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The sun blazed in the sky, turning the streets into a hundred-degree kiln that baked the group of men exchanging blows in front of the burnt-out hotel. Two long shadows stretched over the slurry of combatants.
"BREAK IT UP!"
The half-dozen or so men wrapped in a big knot of tussle froze at Buck's bellow. The skinniest participant got in one last lick before they all unwrapped themselves and lined up shamefully. Vin shook his head, one hand on his gunbelt.
"What's this all about then?" Buck military screamed at the sorry lot. They flinched but remained silent until the skinny one stepped forward and pointed a bony finger down the line.
"They's tryin' t' steal my map!" He pulled a wrinkled roll of paper from his pocket and waved it in the air. An excited stir moved through the rest of the line.
"It's the treasure map!" someone called out. "Get it-"
A sharp, wordless yell from Buck cut off the call. Wilmington took a step towards the brawlers.
"That true?" Buck asked the scrawny mapholder.
"This map leads to my well," the skinny man barked and scoffed off. The other five men looked shamefaced at their feet.
"Go about your business," Vin reprimanded them. The group milled a moment until Buck shouted: "Go on, get!" They dispersed quickly, leaving Vin and Buck standing in front of the newly rechristened Charbroiled Hotel.
"That's the third fight we've broke up today," Buck groused for the record. "The Clarion sure lit up a hornet's net with that story 'bout the millionaire's map."
Vin wished he could defend the publication, but after today's multiple debacles he just couldn't. It seemed like every resident, cowpoke and passerby was desperate to find this so-called treasure map. Mary Travis had a powerful gift with words, but this morning's front page story had been in Vin's opinion a careless use of that power, igniting a dangerous spark in Four Corners.
"Desperation sure brings out the worst in folks," Vin agreed quietly.
"You mean greed." Nathan's sharp ears had picked up the comment. He wandered up with Josiah. They joined their comrades in front of the Incinerated Inn. A newspaper was clenched in the preacher's hand. "Least with Mary's treasure map story not too many folk are paying attention to what the Post's saying about the fire. Maybe Ezra can get through the day without being lynched."
"Post blamin' Ezra?" Buck asked, nodding to the paper Josiah held. A breeze swept through the burnt-out husk of the hotel, blowing ash and the scent of destruction upon the four lawmen.
Josiah shook his head. "Not directly. But folk are looking for someone to blame, and our insomniac gambler presents the clearest target."
"Guess we should give 'em another one, then," Vin suggested. He and the others milled into the Hellfire Hotel. Buck picked up half of a soot-blackened glass hurricane. The lamp's jagged edge cut him, and shattered as he dropped it. Buck yelped a curse and sucked the blood from his bleeding finger.
"Why would anyone burn down a hotel?" Wilmington garbled the question around his finger.
Vin rested his hands on his gunbelt and looked around at the blackened pillars.
Josiah took his hat off and fanned himself with the brim. "Isn't this town safe anymore?"
"What do you mean?" Nathan asked.
"Just thinking of little Timmy, near run over by a runaway stagecoach just the day before."
"You sayin' we ain't doing our jobs?" The desiccated remains of velvet curtains, hanging from their metal rods where the windows used to be, crumbled under Nathan's fingers.
Vin kicked aside a charred table leg. "I don't reckon so, all this trouble happening on our watch."
"Now, wait just a minute. I don't reckon anybody else could do this job better than us," Buck argued. "Why, just the other day Chris gunned down a couple of rowdies. Had his name in the paper and everything."
A look like a thought passed across Vin's face. "Josiah, you were mentioned in the paper too, weren't ya? Yesterday, for stoppin' that stage."
"Yes, I was. But you certainly aren't suggesting I set those horses running just so I could stop 'em and get my name in the paper, are you?"
"No, course not."
"Oh. Good." Josiah studied the gaping hole in the ceiling that displayed the crisped second floor. "Because I was on a roof at the time. Couldn't possibly have let the horses loose."
A sound above his head warned him. Vin ducked away as a chunk of charred debris fell to the floor directly where he had been standing. The tracker turned and faced the other lawmen. "What's all this stuff that's been goin' on the past few days have in common?" he asked.
"They stink?" Buck ventured.
"No, they're steak."
"What?" Nathan turned to Vin.
"They're all prime front page stories," Tanner explained.
"Wait, I'm confused," Buck scratched his head. "You think somebody's been making trouble in town - for stories?"
"Well, that's just crazy," Buck said. He exchanged glances with Vin and the other two lawmen. "Isn't it?"
+ + +
The black-haired man hummed a little tune.
If the monkey was chasing the weasel, what was the weasel doing? Being chased? What about the mulberry bush? That song just don't make sense. I ain't never had mulberry pie.
The fat little hedgehog paced along the length of his printing machine, his hands clasped white-knuckled behind his back.
"It wasn't supposed to happen this way."
The insane criminal standing in the shadows stared dully at Buster Hedgecock, all of a sudden thinking about the editor's name. Why did Hedgecock sound like hedgehog? And what was a hedgecock? Was it anything like a hedgehog? And why was it called a hedgehog anyway? It didn't look anything like a hog. Did a hedgecock look anything like a rooster?
"You weren't supposed to burn down a hotel!" Buster suddenly turned and yelled at him. The insane criminal blinked. "You were supposed to ignite a barn or something away from town! Nobody was supposed to get hurt!"
Well, boy howdy. "Well, now they did. That's better newspapering, ain't it?"
Better if a lawdog died.
"Thank goodness they didn't!" Buster threw up his hands and began pacing again. "The rest would string me up by my toes if anything happened to one of the other sheriffs."
The insane criminal giggled at the image. Buster tossed a glare over his shoulder.
"Laugh it up, but I'm not in this alone. The heat starts coming, it's coming for you, too."
How do you roast a hedgehog?
The editor looked at him strangely.
"Look, Buster. Heat don't worry me. Gold. Gold worries me."
"Beg your pardon?"
"I'm not paying you a dime."
The insane criminal scratched his head, baffled. His fingers came away black. "You told me to torch a building."
"I didn't tell you to burn down the hotel." The little hedgehog glared, but became discomfited at the insane criminal's return stare. He cleared his throat and waddled backwards. "I need to write something down, the story . . ." The editor turned and quickly paced to the little room that was his office.
That dog won't hunt.
The knife dug deep into the soft flesh of the fat little hedgehog's side. His beady little eyes widened, his mouth gasping for breath and his fat little hand grasping at the hilt. The insane criminal gave one final twist before removing the blade and let the fat man fall to the floor, staring until the editor's final, labored breath.
"I mean that hedgehog won't hunt."
The insane criminal looked up into the editor's office and gasped with joy. "I remember you!"
+ + +
The sun had not yet reached its noon position in the sky, but the day already seemed long to the men in the jailhouse.
"Morning, Chris. Morning, Ezra," JD nodded to the other two occupants as he walked through the door. The two were still filthy with the remnants of last night's fiery escapade. JD had found time to wash, but Dunne was sure that the effects of the late night showed in his own droopy eyes and unshaven chin. The shadow of stubble was certainly not an attempt to look manly. JD had given up on that front long ago.
"A perfectly abysmal morning, you mean," Standish replied in a dismal tone. Seeing Ezra dressed like Chris was like seeing a crow where you expected to see a peacock. His face and black clothes were smudged with gray soot; his hair stood up in tufts where he had worried at it with his fingers. The start of a light stubble on his chin only partially obscured an apple-sized bruise beginning to show on his lower jaw.
"Doesn't look good out there," Chris spoke up from his chair by the window, a shotgun by his side. He had been at the jailhouse since dawn, standing watch. Somewhere he had found a towel - or maybe a bedsheet - and had wiped away the ash and soot that had clung to him last night. Maybe where he had found it was the same place he had found the white shirt he now wore. Well, it had been white before he put it on. Now it was kind of a dingy gray. Figures. Put a white shirt on Chris and darn if it didn't try to turn black.
"Folk are keyed up. I've never seen anything like what's happening on the streets out there."
"Fire can do that to a town," Chris commented satirically.
"It, uh, it ain't just the fire." JD strolled over to the jail and handed Ezra a couple of newspapers through the bars. "Thought you might want to catch up on the latest news," he said.
Standish stood and took the offered papers. He turned to sit down again, scanning the front page of the Four Corners Post.
"'Hotel Goes Down In Blaze Of Fire - Is There An Arsonist Among Us?' I see lack of sleep has not deprived Miss Danae of her flair for sensationalism. And my, how astonishing, my name is mentioned." Ezra put the paper aside with a tight-lipped grimace. "Dare I hope that my new business partner has me well represented? Let's see . . ."
JD surreptitiously angled over to Chris and tapped his shoulder. Once garnered, Dunne directed Larabee's attention by indicating with a conspiratorial quirk of his head. Chris looked away from the window to watch Ezra's reaction as he picked up the Clarion.
The gambler's eyes widened every second he stared at the print. His mouth parted as he mouthed the headline under the lead story in disbelief.
"What the-! How-? I-I-I . . ." Standish gaped, for once it seemed unable to find words fit to express the travesty of the Clarion's follow story. The paper slipped from his fingers and collapsed on the floor. Bold font exclaimed the incendiary words: "Treasure Map Hidden in Four Corners!" Chris leaned forward for a better view of the article's header, but Ezra had already snatched it back up off the floor and was reading the story silently.
"Unbelievable, ain't it?" JD exclaimed. "A treasure map! Hidden right here in town. Half the people out there are going crazy digging up every old map they ever saw." JD set his hands on the holsters of his pistols and looked around the jail. "I wonder where these maps came from?" he mused, referring to the half dozen various maps hanging up in the building.
"E tu, Mrs. Travis?" Ezra spoke from his cell. "My own partner. And I am supposed to be the untrustworthy character. Now every, every. Every . . ."
"Yahoo?" Chris suggested.
"Every yahoo - thank you, Chris - in circulation distance will be getting a head start in searching for my gold." Ezra shucked the Clarion to the ground again. "They won't find that map, anyway. It's lost somewhere with a dented coffee pot and a pipe with an eagle on it."
"What about the other half?" Larabee directed the question sharply to JD. The young sheriff glanced at him in puzzlement. "You said half the town is digging up maps. What's the other half doing?"
"They're, uh, looking into the hotel fire."
