M7FFA Entry

 

Such a Fair Salvation


by Lynne


CHAPTER 1



Yancy Garrett slicked back his blond hair, checking his reflection in the front window of the general store before entering. He was thin, with the lanky awkwardness of a boy just entering the growth spurt that would give him a man's inches in the next year or so. What he saw satisfied him; a handsome youth, well dressed, though not a dandy, with a confident smile that labeled him a son of privilege and good family. It was just what he wanted to see. It was what he wanted the portly matron standing at the till and her gentleman customer to see as well.

The gentleman that Yancy had watched enter the store was a dandy, by any definition of the word. He wore a red broadcloth coat that had been carefully tailored to his measure. Beneath the coat he sported a gold on red brocade vest. A silver chain decorated the front of his vest, announcing the presence of a watch. A fine linen shirt with touches of lace set him farther apart from the cowpokes, miners, and dirt farmers that populated most of the area.

Yancy entered the store, watching surreptitiously as the dandy paid for a small selection of merchandise, including lace handkerchiefs, a pearl stickpin, and an incongruous licorice whip. Returning a tooled leather wallet full of bills to his coat, the man tipped his hat to the buxom storekeeper.

"A very pleasant day, Mrs. Potter," he said in a pronounced southern accent. "And to you, too, Annabelle," he continued, dangling a piece of the licorice in front of the small girl almost hidden behind the storekeeper's skirts.

Annabelle took the treat with an excited little squeal.

"What do you say?" her mother prompted.

A muffled 'thank you' came through the layer of skirts in which the child had wrapped herself. Her benefactor laughed and directed an exaggerated tip of his hat in her direction.

Yancy timed his move carefully. He headed across the room and succeeded in colliding with the gentleman as he turned and strode toward the open door. Amid the clutching and balancing and mumbled apologies, Yancy's light fingers found the tooled wallet and triumphantly extracted it, sliding it neatly up the sleeve of his own coat.

He released his victim with profuse, gracious apologies. He had already turned away to address Mrs. Potter when an iron hand clamped down on his arm. He fought down his initial panic, reminding himself to stay calm. When he looked up, he found himself staring up into a pair of very knowledgeable and slightly amused hazel eyes.

Ezra Standish studied his squirming captive with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. With a firm, probably even painful, grip he discreetly guided the youngster outside. Reaching up the boy's sleeve, he retrieved his wallet and slipped it back into its accustomed resting place.

"Your technique is not without merit, son," he commented dryly, "but you really must learn to judge your marks more accurately. Never pick the pocket of someone who's better than you are, my boy. And you can take my word for it, I am considerably your superior in this field."

Ezra himself was a con artist par excellance, though he was ostensibly refraining from the practice for a time. In exchange for clearing up a minor annoyance with the law, he had sold his talents with a gun to help establish some semblance of law and order in this restive speck of a frontier community. So for the time being he felt duty bound to protect the estimable town of Four Corners. However, this child wasn't what he contemplated protecting it from. He saw a certain irony in the fact that out of seven men hired to uphold the law, the boy had tried to pickpocket the only one of the group that could have spotted him cold.

Ezra wryly tried to assess whether the boy before him was as good as he himself had been at the same age. To be honest, he had to admit the child was probably better.

"What's your name, son?" he asked.

"Yancy," the youth replied suspiciously. "Yancy Garrett."

Ezra casually draped one arm across the boy's thin shoulders in the manner of an old friend.

"Well, Yancy Garrett," he whispered conspiratorially, "may I suggest that for your own welfare, and my peace of mind, you refrain from lifting anything else that doesn't belong to you for the remainder of your stay in our fair city?"

As Yancy digested Ezra's suggestion a smile touched his lips. He visibly relaxed his stance.

"Yes, sir," he answered. "Although I suppose that was a rhetorical question."

Ezra could not repress a broad grin at the boy's comeback.

"An educated man," he said approvingly. "I'm honored to make your acquaintance."

Somewhat embarrassed, the boy quickly twisted away. He threw only a brief, puzzled glance back at Ezra as he made his way down the boardwalk.

Ezra leaned idly back against the storefront, curious to see where the boy went. He joined a hefty blond gentleman of middle years who stood on the porch of the Virginia Hotel. There was enough of a resemblance between the two that Ezra judged that the man was probably Yancy's father. He also judged from what he could see, that the words that passed between them were less than harmonious. He wondered whether the gentleman knew, and disapproved of, Yancy's activities, or if he perhaps knew and only disapproved of the boy's failure.




Vin Tanner cupped a harmonica to his mouth, blowing out the last mournful strains of 'In the Gloaming'. The battered wood steps where he reclined still held the warmth of the recently departed sun. The evening breeze felt good and he was content. Seated a few feet away, on the porch of the small house, Sarah McCallum, his younger sister, plucked the strings of a dulcimer and sang.

The house was small, built of sawed wood boards and containing only two rooms, one of modest size to serve as kitchen and sitting room, and one that was downright small, for sleeping quarters. But the porch was broad and the rent nominal. So long as Sarah's preacher husband held services in Widow Jenkins' parlor now and then, the house was theirs.

Micah McCallum sat braced atop the porch's whitewashed rail listening to his wife sing. It was a wonder to Vin how the lanky young man had managed to curl his frame into such a spot, but Micah evidenced no discomfort, simply resting his head, eyes shut, against the corner post.

Several of the men Vin worked with sprawled nearby. There was a harsh contrast between the gentle contented nature of the music and the gun-toting figures who sat and listened, humming along Each of the men had been hired for their prowess with a gun and their ability to keep a clear head in a fight. They were none of them men to necessarily seek out a fight, but for months now they had been the only wall of defense standing between the town of Four Corners and the roving, lawless element that plagued the southwestern frontier.

Their backgrounds were so varied it was a marvel that they all managed to work together. Buck Wilmington had come to town already carrying a reputation with a gun, although it was his reputation with the fairer sex in which he invested most of his time. Josiah Sanchez was a missionary's son, turned into a fighter for reasons no one knew or cared to pry out. Nathan Jackson had started life a slave on a Mississippi plantation, but the bloody Civil War had taught him the skills of a medic and he eked out a rough living now as a free man in a free land. Then there was J.D. Dunne, a starry eyed kid from back east, aching to belong, to establish his place in the 'Wild West'.

Sarah gently damped the last chord and nodded pleasantly, acknowledging the men's approval.

"We need something livelier," she declared, nudging Vin's shoulder with one shoe. "We need Vin here to sing us 'The Yellow Rose of Texas'."

Vin shot her a warning look.

"Here, here," shouted Buck. "Now that's something I can't wait to hear."

Vin did his best to stare his would-be audience into silence.

"I ain't singin', Sarah," he said in a low, rough voice. To those who didn't know him well, it would have passed for a growl.

"Shucks, we're all real anxious to hear you," Micah called, opening his eyes. A merry grin creasing his lean features.

"I ain't singin'," Vin told them again. He hunched lower on the stoop, but to his chagrin the opening strain rang out from the dulcimer in Sarah's hands.

"He does it real fine," she informed the grinning men.

Vin glared at all and sundry, while Sarah continued to tease him with a cascade of notes. At last he shrugged and straightened up a bit. He had sung the tune often enough in his youth, but he lacked Sarah's ease at performing for a crowd.

The first start was a false one and he did his best to give it up as a bad idea, but the group was set on hearing the thing now. Trying a second time, he fell in with the swing of Sarah's lively playing. When he reached 'her eyes are bright as diamonds', hands began to clap and feet kept time. As they started the song over, the rest of the group joined in, aided by several grinning passers-by.

"Well, ma'am, here's to sweet women and sweet love and good times," Buck called jovially when they finished at last. The next minute he recollected that he was speaking to the preacher's wife and turned brick red. She arched an expressive brow and chose that moment in which to retire.

Buck mumbled something by way of apology. Conscious of the man's growing discomfort, Micah gave the others a mischievous grin.

"Women and love and a good time," Micah pondered. "A very biblical attitude, Brother Wilmington."

Buck cast around, hoping for assistance from another quarter.

"... rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love," Micah intoned.

The men all turned to stare at the preacher then.

"Fifth chapter of Proverbs," Micah supplied informatively.

"Must be one of those parts my daddy wouldn't let me read," observed Josiah.

"A wife's a powerful fine thing to have," Micah said gravely. "You give me time Buck, I'll find you just the right one. Got a lovely little gal I wanna introduce you to. She's been lookin' for a husband for... well, years now."

Buck made to protest, but Micah continued. "Folks around here would be plumb tickled to see you married and settled down. Why I've had half a dozen local men suggest that very thing."

"I just bet they have," snickered J.D.

"It's a popular topic of conversation," Micah assured them.

The men watched a wave of red spread across Buck's handsome features and hooted with delight. There wasn't another man alive who could make Buck Wilmington blush, especially on the subject of women. The big man's roving eye was legend, but young McCallum took no end of pleasure in baiting the lusty gunman on the topic of wedded bliss, and could do so without so much as batting an eye.

"I can tell you'd purely enjoy having a wife," McCallum said.

"He means your own, Buck," Nathan leaned forward to comment. "Not somebody else's."

"I know what he means," Buck shot back. "I don't need no scarecrow telling me what to do," he continued, "and I don't need a wife." He retreated with a scowl, leaving his companions rolling with mirth.

"I'll tell you one thing, J.D.," Josiah said as the group broke up for the night. "With that boy's knowledge of scripture, the world sure ain't gonna lack for little McCallums."

"You mean that bit he just quoted?" J.D. asked.

"No," said Josiah, "I was actually thinking about the command to 'be fruitful and multiply'."




CHAPTER 2



As a result of his earlier surreptitious observances, Ezra's attention was immediately drawn to the large blond man when he strolled into the saloon that same evening. Ezra knew the type once he saw him at closer range. The man was perfectly groomed and nattily dressed. A well-cut fawn jacket covered his beefy shoulders, and Ezra noted that he was shorter than he had at first assumed. The blond hair was beginning to thin and had faded to white at the temples. A gold-headed walking stick completed the effect. This man made his living off lady luck. Ezra knew him by heart; he had been raised to be him.

While the gentleman ordered a whiskey at the bar, Ezra joined him.

"Put that libation on my tab, Jim," he said to the barkeep before turning to the man. "Sir, you strike me as a man who appreciates the finer points of poker. I would relish a little encounter. Would you care to join me at my table?"

The gentleman assessed Ezra in the same way Ezra had assessed him only moments earlier. His eyes glinted with an amused recognition of the kinship between them.

"I do hold to the opinion that poker is one of the greatest challenges to a man's wits ever invented, Mr- ..."

"Standish," Ezra supplied. "Ezra Standish."

"Claude Garrett," the gentleman offered, extending his hand. Ezra approvingly noted the rich accent that bespoke the southern reaches of the Mississippi River.

"Then you really must join me, I insist," he said.

Once they settled, several local men anted up to try their luck, but the group turned over fairly quickly as one after another reached the limit of their funds. It was clear from the start that what contest there was lay between Ezra and Claude Garrett. The winnings were split almost evenly between them. Ezra observed Garrett closely to see if he could spot the man cheating, but if he did so, he did it well. It amused him to no end to see Garrett giving him the same scrutiny. The evening hours rolled by until the two gamblers were almost the last men left on the premises. Even Jim had fallen asleep propped on a wooden stool behind the bar.

"If you'd care to adjourn to the hotel, Mr. Standish, I can provide you with refreshment from my private stock," Garrett offered when the night had grown old. "You'll find it far superior to the local swill."

With a nod of assent Ezra folded his final hand and followed Garrett out of the deserted saloon. Only two flickering lamps lit the hotel's silent lobby. Ezra settled himself on a heavy, brocaded settee, while Garrett disappeared up the stairs. The wavering light gave the dim room an almost hypnotic atmosphere.

Claude Garrett returned in a short time carrying a bottle of cognac. A young, dark haired girl followed him. She was a lovely little thing, Ezra noted, sitting up immediately to study her. Shiny black hair was piled high off her neck, and from her swarthy complexion, he judged she had Mexican blood. Her face was a soft olive oval with wide liquid eyes as black as coal. A low cut blouse revealed ample evidence of a slender, blooming figure. Though obviously conscious of his interested gaze, she kept her eyes demurely cast down.

"Ramona," Garrett addressed her, "fetch two glasses from the kitchen for us. And find someone to put together a light repast as well."

"What a charming creature," Ezra observed as she disappeared. "Where did you come by her services?"

"Yes, she's charming indeed," Garrett told him. "Poor thing, her father cast her off. Confidentially, he begged me to employ the girl. It's lucky I came along. She could have wound up on the streets of San Antonio."

Ramona returned with a small tray bearing cold ham and rolls and a pair of glasses. With a wave of his hand Garrett dismissed her, noting shrewdly how Ezra's eyes followed the graceful figure as she ascended the stairs.

Garrett offered a toast and they settled in to finish off the bottle.




While Ezra slept off the previous night's excesses, the last of the town's defenders took up a morning watch in front of the jailhouse. Chris Larabee was a lean, taut figure of a man. He dressed in black, perhaps because it made him more intimidating, perhaps because it suited his mood. More than any of the other men, he carried a reputation with a gun, but there had been a time when Chris was mellower, easier going. He had been that way right up to the moment when his young wife and son had gotten in the way of someone who wanted to see him dead. From that day on 'kill or be killed' summed up Chris' philosophy of life.

This morning he sat with a wide brimmed black hat covering his short sandy hair. It tilted down, hiding a pair of alert green eyes. Those who didn't know better might have thought he'd fallen asleep in his chair. In truth, there wasn't a movement along the town's dusty main street that Chris didn't register. He didn't move, but he wasn't missing a thing when a company of cavalry rode in from the east. The dangling, scarred placard that read "Sheriff" creaked in the wind as the troop of men reined in at the foot of the steps. Chris pushed his hat back and studied the lieutenant in charge without comment.

"You the law in this town?" the officer asked.

"In a manner of speaking," Chris responded.

"Lt. John P. Cole, detailed out of Fort Campbell," the man said curtly. "Rounding up some troublemakers, runaways from the reservation. You need to alert the town there may be trouble in these parts."

"Haven't noticed any trouble yet," Chris told him laconically. "Haven't seen any runaways. I'll keep my eyes out." His tone conveyed a studied lack of enthusiasm for the task.

"My men'll do that," Cole snapped. "But I could use a local tracker, someone who knows these parts. You know a man?"

Chris nodded. He knew one man who fit that bill, all right. Vin Tanner had spent the better part of his life in the wilderness. Indian taught, he had hunted buffalo and he had hunted men. Nobody was better suited for the job than Vin. Besides, it occurred to Chris that there would be no harm in having one of his men ride along with this group. It would keep him in the know if anything developed.

"Yeah, I can line you up a fellow," he told them nonchalantly.




Vin had just taken the last of Buck's red checker pieces off the weathered board when Chris sauntered up from across the street with a man dressed in uniform following on his heels. Chris braced one well-worn boot on the edge of the wooden porch and jerked his head toward his shadow.

"Boys, this is Lt. John Cole, Fort Campbell. He's looking to hire a local tracker to help him round up some Indians that've broken out of the reservation."

Chris silently indicated Vin, who had stretched himself out in his chair and tilted his hat back to study Cole. Flowing blond locks escaped from under a regulation Cavalry hat to frame a dissolute face, robbed of strength, Vin surmised, by an overly intimate acquaintance with hard drink.

"This is Vin Tanner, best tracker we've got in these parts. Buffalo hunter a few years back," Chris told Lt. Cole. "He'll suit your needs."

Cole stripped off his gloves as he studied Vin. Something in that calculating gaze irritated the tracker. In Vin's opinion Cole didn't look as if even the grace of God Almighty suited his needs.

"You ever work for the army, Mr. Tanner?" Cole asked pointedly.

"Now and then," Vin said amiably. "Supplied meat for General Crook's men more'n once a while back."

"Familiar with the Apache?" Cole probed.

"Reckon," Vin replied. Far from talkative on any occasion, the tracker could be downright taciturn when he felt like it.

"All right, you're hired then," declared Cole and spun round on one polished boot to leave.

"Don't recollect having applied for the job," Vin drawled. "What you willing to pay?"

The pithy comment threw Cole off balance. Blood rose in his face. "Six bits for each day we're out and you can eat with my men," he spat.

The front legs of Vin's precariously balanced chair slammed onto the raw boards of the porch.

"Double that and I reckon I'm interested," he said.

Chris and Buck looked on with keen interest, waiting to see if the army man would walk. An even deeper red suffused Cole's fair features, but after a minute he caved.

"Dollar fifty it is," he said ungraciously, "but you sure as hell better earn your pay." With ill grace he turned and stalked back the way he had come.

Vin watched as Cole disappeared. While the officer was not a tall or hefty man, Vin calculated that his arrogant bearing made a lot of folks overlook the fact. That arrogant bearing didn't mean squat to any of the three men left contemplating his departure.

"Man 'pears to have got hisself confused with General Custer," he commented dryly.

"He'd best look out he don't end up the same way," snorted Buck. "That purty soldier get up won't look so good six feet under."

Chris eyed his friend thoughtfully, wondering if he had done the right thing after all. Vin and Cole didn't look like they had much of a chance of working well together.

"You watch your back Vin," he cautioned. "Just let me know if trouble's fixin' to start. Apache trouble or army trouble, either one. Indian affairs've been pretty peaceable here for a good while. I'd just as soon not see the situation change."




CHAPTER 3



The northeast end of Four Corners backed up against a long, low ridge, formed by a hard, thin layer of sandstone. In the softer rock beneath, shallow limestone caves had been exploited by the town's founders to serve as ice houses for their first dwellings. When the old Caswell house was bought and enlarged to become the Virginia Hotel, its sizable cold storage had been the primary selling point. With the Virginia in place, other vital businesses had filled in surrounding gaps so that the working heart of the town was squeezed into a short half mile stretch on the north side of First Street, there being a Second Street, but no Third.

The Virginia hardly passed as first class lodging, not by the standards of Dodge or Abilene, and certainly not when stacked up against the establishments that Ezra had once favored in Charleston and St. Louis, but for a raw western township it sufficed as a gathering place for what passed as local society. The Virginia was high class because it boasted an actual lobby, a generous room equipped with velvet settees and a genuine rug from China. Ezra Standish had joined Claude Garrett in the lobby of the Virginia that afternoon to sample his cigars and enjoy a glass of cold buttermilk, which thanks to the icehouse could be supplied year round.

"Have you been in town long?" Garrett asked him.

The simple question made Ezra pause. All his adult life he had made it a habit to keep moving. There was less time for repercussions to catch up with you that way. Here in Four Corners for the first time, he had tied himself down to a semblance of actual employment and begun to form ties.

"Quite some time, actually," he replied, unwilling even to himself to quantify the answer.

Garrett smiled. "Then may I make you a proposition?" he asked. "I hesitate, of course, to intrude on your territory, but I think we can come to an understanding. If you were to say 'point out' the best marks, I'm sure I could cut you a share of my take."

For a moment Ezra found he was tempted. He knew them all by now, where the money was, and where it wasn't. Beyond that he could name one or two who probably deserved the fleecing. Still the specter of how his six cohorts would respond if he were caught held him back. In a funny way it had finally begun to matter to Ezra what the other men thought. He sighed and shook his head.

"Not a route I would travel, my friend. Not here and not now." He puffed on the cigar a while before explaining. "You noted the bad-tempered man in black in the saloon last night? He happens to be a very shrewd judge of character. Make the wrong move and he will almost certainly incarcerate you on the spot."

"The local law?" Garrett queried.

"One of them." Suddenly Ezra found he was particularly reticent about mentioning his own connection with either local law enforcement or 'the bad-tempered man in black'.

"Why stay on if the pickings are so slim?" asked Garrett with genuine curiosity.

"Intriguing question," Ezra replied. "Let us just say that this town has afforded me a unique set of experiences. Besides, the gambling's good; a fair amount of travel passes through; business prospects are picking up. Admittedly the drink is appalling, but then you've already noticed that. Your fine cognac and cigars would fetch you triple the price I dare say."

"So I must relieve them of their money through plain, honest vice," Garrett chortled. "Delightful idea. I had noticed one or two things this hamlet is short of. Awfully thin on women as well I see."

"A trained courtesan could earn a fortune," Ezra agreed. "I really can't abide the unwashed variety myself, and even those are few and far between around here."

"I've been looking for just the right time and place to launch a little business enterprise," Garrett laughed. "I think you may well have persuaded me."

As the day wore on the two men adjourned to the saloon. This night they chose separate tables in order to spread the challenge and enlarge the take. Ezra was aware of Buck, J.D. and Vin when they drifted in, but his mind was fixed elsewhere so he didn't invite them to join him. The boy, Yancy, had joined Claude Garrett in the saloon and Ezra gave at least a portion of his attention to watching them work. What memories that brought back.




Several hours later Yancy pushed his way out into the clear evening air and almost collided with Ezra, who was clearing his own head away from the smoke-filled room for a spell. Although they had spent several hours together in the same room, the boy had studiously avoided meeting Ezra's eyes. It made the gambler wonder how much Yancy had told the older Garrett about their encounter. Or, for that matter, even if he had. Claude had certainly made no comment about it.

"You dance attendance very well, son," Ezra commented, dropping into step with the boy. He smiled secretively when Yancy threw him a suspicious look. "Let's see, you fetched Claude five drinks while he played and the last four were mostly water. And I doubt anyone in the room noticed except myself."

"How did you know?" the boy asked in dismay.

How indeed. Ezra had lost track of the watered drinks he had fetched his mother when he was young, far younger than Yancy was now. It allowed her to pass for tipsy when in fact she was stone sober. A very useful ploy when dealing with unwary men.

"I've mastered all the tricks, remember," he drawled.

"Well, it's the only thing I've done that's pleased him of late," Yancy complained sarcastically. "He's none too happy with my performance since I've been 'refraining from lifting' things. I'm likely to pay for it dearly, too."

