Cold Hard Cash

by J. Brooks

Sunlight streamed across the bed, sending him burrowing face-first into his pillow.

"Pa?" a young voice called. Larabee turned slightly, cracked open one eye, and met the level gaze of a brown-haired boy. They studied each other for a long moment, while he tried to work out why this scene seemed both familiar and wrong. Had he overslept? Why hadn't he heard Sarah get up to start breakfast?

"Pa?" the boy tried again, keeping his eyes on Larabee but turning his head to call over his shoulder. "He's awake again, Pa."

It clicked. Larabee scrambled backward, groping for a weapon, or at least a pair of trousers. He settled for pulling the worn bed quilt around his longjohns as he backed into a corner, staring wildly around at the unfamiliar cabin and the unfamiliar man who had moved to stand protectively in front of the boy.

"What's going on?" Larabee hissed, putting a hand to his aching head, feeling a thick cloth bandage. His eyes settled on the other bed in the room, where Buck Wilmington lay, propped on his side with pillows and blankets.

"Buck?" Larabee staggered across to him. Buck snored on, oblivious. His chest, back, arm and head were swathed in bright blue, flowered calico. Larabee reached up to touch the binding around his own head suspiciously.

"Your friend's going to be just fine, mister," the stranger said, moving slowly around the bed toward him, talking in low, soothing tones. "Got his back cut up something awful, and his ribs been drummed on pretty good, but he'll be fit once he gets some rest. Gave him some laudanum." Buck stirred slightly, smiled, and cuddled a large pillow closer to his chest. Larabee rolled his eyes. The opiate always hit Buck like a ton of bricks.

"I'm Ike Morrow. This is my boy, Ned," the man continued. "Your other friend pulled us out of the restaurant last night, warned us that the whole town was about to go up in flames. Said if we got your horses saddled and had them waiting for you by the dry goods store, he'd see to it that we were first on the list when it came time to return the gold." Larabee raised an eyebrow at that, but let it pass.

Morrow sighed miserably, looking down at his work-gnarled hands. "Never figured Noah Hardwick could do a thing like this. Not steal from us, not knowing how hard we worked to scrape that gold together."

Larabee grunted, remembering how, more than once, he had experienced a similar, stinging sense of betrayal. "Ezra?" he asked, accepting the hand the man offered to pull him to his feet.

"He's back in town, keeping an eye on things," Ike said, beckoning him toward a rough table by the fire. Young Ned scooped cornbread out of a skillet, then ladled out some sort of savory stew from a hanging kettle. He set the plate on the table before him. Larabee's stomach gurgled uneasily for a moment, then decided stew sounded pretty good.

"What happened in town after I--" he stopped to swallow a huge mouthful of stew, gesturing vaguely to his head to complete the sentence.

Ike shrugged. "Well sir, folks went plumb crazy. Mr. Standish bundled you two on your horses and we lit out of there pretty quick. But we saw folks breaking into other stores, grabbing things, smashing things. Some of the buildings was burning." Larabee dropped his spoon. "Mr. Standish only stayed long enough to get you cleaned up and settled, then he went back."

Idiot gambler. "Alone?"

"He figures Noah couldn'ta done this all by hisself. Figures the whole gang is waiting for the excitement to die down, afore they move the gold."

Larabee gathered up the quilt and shuffled to the back of the cabin in search of his pants. He dressed quickly, then went to check on Buck again. Wilmington seemed to be sleeping comfortably enough. Larabee rested a hand on his sweat-soaked head and looked over at Ike Morrow.

"Don't worry, we'll take good care of him," Morrow promised. "You go help Mr. Standish."

+ + + + + + +

Smoke hung like a pall over Flint Ridge. Even from a distance, Larabee could see that at least one of the saloons had been reduced to charred support beams and smoldering rubble. Many of the nearby tents had been trampled flat. The windows along the main street were smashed out. As he neared the mining camp, he spotted a small group gathered around a familiar storefront, brandishing torches, pickaxes and shovels at the lone figure barring the door.

Larabee spurred his horse into a gallop. `I'm going to kill him,' he chanted to himself. `Gonna kill him and not a jury in the land will convict me. Idiot gambler . . .'

Someone in the milling crowd hurled a torch through the shop window and a roar of approval went up as the flames caught quickly, licking around the windowsill and up the looted display shelves. Another torch followed. The gambler ducked a lantern thrown directly at his head. The glass shattered against the outside wall of the store, igniting the oil and engulfing the building façade in flames. The crowd fell back several steps, impressed.

Larabee cursed and urged his horse even faster. He saw Standish hesitate a moment, then plunge through the front door into the billowing smoke. By the time Larabee reached them, most of the crowd had either hurried away or joined in a frantic bucket brigade.

