The Golden Hart ^


By Tipper





Part Eleven


Maude kneeled next to Ezra, who had fallen to his knees on the ground next to the stage, his eyes squeezed tightly shut.  She was battered, but otherwise unharmed, so didn’t say a word when Nathan ran up to check on her son.  Her fellow passenger, however, a tall blue eyed Russian with a square face, complained bitterly to Chris about his bruises and the reckless danger he’d been put in and demanded some kind of recompense.  Chris put up with it for about thirty seconds, before calling JD over and sticking the kid under the man’s nose.   The kid gave the Russian a weak smile while Chris walked over to check on Ezra.  The gambler did not acknowledge the gunslinger at all.


“How is he?” Chris asked Nathan.


“Bullet passed through, but it fractured the bone on the way.  He won’t be using it for a while, but it’ll heal,” the healer answered.  Then he spoke to Ezra, “Come with me, and we’ll get it wrapped and splinted.  We’ll also get some salve for your mother’s cuts and bruises.”  He smiled at Maude, and she smiled back.


“Thank you, Nathan, you…” she began.


“She’s not going anywhere!” Alaric’s voice boomed across the crowd, and Maude instantly stiffened.  “That woman is a fugitive from justice and a murderer!  She belongs in a jail until justice is served and she gets the punishment she deserves!”  He shoved through the crowd until he stood just feet from Maude and Ezra.


“Alaric…”  Maude’s breath quickened, her eyes widening.


“Why did you come!” Ezra suddenly demanded of her, breaking from his daze and sounding more like a child now than when he actually was one.  “Why are you here!”


She turned to him, her eyes bright, not hiding her fear. “Sweetie…I….”


Alaric stepped forward and grabbed her arm, pulling her upright roughly. “Enough! You’re coming with me!”


“Let her go!” Ezra shouted, stumbling to his feet, his left arm fumbling for the gun at his right hip and silently cursing his decision not to where his shoulder holster today.  “Let her go!”


“Ezra calm down!” Chris ordered, stepping between them.  “We’ll deal with this the right way!”


“There is no right way here, Chris!” the gambler growled, finally gripping his gun.  But Chris was faster, his hand catching the other’s arm before he could raise the Remington.


“I said calm down!” the gunslinger ordered.  “Lower it, Ezra, or I’ll take it away from you.”


Ezra stared hard at those granite eyes, searching for something to believe in after the betrayal he’d felt before.  But his fear and anger was too much with him.  He lowered his arm, but only hatred now remained in those green eyes.


Chris turned away, trusting Ezra not to try again…and also unable to stand the stare he had gotten from the gambler.  Instead, he looked at Alaric gripping Maude’s arm in what had to be a bone crushing grip.  She did not cry out, though.  Her eyes were watering, but her jaw was tightly held. 


He’d never seen her look so much like her son. 


“Let her go,” Chris hissed at Alaric.  “We’ll take care of this.”


“Take care of what!  You’ll let her go the moment my back is turned.  You think I can trust you to ensure justice?  I have her now, and if you think I’m letting her go you’re sadly mistaken.”


Chris shook his head. “Josiah,” he said quietly.


“Wha…?” Alaric turned in time to see Josiah smash his fist into the side of the arm he was using to hold onto Maude.  He screamed and his hand opened involuntarily with the pain, allowing Josiah to pull Maude away into his own arms.  She was shaking badly now as she buried herself in his chest, but only the smallest peep emitted from her throat.  Alaric snarled at the preacher.


“You give her to me,” he snarled at Josiah, “or I’ll make sure that everything I’ve learned here about your precious town comes to light.  How a judge hired not only a con and a thief, but a whole posse of cutthroats and scumbags;” he glared back at Chris, “a black-hearted killer with a death-wish…a fugitive bounty hunter…a drunkard ex-preacher…a womanizing bastard, and a runaway slave playing doctor.” He’d looked at each one of the seven as he named them; the only one he didn’t characterize was JD.  He gave a nasty smile, “Imagine what the southern senators and the temperance and Christian unions will think of all that?  You almost make this too easy for me.”


“You will have your justice,” Chris growled back, “But it will be here, before a proper judge and jury.”


“I’m afraid you can’t do that, Mr. Larabee,” another, calmer voice said from their left.  Wilhelm Von Dietrich walked into the throng, his height marking him as he came to a stop by his brother.  He was slightly taller than Nathan, which made him easily the tallest man there, except for the Russian stranger. “This woman is accused of murder in the sovereign state of South Carolina.  Your only jurisdiction in this matter is to see that she is properly transported to that location.”


“Dangerous using ‘sovereign state’ and South Carolina in the same sentence, don’t you think?” Buck sneered from the side.  Wilhelm ignored the jibe, focused only on Chris.


“Properly transported,” Chris repeated, his eyes narrowing.


“Federal law demands that you send her on, sir.”


“What about the new fourteenth amendment?” Josiah asked, still holding Maude to his side, cleared his throat.  “As I understand it, she has the right of due process.”


“Due process,” the older Von Dietrich smiled patronizingly, “means only that she shall have a trial.  But that trial will occur at the situs of the crime, not elsewhere, as per the sixth amendment to that same Constitution.  Besides which, the new fourteenth amendment goes only to states.  This is not a state.  As such, you should refer to the fifth amendment.”


“Well, right,” Josiah shrugged, then smiled, “and, yes, I spoke incorrectly.  I meant to bring up the fourth amendment.  The one that prohibits illegal seizures?  This man has no warrant, as far as I can tell.  And there are no Federal Marshals here.  Until a proper warrant is presented, under the laws, we can not simply give her to you.  We need proof of authority.”


Wilhelm Von Dietrich opened his mouth, then shut it.  After a moment, he nodded.  “True.”


“What!” Alaric rounded on his brother.


“He has a point, Alaric.”




“You are not a federal marshal, Alaric.  You haven’t the right to take her anywhere without some evidence of your authority.  Consequently, we must wait until she can be remanded to the proper custody.”


