Vin tilted his chair back doing a quick survey of the room as he waited for Josiah and JD to return with the peacekeeper's drinks. Seated on either side of the long haired tracker, Nathan and Larabee were discussing the damage done to several small farms during a recent violant thunderstorm which had ripped through the area. Buck leaned against the far wall, a beer in one hand, his other arm around Molly whispering in the saloon girl's ear while the last of their little group was seated at his usual gaming table, a dimpled smile on his handsome face as Ezra swiftly dealt another round of poker.
"So ya think Bennett'll really sell out this time?" Larabee grinned. Everytime something went wrong, the farmer swore he was getting rid of it all and heading for the gold fields. This last thunderstorm had destroyed sections of the man's fence and Bennett had spent three days chasing down his pigs.
"Gotta better question." Nathan nodded his thanks to JD as the young sheriff passed him one of the beer mugs. "Where's Ezra been sneakin' off to everyday this week?"
Larabee pretended not to see his best friend stifle a smile, as Tanner refused to join in the speculation which ranged from secretly meeting someone's wife to setting up a con job and everything illegal or immoral in between.
The sharpshooter's blue eyes held a delightful twinkle as they settled on the town's resident gambler. The tracker couldn't help but smile thinking how far from the truth they were and how stunned they'd be if made aware of the southerner's true activities.
The peacekeepers had scattered to the outlying areas after the storm, assessing damage and checking on residents who might need help, Mary posting the names of those in most need of assistance from neighbors.
Tanner had been on patrol when he'd crossed paths with Nettie Wells, who confessed she was worried about Granny Hinkley. The older woman's name hadn't been on the list but she was something of a recluse, living far back in the hills and was far too stubborn to ask for or accept help. Enjoying Nettie's company, Vin had ridden along with his friend into the hills, hoping together they might be able to, as Nettie had so eloquently phrased it, 'talk some sense into the old bat's hard head'.
"My stars and garters!" Nettie's exclamation didn't accurately describe their reaction, when topping the ridge, they'd looked down on the small homestead to discover the gambler, stripped to the waist and hammer in hand, repairing the storm damaged smoke house.
Vin had waited out of sight, lounging in the shade while Nettie rode on down to visit. She'd finally taken her leave and joining up with Tanner back on the trail, reported that Ezra had discovered the storm damage his first day. Somehow, with his glib silver tongue, he had charmed the eccentric old woman's consent of his help in rebuilding. Nettie had snickered as she informed Vin, Granny had told her, 'that young man can be very persuasive and his payment couldn't be more reasonable'.
Tanner had inwardly cringed at the word payment, knowing if Chris found out, he'd wring the, sometimes greedy, gambler's neck.
As if sensing his thoughts, Nettie smiled as she added Ezra's payment had consisted of nothing more than lunch, the pleasure of Granny's company and her secrecy. According to the obviously pleased woman he had already fixed the fence enclosing her tiny garden, rebuilt the small building that housed her milk cow and a few chickens and repaired the porch.
"Not bad for someone who doesn't engage in menial labor." Nettie had quipped. Nettie and Vin had mutually agreed to keep the gambler's lastest benevolant enterprise between themselves, knowing it would only embarrass the man if his actions became public knowledge.
"Awww hell....Trouble." Tanner groaned.
Four pairs of eyes followed the tracker's gaze, coming to rest on the woman standing just inside the batwing doors. She was shoving money into a man's hand issuing instructions like a calvary sargeant.
"Ya feelin' alright Vin?" Chris asked pulling a cheroot from his pocket.
"Yeah..." Tanner eyed Larabee suspiciously as the gunslinger lit the thin cigar. "Why?"
"Just wonderin' why ya didn't know there was another storm blowin' inta town." Larabee grinned, his comment drawing chuckles from the other men. He sobered, watching as the woman pushed her way through the Saturday night crowd.
"He knows..." All eyes turned to the subject of their earlier discussion at the sharpshooter's quiet comment.
Ezra was in the process of tossing a silver dollar into the hefty pot in the middle of the table, raising the stakes . The five men all noticed the slight stiffening of his back, the way his head dropped just a fraction before the gambler took a deep breath and turned his attention back to his opponents.