Their stroll was taking them in the direction of the hotel, which Ezra surmised must be Yancy's goal. Well, a growing boy did need his rest he supposed.

"You didn't mention our little encounter then?" Ezra asked.

"And let him know I'd been caught!" the boy exclaimed derisively. "Not hardly!"

No, thought Ezra, of course not, anything but that. He tipped his hat cordially and left his young companion at the foot of the Virginia's steps. The lovely dark-haired girl, Ramona, hung close inside the hotel's open door and grabbed hold of the boy the moment he stepped in.

Having cleared his head, Ezra rejoined the gaming at the saloon. He was pleased with the take tonight. Claude had passed him several yokels. Garrett having taken the first half of their pay, Ezra had deftly relieved them of the second half. He in turn had passed his rankled players off in exchange. That way nobody lost all their money to one man, so nobody really thought they'd been had. One big winner tended to get run out of town. Two or three could milk the place dry if they were careful.

When he finally pocketed his cards and prepared to call it a night, Garrett clapped him on the shoulder.

"I admire your moves, Mr. Standish," the older man said. "You're a man of wit and style. I can't stop thinking about those ' honest' business prospects we were discussing earlier, and, the thing is, I'd like your expert opinion on some of my goods. I took the liberty of sending a little sample up to your room." The man smiled broadly, the very essence of good humor. "You let me know tomorrow if you think we've got the right clientele in these parts. I'll trust your assessment."




Ezra eased open the door to the single room he kept on the saloon's upper floor. He was thoroughly satisfied with the evening's activities and a bottle of Garrett's excellent cognac would be a welcome way to end the night. However, when he glanced around the room it wasn't a bottle of cognac that sat on his bed.

In the light of a single hurricane lamp Ramona sat stiffly poised on the edge of the coverlet. She nervously twisted a small silver ring she wore on one hand, as though the act could somehow suppress her inner turmoil. Delicate rouge had been applied to the girl's lips and cheeks, but the effort only made her youth more apparent. Ezra was momentarily stunned. Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he closed the door at his back.

"Why Ramona, dear girl, whatever brings you to my paltry quarters?" he asked with a forced smile.

The dark-haired girl kept her eyes glued to an unprepossessing spot on the carpet and swallowed hard.

"Mr. Garrett asked me to see to anything you'd like," she said matter-of-factly. He noticed the painful catch in her voice.

It had never occurred to him to ascribe this particular meaning to Garrett's words. As he hesitated, casting blindly about for a way to respond, she deliberately pulled the pins from her soft hair letting it fall, long and straight over her shoulders. The long strands made her look even more childish, like a doe-eyed, frightened waif.

Deliberately, but completely unselfconsciously, Ezra dropped to one knee in front of the girl. Gently he placed one hand under her chin and tilted it up until she met his eyes. Once, long ago, one of his uncles had taken him hunting. In his eagerness to prove himself, a young Ezra had shot the first deer they'd laid eyes on, but it had been a doe, not the buck his uncle wanted. He'd been cursed soundly for shooting the creature while she still tended her young, but that wasn't the part he most remembered. His uncle had said there was nothing for it but to kill the twin fawns as they would end up starving anyway. He had been transfixed, and appalled by the helpless look in those gentle eyes just before they died. He saw that same quivering expression in the twin black orbs that gazed at him now. No way in hell she was here by choice.

"How old are you, Ramona?" he asked quietly.

She hesitated, still twisting the little ring until Ezra was sure she would twist the finger right off. She gazed helplessly around the room as if looking for someone to help her. She squeezed shut her eyes and took a deep breath. It was a pathetically childlike thing to do.

"Fourteen," she whispered at last.

The answer sent Ezra reeling. He'd thought surely seventeen at least!

"Well you needn't worry, my dear," he said, hoping that his tone reassured her. "I really prefer my women somewhat more mature. Not to mention willing."

Tension visibly drained out of her slender body. She released her breath and with it, a pent up sob. That sob was Ezra's undoing. That soft little sound crept under every defense he had ever built up. From that moment on he might as well have been her slave. He seated himself beside her on the bed, taking one little hand in both his own.

"There, there, now," he consoled. "I'll just escort you back to your room."

Anxious fear flared again in her eyes. With an abbreviated shake of her head she rejected his offer.

"He'll be angry, if you don't want me" She shrugged helplessly. He doubted she was even sure what she was afraid of, but Ezra, with a lifetime more experience, could easily call up half a dozen unpleasant scenarios.

A mix of emotions vied for control, but the sense of camaraderie he'd felt for Garrett died in that instant, squashed under the velvet boot of that childlike sob. Compassion was slowly shoved aside; replaced by a stomach churning disgust, which finally gave way to cold-blooded anger. He suppressed an urge to go find the bastard and snap his neck. Suppressed it at least partially in the interest of self-preservation. Ezra was a man of many layers, but if there was one lesson his mother had taught her boy early on, it was that there was a smart way to tackle any problem, and a trap was best baited with honey rather than vinegar.

Very gently he put his arm around the trembling girl, hoping the gesture would reassure rather than frighten her. He didn't have time to find out. So absorbed was he with Ramona that he didn't register the soft scrape at the window. Too late he felt the change in air pressure as a body hurtled toward him.

He was struck hard on the right shoulder and driven to the floor. Twisting deftly, he managed to roll on top of his attacker, only to catch the butt of a revolver painfully across the jaw. A bony knee jabbed perilously close to his groin but he managed to maintain his hold. Despite the element of surprise, his opponent was really no match for him and as he grabbed for the flailing gun Ezra understood why.

Ezra yanked the Colt out of Yancy's hand and stood. Backing away from the panting boy, he opened the cylinder and deliberately removed all six cartridges, pocketing them before laying the weapon on the dresser.

Left without the gun, Yancy scrambled to interpose himself between Ezra and Ramona.

"You're not going to touch her," the boy bleated. For all his brave words his adolescent voice betrayed him, choosing that moment to break once more into a childish soprano.

"He wasn't going to do anything, Yancy," Ramona insisted loudly.

The girl tugged fiercely at Yancy's arm. Like a little terrier, she persisted until she finally pulled him off balance. Ezra watched as the lad tumbled into a jumbled mass of skirts and floating silken hair and firm young arms, from which position the hapless youth gazed at the world around him in muddled wonder. So absorbed was he with this sudden new perspective that Ezra was immediately forgotten.

"Well met, Sir Galahad," Ezra breathed softly.




Chapter 4



Ezra cleared his throat loudly for the benefit of the entangled pair at his feet. "I'm not ready to add cradle robbing to my list of sins, lengthy as it may be," he added pointedly.

Yancy started and his face flushed scarlet red. With an awkwardness that was painful to watch he pried himself out of the girl's arms. Ezra winced when one sharp elbow clipped Ramona's chin. When at last the boy regained his feet, Ezra handed him back the empty gun.

"Once I'm sure you've decided not to shoot me, we'll negotiate for the bullets," he said dryly. Ezra shook his head in what his friends would have identified as a characteristic gesture. "Son, you have a unique capacity for falling into my path. I had no intention of touching the fair maiden, your father's plans notwithstanding. "

"Claude Garrett's not my father," the boy spat out. "And I wouldn't claim him as kin if I didn't have to."

"I see," said Ezra carefully. He didn't see yet, but a suspicion was dawning. "Elucidate." He motioned broadly with his hand for Yancy to continue.

The boy was at a loss now that he had his opening. His gaze dropped to his feet and instantly he was reduced to a tongue-tied lad. Ramona rose gracefully to stand at his side and lend her support. She squeezed the hand that dangled absently at his side.

"He's my uncle," Yancy explained. "My father died during the last months of the war. I'd been born just weeks before and I don't think Mother ever recovered. I guess she couldn't tend to me and still hold what was left of our lands together. When Uncle Claude turned up claiming my father had asked him to care for us, she just let him take over."

Ezra stretched out in the room's only chair to listen. Wearily Ramona and Yancy plopped down on the feather bed. That simple guileless motion transformed them once more into a pair of children. Child or adult, from one moment to the next Ezra wasn't sure which he saw. It was as if they vacillated between the two states, never truly one or the other.

"Your mother?" Ezra questioned. "She's gone?"

Yancy nodded. "One morning we buried her beside my father, there in the family plot. The next afternoon we were packing to leave. Uncle Claude said he'd had to sell the plantation house and what was left of the land. He said that Mother had made him my guardian. That he'd need the money to give me a new start." Yancy looked up and held Ezra's eyes long enough to reveal a purely adult understanding of what his supposed benefactor had done to him.

"Let me hazard a guess," Ezra said. "This new start included lifting people's wallets and various other means of relieving them of their worldly goods."

"That's not Yancy's fault," Ramona bristled.

Ezra held up one hand for silence. "And what about you my dear? Garrett tells me your father abandoned you."

"That's not true," she cried, tears brimming up in her beautiful eyes. "My pa had no part in it. I'm sure he didn't. Mr. Garrett stopped by our place looking to get a wagon repaired. My pa did the best wagon work in town. He hung around a good bit while Pa worked and I guess I was pretty thick, but I thought he was a real nice fellow. A real gentleman you know."

Ezra bit his lip. "How did he get you to go with him?"

This time the tears spilled over. "He stopped by one night when his wagon was done and paid my pa. I couldn't hear them, but he and pa went off and talked a good bit." Ezra offered one of his linen handkerchiefs and she paused to wipe a runny nose. "He came by with a team of horses the next morning. My folks were gone so I helped him hitch them up. Then he offered me a quick ride. I don't know what happened. I just remember waking up in the wagon with a real sore head. Mr. Garrett said I'd been sick a couple of days. I begged him to take me home, but he said my pa had already taken a good bit of money for me and he wouldn't be real happy to have to give it back."

The girl curled into a helpless ball, clutching at Ezra's ample pillow. Tears flooded her soft cheeks. "I don't care what he told me," she sobbed. "It's just his word, nothing more. My father never sold me. He couldn't have."

Ezra rubbed his eyes. He couldn't help thinking that parents did a lot of things to their children they 'just couldn't' do. What should he do with her now, he wondered.

Between the late hour and the emotional drain of the last few hours, the girl was exhausted. Curled up with the pillow, she looked as if she was already half asleep.

"She took a dose of laudanum before she came up here," Yancy explained. For just a moment, he gently stroked her silken hair. He blushed profusely when he realized Ezra could see what he was doing. "She didn't want to show how scared she was."

"She'd better sleep here," Ezra decided. "Claude won't know what did or didn't go on. I'll simply take my repose on the floor, but you, my boy, had better get out that window and back to your own quarters."

The suggestion roused Yancy's chivalrous streak once again. "No way I'm leaving her alone with you!" he declared.

"Yancy," Ezra said sounding irritated, "I told you, the young lady's virtue is in no danger."

The boy, however, stubbornly deposited himself at the foot of Ezra's bed. "It still wouldn't be right," he groused.

"Your choice, lad," Ezra said with a sigh. "You get the bare floor; I get the rug."




Ezra kicked Yancy, none to gently, to rouse him the next morning. The palest pink light of morning filtered through thin curtains that fluttered in the breeze. Between a hard floor and an overly active mind Ezra had slept precious little. In truth, he hadn't slept at all.

The boy groaned and raised his head.

"If you intend to be back where you belong by morning, and I suggest you do, you had better get moving, son," Ezra said. "It's going to be a little hard to go climbing through windows unobtrusively in the full light of day."

Yancy's first move was to check that Ramona still slept safely where she had settled herself the night before. Watching the instinctive, selfless gesture, Ezra abandoned his usual sarcasm.

"She's safe," he said quietly, laying one hand on Yancy's shoulder. "I haven't decided how to handle Claude yet, but I'll think of something."

The boy went stiff at the mention of his uncle's name. The reaction made Ezra wonder what other little injuries had been inflicted along the way.

"He's just been waiting for her to 'start earning her keep'," the boy said. "And those were his very words," he added defensively.

"Can he claim any legal hold on her?" Ezra asked, but Yancy had no idea of the answer. It probably made no difference. Ezra had little doubt that Garrett could, at least, make a reasonable case for claiming to be Yancy's guardian, and what he had seen already told him that Ramona wasn't going anywhere if it meant leaving Yancy behind.

"Go," he told the boy, physically steering him to the window. "I'll work it out."

Ramona posed a far more dicey problem for him. If Garrett thought her ready, he would have her on the market in an instant. And Ezra was not so naïve as to assume there wouldn't be customers ready and waiting. On the other hand, if he told the man she held no appeal, Garrett was likely to dump her, most likely selling her over the border. It had happened to more than one girl her age.

In the end he left her sleeping where she was and went downstairs in search of a cup of strong black coffee.




Chris was almost always up and moving early in the day, at least when things were happening. Vin and the contingent of soldiers from Fort Campbell had set out at dawn and he had felt duty bound to see that they got off without incident. Micah McCallum apparently had similar feelings, for he too had been abroad early enough to speak with Vin before the party rode out. The two of them stood together now watching the last of the dust settle as the troops disappeared. As Chris inspected the short, dusty boulevard it raised his eyebrows to see Ezra Standish out and about before noon.

"Now where do you suppose he's going at this hour?" a deep voiced behind him asked.

Glancing over his shoulder, Chris found that Josiah had joined them.

"You notice our black sheep seems to have found himself other company the past few evenings?" Josiah continued when neither man answered his first question.

Chris shook his head. "Guess I've had other things on my mind," he said.

Micah nodded concurrence.

"Probably not important," Josiah said, "but he's been awfully thick with some dandy that came in day before last. Guess the two of them just about picked the saloon clean last night from what I hear."

"Anybody making accusations?" Chris asked, his attention caught.

"None that I've heard. Not yet," Josiah told him.

"We'll let it be then," Chris decided. "I'm a lot more nervous about this fellow Cole causing trouble than I am about Ezra at the moment." With a dismissive nod he turned and walked away, leaving Micah and Josiah behind.




Fighting off a natural desire to avoid Claude Garrett like a disease, Ezra set off to tackle the man while it was still mid-morning. It had taken not one but several cups of black coffee to help him get the cobwebs out of his head and outline the scheme he was going to employ. He had been forced to admit two things. First off, he could not put Ramona back under Garrett's direct control. Her virtue might be intact, but there was no guarantee from one day to the next that things would stay that way. Her position was far too precarious. Secondly, he needed to make his move fast, before Yancy could haul off and do something stupid. The lad was at an age where his physical desires and emotions ruled his head. Ezra didn't want to risk the chance that he might decide to put his abused gun to serious use. At least for a few hours, he hoped he could count on a growing youth's natural craving for sleep to keep the boy abed and out of trouble.

"Greetings," Garrett remarked when Ezra waylaid him at breakfast in the town's only decent restaurant. A self-satisfied smile lit the man's face as he pushed his plate away.

Ezra nodded pleasantly, but made no move to sit. "Allow me the honor of paying for your meal before we take a little stroll," he said. He hoped it was cash well spent to grease the wheels of his proposal.

Garrett tossed down his napkin and waiting graciously while Ezra settled the tab. Together the two men left the restaurant with no particular destination in mind.

"What's your assessment, friend?" Garrett asked when a few minutes had passed.

"Charming," Ezra replied disingenuously. "Charming, but untrained, shall we say."

"You're suggesting?"

"I have a proposition to make," Ezra ventured. "One that might please us both. There's no need to rush things. The girl certainly has potential. Leave her under my tutelage, if I might use that word, for a while."

Garrett chortled. "Are you offering to buy her outright?" he asked. "I'm certainly not giving her away for free."

"Tutelage, I said, my dear Claude, tutelage." Ezra threw one arm around his companion's shoulders and turned on his most convincing smile. "Just a few weeks of training is all. The right walk, the right smile, the right clothes. Certain other things. You want a courtesan after all, the best quality."

"For a small fee," Garrett hinted.

"Claude! What do you take me for? I'd never charge a friend."

"Don't try to con me, Standish," Garrett told him. The man smiled with understanding, but perhaps a little less friendliness. "You pay me."

"When I'm offering the child my vast store of worldly wisdom?" Ezra did his best to sound offended.

"I could just 'train' her myself" Garrett reminded him.

"Well, a small fee then," Ezra countered. "Just a nominal one."

It took some haggling, but in truth, Ezra had always expected that it would. Garrett was certainly no easy mark. But in the end, for a certain sum, the matter was settled. Ramona would remain in Ezra's sole possession for the next week.




Chapter 5

Vin took a long draught from his canteen, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He preferred to stay under cover at the mouth of the narrow canyon a little while longer. He wanted time to survey the open land spreading out ahead. There were a lot of things about this expedition that puzzled him, and it bothered him that he hadn't had time to sort through them.

To start out with, this was no raiding party they were following. He knew there had been a horse stolen east of town, and reports had come in about a steer cut out and butchered, but no widespread depredation. The tracks he was following told him one man, maybe two if they were awfully good at covering their signs.

Another thing bothered him. Those tracks didn't seem to be heading south toward Mexico, or east into the mountains. If he had to guess, he would have to say they were turning back north, toward the reservation. Why hunt down somebody who was headed back where you wanted them in the first place?

"You wanna tell me why these 'unreconstructed hostiles' of yours lit out?" he asked Cole.

"Mr. Tanner, I don't give a rat's ass why they left," the lieutenant snapped. "And I don't particularly care where they're going. I just want to find them, deal with them, and go home."

Cole had been surly from the outset, and Vin was liking the man less every minute. He was impatient; he had a sour demeanor; and Vin had caught him taking more than one drink out of a flask he had stashed away. Whiskey was no good for a man out in the blazing sun, and Vin had no stomach for a soldier who drank on duty. A fellow needed plenty of water and a clear head to stay alive in this land. To his way of thinking, Cole was not only jeopardizing himself, he was likely to wind up dragging his men down with him, and Vin didn't want to be along for the party when that happened.

"How long are we going to sit here, Tanner?" Cole snarled.

"Don't know 'bout you, but I'm in no hurry to go riding across that open stretch," Vin told him. "'Specially not if we got an Apache raiding party watching our every move."

Vin suspected that his sarcasm was wasted on Cole. That was another thing he didn't like about the man. He didn't respect his enemy. For that, Vin counted him a fool, if nothing else.

To their left a line of cottonwoods and sundry smaller growth marked the path where Sandler Creek cut across the dry ground. In the long run, it was the only reasonable place to head. It provided the only cover between the canyon mouth and the towering mesa that cut the skyline miles to the north. If the runaway had made it all the way to the mesa, they could give it up anyway, but Vin was sure the man wasn't all that far ahead. The last signs he had spotted hadn't been all that old. Besides, this time of year the creek meant water. Water and cover were the best any soul could ask from the hard land ahead.

He brought them down to the water, choosing the shortest route he could. His first goal was to expose himself as little as possible and reason said their quarry would have thought the same way. Once beside the creek, he cast carefully along both sides until he found what he was looking for.

In the end the lone Apache was closer than he thought. Vin had moved out ahead of Cole and his sergeant while the rest of the soldiers straggled out behind. A patch of heavy growth hid the man until the last moment. His attention was fixed on something at the creek's edge when Vin came on him. The suddenness of the encounter cost them both precious seconds, but either the Indian's reflexes were awfully quick or he already had his blade clasped in his hand.

Vin balanced his own knife in his right hand, braced for an attack if it came. Closing in mere inches with each step he spoke easily, his tone belying the instinctive caution that kept his eyes from leaving his opponent for even the briefest second. He had no idea how well or even if the man spoke English; he figured his chances of being listened to were better if he stuck to Apache anyway, and he was right. The hostile relaxed his stance just a hair as Vin continued to talk.

Without warning the man's body arched back, bent like a bow before he collapsed. The same instant Vin heard the crack of a rifle from behind and to his right. He turned in fury to find Cole still bracing the repeater against his shoulder.

"You son-of-a bitch," he shouted. "You had no call to shoot. I could've taken him alive easy." Stepping forward he knelt to examine the fallen man. Cole's bullet had ripped through his throat laying waste to the jugular vein. Already he was fighting to draw his last breath. Bright coal eyes accused Vin for a second before their light died. "I'm sorry," he told the stranger softly in his own tongue.

One hand drew the lids closed, and he studied the body. The Apache was thin, the way long hunger makes a man. Folds of parched, wrinkled skin hung loosely from his big-boned frame. Between hard living under the burning sun and the toll taken by privation, it was impossible for Vin to guess his age. Not young though, the strands of gray in the coarse black hair told him that. He turned once more, but Cole cut him off before he could say a word.

"Mr. Tanner, the health and well-being of these savages is not my concern. Assuring the safety of decent white people in this territory is. I don't care if I bring the creatures back alive or if I bring them back dead; my job is done when they're all accounted for. Your job, Mr. Tanner, is to find them for me."

"Not anymore it ain't," was all Vin had to say, and he didn't bother being pleasant when he said it.




Vin sat ensconced in the farthest corner of the saloon when Chris came looking. "Howdy, cowboy," he muttered as Chris appropriated a nearby chair.

"Whiskey that bad?" asked Chris, indicating the single untouched shot glass on the table.

"Naw, just ain't likely to improve my mood," answered Vin.

"Couldn't make it much worse," Chris commented. "Hear you up and quit on Cole."

Vin nodded. "I don't track men so's they can be cut down like animals." With one hand he massaged his forehead just above his eyes. He had spent the past hour staring at that untouched glass, casting deep inside himself in search of absolution. "I don't know where that feller was going or what he had in mind, but he wasn't any threat to folks around here, stolen horse or no."

"How so?" asked Chris.

"That was no fiery young buck," Vin explained bitterly. "That was one hungry, worn out man, riding one sorry excuse for a pony and lightly armed. If he stole anything it'd be a loaf of bread."

"So what was he doing this far off the reservation?" Chris probed.

"Don't know. Cole shot him before I had time to ask." Vin studied his friend. "Kinda makes you wonder, don't it."