“This is ridiculous, Wilhelm!  They’re only stalling to give her a chance to escape again!  Can’t you see that?”


Wilhelm looked stonily at his brother, then shrugged.  Turning back to Josiah, he nodded. “It won’t take long to get the warrant, or to confer on my brother and his men the proper authority.  However, given what you know of the circumstances, I warn you that any attempt to help her escape or to deny the State of South Carolina its right to try this woman for her crime will be considered a great violation of this still so unstable union.  Do I make myself clear?”


Crystal,” Chris spat, answering for the preacher.  “Nathan,” he looked at the healer, “take Ezra and his mother to the clinic.  I remand her to your care for now, until this is resolved.”


“No! I protest,” Alaric said, “you can not expect a colored to uphold justice!  I demand….”


“I think you’ve spoken enough for one day,” Chris said, shoving past Alaric.  He nodded to Wilhelm as he led the way for Maude and Josiah, and, after them, Nathan and Ezra.  The gambler had his head down, the pain in his arm beginning to play with his balance.  Buck, Vin and JD cased them from behind, their eyes on Alaric’s men.  There were still seven of them swirling around on the outsides, keeping their distance but also clearly not leaving them alone either. 


“Hey, what about me!” the Russian called after them.  “I have bruises as well!”  He started walking after them, his voice rising as he insisted on being given his due care.



Part Twelve


Ezra stared out of the window in Nathan’s bedroom, his eyes tracing the pitch and fall of the roofs opposite.  He turned when the door opened and Nathan walked in with Maude behind him.  She smiled at her son and sat next to him, while Nathan stayed in the doorway.


“I’ll be right outside,” Nathan said, nodding at them.  The healer smiled kindly at them, and shut the door just as Maude reached forward to look at her son’s tightly wrapped and splinted arm, while the gambler just stared sadly at her face.


On the outside, Nathan found the Russian sitting impatiently in the front room, the tall, blond man tapping his foot.


“Well?” the stranger asked, “they say you’re the doctor here.  I have a cut on my leg.”  He pointed down at his calf, the skin there as white as the plain sock that the man had rolled down to his foot.  A minor scraped was visible, already fading.  Nathan smiled at him, grabbed a jar of salve and a bandage from the sideboard, and tossed them to him. 


“That’ll do you, stranger,” he said.  “I’m going to go and fetch some more clean water.  Probably shouldn’t leave until I’ve checked the rest of you.”  With a wink and a smile, Nathan left the room, ignoring the blustering protests from the man at being left again.


Giving a loud harrumph, the Russian sniffed and looked around the small clinic room.  He screwed up his face at the ramshackle appearance, and then frowned at the smell of the stables seeping up from below.  Shaking his head, he put the salve and bandage on the small folding table to the right of his chair and stood up.  Glancing at the front door, he gave a small smile, then crept over to the door separating this room from the one holding Ezra and Maude.  With one eye still on the front door, he pressed his ear against the bedroom door to listen.



“Why are you here,” Ezra asked, his voice tight.  “I thought you were heading to Alaska?”


“I…” Maude looked at him, her slim fingers still playing with the bandage, then she lowered her gaze.  “I wanted to see you one more time before I got on the steamer.”


“Don’t lie, mother. ”


She sighed, her eyes meeting his again.  “You’re right.  Truth is…I got your message.”


Ezra’s eyes widened.  “What?  You got it?  Then…mother, what in the world were you thinking?”


She swallowed, and shrugged.  “Actually, now I’m not so sure.  I…I suppose…dang and blast, Ezra…I wanted to rescue you.  You like it here.  I know you do.  And…if you had to leave because of this, because of me…then you really would hate me.  Oh, I know you’d pretend to not care.  You’d shrug it off and act as if you never expected to stay here long, but, deep down, you’d be blaming me for ruining yet something else important to your life.  I couldn’t have that.  So…I came to give myself up.”


“But mother…mother, this is ten times worse!  Can’t you see that?  I can’t watch them take you away.  And Alaric won’t let you escape this time.   You’ll be taken back in chains, and hanged.”


“Well, at least then you’ll finally be rid of me…isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?”


Ezra stared at her, unable to hide his shock.  “Rid of you?  Mother, no.  Never.  You are all I have!”


“No, it’s not, baby.  You have this town.  These people.  Your home….”


“Mother…,” Ezra swallowed, “Mother, when I was little….every time you left me…it felt like someone ripped the heart out of my chest….But when you found me again, it didn’t matter where, I felt whole again.”  He smiled weakly, “I was home when I was with you, whether it be in Savannah, Chicago or San Francisco.  Surely you knew that.”  He frowned, shaking his head.  “And though it is true that I’m no longer that same child, the fundamental truth of it is, mother…you still own me.  Yes, I have a home here.  There are people here….people I would die for.  But you’re my mother.  You will always come first.” 


Maude glance up, saw the honesty in his eyes, and immediately blushed to the depths of her being with shame.  He was so damnably loving sometimes, it hurt her to see it, knowing she was too scared herself to look at him in the same way.  Turning away, she looked at the small window in one corner and focused on the roofs of the town beyond.


“Mother, nothing…nothing means more to me than your life.”




“No.  Mother, look…Josiah gave us this small reprieve.  He did this for us, to give us one last chance to get out of here.”


“But…what about that threat I heard Alaric make…about the judge….If we leave, what….”


“I respect Judge Travis, mother, but he is not being asked to give his life.  And both he and this town will survive, even if Alaric goes through with his threats.  But if you leave with that bastard…I’m not even sure you’d survive to reach South Carolina.  He has hunted you for too long, hated you for too long, and…and there is more of his father in him than he even knows.  You know Alaric’s wife divorced him, mother, for the same reason you divorced Claus.  He is a cruel man, and there is no way I’d ever let him touch you.”


Maude turned back to him, a tear running down her face. 


“We’ll escape, mother; it’s the only way.  The others won’t stop us…well…Chris might…but I think the others will let us go.”


