DISCLAIMER: The characters from the program The Magnificent Seven in this story are not mine and are owned by Trilogy, CBS and MGM. I am making no profit from their use. Honest.

RATINGS: PG-13 for violence and language-nothing too shocking, though.

SUMMARY: A story of Ezra's early days as a boxer, and how he got his gold tooth. Spoilers for my earlier fic, 'Dealer's Choice', which is currently archived in the Reading Room at http://www.thewateringhole.com/.

NOTES/COMMENTS: This story has been rolling around in my head for some time, and came up again earlier this summer when we were discussing how Ezra got to be so muscular considering he's a rather sedentary gambler. I've always speculated that at one time he might have run a boxing con, and this story resulted! A few comments: This story's main characters are Ezra and Julian St. Clair, Ezra's old friend and partner who previously appeared extensively in my fic 'Dealer's Choice'. The story is told mainly in flashback and doesn't really have most of the seven in it. Sorry! They'll be in the next one, I swear!

I'd like to say a big thanks to my sister Sarah, my roommate Carla, and my wonderful beta NotTasha for helping me so much with this fic, and www.hickoksports.com from which I downloaded the Marquis of Queensberry rules! :) They came in handy, believe me! Feedback is always welcome-I'm very interested to know your opinions on this story!! Please feel free to drop me a line at the address at the end of the story. Enjoy!!

THE GREAT FIGHT
by Sue

The dusty streets of the small frontier town of Four Corners lay ablaze beneath the bright July sun, its inhabitants rushing about in happy excitement despite the heat of the day. Red, white and blue bunting fluttered in the arid breeze as laughing children dashed along the boardwalks, waving tiny flags and grinning in eager anticipation of the evening's fireworks. The adults watching them smiled as well, happy for a day of rest and recreation in the midst of the hard work of life in the West.

As the townsfolk met and chatted on the sides of the street, they paid little attention to the three figures casually striding along in the center of the road, despite the fact that their safety lay in the hands of these unlikely individuals. For their part, the men studied the crowds with sharp eyes, their hands kept close to the weapons worn low upon their hips.

"I ain't seen the town this excited for months," one of them exclaimed as a small boy nearly barreled into him. The young man laughed a little and sent the boy running along with a pat on the shoulder, using his other hand to set his dusty bowler hat more firmly atop his thick black hair.

"These folks'll take just about any excuse to shake off the dust an' have fun, JD," replied the tall, handsome man strolling by the young man's side, his hands hitched casually into his belt. His blue eyes twinkled as he chewed on the toothpick that jutted out from beneath his neatly trimmed black mustache. "Tamin' this land's hard work, they got to blow off some steam now an' then, an' there ain't no day to do it like the Fourth of July."

The third member of the group glanced at his companion, an amused expression on his pursed lips. "Or, JD, you may follow Buck's example and treat every day as an opportunity to relieve the pressures of frontier life," he said in a wheedling Southern drawl. "That is, if his recent and frequent sightings with one Miss Viola Wilson are any indications of his need for release."

Buck appeared miffed and shot the third man an annoyed glance. "There ain't no law says a man can't start the celebratin' early, Ezra," he pointed out.

JD laughed as they walked along. "You been courtin' her since the end of May, Buck!"

A smile split Buck's face at the thought. "That's right, junior, an' while you all are watchin' them fireworks outside of town tonight, we're gonna be sendin' up a few rockets of our own."

Ezra scanned the boisterous crowd with sharp green eyes. "I am sure we wish you well in your pursuit of passion, my friend," he said as they neared the saloon, "but in the intervening hours I suggest we remain vigilant. The liquor will be flowing freely today, and there may be some who desire to start the fireworks before sundown."

"Chris an' Vin already had to bust up a fight over at Digger Dan's," JD observed as they stepped onto the boardwalk and settled themselves into three old wooden chairs in front of the post office. "Guess these two fellas got into a brawl an' had to be pried apart."

"I believe we will be able to keep a close eye on things from here," Ezra remarked, looking up and down the street. From this point they had a good view of the saloon across the way, as well as most of the town up to the old whitewashed church at the end of the road.

Buck was leaning back in his chair, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He chuckled. "I remember gettin' into one hell of a fight on the Fourth of July, back right after the War. It was in this little mining camp outside of Kansas City. Dang! That was a wild one. Me an' these other fellas just about tore ol' man Mitchell's saloon apart, an' I had me two black eyes for three weeks."

JD looked over at him as he turned his chair around and sat down, his arms leaning on the back of the chair. "What were you fellas fightin' about?"

There was a pause, and a look of confusion passed over Buck's face. "Don't rightly remember, son," he confessed after a few chews on the toothpick. Then he shrugged. "Hell, maybe there wasn't a reason at all. Mighta just felt lik e cuttin' loose."

Ezra removed a deck of cards from his vest pocket and began to shuffle them in a lazy, familiar manner, not even looking at them as they flowed through his nimble fingers. As he did so, he looked over at Buck and shook his head. "Really, Mr. Wilmington, all that exertion for nothing? I would have expected there to be a woman involved, at the very least."

His friend grunted. "Shoot, Ezra, there wasn't a woman within fifty miles of that place." He cocked his head, a small grin appearing. "Maybe that's why everyone there was so dang testy."

"A reasonable assumption," Ezra said with a nod as he carefully watched two scruffy-looking individuals stagger out of the saloon. "As for myself, sirs, I have also indulged in fisticuffs on this date some years back, for a perfectly logical reason which I recall quite clearly."

Buck looked over at him in a bored manner. "An' what would that be, Ezra?"

The Southerner returned his gaze and smiled, sliding the cards easily from one hand to the other. "Money."

The other man snorted and looked back out into the street. "Sure hope you came out better than I did."

"You were fightin' over money?" JD asked, squinting over at his comrade. "Was it 'cause of a card game?"

Ezra stretched his legs out and crossed them as he continued to shuffle the cards, his gaze growing distant. "A good guess, JD, but in fact I was battling for money, not because of it. Before journeying to this fair territory, I managed for some time as a pugilist."

Buck's blue eyes bore a look of surprise as he studied the gambler. "You were a boxer, Ezra?"

"Like John Sullivan?" JD appeared quite impressed. "I was readin' about him in Mrs. Travis's newspaper. You fought bare-knuckle and everything?"

"Indeed I did, Mr. Dunne," Ezra announced, his gold tooth flashing as he grinned broadly at the memory. "And I am pleased to say I was able to retire with a nearly perfect record."

This proclamation earned a skeptical grunt from Buck, who eyed the Southerner with doubt. "Hell, Ezra, I know you can sure hold your own in a fight, but even Sullivan doesn't win every fight he's in!" He paused. "Was them fights fixed?"

Ezra scowled at him. "I am shocked at your lack of faith in my abilities, sir," he huffed. "Is it so unbelievable that I might win without cheating?"

Buck frowned. "At cards? Sure. At fightin'? All I know is, I'm lookin' at a nose that's never been broke an' a face that's still got all its teeth, 'cept for that gold one. Was it a con or somethin'?"

His friend seemed to grow annoyed, but this quickly passed and he sighed, smiling once again as he resumed shuffling the cards. "Very observant of you, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied, regarding his comrade. "Indeed, it was one of our most lucrative swindles."

JD peered at him. "Your ma was working with you on this?" he inquired with surprise.

The gambler shook his head, chuckling at the thought. "No, Mother was in New Orleans then, involved in her own affairs. My partner at the time of the boxing con was Julian."

JD and Buck exchanged cautious looks. They both knew about Julian St. Clair, Ezra's former partner and old friend, but it was not a happy memory at all. After leaving their partnership, and unknown to Ezra, St. Clair had become the leader of a criminal ring, whose activities involved extortion and murder. Some time ago, the seven had helped to transport Ben, the only surviving member of one of St. Clair's gangs, to Yuma Prison. St. Clair had been so desperate to find the boy and silence him that he had tried to extract Ben's whereabouts from a captive Ezra, resorting to brutality when simple questioning failed. Ezra had refused to betray his duty, and Julian was caught and eventually died by his own hand, but JD and Buck knew that Ezra still bore the scars of that experience in both mind and body.

"Hey, look, Ezra," Buck said, clearing his throat, "you don't got to go into it, okay? We know you probably don't want to talk about Julian."

Ezra glanced at him, but his green eyes were clear and untroubled. He hesitated, then looked down at the cards. "I appreciate your concern, my friends," he said with a covering smile, "but I do not consider the Julian St. Clair I knew as a young man to be the same ruthless person who saw fit to imprison and torture me. We had some remarkable times together during the three years we roamed the country, and they are times I will always remember fondly."

An understanding light crept into Buck's eyes as he regarded the Southerner. "Guess this means we ain't gonna be able to shut you up, right?" he said in a gently chiding tone.

Ezra smiled. "Indeed not, sir, especially as I consider my time in the ring to be one of the highlights of my career."

The three men settled back in their chairs, their eyes on the crowd as Ezra's drawling voice wafted through the hot July air.

"It was about six years after the War..."


Southern Missouri, June 12, 1871

"Don't stop now, boy! Hit 'im again!"

The full-throated bellow stirred the hot summer air and mingled with dozens of other, similar cries until the voices blended into an indiscernible roar. The men from whom the shouts issued interspersed the yells with cheers, oaths, and enthusiastic exclamations as they waved lit cigars and sloshing mugs of beer.

It was a rough crowd, comprised of men from every social class. Well-heeled gamblers rubbed elbows with ragged wanderers, while affluent men and their poor brothers shared a rare moment of camaraderie as they each gave loud voice to their excitement. Behind them up a narrow dirt road sat a small town, seemingly deserted; all of its men, it seemed, had come out to watch the fight.

In the center of the crowd was a large roped-off area, and in that space, two combatants lunged and sparred at each other, seemingly heedless of the throng of spectators around them. They were shirtless, their bruised and scraped torsos glistening with sweat in the late afternoon sun. As they circled each other, bare and bloody fists raised and ready for another attack, their eyes remained locked in a deadly glare, as if no other being on earth existed except their opponent.

Of the two, one man clearly had the advantage. He was larger that the other contestant, broad-shouldered and muscular. His hair, once fair and long, was plastered to his skull in dark, sweaty clumps, and he bore the marks on his body that told of a bitterly fought match. But his bruises were fewer, his movements more alert and skilled, and it seemed only a matter of time before he knocked his rival to the ground.

Not that the other man didn't have spirit, the spectators would agree. He was a young man as well, with quick green eyes and a lean, well-toned body. But he was easily getting the worst of the bout; his handsome, smooth face was marred with swelling and contusions, and his chestnut-colored hair was even more limp and wet that his opponent's. Fire was still in his expression, but it had hardly seemed a contest.