He threw himself out of the saddle and into the burning store.

"EZRA!" he screamed, groping blindly, unable to see anything through the thick, gray smoke, not even the red glow of the fire itself -- although he could hear flames crackling nearby. He lurched forward, coughing and calling.

A hand swam out of the smoke and grabbed him, yanking him to the floor. In the clearer air at this level, Larabee could dimly make out Standish's pale, sooty face. He resisted the urge to punch it.

"Come on," Ezra yelled in his ear, tugging him not toward the dim daylight shining through the front door, but toward the back of the store. Larabee fought, trying to drag him to safety. Ezra grabbed him.

"Trust me," his voice was raspy with smoke and exhaustion. Larabee hesitated another moment, then nodded. Together, they crawled through the smoke and heat, around the corner and into a back room. Larabee gasped gratefully at the clean, cool air gusting up the cellar stairs.

They crept down the stairs to the basement. Larabee cast an uneasy glance at the ceiling, wondering how long it would take the fire to burn through the wood and bring the entire store crashing down on their heads. Smoke seeped through cracks and knotholes, but the air was much clearer here than above.

Ezra struck a match and lit a lantern hanging from one of the support beams.

Larabee gasped. The basement was carpeted with dollar bills. Great untidy stacks of them had been thrown around, drifting into piles like fall leaves. Tens, twenties, fifties, hundreds. Ezra ignored the counterfeits and searched quickly around the room, peering into darkened corners, brushing dollars away from table tops, muttering to himself in exasperation.

"What the hell are we looking for?" Larabee asked. It was clear the townsfolk had already torn through the basement in search of the gold. What could Standish possibly hope to find? He moved to the far wall and threw open the root cellar door he had tripped over the night before. Fresh air and sunshine streamed in, blowing away some of the thick smoke that had begun to fill the basement.

Standish completed his circuit of the room and started toward the exit, moving slowly as coughing fit took him. Larabee reached down and hauled the younger man out by the scruff of his neck. They tumbled to the ground as the building let out a horrific series of creaks and groans. Larabee kept his grip on Ezra as they staggered back from the building, moving down the alley, away from the street and toward the woods behind. Ezra leaned heavily against him, gasping for air.

They put some distance between the fire and themselves and sank down in the wet grass under the shelter of a nearby pine to watch Hardwick's Dry Goods shudder and settle and collapse inward upon itself.

Ezra turned to him, looking like he had something terribly clever to say, but doubled over coughing instead. Larabee pounded him on the back with a little more force than necessary.

"What?" Thump.

"The hell?" Thump.

"Did you think?" Thump thump thump.

"You were doing?" With one final whack, he pulled Ezra back into a sitting position and examined him for signs of singeing.

Ezra straightened gingerly. "I was looking for something that should have been there," he said, producing a miraculously white handkerchief from a pocket and dabbing at his smudged face and hands.

Larabee crossed his arms, waiting.

"Counterfeiting is a complex endeavor, Mr. Larabee. It requires printing presses, engraved plates for reproducing the dollar bills, special paper, equipment for cutting the bills to the proper size and equipment for drying it afterward." Ezra ran out of breath and coughed softly into the handkerchief, grimacing at the soot that now stained it.

Larabee fished a clean bandanna out of his pocket and handed it over. "So, if we find the workshop, we find the gang," he prompted.

"Or at least some of its members," Ezra said thoughtfully, rubbing the cloth under his chin. "Since gold is the object of this particular scheme, it stands to reason that they would have an associate who could smelt the nuggets and dust into a more portable form -- ingots, gold bars, or even coins. I checked the blacksmith's shop earlier, but found no evidence of goldsmithing. Not at this locale, in any case."

A memory tugged at Larabee. He rubbed his head, trying to pin the image down. "The bank," he said. "Saw the blacksmith at the bank yesterday. He was making a withdrawal. Everybody else was depositing money, but he walked away with a big bag of something."

Ezra frowned. "The bank? I wonder . . . What was your impression of the bank manager? Young Mr. Hardwick seemed an unlikely criminal mastermind."

"Cox? Weasel." Larabee's closed his eyes for a moment against the pounding headache and the sight of the dry goods store burning to ash. "Might be worth a second visit to the bank, though."

He rose to his feet and turned to pull Ezra up -- and got his first good look at the gambler's face. With the soot cleaned away, the bruises stood out in stark relief.

Ezra scrambled to his feet, raising a hand to cut off the questions before Larabee could ask. "A few of these good townsfolk took exception to my handling of the situation with the gold -- and to my efforts to dissuade them from incinerating every structure in sight. No harm done." He stepped briskly toward town, brushing at his sooty coat.