Maude continued to look at him, but, slowly, she nodded.  “Okay.  I admit…when I saw that man again…I realized I couldn’t go through with it.  I hate being scared, Ezra.  More than anything, I hate being scared.  You know that.”


Ezra smiled, relieved.  “Yes, I know.”

Maude closed her eyes and nodded again, “when?”


“The sooner the better.  They won’t expect it.  Nathan will be back soon, but then he’ll leave again in order to get us some food for lunch – and you should request something ridiculous, so that he’ll leave annoyed and not look behind him.  Alaric is probably still preening himself because of his catch, and the others will be preoccupied trying to think of some way to help us.  With any luck, they won’t notice we’re gone until Nathan comes back with the food.  We’ll have at least half an hour’s head start, and I know this area well enough to get us far from here very quickly.  Chaucer’s stabled right below us, and I don’t think Nathan would mind if we borrowed his Gideon.”


Maude nodded again, and smiled.  Tears still ran down her face.  “Baby,” she said, reaching forward to touch his splinted arm, “I’m sorry.  I…I thought…I really thought I could do the right thing for once.”


“Mother,” Ezra grinned, “the day you do the right thing is the day Chris Larabee tells me I’m his hero.”



Outside the room, the Russian gave a small smile and backed away from the door.  He stared at it a moment longer, before gathering his hat and coat and heading towards the front door, shaking out his rolled up pants leg as he went.



Part Thirteen


“You’re sure,” Alaric said, leaning forward and staring at the Russian unwaveringly.


“The healer will leave to fetch them lunch, and that’s when they plan to run.  No question.”


“That bitch!  Well, she’s not getting away again.  They may be soft on her in this town, but they’ll soon learn the right of it.  Justice is justice, and it will be done.”  The younger Von Dietrich brother stood up, his eyes searching out his men.  The Russian stood at the same time, his eyes expectant.  Alaric looked back at him, then nodded.


“Right, right, money.  Here,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills.  Peeling off a number of them, he handed them to the tall man.  “There’s a hundred and fifty dollars.  That should see you well off for a while.  Thank you for bringing me this information.”


“My pleasure,” the Russian replied, pocketing the money and then giving a small bow.  “And good luck.”  Giving a final smug grin, he walked back out of the hotel restaurant.


After signaling to several of his men, ordering one to fetch the rest and telling the others to follow him, he walked into the main hotel and over to the clerk’s desk.  He slapped a hand on the bell and called for service.


Mr. Chambers, the hotel’s day manager, stuck his head out from the office door beyond, then hurried over.


“Mr. Von Dietrich, how may I….”


“My gun.  Fetch it.”


“Your…your gun?”


“I gave it to the boy this morning to clean.  Fetch it now.”


“Um, yes sir,” Mr. Chambers frowned slightly, but headed back towards the kitchens.  He found Seth, the cook’s son, cleaning various items, one of which was Alaric’s gun.  The boy indicated it with his head, and Mr. Chambers picked it up.  By the time he returned, Alaric was talking to seven men.  He quieted as Mr. Chambers approached, taking the gun without a word.  Opening the chamber, Alaric nodded to find it full, closed and holstered the weapon in his holster.  Looking at his men, he smiled.


“Let’s go.”



“Say that again?” Nathan looked at Maude as if she had two heads.


“Duck, with plum sauce,” the woman said, smiling back at him.  “I know that you have some Chinese in this town, and I do have a hankering for it.  One of them must have the makings for the sauce.”


“Duck?  You want to eat a duck?”


“Oh, yes!  They’re wonderful.  Near where I usually stay in San Francisco, there is this adorable little restaurant that serves it, and, though I can’t read a thing in that insane scrawl they call a language, I know enough to order the duck.  If you could find someone here that makes it, I would be forever in your debt Nathan.  Consider it…consider it a last meal, if you like.”  She smiled wanly, batting her eyes.  Ezra lowered his own, not wishing the healer to see the smile that wouldn’t leave his lips.  Nathan swallowed.


“Um…well…when you put it that way…I suppose I could…maybe Josiah might know…um….”  Pursing his lips, the healer turned away dazedly, his mind already trying to figure out how to find someone who might know how to cook duck…and wondering where the hell he was going to find a duck to cook….


Ezra patted his mother on the knee and stood up as Nathan left.  This time the healer left the door ajar, so Ezra watched as the healer walked all the way to the front door and out.


“Okay,” he said, signaling for his mother to follow him.  Creeping out into the main clinic room, then over to the far door, he reached it before it swung completely shut behind Nathan.  Catching the edge, he allowed himself enough space to be able peek outside.  “Check the window,” he ordered.


Maude walked to the north facing window and scanned the road below.  Not seeing anyone, she walked over to the other one and checked the other side as well. 


“Nothing, as far as I can tell,” she said.


“All right.  Have you your purse?”




“Then, now or never, as they say.”  Drawing in a deep breath, Ezra opened the clinic door wider and stepped outside.  He quickly looked around for watchful eyes, scanning the rooftops as much as he scanned the street below.  Seeing nothing amiss, he stepped further onto the balcony and looked over the edge.  Finally, he turned, to see Maude standing nervously in the doorway behind him.  He gave her a smile, and reached back to grab her hand.


“Ezra…I don’t know if I should do this,” she said softly.  “Perhaps, after all this time, I might actually get a fair trial now….”


“People don’t forget murders, mother.  If anything, the knowledge of them festers…you know that.”  Gripping her hand, he pulled her along behind him as he half-jogged to the corner of the building.  There, he stopped and checked around the corner to make sure the stairs down were clear.  Flashing Maude a grin, he pulled her down the steps behind, practically running in his haste to take advantage of the empty street. 


At the bottom, he pressed her against the wall and ran to look around the front, to see if the way into the stables was clear.  Maude, meanwhile, kept her back to the wall and stared across the street at the grain exchange.


Didn’t Obediah’s trial happen there? 


