Ring of Truth

by KellyA

Author Note: Special thanks to NotTasha for her beta skills.

Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.

Part 1

Vin Tanner focused his spyglass, capturing the thin trail of smoke that rose over the distant ridge, staining the sky. His hand tightened around the metal cylinder as his stomach clenched, knowing what lay at the tail end of that smoke. His horse pranced under him as his legs inadvertently communicated his dismay and anger.

"Damn, looks like we 'ave another one." Vin handed the spyglass to the darkly dressed gunslinger who sat astride a black gelding.

Chris Larabee brought the telescope to his eye; his jaw clenched at the sight of the smoldering marker, like a dirty finger stirring up the blue expanse of sky. He exhaled and his shoulders slumped as the telescope dropped to his side. Chris looked over his shoulder to regard the three other lawmen who sat despairingly in their saddles, their somber faces mirroring his own. The five lawmen had been scouting the area around Four Corners for the past two days, hoping not to see the dark smoke designating another home destroyed.

Larabee's face was barely discernible beneath his wide-brimmed black hat, but the perceptive tracker knew the thoughts playing through his head. The stalwart gunslinger blamed himself. Chris took his duties as peacekeeper very seriously, and at times, very personally. Vin gathered up his reins and brought his horse to attention with a gentle nudge to its side. Man and beast reluctantly set out toward the distant beacon of smoke.

The sight of the burned out homestead was a familiar one, although, no less tragic to the five lawmen. The scene held a more calamitous and obscene allure to Chris Larabee, evoking past images that he constantly fought to subdue. His icy blue orbs gazed at the small homestead that lay smoldering on the plains; its dark charred remains standing stark against the azure sky. Another home, another time flashed before him, and an imperceptible shudder gripped his body as he swallowed back the emotions churning up inside.

Wilmington's hand clenched tight around the reins when he noticed the familiar grief trying to take hold of his long-time friend. He also fought against seeing the past, rising up in the remains of the burned out home; hearing himself badgering Chris to stay another day in Mexico, then to see Chris crumble in despair at the sight of his family, burned past recognition.

Chris's face scrunched at the scent of burned flesh that drifted past on a light breeze. He glanced over to see Ezra remove a white handkerchief from his pocket and place it over his nose. Buck pulled his bandana up to cover his nose and mouth. They had stopped several yards short of the house, the horses growing agitated by the smell of burnt flesh and wood.

The odor was familiar to four of the five lawmen--the stench of death, conjuring up inescapable memories within the older men. Buck suspected that the burned out barn next to the house probably held some unfortunate animals, which were adding to the stench.

"Maybe you better stay here, JD," Buck suggested when he noticed the unusual shade of green that suddenly colored his young friend's boyish face.

"I'm fine," JD choked out, not wanting to show his weakness as he struggled to tie his bandana around his head. He was fighting a battle with his stomach, which was demanding withdrawal from the source of its distress.

"Mr. Dunne." Ezra's muffled southern drawl rose up from behind. "You have been most fortunate not to have been subjected to such carnage in your young life. Please, don't take offense if we only wish to continue your good fortune."

A small smile graced Buck's face upon hearing the cardshark's argument. He knew they couldn't protect the young gunslinger from the cruelties of the world forever. However, the longer they could, the better JD's outlook on life would be. It was not good to start out a life so full of bloodshed and brutality. You only had to look into the eyes of the six other gunslingers to see what damage that could do; they all harbored demons, which at times pervaded their dreams.

Dunne eyed the fancy dressed southerner, at first surprised by his level of concern, then suspicious of his motive. JD's placid expression fell away. He didn't want to be protected and hated being treated like a kid. It was a constant battle with the other peacekeepers to prove his mettle. "I can do this," he tersely assured, his young pride stiffening his backbone and causing him to sit taller in the saddle. He tried not to breathe in too deeply, or through his nose.

Vin bowed his head, hiding a grim smile behind his long hair. The kid just didn't know what was good for him. He guessed that sometimes a person just had to find out the hard way.

Buck was prepared to pull JD from his horse and tie the mule-headed young man down until he saw the shake of Chris's head. This was JD's decision, and he would have to live with the consequences in his nightmares.

Part 2

The five peacekeepers dismounted and strode toward what was left of the house. Wood crackled and glowed; embers flared as if trying to re-ignite to finish consuming their meal. The stench of burnt flesh grew stronger with each step, until even the scent of some nearby wildflowers was smothered by the bitter and offensive odor of death. A corpse, blackened and gnarled like a piece of wood, its hands clutching stiffly around a rifle, lay out on the porch. It had to be the owner, Mr. Paul Schorr. There was no sign of his wife Jane, and the men assumed she was somewhere inside the burnt out remains. The couple had worked the land for a little over a year and was just starting to earn a living. Chris had met Paul Schorr in town a few times and had found him easygoing but with a powerful drive to succeed. Both Paul and his wife had attended the last town meeting and had even offered up several suggestions to the hotel and store managers about dumping waste in the back alleys. They were the kind of people every town needed, the backbone that kept a town alive and growing.

The five gunslingers tried to maintain a façade of indifference, hiding the feelings of loathing and revenge that boiled deep inside. These had been good, hard-working people--They didn't deserve this.

Chris released a quivering breath as a distant memory overlapped the present reality causing his breath to catch in his throat.

"There are arrows and pony tracks all over the place," Buck declared, stating the obvious and interrupting Chris's morose musings.

Chris turned to face his old friend, more as an excuse to tear his gaze away from the burnt out home then to answer his statement. Buck was always there to divert his attention, something for which he was extremely grateful. How many times had the gregarious cowboy staved off his inner demons by annoying the hell out of him?

Buck could see the anguish in Chris's blue eyes, and his heart ached for his friend. He knew these fires were raising bitter memories and now with the loss of life... Buck had tried to talk his friend out of coming, telling him they could handle it, but Chris refused. Buck knew that Chris relived that fateful day in his dreams every night. Now it seemed the tormented gunslinger wanted to revive that day to pay penance for not being there to protect his wife and child.

Buck and Chris turned sharply and shook their heads at the sound of JD retching beside the water trough. Ezra had to vacate the immediate area or risk joining the young man in emptying the contents of his stomach. He had seen worse, especially during the war, but it still hadn't hardened his heart or his stomach.

"JD, see to the horses," Chris snapped.

The young easterner straightened, his face a shade paler than before, looking ghostly under his dark hair. His hand trembled as he wiped the spittle from his mouth with his sleeve, and then he dutifully complied with the welcomed order.

"This makes three homes burned out in as many weeks," Vin softly remarked as he scanned the surrounding area.

"And the first people killed," Buck morosely added, the bile threatening to rise in his own throat. "Damn, we should 'ave caught them bastards responsible before this happened." Guilt stabbed at all of them. Whoever was committing these vile acts knew what they were doing and how to avoid the law.

Larabee grunted in acknowledgement as he kept his gaze on Vin, watching as the skilled tracker made a slow concise circle around the front of the home, his sharp blue gaze focused on the ground. Hopefully, Vin would come up with something new.

Part 3

Standish held back from the others, feeling slightly out of place. He knew Larabee dragged him out here just to make his life uncomfortable rather than for any sort of help he could possibly offer. Still, he too wanted to administer retribution to the people responsible for these heinous crimes. The wind changed and Ezra took a deep breath of fresh air then proceeded to rejoin his cohorts in their grisly task.

