DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. Profit...don't get me started on profit. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven" . No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
RATING: PG-13 for Language and Violence 
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thank you to KellyA for her beta skills and comments. Kristin provided the name of Chaucer for Ezra's horse. I borrowed the names of the other horses from Eleanor T.
SUMMARY: What's the story about? Why, it's about a ledger!
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated. Drop a line and let me know if you like it.
SPOILERS: "Sins of the Past"; "Serpents" and my own story, Down the Amazon - you should read Amazon first...
DATE: Finished August 28, 2000.  Latest 'revision' June 23, 2005

The Ledger
The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic - 

By NotTasha... who's a little short on cash this week... I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a... nevermind

Part 1:


Buck and Vin heaved the stack of lumber to their shoulders and stood, taking a moment to catch their balance before heading back toward the partially rebuilt house. The day was growing cooler and the two men hurried to complete the work before the sky made good with its threat of rain. The Widow Parker was expecting a complete roof and a repaired porch by the time she returned with her children.

A recent hailstorm had nearly torn the house to pieces. She had taken her family to stay with her mother, but without a man to rebuild the roof, she had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help her. Luckily, the lawmen of Four Corners were always ready to help a woman in need.

"Watch out for the debris," Ezra drawled as Tanner and Wilmington passed his position under the shade tree. Standish sat on a nail keg, with his back against the trunk and his hat pulled down over his eyes. Whether he actually saw them or the cited debris was negotiable.

"Seen it," Vin said.

"Helpful bastard, ain't cha," Buck chuckled as he followed Vin with the wood. They tossed the stack down on the nearly repaired porch and Vin cut away the twine that bound the boards together.

"So you were tellin' us about the Bluebird..." Vin prompted.

"Ah yes, the Bluebird, a wonderful little tavern in Baton Rouge," Ezra said with a heartfelt sigh. "An establishment that anyone would be proud to own. It was the center of activity in that part of town and always patronized by a charming collection of local characters." He paused and smiled wistfully. "There was this rather formidable man by the name of Bernard Unger. Now, Mr. Unger was capable of eating a dozen pickled eggs without a pause -- hardly touched his teeth to them. He made it look as if he swallowed them entire. A disgusting scene to be sure, but it did garner both of us a little ready cash. There was always someone willin' to bet that Mr. Unger couldn't perform the task within the stipulated timeframe." 

Vin and Buck both made faces at the thought as they stacked the wood against the porch. "Gawd, Ezra," Buck remarked. "That can't be good for a man."

Ezra tilted his head enough to see them. "And it wasn't. Poor Mr. Unger nearly choked to death one night after his third performance." He smiled again, showing his gold tooth. "As luck would have it, I bet against Mr. Unger on that occasion and made a sizeable profit. I understand that he recovered well enough, but can no longer stomach pickled eggs. He has moved on to live fish I believe."

Both men laughed and Ezra continued, "Then of course there was Mr. Emil Bodreau and his fabulous flatulence."

"Flatulence?" Vin asked.

Ezra raised an eyebrow and Buck supplied, "Farting, Vin, farting."

"Fabulous farting?" Vin said in disbelief.

Ezra raised his flask to them and continued, "I kid you not. He could imitate a locomotive, any barnyard animal you chose to mention and could perform half-a-dozen songs. And he did so...how shall I say... rectally. Of course Miss Monique, the proprietress of the Bluebird, wouldn't allow the exhibition within her establishment and you may well guess the reason. You may be assured that I did not attend the performances. Mr. Bodreau worked the audience in a small courtyard near the livery."

Vin lifted his chin and asked, "So how'd ya know he really done it? I mean, if you say you never actually seen it."

Ezra waved his hand before his face. "Sometimes the wind shifted."

Buck chuckled. "That's a show I wouldn't want to be downwind of. And it's a damn good thing that this Emil guy wasn't the same one who was eating all those eggs!"

"Good Lord, yes!" Ezra agreed emphatically as Vin winced at the thought.

Buck looked up to the incomplete roof and then back to Vin. "Well, pard, I 'spect we should give up on the porch for now and get back to the roof before the rain starts up. Where do you 'spect that ladder went off to?"

"Seen it out behind the barn," Vin replied. He looked up when something caught his eye, and saw a horseman approaching. Tanner could tell immediately that it was Nathan; the healer's pace was unhurried, letting the tracker know that nothing was amiss.

Tanner waved broadly to the approaching man before slapping Buck on the shoulder. "Let's get that ladder and we can make Nate get up on that roof."

Ezra raised his flask again to the departing men and settled back against the rather comfortable tree-trunk. He watched from under the brim of his hat as Nathan approached. The healer slowed and looked around, finally spotting Ezra beneath the tree.

"Where did Buck and Vin get off to?" Nathan asked as he drew near.

"Good day, Mr. Jackson. They went in search of Mrs. Parker's ladder," Ezra replied.

"I see you're makin' yerself as useful as usual," Nathan remarked, unable to keep the sound of reproach from his voice.

Ezra just smiled pleasantly. "I'm supervising the activities; ensuring that the roof is replaced in an aesthetically pleasing manner."

"Sittin' on your ass and doing nothin' while others work, is what you mean to say," Nathan berated. He held up a hand before Ezra could reply. "I know... I know... you don't stoop to menial labor or some such nonsense."

Jackson dismounted with a sigh. "I don't even know why you came on out here, seein' as how you don't do a lick of work." Nathan did try to understand the southerner, but there were times when the gambler's behavior was just too much for him. They were all working hard to complete the repairs on the house before the widow's return. They didn't need someone sitting around 'supervising'; they needed someone who could actually pull his weight.

Ezra hadn't responded, so Nathan continued, "I swear, Ezra, I don't know how a person could be less helpful than you. You'd do more good back in town. Hell, even if you were just gonna sit at the poker table all day, you'd be doin' more good than you are here. Even if you were just cheatin' the poor folk, you could at least keep an eye on things -- make sure no one's stealin' any whiskey." The healer didn't really know why he let these words tumble out as they did. He was tired, having tended to three people that day with various illnesses before heading out to the widow's. He had been working all day long, and it appeared that Ezra hadn't even lifted a finger. Jackson hadn't seen Ezra do much of anything for the past week beyond sleeping in late and visiting with his mother.

Ezra stood slowly and brushed off his coat. "You make an excellent point, Mr. Jackson," he said evenly. "You are quite right in your statement that I would do more good at the poker tables. I would stand a better chance at profit, that's certain." He settled his hat and said, "I will bid you adieu."

The gambler sauntered over to where the horses had been tied beneath another tree and, after giving Chaucer a gentle pat and tightening the cinch, he mounted and was off.

"Hey, Nate," Buck said as he rounded the barn with the front of the ladder. Vin followed several paces behind with the end.  An angry chicken had made her nest in it and it had taken several minutes of coaxing to free the ladder from her new home.  "Ya feel like hammerin' in some shingles? I'm sure you've gotten plenty of practice over at the church."

Vin frowned. "Where's Ezra off to?" He could see the gambler riding away at a good clip, back toward Four Corners. "Somethin' come up?"

Nathan made a gesture of disgust. "Oh, he figured out he wasn't makin' any money by hanging out here and watching you all work."

Vin set down his end of the ladder. "That ain't right..." he said, half to himself. It wasn't like Ezra to leave without saying goodbye at least. Tanner looked back toward Nathan who was examining the work that had been completed so far that day.

"Nate," Vin said after a moment. "What you say to 'im?"

Nathan didn't turn as he continued his appraisal. "Hell, nothin' he doesn't know already.  Everyone else is pitchin' in to fix up this place and what does he do but sit around doin' nothin'."

Buck sighed. "You don't think we invited 'im to come with us thinkin' he'd be doin' any of the labor, do ya? I mean, we're not idiots; we know better than that. Hell, he was on patrol all night."

Nathan turned from the porch when Buck said this. He watched as Vin called after the departing man, but Standish didn't turn, and he soon was out of range.

"Dang it, Nate," Vin grumbled. "Why'd you have to go and do that for?

"I... I didn't mean anything by it," Nathan responded, a little confused by the reaction of the two.

"Jeez, Nate," Buck said. "We just wanted to get 'im out of town for a while. He wasn't doin' no harm out here anyway."

Vin saw Nathan's puzzled look and explained, "He's been kinda wound up since his Ma came through."

Nathan nodded. Yes, Ezra's mother could have that effect on anyone. It seemed that every time the woman breezed through town, it took Ezra a few days to find his feet again. "She's quite a disturbance, isn't she?" Nathan commented. "I'm surprised he hasn't learned how to handle it by now."

Vin lowered his voice as if someone else were able to hear them at this lonely spot. "I kinda eavesdropped on 'em the other night. Dinnent mean to, but they were too close to ignore." Vin looked around suspiciously and continued, "They were doin' sums."

"Doin' sums?" Nathan asked, not understanding.

"Tryin' to figure out who owed who," Buck supplied. He hadn't been privy to the conversation, but had heard about it from Vin.

"Oh," Nathan responded. "Well that figures. I'm sure they keep pretty tight books on that sort of thing. Probably the topic for a lot of their conversations."

Vin looked away and said, "Nah, it wasn't like that. It started off with 'im braggin' about how much money he was able to make for her as a kid --pullin' scams and all -- and she was comin' back with how much she had to spend on 'im. You know, for housin' and feedin' 'im, transportin' 'im around, doctorin', stuff like that."

"Wait a minute..." Nathan cut in. "She was bringin' up the money she spent raisin' him?"

"Yeah," Vin replied. "The two of them were throwin' numbers back and forth like they carried a ledger in their heads for all of that."

