Causes And Their Effects
A Missing Scene And Epilogue to "Serpents"
(Old West)

by Derry

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters which appear in the TV series "The Magnificent Seven" and I certainly didn't write the episode "Serpents" which this story is largely based on. But no monetary profit is made and no litigation is warranted.
Spoilers: "Serpents", "Love & Honour", "Wagon Train II" and "Sins of the Past."
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Mitzi for looking this over and providing her valuable insight into plot and characterisation.

In loving memory of Alfred Kie Hock Ding who always taught me to look beyond the obvious and try to reason out the how and why of things.


Nathanís patient gazed back at him with a mixture of weariness and wariness, as the healer began to clean the arm wound.

Nathan didnít know what to think. It was a right fine and brave thing that Ezra had done in saving Mrs Travis life. But heíd been stealing the money and deserting the rest of them at the same time. Only the fact that heíd been shot had stopped him from going. If that hadnít happened, heíd already be gone.

And if he hadnít had the money stashed in the lining of his coat, heíd also be gone - the shot wouldíve killed him. As it was, heíd sustained severe bruising to the left side of his chest and cracked a rib, but if that wad of cash hadnít both deflected and cushioned the impact of the bullet, the damage would undoubtedly have been fatal. And the bullet had also gouged his left forearm on the way through. Fortunately, that was only an uncomplicated flesh wound. The movements of that arm would be impaired for a while, but it did not seem likely that there would be any lasting damage.

"You were very lucky, Ezra," Nathan said quietly, concentrating on his task and avoiding looking the gambler in the eye.

"Indeed." Ezraís reply was soft and contemplative, but then an unmistakable hint of mirth entered his voice, as he added, "Other peopleís money does have itís uses."

Nathan looked up sharply. "Still donít belong to you. You didnít have no right to take it."

Ezra raised an eyebrow at him. "You said yourself that I would be dead right now if I hadnít done so. Would you have preferred that outcome?"

"No, of course not!" Nathan mentally took a step backwards before trying to explain what heíd meant. "But still, I donít want you thinkiní that it was somehow the right thing tído."

Ezra merely produced his familiar impudent grin.

"I am under no such illusion. I was merely pointing out that it was convenient, not ethical."

Then, since heíd been given the opportunity, he returned to a version of his old theme, as far as the money was concerned.

"But I might point out that we have not as yet adequately defined to whom the sum in question does belong. Our current theory is that it was used to pay both the late Mr Stutzs to assassinate at least three advocates of statehood for our territory. And Mr Larabee now believes that it was Governor Hopewell who engaged them for the assignment. Perhaps you believe the money should be returned to him?"

"Donít be ridiculous! Of course not!"

Nathan let his anger and frustration show. He couldnít believe that Ezra could be so flippant about all this. He couldnít comprehend how the gambler could charge so single-mindedly after money that had been intended to buy the death of a good lady who had been such a friend to them all.

"I just donít know how ya could want anything tído wiíthat money, anyway, Ezra. I mean itís blood money! Coulda been Mrs Travisí blood too."

"Itís money, Nathan, just money." Ezraís tone was infuriatingly calm and reasonable. "It has no inherent good or evil qualities. It can only be harmful in the way that someone spends it. And it is of no tangible benefit until someone spends it either."

This only fuelled Nathanís anger and it flared explosively.

"Here we go again! Watcha planniní on doiní with it this time? Another hospital? Or another gamblerís paradise? Iíve heard it all before from you, Ezra. No matter how much you talk about helping other folks, it always comes down to making you rich."

His annoyance made his movements brisker and less considerate than they might have been, as he tightened the bandage around Ezraís arm and fastened it. Ezra let out a small grunt of pain and a spark of anger lit up his eyes too.

"I know that I have indeed a lot to answer for but..." He paused significantly and looked Nathan directly in the eye, as if he was getting his target clearly lined up in his sights before firing the salvo. "I sometimes feel that it is not only my own actions that I am beiní judged by."

And suddenly Ezraís expression shifted slightly and he was wearing that look again. That quiet knowing look. Nathan could vividly remember the last time heíd seen it. He tried to close off the memory. He didnít want to revisit it now. But his thoughts refused to be caged.

"Would you mind explaininí how you acquired this expertise?"

He remembered Ezraís tone distinctly. It had been quiet and polite but also determined and demanding of an answer, as the gambler had lifted a hand to deflect Nathanís blade away from his body.

And it had been then that Nathan had realised what had almost come to pass.

It had been a combination of factors - fighting again with bare blades, Ezraís smooth as honey "old Southern boy" voice and more than anything the smug mocking smile that Ezra had aimed at Nathan as heíd thrown down the gauntlet.

