The photograph was slapped onto the rustic saloon table with much aplomb, earning reactions from the small group of men seated around it ranging from awe to mild interest to outright apathy. None of the other barroom patrons on this bright autumn afternoon were paying any attention at all, a fact which fazed the dapper, well-dressed gentleman who spoke these words not in the least.
"Boy, that's really nice, Ezra," the young, black-haired sheriff enthused, leaning over his almost-empty mug of milk to gaze at the image. "Two stories and everything!"
"Lace curtains, beveled glass, the works, huh?" muttered the burly figure who sat nearby, polishing his gun as he glanced over the picture. "Looks like quite the den of iniquity just your style, I'd say."
"Ah, but it's profitable iniquity, Josiah the best kind," Ezra replied, grinning with delight as he produced a few more scraps of paper covered with drawn-out room plans and laid them before the others. There was a soft thump as his elegant index finger pointed out each scribbled feature. "Mahogany bar, billiards room, two fireplaces, and a full set of suites on the second floor for boarders. There's even space to make some additions, perhaps a roulette wheel or some faro tables."
"Put in that stuff, your customers won't have any money for drinks," drawled the long-haired, leather-clad man who was stretched out in a chair nearby, hat pulled over his eyes, arms folded, seeming not to take notice of anything.
"Speakin' of money," Josiah remarked, looking up from his work, "how you gonna pay for this? Last I heard you only had about $300, an' this place don't look cheap."
"Ah, that's the beauty of it," the gambler returned, gathering up his materials with a smile. "Mr. Hartley and I agreed that I could take over the place following my tenure here, provided I put down some money now. We're in negotiations right now, nothing finalized yet, but it appears quite promising. By the time our duties here are concluded I should be able to easily earn the balance needed for purchase of this establishment."
"If you ain't shot dead first, o' course," drawled the lounging man again, from underneath his hat. The young sheriff laughed, his mug of milk raised to his lips.
"Now, Vin, you just know Ezra ain't gonna let himself get killed now-he's gotta get his saloon first, right?"
"Right you are, Mr. Dunne, I fully intend to go to my grave an old, successful and obscenely wealthy man," the gambler replied, eying the photograph with gleeful anticipation before tucking it and the plans into his red jacket pocket. Josiah cocked his head.
"I'd settle for just old, myself. How 'bout you, JD?"
"I think I'd settle for old too, an' famous maybe," the sheriff said with an eager smile after a moment's thought, setting down his empty mug. Ezra grinned as he took a seat and reached for the whiskey bottle and shot glass at the center of the table.
"I do hope you won't be too popular to stop by my saloon, sir. A celebrity around the place would greatly enhance its appeal." He looked around as he poured. "Speaking of celebrities, where's Mr. Larabee? It's almost noon."
Vin didn't move. "Maybe he stopped to sign a few autographs."
JD's eyes wandered to the saloon's swinging doors. "No, wait, there he is. Boy, he doesn't look happy."
The small group turned to see a tall, lean gunslinger, dressed in a long black duster which swirled about his long legs as he strode through the doors, making straight for the table where they sat. The blue eyes which gleamed beneath his wide-brimmed black hat did indeed look stormy.
"Mornin', Chris," Josiah nodded, as the other men eyed the new arrival warily. "Have some breakfast."
"Don't mind if I do," Chris replied, reaching for the bottle and another glass. Vin watched him drink, concerned.
"We got problems, Chris?" he asked quietly, once the gunslinger had ingested his repast. Chris sighed, poured another drink.
"Any of you ever hear of the Gerardian gang?"
"Sure, I've heard of them," JD exclaimed, a slight look of surprise crossing his youthful features. "They've been wanted for months, held up a bunch of stagecoaches and banks, and murdered some people. The authorities think they're part of a larger group, workin' as a ring. I've got a stack of papers on them a mile high back at the jail."
"Will this charming contingent be paying us a visit soon?" Ezra inquired, one hand gracefully straying to his Remington.
But Chris shook his head. "Not unless we get suddenly haunted. They were nearly all killed last week in a shootout."
The other men visibly relaxed. JD shook his head, relieved.
"Boy, Chris, you had me worried there. We sure don't need any of them around here."
The older man gave him a small smile, completely devoid of humor. "That's too bad, JD, cause we're getting one of 'em anyway. Seems he survived the shootout, and they're bringin' him through here on the way to the Yuma Prison-if they can get him all the way there alive."
"He gonna talk on the men who ran his ring?" Vin asked, his expression serious. Chris shrugged, poured another drink.
"They don't know yet, but the telegram from Judge Travis says there've been two attempts on this guy's life already. Whoever he worked for sure don't want him sayin' anything." He put down the bottle and sighed. "We gotta find a place to hide 'im; if they can't find where he's at, then they won't try anything and nobody'll get hurt."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Josiah said, placing his newly polished gun in its holster. "There's enough places around here people never go."
Ezra flipped open his pocket watch, glanced at it, and rose. "Gentlemen, I must go relieve Mr. Wilmington on the patrol. If I have any ideas I'll surely pass them right along."
"Maybe there's a secret passage or something in that saloon of yours," JD suggested with a grin. Ezra paused.
"I doubt it, Mr. Dunne. But that is not a bad idea." With a tip of his black curl-brimmed hat he was out the door. Chris turned back to his drink, still scowling.
"You thinkin' on somethin', Chris?" Vin inquired, noticing his mood. Chris looked around intently at the growing crowd.
"I just don't like this sort of job," he said finally, shifting a little in his seat. "Had something similar when I was a lawman, this guy who was gonna tell everything he knew about these men he'd worked with. His former partner and some other men bought his silence with six sticks of dynamite and the lives of three townspeople." He looked around again. "Don't need that happening here."
A loud crash interrupted the thought, as a table nearby overturned, its contents of drinks, cards and poker chips spilling to the floor. The two men who had been sitting there were seen rolling on the ground at each other's throats, faces red, screaming obscenities.
Vin, Chris, JD and Josiah looked at each other, sighed and rose, guns drawn.
"You're right, Chris," Vin said, his blue eyes sweeping the carnage. "These folks are doin' a fine job of killin' each other on their own."
Then they waded forward, Chris in the lead; he had not even drawn his gun, the angry glare in his eye enough to freeze a man in his tracks. He was not in the mood for this.
"OK, break it up," Vin said, as Chris dragged one of the combatants off of the other.
"Mind your own business, dammit!" the drunken man yelled, struggling against Chris' grip.
"Fraid this is our business, brother," Josiah rumbled, collaring the other hostile in his considerably sized hand. "Least that's what my paycheck tells me."
"You heard 'em," a tall, black-hatted spectator slurred, coming forward and giving the gunmen an angry glare. "Let 'em settle it themselves, they don't need you interferin'." Several others muttered agreement; they were mostly drunk and, Vin noticed, complete strangers to the town.
"Now, gentlemen," JD said, walking forward, Colt Lightnings at the ready, "we just wanna keep this from gettin' ugly."
"Then you shoulda stayed outside, boy," another onlooker growled, earning the assent of several slightly inebriated fellows.
"Let us alone, Godammit," the man in Josiah's grip bellowed. "This ain't your concern."
"Yeah," his opponent snarled, and quickly drawing his gun fired it at Chris. The gunslinger easily ducked the poorly aimed shot and gave his assailant a swift punch in the stomach while wrenching the gun out of his hand.
"Your mama shoulda taught you better manners," he snarled, tossing the gun away. The other man recovered, looked at him through bleary eyes, and launched himself forward with all of his might; they both fell over a nearby table with a loud crash, scattering patrons and various barroom debris. As the two men began to roll on the ground, punching and kicking, a few others in the large crowd now watching drew their own guns, eager for some excitement.
JD pointed his guns at the crowd, surprised at the hostile looks he was getting.
"Ain't no cause for that," he said, hoping they'd think twice and reholster their weapons.
"We told you bastards to leave us alone!" the man in Josiah's grasp hollered, beginning to swing ineffectually at Josiah; with a sigh of resignation, Josiah hauled back and clocked the man soundly on the jaw, sending him spiraling to the ground. As the stunned man hit the floor, one of the onlookers took the opportunity to rush the tall ex-preacher; a solid thunk, and this man fell as well. The crowd began to stir; Chris emerged from behind the smashed table, hat off, blonde hair falling into his burning eyes, a small trickle of blood running down his face. There was a loud BANG! as he fired his gun into the ceiling, resulting in a tiny shower of plaster and splinters.
"OK, show's over!" he shouted.
"Wrong, cowboy," the black-hatted spectator grinned, his bloodshot eyes gleaming. "This is just gettin' started."
The saloon erupted as some of the spectators surged forward, firing their guns, shouting, and throwing punches at anyone close by. The black-hatted man targeted Chris, who found himself crashing over the table again, trying to subdue his attacker without shooting him. Josiah quickly dragged his two unconscious foes out of harm's way, then waded into the fracas, busting heads and trying to restore order.
JD and Vin exchanged quick glances; Vin hopped up on one of the tables, sawed-off Winchester drawn and ready, and began firing warning shots over the heads of the writhing crowd, which virtually ignored them. The din increased, punctuated by the screams of the working girls and the splintering noises of breaking glass and flying chairs.
"JD, go get Ezra an' Nathan!" Vin hollered, as he squeezed off another round. Without hesitation JD plowed through the flying fists towards the doors, noticing absently that the crowd seemed to be following him into the street.
Ezra had almost made it past the bath house when he looked up to see Buck trotting up the street on Beauty. He smiled and tipped his hat.
"Uneventful patrol, Mr. Wilmington?" he called.
"Y'can say that again," the dark-haired rider replied, sighing and scratching his black mustache. "Anything happen while I was gone?"
The sound of gunshots and screams burst out of the saloon; startled, both men looked up the street to see JD jump headfirst through the saloon doors into the street, rolling and firing over the heads of the men who tumbled out after him, all tangled in a seething mass of fisticuffs. A chair came crashing through one of the windows, spraying the porch with broken glass.
Ezra sighed and looked back at Buck as he drew his Remington.
"No, Mr. Wilmington, nothing out of the ordinary, I'd say."
Buck looked positively delighted. "Looks like I got back just in time!" he declared, and with a loud hya! urged Beauty towards the fray, firing his gun into the air. More brawlers were pouring into the street, whooping and firing their guns.
Ezra trotted up the street; a few of the combatants saw him and began to fire in his direction. Their aim was way off, the bullets spattering harmlessly in the dry dust of the roadway; still, Ezra felt compelled to take cover, in case a few of their more sober compatriots decided to join in the attack. He ducked behind a water barrel, squeezing off several warning shots which came within a few feet of the attackers' boots; they quickly got the message and ran back towards the saloon. Seeing them run, Ezra grinned to himself, then hunkered down behind the barrel to reload and continue the chase, if necessary. He was almost finished loading his weapon when something made him look up
right into the barrel of a gun, pointed straight at his face, not three inches away.