"You're not the one that killed him, Vin. He'd be dead whether you'd been there or not."

Vin shook his head, rejecting what Chris offered him. Wade Tanner had been a fair but exacting man, and he had raised his only son to stand accountable for his actions. "I found him," Vin said. "He wouldn't be dead if I hadn't."

"You don't know that, Vin. You figure Cole's done, ready to head back?"

Vin silently shook his head. His eyes had drifted away to focus on some point known only to him.

"You're sitting on something," Chris observed.

Vin favored his friend with enough of a smile to acknowledge the truth of the accusation. "Just deciding if I'm sure of what I'm talkin' about before I say it," he explained.

"An' are you? Sure, that is."

Vin nodded. "I know something that cuss don't," he explained, referring to Cole. "While I was tracking that man out there, that man was tracking someone else. An' he was so fixed on doing it, he didn't even know I was behind him. That's pretty fixed for an Apache wouldn't you say?"

He looked up to find Chris watching him. It was as if he could see Chris' mental wheels turning and, as usual, it set his own tumbling, too. It was a rare gift the two men seemed to have with each other. A word or even a glance threw their minds running in sync.

"Seems to me, we got more reason than ever to watch him," Chris finally ventured.




CHAPTER 6



Ezra chose candlelight and a late supper as appropriate embellishments that evening. So far things were going well, perhaps better than he really liked. He had spent much of the day on window dressing, escorting Ramona about town, buying her gifts and judiciously watered drinks at the saloon. It all amounted to more than he had planned, and his wallet was feeling the effects. However, it was obvious that Garrett was keeping close tabs on him, and he didn't dare risk falling out of character if he was being observed.

The afternoon had been given over to a shopping spree - decking the girl out. If she was to pass as a young courtesan in training, she needed the clothes and accouterments to match. Unfortunately, the selection in a town the size of Four Corners was pathetically slim. He had eventually selected a dress with a less than demure cut in a rich shade of green. There had been an uncomfortable moment when the proprietress had eyed Ramona disapprovingly, and he had feared she might refuse to sell to him. An assortment of ribbons and hair combs had been purchased at the general store from Widow Potter and she, likewise, had demonstrated a reluctance to do business. He had briefly contemplated introducing the girl as his niece, but the ploy seemed so amateurish that it offended his professional sensibilities.

He had felt even more uncomfortable when he had caught some of his comrades watching from a distance. It was a blessing that none of them approached him to pass the time of day, since Ezra felt compelled to play down any connection with the other six as long as Garrett was in town. Still, in a way he couldn't consciously admit, the disdain in their eyes hurt him. Hurt because they still thought so little of him as to ascribe the worst motives to his behavior.

After the constant stress of the day, dinner with Ramona turned out to be a pleasure. The girl was a ready pupil, by nature graceful and guilelessly unselfconscious. As they lingered over their repast, Ezra questioned her more about her background. She did indeed have both Spanish and Indian blood, the product of a Mexican farmer's daughter and a Texas homesteader. While she readily spoke the languages of both sides of the border, she had virtually no conception of geography. He found she was not even sure where she came from and had no conception where she might be. A handful of subsistence farms and scattered homesteads had been her whole world until a few months before.

The Ezra Standish that he thought himself to be should have turned up his aristocratic nose at her limited, plebeian understanding, but she had an artless grace and gentleness that couldn't be measured by all his previous worldly standards. For all her frightening situation, he found her deepest concern was for Yancy's welfare, and to his uncomprehending surprise, she was worried about his own predicament as well.

"I didn't mean to cause you problems with the town," she was apologizing when he led her into the saloon later that night. Claude Garrett was settled at one of the gaming tables on the raised level at the back of the room with his nephew Yancy attached sullenly to his side. At the sight of the boy Ramona caught her breath in dismay and reached out to clutch Ezra's arm. A quick glance showed him the livid bruise marking the boy's left cheek.

Marking the pair's entrance, Garrett signaled for them to join his group. At almost the same time Ezra recognized several of his sometime companions slouched around a table off to the right and watching him with interest. Young J.D. Dunne raised his glass, inviting Ezra to join the group. With a barely perceptible shake of his head Ezra declined.

Ezra squeezed the girl's elbow reassuringly and pushed his way through the milling crowd on the saloon's main floor and up the half flight of stairs to join Garrett. He had no sooner seated himself when he realised that the potential complications were not over. Nathan Jackson had detached himself from the group at the table and was headed his way. He would rather try to bluff any of his other comrades in arms than Nathan. The man had a simple, forthright way of calling a spade a spade. It was a characteristic which Ezra both admired and dreaded. Admired because it was so diametrically opposite of his own complex character. Ezra would never have dreamed of saying precisely what was on his mind. He couldn't even remember how young he had been the last time he had tried it. He knew it was a characteristic his mother had taken great pains to erase virtually as soon as he could talk. Never tell them what you think; tell them what you want them to think you think, dear. But he dreaded confrontation with Nathan just the same. Of all the men he worked and rode with, it was Nathan he least understood how to handle. He couldn't 'out think' the man because he couldn't think like him at all, and he knew it.

Ezra fully expected Nathan to lay into him as soon as he reached the table, but he never got the chance. As soon as Garrett marked his approach they both froze. Ezra heard Nathan catch his breath at the sight of the fleshy southern gambler. Garrett's nose wrinkled as though something had offended him.

"You don't play at this table, boy," Garrett told the tall negro pointedly. Disdain coated every word.

Nathan stared angrily at the dandy, and Ezra held his breath, praying that Nathan would catch the signal in his eyes and move. For a moment Nathan studied him before seeming to come to a decision.

"Well that's just fine, I guess. 'Cause I wouldn't have any mind to play here anyways." Nathan threw the words at Garrett before turning and walking away. Ezra could feel himself start breathing again.

Garrett snorted, his beefy face gone red. "That's one thing I can't abide about this western land of opportunity you have here," he told the table at large. "You people allow your darkies too much license. We knew better back where I came from. Didn't we, Mr. Standish?"

The question jolted Ezra, who had been drifting, feeling the sting of Garrett's words on Nathan's behalf. Had his attitude been any different a few months earlier? He found himself mumbling consent and despising himself while doing it.

The cards and the music, the whiskey and bright lights suddenly lost their interest for the night. Excusing himself after only a few quick hands, he escorted Ramona from the floor.

In the far corner of the lower floor, Nathan rejoined his friends. The other men studied him, trying to gauge his reaction to the prickly encounter. J.D. sat in open-mouthed dismay, but Vin and Josiah remained quiet and thoughtful.

"What's going on with Ezra?" J.D. asked the other three men.

"That's a good question," Nathan muttered. He watched Ezra from where he sat, occasionally catching the gambler's eyes, but never holding them for long. He couldn't escape the impression that Ezra was trying to communicate something, but he was no good at trying to interpret the man's convoluted thinking, and the sight of Claude Garrett had taken and held most of his emotion and attention.

"Figure same as always, Ezra's workin' himself an angle," he said. "But he sure picked hisself some lowlife company this time."

The comment raised Josiah's eyebrows. He had known Nathan longer than any of the others and he caught a grinding, bitter edge in the words. It marked a side of Nathan that he seldom saw. It meant he was looking back instead of looking ahead.

"You and that fellow know each other?" Josiah asked.

"I got cause to know him," Nathan muttered. "He don't know me from Adam."

Vin had slipped away to order another beer. He returned bringing an extra which he slid in front of Nathan. "How's that come to be?" he asked in his soft Texas drawl.

"Man doesn't remember the cattle he sells," Nathan told them bitterly. "The cattle, though, they remember the man with the prod." He took a long draught of the beer and composed himself before continuing. "Man's name is Garrett. There was a time, he was maybe the biggest slave trader in Louisiana. Yeah, I got cause to remember him."

The others waited for him to provide a fuller explanation, but it seemed that was all that Nathan was inclined to say. The conversation died as they nursed their drinks, Vin brooding about Cole and his treatment of the Apache, Nathan brooding about Claude Garrett. They noted Ezra's withdrawal without comment, and shortly after Nathan and Josiah called it a night.

J.D. studied the silent tracker. J.D. was the youngest of the seven men, the least experienced, the least complex, and there were times when the rest confused him. He secretly feared they all knew something about the world that he did not, and that whatever it was, they would think him a fool for not knowing. "Chris said I could ride with you tomorrow, if you don't mind," he finally said.

"Don't make no difference to me," Vin said in a sleepy voice. "I'm turning in. If you wanna come along, you'd best be up at dawn."




That evening Ezra escorted the girl openly to his room. He slipped out unobtrusively for a short time to allow her privacy in which to wash and settle herself for the night. He intended to behave every inch the gentleman, but as he stood outside in the evening air he couldn't help but contemplate how much he loathed sleeping on the floor.

The night sky was cloudless and held no moon, which made the myriad stars overhead shine all that much brighter. Ezra stood deep in the shadows behind the saloon and admired the canopy above. From anywhere else he would not have seen the figure skittering precariously along the pitched overhang that sheltered the open porch along building's rear. His interest peaked when the figure slipped through the window of his own room. It took no imagination to come up with a name for the lanky, dark shadow. He supposed if he really did intend to defend Ramona's virtue, he had better go expel the lad.

They were talking earnestly, heads together, when he entered the room. Ramona was already curled in the bed, while Yancy sat on the edge at her side. He contemplated the intertwined fingers resting on the coverlet.

The boy threw him a disarming smile. "We were talking, Ezra," he said innocuously. "We appreciate what you're doing, but it's really unfair for you to lose another night's sleep. You're welcome to use my bed at the hotel tonight. I'll stand watch here."

Smooth little character, Ezra thought, not taken in for a minute. He cleared his throat. "If the object is to protect the lady's virtue, I suspect that you're the one who needs to be leaving."

Yancy looked appalled. "Ezra, I would never..." he began to protest when Ezra cut him off.

When, Ezra wondered, had he started thinking like someone's father? "Yancy, you haven't got the vaguest idea what you would do. And this isn't the night you're going to find out."

"Well if you don't trust me, why should I trust you?" the boy railed.

Ezra pondered the thought of another night on the floor and came to a conclusion. "I'd be happy to avail myself of your bed, Yancy. Ramona's safe here for the time being. You simply accompany me and camp on the floor. Sounds perfectly fair to me." Ezra ushered the boy out the window and then followed him along the uncertain route to the ground.




Chapter 7



It was barely dawn when Vin saddled up to rejoin Lieutenant Cole and his cavalry detachment. He hoped he was doing the right thing by going back. He had talked it over with Chris and neither one of them could rest easy not knowing where Cole was and what he was doing. Somehow it felt like turning your back on a lighted lantern sitting in a horse's stall. The thing was bound to get kicked over. He was almost ready when J.D. joined him leading his own mount.

"I thought you wanted nothing to do with our soldier boy anymore," J.D. said as Vin double checked the load in his Winchester and settled the rifle in it's place beside his saddle.

"Don't," was Vin's succinct reply.

"Then why are we tracking for him again?" the young man asked.

"I figure I can keep a better eye on 'im if I'm with 'im," Vin said. "Don't know why you're going."

J.D. favored Vin with a disgruntled glare. "I just wanna learn," he groused.

"You're learnin' plenty fast, kid" Vin said, and a gentle smile apologized for any previous offense. "Sure you still wanna come along?"

"You bet," J.D. said. He checked to see that the gear was properly secured on his own horse and then swung into the saddle, glad to be riding out and leaving the town behind for a couple of days.




Later that same day, Chris Larabee looked up from his seat in front of the jail to see two figures headed his way. He didn't spare Nathan Jackson a second look, but he couldn't help but drink in the sight of the beautiful woman striding determinedly at Nathan's side. If Four Corners could be said to possess such a thing as a society matron, he supposed that Mary Travis qualified. The slender blonde was the widow of Stephen Travis, owner and editor of the Clarion News, and had done a creditable job of running the paper for more than a year now on her own. But it was more than her position in the business community that set Mary Travis in the center of the town's affairs. It was more even than the fact that her late husband's father was the circuit judge and, therefore, Chris' employer. Like thousands of her sisters in towns large and small, women who made the wheels of civilization spin, Mary had a compelling desire to 'set things right'. As a result, she invariably wound up in the middle of them. Her attitude could not have been more opposite from Chris' own philosophy of 'let things be'. He wondered then what it was he found so fascinating about her.

This afternoon Mary had clearly enrolled Nathan's help for whatever it was she intended to tackle him about.

"Good morning," she said stiffly before launching into her subject. "Could I speak to you about something?"

Chris nodded, knowing full well there was no way he could graciously say no.

"We, uh, have some concerns about the way Mr. Standish has been conducting himself," she said.

"You and Nathan?" Chris asked.

"And Mrs. Potter, and Mrs. Baring, and ... others," she told him stiffly. "You men are in a very public position, you know, and right now I'm afraid you are setting a very bad example."

Chris' exasperation at being tarred with the same brush as the wily gambler showed clearly. "I am? Why?" he asked. "Because Ezra Standish has got himself a woman?"

"That ain't no woman, Chris," Nathan broke in. "That's a girl. A young girl. You gotta admit, the man's stepping past the bounds a' decency."

Mary vigorously nodded her agreement, clearly looking to Chris for some sort of response.

"So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that some things just can't be tolerated," she flared indignantly. "Someone needs to do something about it."

That cooked it. He needed to set Ezra straight, or she was going to count it as a mark on his reputation. "Then why don't you be my guest, Mrs. Travis," Chris said coldly. Touching the brim of his hat in the barest polite acknowledgment, he brushed past the woman and walked away.

"Well maybe I will then," she flung after him, but Nathan laid a restraining hand on her arm before she could act on the words.

"Why don't you let me do it, Miz Travis," he told her. "I been wantin' to give that man a piece of my mind 'bout the company he keeps anyways."

Reluctantly, Mary acquiesced.




Even though it was hours yet until the evening rush, Ezra and Garrett had already established themselves at what had become ' their usual' table in the raised portion of the saloon. Ezra had gone out of his way to distract Garrett and give Yancy and Ramona a few hours to break away. As he demonstrated a little sleight of hand for his companion's benefit, he looked up to find a pair of coal black eyes boring into him from the lower section of the room. He cursed silently. Nathan had entered the saloon sometime during his little display. Now, the fixed glare from those twin pinpricks warned Ezra that, barring some quick thinking, the current circumstances were about to explode in his face. He had worked too hard to achieve his delicate web of illusions to see it shot to hell by a careless word on Nathan's part. He had little to lose himself if that happened; but for Ramona, the repercussions could be drastic. Beyond that, he wasn't sure if Nathan understood the depth of Claude Garrett's antipathy. The implications worried him more than his conscious mind was willing to admit. His agile brain quickly weighed his possible options.

"I must be going," he excused himself. "I need to take care of some unsavory business."

He pushed hastily toward the door, praying Nathan would pick up the cue and follow him into the street. No luck. The angry, black man met him forcefully halfway, cutting him off as surely as a brick wall. Cursing silently, he tried to brush past but a hand clapped down on his arm.

"What the hell kinda man you call yourself?" Nathan demanded, jerking Ezra around.

Garrett followed the encounter with a growing mixture of distaste and anger. There was nothing for it, Ezra thought. If he wanted to keep Garrett in his pocket, he was going to have to brazen the whole scene out.

"Take your hands off my apparel, boy!" Ezra spat, mustering every ounce of the aristocratic arrogance so ingrained in his character. With an expression of utter disdain he pried himself loose from Nathan's grip and shoved him deliberately aside. It was a calculated insult, and Ezra was immediately rewarded with the hoped for reaction.

Though by nature a patient man, Nathan vehemently rebelled against that reminder of the degrading treatment he'd been forced to endure through sixteen years of slavery. He wouldn't take it himself, and he refused to stand by and see a defenseless child like Ramona sold as if she were a prize milk cow. He swung at Ezra only to stumble in shock when his attack was blocked by the lightening appearance of one of the gambler's twin Remingtons.

"I don't think I'd pursue this if I were you," Ezra drawled. His tone held an icy warning that no one could mistake. Garrett had risen to his feet but Ezra casually waved away his fellow gambler's assistance. All the time he kept himself carefully in place between Nathan and Garrett's possible line of fire.

"You one sad, worthless son-of -a..."

With shocking swiftness the barrel of Ezra's gun caught Nathan across the mouth, cutting off the tirade mid-word. While the blow lacked the force he was capable of putting into it, it was still enough to send Nathan down on one knee, forcing him to catch himself with one hand, while the other clutched his bleeding mouth. Gathering a fistful of Nathan's shirt, Ezra yanked him back onto his feet and drove him stumbling through the batwing doors. In the process he leaned close to the other man's ear.

"For the love of God, shut up, Mr. Jackson," he hissed forcefully. With a theatrical shove he sent Nathan reeling against a post outside.

In front of a gathering crowd, Ezra pressed one Remington tightly against Nathan's forehead and moved in as close as he could. It was a beautifully choreographed sequence and he could only hope that Nathan appreciated the significance of it. There was never a second open when Garrett could draw a bead on Nathan without Ezra being in the way.

"We need to talk," he mouthed quietly. "At the church, tonight."

As he held Nathan's eyes, he carefully uncocked his gun and withdrew the weapon. Spinning abruptly, he walked confidently back inside, clapping Garrett companionably on the shoulder as he rejoined him.




"Whada'ya figure he's up to?" asked Josiah later.

Four quiet forms sprawled about the church that night, waiting in response to Ezra's terse appeal. Wavering light from a mere half dozen candles dimly lit the building that Josiah claimed as his personal sanctuary. What it was he sought sanctuary from was still a mystery to his companions, but the wormeaten edifice once more raised her noble head thanks to Josiah's daily sweat and it seemed to them a more worthy penance than most men do.

"Sure 'nough, he's up to something," Nathan replied.

Chris grunted, a thin smile creasing his weathered features. "He wouldn't be Ezra if he wasn't," he commented.

Two pews away Buck lay, his eyes closed as if in sleep, his features cloaked in heavy shadows.

A soft creak from the door announced the gambler's arrival. They studied him curiously looking for tell-tale signs of a guilty conscience, but found only the brazen determination of which he was so capable at times. He had no trouble meeting their eyes when he strode among them.

Resting one fancy boot heavily on a pew, he ran his fingers distractedly through his hair.

"Gentlemen, I find myself in need of assistance," he said at last.

"Assistance with what, Ezra?" Buck asked without raising his head or opening his eyes.

In answer, Ezra looked pointedly at the door that he had left open behind him. Ramona stood framed in the entry, barely visible in the nighttime shadows.

Chris was in no mood to be patient, and Ezra's peccadilloes were the last thing he wanted to expend energy dealing with. "Damn it, Ezra. What the hell is she do..."

He stopped mid-question as the girl slipped noiselessly into the room, the hand she trailed behind her drawing another shadowy form in her wake. As the men all paused, the dim light fell across a hapless boy's bruised features.

Ezra sighed. "Meet Romeo and Juliet," he drawled in explanation.

"Who?" Nathan asked in confusion.

"A pair of tragic lovebirds in a play by William Shakespeare," Josiah supplied helpfully, scratching his whiskered chin.

Ezra waved the youthful pair forward as he elaborated on their predicament for the other men.

"Garrett's not about to release his hold on Ramona," he said at last. "She shows too much promise of being his bread and butter for the next few years. Yancy brings him less in terms of profit right now, but controlling the boy may still be his best long term bet for a leisurely old age. And his hold on the boy appears to be legal. We can't just walk in and take him away."

"We can still take her away," Buck suggested. "No legal tangles there."

"No!" In the heat of the debate they had all but forgotten its object. "I won't leave unless Yancy comes, too," Ramona declared boldly.

Ezra threw the others a look that openly declared 'I told you there was a problem', while Yancy watched the girl in disbelief. It didn't yet strike him as possible that after years of neglect, he could have become the object of such devoted affection.

"Just whatda ya intend on doing with 'em?" Buck asked him.

Ezra cleared his throat pointedly. "Assistance, gentlemen. Remember," he prodded.

"What to you want us to do?" Chris challenged. Counseling a pair of love struck youngsters hardly ranked as his forte.

"I didn't make the analogy to Shakespeare's famous play idly," Ezra explained. "It seems to me the bard had an excellent plot which I suggest we employ to these youngsters' advantage."

"As I remember everyone dies at the end of that one," Chris pointed out skeptically.

"Minor rewrites, Mr. Larabee" the gambler snapped in annoyance. "You see, gentlemen, the only way to pull them free of Garrett's control and make sure he can't object, is to have them die. It's very simple if you think about it."

The others looked skeptical as he sketched out a plan he had been thinking about since the previous night, but both of the youngsters were eager to try. He supposed the sheer theatricality appealed to them. Once he had the details ironed out, he let the pair slip off, having warned them he would be right behind.

When they were gone, Nathan could no longer hide a smile. "Just how much money you done spent on this make believe romance, Ezra?" he asked the gambler.

Ezra simply fixed him with a cold stare. "A gentleman, Mr. Jackson, would never ask such a question," he pointedly answered.

"Hell, Josiah," Nathan exclaimed. "You seen any gentlemen around here?"

The former preacher looked them all over with a smile. "Not a one, Brother Nathan," he answered.




CHAPTER 8



It took Vin and J.D. longer to hook back up with Cole and his troops than they had expected. The man hadn't had the grace to stay put while Vin was gone, but he had at least left a wide enough trail to follow. It was early morning of the second day before they managed to locate the soldiers at a small ranch some miles northwest of Sandler Creek. Cole was deep in conversation with the elderly rancher and his sons when the two men from Four Corners rode up.

"What the hell are you doing here, Tanner?" Cole snarled, ignoring J.D. entirely.

"You still got at least one man to track," Vin pointed out calmly.

"You're off the payroll," Cole snapped.

"Any of your men able to pick up the trail?" Vin inquired, already knowing what the answer would be.

"No."