Vin had stopped his meandering and was now staring intently toward the south range. He felt the three men approach and knew they were hoping he could tell them something, anything that would help apprehend the people responsible. The stakes had risen with the death of the Schorrs.

Tanner gritted his teeth as he tried to keep personal feelings from interfering with any assumptions. Anyone could see the arrows, moccasin and unshod pony tracks scattered throughout the area. Its what wasn't visible that was bothering him. What was being openly concocted was not what he believed to be the truth. Vin squatted down and picked up a handful of dirt allowing it to sift through his fingers.

"Anything?" Chris asked.

Vin picked up an arrow as he stood. "Looks like four of 'em came up from the south," Vin replied, his voice edged with hesitation as his gut refused to accept what he was seeing. "They broke from over there and just overran the place. The Schorrs never had a chance." Vin pointed to the west side of the house.

"How long ago?" Chris asked. He could see that something was bothering the astute tracker.

Vin turned disquieting blue eyes toward his friends. "Three, maybe four hours, just before dawn." He ran his hand over the arrow shaft, the markings indicating the Cheyenne tribe that lived several miles south. Each tribe used different kinds of feathers and symbols to denote their tribe and even an individual brave--Arrows were as personal as a gunslinger's beloved gun.

"Cheyenne?" Chris asked, knowing the answer, he recognized the markings on the arrow.


"Damn," Buck exclaimed, quickly scanning the area. "We have to catch them murdering savages before we end up in an Indian war."

Vin inwardly cringed at Buck's remark but held his tongue. Most people readily believed that Indians were behind the burnings.

"I don't get it," JD broke in, having finally gained control of his queasiness. He still averted his eyes away from the burned out homestead. "Ain't Gray Eagle the chief? I thought we were at peace with him."

"We've been fair and up-front with Gray Eagle," Vin replied. "They don't have any reason to start a war, and risk everything if they do. It doesn't make any sense."

The seven peacekeepers had managed to work out any disputes, peacefully. There had even been trade amongst the Indians and some of the settlers. What could have changed? Why would Indians attack the homesteaders?

"The judge has been tryin' to get a formal decree, from the territorial governor, a promise that the Indians can keep their land. But he's fighting an up hill battle," Chris explained.

Flashes of memory played through Vin's head. A whole tribe of blackened corpses, fire burning untamed through a village, a young boy running toward the woods, running until his legs ached and his lungs felt like they would burst. The sound of cavalry guns against bows and arrows.

Vin was unaware that the feelings that passed through him were plainly visible on his face.

"Vin. Vin?"


Chris's voice startled him. Vin blinked and found Larabee staring at him, worry deepening the fine lines around the older lawman's eyes.

"Sometimes things aren't always the way they look," Vin sadly remarked.

"And sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one," Ezra disparagingly declared.

"And what's that suppose to mean?" Vin growled his icy tone dropping a degree.

"There were witnesses, Mr. Tanner. Indians were seen attacking the last homestead only a few miles from here." Ezra's green-eyed glare matched the tracker's equally menacing stare. The other homesteaders had abandoned their homes when the Indians attacked and escaped to the safety of town.

"Yeah, but it was dark and no one could identify any of the braves or even the tribe," Vin bit back. He felt as if Ezra was attacking him personally.

"Granted, not everyone is as observant or knowledgeable about the natives as you, but I doubt anyone could mistake whooping, buckskin-clad aborigines as anything else." Ezra's suave southern drawl was tinged with strained deference. Taunting Tanner was akin to teasing a rattler, you never knew if it would strike or back down. "And I believe they have left a calling card this time." Ezra stared at the arrow in Vin's hand.

Vin rolled the arrow between his fingers. Why didn't they find arrows at the other homesteads? It was as if the arrows were deliberately left to reinforce the belief.

The tracker grew defensive at Ezra's assertion and this immediately put the conman on guard, it was an automatic reflex. Years of distrust were not easily dissuaded. Standish and the others knew that Vin had delved deeply into Indian culture and had maintained a special bond with some of the tribes. Ezra didn't want that rapport to cloud Vin's judgment on the present situation, but he also didn't want to lose the man's friendship.

"Sir, I'm only playing devil's advocate here," Ezra calmly explained. "Maybe there is some discord among the Indians. Maybe they have grown weary of waiting for a written pledge, enabling them to keep land that is already theirs."

Vin's eyes darkened, but the perceived threat didn't dissuade the gambler. "Most people believe that Indians are responsible and it is only a matter of time before we have a full scale war on our hands. The only way to apprehend these miscreants is to maintain an open mind."

Tanner stood and glared at Ezra, for a moment not seeing a friend but an enemy. He turned sharply away, ashamed of his thoughts. He knew Ezra was right, but damn, how could he convince everyone that he didn't think Indians were to blame? Moreover, who was to blame and why? Without a word, Vin walked back toward the horses.

JD released a breath as the tension level eased. "Boy, Vin sure is mad."

"Yeah, let's just hope he don't go and do anything stupid," Buck said.
He trusted in Vin's instincts, but right now, he didn't know what to believe.

Larabee watched Vin go, his straight back and determined strides showing the measure of his frustration. Chris then turned and glared at the cardshark. "You make a damn good devil's advocate," he sarcastically retorted then followed after his friend. Chris hadn't meant to throw his anger at Ezra. This was the reason he had dragged the southerner with them. He knew that the combative conman would not hesitate to speak his mind and challenge anyone's thinking.

"How do you always manage to piss Chris off?" Buck asked, wondering what had just happened. He knew the two men didn't always get along. Chris was flint, and Ezra was kindling; the spark was usually the cardshark's cocky presence or his smart-alecky mouth.

Ezra raised a quizzical eyebrow; a faintly amused smile played on his lips lighting up his green eyes. "Trade secret." Buck guffawed and slapped the gambler on the back.

The five lawmen sat astride their horses, taking one last look at the burned out homestead, and swearing retribution.

"We better find out who's responsible and fast before things get any worse," Chris declared. He thought it had already gone too far but they had to try and head off a war. "Let's git back to town. I'll have someone come out and retrieve the bodies."

Part 4

The five trail-weary peacekeepers returned to find their town over-run with Army soldiers; uniformed-clad men in groups of three of more lingered around the saloon and mercantile. Two large soldiers garnered special attention, as they seemed to be guarding the jailhouse.

'Shit, things just got worse,' Chris thought as he and the others pulled up in the street as Josiah met them.

"What's goin' on, Josiah?" Buck asked. The five men dismounted and started to walk toward the jail as the ex-preacher filled them in on what had transpired while they were away.

"Came in this morning," Josiah replied dryly. "Say they're here to check out what's goin' on with the Indians."

"Shit," Vin angrily murmured under his breath as he stared intently at the two Sergeants maintaining position outside the jail door. He had known an Army unit was in the area and had hoped they wouldn't get involved.

"I believe some of the locals have been apprising them about the goings-on," Josiah added. He couldn't blame the townsfolk. Everyone was scared. Some families had started coming into town at night for protection; many were preparing for war by stocking up on ammo and food.

The seven lawmen had been able to quell any uprising since no one had been killed--that would change when word got out about the deaths.

"Don't suppose you boys found out anything?" Josiah asked.

"Nope, and they killed the Schorrs," Buck said looping his horse's reins around the railing.

