The dog days of August burned across the plain, sending searing waves of heat rippling across the arid landscape. No breeze blew to offer relief from the suffocating desert air, leaving the dusty town barren as a ghost town as residents fled the oppressive heat for the cooler climes of the nearby mountains. Even the saloon was deserted, most regular patrons finding the relative coolness within the building too sparse of a relief.
"Man, it's hot enough to fry my dinner right here on the damn table," Buck groused, idly fanning himself with his hat. He poured himself another shot of whiskey, knocking it back and shuddering slightly as the fiery liquid scorched its way down his throat.
Ezra looked up from his ever-present deck of cards, one eyebrow cocked in amusement at his companion's exaggeration. "I wonder how our associates are faring in Eagle Bend?"
A pained expression crossed Buck's face, and he sat up, warming to his topic. "I betcha dollars to flapjacks the only reason Chris an' the rest of the boys went to Eagle Bend was to get outta the desert. Whaddya wanna bet they ain't got no prisoner with 'em when they come back?"
"Why, Mister Wilmington, you surely aren't suggestin' to lay down a wager on that particular statement? As I recall, Lady Luck has not been smilin' upon you of late."
Buck's easy grin faded as he remembered the previous night's poker game; his luck had all but deserted him while the gambler seemed to be doing quite well for himself. He glared at the nattily-dressed man seated across from him. "I still say you was cheatin', Ezra."
The gambler grinned, his gold tooth winking in the dim light. "Mister Wilmington, I assure you I have no need to cheat."
"Hmmph." The doubting expression on Buck's face told Ezra exactly what he thought of that statement.
Ezra's grin widened at the grouchy reply, and he turned his attention back to the deck of cards whispering through his agile fingers. "Where is young Mister Dunne this afternoon?"
Pouring more whiskey into his glass, Buck shrugged, "JD's at the jail, babysittin' a couple of drunks."
Biting back another smile, Ezra eased his chair back and stood, tugging his jacket neatly back into place and adjusting the cuffs of his shirt. "Ah. Perhaps it's time for me to take a change of air and see if our sheriff needs someone to relieve him."
Grumbling, Buck muttered, "Yeah, you'd just better do that." The pretense of being miffed at his misfortune was replaced by a twinkle in his expressive eyes.
Tipping his hat, Ezra excused himself from Buck's presence and left the saloon.
Mary Travis spotted Ezra striding purposefully toward the jail. "Care for a paper, Mister Standish?" she called, raising her skirt gracefully to leave the boardwalk and cross the hard-packed dirt road.
The gambler smiled, tipping his hat. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Travis. Yes, thank you, I would certainly enjoy perusing your fine publication."
Mary smiled, inclining her head at the compliment. She handed over a folded paper, hesitating for a moment as she considered the offer of Ezra's politely extended arm. Mary carefully placed her hand on his arm, falling in step with the cardsharp as he continued down the boardwalk. Clearing her throat, she began awkwardly, "I was wondering . . . ."
"Do you know when Mister Larabee and the others will be returning from Eagle Bend?"
The gambler heard the hint of concern in the young widow's voice, no doubt prompted by her growing attraction to Chris Larabee, the Seven's leader. He smiled and attempted to allay her fears. "They are scheduled to return later this evening."
Mary breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good."
"Oh? Is something - or perhaps someone - bothering you, Mrs. Travis?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. I just worry when - well, I just worry, that's all."
Ezra turned to the sound, his poker face in place as he faced the man who had so uncouthly bellowed out his name. Standing on the boardwalk behind them was a tall, haggard-looking man, his face road weary and lined from too much exposure to the sun. The gambler appraised his opponent with a practiced eye; the man's clothes were finely-cut but worn, attesting to a once-lavish lifestyle that had perhaps fallen on hard times. Ezra's eyes swept up to meet the piercing glare.
"Standish, that you?" the man grated.
"That depends entirely upon who is asking the question," the gambler answered warily, uncertain of the man's identity but not willing to tip his hand just yet.
"I'm askin'. You Maude's son?"
After exchanging curious glances with Mary, Ezra returned his gaze to the angry man blocking his path. He slowly nodded his head. "Yes, I'm Maude's son. Why do you ask?"
A gun appeared out of nowhere, aimed squarely at his chest. "Because I'm gonna send you to hell, you son of a bitch!"
Ezra fought to remain composed, raising his hands from his sides in a placating gesture. "Please, sir, I would request you refrain from using such vulgar language in front of Mrs. Travis."
"My apologies to the lady," the man snapped, glaring unrepentantly.
"Mrs. Travis, might I suggest you go inside while Mister --?" The gambler cocked one eyebrow at his assailant, the unanswered question hanging between them.
"Bullock. Lawrence Bullock."
"While Mister Bullock and I resume our discussion," Ezra continued firmly.
Mary looked from the gun to Ezra, her face pale as her eyes flicked between the two men. "I - I'm not sure that's such a good idea, Mister Standish," she stammered.
The gun wavered a fraction toward Mary. "This is between me an' him. It ain't your business, ma'am. I suggest you do what he says."
Ezra nodded his agreement, smiling reassuringly at the young widow. "Please, Mrs. Travis. I must insist." His voice held an odd note, yet outwardly his emotions remained controlled.
Nodding, Mary reluctantly slipped inside the Clarion's office and shut the door behind her.
Glaring at his companion, Ezra scolded, "It is unacceptable behavior to frighten women."
"I don't give a damn about that woman," Bullock snarled, advancing toward Ezra. The gambler held his ground, not backing up even when he felt the barrel of the gun grinding against his ribs.