"Didn't think so, seein' as how they pretty much rode all over it," Vin told him.

"You're still off the payroll."

Vin figured that in the long run Cole couldn't afford to send him packing. For now, though, he decided not to press the point.

"Don't matter," Vin told the soldier. "Didn't come back for the pay."

The old ranch owner had stood by listening eagerly to everything they said. "You gonna track them heathen devils down?" he cut in.

Vin quietly patted his gelding's neck and looked at the man. "You been bothered?" he asked.

"Not yet," the fellow told him, "but I got a dozen quality horses in my remuda. Figure that's bound to draw 'em. I can't afford to lose that stock, and me and my boys sure ain't fixin' to have our throats cut in our own beds."

"Well I don't figure this band's up to much throat cuttin' from what I can see," Vin told him in disgust. He glared at Cole, silently cursing the man's poor judgment. The fire needed to be put out, not fueled. "If you're still set on tracking down 'hostiles', I figure I'll come along and see they get back to the reservation nice 'n safe like."

Cole's mouth tightened in anger at the implied criticism. He wheeled his mount around and signaled his men to ride out. Before following, Vin took the opportunity to bend down and have a quiet word with the old man and his boys. "Ain't been any real trouble so far," he told them. "Don't reckon you got much cause to worry. I'd just keep an eye out if I wuz you. You see any signs, you send word to Chris Larabee in town."

Turning his own mount, Vin spurred the horse after Cole. J.D. was forced to follow suit or be left behind.

"You got no call to be scarin' the ranchers," Vin told the crass lieutenant once they caught up with the rest.

"You don't know that, Tanner," Cole said. "It's my duty to warn as many people as I can."

Now that was one sure way to get folks on edge, Vin thought. "Ain't nobody been attacked yet," he reminded the other man. "From what I've seen so far, you got no more'n a small handful of runaways. That fellow you shot wasn't no war party. Why don't we just calm this down, least 'til we find out something more?"

Vin doubted that Cole had paid attention to one word, but he thought that at least some of the troops could see the sense in what he had said. He had caught Cole's sergeant, a big-boned veteran named Holden, watching him once or twice, and he thought he saw a grudging respect in the old soldier's eyes. He hoped so at least; he might be in need of the backing before they were done.

The Indian that Cole had killed had been following other signs. Vin was sure of that. But it appeared hopeless to try and pick up a trail back at the creek after Cole's men had trampled everything in sight. Most of the day Cole did nothing but toss out disparaging comments and take an occasional swig from his flask. His conduct wasn't exactly building rapport between the army detachment and J.D. and himself. He still nursed the suspicion that the trail had been heading back toward reservation lands, and he knew the area enough to have a feel for where water and forage could be found. Scouting ahead, he was finally able to find a spot where a horse had been through. A shod horse, he noticed. A stolen horse unless he missed his guess.

They broke in the late afternoon to rest their mounts.

"You don't have much use for the army do you, Vin," J.D. said as they settled on a dry slope dotted with juniper. What little shade they could find was a welcome relief.

Vin handed J.D. a piece of hardtack and thought about how to explain. He didn't often use words he didn't need to, but he wanted his young friend to understand the scope of the situation.

"It's not the army itself, J.D.," he explained. "I had no problem working with the army when General Crook was out here. It's General Willcox I got no use for. Him and soldiers like him." Vin nodded in Cole's direction to make his meaning plain. "Crook was a decent man; all soldier, but a decent man just the same. He recognized the Apache as human beings, treated 'em that way. But Crook was reassigned back in '75 an' Willcox is in charge now. He don't think like that. Whole thing's been going straight to perdition since he took over."

"What's an unreconstructed hostile?" J.D. asked him.

"Indian who won't stay put where the army tells him to."

"Seems like you're saying the Apache aren't all that dangerous," J.D. said.

Vin shook his head. He looked at the hard dry land around him. "I'm saying if you've got to control somebody, you might start by respecting 'em an' listening to 'em. It'll get you a long ways. I ain't saying these fellows might not be ready to cut our throats. But if men like Cole an' Willcox would listen to 'em, they might be less inclined to try it."

"So they are dangerous," J.D. concluded.

Vin gave a soft, humorless laugh. "Don't you ever forget it, kid."

J.D. chewed for a bit, on his rations and the things Vin had said. It was a different world out here. A lifetime away from the world of servitude to the wealthy class that J.D. understood. That was a world where the pitfalls revolved around somehow offending a wealthy employer and finding yourself out on the streets. Every aspect of life was measured differently here. It was exhilarating! When there was danger he felt as if he was twice as alive, twice the man he once thought himself to be.

"There any reconstructed hostiles, Vin?"

Got the boy thinking, Vin said to himself. He smiled grimly. "Guess that's gonna be the big question 'fore long. Men like Cole, they're just setting the stage for one hell of a storm. They got no idea its size and strength. Folks in this territory are gonna pay for it in blood if they don't watch out." He looked at the green boy beside him. "Ain't an easy world, J.D."

They rested in silence after that.

The ground was dry and the land stony when they started up again. The few places they crossed where tracks would show, it looked like they had been brushed away. Vin moved as much on instinct as on the basis of any trace he saw. His best bet lay in putting himself into the mind of his quarry. If I was one lone Indian and all I wanted was to get back home, how would I go? He asked it over and over as the day wore on.

It was getting dark, and he should have been ready to pack it in for the day when he finally found signs that started to tell him a tale. He hunkered down, resting on his heels and stayed there a good long time while he studied the ground in front of him and thought. The army men were less patient than he was and soon drifted off, complaining underneath their breaths. Only J.D. stayed close, trying for all the world to understand what Vin was thinking and to see whatever it was Vin saw.

Vin glanced around and examined his surroundings one more time before turning to J.D. "He's a smart little devil," he said.

Without another word he directed J.D.'s attention to one faint print that had not been brushed away. With a short stick he traced out its size.

"A woman?" asked the boy incredulously.

Vin shook his head. "Too small even for that," he said. He stuck the end of the stick between his teeth, chewing on it thoughtfully before he continued. "J.D., we been tracking a child. He's smart, old enough to have learned a trick or two, but he's not very big."

"You sure?" J.D. asked. "It's not a trick?"

Vin shook his head. "A kid could drag his feet, kinda smudge the tracks to fool you, make the prints look bigger. Ain't nothing a grown man can do that's gonna make his feet small. This fellow here weighs fifty, maybe sixty pounds, probably stands say three and a half feet tall, at best. What's that like to make 'im, six, seven, maybe eight?"

"You mean to say he can survive out here?" J.D. asked in disbelief. Surely a kid that age would have died in this sparse, brown land.

"He's Apache, kid. He's been living off his wits and the land all his life. There's been berries we passed, wild onions, pinion nuts, back a ways looked like somebody'd stripped off some mesquite beans. Long as he can stay near water, he could stay out here forever, and he wouldn't starve."

Vin smiled easily at his rapt student. J.D. had started out as green as God ever made them, but as each day passed Vin found he had new respect for the boy's eagerness to learn and to adapt. If he kept himself alive a few more years he would likely shape up to be a darned fine man. "If what we got here is nothing more than a young boy, and that first fellow was tracking him? What's that say to you, kid?"

J.D. thought it through then nodded when he felt he had caught Vin's drift. "First Indian must have been the boy's father?" he ventured. Then swore at the pitiful unfairness of it.

Vin nodded in partial agreement. "That, or an uncle, grandfather, maybe the male head of the boy's clan. Yeah, I figure that poor cuss only did what kin been doing fer all time. Kid was missing; he went looking. Now the mystery is what the hell that kid's doing out here, away from his clan and on his own. An' stealing white folks horses, or I miss my guess."

Vin was quiet when they rejoined the soldiers. The task now was to find a suitably sheltered spot to make camp. In time a deep arroyo presented itself, sufficient to protect them from the incessant wind that cursed this land and hopefully sufficient to make it safe to lay a fire. No one favored hardtack and cold beans, and however hot the days might be, the nights cooled fast when the sun went down.

Dinner was a silent affair. After the men had found time to fill their bellies, Vin launched into an explanation of the situation as he read it. It wasn't easy holding their attention. When the beans and biscuits ran out Cole had pulled out a full bottle of whiskey, which he shared liberally. Vin watched humorlessly as the lieutenant sucked his men into his vice. Watching them drink together, Vin realized that Cole didn't hold sway over the men by virtue of his rank. There was little chance that these soldiers would report their officer's indiscretion or question his orders because he was ' one of the boys'. Only Holden, the old sergeant, looked uncomfortable with the state of affairs. The man stood silently chewing a wad of tobacco when Vin and J.D. moved closer to the fire to join him.

"These boys ain't gonna fare too well when the time comes they need someone to lead 'em," Vin said.

Holden shook his head. "It's the lieutenant's call, not mine," he said.

"You hear me say this second Apache is just a kid?" Vin asked.

Holden listened, but didn't respond, apparently torn between listening to Vin and sticking by his commanding officer.

"I don't make this kid to be old enough to be aimin' to join up with some renegade band and cause trouble," the quiet tracker explained.

"Stealing a white man's horse isn't causing trouble in your book?" Cole sneered when Vin's comment was repeated to him.

"Doesn't add up to no full-scale breakout. Apache consider raiding a natural part of life," Vin told them evenly.

"Well raiding isn't a natural part of life. Not for civilized people. And you can bet raiding isn't the only thing on these red bastards minds," Cole told the men.

Covering the remaining distance to the campfire in a single stride, Vin jerked the bottle out of Cole's hand and pitched it into the dust. "Try paying attention so you can learn a thing or two," he said in an icy voice.

"Go ahead, then, Mr. Tanner," Cole said. "Enlighten us."

"Man of any color's gonna act if somethin' threatens his child," Vin told them. "There's not a jack among you that wouldn't go around the rules if your boy was missing. The question you oughta be asking is what happened to land a mere kid this far away from his band in the first place."

Cole sobered immediately and his eyes narrowed as he examined Vin. They were hard eyes, cold and calculating. "You don't know what you're talking about, Tanner," he said.

"Let me tell you something, mister," J.D. said angrily. "Vin Tanner knows how these people think if anybody does. You can bet he's right. Your first hostile wasn't after anything more than getting his kid back!"

Vin laid a hand on J.D. to keep him quiet. There was a look about Cole all of a sudden that warned him off. As he studied the man, pieces of the puzzle rearranged themselves in a disturbing manner. The new picture he came up with made a spot start itching right between his shoulder blades. Cole hadn't been deriding him he suddenly realized; he been issuing a challenge. He understood full well that Vin Tanner knew what he was talking about.

Vin shrugged. "I'm gonna get some sleep," he told the others, drawing J.D. away with him. This was neither the time nor the place for a face off. When they reached their bedrolls, he spoke softly for J.D.'s ears only. "Figure we're gonna have to take turns staying awake all night. Don't think we're among friends anymore, J.D."




Chapter 9



It was late afternoon when Ezra and Josiah slipped Ramona into Claude Garrett's deserted hotel room. They had dodged one lone maid on their way up the back stairs, but the upstairs' halls had been quiet. Ezra had chosen a time when he knew that people would be out about their business or meeting in the lobby to share refreshments and he had been careful to make sure that Garrett was happily engaged at the saloon. Once inside the room with the door safely closed, Ezra drew the curtains on the room's lone window.

"Do you have what we need?" Ezra asked Josiah. He had relied heavily on Josiah and Nathan to pull together the props for this tragic drama.

Josiah slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled it back out to reveal two small brown glass bottles. Checking them carefully he handed one to Ezra and kept the other.

"Just how dangerous is this concoction," the gambler asked. It was a question Josiah had answered twice already. The irony was that he had expected Nathan with his years of healing to have come up with the right potion to use. But it had been Josiah with his odd store of exotic knowledge who knew the right plants and where to find an old half-breed woman with the knowledge to prepare what was needed. The old crone had studied Ramona, sizing her up, feeling her arms and legs, estimating her weight in sacks of grain. At last she had measured out a precise amount of some sweet smelling liquid into a bottle and pronounced herself satisfied. The whole ritual had given Ezra the willies.

"She's got to drink the entire amount. It might not put her under if she doesn't. Old Annie didn't put in any extra, so she can't drink too much."

Without instruction Ramona stripped to her shift and sat down calmly on the elegant burgundy coverlet that graced Garrett's bed. The eyes she fixed on Ezra were completely trusting and nothing he could remember had ever unnerved him more.

"Are you afraid?" he asked as he sat beside her and squeezed her hand. A little smile lit her face and she shook her head. "If you don't want to go through with this just tell me. I'll think of something else."

In answer she reached out and took the small bottle he held in his hand. She opened and sniffed it, biting her lip. Then before he could stop her, she tilted the bottle and drained its contents.

"I'll be fine," she said bravely. Lying back against the pillows, she let herself relax as the powerful herbs took effect. In due course her eyelids drooped and her breathing slowed until it was almost imperceptible.

Then Ezra set to work. He rubbed a fine powder on her face and limbs until she truly appeared pale and drained of life. A bluish tinge was painted on her generous lips. Then he artfully disposed her limbs and hair to make a heartbreaking picture if ever there was one.

Last of all Josiah pulled out the second vial, an almost empty one that reeked of laudanum. He dabbed a few drops on her pallid lips and then pressed the open bottle into her hand.

Standing back to survey their handiwork, Ezra found his palms were sweating. The stage was now set. It was time for part two. Ezra and Josiah left the hotel as stealthily as they had come. Josiah settled himself conspicuously near the hotel's front steps, while Ezra set out to waylay their intended victim.

As the dinner hour approached it was inevitable that a man as fastidious as Garrett would return to his rooms to prepare for the evening meal. Ezra had merely to choose the right moment to attach himself.

"There you are my friend," he called sourly and dropped into step with the man as he was crossing the street. "What have you done with our little darling? She seems to have deserted me."

"I've no idea what you're talking about," Garrett told him as they entered the Virginia's lobby, he gestured for Ezra to accompany him upstairs where they could talk in private

"Don't tell me you haven't seen her, Claude," Ezra said as Garrett calmly unlocked the door to his room. "She told me she was going to see you hours ago. I haven't set eyes on her since."

"Perhaps she prefers my company to yours," Garrett derided him. He flung open his door and brushed past Ezra only to freeze in the entryway.

Everything was just the way they had arranged it. With a muttered curse Ezra pushed his shocked companion aside. He hurriedly crossed to the bed and grabbed the vial clutched in Ramona's hand. After sniffing the opening, he grimly passed it to Garrett. "Laudanum," he said. "She must have taken the whole damned bottle."

Garrett's eyes widened in agitation. He ran nervous fingers through his thinning hair as Ezra bent over the girl, ostensibly checking to see if she still breathed.

"She's dead, Claude," Ezra announced abruptly. "I thought you didn't know where she was!"

"I didn't. I haven't seen her in hours," Garrett cried. "She said she needed to talk to me this morning, but, hell, you're probably the one responsible for driving her to this." He briefly indicated the pathetic tableau.

Without warning Ezra shoved Garrett up against the wall. "I don't think so, Claude," he hissed. "She had no complaint against me. It wasn't my bed the girl chose to kill herself in!"

"Well, it won't be mine either," Garrett snarled and broke free. "Keep your voice down, dammit. Do you want someone to hear? I won't have her found here."

Ezra eyed the other man in disgust. "Then what do you intend to do with her, you fool?" he whispered, allowing a heavy sarcasm to coat the words.

"You're sure she's dead?" Garrett asked in an agitated whisper.

"Of course I'm sure," Ezra snapped.

"Then we can at least move her to her own room," Garrett said. Thin beads of sweat dotted his fleshy face and made it shine.

"Claude," drawled Ezra insolently. "It's not my problem."

"Damn it, Ezra," the older man said desperately. "I've got to get her out of here."

Ezra sneered at the panicky man, then with apparent reluctance, he gathered the limp body in his arms. "Make sure the hallway is clear," he told his companion coldly.

Garrett checked the hall, then signaled Ezra to follow. They slipped across the passage where Garrett opened the door to the room that he had rented for the girl.

Laying her out on the bed, Ezra took the laudanum bottle back from Garrett and laid it on its side by Ramona's pale, limp hand. "You owe me, Claude," he whispered savagely as they slipped out of her room.

Garrett instinctively wanted to put as much distance between himself and the dead girl as he could. However, Ezra had set the timing quite carefully with the full intent of stretching the man's nerves as far as he could. The two of them had barely started down the hall when young Yancy emerged from his own room and bounded across the hall to knock on the girl's door.

Garrett almost panicked. He shoved Ezra down the back stairs in his haste. Within moments a cry went up in the hotel corridor they had so recently abandoned. Garrett and Ezra hit the street running. Slowing their pace, they worked their way around to the front of the hotel. Ezra had stationed Josiah inside the hotel, cheerfully lurking in an alcove of the upstairs hall. He and Yancy had to play out the next scene.

Hurrying across the street, Ezra and Garrett managed to blend into the early evening bustle. The internal commotion disrupting the Virginia Hotel was becoming evident in the swelling numbers and hastily whispered questions of the crowd outside. Finally, a hush fell over the group and someone pointed. Josiah Sanchez emerged from the stately edifice carrying a slight bundle wrapped in a blanket. The crowd watched in dismay as the broad shouldered ex-preacher solemnly carried his burden down the street to a grim little building that somehow always seemed to be set apart, even in the crowded part of town. The painted sign read "Undertaker".

"You owe me Claude," Ezra hissed softly once more. Glaring at his companion, he turned and slipped away.

Ezra left Garrett, the crowd and the various repercussions of the day's work to sort themselves out. Making his way circuitously to the back of the undertaking parlor, he slipped noiselessly inside. It appeared he was joining an already sizable group: Nathan and Josiah were there, along with Micah and Sarah McCallum, as was Old Annie. Admittedly they were all there by his own arrangements, except for Mary Travis that was. He wasn't sure why the lovely newspaperwoman was present, but she had been a confidant more than once in the past, so he could only applaud her inclusion.

The town undertaker, a short, hairless man named Wilson, stood bewildered in the midst of the crowded back room where the girl's body lay. Old Annie leaned over the motionless form, crooning softly and rubbing something on the child's lips. First ten then fifteen minutes slipped away. Ezra blanched when he still saw no hint of color returning to her pallid cheeks. The small room was hot and it smelled. The odor of death clung to the wallpaper and had seeped into the very boards of the floor. Ezra couldn't purge his mind of the picture of the dozens of dead who had passed these walls. When the old witch finally elicited a moan from the groggy child, the relief in the room was almost palpable. For the first time in his life Ezra found himself roundly swearing by all that was good and holy that he would never pull such a risky stunt again.

"I'm afraid I owe you something of an apology, Mr. Standish," Mary told him as she approached him from behind.

"Think nothing of it, Mrs. Travis," Ezra assured her. "I do rather pride myself on my thespian abilities after all."

"They're astounding, Mr. Standish. Really, they are."

A blond head peeked in at the back. As soon as he saw Ramona lying there, the boy was through the door. Ezra let him have his head. He hardly knew how to stop him. He watched Yancy elbow his way to Ramona's side and pull her into a sitting position, cradling her drooping head in the hollow of his shoulder. Reluctantly allowing the intrusion, Old Annie forced a bitter-smelling drink on the girl while Yancy supported her weight.

"We can take it from here," Sarah said gently when Ramona at last appeared coherent. Micah scooped the young girl up in his arms and Josiah checked the darkening alley before signaling all clear. Ezra blew out his breath in relief. He had no doubts that the young minister and his wife would take good care of the girl and keep her safely under wraps. One down and one to go, he thought.

He prevented 'Romeo' from following the group with an arm thrown out to block the boy's way. A hand added to the back of the neck steered the lad out the door and in the opposite direction.

"Your presence is not required, Yancy, and I believe you are supposed to be keeping tabs on your uncle for me," he reminded the boy.

"Are you sure she'll be all right?" Yancy asked. He craned his neck, straining to see past Ezra in the growing twilight.

"She'll be safe and out of sight," he replied. "Right now you have a performance of your own to give, I might remind you."

Ezra slipped back inside the funeral parlor to join the remainder of the conspirators.

"What do you need me for?" the undertaker asked peevishly when Ezra stopped him from leaving the room.

"First off, we need you to keep your mouth discretely shut," Ezra informed him. "Second, we need you to put on a nice, little funeral. Something plain, but tasteful, I think. Nothing ostentatious."

Wilson, the undertaker, stared at him for a moment and then held out his hand.

"If I'm gonna put a box in the ground, I gotta get paid, Mr. Standish," the man intoned. "Price is the same, body or not."

Ezra extracted a wad from his wallet with disgust. Reluctantly, he peeled off two bills and handed them over.

Across the room, Nathan jabbed an elbow in Josiah's ribs. "When this is over, we gonna have to take up a collection for Ezra," he said with a grin.




Chapter 10



Sarah installed Ramona in the small room that she and Micah would normally have shared.

"Does she look like she's all right?" Micah asked when he looked in on them.

"She keeps shaking," Sarah whispered, coming to the door. "An' I don't like her color. The poor thing looks exhausted, but she just won't settle. I don't know if that's because of what all they gave her, or if she's just plain scared."

The girl's arrival had ousted the young minister from his wife's bed, and despite his best efforts at good grace, he resented it. It wasn't that he was not concerned about the poor girl's welfare, but he didn't see any good reason why Sarah needed to spend the whole night with her. The front room wouldn't be nearly as uncomfortable if he had some company. So he lingered at the bedroom door and watched as Sarah gently brushed Ramona's long black hair and spoke soothingly to her.

"I think you can't sleep because you're worried about that handsome beau of yours," Sarah told her young charge.

Ramona giggled and then sighed and snuggled up beside Sarah. Micah suspected his presence was unwanted, but the stubborn part of him wasn't ready to give up and leave.

"Yancy hasn't got another soul to worry 'bout him," Ramona said. "He thinks he can handle anything. And I know full well he doesn't think he needs anybody to take care of him, but I pray real hard for him just the same. Everybody ought to have someone to pray for them don't you think?"