Chris leaned forward, his blue eyes piercing JD. "And when you say 'looking into' you mean? . . ."
JD glanced quickly at Ezra, the Southerner behind bars not even noticing. He lowered his voice anyway. "Well, there's a big crowd just hanging in front of the jailhouse, and none of them have nice things to say about Ezra."
The door burst open, and into the jail strode Vin, followed by Buck, Nathan and Josiah.
"We've got a theory."
+ + +
"Alright, I'll buy it. Got anything about that treasure map in there?"
Claire handed her last copy of the Four Corners Post over to the gray-haired man in the striped apron, barely remembering to plaster a polite smile on her face as she responded, "Keep reading the Post. After all, we brought you the story first."
It was a lie, Claire contemplated as the man walked away. In truth she had no inkling as to the location of some hidden treasure map she had never heard of until she'd read the Clarion this morning. Claire pulled her notepad and pencil out of the pockets of her skirt and sat down at the edge of the boardwalk, her feet resting out in the street. Nevertheless, she could surely conjecture some tidbit for tomorrow's edition; Buster would expect it. The editor was bound to be hopping mad that Mary Travis had upstaged both the hotel fire and the missing millionaire stories. Relationships between the two had been bad enough recently, as the curly-haired reporter had lately found herself at odds with Hedgecock. She had been avoiding him since last night, afraid of confirming what she suspected about last night's fire.
The Post reporter set her pencil to the paper, but not a single word came forth. Claire strained to think of something, anything, that would get her started, but thoughts rising up from her subconscious formed a wall against her efforts. Ideas about concealed maps leading to hidden treasure clashed with memories of the myriad bad decisions that had led Claire to where she was now, contemplating her precarious future. The vast sheet of nothingness on paper reflected back the contents of her mind; both remained frustratingly blank.
A shadow fell across the empty page. Claire started from her reverie to see a black-clad gunslinger glowering down over her.
"We need a word," he said.
Another word with Chris Larabee was on the reporter's list of last things she wanted today, but one did not tell that to Chris Larabee. "Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee. What can I do for you?"
"Got some questions to ask the Post. Where's your editor?"
"I don't know. At the office, maybe." Claire frowned and stuck her pencil behind her ear. "Why? What's this about?"
The blonde gunfighter shook his head. "Always asking the questions, aren't you?"
Claire felt herself shrink at the reference, but refused to show shame on her face. "I'm a curious person, Mr. Larabee," she answered unapologetically. His eyes darkened further.
"If you knew what's good for you you'd leave well enough alone."
"I seldom know what is good for me," Claire muttered. Louder, she addressed Chris, "So what this is about?"
Finally realizing he'd get more cooperation from her if he explained the situation, Larabee sighed angrily and said straight out: "I think you've been making trouble in town so you have something to write about." Claire didn't respond to the blunt accusation, and Larabee's face actually registered surprise. "You're not going to deny it?"
How could she deny it? That was exactly what she suspected Buster of doing; yet she couldn't bring herself to admit she had played right into her editor's dastardly plans. "You don't actually believe that I would do anything that would cause innocent people to get hurt, do you?" she asked.
Larabee leaned in and said quietly, "I believe a woman who would take advantage of the death of a man's family would do just about anything."
That hurt. "I didn't write anything bad about you," Claire responded softly. "And I didn't know those men would jump you because of it. I just thought it might be nice for people to read about someone who had a tragic experience and turned it around. You know, be inspired."
The gunfighter was spared the need to think of something heartless and cynical to reply by the arrival of Nathan and Tom walking up the street, the photographer, as usual, carrying his camera. Jackson had a politely interested look on his face as Poppin talked about his craft.
"Used to take whole minutes t' get a proper exposure. You know how hard it is to get a body to set perfectly still for five minutes?" The healer shook his head, though Tom was too engrossed in his story to notice the token gesture of interest. "Better than the hours you'd sit for a painter, right? Eh, but folk nattered on and on about how long they had t' keep still. Grated on my nerves. So I got out of portrait photography. Now I can get an image in seconds flat, even when the sun's not too bright . . ."
"You find Buster?" Nathan asked Chris as they approached him and the reporter.
Larabee nodded. "At their office." He looked down at Claire. "Let's go."
Indignation at the accusation warring with intimidation at the blonde gunman's stare, Claire finally tucked her pencil back behind her ear and rose. The quartet made their way through the streets to the building that housed the Four Corners Post. Nathan and Tom preceding, Claire had just set foot to the steps leading up to the door when a she felt a grip just above her elbow pull her back down. The hand spun her to face a well-dressed businessman with cruel eyes.
"You're Claire Danae, right?" The brunette reporter, startled, couldn't even nod. "People are saying you know where the map is. Where is it?" the man shook her to rattle her teeth. "Where?!"
Abruptly Claire found herself spinning the other way, the sound of ripping fabric filling her ears as the ruffle of her skirt, which the man had been stepping on, tore as Chris Larabee pulled her away from the insistent businessman.
"Get lost," Larabee advised. The businessman seemed inclined to make another grab for the Post reporter but with a measuring glance at Chris, now standing between him and Claire, and Nathan and Tom Poppin at ready at the top of the stairs, he calculated it would not be a wise idea. Without another word he turned and walked away.
Claire heaved a relieved sigh. "Thank you," she told Chris. Larabee returned a wordless glare and gestured for her to enter the building. This time her sigh was exasperated as she went up the steps, stumbling a bit on her torn skirt.
"Really, you're being ridiculous." She led the men through the printing press and rows of cabinets to the small room in the back corner, trying to convince herself more than them. "Buster is as honest as the day is long and- AAAGH!" the reporter shrieked a fabulous scream.
The lawmen glanced into the office, attempting to glean the source of Claire's consternation. Her fat little hedgehog of an editor lying in a pool of his own sticky blood on the floor of his office was a dead giveaway.
The little party stood staring for a while. Finally Claire broke the silence.
"Tommy, get a picture." Four pairs of eyes, including Buster's glassy dead ones, stared at her. She returned a widely innocent gaze. "It's what he would have wanted."
The next thing Claire knew, she was in jail.
"You can't lock me up!" Claire squeaked in echo of the cell door. "I didn't kill Buster!"
Larabee turned that stare of his on her and hung the keys up on their hook. Then he turned and started toward the door.
"Wait!" Claire yelled. He did pause at the door, still giving her that unnerving stare. Waiting. Right. Claire took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice steady. "I didn't kill Buster, and I haven't caused any trouble." Larabee stared flatly. "Nothing illegal."
"I don't think you killed your editor." Chris told her flatly.
"Great! Let me go!"
"Revenge, frankly. You irritate me. Now you'll be less annoying behind bars."
"You can't lock me up because I'm annoying! That's not legal!"
Chris shrugged and finally spoke. "Guess I'm gonna have to wire the Judge and let him sort it out. Sit tight. It should only take him three or four days to get here."
Larabee smiled sadistically as he tipped his hat and walked out the door. Claire leaned up against the iron rods of her cell and called after him. "You're making a big mistake!"
"That's what I told them."
The wry agreement had come from her left. Claire turned to face the speaker in the cell next to hers.
+ + +
"No? Why not?" Tom Poppin's beard bristled in what may have been affront.
"It's not bloody enough," Claire Danae explained, tapping her finger on a photograph. "This one, right here. People will pay money to see that much blood."
The photographer's wares were spread over the floor in front of Claire's cell so the two Post employees could choose an image for their front page. The gray-toned squares had migrated through the bars and were littering her cell and a good portion of the jail. Claire had made the comment that her work would be better suited if Tom could join her in the cell, but Chris had refused.
"Don't want your man sneaking any tool or weapons into your cell. Man could be hiding anything underneath that bush."
"Would you like to search it?" the photographer had asked. Chris had stared, trying to figure out if the photographer was joking or not. Nothing did deadpan like a great scruffy shrub of a beard.
Standish rubbed at his own chin, which had not seen a razor since his incarceration. Between the curly stubble threatening to become a beard and the dirty, black attire he still wore, Ezra was sure he presented quite a roguish appearance.
Having refused the dubious honor of searching Poppin's facial hair, Chris now sat with his boots on the desk, digging darts in it with an indeterminable scowl on his face.
Ezra might not be adverse to a game of darts right now himself. He had forgotten how boring jail time could be. Listening to the indistinct ranting of the incensed citizens had been diverting for the first few hours of the morning, but eventually the fun had turned stale. He directed his ears at the Post employees attempting to assemble an issue sans editor.
From the supine pose on his bed, Ezra propped his head up to glance through the bars of his jail cell disdainfully at the gruesome image Claire had selected from Tom's array. "I can see Mr. Hedgecock's murder has you quite distraught," he commented sarcastically. "Heartbroken, to be sure."
Claire razed the gambler with a glare, but answered, "Weeping and wailing won't bring him back, and I still have to make a living. Besides, I'm sure Buster would have wanted me to carry on his legacy." She huffed at the layout she had scribbled onto her notepad, then handed it and several loose pages through the bars to her photographer. "This is the text of our lead story, right here. Make sure the headline is a large font, maybe thirty-six point. The main body of the text should be eleven point. Or do you think twelve would be better?"
Tom Poppin shrugged, seemingly as lost at the reporter's soliloquy as Ezra.
Oblivious to confusion, Claire shook her head, the ends of her red scarf tickling her face. "Let's go with the twelve. So many people with bad eyesight nowadays."
Standish slid his boots to the floor and hung on the bars between cells. "Don't you think you're taking this company loyalty line a bit past its time, Miss Danae?"
Her nose immersed in her work, Claire ignored her jailmate. She tapped her finger again on a particularly descriptive photograph of Buster Hedgecock's corpse laid out in his office. "Put this one on the front page, Tommy, full spread under the headline. Nothing but the best for Buster."
The Post photographer scratched his wooly chin as he set the image aside.
Out of pure boredom, Ezra glanced at the pictures Tom Poppin had strewn aside on the floor. It was a rather unsettling reproduction of the editor's murder. Standish could only be grateful photographs didn't reproduce color as well. The black shade of blood looked ghastly. He bent down and picked up the square. It was a nice sharp picture, detailed enough that Nathan might have been able to perform an autopsy merely by looking at it. Ezra could almost read the notes on the desk. He turned his head and squinted into the image. The name of the person who murdered me is . . . But the notes didn't name the murderer, just scribblings of recent headlines. Ezra made to toss the photo back to the floor, but something about the scene pulled his eyes back to the photograph. He looked closer. Three small marks in the bottom right corner . . .