She’d liked Nathan’s father.  She could hardly believe it when Ezra told her that that gentle old man had actually confessed.  Obediah had murdered a man, and he’d had his day in court in order to explain himself…his day in court, the right of every free man…that’s what he’d wanted….


She’d missed most of it, but she’d caught the end, the final sentencing.   Ezra hadn’t known that she was there, because she didn’t want to distract him.  When Orrin Travis had proclaimed the punishment…hanging by the neck until dead…she’d seen her son’s face.  Never in her life had she seen him so unguarded…and so strong.  And then the fight afterwards. Ezra had three men on him at one point, before throwing them off and taking all three down.  She couldn’t help feeling a massive swell of pride at that.  He was even back to back with Chris Larabee at one point, the two men seeming unstoppable, like heroes of old.  She almost couldn’t believe that it was her son out there, fighting for what was right.  And then Obediah had fired that rifle, to stop the sheriff of Eagle Bend from hurting his Nathan.  He was willing to give up everything for his son, even his own life, to protect him…. 


“Mother,” Ezra was back, tugging on her sleeve.  She looked at him glassily, and he frowned.  “Mother, we have to go,” he hissed.


“No, sweetheart.  I’ve changed my mind.  I’m not running anymore.”  Standing up, she started walking to up to the main street.


“Mother!”  Ezra jogged after her, and grabbed her arm.  “Don’t get noble on me now!  We don’t have time!”


“I’m going to go with Alaric,” she insisted, shaking him off.  “Besides, you shouldn’t ride with that arm.  What sort of mother would I be if I let you do that?”  She kept walking, the pride in her step unmistakable.  Ezra groaned in frustration, barely matching her step as she reached the street and turned to head towards the hotel. 


She nodded at some of the people she passed, like a queen to her subjects; “lovely day,” she said to them, and they nodded back by habit, though their faces showed surprise and they immediately started whispering.  Ezra had stopped, out of disbelief mostly, and said hello to Clara Stevens and her husband as they smiled at him as well.  Shaking out of it, he jogged to catch up with his mother again.  The throbbing in his arm was being matched now by a growing throbbing in his head, the cause of which was walking steadily away from him, pink skirts whipping up little puffs of dust behind her.


“Mother, please, don’t be an idiot…”


“Stop right there!” Alaric yelled, running towards them.  He’d spotted them as soon as they had come around the corner, and immediately started running.  His men were with him, following him like hounds after the lead horse in the hunt.  Alaric pulled his gun out, running with it in hand.  “You’re not escaping this time!”


“Hell.”  Ezra whipped his mother back by force, shoving her behind him.  “Escape? We’re not trying to escape!” he yelled back. “Can’t you see we’re walking towards….”


“He lies!  Men, grab her!  Don’t let that bitch get away!  Hogtie her if you have to!”


“No!” Ezra stepped forward, as Alaric’s men passed their boss and swarmed towards them, “you’ll not touch her!”  As if in emphasis, he suddenly ran forward and intercepted the fastest of Alaric’s men, shoving his good shoulder into the man’s stomach and tackling him to the ground.  Rolling, he got back to his feet and jumped to intercept the next.  A piercing pain shot down his right arm, but he wasn’t about to be stopped now.  “Mother!  Run!” he shouted as he ducked a punch.


“Ezra!”  Maude backed away, her eyes only seeing the rest of Alaric’s men and the man himself as they descending on her.  Instinct kicked in and, lifting her skirts, she turned and started running.  Her eyes fixed on the church, so close by, and the man running down its steps towards her.  “Josiah!” she screamed, one arm reaching for him while the other held her skirts.


“You’re not getting away!” Alaric yelled.  She’d dodged him once before by seeking sanctuary in a church, “You’re not pulling that trick again!” he screamed, raising the gun. 


The gunshot rang out, and Maude screamed. 


Time slowed down for Ezra then as he turned to see his mother grab her back, her head tilted backwards as she screamed.  Blood appeared beneath her hand; her feet staggering below her.  Alaric fired again, the gunshot sounding more like an echo in the gambler’s ears than a bang, and Maude was thrown forward into the ground.  Her momentum sent her tumbling, until she rolled to a stop onto her back, her head turned away from Ezra.


Everything else stopped.  Townsfolk stood and stared. 


A heartbeat, and Ezra moved. 


Alaric started laughing as Ezra skidded to a stop besides her on his knees, reaching towards her with his one good arm and trying to ignore the dark blood pooling around her and seeping into the ground.  One of her hands had been touching her face (the other still tucked beneath her) but it fell away as he turned her head, and he saw blood trickling down the side of her mouth.  The hand fell to her skirts, leaving a stain wherever it touched….


“Mother,” he whispered, “God no…please, no…”


There was no doubt.  She was dying.


“Ezra….” Her eyes blinked to look up at him; they were still bright.  The same hand that had been on her face reached for his, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of her.  “My baby boy…” she whispered, smiling up at him.  “My sweet, sweet boy….”  She coughed suddenly, and more blood trickled out of her mouth.


In the background, Chris and Vin quickly disarmed Alaric and his men, while Wilhelm Von Dietrich and others ran up behind them.  Nathan skidded on Ezra’s other side, his hands gently lifting Maude up in order to determine the damage to her back.  Ezra looked at him, waiting, but whatever hope he had was small.  When Nathan finally looked up, and his dark eyes met the gambler’s with a shake of his head, all hope left their green depths.


“Ezra,” Maude whispered suddenly, taking her son’s eyes back, the fingers of her hand pressing into his face “I do love you.  You know that.  Tell me you know that,” she demanded weakly, “please tell me you know that.”


He nodded at her, “I know.”


She smiled again, then blinked slowly.  A shudder went through her frame and her eyes closed.


“Don’t leave me,” he whispered weakly, bending closer.  “Don’t leave me….”


“You’ll be all right…,” she replied softly, her hand brushing his cheek.


Then her hand fell away, and her head fell to the side.  Nathan pressed his hands to her neck, and sighed.


“She’s fainted.  I don’t know how much time she has, but we should at least make her more comfortable…get her out of the street.”


