by J. Brooks

"YEAH!" Bert slammed his mug of beer down on the table, sending a spray of foam into his own bleary red eyes. "That's a fine plan you got there, Otis!"

The three cowboys raised their mugs in a boisterous toast around the corner table in Digger Dan's Saloon, where they'd been holed up since they made bail. As the liquor flowed and the pain of their hangovers faded to a distant memory, the talk had turned to the injustices of news coverage in this town.

"We'll show 'em who ain't worth the ink," Otis slurred, elbowing the third cowboy, who flopped face-down on the table, snoring again. "Won't we?"

"Yep. T'was a real good idea that newspaper feller had," Bert hiccuped. "Gonna make us famous, when we rob that bank."

+ + + + + + +

Vin's eyes narrowed as he watched the three men pull rates off the turnip wagons and carry them toward the bank. Soundlessly, he followed, slipping from shadow to shadow in the deepening twilight.

Two of the men arranged the crates against the back wall of the First National Bank, while a third began stringing wire between the boxes. Carefully, the man backed away from the bank, unspooling the long fuse as he went.

He reached the wagon and pulled a detonation switch from one of the crates. But before the would-be bank robber could connect the wires to the device, Vin cracked his rifle butt across the back of the man's head, sending him crashing limply to the ground.

Grinning, Vin picked up the spool of wire and retraced the path to the bank and the two remaining robbers, who sat with their backs to him, fussing over their phony turnips.

+ + + + + + +

"Now THAT is one peculiar lookin' turnip," Buck pronounced, peering into a crate at the bright red sticks of dynamite that were mixed in with the tree roots. A dozen other turnip crates were piled against the jail office walls.

"And they were gonna blow up the bank with them?" JD locked the cell door on the last unconscious bank robber and turned with a huge grin. "That's what I call a cash crop! Get it? Cash crop!"

Buck and Vin groaned. JD doubled over, laughing at his own joke. Buck toyed with the idea of locking the sheriff in one of his own cells.

Instead, he turned and eyed Tanner critically. "You mighta held off a bit, y'know. Let 'em set off one or two sticks of dynamite . . ."

Vin blinked. "Didn't want anybody to get hurt."

"Well, no. But, dang, it would have made a lot better story if something'd blown up."

Vin blinked again. "Sorry about that, Bucklin. Don't know what I coulda been thinkin'."

Buck patted him on the shoulder. "S'okay Junior. Not everybody has my nose for news."

Still chuckling, JD looked up from the stack of wanted posters he had pulled out of his desk. "Looks like we have names for these three," he waved one of the fliers. "The Lopez brothers: Eduardo, Enrique and Ernesto. The Federales have been looking for these guys forever."

He waved a hand to the other turnip crates. Some held dynamite. The rest held neat stacks of currency, covered over with a layer of tree roots. The Lopezes, who had hit three other banks on both sides of the border in the past month, apparently hadn't gotten around to stashing their latest take.

JD had to admit these guys had a pretty good system. They would blow the bank safes in the middle of the night, and one of the brothers would gallop off into the night to lead off any pursuit. The other two would stash the bank money in the innocent-looking crates and roll slowly out of town the next day with no one the wiser. JD poked a tree root. The brothers must've gotten sick of rustling up fresh produce for every single job.

Buck whipped out his notebook. "Lopez . . . Howdya spell that?"

+ + + + + + +

"J-A-A-S-K-E-L-A-I-N-E-N. Jyrki Veikko Jaaskelainen. That is my name," Frenchy rose unsteadily to his feet and bowed deeply to Nathan and Ezra.

Impressed, they set down their mugs, staggered to their feet, and bowed back. Frenchy bowed again. Ezra bowed again. Nathan tried to bow again, lost his balance, and crashed to the floor.

"Damn, old man. What'd you put in that homebrew?" he mumbled into the floor.

Ezra hauled him back onto the bench, overbalanced, and fell off the other side of the seat. Nathan reached down, snagged his collar and pulled him back up by the neck.