"I reckon God surely meant for it to be that way," Sarah answered. "You go right on asking Him to look after your Yancy."

"You think it's wrong for me to fret so much?" Ramona asked. "Do you think God minds?"

Sarah flicked her gaze impatiently at Micah. He wasn't sure whether that meant it was his duty to jump in with some kind of sound theological guidance or if she just wanted him to leave. Unable to reach a conclusion, he squirmed uncomfortably, stayed put, and kept his mouth shut.

Sarah sighed and set the brush aside. "Frettin's a part of the human condition, Ramona," she answered plainly. "It just comes along with caring for somebody. It may not be necessary, since I figure God's big enough to know what He's doing, but I don't reckon He holds it against us. It's a lot better we should be that way than to not bother carin' at all, don't you think? Truth be told, I got a brother I been doin' a good bit of frettin' over lately, too. He's not one to figure he needs taking care of either."

Ramona smiled sleepily. "I guess we'll pray for them both then," she murmured.

"We'll just do that," Sarah agreed. Wrinkling her brows, she stared at Micah quizzically, as if to ask why he was still there. "I set the second best quilt out there for you," she told him.

"You want to come out here and join me?" he asked diffidently.

"No," she said in annoyance, as if he should have known better than to ask. "I'm staying here."

With a sigh he closed the bedroom door and retreated to the front room. He didn't understand what made women so unreasonable.




The one thing that Ezra had not expected to have to cope with that night was Yancy in his bedroom once again. At least tonight, for the first time, the boy condescended to use the door. Ezra had divested himself of his jacket and twin Remingtons and had stretched out on the bed to think when his visitor appeared.

"What do you want?" Ezra asked with a jaded glance in the boy's direction.

Yancy shrugged. "No where else to go," he said.

"You have your own accommodations," Ezra reminded him.

"It's not the same," Yancy mumbled.

"Spare me the maudlin sentiment, son." Ezra jibed. He needed time to rehearse the next stage of his show and he had planned to do that alone. Yet when Yancy made no move to leave, he found that he didn't really object to the boy's company. "Where's Claude?" he asked when the boy had thrown himself into the room's only chair.

"Passed out drunk," Yancy informed him. "Don't worry. I won't be missed."

Ezra leaned back against the generous pillows and tried to organize his thoughts. Despite being more nervous than he could remember in years, the first act of his little charade had gone well. Ramona had done everything he had asked of her without a question or a qualm. Yancy, on the other hand, had expressed a desire for something more theatrical and had been pushing for a chance to either hang himself in despair or die in a glorious shoot out. As uncooperative as the boy was proving to be, Ezra had to admire his sense of drama. He was weighing up the various possibilities and the advantages and disadvantages of each when his young guest interrupted.

"How do you go about setting yourself up when you hit a new spot, Ezra?" Yancy asked out of the blue. "How do you find your marks?"

The question caught the gambler off guard. "Why?" he countered.

"I guess I need some pointers for when Ramona and I set up on our own," the young man responded. He leaned forward eagerly in the chair, resting both bony elbows on his knees. "Looks like you do pretty well for yourself. I'm already pretty good at cards, of course, but I figure you can give me pointers in some areas."

Ezra grimly considered throttling the cocky kid. "How very gracious of you," he muttered.

The trouble was that he could hear so much of himself at fifteen echoed in Yancy's words. He wondered how his mother had been able to stand him back then. There were not a great number of maternal virtues he would ascribe to Maude Standish, but she had borne his youthful arrogance with extraordinary good humor and patience. In sudden enlightenment of the kind that only comes when one's own turn at parenting arrives, it struck him that she had taken immense pride in his intelligence and his growing abilities. Granted, perhaps she had schooled him to develop the wrong abilities in the first place, but that patience and the pride she had displayed had been something good and right just the same, and he had loved her for it. He still did. Nonetheless, he thought, the boy in front of him had a chance to grow into something better than what one Ezra Standish had become. It wasn't too late for Yancy Garrett.

"You don't want any pointers from me," Ezra told his eager student. "Just what is it you plan on giving this girl? Never more than a week or two in any one town? A room in the back of a noisy saloon? No friends? No home? High times when you're flush and hungry ones when you're not?" By this time his tone had picked up a harsh, bitter edge. "A lifetime of fast exits and close calls? Don't you think maybe Ramona deserves something a little better than that?"

Yancy sat stunned into silence by the rebuke. He had no idea how to answer Ezra's questions. "D-do y-you think I should leave her?" he stammered at last.

"No!" Ezra shot back at the bewildered boy. "You'd break her heart and that would destroy a girl like that."

"Then what do you want me to do?" Yancy asked. "I don't know anything else."

Ezra sat up, swinging his legs off the bed and looked the young man in the eye. "Start over," he suggested. "Find a job; learn a trade. Grow up to be something stronger and finer than what you were taught to be."




Vin rolled over wide awake even though it was still a good half-hour short of sunrise. More than most men, his body functioned with the rising and setting of the sun. Long years in the wild had given him his own internal timepiece, and it was as accurate as any city-bought watch. He considered the possibility that he and J.D. could slip out of camp before the soldiers were up. It would give them a chance to get out ahead of Cole and his troops. If he could find the Indian boy on his own, he figured the kid would be safe, but it was abundantly clear that Cole would expend no extra effort to try to capture the boy alive.

Raising himself marginally on one elbow, he sought out J.D. and found him awake and alert as well. The younger man sat nestled against a boulder, wrapped in a blanket to keep away the nighttime chill. He caught J.D.'s eyes, but J.D. quickly nodded toward the other side of the camp. Searching the silent darkness, Vin was able to pick out the shadowy form of a sentry. The man was clearly alert and already had his eye on J.D. That nixed any plans for sneaking out unseen.

The men from Four Corners remained quiet and waited for the rest of the camp to stir. Rose dawn spread across the sky. At first, the rim of the arroyo was nothing more than a black mass edged against a glowing sky, but as Vin watched, the day grew lighter and individual features of the terrain could be discerned. What had minutes earlier been formless black, turned into dusty browns and earthen reds. Faded green clumps appeared here and there where juniper or sage clung tenaciously to the ruddy slope. Vin took advantage of the silence to listen as the land around him roused. He picked out a skittering beetle as it moved between the scattered stones. Then, turning his head as little as possible, he shifted his attention upward. A red-tailed hawk circled overhead. Without warning, it swooped, disappearing from his line of sight, then rose moments later with a small rodent pinioned in its talons. If they had been alone, he could have relaxed and enjoyed the gentle surging of life that surrounded him. He could have taken pleasure in pointing out the separate hives of vital activity to J.D. who was so eager to learn and to whom the intricate desert world was still so wonderfully new. But in their present company some portion of his attention had to be constantly fixed on the camp, keeping track of Cole and the other men, trying to read what they were thinking in the way they spoke and moved. No, he hadn't been relaxed since the first moment that Lieutenant John Cole had ridden into town.

The sergeant named Holden was up rousting the camp as soon as it was full light. Vin and J.D. joined the rest of the men for a meal of coffee, biscuits, and beans that bore a distinct resemblance to their dinner the night before. J.D. stared at his plate so forlornly that Vin couldn't help but tease him.

"Ain't a hotel, kid," he said with good humor. "You get out on the trail for a couple of weeks, beans and biscuits are gonna start lookin' mighty good compared to some of what you eat."

That helpful piece of encouragement did nothing to improve J.D.'s appetite, so Vin gave up on his friend for the time being. His main concern this morning would be talking some sense into Cole, anyway.

The blond lieutenant had been the last man to rise. He sat near the fire now massaging his forehead in a telltale way and trying to drown himself in black coffee. Vin swallowed his distaste, refusing to allow his private thoughts to show on his face. Life had taught him to be cautious, and patience and caution worked hand in hand in keeping whatever went on inside him hidden from both his friends and his foes.

Joining Cole by the fire, he helped himself to a second cup of coffee. "You need to sorta let me and J.D. scout ahead today, Lieutenant," he said casually. "Our fellow can't be that far off. It'd just be asking to spook him if we bring this whole outfit in together."

Cole nodded morosely and returned to massaging his brow. To Vin's relief, he seemed far more concerned with the condition of his head than he was with runaway Apaches this morning.

"I'm paying you to find him. Take one of my men as liaison between yourselves and the main troop. But, damn it, keep me informed." Cole drained the last of the hot, dark liquid from his cup and smiled grimly at Vin. "Tanner," he said when he was done. "You get yourself killed by that 'little boy' Indian you think you're tracking; it's no fault of mine. If that greenhorn friend of yours gets killed, you lay it square around your own neck and nobody else's. Just so we're clear on that."

Vin nodded complacently. He didn't let down his guard, but at last it looked as if he might have the upper hand in the situation. Maybe last night's whiskey had finally soaked some of the spite out of the man.

"You game?" he asked J.D., who gave him a nod.

"I got no problem riding out with you, Vin," the young man said cheerfully. "Let's saddle up."

Within fifteen minutes, they rode out, taking a young private with them to act as a messenger if needed.




The noontime sun found a small but solemn knot of mourners gathered in the Four Corners graveyard at the edge of town. Yancy Garrett dropped the first clod of dirt on top of the coffin nestled in the freshly dug hole. It was a ritual usually reserved for the next of kin, but Ramona had no one here who could rightfully claim that place. By rights, Claude Garrett as her erstwhile employer might have taken the lead, but Claude was going to extreme lengths to assure the curious that he barely knew the tragic girl. Therefore, the fleshy gambler was more than slightly annoyed by his nephew's obvious display of grief. That attitude suited the scheme Ezra and Yancy had worked out the previous evening superbly, so Ezra faded into the background and let the younger Garrett play up his chosen role.

Claude had put out the weak explanation that the girl has died of a sudden illness, but rumors of suicide were rampant. Small wonder, since Josiah and the other men had studiously helped them along. Ezra suspected that his own reputation in town must have tottered precariously for several hours, but his prestige had been nicely restored when Mary Travis had tactfully claimed him as her escort during the preceding funeral services. That mere act had pushed Ezra out of the circle of the morally suspect and left the Garrett family as the sole focus for the town's wagging tongues. Unfortunately, if Claude had expected Yancy to join him in presenting a solid, dignified front, he must have suffered a hellish disappointment. Yancy's demeanor was barely short of distraught.

"You look like you've been crying all night," Mary commented as she placed a hand on the boy's arm.

Yancy leaned toward her ear. "Onions," he confided softly, suppressing a mischievous grin. "I've been dipping snuff, too. Makes the nose run."

Ezra caught the hint of humor in Yancy's tone before the boy gracefully slipped back behind his grief stricken facade. Meanwhile, his uncle excused himself as soon as he decently could. The mournful thuds of dirt raining down on a coffin accompanied the echo of Claude Garrett's boots as they beat a hasty retreat. Ramona's former employer was well on his way to inebriation in the town's saloon by the time the gaping hole in the ground was filled. With a satisfied nod, Ezra motioned for the younger Garrett to join him back in town.




Chapter 11



Throughout the morning, Cole and his troops never lagged far behind the trio scouting ahead. Vin held himself back, often deliberately stopping to check out false trails, rather than take a chance of blundering on the young Apache with the rest of the troops too close on his heels. He wanted a better lead when they finally pinned their quarry down. When they doubled back at noon to give a report, both Cole's sneer and his flask were in evidence once again.

The wind and the sun had abused them mercilessly all day, and when an outcropping offered them shade and shelter, the men were glad to avail themselves. The reservation lands lay to the north, but the terrain in that direction was rough, too steep and rocky for easy passage except with a surefooted mule. If their lone fugitive was trying to head back home, the land itself would force him to take the long way around. And the long way around meant turning back toward Four Corners. They were closer to town now than they had been any time in the last two days. Along this stretch, Vin was fairly familiar with the ground. He knew a couple of spots it would be a good idea to check, especially if the kid was as tired of being blasted by blowing the sand and dust as the rest of them were, but for the time being, he kept the information to himself.




Yancy grimaced at the bowl Ezra shoved into his hands. "Butter?" he asked.

"Very useful trick," Ezra informed him. "A full meal and a dose of butter will keep the drink from knocking the wits out of you."

"I know how to hold my liquor!" the boy protested.

"Spare me the details," was Ezra's acerbic response. He privately hoped Yancy was nowhere nearly as experienced as that, and he wasn't about to take chances. Besides, the boy's bravado itself argued that he had little or no idea what he was talking about.

Yancy had followed Ezra by circuitous routes back to the town's half derelict church and Josiah had met them there. Spread out before them on a pew were the sundry items that Ezra had requested. The boy stood in the middle of the room now stripped of his shirt as Ezra skillfully fixed a bladder filled with pig's blood directly over his heart. While Ezra worked, Yancy occupied himself by flipping the wicked looking knife he had just been provided.

"You wanna make sure you don't actually stick yourself with that thing," Josiah advised dryly.

The boy broke into a wide grin. "Impale is the word, Josiah," he laughed. "You don't want me to actually impale myself." The knife spun end over end almost to the ceiling and back to eye level where he deftly caught it.

"You're having entirely too much fun, Yancy," Ezra complained. He handed the boy back his shirt and jacket and indicated that he should redress himself.

Once he had resumed his funeral attire, Yancy slipped the weapon under his jacket and stood for inspection.

"Think you're ready?" Josiah asked.

In answer, the lad grinned and slipped a silver flask out of his pocket. "Uncle Claude's good cognac," he told the men and then helped himself to a swig for good effect.

Ezra grabbed the flask and recapped it before handing it back. "Don't get carried away," he advised. "Let's just get this done."

Yancy's dour glare accused Ezra of being a spoilsport, but he put the flask away. Assuming his most solemn expression, he allowed Josiah to escort him from the church.




It frankly surprised Vin when Cole readily accepted his suggestion that the soldiers stay put and rest while he and J.D. checked out a dry wash up ahead. He hadn't expected the man to be so reasonable. It was the break he had been waiting for all day. Without delay, he snagged J.D. and told him to saddle up.

At first they rode hard, but they stopped short of the point where their track would intersect the wash. Vin knew a dry creek bed ran across the trail just ahead and then quickly disappeared in the irregular terrain to their right. They dismounted and approached the spot with caution, abandoning the trail in favor of a spot along the side where they could see and not be seen. Sure enough the boy was there. So was the horse that had been reported stolen, a big strawberry roan not unlike the one that Micah McCallum took such pride in.




At the same time that Vin and J.D. finally pinned their quarry down, a wild-eyed Yancy Garrett came looking for his uncle in the town's saloon. The establishment's patrons stopped talking when one of the swinging batwing doors slammed clear back against the wall and the awkward boy staggered into the room. Ezra and the other men had filtered into the saloon earlier and taken their places among the usual crowd. Claude Garrett, seated alone at a table near the bar, was the last to look up.

"What do you want?" he asked when Yancy planted both hands on the table's wooden top and glared at him with reddened eyes.

'She was beautiful and therefore to be woo'd; she was a lady and therefore to be won,' Yancy misquoted for everyone to hear.

"What the hell are you babbling about?" Garrett snapped.

Without a by your leave, Yancy appropriated the bottle of whiskey that Claude had been consuming. Tilting it up, he poured a dose down his own throat. He immediately choked.

"There's not a damn thing I ever cared about that you haven't destroyed," he gasped when he could finally speak again. "Home, fortune. Those I could live without. But why couldn't you have left me her?"

Yancy downed another drink, more slowly this time, and watched Claude's beefy face break into sweat. The gambler had suddenly become aware that he was the center of attention in the room.

"Shut up, pup," Garrett snarled. "You barely knew the girl. Neither one of us did."

"Barely knew her," Yancy yelled in his uncle's face. "I loved her! I was going to make her my wife!"

"What a bunch of drivel," Garrett sneered.

A shock passed through the transfixed crowd at the sight of the knife that suddenly appeared in Yancy's hand. He glared at Claude.

" 'By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint,
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs;
The time and my intents are savage!.."

Buck and Ezra observed the drama from across the room.

"What's he doing?" whispered Buck in Ezra's ear.

"Irreparable damage to Shakespeare," Ezra answered with a pained expression.

With a broken sob, Yancy lunged, thrusting the knife across the table into Garrett's face. In self-defense, Garrett instinctively upended the table between them, scattering its contents. The heavy piece caught Yancy, driving him to the floor where he sprawled for a moment. The hand that had clutched the knife was hidden beneath him as he tried to rise.

Men crowded around to watch the fight. Yancy groaned and slowly slid his right hand into view. His fingers were still wrapped around the handle of the knife. A wet coating of red streamed down the shaft. The boy tried to haul himself to his feet but immediately collapsed, the massive red stain spreading across his shirt now in plain view. Amid reaction from the crowd, Garrett blanched.

Nathan Jackson appeared out of nowhere and knelt to help the boy, but Garrett violently pushed him aside.

"Don't touch him, damn you," he cried. "He doesn't need your help."

"He sure needs someone's," Nathan shot back.

Yancy pulled himself up to rest against the front of the bar and gasped dramatically.

"My lord, what a little thespian!" Ezra muttered underneath his breath.

"Whatever that is," Buck agreed.

From across the open room, Chris pushed his way through the crowd knotted around the bleeding boy. "What happened?" he demanded.

"It was an accident!" Garrett assured him. "He fell. He needs a doctor."

Shoving everyone else aside, Chris leaned over Yancy, who gasped again in apparent pain. "Die and get it over with," he hissed in the boy's ear. With that Yancy let his body go limp.

Chris' hand slowly closed the young man's eyes. He turned his head to stare at Garrett. His voice trickled into the silence like ice water when he spoke.

"He's gone," he said, nodding to the still form.

Pushing other men aside, Josiah knelt and lifted the seemingly lifeless body. "I'll see he's properly taken care of," he said.

Chris rose as Josiah carried the boy away. He continued to stare at Claude Garrett. Dressed in black with a malevolent light burning in his eyes, he looked for all the world like the angel of death. If he had moved just then to shoot Garrett down in cold blood, not a man in the room would have gotten in his way.

"It was an accident," Garrett repeated hoarsely.

"I don't like accidents," Chris informed him. "You're a Jonah, Mr. Garrett. We don't need your kind here."

The knot of men gathered around murmured their agreement.

"You got twenty-four hours to bury your nephew and get the hell out of town," Chris said.

On that note, Garrett fled. Chris turned away and the crowd parted instinctively to let the somber gunman leave.

"Somebody clean up that mess," Chris ordered on his way out.




Josiah deposited Yancy unceremoniously under Mr. Wilson's nose. The unflappable mortician evidenced no surprise when the fresh corpse started squirming. Nor did he volunteer any comment when Ezra made his appearance at the alley door.

"Next body you fellows have delivered here, I'm gonna bury it on general principle," he told them with a sour tone.

"We appreciate your cooperation, I'm sure," Ezra responded in like manner.

The blood-smeared body sat up on Wilson's table and stared at them balefully.

"Ezra," Yancy croaked. "I don't feel so good."

"He don't look so good either," Josiah put in helpfully.

It was Wilson who had the foresight, or perhaps the proprietary instincts, to shove a metal basin into Yancy's hands seconds before his stomach emptied itself violently. Josiah and Ezra just stood back and looked at one another.

"Too much whiskey and not enough butter," Ezra diagnosed.

Once the boy's stomach stopped heaving, he stared morosely at the dented vessel he held in his hands. Dark rusty stains appeared to be permanently etched under the rim. "What's this thing used for?" he asked.

Wilson just looked at him and didn't respond.

"Oh, hell," the boy whispered and was sick once more.

"I'm going to go find him a decent change of clothes," Ezra told Josiah. Then he glanced at Wilson. "You'll have to keep him here for a couple of hours," he explained. "Reverend McCallum will be by to claim him once it's good and dark."

"I charge extra for boarding privileges, Mr. Standish," Wilson said.

"Don't guess that situation comes up too often," Josiah said with a laugh.

"Every now and then. I already got old Mr. Harlow in the ice house out back at the moment though," Wilson responded evenly.

"You haven't buried him yet," Josiah asked in astonishment. "The man's been dead over three days."

Wilson favored his guests with an indignant glare. "Don't blame me," he said. "I'm not about to bury the man for free just because his widow's too blamed cheap to pay for a coffin."

"Naw, she's not cheap," Josiah commented. He recollected now the way things stood in the Harlow household. "She just knows he was counting on going in style. Shoot, if he'd asked to be buried in a gunny sack, she'd have gone out and bought your best brass-trimmed coffin just to spite the man."

"Well, you want me to send your young friend here out there to keep him company?"

Yancy gasped in dismay.

"I suggest you try slipping him a dollar," Josiah advised the boy.

"Just keep the tourists away, Mr. Wilson," Ezra directed the undertaker as he left.




Putting the spyglass aside, Vin grinned at J.D., who made a grab for the glass to see for himself.

"Picked himself a darned good horse to steal," J.D. said when he had taken a good look. "Shoot, Vin, he can't be more than seven can he?"

Vin chuckled without answering J.D.'s question. "Quite a little desperado ain't he," he said. "Don't much fancy tryin' to catch 'im if he gets a head start on that horse. Think you can work your way over on the other side and get ahold of it?"

J.D. nodded and turned to go, but Vin laid a warning hand on his young friend's arm.

"That kid ain't more'n seven fer a fact, but you can bet he's carrying a knife," he cautioned.

J.D. gaped at him, clearly shocked at the idea that such a young child might pose a threat. Vin looked at the younger man as though reading his mind.

"It's that sorta thing gets a fellow killed," the savvy tracker warned. "You grab the horse and get back out of the way. Let me deal with our little friend down there." He clapped J.D. noiselessly on the shoulder.

J.D. silently disappeared around the rocks that hid the head of the wash from view. Vin waited until he could see his young partner on the opposite side before leading his own gelding down to the point where the trail cut across the wash. Then he quietly boosted himself into the saddle and as soundlessly as possible rode slowly up the wash. J.D. reached the stolen horse and snagged the reins at the same time as the young Indian realized what was going on.

