CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Showtime Extreme, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: It answers the July 2006 Challenge, offered by Enola: How about a story where time is a deciding factor? Either it's running out or it centers around a certain day or even a timepiece.  
SUMMARY:  There's a mystery involving a clock -- and Ezra's under a deadline.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
DATE: completed September 3, 2010.

By NotTasha


The man, out of breath and red faced, clomped into the saloon and made a beeline to the poker table.  He paused, clutching a cloth-wrapped parcel to his chest.

"Well?" Ezra drawled, leaning back in his chair, looking bored and annoyed.  With one hand, he flipped a coin idly, catching it with the same hand, and then flipping it again. "You have left me waiting for some time."

"I hurried as fast as I could," the man countered.  "Had to run to my room and back."

Ezra pulled his watch from its pocket with his free hand and declared, "It's 7:00 in the evening.  My compatriot and I have much to do before the day is over."

"Not yet seven," the man, a drummer named Jenkins, declared, pointing out the window.  "It's still a quarter to!" And he indicated the big clock tower on the city hall.

Ezra frowned.  "That clock is wrong."

"It ain't off bad today," someone in the crowd muttered and people checked their watches against the clock.  "It's just about right."  And everyone around him murmured their agreement.  "Minute or two off if anything."

Someone else added, "Long as the town runs on that time, all is well."

"But the train is always early!" someone else piped in helpfully.

Ezra sighed, sounding put upon, as he clapped his pocket watch shut.  He returned it to his waistcoat and said, "Still, I have been waiting." He flipped the coin again.

The man went on, "I brought it, just like I told you.  Can't help it if it takes a while to fetch it."  He unwrapped the parcel as if it was a mummy fresh from the tomb.  "Grand, ain't it?"

The little crowd leaned in, and some of them even breathed a quiet, "Oooo!"

"What is it?" JD asked excitedly, sitting up violently from his seat.  "What you got?"  Then, "It's gold, Ezra!  It's a gold clock!" 

Triumphantly, the man thumped the mantle clock down on the table.  "Pure gold and worth $20!  I know 'cause that's what I just paid for it at that second-hand store."

Ezra let the coin drop to the table with a little 'clink'.  "Gold?" he asked drearily.  "I rather doubt that."  But his gaze stayed fastened on the clock.

"It's gold, alright," Jenkins continued.  "Just look at it.  You can check it out if you want."

"I shall," Ezra responded.  One hand crawled across the table and snagged the ornate piece.  He pulled it to himself and poked at the clock, hefted it and grimaced.  "It's definitely not solid gold.  It doesn't have the weight."

"Aw," the drummer grumbled, having realized the same already.  "It's a mighty fine piece though.  Well worth the amount needed to stay in the game, don't you think?"

"Does it run?" Ezra asked.

Jenkins shrugged.  "Like I said, I just bought it today.  Someone is selling off all the mortal belongings of some fella named Dunkirk who got himself killed.  There's a man down the street selling his assets."

One of the observers nodded and said, "Lucky Pete has a mighty fine shop.  He'll buy up just about anything and resell it."

"The clock really is a beaut," Jenkins went on.  "It's well made, and darn pretty, too.  You look like the kind of man that enjoys fine things, am I right?   I'm thinkin' it's worth at least twice what I paid for it.  I aim to sell it when I reach Tucson."

Ezra continued his examination of the clock.  He scrutinized the face, opened the back to check the works, checked the front cabinet door and poked at the pendulum that was loose for travel at the bottom of the box.

"So, are we okay?" Jenkins asked, rubbing his hands.

"If it is so valuable to you," Ezra started, "I'm afraid you might find yourself… miserable at its loss."

Jenkins smiled.  "I don't think that's gonna happen.  I think you're the one gonna feel some misery when this is done."

Ezra pushed the weight, shoving it around a little in the space. He paused in his movements and withdrew his hand carefully.

"It looks pretty good, Ezra," JD decided to put in.  "Bet it's worth what he paid for it."

Ezra flashed JD a withering look, and then settled the clock next to the pile of cash.  "As my young friend stated, it is worth enough to call.  This will do," he stated.

Jenkins grinned as he returned to his seat, settling his hat beside him.  His hand of cards remained on the table and he glanced at those who were left to guard it.

A man with a scruffy beard told Jenkins, "Nothin's been touched.  Only thing that happened is that kid started belly-achin' that they didn't serve milk here at the Rose."

The men chuckled.  JD sat back, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring toward Ezra.  "All I wanted was something to drink that'd fill me up.  I'm hungry."

Ezra raised his hand toward JD.  "Patience, my friend," he said.  "We'll be finished here shortly."  And he picked up his waiting cards.  "Ready, sir?"

"More than ready!" Jenkins said confidently, his greedy gaze on the pile of cash and merchandise.  "I'm gonna sleep well tonight!  Gonna get me a fine bed at the inn instead of at the Hotel Partridge, and a big ol' dinner.  Sorry, kid," he addressed JD.  "You and your fancy friend here will have to go hungry when this hand is done."

JD's jaw dropped a fraction and he jerked his gaze toward Ezra who kept his attention on Jenkins.

"We'll just have to see what happens next," Standish told Jenkins.  "Your cards, sir?"

And in the matter of a few moments, Jenkins left the table with nothing but his hat as Ezra raked the spoils in.

The other men in the saloon brayed at the departing drummer, and slapped Ezra on the back.

Ezra grinned, accepting their praise.  "Anyone up for another game?" he asked as he stacked the bills.

JD moaned and clutched his stomach as if it pained him, but nobody wanted to take the gambler up on his offer.  Jenkins gone, the crowd dispersed.

"Pity," Ezra mumbled as he folded the bills and shoved them into his pocket.  He took the cloth that had wrapped the clock and put it to that purpose again.

"We going?" JD asked.

"It's time we found some dinner," Ezra declared as he stood, tucking the clock under his arm and moving toward the door.  "But first, a quick stop in our room."

JD grabbed his hat and hurried to keep up with the southerner.


"I think," JD said as they moved through the door to their hotel, "I think we should try that Marilee's Restaurant."  He nodded to the desk clerk as they breezed through the lobby at the Wagner Hotel and headed to the stairs.  "Smelled pretty good when we went by.  I think she had fresh biscuits baking and it looked like a nice place, since they had white linens on the table and flowers there, too, and I think you should buy, seein' as how you won so much money and made me wait so long 'cause I haven't even had lunch 'cept for that sandwich and apple on the trail and that wasn't nearly enough and I usually like to eat by 6 o'clock."

They clomped up the stairs to the second level and to their room.  "Think they have fresh fried chicken?" JD asked as Ezra keyed open the door.  "I could do for some fried chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and maybe some cake or something sweet for dessert."

Ezra said nothing and headed toward one of the beds.  It was their second room in the hotel, the first had overlooked the privies out back, and Ezra wanted nothing to do with that – he preferred to have a decent view of the main street, and managed to procure the better room somehow.

Once seated, Standish unwrapped the clock.

"That's a mighty fine clock you won, Ezra," JD told him.  "You aimin' to keep it or to sell it?"

"I aim to crack it open," Ezra responded, flashing a mischievous grin at the kid.

"What?  I don't… why's that?" JD sat on the bed opposite Ezra's.

"Patience, Mr. Dunne.  Wait and see."  The gambler pulled open the cabinet door on the clock and tipped it until the loose pendulum dropped out.  Then he turned it further until the clock was totally upside down. He gave its bottom a solid whack.

JD squeaked in disbelief.  "Hey, that ain't going to do it no good," he declared and Ezra whacked it again, and then he narrowed his eyes as the square piece of wood that formed the cabinet's floor fell into Ezra's awaiting hand.

Ezra up-righted the clock and peaked into the cabinet.  "Ah-ha!  Very clever."

"What?  What is it?" JD inquired, leaning in close.

Ezra turned the device so that JD could see.  There was an open area beneath the false floor of the clock, a secret space – and mortared to the floor with clay – a key.