"May I inquire as to what is this all about?"
"You really have no idea who I am, do you?"
Ezra shook his head, shrugging.
"Your mother stole my family's fortune."
Ezra almost laughed but carefully bit back a smile. "My mother? She stole from your family?" An angry nod answered his query. "I am sorry, Mister Bullock. My mother may be a lot of things, but a petty thief isn't one of them."
"She conned my father, cheated him out of his hard-earned fortune. He lost everything - she took it all. And now he's dead. . ."
"I'm sorry to hear such grievous news, but I'm afraid I had nothing to do with your family's unfortunate circumstances." As he spoke, he flexed his wrist slightly, feeling the reassuring weight of the derringer strapped against his arm. It was his ace in the hole.
Bullock grinned coldly. "You may not have had anything to do with it, but I'm going to have my revenge. I'm gonna take your stone cold carcass and drop it at your mother's feet. We'll see how she likes seein' her only family dead."
Ezra's heart thudded in his chest; the expression on Bullock's face confirmed the man's madness. "This is lunacy. Surely I can wire her, get her to return your family's assets. . ."
"She can return my father from the grave?"
Ezra's composure faltered, just slightly, and he gulped. "No, I'm afraid that particular task is impossible."
Bullock nodded in satisfaction, backing up a few steps, the gun still pointed in the general vicinity of Ezra's heart. "Now you're getting it. Say your prayers, Standish, because you ain't long for this world."
Time slowed to a snail's pace as Ezra's eyes locked on the gun, watching as Bullock's finger tightened in slow motion on the trigger. With a flick of his wrist, the tiny derringer hidden in his sleeve slipped into his palm, but for once his timing failed him. As he brought the gun up to fire, pain blossomed in his side, followed a split second later by a loud crack! He felt himself falling, falling, slamming with incredible force onto his back on the rough wooden planks of the boardwalk.
Struggling to draw breath into his burning chest, Ezra turned wide, pain-dulled eyes on his attacker, watching with a removed kind of curiosity as the gun was pointed at him again, felt his body jerk as the second bullet hit, then felt nothing at all as darkness swallowed him whole.
Buck jumped, startled, as a gunshot echoed across the dusty street. He was on his feet and out the door, gun drawn, a second later, scanning for the source of the commotion. A second shot rang out, drawing his attention to the Clarion's front door and the man firing on a prone figure, a figure in a trademark red jacket.
Ezra? Dear God, no!
The gunman was oblivious to Buck's advance as his booted toes prodded the man sprawled on the boardwalk at his feet.
Buck was furious at the callousness of the gesture. "Drop your gun!" he bellowed, fury coalescing into an adrenaline-fueled rage as he studied the scene. Bullock spun, bringing his gun up to fire at his unknown assailant.
"You heard the man! Drop your gun!" JD shouted, out of breath from his quick run from the jail. The shotgun in his hands never wavered as he met Bullock's livid gaze.
Mary followed several steps behind the young sheriff, stopping at a safe distance from the altercation.
"Drop your gun, mister, or I'm gonna make you drop it. An' I might just take your arm off doin' it." Buck's voice dropped to a low, dangerous growl.
Bullock had nothing to lose. Buck could see it in the set of his jaw, in the grim, determined look he threw at Ezra's prone form before he brought his own gun up, his hand shaking as he aimed the weapon in Buck's direction.
JD and Buck fired at the same time. Both their aims were true and Bullock went down hard, landing with a sickening thud at Ezra's feet.
JD bounded onto the Clarion's porch, kicking Bullock's gun out of reach as he bent to check the gunman. As JD checked on Bullock, Buck knelt beside Ezra, his large hands pressing over the bleeding wounds in the smaller man's torso. Ezra's breathing faltered, almost stopping, but resumed, weak and irregular, a moment later.
"Damn it, Ezra, don't you dare die! You gotta hang on 'til Nathan gets back!" Buck pleaded.
Movement caught his eye. A second later, Mary knelt beside him. She pressed a soft cloth into his bloody hands as she bent over the prone gambler. Belatedly, Buck realized what she was doing and followed her lead, pressing the cloth against Ezra's chest.
"He alive?" JD's tremulous voice asked over Buck's shoulder.
"Yeah, kid. He is, but I ain't sure how long he's gonna last," Buck admitted.
The young sheriff climbed to his feet and gestured with his rifle. "All right. Show's over, folks. Go about your business." He stood and glared, looking as menacing as only JD could, and dispersed the small crowd that had come to watch the festivities.
"Good job, kid. How's the other guy?"
"Dead." JD's voice held a note of bitter satisfaction, making the older man stare in shock. Buck glanced up as Mary's voice brought him back to the here and now.
"Mister Wilmington, we need to get Mister Standish inside."
Buck's gaze snapped back to the young widow's. "Yes, ma'am."
Rising to his knees, Buck slipped his arms under the smaller man and quickly hefted him up. Climbing to his feet, Buck moved toward the hotel and the gambler's room, but Mary's voice stopped him.
"In here, Mister Wilmington. We don't have time to get him to his own room."
Buck halted, turning to study the blonde's earnest face. She gestured for him to follow, quickly opening the Clarion's door and holding it as Buck carried his burden inside. Mary led Buck to her bedroom and stepped aside so the cowboy could lower Ezra to the bed.
"Get him undressed while I get some water," Mary instructed, leaving Buck to the task as she hurried from the room.
Buck removed Ezra's guns, then watched as JD's nimble fingers unfastened Ezra's clothing -- jacket, vest and shirt -- and soon had them lying in a messy heap on the bare wood floor.