"So, my polysyllabic compatriot," Standish slurred, picking up his mug and waving it vaguely in Frenchy's direction. "What you are sayin' then, is that you are not . . . French."

"Nope. Am not. Never have been," Frenchy said, blinking owlishly at him. "More drink?"

"Yesh…" Nathan straightened and slid his mug and Ezra's toward the old man. "Now, Frenchy, where were we?" He made a few abortive attempts to connect his pencil with the paper. Finally, he settled for scribbling on the rough wooden tabletop.

"How'd you spell that again?" he mumbled.

"J-A-A-S . . ."

After two jugs of moonshine, the regulator's interviewing skills were beginning to deteriorate. Not that Frenchy minded. These two were the best entertainment he'd had in months.

For hours, the old man had regaled them with the story of his life. How he sailed from Helsinki as a boy, determined to see the wonders of the world. He described the lush coasts of Africa, the mysterious trade port of Shanghai, the tropical islands where beautiful girls danced with flowers in their hair, the frozen wastes at the edge of the world, where great white bears paced across floating sheets of ice. He talked about his first sight of America, a land so lovely, wild and free that he slipped overboard one night and swam to shore, determined to start a new life.

He talked about his nickname and the impossibility of convincing Americans that there is a difference between France and Finland.

Now, full of good food and good conversation, he talked about the good end he hoped to make -- a spectacular ritual he half remembered from the legends of his youth.

"A Viking funeral?" Ezra smiled sleepily at the old man, his head pillowed on his arms on the table, heedless of the puddle of spilled liquor at his elbow or the healer snoring softly at his side. "You do know how to make an exit, sir." He chuckled at the thought, his eyes sliding shut.

"It's the only way to go," Frenchy assured him, patting the sleeping gambler on the head.

He pushed back stiffly from the table and pulled out a few blankets to drape over the sleeping peacekeepers. Slowly, he moved around the cabin, banking the fire, blowing out the oil lamps and running affectionate fingers across the framed pictures, the model ships, the bits of carved ivory and other mementos of an eventful life. He kicked off his boots and slipped into bed with a sigh of relief.

At peace with the world, Jyrki Veikko Jaaskelainen closed his eyes and slept.

+ + + + + + +


Not a twitch, not a sign of life from the four bodies sprawled around the Clarion newsroom.

"Up! Get the hell up! Do you idiots have any idea what time it is?" Chris Larabee stalked toward the closest form and prodded its ribcage with his toe. Josiah cracked open one eye, studied the intruder with one bloodshot, disinterested eye . . . and pulled the blankets up over his head.

"G'way, cowboy. We were workin' 'til sunup," Vin mumbled from a heap of blankets near the door. JD jerked slightly at the sound of Chris's voice, lifted his head for a few wobbly seconds, then collapsed back onto the floor. Buck never stirred from the chair where he'd fallen asleep.

"It's NOON! The damn paper is supposed to be finished in twelve hours and all you have to show for yourselves is . . . page eight?" Larabee's voice rose incredulously as he grabbed one of the finished pages stacked under the printing press.

He frowned, looking more closely at the top headline. "And what the hell is a 'XOF'?"

From the floor, Josiah gave a pitiful groan.

"Ah geez, Josiah. I thought we fixed that one," JD rasped, pulling himself wearily into a sitting position.

"We got more than page eight, Chris," Vin said, rising to his feet for a luxurious stretch. "We got page seven and page three . . ."

"And page five," Josiah intoned hollowly, still entombed in blankets. The blankets twitched slightly. "Don't forget page five."

Vin and JD shuddered.

Larabee seethed. "That still leaves four pages to go. So get your asses off the floor and over to the printing press!"

"Coffee," the blanket-wrapped mound on the floor grunted. It was a demand, not a request.

The leader eyed the sad spectacle his men were making. He reached over and whacked Buck.

"Huh? Wha?" Wilmington jerked awake, staring wildly around the room. Half his face was covered with the inky shadows of letters that had rubbed off from the stack of newsprint he'd been using as a pillow.

"Coffee," Larabee prompted.