"One a these days I'm gonna figure out how he does that." Chris muttered under his breath, bringing a slight smile to Vin's face. The gambler had an uncanny knack for knowing who was approaching without so much as a glance in the person's direction.
"If ya'd informed me of your impending visit Mother I would have made it a point to reserve ya a seat." Ezra didn't bother to look at the woman who'd come to a stop behind his chair, as he added another bill to the growing pot.
"We need to talk....Now!" The peacekeepers watched in amusement as Maude snatched the cards from her son's hand throwing them on top of the money. "He folds."
"Mother! That was aces full!"
"I said we need to talk." Maude reiterated, sounding every bit like an angry mother speaking to an errant schoolboy, as she turned to give the other occupants of the table a dazzling smile. "If you gentlemen will excuse us."
The peacekeepers exchanged bemused expressions as gripping her son's wrist, Maude dragged the sputtering red faced southerner up the stairs to his room.
"Looks like somebody's goin' to the woodshed." Josiah chuckled, causing the other men to snicker.
Their amusement was cut short as Larabee growled. "Wonder what the hell she wants." The blond man tried to ignore the sick feeling of dread growing in his stomach, but he knew all too well, Maude's visits didn't bode well for the peacekeepers, the town and especially for Ezra.
"Probably needs him ta help her con somebody outta their life savin's." Nathan sniped with a sneer.
"Ezra don't do that no more." The young sheriff's simple statement of confidence in his friend brought smiles to three of his four friends.
Nathan scowled, wanting to believe JD was right. He'd seen the changes in the con man since his association with the other six men who protected the town of Four Corners and although he considered the gambler not only a good friend but someone he trusted to watch his back, the healer had seen too many men revert to old habits when tempted with an irrisistable bait. And a conniving woman like Maude would definately know exactly the most tempting bait to dangle in front of her son to gain his full and undivided attention.
"How come nobody told me Maude was gonna be on the stage?" Wilmington dropped into a chair beside Josiah's, pulling Molly onto his lap. "Might have been tempted to stay out on patrol."
The front legs of Tanner's chair hit the floor with a dull thud. His eyes momentarily locked with Larabee's before the ex-bounty hunter pushed to his feet and hurried from the saloon.
"What's with Vin?" JD questioned, staring after the departing man.
Josiah exchanged looks with Larabee, "Weren't no stage today."
With a weary sigh of disgust, Ezra hung his hat on the bedpost. Aces full....Damn! He turned to the woman who stood staring at him. "Alright mother, what is so important it couldn't wait until I finished acquiring-"
"Jake Cole escaped." A surge of pride welled in Maude as she watched her son utilize a life time of training to appear unfazed by her words, certain only she would have noticed the flash of fear that streaked through his emerald eyes. Yes, her inner voice whispered, you've taught him well.
"I'm sorry to say you've worked yourself into a tizzy for nothing Mother." He motioned her to the comfortable rocker beside the bed. "Even if Mr. Cole had intentions of carrying out his vile threats, it's an enormous country in which to search for one lone person when ya have no idea where to look and it has been fifteen...."
The words trailed off, the color draining from his face as Ezra's gaze settled on the very familiar object Maude had pulled from the cloth bag attached to her wrist. With a sad shake of her head, she flipped the item down on the quilt, refusing to acknowledge the shiver she saw race through her son's slender form.
"Stage broke an axle just outside Hickory City." Vin reported, returning to his chair.
"Talked ta the man what drove her. Told him she couldn't wait on repairs. Promised him a bonus iffen he could get her here in two days."
"Damn! Must be important!" Buck, having sent Molly on her way with promises of seeing her later, whistled lowly. "That's a good three day ride on horseback."
"Maybe his rich uncle died and left him a fortune." Nathan muttered. "Only thing important to 'em Standishes is money and..." He trailed off at Chris' deepening scowl.
"Guess we'll know soon enough." Larabee crinched, as the sound of a slamming door superceded the saloon noise.
Her perfect posture stiff as a board, Maude calmly descended the stairs. An aura of fear and apprehension mixed with the anger that fairly radiated from the woman. The six men, oblivious as to why, were stunned by the glare of pure hatred she tossed their direction before she marched from the saloon and headed for the hotel.
