Kaliope 

Nathan Jackson was on a mission. He'd covered half the town, peering into buildings, stopping and questioning the townsfolk, but so far his quarry had eluded him. Finally, his scarlet-coated objective rounded the corner by the livery. Nathan moved to intercept. "There you are! I been lookin' all over for ya!" he shouted, crossing the street to confront his target.

"Mister Jackson, why ever would you be lookin' for me?" Ezra Standish questioned suspiciously. Normally the town's healer didn't seek out his company, and from the look that crossed the dark man's face there was trouble brewing in Four Corners.

"Come on. Mrs. Travis wants to see ya."

Nathan took Ezra's arm, pulling him towards the Clarion's office. Ezra was puzzled and, he had to admit, just a little miffed at the former slave's attitude. It seemed a day didn't go by when the southerner didn't do something to offend his fellow peacekeeper's sensibilities.

Ezra tried to yank his arm out of Nathan's grasp but the healer held him in a tight grip. "Would you mind telling me why we are goin' to see Mrs. Travis?"

Nathan glared. "You'll see when we get there," was the succinct reply.

"Fine. Lay on, MacDuff," the gambler said, expansively waving his other arm toward the town's newspaper office.

Nathan hauled Ezra up onto the boardwalk in front of Mary's office. He opened the door and unceremoniously escorted the gambler through. Once inside, Ezra was surprised to see the anger on the pretty widow's face -- anger directed very obviously at him.

"It's about time you got here," Mary snapped, rounding the counter to glare at Ezra.

Taken aback, Ezra could only stare in surprise until he found his voice. "Mrs. Travis?"

Mary advanced on the gambler and pierced him with her sharp gaze. "We've all been very tolerant of your ways, Mr. Standish, but this time you've gone too far."

Straightening, Ezra looked back at Mary unflinchingly. "Might I at least have some clue as to what you are goin' on about?"

"I'm talking about the way you cleaned out those two homesteaders this afternoon. It was completely uncalled for. You of all people should know better."

"The two homesteaders I . . . ." Ezra's voice trailed off in puzzlement. "Are you accusin' me of some misdeed, Mrs. Travis?"

"Yes, I am. I'm accusing you of cheating. You took every last penny those two young men had. Do you not have a conscience? Those men have to go back to their wives and families and tell them their dreams won't become reality, thanks to you."

Ezra looked at Mary, then turned to see the distaste on Nathan's face, a distaste that right now bordered on loathing. His chest constricted at the hatred displayed there. Swallowing the lump in his throat, the gambler kept his poker face firmly in place, slamming the walls up around his vulnerability. "When did I presumably cheat these men?"

Nathan rolled his eyes in disgust. "Hell, Ezra, it was jus' this afternoon. Don't tell me you can't remember."

"For your information, Mrs. Travis, Mr. Jackson, I rode into town not more than a half hour ago after my patrol," the gambler replied, his tone flat. To illustrate his point, Ezra slapped his left sleeve; dust motes puffed into the still air, dancing in a shaft of sunlight pouring through the office's front window.

Eyeing the swirling dust with mild annoyance, Mary questioned, "Do you have any way to prove that?"

"You could ask Mr. Larabee. I stopped by his charming little abode on my excursion through the countryside --" Ezra began before Nathan cut him off.

The healer spun on his heel, ignoring Ezra's attempt at an explanation. "I got a way."

Without a backward glance at the other occupants of the room, Nathan disappeared into Mary's sitting room. He returned a moment later with two trail-worn men in their early thirties. Both men were tall and lean. Other than their similar physical characteristics, the men were opposites. One was dark complexioned with brown eyes, the other fair with blue eyes.

Mary carefully watched Ezra's response as her guests entered the room. He didn't flinch, didn't move a muscle as the men stopped beside her. Damn, he was good. The journalist felt a grudging respect for his ability to hide his feelings. I'd hate to face him down across a poker table, she thought.

"This is John Donnelly and Martin Fisher, in case you've already forgotten the names of the men you took advantage of," Nathan's tone was heavy with sarcasm as he made the introductions. Smugly turning toward the men, he asked, "Is he the man who cheated you?"

The two men exchanged looks. The fair-haired one, John, shook his head, and Martin simply replied, "No."

"What do you mean, no? Ezra, did you threaten them or somethin'?" Nathan snapped. "You sure 'bout this? He's the only one of his kind here in town."

"It's not him. He didn't do it," John answered.

Mary's eyes widened in shock and she raised her face to look at the gambler. His expression hadn't changed, the bland look permanently fixed in place on his handsome features.

"How much did this other man take from you?" the gambler asked in a voice that was entirely too calm.

"One hundred and twenty-two dollars between the two of us," Martin answered glumly.

"A considerable sum indeed. I am sorry to hear of your loss," Ezra drawled. "Now, if you'll excuse me." He turned and tipped his hat at Mary, the gesture coldly courteous.

"Ezra, I--I'm so sorry," Mary stammered.

The gambler merely arched one elegant eyebrow at her. "Good day." He stalked from the office, his back stiff with suppressed anger.

Nathan shot an embarrassed look at Mary before bolting after the southerner. "Ezra, wait up!"

Ezra ignored the shouted request, continuing toward the saloon. He needed two things: a stiff drink and a hot bath, not necessarily in that order. There he could get both, and there he could consider his options. Obviously he didn't have the townsfolk's confidence despite his reluctant efforts to obtain their trust. He had some hard thinking to do about his future in this dusty town.

Quickening his pace, Nathan easily overtook the smaller man with his longer stride.

"Ezra!" The healer reached out and grabbed the gambler's sleeve, halting him. Pausing for only a second, Ezra jerked his arm out of Nathan's grasp and resumed his walk toward the saloon. Nathan's strong hands caught Ezra's shoulders and spun him around to face him.

Ezra's face still showed no expression, but his eyes momentarily flashed with rage. "I suggest you remove your hands from my person before I am forced to do something I may regret," he snapped, his voice betraying what his face did not.

Frustration lacing his words, Nathan tried again. "Would you at least hear me out?"

This time the voice dropped to a low warning growl. "Remove your hands from my person."

The healer snatched his hands back and held them up in surrender. "All right, be that way. I wanted to apologize, but I can see you ain't in the mood to listen."

"There is nothing you could say, Mister Jackson, to make restitution for your presumptuous accusation."

Nodding in defeat, Nathan backed a step and restored a safe distance between them. As soon as he was clear Ezra walked away, not sparing a glance at the other man. Nathan watched with a heavy heart as the gambler entered the saloon. The batwing doors swung forcefully on their hinges when Ezra barged through them; as Nathan watched the doors close, he felt another door slam shut on the fledgling friendship growing between himself and the southerner.

 

 

Freshly bathed after his long, dusty patrol, Ezra descended the stairs from his room on the second floor and headed straight for the bar. He pointedly ignored Nathan's presence, acknowledging Buck, JD and Vin with the slightest nod of his head.

After knocking back a shot of whiskey, Ezra took his mug of beer to an isolated table and sat. Pulling a deck of cards from his vest pocket, the gambler dealt himself a hand of solitaire, his movements abrupt, lacking the usual fluid grace they normally possessed. His body language was a clear indication he did not want company. The others let him be, respecting his desire to be alone.

Despite the soothing familiarity of his cards, Ezra couldn't concentrate on the game. His mother would be appalled, but he found his thoughts returning to the despair in the two homesteaders' eyes. It wasn't long ago he'd experienced a taste of what these two men were going through. Ezra's memory stung with the bitter heat of betrayal. He knew all too well what it felt like to have his dreams snatched away, just as Martin and John had had the means to their dream stolen from them. Swallowing a mouthful of beer, Ezra glanced at his surroundings, at what had once been his, the tangible manifestation of his goal to own a saloon and to put down roots. How easily Maude had stolen his hope. There was no one to help him win back his dream, but there had to be some way to get Martin and John their future back. Sighing, Ezra shuffled the cards and laid out another hand of solitaire.

Across the saloon, a concerned pair of eyes followed the gambler's movements. Nathan sat alone at a table tucked away in the corner and watched the southerner as he dealt the cards. Every now and again a pained expression would cross Ezra's face, and Nathan felt a stab of guilt course through him. As much as he disagreed with the way Ezra conducted his life, he hated to be the cause of his discomfort. Hell, he was a lawman, and here he had tried, judged and convicted the other man without considering he might be innocent. He was supposed to be a healer. Why couldn't he find a way to heal the rift between them, a situation he caused by his thoughtless allegations?

Half an hour later, the objects of Ezra's troubled thoughts wandered into the saloon. He watched as Martin and John stopped just inside the batwing doors, carefully looking around, before walking over to a table and sitting. The vague thought that had been nibbling on the edges of his awareness suddenly coalesced into a plan of action.

"Here you are, Señor Ezra." Inez placed another mug of beer in front of the gambler, gathering up the empty one.

Ezra stopped her before she hurried away. "Inez, do you see those two gentlemen sittin' at the table near the window?"

Inez turned her head, following Ezra's gaze to the homesteaders. "Si."

"I'd like to purchase a libation for both of them. Put it on my tab."

Inez blinked, surprised by the sudden uncharacteristic generosity. "Er, you would like to buy them a drink?"

Ezra shot her a pained look. "Today, Miss Recillos?"