Vin sighed, remembering the conversation. Tanner had retired to his wagon for the night when mother and son had ambled by. The two had come to a halt not far from Vin's home, and did their sums. It seemed that half the numbers Maude came up with had to do with carting young Ezra off somewhere, bribing some sort of relative or other to let him stay with them.

It had been a surprise to the tracker. Vin had always imagined Ezra spending his childhood at Maude's side, growing up in the light and excitement of the casinos across the south -- a life of wealth and privilege. He hadn't figured that young Standish had spent more time on trains and in someone's spare room.

Vin ran his hand along the brim of his hat, remembering what he had heard. Must'a been a damn lonely life, he thought. Tanner told no one about the bulk of the conversation, knowing that Ezra had kept quiet about his childhood and obviously didn't want anyone to know. Vin recalled the story Maude had told about Ezra and a dog, and now Tanner seriously wondered if a word of it was true.

Vin had felt rather self-conscious as he listened to the private conversation. If he had been able to, the tracker would have moved out of range, but he’d been trapped in the wagon and it was obvious that neither Ezra nor his mother had known of his presence within.

Finally the tracker said, "Ended up with Ezra owin' her some $400. He gave her $150 on the spot and told her he'd get her the rest."

"She took it?" Nathan asked, incredulous.

"Oh, she made to refuse it, but took it anyway," Vin replied. He looked back in the direction that Ezra had departed.

It had been a very even-keeled and sophisticated conversation. Anyone watching would have thought they were discussing the weather. Anyone who didn't know the gambler better would have thought he was unaffected by the content of the talk.

Vin had grown used to the urbane southerner. Standish had a talent for hiding his feelings, but Tanner could tell that Ezra was no where near as cold and calculated as he pretended. During that conversation, which Vin had observed through a slit in the canvas, the gambler's face had remained placid, but there had been a look of hurt in his eyes.

The tracker could understand why the con man worked so hard at keeping people at bay. Let them know you and they can learn to see through you...can start to understand what you're feeling and then the con is over. If you never let anyone close, then they can't call you on a scam. Hell, Vin wondered if Ezra had ever had a chance in his life to let someone get near him.

Vin also was familiar enough with Maude to see an awful delight in her manner, as if she gained some pleasure in the matter. The money involved seemed to be only icing on the cake to her. Rather, she appeared to enjoy poking holes in her son's facade. In fact, she seemed disappointed in him when he owned up and paid her the money. But just the same -- she took it.

Tanner turned back toward the house. It would be raining again soon. If they didn't finish the roof before the weather worsened, then all of their work would have been for nothing. He sighed as he picked up the hammer. He wanted to finish quickly so he could catch up to Ezra in town...maybe buy the gambler a drink if Standish wasn't already drunk by that time.

Part 2:

Ezra kept his horse moving toward Four Corners. He didn't blame Nathan for what had been said. The healer had spoken nothing but the truth, of course. There was no disputing the fact that it was pointless to remain at the widow's house. Nathan couldn't be faulted for pointing out the obvious.

Ezra was always quick to notice when his welcome had been worn out and knew when it was best to leave. He had been enjoying himself up until then, but Nathan had made it all too clear that the time had come to depart. Truly, Ezra had been doing nothing to assist his friends and his leaving would affect nothing. He wouldn't be missed in any case.

That was nothing new. The con man had spent most of his life with this realization, that he wouldn't be missed upon his departure. He hardly seemed to be welcome anywhere. Nearly every relative that he had been dumped upon was delighted to see his backside when Maude finally came by to claim him. He was chased out of more towns than he cared to mention. He doubted if anyone, anywhere, ever pondered about him -- with the exception of those that wanted him imprisoned or dead. Well, he thought, there were a few good ones… a few.

Standish remembered the dozen or so houses he had grown up in, few could be called a 'home.' Then there had been countless boardinghouses, saloons and hotels -- simply 'places to live' for a time. He would remain until he'd worn out his welcome, and then travel onward.

As he continued toward Four Corners, Ezra recalled the conversation that he'd had with his mother and pulled his hat down tighter on his head. He would have to come up with the remaining $250 soon and wipe out that debt. It wouldn't do to have it hanging over him as an easy target for Maude. The problem was that the $150 he had given her was everything he had. His latest trip to the haberdasher had seriously cut into his savings. The $150 was meant to tide him over until his next big win at the tables. Now, he had to wait until 'payday' and be happy to receive $7 measly dollars for a week of work. How did he allow himself to get into such a situation?

He looked up at the sky that was as dark as his mood. It would be raining soon. A cold wind cut through the open space and Ezra pulled his jacket close to himself and shivered.  Lord, he hated the cold.   He adjusted his path to avoid a knot of cattle that blocked his path. A steer with lop-sided horns lowed at him as he passed.

He thought that he'd found a place to live in Four Corners, a place where his welcome might remain open for a spell. Of course, every time he really started believing this, something always happened to remind him otherwise.

The Standish Tavern was a shining example. He had spent everything he'd saved, had gone into debt, to become the owner of his dream. He'd pictured a saloon filled with the townspeople that he protected -- all of them happy to patronize the business of one of the Seven. He'd imagined his friends at the tables --relaxing and enjoying themselves, making the Standish their favorite haunt, only too glad to spend money at their friend's establishment.

Instead, he'd been left with an empty space. The citizens of Four Corners, for whom he had risked his life to protect, didn't even see fit to purchase a penny drink from him. The friends, with whom he worked side-by-side, didn't even bother to step into the saloon; they chose the glittering palace that his mother had created.

Well, what do you expect? Ezra thought as he continued homeward. The tavern wasn't even in the family any longer. His mother had sold it at the first opportunity. He no longer dreamed of owning a saloon of his own... at least not in this town. He had already seen where that would lead. It was, of course, his own fault. If he had been a better manager, he may have made it work...if he had only been able to garner some affinity among the townspeople, they may have seen fit to patronize his tavern. He'd learned from this endeavor that he was a poor manager and that the people of Four Corners didn't feel he deserved any acknowledgment.

Hell, he would have gone to his mother's casino as well, given the chance. Why would he have hung around a dung-heap of a tavern when he could have spent his time in a glittering jewel of a casino?

Then there was the business of the assassins’ $10,000. He sighed, remembering the lack of trust his co-workers had displayed to him in regard to that satchel of cash.  He remembered how their attitude had even driven off his own belief in himself. Maybe, he thought, maybe if just one person had shown any faith in me whatsoever... ah hell. They had every right to behave as they had.  

It all goes back to that gold mine, he thought, yes, that damn gold mine at the Seminole village. It all goes back to money and your own damn greed. It was money that made you run out on them that time, and it was lack of money -- nobody feeling it was worthwhile to spend it in YOUR tavern -- nobody believing that YOU were worth investing in -- nobody believing that YOU could be trusted with a large sum of cash. Your own damn fault -- all of it.

Money was at the root of it...the root of all evil, isn't it?

Why the hell was he hanging around this dung-heap of a town when he could have a glittering-jewel of a city?

Ezra sighed again and Chaucer pulled to a stop. The horse switched his tail and waited for further instruction. The gambler looked off to the east and said, "Perhaps it's time to leave, Chaucer -- to put this place behind us. It seems that what we sought is not to be found in Four Corners. Perhaps a new town and a new start would be better for us. Perhaps we might find a place without such ghosts, where we might be able to succeed in our endeavors. A larger city may be more to our liking."

Chaucer waited, listening to his owner's voice.

Ezra shook his head, remembering Larabee's words -- never run out on me again. No, Ezra thought, he wouldn't run out. He had a job now. He couldn't just go -- not now, especially since he was scheduled for night patrol again tonight.

The gambler laughed, realizing how ridiculous it all was. He was worried that his shift would go unwatched -- that the town would go unguarded or that Larabee would be upset that he had gone missing from his duty. Meanwhile, the citizens of the town trusted him no farther than they could spit, treated him like a thief...or worse yet...like a nobody.

Hell, he didn't have any cash reserves anyway. He was stuck.

Just head home...home. Ezra turned the word around in his head, thinking of Four Corners. Up until now, home had been whatever saloon he had managed to plant himself in. Four Corners, for better or worse, had become a home to him. He honestly liked it there, in spite of its dust and lack of some of the simplest comforts. The six men that he consorted with were the closest thing to a family that he had known for a long time.

"You're being silly again, Ezra," he said to himself. "Allowing self-pity to cloud your judgement. You have nothing to feel pitiful about. You have the most skilled hands in the territory and a somewhat respected position in a decent enough town. You work with a fine collection of men -- the finest you've ever known. You see, you let your thoughts run away with you and it leads you nowhere."

He murmured to his mount and Chaucer once again started toward Four Corners. "It's all right," Ezra said to the chestnut. "It doesn't matter all in all. I suppose I've grown used to them and shall stay for a while yet. Whether or not they shall ever think of me as anything beyond their first impression is unimportant. I can live with that. I have lived that way all of my life so it's not as if it's unfamiliar to me."

He turned his head sharply at the sound of gunfire. Somewhere to the east he could hear the shots, coming one after the other. He drew his weapon and looked back toward the Widow Parker's house. It would take too long to get back to the others. Continuing on toward Four Corners wouldn’t be any quicker.

"No time to search for assistance," Ezra said to his horse. "We shall inspect this on our own."

Part 3:

The gambler moved along quickly, yet cautiously toward the rocky escarpment named Kotter's Ridge. A pair of hogbacks created a bowl-like formation -- a good place to camp if it weren't for the threat of ambush.