"Oh, dear Lord." Josiah closed his eyes and mumbled a prayer for the couple.

"It's definitely Indians," JD harshly whispered to Josiah.

"Shut up, JD!" Vin snapped, instantly regretting the venomous tone. If they started believing that Indians were responsible, what chance would the Indians have?

"Easy, Vin, JD didn't mean nuthin' by it." Buck laid a hand on the tracker's shoulder, which was summarily shrugged off.

Ezra brushed dust from his sleeve and stepped up alongside Chris. "Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I'm sure you are capable of handling the Army."

Chris ignored the cardshark as his attention settled on the tracker. Ezra shrugged and walked away, recognizing Larabee's form of dismissal.

Vin leapt up onto the boardwalk and stood defiantly in front of the two Sergeants. Chris rolled his eyes and followed his impetuous friend, with Buck, JD and Josiah right on his heels.

"Let them in," a strong, deep voice echoed from within the jail and caused the Sergeants to part ranks.

Part 5

Following Vin, the four gunslingers ambled past the sentries and stepped inside the jailhouse. They stared at the Army Major who sat leisurely back in a chair, three soldiers surrounding him.

The Major brought his full six-foot plus height out of the chair as the four gunslingers approached the desk. He was a broad shoulder man, his uniform straining somewhat around his stomach, but he still managed to maintain a look of dignity. His gray eyes, flecked with silver, showed an intelligence that was lacking in his soft face, salt and pepper hair was cut close to his scalp. "Gentlemen, I'm Major Avery Willis of the 5th Army brigade out of Tucson." His voice was firm and controlled, if not a little rehearsed.

"What do you want?" Chris asked.

Willis walked around the desk. "I'm here on orders to determine if there is an Indian problem. We had reports that several homes had been attacked and burned. I also received a report a few hours ago that a recent attack had causalities."

Chris's eyes widen. "How'd you find out? We've only just returned from there."

"One of my scouts viewed the destruction. He saw Indians riding away."

"Why didn't he go after 'em?" Vin asked.

Willis cocked a gray eyebrow. "First, he was under orders to only scout and report back, and anyway by the time he reached the homestead the Indians were gone," Willis replied, meeting the tracker's scathing glare.

"So, what are you here to do?" Buck broke in, ending the line of sight feud between the two men.

"I'm here to gather further evidence and to find…" The Major picked up a piece of paper from the desk. "A Chief Gray Eagle's tribe and take appropriate action," he read. Avery leaned against the desk, folding his arms over his chest. He knew about the seven lawmen who protected this town and was inclined to work with them--to a point.

"And what is appropriate action?" Josiah warily asked.

Avery looked at the giant man and exhaled. "The braves responsible will be arrested and tried, and the whole tribe is to be relocated to a reservation east of here."

"Sounds to me like you've already made up your mind about who's responsible," Vin spat, trying to control his growing dread and anger. Why did everyone automatically blame Indians? He had lived with several tribes throughout his life, and yes, at times, Indians were to blame for some onslaught, but not always...no, not always.

The Major ducked his head in dismay for a moment. "Regrettably, yes." He raised his head trying to portray a mask of understanding "This is just a formality. We have all the proof we need to take action. We just need to find the tribe."

Willis stared curiously at the buckskin-clad lawman. The menacing glare in the tracker's eyes drove the Major to add, "My superiors would now require evidence that someone other than Indians are responsible."

"Guilty until proven innocent," Josiah somberly stated. He was on Vin's side. He didn't think Indians were to blame.

"I'm sorry, that's just the way it is right now." Willis's face did show the small measure of regret he felt. He had no desire to disrupt innocent lives, even Indians. He had tried to convince his superiors to go after only those Indians responsible for the burnings and leave the tribe alone. But he was overruled and instructed to seek out the whole tribe, with his commander pointing out that there was no such thing as an innocent redskin.

"That's bullshit and you know it! The Army's always looking for an excuse to wipe-out the Indians!" Vin angrily voiced, taking a threatening step toward the Major who stopped himself from stepping back. He had a job to do and he was not going to let some long-haired renegade intimidate him.

Larabee materialized in front of Vin, halting his progress. He glanced quickly over his shoulder noting the look in the tracker's eyes; Vin was taking this very personal. "Major, we have reason to believe that there is more going on here," Chris cautiously remarked.

"Such as?"

"Not sure, but my friend here doesn't think that Indians are to blame."

"And to what does he attribute this belief?" The Major asked.

"Just a feelin'," Vin replied.

Major Willis bit down on a smile. "I'm sorry, but I can't ignore direct orders on a feeling. Be grateful we're not going to arrest the whole tribe."

"You send them to a reservation you might as well condemn them to death," Vin growled out over Chris's shoulder. "The Indians around here are peaceful."

"I don't want any trouble," Willis stressed. "We'll handle things from now on and anyone who interferes will be arrested."

"We have an obligation to protect the people of this town and that includes the homesteaders," Chris reminded, his sinewy body still deterring any physical threat his friend might pose, but Larabee knew he didn't hold back the tracker's intimidating influence. Chris smiled as Major Willis uneasily shifted his stance.

"I respect that Mr. Larabee, and I'm sure we can work in accord with each other to bring the guilty parties to justice." Willis saw the menace in Tanner's glare. "Or at least manage to stay out of each other's way."

Vin snorted his disgust.

"I don't suppose one of you could tell me where Gray Eagle is?" Willis looked directly at Vin, who only smiled smugly. "Didn't think so. My men and I will be gathering supplies before we return to camp." Avery nodded and left with the three soldiers quick on his heels.

Vin stepped up to the doorway and watched as the soldiers headed to the Mercantile. A familiar fear rose up from his past and caused his gut to clench.

"What are we going to do, Chris?" Buck asked.

Chris wiped at his face. "We try and find out who's responsible before the Army finds Gray Eagle." Chris turned to JD. "JD, you and Buck go 'round town and see if you can find out what people are sayin'."

Chris looked toward the tracker, seeing the despair on his face. "Vin, we'll do what we can to protect the Indians."

Vin nodded, hoping they could do enough.

Part 6

Anxious to put the sights and smells of the morning's discovery behind him, Standish eagerly crossed the dusty street to enter the consoling influence of his one true home. 'Nothing like a challenging game of chance to put one's mind at ease,' the suave gambler thought as he looked over the early inhabitants of the saloon and sighed. Oh well, a mediocre game will have to suffice. He settled down at his usual table and began nimbly shuffling a deck of cards, a signal to everyone that he was open for business. His fingers danced in between the pasteboards, giving each card equal attention. It was like he knew the feel of each and every card in the deck and they gave him solace.

Cards were the only things Ezra believed in, but that was changing now wasn't it? Ezra Standish, dyed-in-the-wool gambler and conman, was starting to believe in himself and the six unique individuals that he found himself irrevocably tied to. How else could he explain staying on a job that put his life on the line everyday, forced him to wake at un-godly hours and took him away from the poker tables, all for only a dollar a day.

Ezra looked up as two rather well-worn cowhands sauntered up to the table looking for a game. Ezra shrugged. They would get him warmed up, he mused and cut the deck.