As he listened to his mother's angry steps descending the stairs, Ezra turned down the lamp and stepped to the side of the window. Barely stirring the light drapes he surveyed the dark street, watching as Maude entered the hotel.
How many years had it been before the nightmares had finally abated? How long had it taken for him to stop jumping at shadows? How long had it taken him to realize every stranger who sat at his table hadn't been hired by Cole to end the gambler's life?
Damnit to hell! Why now? Why couldn't the man have died in the hell hole of Yuma prison? Why now! Now when he was finally found a place to belong and was learning to trust the men he worked with.
Ezra raked a trembling hand through his hair in aggitation, hearing again the vindictive man's threatening words as clearly as if Cole were standing in the room with him, his dark eyes crazed with revenge.
The gambler's green eyed gaze fell once more to the solitary object Maude had tossed onto the bed. He shook his head. He should have know it would only be a matter of time.
Ezra ignored the peacekeepers as offering his apologies for his absence he calmly sat down, shuffled the proferred cards and resumed the interrupted poker game.
Looking up from the pew he was sanding, Josiah was surprised to see Ezra standing just inside the half opened door. The ex-priest tugged his watch from his pocket, shook it and held it to his ear certain the timepiece reading just after eight in the morning had to be wrong.
Returning the watch to his pocket, the large man continued his work, inconspiciously watching the gambler. Ezra's eyes searched every corner and shadow, his body language tense as he avoided the windows making his way cautiously to the front of the church. He ran his fingers lightly over the alter woodwork and Josiah realized he was standing where he could watch both entrances to the building.
The cardsharp finally spoke, his voice low. "Might I have a word with you Mr. Sanchez?" "Sure...." Josiah straightened, studying the younger man. He could see the dark circles of sleeplessness under the gambler's eyes although he knew Ezra had retired to his room just after midnight, earlier than usual for him. "Ya okay Ezra?"
"Of course.....I....." The gambler hesitated, examining the alter again as he gathered his thoughts. "As you know, my mother arrived last night.....I would like to hire your services as an escort."
"Pardon?" He set the sanding block aside looking at the southerner in puzzled confusion. Ezra flustered slightly, thinking his wording was not the best a touch of pink flushing his cheeks as he clarified, "I would like to pay you to escort Maude to Eagle Bend and see her safely on the train."
Josiah leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees, studying the younger man. "Surprised she ain't stayin'.....Thought she'd wanna visit a few days."
"She has pressing business elsewhere and I find myself....." The gambler hesitated again, searching for a suitable explanation without lying to the man of faith who had become his friend. The preacher waited, certain he'd never seen the cocky gambler so nervous or so unaccustomedly unsure of himself. "I will of course reimburse you handsomely for your time Mr. Sanchez, I don't expect ya to-"
"Ya don't have to pay me ta do ya a favor Ezra." Josiah protested, his concern growing as the younger man kept glancing at the window. "I'd be pleased to go with Maude.....Just wonderin'-"
"Thank you Mr. Sanchez." Ezra interrupted, hurrying for the door. "I shall inform you as soon as she's ready."
It was only after the southerner had left that Josiah realized the gambler had left by the rear door.
Ezra set the hastily filled carpet bag on the floor of the closet next to the bulging saddle bags. He'd leave tonight when the town, and hopefully the six peacekeepers, was sleeping. Slamming the door, the gambler pressed his forehead against the wood, unable to bring himself to glance around the now empty room that had been his home for the last two years.
Two years. Probably a year and fifty weeks longer than he'd ever spent anywhere. Of course he'd never had a home and family before.
Blinking rapidly against the tears filling his eyes, Standish lay down on the bed, curling into a ball on his side. Closing his eyes, he tried not to think of what he was about to do, but the warm memories refused to let him rest. With a groan, he realized he had finally come to accept the dusty little town in the middle of nowhere as his home.
Home. With that realization came another. Family. As much as he'd fought against the very concept, he had come to think of the six peacekeepers as the family he'd never known. Six unique individuals who stood beside him, protected him, accepted him for who he was and more importantly trusted him.