Ezra approached judiciously, choosing a roundabout path instead of the obvious road running through the middle of the Ridge. The shooting had stopped, but he could hear voices. He dismounted when he reached a place along the outside wall where Chaucer would not be seen. He rested his hand for a moment on the horse's neck and willed him into silence -- wordlessly instructing him to stay put -- before he carefully scaled the rocky walls that created Kotter's Ridge.

Standish crouched behind a parapet-like stone and peered over the top of the rocky walls. His face darkened as he saw the sight before him. Men and horses lay scattered and motionless. A man was sprawled beneath his horse -- a beautiful white mare with her throat all stained with blood. Not far away, a boy -- no more than thirteen -- lay as if he had fallen asleep. He seemed untouched, but as unmoving as a discarded doll. Another man, some distance from Ezra's position, had been shot full in the face, taking off most of his head. A fourth man lay on his stomach in a pool of blood, his roan slaughtered beside him.

Among the dead wandered six men. They were drinking and laughing. One carried a whiskey bottle and was taking a deep pull. Ezra recognized him as Alan Henkle. Vern Dixon jerked the bottle away from Alan and taunted him with it before taking a drink himself.

The two of them, plus Pete Cummings -- who was examining the man with the roan horse -- would come into the saloon from time to time and would seek Ezra out at the poker tables. They were often flush with cash and Standish had enjoyed relieving them of it. Ezra did not recognize the other three men.

One of the unknown men was rifling through the pockets of the faceless man, making sounds of disgust at the meager contents. He withdrew a packet of tobacco from the dead-man's coat and pocketed it.

"Any sign of it, Phonse?" a large man with graying-black hair asked as he picked his teeth.

"Nah, Dean," Alphonse replied, patting the stowed tobacco. "And hardly anythin' worth lootin' off of 'em either. Ya get anything worthwhile, Pete?"

"Nothin' yet, Mr. Gibraltar. It's here somewhere," Pete said as he kicked at the man on his stomach. Cummings rolled him over with his foot and then used the toe of his boot to pull back the dead man's blood-soaked jacket.

"Vern, Alan," Dean said to two of the men with the whiskey. "Make yourselves useful and check the horses for it."

Ezra eyed the animals. Six of them had the same distinctive brand, the symbol for infinity, split with an arrow -- the Split Infinity Ranch. Vin had pointed the brand out to Ezra that very morning as they headed through the old Vaughn Spread to reach the widow's house.

They had come across a scattered group of cattle as they traveled. Vin had been going on about how the neighboring ranchers had been using the abandoned property to graze their own herds and how the Split Infinity seemed to be the worst of the perpetrators.

Ezra had then tried to explain first 'infinity' and then the play on words with 'split infinitive.'  No matter how hard he'd tried, Ezra couldn't quite get the two to truly understand the concept of split infinitive.

"Adverbs, verbs, infinitives, grammatical units...it's all a lot of hogwash," Buck had grumbled. "Long as you can understand what someone is sayin,' it makes no sense ta greatly complicate it, Ezra."

"Yeah," Vin had agreed. "All that stuff is just ta overly confuse a man."

Ezra had thrown up his hands in exasperation, not knowing if the two were kidding him or not. And now he was looking at that same brand again. At least he knew where some of these men had come from. The other horses bore a brand he didn't recognize... a tipped-lower case G. The horses were all ranch animals, belonging to two distinct establishments... and the riders from the G, were obviously the losers in this altercation.

Alan and Vern headed toward one of the two loose horses with the G brand-- and then Ezra saw something move out of the corner of his eye. The boy, who had lain as still as death, cautiously rolled onto his stomach and then crawled toward the dead man with the white mare.

Ezra watched in fascination as the boy approached the lifeless pair. The boy looked furtively over his shoulder as he edged forward, finally crawling to the horse's belly and reaching over it to unbuckle one of the saddlebags. The boy reached in until he clasped a large, thin book, bound in red leather.

Why was that book -- a ledger of some sort -- so important that the boy would risk his life to retrieve it? Ezra thought. How could a ledger be of that much value? Stupid boy, he should be high-tailing it out of sight instead of risking his life for a list of sums.

Ezra pulled his attention from the boy. His eyes scanned the six men. Vern and Alan had caught a horse and were going through its saddlebags. Phonse and Pete were still rifling through the pockets of the dead. Dean was watching his men. It was the sixth man who looked toward the mare.

"Goddamn it!" the sixth man shouted and brought up his pistol to finish off the boy.

Ezra shot down the sixth man before he could complete his murderous task. The sound of the shot resounded in the close confines of the Ridge, freezing everyone except for the sixth man, who fell in a heap.

Bastard, Ezra thought, how dare he try to shoot that child in the back. His next thought was, what the hell am I doing? as he saw the other five men go for their weapons. It took them only a second to begin firing on his position.

Ezra ducked down behind the rocks as the bullets took out chips and shards of stone all around him. He came up a few feet to the left to provide cover for the boy. The kid was running toward a fat horse that stood nearby. The grey reared nervously at the gunfire and tried to run, but the boy had grabbed its reins.

The other five men were oblivious of the fact that the boy was escaping. Their attention was on the man in the plum-colored coat.

Ezra fired again, catching Phonse in the thigh. The man collapsed as the blood pumped furiously from his leg. For a second, the fountain of red that erupted from the downed man startled Ezra. He had certainly hit an artery on Alphonse Gibraltar -- the man would not last long. Distracted, Ezra was struck. An explosion of pain ripped through his right arm, spinning Ezra back into the rocks.

Damned stupid fool, Ezra berated himself. He gasped against the pain as his Remington skittered away and plummeted to the surface below him. The bullet had struck him just above the elbow and hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. The right sleeve of his jacket began turning dark.

Ezra blinked, grabbing hold of the smarting arm, quickly trying to access the injury. The bullet appeared to have gone through, tearing through the arm. Shit, that hurts! Oh Lord!

He winced as he tried to apply pressure, but quickly abandoned that task. There was no time for this sort of nonsense. He wiped his bloody hand over his jacket, regretting the fact that he was only adding to his cleaning bill.

The gunfire continued as the cardsharp hunched behind the rocks. He knew he couldn't stay in hiding. That boy was still out there, and hell, those men would be coming up here any minute to try and force him out. Ezra hooked his Colt Richards Conversion out of his shoulder harness, having to flip the backward-facing gun into his left hand, and returned to the fight.

The boy had calmed the grey and mounted. He was looking back with his mouth agape, seemingly unable to take in what was happening. Loose horses were bolting about the area, finding their way out of the confined Ridge.

Get out of here, ignoramus, Ezra thought as he fired again at the men below.

Vern fell next and then Alan. Phonse was curled up in a ball, clutching at his bleeding leg while Pete and Dean fired upward.

Ezra ducked again behind the rocks, glaring at the blood that flowed down his arm. He couldn't give up his grip on the gun to attend to the wound and the arm felt like it was on fire. Can't stop now, he thought. Only two men left, but I'm going to have to reload soon.

Standish edged back out of his cover in time to see Pete turn toward the departing youth. "Get back here, you son-of-a-bitch!" Pete yelled and aimed at the boy's back.

Ezra stepped clear of the rocks to take a bead at Pete. He moved only far enough to make the shot, but it was enough. Dean fired. The bullet hit Ezra in the side; he twisted against the force of it. His own shot went wild. His feet missed their footing and he followed the path of his Remington, falling the dozen feet to the ground below.

Standish gasped at the pain of impacting the stone floor of Kotter's Ridge. He felt the definite snap of bone as he landed on his left side and he lost his grip on the Colt. His perspective was suddenly and horribly altered. Instead of being above the men, he was now beneath them, looking up from ground level.

He heard the sound of the departing horse and Pete firing after it, swearing and apparently missing his mark.

Dean approached the fallen gambler until he was standing directly over him. "Who the hell are you?" the man demanded.

Ezra blinked up at him, surprised that he was still conscious at all.

His whole body seemed a mass of agony. His left arm was useless, broken without a doubt. Ribs had snapped in the fall -- hurt to breathe. Shot in the side and the arm...Oh dear Lord, it hurt.

He looked in the direction that the boy had departed. The fat grey had galloped out of sight, hidden now by the rocks that formed Kotter's Ridge.

Pete Cummings was hastily binding Alphonse's bleeding leg. "Finish 'im, Mr. Hunger," Pete growled. "We gotta get that boy."

Dean Hunger kicked Ezra, striking his broken arm. Ezra gasped as the excruciating pain bolted through him. Hunger smiled and did it again, moving his booted foot deliberately this time and feeling the odd way the bones moved to the pressure.

Ezra cried out and tried to grab hold of Hunger's foot, but neither of his arms was obeying his commands. Desperately, he kicked out at his tormenter, but Hunger was able to quickly step out of the way.

"Mr. Hunger!" Pete insisted as Alphonse moaned loudly.

Hunger frowned, upset that he couldn't keep up his game. He raised his pistol, aiming it at Standish's head. "Tell me who the hell you are," Dean demanded.

Ezra regarded him with defiance. "Nobody," he replied.

"You killed my men, you fuckin' nobody!" Dean glared at the man at his feet and then looked around the enclosed space at the bodies that lay strewn about. He turned to Alphonse as Pete shoved him into the saddle. Alphonse groaned and clutched at the saddle horn. The hastily applied bandage was already red with blood.

"Damn nobody, killin' would be too good for you," Dean muttered. "Have you any idea how much you just cost me?"

Dean changed his aim and fired the bullet into the nobody's leg, before turning to catch his own horse and heading off after the boy.

Part 4:

Ezra bit back the cry of pain as the third bullet hit him. He felt a blackness reach for him, but he fought against it and saw the three men mount up and head off after the boy.