Everything seemed to stop; for one split second Ezra was vaguely aware of a tall man with a silver beard and deadly sober eyes pointing a gun at him. There was barely time to think, no time to react; as soon as Ezra lifted his head and met the man's eyes, his adversary pulled the trigger. Ezra only had a second to brace himself.
The gun was empty.
In an instant Ezra's arm flew up, the small Derringer concealed in his sleeve springing to his hand; a loud report, and the gunmen lurched to the ground, dark blood staining his dirty tan coat.
Ezra fell back, gasping, his eyes wide, still getting over his surprise as what had almost happened dawned on him. The sound of approaching footsteps caught his attention, and he looked up to see Nathan running over from his boarding house, both guns drawn. He glanced at the fallen stranger.
"Got 'im, huh? Looks like he'll live, I'll see to 'im soon as we get this bunch quieted down. C'mon, they're headin' over to the livery."
He ran off again, intent on restoring peace, not watching as the gambler sat for a moment, deeply shaken, before finally getting to his feet and following the healer.
One Week Later
The autumn moonlight sifted quietly through the crisp, dry leaves of the sparse forest, their dying forms rustling softly in the gentle night air. Already the taste of winter lingered on the breeze's frosty breath; the brilliant colors of the leaves-nearly invisible in the darkness-foretold the coming of a harsh, bitingly cold winter. The stillness of the scene was broken only by a steady, rhythmic crunching as three riders came up the wide road, their horses crushing the fallen leaves beneath their heavy hooves.
"I tell ya what, I had about enough of this line of work," Buck groused, bundling himself up against the nipping wind and shaking his head. "These crazy hours are gonna kill me!"
JD simply laughed as he observed his friend's discontent. "Aw, c'mon, Buck, I thought you were at your best this time of night least that's what you told me!"
Buck simply gave him an aggravated smile. "Look, JD, spendin' an evenin' with a pretty gal is one thing pickin' up prisoners in the dad-blamed middle of the night's another!"
JD shrugged. "I think it's kinda nice out here..."
"Nice," Buck repeated, disbelieving, and leaned over to eyeball the third rider, who had been silent for most of the trip. "Y'hear that, Vin? Nice. Just watch, JD's gonna turn into a nature lover like you an' spend all his time roamin' in the great outdoors, communin' with the elements an' catchin' his death of cold." He sat back in his saddle. "Wish Ezra was here-bet he'd agree with me!"
"Hey, now, I think Chris did the right thing, lettin' Ezra be the one to ride with that treasury deposit to Ridge City," JD replied defensively. "He's already been through enough after almost gettin' his head blown off last week."
"Ain't arguin' there, kid," Buck agreed. "An' it was damn lucky for him that guy's gun wasn't loaded, else we'd be gettin' drunk at his wake right now. But at least then he wouldn't be freezin' his butt off like we are, ain't that right, Vin?"
Vin glanced at Buck but said nothing, the moonlight softly shining off of his long hair and weatherbeaten leather coat; he had not seemed to mind the cold at all.
JD looked at him. "Hey, Vin, you OK? You ain't said a word since we left town."
"Just kinda worried about this pickup, JD," was the drawling, uneasy reply, as Vin's eyes took in the dark hills and trees on either side of the road. "Sounds like it could be a mite touchy."
Buck turned his eyes back to the road, spurred his horse a little. "I know what you mean, Vin, I don't like it myself-takin' in a prisoner at night just don't seem right to me."
"Well, the telegram said there'd be plenty of federal guards to help us escort him to the edge of town," JD remarked, trying to calm his companions down. "An' they didn't give us much choice about when to get 'im-they don't want the wrong people findin' out where he's at."
"Shew," Buck sigh, gazing out over the silver-topped hills. "Wonder what this guy did, to get someone so powerful mad at him."
Vin's eyes never left the murky road before them as he quietly said, "Reckon he just did what a criminal ain't supposed to do, Buck-he got caught."
They reached a clearing, surrounded by a scraggly stand of trees, all in various stages of shedding their foliage, their skeletal branches half-naked against the starry sky. Something moved in the shadows; in one motion all three men unholstered their weapons, the barrels glinting in the uncertain gloom. In response they heard a chorus of clicks, as several weapons many more than three were primed to fire.
Buck glanced at Vin and muttered, "I think we're outnumbered."
Vin sat silently, waiting, his eyes searching the almost invisible figures lurking in the swaying shadows: six men, all on horseback, all as tense as they were.
Finally a deep voice spoke up from the depths of the darkness.
Vin, Buck and JD exchanged glances; then Vin moved his horse forward a little, very slowly.
"Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, an' Sheriff JD Dunne," he said slowly, in a relaxed drawl, respectful but unruffled.
A pause. Then, "You the escorts from Four Corners?"
Vin's head bobbed a little. There was a quiet rattle as the men in the shadows all relaxed and uncocked their weapons.
"Colonel Barlowe, gentlemen," the deep voice said; its owner moved into the pool of moonlight. He was a stout, bearded man, dressed in Federal blue. "Shit, you men almost gave me a heart attack."
"We 'bout lost a few years, ourselves," Buck responded, a little miffed as he returned his gun to its holster.
"Can't be too careful with this one," the soldier replied, nodding to an indistinct shape still concealed in the shade. "He's got enough information to help us find some of the most wanted men in the territory-if he decides to let us in on it, that is. Bring 'im out, Wilkins."
Two forms emerged, a soldier leading a second horse upon which rode the prisoner. Buck studied him as closely as he could in the gloom; skinny, scraggly-looking red-haired kid in handcuffs, no older than JD by the looks of it, but any signs of the youthfulness JD still carried with him had disappeared from this boy's face a long time ago. Now it just looked angry, and scared.
"Ben, these gentlemen will be your hosts for the next few days, til the next detachment can be sent from Yuma for you," Barlowe was saying, looking from the boy to Vin and the others. "Ben Tyler, late of the Gerardian Gang-actually, the only surviving member of it."
Vin, Buck and JD looked at each other somberly.
"Don't worry, son, you're safe with us," Vin said, trying to erase the frightened look from the youth's eyes. but at these words the light only burned brighter.
"I ain't gonna be safe til I'm dead," he said, very calmly, as if it were a clear matter of fact. But there was a bitterness to his words which chilled the already frigid October air.
Buck smiled tightly. "You just keep them happy thoughts in mind, son. What do y'all say we move out?"
Soon the small party was moving down the road, the soldiers at the lead and the rear, Vin, JD and Buck riding with the prisoner. Talk was kept to a minimum, everyone being preoccupied with watching every tree and shadow for the slightest sign of trouble. JD was edgy, Buck was annoyed, and Vin's mood was hard to read; but his eyes were thoughtful, and he spent most of the ride studying the young boy who seemed so ready to believe that his life was over.
He had seen several such men before, in his long career as a bounty hunter; defiant, sullen, disgusted at allowing themselves to be captured. And Vin had been this boy, too, on the few occasions when he had been careless or unlucky enough to get caught by a bounty hunter eager to collect the five hundred dollar reward for the tracker's capture. It was never an easy feeling, the helplessness of being a captive, the uncertainty of whether this really was "it", the knowledge that maybe your luck had finally run out. But Vin had learned enough from experience to be able to escape his captors; despite his fatalist attitude, he really did not want to die. But this boy honestly didn't seem to care, and it pained Vin to see such resignation in someone so young.
He rode up next to Ben and offered him his canteen. "Thirsty?"
The boy glanced over at him, then down at the gently sloshing container, then back up at Vin again. Without a word he took the canteen from Vin's hand and lifted it to his lips, greedily sucking down the water inside and ignoring the small rivers flowing over both sides of his mouth.
Vin raised his eyebrows as Ben handed the canteen back to him. "Guess you were, huh?"
"Hell, yeah," Ben gasped, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "They didn't give me hardly nothin' since Tucson. Said I didn't deserve it 'less I agreed to talk, but if they're gonna be that damned close, they can keep their stinking water."
Vin looked down as he slung his canteen back over his shoulder; then he lifted his blue eyes to meet Ben's. "Heard what you got to say could make some folks mighty riled."
Ben laughed shortly; it was one of the ugliest laughs Vin had ever heard. "Yeah, an' it could make me mighty dead. Some choice I got-talk an' get shot dead the minute I step into the street or rot in jail for the rest of my life."
The tracker nodded. "Ain't no easy way to look at it-just got to make the right choice, I reckon."
Ben looked at him, his young face set in old lines.
"Ain't no right choice here, mister. Only the best choice, for me, the one that'll keep me alive. They wanna catch those men out, they can find somebody else."
Vin gave him a steady look, then turned his eyes back to the moonswept road. "Reckon that's your choice, Ben. But I don't know if you'll sleep any better cause of it."
The boy seemed to falter a bit, then looked away, his mind clearly not as made up as he'd let on. Then he gave a weak shrug.
"Aw, hell, I dun-"
The loud crack of a gunshot shattered the still autumn air; Ben let out a yelp as he ducked down, and Vin saw blood beginning to ooze from where a bullet had grazed the right side of his scalp. As eight men drew out their weapons, looking around for the assailant, more shots rang out from all sides; they were surrounded.
"So much for a nice ride!" Vin heard Buck cry as he fired his gun into the trees; a strangled howl indicated that at least one bullet had met its mark. The soldiers scattered, charging and firing in all directions as they bent low over the bobbing necks of their mounts; shouted orders mingled with the startled cries of the horses.
"See 'em, JD?" Buck hollered as he jumped off of Beauty, crouching and looking around. JD had dismounted as well, and his hat was off, his thick black hair flying around as he searched the area. Bullets sprayed the nearby rocks and splintered off of the ancient trees.
"They must be behind the rocks!" JD yelled back. "God, it sounds like a whole army!"
"Just our luck this boy's so popular," Buck muttered, and began to run for cover as his eyes flew over every visible place where the gunmen could be hiding.
"Time to get you under cover, pard," Vin yelled, grabbing the reins of Ben's horse; in the moonlight Vin could see dark blood running from wounds on the animal's body as the attackers kept trying to kill its rider. He looked at Ben and saw that the boy was looking wildly around, his eyes wide. Then with a sudden violent motion he clubbed Vin in the face with his bound hands, wrenched the reins from Vin's grasp and spurred his horse away down the road, desperately trying to flee the whizzing bullets.