Nodding, Inez hurried to the bar and filled two mugs with the foamy brew. She placed them on the table in front of Martin and John.

"We didn't order these, Miss," John protested, glancing up at the woman in confusion.

"No, you didn't. Señor Ezra did." Inez pointed toward the gambler; he raised his own mug in salute to the two homesteaders.

Martin and John gathered up their mugs and made their way over to the gambler's table. Their expressions were wary; Mary and Nathan had obviously filled them in on Ezra's questionable reputation.

Seeing their reaction, Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat and graciously indicated the chairs on the other side of the table. "Please, sit."

John sipped his drink, smiling his appreciation at its refreshing coolness. "Thank you for the beer."

"If it's a game of cards you're after, we're tapped out," Martin reminded the gambler.

Ezra ignored the slight hostility he heard in the dark-haired man's voice. "I've been pondering your unfortunate circumstances all afternoon," he began without preamble.

The homesteaders exchanged suspicious looks. "Now why would you do that?" John questioned.

Neatly dodging the question, Ezra requested, "Tell me about your families."

Martin took a long pull on his drink, then spoke in a subdued voice. "I have a wife and three children. Two little girls that look just like their mama, and a son. The boy's the oldest," he began, his expression wistful. "This homestead was gonna be a new start for us since the factory I was workin' in got shut down."

Ezra nodded thoughtfully, his gaze falling on John. "And you, sir?"

Nervously, John cleared his throat. "I got a wife and two boys back in Indiana. Martin and I were going to find some land and stake our claim, then go back and meet our families in Denver. Now we won't be able to face 'em because of some fancypants gambler . . ." Swallowing his anger, he became very interested in the hand clutching the handle of his beer mug.

Ezra felt his dark mood lift. In the face of these men's plight, his situation was minor in comparison. While they had families to look after, he had no one to look out for but himself. Especially after today, his thoughts mocked him. Ezra shook himself out of the self-pitying frame of mind. Though there was nothing he could do to remedy his own situation, he just might have a way to set things right for these two men. Before he had a chance to really think about what he was planning to do, he blurted, "I'd like to offer my assistance in reacquirin' your money."

Martin and John traded surprised glances. "How to you plan to do that?" Martin questioned.

"By challengin' the man you played against to a friendly game of chance." Ezra grinned, flashing his gold tooth as he smiled at the two men. "I am somewhat skilled in the art of gamblin', and I do enjoy a challenge."

"How much is this going to cost us?"

A sly smile crossed the gambler's face. "Nothing until I regain all of your funds. Should I exceed that amount, I want fifty per cent of the profit."

"Why are you offering to do this, Mister?"

Why indeed? Why was he offering to help? This new philanthropic side of him would surely be questioned. Heaven knows Ezra Standish would never willingly assist another human being. How could he admit to these men his heart ached for their children?

"Let's just say I hate to see people bein' taken advantage of," Ezra admitted, his expression dark with remembered hurts. "Do we have a deal?"

Again, Martin and John exchanged looks. John shrugged. "What do we have to lose?"

"We don't have a stake for you to play with," Martin admitted.

"I will take care of it."

"All right, I guess we have a deal," Martin said, reaching over to shake hands with the gambler. John followed suit a second later.

"Splendid. I ask two things of you: one, that you not tell anyone about my involvement in this deal, and two, that you describe the fellow that absconded with your funds."

Scratching his chin, Martin began thoughtfully, "He's about my height, graying hair, dresses like a real city feller."

"Said his name was Roberts, an' he was from back east. Savannah, I think," John added.

As the homesteaders were describing Roberts, the batwing doors swung in and a well-dressed, middle-aged man walked into the saloon, accompanied by a couple of rough-looking cowhands. The older gambler leaned heavily on an elaborately carved wooden cane.

"That's him," John said quietly, nodding toward the new arrival.

Ezra's eyes narrowed as he stole a quick glance at his opponent. As the newcomer scanned the room, the southerner ducked his head down, feigning interest in the table top.

Martin saw the reaction. "You know him?" he accused.

"No, sir, I do not, but if this is to work I cannot be seen with you," Ezra explained in a soft voice.

Neither Martin nor John could fault his reasoning. When the other gambler's attention was diverted elsewhere, Ezra pushed back his chair and stood. "Where are you staying?"

"At the Virginia Hotel. Room Eight."

"If I am successful, I will bring your money to you this evenin'. Now, if you'll excuse me?" Ezra quickly walked away, his back to the other gambler as he approached the rest of the seven. "Mr. Wilmington, may I have a word with you?"

Buck grinned affably. "Sure. What about?"

"I'm afraid it is a rather private matter," Ezra began, nodding his head toward the stairs. He paused by the bar, whispering quietly to Inez before heading to his room on the second floor.

Buck considered the request, then climbed to his feet. "All right." Shrugging at the gambler's odd behavior, Buck followed him up the stairs to his room.

Unlocking the door, Ezra cautiously opened it, his eyes sweeping the interior of the room before politely gesturing for Buck to precede him. Once Buck was inside, Ezra closed the door behind him.

Buck pushed his hat back on his head, eyeing his friend. "What's got you so riled?"

The southerner grimaced. "I am not riled. I am, however, feelin' inclined to exact a little retribution on a certain gambler that has made his way into our fair but dusty town."

A grin split Buck's face. "Someone hornin' in on your territory, hmm?"

"Despite what you and the others may think, Mr. Wilmington, I choose my marks carefully. I never take more from anyone than I am certain they can afford. My association with the rest of you has seen to that unfortunate development."

"You gettin' a conscience, Ezra?" Buck teased.

"Hardly. I know better than to incur the wrath of my fellow townspeople, that is all," Ezra responded with a wry smile.

"So why'd you want to talk to me?"

"You've no doubt heard about the gentleman who cleaned out two young homesteaders this afternoon?"

"Yep. Nathan told us all about it."

Ezra winced slightly at the healer's name but quickly regained his composure. "I've spoken with the two men, and we've come up with a plan to retrieve their funds. In order to pull this off, I need some assistance."

"You need me to help you with a con?"

Sighing, Ezra nodded. "As much as it pains me to admit it, I'm afraid that is the case."

"Well, I'll be damned . . . ." the cowboy murmured. "I can't believe you need help. Must be tricky, huh? You need me to distract 'em? Maybe to bring over a couple of my lady friends and cause a disturbance?"

Ezra did a double take, taken aback by the tangent his friend had followed. "Buck, I already have a plan. Will you assist me?"

"Sure, I'll help ya. What's your plan?"

As Ezra pulled up his pant leg, fishing in the top of his left boot for the roll of cash he kept there, he quickly outlined his plan to his associate. "I plan on challengin' my competition to a friendly game of chance." He counted out fifty dollars and handed the bills to Buck. "You'll need this."

Buck studied the wad of bills in his hand, then turned his gaze to the gambler. "How will I know when to bet?"

Ezra smiled, a mischievous twinkle coming to his eyes. "You'll know if you have a winning hand, Mr. Wilmington. There won't be any doubt in your mind. When you do, bet high."

"How much are we trying to get off this guy?"

"One hundred and twenty-two dollars. A nice night's work."

"Whooo-eeee. That's a lot of money, Ezra. Do you think you can pull it off?"

A dimpled grin lit the southerner's face. "I know I can," was the confident reply.

Buck shook his head at the gambler's faith in his ability. He hoped Ezra was as good as he believed he was. "Still seems like a lot of money to me."

"Indeed it is, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra grinned. "Now, I have some things I must do to prepare for this evenin's work."

"Like what?"

"I must ready my disguise, Mr. Wilmington. Watch for a gentleman in a brown jacket to make his way over to the poker table." Buck nodded his understanding, so Ezra continued, "I will see you downstairs in one hour. And please -- not a word to our compatriots."

Buck rose to his feet. He pantomimed locking his mouth and throwing away the key. "My lips are sealed."

"Good. See you shortly."

Nodding, Buck ambled out the door and down the stairs, leaving Ezra to prepare himself for the game.

 

 

On schedule, a grubby man in a worn brown jacket strolled into the saloon. He looked around for a moment, his eyes falling on the table in the back where the older gambler had set up court. Quickly catching Buck's gaze, Ezra headed towards the card table.

How audacious. He's set up a game at my table! Ezra kept the annoyance off his face, his expression a look of innocent curiosity as he climbed the steps toward the poker game. "This game open to anyone?" he questioned, his smooth, honeyed drawl now course and unrefined.

"I'm always looking for a challenge, friend." The other man smiled amiably, his eyes sweeping over the dusty form.

"Good. I always wanted to play against a city fella," Ezra continued, awkwardly sitting down across from the older man.

"And how do you know I'm from the city?"

"You sure ain't from 'round here," Ezra pointed out, nodding towards the other man's attire. Ezra easily read the disdain in the older man's expression. Got you, you bastard. And now for the coup de grace. Fumbling inside his pocket, Ezra pulled out a huge roll of bills. "I hope this is enough t' get us started. Just took m' gold over to the bank an' got a purty penny for it."

Dark brown eyes widened in shocked surprise as Ezra flashed the wad of money. The stranger obviously couldn't believe his good fortune. "I -- I'm sure it will be fine." Ezra suppressed a smile at the his opponent's enthusiasm.

Buck chose that moment to make his way over to the card table. "We got a game starting up here?"

"We do. Welcome."