He tried in vain to reach his Colt that lay just out of reach. His left arm would not work at all and pain tore at him if he tried to move the right. He tried to activate the derringer mechanism, but his arm was not cooperating. He couldn't remember if he still had the derringer anyway -- probably lost it when he was shot the first time. He could only lay quietly and watch the men depart.

What the hell were you thinking, Ezra? the gambler thought to himself as he watched the blood soak into his new plum jacket. It cost you plenty, this jacket. The wool was imported from Scotland, dyed and woven somewhere in England. The fabric came across the Atlantic in a great ship. An experienced seamstress in New York cut and sewed the fine wool into a jacket and then a tailor in Eagle Bend fit it to your specific measurements. Cost you a packet and look what you've done with it.

Oh, Ezra, as far as you know, that boy and his friends were bandits and you just attacked a posse of lawmen. If you survive this, you'll be incarcerated for certain. If you make it through this, they'll throw the book at you. No pardon this time. You'll be a destitute old man if you're ever released. No, they'll probably hang you. If someone finds you in time... if... 

Hell, Ezra, you should know better than that. If I were to lay odds on your survival...well, you must remember I do abhor gambling and thus leave nothing to chance. I would not take those odds.

He blinked, trying to clear his vision. Lord, his arm hurt. He tried to roll over onto his back, but he was pitched too far forward and he just couldn't find enough strength.

He watched the blood run along his wrist and down his right hand until the unhurried stream reached his fingers and dripped to the sandy earth beneath them. Soon the soil was red beneath his hand. At least he wasn't bleeding too badly, he thought, remembering the injury that Alphonse had incurred. Ezra breathed in slowly, painfully, it would make little difference in the long run -- fast or slow, the blood would eventually run out of him.

Dean Hunger, he thought, recalling the name. Hunger is the owner of the Split Infinity, isn't he? Ezra shuddered, the movement causing more pain. He waited until it was over -- breathing in shallow gasps -- Oh, God.

Don't know whether I should be grateful or not that he spared my life, he thought. Ezra moved his head to try to see the damage caused by the bullet to his leg. His trousers were becoming as dark as his jacket. He would have to replace the whole outfit. A damnable shame, really, as he was rather fond of the jacket. At least, he thought, it's not my red one.

He managed to move his right arm until he reached the wound on his side and tried to apply pressure to it. He gasped and almost blacked out. This was not good. Yes, Hunger did spare my life, for a few minutes maybe, an hour or two on the outside... bastard.

He wondered how long it would take for the others to miss him. It might be a couple of days. There was no reason for anyone to suspect he was missing. They would simply assume that he was sleeping in late, wouldn't they? No... no...he was supposed to be on patrol tonight. Larabee would be looking for him.

Hell, Mr. Larabee will probably think I finally ran out on him. Ezra sighed. A tremor passed through him again and he waited, panting and gritting his teeth against it.

Larabee always expected it. Well, now it's come to pass. They'll never find me here. Why should any of them want to come to Kotter's Ridge? Not a one of them, not even JD, would be vapid enough to come to this death-trap. I'll be food for the vultures and the carrion crows.

Never expected to die like this. Always thought it would be in some saloon or some dark alleyway. At least, if it had happened there, Larabee couldn't say that I ran out on him. It would have been better that way. Then, Larabee would have simply said, "Standish got what he deserved"...instead of "Standish ran out like the coward I always knew he'd be." 

So where am I? Not in some fashionable casino, not a fine saloon or even a dung-heap of a tavern. Here I am...in the middle of nowhere...dying for something I don't even understand...for nothing...for some stupid book...alone...

Ezra startled when he felt something touch his face. He blinked again, looking upward at the dark clouds. The raindrops pattered against his face.

Typical, he thought.

Part 5:

Vin kept Peso at a quick gait has he headed toward home. He had left the Widow Parker's house as soon as he was sure that Buck and Nathan could complete the work without him.

Tanner wanted to catch up with Ezra in town, even though he wasn't sure what he'd do once he found the gambler. He never really knew how to talk to Ezra; the man kept his cards so close to his vest, it was a wonder he could play them at all. What the hell, Tanner thought, I don't have to talk too much. Maybe I could just keep him company for a while. 

Vin chuckled. He really had no idea what to do when he was with Ezra. The gambler always talked so far over Vin's head that the tracker could hardly understand a word he said. Standish had no interest in any of the things that Tanner enjoyed and visa-versa. They were different breeds of men... one cut from linen and silk... the other from homespun and buckskin... still...they seemed to get along well enough for the most part.

They were friends, and Vin was glad of it. Tanner shook his head, remembering a conversation that he'd had once with Standish in regard to friendship. He hoped that Ezra counted him as a friend finally.

Vin followed the tracks that Chaucer had left, noting that although Ezra had left the Parker residence at a good clip, he had slowed considerably once he was out of sight of the others.

The tracker could read the mood of the rider from the tracks of the horse. Chaucer always seemed to reflect the frame of mind of his rider, and Tanner could see a certain aimless quality to the horse's stride. A cold rain started to fall, and Tanner pulled his coat close to his chin.

Vin felt badly about what had happened at the Parker's. It had taken a certain amount of work to get Ezra to come out to the widow's house. Ezra had just finished his night patrol and was in no mood to do anything outside of getting something to eat and going to bed.

But Buck had cajoled the gambler, telling him that he could just as easily nap at the widow's as in his room. "Hell," Wilmington had said, "It'll be quieter out at the Parker place than in town -- even with all our hammerin'. 'Sides, we need some breakfast, too. We'll go when we’re finished."

They had enjoyed a pleasant ride to the house. Vin had once again tried to explain something to Ezra that the gambler more-or-less ignored, and then Ezra started going on about some sort of split something-or-other that Vin couldn't get a handle on.

Vin nodded as Chaucer's path diverted around a small group of cattle that looked as if they hadn't moved in hours. A steer with lop-sided horns waggled its head and snorted as the tracker made his way past them.

Tanner respected Jackson, liked him a lot, and thought of him as a close friend. Vin could understand that a certain amount of the animosity that the healer carried toward the gambler was a deep-rooted emotion, having more to do with the southerner's arrogant accent than anything else. Of course, Ezra's sense of morality grated against Nathan's high-minded principles. And, undoubtedly, Ezra was a smart-ass. But Vin wished that Nathan would give Ezra an inch every now and again. Nathan always seemed to expect the worst out of the southerner and the fact that Ezra never explained his reasons, always led the healer to believe he was correct in all his assumptions. In fact, it seemed that Ezra played to these notions at times, for reasons that Vin could hardly understand.

Well, perhaps Tanner could understand it. He knew that Standish did his best to keep people at arm's length. It could simply be an old habit of a con man... or maybe it was something else. Maybe the reason that Ezra was so reluctant to form any close ties with anyone had less to do with the 'art of the con' and more to do with the fact that the gambler never had been given to chance to form such alliances before.

Maybe nobody had ever given him a chance.

Vin had approached Nathan more than once in regard to the healer's attitude toward the gambler, but Jackson was always able to point out the validity of his arguments, so there wasn't much the tracker could say on the matter.

Vin idly watched the trail left by Chaucer, reading indecision in the steps. "What cha thinkin' 'bout, Ez?" Vin muttered to himself. He was rather startled when the trail changed direction drastically.

Vin slowed his horse and examined where Ezra had obviously paused before heading east -- not just trying to get around another set of errant cows. Kotter's Ridge was in the distance -- beyond that was Clarkston and the whole damn country.

Chaucer's gait had picked up once he changed direction. "Where the hell are ya goin', Ez?" Vin asked the building wind. Even if Ezra suddenly came up with a reason to go to Clarkston, Vin realized that this was wrong. As much as the gambler grumbled and complained about it, Vin knew that Ezra took his duties to the town very seriously. Ezra was assigned to night patrol, and wouldn't abandon that responsibility on a whim. Hell, Standish wouldn't want to catch any of Larabee's wrath if nothing else.

Vin frowned as he turned Peso to follow Chaucer's path. Something was wrong...something was definitely wrong.

Part 6:

Marvin Carter kept his head down against the rain as he urged the overweight grey to keep up its furious pace. The horse panted at the exertion but continued as ordered. Marv turned his head and looked backward to see if his pursuers had gained on him, but they were still some distance behind. Lagging actually. That one with the bullet in his leg was probably holding them up.

The boy ran his hand along the tooled surface of the leather-bound book. He had jammed it into his belt, up against his stomach to protect it from the rain. He hoped to God that this was all worth it. Mr. Riley was dead for this dang ledger, and so were Karl and Reid, and that man in the purplish jacket. 

Marv thought about that man in the purple jacket as he kept his horse running at full gallop. Lucky thing, he thought. Where had he come from? The man had saved my life, that’s for sure, had kept the ledger from Mr. Dean Hunger, gave me a fighting chance to get it to the right people. 

Marv looked at the landscape that fled past him. Where the heck was he? Where the heck was Four Corners anyway? How was he to know? He wasn't supposed to be the one. He was just comin' along for the adventure. Some dang adventure.

The grey was gasping for breath now... stumbling and slowing. Ah dang, dang, dang, Marv thought as he stopped the horse. It hung its head as it fought for air. There was a rattle and a catch in the horse's breath and Marv quickly dismounted. "Sorry, Sally," he said, slapping the blown horse and bringing her to an awkward trot.  Marvin took off on foot toward a little stand of trees.

Sorry Mr. Riley, sorry Karl, sorry Reid, sorry man-in-the-purple-jacket, Marv thought as he ran. He looked toward the following men, trying to see if they changed their pace at all, but they continued steadily toward the grey horse, apparently unaware that it was now riderless. 