As the sparring continued, two men stood nearby watching. One was the referee, in this case the town clerk, a thin, dark-haired young man with a long face and studious eyes which keenly perused every aspect of the fight.

The other man was standing just behind the rope, his sharp black eyes following every move. His attitude was relaxed as he stood with arms folded, his natty attire barely dusty despite the hot weather. His long black hair curled from beneath the brim of his fashionable tall hat and caressed the nape of his neck, and his mouth was tightly pursed beneath his thin black mustache. His face was handsome and swarthy, his expression relaxed. In one pocket of his coat was a leather book and a wad of money.

The sun sank lower in the sky as the fight went on, the crowd continuing its cries as each man swung his raw fists at the other.

"That's it! Send 'im to the dirt!"

"Call that a punch?"

"You better win, mister, I put ten bucks on you!"

Some distance away, a small group of the town's more moral citizens gathered to shake their heads and frown. They did not interfere, however.

The larger fighter sent his fist crashing against his opponent's jaw. The smaller man staggered to the right, lurched to a stop, and teetered dangerously.

The group of men hushed and took a collective step closer, eager to see the final blow. The dark-haired man unfolded his arms and looked concerned.

Just as the larger man came close enough to deliver one last crippling blow, his rival took a deep breath, clenched his jaw, and sent his right fist surging upwards. It caught his opponent squarely under the chin, sending his head snapping back. Without a groan, the Goliath stumbled backwards, then crashed to the ground, where he sprawled unmoving in an amber cloud of dust.

As the smaller fighter took a few unsteady steps away, wiping his face with one trembling, bloody hand, the referee fell to his knees beside the unconscious man and began looking him over.

The crowd was stunned, then erupted into amazed murmurs.

"Look-the big feller's out cold!"

"Can't be!"

"That little guy couldn't beat my baby sister!"

"Don't you worry, Mike'll straighten this out!"

The rumblings died down as Mike, the town clerk, slapped the big man a few times on the cheek. Nearby, the upright combatant leaned on the rope and watched, gasping for air and wiping the sweat from his glass-green eyes.

Finally Mike got to his feet, slapping the dirt from his slender hands, and began to count to ten. As each number passed, the crowd's mood swiftly moved from amazement to disappointment and shock. Ten was reached, without the larger man stirring a muscle. Sighing, the clerk walked over to the other fighter. Looking incredulous but resigned, his grasped the man's right wrist and hoisted his arm into the air.

"The winner by a knockout-Eli Simpson!"

The men gasped in unison, astounded, while the dark-haired man barely suppressed a happy grin.

"Damn, Mike! You sure?" exclaimed one older, well-dressed gentlemen.

Mike shrugged. "He's out cold, boys."

"He's fakin' it!" cried a skinny young man in shirtsleeves and dark pants. "It's a fix!"

"You best give us our money back, mister!" another young ruffian shouted to the dark-haired man.

The man stepped into the blood-spattered ring and held up his hands. His every move was graceful and practiced, as if this was not an uncommon occurrence.

"Gentlemen, please!" he pleaded in a smooth voice tinged with the drawl of South Carolina. "I swear this is no fix. Do you not trust your own fellow townsman, Mr. Blanchard, to make a fair call?"

He gestured to the clerk, who looked sheepish.

"And surely we could not have fixed anything with this poor fellow-why, before he volunteered to fight Mr. Smith, neither I nor my friend here had ever laid eyes on the man, and I will swear to that on the Holy Book!" he went on, prodding the motionless form of the fallen fighter with the toe of his gleaming leather boot.

"Now," the man concluded, straightening his fine coat, "Most of you bet against my associate Mr. Smith, and I don't blame you, for surely he appeared unlikely to emerge victorious! But as gentlemen, I ask that you hold your tempers before the ladies and accept your losses gracefully."

He nodded to the small crowd of townwomen watching from a distance.

There was silence for a few moments.

"Mister," a burly man near the front of the group growled, "you an' your friend best leave now afore we decide we don't wanna be no gentlemen."

The dark-haired man's eyes widened a bit.

"Point taken," he said quickly, and grabbing the arm of the victor, he stepped out of the ring and helped the weary fighter over the rope. They then hustled away, with the crowd's angry murmurs following after them. In the ring, the town doctor tried to revive the fallen man.

Ten minutes later, Eli Simpson and the dark-haired man were riding hurriedly away from the small town, looking back occasionally to see if they were being followed. Finally the dark-haired man turned to his companion.

"How are you holding up, Ezra?"

Ezra groaned and ran one hand over his swollen face. "I believe I shall live, Julian, although it may be less than a pleasant experience," was the tired reply. "Any sign of pursuit?"

Julian looked back up the narrow, tree-lined road. The humid air hung still and heavy, and completely silent except for the buzzing flies.

"No," he sighed. "Looks like they decided to be good Christian men and take their losses honorably."

He and Ezra looked at each other for a long moment. Then, at the same instant, both men burst into triumphant laughter and spurred their horses up the road at a trot, grinning all the way.

They had scarcely gone fifty yards when their path was blocked by a third horseman. It was the losing boxer, dressed now in sweat-stained clothes, his jaw still black and blue from Ezra's knockout punch. He glared at them as they reined in.

Neither party spoke for a full ten seconds.

"Well?" the losing fighter barked, his tone full of anger.

Julian drew himself up. "Well what, my friend?" he asked calmly.

The fighter paused, then broke out into a wide grin and said, "Where the hell's my cut?"

All three men began to laugh, Ezra and the larger man forgetting their pain and bruises. Julian pulled the wad of cash from his pocket and counted out a portion.

"There you go, Patterson, just as we agreed," he said, riding forward and handing the money over. "With the odds at five to one, the take this time was quite handsome indeed. And I must say, you took a very nice fall this time. Even better than in Newhaven."

"Well, Ezra got me pretty good," Patterson admitted as he stuffed the money into his pocket. "Thought for a minute there he wasn't fakin'!"

"My prowess is genuine, sir," Ezra replied with a smile. "Perhaps someday we shall have a real match and I can prove it to you."

"Not as long as this boxing con keeps making us rich," Julian said with glee as he folded the remaining money carefully and tucked it into a leather wallet. "I'm telling you, boys, as long as we stay careful we'll make enough to get to San Francisco by year's end!"

"An' t'think my pa wanted me to stay on the farm this summer!" chuckled Patterson, shaking his head as he picked up the reins. "Well, reckon I best git. Where to next?"

Julian sat thinking. "How about Jack Creek? That's far enough away, we shouldn't run into anyone from around here that far south. We'll meet you in the saloon there at the usual time, on...hmm, let's say July 4th? Holidays always put people in the mood for excitement, shouldn't be too hard to find men eager to watch a fight."

Patterson nodded his round head. "Okay! See you there, fellas! Can't wait t'do this again, this is sure more excitin' than shuckin' corn!"

With that, the young man spurred his horse down the road.

Ezra laughed a little and looked at Julian. "I imagine most activities would be," he muttered.

"Hm," Julian smiled as he picked up his reins. "Well, let's get going-we have to find a quiet place to lay low for the next few weeks, while you heal up. Can't have you looking too rough for the next fight, you know!"

They began riding slowly along through the woods, passing in and out of the dappled sunlight.

"You seem to be enjoying this too much, Mr. St. Clair," Ezra said with a small smile. "It's not your body being pummeled black and blue."

"Now, Ezra," Julian said, keeping his eyes on the road before him, "you're the one who volunteered to be the boxer. We both agreed it made sense, didn't we? You've had the experience, fending off all those ruffian older cousins Maude kept leaving you with when you were a child."

"Yes," Ezra muttered, unhappy memories filtering through his mind of being left with uncaring relatives while his con-woman mother pursued her money-making schemes. Having to defend himself against older, larger adversaries had helped him to develop a skillful combative style which had proven quite useful in getting them out of all manner of scrapes. It was easy to impersonate a boxer when he'd been doing such fighting all his life.

"Besides, " Julian continued, "you know our agreement. Anytime you want to stop this con, just say so, and we'll work on something else. You don't have to take one more punch if you're getting tired of it."

The younger man road quietly for a few moments, then turned to his companion. "If we continue to enjoy this good fortune, my friend, I have no objection to our ruse. A few bumps now will be well worth it if we can return to New Orleans in high style."

Julian laughed. "Your mother would certainly agree with that! Imagine how surprised she'll be when she sees how much I've taught you since we left. Between her teaching and mine, I can honestly say that you already know more about this business than I did at your age."

Ezra shifted in his saddle. "Well, the urge to escape poverty does give one the most extraordinary desire to learn," he admitted, a somewhat somber light flickering through his expression as he looked away. "After spending most of the past twenty years swinging between feast and famine, I find feast far more agreeable to my tastes."

Julian smirked and waved one hand towards an unseen point in the distance. "Such as the banquet awaiting us at Jack Creek?"

The other man looked up the road for a moment, an eager smile spreading slowly over his smooth, handsome features. He turned and met Julian's gaze in silent agreement, his eyes bright with the anticipation of the excitement that lay ahead. Along with the glow of a young man's yearning for adventure, there lurked in Ezra's expression the beginnings of a harder, sharper hunger, one that was gradually overcoming the softness of youth which still lurked around the edges. Julian's face wore this predatory look completely, the result of four more years' experience of life and the influences of the gambling halls and saloons of the South. In his younger friend's countenance, however, there yet glimmered the vestiges of boyish innocence and idealism, still peeking hopefully out from beneath the overlaying mantle of cynicism.

Julian, however, saw only the budding avarice in his protege's eyes, and laughed.

"I thought so," he said. "Stick with me, Ezra, and you'll be rich before you're thirty."


Jack Creek was not terribly large, but the holiday crowd had swelled its population, and people were bustling everywhere, all in an excited mood. The streets were bursting with life and noise, every door and window festooned with banners and ribbons of patriotic colors. Horses trotted down the jammed street, past the freshly painted gazebo where a small brass band was bravely trying to work its way through various stirring melodies.

Ezra sat inside the town's largest saloon, nursing a beer and waiting for Julian to come back. Three weeks had passed, and all signs of the previous fight had vanished. As he relished the cold drink and waited, he ran over the plan in his mind, although by now the elements were quite familiar.

Julian would announce a bareknuckle fight to be held outside the town at about dusk, with Ezra as the champion, and ask for a volunteer to fight him. Patterson, who by now had been in town long enough for people to think he was a traveler or something, would be quick to volunteer, and bets would then be taken.