Stopping his black gelding some twenty yards away, Vin called out a greeting in Apache and waited silently for the boy to respond. He didn't want to spook the kid any more than was necessary, so he didn't try to rush him. Instead he sat silently and studied their diminutive captive. Quite a feat for one so young to have led them on such a chase. As he had speculated, the boy held a full sized hunting knife in one hand.

Eventually, Vin urged his horse slowly forward. There was no place now that the boy could run, so he figured they had things pretty well under control. He was fixing to dismount when he heard the rifle shot. Dust kicked up within inches of the young boy's feet, and the child spun wildly searching the bare wash for a place to hide. Fear and hurt betrayal clouded his small features.

Vin pulled his Winchester free from its scabbard and spurred his horse close to the rocks, looking for shelter himself. He spotted the shooter sitting mounted in the exact same spot where he and J.D. had been only minutes before. It was Cole.

Damn, he thought, the bastard followed us. Drumming hoof-beats told him that the rest of the troops would be on top of them any minute.

Another shot split the silence as the boy tried to run.

"Put it up Cole!" Vin yelled. "He's just a kid!"

The boy fell and the next shot hit the dirt just beside his head.

"We got the damn horse!" Vin hollered, and then he got a look at Cole's face as he raised his rifle one more time. He just plain wants to kill something, Vin thought.

With no more hesitation than if he had been shooting a rabid coyote, Vin raised his gun and fired. Cole tumbled from his horse, a red blossom sprouting on his chest. In one fluid move Vin spurred his own horse forward, leaned down and nabbed the boy. Hauling the child onto the gelding's back, he wheeled the horse around. Motioning J.D. to follow, he took off at a dead gallop. Confused shouts and a handful of bullets followed them.




Chapter 12



Chris and Buck shared the empty silence at the jail companionably. Neither one of them felt like talking, and they had known each other long enough that the undisturbed quiet wasn't uncomfortable. It was Nathan's intrusion that broke their reverie. Chris gestured for the new arrival to pull up a chair.

"How do things stand?" he asked.

Nathan rattled off a summation of everybody's status. "Yancy's holed up at the undertaker's, sick as a dog. Micah's set to fetch him soon as things quiet down. Ezra's done gone back to the saloon, an' he's entertaining half the town, tellin' 'em how it happened. Ain't nobody seen Claude Garrett since you told 'im off, but I reckon he can't pack up fast enough."

Chris nodded in satisfaction. That was fine. As far as he was concerned, Garrett couldn't pack fast enough either, and Ezra was welcome to the crowd at the saloon. It was an odd thing. In the years since his wife had died, he had sought out saloons for their crowds and their noise; and for the drink as well, he freely admitted. He had chased after them for their capacity to hold at bay the painful knots he carried inside. Since coming to Four Corners, he was beginning to regain the ability to enjoy brief spells of peace and quiet. Sitting silently in the gathering dusk suited him for now. He almost protested when Nathan lit a pair of lamps to dispel the growing shadows. He didn't really want to hear when the sound of galloping horses announced another disturbance, but it seemed he had no choice.

The door flew open rattling the single pane of glass dangerously as it struck the wall. Vin Tanner entered with both arms laden down and J.D. followed right behind.

"Found our other 'unreconstructed hostile'," Vin said sarcastically, indicating the dark-haired child clinging round his neck.

The statement brought Buck bolt upright in his chair. "You gotta be joking!" he said.

Vin spoke gently in the child's ear, and then handed the boy to Nathan. "Name's Tzo-hay," he explained. "Would you ask Sarah to see to him?"

Nathan nodded and turned to slip out the back, but the child's eyes immediately grew wild with fright. Vin spoke reassuringly to him one more time and motioned for J.D. to go along. No sooner had they left than Vin started rifling the ammunition drawer on the gun cabinet, pocketing any cartridges of the right caliber that he could find.

"What else happened out there?" Chris asked sharply.

Vin wiped the sweat from his brow with the heel of his hand. "Had to shoot Cole to keep the boy alive," he told them.

Buck swore fluently.

Chris fought off a knot that had started to grow in his stomach. "You kill him?" he asked.

"Don't know," the tracker answered. "Reckon there's a good chance."

Just then Josiah put his head through the open doorway. "Riders coming in," he told them. "Moving fast."

"That'll be the rest of Cole's men," Vin told them.

Buck was on his feet by this time watching the street. "Pard, you gotta get out of here fast," he said.

Vin hesitated, looking at the other men as his well-honed sense of self-preservation warred with a multitude of things he needed to say. "I don't want none of the blame fer this landin' on J.D.," he told the men. "I'm the one did the shootin'. He couldn't have stopped it if he tried."

"He can be kept under cover," Chris assured him. "Right now we gotta move."

Once more, Vin hesitated. Up until that moment, the grueling race to bring the child to safety had occupied all his resources, but now a world of other problems came crashing down around him. "Not we," he said with a sigh. "Just me, Chris. Rest of you gotta stand back."

Buck turned sharply, and both Chris and Josiah made to protest. But Vin shook his head. He looked at all of them, but it was to Chris that he spoke.

"It's the only way, Chris. You can't fight the whole damned army. There's no way to win." The pain of what he was trying to say shone clearly in his eyes and called the easy smile he gave them a lie. "You know it as well as I do. Hell, don't do me any good to get the rest of you killed."

The four men looked at each other silently. The enormity of what had happened at last sunk in. Abruptly, Vin reached out and clasped Chris' hand in a gesture of goodbye.

"Been a pleasure ridin' with you, boys," he said, nodding gravely at the other men. Then without another word, he slipped out the back entrance of the jail and into the alley behind.

Chris swallowed hard and then turned to Buck. "Get after J.D. and Nathan," he ordered hoarsely. "Tell J.D. to stay out of sight."

Buck responded with a curt nod and slid out into the alley himself. Chris could hear shouts and chaos as the approaching soldiers hit the edge of town. He looked at Josiah, hoping that the older man saw some way out that he himself had missed, but Josiah's face had never looked so sober. He shook his head in resignation.

"Ready to do some fast talking, Chris?" he asked.

Together, the two men left the jail. Shoulder to shoulder, side by side, they stepped into the open street to confront the legally designated representatives of the most powerful force in the territory.




The rider on the lead horse pulled up hard not more than a few feet in front of them. It was Holden, the grizzled sergeant that had served as Cole's second-in-command. "Where is he?" he bellowed.

"Where's who?" Chris answered. His voice was steady and even, testifying to a cold calm that he wasn't able to feel. If nothing else, he wanted to buy Vin as much time as he could to get away.

"Your damned tracker killed my lieutenant," the sergeant spat. "I'm gonna find him if I have to take this whole town apart to do it."

In keeping with his words, Holden signaled his men to spread out and start sweeping the area.

"Cole's dead?" Chris asked. "No question?"

"Damned right he is. He cornered an Indian we'd been chasing. Your boys cut in, and Tanner shot him."

"Don't it make you wonder if something particular might have made him do that?" Josiah asked.

Chris would have liked to hear the answer, but more shouting erupted before it came. The jail, like most other major buildings, was squeezed into the north edge of town. Shots rang out and two of the soldiers darted down a side street that cut in behind the crowded mass of development.




Vin had known that he would never reclaim his black gelding. The horse stood exposed on the main thoroughfare in front of the jail. That meant he would need a substitute mount. He had made it most of the way down to the stables when some of the soldiers blocked his path. He tried to backtrack, hoping that the night shadows hid him, but tonight he was out of luck. As soon as he turned, a cry went up, and he was dodging bullets.

He concentrated on running, slipping through the shadows, finding what bits of cover he could. He had no quarrel with the remaining soldiers. God knew he didn't want to have to put a bullet in one of them. Still, he wasn't ready to die, and he didn't fancy his chances if he gave himself up. Running hard and fast looked like his best course of action.

He had retreated past the jail and was behind the Virginia Hotel when the second group of soldiers cut him off. Desperately, he cast around for any other route. To his left stood the Virginia. Her fashionable lobby and crowded bar might offer confusion and cover. But at what price? He'd made his own bed. He didn't fancy someone else having to lie in it because they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While he stood weighing his options, soldiers closed in from both sides. To his right the rock ridge marked the edge of town, and that was where he finally found his opening. Crouched in the deep shadows, he could make out the heavy door to the Virginia's icehouse. Not twenty feet separated him from the entrance to the reworked cavern; not forty feet separated him from the soldiers on either side.

Rolling out of cover, he sprinted for the door. Dust kicked up within inches of his heels as bullets sought him out. He reached the door whole, but splinters erupted in his face as he heaved it open. Pain raked his cheek and temple as if he had been clawed. He rolled down three shallow steps to the stone floor, wiped away the blood, and thanked God he hadn't lost an eye.

He had earned himself a respite. The ice house entrance was narrow. If the soldiers wanted to come after him they could only do it one at a time, and he was a crack shot with two guns and plenty of ammunition. He let off a pair of shots, warning his would-be captors not to get too close. "I got no call to wanna take out any of you boys," he hollered to make his meaning clear.

For the time being, he had found a sanctuary. His pursuers couldn't get in but, on the other hand, as far as any hope of escape was concerned, he wasn't exactly going to be able to get out.




Once it was full dark, Ezra had excused himself to his audience and stolen back over to Mr. Wilson's undertaking establishment to check on Yancy. It appeared that the youngster and the dour undertaker had established a truce and might even be taking a liking to each other. Minutes later they were joined by Micah McCallum, who had brought a small surprise with him.

"Ramona!" Yancy cried with delight when the young girl appeared at the alley door.

She slipped through the entry and flew to his side.

"You think it's safe to chance it now?" Micah asked Ezra. The gambler was about to give his opinion when they heard the first shots. Shouts followed, and a barrage of muffled questions erupted from various directions. The back door of the undertaker's parlor only opened onto a small side alley and from there, it was impossible to tell what might be happening, but Ezra could distinguish several running forms.

The next volley of shots sounded infinitely closer. Definitely not the time to try and slip out, Ezra thought. As he watched, a familiar shape dashed into the alley outside. One small patch of starlight gave him a glimpse of the face.

"Buck," Ezra hissed. "What in Hades is going on out there?"

Buck slid silently through the open door to confront the group gathered in the back room. His face was unusually pale, and the single action Colt he carried was drawn. In a few short sentences, he told them what had happened.

Ezra was stunned by the sudden turn of events. He had been so thoroughly preoccupied with his complex drama involving Yancy and Ramona that he had barely even been aware of what Vin had been doing for the past few days. At one time, he might have questioned the tracker's motives for shooting down an army officer, but he knew the man better now. Whatever reason had driven a man like Vin to take such a drastic action, Ezra accepted that it must have been a good one.

Micah McCallum's face had gone even paler than Buck's when he heard the tale. "Where's Vin now?" he demanded.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Buck told him. With the barrel of his drawn gun, he indicated the direction from which the last round of shots had come.

Before either Buck or Ezra could stop him, Micah headed straight in the direction Buck had indicated. Ezra had one of his Remingtons drawn by now, and he and Buck followed right on Micah's heels.

The confusion appeared to center around the back of the Virginia Hotel. As they approached they could see armed soldiers squared off and covering the open ground. The scene bristled with drawn guns. Two soldiers holding Winchesters stood in the open and Chris Larabee was keeping his Colt trained on the men, facing them down. Josiah and his Smith and Wesson stood backing Chris up. Even in the poor light, there was no mistaking the fierce anger in the men's tense forms and voices. Buck and Ezra paused to get their bearings.

Chris yelled something, and the soldier closest to him cocked the Winchester that was braced against his shoulder. Chris pulled the hammer back on his Colt, but the next second, Micah dashed into the middle of the confrontation from the sidelines. Seeing the line of fire blocked, Chris let fly some choice comments.

"Put it up, Chris!" Micah screamed, ignoring the fluent abuse that both Chris and the surrounding soldiers were hurling at him.

"Micah, get out of there before you get yourself plugged!" yelled Buck from behind a battered rain barrel on the sidelines.

Micah was trying desperately to keep his eyes on all the warring parties at the same time. So far no one had gone so far as to pull a trigger for the last few minutes. "Can't get myself plugged, Buck," he called back without shifting his attention. "I still gotta officiate at your wedding, remember."

"This ain't no time to be funny, Micah," growled Buck. Nevertheless, he let the hammer down easy on the gun in his hand.

"I didn't really think it was," said Micah, more to himself than to anyone else present. "Where's Vin?" he asked.

One of the soldiers gestured to a heavy oak door set into the rock and standing fractionally open.

"You mind not getting yourself killed?" Vin called from the dark retreat.

When another minute passed and no one opened fire, Micah edged closer to the door. "You okay in there, Vin?" he hollered.

"Fine," Vin called back.

"You plan on shooting anyone?" Micah asked. In answer, he heard a sigh.

"Not if I can help it."

Micah spread both arms away from his side.

"Who are you?" demanded Holden.

"I'm unarmed," Micah told him. "Don't anybody shoot!" Still no more bullets cut the evening air, and Micah breathed a bit more easily. "I'm a man of the cloth!" he called out. "I don't have a gun, so let's just everybody hold off, okay!"

Reluctantly, Chris and Josiah lowered their weapons, still unwilling to holster them while the other side was ready to fire.

Holden stepped closer to Micah and then leaned around him toward the icehouse door.

"Your young friend in there, too?" Holden called out.

Vin could almost hear Chris suck in his breath at the question. He rested his head against the cold gray limestone and silently cursed himself for ever having brought J.D. along on the expedition.

"He ain't a part of this, Holden," he shouted. "I fired that shot. J.D. wasn't even in range when it happened." It was a slight exaggeration of the truth, but Vin hoped it did some good. It appeared to end the questions about J.D. for the moment, and that, at least, offered him some comfort.

"Come on out!" the sergeant demanded.

"Reckon I'll stay put for a while," Vin said.

"I think that might be a good idea," Micah told them all. He turned to the soldiers. "He's not going anywhere. You've got no call to shoot anyone else. Why don't we try and get some explanations?"

Holden narrowed his eyes, examining Micah as if trying to decide if he was dealing with a madman. Then abruptly, he ordered three of his men into position to watch the entrance to the icehouse and lowered the Winchester he held in his own hands.

"Mister, I don't need explanations," he said to Micah. "I got an officer who's dead. That's all I need to know."

"I'm wiring Fort Campbell," he continued coldly to Chris. "This town's gonna have a whole regiment to deal with if he don't come out of there."




CHAPTER 13



Ezra released his breath and slowly slid his gun back into its holster. He started to turn, and almost fell over the awkward lump huddled behind him.

"Yancy, what are you doing here?" he asked in irritation.

"I wasn't going to stay put," the boy declared.

"Of course not," Ezra muttered. Now he could make out Ramona huddled no more than inches behind Yancy. He hadn't actually instructed them to remain where they were, but he had hoped they might show that degree of common sense.

"Has it occurred to you that half this town, including your uncle no doubt, is going to be out wandering around and asking questions?" He could not restrain the aggravation that slipped into his words. It had been a purely rhetorical question and without waiting to receive an answer he motioned for the two to stick close while he sought out the rest of the men.

Chris was giving Micah a thorough ear chewing when he joined the group.

"Now that some of the tension's broken, it makes no sense for Holden to try and rush the cavern," Micah offered. "Let him mount a guard and wire Fort Campbell. It gives us a day or so to straighten things out."

Reluctantly, the other men had to agree that what Micah said made sense. The last of the guns had been holstered, and the night no longer breathed antagonism like dragon's fire.

"Even so, someone oughta ride herd on things here for a while," Josiah commented. "Think I'll settle myself over on the Virginia's back porch if nobody objects. Why don't one of you boys relieve me long about two?"

Chris nodded his agreement with the plan, and Ezra turned to Micah.

"Let's get this pair safely off the streets," he said.

Micah motioned for the two youngsters to follow.

Ezra wondered if Sarah McCallum realized that her brother was pinned down, trapped and likely to be arrested at any time. If Vin were killed, he hated to think about how badly that generous young woman would take it.

The small house Micah and Sarah shared had become an outpost for refugees. It wasn't going to be easy to keep Yancy and Ramona along with the Indian boy and J.D. all safely out of sight. The group was collected in the front room when they arrived. As Ezra followed Micah inside, he could see how pale Sarah looked. She knows, he thought. Despite the fearful burden of anxiety, she had managed to settle the child beside the small cook stove and was feeding him warm milk. Micah headed straight for his wife's arms. He had taken no more than a few steps across the room when Yancy came through the door.

The Indian boy gave a wordless shriek and jerked away from Sarah. She yelped as hot milk splattered on her dress and hands.

"What's he doing here?" Yancy exclaimed when he saw the child. Ramona, who followed Yancy, gasped and pushed her way past without a word.

J.D. had been keeping watch at the room's front window. He looked around in total confusion. Before any of the men could decide how to react, the Indian boy grabbed a large carving knife up off the table. Looking wild-eyed and confused, he whimpered something in his native tongue, a tongue that no one in the room was able to understand.

Heedless of her own safety, Ramona approached the child. She held out a hand for him to give her the knife, but the moment she was close enough he grabbed her wrist and jerked her to him. He was strong and fast, having grown up living on the desperate edge of survival. In an instant he dragged the girl off her feet and held the knife at her throat. His eyes never left Yancy and the men in the room.

Micah moved toward Sarah, but she waved him back. "He wants you out of the room," she said tensely.

Ezra and Micah looked at each other. Neither man was inclined to leave.

"Get out!" Sarah demanded. "All of you, back out of the room now!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra caught a movement and suddenly realized what Yancy had in mind. The boy was no more inclined to leave Ramona than Micah was to abandon Sarah. He was looking for an opening to jump Tzo-hay. To fend off that even more ruinous development, Ezra grabbed the boy and physically hauled him out of the house. Micah and J.D. reluctantly retreated with them.

As soon as they were out the door, J.D. grabbed Yancy and pinned him up against the side of the house.

"You know that kid?" he demanded.

Yancy nodded dumbly, obviously at a loss; unable to follow everything that was going on. Ezra sympathized. He was having a little trouble figuring things out about now, too.

"How?" J.D. demanded.

"Where?" asked Micah

Yancy was cowed by the sudden onslaught of questions. "Uncle Claude had him a while back. Him and a couple of other kids."

Micah pulled J.D. off of Yancy and continued the questioning more quietly.

"Indian kids?" he asked.

Yancy nodded.

"What was your uncle doing with them?"

"I don't know," Yancy said defensively.

"Well, what did he do with them?" asked J.D.

Yancy swallowed nervously, and for the first time he seemed almost afraid to answer. "I think he took them down to Mexico," he finally said.

"Why Mexico?" J.D. sounded puzzled.

"'Cause you could sell 'em there," a new voice volunteered.

Ezra turned to see Nathan standing at the foot of the porch steps. The tall ex-slave had approached so silently that none of them had heard his footsteps. His expression was sober and pained.

"Folks ain't gonna say anything long as it happens on the other side of the border," Nathan continued. Long-banked anger lit his eyes. "That's how Garrett makes his living. Always has. Nothing says a man's gonna change with the times if he don't have to."

He could well be right, Ezra thought. He had heard about Apache accusations that the whites planned to sell Indian women and children south as slaves. There might well be some truth to the allegations. It would never be legally sanctioned, that much he believed, but that didn't mean that it never happened.

He waved Nathan onto the porch where Micah hurriedly explained what had happened inside.

"I 'spect we'd do best to let Miz McCallum sort it out," Nathan advised.

J.D. and Yancy both protested, but Nathan cut them off.

"Boy was scared. Figured Claude Garrett might be following Yancy any minute," Nathan explained. "Sooner or later, he gonna figure out it ain't so. All y'all piling into the room just pushed him too far. He ain't gonna hurt them girls. He don't see 'em as a threat."

"Of course they're not a threat," grumbled Yancy. "Hell, Ramona was his salvation."

The other men looked at him curiously, waiting to hear an explanation.

"She's the one that cut him loose, when Uncle Claude wasn't looking," he mumbled in embarrassment. "I didn't have the guts to chance it."

"Didn't have the guts or just didn't care enough, you mean?" Micah threw out at him.

Yancy squirmed at the accuracy of the words that stung all the more because they were true. "I didn't care as much as she did," he acknowledged.

Ezra eased toward the door. He didn't try to actually cross the threshold. Sure enough, the knife had been discarded in favor of some of Sarah's jam and biscuits. Tzo-hay no longer looked so fierce; he looked even younger than he was and completely exhausted. Another cup of warm milk had appeared to accompany the biscuits, and Ramona, no longer a captive, sat comfortably beside the boy on the floor. Ezra kept his distance and observed. When the food was gone, the dark-haired girl held the child, rocking him until he slept in her arms.




Once Vin eased the door shut against his guards, the darkness was complete. No amount of time could allow his eyes to adjust where no shred of light penetrated in the first place. Now that the shouting had died down, he had time to think. That was when the shakes finally came. He understood that this was nothing more than his body letting go of the tension it could no longer use in a fight, but trapped as he was in the utter dark, it was unmanning just the same. He closed his eyes and willed back the feeling of panic that began to rise. Breathing slowly, he waited out the physical tremors.

He harbored no illusions about how the United States Army was going to interpret his actions. He didn't regret the choice he had made, but he sure wasn't happy about the consequences. Shooting the lieutenant had been the only way he could see to keep the boy alive, but the army wasn't likely to take that into consideration when a detachment came back with its commanding officer dead. And he had overheard enough to know that Cole had died. Right now he couldn't see anything except a rope waiting for him down the road.

