but he couldn’t pin it down.

"You must excuse us, Mr. Standish, while we pay our respects to the happy couple," Kingston said smoothly, taking Sophie’s arm.

Ezra returned the bow gracefully. "Certainly, sir. I trust you will honor us with your presence after the dance?"

The other man smiled, and for some reason Ezra felt a shiver go through him. "I look forward to it, sir."

Ezra kissed Sophie’s hand again; they smiled at each other, and made to depart. Suddenly Kingston turned. "Mr. Standish?"

Ezra looked back at him, his eyebrows raised. "Hmm?"

Kingston threw a glance at Sophie, then leaned towards Ezra and said, "As you can see, my participation in the late unpleasantness has left me unable, for now, to accommodate her on the ballroom floor. Since you and she are so close, I was wondering if I might request that you escort her to the dance?"

"You must say yes, Ezra," Sophie urged, her eyes bright. "I know you can at least do the waltz."

Their eyes met, and for a moment Ezra was waltzing beneath the summer leaves of his uncle’s orchard, the green valley spread before him. He bowed in the most graceful possible manner, his expression serious but with a gleam of joy in his eye.

"Mrs. Kingston, it would be my very greatest pleasure."

She curtsied, a beaming smile on her face. Kingston seemed satisfied.

"My thanks, sir. Come along , Sophie."

They walked away towards the receiving area. Ezra stood and watched her go, trying to fight down the uneasy feeling which gnawed at the back of his mind. So intent was he on this activity that he didn’t notice his mother as she sidled up to him, holding two plates overflowing with food. She waited a few moments before inelegantly nudging his arm.

"You shouldn’t stare so after other men’s wives, son, it’s immoral."

Ezra jumped a little, then looked at the floor and laughed before casting her a critical glare. "For heaven’s sake, Mother, that was Sophie."

She pursed her lips in thought. "Sophie... Soph -- oh, yes, of course, George’s daughter. Well, isn’t that nice. Here, darlin’, have some food, it might be the only decent meal we have this week. I haven’t found a decent mark yet, and if nothing else we may as well enjoy ourselves."

He accepted the plate; it certainly did look good, and he had to wonder if his rich relations ever truly appreciated the ability to eat well. They moved into the dining area, a large well-decorated room whose walls were lined with elegantly upholstered chairs, and settled in a corner, far from the other guests.

"I’ve seen quite a few eligible young women here this evening, son," Maude said brightly as she rearranged her skirts. "We should have no trouble finding you a suitable partner for the ball."

"They are quite charming, I’m sure, mother," Ezra replied as he sat beside her, a small smile on his face, "but I fear my hand is already given to cousin Sophie."

His mother gave him a sour look as she delicately began picking at her food. "Oh, Ezra, I’m sure that’s very kind of you, but we can hope for nothing from Sophie’s family. From what I hear, the poor dears lost everything in the war, and when George died he left them penniless. We have a golden opportunity for profit here, and I declare it’d be a sin to waste it."

Her son considered her words as he chewed. "I concur, Mother, but I feel that after the kindness shown to us by Sophie’s family, it would be cruel to deny her this one small request. Besides..."

He trailed off, uncertain how to tell his mother what it meant to him to see Sophie again. It was as if, by being near her again, he could somehow regain some of the remaining shreds of decency he had once had, before loneliness and want had hardened his soul. There had been something in that boy who played in George McKenna’s orchard that was gone now, an ember of hope kindled by Sophie’s kindness which had since been extinguished; now all that burned in him was the desire to avoid poverty and the pain of separation at all costs, qualities which he knew she would not approve of. He had not realized before how much he missed that lost part of himself, and the girl who had shared it with him, and he knew that trying to explain that to Maude would be at best difficult and at worst damn near impossible.

Maude seemed to be tired of the topic anyway. "Well, suit yourself, dear," she shrugged, biting into a corn muffin. "Do you think they’d notice if we went back for seconds?"

 

The dance was well into its third hour, and everything was going perfectly. The ballroom of the house was huge, taking up half of the first floor; its polished floors and elegantly decorated walls were made even more festive by the addition of ropes of flowers brightly hung with ribbons. Women in silk gowns and sparkling jewels swirled to the orchestra’s music, and as Ezra moved with them holding Sophie in his arms, he had to admit to himself that he was having a pretty good time.

"You’ve added to your repertoire, I see," Sophie laughed, as they bounced through the Jenny Lind Polka.

He smiled proudly, trying not to breathe hard. "Wait until they play the schottische, my dear. I promise that you will be utterly astounded."

She laughed again, shaking her head. "Too bad they don’t award West Point rank based on dancing abilities. You’d be a general in no time!"

He continued to smile, but felt his stomach cringe a little. He’d hated to lie to her, but could think of no good way to tell her the truth -- that despite his earlier aspirations, he was only a small-time gambler on the brink of starvation. It would be better for her to believe the best of him, he’d decided, but the proud look on her face did not seem as comforting as he’d imagined.

The polka ended; they applauded, Sophie giving a small wave to her husband, who sat alone against the wall, leaning on his cane and watching the proceedings.

"Would you like to rest a while, my dear?" Ezra panted, extending his arm. She nodded, and they moved to the chairs set next to the open French doors which led into the garden, through which a refreshing breeze was blowing. The air was cool and still damp, heavily scented with the perfume of spring, and Ezra caught the distinct scent of apple blossoms.

She took a deep breath and smiled as they sat down. "Doesn’t that smell wonderful! It’s just like Papa’s farm. May we just sit here for a while, Ezra? I hate to miss the dancing, but this reminds me so much of home."

"Of course," Ezra replied, sitting beside her. She smiled and took his hand, holding it as she sat with her back turned to him, gazing out of the door into the garden. In the evening darkness he could dimly make out a stand of apple trees, perhaps three or four, softly illuminated by the golden light pouring through the windows. It was late enough in the season that they were beginning to lose their petals, and he could see them fluttering softly to the ground in the faint light.

"I was very sorry to hear about the farm," Ezra finally said, tightening his grip on his cousin’s hand. She smiled and sniffed, turning her head slightly but not looking at him.

"Papa wouldn’t leave until the cannons were practically in our front yard," she replied, laughing a little. "As we were driving away in the wagon, I remember him swearing that if they harmed one branch of the orchard he’d sue the entire Federal government."

Ezra chuckled. "I’m not surprised in the least. He was a very brave man, to be sure."

She nodded, wiping her eyes with one finger. "Sometimes I think it’s better that he didn’t live long after the farm was destroyed. He’d put his whole life into it, and when it was gone, it was as if he’d lost his heart."

She gazed into her lap for a moment, remembering, then looked into his face with a small smile, gripping his hand. "He’d be proud of you, though. He always said you were the smartest boy he’d ever seen -- imagine if he knew you were going to West Point."

