Cold Hard Cash
Spoilers: References to the pilot and Working Girls
"Light she was and like a fairy, and her shooooooes were number nine . . . Herring boxes without topses, sandals were for Clementiiiiine . . . O my darlin', O my darlin', O my --"
"--God! Am I gonna have to shoot you to shut him up?" Chris Larabee spun in his saddle and shot a poisonous glare at the source of his misery for the past day and a half.
Ezra Standish blinked innocently back at him.
"It wounds me to the quick, Mr. Larabee," the gambler replied, clutching at his heart in mock offense. "That after all this time, you cannot distinguish my singing voice from Mr. Wilmington's atonal caterwauling."
"I know who's singing," Larabee snapped. Years of painful experience had taught him the utter futility of trying to cut Buck off in mid- serenade. "I also know who keeps setting him off!"
Riding ahead, lost in the moment, Buck Wilmington was soulfully and tunelessly consigning Clementine to the foaming brine -- again. She'd gone under for the first time as they entered the foothills and her luck wasn't improving as they neared the summit. Larabee winced as a particularly sour note ricocheted off steep granite cliffs and echoed down the mountainside. Eleven verses. The goddamn song had eleven goddamned verses. Buck claimed that the only way to get a song out of his head, once it got stuck in there, was to sing it out. Before Clementine he'd been stuck on Aura Lee, before Aura Lee, it was Snagtooth Sal, before Sal, the entire morning had been devoted to A Cowboy's Best Friend is His Pony. And the less said about yesterday's horrifying medley of Me and My Burro and the Streets of Laredo, the better.
The man in black cast a resigned eye skyward. Half an hour. Half an hour and they'd be in Flint Ridge and Buck would find something else to occupy his mind -- or at least his mouth.
Larabee scowled resentfully at Ezra as the horses splashed through a shallow mountain stream. Standish ignored the look, slowed his mount, and made a great show of peering down into the creek bed. Larabee felt his fingers twitch in small, involuntary throttling gestures.
Buck, his solo over, caught the byplay and turned back to rejoin his audience. Grinning, he wheeled the big gray around in the water, churning up enough mud to obscure the view of the bottom.
"C'mon Ez! You know they panned all the easy gold out of these streams years ago," Buck's grin widened as water splashed Ezra's boots and trousers. Ezra's chestnut danced away from the unwelcome shower, snorting in disgust.
Standish flicked stray droplets off his knee. "One must keep one's eyes open for any opportunity, Mr. Wilmington," he replied, pitching his voice to carry to the opposite bank where Larabee waited. Without another word, he urged Chaucer out of the water and up the trail.
Gritting his teeth, Chris let the remark pass, hoping to preserve the blessed silence. Twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes and they'd be in Flint Ridge. To their left, the ground dropped sharply away, offering a spectacular and unsettling view half the Territory, spread out far, far below. Larabee eased his horse a little more to the right.
He pulled his hat brim lower as a chill November drizzle began to fall. For several minutes, the only sounds were horses' hooves, picking carefully up the uneven trail. Buck took a swig out of his canteen. Ezra hunched into his thick overcoat, staring stonily ahead. Ordinarily, a mission like this, in weather like this, would be enlivened by the complaints and recriminations of the southerner, dragged from the home comforts of gaming table and feather bed. Larabee twitched irritably. If nothing else, Ezra's chatter usually gave Buck something to think about besides singing.
Standish had barely said a word this trip.
Which was not to say he'd been silent.
Somewhere behind Larabee on the trail, somebody started whistling. Four hideously familiar notes.
"In a canyon, in a cavern, excavating for a miiiiiiine . . ." Buck was off again.
"Gawd damnit, Ezra!"
+ + + + + + +
Three choruses later, they reached the outskirts of the mining camp. A single dirt road snaked upslope between the tents and wooden shacks that passed for a town. Muddy men shambled between the buildings, stooped from months and years spent hunched over sluice boxes and creek beds, coaxing minute flecks of gold out of their nearly played-out stakes.
Chris Larabee had seldom seen a more welcome sight.
"I'll go find the bank manager," he said, dismounting with a grunt of relief in front of the livery. "Buck, you're with me. Ezra, you see to the horses. We'll meet up with you at the saloon, after." He waited for the gambler to perk up at the mention of the saloon, or bristle at the extra work. But Ezra just stared evenly at him for a moment, nodded once, and held out a hand for the reins. His rigid back spoke volumes as he led the horses away.
Chris bit back an oath. Turning, he saw Buck watching him speculatively.