The gold. Damn. "You want to explain to me how you came by that bag of gold, anyway? Last time I saw it, it was locked in the bank safe."

Ezra wrinkled his nose. "Honestly, the merchants in this town ought to invest in better equipment. A child could have cracked that safe."

"Uh huh," Larabee pulled Ezra to a halt. "You want to explain why you cracked the safe, stole the gold and threw it to a mob?"

Something that looked a lot like hurt flickered in Ezra's smoke- reddened eyes for a moment. It vanished as he plastered on a cocky grin, reached into his coat pocket, and produced a small leather pouch.

"You mean this gold?" he tossed the bag to Larabee. "It's all there - - less a pinch or two sacrificed for dramatic effect."

Larabee pulled open the drawstring to reveal $564 in gold, less a pinch or two. "I saw you throw this away."

Ezra preened. "Simple misdirection and sleight of hand."

"I saw the gold."

"One nugget, yes. The rest of the bag was filled with gravel. I palmed the final nugget before I threw it to our predictable friend on the fringe. I wonder," he mused. "How long they chased him? He might be running still . . ."

Larabee started walking again, shaking his head. So, in the time it took him and Buck to roust the justice of the peace, start a riot and get themselves knocked out, Ezra had been able to anticipate the coming chaos, steal the gold, recruit allies and fake out an entire mob.

Having a cheater on your side really did come in handy sometimes.

They reached the street, which stood empty now, littered with a few buckets and the broken glass and smashed goods from the looted stores.

"Bank?" Larabee suggested.

"An excellent idea," Ezra agreed. "Might I suggest we divide our forces? You question Mr. Cox while I check the remaining buildings? I, for one, am curious to know whether this town has ever boasted a newspaper." "Printing presses?" Chris hazarded a guess.


Splitting up didn't seem like a terribly bright idea, but they were running out of time. Larabee could see a bustle of activity around the stables, as shell-shocked residents packed up their remaining goods and headed out of town. He imagined many of their saddlebags were packed with almost-perfect counterfeit dollars. They needed to send word to Four Corners, to warn them about the funny money heading their way, and to get some reinforcements up here to help them track down the counterfeiters.

Ezra followed his gaze. "I took the liberty of dispatching a message to our associates early this morning, in care of a charming young woman of Mr. Wilmington's acquaintance," he said. "If Miss Cora and her traveling companions reach Four Corners on schedule, our reinforcements could arrive as soon as the evening after next. I am sure you will be relieved to have the expert tracking skills of Mr. Tanner, and the support of other colleagues on this hunt."

Larabee nodded curtly. "Check the buildings," he turned to go. "But stay close. Fire off a shot if you need help."

The door to the First Territorial Bank of Flint Ridge hung ajar, split from its hinges by what looked like ax cuts. Inside, the safe lay on its side, still locked shut, but battered by dozens of a blows and cuts from heavy metal tools. Larabee crossed to the counter and studied the ledgers that had been scattered across the wooden surface. He spotted a familiar sheaf of papers -- their transport credentials from Four Corners. The little sneak must have picked his pocket last night.

The fact that Edmund Cox had not returned to the bank, either to secure the documents or to reassure his customers, didn't bode well. Larabee collected as many ledgers and records as he could find and stowed them in his saddlebags. Then he headed out on a quick patrol of the town, looking for signs of trouble, and looking for Ezra.

Half an hour later, he'd found neither.

Chris kicked in the door of a boarded-up storefront, one of the last places left to search inside the town limits. Dusty stacks of newsprint cluttered the corners and he could see the four deep indentations in the floor where something heavy had stood. The dimensions matched what he remembered of the printing press at the Clarion News. He picked up one of the papers and blew away the layer of filth that covered the newspaper's name: The Lucky Strike.

He took another step into the dim recesses of the former news office and skidded on something slippery on the floor. Catching his balance, he peered down at the tacky substance on his boot. Blood. A lot of blood. Larabee dropped down to examine the scene, noting the faint, bloody tracks left by a pair of heels that had been dragged through the pool of blood, toward the back door. And there was something else, kicked against the wall. Ezra's derringer.

He scooped up the tiny weapon and bolted for the door. There was nothing beyond it but trees and trampled grass.

Ezra was gone.

+ + + + + + +

The walls of his prison glittered golden.

"El Dorado," Ezra mumbled, staring dully at the riches that penned him in. As dreams-come-true went, this one was a terrible letdown.