Since Patterson was much larger than Ezra, the bets would go mostly in favor of him. During the fight, Ezra would land a "lucky punch", Patterson would go down cold, and Ezra would be declared the winner. They would then leave town with the losers' money-and since most of them had bet on Patterson, that amount would be large.

It hadn't failed yet. Getting local men to act as referee had proven successful; the townsmen might not trust Julian, but they couldn't quarrel with one of their own. Since Patterson had an uncanny ability to fake unconsciousness, even a doctor couldn't tell that it was all an act.

And now they were poised once again to add to their already healthy purses. Mother would be amazed.

Julian had gone to arrange things with whatever townsmen was in charge of amusements, leaving Ezra to study the crowd and watch for Patterson to show up.

He sipped the cool beer with immense satisfaction; he really was enjoying himself. It felt so good to be out of New Orleans, to be riding with Julian and learning so much about the gaming life. New Orleans was exciting, of course, but during the past few years he had been getting the feeling that it was time to get out and see what else the world had to offer. He loved his mother dearly-she was his only family, after all, since his father had died when he was five-but lately she had begun to hint strongly that he should leave her tutelage and strike out on his own.

Then he had met Julian at one of the gaming tables, and they had hit it off instantly. He smiled at the memory of Julian's shocked face when Ezra bested him repeatedly at poker, and his even greater consternation when Ezra had explained to him how he had figured out which system Julian had been cheating with. It wasn't long before the two young men were trading schemes and impressing each other with their money-making ideas.

Ezra turned and scanned the room, seeing if there were any pretty girls around. Partnering with Julian had definitely turned out to be a good idea; his mother had taught him a lot, but Julian's mind worked in shrewd ways even Maude couldn't match. In the two years since leaving New Orleans, Ezra and Julian had plied their luck in innumerable gambling halls, racetracks, casinos, and riverboats, trying out various cons and often emerging victorious. This boxing scheme was simply the latest adventure.

The game certainly was thrilling, he mused as his green eyes darted around the large, smoky room crammed with drinkers. The planning, the execution, the anticipation of success-what man could resist this life? It was all he had ever known, and he reveled in how perfectly it agreed with him. Of course, one day his partnership with Julian would undoubtedly end, it couldn't go on forever, but by then he would be skilled enough to work by himself. Ezra felt sure he could handle being on his own; in many ways, he had spent his entire life alone.

His eyes lit on an attractive black-haired girl in a modest but neat blue dress seated at the other end of the room. He pursed his lips, looking closer, and was disappointed to see that she was seated with a man.

Something about the couple caught his attention, however, and he frowned. The man seated with her was a barrel-chested fellow, a little larger than Ezra, with a sharp, angry face. His thick black hair was unkempt and greasy-looking, and his cheeks were framed with equally wild sideburns. He wore no coat, only dirty work pants, muddy boots and a stained shirt-altogether a very rough-looking individual, and he appeared to be having heated words with the young woman. For her part, she sat looking at her hands, obviously upset.

Ezra couldn't hear the conversation, but a few men nearby approached the man, and it looked as if they were trying to pull him away from the woman. The man threw off all attempts, his eyes blazing with anger, until three or four men crowded his table. Shouts resulted, and as Ezra watched, intrigued, the black-haired man jumped up from the table, gave one of the men a vicious shove, and walked to the bar. As two of the men helped the trembling girl to her feet and escorted her away, the large man banged his fist on the worn wooden bar and bellowed, "Beer, dammit!"

One of the barkeeps nervously pushed a drink in the man's direction. As the man glared after the two men and the girl leaving the bar, he reached back, picked up the glass without a word to the bartender, and began to drink, his expression dark and full of hostility.

After a few minutes, the man turned to look out of the large saloon window into the street, where the girl and the two men were standing, discussing something. His expression was intense as he stared at her, and Ezra perceived that he was determining to go after them.

The girl and the two men walked away. The ruffian downed his drink and headed for the door, his eyes lethal. With a shiver, Ezra recognized that look-he had seen it often on some of his older cousins when he was a child, just before they came after him.

Ezra thought a moment-this was none of his business, but the girl and her companions seemed to be in danger, a fact which overrode his burgeoning selfish instincts. After a brief hesitation, he rushed after the man, jumping between the lout and the door. "Excuse me, sir!"

The other man stopped, his eyes wide with surprised annoyance. "What?" he roared, his voice loud and deep.

Ezra paused, and peered at his face keenly. "Haven't we met before?"

The man's reply was a look of irritated confusion. "No, mister, I ain't seen you before-now get the hell out of my way!"

He took another step towards the door. Ezra continued to bar his way, his eyes flicking out to where the two men were helping the girl into a buggy.

"I feel sure we've met," Ezra went on, digging his heels in a little. "Natchez, perhaps? Or Tupelo?"

The other man's gaze turned ominous and he grabbed Ezra by the lapel of his dusty blue coat. "You must not hear so good, you piece of Rebel shit!"

The two men climbed into the buggy with the black-haired girl, and with a flick of the whip it was moving quickly down the street. Ezra waited just a moment until it was out of sight, then shook himself free from his opponent's grip and straightened his rumpled coat.

"Problems, Mr. Simpson?"

It was Julian's voice, and Ezra turned to see his partner eying him quizzically from the doorway of the saloon.

"No, Mr. Row, everything is fine," Ezra replied, giving the baffled goon another look. "Merely a case of confused identity-I mistook this fellow for a gentleman."

The large man snarled an obscenity at them and pushed his way out into the street.

"What was that all about?" Julian muttered as they walked back to the bar, glancing after the oaf with a frown.

"Oh, nothing," Ezra said, grasping his mug of beer. "I was merely trying to prevent that oaf from accosting a local girl. It seems he has atrocious manners."

Julian snorted and signaled the bartender for a beer. "Lord, my friend, be more careful! That fellow could have broken your neck like a twig."

Ezra took a drink and glanced at Julian. "It was under control, I assure you."

"Not by much, judging from the killing look in his eyes," Julian said quietly, leaning over his beer. "You shouldn't get involved in things like that, it's dangerous. Let other people look after their own affairs, it makes it much easier to look after your own. That's what it's all about, in the long run. Taking care of yourself."

His younger friend scowled a little into his beer. "I would hope that taking care of myself would not mean that gentlemanly virtues are to be ignored," he responded in a quiet voice.

Julian fished a cigar from his pocket and bit off the end with a derisive grunt, spitting it onto the floor. "You're sounding like your father, if what you and Maude told me about him is true. I've found that chivalry is just fine, as long as it doesn't get you into trouble. What if our burly friend there had decided to take a swing at you? It's better not to stick your neck out for other people, they'll just take advantage of your good nature."

His younger friend winced a bit, staring into his beer. Deep down, he knew Julian was right; there were times, just now and again, that his instincts led in a direction contrary to the hard, solitary path he had set his feet upon. A very small part of him, well hidden away, thought that there was something cold and empty about this way of life, something the money and excitement couldn't replace. Doing a decent turn now and then, such as helping the girl in blue, seemed to ease the emptiness somewhat, even though it went against everything his mother and Julian had taught him.

But Julian was right, it was also dangerous. There had been enough pain in his life; asking for more seemed quite insane. Besides, as soon as they were able to put even more money into their pockets, the confusion would go away. It always did, and stayed away longer every time. One day, it would go away for good, and he would be as confident and successful as Julian, able to turn his mind completely to his own interests and prosper. Why would he want anything else?

Julian lit the cigar, took a few puffs, then noticed Ezra's contemplative expression and gave him a firm thump on the back. "Oh, hell, Ezra, don't look so down. You're still young, that's all. You'll learn."

Ezra smiled a little and looked at his friend. "And how fortunate I am to have you here to teach me."

"Damn straight," Julian agreed firmly, leaning on the counter as the smoke from his cigar swirled and drifted around his head. "If I wasn't here to tell you these things, you'd have to learn from experience, and that's a much harder way to go, let me tell you. Is, um, he here yet?"

"He's over in the corner," Ezra replied quietly, finishing his beer and not looking at where Patterson sat behind them.

"Then we'd best get started," Julian said quickly, taking one more hurried puff on the cigar. "The commissioner is more than willing to let us set up outside of town, and he agreed to referee. It'll make it all look nice and square."

Ezra grinned. "This should be a piece of cake."

"Mm-hmm," Julian agreed, stubbing out the cigar and looking around the room, his sharp black eyes taking it all in with one glance. "Now let's go make some easy money."

Ezra's response was a short nod, and he followed Julian as his partner pushed his way towards the back of the room. He smiled a bit in anticipation; Julian loved this part, and it was always amusing to watch him rouse the crowd.

Julian strode over to an empty table, pulled out a sturdy-looking wooden chair and leapt nimbly on top of it. Ezra stood nearby, ready for his cue, as his comrade lifted his arms and took a deep breath.

"GENTLEMEN, MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE!" he shouted. Julian had a booming voice, and his words drew the eye of every patron in the room. The talk slowed to a murmur, glasses were halted halfway to their destination, and puzzled drinkers turned in their seats to see what the yelling was about.

Once he was satisfied that he had their ears, Julian flashed one of his dazzling smiles and began to talk in a rapid patter, his manner as smooth and confident as a ringmaster's.

"Gentlemen, my name is Henry Row, and I come before you today with a sporting proposition. Are there any among you here who have a taste for clean, honest sport?"

Ezra chuckled inwardly at the 'honest' part and took off his coat.

"What you sellin', mister?" a curious drunk inquired.

"Excitement, my friend!" Julian replied with gusto, whipping off his tall hat, his black eyes wide with frenzy. "The sort of excitement that sends the blood of any true American man pounding through his veins. The thrill of competition, as raw and savage as nature intended, the sheer astounding drama of man pitted against man in a lonely battle for supremacy!"

Julian put one leg up on the nearby table, balancing skillfully as he continued to speak. "Sirs, with your commissioner's kind permission"- here he nodded to a thin older gentleman who was watching from the bar- "I am able to invite you to witness a battle which this county will be discussing for years to come! A fierce, bloody contest between two untamed brutes, trusting only their strength to emerge victorious!" He gestured with his hat towards the door. "Outside of this town will be drawn a ring, and at six o'clock tonight the battle will commence-a bare-knuckle brawl the likes of which you have never seen before! Wagers will be accepted, and your fortune may be made today!"

"Who's fightin'?" came a lazy voice from the crowd, which was followed by a distinct brassy 'ping' as the speaker made use of the nearest spittoon.