"Don't give me that look, Buck. I had to talk circles around the Judge just to keep Ezra on this mission at all," Larabee stomped uphill toward one of the more solid-looking structures in town. "Hell if I know why I bothered."
They barged into the First Territorial Bank of Flint Ridge, a grand title for a log cabin with a floor safe. Rough men, hands held protectively over their pockets, waited in a line that snaked to the door. A lone teller scribbled in a bound ledger while a burly customer in a scorched leather apron drummed his fingers on the counter impatiently.
"Cox?" Larabee barked, elbowing to the front of the line. The pudgy specimen behind the counter flinched.
"I-I'm Edwin Cox, yes. Bank manager," the man admitted, finishing his entry with a nod to the blacksmith, who swept a large bundle off the counter and left. "I assume you are the regulators come to escort the gold shipment to Four Corners?"
Wordlessly, Chris pulled out the proper documents and handed them over. Buck crossed the room to warm his hands over the coal stove, humming softly under his breath. The other customers grumbled, but held their places in line.
"These all seem to be in order, but I'm afraid you may have gone to a great deal of effort for very little reason," the bank manager said, gulping as Larabee's expression soured from scowl to full-blown glare.
Cox beckoned the lawmen around the counter. "Look, " he said, pulling the safe open. Inside was a reinforced, lead-sealed canvas sack, about the size of a man's fist.
"THIS is the gold shipment?" Buck scoffed. "Dang, son. You don't need three hired guns to guard that stash. You coulda tucked it in your pocket and rode it down to Four Corners yourself."
"How much is it worth?" Larabee asked, waving Buck off.
"It's mostly gold dust, a few nuggets," Cox said. "Five-hundred and sixty-two dollars' worth, more or less, depending on the exchange rate."
"We were told the quarterly gold shipments out of Flint Ridge averaged between $5,000 and $10,000," Larabee said, reaching in and hefting the puny sack experimentally. Cox made an abortive grab for the bag, but backed off as the lawman switched his glare from the bank safe to the bank manager.
"We were expecting at least thirty pounds of gold," Larabee pressed. "This is, what? Two pounds? Where's the rest of it? The mines finally go bust?"
"Two pounds, four ounces," Cox grumbled under his breath. "Actually, it's been a better-than-average season," he added, relaxing as Larabee replaced the gold in the safe. "We've had some lucrative strikes. But . . . apparently the customers no longer care to deposit their gold with the bank. One of the merchants in town has been offering a much better rate than I'm permitted to match."
He indicated the generous stacks of bills that filled most of the safe. "Our transactions over the past two months have been almost entirely monetary. I wish I could send those deposits back with you, but as you know, you're only authorized to transport the gold."
Well then. Chris threw up his hands and left, with a promise to return in the morning to collect the gold for the return trip to Four Corners.
Out on the street, he heaved a disgusted sigh and looked around, trying to decide which of the three seedy-looking taverns would have drawn the gambler. Buck sidled up beside him. Larabee closed his eyes, knowing what was coming.
"Whoo-ee, five hundred big ones! Good thing you came along with us, Old Dog. No telling what ol' Ez mighta done with five hundred in gold rattlin' around loose," Buck hooted. "Why, he mighta just snuck the loot into his boot and rode off into the sunset to start his life of ease . . ."
"Enough, Buck!" Chris snapped, picking a saloon at random and heading toward it. "We've been over this. You can't trust Ezra around money. He's proven that time and again."
Buck stopped in the middle of the street and watched his old friend storm off, pedestrians scattering out of his way like startled pigeons.
"Aw, Chris," he sighed. "You want to tell me how he could betray a trust you never gave him?"
Then he turned and headed in the opposite direction, toward the slightly cleaner-looking saloon he knew Ezra would favor.
+ + + + + + +
There was Ezra, up ahead. Not planted comfortably at the poker table closest to the fire, but standing on the rough boardwalk, three saddlebags slung awkwardly over his shoulders, deep in conversation with a particularly filthy old miner. Mustache twitching in curiosity, Buck hurried over to join them.
"Ey, Ez!" he clapped the smaller man on the back, holding out a hand for his bag.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled, shrugging off all three bags for Buck to catch. "Allow me to introduce a new acquaintance, one of the very pillars of this City of Gold, Mister, ah . . . Pete."
