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, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
RATING: PG13 - Violence and Language
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra and the others, too
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thank you to KellyA for her beta skills and comments. Kristen provided the name of Chaucer for Ezra's horse. I borrowed the names of the other horses from Eleanor T. Quotes taken from Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (sorry, I don't know French and my choice of text may not be the best...). More quotes from "The Nightingale" by Hans Christian Andersen
SUMMARY: Sequel to Down the Amazon and The Ledger. I suggest that you read them first.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated. Drop a line and let me know if you liked the story
SPOILERS: Serpents, Sins of the Past, and my stories Amazon and Ledger.
DATE: Finished November 6, 2000.  Last update August 13, 2005 (just some general housekeeping)

The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic
By NotTasha... co-owner

Part 1:

Vin walked through the bat-wing doors of the Redbird and was surprised to find it virtually empty. The saloon had been busy every day since it opened. Of course, tonight was Sunday and for a change, the citizens and visitors to Four Corners seemed to have taken the Day of Rest to heart and had gone to their homes or temporary residences, leaving the streets and businesses empty.

Vin took a moment to look around the small tavern. It was remarkable how different it looked from a month ago. First of all, it was clean. The windows had been washed, the floors swept, years of grime wiped away -- the room was lighter and brighter. Cobwebs older than JD had been removed, along with a barrel-load of (what Ezra deemed) a deplorable collection of unaesthetic articles. The stench from the privy no longer wafted through the building at inappropriate hours and the new portrait had been installed.

Ezra had found a student fresh out of Art College. Geoffrey (formally Jeff) Gayle had been heading west to seek adventure. His plan was to paint pictures of the West before it all went away. Vin had chuckled at that thought, wondering what the boy thought would happen. The tracker couldn't imagine things changing too significantly out here. That the cowboy would become extinct? That the lifestyle of the Indians would fade? That folks would populate this country from coast to coast? Sure, things were changing, but the boy was exaggerating things.

Standish had convinced the young man to paint a portrait of one of Buck's lady-friends -- a rather buxom maiden named Viola. Ezra said the exercise would be good practice for the lad and Buck thought it might lower the artist's voice a key or two. In the portrait, the lovely Viola Van Wagner lay luxuriously across a divan in a forest green dress, holding a little red finch on her finger. Beside her, the window was half-open. It wasn't clear if the bird had been a wild thing that had flown in, or if it was a pet in danger of escaping. The portrait had turned out very well and had become the centerpiece of the tavern.

The men who helped finance the business had all been expecting the saloon to be christened "The Standish Tavern" when it finally reopened, so they were somewhat surprised when the sign went up, dubbing the business "The Redbird Saloon". Ezra claimed that it was because he was rather fond of the portrait, but Vin figured that the gambler didn't want to be reminded of his earlier failure.

The tracker strode across the saloon to Ezra's table. The gambler's red jacket stood out in the near-empty room like a campfire in the darkness. Standish and the bartender, Joe, were the only current inhabitants. The gambler glanced up as Vin approached and set aside the letter he was writing.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with a smile, "Is there anything I could get for you?" He signaled toward Joe to let him know that his services would be needed. Standish had hired the bartender away from his previous position and had managed to employ Inez as well. Inez had to be promised a management position. When Joe had been approached at a competing business with the offer, the bartender simply took off his apron, folded it and left it behind the bar before following Standish out of his previous employer's establishment.

"I was just stoppin' before I went out to patrol," Tanner said. "But I 'spect I could use a beer if you're buyin'. Don't get that kinda offer very often from ya."

Joe appeared beside the table in a minute with the mug.

"Thank you, Mr. Rutledge," Ezra said as the bartender departed. "You may as well head home. It seems that business is somewhat wanting tonight."

"Ya want me to close up?" Joe asked, as he wiped his hands on a bar-rag. "Still gotta take the last of those glasses to the restaurant to get 'em washed and I gotta wipe down the tables and all."

"No need. I believe I will be capable of doing so myself. Perhaps I shall be able to find a few 'buying' patrons yet tonight." Standish glanced at Vin as he spoke those words, and then returned his gaze to Joe. "Goodnight, sir, and thank you."

Joe nodded and tossed the towel behind the bar before he high-tailed it out.

"Sorry for the interruption, Mr. Tanner," Ezra apologized. "Business, you know."

Vin grinned. "How's it been goin'? We gettin' any of those profits you were talkin' about yet?"

Ezra sighed. "If business continues as it has tonight, no."

"Yeah, but it's been bustlin' plenty good up 'til now."

Ezra nodded and smiled. "Indeed. But, the first profits shall be returned to the business. There are improvements yet to consider. I've been courting our neighbor, the incomparable Mrs. DeMarco -- tryin' to convince her that it's high time that she retired to a life of leisure and sold her dry goods store. Once I have the deed in hand, our expansion project can begin."

"Yeah, and is she buyin' any of your bull?"

Ezra cocked his head and said wistfully, "Unfortunately, Mrs. DeMarco's idea of a 'life of leisure' is much more plush than what I had envisioned for her. We have yet to arrive at a satisfactory solution. In any case, it'll be some time before we have the cash in hand to allow for the transaction." Ezra straightened the pages of his letter. "And some time yet before I'm able to provide my investors with a return."

"I 'spect I can wait a bit," Tanner said, and then added, "Who ya writin' to?" He felt a pang of jealousy. It seemed that whenever Ezra had free time and wasn't gambling in some manner or doing his best to irritate Chris (a form of gambling in itself) -- he was either reading or writing. Vin still struggled, but was getting better.

"I'm sending a note to my sainted mother," Ezra said, placing a hand over his heart. "I felt she might enjoy hearing of her darlin' boy's success."

"Ya want to gloat, ya mean," Vin said.

Ezra nodded. "Yes, the gloating is always an enjoyable pastime."

"What's the money for?" Vin asked, nodding toward the envelope, where he could see several bills just peeking out.

Ezra shrugged. "A debt that required answering." He noted the look on Vin's face and said, "Not to worry, Mr. Tanner. The money has not come from the Redbird and will not affect any of your forthcoming profits. The last few nights at the poker table have been refreshingly successful. With this, I shall be able to pay a long-standing and somewhat troubling debt to my mother."

Vin's frown deepened. He remembered the conversation he had heard when Maude visited the town nearly two months ago. He had overheard Ezra and his mother one night, as they walked past his wagon. Ezra had started off by boasting about the money that he'd been able to earn for her when he was a child -- involved in cons from his infancy onward. Maude had countered with the cost of raising him. The outcome was that Ezra owed her $400. He had paid her $150 that night. Vin was pretty certain that the bills visible in the envelope constituted the remaining $250.

"Why should ya owe her anythin'?" Vin said into his beer. He looked up and met Ezra's gaze. He could almost see the wheels turning behind those green eyes. Damn, Vin thought, watching the realization come to Ezra's face. Vin knew that he'd said too much -- had revealed everything. That cardsharp is just too damn perceptive.

"You," Ezra startled and put an arm protectively over the envelope. "You...eavesdropped on a private conversation?" His voice lowered to a growl. "Mr. Tanner, I realize that you have spent much of your life among savages, but I would've hoped that the SIMPLEST common courtesies would've been observed when in pleasant society!"

"Ezra!" Vin cried raising his hands. "Damn it, Ezra! I didn't mean to. Hell, I didn't want to hear none of it. It was an accident. I didn't have nowhere to go. Honest!"

Ezra looked away, and Vin could see a flush of embarrassment crossed the man's face.

"Honest, Ez!" Vin pleaded.

Ezra turned back to him slowly. "You were in the wagon, weren't you?"

"Yeah," Vin admitted.

"You could've coughed or somethin'," Ezra said softly, realizing that there was nothing he could do about this now. "It would've been the gentlemanly thing to do."

"Gawd, Ezra, you know I ain't no gentleman. I just wanted you two to go away. I was hopin' that you'd just keep on walkin' and there'd be no need for anyone ta have ta know nothin' 'bout where I was." Vin sighed. "By the time I realized you weren't gonna move on, it was too late."

"How much did you hear?" Ezra asked resignedly.

"Enough to know that ya don't owe her a dime." Vin shook his head sharply. "How could ya let her talk to ya like that? She's got no right to charge ya for every meal ya ever ate, for payin' off folks so that ya could stay with 'em."

Ezra stood quickly, his chair almost toppling backward. He caught the chair without looking at it and set it back on its feet as he walked away from the table. At the bar, he reached for a bottle of whiskey and a glass. He winced as he stretched his left arm to complete this task. The arm had been recently broken and was still mending. According to Nathan, it should be in a sling. Of course, Ezra wore the sling while either Nathan or Josiah were around. Both would henpeck him if they didn't see it in place. But, as soon as either of them left the room, the sling would go back into his pocket. He would manage to get it back in place before he was spotted without it. To him the sling was a sign of a weakness that could be exploited. He had no desire to display such a declaration.

"I'm sorry, Ez, but it's true," Vin continued joining Ezra at the bar. "She got no right to list stuff like that. I mean, that's what a Ma's supposed to do, ain't it? A mom takes care of her kids, no questions asked. She don't ask to be paid back. That's just wrong."

Ezra poured himself a shot and fingered the glass for a moment. "You didn't hear the entire conversation," he explained quietly. "You must understand that I forced her hand. She was concerned that my current lifestyle didn't allow for any appreciable gains. She was, in fact, worried about me. She asked me to travel with her to Paris. She had an idea for a profitable con and could use my assistance. I refused, sayin' that I had other obligations. She pressed onward, offering to pay my way. I replied sayin' that this was unnecessary. I always have been able to pay my own way and would travel to Paris on my own when I was able. I cited the fact that I'd paid my own way all of my life, including my childhood. She was simply setting me straight. She was only looking out for my well being."

Standish downed the shot and then looked toward Vin with a self-deprecating smile. "So you see, it was a misunderstanding. I overreacted perhaps, but now that it's come to this point, I cannot back down. Once this debt is paid, then she can no longer state that I'm unable to pay my own way in life."