Marv ran for all he was worth, as the rain fell like a curtain around him. He splashed through puddles and fell and gained his feet again and ran. All the while, he held the ledger close to him. He'd be danged if Mr. Hunger was going to get his mitts on it again. No, Mr. Dean Hunger would pay. 

He leapt into the cover of the trees and looked again toward the riders. They were barely distinguishable through the falling rain, but it seemed that there were only two on horses now. They had stopped and were dismounting. Marv gasped for breath, trying to make out what was happening. What had happened to the third man? 

Marv wiped the wet hair out of his eyes and spied another stand of trees and took off toward it.

Part 7:

The rain was falling harder as Vin approached Kotter's Ridge. The trail left by the gambler's horse was still visible, but was gradually becoming obliterated. Tanner smiled when he saw that Ezra had changed course and didn't go straight through the Ridge, a place just begging for an ambush. He had pointed out this fact to Ezra some time ago, and Vin was glad to see some proof that the con man just might have been listening to him.

Tanner rounded the hogback and found a little niche, just big enough to shelter a horse, and discovered Chaucer. The horse was leaning into the rocks, doing his best to stay out of the rain. Chaucer nickered happily at the familiar horse and man. He tossed his head before leaning back into the cover, looking very uncomfortable about the weather.

Vin dismounted and approached Chaucer slowly, and patted the horse on the neck. "Where is he, huh?" Vin asked quietly. "Where'd your man go, huh, Chauce?" Chaucer nickered again, lipping Tanner's hand.

Tanner looked around, scanning the surrounding area to try and spot his friend. He didn't like this. Ezra was no where in sight. Chaucer shifted his weight and seemed agitated.

The tracker looked upward, knowing that Ezra must have climbed into the rocks. Standish had been obviously headed to the Ridge; he must have gone inside it. Vin could see a place here and there along the rocky surface that had been recently disturbed, but the quickly falling rain was doing its best to hide any trace of the gambler's passing. Vin started climbing.

It didn't take long to scale the outside wall of the Ridge. Tanner quickly reached the same perch were Ezra had once hidden himself, and carefully looked over the edge. "Ah, shit...shit...shit!" Vin muttered as he saw what was revealed in the bowl-like area beneath him. He slid, crawled, scrabbled, and jumped until he had reached the floor of Kotter's Ridge.

There were seven bodies scattered in the confined area, and one of them was Ezra.

"Ezra, Ezra?" Vin repeated as he ran the few steps to his friend's side. Ezra's eyes were shut and he didn't move at the sound of his name.

"Oh, God," Vin groaned. The gambler's clothing were soaked through with both blood and rain. Vin quickly assessed the injuries. It appeared that Ezra had been shot three times -- leg, arm and side. Damn!

"Ez, can you hear me, pard?" Vin asked as he gently rolled Ezra onto his back. His heart leapt as Ezra gasped at the movement. "You with me? Ez, you with me?"

Ezra opened his eyes and gazed glassily at the tracker. "Vin?" he asked quietly.

Crap! Vin thought, seeing the peculiar way that Ezra's arm was situated. Broken. "I'm here, Ez," Vin assured.

"Didn't run out," Ezra spoke softly, the rain hitting him on his too pale face as he blinked at Tanner.

"Never thought that, pard," Vin responded, meeting Ezra's unfocused glance. "Never." He moved until he was looming over the gambler, trying to keep some of the rain off of him. 

Ezra smiled and nodded his head before closing his eyes.

"No, you don't!" Vin commanded, lightly slapping Ezra's face. "You stay with me, ya hear?"

"Where could I go?" Ezra asked, able to put a note of sarcasm in the response.

Vin smiled. "Don't be such a smart-ass." Then he added, "Can you open your eyes again?"

Ezra's eyelids fluttered for a moment and then lifted, revealing his pain-filled eyes. "Raining..." Ezra commented softly.

"Yeah." Vin nodded.

"I don't care for it," Ezra said with a sigh.

"I know. I'm gonna getcha out of it. Just let me get ya fixed up, okay?"

Ezra shuddered. "Hunger."

Vin looked perplexed. Someone as hurt as Standish shouldn't be hungry. "Let me getcha taken care of and then I'll see what I can do for that. I got some jerky and some biscuits in my saddlebags, okay?" Vin said as he shrugged off his jacket, laying it over the gambler's chest. He stepped to the body of the nearby mare and rifled through its saddlebags, bringing out a faded, dry shirt. Tanner pulled out his knife and began tearing up the cloth.

"Dean Hunger," Ezra tried again. "Infinity...split...brand. Horses."

It clicked into place. "The men who did that were ridin' horses with the Split Infinity brand?" Vin asked. "Dean Hunger's place?"

Ezra nodded and repeated, "Hunger."

Well, Vin thought, those men are as good as dead when I catch up to them.

"I'm gonna have to fix ya up, so you be quiet a bit," Vin said. Without waiting for a response, he pulled back the jacket he had thrown over Standish and started cutting away the con man's coat and shirt. The tracker groaned when he saw Ezra's bruised side, apparently more than just his arm was broken.

Damn it, he'd have to do something about that bullet-wound before he took care of the ribs. At least they were on opposite sides.

Vin did his best to try to stop the bleeding from Ezra's side, which seemed to be the worst of it. The bullet had taken a gouge out of his side, and didn't seem to have caused any internal damage. But, it was certainly bleeding badly. Ezra hissed in pain when Vin firmly pressed the cloth against the wound. Tanner hoped he wasn't jostling the ribs too badly.

"Hang in there, okay, Ez?" Vin encouraged.

"Dean Hunger...Pete...Pete Cummings," Ezra mumbled.

"They the guys who shot ya?" Vin asked abruptly. "I know 'em." 

Ezra nodded once and said, "Hunger," again. He gasped as Vin increased the pressure.

Vin winced at what he had to do. "Sorry, Ez, just hang on a piece."

The rain was still falling and they were getting soaked. Ezra's eyes were tightly shut as Vin tried to reduce the flow of blood from his side. Ezra's pale face flinched as he said softly, "Ledger..." 

"Quiet now," Vin demanded, the rain falling around them. He'd have to take care of this quickly, tie off this wound and hope for the best so that he could tend to the others. It would do the gambler no good if he were able to stop the bleeding here but not be able to control the others. 

"Ledger...a ledger," Ezra repeated. He opened his eyes and looked to Vin, squinting against the rain. "Th..th...the ledger."

"Stop it," Vin barked, frightened by the weakness of the voice and the stutter. "I don't give a damn about no ledger. You be quiet!" 

"S'important. Risked his...his life for it. Must...must be something..." Ezra's voice faded as his eyelids drooped. He forced his eyes open and looked up at Vin. "I feel so strange," he said quietly and then his eyes closed again and his face fell lax.

Part 8:

"Ezra!" Vin shouted. He placed his hand at Ezra’s lips, and was relieved to find that Standish was breathing still. He checked the side wound and saw that the bleeding had slowed considerably. He then turned his attention to the other wounds – not as bad as the first – but not to be ignored.  After finding a bottle of whiskey forgotten on the ground, Vin used it to clean the injuries as best he could. It looked like none of the bullets were still in him. There'd be no diggin' around for them at least. He did his best to pick out the bits of fabric that had become imbedded in the bullet holes, watching Ezra's face as he worked. The gambler would flinch from time-to-time and groan, but made no sign of awakening.

Vin started to work on the leg wound, but paused, taking in the information that was visible. "Goddamn son-of-a-bitch," he muttered, realizing that Ezra had been shot while he was laying there on the ground, that it was probably done for no better reason other than to cause him further pain. He looked to Ezra's still face and declared, "They're gonna pay for this, Ez. -- that Dean Hunger and Pete Cummings. Just you wait. You'll see." 

Vin had been able to gather up more dry cloth from the discarded saddlebags, and quickly bandaged his friend. It seemed that he was able to slow -- if not stop -- the bleeding. The wounds were not fatal, and any one of them alone probably would not have been too bad, but Ezra had lost a lot of blood before Vin had arrived, and the tracker was afraid that he had come too late.

Before he tried to move the gambler, he would have to immobilize that broken arm, take care of those ribs. He searched the area again, looking for anything that would work as a splint. There was no wood to be found. Finally he found a quirt on one of the horses. It was the right length. It would have to do.

Ezra's eyes shot open for a second when Vin worked the broken bone into place. The cardsharp uttered a quick yelp and tried for a moment to kick Vin away, but he faded quickly. "Sorry, Ez. God, I'm sorry," Vin said as he strapped the riding crop against Ezra's forearm. Next he bound the ribs, being careful of Ezra's other injuries.

By the time he was finished, they were both soaked to the skin and Vin was shivering against the cold. The tracker was able to gather up blankets, some food, several canteens and more cloth for bandages from the dead horses, but could find nothing to use as shelter. Finally he spotted a narrow cave -- hardly more than a crack near the base of one of the large rocks that formed the ridge. He half-carried, half-dragged the unresponsive Standish to the cave and halted at the entrance.

Getting Ezra into that cave would be difficult. The opening was about a foot-and-a-half off the ground and just wide enough for a man to squeeze through. Vin didn't see how he'd be able to carry Ezra through it.

"Don't worry," Vin assured. "We'll think of somethin'."

When Vin tried to push Ezra into the small hole in the wall of Kotter's Ridge, he was rewarded with Ezra suddenly coming to and groaning loudly. The gambler struggled against him.

"Easy, Ez," Vin said, glad to see Ezra moving at least. "It's just me. It's Vin."

