(Old West)

by Trekkieb

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM, CBS, TNN, and all those other guys. They do not belong to me. This piece of fan fiction was written for fun. No infringements are intended, and no money has been/is being made for this.
Rating: PG-13
Warning: OFC alert! Also, mild-to-moderate swearing and violence.
Acknowledgments: A huge thanks to Julia, Deb, and the Ladysmiths for their incredible beta jobs! They're such wonderful help. Thank you, thank you, thank you! And thank you, Gloria, for helping me with that stagecoach mileage info! And finally, thanks go to Mattie for her very helpful website on the guys' guns -- without it, I wouldn't have a clue!
Summary: A letter, a stage robbery, and a couple of corrupt lawmen all contribute to turn a simple trip deadly for one Ezra P. Standish. Can the others help him before he pays the price for a murder he didn't commit?

It wasn't fair.

Really, it wasn't.

What had he ever done to deserve such a deplorable situation? Well, besides lying. And cheating. And thinking of no one but himself more often than not. And a lifetime of conning innocent -- and not so innocent -- people out of their worldly possessions. Still, it was hardly right that he, Ezra Standish, gentleman of the South, was sitting in a tiny and uncomfortable jail cell. In a tiny and uncomfortable jail cell, in the unpleasant town of Clayton Falls. In a tiny, uncomfortable jail cell, in the unpleasant town of Clayton Falls, framed for murder. Murder! The proverbial icing on his cake.

With a groan of boredom, frustration, and irritation, Ezra pushed himself up from the sagging, torn cot, the only thing in his cell besides, well, him. He tried out of habit to brush the grime from his shirt, but the effort was futile. The once white material was now almost beige with dirt and sweat, and the sleeve cuffs were beginning to fray. His red jacket and black-and-gold vest were long gone, and he shuddered at the thought of the rough and careless hands that most likely had possession of them. Still, even covered in dust and missing his jacket, he tried to maintain his dignity. His ruined shirt was buttoned to the neck - cravat knotted smartly at his throat - and tucked into his trousers, which unfortunately were in scarcely better shape. His hair he kept tamed with his hands, although there was nothing he could do at the moment about the two days' worth of whiskers on his face.

Stretching to loosen his muscles after sitting for so long, he walked over to the single small window in his cell, set high on the wall. He gripped the iron bars with both hands and peered out at the scene before him. The sun was bright over the eastern horizon, and people were out and about. But the thing that drew his attention was the wooden structure rising from the middle of the town square. The gallows was being constructed much too quickly for Ezra's liking; it looked like it would be finished before the day was through. And the trial hadn't even started yet!

Unfortunately, Ezra already had a pretty good idea what the outcome of said trial would be.

And then what would he do, once his guilt was decreed by a federal judge? Let himself hang? "Hardly," he muttered.

In a burst of anger, he shoved himself away from the window and paced the small cell. It was exactly eight paces by seven. He'd counted. Over and over and over... When nobody was around to witness his apprehension, he'd paced from one end of the cell to the other, thinking and planning on how to get out of this mess. But what could he do? The guards were no fools. Well, okay, one was, sort of, but not foolish enough to fall for him pretending to be sick or anything so simple. And with their threat of hurting Kira hanging over his head, he was hesitant to try something so blatantly obvious.

Even though he'd done it a dozen times already, and even though he knew it wouldn't solve anything, he cursed the letter that had started it all. That damned letter....

Ezra stood in the dusty street and looked at the elegant script on the back of the envelope. The letter had just arrived on the stage, coming as somewhat of a surprise, actually. But one glance at the elegant script on the back told him exactly from whom it was. "Mother," he said, shaking his head. "What now?"

Heading for the saloon, he broke the wax seal and unfolded the single sheet of paper inside. His pace slowed as he began to read.

Dearest Ezra,

Just last week I happened to trip on the steps of the Montgomery Hotel, Denver, as I was ordering my baggage to be taken to my room. As it turns out, it would seem I've broken my ankle. Oh, Ezra, the pain! I nearly fainted dead away. Only the thought of that shady-looking bellhop stealing something valuable from my bags gave me the strength to stay conscious. Never trust an Italian, son.

Anyway, you needn't worry too much about me. The hotel manager feels just awful about the incident, and has decided to let me stay for as long as I wish at no expense. He has also loaned me the use of a maid to wait on me for the duration of my stay. Wasn't that nice of him? While I am doing as well as can be expected, it would certainly lighten your mother's poor heart to see her only child again. Also, Ezra dear, perhaps you would see fit to bring along a little extra currency so that I may have something to wager with during the long, pain-filled days. I hope to see you soon.

Loving regards,

Shaking his head, Ezra refolded the letter and placed it in his coat pocket. "Money. I should have known." He stepped up to the boardwalk outside the saloon.

"Hey, Ezra!" greeted a familiar voice. Turning, Standish saw JD Dunne a few yards away, also heading for the saloon.

"Good afternoon, JD," he responded, waiting for the young man to catch up. "And how are you faring this fine day?"

JD took off his hat and swiped a hand through his dark hair. "Okay, I guess." He shrugged, looked around, then said: "You ain't seen Buck around, have you?"

"I can't say that I have."

The young sheriff exhaled loudly in relief. When he saw Ezra's puzzled expression, he explained. "I, uh, kind of asked Casey to the dance in two weeks. Buck heard about it, and he hasn't given me a moment's rest from his teasin'."

Ezra smiled. "Well, if I see him, I shall point him in a direction away from you."

JD laughed and jammed his hat back on his head. "Thanks, Ez."

The men entered the saloon and paused, letting their eyes adjust to the dim interior. They spotted two of their comrades seated at a table, and JD headed that way. Ezra detoured to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey. Taking the glass with him, he joined his friends. Vin and Josiah nodded their greeting to him as he sat down.

"How's it goin', Ezra?" queried Vin.

"Fine, thank you." Ezra finished his whiskey and set the glass on the scarred wooden table. Looking at the others, he said, "I will be traveling to Denver on the next stage out."

Josiah lazily raised one eyebrow. "What for?"

With a wry chuckle, Ezra explained the letter he'd received.

"Oh," JD said. "I know how she feels. I broke my foot climbin' a tree when I was ten. Were the worst weeks of my life. Couldn't walk on it for almost six weeks, and then it hurt somethin' awful when I did."

An idea dawned on Ezra. He sat up straight in his chair and looked at JD. "Would you care to accompany me?" he asked, striving to appear nonchalant.

"What, to Denver?" JD asked. He glanced at Vin and Josiah, but the two just shrugged.

"No, to France. Of course, to Denver. Having had experience in this area, perhaps you could give my mother some tips on how to keep from going stir crazy. What do you say, JD?" Come on; say yes, Ezra pleaded silently. He really didn't want to have to deal with Maude all by himself if he could help it. At least if JD went with, they could take turns entertaining her.

JD thought about it for a second, then came to a decision. "Okay, sure, Ezra." He grinned. "This is great. I can stand to get away from Buck for a little while. Maybe when we get back, he'll have forgotten about me and Casey." He looked at the others hopefully. "Don't you think?"

Vin smiled and shook his head. "If you say so, kid."

JD groaned and thumped his forehead on the table, mumbling something into the wooden surface.

"What's that, JD?" Josiah asked.

"Nothing." JD sighed and pushed himself up from his seat. "Well, I gotta go. I promised Mrs. Potter I'd help her move around some display shelves. See ya, guys." He waved absent-mindedly on his way out of the saloon.

After JD left, Vin looked appraisingly at Ezra. "That was right nice what you did, inviting him and all."

Standish stood and collected his hat from where it lay on the table. "There's no need to sound so surprised, Mr. Tanner. Besides, it's as much for my sanity as it is for Mother's."

"Is there room for one more?" Josiah asked in that quiet rumble of his.

Ezra stopped and smirked. He wasn't really surprised; it was no secret that Josiah was enamored with Maude Standish. After a second of consideration, he tilted his head in acceptance. "I don't see why not. The more the merrier, as they say."

Out in the sunlight, Ezra stopped once more. He knew that Maude didn't think much of the town of Four Corners or the men he worked with. He just hoped that she at least managed to keep her opinions to herself for a few days.

Pulling his hat down to block the sun, Ezra Standish stepped down to the street, oddly looking forward to the upcoming journey.

The day dawned clear and slightly chilly. When the stage arrived at seven o' clock, JD, Josiah and Ezra loaded their saddlebags onto the rear luggage compartment. They didn't need much; they would only be staying in Denver for a few days-three or four at the most. Buck, Vin, Chris, and Nathan were standing nearby, waiting to see them off.

"Hey, JD, don't be gone too long or Casey might think you've gone and fallen for one o' them Denver girls," Buck teased with a smile. He tugged on the lapels of his coat and added, "She might decide to find herself a tall, handsome, charming man to get back at ya with."

"Oh, yeah?" JD retorted. "Like who?"

"I'll tell you who. Me, that's who. Don't you know girls can't resist my animal magnetism, JD?"

JD snorted in disbelief as he climbed aboard the stage.

Vin snickered, and Buck elbowed him in the ribs.

Ezra was the last to board. Before he climbed inside, Nathan stepped forward. "I hope your ma feels better real soon, Ezra," he said.

"Yeah," Chris Larabee added, grinning, "tell her we said hi."

Standish grinned back. He knew what Larabee thought of his mother, and knew that he was only being polite. It was kind of amusing, really. "Thank you, gentlemen. I'll do just that." He closed and latched the door, then leaned back in his seat. The driver clucked to the horses, and they started on their way.

"So how long's it take to get to Denver?" JD asked as he watched Four Corners disappear behind them.

"Near three days," Josiah answered.

Dunne swiveled his head from the window and looked at Josiah and Ezra. His expression was one of mild surprise, followed quickly by one of resignation.

"Yes," Ezra stated. "It is a long ride, but at least we'll be arriving in comfort. When I traveled to Charleston years ago..."

JD groaned out loud. "You've got to be kidding. We don't have to listen to this the whole way, do we?"

"Well, I did happen to bring along a newly acquired deck of cards. We could always engage in a game of chance." Ezra smiled and produced the cards from an interior pocket of his coat.

"So," JD shot a quick glance at Josiah, then continued brightly, "what were you saying about Charleston?"

Josiah chuckled, and Ezra began to talk.

Four hours later, they pulled into the town of Clayton Falls to rest the horses and have a brief meal. The three peacekeepers had lunch in the town's only restaurant, Mama's Kitchen. Afterwards, they stopped by one of the saloons for a drink.

The place was surprisingly busy for the late-morning hour. Josiah and JD snagged an empty table while Standish pushed his way to the bar. "Barkeep!" he called over the noise of laughing, talking, and the playing of an off-key piano. When the burly barkeeper looked his way, Ezra ordered half a bottle of whiskey and three glasses. He set a couple of coins on the polished wood counter when the order was placed before him, and with the glasses in one hand and the bottle in the other, he turned around. Only to run smack into the tall, blond man standing right behind him.

"Pardon me," Ezra muttered and started to move past the man.

The stranger moved to block his path. "You should watch where you're goin', mister." He glared at Ezra, taking in the fine red coat and gold ring.

Standing as close as they were, Ezra could smell the whiskey on the man's breath. Wonderful. Just what he needed: a confrontation with a drunken local. His green eyes narrowed, and his voice became dangerously cold. "I shall endeavor to do so in the future," he ground out. He had no problem apologizing if it would get this unfriendly man out of his face. "Now, I suggest you move out of my way and let me pass." Looking past the man's shoulder, Ezra could see JD and Josiah watching the whole scene from their table. They looked ready to jump in if things got out of hand. A couple of the bar's patrons glanced at Ezra and the other man, but their faces showed very little interest.

The stranger glanced over his shoulder as well and saw the JD and Josiah. Turning back, he pointed a finger at Ezra, glared at him a second longer, then stepped aside. Ezra brushed past, shaking his head in disgust, and headed for his companions.

"What was that about?" JD asked as Ezra set down the whiskey and glasses.

Ezra sat down and poured a little into each glass. "Just a little run-in with a hostile local. I suggest, gentlemen, that we finish our drinks and leave. I have no wish to risk our getting back on the stage in one piece."

The other two nodded in agreement and picked up their drinks. Fifteen minutes later, they pushed their way through the crowded saloon towards the batwing doors.

The blond man watched them go, his eyes boring straight into the back of the man wearing the red coat. He had a feeling he'd be running into the fancy man again sometime soon.

Thankfully, their next stop, in the town of Clearwater, passed uneventfully, and they reached their final destination with no further trouble.

"Ahh," Ezra said as he stepped out of the stage. Denver. "This is it, gentlemen." Josiah and JD climbed out after him and looked around at the busy streets.

Ezra took a deep breath of the cool, late afternoon air and smiled widely at the scene before him. The streets were filled with carriages, horses, and people, all going about their own lives. The tall storefronts and other buildings were painted attractively and were in good repair. It felt good to be in a bustling metropolis again. He'd spent way too much time in the tiny town of Four Corners. It made him claustrophobic at times, feeling as if he were trapped in an ever-tightening noose. He longed to be in a place where no one knew his name and he knew no one.

Well, with the exception of Maude, of course.

After a minute, Ezra said to the young boy who was fetching their bags from the back of the stagecoach, "Where might we find an establishment called the Montgomery Hotel, young sir?"

The boy set the last of their three bags on the ground, and then answered. "Right along Evans Street," he said, pointing. "It's the big brick building. Can't miss it."

They thanked him, and Ezra - in a generous mood -- tipped him well. Picking up their belongings, the three started off for the hotel.

JD loved Denver already. He'd always loved being in the city. But it had been a while since he'd last been in one, not since his ma had passed on. He loved watching the people; when he was little, he'd created all sorts of fanciful lives and tragic histories for the people he passed on the street. A redheaded girl caught his eye, and she smiled briefly at him as they passed. JD swiveled his head to keep her in sight until she disappeared, then smiled and faced front once again.