Mary returned with a basin of hot water and a couple of yards of broadcloth to use as bandages. JD tore the cloth into strips as Buck levered Ezra up from the bed.
"Looks like both bullets went clean through," the mustached gunslinger commented helpfully as he watched Mary wash Ezra's wounds. Working quickly, Buck, JD and Mary got the bleeding stopped and the gambler tightly bandaged.
Ezra's skin was clammy and he trembled slightly in Buck's grasp. The strong scent of gunpowder mixed with blood hung heavily in the air. Buck eased Ezra back onto the bed and tugged his boots off.
"I hope we got the wounds clean," Mary said, wiping her forehead with the back of a damp hand.
Buck realized her concern; if they hadn't gotten all the bits of fabric and debris out of the bullet holes, infection would set in. Buck had seen strong men succumb to wound fever even though their injuries hadn't been that serious.
Exchanging looks of understanding with Buck, Mary pulled a blanket from her cedar chest. With a snap of her wrist, she unfolded the blanket and tossed it over the unconscious gambler. Buck helped tuck the heavy wool cover around Ezra's other side.
Smiling confidently, JD stated, "Nathan'll be able to fix him up as soon as he gets back."
"I hope you're right. Nathan does have a trick or two up his sleeve." Buck affirmed the young sheriff's enthusiasm. Looking the young man over, he instructed, "JD, I want you to go over to the jail and wait for the others to come."
JD risked a glance at Ezra's pale face. "I'll bring 'em over as soon as they get in," he promised solemnly. Glancing at Mary as he shoved his hat back on his head, he said, "You just holler if you need anything, ma'am."
Somehow Mary managed a grateful smile at JD's offer of help. "Thank you, JD. I will."
Striding purposefully from the room, JD quietly shut the Clarion's door behind him and hurried to the jail to wait for the rest of the lawmen to arrive from Eagle Bend.
Hours passed with no sign of Chris and the others. The sun marched across the sky in its timeless rhythm, the light changing from bright yellow to a dark golden hue as befitted the time of year. Despite the open windows, Mary's bedroom was stifling hot, so hot they'd had to take the blanket off Ezra before he overheated under the heavy wool.
Ezra stirred, tossing fretfully on the double bed. Reaching out for the umpteenth time, Buck carefully laid his hand on Ezra's flushed face. He let out an ungentlemanly curse, then winced in apology at Mary's startled look. "Sorry, Mary. I think he's got a fever."
Bending over the bed, Mary felt Ezra's forehead. Feeling the heat radiating off the southerner, she nodded grim agreement to Buck's assessment. "I'll get some water," she murmured, heading for the kitchen.
Buck watched in concern as Ezra stirred again, his head moving back and forth on the crisp white pillowcase. "Come on, pard. You gotta fight this."
A minute later, Mary returned to the bedroom with a basin and a small towel. Wetting the towel, she rung it out and placed it on Ezra's forehead. Ezra murmured something unintelligible under his breath, then relaxed into the arms of slumber once more.
"Come along, Ezra. The day isn't gettin' any younger."
"Not Mama. Mother. You're gettin' too old to refer to me in such a babyish manner."
Five-year-old Ezra blinked at the rebuke. Sighing, he bit his trembling lip to stop himself from crying. Mama -- Mother -- was right. He was grown up. He should act like it. Straightening his slender form, he looked up at his mother and nodded.
"That's my boy," Maude murmured impatiently. Glancing up the street, her eyes fixed on their latest target. "All right. Here comes Mister Davenport, the banker. You know what to do."
Nodding again, Ezra dropped his eyes to the boardwalk, pretending to be unaware of his surroundings. As Davenport drew alongside of the child, Ezra stumbled, lurching directly into the well-dressed gentleman.
"Ezra! Watch what you are doin', son!" Maude exclaimed in horror as Ezra nearly knocked the unsuspecting man off his feet.
"It's all right, ma'am," Davenport reassured as he regained his footing and bent to steady the small boy beside him. "No harm done."
Grasping Ezra's hand firmly in her own, Maude scolded, "You apologize to the nice man right this very minute."
"I am sorry, sir. I wasn't watchin' where I was goin'," Ezra drawled softly, his eyes large with worry over his transgression.
"That's all right, son." The banker patted the thin shoulder under his hand. Smiling reassuringly at Maude, he added, "I'm sure the boy didn't mean it."
Batting her eyes, Maude continued on as if scandalized by her son's clumsiness. "I am so sorry, Mister . . .?"
Davenport tipped his fine top hat, revealing a shiny bald pate. "Davenport. Charles Davenport at your service, madam," he gushed.
Smiling her best southern belle smile, Maude went for the kill. Holding out her gloved hand, she cooed, "I'm Maude Simpson, and this is my son, Ezra."
Taken in by her charm, Davenport bent to kiss the extended hand. "A pleasure, Mrs. Simpson."
"Perhaps you would care to join me for an aperitif, Mister Davenport?"
Davenport looked pointedly at the repentant child. Maude dismissed his concern with a wave of her delicate hand. "Oh, don't you worry 'bout him. Since his father passed on he's become very good at amusin' himself while I go out. Let me just take him home and then I'll join you. Say, seven at the saloon?"
"That would be delightful," Davenport beamed. He tipped his hat to Maude, winked at Ezra, and went about his business.
Discretely pulling her son around the corner, away from prying eyes, Maude hissed, "Well?"
Ezra dutifully handed over the leather wallet he'd pulled out of Davenport's coat pocket.