Ezra was moderately good with a sword but Nathan was much, much better. Yet, when he had actually found himself ever so slightly pushed in the duel, Nathan had let his determination to best this arrogant Southerner nearly take Ezraís head off.

That potentially lethal head-high swipe of his blade had haunted Nathanís dreams for some time after. It haunted him still.

As things had turned out, a nearby candlestick had sustained the damage instead. But if the gambler had not been quite so nimble at ducking...

And somehow it seemed like Ezra had known. Nathan knew that he had kept his face studiously blank. He always did when fighting with a blade. It was how heíd been taught. But somehow, Ezra seemed to have glimpsed the underlying bloodlust. And heíd listened silently, with an expression that looked like sorrowful understanding, as Nathan had told them of his experiences on the plantation.

Nathan had instantly felt that Ezra somehow had realised that the healer had been seeing someone from his past, someone hateful who must have hurt him badly.

But Ezra didnít know the half of it.

Oh, Nathan had told him and the others about how the owner of the plantation heíd worked on had practiced fencing with him using bare blades. But Ezra didnít know that Nathan had seen his masterís previous sparring partner being brought back, after having been run through the chest. He didnít know that Nathan had lain awake that night, listening to that boy cough up blood and take his last gasping breaths, the blood gurgling in the back of his throat just before he stopped breathing altogether. And then for Nathan to have the plantation owner pick him out the next day, toss him a sword, smile that smug mocking smile and say "Youíd better learn quickly, boy..."

No, Ezra didnít know any of that. Couldnít possibly know it really. But he probably did realise that he had narrowly avoided being decapitated. Nathan just managed to hold back a shudder.

The body of a man without his head was a horrible sight. Nathan had seen instances during the war and the memory still turned his gut slightly. And he himself had come damn close to turning Ezra into one such headless corpse. Nathan shuddered despite himself.

Then suddenly he remembered. The situation now was completely different. Maybe heíd been judging Ezra by someone elseís actions back then, but he wasnít now.

Ezra had been trying to divert the healerís attention. And heíd done it too, making Nathan feel like the guilty party. The anger returned but this time he didnít let it get the better of him. Instead he spoke in a quiet penetrating voice.

"Ezra, it was you and no one else who tried to talk me into using the Fiddlerís land to build a gambling hall and tried to get your hands on Jackís widowís property. And it was you who took that money when it didnít belong to you. Of course, I donít want you dead, but..."

"It wasnít only my life that it saved," Ezra interrupted, throwing another issue into the debate, like someone throwing another obstacle in the path of their pursuer.

"What?"

"If I hadnít been heading towards the livery, I would never have seen the assassin on his way to eliminate Mrs Travis. So, if I hadnít acted as I did, her life would have been forfeited too."

Nathan hadnít even considered that aspect. It was true that none of them had seen the assassin until Ezra met him moving through the crowd (at a time when Ezra was supposed to be keeping watch from an upstairs window). If the gambler hadnít been in the right place, at the right time... Even if that place wasnít where the rest of them had thought he ought to be.

Nathan sighed heavily. "Maybe thatís true, but what Iím tryiní to tell ya is, even if some good did come of it, doesnít make what you did right. You gotta see that."

Ezra gave small derisive snort. "I donít think any action of mine could ever be seen to be Ďrightí in your eyes. You will always suspect that I have an ulterior motive."

Nathan raised his eyebrows. "Well, donít you?"

Ezra shrugged. "I try to."

Nathan suddenly wanted to shake him and turned away in frustration, pretending to pack away the excess bandages.

What the hell did Ezra want from him, anyway? One minute, heís complaining about people not trusting him and acting all wounded-like. The next, heís proudly telling you that heís devious as all hell and doesnít plan to change. One minute, he acts like he wants to be your friend and the next he pretends he donít need you or anyone else. How could a man know what he was even supposed to be thinking?

He looked back to find Ezra gazing at him intently, as if he was searching for something that might be revealed in Nathanís face and movements but with a defensive shield firmly in place over his own features.

That was always the way with Ezra. Heíd always try to keep you from knowing what he was really thinking and feeling. Heíd freely throw scorn and indignation at you because while you were dodging those bullets, you couldnít get a clear sight of your target.

Their gazes locked and Nathan realised that, here and now, he had to make a stand and break through the protective barricade. For some reason, this was one of those crossroads where, if you didnít choose the right path, youíd lose your way forever.

"Ezra," he began tentatively. "You took that bullet for Mrs Travis. Would ya have done the same for me?"

Ezraís gaze changed to one of surprise but he also seemed to recognise the significance of the moment. This was a question which he wouldnít be able to answer flippantly.