“Let me take her son,” Josiah said, stepping in and taking Nathan’s place.  Mrs. Greene and Sarah Weathers appeared behind him.


“Not Silas’s,” Ezra said suddenly, vehemently, staring up at the preacher with a fierce gaze even as the tears streamed down his face.  “Don’t take her in there!  Ever!”


“I won’t.  I promise.  We’ll take her to the church,” Josiah promised.


“The church be damned!” Alaric shouted angrily, as Ezra stood up watching Josiah gently lift Maude up into his arms.  “That body is mine!  I’ve waited a long time to see that woman dead, and I’m not leaving here without it!”


Ezra froze, his breath stopping.  Josiah backed away, Nathan and Mrs. Greene retreating with him to watch over Maude, but Buck and Chris materialized behind Ezra, almost from nowhere.  Something in the gambler’s gaze had Alaric looking a little less smug, and the smile started to fade from his lips, while the watchful eyes of the remaining seven oversaw it all.


“You…you son of a bitch,” Ezra hissed at Alaric, “you vomitous sack of manure, you poisonous boil....”


Alaric sneered, “funny, that’s how I’ve always thought of you.  At least now you know what it is like.  I watched my father die in my arms, Ezra…and now, poetically, you get to watch your toxic mother die in the same, horrible way….”


Suddenly, Alaric jumped back a foot as Ezra leapt at him, only to be saved once again as Buck appeared out of nowhere and pulled the gambler back.  Ezra twisted in the grip, yelling like a trapped tiger, and kicked the ladies’ man in the shin.  As Buck let go to grab at his leg, Chris was there, holding onto the gambler’s bad arm, and forcing Ezra to stop moving with the pain of having the broken limb squeezed.


“Judas!” Ezra gasped.  “Let me go, damn it!”


“No.  I’m stopping you from killing yourself, damn it” Chris hissed.  “You’ve a wounded and broken arm, Ezra…how long would you last?”


“You think I care?” Ezra growled back. “Just because you couldn’t kill Ella, don’t think I suffer from the same infirmity!”


Chris’s face turned to stone, but he didn’t let go. “Let the courts deal with him, Ezra.  He’s murdered an innocent woman, and he will pay….”


“Innocent?” Alaric laughed, “that demoness didn’t know the meaning of the word!”


“Chris!” Ezra begged to be let go, straining against the gunslinger’s numbing grip.


“I said innocent, and I meant it,” the gunslinger responded to Alaric, as a limping Buck stepped in on Ezra’s other side to take his good arm again.  “You just gunned down a defenseless woman in the back!  You think you can just walk away from that?”


“Please,” Alaric sneered, “don’t make me sick.  Not only have I finally rid the world of a scourge as black as the bubonic plague…”  he smiled as Ezra tried to get free again, “but I was well within my rights to stop her from escaping!”


“Escaping?” Ezra challenged, “She was walking towards you, you blistering idiot!  Into town, not from it!  Just ask Clara Stevens and her husband!  We passed right by them.”


“That’s right, they did.  They looked like they were headed towards the hotel,” the same Clara Stevens called.  “Maude said ‘lovely day’ to us, didn’t she dear?” she looked at her husband, who nodded.


“More lies,” Alaric said. “You were planning to escape.  That whole nonsense about getting a proper warrant was designed to give you a chance!  After all, where was your keeper?  The colored?  Nowhere to be found!  You’re all liars!  This whole town…”


“You saw us walking towards you yourself!  Your own men can verify it.  Why would we be walking into town if we were trying to escape?” Ezra demanded. “Tell me how you’re going twist that fact the way you twist all the others, Alaric!  Spin it anyway you like…. We…were…walking…INTO TOWN.”


“Well…Why should I even have to bother?” Alaric said, crossing his arms.  “I know what is right.  I’ve stopped a murderer.”


“No,” Chris growled before Ezra could argue again, “you perpetrated one.” 


“Justice has been served.  I’ve avenged my father,” Alaric replied.


“You murdered an innocent woman, you son of a bitch!” Ezra shouted, his voice becoming increasingly hoarse.  “She never killed anyone!”


“She killed my father!  Stabbed him in the back three times!”


“No!  He was stabbed once in the neck, once in the shoulder and only once in the back,” Ezra resounded hotly. 


“What?” Alaric raised his hands.  “So what!”


“So what?! Your damned father was six foot four and two hundred and fifty pounds!  My mother is barely five and a half feet tall!  Tell me how a woman that size stabs a man in the neck and the shoulder?  She’d have to hold the knife way over the top of her head!”


“So?  She knocked him down first.”


“With what?  Her feminine wiles?  There was nothing in the room to hit him with!  Worse, she couldn’t have knocked that man out with a shovel, he was so bloody huge!  She didn’t have the strength!  He would have killed her first!”


“Then she had an accomplice!  Everyone knows she had one.  The room was burgled!”


“You’ve tracked my mother for twenty years, Alaric…have you ever seen her use an accomplice for anything she does?  And have you ever…EVER…seen her resort to theft for anything?”


“She’s a con, boy, like you.  That isn’t very different from out and out theft.”


“But it isn’t the same either!”


“And she most certainly had an accomplice….she had you!”


Ezra started to laugh, the sound more hysterical than anything.


“So Ezra stabbed your father?” Mary asked from where she had gathered with most of the rest of the town on one of the boardwalks.  “Is that what you’re arguing Mr. Von Dietrich?”


“An eight year old boy?” Mrs. Potter added, her arms resting on the shoulders of her own ten year old son.  He looked up at his mother curiously.


“You damned a woman purely on circumstantial evidence,” Mr. Jensen declared hotly. 


“An innocent woman…,” Chris repeated. “Because we are all innocent until proven guilty, Von Dietrich.  You have not proven anything more than that Maude Standish was unlucky enough to be in the same room the night your father was killed and his rooms burgled.  You, however, gunned down a woman in cold blood…in the back…and in front of a town full of witnesses, including your own brother… and that sort of proof is incontrovertible.”