Money was being anted as a fourth player approached the table. Ezra paused and cast a thoughtful gaze upon a young Private. He looked the young man up and down, which didn't take long; the boy was smaller than JD. His round face still held a measure of boyish naiveté, but his dark eyes looked to be twice his age. Fine blond hair hung straight, touching the tops of his ears. The worn uniform hung loose on his small, lean frame, as if someone thought he would eventually grow into it. He still managed to look professional and seemed genuinely proud to be wearing the Calvary colors.

"We play high stakes," Ezra absently remarked, keeping his voice unassuming and hoping to discourage the young man from entering the game.

"I got money," the Private eagerly declared producing several bills.

Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow. "I was not aware the Cavalry paid so well."

The young man's eyes narrowed on the cardshark. He'd never been questioned before. Gamblers usually jumped at the chance to play anyone who had money. "I've been saving," he curtly replied. "Can I play or what?" This was his first time in town, and he was eager to try out his poker skills on a professional. His confidence was high, having joined with the men in his unit during their nightly poker games.

Ezra shrugged and watched as the young Private sat down. He deftly dealt the cards and furtively scrutinized the other players, noting the imperceptible signs that gave away their hands. "You have a name?" Ezra inquired of the young Private, as he picked up his cards, his face remaining an unreadable mask even as he held a pair of aces.

"Private Roland Croninger, 5th Cavalry, under the command of Major Avery Willis," he proudly explained, looking at his cards. He stopped a grimace, but Ezra caught the faint tic.

"And what brings you to our dusty little town Private Croninger?"
Ezra asked, seeing the frown flicker on the young Private's face. Ezra knew that Chris and the others were probably getting information from the commander, although Larabee was not known for his tact. A faint smile creased the gambler's lips at the thought of an uncompromising Army officer now dealing with the volatile Chris Larabee and the equally explosive Vin Tanner. But sometimes more valuable information came from the men in the trenches.

"Don't you know?" Roland stated. "Indians are on the warpath"

This got the attention of the two other players who stared at the young Private.

"What are you talkin' about, boy?" One of the cowhands snapped out.

Ezra was getting a bad feeling about all this. He didn't want some young gung-ho Private fueling the fires of an already volatile situation.

"Don't know rightly," Roland tried to recant as he looked at the angry glares of the two cowhands. He definitely needed to learn to keep his mouth shut. "Ah, just heard that a couple homesteads burned down. We were here to investigate is all." Roland chewed on his bottom lip his eyes returning to his cards.

The two cowhands looked toward the gambler as if expecting an explanation. They had heard about the homesteads being burned but not about Indians being involved.

"Gentlemen, I do not condone innuendo or gossip. I assure you everything is under control. Let us continue with our game, shall we," Ezra spoke sharply. He glanced over at Roland and the thought that arose in his mind gave him pause, this young man knew more than he was saying.

Part 7

Ezra was only mildly entertained. He watched as staid faces broke in open delight, only to quickly turn to looks of frustration as cards slammed down in disgust. Back and forth, they went: the cards on the table and Ezra's thoughts. He manipulated the three other players like someone commanding a fine horse, allowing each man a measure of confidence and expectation.

Roland Croninger nervously stared down at his cards. He then looked across the table to see the fancy dressed gambler gazing nonchalantly at him. He dropped his eyes back to his cards, the full house he held triggered a surge of excitement to race through him. He absently rubbed the single coin between his fingers.

"Sir, we are waiting," Ezra tiredly intoned, staring at the Private.

"Don't rush me; I'm thinkin'." Roland's down-home folksy drawl was now frustrated and tired. He didn't have enough money to cover the bet but he couldn't just fold. The pot was huge.

Ezra exhaled and continued to eye the young Private. He hated taking all the man's money but it was the only way the youth might learn, at least, that was how Ezra justified it. He was doing the boy a service by teaching him the follies of playing poker with a professional. And the boy was in the Army, so it wasn't as if he'd go hungry or not have a place to sleep. Still, Ezra wished that the young Private would just fold and cut his losses. A conscious was definitely a disturbing thing for a gambler to have.

Roland dug into his pocket and pulled out a gold ring. He hesitated for a moment placing the ring on his finger where it stopped at his first knuckle. "Look, can I use this to cover my bet?"

Ezra rolled his eyes, and the other two players grinned. "I'm not a jeweler and this is not a trade market. We deal strictly in cash."

"Yeah, but I bet this is worth a lot--solid gold."

Ezra heard the plea in the young man's voice and his resolve slipped a little. "Where did you get it?"

"Ah, it was my mother's," Roland hesitantly admitted.

"Really?" Ezra asked, a sandy brow arching as he stared intently at the Private whose eyes darted nervously around the room. No wonder the boy lost at poker, he couldn't even fabricate a good lie.

"Yeah, she passed away awhile ago." This was the truth and Roland was able to look the gambler straight in the eye.

Ezra reached over and took the ring from the young man's hand. It was a beautiful piece; a single small diamond sat in the center of a solid gold band. An intricate design of vines and leaves encircled the edges. Ezra looked over at the anxious youth. Well, live and learn, he thought, laying the ring on the pile of money in the center of the table.

A smile lit up Roland's face as he fanned out his cards; face up on the table--full house-tens high. The other two players groaned and threw their cards down in disgust. Roland reached out, prepared to rake in his winnings until Ezra's polite clearing of his throat stopped him. The young Private looked over to see Ezra's cards laid out before him--a royal flush. Roland's shoulders slumped and his mouth dropped.

"Better luck next time, boy!" one of the other players mocked as the two cowhands rose and left the table.

Roland stared blankly down at the cards on the table. He had never been beaten this badly before. He had always managed to hold his own and even win a time or two.

"You cheated me," Roland snarled under his breath. He then angrily jumped out of the chair hearing it clatter on the floor behind him. "You cheated, you smooth talkin' candy ass."

Ezra looked into a face that no longer held any hint of innocence. One's true self was always revealed when the mask was removed, Ezra mused, staring at the scowling young countenance, and nothing like playing a game of cards could remove that mask faster. Roland glanced around the saloon, noticing how everyone's attention was on him. He stared down at the ring that sat atop the pile of money. His anger quickly dissipated as he seemed to remember something. Prepared for a confrontation, Ezra relaxed as Roland turned on his heel and hurriedly left the saloon. Ezra picked up the ring and placed it in his pocket. He would have it appraised later.

He stared toward the doors as he absently shuffled the cards, barely acknowledging the new players. Roland had looked like a boy caught playing hooky from school.

Roland stormed out onto the boardwalk crashing through an elderly couple as he stomped down into the street and headed toward the stable. He had almost blown it. His Sergeant had warned him about getting into any trouble. Roland kicked at the dirt trying to disperse some of his anger. He was so sure he had a winning hand. The gambler must have cheated that was the only way he could explain losing so badly. Damn, he should have never come into town. His Sergeant would not be happy.

Part 8

"Damnit," Buck cursed as he and JD entered the jailhouse. Both lawmen stopped when they saw Vin and Chris sitting inside, feeling that they had just interrupted something.

"What's the problem now?" Chris dryly asked. It had been a long day. He and Vin had spent the better part of it trying to placate fearful and irate town's folk. Word had got out sooner than expected about the Schorrs' murder.

The Army was taking whatever supplies they needed, and not paying. The soldiers gave the town's merchants receipts for their merchandise and told them to file the proper paper work--this did not go over too well.

"We can't get any cold beer," Buck grumbled, removing his hat and slapping it against his leg.

