Shattered Dreams

This started as a simple epilog to the episode "Sins of the Past" and grew from there.

Despite the clink of glassware and bottles, the occasional laugh and the murmur of voices, the saloon was too damn quiet. Not a silent quiet, but the subdued quiet of people who weren't sure they should be enjoying themselves. It was the kind of quiet that made it too easy for Vin to get lost in his thoughts. Too easy for the image of Eli Joe's broken, bleeding body to flash into his mind. Too easy to once again hear the roar of Chris's gun, to see the surprise on Eli Joe's face as the bullet struck, to see him fall, dead before he hit the boardwalk. Vin shook his head, trying to rid himself of the thoughts, to bring himself back to the card game, but even that was too quiet. Ezra was dealing, but his smile and genial patter were missing. Buck and J.D. were there, trying to be cheerful, but it rang false in his ears. Chris wasn't playing, keeping himself separate as he leaned on the bar. Josiah sat back from the table, watching without comment. Nathan was nowhere to be seen.

"Two pair."

Across the table, Buck spread his cards with a grin and a flourish. Glancing down at his own hand, Vin shook his head, wondering what had possessed him to draw to the busted flush. He tossed his cards onto the table and took a long drink of his beer.

Buck pulled in the cards and the cash, handing the cards to Ezra and stacking the cash in front of himself. After the first shuffle, Ezra stopped, stacked the cards and slid the deck across the green felt to Buck. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but I'm going to sit out the next few hands." With no other explanation, Ezra stood, slipped on his jacket, picked up his hat and turned away from them, walking slowly to the doors and out of the saloon.

Vin watched him go, wondering at Ezra's mood. The subtle slump of his shoulders and uncharacteristic silence worried him. The man hadn't spoken a dozen words since his mother left on the afternoon stage. Vin wasn't sure what all had passed between them this trip, but her visits too often left Ezra this way: quiet, almost sullen, certainly not the jovial man Vin was used to. His own problems the past few days had kept him from seeing much of what had gone on between Ezra and his mother, but it was time he found out. Maybe talking to Ezra would help distract him from his own thoughts, too. If nothing else, misery loved company and he could be just as miserable as Ezra.

He pushed back his chair and stood up, settling his hat on his head. "You boys got enough of my money tonight. Think it's best if I step out for some air."

Buck looked up at him. "You okay, Vin?"

He drew a breath, held it for a moment, then let it out slowly. "Yeah, fine. Just need some time alone."

Before heading outside he stopped at the bar to buy a bottle of whiskey. He felt Chris's eyes on his back and turned to meet them, nodded once when Chris's eyes flicked to Ezra's chair and back to him. Chris held his gaze, then answered with his own quick nod. A flash of anger prodded at Vin; he didn't want or need Chris's approval to go talk to Ezra. Just as quickly, he shook off his anger. It wasn't Chris he was mad at, it was the whole situation. Eli Joe dead, his chance to clear his name dead, his last hope dead.

Turning away, he threaded his way through the tables and outside, where he stood for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the darkness and his thoughts away from it.

The street fires cast enough light, along with their eerie shadows, that he was able to see Ezra standing on the boardwalk at the end of the street, leaning on a post and staring down the road. Yeah, better to commiserate with a friend, he thought, and started down the boardwalk, the whiskey bottle held easily in his hand.

Ezra didn't move as Vin came up behind him, still staring down the road as if watching the stage leave again. Vin put his hand on Ezra's shoulder and stood next to him, also staring down the road. "You all right?" he asked.

Ezra turned to look at him and Vin let his hand drop. "No, I don't believe I am," Ezra said quietly. His words were confirmed by the sadness in his eyes and the falsely firm set of his mouth. Neither could be hidden, even in the dim light from the street fires.

Vin nodded. "That's what I figured." He held up his whiskey bottle. "I brought along a friend."

A half-smile touched Ezra's mouth. "Sometimes, that's the best friend a man could have." He took the bottle and held it up. "I imagine you could use this sort of friendship tonight, too. Shall we retire to someplace comfortable and drink to misery?"

"Or maybe if we drink enough, we'll forget the misery," Vin answered softly.

"That, too, is a possibility." Ezra looked up and down the street, then at Vin. "My room?"

Vin thought a moment. If they were going to do serious drinking, it'd probably be best to be away from prying eyes. "Better than sittin' out here," he said.

"Damned with faint praise," Ezra mumbled, almost too low to hear, but Vin caught the remark.

"That ain't what I meant. I--" He was interrupted when Ezra held up his hand.

"I took no offense, Vin. Poor choice of words on my part." Ezra ran a hand across his eyes. "Call it fatigue and forget I said anything." He stood still a moment then looked at Vin. "With our compatriots in the saloon, I'd suggest the back way in," Ezra said.

Vin nodded, following as Ezra turned to the alley that ran along behind the buildings. Once in Ezra's room, he settled into the rocking chair and waited while Ezra moved around the room, lighting the oil lamps, getting out cut glass tumblers from the sideboard.

"Ezra, stop fussin' and pour the damn whiskey." He put his hand out, taking hold of Ezra's arm, stopping him as he crossed the room one more time. "Sit down and have a drink. You need one."

"More than one," Ezra said softly.

He let go of Ezra, and nodded to himself as Ezra picked up the bottle and poured generously into the glasses, handing one to Vin and keeping one for himself. Raising his glass, Ezra held it up in salute. "To my dear, sainted, departed mother." He tossed back the drink in one swallow, grimacing at the burn, but refilled his glass without hesitation.