He looked away and began to mumble awkwardly. "I believe that depriving this world of your valuable presence would be a misdeed beyond my scope." Then apparently gathering his courage, he looked Nathan directly in the eyes again. "So I would probably make a similar effort on your behalf."

Nathan grinned. "There was a Ďyesí in there somewhere, right?"

Ezra also began to smile, a little self-consciously. "Yes."

Nathan sobered his expression. Ezra had to know that he was in no way joking about what he said next. "And I would do the same for you."

Ezraís eyes briefly widened with surprise before he began protesting at the maudlin direction the conversation was taking. "Nathan..."

Nathan held up his hand. "But I wouldnít ask ya to hold ten dollars of mine."

That produced a little snort of laughter. "If you would allow me brief custody of your funds under the right circumstances, I could probably triple them for you within the course of a single day."

Nathan shook his head. "Dunno if Iíd want that money, Ezra. Seeiní as ya probably wouldíve swindled it off some poor unsuspectiní soul."

The gambler sighed. "It seems unlikely that you and I will ever approach any form of consensus of opinion over business matters. Is it within the realm of possibility that you would, at least, allow me to buy you a drink?"

Nathan felt the grin spreading over his features again, as he fashioned a cloth sling and began arranging it into position over Ezraís left shoulder.

"Reckon I would. Iíd even play a few hands of poker with ya now that ya got one less arm tícheat with."

Ezra lifted an eyebrow again. "You would gamble on my dexterity beiní curtailed by the restriction?"

"Can only hope so."

Then Ezra grinned that same old infuriatingly smug grin as he stood up and, with a small gesture of his left hand, invited Nathan to precede him out the door. "Shall we see?"

Nathan clapped him on his good shoulder as he moved past him to open the door. "Letís do that."

"And then maybe, over a few hands of poker, we might mutually determine a possible fate for a certain tarnished fortune."

This time Nathan didnít even nibble at the baited hook.

"Dunno, Ezra. Seems tíme youíd need to talk to Chris about it."

"Hmmn, we had better ensure that his gun is not within his grasp at the time. Maybe, it would be better coming from you."

Nathan laughed. "I donít have that kinda courage. Your idea, you ask him."

As they both stepped out onto the landing outside Nathanís room, the man in question wandered into view. He actually appeared to be in a reasonably good humour, despite the recent tensions. And as he glanced up towards them, he inquired as to how Ezra was feeling.

Nathan leaned forward onto the wooden rail of the landing but still managed to catch Ezraís little self-deprecating smirk, as he did so.

"Well, Iíll be shuffliní one-handed for a while but, other than that, Iím as right as rain."

Chris nodded, "Alright." But as the black-clad gunslinger turned to go Nathan found himself on the receiving end of a complicitous glance from Ezra. The gamblerís mischief was contagious and Nathan nodded.

"Oh," Ezra called to catch Larabeeís attention and the gunslinger turned back to face them again. "Ah, by the way, what are we planniní to do with that money?"

Chris grinned back at them. "Ah well, looks like weíre gonna havta ponder on that some. Governor Hopewell sure as hell donít want it."

Nathan reacted with surprise. "You tried to give it to him?"

Chris shrugged. "Seems to me if a man donít get what he paid for, he oughta get his money back."

Nathan heard Ezra mutter under his breath, with a hint of amusement, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesarís"

The healer knew that they were both just trying to torment him, but it was probably a good time to put his own idea forward. "Donít you think we oughta give it to the victims?

Chris blinked. "Well, Mrs Travis is the only one still alive and sheís already said that she donít want it."

"Yeah, but the ones he killed might have families left behind. Think we oughta do something to help them."

Ezra also seemed to ponder this angle. "It would be a substantial sum to offer, even for the eradication of three influential public figures. The assassin may well have planned to move on to another target if he had been able to succeed in eliminating Mrs Travis."

"Maybe," Chris acknowledged the gamblerís suggestion. "But there donít seem to be any way of knowing that, Ezra. Though itíd be mighty helpful to know what they had planned. After all, the governor might still try and get what he wanted some other way."

He turned his attention back to Nathan. "But Iíll talk to Mary about what you suggested, Nathan. Think she might agree to that plan. Reckon we should all get together and decide how to handle it. If I can pry Buck away from that gal who used to work for the governor."

Nathan grinned. "Yíknow, he asked her to marry him?"

Chris feigned a sigh. "Okay, so Iíll get Josiah and Vin to help me pry him away from her." He shook his briefly. "Buck Wilmington proposiní to a woman... Never thought Iíd see the day.... Well, Iíll see you two this eveniní."

Ezra nodded. "Shall we say 7 oíclock?"