"Why not?" Chris asked, rolling his eyes at his long-time friend. The territory was on the brink of war and all Buck could think of was getting a cold beer.

"The damn Army!" Buck paused a moment. "What they'd call it, JD?"

"Requisitioned," the young sheriff curtly answered, he couldn't get any cold milk either.

"Yeah, they requisitioned all our damn ice."

"Why the hell they do that?" Vin asked.

"Dunno, probably wanted to keep their own beer cold," Buck quipped. "Hell, they're taking enough supplies to last a month."

"Shit!" Vin slammed his fist down on the desk and spun around. "Chris, we can't let the Army send the Indians to a reservation. We promised them they could stay on that land."

Larabee leaned his suddenly weary frame against the wall. What could they do? Everything plainly pointed to Indians...maybe a little too plainly.

Chris lifted his gaze to lock on his friend who stood expecting an answer. "I don't want to see the Indians railroaded either but they're the most obvious suspects at the moment," Chris pointed out.

"Yeah, being nothing more than dirty, uneducated savages. They're not worth us going to too much trouble for," Vin growled, his growing anxiety over-riding his normal easy-going attitude.

"You're out of line, cowboy," Buck snapped, stepping between the two men and nailing the tracker with a glare that made the tracker want to retract his slight.

"No, it means we find out who is responsible," Chris firmly replied, his voice taking on a decidedly icy tone. He couldn't believe that Vin would accuse him of anything but trying to find justice.

Vin's eyes lowered and some of his fervor drained away, causing his shoulders to slump and his voice to soften. "I'm sorry, Chris, I just don't want to see it happen again."

"See what happen again, Vin?" JD's voice was a wave breaking over the tension that had descended.

Vin looked at each of the three faces staring expectantly back at him. He hated divulging any part of his past to anyone, but these men weren't just anyone. They deserved to know. Vin took a deep breath as if trying to inhale some life back into his wounded soul. Then he began, his voice strained and hesitant as if hunting and pulling the words out from deep inside. "I was young, probably fourteen or fifteen. I had been taken in by a Kiowa chief and made a member of the tribe." Vin paused a moment, trying to find the words to make tangible the painful memory. "Me and several braves had been out hunting. We were returning to the village when we heard it...cannons and rifles." Vin swallowed and chanced a look at his friends who still stood before him, their expressions one of sympathy and understanding. "An Army regiment was attacking the village. We hid and watched as our friends and family were slaughtered. There was nothing we could do. We were spotted and the soldiers started firing. I remember turning and running through the woods. I saw my friend, Tito, take a bullet and fall. I stopped to try and help him, but it was too late. I took a bullet in the shoulder." A tear slid down Vin's face, but he didn't wipe it away. "I was lucky, the soldiers saw that I was white and figured that I had been captured by the Indians. They took me to town and a doc patched me up." Vin bowed his head, the silence in the jail thick and suffocating.

"What did you do?" Chris asked his voice hoarse with emotion at what his friend had endured at such a young age.

Vin raised his head. "I ran off the first chance I got. The surviving braves had joined another tribe, and I just kept running. I wasn't a part of anything again until I met up with you all." Vin stared directly at Chris. "I found out later that the tribe was attacked because it was believed that one of the braves raped a white girl in a nearby town." Vin chuckled. "After they wiped out the tribe, the rapes continued and they finally caught the person responsible, it was the owner of the Mercantile."

JD's mouth fell open. "Did the Army have anything to say?"

"What? An apology," Vin softly guffawed. "It was never mentioned. The regiment was reassigned and sent away."

Chris laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "It won't happen again, I promise."

Vin forced a grim smile at his friend and leader, but his heart still burned with mistrust and revenge. Chris was right. It would not happen again, not if he had anything to say about it.

Part 9

Roland rode in-between two other soldiers, a third followed close behind. They rode parallel an orange sun that hung just inches off the horizon, casting an auburn hue across the desert terrain. Roland's shoulders slumped with the weight of his regret and disgust. How could he have been so stupid? He kept glancing over to his left at the huge middle-aged Sergeant.

"What's wrong, Roland?" The middle aged Sergeant asked, noticing Roland's cursory glances. SGT James Macklin, who went by the name Jimbo since he was a boy, was a mountain of a man with a face that resembled that of an angered bull. Green eyes blazed under thin dirty brown hair, which he barely kept cut to regulation. Even a false smile failed to erase the hardness on the Sergeant's features.

Roland's respect for the large Sergeant was a product of fear and obligation. Macklin had taken him under his wing when Roland had enlisted, after the death of his mother. Roland hesitated, trying to gauge the man's temperament. He swallowed the knot in his throat. "I lost my pay to that fancy dressed gambler in town," Roland quickly spat out.

A loud laugh from Roland's right caused the young Private to turn and sneer. "Boy, won't you ever learn," SGT Josh Hutchins bellowed as he slapped the youth on the shoulder. Hutchins was a tall, lanky man with pepper-gray hair. A long ragged scar etched a path under his left eye. He told everyone that the scar was from a fight with an Apache warrior. In reality, it was a woman who took offense at his assuming attitude and refusal to take 'no' for an answer.

Roland looked over his shoulder at Corporal Jason Conner. He wasn't much older than Roland, but he had seen a lot in his short life and those sights had engraved a cruelty upon his face. The image of Conner, cutting off the finger of that dead woman to get her ring was firmly etched on Roland's brain. He shook the thoughts away.

"Ay, don't worry 'bout it," Jimbo exclaimed. "Mr. Parson is goin' to pay us for this last job soon, and when we get them Indians off that land we'll be gettin' a nice bonus." Mr. James Parson was a wealthy and influential rancher, who had approached him a month ago, offering him an obscene amount of money. All he had to do was burn a few homes and make people believe that Indians were responsible. "I'll loan ya a few bucks until then."

"How much longer are we goin' to stay in this God-forsaken territory?" Conner asked. He wanted to go back to Tucson and spend some of his newly acquired wealth. His tour was almost over and he planned on heading back to Pennsylvania.

"The Major still needs to find out where them injuns are holed up," Jimbo explained. "Then we'll be hauling their butts to a reservation and maybe even stringing up a few." Jimbo laughed.

Roland smiled; life was good when Jimbo was happy. A sudden remembrance caused the grin to leave Roland's face. "Ah, Jimbo."

"Yeah, what is it, kid?" Macklin looked over at the young man. The boy was gullible, which made him the perfect patsy.

"I...I," Roland stammered and shifted in his saddle.

"Spit it out, boy!" Hutchins cajoled.

Roland stopped his horse and eyed the three men who he believed cared about him. "I lost the ring to that reb gambler."

Jimbo yanked on the reins, the horse snorting its annoyance at the brutal treatment. Jimbo's cheerful demeanor was quickly swallowed by a dark menacing scowl. The bull was going to charge. Jimbo's bottle green eyes cast daggers of disgust toward the Private. Roland was about to apologize when Jimbo's hand lashed out, sending the surprised Private sailing off his horse.

The young man scrambled to grab the saddle horn but missed and tumbled to the ground, scrabbling out of the way as his horse pranced to get away from the sudden violent eruption.

"You moron! What the hell was you thinkin?" Jimbo yelled down at the boy.

"Easy Jimbo," Conner intervened. They didn't need to be fighting amongst themselves. "Roland didn't mean anything. What harm could it do anyway?"