"I'll be damned," he muttered. His hands weren't prone to shaking with excitement, but they quivered slightly now.
The picture was snatched away by Claire Danae. "No free looks for the Clarion, Mr. Standish," she asserted pertly, taking the photo to the other side of her cell. "Although from the dumb look on your face I can tell it'll be a hot seller."
Ezra licked his lips, fingers twitching to take back that photograph, but Claire had already placed it in a layout on the other side of her cell. Ezra strode over to the door of his cell, swung it open and stalked to the jail's front door.
A firm hand clasped his shoulder before he could leave.
"Where d'you think you're going?" Chris asked coldly.
"I'm going out." Standish asserted matter-of-factly, glaring at the hand on his shoulder.
Ezra turned to face his jailer. "Chris, you know I'm not guilty of anything." Claire and Chris snorted in tandem. Standish shot them both dirty looks on general principles. "I'm going out."
"Town would tear you apart."
"You unearthed the real culprit behind the fire," Ezra reminded. "An insane, babbling miscreant with marching orders from a dead hedgehog."
Chris cocked his head to the side and stared for a moment. "We have a couple of suspicions," he drawled slowly. "Ain't nobody been arrested yet."
"Look, Ezra," Larabee explained impatiently, "town's so riled up now, they might not bother you. Or they might rip you to pieces soon as look at you, and I don't have the manpower to have someone keep an eye on you."
JD walked in the front door, noise from the street intensifying through the open passageway. A head of lettuce followed, but - SQUISH! - was not allowed in. Noise from the street became muffled as the door closed again. The young sheriff stared at recently slammed door, shaking his head. "It's getting bad out there."
Before the door could close all the way a shriveled old miner shoved his way into the jailhouse. JD looked surprised as he skipped out of the door's path. Chris glared patiently and Ezra crossed his arms impatiently as the crooked old coot pointed a finger at him.
"Alrights, yous got it, I knows you do. Where's it?"
"Where's what?" Ezra humored without humor.
"The map, you lowlife!" the old miner screamed. "I knows you gots it! Where'd ya hide it, on these walls here?" he gestured to the framed maps decorating the jailhouse.
"There ain't no map, now get outta here," Chris commanded, shoving the gregarious coot out the door.
Ezra looked at JD. Chris looked at Ezra. Ezra looked at Chris and walked back to his cell. Sitting heavily on his cot, the gambler began to plot.
+ + +
This should have been a triumphant moment for Mary Travis. The Clarion was selling like nobody's business this morning; by the afternoon she'd been sold completely out. The victory should have been made even sweeter by the fact that her rival publication was sans an editor and her worst nemesis locked up in jail.
Mary knew she had made a big mistake.
"I'm telling you I don't know where the map or the treasure is, and that's the same thing I've told to every person who's asked me today." All fifty-eight of them, Mary counted in her head. Fifty-nine, she added as she walked away from the bearded fellow.
How had she gone so wrong? The Clarion had been her dream to protect the town, to make it someplace special. Now Four Corners was tearing itself apart, and the blame lay purely on Mary's shoulders. Well, maybe not purely. Certainly there was enough blame to share with Claire Danae and the Four Corners Post.
As frenzied as the streets had been pre-haze of dawn it was nothing compared to the tumult of activity that had occurred under the bright sun of day. Now, as the day waned, not a soul strolled the boardwalks at a leisurely pace, stopping to greet one another as they wandered in and out of the buildings; instead they hurried from place to place, casting cagey looks at anybody who seemed to be lingering in one spot to long. All eagerly hunting for a map and a treasure that may or may not exist. Thanks to the Clarion.
Mary's guilt-ridden thoughts were interrupted as a person in an excessive rush knocked into her. Walking down the street with her head down, Mary only had the impression of something dark and hurried.
It was Chris. "Pardon me," he said brusquely, barely even stopping for that.
"Wait," Travis called after him. "What's going on? Is there trouble?"
Larabee paused briefly, apparently only now noticing who it was he had nearly bowled over. "Casey just rode into town," he explained, "told us there's some men up at the farm giving her aunt trouble."
A knot twisted Mary's stomach. "Who? Why?" she asked with a terrible sense of foreboding.
Chris shrugged. "I guess some drifters got the idea she has a treasure map."
"Oh no!" Mary gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. The expression on Chris' face may have been understanding, but it flashed by too quickly to be sure as the gunfighter turned and continued up the street with swift strides. Mary trotted to catch up.
"I'm coming too," Mary said.
Chris didn't stop. "No, you ain't."
His perfunctory negation stirred the newslady's ire. "That wasn't a question, Mr. Larabee. I have just as much right as you do to go where I please." Keeping her eyes ahead, focused on her goal and not at the gunslinger at her side, Mary quickened her steps. "I'm coming."
"Mary, I don't have time to argue-"
Travis rounded on him and ground to a halt so quickly that Chris almost ran into her again. "It's not your job to protect me, Chris! Where were you when my livelihood was being threatened? You were fraternizing with the enemy! It was up to me to protect myself, then and now. I took the risk then, and I'm taking it now, with or without your approval."
Chris glowered. "Look, if this is about your paper, you don't have to go putting yourself into danger to get a story. I promise I'll tell you all about it when we get back. I'll give you a quote. I'll give you two quotes. But you're not coming."
Mary sighed, suddenly tired of being strong. "It's not the story, Chris. Nettie is a friend, and she's in trouble because of something I wrote. I don't know what I would do if she . . ." Mary couldn't bring herself to finish. She met Chris' eyes. "I have to make sure she's safe."
The dark stare that was Larabee lessened as the gunfighter softened. "It ain't your fault, Mary. People are greedy bastards. But you never see 'em that way. You just assume the best outta folk." Chris swallowed and looked away. For a moment she thought he'd say something else, but instead he stepped around her. "I'm saddling up and riding out with the others. Come if you want."
Mary joined him as he resumed his course for the livery, their long shadows leading the path.
+ + +
Claire Danae and Ezra Standish each sat on a cot in their cells, mirror images of each other but for the a shaft of light that broke through the barred window to light Claire like a stage spotlight, leaving the gambler shrouded in shadow. Ezra leaned forward with his elbows on his knees shuffling a deck of cards he had found in the desk drawer while the reporter bent over the notepad on her lap, her pencil gyrating furiously as she wrote. Neither gambler nor reporter spoke to one another.
The scritch of Claire's pencil presently turned into a slow persistent tap as she rapped it against the notepad, staring off into space. Ezra felt each rap like a nail in his coffin.
Through the window JD was visible outside, attempting to calm a frantic Casey. The excitable girl would have ridden out to save her aunt with the rest of the seven had JD not stayed behind to keep her here.
Without looking at the reporter in the next cell, "Would you please desist that infernal tapping?" he finally snapped. "If you are going to write derogatory articles about me at least you could do so without driving me mad."
Claire's pencil fell silent. "It's not about you, it's about the treasure map. Don't be so egotistical."
Ezra didn't deign to answer. He continued shuffling the cards, floating the king of spades.
"How do you do that?"
Ezra spared a glance for the Post reporter. She was watching his hands, absentmindedly twirling the pencil in her own fingers. "Did Mr. Holiday neglect to teach you this trick?" he asked sardonically.
Her lips pursed and she clenched the pencil in her fist. "Look, I'm just making conversation. If you can't be civil then forget it."
As much as it galled him to make small talk with this woman, idle conversation was as good a way as any to kill time. So, through a stiff jaw, the gambler replied, "I've spend many years building up the required dexterity." Ezra cut and shuffled the deck with one hand, then switched to the other. Claire stood and came to the bars separating their cells, avidly watching his fingers manipulate the cards. "For someone with a marked disposition against gamblers, you seem to have quite an inclination toward their trade," Standish commented.
Claire's green eyes went from his hands up to his face. She scowled and stuck her nose in the air. "I enjoy the cardplay, that's all. Gamblers are nothing but a bunch of liars who take advantage of people."
"Unlike reporters." She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to respond, but Standish didn't give the brunette time. "So why do you suppose that despite our reputation people still sit down at the table with us gamblers?"
"Pride? Ignorance?" Claire shrugged. "Not everyone knows you as well as I do."
She jumped back a bit as Ezra abruptly rose to his feet. "Know me? Is this a claim of solidarity from the high and mighty Claire Danae? Has she fallen from her celestial seat to join us in the very depths of hell itself?" Standish laughed and tossed the deck of cards at the reporter's cell. "What could you possibly know about gamblers?" he demanded.
Claire stood for once speechless at the gambler's angry, sarcastic tirade. Cards lay scattered about her as dust settled on her russet curls. Ezra turned away from her, slumping back down on his cot. Having thrown away his cards he now had nothing to occupy his hands, so he crossed his arms and tried to pretend he was perfectly contented to do so.
In her cell, the curly-haired reporter bent down to pick up one of his cards. Staring at its face, she said quietly, "I married one."
Strong emotion temporarily blocked his ears, and when what she had said finally registered he didn't believe them anyhow. "I beg your pardon?" Standish sputtered.
"I married a gambler. That's how I know them."
"Is he anybody I would know?" the Southerner queried.
"George Loved?" Claire hazarded. When Ezra shook his head she continued, "A fine, educated man. Could talk to anyone about anything, polite as any first rate gentleman." The reporter turned away from his cell and drooped onto her cot, bringing her feet up and briefly settling her skirts around her legs. She began to fiddle with her red scarf. "Have you ever traveled the steamboats of the Mississippi?" Claire asked.
"There has been a voyage or two."
"My father is a very wealthy businessman. His work takes him up and down nearly every mile of the Mississippi and since I was little he's always told me about the steamboats, how they line up along the banks of St. Louis by the dozen, filling the air with smoke and steam, their fluted columns inside, frescoed walls, floral carpets, crystal chandeliers in the main saloon . . ."
The brown-haired reporter stretched her scarf before her eyes then wrapped it around a hand, apparently completely involved in scrutinizing the red silk. "I asked my father to bring me along one time. It took some convincing but eventually he agreed."