He lay curled on a rough stone floor with rock walls hemming him in on three sides. A tidy stack of gold bars rose above him, blocking two-thirds of the entrance to the shallow fissure in which he was imprisoned. He had a vague recollection of being dumped over the top of it like a sack of grain. Lamplight filtered through the cracks between the gold bricks and he could hear the muted sounds of conversation on the other side. He eyed the barrier, trying to gauge the amount of force it would take to kick through or climb over it.

How had he reached the City of Gold? He raised his head, setting off an explosion of pain -- a pain immediately dwarfed by the agony that flared down his back when he flinched. The golden wall grayed for a moment. Ah, yes, now he remembered. Don't move, you're hurt. `I'm fine,' a voice in his head insisted. Shut up, Ezra.

His hands were bound in front of him with rough twine. That's right. He'd found the old newspaper office. Picked the lock and slipped inside. Turned . . . and found himself face-to-face with an equally startled Noah Hardwick, who crouched over a stack of printing plates engraved with the outlines of fifty-dollar bills. Ezra opened his mouth to say something witty about moneymaking

-- when a violent blow from behind drove him to his knees. He released the hidden derringer and turned to face his assailant, but found himself oddly unable to coordinate the movement. A deep, tearing pain shot through his right shoulder. The derringer dropped from his shaking fingers. He fumbled for one of his other weapons, even as he watched Hardwick raise the heavy metal plate and swing it down in a short, brutal arc toward his head.

The wall of gold caught the lantern light and glowed warmly. Ezra shivered. His head ached and his vision blurred and doubled, but he suspected Hardwick hadn't hit him with as much force as he could have. The same couldn't be said for the person who stuck the knife into his back. Blood had dried all along his back and shoulder, stiffening the fabric of his shirt and jacket. He could feel more oozing fresh from the wound that started just above his shoulder blade and jabbed straight down.

`You don't stab nobody in the back!' Chris Larabee's voice echoed indignantly in his head. Indeed. You tell `em, Mr. Larabee. Better still -- you shoot `em while I lay here quietly and recoup my strength.

His eyes drifted shut. When he roused again, the voices on the other side of the wall had gone, the lamplight had dimmed, and the ache in his shoulder had spread to his entire body. The tiny alcove felt furnace-hot as he shifted fretfully in the confined space. A cave? No, a mine.

Mr. Larabee would not be pleased to find him reclining in a mine, surrounded by gold. Ezra's fever-bright eyes widened in alarm. He was supposed to stay in town, search for . . . what, again? He couldn't quite recall. Was he supposed to be on patrol? That was it. He was supposed to relieve Buck and check the perimeter, make sure the Ghosts wouldn't return to haunt the Seminole village. What was he doing in this mine? Nothing of value here. The others were in trouble. Buck was hurt. `I leave you boys alone for five minutes and look what happens . . .'

He had to get back. Ezra began to thrash against his bonds.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee circled Main Street like a carrion crow. There were no tracks to follow, no sign of the shopkeeper, or the banker, or the blacksmith, or anyone else he might be able to catch and pummel until they told him where he could find his man. And it was night again, cold again, fixing to rain again. He paced restlessly in front of the boarding house, waiting for the sun to rise, or the counterfeiters to attack. Waiting to end this helpless waiting.

A pained grunt sounded behind him. Buck, bundled against the night air in layers of clothes and bandages, eased down to sit on the porch stairs. Ike Morrow had dropped him off in town as he and young Ned passed through, their belongings packed on a pair of mules. They promised to wait in Four Corners for news, and promised to sound the alarm to the other regulators if Ezra's messenger hadn't gotten through.

Buck leaned against a banister, staring blankly into the darkened street. Beyond the town lay the utter blackness of the woods. Beyond the woods were the mineworks that honeycombed the hills for miles in every direction. There were abandoned mines, collapsed tunnels, test shafts. There were forgotten cabins and shanties and mills tucked up all over the mountain. The only problem the gang faced, when trying to make Ezra Standish disappear, was narrowing their choice of hiding place to just one.

Larabee threw himself on the step next to Wilmington. They sat in tense silence, waiting.

One of the saloons had reopened, serving beer at wildly inflated prices to the few people willing to pay in gold or trade goods -- or in dollars that could pass the immersion test. A figure came staggering out the saloon's batwing doors and came weaving unsteadily toward them. "Hear ya misplaced yer little friend, my friends," Lucky Pete pulled to a halt, peering at them over the collar of his malodorous coat. "Anything I can do to help?"

Larabee studied him for a moment. "Could be," he said uncoiling slowly, rising to tower over the other man. "How about . . ." One hand shot out to hook the front of Pete's collar, the other whipped out the Colt and jammed it under his chin.

"How about you help by telling me exactly where he is?"

Pete squawked and squirmed and shot pleading glances at Buck, who watched calmly from his post on the step.