There was a time when Vin was jealous of Ezra regarding his mother. The tracker would have done anything to be able to see his own mother just once more, and for a time had been rather disgusted with the way Ezra spoke of Maude. The gambler should have felt lucky that he still had a mother! But recently, Vin seriously wondered who the lucky one really was. Okay, so she was 'looking out for his well-being,' but Vin had seen the look on Ezra's face that night... had known how much that conversation had hurt him.

"The thing is, " Ezra continued, "Paris did sound rather enticing. I've always wanted to visit the City of Light. There's so much history...so much art and culture...so much of what's lacking in my..." He gestured vaguely toward the window. "...current circumstance. My mother's offer was, perhaps, the last chance I'd have to go there."

Vin didn't know what city was full of lights, but had heard about Paris before. It was somewhere in Europe -- an awful long way from here. "You'll get a chance someday, Ez. I mean, if that's a place ya really want ta go."

"At times I wish that I hadn't brushed her offer aside so quickly, for I truly wish to go. If I hadn't been so quick to dismiss it, I'd be on my way to France at this very moment and have an extra $400 in my wallet instead of in my mother's pocketbook."

"But you probably wouldn't have the Redbird," Vin reminded.

Ezra paused, and a smile formed. "Yes," he agreed, "The Redbird." He glanced around the room, with a proud look, until his gaze returned to the letter on the table. "But Paris...perhaps if I apologized most profusely, the offer would remain and I could still go as her escort. My mother does tend to find herself in somewhat sticky situations from time to time. Perhaps she might want my assistance in the extrication process. There may still be time to express my regret for what I'd said."

"You're not the one who should be apologizing," Vin told him, taking a drink from his mug so that he'd have something to do.

Ezra shrugged. "You don't know my mother. Apology is not exactly something she knows how to do."

“It’s time she learned  You'd be gone a long time if ya went, Ez," Vin said thoughtfully, trying to figure out how long it would take to get to a seaport and then how many days...weeks...months?...a trip across the ocean would last. And how long does someone stay in Paris? After traveling for that long, it'd have to be a fairly long spell. "It'd be a year, maybe, before ya came back."

Ezra said nothing for a moment, running his finger along the lip of the glass. He smiled crookedly. Why did Vin assume that he would return at all? "Yes," he said after a moment, "a long time, indeed."

"We'd miss ya," Vin said, and then added. "or somethin' like that."

Ezra glanced over at the tracker, seeing Tanner staring straight ahead.

Nothing more was said for several minutes as the two men leaned against the bar. Tanner drank his beer while Standish poured another shot and sipped at it. Realizing that the conversation had come to an end, Vin stepped away from the bar and stated that he was going to have to start his patrol.

"Very well, Mr. Tanner."

"Night, Ez," Tanner said as he strode to the door.

"Good night, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, and then before Vin could let the doors close, "Mr. Tanner?"

"Yeah, Ez?"

"Thank you," Ezra said as he turned. "I suspect that I'd miss you, too."

Vin smiled and let the doors shut.  


Part 2: 

Ezra put the last few words to the letter, signing it floridly before he folded the papers and inserted the note into the envelope with the money. Well, he thought as he completed the task, I've finished the letter and have had no further patrons... I suppose it's time to call it a night.

The doors to the saloon swung open, letting him know that people still patronized saloons late on Sundays. He glanced idly at his watch that was open on the table. The time was well after midnight... it was Monday already. He stood to greet the coming guests. His welcoming smile dropped as he watched the five men enter his saloon. Saloon patrons usually didn't enter wearing bandanas over their faces.

"Gentlemen," Ezra said, letting the envelope drop to free his hands. "Perhaps you don't understand? The bank is three doors down."

The men moved quickly, but the cardsharp was quicker. The derringer leapt to his hand as the men raised their guns at him

"Five of us, Standish -- one of you," the largest of the five growled. "Don't do nothin' stupid."

"Drop it! Or we shoot you where you stand!" said the one with the dirty-blond hair.

A slim man with close-cropped hair and cold blue eyes stood to the side, letting the other four men form a protective barrier before him.

Ezra sighed. He could take out one of them, definitely -- two, maybe -- but five? The odds were against him. He considered asking them discuss amongst themselves which one of them wanted to die, but figured that they wouldn't care much for that. They didn't seem to be of the variety that was dissuaded so easily. He dropped the small weapon, raised his hands and hoped for the best.

He realized that the best was not to be when he saw the biggest of the masked men come at him. Ezra swung, and landed one blow across the man's jaw. The big man staggered. Ezra was drawing back for a second strike when the blond reached him,. The blond grabbed him roughly around the neck, swinging him off his feet. Standish saw the thin man laughing as the large man raised his weapon and then sent it crashing into the gambler's skull. Ezra fell in a heap onto the wooden floor of the Redbird.  


Part 3: 

Chris gazed up at the large oil painting and again tried to decide if the bird was in the process of being captured or released, whether the girl in the green dress was an entrapper - persuading the finch from its freedom -- or a fool for allowing her pet to escape. His eyes drifted from the red finch to Viola's ample bosom and he shook his head with a laugh.

The Redbird Saloon was turning out nicely. Chris was surprised that things were going so well. For a time there seemed to be a danger of too many cooks spoiling the sauce on how things should be done. The six investors had opinions that needed to be expressed -- all had an idea of how to improve the saloon. They had stormed around the place during the week that it was 'closed for renovations' -- everyone demanding to be heard. A rather heated argument had broken out regarding the necessity for larger windows versus a longer menu. The imbroglio included a certain amount of name-calling, a broken chair, a dented bar rail and half a dozen shattered glasses. Ezra put an end to that, declaring himself God-King of the Redbird...he would listen to suggestions, but all decisions came from him.

Larabee turned when he heard Inez speak sharply to the bartender as he arrived to take up his shift. "Joe," she said. "Why did you leave such a mess for me, eh? I come to open up this morning and find the dirty glasses still sitting here and no one had wiped down the bar..."

"Hey, Inez," Joe said, lifting his hands, "Mr. Standish said he was gonna close up. There was no one about last night so he sent me home. Said he'd do it."

Inez shook her head. "Joe, you should know better than that."

Joe shrugged and did his best to step out of Inez's glare.

The conversation reminded Chris that Ezra was obviously missing from the saloon. The gambler had been spending most of his free time here. Chris knew that the gambler wasn’t on patrol -- so where was that cardsharp?

Chris asked, "Inez, have you seen Ezra anywhere today?"

Inez shook her head. "No, señor," she said. "Not today."

"Place was locked up when you came this mornin'?"

"Sí, señor." Inez looked suspiciously at Larabee and then turned her dark eyes on Joe. "But Joe did not do as he was told."

Joe shook his head. "But Inez, Mr. Standish said..."

Inez shook her finger at him and Joe said no more.

Chris looked up as Buck and Josiah entered and asked, "Have either of you seen Ezra?"

"Since it's nearly suppertime, I can't say that he's just sleepin' in," Buck said as he sat. "Probably hidin' out again. You checked the roofs lately?"

"You know how our brother likes high places," Josiah said with a grin. Ezra had a habit of sneaking off by himself, finding the most out-of-the-way and unreachable places to relax. The steep roof of the saddle-shop was a favorite perch. He seemed to prefer heights but was also fond of small places.

Chris sighed. "Damn him. I figured that since he's gotten 'imself his own saloon, I'd never have trouble findin' him again. Figured he'd be here all the time. Now where in the hell did he run off to?"

"Who's runnin' where?" Nathan asked as he joined the table with JD.

"Our brother, Ezra, is not to be found," Josiah replied.

Nathan rolled his eyes and groaned. "Well that figures. Redbird probably started makin' a profit so he thought he'd go off and spend some of it." 

"Well, he's in town," JD put in. "Just checked on my horse and Chaucer's there."

"He's just goin' back to his old habits," Josiah said thoughtfully

"Yeah," Nathan agreed, "Hidin' out so that he don't have to take responsibility for anythin'. He's figured that if anythin' needs to be done, as long as he ain't in eyesight, he ain't gonna be picked for the job. He probably thinks that he's absolved from the extra work since he's got this place to run."

JD shrugged. "Redbird's been keepin' him mighty busy. It's lookin' pretty fine lately. Who would'a thought that the place cleaned up so good?" 

"That's 'cause we did most of the cleanin'," Nathan reminded him.

"Well..." JD started, but unable to figure out what else to say, he fell silent.

The five men sat around the table, enjoying a discounted drink or two in an establishment that they had invested in. It wasn't until Vin showed up that they realized how much time had passed. It was evening, and the sun was starting its path downward.

"Hey," Vin said, looking around. "Where's Ezra? He's s'pose to take over for me." Somehow, after trading shifts first with Ezra and then with JD, Vin had managed to end up with two patrols so close together. He never could keep track of such things and often found himself in such a position.

"He ain't shown yet?" Buck asked, glancing around.

Josiah stretched as he stood. "I suspect it's time to go looking for our lost sheep. We'll have to check all of the usual places."

"I'm not goin' up onto the saddle-shop roof!" JD said emphatically. "If he's up there this time, I'll just throw rocks at 'im. I almost broke my neck when I tried to get up there that one time."

Nathan grumbled, "You'd think a grown man could follow a simple schedule."

"It's not like him to miss a shift," Vin stated. He looked from one man to the next.

"Probably just got occupied with somethin'," Buck said. "I know I lose track of time when I'm participatin' in certain activities."

"We'll take a look around," Chris said. "We'll find 'im and drag 'im on out of whatever hiding place he's found. He's probably figured out by now that he's late and thinks it's safer to just stay put." He motioned to the others and they all started their search.


Part 4: 

Buck knocked at Ezra's door, but didn't get a response. The door was locked, as usual, but Wilmington had learned how to jimmy it. He pushed open the door judiciously, calling out the gambler's name, hoping that it would keep him from getting shot...but the room was empty. Buck had no idea if Ezra had been here lately... the room was always so neat and perfect.

