The Golden Hart ^


By Tipper





Part One


Pale green eyes tracked the bones’ movement as they skittered across the stone, hit the baseboard and rolled to a stop within the rough circle of men and women.  The rattle of the dice as they hit the pavement was as distinctive to the young boy’s ears as his mother’s voice, and, to be honest, much more pleasing.  A pregnant silence hung over the gathered group as they all leaned forward to see the result. 


As the two dice stopped, the boy’s lips twitched into a smirk as the pips displayed a three on one and four on the other. 


Laughter and groans echoed in the alley.


“Pay up, friends,” the boy grinned, sitting back with a smug look on his face and running a pale hand through his dark hair, “looks like the Lady herself is smiling on me this evening.”  The glint in his eyes had no place in those of an eight year old child.


“How could such an angelic face betray such wickedness?” a woman’s voice muttered from the side.  One of the line cooks was taking a break, leaning on her current paramour – one of the busboys.


“Lucifer was the most beautiful of angels, don’t forget,” one of the men answered, sullenly handing over a couple of paper bills to the boy kneeling on the ground.


“E’en Lucifer didn’t have this one’s luck,” a second man muttered, standing and brushing some dirt from his black pants leg.  Straightening his butler’s jacket, he nodded at the boy in farewell and headed back inside to his duties.


“If tey weren’t me own dice,” a cook said, shaking his head, “I’d swear tey was weighted, or sommit.”  His Irish lilt brought a smile to Ezra’s face – it reminded him of his father. “Come on, young ‘in, roll em again.  I’s not leavin’ ‘ere without some o’ tat cash back in me pockets, hear?”


“I’ll do my best,” the child said, picking up the dice in his small right hand.  His left hand joined the right in order to shake the dice together, confident that no one saw the extra pair of dice he had pulled from his pocket and hidden within the palm of that left hand.  As he pretended to shake the dice, listening to the voices placing their bets around him, adept fingers tucked the weighted pair he’d been throwing for most of the night back into his left coat sleeve just as the right hand threw what were, in fact, the cook’s dice.  His left hand then invisibly replaced the weighted dice into his pocket as everyone watched to see where the dice would fall.


“Snake eyes!” the cook laughed, eyeing the lad as he shook his head in mock consternation.  “Well, seems yer luck’s turned finally!  New thrower!” He grabbed the dice and looked up at the crowd.  One of the busboys stepped forward and took the dice from him.


Ezra shrugged and backed away from the inner circle, carefully pocketing his money.  He’d won far more over the course of his “turn” than he had lost in that single last round, and was more than content to let it go at that.  The servants patted his shoulders and let him pass, already intent on the next round.


Somewhere in the background, a clock tower tolled eleven bells.  It was soon joined by another, and then another….the city of Charleston was going to finally settle into the night soon.  Most of the bars and hotels shut at this time.


Eleven O’clock and all’s well,’ the boy thought to himself as he looked up and around at the brick and wooden houses on both sides of the alleyway. 


He walked to the end of the alley and leaned against the corner, comforted by the voices still challenging each other behind him and only vaguely interested in what was happening beyond. 


It was a shock, then, to see his mother running full out down the street towards him. 


He stood up straight and melted backwards as she neared him, her eyes streaming make-up and her peach colored dress stained in several places with something dark.  She saw him out of the corner of her eye – she had known where he was gaming.  His understanding of her whereabouts, however, had obviously not been so clear.  He’d thought she was in the salon next to his alleyway, but she was obviously coming from somewhere farther away.  But she still had come this way….


“The Golden Hart!” she shouted as she flew past the mouth of the alley.  It was enough.  He pressed himself tightly against the wall, deep into the shadows and knelt down.  


Whistles blew behind her.  Three constables and several well dressed men were close on her heels.  She had probably risked a great deal detouring to find his alley, to shout those three words. He was aware that a bunch of the servants had joined him, unknowingly shielding him as they stepped over and in front of him to look down the street.  They were speaking quickly, trying to figure out who the woman was and what she might have done.  Soon more joined them, even the cook, all wandering into the street to look down where the woman and her pursuers had gone.


“What did she yell?” the serving wench asked, looking at her lover, “something about a gold heart?”  The lover merely shrugged in response.


“The kid heard, I bet,” one of the busboys suggested.  “Hey, kid, what….” His voice trailed off as he looked at the empty shadow where the boy had been kneeling.  The others turned as well, and the cook frowned.


“Well, how do you like that,” he muttered.



He was completely exhausted by the time he arrived at the small Irish pub in a dark corner of Manhattan’s dirty Greenwich village three days later, having used most of his winnings to pack up their things from the hotel in Charleston and secure his and their travel north, all while doing his best not to raise any (or at least very much) suspicion about why an eight year old boy would be doing so alone. He barely glanced up at the sign over the door that showed a picture of a gold colored deer with a crown of ivy around its head – the Golden Hart.