Maude frowned, examining the contents of the wallet. "Is that all? You didn't get his pocket watch, too?
"No, Mother. I'm sorry."
"You'll have to do better next time," Maude scolded as she quickly shoved the wallet into her handbag.
Looking glumly at the boardwalk, Ezra murmured again, "I'm sorry."
"'I'm sorry' won't filly your empty belly, son. You need to work harder or I'll have to send you back to live with your Aunt Margaret." Sighing, Maude took Ezra by the hand and took him to the boarding house that served as their temporary home. Leaving the young boy to his own devices, Maude closed the door behind her and didn't look back.
"How's he doin'?" Buck questioned anxiously as Ezra once again moved restlessly. "Is he waking up?"
Almost in answer to Buck's question, Ezra's eyes opened briefly, dark and cloudy with pain, before sliding closed again.
"I don't think so. I think it'll be a while before he really wakes up," Mary admitted as she continued to wipe a cool cloth over Ezra's face.
Geeze, Ezra, you sure got yourself in a mess of trouble this time. "D'you need me to go up to Nathan's and get some supplies?"
Mary smiled gratefully but shook her head. "I've got some laudanum here, but that won't help lower his temperature." She thought for a moment, wondering what remedies she had on hand to ease the gambler's fever. "I have some rabbit brush we could make into a tea."
"It couldn't hurt," Buck agreed. "Want me to get some water?"
"Yes, please, Mister Wilmington."
Buck was about to go to the well when the clanging of the front door bell announced JD's arrival. The sheriff came back to the Clarion's office, stepping quietly to Mary's bedroom door. He nodded a greeting at Buck and Mary. "I wired the sheriff in Eagle Bend to see if Chris and the others have already left. He wired back and said they did."
"If we're lucky and they have good light, they could be back tonight," Buck guessed. "Most likely they'll be here early tomorrow."
"Did you find out who that man was?" Mary asked JD. Frowning, she continued, "He knew who Ezra was, but Ezra didn't explain how he knew him, if he did."
JD scratched at the growth of whiskers on his chin. "His name was Bullock. From what the hotel clerk said, he came from back east looking for someone. Seemed he had an important job to do before he could go home."
"Looks like his important job was to kill Ezra," Buck growled.
"Why would he want to do that?" Mary questioned.
"I don't know," JD admitted. "Nobody in town knew this guy. Ezra hasn't arrested anybody lately, nobody's been threatening to get us . . . ."
"That's a nice change," Buck murmured, cutting into JD's explanation. "Guess we'll have to wait until Ezra wakes up to tell us what's going on."
Mary bathed the unconscious man's face, nodding her agreement. She was puzzled over the day's events, her mind churning with possibilities.
"I'll be back with the water, Mary," Buck cut into her reverie. The journalist nodded, rinsing the cloth in the now-tepid water and bathed Ezra's face again.
"You have no idea how long it took me to find out where the game was bein' played. The mayor likes to keep his poker games a secret," Maude said urgently as she raised her skirts and headed across the street to the saloon. "Don't you let me down, Ezra. Use your God-given talents to win, son."
Ezra grinned cockily at his mother, not bothering to reply to her statement. He relished the chance to test his poker skills against some new opponents. Maude had carefully coached him in various cheating techniques. The twelve-year-old was well armed, fully able to hold his own against any player he should encounter. After all, he'd learned from the best.
Maude steered her son inside the batwing doors of the Lucky Diamond Saloon, spotting her targets -- the mayor and two wealthy businessmen -- almost immediately. She approached the three men clustered around a large wooden table, her manner demure and unfailingly polite. "Good evening, gentlemen."
"Ma'am," the men greeted warily.
"I'm afraid I have a favor to ask of you," Maude hesitated, seemingly embarrassed by what she was requesting.
"We'd be happy to help you if we can, ma'am."
"Would you gentlemen mind indulging my son in a game of chance? He so loves the game and fancies himself to be quite good at it . . . " Maude gestured to the young man standing respectfully behind her.
Smiling at the youth's earnest expression, the mayor took a silent poll of his opponents. It was early in the evening; what harm would a few hands do? The mayor pulled a chair out and indicated the boy should sit.
"This is Mister Moore and Mister Johnson. I'm Mister O'Shea," the mayor introduced in a heavy brogue as Ezra seated himself at the table. "And you are?"
"Ezra Sampson, sir," the young man drawled, his manners impeccable as he shook the poker player's hands.
"Would you like to deal, son?"
"It would be my pleasure, sir." Ezra grinned and took the proffered deck in his small hands. O'Shea grinned indulgently as the youngster expertly cut the cards and dealt out a hand to his opponents. "Five card draw."
"A gentleman's game," Johnson stated with a smile.
Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out a few coins, placing them in a tidy pile on the green baize.
"The stakes have gone up," Moore commented to his peers, reaching into his own pocket for his loose change.
The game moved quickly, the older men taking it easy on the young lad. Ezra, however, didn't show the same mercy, winning the first game easily. Intrigued by his skill with the cards, the men allowed Ezra to deal another hand.
As game after game progressed, amusement turned to chagrin, chagrin to anger as the youngster consistently beat the older men. Several dollars had changed hands and Moore, Johnson, and O'Shea were starting to suspect they'd been set up.
Maude came to the rescue, her face alight with mock surprise at the large pile of money in front of her boy. "My, my. I can't believe how well he's doin'. Must be beginner's luck."