Trusted him. They trusted Ezra P. Standish...a gambler and a conman. A man they trusted not to lie to them....at least about anything important. Trusted him not to run out on them. He'd given his word to Chris......Too bad but he'd made an even greater promise to himself. He'd promised he would protect those six men no matter what happened and now he couldn't let them pay for mistakes from his past.
Mistake? He shook his head. Cole a mistake? No, not this time. Ezra would never think of what he'd done as a mistake!
Maude paced the hotel room, her anger growing with each passing minute. Ezra had lied to her! Her son had stood in this very room, looked her straight in the eye and lied as smoothly as if she were some mark he was out to bilk. Worse, to her chagrin she had believed his words!
She couldn't stop the smile of pride which momentairly graced her lips. Damn he was good. She had taught him well...too well when he could turn the tables on her like that. Ezra had marched into the room and calmly informed her Josiah would be escorting her to the train in Eagle Bend. Just like that. She was being dismissed. Sent away. Oh he said it was for her own safety....but....
'Rule number one Mother, always look out for number one.' The words held no sarcasm. He was simply stating facts. Facts and rules she'd taught him but he had neglected to finish the full saying she had taught him. '.....always look out for number one because no one else ever will.'
Their argument had raged for nearly an hour before she'd finally elicited his promise to leave. Follow rule number one! Run. Leave this filthy little burg and never look back. He'd agreed. Promising to leave.....after he knew she was safely on her way east. As far as either of them were aware, Jake Cole didn't know Maude, but neither of them had survived in their livlihoods by being stupid or taking unnecessary chances.
It was only after he'd left, when she'd had time to think, had time to run through the changes in her son since joining the peacekeepers Maude had come to see the lie.
She had known he'd given his word to Larabee....promised the gunman he wouldn't run out on them again....and for some reason she couldn't fathom, Maude knew her son intended to keep that silly promise to the gunslinger.
The angry woman stopped pacing and gathering her gloves and bag, reached for the doorknob. Well, she'd take care of that right now.
Scrubbing away the tears, Ezra rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Damnit! Why did everything he touch turn to mud? He'd tried so hard to turn his miserable life around. He'd wanted his friends....his family....to be proud of him. He'd wanted them to be able to say they were happy to have known him. Now, all his efforts had been for naught. All for nothing.
Now because of him, because he had chosen to stay here among them, those same friends were in danger.
Ezra was surprised by the pang of guilt he felt at having had lied to Maude. He had told her he'd leave. Had promised her he'd follow rule number one even though he had no intention of doing any such thing. He simply couldn't desert these men. Not again. Not ever.
It was only after he'd returned to his room, the full weight of that decision had descended on him. His staying in Four Corners would no doubt mean one or more of his friend's deaths. There was no way he could permit that to happen.
Snapping the watch lid shut, Ezra climbed to his feet and straightened his clothing. The others would be expecting him to join them for lunch before he started the afternoon patrol. He would go down, sit with them, pretend to eat...keep up the pretence of normalcy for just a while longer. Then he'd be gone and quickly forgotten.
Reaching for his hat, his hand brushed the only other object laying on the dresser. The object Maude had disgustedly tossed on the bed. A simple crumbled dime novel. Gathering the book and crushing it in his hands, he hurled the piece of literature across the room, releasing a minute portion of his anger and frustration.
Seeing the indignation burning in Maude's eyes, Inez quickly returned to her place behind the bar, deciding it would be safer to let the three peacekeepers already at the table wait for their lunch than approach them now and get caught in the crossfire.
Maude raked her disgusted gaze over Vin, who remembering his manners rose and pulled out one of the chairs for her. Ignoring the sharpshooter's attempts to be civil, she locked her full attention on Larabee. "I want ta congratulate ya'll....Or maybe I should be offering my salutations to my son.....Evidently Ezra's taught ya well in the art of the con."
"Gotta problem, Maude?" Chris questioned nonchalantly as he pulled a cheroot from his pocket. Striking a match on the bottom of his boot, he puffed on the slim cigar to light it before returning his even gaze to Ezra's mother.
"As y'all know, I have made my feelings regarding Ezra's decision to remain in this....mud hole you consider society....well known on many occasions and he has persistantly chosen to ignore my advice. He seems ta think you....gentlemen..." She managed to make the word sound like an insult, "are his friends...."