She was waiting for him when he arrived, just as he knew she’d be.  She even clapped gaily upon seeing him, though refused to hug him as soon as soon as she smelled him (they’d been a long three days).  Without even a by your leave, he was sent out to take a bath.  It didn’t matter that it was winter and the nearest bathhouse was attached to a brothel.  Still, even after he returned, she did not bother to explain what had happened or why they’d had to run, but simply started chirping on about their next city.  A northern city, this time, she’d said, Boston perhaps, or what about one of the new western cities?  Saint Louis was meant to be exciting.  Or how about Chicago?  Perhaps even farther?  Only her eyes betrayed that something had gone terribly wrong in Charleston.  They’d run to the Golden Hart before – owned by some cousin or other – but never before had the situation felt so…wrong.


Sometime later, he knew it had to do with the fact that Maude’s third ex-husband had been murdered that night. 


They never returned to Charleston.



Part Two  


Mary Travis walked into the saloon, her sharp, pale eyes seeking out Ezra’s face.  It was not a long search.  He was standing at the bar, obviously talking to Mr. Wilmington about something she would probably blush to overhear, based upon Buck’s uproarious laughter.  The devilish look on Ezra’s face made that conclusion even more likely, his words barely above a whisper as he continued to talk into the ladies’ man’s ear.  Tears were rolling down Buck’s face.


Gathering her dignity, she stuck her chin in the air and walked forward.  Ezra spotted her out of the corner of his eye and immediately stopped talking, turning slightly away from her to take a sip from his whiskey.  Buck noticed a second later, and rapidly tried to dry his face, blushing a bit as whatever thoughts the gambler had been imparting still rang in his head.  He grinned roguishly at the journalist.


“Mr. Standish,” Mary held out her hand, in which a letter rested, “my apologies for interrupting, but there is a gentleman outside who wishes to speak with you.  He indicated that he did not want to enter this, as he put it, ‘den of depravity’, so asked me too.  He also gave me his card for you.”  She sniffed, indicating what she thought of the man and his request.  Ezra continued to smile, until he saw the name on the card.  His face instantly fell.


“Oh…Lord,” he hissed.


“Something wrong, pard?” Buck looked over his shoulder at the name, frowning at the squirrelly writing.  Ezra quickly squished the card in his hand before the ladies’ man could make out the name, and walked over to the window.  Mary and Buck both looked at each other and followed him, noting the almost morbid air the gambler was now radiating.


Across the street, standing in front of the telegraph office, was a tall man with dark auburn hair and pale skin.  He looked to be about forty years of age, perhaps a little older, and his posture radiated wealth.  He was dressed well in a dark suit, clean despite the locale, and leaned on a cane with a silver tip.  Aware of being observed, he stood up straight and nodded at the faces looking at him from the saloon window.


“Who is he?” Mary asked, curious now. 


Ezra didn’t answer her, just shook his head.  “Excuse me,” he whispered walking away and out of the saloon’s doors. 


Buck’s eyes narrowed, and, despite being perfectly aware that he wasn’t wanted, still trotted out the door after his friend.  Mary waited a moment longer, before deciding that she would have to go past them on the way back to her office, so….she followed Buck across the street after Ezra.



“Ezra,” the man said, betraying a very slight cultured southern accent.  “As usual, you have been a difficult man to find.”


Ezra still didn’t speak as he stepped up onto the boardwalk, his face as calm as a summer day… until he heard two other pairs of boots step up behind him.  His expression soured slightly, while the stranger smiled over his shoulder and nodded at the two people following the gambler. 


“Thank you Madam.  Your help was most appreciated,” he gave a small bow.


“Who are you?” Mary asked bluntly, her tone peevish.  Ezra sighed and turned to look at her and Buck.  The ladies’ man was leaning against the wall of the telegraph office, smiling beatifically at the newcomer, while Mary had her journalist face on.


“His name is Alaric Van Dietrich, Mrs. Travis.  Now, please, he did come a long way to see me….” Ezra trailed off, raising his eyebrows.  Mary glanced at him, back at the stranger, then grimaced.


“Of course, Ezra, pardon my intrusion…call if you need anything.” Turning, she walked over to her office, pausing in the door once to look at them again, then disappeared inside. 


Buck, however, didn’t move.


Ezra glared at him, but the ladies’ man just continued to smile.  “Buck….”


“Not leaving you alone with him, Ezra.  Don’t look right to me, and, unless you can tell me he ain’t gonna try and hurt you somehow, I ain’t moving.”


“He’s perfectly harmless,” Ezra assured him, before looking back at the stranger, “My apologies, Alaric.”


“Harmless, my ass.”




“Please, Ezra, don‘t worry about your bodyguard friend.  I don’t mind him there.  Unless, of course, you don’t want him to overhear our conversation?”  The taunt was easily there, and Ezra glared back at the stranger.  After a moment, the gambler sighed.  Alaric smiled.


“Now, as I was saying, it has been rather difficult to find you, but then, it has never been easy, has it?  All those different names over the years....” Alaric glanced at Buck, but the ladies’ man just continued to smile.  Ezra remained impassive, so Alaric started speaking again, “Standish is a good name for you, though.  Suits you.  Almost more than Spencer, though I rather liked that one.  Held onto that one for a long time, didn’t you?  And then Smith, O’Shea, O’Sullivan….”


“Don’t forget Solomon, O’Neil and Simpson,” Buck chimed in.  Alaric glanced at him again, his eyes narrowing.