"Name's Buck Wilmington," the mustached cowboy said, sticking out his big hand.

The gambler shook the offered hand. "Roberts. Ethan Roberts."

Ezra grasped Buck's hand weakly, wincing at Buck's bruising grip. "Ezra Smith."

"My pleasure to make your acquaintance, gentlemen," Roberts beamed.

"Let's git started. Gimme those cards 'a yours. I heard all about you city folks cheatin'," Ezra snapped.

"You're accusing me of cheating and we haven't played a hand yet?" Roberts stammered in surprise.

"No, I ain't. I'm just sayin' I want to deal, to keep things fair. Unless you don't want a crack at takin' my money . . ." Ezra moved to stand up, his expression completely guileless.

Buck bit back a smile at Ezra's skillful goading of his mark. He knew Roberts wouldn't be able to resist the opportunity to whup the country bumpkin.

Roberts reached into his vest pocket and handed over a new deck of cards. "Fine, Mr. Smith. You deal."

"Knew you'd see it my way," Ezra muttered, clumsily opening the box and extracting the cards. As he attempted to shuffle the deck, cards dropped to the floor. "Damn. My fingers are stiff today. Got a touch of rheumatism from workin' my claim," he explained with a grimace.

"I can deal if you want . . . ," Roberts piped up.

"No, I can do it. It just ain't gonna be fast, that's all," Ezra snapped, glaring at the other gambler as he fumbled on the floor for the wayward cards.

"Fine." Roberts gestured to the deck, indicating his opponent should continue.

After several excruciating minutes, Ezra finally managed to shuffle the deck, have Buck cut the cards, and then deal the hand. "Draw poker," he drawled.

As the night progressed, the card game drew the attention of the saloon's patrons. Ezra kept control of the deck, at first allowing Roberts to win a few hands and giving him a sense of bravado. Slowly, the game began to turn until Buck was winning, and winning big.

Inez did her part, keeping the whiskey flowing freely until Buck and Roberts were both feeling the effects of the strong liquor. Buck became more jovial, laughing and joking as he won hand after hand. Roberts was the opposite, his mood becoming darker with every hand he lost. Ezra remained sober, tossing his liquor into the spittoon he kept by his left foot, a trick he'd used to get information in Jericho when the lawmen were looking for their missing leader.

"Whoo-eee! I won again! This is my lucky night," Buck grinned, pulling the pot toward him. Roberts glared at Ezra, visibly angry at his run of bad fortune. He knew in his gut that he was being taken, but he'd been unable to catch Ezra cheating. His gaze lingered on the younger man, his expression promising dire consequences should he find out he was right.

Ezra recognized the signs that it was time to end the con before he pushed Roberts too far. As he mentally calculated the amount of money he'd relieved his opponent of, Ezra dealt out the final hand of the evening. Feigning inebriation, the southerner watched with interest as Roberts examined his cards. The gambler's eyes widened and he looked up in surprise at the dealer. Ezra kept his face schooled to careful neutrality as fury registered in the older man's gaze.

"I fold," Roberts announced flatly.

"So soon?" Ezra hiccuped, grinning tipsily. "I was jus' starting to have fun."

Roberts glared. "I'm sure you were."

"One more hand?" the southerner asked innocently as he shuffled the deck of cards.

"No, I'm afraid not. I'm tapped out."

"Oh. Well, then, I'm gonna go get myself a drink. It's been a pleasure, gentlemen." Ezra climbed to his feet, tipping his battered hat at the others. He wobbled down the stairs, making his way toward the bar.

Buck watched his friend go, then turned back to Roberts. "Guess the game's over, huh? Been nice meetin' you." The cowboy stood and walked over to the other end of the bar. From his vantage point, Buck could watch Roberts for signs of trouble.

Inez came over with a shot of whiskey and a basket of peanuts, placing them in front of Buck, stopping to chat as she wiped the counter top. Making sure he wasn't being watched, Buck emptied his pockets into the basket, grinning as Inez swept the basket up and moved down the bar to serve Ezra. Placing the basket in front of the southerner, Inez shielded Ezra from Roberts' view as he gathered the bills and coins and stuffed them into his coat pocket.

After downing a shot of whiskey, Ezra strolled through the batwing doors and disappeared into the darkness. He stopped for a moment, using the light from the saloon window to do a quick count of the money he'd won. The southerner pulled out his original stake and tucked it away in his right coat pocket, placing the rest into his left.

Walking quickly down the dark street, Ezra made his way to the hotel, periodically glancing over his shoulder. The street fires had all but burned out, adding to the feeling of danger creeping down his spine. The gambler was never one to ignore his instincts. Slipping into the shadows between two buildings, he paused, watching for a few minutes for some sign of pursuit. Finding none, he crossed to the hotel and hurried up the stairs to the second floor.

Knocking softly on the door to room number eight, the southerner waited impatiently until John came to the door. "Good evenin', Mr. Donnelly. I hope you don't mind my visit at this late hour," Ezra drawled.

John's blue eyes widened as the gambler's words registered. "You did it?"

Ezra beamed. "I did." He reached into his pocket and thrust a wad of cash at the surprised man. "I haven't had time to do an accurate count, but I believe your original funds are there, plus some extra."

Shoving the money into his pocket, John grabbed Ezra's hand and shook it enthusiastically. "I -- I don't know what to say. Thank you."

"You're more than welcome." Swallowing, Ezra looked away, suddenly uncomfortable with the man's gratitude.

"D'you want to come in? Martin and I got a bottle of whiskey. I'm sure we could scare up an extra glass," John invited, opening the door farther to allow the gambler inside.

"Ah, the offer is delightful, but I'm afraid I must decline it for the evening." Ezra turned to go but hesitated for a moment, his expression thoughtful. "There is something you could do for me, though . . . ."

"What's that?"

The southerner quickly slipped out of his worn coat and handed it over. "Would you mind holding this for me until I can return for it?"

John looked puzzled but took the jacket from Ezra. "Sure, I guess so. Why do you want me to keep it?"

"Gambler's intuition. I have a bad feelin' about tonight." He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers. "I'd best be going. Best of luck to you gentlemen."

Hurrying back to the saloon, Ezra kept careful watch for Roberts. His plan was to enter the saloon through the back door and sneak up the stairs to his room. Lady Luck was not with him tonight; as he crossed the street three figures stepped out of the shadows and intercepted him.

"Gentlemen," he drawled, suddenly wishing he'd been able to wear his Derringer rig but the sleeves of the worn, dusty shirt had been too tight to accommodate the small gun. He'd have to rely on his wits and his mouth to get him out of this one.

"You've sobered up remarkably fast," Roberts commented menacingly.

"I have a strong constitution," Ezra shot back, warily backing up a step as the two younger men advanced on him.

Roberts stepped closer, his eyes hard. "You mean you have a remarkable ability to con people."

Despite himself, Ezra couldn't help but admire the astute observation. A faint smile tugged on his upper lip. "What gave it away?"

"The last hand you dealt me. Aces and eights, the dead man's hand."

Unable to stop the coyote grin, Ezra shrugged. "It seemed rather appropriate at the time."

Leaning forward, his face only a couple of inches from Ezra's, the older gambler growled, "It wasn't funny then, and it isn't funny now. Give me my money."

Green eyes narrowing dangerously, the southerner shook his head. "From what I understand, it wasn't yours to begin with."

"It doesn't matter where I got it from," the older man snarled. "I want it back. Now hand it over."

"I don't have it." False regret colored the soft southern drawl at the admission.

"Then my boys and I will take it out of your hide."

The two henchmen grabbed Ezra before he had a chance to bolt. They roughly yanked his arms behind him and pulled him into the shadows between two buildings. One of the thugs reached up and placed his hand over Ezra's mouth to prevent him from calling for help.

"Search him," Roberts hissed. "You don't need to be gentle about it, either."

The two men quickly complied with their boss' wishes. "He don't have it on him," the younger man reported.

Grabbing him by the throat, Roberts pulled Ezra toward him, his thick fingers squeezing the tender flesh unmercifully. Roberts grinned as the southerner struggled against his attackers, his body desperately fighting for air. "Where's my money?" Roberts growled.

Even if he'd wanted to answer, Ezra wouldn't have been able to. The hand on his throat prevented air from entering his system. His lungs burned and his chest heaved with desperate need. As he struggled to escape, Ezra's vision swam, darkening around the edges as his body used up its precious reserves. Spots danced before his eyes, further obscuring his vision.

Roberts watched with grim satisfaction as Ezra nearly passed out from lack of oxygen. Before his victim received the release of unconsciousness, the older gambler loosened his grip, allowing the younger man to breathe. Gasping for breath, Ezra coughed as the cool night air chilled his aching lungs.

Roberts leaned in close, the smell of rotgut whiskey and cheap cigars on his breath easily overpowering Ezra's dulled senses. "Ready to tell me what you did with my money? Did you hide it somewhere?"

Bravely raising his head, Ezra met Roberts' gaze. Pain showed clearly in the gambler's eyes but Roberts also saw a grim, defiant determination. Roberts read the resistance in those eyes, knowing he wouldn't have an easy time getting the answers he wanted. Without warning, Roberts brought the end of his cane smashing down against Ezra's ribs. The hand firmly clamped over his mouth muffled the gambler's cry of pain. Twice more, Roberts hit Ezra's torso with the cane. Ezra's knees buckled, yet he made no move to answer his tormentor's questions.