Ezra quieted immediately and turned his head to Tanner. "Are we still in the rain?" he asked softly.

"Workin' on gettin' out of it," Vin replied, leaning over the gambler again, trying to keep him somewhat dry.

Ezra smiled thinly at him. "Impressive, but..." he sighed, "I'd prefer a roof of better substance."

Vin returned the smile. "I'm trying to get ya into that there cave. That should be substance enough for ya. Think you can help."

Ezra looked to his right, into the narrow cave. "I do hope that you checked for ... inhabitants."

"Sure, checked it good," Vin replied. "Now I'm gonna lift you a bit and you just try to wiggle your way in there. I'll give you a shove."

Ezra nodded and did his best, but it soon became obvious that they were not going to get anywhere with this plan. Any movement Ezra tried brought him agony. Despite Vin's help, Ezra just couldn't find enough strength to get through the small hole.

"Forget it, Ezra, we'll figure out something else," Vin allowed, seeing how hard this was for the gambler.

"Sorry, Vin. Tried," Ezra said numbly, closing his eyes again.

Vin glowered at the rainy sky. He had to get Ezra out of this. There was no hope of building a fire in this downpour. They had no fuel anyway, no shelter, not a dry spot to be found. He could try getting Ezra to that protected area where they had left the horses, but despite the fact that the sheltered space was just over the top of the ridge, it would be a long walk to go all the way around. It was too far to carry the injured man. He could fetch one of the horses and try to bring Ezra over that way, but he doubted that the gambler was up for a ride. He didn't want those fractured ribs to cause any more trouble.

The only hope was this little cave. He could see one way of getting Ezra inside, and that was by pulling instead of pushing. Vin sighed, realizing what he'd have to do. The cave looked small -- it would be mighty confining in there -- but he had no choice. He shoved the pilfered saddlebags and supplies into the cave, took a deep breath and then climbed over the gambler and into the hole in the wall. He fought the immediate sense of panic, steeled himself against the irrational fear that gripped him.  Once he inside, he reached out and grabbed hold of Ezra, pulling him in slowly and carefully.

Finally after several minutes of cautious movement, Vin had the gambler inside. Once they were past the initial narrow aperture, the cave opened up somewhat. There wasn't enough room to sit up, but at least there was some room to move -- at least they were out of the rain. The space itself, was just big enough for the two of them.

Ezra had gasped and panted in pain as he was moved, but made no other sounds.

"Ezra," Vin said softly. "You okay now?"

"Hmmm," Ezra voiced.

"Gotcha out of the rain."

"Thank you, Vin," Ezra replied sluggishly.

It was dark in the little cave. Vin lit a match to get a better look at things. It appeared that Ezra's bandages had remained in place during the move, and the bleeding hadn't started up again, but the both of them were soaked to the skin. Ezra looked even paler in the weird light. Vin lay a hand on the gambler's forehead. He felt cold and clammy.

"You're gonna be all right," Vin said.

"Ledger. He...he...has the ..the..ledger," Ezra mumbled. "Split Infin...Infinity." 

Vin extinguished the lucifer before it burned his fingers and then worked one of the blankets around Ezra, who was shivering. "Yeah, yeah, Split Infinity...adverbs and all that crap. Don't you worry. They'll get what's comin' to 'em, you hear me?" Vin smiled with a realization. "So you were listenin' to me, weren't ya? You remembered 'bout that brand."

"The ledger," Ezra said, not answering Vin.

"What's this about the ledger?"

"The boy has it."

"What boy?"

"The boy with the ledger..." Ezra's voice trailed off.

"Ez?" Vin leaned over the gambler, trying to see in the dim light. Apparently Ezra was out again. Vin sighed and checked the rain soaked bandages in the near-dark. They were wet, but still tightly in place. He should change them, but there wasn't enough light. The tracker looked beyond Ezra, out of the narrow opening to the cave.

Damn, Vin thought, I should go for help. Ezra's in bad shape. If I could start a fire, I could get him warmed up, see to him better. But there's nothin' that'll burn in this weather, no place for shelter. I should go for Nathan -- get some of his teas or some laudanum or somethin'. Vin sighed and lay his hand on Ezra's shoulder, feeling Ezra shivering beneath him.

But how could he leave Ezra? Vin couldn't get out of this cave right now if he tried. He'd have to push Ezra out first and there was no way that Vin was going to move Ezra right now.

"I guess you're stuck with me," Vin said, as he used the second blanket block the hole to the cave and keep the cold rain out. The meager daylight was snuffed out, plunging them into darkness. God, he hated confined places. Already, he could feel the walls closing in on him.

Vin remembered the time that the two of them were captured by Clement Vaughn and kept in that awful cellar. He smiled remembering how Ezra kept his mind off their confinement by tossing him that book to read, giving him a task to keep his mind off of things. Ezra had given the book, Travels in South America, to Vin after he was finished with it, and Tanner kept it in his wagon. The tracker often looked through it at night, trying to read passages before he went to bed. Travels was terribly difficult to read and Tanner often spent more time looking at the ink drawings than anything else, but the mere possession of the book made him feel somewhat... well...smarter. He spent most of his time re-reading the section about the Amazon River -- only a few pages really -- but he could at least remember what the words meant. He could almost understand the chapter about the Andes, but it didn't have as many pictures.

Ezra muttered something and Vin had to lean close to him to hear, "Didn't run out." 

Vin rested his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "I know, I know," he repeated quietly. "Never thought it for a moment." 

Part 9: 

Buck and Nathan had hurried to complete their work on the roof, but the rain had started before they were finished. They moved the horses into the barn and sought refuge in the house, starting a fire in the wood stove to warm themselves and to dry their clothes.

"Might as well spend the night," Nathan declared, looking out at the cloud-covered and darkening sky. "Looks like it'll keep up 'til morning."

"By the looks of those clouds, it'll rain enough frighten ol' Noah," Buck said as he pulled off his boots and set them before the fire.

"Least ways, we'll be in the right place to finish the roof come mornin'," Nathan said with a nod. "And we'll have the chance to check our work for leaks tonight." He looked upward at the house's ceiling, hoping to not see any sign of dripping water.

"Yup," Buck agreed, relaxing in front of the wood stove, with his feet propped up on the rail. He turned his head toward the window and watched the rain fall.

All things considered, Buck would have preferred to have gone home. Lucky Vin -- at least the tracker had the common sense to take off toward Four Corners before the rain. Buck was glad that, in any case, Vin had made it home. Wilmington had been somewhat surprised when Vin declared that he was cutting out early, but he realized the reason why.

Buck pulled off his wet jacket and dropped it next to the fire. He hoped that Vin and Ezra were getting drunk somewhere in town, that at least Ezra wasn't alone. Buck knew that something had been eating at Ezra since his mother's arrival in town and it wasn't until Vin told him about the overheard conversation that he knew the reason. His opinion of Maude dropped quite a bit after that.

Buck tried to imagine what it would be like to have had such a conversation and he couldn't quite fathom it. His mother had always given him the best that she could, treating him to little things that she could barely afford. He had been loved and coddled by the dozen or so women in the brothel and, in spite of everything, thought that he'd had a fairly decent childhood.

Nathan stood before the stove, holding his hands to the heat. "Nothin' like a hard day's work to make a man feel good....good and tired."

Buck nodded and remembered what had happened earlier. "Ya know, Nate, it weren't really fair what you said to Ezra today."

Nathan sighed and gave Buck a sideways glance. "I didn't know you'd invited him and all. Sorry about that."

"He was on patrol all last night and has tonight, too. Been ridin' the night ever since his Ma came and went."

Nathan shook his head. "I didn't know, Buck." 

"Seven nights in a row... this one's the eighth."

Nathan grimaced. "Really, Buck, I didn't know."

Buck pulled off his hat and tossed it beside his boots. "Ya don't give 'im the benefit of the doubt, Nate." 

Nathan shook his head. "You know Buck, it's not all my doin'. All he had to do was tell me what he'd been up to. Why couldn't he just say it?"

Buck shrugged. "It's not his way to go explainin' himself. Probably has figured it ain't worth the trouble by now. I knew he was ridin' the night. Vin knew. You just don't bother to note things like that sometimes."

Jackson exhaled slowly. "I s'pose you're right, Buck," he said after a minute. "I just 'spected that he was sleepin' in every day after spendin' the night gamblin'. It's usually not my business who's takin' on the night patrol. I've been pretty busy lately tendin' to the folks in town. I just haven't had time to notice who's got which duty shift."

"Yeah," Buck said. "Sometimes you should note stuff like that." Buck turned his head again to the window and the encroaching night, watching the rain tap against the pane.

Part 10:

Josiah looked up from his work as Chris stormed into the church. "Good evening, brother," Josiah said, careful of Larabee's apparent bad mood.

"Have you seen him anywhere?" Chris demanded.

"It'd help me to know who you're talkin' about," Josiah responded.

"Ezra. Ezra... have you seen him?"

"Not since he left this morning with Vin and Buck. I believe he was just finishing up his patrol when they headed out to the Widow Parker's.

Chris chewed his lip as he lowered himself into one of the pews. "Damn it," he muttered.

"He ain't back?"

"No, none of them are. Nate headed out there, too. Wish that southern pain-in-the-ass was still tellin' me his where-abouts every minute of the day."

Josiah chuckled. "You just about choked him when he was doin' exactly that. I think you stood it for three days."

Chris shook his head sharply. "Why does he always try to irritate the hell out of me?"

Josiah grinned. "I don't know if it's his aim, or if it's pure luck. He does have a talent for it, in any case."

"He should be here by now."