“And most of the time it has worked, hasn’t it?” the newcomer continued, looking again at Ezra.  “But, well, you must be more careful about making sure your face doesn’t get into the paper.”  Pulling something out of his pocket, he handed what appeared to be a newspaper clipping to the gambler.  Ezra took it, the name of the Santa Fe Herald proclaiming its origin, and frowned at the hand drawn image above the story.  It was easily his image, sitting in a witness box, while a prosecutor stood before him and the image of Judge Travis watched him from the bench to his right.  Three more men stood in the defense box to their left, all giving Ezra dirty looks.  He read the caption below – it was when he has presented evidence in the trial of some bank robbers the seven had captured about six months ago.


“Imagine my surprise to learn that you were merely the witness and not the defendant,” Alaric said, taking the paper back.  “There is even an error in the article.  It describes you as a peacekeeping official of this town….”  Alaric looked again at the dust covered street and houses, clearly not impressed. 


“The description is correct,” Ezra replied plainly.


Alaric’s eyebrow shot up, making his long nose appear even longer.  “Really? How did you pull that con?  Don’t they know who you are?”  His nostrils flared wide, and Buck couldn’t help but wonder if he could stick a peanut up one of them. 


“They know what I am, yes,” Ezra said.




“Enough,” Buck said.  “We know what matters.”


“Ah,” the stranger nodded.  “I see.”  He sighed, folded the paper back up and inserted it back into his pocket.  “Well, regardless, you know why I am here, Ezra.  As much as I would love to belittle you all day, I’m afraid I’m somewhat tired from the journey and, frankly, I do not want to stay in that hovel called a hotel any longer than necessary.  So, please, why don’t you just tell me where she is, and we’ll call it a day?”


Ezra smiled, “I have no idea.”


“Oh, please, Ezra. You know as well as I that you are her greatest weakness.  She would never be far away from you, and I expect she has already visited you here a number of times…though I doubt she was too fond of this backwater town.” He smiled at his small joke, while Ezra continued to watch him stonily.  “And even if she is not in the immediate vicinity, I know you have a good idea of where she is.”


“For all I know, Alaric, she is on a steamer to South Africa right now, or signing up to join a gold expedition to Alaska, or perhaps she is sitting in your ancestral home in North Carolina, sipping your former wife’s best vintage.”


Alaric’s eyes flashed. “Touché, but you know perfectly well that, now that I have found you, I’ve found her.”  His expression became ice cold.  “One last chance, Ezra…where is she.”


“Floating twenty feet above your head, attached to my hand by an invisible string,” the gambler replied, lifting his chin and offering him his most irritating smile.  Alaric growled and took a step towards the gambler, then backed up as he found the muzzle of a large black gun pointed at his face over Ezra’s left shoulder.  He noted with some interest that the gambler himself didn’t seem to expect to see it there either, as he looked a bit startled at finding Buck so readily at his side. 


“He doesn’t know where she is,” Buck hissed, pulling back the hammer of his new Smith & Wesson, “so why don’t you go back under whatever rock you crawled from and leave him alone?”


“Buck, don’t,” Ezra whispered, torn between pulling the gun down and letting his friend shoot.


“Yes, Buck,” Alaric mocked, “don’t.  Not unless you want to die a horrible death.”


“Oh, really?” Buck smiled evilly.


“Really,” Ezra said, grabbing the gun and forcing it down.  His green eyes fixed themselves on Buck’s face, shaking his head.  “He is not alone.  He’d never be alone,” he whispered.


Alaric gave a short laugh, “correct, Ezra.  I admit, as I did not expect you to give her up so readily as you once did, I did bring my usual contingent with me.”


Buck grimaced and looked around at the street.  His eyes narrowed as he spotted the muzzles pointing out of the upstairs windows of some of the buildings.  “Ezra,” the ladies’ man said slowly, “if I’ve got guns pointed at me, I think I should know why.”


Ezra’s lips had pressed themselves into a thin line, “Do not forget that I wanted you to leave, Buck.  You still can.  In fact, I would be much obliged if you did.  It’s not you they care about.” 


“Oh, I’m not so sure about that,” Alaric said.  “Truth is, they’ve been here for a few days already, so they know not to leave this one…Mr. Wilmington, isn’t it?...out of their sight.  A friend.  Like the boy currently napping at the boarding house, and the colored living above the stables.  Why do you think I waited until both the quiet ones and the grizzly one had left town to alert you to my presence?  Needless to say, I’ve eyes on all of them.”


Ezra shut his eyes, fighting back the tightening in his chest.


“Interesting,” Alaric said, wondering if he was reading the chameleon’s expression correctly.  It was not a common expression on Ezra’s face, so he decided he was right about what it meant. “You care about them,” he said.  Ezra opened his eyes again, forcing himself to focus on Alaric’s brown ones.


“Ezra, who is this guy?” Buck said, stepping to Ezra’s side so that he could see the man’s face.


“Oh, let me,” Alaric said, a coldness covering the man’s eyes like frost on a window. “Ezra’s mother murdered my father, Mr. Wilmington, and I am to bring her to justice,” he stared again at Ezra, “one way or another.”



Part Three


“My mother didn’t murder anyone,” Ezra whispered, repeating a phrase he’d spoken many times before. 


“Of course not,” Alaric said, “and she didn’t kill George Peterson or Desmond DeWinter either, two other dead as a doornail husbands.”