JD and Vin checked the rooftops. Nathan and Josiah asked questions around town, and poked into the some of the known hideaways that Ezra had found. Chris questioned the stable boys. Pat and Eddie at the livery said that they hadn't seen Mr. Standish all day, which Chris had to admit, was unusual. Ezra usually took great care of that chestnut horse of his.

The six men returned to the Redbird an hour later, more troubled than when they left it.

"Okay," Chris said. "Where the hell is he? Who was the last to see 'im?"

Vin raised his hand. "That'd probably me," the tracker responded.

"When was that?" Josiah asked.

"Last night, late. He was sittin' at this table writing a letter." Vin furrowed his brow, remembering the conversation. "We talked a bit. Then I left." 

"What you talk about, pard?" Buck asked.

"It's kinda personal, I guess," Vin replied and then added, "Talked about Paris."

"Paris?" Josiah asked.

"Yeah, his ma wanted him to go there with her and he was thinkin' that maybe he should'a tooken her up on that offer."

"Did he go?" Nathan asked. "He could 'ave left town. That'd explain why we can't find him. Got a ride on someone's wagon. He probably figures we'd count on 'im takin' Chaucer so he left the horse behind so we wouldn't be able to figure what he'd done."

JD nodded. "Yeah, and he probably thought that it would be better to leave Chaucer here if he was heading to Ridge City to catch a train. He wouldn't want to leave his horse there -- he'd rather leave it in Four Corners where there're folks who'd look after 'im proper. Paris! Man, oh man! Imagine that!"

Josiah sighed. "I've always dreamed of seeing Paris. I know that Ezra and I discussed it at length one day. He seemed smitten with the city and insisted that he'd travel there."

Buck stood quickly, looking disgusted. "He didn't go to no Paris. What are you all thinkin'? His stuff's still here."

“Figure he can travel light when he needs to,” Nathan commented.

Buck turned to Vin. "He didn't say he was goin', did he?"

Vin shook his head. "No, he was just thinkin' on it is all."

"You know how he is when he gets an idea in his head," Nathan said. "Stubborn fool will follow it to the end without thinkin' of the consequences. We'll probably get a letter from him in a month or so, tellin' us that he'd be comin' back when he felt like it. Either that or he'll be askin' for his clothes to be boxed up and sent."

"You honestly think he just took off?" Buck questioned. "Just headed off to Ridge City to catch a train and left everythin' behind? Without even a note or a 'goodbye'? Think about it! Would he actually leave the Redbird?"

"He's comin' back," JD insisted. "I betcha he just took off for a bit of a vacation. Catch up with his ma and then come back when it's all over. Bet he'll have quite a story to tell."

Buck grimaced. "Hell, he's still gettin' the Redbird on its feet. He wouldn't leave it now. You know how hard he's been workin' on gettin' the place put together. You think he'd just go and leave his damn horse without givin' someone the once over on how to take care of the fool thing?" 

"Think he'd just go and leave us?" Vin added.

"I reckon he wouldn't," Chris said. "Still, we'd better check everything. JD, I need you to send a telegram to Ridge City. See if anyone matching Ezra's description got on a train headin' east. The rest of us will do a bit more searchin'." He nodded to the others. "Talk to everyone. Someone must have seen him." 


Part 5: 

Chris entered the Redbird the following morning and paused. The others hadn't arrived yet and there was still no sign of the gambler. They had searched into the night for him, until it became obvious that he was not going to be easily found. Where the hell was Standish? Chris crossed the floor and sat down at their usual table with a sigh. "Damn you, Ezra," Chris muttered, remembering something that Vin had once said. "Where'd ya slither off to?"

He looked up when JD suddenly entered shouting, "Chris! Got a response from Ridge City!"

Chris noted the shock on the kid's face. "What's it say, JD?"

JD ran the few steps to the table and read from the yellow paper that he clutched in his hand. "Man matching description boarded afternoon train east. Registered as Mr. Sayles from Charleston."

"That all?" Chris asked tersely.

JD flipped over the page as if he thought there would be more on the back. "That's all they said."

"How'd you describe 'im?" Chris asked, looking away.

"Ah, brown hair, fancy clothes, southern accent," JD responded.

Chris glowered. "Sayles..." he muttered. He hadn't heard Ezra using that particular name before, but if Standish were trying to slip away -- certainly he would use an unfamiliar name.

JD stared down at the telegram. "Maybe it's just someone who kinda looked like him, huh? Do you really think he'd just leave? Even if it were just for a while?"

Chris frowned. If Larabee had been asked that question a few months ago, he would have quickly said -- yes, of course the conman would leave. But today...

"No," Chris replied. "I don't think so. But I need to be sure." Larabee glared at the telegram in JD's hand. It just didn't tell them enough. "Let me see that, JD," he said, as if he could discern something more from the simple return message. He reached out his hand for the telegram.

JD tried to hand it to Chris, but fumbled with the paper and it drifted out of his hand. Chris watched the lightweight page float to the ground, as JD snatched for it and missed it. The wire ended up near Chris' feet. The gunslinger sighed and bent down to pick it up.

Something caught his eye. Another paper was just visible against pedestal leg of the table. Chris reached out and retrieved the paper -- or rather an envelope.

"What is it?" JD asked. Noting Chris' puzzled expression. Larabee flipped over the envelope and showed JD the familiar handwriting that addressed the letter. "Didn't Vin say that Ezra was writin' a letter last night?" JD asked.

"Yeah," Chris said, noting that it was addressed to Maude in New York. Larabee cared a lot about privacy. He did his best not to intrude on his men, but he needed some answers and perhaps the answers were held in this letter. He pulled out the papers within.

"Wow!" JD said when the three bills fell from the pages. He picked up the money and looked at it in fascination. "Two $100's and a $50!" He fingered the money in fascination.

Now there was no doubt in Chris' mind that something had happened to Ezra. It was bad enough to think that Ezra would leave a personal note unattended... leaving the money was unthinkable.

He unfolded the letter and read it silently.

Dear Mother:
I hope that this letter finds you in good health and humor. As you have undoubtedly noticed (you are unusually perceptive), I have enclosed the remainder of my debt. I realize that you shall scoff at the foolhardiness of your only child, trusting the postal service to deliver this amount. But, Mother, I know that once legal tender has started its journey in your direction there is nothing to stop it. There is no doubt in my mind that these bills shall reach you far quicker than should be naturally explainable. 

My only fear is that this letter shall reach that great eastern city  too late. Are you already steaming across the Atlantic while my letter waits forlornly at the shore? In any case, I am certain that it shall find its way to you eventually. I only wish that this missive arrives in time to wish you a safe journey and a pleasant excursion. I am quite jealous of your adventure and hope that it is successful.

I think this would be an appropriate time, now that we are square on all matters of finance, to inform you of my latest venture. It will amuse you to note that I have again purchased property in Four Corners. Now Mother, don't laugh...it is unbecoming of a lady. I came into a windfall and have again purchased a saloon in town. I know, you were less then impressed with my managerial skills in my previous venture, but I believe that I have learned from the experience. You will be amazed to note that I found investors among my compatriots. Yes, Mother, it is difficult to believe, but true. 

And, sit down Mother -- I don't want you to swoon and hurt yourself --I am delighted to say that the business thrives. Perhaps you will see fit to visit The Redbird on your return to our uncivilized country. You may even find a reason to finally be proud of your darling child. I know you feel that Four Corners is an unworthy location for my endeavors, but I have become accustomed to the locale and perhaps it favors me. I know that I have not been able to accomplish much in this life to find favor in your eyes but, in time, I feel I shall make a success of this enterprise and perhaps you will recognize this achievement. 

Mr. Tanner interrupted my correspondence for a few minutes. You may remember him from your previous visits...buckskins...long hair...rather unkempt...probably toting a rifle. There is the possibility that he escaped your attention due to his obvious lack of monetary wealth. Surprisingly, he is one of the investors in The Redbird -- the first in fact. He is, truly, a remarkable human being and I count myself as lucky to be acquainted with him. He is exceptionally perceptive and has quite a way with words, although he uses them rather sparsely and at times...incorrectly. He has just reminded me of my reason for remaining in this dusty burg. He and the other lawmen of this town are, indeed, the finest gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure to know. 

As much as I wish to accompany you, I must again refuse your kind offer. I have a responsibility to this town, to these people, that I cannot renounce. You will need to travel without me. 

Mother, this letter is long and the hour late. It is time to conclude. I shall ask Mr. Sanchez to say a prayer for the safety of the other passengers on your ship. I will request this because I believe the Lord would disregard a prayer from me... and He wouldn't know what to do with one for the likes of you. I believe if Mr. Sanchez asks for the safely of everyone else on board...you might be included in the mix. And perhaps the others may be protected from your 'cunning schemes' during their crossing. 

I will not ask you to be careful, for I know you always are. It is the people of France that I fear for, and I hope that you do not ruin relations between our countries forever.

Return soon. Your Devoted Son, Ezra 

Chris lifted his head, aware that JD was watching him. The Kid was still fingering the bills that had fallen loose of the letter. Chris remembered what Vin had told him a couple months ago and knew what the money was for.

"Damn, that pig-headed southerner," Chris grumbled, drawing a curious look from JD. Larabee still found it hard to believe that Maude had called Ezra on ever dime she'd spent on him during his childhood -- and that Ezra had felt it necessary to pay it. Chris tried to remember money spent on Adam and couldn't for the life of him manage it. Larabee realized he'd spend every last dollar on the planet to get that boy back.

"So," JD asked as he straightened the bills. "You got any clues in there?"

"Nothin' beyond the fact that he wasn't plannin' on goin' with her," Chris said with a sigh. For all the ire and venom Ezra voiced toward his mother, the letter revealed the simple fact that Ezra loved her dearly, that he worried about her. After all that had been going on lately, it surprised Chris.

I should remember, he thought, nothing should surprise me about Ezra.