"Hey!" Vin cried, and galloped after him, thinking, this boy's so scared all he can think of is to run away. He could hear Ben's horse crashing through the dry forest vegetation; the boy had taken the horse off of the road and was plunging through the woods towards deeper cover.
Vin ducked the branches which flew towards his face as he pursued, urging Sire on over the untrodden ground. Up ahead he could see Ben still on his horse, plowing unseeingly through everything in his path, trying to get away. Finally a seemingly unbreakable wall of trees and thick brush loomed into his path; Ben's horse reared and stopped, despite the boy's frantic attempts to spur it forward. It was only when he saw the faint shadow of Vin on his horse and heard the loud click of the tracker's sawed-off Winchester that he calmed down enough to turn and see the tracker staring at him, apparently not even winded, a small stream of blood trickling from his mouth.
"Take 'er easy, there, pard," Vin cautioned, seeing that Ben was still highly excited. The boy gazed at him, still sawing his horse around, his breath coming in loud, agonized gasps.
"You gonna shoot me too?" the boy finally said; it sounded like a challenge. Vin shook his head, although the gun remained pointed at Ben.
"Not if I ain't got to," was the soft reply. "Ain't no use in runnin', Ben-they'll find you out there. You'd best come with us, an' stay alive a little longer."
There was silence for a few moments; Ben's mount was still excited, its hooves pawing nervously at the thick cover of dead leaves on the ground. Finally he sighed, his shoulders drooping.
"I'll go with you," he said, his flat voice devoid of hope, "but that don't mean I'll stay alive."
Vin's eyes narrowed as he tried to guess the meaning behind the boy's words; but his reverie was interrupted by the sound coming up from behind, a horse approaching at a gallop. Whirling Sire around, he primed his gun, but relaxed when he saw the tall form of Buck emerge from the broken foliage.
"Dang nice trail you've blazed here," the gunslinger drawled, picking a few leaves from his shirt. "Y'all can come out now, we pretty much got 'em."
Vin relaxed; Ben didn't.
"See who they were?" Vin asked, holstering his rifle. Buck shook his head.
"Just a bunch of hired toughs, from the looks of it, though they're dressed up right nice for petty thugs. About five of 'em, all told fraid none of 'em are gonna be tellin' us anything."
Vin sighed; not even in town yet and already there was trouble. He looked at Buck.
"Anybody get hurt?"
"Couple of the soldiers got some minor wounds, nothin' Nathan can't fix. JD's helpin' 'em out now."
Vin nodded, then looked back at Ben; the boy had guided his horse close to Vin's and was looking fairly deflated. Buck looked at him sternly.
"Now, you gonna be a good boy an' not go off on no more joyrides?" he asked in a vaguely threatening tone. Ben eyed him glumly.
"Y'can ease up, Buck, he ain't goin' nowhere again," Vin replied, holding one hand up slightly. He turned and gave Ben a sympathetic gaze. "Reckon this boy's had enough of people gettin' after him tonight."
The boy returned the look with one of surprise and gratitude, although he still seemed sullen.
Buck shrugged. "Sorry, kid, but I got other things I could be doin' tonight, an' it's puttin' me on edge. Let's all get back to town now an' get you tucked away nice an' safe, OK?"
They began to ride back to where the rest of the party was recovering.
"Looks like Ezra's gonna have to cut his holiday short," Buck said after a while, as they picked their way back to the road.
"Don't guess he'll mind that much," Vin replied, carefully guiding Sire while leading Ben's horse by the reins. "You know how he'd hate to miss out on all this fun."
"Yeah, just what he needs," Buck grunted. "Another chance to get killed."
Ezra Standish was in a really bad mood.
By all accounts, the exact opposite should have been the case; he was in Ridge City, a thriving metropolis much more exciting than Four Corners, the dusty crossroads town he was used to spending his time in. As he sat on this bright fall morning at the gambling table of the Silver Dollar Hotel, surrounding by a noisy mob of drunken revelers and fellow gamblers, he should have been having the time of his life. He was even winning not an unaccustomed circumstance for Ezra, certainly, but one which never failed to put a smile on his face wide enough to reveal his sparkling gold tooth. But he wasn't smiling today.
Because no matter what he did, he couldn't stop thinking about it.
It was there before his eyes as he rode out the previous day, accompanying a small transport of funds from the Four Corners bank. It was in Chris Larabee's voice as the darkly clad gunslinger said, take a few days off, have some fun, we don't need you goin' crazy on us, we got enough of that already around here. It was lurking in the back of his mind as he attempted to forget its presence with a beautiful raven-haired working girl in the soft moonlit shadows of his rented hotel room. It was in his dreams, over and over, as if his mind was afraid he might not be paying attention.
The long silver barrel of a gun. Pointed right at his face, not three inches away.
It had happened so fast, yet as Ezra remembered the moment, everything had seemed to be moving very slowly. It was almost as if he could see the event from an vantage point outside of himself, yet still feel the icy horror which flooded his body as he stared down the gun barrel. He could not remember being particularly frightened; he was more appalled, appalled that this was how it as all going to end, there would be no more life after this, his dream of owning a saloon was over, his aspirations all for naught. The entire world shrank to the small black hole staring at him; everything else faded away, except for the dull, deafening thud of his heartbeat pounding in his ears. And pervading every cell of his body, choking his heart with a relentless frigid fist, was the single, absolute belief: I am about to die.
It had not been the first time Ezra had faced down the barrel of a gun; he suspected he held the group record for getting shot at, if you counted the time an entire congregation of defrauded faithful wised up to him and chased him out of Virginia City. But those times too numerous to even begin to count had all been the result of Ezra's chosen profession, his skill at cards, his techniques of moving the odds in his favor, or his endeavors to utilize his mental acuity to teach the gullible a lesson. Cheating and conning, some might name it, but it was his calling, and Ezra knew that, whatever dangers it held, he could not see himself doing any other line of work, and the pleasure was definitely worth the occasional risk.
This time was different. He had had a choice, and it was beginning to look as if it might have been the wrong one. Well, it hadn't been much of a choice really if he hadn't joined Chris' gang he would've wound up in jail for bail jumping. But it wouldn't have been a long sentence, probably, and eventually he would have been freed, or been able to cut a deal, able to go back to his previous life. He recalled that, at the time, jail had not seemed a wise decision; he had thought: get the pardon, spend a month keeping the peace in Four Corners, what harm could it do? Make some money, have some laughs, and get out.
Or, he now realized, get killed.
He took a drink as he sat at the gambling table; it was rather early, but what the hell. He still felt it, that awful doomed sensation shooting through him like a lightning strike, that unshakably certain knowledge that his life was over, for good, and his existence about to be obliterated without leaving any evidence that he had ever lived at all. The danger had passed, but the feeling remained, and its memory was strong enough to cause him to do an inordinate amount of serious thinking.
Of course, he had known when he accepted this lawkeeping job that risk was part of the package, but up until the gunfight he had not seriously thought he might actually die. He was used to having at least a small amount of control over his situation, usually knew who was gunning for him, a cheated opponent, a jealous suitor, a defrauded congregation. He could at least guess their actions, anticipate what they might do. And he might even get away with a little profit, or at the very least his life.
But this job-Ezra sighed and poured another whiskey, happy to be alone at the table for the moment. With this job, you never knew who you'd be fighting, what they might do, where the next bullet might be coming from. To be fighting alongside the others under cover was one thing; having a gun shoved in your face while you're crouched behind a water barrel was another. It was only by the sheer luck of an empty gun that he was able to sit here today and get drunk. How long would that luck hold out?
He slowly sipped at the whiskey, his green eyes casually sweeping the room. Even at this time of day the saloon was crowded with travelers, guests, and the town's idle, all drinking and gambling in a gold-colored smoky haze. Music and laughter mingled with the clink of glasses and the slap of cards as fortunes were made, lost and drunk away. It was Ezra's world, all of it, a place where he felt comfortable and in control, and one he had hoped to return to. A world he was now half in and half out of, and his balance was becoming precarious.
He reached into the pocket of his red jacket and pulled out its contents: two pieces of paper, one a handsome sheet of fancy hotel stationary, the other a yellow telegram. He looked first at the telegram, short, to the point: PRISONER ARRIVED AND STORED AWAY AS PLANNED STOP ESCORT PARTY SHOT AT NEAR BLACK WOLF RIDGE EVERYONE OK STOP LOOKS LIKE ANOTHER FUN ONE STOP DETACHMENT ARRIVING FOR HIM FRIDAY STOP MEET VIN AT RENDEZVOUS POINT FRIDAY DUSK TO ESCORT PRISONER & DETACHMENT OUT OF TOWN STOP CHRIS LARABEE. Ezra smiled to himself, thinking, hope Ben Tyler enjoys the accommodations of the church basement, where they had decided the boy would be the safest. Hopefully Josiah's solved that rat problem...
He then glanced at the stationary: his mother's letter from St. Louis. He grunted; hell of a time for this to arrive. He'd gotten it last week and had been carrying it with him ever since, mulling it over.
Golden Lion Hotel
St. Louis, MO
October 3 1880
I received your kind letter on the 28th, and let me assure you that any concerns for my situation are completely unfounded. The judge has agreed to be lenient with me, so long as I promise to mend my ways and not try to swindle anyone again. Naturally I agreed, and all is now well. Except that I must now find another place of residence in which to practice, but you need not worry about that-this grand country is quite wide, after all, and there are plenty of opportunities for those with the intelligence to find them!
I also received a letter from Mr. DeWitt the other day; he seemed most interested in a business venture with you, either bonds or railroad stock. He seems confident that it can be done with minimum risk of detection, and will prove quite profitable. I am enclosing his letter to me and urge you to consider his offer. Ezra, you have no idea how you worry your mother with this dangerous lawkeeping venture you've involved yourself with! It's very noble of you, I'm sure, but of what use is that if you do not survive the experience? Certainly our profession has its hazards but they are not as potentially deadly as the activities Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington and your other friends are involved in. Surely they would understand if you elected to excuse yourself from their company you've done your part, I daresay, and Judge Travis has already granted you the pardon you needed. Surely they can find someone else to help protect the town.
I will write to you next week. Please think about this, son. I know you will do the right thing.
Trouble was, her argument made perfect sense, and he found part of himself agreeing with it, especially in light of the recent events. It would be very easy to have her write a letter proclaiming some false emergency, under whose pretense he could ride away from the barroom brawls and gun-toting criminals, the split-second encounters that might signal the end of his life. Sure, the other men would be disappointed, might even miss him, and he might miss them. But he'd be alive, and that was the important thing.