"Beginner's luck indeed," O'Shea commented, glancing first at Maude, his gaze returning to Ezra. Was the boy cheating? His youthful face and innocent expression belied any malicious intent and none of his adversaries were able to catch the boy in anything inappropriate. He possessed an innate ability with the cards. If he could keep the skill when he was grown, he'd be a formidable opponent.
"It's been a pleasure, gentlemen. If you'll excuse me, I do believe I'd best be takin' him home. A growin' boy needs his rest."
Making their escape before the town fathers took offense at their leaving with the bulk of their cash, Maude and Ezra headed for the door and the anonymity of the night.
Slipping into their hotel room, Maude carefully locked the door behind her before turning to face her son. "Your timing was off. You should've taken it slow instead of raisin' the stakes so fast."
Before he could stop it, the retort slipped out. "At least I managed to bring home the bacon, as they say."
"Don't be rude," the elder Standish chastised. "How did you do?"
Grinning, the young gambler pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and placed it on the table. His grin grew as Maude looked with astonishment at the pile of money.
By the size of the stack of bills and coins, Maude guessed Ezra had brought home around two hundred dollars. A nice night's work, but she knew the boy was capable of so much more. "Perhaps if you'd played one more hand instead of making a spectacle of yourself, we could have been set for another month."
The slender young man dropped into a chair and politely hid a yawn behind his hand. "I've been playin' cards for three hours, mother. I'm tired." A hint of adolescent whining colored his tone.
"I'm glad you didn't act like that in front of those fine gentlemen. They never would have allowed you to play."
"But they did and I won, mother." Can't you ever be proud of me?
"You may have won this time, Ezra, but you can't count on your past winnings to see you through the bad times. You have to stay sharp."
"I think it's cool enough. Can you sit him up a bit?" Mary questioned as she walked into her bedroom with a tin mug half-full of a dark greenish liquid. Buck eased his arm under Ezra's sturdy shoulders, propping him up as Mary eased the mug to the gambler's mouth.
Between the two of them, Mary and Buck managed to get the cooled tisane of boiled rabbit brush into the resisting southerner. The silvery-green plant made a bitter tea, but it was purported to work wonders on all sorts of illness. Now all they could do was wait and see if the medicine had any affect on the fever.
Fighting against his dreams, Ezra moaned, his world reduced to flashbacks of his checkered past. He tried to fight his way out of the dream but its grip on his senses was too tight. Giving up, he allowed himself to be drawn down the path of memory once more.
"Mother, must we do the cotton gin scam again?" God, how he hated that particular scam but he did have to admit he loved the thrill of the con. Nothing could beat the rush of pure excitement when your mark willingly handed over his hard-earned cash.
Scowling, Maude glanced at her handsome young son. He was growing into a fine young man, as tall as his father but slimmer, his green eyes a mirror of her belated husband. "Do you have a better plan to get us some more money? Surely you don't think your paltry poker winnings are goin' to put a roof over our heads?"
Inwardly, Ezra winced at the harsh question. Maude always had a way of making him feel incompetent. Outwardly, his faced showed no expression. He was, after all, his mother's son. He thought of rebutting her statement; didn't he clean up at the tables last week? They'd been able to move from the cheap boarding on the edge of town to the city's finest hotel.
"No, I don't have a better idea. This con is just so . . . tiresome."
"It may be tiresome, as you so gauchely put it, but it is profitable." Maude checked her appearance in the mirror above the dresser, smoothing back a lock of blonde hair. "Get ready. We have to meet Mister Masters in an hour."
Dressing carefully, Ezra donned his new grey tailcoat, adding a matching cravat to complete his appearance. Though he was bored to tears with the scam, he would do his part to make it successful. They did have to earn a living.
Maude had done her homework, carefully choosing the time and place of the con. Their newest mark, John Masters, was a former slave owner who'd managed to retain some of his land after the War of Northern Aggression. It was rumored he still kept slaves despite it being illegal. No one challenged the businessman, and Maude planned to use his transgression for her own benefit.
The meeting began quite well. Masters proved to be a true southern gentleman, warming to his fellow countrymen as only one of their kind could. Maude took full advantage of the man's hospitality, accepting a small glass of fine French cognac from the hotel waitress.
Ezra, however, couldn't contain his boredom. Despite the numbing effect of the well-aged scotch his mother had ordered for him, it pained him to see his mother work on her unsuspecting victim. How many times did he have to sit and listen to this same discourse? He had to give Maude credit; she was on a roll, quite a sight to behold as she cajoled Masters with the benefits of their new-and-improved cotton gin.
"Your . . . er, staff . . . will be able to pick that many more bales of cotton now that they no longer have to separate the fibers from the seeds. Our company has taken the original cotton gin idea from Mister Whitney and improved upon its design. Our cotton gin is smaller and takes less time to process the raw materials," Maude attested.
Masters noted Ezra's fidgeting. He cast an appraising gaze at the young man seated across from him. "You've been awful quiet, son," he said kindly.
Ezra glanced at his mother, then cleared his throat. "My business associate has done a more than ample job of tellin' you the merits of our cotton gin. Should you decide to partake in this venture, I will be the one to look after purchasing all the necessary items you require. My contacts in St. Louis will supply everything as soon as they get word of your acceptance." Ezra repeated his prepared speech almost by rote. He really hoped Masters decided not to buy into their scheme. Despite his penchant for making his living off the backs of others, Ezra found he liked the old man. It was a dangerous turn of events. You weren't supposed to like your marks.
Maude shot him a look of barely-concealed anger. His timing was off and she knew it; she could tell by his lack of enthusiasm for the task. Her look promised there would be hell to pay if Masters didn't buy into the scam.