He forced a proud grin, feeling his heart thump a bit. "Yes, I can only imagine his reaction to my current situation," he replied, and desperately worked through his mind for a different topic of conversation. He looked around and noticed Kingston still sitting by himself, staring at nothing.

"Your husband appears a bit lonely. Should we join him?"

Sophie didn’t seem concerned. "Lafe likes to sit by himself and watch people. I think he had enough of crowds in the war, and in the hospital in Richmond where we met. Did I tell you that he was wounded at the Wilderness?"

" "Is that a fact," Ezra said absently, still gazing at Kingston. He didn’t like how the man sat alone and seemed completely cut off from the people around him; perhaps he could get some answers during the poker game.

Sophie nodded, her voice becoming more serious. "He doesn’t talk about it much; the other nurses told me that he’d broken both legs in the battle, and then contracted pneumonia. Most of the men he was brought in with didn’t survive. They..." She faltered, shivered; her hand tightened around Ezra’s as she sniffed, then looked into his eyes. "I’m so glad you didn’t have to fight, Ezra. I’d hate to think of you ending up like so many of the men I saw."

He gazed at her for a moment, touched, then smiled a bit and placed his hand on hers. "I doubt that my dancing skills would have done the Cause much good, but I appreciate the sentiment. "

Her face brightened a little, despite the moisture still clinging to her eyes; as she looked at him he noticed a certain gravity to her expression that wasn’t there before, a grave light in her eyes that shone there even when she laughed. She’d seen so much, endured so much, and he longed to extinguish that light and give her back the pure joy that had been eradicated by the brutality of war. A small pain went through his heart as he realized that this was no more possible for her than it was for him.

The music began again; Sophie gasped and sat up in her seat, delighted. "Oh, listen, Ezra, it’s a waltz!"

He turned his head and caught the music; it was the waltz version of an old Irish tune, Kathleen Mavourneen, one he was well familiar with. He smiled and rose, pleased to see her happy again, even if the shadow was still in her eyes.

Kathleen Mavourneen, the gray dawn is breaking,
The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill,

"My pleasure, my dear," he said gallantly, offering his hand to her. She took it and stood; as they began to move towards the dance floor, she looked out the doorway, then stopped, pulling on his hand.

"Wait!"

He turned, a look of surprised expectation on his face.

She gazed at him, a lightly mischievous glint in her eyes. "Do you think they’d mind if we danced in the orchard?"

The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking,
Kathleen Mavourneen, what, slumb’ring still?

He was a bit taken aback, and took a quick look around the dance floor, which was alive with swirling couples. Nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to them. He thought for a moment, biting his lip a little, then turned a smiling face to her.

"If they complain, I shall waltz them to death," he proclaimed, and followed her into the garden.

Oh, hast thou forgotten how soon we must sever?
Oh, hast thou forgotten this day we must part?

They had to walk carefully; the trees stood in the far end of the garden, away from the doors but close enough to the windows to be afforded some illumination. The scent from the spring flowers was heady, and Sophie seemed increasingly excited as they neared the towering apple trees.

"Aren’t they beautiful!" she gasped when they were under the branches of the nearest one, her eyes shining as she turned her face upwards to the falling petals.

"Astonishing," Ezra agreed, as a petal landed right in his eye. But it did seem to be very like his uncle’s farm, and he found his breath taken away by the rush of feeling he experienced; it had been a long time, but he felt young again.

It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, Kathleen Mavourneen?

With a small giggle of delight she went into his arms, and they began to waltz slowly around the garden, carefully avoiding the flower beds. The landscaping around the trees proved to be fairly level, and before long they found themselves whirling around in a slight blizzard of blossom petals.

Kathleen Mavourneen, awake from thy slumbers,
The blue mountains glow in the sun’s morning light,

"Isn’t this just like that summer, Ezra?" she laughed, looking into his eyes. "I know it sounds selfish, but it was so nice to have someone to share things with." Her tone softened and she looked away, her eyes seeing into the past. "The memory of that summer helped me so much when I was in Richmond during the last year of the war." She looked back into his face, her gentle gaze piercing him. "I have to thank you for that, Ezra."

He didn’t know what to say.

Ah, where is the spell that once hung on my numbers?
Arise in thy beauty, thou star of my night!

"You have no idea, Sophie, what your friendship meant to me," he said solemnly as they moved. "And I am pleased beyond words that you have found a measure of happiness, for there is no one on earth more deserving of it."

Mavourneen, Mavourneen, my sad tears are falling,
To think that from Erin and thee I must part!

She gazed quietly into his face for a moment, moved, then gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before breaking into a gentle smile. "Now, Ezra, you must write me often now that we’ve found each other again. Lafe and I are leaving for Denver soon, so you’ll have to give me your address at West Point before you leave tonight."

His smile paled a bit. "They haven’t exactly given it to me yet. Perhaps you should address any correspondence to my mother, you know how army mail can be sometimes."

She thought about this and bobbed her head. "All right, Ezra , that sounds fine. I don’t want to lose you again!"

It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, Kathleen Mavourneen?

The music ended, and the hall inside erupted with muffled applause. Ezra spun Sophie around; she curtsied as he bowed, and they both laughed quietly before starting into the house.

"Thank you, Ezra, that was wonderful," Sophie said as she took Ezra’s arm, a little out of breath. She glanced in through the windows. "It looks as if the dance is over. I suppose I ought to join the ladies for refreshments while you gentlemen lose money to each other."

He smiled and patted her hand. "I promise not to impoverish your husband, my dear, although I am proud to say my skills have improved somewhat since our days of playing together."

"I’ve no doubt," she chuckled, as they paused at the doorway leading into the ballroom. "You mustn’t underestimate Lafe, you know, he’s very good at cards, though I know I’m no judge. I’m afraid I never have learned to lie, or tell when other people are lying, so as a result I’m a pretty dismal card player!"

She laughed at herself a little, not noticing the slightly stricken look on Ezra’s face as he silently thanked God for the fact that she could not see through his deception. He looked at her for a moment, her face half-lit by the golden light flowing from the ballroom, and cleared his throat, taking both of her hands in his.

"Sophie," he said seriously, dropping his gaze to the ground before directing it into her eyes," do you recall, after your father died, that I offered you my hand so that you would not be without protection?"

She smiled gently, tilting her head a little. "Of course, Ezra. That was so sweet of you. "

His expression became earnest as he peered steadily at her. "While you may no longer be in need of a marital partner, will you do me the great honor of accepting my offer of assistance, should you ever require it? Please allow me the comfort of knowing that you will summon me, at any time, for any reason, if you should feel yourself in the slightest degree of danger?"