Claire paused, and Ezra took a lounging position on his cot to listen more comfortably. She took a deep breath as if to speak, exhaled, then started again. "My father had gone to bed early, so I went down to the main saloon, alone, to sample some French brandy and listen to the musicians. A voice near the back of the steamer cabin caught my attention. I still remember every word." Claire closed her eyes as she recited: "'Here you are, gentlemen; this ace of hearts is the winning card. Watch it closely. Follow it with your eye as I shuffle. Here it is, and now here, now here, and now - where? It is my regular trade, gentlemen, to move my hands quicker than your eyes. I always have two chances to your one. The ace of hearts. If your sight is quick enough, you beat me and I pay; but if not, I beat you and take your money. Who will give me twenty? It is very plain and simple, but you can't always tell. Who will give me twenty dollars?'"
Ezra recognized the spiel. The gambler knew what came next.
"He dressed well," Claire worked the length of her scarf through her fingers, "but he fumbled with the cards like an amateur. His speech was slurred like he was drunk. A small crowd had gathered to watch, so I joined them as a fellow rose to the challenge the gambler had put forth. The fellow spotted the ace easily. We all did. The gambler seemed surprised and upset and challenged the fellow again. Fifty dollars. The gambler was obviously incompetent. As he plucked the ace out of the challenger's hand he bent the corner of the card. Now the ace was marked, but the dealer hadn't seemed to notice. Of course the fellow won again. The gambler, very upset, challenged somebody else in the crowd, anybody else, and upped the bet to a thousand dollars. He still apparently hadn't noticed that the ace was plain by its bent corner. But nobody in the crowd said anything and some fat farmer stepped up and took the challenge. He laid the three cards out in front of him, face down. The card with the bent corner was on the right. Still nobody said anything. The farmer was about to make his choice. So I stepped up."
Ezra raised his eyebrows. That wasn't how this was supposed to work.
"'He's cheating,' I told the gambler. 'You bent the corner of the ace the last time. Everybody can tell which one it is.' I pointed to the farmer. 'He's trying to cheat you.'"
Ezra chuckled. Claire looked at him and smiled slightly. "He played indignant and scooped up the cards and moved on. The rest of the crowd went to watch the bigger games. When he'd left, the dealer had dropped the card with the bent corner. I picked it up. It was a six of spades."
Half of Claire's curly hair fell across her face. She brushed it behind her ear. "I took the card up to the bar and set it down next to the gambler. He looked at the six, then he looked at me. 'The ace was the one that was bent. You switched the cards,' I accused. He smiled this charming smile and said to me, 'In my whole career as a thrower this is the first time that anyone has pointed out that the baby is marked. You are an exceptionally honest lady. An admirable quality, even if you did cost me a thousand dollars.' He pulled the ace of hearts from his breast pocket and handed it to me. One of its corners was bent.
"I accused him of being a conman and a swindler.'" The brunette shook her head. "His answer to that was, 'You can't cheat an honest man.' I couldn't deny that the farmer had been trying to cheat. So we conversed.
"He didn't like poker," the reporter continued. "Thought amateur cheaters had ruined the game. He said that if he sat down at a table with Moses, Abraham Lincoln and his own mother, the only person he could be sure didn't have something up his sleeve was himself, and that was only because he kept his spare cards in his boot. Of course, he didn't have your way at the tables." Claire shook her head. "Three-card monte was his game."
"I've never cared for it." Ezra swung his feet off his cot. "It's a glorified pea-and-shell game."
"A very profitable pea-and-shell game. So it seemed, anyway. George carried a German-made gold watch, genuine." Claire traced her finger along the brick wall. "While my father conducted his business in St. Louis, George and I took a tour of the city. We went to all the highest-class restaurants, but somehow everything went on my father's tab. My father finally got the bill and told me to stop seeing George. I said we were getting married, and said if I did that he would disown me."
"And you performed your nuptials anyway," Ezra surmised.
"Yes. Unfortunately, I neglected to tell him about the loss of my family fortune until after the ceremony," Claire said to the brick wall. The red scarf pulled and twisted in her hands. "After I told him, the first night of our marriage, he got rip-roaring drunk and fell asleep in the other room of our hotel suite. When I woke in the morning he was gone."
"An unfortunate tale, indeed. What did you do?"
Claire shrugged. "What could I do? I had to make a living. There were only two occupations I knew of that welcomed women." She looked down her nose at him significantly. "The other was typesetting. Women have more nimble fingers than men. So I made the round of the news journals and other publications. Nobody was hiring. It seemed I was out of luck. That's when I met Buster. He was heading west to start a newspaper of his own. The way he talked . . . I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to start again. I told Buster he should hire me to set type. He said he didn't need a typesetter, what he needed a reporter. So I lied. I told him I was a reporter, the best reporter he would ever meet. He hired me and brought me with him to the great West. And here I am."
No wonder the lady had developed an irrational predisposition against gamblers. For indeed, all professional cardsharps were conmen to one degree or another and Standish more than some. Not so much in recent years, true, but in his day he had swindled his fair share of innocents, never stopping to consider the bruised feelings or ruined lives of the people he had defrauded. After all, it wasn't personal, it was just . . . business.
Reporter and gambler jumped as JD burst through the door, shoving Casey before him. "We got trouble," the young lawman announced to the room's occupants.
+ + +
"You told people you know where the map is?"
"I didn't tell them that, no." Claire bit her lower lip nervously. "But maybe I did lead some people to believe I know."
"That's just plain stupid," Casey said bluntly. "Why would folk believe it, anyway? If you knew where a treasure map was don't they think you'd go after the treasure yourself?"
"People believe what they want to believe."
JD looked behind him to say something comforting to Casey, but couldn't think of anything. Neither woman seemed to have the sense to be afraid anyhow. Casey just seemed riled, and the Post reporter craned her head through the bars, trying to get a peek of the street. Ezra, not under the impediment of a locked cell, stood next to Dunne peering out the window.
"Chris and the others?" the Southerner asked quietly.
"Still gone," JD responded nervously. Suddenly he wondered, as Ezra must be, why he'd been the only one left to protect the town. Against a mob. God help him. "This doesn't look good, Ezra."
The Southern gambler didn't respond as he stared at the approaching mob, rubbing the back of his ear anxiously with one finger.
"You don't really believe they'd hurt us, do you, JD?" Casey asked.
Opening his mouth to respond, a lump in JD's throat prevented the words from coming, but as the mass of citizens halted and congregated before the jail a shout from outside answered Casey's question for him. "JD Dunne, we want to talk to you," a raspy voice from the crowd cried.
Ezra and JD exchanged glances. "'Bout what?" JD shouted back to the street.
"'Bout those prisoners of yours," a gruffer voice responded. "Standish and Danae."
"Since when is a mob in the mood to talk?" Ezra muttered.
"What are you gonna do?" Casey asked JD breathlessly.
JD didn't know. He found his own breath caught and he wondered what Chris would do, what Buck would do, what Vin, Josiah, or Nathan would do. Anybody but him! "I, uh . . . I-" They were all waiting: Casey, Ezra and Claire, all the folk gathered outside the jailhouse; every eye, every ear was waiting to see what he would do. Because he was the one here. He was the sheriff.
Yeah, that's right. Dunne squared his shoulders. He was the sheriff. It was his job to keep law and order around here, dammit! Ezra was innocent, and no half-crazed, gold-digging, lousy, scum-sucking . . . yahoos were going to get to him past JD!
The dark-haired young man pushed past Casey and snagged the ring of keys from their hook on the post. They jingled as JD tossed them toward Standish, who reflexively snatched them up with one hand.
"Lock yourself in," JD told the gambler. He picked a shotgun up from the rack.
Watching him open-mouthed, Casey stepped in front of the door as JD reached for it. "You're not going out there?" she demanded incredulously.
"It's my job, Casey." Right now he wished to hell it wasn't, but he couldn't let her or Ezra or any of those people outside know that, so Dunne attempted a confident smile as he put a hand on her shoulder. "It'll be alright," he assured the girl.
The young peacekeeper gently moved Casey aside. He reflexively reached for his hat, but on second thought, handed the derby to Ezra instead. "Hold this for me, will you?"
Standish looked at the hat. He looked out the window. "JD, I can assist-"
Dunne shook his head. "I go out there, I can talk to them. They see you, things could get ugly."
Waiting until Ezra was secure in the cell, JD opened the door and stepped out of the jailhouse. "He's going out there alone?" he heard Claire ask Ezra as he closed the door behind him.
"The hell he is!" Casey snatched the door and slipped out behind JD before he could shut it.
JD's first instinct was to tell her to go back inside, but he knew Casey well enough to know she wouldn't listen to him. How could he expect the mob to respect him if they saw Casey ignoring him? So, "Stay behind me," he instructed her instead. Remarkably, she nodded and moved to stand at his back.
More than half the town had to be there in the street, bearing farm tools and assorted weapons. Murphy Sims and Ralph McGee, the men who lit the lamps and streetfires at night, were there in the crowd, each holding aloft a lit torch. But JD was pretty sure that at this moment neither of them held any interest in staving off the impending darkness. JD blinked into the blinding regiment of fiery brands, their heat burning his skin. With the streetlamps unlit, the Clarion office, the saloon, the hotels - they were dark and indistinct shapes in the face of the raging inferno that was the mob, but the jailhouse glowed with the shadowy yellow miasma of anger and anxiety. Tom Poppin looked like a hunchbacked monster behind his camera, his legs sticking out beneath the darkcloth.
"What do you want?" JD asked loudly to the swarm of Four Corners.
"We just want to ask them about the map," the blacksmith responded, his iron hammer rhythmically smacking into his opposite hand.
Dunne wrung the shotgun in damp palms, not aiming at the crowd yet, but just over their heads. "Sure are a lot of you just to ask a couple questions," he observed. "Don't seem right."
"He's just a low-down, dirty gambler," said a tow-headed woman, her tow-headed broom gripped tightly in front of her body.
"She has the map! She's gotta!" Ralph called out.
"We've searched everywhere else!" Murphy added. The firebrand in his hand wavered back and forth as the man fidgeted and cast glances at the mob of people to his either side. "She practically said she had it and that we'd be readin' all about it tomorrow."
A bent old miner moved to the front of the crowd. "Standish wus workin' fer Mrs. Travis. He's th' man what brought th' news ta her. But he's already found that map! We've got 's much right ta that gold 's he does!"