"If I get payment to you tomorrow, when can I expect delivery?"
Damn. Masters had fallen for Maude's charm, lock, stock and barrel.
The days flew by as Maude spun her web of deception around the Masters family. True to form, she left Ezra, the financial adviser, to break the bad news to their new partner. The 'delivery' was going to be delayed until Masters coughed up more money. Once he'd handed over the cash, Maude and Ezra would disappear. If they were lucky, they'd be gone before Masters realized he'd been tricked.
Alone in the hotel with Masters, Ezra cautiously explained the bogus difficulties. God, how he hated this part.
"What do you mean you need more money? I'm afraid I have no more equity to give you." Masters took a long pull on his beer, his face draining of color. "I advanced a sizable sum -- didn't that cover all expenses?
Ezra's expression was regretful. Truth was, it wasn't hard to feign the emotion. He truly felt bad for Masters. Taking a deep breath, he delivered the news. "I'm afraid not. There are some unexpected costs involved, specifically those involving transport to your plantation."
"Is there nothing you can do?"
"I'm sorry. Unless our suppliers receive the outstanding balance before the end of the week, they will cancel the deal."
Masters brightened considerably. "Then I'll get my money back."
"Again, I'm sorry. If you'd read the fine print on the contract, you would have seen the 'no refund' policy. Our suppliers are very firm on that; if you cannot meet their stipulated requirements, you forfeit your payment."
Desperation colored Masters' tone. "How can I give you what I don't have?"
Ezra shrugged helplessly. "There's nothing I can do."
Masters finished his beer, rising from the table to tower over the younger man. "I see. You'd best inform your suppliers there will be no more money. Good day."
Green eyes dark with pain, Ezra watched as Masters almost bolted from the hotel. He hung his head, guilt coursing through him. It was an unfamiliar emotion and he didn't like it one bit. In disgust, Ezra climbed to his feet and hurried up the stairs to the suite he shared with Maude.
Ezra walked down the stairs, stepping into the hotel dining room. He was surprised to see Masters in the deserted room. The older man appeared distraught, muttering to himself, pausing only to down another mouthful of redeye as he continued his tirade. Slipping into the shadows, Ezra stopped to watch as Masters threw the empty bottle across the room. The glass exploded messily against the wall but Masters appeared not to notice the destruction. Instead, he grabbed another bottle of redeye from behind the bar and took a long swallow.
Before Ezra realized what was happening, Masters turned his back to the door and pulled a gun from his waistband. Ezra could his reflection perfectly in the room's large mirrors. Holding the weapon to his head, Masters closed his eyes and prepared to fire.
"No!" Ezra shouted, bolting from his hiding place to stop Masters from his rash act. The older man paused for only a second upon hearing Ezra's voice. "No, don't!" he yelled again, reaching for the gun to pull it away from the old man. He was too late; the gun fired and blood splattered the front of his clean shirt as Masters crashed to the floor.
"My God . . . what have we done?" Ezra dropped to his knees beside Masters, one hand reaching out to rest on the unmoving figure's chest. Blood pooled on the thick carpet, its scent heavy and cloying, the sight and smell making Ezra gag. Climbing to his feet, he ran from the room and out into the street.
Unobserved, the young southerner watched the funeral procession. The widow, now destitute, tried hard to be strong, but a half-hour into the service she broke down and wept. Her two young boys tried bravely to give her support, but at the tender ages of five and seven, they couldn't do much to ease her pain.
Ezra watched as Masters' coffin was lowered into the ground. This was wrong, all wrong. What right did he have to harm this poor family? Maude never seemed to care about what happened to their marks or their families. As long as she was taken care of, why worry about anyone else? Ezra, however, had grown sensitive to the repercussions of their actions. It irritated Maude to no end when Ezra questioned her, but so far she'd been able to force him to comply with her wishes.
Well, he wasn't going to do this anymore. Tearing himself away from the tragic scene before him, Ezra shoved his hands into his pockets and headed back to the hotel. He was nearly seventeen. He was a man grown and able to decide what direction his life would take. He didn't need to stay one moment longer in his mother's company.
Ducking down the alley, Ezra made his way to the back of the hotel and quietly ran up the stairs to the third floor. Knocking once, twice in their secret signal, Ezra opened the door and slipped inside. Fortunately, Maude wasn't in the suite. Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. At least he wouldn't have to explain why he was cutting his losses and leaving this life behind.
Hurriedly packing his meager possessions, Ezra kept an eye out for his mother's return. Should he leave her a note? How could he possibly explain his change of heart?
Checking the small stake he'd managed to save for himself, Ezra tucked the cash into his carpet bag, then scanned the room once more for anything he might have missed. Finding nothing, Ezra slipped out the door and crept down the back stairs. Risking a glance into the saloon as he passed by, he saw Maude engaged in a poker game with an unsuspecting gentleman. The youth pitied the man; he didn't stand a chance against such a ruthless adversary.
Casting a final goodbye glance at his mother, Ezra quickly crossed the street to the livery. He purchased a horse, a sturdy paint mare, and the second-hand tack that went with her. Saddling the horse, Ezra took a moment to let her sniff at his bare palm. Soft lips nibbled at the smooth hand, making Ezra smile. At least he had one friend.
Setting his shoulders, Ezra mounted his new horse, secured the carpet bag behind him, then headed off to make his own way in the world. He knew more than enough cons to get by, and he was certain he could run them without destroying his marks. At the edge of town he paused, stopping for a moment to reconsider his decision. Was he ready to be on his own?