Julian smiled and motioned to Ezra. With a cocky grin plastered across his handsome face, Ezra stepped forward, arms crossed, his wide chest thrown out. Without his coat, he appeared muscular but not terribly strong.

"My associate here, Mr. Eli Simpson, has won every bout he has ever fought, and that is the Lord's truth, gentlemen!"

He drew a breath and scanned the room. Patterson was waiting for his cue; after Julian's next sentence, he would step forward and 'volunteer' to fight Ezra, just as he had in the last three towns.

"And his challenger," Julian went on, doing his best to not look obviously at Patterson, "shall be whoever feels lucky enough t-"

"I'll do it!"

Julian and Ezra both froze. Patterson froze as well, stunned; he hadn't even opened his mouth yet.

All eyes turned to the source of the sound. Standing at the door of the saloon stood the black-haired ruffian, his dark face wreathed in a scowl as he stared at Julian and Ezra.

"Sir?" Julian said as the man walked into the room. The patrons were eying him and muttering, some amused, others disgusted.

"You was gonna say he'd fight whoever wanted to get in the ring with 'im, right?" Barber pointed at Ezra, who was completely thrown. "I want to do it."

Julian was a bit disconcerted as well, but tried not to show it. "Sir, the invitation was not properly issued," he said smoothly. "These other gentlemen didn't get a chance to-"

"The hell with 'em!" Barber shot back. He looked back at the other men in the room. "Did anybody else want to fight this guy?"

The air was filled with negative mutterings.

"He's all yours, Barber!" one man exclaimed.

Patterson looked around, then swallowed and stepped forward. "I was thinkin' on it, mister!"

"Yeah?" Barber replied, clearly unimpressed. "Well, looks like you thought too long." He looked back at Julian and Ezra. "I spoke first, an' so it's my fight."

Several townsmen agreed, apparently eager to bet on Barber. Ezra threw a wide-eyed glance at Julian, who was biting his lip and trying to think of a way out of this.

"Now see here, gentlemen-" Julian began, holding out his hands in a plea for calm.

"I'm afraid he's right, Mr. Row," the commissioner announced. "Barber did speak first."

"What's the matter?" Barber said in a loud, challenging tone. "Is this fight rigged or something?"

Julian and Ezra froze again. A few of the townsmen were looking suspicious; if their con was discovered, it could be dangerous. Or perhaps even deadly.

There was a pause, then a smile slid smoothly over Julian's swarthy face. "Of course not, sir," he responded indignantly. "We'll...be happy to accept your challenge."

The saloon erupted into activity as the men began to pull out their wallets.

"Who's takin' the bets?" asked one white-bearded patron eagerly, waving a fist full of bills.

Julian pulled a thin leather book from his coat. "I will be happy to receive your wagers, sirs," he said easily, back in his full stride. "And please accept my assurances that this fight will be completely fair and square!"

The men crowded towards him, pushing past Ezra and Barber. After a moment, Ezra, his head spinning, turned to see Barber giving him a very lethal look.

"You kept me from goin' after Anne, didn't you?" Barber growled at him. At this distance Ezra could see that his eyes were a very dark and angry blue. "You just wait. This'll be one fight you won't win."

He paused, then turned and walked out of the saloon. Ezra could only stare after him, dazed, his mind trying to figure a way out of this. After a moment he glanced at Patterson, who seemed just as confused, but nothing could be done now; they couldn't even let on that they knew each other without exposing the con.

Ezra's gaze wandered over to Julian. The money was flying fast now, and Ezra had no doubt as to whom they were all betting on. His stomach sank.

Suddenly New Orleans wasn't looking so bad.


"All right now, let's just consider the situation..."

Julian's voice cut through the humid air as he paced back and forth in the small hotel room. Despite the afternoon heat, the window was closed, so that he and Ezra could figure things out in complete privacy. Ezra sat in a chair nearby, leaning forward with his hands folded together in contemplation. Both men had removed their coats in an effort at comfort, but true ease seemed elusive considering the present circumstances.

"Our options appear somewhat limited," Ezra admitted, rubbing his chin with one finger. "The people here are expecting a fight."

"Yes, well, expectations are often in vain, aren't they?" replied Julian in a testy voice. "We could slip out of town with the money. It'd have to be a fast ride, but perhaps we could get into the next state without getting caught."

Ezra bit his lip. "It seems too much to hope for to think that might be successful." He paused. "Suppose we simply go on with the fight?"

Silence fell as Julian furrowed his brow, studying Ezra with an expression of great uncertainty. "Think you could take him?"

"I believe I have at least an even chance," was Ezra's reply as he sat back and shook out his arms. "As you know, we've pulled ourselves out of scrapes with larger fellows than this gent."

"Yes, but this Barber's no drunken barroom ruffian-he looks like a seasoned fighter," Julian muttered, pacing again. "And he as a grudge against you. Dammit, Ezra, I told you you shouldn't have interfered in his business! Besides, you should see the amount of money that was bet on him-why, we'll go broke paying all those bets off if you lose."

"However," Ezra countered, his green eyes gleaming, "if I should succeed, our fortune would be assured."

This thought seemed to strike Julian rather sharply, and he stopped his restless pacing and gazed at Ezra with newfound enlightenment, rubbing his chin as his mind whirled. For a moment he actually seemed to consider the idea, then shook his head firmly, his black curls flying limply in the damp air.

"No. No, Ezra, it's out of the question," Julian stated with finality. "You've never fought a real match, and if you got hurt I'd never forgive myself. And I won't even think about what Maude would do to me!"

"If Mother knew how much money was at stake, I believe she would be willing to risk my hide," was Ezra's dry response.

Julian paused at the window, his handsome face illuminated by the soft reflected glow of the afternoon sun. He fiddled with the worn curtains for a moment, frowning, then looked over at Ezra. "You're not insisting on this just because of what he did to that girl, are you?"

His young partner blinked at him. "Girl?" he asked, even though he knew full well who Julian was talking about.

"Damn it, Ezra, you know who I mean," Julian snapped, walking over to stand in front of his friend. "If you're going to fight that rather disagreeable fellow, I want to know that it's for something reasonable. Emotions can cloud judgment, you know, and you might let them carry you into a battle you're not ready for. You're going to need a clear head for this. Our aim is to ride out of here with a good deal of money, and that's what you should focus on. If we decide to simply abscond, fine; if you decide you are able to beat this man, fine, but I don't want you risking your hide - and our highly lucrative partnership - based on nothing more than antique gallantry. The consequences could be disastrous."

Ezra was about to assure his partner that the hope of monetary gain was all that lay behind his desire to thrash Barber, but something stopped the words in his throat. Of course money was the only reason, what else could there be? Barber was a bully and a cad who needed a lesson, but surely that wasn't the cause of his hesitation.

He remembered the hot anger which had stirred in him at the sight of Barber forcing himself on the girl in blue, and the relief at knowing that he had stopped him from going after her. It had been one of the few purely altruistic things he'd done in years. But Julian was right, such sentiments were dangerous in this business. It was a miracle Barber hadn't started a fight right there.

However, Ezra thought with confusion, he hadn't felt frightened at that prospect. His only thought had been for the welfare of the girl and her brothers who were protecting her. And according to both his mother and Julian, those thoughts had been wrong, those instincts the very thing he should be learning to curb.

Perhaps here was the perfect opportunity to learn to do just that. Then the confusion would end.

Ezra returned his mentor's gaze for a few more moments without saying a word, then took a deep breath. "I assure you, my friend, my vision on this matter is perfectly clear."

"Good," Julian said quickly, stepping back. "So-be absolutely sure now-do you think you can take Barber?"

Ezra considered the question with exceeding care. Barber was only a little larger than himself, and he had taken on more fierce competitors before in saloons and back alleys all across the South. The thought that Barber's defeat might make the bully think twice about harassing anyone else flitted across his mind, but he pushed it away, determined to keep his focus clear. The money was all that mattered, as Julian had said; what happened to the town after he and Julian rode out of it couldn't be his concern.

He raised his eyes, but before he could say a word, there was a knock on the door of their room.

Julian looked at Ezra quickly, apprehension in every line of his face. "Yes?"

The door was slowly opened, and a young man appeared, dressed in a neat suit. Ezra instantly recognized him as one of the men he had saved earlier, and behind him was the black-haired girl herself. Both of them appeared slightly nervous.

Ezra got to his feet, and he and Julian studied them in mild surprise, waiting.

"Pardon us, gentlemen," the man said in Eastern tones, taking off his bowler hat. "We were told we'd find you here-is it true you're fighting that Barber fellow?"

"Well-" Ezra began, glancing over at Julian.

"One of our friends in the saloon told us you stopped him from following us," the young woman continued, gazing at Ezra with green eyes full of pure gratitude. She seemed very young, no more than seventeen. "I-I just wanted to thank you, sir, and wish you luck. I don't think he took the news that I'm going with my family to Denver very well, he's been pursuing me for months."

"You're a brave fellow, sir, I haven't seen too many men with the nerve to take on that windbag," the man said, digging into his wallet and handing a five-dollar note to Julian. "I'm putting five dollars on you!"

The girl gasped. "George! Ma will thrash you if she knows you've been gambling!"

George tucked his wallet back into his jacket. "It's all right, Anne, I'm sure Mother would approve if she saw how courageously this man has comported himself! Such valor must be supported, eh? And we can certainly use the extra money." He straightened his jacket. "So, when is the fight?"

Julian folded the bill and tucked it in with the rest of the money. "Six o'clock, at the east end of town," he replied with a smile.

"George!" his sister repeated, even more aghast. "Mother isn't going to let you attend a boxing match! We've got our farewell dinner with Rev. Peter tonight!"

George took her arm. "Don't worry, darling, I was just curious. Well, farewell, good sirs, and good luck!"

As they went out the door, George turned when he knew Anne wasn't looking and indicated with a wave and a look that he would be at the fight, no matter how disappointed Rev. Peter might be by his absence.

"Interesting family," Julian chuckled when they had left.

Ezra smiled, then sighed. "Well, I suppose that seals it. If George is willing to risk a thrashing on my behalf, the least I can do is be present."

His older friend pursed his lips, a frown creasing his handsome brow. "I don't like this, Ezra. I'm more inclined to just get the hell out of here. Bu t if we're caught on the road, we'll get at least a tarring, if they don't decide to just hang us."

He took the wad of money from his pocket, weighing it carefully as he pondered the situation. Ezra watched him closely, his own feeling tumultuous. He didn't relish the idea of coming under Barber's fists, but at the same time, he couldn't get over the fact that their two recent visitors had considered him brave. No one had ever called him that before; it was an odd feeling.