"We are." Vin stated quietly staring at the woman in bewilderment. This was a side of Maude Standish none of the them had seen before. The Maude Standish they knew always seemed so calm and composed, letting nothing ruffle her feathers, yet the woman standing before them now, gripping the back of an empty chair so tightly her knuckles were white more closely resembled someone fighting to control their rising panic.
"Oh really?....." She deemed to give the long haired man a smug look. "With friends like you he sure as hell doesn't need any more enemies.....Ya'll are always condemning Ezra for using his God given talents, yet you, yourselves, are usin' the most deceitful maneuvers at your disposal ta hold him here."
Engaged in their usual horseplay as they entered the saloon, Buck and JD skidded to a halt. Taking in the scene being played out, the ladie's man pulled the young sheriff to the bar. Motioning over the Spanish barmaid, he whispered. "What's goin' on?"
Inez just shook her head, giving them a slight shrug. She really wasn't sure what was happening but she was certain she wanted no part of it.
Chris knocked the ash from his cheroot. "Ezra can leave anytime he wants Maude. Ain't nobody holdin' a gun ta his head." Larabee sneered, his intense dislike of the woman apparent and growing with each passing moment.
In the back of his own mind the gunslinger felt a moment's doubt. Was Nathan right? Had Maude come to town, hoping to elicit Ezra's help in a con? If she had, her anger indicated JD was also justified in his belief the gambler would turn her down. After all, having received his pardon from Judge Travis as promised, there was no longer anything hanging over the con man's head to keep him in Four Corners. The six men had hoped he stayed because he truly wished to and because he believed he belonged with them.
A moment's heartache hit and Chris shoved the thought aside. He didn't want to think what his life would become if any of the six men he'd come to think of as family finally decided it was time for them to move on. Maude's next words drew his attention back to the furious woman.
"Who needs a loaded gun when guilt and a misplaced sense of obligation are just as effective?"
Enraged at what the woman was insinuating, he growled, "Don't know where ya got the idea we'd stoop ta your level....but at least we give a damn what happens to Ezra."
Every eye in the saloon widened in shock, as with a resounding smack, Maude's open palm met Larabee's cheek.
Eyes flashing, she hissed out, "I hope ta hell whatever it is my son thinks he owes you is worth the price, Mr. Larabee, because most assuredly, staying here will more than likely cost him-"
All eyes turned as one to see Ezra standing at the bottom of the stairs. Intent on the confrontation between the con woman and gunslinger not one of them had noticed the gambler's appearance.
"You've said quite enough, Mother." The quiet words rang through the saloon just as loudly as Maude's slap. Ezra, his face pale, a haggard look about his eyes, stood staring at the woman who'd given him birth as if she were a total stranger.
"The hell I have! Don't you think your...friends," She spat the word out with revulsion, "deserve to know what you're so willing to sacrifice-"
"Shut up Mother! I do not intend to tell you again." The gambler's demand shocked them all, none moreso than Maude.
The woman's mouth snapped shut, her cheeks flushing with indignation. Stunned and oddly enough, fascinated, everyone watched the battle of wills between mother and son. Ezra had rarely won any contest against the formidable Maude and under normal circumstances Vin would have been rooting for the gambler, but with a growing sense of apprehension, the tracker's intuition screamed there was more to this situation than just Ezra's mere refusal to help his mother steal someone's money. For that reason, the young sharpshooter found himself wanting Maude to be the victor, certain it was the only way they would discover the true cause of the anger between mother and son.
"I believe ya owe Mr. Larabee, an apology." Ezra bluntly pointed out, infuriating Maude even further.
How dare he think she would apologize to that ruffian gunfighter. "Unlike you, darlin' boy I don't feel I owe Mr. Larabee...or any of these other men.....a damn thing."
Ezra slowly crossed the room and taking Maude's upper arm in an iron grip led the woman toward the exit gracing her with a glare that would have done Chris proud. His voice remained calm, his tone low with an edge of hardness. "You're makin' a spectacle of yourself Mother. I suggest we continue this discussion in the privacy of your room where I do recall asking ya to wait until it was time for your departure."