It took only a second to search his heart for the answer. Ezra kicked the horse into a ground-eating canter to hasten his departure. He vowed he would never forget John Masters.
Something wasn't right. Why did he hurt so bad? Dread filled him; what had happened to cause such pain? Where was Maude? No, that wasn't right. Maude wasn't here, Maude was in St. Louis by now, working on another scam.
"Easy, Ezra. You're going to be all right," a voice that sounded remarkably like Mary Travis whispered in his ear.
The others! What had happened to the others? Were they all right? A faint memory tugged at his mind, a vision of a man with stone-cold eyes pointing a gun at him. Recollection swirled around him and he followed its siren call once more.
"I am sorry, Mr. Bullock. My mother may be a lot of things, but a petty thief isn't one of them."
"She conned my father, cheated him out of his hard-earned fortune. He lost everything - she took it all. And now he's dead. . ."
Dead. Dead. Dead. The work rang in his head, echoing like one of Josiah's church bells.
He had no choice but to defend his own honor. Surely this man didn't think he was responsible? "I'm sorry to hear such grievous news, but I'm afraid I had nothing to do with your family's unfortunate circumstances."
Bullock grinned coldly, his eyes glinting with madness. "You may not have had anything to do with it, but I'm going to have my revenge. I'm gonna take your stone cold carcass and drop it at your mother's feet. We'll see how she likes seein' her only family dead."
Ezra's heart thudded in his chest. "This is lunacy. Surely I can wire her, get her to return your family's assets. . ."
"She can return my father from the grave?"
Dear Lord! First Masters, now Bullock. How many more people were going to crawl out of his dubious past to haunt him? "No, I'm afraid that particular task is impossible."
Bullock nodded as he backed up, the gun still aimed at Ezra. "Now you're getting it. Say your prayers, Standish, because you ain't long for this world."
Time slowed to a snail's pace as Ezra's eyes locked on the gun, watching as Bullock's finger squeezed the trigger. With a flick of his wrist, the tiny derringer hidden in his sleeve slipped into his palm. As he brought the gun up to fire, pain blossomed in his side, followed a split second later by a loud crack!
He fell backward, slamming with incredible force onto his back on the rough wooden planks of the boardwalk . . . .
Startled by the sudden sharp cry from the bed, Buck nearly leapt out of his skin. Calming his frantically beating heart, Buck hurried to the side of Mary's bed and grasped Ezra's shoulders, pinning them to the mattress. The gambler was caught in the grip of a nightmare, his gaze unfocused, his breath coming out in short, rasping pants.
"Easy, pard. Take it easy. You're safe."
"Buck?" Ezra's voice was a low, throaty croak.
"Yeah, pard. You with me, Ezra?"
"You've got to stop her . . . ."
As he managed to drag himself out of the fog of fever, Ezra's eyes met Buck's. His tone was one of panic as he rasped out, "Maude."
Buck shook his head, studying the sleepy figure before him. "What are you talkin' about?"
Ezra didn't reply. Instead, his eyes fluttered shut and he fell back into a restless slumber.
Buck looked up as Mary softly padded into the room, tightening her robe around her slender figure. The reporter looked tired, her blonde hair in disarray about her worried face.
"Is he all right?"
"Yeah. Just had a nightmare is all."
Nodding, Mary stepped over to the bed and laid a motherly hand on Ezra's brow. "His fever's down a little," she sighed. "Would you like to get some sleep? I don't mind sitting with him for a while."
"Nah, that's okay. I'll just stay here if you don't mind. I suspect Chris and the others will be here soon."
Mary settled into the chair beside Buck, patiently waiting for morning.
The sun finally crept past the eastern horizon, casting a rosy glow across the sleepy town. Ezra still slept fitfully, his wounds hot to the touch, his face flushed and beaded with sweat. Buck was worried but tried to keep his concern hidden from Mary. He hated to think the Seven would be reduced to six because of some damn fool stranger waltzing into town and taking out one of their own. The idea rankled him to his core.
JD knocked on the Clarion's door, all but throwing the door open as he dragged Nathan inside. "They're back! Nathan's here," the sheriff announced, propelling the healer toward Mary's bedroom.
"What happened?" Nathan questioned, his gaze dropping to the fretful figure on the bed before sweeping up to Buck's face. "JD ain't makin' a lick of sense, just told me I had to hightail it over here."
"Ezra'a been shot. He's got a fever; we can't seem to bring it down," Mary replied, returning from the kitchen with a pot of coffee and a couple of mugs. She placed the loaded tray on her dresser and handed a mug of the steaming brew to Buck.
"Infection?" Nathan asked, crossing the room to the bed. Buck jumped out of his chair, clearing a spot for the healer to stand.
"I think so. I made a tea out of rabbit brush. It seemed to help a bit," Mary continued.
Nathan peered under the bandages around Ezra's torso. "Wounds've gone bad, all right. Mrs. Travis, I got some willow bark tea in my bag. Could you boil it up?"
"Certainly." Mary rummaged in Nathan's bag, finding a small cloth pouch of the potent medicine. She disappeared from the bedroom as Nathan gestured for Buck to give him a hand.
"We gotta clean those wounds real good and get a linseed poultice on him," the healer murmured as he dug in his bag for more bandages.
"Is he gonna be all right?" Vin questioned from the doorway, Chris and Josiah on his heels.
Nathan smiled in reassurance. "He ain't too bad yet, but I don't want to see him get worse."
"Need a hand?" Josiah questioned, taking his usual position at the healer's side.
"Yep. Now the rest of you, get on out. There ain't enough room in here for all of us," Nathan growled, gesturing for the rest of the seven to leave the crowded bedroom.