Her smile faded a bit as she listened to his softly-spoken words; she was clearly moved by his sincerity, and he thought he could see her eyes sparkling with moisture in the warm candlelight.

"Thank you, Ezra," she finally whispered, caressing his cheek with one gloved hand. "If I ever need you, you’ll know."

He smiled warmly, and kissed her hand in gratitude before they crossed the threshold into the ballroom.

She retrieved her wrap, folding it loosely around her arms as they walked towards the large doors leading into the west area of the house. At the threshold she turned to him, brushing a few stray wisps of hair from her face.

"Good night, Ezra," she smiled, taking his hand and kissing him again on the cheek. "It’s been so nice to see you again. Please write me soon."

"Certainly, my dear," he replied gently, returning the kiss. "You shall receive a missive within the week."

She began to pull away, her hand still in his. "I’m so happy for you, cousin. You’ve become a true gentleman."

He started a bit, her hand still in his; after a brief moment of indecision, he regained his composure, and kissed her hand in farewell.

"In your presence, Madame, I believe I can never be anything else."

She seemed pleased, dropped a little curtsy, then moved away with the other women, waving a little as she went. He watched her go, trying to dispel the sour feeling in his stomach and convince himself that if she’d known the truth it would have only caused her pain. He could bear a little discomfort, to see her so happy.

After a moment he became aware of someone at his elbow, and turned to see Charles standing there with a lit cigar.

"Well, Standish," he muttered, already a little drunk, "care to play some cards?"

He took a very deep breath and expelled it, as if trying to blow away the guilt, and regarded his cousin with an anticipatory smile.

"My dear Charles, I can honestly say that I have never been more ready for a game of cards in my entire life."

[Author's Note: "Kathleen Mavourneen", as performed by the 97th Regimental String Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0h_7FB-_LHo]

The air in the darkly paneled den was thick and hazy, polluted by the cigar smoke which hung in the stillness like a waiting ghost. The night had clearly been both active and profitable; the three green tables had once been full of players who’d left empty glasses and bottles, overflowing ashtrays, and scattered poker chips and playing cards in their wake. It was now nearly one o’clock, and only Ezra and Kingston remained in the room.

For his part, Ezra had had a remarkably satisfying evening; he knew he’d always treasure the looks on the faces of Charles and James as they finally left the table, drained of their last dollars by Ezra’s skills and tactics. His only disappointment of the evening was that Kingston had not been at his table; he’d tried to watch him as he played, but found it impossible to concentrate on two things at once with so much at stake. As the evening wore on, however, and the players thinned out, he and Kingston finally faced each other, and Ezra quickly found out that the tall veteran was highly skilled indeed, winning only one hand against him.

Now all the others had gone, and the two men eyed each other over their almost-empty carafes, working up the energy to leave. There was still something about Kingston that rubbed the young man the wrong way, and several glasses of brandy had done little to enable his faculties to solve the mystery. Kingston had provided few clues, saying little and keeping his eyes on his cards. Now Ezra was thinking that maybe he just plain didn’t like him, as he tilted the carafe and let the last of the red liquid pour into his mouth; it could be as simple as that.

Kingston stirred, the creaking of his chair sounding like thunder in the silence of the room. "Mr. Standish."

Ezra blinked, his eyes beginning to smart from the smoke as he blearily regarded his companion. "Sir?"

"I must again convey my thanks for your service to my wife. It has been a regret of mine that I cannot properly escort her yet."

Ezra stared at him a moment, took a drag on his cigar and blew the smoke upwards into the air. "Is there hope for a recovery soon?"

"The doctors assure me that I will be fully healed in a few months," the other man assured him. "I consider it a small price to pay for my country."

Ezra nodded. "I admire your patriotism, sir. I understand you were at the Wilderness."

Kingston sat motionless for a long time, so long that Ezra began to think he’d somehow nodded off. Then his spoke, his voice low.

"Yes, sir, I was. I have not told Sophie of it, because as a woman she could never bear the scenes I have witnessed."

The younger man dipped his head in sympathy, flicking his ashes into a nearby tray. "Battle is a hellish thing, sir."

Kingston looked at him evenly, never moving. "I had been in battles before, sir. I speak of the fire."

Ezra had paid little attention to the war, and had no idea what his partner was talking about; however, not wanting to be rude, he nodded again and said, "I see."

Kingston’s hand gripped his cane as he spoke, his voice increasing in intensity but remaining soft. "I cannot burden my wife, sir, with the description of what I saw and heard as that forest burned around me. I can still see the flames as they consumed my brothers. I can still hear their screams as the flesh was seared from their bones. I can still smell the stench of burning men. I can still feel the agony of my wounds as I watched the flames approach me. It has been in my mind, night and day, and will be until I die."

Ezra stared at him and swallowed, unsettled by the disturbing words. "A graphic portrait indeed, sir. You are correct that Sophie would be unable to stand it. I am sure we both feel that she has borne enough."

Kingston peered at him, then looked away. "Had it not been for the efforts of your cousin, and the other women, I would have joined my comrades in the battlefield grave."

He fell silent, and Ezra watched him carefully, trying to decipher the shadows in his eyes. Finally Ezra cleared his throat.

"Yes, well, I’m sure Sophie is aware of your gratitude to her, sir. Our brave nurses are surely owed a debt which can never be repaid."

Kingston’s head came up with a jolt and he pierced Ezra with a cold, bitter gaze.

"You misunderstand me, sir," he said. "What I mean to say is that I wish they had let me die, rather than live with what I have seen."

A chill ran through the young gambler as he suddenly realized what it was about Kingston that had bothered him all night; this was a man on the verge, bent almost as far as he could bear without snapping. There was a frightening potential in his eyes, the smoldering embers of a fire waiting to be kindled.

It was there for a moment, then gone; the shadow passed. The mantle clock struck one; Kingston glanced at it, then rose, steadying himself on his cane.

"I must bid you good night, sir, and compliment you on your skills. You could do this professionally, if you’ve a mind to."

Ezra rose stiffly, suddenly aware of how tense he’d been; every muscle seemed to ache. "I thank you, sir. I must confess that the thought has crossed my mind."

Kingston smiled thinly, extended his hand; Ezra looked into his eyes for a moment, then shook it.

"Please convey my warmest wishes to my cousin, sir," he said. Kingston smiled.

"Certainly."

"And do me the favor of reminding her to notify me at once if she feels herself in the slightest degree of danger."

The tall man frowned. "Danger, sir?"

"Indeed." Ezra’s expression was completely serious as he looked Kingston in the face, his green eyes burning as he spoke in an even, deadly tone. "Because if I ever learned that someone had harmed even the smallest hair on her head, I would then be forced to devote myself to that person’s extermination, you see."