Josiah tried not to laugh at the young man. He himself had once been in awe of the city life. But that was long ago. Now he much preferred the quiet ways of a little desert town called Four Corners.

To Ezra, it was a refreshing break from the dusty streets, dilapidated buildings, and plainly dressed population of Four Corners and its surrounding settlements. The streets in this neighborhood were cobbled with brick, the carriages were handsome, and the store windows displayed the latest in fashions. As they passed a bakery, the heavenly aroma of fresh-baked bread wafted out to them.

A short walk later, they came upon the Montgomery Hotel. The structure stood four stories high, was made of red brick, and had white gingerbread trimming. As they climbed the front steps, Standish absently wondered if they were the same ones Maude had tripped over.

The three lawmen entered the spacious, richly decorated lobby. "I shall check us in, and find out Mother's room number," Ezra said. JD and Josiah nodded and hung back as he approached the clerk. He returned a moment later. "All right, gentlemen, our rooms are on the third floor." He looked at the keys in his hand. "12, 14, and 17. And Mother's is Room 6, on the second floor. Shall we head on up?"

They dropped their belongings off in their rooms and decided to freshen up before they headed for Maude Standish's room. The long trip had left them tired and dirty, and in dire need of some warm water and soap.

Twenty minutes later, bathed and refreshed, Ezra knocked on the door to Room 6, JD and Josiah standing behind him. Ezra would go in first to say hello, then the others would follow. "Come in," a feminine voice called.

Taking a deep breath and mentally bracing himself for his mother's strong personality, Standish entered the room. It was undoubtedly one of the hotel's finer ones. Two large windows overlooked a tree-lined courtyard in back of the building. Heavy brocade drapes, pulled back for sunlight, reached the wood floor. The huge bed was made of polished oak; a canopy with white lace curtains was situated above it. Beveled glass sconces were spaced all around the papered walls, unlit for now. A curved-back brocade sofa sat along one wall, the color perfectly matching that of the curtains. Between the two windows was a handsome antique writing desk, its every plane and curve polished to a lustrous shine. It was here that Maude Standish sat, immaculately dressed, blonde hair perfectly coifed. Her right foot, sheathed in a gray plaster casing, was propped upon a cushioned chair. She was busy writing something and didn't look up until Ezra cleared his throat.

Turning, she said, "Ezra, darling! How wonderful to see you. I take it you received my letter?" She reached out her hand to him.

Ezra crossed the room, took her hand, and kissed her cheek. "Mother," he greeted. "Yes, I received your correspondence. It was most unfortunate to hear of your predicament. You seem to be doing well."

"Yes," Maude sighed, "but the days pass so slowly when one's range of motion is inhibited."

Ezra smiled mischievously. "Which is exactly why I brought you company."

She raised her eyebrows. "Oh? And who might that be?"

Without saying a word, Ezra moved to the door and opened it. In stepped his two friends. Maude stared at them for a moment, then back to Ezra with a look that said volumes. You have got to be kidding me, her gaze said scornfully.

Ezra ignored the look. "Mother," he said, a little too gleefully, "you remember JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez from your last visit, don't you?"

Remembering her manners, but not liking it one bit, Maude smiled tightly at the two men. "Of course. How do you do?" She held out her hand.

"Ma'am," JD greeted. He hung back, hat in hand. It was obvious that Ezra's mother intimidated him.

"Maude, a pleasure to see you again." Apparently Josiah wasn't intimidated, just love-struck. He bowed and kissed the back of her hand. "You are as lovely as the last time we met."

Maude's lips twitched into a genuine smile. "You flatter me so, Josiah."

Sanchez smiled, and his blue eyes twinkled. "No, ma'am. I just speak the truth."

Ezra rolled his eyes, but the action went unnoticed by Josiah and ignored by Maude. "Mother, I have brought Mr. Dunne because he himself has been through the inescapable boredom that comes with a broken appendage. He has decided to share some tips with you on ways to dissipate your no doubt growing frustration."

"That's right, Mrs. Standish," JD chimed in, reminded of his reason for coming. "I know lots of things you can do to pass the time."

"Oh, really." She shot another look at her son, who gazed back innocently.

"Oh, sure," JD continued eagerly. "You can read dime novels... or magazines if you prefer. You can carve figures out of wood. You can make crafts. Why, this one time I made an entire birdhouse out of a buncha toothpicks and carpenter's glue... Hey, do you think we could find some toothpicks somewhere around here?"

Ezra ducked his head, lest the others see the grin that threatened to break his face in half.

Step. Step. Landing. Step down. Carefully... The sole recipient of Ezra's attention was the grand staircase that he was descending. Twelve more to go. Come on, you can do it.

"At this rate, I'm going to be old and gray before we reach the lobby," the woman in Ezra's arms complained.

Ezra scowled. "Perhaps you'd like to try carrying me down two flights of stairs someday," he griped. "Really, Mother, either you're wearing twenty pounds of petticoats or you've been doing quite well for yourself." He puffed as he made it down three more steps.

"Oh hush up, Ezra. What would you have me do? Spend all my time up in that awful room?"

"Awful, Mother?" he laughed. "You have the finest accommodations in the entire building!"

"You know what I mean. Watch my foot!" This last part was exclaimed as Ezra's right foot nearly slipped on the edge of one carpeted step. He righted himself without incident and silently carried Maude down the remaining portion of the staircase.

He walked swiftly into the adjacent bar, anxious to put her down somewhere. "There," she said, pointing to a table where three well-dressed men played cards. "They certainly look promising." Ezra dutifully carried her where she wanted to go. "Excuse me," she said sweetly to the men. They looked up from their cards. "Do you mind terribly if I join your game?"

"Well..." one mustached man began, a little uncertainly.

But Maude didn't give him a chance to continue. "You see, I've just recently injured my foot, and it is quite painful. I was looking for something to occupy my mind during my recuperation." She portrayed the Southern belle in distress quite well, Ezra thought.

The three men looked at one another, shrugged, then turned to Maude. "We'd be delighted," the mustached one said and rose politely from his seat.

"Oh, I'm most grateful, gentlemen. You can set me down, Ezra." Relieved, he did just that. She introduced herself to the group. "I am Maude Sterling, and this is my son Ezra."

Pleasantries were exchanged, and the cards dealt. "Ezra, why don't you go and fetch me and my new friends some drinks?" She barely glanced up from inspecting her cards.

Ezra looked up from flexing the sore muscles in his arms. He suppressed a sigh and headed for the bar. "Four brandies," he ordered. "Wait! Better make that five." He needed a drink, too. A moment later, the drinks were produced along with a tray, and Ezra reached for one of the glasses. He leaned back against the polished bar and sipped the liquid. Rolling it across his tongue, Ezra decided once again that the brandy was indeed worth its reputation.

It was the second day of his visit. Maude had graciously spent the morning with Josiah and JD, pretending to be interested-or at least refraining from rudeness-in JD's discussion of Bat Masterson's many heroic exploits. Although Ezra suspected she rather enjoyed Josiah's doting, he had been somewhat surprised that she'd managed for so long without totally alienating his friends. Only a little while ago, Ezra had relieved his fellow peacekeepers from their duty, and they had gone off to explore Denver and have lunch.

From where he was positioned, Ezra could see his mother laughing at something one of her table companions -- the one with the gray hair -- said. He shook his head. If there was anything Maude loved more than poker, he couldn't think of it.

He downed the rest of his drink, picked up the tray from the counter, and headed for the card game.

Some time later, Ezra sat looking at his incredibly awful hand. The seven of clubs, the two of clubs, the queen of diamonds, the nine of hearts, and the ace of hearts. And this was after he'd drawn three cards from the dealer. Even he couldn't win with this hand. So he folded and sat back.

He had to admire his mother. She was good. He could read Maude easily, and knew that she had a mediocre hand of cards. But she hid it artfully, and he knew the other players couldn't tell. However, that wasn't what he was smirking inwardly about. Throughout the afternoon, Maude had subtly used her injury to her advantage, absently rubbing her foot, making Ezra fetch her a chair to set it upon because it "ached so," and pretending pain for the benefit of the other players. She had the men eating out of her hand and the hotel staff treating her like a queen.

Ezra didn't doubt for a minute that her injury was counterfeit.

"A toast," Ezra said as he raised his shot glass. "To an... interesting... trip." He grinned slightly, shook his head, and downed his drink. He had been quite glad when the time to depart Denver arrived. He loved his mother; he really did. But anyone who knew Maude as well as he did would have agreed with him-three consecutive days was the limit of endurance. Besides, with the money that Ezra had lent her, she would have more than enough to keep herself in the game.

"It was fun," JD stated.

"Most interesting," Josiah added; it was clear by the slight smile on his face that he was still thinking of the ever-enchanting Maude.

Ezra's grin metamorphosed into a smile as one eyebrow crept up. "Yes," he agreed, shaking his head once more in disbelief.

The night was young, and the Clearwater Saloon had a pleasing atmosphere, so he poured another round for his friends and sat back in his chair.

Josiah rotated his shoulders inconspicuously, trying to relieve his complaining back muscles. He'd been sitting in his hard wooden chair for a while, now, and was beginning to feel it. But he didn't mind. The town's blacksmith was a most interesting conversationalist...

"No, I would have to agree more with Aristotle's theory than with Mencius'," said Jeb Hartford, Josiah's tablemate.

Josiah leaned forward again, intrigued. "The theory that humans are born neither good nor bad, but have the ability to acquire such virtue or vice... Yes, I can see where that might make more sense than Mencius' at times convoluted arguments..."

Several whistles and laughs filled the saloon, and Josiah and Jeb looked across the tavern. Five men, Ezra among them, were seated at a round, felt-covered table, immersed in a game of cards. A small crowd of onlookers watched the game progress, and from the looks of it, the game was getting pretty good. Josiah spotted JD among the audience, standing behind Ezra and watching the proceedings with much interest.

Seeing that everything was all right, Sanchez turned his attention back to the blacksmith. "Another drink, my friend?" he offered, holding up the bottle that they had been sharing.

Jeb nudged his glass forward. "Please."

Josiah obliged, and then refilled his own glass. The malt whiskey wasn't of the best quality, but it left a nice smoky taste on Josiah's tongue, and a warm feeling as it flowed down his throat; the result had Josiah in a very mellow mood.

"I've spent some time behind the anvil myself..." Josiah began.

An hour later, the game broke up. Ezra neatly collected his winnings and stowed them away inside the pocket of his vest. He had made an effort to lose a hand every once in a while, to prevent the possibility that someone would cry cheat, but still he had come out with almost a hundred dollars in profit.

"Good game, gentlemen," he said, flashing his gold tooth in a wide smile. He picked up his hat and was about to scan the room for his traveling companions when a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Ezra tensed, but it was only one of the other card players.

"Mr. Standish, may I buy you a drink?" the short, balding man asked. He was dressed in a subdued three-piece suit. It was he who had contributed greatly to Ezra's newfound riches.

"Ah, Mr. Carlisle, surely this isn't a ploy to talk me into returning your money?" Ezra half-joked. A fool and his money were easily parted, as the saying went. But it was Ezra's experience that the fool too often tried to get his money back.

Carlisle answered in the negative with a laugh. "Actually, I'd like to talk business."

That piqued Ezra's interest. "Business?" His sharp eyes appraised the man before him. Carlisle was much better attired than the average poor cowhand, but his appearance did not suggest abundant wealth. Still, Ezra Standish was never one to pass up an opportunity to make a profit. "I'm listening," he said.

After their drinks had been ordered and served, Carlisle spoke: "I'm looking to sell a piece of property I have in my possession."

"Go on," Ezra said. He took a sip from his glass.

"Well," Carlisle continued, "I realize that we've only just met, but I fancy myself able to judge a man's character right off. Now, you, Mr. Standish, seem like a fine and honest gentleman. That's what I thought to myself - that Mr. Standish seems like a fine and honest professional man. And I thought that you would be the most likely to appreciate such an offer."

Ezra semi-patiently waited for the man to get to the point. His first inclination was to seriously doubt that Carlisle had anything worthy of purchasing. His second inclination was to wonder, if the property was indeed something Carlisle deemed worthy of his interest, what was the reason that he didn't want it himself?

"What, exactly, are we talking about here?" he asked.

Carlisle must have sensed Standish's growing restlessness, because he quickly got down to business. "It's fifteen acres of prime land, located just twelve miles east of here." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "There's a little hot spring on the northwest corner of the plot. It's secluded within a stand of trees. Pure heaven! I myself have entertained the thought of building a little hotel there and... charging... the patrons to soak in the spring. You know what they say... hot springs have remarkable therapeutic qualities." Carlisle grinned enthusiastically, peering at Ezra through the smoky air.

Ezra thought about that information. It was an interesting offer. A hotel would be expensive, but... it was certainly an idea. Perhaps he could have it built over time... And people did tend to believe the myth about hot springs...

Now don't get carried away, he told himself. First things first... "You certainly have my interest, Mr. Carlisle. The obvious question would be: how much are you asking for me to take this property off of your hands?"

Carlisle hemmed and hawed for a minute, then named an outrageously high figure. Ezra would have laughed out loud, but for the fact that it might be detrimental to this potential business transaction. He tried the tactful approach instead. "Well," he drawled, interjecting a regretful tone into his voice, "I'm afraid that your price is just a little too high for my bank savings." Not that it was - Ezra actually had quite a bit saved in the bank - but for fifteen acres? Yeah, right.

"Oh." That made Carlisle pause for a second, and Ezra could almost see the little gears spinning in the man's brain as he thought furiously. "Well, perhaps you could tell me what you might be able to afford?"

Ezra made a show of thinking about his answer, then suggested a substantially lower sum.

The other man almost grimaced, but quickly covered the action by taking another drink. He smiled faintly. "You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Standish. Or should I call you Ezra, now that we're doing business?"

The Southerner chuckled lightly. "I think you're getting ahead of yourself, my dear Mr. Carlisle. My mother didn't raise a fool. I fully intend to examine this parcel of land before I give you a several hundred of my hard-earned dollars. How does tomorrow sound? Would you be willing to accompany me, seeing as how you know the location of the area?"