Finally Julian sighed and stuffed the money back in his pocket. "All right, Ezra," he said firmly, meeting his friend's eyes. "You can fight this fellow. I can't risk walking away from a pot this large, but I don't want to get shot in the back for it, either. But you've got to beat him, understand? If you lose, we won't even have our horses left."

Ezra wondered why he felt vaguely relieved instead of concerned, but he simply said to Julian, "Trust me, my friend, losing is not my intention."


A large and rowdy crowd had gathered for the fight by the time Julian and Ezra arrived at the makeshift ring just outside of town. Ezra, stripped to the waist and gleaming with sweat from his warm-up session, glanced around as he climbed over the ropes. Most of the crowd from the saloon was there, plus a small knot of tough-looking men who seemed to be of the same uncivilized stripe as Barber. At the very edge of the throng stood George, who waved to Ezra with an encouraging smile. Rev. Peters, it seemed, had been forsaken.

Barber was there as well, standing in the other corner and glaring at Ezra as he flexed his arms. He was bare to the waist as well, and although he was only slightly more muscular than Ezra, his menacing demeanor and broad frame made him seem much larger.

Overhead, the hazy sunshine of the morning had given way to low, large clouds, their edges blurred against the soft blue sky. The mugginess had become oppressive, and there was the definite feel in the air of the approach of a summer storm.

"All right now, Eli," Julian was saying in a low, anxious voice as he leaned towards his partner, "just keep your mind clear and focused, and try to wear him out. Oh, and use your right hook, that's pretty good."

"Understood," Ezra agreed, jogging in place slightly. His heart was pounding in his ears, but he couldn't tell if it was from fear or excitement.

The referee walked over, with Barber behind him. Ezra could not help noticing that Barber was quite hairy, and sported a tattoo of a Bowie knife on his right arm.

"Mr. Row, Mr. Simpson," the clerk said with a nod. "For this bout we'll be using the Marquis of Queensberry rules, which I am sure you know, as does Mr. Barber. This fight will end when one of you is either unconscious or is too seriously injured to continue. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Julian and Ezra said together. The younger man took a deep breath and braced himself, wondering vaguely what sort of 'serious injury' the referee was talking about.

Barber had retired to his corner, and Ezra flexed his fists in preparation. He knew he could whip this lout, and then he and Julian could get out of here. All he had to do was keep his eye on the money, and not be distracted, as Julian had advised him. That was all he should care about, anyhow.

Suddenly he felt a touch at his elbow, and turning was startled to see George behind him. Next to George stood his lovely young sister, who was looking at Ezra with a mixture of fear and admiration.

As he was getting over his surprise at seeing a young woman at a boxing match, Anne leaned forward and said in a halting voice, "I just wanted to wish you luck, Mr. Simpson. Many of us here have been the victims of Mr. Barber's cruel whims-please be assured that there are many hearts here today who wish you well!"

For a moment, Ezra could only stare at the lovely young woman in a mute, bewildered fashion. It suddenly occurred to him that he was fighting for more than simply a huge amount of money, and there were actually people here who wanted him to win for reasons other than lining their pockets. He swallowed, unsure if he truly wanted this sort of responsibility-things seemed so much more simple when it was all just a scam. Now, it appeared, he was fighting for a principle, and Ezra had never done that before in his life.

Suddenly Julian was standing beside him, putting one hand on Ezra's arm as he tipped his hat to Anne and George. "Pleasure to see you again, my friends," he said smoothly as he gently pushed Ezra away. "Pray forgive us, but we're ready to start. So good of you to come!"

George and Anne nodded a little and disappeared into the crowd.

"That was certainly rude," Ezra sniped as they reached his corner, shooting Julian an annoyed look.

"Merely an act of rescue, my friend," Julian muttered, scanning the crowd. "I didn't hear what she said to you, but you looked rather confused by it, and I-er, we can't afford to have your judgment clouded at the moment."

Ezra sighed as he loosened up. "She was merely wishing me well, and conveying the good wishes of the town onto my shoulders."

A cynical snort burst through Julian's lips. "Merely making sure you know your task, I warrant. You'd think her brother bet more on you than a miserable five dollars."

The referee and Barber walked out into the middle of the ring.

"All right, Eli, time for battle," Julian muttered, giving Ezra a slap on the shoulder before climbing outside of the ring. Ezra braced himself and approached the center of the dirt ring, trying to stay focused. If he simply thought of the huge amount of money they stood to make from this fight, and how badly he wanted it, everything would be fine.

Barber didn't seem to have any questions in his mind over the goal of this fight. He was glaring at Ezra with blazing blue eyes full of simple fury, and although he was not much larger than Ezra, to the Southern con man he seemed enormous.

"Very well, gentlemen," the referee said, his tone brisk and businesslike. "We're ready to start. The rounds will last for three minutes, with a one-minute break between rounds. If one of you goes down, you've got ten seconds to get up or you lose the match. At the sound of the bell, you may begin."

Ezra and Barber lifted their clenched fists and assumed their pugilistic stances as the crowd erupted into anticipatory cheers rife with bloodlust. Ezra steeled himself; no matter how this came out, this was probably going to be very, very painful.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the townsmen lift up a large brass bell and a hammer. Any second now-

DING!

The clear tone of the bell had not faded from the hot summer air before Barber lashed out, striking Ezra squarely on the jaw. Ezra absorbed the blow and shook his head; it wasn't that bad, really, he could take this.

He backed up a pace, regaining his balance quickly, and with catlike swiftness struck back, catching Barber on the cheek and following quickly with a blow to the stomach. It was like punching a tightly stuffed leather bag, and Ezra winced inwardly at how solid Barber was. Still, the man grunted a little and fell back, so Ezra allowed himself to feel a little encouraged.

They began to circle each other slowly, each man figuring out how to best land their next blow. Vaguely Ezra could hear the shouts of the crowd, mixed with the rough epithets of Barber's supporters. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Julian leaning on the post at his corner of the ring, watching intently, but he was unable to tell if his partner was concerned for his safety, or the fact that so much was riding on his victory.

Suddenly Barber struck, catching Ezra full on the chin. Stunned, Ezra spun to the ground, one hand grabbing at the rope as he landed hard on one knee.

The crowd gasped, but their amazement soon dissolved. Ezra quickly climbed back to his feet, knowing full well that he only had ten seconds to rise before forfeiting the fight. A cheer arose from his backers as he righted himself. He quickly caught Julian's eye and nodded to signal that he was all right. Julian visibly relaxed and let go of the post he'd been clutching in an iron grip.

DING!

Ezra blinked; the round was over already. He tried to calm his breathing as he went to his corner, watching as a clearly disappointed Barber did the same.

"That was close," Julian muttered as he lifted up a bucket of water with a ladle in it to Ezra.

"Much less so than it appeared, I assure you," Ezra replied as he dipped some water from the bucket with the ladle and took a long drink. "I could not have been down for more than a few seconds."

"You're doing just fine," Julian said, peering at Barber and studying him closely. "If you just keep watching him, you might be able to spot a weakness that can be exploited."

Ezra splashed some of the water on his face and shook the excess liquid from his hands. "It's not so different than the poker tables at New Orleans, is it?" he said with a smile.

DING!

The bucket was handed back to Julian, and Ezra went back into the ring with hope in his heart. This might work out after all.

The two men faced each other and raised their bare fists as the crowd resumed its roar. Ezra squared his shoulders and allowed a small smile to crease his lips as he locked eyes with his opponent.

Barber seemed amused at this and smiled as well, although there was nothing pleasant about this expression. "Feelin' good, Reb?" His left arm jabbed out quickly.

Ezra dodged the blow, his grin never fading. "I'm still on my feet, Mr. Barber," he replied smugly before sending his right fist at Barber's jaw.

Barber grunted as he, too, barely ducked the punch. "That won't last long," he said as they began to circle. "I whipped plenty of you Southerners durin' the War, don't guess you'll be too tough."

"Indeed," was Ezra's unimpressed response as he kept a keen eye on Barber's movements. "Perhaps this is a good opportunity for me to return the favor on behalf of my brethren."

He swiftly threw a right hook and connected solidly with Barber's jaw. The man's head snapped back as he stumbled backwards, and for a moment he seemed dazed. Ezra almost laughed as the crowd erupted into a mix of amazed cheers and outraged shouts; Barber wasn't so much, after all.

Sweat flew from Barber's thick black curls as he shook his head. After blinking his eyes a few times, he opened them fully and gave Ezra the most hate-filled glare he had ever received. Ezra waited, fists raised, eager for another chance to send Barber to the ground.

Barber drew a deep breath and took two steps towards Ezra, fairly growling in anticipation of delivering a mighty blow. Ezra braced himself-

DING!

Barber's head spun around to glare at the bell-tender. "What the hell was that!" he bellowed.

The man managing the bell, a smallish fellow in a green suit and black bowler, shrugged helplessly as he held up a pocketwatch in one hand. "Er, time, Mr. Barber. That was three minutes."

"Tempus fugit, eh, my friend?" Ezra said with a wide grin as he went back to his corner. Barber's only reply was a sullen stare as he retired.

"Another round or two and we'll have him," Ezra muttered as Julian held up the bucket once again.

"He certainly isn't proving much of a challenge," Julian observed in a puzzled tone. "Careful, it might be a trick."

Ezra grunted as he splashed water over his face and chest. "I doubt he has the mental capacity to formulate anything devious," was his reply.

"I don't think he's ever had to," his partner said, watching as Barber conversed with several tough-looking men standing on the other side of the ropes. "His fists probably do most of his talking." He chewed his lip in thought for a moment, then slapped Ezra's arm. "But you're doing great, my friend. Now go send him to the dirt so we can get our money and get out of here."

"With pleasure," Ezra replied as the bell sounded again.

Turning, he walked back to the center of the ring, still optimistic. He lifted his fists and raised his eyes to his opponent, taking a deep breath to settle himself. "I trust that-"

WHAM!

Ezra did not even see the blow coming, Barber had moved so fast. All he had perceived was a bare glimpse of the man's scowling face and blazing blue eyes, then suddenly the world has simply exploded in pain. It was as if he had been struck across the face with a brick, and for a split second he became completely disoriented.

When the world settled back into place, he found himself still on his feet, facing the crowd. Something was trickling down the right side of his face and dripping onto his hand, and he absently glanced down in disconnected curiosity.

Blood. His blood.

He shook his head, despite the agony the action caused him. Behind him he heard Barber say in a frighteningly close voice, "Like that, Reb? Turn around an' I'll give ya some more."