It was a threat, one which Ezra deeply hoped Kingston would take to heart. The other man seemed to have no outward reaction; he digested Ezra’s words, blinked, then picked up his hat and nodded in farewell.

"I will convey your message, sir. Good night."

He walked out, the gray smoke swirling around him. Ezra stood alone for a moment, and was surprised to find himself trembling. He took a few deep breaths, stared for a moment after Kingston, then picked up his pack of cards and went to find his mother.

 

The Road Leading Out of Four Corners, 1879

The sun was nearly touching the horizon as Ezra finished speaking; they had now joined the main road leading into the desert, and were closing in on their destination.

Buck clucked to his horse and gave his companion a sympathetic glance. "Sounds like Kingston was one disturbed hombre."

Ezra’s head bobbed as Chaucer cantered along. "I suspected he might do my cousin harm, but I have no idea if she ever heard any of my warnings. She sent me one letter before they moved to Denver, and that was all. My guess is that Kingston never let her receive my correspondence. And in 1868 she passed beyond my protection forever. " He drew a deep sigh. " I often feel that I failed in my promise to assist her; I was unable to either prevent her death or avenge it. "

Buck shook his head once, his eyes hard. "Damn bastard, blamin’ women for savin’ his life. Well, we can fix that for ‘im." He looked back at Ezra. "Sounds like you done all you could, in my estimation. Least you danced with Sophie again. You got that to remember, anyway."

The gambler shifted in his saddle, looking uncomfortable. "It has not always been a pleasant memory, Mr. Wilmington. My last evening with her was spent in deception, something I have never forgiven myself for. I should have trusted her more; it was a dishonor to her kindness to treat her that way."

Buck chewed his lip and thought about this as they plodded along.

"That why you don’t dance no more?" he finally asked. Ezra nodded, his green eyes full of sadness.

"Since that time the activity has brought me nothing but painful memories. I consider it a small sacrifice in the memory of my cousin."

They rode in silence for a few moments, Buck not quite sure what to say in the face of such a solemn statement. Finally he spurred his horse on a bit and shook his head.

"Well, I’m sure she’d appreciate it, Ezra," he said seriously. "Now I reckon we best get to meetin’ JD, an’ after that maybe we can find Kingston an’ make a little sacrifice of our own."

 

Casey eagerly spurred her horse along the tree-lined road, grinning broadly in anticipation of meeting JD halfway to Four Corners and surprising him. It would have been wiser, she supposed, to meet him at the house, but with supper over and the sun going down, she saw no reason to just sit around waiting for him to show up. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself; she had her knife, as well as her trusty Colt sitting right in her lap. Anybody tried anything, she’d just blow their heads off, simple as that. She’d done it before, in practice at least, and with tin cans and such, not real people; but she knew she could shoot, and thus rode with confidence. She was almost to the outskirts of town, anyhow.

 

JD glanced nervously at the setting sun as he sped on Hero towards the Weikert house. Casey’d kill him for being late, but it wasn’t his fault he’d had to handle a disturbance in the saloon and lock up two unruly drunks and a supremely ticked-off working girl. It had taken all three of them -- Vin, Josiah and JD -- to control the situation, and now that Chris and Nathan were back in town he was free to set off on his mission. As he pounded down the road it occurred to him that maybe Ezra and Buck were there already, and had started out with Casey back to town. Well, that would be fine. At least then he wouldn’t have to deal with her -- today had been tough enough.

He topped a small rise which afforded him an expansive view of the road ahead; he could see that it was lined with trees all along the way, and bent off to the right a good one hundred yards away. As he descended the slope, he noticed a rider coming up the road, close enough to be distinct, and knew instantly that it was Casey. Dammit, didn’t that girl have any sense? And now she’d chew him out too, probably. Well, maybe he could get Josiah and Vin to back him up.

He spurred his horse along and stood up in the saddle, waving his bowler hat to attract her attention. He’d opened his mouth to yell when a movement in the trees to the right attracted his attention, and he saw a tall gray shape silently step out of the woods close behind Casey’s horse.

His heart froze, and as his hand flew for his Colt he screamed at the top of his lungs, "CASEY, LOOK--"

He heard a loud, distant pop and felt something tear into his right side, the force of the blow knocking him to the ground. A sharp pain erupted through his chest as he tried awkwardly to stand before falling back to his knees in agony. One bloodied hand groped for his Colts, even though his vision was blurred with pain and shock; his breath was coming in stabbing gasps, and he was absently aware that his side was becoming quickly saturated with blood.

 

Ezra was taking a long drink from his hip flask when his eyes suddenly widened. He looked at Buck, whose lazy posture had become instantly alert.

"Did you--?"

"Sounded like JD," Buck said, his voice deep. They paused, straining to hear; within moments there came a very faint, sharp cracking sound.

"Come on!" Buck urged, spurring Beauty forward. Ezra quickly stuffed his hip flask back into his pocket and followed Buck, his heart pounding with dread.

 

Casey’s head snapped up at the shout, her brow knit in confusion as she realized that JD was up ahead, yelling something at her. A warning--

A gunshot exploded next to her, and Casey’s horse reared in panic at the sudden loud noise. As she fought to control the animal she saw JD topple from his horse; she stared for a moment in horror, then realized with a jolt that she was in more danger than JD was. Gripping her Colt tightly she craned her neck around, catching only a fleeting glimpse of someone clad in gray rags swiftly moving around her. Blindly she decided to ride away, and spurred her horse forward.

There was another gunshot; she braced herself for the certain wound, but instead found herself thrown to the ground as her mount twisted in agony, a bullet in its flank. Momentarily stunned, she struggled to her knees, her clothes covered with grass and dirt. Someone fell on top of her, and she collapsed painfully to the ground.

 

JD finally managed to sit up, his head swimming violently as he clutched his side. What was happening to Casey?

Through the dull thudding in his ears came the sound of rapidly approaching hoof beats; he raised glazed eyes to see Buck and Ezra tearing up the road towards him. Buck reined in and was off his horse and at JD’s side in one long move, while Ezra peered down the road, his teeth bared in a tense scowl.

"It’s Kingston," JD heard him yell, and panic flooded his body.

"Oh, God, no--" he moaned, trying to stand up. Ezra was already riding away as Buck attempted to keep the injured youth from rising.

"Take ‘er easy there, JD," he soothed, gently restraining him. He then looked down the road at Ezra’s swiftly vanishing form and yelled, "Don’t forget, they want ‘im alive!"

 

Casey kicked ferociously at the tall man who was on top of her, trying to pin her down. The fear had subsided, and now she was just plain pissed off.

