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Scotching the Snake

by Rhymer23

 

The Seven ride against a dangerous gang, and two strangers come to town. As the sun beats mercilessly down, trust is eroded and suspicions grow, threatening the future of the Seven, and the life of one of their number.

 

Characters: Ezra, Buck, Chris, in roughly that order of priority. The rest of the Seven appear throughout, some in bigger roles than others, but are not viewpoint characters.

 

Genre: Gen, drama, angst, h/c (Ezra)

 

Pairings: None. Well, unless you count Buck being Buck with a visiting lady.

 

Rating: PG-13. Some non-graphic violence.

 

Note: This story is set some weeks after the final episode of the show. While I am aware that many episode listings put the final two episodes in production order, I have gone with the order in which they aired and in which they appear on the DVD - i.e. Serpents before Obsession.

 

British spelling alert! I'm British, and have used British spellings of words where the spelling doesn't affect the pronunciation. I've done everything I can to make the characters sound American, though, including getting a tame native to read it.

 

___

 

Chapter one

 

Buzzards circled far above the parched landscape, dark against the shimmering blue. Ezra grimaced as he squinted up at them. "Their presence does not, as a whole, bode well for this coming adventure."

 

There was no response, of course. A fly investigated the back of his neck, and he shooed it away. A tired, broken-down horse hung its head. The rocks gave a little shade, but not enough. Ezra glowered at one particularly forbidding outcrop. "How I allow myself to be talked into ridiculous situations like this, I swear I have no idea."

 

The rocks were silent. The fly returned with a friend, the two of them apparently engaged in a loud contest to see who could bother Ezra more insistently. He swatted them away, but they only came straight on back. Then the horse flicked its tail, and a whole new multitude of flies decided that Ezra offered a richer hunting ground than the stolid animal. He took off his borrowed hat and flapped it at them. "I know, I know, there's no need to say it. This particular ridiculous situation was entirely my own idea. Believe me, that is what disturbs me the most."

 

Once upon a time, not so long ago, his ideas all culminated in pleasingly large bundle of cash. Sometimes they hit unexpected snags and took temporary detours into the realms of 'exit pursued by bear', but the intention was always riches and comfort. What has gone wrong? he thought, as sweat trickled down his back, trapped beneath his thick, foul-smelling coat. Whatever can be wrong with me?

 

The sun was merciless. Ezra tipped up his canteen, depositing a trickle of warm water into his parched throat. Heat ran through him in waves, but the coat was necessary.  Necessary, he reminded himself, looking at the fabric in disgust. He could almost imagine that it was steaming, foul with sweat and unmentionable things.

 

Far too much time had passed already. The horses shifted, and he murmured meaningless comfort at them. He had placed them as far into the shade as he could, half hidden by the rocks. He, of course, had to stay in the open, like the tethered sacrificial goat that he was. The ground rose sharply on either side of the trail, offering a hundred hiding places for men with guns. He scanned the nearest outcrop again, but saw no movement. His fist clenched at his side, and loosened again. His hands itched for his cards; for the sweet balm to his soul that was the feel of cards flowing like cool water through his fingers.

 

Chris had accepted Ezra's plan with barely a murmur, his lips pressing into a line, his eyes flickering as he silently ran through the options. The plan was Ezra's, and that made it suspect - doubtless part of a game that would result in monetary benefit to Ezra's own snake-like self. But if the plan went wrong, there was little to lose. Ezra was the only one likely to get gunned down, slaughtered, cut down in his prime, martyred in the wilderness, and that meant…

 

Ezra shook his head, sighing. He was being uncharitable towards their noble leader. On the surface, there were no cracks in the unity of the seven. Past differences were done and dusted. Chris knew he could trust every one of them in a fight. Chris knew…

 

Ezra pushed his hat back; wiped his hand across his sodden brow. Heat rose like a mirage, shivering on the distant crags. As he pulled his hat brim down again, the heat seemed to coalesce into a single flash of glaring silver. Ezra stiffened, all other sensation fading into unimportance as he watched the place where the flash had come from. Just one flash? He let out a shuddering breath, smiling to himself, but a second flash wiped the smile clean from his face. After a long pause, it was repeated again: one flash, then another, the message inescapable.

 

"Well, then," Ezra said to the vast emptiness that surrounded him, "the game's afoot." He tipped his hat to the eyeless outcrops above him. "The con, as Mother might say, is on."

 

The buzzards drew closer, harsh in the blue.

 

******

 

Jamie knew not to complain a third time. Barrett was unpredictable at the best of times, but a long ride in the unrelenting heat made him deadly. He rode with the reins in one broad hand, the other hand idle and twitching at his side. Men died when Barrett had an idle hand.

 

"How's about taking a break, boss?" Dan Taylor and Barrett went way back, long enough for Dan to get away with saying things that the others could only think. "The horses need it. The boy here needs it." Dan nodded towards the rocky slope that rose so steeply on either side of the trail. "There's shade, boss, the first we've had in hours."

 

Barrett's hand rested gently on his gun, and Jamie stiffened; held his breath for a moment, then let it out. "Shade, Dan?" Barrett said, without turning round. His tone never gave anything away. He could speak perfectly calm like, then lash out with a knife and spill a man's guts on the floor. "Did that bullet shoot the brain right out your skull?"

 

Dan rubbed the livid scar above his right eye. Jamie puffed out another breath, feeling the air rush across his face, prickling the sweat. "I know what you're thinking, boss," Dan protested, "but no-one knows we're riding today. No-one knows who we are."

 

"No-one, Dan?" Barrett's voice was still soft, still expressionless. "Care to stake your life on that?"

 

Dan subsided. Jamie wiped his brow with a dusty hand, and eased his horse to the left, where patchy shadows reached down from the high rocks. Dan drew back, letting Barrett ride ahead. "What he means, laddie," he said, sneering the last word, but not unpleasantly, "is that the self-same geographical feature that causes these most welcome shadows also means that this place is a perfect site for an ambush, and it is thus ill-advisable to halt in these parts."

 

"I… I knew that," Jamie protested. Someone behind him laughed. Dan moved away, dropping the pose of a school teacher, abandoning the fancy words. "I knew that," Jamie muttered again to himself. He shot a wary glance at the high outcrops. Nothing moved, except… No, that was a bird. No, no… He shook his head firmly. There was no possibility of anyone lying in wait for them. Barrett would bring them through safely; he always did. Barrett was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Barrett had never failed, had never lost a fight, had never been wounded, had never been touched by the law.

 

Barrett kept the monsters away. When you rode with Barrett you were untouchable, a king of the world.

 

"Laddie!" Dan hissed urgently, and Jamie realised that Barrett had given the signal to halt. Distracted, Jamie had been about to blunder straight on past that commanding hand. He pulled his horse to a halt, only half a head behind Barrett himself. Dan took his place at his leader's right hand. "It's an open wagon of some sort, boss," he said, shielding his eyes against the glare. "Two horses. Just one man. Too far away to see how he's armed."

 

Jamie peered ahead, squinting until he could see what Barrett had seen. The wagon was lurching crazily, veering sideways across the trail. In the still air of the summer afternoon, he thought he could hear someone shouting at the horses, but it was too late to avert disaster. The wagon fell, twisting sideways, blocking the trail. A man jumped off just in time, stood there in evident dismay for a moment, then rushed to free the straining horses.

 

"Just one man?" Barrett said grimly. "We'll see." He flicked his fingers, giving orders. The group moved closer, the heat forgotten. Jamie checked his weapons. Shivers of expectation ran down his spine. He looked up at the crags, feeling their weight above him. Still no-one there. Still no-one.

 

"Be ready." Dan shot Jamie a quick look.

 

"For what?" Jamie mouthed back, as they neared the fallen wagon.

 

Dan gave a quick grim smile. "For anything." The smile faded. Jamie felt the sweat on the palm of his hand, hot against the barrel of his gun.

 

The man from the wagon watched them approach with obvious hope. "Thank the Lord you've come along," he gasped, wiping a filthy hand across a harassed face. His accent stirred sharp memories of home. "The axle broke and I couldn't hold them. Straight into the hole we went."

 

"Really?" Barrett held up a hand, fingers outstretched, indicating where the others should stop. "How convenient."

 

The man shook his head, frowning. "Gey inconvenient, that's for sure. Here's me with a mass of fodder for the kine, but Jock and Fergus, noble beasties that they are, cannae pull a wagon with a broken axle. Look at the mess! Look at it!"

 

The man picked up a handful of brittle straw, and scattered it despairingly. Dust rose in a cloud.  Much of the load was spilled across the road, but large heaps remained, piled up in the bed of the toppled wagon.

 

"Fodder, is it?" Barrett said, tall on his horse. Whipping his gun from his holster, he fired it into the wagon, piercing the straw again and again. The man shouted in outrage at the first shot, then recoiled, twisting his hands together at his chest. After four shots, Barrett stopped, and looked intently at the settling load. His smile was a challenge, and his hand on the gun was expectant, as if he was waiting for reason to fire again.

 

"What did you do that for?" the man shouted, recovering himself. He ripped off his shapeless hat, scraped his hand through his hair, and jammed it back on again. "Are you daft?"

 

"You're blocking our way." Barrett pulled out a second gun and rested it carefully on his saddle horn. "You appear to have suffered your accident at the narrowest part, when there is no possibility of anyone on horseback getting past while you remain here."

 

"Which is why I'm trying to move the damn thing," the man said through gritted teeth. "Now, if some of your strapping laddies would help instead of just sitting there…"

 

Jamie watched Barrett; watched the tightening of his hand that was the only sign that he was thinking. Dan was scouring the cliffs, raking the outcrops with his eyes. Jamie adjusted his grip on his gun, feeling the damp skin peel away from the metal. "Dan," Barrett commanded at last. "Matt. Jamie."

 

Jamie swallowed; moistened his lips. Dan dismounted without a word, and Jamie belatedly followed. Matt, tall and fair, jumped into the slanting wagon, balanced himself precariously with his arms out, and began to stomp on the remaining piles of straw, his boots thudding against the wood. Dan moved to the horses, talking softly to them, gentling them with one hand while his eyes were elsewhere. Jamie swallowed again. "You're Scottish," he said, facing the man across the dirt. Barrett's shadow fell on both of them, silent and dark.

 

The man smiled with delight. "Do I hear the accent of another exile from my ain native land?"

 

"Jamie Gowrie," Jamie said, touching the brim of his hat. "From Skye. Ma and Pa came over before I was born, but they told me such stories. Where are you from?" He smiled sheepishly. "I don't know accents as well as I should."

 

The man's own smile faded. "Your chief is glowering on that enormous horse of his. I fear there's no time for chatter. But afterwards, perhaps, there might be time to share a wee dram and talk about the auld country." He looked past Jamie, raising his voice. "That won't get you anywhere. I couldn't move it as much as an inch."

 

Dan ignored him, looking up at Barrett. "Six men might do it." Barrett said nothing. "We can't get past unless…"

 

"No," said Barrett. Calm, he was deadly. Sharp like this, he was worse. "No, we can't." His eyes glittered as he looked down at them, his shadow shifting across them all.

 

******

 

"What's he doing down there?" Chris whispered, his voice no louder than breathing. "He's taking too long."

 

Buck didn't dare shake his head; didn't dare speak. A bug crawled over the back of his hand. He tried to shake it off, but it just carried on regardless, its legs tickling his skin. Was it poisonous? Vin would know, or Nathan, but they weren't here. They were trapped in their own separate hell of waiting. Course, such things probably weren't hell to someone like Vin. Even Ezra was able to stay still for hours at a time, unless you counted his hands, which were always moving. Indolent, he had described himself once, when one or other of them had been all set to reproach him.  Indolent, and unrepentantly so.

 

Chris' hand tightened on his gun, dust cracking in lines across his knuckles. "Shouldn'ta let him do this."

 

"Shoulda," Buck said, just a breath out of the corner of his mouth. He could see hardly a thing, just rock and dust and a part of that damn withered plant, like a dark skeleton in front of his face. His muscles ached from staying so still. He tried to flex them; tried to stay ready.

 

Chris had taken the best vantage point for himself. "He's talking to them. What's he saying? Probably striking a deal."

 

"No." Buck shook his head as much as he dared.

 

This wasn't the place to say what needed to be said. Wasn't the time, neither. Chances were there would never be a place or time. It wasn't easy to tell Chris Larabee that you thought he was wrong. Hell, it wasn't easy to talk to him at all these last few weeks. If he wasn't drunk and angry, he was sober and worse.

 

"You know what he's like, Buck." Chris said it almost without moving his lips. His profile was as cold and set as it had ever been.

 

The sun beat down on the back of Buck's neck. Sweat dribbled between his shoulder blades. He concentrated on stopping his calf muscle from going into cramp. "I know." He nodded. "I really do, Chris." He was less good than Chris at keeping his voice quiet. He wasn't made for this life. He wasn't made for staying still.

 

Every man had his feet of clay, and Buck was confident that he knew Ezra's. Two months before, Ezra had nearly run out on them, taking with him a fortune in dead man's money. But he'd come back. When lives were at stake, he'd done the right thing, nearly dying in the process. That was it as far as Buck was concerned: end of story. Hell, he had too many weaknesses of his own to go blaming other men for theirs. A pretty face and the right woman, and he'd be right outta here without looking back. The right woman, and he would…

 

A shout from below. Was that Ezra? Chris didn't move, and Buck let out a shaky breath. At least there was no more shooting. It had almost killed Buck to stay completely still through all that. Chris had stiffened at the gunshots, his jaw tightening angrily, but hadn't reacted in any other way. Ezra was okay, then. Chris wouldn't sit back and watch one of his men get hurt, no matter what lay between them. Chris wouldn't… No, no. Chris wouldn't.

 

Buck had thought it was all settled - the issue of Ezra walking out on them wiped out when he saved Mary Travis's life. Then, only weeks later, Ella Gaines had come back into Chris's life. Ella Gaines had come back into his life, and had ripped it apart with her bare hands. A beautiful woman, with the heart of a demon. Such a damn shame, such an offence against nature. Chris hadn't been the same since then.

 

Ezra ain't Ella, Buck wanted to say. None of us are Ella. Just 'cause she betrayed you don't mean we will.

 

But some things were easier not said. It would pass in time. Time healed all wounds: wasn't that what they said? Time healed all wounds. All you could do was wait, and seek pleasure where you could, and try to forget.

 

"Come on, Ezra," Chris hissed, the whisper harsh with anger, his knuckles white on the gun. "Come on."

 

All you could do was wait. And it half killed him sometimes, waiting.

 

******

 

"Jamie," Barrett commanded, but Jamie had no idea what he meant. When you rode with Barrett you were a king of the world, sure, but sometimes he made you feel like the lowliest worm that crawled on a dunghill.

 

"Best do what your chief says, laddie," the stranger said, with a curious smile.

 

They were standing at the foot of the wagon, straw mired around their ankles. Jamie looked up, fixing his eyes on Barrett's face, but the face gave nothing away. The sunlight was behind him, his eyes cast in shadow. Not that it mattered, of course. With Barrett, it was always in the hands. Everything was always in the hands.

 

The stranger turned his back on Barrett and began to walk away.

 

Barrett's hand twitched; his knuckles tightened. The gun was up in a heartbeat, firing at the stranger's back.

 

The stranger fell, and the world exploded in gun fire.

 

******

 

Ezra dropped to the ground and rolled, coming up with the derringer in his right hand. He shot at the leader's right arm; heard a cry, but had no time to find out if he had hit. He rolled again, feeling stones dig into his body from the road. Bullets smashed into the straw only inches away. Dust flew up, and his next breath caught in his throat, but he was safe by then, protected by the wagon.

 

Safe? he thought. With ten vengeful malefactors who are surely determined to end my miserable life? He tore open the foul borrowed coat, ripping its buttons, and dragged out his concealed Remington. Guns sounded from above, echoing off the rocks, sounding like a veritable army. Chris, he thought. Buck. Josiah. Vin. Strange that he was in a position to recognise the guns of his comrades, just by their sound. He leant out of cover, firing at a man who was taking careful aim upwards, then hiding himself again as a bullet flew past mere inches from his head.

 

Strange that he had comrades...

 

He moved in the opposite direction, and stood up to shoot over the top. There was no time to look for the others. If they were doing their jobs properly, they would be invisible, anyway. But they were there. They were there. It was hard to place your faith in invisible back-up, trusting that they would be there when you needed them. It was hard to place your faith at all. It went against the grain. It went against everything you had ever been taught.

 

A bullet struck the wagon, and came right through, passing just a hair's breadth from his face. "Perhaps this location is not so safe, after all," he murmured. A horse screamed. Ezra returned to his original position, his hand on the edge of the wagon. The Scottish boy was crouching low, desperately scanning the cliffs to find a target. Three guns fired almost together, and the boy gave a cry and fell forwards, blood staining the straw.

 

Ezra fired at another man, striking him in the heart. Another man dead. Another man dying without Ezra knowing his name. He drew back into cover, but not fast enough. A bullet took his hat off. Another scraped his arm. It hurt like the fires of hell, but he thought it was only a graze. He had experienced enough of those lately to recognise such a thing.

 

Resting his left hand against the wagon, he took a deep breath and then another, forcing away the awareness of pain. His eyes returned to proper focus to see the boy looking at him, clawing at the ground, clutching futile fists of dirty straw. His gun lay just out of reach, forgotten in the dirt. His eyes widened when he saw Ezra looking at him, then moved to a place beyond Ezra's shoulder, the pupils flickering from side to side.

 

Ezra whirled round, firing without pausing to look, then adjusted his aim and fired a second time. The man who had been creeping up on him fell heavily to the ground, blood spreading across his shirt front. His face set in agony and determination, he struggled to raise his gun again. "Don't," Ezra told him quietly, and the man's gun drooped as his hand went slack, then fell completely. The man's eyes remained open, flooded with pain.

 

"Give up!" Chris shouted from above. "If you surrender now--"

 

Renewed gunfire was his answer. Pinned between the eyes of two desperately wounded men, Ezra reloaded. The Scottish boy had pushed himself up to his knees, his face twisted with agony. "Come on," Ezra urged him, on impulse. "It's safer here." The boy blinked, tears visible on his cheeks. Ezra chewed his lip, then pushed himself forward, scrambling out of cover. A bullet narrowly missed him. Transferring his gun to his left hand, he shot at his assailant, and shot again as he tugged at the boy's shirt. The boy moaned in desperate denial, but Ezra hauled at him, and almost fell when the boy went limp. There were only inches to go now, only inches. The boy's hand found his gun, closed on it, gripped it like a lifeline. Then he cried out, and tried to curl his leg ups, writhing in the dust. "That's right," Ezra said, but he didn't know… He didn't…

 

Oh Lord, he was so tired of all this.

 

He stood up; fired again. Another scream. But the gunfire was lessening now. Chris shouted a second time. The leader was down, face down and unmoving. The remaining men looked small and desperate. Then one of them cried out, Vin's bullet striking him in the shoulder. Another fell to Buck. Only three remained standing, and they dropped their weapons, raising their hands. Their expressions were familiar to Ezra from so many gaming tables. These were men who were facing the unthinkable, who had lost when they had only ever expected to win. He had seen the same look more than once in his own mirror.

 

We did that, Ezra thought, closing his eyes for a moment and pressing his hot brow against the wood. My comrades and I. My friends.

 

Blood trickled slowly down his arm, and all was still.

 

******

 

Jamie had never known such pain. The guns fell silent, and he thought he had gone deaf. "I can't hear anything," he whispered, and even his voice was a fragile thread of a thing.

 

But then there were voices. He saw the top of the rock face, harsh against the blue. A man was scrambling down the precarious slope, while two others covered him from above. Sunlight gleamed on metal, and it hurt his eyes, so he closed them. When he opened them again, everything was blurry, with just those glares of light that were his enemy's guns.

 

His lip hurt, as if he'd bitten it somehow. Something warm trickled down his chin. He coughed, and red fire consumed him, like the hell that wild-eyed preacher had promised them all, back before Barrett had gunned him down. Ma, he thought. I want my ma. Or Barrett to look at him and say he was proud of him. Or Dan, or anyone; anyone except being alone.

 

Someone touched him, and he moaned. Help me, he thought. Don't touch me, it hurts. His gun was in his right hand, burning in the sun, or maybe it was just that his hand was so very cold. He found himself shaking. He was thirsty, so desperately thirsty.

 

"Lie still," a voice said, and he saw the man, the man from the wagon, the stranger from his own land, whose voice had reminded him of home. The voice was all different now, stripped away along with everything else. Home was impossibly far away.

 

"You…" He coughed again, and tried to roll over onto his side, but couldn't remember how to. "You're not… It was all…" He coughed again. His mouth tasted of dust and blood. "It was a trick."

 

The man's face was blurry, bleeding away at the edges. He was still at first, but then he nodded.

 

"I thought…" Pain surged up and drove all thoughts away. Something enormously heavy was pressing down on his chest.

 

"Lie still," the man said again.

 

Through the darkness, Jamie remembered his gun. He focused on it as if it was the Pole Star on a pitch dark night. All he had to do was move it, to pull the trigger. Barrett would proud of him then, surely he would.

 

But his hands felt as if they belonged to someone else, the fingers like slabs of ice. "Dying," he rasped. He hadn't meant to.

 

"Oh, no, not at all," the man said brightly. "Lie still, and you will most assuredly be fine."

 

He was drowning in blood, scarcely able to breathe. He tried to pull the trigger, but felt the gun slip away, blazing against his icy hands. His star went out. "But you're… a lying… treacherous… snake," he managed, and there was nothing after that, nothing at all.

 

******

 

The dead men's scattered horses had been rounded up. Buck and Josiah were loading them with the bodies of their masters, while Nathan tended to the glowering wounded. Chris surveyed the blood-stained scene. "Where's Ezra?"

 

Vin was in the saddle, leading a muscled grey. He nodded his answer with his chin. Chris went where he indicated, rounding the end of the fallen wagon, and found Ezra kneeling beside a dead man, his hand on his chest.

 

As usual, the dull anger surged up again. "It's no time to be looting corpses, Ezra."

 

Ezra's hand was still. "Yes," he said stiffly, not looking at Chris. "You are correct, as usual. He is indeed dead."

 

Chris closed his hand on the splintered wood. "Damn it, Ezra…"

 

Ezra stood up, wiping his hand on his borrowed coat, leaving behind a bloody smear. "Say it, Chris." He looked different, but it was probably just the clothes. They made him look tired, tattered round the edges.

 

There were so many things that Chris could have said; so many things that had gone round and round in his mind during that long wait on the rocks. Instead he remembered his last coherent thought before all hell had broken loose. "Why'dya turn your back on him, Ezra?"

 

"It was a calculated risk," Ezra said, in his stranger's clothes. "I judged that my young Scottish friend would reveal it in his eyes if his leader went for his gun." Ezra fixed him with eyes of his own that revealed nothing. "I am sure there is no need for me to remind you that it is my job to know how to read a man. I judged the boy to be one who would give things away." His eyes lowered for a moment. "As indeed he was. A poor poker player, I would wager."

 

"Damn it, Ezra," Chris snarled. "You shouldn't have risked everything on a hunch."

 

Ezra blinked. "On the contrary, I believe I risked very little, beyond the risk that I was already taking. We were unsure that we had the right men. You wished to allow them to demonstrate their nefarious credentials before shooting them down. How better to do that than to offer them the chance to shoot an unarmed man in the back? I was confident that I had read all the players correctly. I was proved right. Here we stand, clad in righteousness, victory and foul tailoring." With a grimace of disgust, he turned away from Chris and began to remove the coat.

 

Chris clenched his fist at his side, and fought the urge to hit him hard. Then Nathan called his name from the other side of the wagon, so he nodded tersely at Ezra, and stalked away. It was probably best that way.

 

******

 

The boy was dead. It shouldn't matter, Ezra told himself. The boy had been part of Barrett's gang, and had doubtless killed his own share of innocents. Ezra had not fired the shots that had killed him. Who did? he wondered, watching the others finish their preparations to leave. Josiah had fixed the lumbering wagon, repairing the damage he had deliberately done just hours before. Vin was on his horse, ready to go. Nathan was wiping blood-stained hands on a piece of rag, looking troubled. Chris was… Chris was Chris, and in the last few weeks that had meant something different from what it had come to mean over the previous year.

 

Ezra had changed out of his foul disguise, but everything still felt wrong, as if he was no longer at home in his own clothes. The sun was sinking ever lower, but the heat was as fierce as ever. "I don't know about you, gentlemen," he said, "but I for one am keen to repair to the bath house on our return."

 

Vin's head snapped up, but it was nothing to do with Ezra. Not one of them acted as if they had heard him at all. "Someone's coming," Vin said, pulling out his telescope. "Looks like the stage."

 

"It's early." Chris frowned. "I don't like it."

 

Ezra pulled out his watch and consulted it. "No, indeed, Mr Larabee, I believe it is just about on time. We are a long way out of town, and the hour is getting late." He snapped the watch shut. Hours had passed while he had waited as bait in the trap. It had felt more like years.

 

JD looked anxiously at the bodies of the fallen outlaws. "We can't let decent folks see this."

 

"Reckon they gotta get used to such things round here," Buck said. "Better than meeting scum like this alive."

 

The stage coach drew closer, dust billowing up from its wheels. Ezra raked a hand through his hair, and straightened his hat. The boy's blood was caked behind his nails. He curled his fingers into the palm of his hand, and tried to forget that he had seen that. Then he saw that Chris was looking at him. "My hands are my livelihood," he explained. "I have to take care of them." Chris saw what he expected to see, of course. He always did.

 

Everyone always did.

 

The stage coach drew up in front of them, its dark horses heaving in the heat. Buck approached it with his most ingratiating smile, putting on the voice he used when courted a better class of women. "We must apologise for the impediment to your journey. We're the law from Four Corners, and we've just been engaged in capturing a very notorious gang of no-good outlaws."

 

The door opened. An elegant foot placed itself firmly on the step. Silk rustled, and a vision of loveliness stepped out onto the barren road. Buck smiled in wonder, and rushed to offer her his arm, but her smile rested on him only briefly before passing on. "Why, how fortunate. My brother and I are destined for Four Corners ourselves." She looked at Chris then JD then Josiah. "How safe I will feel, knowing that there are such brave men to defend me!" Her smile moved to Vin and to Nathan, and then to Ezra. "Are you all lawmen? All seven of you?" Her eyes were very blue, and there was no smile in them, not at all.

 

No, Ezra thought to himself, I'm a lying, treacherous snake. But he smiled back, and said what was expected of him, just as he always did.

 

Her eyes lingered on him, just a little longer than they needed to.

 

******

 

end of chapter one

 

******

 

The cards flowed through Ezra's hands, telling him that nothing had changed. No matter what happened, this was the same. If the world went mad around him, and wild beasts bayed in the darkness, he still had his cards, and they danced to the tune that he played for them. He was their master. Everything was as it should be.

 

"Hey, look, JD, Ezra's back." Buck sat down in the chair beside him. "Nice to see ya, Ezra." He tipped his hat as JD took his place on Ezra's other side, flanking him with their words.

 

"We took Barrett's gang down this afternoon," JD said, nodding with all the earnestness of someone who had no skill in playing a part.

 

"The six of us," Buck said, "and some stranger - a disreputable fella in a dirty coat. Woo-ee, that coat sure did stink!" He frowned, tilting his head to one side. "He sure looked a bit like you, though."

 

The cards kept up their dance. Ezra drew out the one he wanted, flipped it to the top of the pack, and shuffled it in again. His arm hurt, the skin pulling on his wound. Six of us, he thought. Of course. Of course. He smiled faintly, letting them have their joke.

 

"You know, Buck…" JD's eyes widened in theatrical astonishment. "I think it was Ezra."

 

Buck turned towards Ezra, narrowing his eyes. Together they scrutinised him, pinning him from each side.

 

The cards danced on.

 

"You sure of that, JD?" Buck said, shaking his head. "Never known Ezra go out without those fancy clothes of his. Think it was some stranger happened to look like him."

 

They would make it last for hours, if he let them. Perhaps they would, anyway, roping the others in to join the charade, keeping it going for days and days. Ezra let the cards fall still, and smoothed out a crease from his sleeve. The clothes were like the cards - a way to prove to himself that nothing had changed. He felt more like himself in this old, familiar mask of clothing. His hands were scrubbed clean, a familiar shirt was on his back, and all was well.

 

All was well.

 

"You okay, Ezra?" he heard JD ask.

 

"I'm fine, thank you." Abandoning the cards, he turned his attention to his drink, swirling it around the glass in neat circles. "Merely weary from too many hours spent beneath an unforgiving sun."

 

"Tell me about it!" JD said with feeling. "But it was worth it, wasn't it?" He looked from Ezra to Buck, all outward enthusiasm, hiding something far less sure. "Barrett's gang--"

 

"Were truly heartless malefactors, who have received their just deserts," Ezra finished for him. He drained his glass, and put it down carefully, empty. "We did our duty. Never again will they rob innocent folk of their hard-earned money, or ravage innocent women."