Buck nodded slowly. "Coffee," he agreed. "Good idea." He lurched out of the chair, tripping over a stack of bright scarlet boxes at his feet.

"Ladies' Benevolent Aid Society?" Larabee asked, eyeing what had to be two dozen boxes of fudge.

"The Ladies love me," Buck yawned, shambling toward the door.

Vin snaked out a hand, grabbed one of the boxes and popped a piece of fudge into his mouth.

He caught the other three staring at him in horror. "What?"

"How can you eat that stuff?" Larabee asked, squinting at the open box. "What're those yellow lumps?"

"M'hungry," Vin shrugged. "S'not all that bad. Dunno what the lumps are, though. Might be cheese."

Josiah rolled onto his back and studied the ceiling with a martyred expression.

"How we doin', Josiah?" Larabee asked, taking any sign of movement from the preacher as a good sign.

Josiah flapped a hand toward the worktables, where two other frames stood half-filled with type.

"We were just about to set the gossip column in print. Nathan and Ezra dropped it off before they left . . ." his voice trailed off.

Everyone froze.

+ + + + + + +


A disgustingly cheerful voice rang through the cabin, assaulting the ears of the two lawmen who slept slumped at the table. "Good day to you, my friends!"

Nathan raised his head and stared blearily at the speaker. Frenchy beamed at him.

"You're not dead," Nathan said, accusingly.

He elbowed Ezra.

"Frenchy ain't dead," he hissed.

Ezra opened his eyes and glared at the old man, who stood before them, radiating health and well-being.

"You kidnaped us at gunpoint. You plied us with fish broth and liquid intoxicants. You forced us to listen to the travelogue from hell -- and now you don't even have the decency to die?" Ezra drew himself up to his full height, swaying slightly at the change in altitude. "Perfidious Scandinavian! I have half a mind to . . .wait a minute . . . am I still drunk?"

He slid back into his chair and stared earnestly at Nathan. "Mr. Jackson. Give me an honest medical opinion. Am I still drunk?"

Nathan reached over and smacked him on the forehead. "Did that hurt?"

"Nope, sir."

"You're still drunk."

Frenchy beamed at them, his previous gloom evaporated. "That was the finest wake I have had in years, boys! Come, we are almost finished." The old man puttered out the front door and into the yard.

Ezra rose from the table and tottered across the room in search of a weapon.

Through the open door they could hear a loud scraping sound, mixed with grunts and unintelligible foreign curses.

"Come, boys," the old man called back to them. "We have had the wake. Now it is time for the funeral!"

+ + + + + + +

"He invites people to his own funeral?" Larabee's voice was flat and disbelieving.

Mary Travis, looking slightly more alert and considerably more uncomfortable this afternoon, nodded up at him. She shifted irritably, trying to find a more restful position for her sore back.

"At least twice a year, he comes by the office with an obituary," she said. "He gets lonely. It's just his way of asking for some company. I usually bring a cold dish or a nice casserole."

Larabee closed his eyes. "And when should we be expecting Nathan and Ezra back?"

+ + + + + + +

"Any minute now."

Otis peered through the saloon window toward the First National Bank. "Bank's gonna be openin' any minute now."

Bert took a fortifying swig of whiskey, set his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands, bored. "Why cain't we go over t'the bank n' ask 'em ta open up so's we can rob 'em?"

Bert and Otis pondered the question over a few more shots of liquor. The plan sounded better with each glass. Broad, imbecilic grins split their faces as they pushed back from the table, stepped on and over the third cowboy, who was still snoring peacefully on the floor, and staggered toward the door, six-shooters drawn and ready.

Leaning on each other, the wobbled unsteadily across the street and pulled to a drunken halt in front of the bank building.

"LISTEN UP!" Otis shouted to the locked and darkened building, pointing his guns in the general direction of its front door. "This here is a hold-up! Put up yer hands and come outside so we can rob you proper!"

"Yeah!" Bert seconded, stooping to pick up the gun he'd dropped in the dirt.

A hand dropped heavily on each of their shoulders.