"Get off me, you @#$!&!!!" she shrieked, as he grappled with her for the gun. Her arms and legs flailing, she kneed him squarely in the groin, and was disappointed when this did not seem to faze him. One calloused hand clamped down on her wrist, twisting it backward; she squeezed the trigger, the bullet discharging harmlessly into the air before the gun dropped from her throbbing hand. She stared into his face; it might have been handsome once, but was now filthy and old, the eyes aflame with something that chilled Casey to the core. After staring for a moment, she gritted her teeth, then narrowed her eyes and spit in his face.

He didn’t react, didn’t even seem to notice, and with one swift movement grabbed her gun and struck her across the face with it. After emitting a strangled gasp she went limp, stunned, blood trickling down one side of her face. The convict regarded her for an instant, then dropped his weapon, reached into his waistband, pulled out a short, sharp knife, and wrenched Casey’s head back, exposing her throat.

"Let her go, Kingston."

The man’s head snapped around, his eyes narrow with anger as he held the knife to Casey’s throat. Ezra was standing not ten feet behind him, his gun pointed straight at the man’s head. The gambler’s arm was steady, his expression grim, but his eyes were ablaze with an intensity which would have shocked his associates. For a moment the two men stared at each other, the only noise the click made as Ezra primed his gun to fire.

"I have been officially requested to take you alive," Ezra said in a low, strangled tone, "but I should inform you that I have been known to disregard authority on occasion."

The convict glared at him, then hauled Casey’s limp form to its knees, pressing the knife to her throat. Ezra took a step closer, his eyes wide as he gave a quick, single shake of his head.

"Pray do not tempt me, sir," he growled through clenched teeth. "I warned you, did I not, that I would take the life of the man who did the slightest degree of harm to my cousin?"

Kingston didn’t move, pressing the knife to Casey’s throat as he stared wildly at Ezra. The gambler glanced at Casey and felt a cold rage go through him as he saw the blood on her face; he hardly knew the girl, but it infuriated him to see how Kingston had brutalized her. His mind flew back to when he had been preparing JD to ask Casey to the dance; the boy had clearly been infatuated with her, and Ezra had found his youthful ardor quite touching. Now Casey was in danger, and Ezra shuddered as he imagined how JD would suffer if any harm came to her. By God, he thought, the coldness replaced by rising anger, he’s not going to go through the pain I once had to on account of Kingston’s madness. She’s not going to die if I can prevent it.

Ezra’s finger began to depress the trigger. His heart ached to blow Kingston’s head off, but he knew that by living Kingston would suffer more, both at the hands of justice and his own personal demons. He took a quick breath and eased off, his eyes never leaving the convict’s face. After a pause he saw the man’s eyes widen in recognition, and watched as the man slowly rose, ignoring Casey completely as she slid quietly to the ground.

"Oh my God," Kingston gasped; his voice was still low, but now had a hoarseness to it. "You’re Sophie’s cousin."

Ezra didn’t move. "How kind of you to remember, sir. You will be pleased to know that you have been in my thoughts as well."

Kingston laughed, his eyes glittering hard in the dying sunlight.

"Don’t tell me you followed me all these years, waiting to put an end to me."

The gambler kept his arm steady, watching the knife which still gleamed in Kingston’s hand. "I’d call our meeting more of a happy coincidence," he said lightly. "You may recall, sir, that the last time we faced each other I was able to win only one hand against you. My skills have improved considerably since then, and I fear that I must ask you to quit the game, before your losses become insurmountable."

Kingston stared at him, then slowly shook his head.

"I can never quit this game, sir," he said, his voice soft and urgent. "I must continue with my work, until the horrors which live in my mind cease to torment me. Your cousin tried to help, but I soon realized that it was because of her, and others like her, that I continued to suffer. I fear, however, that her death was not enough." Here he lifted the knife, its blade bright as fire as it reflected the orange light of the setting sun. "And I cannot permit you to interfere any further."

He lunged, dodging to his right as Ezra fired. The bullet clipped his arm, ripping through the filthy sleeve and drawing blood, and before Ezra could fire again Kingston had knocked him to the ground, They grappled furiously; Kingston was much stronger than Ezra had bargained for, even after living in the desert for two days. The convict’s fist slammed into his face; dazed, Ezra managed to block another blow and strike one of his own, clubbing Kingston viciously with the butt of his gun. Blood poured from the convict’s temple, but he held on, and with one quick slashing motion opened a wound on Ezra’s forehead.

Blinded from the blood cascading into his eyes, Ezra shook his head, surprised to notice that Kingston had retreated. Blinking and dragging his sleeve across his face, Ezra staggered to his feet, looking for his opponent, and saw that the tall convict was moving back to where Casey lay. The young girl was now moaning and groggily trying to sit up.

Ezra leapt after him, thrusting his gun into the man’s back, ready to pull the trigger. Kingston whirled, and before Ezra could shoot buried the knife in his left leg, twisting the gun from Ezra’s hand as the gambler sank to one knee. After tossing Ezra’s firearm into the forest Kingston indelicately wrenched out the knife and turned back to the girl.

Ezra gasped, shook his head as he felt the warm blood pouring down his leg, soaking his trousers. After reeling for a moment, he saw Kingston reaching out for Casey, and staggering to his feet launched himself at the convict with an incoherent cry, knocking him once more to the ground.

Kingston slashed at him again; Ezra seized his arm, and with all of his strength twisted until the fingers opened and the blood-smeared weapon fell into the grass. He drew back his arm and struck Kingston across the face, calling upon his rarely used reservoir of brutality which had earlier reduced Harrison to unconsciousness. A strange thought went through his mind: this was certainly not what Sophie would call behaving like a gentleman. Well, maybe he wasn’t a gentleman after all, but that would be all right as long as he could take Kingston to hell with him.

He slammed his fist into Kingston’s face again, drawing more blood; the convict glared at him, his eyes blazing, then struck back, his fist crashing into Ezra’s jaw. As Ezra’s head snapped back Kingston grabbed him by the collar and struck him again, harder, then sent a crushing kick into Ezra’s bleeding wound, causing it to explode with agony.

As Ezra rolled onto the ground, choking in pain, Kingston struggled free, relocated his knife and half-crawled towards Casey. Through the red-hued waves of anguish, Ezra heard Casey emit a feeble scream, saw her lurch unsteadily to her knees; Kingston grabbed her, throwing her violently to the ground.

Ezra forced himself to his knees, ignoring the sheets of pain flooding through him. With one deft motion the spring-loaded derringer which he kept hidden up his sleeve slid into his right hand. As Kingston put the knife to Casey’s throat, Ezra quickly lifted his arm, and without even aiming squeezed the trigger.