And Chris nodded in turn. "7 oíclock at the Clarion office." Then he headed off towards the saloon.

Nathan glanced over at Ezra, who appeared to be staring into the distance. On closer inspection, the gamblerís gaze was actually directed at one of the windows of the hotel. Nathan straightened up and waved a hand in front of his companionís face.

"Ezra?"

Ezra blinked. "Iím sorry, Mr Jackson, but I wonder if we might postpone our little excursion to our favourite watering hole until after the meeting this eveniní?"

Nathan was surprised. "Why?"

"Iíve suddenly remembered some neglected errands which I really must attend to."

"Of course, Ezra." Nathan tried not to look or sound suspicious. There was no reason to be. There were any number of things that Ezra might feel he needed to do.

If it had been Josiah whoíd asked to be excused without an explanation like this, Nathan probably wouldnít even have considered looking for one. And the healer was suddenly determined to give Ezra the same leeway, at least for now. "Be seeiní ya at 7 oíclock then?"

Ezra smiled and nodded. "At 7 oíclock."

Then he turned and headed down the stairs without looking back.

*******

Buck Wilmington stared at Louisa Perkins with the sorrowful gaze of a man absolutely certain that he was about to lose the love of his life.

"Louisa, darliní..."

"Youíre not going to come with me, are you?" She interrupted him. Never one to pussyfoot around, sheíd always been good at getting right down to the point.

"I donít know if I can." Buck sighed and looked down into his beer. He didnít know how to put it into words, but he knew that he couldnít leave town. Not right now. He turned unashamedly pleading eyes towards her. "Why couldnít you stay."

"Stay? How could I? I canít work for Hopewell anymore. I might even have to travel to another territory entirely to continue my work."

"Why donít you stay here and fight against him?"

"For statehood?" She was clearly incredulous. "Why do you think Iím in this business? The money? Just to hear the sound of my own voice?"

"No, darliní, no!" He protested. He hadnít been thinking of it that way. For him state or territory, it was all much of a muchness. All he was sure of was that Clayton Hopewell was up to no good. Heíd never intended to suggest that Louisa go against her principles. He knew that she was a true believer, no doubt about it.

He tried again. "Itís just... ainít I reason enough to stay?"

"Arenít I reason enough to go?"

"Oh Louisa, if it was just me..."

"It is just you, Buck. I sure as hell, didnít intend you to bring all your friends along."

He managed a sad chuckle. "I know. Itís just that I canít leave some of them just now. They kinda need me."

"And me? What am I going to do the next time a ruthless assassin tries to take me hostage?"

"Then stay here with me, where itís safe."

"I canít. I really canít. Iíve made promises."

"To who?"

Suddenly, she was the one gazing down towards the glass in her hands and her voice became a barely audible whisper.

"To myself."

Buck reached across the table to encircle both her hands with his. "Tell me what happened, darliní."

She made a small derisive sound but then, when she looked up at his earnest expression, found herself trusting him with the memories locked closest to her heart.

"A while back, there was another territorial governor but this one was all for statehood. Oh, he was going to go down as the new stateís first governor, come hell or high water. He wasnít going to let any little farmers who wanted a free territory stand in his way. Those people tended to have unfortunate accidents."

"Someone you knew?" Buck asked gently.

Louisa nodded. "My father. No one ever came up with a good reason why or how he got on top of the barn roof in the first place but they all agreed that he fell by accident and no one could be blamed."

"Oh, Louisa..."

"Funny thing is, heíd probably be horrified at what Iíve been doing since he died. All he ever wanted was for me to get married and give him some grandchildren. But Iíve got to keep up the fight, Buck. Just couldnít live with myself if I let it go."

"Heíd be proud of you, darliní. You shine like the brightest star. No father could be anything but proud of you and I know youíll never let him down."

A single tear escaped down her cheek and Buck reached across to wipe it away. Then he leaned across and kissed her.

She was a little breathless as she drew back, then she whispered, "That was the goodbye kiss, wasnít it?"

"Only if you have to go."

"You know I have to. If nothing else, Iíd never be able to stomach the smug look of triumph on the face of the golden Mrs Travis, if I were ever to give up my principles."

"Hey..."

Louisa smiled through renewed tears and touched his face gently. "No need to defend her, my love. Iím only teasing. Just give me one more goodbye kiss before I go."

He could taste the salt of her tears, as he kissed her. People called such moments bittersweet, but in his experience, they were always salty. Of course, that didnít mean that he didnít still savour every single one.

"Thereíd be an even better welcome back kiss, if you were ever to head back this way."

"Then I definitely will, my love. Iíll be back to claim that kiss."

She stood and kissed the top of his head, before she resolutely turned on her heel, wiped her eyes once more and walked out the door without once looking back.