Practically shoving her out onto the boardwalk, he glanced around the room. "Please accept my apologies gentlemen. I'm afraid my mother is feeling a bit out of sorts....probably due to the overwhelming heat." He turned abruptly and still gripping Maude's arm, hustled her across the street.
"But it ain't that hot," JD commented naively as he looked at the other men who were staring after the departing Standishes in total bewilderment.
Outside his mother's room, Ezra caught the door before it was slammed in his face and calmly stepped inside, softly closing the barrier behind him. He watched as Maude stepped to the mirror where she adjusted several strands of hair that had slipped from the elaborate style. Eyeing his reflection in the mirror, her voice was like ice when she finally spoke. "I don't appreciate being lied to by my only child."
Ezra leaned back slightly against the door, his tone equally as cold. "And I don't appreciate having my personal business put on public display by my only mother." He retorted sarcastically. "That deplorable scene in the saloon accomplished nothing more than to make you appear like an hysterical female and overbearing mother and we both know you're neither."
"Don't you dare reprimand me Ezra P. Standish!" The silver backed hairbrush hit the dresser top with a thwack which actually caused the hustler to jump as Maude spun to face him. Her expression softened as he sagged further back against the door, his shoulders slumping. Slowly crossing the room, she gently placed a hand against his cheek. "I may not be the perfect mother Ezra but I do worry about you....and I.....don't want to lose you. Not to some silly peacekeeping accident nor to some crazed lunatic.....Don't you understand, if you stay here, Jake Cole will kill you."
"I assure you, Mother, I have no intention of remaining here."
Maude was stunned by the depths of unbearable sadness revealed in the emerald eyes.
"Yes, I will admit I lied to you when I first told ya I would leave but unfortunately upon further consideration I realized your assessment of the present circumstances was correct and it would be in....my...." She caught the ever so slight hesitation of the emphasized word, "best interest to vacate this municipality."
"Ezra, my sweet boy-" She had never seen such despair in her son's eyes before.
"Mother I would appreciate it if you would do as I earlier requested." Ezra stepped away from her. "I know ya don't take kindly to being given what ya might consider orders, however, it is for your safety as well as my own. If Cole arrives and discovers your identity before you take your leave of this charming town, he would undoubtly use you to get to me. I don't wish to see any harm come to you which is why I asked Mr. Sanchez to accompany you to Eagle Bend. As soon as I know you're safely on your way I, myself, will execute my departure....." He hesitated, then softly added, "One final favor,.....I would appreciate it if you kept this....all of this....to yourself."
With a wistful smile, Ezra placed a loving kiss on her cheek. "Goodbye Mother, I'll be in touch as soon as Cole is no longer a threat. I'm sure you'll understand if I don't see you off at the stage tamorra." With another small smile, he turned and left, closing the door softly behind him.
Only then did the tears begin to streak Maude's powdered cheeks as she began to realize what this place and these people had come to mean to her son.
"Guess ya was right JD." Buck muttered, giving Inez a wan smile as she placed bowls of stew before the men, setting a large plate of buttered bread in the middle of the table. He absently gathered two slices. "Ya said Ez wouldn't help her with a con."
"Told ya he don't do that no more." The young sheriff reiterated stubbornly, averting his eyes from the red mark of Maude's handprint still visible on Larabee's cheek. "Musta been hard on Ezra though.....Didn't think Maude would get that mad."
"Musta been a hellava lotta money, to throw her inta that kinda hissy fit." Wilmington found his eyes wandering to the fading outline as well, stifling a smile. Few people crossed Chris Larabee and lived to speak of it. The damn woman had guts, he'd give her that. "Reckon if we was ta ask, Ez, he'd tell us how much?"
"Whatever it is ya wanna ask Ezra is gonna have ta wait," Nathan answered, as he entered and crossed to the table. "Just seen him headin' out on patrol." Realizing there wasn't an empty bowl on the table to imply the gambler had eaten before heading out, the healer felt himself growing angry. It seemed to him whenever Maude came to town, her son didn't eat enough to keep a newborn kitten alive. "I can't believe y'all let him get outta here without...." Glancing at Chris, his dark eyes widened and he reached out to grasp Larabee's chin, turning the man's face toward the light. "What the hell happened ta you?"