In disgust, Roberts shoved Ezra back against the building. The southerner's head exploded with pain as he slammed into the rough clapboard siding. Leaning heavily against the building, Ezra fought against the gut-wrenching nausea accompanying the blinding pain in his head. Bile filled his throat and he vomited, splattering Roberts' associates with the contents of his stomach.

Infuriated by the southerner's reaction, the trio mercilessly beat their captive. When Ezra's legs could no longer keep him upright, Roberts and his friends threw him to the ground and kicked the helpless figure until he felt no more.

 

 

Buck waited over an hour for Ezra to rejoin him in the saloon. The scoundrel used the time to check out the working girls in the saloon, contemplating which one he would take to his bed when he retired for the evening. Leaning back against the bar, his gaze finally fell on Lilly, the newest girl to grace the saloon with her presence. Grabbing a bottle of whiskey and two glasses from behind the bar, the tall cowboy sauntered over to the young brunette's side. "Evenin', Miss Lilly," he greeted, setting the whiskey on the table and tipping his hat.

Lilly's face lit up with a smile. The shy working girl hadn't had much luck attracting any customers among the handful of occupants in the saloon.

Buck slipped into a chair, then handed Lilly a glass of whiskey. "Slow night?"

Taking a tentative sip of the drink, Lilly nodded. "It's very quiet in here tonight."

"That it is, darlin'."

Looking around the saloon for Buck's ever-present little brother, Lilly asked, "Where's JD?"

"He's at the jail, watchin' a couple of drunks," Buck informed the young woman. "How 'bout we don't worry about what JD's up to? What say you and me find ourselves a nice, cozy room and get to know each other better?"

"I can't, Buck. I'm supposed to be workin'," Lilly protested, blushing prettily at Buck's bold suggestion.

Buck gestured around the saloon. "Hard to be workin' when there ain't any customers, wouldn't you say?" The brunette nodded glumly. "Here, have another drink. It'll help take your mind off work." Buck poured another shot of whiskey for the young woman.

Lilly took a sip, smiling brightly at the scoundrel. Buck poured himself another drink, turning his gaze to the saloon door as another patron entered. It wasn't Ezra. Cursing inwardly, Buck tossed back the whiskey, leaning across the table to refresh Lilly's drink.

Buck had a healthy buzz on when he finally convinced Lilly to join him. Too healthy, in fact; the floor was tilting woozily as the tipsy cowboy led Lilly out of the saloon. Giggling like a couple of young children, the lovebirds headed for her room, shushing each other as they made their way through the darkened streets of town. A low sound caught Buck's attention and he quickly silenced the young woman as he drew his gun. He peered into the darkness between two buildings; the low sound repeated, coming from the narrow alley between the livery and the hardware store. Buck recognized the sound as a moan of pain. He cautiously stepped toward the source, Lilly following right behind.

Huddled against the foundation of the livery, hidden in the inky black shadows, lay a man. As Buck cautiously approached, the strong smell of vomit made his nose twitch. His stomach rebelled at the olfactory assault but he managed to rein in his queasiness.

"You all right, pard?" Buck prodded the still figure with the toe of his boot. Another faint groan was his answer. "You know it ain't healthy sleepin' off a drunk out here in the cold." As he spoke, the cowboy dropped to his knees. Buck turned the man over and his mouth dropped open in shock. Blood coated the disfigured face before him, glistening in the dim light of the waning moon.

"You don't sound very good, friend," the cowboy murmured. With the shift of position, the man's breathing became labored, his chest heaving as he struggled for breath.

"Lilly, stay with him. I'm gonna go find Nathan," Buck announced, climbing to his feet and running hell-bent-for-leather towards the healer's clinic.

Lilly cautiously knelt in the dirt beside the battered figure, gently patting the closest arm as much to reassure herself as to offer him comfort. The minutes dragged on uncomfortably as the young woman waited for Buck to return. Finally, voices alerted her to the approach of the men; Buck's drawl and Nathan's baritone conversed in urgent tones as they drew near.

"Miss Lilly," Nathan said in greeting, kneeling down beside her. His attention turned to the man lying in the dirt. With practiced hands, the healer examined his patient, carefully checking for injuries. When he was finished he sat back on his heels and looked up at Buck. "We gotta get him up to my room. He's got broken ribs, maybe some other broken bones. Go get Vin and Josiah; we're gonna need their help to move him."

Buck extended his hand to Lilly. "Come on, Miss Lilly, let me walk you home."

Lilly shook her head as Buck helped her to her feet. "No, Buck. I'll be all right. You'd best do what Nathan asked."

Buck nodded, then tore off to get the others. Lilly cast a final look at the man sprawled in the dirt before leaving the alley.

As he waited for Buck and the others to return, Nathan rummaged in his bag and found a clean rag. He dabbed the cloth over the bloody face, his gentle fingers probing for further injuries. He murmured faint words of reassurance but his patient was now deeply unconscious and oblivious to it.

A minute later, a sleepy Josiah hurried into the alley, kneeling beside Nathan and looking down at the sprawled figure. "How is he, Brother Nate?"

"Not good," the healer sighed. "He's pretty beat up."

Buck and Vin rushed into the alley in time to hear Nathan's words. The healer smiled grimly at the men gathered around. "We need to get him up to my room. We gotta keep him flat -- he's got broken ribs an' I don't want them to puncture a lung when we move 'im."

Vin, Buck and Josiah gently gathered the man into their arms, slowly making their way to the stairs leading up to the town's makeshift clinic. Nathan paused, looking up at the long stairway before turning his gaze back to his companions.

Josiah knew what was on the healer's mind. "We can take him to the church if you don't think the stairs are good for him."

"That might not be a bad idea. One wrong move an' he could bleed to death. We can move him in the morning when it's light out an' we can see what we're doin'."

The four men proceeded to the church, carrying their burden up the half-dozen or so steps into the building. They carefully laid the wounded man on Josiah's narrow bed.

Nathan and Vin hurried back to the healer's room to get medical supplies. Buck and Josiah lit several candles and brought them close to the bed. The burning candles sputtered in the breeze from the open door, casting soft, flickering shadows through the church.

Sighing, Josiah knelt beside the bed, one large hand reaching up to gently touch the top of the man's head and the blood-matted curls. The ex-preacher studied the swollen, bruised face for a long moment, then looked at Buck. The cowboy was staring at the still figure, his expression puzzled as if there were something familiar about the man he couldn't quite put his finger on.

"Buck, do you know this man?"

"I ain't sure," Buck answered tiredly. "He looks sorta familiar, but his face is so beat up . . . ."

"Look closely," Josiah instructed, fixing an intense gaze on the younger man.

Buck swallowed, uncomfortable with the quiet scrutiny, finally dropping his eyes once more to the man on the hard, wooden bench. The cowboy's eyes lingered on the battered face, then dropped down to study the somehow familiar clothing. Buck's eyes widened. "Dear sweet Jesus . . . ."

The ex-preacher laid a comforting hand on the closest shoulder. "Buck?"

Realization hit with sickening intensity. "Josiah, it's Ezra . . . ." Buck lunged to his feet, breaking free of Josiah's grasp and running to the door as fast as his legs could carry him. A second later he vomited onto the hard-packed dirt of the road.

Nathan and Vin returned, finding Buck outside, leaning heavily against the church railing. Even in the dim light of the moon Nathan could see the sudden pallor of his friend's face.

"Buck? What --?" the healer questioned, pausing on the stairs.

Buck swallowed, dragging his sleeve across his mouth. "Nathan, it's Ezra."

The healer exchanged confused looks with Vin. "What you talkin' 'bout?"

"The man in the church . . . it's Ezra."

"What? How . . .?" Now it was Vin's turn to question.

Buck shrugged helplessly, unable to explain.

"Dear God," Nathan stammered, bolting up the stairs and tearing into the church. "Josiah, is it true?" He dropped his armload of supplies onto the closest pew before kneeling beside the unconscious man.

"It appears to be, though why he's wearing these old clothes . . ." the big man shrugged.

"Damn!" Vin swore, his voice a low, worried growl. He lit Nathan's kerosene lamp, carefully placing it on the shelf above Ezra's head. The yellow glow of the lamp lit the battered features and Vin winced at the severity of the injuries.

Nathan gently lifted Ezra's swollen lip, searching for the gambler's gold tooth. Amidst the bright blood pooling in the smaller man's mouth, he found the proof they needed. "Damn. What happened to him, Buck?" Nathan questioned, turning to gaze at the distressed cowboy.

Slipping into a pew, Buck leaned his tall frame against the seat back. "Ezra ran a con on the gambler, the one who took those young homesteaders' money. He won it back for 'em, and even some extra. The gambler, Roberts, wasn't very happy 'bout the whole thing, but he couldn't prove Ezra was cheatin'. Hell, I knew he was, and I couldn't even tell. He's good."

"It don't take much to cheat you, Buck," Vin said lightly, trying to defuse their dark mood with humour.

Buck smiled wanly. "Thanks." He looked down at his friend, his face stricken. "Ezra left to get the money back to those two fellers, then he was supposed to meet me back at the saloon. He didn't show."

Nathan read the regret in Buck's features. "An' you didn't go lookin'."