“Don’t be absurd! You know perfectly well she wasn’t even near them.  My mother is, and always has been, innocent.”




“You’re just too blinded by vengeance and anger to see what’s the truth.  You always have been.”


“And you’re not blinded by affection, or perhaps even guilt, Ezra?  Guilt for having led me to her yourself all those years ago?  You thought she might have done it then, what is so different now?”


“I was angry then!  I never thought she did it, not really.”


“Then you are twice the fool, Ezra.  Why do you go on hiding that snake?”


“I warned you once not to speak of her that way, Alaric,” Ezra hissed.


“I speak only the truth, Ezra.  There a few more evil in this world than that creature…I hesitate to call her a woman.”


Ezra hands gripped themselves into fists, “Leave her alone, Alaric.”


The older man shook his head, “She isn’t fit to be left alone, Ezra, out in society, spreading the plague that is Maude. They should have jailed her years ago…or hung her from the rafters….”


Ezra’s breath had quickened, “Alaric…I’m warning you….”


“No…hanging would have been too good for her…they should deal with her the way they have always dealt with whores and witches, burned her at the stake!” 


“I said leave her be!” Ezra shouted, throwing himself at Alaric, his hands aiming for the man’s jacket.  In the same moment, Buck grabbed him from behind and pulled, just as the first shot splintered the planking on the side of the telegraph office inches from where Ezra had just stood.


“Hold your fire!” Buck shouted, almost at the same time as Alaric.  The stranger held his hand up to the air, to his command more clear, as Buck continued to pull Ezra back, gripping the gambler’s arm.  After a moment, Ezra shot a poisonous glare at the ladies’ man and stood up straight, shaking his arm from the other’s hold.


Alaric lowered his hand and looked again at Ezra, his eyes gauging the man’s response.


“So, that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said. “Still your mother’s son after all.  Then I suppose a stronger form of persuasion will be needed.” 


Alaric looked meaningfully at Buck, “perhaps one of your friends might help you see reason, once my men ask them properly.”


“You hurt anyone in this town, and I will kill you,” Ezra hissed suddenly. 


“Really,” Alaric’s eyes brightened with the promise of battle.


“And you touch him,” Buck added quietly, “and dying will seem preferable to what will happen to you.”


Alaric glanced at the ladies’ man, then back at Ezra.  The gambler’s expression was tightly shut.  The stranger licked his lips, and nodded.


“Well, well, I am impressed.  Not only do you care about these people, but they seem to care about you.  Huh,”  Alaric raised a finger to his lips, and tapped a well manicured nail against pearly white teeth.  “I admit, Ezra, I was going to see how strong your nerve was again, but, now that I understand better your position in this town, I don’t think I’ll be needing my men for their usual purposes.”


“Usual purposes,” Buck repeated, glancing at Ezra.  He frowned as he saw something ugly flash in the gambler’s eyes before Ezra’s defenses rose again.  Both men looked back at Alaric, who was now tapping his chin with his finger.


“A peacekeeper, Ezra, with your background,” the stranger said quietly, “how did you manage it?  It seems to me that only two things could have brought that around.  One, you conned your way into the position and the man who hired you does not know the whole truth about you, or, two, he does know but is ignoring it for some reason.  Perhaps you have something on him….”


Ezra gave a small smile, but didn’t rise to the bait.


“In any event,” Alaric continued, “I would love to have a chat with this man.  Present to him your entire history, as best as my detectives have pieced it together over the years, and see what he says.”


“Judge Travis knows all about Ezra,” Buck interrupted, “so you can take that history, as you put it, and shove it up your…”


“Buck,” Ezra hissed, “do not make this worse.”  Buck gave his friend a dark look, but didn’t finish statement.


“So, Judge Travis -- the famous federal judge I read about -- he knows your background.” Alaric nodded, not taking his eyes off the frosty green ones glaring at him, and smiling again, “Then I must assume he is a fool…or you have something on him.” 


“Judge Travis is one of the most intelligent men I know,” Ezra said. “While there have been times that I too have questioned his keeping me here…I would never call him a fool.  As to having something on him, on the contrary, he has…or, had…something on me.”


Alaric’s smile broadened, “good heavens…your tone…you sound almost as if you respect him!  That is something I never thought I’d hear in your voice!  So…he knows about you, and you have nothing on him, and he isn’t a fool.  Huh,” Alaric licked his lips, eyes very bright. “But so what?  Even if he does know about you, does the rest of the world?  Your precious town for example?”  He paused.


“What?” Buck asked, while Ezra simply glowered.


Alaric nodded, “I wonder how they would feel if I had your local paper print up the dossier I’ve created on their so-called upright lawman?  Would they be so….”


“You’re still way off course, Ricky,” Buck growled.  “Mary wouldn’t print that garbage, and even if she did, how do you know it wouldn’t put Ezra up in the estimation of this town?  You don’t know what he’s done for the folk here, or the sort of people they see as heroes.  Besides, they all already know what Ezra is, and where he came from.”


Alaric raised an eyebrow, then grinned at Ezra, “Amazing loyalty, Ezra.  Truly.”


“You’re not going to get anything out of me, Alaric.  Why don’t you just leave,” Ezra spat.  “Believe me when I say that neither your threats of exposing me nor the threats of your bruisers will cause me to give up my mother to your twisted sense of justice.”