Nathan and Josiah worked quickly, scrubbing the tender wounds and clearing out the worst of the infection. A liberal shot of whiskey to disinfect the bullet holes, followed by the linseed poultice to draw the rest of the poison out, did the trick. By the time Nathan managed to force some willow bark tea down his patient's throat, Ezra was on the road to recovery.
Leaving the gambler to sleep, Nathan and Josiah joined the others parked in Mary's small parlour. All they could do was wait and see if Nathan's healing touch worked its magic once more.
A faint buzzing sound first drew him out of slumber. Would somebody please swat that fly? Ezra sighed. He felt warm, almost intolerably so. The smell of supper cooking, normally a welcome smell if he wasn't out on the trail with Buck doing the cooking, made his stomach twist in knots. He groaned, trying to turn his head away from the scent.
The familiar voice intruded into his consciousness. The gambler forced his eyes to open and gazed at the fuzzy figure above him.
"Ezra?" Nathan repeated.
The healer grinned. "Yeah. How're you feelin'?"
"Abominable, thank you for asking." He groaned in protest as strong hands lifted him up, supporting his head so Nathan could force some more tea down his throat. Choking slightly on the foul brew, he protested, "Gads, that's awful."
"I know. You'll thank me later when you don't hurt no more."
"Guess you're pretty lucky that guy didn't have better aim," JD commented.
Ezra started, surprised to hear JD's voice. Groggily peering around the room, he noticed the others lounging in various positions around the small room. Chris slouched against Mary's dresser, while Josiah and Vin stood at the foot of the bed. Buck and JD sat beside the bed, both of them wearing huge grins as they looked at him.
"Lucky indeed," Ezra repeated softly.
A hand pressed against his forehead, the touch strong yet gentle.
"His fever's down. I think he's gonna be okay," Nathan beamed.
"Good. The sooner I can get up, the better." Ezra struggled to sit up but Nathan's large hand pushed him down.
" Ya just got shot! Why d'you want to get up so soon?" JD asked, puzzled by the gambler's actions.
"I have to go."
"You're not runnin' out on us, are you, Ezra? I'd hate to think we trusted you for nothing," Chris murmured, the challenge unspoken but clear in his eyes.
"Not tryin' to run out," Ezra whispered, aghast at the suggestion. It was for their own good; couldn't they see that? He couldn't risk another lunatic from his past targeting the town.
Josiah read the worry on the younger man's face. "Everything all right, Ezra?" he questioned solicitously.
The gambler refused to meet the large preacher's concerned gaze. "I . . . I don't think it's safe for me to be here anymore."
A look of concern passed between the remaining lawmen. Pulling a chair to the gambler's bedside, Chris lowered himself onto the seat and appraised the injured gambler.
After a long moment, Larabee leaned forward to capture Ezra's attention. "Do you remember what happened? Did you know the guy that shot you?" he asked, not unkindly.
"He was an 'acquaintance' of my mother's," Ezra explained softly.
Chris sighed, exchanging glances with Vin and Buck. It figured; somehow Maude had to be involved. "Why'd he shoot you?"
Ezra considered dissembling to his friends, but threw the idea away. A small part of him knew they could be trusted with the information, a part that recognized the brotherhood he had with them. "Revenge against Maude."
"Revenge? What the hell for?" Buck questioned.
"The long and short of it is my sainted mother conned his father out of a sizeable fortune, after which he died," Ezra recounted the tale. He closed his eyes, struggling to retain his composure. "Mister -- Mister Bullock was going to kill me and take my body back to my mother so he could see her reaction to the news." Ezra remembered the madness in the man's eyes and a small shudder ripped through him.
"Easy. It's over now. He's dead," Buck soothed, misinterpreting Ezra's dread as a fear of Bullock.
"It's never over, Mister Wilmington. Not with my mother out there usin' people for her own gain," Ezra sighed wearily.
Nathan bit back a sharp retort. It wouldn't do to point out to Ezra how similar he was to Maude. The only difference was Ezra seemed to use his talents to help the people of this town, only occasionally slipping back into his old ways when the lure of silver was too much to bear.
"We'll watch your back," Vin declared, a half-smile lighting his features. Everyone in the room nodded their agreement, including Nathan.
Ezra blinked, surprised and strangely gratified by the declaration. Had he heard correctly? "You'll what?"
"I said we'll watch your back," Vin repeated patiently.
"You will?" Ezra was flabbergasted. These men were willing to watch out for him? The very idea was preposterous! What could they possibly have to gain from such altruistic actions?
"Don't look so surprised," Buck chastised. "You're one of us. We look after our own."
Ezra was mystified, glancing around the room at his six compatriots. They looked sincere. Could it possibly be true?
It was JD who broke the silence. "Don't you believe us?"
Six men waited for his answer, six sets of eyes staring at him as he considered JD's question. They were offering him sanctuary; he'd have to be a fool to turn down such a lucrative offer. Fine, then. No more burning bridges. As much as the thought scared him, it appeared he'd found a home -- a family -- and he'd be damned if he was going to give it up without a fight.
"I'll wager no one will get through such a formidable bodyguard," he joked, trying to lighten the serious mood. It wouldn't do for his brothers to see how touched he was by the promise.
Josiah was the first to break the tension. "Why, Brother Standish, I do believe we have a bet," he intoned seriously before breaking into a wide grin.
Ezra returned the smile, his gold tooth shining in the dim light. Win or lose, he had family and family was more precious than gold. Now, if he could only convince Maude . . . .
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