The gunshot erupted like a clap of thunder, echoing in the deepening twilight, followed by complete silence. Kingston lurched as Casey emitted a weak gasp, the knife still at her throat. Then he toppled over, blood oozing from the bullet hole placed exactly in the back of his head, the knife tumbling harmlessly into the grass beside him.

Panting heavily, Ezra watched Kingston fall, then put one hand out to steady himself as the strength drained from his body. He struggled against the strong wave of dizziness which crashed over him; his wounds burned, stung by the sweat which saturated his clothing. Distantly he heard hoof beats coming from somewhere behind him, and turned to see Chris and Vin riding up, followed by Nathan. He raised one bloodied hand and waved the derringer at them, smiling weakly in greeting, then returned his attention to Casey, who was sitting up and staring at him in mild shock.

"Are you all right, my dear?" he inquired, not moving, his eyes wide, his voice trembling a little with weariness as he gasped for breath. She nodded shakily, then pulled herself to her feet.

"You look like you’re hurtin’, tho," she quavered, yanking at her disheveled clothes. He forced a smile as he pushed the derringer back into his sleeve; the dizziness had ebbed somewhat, and he very slowly got to his feet, trying to disregard his injured leg. She rushed to his side, but he waved her off.

"Many thanks, my dear, but I’m sure your presence would be more appropriate at the side of your wounded cavalier."

She glanced to where Nathan was tending to JD, paused a moment, looked into his eyes.

Then, suddenly, she gave him a quick, hard kiss on the cheek, then ran up the hill, limping a little. Ezra watched her go, still panting, then pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and gingerly wiped his face, flinching at the amount of blood that came off on the cloth. Out of the gathering darkness rode Chris and Vin, who reined in nearby and dismounted, regarding Kingston’s corpse with something less than surprise. Vin knelt by the dead man’s side as Chris approached the gambler, eying him sharply.

"Couldn’t take him alive, could you?" Chris’ voice sounded more wry than angry, and Ezra could see a thin smile on his lips. Ezra shook his head.

"I do despise a man who does not know when to quit," he said, dabbing at the gash in his forehead. After a moment he looked up, his eyes full of concern. "How’s Mr. Dunne?"

Chris gazed back at the little group, watching as JD and Casey fiercely embraced each other. "Took a pretty bad shot in the side, but he’ll live."

The gambler let out a breath and muttered, "Thank God."

The black-clad gunslinger returned his stare to Ezra. "He might have to take it easy at the dance, though"

Ezra grunted. "My heart would bleed for him, if it were not so actively bleeding already."

Chris turned as Vin walked up, barely visible in the twilight gloom. "He dead?"

Vin nodded. "Looks like the government’ll have to be disappointed." He peered at Ezra’s battered visage. "Y’got pretty banged around yerself there, pard. Better let Nathan stitch y’up."

Ezra shook off the fussing, drawing himself up as he straightened his blood-stained jacket. "Gentlemen, your concern is touching, but I can assure you these few scrapes do not warrant such attention."

He then took a small step to the left, and collapsed.

 

As Ezra slowly drifted back into the world, he became aware that was lying on a bed; it felt like his own, and his suspicions were confirmed when he managed to muster enough strength to open his eyes. The room was dark, lit only by the feeble glow of a low-wicked lamp, but it was definitely his. From the saloon he could hear the muffled noise of laughter and music; another festive evening was well underway. Glancing out of the windows, he saw that night had fallen; judging by the intensity of the clamor below, it had to be at least eleven.

Full consciousness slowly returned, and he realized how thoroughly exhausted he was; his body was consumed by a strange numbing weariness which made the softness of the bed feel positively heavenly. He groaned and shifted a bit, one hand tenderly exploring the bandage wound around his leg; the wound hurt like hell, but it felt as if the bleeding had stopped. He reached up and gingerly touched his forehead, feeling the roll of linen secured there.

I certainly hope this doesn’t scar, he thought, wincing as a stab of pain shot through his face.

"Back from the dead, are we?"

Ezra blinked in surprise and lifted his head a little, peering into the room. In the dim lamplight he could just barely make out a figure sitting next to the window. It rose, and walked to the foot of his bed.

"Why, Mr. Larabee," Ezra moaned, "what brings you to my den of agony?"

The black-clad man shrugged, leaning on the foot board and gripping it with wide-spread hands. "Just wanted to see what to lay claim to, in case you decided to go on to Glory." His tone was casual, but it lacked Chris’ typical sarcastic edge, and the look in his eyes was warmer than usual.

"You may help yourself, sir, and then leave me in peace," Ezra assured him. "A Christian burial is all I ask." He took a deep breath, looked around. "How in the world did I get here?"

"Nathan fixed you up, then we carried you on over," Chris replied, walking to the bedside table and pouring a glass of water. "He figured you could bloody up your own sheets." He set down the pitcher and proffered the glass to Ezra.

"How Hippocratic of him," Ezra observed, propping himself up on his elbows and accepting the glass with a nod of thanks.

Chris extinguished the lamp and moved towards the door. "Take it easy for a few days."

Ezra looked up, the glass still in one hand. "Mr. Larabee."

Chris stopped, peered at him expectantly, a dim figure illuminated by the soft orange glow of the street lamps outside.

"Do you mind if I ask why you, of all people, chose to hover at my deathbed?"

The gunslinger paused, his eyes downcast as he thought the question through; then he looked again at Ezra, his expression somber.

"Does a man good to put his ghosts to rest. Guess I just wanted to see what that looked like."

They regarded each other for a moment, passing no further words; but the look in each man’s eyes told the other all that was required. Finally Ezra nodded slowly, a gesture which Chris returned; then the black-clad man slipped outside, closing the door behind him. Ezra sat for a moment, sipping at the water; how did it feel, now that Kingston was dead and his cousin’s murder avenged in the way he vowed it would be?

He replaced the water glass on the bedside table and settled back into bed, gritting his teeth as every sore muscle registered its displeasure at being jostled so. He put a hand to his throbbing head for a moment, then relaxed, letting out a deep sigh as he closed his eyes.

It felt pretty damn good, he decided, and within moments he had drifted quietly back to sleep.

 

Three Weeks Later

The evening desert was robed in soft silver moonlight, the warm air blowing gently across the rocks as Vin carefully guided Sire along the barren road leading out of town. He lazily reined in his mount, tilting his head back to gaze quietly at the stars which blazed overhead in the clear night sky. Then, almost regretfully, he turned in the saddle to look behind him at the small frontier town he had just left.

He was still close enough to make out the dance hall, which this evening was glowing in the darkness like a Christmas tree. An occasional breeze wafted along, carrying with it the sounds of music and laughter which he knew were ringing the rafters of the huge building. He smiled a little, hoping his friends were having a good time; at least nobody had protested when he volunteered to ride patrol that evening. They understood, at least a little, and Vin felt deeply grateful for that.