"How'd you know it was there?" JD asked as he wiped at his hands with the white napkin.  Bare chicken bones, jam and crumbs littered his otherwise empty plates.

Ezra shrugged.  "The floor didn't fit securely to the bottom of the cabinet.  Certainly, a fine clock such as that would have been made better.  The floor was probably meant to be lifted with greater care, but I didn't have time to find a proper tool."

"What are you going to do with it?"  JD glanced at the skeleton key on the table.  It was a distinctive looking piece, engraved with curly-cues along its length.

Ezra shrugged.  "I was hoping to find the family jewelry secreted in the clock's base.  Instead I have a worthless key to nothing."

JD picked up the key and scrutinized it.  "Bet it goes to something important.  I've never seen a key so fancy."

"Pity we have no idea what that might be."  Ezra looked disappointed and intrigued at the same time.

"That fella Jenkins said he bought the clock at a sale.  Someone was selling a bunch of stuff for a guy that died.  Maybe the lock that goes with this key is there somewhere?"  And JD lifted his gaze to meet Ezra's eyes.  "It makes sense, don't it?"

And a light seemed to come on in the gambler.  "Yes," Ezra declared, shoving back his chair and standing.  "Perfect sense, Mr. Dunne.   Let's see if the sale is still going on that this hour.  Perhaps we can get a little lucky."  He snagged an appropriate amount of money from his pocket, and left it at the table.  As he leaned, he took the key from JD.

JD looked momentarily annoyed, but followed the gambler nonetheless.

"Delightful," Standish told the serving girl as they moved past her.  "Please thank the cook."

"I done the baking," the girl said hopefully.

"Yeah, I loved your biscuits," JD told her, and blushed before he followed Ezra out through the door.

The streets were dark with early evening, but lively with people.  The town of Bernard was an up and coming burg, on the new rail line and eager to attract commerce.

JD and Ezra had traveled overnight to the locale.  The judge had sent them on a mission to drop off some important paperwork at the city hall.  Their work done, they'd spent the rest of the day at their leisure, and Ezra found a game where they'd spent most of the evening -- much to JD's disappointment.  Dunne had been hoping for something a little more exciting.

JD kept stride with Ezra on the boardwalk, ducking and darting to keep from running into anyone.  "What if the key opens a treasure chest?" JD asked.  "What if it opens a safe?  What if it opens a secret cabinet filled with secrets and things like that?  What if there are jewels and gold coins and untold riches?"

Ezra looked hungry for a moment, and then glum as he sighed.  "We have no idea if we will be able to find the right lock at this shop.  There's no telling how long that key has been in that clock.  It may have been there many years before it fell into Dunkirk's possession.  It probably opens nothing of significance, some old musty keepsake box – empty save for a few dead moth carcasses… but…" and he grinned at JD.  "One never knows, and I love a mystery.  Especially one that might lead to…" and he licked his lips as he kept striding.  "… untold riches."

JD beamed at the thought.  "I get half of whatever you get," he said.  "It was my idea to go lookin'!"

Ezra chuckled and mumbled, "We'll see about how things are divided."  And then he declared, "Ah!" as they came to a little shop, still lit at that hour.  They peered into the dusty window.  The room was lined with shelves and plumb full of second-hand merchandise.  The sign above the store declared the place to be "Lucky Pete's Take it or Leave it."

"This looks like the place," Ezra declared as he put his hand to the doorknob.  Suddenly, he turned to JD and whispered harshly, "Say nothing about the key."

"Right!" JD replied in a hushed tone and gave Ezra a conspiratorial look.  Ezra responded with a roll of the eyes as he opened the door.

"Good day, sir," Ezra called as he strode into the quiet yet crammed store.

A leathery-looking old man, mostly likely Lucky Pete, looked up from his seat at the back of the store. 

"Lovely store," Ezra went on.

"You lookin' for anything in particular?" the old man asked, seeming to hurry them along.

"Not… particularly," Ezra said.  And then after a moment, "Anything new come in lately?"

"Fella named Dunkirk got killed the other day.  He had some good taste.  His stuff is over on those tables.  But everything I got here is good.   Ya'll should take a gander."

"Gander we shall," Ezra responded.

JD lifted his head to Ezra to give him a wink, but thought better of it, and then turned toward the indicated tables.  He was stopped when Ezra's hand fell on his arm.  "Why don't you go lookin' over there, JD," Ezra said.  "No need to crowd this area any further than it already is.  You might find something that you need."

JD snorted in annoyance, but when Ezra gave him a glare, he backed off.  "Yeah," he said. I could use some new used things, I guess.  I'll look around."

Ezra grinned and then turned toward the tables that Lucky Pete had indicated.

JD moved to the other side of the store and started to peruse the shelves of the Take It or Leave It.  There was so much to see – every surface was jumbled with cast offs -- the flotsam and jetsam of a world that kept moving on.  There were coffee grinders, bellows, stirrups, crystal vases, china plates, tin cups, doilies, seat cushions, empty canning jars, stringy-haired dolls that looked as if they might have been haunted, portraits of unpleasant looking people with eyes that followed you around the room, lids without pots, pots without lids, this that and everything, all in shadow and the glow thrown up from the lanterns that illuminated the place.

"Ezra," JD called as his gaze flashed across something.  "Ezra?  Come see this!"

The conman appeared at his side almost instantly, his eyes alight in anticipation.

"Did you see this?" JD asked.  "It's incredible!”

"What?  Behind the snow globe?"

"Snow… globe…" JD repeated the name as he gingerly touched the article.  "I've never seen anything like it before."

Ezra sighed, and then stated instructionally, "It's a newfangled thing.  All the rage in France, I've heard.  If you pick it up and shake it, snow will appear to fall inside."  He didn't look impressed.  "Not good for anything but holding papers in place."

JD smiled and grabbed the clear glass globe with the winter image of a house and trees inside.  He tipped it and then set it upright.  Then, in amazement, he watched the snow drift inside.  "Wow!" JD proclaimed and did it again.

He looked up to Ezra, delighted to share his fascination, but Ezra had already wandered back to the other side of the room.  JD mumbled, "I like it anyway."   He raised his voice and asked, "How much for the snow globe?"

The man shrugged.  "Two bits, I guess."

JD grabbed the knick-knack and kept searching the shelves, picking up anything that looked like it might have a lock.   It'd be great if he was the one that found it!  Then he could be the one who won the mystery prize.

There was all manner of piffle and gewgaw, but nothing had a lock that matched the pattern on the key.

JD kept looking.  He found a soft red blanket that would be perfect for his bed and a dusty watch that seemed to work once it was wound.  He needed a new one.  Next, he found a leather bag filled with marbles. "I would’ve liked these when I was a kid."  He couldn't pass that up.

There was a clever little travel lamp with a lid that clamped down tightly and enclosed reservoir of oil.  It was perfect for his saddlebag so that he could have some light to read his dime store novels.

Then he saw the squirrel. It stopped him dead in his tracks and he almost shouted for Ezra again – but thought better of it.  It might have been real, but the pose was too staged.  A gray squirrel waited on the shelf, stuffed and mounted so that it sat on a tiny rocking chair, reading a book and smoking a pipe.   So realistic

Delighted, JD reached for it and pulled it close.

It was incredible!  The taxidermy squirrel looked almost human in its pose.  Beady glass eyes seemed to regard him intelligently.  Its clenched toothed grimace almost said, “take me with you."

He couldn't leave something like this behind!  He piled it on top of his other treasures

Suddenly, from the back of the store, a tired voice said, " Lamp oil ain’t cheap.  I'd like to be closing up soon."

"And so you will!" Ezra responded, sounding triumphant.  "Mr. Dunne, I think we've done all the shopping we need to do for one night."  He moved on the other side of the shelves.  "Let us settle our bill and be off."

"Hey… ah… okay…"  JD twisted about with his load, knowing that there was certainly more here to check out, but the shop was closing.  Maybe they could come back in the morning?

He brought his choices to where the old, impatient-looking man waited.