"She ain't dead," Vin said.

"No, she is not," Ezra agreed, "but, as is her habit, she came into this town like a tornado, and like a tornado, moved on, leaving destruction in her wake." He crossed the room once more, leaning on the window frame, staring out into the dark.

Sipping his whiskey, Vin waited for Ezra to go on, and at the same time thought about tornados. It certainly was an apt description of Maude Standish, and an equally good way of describing what Eli Joe had done to Vin's life. His question still was how to go about clearing up the damage.

Long minutes later, Ezra turned back to face him. "I don't hate her, you know."

Vin nodded. "I know."

Ezra smiled and shook his head. "There are days, though, she makes it damnably hard not to." He hitched himself off the window frame and set his glass on the dresser, slipped out of his jacket, vest and tie, then unbuckled his gun-belt, setting it next to the glass. Picking up his glass again, he moved around to sit on the bed facing Vin.

"Shall I tell you the latest chapter in the continuing tale of the education of Ezra Standish?"

Vin nodded again.

"Very well, my friend." Ezra stared into his glass for a moment, then looked up. "It was a simple lesson this time. Her lessons usually are. She wanted to be sure I understood who and what I really am and what my place in this great world really is."


"No, don't interrupt." Ezra drained his glass, then stood up to reach for the bottle. "All will become clear." He poured, then slid down to sit on the floor and lean on the side of the bed, his legs flexed and his forearms resting on his knees. The bottle was set on the floor halfway between them. Ezra sat back and closed his eyes.

"This was by no means the first time Mother and I have had a little business competition. It was supposed to be part of her scheme to lure in investors, but I never managed to remain as detached as I should have. Despite the outcomes of the past, I continued to let her goad me into participating in her game in hopes that one time I would manage to be the victor." He shook his head. "I should have known this would happen."

Again, Vin didn't interrupt or encourage, just waited for Ezra to continue his story.

"It was about ten years ago, in New Orleans. Two stepfathers ago. Or was it three." Ezra waved a hand in an indistinct gesture. "Doesn't really matter. His name was Randall. The war was over and the city was rebuilding. Randall was instrumental in getting many of the businesses back on their feet. But there was a small gambling parlor and bar that no longer had anyone to run it. And he gave it to me. I'll never know what prompted him to do that, but he did. There were still enough patrons to keep it going while we restored the fixtures, keeping it open at night and working on the place during the day. I've never worked harder in my life, and I loved it. While it lasted, anyway."

A lump formed in the pit of Vin's stomach as he realized where this story was going. "Until she took it from you."

"Yes." Ezra drained his glass, then threw it against the wall, flinching as it shattered.

Aw, hell, Vin thought. Shrugging out of his coat and unbuckling his gun, he moved to sit on the floor next to Ezra.

"I'd gone north of the city on a trip to look at some lumber and new cabinetry. I was only gone for three days. Three days! But when I got back, she'd sold it out from under me." Ezra reached forward to grab the bottle by the neck, tilting it back to take a long drink. "I tried to get it back. But as Randall's wife, she had the authority to complete the sale, and I was looked upon as merely the manager." He shook his head. "Maude Standish giveth and Maude Standish taketh away."

"So," Ezra said brightly, "thus endeth the repetition of lessons unlearned. Ezra Standish does not settle down as a business man. Ezra Standish is not allowed the dreams of other people."

Vin knew that at least some of that was the liquor talking, but the parallel of what Maude had done to Ezra in years past to the taking of the Standish Tavern was too close. "Did you ever tell her your dreams?"

"No." Ezra upended the bottle, draining the last of the whiskey. "And perhaps that is where I failed, but for as long as I can remember, the security of home and a place in the community has been something other people had, not us. It only made sense to me that foolish dreams would fail."

"Then why'd you try again here?"

Ezra looked up at Vin. "Because I thought maybe things had changed. That my life had changed." He looked away, staring at his hands. "But I see I was mistaken about that."

Ezra climbed to his feet, moving a little unsteadily, and started rummaging through his dresser, turning triumphantly when he pulled out another bottle of whiskey.

"No." Vin stood up, reaching for the bottle and Ezra. "You weren't mistaken." He kept hold of the bottle until Ezra let go. "And this ain't going to do anything but leave you with a hangover."

Ezra pushed away and went to stand at the window again, staring out at the street. "Perhaps it's all I deserve. Perhaps it's time to admit the truth to myself."

"And what truth is that?"

"That I am merely tolerated here. That I am certainly a source of amusement for you all, but that I don't belong here."

"Hell, Ezra, that ain't the truth. You belong here as much as any of us."

"No." Ezra shook his head. "I am not a lawman. It's not in my nature to take on the protection of others."

Vin snorted. "You're wrong there. I've seen your nature. And you may talk a good line to the contrary, but you care about this town and these people."

"Appearances, Vin. Your Mr. Larabee would not have allowed me to continue this pretense if I did not put forth some effort."

"He ain't my Mr. Larabee," Vin growled, "and putting yourself in front of a bullet is a poor way to keep those appearances."

Ezra turned back toward Vin. "The only reason Chris allows my presence is that he has made it quite clear that if I disappoint him again, he'll kill me."

Vin smiled and shook his head. "You're too easy, Ezra."

"What do you mean?" Ezra asked softly.