"Lucky Pete's the name, sonny!" the old man chirped, catching Wilmingon's hand in a bony shake. He was wrapped in a shapeless fur coat that looked and smelled like poorly tanned beaver pelts. Wispy white hair and beard filled most of the narrow space between the coat and his coonskin cap. Buck had the fleeting impression that he was shaking hands with an overgrown badger. The old man's button-black eyes twinkled up at him through a tangle of animal and human hair. "I was just filling yer frilly friend here in on the whys and wherefores of Flint Ridge."
"Do tell, old timer," Buck encouraged, planting a hand in the middle of each man's back and steering them toward the saloon, where the ladies and liquor awaited.
Ezra sidestepped him neatly.
"If you would be kind enough to order the first round for us," he made a shooing gesture toward the bar. "We shall return after a brief sojourn to the local mercantile. Our hirsute friend has been informing me of some absolutely . . . fascinating business practices at that establishment." With that, he freed Pete from Buck's clutches and moved off.
Buck looked longingly toward the saloon. Oil lamps glowed through its windows. The sounds of laughter, clinking glasses and piano music filtered out into the street. A girl in a feathery pink dress brushed by him, giggling, on her way inside. Reluctantly, he turned to watch the mismatched pair moving away through the gathering twilight. Ezra strolled along, pausing from time to time to admire the shabby goods on display in a shop window, or to tip his hat to a bemused miner. Lucky Pete bounded ahead, talking a mile a minute. Buck shivered. The wind had begun to pick up and a few flakes of snow now mixed with the drizzle. He looked back at the bar. The saddlebags were digging into his shoulders and mud from the street was seeping into his boots. He sighed.
"Hey Ez! Wait up!"
+ + + + + + +
Like the bank, Hardwick's Dry Goods was crowded. Unlike the bank, these customers carried gold. Behind the counter, a young man with a dreamy smile and a mop of dark curls was adjusting the weights on a large brass scale against a small pile of gold nuggets in the balance.
"Four ounces," he informed a tall man leaning waiting anxiously on the other side of the counter. The miner broke into a broad smile as the shopkeeper counted three bills into his hand. "That's $160 to you, Mr. Miller."
"You okay there, pard?" Buck gave the spluttering man a few helpful thumps across the back. "Sight of all that free-range gold got ya all choked up?" Ezra didn't even react to the blows as he gaped at the gold being tipped off the scale and into a small bag. The clerk shot an amused glance at the new arrivals as he ducked into a back room with the bundle.
"Twice! Twice the going rate . . ." Ezra muttered incredulously. He spun Buck around to face him. "Twice the going rate!" He rounded on Lucky Pete. "How--?" With a shake of his head, he returned his attention to the counter, one hand going up to tap thoughtfully at his gold premolar.
"Don't even think about it, Ez," Buck warned. Ezra let the hand drop.
The tall miner fingered his new money roll for a moment, looking over the store shelves, then tucked the cash in his pocket with a grimace, and headed out the door.
Buck couldn't blame him. For a store rolling in gold, Hardwick's didn't boast much of a selection. The half-empty shelves held a depressing selection of battered, unappealing goods, stacked in a confusing jumble. Leaving Ezra to his rapt study of the balance scale, he wandered the aisles with Lucky Pete tagging along behind him.
"Locusts swarm through here or something?" Buck asked the old timer, stooping to study a shelf that held nothing but a few cans of tinned peas and a bolt of blue calico cloth. He poked a finger at a leaking sack of cornmeal that had been stacked unwisely on top of a bin of penny nails on the shelf below.
"Naw, boy. Supply line's just running a little slow, is all," Lucky Pete replied, shuffling around the bottles and boxes in a wall display to try to make the gaps less visible. "Ain't no telegraph, but we sent a rider last week to see what's holdin' up the mule train. Should be getting in any day now." He tipped the fur hat back on his forehead and winked at the lanky lawman. "Now, if there was somethin' you was wanting special in the meantime, I got me some connections in town . . ."
Buck stopped listening as a flash of color in the corner caught his eye. He left Pete to his shelf straightening.
"What have we here?" he said, pulling a large, unframed painting out from behind an empty crate and a display of pickaxes.
A trio of plump ladies, naked as the day they were born, peeked coyly over their shoulders at him. Buck let out a low whistle and patted their painted bottoms approvingly. Nudging the pickaxes aside, he discovered more pictures stacked against the wall. The next one had naked ladies too. With a happy grunt, Buck plopped down on the floor in front of them, piling the saddlebags into a comfortable backrest. This could take a while.
+ + + + + + +
One after another, the customers shuffled up to the counter with their bags of gold. The young man behind the cash register took the measure of each find -- a few pinches of gold dust here, a handful of nuggets there, and a few strikes so lucrative Ezra could feel his palms start to sweat.