Jimbo dragged his angered glare toward Conner. "What harm? That's evidence you dimwit, and he just gave it to the law." All three soldiers stared open-mouth. Jimbo shook his head. "That gambler is one of them peacekeepers." Jimbo had read the report given to his commander about the seven peacekeepers. He had taken it upon himself to learn all he could about them. It was always safer to know who your enemies or friends might be.

"Ah shit," Conner softly breathed looking down at his friend and seeing a fool. Roland stood up and dusted himself off. He had no idea that the fancy dressed cardshark was a lawman, who ever heard of such a thing.

"He ain't goin' to know about the ring. I told 'em it was my mother's," Roland said, trying to mollify the large Sergeant. "He'll probably just hock it first chance he gets."

Hutchins kept his head down. He thought it had been a mistake making the boy a part of their group, now they were all in danger of being discovered.

"Do you wanta take that chance?" Jimbo exclaimed. "We need to git that ring back, and we might have to do something 'bout that gambling fella too."

Roland smiled at that thought. The gambling man had made him feel stupid and inferior. He would relish the chance at getting back at him.

"How did you get the ring anyway?" Hutchins asked. "I thought Conner had it."

Roland bowed his head abashedly, his face getting hot and red.

"He bought it from me, said he wanted it for his girl in St. Louis," Conner mockingly replied.

"Ay, Jimbo, we're done anyway aren't we?" Hutchins asked. "I'm tired of dressin' up like a savage and Patterson ain't goin' to keep looking the other way when we take them Comanche ponies." They had captured a small herd of Indian horses and were using them as pack animals.

"Don't worry 'bout him, he's being paid well enough," Jimbo replied.
"And we're done when them Indians are sent to a reservation. Parson won't give us any bonus if'n them Injuns don't leave, one way or another." Jimbo scratched at the day's growth of beard. "The Army and townsfolk believe that Indians are responsible, and we can't give no one any reason to think otherwise or we could blow this whole operation."

It had been easy to find an old buffalo hunter to show them how to make Cheyenne arrows. Wigs, dirt and buckskins helped to perpetrate the charade. They only hit the homesteads at night so no one could get a good look at them.

"I...I just wish this was over," Roland added as he stood and took hold of his horse's reins. "I didn't want anyone to git killed." It had been fun scaring the homesteaders and burning down the homes and killing some of the livestock. It reminded him of better days when he used to play cowboys and Indians back home as a boy, only this time he got to pretend he was a real Indian. He hadn't counted on anyone being killed though. Why had that couple fought? The others had high-tailed it out as soon as they heard them whoop and holler.

Jimbo could see the regret in the young Private's eyes and knew he was becoming a risk. "Hey, is it our fault them settlers would rather stay in their burning home." Jimbo's laughter sent a chill down Roland's spine. "It just helped our cause that much more."

Roland closed his eyes, still hearing the woman's screams.

Part 10

"Mr. Dunne, a moment of your time please," Ezra called out to the young gunslinger walking down the boardwalk.

"Ay Ez, what's up?" JD was surprised to see Ezra up so early, it was barely past ten, but then again with the soldiers around Chris wanted everyone vigilant.

"I have something for you." Ezra produced the gold ring and handed it to JD before the young gunslinger had a chance to object. He had decided against selling it, figuring he really wouldn't get that much for it.

"What's this?"

"Just something I happened upon. I really don't think I'll have any use for such a matrimonial piece of jewelry."

JD's eyes went wide, and he thrust the ring back at Ezra as he stammered, "Now hold on, I don't have any use for it either."

Ezra almost laughed out loud at the young easterner's expression, you'd think that someone had just handed him a basket of stray kittens. Ezra grabbed JD's resistant hand and forced the ring back. "Now, Mr. Dunne, of all of us, you are the most likely to wed, and I see no reason why you can't hang on to this bauble, just in case."

JD smiled faintly at the glint in Ezra's eye, even when the gambler was being truly honest it always sounded like a con. JD examined the dainty ring. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry, he thought, and what would be the harm, as long as Buck didn't find out. He let out an exasperated sigh, knowing he'd never talk Ezra out of giving it to him. "Okay, I guess, but if you ever want it back you can have it."

Ezra smiled appreciatively at the young gunslinger and patted him on the back as he continued down the boardwalk. He honestly hoped JD would put the ring to good use someday.

JD closed his hand around the delicate ring, smiling as Casey's face flashed through his head, releasing a swarm of butterflies into his stomach. He quickly put the ring in his pocket, telling himself that he was only holding it for Ezra, or maybe Buck or even Nathan.

Part 11

A sliver of orange struggled to hang onto the horizon, the night sky pressing down on it. A small buckboard clattered down the main street trying not to draw any attention.

"Whoa," Nathan softly called to the two horse team pulling the wagon. He released a sigh and slowly stepped down, his eyes avoiding the back of the wagon and its gruesome contents. He hoped that the undertaker was around so they could take care of the bodies tonight. Chris had told him to send someone out to retrieve the bodies, but it had been late and Nathan didn't like the idea of Mr. and Mrs. Schorr spending another night unprotected, so he had gone by himself not wanting to subject anyone else to the grisly chore. The task of retrieving the bodies from the burned out house left him emotionally and physically drained.

"Mr. Jackson." Ezra's southern drawl startled the healer. Ezra had watched as the wagon rolled slowly into town, knowing what it was transporting. His stomach rolled slightly at yesterday's remembrance. Nathan's hunched stance spoke volumes of the healer's underlying stress and fatigue.

"Hey, Ez, anything happen while I was gone?"

"No, most of the Army pulled out this afternoon for which Mr. Larabee is exceedingly grateful for. We've just been trying to placate the populace."

Nathan rubbed at his eyes.

"May I be of assistance?" Ezra asked, noting the misery on the healer's kindly face.

Nathan smiled, surprised at Ezra's offer. "Nah, I'll get Hiram to give me a hand."

Standish stepped up to the side of the wagon and looked down at the two blanket-covered forms. He'd met Mr. Schorr when he came into town for some business with the bank. Mr. Schorr had been to Baton Rouge and the two had stayed up late one night reminiscencing about one of Ezra's fondest places. Ezra tried not to think of what was left of that gracious and educated man now lying under that blanket.

Standish exhaled to expel the sudden melancholy feelings. Adverting his eyes, Ezra followed the angered movements of the healer as he unhitched the back. "It must be hard for someone with such a benevolent nature to be faced with the, at times, ugly truth of human nature."

Nathan froze at the back of the wagon, running a hand down his face, trying to wipe away the sight of the charred bodies. "Yeah, but usually I can handle it, but this." Nathan waved his hand over Mrs. Schorr's smaller form. "Some sick bastard cut off Mrs. Schorr ring finger and stole her wedding band. I don't know what this world is comin' too."

Ezra didn't hear the last words from the healer, his mind having latched onto 'stole her wedding band,' and refused to let go. Ezra's face paled and his eyes widen as his mouth dropped open.

"Ezra, Ezra."

"Huh," Ezra mumbled, startled by Nathan's urgent tone.

"You alright?" Nathan asked, noticing the strange look on the gambler's face. Ezra seemed to have gone off somewhere, leaving his body behind.

"Yes, of course, I'm fine. If you'll excuse me I have to find Mr. Dunne." Ezra turned and jogged off.

Nathan scratched his head as he watched Ezra disappear down the street.