He carefully folded the letter and took the bills from JD before placing the paper and money back in the envelope. He looked at the address for a moment. In the past, when Ezra had been hurt, they couldn't discover where his mother was -- Ezra wouldn't tell. At least, they knew where she was this time, if things went badly.

Damn, Chris thought as he shoved the letter into his pocket. He hoped it wouldn't have to come to that.  


Part 6: 

Vin tiredly headed back to his wagon. He'd spent the entire day riding through the outlying area, searching. But there was no sign. The sky was darkening but the night fires had not been lit. The streets were dark as his mood. It had been a long and tiring day without any relief and all the tracker wanted to do was to turn in early and get started again with sunrise.

Tanner prided himself at being a fine tracker, and the fact that he could find no trace of his missing friend hurt terribly. For all his skills, he couldn't find the trail. There was just not enough information to go by. Too many people had come and gone from the town during that long day when nobody noticed the cardsharp was missing.

That in itself troubled Vin. Why didn't anyone notice? Why didn't he notice? Ezra had been missing for nearly a day before anyone cared -- a whole day while clues were trampled and destroyed.

Plus, Ezra had disappeared while Vin was on patrol -- that ate at him more than anything. Tanner remembered coming through town that night and seeing that the whole street was dark. The tracker had been tired at that hour, nodding his head to his horse's slow gait, dreading the fact that he had pulled the afternoon shift as well, wanting the night to finish so he'd have a chance to get some sleep.

He had ridden past the darkened Redbird without even thinking of Ezra -- not even realizing what sort of trouble he may be in -- not knowing that he was gone.

The Redbird had provided no hint of what had happened. It had been busy on that Monday, and any trace that had been left was long ago obliterated. The only thing they had was the forgotten letter. And so Vin had searched the surrounding area. He'd hoped he could find something obvious... a gold cuff link embossed with EPS...a silk handkerchief ... a bit of red cloth. But nothing was that easy. At least there had been no sign of blood.

JD and Nathan had searched all through the town, asking everyone if they'd seen Ezra. The answer was always the same... not today...not yesterday. Some people were genuinely concerned when asked, saying they'd keep an eye open for the gambler, asking what they could do. Others were snide, voicing their opinion that the con man had left town, had run out again. But still, no one had seen him.

Ezra had been missing for nearly two days now.

Vin stood beside his home, resting his hand on the side of the wagon. "Where'd ya go, Ezra?" Vin muttered. He hoped that Nathan was right, that Ezra had hopped a ride on a wagon -- it was more comforting than to think something bad had happened to him. JD had told him about that telegram from Ridge City. Could that have been Ezra? If it was, why didn't he wire them and let them know what was going on?

Would it really be a whole year before Ezra returned from Paris? He had left all his possessions here -- which really amounted to his horse, some books and a wardrobe of clothing. Vin could understand leaving the horse -- Ezra couldn't take Chaucer with him -- could he? But the clothing would pack easily enough. Well, not if you're trying to slip away...not if you're trying to run off. Ezra had probably had to leave such possessions behind before in his quick escapes from the various towns where he'd run cons. Vin recalled the time when Ezra had attempted to leave town during the Governor's Rally. The gambler had carried nothing but the stolen money at that time.

Was it comforting to think that Ezra had left -- had run out on them?

I'll never understand him, Vin thought. Maybe Ezra felt that he couldn't face them, felt that they'd all consider it 'running out' so he slunk away in the dark. Standish really did sound like he wanted to go to Paris. And he would be back... wouldn't he? 

The tracker looked across to The Redbird Saloon and remembered when he and Ezra were stuck in that little cave, when Ezra was so badly hurt after the shootout in Kotter's Ridge. The gambler had told him about his dream of owning his own saloon and how that dream had been destroyed when he lost the Standish Tavern. Ezra had given up on achieving this desire -- but with the help of his friends, he had finally been able to own a profitable establishment. Would Ezra honestly leave as soon as his dream was realized?

No, no, he wouldn't go, Vin told himself.

If the gambler hadn't left town willingly... then... well, Vin didn't want to have to think about what had happened to him.

Tanner turned when he heard a sound... a quiet footstep...too quiet. Someone was trying to sneak up on him. Vin pulled his gun as a man leaped from the shadows at him.

Vin fired, but the shot went wild as a man wearing a bandana over his face dove at him, throwing him off balance and to the ground. Vin kicked out at the man, a dirty-blond with a black eye. He caught the man in the stomach, throwing him back.

Two more men were suddenly on him. "Quiet down, Tanner!" the blond hissed as he gagged him.

A huge man flipped him easily onto his stomach. "Let's make this easy," he said. Vin struggled to get loose of them, and the huge man added, "Or we can make this hard." A knee connected with his back and Vin was further shoved into the dirt.

"Dang it," the shortest of the three growled. "Let's get this one trussed up good. Don't let 'im get to his feet like the other one." He roughly started tying Vin's hands. All of them were masked.

Farther down the street, Josiah had stepped out of the church and into the growing night. He'd glanced up at the sky and sighed. He had spent the day talking to a group of cowboys on a cattle drive, hoping to gain some information from them -- but no one had any information on their missing friend. He turned to the boardwalk as Buck approached. The ladies' man smiled and was about to speak when the two men heard the gunshot.

"Buck," Josiah said as he drew his weapon. "It seems there's trouble a-foot."

Buck turned and ran toward the sound of the melee. "Don't know if it's a foot that's in trouble, but I 'spect we'd better to take a peek." Buck frowned as he noticed the fight was taking place beside Vin's wagon.

Vin heard Buck and Josiah rushing toward him. "Vin!" Josiah was shouting. "Vin!"

Buck drew his gun and aimed it at the men as they let the tracker loose. "You boys, hold on there!" he yelled.

Another form materialized out of the growing dark, firing a shot at Wilmington. Buck yelped as he jumped backward, hearing the hiss of the bullet passing far too closely to his head. Yet another man fired from an alleyway and the three who had attacked Vin disappeared into the dark.

Vin struggled against his bonds as Buck and Josiah took off after the attackers.


Part 7: 

The six lawmen sat around the table that had become known as their regular table, waiting for sunrise. Vin sat slumped in his chair; his back felt like hell. Nathan had given him the once-over after the attack, pronouncing him fit but bruised.

Vin slammed his hand down on the table in frustration. "I should'a been able to get 'one' of 'em!" he shouted. The saloon was empty, aside from them, waiting for another day to begin.

"There was five of 'em, Vin," Buck said. "Even you can't take on five."

"If I could'a just grabbed onto one, then we'd have a chance of findin' out what they did with Ezra," Vin groused. "I shouldn't 'ave missed that first shot."

"They didn't give ya a chance," Chris countered. "Can't do anythin' about for that."

First, Ezra disappeared and then Vin was attacked at his home. The two incidents had to be connected. 'The other one' -- the men had spoken of the need to get Vin 'trussed up good...don't let him get to his feet like the other one.' Vin remembered the blond's black eye and wondered if that was due to Standish.

The lawmen had searched the town again that night, without finding any clues. The men had cleanly disappeared. More than one townsperson had said that they had seen horsemen riding off, but the direction of the men and the number of people varied. The lawmen followed these leads until the trails disappeared in the dark.

Vin could only give a meager description of the men. The largest of the group had brown hair and brown eyes. The blond had blue eyes -- one of them swollen shut, and the third man was short with black hair, brown eyes and thick eyebrows. Their accents were unremarkable.

Buck and Josiah had seen little concerning the two in the alleyways. The only thing that they could truly say was that one was thin and the other one limped.

"We'd better wire Maude," Josiah said quietly.

"Maybe we should wait 'til we know what's gone on," Buck suggested.

"She's about to get on a ship. She'll be gone for months." Josiah turned to Chris. "I know if it were my boy, I'd want to know. It'd tear me up to be so far away."

Chris returned the preacher's gaze, seeing the grief of a father in danger of losing a son. "Do it, Josiah," Chris said. "Try to keep it positive. If we're lucky, maybe she'll wire back sayin' he's on his way to her." He knew that this possibility was looking less and less viable, but he could hope. 

Chris sighed and added, "Send another wire to find out who the hell is on that train. Give 'em a description of Standish down to his gold tooth and his green eyes. I gotta know if this Sayles is our man."

"At least," Vin said. "At least it looked like they were just tryin' to capture me." He turned to the others. "It wasn't like I got hurt." He rubbed his back and added, "Much."

The first subtle shades of morning filtered the sky and Vin stood. "Time to get goin'," he said.

The men stood, shuffling their feet, stamping the weariness from their legs as they prepared to spend another day in search.


Part 8:

Ezra sighed and tried to keep his head still. If he kept his head still, the pounding would stop and if the pounding stopped, his stomach would relax and he wouldn't have to vomit again. If he didn't vomit, then he could keep his arm still. He concentrated, breathing slowly through his mouth - through his split lips, doing his best to quell his nauseous stomach.

He shivered in the chill and blinked into the familiar blackness. The cold of the stone beneath him helped ease the aches and pains somewhat, but the uncompromising surface was not exactly welcome against his bruised skin. A feather bed would have much more comforting.

There were five of them -- the big one was named Grayson or Grayse. Yes, Ezra had often heard "Good one, Grayse," when the big man hit him. Grayson had huge hands and could use them like clubs against him. Ezra's ears still rang from the man's assault.

And one was named Levitt... And Paully -- or maybe it was Polly...and maybe someone named Terr. He couldn't be certain which one was which. The one called Slim stood apart from the rest, watching, commenting. "Good one, Grayse. You get 'em, Terr. Again, Lev! Again! Polly, you're lettin' him sag. Hold 'em so Terr can get another one in."

They had come at him in the Redbird...pain...then blackness. Ezra had awakened just before they put him in here...had tried to get away. He had been able to land a few blows. Sure, they had secured his hands, but his legs were free. One of the men still limped from that assault and Ezra had been able to get a good swipe at the blond's face with his bound hands. Grayson's jaw was already swollen from their first attack and the big man seemed cowed by Ezra's frantic attempt to get away. Ezra had kicked out at the giant and then made for the weakest link, roughly knocking down the shortest of the group and tearing into the night.