 

"Yeah," Buck agreed, stretching out his legs. "We did good, boy. Don't go worryin' on account of that."

 

Ezra tried his cards again, letting them flow through his fingers like water. His arm throbbed, and his lips burned with strong whisky. He had scrubbed his hands, and scrubbed them again. He had lounged in the bath until all the sweat and grime had been washed clean from him. Just another day's work in this crazy life he had committed himself to out west.

 

He sighed, although he really didn't mean to. He had been better at concealing things, once.

 

"Y'okay, Ezra?" It was Buck this time. "Arm troublin' ya?"

 

Ezra shook his head, a silent 'nothing.' Maybe it was just that the others were better at reading him than they used to be. But, no. The things they had said during the sorry business of the assassin's fee showed that they barely knew him at all, and just today Chris had accused him of robbing a dead man, the young boy he had tried to save.

 

He stood up; scraped the chair back; went for another drink. JD and Buck talked the whole time he was gone, their words almost lost in the hum of noise from the rest of the saloon. They fell silent when he returned. Probably nothing, he told himself.

 

"I keep thinking about the boy," he found himself saying, although he had not intended that, either.

 

"What boy?" JD asked.

 

Ezra sat down; kept his hand wrapped around his glass. He could shrug it off, of course, and let the conversation move on to other things. After all, that had always been his way. He talked and talked, but said so little. Like a conjurer distracting his audience from his sleight of hand, he used words to hide the truth. Only once…

 

He took a mouthful of drink, and placed it down again carefully beside the cards, his knuckles white. He had spoken nothing but truth to Josiah once, and look what had happened then. It was best to hide. It was best to withdraw, especially when Chris…

 

But Chris had his reasons, of course.

 

"There was a boy with Barrett's gang," he said, looking at his cards, at his hands, at the play of light in his glass. "By chance, I had chosen a persona that caused him to feel fellow feeling towards me. I was with him when he died. I…" He looked up, hazarding everything. "I tricked him, and he died."

 

"But you trick people all the time," JD said.

 

Ezra pressed his lips together; curled his fingers so that they dug into the table. "Quite," he said. "Of course I do."

 

"If you mean young Jamie Gowrie," Buck said, "he was as bad as the rest of them. We all saw the Wanted posters. He was seen murdering--"

 

"I know," Ezra said, more harshly than he intended. He wanted to scrape his hand across his face, but people were watching, and appearances had to be maintained, after all. Say what people expect to hear, and do what people except you to do, because if you don't… Because if you don't, they'll just believe you've done it, anyway.

 

He let out a breath. "I know," he said, more quietly. "He made mistakes." Who didn't make mistakes? "He…" He wrapped his hand around his glass again. "Who knows what lies behind the choices people make? But you're right, of course. I have no doubt that he deserved justice…"

 

He let his voice trail away. I tricked him, he wanted to say, but JD had already given the answer to that. He tricked people all the time, and this was nothing new. It was what he did - Ezra the con man, Ezra the thief. He had refused to join his mother in running any sort of con in Four Corners, but that counted for nothing. He had won money, yes, but only the money that people were willing to stake. Yes, he had tried to take the assassin's money, but only because everyone expected him to. Had they trusted him in the first place, he would have guarded it with his life.

 

Or maybe he was lying to himself. Maybe he was just a lying, treacherous snake. A dying boy had called him that. You saw things clearly, just before you died, or so they said.

 

"So who's the lady, Buck?" JD asked, leaning across the table expectantly. "The lady on the stage?"

 

Buck shrugged disingenuously. "Why d'ya think I'd know a thing like that?"

 

"Because you're Buck Wilmington?" JD looked at Ezra, as if seeking support. Ezra gave the expected smile. His glass was empty, and his arm was throbbing in time with the rhythm of his heart. "Come on, Buck, I know you were finding out everything you could about her while I was working hard at the jail."

 

"Well, in that case…" Buck leant forward, propping his chin on his hands and smiling conspiratorially. "A little bird might just have told me that she's called Miss Amelia Covington, and she's here with her brother, here to stay. They've taken rooms at the hotel, but aim to rent a house in town." He reached across the table to swat JD on the shoulder. "Though why ya asking 'bout her, boy, when you and Miss Casey are as good as engaged to be married?"

 

"We're not!" JD protested, blushing.

 

Buck pushed his chair back, pretending to be about to stand up. "So you won't mind if I tell her you said that?"

 

They degenerated into banter, and Ezra was forgotten. He remembered a pair of cold blue eyes fixing on him as he had stood there with the blood of a dead boy on his hands. Stupid, he told himself. Stupid to care. Nothing had changed, nothing at all. He picked up his cards again, and tried to lose himself in their familiar pattern.

 

Time passed. His fingers fumbled, and a dozen cards scattered on the table, the nine of diamonds landing on the top. The curse of Scotland, he thought, with a grim smile. How apt.

 

Buck coughed loudly into his hand. It was a clear warning, unsubtle and crude, and JD's reaction was worse, whirling round guiltily. "You, gentlemen," Ezra said quietly, "are sadly deficient in subterfuge." He gathered his cards together, and by the time the stranger reached their table, the usual mask was in place. Miss Amelia's brother, he concluded, judging from the obvious signals Buck was sending JD.

 

The stranger smiled nervously at them. He was a young man with fair hair, barely older than JD. "Do you mind…?" He cleared his throat nervously. "I don't know anyone, you see, and many of them look…" He glanced round at the other people in the saloon, but refrained from finishing his sentence. "And you gentlemen are lawmen…" His voice rose hopefully.

 

"Of course!" Buck was all hearty joviality, gesturing to the empty chair. Ezra let him handle the introductions, and returned to his cards, smiling when he needed to. The young man was called William Covington, it seemed, and he poured his story out without prompting.

 

"Our parents died of typhoid," he said, over his second drink, "one after the other, and they left us a fair amount of money, but you know how it is." He looked at Ezra, and Ezra returned the look steadily. Covington swallowed, and continued. "Everyone knew us back there. They wouldn't leave us alone. They kept wanting to help - wanting to pass judgement, more like. Whenever I tried to do anything, the aunts said that Pa wouldn't have done it like that, that I was going to lead us into ruin. You know what it's like, competing with the shadow of your father."

 

Buck took a drink, his eyes somewhere else. "Indeed," said Ezra, who had never known his father, but had disappointed enough relatives to fill a dozen lifetimes.

 

"So we decided to sell up and come west," the boy said. "We want to make a new start where no-one knows us." His hands looked nervous on the table.

 

"So you chose Four Corners," Ezra said, flipping the ace of spades to the top of the pack. "Why?" He saw JD turn towards him. Buck snapped his fingers, calling for another drink.

 

"It's a funny story, actually." Covington rubbed his ear. Ezra watched him, remembering an opponent who had done just that every time he was bluffing. "We figured one place was as good as any, so we… uh, we closed our eyes and jabbed a pin into a map of the territories, and let providence decide."

 

"Really?" Ezra raised one eyebrow. The boy's hand closed on his drink, the knuckles white. No older than JD, Ezra reminded himself. No older than the Scottish lad, who had died.

 

"You don't approve?" Covington said, a sudden edge to his voice. "From the cards in your hands, I'd have judged you a man who liked leaving things to chance."

 

"On the contrary," Ezra said, smiling with his lips. "I detest leaving anything entirely to the vagaries of chance."

 

The boy's eyes were as blue as his sister's. "So you cheat? Is that what you're saying?"

 

Neither Buck nor JD said anything, but both were suddenly tense, awaiting Ezra's reaction. Ezra merely smiled, as his arm throbbed, and his throat ached from a day of dust and heat. "On the contrary. When I play with the cards, I no more surrender myself entirely to chance than my colleagues here do when they engage in gun play. A turn of a card can lose a fortune, and a stray bullet can end a life, but we choose to play because we trust that we have sufficient skill to cheat fate for another day. We may not win forever, but we trust that our skill is enough to get us through this day, this night, this game, this fight."

 

"I didn't mean…" Covington gripped the edge of the table as if to stand up, then released it again. "I must apologise. It was a joke. It was an ill-advised joke."

 

"I know," Ezra said, his smile deliberately at odds with his eyes. Covington swallowed again. Buck heaved a loud sigh of relief, and downed another drink. Neither he nor JD had defended Ezra. Of course, he thought. Of course. They would have stepped in had it come to gun play, though, and that had to be enough.

 

But… he thought, and silenced it, his hands on the cards. "So now that we have established that I do not cheat," he said, "can I interest you in a game of chance?" He stressed the last word heavily.

 

Covington's nod was nervous, but his smile was as cold as Ezra's heart, as cold as the winds of winter. Buck, whooping with the relief of tension, saw nothing.

 

Perhaps there was nothing to see.

 

******

 

Chris dreamed of Ella Gaines, enticing him with lies. She looked him in the eye, and she had him believing that black was white, that old friendships were nothing, that he had never loved Sarah, only her.

 

He woke up shaking, desperate for a drink. He raked his hand harshly through his hair, then smashed his fist into the wall. Then he pressed his forehead against his clenched fist, leaning against the wall. Lies, he told himself. Lies. Just lies.

 

He dressed himself for the world outside, and headed out. He had a drink for breakfast, sitting at a table on his own. Everything Ella had done, she had done for him, because of him, because of him. She had killed… Another drink now; drain it in one go. Because of him. Because of him. And lied. And that was the worst of it. She'd lied. She'd played a part. She'd said exactly what she knew would get him dancing to her tune. And blind, trusting, stupid, he'd gone along with it.

 

God, how he hated liars! The life of the gun was honest. There were people you'd die for and people you killed. There were people who covered your back, and people you did your damnedest to put away. There were…

 

"God!" he swore out loud, pushing his drink away. There were other ways to make life more bearable. There was drink, and there was your job. There were outlaws to be hunted down, criminals to be brought to justice. Your little boy had died, but you could save other people's children. It didn't bring them back, but it…

 

He stood up, hurling the chair backwards. But your little boy had died because of lies, because of you, because of a devil woman's twisted way of seeing the world. What was the point of it? What was the point of it all?

 

He walked out into the sun, each step careful. Of course there was a point. There had to be a point. It wasn't about getting answers any more, because he had those, oh, God, he had those. It was about…

 

About what? His steps faltered. About rebuilding your life with friends. About making this small corner of the sorry world as safe as you could make it. About doing right, no matter what you felt like inside. About carrying on, because you'd fought that battle once before, and won.

 

About carrying on.

 

His steps took him to the jail, where Vin was on duty outside, tucked into a small sliver of shade. Chris looked at him in silent question. Any problems? he asked, and Vin gave his answer Nothing serious. They're noisy, but no harm ever came from that. A whole conversation taking place without a word, and maybe that was a reason to keep going, too.

 

Chris let himself in, closing the door behind him on the sunshine. The surviving members of Barrett's gang glared at him, shouting abuse. Chris gave a thin smile; there were times when honest hatred felt almost welcome.

 

The world was better without its shades of grey.

 

******

 

The girl was as beautiful as a summer morning. A stray curl of hair escaped from its intricate arrangement, caressing the side of her slender neck. Her waist was narrow, and her blue skirts swayed as she walked, the hem brushing the dust. Buck hurried to her side, no more able to stop himself than a wolf could stop its howling.

 

"Miss Covington." He touched the brim of his hat, letting his eyes twinkle. "Since you're new to our fair town, I figured you might be in need of a little local help in showing you what's what." He bowed his head, looking up at her with his best smile. "Buck Wilmington, ma'am. We met yesterday."

 

"The law. Yes, I remember, Mr Wilmington." She smiled at him, and Buck's heart started to beat a little faster. "I do in fact find myself a little… bewildered. All these people, and not one of them known to me. Perhaps you could discreetly point out those who can be trusted, and those whom I should avoid like the plague."

 

"My pleasure, ma'am." He offered her his arm, and she took it. "We'll start with me. Buck Wilmington. I'm one of the good guys."

 

"I know that, Mr Wilmington." He caught a whiff of scent from her, like flowers. "I wouldn't have accepted your kind offer had I not been sure of that."

 

He liked her smile. He liked her simple trust. He felt bigger and more important as he led her up and down the street, pointing out stores and saloons, whispering warnings about who wasn't to be trusted, and directing her to those who could. He saw people watching as they walked past, and he knew what they were thinking. There goes Buck Wilmington, back where he oughta be, with a lady on his arm. Buck without a sweetheart was like Ezra without his cards, or Chris without his guns.

 

But he had been without one for long weeks, since Louisa… Since Miss Hilda…. At first, he hadn't wanted… Oh God, no, how he had wanted it, but not just any girl, only the right girl. But Miss Amelia was so beautiful, a damsel needing her knight, and old habits died hard, and it felt right, it felt right. And yet…

 

"How hot it is, Mr Wilmington!" Miss Amelia exclaimed, pausing in the shade outside the saloon.

 

"I'll get you a drink." Buck touched his hat as he left her, heading into the saloon. When he returned a few minutes later with water, she had moved. In full sunlight, she was leaning on the railings, staring intently into the distance. "Miss Covington?" Buck said quietly, but she gave no sign of hearing him. "Miss Amelia?"

 

She whirled round at that, her eyes fierce. When she saw who he was, she let out a sharp breath. "I do apologise, Mr Wilmington. I was lost in thought. I…" She took the water, holding it with both hands. "My brother and I… He talked to you last night, I believe, and told you our circumstances?"

 

"He did, Miss Amelia," Buck nodded, "and I am truly sorry to hear--"

 

"Please don't speak of it, Mr Wilmington." Her hand gripped the water as if she was trying not to cry. Buck's heart went out to her. Lord, he hated seeing a woman cry. It made him want to hold her safe against the world, and beat on anyone who'd dared to hurt her. "The past is past," she said bravely. "The future's what matters now. A new start. I… We'd hoped…" She closed her eyes, turning her face away.

 

"You'd hoped?" he asked. "Miss Amelia, what's happened? What's changed?"

 

"Nothing." She looked at him, her eyes bright in her pale face. "I didn't mean to say anything. Of course we still have hope. A new start: that's why we came here."

 

But she held his arm tightly as they continued on their way, and her laughter was brittle, with secrets in it.

 

 ******

 

"D'ya think we shouldn'ta done it?" Chris said afterwards.

 

"Done what?" Vin shifted position, long legs stretched out on the boardwalk.

 

"Caught them with a trick." It was nearer noon now, and the drink and the dream were both fading.

 

Vin cocked his head towards the jail door. "Reckon they had lots to say 'bout it."

 

"That they did." Townsfolk walked past, going about their business. Sometimes it seemed to Chris as if they barely existed at all; as if he was seeing them through a veil. Other times they were the only damn thing that really mattered. Chris took his hat off, running his hand through sweat-damp hair. "Reckon they might be right."

 

Vin said nothing for a while, his eyes scanning the open street. A farm hand rode in on a sweating horse. In the distance, Buck was walking with a lady on his arm. "How many've they killed?" Vin said at last.

 

Chris pressed his lips together, acknowledging the question. Few gangs had been more deadly and more merciless than Barrett's gang, and now they were either dead or captured, unable to kill again. No-one could question the justice of that. It was just…

 

He let out a breath. "It just don't seem right, Vin. It don't seem…" He struggled for the word. "Honorable," he said at last.

 

Vin looked at him more sharply than was usual. "Chris…"

 

"None of us woulda come up with the idea," Chris said harshly. "Only Ezra."

 

"But it worked," Vin said quietly. "It worked, with none of us dead or even hurt much. Don't know if your way coulda done that."

 

"Don't make it right."

 

Vin was still looking at him. "Chris," he said, "Ezra wouldn't…" He stopped and looked away, back out at the street. When he spoke again, he sounded as if he was choosing his words carefully. "Two months ago, would you'a questioned it?"

 

"Yes," Chris said, "of course." He stood up and walked away. The sun was too high, and he needed another drink. The dream was back, his mouth acrid with the memory. It was all for you, Ella had said in his dream, lying through her teeth, playing a part. Trust me, trust me.

 

He clenched his fist tightly at his side.

 

Don't make it right.

 

******

 

There were no mourners at the funeral. Four dead outlaws and one dead boy were buried in the parched soil of a town that was strange to them. Josiah said the necessary words, as the bodies were lowered into the plots reserved for outsiders, for men with no names, for people marked by no memorial and no flowers.

 

Only Nathan came forward to stand at Josiah's side when all was done. Ezra watched the two men exchange quiet words, as they both looked down at the dry heaps of earth. Perhaps Nathan had treated some of these men; had felt them die as he struggled to save their lives. Others had been dead already, but Nathan would have touched them all, to ascertain that they were past his help. Nathan was an honourable man, Ezra thought, without any of the irony of a Mark Antony. An honourable man - and how disgusted gentlefolk across the South would be to hear that word applied to a man like Nathan. But it was true, of course. They were all honourable men. Except for me. He sighed. There need to think it so sadly, because it was nothing more than the truth.

 

Nothing made a man face the truth more than a funeral. There was nothing like the sight of an outlaw buried far from home to remind you that…

 

Ezra let out a breath. The sun was almost down, bleeding into the west. Josiah clapped Nathan on the back, and the two of them turned and walked away together, unconsciously in step.

 

How many times had Ezra himself almost ended up in an unmarked grave hundreds of miles away from anyone who loved him? He had lived alone, travelled alone, and several times had almost died alone. These outlaws had deserved it, the townsfolk would say, but there were many who would have said the same about him, had he died during the years before he reached Four Corners.

 

To die alone. It was the natural end of the life he had been born to. It was the natural end of the choices he had made. Only in the last year had a foolish, ridiculous part of himself begun to hope that…

 

No, he thought fiercely, and turned his back on those solitary graves, and headed back to the light and the noise of a saloon where everyone knew him.

 

The first person he saw was William Covington, sitting at Ezra's own habitual table. "So," said Ezra, with a brittle smile, "you've returned for another round?" He sat down and pulled out his cards. "Then let us play."

 

******

 

end of chapter two

 

******

 

Ezra awakened slowly, and his first thought was that he desired very strongly to go to sleep again. Groaning, he rolled over, pulling the sheets with him. His head hurt, his throat was parched, and his arm throbbed sharply where the bullet had grazed him. He pressed his forehead into his pillow, trying to hide from the light. The light, the damned light, was always there, lancing through the shutters, driving into his skull like spikes.

 

Sometimes even the most honest of men needed to hide in the dark.

 

He groaned again, recognising the signs. Too much wine and fine spirits. He could still taste whisky at the back of his throat, and when he rolled over onto his back, the room lurched faintly. He tried to reach for water, but the jug was empty. When he sat up, he saw that he had slept in his clothes, rumpling them hideously.

 

Good Lord, he thought. To what depths have I descended?

 

The mirror was turned away, withholding answers.

 

Standing up carefully, he began to remove his crumpled clothes. He would have to wash, of course, but not yet, he thought. That will have to wait until my constitution is more… settled. A fresh shirt went on, and a vest, and his watch. "Manners maketh man," he murmured. As long as you showed the correct exterior, all was well. You could be anything you liked, as long as your clothes and your grammar and your accent were correct. Appearances were everything, because what else did you have? Oh Lord, what else…?

 

He stopped himself with a sigh. It was never advisable to think too hard after a night of over-indulgence. What had caused him to succumb to the temptation of the bottle, anyway? He was far from being unacquainted with hard liquor, but he preferred to stop drinking before he lost control. It had been a good while since he had faced a morning like this, so why…?

 

Ah. Yes. His hand froze on his tie, fingers curling to grip the fabric. Funerals were such unfortunate affairs, prone to making men reflect upon their own mortality. He remembered indulging in foolish thoughts about how people would react to his own demise. He remembered entering the saloon and grabbing the first chance of a game, hoping to lose himself in that, at least. He remembered drinking; calling for more; drinking again.

 

How foolish, he thought, gingerly holding his throbbing head. He remembered winning, though, and surely that was good?

 

He sighed, and sank down carefully onto the bed. He would face the world again in a little while. Just not yet, he thought.

 

He heard the sounds of life and laughter in the street outside his window, harsh in the needle-like sun.

 

******

 

Buck found her again halfway through the morning, standing as fresh and bright as a field of flowers in the parched desert that was the dust-strewn town. "You make me into a poet, Miss Amelia," he told her, as he gave her a proper bow, hat removed, and everything.

 

"A poet?" she smiled, clearly pleased to see him.

 

"The way my thoughts run when I see you standing here."

 

Some girls recoiled at talk like that, and came over all shy, but Miss Amelia just smiled again, and took his arm. He led her out of the dust, into the shade, where a lady ought to be. He knew that she was brave and strong - the way she'd descended from the stage into the aftermath of a gun fight told him that - but it made a man feel good to cherish a lady and keep her safe.

 

"How're you settling in, Miss Amelia?" he asked. He stood at her right side, then moved to her left, protecting her from the glare. Damn, but her figure was right pretty, curving in all the best places.

 

"Oh." Her hand rose almost to her mouth, then fell again, gripping her other hand, thumb pulling at the fabric of her gloves. "Almost everyone… That is to say, I'm settling in very well. Everyone's been most kind." She looked up at him, pale blue eyes showing through fair lashes. "Especially you, Mr Wilmington."

 

"It's the least I can do for a lovely lady like you, Miss Amelia." He touched her hand, feeling how tense it was, trembling against his own. No more than a touch, though. She was a lady, newly come from the east, while he....

 

What was he? He breathed in her scent, as sweet as summer flowers, and he looked at her shining hair and her soft skin. He was…

 

She sighed, and he stopped his self-indulgent thinking dead in its tracks. Weren't right for a man to think about himself when there was a lady there. "Miss Amelia," he said softly, "is something wrong? Is someone botherin' you?

 

"No," she said, but only after a pause, and with such doubt in her tone. "I'm fine, Mr Wilmington, truly I am." She sighed again. "It's just…"

 

"Hey, Buck!" JD called, and Buck cursed silently as he turned towards the boy. JD was with Casey, all smiles and youth and enthusiasm. Miss Amelia looked like a different breed of creature, like a thoroughbred cast up in a stable of wild ponies. 

 

Buck made the necessary introductions; Ezra had once told him there was a proper order for these things, but he could never remember it, so just said their names one after the other. "Miss Amelia Covington, Miss Casey Wells, Mister JD Dunne." He glared a sharp warning at JD even as he smiled, in case the boy took it into his head to blurt out some damn fool thing like, 'Gee, me 'n Buck were talkin' 'bout ya in the saloon the other night.' Although some girls loved it when men talked about them, of course, so JD's damn fool thing might have the right of it.

 

"Oh." Miss Amelia's eyes widened with surprise. "You're Casey. You're nothing like I imagined."

 

"Imagined?" JD frowned in confusion. "Has Buck been sayin' things?"

 

"I haven't said a word!" Buck protested, as Miss Amelia clapped her hand to her mouth, and said, "Oh no, Mr Wilmington has never spoken of you. Please forget I said anything."

 

JD opened his mouth to say more, but Casey pushed past him, with the stubborn look of a bold young gal determined to fight her own battles. "Who's been sayin' things about me?"

 

"Nobody." Miss Amelia twisted her hands together desperately. "Please, it was nothing. I shouldn't listen to gossip. It's just that…" She bit her lip, clearly fighting for words. "We're new to this town, Miss Wells. We don't know a soul, and we need to find out…" She turned her head away, shielding her eyes with her hand, as if wiping away tears. Buck ached to hold her, but then she turned back again, dry-eyed and brave. "My brother told me things he heard in the saloon. He shouldn't have done so, and I shouldn't have listened. Please forget that I said anything."

 

Casey stood with her hands on her hips. "Who's been sayin' things about me?" she demanded. JD put his arm around her, and she shook him off. "What they been sayin'?"

 

"It was nothing, honestly," Amelia said desperately. "Please don't breathe a word of this to my brother or to anyone else. We came here for a new start, after…" She wiped fiercely at her eyes again, her voice choked. "I'd hate people to think of me as no more than a common gossip. It was nothing, honestly. Please." She turned away again, her face hidden, her shoulders shaking with barely-suppressed tears.

 

Buck put his arm around her, and when she didn't resist, held her tighter. He jerked his chin at JD over her head. Leave us alone, for God's sake, he signalled, but the boy was always a fool when it came to such things, and Casey was on the warpath, stirring him up to righteous fury. "There there, Miss Amelia," Buck soothed. "I wish I had a fancy handkerchief to offer you, like Ezra carries, but mine are all…" He cut that bit off; wasn't right to talk about dirty rags to a lady. "Casey?" he asked. Whatever it was, weren't her fault, he tried to tell her, but Casey just sniffed and looked away.

 

"Ezra?" Miss Amelia asked at last. She pulled away, smoothing her skirts and composing her face. "Ezra Standish? He's your friend? Oh, I never would have expected…" She stopped, wiping her face, raising her head.

 

Buck's hand hovered over her back, unsure whether to offer comfort. "What d'ya know about Ezra?" he asked sharply, forgetting gallantry. 

 

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing at all. Oh, please forget that I said anything. It was nothing, Miss Wells, honestly. Please let's talk about something else. Can we start again, Miss Wells? I'm Amelia Covington, but please call me Amelia. I do hope we can be friends."

 

"So do I," Buck said fervently, and when Amelia turned to him with her brave and tear-stained face, he gave her his most charming smile, and offered her his arm.

 

******

 

Ezra sat at a solitary table, drinking nothing stronger than water. His head still throbbed abominably. It's the heat, he told himself, the accursed heat. He swirled the water round the glass, but took only a small sip. His stomach was still protesting, reminding him that he had all too recently filled it with foul poison. And that would be the final indignity, he thought, to vomit in the sight of my estimable friends.

 

Whatever troubles drink took away, the morning after brought back twice over. He sighed, longing for his hip flask. Knowing the truth did not in the slightest reduce his desire to try again. Because what a foolish thing is man, he thought, endlessly repeating the same mistakes.

 

The batwing doors crashed open, and Ezra looked up painfully, wincing against the light. JD paused just inside the saloon, peering into the pleasant gloom, clearly struggling to adapt from the cruel light of the street. When he saw Ezra, his frown deepened, and he hurried over to Ezra's table.

 

"JD," Ezra said with a pained smile. "You appear to be excited about something. Please be gentle--"

 

"Was it you?" JD demanded, planting both hands on the table.

 

Ezra blinked. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

 

"Was it you saying those things about Casey?"

 

Pressing two fingers to his brow, Ezra looked over JD's shoulder, and saw Casey Wells hovering just outside the door, just a dark shape against the sun. He shook his head carefully. "I assure you, I have said nothing whatsoever about Miss Wells. Granted, my memories of parts of last night are somewhat… hazy, but even under the influence, I would never say anything disrespectful about a lady."

 

"That's what you say," JD said angrily, "but we all know--"

 

"Yes, I'm sure we do," Ezra said coldly. He gripped his drink, feeling the glass warm against his hand. "Let us return to the beginning. Who told you that I, to use your words, 'said those things' about Miss Wells?"

 

"It was…" JD stopped, taking a breath. "I… I can't say. Someone let it slip by accident."

 

"And this person specifically named me?" His head throbbed tightly to the rhythm of his words.

 

"No," JD admitted, then responded to that small defeat with a fresh offensive, in the way that people often did. "But it was obvious who she meant. We weren't supposed to put two an' two together, but… Damn it, Ezra, I thought you were my friend."

 

Ezra blinked, keeping his eyes closed for a moment longer than necessary. And I thought you were mine, JD, he thought. Opening his eyes, mask in place, he said, "You are acting on nothing more than hearsay. I freely admit that I was inebriated last night, and I may have said things… If I said things, I apologise." But I prefer to be given the benefit of the doubt by people whom I count as friends. But he refrained from saying that part of it out loud; he had said far too much to Josiah, once, and it had only made a bad situation infinitely worse.

 

JD chewed his lip, then turned to look at Casey, still hovering in the door like a vengeful angel, just out of sight. "It… It just ain't good enough, Ezra." He turned back to Ezra, and then to Casey again. Was the girl egging him on? She had acted awkwardly around Ezra ever since she had propositioned him while hurting from JD's betrayal. Good Lord, had JD caught wind of that embarrassing affair? Should he say something? "It ain't right," JD said, and stormed out, all righteous indignation.

 

Ezra let out a slow breath. He rubbed his brow, thumb and fingers on either side of his eyes. Perhaps I should just go back to bed, he thought. He heard the doors flap open; heard fresh footsteps on the floor. Josiah, he realised, although identifying people merely by sound was not a skill he had ever thought he possessed before. His own skills were different. His own skills were…

 

"What have you been doing to upset JD so?" Josiah asked, cutting off that train of thought. It was probably best, really.

 

"Nothing," Ezra said, too weary to imbue it with any degree of winning charm. It probably sounded hollow, less believable than any of his many lies.

 

Josiah laughed like a man passing something serious off as nothing. "You been winning a parcel of money from the boy?"

 

Because of course it has to be my fault. Can't have anyone believing anything else, can we?  Lord, he seemed to be spending more time biting back words than speaking out loud, when words were usually his stock in trade, but he had learnt his lesson when it came to pouring things out to Josiah.