The miner's exclamation echoed from out of the masses behind him. "Our right . . . the map . . . it's our gold!"
JD wondered if either Ezra or Claire really did have that map. But it didn't matter, he realized. If this mob got a hold of the map they would turn on each other quicker than . . . well, it'd be quick. And even if Ezra didn't have the map, the Post had spent the last week painting the gambler as a lying, greedy scoundrel. Who would believe him?
"Don't make us go through you, son," said a gray-haired businessman, by the well-cut suit. A nice suit and a gun belt.
"We know the rest of you seven are gone."
The throng pushed forward, slowly but with the solidarity of a bull. Behind him, Casey shuffled nervously, waiting to see what he would do. I'm gonna do what it takes. JD pulled the trigger.
The report of the shotgun into the air froze the angry hum of town into complete silence. Smoke from the barrel drifted into smoke from the torches as JD, shadowed by Casey, descended the steps into the street. Into the mob. The sea retreated en masse, but only a pace or two.
"You're wrong!" he shouted. "Ezra ain't got a map, and he didn't start any fire!" Whether the crowd heeded his words or not, it was responding to the tone in his voice. His confidence bolstered, JD continued. "Now look here, all of you. I reckon there are some of you who really just want to ask Ezra about the map. A lot of you know him. But some of you wanted to hang Ezra last night. You think that because words printed on some scrap of paper say it, Ezra's a no-good lying snake. Lot of you should know better."
A portion of the crowd lowered their heads, shamefaced. A small portion. Then the gray-haired businessman with the gun belt called out, "I don't give a rat's ass about Standish. I want that map!"
"You got Claire Danae in there too!" another voice from the throng called out. "You can bet she knows where it is!"
Dunne nodded. "Then there's those of you who can't see straight for the dollar signs flashing before your eyes. Good people who are letting your greed do the thinking for you. You're all here tonight; it doesn't matter why." Just behind his shoulder, JD felt Casey jump as he cocked the rifle. "None of you are getting past me."
A hush blanketed the crowd. "He won't shoot us!" the short man in the tall hat broke the silence to yell from the back.
I will. JD steeled his voice. "You want to bet your life on that, mister?"
The mob shifted uncertainly, looking dubiously at the young sheriff. JD pounced on their doubt.
Holding his shotgun to the crowd, Dunne took a step forward and with his left foot scraped a long stripe in the dirt between him and the people of Four Corners. The crowd stared with silent unease at the line. Just a scuff in the dirt, JD's resolve built it to a solid wall, an uncrossable barrier. If his resolve fell, that line would mean a little as the dust it was made of. Standing on one side of the mark across the street he declared, strongly but for a slight waver:
"Any man crosses this line is a dead man."
+ + +
Standish looked worried. The cardsharp may have thought he was unreadable but as he watched the scene playing on outside, Claire noticed a couple of tells in the way his eyes tightened and he moistened his lips. Strangely, it wasn't his own safety that concerned Standish but that of his young compatriot outside. That she could tell by the way he rolled JD's derby in his hands, flipping it over and over. But an hour ago Claire would not have been able to see anything but a self-serving liar and cheat.
Still peering out the window, he answered, "Yes, Miss Danae?"
Standish turned from the window to blink at Claire in astonishment. "What was that now?"
"I was wrong to write those articles about you," the reporter admitted, tentatively offering an apologetic smile. "You, um, you may have guessed, I was thinking of someone else at the time."
"Why, Claire, I'm speechless."
"If only." Standish returned her smile with a gold-studded smirk.
A whisper from seemingly nowhere pulled their attention to the back of the jailhouse. "Pst! Miss Claire!"
"Outside," came the hushed, gruff reply.
Claire stood on her cot and peered out through the barred opening. "Tom!" she exclaimed quietly as she spotted her photographer. "What are you doing?"
"Bustin' you outta here."
Ezra unlocked the cell and came up the stand beside Claire, who did a double-take upon seeing him. Having nowhere else to set it, the conman wore JD's hat. "The front exit is blocked," Standish said sardonically.
"I know. That's why I'm gonna blow these bars off."
Ezra and Claire backed away from the window.
"Just how do you propose to do that without bringing the mob down upon us all?"
"Relax. It'll be just a teeny puff to knock the mortar away. With all their yammerin' outside nobody'll hear a thing."
Before Claire or Ezra had time to protest or question the photographer's logic, Tom was laying black powder from a small leather bag around the base of each iron bar. "You, eh, might want to take some cover, just in case," Poppin advised.
Claire and Ezra concurred. The left the cell and stood watching as Tom lit a match, stepped back, and threw it on the powder.
+ + +
Outside the jail, JD and Casey and half the mob were thrown to the ground as the concussive force of the explosion shattered the jailhouse windows.
+ + +
"A little puff?!" Claire hissed at Tom through the opening where the back wall of the jailhouse had once been.
The soot-darkened photographer shrugged and pinched out the sparking ends of his beard. "Potassium chlorate must have become unstable. See, that's why I use magnesium these days."
Ezra stepped through the rubble. "Fascinating. I think we may assume all heard our escape attempt and will soon come to investigate. Shall we?"
"There they are!"
Claire jumped into the street. "Too late!"
The gambler, the reporter and the photographer bolted into the darkened streets as the mob rushed after them.
+ + +
Laid out flat on his back as the mob stormed the jailhouse, JD sighed.
"You okay, Casey?"
"I'm alright," she coughed. "You go on after 'em."
Quietly, as the dust settled, he rolled to his feet and picked up the shotgun. The young sheriff reloaded the one spent shell, set the rifle on his shoulder, and followed the mob.
+ + +
"Tommy, leave the camera!" Standish heard Claire advise as Poppin rounded a corner behind her.
"Nah, you two go on ahead." The Post photographer ground to a halt and speared his tripod into the dirt. "I'm gonna set up for a shot of the mob coming on."
"Are you insane?" Ezra snapped.
Poppin disappeared under his darkcloth. "They ain't after me," his muffled voice returned.
Claire and Ezra exchanged looks and kept on running. "Where," the reporter huffed with exertion, "are we going?"
"Your office," Standish replied.
"You think we can hide there?"
"Miss Danae, I don't believe there is anywhere in town we may safely hide."
Standish didn't answer right away as they arrived at the Four Corners Post building and ran up the stairs. They could hear the muffled roar of the mob in the next street but one. "Where is your editor's office?" Ezra asked. Claire led the black-clad gambler past the printing press and rows of cabinets to the back corner of the building, adroitly maneuvering the lightless room. Concentrating on maintaining his footing in the darkness, Ezra smacked into the reporter as she stopped in front of Buster's office. The doorframe was filled with inky blackness.
"This is it," she whispered.
In the dim illumination provided by the large front windows, Standish spotted the outline of a glass sconce mounted on the wall. "We need some light," he said.
"That will lead them right to us." Claire turned to face him. "Standish, there is a lynch mob breathing down our necks. We need to get out of town and we need to do it now."
She was right, the gambler knew. The prudent course of action was to get the hell out of Four Corners. Discretion was the better part of valor, after all, and Standish had discretion in spades. Yet how could he abandon a project in which he had so much invested? The town needed him. His friends out there needed him.
"I am not running out on this one," Ezra stated firmly. "Light the lamp."
Shaking her head of curls in disbelief, the reporter nonetheless took a match from a brass holder and lit the sconce. A soft glow demystified the printing house. Though the light barely reached the editor's office, the windowless back room no longer seemed like the gateway to the abyss.
"Don't step on that," Claire warned as they entered, pointing at a gruesome black stain on the floor. A stain that very much resembled a fat body. Ezra skirted around it.
But if that was where Buster Hedgecock had died, then this was the wall where . . . yes. Ezra reached out and reverently touched the framed wallhanging.
"Do you suppose he's still here?"
"Who's still here?" Ezra asked as he stepped up to the map. His hands quivered as he unhooked the frame from the wall. The glass encasing made it heavy, so Standish propped the map on the floor.
"Buster. Do you suppose he haunts this room?"
This room was not bright enough for reading. "My dear, I do not believe in ghosts."
"I do." Claire stared as the gambler brushed past her with her editor's large framed map. "What are you doing?"
"This, my dear, is your hidden treasure map," Standish proclaimed solemnly, setting the prize upon the printing press.
Her voice grew confused and incredulous. "You're going to bluff?" she guessed.
Ezra shook his head. "This is the genuine article, no doubt. Observe, three holes in the bottom right corner."
"What does that mean?"
"It means this is the map."
"But how did Buster . . ." Claire trailed off as noises from outside indicated the mob's arrival. "Nevermind. Now what?"
"Sometimes the only way to be rid of someone is to give them what they want." Ezra threw the framed document to the ground, smashing the frame to bits. Carefully avoiding sharp edges, Standish liberated the map from the debris and began to roll it. "Now we play the hand we've been dealt," the gambler said.
Despite the danger of their situation, Claire laughed. "Since when do you play the hand you've been dealt?"
"Miss Danae, only a fool cheats all the time. There are occasions when one must let the other player win."
"When you want to keep the sucker on the line," the reporter surmised.
"Yes," Ezra conceded, "and when you don't want to get shot. This is an instance of the latter."
They exited the Four Corners Post building and made it as far as the porch before the mob of citizenry was upon them. Retreating back up the steps, Standish began to wonder about the wisdom of his plan, but before the crowd could rush reporter and conman, JD was suddenly there! With timing normally attributed only to Vin, the young sheriff fired his shotgun in the air and leveled it at the crowd once more. They backed off respectfully.
"Let's try this again," he said, scraping a line in the dirt before the Four Corners Post building. "Ezra!" he called back to the gambler.
Taking a deep breath, Standish focused and regained his calm. "Yes, JD?"
"Why are you wearing my hat?"
Standish felt at his head and realized that yes, he was still wearing Dunne's ridiculous chapeau. "Aesthetics," he said acerbically. "Do you have a plan?"
"You see what I'm doing here?" JD gestured to the deadline and mob with his shotgun.
"That's the plan."
"Marvelous." The townspeople were beginning to murmur slyly among themselves. Somebody was about to get hurt here. Ten to one Standish and his fellows would be among those.
"You have something better?" Dunne asked, a trace of hope in his voice.
"I was thinking about giving these good citizens what they want," Ezra said, taking a step down into the street.