He hadn't gotten far --only a few yards at most. He slammed against a stone wall. Where the hell was he? Hands closed on him and spun him around and that's when the pummeling had truly begun.

He didn't remember being dropped in here, this small place. When he came to, it took him a while to figure out where he was. His muddled mind just wasn't working properly and it was so damn black. It wasn't until they returned that he discovered the answer. When he realized his circumstance, his heart sunk.

They had come at him more than once since he was put in here. But at least, it was only two at a time. Ezra suspected there wasn't enough room here for any more than that. How many times had they returned? Ezra wasn't sure. Time seemed to speed up and slow down on him in this darkness -- this familiar place. Once he thought that only a few minutes had passed between visits, but the men had spoken about whether or not he'd had a 'good night'. Had an entire night passed?

Slim was angry. Talking about revenge...evening a score. The others...well...they just seemed to like to inflict pain. Sometimes they didn't attack. Sometimes one of them would bring water to him...water but no food. The food didn't matter, really. He wouldn't have been able to keep it down in any case.

God, his head hurt. Ezra waited in the blackness for the blinding light to return, for when they lifted the boards and that heavy oilcloth.

His left arm ached miserably. He hoped it wasn't broken again, it felt like it might be. If he could, he would have it cradled against his stomach, but his wrists had been tied together, and the best he could do at the moment was keep it still. He had tried at one point to get loose of the ropes, but the rope had been tied far too tightly and he could make no headway in the darkness, using only his teeth. He could taste blood and knew that the cords had cut into his wrist by now. His hands felt numb. He couldn't move the left at all. Yes, the arm was probably broken again.

His legs hurt too much to even try moving them. They certainly seemed to be angry about his attempt at escape and wanted to ensure that he wasn't able to gain his feet again. The ropes binding his ankles were superfluous -- he doubted he could stand if he were allowed to try.

Still...if he could get loose of the ropes, he could get out. He had escaped from here before -- he could do it again. Of course, he had two sound arms before, and could at least... move. And he hadn't been alone then.

Alone...so desperately alone. He sighed as he rested his head against the cool hard surface. It wasn't so bad the last time.


Part 9:

Josiah and Chris walked side-by-side along the boardwalk. JD and Nathan had gone to the east of town. Vin and Buck to the west, widening their search of the surrounding area. Whoever had taken one of their men, had come back for another. They couldn't have gone far. The lawmen traveled in pairs now. The attackers had come when their victims were alone... vulnerable. They were not about to let that happen again.

And still, there were too many unknowns. Were these men after the town's lawmen? Or were they just picking off random people when they were alone? The men had called Tanner by his name...had spoken of 'the other one.' Chris felt in his heart that his men had been targeted...why go after armed men if there were easier targets to be had?

Mr. Juje from the telegraph office suddenly leaned out the door when he saw the two men approach and Josiah covered the distance between them to retrieve the two pieces of paper from the man. Juje darted back into the office once the preacher had the dispatches in hand. The telegraph-man seemed grateful that it was Sanchez who retrieved the messages and was anxious to be out of sight.

Chris paused, watching Josiah read the wires and finding an answer he didn't want to see in the preacher's face. Chris signaled him into the Redbird, wanting a minute to sit down. Larabee gestured to Inez as the two men approached their table and whiskey appeared even before they were settled.

"Chris," Sanchez said as Larabee poured the drinks. "It isn't Ezra on that train." He held up one of the telegrams. "Sayles is about six feet tall, brown eyes and fifty years old."

Chris eyed the other piece of paper and guessed its contents. "What did Maude have to say?"

Josiah's face was morose. "The ship sailed. She's on the passenger list. The porter remembered her steamer trunk."

"Damnit!" Chris growled. He rested his head in his hands, remembering another day and time. He had been in Mexico... out of the country...when Adam and Sarah died. A parent shouldn't be so far from their child if... "Damnit!" he said again. He should have sent the wire sooner...shouldn't have waited.

"We can send a message to follow her," Josiah said quietly. "Let her know when she reaches France that she should turn around."

"No," Chris said distinctly. "We'll wait 'til we find 'im now. Let her know then. No conjectures."

"Where is he?" Josiah sighed. "We searched every building in town. We're searching the outlying area. Where could he be? Why did they take him?"

"I don't know, Josiah." Chris stood stiffly and said, "Let's keep moving. We'll just keep expanding the search. He can't be far."

Josiah remained at the table as Chris headed to the door. He looked around the saloon, remembering how excited Ezra had been at the purchase of the building, how he had supervised the cleaning and ever little detail of the refurbishing. It was a fine place, anyone would be proud to own it.

The portrait of Viola and the red finch caught his eye and he smiled at it. Ezra had spoken to him about all the hidden symbolism in the picture, had gone into great detail -- but honestly, nobody paid much attention to the dusty corners of the picture when lovely Viola occupied so much of the frame. Viola smiled at the little red finch that balanced on her finger. She looked so happy and content -- not even aware of the open window behind her. She didn't realize what she was about to lose.

Redbird... at least it wasn't 'Blackbird', Josiah thought, reminded of his crows.

Josiah glanced down at the telegram in his hand. The ship had left an hour ago. His telegram should have made it in time. Had Maude received it? Or had it arrived too late. Had she received it and sailed in spite of the message?

The big man sighed as he stood, remembering the letter that Chris had allowed him to read, the letter that Ezra had written to his mother. Josiah wondered again about the strange relationship between mother and son. They seemed to be more like business partners than such close relations. But, in the letter Josiah had seen a boy who simply wanted his mother to notice him, to praise him, to be proud of him. She didn't know what she was missing.

"We'll find you, son," Josiah promised softly. "Dear Lord, help us find him." 


Part 10: 

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut as the boards and oilcloth were again removed and the brightness flooded into his dark world. He heard the lock turn and the barred door opened. Would it be water this time or would they be back for more exercise?

He heard someone leap down beside him and he tensed himself, waiting. His head was still swimming and he found that he could barely concentrate on what was going on.

"Standish," a voice growled... it was Slim. That was a good sign. Slim usually didn't participate in the beatings. Too much of a gentleman, Ezra supposed. Or rather, Slim didn't want to perform such menial labor.

Ezra blinked, trying to see in the brightness. The light felt like daggers to his eyes and he doubted that he could fully open them in any case. His whole head hurt and he was certain that his eyes were nearly swollen shut.

He could see the outline of Slim standing over him. Ezra squinted at him and said nothing.

"Standish," Slim repeated, "Don't worry none. It'll all be over soon. We just need to get our hands on Tanner. He'll join ya in a little bit."

"Leave 'im alone," Ezra said, barely above a whisper. What the hell did this man want with Vin? And why would they want to bring him here -- of all places. Ezra had recognized his location the first time they had opened the door above him. He had seen it before. He had been here before, had been here with Vin. How could they bring Vin back to the burned-down remains of the Vaughn ranch with its convenient little basement cell? 

"Let him be," Ezra stated.

"You ain't got much to say in the matter."

Ezra's strained eyes couldn't see the man clearly, but his voice... his voice was familiar. He had been puzzling over it for some time, but his mind was as sluggish as molasses. That voice... that voice... something suddenly clicked. The last time he had been trapped here, he had heard more than seen Clement Vaughn -- the man who had captured himself and Vin. The voice he heard now was Vaughn. But no, Vaughn was dead. Chris had killed him here as the house burned above.

Vaughn was dead...wasn't he? Please, Ezra thought, racking his uncooperative mind. Vaughn IS dead?  

There was little information to be found regarding Vaughn after the incident, after the house had burned. Ownership of the land had been in question ever since then. The Territorial Government had tried to lay claim to it as payment for the lawless acts of Vaughn and his men, but Vaughn's older brother, Randall, had recently laid his claim to it. Ezra remembered this vaguely... yes the statement sent by Randall Vaughn... JD had given it to him to read. Check the legality of it... wanted to see if it held any water. 

It had been a rather pleasant day then, a Wedneday. JD had walked up to him in front of the assayer's office and handed him the letter. Ezra had tried to read it, but then JD started going on about a horse and rider that was coming down the street…how he thought it was a mighty fine animal. Yes, kept going on about it and not letting Ezra get a chance to read -- a fine animal indeed. Good Lord, had anyone been taking care of Chaucer? Had the horse been fed? Someone should be taking care of his horse... 

Damn it, Ezra, the gambler thought. Stay focused. God, this was frustrating. He just couldn't put his thoughts in order.

Slim reached down and grabbed Ezra roughly by the collar, hauling him into a sitting positron. Ezra hissed in pain. Something was flung at him and Ezra ducked instinctively as the container struck him.

"Drink it," Slim growled. "Can't have you dead quite yet. Gotta keep you in the land of the livin' at least until we get that Tanner. Then we'll do it right this time."

Ezra fumbled with the cork on the canteen, unable to see properly, only having one working hand -- numb as it was -- and his wrists bound. He gulped down the water as quickly as his battered mouth allowed him, knowing that the canteen would be snatched away.

Slim let the bloodied gambler drink for only a moment before he pulled the canteen away. He smiled when the man flinched from him. "Grayse!" he shouted as he tossed the container out of the cell. "Get me the hell out of this cesspool."

He turned back to see Standish squinting still, through swollen eyes. There was something he didn't like in that glance, so Slim struck out at the man with the heel of his boot, toppling him over again before Grayson leant him a hand and tugged him to the surface.

"Goddamn, good-for-nothin' con man," Slim spat as he climbed out of the cell and slammed the door down, locking it into place. "Nobody looks at me like that. I'll be sure glad when this is done."

"Want me to go teach 'im some more respect?" Grayson asked.

"Do what you want," Slim said with an air of indifference.

"Stinks in there," Grayson said in disgust.

"Let it go then." 