“Don’t include me in this, Mr. Larabee,” Wilhelm Von Dietrich said coldly.


“But you are involved,” Chris said, turning on him.  “After all, why are you here, Mr. Von Dietrich?”


“Because my brother asked me too.”


 “He asked you here to make sure Ezra couldn’t use his ties to the law to prevent him from taking Maude.  But he’s done more than that…he’s killed her.  Are you going to pretend that it didn’t happen?  Because, with or without your help, he’s under arrest for attempted murder, and, if she dies…murder.”


“Bullcrap!” Alaric shouted.


 “I disagree, Mr. Larabee,” Wilhelm said, calmly.  “I believe that he was merely attempting to prevent a criminal from escaping from justice, as she has done for far too long.  She ran from him, and he shot her.  If it were your family, and the woman who had killed them ran from you, would you not stop her the same way?”


Chris stared at him, and the ghost of an ironic smile crossed his lips.


“You are missing one fundamental component here, Mr. Von Dietrich,” Vin said from where he stood, loosely covering several of Alaric’s men with his Winchester, “proof.  If Chris had proof, undeniable proof, then, yes, maybe, he would…any of us would…but your brother hadn’t that proof.  Instead, he tracked a woman that, from the sounds of it, has been falsely accused of a crime she didn’t commit.  Makes you wonder why no one ever thought to track down the things that were stolen?  Or this supposed accomplice?  Did anyone ever bother to try and find him?”


Alaric stared at Vin in silence, but Wilhelm Von Dietrich just smiled.


“My brother tells me you are a fugitive yourself, Mr. Tanner.”


Vin smiled back. “I admit…I know a thing or two about what its like to be in Maude’s shoes.”


“Then, may I suggest, before you persist in trying to accuse my brother of something…you might take into account that I know a number of U.S. Marshals who would undoubtedly be interested in learning your whereabouts.”


Vin’s smile fell.


“And the rest of you,” Wilhelm continued, “my brother told me about what is called the law in this town.  I’d be more than willing to question Judge Travis’ fitness for office based on what he’s told me.  Protecting a town with scoundrels, conmen and Negroes – its unconscionable.”


Alaric was grinning again, watching his brother.


“I would therefore hesitate, gentlemen,” Wilhelm continued, “before you do something you will all regret.” 


“So…what are you proposing?” Chris asked slowly.  Ezra looked at the gunslinger.


“Maude’s dead…or she soon will be…and we leave.  Its over as far as I’m concerned.”


“Wait, I want her body!” Alaric said, grin dropping.


“We leave,” Wilhelm repeating, stressing the words for his brother, “and that’s the end of it.  Neither you, this town, or Ezra will ever hear from us again.”


“Wilhelm, no…I….”


“Shut up, Alaric.  I’m sick of this business.  I never want to see or talk about any of this ever again.”  Turning abruptly, Wilhelm started walking away, not even bothering to wait until Chris gave his assent to the agreement.


Alaric frowned, watching him go, then turned to look at Chris and Ezra.  Chris stared at him stonily, while Ezra’s gaze was nothing less than murderous.  Still frowning, Alaric lowered his eyes.


“Do we have a deal?” he asked quietly.


“I guess we do,” Chris replied.  Ezra growled.


Alaric nodded, and, flicking a hand in the air to indicate that his hired guns follow him, he started walking after his brother.


“Go be with your mother,” Chris ordered Ezra suddenly, before the gambler could think of a way to argue with him over what had just happened.  The gambler opened his mouth, but Chris stopped him, “She’d dying.  You should be with her.”


Ezra stared at him a moment longer, then grimaced.  “This isn’t over,” he snarled at the gunslinger.


“I expected as much,” Chris let Ezra go, and Buck did the same.


The gambler straightened his jacket and turned to head to the church, holding his arm tight to his chest so as to not jerk it too much.


“Is it really over?” JD asked, walking up from where he’d also been watching the other half of Alaric’s men.  Vin had walked casually after the two Von Dietrichs and their men, planning on keeping an eye on them a while longer.


“Maybe,” Chris replied darkly.  “You and Buck help Vin keep on eye on them.”



Part Fourteen


Ezra pushed through the doors, feeling the cold air of the stone church wash over him as he entered.  A couple of steps in, he stopped to see Nathan and Josiah talking quietly down near the altar.  Josiah was looking at the stains on his sleeves, while Nathan muttered something about soap.  Ezra walked towards them, his still unabated anger growing.


“Why aren’t you with her?” he demanded, looking at Nathan.  “Why aren’t you with her!”


The healer turned, then shook his head as Ezra reached them.  “There’s nothing I can…”


Ezra’s fist smacking him the jaw was the last thing he expected, and he fell backwards to the flagstone floor.


“Ezra!” Josiah chided.


“Help her!  Do something!  Don’t just give up!” Ezra shouted, glaring down at the shocked healer as Nathan held a hand to his now bruised jaw.


“Ezra, stop it!” Chris yelled from the front of the church as he walked inside.


“Oh, Brutus!” the gambler spun around, his left hand still gripped in a fist.  “Don’t you dare tell me what to do, Chris Larabee.  Othello had a more faithful friend in Iago.”


“Now, wait a moment,” the gunslinger said, his eyes narrowing, “Listen…”


“To what?  Your justification for letting the man who shot down my mother leave without a fight?  How could you let him go?  My mother is dying and you let her killer go!”


“Ezra, you don’t understand,” Chris started backing up as Ezra stalked towards him.


“Oh, but I do understand!  I understand all too well!  When Vin, or the judge or just about anyone else in this town is threatened, me and my mother get ratcheted down in importance.  You stopped the stage, and you made a deal with the devil, and I’m just supposed to bow down and let it happen?”  The gambler stood nearly toe to toe with Chris now, in the middle of the church, glaring at the gunslinger.  “He killed her, Chris.  He’s not going to get away with it.”


Chris stared at him, then frowned, “I can’t let you go after him, Ezra.”