*******

The bed had been stripped and the cupboards emptied, but apart from that there had been minimal cleaning performed on the room formerly occupied by Mr Stutz senior. Not that Ezra blamed the proprietor or his staff. There was still a faint stench of death upon the room and with the hotel now less than half full, there was no need for anyone to occupy this room.

When he, Chris and Vin had briefly searched earlier, they had been looking for an indication of what Mr Stutzís intentions in Four Corners had been. Maybe they had glossed over something that might have indicated what his intentions thereafter may have been. Sloppy work, but then they had been battling with the overwhelming stench present in the room at the time. And then there had been the small distraction of the money.

Ezra smiled briefly to himself. $10,000 was a rather distracting sum.

His fellow law-keepers may have had the moral fortitude not to become obsessed with the possibility of acquiring a share in it, but the same could definitely not be said for the majority of the townsfolk. A fact which had caused the townís only bank to refuse to take responsibility for it. And thus the entire sum had become entrusted to the safekeeping of one man. Rather ironic and a totally illogical business practice, in Ezraís opinion. Still heíd had no intention of complaining when he had been appointed custodian of it.

He shrugged those thoughts away. Best to just get busy with the task at hand. He owed his compatriots that much.

Owed? Maude Standish would probably have an apoplexy if she ever knew that her son had now taken to the practice of considering himself morally indebted to others. That thought provoked another brief smile.

Ah Mother, what would you have been able to do with $10,000?

Finally, his search was fruitful. Wedged behind the headboard of the bed, he found a small bible.

Eureka! The Stutz clan had already demonstrated that they hid their trade under a disguise of false piety. And sure enough, drawn on some of the early pages were patterns of various shapes and straight lines. It wasnít hard to deduce that these were maps of towns with estimates of optimal bullet trajectories added.

Ezra moved to the window, both to take advantage of the fresher air and to correlate the crude maps with the geography and architecture outside.

Four Corners was undoubtedly the third last map in the book. The map following it was very non-descript, rendering it impossible to exclusively identify. The single street with six buildings either side could fit any number of municipalities in the region.

The last map though, that one he instantly recognised. Two streets intersecting. A distinctive L-shaped building which he knew to be the town hall. A marked bullet trajectory from the building opposite, which he knew to be a boarding house, straight into the entrance of the town hall. And to clinch it, the distinctive T-shaped building which was the local saloon. This town was Macksville.

And Ezra had heard a lot about the political activities of the Mayor of Macksville, one James William Madison, from Mrs Travis. He was one of the biggest advocates of statehood in the territory. And furthermore, it was well known that he was Clayton Hopewellís chief political rival and if statehood were to be granted, he also would be the most likely candidate for first governor of the new state.

Heíd also heard a bit about Mr Madison from other sources. Some of it was very interesting information, indeed.

He smiled to himself as he gazed into the street and saw Chris, Vin and Buck leave the saloon and head towards the Clarion office. He extracted his pocket-watch and ascertained that the appointed hour was almost upon them. Then he took his time in replacing his watch and placing the small bible into his coat pocket.

He was in no real hurry. Theyíd expect him to be the last to arrive - a concession to his recent injury, as much as his general habits he thought wryly.

No matter. Heíd be able to mollify any disgruntlement about his tardiness with the news of his discovery. He was quite looking forward to seeing the expressions on their faces.

*******

"Late again, Ezra?" Chris Larabee asked, with a slight smile, as he turned to face the latecomer.

"You must forgive me, Mr Larabee. I find myself hampered by a recent injury."

"I thought you were shot in the arm, not the leg."

"Astutely observed! However, the generalised discomfort generated by..."

Chris held up his hand. "Forget it, Ezra. Weíre just glad your here now. We were just startiní to talk about dividing up the money to go to the families of the victims."

"Well, then I have some new information which might interest you."

Chris blinked. "What would that be?"

"I took the liberty of inspecting the last resting place of the late lamented Mr Stutz senior and found this." Ezra drew his find out of his pocket and proffered it to Chris.

"What is it?"

"Turn to the final chapter of Leviticus."

Chris Larabee was unsurprised to find six people crowding him to read over his shoulder, as he did so.

"Itís a map!" JD exclaimed.

"Itís a map of this town." Mary Travis confirmed and clarified.

"Indeed. And if you continue to pursue your biblical studies into the book of Deuteronomy, you will find similar depictions of two more towns. The first I couldnít identify but the second..."

Chris furrowed his brow slightly as he found the relevant page and attempted to identify the town, in response to the little challenge in Ezraís tone. Then his face cleared.

"Macksville."