Part 12

The cool evening breeze caused the sheltering cloth of the Conestoga wagon to breathe with each gust. Vin lay stretched out on his pallet, hands behind his head; his mind a million miles away oblivious to the cacophony of familiar sounds coming from the street just outside the wagon he called home. A shudder went through the plainsman's body as memories again assaulted him. Vin's face scrunched as the memory became so real he thought he could smell the gunpowder and blood.

He couldn't let it happen again; the Indians were innocent. Vin sat up and grabbed his rifle, pausing as he recalled Chris's promise. He knew his friend would do everything he could, but he could do more alone. He hoped Chris would forgive him and stealthily left the wagon.

Part 13

Standish paced the boardwalk between the saloon and the mercantile, allowing his thoughts to roll over the past couple days, even the energetic din emitting from the saloon didn't distract him. Several towns' folk passed by, eyeing him curiously, then continued on their way.

It had been over an hour since he left Nathan and darkness now shrouded the town. The street lamps threw out small flickering balls of light up and down the street. He was waiting for JD to return from patrol. He hoped he was wrong at what was adding up in his head, but he didn't think so. It was too much of a coincidence. How would a young soldier get hold of a ring off a dead woman? Was the Army trying to lay the blame on the Indians so that they could be sent to a reservation? Ezra knew that Indians were being forced onto reservations all over the country, but normally only when they were on land that settlers wanted, and then the government would just force them to relocate, offering them inferior land for their prime real estate. Ezra huffed; and people accused him of devious deeds.

The residents of Four Corners had an unofficial accord with the nearby Cheyenne tribe, promising them sanctuary. With Judge Travis' help, the seven lawmen were determined to up hold that. Ezra froze as some of the pieces fell into place. Someone wanted the Indian's land, and was using the Army to perpetrate the pretense of wild renegades.

Standish's fists clenched. He wondered if the commander was involved in any way. The ring was the first bit of evidence, and he was sure it would help reveal the truth. Ezra smiled, assured that when Larabee and Tanner had a little talk with Private Croninger the Indians would be vindicated.

Ezra stepped off the boardwalk to wait at the jail for the patrolling easterner. He would retrieve the ring, and then inform Mr. Larabee of his belief. Ezra paused as the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a shadowy figure ducking back into the alley. He was being watched.

Ezra turned away from the jail and casually strolled into the saloon, dashing up the stairs inside. He nimbly stepped out the second story window and walked across the slanted roof. The sure-footed southerner made his way to the backside of the building and shimmied down the support post. He then activated his derringer and crept silently up the alleyway. He could just make out the darkened silhouette of someone hiding behind several barrels.

"Excuse me," Ezra hissed laying his gun alongside the spying man's face and grasping his shoulder. "But why do you feel the necessity to watch my person?"

The man turned his head slowly around, and Ezra recognized young Private Croninger. This further confirmed his belief.

"Listen mister, I made a terrible mistake, and I need that ring back." Roland had almost wet himself when the gambler had come up behind him. Jimbo had left him here to keep an eye on the southerner, until he returned.

Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow; his gun still aimed at the Private's head. "Sir, I'm not in the business of returning winnings."

"Ah, I know, but I never should 'ave offered it. It sorta has senti…a…senti..," Roland's brow furrowed, searching for the word.

"Sentimental value," Ezra aided.

"Yeah, and my ma would be real unhappy with me for giving it up," Roland lied.

"Really? You know a man and woman were brought in earlier. They had recently died a most violent and vile death. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that?" Ezra calmly asked. The thought that this young man had anything to do with their deaths and Mrs. Schorr's mutilation sickened him.

The young man's eyes widen. Oh shit, he knew, flashed through Roland's mind and showed on his face.

Ezra felt the young soldier tense under his grasp and knew that he had hit the nail on the head. "I believe my associates would like to discuss where you really got that ring." He brusquely pulled the young man out from behind the barrels, intent on taking him to the jail. Ezra heard the scuffle of feet behind him--too late. A gun butt smashed into his skull and he crumbled bonelessly to the ground.

"It's about time you got back," Roland nervously snarled as Hutchins and Macklin appeared.

"Quit your belly-achin!" Hutchins bit back. "We wouldn't be going through all this shit if'n you weren't so stupid..."

"Enough," Jimbo hissed out, looking over his shoulder to make sure they weren't attracting any unwanted attention. "Check his jacket. We searched his room and didn't find the ring."

Roland knelt down and struggled to remove the fancy blue coat. He then started hurriedly going through the pockets and feeling around the lining. Roland smiled as he pulled out a wad of money, which Jimbo promptly plucked out of his fingers.

"Consider it payment for your stupidity," Jimbo snarled.

The Private glared back at the Sergeant then continued his search. He pulled out an envelope addressed to a Maude Standish and a deck of cards. "Nothing, he ain't carryin' it." Roland threw the jacket into the corner of the alley in disgust. "He musta pawned it already."

"Well, I guess we're going to have to have a little talk with 'im just to make sure." Jimbo holstered his gun and easily picked up the unconscious conman, throwing him like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder. "Let's git out of here."

Part 14

"Buck, have you seen Vin?" Chris asked stepping into the jailhouse and eyeing the ladies man sitting behind the desk.

"Nope, not since last night', Why?" Buck stretched his arms over his head. He'd been on duty since two this morning and was looking forward to some much needed rest. The look in Chris's eyes told him sleep might have to be put on hold.

"Damn, don't know, just got a bad feelin' is all." Chris knew Vin was angry and frustrated about the whole affair with the Indians. He was afraid that the impulsive tracker would do something foolish.

Buck raised a dark eyebrow, but didn't say a word as the same worried feeling took hold of him.

JD cut through the alleyway beside the saloon, fingering the ring in his pocket. His mind had been on Casey ever since Ezra gave him the ring, wondering what she would say if he asked her to marry him. At first, he felt she would say 'yes' in a heartbeat, but then he started having doubts. And the worst part was that these doubts scared him more than the thought of marriage. He finally had to admit he wasn't sure what her answer would be.

JD's brown eyes alighted on a card that lay in the dirt. He bent down and picked up the ten of spades. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and his eyes darted around the shadowed alley. He reached down and picked up a jacket that lay haphazardly against the side of the building. His heart beat fast as he recognized the dark blue, long tail jacket. JD took off like a jackrabbit toward the jailhouse.

"BUCK! BUCK!" JD's panic shouts preceded his over-anxious body into the jailhouse and brought everyone inside to their feet.

JD grabbed the doorframe, stopping himself just inside. He threw Ezra's jacket onto the desk in front of Buck and Chris. "I found this in the alley beside the saloon," he gasped.

Larabee picked up the jacket, examining it quickly, relieved not to find any blood or bullet holes. Damn, what has that southern cuss gotten himself into now? Didn't they have enough trouble with the Army and Vin missing? Chris looked over his shoulder as Nathan and Josiah entered the jail, having seen JD running wildly down the street.

"Has anyone seen Ezra or Vin lately?" Chris asked, his heart picking up an extra beat as worry started to flood his veins.

"Nope," Josiah said.

"I saw Ezra when I brought Mr. And Mrs. Schorr's bodies in last night," Nathan answered. "He was acting strange then said he needed to find JD."

They all turned to the young gunslinger.

"I haven't seen him since yesterday," JD replied.