 

"No," he merely said. "As far as I am aware, I have done nothing to earn JD's wrath." He flashed a smile - everything as it should be; all well with the world. "He'll get over it, Josiah. You know what young people are like." Reaching for his hat, he stood up, gripping the back of the chair. "Good day, Mr Sanchez."

 

He wondered where he would go now. Good Lord, how he hated the aftermath of heavy drinking! How he hated other things, too, but it was better not to think of those.

 

******

 

Buck found Chris outside the jail, sitting silently in the sun, his face almost entirely hidden by a tilted hat. Buck hadn't meant to sit beside him, but found himself doing so, anyway. Chris watched him from the shade of his dark brim.

 

"You okay?" Buck asked. They had seldom spoken to each other in the last few weeks, beyond what was necessary for their jobs. Buck missed it, really.

 

Chris nodded, making an indistinct sound in the back of his throat. It was a lie, of course. Chris hadn't been right since the thing with Ella Gaines, but no-one had been crazy enough to call him on it. Buck guessed it would fall to him to do it eventually, if Chris didn't pull himself out of this on his own.

 

They sat in silence for a while. Buck shifted his position, then shifted it again. He saw Chris push his hat back to look at him more fully. "You okay, Buck?" he asked. "You're squirming like a stuck pig." Buck cleared his throat and settled down, and Chris said quietly, "I saw you with that girl today. Yesterday, too."

 

"Miss Amelia Covington," Buck said, and he suddenly remembered being a little boy, desperately in love with one of the girls in his mother's establishment, wanting to do nothing but talk about her, but too shy to say her name.

 

Chris just grunted. Of course. Buck Wilmington was up to his old tricks again. Wasn't worth talking about. Wasn't hardly worth noticing.

 

Buck watched people pass in the street - ladies with patched dresses, and ladies in lovely ones. There was no reason to speak up; no reason at all to say anything.

 

"I don't know what I'm doing," he blurted out. "I loved Louisa, I really did, and she…" She had left, of course. She'd agreed to marry him, but only if he dropped everything and went on the road with her, hanging at her coat tails, doing nothing with his life but following her. He'd hesitated, asked for more time, and the next day she'd been gone. Weren't right for a man to have nothing to do but follow a woman, but he'd considered it. Hell, he'd almost said yes, but she hadn't given him time, just upped and went.

 

He'd tried to say it didn't matter, of course; tried to tell himself it was nothing, not really love at all. He'd carried on just the same as ever, and by the time he'd come to know Miss Hilda he'd almost been able to tell himself that everything was back to normal. "And Hilda was a beautiful woman on the inside," he said, not really sure about how much of his thoughts he'd said out loud. Was he making any sense at all? Chris just looked at him, blinking.

 

But Hilda had died. Maybe you're wrong to hop from woman to woman, Louisa said to him in his dreams. Maybe you're wrong to flirt with every pretty face, without finding out what's inside, Hilda said, in the darkest hours of the night.

 

"I don't know what I'm doing," he said again. "Old habits die hard, ya know? And it feels good, as if none of that happened. It feels like I'm myself again, and when I'm with her…" He smiled, shaking his head. Then he let out a breath, his smile fading. "But it feels like none of that happened, and… and it did happen, didn't it, Chris? I shouldn't be acting as if it didn't."

 

Chris stretched his legs out in front of him, boots rattling against the wooden boards. "Reckon you're right," he said. "Maybe you should back off. None of us know anything about her."

 

Buck clenched his fist in sudden anger. Had Chris even been listening? Not one of them had thought to ask him how he really felt about Louisa leaving. After the affair with Ella Gaines, they'd all tiptoed around Chris as if he was made of delicate china, but none of them had remembered that Buck was grieving, too. Because I'm good old Buck Wilmington, he thought, always ready to help other people, but just a good-natured puppy dog who never hurts inside. He'd spent months helping Chris after Sarah and Adam were killed, and what did he get in return…?

 

No, he thought, shaking his head. That weren't fair. Things that had happened to Chris, they were far worse than any of this. The man had an excuse for being distracted. Buck would concentrate only on the things that had been said, and ignore what hadn't. "Don't go distrusting Miss Amelia, Chris," he said. "The things I've just said… I need to work it out for myself, but it ain't nothing to do with her."

 

He didn't dare say the rest of it. She ain't Ella Gaines, Chris. Don't let Ella poison your mind against all women.

 

But it wasn't just women, was it? He should have said the rest of it, too.

 

******

 

The world shimmered with heat and dust when the soldiers marched into town, sweating from their hasty journey. A message had been sent ahead, and the captain carried orders in his hand, stamped and sealed. The dangerous prisoners now confined in the Four Corners jail were to be transferred and taken somewhere more secure.

 

"Don't they trust us to keep 'em?" Vin said quietly, leaning against a post.

 

Chris drew in a lungful of smoke and blew it out again slowly. "Ain't that," he said. "They're bigger than us - wanted throughout the territory, and outside it, too." They watched the first prisoner come out, shackled between two soldiers in blue. "We're well rid of them."

 

The second one appeared, limping with his bandaged leg. The soldiers dragged him forward mercilessly, fingers digging deeply into his arms. "Hell, Chris," Vin said, "we did the work of bringin' 'em in."

 

"Then it's someone else's turn to handle the care of them."

 

Vin let out a breath, shaking his head. "Reckon you're right there, Chris." He gave a quick smile.

 

The third one came out. Chris found it hard to care what was happening to them. Some days he found it hard to care about anything much. Other days, little things mattered intensely, and he found himself flying off the handle for no reason, or devoting himself to some trivial task as it was the only thing that lay between him and damnation. He knew what was happening to him, of course; weren't like the last time, when grief and guilt and anger had all been new to him. He knew the signs; just didn't mean he knew how to change.

 

"You'll die for this!" he heard. His head snapped up, and he saw the fourth prisoner dragged out the jail, fighting with everything he had. "You, there, Chris Larabee. We know your name!" He was screaming the words, spittle flying from his mouth. Chris bit down on his cheroot, just watching it all. "You and that snake-like con man of yours." The prisoner was wrestled to the ground, a soldier driving a boot into his stomach. He rolled over, gasping, his hands straining against the chains, clawing the dust. "He tricked us!" he screamed, closer to a sob. "He lied to us, cheated us, and now--"

 

Another boot landed. Blue uniforms crowded round, and the prisoner fell silent. His limbs were limp as they dragged him into the barred carriage. A crowd had gathered, like vultures flocking to watch something going down. They whispered to each other, voices like the wind. Sometimes Chris hated every last man of them.

 

He drew another breath of smoke; blew it out; stubbed out the cheroot. With a lazy salute, the captain took his leave. The horses started their slow walk, dust rising up from the heavy wheels. The inside of the carriage looked totally dark, as if the prisoners had descended into hell, no chance of getting out.

 

He watched them leave. Children followed the carriage, running after it, some marching like miniature soldiers. "Won't get far today," Chris said. "Shoulda waited until tomorrow." He pressed his lips into a thin imitation of a smile. "Reckon they didn't trust us to take proper care of them."

 

The men and women lingered, whispering to each other, but he couldn't hear what they were saying, and didn't much care, neither. "Talkin' 'bout what that fella said," Vin said, looking at Chris as if he expected something from him. "About Ezra." His fingers ran up and down the grain of the wooden post he was leaning against. "Reckon you shoulda defended him - set people right."

 

Chris looked away, following the cloud of dust. The children were drifting away, and that was it: the prisoners gone. "Seems to me like he was right in what he said."

 

"Chris…" he heard Vin say; didn't look at him.

 

The jail door swung quietly behind him, now that the cells were empty. Maybe he would go inside and…

 

And what?

 

"Chris," Vin said again. "Why ya so harsh on Ezra these days?"

 

Chris pulled out another cheroot, biting down on it without lighting it. "The man ran out on us, Vin," he said. "I don't mean that first time. He took that money and he was going to run."

 

"But he didn't." Vin was completely still, only his fingers moving on the post. "He came back, saved Mary, damn near died."

 

"He took the money." Chris felt the anger surging up again, so familiar now. "You were there, Vin."

 

"The way I see it…" Even Vin's fingers stopped moving. "I ran out on ya, too. When Charlotte--"

 

"That was different," Chris said.

 

"No, it ain't." Vin turned round, facing Chris fully. "I succumbed to temptation that was too strong to fight," he said, sounding suddenly more like Ezra than like himself. "Reckon Ezra did nothing different. I thought ya knew that. Thought everythin' was right between you afterwards."

 

It was, Chris almost said, but those days seemed as distant as a dream. Before Ella Gaines. Before the truth came out. Before everything changed.

 

But it can't be right, he thought. Can't ever be right. But he had no idea what he answered out loud. God, he needed a drink. He needed to forget this, to forget all of this.

 

Vin said nothing as Chris walked past him, and away.

 

******

 

What this territory needed, Ezra decided, was more trees. More specifically, what this territory needed was more shade. Trees had been plentiful back home, and the shade of their leaves had been soft and sweet and glorious. "Which is a lie created by the rose-tinted eyes of nostalgia," he said with a bitter smile, because what did 'home' really mean? Home had been any one of a hundred houses or hotels, as his mother had passed him like a parcel from relative to relative, occasionally reappearing out of nowhere to scoop him up like a hat or a necklace, an accessory in one of her cons.

 

But there was nothing like misery to make the past appealing. Home had been all manner of places, from the south to the west and points in between, and he was sure that all of them had possessed their proper complement of trees. So why am I here in this godforsaken backwater? he thought, grimacing as a bead of sweat trickled down his neck. Why am I here?

 

At least he had found himself a modicum of shade. Water sparkled below him in the swimming hole, and damp patches in the shadow of rocks showed that other people had come to play here earlier in the day, splashing water around as they laughed in the dappled sunlight.

 

There was no-one here now. His horse stood stolidly beneath one of the few trees, flicking flies away with a weary tail. Ezra had ridden here earlier in the afternoon, not sure what he wanted, knowing only that he had no desire to spend any more time in town. He had brought a book, but it remained untouched. For the most part, he had dozed, lounging in the speckled shade.

 

The sun was sinking now, heralding the end of this interminable day. His headache had faded to a faint sense of tightness across his brow, and he took another quick swig from his hip flask. The burn of the brandy was a good burn, very different from the hideous heat of the sun.

 

The sky was empty; no birds and no clouds. It was strange how many different ways there were to be alone. You could be alone like this, in an empty place, or alone in a crowd, even as you talked and laughed and made yourself the centre of attention. You could be alone even when you were with friends.

 

"How foolish you are, Ezra," he told himself, for the water below was mirror enough. So JD and Josiah had jumped to conclusions, but it would pass. Chris had been cold to him for weeks, but he had his reasons, and it would pass, just like it had passed the first time. Ezra had made his choices with his eyes open, and he just had to bear the consequences.

 

Or run, he thought, his mouth twisting into a smile; he saw it in the mirror of the water. Wasn't that what he always did, when things became too hot to handle? Wasn't that what his mother had taught him?

 

He shook his head, rising to his feet. "Time to go back," he said, for the sky was bleeding red into the west. He mounted his horse, and rode slowly, back through the wilderness, back onto the trail. Best not to think about anything, really. The rhythm of the hooves was like the dance of the cards, and enough to keep thought at bay.

 

His shadow grew longer, and then faded as evening approached. He passed the graveyard and kept his eyes averted. The town was busy with people returning home, settling in for the dark. He took his horse to the livery; lost himself for a while in the tending of him.

 

The lights were out when he emerged, and laughter echoed from the saloon. "Is it true?" someone asked him, stepping from the dark. "They say you killed those men over there with a trick."

 

He thought of the Scottish boy, dying in the straw. "It's true," he said. Was that Chris on the boardwalk, silently watching it all? "And it was, of course, entirely my own idea, and I dragged my comrades into it kicking and screaming."

 

Chris said nothing. Sometimes, my boy, he heard his mother say, you are your own worst enemy.

 

Just sometimes, mother? he thought, as he walked past Chris and into the saloon beyond.

 

Another night. Just another night.

 

******

 

end of chapter three

 

******

 

Buck shook his head like a dog, splashing water like shining jewels. The last trickle ran from the pump like… like… like a stream of coins through a gambler's avaricious hands, he thought. Amelia put poetry into his head. According to Amelia, Buck was master of the colourful simile. He hadn't known what a simile was, but she'd explained it to him. It was being as happy as a jack-rabbit in spring. It was feeling as smart as an old man whose beard went all the way down to his toes.

 

Amelia made him a different person. She saw something inside him that was better than the Buck Wilmington everyone else saw. It was always like that with the ladies. His friends saw him as who he was, and sometimes a man needed that, but his women made him into something wonderful. Didn't much matter if it weren't entirely true, the way they made him feel. His ma had known how to make the rottenest of scoundrels feel like gods.

 

And don't it feel good, he thought, as he pushed his damp hair away from his face. Sure, he still had his doubts, but… Oh God, what were doubts when you could live in the moment with a girl who cried in your arms and needed you to protect her from the world? What were doubts when a lady looked up at you with bright blue eyes and said that you were the nicest, kindest man she had ever met?

 

Water trickled down his face, and he wiped it away, blinking fiercely. When his vision cleared, he saw a man walking towards him. "Aw hell," he muttered. His eyes flickered left and right, up and down, side to side. He plastered a smile on his face, as he edged a few inches backwards. It was Amelia's brother. He didn't like brothers, not as a rule. Brothers liked to fight you for dishonouring their sisters. Brothers were almost as bad as fathers and husbands for making you scramble out the window without any clothes on.

 

There was nowhere to hide. Why was there no cover in the street? Not even rapid sidesteps could take him anywhere safe. "Mr Wilmington," William Covington said. He was smiling. Why was he smiling?

 

Buck smiled back, nodding stiffly. "Mr Covington." He hadn't seen much of the boy since they'd talked several nights back. The boy had spent his evenings playing games with Ezra, alone at their own table. JD hadn't wanted to sit with Ezra last night. Chris hadn't wanted to sit with anyone. Josiah had said that one grew weary of watching Ezra fleece another innocent fool, and had left for the church and some prayin'.

 

"Amelia's told me so much about you," Covington said brightly. "I need to thank you for making her feel so welcome. It's hard, coming to a place where you don't know anyone at all." His smile disappeared, as sudden as if it had been washed from his face in a flood. Then it was back again, but not in his eyes. "Most folks would try to take advantage of us."

 

Buck shrugged. Hell, he wasn't used to this; made him feel as young and callow as a boy. "It's a pleasure," he managed with difficulty. Hostility was easier to deal with. Some girls adored a bit of star-crossed loving, and turned willing to do just about anything with you if their folks disapproved. This ain't right. He frowned. Amelia and her brother dressed and talked like rich folk from back east, but gentlemen from the east had a stick up their asses when it came to things like chaperones and a sister's virtue.

 

You approve? he almost asked incredulously, but snatched it back. Damn fool might take it as a proposal of marriage, and he weren't ready for that again, not by a long shot. Hell, he hadn't even kissed the girl yet.

 

Covington was chewing his lip. "May I ask you for advice, Mr Wilmington?" he said falteringly. "I wouldn't dream of imposing, but Amelia said--" He broke off, looking upwards, beyond Buck's shoulder. Buck heard a door close, heard footsteps on wood, and knew that the boy was watching Nathan emerge from his clinic up above. Buck swung round and gave Nathan a cheerful wave. You knew where you were with Nathan. You knew where you were with all your friends. Weren't awkward with them, like it was right now, facing a brother who wasn't acting like a brother at all.

 

"I heard about him," Covington said in the sort of whisper people used on stage. "I heard you had a darkie so-called healer with a bag of bones from the jungle."

 

Buck turned back slowly, fists clenching. "Nathan's my friend, Mr Covington. I don't care to hear that sort of language used about a friend."

 

Covington shook his head, looking stricken. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean any offence. I was just saying… just passing on…" He stopped, biting his lip.

 

Nathan slowly came down the steps and walked over towards them. His head was high; Buck watched him all the way. He knew what courage it took to approach people who thought things like that about you, and to have it happen again and again, most every time that strangers came to town. Nathan was the bravest one of them all, Buck thought suddenly, because the rest of them only had to face bullets every now and then, but Nathan had to fight people every time he went out outside and dared to ply his trade. You heard? Buck almost asked him, but there was no need. Nathan had heard. Of course he had.

 

"I apologise," Covington said to Nathan, his eyes flickering anxiously from side to side. "I…" He almost raised his hand, then lowered it again. "I admire your courage," he said, "working alongside people who…" He pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, then released it again. "Who might be blinded by their upbringing," he said, "and not see you for who you are."

 

Buck reckoned that the boy was just saying what he himself had been thinking, but somehow it didn't sound right when he said it. He almost spoke up, but Nathan silenced him with a look. "Townsfolk give me no trouble," he said coldly, which was true enough, as far as it went. The worst trouble always came from strangers.

 

Covington looked deeply uncomfortable. "But there are people…" He was looking around again, either because he was unwilling to look at Nathan, or because he was looking for someone to rescue him from all this. Hell, Buck had no intention of being that person. "You know the sort of person," Covington said. "If you're raised a certain way, with slaves… You can't learn to see any different."

 

"You talkin' 'bout yourself?" Buck said, folding his arms.

 

Covington shook his head desperately. "No. No. I was just wondering how you could bring yourself to associate with someone who says…" He broke off again, his hand rising to his face. His heart was hammering visibly at his throat, and he was sweating, swallowing hard. "You ride with a son of the South," he said at last.

 

"I do." Nathan's voice was cold. "And that ain't no-one's business but my own."

 

"Of course. I'm sorry. I can only apologise. I'm sorry." Covington nodded desperately, and scuttled away.

 

Buck and Nathan were left alone in the street, facing each other. The sudden silence stretched between them like the desert. "He was talkin' about Ezra?" Buck said at last. "Ezra said that about ya?"

 

"No." Nathan shook his head. "Ezra ain't never…" He shook his head again. "When he first saw me, he insinuated somethin', sure, and we've exchanged words more than once since then, but he…" He looked at Buck, and there were questions in his eyes. "He doesn't hide his misdeeds. He says things out loud, and he don't seem to care if you hate him for it, but he wouldn't say things behind folks' backs." But his eyes asked Would he?

 

"No," Buck said. "I… I don't know." Amelia was emerging from the hotel, her dress as blue as the sky above.

 

"I was wrong about the Chinese girl," Nathan said. "Never apologised to him for that. Reckoned he understood." He let out a breath, his hands taut at his sides. "It's always strangers who don't understand. The brave ones say things to your face. The cowards pretend someone else said it, pretend they're only sayin' what other folks already know."

 

He took a step closer. Buck was already drifting away, to where Amelia stood with her hair like melted gold. "Yes," he agreed. "Oh yes."

 

"He wouldn't say those things," Nathan said. "That Mr Covington don't know a thing about us."

 

But his shoulders were hunched as he walked away, and his steps slow. And then Amelia was there, and she was smiling, and so Buck told her how lovely she was, with similes and all.

 

******

 

It was foolish to repine, Ezra told himself, as he headed out into a brand new day. Yesterday had been difficult, granted, but it was never easy to look upon life in a shiny, positive light when your head throbbed with the aftermath of an over-enthusiastic encounter with the fruits of Bacchus.

 

So JD and Josiah had assumed the worst about him, but these things happened. Chances were, they would have forgotten all about it by today. And as for Barrett's gang… They were dangerous men, all of them killers, and it had been necessary to bring them down. Ezra had merely used those weapons that he used best, as anyone else would have done. He had conned many innocents in his time; why, then, feel guilty about tricking someone blatantly guilty? Had he refused to play his part, and had Barrett gotten away as a result, to steal and kill some more… That would have been a proper subject for guilt and regret, but not this. Not this.

 

Perhaps that was what lay behind whatever had gone wrong with JD and Josiah. It was hard to defend yourself to your friends when you feared that you were indeed guilty. It was hard to fight for a friendship when you doubted that you were worth calling friend.

 

But that had been yesterday. Today was another day. He stood in the sunshine and surveyed the blue sky, and the street with its houses, sparkling brightly in the sun. He had won a small but pleasing amount of money the night before, he had played an important part in bringing down a dangerous gang, and he would not be ashamed of who he was. He had committed his share of misdeeds in the past, and he would doubtless commit them again, but not today, not yesterday, not this week. 

 

But how strange it was, he thought, that doubt had struck more strongly in recent months, now that he lived a law-abiding life, than it had ever struck when he had lived the life of an unmitigated rogue.

 

He heard the sound of skirts swishing behind him, and turned with a smile still on his face. "Mrs Travis." He touched the brim of his hat.

 

She did not return his smile. "Mr Standish." He had seen that look on her face many times; had never seen it turned on him, though, not since the earliest days. "I hope you understand why I have to ask…" She hesitated for a moment, then looked him full in the face, her gaze unwavering. "My readers rely upon me to uncover the truth, and at the moment there is such talk…"

 

"Talk?" Suddenly Ezra found that he had no inclination whatsoever to smile.

 

"Mr Standish," Mary said coldly, "did you  bring about the death of several men by embroiling them in a confidence trick?"

 

Someone had asked him much the same the night before, he remembered; at the time, it had been nothing more than a tiny incident in a horrible day, and he had answered with unthinking bitterness and unguarded self-pity. Now it suddenly occurred to him to wonder how they knew. "Who is saying that I did?" he asked.

 

"Everyone," Mary said, then her composure broke a little. "I try not to listen to gossip, of course, which is why I'm asking you to give your side of the story."

 

"My side?" He felt cold, suddenly - cold right through, even in the heat of the day. Nathan had emerged from his clinic, he saw, and was standing at a distance, watching intently. Ezra tried to signal a silent request for his support, but Nathan just stood there. And I don't think I've done anything to upset Nathan lately, Ezra thought, but then again, innocence made no difference with JD.

 

"Rumour can be a terrible thing," Mary said. "I am sure that whatever you did was justified. If I could report--"

 

"Why don't you ask Chris?" Ezra interrupted harshly.

 

"I tried," Mary admitted. Nathan was still standing there, just watching. He made no attempt to catch Ezra's eye. "He said it was nothing but the truth."

 

Lord help me, Ezra thought, because it was quite ridiculous for such a little thing to hurt. He'd always known that Chris distrusted him… No, he hadn't always known, because there had been whole months on end when he had hoped… No, there had been whole months on end when he had known that everything was right between the seven of them. But recently, after the affair with the assassin's money, and…

 

"Then it must be true," he said, before he could let himself think too far. "Our illustrious leader is never wrong. A leader should defend his men, after all, unless the man in question does not deserve defending."

 

Mary bit her lip. "Mr Standish… Ezra…" She looked around. Hunching his arms into his pocket, Nathan began to walk away. "You saved my life," Mary said. "I'll never forget that. And Chris…" She looked at him. "I fear that Mr Larabee was very drunk when I spoke to him." She made as if to touch him arm, but then her hand fell to her side, her fist clenching loosely. "People get blinded, and they don't always think things through. That's why I want to hear your side of the story."

 

It wasn't just Nathan, Ezra realised. At least a dozen other people were watching the two of them talk. One woman openly pointed, whispering to her companion. None of them looked friendly. They all wore the sort of look he had seen before, on a thousand different faces, distrusting him, wanting him gone from their own quiet towns.

 

At times like this, the gift of words had always come to him more strongly than ever. Smiling and charming, he had said what he needed to say. That gift deserted him now.

 

"I wasn't aware that the story had sides," he said, as he remembered again the face of the dying Scottish boy, and JD storming from the saloon. "I will bow to the weight of numbers. So many people: how could they possibly be wrong?"

 

Because, of course, it hadn't hurt before. In all those endless towns full of strangers, it hadn't meant a thing to be cast out.

 

It meant something now. God help me, he thought, because it did.

 

******

 

Chris had no memories that didn't involve a bottle. It was good that way. "Good," he mumbled, holding the bottle up to the light. There were other memories on the other side of the bottle, stalking like wolves around a camp, but the bottle kept them away.

 

"Chris," he heard.

 

He looked up. "Vin." Something fell over, crashing, rolling to the ground. He remembered shouting at the last few people who'd come disturbin' him, but Vin was different. Vin was his friend. Didn't turn on friends, unless they'd done somethin' to deserve it, which they often did. Couldn't trust anyone now. Couldn't trust…

 

"Things ain't right," Vin said. "I know you're drunk. Know there's no use in sayin' any of this, but I have to try. Things ain't right. Buck's lookin' to leave, for one."

 

"Buck?" He remembered Buck. The man was like a puppy with its teeth on a rope, holdin' on, refusin' to let go. Buck had stayed with him throughout… Throughout what? No, don't wanna think about that. But Buck had been there all the time, afterwards. Made him mad, sometimes. Wanted Buck to go away, and in the end he had, no hard feelings, until they met up again in Four Corners, and...

 

"I don't say he's got plans," Vin said, sitting down beside him. "But that Miss Louisa, she asked him to go away with her. He didn't go, but I've seen things like this before. Sometimes when a man doesn't do somethin' one week, he ends up doin' it the next, to show himself that he can."

 

"Louisa?" Chris groped for his drink; missed it, and groped again. "I remember." He remembered the governor, and Ezra with money spillin' outta his vest like blood. He remembered a pretty lady laughing, and Mary gunned down… No, that was dreams. Mary was safe. He'd seen Buck with Louisa, but had never known… "You sure?" he asked.

 

Vin nodded. "I see things. Hear things, too; wagon walls ain't thick." He gave a quick smile. "I ain't saying that Buck's gonna leave any time soon, but…" He reached for Chris's drink. Chris snatched it to his chest, glaring, and Vin's hand withdrew. "Chris," he said, "I've been there myself. I almost ran out on ya for a woman. I chose not to go in the end, but Buck… He didn't choose; it was chosen for him. It makes a difference. Don't think he knows himself that he's considerin' it, but--"

 

"Buck won't go." He took another swig. Buck wouldn't go. Buck was there in all the memories, those on this side of the drink and those on the far side of it, the ones he wouldn't think about. "If anyone's gonna leave, it's Ezra."

 

Vin didn't smile. "Yeah," he said, nodding.

 

Another drink. The world reflected dark and jagged on the surface of his drink. People were talkin' not far away, laughin'. God, how he hated them sometimes! He wanted to scream at them to be quiet, but Vin was here, and Vin was quiet and still, and… and there was somethin' 'bout Vin. Was hard to stay mad when Vin was there beside ya. "Then why all this talk about Buck?" he demanded.

 

"Reckoned you'd rather hear that first." Vin gave a quick twist of a smile. "But, Chris, Ezra… The way you've been treatin' him lately..."

 

Chris drained away the last of the jagged reflections. "Hell, Vin," he said, slamming the empty glass down on the table, "I ain't hit the man. I ain't even raised my voice to him."

 

"There's other ways to show a man you don't trust him." Vin took the empty glass from Chris's fingers. Chris tried to grab it back, but it was easier just to let his hand fall limply on the table. "I know you've got your reasons, but…" He looked at Chris, and Chris suddenly found it hard to look away. The room swam and lurched behind the steady constant of Vin's face. "The reasons ain't Ezra's fault, Chris. If you don't cut him some slack, he'll be leavin' before Buck."

 

God, he wanted more drink. He snatched at the empty glass; shouted at the world to bring him some more. Vin just sat there, pinning him with his gaze. Chris wanted him to go away; would have hurled a glass at him if he'd had one. "Let him go," he said. "Would anyone miss him?" He saw movement in the lurching world beyond Vin's shoulder - a flash of a red jacket, a quick flash of a mask-like face. Ezra, he thought, struggling even mentally over the syllables. Shouldn'ta said that, whispered the wolves in the darkness, and he wanted them gone, he wanted them gone. "Leave me alone," he snarled at Vin, "if all you're gonna do is criticise."

 

Vin stood up, his hand closing briefly on Chris' shoulder. "I think you've had enough."

 

But what did Vin know about anything? "Go away!" Chris yelled. "Leave me alone!"

 

For the wolves were there, and the bottle was the light that kept them away.

 

******

 

Amelia was quiet throughout supper. She smiled when Buck told funny stories, but only faintly, as if something was eating her up inside. Buck drank a toast to her with sparkling wine, holding the glass like a fancy gentleman, and saying the sort of words Ezra would use, but she only sighed sadly, and looked away.

 

It weren't right for such a pretty lady to be sad, he thought. Hell, it weren't right for any lady to be sad. When ladies were sad, it usually meant that somebody was bothering them, and it weren't right to do that, not to a lady.

 

"What's wrong?" he asked her, when they had left the restaurant and were strolling out beneath the sunset, where no-one else could overhear. She looked like a different person in the twilight, with shadows under her eyes like tears. "You can tell me, Miss Amelia. Maybe I can fix it."

 

"You're so kind, Mr Wilmington." She removed her arm from his, and walked a few steps away from him, before stopping with a tremulous sigh. "I wish everyone was as kind as you."