“Then I guess I’ll just have to get the papers in Washington to print your story,” Alaric replied.


Buck’s brow frowned in confusion, while Ezra’s eyes narrowed to slits.


“I wonder,” the stranger said, “how the government would feel knowing that one of their appointed judges has hired such a lowlife as you to protect the people of the west?  A con, thief and bastard protecting innocent woman and children?  Imagine the outcry!  Corruption, they’d say…villainy!  I wonder how long even a venerated justice such as your precious Judge Travis would last if this belly was exposed?  And you know I can do it Ezra.  My reach is longer than any mere dustbowl judge.  Just a few well placed bills in the right hands, whispered words in the ears of my friends in the Senate and the House….why, I can hear the impeachment hearing being called to order as we speak….”


Buck, for once, was speechless.  Ezra’s fists clenched again.


Alaric raised his eyebrows, “So, what’s more important to you, Ezra?  Your precious judge, or your mother?”


“You would ruin the reputation and livelihoods of one of the most respected and deserving man on the bench just to serve your own ends?” Buck asked in wonder.


“In a minute,” Ezra replied in a low voice.  Alaric’s smiled grew.


“That’s insane,” the ladies’ man said.  “You can’t do that!”


“Yes, he can,” Ezra hissed, lowering his eyes to the ground. “He’s right, Buck.  You don’t know everything about me, and, unfortunately, Alaric could make up anything he wanted…his money could ensure that the newspapers said whatever he wanted.  He’s done it before, and ruined good people in the process.”


“Oh I wouldn’t call your precious New York cousins ‘good’ Ezra.  That little pub of theirs…what was it called?  The gold something?...was a waste hole, as was that whole neighborhood.  It needed a good cleansing.”


“People nearly died Alaric….”


“I wouldn’t call them people, Ezra.  Animals would have been a better term.  After all, I didn’t light the fires, now, did I?  The city was just reacting to another outbreak of a terrible disease….”


Ezra swallowed thickly, then shook his head. “I won’t let you do that here.”


“You can’t stop me, Ezra, not unless you want to share your mother’s eventual fate on the gallows.”


Ezra was silent, while Buck shook his head.


“Well, Ezra?  I ask again, your mother…or Travis?  After all, just think, if the corruption in his office that I painted went deep enough,” Alaric smiled, “your precious judge might even share a cell with some of the same men he’s put away….”


“No…Ezra…he’s got to be bluffing!  They’d kill the judge in there,” Buck said, staring with disgust at the wealthy man.  “Don’t listen to this snake, he couldn’t possibly….”


“I don’t know exactly where my mother is. The last letter I received from her, however, told me that she was setting up a new riverfront casino in Saint Louis.”


“Ezra!” Buck’s jaw dropped, but Ezra was staring at the boards beneath his feet.


“How old is the letter?”  Alaric asked.


“Months.  She’s been out of touch for a while.”


“Months…Maude could have disappeared a hundred times in that amount of time, Ezra.”


“I’m aware of that, but mother does not keep me totally informed of her whereabouts.  You know that.”


“Yes, nevertheless, I will tell my detectives to head to Saint Louis.  However, if she is not there, you wouldn’t mind if I and my associates stay on here a little while longer…in case she decides to show up again.”


Ezra shrugged.


“And you won’t leave either, will you?” Alaric said, smiling at the younger man.


Ezra closed his eyes, and whispered a negative.


“Wonderful.  And if it turns out that she has indeed moved on, perhaps you would be so kind to inform me immediately the next time she sends you a letter.”


Slowly, Ezra nodded.


“Excellent.  Well then, Mr.…Standish….thank you for your cooperation.”


Ezra didn’t answer, nor did he look up as Alaric walked away and disappeared into the double doors of the hotel.  Buck grabbed his arm.


“How could you do that?  She’s your mother, Ezra!”


The gambler kept his head down.  “Maude can take care of herself, Buck,” he whispered, “Judge Travis, on the other hand….”


“Is far stronger than you think,” the ladies’ man insisted. “We could have found a better way to deal with this.”


“Oh?” Ezra looked up, “then believe me, Mr. Wilmington, I am all ears.”  He waited a moment, then nodded as Buck had no immediate answer, “as I thought.  Then I ask that you do as I, Mr. Wilmington, and pray that my mother has indeed moved on.”  Pulling his arm free, the gambler walked slowly back to the saloon.



Part Four


“No, I don’t believe it!” Nathan said, shaking his head vigorously as Buck finished talking and slamming a fist on the desk in Mary’s office.  “Maude is not a murderer.  Oh, she’s a con, like her son, and a schemer, but she is no murderer.”  He crossed his arms, his mind drifting back to the woman who had once about the time convinced him to allow the title “doctor” to be attached to his name.  Though it had only been for a short time, and he was perfectly aware that her entire purpose had merely been to distract him away from helping Ezra with his foolish idea of owning the saloon, he had never forgotten her kindness to him. And his father had had long talks with her, proclaiming her to his son to be the first southern gentlewoman he had ever known to actually be a gentlewoman. 