Avoiding Nathan's eyes, Buck nodded contritely. "I got to talkin' to Miss Lilly an' I guess I forgot about him."

"Damn it, Buck . . . ." Vin whispered.

Buck's face mirrored his guilt. "Is he gonna be all right, Nathan?"

The healer had turned his attention back to their injured companion, his touch gentled by his own remorse over his earlier harsh encounter with the gambler. "Help me get his clothes off so's I can see what I'm up against."

The others quickly helped Nathan pull Ezra's torn, bloody clothing off, revealing a torso mottled with dark bruises. Nathan's expressive face revealed his doubt that anyone could survive such a brutal assault. "It's bad," he confirmed for the others. "Buck, get me some water." He handed a battered metal basin to the cowboy. Buck leapt to his feet and ran to retrieve water from the town well.

"Jeezus, Ezra, what did you get yourself into?" Vin questioned softly, his eyes dark with fury as they roved over the bruised ribs.

"Does he still have the money?" Josiah questioned. Shrugging, Vin gathered up Ezra's clothing, handing half to the ex-preacher, keeping half for himself. The two men searched the gambler's pockets. Aside from a couple of coins, they didn't find anything.

"I hope he got the money to those two before this Roberts got to him," Josiah murmured, his expression clouded with anger.

"I hope you're right, Josiah. What can we do to help you, Nathan?" Vin asked, peering down at Ezra.

"I need to get him cleaned up, then I can see if he needs any stitchin'," Nathan answered.

Buck entered the church carrying a full basin of water. He set it on the floor beside Nathan, then hurried from the church, returning with a full bucket.

Dipping a cloth into the cool water, Nathan got to work washing Ezra's face. As the healer cleaned the bloody features, he couldn't suppress a sympathetic wince at what he found. Blood welled from Ezra's split lip and from a deep gash over his left eye. Both would require stitches. The gambler's eyes were blackened, both swollen shut, and it was obvious his nose was broken.

"Damn," Nathan murmured.

Ezra suddenly jerked, gagging as blood from his facial injuries ran down his throat. Nathan lunged forward, lifting the gambler's head as he convulsed weakly, allowing him to vomit onto the floor.

Vin turned his head away, unable to watch as Nathan patiently cleaned up the latest mess. Buck kept his eyes glued on his friend's face, but his own features had paled as Ezra struggled to breathe.

Nathan gently cleaned the abrasions and cuts with carbolic acid, then spent the next hour stitching the worst of Ezra's wounds closed. As Josiah gently bandaged Ezra's forehead, Nathan set his fractured collarbone, then bandaged his ribs. Lifting the bruised head, Nathan tucked a pillow underneath and pulled a blanket up to Ezra's chin. One large hand remained on the southerner's uninjured shoulder, patting gently.

"All we can do is wait and see if he's gonna pull through," the healer advised his companions.

Josiah gently placed his callused hand on Ezra's cheek, bowing his head in a silent prayer. His hand lingered on the gambler's face as if he could impart some of his strength to the smaller man. Ezra remained unresponsive, the only indication he was alive the painful, gasping breaths he dragged into his abused body.

Settling in to wait, the lawmen knew it would be a long haul until morning.

 

 

At last the sun rose, filling the church with a soft, rosy light. Ezra had managed to survive the night; none of the men had expected him to last until daybreak but the feisty gambler had surprised them all. When the sun had finally cleared the eastern horizon, Buck and Vin made their way over to Mary's in search of information about Roberts' victims.

Vin knocked lightly on the Clarion's front door. A minute later Mary opened the door, peering at the two men. "Good morning, gentlemen."

When Mary spotted Buck's pale, drawn face and the quiet anger smoldering in Vin's gaze, she knew something terrible had happened. Mary laid a hand on Buck's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Buck? What's wrong?

The tall cowboy exchanged troubled glances with Vin. The tracker inclined his head, letting Buck have the dubious honor of telling her the news. Turning worry-darkened eyes on the young widow, Buck said, "It's Ezra, Mary. Last night he got beat up."

"Because of a card game?" Mary questioned, her harsh tone clearly indicating the way she felt about Ezra's other chosen profession.

"After," Vin clarified. "We need ta talk to the two young fellers that got cheated outta their money."

Mary's eyes widened. "Surely you don't think they did it?"

"No, ma'am. Ezra got their money back last night. He was supposed to return it to 'em and meet Buck back at the saloon. He never made it back there. We want to know if Ezra got the money back to those two or if he got robbed on the way over there."

Mary grabbed her shawl and wrapped it around her slim shoulders. "I'll take you to them." Vin politely opened the door for her, following the journalist as she hurried out into the street. Buck followed, pulling the door shut behind him.

Picking up her skirts, Mary stepped up onto the boardwalk and crossed to the hotel door, pausing only for a second as her eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the hotel lobby. Vin and Buck followed close behind as Mary led them up to the second floor. She stopped in front of one of the rooms, rapping her knuckles on the solid wood of the door.

A minute later, the door opened a crack and a sleepy-eyed young man peered out. "Mrs. Travis? What's going on?"

"Martin, these men would like to ask you some questions. You remember Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Tanner, don't you?"

Opening the door further, Martin stepped out into the hall, clad only in a pair of trousers and an undershirt. His suspenders hung down from his waistband; it was obvious he had dressed in a hurry. "What's this about?"

"We want to know if Ezra came here last night and brought your money back," Vin said, getting right to the point of their visit.

"Uh, yeah, he was here. 'Round midnight or so. Brought John's and my money back, plus about eighty dollars extra." Martin paused, studying the grim faces of the trio in the hallway. "Why did you want to know?"

"Last night Ezra got beat up."

"Damn. He all right?"

"We don't know yet," Vin responded. "He still ain't woke up."

"Was it because he helped us?"

"We don't know," Buck admitted softly.

"He was just tryin' to get us out of a bad spot," Martin mused. "Well, if there's anything I can do, you let me know. I'm sure John will feel the same."

Vin lightly touched his index finger to the brim of his hat. "Thanks. Sorry for wakin' ya."

Martin nodded, heading into the room as Vin, Buck and Mary headed back downstairs.

"Wait! Mrs. Travis?"

Turning, Buck, Vin and Mary saw Martin approach, holding a worn, dusty jacket in his hand. "Ezra asked us to hang onto this for him. When John asked him why, he said he had a bad feelin' about last night."

Curiously, Vin reached out and took the coat from Martin's grasp, quickly fishing in the pockets. He pulled out a wad of bills.

"That's what caught Roberts' attention," Buck explained, nodding at the money clutched in Vin's hand.

The tracker stuffed the bills back into the pocket, turning to Martin again. "Thank you. We'd best get back to Ezra."

As Vin and Buck headed down the stairs, Mary hurried after them. "May I come with you?"

The lawmen exchanged glances. Buck shrugged his answer.

"It was a free country the last time I checked," Vin said.

In silence, the trio walked down the dusty street to Josiah's sanctuary. As they approached the church, Buck paused on the bottom step, cautioning Mary, "He don't look too good."

"I understand," Mary responded grimly as she followed Buck inside. The strong iron scent of blood in the building made her stomach lurch queasily. As Mary walked down the centre aisle toward Josiah's bedroom, she couldn't remember ever seeing Nathan look so grim. The healer met her concerned gaze but couldn't manage even a small smile as she drew near.

Mary steeled herself against what she might find but even her own vivid imagination didn't prepare her for the sight of the battered gambler. Unbidden, Mary's hand flew up to her mouth and tears welled in her eyes.

"Oh, Ezra . . . " she breathed, kneeling on the plank floor beside him. One hand reached out to touch but hesitated before it made contact; Mary was unwilling to cause the gambler any more pain. "How -- how is he, Nathan?"

"Not good, Miz Travis," the healer confirmed. "He's got some broken bones, and he lost a fair bit of blood."

"Will he be all right?" Mary's soft green eyes searched Nathan's face.

"I don't know for sure, ma'am. I'm pretty sure he's got a concussion, an' I don't know if he'll wake up from that."

Mary nodded, her gaze falling on the unrecognizable features of the man lying in the bed. How could she have been so wrong about him? From the haunted look in Nathan's eyes, Mary knew he felt the same. How could they both have misjudged him? Mary finally tore her eyes from Ezra's face and turned to Nathan. "Is there anything you need? Blankets? Bandages, water?"

"No ma'am. Nothin' just yet."

"You will let me know if you need anything? If he needs anything?" Mary pressed.

"I will," Nathan promised solemnly.

"All right." Turning to look at Ezra again, Mary reached out and gently touched a bruised cheek, trying to impart comfort and a heartfelt apology through her whisper light touch. Deep in thought, the young widow left the church and crossed to the Clarion, slowly shutting the door behind her.

 

 

Buck sat on the church steps, his elbows resting on his knees, his left hand cupping his chin. He watched the townsfolk go about their business while he waited for the Seven's leader to make his way to town. Finally, the black clad gunslinger arrived, his horse's pace unhurried. Buck rose to his feet, waving his hat to catch Chris' attention. Larabee rode his horse over to the church, taking in the haggard appearance of his friend.

"Buck?" Chris could read his oldest friend well; something had happened last night, something that had put the jovial cowboy on edge.

"Chris," Buck replied, meeting his friend's gaze.

"What happened?"

"Ezra got himself in a bit of trouble last night."