"C'mon, don't be shy, Pete. `Lucky' Pete. Just like the newspaper, right?" Larabee yanked open the all-concealing beaver coat to reveal the neat tweed suit underneath. The reek of alcohol permeated his beard, but not his breath. Larabee swatted the ridiculous coonskin cap off his head.

"Who else would Ezra have asked for directions to the newspaper office?" Buck asked, baring his teeth in a parody of a smile. "Who else but our old buddy Pete?" He trained his rifle between Pete's eyes, freeing Larabee to frisk the man and his coat.

Gingerly, Larabee withdrew a wicked-looking hunting knife from a pocket in the coat lining. The man had made some effort to clean the blade, but they could see clots of dried blood caught in the serrated edges and streaks of red on the metal all the way up to the haft.

Lucky Pete looked slowly from the incriminating blade to the cold, flat eyes of the lawman holding it. He read his future in those eyes.

Larabee angled the bloodstained knife until the point rested delicately at the very corner of the old man's left eye.

"Talk," he said.

Lucky Pete talked. Words tumbled out of his mouth, tripping over each other in their haste to escape. After a few moments, Buck rose to his feet -- wrinkling his nose at the new assortment of bodily aromas now coming off the man -- and went to fetch the justice of the peace. Malachy Potts, still purple with rage and bourbon, had passed out on the couch in the boarding house lobby with piles of washed-out paper heaped around him.

Buck hauled him out of his drunken stupor and onto the porch to hear the tale. How three businessmen had grown weary of serving grubby miners who hadn't the sense to capitalize on their own wealth. How they knew the Flint Ridge lode was almost played out, which would put an end to both the town and their businesses. How salvation arrived one day in the form of a dreamy young artist with the talent of the angels and the common sense of a gnat.

For the better part of a year, the newspaper editor, the banker, the shopkeeper and the blacksmith had been slipping counterfeit bills into circulation, offering outrageously inflated prices for gold to ensure the miners gold went to them, not the bank. Gradually, they cut back on the amount of gold the bank shipped down the mountain. Gradually, they stockpiled enough wealth to see each of them in comfort through the rest of their lives.

Lucky Pete -- or Peter Voorheis, editor of the Flint Ridge Lucky Strike, as he introduced himself -- kept talking as Buck snapped a set of manacles on him. He was still talking as Larabee hauled him over to the horses and boosted him up. He talked as Buck and Chris mounted up and followed his directions out of town, toward an abandoned stake a few miles away. He told them about the attack on the gambler, his condition, his exact location. The shaken justice of the peace watched them go, staring at Voorheis like he'd sprouted two extra heads, both of them ugly. Lucky Pete babbled on as they rode, relating incidents from his own childhood, big stories he'd covered, his grand plans for his share of the gold.

As he talked, his eyes never once moved from Larabee's icy glare, as if silence or a sudden blink would break whatever spell was keeping the lawman from ripping his head off. Finally, Buck cracked his rifle butt against Pete's jaw and there was merciful silence.

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Standish? Mr. Standish?" the soft call jerked Ezra awake, setting off another chain reaction of misery through head, neck and back.

A lantern sat on top of the golden wall, illuminating the small space and the face that peered down at him. The lamplight played across a mop of curly hair. Ezra screwed his eyes shut and groaned in disgust.

"Please, Mr. Standish. I dropped a canteen next to you, if you can reach it," Noah Hardwick whispered, glancing anxiously back over his shoulder. Ezra's eyes popped open and fixed blearily on the object near his hands. He made a few uncoordinated grabs and finally managed to hook it. His wrists were skinned and swollen from his unsuccessful escape attempts, but he fumbled the canteen open and took a greedy gulp, ignoring the pain the movement caused. Lord, he was thirsty. Reluctantly, he replaced the stopper and clutched the container to his chest. It would do no earthly good to make himself ill by drinking too much, too quickly.

He glanced upward. Hardwick had vanished. He heard a muffled tapping and watched as a finger snaked through one of the chinks between the gold bricks. It waved a greeting at him.

"I'm down here, Mr. Standish," Hardwick called. "I just wanted to apologize, and to try to explain."

Ezra snorted. "I need neither an apology nor an explanation, young man. I understand perfectly," he drew a shaky breath, ready to risk another drink from the canteen.

"But nobody was supposed to get hurt!" Hardwick all but whined. "It was supposed to have something for everyone. We get the gold and the miners get twice as much money as they would have at the bank."

"Wrong, sir. You got the gold. The miners got worthless scraps of paper," Ezra shot back, anger leaving him more clear-headed than he had been in hours. "If you are going to perpetrate a con, you must accept basic premise of a con -- your gain means someone else's loss."