"Chris Larabee ain't a man to kill his friends." He held up a hand to halt Ezra's protest. "And, like it or not, he took you on as a friend when you went with us to the Seminole village. The trouble with you," he pointed at Ezra, "is that you forget Chris keeps his friends to the same rules he sets for himself. You don't abide by all of his rules. Don't make you any less his friend, just more of a vexation for him."

"Maybe that's so." Ezra looked at the floor, then up at Vin again. "May I ask you a personal question?"

"Course, Ezra," Vin said, "you don't need to ask."

Ezra's expression was serious. "I don't precisely know the best way to phrase this, but--"

"Just spit it out."

"Very well." Ezra hesitated, then went on, "when Chris killed Eli Joe ... will that harm your friendship?"

Vin didn't know what he'd been expecting from Ezra, but it surely wasn't that. Ezra had cut straight to the heart of what had been eating at him since it happened; the death of Eli Joe by Chris's hand. The death of what might be his only chance to clear his name. He knew Chris had done what he thought he had to, had done what Vin would have done if their positions were reversed, but that knowledge hadn't kept him from a sense of anger and despair over it. He'd done his best to keep that to himself, not needing to burden others with the worry, and it surprised him that Ezra saw it.

In spite of it all, he knew the answer to Ezra's question was simple. "No, it won't."

"You're quite sure of that." He heard the wonderment in Ezra's voice.

"I am." He thought a moment. "He did it because he didn't see another way."

"Because he wouldn't let you be killed."

Vin shook his head. "Nothin' special about what he did. Chris wouldn't let any of us get killed if he had a chance to stop it."

"If you say so," Ezra said, "but he does seem to have appointed himself your special guardian."

"What do you mean?" Vin asked sharply.

Ezra fidgeted. "Nothing, Vin. Nothing at all." He turned back toward the window. "I was just thinking aloud. It doesn't mean a thing." For long moments, Ezra stared out the window and Vin wondered if he was looking for answers in the dark of the street or simply avoiding looking at him. Finally, Ezra spoke. "I don't know what can be done now about you being wanted, but I'd like to help if I can."

Relaxing, Vin let out the breath he'd been holding. "Right now, ain't much can be done." He joined Ezra at the window. All that was visible in the street were the few sleepy horses tied to the rail in front of the saloon. Lights shone from the restaurant and saloon, but the noises were subdued.

"It's a nice town," Vin whispered.

"Good place for a new start," Ezra answered quietly.

"Could be that." He looped his arm around Ezra's shoulder. "Tell you what, pard, next time you buy a tavern, I'll try to have a bit saved up to invest with you."

"I appreciate the thought, but I doubt that will ever happen again."

"You never know," Vin said, giving Ezra's shoulder a squeeze.

"I suppose not." Ezra's head dipped, then he turned to look at Vin, close enough that Vin could feel his breath. They looked at each other for long moments before Ezra leaned into Vin, pulling him into an embrace. "We're quite a pair, aren't we? I lost my chance at my dream, and you lost your chance at living without constant worry."

"For now," Vin held Ezra close, "we've only lost them for now."

Eventually, Vin took a step back and let his hands drop. "Reckon I should head out. Got an early start to make in the mornin'."

"I thought all of Eli Joe's confederates were accounted for." Ezra looked at him in confusion.

"They are," Vin nodded, "but there's a few things I still want to have a look at."

"If you want company," Ezra began, "I'd be happy--"

"Nah," Vin interrupted. "This is something I'd rather do on my own." He gave Ezra a quick smile. "But I do appreciate the offer." With a quick nod, he headed toward the chair, picking up his hat, jacket and gun-belt, then looked back at Ezra. "You going to be okay?"

"I expect so," Ezra said with a small smile. "Thank you."

Vin nodded at him again, then went out, pulling the door shut behind him. He walked down the stairs slowly, thinking about Ezra and Maude, Chris and Eli Joe.

As he stepped down onto the boardwalk, Vin shrugged into his coat and looped his gun-belt over his shoulder. He wasn't surprised to find Chris waiting outside the saloon door.

They stepped off the boardwalk together and were halfway across the street before Chris spoke. "How's Ezra?"

Vin smiled to himself. Too bad Ezra couldn't hear Chris asking after him. Or, maybe he could, if he was still standing at his window. "He'll be fine. Maude just has a way of eating at him from the inside."

Chris nodded. "What about you?"

Vin sighed. "I'm all right." Or he would be, he thought, given a little time. He stopped walking and stood still, waiting for Chris to stop and look at him. "I'm going out in the morning to see if there's anything we missed out there."

Another nod. "Want help?"

"Nah. Could use some time alone. But if I'm not back by dark, you and Ezra," he turned and waved his hand at the window, and seeing Ezra still standing there, touched his hat in salute, getting a nod in return, "can come lookin' for me."

Turning back to Chris, he made a quick decision. "I'll see you tomorrow," was all he said as he turned his back and walked away, hoping Chris would take the hint that he wasn't in the mood for company.

He walked on, not looking back, listening for sounds of being followed, and hearing none, relaxed a little. When he got to his wagon, he felt a moment of unease, the darkness and quiet feeling too much like the night not long enough ago when Yates had cornered him and started this whole mess. Rolling his shoulders, he pushed the feeling away. It was done and what he needed now was a good night's sleep. Closing up the wagon flaps, he headed for his room at the boarding house.

His room was quiet, and with the door locked, he did feel more secure than he had in days. Not that the door would hold back anyone who was really determined, but it was the idea of a lock between him and the outside world that helped. Thoughts and images from the past few days tried to work into his mind, but he set them aside, closing his eyes and falling into a deep sleep.