Rapidly Ezra collected himself, a habit honed through years of saloon brawls and backalley scrapes in which one had to be quick-witted to survive. Spinning on his heel, he found Barber, brought up his fists and struck back, catching the man first in the ribs, then in the face.

The fierce blows threw Ezra off balance, and as Barber staggered back with an oath, Ezra tumbled to the ground, catching himself with his hands. It was only for a moment, and Ezra was back on his feet swiftly, gratified to see that Barber appeared to be dazed. The man was not invincible, but he wasn't going to go down easy, either.

Barber steadied himself as he shook his head quickly. The crowd was roaring now, urging Barber on. The larger man took a deep breath and advanced on Ezra, his teeth clenched in rage.

With the smallest of confident smiles, Ezra threw another solid punch at Barber's head, clipping him across the temple. This time Barber stumbled and fell to one knee, one arm shooting out to stop his fall.

The crowd gasped and surged forward as Ezra watched Barber, hoping that he would stay where he was. As long as he was on one knee, he was considered down, and if he stayed there for a brief ten seconds-

The referee dashed out and began to count. "One-two-three-"

"C'mon, Barber, get up!" one of the toughs yelled.

Barber lifted his head to stare directly at Ezra, and in a few seconds was back on his feet, bloody and a little unsteady but definitely upright.

A loud cheer arose from Barber's supporters as he steadied himself. Ezra resumed his fighting stance, but he only had a second to prepare himself before Barber charged across the ring at him and sent his fist straight into Ezra's gut.

All of the air seemed to leave Ezra's body as he absorbed the blow, pain lancing up through his chest. He staggered away and doubled over, and fought mightily to keep from falling to his knees. But God, he couldn't breathe-

DING!

Ezra pulled himself upright, panting for air. Barber was going back to his corner, but his blue eyes stayed on Ezra, their depths holding a painful promise for the next round.

"Lord, Ez-er, Eli, are you all right?" Julian was saying as Ezra quickly wen t to his corner, one bloodied hand grasping the wooden pole for support.

"Merely a temporary setback," Ezra gasped, as the sweet air once more filled his lungs.

His partner looked doubtful, but hoisted up the water bucket. "Water?"

Ezra gagged. "No! Thank you, but my stomach isn't ready for that right now," he replied in a strangled voice. His breathing was becoming more even.

Julian was eying Barber anxiously as he set the pail back down. "Be careful, my friend, he's got murder in his eyes."

"And I have money in mine," Ezra replied in a soft, even tone as he took a full breath. "We'll see who has the fortitude to accomplish their goal."

The other man paused, then grinned as the bell sounded once more. "Keep thinking that way, my friend, and we'll ride out of here rich men," he whispered.

Ezra nodded and turned, returning to the fight. Barber's manner as he faced Ezra indicated that things were going to get serious now. Ezra pursed his lips and raised his fists, determined to get serious as well. If only his head would stop buzzing...


He was able to land the first punch, catching Barber in the face. Barber took a step back, recovered, and struck back, striking Ezra first in the chest, then in the jaw. There was force behind the blows, and Ezra staggered back, the cheers of the crowd sounding unusually loud as he righted himself. Barber was indeed out for blood now, he could tell that much, and he had to steel himself for the trial ahead if they were to succeed.

Suddenly Barber was in front of him, preparing to strike again. Ezra stood and lashed out first, the punch landing solidly on Barber's sternum. Barber gasped, recovered too quickly for Ezra's liking, and sent his reply in the form of a blow into Ezra's ribs.

Knife-sharp pain lanced through his chest as Ezra gagged and stepped back; had Barber broken one of his ribs? He gasped and looked up to see Barber coming towards him, his brows knit together in rage.

Ezra grit his teeth and lashed out, catching Barber in the jaw and pushing him back halfway across the ring. As both men gasped for air and fought to steady themselves, the bell rang once more.

"Lord!" Ezra couldn't stop the word from escaping his lips as he walked haltingly to his corner.

Julian looked apprehensive. "Did he hurt you?"

The other man rubbed his ribs gingerly; his knuckles were becoming raw. "He made a good attempt at breaking my ribs, but I believe they are intact."

"Good," Julian said firmly. "You've got to stay in there, Eli, no matter what. Think of the money. After this fight we'll have enough to take it easy for a long time, maybe in Mexico."

Ezra took a few more breaths and gave his partner a sideways glance. "I'll take that as a promise."

"Call it an incentive," Julian said as he gave Ezra a swift pat on the shoulder.

The bell sounded again.

Ezra gave Julian one more glance, then turned and reentered the ring. He was very sore and tired now, his hands felt as if they were fire, and every breath was painful. But certainly if he could continue, the money would be worth it. He had to think on that.

The clouds were becoming thicker now, blotting out the sun in a shapeless, hazy mass. The breeze was becoming cooler; a storm was coming.

Barber's expression hadn't changed much; sweat and blood clouded his face, but his eyes still burned with savage anger. Ezra had barely gotten into his fighting pose before Barber struck, the blow landing once more in his ribs. Ezra gasped but kept his feet.

"Think you're mighty tough, huh?" he heard Barber say in a low voice.

Ezra looked up at him as he regained his footing. "At least your equal, I'd say," he replied before sending his fist crashing across Barber's mouth.

Barber's head whipped around and he stumbled to one side, blood dripping from a cut on his lip. After a pause he stood and looked back at Ezra, lifting his fists and completely ignoring his bleeding mouth.

"You'll soon know different," he whispered back. "Nobody gets in my way around here, least of all Southern trash like you."

He lunged forward and drove his fist firmly into Ezra stomach once more, following the blow quickly with one straight across his temple. The blows landed like a sledgehammer; before he even realized it, Ezra found himself on his hands and knees, gasping for air. For a moment he wondered why everything was brown and hazy; then he realized he was staring at the ground.

The crowd was roaring, but he could make out none of what they were saying. He lifted his head; the referee was getting into the ring to begin the count. He had to get up. The money, he thought, think of the money.

And he did, focusing on the large sum, enough for all the fine clothes and food and lodgings he and Julian could hope for. Enough to prove himself a success, to the world, to his mother, to himself. Yes, he was fighting for that-he had to get up-

"-four-five-six-"

His head clearer now, he took a deep breath and climbed to his feet. There were some cheers, mostly drowned out by disappointed groans. After a pause, Ezra raised his sweat-drenched eyes to look at Barber, who was staring at him with no emotion.

DING!

As Barber went back to his corner, where he was greeted by several toughs offering words of encouragement, Ezra stayed where he was. If he tried to move, he figured, he might fall over.

The sky was growing darker, and in the far distance, a rumble of thunder gently stirred the heavy air.

"Eli!"

It was Julian, standing right at Ezra's elbow, gripping his arm and looking into his friend's face with deep concern.

Ezra sighed and tried to grin. "No problem, my friend, I'm simply-a little dazed-"

"Dazed, hell," Julian hissed, carefully leading Ezra to his corner. "He almost flattened you!"

Ezra shook off Julian's hand and plunged his hands into the bucket of water, wincing as the liquid stung his bleeding knuckles. He gasped for a moment, doused his sweat-drenched face with the warm water, and said nothing.

Julian's voice was much closer. "Look, Eli, are you sure you're all right? We can always ask them to postpone the rest of the match, with this storm coming, and get out of town in the meantime. They'll never find us."

Ezra paused, gazing unseeing into the crowd. His body throbbed in pain, he felt dizzy and nauseated, and he wasn't so sure the money was worth it anymore. He weighed the idea.

Suddenly he realized someone was waving at him from the crowd. Focusing his water-logged vision, he saw that it was Anne, waving at him with a small, encouraging smile. He nodded at her, acknowledging her attention, and a new vision of the near future flashed through his brain: Anne, and everyone here who had been hurt by Barber and were cheering him on, realizing with bitterness that he and Julian had swindled them, and were gone.

For some reason, the pain of that idea was much worse than any of his cuts or bruises.

The bell rang again, and Ezra looked at his partner. "I'm fine," he whispered.

Julian hesitated. "All right," he said, his voice edged with doubt as he climbed back out of the ring, "all right, but remember it's always an option."

Anne waved at him again, unseen by Julian, and Ezra returned the gesture, wondering how he'd ever gotten himself involved in anything so damn complicated. Riding away would be simple, but it wouldn't be easy.

He nodded once more to Anne and turned back to Barber, steeling himself as he prepared once more to fight. He was startled to see that Barber's angry blue eyes were not looking at him, but rather past and behind him.

At Anne.

As Barber walked back up to Ezra, he locked eyes with the Southerner, and the churning light in them indicated that his rage had found new fuel. He had seen Anne wave at Ezra.

"Sparkin' my girl?" he growled, as he poised himself to strike.

Ezra could barely breath, his ribs hurt so much, but he clenched his fists tighter. "I do not believe she wants to be your girl," he pointed out. A second later he launched a blow at Barber's chin. The other man turned his head quickly, but the fists caught his jaw and he staggered.

A flash of realization thrilled through Ezra's weary body. His jaw, he thought, that's his weak spot. If he could only stay upright long enough to exploit it-

Barber regained his ground and lifted himself. "That ain't your concern," he snarled before throwing a punch towards Ezra's face. Ezra stepped back, avoiding the blow, but he stumbled a little and cursed the growing weakness in his knees.

The two men steadied themselves, and Ezra clenched his teeth as he mentally dug in his heels. He'd fought off men in more dire conditions-the memories of a dozen fights flashed through his aching head-surely he could still hold his own against this uncouth specimen.

Barber's fist lashed out, connecting with Ezra's shoulder; Ezra absorbed the blow, tried to ignore it, and struck back, aiming for his opponent's jaw. Barber dodged the blow and swiftly returned it, his bloody knuckles barely missing the Southerner's face.

For a good minute the two men traded swift, brutal blows, no longer waiting between punches in their attempt to wear the other man down. Ezra tried to land a solid blow to Barber's vulnerable jaw; Barber seemed content to simply pummel whatever part of Ezra's body he could reach.

The crowd was loving it, shouting and jeering as the two men whaled on each other, drenched in blood-tinged sweat. Ezra and Barber seemed oblivious to all but their opponent. The contest swung wildly back and forth; now Barber would stagger off, apparently dazed by one of Ezra's ferocious right hooks, then Ezra would be thrown by a blow from his adversary.

By the time the bell rang once again, they were both panting heavily, dripping wet and near exhaustion.

Ezra could not even summon words as he dragged himself back to where Julian stood, his black eyes wide with-amazement? Fear? Ezra couldn't even summon the strength to care as he sagged against the wooden post holding up the ropes and gulped for air.