Carlisle nodded, and Ezra resisted a smile. He finished the last of his drink and allowed his smile to surface.

Josiah and JD were well into their breakfast when Ezra joined them in the hotel restaurant.

"Good morning, Ezra," Josiah greeted heartily, spooning more scrambled eggs into his mouth. JD nodded his own greeting as Ezra sat down.

"And a fine morning it is, too." Standish was apparently in a good mood about something. Their server came and took his order, filling their cups with coffee before she left. Ezra smiled widely at the pretty woman, then picked up his coffee.

"Hey, Ez, did you win any more money last night?" JD asked. When he'd finally gone to bed, Ezra had still been in the saloon.

"Some," Ezra admitted. His breakfast was placed on the table before him. He took a bite, washed it down with more coffee, then continued, "Actually, I had a most interesting discussion with one of my fellow card players. He is looking for someone to purchase a few acres of land."

Josiah asked, "Where?"

"Just a few miles from here, or so he says. I'll be riding out today with Mr. Carlisle to inspect the area for myself."

JD glanced at Josiah, then back at Ezra. "You're going to miss the stage."

Ezra nodded and said, "Yes, but there will be another coming this way in a couple of days or so."

"We'll wait for you here," Josiah offered.

"Nonsense," Ezra scoffed lightly. "There's no reason the two of you cannot return home without me. You can tell Mr. Larabee that I will be along shortly. No doubt, he is in need of your help with the town." He finished the rest of his breakfast, then pushed the plate aside. Noticing the dubious expression on Josiah's face, he added, "Come, now. There's nothing to worry about. I'll be on the next stage, back in town in no time at all."

Ezra wiped the sweat and trail dust from his face with one of his linen handkerchiefs. The day had gotten warmer as the sun approached its zenith, and the lack of trees or other shade had only magnified the heat.

Carlisle rode alongside Ezra's rented horse. He was quiet now, but had previously named it his duty to carry the conversation. Ezra couldn't tell if he was just naturally chatty, or if he was nervously trying to stem any questions before they were asked.

Ezra was curious about one thing, and took advantage of the lull in conversation. "Tell me, Mr. Carlisle," he began amiably, "why is it that you haven't already built your suggested hotel? You said yourself that the land and the hot spring make it the perfect place..."

"Oh, it is!" Carlisle assured quickly. "You won't find a better spot." He hesitated, but then said: "Actually, I've, uh, run into a bit of financial trouble. I borrowed quite a bit of money for a previous business venture, and found myself a bit short of funds to pay it back. I had hoped to win some money at the tables, but you may have guessed I'm not the world's best poker player."

"I see. Surely the bank will allow an extension?"

Carlisle hesitated again. "Not... exactly," he said. "It wasn't a bank that I borrowed from."

"Ahh," Ezra said, nodding knowingly.

As it turned out, the piece of "pure heaven," as Carlisle had put it, was severely overrated. The wonderful hot spring was little more than a steaming, mud-filled puddle, and the shady grove that surrounded it was more like a dozen or so hardly-grown saplings.

Ezra tactfully backed out of his position as a potential buyer. Carlisle had been disappointed but not terrible surprised. Ezra suspected that the man knew what a lost cause the land was, and even felt a twinge of sympathy for him.

He boarded the next stage, actually looking forward to returning to Four Corners.

Ezra climbed into the dim and stuffy interior of the stagecoach and settled down onto one of the two hard benches. It looked like he was the only passenger, and he was glad for the chance to relax and stretch out. A glance at his pocket watch told him that the stage would be leaving any minute. He pulled the brim down over his eyes and tried to get comfortable.

Outside, he could hear the driver getting settled, could hear him clucking to the horses. With a lurch, the team of animals pulled the coach into motion.

"Wait!" a woman's voice cried out. "Wait!"

Curious, Ezra pushed his hat back and looked out the window. It was a woman all right. She was running towards the stage at full speed, waving one arm to catch the attention of the driver. The other arm clutched a gray carpetbag to her side.

The driver pulled the horses to a stop, and Ezra could hear the two talking. The driver sounded annoyed, the woman breathless. A few seconds later, however, the side door opened, and in climbed the new passenger with the aid of the driver.

She was busy watching her feet and didn't notice Ezra until his boots made a noise on the wooden planks of the floor. "Oh," she said, looking up. Her face flushed slightly; in embarrassment, Ezra realized.

The woman seated herself on the bench opposite Ezra, and took off her wide-brimmed straw hat. The door was shut and latched, and the driver made his way up top again.

"Hello," she said, holding out one hand. Ezra grasped it in one of his own and gave it a polite squeeze. "Kira Stone - Well, Karen, actually, but everybody calls me Kira." She withdrew her hand and pushed back a few strands of dark blonde hair from her face.

Ezra smiled slightly. Those few strands weren't the only part of her hair in disarray; running hell bent for leather tended to have that effect. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Stone. Ezra Standish at your service."

"How do you do?" She responded to his smile with one of her own, then smoothed the wrinkles from the skirt of her navy blue dress.

The coach started moving once again with no further disruption.

"May I ask where you are journeying to, Miss Stone?" Ezra inquired.

It had been several hours since the stage had changed horses at the small, two-man home station. Sporadic small talk had been the only break in the monotonous silence during the second leg of their trip.

She looked away from the window. "You may. But I'm not used to being called Miss Stone; Miss Stone is my spinster aunt in Kentucky. You seem like a gentlemanly person, anyway. Call me Kira."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, slightly amused. "If you insist ... Kira." She nodded approvingly, and he continued, "So, then, are you from Kentucky?"

Kira waved a hand in cheery dismissal. "Lord no! I can't imagine living in Kentucky -- there's nothing there but, but, well, there's nothing there at all." She laughed, and Ezra thought to himself that she had a nice laugh.

"I've had the experience of traveling through Kentucky a time or two myself, and I must confess, I agree with your evaluation," he said, chuckling.

"No, I'm from Clearwater. Born and raised there. I'm traveling to Four Corners to visit my cousin Jake and his wife, Madeline."

"Do you mean Jake Stone?"

"Why yes," she said, gazing at him curiously. "Do you know him?"

"We've met once or twice. I am also headed for Four Corners. In fact, I happen to currently reside there."

Kira's face lit up with curiosity. "Oh? What is it that you d -- ?"

The rest of her sentence was cut off as the stage jerked to a halt, and the two of them lurched forward in their seats.

What the hell? Ezra thought.

"You inside!" shouted a male voice. "Get on out here, nice and slow!" It was not the voice of the driver.

"Oh, wonderful," Ezra muttered.

"What's going on?" Kira whispered, eyes wide.

"Kira, my dear, it appears we are in the middle of a robbery."


Ezra unlatched the door and carefully stepped out onto the hard-packed ground, hands raised in the air. What he saw almost made him groan out loud. Almost.

Two men, each with a dusty plaid handkerchief covering his nose and lower face, were the culprits. One was still seated on his appaloosa, a Spencer rifle aimed at Ezra's chest. The other had dismounted from his grulla and was keeping his six-shooter trained on the driver, who was down on the ground, clutching his stomach.

All of this Ezra absorbed before his second foot hit the ground. "Gentlemen!" he said brightly. He stepped away from the coach to allow Kira to exit, but was halted from going further by a jerk of the Spencer. He nervously ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip. "What, ah, what can we do for you?" Kira stepped behind him. Smart girl, he thought.

The man on the horse spoke: "You can hand over all your money and valuables."

Ezra grimaced at the unoriginality of it all. "Am I to understand that you won't shoot us if we do as you ask?"

"Maybe," the one on the ground sneered, and Ezra had to resist the urge to sneer right back at him.

"Get his gun, Jay," said the man on the horse. He moved his gun to cover the driver, while Jay stepped forward and relieved Ezra of the Remington he wore on his hip.

"This is a mighty fine gun, mister," Jay taunted as he backed away again. "You any good with it?"

"Return it to me and I'll be glad to offer a demonstration," Standish deadpanned.

Behind Jay, Ezra noticed that the driver had gotten to his knees. There was a curious expression on the old man's face. "Jay?" he questioned.

The man on the horse looked startled. Jay whirled around, Ezra's gun still in his hand. He shook it warningly at the driver. "You'd best shut up, old man!"

But the driver's face spoke of recognition. "Jay Johnson? What on earth are you doing?"

Jay Johnson didn't speak. He just pulled the trigger. Ezra blinked in surprise, and Kira screamed, as the old man let out a strangled cry and fell over on his face.

The man on the horse leapt to the ground and strode over to Jay. A glance at Ezra, along with a wave of his rifle, kept Standish from doing anything heroic. "What in the goddamn blazes of hell did you do that fer?" he shouted at Johnson.

"He recognized me!" Johnson defended himself. "What was I s'posed to do?"

"Goddamn!" the man yelled again.

"Looks like you've got yourself a predicament," Ezra remarked blandly.

The stranger stalked over to where Ezra and Kira stood and shoved his rifle against Standish's sternum. He stood there, less than two feet away, breathing heavily. He seemed to be seriously contemplating the merits of shooting the Southerner right then and there.

Beneath the man's battered gray hat, Ezra could make out unwashed blond hair and dark hazel eyes. Recognition stirred within him, but he couldn't for the life of him remember where he had last seen the man.

The blond stared at Ezra peculiarly, and after a minute his gaze narrowed a bit. "Don't I know you?" he whispered softly, almost as if he were speaking to himself.

Ezra attempted a chuckle. "I'm sure I would have remembered meeting someone such as yourself...."

From the corner of his eye, Ezra watched as Johnson walked over, curiosity showing.

"You know this feller?" Jay asked.

The familiar-looking man laughed darkly. He moved back a few steps, but kept the rifle aimed squarely at Ezra's heart. "Sure do. Just don't know from where, yet." He leaned in again and sneered. "But I will, and when I do..." He let the threat trail off unfinished.

"No rush," Standish assured him.

That comment earned him a fist to the gut. The air whooshed out of Ezra's lungs, and he doubled over slightly, trying not to cough.

"Leave him alone!" Kira ordered. She helped Ezra stand up straight again.

The blond man smirked, then turned to his accomplice. "All right, Jay, let's finish things up here. You check the girl for anything worth taking."

Jay smiled lasciviously. "My pleasure, yes-sir-ee." He grabbed hold of Kira's arm and roughly started to pull her away from Ezra.

Well, it's now or never, Ezra, he thought to himself. What's it going to be?

With a sudden lunge, Ezra knocked the rifle away from his chest, pushing its owner off balance. At the same time, he activated the release on his sleeve rig. The little derringer popped out into his palm, and he aimed it at the half-turned form of Jay Johnson. He was just about to put a bullet in the outlaw when a sudden, sharp pain exploded in the back of his head, and all went black.

Ezra awoke to a pounding headache and a too-bright sun. He squeezed his eyes shut at the sudden onslaught of light... and froze.

He listened carefully. A few seconds later, he heard a light sound, a scuffling of feet in the dirt. He tensed when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and opened his eyes.

It was Kira Stone. "Relax," she said, kneeling down beside him.

"Miss Stone," Ezra said in relief. Finding himself sprawled out on the ground, Ezra hastened to sit up. A flash of vertigo made him regret his action.

"I thought we'd discussed this. It's Kira," she informed him, placing an arm behind his back to help him sit up.

Ezra squinted and placed a hand to the back of his head. When he pulled it away again, he was relieved to see that there was no blood.

"Are you all right?" Kira asked.

Ezra looked up into her anxious face and realized that, aside from a bump on his head, he was otherwise uninjured. "Yes, I believe so," he answered. "If you would be so kind as to help me to stand?"

She helped him to his feet. He pushed aside the initial dizziness.

"How long was I unconscious?" he asked.

"I'm not sure. Twenty minutes or so, I guess." She paused, then added, "I was getting a bit worried. I didn't know what to do."

He took in her mussed hair and slightly rumpled clothing, and his eyes narrowed. "Did they hurt you?"

She understood his question and hurried to assure him. "No. No. I'm all right. But they took the horses..."

Ezra spun around to look at the coach. She was right; the horses were gone. His derringer was also missing, as were - he noted with some surprise and indignation - his vest and red jacket. And his ring, his gold ring. He sighed angrily. "Well, my dear, it looks like you and I shall be finishing our journey on foot." They'd left him his hat, at least.

"Do you think we'll run into them again?" she asked, the fingers of one hand nervously pleating the fabric of her skirt. She seemed to realize what she was doing, and clasped both hands around her straw hat. It was the first time Ezra noticed it in her grasp; she must have retrieved it from the coach.

Ezra patted her shoulder comfortingly. "I should think not. Those rodents are no doubt headed back to whatever hole they crawled out from." At least he hoped so.

Kira smiled tentatively. She started to turn, then stopped. "Oh... what about him?" The stage driver.

Ezra walked over and hunkered down beside the dead man. Now came the part he hated. With one hand, he patted down the driver's coat front, avoiding the distasteful bloodstain. One pocket contained a pipe and a pouch of tobacco, along with a few matches wrapped in wax paper. In the other pocket was a receipt for the order of a new rig for the team of horses. Printed neatly beneath the sum paid was the name Rick Pearson. Ezra put the receipt in his pants pocket.

There was nothing with which to bury the man, so Ezra wrapped him in a blanket Kira had found tucked beneath one of the stagecoach benches and placed him inside the cabin where wild predators couldn't reach him quite so easily.

"Just one last thing," Ezra said as he latched the coach's door. He walked over to the rear, where the luggage was tied, and pushed aside Kira's carpetbag, which was covering his saddlebags. He noted absently that her initials were stenciled onto the wooden grasp. He then grabbed his saddlebags, reached inside one of them, and withdrew a tightly rolled garment.

Kira watched with curiosity as he unrolled the fabric. From within its folds, Ezra extracted the solid form of his Colt Richards conversion.