“I agree,” Buck said as he walked back and forth in front of the desk, “but this Von Dietrich’s conviction is unshakeable, and Ezra’s not said a word since this afternoon.”


 “I’ve telegrammed the Judge,” Mary said, leaning forward in her chair, “telling him of this Alaric’s threat.  I’ve also sent out telegrams to try and find out what evidence this man has against Maude.”  She looked vaguely out the window, “but I don’t really expect a response for a while.  I did learn one thing, though, Alaric’s father, Claus Von Dietrich was indeed murdered…in Charleston, twenty-two years ago.”


“Twenty-two years ago?” Nathan repeated, “but that would have made Ezra…”


“Just a boy,” Mary nodded, looking back at him.  “If Maude did kill Claus Von Dietrich, then that must have been a terrible burden for a child to hide.”


“She didn’t murder anyone,” Buck said, conviction in his voice.


“How can you be so sure?” the journalist asked, raising an eyebrow.  “All you have is Ezra’s words….”


“It’s not the words, ma’am,” Buck said, “it’s the way he said it.”


“Besides, you know Maude, Mary; she’s not a murderess,” Nathan insisted. 


Mary looked at the healer, then again at Buck, then gave a conceding nod.  “Fine, for now, I’ll agree with you, but I wouldn’t say I knew her.  Anymore than I can say I know Ezra.  He’s been known to hide things before, and…” she shrugged.  Buck’s eyes narrowed slightly, while Nathan just sighed.  “In any case, as I said, I’ve sent out for information and written the judge.  Hopefully we’ll know something more about this tomorrow.”  She sighed and looked out the window again, “Shouldn’t JD be back with Chris, Vin and Josiah by now?”


“If they went out hunting from the ranch, it might take him a while to find Vin and Chris.  As for Josiah…well, we’re not really sure where the preacher is.”


“I think he went to see those new homesteaders out near the Royal ranch, but I’m not sure,” Nathan shrugged.  “He did say he’d only be gone a day or so.”


“Then…I guess we wait…at least for now,” Mary said, looking up at Buck.  The ladies’ man grunted acknowledgement and walked to the window to scan the road.  Everyone looked to be going about their business normally.  He watched as Inez left Mrs. Potter’s, holding a box of foodstuffs in her arms – he already knew better than to go offer his help.  Turning back to the store, he was surprised to see Mrs. Potter herself leave the front.  She rarely left her store when it was open.  Blue eyes tracked her as she walked across the street and directly in front of the Clarion.  If she saw Buck watching her, she gave no sign, simply went into the telegraph office next door.


“That’s odd,” the ladies’ man muttered. 


“What’s odd?” Nathan asked.  Buck was about to answer when he spotted someone he thought might be one of Alaric’s men walking down the boardwalk.  He pointed to the man for Nathan’s benefit, and the healer nodded.


“What’s say we at least try to even the odds a little, eh Nathan?” he said quietly. 


The healer smiled.



“Ahem,” Gloria Potter smiled at the telegraph operator as he blinked up from his notes.  He smiled and hurriedly stood, nodding at her.


“Gloria, how wonderful to see you!  I didn’t expect to see you for a few days yet.  Nothing wrong I hope?”


“No, no Mr. Jensen,” she said, trying to hide the slight quaver in her voice.  “I merely want to send a receipt acknowledgement to a few of my suppliers.”


“By telegram?”




Jensen screwed up his lips at the unusual request and shrugged, “All right. Where to?”  He pulled out some yellow tickets to write on and pulled the pen from behind his ear.


Saint Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.”


Jensen paused, his brown eyes lifting.  “You…have suppliers as far away as Seattle?”


“Today I do, Mr. Jensen.  Please, this is rather important.”


“Okay then,” he said, not hiding the curious tone in his voice.


“To Mrs.….uh…” she squinted a moment, “Marigold Stevens, Haven’s Rest, Crescent City.  Madam stop I have received the deliveries you sent stop still need shirts, skirts and gold heart pendent stop kind regards stop Gloria Potter, Four Corners.”


“Okay,” Jensen put the telegram aside and pulled a new one, “Next?”


“To Mrs. Millicent Stanford, Gray Dog Tavern, Seattle.  Madam stop I have received the deliveries you sent stop still need wolf, elk and golden hart…that’s h-a-r-t, Mr. Jensen…pelts stop kind regards stop Gloria Potter, Four Corners.”


“Ah, and San Francisco?” Jensen put the second paper aside and looked up at Mrs. Potter.  She smiled and nodded.


“…Mrs. Margaret Saunders, Gentle Breeze Hotel, San Francisco.  Madam stop I have received the deliveries you sent stop still need shirts, chocolates, dried fruit and,” she paused, “and the golden hart,” she stared at Mr. Jensen, watching as his pen paused over the words, then kept going.  When he didn’t do more than that, she continued, “um…stop kind regards stop Gloria Potter, Four Corners.”  She looked behind her at the stranger who was standing in front of the telegraph office, but he didn’t seem to paying her any attention. 


Jensen put the three telegrams together and carried them over to the machine.  When he returned he quoted a price to Mrs. Potter and watched as she fished the money out of her purse.  Her fingers passed the money over, her hands shaking slightly as they did so.  Jensen took it confidently.