Ezra appeared with a pretty wooden chest that had been tied up with twine.  He looked unimpressed, but JD could see that light of excitement hiding in those eyes.

Standish settled the chest beside JD's pile and froze a moment, noting the rocking chair and squirrel tableau.  He gave JD a searching look.  Maybe he was hopeful that Dunne would tell him it was all a joke, but JD just returned the gaze with his own earnest expression.

Ezra let out a long-suffering sigh, and then turned to the proprietor.  He smiled winningly and asked, "How much?"



JD hunched on his bed as Ezra cut the twine on the chest.  "Think there's gold inside?" JD asked.  "Jewelry?  Money?"

"Too light," Ezra said unhappily, tossing the twine to the floor.  "I fear we'll find little of use to me."

"Might still be something good," JD tried.  "Might be just about anything."

"But not gold," Ezra amended, but cocked his head contemplatively, "Still, it is a little thrilling, isn't it?  The mystery?  The unknown, here are our fingertips.  The answers to our questions only seconds away."  He rubbed his hands together as the chest waited in his lap.  "What do you say we put an end to this and find out what we have?"

"Yeah, unlock it!" JD stated, and then, "Are you sure this is the right lock for that key?"

"See," Ezra pointed out the curly-cues that edged the lock plate. "They obviously go together."  As he inserted the key into the lock, he added, "Plus I tried the key in the store.  It turned the lock, but I couldn't open the box due to the twine holding it shut."

JD jingled on the bed as Ezra unlocked the chest and lifted the lid.  They both peered inside to see what mystery was revealed.

JD furrowed his brow in confusion at the inlayed box that was revealed within the chest.  He sat back, disappointed.  Dunne turned to Ezra, expecting the same, and saw a look he didn't quite understand – it wasn't that sharpness of avarice that sometimes came over the gambler – rather it was a soft and thoughtful expression. 

"Is it something important?  Like something really old that you can sell to a museum?" Dunne asked.

"No," Ezra replied.  "They make these by the hundreds in Japan.  It's a cheap souvenir piece."

"What is it, then?" Dunne asked.

"A Himitsu-Bako.  I believe it might be a 6-sun,"   Ezra said as he quickly pulled out the box and set the chest aside.  It was a pretty block – a rectangle all inlayed with wood of different shades.  Beautiful geometric designs covered the piece on all sides.

"A 'Him hit what'?"

"Himitsu-Bako," Ezra repeated.  "I haven't seen one of these since I was a boy."  He handed it to JD with a grin.

"What's it for?  A doorstop?  No, too light."  JD took the block and turned it over in his hands.  "A book end?  Might be pretty to put on a shelf, right?  It's nice…" he tried to sound positive and not be disappointed by the rather pointless end to their mystery - nothing but a block of decorated wood.

"It's a Japanese Puzzle Box," Ezra explained.  "You have to know the secret of how to open it – or you just need a lot of time and ingenuity to figure it out on your own."

"Some sort of puzzle?" JD tried, not understanding how a solid piece could be a puzzle.  "You've done the puzzle on one of these before?"

"Ah, yes."  Ezra nodded.  "Many an otherwise dull afternoon was spent in an import shop during my youth.  I learned the secret of every puzzle that came through her door.  It took me days to figure some of them, and the proprietress was patient enough to allow me all the time in the world.  I'd be nestled between the shelves, surrounded by trinkets from around the world, in a shop was filled with the scents of camphor and cardamom and coriander.  I whiled away at a puzzle until my aunt called me home."  He smiled, his expression melancholy.

"Sounds nice enough," JD conceded, but he really would have preferred paying with marbles as a lad.

"Strange thing really," Ezra continued.  "The puzzle boxes were never big sellers, but the owner was always bringing in new models.  Some boxes must have had 50 different movements, and she always required me to show her how it was done, so that she could demonstrate to her customers."  He shook his head.  "They should have come with instructions, but she could never find the pages in the shipping crate when the new stock arrived."

JD turned the box around in his hand.  The sides were all smooth.  There was no sign of a lid or a door or a hinge, and he couldn't pry loose anything.  "I don't get it," he mumbled.  "Wait, are the designs supposed to mean something?  Maybe it's a secret code?"  And he squinted at the inlay, seeing nothing but repeating shapes.

Ezra held out a hand and JD passed the block over.  After a moment, a slat of wood in the center of one side moved under Ezra's thumb.  He pressed the piece over so that it stuck out about an inch.   Then, with a little push, he lowered that side of the box a fraction. Standish smiled.

He handed the box back to JD, who tried again.  Now knowing what was expected, Dunne was able to find two other movements on the box, but was stymied from going any further.  "You want to try it again, Ezra?  It'll take all night if it was left to me, and you know the secrets."

Ezra took it back, his smile continuing.  He kicked his feet up on the bed, crossing his boots at his ankle.  He leaned back on the headboard as he went to work on the box.

JD picked up his snow globe and swirled it to watch the snow drift.  Out of the corner of his eye, he kept watch on Ezra.  The gambler moved wood pieces one way and then another, sliding a tiny slat to the side, easing the side downward, moving the slat back where it was before, sliding something else in the opposite direction, then moving a tiny piece into the open space he'd just created.  He kept working, sometimes having to backtrack to try another series of movements, hardly even noticing that JD was still in the room.

JD waited, watching, holding the snow globe. Ezra worked methodically, quickly mastering the moves.  Obviously, he'd played with a similar box before.

Finally, the top of the box slid.  Ezra stopped before he totally opened the box.  "Here we go," he said.  "Ready?"

"Must be something worth all this trouble," JD said hopefully.

" Let us see where our little mystery has led us."  And Ezra slid the lid away, revealing the open space beneath – and a packet of letters.

Ezra stared at the packet, trying not to look disappointed.  He glanced up at JD, who said, "Maybe it's not so bad.  Maybe there's something good under them?"

Ezra looked doubtful as pulled out the packet to find nothing beneath.

"I bet there's money inside the envelopes," JD tried.

Curious, Ezra undid the ribbon and quickly checked through the stack.  "They're all addressed to Liam Dunkirk, from a Claire Monroe," he stated, and after he peeked into every envelope, he stated evenly, "Just paper."

"Aw nuts," JD sighed.

Ezra pulled a perfumed sheet from the first letter.  "Even worse," he grumbled.  "Love letters."  With a shake of his head he read, "My Darling Liam, I can still remember the last time we met in the old farm house and you looked so fine, I just wanted to hold you tight and stay with you all night and I knew I would.   When your lips touched mine and strong arms were tight around me, and I felt like a woman for the first time…"  Ezra cut off with a grimace and stuffed the letter into its envelope.

JD watched as Ezra tied the ribbon around the packet.  "Maybe it's not a total loss," Dunne tried.  "I could, you know, read the letters if I got bored or something."

"I suppose half do belong to you," Ezra responded. He sighed and continued, "We made acquired some mighty fine things today, of that there is no doubt."

JD couldn't tell if Ezra was being sarcastic or not.

Their purchases amounted to a substantial pile.  "It'll do us no good to bring this home by horseback," Ezra said.  "We should crate all this and ship it.  It can take the morning train to Eagle Bend, so it should be in time to make the weekly freight wagon to Four Corners."

"Yeah," JD said, standing and resting his hands on his hips as he surveyed the items.  "Probably a good idea."

"So, why don't you check with the desk clerk and see if he can find a sufficient crate.  We can bring it to the station in the morning."

JD nodded as he opened the door, but paused and said, "If you like, you can leave out those letters.  Maybe I could read them tonight.  They'll pack in my bag easily enough tomorrow."

Ezra smiled and shook his head as he settled the packet into the puzzle box and slid the lid into position. "I think that would be best done in private, Mr. Dunne."  He flicked a hand.  "Hurry now, before the clerk goes to bed for the night."  And he began putting the puzzle box back in order.

JD lingered a minute, wondering if he could remember all of the movements needed to reopen the box.  Realizing he probably couldn't, he left in search of a crate.