 

They were at the edge of the town, and there was nothing beyond her but the darkness and the sky, as if she was alone in the vast world. He closed the gap between them, and took her trembling hand. "Who's been unkind to you, Amelia?"

 

"Nobody." She shook her head, and he could hear tears in her voice. "I'm just... sorrowful because I'd hoped so much that we could make a new start out here, but now…" Her words ended in a sob, and she covered her face with her hand.

 

"What's happened?" Buck asked softly. "You ain't leaving, are you?" He remembered Louisa riding away, and Hilda dying. Even those brief, lovely dreams of a baby daughter had faded away like the wind. "You said you were takin' a house. Who's changed your mind? Where are they? I'll set them right."

 

"No, Mr Wilmington. No." She grabbed his arm as if she wanted to keep him at her side forever, and hell, that suited him just fine. "It wasn't anyone. It was… I know men don't like to talk about such things. Their pride makes them carry on as if nothing's wrong, even though they're down to their last dollar. But where's the sense in that? It's because of money, Mr Wilmington. We can't afford to take a house any more, and the hotel bills..."

 

"But you're rich!" Buck exclaimed, because Amelia had told him all about the parties and the rich clothes and trappings of their life back east. They'd sold everything to come west, with enough stored away to start a new life.

 

"Not rich," she said. "Never rich. But we had enough…" The sob that came out of her throat was the most heartbreaking thing Buck had ever heard. It made him want to hold her tight and never let her go. It made him want to hunt down anyone who'd hurt her, and make them pay.

 

"What happened, darlin'?" he asked quietly, keeping the anger inside him like water boiling in a pan. "Did some scoundrel steal your money? Did the man who bought your house back east swindle you outta a fair price?" He'd seen such things happen before - innocent lives ruined by con men and swindlers; people coming west with such high dreams, only to have them shattered.

 

She pulled away from him again, so delicate, so brave, hurting so bad inside. "My brother doesn't want me to say anything. He thinks he can win it back. You know what men are like: always telling themselves that they can put things right if they're given just one more day to do it. But how can you win money back from someone who cheats?"

 

"Cheats?" The sun was almost down, and the last heat of the day had faded. Buck shivered against sudden cold.

 

Her voice was shaking, words pouring out like a river in flood - words she'd kept to herself all day, unable to ask for anyone's help. "We've got enough left to pay for the ride back east, so we can throw ourselves on the mercy of our relatives, but… oh, Mr Wilmington, I'm so afraid that William's going to lose that, too, and then we'll be destitute, unable to survive here, and unable to go home. I don't know what to do. William's been so stupid."

 

"Hush," Buck crooned. "Hush. Don’t cry, darlin'. Don't cry. Buck will make everythin' right." She stood there sobbing. His heart twisted inside him, and God, how it hurt! "Someone cheated him outta your money?"

 

And somehow she was in his arms, warm and trembling against his chest. He could feel her breathing; feel her sobs. "I didn't want to tell you," she whispered into his chest, "since Mr Standish is your friend."

 

Buck's head snapped up. "Ezra took your money?" But he'd known it, really, hadn't he? They'd all seen Ezra and William Covington playing in the saloon, three nights in a row. He shoulda guessed right from the start that Ezra was the problem. "Then dry your eyes, darlin'," he told her, "because I'm gonna fix things for you."

 

She looked up at him, her eyes shining, her face flooded with hope and with total trust in him. God, he'd never been able to resist a girl looking at him like that. If he'd given Louisa what she'd wanted, maybe she wouldn'ta…

 

No, he thought, because Louisa was gone, but Amelia was here, in his arms, needing him. I'll make things right for you, he vowed. I won't let you down.

  

******

 

Eavesdroppers never heard anything good about themselves, or so his mother had always said. That's right, Ezra thought bitterly. Put the blame on me. It was all the fault of the person who did the overhearing, not the person who said such things in the first place. He'd just been minding his own business, threading his way through the crowds in the saloon, but it was his fault; it was all his fault. Of course it was. Couldn't let it be any other way.

 

He poured himself another drink, and held it in both hands, looking up at the first faint stars. He remembered gazing at the same stars as a child, when his mother had lied to him, telling him she would look at a certain star at the same time every night and think of him. For months, that star had been special to him, but when she returned, his mother had laughed, and said…

 

Don't be a fool, Ezra, he berated himself. What's past is past. There was nothing to be gained from wallowing in self-pity over something many years gone. Something that had happened that very afternoon, on the other hand…

 

He drained the whisky, feeling it course through his blood. Be rational about this, he told himself. Chris had been drunk when he had said those unfortunate words, and Chris was a mean and morose drunk, who said things to hurt. One of Ezra's necessary skills was the ability to read a man, and he knew that Chris was still angry and hurting from the incident with Ella Gaines. When a man felt like that, he said things without meaning them. When a man felt like that, he was prone to lash out at the nearest target. 

 

It meant nothing, he told himself, as the night sky wrapped itself around him, heavy and cold. Nothing at all.

 

A group of men came tramping along the boardwalk, and grumbled as they had to step around him. Mrs Potter hurried past in the street, and he nodded at her, touching the brim of his hat, but perhaps she failed to see him. Laughter poured out from the inside of the saloon, and dissipated in the summer night. Perhaps it was just the drink that made him want to reach out and catch it, like seeds on the breeze.

 

When the tall man approached him from the darkness, he smiled in cautious welcome. Then the saloon doors opened, and the sudden rush of light showed that it was Buck. The smile turned genuine, real feeling replacing the mask. "Mr Wilmington." He raised his empty glass. "Can I offer you a fine libation?"

 

Buck stopped in front of him, towering over him. "Did ya win money from Miss Amelia's brother?"

 

Ezra shifted in his seat, the foolish smile still lingering on his face. "Indeed, yes, I may have been blessed with good fortune at the gaming tables."

 

Buck thrust his fists against his hips. "I want ya to give it back."

 

"Give it back?" Ezra looked up in astonishment. "Why ever should I do that?"

 

Buck dragged up another chair, and sat down, leaning forward. "Damn it, Ezra… It ain't right what you do."

 

Ezra felt a twist of anger unfold inside him, as cold as the night. Behind him, the saloon door opened again, and footsteps came out. But the people never passed him. They stopped behind him, like vultures watching something die.

 

"I won that money fairly," Ezra said, pronouncing each word separately, spitting them out like stones. "Nobody forced the man to play. Nobody forced him to stake what he did."

 

"Hell, Ezra…" Buck grabbed Ezra's arm. "Ain't no such thing as fair when a man's playin' against you."

 

The cold of the night swirled around him. Ezra looked down at Buck's grasping hand. "Am I to understand that you are accusing me of cheating?" His voice didn't sound quite like his own, but like a man speaking in a vast and empty room.

 

Buck removed his hand from Ezra's arm, clenching his fist. "Hell, Ezra, we all know--"

 

"That I cheat?" He was completely aware of the sound of his own breathing, but everything else was fading; just himself beneath the stars. "I have been known to cheat when playing against men with no principles. But you forget, Mr Wilmington, that I am good at what I do. I have no need to cheat to win a game. I believe you were present when I told Mr Covington just that. He knew what I am. No deceit was involved in the transaction."

 

"But it ain't right." Buck brought both fists up, and Ezra tensed, ready to defend himself. "You have to give it back." He lowered his fists, but only slightly.

 

Ezra's heart was beating ridiculously fast. He was normally calm during such a confrontation - calm and composed as he talked his way out of a sticky situation, charming the men who wanted his hide. "I earned it fairly, Buck." His palm slithered against the empty glass. "Had Mr Covington spent his money on a horse or bought fine brandy that was beyond the reach of his pocket, would you demand that the trader return his money?"

 

"Damn it, Ezra, that ain't the same," Buck shouted.

 

Ezra let out a breath. "No. No. Of course not. My mistake." Behind him, the door opened again, as someone else joined the silent audience. Like vultures indeed, he thought, and he knew now what it was that was dying. "How foolish of me to think that you would afford me the same courtesy you would afford anyone else. I earned the money, therefore it is tainted. It's mine, so it exists to be taken away from me on someone else's whim."

 

"Ezra…" Buck tried to grab his arm again, but Ezra stood up, throwing the chair back. It crashed down onto the wooden boards, and his bottle of brandy followed it, smashing into gleaming shards.

 

Ezra saw his silent audience then: Nathan, Josiah, JD…; all his supposed friends, silently watching him get torn to shreds, not once speaking up in his defence.

 

He had always been one to want the final word. Even when he was run out of town with a mob at his tail, he always gave them a parting word or gesture to show that they hadn't beaten him.

 

Tonight he found that he had no words left. He looked down at the shards of glass, and up at his mother's star. Once, when he had been new to Four Corners, he had daily expected something like this, but not now. Despite everything that had happened over the last few days, he had never expected this. And who's the fool now? he thought bitterly, as he walked away.

 

Buck called after him, shouting his name, but Josiah must have stopped him. He heard Josiah speak, but was unable to make out the words.

 

All this for a few dollars, he thought.

 

All this.

 

******.

 

end of chapter four

 

******

 

The cards offered no comfort today. Ezra shuffled them constantly, letting them flow through his fingers, but everything about the movement felt hollow and empty. It was as if the cards themselves had changed, and could no longer calm him when things went wrong. He fumbled an easy trick, and several cards scattered to the wooden boards at his feet. Those that remained in his hands felt like nothing more than cheap pieces of thin cardboard, printed with ink.

 

Once they had felt like magic.

 

His hands fell still. The cards were the same, of course, but he had changed. He remembered sitting in his room with a fortune in blood money, hiding from his reflection in the mirror. Now it seemed that he could no longer hide. The mirror was there before him, even when he was out beneath the sky. He knew himself now. He knew that this town and these people had crawled under his skin. He could no longer lie to himself and pretend that it didn't hurt when they turned on him. He could lie to others, but not to himself.

 

There were things in his life more important than cards, more important than money, more important than winning. There were problems that could not be made right with a pile of gold. The cards were no comfort when your friends turned against you.

 

Perhaps I should give my winnings back to the boy, he thought. It was such a little amount, after all. But that wouldn't change the fact that Buck had said what he had said. It might paper over the cracks, but the cracks would remain. And once cracks formed, they had a habit of getting wider and wider, until one day, one day…

 

He stopped; closed his eyes. He knew what lay at the end of this particular line of thought. Hadn't Chris and Vin been talking about just such a thing themselves… Good Lord, was that just yesterday? Once, at the start, he had never doubted that his sojourn in this benighted town would be but a temporary one, but now…

 

I don't want to go, he thought, and chided himself – oh, what a fool you are, to let things come to this.

 

The sun moved slowly across the sky, and soon this place would be out of the shadow, fully exposed to the merciless heat. People had walked past him all morning, some of them openly muttering. When a woman approached him with skirts of whispering silk, he kept his eyes cast down, too weary now to brazen things out and let her snub him. Only when she stopped in front of him did he look up, and his heart froze within him. "Miss Covington." He stood up, struggling for elegance and studied manners, and tipped his hat to her.

 

"I have come to beg, Mr Standish." Her eyes were luminous with unshed tears. "I understand that Mr Wilmington appealed on my behalf, but you were obdurate. I have come…" She sobbed, stifling it with an elegant hand. Her eyes remained dry. "I have come," she said, pushing her shoulders back and raising her chin, "to lay aside all pride, in the hope that a woman's tears will urge you to be merciful."

 

He swallowed, suddenly at a complete loss for words. Perhaps it was her scent, and perhaps it was the silk of her gown, but something about the girl suddenly reminded him intensely of his mother. "Miss Covington," he managed, "I have to confess that I have very little idea what you mean."

 

"Oh…" She stifled another sob, pressing a finely gloved hand to her mouth. A large diamond brooch glittered at her breast, and the small professional part of him that was still functional studied it and estimated its value. It was worth a small fortune if it was real, but diamonds like that were usually paste.

 

He wrenched his gaze away from the shining gem. "Buck… Mr Wilmington mentioned…" He stopped; cleared his throat. When money changed hands on the gaming table, it was an affair of honour between men. Some men went to their graves without their wives knowing that their fortune had constantly wavered on a knife-edge, subject to the vagaries of the tables. "He spoke of a small amount of money…"

 

"A small amount?" Her voice was shrill. Across the street, heads turned towards him.

 

Ezra lowered his voice, hoping she would emulate his pitch. "Miss Covington, I assure you that it was never my intention to wrong you. I admit that your brother and I played a few games, and that fortune smiled upon me. I have committed my share of misdeeds in the past, but this was just a matter of small stakes between gentlemen."

 

She was sobbing quietly into her hand, her shoulders shaking. You should give the money back, a voice inside him said, but he found the words impossible to say. With every second that passed, he found himself growing more dispassionate. Good Lord, said the voice, have you really sunk so low? But he remembered the look on Li Pong's face as she had stood crying in her uncle's grip, and how in that moment he had softened, willing to do anything for her. Something about this woman's tears left him cold. And what did that say about him? The mirror was silent.

 

"You've ruined us!" she wailed, pressing her hands to her breast. "We came here for a new life, and you took everything."

 

"Everything?" He took a step forward; bit his lip, then spoke. "Miss Covington, I can assure you that I won but little from your brother. If he has lost as much as you imply he has lost, then I fear that he lost it elsewhere. If he told you that he lost it all to me, then--"

 

"You accuse him of lying?" Her head snapped up, her eyes suddenly as bright and sharp as the diamond. "You have the nerve to turn this around and make my brother the one at fault?"

 

"No. No." He shook his head. He looked around for help, but no-one was near enough to hear everything. They were near enough to see, though; Lord help him, they were near enough to see. "Miss Covington," he said in an urgent whisper, "you must listen…"

 

"Must?" she cried, then let out a shuddering breath, scraping away tears with the heel of her hand. "Mr Standish," she said, "you took everything we own. I hoped I could appeal to your better nature … Oh!" She sobbed, turning her head sharply away. "I was a fool to hope. I was such a fool."

 

She fled in tears. Ezra raised his hand uselessly, as if he could snatch back the conversation and start it all over again, then let it fall.

 

******

 

The sun was past its peak, and Buck couldn't find Amelia. He'd told her the night before about his lack of success with Ezra, and she'd looked so small and so broken that his heart had almost gone and cracked right there in the street in front of her. He'd wanted to hold her safe right through the night, but they hadn't even kissed yet, let alone wriggled down between the sheets, so all he'd been able to do was stand and watch her walk into the hotel, small and brave and alone.

 

"Nathan," he said, catching his friend outside the saloon. "I was on patrol, me an' Josiah. Just go back an hour ago, and I can't find Amelia. I promised to take her walkin'." There was something about Nathan's face, something that made him go cold. "God damn it, Nathan, she's not gone and left, has she?"

 

"No. No, she's still here." Nathan shook his head like a man plucking up the courage to break the news of a death.

 

"What?" Buck grabbed his arm. "What's happened?"

 

"I didn't see it." Nathan looked tired all of a sudden. Everything looked tired in this heat, and dull in the dust. "I only heard what people said afterwards, but everyone's talkin' about it." He looked at Buck. "She went to see Ezra, to beg him to give her the money back. He… Don't rightly know what he said, but it made her cry. It made her cry as if her heart was breakin'."

 

"What?" Buck clenched his fists. "Where is he?"

 

"Buck…" Nathan grabbed his arm. The grip hurt, and Buck realised that he was straining against it, fighting to tear himself free. "Don't go off half-cocked. God knows I've done that enough with Ezra."

 

"He made a lady cry, Nathan!" Buck shouted. "That ain't right. Ain't nothing you can say will convince me it's right."

 

"I know." Nathan moistened his lips, wiping away dust. "Plenty people saw it, and--"

 

"And he said those things about you," Buck reminded him.

 

"I know." Nathan gave a weary sigh. He released Buck's wrist, his arm falling heavily to his side. "Maybe he did, or maybe…" He blinked, looking as lost as he'd looked when his father had come to town.

 

"No two ways about it," Buck snarled. He wanted to track down Ezra and have it out with him once and for all, but Amelia was more important. It was never right to make a lady cry. God, his mother had… His mother… "Damn it!" he shouted, as he smoothed away the anger and put on the mask of Buck the comforter, Buck the charmer, Buck the clown, because his girl was in tears, and his girl needed him.

 

******

 

It was well past noon before Chris felt himself ready to face the day. Much of the day before was a blur. Most things outside the blur were bad, real bad. He remembered Ella; of course he remembered Ella. He looked around the town, his town, and thought that it had turned to poison because of her.

 

"Gonna listen to me today?" he heard Vin say.

 

He remembered Vin the night before, pushing in where he wasn't wanted, trying to get Chris to listen to things he had no business trying to listen to. God, he thought. His head hurt, and his mouth tasted like something had died in it. I need help. Wouldn't say it, though. Would never say it.

 

"Somethin's wrong," Vin said. "Somethin's real wrong. Buck 'n' Ezra had a fight last night."

 

"A fight?" He looked up. Couldn't have his men fightin'. Couldn't let it happen.

 

"Not with fists." Vin sat down beside him. "Mighta been better with fists. Words hurt more, ya know?"

 

Chris scraped his hand across his face, as if he could gouge away the last of the liquor. "What'd they fight about?"

 

"A woman," Vin said, "an' money. Buck says Ezra cheated someone outta money."

 

"Reckon he did, then." Chris swallowed. God, his mouth was dry!

 

Vin was sitting very still, and he took his time before answering. "Buck don't see things straight when a woman's involved." He gave a wry smile. "Guess I know what that's like, being as I was in the same situation myself not so long ago. Buck might not be right about this."

 

"I bet ya he is." Even his eyes hurt, as if he'd bathed them in acid. He'd slept all night and half the morning, and still felt as if he hadn't slept at all. Had he dreamed?

 

"It's bad, Chris." Vin just looked at him, his gaze steady. "Everythin's fallin' apart. You need to take the lead in stoppin' it."

 

The dream came back to him suddenly: Ella Gaines in the darkness. "Why me?" he snarled. "Why're you botherin' me? Can't you just leave me alone?" Vin sat very still, eyeing him like a buffalo he planned on killing. "Leave me alone!" Chris shouted. "Just go away!"

 

He let his head fall forward onto his arms. The table smelled of wood and stale liquor, and his stomach churned. Misery washed over him, and he needed the anger, needed it, 'cause without it he had no defences against the dark. He heard Vin walk away. Come back, he thought. Come back.

 

And then there was just silence; himself alone in the middle of an empty room. He wanted… God, he wanted… Sarah, he thought. Adam. He felt the familiar agonising twist of grief, but his thoughts ran on. I want…

 

He remembered nights in the saloon, all seven of them together, with laughter and liquor flowing in equal measure. He remembered them riding side by side against their enemies, and then riding back, drunk with the relief of having survived. He remembered times when each of them had risked their lives to save another. He remembered moments in which he'd lowered his guard, moments in which he'd spoken about things that mattered, without the sky falling down or the world ending. He remembered quiet evenings on the steps of the saloon, looking out at the town and thinking mine, this is mine. 

 

Tomorrow, he thought, as he pressed his aching head against the wood. I'll set things right tomorrow.

 

******

 

Buck held her and petted her for long minutes, before she pulled away with a strangely sharp sigh. His hands fell to his side. He felt that space between them like an aching void.

 

"We both tried," she said. "There's nothing left to us." Her face was turned away from him. They were in the public room of the hotel, with lacy drapes painting patterns of light on her hair. "We'll leave on tomorrow's stage."

 

"No!" The word ripped out of him. "I'll do somethin'. I've got a few dollars stashed away. I'll lend--" Hell, no, he thought. "I'll give--"

 

"Indeed you will not, Mr Wilmington." She drew herself up stiffly. "A lady cannot be indebted to a gentleman."

 

Aw, hell. Polite society kept putting these little traps in the way, and a man found himself wrong-stepping all the time. He needed Ezra here to… Then he cut that thought off, realising just how inappropriate it was. "Well, don't ya know, Miss Amelia," he said, with a winning smirk, "I ain't no gentleman."

 

The gap between them widened, although neither of them had moved. He cursed to himself, knowing he'd said the wrong thing. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Amelia spoke first.

 

"No, Mr Wilmington, I apologise." He still couldn't see her face. "I know you mean well. But my brother and I came west because we wanted to stand on our own two feet. I have my dresses, and there's some jewellery that my mother left to me. I can sell enough to pay for our passage home. After that…" She let out a slow, defeated breath. "We will have to throw ourselves on the charity of our aunts. How it will please them, to know that they were right when they said we couldn't survive on our own." Her hand rose to her breast, speckled with light. She half turned back to him, but then she froze, a look of horror on her face. "My diamond brooch! It's gone!"

 

"What brooch?" He closed the gap between them; tried to take her in his arms. "Oh, don't cry, darling. Buck'll help you find it. Where did you last--?"

 

She jerked away from his touch. "I was wearing it this morning. I wanted to wear it to show the world that Mr Standish can't break me. It's an heirloom and I don't normally wear it, but…" She moved to the window, her hand gripping the frame. "I was wearing it when I talked to Mr Standish." Her voice was level and very quiet, like some men sounded just before putting a bullet into you.

 

Buck shook his head. He wanted to touch her; kept almost touching her, but couldn't bring himself to do it. She'd snatched away from his touch, and he never pushed his attentions on a woman who was unwilling; that sort of thing just weren't right. "You're saying Ezra took it?"

 

"No, no, I'm sure he didn't. He's your friend, after all, and you're too good a man to be friends with a thief. I must have lost it after I left him. I…" She broke off, and he watched her straighten her shoulders, and pass her hand over her face as if wiping away tears. He hardly recognised her when she finally turned round. The light was behind her, her face all in shadow. "I can't do it any more, Buck. I just… I can't. I know he's your friend, but he took my brooch, I'm sure of it. I saw the way he looked at it when I stood there weeping in front of him. He coveted it, I can tell."

 

Buck found himself shaking his head over and over. "But Ezra wouldn't… Sure, he's mighty fond of winning at cards, and he's got a tongue as smooth as silver when it comes to persuading people to give things away, but I ain't never seen him steal something that belonged to someone else."

 

"He stole it," she said, and her voice was hard and tremulous, her hands clasped tightly at her breast. "If you had any regard for me at all, you would--"

 

"Oh, I do, Miss Amelia," he assured her. "I have a mighty fine regard for you, but I can't go accusin' a man of somethin' like this just because…" He reached towards her again, but she recoiled, pressing herself back against the window. "Reckon you just lost it," he said. "How's about I help you look for it?"

 

"Ezra Standish took it." Her pale blue eyes glittered like jewels. "Whose side are you on, Mr Wilmington? The innocent victim, or the snake who preys upon her?"

 

Aw hell, he thought, and he looked around him, but there was no help to be found. There was just Amelia and him, alone in a room, and Ezra between them, like a vision of a demon conjured up by a preacher man.

 

******

 

It was impossible to stop whispers in a small town. Like seeds on the wind, that came to earth and grew into mighty plants, they grew with the telling. Ezra had seen it so many times before. He knew about the whispers, the poorly-hidden nudges, the pointing fingers. He knew about the ripple of distrust that could radiate out across a whole town after one false accusation, falling like a pebble into still water.

 

Of course, he admitted, as he saddled his horse, in a life filled with misdeeds, as his was, most of those accusations had been correct. How ironic, then, that the thing that was causing him to ride away, the thing that was driving him to seek a little solitude away from the disapproving eyes, was something that he had not intended to do.

 

Miss Amelia Covington had run away from him, weeping. He could live the life of a gambler at the tables, and the townsfolk would accept him. He could use his skills of trickery to bring down a bandit gang, and the townsfolk would whisper, but still tolerate him. Make a lady cry, and you were beyond the pale, stained beyond repair.

 

He led his horse out of the stables; tried tipping his hat to a passing lady, only for her to sniff and turn away sharply. He let out a breath. It was no more than he had expected.

 

I didn't do anything wrong! he wanted to protest, but he knew that no-one would listen to him. It mattered not to them that there was honour in the exchange of money at the gaming tables. No gentleman would dream of asking for his money to be returned, just as no gentleman would renege on a gambling debt.

 

Not that it mattered, of course. A woman had run away from him, weeping. Again it came down to that. Had he ever deliberately made a woman cry? He thought about it as he mounted, cataloguing his list of misdeeds, but he couldn't remember. He had forgotten so many people; forgotten so many people whose money he had taken, whose lives he had ruined. But he had never liked seeing women unhappy, that much he knew. At the sight of Li Pong's tears, he had been driven to risk his life.

 

And the sight of Miss Covington's tears might end my life, one way or another, he thought, as his horse took him to the edge of the town and then beyond it, out into the wilds.

 

He heard someone call after him as he left, but he didn't turn around. It was probably just another accusation.

 

******

 

It wasn't often that Buck felt nervous when entering the saloon. He'd faced down murderers with less fear than this. God, how he hated confrontations! Sure, when rogues and scoundrels were involved, he could fight with the best of them, and even enjoy it, but he was happiest when everyone was getting along. The thought of having to accuse a friend of theft was something that stuck in his throat like a fish bone.

 

There was no sign of Ezra at his normal table. A bunch of the others were sitting at a table near the front of the saloon - everyone but Ezra and Chris. "Anyone seen Ezra?" Buck cleared his throat, and shifted from foot to foot like an anxious child.

 

"Saw him riding out a while back," Vin said. "I called out to him - got things I shoulda said to him before now - but I don't think he heard me."

 

JD shuffled over, making space for Buck on the empty chair. Buck slumped down, not sure whether to be relieved or angry that Ezra had evaded him. Then the relief was entirely chased away. "Riding out?" he asked sharply. "Goin' on a long trip?"

 

Vin looked at him with his sharpshooter's eyes. "You expectin' him to run out on us?" Before Buck could answer, his eyes softened. "No bags," he said, with a quick smile. "Reckon he's comin' back for the night."

 

"Any reason why you would doubt his return, Buck?" Josiah asked sharply.

 

Buck needed a drink. His hands felt empty on the wooden table, with nowhere to go. Should he speak? Hell, yes, he thought. Maybe Vin had found the brooch and didn't know who it belonged to. Maybe someone had handed it in to Josiah in the church. Besides, he'd never been one to hide his feelings behind a mask. Ezra had once told him that he was the easiest sort of poker player to beat, because everything he felt was painted all over his face. "Miss Amelia lost an expensive diamond brooch this morning," he said. "She thinks Ezra stole it."

 

"Stole it?" JD echoed. Josiah closed his eyes for a moment, as if muttering a prayer. Vin's mouth was pressed together in a thin line, and Nathan just looked angry.

 

"Yeah." Buck looked at his hands. "She was wearin' it when she talked to him this mornin', an' a few hours later she noticed it was gone. She wants me to…" He sighed. "Hell, fellas, I don't know what she wants me to do, but I don't savour doin' it, that's for sure."

 

"You think he done it?" JD asked. He looked younger suddenly than his years.

 

Buck wanted the others to answer. He wanted someone else to speak up and shift this burden from him. He looked desperately at Josiah. A man so close to God must surely have the answers.

 

"Ezra's life has been far from blameless," Josiah said slowly. "First time I met him, he told me he'd impersonated a preacher to con people out of their money. There was no shame in him, none at all."

 

"An yesterday you said he'd cleared Miss Amelia's brother outta everythin' he owned," JD said.

 

"I've seen him cheatin'." Nathan's voice was unsure, as if he hated having to say it.

 

Vin said nothing.

 

God, how hot it was in here, as if the day would never end! Buck removed his hat, raking his fingers through his hair.

 

"Not so many weeks ago," Josiah said, "I saw him willing to crawl into the middle of a gunfight just to get his hands on a diamond."

 

JD gripped his half-empty glass of milk. "He sure does like his jewels."

 

Buck looked from face to face. "But that's the thing," he burst out. "You said it, Josiah. You said there was no shame in him." He looked at Josiah, at Nathan, at JD. "He ain't never been one to hide his misdeeds, and I ain't never seen him steal somethin' that belonged to someone else. I told Amelia as much." He looked at Vin this time, suddenly wanting him to know it. Vin gave a slight nod, but nothing more.

 

"Buck," JD said, his eyes flickering anxiously from side to side, like a boy seeking approval. "He took the assassin's money." His voice rose at the end, sounding doubtful.

 

"The way he saw it, it didn't rightly belong to anyone," Buck said. He heard Josiah let out a faint breath, perhaps of relief.

 

"I took the dead man's rifle." Vin still hadn't moved. "Real pretty, it was. I coveted it so much it hurt. Still got it in my wagon. Reckon I ain't much different from Ezra."

 

JD's head snapped up as if he was about to protest, but Josiah spoke first. "I, too, felt the temptation of that money. That was part of the reason why I gave it away to Ezra, because I didn't want it in my church any more."

 

Buck hadn't known that. Vin moved at last, his eyes widening as he looked at Josiah. Elsewhere in the saloon, men talked and laughed, and glasses slammed down on the bar, and money changed hands on the gaming tables.