“I will make sure the messages get through, Mrs. Potter,” he promised her, “and if you need to send similar messages anywhere else, I have no problems sending them.”


Gloria smiled, “thank you, Mr. Jensen.”



Part Five


Chris and Vin rode into town slowly, the tracker’s hackles raised as he finally understood why he had been feeling watched for the last few days.  Truth be told, when JD had found them, they were already tying up the two men who had walked into his and Chris’s trap out in the mountains.  Vin had assumed they were bounty hunters.  The two men’s insistence that they were in fact “detectives” had not really changed that opinion, considering their size and rather obvious lack of intelligence, but it was interesting to learn from JD exactly what their goal was. 


The kid had then ridden off to find Josiah, hoping to find the preacher and bring him back by morning.  Chris had ordered the two men they’d caught to take off, or face worse consequences.  They did so willingly.  They’d ridden home quickly after that, but it was already well into evening, and the fires were being lit along the street as Chris and Vin went by..


Chris indicated the saloon with a nod of his head and the two men moved to stop in front.  Dismounting, they tossed the reins of Peso and Solon over the hitching post and walked inside.


Buck stood at the bar, leaning back on his elbows, obviously waiting for them.  He nodded once.  Nathan was nowhere to be seen.  Ezra was sitting in one corner, a half bottle of red-eye next to him and writing something.  There were a number of wadded up pieces of paper in front of the fireplace to his left, obviously tossed there, while several more looked to be burning on the fire itself.


“What’s he doing?” Chris asked, thanking Inez with a nod as she placed two glasses on the bar and a new bottle of whiskey.


“Not sure.  I thought it might be his resignation, but I think he might also be trying to script letters to some newspapers.  I thought I recognized the words “Times” and “Post” on some of them.  He won’t let me read them though.”


“He’s moving like a cornered animal,” Vin noted, easily reading the tension resting on Ezra’s shoulders.  “Like he doesn’t know how to get out of the hole he’s fallen in.”


“What have you done so far?” Chris asked, looking at Buck.


The ladies’ man shrugged and lowered his voice, “took care of a handful of nuisances.  Nathan has them holed up and under lock and key somewhere.  I think they’re in one of the ice houses behind the hotel.”


“How many?”


“About five.”


“We hunted down a couple out in the woods and sent them on their way,” Vin said. “Before they left, they told us that there were at least twelve of their kind running around.”


“So there are still five out there,” Buck grimaced.  “Nuts.”


“If they’re tracking us, then one may be following the kid and one following Josiah.  That leaves at least three still around here.  Watching Ezra?  Or keeping tabs of this Alaric man?”


“Probably both,” Chris said, taking a drink.  “Kid said Mary was sending telegrams.”


“She hasn’t heard back yet,” Buck confirmed.


“Strange.  Think the line is down?”  Vin asked.


Buck shook his head, “Jensen would know.  Says he can tell.  Some sort of alarm goes off.”


“Hmmm,” Chris turned around and leaned on the bar next to Buck.  “Has Ezra told you the story yet?”


“No, not yet.”


“We should hear it.”


“I know, I was waiting for you.”


They all looked at Ezra, who had stopped writing.  Green eyes looked up, catching all three of them in his gaze.  Grimacing, he gave them a nod.


“Guess that’s our cue,” Vin said, picking up his glass to walk over to the table.



“Maude married Claus Von Dietrich when I was almost seven years old.  He was her third husband, and she was his second wife.  He was influential, good looking and ambitious – ideal for a climber like Maude – with two grown up sons and more money than he knew what to do with.  He, in turn, wanted a beautiful trophy wife, and he got that with my mother.  Of course, for her to be perfect, she couldn’t have a past….much less a son.  Still, I was used to that.  I stayed with relatives for most of their time together.”  He shrugged, his eyes watching his fingers turn the glass in his hand instead of the faces of his friends.  “Unfortunately for my mother, however, she had finally read a man wrong…for the first and last time that I can remember.  Claus Von Dietrich was not the sort of man who would put up with backtalk, least of all from his wife.  There was some speculation that he actually beat his first wife…Alaric and his older brother Wilhelm’s mother…to death years before.  Mother was not aware of this.  She quickly learned, however.  Less than a year later, she filed for divorce.”


He bent his head to one side, tilting the amber liquid in the shot glass in the same direction.  The others waited while he gathered his thoughts.  Finally, he blew the air out of his cheeks and started again.


“As you know, divorce needs cause, and Maude really only had her word that she was being beaten by the time the hearing came, as all physical impressions were long gone.  Claus hired some infamous scumbag lawyers who tore her to pieces on the stand.  They found out about her past…about me and the two previous husbands…they…well, long story short, she lost.  Humiliatingly.  She was cut off without any money, and was left in debt when she couldn’t pay her own lawyer off.  So, she ran away…for a while.  I didn’t hear from her for about three months.  Then, one day, she showed up at where she’d stashed me and we went to try our hands at some games in Charleston.”  He sighed, his eyes narrowing. Finally, he looked up, meeting three sets of eyes and grimaced.


“Somehow, I’m not sure how, she ended up meeting Claus there.  She never told me of the meeting, or its purpose, but something happened.  I saw her running down the street, covered in blood and being chased by the local constabulary and several of Von Dietrich’s men.  Obviously, we both escaped….”  He trailed off and downed the whiskey in the glass.