There was a long silence. "They were good copies," the artist's voice quavered a bit. "They looked just like the real money. People spent them just like real money. Everyone walked out of my store happy."

Ezra sighed, remembering how the town had looked the last time he had seen it. Remembered other towns in ruins, in another time, a time when every other Confederate blueback dollar had been forged either by Northern presses or by Southern profiteers. Maude had turned a tidy profit at that enterprise, for a time.

"No one is happy now, Mr. Hardwick," he sighed. How a man who balked at selling imitation paintings could so easily embrace currency fraud was beyond him.

An odd noise from the other side of the wall jolted him out of his daze. Hardwick was laughing.

"Look!" He popped back up at the top of the wall, waving a hand down at Ezra. The hand was coated with gold dust. He angled it this way and that, catching and reflecting the light like a living sculpture. "It's spilled all over the floor in here."

"El Dorado," Ezra chuckled weakly, his words slurring together.

"You know the legend?" Hardwick asked, tears shining in his eyes. "A land so rich its king wore gold dust instead of clothes? Once a year, the people would throw their treasures into a great lake to appease the angry demon beneath, and El Dorado -- the Golden One -- would jump into the water and wash off all the gold that covered his skin. To protect his people, you see?"

Ezra stared mutely at the golden hand waving above him. Everything else faded as he watched the hand swoop and dive. He tried to reach for it, to pull himself out of this dark place. He needed to get back. They needed him . . . who needed him? His people? Wash off the gold . . . that was it . . . keep them safe. The image of Chris Larabee, dazed and bleeding in the rubble of the dry goods store flashed before his eyes.

Time to go. But his limbs refused to cooperate. Instead, he lay there, watching disinterestedly as the golden hand began grabbing bricks, dismantling the golden wall bit by bit.

+ + + + + + +

Buck wrapped the rope around Lucky Pete a few more times, stuffed a bandanna down his throat in case he felt the urge to start talking again, then turned to study the mine entrance. In the weak light of first dawn, he could make out the smoke rising from a small campfire near the entrance, and the large form curled next to it, asleep.

The lawmen exchanged a smirk. The only thing better than a stupid criminal was a sleepy criminal. They splashed through a shallow creek and crept toward the mine and its lax guardian. In the adrenaline surge of the hunt, he could barely feel the pull of inexpert stitches in his back or the aching of bruised ribs. `Gonna give these guys what's coming to them,' he thought. `Gonna get Ezra back safe. Then, I'm going to take to my bed for a week -- and I'm taking sweet Cora along for company.'

The slumbering blacksmith was soon the bleeding and unconscious blacksmith. Larabee brought a tree branch down on the man's head with a satisfying thwack. Buck hog-tied him and kicked him until he rolled out of sight under some bushes.

The sound of a gunshot shattered the early morning silence, echoing from somewhere inside the mine. Swearing, the lawmen pulled their weapons and plunged inside, following the sound of yelling voices. Another shot sounded, and the voices stopped.

+ + + + + + +

"What do you think you are doing, young man?" an unfamiliar voice scolded from the other side of the wall. Ezra forced himself to listen. The tone was that of an exasperated but kindly schoolteacher. The distinct click of a pistol cocking sounded anything but kindly.

"I'm taking him back, Edwin," Hardwick sniffed, his voice choked with tears. "I'm taking it all back. We destroyed the town. We destroyed all those people."

The gun went off, a bullet slamming into the rock wall above Ezra, showering him with stone shards. Hardwick yelped, but pulled down another brick. And another.

"Idiot," the voice snapped. "The gold stays where it is until it's safe to move. The lawman stays where he is too." There was a pause, and the sound of someone moving closer. "I don't want to shoot you, Noah. God knows you've been useful. But I have the plates. I could get along without you."

The gun cocked again, ominously close. "Now step aside. I'm going to see that our guest stays put. Permanently."

"NOOO!!" The gold-dusted hand grabbed another brick and hurled it toward the voice. The heavy metal hit something softer than rock, prompting an explosion of profanity from the target. There was a scuffle, the sound of fists hitting flesh, two bodies falling to the floor, cursing and yelling. The gun went off again, and there was silence.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee pulled up short just outside the circle of lamp light, evaluating the scene before him. An unfamiliar body lay in a pool of blood on the floor of a hollowed-out mine chamber. The bank manager, Cox, stood over the downed man, panting and clutching a smoking revolver. Heavy equipment -- a printing press, some sort of stamping machine and other devices he couldn't even being to fathom -- were crowded around the room, between bales of blank paper and fresh currency. Bedrolls and packs in the corners of the room showed that the gang had been roughing it here with their hoard since the riots.