"What'd he do now? Cheat at cards and get the saloon busted up again?" Chris sighed, dismounting and tying his horse's reins to the handrail of the church.

"Nope. He cheated at cards and got himself busted up."

Chris rolled his eyes. "He at Nathan's?"

Buck stood, nodding toward the open door of the church. "He's inside. Nathan didn't want to risk takin' him up those stairs in the dark."

Chris shook his head in exasperation, then climbed the stairs two at a time. He stepped into the church, his eyes sweeping to the men sitting in the front pew. His spurs jingled softly as he strode purposefully up the center aisle. "Mornin', boys."

"Chris," Nathan greeted softly, gesturing for Chris to follow him into Josiah's bedroom.

"How is he?"

Nathan shrugged. "He's still breathin'."

Chris stepped forward, peering at the still figure on the bed. Nathan obligingly pulled the damp cloth off Ezra's face so their leader could see the extent of the gambler's injuries.

Chris' jaw clenched and he turned to face Buck as he entered the small room. "What happened exactly? This looks worse than a barroom brawl, Buck."

"Well, now, Chris, it's like this," Buck began nervously. "See, there's this gambler in town, name of Roberts."

"And?"

"And he took a couple of young homesteaders for all they had . . ."

By the time Buck had finished relating the tale of Ezra's con, Chris' eyes were blazing with anger. "What the hell was he thinking? What the hell were you thinking, letting him walk out of the saloon alone?"

Buck lowered his gaze, unable to face Chris. His guilt weighed heavily on him without Chris' stern reminder about his culpability.

"Does JD know?"

"No. He's still at the jail, watching over a couple of drunk ranch hands," Josiah said wearily.

"I'll go get him. Josiah, can you make us some coffee? We need to figure out what to do about this." Josiah nodded as Chris went to retrieve the youngest member of their group.

The coffee was beginning to percolate when Chris returned to the church, JD in tow. On their way to the church, Chris had informed the young lawman about what had happened. JD's youthful face was set in a worried frown as he entered the sanctuary. He made a beeline for the rest of the men, stopping to stare in horror at the southerner.

"So what are we gonna do?" JD asked, unable to tear his eyes away from Ezra's face. In the bright light of day, the gambler's injuries looked far worse than they had in the soft, shadowy light of the kerosene lamp.

"We can't go after this Roberts guy. We ain't got proof he did it," Vin answered, looking up from the battered enamel mug of coffee he held in his hands.

Nathan nodded his head in agreement. As the others debated their course of action, the healer dipped a cloth into the basin of water, wrung it out, and placed it over Ezra's still-swollen eyes.

"We may not be able to go after this guy, but we can go talk to him if he's still in town," Chris said, a feral grin crossing his handsome features.

Buck smiled humorlessly. "Sounds like a fine idea to me."

"I'll stay with 'im," Nathan began. "If he wakes up and moves around when no one's here, he could hurt himself worse."

"I believe I'll stay, too. If the man who did this finds out Ezra's still alive and could identify him, he may try to finish what he started." Josiah patted his holstered gun for emphasis, smiling coldly.

"All right. Let's go see if we can find this Roberts character," Chris suggested, climbing to his feet and leading the rest of the seven from the small church.

It didn't take long for the peacekeepers to find their suspect. Roberts was sitting inside the saloon at Ezra's regular table. He gracefully shuffled a deck of cards in his hands, the cards whispering back and forth across the green baize. Four shadows slanted across the table, blocking the morning sunlight. Startled, Roberts looked up, meeting the stern looks from the four men standing before him.

"Can I help you? You interested in a game of cards?" Roberts questioned uneasily, eyeing the dangerous appearance of the lawmen.

Chris hooked the toe of his boot around a chair leg, pulling it out from the table before lowering himself onto the seat. The others followed his lead, sitting down and effectively surrounding the older gambler.

"Mr. Roberts, we'd like to have a word with you," Chris began.

Roberts was about to protest, but the look in the black-clad gunslinger's eyes was enough to convince him to keep his peace. "What do you want?"

"Heard you lost a fair sum of money last night," Chris prodded, casually drumming his fingers on the cloth tabletop.

Roberts' eyes narrowed as he regarded the leader of the group. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I did."

"How did that make you feel?"

Roberts forced a smile, shrugging nonchalantly. "All is fair at the poker table, gentlemen." He glanced around the table, eyeing each of the men, his gaze lingering on Buck for a long moment before turning back to Chris. "Why are you asking me this?"

Chris' expression was hard. "The fellow you lost to got beat up last night."

"Oh. That is . . . unfortunate."

"Is it?"

"Yes. But also not unexpected."

Chris' eyebrows shot up. "Oh? How so?" he questioned, mimicking the gambler's tone.

"A man who cheats at cards should expect to get called on it every now and again," Roberts answered smugly.

"But you said all was fair at the poker table," Chris pointed out.

"Maybe you forget, but I was there. If he was cheating, why didn't you call him on it then?" Buck questioned dangerously.

Roberts unconsciously sat back in his chair, hoping to put some more distance between him and the four menacing peacekeepers. "Well, now," he swallowed nervously, "I didn't say for sure he was cheating . . . ."

"Then why mention it at all?" Buck snapped.

"Where were you last night after the game ended?" Chris asked, interrupting Buck before his friend got even angrier.

"My staff and I retired to my suite at the hotel to have a couple of drinks."

A tall, leather-faced ranch hand appeared at the table, his gaze raking over the four men. "Is everything all right, Mister Roberts?"

"Yes, Matthew, everything's fine," Roberts answered quickly.

Matthew glared at the lawmen once more. "Peter and I will be outside if you need us," he informed his boss. Reaching up a bruised hand, he tipped his hat and walked away.

Roberts turned an appraising glance on Chris. "Is the unfortunate young man still alive?"

Chris nodded. "Yes, he is."

"I see," Roberts began thoughtfully. "If that's all, gentlemen?" Chris nodded once, curtly. "I'll be on my way."

"You'd best watch yourself, Mister, because we'll be watchin' ya," Vin cautioned.

"Thank you for the warning." Roberts tipped his hat. "Good day, gentlemen."

The lawmen watched as the gambler strode out of the saloon. Chris looked at his companions, his expression thoughtful. "Whaddya think, boys?"

"He may not have done it himself, but I bet you that other fellow, Matthew, did," Vin asserted.

"He looked like he'd been in a scrap," Buck confirmed with an angry scowl. "His hand was skinned up good."

"So what do we do? Do we arrest this Matthew guy?" JD asked, shoving his bowler hat back on his head and pushing the dark fringe of bangs from his face.

"We can't lock nobody up without proof, JD." Buck lightly cuffed the youngest member of the team, knocking JD's hat over his eyes.

"We need Ezra to wake up and tell us who did this to him, or we need whoever did it to try and shut him up permanently," Chris mused, thoughtfully scratching his chin as the beginnings of a plan formed.

Vin stared at their leader. "How are we gonna get that to happen?"

"We need to feed a little information to the concerned parties. Perhaps Mister Roberts would like to visit his gambler friend," Chris said. His gaze turned to Inez as the Mexican woman served another customer at the bar. "And I know just the person to suggest it."

Vin, Buck and JD followed their leader's gaze to the barkeep, smiling grimly as Chris' plan came clear.

 

 

Inez brought the glass of whiskey to Roberts' table, carefully setting the drink down in front of him. The older gambler downed the contents of the glass in one gulp, turning angry eyes on Inez. "Bring me the bottle."

"Si, Señor."

Returning with the bottle of whiskey, Inez bravely squared her shoulders as she approached Roberts. With a quick glance, she sought out Josiah's calming presence at the bar; he caught her eye, nodding once in reassurance. Chris had filled him in on their strategy, sending Josiah to the saloon to keep an eye on Roberts as Inez put the plan in motion.

Inez smiled briefly at the ex-preacher, then placed the bottle on the table. "Is something bothering you, Señor?" she asked as she refilled the empty shot glass.

Roberts snorted derisively. "Why do you ask?"

"You do not look happy."

"I am definitely not happy," he growled, downing the contents of the glass once more. He grabbed the bottle from the table top, pouring himself another shot of the amber fluid.

"It's such a shame about your friend, no?" Inez questioned solicitously.

Roberts glared at the young woman. "My friend?"

"Si. The one you were playing cards with last night." Roberts didn't have the chance to protest Inez' mistake; the pretty Mexican woman took a deep breath and plowed on, "He is not doing well, but they tell me in time he will be fine. The law is looking for the men who did it."

The gambler's face was devoid of expression as he asked, "He was able to give a description?"

"Oh, no, Señor. His head was hit hard so he didn't remember right away, but they say he remembers more and more every hour."

Roberts ran his finger around the rim of the glass, contemplating the news Inez had given him. Finally, he met Inez' gaze, looking thoughtfully at the guileless expression on her face. "Is he able to have visitors?"

Inez shrugged. "I don't see why not."

"Where would he be staying? Is there a doctor in this town?"

Inez busied herself with whisking crumbs from the table top with the damp rag she held in her hand. "We have no doctor, but we do have a healer. You can see his sign from here, on the second floor," she answered helpfully, pointing gracefully toward the batwing doors and the clinic down the street.

"Thank you, Miss," Roberts said, a heartfelt grin of appreciation crossing his features.

Inez returned the smile. "You are welcome, Señor. Enjoy your whiskey."