Ezra narrowed his eyes as he observed the throng around him, puzzled by his ruminations. He thought of the Desert Star, his own saloon, so close now, a dream just within his grasp. So close, yet it could all be shattered by one stray bullet that wouldn't care how long he'd saved or how desperately he'd yearned. A life of privation and uncertainty had made sure that Ezra's chief goal would be to be rich and safe, and he had been working on that goal the day Chris Larabee and his small band had wandered into the Four Corners saloon and messed everything all up.
He leaned on the table, one hand at his chin, trying to figure it out; he still didn't know just what it was that had stopped him from coming back before, when he had had the chance to ride away from the danger. That crazy Colonel Anderson and his renegade Confederates were attacking the Seminole village, an attack made possible by the fact that Ezra had been investigating a nearby gold mine instead of doing his duty as lookout; he could still remember the shame he'd felt then as he rode away, determined to save himself and escape the responsibility of his mistake. They had no right to expect any more from him anyway...
But he hadn't gotten far-the others, men he had barely known, were in danger, and something had turned him around and sent him away from the life he'd known and loved into an entirely new one. For the first time, he found himself depended upon and, to a degree, trusted, and another way of life had begun to seem possible, one that was frightening and unsure but oddly appealing. It had taken some getting used to, but he was becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of working with these men.
But was he willing to die with them, or for them, as well?
He sat up, a grunt of disgust growling deep in his throat; he hated these brooding moods, he always wound up with a headache and he wasn't having any fun. He reached for the whiskey bottle and began scanning the room, looking for a bored out-of-towner who might be overburdened with capital and underburdened with brains. Perhaps a good round of cards would help clear his head...
His glass was filled; he was about to set down the bottle when something hard and cold was shoved into his back. He froze; NOW what?
"Ezra Standish?" said a voice behind him, low and smooth.
"Perhaps," was Ezra's reply, turning his head a bit as he set down the bottle; sounded familiar...
"The Ezra Standish who swindled the fair town of Green Mill for six hundred dollars in 1872?" The gun was shoved deeper into his back; he arched away a little, trying to think. A few patrons nearby turned to watch, mildly interested.
"Sir," Ezra proclaimed, irritated at this rude use of his person, all the while working his memory-God, he knew that voice-, "I refuse to parlay with you further until you either state your business or remove your weapon from my ribs."
"I'll state my business," the stranger replied, giving the gun another push for emphasis.
Ezra waited. Then the pressure on his back disappeared, and the tone of the voice became considerably lighter.
"Where the hell's my cut from Green Mill, you smooth-talkin' son of a bitch?"
Ezra's face lit up in astonishment, and he whirled and jumped out of his seat to gaze in shock at the tall, slightly older, well-dressed gentleman who stood before him.
"Good glorious Lord in Heaven," he exclaimed, a wide smile splitting his face. "Julian!"
The two men laughed, warmly shook hands and clasped shoulders as the onlookers returned to their respective games, disappointed at the lack of gunfire.
The other man's swarthy face was vastly amused as he holstered his weapon. "I thought that was you, Ezra-how the hell are you?"
"Sir, my situation has greatly improved now that your ugly face has appeared in this wilderness," Ezra replied with delight, offering his friend a seat; Julian sat down and accepted the bottle and glass Ezra slid over to him. "Though I must say I'm amazed to see you so far from the fair shores of the Mississippi."
"Ah," Julian scoffed, laying aside his top hat and smoothing down his long black hair. "The gaming on the riverboats dried up for me a long time ago, Ezra-you remember Lucius Morgan?"
Ezra shook his head with a chuckle. "That fat lawman from Natchez?"
"That's him. He pretty much saw to it that my presence would be unwelcome on all the boats from New Orleans to St. Paul. I, um, guess he didn't take my attentions to his daughter with sufficient good grace."
"Well, the situation seems to have worked in your favor," Ezra noted; Julian did look wonderful, the latest cut of clothes, tasteful but impressive jewelry, hair in the latest style, even a very well-groomed mustache. "It seems the St. Clair fortune has been on the rise since I saw you last."
Julian laughed. "I think we've both done pretty well just to have lived this long, Ezra." He sipped his drink and looked at his friend, his black eyes softening. "I've often wondered what happened to you, Ezra-it's been what, ten years almost, and not a word? Now you must explain your rudeness, sir, we worked together too long and made too much money for such shabby treatment."
Ezra laughed, feeling his mood improve tremendously. "I do apologize, sir, you're right I owe you too much to let you wonder any longer."
"Damn straight," Julian replied, giving his head a quick shake. "You'd still be starving in New Orleans with Maude if we hadn't teamed up. Say, how is your mother? She still-?"
"Oh, God, yes," Ezra replied, with a theatrical groan. "Still very much alive and active-she visited me here not too long ago, in fact. She's in St. Louis right now, although that may soon have to change, thanks to the purveyors of justice there."
"Ha!" Julian exclaimed, downing his drink. "Remarkable woman, your mother, Ezra-I didn't have to teach you much at all to improve on her training. So tell me, how long have you been-"
"Mr. St. Clair?"
Ezra looked up to see a large, thick-necked man standing close to Julian. He was clad in simple but sturdy clothes and carried a broad-brimmed hat in one hand; a well worn riding crop was sticking out of one pants pocket. Julian turned to see him, but did not seem at all startled or intimidated by the man's brutal appearance.
"Oh-Bullock! What is it?"
"I got some men lined up for you outside."
"Oh-all right, I'll be right there."
The man nodded, placed his hat back on his close-shaved head, and wandered back out through the crowd. Julian downed his drink.
"Sorry, Ezra, I have to go attend to business. Will you be in town long?"
"Three more days, it looks like-the restaurant down the street, the Wolfshead Grill, has the most delightful menu. I'd be happy to meet you there for lunch."
"Capital!" Julian rose and picked up his top hat. "Hopefully this won't take too long."
"Hmm." Ezra poured himself another drink. "Not a complicated matter, I hope?"
"Oh, no," Julian shook his head, glancing towards the doorway. "Had a bit of an accident the other day, lost five men. Just need to replace them. I'll see you at the Grill, then."
He tipped his hat, his white teeth glowing against his tan skin, then turned and plowed through the crowd. Ezra watched him go, then sat back to finish his drink, in a much better mood than before. This would certainly help distract him from that incident last week, and maybe it would help him make that decision which seemed to be becoming more urgent.
As long as any of the citizens of Four Corners could remember, the old white church had stood at the end of the town's main street, its bell tower reaching into the heavens, waiting to call one and all to worship. Once, they guessed, it was a beautiful, active place, where streams of the faithful came and went on a regular basis. Now, however, there were few who could recall exactly when the last service had been held, the old wooden doors locked, and the building abandoned to the elements, a lonely stained-glass shell. Lately it had become a reminder of the town's troubles, a tangible relic of its shattered soul.
Then Chris Larabee's gang had come to town, and one of its number had taken a shine to the old church, perhaps, as many supposed, because his faith was as much in need of restoration as the building's peeling walls. They had seen Josiah Sanchez in town a few times before, on occasion, knew him as a friend of Nathan Jackson, the former slave who had established himself as the town's amateur healer. Some whispered of Josiah's past: that he was a murderer several times over, that he had once been a man of God but had turned from the faith, that he just as often opened his ammunition box as his Bible these days. But nobody complained when Josiah took the church under his wing; it was just an empty building, after all.
Now it was a common sight to see Josiah's tall, muscular frame lying on the battered roof pounding in shingles, or scraping paint off of the once-white walls, or lugging timber and tools up the short stairway into the sanctuary. They often saw the other hired guns there, too, going in and out, the black-clad Chris Larabee, the taciturn tracker Vin Tanner, the young sheriff JD Dunne, Nathan, the rowdy lady's man Buck Wilmington, the dapper gambler Ezra Standish. It seemed to have become a second meeting ground for that crew, after the saloon, and the townspeople figured if they had to be anywhere, a church was as good a place as any, and thought nothing of the constant comings and goings.
Which was why Ben Tyler was sitting in the chilly church basement on this bright autumn morning, having his scalp examined.
"Ow!" Ben flinched as Nathan gently pushed aside his hair to better see the fresh stitches on the boy's head.
"Sorry, kid," the healer muttered, bending over closer to the candle which flickered fitfully in the basement's windowless gloom. "Powerful hard t'see in here, an' I gotta make sure them stitches ain't infected."
"Mmmrrgh," was the boy's reply, as he glanced around. "Why couldn't you guys have found me a place with windows?"
"Now that's right ungrateful of you, son," rumbled a voice nearby; Ben raised his eyes as much as he could with Nathan trying to keep his head still, to see the imposing form of Josiah step into the candlelight, carrying a box. "If you saw what the jail was like you'd be beggin' to sleep down here."
"'Sides," Nathan remarked, as he let go of Ben and wiped his hands, "No windows means they can't see you from outside. You look OK, I'll check 'em again tomorrow."
Ben slowly sat up straight, the rickety cot he was sitting on creaking with every movement as he rubbed his head gingerly. He looked around at the large, dark room, illuminated only by a few oil lamps; in the uncertain shadows he could make out some old cots folded up against the bare walls, a lot of nondescript junk, and some dusty cobwebs shimmering in the corners of the cross-beamed ceiling. A damp, musty odor pervaded the area, the smell of rotting books and disintegrating beliefs.
"The jail is worse than this?" he asked, lifting his eyebrows in skepticism as he eyed the two men.
"Yup," Nathan replied, rising. "'Specially if JD gets his hands on another joke."
"JD," Ben mumbled. "Uh, he's the sheriff, right? From last night?" He laughed a little and scooted back on the cot, trying to get comfortable. "Boy, I seen a lot o' law, but I never saw someone my age wearin' a badge."
"Well, you'll be seein' a lot of JD," Josiah said, placing the box on the floor next to Ben's cot. "We're all gonna be down here keepin' an eye on you, an' watchin' the door too, to make sure no one tries to cut short your visit."
Ben 's smile faded. "If they want me they'll find me. Last night wasn't the first time someone tried to kill me."
"Cause you might tell on 'em?" Nathan asked as he repacked his medical supplies.
"Are you crazy? I ain't tellin' on nobody," Ben said sharply, his tone defensive. "Last night is as close as I wanna come to havin' my head blown off. I'm keepin' my mouth shut. They want to find the guys I worked for, they can look for 'em themselves. "
"Looks like they're gunnin' for you no matter which way you go," Nathan observed, tying the straps of his kit closed. Ben shrugged.
"Yeah, but once they find out I ain't gonna squeal, they'll leave me alone. They got better things to do, believe me an' so do I."
He looked away, his eyes troubled. Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances; both men wore looks of concern. Josiah crouched in front of the boy, his hands loosely folded.