“Oh?”  With almost unnatural speed, Ezra drew the Remington from his hip with his left hand and pointed at Chris’s head.  “You can’t stop me.  You should have taken this from me when you had the chance.”




The gambler froze at the voice from behind him. 


As distinctive as the rattle of the dice as they hit the pavement. 


He turned, looking over his shoulder towards the back door of the church hall.  His mother stood there, wrapped in a blanket.  Mrs. Greene stood next to her, adjusting the blanket on Maude’s shoulders.


“Ezra, that’s enough.  Put that gun away right this instant!”  Maude ordered.


The gun fell to the floor, dropped from shocked fingers.


“And don’t just stand there gaping.  Its freezing in this room.  I’m going to head back to the small room, where, for your information, Josiah has stocked the wood stove and it is quite toasty.  Are you coming?” She raised an eyebrow at him, then turned and walked back through the door.


“I think you should go, don’t you?” Chris asked quietly.


Ezra turned back to him, eyes torn between confusion and disbelief.  Without a word, he turned and went after her.


Chris blew the air out of his cheeks and stared down at the Remington lying on the flagstone floor.  Slowly, he bent down and picked it up.  After a moment, he placed it on one of the pews then went to join Josiah and Nathan by the dais.  Nathan was still rubbing his jaw, while Josiah simply grimaced at the now empty doorway.  Chris put a hand to his head to brush back his hair and sighed.


“Drew awfully fast, didn’t he,” Josiah asked, almost conversationally.


“Josiah,” Chris glanced at him, “I don’t want to talk about it.”



Mrs. Greene helped Maude sit down on the pallet, then went about cleaning her hands of a mixture of red dye and blood.  She glanced up as Ezra walked inside, grabbed the bowl of water, and walked outside.  Ezra stared after her as she left, then turned to his mother.


“What…just happened here?”


“Isn’t it obvious?” Maude said, looking up from where she sat. “One of the best cons I’ve ever pulled,” she smiled wanly.




“Fairly masterful, don’t you think?” she asked. “If a bit painful.”  She raised her hand, which was newly bandaged.  Blood peeked through the wrapping on her palm.


“You’re…not…,” he shook his head, “You’re not dying.”


“No.  Just hurt a little.”  She smiled.  “Of course,” she continued,  “I couldn’t have done it without help.  Your Mrs. Potter supplied the red dye, and your apothecary, Mr. Greene, the thickening agent to make it appear more like blood.  Smells foul, but then I suppose blood itself is not a pleasantly smelling liquid.”  She sighed, and shifted uncomfortably, a small grimace crossing her face.  “Nathan provided the vials…test tubes, I think he called them…small enough not to be seen when strapped to my back and very easy to shatter.  I had a small one in my hand as well,” she sighed.  “Mrs. Greene has just spent the last few minutes trying to get all the bits of broken glass out of my hand and back…but I think there is still some in there.”  She shifted again. “Plus, I bit my tongue.  Not on purpose, though it certainly helped the charade by providing some real blood.  Still, that’ll take a while to heal.”   Her bandaged hand touched her mouth, then she looked up again.  Ezra just continued to stare dumbfounded.


“Oh, and your sweet Mr. Chambers and Mr. Striker at the hotel…they switched the bullets in  Alaric’s gun with blanks.” She nodded, “And your friends Vin and Nathan were prepared to fire on any of Alaric’s men who looked like they might try to fire before there boss, but I didn’t think that was likely.  He was the bloodthirsty one, after all.  They just wanted to catch me…a simple, defenseless woman in thick pink skirts?  They weren’t going to fire.”  She still had the skirts of her dress on beneath the blanket around her shoulders.  “I am sorry about these skirts.  Ruined now, with the dye and the blood from my hand.  And they were so useful for hiding things.  You know there are at least five different hidden pockets in here?  Ah well.  Do you think someone here might be able to repair it?”


“Your skirts?…mother…You’re alive!”


Maude glanced up at him, then away.  “Yes…dear…I’m aware of that.  It was a con, remember?  I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you.  You had to be believable.  Alaric knows you too well.”  Her voice shook slightly, but whether it was from having to apologize to him or because of Alaric’s name, he didn’t know.


Ezra moved forward and sat on the pallet.  “Who…who else knew?”


“Well…um…Your Mr. Larabee, of course. He had to know.  And Mr. Tanner.  Josiah.  My friend Charlie…he’s the Russian gentlemen you all so rudely dismissed.  Um…your telegraph operator, Mr. Jensen, and really, whomever Gloria felt needed to be told who could help.”  She looked at him.  “I’m…I’m sorry, baby.  I would have told you…I didn’t…well, I didn’t expect your reaction to be so visceral.  I....”  she swallowed, then bit her lip.  “I’m sorry.” 


Ezra’s jaw was set, his lips pressed in a thin line and his mind swirling around in circles.


“So much could have gone wrong,” he said finally.


“I know,” she said.  “But this town of yours in special, Ezra.  These men you’ve found…” she smiled, “especially your Mr. Larabee.  I couldn’t have done this without them.”


Ezra shrugged that off, unable to think of the gunslinger right now.  “But why? Why did you do it?  You could have gone to Alaska.  I would have left here, and we would both have just disappeared again.  As we always do.  But now…sooner or later, Alaric will hear that you didn’t die, and he’ll just come back again.  He’ll hunt us both down for making a fool of him.  And it’ll be even worse.”


“Why should he?”  She shook his head, “He knows I’m not dead yet.  I can make a miraculous recovery.  And, honestly sweetheart, I don’t think he’s going to look for us anymore.”  She smiled, “Don’t you see?  We’re free.”


Ezra stared at her, then lowered his eyes.  “Mother, no…. This charade…you may think he’ll give up, but he won’t.  He’ll find us again.  One of his spies will recognize you the next time you’re in Saint Louis, or New Orleans, or Chicago.  So what was the point?  Why did you do all of this?  Why take the risk?”