Maryís eyes widened in surprise and then shone with the light of realisation. "Of course! Mr Madison!"

Chris nodded. He wasnít excessively political, but he did tend to read Maryís paper and J.W. Madison was one of her heroes in the battle for statehood. He looked up at Ezra.

"So yíreckon Madison was the next target."

Ezra shrugged. "A target. There are numerous crude maps inscribed in that small volume and I have no inkling of what chronological order the... umm... projects were planned."

"It would make sense that Mr Madison would be a target," Mary theorised aloud. "In fact, he probably would have been Hopewellís main target. The rest of us arenít nearly as influential or important."

"Youíre very important, Mrs Travis!" JD protested.

Mary blushed. "Not in the grand scheme of things, JD"

"All the same,í said Buck. "I reckon you and the families of those men that were killed deserve some of the money."

Nathan startled slightly when Buck offered his opinion. The boisterous gunslinger had been uncharacteristically subdued all evening. But Nathan and the others immediately murmured their agreement to his idea.

"Oh, no!" Mary protested. "I couldnít! The very thought of the deaths that money caused! No, I couldnít!"

"Do yíreckon the widows of those men will feel the same?" Chris raised an eyebrow.

"I donít know. They probably need the money. I can do without it."

"Well, in all fairness, there were four of you, Mary. You, Madison, the Mayor of Kellerston and the Sheriff of Dry Springs. Seems only right to divide up the money between you."

"I want no part of it, Chris! You can send my share to Mr Madison!"

"Oh címon, Mrs Travis," Buck cajoled. "Yíshould get something!"

"Yeah," JD agreed. "How about getting a new printing press, to help ya keep fighting the fight for statehood."

Mary wavered. "Maybe, but the rest can go to Mr Madison."

"Okay," Chris agreed. "$2500 can go to the families of each of the men Stutz killed. Mary gets a new printing press and the rest we send to Madison."

Ezra whistled softly under his breath. "$2500 is a lot more money than those men, the sheriff in particular, would be likely to see in their lifetimes."

Mary looked rather appalled that the gambler would attribute a monetary value to the lives of those valiant men.

Chris was less disconcerted but felt that the notion ought to be quashed.

"It was what their lives cost, Ezra."

"And itís a small payback for the loss of a husband and father," Mary added, slightly angered at the gambler despite herself.

Nathan thought he saw an indecipherable emotion flicker across Ezraís face before it became familiarly inscrutable.

"Well," the gambler replied. "I canít say much to the experience of having either. So, my opinion on the subject is scarcely without flaw. I would, however, question whether we should send a larger sum to Mr Madison. He may have been a target but he has not suffered at the hands of the assassins and nor is he in obvious need of funds."

Maryís annoyance grew.

"Clayton Hopewell was attempting to stop the push for statehood for this territory. I think that the money should be used to fight him. Mr Madison is the man to do that. The money is going to him. Iíll write him a letter explaining the situation to him tonight."

Chris raised an eyebrow, having no intention of crossing the newspaper editor when she was in this mood. "Sounds fittiní."

Ezra gave a snort of undisguised exasperation. "Might I, at least, be allowed to suggest that when you write, you are somewhat circumspect about relaying our theory about Mr Hopewellís involvement in this business. We have no proof and the story might be construed as slander."

Mary gazed mutinously at him, but nodded reluctantly. "Iíll consider it. But if youíll excuse me, gentlemen. I have a circumspect letter to write."

Most of the men took the hint immediately and left her to her task.

Ezra, however, lingered slightly after the rest had said their goodbyes.

Mary looked at him suspiciously. "Mr Standish?"

Ezra sighed. "Dear lady, please accept this one small piece of advice from..." He coughed self-deprecatingly. "...a partially reformed dealer in a nefarious trade. If you would rather ensure that your money would achieve some good in this world, spend it on people rather than causes. A glorious cause is the oldest con in history of Mankind."

"And Clayton Hopewell is a master of that con. I wonít let him win!"

"Most men involved in politics make acquiriní the trust of the people their first priority, but very few of them are deserviní of that trust."

"Donít worry, Mr Standish. I know that there is very little to trust in a man who so flagrantly disregards the first amendment."

Ezraís eyebrows lifted. "To tell truth, I found his lack of concern for the fifth commandment considerably more disturbiní. But the message that I was trying to impart was that it would be extremely short-sighted to assume that a person must be of sound character, merely because they hold similar political views to oneself."

Mary realised what he was trying to say and remained unimpressed.

"Mr Standish, the money is going to Mr Madison," she stated firmly.

Ezra held up his hands in a gesture of surrender and acquiesced. "I do not doubt it, Mrs Travis. I only wish to ensure that you have both eyes open when you direct it there."