"Lucky Pete's luck done run out," the shopkeeper said as he leaned over his plate of toast, scrambled eggs and bacon.  "Damn shame." He spoke loudly to be heard over the din of the train as it left town.

"Why you say that?" his friend, the blacksmith, responded between forks of fried potatoes.  He turned his head, looking annoyed at all the noise.

"Didn't-cha hear?  Someone broke into his place last night.  Rosco found him in his back room this morning.  Place is a shambles.  Someone tipped nearly everything off his shelves.  Damn shame."

"Lucky Pete's dead?"

"Yeah, he got cut up something bad.  Rosco said it looked like they slit his throat to finish him.   God rest his soul.  His son is real broke up."

The blacksmith sat back in his seat.  "Way I hear it, some salesman got stabbed over at the Partridge last night.  They found him this morning when the Lucille came up with hot water.  Put a hell of a fright into that poor girl.  Manager said that that man got cut up, too."

"That little drummer that was headed to Tucson?" the shopkeeper responded incredulously.  "He was in my store just yesterday."

"Lucy tells me they tore up the room and stole all his belonging.  Hell of a thing."

"Two people were murdered last night?"  The shopkeeper pushed back his breakfast, no longer hungry.  "Damn, and then there was that other one last week -- and that business earlier."

"Same people, you think?"

"Hard to say.  Probably a gang of no-account young 'uns."

The blacksmith sighed and shook his head dolefully.  "Kids these days…They got no respect.  Whole town is going to hell.  It ain't safe anywhere."

Ezra gave JD a jab in the arm, and said quietly, "We're going."

"I ain't half done yet," JD replied, still working on his plate of flapjacks and sausage.

"Half done is well enough," Ezra told him, grimacing as he paid the tab.  "Honestly, Mr. Dunne, you're going to have to start earning a decent living someday.  I can't be the one covering your bill all the time."

"I can pay for myself, Ezra.  Just give me a minute to get my money together and…"

But Ezra was already moving, heading toward the door.

"This ain't fair," JD sputtered as he forked up a big chunk of syrupy flapjacks and jammed them in his mouth.  Annoyed, he grabbed the last sausage and followed.

Ezra was already outside and headed toward their hotel.  The morning train was headed out – smudging the gray sky with black smoke. 

JD pointed with a sausage link. "This ain't a way to treat a man who's tryin' to eat!" he garbled through his pancakes.

Ezra stopped short and swung JD with him until their backs were flat against the front wall of the restaurant.  "Did you hear what those men were discussing?"

"Yeah, Lucky Pete and some salesman both were killed last night.  It's a sad thing and all, but…"

"Both of whom had been in contact with us last night.  Both of whom also had been in possession of at least one of our mystery items."

JD slowed in his chewing and a little mongrel sidled near him, angling for the sausage.  "You think someone's interested in those things?  Like interested enough to kill for them?" he asked. "There was nothing but love letters in that box."

"So it appeared but…" Ezra rubbed his face in annoyance.  "We… I didn't truly check the envelopes.  There's no telling what else might have been contained in them."

"Must have been a reason to secret them so hard," JD completed.  The little white and black dog whimpered and sat down beside him.  It pawed at his pant leg.

"And since Mr. Dunkirk, the previous owner of these items, also recently died, I am suspecting that the cause of his death must have also been suspicious."

"They murdered him, too?" JD whispered.  "Dang it, Ez.  We'd better do something."  The dog begged, lifting its front paws preciously.  It might have been some form of rat terrier.

"What we'd better do is get out of town," Ezra replied.


"If Lucky Pete told them that he sold one of Dunkirk's belongs to Jenkins, then it stands to reason that they know that we have another.  It's also quite possible that they know who currently holds the clock because there were many witnesses to the exchange in the Rose last night.  If we hadn't changed rooms at the hotel yesterday, our awakening might not have been so quiet this morning."

"We have to stop them.  These men are killing people.  We got to do something about it."

"We have to stop them from killing us." Ezra replied.  "They are apparently after some specific possessions of Mr. Dunkirk, and we have them.  The best way to avoid joining that sad group of the recently deceased is to get out of town, now."

"The crate!" JD exclaimed, and then slammed his hands over his mouth as he realized he'd spoken too loudly.  The sausage flew and the dog leaped after it, snatching it mid-air.

Ezra shook his head.  "The crate just left town on that train -- unless someone knew to look for it."  He frowned.  "The shipping information would be easy to check for our names."

"I put Chris' name on the label," JD said with a smile.

The look that Ezra turned on him was pure and proud, and he smiled at the young man as he gently laid a hand on JD's shoulder.  The dog returned and sat beside young Dunne.  It thumped its tail against the boardwalk as it looked up at JD in love.

"Mr. Dunne, that is excellent news.  The items are out of the way and on their journey to safekeeping.  We should be on our way as well.  Get the horses, JD.  I'll send a quick message to Mr. Larabee, and then get our bags from our room.  The sooner we leave this town, the better."

JD nodded as Ezra pushed off the wall.  JD watched Ezra for a moment as he started toward the telegraph office, and then he turned as well and jogged toward the livery with the little dog on his heels.



Ezra's boots beat a staccato on the stairs as he returned to their room, his mind abuzz with what they'd learned that morning.

What did he have in that clock or chest that was worth killing for?

He'd seen nothing in the envelopes aside from pages of letters.  He had missed something.  Did the love letters reveal more than just sordid details?  Did the clock contain other secrets in its works?  He damned himself for not investigating the evidence while it was still in his hands.

He should have let JD have his light reading.

He quickly unlocked the hotel room, determined to grab their bags and rush back to meet young Dunne.  Thank goodness they were already packed.

He swung the door open. 

Not already packed --- clothing was strewn over the floor, mattresses were overturned, a lamp was smashed on the floor, its oil leaking into the wood. He froze for only a second  – but that was too long.

Something slammed into his head.

Ezra staggered, falling heavily to the floor.  He blinked, desperate to clear his head as someone came at him. 

Instinctively, he swept his legs around, connecting with his opponent's ankles.  The man went down hard, grunting and swearing.  Ezra clambered to his feet and made a grab for the dark-haired man. Someone else grasped him, pinning his arms and pulling him fully upright.

Ezra slammed his head back, making his already aching head ring, but the accompanying grunt and "Son of a bitch!" from his attacker was satisfying.

The hold loosened and he pulled away with a donkey kick, connecting with a rather sensitive part of his attacker.  The man screeched and the grip was entirely released, but Ezra didn't have time to reach his weapon as the first assailant slammed one fist into his jaw and the other into his stomach.

Ezra went down to his knees, heaving as he tried to breathe. Stars swarmed his dimmed vision.  His hand clasped the Remington, but the first man – tall and black-haired, with a narrow, ugly face, pressed the barrel of a gun to Ezra's forehead.  "Drop it," he ordered, his voice thick and oily.

Ezra did as he was told.

"That other one, too!" The man pointed with his gun to the Colt that was tucked in the holster under Ezra's arm.

With a sigh, Ezra complied and the dark-haired man quickly scooped up the weapons.

"Raise 'em!"

Ezra lifted his hands, trying to blink away the blackness.  He could still trigger the derringer, but it would do little good in this position – not with two of them and a gun pointed at his forehead.

"Where is it, you stinkin' son of a bitch?" the second man growled as he staggered around to face Standish.  The man was blond, and a bit shorter than the first man.  He might have been called handsome at one point in his life, but his newly broken, and profusely bleeding nose, wasn't going to help his looks any.  "Tell me, Standish, where is it?"

Ezra flinched at the sound of his own name, knowing he was in grave trouble. "And who the hell are you?" Ezra asked bluntly, "Seein' as how you know me, perhaps we should be better acquainted?"

The blond man's face darkened, and too quickly for Ezra to do anything about it, he slammed a fist just above his eye, snapping his head to one side.   "Get your goddamn face up!" he snarled as Ezra bowed and hissed in pain.