He turned and tapped Sire with his spurs; the horse blew a bit and walked along, as Vin rocked in the saddle, hand on one hip, deep in thought. His head came up at the sound of hoof beats; one hand gripped his sawed-off Winchester as he whirled, looking for the source of the sound. A horseman was galloping up the road towards him, but Vin instantly recognized who it was and relaxed, a small smile creasing his face.

Chris’ face was solemn as he approached. "Mind some company?"

The tracker shrugged. "Reckon not. Won’t they miss you at the dance?"

Chris threw a casual glance behind him at the blazing dance hall and shook his head. "Naw, they don’t need me, an’ I’m not much in the mood for socializin’ anyway." He turned back to Vin. "Ready to go find some trouble?"

Vin shook his head once, quickly. "Way things’ve been goin’, it prob’ly won’t take much lookin’."

A hard smile spread across Chris’ face. "Guess that’s why we’re here."

Vin started with silent laughter, turned his horse around, and together they rode into the night.

 

Buck mopped his brow on his sleeve as he stepped into the cool evening air; after two and a half hours of dancing, the air inside the building was becoming very close, and he could feel himself starting to overheat. Of course, that was hardly surprising considering the way Molly and he had been cavorting all night; his honest pleasure at her complete recovery only added to his enjoyment, and he was looking forward to even more fun once the dance was over.

As he stood on the wooden sidewalk catching his breath, he looked to the side and saw Ezra sitting alone, calmly smoking a cigar and watching the revelers come and go. He frowned; the gambler’s recovery had been fairly swift, and Buck had imagined that everything was well, but now here Ezra was, brooding again, and Buck was in far too good of a mood to allow that. He squared his shoulders and ambled on over.

"Y’oughta come in, Ezra," he said cheerfully as he approached. "Casey’s been askin’ for ya all night."

Ezra turned his head, and Buck could see that his expression was more thoughtful than morose. Although he had not completely regained his strength, the bruises from his encounter with Kingston had almost all healed, with only a few indistinct shadows still showing. The gash on his forehead had faded to a faint red line which Nathan had assured him would eventually be practically invisible. He smiled in greeting, his gold tooth glinting in the yellow light of the street lamps.

"Good evening, sir," he replied, his voice buoyant. "Miss Wells is too kind, I’m sure. And how fares your young pupil?"

Buck nodded his head broadly. "JD ain’t too shabby, Ezra. Not as good as me, o’ course, but I think I got a real protégé on my hands. Got a few other things I could teach ‘im, but some things y’gotta take slow."

He winked, and Ezra chuckled, taking another draw on his cigar. Buck, seeing that his companion’s mood was not too dark, crouched and gave him a light whap on the arm. "Hey, now," he said in a serious voice, "why don’t y’come in and watch the fun? You don’t got to dance, y’know."

Ezra peered past him towards the wide door, slowly expelling the smoke. He slowly inclined his head.

"Perhaps later, Mr. Wilmington," he finally said. He gazed up the street for a moment, then back at the tall gunslinger. "I would like to take this opportunity, sir, to express my gratitude to you for lending your ear in my time of crisis. I truly did appreciate it."

Buck gave him a tight grin and nodded. "That’s all right, Ezra." His eyes twinkled. "Course, y’understand that when I feel like spillin’ MY guts, I’m gonna be expectin’ you to sit there an’ listen to every word of it."

His companion chuckled and peered at him, the cigar poised in his fingers. "Will you be divulging everything, sir?"

"Well--" Buck smiled. "I might be changin’ some names..."

The music started up again, a lively version of The Yellow Rose of Texas, and Buck’s face split into a wide grin as he stood up.

"’Scuse me, Ezra, I just gotta watch JD do the polka. See ya inside?"

Buck backed up to the door, looking at Ezra for an answer; when he didn’t get one, he shrugged slightly and ducked into the dance hall, almost bumping into Nettie who was emerging from it. He quickly tipped his hat in apology, returned her smile, and sped into the crowd. The old woman noticed Ezra sitting on the sidewalk and strode over.

"Evenin’, Mr. Standish. Enjoyin’ yourself?"

The gambler turned, surprised, and tapped the brim of his hat, smiling a little. "Good evening, Mrs. Wells. You’re looking lovely, I must say."

She chuckled and cast a disparaging glance at the rough denims and leathers she was wearing. "No need to flatter me, son, I know I ain’t turnin’ no heads. But that’s fine with me, long as Casey’s havin’ a good time."

Ezra grinned at her. "And is she?"

Nettie laughed in reply. "She and Mr. Dunne have been tearin’ the dance floor to pieces. Makes me feel young just to watch ‘em." Her mirth subsided, and she regarded Ezra with serious eyes. "I was hopin’ you’d be here, Mr. Standish, so’s I could thank you for makin’ this possible. You saved Casey’s life, an’ I’ll never forget it."

He felt suddenly awkward at the expression of gratitude, and tried to shrug it off with a small smile. "No need to thank me, ma’am, I’m sure. All in a day’s work, as they say."

She didn’t move, her expression still thoughtful. "Now, don’t go handin’ me that Southern-fried baloney, son. I been around enough to know grit when I see it."

She walked forward, hunkered down on the stoop next to him and folded her hands, staring out into the street.

"You know, Mr. Standish," she said casually, "I didn’t think much of you when we first met."

Ezra chuckled a bit at the memory.

"When I saw you," she continued, "I thought, there’s one of them slick gamblin’ fellas who’d rather die than lift a finger to help anybody, an’ who’s out for nobody but himself. An’ when you said you’d only lend me the money to save my farm if you got it back with interest, well, I’m ashamed to say that some of the thoughts goin’ through my head were not very Christian."

Ezra shook his head, highly amused, and turned his eyes to her. "I regret that I created such a bad first impression, Mrs. Wells."

She reached out and patted his knee. "Well, don’t fret about it. First impressions can be wrong, an’ I’m pleased to see that I was wrong about you. You may’ve come out here a two-bit gamester with no roots, but you ain’t that way now, an’ I admire a man who can see what’s wrong in his life an’ try to fix it."

He dropped his gaze to the ground, smiling in embarrassment, then brought his eyes up to meet hers. "I would hardly consider myself a contender for sainthood, Madame. Your first assessment was far more accurate,"

She drew back and regarded him with mild astonishment. "Well, that ain’t the way I see it. I reckon you’re a pretty sharp hustler, Mr. Standish, and it sounds like you done hustled yourself into thinkin’ that way. But you got the makin’s of a decent man about you, hard as you try to deny it. Didn’t nobody ever tell you that?"

He thought of Sophie, and smiled sadly, staring at the cigar in his hand. "Once, about a million years ago."