Lucky Pete hailed the clerk and was waved into the back room to collect a delivery. He left with a wink and a wave to Ezra. Last in line was a weather-beaten man, accompanied by a boy who couldn't have been much more than 10 years old. With great care, the man lifted a small metal strongbox onto the counter.
"Ike," the clerk greeted, a look of pleasant surprise on his face. "Didn't expect to see you here today."
The man smiled gently as he unlocked the box, revealing several twine- tied parcels. "We're cashing out, Noah," he said, handing the first bundle over. "Time for Ned and me to get back to his Ma and sisters. We been too long away."
"Looks like you've done well for yourselves. I'm happy for you, Ike," the clerk said, untying each package and emptying it onto the scale. He checked the measurements and jotted numbers on a scrap of paper, screwing up his face as he worked the math. "Looks like I owe you an even $2,700 . . ." He turned to the cash register.
"Pa," young Ned's stage whisper carried clearly as he tugged at his father's sleeve. "That ain't right."
The older man hesitated for a second, then nodded slowly. "The boy's real good with figures, Noah. We worked it out last night. That there is five pounds, seven ounces of gold. At your rates, that oughta come to . . ." He glanced down at his son.
"Two-thousand, six-hundred and eighty dollars," Ned supplied. He beamed as his father tousled his hair.
The storekeeper blushed. "I guess I rounded it off a bit. Consider it a farewell present, if you will." The miner hesitated, but Hardwick passed the thick stack of bills across the counter anyway. "Maybe you can pick up a few new books for that clever boy of yours."
With a wordless nod of thanks, Ike placed the money in the strongbox, locked it tight and tucked it under his coat. They exchanged wary smiles with Ezra as they left. The bell over the front door chimed their exit.
The clerk -- Mr. Hardwick, Ezra presumed -- turned to him, eyebrows raised expectantly.
Ezra flashed him a golden smile.
+ + + + + + +
Naked lady. Bowl of fruit. Naked ladies -- Buck paused for a moment of silent appreciation, then flipped to the next painting. Landscape. Naked man -- ugh. Bowl of fruit . . .
Behind him, the bell over the door chimed the last customer's exit. He could hear the rise and fall of the conversation between Ezra and the shopkeeper.
Naked lady. Landscape. Buck flipped to the next picture and paused.
"Well helloooo, darlin'," he greeted. The redhead in the portrait ignored him and continued to gaze pensively into the distance, apparently unaware that her dress was sliding off one of her shoulders. The girl's long auburn hair glowed softly around her shoulders, framing a face that was flawless, serene and achingly sweet. Buck, who had seen more pictures of half-naked ladies hanging behind more bars than he could number, had never seen the like of this.
"You got a name?" he asked her.
"Flora," The voice didn't come from the canvas. Buck craned his head around to see the shopkeeper beaming down at him.
"You know this sweet thing?" he pulled Flora closer. Maybe she was one of the saloon girls . . .
Hardwick threw his head back and laughed. "You might say that. I painted her."
Buck scrambled to his feet, holding the painting carefully by its edges. "Well, let's close up shop and you can introduce me to the model!" He turned and almost collided with Ezra. The gambler smiled apologetically.
"I'm afraid it wouldn't be a very lively encounter, Buck," he said, tilting the canvas for a better look. "Unless I'm mistaken, the young lady in question sat for her portrait more than three centuries ago." He cocked an eyebrow at the artist. "Correct me if I am wrong, sir, but I could have sworn this portrait was on display . . . elsewhere."
The boy's eyes widened. "Italy," he confirmed. "I painted this copy a few years ago when it was on loan to a museum in New York. You recognize it? You know Titian's work?" Without waiting for a reply, Harwick tugged Ezra over to the other paintings. He pointed to different images, babbling on about brushstrokes and composition and the difficulty of finding quality paint and inks on top of a mountain in the middle of the Territory. Buck was left holding the painting, feeling strangely bereft. Three hundred years. Nothing left of poor Flora now but a sweet smile on cold canvas.
+ + + + + + +
The flare of annoyance Ezra had felt when Noah Hardwick changed the topic of conversation from gold to art faded as he studied the paintings. He recognized many of them from galleries or the homes of his mother's wealthy marks.
"If I may ask, what is a young man of your God-given talents doing in a place like this?" he asked warily, schooling his face into an expression of simple admiration. "In more civilized parts of this country, quality reproductions of the great masters are worth their weight in gold. You should be established in your own gallery, not here peddling canned goods."