Morning sun streaming through the thin curtains woke Vin and he stretched, feeling the muscles still sore from his adventures. Not bad, though, and he sat up, rubbing his eyes. Looked like a nice morning, good day for a ride out on his own. A quick splash of water into the washbasin and he washed his face and was ready to dress and face the day.

Coffee and biscuits for breakfast, supplies for the day's ride and he was at the livery before most of the town was up, saddling his horse and leading him out to the street. Looking up at the sky, a clear blue brushed with a few wisps of clouds, it felt new and right and as if there was a chance for things to work out. Morning and the new day always helped him feel that way, and he mounted up and rode out, asking his horse for an easy jog.

A mile down the road and his horse was jigging with energy, and he agreed with him. Pushing his hat firmly on his head, he leaned forward and shouted as he gave the horse a kick. Big muscles bunched, hooves dug in and the gelding launched into a ground-covering gallop, his nose out and ears flat back as he tore up the road. Vin grinned, the wind whipping his hair back, the feel of the speed and power of his horse had the blood singing in his veins.

Another mile of road, and the horse settled into a lope, and Vin sat back in the saddle, riding easily up the road. Days before, the ride was with Yates and his 'posse,' after that with his friends as they looked to help him catch up with Eli Joe. No sense dwelling on what was done, today was to clear his head and maybe find something he could use to clear his name.

He found a place to climb up to the ridge where he figured Chris had followed him and Yates on their way out of town, and he turned the gelding up the hill, sitting easy to let the horse find his way up the loose hillside. At the top, it was simple to follow Chris's trail along the ridge to the point where he turned off to go to high ground and the cover where he took the shots that gave Vin the chance to get free of Eli Joe and his men.

The tracks around the big tree were muddled and confusing, and it took Vin a long time to sort out how Eli Joe's gang rode out, and even longer to locate the point where Eli Joe left them to ride back to town. Standing, staring at the ground over the faint hoof-prints, Vin knew there was no way Chris would have seen this when he rode back to check on the gang after freeing him. Hell, he wasn't sure he'd have seen it without knowing to look for it, but that didn't diminish his anger that he hadn't ridden back himself to look, thinking that if he had, he might have seen it, might have known that Eli Joe would be lying in wait for him in town, might have been able to plan a way to ambush Eli Joe at the hotel without getting him killed.

Rubbing his gelding's neck, Vin sighed heavily. "Lot of 'what ifs' there, boy. Guess it don't make much difference now." The horse merely rubbed his sweaty face against Vin's chest, and Vin scratched his ears. "Yeah, you got a point, fella. Time for a rest." He swung up into the saddle and headed out for the big oak he and Chris sat under after he got free.

Once under the tree, he loosened the cinch and put grazing hobbles on the gelding's front legs, slipping off the bridle and turning him loose to forage while Vin sat against the tree to eat his lunch. Looking at the sky, he judged it was mid-afternoon, and knew he would have to head back to town before too long, or he'd likely have Chris and Ezra out looking for him.

As he ate, Vin's thoughts wandered back to his talk with Ezra the night before. It didn't seem right for a man to never have a sense of belonging anywhere. Even with his own wanderings, he'd had friends along the way and places he knew would welcome him back. He wondered how it would feel to be like Ezra, watching his back the same as if he had a bounty on it, but not having anyone else to help with the watching. Odd that he, the one with an actual bounty on his head, felt comfortable with the friends he had helping him watch his back. Friends who willingly risked their lives for him.

And that's when it hit him, the realization that Ezra would be grateful when they backed him up, but he never counted on it. That would be why Ezra was nervous about how much Chris had helped these past days. Ezra didn't see it as simply a friend helping a friend, he saw it as Chris pushing him away from Vin, and that was just wrong. Vin knew Chris was his friend, sure, but Ezra was ... well, he didn't have the word for it, but it went well past friend, and he'd have to make sure Ezra knew that.

Sitting back against the tree, he looked up at the sky through its branches, the blue of the sky dappled by the leaves and still streaked with clouds. It was peaceful, no sound other than the rustle of his horse as he grazed and the occasional bird to disturb him. This was a good place, good country, enough like the land he grew up in to feel like home.

He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. There would be a way. There had to be. Somehow, he'd manage to clear himself and be able to live in a place like this without fear.

In the meantime, he'd better head back to town. He gathered his things and packed them into his saddlebags, picked up the bridle and walked toward his horse. A piece of apple earned him forgiveness for putting the bit back in the animal's mouth, and he eased the cinch tighter and led him back to the tree to pick up the last of his things. One last tug on the cinch had it tight enough, and Vin swung aboard, settling into the saddle and reining the gelding over to the road back to town.

An easy jog to loosen up, then a gentle lope the rest of the way had them back in town just as darkness was starting to fall. He eased his horse down to a walk at the edge of town and stopped at a water trough to let him have a drink before taking him into the livery. After seeing that he was rubbed down and fed, Vin headed for the saloon, deciding a beer would cut the trail dust very nicely.

Hooking his thumbs in his gun-belt, Vin walked down the boardwalk, feeling pretty content with things, and shouldered his way into the saloon. His plan for a beer, however, was cut short when Ezra stood so fast he knocked over his chair and practically ran to Vin, taking him by the arm and leading him back outside and away from the saloon doors.

Vin stood, thumbs still hooked into his gun-belt, and looked patiently at Ezra. "Something you want to tell me?"