The heavy cloth was thrown back over the cell, dimming the light considerably...then the boards ---which snuffed it out completely. The throbbing behind his eyes lessened and Ezra sighed. The water seemed to have settled his stomach somewhat. He was grateful for that. The first time they had given him water, he threw it up almost immediately.

It did stink in here. There was no type of sanitation... no form of a toilet or chamber pot. God, the humiliation of it. If he could only get out of here, get away from this place. At least he knew who the man was now. He didn't look much like his brother, but he sounded like him.

Chris had killed Clement Vaughn in his attempt to free Vin and Ezra from the burning house... this very place. Clement had captured the two of them because Chris had killed his brother Aaron. Now another brother, Randall --also known as Slim -- had shown up... apparently seeking retribution for both kin.

"Brothers," Ezra muttered.


Part 11: 

Chris sighed as he left the jail with Vin. It was morning again -- and still no sign of Ezra. He had been missing for four days now. The men who had attacked Vin had disappeared without a trace and Ezra was still missing.

"You think they'd have sent some word if they were holdin' him for some reason," Vin said. "Ransom or somethin'."

"We'll find 'im."

"What we gotta do is find those men. If we got them, then we could find Ezra."

"They’ve gone into hiding," Chris said. Of course they had been masked during the attack so they could have been in plain sight at this very moment. The lawmen had spoken to every newcomer and stranger to the town without finding anything to help them. There were plenty of visitors in town -- one group of men came with a cattle drive -- another group passing through...others just meandering their way through the west. Everyone had been questioned. No one gave any answers.

Vin searched the faces of the people they encountered...looking for that black eye, those thick eyebrows. He searched everyone's movements for that limp. He didn't find them. They weren't in town.

"I almost wish I would 'ave let those men capture me the other night," Vin grumbled.

Chris looked up at him sharply. "What you gettin' at, Vin?"

"They would'a taken me to where they're keepin' Ez," Vin replied. "Maybe I would'a been able to help 'im. It took the two of us workin' together to get away from that Clem Vaughn. And, if they got me, at least he wouldn't be alone."

Chris sighed. "We don't know what they're up to, Vin. We can't take those kind of chances." 


Part 12: 


Ezra squeezed his eyes shut against the glare. He hadn't even realized that they had removed the boards until now. Hadn't heard Slim jump down. Slim was right beside him again, grabbing onto his collar.

Ezra turned his head toward the man but found he couldn't open his eyes. Slim yanked him upright.  His head spun. God, he didn't want to throw up. Lev and Terr had been down earlier. He could still hear their laughter as they came at him. There was nothing he could do against them -- unable to see and bound hand and foot. If he could only have freed his feet, he may have had some defense against them.

"They're makin' things difficult, Standish. It'll only prolong things for you."

"Oh?" Ezra said, finding it was all he was able to say.

"They're always in groups now. Can't get that man alone. We're gonna go get Tanner now. How do we get him?"


Slim shook the partially conscious gambler. "Godamnit, Standish!" Slim yelled. "We’re getting Tanner one way or another. The two of you will die, just as Clem planned. It'll take the two of you to even up the score -- to let that Larabee know how I felt...to make up for my two brothers."

"Really?" Ezra said thickly...trying to understand exactly why killing two more people...strangers... could possibly make up for the deaths of two of your own brothers. It made no sense...no sense at all. How could anything make up for that? Brothers...he had no brothers of his own. What would it be like to have had brothers?

He had cousins. There was Jeff, Shell and Jesse in Georgia...and Benjamin in Virginia... and Francis in Louisiana...no...no Frank died in the war.. and Benny too. Frank was always very distant -- he built model boats -- carving all the tiny pieces with a penknife. Benny acted superior to everyone, but secretly used to ask Ezra for help in his studies. And they both were dead.

His cousin Delores had a lisp. She was very self-conscious of it and when Ezra first met her he made the mistake of laughing at her. He was only eight and thought she was being funny. Uncle Sergius didn't understand. Uncle Sergius was... difficult. And she was dead, and Sergius too... Cousin Delores and Uncle Sergius...dead... of the fevers... during the war.

"Are you a goddamn idiot?" Slim barked at him.

"Perhaps," Ezra replied numbly.

Then, of course, there was Uncle Lucas... Uncle Lucas Owens. The man kept slaves... ran a plantation... badly... Lucas had no children... didn't understand much about children... wasn't any good to his slaves... Uncle Lucas... underestimated them...

"Hey!" Slim was shaking him harder.

And Aunt Annie -- 

Maude...his mother...his only family really. Where was she? Oh yes, Paris -- of course -- not here. Typical really... she was away more often than with him. He remembered how, as a child, how he used to long to see her...yearn to be with her. She would show up, smiling, to retrieve him from whatever relative she'd left him with. She would use the traveling time to instruct him of his part in her upcoming plans, teach him new tricks, test his skills. He would always be so excited when he knew she was coming...coming to free him. He'd tried so hard to impress her -- to learn everything she taught him, to make her proud of him. His only hope had been that she would keep him with her -- that he wouldn't disappoint her in some manner that made her send him away again.

Somehow, something always happened. Whether it was truly his fault or not, it didn't matter. She had no time to waste on him.

And then there were the occasions when she had promised to retrieve him, and she never arrived. Once, he'd waited for three days in the parlor of his Aunt Minnie, scrubbed and ready for Maude's arrival, afraid to leave for a moment in case he missed her. Finally Great Aunt Minnie had to show him the telegram to convince him that his mother had changed her plans.

As he grew older Maude would just send the ticket. He'd ride the train alone. There was one time when he'd reached the destination, only to find that she had already gone. He had waited at the station for nearly a day before he discovered that she had left word for him at the ticket office -- along with a ticket to the new destination. It had been a long and lonely day.

"Damn it," Slim uttered. "He ain't got a whit of sense."

No, no...not a whit, Ezra thought. Not a whit, not a lick, not an iota, not a bit, not a scrap.

Brothers...he thought again. Maybe...the lawmen he associated with might be something like brothers to him -- a family, of sorts. Chris, the leader, was the big brother...perhaps even the father of this motley group. Buck and Vin and JD were brothers. Josiah? A father too? Can a man have two fathers? Perhaps, to make up for the lack of a decent one earlier on. Wouldn't it be nice to be among them again? Nathan...a brother too, isn't he? Ezra smiled at the thought...wondering what his Uncle Lucas would have thought of that. "Uncle Lucas, I'd like to introduce my brother Nathan to you. He is a fine gentleman and, as he is my brother and as you are my uncle, he must be related to you as well. Perhaps we shall sit in the parlor while you serve him tea?"

Slim released the battered man. How could this fool be smiling? Did he think this was a joke? He'd wipe that smile off the gambler's face and then he'd go to town and get his hands on Tanner. Once they had Tanner...then they'd put an end to this.

The gambler rolled himself into a ball, into one corner of the disgusting cell as Randall 'Slim' Vaughn worked out his frustration. Finally, when the captive no longer moved, Slim looked up to Grayson who stood grinning above him.

"Pack up the camp. We need to get the hell out of here. We'll go get Tanner and finish 'em both. Burn 'em, then go. No screw ups this time."  


Part 13: 

Buck and JD rode side by side, continuing to expand their search. Buck sighed as they approached the burned down remains of the Vaughn ranch. It wasn't so long ago that they had approached this place -- when the house still stood -- looking for Ezra and Vin and had missed them. Wilmington and Dunne had actually searched the house and had come away without finding their two secreted friends.

At least the house was gone and there wouldn't be that horrible memory to hang over his head. The cellar was no longer hidden.

"Someone had a campfire here," JD said, pointing to a blackened ring just outside the barn.

"Yeah," Buck responded non-committed. "I think someone's camped out here pretty often." It was fairly well known that the neighboring ranchers used the old Vaughn place. Up until recently, Dean Hunger had been using the land to graze his cattle for the Split Infinity Ranch, but certainly someone else had taken up 'borrowing' the land by now.

The two men moved through the barn, noting that the haylofts, that had once been full, were nearly empty now -- only a scattering of hay was left, and some straw still stacked in one of the stalls. The place had been ransacked of anything valuable. In a year or so the barn would tumble down and the whole place would return to the desert.

"I think there's been horses here pretty recent," JD said, pointing into one of the stalls. "Looks like whoever was here is gone now though."

"Yup," Buck said. "Could'a been just about anyone, I 'spect. Let's check the other buildings and keep on movin'." Buck felt uneasy. It was just the memory of what had happened here before that tugged at Buck's mind. The two men moved through the rest of the outbuildings without finding anything. Finally, Buck turned toward the ruined remains of the house and walked toward the burned out structure.

What was left of the house had fallen into the basement -- burned timbers, blacked bits of furniture, shards of pottery were scattered across the cellar floor. An old wood stove lay on its back. He turned away, not wanting to remember the burning and popping building and the fear that went with it... the fear that he had totally missed the presence of his friends and had let them die.

He wanted to get the hell away from this place.

Buck shook his head and gazed at the sky. The sun was heading down. It was time they went home.

JD walked slowly toward him and peered into the open basement, looking uneasy. "Sure did burn in a hurry, didn't it?" the young sheriff said, remembering.

"Come on, JD," Buck said. "Let's head on back. We got a long ride before nightfall. We'll do some more lookin' come mornin'. He's not here." 


Part 14:

Ezra groggily turned his head. He was almost certain he had heard Buck's voice. "Buck?" he croaked tentatively, hoping that nobody came flying in at him to deliver punishment. "Buck?" he cried again, trying to raise his voice.

Ezra closed his eyes and listened. Had he heard JD, too? Maybe he heard horses moving about...maybe those horses were leaving. "Buck?" he called again, louder this time -- still hardly above a whisper. "JD?" But the sound of the horses drifted away until he was left in silence again. Had he really heard Buck and JD? Was it just his imagination?

It could have simply been Slim and the others, but they had gone earlier... hadn't they? Ezra was fairly certain he had heard them tear off toward Four Corners some time ago...how long? Who could tell? Ezra sighed, knowing why they were returning to town...knowing what they were after. He blinked at the blackness that surrounded him and hoped that Vin was able to avoid them again. God, he didn't want Vin here too. He knew how Vin hated confined places...dark, small, underground, filthy places. Vin didn't deserve to be here.