Cox slowly straightened and turned his attention to a tall stack of gold bricks against the far wall. He paced toward the gold, muttering threats, leveling the pistol at the metal. Wonderful. Crazy criminal wants to shoot his own gold.

"Stop right there, Cox," Larabee yelled, stepping into the room, flanked by Buck.

The bank manager whirled, his back to the wall of gold. With an inarticulate scream of rage, he brought his weapon around to fire at the lawmen -- and fell, screaming, under an avalanche of gold bricks. The entire wall had somehow toppled outward, crushing his legs and torso beneath the weight of the gold . . . and the body that sprawled on top of both the gold and the criminal.

"Ezra!" Buck bolted toward the motionless figure. Larabee didn't remember moving, but somehow found himself kneeling next to the gambler, taking in the blood-soaked clothes and bloodless features.

"He's breathing," Buck let out the breath he had been holding. Larabee kicked Cox's gun into a far corner but gave no further thought to the man under the pile of gold. Together, he and Buck lifted Ezra off the uncomfortable metal and carried him over to one of the sleeping rolls.

"S'okay, Ez. We gotcha. Gonna take care of everything, just you relax," Buck kept up a litany of reassurances to the unresponsive man as they stripped off his coat and jacket and cut through the thinner fabric of the vest and shirt. The only color on Ezra's waxen-pale face came from the bruises and the hectic flush of a rising fever.

Larabee winced as he got his first good look Ezra's back. Goddamn Lucky Pete had damn near filleted the man. The stab wound was deep and ugly, but it looked like Ezra's shoulder blade caught the worst of it, deflecting the knife away from anything more vital than skin and muscle. Larabee spotted a small pile of Ezra's belongings nearby, reached over and grabbed the flask.

Buck rolled Ezra onto his stomach. "Just gonna get this mess cleaned up, Ez. Clean you up and get you settled all nice and comfy . . ." Without pausing or changing tone, he upended the expensive liquor over the ugly wound. He continued the stream of soothing nonsense as the smaller man reared back and tried to twist away from the new assault. Larabee leaned in, trying to restrain and comfort at the same time.

Ezra's sagged in their arms and they relaxed their grips. Slowly, the gambler's eyes fluttered open. He stared at Chris, confused, then mumbled something.

Larabee leaned in to listen. He blinked and shot a suspicious look at Standish, who had gone limp and unresponsive again. His involuntary snort of laughter brought Buck's head snapping up to stare at him.

Larabee grinned. "Says he wants to take a bath."

+ + + + + + +

"Gawd damnit, Ezra! Not the river again!"

Larabee chased down the tunnel after the weaving figure ahead of him. Two minutes. He'd turned his back on the man for all of two minutes to stoke up the fire and check on the whining bank manager with the broken legs. When he turned back, Ezra was gone. Again.

"Stay out of the river, Standish! I mean it! You're as clean as you're ever going to get!" Twice today, he and Buck had hauled the delirious gambler out of the freezing creek. Each time, Ezra had tried to explain, through chattering teeth, that he needed to wash off the gold.

Larabee cleared the tunnel just in time to hear the splash. `I'm gonna dry him off. Then I'm gonna kill him.'

Ezra sat waist-deep in the rushing water of the creek, trying to muster enough coordination to dunk under entirely. He blinked owlishly at Larabee as the gunslinger yanked off his boots, shucked off his coat, and waded into the freezing water after him.

"All clean now?" Larabee asked, reaching for him.

Standish scooted away. "Nooo! Need to wash off the gold." He flopped awkwardly onto his stomach, falling face-first under the water and soaking the bandage and stitches along his back. Chris yelped and hauled Ezra up until his head broke the surface. Overbalancing, he tumbled backwards into the cold stream with Ezra sprawled across his legs. Great. Just great.

The gambler sighed contentedly as the water rushed around them. He trailed his hands in the current. Larabee sighed too, and held his position for a moment. If nothing else, these dunkings seemed to be knocking Ezra's fever down.

"You got to stop doing this, Ezra," he growled, putting one hand on the con man's forehead and tugging it back to rest against his shoulder. "You're going to catch your death."

Ezra mumbled something about demons, relaxing slowly in Larabee's grip. Moving cautiously, Chris pulled the gambler's good arm over his shoulder and rose to his feet. Ezra stumbled gamely along, looking back longingly toward the water. Larabee set him down on creek bank while he shoved his sopping feet back into his boots. He threw his coat around Ezra, hoisted the smaller man over his shoulder and staggered back to the mine. He heard Ezra mutter querulously as they re-entered the tunnel.

"What's the problem, Ezra?" Larabee tried again, toweling off Standish's wet hair by the fire. Ezra leaned against him, shivering under a mountain of coats and blankets, staring unhappily at the pile of gold on the other side of the room.