"Sorry to disappoint, boys. Bank's closed on Sundays," Buck Wilmington's voice drawled conversationally in their ears. The hands on their shoulders tightened as, with one smooth motion, Buck cracked their skulls together like a pair of walnuts.

Bert and Otis slid to the ground. Buck smiled and turned to retrieve the cup of coffee Inez held out for him.

+ + + + + + +

"It's a crime wave!"

"It's not a crime wave, Buck! It's the saddest excuse for a bank robbery I ever heard!"

"I'm telling you, JD, this town is up to its elbows in thieving desperadoes," Buck broke off the argument to go rooting through the drawers of different-sized typefaces. "We need one of those big, screaming headlines. Where's the letters Mary used for that 'Massacre on Main Street' story?"

JD shot a worried look around the office, hoping Chris wasn't anywhere within earshot. "It's not that big a story, Buck!"

"Two bank robberies in one day? That's news. Trust ol' Buck, kid. He has the nose for news."

"None of the robbers even got inside the bank!" JD waved his hands in exasperation, looking to Josiah and Vin for some support.

Josiah looked up from the type drawer and sighed. "Buck, re-write the bank robbery story to include this morning's incident. Do not," he paused for emphasis. "Do not sensationalize. If I read one word about crime waves or the streets running red with blood . . . It'll be your funeral."

+ + + + + + +

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to bid a fond farewell to Jyrki Veikko Jaaskelainen," Ezra cast his eyes piously heavenward as Nathan and Frenchy bowed their heads beside the kerosene-soaked ship.

The funeral procession had led them from Frenchy's cabin to the nearby river, where the funeral barge sat poised on the pebbly shore for its voyage to the afterlife.

"In these trying times, it is tempting to ask, why?" Ezra continued in funerary tones. "Why must we be here today? Why has Jyrki Veikko Jaaskelainen been taken from us ... before his time? But rather than dwell on his inexplicable passing, we should endeavor instead to remember the man as he was in life. I, for one, shall always remember Mr. Jaaskelainen's tenacious spirit, his persistent hospitality and his expert marksmanship. I know the final fish stew we shared together will remain with me for a long, long time."

Ezra stepped back from the rowboat-sized replica of the Viking longboat and raised a mug of moonshine in toast.

"To Frenchy! World traveler, shipbuilder, storyteller and master brewer," he downed the drink in one gulp.

Frenchy beamed and stepped forward in turn. "To Frenchy! Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him!" He drank, oblivious to the grimaces of the younger men.

Nathan rolled his eyes and stepped up. "To Frenchy. He was healthy as a horse." He took a sip, then, with a shrug, chugged the entire mug. It was a wake, after all.

Grunting and complaining, the three men shoved at the heavy ship until it entered the current. Frenchy lit a sulfur match and tossed it toward the longboat. The flame caught and spread until half the boat was engulfed. Frenchy hooted and clapped his hands.

Nathan watched the flaming boat bob spin slowly, caught in the current. "Is that all?" he whispered to Ezra.

"You are correct, Mr. Jackson. We would be remiss if we did not end the funeral rites with a suitable hymn." Ezra bowed his head for a moment, then began to sing.

"Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream . . ."

Through a haze of alcohol fumes, Nathan and Frenchy stared at Ezra. They looked back at the boat. After a beat, they joined in, their voices twining with Ezra's clear tenor.

"Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream."

Once again, with feeling, the three men took up the song, serenading the rowboat as it drifted majestically out toward the center of the river and began moving downstream.

"Merrily, merrily, merrily, merri--" Nathan broke off and pointed toward the boat. "Heck. It's stuck." The ship had washed up against some sunken debris and caught fast in the middle of the river.

"This will not do," Frenchy said, bending to pull off his boots. He overbalanced and landed on his backside.

"What'd you think you're doing, old man?" Nathan asked, clamping a restraining hand on the top of Frenchy's head.

"Am going to push my ship free. You know," he peered up at the lawmen. "Merrily, merrily, merrily down the stream?"

"Uh uh. I ain't going to two of your funerals in one week," Nathan said. "And just where the heck d'you think YOU'RE going?" He turned to glare at Ezra, who had kicked off his boots and was awkwardly rolling up his pants legs.