Gathering up empty glasses as she returned to work, Inez nodded once to Josiah as she passed. He touched his finger to his hat brim, then purposefully strode out of the saloon to set the rest of their plan in motion.

 

 

Roberts, Matthew and Peter laid low for the rest of the day, staying inside the gambler's hotel room to avoid attracting any more attention to themselves. Roberts was worried Ezra would soon remember who had attacked him, and he knew frontier punishment for crimes was harsh. He couldn't afford to be identified by the cardsharp. He was going to take steps to eliminate the danger at any cost.

Finally, an hour after the sun set, Roberts and Matthew slipped out of the hotel, crossing the street to the stairs that led to the second floor landing. Peter met them at the bottom of the stairs, standing watch over three horses tied to the nearby hitching post. Their animals were saddled and ready for a quick escape; Roberts didn't plan on staying in town after taking care of his business

Signaling his readiness, the gambler led the way as they climbed the stairs to Nathan's room, treading lightly on the creaky boards to keep the noise down. The sky was dark; no moon betrayed their furtive movements towards the healer's clinic. Roberts opened the door, cursing under his breath when the hinges squeaked loudly in the silence.

As quietly as they could, the three men slipped into the small clinic. Inside, one oil lamp was lit, its wick low, the flame casting a faint, yellow light across the room. A lone figure lay in the middle of the only bed, the blankets pulled up high and obscuring the battered face from his visitors.

Roberts neared the bed, trying to get a glimpse of his victim. In the lantern's soft light, the older gambler could barely make out a mop of brown hair lying on the pillow. He backed up a step, nodding to his two workers. "Let's do it."

Matthew and Peter pulled their guns, aiming at the defenseless man. The thunder of gunfire echoed inside the clinic as three guns spat bullets at the bed. As quickly as it started, the gunfire stopped. The sulfur stench of black powder fouled the air and Roberts hurried to the door, throwing it open. In his haste to make good his escape, he almost ran face-first into the tall figure that blocked his way.

"Going somewhere, Mister Roberts?" the black-clad gunslinger drawled. Chris drew his gun, roughly shoving the barrel under the gambler's chin.

"You mean other than straight to jail?" Buck questioned, stepping into view with his rifle cocked and ready to fire.

"Give it up, Mr. Roberts. You're under arrest for assault and attempted murder of one of the lawmen of this town," JD informed him, his youthful face hard and unforgiving.

Roberts dropped his gun, his hired hands following suit. "Attempted murder? You don't think he lived through that, do you?" he snorted disdainfully.

"We're quite sure he did," Josiah said, pushing his way into the clinic. The ex-preacher turned up the lamp's wick, then walked over to the bed. He whisked the blanket back, revealing several pillows and a woman's brown wig masquerading as Ezra Standish.

Roberts stared in horror as down from the ruptured pillows puffed into the air and fluttered gently toward the plank floor. "Damn it! You knew I'd try and stop him from talking!" he bellowed, lunging at Josiah. Chris fired once, shooting the gambler in the arm, sending him to the floor in a stunned heap.

"Just try it," Chris said to Roberts' men, his cold smile promising he'd give them both a taste of what their boss got if they so much as twitched.

"Let's get 'em to the jail," Buck growled, gesturing for Matthew and Peter to head out of the room. Vin covered them with his mare's leg, grabbing Roberts by his injured arm as he wobbled to his feet.

The gambler let out a squeal of protest but was quickly silenced as Vin gave another rough squeeze to his wounded arm. "Move it, and be quiet!"

Josiah, Buck, JD and Vin escorted their prisoners to the jail. Chris remained behind, watching as Nathan examined his ruined mattress.

"It's a goner," the healer groaned dramatically. "Ain't no way to patch all these holes."

Chris swatted ineffectively at the feathers floating around the room, sending the downy fluff swirling toward the floor. "Don't worry. I'm sure Ezra will help pay for the damage."

Nathan's dark eyes showed his skepticism. "Somehow I doubt that, Chris," he sighed. "Ezra and I ain't exactly on speaking terms right now."

Chris nodded in understanding. He knew all about the rift between the two men. "Mary told me what happened."

"Ain't much I can do to make it up to him. He wouldn't even let me apologize."

"Give it time, Nathan," Chris advised. "These kinds of things eventually sort themselves out. He won't be mad forever."

"Yeah, I guess that's what I'll have to do," the healer sighed. "I'd better get back to the church. It should be safe to move Ezra tomorrow, once I find another mattress."

Chris followed Nathan down the stairs to the street. "I'm going over to the jail to talk to the prisoners. Call if you need anything."

The healer nodded his goodbye, walking back to the church like an old man. His shoulders were slumped in misery, guilt weighing heavily upon him. He would never forget the anger he saw in Ezra's eyes when he tried to apologize, anger that he had caused with his accusations.

Dragging himself out of his self-recrimination, Nathan cautiously stepped inside the church, holding his hands up in plain sight. "Miz Travis, it's Nathan."

The slender blonde woman visibly relaxed the grip she held on the shotgun as Nathan identified himself. "Come in, Nathan," she gestured, placing the shotgun down on a pew. "I heard the shooting. Did Mister Larabee's plan work?"

"Yeah, it did. We got the three of 'em in jail," the healer answered. "He woke up yet?"

Mary glanced at the still figure on the bed, frowning in concern. She bent to tuck the blanket around the gambler's shoulders. "No. I thought once he was going to open his eyes, but he went back to sleep."

"I think it might be a while yet before he wakes up," Nathan confessed, watching as the journalist walked to the front door. "Thanks for watchin' him."

Nodding, Mary paused by the entrance. "If you like, I'll bring you breakfast in the morning." Nathan dipped his head in thanks. The blonde smiled, but the expression didn't ease the lines of worry etched into her porcelain skin. "Good night."

"Good night, ma'am." As the door closed behind Mary, Nathan carefully checked Ezra's bandages, then pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. He rubbed his gritty eyes, wishing he could get some rest but he knew his guilty conscience would make sleep impossible.

As the night wore on, Nathan sat in quiet vigil beside his patient, tending to the slight fever he'd developed since his assault. So far Ezra remained unconscious, lying silent and still on Josiah's bed, his head turned slightly toward the wall to ease the strain on his injured collarbone.

The silence in the small sanctuary was overwhelming, allowing Nathan's thoughts free rein. His mind wandered back to the events in Mary's office. He wondered why he'd assumed Ezra was to blame for the homesteaders' misfortunes. This man fought beside him. Like the others, Ezra put his life in danger to defend the growing town and he deserved more than Nathan's contempt.

Finally, the healer broke the stillness, his voice low and soft in the silence of the church. "I'm sorry I doubted you, Ezra. I shoulda known better, but I couldn't help but judge you. You don't make it easy for us, ya know. Always lookin' for an angle, some way to get rich at the expense of others."

Sighing, the healer wiped his patient's forehead with the damp cloth he kept in a nearby basin. "You gotta wake up an' let me have a chance to make it up to ya. I mean to make things right between us." If you'll let me. If I ain't spoiled any chance of there being peace between us.

Ezra remained oblivious to the heartfelt apology.

 

 

At daybreak, Buck tiptoed into the church, careful not to make any noise so he wouldn't disturb Ezra. Nathan watched the scoundrel's approach with curiosity.

"Mornin', Nathan. Chris sent me to get ya. They need ya over at the jail," Buck said, his eyes sparkling with mischief.

"And why is that?"

"Those prisoners we have over there sure are clumsy. You should see 'em! They all . . . uh, fell down the stairs last night when we were takin' them to the jail."

Nathan's eyes narrowed. "They fell down the stairs? Imagine that."

"They're as clumsy as newborn calves at their momma's side," Buck shrugged, pulling off his hat and placing it in an empty pew.

Nathan grabbed Buck's hand, examining the cowboy's skinned knuckles. "Did you fall down the stairs, too?"

Buck yanked his hand out of Nathan's grasp. "Uh, yeah. Something like that."

"How bad are they?"

"I'm sure they'll be all right once you get 'em stitched up," Buck grinned.

"You boys got to stop makin' so much work for me," Nathan grumbled, gathering up his medical kit and walking out of the church.

"Make sure you don't give 'em anything for pain. I want 'em to feel every bruise," Buck murmured as he commandeered Nathan's chair and plunked himself down beside his friend. Wringing out a wet cloth, Buck carefully mopped Ezra's face, then placed the rag back in the basin.

Buck turned a critical eye on his friend, studying the bruised features for signs Ezra was waking up. He was relieved to see the swelling had almost disappeared from around the gambler's eyes, though dark purple contusions remained on the pale skin. It would be weeks before the discoloration faded, leaving a painful reminder to the others about the price Ezra had paid to help the two homesteaders.

Sighing, Buck leaned back in the chair, settling in to keep vigil over his friend.

 

 

"Ow! Stop that!" Roberts protested as Nathan none-too-gently dabbed at the cut on the gambler's cheek.

"Sit still an' maybe I wouldn't have to press so hard," the healer admonished.

"Well, maybe if you'd stop hurting me I'd sit still," Roberts growled, squirming from the healer's grasp.