With a slight smile, he rubbed the shiny black barrel with his thumb, then checked the load; the chamber was full. He would have preferred the stronger firepower of his rifle, but the Colt would be easier to carry.

Ezra showed the gun to Kira. She matched his smile with a relieved one of her own.

"At least now we stand a better chance if we do come across the pair anytime soon," Ezra said. He tucked the gun into the holster on his gun belt. As a last thought, he grabbed the driver's canteen from under the topside seat, as well as the one from inside the cabin, and slung them around his neck. By the feel of them, each was a little over half full.

He glanced at the early afternoon sun, then pulled the brim of his hat down low. "Shall we?" he asked, gallantly offering his arm to Kira.

She laughed. "Why, Mr. Standish, such a gentleman." She placed her arm through Ezra's.

"I do try." He flashed a grin and touched the brim of his hat, as if to tip it in the polite fashion.

He patted her hand, and the two began to walk.

The sun disappeared over the western horizon, leaving a faint yellow glow in its wake. The air had cooled a few degrees, but not yet enough to chill the sweat on the back of Ezra's neck.

He and Kira had maintained a steady pace since they'd left the stagecoach, but now Kira's steps were beginning to lag. As were his, he acknowledged ruefully.

"What do you say to a brief respite?" he asked, halting.

"I certainly wouldn't say no," she said with a small smile.

Ezra gestured to the side of the trail, where a patch of grass had somehow sprung into existence despite the summer's lack of water. Several hardy trees were situated a few yards from the road. Kira sank down to the ground beneath one of the trees, and Ezra sat next to her. Neither of them said anything, and Ezra used the silence to think things through.

They would make their way to Clayton Falls, and inform the local law enforcement of the robbery and murder of Rick Pearson, the stage driver. At least he had the name of one of the perpetrators: Jay Johnson.

Ezra took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, letting the slight breeze cool his scalp. He licked his lips in thirst, and then realized that Kira was probably thirsty as well. He lifted one of the straps from around his neck, unscrewed the top of the canteen, and turned to her. "Would you care for some water?"

"Hold on," she said. The words were a bit distorted due to the large ribbon she held between her teeth. Her hands were busy plaiting her hair. Once done, she used the ribbon to secure the end of the braid.

"Much better," she said, accepting the canteen. "I bet it looked quite a mess before."

"Not at all," Ezra said.

"Liar." There was a pause as she took a drink of water. "So, you said you live in Four Corners?"

"Yes. Actually, I am one of seven resident law enforcers there."

"Seven? For such a small town?"

"It may seem like a large number, but in my estimate there is not a town in this wide western country that needs it more."

Kira gazed at him contemplatively. "Actually, Jake did mention the seven of you in one of his letters."

"It is quite possible," Ezra conceded.

There were a few seconds of silence, and Ezra realized that he'd stopped sweating; the evening was cooling down.

The woman spoke again, her words frank: "You don't look like a lawman."

Ezra glanced sideways at her, amusement obvious in his green eyes. "Thank you."

The next time they stopped to rest, Ezra decided to make camp. He and Kira scavenged for wood and bark and, despite his limited expertise in the area, he managed to get a fire going. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and the two of them sat close to the blaze.

Clayton Falls was approximately forty-five miles' distance from the town of Clearwater. The stage had been oh-so rudely interrupted in the early afternoon. Ezra guessed that they had covered twenty-five or thirty of them already.

"There should be another station up ahead," he realized.

"Another station?"

"I recall that there were two stops between Clearwater and Clayton Falls," Ezra explained. "The second shouldn't be too far ahead of us. There will be people there."

"And horses," Kira concluded.


"Well, do you think we could make it there tonight?" she asked.

Ezra thought about it. "No. We're both tired. I think we should stay here for the night and set out early in the morning."

Kira nodded in acceptance.

The late hour and the day's events soon caught up with Kira. She scooted closer to Ezra to ward off the chill, rested her head on his shoulder, and fell asleep. Ezra stayed awake a while longer -- one arm draped protectively around the sleeping woman's shoulders while the other hand held on to his gun -- keeping watch in case trouble decided to strike yet again. Eventually, though, his tired eyes closed, and he drifted off as well.

Chris Larabee leaned against a support post outside the saloon, squinting his eyes against the setting sun. His gaze occasionally strayed down the street. Every time he caught himself doing that, he'd scowl to himself.

So the stage was late. It happened sometimes. Didn't mean anything was wrong.

His gaze once more shifted down the street. This time, he spotted a rider coming in at an easy pace.

"Hey, Chris!"

"JD," Larabee greeted. He watched as JD dismounted from his horse. "Everything quiet?"

JD beat his hat against his leg, watching as the dust billowed from both. "Oh, sure. There's nothing moving out there but jackrabbits and prairie dogs." JD led his horse into the livery, and for a reason Chris couldn't explain, he followed.

Chris helped him take care of the animal. He carried the saddle to the rack while JD brushed down the dusty and sweaty horse.

"Is Vin taking the next patrol?" the sheriff asked.

"Well, seein' as Ezra's not back yet, yup," Chris replied. His voice was neutral, but he still kept his ears open for the sound of the stage coming in.

JD looked up in surprise at that. "Ezra ain't back?" Finished with his task, he set the brush on a shelf, and patted the horse on its hindquarters. "That's funny. He said he'd be out on the next stage."

"Hell, JD, he's probably still haggling out a price for that piece o' land," Chris chuckled. His words seemed to mollify JD, for the most part. But, as he watched the young man walk on out of the livery and over to the jail, Larabee couldn't find reassurance in his own words.

He tugged his hat down and stepped into the waning sunlight. After a short pause, during which he debated with himself his next course of action, Larabee turned and headed for the telegraph office.

Ezra thanked the lord as he and Kira rode into Clayton Falls just as the sun sank over the mountains. The two stock handlers at the last home station had been upset but not terribly surprised at the news of the stage robbery and murder, and had willingly offered the use of a couple of their horses. They had no telegraph capabilities at the post, and since Ezra figured that the news would be better coming from a witness and a fellow law enforcer, he had opted to ride right out. Kira decided to go with him, and after a short rest and a filling lunch they had set out.

They paused side by side for a moment, looking around for the sheriff's office or the jail. All Ezra remembered of the town from his brief stop on the way to Denver were the saloons: the Brown Dog Tavern and Jack's Place. It was only a minute, though, before he saw the weather-beaten sign down at the far end of the street declaring one particular structure to be the jail. Just beyond the jail was what appeared to be the town square.

Ezra turned to Kira. "Why don't you go to the hotel and secure a couple of rooms for the night?"

She looked slightly puzzled. "How do I pay?"

Ezra waggled his eyebrows devilishly, then reached down with one hand and withdrew a small roll of bills from inside his right boot. "It seems our friendly neighborhood thieves forgot the most obvious place to hide cash." They were no doubt too busy robbing me of my garments, he added sourly. "There's roughly fifty dollars here." He counted off a number of bills and pressed them into Kira's hand.

"Why am I not surprised?" Kira said, shaking her head. She counted the money and looked up again. "This is too much."

"You might order us some dinner, and a bath for yourself if you like. I'll take care of the horses, then go find the local sheriff and inform him of what has occurred."

They dismounted, and Ezra took the reins of her horse before she walked towards the hotel. He found the livery and rented two stalls for the horses, entrusting the two animals to the skilled care of the young man that worked there.

After that he headed for the jail. Laughter and music, as well as cheerful yellow light, spilled out into the street from the two saloons. Several people were walking to Mama's Kitchen, which Ezra recalled was the town's single restaurant. An old, wind-weathered man loaded sacks of supplies into a buckboard wagon in front of the general store.

He passed the blacksmith's business, which was dark and empty. The farrier had most likely gone home to supper. A shadowy alley opened up between the blacksmith's and the next building. Ezra stopped in his tracks. Had he heard something? He took a few wary steps into the darkness, reaching for his firearm and listening intently for several long seconds. The sound of a couple walking past the alley broke his concentration, and he relaxed. "Evenin'," he greeted, ignoring their curious stares. "Do y'all happen to know if the sheriff is available?"

The man shook his head. "Nah, he's probably gone home. But one o' the deputies might be there."

Ezra nodded his thanks and continued on. He reached the jailhouse and stepped up onto the boardwalk. Light filtered through the window, but, glancing inside, he didn't see anybody. He pushed open the door and looked around. The building was a narrow rectangle, stretching back a good twenty feet. In the front half were two desks and chairs. In one front corner was a small pot bellied wood stove with a rough-hewn bench in front of it. A locked gun cabinet occupied the wall behind one of the desks. At the far end of the room were two iron-barred prisoners' cells. The main office and the cells were empty.

No sheriff. No deputy. But the lantern was still burning, so somebody must have been there recently. Ezra sighed. He was tired and wanted to go to bed... and his head still hurt somewhat from the knocking it had taken back at the robbery. There was nothing the sheriff could do about the stage or Pearson's body until morning anyhow. He'd come back first thing, refreshed, alert.

He left and headed for the hotel. Inside, the hotel clerk was absent from his desk, though Ezra heard several people talking through an open doorway. Something about one of their customers being unsatisfied. On the counter, he found a slip of paper with his name written on it and a room key set on top. He picked up both.

Before he went to his room, he stopped by to see Kira.

"Ezra," she said upon seeing him. "Did you talk to the sheriff?"

"I couldn't find him, or the deputies. I'll see to it first thing in the morning. How are you faring?"

"Fine, fine. I was just about to take a bath. They've brought me some hot water..."

Ezra nodded. "Well, then I shall see you tomorrow." He moved to leave her room.

"Oh," Kira added, "I already ate my supper, but I had them bring yours to your room. It's probably still warm."

He smiled at her. "Thank you, my dear."

In his own room, he took off his hat and pulled his suspenders off his shoulders. The room was nice enough, and the bed looked soft. He tested the mattress, and then spotted his dinner on a covered tray atop the dresser. He ate most of the meal, and then deemed himself too tired to finish the rest.

Ezra removed his weapon from its holster, lay down on the bed, fluffed the pillow underneath his head, and fell asleep.

"Fellas," Chris greeted as he approached Buck, Nathan, JD, and Vin in front of the jail. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of them all gathered. "What's the occasion?"

Vin shoved his hat back on his head. "We figger somethin' ain't right, Chris."

"Yeah," JD said. "Ezra ain't back yet. And neither's the stage. Doesn't that seem awful strange?"

"As a matter of fact, JD," Chris said, "I've been thinking the same thing."

The others looked at him, so he continued, "I wired Clearwater, and they say the stage left on time. Wired Clayton Falls, but according to them it hasn't arrived there yet. Their law's getting ready to go look and see what happened to it."

"So, what're we waiting for?" Buck demanded.

Larabee grinned. "Hang on there, Buck. We can't all just leave. Someone's got to stay and keep an eye on things."

"I'll stay." Larabee glanced to his left as Josiah joined the group.

"I might as well, too," Nathan added. "There's no tellin' when Mrs. Hamilton's gonna go into labor."

Chris nodded. "JD, you stay too. Me, Vin, and Buck'll go check things out."

"Aw, c'mon, guys," JD interjected, not happy with the idea of staying behind.

"JD," Chris said. "You know two men ain't enough to keep a handle on things if trouble starts."

JD whipped his hat off and slapped it against his thigh. "Yeah, I know," he sighed.

"Cheer up, kid," Buck offered, slinging an arm around Dunne's shoulders. "You got the easy job, sittin' here in town while we bake like biscuits."

"When're you thinkin' of leavin'?" Vin asked Larabee.

"About an hour," Chris replied. "There's still four or five hours of daylight left. Might as well make use of 'em."

The early-morning sun crept around the curtains in Ezra's hotel room, the beam of light awakening him when it reached his face. He threw an arm over his eyes. He knew, just knew that it was too early for him to even think about getting up.

But he had said that he would contact the law first thing in the morning. He pondered the efforts of getting out of bed, and finally promised himself, "Ten more minutes."

He didn't get those ten extra minutes, because as the words left his lips the door to his room banged open, and two men stormed in.

Ezra launched himself into a sitting position, reaching for his gun on the nightstand.

"Don't do it," one man ordered, before Ezra's hand was even halfway to his weapon. He was tall and lanky, and had a gun of his own in hand.

"What is the meaning of this?" Ezra demanded angrily, fully awake now. "Who are you?"

"We'll be asking the questions," snapped the second intruder, an older man with wire-rimmed spectacles and gray hair at his temples. "Are you Ezra Standish?"

"That depends." Slowly, Ezra swung his legs over the mattress, keeping an eye on the gun trained on him as he stood. It was then that he noticed the silver badge pinned to the older man's chest. The law? What the hell did they want with him? "I do believe that knocking is customary in polite society... sheriff, is it?"

The older man nodded sharply. "That's right. Sheriff Kale. And you are under arrest for the murder of one of my deputies."

"Murder!" Ezra sputtered. "Now wait just one minute here! I killed no one."

"Yeah?" Kale asked mildly. "Tell it to the judge. Sam." He nodded, and the younger man withdrew a pair of metal handcuffs with his free hand and took a step towards Ezra.

With the bed behind him, there was nowhere for Ezra to move except forward. He surged forward two steps, intent on brushing past Sam. His upper arm was grabbed rudely, and Ezra stopped and glared at the man. Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself down and said, "I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding. I just arrived in town last night. Our stage was held up - You can ask my traveling companion; she will vouch for me."

"I'm sure she will," Kale said. "But right now, you're coming with us."

Ezra's arms were forced behind his back, and the cuffs were snapped around his wrists. He had no choice but to go along with these men.

The trio headed for the stairs.

"Ezra!" Standish stopped and looked back. It was Kira; she was running down the hall towards them, her hair loose around her shoulders, concern on her face. "Ezra, what's going on? Who are you?" she asked, directing the question to Kale and Sam.

"Ma'am," Kale said, tipping his hat. "I'm the sheriff of Clayton Falls, and this man is under arrest. You'd best stay out of our way."

"Under arrest?" Kira repeated, confusion evident in her furrowed brow.