"My eyes are open. Is there anything else?"

"No," he sighed, with an air of resignation. "I will bid you goodnight, dear lady."

"Goodnight, Mr Standish."

*******

Nathan had lingered outside the Clarion office, as soon as heíd noticed that Ezra wasnít following them. He didnít have to wait long. After less than ten minutes, the gambler stepped out into the street with a thoughtful expression on his face.

This expression faded the instant he noticed Nathan observing him, to be replaced with something far more hardened and suspicious.

"Do you seriously think that the good widow lacks the moral resolve to withstand my persuasive powers? The rest of the money is still headed for the coffers of J.W. Madison Esquire."

The tone was coolly sardonic, but Nathan could hear the underlying tension in Ezraís voice. The implied accusation caught him off guard because lecturing the gambler had actually been the furthest thing from his mind.

In fact, remembering the sense of fragility he had noted in their conversation from that afternoon, Nathan had been concerned that, after having gone to the trouble of finding out Stutzís next target for them, Ezra may have again felt that he was being accused of having ulterior motives.

The healer couldnít deny that heíd been keeping an eye on Ezra. Just for a different reason to what the gambler suspected. Nathan sought for a believable reply that might mollify him.

Struck by sudden inspiration, the healer grinned. "Nah, Iím waitiní on that drink ya promised me."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Promised you? If I remember correctly, what I specifically asked was whether you could bring yourself to allow me to buy you one."

"Well, now would be a good time to find out."

Ezra searched his friendís face a moment longer, then smiled in return. "It may indeed be an opportune moment to answer that question." He gestured with his sling-bound left-hand, as he had earlier in the day when the suggestion had originally been made, and the two of them headed for the saloon with an air of easy companionship.

*******

"Hola, Senor Buck. Can I get you another drink?"

Buck looked up from his still almost full glass, into the saloon managerís concerned face. He smiled weakly.

"Havenít quite finished with this one, Inez. But thanks."

"Are you alright, Senor?"

"Iím still here, Inez."

Inez looked very uncertain as to whether she should stay or go, but evidently decided to take the bull by the horns.

"They say that Senorita Perkins left today."

Buck looked down into his beer again. "Yes."

"I heard that she asked you to go with her."

He smiled ruefully, his eyes not drifting from the glass in his hands. "That she did."

Inez sat down opposite him at the table and tried to catch his gaze. Her voice was laced with genuine concern, as she asked, "You obviously care for her very much. Why didnít you go?"

The face that Buck lifted to her then was a version of his old ladykiller grin.

"I dunno, darliní," he drawled. "Maybe I couldnít bear the thought of leaviní your sweet smile behind."

The sympathy evaporated from her face and she snorted as she abruptly rose from the table, as if she was disgusted with herself for being taken in so easily. But before she could move away, Buckís hand encircled her wrist.

"Iím sorry, Inez. I didnít mean... Iím really sorry."

She just looked at him quizzically. He sighed and tried to explain.

"Truth is I dunno why I didnít go with her. I really loved her, asked her to marry me even. Truly, I never felt that way about a woman before. But something held me back. Somehow, I just couldnít leave everyone and leave this town just now. And I canít even tell you why."

Inez sat back down and covered his hand with hers.

"We all would have missed you, Senor. And maybe it is just that you are destined to do more good things here."

Buck allowed himself a small smile. "Really? You think Iíd be missed?"

And Inez allowed herself to smile in return. "It is possible, Senor. Maybe even I would have smiled less often if you had gone."

*******

Nathan noticed that the conversation had faded and looked up to see Ezra surveying the saloon with a contemplative air.

"Whatcha thinkiní?"

Ezra returned his gaze to his drinking companion and seemed to weigh up whether he wished to divulge his thoughts or not. Then with a slight shrug he answered.

"I always found this saloon to be the most convenient place of accommodation for me in this town. Of course, I vacated the premises when mother bought me out."

"Yeah, I noticed that," Nathan said, his tone inviting Ezra to continue with the explanation.

"Well, letís just say that, a few years back, I made a resolution to myself that I wouldnít live under her roof again."

"Ainít bin her roof for some time now."

"Exactly what I was thinking. Maybe, I should talk to Inez about takiní up residence here again."

Nathanís gaze had wandered over to where the lady in question was now sitting, talking to Buck.

"Yímight find yerself trippiní over Buck."

Ezra followed his gaze and saw Inez place her hand over Buckís, in a gesture of comfort.

"I wonder what happened to the delectable Miss Perkins?"

"Hear she already left town."

"That was rather precipitous."

"Yeah, a bit. Still, looks like Buck might finally get somewhere with Inez."