That did it. Nathan's already short supply of patience evaporated. Moving faster than Roberts would ever have expected, Nathan leapt to his feet and grabbed the older man by his collar. Fueled by anger and lack of sleep, the healer allowed his emotions to take control. He slammed the gambler back against the brick wall. His face no more than an inch away from Roberts', he snapped, "If you want me to patch you up, you don't give me no more sass. Bad enough I got to tend to the likes a' you without you makin' it hard for me."

The gambler heard the emotion in the healer's tone. Anger and shame warred for dominance. From the expression on the man's face, Roberts knew he could be easily goaded and he was determined to make the most of the situation. "What's the matter? " he taunted.

"You want to know what the problem is?" Nathan spat. "You come into this town and cause trouble for us all. You hurt my friend . . . ." The word slipped out, unbidden. Where did it come from? Surely what he had with Ezra couldn't be counted as friendship . . . Nathan quickly recovered his composure, continuing, "You cheat those men, and you ask me what's the matter? If I had my way, I'd leave you here to bleed all over the jail, but I don't want to have to clean up the mess after you're gone."

Nathan shoved the older man onto the low cot and grabbed the rag he'd discarded a minute ago. "Sit down and be quiet so's I can get back to work."

With ease of long practice, Nathan cleaned the gambler's face. His injuries weren't serious, but they were undoubtedly painful. Nathan found himself not caring. Working purely on instinct, the healer allowed himself to consider his earlier words. What right did he have calling Ezra his friend? Friends didn't desert each other when the going got tough. Friends trusted each other. Nathan certainly was no friend to the southerner.

A sharp yelp of pain brought him out of his reverie. Nathan blinked and brought his attention back to the older gambler, surprised to discover the tight grip he had on Roberts' shoulder.

"Ow! Watch what you're doing!" Roberts whined.

"You hush or I'm gonna blacken that other eye for you . . . ."

 

 
Buck looked up from the dime novel he was reading as Ezra showed the first signs of waking. The gambler moved his head slightly, muttering something under his breath. Buck turned an expectant gaze on his friend's face. Hope turned to disappointment as Ezra slipped back to the comforting darkness of sleep.

"Ezra? Come on, now. Time to open your eyes."

Buck's voice penetrated the soothing darkness surrounding him. Shadow gave way to light, sleep to wakefulness, and with awareness came pain. Gasping against the sudden sensation Ezra stiffened, fighting against his return to consciousness.

"Ez? You gonna wake up soon?" Buck asked quietly as the gambler stirred again. "You can't spend the rest of your days asleep. There're card games to be won. I personally expect to be handin' over most of my pay for the next while just to make you feel better."

At the soft words, Ezra's eyes fluttered open for a second, then closed again.

"Come on, pard. I know you can do it," Buck murmured encouragingly, a tentative smile crossing his face as pain-dulled green eyes slowly opened.

Blinking, Ezra tried to focus on the blurry shape hovering overhead. "Buck?"

"Yeah, Ezra, it's me. How're you feeling, pard?"

The gambler considered the question for a moment. "Like hell." The voice was raspy and whisper-soft.

Buck patted the closest arm. "I'll bet you do." Carefully easing Ezra's head up from the pillow, he held a cup of water to the southerner's mouth. Ezra took a couple of small sips before Buck laid him back. "Do you remember what happened?"

Sleepily nestling his head into the pillow, Ezra's eyes drifted closed and he mumbled, "No."

"Not at all?"

Ezra opened his eyes again, peering up at Buck. "Last thing I remember is heading out on patrol. Under protest, of course, at the ungodly hour I was forced to leave at . . . ." His voice trailed off as a vague thought entered his mind, a sense of betrayal so strong his breath caught in his throat. He couldn't place the feeling though he guessed it was a recent event, not the familiar hurt caused by his dealings with Maude. As quickly as it came, the feeling passed and he shrugged it off.

Buck watched the play of emotions cross the southerner's face, his heart going out to the man. Clearing his throat, he explained, "You got jumped by three guys after a card game. They got you good."

"Oh." Ezra paused for a moment, considering Buck's words. "Was -- was I cheating?"

"Yeah, pard, you were. But it was for a good cause."

Ezra's eyebrows shot up in confusion, then he winced as the movement tugged on the cut above his eye. He thought about Buck's statement, trying to puzzle it, out but the memory eluded him. "Oh. Perhaps one day you can refresh my recollection of the incident . . . ." Ezra murmured tiredly.

"When you're up to it," Buck promised. "You feel like somethin' to eat? Mary brought over some beef tea and biscuits in case you woke up hungry."

Ezra swallowed hard, fighting back the nausea the mere thought of food caused. "No, that's all right. Please thank her for me, though."

"I'll do that."

A moment passed before Ezra asked, "Where's Mister Jackson? He's usually here harassing me until I have no choice but to get well."

Buck bit back a smile. "Uh, Nathan is tied up for a bit. He'll be back soon enough."

"Are the others all right?" Ezra mumbled around a yawn.

"They're all fine. You get some rest. We got plenty of time to talk while you mend," Buck soothed.

"All right . . ."

A sad, wistful smile crossed Buck's face as the southerner once more succumbed to the urge to sleep. The cowboy contemplated his friendship with the gambler. Though Ezra gave the appearance of not caring about others, in reality Buck thought he was as softhearted as an old woman looking at her grandbaby. Ezra would never be able to live down the fact he'd been caught doing a good deed, and Buck and the others were determined to make the most of it. Yes, indeed. Ezra Standish had been found out.

Grinning, Buck climbed to his feet and headed out to tell Nathan his patient had finally woken up.

 
Nearly two weeks passed before Nathan reluctantly allowed his patient to leave his sickbed. Ezra's injuries were healing nicely but it would still be weeks before he'd be allowed to resume his normal nocturnal activities. For now, he seemed content to sit outside on Nathan's balcony and watch the comings and goings of the town's citizens.

As Ezra watched the world go by this particular morning, he was grateful for the warm spring sunshine. The physical warmth helped ease the aches caused by his healing injuries but did little to penetrate the chill pervading his soul. Contemplating his future, he stared toward the end of town, his left hand absently passing his signature card back and forth between nimble fingers.

Lost in thought, he considered the events of two short weeks ago. Nathan, Mary and Buck had explained the events leading up to his assault. His memory of the event had yet to return, though vague, disjointed images haunted his dreams and seemed to fit with what he'd been told of the attack. What lingered after the visions cleared was a sense of loss -- a loss of trust between his brothers. He sensed it was time to move on, to find a new place to hang his hat and start over. Before coming to this dusty backwater it had been easy to move on, but now he found the thought of leaving painful.

Nathan climbed the stairs to the landing, a tray in his hands. He paused to study his patient before carefully balancing the tray on the railing surrounding the landing. Though Ezra hid his emotions behind his poker face, the longing in his eyes betrayed him. Clearing his throat, Nathan greeted the gambler. "Mornin', Ezra."

Ezra acknowledged the healer's presence with a slight nod of his head. His eyes never left the view before him. "Hello, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan followed Ezra's gaze. To the west lay San Francisco and its gaming houses. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was running through the gambler's mind. "You thinkin' 'bout leavin'?"

The quiet question startled him from his reverie. Ezra glanced up at the healer, then returned his gaze to the west. "Perhaps."

Nathan couldn't quite believe the quiet admission. "Why?"

Shrugging slightly, Ezra sighed. "Why not?" What's keeping me here?

Pouring two cups of coffee, Nathan held one out to the southerner. Ezra considered the offer for a moment, then tucked the ace of spades into his sling and took the mug. The coffee provided a distraction from having to address the uncomfortable question.

Nathan refused to be diverted. "Why do you want to leave?" he pressed.

"I think it might be prudent for me to relocate. Wouldn't you agree?"

Settling into the other chair, Nathan studied his co-worker for a long moment. Instead of the self-assured man he'd come to know, Ezra's manner was one of weary resignation. Nathan knew he was to blame for the uncharacteristic disposition and the realization hurt more than he thought possible. Leaning forward, he carefully placed his hand on the gambler's arm to get his attention. When the emerald gaze reluctantly met his, Nathan admitted, "You're not at fault here, Ezra. I am. Mrs. Travis is. Even Buck is. You didn't do anything to deserve what happened to you."

Ezra would have laughed but the sincerity in the healer's words quashed the urge. "Thank you for your concern, Mister Jackson."

Nathan dropped his gaze to the coffee mug, searching for the right words to say in the dark liquid depths. He didn't have Ezra's gift of language; instead, he'd have to make do with plain speaking. "I am sorry 'bout what happened. I judged you, didn't give you a chance to explain your side of things. I was wrong about you."

Ezra was speechless. Nathan was apologizing. He couldn't recall ever receiving an apology, not once. Not that he'd deserved many. Too shocked to form a reply, all he could do was gawk as Nathan continued, "I don't know if you can consider workin' with me again. I'll understand if you can't." Glancing up, Nathan saw the surprised expression on the normally poker-faced southerner. "You all right, Ezra? You look a little peaked."

"I -- I'm fine, Mister Jackson."

"Are you?"

Was he indeed? Ezra's eyes turned toward the edge of town as he considered the healer's heartfelt words. Perhaps there was a future for him in this dusty metropolis. A year ago Nathan wouldn't have considered apologizing for his actions, and now, here he was trying to make things right between them.

Realizing Nathan was waiting expectantly for an answer, Ezra allowed himself a small smile to alleviate the other's concern. "I do believe I will be, Mister Jackson. I do believe I will be."

 
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