"Son," he said softly, "I know you've had a hard time, an' you've seen a lot of things no boy your age has any business seein'. But if you can fix it so's the men who're after you won't go on hurtin' folks-well, then maybe some good can come out of your sufferin'."
Ben eyed him silently for a moment, arms crossed, then shook his head.
"I don't want to be no martyr, sir," he said with resolution, pulling himself back even farther on the cot. "What happens to other people ain't my business. I'm done sufferin'."
Josiah considered this, shrugged as he rose. "Your choice, Ben. Hope you reconsider-we got enough bad guys runnin' around, a few less of 'em would sure help a lot." He gave the box a slight kick. "Brought you some books from upstairs-uplifting reading material, you might say."
Ben gave the box an appraising glance from his perch. "What is it, Bibles?"
The ex-preacher chuckled. "Not quite-mostly some old books an' back-issues of the town paper the former owners decided to leave behind. Thought you might want somethin' to pass the time til Friday."
"Oh." Ben nodded. "OK, uh, thanks."
"Don't mention it." He turned to Nathan. "I'm gonna go find Chris, fill 'im in. Vin'll be by to relieve you at one."
Nathan nodded, and he and Ben watched as Josiah nodded good-bye to them and strode up the concrete cellar steps, cautiously pushed open the cellar doors, disappeared in a blaze of brightness, and was gone.
Nathan looked at Ben. "You better take it easy. I'm gonna just sit over here an' read, you let me know of you start to feel dizzy or anythin' like that, OK?"
Ben nodded, and began to paw through the box of books and papers as Nathan made his way to the wooden chair and table by the cellar door.
"I'll let you know, don't worry," he muttered to himself. "I'm takin' real good care of myself from now on."
"So we got our guest all comfortable, huh?"
Vin leaned forward in his chair, keeping his voice low as he addressed the tall, black-clad man across from him. The precaution seemed hardly necessary; the saloon they were in was packed with noisy morning revelers, and the din was reaching near deafening proportions. The table the two men shared was in a corner, far from the main body of the room; no one was paying any attention to them, half-hidden as they were by the smoky haze which hung pall-like in the unmoving air. The man across from him didn't seem too concerned either, as he regarded his shot glass of whiskey through a fall of unruly blonde hair; after a moment he lifted ice-blue eyes to the long-haired tracker and gave a short nod.
"Yup, he's all set," was the quiet reply; but Chris' replies were usually quiet. He downed the whiskey, grimaced at its bite. "God, Vin, the last thing we need is for the damn government to pull this on us-as if we didn't have enough to do around here, now we gotta babysit their prisoners."
Vin shrugged, fiddled with his hat. "Just for a few days, til they fetch him to Yuma. You see him yet?"
Chris shook his head. "Not since I got back this mornin'."
His companion gave him a glance, his blue eyes sympathetic. "Kid's scared out of his mind, thinkin' his friends are gonna shoot 'im."
Chris grunted, poured another whiskey, a tight smile on his lips. "Well, what are friends for?" He set down the bottle and gave Vin a piercing look. "Guess you know how he feels."
Vin gave the slightest wince, looked away into the swirling crowd, his eyes deep in thought. "I know what it's like to watch every shadow, thinkin' someone you used to work with is gonna jump out any minute an' blow your head off." He sighed, looked back at Chris. "Ain't no life for a boy his age, Chris."
"Not much of one for a man, either," Chris replied, sitting forward over his drink and looking around. "Damn bastards, why do they always pick on kids..."
"He ain't exactly a kid," Vin remarked, putting on his hat. "Colonel told me he'd been in this gang since he was a little boy probably more hardened than them hotel thieves JD's got locked up."
Chris' expression darkened; criminals recruiting children. He shook his head as he lifted his glass to his lips. "Hell of a world, Vin."
"Yup." The tracker stood, hitched his thumbs into his belt. "Time for me to relieve Buck on patrol. Y'send Ezra that telegram?"
Chris nodded, folding his hands. "He knows about Friday. I'm starting to think we should get him back here, things could get mighty interesting."
Vin gave his head a quick shake. "Just once I'd like to be bored."
Chris watched him go, plunging through the swirling smoke into the harsh afternoon sunlight. He sat for a minute, thinking, hoping that Friday would come soon and this latest problem would end. He felt fairly sure there were plenty more lined up ready to take its place.
In the saloon, few people paid any attention to Vin's exit, and fewer still bothered with the whispered conversation between two well-dressed, tough-looking men seated by the bar.
"Look, that's him, that long-haired guy going out the door."
"God, you're right, Hal! Just like on that poster in your pocket. Huh hides himself in plain sight, don't he?"
"He was pretty damn plain last night, lemme tell ya. I was lucky to get away without gettin' my head shot off. But he was in the escort, I'm sure of it."
"Ha. So, what'll we do?"
"Wait a bit, til he gets down the street a ways, then we'll follow him. We've got to be careful an' grab 'im where no one'll see us-then take 'im to the ranch an' see if he feels like tellin' us where that damn kid is. Bullock's just outside of town, we'll meet up with him an' go from there."
"Sounds good to me. Boy, Julian's gonna be real pleased with us-that $500 bounty and the kid thrown in, maybe."
"Ain't no maybe about it, Jack. If Bullock wants that guy to talk, he'll talk. I ain't seen a man yet he couldn't break."
"That's true! Boy, I can't wait for this. Well, let's go you're paying the tab, right?"
The laughter of the two men echoed off of the elaborately decorated hallway walls as they climbed the softly carpeted stairs to the second floor of Ridge City's most expensive hotel. Julian was shaking his head in disbelief at his companion's words, his face wreathed in amusement.
"God, Ezra, I can't believe you got out of that escapade in one piece!" Julian chuckled as he removed his silk hat with one hand and dug for his key with the other.
Ezra was no less amused, but his green eyes flashed with mock indignation. "I assure you, sir, this situation was considerably less complicated than our caper in Kansas City-and far more lucrative, I might add!"
"Sure wish I'd been there to see it," the first man smiled, still shaking his head as they padded up the hallway, his dark eyes searching the golden numbers on the white doors. "Sounds like you've learned quite a bit since we parted company."
"Well, my arrests have been far less frequent, at any rate." Ezra allowed, looking around at the opulent surroundings. "I must say I am impressed with your choice of apartments-your level of success must far exceed my estimations."
"I'm pleased to say it probably does, my friend," Julian replied, as he stopped before one of the last of the shining doors and inserted his key into its gleaming lock. "I've learned quite a few things since we last met, as well."
The door swung silently open; inside the heavy curtains blocked out most of the light, but even in the gloom Ezra could see the richly appointed furnishings, the softly flocked wallpaper, the huge marble fireplace-trappings which dwarfed Ezra's hotel apartment in Four Corners almost into nonexistence. As Julian placed his hat on the finely carved mahogany table beside the door, Ezra's eyes drank in the sight, a familiar hunger stirring within him.
"Make yourself at home, Ezra, it shouldn't take long for me to check out, then we can head out to my ranch," Julian was saying, as he walked into the bedroom chamber and emerged toting a few expensive-looking suitcases. "You're welcome to stay there as long as you like, of course, and we can get drunk and hash out old times like the two old jailbirds we are."
Ezra roamed through the rooms, noting how beautiful it all was. "I daresay we were still quite fortunate, Julian; if we'd been caught at half the things we did, we'd probably be breaking rocks at Alcatraz right now."
Julian flashed a white smile at him. "We got caught enough to learn our lessons, though, didn't we? That's what separates the talented men from the amateurs. Though Lord knows, that railroad stock swindle could've sent us both up the river...damn, left a bag in the other room..."
Julian thumped his luggage down next to the door and went back into the bedroom as Ezra wandered to the sitting room table; a stack of papers there caught his eye.
"Say, Ezra," came Julian's voice from the bedroom, "I'm anxious to hear what the hell you're doing in Ridge City. I thought for sure you'd wind up in Charleston or New Orleans. Is the gaming good here or something?"
Ezra opened his mouth, then quickly closed it; something was telling him, in undeniably urgent tones, not to tell Julian about his present lawkeeping duties. Well, Ezra could understand that, he and Julian had been arrested together many times in the three years they'd worked as a team; if Julian knew he was a lawman in Four Corners now, it would just make him uncomfortable. Besides, who knew how much longer Ezra would stay there?
"Oh," he said aloud, tilting his head to better study the stack of papers, "just passing through, really. My current residence is in a charming hamlet called Four Corners." What the hell were these...
"Sounds like a real hole," Julian moaned from the other room. "Look, if you're not too involved with anything right now, why don't you come work with me? God knows I could use you, it'd be just like old times-only now we both know enough not to get caught."
Ezra hadn't really heard; he was picking through the papers, puzzled. They were wanted posters, dozens of them, from every state and territory, for all sorts of amounts. An odd feeling tightened in Ezra's gut, but he didn't see the poster announcing Vin's status as a wanted man. Whew.
Footsteps announced Julian's reappearance; Ezra looked up, a few posters still in his hand.
"Interesting collection you've amassed here," he said, trying not to sound too curious. "Are you planning an exhibition?"
Julian chuckled and came over, a pleased look on his face.
"Ugly brutes, aren't they?" Julian muttered, picking up a few himself. "No, this is just sort of a sideline, part of my operation. I've got some of my men scouring the area for bounties, it really pays off. And it hasn't proved to be too difficult, either some of these criminals are real idiots."
Ezra nodded, wishing the tight feeling in his gut would go away. He looked around. "And am I to understand that you paid for all this...with bounties?"
His friend laughed, gently taking the posters from Ezra's grasp. "Now, Ezra, the bounties help, but my men would have to work nonstop to bring in enough scum to pay for suites like these. No, the bulk of my income comes from what you might call grateful clients. When we get to my ranch I'll fill you in more-you'll have to know it all if we're to work together. Shall we go?"
Julian gathered up the papers and strode away; Ezra tried to quell his unease as he watched his friend stuff the tattered posters into his suitcase. Well, what was wrong with Julian engaging in a little bounty hunting, it was a perfectly legal activity, even Vin would agree to that. As they left the hotel room Ezra threw it one last glance a tantalizing glimpse of the life he'd always dreamt of before the white door closed, locking it away from view.
Vin eyed the autumn sky with concern as he guided Sire down the leaf-strewn mountain road. The bright blue expanse had become dotted with increasingly large, dark clouds; looked like a storm was working its way over. Damn.
Well, at least the weather was holding for now; it was only occasionally that the dazzling late-morning sun was blotted out by the scudding clouds, and the brightly colored fall leaves painted the surrounding hillsides in a brilliant array of scarlets, golds and yellows. There was only a touch of the approaching winter in the warm breeze which wafted across the landscape; Vin watched as the leaves on the path before him swirled and danced in the wandering gusts, softly rattling as they moved along.