"I guess this means I'm not gettin' any answer," Ezra said with a little chuckle, slowly raising his head to meet the man's gaze.

The blond yanked a handkerchief from his pocket, held it to his bleeding nose, and repeated the question, "Where is it, you stupid bastard?"

An apt description, Ezra thought, knowing it was his own fault for getting into this situation.  He tried to calculate the odds of fighting his way out.  The odds weren't good.

"Talk, Standish!" the blond gritted out, moving uncomfortably.  "Where did you put it?"

Ezra cleared his throat and stated, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

The blond looked as if his head was about to boil off with rage.  He grabbed Ezra by his shirtfront, dragging him to his feet.  "Where the hell are those things you got yesterday?"

"Things?" Ezra tried.  "You mean the blanket?  The little bauble with the snow?  Marbles?"  He seemed to ponder it.  "I hope you're not talking about the squirrel, because…"

The blond slugged him and Ezra's knees buckled again.  He gasped and somehow managed to keep upright.

"You need to be taught some respect," the assailant snarled.

"And you need a new nose.  I think I came out better in that bargain," Ezra replied glibly, and was rewarded with another fist to the belly.

Ezra regretted having biscuits and gravy for breakfast and he struggled to breathe.

"The clock! The god-damned clock and chest!" the ugly man screamed, keeping the gun at Ezra's forehead.  "They're the only things we haven't found, and we know you got 'em.  We need what's inside!"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Ezra responded, but when Blondie drew back to deliver another blow, Ezra seemed to brighten a little. "Oh!  The clock!  Amazing timepiece.  And the chest.  It was lovely.  I hated parting with them, but the price was right and what could I do?  I hadn't planned on keeping them in the first place.  They're hardly right for me, far too gaudy.  I am not a gaudy man.  My style is perfection."

"What?" Ugly barked.

"I sold them," Ezra explained, "last night, and for a good price, too."

Ugly and Blondie both looked annoyed and disgusted.  "Sold them? Damn it!" Ugly whined.

"To who?" Blondie snapped.  "Who bought them?"

"There was a fellow in the hotel lobby," Ezra spun the tale as he tried to get control of his aching head and belly.  "I don't believe he was a guest, rather he was there to meet with someone.  Tall man, nearly as tall as you, sir, but with not so fine features.  He was a businessman, involved in land speculation I believe.  He was investigating some land sales in these parts and was hot on purchasing some acreage for himself.   He had his eye on a house for sale out yonder, and was about to bring his family along to fill it.  He was looking for some ornaments for his new home, to surprise his wife."

"What's his name!" Blondie ordered.

"Abernathy," Ezra immediately responded.  "Or Ainsworth, or maybe it was Anderson. I'm not certain, I'm horrible with names.  His first name was Donald, of that I'm certain.  Or maybe it was David or Brian.  I always get those names confused."

Ugly's gun lowered. He seemed to realize what he was doing and raised it again, his hand shaking.  "Where is he?" the gunman demanded.  "Tell me where to find him."

"He probably left town this morning.  Headed westward, I believe.  If you hurry, you can catch him," Ezra smiled hopefully.

Ugly seemed to believe him and was ready to follow this mysterious man out into the desert, but Blondie wasn't biting.

"Get them," Blondie growled.

"Come again?" Ezra responded.

"Follow this Ainsworth or whatever he is, and get the clock and chest!  Bring them back to me or else…"

"Or else what?" Ezra asked, because obviously if they allowed him to go, he would no longer be in their clutches.

"Or else we kill the kid," Blondie said, and he smiled as Ezra's face went blank.  "We got him before he reached the livery.   You get that clock and that chest back from that fella, bring them both to me – with everything in them – and we won't kill JD Dunne."

The use of the kid's name drove the situation home.  Ezra's eyes darted as he took in the information.  "Now," he said.  "Why should I believe you have him in your care?"

The blond looked smug and pulled something from his gun belt.  He flung a crushed bowler hat at the gambler.

"Ah," Ezra responded.  He swallowed and continued, "Very well.  I will do my level best to retrieve the items you requested—with everything in them.  It might take some time to get my hands on…"

"You have until 3 o'clock," Blondie said.  "Bring them back by then, and we won't hurt him.  At three, we'll we start cutting off fingers, breaking bones, slicing him up bit by bit."

Ezra felt cold at those remarks, remembering what he’d heard in the restaurant that morning.  These men were capable of such horrors.

 Blondie looked absolutely delighted, his face macabre with the blood still dripping from his broken nose.  Ugly just looked ugly.

"A little more time would be appreciated," Ezra tried.

"Three!" Blonde barked, "And if you're not standin' in front of this building at that time, we'll start parting him out."

He drew back one foot, but Ezra saw it coming and let his knees fold.  The sudden weight twisted Blondie and he missed his mark as Ezra went down.  Instead of kicking their captive in the groin, Blondie was jerked to one side and almost fell with Standish.

Ugly caught Blondie with one hand, saving his partner from a spill, but the sudden misstep made Blondie howl and clutch his bruised privates in agony.  He drew back a foot as if he again intended to kick Standish, but stopped with a gasp and gave up on the idea.  "Three!" he shouted to the curled Standish.  "3 o'clock!  Or the boy suffers for your mistakes!"

And the two men left the room – one striding long steps, the other shuffling.

The door slammed and Ezra uncurled, his stomach still roiling from the abuse, his jaw and head sparking with pain.  His face felt swollen and certainly one of his eyes was blackened.

"That went well," he murmured, and then pulled himself to his feet, groaning and grumbling at the pains that caught him.  He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, feeling where his teeth had torn his cheek and then checking to see if his gold tooth was still in place – at least he had some luck there.

Thankfully, there was no mirror in the room.  He really didn't want to see what his face looked like at that moment.

He leaned against one of the disheveled beds and pulled his watch from his pocket.  It was just past 9 am.  He and JD had been up early to get started for home – it was a two day trip and they wanted to cover most of the ground on the first day.

That gave him six hours to get the clock and the chest, and bring them back by 3pm.  At least they hadn't decided on the more clichéd 'high noon'.  They were probably hoping to catch the afternoon train out of town.

The train – the crate was on the morning train.  How in the world was he going to get it back in time to save JD?  The freight wagon wasn't going to get to Four Corners until tomorrow – and it would be a hard day's ride to make it to Eagle Bend if he wanted to pick it up there.

Perhaps he should just try to find Dunne and rescue him without bringing in the requested items?  Might be simpler?  But there had to be a minimum of three men involved – the two that had attacked him – and at least one left to watch JD, possibly more.

And he had no idea where they'd taken JD.

He needed that crate.  The crate was on the train. 

The train – after leaving the town of Bernard -- had four stops before reaching Eagle Bend.  It would stop in White Rock for about 20 minutes to take on water and coal.  Then it would head to Happy Home.  

The train had left the station in Bernard only a short time ago.

If he had a fast horse – he could catch the train before it left White Rock.  White Rock wasn't far.

Ezra looked up from his watch as he calculated the timing.  He could do this.

He started to leave the room, ready to get Chaucer and fly, when he paused.

They would be looking for him.  Ugly, Blondie and whoever else was working with them would be waiting for him.  If they wanted these items so badly, would they allow him to fetch them alone? Of course, they'd want to shadow him.

He moved toward the window, leaned against one wall and cautiously peered out.  Blondie was across the street, pressed against a roof support, looking uncomfortable and holding a handkerchief to his nose, watching the front door of the hotel.

Ezra had no doubts that Ugly was currently stationed at the livery, watching their horses.

He didn't want these men following him.  What would stop them from reneging on the deal and killing JD if they had their prize?  They'd already killed three men.  The only thing stopping them from finishing off young Dunne was the hope of getting what they wanted.

 Lord, if any harm had already come to JD, he would never forgive himself.

Without any clear plan, he left the room and headed into the hallway, and then down the back stairway that led to the privies.  He winced as he moved, damning his stupidity at letting them catch him so unprepared, damning his stupidity at letting them catch JD.