"These gentlemen are under the impression that I've... murdered... one of their deputies," Ezra explained. He shot the two men a look that clearly stated what he thought of their accusation.

"Ezra didn't kill anyone!" Kira insisted.

"How do you know that fer sure?" Sam asked snidely. "Unless you were with him all night..."

Kira stared at him, mouth agape. Then she snapped her jaw shut and said, much to Ezra's surprise, "As a matter of fact, I was."

Sam just continued to grin.

"We'll discuss that later. Let's go," Kale ordered.

As they led him away, Ezra glanced back over his shoulder. Kira remained standing in the hallway, watching them go.

Vin, Buck, and Chris kept their horses at either a fast walk or an easy trot, alternating between the two for the rest of the afternoon. They stopped only once to water the horses at a small, cold stream.

Night came, and they set up camp in a little hollow of trees.

Bright and early the next morning, they set out again.

Less than an hour after they resumed their journey, Buck's horse stepped in a prairie dog hole and turned its right ankle.

"Damn," Buck uttered as he inspected the horse's fetlock. He straightened up and glanced over at Vin and Chris, both of who had dismounted. "Looks like a sprain."

"The Triple A's just a few miles from here," Chris said, looking to the north. "We can borrow a horse there."

"It ain't too long of a walk," Vin added with a slight grin.

Buck grumbled, then set his gaze upon Vin's horse. A gleam came into his eye, a gleam that Vin easily saw.

"Uh-uh," Tanner said, resting one hand on the butt of his mare's leg. "You ain't takin' my horse."

"Ah, c'mon, Vin. You're younger'n me. You can handle the walk better than I can. Us old folks got to take it easy, right Chris?"

Larabee, who had been smirking, looked in surprise at his old friend. "You sayin' I'm old, Buck?".

"Hell, yeah." Buck grinned.

"Not gonna happen, Buck," Vin restated. And to make his point, he remounted his horse and grinned down at Wilmington.

Chris followed suit. "You know, Buck, 'til you made that little comment, I was gonna offer to ride double..."

Buck heaved a put-upon sigh and shook his head. Fine, he thought. Looks like I'll walk. A little walk never did anybody harm.

He took hold of his horse's reins in one hand, pulled his hat down to block the sun with the other, and followed Chris and Vin as they started on once more.

"So why'd you do it?" Frederick Kale asked loud enough for Sam, who was standing in the doorway having a smoke, to hear.

"I didn't do it," Standish retorted.

Kale leaned back in his chair and took off his glasses. Wiping them clean with a folded handkerchief, he continued, "Yeah, well we found a gun behind some trash bins in the same alley as the body. It has the initials EPS on it." He replaced his glasses and leaned forward, peering into the right-hand cell that Standish occupied. "I'm curious, what does the P stand for?"

"Preposterous," Standish replied. "Which is exactly what your accusations are." The Southerner walked over and grabbed hold of the iron bars with both hands. "I think it would be best if you allowed me to telegraph my colleagues in Four Corners."

"Maybe. But bein' a lawman doesn't automatically make what you say the truth."

"Boss," Sam said. Kale looked at him. "Harper's here."

Kale shoved back his chair and stood up. As he passed Sam in the doorway, he said, "You go on in and keep an eye on him." Sam nodded and stepped into the jail.

Harper stood leaning casually against a porch support beam. Kale glanced around, then approached him.

"The girl could be a problem," Kale said. "She says she was with him the whole night."

"You want me to take care of her?"

"No!" Kale said sharply. "We've got enough dead bodies to contend with as it is." He sighed, then smiled and nodded at a passing citizen. "That damn Johnson," he continued in a quieter voice. "He was nothing but trouble. If he hadn't killed that old man, the two of you would have gotten away clean."

"Yeah, well, with Jay outta the picture our cuts just got bigger," said Harper, grinning around the toothpick between his teeth.

Kale grinned back. "That's true."

Harper looked curiously through the jail's window. "What's Standish up to?"

Kale glanced in as well; Sam was sitting at one desk, and Standish was still standing at the front of his cell. "He's trying to get me to telegraph his people," he chuckled, then quickly sobered. "About the girl... I want you to keep an eye on her. And if she tries to do anything, leave or anything, you grab her. But keep it smart. Sam knows about her, and if she accidentally falls out of her hotel window, that dolt might actually start thinking. Got it?"

Harper glanced in the window again, his gaze hard and cold, and tossed his toothpick into the street. "Got it."

The metal frame of the cot creaked when Ezra stood up. He was currently alone, since the deputy had stepped out for lunch. Time to do something productive.

Ezra tested the door; there was no give to the lock. Unfortunately, his small lock-picking kit had been in his jacket pocket. His pocketknife, which had been in his boot, they had found and confiscated - along with the remainder of his fifty dollars.

Across the room he could see the ring of keys that unlocked the cells. They were sitting on top of the nearer desk, a little more than five feet away.

He might be able to reach it... Maybe if he used his suspenders as a lariat.

But, an inner voice said, if you escape, you'd be a wanted man. He thought briefly of Vin, trying to decide if he could live that way, always looking over his shoulder.

What the blazes are you going on about? another little voice demanded. You didn't kill anyone. Once you get out of here, you can work on clearing things up.

Again, he thought of Vin. Vin, who was still working on proving his innocence...

Ahh, to hell with it...

In one swift motion, he slipped out of his suspenders. He tied his cravat to one end, and a sleeve garter to the other. The accompaniments added about eighteen inches to the total length. He hoped it was enough.

Ezra coiled up the makeshift rope and gripped the cravat-end of it in one hand. He reached both arms through the bars and, aiming carefully, he let loose the suspenders. The end slapped the top of the desk six inches short of the keys.

"Come on," Ezra urged, and he tried again. This time he stretched his arms as far as he possibly could. The loop of the sleeve garter briefly caught the keys, and they shifted with a slight jingle before the rope slipped off.

The third time, the garter caught the keys and he was able to drag them closer. He gave the suspenders a jerk, and the keys flew towards the floor, skidding to a halt two feet from the desk. He was just about to lasso the key ring one final time, when the sound of boots on the porch outside stopped him.

"Damn, damn, damn," he whispered. Quickly, he disassembled the rig and put his suspenders back on. Glancing at the keys, he cursed again, but there was nothing he could do about them.

When the front door opened, Ezra was slouching casually against the wall, idly weaving his tie between the fingers of one hand. He glanced up at the interruption with a mild expression on his face.

The new arrival was neither Kale nor Sam. A tall form. A gray hat. Familiar... As the man came closer, Ezra got a better look at his face.

Outwardly, he showed no expression, but inwardly he was quite surprised.

"You should watch where you're goin', mister."

"You can hand over all your money and valuables."

Ezra cursed himself for not recognizing the man previously during the robbery. He straightened up and faced the blond man through the bars. "Well, well, well. Look who we have here."

The stage robber stopped at one desk, sitting half-on and half-off one corner of it.

"So, ya recognize me," he said with a grin. "Well, shoot. Now what'll I do?"

Ezra scowled. "You do know that this is a jail? It's not very wise for a murderer to be hangin' around places such as this, now is it?"

The blond spread his arms wide and said in an earnest manner, "I didn't kill nobody." He got up and walked a few steps closer. "The way I hear it, Standish, it's you who's the murderer."

"Well, sir, you seem to know my name, but I'm still in the dark as to yours."

"The name's Harper. But you can call me Deputy Harper." With a laugh and a flick of his wrist, the man exposed the badge pinned to the underside of his coat lapel.

Standish blinked in surprise. Oh, terrific. A crooked deputy; just what I need. Out loud he drawled, "How about I call you 'jackass'?"

"I knew you were familiar looking when I first saw you," Harper explained smugly, ignoring the sarcastic remark. "Just didn't come to me 'til later."

"Does your boss know about your extracurricular activities?"

Harper laughed and clapped his hands together once. "That's good! I ain't never heard it put quite that way before. Extracurricular indeed."

Ezra narrowed his eyes and watched as Harper left his seat on the desk and walked forward a few steps - stopping just six inches from the as-yet-unnoticed key ring on the floor.

"Now here's how it's gonna be, so you'd best listen up," Harper said, all traces of joviality gone from his voice. "You're gonna hang for the murder of Deputy Johnson, and that's all there is to it."

Until that point, nobody had told Ezra just whom it was that he had supposedly killed. Now, he began to put the pieces together. "Johnson... Of course... your accomplice from the other day. Let me guess, you killed him because he got greedy and wanted a bigger cut. Or was it that you wanted a bigger cut?"

Harper shrugged. "I don't much like to kill people - causes too much trouble, not to mention the mess of it - but I'll do it if it means saving my neck. Johnson was nothing but trouble, and with what he did at the robbery... well, we had to do something."

"This is absurd!" Ezra exclaimed, exasperated. "There is no evidence that I did kill him. My gun was stolen back at the stage... I didn't have it to commit a murder with. No judge will convict me."

"The judge will believe what we tell him," Sheriff Kale said from the doorway. "He doesn't care much for your sort. I've heard that his daughter ran off with a two-bit riverboat gambler." He sauntered into the room. A slip of yellow paper was in his right hand. "What with your record of prior arrests.... "

He slapped the yellow piece of paper down on the desk. Ezra glared at Kale's hand. He was wearing Ezra's stolen ring. The bastard.

Ezra snapped his glare up to Kale's face as the sheriff continued: "This here telegram says that you, Mr. Standish, have been charged with accounts of... let's see... theft, cheating, public disturbance, assaulting a peace officer, and jumping bail... all in the past couple years."

All manufactured charges, Ezra thought. Well, except for the jumping bail part...

"You've been a bad boy," Harper said. "The judge won't have any trouble believing you killed Jay in an angry fit over a past debt."

"Why are you telling me all this?" Ezra demanded. "What makes you think I won't reveal your little secret to the next person who walks in this door?"

Kale stepped close and peered at Ezra through his spectacles. "Because we want you to understand one thing... and one thing only. If you so much as utter a word about this, if you try to escape, if you persist in proclaiming your innocence, if you tell your friends..." He stopped when he saw Ezra's confused look. "Oh, didn't I tell you? Your friends from Four Corners are on their way... to help us investigate the disappearance of the stage coach." Kale chuckled. "I guess they missed you." A scowl replaced the chuckle. "And if you say one damn word to them that I don't approve of, Harper here will kill your little girlfriend, understand?"

The spark of anger that had been building in Ezra worked itself into a full-grown blaze. "If you so much as touch her," he growled, "I will tear you apart, piece by little piece. Do you understand me, Sheriff?"

Kira Stone stood on the hotel boardwalk, gazing down the street towards the jail and tapping her foot in frustration.

She didn't know the whole cock and bull story, but she knew it was a lie. A good lie - that Sheriff Kale was a smooth one - but a lie nonetheless. Ezra Standish hadn't killed anyone; she'd bet her life on it. He'd been as weary as she had been last night. Certainly, he'd been too tired to go out and kill someone. And why would he, anyway? From what she'd gathered during the times they'd talked on the trail, Ezra wasn't all that familiar with Clayton Falls, or the people who lived there.

And why on earth would he kill a lawman?

It just didn't add up.

She'd tried to go and talk to him, but that one deputy, Sam, had stopped her, saying that the sheriff and another deputy were in there questioning Ezra. On the way past the large picture window in the front, she had glanced inside. She could see the backs of two men - one was Kale; the other she didn't recognize. Ezra stood with both hands on the bars of his cell, gripping them tightly. He had such an angry look on his face as he spoke... She wondered what he was saying.

Well, if they wouldn't let her talk to him, she decided, she would do something else. He had friends in Four Corners, the other six gunslingers that Jake had mentioned... They could come and vouch for Ezra, clear this mess up...

Decision made, Kira stepped off the boardwalk and crossed the street to the combined post office and telegraph office. She stepped back onto the boardwalk and had almost reached the door of the shared business when a rough hand grabbed her arm and jerked her to a halt. 'Scuse me, miss," said a masculine voice.

Kira looked up, startled, instinctively trying to pull away. The man's grip only tightened.

"Won't you walk with me?" the man asked.

She shook her head. "No, I don't think so. Please let me go." She struggled to free her arm.

His grip tightened some more, and Kira cried out involuntarily. "Ow! You're hurting me. Let go!" She looked around for help, but the tall stranger had his back to the street, blocking his rough treatment of her from the eyes of any passersby.

"I don't think you understand," the man stated with careful pronunciation. He rested his hand on the butt of his gun. Kira's eyes widened at the obvious threat. "It wasn't a request. Now walk."

He maintained the hold on her arm as he led her down the boardwalk and between two buildings. Kira threw one last glance up and down the street, but their confrontation had been a quiet one, and nobody glanced their way as the two of them disappeared down the alley.

Mid-afternoon found the trio of lawmen just entering the main street of Clayton Falls. They headed straight for the jail to see if anything had been discovered in regards to the missing stagecoach.

A man of about forty-five, graying hair, wearing spectacles, stood in the street in front of the jail, watching their approach.

"Howdy," Buck greeted, leaning forward on his saddle horn. "You the law in this town?"

"That's right," the man replied pleasantly enough. "I'm Sheriff Frederick Kale. You must be from Four Corners."

"That's right," Chris confirmed, instantly sizing up the man and deciding that there was something about him that he didn't like.

"The name's Chris Larabee. This here's Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington." He swung down from his saddle in one smooth motion and tied his horse to the hitching rail. Buck and Vin followed suit. "We've come to see about the missing stage. One of my men was on it."

"Is his name Ezra Standish?" Kale asked, placing his hands on his hips.

"What do you know about him?" Chris asked.

"Well, gentlemen, we found the stagecoach. Driver was dead, horses gone. Robbed. Your man, Standish, he rode on into town last night."

"Rode?" Vin asked.

Kale eyed the longhaired tracker. "That's right. Says he borrowed a horse from the mid-point station."

"Where can we find him?" Larabee demanded.