"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Josiah intoned with a chuckle ignoring the glare aimed in his direction. "Seems Maude feels we've had a detrimental influence on Ezra. Reckon he turned down whatever proposition she had in mind...."
"Don't think it's 'bout money." Vin spoke up, stirring the stew disinterestedly.
"Hell, Vin, with Maude everything's about money." Larabee shoved his own bowl away, unable to push aside the overwhelming feeling Tanner was right.
"Whatda ya mean Vin?" Ignoring the stew even JD appeared more interested in what was happening than his lunch.
Tanner shrugged, searching for the words to explain the feelings. They'd all dealt with Maude Standish enough to know what was important to her....money. Win or lose she seemed to enjoy running the con, taking on the game and trying to outsmart those around her, but she never ever discussed the actual money made.
Discussing the financial profit or ramifications was considered by the woman as crude and undignified yet she'd been about to tell them what Ezra was giving up by staying in Four Corners. Like her son, always in control of her emotions, people saw only what she wanted them to see but the woman who had lashed out at Chris Larabee hadn't been playing a role.
That realization shook the young tracker. "Did ya'll really take a close look at her?....Somethin's got Maude runnin' scared...."
"Scared? How ya mean?" JD questioned naively. Anybody with nerve enough to slap Chris wouldn't be frightened of the devil himself. "That woman ain't scared a nothin'."
Larabee shook his head replaying the previous events in his mind, seeing the signs the tracker had so easily read. "Vin's right. Somethin's wrong and it's got her so worried she forgot herself."
"Ya thinkin' what I am Chris?" Vin eyed his friend questioningly.
Larabee nodded. "I think maybe we ought to let Mrs. Standish finish her conversation."
Knowing, being on patrol, Ezra wouldn't be back for several hours. Chris looked to the preacher certain he had the best chance of convincing Maude to finish what she'd started. "Josiah, wanna fetch Maude back here so we can find out what that somethin' is?"
"Iffen I was her, I don't think I'd wanna face the lion in his den." Josiah sighed, tossing his napkin aside and pushing back from the table. A twinkle in the blue grey eyes, the gunfighter added, "'Specially after I whopped him with a right cross."
Larabee grinned wolfishly. "Than don't ask."
"Somebody give me a gun!" A woman's high shrill demand floated on the air, anger dripping off the southern drawled words.
"What the hell is that?" Wilmington jumped from the chair at the feminine screech and rushed to the saloon entrance. Slapping his knee, he bent double as he roared with laughter, finally gathering himself enough to hold aside one of the batwing doors. "Ya'll just ain't gonna believe this."
Unlike the funloving womanizer of their group the other peacekeepers had the good grace to choke back their laughter and hide their smiles behind their hands as Josiah stepped through the door, a kicking shrieking Maude Standish thrown over his shoulder like a sack of feed.
The woman's fists were pounding ceaselessly on his broad back, but never seemed to phase him as setting her on her feet, Josiah quickly stepped back avoiding the clenched fist which was now aimed at his chin. With a slight shove, catching her off balance, he pushed her into the chair Tanner quickly slid behind her.
"Take it she didn't wanna come back to the den." Larabee snickered.
Josiah nodded. "Asked her real nice and polite too....Ended up usin' my last resort."
Seething, Maude started to gain her feet but one look at Larabee's expression and she settled back down, turning her attention to Josiah instead. "Mr. Sanchez even if I don't exact my revenge for your uncouth treatment beforehand I can assure you, your services as an escort to Eagle Bend are no longer required. I have no desire to spend time in the company of someone who would manhandle a woman in such an undignified manner." Maude announced, straightening her waist jacket and patting her hair back into place.
"Mrs. Standish to you!" She snapped curtly.
"I did ask ya nice....Told ya Chris wanted ta talk to ya." Josiah explained patiently.
"At which time, I made it quite clear I have no wish to speak with Mr. Larabee, now or in the future!" She started to rise again, but Josiah lay a large hand on her shoulder effectively holding her in place. She glared at him her eyes flashing with fury. "I'm certain Ezra will agree when I inform him of your barbaric behavior."