"Could be nothing," Josiah said helpfully. "Dependin' on when they stopped work, they may have just decided to stay put and avoid the rain."

"Yeah, except that Ezra's on patrol again tonight." Chris leaned forward, resting his arms on the back of the pew in front of him. "His horse isn't in the livery."

"Maybe he forgot."

"Hell, Josiah, he's been on night patrol all week. How could he forget tonight?"

Josiah nodded and asked, "Why's he been doin' it all week? I thought the idea was to share it out?"

Chris threw up his arms. "How the hell should I know? He signed himself up for it." Well, honestly, Chris did know. It seemed that every time Ezra's mother showed up, the gambler would take on the night patrol.

Maude certainly had a detrimental effect on their resident gambler. Larabee wasn't sure if working all night was Ezra's way of avoiding his mother in the saloons or if it was because he couldn't sleep. Either way, Larabee realized that it was Standish's way of dealing with her -- work all night -- catch a catnap or two during the day. Chris let Ezra do whatever he needed when Maude was involved.

Chris had a certain amount of admiration for the woman, but he just didn't like her very much. After those tumultuous days surrounding the appearance of Eli Joe, Chris' opinion of the woman went decidedly downhill.

Larabee had heard that Ezra had opened up a saloon. As soon as the Eli Joe business was finished, he'd fully intended to visit the Standish Tavern -- to rib Ezra about his business venture. Chris had been rather excited about it, actually.

Hell, Chris had been pleased as punch when he'd heard that Ezra had bought property in Four Corners. Now, I got 'im, Chris had thought. There was finally something to hold that con man to this town. Chris wouldn't have to worry about Ezra finally wising up and realizing that there was no profit to be made in this dusty village. Won't have to keep thinking that any day now, that cardsharp would saunter on up to me and say that he was leaving for good. I got 'im.

Larabee had been shocked when he'd finally entered the building and found it under a new name and owned by Maude. Larabee knew that he never heard the full story about how Ezra lost the business so quickly and nobody seemed very excited to tell him anything. He did know that Maude had an awful lot to do with it... but that there was more to it than just that.

Ezra rode night patrol for two weeks after that fiasco. Why are you still ridin' it this time, Ez? What did she do to you?

"Think we should find JD and go off toward the Widow Parker's?" Josiah asked, breaking Chris' thoughts.

Chris turned to the door, to the growing night and the rain. He stared out at the weather for a minute before he shook his head. "Makes no sense to go now, I 'spect. We'll go in the morning. If somethin' has happened to them we wouldn't be able to track them. Not in this weather."

Josiah nodded and said, "Brother, I'm sure nothing's wrong. Ezra probably saw the comin' rain and felt it best to stay put. You know that rain and he don't mix." 

Chris nodded, and said nothing more.

Part 11: 

Vin had found a stubby candle in one of the saddlebags and had used the light it provided to replace Ezra's wet bandages with dry. It was difficult working in the tight space, but he had managed it, leaving the binding on the ribs in place -- he figured that wet or dry, it would be best to keep the ribs still. The bleeding seemed to be under control, but Ezra's pallor was evidence that he had lost a significant amount before Vin found him.

How much time had passed before Vin had been able to help him? Tanner hoped it hadn't been long. It bothered him to think of Ezra alone and hurting, not knowing if anyone was going to find him in the rain.

And all the time that Vin reworked the bandages, Standish had been unconscious, cold and trembling.

Finally, finished with his ministrations, Vin pulled the gambler close to him, until Ezra's back was against his chest. Vin held onto him as tightly as he dared, pulling the blanket around both of them.

"Come on, pard, warm up," Vin muttered. And still Ezra shivered. Standish let out a soft groan.  "S'okay, Ez," Vin said softly. "Everythin's gonna be all right."

Vin sighed, he hated this darkness, hated the closeness of this little alcove. He had snuffed out the light when he had finished with the bandages. The little candle wouldn't last long and he figured he had better be conservative with it. Besides, the flickering light only highlighted the overly close walls.

It was just so dang dark. If he concentrated on taking care of Ezra, the walls wouldn't move closer on him. If he kept his mind on trying to keep Standish alive, on getting him warmed up, the ceiling wouldn't come crashing down on them.  Outside the rain continued to fall, a constant hiss above the ragged breathing of the gambler. Vin wished the downpour would stop, but he realized there was little chance of it. 

"Mr. Tanner?" he heard Ezra say quietly. 

"Hey, Ez." Vin was so relieved to hear the cardsharp's voice again. "How ya doin'?"

"Mr. Tanner, please tell me that it's your gun that's pressing against my thigh," Ezra said suspiciously.

Vin released his grip on the gambler and felt around until he found the mare's leg that had gotten jammed up between them. "Ezra, I like ya, but I don't like ya in that way," Vin said with a laugh as he moved the weapon out of the way. "Sorry 'bout that."

"That's a relief." Ezra sighed.

"Bet you were impressed though," Vin said with a light tone.  Ezra responded with a noncommittal sound.

Vin eased him onto his back and asked, "Ya feelin' any better?" 

Even in the darkness, Vin knew he was being glared at. "I feel like hell, Mr. Tanner."

"You want some water?" Vin asked, reaching for one of the canteens he was able to gather. He didn't wait for a response as he uncorked the container and found Ezra's head in the darkness. Ezra drank what he could and Vin settled him again and replaced the cork.

"How long have we been here?" Ezra asked.

"Dunno," Vin replied. "A few hours. It's dark."

"The rain continues unabated?"

"Yeah, rainin' still."

"I'm sorry, Vin."


"It's rather confined in here -- sorry to subject you to that. You probably would want to be anywhere but here at this moment."

Vin was silent for a moment. Dang it, Ezra, Vin thought, why are you worrin' about my problems? "It's not so bad," Vin said once he was able. "I got good company at least."

Ezra laughed, but stopped abruptly at the pain it caused.

"You okay?" Damn, Vin wished he could do something, but he had nothing that could help. Again, he wished he had some decent medical supplies. Even if he had gone in search of Nathan, he couldn't have been sure of the healer's whereabouts. Did Nathan stay at the Parker's for the night or did he forge onward to Four Corners. Hell, even if he did shove Ezra on out of the cave and abandoned him here while he went in search of help, Vin wouldn't know for certain which way to turn. Of course he could always just break into the clinic and take what he wanted if he made it to Four Corners.

"Profit and loss, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said quietly.


"Life, it's all about profit and loss -- black and red. Line it up in little columns and check your results."

"What are you talking about?"

Ezra sighed. "No matter how hard I try, I always seem to end up in the red." He was silent for a moment and then said, "Everything I do, fails."

"Ezra, you know that ain't true."

"Consider the current circumstances."

Vin thought quickly. "This ain't a failin', Ez. I found ya and we're both alive. That ain't no failin'."

Ezra laughed quietly. "If this is success, then perhaps you have a point."

"'Course it's a success. I'm gonna see to you and you're gonna make it through this just fine," Vin said adamantly. "You're gettin' better right along," Vin added. "I'll getcha back to town and everything will be just fine."


"Yeah, sure," Vin assured. "You can bet on it."

Ezra sighed again, remembering. "Not a wise wager. I'm a poor investment, Mr. Tanner."

"Now that's bullshit," Vin said abruptly.

"Consider my record. For all of my winnings, I have nothing to show for it."

"You got lots to show," Vin said, trying to think of something to use as an example.

"Gone, gone, all gone," Ezra sighed quietly. His voice seemed to be losing its strength again. "Gone to better cheaters and to a wasted endeavor."

"What endeavor?" Vin asked, sounding out the word carefully to make sure he said it right. He placed his hand on Ezra's head as he spoke, noting that Standish really didn't seem quite so cold anymore.

"The Standish Tavern..." Ezra mumbled.

Vin sighed. He had known nothing about Ezra's business venture until weeks after it was all said and done. Tanner had been combing through the town's trash heap, looking for firewood, when he came across a splintered piece of a sign. After a little rooting around, he had found enough of the sign to complete it and recognized the configuration of letters..."The Standish Tavern."

Vin had gone to JD, asking him for some explanation, and the kid had given him a sketchy tale about the war that had gone on between Ezra and his mother while Vin had been otherwise occupied.

"I'm dreadful sorry about that, Ezra. If I'd known you'd got yerself a saloon, I would 'ave been the first one in the door. I just didn't know at the time. I would 'ave..."

"No need," Ezra cut in. "It's unimportant. The dream of one hardly holds a candle to your very life, Mr. Tanner..." again Ezra's voice faded away and Vin realized that Standish had given up his fight with unconsciousness.

Tanner took a moment, listening to Ezra's breathing, thinking about what the gambler had said. "Dreams can be pretty damn important, pard," Vin stated quietly.

Part 12: 

Dean and Pete continued moving through the falling rain. They had found the little snot's horse. The fat grey was collapsed on the ground, twisting its head up to gaze at them with crazy eyes. It gasped and attempted to gain its feet, but failed. They knew that the kid couldn't be far away, but the darkness and the cloak of rain ruined their ability to find him quickly. They found a small group of trees not far from the boy's horse and headed toward them, hoping to find some shelter.

It was a pity to lose Phonse. He had been a good foreman. The leg wound had apparently been more serious than expected. They should have left him back at Kotter's Ridge, but there you go. Sometimes you make mistakes.

Kotter's Ridge had been a mistake. They'd planned to use it as a perfect place to ambush Jake Riley. It had worked too... except that the man in the plum jacket had ambushed them in turn. Lost three good men... no... four now when you count Phonse.