Kale smoothed the front of his brown vest with one hand. The glint of sunlight off of something metal caught Chris' eye. It was a plain gold band on the third finger of Kale's right hand. "In jail. Mr. Standish is under arrest."

"What?" Buck laughed, glancing sideways at Vin and Chris.

Chris shook his head in fond exasperation. Damn fool can't stay out of trouble for even a few days, can he? "What's the charge, sheriff?" he asked, with a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me smile.

"The murder of one of my deputies."

"Bull!" Buck exclaimed, taking a step forward, putting himself into Kale's personal space. Kale took a step back with a look of distaste.

Vin, who had been mostly quiet, spoke up. "Ezra's a lot of things, but he ain't no murderer."

Chris met his friend's blue gaze, and nodded his agreement. He looked back at Kale and said, "You've got the wrong man." The tone of his laconic statement implied that it was the most obvious answer in the world.

Kale scowled and drew himself up to his full height. "We have witnesses that place him near the scene of the crime, and we have his weapon also near the scene. And then there's his less than stellar record..."

"Can you believe this?" Buck asked incredulously, glancing over his shoulder at Larabee. "Lookie here, Sheriff, this all is just a misunderstandin'. You let us talk to ol' Ez, and we'll get this all figgered out."

"I'm afraid it's no misunderstanding, gentlemen. The judge'll be in on the next stage from Prescott. But, of course, you can talk to your friend if you'd like. This way." Kale led the way to the door of the jail, gesturing for them to precede him.

Chris walked in first. He saw Ezra sitting on a cot in one of two small cells.

Standish stood up.

"Ezra," Chris greeted as he walked over to the cell.

"Mr. Larabee, how nice of you to visit."

"Nice look you got goin' there, Ezra," Buck teased.

Ezra looked down at his himself and grimaced. "Deplorable, I know. What I would give for a hot bath and a shave."

"Ezra," Chris said again, then hesitated. He shifted slightly to look at Kale, who was still standing near one of the office's two desks. "Think we can have a minute, Sheriff?" he asked, somewhat sarcastically.

Kale smiled pleasantly. "Of course." As he left the room, he cast a glance back at Ezra. Standish smiled blandly right back at him.

"What's goin' on, Ez?" Buck demanded the instant the door closed behind Kale. "What's this about a murder?"

Ezra turned and walked back to the cot. "It's... simple, really. The stage was robbed, my valuables taken. I arrived in town last night... and came across an old acquaintance of mine. The deputy and I had an altercation, which unfortunately ended tragically... for him, anyway." He sank down onto the thin mattress, leaned against the wall, and crossed his legs.

"Altercation about what?" Chris asked.

"He owed me a great sum of money..." Ezra said.

"Kinda hard for a dead man to pay up," Vin reasoned.

"Yes, well, call it a crime of passion, if you will. One that I am quite regretful of..."

"Well, hell, Ezra!" Buck exclaimed, throwing up his hands in exasperation. "You're in a heap o' trouble here.

Chris studied Ezra thoughtfully, head cocked slightly. There was a mixture of embarrassment, self-deprecation and regret on the gambler's face.

He almost bought it. Almost.

Vin pointed his chin at Ezra. "They actually got evidence against ya?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Ezra said. He sighed sadly. "I only wish..."

"What?" Chris prompted.

Ezra stared at his feet. "Well, in my saddlebag I had kept a silver pocket watch given to me by my father. Engraved on it are the initials K.S... Karl Standish... I believe I had it wrapped up in a gray shirt. I don't know if it was taken during the robbery or not." Ezra looked up again, matching Larabee's gaze with an intent one of his own. "I would certainly like to have it back, if it's at all possible. Perhaps one of you could see fit to return to me Karl Standish's watch?"

"What?" Buck asked, puzzled. "You're worried about a watch at a time like this?"

Ezra continued to watch Chris as he said, "It's a family heirloom, Mr. Wilmington."

But Chris Larabee knew for a fact that Ezra's father's name was not Karl.

What are you up to, Ezra? he asked silently.

As Chris studied the gambler, he noticed several things that he hadn't before: the clenched fist, the tight lines around the eyes, the nearly imperceptible held breath. Combined, it was enough to clue Chris in that Ezra was trying to tell them something. And that something was apparently back at the site of the robbery.

Chris nodded slowly. "Sure, Ezra. No problem. We can do that for you."

Buck and Vin raised their eyebrows, aware that something was going on but not quite sure what.

Some of the tension eased out of Ezra's features, and he exhaled softly. He smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I knew you would understand how... important... this is to me."

Once they were gone, Ezra rested his knees on his elbows and rubbed his face with both hands. "Ugh," he muttered. This had better work...

He hadn't known what else to tell them that wouldn't be obvious to Kale or whomever else was listening.

Hopefully, his make-believe family heirloom would be enough to lead them in the right direction. Chris knew that his father's name wasn't Karl - he had ever since that quiet February night the two of them had spent patrolling the hills north of town in the freezing rain.

It would have to be enough.

The door opened, and Kale entered. "Good boy, Standish. Now, you just hope those friends of yours don't cause too much trouble, else something may just have to... happen... to one of 'em."

"What the hell's going on here? What was all that about back there?"

The three of them had just sat down at a table in Jack's Place, one of the local saloons, and ordered a late lunch of steak and beans.

"Not quite sure yet, Buck," Chris said, taking a sip from his mug of beer. "But we're sure as hell gonna find out. Vin..." He looked over to the tracker.

Vin nodded. "I'll ride on out to where the stage was s'posed to've been held up, see what I can find out, what Ezra wants us to find out." He pushed his chair back and stood up.

"You don't got to go right this minute," Buck said, gesturing at Vin's abandoned chair. "Don't ya wanna eat?"

"I've got some jerky in my pack. I'll eat on the way," Vin replied. "Think I'll rent a horse, let mine rest up a bit."

"Be careful, Vin," Chris cautioned.

Vin smiled. "Always am." He touched the brim of his hat, nodded, said, "Fellas," and left.

"There's something fishy 'bout that sheriff," Buck said once their lunch had arrived. He speared a piece of meat with his fork and stared at it thoughtfully.

"You noticed that, too, huh?"

"Damn, Chris, how could I not? Did you see his eyes? He's got beady eyes!" Buck's body shuddered violently in mock fear. "Beady!" His face broke into a grin, and he shoved the piece of steak into his mouth.

Vin reined in his rented horse and hopped down from his saddle. He crouched down on his heels and inspected the ground before him.

The dirt was churned up in a number of places. He could discern four or five different boot prints. Most of them were large, obviously male. But one set of prints was smaller... a boy's or a woman's, most likely.

Tracks of the stage were evident, but where was the actual carriage? He hadn't seen any signs that it had been brought into town.

He looked up from his inspection, surveying the nearby landscape. Some distance to the west, the hard-packed land rose and formed a ridge roughly a hundred yards long. To the east, even farther out than the ridge was to the west, was a grove of trees. North and south, the road just stretched on until it disappeared around some bend that he couldn't see.

As Vin pondered his options, something caught his eye - a shadow in the ground that didn't belong. Ten yards away, to the west. He quickly remounted the horse and headed that way. The shadow was actually a furrow in the soft dirt at the base of an egg-shaped boulder. He knew immediately that no animal had caused the impression. It was two inches wide; nearly eight inches long; and deep, as if something heavy had produced it. Something like the wheel of a stagecoach.

They'd done a good job of covering the tracks - whoever they were. But Vin was an experienced tracker, and now he knew what to look for. Following the signs, he continued on to the west.

He reached the crest of the ridge; saplings, small bushes, and several cacti covered the ground. The skittish horse tried to back away from the edge. "Whoa there, boy," Vin soothed. He dismounted, keeping the reins in one hand, and looked down.

In the glowing red-orange light of the setting sun, the scene below him was slowly sinking into shadows, but he could still see what he needed to see. The ridge that he was on was actually one side of a small ravine, a crevasse in the land. It extended a hundred yards to his left and fifty yards to his right, narrowing to mere cracks at its farthest ends. Ten yards across at the widest point, and at least fifteen yards deep. The rocky walls sloped inward near the base, and a number of dangerous-looking rock formations nearly filled the bottom of the ravine.

The missing stagecoach lay at the bottom, shattered into hundreds of pieces by the sharp terrain.

Vin scouted out the various rock faces from where he knelt, but didn't see any easily accessible routes by which to reach the bottom. He glanced at the crimson horizon, then at his horse. "Think I can do it?" he asked the animal. The horse snorted. "Thanks for the vote o' confidence, buddy." He hesitated, then shrugged. "It don't look too hard. Might as well make use of the daylight we got."

In a matter of minutes, he had ground hobbled the gelding, hung his canteen from around his neck, and uncoiled his fifty foot length of rope from around the horn of his saddle.

With his knife, he hacked away at the spines on the base of a sturdy-looking cactus near the lip of the ridge. When he was sure that there were none left that could cause him trouble, he secured one end of the rope around the bottom of the cactus. He tested its hold and nodded in approval. It would work.

He tossed the rope down into the quickly darkening crevasse. Next, Vin soaked his bandana using the whiskey he carried in his saddlebag, wrapped it tightly around one end of a dead tree branch, and tucked it into his gun belt. He would need some light once he got down there.

He flexed his fingers, cracked his knuckles, grabbed the rope, and slipped over the edge with ease.

The Brown Dog Tavern was a nice saloon, nicer than Jack's Place anyway. The tables were covered in green felt, the walls were made of dark wood paneling, and the bar was long with a shiny brass foot rail. Polished brass spittoons occupied every corner of the room, the light of a dozen lanterns glinting warmly off of them.

Buck leaned on the bar. Outwardly, he appeared to just be enjoying a drink. But actually, he was listening intently to the talk going on around him. The best place to hear town gossip was the saloon, and he knew he just had to bide his time before something important was said. Besides, Vin wasn't back from his little excursion yet, and Buck didn't have any better ideas at the moment.

The topics of conversation had varied from the newest working girls, to the best way to hold a cow down when branding stock; from the weather, to whether or not someone had the money to play some cards.

"Kinda odd the stage's been redirected so sudden like," someone said. "Wonder what the emergency was?"

Buck craned his head around to find the source of those words. It was an older man, white-haired, hollow-cheeked. He was standing five patrons down the bar from Buck, and he was talking to the bartender.

Beer in hand, Buck managed to squeeze in next to the old man. He smiled charmingly. "The name's Buck. Can I buy you a drink, friend?" he asked, signaling to the barkeep.

The old man looked at him doubtfully, but agreed, introducing himself simply as Lars.

"I couldn't help overhearin' what you just said," Buck continued. "I'm new in town, don't know much of who's who. But, see, I used to know a feller by the name of Jay Johnson. Haven't seen him in years, but I hear he's a deputy in this town. Thought I'd surprise him with a visit."

The old man shook his head and gazed at Buck with a shade of regret in his eyes. "Sorry to tell ya, mister, but the deputy's dead."

"Dead?" Buck feigned shock. "Well, hell, how'd that happen?"

Lars shrugged. "The way I hear it, some fancy gambler done killed him over a money debt."

"I... I can't believe it. I never knew Jay was into gambling..." Buck shook his head sadly and leaned heavily on the bar.

"I lived here my whole life," Lars said, "and I watched that boy grow up. He never gambled more'n ten dollars at any one time in his life. Never had the money to lose."

"You ever see him with this gambler that's s'posed to have killed him?"

"Nope. Can't say's I have." The old man paused, then said, "I got a glimpse o' him as the sheriff took him to the jail... Only time I ever saw him before was in this here saloon."

"That right? Here?"

"Yeah. Had to've been about a week ago. Wouldn't have noticed him, 'cept he wore this bright red coat..."

Buck smiled. The red coat was often the first thing people recalled about Ezra.

"...and the run-in he had with Deputy Harper."

That caught Buck's attention. He and the others had yet to meet a Deputy Harper. "Yeah?" he asked casually, as if he were only mildly interested. "He and the deputy know each other?"

"Don't know. All I know is the deputy'd had some to drink, and he gets a little rough when he drinks. The gambler got in his way. Prob'ly would'a' gone to blows, except that the gambler was travelin' with two other men, both armed."

"What's this deputy look like?" Buck asked. The old man just looked at him for a moment, and Buck quickly added, "I wanta find him and ask him about Jay's funeral arrangements. I... I'd kinda like to be the one to take care of 'em, sort of my last respects."

Lars nodded in acceptance. "Well, he's tall. Got kinda tow colored hair, dark eyes. He's usually either at the jail, the saloon, or his place. 'Cept when he goes off on official business once in a while with Johnson..."

The old man seemed to lose interest in the conversation, and Buck stared into his beer, mind whirring.

Something was going on in this town, and this Deputy Harper seemed as good a place as any to start looking.

"Ah, Mr. Larabee. What can I do for you?" Frederick Kale asked politely as Larabee strode into the jail.

Larabee took a stance in front of Kale's desk. "I wanted to talk to you about evidence," he said bluntly.

Kale nodded. He leaned forward and interlaced his fingers on the desktop. He'd heard about this Larabee. A ruthless gunslinger, rumor had it. But he didn't look all that ruthless to Frederick.

"We have two witnesses who can pinpoint Mr. Standish at the alley where the body was discovered earlier in the evening -- a couple out for a stroll. And Mr. Standish's weapon was found nearby, in the same alley."

"So you said earlier," Larabee stated. "How is it that nobody heard the gunshot?"

"We believe that Mr. Standish killed Deputy Johnson at another location and brought his body to the alley."

"Why would he do that?"

"I am in the room, gentlemen," Standish spoke up from his cell, sounding annoyed.

Kale glared at him for a second, then said, "I don't purport to know what goes on in a killer's mind, Mr. Larabee."

Larabee stared at him in silence. Kale - with a look of sincere professionalism plastered on his face - met his ice-cold gaze directly and without flinching, but the moment dragged on for so long that he started to wonder if the man would ever speak.

"No," the gunslinger said finally, softly. "I guess you don't." He nodded to Standish. "Ezra, I'll be by later."

"I'm not going anywhere, Mr. Larabee."

