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Fourth of July.

"Mr. Kendall, Mr. Wilson," he nodded from one to the other, "I want to apologize for my behavior on the night of my arrival."

He paused, feeling a palpable increase of violence in the air.

Kendall's nostrils flared, but both men stayed locked in position.

"There is no excuse for it, but I would like to offer an explanation, as I believe it contains information you should know."

When neither man moved nor spoke, he continued, more firmly, "In the two weeks before I arrived here, I was bashed in the head, robbed, mistaken for a union organizer, beaten by railroad deputies, jailed, and nearly drowned in a flash flood. A farmer's wife near Temple fed me, gave me some of her husband's old clothes, and loaned me the nag I was on when I rode in here. I'd been on the trail for about twenty hours when I ran into two fellows who pointed me in this direction. If I hadn't been starving and nearly asleep on my feet, I wouldn't have taken what they told me as truth, and I definitely wouldn't have spoken the way I did about Mrs. Connor."

Kendall shifted restlessly when Brody mentioned his wife's name.

"It is no justification for my transgression, but again, I believe you should know what was said."

Brody looked from one glaring set of eyes to another, until Kendall dipped his chin, acquiescing.

When Brody finished his story, the other men exchanged a long look.

Kendall moved first, pushing himself away from the door, and Brody's forearms twitched in anticipation. When the half-breed merely hooked his thumbs in his belt, Brody exhaled.

Wilson cleared his throat. "One of the men you spoke to was a bit older, skinny, with two white teeth in a mouthful of rotten ones?"

Brody nodded. "Yessir. The other had bushy dark hair and a beard, taller but tending to flesh, weak-looking."

Wilson and Kendall exchanged another glance, and Kendall strolled around to join his partner behind the desk, leaning his elbow on a barrister's cabinet filled with books and papers.

Begrudgingly, he offered a few words, "We let go a man meetin' that description a couple of weeks before you showed up. He's . . . ." Kendall lifted a shoulder, sneering.

Wilson nodded and picked up the explanation. "The toothy one is the unscrupulous sort who would delight in taking just such a cowardly and anonymous revenge."

Brody began to nod as he absorbed the information. After a moment, he made a small gesture, palms forward in supplication. "Regardless of their motives, I am not in the habit of speaking ill of anyone, man nor woman, most especially a person with whom I'm unacquainted. Again, I don't expect forgiveness, but I did want to apologize for offending your family."

He made a half-bow and straightened. His skin stretching tightly across his mouth and cheeks, Brody tried desperately to conceal how much he actually did want absolution, in light of what depended on it.

The two men stared in silence. Both nodded sharply at about the same time.

Kendall jerked his chin toward the door. "See it don't happen again, and we'll let history lie."

Brody bowed once more and left the cabin, fighting the urge to collapse against the outer wall. He'd spent what felt like a large portion of his life in mining towns where a man would kill you for money to buy hooch, so he shook it off- but Christ Almighty, those were two hard men. If it wasn't for Miss Connor, he'd let history lie in his backtrail instead of hanging around the KCW hoping for rocks to soften.

Ah, well. He'd give it a couple of weeks before he came back up to the house to ask about calling on their sister. That should be an interesting conversation.

Inside the long, low cabin, Colt and Jeremiah waited until the sound of Brody's footfalls receded.

Jem lifted his chin with a question. "You think it might be Lem cutting fences, too, these past few weeks?"

Colt shrugged. "Offhand, I don't see who else it'd be. They're too far-spaced for it to be a boy running wild."

They were both silent for a minute, thinking about the cowhand they'd fired

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