Ezra snorted. "Unlikely, in the extreme!"

But, as they watched, Buck kissed Inezís hand and she made no move to pull away. Nathan glanced at the gambler and noticed that he was staring intently at the interaction between the couple, almost as if mesmerised.

"Dunno, Ezra. This is the farthest Iíve seen him get. Reckon they might even get together real serious like."

Ezraís gaze remained fixed, although he spoke in a perfectly calm emotionless voice.

"Iíll give two to one odds that it wonít last two weeks, a month at the outside."

Nathan couldnít quite believe it. "You wouldnít be jealous, now would you, Ezra?"

Ezraís head whipped around to face him. "Donít be ridiculous, Mr Jackson. I was merely quoting the odds."

But Nathanís suspicions had been fully aroused. "Just thought that maybe this time you might be gambliní with somethiní other than money," he suggested with a smile.

Ezra also smiled, as he shook his head. "Hard cash is the only currency that I deal in. I thought that fact was generally acknowledged." Then he stood and the smile faded abruptly.

"However, Iíve been a spectator to Buckís gauche attempts at courtship often enough for the novelty of the experience to have thoroughly dissipated. So if youíll excuse me, I have some long overdue correspondence to write."

Nathan nodded. If Ezra needed to retreat, he wouldnít stop him. Still, might as well let him know that it was no secret whom he was writing to.

"Tell your ma ĎHií from me."

"She will be most gratified for the greeting." Ezra responded in a dry dismissive tone and, although Nathan knew that this was just the gamblerís defences showing again, he couldnít help feeling a bit slighted.

"Heck, Ezra, I know she probíly donít even remember me, but..."

"What makes you think that she wouldnít remember you?" Ezra suddenly looked surprised. "She often asks after you, and remembers your father as well, with every semblance of fond regard."

"Sorry, Ezra. It was just the way ya said it..."

Ezra sighed. "Do you have to second guess everything I say?"

"Donít yíreckon I should be really thinkiní hard about some of the things you say?" Nathan asked reasonably.

"Perhaps," Ezra conceded with a slight smile. "But if you are going to be indiscriminate in the practice, it is going to be unnecessarily taxing on both of us. Do you think I might offer you a simple Ďgoodnightí without fear of misinterpretation?"

Nathan grinned broadly. "Goodnight, Ezra. Donít forget I wanna check that arm of yours in the morning."

The gambler tipped his hat in reply, seemingly to both Nathan and the saloon in general. Then he turned and walked out into the night.

*******

Two weeks later

J.W. Madison was a busy man but he refused to forego his daily 11 oíclock ritual of coffee accompanied by a freshly baked muffin at Gretchenís restaurant.

Gretchen Muller baked the finest pastries in town and Gretchen herself was a tasty little morsel indeed. But also a virtuous wife, unfortunately.

Still, a man could dream, Madison reasoned, as Gretchen leaned over to refill his coffee cup. Her dress had a slightly lower than usual cut to the neckline which set off some of her most luscious features to great effect. And there was something provoking about her polite smile to him before she turned away to serve other customers.

Oh, a man could dream. Margaret didnít own his thoughts, after all.

Not that she wasnít a very good woman, his wife, but her physical appearance hadnít stood up well to the passage of time, nor the rigours of both public service and child-rearing. She did look virtuous and matronly, which was exactly how the wife of a man in public office should look. And, hell, he was a man, wasnít he? She couldnít expect him to be blind to the charms of a beautiful woman.

He felt a feather-light touch brush past his knee and he looked down to see a white lace handkerchief flutter to the floor near his feet. Instinctively, he picked it up and called to the woman who had just passed him.

"Excuse me, maíam."

He found himself momentarily speechless when she turned to face him. She was probably no younger than his wife, but in contrast, her beautiful features had been strikingly well preserved. Golden hair and china-blue eyes, with a certain majesty in her poise that was quite arresting.

"I Ė I believe you dropped this." He couldnít believe that heíd actually stammered. He must sound like a love-struck schoolboy.

Her face lit up with the most alluring smile heíd ever seen. "How kind of you, sir! I was not aware that I had dropped it." She spoke with the intoxicating drawl of a true Southern belle and he almost lost the power of speech again.

He swallowed nervously but did his best to sound nonchalant. "Were you perhaps intending to meet someone here?"

"No, sadly, I am quite alone, this morniní. I am merely passiní through this lovely town, en route to visit my son. I thought that it might be refreshiní to disembark from the stagecoach and enjoy a meal in this fine municipality before continuiní on my journey."

"Then I would be honoured, if you would join me, Miss...? Mrs...?"

She smiled again, as she sat down.

"Standish. Mrs Maude Standish."

THE END

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