Ezra had a grin so wide it flashed gold in the sunset and cut deep dimples into his cheeks. Something was surely up. He reached inside his coat and drew out a folded paper, holding it out to Vin. "Take a look at this."

He didn't move to take the paper, expecting his slow response would have Ezra reading it to him himself, and he wasn't disappointed.

"I sent some telegrams today. Queried a few acquaintances and called in a few markers." Ezra waved the paper in front of Vin's face. "This is the response I was hoping for." Ezra unfolded the sheet. "It says that our prisoner Mr. Yates is a wanted man, although that was not a great surprise. The good news I received is that he is wanted either alive or dead."

The phrase 'alive or dead' brought a cold stab to the pit of Vin's stomach. "I don't see how that's good news for anyone."

His grin fading a bit, Ezra stepped back. "Yes, well, I didn't mean good news in the sense that, well..." He took a breath and stepped closer to Vin again. "What I meant to say is that I did some thinking today. I started with the assumption that Yates was a long time comrade of Eli Joe. That led me to consider that he might have some knowledge of what truly happened between the late Mr. Kincaid and Eli Joe. Discovering that he is a wanted man simply provided us with a bargaining chip should we find ourselves having a discussion of those events with Mr. Yates."

Vin thought a moment and looked Ezra straight in the eyes. "You're suggestin' that we might take Yates somewhere a little private and talk to him about that?"

"I am." Ezra's grin widened.

"I don't know," Vin shook his head. "Gonna be hard to get him out of jail without somebody noticin' he's gone."

"It could be difficult," Ezra agreed, "but I believe it's an idea worth considering." He hooked his left arm through Vin's right and turned them both back toward the saloon doors. "May I buy you a beer while we give this some thought?"

He nodded, a smile tugging at his mouth and the feeling of contentment back. "I'd be happy to drink over that." He wasn't sure exactly how they'd manage to question Yates, but Ezra was right, the man was likely to know something about the murder of Jess Kincaid.

They were leaning on the bar, well into their second beer when Chris came up beside Vin, mirroring their stance. "Find anything out there, Vin?"

"Nah." Vin looked at Chris. "Didn't expect to."

Chris nodded and turned to face the doors, his elbows resting on the bar behind him. Vin stayed as he was, facing the bar, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ezra, close enough to feel the pressure of the man's arm against his.

Partway through his first beer, Vin had thought through what Ezra's telegram really meant; that Ezra had spent most of the day finding something he could do to help Vin, and had been proud of what he could present to him. By the second beer, he realized how close they were all standing, even with no one else at the bar. Chris was standing at his left shoulder, just as close as Ezra on his right, and he nearly laughed, thinking back to Ezra's comments about Chris's behavior toward him. Life sure was simpler in the days it was just him and his horse, but not nearly as interesting.

As he drained his beer, Vin gestured to the bartender for a bottle of whiskey and three glasses, and turned to face Ezra. "Table?" he asked.

Ezra looked at him, looked at the bottle and glasses and past him to Chris, then nodded.

Turning further, Vin nudged Chris with his elbow and nodded toward an empty table, then reached behind him and grabbed the bottle and glasses and pushed off the bar. Ezra moved with him and they sat, and a moment later Chris joined them.

Vin uncorked the bottle and filled the glasses, sliding one each to Chris and Ezra. Before he finished doing that, Ezra had cards in his hands, shuffling and cutting them, stopping only to sip his whiskey.

"I'm not keen to lose tonight," Vin said.

Ezra smiled. "We could play gin rummy for points and settle the loser's debts in a non-monetary manner."

"I don't believe I'll ask what that means," Chris drawled, "but a friendly game to pass the time would be nice."

"And don't make it no grandma's game," Vin added. "Just set the stakes on the poker plenty low."

Laughing, Ezra shuffled one last time and dealt for five card stud. "Just tonight, gentlemen, we'll play for pennies. Call it keeping score."

The game went on through the evening, stopping once for dinner, expanding a little when Buck and J.D. joined them, the genial conversation passing the time, and Vin watched Chris and Ezra as he played, only giving enough concentration to the game not to do anything stupid, the rest of his thoughts on getting Yates out of jail for a time.

By the time he yawned a third time, Vin realized he was plain exhausted. The week of tension and the ride out today had all caught up with him, but before he left the table to get some sleep, he wanted to settle one thing.

"Chris?" He waited until the man looked up at him to go on. "I'm going to want to borrow Yates from jail for a time tomorrow. Need to have a private talk with him."

Chris made no move for a moment, then gave a quick nod. "You think he knows something?"

"Think it's likely."

A small feral grin touched Chris's mouth. "Don't suppose you want help talking to him."

Vin smiled back, but shook his head. "Promised Ezra he could help. It was his idea in the first place." He glanced at Ezra, catching the quick look of surprise followed by a smile. It was only right, Vin thought, since Ezra had done all the work, to let him share in the fun. Looked like Chris was willing to go along with what he wanted, too. Good. Would make things easier for them come morning.

With that settled, Vin folded up the cards in his hand, tapped them on the table and handed them to Ezra. "Think I'll turn in now." Standing up, he tossed back the last of the whiskey in his glass. "See you boys in the morning."

As he walked away, Vin heard Chris ask "Your idea?" and Ezra start into an explanation of how he'd spent his day. It brought a smile to his face and, even as tired as he was, there was a knot of excitement in his gut. Hope was back and he was going to cling to the feeling that they could learn something from Yates that would help clear his name.