For a moment, a look of pure misery flashed across the boy's face, then he was smiling again. "Oh, I wouldn't feel right about selling imitations. I'd rather be known for my own work."
Ezra looked over the collection. "Are any of your original creations numbered among these masterpieces?"
The boy shook his head quickly. "Oh, my paintings aren't fit to be seen."
Ezra glanced skeptically from the boy to the closest painting -- young ballerinas preparing for a recital. He recognized the artist as one of the bold new French painters who were taking Paris by storm.
"Oh, I'm a fair copyist," Hardwick hurried on. "But I don't seem to be able to create anything very . . . original on my own." Ezra nodded, understanding, feeling a pang of sympathy for the boy.
"I'm saving up to study in Paris. Maybe if I could find the right teacher . . ."
"Perhaps," Ezra broke in, wrestling the conversation back to its original topic. "You would make more progress in your fund raising if you were not buying gold at twice the market value? You do know that twenty dollars per troy ounce is the standard rate of exchange, do you not, Mr. Hardwick?"
The boy laughed. "It's nice of you to worry, sir, and I know I'm not the world's best businessman. But I need gold if I'm going overseas. This just seemed like the quickest way to get it."
"Ah. Well, in that case, I wish you every good fortune," Ezra said. With a polite nod, he turned to collect Buck, who was consoling himself over the loss of Flora by setting up a private gallery in the aisle, composed entirely of naked ladies.
+ + + + + + +
"So you're not gonna sell him your eyeteeth, Ez?" Buck asked as they stepped out onto the street and started back toward the saloon. "I mean, it's not every day a man offers you a two-fer-one deal on gold."
"A tempting offer indeed," Ezra replied absently, glancing back at the now-darkened storefront. "Almost too good to be true."
Ahead, the saloon beckoned, with an agitated Chris Larabee pacing out front.
"But that's a matter for the working day," Ezra shook off the nameless anxiety the shabby store and its treasures had inspired, and rubbed his hands together in anticipation
"For now, the night is young, the gaming tables await, and our Mr. Larabee appears in dire need of a libation."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish flashed a bright, insincere, smile at the poker table at large as he raised the stakes yet again. The smile broadened to sincerity at the sound of Larabee's disgusted groan as he was forced to fold. This was the worst run of luck the gunslinger had had at the tables since . . . well, the last time Ezra had been pissed off at him.
On his left, Buck was paying less attention to his cards than to the giggly saloon girl on his knee. It was the girl with the pink feathers, of course. Her name, he had been delighted to learn, was Cora. Close enough.
"Nice haul you got there, Ez," Buck hollered over the noise of the crowd as Standish raked in the pot. "You win any more and we're gonna need to bring in a few extra men to escort yer boots back to Four Corners."
Ezra snorted. Of all his fellow lawmen, Buck Wilmington took the most matter-of-fact view of the ex-con man's occasional bouts of raw avarice. Greed might be one of the seven deadly sins, but then again so was lust. Buck wasn't one to judge.
He glanced to the right, where Larabee was glaring at the atrocious hand he'd just been dealt. It was supposed to be JD sitting there. Standish, Wilmington, Dunne. Those were the next three names on the duty roster. Those were the three who would have been sent out if this had been a prisoner transport, or escort duty, or any one of a thousand tasks that didn't involve money.
Ezra brooded over his cards, wondering if it would have been less humiliating if Larabee had simply replaced him on the mission, instead of JD. His gaze drifted down to the winnings piled casually between his elbows. At least the expedition hadn't been a total loss. He did enjoy boom towns. Men were so much more willing to part with their money if they thought there was more of it just waiting to be dug out of the ground.
He could hear the leader of the Seven grumbling as he rooted in his pocket for enough money to meet the ante. Frankly, Ezra was surprised Larabee hadn't tossed in his cards long ago and retreated to a quiet corner to drink away the aggravations of the day. He allowed himself a small smile. Two pounds of gold. Larabee had dragged himself up a mountain in the rain to safeguard a pocketful of gold from the rapacious Ezra Standish.
The smile faded. Two pounds of gold. Ezra had seen twice that amount tip the scales at the hardware store in a single transaction. His eyes fixed on the pasteboard cards in his hands as he turned the problem over and over in his mind. There was something seriously amiss in this town. He glanced right again, wondering if there was any possible way to broach the topic of gold or money without sending Larabee into orbit.
"Seeing as how you're having such a run of luck, I'm guessing the next round's on you, pard." Buck's voice broke into his thoughts, as Buck's hand snaked toward his winnings. Ezra batted the hand away.