He glanced through the back door and, finding no one waiting, moved quickly past the privies and through a narrow alley to the next row of buildings, wondering how he would be able to cut over to the livery, and gain entry (and exit) from it without being seen.

He stopped when he reached the next street.  He stopped and stared.

Standing at the hitching post, just outside the bathhouse was a thoroughbred stallion of heart-breaking  beauty.  It was a deep gray, almost black, well-muscled, gorgeously built. It stood with grace and it arched its neck as if knew just how perfect a creature it was.

Ezra would bet on that horse in any race.  He'd bet everything he owned.  This horse was a winner.  This horse was built for speed.  Its stance told him of its endurance.  The way it held its head told that it had all the confidence in the world.

Ezra didn't move.  Only his eyes scanned one way, and then another.  No one was watching – not really.

Stealing a horse was a hanging offence – and someone would definitely miss this one – but time was wasting and JD was in trouble.  He had to move -- he had a train to catch.



Scenery flew past as the big horse galloped.  The stallion moved like lightning, its hooves tearing up the distance.  Ezra rode low over its neck, feeling the power of the animal.

It ran like it was born to run.  It moved as if it lived to race, as if a full-out gallop was the only way to move.  It was in love with its abilities, its speed, its beauty.  Ezra hung on for the ride.

Soil crunched beneath hooves.  The horse breathed in great huffs.  Wind whipped past Ezra's head and he'd lost his hat almost as soon as he left the town's outer limits.

The train tracks strung out beside them, leading them to White Rock.  Homesteads rocketed past as they kept their speed.  Men stopped in their fields and stared.  Boys whipped off their hats and wahooed as the horse streamed past.  Women stood on front porches, clutching their aprons as they watched the perfect horse rush past with its tagalong rider.

Ezra hardly saw the observers.  He saw only the silver dual lines of the rails.  He heard only the great breath from the horse’s bellow lungs and the rhythmic clump-clump of its hooves on the packed soil.  He felt the stallion's great energy as it ran.

God, it was fun!

He grinned as much as his battered jaw allowed and he kept one eye narrowed against the wind.  The other eye was mostly swollen shut so it hardly mattered.

The horse ate up the miles.

White Rock!  He could see it!  The little collection of business and houses sprouted alongside the track – and there – the plume of steam from the train, still waiting at the station.

"Ha!" he shouted, "Ha!"  He dug his heels into the horse's side and it put on more speed.  It was wet with sweat, but its pace had hadn't slowed, it hardly seemed to tire.  This was one fine god-damned magnificent beautiful horse.

"Almost there," he crooned.  "Just get me to White Rock and…. Hell!"

The train, that had been sitting and steaming so peacefully, suddenly belched a huge cloud of black smoke.  A shrill whistle reached him a second later.

"No, no, no!" Ezra whined.  "No, you can't leave!"

The horse kept its furious pace.  They were getting closer.  The whistle sounded again and the whole train lurched forward and then lurched again.

"No!" Ezra moaned, and dug in his heels once more.

The horse had finally begun to slack its pace, but with the encouragement, it sped forward.  The train jerked one more time and started moving.

"I will not miss this train!" Ezra promised.

Well-wishers on the platform waved at their departing loved ones, joined by townspeople who had nothing else better to do.  One child in a blue kerchief turned her head and saw him coming.  She stared.

The big horse flew, charging into White Rock, scattering chickens and children as it tore toward the station.

"Come on!  Come on!  Come on!"  Ezra encouraged.  "We have to catch it!"

The train picked up speed as it left the town.

The horse and rider shot past the station, and everyone shouted in surprise, except the girl with the blue kerchief, who smiled and jumped about excitedly.

He was gaining – he was nearly to the quickening train.  The horse kept up its insane speed.

"Almost there," Ezra said through gritted teeth.  "Almost there, my friend."

They were nearly astride the train!  They were there!  Ha!  They'd caught it!  Ezra smiled in triumph as the horse came alongside with the caboose.   "Closer now, my friend.  Don't fail me."

The horse shied, unsure of the noise and the terrain near the tracks.

"Closer, closer," Ezra urged, directing the horse with his knees almost as much as the reins.  "Closer now." They moved further, past the caboose to the cattle car just ahead of it.

He was insane.  He knew it.

A ladder came into reach.  "Closer now.  Just a little closer."

The train was moving faster.  His horse wasn't going to last much longer.  He reached out – his hand missing the rung.

He kneed the horse again and reached – reached and ---

The moment his hand grasped the rung, he felt the horse turn beneath him.  He let go of the reins and pulled his feet from the stirrups.  Suddenly, he was hanging – one handed – to the rung on the side of a cattle car.

He banged noisily against the car – sending up a panic of moos from within.  He twisted, making his bruised torso scream and he nearly lost his grip.  The magnificent stallion slowed to a trot.  It stopped, its sides heaving with the hard run, and Ezra spun about, trying to get a better hold on the ladder and not pop his shoulder out of joint again. 

His boots clanged and he was battered in the rush, but he managed to get his other hand on the ladder and finally his feet.  Breathlessly, he hung on, turning his head to watch the horse that still stood by the side of the tracks.  It looked small in the growing distance.

He hoped it was okay.  He'd hate it if he caused the beast any harm.

The cattle car put out a terrible stench, and Ezra grimaced, noting the manure that coated the sides of it.  Inside the car, a long tongue lashed out, lapping his face, surprising him so much, he almost lost his grip.

As he kept his head turned toward the stallion, horsemen rode out from the town – taking chase.  They wouldn't catch the train.  Not with those nags.  At least, one of them could take the stallion back to town.   It wasn't the type of animal that someone would ignore.  They'd care for it, certainly.  Thank God.

The cow still licked at him, seeming delighted to have a something tasty to smooch and Ezra cringed away.   She breathed heavily, her breath sweet with hay.   Otherwise, the cattle car stank something awful, and he was alarmed as one of his cow's neighbors did something foul in his direction.

 He leaned back as far as he dared to get out of reach.

He was out of breath, with his head throbbing, his belly aching, his shoulder pained him – not out of joint but the damn thing always gave him trouble when he abused it.  The swaying cows put up a chorus of moos, while his admirer kept trying to taste him.

As he leaned back, letting the air whip past his head, he laughed, unable to stop himself.  "I caught a train!" he shouted into the wind.

Then, chuckling, Ezra rubbed his sore and now moist face against his less sensitive shoulder.  It was time to get moving again. 

"M'lady," he said to the hopeful-looking cow, "I regret that I must leave you now."  He started up the ladder.  The rich, unpleasant smell of fresh manure wafted around him. 

One cow watched his progress with a disappointed expression as he moved to the roof.


Ezra paused on the top of the cattle car, warily looking toward the caboose to make sure that no railway men emerged to force him off their train.    Thankfully, no one appeared.

The train clattered down the tracks, on the way to Happy Home.  It would be some time before they reached that destination, a further run than the last.  The wind on top of the car was tremendous, and Ezra held on, afraid it might tear him from the car.  He took a moment to assess his latest damages, finding his jacket and trousers were now filthy with cow manure, and his sleeve was badly ripped. 

His shoulder hurt, and he tested it, grimacing at the movement.  Just one more ache to add to the rest.

He raised himself into a crouch and started toward the opposite end of the cattle car, moving as quickly as he dared.  The last thing he wanted to do was take a fall from a train moving at speed.

His plan had been to get the crate off the train in White Rock, and bring the items back, along with the horse.   Missing that opportunity, he'd have to ride to Happy Home, pick up the crate at that stop, and come back on the next train.  It would be simple enough, but the timing would be close.

He just needed to make it to the next passenger car, find his way in, pay the conductor for a seat, and he'd be nearly done.

The car in front of the cattle car was a boxcar.  He wondered how far he'd have to go to reach a comfortable seat.  He climbed down the near ladder, avoiding the gaze from those doleful eyes that peered out at him, and then regarded the hitch that connected the two cars.

It clattered and shook and put up a tremendous noise as the train rattled the tracks.