Vin must have been able to escape them again. The tracker was wily enough, that's for certain...adept enough to outwit them. Vin and the others were traveling in pairs. Chris had figured out, by now, that there was safety in numbers. With any luck, Larabee would be attached to Tanner's hip and there'd be no chance for attack.

And the others, too... all of them would be on the look-out...careful...watching each other's backs...because... because......because I'm missing. Ezra tried to breathe deeply, but his chest hurt fiercely, reminding him of Slim's recent beating. Ribs cracked...probably .

Buck and JD...they were...looking for me...weren't they? Ezra listened, wondering again if it was Buck that he had heard. Was it JD? Were they looking for me? Were all of them looking for me?

"I'm here," he cried hoarsely. "Please, I'm here." It was Buck and JD... they were looking for him. They would find him. He had to convince himself of this. The thought gave him hope. If he could only hold out for long enough... if he could only wait...they would find him. Hope... 

He tried to remember... but was finding his mind wasn't working very well. It seemed like hours had passed since he had last heard the voices of Grayse and the others, since he had imagined Buck and JD... but it had been them, hadn't it?

He was so tired and sore and thirsty. Every inch of him hurt and he could do nothing to relieve it. All he could do was concentrate and try to remember that Buck and JD had been here -- that they would be back...that they were looking for him. He attached his mind to that. He would wait for them.

Vin had said that they'd miss him if he were gone. Were they missing him right now?

He just wanted to be away from this place. He was so completely alone.

He shuddered and tried to listen, hoping to hear someone returning. Ezra pulled himself back into a protective ball, tightening himself into a corner of the cell and fell into a fitful sleep, wishing he could be anywhere else.


Part 15:

Chris and Vin strode side by side through the town. "It's strange not seein' ‘im around," Vin said as they walked.

"Yeah," Chris agreed as he looked to the Redbird. Larabee had grown accustomed to seeing Standish standing outside the building -- had gotten used to seeing the southerner walking along the street, tipping his hat to the ladies or riding that spoiled horse. Larabee had grown accustomed to the gambler and his overpriced vocabulary, his arrogant manner and his sly wit. It was strange, because the con man irritated the hell out of him. One would think that once the gadfly had vanished Chris would be relieved, but instead he missed him.

Vin turned his head slightly as he passed the alleyway with Chris by his side. It was just growing dark and the long shadows of evening were stretching to fill the narrow passageway. Tanner paused once he reached the next boardwalk and Chris outpaced him by a few strides. The gunslinger turned when he noticed his companion was left behind.

"What ya thinkin' ‘bout?" Chris asked, seeing the concerned look on Vin's face.

"Just remembered," Vin replied.

Chris waited and then asked, "What about?"

"Just remembered that I gotta go back to my wagon," Vin said thoughtfully. "Should get that rifle with the scope."

Chris narrowed his eyes for a moment. "Well, I 'spect we can head there."

"Nah," Vin replied. "You head to the Redbird. Josiah and Nate'll be waitin'. JD and Buck should be here in a moment. I just wanna go get my hands on the rifle. It may come in handy."

Chris nodded and the two men stood on the boardwalk for a moment, not moving. Finally Chris touched his hat and headed across the street for the saloon as Vin turned and made his way toward his wagon, by way of the alley.

Tanner could feel the hair on his neck stand up on end as he entered the shadowy space. Something moved behind a barrel and Vin quelled the instinct to go for his gun. He kept his face passive and his manner calm as he walked confidently down the alleyway, directly into the arms of his assailants.

He saw a masked man leap at him from behind a barrel, the huge man with hands like clubs. Vin ducked instinctively, slamming his shoulder against the man and driving him back. A dirty-blond rushed at him, diving at him and allowing the giant to get clear of Vin's momentum.

The tracker struggled with the bandana-clad blond, and felt the giant lay hold of him again.  Another man, the short one, came at him. The short man gagged him as Tanner struggled. Vin paced himself, struggling only enough to make it look 'good.' He planned on saving his strength. Let them grab me, he thought. Let them take me to wherever they've got Ezra holed up, then we'll both get out.

The last two men entered the alley, one with a limp.  The other, the thin man, urgently whispered orders. "Secure him! Get him tied, Lev! Hurry! Damn it! You were supposed to wait until it was good and dark."

The short one tied Vin's hands roughly while the blond and the big man kept their weight on him. "Opportunity knocked," the short one said.

"Want me to clock 'im, Slim?" the giant asked.

"It may be easier to move him if he's awake and compliant," Slim said thoughtfully.

"Yeah," the short man said in a low voice. "Standish was like a sack of potatoes. Grayse and Terr dropped him at least twice. Think Tanner will behave?"

The one with the limp rubbed his knee and whispered, "Better knock 'im out."

Slim leaned forward and glared into Vin's eyes. "You gonna be good or do you want Grayse to knock ya cold? Worked good enough for that friend of yours. Unfortunately, he didn't behave and we had to teach him a lesson. He won't be movin' much for a while."

Vin nodded and tried to project the answer -- I'll be good --- but in his mind he was thinking -- you son-of-a-bitch, you just wait 'til I get my hands on you! 

"Let 'im up," a voice -- clear and cold -- called out from behind Slim. Chris Larabee appeared at the entrance to the alley. "I said, 'let him up!'" 

The limping man turned and tried to draw his gun at the same time. He was cut down before the weapon left his holster. The others in the group dove for cover, drawing their weapons as they went. 

Vin watched with wide eyes as the bullets flew. Chris, Josiah and Nathan were just outside the alleyway, firing in. The assailants fired from whatever protection they could find, leaving Vin tied where he was, beside the formally-limping man who lay bleeding beside him 

STOP! Vin thought, turning his head toward Chris. For the love of God, stop! He could see Chris and the others throwing him concerned looks as he tried to wiggle to the side of the alley and out of the line of fire. Bullets were zinging up and down the narrow channel.

Tanner heard the blond grunt in pain and slump against the wall. Josiah leapt backward to avoid a shot from Slim. Nathan and Chris sprung into sight and back to cover again, firing into the alley, looking far too much like shooting targets as they appeared and disappeared from sight.

Stop, Vin thought again. Oh, God. Don't you realize? Don't you know?

Slim, Grayse and the short man had all found sufficient cover and were only waiting for the opportunity to get a shot in at the three lawmen who fortified the entrance of the alleyway. They weren't prepared for the two lawmen who came up at them from behind.

Buck and JD stormed into the alley from the backside, catching Grayse and Lev unaware. Both outlaws were shot down before they fully understood what was happening. Slim backed in-between two packing crates and held the five lawmen at bay ... but only for a short time. A well-aimed bullet from Larabee's gun was all it took to end his attempt to regain his brother's estate and bring revenge for Aaron and Clement Vaughn.

Randall Vaughn gasped as the shot struck him and fell onto his face in the garbage-strewn alley.

It was over in a matter of minutes. Nathan gave the outlaws a quick glance as he hurried to Vin's side. "You okay?" Jackson asked, dislodging the gag. "You hit? They get cha?"

Vin struggled against him, looking at the five bodies in the alleyway. "My God, they all dead?"

Nathan nodded. "By the looks of it," he said. He looked to Josiah who nodded. "Yeah, we got 'em."

"S'okay, Vin," Buck said with a wink.

"Okay?" Vin said incredulously. "They knew! They were the only ones that knew!"

"Knew what, cowboy?" Chris asked, helping to untie Vin' s hands.

"They knew where Ezra was," Vin cried, pulling his hands away from Chris and rubbing his wrists. He looked to his friends, one at a time. "Now no one knows where to find him."


Part 16:

It had been a long time...he was sure of that. Even as he threaded in and out of consciousness, he perceived that time was passing.

His head throbbed and his throat ached. His mouth felt as dry as the desert. They hadn't been back with the water. Why had they stopped bringing water? They had, at least, provided him with that up until now.

Ezra turned his head slowly, looking blindly upward. It had been quiet for so long now. Were they even coming back?

He sighed, thinking that if he had only gone to Paris. If he had only gone with his mother, he never would have ended up here. His mind wandered. He remembered a play he had seen in New Orleans... "Le Mariage de Figaro"...such a lovely languages...an enjoyable evening in the theatre...where everyone is happy and gay and there is no darkness.

Why hadn't Slim and the others returned? He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling as if the stone cell was swaying now -- spinning slowly. Was he being left here to die? But Slim hadn't followed through with his plan.

Thank God, Ezra thought. At least Vin got away... at least Vin is free of this.

He tried to put his mind to it, but couldn't quite figure it out. Why hadn't Slim and the others returned? Finally, he thought -- maybe they've been captured. It's over.

Even so... why hadn't anyone come for him? Certainly... certainly... Chris and the others... certainly... they would have found out by now... would know... by now... certainly.

Buck and JD were looking for me. They all must be looking. Why hadn't they come yet? If they'd captured Slim and his men... they must have found a way... must have figured out where I am.

Why hadn't they come? Where were they? Were they dead as well? Chris and Vin and Josiah and Buck and Nathan and JD? Could Slim and the others have...

Ezra shuddered against the cold and pain and the darkness, and closed his eyes all the tighter.

No, he thought, oh God no.


Part 17:

Vin glared at the far wall of the saloon while the others sat around the table, doing their best to ignore the empty chair, while Nathan fretted over him.

"You should'a let 'em take me," Vin muttered, as Nathan pulled at his shirt.

"They could'a killed ya," Chris said.

"They were trying to capture me, not kill me," Vin growled. "They would'a taken me to where Ezra was. Why couldn't ya just follow? Why couldn't ya just see what they did and follow? We could'a found 'im." He glared at the healer who continued to hover over him.

Chris frowned at his mug and said, "Could've told me what you were plannin' to do."