He tried to shove the debilitating thoughts aside. He knew better than most the futility of brooding over what he couldn't control, but it didn't stop him from doing it. Knowing better than to do something and actually keeping yourself from doing it are never quite the same thing. It was not so much the dying part that he couldn't handle; it was having it happen this way. He was prepared to take his chances with a bullet. He had before. It scared him some, but it was a fear he understood. It was familiar and he could discipline himself to control. He wanted to go out fighting though, not bound hand and foot at the end of a rope, not hauled through the streets to a gallows while those closest to him were forced to watch.

That thought crystallized his dilemma. It brought him face to face with the other thing that was tearing at him as he sat in the dark. He was pretty sure that if he made up his mind not to be taken alive, he could manage it. But if he fought it out to the bitter end, would Chris and the others stay out of it? Hell, for that matter, would Micah? He had never even thought about his amiable brother-in-law jumping into the middle of this mess. In the end they couldn't help, and it would earn them nothing but an early grave or a price on their heads if they intervened. Things had come precious close to a shooting war already.

With iron determination, he willed his emotions silent. They wouldn't help him now; they could only rob him of strength, sapping his reserves. It was time to take stock, and he needed a light. He carried a limited supply of wooden matches, and now he sacrificed one in order to get a look around. The first thing he sought when the light flared was something that he could safely burn. Common sense told him that the icehouse ought to have a lantern or candle handy. Anyone sent to fetch stores would need one. Sure enough a half-burned candle lay on a wooden shelf that ran along the wall closest to the door. He searched the shelf but found only one other candle. It was also partially burned. That meant he would have to conserve what he had. His matches were a limited resource as well.

His next move was to carefully examine the limits of his chosen sanctuary. He pried into every corner, looking for a passage, even a crack, which might provide some alternate way to escape. The search was in vain. The only opening he found wasn't even big enough to put his hand in, and he could detect no airflow. That pretty well ruled out the chance that it provided access to the outside. He proceeded to take stock of the icehouse contents. It looked like he could wait out a pretty long siege in terms of food and drink. Stone crocks of both cider and buttermilk lined one wall. Shelves along the front wall held foods put up in a variety of jars, while bushel baskets of vegetables and fruits stood in front of them. The back of the cavern, where the ice lasted longest, was set aside for meats, but it was bare except for one haunch of beef.

He looked it all over once again, this time doing his best to fix the layout in his mind. Then he gave up his light. The extinguished candle went into his pocket, close at hand, and he settled down. He needed sleep, but it was a hopeless task. His mind was too active, and he wanted to keep a careful watch on the door. He doubted that Chris or any of the others would allow the soldiers outside to launch an attack without making sure he had fair warning, but he had spent ten years now watching his own back. The habit died hard. He learned one thing within minutes of settling down. His own thoughts and fears would be the greatest enemy he had to face.




"What do you mean he's gone?" Chris snapped.

Nathan had gone to tell Chris what Yancy had told them, but Ezra had gone searching for Claude Garrett. The gambler faced the others now with a sour face and without good news.

"You did tell the gentleman to 'get out of town' as I recall," Ezra said pointedly. "It appears he didn't stay long enough to make proper dispensation for his late nephew's remains."

"Skipped town without bothering to bury the kid," Josiah translated from the corner. Buck had relieved him at his station in back of the Virginia a few hours earlier.

"Well get him back!" Chris commanded.

It struck Ezra as pitifully ironic that they suddenly needed answers out of Garrett just when they had succeeded in driving the man out of town. "If fortune chooses to be our ally, he won't have traveled further than the saloon in the next town," he ventured.

"Eagle Bend or Black Rock?" asked Chris. "Which direction?"

"My money's on Eagle Bend," Ezra told him. "But I suggest we cover both possibilities."

Chris swore. "I don't like thinning out our ranks like this," he said.

"I don't believe we have a better alternative available," said Ezra.

"We need to get J.D. out from under those soldiers noses anyhow," Josiah pointed out. "He can check Black Rock while Ezra goes to Eagle Bend."

"That's the plan then," Chris told them. "Let's not waste time. Ezra, you get saddled up and Josiah, you tell J.D. Guess it's about time I spell Buck."

"I'll spell Buck," Nathan said. There was no mistaking the quiet determination in his voice. "You better sleep while you can, Chris. Gonna be a long day."

Chris nodded, and the men split up to go about their appointed tasks. It might be a long day, but it would still be one with precious few hours to cover the work to be done.




Chapter 14



Sarah bit her lip and surveyed the tableau in back of the Virginia Hotel. It was mid-day and by now most of the town's population had stopped by to see what was happening. Some folks drifted by every few hours while others stayed in the vicinity to watch. And as they watched, they gossiped. Rumors were flying about who had done what and why. The only thing the general populace knew for sure was that the army lieutenant was dead and the rest of the soldiers blamed Vin for what had happened.

She had also heard it whispers that Vin had helped a dangerous renegade escape, and she figured that it was time the townspeople knew the truth. Her approach was typical of the way she handled most things in life. She tackled the situation straight on. She wasn't going to waste her breath arguing. People believed what they saw with their own eyes. So as she approached the milling crowd, she clasped Tzo-hay tightly by the hand. She had prayed over it long and hard last night, and he was the best argument she had.

"That half-pint what all these soldiers have been out huntin'?" one local shopkeeper asked as they made their way through to the center of the group.

Sarah nodded, pausing long enough for everyone to get a good look at the 'dangerous Apache' in question. Then she pressed on until she found her way blocked by Sergeant Holden. She boosted the boy up onto her hip and faced the veteran soldier.

"I know you fellows have got to keep folks back and all," she said gently, "but the boy here doesn't speak any English, and Vin's the only one who can talk to him. It'd help right much if he had things explained in his own tongue. Poor thing's been scared to death all night."

Holden could hardly refuse. The sight of their former quarry in Sarah's arms was a far cry from the threatening picture that had been painted for the town. Behind Sarah, a persistent muttering had developed. Besides, it was no lie. The child was shaking with fright. Reluctantly standing aside, he allowed the pair to pass.




Vin was disturbed to hear Sarah's voice outside the icehouse door. He could easily identify the sound, even muffled by the oaken door. He had been keeping watch all morning, occasionally leaving the heavy door slightly ajar. The narrow aperture afforded him an extremely limited field of vision, and he didn't want to crack the door wide enough to tempt one of his guards to try and put a shot through. Still he craved the small amount of fresh air and light the opening allowed into the room. He had barely slept during the night. It was far too unnerving to doze off only to wake up in the suffocating dark.

"What are you up to, girl?" he asked softly.

"I got the boy here," she explained. "Figured it'd help him if he could talk to you. Figured it'd help me, too. You okay in there?"

"I been places I liked better," he said wryly. "Least I ain't gonna starve. Reckon I'm gonna have a fair tab run up at the Virginia though."

"I'll do the worrying about your tab," she said. "They aren't letting any of the other men get close. Chris told me the ranking officer from Fort Campbell is headed this way. Figure he'll be here sometime tomorrow. Maybe he'll see reason, give you a chance to tell your side."

Vin rested his head against the stone by the door and sighed. "Don't know that tellin' my side's gonna help much."

"The truth always helps, Vin," she said with conviction.

"Tell me they ain't arrested J.D.," he said, keeping his voice low to ensure that he wasn't overheard.

"Him and Ezra are off chasing down information about the boy."

The boy in question ventured a few soft words in his own tongue and Vin responded.

"Think you could convince him to let my husband back into the house," Sarah asked and explained what had happened the previous night. Vin nodded to himself. It made sense. In this boy's world men were warriors or shamans. Any white man would be taken for an enemy, and one white man looked pretty much like another. He worked hard at explaining to the child who was friend and who was foe.

"Give me some words, Vin," Sarah asked when he was done. "Food, safe, friend, danger. At least a handful to start out with."

He taught her perhaps a dozen in all. It wasn't much to communicate with, but it was better than nothing.

"Don't lose heart," she said at last. "You know you done right. That's what Pa always said mattered in the end. You got my prayers. An' you got people who'll stand by you. God ain't been knocked off His throne just yet."

Her words helped. They were things that he had needed to hear said. The passion of her faith encouraged him even when he wasn't sure he could share it. Besides, he had a feeling that Sarah's prayers carried a sight more weight in heaven than his own did these days. It was hard to let her go and remain in the storeroom, which was just as dark and cold as it had been before those few short minutes of warmth and light. He gazed after her through the narrow opening.

"I appreciate you letting me through," she told the sergeant. "I reckon your men are right tired of trail food. I'll fetch out some cobbler and cider in a bit if that helps."

The soldiers nodded gratefully at the offer, and Vin realized that having their bellies full wasn't likely to hurt his cause any. When he settled in to wait again, he found himself a shade calmer than he had been an hour earlier.




It took Ezra the better part of the day to reach Eagle Bend, and when he did, he was at first disappointed. A check of both the town's saloons revealed no trace of Claude Garrett. It was only over dinner that he picked up the trail. Garrett had been seen in town briefly but he wasn't registered at the hotel.

Yancy had supplied the intelligence that Garrett had acquired the Indian children with the help of an accomplice. The arrangement had apparently been long-standing, but the only name that Yancy could remember was Johnny, a name common enough in these parts to be next to useless.

It was hours past dark before he tracked the man down. He was holed up intoxicated at the house of a local madam some five miles out of town. He entered the smoke-filled front room. His first sight of Garrett disgusted him, but it also shook him to the core. Had he ever really thought they were alike? Down inside somewhere, did he exist on the same level as Garrett? Even in a house that always smelled of whiskey, Garrett stood out. In the flickering light from the room's lanterns, the man's face was putrid green. Ezra rested one boot on the chair across from Garrett. He casually pulled out a cigar. One of Garrett's private stock, he remembered as he lit it. He had to loudly clear his throat before the drunkard finally realized he was there.

"I seem to be rather in my cups this evening, Mr. Standish," Garrett mumbled, getting out the words as best he was able.

"Overwhelmed by familial grief I see," Ezra commented dryly.

"Indeed, indeed," Garrett mumbled in agreement. In the process of pouring another drink he missed his glass entirely. He gazed unhappily at the stained lace on the cuffs of his shirt.

Ezra leaned close despite the danger of pickling his olfactory nerves. "My dear friend," he whispered sarcastically, "let us at least be honest with one another. Your overwhelming grief arises much more from the loss of income that went with your pickpocket and your half-grown courtesan than it does from your poor nephew's unfortunate demise."

"All gone," the man moaned. "Every blasted capital investment I had, gone."

Ezra swallowed his rising gorge. It left a sour burning in his mouth. 'Capital investments' - that was what they all were to him, Yancy, Ramona, Tzo-hay, just capital investments. "I'm sure your friend Johnny can supply you with more 'assets' to sell." Ezra held his breath, wondering if he had given himself away just then, but Garrett was far too drunk to notice Ezra's use of his partner's name. He tumbled to the bait beautifully.

"Poor Johnny," Garrett sighed. "That's one more asset gone."

"Gone?" asked Ezra.

"Gone," repeated Garrett. "Or didn't you hear? He and some tracker from the town got into a tangle. Shot dead they tell me."

"Johnny," said Ezra thoughtfully. All at once the picture made sense. Who would be in a better position to nab a vulnerable child and spirit them off the reservation than someone stationed at Fort Campbell in the first place? "Johnny Cole," he said. "The late, unlamented lieutenant." No wonder he had been so set on killing the runaways instead of bringing them back.

Ezra took a moment to indulge in the satisfying sound of a nail being driven into Garrett's coffin. He tossed aside the cigar, completely heedless of where it fell, and none too gently hauled Garrett to his feet. The madam scrambled to extinguish the smoldering cigar, but made no objection to the rough handling of one of her customers. That situation was easily explained by the Remington that had suddenly appeared in Ezra's right hand.

"Come along now, Claude, " he said. "It's time to go."

"Go?" asked a bleary Garrett. "Where, pray tell, are we going?"

Ezra smiled bitterly at his companion. "We're going back to Four Corners to see the bad-tempered man in black. You're going to tell him all about your dear friend, Johnny."

Garrett blanched. Without warning he made a sudden grab for Ezra's gun. Even drunk, the man was strong, and his weight almost took Ezra down. Struggling to maintain his balance and prevent the Remington from being wrenched away, his left hand sought any object close at hand that could serve as a weapon. The first thing it lit on was Garrett's latest bottle. Grasping the neck, he brought it down hard on the side of Garrett's head and the stout man collapsed. Ezra swore as he disentangled himself from his prone opponent. Blood streamed from a pair of jagged cuts near the temple. He leaned over and checked Garrett's pulse.

"Bring me something to bandage his head," he bellowed. He couldn't afford to have Garrett haul off and die without telling his story. It was the most solid defense Vin had right now. Luckily, once he stanched the flow of blood and cleaned the cuts up a bit, they didn't look all that bad. Garrett's hard noggin still appeared to be intact.

"You just had to make this hard, didn't you?" Ezra muttered.




The whole town turned out to watch the additional troops ride in. It was well past noon the next day by the time they arrived. At the head of the disciplined column rode a short, wiry man wearing the insignia of an army colonel. He rode ramrod straight, and every inch of him shone with spit and polish. The shine had more to do with his bearing than the state of his uniform, and it easily defied even the mammoth cloud of dust the column of horses kicked up.

Chris examined the colonel as he dismounted. His face was stone carved with deep creases and illuminated by hard dark eyes, and the hair, when he removed his hat, was salt and pepper. The first thing he did when he alighted was to pull out a large cigar and shove it in his mouth. He bit the end and spat it out, but appeared to have no interest in lighting it.

Holden immediately saluted his commander and stepped forward to report. When he had finished, he turned and indicated Chris.

"I'm Colonel Harvey Blackwell," the commander announced. He chewed on the unlit cigar as he looked Chris over. "You want to tell me who the hell you're supposed to be, Mr. Larabee, and why we got a problem?" he demanded.

"Circuit judge hired me and six others to protect this town until things settle down hereabouts," Chris said evenly. "I sent one of my men along with your troops as scout. Seems your hotheaded lieutenant lost control of himself and tried to shoot a kid. My man couldn't hardly let that pass. You want to go inside and discuss that situation?"

Chris inclined his head in the direction of the saloon. Blackwell nodded and indicated Holden should accompany him.

Without hesitation Chris strode across the street and pushed his way through the saloon's hinged doors. "Bar's closed," he said loudly. The handful of patrons didn't hesitate when they heard his tone. The general exodus left only Nathan, Buck, and Josiah along with Chris and the two army men in the room.

"I don't see what there is to discuss," Blackwell declared, glaring at Chris. "My man was in the course of performing his assigned duties; your friend interfered and shot him. It's a hanging offense."

"If Vin Tanner shot your man, you can figure he needed shootin," Buck exploded.

"Simmer down, Buck,' Chris warned. "This isn't gonna to help." Then he turned his attention back to Blackwell. "As I understood it, Lieutenant Cole was supposed to recapture some runaways and return them to the reservation. It appears he wasn't real interested in returning them alive. The last one they found was nothing more than a child. The first one was probably the kid's father, trying to track him down and get him back to safety. Cole killed the man when it wasn't necessary; he'd have killed the boy, too if Vin hadn't stopped him."

"Don't you think your man could have registered his objections with something less than a bullet?" Blackwell snapped.

"He tried!" came a protest from the entrance to the saloon. To Chris' consternation, a saddle-weary J.D. pushed through the doors. "It wasn't the way you're sayin'. I was there."

Chris jerked the boy around so fast his head snapped.

"Dammit, J.D.," Chris hissed. "I'm trying to keep one man from being hung. Would you mind not trying to join him!" He moved to throw J.D. out of the room, but it was too late, the new arrival already had Blackwell's attention.

Blackwell curtly ordered the sergeant to post a guard outside. "Let the boy talk," he ordered.

J.D. defiantly tore himself free from Chris' grip. "Your man was as drunk as a muleskinner on Saturday night," he said, "and your so-called hostile was all of seven years old."

"Go on," Blackwell said quietly.

"Vin told the lieutenant we were tracking a kid, but Cole wouldn't listen. Once we found the boy, Vin had the situation under control when the lieutenant started shooting. Vin hollered twice to make him stop, but he didn't."

"This isn't about whether Cole's assessment of the situation was correct, son," the colonel explained. "He was the officer in command at the time.

"What was Vin supposed to do?! Stand by while Cole shot the boy down?!" J.D. yelled back.

"Are you aware that most of the people in this territory wouldn't necessarily consider that a bad choice?" Blackwell asked calmly.

J.D. stood for a moment in shocked silence. Buck laid a hand on his shoulder and attempted to draw him back, but Blackwell was clearly not finished with him yet.

"Was this man involved in the shooting, Sergeant?" Blackwell asked.

"Not far as I could see, sir," Holden replied.

Chris let out his breath in relief.

"Where's the Indian now?" the colonel continued.

Josiah answered that. "He's being cared for by Reverend McCallum's wife."

The response made the colonel thoughtful.

"You had a good look at him, Sergeant?" he asked next.

"Yes, sir," Holden admitted.

"What do you make his age to be?"

The sergeant thought carefully before replying. "I'd say seven was about right, sir."

Blackwell continued his interrogation. "Sergeant Holden in your opinion was Lieutenant Cole aware of the age of the hostile he was pursuing?"

Holden kept his eyes on his commander, refusing to acknowledge the other men in the saloon. "Sir," he said, "Mr. Tanner had expressed the opinion that the Indian in question was a child."

"And you are sure Lieutenant Cole heard him?"

"Yes, sir, no question about that."

"Son-of-a-bitch," the colonel swore softly between clenched teeth. " Stupid, goddamned son-of-a-bitch."

"Yeah, well, he was your stupid, goddamn son-of-a-bitch, wasn't he, Colonel," Buck broke in.

"Be quiet, Buck," Chris ordered.

"What the hell do you want me to do, Larabee?" Blackwell growled. He clearly didn't want an answer to the question, and he didn't wait for one. "Let me tell you some things. I've got charge over 40,000 square miles that's about as far from decent civilization as you can get and still be on this continent. 40,000 square miles of mountains, canyons, plains, and desert, full of Apache, Navaho, and cutthroats. There's less than a dozen towns and no end of scorpions, cactus, and rattlesnakes."

Blackwell tossed his hat down on the bar and then continued. "Most of my men haven't seen mother, wife, or sweetheart in the last two years. An' their morale stinks. So you want me to tell them they gotta watch out for the civilians, too. There's no way I'm going to turn my back on the killing of one of my officers just because some tracker didn't agree with his judgment. Hell, I don't agree with his judgment. If your friend had seen fit to hold his fire and report Lieutenant Cole's conduct, I'd have disciplined him. You can be sure of that."

"And that boy would be dead!" returned Chris.

"Well, that's not my problem," said the colonel deliberately. "That boy, in case you forgot, doesn't happen to be a United States citizen."

"No," said Chris with brittle irony heavy in his tone. "He's an Apache. And if I recall the latest treaty terms, he's supposed to be under the protection of the United States government."

Blackwell removed the mangled cigar from his mouth and favored Chris with a long hard stare. "We gotta protect them when they're ON the reservation, Larabee. If they're off, they're fair game."

Chris heard a resounding smack as J.D. slammed his fist against the wooden bar.




Chapter 15



The counsel in the saloon was in full swing by the time Ezra rode back into town. He had a subdued and bandaged Claude Garrett in custody. The jailhouse itself was empty, but a good-sized crowd milled around in the open street outside. Ezra had no difficulty finding out why they were there. He had just finished locking Garrett in a cell when Micah McCallum put in an appearance at the jailhouse door.

"What did you find out?" Micah asked as he seated himself on the edge of the jail's old oaken desk.

"Plenty," said Ezra. He looked across the crowded street at the saloon. "We have any idea how things are going over there?"

"Nope," answered Micah. "and as long as that guard's out there, we're not about to find out."

"Our friend here has a very interesting story that needs telling," Ezra said. As briefly as possible, he filled Micah in on what he had discovered about Lieutenant John Cole.

"Interesting story indeed," said Micah, clearly impressed. "I think I know exactly the person you need to tell it to." He pushed himself to his feet and headed for the door. "Why don't I go fetch Mary Travis?" he said as he was leaving.

"Should be interesting to see how the army and the press get along," Ezra murmured to himself when Micah had disappeared. Then collapsing in the sheriff's chair, he lit another of Claude Garrett's excellent cigars.




While Ezra bided his time in the sheriff's office the verbal skirmish between Chris and Blackwell continued. The unsympathetic colonel was far more concerned with the impact that Cole's unpunished death would have on discipline and morale than he was about either an Apache's life or Vin's. He was stewing over the fact that a prolonged siege appeared to be the only sound tactic he had to pry Vin out of his chosen refuge. That fact worried Chris as well.

"You know," Josiah said, drawing the others aside. "If them soldiers decide to camp here and starve Vin out, it won't be long before he loses any backing he's got from the town."

"Yeah, I know it," said Chris unhappily.

Finally, Blackwell approached the morose group with a question. "Can you get Tanner to lay down his gun and come out to talk?" he asked.

"I don't think we got a mind to do that," Chris responded.

"Can you get him to hold his fire and let me in to talk?"

"I might - if I go in with you," Chris told him.

A dusky gloom had seeped into the room as they lost the afternoon light. Not one of the men had bothered to light the room's abundant lamps. Blackwell stood in the shadows and considered.

"Then the sergeant here goes with me," he said.

Chris started to nod, but the colonel wasn't done yet.

"One more thing, Larabee. You go in there; you go unarmed. I won't risk you siding with Tanner against me.

Chris assented, but he did so reluctantly. "Let me past your guard and I'll see what I can arrange," he said at last.




Sarah had paced and prayed, offered up food and drink, pleaded, and generally haunted the rear of the Virginia Hotel for two days. She had abandoned Tzo-hay in the care of Ramona and, oddly enough, Yancy. Once Ramona had bridged the gap between the two boys by bartering smiles and biscuits for good behavior, they really seemed to have taken a liking to one another.