“She never spoke of what happened, but, years later, I found the papers accusing her of murdering Claus in a fit of rage for what he had done to her.  Apparently, he was found by Alaric on the floor of the hotel room he’d rented, dying and barely conscious from knife wounds to the back, while she was found lying next to him, unconscious.  When she awoke, and couldn’t explain what happened, they accused her….It was just another thing to run from, I suppose.” 


“So, when did Alaric show up,” Buck asked quietly.


Ezra sighed.  “The first time?  When I was sixteen or seventeen or so.  After the debacle in Saint Louis with the riverboat.  He had seen the papers of our arrest there, I guess, and saw her and my face depicted in the drawings of the hearings.  I don’t know how he tracked us to San Francisco, or how he found me in particular.  Maude had already dumped me to head up to Crescent City…and I was feeling very resentful, so, when he asked me to tell her where she was….I admit, it didn’t take much persuasion.  I practically led him to her, based on her last letter to me.  But, well, Maude is quick.  She disappeared from out his grasp.  I disappeared too not long after, headed back east…and ended up walking into the war.”


“But he found you again,” Buck said.


“Yes.  In South Carolina, during one of the campaigns.  Pure luck, I think.  Major Ezra Spencer was on leave for a weekend, and I made the mistake of visiting the same cousins whom I’d stayed with when Maude was married to Claus.  Not sure why I did it…I guess not having seen Maude for such a long time made me…sentimental.” He shook his head, “They gave me up to Alaric.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell Alaric anything that time, though he didn’t believe me.”  He swallowed tightly, then frowned.  “I escaped back to the army and made up some story about having run into some looters to explain all the marks and the broken arm.  Common enough.  Not sure they believed me, but they couldn’t afford to lose me.”  He smiled.  He didn’t look up still, not sure he could look into their eyes again. 


“The third time he found me was when I was in New York…seven years ago.  My grandfather had died, so I went to the funeral.  Stupid mistake.  Again, I got away.  Came west.”  He covered his face with his hand.  “So…there…now you know more about me than just about everyone alive, except my mother…and Alaric.”


Silence enveloped the gambler, and an involuntarily shiver ran down his spine.  They weren’t speaking.  Were they even still there?  He hadn’t heard them leave…or even breathe. 


But, for some absurd reason, he was too frightened to lower his hand.


“So, you don’t really know if she killed him or not, do you,” Chris asked. “She never herself told you what happened that night.”


Ezra lowered his hand, his gaze steady.  This was a question he wasn’t afraid of. 


“Yes, I do.  My mother is many things, Mr. Larabee, as am I…but she is not a killer.  For all her faults, she couldn’t lift a hand to anyone, much less a man like Claus Von Dietrich.”


“So, then, how was he killed?” Vin asked.  “You said she was covered in blood, running from his men….”


“I don’t know why she looked like that, but she didn’t kill him.  Even if I didn’t know her, I do have some evidence.  For one thing, something that they all seemed to overlook, someone had also ransacked the place he and my mother were found in, and there were items stolen.  I saw my mother running, Mr. Tanner; she was barely carrying herself much less anything she might have stolen.”


Chris shook his head, while Vin just lowered his eyes.  Ezra knew what they were thinking – that Maude could just as easily hired an accomplice.  He’d heard that excuse before as well. Only Buck maintained Ezra’s gaze.  The conman thanked him with a small smile.


“Well, seems to me that perhaps the best thing would be for her to return to stand trial.  Clear her name,” Vin said.


Ezra gave a small laugh, “pot calling the kettle black, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Tanner?  With the entire world against her? With her past and no real proof to speak of?  Who would you believe?”


Vin opened his mouth, then shut it and gave a conceding nod. 


“So, what do you plan to do?” Chris asked.


“Resign, as quickly as possible.  As soon as Alaric leaves…which he will do eventually once he thinks he knows where my mother is…I’ll leave as well.  Change my name and disappear, as I have always done.  And, if Alaric still goes through with his threat to humiliate the Judge…find some way to stop the damage from being too severe.”  He looked at the papers on the table. “I’m hoping to beat him to the punch somehow.”


After a minute, he realized that none of them were going to say anything to stop him, and the tightness that had been sitting in Ezra’s chest all afternoon twisted.  He swallowed thickly, and stood up.  His voice failed him, so he simply nodded at them, gathered his papers, pen and inkwell, and walked towards the stairs to his room.


Chris looked at Vin, then Buck, and blew the air out of his cheeks.


“We just going to let him go?  Without a fight?” the ladies’ man asked. 


“It’s the judge, his mother or Ezra’s life here.  I guess, when you look at it that way, his life here is a small price to pay,” Vin said.


“Losing your home is never a small price,” Buck argued.


“Ezra has the right to make his choices on his own, Buck,” Chris said, his eyes tracing the edges of the paper.  “And, in this case, I think he may have the right of it.”


“Damn!” Buck shouted, throwing his glass at the fire and enjoying the shatter.  “There has to be another way!”


Chris glanced at him, then lowered his head.  Buck stared at him, then at Vin, who was busy scrutinizing the table.  Shaking his head, the ladies’ man stood, his chair rocking backwards, and strode out of the saloon.