Damn straight, Kale thought.

Frederick Kale hid a smug smile as Larabee left. He could deal with the almighty Chris Larabee - piece of cake.

"Buck," Chris greeted, as he stepped into the street. "Find anything out?"

"Some." Buck hooked a thumb in his gun belt and explained to Larabee what he'd learned from Lars back at the saloon.

"Not much to go on."

Buck sighed in agreement. He gazed down the street, scanning the buildings, looking for... he didn't know what he was looking for.

The two lawmen crossed the street, heading for the hotel.

At the portico, Chris paused. "Hey, Buck," he said.

"Yeah, Chris?"

"Did you notice that Kale wears a ring on his right hand?"

Buck halted, too, and looked at his friend. Chris' eyes were hidden under the brim of his hat, which he wore despite the fact that the sun was practically gone. "Yeah, as a matter of fact I did."

Chris jerked his head towards the jail. "I went back in there, to s'posedly talk about the charges against Ezra. Got a real good look at it. It's Ezra's."

Buck whistled. "You sure about this, Chris?" Stupid question, he thought to himself. Of course, he's sure. "Damn."

They continued to look at one another for a moment, before Buck shifted his stance to stare out across the street.

Ezra had been robbed, back at the stage. And Buck had noticed that the gold band he usually wore on his left hand was missing - he'd just figured that it had been taken during the robbery.

The ring had been taken during the robbery, all right. The fact that Kale was now wearing it meant one of two things. One: For some reason the robber, or robbers, had not taken the piece of jewelry from Ezra, and Kale had taken it after he'd arrested Ezra. Unlikely, though. Or two: Kale was involved with the stage robbery, and that was how he'd gotten the ring.

"This keeps gettin' better and better, don't it?" Buck said. "What's the plan?"

Chris shook his head slightly and started to walk once more, spurs jingling softly with every step. "I'm workin' on it, Buck. I'm workin' on it."

Buck glanced down the street one last time. A curtain in a second story window parted, and a sliver of light cut through the night. The dark silhouette of a woman stood at the window for a moment. Buck watched her, wondering what the woman was looking at... or for.

As he looked on, the woman visibly started and spun around, the curtains falling closed as she did so. A moment passed, but there was no further sign of movement from that particular window. He shook his head, put the occurrence out of his mind, and followed Chris into the hotel.

The key turned in the door, startling Kira. She let the curtains fall back into place and quickly moved away from the window.

It was Harper, looking as if he'd just come in off the trail. He was carrying a covered tray.

"Can't have you starvin', now, can we? Least, not yet." He grinned widely at her, then placed the tray on a small table. "Go on, eat."

She fisted her hands at her sides and raised her chin ever so slightly in defiance, but didn't move towards the food.

Harper rolled his eyes, drew his gun, and said again, "Eat it."

Her hateful glare remained on him for a moment, and then she walked over to the table and uncovered the dish of food. Chicken and green beans. She glanced at him, hesitantly picked up the fork, and tasted a bite of the food.

She had just swallowed as a rough hand gripped her shoulder, transforming her startled gasp into a choke.

"Didn't anybody ever teach you any manners?" Harper hissed in her ear. "You're s'posed to say thank you."

"For what? Keeping me prisoner?" Kira shrugged out of his grasp and backed away from him. "What're you keeping me here for? Why didn't you just kill me and get it over with?"

Seeing that she had no desire to eat her supper, Harper scooped a forkful of green beans into his wide mouth. "I was gonna. But the boss had other plans... wanted to use you as collateral against your beau." He leered at her and waggled his eyebrows, and she flushed at his implication of her relationship with Ezra.

Why on earth had she ever said that she and Ezra had spent the night together?

That was before you knew that this whole damn town is crooked, when you thought that you could help him!

Harper polished off half of the food before adding, "Once he hangs, well, there won't be no more use for you." He chuckled. "Guess I'll take my leave now... let you think on that."

The solid door thumped closed behind him as he left, and the lock clicked ominously.

Alone again, Kira returned to the window. She could try to escape that way, but it was a twenty-foot drop to the street, with nothing on which to climb down. No awning on the hardware store below, no flower trellis, nothing. It would be difficult.


And Harper had threatened that, if she should try to escape, he would shoot Ezra in the stomach and watch him bleed to death. Then find her and do the same.

Still, she kept the window as an option...

At the bottom of the ravine, Vin withdrew a match from his pocket and lit his makeshift torch. The whiskey-soaked cloth flared brightly.

The wreckage spread over an area of ten or twelve yards, but it didn't take long for Vin to investigate the remains of the stagecoach.

When he found the driver, he grimaced. The dead man was partially wrapped in a blanket; his exposed skin was pale and cold, his body broken and cut by the fall. Coyotes or some other such predator had gotten to him already, judging by the marks on his face and arms; probably before the coach had been moved.

There was nothing Vin could do for him. The ground was too rocky to dig a grave, even if Vin had something with which to dig. And he couldn't bring the corpse to the top by himself. They'd have to come back for him later.

He left the body, and immediately tripped over Ezra's saddlebags. "Dang it," he muttered. A quick search revealed nothing more than several changes of clothes, assorted toiletries, a small book, silver flask, a deck of cards, and some dried fruit. Nothing related to the clue that Ezra had given.

Not until he hefted the saddlebags over one shoulder - figuring that Ezra would like to have his things back - did Vin see the other piece of luggage. It was partially buried under what had been one of the coach's doors. The exposed portion was a shade of gray dark enough that he had not noticed it on first glance.

It was a carpetbag. Vin kicked away the debris and picked up the bag. It had busted open, and women's clothes and undergarments had spilled out.

On the wooden handgrip were the initials K.S.

Not Karl Standish, but somebody else. Somebody who had been on that stage with Ezra. Somebody who could perhaps shed some light on the situation back in town.

Ezra watched as Sam placed another log in the corner stove. The night had grown chilly, and the jail along with it.

The deputy had yet to say anything since he arrived for his shift fifteen minutes ago. He hadn't taunted, gloated, or otherwise rubbed Ezra's nose in his current dire situation. That piqued Ezra's curiosity; if he remembered correctly, and he knew that he did, each time that Harper or Kale had something of importance to say, Deputy Sam had not been in the room.

"Tell me, sir," Ezra drawled. He was lying on his cot with his arms behind his head. "How do you fit into Sheriff Kale's conspiracy?"

Sam moved from the stove to his desk. "What conspiracy?" he questioned, bemused, as he picked up a newspaper and unfolded it with a snap.

"Why, the one involving your friend's murder," Ezra explained.

The newspaper rattled as the deputy thumbed a page. "You're talkin' crazy. There ain't no conspiracy."

Ezra sat up. "Ingenious, really. No one would ever suspect that the local law spends their off hours as bandits."

Sam tossed the paper down in exasperation. "What the hell are you blathering on about?"

"Johnson and Harper, you ignoramus. They're stage robbers. And Kale is in on it as well - the ringmaster, so to speak."

"Mister, Fred Kale is a good man. There ain't no way he's a robber or a killer, so just give it up." Sam plunked his feet on the desk and picked up the newspaper again. He shook his head. "That's some story. Johnson weren't no good friend of mine, but he was still a lawman, and you're gonna hang."

"So it's guilty until proven innocent, then, is it? Funny, I thought it was the other way around."

"Be quiet, and let me read in peace."

So much for that, Ezra thought. He'd just have to wait and see. Then again, he didn't have much to do but wait.

At a quarter 'til eleven, a knock sounded upon the door to Larabee's room. Still fully clothed and wide-awake, Chris swiftly crossed the room and opened the door. "Vin." He motioned for Tanner to come inside.

"Chris," Vin greeted. The tracker was covered in dust. A pair of brown leather saddlebags was slung over one shoulder. "I knocked on Buck's door. He'll be right along."

At that moment, Buck appeared. "I'm here. Hey, are those...?"

Vin nodded and said, "Ezra's." He quickly explained what he had found, ending with, "There was a woman on the stage with Ezra."

"Well, then where is she?" Buck mused.

Chris, who had listened quietly while Vin spoke, said, "K.S., huh?" Now where had he seen those initials before? It only took a split second for him to remember, and Chris strode out of the room

"Chris?" Buck asked. "What is it?"

Larabee didn't say anything, just quickly descended the staircase. At the reception counter, the middle-aged clerk snored in his chair. He awoke with a snort when Chris grabbed the register and swung it around. "Hey!" the clerk protested.

Chris ignored him, just showed the book to Vin and Buck, and pointed to the name penned above Ezra's. "Miss Karen Stone," he said.

He shoved the register back towards the clerk. "You remember this lady?"

The clerk swallowed nervously under the stares of the three gunslingers. He looked at the page and nodded jerkily. "Uh, yeah, sure. She came in last night. Paid for two rooms for the night." The man squinted. "She was all dusty and everything. I asked about it, but she just said it was a long story. She signed her friend's name, too, and asked me to leave his key on the counter and have dinner brought to his room."

"What's she look like?" Vin asked.

"Uh, I don't know. Young. Twenties or so. Blonde hair. Kind of pretty, really."

"Where's she now?"

"Haven't seen her since this morning," the clerk replied. "I work the night shift. The sheriff arrested that man early this morning, so I was still here. The girl left shortly after, and, like I said, I haven't seen her since."

Chris turned to his friends, effectively dismissing the hotel employee. "We'll ask around. It's not too late; there might be someone who remembers seeing her. Let's go." He led the way out of the hotel, a dark shape stepping out into the even darker night.

Early the next morning, Judge Reginald Moore arrived, and the Brown Dog Tavern was transformed into a courtroom.

In his cell, Ezra Standish cursed the letter that had gotten him in this situation to begin with.

Outwardly, he appeared as confident as ever. On the inside... he was worried. For himself. For his friends. For Kira. If he were falsely convicted of Johnson's murder, it stood to reason that Kira would then be killed - what reason would they have for keeping her alive?

And once convicted, he would quickly hang. It was something that he was certain would not sit well with his friends. They were not idiots. They already knew something was suspicious with his arrest. And if they started to get really bothersome, Kale might decide to stage some elaborate "accident" for one or two of them. Little did the man know, however, that if he killed one, he would have the other five to deal with.

The pounding of hammers outside drew Ezra's attention. The gallows... They'd started building it at dawn. It was Kale's idea. Ezra had overheard him talking to one of Clayton Falls' citizens, saying that it was better to start building the gallows now. If it turned out not to be needed, they would just take it down.

Apparently, Kale believed in being prepared. Too prepared, for Ezra's taste.

Ezra had chosen to represent himself during the trial, since there was no lawyer to be had in this godforsaken town. The thought had briefly crossed his mind of asking one of his friends to do the honor - but only briefly. Vin, he was sure, would get a dreadful case of stage fright. Chris would terrorize the witnesses until they were of no good to anybody. And Buck... Ezra couldn't even imagine how Buck would fare in the role of lawyer.

"Hey, Ez."

Ezra smiled. "Ah, speak of the devil."

"How's that?" Buck queried, grinning cheerfully.

"Never mind. What do you have there?" He gestured to the bundle that Wilmington held under one arm.

"A change of clothes. Thought you'd want to clean up for the judge. Had 'em pressed and everything." As Buck passed the clothing - and Ezra's hat - through the bars, he added softly, "I saw your shadows over at the saloon, talkin' to the judge."

Ezra stared at the clean clothes he now held. They were his... This exact same pinstriped shirt had been in his saddlebag. He glanced curiously at Buck.

"Don't worry, pard," Buck said, his eyes serious. "We're working on findin' her."

Ezra nodded slowly, hiding a smile of relief. Clearing his throat, he raised one sardonic eyebrow and said, "A little privacy?"

Buck grinned and turned his back to Ezra, who quickly changed into the clean set of clothes. Within the folds of cloth were a hand towel and a mug of shaving soap. He smiled. As he knotted the black string tie at his throat, he indicated that Buck could turn around again.

"What do I use to shave with?" he asked, lathering his face with soap.

Buck glanced out the window, at the door, and then reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small hand mirror and a bone handled razor, both of which Ezra recognized as his own.

While Buck held the mirror steady, Ezra shaved off the several days' worth of whiskers, wiping the razor clean on the hand towel. It was a little tricky without the aid of water, but, finally, he wiped away the excess soap from his skin and from the blade, folded the razor, and slipped it into his boot.

"Much better," he said, examining his reflection in the mirror. He turned away, and Buck pocketed the mirror. Gathering his discarded garments together, Ezra asked, "What do you know of this Judge Moore?"

Buck shrugged. "Ain't never heard of him before today. Chris talked to him, tried to tell him straight, but the man didn't listen."

"I suppose there's not much chance of having Judge Travis come preside over the matter?"

"Afraid not, Ez. We wired home, and Mary says he's in Carson City. The boys sure are worried, though. They wanted to ride on out here and help. Chris told 'em to stay put."

Ezra sighed. "No, that was the right thing. There's nothing for them to do here." He hesitated, wondering how much Buck knew. "Harper killed Johnson, Buck," he said. "They and Kale were in on the stage robbery. Johnson was the one who killed the driver. I believe his name was Rick Pearson..."

Buck nodded. "Yeah, we figgered somethin' was funny when Chris saw Kale wearin' your ring."

"Yes," Ezra said with a scowl, "the... sheriff - and I use that term loosely -- apparently thought it suited him. If the opportunity should arise...?"

"No problem, Ez. You'll get it back."

Harper was gone, had been for a while. He and Kale and the other deputy had taken Ezra to the saloon, where the trial for the murder of Deputy Johnson was being held. She had watched as people swarmed into the tavern; no doubt, this was the most excitement they'd seen in a while.

Kira stood at the window, staring at the wooden gallows forming in the town square. God, they were all ready to hang Ezra, and he hadn't even been convicted! She had to do something. With Harper not likely to come back for a while, this was her one chance.

If she could escape, she could find one of Ezra's friends - she had seen them from the window of the room. The man in black... he had to be Chris Larabee, the famous gunfighter whom her cousin had mentioned in his letter. She would find Mr. Larabee - he would believe her when she told him what was really going on.