"I intend to extricate yon longboat," Ezra declared, shucking off his coat and marching toward the river. "I cannot allow it to burn to smithereens while entangled in such an … undignified manner."

Nathan reached out, snagged Standish's shirt collar and yanked him back until he sprawled next to Frenchy.

"I'll do it," he squared his shoulders and stepped into the river, forgetting to take off his boots.

"You can't swim!" Ezra yelled after him.

"I don't need to swim! I just need to be taller than the water!" Nathan called back confidently. "So you just stay there! You're short!"

Grumbling, he waded deeper. Good thing he was here. Those two would have just gone splashing into the stream like fools, with no regard for their health and safety. Some people had no sense whatsoever.

The cold water rose to his neck as he neared the ship. A few experimental tugs on the planks that weren't burning proved that the ship was stuck fast.

With a martyred sigh, Nathan grabbed the prow with both hands and pushed off against the underwater snag with his feet. The ship popped free and went spinning merrily back into the current, picking up speed as it headed downstream.

Nathan whooped and grinned over his shoulder at the two men who were watching him from the shore with their mouths hanging open. He could hear Ezra shouting something, but the words were lost as the two figures shrank into the distance.

Wait a minute. Nathan felt around for the bottom of the river with one toe. Nothing but water. He looked up to see flames licking slowly across the dry wood he was holding, inching closer to his fingers.

+ + + + + + +

"Awwww hell!" Ezra scrambled to his feet, only to topple over as Frenchy grabbed him around the knees.

"Boots! Put on your boots, idiot child!" the old man shoved one boot on his bare foot as Ezra fished impatiently for the other. He heaved himself to his feet and took off running down the riverbank, dimly aware that the boots were on the wrong foot.

"Nathan!" he screamed, keeping his eyes on the flaming boat as it bobbed downstream. "Hang on!" He dodged around underbrush and skidded on the slick rocks by the riverbank. "Unless the flames reach you! In that case, let go!"

A distant rumble was beginning to swallow the soft sounds of the river. Ezra looked ahead and felt his eye widening. He put on a burst of speed and pulled even with the boat. It was beginning to ride low in the water, the flames hissing and crackling as they met the river. "Let go, Nathan! Let go!"

Nathan clutched the side of the boat for dear life and shook his head stubbornly.

"Look ahead, Nathan! Look!" Ezra gestured frantically downriver, but Jackson had his eyes screwed shut.

Cursing, Ezra sprinted ahead, making for the dead tree that leaned across the water, just past the point where the river fell away to a forty-foot waterfall.

+ + + + + + +

"Whoa! I didn't see that coming!" JD crowded closer to Josiah, peering over his shoulder as the preacher painstakingly converted the words on the page into type on the press. "You guys read the gossip column yet? Nate 'n' Ez did a really good job with it."

Buck and Vin glanced up from their argument over the bank robbery story.

"Son, ain't nobody going to care about frou-frou tea parties once they get through with this story," Buck paused for a gulp of coffee straight out of the pot. "The good readers're gonna be on the edge of their seats. They're gonna be sucking their thumbs for comfort by the time they read to the end."

Vin cocked his head and studied Buck. "How much coffee you had today, Bucklin?"

"A couple pots. Why?"

"Oh, nothin'. Just ain't seen you blink for about two hours now."

Josiah cleared his throat. "Vin, if you have a minute, I could use some help over here." An overcaffeinated Wilmington was a problem he chose to put on the back burner for now.

Vin skirted around Buck, who beginning to vibrate in his chair as he gnawed a pencil to kindling. He joined the preacher at the worktable and studied the rough outline of tomorrow's front page. To him, the page was a hopeless jumble of backward letters. Gray lead type against a gray metal background with no sense or pattern he could see. He felt his chest tighten.

"Josiah, I can't--"

"So, brother," Josiah cut in firmly. "This space here," he taped a blank area on the template. "Is where we will put the bank robbery story. I was trying to write the headline while we wait for Buck to finish, but I can't make anything fit."