She stared at him, her eyes bright.  Slowly, she reached up at touched his face, smiling softly.  “Because…because I want you to be happy,” she said.  “And for now, that means your life here, however much I may not understand it.”  She shook her head, “It is hard for me, Ezra, to think that I might lose you to this place…but I’d rather lose you to this town and these people than have you forced to leave here because of me.  Now you get to stay.” She gave an uncomfortable laugh, “I suppose that doesn’t make much sense.”


Ezra frowned, “You did this for me?”


She let her hand fall as she nodded, “I want you to be free,” she said, “to stay or go as you please.” 


His mind continued to swirl, not sure that what she’d done made any difference, but something came to him then with pinpoint clarity.  His mother was alive.   Suddenly, nothing else mattered except for the fact that she was still sitting there, talking to him.  Gently, he reached out and hugged her to him. 


“Mother,” he whispered, feeling the way she shook in his arms from fear, “You will never lose me.”



Part Fifteen


“It doesn’t seem right,” JD said, watching as the rented stage pulled out with Alaric, Wilhem and their flunkies.  “I know…what I know…and yet he still tried to kill her.  It shouldn’t matter that she’s still alive.”


“I know,” Vin agreed, scuffing a boot on the boardwalk.


“I think Ezra still wants to go after him,” Buck said, sipping from his beer as he sat on the bench. “He’s not doing so well at keeping still now that the initial shock has worn off.”


“What does Chris think?” JD asked, turning to the ladies’ man.


“I don’t know,” Buck admitted.  “He’s acting sort of strange.”


 “That’s an understatement,” Vin said.  He looked up. “He wants to go after them as well.  And so do I.”


“We all do,” Josiah admitted, walking up to join them.  “But…it may be a necessary evil to keep things the way they are.”  He looked pointedly at Vin, who lowered his gaze.


“If the only thing holding you back is me….”


“It’s not,” Buck said quickly.  “There is the judge, and Maude herself to consider. She is still wanted in South Carolina for that murder.  And then there’s all of us.  Think any of us could stay if that bastard went through on his threat?  And then where would the town be?  It took Royal all of a day before he attempted to burn it to the ground last time last time we were run out.  How long do you think he’d wait this time?”


Vin gritted his teeth, but nodded.


“Still doesn’t seem right,” JD repeated.


“Well, Alaric has Ezra’s words to consider now,” Buck said.  “I saw something in his eyes when he finally turned away…he can see beyond his hatred for Maude now.  Perhaps he might finally locate the man who really did this.”



Ezra walked slowly from the church towards the saloon, his hands buried deep in his pockets.  It’d been a day and a night now since Alaric had left, and there were some things he needed to clear up.  Maude remained inside the church.  She was going to stay there a while before emerging and moving into the hotel in order to finish making her “recovery.”  Both Nathan and Josiah were talking turns watching over her.


He pushed his way into the saloon and looked around.  He saw Buck, Vin and JD playing cards over to one side, but they were not who he was looking for.  Instead he sought out the one man he hadn’t been able to face yet.


With a harsh swallow, he crossed the floor and stood over the solitary table at the back of the saloon where Chris Larabee was slowly drinking himself to death.


“Mr. Larabee,” he said quietly, “may I join you?”


Chris glanced up at him, shrugged, and kicked out a chair opposite him.  Ezra took it and placed both hands on top of the table.


“I owe you an apology,” the gambler started.


“No you don’t,” came the immediate reply, though it was growled half drunkenly.  Chris took another swig of the red-eye in his glass and began to pour more from the bottle.


“I said…I owe you an apology,” Ezra repeated, ignoring the other’s words.  “I should have had more faith in you.  Trusted you.  For the last two years, I’ve been trying hard to convince you to trust me.  And…I think you were beginning to.  But you can’t trust me, because…because I obviously didn’t trust you.  I didn’t believe you could trust me, so….” He stopped, wondering if he was making any sense with this circular argument.  Chris took advantage of the pause.


“Look, Ezra, I said there was nothing….”


“Wait,” Ezra said, “there’s more.  I said some things to you.  About Ella. And I held a gun on you.  I….”


“All understandable, considering.  And I deserved all of it.  And, frankly, if the roles had been reversed…I’d probably have killed you.  At least you only threatened to.” 


“Damn it, Chris, that’s not true!” Ezra slammed the table, finally forcing the other’s eyes on him, “What you did for my mother…for me….the fact that you didn’t shoot Ella…all of that just proves that you….”


Chris held up a hand, “Ezra, stop.  I already said you have nothing to apologize for, and I meant it.  Truth is,” he sighed,  “I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m sorry for not slapping Alaric Von Dietrich in chains right then and there.   It doesn’t matter that your mother was still alive, he still tried to kill her.  I should have said to hell with your mother’s plan.  I should have gone with my gut.”  He took another swig.


Ezra stared at him a moment, then smiled.  “Your…your gut?  Your gut told you to arrest him?”


Chris gave him a dark look, then poured himself some more whiskey.


“Chris…”  Ezra was almost grinning now.  “You mean to say…you ignored your instincts…for my mother and me?  That you would have arrested him but for my mother’s plan?”


“Just keep digging it deeper, don’t you Ezra.”


Ezra just sat back, his eyes bright.  Finally he shook his head.  “You really are a great man, you know that?” he asked.  “Thank you.”


Chris stopped as he raised the glass to his lips, then slowly put it down.  He stared at Ezra like he had two heads.




“I said thank you.”


“You’re thanking me?  For doing something I’ve been hating myself over for two days?”




Chris stared at him a moment longer, then stood up.  “You’re insane, Standish.”  With a shake of his head, the gunslinger walked away from the table and out of the saloon.


But he left the bottle behind.


Ezra stood up as well, but he didn’t leave.  Instead, still smiling, he walked over to where Vin, Buck and JD were playing and sat down.  They stopped playing and looked at him.  He grinned more broadly.


“Room for one more?” he asked.


Buck smiled back, “Always.”


Continue to Epilogue