 

He raked his hand through his hair again. Everything seemed so clear when he was with Amelia or freshly come from her, but now he just didn't know, he just didn't know any more. "We've all sat next to Ezra an' laughed an' talked while he cleared some poor sap outta his week's wages," he said. "Don't know about you, but I've sometimes found myself wishing I had his skill and could do it myself. We knew what he was like when we rode with him that first time."

 

"Yes," Vin said, "we know," and Buck remembered saying much the same to Chris only days before, when Chris had meant to condemn the man, but Buck had been sure that he knew Ezra's true nature.

 

Someone started up a song in the far corner, and Buck's fingers started tapping along to the tune. "What ya goin' to go, Buck?" JD asked.

 

Buck's fingers went still. "Hope she finds it?" he said hopefully, with a shrug.

 

"And if she doesn't?" That was Josiah, his hand on the table the same as Buck, fingers looking as if they wanted to dance.

 

Buck let out a breath. "Then hope someone else does something about it, 'cause I can't accuse Ezra of this, Josiah, I really can't."

 

"I bet Ezra's been accused of worse things in his time," JD said.

 

The music stopped mid-note. Someone shouted out in protest, and there was the sound of breaking glass. All four of them tensed, ready to intervene, but the shouts ended in laughter. The music started up again, a slower song.

 

"Which is why he don't need to hear such things from any of us," Buck told JD, and saw Josiah nod, and Vin smile a little as he settled back in his chair. "A man shouldn't have to hear such things from a friend."

 

He pushed his chair back, scraping it against the floor, and went to get a drink. Hell, yes, he thought, things felt better when you talked. This awfulness would pass. Everything would be right by morning.

 

******

 

It was almost dark when Ezra returned to town, his horse plodding with as little energy he felt himself. He had spent hours sitting under a tree, the words dancing on the pages of his book. He had spent hours in thought, and now he was back, but nothing had changed. Nothing had changed.

 

The worst of the heat was over, and the town called to him, enfolding him in the sounds and the smells that had come to mean home. His horse whickered softly, recognising the familiar stables. "Indeed," Ezra murmured, "we are home."

 

He would fight for it, he realised. He should have fought harder right from the start. You couldn't blame people for failing to stand up for you when you failed to stand up for yourself. You couldn't blame people for hurting you when you hid behind a poker face and never showed them you were hurt. Why hadn't defended himself as soon as the accusations had begun? He knew the answer, of course. Because he had been wallowing in his own doubts, hiding from the face in the mirror. Because he had feared that they would disbelieve him. Because in the past, his most aggrieved protestations of innocence had often come when he was thoroughly guilty, and his friends knew that. Because I am my own worst enemy. I am the boy who cried wolf.

 

He dismounted wearily, closing his eyes for a moment as he leaned against the door. Because I was afraid, he admitted. Because when he had come faltering to Josiah's door and confessed the truths that lay in his heart, Josiah had thrown them back in his face. Because his mother had always trampled on the pieces of his heart, and it was best not to show anything, best not to show anyone that you cared.

 

"But I don't want this to end," he murmured, as he removed the saddle and hung up the tack. "No, indeed. I have no idea how I ended up in a career in law enforcement, but here I am, and I…" He paused, hand on the horse's flank. "And I wish to stay."

 

His steps felt lighter as he walked out of the livery, out into the night. Where would he go first? The saloon, of course. He smiled; the mask-like smile that often covered nerves. At least some of his associates would be there, and…

 

"Mr Standish!" 

 

He turned at the voice to see one of the boys who worked at the telegraph office. Ezra stopped walking and waited for the boy to run up to him. Please don't let it be from Mother, he thought fervently. His mother always had the worst possible timing. Sometimes it seemed as if she possessed a sixth sense that told her when to show up in time to wreak the worst possible damage to his life.

 

The boy handed him a piece of paper. "Came in just before closing," he panted. "Addressed to Mr Larabee, but I reckon any one of you'll do just the same."

 

Ezra took the paper, and grudgingly tipped the boy the penny he clearly expected. Moving into the light, he read the message. "Good Lord!" He read it again, as if the letters would disassemble and rearrange themselves if he looked at them long enough. The message remained the same. "This is not good at all," he said.

 

So everything would have to be pushed aside. All those things that lay between them… They had done it before, of course: pushed aside all manner of emotions in order to concentrate on the job. The safety of the town came first. They worked well together as a  team, even if everything was wrong between them.

 

"Mr Standish," he heard, and he turned round, holding up a hand, too preoccupied with the news to bother shaping a polite reply.

 

"Not now," he said, and… Good Lord, it was William Covington. It was the boy who didn't know how to take his losses. It was the boy who had started all this. Or not started it, he had to admit, but made it immeasurably worse.

 

"Mr Standish." The boy cleared his throat. "I've heard what everyone's saying. I've heard what my sister did. I've heard--"

 

Ezra tried to push past him. "Much as I would love to hear the apology I am sure you have come to offer me, I have something much more important--"

 

"But it is an apology," Covington protested. He grabbed Ezra by the sleeve from behind. Ezra whirled round, his hand going instinctively to his gun, then forced himself to relax.

 

"Explain," Ezra said. He was breathing harder than he should have been.

 

"I only lost a few dollars to you," Covington said. "Fifty dollars, sixty… Nothing I couldn't afford. I staked it freely."

 

"Yes?" The night was growing colder, with nothing to keep the heat from flowing away to the stars. Laughter poured out of the saloon, but the street was empty, except for them.

 

"I lost the rest to… someone else." Covington pressed his hand to his mouth, in a gesture strongly reminiscent of his sister's. "It was someone I shouldn't have associated with, in a place I shouldn't have gone. I didn't want my sister to know. I told her I'd lost a fortune to you, and that you'd cheated. I lied about other things, too. I told her things - scurrilous things about your friends and the other folks in town - and told her you'd said them, because I didn't want her to know I'd been with… the person I'd been with."

 

He should have felt furious; tomorrow, perhaps, he would do, but today all he felt was relief. The cracks would heal. The seven of them would stand together, just in time to face the threat that was bearing down upon them.

 

"But I've heard what everyone's saying about you," Covington said. "Your six friends… They're over in the saloon right now, being your judge, jury and executioner. Last thing I heard, they'd decided to ask you to leave."

 

Ezra stood very still; let out a breath. "But they won't," he said carefully, "will they? Not after you tell them the truth."

 

"I need to tell my sister first," Covington said. "I need to do it now. Oh God, I don't know if I'm brave enough!"

 

"Believe me," Ezra said, "you're brave enough." Across the street, the laughter swelled, drifting out into the night. Judge, jury and executioner.

 

"Come with me." Covington almost grabbed his arm, but Ezra moved back. "I know I don't have the right to ask you anything, but I… if you're there, I'll have the strength to say it. If you're there, you'll know what I'd said."

 

Ezra looked at the paper in his hand, almost forgotten now. He looked at the doors of the saloon, and he thought of what lay within, and what had to be faced.

 

"It won't take long," Covington said. "Just a minute or two. Please."

 

It was not often that Ezra had received an apology. Not often that he'd deserved one, of course, but there had been moments… There had been certain accusations made unfairly, and seldom an apology afterwards, not in words. Not that words were always necessary, of course, when you showed with your deeds that you trusted a man with your life, but the words were welcome. The words might ease the pain of this whole sorry incident, soothing it just a little.

 

"Very well." He inclined his head. "Lead on."

 

Covington sighed audibly with relief, but his shoulders were tense as Ezra followed him into the hotel. He was silent as he led Ezra up the stairs, and by the time he reached his sister's door, he looked terrified, clenching and unclenching his hands at his side.

 

Ezra gave him an encouraging smile, with not a little malice in it. "Have courage," he said. "It will all be over soon."

 

Covington gave an answering smile, that didn't reach his eyes. "Indeed it will." Then he took a step back, inviting Ezra to enter the room first.

 

Ezra had not taken more than two steps when something struck him hard from behind, and he fell; saw the carpet, a flash of ornate furniture, skirts of blue. Then it struck him again, and after that--

 

******

 

end of chapter five

 

******

 

Chris knew that he was dreaming. He knew that it wasn't really like this, but that didn't stop it hurting. It didn't make any difference to know that none of this was true.

 

In dreams, he rose from his bed and walked down the stairs, his spurred feet jangling on each step. That was the only sound he heard - no snoring behind other doors, no talking from down below, no laughter from the street. He didn't think it was strange at first; thought it was just a quiet night with everyone sleeping.

 

Even when he reached the street, he didn't realise anything was wrong. Quiet, he thought, surveying the silent town. Quiet was good. Quiet meant there were no fights in the saloon for him to sort out. Quiet meant no fresh graves to be dug, and no new widows to clothe themselves in black. Quiet meant no troublemakers riding into town, wanting to try their strength against the seven lawmen they'd heard so much about. Quiet meant no-one bothering him when he wanted to be alone. He looked up at the peaceful sky, at the placid stars, at the silent buildings. Hell, yes, he thought. Quiet is good.

 

A door started banging, rhythmical and soft. A dog howled; howled as if its heart would break. Chris walked forward, and the sound of his spurs grew louder with each step. A lantern guttered and went out.

 

He reached the banging door; knocked and wrenched it open. Inside, the house was open to the stars, darkness pouring in from above. Chris crouched, and found a discarded fiddle, its strings still intact. He drew his gun, and the soft click of it was like a clap of thunder. A few steps later, he found a table, and his groping hand found food, still on the plate, but cold.

 

He ran outside; raced across the street to the saloon; flung open the batwing doors. A few lights still burned, showing that the place was deserted. Empty glasses still sat on tables. A winning hand of cards was spread out next to a pile of money. A chair lay on its side, and drips fell from a toppled glass, falling to the floor in time with the rhythm of his breathing.

 

"Come out!" he shouted, his voice shattering the silence. He turned a full circle, covering the emptiness with his gun. "What have you done with them?" A glass rolled a little, then came to rest. Dust began to rain from above, covering everything in a thin film. Before he could reach the door, the whole place was thick with dust, as if the last person to live here had left a dozen years ago.

 

"Where is everyone?" he shouted, back in the street now, his voice echoing off the stars. The sky above him seemed to shift, as if all the stars were staring down at him, the only person left alive in the vast emptiness that was the world.

 

They'd all gone. They'd all left him. He saw their ghosts, like a memory of things gone before: Buck leaving with a woman, JD riding out on the stage, Vin just riding out one day and never coming back. All gone. All gone…

 

And he woke up, then, and just lay there in the darkness, on the ruin of his bed. Then he sat up slowly, scraping his hand across his face, feeling the sweat and the dirt and the prickles on his chin. He moved to the window. Someone was snoring in the room next to his, and laughter and shouting drifted up from the street. It was not yet midnight, he realised; he had dim memories of staggering back to his room during the afternoon, to sleep off the night before.

 

Chris leaned against the cool wooden frame. He didn't want to be alone - oh, God, how dreadful it had felt to be alone. When Adam and Sarah had died, he had done his damnedest to push everyone away, but gradually, over the last months, over the last year, he had allowed himself to experience the pleasure of human company.

 

I don't want to lose that, he thought. He didn't want to be the person he had been just two years before. But Ella… Ella had almost made him be that person again. Ella had… No, he thought, it wasn't her, it was me. He had let it jeopardise everything that he had gained. And I don't want to be like that again, he thought. However hard it was, he had to carry on. He couldn't let this change things. If he did, then Ella had won.  

 

Across the street, the saloon door swung open, and Buck and JD left together, Buck gesturing in his usual expansive way. Movement at the clinic window showed that Nathan was at home, and a light burned in Vin's wagon. Ezra was doubtless holding court at the tables, and Josiah would be in the church, settling things down for the night.

 

Chris smiled; just stood there for a long time, smiling. 

 

******

 

His head hurt. His head hurt so much that he couldn't bear the thought of opening his eyes. Perhaps if he held his head in his hands, it would get better, but he couldn't move. He tried to, but he couldn't.

 

Hurt. He tried to say it, but no sound came out; the pain was in his mouth, too. Something warm trickled slowly down his face, like blood or maybe tears, but he couldn't be crying; Mother didn't like it when he cried. His heart was beating faster and faster, and that made his head hurt even worse, hammering like a stampede of horses.

 

He tried to move; tried to roll over. He was… Good heavens, I'm lying on the floor. It was hard beneath him, hard against his cheek. Want to be in bed. Soft there. Nice and soft. Pain was a spike driving away thought, driving away…

 

"You hit him too hard."

 

The light looked different through his eyelids. Time had passed, but he hadn't… How had that happened? Who was talking? A woman. But why was he here, hurting so badly, when a woman…?

 

"There's blood on the rug." That was a man. He didn't know his voice. Not one of my friends. Not...

 

"And you care?"

 

I want one of my friends to come.

 

He opened his eyes, just a slit, light striking him like a blade of a knife. Blue skirts in flickering gaslight. The foot of an expensive chair. Perfume like flowers, like gardens far away. Mother?

 

He closed his eyes; tried to turn his face away. Pain was molten lead behind his eyes. Pain roiled in his stomach. Don't feel too good, mother. Skirts swished; he knew that sound. Every story always ended with her walking away. No, no, I'm fine. I'm happy. I can be a help to you, mother. Look what I won for you all by myself.

 

A hand on his face. And yet you lie there, my darling boy. A true professional never lets physical weakness get in the way of the game.

 

He tried to move; tried to speak, but the only sound he heard was a groan. He tried to sit up, but the pain was too great, swirling black and red. Whatever you say, mother. Watch me. I'll do it tomorrow. I just need to rest first. Just need to…

 

"Did you get them?"

 

Another change. He opened his eyes to a crash of pain.

 

"I did. Nobody saw me doing it."

 

He heard a door shutting, and footsteps. Something heavy fell to the floor, and he flinched at the vibrations that drilled through his skull. He saw a travelling bag with a shining lock. Everything was sideways and confusing. He blinked, trying to persuade his brain to turn the images the right way up, but moaned instead. Something was horribly wrong with his mouth, and the smallest sound choked him.

 

"I couldn't bring everything." The man was speaking. Who was he? "He has quite a ridiculous amount of clothing."

 

"Bought with other people's money." The woman again, spitting words like poison. Not Mother. His mother said things like that, but with satisfaction, because it was the life she wanted for him: to live on other people's…

 

The thought ran away from him, lost in pain. Someone sat down with a tense sigh. He saw a young man with fair hair, who flashed in and out of existence as Ezra's eyelids fluttered shut. Covington, he thought. William Covington. And she's Miss Amelia. She's Buck's new girl.

 

"You've taken enough to make them think he's run out on them." She crouched down beside him with a swish of skirts. Please, he tried to tell her, it hurts. "I think he's waking up." A cold smile: glittering teeth. I don't like these people, Mother. Please don't leave me with them. Please let me come with you this time. I'll be good.

 

"They're thinking that already," Covington said loudly. Ezra looked up at him; struggled to make him stay still. "I heard them talking in the saloon. Do you hear me, Standish? Good riddance, they said. They were drinking toasts to your absence."

 

No, he thought. No, they wouldn't. Don't believe it. Don't… He tried to say it. Couldn't speak. Couldn't speak. Gag. He tried to move his hands behind his back, fingers twisting against leather.

 

She turned her hand round, nails hard against his face. Fight. Gotta fight. He jerked away from her; brought his legs up, and--

 

******

 

"You didn't tell me about this yesterday," Chris said, his voice entirely level. He put his spoon down, breakfast untouched.

 

"Hell, Chris…" He saw Buck and Vin exchange glances, communicating without words, like Chris could do with either of them. "You weren't anywhere around yesterday," Buck said.

 

Chris gripped the spoon tight. "Someone accuses one of my men of theft. Reckon that makes it my business, whether I'm here or not."

 

Buck cleared his throat uncomfortably. Vin leant forward, his blue eyes as piercing as they had been from the start, when he and Chris had taken up arms together to defend an innocent man. "Reckon we all thought you would decide against Ezra on the spot, being as you've been harsh on him lately."

 

"I'd have been fair," Chris protested. "Chances are, I'd have been fairer than you." When a group of men got together, he knew, the truth was often lost in preconceptions.

 

Vin's gaze didn't waver. "We gave things some thought," he said. "Decided we don't think our Ezra's a man for thievin'." He shook his head. "Truth's never served by goin' off half-cocked."

 

"But I can't find Amelia," Buck burst out, all movement, where Vin was all stillness. "I've looked all over for her. She mighta found the brooch by now."

 

"Find her," Chris said. "If she hasn't found it, we'll have to investigate."

 

Buck nodded, touching the brim of his hat and he hurried out to obey. Chris and Vin watched him go. The silence stretched between them, but silence had always felt right between them. Sitting silent with Vin was one of the things - one of the many things - that had started to ease the gaping wound Chris bore on his soul. And he hadn't realised it until now, until yesterday, until the dream. He hadn't realised the importance of each and every one of them.

 

"You won't be harsh on Ezra?" Vin said at last. "You won't go accusin' him soon as ya see him?"

 

Chris blinked, closing his eyes for a moment. He had a hazy memory of saying that Ezra should just go right on and leave. He had weeks of memories of distrusting the man, seeing rottenness at the heart of everything he did. He'd told himself it was because of the assassin's money, but it wasn't, was it? He'd seen the image of Ella Gaines on the face of every trickster. Because of her deceit, he'd blamed everyone who dealt in lies.

 

"I won't," he promised. "What did Ezra have to say about it yesterday?"

 

Vin frowned. "He never came to the saloon last night. Don't rightly know if he's even heard about the accusation."

 

Someone came down the stairs, their steps heavy on the wood. Chris looked up, but it wasn't Ezra. "We'll have to talk to him about this," he said. "I won't go jumping to any hasty conclusions, but we have to hear his side of things."

 

Another silence. Chris ate his breakfast, wondering how long it had been since such simple fare had felt so good. Had he eaten a single thing the day before? "Vin," he said, before he could think better of it. "Reckon I wasn't good company the other night. I might have said things…"

 

"I've heard worse." Vin shrugged. "Everyone says things when they're drunk." He reached across the table to clap Chris on the arm. "Reckon you needed to do it. Sometimes a man has to fall down before he can stand up again."

 

Chris nodded, and leant back in his chair, suddenly feeling more contented than he had felt in weeks, ever since Ella Gaines had torn his life apart.

 

******

 

Thought this time was clearer. Prisoner. Tied up. Gag in my mouth. Hurts. Hurts.

 

He flexed his hands: leather straps, holding him tight. One ankle was restrained, which meant…  yes, there it was: another leather band lashing him to the foot of the bed. He was gagged, a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth, held there with cord. His head hurt. Concentration was difficult, and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to stand up, even if he wasn't tied. He'd had head injuries before; remembered listing sideways and crashing to the floor when he had been trying to effect a measured retreat with his dignity intact.

 

"You're awake."

 

He turned his head slightly to look up at Amelia Covington in a sea of rumpled blue. He tried to look at her with unconcern and dignity, but--

 

Oh Lord, he thought, as his stomach protested the movement. He swallowed, throat working against the gag, and swallowed again. He wanted the gag gone; his whole body wanted to repel it. And if I vomit with a gag in my mouth. Oh Lord.

 

Perhaps his eyes showed his fear, because Amelia smiled. Ezra always had the perfect answer. He wanted to cast words at her, intelligent and well-chosen ones that would stop her in her tracks, but all he could do was swallow, swallow, and pray to God that he could calm his heaving stomach.

 

"I was afraid we'd killed you too soon," she said.

 

How he feared cruel women! There were some who thought a hard woman an offence against nature, but Ezra had known his mother for his whole life, and had his own insight into such things. Yes, that's right, Ezra. Think. Think. Focus on words. Focus on anything, except how utterly miserable your stomach feels.

 

He let his eyes flicker around the room, collecting evidence that would help piece together the full picture of his captivity. He was still inside Miss Covington's hotel room, it seemed. Both siblings were there. Amelia was the leader in this, he thought. Could that be true? Yes, yes. William looked nervous, pale on a dark red seat. The time was… No clock, but daylight filtered past thick drapes. Morning, already morning. And he had come here the night before. A whole night unconscious on the floor. How Nathan would tut!

 

"We do plan to kill you, of course."

 

She was very young. Now she had removed her gloves, he could see that her fingernails had been chewed to the quick. Fair hair coming down from its arrangement. Artful cosmetics applied too long ago. She was between him and the door. Bindings with no slack in them at all; he pulled and pulled, but then his fingers tingled with lack of blood. Couldn't drag himself to the door unless he dragged the heavy bedstead with him. Where were his guns? On a chair on the far side of the room, as far away as the moon.

 

"Do you want to know why?" She crouched beside him. A blue dress, finely tailored. Lace at the throat. "Listen to me!" She slapped him on the cheek, but her shout hurt more. Something trickled down from the corner of his eye. "I want you to hear this!"

 

"Amelia," William hissed urgently.

 

What? He closed his eyes, desperately seeking darkness. Oh yes. William was afraid that somebody might hear her if she shouted too loud. Thin walls, thin floors, distant sounds from the street. Somebody might hear. Yes. Remember that.

 

He kept his eyes closed, his face turned away, but her voice went low, quiet, dead. "I had another brother once," she said. "He was called Frank. Francis. Francis Covington. You know the name?"

 

He couldn't answer her. He had known so many people in his life, most of them just for a single night. People came and went. Names passed by and away from him, and then were gone.

 

"You should know the name." Her voice was still dead. He was afraid, suddenly - more afraid than he had been since waking. "He lost a fortune to you in the gaming halls of Chicago. You cheated him out of everything he had."

 

Didn't cheat, he wanted to say. Didn't cheat. Didn't cheat. It might even have been true. Sometimes he cheated, and sometimes he didn't. Hadn't cheated much for a while, but Chicago had been six years ago, or more.

 

"He was afraid to tell our father," she said. "He was seventeen years old. He came home, and while our parents hosted a party in the parlour, he tried to kill himself. But he had never been good at shooting. They said…" She stopped, but there was no sob, no sound at all. When she resumed, her voice was as dispassionate as it had been before. "They said he had must have been crawling around that room for almost an hour before he died, blind, unable to stand. And we were laughing on the floor below. He was there, dying and alone, and we were laughing, and we didn't know… And he heard us…"

 

Her control broke. He opened his eyes, and he saw her, her face a mask of pain, her hands behind her back. Oh, my dear… he thought, but what could he say, what could he do?

 

William moved to her side and took her hand. She looked at him, and knowing his own mother as he did, Ezra recognised that mixture of love and contempt that washed over her face. "Which is why we came here," she said, still dry-eyed. "My father blamed Frank, but my mother…" She pressed her lips together for a moment. "But now our parents are dead. At last I was free to track down the man who had killed my brother. And it was you. It was you."

 

His stomach lurched. Swallow, he thought. Swallow. He stayed still; closed his eyes. Couldn't think about this, not now. No words to get him out of this.

 

"I want you to suffer as he did, dying slowly with your friends so close you can hear them laugh, and know that they have forsaken you."

 

He heard her move, heard the rustle of her skirts, but the knife caught him unprepared, driving into his side, twisting, rending, tearing.

 

He would have screamed, but the gag stopped even that.

 

******

 

It was half way through the morning before Ezra's absence became cause for concern, but Vin reported that his horse was still in the livery, and they turned to other things. It was just before noon that Josiah came down with the news. "Ezra's door's unlocked. His bags and most of his clothes are gone."

 

Vin slipped out then. Chris watched him go, and listened to the others talking. "He wouldn't… Would he?" That was JD, sounding very young. "I'm not sure I would blame him," Josiah said sadly, and Nathan looked up sharply, and said, "But does this mean…?"

 

"Horse is still there," Vin said when he returned. "Yosemite says he rode in last night, just after dark."

 

JD slumped down on the nearest seat. "I was real upset with him the other day, but I didn't mean… I didn't want…"

 

"The way I see it," Josiah said, "none of us have been much of a friend to Ezra lately."

 

"Didn't ya hear me, Josiah?" Vin said. "His horse's still there."

 

"If a man wants to leave without anyone knowing," said Josiah with a sigh, "maybe he might choose to leave his horse behind. He might walk out of town and wait for the stage to reach him."

 

JD lifted his head like a dog hearing a noise "Stage don't go out 'till afternoon." Then his shoulders slumped. "But why would he leave without sayin' goodbye? I know Buck came down harsh on him…"

 

Buck was away, trying once again to find Miss Amelia. Chris opened his mouth to speak, then reckoned he had said far too much lately where Ezra was concerned. Rational thinking still felt strange to him, from the past weeks lost in the fog of grief and anger. He'd let these men have their say. If he'd done that in the past, maybe many things would have been different.

 

"It don't seem like enough to drive him away," Nathan said, "though he did look real down about it."

 

Vin nodded sadly. JD looked startled, as if he hadn't known.

 

"But if a man had a diamond brooch to sell," Nathan said slowly, running his finger up and down the grain of the wooden table, "reckon he might wanna get outta town as quick as he could."

 

Josiah looked down, his eyes closing slowly, as if pained. "It does put a different complexion on things."

 

"No," Chris heard himself saying. All eyes turned towards him. "No," he said again. "We have to give him the benefit of the doubt." Because I didn't. For reasons that had nothing to do with him, I looked for the worst in him. I'm trying… Oh, Lord, I'm trying to set things right. "We'll send messages to all nearby towns. Josiah, Nathan, you ask around, see if anyone saw him last night or this morning. Vin… I don't think you'll have much to track, but do what you can. JD, go get Buck, see if that damn brooch has showed up..."

 

The others were looking at him, JD with his eyes wide, as if he had never seen Chris before. "Hell, ain't none of us got any illusions about the sort of man he is," Chris said, "but we ain't none of us perfect, and Ezra, he's…"

 

Vin finished it for him, speaking into the silence. "He's one of us."

 

******

 

Someone was knocking, knocking at the door, like blood hammering in his head. "Amelia! Miss Amelia!"

 

Buck, he thought. Buck! He tried to call out, but he couldn't speak past the gag. He tried to scream, to shout, to moan, and he made a sound, oh, God, he made a sound, and it had to be enough, it had to be enough.

 

Amelia stood up, the sounds of her footsteps deliberately loud, drowning out the small noises he was making. William cleared his throat. Ezra tried again: Buck! Buck! I'm here!

 

"Amelia?"

 

"I'm afraid I'm indisposed, Mr Wilmington. My brother's with me. I… I prefer not to see anyone else." Ezra saw her up against the door. He lashed from side to side, smashing his shoulder against the floor, and flailed with his free leg, trying to kick the bedstead. "Have you recovered my brooch yet?" Amelia called.

 

Buck said nothing. Was he listening, his ear to the door? Had he heard? Had he drawn his gun? Then William pressed a hand against Ezra's shoulder, and he tried to fight it, really he did, but the pain in his side was a blade of fire, and his vision blurred.

 

"Not yet," Buck said. He sounded defeated. Why did he sound defeated? Everything was so muffled. A thin slab of wood between them, and Buck and Ezra might as well be in different worlds. "I'll… I hope you're feeling better soon, Miss Amelia."

 

Ezra heard Buck walk away. He heard his footsteps, one, two, three, and then Buck was gone. Ezra moaned; he couldn't stop himself. Amelia turned towards him, leaning back against the door, and she smiled, so he knew she thought his moan had been a sob.

 

Maybe she was right.

 

"Did you hear about the diamond?" she asked him. She moved towards him, her hem brushing his face. There was blood on it, he saw. "I told that poor fool that you stole my brooch, and he believed it. They all believed it. Why shouldn't they? You'd have stolen it if you'd gotten the chance. You're nothing but a thief and a scoundrel, after all. A snake." He saw the tip of her shoe, sticking out from the blood-stained hem. "And what do you do with snakes? You crush them beneath your feet. All this…? It's nothing but justice, after all."

 

They all believed it, he heard her say, repeating it again and again long after she had moved away from him. William stayed near him longer, looking down on him with a face like a mask. They all believed it.

 

Of course they did, he thought, and, No, no, they wouldn't. But he couldn't think about that. Didn't matter. Surviving mattered.

 

Buck had walked away. He'd called for Amelia, he'd talked about diamonds, but he hadn't asked if anyone had seen Ezra. Must be afternoon now, or even later. A night and a day missing, and nobody…

 

No, he told himself. Can't think like that. Got to… gotta hold on. He was bleeding again, warm blood sluggishly seeping from his side. He rolled over as far as he could, bringing up his unfettered leg. If he lay just so, his coat bunched up against the wound, and if he lay still… if he lay so very still.... It would slow the bleeding. It would keep him alive.

 

But for what? Why? He'd done all those things. Even here, on the floor, the mirror was there, showing him the truth of what he was. He'd tricked hundreds of people out of their money, and until he'd arrived in Four Corners, it had never occurred to him to think it was wrong. He played a game of skill, and if people were foolish enough to fall for his lies, it was their own fault, and they deserved everything they got. Hell, most of them would play the same tricks on their fellow men if only they had Ezra's gift for it. He was--

 

He stopped. He focused on keeping the darkness away; on the soft fall of dust in the beam of light from the edge of the curtains.

 

But whatever I am, he thought, that doesn't… make this… right.