Buck tried again, but only succeeded in knocking his half-full glass of beer onto both the money and sleeve of Ezra's favorite red jacket. The card sharp sprang back from the table, cursing. The other players clapped sarcastically. Laughing, Buck pulled off his neckerchief and blotted at the sodden dollars.
"Aw . . . now ain't that a shame. But hey, as long as they smell like beer anyway . . ." his voice trailed off as he stared at the $50 bill he was wiping. The crisp lines and letters were blurring. The picture in the center was smearing into an indistinguishable blob. Buck lifted the bandanna and stared at the spreading ink stain on the fabric.
"What the--" his indignant squawk choked off as Ezra dropped one hand over the money and another onto his shoulder -- and squeezed down hard.
"Well, Mr. Wilmington. That ends the evening's entertainment for me. Perhaps you'd like to make it up to me by buying me dinner?" He squeezed harder.
"Dinner? Oof! Right . . . dinner. Great idea, there, Ez. Let's eat," Buck agreed, a pained smile fixed on his face. In one smooth motion, Ezra swept up money, hat and coat and was halfway to the door before a confused Larabee could even thrown down his cards. Buck gave Cora a quick peck on the cheek, with a promise to return for more, and hurried to follow, rubbing his shoulder.
Larabee waited a moment, mightily tempted to just ignore them both and order another bottle or three. With a snarl at the puddle where Ezra had been, he shoved back from the table and stalked out of the saloon.
Outside, his breath hit the night air in a puff of vapor. Buck waved to him from the door of the boarding house down the street.
"This had better be good, Buck," Larabee warned, as he closed the distance between them, boots crunching on frostbitten mud.
Buck crooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Ezra's waiting upstairs."
"This had better be good, Ezra," he tried again, as the three of them crowded into Standish's rented room.
Ezra cocked an eyebrow at him and, with a showman's flourish, produced a $20 bill from his pocket. With another wave of his hand, he lifted a glass of water off the nightstand and dunked the note inside. Then he set the glass on the table and backed off, staring at it intently.
Larabee could feel the vein in his temple start to throb. He opened his mouth to tell Ezra just what he could do with his glass of dollar- water -- when the water began to change color. Ink wafted off the paper in lazy green and gray swirls, the image blurring slowly into nothing more than the abstract impression of a dollar bill. He closed his mouth with a snap.
"It appears that we now know what happened to the rest of the quarterly gold shipment," Ezra observed, moving over to the wash basin, where the rest of his evening's winnings were soaking. He poked a finger into the inky brew, revealing more mushy paper, mixed with a few genuine, though soggy, bills -- most likely the ones the three of them had chipped into the pot.
"Um. We do?" Buck asked uneasily. He pulled out the $15 he'd won tonight, holding the bills up to the light, trying to spot the fraud.
Chris was still staring at the glass of water. The dollar inside had faded to nothing more than a stained scrap of paper, suspended in gray water. "Bank manager said one of the shopkeepers was buying up all the gold in town," he said slowly, looking up to meet Ezra's uneasy gaze.
"Indeed. We met the young man in question. He is buying gold at forty dollars per ounce. An offer literally too good to be true," Ezra agreed, fishing a few authentic bills out of the basin. "I must admit, this is the last place on Earth I would expect to find someone running a counterfeiting ring. Look . . ." he pulled the ten from Buck's fingers. "It is an excellent forgery on high-quality bond paper. The design itself is flawless." He scratched a fingernail over the bill. The counterfeiters had even reproduced the raised intaglio printing of a genuine greenback.
"A true work of art," he said, holding the bill close to the flame of the kerosene lamp and allowing one corner to catch fire. "If they had only let the ink dry properly." He held the burning bill until the flames licked his fingers, then let it drop into the basin with the rest.
A work of art. "Damn," Buck sighed. "I liked that kid."
Larabee, meanwhile, was looking at Ezra with narrowed, suspicious eyes. "You seem to know a hell of a lot about counterfeiting, Standish." Damnit, was there a single crime, a single scam, a single low-down, dirty, despicable deed the ex-con man hadn't experienced first-hand?
Ezra read the condemnation in his eyes. "I have some passing acquaintance with the practice, yes," he said, keeping his voice level and his expression neutral. "But it is a risky venture, and one I felt it was wisest to avoid in general." He paused, then continued regretfully. "Counterfeiting currency is a federal offense."
Buck slumped down on the bed. Gawd, what a mess.
"All right," Chris said, straightening. "Let's go get this guy."