"Have to get back to the village," he whispered. "Nothing of value here. Have to get back." It was the same mantra he'd been repeating for hours. Larabee sighed and set about cleaning and re-wrapping the shoulder. The wound looked a little better than it had this morning.

"Trusted me. My patrol," the sad murmur continued as he bundled Ezra into dry shirt. One of the blacksmith's, judging by the size. "My fault."

"Yeah, we trust you, Standish, you idiot," Larabee said. "Trusted you enough to follow you through a burning building, didn't I? Trusted you to take care of Buck when I couldn't --"

"Buck?" Ezra gasped. "Hurt . . ."

"Buck's fine, Ezra," Larabee soothed. He offered the canteen, watching carefully as the gambler took a few sips. "He went back to town to wait for the others, remember? They'll be coming for us soon. Vin, Nathan, JD, Josiah . . ."

Ezra stiffened. "Josiah? Josiah's shot. Have to get back. Shouldn't have come here."

"Josiah's fine," Larabee said, grabbing one of the flailing hands. What the hell was Standish seeing in those fever-baked brains of his? Josiah hadn't been shot up since . . . He paused. Looked up at the low, wood-beamed mine ceiling, then over at the tempting twinkle of gold that had entombed the southerner for so long. So that was it.

"Ah, Ezra," he sighed. "Why'd you have to pick a memory like that one to get lost in? You listen to me," he leaned close. "We knew you would have come back to us yesterday if you could have. Wasn't your fault at all."

"Sorry. So sorry . . ."

"Okay, you win. We're getting out of here." Larabee eased Ezra down and moved around the cavern, gathering supplies for the short ride back to town. The injured banker squawked a protest, which he ignored. The body of the young artist had been covered decently and tucked against a wall. Buck had found more of Noah Hardwick's canvases and set them out around him. Soft landscapes, beautiful women, peaceful scenes. Buck had taken Lucky Pete and the blacksmith back to town. The banker could fend for himself for a few more hours in the company of the boy he'd killed.

Ezra watched warily as Chris bundled him into several coats and blankets and tipped him unceremoniously over his shoulder.

"We're going back to town now, Ezra," Larabee said loudly, trying to make Standish understand. He reached his horse and heaved the other man into the saddle, then swung up behind.

"Going back?" Ezra asked hopefully.

"Yep. We're going back," Larabee said, holding tight as the gambler began to relax for the first time since his rescue. "We need you back with us."

+ + + + + + +

Three days later, Chris, Buck and Ezra were once again on the trail between Flint Ridge and Four Corners. This time they had company. The other four regulators still hovered over them like they might shatter like crystal.

Larabee snorted, then sneezed violently. He shot a poisonous glare at the source of his current misery. Stupid con man and his November swimming expeditions. Ezra grinned toothily back at him, breathing deeply through his untroubled sinuses. Buck dozed in his saddle.

Nathan rode behind them, just out of their sight line, ready to swoop in if and when one of them started to sway in the saddle. He still couldn't believe they were actually attempting the rough trail ride in their condition. He muttered under his breath, carrying on an indignant, inaudible, one-sided argument with their backs. JD and Josiah flanked the mule train and its golden burden. Josiah was showing JD a trick he'd picked up in his travels, folding counterfeit hundred dollar bills into graceful paper birds. JD's kept coming out looking like cow heads. Vin scouted ahead for signs of trouble and likely spots for their frequent rest stops.

Larabee studied Ezra again. He was still pale and listless and he held himself stiffly in the saddle, as every step of Chaucer's smooth gait jarred his back.

They rode on in silence for a few moments.

Then Larabee began whistling. Ten very familiar notes. Ezra stared at him in slack-jawed horror. Buck straightened in his saddle, cocking his head like a foxhound heeding a distant called to hunt. He drew in a deep breath.

"From this valley they say you are going We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile . . ."

Ezra groaned piteously. "Good Lord, Mr. Wilmington. A violent assault on my ears cannot be good for my fragile constitution."

"For they say you are taking the sunshine That has brightened our pathways awhile . . ."

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra appealed in a small, hopeful voice. "Did we not have a gentlemen's agreement about this song?"

Chris drew in a deep breath . . . and joined in for the chorus.

"Come and sit by my side, if you love me, Do not hasten to bid me adieu . . ."

"This song was never to be sung in my presence again." The other four exchanged puzzled glances, shrugged, and chimed in.

"Just remember the Red River Valley . . ."

The gambler's curses echoed off the high granite cliffs, mingling with the singers' laughter. The horses picked their way carefully down the narrow mountain path, heading home.

The End

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