Josiah held up a large block of type. An 'M.' Vin felt himself begin to relax. He knew M. He frowned slightly and tilted his head. Unless that was a 'W' . . .

Josiah was still talking. ". . . but if we use this typeface, we'll only have space for 15 letters in the headline, including spaces between the words. Any suggestions?"

"I still don't see what's wrong with 'BUCK SAVES THE DAY,'" Buck grumbled, scratching out a line in his story.

"Too long. Too wrong," JD supplied helpfully. He turned to Josiah. "Too bad Mary already used 'MASSACRE ON MAIN STREET'."

"Ain't too late for one, boy," Buck winged a wadded-up sheet of paper at JD.

Josiah's head sank into his hands. "Nothing fits. The words 'bank robbers' alone take up most of the page. Hopeless . . . hopeless."

Vin elbowed the despondent printer. "Robbers foiled."

Josiah looked up. "Beg pardon?"

"Try 'ROBBERS FOILED,'" he nodded to the page. "Then, in the little headline Mary usually runs underneath, you can say something like, 'Lawmen thwart dual bank heists.'"

The others stared at the tracker.

"Thwart?" Buck spluttered. "Dual? Foiled?"

"Ezra," Vin shrugged. "He gets thwarted at least twice a week."

Buck shook his head sadly. Standish was ruining that boy's vocabulary.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute . . ." Josiah's fingers flew over the type drawers, pushing letters into place.

"It fits! It fits perfectly!" He grabbed Vin and hauled him over to page two. "Here -- the Ladies' Benevolent Aid Society's going to be collecting for the war veterans next week." He tapped the blank space where the headline should be and eyed Vin expectantly.

Vin squinted at the space. "Charity collects cash for cause?" he hazarded.

JD whistled admiringly. "VIN SAVES THE DAY!"

Josiah caught him up in a rib-cracking hug. "Genius! The boy's a genius," he set Vin down and gave him a shove toward page six. "Brothers, I have a sudden feeling that everything is going to turn out just fine."

+ + + + + + +

"We're both gonna die!"

Nathan stared down at the forty feet of open air between the soles of his boots and the rocks at the base of the waterfall. Bits of charred wood, some of them still burning, bobbed on the foam below.

He looked up at the man who was dangling by his knees from the dead tree branch above him, holding both of Nathan's wrists in a deathgrip.

"Ezra! You gotta let go of me!" Nathan tried again. "That branch can't hold us both!"

Standish tightened his grip.

"While I have your attention, Mr. Jackson . . ." Ezra paused a moment to hitch his knees higher on the branch as the dry wood groaned in protest. "There is a pressing matter I would like to address."

Nathan swung out one leg, trying for some sort of purchase on the slick cliff wall. "Oh yeah? What would that be?"

"I . . ." The branch gave another creak and dipped a few inches toward the water below. "Am not . . ." A splintering noise as the limb twisted away from the main trunk. "SHORT!"

A loud snap punctuated the declaration as the branch broke, sending the two men plunging toward the water far, far below.

+ + + + + + +

A stack of newspapers landed with a thump on the floor next to Mary Travis's head. She started, opening her eyes to a view of five men, one cup of coffee and a screaming headline about bank robberies. Early morning sunshine streamed through the windows.

A beatific smile lit her face. "Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeews . . ."

Vin hunkered down and set the coffee and a copy of the paper at her elbow. No finer way to start a day.

The other four crowded closer, anxious for the publisher's verdict.

Mary petted the newspaper. "Pretty . . ." She reached over, lifted the paper admiringly to eye level and let it drop. Her hands flopped back to the ground as soft snores rattled the newsprint tent over her head.

Josiah nudged Chris. "Was that the reaction you were going for?" he whispered.

Larabee shot him a sideways glare. Slowly, the five men began backing toward the door -- only to bump into Nettie Wells, who was returning to the bedroom with a loaded tray. The regulators fled, with the old woman's exasperated scolding still ringing in their ears.

They stepped out of the Clarion offices into the sunshine and paused for a moment, savoring the feel of a morning free of headlines and deadlines.