"Josiah, Buck, go and check Ezra's room. JD, go check the stables for their horses. We'll meet back here," Chris ordered.

Part 15

Josiah and Buck both returned quickly, the looks on their faces telling Chris what he didn't want to hear. The look on JD's face also foretold 'bad news.'

"Ezra's room was torn apart," Josiah was the first to speak as they all sat in the jailhouse. "It looked like someone was searching for something."

"Ezra's horse is still in the stables, but Vin's is missing," JD added. "The stable boy don't remember seeing him leave."

"Shit," Chris muttered. Two of his men were missing, people were being murdered, and the Army was being a pain in the ass. What more could happen?

"What now?" Buck asked.

The four gunslingers turned toward the sound of furious hoof-beats tearing down the street. They stepped out onto the walk as a young Corporal reined his horse into submission, almost forcing the animal to his haunches as he came to a stop in front of the four men.

"Mr. Larabee?" The young soldier asked, trying to catch his breath. Major Willis had described the gunslinger, telling him to search for the most dangerous-looking person in town. The Corporal didn't understand--he did now. The darkly-dressed lawman that stood before him radiated an aura of potential danger.

"Yeah?" Chris replied.

The Corporal swallowed the sudden lump that blossomed when those icy blue eyes fixed on him. Damn, this man was a lawman? "Mr. Tanner has been arrested. Major Willis told me to tell ya if you want him, you'll have to come and git him." With that, the Corporal abruptly reined his horse around and galloped off, not wanting to get in an argument with the gunslingers.

"No mention of Ezra," Buck noted, biting at his lower lip. He had hoped that Vin and Ezra had gone off together, maybe to warn the Indians or something. The two men could get in more trouble than a bear with a sweet tooth, but Buck still wished they were together.

"Buck, you're with me," Chris said, staring out after the soldier. "The rest of you start searching for Ezra."

Part 16

Standish quite painfully began to return to the land of the living, although he fought it every step of the way. The morning sun caused him to squint as he slowly forced his eyes opened. He was lying on his side. His head throbbed fiercely. He brought his hands up seeing that they were tied together.

"'bout time you come to," Jimbo snarled, seeing the conman stir. He was afraid that he had hit the southerner too hard. He had sent Hutchins back to camp to cover for him. He kept Roland at his side, hoping to put some more backbone into the boy.

Ezra looked at a pair of dust covered army boots, and then slowly raised his gaze to see a large Sergeant standing over him. Ezra focused his gaze past the Sergeant to see Private Croninger nervously shifting from foot to foot a few feet away.

"Where's the ring?" Jimbo growled, grabbing Ezra up by his shirt and forcing him to sit up.

Ezra hissed as the rough treatment sent new waves of pain through his head. He swallowed the sudden bile that rose up this throat. Ezra procured a smug grin for the burly Sergeant. He knew that if he told this Neanderthal where the ring was he'd be putting JD's life in jeopardy.

"What ring?"

"Wrong answer, little man."

Ezra's head was whipped to the side as Jimbo's thick meaty hand lashed out, striking him on the cheek. Ezra tasted the blood that filled his mouth as his teeth cut into his cheek. The focus he had acquired was now reduced to large distorted objects that fell within his line of sight.

Roland shifted his eyes as his lips pressed into a line of worry. He had thought he'd enjoy seeing the suave gambler brought down a peg or two, but the look in Jimbo's eyes caused him to fear for the man. They were already responsible for two deaths, he wasn't sure he wanted more blood on his hands.

"Now, we can do this the hard way or the easy way," Jimbo remarked. "I just want to know where that ring is, then I'll let you go."

Ezra had to stop himself from laughing out loud, figuring the Sergeant didn't need any further inducement. By the looks of him, the man wanted nothing more then to grind him under his boot heels, for pure pleasure.

Roland knew Jimbo would not release the gambler, at least not alive.

"Ay, Jimbo, why don't we just leave 'em for the buzzards," Roland suggested, hoping they could avoid getting blamed for a lawman's death. "He'll never survive out here without any water. His friends don't even know he's missin'."

"Shut up, boy! I want that ring!" Jimbo never had trouble extorting information before; it just took the right incentive.

"Why did you burn down those homesteads?" Ezra bluntly asked, still trying to clear his vision. If he was going to die, he at least wanted to know the reason.

"Money. Why else? And to help get rid of those dirty redskins. Hell, we were doing everyone a favor," Jimbo explained.

"Does your commander know what you do on your off time?" Ezra asked his tone laced with sarcasm.

"That weak minded, soft hearted son-of-a-bitch? Nah, he don't know a thing."

"Now, I answered your questions you can answer mine. Where is that ring?" Jimbo demanded. Damn, if this fancy-dressing reb figured out what was going on, who else could have? He had to get that ring and kill anyone who had seen it. Jimbo looked over his shoulder at Roland who was nervously scanning the area.

"Sorry, I have no idea as to the whereabouts of the jewelry that you are referring too," Ezra slowly replied then tensed, prepared for the inevitable punishment for his insolence.

Jimbo stood and brought his booted foot sharply into the loquacious gambler's rib cage. Air whooshed from his lungs and Ezra heard the delicate protective bones crack. He swallowed back the scream as rib bones ripped into muscle and flesh. The Sergeant landed three more swift kicks in quick succession, not giving the gambler any time to catch his breath.

Roland's eyes went wide and the bile in his stomach threatened to rise up his throat. He watched in horrid fascination as the big Sergeant's foot sunk into the gambler's mid section.

"You're tougher than you look, fancy pants," Jimbo chuckled.

Standish was curled up in a ball; trying to gulp in some much needed air. His chest and stomach screamed at him, and his whole body shook at the abuse. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on taking swallow breaths, hoping the sharp ache would diminish soon. He was having a hard time filling his lungs with enough air and was trying to quell his growing panic.

Jimbo Macklin walked over to his horse and laid his hands over the saddle. Shit, how could a fancy dressin' peacock like that be so stubborn. Who the hell was he protectin' anyway? Maybe he wanted in on the action. Well, that weren't goin' t' happen, Jimbo mused. He thought there was to many involved now, something he would remedy later, starting with Roland.

Croninger remained quiet as Jimbo stared off. He felt eyes upon him and slowly turned his head to meet Ezra's pain-filled gaze. Roland licked his lips as the conman's eyes seemed to plea for help. What could he do? Jimbo would kill him without hesitation. Roland's breath caught in his throat as he realized that the man he looked up to, and who had taught him how to survive Army life, would just as easily kill him. Roland stared back at the injured southerner. It had to be done, they risked hanging if anyone discovered the truth, and he was just as guilty as the others. Roland's large pale eyes conveyed his regret as he turned away.

Ezra closed his eyes as the young Private turned away. He hadn't been pleading for his life as much as hoping the young man would tell someone before all out war broke out and more innocent people were killed. He hoped Chris and the others discovered the truth before it was too late. He hoped they all knew how much they had come to mean to him. Lord, he'd have to do something about this sudden concern for others. Ezra opened his eyes and smiled, realizing that it probably wouldn't be a problem soon.

Jimbo watched as sand devils danced across the wide expanse of desert. His gaze drawn to a large bulbous patch of cactus, growing along a small rise. Macklin raised his eyebrows and smiled, a smile that actually showed the glee he felt. Grabbing the lariat off his saddle, he walked back over to his captive.


(July 2001)

Comments: KellyA