 

And perhaps it was the sun moving with the advancing day, but suddenly he saw the scrap of paper that lay on the floor, unnoticed at the edge of the room.

 

Good Lord! The telegram!

 

******

 

Buck felt like hitting something, maybe a wall, out back and round the corner, where nobody could see him. Amelia wouldn't emerge from her room, and now JD had told him that Ezra had disappeared. Disappeared with Amelia's brooch… No, he couldn't believe that, but you couldn't blame a man for thinking it. If only he'd confronted Ezra the night before instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt, none of this might have happened.

 

If only… If only… There were too many if onlys. Regrets could eat a man up inside. If he'd just said yes to Louisa. If he'd noticed Miss Hilda earlier. If he and Chris hadn't…

 

"Buck!" He heard his name shouted; looked up to see Chris and Vin leaving the telegraph office, their faces grim. Buck pushed everything down inside him. There was no time to get distracted by feelings of your own when Chris looked like that.

 

They stopped in the middle of the street, beneath the baking sun, where people idling on the shade of the boardwalks couldn't hear them. "The boy from the telegraph office gave Ezra a telegram last night," Chris said. "Told him it was addressed to me, but he reckoned that any of the seven of us would do as well."

 

"Bad news?" Buck asked, but Chris's expression suggested it was more than that.

 

"Those prisoners we took from Barrett's gang…They escaped yesterday afternoon. Someone held up their escort and they got clean away. They were seen coming back this way."

 

"Damn," Buck swore. He looked at the town, lazy in the summer heat.  "Reckon they're coming here?"

 

"It's a possibility." Chris looked at him Vin. "We heard them threaten revenge."

 

"On Ezra most of all." Vin held Chris' gaze, with some meaning in the look that Buck didn't understand.

 

Buck frowned. "You think they took Ezra?"

 

Chris shook his head. "Timing ain't right. They were nearly two days away from us when it happened."

 

"So Ezra found out they were comin' for him, and ran?" He had to say it, but even as he said it, he knew that it couldn't be true. Ezra had almost run out on them over the business of the assassin's money, but the moment danger had threatened, he'd come back. The man was many things, but he weren't no coward.

 

"He wouldn'ta gone without passing the message on." Vin sounded utterly certain, and Buck found himself nodding along with him. Chris nodded, too, brisk and grim.

 

"Hell," Buck said, "we've gotta find him."

 

Chris nodded again. Vin turned away, looking towards the edge of the town, as if searching for the dust clouds of approaching enemies. Yesterday afternoon, Buck thought. And two days' journey for a prisoner wagon could be covered in half that time by men on horses. Barrett's gang could be here any minute. Hell, Barrett's gang could already be here.

 

******

 

end of chapter six

 

******

 

Barrett's gang rode into town on four pale horses, limned in the fire of the setting sun. Children laughed, playing heedlessly, drawing playful lines in the dust. Women talked in doorways, and men repaired to the saloon, weary from a long day's work in the baking heat.

 

JD and Buck were outside the jail, their heads thrown back as they laughed at some story. Chris and Vin sat outside the saloon, silent and content. Josiah was with Nathan, discussing improvements to the church, gesticulating as they described the mighty temple of their dreams.

 

And Ezra? Ezra watched it all from above, as if he were a buzzard soaring on the wind. But when he tried to shout a warning, he could not make a sound, not even the harsh cry of a bird.

 

The pale horsemen rode on. JD fell first, dying with a joke still on his lips. Buck called JD's name, then died on top of him, shielding him with his body, but too late. Chris and Vin reached for their guns, but were killed before they could draw them. Josiah turned round, dreams fading from his eyes, and fell in a torrent of blood on the doorstep of his church. Nathan touched Josiah's throat, calling his name desperately, then slumped slowly sideways, as quietly as sleep.

 

"No!" Ezra screamed throughout, but the words were locked inside him and he could not break them free. He pounded on the prison bars. He tugged at his bonds. But Barrett's gang rode on, calmly gunning down everyone who lived. Women fell, and children; old men whose shaking hands could no longer hold a gun. And the flesh melted away from the implacable faces of the men on those pale horses, leaving them as pale grinning skulls, and this was their apocalypse.

 

"No!" Ezra screamed, and he jerked awake from the dream-like state he had drifted into. He pulled at his bonds, trying to drag his hands free, but the leather only sliced deeper and deeper into his skin. When he fought too hard, the dreams always took him. The more he fought, the sooner he would die.

 

But if he didn't fight at all. Oh Lord, if he didn't fight at all, and Barrett's gang rode into town…

 

He would hear the gunfire from here. He would hear the screams of the dying.

 

******

 

"They must know we'll have received warning." Chris was gathered with Josiah and Nathan in the jail. "They won't be so foolish as to ride into town in plain view."

 

"Unless they've picked up accomplices." Josiah was sighting down his gun, aiming at imaginary targets in the empty cells. "They might be relying on weight of numbers."

 

That was Barrett's way, of course. His gang would swagger into a town like kings of the world, expecting everyone to cower before them. They took whatever they wanted, and they killed anyone who dared stand and fight.

 

Nathan shook his head. "Why we so sure they're headin' here? Seems to me it'd be the last place they'd come. It's safest for them to ride far away."

 

Chris nodded in quick agreement. "But we can't count on that. We have to act on the assumption that they're coming here. And if they know they're outnumbered and that we're expectin' them…"

 

Josiah lowered his gun, and thrust it into his holster. "They'll sneak in like coyotes in a chicken pen. They'll try to take us down one by one."

 

"So we need to stay together," Chris said. "You two warn folks that trouble might be comin' in. Keep them watching for strangers."

 

"We need to find Ezra." Josiah stood up, pacing towards the door, and back again.

 

"Chances are he's just slithered off somewhere until it all blows over." Nathan spoke like a man trying to convince himself of something he didn't believe at all. His face showed all the concern and guilt that Chris felt inside.

 

"Buck an' JD are asking after Ezra," Chris said. "Vin's lookin' for traces of him. We can't…" He clenched his fist on the table. "We can't drop everything and look for him, not when the whole town's in danger. He wouldn't expect us to."

 

Josiah nodded in sad agreement. Chris stood up, ready to prepare a town for attack. Maybe this was why he had taken this job, he realised. When danger was threatening, and when the lives of innocents depended on your every decision and the speed of your draw, there was no room in your mind for sorrow or regret. All you had to think about was the here and now.

 

******

 

Dreams had taken him again, but there was less and less difference between sleep and waking. Was this whole thing just a dream? A monster with the soft voice of a woman was hurting him, so that meant it had to be a dream, didn't it? His mother stalking his nightmares, laughing as she crushed him underfoot, or retreating away from him in the fog, and never stopping to wait for him, no matter how much he called…

 

"--sure we should do this?" he heard.

 

"Of course. We've come this far. We can't stop now."

 

I am in blood stepped in so far. He remembered reading Shakespeare in the shade of an old plantation, turning over the pages one by one. I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as a tedious as go o'er. Macbeth committing himself to another murder, because it was easier to carry on than to stop. Lady Macbeth urging him on, with blood on her hands, so much blood that all the oceans of the world could not wash it away.

 

She was moving around the room, her skirts whispering messages that he couldn't quite hear. He heard a door opening - Buck? he thought. You've come back for me? - but hazy vision showed him that it was just a closet door. The main door was still closed, but boxes and bags were piled up next to it. Put bricks in them, he thought. That's what Mother would do.

 

Footsteps came closer to him, and he dragged himself out of dreaming to see Amelia Covington standing above him, looking down. "I thought you would have died before now," she said.

 

I apologise for disappointing you, Ezra tried to say with his eyes. I hope to… keep on… disappointing… you

 

"The stage is due in half an hour," she told him. "There's no further reason for us to stay in this dump of a town."

 

Ezra's eyes slid shut. He forced them open again, and saw Amelia's brother hovering behind her, his face pale. Don't like the sight of blood? Ezra thought. Should have thought of that before you stabbed me.

 

Amelia sat down on a red velvet chair, spreading her skirts. She was nearer Ezra's level now, but as far away as if they were in different worlds. When she spoke, her voice seemed hollow, words spiralling in the darkness. "We'll lock the door and take the key. By the time they break down the door, you will be long dead."

 

A dead assassin on a bed, dead and decayed, and oh Lord, the stench of him! Days before the door had been opened. Long endless days, and flies, and the heat, the infernal heat of this never-ending summer!

 

Her face turned harsh - cold and pinched and harsh. "I hope you experience what Frank experienced as he died. Alone. Forsaken. He thought his own family would cast him out, and so he…" She turned her head away, biting her lip.

 

William touched her shoulder with faltering fingers. "This won't bring Frank back, Ammy."

 

She surged to her feet, knocking his hand away. Like an angel of death, she strode past him and dragged the window open wide. "You'll hear everything," she spat, and Ezra had to turn his head uncomfortably to see her, crackling fire and framed against the blue. "Every murmur against you. Every peal of laughter. Every sound that shows you how happy they are to see you gone."

 

She stamped past him again, her skirts brushing his hair. He rolled back, fire blazing in his side. Scooping up the nearest bag, she opened the door, and he yearned towards that place outside, and there was moisture on his face, like tears. William took the rest of the bags, and stopped in the doorway, turning back, pulling his lower lip in with his teeth. Please, Ezra thought, signalling it desperately with his eyes. Please…

 

The door closed. The key turned in the lock.

 

Please! he screamed. Air from the open window caressed his skin, and although the room was hot, he shivered, and once he had started, he couldn't stop.

 

******

 

Nobody they talked to had seen Ezra since the previous evening. Didn't stop many of them expressing their opinions, though. Apparently everybody knew Ezra had stolen a diamond - "'bout the size of a turkey's egg, it was" - and if he wasn't in town any more, he'd probably scuttled off to the nearest city to sell it and spend his winnings on fancy clothes and sinful living. 

 

"Ezra didn't steal no diamond!" JD protested, but Buck placed a hand on his arm and cautioned him with a look not to take it any further. Priority was to find Ezra and to defend the town if Barrett's gang attacked. Couldn't do that if JD got himself embroiled in a fight every time some damn fool townsperson said something he didn't like.

 

"But it ain't right that they say things like that," JD protested. "Ezra's put his life on the line for them lots of times, same as all of us."

 

"But we don't know for sure that he's innocent," Buck had to remind him. He hated that he had to do it, but the boy had to learn that sometimes a friend betrayed you, and that a good lawman didn't put friendship above justice.

 

"But we don't know for sure that he's guilty, either," JD retorted. "It ain't right to talk as if he is."

 

They were near the edge of the town. They'd searched everywhere, they'd asked everyone they met, but there was still no sign of Ezra. Plenty folk showed concern for Ezra, and several openly questioned the rumour that was flying around saying that he was a thief. But Mrs Travis looked thoughtful when they questioned her. "There's something strange about this," she said slowly. "Mr Standish has lived here for all this time, and he's never hidden his profession, but there's been barely a whisper against him when it comes to the things that truly matter. And yet in the last few days…" She stopped, frowning. "In the last few days, I have heard so many whispers about him: unpleasant things he supposedly said; things that he's supposedly done… Why would a man change so much in just a few days?"

 

The next person spat when Buck mentioned Ezra's name. Buck hit him, smashing him to the ground, then stepping over him when he was still recovering. "Don't say a word," Buck hissed to JD from the corner of his mouth. His fist hurt. It felt good.

 

"Mrs Travis has a point," JD said a little while later. "Why does the whole town know that Ezra's the one accused of stealin' the brooch? We didn't tell anyone." He leaned on the hitching rail.

 

But Buck was hardly listening. They were opposite the hotel now, and standing outside it, surrounded by bags and cases, stood Miss Amelia Covington and her brother, clearly fixing to leave.

 

******

 

…and when they burst open the door, they found his body, already beginning to rot. "We're well rid of him," Chris said. Vin pulled the window open as far as it would go, but it was still hot, still blazing hot in the little room. Josiah said, "Just think, he was lying here bleeding to death the whole time," and he laughed. Buck dropped a sheet over his body, and then Ezra couldn't see anything at all, but--

 

He no longer jerked awake, just drifted slowly out of the dreams, but dark things crawled with him out of the dream world, and stalked around the room. It isn't true, he told himself, but those dark things laughed. My friends wouldn't say things like that. They know I have my weaknesses, but they wouldn't let me die.

 

The dark things scurried away and went hiding. They were there in the shadow behind the door. They were these in the folds of the curtains, stirring gently against the open window. They were there in the pool of blood that he saw when he moved.

 

It isn't true! he told them, and he strained at his bonds, desperate to get free, and he scraped his face again and again against the carpet, trying to dislodge the gag.

 

The window was open, and the world was so close. All he had to do was shout. All he had to do was shout, and they would come, they would come, they would come.

 

But the dark things swooped forward with their claws, and they carried him away, far away, away to the place of dreaming.

 

…and when they burst open the door, they found his body, already beginning to rot. But it wasn't Chris and the others, not this time, for Barrett's gang had come, and Chris and Vin and all the rest of them were dead.

 

******

 

"Amelia!" Buck rushed across the street. "Amelia, you're leavin'?"

 

When she turned towards him, his first thought was that this wasn't her at all. Her face was hard, and she hardly looked beautiful at all, whereas Amelia Covington was as enchanting and lovely as a summer morning. "Amelia," he said, faltering, "darlin'," but she looked at him as if he was nothing at all, just a window to look through at the things on the other side.

 

It was because her smiles were gone, he realised. She no longer wore powder, either, but he had seen enough women waking up in the morning to know that a woman could look beautiful with no paint on her face. The most pretty, unspoiled flowers of these western lands never wore no paint or powder.

 

"Amelia…" He touched her arm, and she didn't pull away, but she didn't pay any attention to it, either. "You're leavin today? On the stage?"

 

JD hovered beside him. "Buck," he hissed, in a loud whisper.

 

What did the boy want? Oh, yes. "Miss Amelia," Buck said firmly, "we think there might be bad men on their way to town. I'm not lookin' to worry you, but it might be safer if you waited inside."

 

"I would rather wait here." She turned away from him, as if he was nothing, just a gawky farmhand too young to grow whiskers, troublin' her for a kiss.

 

"Best…" Buck cleared his throat. Damn it, she made him feel as awkward as a boy! "Best not travel on the stage at all today. These are desperate men. They've been known to rob the stage."

 

Amelia just stood there as if he hadn't spoken. Her brother shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, with the air of a man desperate to be gone.

 

Just one short day ago, this girl had clung to him as if he was her knight in shining armour, who could save her from all the bad things in the world. He'd liked her because she made him feel like that knight, brave and strong. And now…

 

Now that was gone, and he realised that he didn't much care. Take away the smiles and the tears, and what remained? This was a face he hardly knew. She was leaving, and he cared about keeping her safe from Barrett's gang, but he wasn't trying to stop her. Was it because of the way she had looked when she had accused Ezra of taking her brooch? Was it because…? Yes, the brooch! That was why she was so cold towards him, because he hadn't found it; because he'd defended Ezra.

 

"Your brooch…" he began. "Did you…?"

 

She looked round frowning, almost as if she had no idea what he was talking about. William shifted from foot to foot, like a boy caught stealing from his ma's sugar drawer.

 

"Buck!" JD tugged at his sleeve.

 

Buck glared at him. "In a minute, JD." He turned back to Amelia. "Well, I guess this is goodbye."

 

She was leaving, and it didn't matter at all. It wasn't like it was with Louisa, when it had felt like having his heart ripped from his chest when he found that she was gone. All this… all his days with Amelia… they were nothing. He'd courted her for all the wrong reasons, while she…

 

He looked at her impassive face, the face of a stranger. He had meant nothing more to her, he realised. And that weren't right. He, Buck Wilmington, should have swept her off her feet, and had her loving him like no-one else she had ever met.

 

"Buck!" JD hissed again.

 

Buck let out a breath, and gathered the shreds of his dignity. "Goodbye, Miss Amelia, Mister Covington. I hope--"

 

"Buck!" JD grabbed his arm; looked just about ready to blurt something inappropriate right out there in front of the lady.

 

Buck smiled an apologetic smile, and let JD lead him away.

 

"Buck," JD whispered, "why's she got blood all over the hem of her dress?"

 

******

 

…and the dream in which the others found his body was dreadful, but the one in which they all died because he had failed to save them was worse. If it was a dream, and not... Good Lord, he thought, but he couldn't chase down the end of that sentence. Everything swayed when his eyes were open. Concussion, he thought, and blood loss. Thirst in this heat. Fever. When a man goes insane, is he aware of the fact? When a man babbles deliriously… He knows, oh yes, he knows.

 

How long before he…? No, can't think like that. Nothing is impossible; that's what Mother taught you. You have to see an opportunity in every difficult situation, or she'll pat you dismissively on the cheek, and turn away. Have to… So she will… No, Mother isn't here. Mother, why aren't you…? No, no, don't think that. Get out. Got to get out. Wriggle out of your bonds. There are ways of holding your hands when they're tying you up that make it easier to get out of them. Mother didn't tell you that, but some man whom she called your uncle, but probably wasn't. Get out of the gag. Shout. Use that fluency with language that God had gifted you with. Maude, I do believe there's no trouble in this world that this boy of yours couldn't talk his way out of. But it wasn't true, was it? It wasn't…

 

Buck, he thought. Was that Buck's voice? No. Must've been a dream. At least the dark things in the shadows had disappeared, which was good. He hadn't liked those things, oh no, not one little bit.

 

Buck again. Outside. Outside the window. It had to be Buck, because JD was hissing Buck's name urgently, in that sort of whisper that travelled further than a shout.

 

Buck! he screamed into his gag. Buck! Barrett's gang! I saw the telegram! Gotta warn… Gotta warn…

 

Then the dreaming surged up and took him away on a wave of pain. His eyes slid shut. Help. Find me. Help me. Please.

 

******

 

The streets were slowly emptying. Some people refused to take heed of such an uncertain warning, but many had seen too many men bleed out in the dirt to be willing to take any chances. Doors were slammed shut. Mothers called their children in from their games. "Best thing on a hot day like this," said Nathan, "is goin' inside to sleep."

 

"A siesta," Josiah said. "There's much sense in it."

 

Chris just grunted. It was nothing new to be planning the reception you'd give the bad guys, but this time they had no idea if the bad guys were even on their way. What if the day ended without them coming? What if tomorrow came and went, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and still they didn't come? Could you relax? No, you could never relax in a town like this, in a country like this, in a world like this. But sometimes, he thought, you could come close to it, when you were surrounded by good people you could trust with your life.

 

But not now. Not yet. If revenge was the first thing on their mind, Barrett's gang would come here fast, and they would come here today. They would come here today, and Chris was one man down, and despite what Chris had said about priorities, he had no intention of giving up the search for Ezra.

 

Had Buck and JD found him? Moving out of cover, he saw the two of them in full view, standing outside the hotel with the Covingtons. Chris pressed his lips together angrily. Typical Buck, forgetting the task in hand when he saw a pretty woman! Then JD dragged Buck away, and Chris nodded approvingly. JD was good for Buck, he realised. Any teaching between the two of them went both ways. JD brought out Buck's sense of responsibility; made him see that there were more important things in life than the next woman's bed.

 

Maybe they were all good for each other, he thought… but this was not the time for musing on such things. It was time to get into position for the attack that might never come. It was time…

 

He stopped, frowning, struck by a sudden thought. "Where's Vin?"

 

******

 

JD looked stricken, as if his view of the world had changed in the blinking of an eye. "Buck, there ain't no reason for a lady to have that much blood on her skirt." He shook his head, as if he wanted Buck to tell him answers; to reassure him that everything was the way it should be, with polite ladies on their pedestal, incapable of doing wrong.

 

"Hell, no, JD, she couldn'ta…" Buck's voice was rising. He lowered it to a whisper, grabbing JD's shoulders. "There's a whole lot of reasons she coulda…" His voice trailed off. He was suddenly certain that Amelia was looking at him, her gaze like an icy hand between his shoulders.

 

"If she thought Ezra'd taken her brooch…" JD said slowly.

 

Buck tightened his grip. "Hell, no. No, JD, you don't know what you're sayin'. She wouldn't…" Again he trailed off, wanting to speak, but not knowing the words.

 

"And I've been thinkin'," JD said. "All the time we've been lookin' for Ezra, I've been thinkin'. Those awful things he said about Casey… Miss Amelia was the only one who talked about that, and she didn't even say it, just… kind of hinted, ya know?"

 

Buck dragged JD into the shadows at the side of the hotel. "That's crazy talk, JD. Don't let me hear ya sayin' things like that, ya hear me?"

 

"No. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Buck. I didn't mean…" JD shook his head, letting out a defeated breath. Then he brought his chin up, looking like the JD Dunne who'd worn a sheriff's badge, not the boy who'd come from the east. "But what if it's true? We have to check it out."

 

Hell, Buck thought, and he let go of JD's shoulders and slammed a fist into the wall. Who was putting a polite lady on a pedestal? Not JD, that was sure. Buck was the blind one, incapable of accepting that a pretty lady could be capable of violence. Hell, Ella Gaines and the lady bounty hunters shoulda taught him the right of that.

 

"We'll sneak round back," he told JD. "I know the way to her room." He clenched his throbbing fist. But we won't find anything, he thought. We won't. We won't. We can't.

 

******

 

He couldn't hear Buck any more. There was no sound outside at all, as if the whole town had died and left him.

 

He tried to rip himself free from his bonds, but movement… had grown… too… difficult… He jerked himself awake, suddenly sure that if he let the dreams take him again, there would be no more awakening. How did he move his hands? It was hard to isolate his hands from the blaze of pain that his whole body had become.

 

Buck! he shouted. Buck! He saw all the backs that had ever been turned on him. He saw all those people who had contemptuously walked away. He was sitting in state at a gaming table, pretending he didn't care, but…

 

A gunshot sounded, cracking through the still air. His head jolted up. It had started.

 

No, he thought, as his head fell back down again. It is finished.

 

This time he didn't need to fall asleep to see his friends all falling.

 

******

 

"What was that?"

 

Buck grunted vaguely in response. Everything was muffled inside the hotel, with doors locked and windows closed. He guessed that visitors to the town were more nervous about approaching threats, and had taken to their rooms to cower underneath their beds.

 

"Sounded like a gun goin' off," JD said.

 

Buck barely heard him. He knocked on William Covington's door, then turned the handle and went in. It was empty, with drapes hanging heavily against the window. He let out a relieved breath. His palms were damp with sweat, and his heart was beating far faster than it should have been, for a silly little job like this. All he was doing was opening doors. There would be nothing to see; nothing to see at all.

 

"Out the way, Buck." JD pushed past him, and hurried to the window. He pushed aside the drapes and peered out. "I'm sure it was a gunshot," he said. "It… Buck! Look! Something's happened! Chris and the others are running…" He turned round wildly, drawing his gun. "We've gotta go back out there, Buck."

 

******

 

Chris rushed forward, keeping in the shadows, ducking behind cover. Where were Buck and JD? No, the gunshot hadn't come from the direction he'd last seen them in. Not far away a woman was screaming, rushing for her house. He cursed to himself, taking note of where not to shoot. It was the worst thing about situations like this, having townsfolk blundering through the killing fields. You wanted to protect them, but some of them made it so damn hard.

 

A second gun sounded. That was Vin's, he thought, and he glanced left; saw the same thought on Josiah's face. First one hadn't been Vin, though. Weren't good when someone got a shot off before Vin. Weren't good at all.

 

Light blazed from the gap between the livery and the building next to it. Forewarned, Chris brought one hand up to his eyes, shielding them from the glare that hit them when he rounded the building. A figure was emerging from the sunlight, walking tall and deliberately. Vin, he thought, with relief, but he didn't say it. Wasn't wise to say too much when you didn't know how things stood.

 

Then Vin faltered, falling to one knee. Nathan rushed forward, and Chris and Josiah both brought their guns up, covering his rash move. "You hurt?" he heard Nathan ask.

 

"Nathan," Vin said wearily. "He got me good." Chris edged forward, enough to see Vin smile. "But I got  him afterwards. He won't be shootin' anyone no more."

 

"Help him," Chris commanded, and he stayed there with his gun drawn, covering Nathan and Josiah as they helped Vin into the protection of the livery wall, half-hidden from the street by a barrel. He could hear the horses inside, restless on account of the noise.

 

"I got 'im," Vin mumbled, gesturing weakly back a way. "But, Chris…" He fought Nathan's hands, struggling to sit up. "I knew him. He was with Barrett. There'll be others with him. It's started, Chris. It's started."

 

And Chris nodded grimly, because of course it was true.

 

******

 

end of chapter seven

 

******

 

Ezra had no idea what was real any more. People he remembered dying were talking not far away. Was that JD? He heard snatches of words in JD's voice, and then footsteps running past the door.

 

I'm in here! he screamed, in case this JD were real, and not a dream or a ghost like all the others had been.

 

"Buck," he heard, "what you stopping for? We've gotta go."

 

Go. Even the dreams were going now, so that meant that he was dying. But what if they were real? But if Buck and JD were real and they were going…

 

That meant dying, too.

 

He kicked the floor as hard as he could, using every last fragment of strength, but the sound was such a tiny one, like a whisper in a storm. He tried again and again and again, until his body felt as if it had been torn apart by the movement, his stomach sliced open and blood pouring free.

 

Don't go. Don't go. Don't go.

 

******

 

"No," Buck said, stopping with his foot on the topmost stair.

 

Half a dozen steps below him, JD turned round, gripping the railing with his free hand. "But, Buck…"

 

Buck shook his head. Hell, he didn't believe in this wild goose chase. There was no way on earth that Amelia could… that a lady could have… No, sir, no way at all. It was just the boy's over-active imagination. Had to humour him in things like this or he'd reproach you afterwards somethin' dreadful. And he and JD were already here. It would be a matter of seconds to check Amelia's room, and if they didn't do so… If the unthinkable happened, and Ezra was inside, and they didn't check it now, and only found him later…

 

"Chris can handle whatever's happening outside," he said with more certainty than he felt, because sometimes a man had to speak firmly to convince himself of a thing. "Hell, boy, I've seen Chris take on enemies that'd make ten regular fellas run like sissy girls. We'll be out there with him in two shakes of a lamb's tail. We've just gotta check Miss Amelia's room, now we're here."

 

He moved to the door; touched it briefly; tried the handle. Was that a noise coming from inside? He pressed his ear to the door, but heard nothing. The back of his neck prickled, as if someone was drawing a cold finger down his spine.

 

"There'll be nothing inside," he said cheerfully, "just you wait an' see."

 

Drawing his gun, he took a few steps back, and shot the lock. JD reached out to try the handle almost before he'd finished. "For God's sake, JD, be careful of splinters," Buck said sharply. "Don't go blamin' me if you lose an eye." JD shook his head, indicating that the door was still locked. Buck let out a shaky breath. "Ain't as easy as it looks." He flashed JD what he hoped was a confident grin. What was happening outside? What if someone died because he'd stopped JD from going out to help?

 

Waving JD back out the way, Buck shot the lock again. Still nothing. He tried again and again. Most of his bullets gone on shootin' a damn door. Best not tell anyone else about that. One more time. The wooden door frame was already splintered from the other bullets, and he aimed near the hole, then turned the gun around and smashed it into the weakened spot. In the end, he was reduced to throwing himself bodily against the door, using his shoulder like a battering ram, violently rattling at the handle.

 

"Two shakes of a lamb's tail?" JD said from behind him.

 

"Don't… say… a… word." Buck was breathless by the time the door finally burst open.

 

He made it two steps into the room, and all laughter, all irritation, all frustration fell from him, as if his heart was dropping right out of his body. "Aw hell," he breathed. "Ezra."

 

******

 

"Where are they?" Chris crouched in the shadows, covering empty spaces with his gun. Was that…? No, just a door closing on a woman and a child. A dog strutting across the street. A hitched horse flicking away flies with its tail. Old Mr Jeffries, who'd never run from trouble in all his seventy-eight years, and weren't goin' to start doin' so now, no siree.

 

"I only saw one," Vin gasped, his voice tight with pain. "Found him sneakin'." He gave a faint sigh of laughter. "Or I guess he found me."

 

"Lie still," Chris heard Nathan say. "Let me--"

 

Chris couldn't afford to turn around. Four prisoners, one of them wounded… but somebody had helped them escape - held up an armed wagon, well defended by soldiers. Could be as many as ten or more. But if they had large numbers, they'd go for the frontal assault, like Barrett himself had always done. Men like this, they liked to ride in shooting as if they owned the place. Sneaking was something they only did when they had inferior numbers, so that meant…

 

Movement on a roof. He brought his gun up; watched as a cat arched its back, fur gleaming in the sun. Something fluttered at an upstairs window and he turned towards it, but it was only a blanket being shaken out.

 

"We're sitting ducks here," Josiah said.

 

Chris shook his head. It weren't perfect, of course, but the buildings offered protection, and two men with guns could cover the approaches front and back. They had an injured man, and Nathan's attention was taken up with tending him. If they tried to carry Vin to the clinic… Then we'd be sitting ducks, he thought, but he said none of this to Josiah - wasn't the time - just conveyed it with a quick shake of the head.