Ezra frowned and glanced out the window to the street below, where the Friday night saloon crowds still reeled merrily between establishments, intent on drinking away their newfound riches. "Perhaps, Mr. Larabee, we should wait until morning, when there are fewer people about?" he suggested tentatively.
"And what, give you a chance to unload the rest of the fake bills you won tonight?" Larabee snarled, advancing toward the smaller man. Standish held his ground, staring up at him, unblinking. Larabee altered course and headed toward the door. "We need to get this guy before he has time to leave town or hide the gold."
Standish slid in front of him, blocking the exit.
"And how do you think the people in this town will react when you tell them that they've traded away their gold for worthless scraps of paper?"
Larabee elbowed him roughly aside and headed back down the stairs. Buck snapped out of his daze and rushed to follow, throwing an unhappy look back at Ezra as he went. Ezra stood, rubbing his ribs, and watched them go.
"Maybe we should hold off, Chris," Buck said as they thumped down the stairs. "Take the bitty bag of gold back to Four Corners, round up the troops . . ."
"No time." Larabee hit the streets and looked around. "You," he grabbed the first body that walked by -- a familiar, hairy form. "Who's the law around here?"
Lucky Pete stared at him, wide-eyed, swaying slightly. The overpowering aroma of dead beaver now mingled with the reek of rotgut whisky.
"Got us a justice o' the peace," he hiccuped.
"Take us to him," Larabee said, grabbing the old man. He was careful to hold him at arm's length.
+ + + + + + +
"The hell you say!" Justice Malachy Potts scrambled out of a rumpled bed in Miz Sadie's cathouse, clutching a stained sheet around himself as he dove for his pants and money clip.
The equally rumpled woman in the bed slipped a robe around her shoulders and shrank into a corner as Larabee put on another dollar- water demonstration. Potts turned an alarming shade of purple as he watched. The woman let out an enraged shriek and barreled out the door, screaming for Sadie. Larabee turned to call after her, and noticed that Lucky Pete had vanished as well.
Larabee could hear the word spreading through the house. People were banging on doors, calling out to each other, their voices questioning, then frightened, then furious. Larabee glanced at the apoplectic judge and realized he wouldn't be in any shape to swear out warrants for a while. He stepped into the hall, only to be knocked back against the wall by a press of bodies rushing for the exits. The alarmed cries spread to the street.
Oh God. Larabee grabbed Buck and forged ahead through the crowd. Outside, people were milling around, searching for someone, anyone with an answer or an explanation. Some gathered around the horse troughs, staring at the dollars floating on the water's surface, visible in the wavering light of overhead lanterns. A man ran out of one of the saloons with a pitcher of beer, already turning inky black.
"We have to get to get to that store before they figure it out," Larabee hissed in Buck's ear. Wilmington nodded and led the way to Hardwick's.
The dry goods store stood dark and silent, in sharp contrast with the rest of the town. The noise of the crowd escalated to a continuous roar as people took to the streets. Lights burned in every window. People were pouring out of the saloons, the cathouse, the nearby tents and cabins, cursing and waving handfuls of worthless scrip. Larabee pounded on the door. No answer. He and Wilmington exchanged a long look and loosened their guns in their holsters.
"I'm gonna check around back," Chris said. "You stay here and keep everybody out."
He slipped around the side of the building, feeling his way through the darkness. `Should have listened to Ezra,' a tiny voice in his head taunted him unhelpfully. The tiny voice had a decidedly southern accent. Where the heck was Ezra, anyway?
He tripped over something and nearly went sprawling. Reaching down, he recognized the outline of a root cellar and felt a draft of slightly warmer air against his face. The door was open.
He was turning back and collect Buck, Ezra and a couple of lanterns when something smashed against the side of his head, sending him crashing down into even greater darkness.
+ + + + + + +
Buck paced and fretted, watching the crowd down the street grow in size and volume. Small groups of men would break off from the main body from time to time, darting toward the bank, or the stables or the hills, before retreating back to the group to wave their arms and yell some more.
When they finally figured it out, he could read it in their body language before he heard them take up the cry. "Hardwick!" "It was Hardwick!" "Get the bastard!" "Get the gold!"
As one, the crowd surged forward, stampeding toward the store and the lone man who stood in their way. Buck backed up onto the porch, reaching for his guns, but unable to bring himself to draw on unarmed men.
"Hold on there, folks!" he called, spreading his arms wide as if he could catch the crowd and hold it back with his bare hands. "I'm the law out of Four Corners. Why don't we all settle down and talk this out--" The fastest men in the crowd reached the porch and plowed into him like he wasn't even there.