JD gave him a sidelong strange look. "You at the end of a rope?"
Standish faltered near-imperceptibly in the dim, flickering light. Swallowing hard, he said, "No, the, ah, the other thing they want."
"You have the map, Standish?" somebody called out from the mob.
He unrolled the map and held it up to the delighted, covetous gasps of the crowd. "How do we know it's the real one?" a lady shouted.
Claire stepped down next to Ezra. "This is definitely the missing millionaire's map." Pointing at it she said, "See the three holes in the bottom right corner?" The people nodded hesitantly, accepting the reporter's vouch on its authenticity.
"Give it here, Standish!" the businessman in the gray suit called out, fingering his gun belt. Again the collective took up the chant. "It's our gold . . . give us the map . . . our right . . ."
Ezra spoke loudly. "Ladies and gentlemen, look at yourselves! What has this map brought us to? It's brought nothing but trouble and put us all at each other's throats over the devil's promise of fool's gold.. It's disgusting, disgraceful." The speech sounded like something Mary Travis might say. The fool idealistic woman must be rubbing off on him. "Go back to your homes."
"And let you keep the map and take the treasure for yourself?" Murphy Sims hollered. Directly in front of him, Ralph McGee waved his torch in agreement as did the rest of the congregation.
Travis' inspirational speeches seldom garnered their desired responses either, come to think of it. Scratching his chin contemplatively, Ezra nodded. "I see your point. Here. You take it."
As at the moment in a con right before a big gamble either failed or succeeded, Standish felt an incredible calmness come upon him. There was no thinking to be done in this moment, only doing. Ezra tossed the map in an underhand arc toward Murphy Sims. The dry, aged parchment curved above Ralph McGee's head - straight through the flaming torch the lamplighter held aloft.
Hands shot up from the crowd to snatch at the burning map. "Give it here!" "Put it out!" "What the hell are you doing?" "Don't stomp on it, you'll ruin it!" But it was too late. The mob parted in a circle around the charred remains of the treasure map. A wrinkled old miner held the most sizeable remnant in his trembling hands: a piece of parchment that wasn't large enough to lead from his left foot to his right.
Suddenly Ezra's calmness was gone. He had succeeded in destroying the map before the town tore itself to bits over it, but what would the crowd do now? The gambler was counting on the most reasonable of the townsfolk to give it up and go home now that there was nothing worth fighting over, but a mob was rarely reasonable. In fact some of them, the gray-suited gunman and a crook-nosed cowboy, were even now starting to turn toward Standish with murderous looks in their eyes.
Ezra slowly began backing up the steps to the Post building, pushing Claire Danae behind him. JD sidestepped closer, his grip on the rifle tightening.
"You all just go on home now," the young sheriff said sternly. "Ain't nothing to fight over but a worthless scrap now."
"You're gonna pay for that gold you cost me - in blood," the crook-nosed cowboy threatened. Dunne leveled his rifle at the man, but his eyes went to the gun strapped around the waist of the fellow in the gray suit, who was also inching closer. Was the young man fast enough to expend the rifle and then draw his pistols before the businessman went for his gun?
Kra-kow! A shot rang out from the darkened street, followed by the report of pounding hooves drawing near.
"What the hell is going on here?" Chris addressed the crowd, reining his horse to a stop beside JD. The gunfighter's weapons were still holstered, but the barrel of Buck's revolver smoked as it lay across his knee as Vin, Nathan and Josiah rested hands upon their own guns. Behind the lawmen, Casey and Mary Travis were also mounted and looking on with worry.
"Ain't nothing going on, is there?" JD spoke pointedly to the crook-nosed cowboy. Eyes going from the young sheriff to Standish to Chris, he shook his head and began to back off.
"I do believe these good people were just about to return to their homes and businesses," Ezra drawled loudly.
Larabee nodded. "That would be a good idea."
As soon as the shamefaced mob began to disperse, Casey slid off her horse and ran to embrace JD. Nearly knocked over by the young lady's ardor, Dunne put an arm around her and choked out, "Boy, it's lucky you guys came around when you did."
"Luck had nothing to do with it, son," Buck said.
"We were heading back from Miss Wells' ranch when your girl there came ridin' up," Nathan explained with a grin. "She told us what'd happened and we high-tailed it over here."
"Not a moment too soon." Ezra removed JD's hat and deposited it on Dunne's head before striding out to the street to stare at the pile of ash that had mere minutes ago been a map. Mary Travis presently came to stand beside him.
"What is that?" she asked.
Standish nudged the small pile with his foot, sending ash and little bits of paper swirling through the air like so many dreams. "That, partner, is the remains of a treasure map."
Mary's eyes, shadowed and puffy from exertion and lack of sleep, widened in amazement. "They destroyed it?" she asked.
"I destroyed it," Ezra corrected bitterly. He turned to the Clarion editor. "Mrs. Travis, I think it would be best for all involved if we dissolved our partnership. I believe I am a bad influence on you. And I am certain you are a bad influence over me."
She hung her head, nodding. "It's probably for the best," the blonde woman agreed. "I'm ashamed of how I've behaved and the harm it's done to this town, and to you. I am very proud of what you did today, Ezra. You upheld the ideals and principles behind the Clarion better than I'd ever hoped."
Which was not an apology precisely, but with Mary Travis one took what one could get. "Thank you, Mary. I appreciate that," Ezra said. She smiled at the gambler and returned to her horse, whose reins Chris was holding.
Claire, her face resting in cupped hands, sat on the porch in front of the Four Corners Post building. "What happens to me now?" the curly-haired reporter wanted to know.
Ezra looked to Chris. "I dare say it's a safe assumption that Miss Danae did not kill Mr. Hedgecock."
Larabee split his gaze between the blonde reporter to his left and the brunette reporter to his right. Both Mary Travis and Claire Danae looked the other way. Moving to the other side of the horse he held, the gunfighter laid a light hand on Mary's shoulder. She looked at it and smiled at him. "Fair assumption," Chris agreed. He inclined his head toward the Post reporter. "You're free to go."
"Good," Tom Poppin sauntered up the street, his camera laid over one shoulder. "Because until you fix your jail there ain't nowhere to keep her locked up."
"What's wrong with the damn jail?" Larabee growled.
"I guess I left that part out," Casey whispered loudly to JD.
Chris said goodbye to Mary, who returned to the Clarion office, and led the rest of the lawmen back to the jailhouse to assess the damage. JD rode with Casey, but without a horse Ezra was left to make his own way back. He nodded to Claire, just stepping into the Post building. As their green-eyed gazes met, the brunette reporter looked at Standish like she was seeing him for the first time. Then she disappeared into the office and the windows began to fill with light as she lit the rest of the lamps.
Tom Poppin chuckled into his beard, though what he had to be gleeful over Ezra had no idea. The excitement of a perfect set of shots, perhaps. Standish suddenly looked at the photographer thoughtfully. "Yours is a fascinating profession," he stepped over to Tom. "Would you care to tell me about it over a game of cards?"
+ + +
In deference to the fact that the town was still on edge and somewhat hostile towards Ezra, he and his newfound friend Tom Poppin decided to have their game of poker in the photographer's hotel room. It suited the gambler fine; he had a particular topic to pursue and privacy was key.
"Always did enjoy a good game of bluff." Tom chortled into the bush that was his beard and picked up his new hand. "Never met any of you fancy gamblers without taking him for all he was worth."
"Somehow I believe you," Ezra replied tersely. He suspected the photographer was hiding cards in his beard. Maybe that's what it was for. It certainly wasn't aesthetics. Ezra made a mental note to find a shaving razor and rid himself of his own short beard at the earliest possible convenience, before he came to look as uncouth as Tom Poppin.
Something moved in the brush, then Ezra realized that Poppin had laughed again. "Your bet."
Ezra casually adjusted the cards in his hand. "Perhaps, in the interest of me not going broke, we might play for . . . more interesting stakes."
"What do you have in mind?"
"You know that treasure map recently burnt to bits?"
"Yup. Damn shame, too," the bear-like photographer nodded.
"What if I told you I could recover that map?"
"What, you some kind of sorcerer?"
Ezra chuckled and grinned. "Well, there are some that might say it's a kind of magic."
"Say I believe you. What's it to this game?"
"Just this: if you win, I tell you how to get that map and it's all yours. If you win, you help me. I do all the work to find the treasure and when I do, you get five percent."
Poppin considered. "Fifteen percent."
"Ten," Ezra countered.
The photographer's teeth appeared out of his beard. It was a truly alarming effect. "It's a bet."
+ + +
The oil lamps had the Clarion office glowing warmly in the pre-dawn. Mary found it comforting, the familiar routine soothing thought of turmoil from her mind. She pulled an "M" out of the upper case drawer, then bent down to retrieve an "o" and a "b" from the lower case. Behind her, somebody coughed. The blonde editor gasped and whirled, scattering letters all over the floor, but it was only Claire Danae.
"I'm sorry to frighten you," the Post reporter apologized tentatively.
"Oh, it's alright," Mary put on a small smile. "I didn't expect company this early."
"Yes, well, with everything that's happened lately I don't blame you for being skittish," the curly-haired woman bent to help Mary gather the scattered letters. "I just came to tell you that today's issue will be the final one for the Four Corners Post. I thought you should be the first to know."
"You're giving up?" Mary asked, surprised. The one thing she had come to admire about the Post reporter was her stubborn doggedness.
"Mmm hmm. I hadn't realized how much work this would be, running a newspaper by myself," Claire confessed, picking vowels off the floor.
"What about Mr. Poppin?"
"Oh, Tom's a good fellow but between his spelling and his large fingers I'll never make a typesetter out of him. I'm sure you saw the Post's last issue," Claire chuckled ruefully. "'Merder Mots Fowl'. Destined to be a classic."
The ladies dumped the pied type into a box of other spilled letters waiting to be sorted. "Surely, you could hire someone else to set type? You don't have to give up you dreams."
The brunette gaped a minute at the Clarion owner, probably trying to figure out why Mary would encourage the opposition to keep running. Mary didn't exactly know why she was doing it herself. It just seemed wrong to not encourage a woman to pursue her goals, and the editor could respect her enemy's virtues, even if she had despised her vices.
"I could," Claire's fingers began twirling the ends of her ever-present scarf reflexively. "But in truth, Mrs. Travis, newspapering was never my dream. It was just a way I could eat. I think I'll travel. Learn about some things, write a book."