Wordlessly Julian held up the bucket to him, his gaze never leaving Ezra's face. Equally mute, Ezra accepted it; it was almost empty, and he was content to take one last drink from the ladle, then pour the remainder over his aching head. Lord, he had never felt so thoroughly mangled in his life, and he had been through some pretty rough brawls. His knees shook with fatigue.

"Eli?" It was Julian's voice, spoken very low, so that only he could hear it. Ezra took in a deep breath and raised his head to see his partner gazing at him with large, deadly serious eyes.

Julian's voice went still lower, a bare whisper. "Are you sure you don't want to stop the fight and ride out of here?"

An enthusiastic acceptance of that idea leapt to Ezra's lips. This was damn crazy, getting the tar beaten out of himself, and he wanted nothing more in all the world than to get as far away from the pain as possible. He knew, now more than ever, that he was not noble or heroic, not the savior these people wanted him to be. Surely it was asking too much of him, to endure this a moment longer. Yes, they could stop the fight-a storm was obviously coming-then ride out when nobody was looking, far away, and he could rest and heal and never fight for anyone but himself ever again.

But still-still he hesitated, still the word caught in his throat. He scanned the crowd, his green eyes picking out Anne, her brother, others who were cheering him on. He recognized their expressions as they watched him, hope and fear that perhaps the brute Barber might be stopped. He had worn that look, harbored that hope, often, as a lonely child growing up, with no friends or defenders to stand between himself and his tormentors. No one had answered his hope, and he never forgot how bitter that abandonment had left him.

But this wasn't his fight-and he was so damn tired-

"Eli?" Julian's voice was sharper now, insistent. The minute was almost up.

Ezra opened his mouth, his breath hitching, and he met Julian's eyes. "No," he whispered firmly, just as the bell sounded summoning him back to battle.

Julian appeared none too optimistic at this reply, but Ezra said nothing as he handed the empty bucket back and walked into the ring. 'I must be insane', he thought. He hated this, didn't want to do it, knew it was madness to continue, Mother would have a fit.

But still he squared his shoulders and stood straight as he faced Barber again. Perhaps later-provided he survived this-he could sort it all out. He only knew that he couldn't walk away, even if he wasn't sure why.

The sparring began again, but this time the blows were heavier and harder, the recovery time longer than before. Both men were weary and covered with sweat and blood, and each determined to make this the final round.

Finally Barber sent a blow into Ezra's chest which spun the Southerner away into the ropes. Ezra hung there for a moment, gasping for breath.

His adversary continued to approach him, a smile lining his hirsute face. Sweat dripped from his thick sideburns. "You ain't lookin' so good there, Reb," he panted, ignoring his own bleeding wounds and heaving breath. Before Ezra could brace himself the blows fell, one hard one to the stomach, another slamming into his left ribcage, the third crashing across his jaw.

This time Ezra felt himself strike the ground. A fierce agony flooded over him, a confusing roar sweeping through his brain. Or was it the approaching thunder? He gasped for air as the world spun around him. Time seemed to stop as the hot oppressive air closed around him, choking off everything but the pain.

He could hear the referee begin to count, and lifted his head, thinking, I have to rise. But he couldn't this time, not for the money or the townspeople or anything in the world. He was too weary, in too much pain. He'd done his best, hadn't he? That should be good enough.

With a supreme effort, he lifted his head, and the first eyes he met belonged to Barber. The man was watching him, a triumphant smirk on his face, but almost as soon as Ezra met his gaze he looked elsewhere. Ezra followed his gaze, and was not surprised to see that it led to Anne, who stared back at Ezra, her lovely face full of fear. For him? For herself? He couldn't tell. The same expression seemed to mark the face of everyone who had cheered him only moments before, as if his defeat would bring them down as well.

He saw her look at Barber and take a step back.

The referee continued to count, and Barber looked back at Ezra, still grinning, merely awaiting his victory. A bracing anger erupted behind Ezra's bloodied eyes, springing from an unknown source and pouring through him to every exhausted part of his soul. It was pure instinct driving his actions, a desire of his heart he couldn't even give a name to.

Planting his feet firmly, he gathered up every ounce of his remaining strength, and launched himself at Barber. There was a heavy thud which resounded through every bone in his body as his fist connected solidly with Barber's jaw, carrying with it everything Ezra had left in him.

Thunder split the air.

Ezra fell back to the ground, certain that this time he would not be able to get back up. But he saw Barber fall too, saw him hit the dirt like a sack of wet flour only an instant after he did.

The crowd shouted, Julian was at his side, rain began to fall as the cheers and thunder blended into one long distant roar which swirled around him, wrapping him in its numbing embrace and spinning away with him into oblivion.


Rain.

It was the first sound to pierce the heavy darkness around him, the gentle, rhythmic tapping of the raindrops as they pattered against a nearby glass window. Ezra didn't move, simply allowed himself to float back slowly from the dreamless void he'd been drifting in, and waited to see what happened next.

Pain followed closely on the heels of consciousness, and he moaned softly. God, everything hurt, and as he tried to draw a breath he realized his ribs were tightly wrapped. His head felt ready to split in half, and his mouth throbbed ferociously.

Fight, he thought absently without moving. The fight! It was over-did he win? Barber had fallen-but Ezra had fallen first-but-

He stirred, and realized he was lying on a very soft bed, and not the cheap one in the room he and Julian had rented.

"He's awake, I think," said an unfamiliar voice. Confusion overrode the pain-where the hell was he?

After a few attempts, he blinked his eyes open. His vision was dim and hazy, but gradually he made out the trappings of a small room, the walls covered with green wallpaper, a dresser standing nearby next to the window. It was dark outside, and the only light in the room came from the wavering yellow light of a kerosene lamp.

Ezra squinted into the dim light. Standing over him was a middle-aged man with graying hair and spectacles, clad in a dark coat and studying Ezra intently. At the end of the bed, leaning on the brass footboard, stood Julian, without hat or coat, peering at his partner just as closely.

"Wha-?" Ezra groaned, staring up at the stranger with apprehension. Had they been discovered? Were they under arrest?

The older man put a steadying hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Relax, Mr. Simpson, you're going to be fine," he said in a slow, loud voice. "Can you understand me?"

Confused, Ezra frowned and nodded. "Yes, yes," he said impatiently, eager for an explanation. At least their aliases appeared to be intact.

"I believe he just wants some answers, Dr. Greeves," Julian said lightly as he walked around the bed to the other side. Julian looked very tired in the flickering firelight, and Ezra noticed the definite light of relief in his dark eyes.

"Ah, of course," the other man said as he stood with a smile. "I'll let you explain, sir, while I go see if we have some soup ready."

He turned and left, closing the door as he walked out. Sighing, and grateful for the privacy, Ezra looked up at his friend. "What happened?"

Julian put one hand on the headboard and leaned a little as he talked. "Well, you just caused a minor revolution, is all, my friend. Your punch knocked Barber flat to the ground, and as far as I know he's still unconscious. They've been getting drunk in the saloon all night long in celebration, it's been damn noisy outside."

Ezra scowled. "All night-? What time..."

"Oh, about two o'clock," Julian replied casually, although his tone was not as light as it had been a moment before. "They brought you here right after the fight. Dr. Greeves fixed you up-you have the most amazing gallery of bruises right now, and Barber cracked two of your ribs. Not to mention your tooth."

"My-?" Ezra felt with his tongue, puzzled, then winced as it went over his right canine. Part of it was gone, leaving only a sharp, jagged edge and a painful throbbing.

"Must've been that last punch he threw at your face," Julian surmised.

"Aw, hell!" Ezra groaned, smacking the pillow with his head gently in frustration. He'd have to get it pulled now, a prospect he dreaded.

Suddenly a new question occurred to him, and he looked at Julian eagerly. "Did I win?"

Julian's hesitant expression confirmed his worst fears. "Well...no. They decided that since you struck the ground first, you couldn't claim a victory."

A horrible sinking feeling twisted Ezra's stomach. But Julian seemed mighty calm about losing a fortune. "Then-I lost?"

"Well, no, again," was the somewhat brighter reply. "You hit the ground first, but Barber lost consciousness before you did. They decided to declare it a tie, so everyone simply got their money back."

Ezra's eyes widened. "A tie?"

"Look, it's better than letting them give it to Barber," Julian said quickly, casting a cautious look at the doorway. "I hate the idea too, but at least we're no poorer than when we got here. And God, Ezra, you scared me. I thought that gorilla was going to kill you."

"You were not the only subscriber to that belief," Ezra muttered back, gingerly probing his broken tooth with his tongue. At least the nerve wasn't exposed, but it was still quite sore. He grimaced and glanced back up at his comrade. "I suppose I should apologize, then, for not taking your advice when we still had the chance to run out with the money."

Julian shrugged. "I won't lie to you and say I'm glad you didn't, but hell, this whole venture was a gamble anyway. You gave it an excellent shot, my friend, and that's what a good gambler does. Do the best with the cards you're dealt." He paused. "Next time, however, I might be more insistent."

Ezra chuckled a little, relieved that Julian wasn't furious at him for losing their fortune. But his heart hadn't really been in the apology; he couldn't truly say he was sorry he stayed, even though it meant the forfeiture of a large sum of money. Such a loss should upset him more, he mused, and wondered why it didn't. He knew he should have taken Julian's advice and stopped the fight-they'd be rich now if he had, and that was the most important thing, after all-but he just couldn't make himself regret his actions. Another puzzle to add to the pile, he supposed.

Julian was smiling. "Lord, though, you should've heard the crowd when you flattened Barber. I don't think he'll have quite such a frightening reputation around here anymore. I guess thinking about the money really helped, eh?"

Ezra thought a moment as he stared at Julian, surprised. He clearly remembered the final moments of the fight, and knew that the money had never entered his mind then. Not once. Something else had given him the strength to deliver the final blow, but he couldn't pin it down. He had wanted to stop Barber, but the thought that his strength had sprung from that desire bewildered him deeply. He was no crusader against injustice and wrong; if he were, he'd have to lock himself up, as he was at least as much a sinner as Barber was. Perhaps it had been a brief bout of insanity...

The doctor appeared again, a steaming bowl of soup held in his large hands. "Hungry, Mr. Simpson? My wife makes an excellent chicken broth."

Ezra blinked, amazed at the kindness. He was very hungry, come to think of it. "Yes, sir, thank you."

The doctor set down the bowl, and in a few moments he and Julian had managed to settle Ezra into a sitting position.

"Your hospitality is most appreciated, sir," Ezra continued as he sat back, and fought down a twinge of guilt that he and Julian had come to town to swindle these people.

"Not at all," the doctor said, handing Ezra the bowl. "Merely repaying the favor you did for my daughter."