Some little snot-nosed kid and that man in the plum jacket ruined the whole plan. What did Pete say his name was? Standish? Pete said that he was a gambler from Four Corners. Well, Standish, Dean thought, you've already paid for your part in this fiasco. You're dead by now. Too bad I couldn't 'ave hung around and made it a bit more miserable for you. You cost me plenty.

The boy would be next.

What the hell was that gambler doin' out here anyway? Was someone running a poker game in the middle of nowhere? Why else would that cardsharp be there? It's all they're interested in, isn't it? A quick dollar -- a rich pot. Well, it made no matter.

The boy wouldn't be able to get far. Darkness was falling.  He didn't know his way around these parts... lost his horse...was probably running in circles by now. They'd find him in the morning.

Get the ledger back.

Then everything would be right in the world again.

Part 13: 

"Vin? ... Vin?"

Vin jerked awake, trying to figure out how long he had been hearing his name softly repeated over and over again. "Ezra? You okay? Damn it, I'm sorry. I just drifted off." He had been trying to stay awake in that dark little space, but Ezra had left him in the stillness and the black. The droning sound of the falling rain had lulled him to sleep against his will.

"I can't get out," Ezra said quietly, frustrated. Vin could hear him moving about, and gasping at the pain his small movements brought on.

Vin quickly found Standish in the darkness, grabbing onto his shoulders. "Keep still, would ya?" His hands quickly registered how warm Ezra had become. "Ah, Ez, you're burnin' up."

"Can't get out of the blanket!" Ezra continued to thrash about, unable to free himself. "Too hot in here. Got to get out."

"Keep still. You got yourself a fever. Just keep still," Vin said worriedly, as Ezra groaned in his attempts to free himself. "You're just gonna hurt yourself! Stop movin' about like a crazy man!"

"Hot. Too hot," Ezra sighed and stopped his struggling. "Help me, Vin. I'm so hot."

Vin searched for the ends of the blanket, but Ezra had managed to tangle himself into it rather sufficiently. "Damn it, Ezra," Vin said in frustration, trying to find a way to remove the blanket without hurting him any further. The little alcove was like an oven now and Vin could feel himself start to sweat. The heat and the frustration of the situation was getting to him. "Why'd you go and get yerself all knotted up in this? How am I gonna get you out? Why can't you just keep still?" he demanded.

"Sorry," Ezra replied sadly. "I'm just so hot."

Vin sighed, finally finding an end to the blanket and pulling it back. "Not your fault, Ez, I'm just ... I'm just mad is all."

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said evenly as Vin was finally able to pull the cover free.

Vin leaned across Ezra and pulled the other blanket away from the opening. The cool night air rushed in.

"Raining still," Ezra said, turning his head to the night.

"Yeah, ain't let up yet," Vin replied. He glared out at the falling rain. If the rain would just stop... he could go. He shook his head, realizing that he was just kidding himself. He couldn't leave Ezra.

Vin poured some of their water out onto a cloth and used it to wipe down Ezra's hot face. Why did Ezra have to get a fever now? This was the last thing they needed.

The little alcove cooled quickly and Vin shoved the blanket back into the hole. "Sun'll be up soon. We'll getcha some help come mornin'," Vin promised. If it were clear and light, Vin realized that he could leave Ezra behind. But only if it were clear. If it were raining still, then, well... Vin would have to cross that bridge when he came to it.

But he would have to leave... eventually. There was no material for building a travois and Ezra wouldn't be able to sit in the saddle, and was too hurt to be just be slung over the back of a horse. Nobody would come to look for them at Kotter's Ridge. The best bet would be to leave him and come back for help, but only if it were clear and light.

Part 14: 

Marv huddled down in the sparse trees and tried to sleep, but the rain continued to fall on him. He pulled his coat up over his head and shuddered. He wasn't going to get far without a horse, without knowing where to go. Mr. Hunger was still out there. He was so scared.

The boy whimpered and tried to roll himself into a ball. He had taken up the job at the Lazy G Ranch on a whim. He'd been tired of farming. The youngest of five children, he had no chance of inheriting anything, so he'd gone to seek his fortune. The Lazy G had given him a job mucking out the stables. He liked horses. It set well with him.

Marv rubbed his eyes thinking of Mr. Riley, the man who had hired him. Mr. Riley was a good man, letting him sleep in a little room above the stable. Marv got to eat for free and didn't have to pay any board. The money he made was all his -- free and clear. If he kept working there at the Lazy G, he'd make his fortune in no time. Maybe he could even be foreman like Karl some day.

Marv had looked up to Karl, had patterned his every move after that man. Reid used to joke about how Marv had become Karl's shadow. That'd burn the foreman. Karl would try to shoo Marv away -- send him off on petty jobs to get loose of him, but Marv could not be so easily swayed. It'd make Reid laugh like a maniac. Now they were both dead. Marv sobbed, his chest heaving, as he thought about that.

The boy clutched the ledger, blindly feeling its spine. Riley would talk on and on about this ledger...how he'd wished he could get his hands on it. Riley'd sit there at the cookhouse sayin' "If I could only get that ledger, then I'd have all the proof I'd need. Put that Dean Hunger behind bars, that's for sure. Run that ranch of his out of business."

Mr. Riley and Mr. Hunger were enemies. Mr. Riley's eyes would narrow if you mentioned the Infinity or Mr. Hunger. He blamed Hunger for his losses, but he had no proof.

Then last night Reid and Karl had shown up, all fired up and flaunting that red-leather bound book. Marv remembered how Mr. Riley's eyes had gone wide. He'd almost looked frightened. Mr. Riley had said, "Do you have any idea what you've done?" and Karl and Reid looked like they'd been whupped.

Riley had taken the book then and looked through it and his face had gone all sweaty and he was scared. Something was wrong and Marv couldn't quite figure what it was. Mr. Riley kept thumbing through that book, sayin' "damn!" Then Riley must have thought a bit, because he'd smiled and said how they'd better get it to town. Between Riley and Karl, they decided to go to Four Corners since they had those seven lawmen and Riley was expecting trouble.

"Oh shoot...oh shoot..." Marv mumbled as he ducked his head into his collar. Riley had no idea just how much trouble there'd be.

Part 15: 

The rain let up at dawn. The early morning light was enough to guide the three men who headed out from Four Corners toward the Widow Parker's home.

JD trotted his horse up alongside Chris' and asked, "What do ya think's gone on?" He pulled one of his Colt's and checked it.

"Can't say for certain, but you can bet somethin's up," Larabee replied 

"I'm thinkin' that it looked like it was gonna rain so Ezra just stayed put," JD said as he twirled the weapon before holstering it. "You know how he hates gettin' rained on." 

"True, JD," Josiah agreed. "It would be rather like him to want to stay out of the weather. I'm sure nothin's wrong."

JD nodded. "I bet we're gonna show up there, and Buck and the others will just make us work on that roof. I bet it's all just a scam to get us to help 'em out."

Josiah grinned at the young man. "Think that Ezra was the one that cooked this one up?"

"Oh yeah," JD said with a laugh. "I bet they're all in that ol' house laughin' right now, knowin' what's goin' on. We're gonna be stuck on that roof all day long, Josiah!"

Chris just nodded as the two talked. Four of his men were missing. Three of them had made no promise to be back by nightfall, but the fact that one of them hadn't fulfilled his duty meant that all of them could be in danger. What had happened to them? 

Chris certainly hoped that JD and Josiah were right, that he'd find Ezra grinning at them at the Parker house. The gambler would certainly have a good explanation for missing out on his shift. He'd probably say that there was hardly a need for patrol with the rain and all, that no miscreant with any intelligence whatsoever would have been out in the weather.

It would make sense. Yes, he could easily imagine Ezra looking out at the coming storm and deciding not to chance it. Yes, Ezra could come up with a reason for staying. That was it. No outlaw with half-a-brain would've been out in the weather last night.

Of course, Chris had known far too many outlaws with far less than half the allotted brainpower.

That was it. Ezra probably didn't want to ride the patrol in the rain. It made perfect sense. Chris sat forward in his saddle at the thought. There'd be hell to pay when Larabee caught up with him.

Part 16: 

"Ready?" Vin asked.

"As I'll ever be," Ezra replied and then gave Vin a reassuring smile. The tracker had removed the blanket that was blocking the hole, and the early morning light streamed into their hiding place. The rain had stopped and the air had that moist freshness to it.

"Let me do the work, okay?" Vin said. "I'm just gonna push you on out ahead of me. There's a drop-off that we gotta worry about, but I'll keep a hand on you. Just be ready for that, okay?"

Ezra nodded and Vin did his best to get his arms under the man, trying to make this process as simple as possible. Still, Standish's breath quickened as Vin started moving him out of the small cave.

There was just no way to do it easily. He tried to keep a good grip on Ezra, but once he reached the lip of the cavern, Tanner couldn't hold on, and Ezra ended up rolling out of his grasp and landed with a pain-filled cry outside.

"Shit!" Vin exclaimed. "Ez, you okay?" There was no response. Vin had wedged his feet into the back recesses of the cave to get better leverage and it took him several seconds to reposition himself so that he could exit.

His head had just reached the opening when something moved at him, a blur of brown and flashing white. Vin lurched back into the cave, just missing the snapping teeth of the enraged horse. He flung himself further back, somehow managing to keep from hitting his head as the horse lunged at him again.

"Damn it, Chaucer!" Vin yelled, trying to move far enough away to avoid the head that followed him. The teeth snapped again, almost catching his sleeve. The whites of the horse's eyes shown plainly as it tried to reach him. It lunged again, straining its neck to reach the retreating tracker, and then withdrawing, as if trying to plot a strategy.

The animal minced about, its hooves just missing its owner.

CONTINUE to the Second Half