Nettie whacked him gently on the back. "Well, whoever it was was right." She hauled herself to her feet, brushing her well-worn skirt. "Now I gotta get back to chaperonin’. No tellin’ what JD an’ Casey will do if I ain’t there to keep an eye on ‘em."

Ezra tipped his hat in farewell. "As long as they refrain from throwing knives at each other, I believe the territory will remain safe. Good evening, Mrs. Wells, and thank you for the kind words."

She nodded, adjusting her battered hat. "I just speak the truth, son. I hope you take it t’heart. G’night."

She turned and made her way back into the hall. Ezra watched her go, then turned back to the street, his eyes thoughtful as he finished his cigar and pondered the tough old frontierswoman’s words.

It was true, he had changed since coming to Four Corners, and it was not something he had expected. When he was a closed and cautious child, Sophie had opened his heart, convinced him that he could aspire to heights of glory, but those hopes had been quickly crushed by the harsh realities of survival. The pain of her death had persuaded him that it was better to be safe and alone than risk further anguish. He had devoted himself to his own survival, and wasted no time worrying about right or wrong.

Now here he was, pledging himself to a group and a town, and he could feel himself opening again ever so slightly, just as he had done that spring afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley. The other men trusted him, as Sophie had done, and had placed themselves in his protection, as he had placed himself in theirs. The duty he had accepted easily enough; the far greater risk, he realized, lay in accepting their friendship as well, knowing that it might end in the same pain which Sophie’s death had caused. But she would not have wanted him to remain alone; he could almost feel her gentle hand on his shoulder, urging him forward, her soft voice saying, take the chance. There is more for you to do.

With a long sigh he tossed away the smoldering stub and rose, straightening his red jacket with a practiced grace. He was about to head to the saloon when he caught himself and paused, thinking. After a moment or two, he glanced at the dance hall with the precise expression of a once-scalded man regarding a steaming tub of water, thought hard for another minute, and made a decision.

 

Buck pushed through the crowd standing to the side of the hall, looking anxiously through the bouncing throng of dancers for JD and Casey. He could see Nathan and Rain galloping along, as well as Josiah and the new school marm, but the two young people were nowhere to be seen. As he scowled in frustration, he bumped into somebody sitting in a chair, and when he looked down to apologize found himself staring into JD’s startled eyes.

He took a step back. "Damn, I’m sorry, kid. You OK?"

JD did look pale; sweat glistened on his forehead, and he was breathing very heavily. His expression seemed to be more of embarrassment than pain, however, and he looked at the floor in frustration.

"Yeah, just got a little dizzy doin’ the polka." His head shot up and he looked Buck fervently in the eyes. "You shoulda seen me, though, I was really movin’."

"I’m sure you were, kid," Buck replied, patting his shoulder in sympathy. "Y’just gotta take it slow, that’s all. Nathan said you shouldn’t be hoppin’ around too much."

"But the polka looked so easy --"

Casey came up, an overflowing glass of punch balanced in one hand. "Here ya go, JD. Oh, hey, Buck."

Buck touched the brim of his hat. “Miss Wells. He gonna be all right?”

She knelt beside JD and handed him the glass, smiling despite the concern in her eyes. “Yeah, if he don’t keep showin’ off.” She gave him a light nudge on the arm; he winced and stared into the glass.

"I’m sorry, Casey," JD mumbled. "Guess this isn’t much of a first dance for you."

She stared at him for a moment, then lightly stroked his cheek, smiling quietly. "It’s a perfect first dance, JD."

His expression brightened a bit, and he smiled back.

The polka ended; the couples clapped, and the final song began. Buck started.

"Oh, hey, there’s the last waltz, I gotta go find Molly. Now you just rest, JD, I don’t wanna trip over your unconscious body out there on the floor."

Tipping his hat to Casey, he plunged back into the crowd. JD watched him go, then put down the glass, his teeth gritted in determination as he grasped Casey’s hand.

"C’mon, Casey."

She hesitated. "Now, JD, I really think you oughta just set. You don’t look so good."

"I’ll be damned if I waste our last--" He was halfway out of the chair before his face went white and he plopped back down heavily, gasping. After an instant he tore off his bowler hat and whacked his knee in disappointment.

"I’m sorry, Casey," he said again, gripping her hand as his eyes met hers. "I really wanted you to get to dance the last waltz."

She smiled and stroked his arm. "It’s all right, JD."

"Are you feeling well, Mr. Dunne?"

JD looked up, surprised, and saw Ezra standing in front of them. He blinked.

"Oh, hi, Ezra. Didn’t think you’d be here."

The gambler took a lazy look around the room as the couples swirled by. "Yes, well, this seems to be the only place with any action tonight." He returned his gaze to the couple. "I repeat, Mr. Dunne -- are you all right?"

Casey looked up at him. "He’s just a little sore yet, an’ he don’t like it that I’m missin’ the waltz. Say --"

She stood up and faced him, a little awkwardly, her voice soft with sincerity and slightly nervous -- "I know I can’t ever repay you, but -- I just wanted to thank you proper. For, y'know, savin' my life." Her brown eyes glowed with gratitude as she looked into his face. "I won't ever forget it."

Ezra stood still for a moment, touched, then broke into an earnest smile. "I was pleased to be of service, Miss Wells. As for repayment -- " He paused, then elegantly extended one hand towards Casey, " -- you may do me the honor of allowing me to escort you through the last waltz." He looked at JD. "Would you permit me, Mr. Dunne?"

JD gave him a pleased though startled look, then nodded. "Well, sure, Ezra, I’d appreciate that, but -- what about your old injury?"

The gambler paused, then flashed a thoughtful smile.

"I believe, Mr. Dunne, that the injury you speak of has finally begun to heal." He looked at Casey, his hand still held out to her. "Miss Wells?"

She broke into a beaming smile and took his hand, giving JD a quick kiss before following Ezra. The young man settled back in his chair, the pain forgotten as he watched them step onto the floor, and he smiled in anticipation as he thought of the next town dance, when he would be able to escort Casey properly. He couldn’t wait.

Finding a relatively calm spot among the swiftly whirling dancers, Ezra took Casey in his arms; she was a little awkward yet, but soon they were gracefully gliding in and out of the other couples, Casey’s pink skirts billowing as he swept her around the room in a large circle.

Ezra took a deep breath; for a moment it was overwhelming, the music and movement summoning a rush of emotion which threatened to overcome his composure. Then the sensation receded, replaced by a far gentler pain, a sweet sorrow which he found he could bear without bitterness.

"You sure dance nice," Casey observed. She looked up to see him smiling at her, small tears in the corners of his eyes.

"Thank you, my dear." Ezra replied softly. "I had the best possible teacher."

THE END

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