Not quite as early as he would have liked, Vin was in the hardware getting the last few supplies he needed for the talk he and Ezra were going to have with Yates.

He'd started his morning by tapping quietly on Ezra's door, bearing coffee as a peace offering against the earliness of the hour. It wasn't a complete surprise to be greeted by a nearly dressed Ezra who was in the last moments of shaving. The coffee, however, was accepted as manna from heaven.

His next stop had been the general store, then where he was now, the hardware. The last of what he wanted was dropped into a burlap sack, and he headed back toward the saloon, planning on a good breakfast before collecting Yates.

Pushing through the bat-wing doors, he smelled frying bacon and coffee and it started his mouth watering. Ezra was seated at a table in the center of the room, coffee in hand, a plate of biscuits and jam in front of him along with the coffee pot and a second cup.

"Join me, Mr. Tanner," Ezra waved at the empty seats around the table, "Inez assures me eggs and bacon are on their way." Vin did, taking a seat across from Ezra, noting that Ezra had foregone the brocade vests and colorful jackets in his wardrobe for his more practical brown trail coat and a simple string tie.

Pouring coffee for himself, Vin nodded. "Good idea to eat hearty before we head out. No telling how long this conversation might take."

Ezra tilted his head in acknowledgement. "With that in mind, I've asked Inez to prepare us some sandwiches to take along. I have no intention of cutting our time with Yates short due to hunger."

One by one, the rest of the seven came in and took seats at the table with them, drinking coffee, helping themselves to biscuits, none of them talking about what hung heavy in the air.

Finally, J.D. could stand it no longer. "Do you really think Yates is going to talk?"

Vin looked at him for a long moment, seeing the nervous tension in the young man coupled with his youthful eagerness. "Yeah," he answered softly, "I do."


The simple question brought a hard smile to Vin's mouth. "Oh, I've got some real convincing arguments. I expect he'll see the benefit in telling me what I ask."

J.D. opened his mouth to speak again, but was interrupted by Chris. "Kid, I don't think you really want answers to that question."

"Mr. Yates," Ezra said quietly, "is a wanted man." He looked around the table at each man in turn before continuing. "I believe it is our intent to persuade him to talk with a minimum of physical damage, but the information I have gathered says 'alive or dead,' which allows us a certain flexibility in technique."

Ezra met Vin's eyes as he finished speaking, and the unaccustomed hardness he saw there sent a thrill through Vin's gut. More than ever he was convinced that this day would bring them what they were after.

"Flexibility." The word was intoned in Josiah's deep baritone. "Certainly an interesting way of phrasing things."

Wanting to head off thoughts of what they were planning to do to Yates, Vin spoke up. "Don't go on the bother. I plan to bring Yates back to jail pretty much how I take him out." He smiled at J.D. "I don't want to cause you any trouble with having to explain how a prisoner might'a got hurt."

J.D. relaxed visibly, which had Vin wondering just how vivid the young man's imagination was.

"Gentlemen," Ezra drew their attention away from thoughts of what they were going to do to Yates. "I believe that the sooner Vin and I begin our discussion with Mr. Yates, the sooner we will have answers."

Vin stood up, nodding in agreement. "I'll see to the horses, if you'll get Yates ready to travel." He settled his hat on his head, picked up the sack of supplies and headed out to the livery.

Tiny had the extra horse saddled for him and waiting tied outside. Inside, Vin readied his and Ezra's horses quickly and efficiently, tying the sack to the pommel of his saddle. Walking them outside, he mounted his horse, leading Ezra's by the reins, and taking the lead rope for the spare horse and rode down to the jail, one horse on each side of him.

Ezra had Yates outside the jail, and was surrounded by the rest of their friends. Looked like they were going to get quite the send off from everybody, but that was fine. It wouldn't hurt at all for Yates to realize that this wasn't any kind of secret to be kept, that all the peacekeepers in town knew what was going on and approved.

Yates' hands were shackled together behind him, and it took a little extra help to get him into the saddle. Once he was on the horse, Yates looked nothing but sullen. Vin was sure no one had told him what this was about, and he wanted to keep him guessing as long as he could.

Ezra threw his saddlebags over the back of his saddle and mounted up himself, easing over so that he was riding on the opposite side of Yates from Vin.

Vin nodded at Ezra, then looked at Chris. "Thanks for the send off, boys. This goes well, I reckon we'll be back before dark." He gave his horse a squeeze with his legs and pulled on Yates' horse's lead.

They kept to a walk until they were out of town, then settled into a steady jog. It was fortunate that Yates seemed willing to go along quietly, the last thing Vin wanted to hear was a lot of backchat from the man.

By the time they got to the big tree where the gang had nearly hung Vin, Yates was looking a bit pale. Vin grinned. This was going very well. The man's own fear would work in their favor, pushing him harder than anything they could say to him.

Dismounting, Vin handed the lead rope to Ezra, then took the sack off his saddle, pulling out a coil of new rope. Standing deliberately in Yates' line of sight, Vin fashioned a hangman's noose in one end of the rope. He hadn't talked to Ezra about his plan, and hoped Ezra would trust him and go along. Holding the noose, he threw the rest of the coil over the same branch Eli Joe had used.

"Bring him over, Ezra." Ezra urged his horse closer, drawing Yates' horse along with him.

"You can't do this." It was the first time Yates had spoken since they left town.

"Whyever not?" Ezra asked. "According to the notices, you're wanted alive or dead."