The press of bodies swept him back, slamming him against the store's locked door. The wood shuddered under the impact, but held. The people at the back of the crowd pressed forward, shoving and jostling. Buck clawed at the backs and shoulders of the men who pinned him, trying to break free, trying to reach his guns, trying to breathe. He could feel his ribs creaking, saw the world around him going gray as he choked. Dimly, he felt the window at his back shatter as his shoulder was shoved through the glass, felt the wooden door splinter and crack beneath his weight and the combined weight of the crowd.
He felt himself falling. And then he felt nothing at all.
+ + + + + + +
The sound of gunshots jolted Chris Larabee back to painful consciousness. On reflex, he lurched his feet and staggered back down the alley, following the glow of torches and lanterns in the street. The light stabbed at his eyes and aggravated the throbbing pain in his head. `What happened?' he wondered vaguely. `Ought to ask Buck.'
He rounded the corner and paused, his addled brain struggling to process the scene before him. A crowd of at least thirty men stood frozen, staring at a man who stood in the middle of the street with a smoking rifle in one hand and a small reinforced canvas sack, about the size of a man's fist, in the other.
"Gentlemen!" Ezra Standish leveled the rifle at the the men crowding into the shattered shop. "That is my associate your are trampling. If you would be good enough to remove your persons from his person? Thank you, most kind. You in the dungarees? That is his solar plexus, not a door mat . . . Marvelous. The rest of you, step away from him as well. Yes, toward me. Closer . . . That's it."
The miners filed out of the store, but kept a wary distance from Standish, even after he slid the rifle into the crook of his arm, freeing both hands to work the bag open.
"If you would direct your attention to the object I hold in my left hand," Ezra's voice took on the cadence of a sideshow barker. "I have here a token of goodwill and a small down payment on the fortunes you have lost." He fished inside the bag with two fingers and extracted a small object that caught the torchlight and glittered.
A gold nugget.
The crowd let out an animal moan and took a collective step closer to the con man.
"We will recover your gold," Ezra told them, holding his ground. "But in the meantime . . . You!" He nodded to a seedy figure lurking on the far edge of the mob. "You look like a trustworthy soul. Perhaps you could ensure that this gold is distributed fairly among all claimants?"
Ezra lobbed the bag to the startled lurker, who caught it against his chest, sending up a puff of gold dust. The man stared at the bag. The crowd stared at the man. Without a word, he turned and bolted into the night, with the entire mob in hot pursuit.
Larabee staggered toward the store entrance and the familiar pair of boots he'd spotted on the floor inside. Buck lay unmoving on the shattered glass and kindling that had been the front door. Blood pooled slowly beneath his right shoulder.
"Buck?" Larabee dropped to his knees next to his friend, barely noticing when Ezra stepped over them both and moved into the store.
"We must be quick, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, yanking a bolt of cloth off one shelf, a few bottles and boxes off another. He crouched beside them and got his first good look at Larabee. "Oh my. I may need more calico," he muttered, surveying the damage.
Larabee squinted at him, trying to frame a suitably rude response. While he thought the matter over, Ezra opened Buck's coat and ran his hands over his ribcage and neck. Finding nothing that seemed likely shift in transit, he rolled Wilmington gently into a sitting position, hissing as his hands touched broken glass and blood.
"Up you go, Buck," Ezra cajoled, pressing a wad of cloth against his back. Wilmington groaned in protest, his head lolling. "Mr. Larabee? Could you assist me?" Chris squinted harder, wishing Buck and Ezra would stop spinning like that. It was making him queasy.
"Ask a stupid question," Ezra sighed. "Very well then, one foot in front of the other, shall we? Left. . ." Buck's eyes fluttered open, and he shifted one foot obligingly. "Then right . . ." The other foot moved into position and Ezra carefully heaved the taller man upright, propping him up against the wall to keep him from toppling over. Buck coughed weakly, mumbled something.
There was a noise outside the door, a boot scuffing across wood. Ezra pulled his Remington without loosening his hold on Buck.
"Mr. Standish?" A voice floated out of the darkness. Ezra holstered the weapon.
Larabee still hadn't moved from his place on the floor. He could hear Ezra talking to the voice in the dark, but he couldn't quite make sense of the words -- or of anything else at the moment. He closed his eyes, just for a second, just until Ezra stopped spinning. When he blinked them open again, he was slumped sideways, with Ezra bending over him, speaking urgently, saying something that Chris couldn't hear over the roaring pain in his head. He closed his eyes again.
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