"I wish you luck," Mary said earnestly, shaking Claire's hand. The brunette turned to leave, but as she was in the doorframe she stopped and turned.
"Nothing happened, you know."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Between me and Chris. Nothing happened."
Mary blinked and stammered. "I . . . I don't know what you mean."
"I hadn't realized, before, that there was anything between you."
Why did women insist on creating romance between her and the gunfighter where there was none, Mary wanted to know. Not that Mary had never considered it, but Chris' dark past seemed a barrier she'd never get past. "Even if nothing happened, he still told you more than he's ever told me."
"He was drunk," Claire's head pointed down at the shadows and her voice was small. "And I helped him along to get the story. It was the lowest thing I've ever done, and I'm not proud of myself."
A moment of silence passed. Then another. Then another. Finally, Mary cleared her throat.
"I was waiting for you to speak words of comfort," the cub reporter informed Travis.
"I'm sure he won't hate you forever," Mary chimed up.
"Thanks," Claire smirked slightly. "That was very comforting. Goodbye, Mrs. Travis."
And the young brunette walked out into the pale blue morning.
+ + +
The decades-long game of cat and mouse was nearing its final play. Marshal Clay Bridger could feel it in his soul, squinting grimly against the intense light of day. The wound on his temple, hot to the touch, throbbed with pain in time with his pulse. The pain and the scorching heat seemed insignificant to him in contrast to the duty to which he'd dedicated himself. He'd often asserted he would ride into hell if so required to find this murderer, but sometimes . . . sometimes hell burned on earth.
For days he'd been riding the wilderness, ever since losing the trail of the murderer. At last the sounds of a river raging somewhere to the west had led him to a cluster of outcarvings, indicating mountainous region ahead. He had followed the ridge until it morphed into a ravine with a wild river thundering down below. He had followed the ravine until the rocky terrain became more of a goat path, then terminated into the sheer face of a mountain. The river, seemingly with no place to go, disappeared beneath the mountain.
Bridger dismounted. Staggering slightly on his sore knee, he ran his hands over the rocks. His fingers found a mark, the kind of mark a madman might make with a chisel. Beside that, nature had sliced a narrow defile into the rock's face, just wide enough that a single man might slip through. The defile opened up to a place the Marshal only poorly remembered, like a bad dream. Here the mountain widened and flattened into a natural platform, a small brown canyon with steep walls. Below the river murmured like the mutterings of a madman
This was the place where his spirit companion had guided him. A perfect setting for a fight to the death, Bridger considered. Some places in the world reached beyond the physical, pockets of spiritual zones made so by certain events at a particular moment in time. This was to such a place for Clay Bridger.
Returning to his horse, he led it down the goat-path to a deep valley hidden by the outcroppings of the mountain and tied the animal to a tree. He removed his shirt and hung it on the saddle, leaving the bear claw hanging on a thong around his neck visible, like a pennant, a declaration of his race. Everything else he left behind. Returning to the platform, the Marshal climbed to a deeper but more recessed ledge above the main shelf.
Then Bridger knelt and sat near the edge of the ravine, exhaling, opening himself to the spirit of the wilderness. He stared out across, his eyes unfocused on the scene before, seeing past it. A shaft of sun beaming in from between two peaks soaked into him; sweat dripped down him. This was the holy spot. For two days he had eaten nothing. In preparation for this spiritual rejuvenation he needed to be pure, to be empty of worldly cares. Slowly, deep in his throat, he began to chant.
"Weda' paikkamakha gupa okaipin." The Bear waits in the river. "Izhape' isha'nai'kha, antapittse." Coyote lies, the stranger. "Doyadukubichi' gupa deegai yekwi gai pea." The Cougar in hunt does not stop.
He lay upon the rock, breathing quickly and deeply. The pulsing pain of his wound grew slow.
Thought came to him, images. Wagons, a coyote sneaking among them. A bone made of gold in the teeth of the dog as it ran away. A bear gave chase. The coyote on the back of the bear, it's teeth sunk in the bear's neck while the bear raged. The bear dead.
Bridger's brow furrowed at the image that danced before his eyes. Then the image changed, and it was not the bear that pursued the coyote, but the cougar. The coyote fled in a frantic zigzag pattern as the cougar stalked it from the shadows. Finally the cougar pounced upon the coyote, throwing the mangy beast into the massive claws of the bear. The coyote snapped and wriggled but could not escape the grip of the beast, and both sank away into the ground. All was silent but for the quiet babblings of the river.
The Marshal snapped out of his reverie, instantly alert. The river was not the only thing that babbled.
"That damn stupid map. Hee. There it was, right on the wall. Hee hee. . . . Don't know why we didn't bring it with us. . . . Well, it just looked so pretty, hanging in that fancy frame. None a my work ever been framed before. . . . Shouda brung it with us. . . . It's all there in my noodle. Got me here, didn't it? . . . Although we took a wrong turn by Edgar's Pass. . . . GOT ME HERE, DIDN'T IT?"
As he passed through the narrow opening, the scrawny little man near danced with excitement. His feet slipped and skipped over loose rock and stone, but the madman scrambled the rest of the way through, near drowning himself with talk until it finally reached a feral howl of delight.
A wave of dizziness swept over the delirious Bridger. The Coyote howled at the sun, laughing at it, at the world.
With a shake of his head that stabbed pain into his left temple, the Marshal recalled his spirit to the here and now. He hunkered down, close enough to the rock to taste mineral and silt with each breath he drew in through his mouth, and slowly shimmied to the edge of the stone shelf.
Bridger felt himself slipping again into the spirit world as he gazed upon the murderer, his age-old quarry. The shock of soot-black hair sticking out from his head must have been dyed, the Marshal realized, and the hoary white stubble upon his misshapen chin gave the truth of the madman's age. He spoke to himself in a terrible, grating voice straight out of the lawman's nightmares as he uncoiled a length of rope. The murder's back was to the Marshal.
It would be so easy. The weathered lawman silently drew a knife from his boot. It would be so easy to jump down and dig the blade into the unsuspecting bastard right between his shoulder blades. Bridger's grip tightened on the hilt. In a blink of an eye his thirty-year quest would be over.
As Bridger shifted, gathering himself for a leap, the leather thong around his neck slipped and the bear claw fell across his fist. Sometimes the spirits were none too subtle, the lawman thought. But he honored their wishes, and slipped the knife back into its sheath in his boot. Then the Marshal silently slid down from the shelf. The madman, still having a solitary powwow, did not notice.
"You stabbed your victim in the back." As Bridger spoke the madman spun, horror in his eyes. "I don't see why you deserve any better, but it seems somebody wants me to do this right. So you're under arrest, you son of a bitch. I'm taking you in for murder, and you are going to hang like the dog you are."
The lunatic blinked in rapidity, then bellowed a ear-shattering shriek.
"No no no no no no NO!" His hands buried into his scruff of hair and handfuls fell to his feet. "You're DEAD, deader than dead!" The little man performed a sort of lame, demented hopping dance as he babbled. "It's my gold, MY gold, and no dead lawdog can take it from me! He can't! He can't he can't, he's DEAD!"
White-hot rage bubbled in Bridger's soul as blood pounded in his ears. He might have disregarded his guardian spirit's warning and throttled the madman right then if it hadn't been for another sudden, dizzying wave of vertigo. When Clay's vision cleared, his quarry had collapsed to his knees, rubbing at his face and hair with his hands. The murderer's face had softened with the outburst; he looked very . . . human, like the old, worn-down man that he was. Bridger, all of a sudden, felt old and tired himself.
"Stupid injun curse," the madman raved and moaned by turns. "The gold is mine. I stole it, it's mine. The curse, the curse! We can't shake him! It's my gold. MINE!"
Instantly the murderer transfigured from lunatic into beast, losing all sense he had left. He whipped out a knife from a brace at his belt and lunged at the lawman with a strength and dexterity born out of pure madness. Clumsily dodging the initial blow, Bridger cursed himself for not noticing them under the loose jacket. The blade was nowhere near as large as Bridger's own, but Clay's was in his boot and doing him no good until he could go for it.
The insane criminal was not going to give him that chance. Taking crazy, random swings with his slim knife he forced the Marshal back toward the edge of the cliff. As he felt rock slip and heard gravel falling down the divide, Bridger glanced back to see how close he was coming and felt a stinging burn across his chest where the madman's blade had sliced. The murderer laughed with glee and lunged again. Bridger spun sideways to avoid the strike. The sudden twist sent pain shooting up his leg and his right knee collapsed. The lawman's attacker was upon him with inhuman speed. Suddenly on his back, Clay threw up a hand to grab at the knife plunging down at him.
"Lawdog died once," the wild-eyed madman breathed heavy with exertion, "he can do it again."
One crazy old man should not have been a match for a U.S. Marshal, but Bridger's head pounded and his vision began to swim. The murderer's touch burned his skin. Sunlight glinted off the slim blade that a feverish Clay Bridger just now realized was barely inches from his bare, bleeding chest. Bridger brought his knee up between himself and the madman, trying to get at the knife in his boot. With insane randomidity, the criminal sunk his teeth into Bridger's hand and threw his small frame over the top of the lawman's knee.
Clay straightened his leg, catching his attacker in the chest and sending the skinny old goat flying backwards over the edge of the cliff. The murderer scratched desperately at loose rock as he went over, but could not maintain his grip. The madman's screams echoed through the canyon as he plummeted until the river swallowed them.
How many madmen had the river swallowed, Bridger wondered deliriously. He groaned as he turned himself over and crawled to the edge of the precipice to look down at its furious waters. Of the murderer no sign remained but the wild babbling of the river.
Bridger clutched the bear claw around his neck and closed his eyes. It was finally over.
+ + +
The morning haze glowed with the first rays of dawn. None of those rays pierced the black haze in Tom Poppin's darkroom, what had been the junk shed behind the Post office. The chemical scent of it burned Ezra's nose and made his eyes water. Moving was taboo in the pitch dark, since he had no idea what combustible powders might be lying on the counter. He tried to distract himself by focusing on what the photographer was rambling about as he performed his mysterious alchemy in the dark.