Buck, still twitchy from yesterday's coffee intake, craned his head around to study the people in the street. He saw people shopping, walking, talking, sweeping and riding. Not one person did he see reading the newspaper. He scowled.

Vin caught the look. "Reckon folks have better things to do than sit around all day with the paper," he said, not looking entirely happy about that fact.

JD crossed his arms and slumped back against hitching post. "I was expecting, I dunno, things to be different. Thought everybody would be talking about the news. Thought people would be coming up to us and telling us they liked our stories. Or something."

"Hey, Buck!" a booming voice cut into their gloomy thoughts. They turned to see Yosemite bearing down on them. "Already had three people come by, offering to take the kittens. Thanks!"

"Larabee!" old man Conklin was bearing down on them from the other side. "You misspelled my name in that advertisement! I demand a retraction! I demand a refund! I demand--" he took a good look at the expression on Larabee's face and began backing away. "I believe I'll just let the matter drop." He scuttled off.

"Oooh," Euphemia Conklin and Harriet Watson fluttered across the street toward the news office. "We have already had several generous contributions this morning! We cannot thank you gentlemen enough." The fluttered away, leaving each man holding a bright scarlet box of fudge. Dang.

"Mmm, Vin," one of the saloon girls, Janette, sidled up to Vin and rubbed his arm. "I read all about how you saved the day. My hero." She fluttered her eyelashes at him as she continued down the boardwalk.

"Ahem," a new voice interrupted. A tall, stooped old man with a bristling mustache stood grinning at them. "I have here something that, I believe, belongs to you?"

He stepped back to reveal Ezra and Nathan, slung over the back of his mule like sacks of feed. Their horses trailed behind on a lead rope, looking bored.

"Ezra?" Larabee tilted the gambler's face up, looking for signs of injury or abuse. Ezra's eyes rolled open. He opened his mouth to say something . . . and burped, sending forth a corrosive cloud of alcohol fumes. Larabee reeled back and turned to Nathan, who was hiccuping and sliding slowly through Josiah's arms to the ground.

"What the hell did you do to my men?" Larabee advanced threateningly on Frenchy.

"There you go, boys!" The old man hooted, ignoring the man in black and cutting the ropes that still secured Ezra to the mule. The gambler began a slow slide toward the earth, interrupted by Buck and JD, who each grabbed an arm and hauled him onto the porch.

Ezra's head lolled on his shoulder. "M'not short," he mumbled, sinking toward the floorboards.

"Whatever you say, Ezra," Nathan hiccuped. Josiah dumped the intoxicated healer next to the gambler.

"Thanks for everything, my friends!" Frenchy hopped on his mule and gave a cheery wave to the group. "That was a fine send-off! But next time, try to remember to bring a cold dish."

He wheeled the mule and jogged back out of town without a backward glance. The speechless lawmen watched him go.

Josiah was trying unsuccessfully to prop Nathan into a sitting position. "Are you all right brothers? Are you hurt?"

"M'fine," Ezra smiled brightly.

"M'fine too," Nathan agreed. "Damndest thing."

"What happened to your clothes?" Larabee fingered the unfamiliar garments, obviously on loan from the old fur trapper.

"Got wet," Ezra made a complicated series of gestures meant to convey the sense of washing downriver, dangling over a waterfall and plunging forty feet to the pool below, only to miss the rocks, flounder to the shore unharmed and devote the rest of the evening to drinking yourself senseless.

"Everything o-okay here?" Nathan struggled to look alert. "We miss anything?"

The other five exchanged a look.

"Nothing much," Larabee bent and grabbed the healer under the arms. Vin grabbed his feet and they headed for the clinic. Josiah hauled the gambler up onto his shoulder. Buck and JD trailed along behind.

Nettie Wells' voice from the window above froze them in their tracks.

"Mary's awake, boys," she called down. "She wants you to come up and talk to her about the next edition of the paper!"

They started moving again. Faster.

"And boys!" Nettie called after their retreating backs. "Mary wants to know -- what's a 'XOF'?"

dnE ehT

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