The door was locked. She had tried picking the mechanism with her hairpin, to no avail. She'd beaten on the handle with her shoe, pounded on the door for any passersby. But the door was thick, solid, and the lock was new and strong. Nothing worked.

Drawing a deep breath, Kira unlatched the window and pulled the panes inward. A gentle breeze teased the plain curtains. The rattling sound of a wagon reached her, and she looked out and down.

A buckboard wagon, drawn by a single horse, pulled up in front of the hardware store beneath her. She watched as the driver hopped down and walked into the store. The back was filled with several large white sacks of what looked to be grain and flour or sugar. It was directly under her window, only about five or six feet away from the wall of the building.

"You can do this," she said to herself. "It's not that far... You would've done it anyway, even without the wagon."

Gathering her skirt with one hand, she maneuvered until she was sitting on the windowsill. Twisting awkwardly, she faced inward, let go of her skirt, grabbed the sill with both hands, and let her legs fall free. She looked down. It really isn't that far, she told herself. Really.

Kira pushed herself away from the wall with her knees, trying to gather some momentum. Repeating the action, she swung out further and let go, flinging herself backwards.

With a loud "Oof!" she landed in the wagon, grain and sugar -- not flour -- exploding from their sacks upon impact. A moment passed. Finally, groaning, she managed to push herself into a sitting position, wiping white sugar from her face as she did so.

Getting out of the wagon was a bit of a struggle, but her body quickly regained its equilibrium, and she edged around the corner of the hardware store.

"Mr. Standish, please stand up."

Ezra Standish reluctantly did as the judge asked. The proceedings had not gone well. Against Kale's advice, he had used every trick in book, had used all of his knowledge of the law to try and convince the judge that he had not killed Jay Johnson - In the end, he just could not sit quietly and be condemned for something that he had not done. Despite all of that, one look at Moore's face and Ezra knew without a doubt what the judge was going to say.

"With the authority vested in me by the government of the United States, I hereby find you guilty of the murder of Jay Joseph Johnson, former deputy of this town. The sentence for your crime is death. You will hang until dead at daybreak tomorrow. Court is adjourned."

The crowd of spectators erupted into noise, talking and speculating excitedly as they left the saloon.

Daybreak, Ezra thought. Less than eighteen hours. He smiled wanly at his friends as they pushed their way through the crowd. His eyes widened and the smile dropped from his face, however, as he looked past their shoulders: Harper was making his way towards the exit.

"Harper!" Ezra shouted, lunging after the man. He made it half way to the deputy before Kale and Sam grabbed hold of him, roughly yanking his arms behind his back. Cold steel shackles were snapped around his wrists, but they didn't stop Ezra from struggling to get free. He wouldn't let him kill Kira! "Harper! Get back here, you bastard!" Harper turned back when he reached the door and waved at Ezra before stepping out into the late-morning light.

"Now see here, young man," the judge barked loudly. "As long as I am here, this is still a courtroom, and you will behave accordingly."

"Don't worry, Ezra," Vin called, as Kale and Sam led Ezra out the saloon's back exit. "We'll get ya outta this." Standish glanced back to see Vin watching his departure, Chris striding over to the judge with a resolute look on his face, and Buck disappearing through the swinging doors.

Buck tailed Harper as the man walked calmly down the street. The deputy occasionally glanced over his shoulder, but Buck easily evaded his searching gaze.

Down to the hardware store, then into the side alley. Buck peeked around the corner of the building, seeing Harper disappear around the back of the business. He quickly followed, pausing to look around once he reached the back alleyway. A simple wooden staircase led up to an entrance on the second level. As he watched, the door clicked softly shut.

He took the stairs two at a time and turned the handle on the plain wooden door. A narrow hallway opened up before him, cutting all the way through the building to the front street. Light streamed in from the single window at the end of the hall, providing enough illumination to see that there were two doors on each side of the hallway.

The one farthest away and to the left was ajar.

Buck crept forward, his Colt now drawn and held in one hand. He could hear Harper moving around inside as he neared the open door. He kicked the door open as wide as it would go with one booted foot, and cocked the gun. "Where is she?" he demanded softly as Harper whirled around in surprise.

Wilmington cautiously entered the room and glanced around. They were in a large one-room apartment. The window on the front wall was open. There was no sign of the woman.

"Where's who?" Harper asked casually. He stood by a small writing desk situated on the wall opposite the open window. His right hand twitched a little closer to his holstered Smith & Wesson.

Buck saw the action and shook his head, taking a single step forward, aiming his weapon at Harper's chest. "Don't play games with me, mister. And don't go reachin' for that gun, neither. I ain't in the mood for it. So you'd best just toss it on over here."

Harper took the gun out of its holster and tossed it to the floor. Buck nodded. "Good. Now, I'm gonna ask this one more time: Where is she?"

Harper tilted his head and said, "She's... not here." Even before the last two words had been completely formed, Harper erupted into motion. He grabbed a silver letter opener from the writing desk and flexed his wrist back, all in one fluid movement.

Hot lead discharged from Buck's Colt in the same second as Harper made his move, and the letter opener fell from the deputy's suddenly useless hand. Harper stood stock still, clutching his bleeding hand, for almost two seconds. Then he let loose a wordless cry of rage and rushed at Buck, grabbing for Wilmington's gun hand.

Buck was unprepared for the swift attack, and Harper managed to knock him off balance, pushing him backward until they slammed into a wall. Harper grabbed hold of Buck's throat with his right hand and started to squeeze, while his wounded left hand tried to get hold of Buck's gun.

Grimacing, Buck kneed the man in the groin, but aside from a grunt of pain, Harper didn't let up. Wrenching the crazed deputy's fingers from around his neck, Buck ducked away and rammed his elbow in Harper's gut; the blond man released an explosive grunt.

The next second, Harper had both of his hands around Buck's gun hand. Using to his advantage Buck's unwillingness to let go of the gun, the deputy swung Wilmington around, tightening his grip painfully until Buck felt the bones in his right hand grind together. His fingers reflexively loosened, and the gun fell to the floor. Harper swung Buck into the wall, which his head solidly banged into, and black spots danced at the edges of his vision.

Shaking the darkness away, Buck regrouped and launched himself at Harper. They tumbled down to the floor in a tangled heap, and Buck's knee impacted sharply with the wooden flooring.

Four feet away, Buck spotted his Colt lying on the floor. Tensing his muscles, he pushed away from Harper and lunged for the gun.

Inside the saloon, Vin and Chris looked at one another as the muffled sound of a gunshot reached them. "Buck," they said simultaneously, and ran out into the street. The perplexed judge followed them.

Chris scanned the street, trying to discern the direction from which the shot had come. The hardware store, it seemed. He started to run again.

"Mr. Larabee?"

Chris stopped in his tracks. It was a woman, long blonde hair, wearing a navy blue dress that appeared to be covered in a white powder. He motioned to Vin, and the tracker continued on towards the source of gunfire.

Hazarding a guess, Chris said, "Miss Stone?"

She glanced around fearfully and nodded. "I was with your friend Ezra on the stage - The deputy and the sheriff were in on the robbery together."

Chris placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "It's all right, we know. Go on. Go to the saloon."

She hurried across the street as another shot rang out.

Vin reached the end of the hall, firearm at the ready, and quickly took in the scene before him. He smiled and lowered his weapon to his side. "Need some help there, Buck?"

Wilmington was climbing to his feet with the aid of a nearby table. He held his gun with his left hand, training it on the tow-headed deputy, Harper. Harper was sitting on his butt on the floor, his right hand cradling his left arm.

"'Bout time you got here, pard."

"Son of a bitch!" Harper declared irately, examining his wounded upper arm.

"Shut up," Buck snapped. "You deserved it. Now get up."

"You all right, Buck?" Vin asked as he stepped into the room and pulled Harper to his feet.

Buck flexed his right hand and hissed. "Damn, that hurts. Yeah, I'm all right, Vin. Just got a little knocked around, is all."

Vin pushed Harper out into the hallway, one hand maintaining a firm hold on the back of the man's jacket while the other hand held his sawed-off Winchester at the ready. Buck limped along at the rear, and the three descended the staircase to the alley down below.

"Damn it!" Kale muttered as the first shot echoed down the street.

He pulled his gun and, with a dark look at Ezra, stepped back out of the jail.

Sam hesitated, puzzled. He pushed Ezra into his cell, slammed the door shut, grabbed his rifle from beside the desk, and followed the sheriff.

A slow smile crept over Ezra's face as he realized that - in his haste - Deputy Sam had forgotten to lock the cell door behind him.

Kale ducked into an alley when he saw a cursing Harper being led into the street by Tanner and Wilmington. Larabee walked towards his men, and the fat old judge trailed behind.

"Damn fool! Can't he do anything right?" He glared at Harper from his hidden position. The imbecile would probably spill his guts about everything to save his own skin.

Movement past the hardware store caught his eye, and he peered down the street. It was Stone; she stood in front of the Brown Dog, watching the men gather in the street.

"Guess I'll have to do it myself, then," he muttered, and took off down the back alleys of Clayton Falls.

He'd take care of first Stone, then Harper.

Using the thin razor that he'd earlier tucked into his boot, Ezra pried open the locked desk drawer where the key to the gun cabinet was kept. He withdrew the key, quickly unlocked the heavy padlock, and swung open the cabinet door. Metal cuffs dangling from one wrist - it had taken only a few seconds of concentration to slip one hand out of the shackles - he quickly took stock of the available weapons in the armory, and chose a rifle similar to the one he owned. He checked to make sure that it was loaded.

Outside, he pulled his hat brim down to block the glare of the sun and walked slowly down the sun-baked street. He saw his friends further down the main street, Harper among them.

Good, he thought. They must have gotten him before he got to Kira.

Speaking of... He scanned the street anxiously and found her in front of the saloon, safe and sound. He smiled, even though she hadn't yet seen him.

Sheriff Kale stepped out from the shadow-filled alley on the far side of the saloon, his gun in hand. His gaze was locked on Kira.

"What on earth is he doing?" Ezra wondered softly. Kale couldn't possibly think he'd get away with killing Kira in broad daylight, with half a dozen witnesses present. Of course, with his plan coming unravelled... what did Kale have to lose?

As Ezra watched, Kale raised his gun and quietly, steadily approached Kira. The young woman didn't see him, didn't hear his quiet footfalls; she was watching Chris and the others where they stood conversing in front of the hardware store.

Ezra halted twenty yards from Kale, shook his head in harsh determination, and raised the rifle with both hands, nestling the walnut stock against his cheek. "Kale!" he yelled. Vaguely, he was aware of Kira spinning, startled, to look at the sheriff. Ezra's colleagues drew their weapons and also took aim. But Ezra kept his eyes on Kale, who had begun to swing his arm around when he heard his name called.

The sheriff's gun shifted to Ezra, and a sneer of hatred formed on the man's face.

Two shots rang out, almost close enough to be counted as one. Kale's body jerked violently, and he stumbled back a step, then forward a step, as if he were but a marionette in the hands of some mad puppeteer. Finally, the marionette's strings were cut, and Kale dropped to the ground.

Fifteen feet behind Kale, Sam lowered his rifle. A look of grim regret briefly played across his face, and he looked at Ezra.

In a gesture of respect, Ezra nodded and touched the brim of his hat with two fingers - something he often used with Larabee. Sam nodded back once and moved towards Kale's body. Ezra moved in the same direction.

As the echoes of the gunshots faded away into the clear desert air, as Ezra Standish pulled his gold ring off of the still-warm finger of the dead sheriff, Judge Reginald Moore, who had witnessed the entire affair, demanded loudly, "Will somebody kindly tell me what the hell is going on?"

"I'm glad to be out of that horrid little town," Kira stated vehemently as Ezra helped her down from the saddle of her rented horse.

Ezra smiled and let his hands rest on her waist until her feet were planted firmly on the ground. "I wholeheartedly share your sentiments, my dear."

Vin, Chris, and Buck also dismounted and led their horses into the livery. Vin gathered the reins of Ezra and Kira's horses as well. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Kira said with a pretty smile, and Ezra nodded his thanks as well.

"Ezra!" JD hurried towards them. "You guys okay?" he asked worriedly, watching as the others disappeared into the livery.

"We are all well, for the most part, although Mr. Wilmington may want to see Nathan about his hand."

"His hand?" JD repeated. "What happened to his ha-" He stopped and noticed Kira for the first time. "Oh. Hello." He glanced curiously at Ezra.

Ezra placed a hand lightly on Kira's back and gestured to JD with the other. "JD, this is Miss -" She raised her eyebrows at him, and he grinned. "What I meant to say is, this is Kira. Mr. JD Dunne."

"Nice to meet you, JD."

JD smiled at her, tipped his hat, then rushed off to find out just what was wrong with Buck's hand.

Ezra and Kira walked down the street towards the hotel, arm in arm. The skirt of the new dress she'd purchased back in Clayton Falls swished around her feet. "May I be so bold as to inquire how long will you be visiting your cousin?" he asked.

"Get everything settled up in Clayton Falls?" a familiar voice inquired.

Ezra stopped their progression and looked to his right. "Ah, Mr. Jackson. Yes, everything is suitably cleared up. All charges against me were dropped by the stern - but sensible - Judge Moore, once he heard Kira's testimony and that of the unenthusiastic Deputy Harper."

Jackson smiled. "Glad to hear it." He nodded to Kira. "Miss." And then he, too, went into the livery.

"As I was saying..." Ezra continued, a question coloring the statement.

"I'll be staying until the twenty-first. Why? What did you have in mind?"

Ezra took her hand in his and smiled, gold tooth glistening. "I have heard that there is some sort of social gathering coming up fairly soon. A dance, to be precise..."

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Trekkieb would love to hear from you.

HOME    |    TREKKIEB'S FIC    |    TITLES    |    AUTHORS    |    UNIVERSES

This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
email us
with corrections and additions