Well, he thought, here goes nothing.  He made the jump over the cacophonous connector, catching the ladder on the next car and then, quickly, he climbed to the top of the boxcar -- and into the wind again.

Not at all comfortable.  The day was cool, and he had no desire to remain out in the weather.

The boxcar had two trap doors in the roof.  If he could just slip through one of those and find a place to sit, it would be easier than traversing any further cars – the up and down and across was going to kill him if he kept it up.

He stepped onto the top of the car and hunched his way along it until he reached the first trap door.  Tired of the wind beating at his head, he pulled open the trap and leaned in.

He smiled. 

The car was only partially full with boxes and bags – mail bags and boxes with shipping labels.  "Perfect!" he crowed, and leaving the door open for light, he swung his legs into the hole, and then dropped in.

The mail car!   He couldn't have been luckier!

It was too dim to see much of anything, so he opened the big sliding door on the side, letting in a flood of light along with the sound of the wind and the rails, the sight of the landscape flashing past.  He smiled as he stood by the open door, darn proud of himself.  Who would have thought he could accomplish so much?

With a light step, he went about the business of finding the crate that he'd packed the previous night.

It shouldn't have gone too far.  He shifted a few boxes, until he found the familiar box.

"Excellent," he declared, and pulled out his watch.  Yes, this would all time out perfectly for him.  He'd make the return train from Happy Home to Bernard and they'd be done with this mess.

He was going to save JD!  The miscreants could have the clock and chest.  What did he care?

And his brow furrowed as he wondered what exactly they were after.  What was contained in those letters?  What was so important that three men had died?  Why had they threatened the life of JD?

What if they hurt that boy?  What if they'd already done what they threatened and that poor young man was suffering, tortured by those men?

It was his fault, Ezra knew.  He was the one that acquired the clock and the chest, putting the killers on their trail; he was the one that missed the clues, and he was the one that sent the evidence away. 

What if JD was already dead?

The train wouldn't reach Happy Home for at least an hour.  The least he could do is check through the letters again, and see if he could figure this out.  Maybe the information could help him save JD – get him out of this horrible mess. 

Ezra dragged the crate closer to the door so that he could clearly see, and he bent to pry open the lid.

"Hold it right there!" a voice called from above.

With a groan, Ezra stopped his work and looked up.  A man, dressed in railway uniform, leaned through the opening in the ceiling.  He pointed a pistol at Ezra's chest.

Further down, the other trap door opened on the ceiling and a second man shouted, "Don't move!"

"As you wish," Ezra replied, smiling as he raised his hands.  "I wasn’t harming anything here."

"You got on outside of White Rock, didn't ya?"  A man with long, light-brown hair accused.  He dropped down while his partner covered him.  He was lithe and thin and had a deadly cast to his gaze. "You boarded the train illegally!" 

"Only because I was late to the station," Ezra said amiably.  He kept the box between himself and the men, putting his back to the open boxcar door so that they couldn't get in behind him.  He could feel the wind whip past his back.  "I would have purchased a ticket if I was able, but the train had already left.  What's a man to do?"  He shrugged.

The other man dropped to the floor as well, and both approached, weapons raised.

"Don't look like the type that aims to pay," the second man said – shorter and rounder than the first, he was nearly bald.  "Looks like a bum, a low life piece of scum.  A hobo!"

"A bum?"  Ezra echoed, feeling maligned.  "Hobo?  Surely, you jest."  And then he remembered his current state. 

"Smells like hell," the bald man added.  "Christ, what have you been rolling in?"

"Not good fortune, apparently," Ezra responded.  Quickly, he went on, "I will pay my ticket.  If you allow me?" he nodded to his pocket.  "I have the cash right here."  And Ezra's face fell as he realized that the pocket had been ripped out – his bankroll gone.

Damn it!  Why hadn't he secured the money in his boot?

"Right," said the short one.

"Don't move!" said the other.  "Get away from that box!"

Ezra puzzled, "How can I not move and yet move away from the box at the same time?  If you can explain that, I will do my best to comply."

"Don't act smart!" said the thin man.

"Again, I will try," Ezra responded, and muttered, "But it is hard for me to avoid that."

"Get away from that box!" the man repeated.

"But it's mine," Ezra said holding his smile and looking as innocent as possible.  "I can show you."   But as he picked it up, he remembered the name that JD had used.  "I'm Chris Larabee," he said with as much conviction as he could.

The thin man's face twisted.  "You ain't Chris Larabee," he accused.  "You ain’t nothin’ like him!"

"We know about Chris Larabee!" the portly one added, "He's a leader, someone a fella can look up to with pride.  Not like you."  Baldy shook his head, looking disgusted.  "You're just at penniless, no-account gambler who can't even afford to get his clothing cleaned and doesn't know when to duck when someone swings at him."

Ezra tried to keep up a pleasant-looking demeanor.

"What happened, Lucky?" the long-haired man stared, "You get in trouble at the tables back there in White Rock?  They rough you up and toss you out?  Serves you right."

"Folks of White Rock don't need trash like you," Baldy continued.  "Probably kicked you out of town quick as they could.  Can't be trusted!  Then, you thought you could jump our train and steal our freight?  It ain't going to happen.  We don't cotton to freeloading crap like you."

The other man muttered, "You ain't worth nothin'!"

Ezra opened his mouth to refute the accusations, but slammed it shut when the thin man shouted, "Keep your goddamn mouth shut!  You ain't got nothin' to say that anyone wants to hear."

Ezra raised his eyebrows in silent appeal.

"It's time you got off our train," the bald one said.

Ezra sighed.  "If I may?  As soon as we get to Happy Home, I'll be more than happy to comply."

"Get off," the bald one repeated.  "Now."

Ezra glanced over his shoulder at the scenery that screamed past the open door.  "I can hardly do so now.  Maybe if we stop for a crossing or…"

"Now," Baldy said again.

"How do you expect…?" Ezra tried to ask.

Skinny cut him off. "Get off the way you got on."

"But the horse, it's long gone." Ezra told them, trying to bargain, "I will leave immediately if we come to a place where we…"

"Shut the hell up, you stupid Reb bastard," Skinny barked.  "We're done with you.  Lou?" he said, glancing to his partner.

Lou gave a tight nod, and both men charged him at once.

Ezra, encumbered by the box, had no choice, no way to fight them, no defense.  He tried to steel himself, to resist, but they came at him as a team, well-planned, they'd done this before.  They slammed into him from two different angles.

Helpless, Ezra flew backward through the open boxcar door and into the tumbling world outside.


Time slowed as Ezra released the crate and tucked himself into a ball, ready for the brutal contact of earth – but instead, he flew.  He caught sight of trestle, trees and – water.

He hit the surface like a cannonball.  He shut his eyes and his mouth before he was enveloped, but there was no time to draw in a deep breath.  He plunged deep, and he let his body splay out to slow his progress.  Then, he started kicking.

The pressure of the water hurt his ears, and when he opened his one good eye underwater, the surface and the light seemed far above him.  His lungs burned.  He kicked harder, desperate to reach the air.

If nothing else, the cold water felt good on his aches.

He broke surface and sucked in a deep draught.  A river -- he was in a river.  He treaded water as he gazed up to the trestle.  Thank God it wasn't that tall – he'd fallen maybe 30 feet.  It felt like it was a lot further.

The train was gone.

"Lovely," he muttered and started swimming toward the shore before the river could carry him any further.

He staggered up the bank, feeling absolutely exhausted and beat to hell. He was soaking wet, cold, and he'd lost the train, his bankroll and the crate.  And it wasn't even a warm day – he shivered in the chill.

Hell and Damnation!

What was he supposed to do now?

But the crate had left the train with him.  He'd released it only after he'd been shoved out.  It had to be nearby.  He staggered along the bank of the river, searching, hoping. 

Unable to find it by the river's edge, he moved up to the level of the train track where he surveyed the area and checked out the trestle.