He thought again of Ben Tyler as he scanned the countryside for any sign of trouble, and sighed. Damn shame, to be in such a fix at his age; either way Vin looked at it, the kid had a rough life to look ahead to. Either a lifetime in prison, or a lifetime of looking over his shoulder. Neither prospect was pleasant.
He took a drink from his canteen; almost empty, he'd have to fill it up soon. As he spurred Sire in the direction of the nearest spring, Vin's mind wandered to the question of why a kid like Ben would join a gang in the first place; from what he'd been told he'd been in it since he was a boy, and Vin knew of very few gangs that included children in their ranks, at least in the territory. It must have been a truly sad life, the tracker thought, and now the boy was paying for it. But had he really had a choice?
Horse and rider came to a rolling stream, its waters singing over the smooth-stoned bed; recent rains had swelled it considerably, increasing the speed of its flow as well as its depth. Vin looked around at the shady trees swaying in the wafting breezes, their dry leaves rustling in a mingled chorus; something bothered him...
He dismounted carefully, still looking around as he unstrapped his canteen and approached the river. The breeze had picked up, and the song of the trees was loud enough to drown out any advancing footsteps. Vin's sharp blue eyes searched the rocks and trees as he bent over the rushing river and dipped his canteen into it.
Vin dropped the canteen and whirled, one hand drawing his mare's leg from its holster in a single easy move. In a blink the gun was primed, and Vin squeezed its trigger without hesitation, firing point-bank at the figure which loomed behind him ten feet away.
The figure let out a cry and toppled, clutching its leg with one hand while firing at Vin with the other. The tracker leapt up and ran forward, his hat flying off. Two more men rushed towards him from either side; as Vin fired at one the other slammed into him with a mighty crash, sending them both tumbling into the swollen river. Vin struggled to surface, but found himself held down by his foe, who seemed to be very large. He clawed and kicked at his opponent, increasingly desperate for air; the Winchester was wrenched from his grasp and disappeared.
After what seemed to Vin an eternity, two beefy fists closed around his collar and hauled him out of the stream; whipping the water out of his eyes, the tracker got a fleeting impression of an ugly, thick-necked brute who appeared quite delighted with his catch. As Vin's hand flew for the knife he kept tucked into his waistband, something hard smashed into the back of his head; the world exploded in a flash of red, then black, and Vin felt nothing more as he slumped in his captor's grip.
The three men were silent for a moment, all panting. Then the wounded man spoke up, his voice full of pain.
"Goddammit, he shot me!"
The second man registered a look of disgust as he lowered the mare's leg with which he had cold cocked Vin.
"Well, shit, Jack, what'd you expect with all that noise you were making? Who taught you how to sneak up on people, your grandmother?"
"You two shuttup!" the large man bellowed in annoyance as he dragged Vin's limp form out of the water. "Let's get Tanner tied up and on his horse. The sooner we get back to the ranch the better." He looked at the wounded man, who was sitting up and examining his bleeding leg. "You're damn lucky Julian didn't see that."
Jack shuddered a little; the other man looked smug, but Bullock shot him a lethal look as well.
"Don't go givin' yourself any airs neither, Hal. After botching that job on the kid last night you should be happy to still be breathin'."
Hal grimaced as he sloshed out of the river. "Hell, Bullock, I couldn't get Tyler myself after all the others were killed, could I? 'Sides, this guy knows where he is, and I don't think you'd be a man to want to miss a job like this one."
Bullock gave a glance at the soaked, unconscious form of Vin, who lay supine on the glistening rocks. A small smile slowly crept over his face.
"All I got to say, boys," Bullock finally said, "is it's a good thing that wanted poster said dead or alive, 'cause I just hate to have restrictions on my work."
A short way up the river, half-hidden by the brightly painted leaves of the shoreline bushes, a canteen and a soggy leather hat bobbed against the stream's rocky shore, forgotten as their owner was bound and borne away.
JD hurried down the street, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, which wasn't easy in his well-worn three-piece suit and beaten-up bowler hat. I've really got to get myself some new clothes, he thought as he headed nonchalantly towards the church. Except for the hat. The hat stays.
The young sheriff was a little nervous; he wasn't expecting to have a turn watching over Ben until tomorrow, something which pleased him since he had no idea how to relate to a criminal his own age. He'd hoped to have a little time to figure out what to say to the poor kid, or the best way to approach him; of course, he felt sorry for Ben, but really it was his own fault for being in a gang in the first place. He should've known he might get caught.
So it was with dread that JD heard Chris tell him that Vin hadn't returned from patrol at noon as had been planned, so JD's turn was coming a little sooner than expected, since Ezra hadn't responded yet to the telegram asking him to come back to town now. JD wasn't all that worried about Vin-well, maybe a little worried, but if anyone knew how to watch their back it was Vin-but he didn't like being suddenly thrown into this situation without being prepared. But, maybe it would provide some valuable on-the-job training-a good lawman had to be ready for unexpected circumstances, after all.
He walked around the side of the church, glancing around carefully to make sure he wasn't being followed or watched. Then he leaned down and knocked on the cellar door.
A pause; then Nathan's voice, low and tense. "Who is it?"
"It's JD, Nathan."
Another pause; then the shuffling of a bolt. the door swung open a little, revealing a blinking and bewildered Nathan.
"Yeah," the sheriff smiled in greeting. "Y'know, we should have a password or somethin'..."
"Get on in here an' we'll discuss it."
JD scampered down the cellar stairs as Nathan swung the door closed and locked it. It took his eyes a few moments to get used to the gloom; he could see Ben slouched on the cot, flipping through some old newspapers, and gave him a small, shaky wave.
"Been wonderin' when someone was gonna show up. Where's Vin?" Nathan asked as he followed JD down the stairs, a puzzled look on his face. JD shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets.
"Uh, I dunno, he hasn't come back yet. Chris sent me over to fill in until he shows up."
"Hmmm." Nathan looked very worried as he walked back to the chair he'd been sitting in and picked up his book. "Ain't like Vin to be this late gettin' back."
JD didn't like the sick feeling he was getting in his stomach, the one he always got when there was something he ought to worry about. "Oh, well, he don't carry a watch, maybe he just lost track of the time."
"Maybe," Nathan nodded, not sounding at all convinced. "Well, he's all yours. Been a real good boy so far. Let me know when Vin shows up, I'll be over at the general store, then the saloon."
His young friend nodded. "OK."
Nathan clomped up the stairs and disappeared through the doors. JD made sure to slide the bolt shut once they were closed, then came back down. He smiled a little when he saw Ben watching him intently over his newspaper.
"Uh, hi," JD said.
"You're the sheriff from last night," Ben replied, laying down the newspaper and sitting up. JD's smile grew a little wider, as it always did when his office was recognized.
"Yep, that was me. See?" He flipped his lapel over to display the shiny, slightly battered silver sheriff's star pinned underneath it.
"Huh." Ben shook his head. "You're the youngest lawman I ever saw. How'd you get that badge?"
"Well," JD said proudly, sauntering towards Ben, "see, Judge Travis, he's the circuit judge for this area, an' he wanted somebody to fill the job, an' he said himself I was the bravest man in the room, so he gave it to me."
Ben's eyebrows went up. "Nobody else wanted it, huh?"
JD deflated a bit, but quickly recovered. "Well, no, but hey, I wasn't gonna turn it down. It's all I ever wanted to do. Here, look-" he pulled a small book out of his pocket and showed it to Ben. "See? That's Bat Masterson. He's kind of my hero."
Ben eyed the book with interest; JD handed it to him, and he flipped through it. "This one of them dime novels?"
"Yup. That's my favorite, 'Bat Masterson and The Red Coach Robbery.'"
"Huh." Ben scanned a few pages. "We coulda whupped this gang eight ways to Sunday." He turned to the first page, saw something written on the inside cover, tilted his head to read it. "'To Jonathan Daniel, Merry Christmas, Love, Your Mother.'" He looked at JD, a sarcastic grin on his face. "Awwwwww."
JD scowled at him and snatched the book away. "Don't you make fun of that! This book was the only present she ever had the money to give me."
He looked up to see Ben eying him, the sarcastic look gone, replaced by a softer expression.
"Hell, you're lucky then. I got nothin' from my mother."
JD studied him. "She's, uh "
Ben nodded, looked away; JD could have sworn he saw him swallow in the dim lamplight. "Yep, she an' my pa both."
"Oh." JD suddenly felt very awkward. "Gosh, I'm real sorry to hear that, uh, Ben. That how you wound up in the gang?"
Ben gave a sour chuckle, looked back at him, his eyes glistening in the darkness. "Guess you could say that, since they was both in it when I was born."
JD felt his mouth drop a little; he sat down on the cot, surprised. "You mean you've been in this gang your whole life?"
The other boy nodded, staring into the gloom as he sat back, folding his arms. "You bet, lawman, an' I made a pretty good livin' at it too. Til now, that is."
JD tried to imagine spending an entire lifetime committing crimes; he couldn't. Finally he looked up.
"Were your parents killed in that shootout last week?"
Ben lifted his head to give JD a look so bitter he could almost feel it.
"God, you're nosy," he finally said, in a choked voice. "Leave me alone."
With that, he turned his face to the wall and fell silent. JD mumbled an apology, kicking himself inside as he rose and made his way to the chair by the door to settle down and wait for Vin. As he sat, he thought of his own childhood, rough and full of deprivation but never devoid of hope or love. Had Ben's been like that? He found himself eying the huddled form on the cot with more sympathy than he had expected, and regarded the tattered book in his hand with more reverence than ever.
He sat and began to read, but as time went on he began to get increasingly worried; the expectation that Vin would show up soon began to be replaced by a suspicion that something really was wrong. One hour turned to two, then almost three; JD checked his scratched silver pocketwatch and felt a small surge of panic: Vin was now four hours late returning. There was little hope now that he'd just lost track of time.
He had been staring at his book and worrying when there came a tap on the cellar door. JD looked up, set the book down quickly and drew his gun, rising in one smooth motion from his chair. He glanced over to see Ben regarding the door with fear; JD gave him a nod, as if to say, "Don't worry, it's all under control", even though his heart was probably pounding as hard as his guest's. With a light step JD moved up the cellar stairs until he was right under the door, and he said quickly, "Who is it?" Maybe it was Vin...
"It's Nathan, JD. Open up."
JD sighed and holstered his gun, reaching up with the other hand to draw back the bolt. Nathan quickly sped inside, a box in one hand.
"Is Vin back yet?" JD asked, as Nathan locked the door. The healer turned anxious eyes to him and shook his head.