 

Think. Think. Yes. Stealth. Inferior numbers. Just the four they'd started with? Best be prepared for more, but base your plans on that. Four men, and they'd clearly decided to split up. One dead already, and one had been wounded in the original ambush - God, was it only six days ago? They'd threatened Chris by name, but it was Ezra they hated most of all. Just as well Ezra had run out on them all. No, can't think like that. Can't…

 

"How is he?" he heard Josiah ask.

 

"Bullet's gone clean through," Nathan said. Beyond that, his voice was non-committal. Clean through was good, of course, but there was no such thing as a simple gunshot wound. Any wound could turn bad and kill you in the end.

 

Might be best to hole up somewhere and wait for the enemy to find them. Better that than split up and try to find men who might've already taken commanding positions way up high. But that depended on Barrett's men only being after Chris and his men. What if they already were sneaking into houses, raping women, killing boys?

 

He needed more men. He needed a baited trap. Lure them in with the sight of something weak, and then… Shame Ezra weren't here; Ezra was good with tricks. He needed Buck an' JD. They hadn't been far away not moments before. He needed to locate them; make contact; exchange signals. He an' Buck went way back; always knew how to…

 

No. No time. He glanced at Josiah. Nathan had only just finished speaking; all that thought had taken just the blinking of an eye. Everything narrowed down to this, just to this, when lives were at stake.

 

"Cover me," he said. "I'm goin' forward."

 

******

 

"Oh God, Ezra." Buck fell to his knees. His hands fluttered over Ezra's body, then withdrew. He didn't know how to begin. He didn't know… God, he'd never seen… Amelia, he thought. Amelia knew about this. It couldn't be true. This couldn't be happening. If he just rubbed his eyes, it would…

 

He heard JD gasp behind him. Couldn't fall apart when the boy was with ya. Had to know what to do, because JD sure as hell wouldn'ta dealt with a thing like this before. JD needed Buck to tell him what was what. The boy didn't even recognise a proper hat when he saw one. No, he needed good ole Uncle Buck for that. Buck had to stay in control.

 

"Ezra." This time he touched him, his hand resting on his shoulder. Ezra was still alive, stirring weakly, but aw hell, the heat of him! Skin was like fire, but not much sweat. No sweat was bad. Couldn't live in the west without knowing the signs of someone with no water left in their body to keep it alive.

 

"There's so much blood," JD breathed. "So much blood."

 

Buck hadn't seen it. His knees were damp; his hands already stained. "Ezra," he soothed. Was his voice shaking. "Can ya hear me, pard?" Ezra's eyelids fluttered but didn't properly open. His head moved the tiniest bit, like a man looking for something in the darkness. "Easy, hoss," Buck crooned. "Let's get this gag off ya."

 

It was hard to unpick the knot. "Sorry," he murmured, as he managed to pull out a few strands of Ezra's hair. Ezra lay still, letting Buck work on him. That was good. Buck had seen men fight the people come to rescue them, so lost in terror that they just wanted to curl up and make themselves as small as possible in a dark corner. As he worked, he kept up a meaningless litany of nonsense, not even sure what he was saying, just that Ezra needed to know that he was safe, that everything would be okay, that he'd be up and about in no time.

 

God, had Ezra been here since the night before? And the last time Buck had seen him, he'd been real upset with him. Then they'd all sat round a table and debated whether Ezra was a thief or not.

 

No, no, couldn't think of that right now. Couldn't think…

 

Amelia…

 

The knot came loose. Buck eased the cord free. The bit at the front was stained with blood, and angry red lines ran across Ezra's cheeks. "You can spit it out now, pard," Buck encouraged him, but Ezra just lay there, his eyes screwed tight shut. Something gleamed on his eyelashes, and it seemed to Buck as if that was the worst thing of all. He was willing to bet that there weren't a single man among the six of them who had seen Ezra cry.

 

Aw hell, he thought, as he reached into Ezra's mouth and pulled out the balled-up handkerchief. It was neatly made, embroidered with an A. "Hell!" he shouted, throwing it away in disgust.

 

Ezra's mouth remained open, as if he hadn't realised he could close it. More likely, his muscles were too stiff, and he couldn't--

 

"Don't just stand there staring!" Buck turned on JD, suddenly furious. "Go get Nathan. Tell Chris. He needs to do something about--" He couldn't even say her name. He turned back to Ezra; pushed the anger down. He had to untie Ezra's wrists. He had to turn him onto his back so he could see where all the blood was coming from. And experiences like this, they did things to a man, inside his head. This wouldn't be the end of it.

 

My fault. My fault. Shoulda known.

 

He tried to smile. Ezra needed to see a friendly face right now; needed to see someone who never doubted that this would end well. "Let's get your hands free, shall we?"

 

He completely forgot JD; was only dimly aware of him moving in the room. Then JD's voice sounded over at the window. "Chris!" he shouted out into the street. "We've found Ezra! We need Nathan! Ezra's hurt bad."

 

"Damn it, boy," Buck hissed, as he worked on the blood-encrusted straps at Ezra's wrist. "Who knows who's out there, hearin' ya."

 

But it might bring Nathan quicker, and that had to be good. Then Buck could hand the care of Ezra over to someone who knew what to do, and he could go back to doin' the sort of things he knew about, like…

 

Like what?

 

Because the things he'd known, the things he'd been certain about…? They were wrong.

 

******

 

Chris cursed silently, ducking back into cover. Get back! he willed silently at JD, and saw the boy's head disappear back through the window.

 

"Lie still," he heard Nathan say. Chris retreated back to the place where Vin was lying, but didn't dare turn round fully. He saw through the corner of his eye that Vin was fighting, struggling to sit up. "Stay still," Nathan berated him. "I'm tryin' to work."

 

"I can wait," Vin said, the words forced through his teeth. Chris had seen it before: an injured man getting a second wind just because there was no choice. "You heard what JD said. I've still got my right arm. I can look after myself. Go to Ezra. Go."

 

But the empty street could feel as wide as the desert when enemies might be watching you from the rooftops. Chris would provide cover, but it might not be enough. And if the enemy was listening, JD had just announced to them that Nathan would be heading to the hotel entrance any time now.

 

But how could they not? How could they stay here?

 

Josiah swore under his breath, clearly understanding things the same way Chris did. Chris peered past the side of the livery, and saw the Covingtons outside the hotel, engaged in urgent whispered conversation. Why were the damn fools still out there? It sometimes seemed as if some folks wanted to get themselves killed.

 

"Reckon I can run," Vin said, "if I have to." Chris shook his head, not denying it, just thinking hard, but Vin carried on. "Or stay here an' cover you. Anything move over there, I'll see it."

 

Chris nodded, making up his mind. "Josiah," he said, "stay with Vin; don't let him do anythin' stupid. Nathan, you're with me. Get ready to run across."

 

They edged forward, crouching at the limits of their cover. Chris caught Nathan's eye, and counted in whispers: one, two…

 

The gunfire erupted just as he shaped the start of the 'three.' A bullet smashed into the ground just inches in front of his foot, and another struck the side of the stable, about as high as a man's waist.

 

They drew back, guns up, desperately searching doorways and windows, rooftops and shadows beside houses. Ducking behind a barrel, Chris took aim at a hint of movement, then saw that it was nothing. He crept forward as far as he could. A bullet struck the front of the barrel, splintering wood, and came out much more slowly, barely an inch from his arm. When he tried to lean out past the barrel, three guns sounded almost at once, cracking like thunder.

 

They were pinned. He cursed again, hating it.

 

******

 

Guns were firing. Was it real, or in his dreams?

 

Buck was here. Real, he thought. Real, because the things Buck was doing to him hurt, but Buck spoke soothingly and he smiled, and he hadn't done either of those things in the dreams. People in dreams didn't ease your gag out of your mouth in a way that was both blessed relief and exquisite torment, because your muscles screamed at the thought of moving again, and your skin cracked open again when you tried to close your mouth.

 

For shame, Ezra, his mother told him. Lying there with your mouth open like a fish out of water. Have you no pride?

 

Was it because of the pain, that he was crying, or was it the shame? Buck saw it all, of course, and that should be the worst thing of all, 'cept that it somehow… wasn't. Buck was here. Help me, he thought, and, Safe, I'm safe.

 

But the guns were firing. He twisted as far as he could; saw JD crouching in the window, trying to aim past the heavy drapes. "I can't see 'em, Buck," JD said.

 

"Damn fool thing to do," Buck said, "shouting out the window." And that made things better, too: Buck and JD, bickering while looking out for each other. Everything was as it should be. Real, this was real.

 

The straps around his wrists gave way, and he moaned - Lord help him, but he couldn't help it - when Buck eased the leather away from his skin. He felt fresh blood on his hands, and he couldn't move his arms, couldn't move them at all, not even if ten thousand dollars were sitting there in front of him for the taking. No, best not think of that amount of money. Not one of your most stellar moments, and… Dear Lord. Oh God. It hurts.

 

Buck moved to his ankle, working on the strap there. The whole world was swimming like a thick fog, but Ezra concentrated fiercely, and focused on his guns on the chair across the room, its cushions as red as blood. He tried to close his mouth, and managed it just a little, but then--

 

He came back to himself with a start. "Easy there, hoss," Buck said, but he sounded distracted.

 

What was happening? Where…? He saw JD framed against the window. Foolish boy. Shouldn't let yourself be framed against the light, because then your foes could see you. Lord, he needed his guns. Got to stand with his friends. Got to fight. It was a remarkable thing to have companions and to fight with others at your side. Couldn't run out on them, not when it mattered. Got to… But his hands… He couldn't…

 

A gun sounded, different in quality from what had gone before. Ezra turned his head, questing for it, and then he heard a woman scream.

 

Buck cursed, and left him. And Ezra…

 

Then the pain in his arms struck him head on, like a runaway stage, and that was the only thing in the world that existed for him then.

 

******

 

"JD!" Buck hissed, jerking his head urgently for the boy to come to his side.

 

JD drew away from the window reluctantly. At least he had the sense to keep himself low. Still wore his sissy hat, but he was learning in so many other ways. Thanks to wise teaching, of course, if Buck did say so himself. But now wasn't the time to feel good about that, of course.

 

"Take care of Ezra," Buck said. "Nathan'll be here soon."

 

JD opened his mouth as if to protest, but Buck silenced him with a look. Hell, he weren't stupid. He'd heard the barrage of gunfire outside the window, and knew that his friends were most likely pinned down, at best. But a thing weren't true if you didn't say it out loud. Ladies and boys and wounded men were the same: you had to speak positive to them. They looked up to you, and wanted you to tell them how things should be, not wring your hands and speak all your worries out loud.

 

"Where you plannin' on goin', Buck?" JD asked. Don't leave me alone with Ezra, his eyes said, but he didn't want to be seen as a boy any more, and he wouldn't say it.

 

Buck smiled, conveying utmost confidence. "Just outside onto the landing. Can't let the bad guys come sneakin' up the stairs, now, can we?"

 

JD moistened his lips. Ezra was looking up at them both from the floor, but Buck didn't think he was really understanding anything much right now. On sudden impulse, Buck strode over to the chair that held Ezra's guns, and picked up the itty bitty gun he liked to carry hidden in his sleeve. Hell, if Buck'd been trussed up and stabbed like a stuck pig, he reckoned he'd want to have his gun back in his hand, just so he knew he wasn't helpless. "Make sure Ezra knows where this is," he said, as he thrust it into JD's left hand. Then, with a brief nod to both of them, he left the room.

 

******

 

Bullets smashed into the street, raising clouds of dust. Chris stifled the urge to cough. He saw a flash of movement, and aimed and fired without any conscious pause for thought, but was fairly sure that he'd missed. He only hoped that the gunplay was enough to keep the townsfolk out of sight.

 

A bullet snagged the fabric of his sleeve, close enough for him to feel the heat of its passing. He thought there were three enemies. And three of us, he thought, because although Vin was doing what he could, it was always best to underestimate your strength when planning tactics. Couldn't place too much on the shoulders of a badly injured man who might collapse at any point.

 

God damn it all, where were Buck and JD? If Ezra was hurt bad, one of them would have to stay with him. Buck would make sure it was JD, he thought, but why wasn't Buck…?

 

Chris fired off his last bullet, and ducked down to reload. Josiah leaned over him, covering the gap, aiming carefully and shooting twice "I think I got one," he said, as he crouched down beside Chris, his eyes glittering in his dust-grey face.

 

Three enemies, possibly reduced to two, depending on where Josiah had hit his man. In a war of attrition, the odds were stacked on Chris's side.

 

But it would take time. He looked at Vin, who was clearly fading despite his determination to hold his own. And then there was Ezra. Just how badly was he hurt? Why was he in the hotel, in the room where the assassin had died with his fortune? Surely of all places, Ezra would want to avoid that one. Aw hell, he hadn't gone there to take his own life, had he? Chris and the rest of them hadn't reduced him to that?

 

"We have to get over there," he said to Josiah, and they rose up together, guns blazing.

 

******

 

There was nobody on the landing, but from down below, Buck could hear slow footsteps, and the sound of struggling. There were female sounds of distress mixed in amongst the rest of it, and that's what decided him. Hide in Brother William's room and set an ambush? Go back inside with Ezra and bar the door? Go downstairs and confront whatever low-down excuse for a man was daring to hurt a lady…?

 

No contest. Nothing at all else he could do. He'd never been able to abide men who hurt ladies.

 

He saw them when he was barely half a dozen steps down the stairs. The outlaw had one arm around Miss Amelia's waist, and was using her as a shield as he crept his way slowly up the stairs. His gun was pressed into her throat, driving her chin upwards. Buck could see her breast heaving with terror. There were tears on her cheeks, and fresh blood scattered all over the front of her dress.

 

She hurt Ezra, he thought. Told lies about him, more likely than not. Manipulated me into turnin' on him.

 

It meant nothing. Hell, no, it meant everything, but it didn't make no difference to the situation he was facing. "Get your hands off her now," Buck commanded, aiming his gun between the outlaw's eyes.

 

"She's your whore, cowboy?" The outlaw hustled Amelia up another step. The gun drove ever deeper into her throat. "The boy said you've got that smooth-tongued con man up there with ya. Give us free rein with him, and I'll give ya the girl."

 

Buck shook his head, keeping his gun steady. "If you think I'm goin' to agree to that, you've got another think coming."

 

"Buck!" Amelia looked up at him with terrified beseeching eyes. "Don't let him kill me. He killed William. Oh God, Buck, he killed William. I don't want to die. I don't want to die."

 

"Neither did Ezra." Buck's finger tightened on the trigger.

 

"Buck!" Amelia screamed, as the outlaw drove her up another step. "If you shoot him, he'll kill me. I thought you loved me."

 

He should have felt blazing anger, but all he felt was a vast and spreading cold. "You wanted me to love you, didn't you?" Another step. He adjusted his aim, keeping it always on the outlaw's head. "You can stop pretending, darlin'," he said. "I know what you did."

 

"So that's how it is." The outlaw chuckled. "You've quarrelled with your whore and don't much care if I kill her."

 

"No." Buck shook his head. The gunfire from the street was faint and far away. Nothing existed but this. "You see, Amelia, I might not be a fancy gentleman with fancy manners, but I know the difference between right an' wrong. I don't plan on letting him kill you. I just don't plan on lettin' him kill Ezra, either."

 

"Don't see how you can avoid the one or the other," the outlaw said, but he was distracted, his eyes going from Buck to Amelia as he followed their interplay.

 

Now! Buck thought, but Amelia didn't move. She let the outlaw drive her up another step. Buck cursed silently. With every step, it was harder and harder to get a good shot on the outlaw without risking hitting Amelia.

 

The outlaw smiled up at Buck, his eyes gleaming. "Gonna lay down that gun of yours, cowboy, and let us pass?"

 

Buck gave no response. He edged backwards up a step, trying to keep the advantage of height.

 

Maybe Amelia thought this meant he was walking out on her, abandoning her to her fate. Screaming, sobbing, she ripped herself free from the outlaw's grip, and plunged upstairs towards Buck, but the outlaw grabbed hold of her skirts, pulling her back. She screamed and almost fell, and Buck stopped thinking, just lunged forward, trying to shield her from the gunplay that was surely about to start, but then he lost his footing, knocked off balance by the girl's flailing arms.

 

He remembered falling, and he felt the first step that he struck, but after that, just nothing.

 

******

 

"Ezra," he heard. "Ezra, please, I need you to…"

 

To what? He lost the thread of things for moment. Lord, but the pain in his arms was dreadful! Being tied up was so humiliating. No, he was free, wasn't he? That's why everything hurt, because he was trying to move his arms again after so long. To think that people had seen him like this! He had to smile and pretend he didn't hurt. Had to summon up words from the vast store of phrases he carried around inside him: No, sir, the very concept of cheating is anathema to me. No, Josiah, it matters not one whit that my associates do not trust me. The poor opinion of others has never affected me in the slightest.

 

"Something's happenin' out there." That was JD. Where had Buck gone? "I heard an awful noise. I think something's happened to Buck."

 

"Then we must ride to the rescue," Ezra tried to say, but his jaw hurt as if nails were being hammered into it, and the words came out like nothing at all.

 

The door burst open, and Miss Amelia Covington came back into the room. Amelia, Miss Amelia, a blue dress, a cold smile, a knife, a blood-stained hem against his check. What do you do with snakes? You crush them beneath your feet. And he was free, he was free, but he couldn't move his arms, and he couldn't speak - couldn't beg; couldn't use words to fend off trouble. Supposed to smile to show JD that he was unconcerned and unruffled, but Oh Lord, don't let her hurt me again.

 

"Move away from him, boy," a man's voice said. William? No. Ezra struggled to focus, and saw another man behind Amelia, but he was hard to see. It was hard to see anything except the woman in blue. Please. Please… He moved his right hand the merest inch, and it felt as if his whole arm had been dipped into acid.

 

"I can't do that." He heard JD swallow audibly. "He's hurt bad. I need to--"

 

"Move. Away. From. Him," the man commanded.

 

JD touched Ezra's right hand. No, it wasn't JD; it was… Gun, he thought. Derringer. The metal was warm against his blood-starved fingers. He tried to grip it, but couldn't. "You won't hurt him?" JD said, still not moving. What was the boy doing? Oh, yes. Distract the man from what was going on. Keep him talking until Ezra was able to grip the gun.

 

"Of course I won't hurt him," the man said. "I intend to invite him to supper and enjoy a pleasant few games of poker."

 

He's lying, Ezra realised after a moment, but it took some thought to reach that conclusion. Then he saw that the man was holding a gun to Amelia's throat. An enemy of my enemy…? No, because the man was an enemy of JD, and JD was his friend. So was Buck. Buck was his friend, too. Where was Buck? He liked Buck.

 

"Drop your gun, boy," the man commanded. JD stood up slowly, and edged away carefully. Ezra heard his gun fall. Behind his back, his first two fingers curled around the derringer. "Don't go plannin' any heroics," said the man. "Course, I fully intend to kill you, but I'll make it good an' clean. But this con man of yours, he deserves a world of pain."

 

"He's already in a world of pain." JD sounded close to tears. Ezra caught a glimpse of him halfway across the room. He wouldn't look at Amelia, oh no, he wouldn't do that. It was good to have a gun in your hand. You couldn't be helpless with a gun in your hand.

 

"Come to think of it," the man said, "reckon I'll shoot ya now."

 

Ezra moved; he didn't even pause to think. His arm was sluggish, and he screamed with the pain of it, but he rolled over and brought the gun up. He felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and he aimed at the man's head, but the bullet went ridiculously low…

 

And then JD was at the chair that held the rest of Ezra's weapons, grabbing Ezra's Colt. The man was thrown backwards, and Amelia fell to her knees in a cloud of blue, and somehow Ezra was pointing the derringer at her, holding it in a lurching, drunken grip.

 

You hurt me, he wanted to scream at her. You turned my friends against me. You tried to kill me. Execution was the punishment for that. And he'd lain here, forcibly silenced, unable to defend himself while she… while she… He heard himself sob, a wrenching sound in the back of his throat. He'd been so powerless, and now he had a gun. Could kill the monsters. Could drive away the dark things from the shadows.

 

Still kneeling, she turned to look at her, her blue eyes flooded with tears. You killed my brother, those eyes said. How many others did you kill? How many others went home to ruined lives after you rode so gaily out of town? He looked at his hands, stained with blood to the wrist. In a life littered with misdeeds, they asked him, how can you add this other?

 

But if you don't, whispered the dark things in the shadows, you will never escape this room. Wherever you go, whatever you do, part of you will be here, with us.

 

I don't know what to do, he thought, and he felt himself sinking, fading, melting back into the bloody carpet that was all that he had known for so very long.

 

"No, Ezra," he heard JD say. "Don't do it."

 

And he didn't know what to do, but here was someone telling him, and he was tired; he was so very tired.

 

And so he let the gun fall, and followed it down into the dark.

 

******

 

end of chapter eight

 

******

 

When Chris stopped shooting, the street fell silent. No guns sounded. There was no movement across the street.

 

"It could be a trap," Josiah said.

 

Chris nodded slowly, thinking hard. "I think I got one a while back, and you hit one earlier." He bit his lip, frowning. "We gotta try it." Vin was leaning against the wall, one leg folded beneath him, his good hand defiantly gripping his gun. He was clearly at the very end of his endurance. "You stay with Vin," Chris told Josiah. "Nathan, you're with me."

 

They moved carefully, guns in hand, ready to dart behind cover at the slightest sound. The street felt as wide as a river, but all remained silent. Nathan found a dead man outside the front of the hotel, behind a pot of dead flowers. Bags and luggage were strewn on the steps, abandoned. Chris looked up at the sun, guessing the time. The stage would be due any moment now. Good thing it hadn't come early.

 

The lobby of the hotel was empty, a ledger open and abandoned on the desk. A body lay at the foot of the stairs. "William Covington," Nathan said. He touched the young man's throat, kept his fingers there for a while, and shook his head.

 

At the next turn of the stairs, they found Buck, and Chris's heart almost stopped beating. "He's alive," Nathan said, crouching beside him. He ran his hands gently across Buck's limbs. "I can't say how bad he's hurt. Knocked his head good, though. I think that's all."

 

Chris tightened his grip on his gun when he saw the size of the pool of blood, but head injuries always bled like that. Didn't have to mean anything bad. "Buck's got a hard head. He'll be fine." He was saying it more to reassure himself than Nathan, of course. He wanted to stay here until Buck woke up, but they had to scout out the territory first. Somebody had killed Covington. At least one of the outlaws had come inside.

 

I guess I wronged you too, old friend, he thought, as he stepped over Buck's body and continued on his way. Buck had sat beside him outside the jail and talked falteringly about various girls he had known. He'd been asking for advice, but Chris had barely heard him. The bitterness and pain from the Ella Gaines affair had blinded him to everything else.

 

Two doors were open upstairs, but Chris knew which window JD had shouted from. Signalling to Nathan to stay back, he approached it slowly, ready for an ambush. The sudden shout made him tense up, his finger tightening on the trigger. "That you, Buck?" JD said. "It's okay. It's safe. We killed him. He's dead."

 

But Chris was not one to trust easily. He was not one to lower his guard just because someone else told him it was safe. He kept his gun ready and aimed as he entered the room. He saw the outlaw first, and studied him long enough to see that he was dead, shot in the knee and the head. He nodded at JD, and felt his heart clench angrily at the sight of Ezra, who was unconscious and bloody and had clearly been trussed up until a few minutes before.

 

Then Nathan pushed past him, to kneel at Ezra's side, and Chris was free to look at the girl in blue, who knelt sobbing on the floor. "You should have let me kill him!" she screamed, when she saw Chris looking down at her. "Why didn't you let me kill him? Now this will never be over."

 

"It was her," JD said, but he sounded tired, rather than angry. "She's the one who did this to Ezra."

 

The girl hunched forward, wrapping her arms around her body as she sobbed as if her heart was breaking. Pressing his lips together, Chris left the room.

 

******

 

Buck woke slowly, as if he was wading through thick mud. "Easy," he heard Chris say. He opened his eyes, and saw that he was in his own bed, with Chris sitting in the wooden chair by the window. The light was faint behind him, showing that it was almost evening.

 

"Chris…" He cleared his throat. His mouth felt dry, as if he'd walked across a desert without any water. "I've woken up to hundreds of different faces in my time, but…" He licked his lips again. His head hurt something dreadful. "Chris," he tried again, "why're you in my room?"

 

Chris gave that smile of his, the one that didn't really reach his eyes. "Keepin' an eye on you, like Nathan told me to. There's no room for you in his clinic."

 

And then he remembered, memory hitting him like one of them railroad carriages. He tried to sit up, but pain exploded throughout his body, pinning him back against the pillow. He cursed, clutching a fistful of blankets. "Hell, Chris, Ezra…"

 

"Nathan's lookin' after him," Chris said. "JD told me to tell you that him an' Ezra, they took care of the man who pushed you downstairs. He didn't manage to hurt anyone else."

 

"He didn't push me downstairs," Buck protested, but maybe the truth was even more embarrassing. He didn't rightly know what'd happened. Tried to rescue a lady, a cold-hearted, manipulative harpy who didn't deserve to be saved, and fallen right down the stairs while doin' it.

 

"You'll be fine." Chris leant forward in his chair. He'd been whittling, Buck realised, as he noticed wood shavings on the floor. The knife was stowed now, hidden away. "Nathan says you didn't break any bones, though you're a mass of bruises from head to toe, as if you'd been stomped by a wild horse. He says I'm to look for signs of you acting crazy, because of the knock on your head."

 

"Hell, Chris," Buck said, but less loudly than he wanted to, because his head was throbbing, telling him that it'd be real nice to sleep. "Why d'ya think I want to know all this? What ain't ya telling me 'bout Ezra?"

 

"He'll be fine," Chris said quickly, but they'd been friends too long for lies. Buck just looked at him, and Chris let out a breath. "It's bad, Buck. Nathan says… Nathan don't know, Buck, and that's the honest truth."

 

"It's all my fault," Buck burst out. He hadn't meant to say it. You didn't say things like that to Chris. You gave him what he needed from you, but when things were eating you up inside, half the time you said nothing, unless he was in a mood to hear you. "Did JD tell you what we found out? It was Amelia. I don't know why…" He bit his lip; struggled to find a position that didn't hurt like the fires of Hell. "Did she do it 'cause she thought he stole her brooch, or was everything a lie, right from the start?"

 

Chris stood up and walked to the window. His hand gripped the frame. "It was all a lie," he said at last. "We found the brooch in her bag. We also found papers, and… other things. The two of them came here quite deliberately to do Ezra harm."

 

It hurt worse than anything, knowing it. A pretty face and a slender figure, and he'd come running to her side as eager as a puppy, believing every one of her lies. He'd been putty in her hands. She'd wept in his arms, and he'd felt like her knight in shining armour, willing to do anything for her. He'd damn near accused a friend of theft just because a pretty girl had told him to. Oh God, is this the sort of person I am? he wondered.

 

"The way I see it," Chris said, still looking out the window, "much of it's my fault. I wasn't much of a leader to any of you. I wasn't much of a friend."

 

And Buck laughed, because the alternative was so much worse. "Look at us," he said, "wailin' like a couple of girls. I reckon it don't much matter to Ezra whose fault it is." The laughter faded; it hadn't been real, anyway. "Making it right, though… That matters."

 

"But how?" Chris said, turning round, and Buck suddenly knew that he was talking about so much more than Ezra.

 

******

 

He was so far away. He was so impossibly far away.

 

He spent an eternity in a locked room, hammering at the door, but no-one heard him. He spent an endless age lost in the wilderness, walking in circles beneath a merciless sun, trying to find the way home. He rode away from a small town, leaving behind him nothing but cold faces and disapproval. He laughed and joked at the centre of a crowd, but nothing was genuine, and every last man in the place would stab him in the back without a moment's hesitation, if they thought they could get away with it.

 

Then he was below the water, drowning, and the sun beat down on the water's surface, turning the whole ocean to fire. It burned him, but when he opened his mouth to drink it, it gave him no relief.

 

He surfaced occasionally, just enough to stay alive. A dark face was swinging to and fro like a pendulum. A dark hand tried to trickle water in between his lips. He wanted water, needed it, because oh Lord, the sun was so fierce, but the person with the dark face seemed to think he was fighting it. "No, Ezra," he heard, "drink it, please. You need it." And he knew he needed it, and tried to say so, but--

 

A eternity later, he woke in a dark room, lit only by a single lantern. Then the lantern became two, then four, then eight, and then more than he could count, a whole universe of lanterns burning him up with their heat.

 

He moaned. Something scraped against his hand. A blanket, he thought. Why was he underneath blankets in this world of heat? He tried to throw it off, but someone caught hold of his hand. "No," he begged them, because he was so small in the vastness of the universe, and people… kept… on… hurting… him. No more. Leather straps at his wrist, and a gag in his mouth. Please…

 

"Sorry, Ezra," someone said, "but ya need to lie still."