A glance to the river disheartened him.   When he plunged into the waterway, he hadn't touched bottom.  The river was deep.  If the crate had fallen into the water, he'd have a hell of a time bringing it back up.  It hadn't been floating near him, so most likely it was deep in the river.

He trudged to the water's edge.

With a groan, he sat down on the rocky bank, in the shade of a big oak, and pulled off his boots.  He tipped them, dumped out water.  Next, came his jacket – torn, sopping wet, but at least clean of manure and the stench– thank the Lord for small favors.

He frowned, finding his derringer rig empty. He'd lost his last weapon at some point, either in jumping on the train or falling off it.


He retrieved the watch from his waistcoat pocket, frowning at how it dripped.  He held it to his ear and sighed.  He gave it a shake, sending water flying.

Now he couldn't even know if he was on time or not.

Tired as hell and hurt, he drew up his knees.  He closed his eyes, and leaned back, resting back on his elbows. 

 Just need to relax for a moment, just a moment's peace….

Alright, stop stalling.  It's time to get back into that water.  Time to search the river bottom!  JD is counting on you!

With a sigh, he opened his eyes.

The crate almost winked at him – nestled directly above him, in the crook of the tree, on the same level as the trestle.

"Well," Ezra said with a sigh. "Here we go."


The tree was a son of a bitch!  Laden with thorny vines and loaded with diseased branches that cracked when weight was placed on them, Ezra barely survived the ordeal.

Scraped and scratched and cut and sore from half a dozen near-falls, Ezra finally touched earth, swearing to never venture into a tree again.

Shivering, he rubbed his arms fretfully and lamented the ruin of a perfectly good shirt – trousers – waistcoat and a good portion of his skin.

"Someone should burn this menace to the ground!" he growled and limped to the crate that lay in pieces near the trunk.

He swiped at the blood that dripped into his good eye as he dragged the remains of the crate out of the shadow of the horrible devil tree – and up to the level of the train track.  His shoulder still felt like hell.  His jaw still hurt.  His eye still ached.

Hell of a day.

He didn't know the exact time, but the return train was still hours away.  He had to wait, and that time could be put to use.

He easily pried off the shattered top of the crate and pulled out JD's blanket.  It had cushioned the contents remarkably well and it appeared that all was intact inside.  Even the snow globe had survived.

With a grateful sigh, Ezra spread the blanket and sat down on it.  He drew the rest of it up around his shoulders, and he finally stopped shaking.

He pulled the other items out of the way, careful to set the squirrel so that the rocking chair was upright.  When he found JD’s watch, he regarded it for a moment before he set it to the time that was on his drowned watch, adding what he felt was enough minutes to account for what had passed since he hit the water.

It would have to do.  He needed to make it back to Bernard on time.

Then, he pulled out the chest, and drew the key from his vest pocket – glad he hadn't lost it in the river.  He unlocked the chest and withdrew the puzzle box.

He quickly went through the motions needed to open it, familiar with the steps now, and slid back the lid to reveal the packet of letters within.

"What is your story?" he asked.  "What is so important?"

He undid the ribbon and picked up the first letter, ready to read it word by word in search of a clue.  But he thought again, and instead began his search through all the envelopes.

He'd missed something the first time and put JD in peril – but he wouldn't fail again.

As he paged through the contents – one thing caught his eye – one set of pages were different than the others.  The paper was coarser, the writing was rougher – more masculine – definitely written by a different hand.

Satisfied, Ezra set aside the other letters and opened the one set of pages that were different from all the others, and started to read:

"My Darling Claire:

If you are reading this, then something evil has befallen me.  You have received my letter telling you to await this parcel, and you remembered the secrets that I showed you about the clock and the puzzlebox.

I am sorry, my love, but I have done something horrible and deserve the bad that has come to me.  I wish I never had to tell you this tale but there are men that should be punished for their deeds.   Give this letter to the authorities and they'll see that these men get what's due them.

My love, I never meant to cause any harm to anyone.  It all just happened so fast.   Last month three men came to me and asked me about the stagecoach.  Sometimes I ride shotgun from Bernard to Gravel Lake and sometimes it carries a lot of money.  They had lots of questions for me.  I got curious and they told me if I kept quiet I'd get paid a lot of money.

All I had to do was get the stage to stop at a certain place along the route and then I was to make sure that those men did not get hurt.  I was to sit still and not shoot.  I didn't know that they were evil man.  I did like they asked, and did nothing as they gunned down everyone on the stage, even the women.  I will never forgive myself for not moving, for not stopping them.  It tears my heart to even write this.  I am a coward.

It wasn't about the money then, my darling.  I would have paid anything to make them stop.  I was scared.   I was scared about what they'd do to me.  I am not a man worthy of your love.

I know I will hang with them when this comes to light, but I fear I will not live that long.  I have to make them pay.  Each person took a little money from the robbery and put the rest away until the trouble blows over.  There is a lot of money, my darling.  I took all that was hidden and I put it elsewhere, where those men will never find it.  Those devils will earn nothing from their deeds.

The money is at the old farm where we dallied before you went away to care for your Auntie.  Do you remember the windmill?  The tower is all that is left of it now.  The old house has burned, but you should remember where to find it.  There is a cave that was used as a cellar, just north of that old mill.  You can find it all there.

The men who did this are as follows:  Marvin Harris, Joe Darrow and Gareth Fulshear.  They all did the killing at that stagecoach and I'm afraid they have done more before.  I am afraid about what they'll do me when they find that the money is gone, but I can't let them prosper.

I cannot tell our local law because I believe that Sheriff Wardlow is also involved in these bad dealings.  He is the one that told them to talk to me, and some of the money was put aside with his name.

I have no one to turn to.

Do not feel sorry for me, my love, for I am a coward and deserve what comes to me.  You deserve better.   Please keep your letters to me as a remembrance that you once loved me, that I was once a good man.  Give this note to a good and honest man who will do what is right.

I love you forever,

Ezra did nothing immediately when he finished the letter.  He sat beneath the blanket under the leaden sky and thought about what he'd just read.  No wonder those men wanted to find this letter.  He had their names.  Now, he just had to get the information to a good and honest man who could do something about it.

Marvin Harris, Joe Darrow and Gareth Fulshear must have intercepted the note that Liam Dunkirk had originally sent to Claire Monroe, must have found the notation that said certain items were to be shipped to his sweetie.

Somehow the shipment never occurred.  Sheriff Wardlow might have had something to do with that.

Ezra sniffled, feeling tired, and cold and sore and battered and wet and miserable.  The returning train was still hours away and he'd have to run it down when it came – if he could.  It would be his luck that Skinny and Baldy would be on the return run.  He had no money and was even more pathetic looking than before.

He blew out a breath.  Well, he'd just have to deal with that when the time came.  He had a bad feeling that Harris, Darrow and Fulshear wouldn't wait long, these men were quite capable of doing whatever it took to get what they wanted – and they had JD.

And the local sheriff was in their pocket.

The wait was going to take forever and the timing was too close for him to feel comfortable.  There had to be another way, and he scanned the distance as if something might suddenly appear to help him.

Providence provided.  Something moved, coming parallel to the river.  Ezra squinted, trying to make out what it might be.  Not a horse, but somewhat the same size.  He could spot a rider, sitting high.  But the animal perplexed him.

Definitely not a horse.  Its movements were all wrong.  It was entirely the incorrect shape.

He stood, keeping the blanket wrapped around him as he stared out at the approaching vision, and then he shook his head sharply as it came clear.

An apparition, a hallucination, a mirage.


The shape stopped, and the rider looked toward him, apparently drawn by the colorful blanket.  Ezra raised an arm, drawing the blanket with it, fanning out the cloth like a flag.  The distant shape suddenly lurched toward him, moving faster.

Ezra dropped his arm, pulling the blanket close as he watched it come nearer.

Can't be!

He kept his gaze narrow as he tried to dissuade himself of the possibility that a camel – a dromedary camel -- was suddenly galloping toward him across the desert territory of the southwest United States.

onto the second half

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