"They say a photograph never lies." Poppin snorted. "That's a load of buffalo manure. You show them only what you want to show them. Then they looks at it and see what they want to see. And these newspaper editors, they only want sensationalism. Take the wagon train. On the way out it's 'show us the smiles, the excitement of going out West.' Don't wanna see broken axles, or Indian attacks, or people dying. Oh, it's okay to talk about all that, they just don't wanna see it. Words is just words, after all. Except once them homesteaders get here, then it's all pillage and rapine, gunfights and Indians. Never mind them happy homes, the boys back east wanna see the Wild West."
"Yes," Ezra told the darkness. "Tragic."
"Did I ever tell you I was part of Brady's Photographic Corps during the war 'tween the States? Had my camera shot right out from under me, once. Had to drag all our equipment with us back then, to develop the negs before they dried. Made us right nice targets."
"Hmmm," Ezra said.
It seemed Poppin was a gregarious performer once he had a willing audience. "Then, after the war, that thief Brady took credit for all my images. Lousy bastard. Worked alone since then. Had a job in a printing house once, came up with this idea for printing photographs, bunches of 'em. That's when I met Buster. Shame about him. It's all about dots, see. How's plain black ink gonna print all them gray tones you get in a photograph, I asked m'self. The answer's in them dots. Miniscule points in all sorts o' sizes all bunched together, that's where you get your image and all shades in 'tween black and white. Your eye, it looks at my dots and thinks it's seeing gray. But all that's no big secret," Tom continued. "The real trick's converting a photographic negative into them dots, then raising 'em up so's you can set them in type. What I do, see, is-"
Ezra decided the burn of chemicals was less painful than listening to Poppin's ramblings. He tuned out the photographer, who was now muttering about "acid and bichromated gelatin."
"Are you done yet?"
"Gotta be patient. Magic needs time." Poppin chuckled. "It's gotta sit in the wash for a quarter hour."
"Good Lord," Ezra sighed.
Twenty minutes later, Standish had learned more about photography than he'd ever known before. Which was a good deal more than he had ever wanted to know. But he had what he wanted.
"That's the biggest I could enlarge it," Tom said, taking the image out of the shed and showing it to Ezra in the morning sunshine.
Ezra took the overlarge photograph and held it in front of him. Buster's murdered corpse had been mercifully cropped out, leaving nothing in the image but the map which had been hanging on the editor's wall.
"Superb work, Mr. Poppin," Standish complimented. He twisted the photographic map with a dubious eye. "Now to decipher its meaning."
"You're on your own for that, friend. My fifteen percent doesn't cover detectiving."
"Fifteen percent?" Ezra raised an eyebrow at the oversized photographer.
"It was worth a shot. Good luck, mate!" With that, Poppin walked off into the main building, his bushy beard vibrating with laughter.
The gambler looked closer at the photograph. If he had had Vin's territorial expertise this would possibly be easy. But since the gold was not going to be found at a saloon or gambling hall, Ezra resigned himself to a little work. After a moment, he stalked off to the livery and departed, heading west.
For a few hours Ezra followed the creek out of town. He arrived at and went around the ruins of an old Indian cemetery, then walked fifty paces from the old oak tree to come to a cave that overlooked a ravine. The map was surprisingly logical, once you deciphered its code. Perhaps Ichabod Stark, if that was his real name, had once been sane enough to hide his treasure well. If indeed there was really treasure in this cave.
Only, when he came to the x-marks-the-spot - although not literally because the map had no x, just a strange chiseled star - he found he was not the first to have arrived at the goal. As the gambler slid out into the canyon beyond the defile, he saw a man in a leather duster standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down the canyon. The short, weathered man had a silver star pinned to his lapel. Could this be the U.S. Marshal that Mary had written about?
Ezra's foot scuffed against the stone, and the Marshal spun with a revolver in hand.
"Don't shoot! I'm, ah, I'm Ezra Standish. You're Clay Bridger, aren't you?"
The lawman nodded. "Do I know you?"
"I say not," the gambler was thankful he had never had this man on his trail, "but my compatriot, Mary Travis, wrote an article about you. A fascinating piece, although somewhat sketched out, if I may say."
"Compatriot, you say? You're a reporter?"
"Well, I suppose one might say I'm, uh, sort of . . ." Bridger raised an eyebrow at the gambler. "Ah, yes," Ezra stated firmly.
"Providential I should meet you. I promised your boss a story. You're just in time to hear the end."
"Wonderful, a follow-up piece." Ezra for the moment ignored his pride and facilitated the assumption that he was Travis' employee, even though he and she had technically dissolved their partnership. She would probably buy the piece and, more importantly, Bridger might lead him to the gold.
"The villain is dead. Coyote has no wings to fly nor fins to swim." Ezra assumed that was a pretty metaphor to say that the miscreant in question went splat on the side of a mountain and was carried away by the rapids. "Justice is served in a circle. My quest that began on these rocks has ended here on the same rocks."
Ezra scratched his clean-shaven chin. "Perhaps it might be helpful if you just tell me the story from the beginning?" Where did the missing millions come into play?
The Marshal shrugged. "My mind is still a little spirit hazed." Ezra nodded patiently. On the outside, anyway.
"My grandfather came out West as a young man," Bridger began, "earning a living as a trapper and taking a Ute woman to wife. Some years later he sent for his family to join him. My father and mother braved the hazardous journey. Many of their neighbors joined them, rising the hardship and peril for a better life out West. At some point in their journey a man joined them. They did not know this man was a Coyote, a thief. As the journey neared its end, he stole all the money gathered by the families for their new lives and ran away with it. The Coyote was pursued by a Man of the Law, a proud man who vowed not to rest until he caught the thief who had stolen their lives and dreams."
"You?" Standish guessed. The Marshal shook his head.
"No, not me. My father." Bridger's tone took on a sing-song cadence, keeping time with the river flowing below. "But the Coyote is sly; the thief would not be caught. The two played the game of hunter and hunted. He could not run forever, so the thief hid the money he had stolen."
"Why do that?" Ezra asked.
"Maybe it was so if he were caught the rightful owners would not get it back. Maybe the chase was already driving him half crazy. I could not say for sure. The lawman finally found the thief, here on this plateau. A great battle was fought, but to a tragic end. The thief stabbed the Man of the Law, stood watching as his lifeblood spilled onto the rock. As the Man of the Law lay dying, he called upon his heritage, the blood of the People of the Bear, the Ute tribe. Spat a curse upon the robber. A blood promise that the robber would never know peace until the money he had stolen was returned, the lawman's blood avenged. The thief ran faster than ever because he was a murderer now, and the law was coming down."
"And now it has," Standish murmured, taking a peek down the ravine.
"And now my father may rest in peace," Bridger nodded. The river held the final note for a few silent moments, then Ezra suddenly realized the Marshal was looking worse for the wear.
"Sir, you are badly wounded," he said. "Will you accompany me back to town? We have a remarkable physician on premise."
Bridger smiled, a strange move for a face so hard, but somehow it fit. "Nah. I'm going to make my way home."
"Where is that?"
"I'll find out, son." The Marshal turned his piercing blue eyes up to clear mountain sky. "I'll find out."
He wasn't going to talk about it unless Standish asked, it seemed. "And, uh, the gold?" Ezra probed. "Whatever happened to that? My, uh, my readers will want to know."
"What a terrible hiding place. I found it and returned it to its proper owners. It hasn't been here for years."
The sound of a gambler's heart breaking, he imagined, could be heard echoing through the canyons.
"You look disappointed," Claire observed. She flashed her brightest, most charming smile at Ezra Standish. "Is it because I'm leaving?"
Sitting on the boardwalk in the late afternoon sun, sipping from his silver flask, the gambler bowed his head and smiled wryly at her. "I think I will miss having my name in the paper every day," he admitted.
The brunette playfully twisted the ends of the red scarf for once properly holding her hair back. "I have a little pull down at the Clarion, if you like I could-"
"Most definitely NO, Miss Danae." He picked up a folded copy of the last edition of the Four Corners Post. "I, ah, I appreciate your attempts at a retraction."
Claire shrugged. "It was the least I could do. Unfortunately a reputation is not as easy to repair as it is to damage."
"Don't worry about it. Just promise to be more careful in the future." The erstwhile reporterette nodded solemnly. "Anyway, the citizens of Four Corners were beginning to expect far too much from a gambler like me." Ezra grinned.
"You're a good man, Ezra Standish. If George had been more like you . . ." But there was a boat come and gone. Shaking her head, she peaked at him hopefully. "I don't suppose you're planning on leaving here anytime soon? Maybe by steamboat?"
The Southerner smirked a little bit, looked down and rubbed the back of his neck. "Oh, I, uh, I couldn't leave these gentlemen."
Her lips twisted ruefully. "What a good person you are."
"Well, they all owe me money."
That made her laugh, which may have been his aim. "I guess I have to play the hand I've been dealt. It's really not such a bad hand after all."
The former reporter felt a light touch on her sleeve. "Miss Claire? The stage is ready for you," Josiah said. Nodding her thanks, Claire turned to leave. Standish stood and walked with them.
"Where will you go?" he asked.
"Tommy and I are going further west, to California," she said. "We're writing a book together: 'A Photographic History of the American West'. Catchy, don't you think?"
"You take care of yourself." He delivered the advise with a touch to her arm.
She smiled bravely back at him. "Somebody's got to, right?"
A small crowd had collected by the stagecoach. Tom was organizing everyone for one last photo, his legs once again sticking out from the darkcloth. He peeked out.
"'Bout time, amigo! Come on, get in the picture; I don't want to forget the face of my buddy who owes me fifteen percent of a million dollars." He grinned and his teeth were almost visible this time.
"Ten percent," Ezra asserted, coming up to stand behind JD.
When the photographing was done, Claire wished friendly goodbyes to Nathan, JD, Vin and Josiah, and Mary Travis shocked her by giving her former competitor a warm hug. Even Chris Larabee nodded curtly when the curly-haired brunette smiled and waved. Maybe he would stop hating her one day. At the end of the line stood Standish. Claire sighed. Ezra, who reminded her of her so much of her husband, who was everything she had wanted her husband to be. Wearing that charismatic, ironic smile he extended his hand to shake hers. Oh, heck with it. Claire wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him goodbye. As she quickly leapt into the stage the dumbfounded look on his face was almost worth the humiliation. Claire held it in her mind as she and Tom Poppin tumbled along in the carriage, heading West. Heading for their destiny.