Ezra looked up at the older man, realizing. "Your daughter...Miss Anne?"

"Indeed," was the smiling reply, and Julian appeared to be enjoying Ezra's surprise as well. "She thinks the world of you, you know, for standing up to Barber. Nobody else here ever has. I wager he'll be moving on, once he has the power to move at all. You're a brave young fellow, my boy, and we're all very grateful to you."

The guilt almost choked him, but he managed to force it down. "It was completely my pleasure, sir," he replied.

"You're welcome to stay the night," the doctor went on as he began to walk out of the room, "and if you'd like, I'll be happy to see what I can do with that tooth."

Ezra glanced up, hopeful. "You're trained in the dental arts as well, sir?"

"Yes, indeed, my boy," was the proud reply. "That's my main profession. In return for your service to us, I'd be happy to help you out."

A glum sigh escaped Ezra's lips. "I suppose a painless extraction is all I can ask for," he murmured, staring into his soup.

"Don't worry, son," Dr. Greeves replied cheerfully. "I'm pretty sure that won't be necessary. A simple cap should be all you need, judging from the mild nature of the damage. I might even be able to fit you out with a gold one, if I have any, all at no charge."

Ezra's tired green eyes widened, and at first he could only stammer in surprise. "Sir, I-your generosity astounds me, Doctor."

The older man laughed heartily. "Mr. Simpson, I'd swap a whole mouthful of gold teeth for the chance to see someone knock Barber on his ass. You have no idea what it means to us." He patted Ezra lightly on the shoulder. "You rest up, now, and I'll be by in the morning."

He nodded and walked out, leaving Ezra to finish his meal.

"Well," Ezra mused with a grin, looking up at his partner with delight. "It appears that I will be able to bear my disfigurement in style after all."

"Hmm," was Julian's unimpressed response as he crossed his arms. "I suppose you'll think yourself quite the fancy fellow."

"If you are jealous, sir, I humbly suggest that you step into the ring next time," Ezra said as he sipped another spoonful of soup.

"Oh, no!" Julian said with upraised hands as he sat down in the chair next to the bed. "No, we're through with this con. It's too dangerous."

"To my health or our pocketbooks?" Ezra inquired, after a swallow.

"Both, actually," Julian replied casually, rubbing his chin as he studied his friend. "You really did have me worried there, Ezra," he went on in a more serious tone. "He could have crippled or killed you, you know, and I-" He stopped, paused, thought for a moment, his expression full of confusion and concern which he could not voice. "Well," he said, taking a full, unsteady breath as if to blow away the intrusive emotions, "At any rate, I'm certainly glad you survived."

"No more so than I, I assure you," Ezra returned with a smile, accepting the friendship Julian was unable to express.

"It certainly looked bad there for a while," Julian said as he settled back in the chair and folded his hands. "Why you went back into that ring when we could have ridden away safe and rich, I'll never know."

Ezra drained the last spoonful of soup and contemplated the thought as he sat holding the empty bowl.

"I suppose that makes two of us, my friend," he said quietly.

They sat in silence for a few moments, both occupied with their own thoughts. Then Julian rose and took the bowl.

"Well, I'm going back to our room for the night," he announced. "I'll be back tomorrow morning after I find Patterson and let him know he can return to his corn-shucking duties on the farm."

"I'm sure he will be thrilled," Ezra yawned, wincing at his sore ribs.

"Get some rest," Julian instructed as he turned down the lamp. "I figure we'll ride back East next, maybe see what's happening in Chicago. It'll be cooler there, at any rate." He straightened and walked out. "Good night."

"Night," was the drowsy reply as Ezra settled down into the bed. For a few moments he thought about the day's events, how it had all started out so clear and simple and turned into something very wild and confusing. Why had he continued the fight? What made him do such an insane thing? He felt oddly proud of himself, but that was so strange considering the outcome. They had made no money and he had received a hard beating. He should regard his decision as something obviously foolish and wrong, as it had profited him nothing. But his gut told him different, and he didn't know why.

His mind chewed on the questions for a few minutes, but he was far too weary to think about it for long. The soothing sound of the rain falling gently against the windowpane proved too lulling to resist, and he found himself quickly drifting off. The answers would have to be found another day, perhaps far in the future, perhaps never.

Or perhaps they were already there, right in front of him, and he only needed the courage to see them.

With that possibility in his mind, Ezra fell gratefully asleep.


Four Corners, 1883

"After that, Julian and I ventured back East, plying various new cons until we parted company the following year."

Ezra's wistful voice drifted over the boardwalk as he, JD and Buck continued their watch over the growing crowds. Dusk was approaching now, and several people were already making their way to the end of town for the fireworks.

"So that's where that gold tooth came from," JD mused as he gazed at Ezra.

"Shoot, I always figured you just skinned somebody out of it," Buck said as he leaned back in his chair. He had an admiring light in his eyes, however, as he regarded his comrade.

"So what happened to Miss Anne an' her family?" inquired JD as he leaned forward in his chair, taking off his bowler and mopping sweat from his brow with his sleeve.

Ezra looked into the sky as the memory returned. "Oh, they decided to stay where they were after all. I kept in touch for a while, mostly through the father. She married a lawyer, and had at least two children. All in all, I'd say she recovered from Barber's attention quite nicely."

Buck eyed him keenly. "She ever know who you fellas really were?"

There was a pause, then Ezra shook his head. "No, I never saw any reason to undeceive her. She seemed perfectly happy to believe me a hero, it would have been cruel to shatter that illusion."

"Aw, hell, don't sell yourself so short there, pard," Buck shot back, slapping Ezra's arm. "You did right good, near as I can figure."

Ezra shrugged, uncomfortable.

"Hey, what happened to Barber?" was JD's next question.

"Ah, yes," Ezra said, tilting his head back as a grin split his face. "If what I heard has any validity, he left town shortly after the fight-Dr. Greeves said I gave him a concussion-and a year later, he was knifed to death during a barroom brawl in a silver mining town in Colorado. Apparently he was making unwelcome advances towards a local's sister."

Buck snorted. "Guess he didn't never learn."

The street had cleared out, everyone having moved off to watch the fireworks. The sun had set, bathing the town in a gentle pink glow.

"Well, gentlemen," Ezra said, rising and tucking his cards back into his pocket, "shall we repair to the end of town and watch the festivities? I believe Chris and the others will be awaiting us there."

"An' Miss Viola, I hope," Buck piped as he jumped eagerly to his feet.

"Casey said Miss Nettie was bringin' a whole hamper of food," said JD as he stood and shoved the wooden chair back against the wall. "Sure hope that's true, cause I'm starvin'!"

"Then let us away," Ezra suggested, and they walked into the fading glow of the sunset towards the edge of town. "With luck, we will be able to find something to satisfy both your appetites."

They soon arrived at the end of the street. Before them spread the wide, open expanse of the desert, with the mountains rising over the horizon, tinged with a golden-pink hue in the dimming sunlight. The entire town, it seemed, had gathered there, the men, women and children who lived under the protection of the seven hired guns. People were gathered everywhere, laughing and talking, while the young ones ran and played, impatient for the fireworks to begin.

"'Bout time you showed up!"

Buck's face broke into a grin. "Hey, Nathan!" he said as he greeted the speaker, a handsome young black man who was walking up to them from the crowd. "Guess we're just in time, huh?"

"S'pose so," Nathan said as he returned the smile. "Chris an' everyone else is over yonder, eatin' up the fine spreads Nettie an' Mrs. Travis brought. Y'all better run if you want to get any."

JD's face lit up. "Guess I'll go see if Casey needs any help," he said quickly, and dashed off into the crowd.

Ezra sighed, amused. "I propose we follow him, gentlemen, he is liable to empty the tables in his zeal."

"Darn good idea there, Ezra," Buck agreed, scanning the throng as they waded into it. "I just know Miss Viola's here somewhere."

"I'll go fetch Rain an' be right over," Nathan added, and disappeared.

"Dang, just when you need t'find a gal she plum vanishes on ya," Buck muttered as he and Ezra walked to the edge of the throng.

They found the rest of their small group seated at the edge of the crowd, where they could watch the fireworks and keep an eye on things. There was a general round of greetings and assurances that everything was staying quiet. The long-haired sharpshooter Vin Tanner was perched atop a rock, hand dangling on one raised knee, keeping a keen eye on the crowd. below him stood the tall preacher Josiah Sanchez, leaning against the rock and talking with one of the locals.

Lean, green-eyed Chris Larabee sat nearby, watching with quiet amusement as young Billy Travis and a few other local children raced around in eager anticipation of the coming show. JD had found the picnic spread and was trying to eat a large slice of apple pie and talk to young, pretty Casey Wells at the same time, much to the delight of Casey's aunt Nettie who stood watching close by while talking with Mary Travis, the stately blonde owner of the town's only newspaper.

Ezra found a place to lean against the tall rocks just as the first rocket sped upwards into the air. It exploded into a large ball of red light, eliciting exclamations and applause from the crowd. The children squealed and jumped, the adults laughed and tried to calm them. The attention of the entire crowd had turned to the sky as the fireworks exploded, bathing the desert landscape below in an eerie but beautiful glow.

The gambler took his green eyes from the display and thoughtfully studied the throng around him. It wasn't so different, really, from the crowd who had looked to him all those years ago, a large crowd of strangers he had no ties to other than proximity. He owed them nothing, but yet risked his life on their behalf for what seemed like a truly paltry reward.

And still he did not understand why. This time it surely could not be the money-a dollar a day was hardly a fortune. As before, he was placing himself in danger, and he could tell himself it was for any of a host of reasons-amusement, excitement, the lure of a safe place to stop and rest while he planned what money-making venture to try next. Any of these might explain why he had chosen this life, with these men, in this place.

Then, of course, there was another idea, one which caused him to almost laugh out loud every time it presented itself. The notion that he was doing this out of any deeply buried, little-used sense of decency never failed to amuse him. He was no hero, merely a wayward, sinning gambler, and he had never harbored any delusions as to his state of grace. It was far less complicated to think he had fought Barber because he was young and foolish, and he was staying in Four Corners because it was a good place to wait until the road called again.

Besides, he told himself as the sky lit up with a rainbow of blossoming fire, this was a holiday, and such heavy thoughts should be set aside for another day. He was perfectly content to enjoy the present and leave the questions for the future.

With any luck, he would find the answers there as well.

Ezra settled back against the rock and enjoyed the fireworks with a wide smile, their sun-like brilliance bathing the crowd in its light and glinting brightly off of Ezra's gleaming gold tooth.

THE END


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