"Ain't no different than what you and Eli Joe were going to do to me," Vin added, walking over to hand the noose to Ezra. He stood there while Ezra fitted the rope over Yates' head, cinching the knot down close to his neck. Holding tight to the rope, Vin smacked the horse hard on the rump, waiting until Yates was dragged out of the saddle, then let go, letting Yates fall to the ground unharmed.

"Sorry there, Yates. Horse must have spooked." Vin grabbed Yates by one arm and dragged him to his feet. He jumped back as Yates tried to kick him, pulling on the rope enough to remind Yates of his precarious position. "I don't know that I'd try that again."

Ezra had gathered up all the horses and tied them to another small tree in the grove, then dismounted to join Vin. "Shall we ask him what we want to know, or would you prefer to toy with him for a while?"

Vin pretended to think about it, then looked at Yates. "Aw, hell, I'll give him a chance to make it easy." He handed the rope to Ezra, then stood in front of Yates. "All you got to tell me is who shot Jess Kincaid. You tell me that, we all mount up and ride back to town."

"Go to hell."

"Figured that was what you'd say." He picked up his sack of supplies, pulling out a second smaller burlap bag and fitted it over Yates' head, pulling the drawstring tight enough to keep it on no matter how he struggled. Then he grabbed Yates' arms and spun him around only to let go long enough to grab on to the shackles and pull them up, forcing Yates' hands up between his shoulder blades. A quick gesture to Ezra and he had the rope in his hands, looping it around the shackles and pulling it tight enough that any move Yates made with his hands tightened the noose on his neck. Satisfied with the arrangement, Vin tied the rope securely to the shackles and stepped away.

Ezra stepped up and tugged once on the rope at Yates wrists. "That is an admirable arrangement. Let the man torture himself. I commend you, Mr. Tanner."

"Thanks, Ezra. You think he's smart enough to figure out how it works?"

"I expect so." Ezra walked up to Yates' chest. "Mr. Yates, as you may have noticed, you are at your own mercy. Mr. Tanner has asked nicely for the name of the man who shot Jess Kincaid."

Vin stepped up next to Ezra. "And we're ready to wait as long as we have to to get the answer."

"I told you --"

"Yeah," Vin cut him off. "You said your piece." He stepped back, stopping to take his saddlebags and canteen off his saddle. "If you change your mind, we'll be relaxin' under those trees. Just holler if you want anything."

Ezra was ahead of him with a blanket and his saddlebags. Vin grinned at the idea that they would be having a picnic in the shade of the oak grove while Yates pondered his own fate. He helped spread the blanket, then sprawled out next to Ezra, looking for a moment at Yates, then, putting his hands behind his head, lay back to look up through the leaves at the clear, cloudless sky.

"It's a shame we're not in town," Ezra said softly, "I could make a bundle wagering on how long Yates will last."

Vin turned his head to look at Ezra, "You figure how much it lost you and I'll make it up."

"No." Ezra looked back at him. "Finding out the name will be worth more than any amount of money."

"He knows."

"He does. If he didn't, he'd be protesting. Instead, he thinks he can wait us out."

"I'll let him die, if I have to." It was the one point Vin wasn't sure Ezra would go along with.

Ezra's face didn't betray his thoughts, but he hesitated before answering. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

"Reckon it won't." Vin looked at Yates again, who was standing as still as they'd left him. "He seems a sensible sort, if a mite stubborn."

The first hour went by easily, Yates shifting his feet a bit, testing how much he could move his arms. The second hour was harder for him, but he never lost his footing. By the third hour he was fidgeting steadily, and Vin knew something was up. Few men could stand for that long comfortably, and he'd made sure Yates wasn't comfortable from the start.

"Tanner!" Yates called out.

Vin turned to look at Yates. "You got something to tell me?" he shouted back.

Yates twisted his head around toward them. "I have to go."

Vin slapped a hand over Ezra's mouth to muffle his laughter. "Shush, Ezra, poor guy's gotta go." To Yates, he called out louder. "Don't hold it on my account."

"Bastard!" Yates shouted back.

Ezra was still laughing, and Vin joined him. Yates was holding on to his stubbornness, but the chinks in his armor were starting to show. Vin knew that forcing the man to soil himself would set him on the road to giving in.

"Guess he'll need a bath when we get back to town," Vin said quietly, "can't have him smelling up the jail."

Yates said nothing more for a long time, moving little, but leaning against the rope from time to time. When Yates' knees gave out, Vin had to stop Ezra from going to him, watching instead as the man forced himself to stand up again.

"He won't strangle," Vin assured Ezra. "At least, not fast. Without the drop of a real hanging, we can let him scare himself good before there's a chance he'll stop breathing."

Ezra nodded, but didn't look reassured. "I will trust to your experience in this."

Vin stared at Yates, willing him to give in and tell them the name. It was all they needed, and Yates could go back to the relative comfort and safety of the jail.

Another hour passed, with more than a few incidents of Yates losing his footing and struggling back up, longer moments of his arms pulled up his back and the rope cutting into his neck. Both Vin and Ezra were sitting up, watching attentively, listening for the slightest indication that Yates was ready to talk.

It was well into afternoon before they heard a sound from Yates, a raspy cry, what sounded like the word 'snake'. Instantly, Vin was up on his feet, jogging toward Yates, looking around for evidence of a rattler. Seeing none, he stopped and stood silently. Again, he heard Yates say "snake", louder and more clearly.