"Nope, an' Chris is mighty worried. Last I saw he was saddlin' up Valor, with a pretty mean look in his eye. Here," he gave JD the box, "brought y'all some dinner."
"Thanks-in a box?" JD opened it and peered inside.
"Well, can't be cartin' food through the streets and lettin' everybody know we got someone down here." He walked over to Ben. "How you feelin', Ben?"
The boy gave him a quick nod, an uncertain smile on his face. "I'm OK. Hungry, though."
"Here," JD trotted over with the box and handed Ben a few pieces of chicken, wrapped in a grease-spotted cloth. "You'll like it, Nathan's a really good cook."
"Right now I don't care if he's the worst in the world," Ben replied, tearing into the food without regard for manners. he looked up. "Hey, who's this Vin guy you're all so worried about?"
"Oh, you remember, you met him last night," JD prodded, removing his own meal from the box before placing it on his chair.
"He the guy with the mustache?"
"No, that's Buck. Vin was the other one."
"Oh, yeah," Ben said as he munched, nodding. "He was all right. I still can't figure out why he didn't shoot me, he sure could've."
"Vin wouldn't do that, without good reason, anyway," JD replied. sitting down and unwrapping the food. "But if he shot at you you'd know. I've never seen him miss."
"Huh." Ben wiped his mouth on his sleeve."Doesn't sound like the type you'd need to worry about."
"Well, that ain't the whole story," Nathan offered, leaning on one of the piles of junk which littered the room. "Vin's a wanted man, an' there's always a possibility he mighta been took."
Ben's eyes widened for a moment. "He's a wanted man? Really?"
"Now, he didn't do nothin' wrong," JD insisted, his hazel eyes burning. "It's all a mistake, one we're gonna get cleared up someday."
But Ben didn't seem to be listening; he was looking away, his mind working something out. Nathan studied him.
The boy looked at him quickly, an almost guilty look on his face.
"You think you might know somethin' about this?"
Ben sat for a moment, clearly torn; his eyes dropped to the food in his hand as he tried to sort it all out. JD watched as Nathan moved to crouch in front of the boy, his face serious.
"Now, Ben, you know you're safe here. If you got any idea what mighta happened to Vin, we'd all be powerful grateful if you let us know."
Ben stared at him for a moment, still unsure. JD moved closer, trying not to scare the boy too much.
"Ben, Vin helped you out by not shootin' you," he pointed out. "If he gets caught he'll hang, so I figure you owe him one."
This seemed to do it; Ben swallowed and said slowly, "There's a guy who runs another gang like mine; he did bounty huntin' on the side. I think he has a place out by Jasper's Pass, I'm not sure exactly where. Tell your friend who's lookin' that he might want to look there."
JD and Nathan glanced quickly at each other; then Nathan nodded.
"Much obliged, Ben, I'll sure let Chris know. He'll be mighty grateful for you helpin' us out."
Ben gave a weak shrug. "I hope you find 'im. This guy don't pay much attention to the 'alive' part of 'dead or alive', if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, lotta that around here." Nathan rose and hurried towards the cellar door. "I'll try an' catch Chris-Buck should be around to take over 'round 8."
JD nodded. "OK-maybe by then Vin'll be back an' we'll all have been worried for nothin'."
Nathan gave a quick shake of his head. "I'd like to think so, JD, but somethin' tells me it ain't gonna work out that smooth."
He sped up the stairs and out into the street; JD locked the door once again, and gave a look to Ben as he thumped back down the old wooden stairs. The boy had turned his face back to the wall again, and seemed to be deep in thought, an expression on his face which indicated that he didn't want to talk. So JD settled back down in his chair and resumed his reading, or what passed for it, since his eyes hardly saw the words. All he could think about was the weird feeling he had that Nathan's words would be proven true before too much time had passed.
Buck was leaning against one of the wooden posts outside of the saloon, staring out into the late afternoon sky, quietly smoking a cheroot and blowing the smoke into the hurrying autumn wind. It had become almost overcast, the grey-and-white clouds moving quickly across the sky as if trying to get out of the way of something even darker behind them. The wind had picked up quite a bit, scattering leaves and small bits of debris up the nearly deserted streets. His eyes wandered from the sky to the mountains beyond the town. The mountains Vin was supposed to return from hours ago.
Buck didn't like it at all; Vin had an uncanny way of telling time without a watch, a trait picked up from his years in the wild, no doubt. If he'd been a little late returning, well, maybe he'd gotten absorbed in his patrol and lost track of time-tho that was a big maybe, since it had never happened. But if he was gone this long, something was definitely wrong. But neither Buck nor any of the others was about to voice the concern-there was no need to, since they all felt it whether it was voiced or not.
Footsteps behind him caught his attention; he turned to see Josiah emerge from the saloon, drink in one hand.
"Any sign of 'im?"
Buck shook his head. "Nope."
He saw the larger man purse his lips and look down, only partially successful at hiding his concern. Then he looked back up and sighed.
"Damn, Buck, this is mighty peculiar. First Ezra leaves Ridge City without a trace, now Vin's gone. We're gettin' plumb short-handed around here."
The rhythm of pounding hoofbeats sounded above the wind; Josiah and Buck looked up the street to see Chris, mounted on Valor, tearing up the road. He saw the two men and reined in; even in the overcast gloom Buck could see a familiar intensity in his eyes.
"Guess I don't have to ask where you're goin'," Buck remarked.
"Keep an eye on things til I get back, Buck," Chris replied, as his horse danced nervously.
"Could you use some help?" Josiah inquired, stepping into the street. "Four eyes'd be better'n two."
Chris glanced at the former preacher, paused, then nodded.
"Reckon Vin might need some prayers, Josiah."
The other man gave a quick nod and hurried away to the livery. Chris looked at Buck.
"We'll be back soon," he said. Buck smiled tightly.
"Hope so-we're runnin' out of people to send after ya." He tilted his head back to gaze at the scudding clouds. "Might have a storm brewin'-you two be careful ridin' around out there."
He saw Chris give a cursory glance at the sky, but knew nothing short of the Apocalypse would keep the gunslinger from finding out what happened to Vin.
Soon Josiah came thudding up the street on Prophet, his face set in determination. Chris turned to Buck.
""Nathan tells me Ben thinks someone out by Jasper's Pass might have 'im-that's where we'll be headed. An' check the telegraph office to see if there's any word from Ezra."
Buck nodded. "Sure will, pard. Good luck."
Chris returned the nod, then he and Josiah tore off towards the mountains; the sun burst through for a moment, lighting the peaks with an eerie golden glow against the dark clouds. Buck watched them go and sighed; Ezra and Vin, both missing. Well, he chuckled to himself as he headed towards the church, who knows, maybe they both got lost in the same place.
The clouds were just starting to overwhelm the sun as Ezra and Julian approached the hill which overlooked Julian's ranch; but the wind was still soft and warm, and the ride had been mostly very pleasant. They had easily filled the journey with tales of the last ten years; Julian had plenty of stories of narrow escapes, and a few times he didn't quite get away, and Ezra found himself thoroughly enjoying his old friend's company. It was almost as if the intervening years had not passed at all.
As Julian related a story concerning a beautiful Madame of Biloxi, Ezra looked at him and recalled how easily they had worked together. They had made quite a team, really, and his friend hadn't changed all that much, just gotten a little older and wiser in the ways of the world, as Ezra had. Working together again seemed very appealing. The promise of quick money, a safe life all the things he'd wanted and thought he'd have to wait years to get, all now within easy reach. It was a very heady idea, one which Ezra knew he should jump at. Such opportunities rarely presented themselves twice.
And yet...Ezra's mind turned back and forth on the subject, torn between old yearnings and new obligations. Something in him didn't want to let go of his present life so fast, even if it was more threatening than he'd anticipated. Maybe I'd better wait to decide, he finally thought, til after I hear what Julian has to say. Maybe something in there will tip the balance.
The sun was beginning to head southward when Julian finally said, "There she is, Ezra!"
They topped the rise; Ezra felt a sense of awe as he looked down over the complex, arranged neatly against the backdrop of the tree-covered foothills, now a riot of bright fall colors. The house itself was huge, bigger than any ranch house Ezra had ever seen; as they rode in he noted its wide inviting porch, the handsome barn, the large paddock full of galloping horses. There was even a separate cookhouse, a thick curl of gray smoke lazily wafting out of its chimney.
There were men everywhere, all husky and well-dressed, and a few women who appeared to be of the sporting variety, also finely attired. They all regarded Julian with respect and even deference, Ezra noticed as they trotted to the stable, and he grinned in reply and tipped his hat politely to the charmed giggles of the girls.
"My friend, this is astonishing," Ezra had said as they dismounted; hands immediately rushed up and led the horses away to be unsaddled and rubbed down. "Have you been living here long?"
"Actually, no," Julian had replied, pulling off his riding gloves as they approached the house. "I'm really not here all that often, only when business permits. I travel a wide circuit, you see, and my affairs often take me far afield. Come inside and I'll tell you about it over a brandy."
The interior of the house was astounding, decorated in the very latest and most sumptuous taste. Crystal table lamps, finely upholstered furniture and thick tassled drapes were everywhere; the opulence was dazzling, and Ezra was amazed to discover that he felt very comfortable in its presence. Perhaps this would be the right choice, after all...
Julian gave him a quick tour; everything in the house was splendid, and the guest room Ezra was to stay in was filled with furniture which made his own sleeping quarters appointed with the best rented furniture Four Corners could offer look downright shabby. A tour of the grounds was equally impressive; the aroma from the cookhouse promised the best meal Ezra had had in weeks. The horses in the paddock were all of excellent stock, although Julian admitted none of them could hold a candle to Ezra's horse Chaucer. Ezra noticed that the tour did not include the barn, but perhaps there was nothing to see there.
"Yes, I've missed the place," Julian said later, as they sat finishing their brandy and cigars. He stubbed out his smoke and leaned forward on the mohair sofa, towards Ezra who sat nearby on one of the identical chairs. "But I suppose we should dispense with the small talk and get down to business. What do you say, Ezra-would you like to come and work for me?"
Ezra quickly swept the room with his eyes; since his arrival the charms of Four Corners had been growing dim indeed, and it seemed an increasingly wise idea to grab this all now, while he was still alive to enjoy it. But there was something he couldn't quite put his finger on about all this...he smiled.
"Before I assent, my friend, I should like to know exactly what game I'm dealing myself into."
Julian laughed in an understanding fashion, leaning back as he reached for the nearby decanter. "I don't blame you for that, Ezra, you can't be too careful, you know. But I know you'll fit right in here, unless you aren't the same man I raised hell with ten years ago."