 

"As do you," someone else said, "if Nathan is to be believed."

 

He couldn't understand it. He remembered a woman in a blue dress. She'd stabbed him. She'd taken up a long knife with a blade made of truth and accusation, and she'd cut right into his heart, and everything inside him had come pouring out.

 

And now he was empty, empty and dry. The lady in blue still had him in thrall.

 

******

 

It was a full day since Chris had been brought face to face with the consequences of his inattention. No, worse than inattention. True, he had wallowed in his own misery and failed to notice that the team he was supposed to lead was tearing itself apart, but he'd also made things worse. He'd shown open distrust of Ezra long before the Covingtons came to town.

 

The sun was sinking in the west, and once more Josiah was burying men in graves dug in the cool of the night. They'd found three dead outlaws in the end, and a fourth had died of his wounds not long after, while Nathan had been busy tending to people who deserved his care far more. So that was the last of Barrett's gang, all of them buried far away from anyone who would mourn them.

 

And then there was William Covington. Chris stood beside Miss Amelia, his hand resting on the gun at his belt. It seemed wrong to clap a lady in irons, but she was a prisoner none the less, even without them. After she had seen her brother buried, he would escort her back to the jail. And then what? He didn't know.

 

Josiah said his final words, bowing his head over the grave. Amelia moaned, tears pouring freely down her cheeks.

 

Chris pressed his lips together, and looked away from her, staring straight ahead. There was no running away from what she'd done. She was like Ella Gaines - a woman who hid great evil behind her pretty smiles. Buck was tearing himself up inside for falling for her lies, but Chris wouldn't let himself fall for such things, not ever again. Just 'cause someone was female, it didn't mean they couldn't be vile. He would…

 

No. He stopped himself before he could complete that thought. He'd taken thoughts like that too far already, turning against Ezra because he shared with Ella Gaines a gift for sweet lies. But Chris was a lawman, and he had to bring about justice. Whatever grievance Miss Amelia had against Ezra, it weren't right to spread lies to turn his friends against him, and then to truss him up and torture him and leave him to die.

 

Oh, Sarah, he thought, for graves always made him think of her, and always hurt him, like a fist around his heart. Why did you die, when women like these two live after you?

 

******

 

The lady in blue told him that it was all his fault, that he was pinned down on the desert floor beneath the burning sun. Vultures pecked at his liver. A band of flame had been placed around his middle, and it hurt, oh Lord, how it hurt!

 

He tried to break free from the truths he saw in her cold blue eyes. She said it was his fault. She said he deserved it. She said he'd killed a man. She said he'd put a gun to an innocent man's head, and it had taken the man an age to die. She said nobody would find him here. She said nobody would come looking. She said nobody would miss him. She said… She said… She said…

 

So he tried to break free, but things kept on stopping him. He felt pressure on his shoulders. He felt water trickling over his face. He felt someone grip his arm, firmly, gently, and they were still there the next time he surfaced, and the time after that.

 

And that was good, he thought.

 

The lady in blue took a small step back.

 

******

 

Buck moved like an old man. He hurt in parts of his body that he hadn't known existed. The mirror showed him a mass of bruises. Who'd have thought that mere bruises could hurt so much?

 

He tried to smile at the ladies as he passed them in the street, but it was hard. He was Buck Wilmington, tall and strong and virile. It weren't good to let the ladies see you like this. But the first few that he passed looked at him fervently, smiling at him as if they wanted to scoop him right up and coddle him. Hell, he thought, seems as if the ladies like a wounded hero. He was up for a little bit of cosseting, if they were willing.

 

He stopped that train of thought with a harsh word to himself. Ain't no time to be thinkin' like that, Buck Wilmington. Ezra was lost in fever, impossible to reach. Vin had been hurt, too, though Nathan said he should do well enough, as long as he didn't over-exert himself. While Buck reckoned that some things would've happened just the same even if he hadn't been involved, the fact was that his pursuit of a pretty lady had made a bad situation much worse.

 

Chris was sitting outside the jail, a knife poised over a lump of wood, as if he had intended to start whittling a long time ago, but had forgotten to actually start. He looked up when Buck approached. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

 

"You know me," Buck said, attempting a laugh. "Never one to lie still when there's movin' to be done." He let out a breath, the smile fading. "She in there?"

 

Chris nodded. "Buck--" he began, but Buck interrupted him.

 

"No, Chris," he said firmly. "I know what you're goin' to say, and I don't want to hear it. I want to talk to her, and you ain't stopping me."

 

"Weren't goin' to try." More than anyone Buck knew, Chris was capable of making a smile into a thing with no humour in it whatsoever.

 

Buck went in, shutting the door behind him. Amelia was sitting at the back of her cell, her hands clasped in her lap, almost demurely. She looked up as Buck entered, and there was no expression on her face at all. "I take it you've come to reproach me," she said. "I toyed with you. I pretended to like you. That's intolerable for a man like you, isn't it?" Her voice was low and bitter, like nothing he had heard from her before.

 

"It ain't about me." Buck stopped outside the cell, not quite close enough to touch the bars. "Why did you do it, Amelia?"

 

"Because I saw at once that you were the sort of man who loses all ability to think when a girl smiles at you in the right way."

 

It hurt. God help him, but it hurt, even though his own feelings should be nothing right now, with Ezra lying where he was. "Not that," he told her. "What you did to Ezra. Because it was you, wasn't it? It wasn't your brother?" His voice rose hopefully, though he hadn't meant it to. Despite everything that had happened, did he want her to be the innocent victim, caught up in her brother's plots?

 

Did he still want to rescue her? He clenched his fist tight, to keep himself from smashing it against the bars.

 

She didn't answer that part of it, but he knew the answer anyway. Every time he'd seen Amelia and William together, Amelia had taken the lead, and she'd been the one with blood on her clothes, not William. "Because he killed my brother," he said, her voice low with hate. "For six years, I've dreamed of nothing but making him suffer."

 

"Your brother?" Buck frowned past a sudden spike of headache. "Ezra didn't…"

 

"My other brother, the only one worth anything." She looked at Buck as if she despised him for failing to understand every last secret of her hate-twisted heart. "Ezra Standish killed him, as surely as if he'd pulled the trigger himself. People's lives are nothing to him, just pieces on a board to manipulate at will."

 

"Well, I guess you'd know all about that." God, but he felt so weary, and everything was hurting so much. He wanted to crouch down and cry in the darkness, or howl like a wolf to the moon. Lord help him, but he felt for her, even as he hated her. "And now your other brother's dead," he said, "and I guess that by comin' here with vengeance in your heart, you killed him as surely as if you'd pulled the trigger."

 

She gasped, lowering her head. She didn't cover her mouth with her hand, like she'd done when she'd been pretending to cry in the past, but he saw tears falling down onto her lap all the time. He stopped forward, gripping the bars. "Hell, Miss Amelia, I'm sorry. I didn't mean--"

 

She raised her head, and her eyes at least were clear. "Go away," she said, spitting the words out like stones. Then, when he stood there at the bars and didn't move, she screamed it. "Go away! Leave me alone! I can't stand the sight of you!"

 

He left. Outside, Chris just looked at him, but didn't say a word. It was probably best that way. What was there to say?

 

******

 

Whenever he tried to run away, someone was there, holding him back. Whenever he thought that he was utterly alone, someone was talking to him.

 

It wasn't good to be held back, though, was it? It was best to be alone, footloose and fancy-free. Never let yourself depend on anyone else for your happiness. You'd been taught that aged seven, when your mother left you alone in a strange city, to teach you how to stand on your own two feet.

 

Moaning, he tried to pull away. "Sorry, Ezra," he heard someone say. "I guess it reminds you of bein' tied up. I just wanted you to know--"

 

He didn't hear the rest of that. The darkness that followed was completely empty, without even words inside it.

 

The next time he awakened, people were still there. He tried to speak, but the words transmuted as soon as they left his mouth, and turned into nonsense.

 

Someone squeezed his shoulder. "Can you open your eyes for me, Ezra?"

 

He tried, but he couldn't. The voice followed him down into the dark.

 

******

 

Buck had taken to spending as much time in the clinic as he could, unless Nathan shooed him out for taking up too much space. Vin was doing well enough, but Ezra was far away, lost in the grip of fever. Sometimes he cried out in his delirium. At first Buck had been terrified that Ezra would say something about him, like begging him not to say those things he'd said that dreadful night outside the saloon. After a while, he thought that words like that would be better than what he got, which was nonsense syllables and fragments of words. But the tone of it… The tone of it was worst of all. Ezra sounded as if his heart was breaking.

 

But Ezra was still now, sleeping as quietly as he ever got. "She tell you why she did it?" Vin asked. Vin looked exhausted, but at least his wound was healing. Buck reckoned he couldn't get much sleep sharing a room with Ezra, but he knew that Vin had refused to leave.

 

Buck played with the edge of the blanket on Ezra's bed. "She says he killed her other brother. Made him die, anyway."

 

Vin looked at him sharply. "Ya think he did?"

 

Buck sighed. What had he hoped for when he'd visited Amelia? Answers? Some sort of resolution to the open wound that was his time with her? Maybe what he'd wanted most of all was to hear that she'd liked him for real, and that it hadn't all been an act. He felt like a fool for losing his mind because of a girl, but if the love had been there, that would be something, at least. But even before he'd discovered her true nature, he'd realised that there was nothing between them.

 

Damn it, Buck, he imagined Vin saying. It ain't all about you.

 

"Chances are it's true," he said slowly, "from her point of view. Ezra's never hidden his past. I reckon he might've cleared her brother out of his money, and maybe the boy did somethin' stupid as a result."

 

Vin said nothing. Buck remembered berating Ezra just days before, accusing him of winning a fortune from Amelia's brother. Maybe the whole thing had been true, just six years out of date. Didn't make it right, though. She'd cried, and asked for help, and manipulated him, and made him say those things, and…

 

"But that don't mean that Ezra killed him," he said firmly, "even if that part of it's true. I once knew a boy who killed himself  'cause the girl he loved walked out with someone else. But the thing is, she was never his. She never encouraged him, never made no promises to him. The way I see it, she was his reason, but it weren't her fault, not any of it."

 

He said it with more certainty than he felt. Ezra never hid his past, it was true, but maybe there were worse things there that he wasn't telling them. But many men had things in their past that they weren't proud of. It didn't mean that they couldn't change. It didn't mean that you couldn't give them the benefit of the doubt, when you'd already wronged them terribly just a few days before.

 

"People do what they do," Vin said, "and sometimes there's consequences far away down the road." Ezra stirred uneasily in his sleep, and they both looked at him. "I have dreams sometimes," Vin said quietly, when Ezra settled again, "'bout people I killed for the price on their head. I wonder who mourned them. I wonder if any of them were innocent all along."

 

The single lantern seemed small and fragile in the dark room. Footsteps sounded outside on the wooden steps. "Damn it, Vin," Buck burst out, "that ain't no way to talk at a sick bed." He touched Ezra on the shoulder. "Hear this, Ezra. We're here for you. We know you didn't do those things Amelia said you did, and even if you had…" He shook his head, and felt his eyes fill with crazy, ridiculous tears, for Ezra, for Chris, for Amelia, and for himself, who'd loved a lady who'd left him, and admired a lady who'd died, and lost his mind over a lady he'd never liked that much anyway, just 'cause he'd needed her to need him.

 

"We're here," he said gruffly, as the door opened and Chris came in. "See, Ezra," Buck said, "here's Chris, as well. He says to tell you that you done good."

 

And Chris nodded, just once. Buck caught his eye, and they exchanged a long look. Then Chris looked away from him and smiled, one of those rare smiles that reached his eyes.

 

"Hey, Ezra," Vin said. "Ya with us now?"

 

Buck turned back to see Ezra blinking blearily, but undoubtedly there, and no longer far away on the wings of fever. "You heard me, hoss?" Buck said hoarsely. "I said we're here."

 

Ezra's eyes slipped shut again, but his mouth curved very slightly into a smile.

 

******

 

Lord, how he hated the slow, painful days of a recovery. For days, Nathan refused to let him out of bed, but for most of that time he felt so wretched that he didn't even want to leave it. Worse were all those people tiptoeing around him, saying how sorry they were for thinking badly of him.

 

"It doesn't matter at all," he told them, using the smile that he had first practised in front of the mirror so many years at all. "Think nothing more of it."

 

It wasn't enough for them. Chris was with him now, and even though it had been several days since Ezra had woken up, he was still hurting too badly to erect the requisite wall of words. He had never thought to say it, but he missed Vin. Vin was the only one who wasn't offering constant apologies. Right now, Vin was the only one whom Ezra could relax around. He was the only one whose eyes didn't beg Ezra for absolution, even if their words said something completely different.

 

But Vin was gone, safely discharged back to his wagon, and Ezra was alone with Chris, and this had to be faced.

 

"I was wrong," Chris said, and Lord, how painful it was to hear Chris Larabee force out the words of an apology. "I thought I was blaming you for what happened with the money, but it was something else. I was--"

 

"Transferring onto me your feelings about Ella Gaines," Ezra finished for him. Best get this over with, and then he could sleep. "I knew all along. Think nothing more of it. I didn't let it trouble me, not for a single moment."

 

"But…" Chris began.

 

Ezra flashed him a smile. "Think nothing more of it."

 

Chris swallowed, his throat working as he struggled for words. "Ezra, I haven't been fair to you, right from the start. I blamed you for something you did when we hardly knew you."

 

"It's quite all right."

 

Ezra's jaw hurt from smiling so much. It reminded him of the gag, and he suddenly felt sick.

 

******

 

They were playing some sort of idle card game on top of Ezra's blankets. Buck hadn't meant to say anything, but he found himself blurting the words out. "I'm real sorry, Ezra. I shouldn'ta believed what she said."

 

"Of course you should have believed it," Ezra said with a smile. "It was a highly plausible story. And a true one, as it turned out, albeit with a different brother."

 

Buck watched as Ezra turned over a card. He gripped his own cards tightly, making them tremble. "Hell, Ezra, don't think that. I shouldn'ta had turned on you like that. I've always been like that with women. I don't always see things right."

 

"I know what you're like, Mr Wilmington," Ezra said, still smiling. "I assure you that no harm has been done. Your turn, I believe?"

 

"Damn it, Ezra…" Buck burst out. His body still ached with darkening bruises, but worse was the pain of regret. Sometimes he swore never to flirt with another woman again, but others times he wanted a sweet, kind lady right now, to wipe out the memory of Miss Amelia. It made a man feel real bad to know that he'd been used by someone who had never liked him. It made a man feel even worse to know that a friend had suffered because of it.

 

"That's what people like us do, Buck," Ezra said quietly, turning one card over and over and over again. "We study everyone when we arrive in a new town, and we read their true nature. If you were tricked by Miss Amelia, it was no more your fault than…"

 

"Don't say that, Ezra!" Buck burst out. He didn't know what made him feel worse: to be the idiot victim, or to be the one at fault.

 

"Why not," Ezra said smiling, "when it's true?" Then the smile faded, just a little. "Why do you persist in apologising, Mr Wilmington? Is it because you want to feel better about yourself? I've already had Chris, JD and Josiah today. I just need Nathan and then I have the complete set." He leant back on the pillow, closing his eyes. "And now, if you will excuse me, I find myself desirous of sleep."

 

******

 

"Ain't no-one here but me," Vin said, before even Ezra opened his eyes.

 

Ezra sighed. "Thank the Lord for that." He hadn't meant to say it, but he was too close to the dreams.

 

"It's a funny thing, apologisin'," Vin said; Ezra heard him settling down on the chair. "It's somethin' a man does 'cause he feels bad and he hopes that if you forgive him, he'll feel better about himself. But he also does it 'cause he wants you to feel better about yourself."

 

Still too close to the dreams. He was still so damnably weak, and he slept so much, but sleep brought dreams. In dreams, he was alone, locked in a room and left to die. A woman in blue told him that it was all his own fault, and that he deserved it. His friends didn't care. His friends didn't come.

 

"It's like with me," Vin said. "I saw what was happenin'. I made it my task to get through to Chris, 'cause no-one else wanted to confront him. But I shoulda talked to you as well. And I'm telling ya this, Ezra, not 'cause I need you to forgive me, but 'cause ya need to know the truth."

 

The truth. What was the truth? Truth in the dreams was so clear, but now… But now…

 

"Did Miss Amelia tell ya she accused ya of stealin' her brooch?" Vin asked. Ezra nodded; he hadn't meant to do that, either. Vin carried on. "Did anyone think to tell ya that none of us believed it?" he said. "Even Buck, who was crazy and blind on account of that woman. He told her right from the start that it couldn't be you."

 

Ezra let out a very slow, very careful breath.

 

He had never believed that they would abandon him, he remembered, except in the dreams. He had been afraid that he would die before they found him, but he had never believed that they wouldn't look. They had fallen victim to the lies of a clever trickster, and that had caused them to waver in their belief in him. But that was no more than was to be expected. It wasn't as if such things hurt him, after all.

 

Vin said nothing at all, demanding nothing, expecting nothing.

 

Of course it hurt me, Ezra thought, but he had confessed as much to Josiah once, only for his words to be thrown back in his face. He would never attempt such a thing again, and it didn't matter. It was best to rely only on yourself. It was best to armour yourself in words and smiles and good manners, and never show anyone what lay inside, because then… because then, soon, at last, you would become the sort of person you wanted the world to see.

 

Vin was still there, but he made no sound at all.

 

Judge, jury and executioner, he remembered William saying, as he had painted a picture of his friends all united against him. And here was Vin in his silence, wanting Ezra to know that none of that had ever been true. Ezra the con man had been caught in lies.

 

"I didn't believe it," he found himself saying. "I never doubted that you would try to find me, but…"

 

And then he found himself breaking his promise to himself, after all, because suddenly he was talking, telling Vin how he felt, telling him everything.

 

******

 

Chris wasn't sure how to broach the subject. For days, Ezra had been smiling and dismissive to anyone who tried to get close to him, but yesterday Vin had hinted that something might have changed. He hadn't said anything about it, but he'd led Chris to believe that Ezra might slowly be healing.

 

Ezra was sitting up now, allowed by Nathan to sit on a chair in the sun. The bright light made him look very pale. "Ezra," Chris said, standing awkwardly beside him. "We've still got Amelia Covington in the jail."

 

Ezra's head snapped up, but he covered it with a smile. Then, as Vin walked past on the road below, Ezra seemed to make a conscious effort to speak. "If truth be told," he said, "I thought she would be long gone by now."

 

"You thought we'd let her go on her way after what she did to you?" Chris asked incredulously.

 

"Indeed, no," Ezra said, but it seemed that Chris had woken up to other things, now that he'd woken up to how badly the thing with Ella Gaines had affected him. Often Ezra didn't say what he meant. The man had really expected them to let Amelia go.

 

"Damn it, Ezra," Chris said, "you think that someone can torture you and we'll let them get away with it?"

 

The muscles of Ezra's face tightened. "Please refrain from saying that word; it's so… uncivilised." Then he turned to Chris. "Truly, Mr Larabee, I find myself unsure myself. In her eyes, she had good cause to execute me."

 

Chris had heard the story of that; Buck had coaxed it out of Ezra in the early days after his waking. "You weren't the one who pulled the trigger. Her brother chose to do what he did. By the sounds of it, they were rich. He lost his rich boy's allowance from his daddy, and was too proud to ask for more."

 

Ezra looked up at the sky, gazing at a point far away in the blue. "I admit that I cannot remember the boy in question. But I was never in the practice of winning money that was not willingly staked." He let out a breath. "But I know how to recognise someone who can be… encouraged. I clear them out, and then I get out of town. How many others have been driven to suicide after I've left?"

 

Chris shook his head, leaning on the railings. "I've killed a lot of people in my time. I like to think that they were people who deserved to die, but sometimes…" He looked down at his clasped hands, remembering all the many times those hands had been bloody. "Sometimes I didn't ask that many questions. And Josiah…" He stopped, shaking his head. "No, it ain't right to speculate about Josiah. But most of us have done things in the past that keep us awake at night. It don't mean that we deserve what those people did to you."

 

"An eye for an eye," Ezra murmured.

 

"Damn it, no," Chris shouted. He turned round to face Ezra, then lowered his voice. "Listen, Ezra, I know all about revenge. I know what it is to want nothing in the world more than killin' the person who wronged you. I've killed in that cause, and sometimes I know I was right to do what I did, and sometimes I know that I was wrong. But, Ezra, what she did… Whatever the cause of it, it was wrong, and she needs to be brought to justice."

 

"Her brother died," Ezra said. "William. Because they came here. Because they were outside at the wrong time, trying to run away."

 

Chris was breathing shallowly and fast. He gripped the railing, and tried to regain control. Had he ever talked to Ezra about things like this? He talked to Vin and Buck and Josiah, but had he ever talked to Ezra about those things that kept him awake at night? Maybe he'd been wronging Ezra since long before Ella Gaines had come back into his life.

 

"What're you sayin'?" he asked. "You think we should let her go?"

 

Ezra said nothing for a very long time, and for a moment, Chris thought he saw something that he had never looked for before. Ezra wasn't just fancy words and fine clothes and a demon at poker. He felt doubt, just like the rest of them. Like everyone else in this sorry world, he was struggling to find his way.

 

"I don't think I could bear to testify at her trial,"  Ezra said, his face looking naked, as if he had taken off some habitual mask. "It would be mortifying to have to repeat the whole tale in public."

 

But it wasn't what he meant, of course. An eye for an eye, he had said, but maybe what he meant was that sometimes you had to offer mercy, when you feared that you had been at fault. 

 

"You want me to let her go?" Chris asked.

 

Once again, Ezra was slow to answer. "She's lost another brother because of this," he said at last. "She's wasted six years of her life on this, and she must have realised now that no amount of revenge will bring her brother back. Her life stretches ahead of her, empty and full of regret." He gave a twisted smile. "We can hope that she will be content with only half killing me. Believe me, as far as I'm concerned, she got her pound of flesh."

 

Chris nodded. "You want to see her before she leaves?"

 

"Indeed I do not." Ezra shook his head. He was looking tired now, the colour leeching from his skin. Chris half expected him to smile and change the subject, maybe offering a game of cards, but then Ezra turned suddenly towards him. "Chris, if I really did kill her brother, how can I…? I can't…"

 

"Yes, you can," Chris told him. "You'll do just the same as everyone else does: make the best of the hand they've been given."

 

******

 

Buck watched from a distance as Miss Amelia Covington rode the stage out of town, looking small and beautiful and sad and proud. He wanted to run after her and stop the horses, just so he could talk to her again, but he forced himself to stand still. Ain't nothing she could say that would make this thing better. He wanted this thing to stop hurting, but there was nothing she could say that would do that.

 

The last of the dust faded. Buck found himself heading towards Nathan's clinic, and climbing the stairs. Ezra was sitting outside in what had become his accustomed place. "You watched her go?" Buck asked.

 

Ezra nodded. He looked stiff and sick.

 

Sometimes Buck couldn't begin to understand why Ezra had let Amelia go. The woman had lied to them all, and the things she had done to Ezra…! Sometimes, though, he thought he understood. As long as she stayed around, the wound was still open. Maybe now that she was gone…

 

"I just want to forget her," he said.

 

Ezra nodded, but Buck saw that his eyes were closed. Aw hell, he thought. What a selfish son of a bitch he was! All she'd done to him was trick him, but she'd stabbed Ezra with a knife and stood over him as he'd almost bled to death. The worst she'd done to Buck was play him for a fool. The worst she'd done to him was fail to fall for his charms.

 

"Hell, I'm sorry, Ezra," he said.

 

Ezra's eyes stayed shut. "I find myself perpetually unable to say the right thing that will make you feel good about yourself." Then he opened his eyes, and his smile, although faint, seemed genuine. "Vin told me that you disbelieved her accusation about the brooch. Thank you for your faith in me, Buck."

 

Buck twisted his hands together. "But I accused you of cheatin'…"

 

"Please, Buck," Ezra said, "enough words were exchanged on that subject on the night in question. Sometimes it's best to say nothing at all. You were manipulated into coming to a conclusion, and my past performance made it a plausible one. You showed your faith when it mattered, and that's the end of it." He leant back into his chair, and there were no smiles at all now, but somehow it seemed to Buck that Ezra was more sincere now than when he was smiling.

 

But he still had to ask it. "We're good, right?"

 

Ezra's eyes were closed again. "I do believe we are."

 

And maybe they were, Buck thought, as he sat down beside Ezra in the shade. Louisa had left him, and that had torn a chuck right outta his heart. Miss Hilda had died, and that had struck him another blow. And then along came Amelia, and she had used him, but he'd used her, too. She'd made him feel needed and strong, when he'd most needed to feel that. There had been nothing real in it, on his part as well as hers. He could blame her for what she did to Ezra, sure, but for what she'd done to him…? No, there was no reason to let it change him.

 

There would be other women, and although he'd be careful not to lose his mind over them and act like a crazy fool, he wouldn't stop himself from loving them. And one day - maybe even one day soon - he would find another Louisa, one who wanted nothing in the world but him.

 

******

 

It wasn't over. It would never be over.

 

Ezra still had dreams about his time spent bleeding to death behind a locked door, alone. He still had dreams of his friends walking away from him. And to those dreams were added the new ones, in which Amelia came back for him, in her blood-stained blue dress.

 

He told no-one at first. Then, as the weeks went by, he told Vin, then Chris, then Buck, telling each of them fragments of the whole, laughing most of it off. He doubted they were fooled. Telling them helped.

 

When he was well enough to go to the saloon again, he started to play poker again. But sometimes he looked at the man he was playing with, and wondered what would be the consequences of this latest victory. He still won, though, most of the time.

 

"You okay?" Chris said, finding Ezra outside the saloon after a night that had been particularly bad.

 

Ezra nodded. It wasn't entirely true, of course, but he reckoned that Chris was capable of seeing through that little charade; more, that he understood the need for it.

 

But it was only a small lie. It was a slow journey, but sometimes… Sometimes a thing had to be broken before it could be put together again. Sometimes a thing that had been repaired was stronger and better than it had been before.

 

It was strange what a difference the little things made. Discovering that they had never believed that he had taken the brooch… That had helped, and still helped when he remembered it. Discovering that they had been prepared to hand Amelia over for hanging because she had hurt him… That had helped. Talking about things with Vin, and having him accept them without question… That had helped.

 

So had memory. So had cold, rational truth. Chris had been harsh to him because he had been distracted by his own problems. Buck had turned on him because he had been hurting after Miss Louisa's departure, and had needed to be needed by a woman. That was how it always was. Everyone was wrapped up in their own problems, and most of the things they did had nothing to do with you. He had been trained to look out for these preoccupations; trained to exploit them. It meant that he understood them, and knew when a seemingly hurtful remark meant nothing at all.

 

And he had never doubted them. It was a curious thing, but that helped most of all. Even at his lowest ebb, bound and gagged in that hellish room, he had never truly believed Amelia's lies. He had never believed that they would give up on him. And, of course, they hadn't.

 

Chris seemed content just to sit beside him, but soon Buck appeared, then Vin and Josiah. Nathan and JD followed soon, and in due course they found themselves in the saloon, sitting round a table with cards and drinks.

 

We're here, he remembered. It was the first thing he had heard anyone saying, when he'd finally woken up clear-headed from the long fever. We're here. It wasn't everything, but it was enough.

 

"You okay, Ezra?" It was Buck who asked it this time.

 

Ezra nodded again, and this time perhaps he meant it.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Note: I do traditionally write ridiculously over-long author's notes at the end of stories, in which I ramble on for ages about my thought processes and inspirations. I've tried to restrain myself somewhat, but it's still pretty rambly. Feel free to skip entirely!

 

I watched The Magnificent Seven for the first time in January, and got the basic idea for this story almost immediately after I'd finished the final episode. I then proceeded to procrastinate for a good month, partly because as a British person, I was terrified by the colloquial American voices, and partly because I wanted good meaty roles for all seven characters, but the original idea only involved character arcs for three. In the end, I reminded myself that the show itself seldom gave meaty storylines to all seven characters in a single episode, and settled for the idea that I'd originally had.

 

I did enjoy writing it very much. Although I've written fanfic in various fandoms for fourteen years, last summer I "took a short break" after a two year bout of extremely prolific writing in Stargate Atlantis fandom, and by the time I started this story, I'd written nothing for over eight months. It was slow work at first, but I soon got into it, and was able to sit back and let the characters take over and push the story in the direction they knew it needed to go.

 

I expect some people will be disappointed that Amelia wasn't brought to justice, but that was Ezra's choice, not mine. When I started that final scene between Chris and Ezra, I had no idea which way it would go, but Ezra knew what he wanted.

 

Will I write more in this fandom? To be honest, I don't know. After ten months away, I suddenly find myself with an idea for another Stargate Atlantis story, which I want to write next. I have no idea what will happen after that. I might find myself with loads more SGA ideas, or I might write that one story, and find myself with loads more M7 ideas clamouring to be written. I'll just have to wait and see.



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