The soldiers hadn't let her talk to Vin again, nor had they let anyone else pass. She had no way of knowing how he fared. Nor was she privy to the strained negotiations taking place inside the saloon. The tension in the air was overwhelming when Micah sought her out and passed on Ezra's news.

She wanted a way to calm the men's nerves and make folks in general more willing to listen. Otherwise a fight was liable to break out and could only make thing worse. That desire had sent her back to the house for her dulcimer. Now, she calmly seated herself on an overturned watering trough and began to check the instrument's tune. As she worked she saw Chris appear. To her surprise, he was allowed to pass the guard and approach the icehouse door. As she watched the scene with curious anxiety, one youthful soldier approached.

"Never seen a stringed box like that before, ma'am," he said.

"It's a dulcimer," Sarah told him. "Came all the way from Pennsylvania. My aunt bought it for me when I asked to learn music." She listened carefully to the pitch of one more note. "Course there's a piano over in the saloon, but it's awful tinny. I always favored this, mostly because I could tote it around. Besides, I reckon Jim the barkeep would be might unhappy if I started practicing hymns during drinking hours," she laughed.

She began to sing as if for all the world she thought no one else was there except the young soldier and herself. By the time she had run through several tunes she had them listening, but it was the next song she chose that captured them to a man. As she softly plucked out the familiar chorus the men fell quiet. Folk from the town hushed speaking as she sang.

'Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts that are looking for the right,
To see the dawn of peace.'

Many of the men hummed along and the eyes of one grizzled veteran grew moist as the words brought haunting memories back to life.

She had found one young private among the men who had a fetching tenor, and when she finished her song she beckoned him over. After a whispered conference she gave him a note, and he began a hymn.

As the singing went on, Micah worked his way round till he stood within a few feet of the guard. Colonel Blackwell had joined the group and stood watching Sarah with evident interest. He leaned over to ask Holden a question, and as the sergeant answered, he indicated Sarah and Micah both. Micah availed himself of the moment to briefly introduce himself.

On the porch Sarah smiled and looked over her audience before beginning one last song. Her eyes caught and held Micah's and she gave him just a tiny nod. Then into the hushed twilight she once more sang, choosing the hymn to suit the coming night.

'Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest:
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight
Thro'all the sky.

Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts!
Heav'n and earth are full of Thee!
Heav'n and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord Most High!'

Micah attached himself to Blackwell when Chris turned and summoned the colonel and Holden. "Gentlemen, might I suggest you begin by invoking the aid of the Almighty," he said, as the small group stood in the chill draft from the cellar door.

Blackwell nodded and Micah dropped to one knee to softly beseech God for guidance. When he rose Chris motioned him to join them below. Blackwell nodded his assent.

They entered one at a time, just the four of them. True to his word, Chris laid his Colt aside, passing it to Buck before setting foot through the narrow door.

The room was dark and cold. No light followed them inside, for the open door no longer admitted the oblique rays of the setting sun. The air of a tomb pervaded the space around them.

Vin's voice sounded from the far left corner. "There's a candle laying on a shelf just to your right."

Micah reached out and struck a light, then fixed the short candle in a pool of wax. Vin sat on the other side of the room. He was leaning back against a tall set of wooden shelves with the barrel of his sawed off Winchester resting on one knee. The muzzle pointed directly at the colonel. He remained silent while Chris made the introductions.

"All right, Mr. Tanner," the colonel said. "I want you to have your say."

Starting right at the beginning, Vin told him everything that had gone on. Holden didn't deny any of the details.

"Nothing you've told me changes the fact that my officer was on active duty and in command of that patrol when he was shot and killed by a civilian," Blackwell said when Vin was done.

"Then how about the fact that John Cole knew perfectly well what age of hostile he was after and how he came to be off the reservation?" Micah suddenly asked from his station near the steps. It was the first time he had spoken since entering the room. "Given that Cole's the one who removed him in the first place."

"What the hell makes you think that?" Blackwell challenged in disgust.

"The testimony of the slave broker Cole sold the boy to," Micah volunteered. "The man's under lock and key in a cell in the town jail, in case you're interested."

Micah definitely had the attention of everyone in the room. He continued thoughtfully. "The editor of the local paper is fixing to write up quite a detailed story."

"Maybe I need to have a talk with him," Blackwell said.

"Her," Chris interjected. "Mrs. Travis."

"Actually I'm afraid you might need to do more than that," Micah continued unfazed. "It seems that Mrs. Travis has a number of connections with the papers back east. Her uncle's the political editor for the Washington Daily Republican. A number of those papers have been rather critical of General Willcox's handling of the Apache question, haven't they?"

Blackwell removed his cigar and stared at Micah with a newfound respect. "You play poker do you, Reverend?" he asked.

"I've been studying it of late," Micah replied with a wry smile. "Those papers have been rather a thorn in the side of the Hayes administration, if I'm not mistaken. And I don't believe our new president's ties with the army are quite as strong as President Grant's were. It's gonna be a darn shame to have to ship that man's body back to his family amid all that scandal. Lot of repercussions, I'd imagine"

Vin studied Micah with a newfound respect of his own. "What's it gonna take, short of hangin' me, to finish this thing?" he asked Blackwell.

The colonel studied the laden shelves above Vin's head for several minutes before he framed his answer. "Lieutenant Cole was not drunk on duty," he explained in a measured voice. "Nor was he engaged in any form of questionable conduct. Your gun discharged because you did not keep your mount under control, Mr. Tanner. That dereliction resulted in the accidental death of one of my officers. For that kind of negligence, I am going to have you horsewhipped tomorrow in front of my troops." He looked Vin steadily in the eye. "Take it or leave it."

Chris bristled at the terms, but Vin held up his hand. No one spoke or even dared to breathe while he and Blackwell held each other's eyes. Then slowly and carefully he handed the sawed off Winchester to the sergeant. Even so Chris barred the steps when Holden moved to lead Vin away.

"Tell your men to stand down," he told the colonel. "Tanner stays in my custody for tonight."

The sergeant leveled his gun at Chris, but quiet as a ghost Micah slipped in between them "Two guards," he suggested before things could go sour. "Let one of Larabee's men share the duty with one of yours." He cautiously eyed the two opposing leaders. Chris nodded and the colonel signaled Holden to lower his gun.

Under the first evening stars, Vin climbed the cold stone steps and walked silently through the streets to the jail.

Micah would have followed as well, but Blackwell held him back, nodding at a scene across the street. Following the colonel's eyes, Micah found Sarah. She was still seated on the steps, conversing with a pair of young recruits. The dulcimer still rested in her lap.

"Powerful asset you got there, Reverend," Blackwell commented.

"Don't think I don't know it," Micah said nervously. It was precious seldom that he couldn't catch the drift of what another man was thinking, but there was a look in Blackwell's eyes he didn't have any way to measure.

"Join me for a walk," the colonel invited. "I wanna to make you a proposition."




Chapter 16



Buck and the others saw Vin leave his refuge, but without knowing what might have transpired below ground, they were afraid to move to interfere. Chris walked just behind Vin, which they hoped was a good sign, but stoic expressions were etched on both men's faces. Vin in particular looked neither left nor right, not sparing a glance for the friends who had sweated through the past two days on his behalf.

When the small group entered the jail, the other men pressed close behind them. Glancing back at Chris for a moment, Vin picked the best of the remaining cells for his accommodations. Holden held out his hand, indicating that J.D. should turn over the keys, but the young man hesitated. He looked at Chris, uncertain what to do. A wordless nod from Chris told him to go ahead. He allowed the sergeant to take the keys from his shaking fingers. Holden locked the iron barred door behind Vin and settled in to stand watch. Throwing himself down on the cell's thin excuse for a mattress, Vin Tanner closed his eyes and slept as only a man dead with exhaustion can.

Chris singled out Josiah, explaining briefly and quietly how things stood. Then he left the raw-boned, ex-preacher to keep Holden company and drew the rest of the men outside.

"Don't feel much like the saloon right now," he told them quietly. "Buck, you grab a bottle and five glasses. Bring 'em on over to the boarding house."

They settled themselves in Chris' spartan room wherever they could find a spot, sitting or stretching on bed, chairs, or floor. No one wanted to be the first to ask the question on their minds. The bottle passed from hand to hand until it had circled the entire room.

At last Chris broke the silence. "They're not going to hang him," he said. His news elicited a universal sigh of relief.

"Prison?" Buck asked after a moment. It was probably the only other alternative.

Chris shook his head. "No prison. After tomorrow, he's free to go."

The others traded looks that conveyed the confusion they all felt.

"Well, if they ain't gonna hang him, and he ain't going to jail, how come you look so damned unhappy?" Buck asked for them all.

"Army's gonna have him horsewhipped," Chris said briefly. "First thing in the morning."

A hiss drew their attention as Nathan sucked in his breath. A wealth of sickening doubts showed on his gentle, black face. "Man can die under a whip, Chris," he protested. "I seen it happen."

Chris held up a hand to cut him off. "Blackwell won't take it that far. The army can't afford it," he told them. He mustered a grim smile. "Trust me. I'm sure." Chris grabbed the bottle and took another swig, bypassing his glass. "But there's a lot a men standing around out there who are looking for blood. Short of killing him, I figure things could get pretty bad."

The bottle made another round. As the evening passed it was replaced more than once. It was well past midnight before any of the men sought out their own beds.




When morning came, Vin still slept. Chris had taken the watch himself in the early hours before dawn. If he suffered from a hangover, it showed only in the dour glare, which kept the soldier sharing his duty from rousing Vin until it was necessary. Obviously, despite Cole's character, or perhaps because of it, the man had managed to make himself popular with the regular troops. Chris didn't want Vin left at their mercy anymore than he could help. Blackwell at least tacitly understood where he would have to draw the line. The regular soldiers did not. When Holden and an escort presented themselves at the door, he at last unlocked the cell and shook Vin awake.

Ignoring the soldiers waiting outside, Vin paused to strip off the drab gray shirt he was wearing. Ezra dressed to impress folks; Buck dressed to attract the ladies; Chris dressed to match his mood -- mostly black; but Vin dressed to keep the sun and the wind off his hide. Fashion had no place in his perception of the way the world should run. The shirt mattered because it was whole and of decent cloth and he didn't care to have to waste money on another one. He folded it carefully and handed it to Chris for safekeeping. The gunfighter's lips pressed tightly together in a pencil thin line.

Buck and the other men were gathered outside. They glared but made no move to intervene. They all knew the bargain that had been struck. A large crowd had gathered which included all the occupying soldiers and no small portion of the town. Everyone and their brother had come to watch the end of the drama. Opinion was still clearly divided.

A small detachment led Vin down the street to the livery stable's open corral. For lack of anything better, the wooden fence posts would serve their purpose. Coarse ropes were used to lash his outstretched arms to the weathered wood forcing him to lay spread-eagled against the rails, his bare back exposed to the street and the crowd. He wished there were a board or a higher rail against which he could rest his head.

Silence fell over the assembled crowd. Without preamble, the charges were read and sentence pronounced.

"Seven lashes, Sergeant," Blackwell said, and Holden stepped forward with a heavy whip.

For a moment Vin thought he must have misheard what was said and then the first stroke fell.

One ...The lash bit deep, but not past bearing.

Two ... Pay attention, it cried.

Three ... He wished he could turn his head to see Chris or one of the others, to see from their expression if the number he had heard was right.

Four ... Sucking in his breath, he began to discipline himself to breathe deeply in between the blows.

Five... Lord, what if the sentence was seventy not seven. He might not live to see the end.

Six.... He bit down on his lip and willed himself not to cry out.

Seven...He waited -??

The ropes were cut and fell away. He grasped the topmost rail for a second, making sure his head was clear and that he could still maintain his balance. Was it over?

That was it? He turned his head carefully to look at the other men. They stood as clearly bewildered as he was. Competing questions swarmed through his mind. The crowd, some relieved and others, perhaps, disappointed, murmured softly and began to drift away. Out of nowhere, Nathan appeared at his side.

"You make it up to my place okay so's I can doctor that back?" the healer was asking him.

Vin snapped himself back to reality. He was sore, a bit dizzy, but otherwise all right. He nodded briskly to let Nathan know he could walk unassisted with no problem.

He had sensed no softening in Blackwell's attitude that would explain such a lenient sentence. He'd expected the colonel to go for everything he could and still stay within the bounds of their agreement. Most of those soldiers would have cheered to see him beaten to a bloody pulp. For the life of him, he had no idea why it hadn't happened.

Without his ever seeing her approach, Sarah had appeared at his side, gently squeezing his arm as he walked.

"Sorry if I gave you a few bad days," he said apologetically.

She looked him over and smiled just a bit, but only nodded in reply.

Once inside the small utilitarian room that served Nathan both as both quarters and infirmary, he sat on the edge of the single bed and allowed his friend to examine the welts on his back. The healer brought out a salve made of cactus juice and applied it liberally. There wasn't room for everyone to squeeze inside Nathan's room, and in typical fashion he shooed most of the men away. Chris, Micah and Sarah were allowed to stay behind when he shut the door.

"Somebody wanna tell me what just happened?" Vin asked. "You know something I don't, Chris?"

Chris shook his head. "I figured he'd go for blood, if only to give his men the satisfaction. Micah?" Chris turned to the young preacher to see what he could add. "You talked to him after Vin and I left. What'd he say? What'd you say to him?"

"Oh, he did most of the talking, not the other way around. It was mostly about politics, society, civilization." For a moment Micah couldn't meet Vin's eyes. He pursed his lips before speaking again. "Colonel Blackwell's arranged for Sarah and I to spend some time at Fort Campbell," he said.

"Spend some time. Just what does that mean?" asked Vin, brushing Nathan's ministrations aside.

"Starting now through the winter. Four, five months. It seems that Fort Campbell has no chaplain," Micah explained. The answer didn't satisfy any of the other men, who knew full well that there had to be more to it than that. Blackwell hardly seemed likely to have let Vin off lightly for the sake of gaining a chaplain for a few months.

Vin bridled. "Yeah, well, that's all good and well for you, but Sarah ain't goin'."

Micah cleared his throat. "Beg to differ with you, Vin," he said. "But that isn't going to work. Sarah's the main reason for the deal. Colonel Blackwell appears to think that Sarah...well that Sarah has a 'civilizin' influence on the men'. To use his words."

"Yeah, well, Sarah's got a civilizin' influence around here, too," Vin growled. "Campbell's too rough. She ain't goin'."

Sarah didn't comment on what she thought of being talked about as though she wasn't even in the room.

"You up to movin' around okay?" she asked, and then silently nodded at the door, indicating he should join her outside. "You're gonna come help me pack."

Vin reclaimed the gray shirt that Chris still held and slipped it on before following her out the door. Chris and Micah stood aside to let them pass. Chris noticed the contemplative look in Micah's eyes as he watched the pair retreat. "Fort Campbell's rough duty. From what I saw of them in town, most of those boys don't see a white woman for weeks on end. Vin's right. It's no fit place for a woman."

"Vin's wrong," declared Micah, his voice filled with conviction. "No fit place for a woman is exactly where she's needed most."

"You sure you know what you're doing, McCallum?" Chris asked skeptically.

Micah's eyes never left the retreating forms, and Chris wondered after a moment if he had actually heard the question.

"I know exactly what I'm doing," Micah said a last.




"You don't know what you're getting into, girl," Vin told Sarah when they reached the house. She clearly hadn't brought him in tow because she needed or expected any help. Vin shifted uncomfortably, feeling as if he was in the way. Sarah moved around him, quietly packing away her few possessions in an orderly manner. There was no wasted motion or indecision as she moved through the kitchen of the small house.

"What about you?" Vin continued diffidently. "Do you want to go?"

Sarah shook her head and gave her older brother that reserved smile that was so characteristic of the Tanner line. "Ain't the point, Vin," she said. "It's my place to go. It's where I'm s'posed to be."

"According to who?" he asked sharply. "Micah? Did he even ask what you wanted?"

"Still ain't the point. It's not about what I want," she insisted once more. "It's about what needs to be done." Still she never paused or broke from her chores. "Truth be told, someone a lot higher up than Micah's been placin' this on my heart," she told him gently. "Vin, you wanna see a change in the way the Indians are treated on the reservation don't you?"

"Hell, yes," he replied.

"Then some changes gotta happen in the men who staff that fort." She sighed wearily and finally stopped. "Micah and I, we gotta go fight the war on a different front than you. It'd please me to think that both your back and those men's hearts'll wind up benefitin' from the effort."

Vin closed his eyes in the face of the kind of argument he couldn't counter. He swallowed hard. "I'm gonna miss you, girl," he said and found that he couldn't stop his voice from breaking.

She placed a hand on his shoulder and rose up on tiptoe. Velvet lips softly brushed his stubbled cheek.

"I'm gonna miss you, too, Vin," she said.




Two days later, Ezra leaned idly against a rail fence and watched as the McCallums finished their last preparations to leave. The army had departed and had obligingly taken Claude Garrett with them. Along with Garrett had gone Yancy and Ramona's need for concealment, and they were anxious to enjoy their newfound freedom. The young couple stood now hand in hand in the warm morning sun preparing to tell their sometime caretakers goodbye. As Ezra watched, Yancy's arm slipped around Ramona's waist, and she leaned against him so that her dark tresses trailed across his shoulder.

"A penny for your thoughts, my friend," Josiah asked as he and Buck joined the solitary gambler.

For a moment he only favored them with a wistful smile. So many different roads life can take you down, he thought. Then he nodded at a carefree, laughing Yancy.

"Would that I were fifteen once again, with such a fair salvation clinging fast to my side," he said with a sigh.

The others pondered that oddly poetic sentiment. It spoke of depths in Ezra they had only suspected before just now.

"Would we all were, Ezra," Buck concurred. "We'd all be different men today."

"Amen," Josiah agreed.

"What becomes of her now?" Buck asked, indicating the lovely dark-haired girl.

"McCallum's been burning up the wires these past few days," Josiah told him, "but damned if he didn't find the girl's father. He telegraphed back last night. He's nothin' more than a hard working homesteader with a Mexican wife, but no way he parted from that child by choice. He's coming all the way from Texas to fetch her home."

"Does he know he'll be taking back two where he started out with one?" a familiar voice asked. Begging no one's pardon, Chris joined the other men.

"Not yet," Josiah replied with a smile. "Won't matter though. She's not likely to give him a choice in the matter."

Ezra smiled his agreement. He couldn't help but wonder what Ramona would turn Yancy into. Not another Claude Garrett for sure. Probably not another Ezra Standish either. But he had a hard time picturing the dapper lad, complete with waistcoat and pocket watch, behind a plow. They would find their common ground somewhere though, and hopefully not starve in the process.

As the group continued to watch, Vin finished tying down the last of Sarah's boxes in the wagon Micah had bought. With a minimum of fuss, he helped her onto the wood board seat and handed up the reins. The Indian boy, Tzo-hay, scrambled up beside her, eager to be of assistance. Sarah had mastered enough Apache for rudimentary communication, and Vin had explained to the child that he would be going back to his people in Sarah and Micah's care. That information seemed to please and satisfy him.

As Sarah signaled the horses and started the wagon down the street, Micah spotted Buck with the other men. "Brother Wilmington," he called down from his big roan when he spotted Buck with the other men. "I had a word from the Lord, brother. Came to me in a dream last night, clear as day."

A pithy comment formed on the tip of Buck's tongue, but he bit it back. Looking around for help, he found none. "Okay, McCallum, just spit it out," he groused.

"Proverbs! Eighteenth chapter, twenty-second verse! Read it carefully, Brother. I know you'll find guidance just waiting there in those lines." With that he urged his roan forward to catch up with Sarah and the wagon.

"I sure hope this ain't a mistake," Vin grumbled as he joined the other men. Despite the complaint, he had long since given up on changing Sarah's mind.

"You got nothing to worry about, brother," Josiah prophesied with a knowing smile. "Them soldiers are plumb gonna be tripping over each other trying to get to hymn singing and prayer meeting. They're gonna figure God done sent 'em an angel." He laughed out loud when the other men responded with skeptical looks. "Woman can have a powerful impact on a man's way of thinking, brothers," he said. "Aren't I right, Chris?"

Chris started at the question. His eyes briefly filled with a look of long-remembered pain. He knew, unlike the rest, how a certain fair smile could set a man walking down a different road, and how the world could turn to dust in it's absence. "A woman sure can," he agreed.

Their way back through town took them past the empty church, and Chris couldn't help but make a detour.

A worn pulpit Bible lay open in the narthex. Out of curiosity, he leaned down to examine it. Carefully turning the thin pages, he searched the book of Proverbs till his eyes came to rest on the passage he sought. The corners of his careworn mouth began to twitch, then his habitually somber expression gave way to a slowly spreading smile. He looked up at Buck, who was beginning to squirm, and then back at the book in his hands. Grinning from ear to ear, he passed the Bible over for Josiah to read.

Josiah cleared his throat "Proverbs 18, verse 22," he intoned in his best pulpit voice. "'Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing.'" He favored Buck with a broad, toothy grin and solemnly closed the book. "May the Lord add His blessing to the reading of His word."

THE END




Postscript: This story is dedicated to the Sarah's and Ramona's of this and every other age. They have not been the leaders of nations, or the movers and shakers of the corporate world. They battle for one heart at a time and their weapons are love and peace and patient understanding. They are the conduits of God's manifest grace, and their presence or their absence shapes the world we all live in.

Musical Notes:

(1)In The Gloaming - Music by Annie F. Harrison, Words by Mete Orred - First became popular in the United States in the 1870's

(2)Tenting Tonight - Words and music by Walter Kittredge. - This song comes out of the Civil War and was well known by troops on both sides. It is a tune that almost everyone in that day would have known and would have stirred strong emotions, particularly in veterans. Hence the reaction of the 'grizzled' soldier.

(3)Day is Dying in the West - Mary A. Lathbury and William F. Sherwin - I do not know for certain when this hymn was first used but based on the birth and death dates of the authors it is probable that it was extant at this time.





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