He poured himself another brandy and swirled it in his glass, regarding it with his black eyes as he spoke.
"Unless my memory is faulty you used to voice a desire to run a saloon someday. Is this still true?"
Ezra's ears perked up. He began to reach into his jacket pocket for the picture and plans of the Desert Star. "It's still quite true, I assure you-"
"Excellent!" Julian leaned forward again, not noticing Ezra's actions and charging ahead, excited. Ezra paused, then took his hand out of his pocket; perhaps this wasn't the time.
"I have an establishment in San Francisco called the Bay Queen-beautiful place, right on the waterfront. I'm presently looking for a proprietor for it, and the job's yours if you want it. Two main rooms, two full bars, mirrors on the wall, the works. I've recently put in some improvements, two roulette wheels, four faro tables, carpeting, and a stage show. You'd love it."
"Amazing," Ezra muttered, conjuring up a mental image; it certainly sounded more lucrative than the Desert Star. "What sort of monetary remuneration are you offering?"
"Oh-" Julian lit another cigar. "You can name your price, really. You'll want for nothing, I can promise you that. And all you'll have to do is keep an eye on things and make sure the other businesses are behaving themselves."
Ezra looked up, puzzled. "How's that?"
The other man seemed surprised at having to explain. "Oh, you know, all the smaller operations in the area that we've allowed to stay open, they have a tradition of showing their gratitude. Financially, you see. In return we let them stay open and help them out if they have trouble. Course they always complain about the money but they know what the alternative is."
Ezra sat for a moment, thinking; this hardly sounded like a normal job offer. A cold feeling was creeping up his back; he fought it down and smiled.
"Um, Julian, who is this 'we' you keep referring to?"
His friend shot him a look, thought a bit, then sat up with a confidential smile. "Well, I guess I can let you in, since I'm sure we'll be working together. In case you haven't noticed, Ezra, this is one large territory we're sitting in, and it takes men of vision and power to run it. Now these men, they have only so much time and energy, which they must devote to affairs of state. Do you follow me?"
Ezra nodded, not liking where this seemed to be headed. A very uncomfortable sensation was coming over him, one of disbelief at the words coming from his old friend's mouth. God, it can't be possible...
"Now, there are things these men have to do to make sure this territory runs smoothly, things they can't do themselves. Say, for instance, they need more money for their various personal projects, or want to get rid of an opponent who's obstructing their progressive ideas. They can't very well go rob a bank or shoot someone, can they?"
Julian laughed; so did Ezra, which was an amazing feat considering the lump in his throat.
"That's where myself, and others, come in. We do their work for them, you see, and they reward us quite handsomely. There's risks, of course last week one of our contingents got ambushed and almost wiped out by the law, and now there's only one member left who might talk and put us all in jail. But that'll be taken care of shortly. It gets dirty sometimes, you see probably have to kill any lawmen watching him, that sort of thing but you understand, I'm sure, that we can't let this person live."
This was all said in a completely calm tone, with no more concern than if Julian was discussing a horserace instead of robbery and murder; but Ezra felt as if he'd been run over by an omnibus. His mind raced to their partnership ten years earlier; they had swindled plenty of people, but never physically harmed anyone, except for some rambunctious fistfights, none of which ended in serious injury. They had been out for money, not blood; now Julian was awash in it, and didn't seem to mind at all.
Julian looked up, saw Ezra's shocked expression and held out a consoling hand, as if trying to push down his fears.
"Now, don't worry, you wouldn't be handling any of the rough elements-I'll see to it that you have some good help, strong men like I've got. You already met Bullock remarkable man, got him straight off the street five years ago. With any luck I can find you a right-hand man who's just as good. Now, what do you think?"
Ezra paused, his eyes still wide. Then he quickly drained his full snifter and gave a shake of his head.
"I must say, Julian," he finally replied, "I had no idea your position was so...complex."
Julian shrugged. "Not really it's actually quite a bit like what we used to do ten years ago-just as illegal but a hell of a lot more profitable. Of course, there's drawbacks once you're in, you're in for life, though that's not a bad thing in my opinion. Hell, look around you I think I could stand living to an old age in this manner!"
Ezra pursed his lips. "And if one did want to, as you say, 'get out'?"
His companion peered at him, then took the cigar from his lips and blew the smoke up into the air. "Well, then you'd probably wind up like this couple I knew about ten years ago, who'd been in this ring for, oh, eight years at the time. Nice couple, real sharp, had a kid and everything, though we generally don't like that. But this kid was sharp too, learned the trade in no time. Anyway, they tried to sneak off with the kid. Got caught, of course, and, well, we knew we couldn't trust them anymore. So, that was that. Happened not too far from here, actually. They weren't in my gang, but in the same area, you see, and I had a hand in...well, I guess you could say the executions. We made the kid watch the killings, to teach him a lesson, you know. But we did let him live."
Ezra gulped, hoping he didn't look too pale. "How magnanimous of you."
Julian casually took another drag on his cigar, shaking his head. "I still can't figure those people out, they had everything they could've wanted and they threw it away. And their kid's proved to be no better, though he earned his keep for a long time. He's the same kid I was just talking about, the one whose gang got killed last week. Well," he leaned forward and flicked the ashes off of his smoke, "guess he won't be missing his parents for long, once we find out where he is."
He sat for a moment, quietly puffing his cigar, not noticing how Ezra was staring at him. My God, Ezra thought as it completely dawned on him, this isn't some business venture, it's open criminality. He's talking about killing people who've done him no harm and it doesn't even bother him. Like he's used to it.
Who are you, you bastard, and what have you done with Julian?
Finally Julian noticed his silence, and glanced at him. "Well, Ezra? You won't turn this down, I'm sure."
Ezra opened his mouth, not sure what he was going to say, when the door behind him burst open and one of the hands ran in.
"Scuse me, Mr. St. Clair, but Bullock and the boys are back. Looks like they got another one."
"Excellent!" Julian hopped up, his eyes gleaming. "See, Ezra, this bounty hunting's a piece of cake. C'mon out to the porch, you can see how this all works."
Julian gave Ezra's shoulder a whap; but Ezra stopped him, realizing that now was the time to extricate himself before this went any further.
"Julian, I your offer is quite generous, but I fear I cannot accept it now. Prior obligations, you understand."
His friend stopped, eyed Ezra for a moment before taking the cigar out of his mouth. "Seriously?"
"I fear so," Ezra said emphatically. "In fact, I should probably return home tonight. Perhaps I can enjoy your hospitality another time?"
There was a very long pause as Julian pondered Ezra's words; Ezra watched him carefully, dying to get on his horse and away from there. He was beginning to notice something very claustrophobic and dangerous in the atmosphere of the ranch, a tainted air that Ezra felt was slowly choking him.
"It's up to you," Julian said slowly, putting a tight hand on Ezra's shoulder. "But you must swear confidence to what I told you earlier, Ezra, for your sake as well as mine. Our network is very large and, well, if you ever tell anyone what I told you, we'd know. And I couldn't save you. Understand?"
Ezra hadn't even considered telling anyone about all this; his only thought was to leave as quickly as possible. But he couldn't move, not even to nod.
"Mr. St. Clair!"
"Coming," Julian called, then looked back to Ezra.
"Sorry to see you go, Ezra, I'll see you off after we get this latest catch locked up."
He patted Ezra's shoulder and walked away; Ezra gulped to himself, relieved. Lord, was it going to feel good to be back in Four Corners, even if it meant getting shot at. He heard the clamor of voices out on the porch; Julian was obviously very excited about the prey the bounty hunters had brought in. Ezra's blood chilled as he cast a glance out of the fancy lace curtains of the front window; he wasn't sure if it was because of the possible fate awaiting the unfortunate captive, or the sound of his longtime friend exulting so over another's downfall.
Indistinct shapes moved across the fine drapery; Ezra squinted, moved quickly to the window, peered closer, his mouth going completely dry.
Oh my God...
"Sorry we took so long gettin' back, Mr. St. Clair," Bullock was saying, as Hal hauled Vin off of his horse. "Bastard tried to cut out on us twice, an' keepin' 'im in line wasn't easy."
"Yes, I can see he's a lively one," Julian replied, as he studied Vin; the tracker was filthy, his clothes torn and bloodied from several cuts and bruises. His hands had been bound tightly behind him, and they stayed that way as his captor forced him upright; but the blindfold which had covered his eyes was whipped off, uncovering a pair of calm but defiant blue eyes.
"What'll we get for this one?" Julian asked, puffing on his cigar as he ignored Vin's expression. Bullock grinned widely as he strode over to Vin and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head back. One of the other men pulled Vin's wanted poster from his pocket and handed it to Julian, who eyed it with pleasure.
"Five hundred dollars, And you'll love this, sir seems he was in the posse that took Ben Tyler in last night."
"Really!" Julian grinned around his cigar as he casually walked down the wooden steps of the porch towards Vin, meeting his gaze with icy black eyes.
"You wouldn't feel like telling us where that boy's hid, would you?"
Vin's gaze was placid, a small smile on his face despite the blood.
"Sorry, mister," he said quietly, "but my ma raised me never to talk to trash."
Julian eyed him for a moment, then burst out laughing.
"Damn, boy, you've got a mouth! We'll see how long you keep it after Bullock gets done with you. Take him out to the barn and get to work, the sooner we find that kid the better."
Bullock's face split in a gleeful smile. "Yes, sir. C'mon, Tanner."
Vin was dragged away towards the barn; Ezra watched him go through the window, a sickening horror spreading through him. He saw Julian say something to another man who seemed to be wounded, and then turn and head back up the stairs. Ezra swiftly moved away from the window, his mind racing as he scooped up his snifter and poured a brandy, trying to appear nonchalant, though his eyes were darting furiously as his mind worked.
"God, what a break, Ezra! Looks like we'll have that kid in no time. Did you get a chance to see the man they brought in?"
Ezra kept his back to him as he set down the decanter, licking his lips. "Missed it, I'm afraid."
"He's a scruffy son of a bitch, like they all are. Well, let's get your horse saddled I can't see you back to Ridge City now, but "
"Actually," Ezra cut him off, turning to face him as he calmly swirled his brandy. "I believe I may stay after all, at least for one night, if that's agreeable."
His host seemed pleasantly surprised. "Well-hell yes, it's agreeable! Wonderful, Ezra, I'm delighted that you changed your mind. After dinner we can play a few hands of poker, I'll bet you haven't lost your touch. I'll be losing quite a bit to you tonight, I'm sure."
He gave Ezra's shoulder a hearty whack and walked into the adjoining room. Ezra watched him go, then glanced in the direction of the barn as the plan he'd worked out ran once more through his mind.
"I certainly hope so, my friend. I certainly do hope so."