"Yeah, and then what would ya 'ave done? You'd never 'ave let me try it." Vin crossed his arms over his chest. "Never would'a let it happen. We could be there by now." He jerked away from Nathan.

Josiah shook his head. "Vin, we all want to find Ezra, but we don't want to lose you in the process."

Nathan finally stepped clear of Vin, throwing his arms up in disgust. "Hell, Vin, I don't know why I try. I'm doin' my best to keep the all of you patched up and livin', and there you go, throwin' yerself right into a rattlesnake's nest. I don't know why I try."

"We cain't find 'im!" Vin yelled, drawing alarmed looks from the other patrons of the Redbird. The people in the bar judiciously moved away from the lawmen. "I was jus' doin' what I could to find Ezra. God, they were the only ones who knew where he is. They got 'im held somewhere and now there's no one even to look in on 'im."

"We don't know that for certain," Josiah reminded. "There's probably someone still guarding him."

"And if that's the case, that guard'll probably be comin' to town to find out what happened," JD said. "Yeah, and then we'll get 'em."

Buck nodded earnestly. "We'll keep a lookout for this guard. Sure he'll make a showing somehow or another. Meanwhile, we'll just keep lookin'."

Vin just sighed and rested his head in his hands. He looked across to Buck. "We've looked everywhere there is to look. Ain't no place left. And who's to say that anyone is comin'? That anyone is left to come?"

"Well, we got the guys who done it now," JD said. "If we can jus' figure out who they are, we can maybe figger this whole thing out."

"The short one is named Lev. The big one is Grace. One of 'em is Terr -- either the blond or that guy who was limpin' -- I don't know which. The thin one was called Slim. It's Slim that's their leader."

"JD, round up all wanted posters you can get your hands on," Chris said. "Let's see if we can find out a little more about these bastards." 


Part 18:

And it is beautiful... especially in the spring. The flower vendors...the vibrant colors...the delicate scents. Such a refined place, beauty in every corner. And the language...such a poetic language.

Ah! Qu'est-ce que je vois! 

Il n'y a qu'un pardon généreux... 

Oh the culture, the art, the history. A place free of such blackness, such a filthy black place.

Vous diriez non, non, à ma place; et moi, pour la troisième fois aujourd'hui, je l'accorde sans condition.

The poetry...the literature...

Moi aussi 

...the theatre... 

Moi aussi 

the theatre...yes...it was so fine 

Moi aussi. Il y a de l'écho ici!

..the history... 

De l'écho! J'ai voulu ruser avec eux; ils m'ont traité comme un enfant!

And everyone is pleasant... and everyone is kind...there is neither pain nor hunger nor blackness.

Ne le regrettez pas, Monsieur le Comte 

A lovely place...perfect in every way.

Une petite journée comme celle-ci forme bien un ambassadeur! 

Oh, to be in Paris now. 

Ce billet fermé d'une épingle? 

If he had only gone with his mother when he had been given the chance.

Les cœurs vont te revenir en foule. 

To be anywhere but here. 

Est-il possible?


Part 19:

They had tried to draw answers from the bodies and their effects, to allow the dead men to tell their tales. Grace had a swollen jaw. The limping man was suffering from a recent blow to the knee. Lev had a bruised backside. And of course there was the blond with the shiner. The lawmen came to the conclusion that Ezra was behind these injuries. So he had fought...had tried to escape at some time.

Their pockets revealed little. Slim had a set of keys, the blond smoked a pipe, Grace chewed, Lev liked peppermints. The limping man had a cheap pocket-watch with a lock of golden blond hair secured within. There was nothing on them to show who they were.

Their horses were found in the corral behind the livery. They were packed with camping gear, informing the peacekeepers that the men were ready to get on the move again. A dime-store novel was found in one saddlebag, a tattered Bible with half its pages missing in another, a pornographic book was stashed on a third horse.

It was only when they searched the last horse, the one where they found more peppermints, that they discovered something. A red parcel stowed in one of the saddlebags. The hue was familiar -- everyone recognized it. The swallowtail jacket, once unrolled, revealed Ezra's weapons and the squashed black hat that he was so fond of. In the pockets they found his rings, his cufflinks, the keys to the Redbird and his gold pocket watch.

Josiah shook out the jacket, trying to draw the wrinkles from it. He knew that Ezra would be upset if it were damaged. He scrutinized the coat carefully, and saw no sign of blood. There was at least that to be thankful for. He sighed when he pulled a knotted piece of linen from one of the pockets...the sling that Ezra had been using -- that he was constantly removing whenever he thought no one was looking.

But, in spite of the evidence that they were indeed dealing with Ezra's captors, there was no identification of who these men were. The only name they found was "LEV" scratched onto the wood of a rifle's stock -- and they already had that information. The lawmen would have to rely on the wanted posters.

And so the six men sat around their table in the empty Redbird, leafing through the posters. It was late, the street fires were burning low. The bodies of the five outlaws had been dumped in the jail for now. The lawmen had originally convened at the jail so that they could look at the faces of the dead men to match them to the posters, but the desk did not allow for six men to sit around it and they had moved to the saloon.

They had shooed out the patrons and had locked the doors behind them. They didn't want to deal with distractions. Let the profits be damned for a night.

"Here's a guy named Alonzo "Slim" Baines. Wanted for robbin' a bank in Vermont." Buck held up a poster.

"Ain't the guy," Vin said after a cursory glance. "Don't look the least like 'im." 

"This one looks kinda like the blond," JD said, pulling one sheet from the pile. "Jules Dellacroix from New Orleans." He stumbled over the name -- trying to pronounce the X. 

Nathan squinted at the face. "Could be," he said. The muddy images on the posters were always a hit-and-miss situation. One could never be very certain of their accuracy.

Chris took the poster from the sheriff and read the description. "Says he has a tattoo of a mermaid on his arm. That piece of shit ain't got no tattoo." And the poster was thrown onto the pile of rejects.

"Ignatius Riley," Josiah said, pulling out another poster. "Could be the big one." And the poster was placed in the ‘possible’ pile.

"Hey now, here's a guy called Konstantine Levin," Buck said. "Could be Lev." The poster was examined by all and deemed a ‘possible’ match. The description seemed to match the man even though the image was a little off and the man was supposed to have a Russian accent.

"I found a Diggory Grace!" JD said triumphantly holding up a sheaf.

Buck grabbed the page from the sheriff and threw it immediately onto the reject pile. "JD, that man is a foot too short and a shade or two too dark."

The young man shrugged. "It was the first 'Grace' that we'd come across, at least."

They had been going through the posters for hours now, finding mostly rejects and only a few possible suspects. For the most part, they couldn't find an image that matched the names they had to work with... this of course didn't mean anything. They had to rely on the inaccurate drawings and the sketchy descriptions.

"I found another Slim," Nathan said. There seemed to be more matches to the name 'Slim' than any of the others. Surprisingly...not all of them were skinny.

"Is it a keeper?" Buck asked.

Nathan pursed his lips as he read the description. "Maybe," he said without much enthusiasm.

"Hey...hey...hey!" JD said excitedly. "Look at this! Peter Levitt!" He held up the poster triumphantly. "Peter Levitt!"

Buck snatched the paper away and first examined the picture and then read the description. He grinned as he held it up. The image on the poster matched the face the dead short-man perfectly. "Peter Levitt," Buck said. "Wanted for murder and bank robbery in California." He returned to reading the text and his grin increased. "Also known as Peppermint Pete."

"Got 'im!" Vin said enthusiastically.

Buck continued reading. "Known associate... Fabian Grayson."

"Fabian?" Nathan inquired.

"Grayse-on," Buck said slowly. "I think we may have found our Grace."

"Find the poster for Fabian Grayson," Chris ordered. It took some time for the image to appear. The poster had been thrown in the reject pile earlier on. The man on the document sported a beard and no mention had been made of his height, but it was a good enough match to pin on the giant of the group.

The known associates of both men were scrutinized. None of the names matched the names that Vin had heard, so every man listed was checked. Soon a Paul "Paully" Tremaine was found and matched to the limping man. On Paully's poster was listed an associate named Terrance Brown -- they now had a match to Terr. When the poster was found, the image wasn't a very good match, but it was close enough -- Terrance was their blond.

Every associate of each man was checked, looking for a thin man or even a minor resemblance to Slim, but nothing was a close enough match. The four men had come from California...from towns around San Diego. The four all knew each other in some way or another but it appeared that none of them was known to keep company with Slim.

"Slim was their leader," Vin said tiredly, rubbing the bridge of his nose. His eyes ached from the unaccustomed task of looking at the endless drawings and trying to read the text that followed. "He probably hired those guys." He gestured to the stacks. "I'm bettin' he's not even in this mess of posters."

Chris sighed and looked at four documents they had set aside. They now had names for four of the men... knew that they had been wanted and dangerous men. The fifth remained a mystery. It appeared that the fifth was the key to all of this.

Key...Chris fished the ring of keys out of his pocket and threw them on the table. Slim had carried those keys. All six of the men stared at the key-ring. Ezra was still missing and no one had shown up in town inquiring about Grayson, Levitt, Tremaine, Brown or Slim.

The keys meant something...Chris was sure of that. If Ezra was locked away somewhere...why couldn't he escape? A lock was little hindrance to the skilled con man. Ezra's continued absence troubled him deeply. Was he hurt? Was he dead? Was he totally alone now...locked away and unable to get free? How would they find him?

"Let's find the 'living' associates of these men," Chris said finally. "Find out if any of them are in custody. Maybe one of 'em knows who these guys were working for, knows who this Slim is." He sighed, noting the late hour. "We'll start sending wires in the morning." 

The five men at the table nodded. It was better than nothing.

Part 20:


He waited in the blackness... 

Waited for anything... 

For anyone...

For Chris and Vin...God, where were they? Why hadn't they come?

JD...Buck...they were here, weren't they? Were they coming back?

Josiah... and Nathan... please 

He waited for Slim even... 

For Grayson... 


He waited... 


CONTINUE to the Second HALF

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