"Ain't no snakes here," Vin told him.

"No," Yates rasped, "Snake. Snake Hutchins."

Vin waved to Ezra to get up quick and come over. "You saying Snake Hutchins is who shot Jess Kincaid?" When Ezra got to his side, Vin grabbed his arm and held on, waiting for Yates to answer.

"Snake Hutchins." Yates' voice was dry and brittle, but understandable. "Eli Joe sent Snake to do it. Said Kincaid looked enough like him to fool a bounty hunter, specially if he was shot in the face." Yates wavered on his feet. "Made sure Snake done it and had him set the body to look like he was robbing the place." A breathy chuckle escaped. "Fooled you, plain enough." And that was all Yates had, his knees finally gave out for good and he was at the mercy of the rope.

"Let's get him down." Vin grabbed Yates and held him up enough for Ezra to cut the rope, then laid him out on the ground. For safety's sake, he tied a loop around Yates' feet before pulling off the hood. Yates was pale and sweaty, but breathing.

"You know this Snake Hutchins?" Ezra asked.

"I do, at least by reputation. Stone killer, but none too bright. Real likely he'd do for Eli Joe just for the fun of it. You got a canteen?" Ezra was way ahead of him, ready with water at Yates' lips. They got water down him, and after a few slaps to his face, Yates' eyes opened. "You're a lucky man, Yates, we're going to let you live."

"Don't know that it's lucky. Snake's a nasty man." Yates coughed. "Don't suppose I can have more water?"

It took them another thirty minutes before Vin was sure Yates was able to sit on a horse, and a few more minutes after that to gather their things and ready the horses. By the time they were on the road, the sun was low in the sky and he knew they wouldn't be back before dark. No matter. The moon was early and bright and would give them plenty of light to get back to town.

Not surprisingly, as soon as they could be seen from town, a rider galloped out to meet them. "I been sitting outside the jail all afternoon waiting for you!" J.D. was jigging as much as his horse. "You get it? You get the name?"

"I did, J.D." Vin told him. "I don't suppose you could take this off my hands now?" He held out the lead rope for Yates' horse, laughing as J.D. took it and tried to make the horse gallop in, nearly unseating Yates. "Oh, and he's going to need a bath," Vin called after him.

When J.D. was on his way, Vin eased his horse over so he was knee to knee with Ezra. "We ain't going to have any time on our own for a bit, and I want to say this in private." Ezra nodded. "It's only a start, but having that name is the first real hope I've felt in a long time. And I have to thank you for finding a way to get it." Vin glanced toward town. "If this weren't the public road, I'd grab you right now and show how much it means to me."

Ezra's throaty chuckle burrowed into Vin's gut and warmed him. "And if this wasn't the public road, I'd be happy to be shown." Ezra pointed down the road at the crowd gathering on the edge of town. "But it appears we have a command performance to reveal all we have learned." He reached out quickly and squeezed Vin's hand. "Perhaps sometime much later tonight we can have a moment or two of our own."

"Oh, I hope so." With that, Vin grinned and spurred his horse into a gallop toward town, Ezra following at his heels.

Next to the first of the street fires they were greeted by the rest of their friends, all of them asking the same question, did they learn anything.

"Easy boys," Vin told them as he kept his horse walking toward the livery, "let me get him taken care of and a beer in my hand, and you can ask anything you want."

When the horses were taken care of, Vin slung his arm over Ezra's shoulders, walking him toward the saloon. The credit for what they did today was going to be shared, and he knew Ezra was more comfortable in the limelight than he was. He pushed Ezra through the saloon doors ahead of him and followed him to the largest table in the place, already populated by the rest of the peacekeepers and spread with frothy mugs of beer.

Vin sat down and grabbed the nearest mug, draining half the glass, then looked at the expectant faces ringed around the table. "Turns out Ezra figured right. Yates knew who did the Jess Kincaid murder. And he told us. Nasty fella name of Snake Hutchins."

None of the rest of the men reacted to the name.

"Not surprised you don't know him. Mostly rode in Texas and New Mexico, mostly as a hired killer."

"You know where to find him?" Chris asked.

"Not yet," Vin answered. "Figure I'll think on what I remember about him and where he preferred to work. Start from there."

"I'll ask Mary if she has anything in her newspaper clippings," J.D. offered. "Oh, and you were right. Had to dump Yates in a tub of water to get the stench off him. Thanks for the warning."

Vin grinned at him. "Sorry to leave you with the mess. I owe you one for that."

Buck leaned forward with a grin, his elbows on the table. "You going to tell us how you convinced Yates to talk?"

Vin looked at Ezra, who shook his head. "No, I don't reckon we will."

"I believe it's enough to say that it was a very effective technique that Mr. Tanner learned in his various travels amongst the native tribes.

"Indian torture?" J.D.'s eyes were wide.

"Now, son, did Mr. Yates appear to be tortured?" Ezra asked calmly. "You did get quite a chance to see his condition when you cleaned him up."

"No. No, I guess not." J.D.'s grin was back. "Mostly looked spooked.

"And there you have it." Ezra sat back, beer mug in hand. "Yates is unharmed, Vin has the name he needed. All is right again in the world."

Except for Ezra having lost the saloon, Vin thought, but that wasn't something easily solved. Maybe something not to be solved at all, but it wasn't so much about the loss of the saloon as the loss of a dream. What he could do now was ask Ezra to help him find Snake Hutchins, and once his name was cleared, he could turn his efforts to working on Ezra's dreams.