"Ya know it's rude to talk about someone as if they weren't in the room." Chris commented sardonically. All humor left his voice as he leaned closer to the woman. "As for Ezra...He ain't gonna hear a word about this. As of this moment, everything said at this table....stays at this table." There was no doubt in anyone's mind Larabee was speaking to all of them and for all of them.
He sat back, taking a sip of his beer, allowing the woman to gather her composure. "This time I'm gonna ask the questions and I want straight answers in plain English."
Defiance flared in her blue eyes as she held Larabee's gaze steadily. The other five men watched in silence this battle between the two formidable opponents, no one completely certain who would win.
Chris leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, his gaze locked on the woman's face. "Whatcha come here for Maude? What is it ya want from Ezra this time?"
Tanner quietly watched the woman closely, seeing the internal battle she was waging, as she was struggled with wanting to do as Ezra had requested and needing to inform them so she could garner these men's help to protect her son.
The tracker realized Chris' hell bent for leather approach with the woman was clearly going to get them nowhere. "JD why don't ya get Mrs. Standish a cup a coffee." Vin spoke over his shoulder.
"Actually it's Mrs. Cavandish at the present time." She automatically corrected. "I recently remarried and a cup of coffee would be greatly appreciated....Perhaps with a touch of brandy." Perhaps the long haired man was not as uncivilized as she had first thought.
"Maude," Deciding he couldn't keep her married names straight, Vin reverted back to her christian name. "We know Ezra's in some kinda fix and we all wanna help, but we can't iffen we don't know what the problem is." His blue eyes were softly pleading as he added. "And knowin' yer son, the only way we're gonna find out is iffen you tell us."
Nodding her thanks to JD, accepting the cup he offered, Maude silently sipped the coffee, the fingers of her left hand drumming nervously on the table. She studied each of the men surrounding her, surprised and very oddly moved at seeing their genuine concern for her son's welfare.
Her eyes returned to Larabee. The blond gunslinger's hazel eyes hadn't wavered from her but now the anger was being overridden by...worry. That visable distress over her son's well being swayed her decision.
She slowly lowered the mug to the table top and fussed with it nervously. "I'm going to hold you to your word Mr. Larabee and I trust these other gentlemen will be just as gracious in repeating none of this conversation to Ezra." Maude waited for each of them to nod agreement before continuing. "I realize you gentlemen think I'm a poor excuse for a mother but I have always done what I thought best for my son, even if it doesn't appear so." She paused while Inez as if sensing they were going to need liquid fortification appeared with a bottle of whiskey and several glasses as well as brandy for Maude.
"Plain and simple Mr. Larabee, with one stipulation....Don't ask me to reveal more details than absolutely necessary." She took a deep breath. "In answer to your question Mr. Larabee, I came to Four Corners, not to drag Ezra into some scheme as I'm sure you imagined but to warn him."
"'Bout what?" Chris pressed.
"Hey, I just got a wire about him this morning...." JD cut in excitedly. " He escaped from Yuma prison a couple weeks ago....But....What's Ezra got to do with him?"
"Have any of you ever noticed my son's aversion to riding the stage if it's at all avoidable?"
Surprisingly only Nathan answered in the affirmative. "Just reckoned it was cause the stage ain't exactly the most comfortable way ta travel and we all know Ezra likes his comforts."
"I wish that were the answer. When Ezra was younger, we were working a hustle....I had gone ahead to set up the mark and Ezra was to join me later. Several men led by Sam Cole....Jake's brother.....robbed the stage, killing the driver immediately. Besides Ezra, the only other passengers were a young woman and her daughter. They too, eventually died at the hands of the Sam Cole. As the only witness to the heinous crimes, it was Ezra's testimony that sent the man to the gallows. Jake swore at the trial he'd avenge his brother and kill Ezra the first chance he got."
JD frowned. "How come they just didn't kill Ezra too?" The question earned him a slap to the head from Buck, seeing the woman's face pale.
Maude swallowed hard. "They almost did. If he hadn't been found when he was, you gentlemen would never have had the pleasure of knowin' my darlin' boy."
Knowing Chaucer would alert him to any possible danger, Ezra let his mind wander. It was a bad habit he'd picked up spending so much time alone. Of course his trusted horse couldn't warn him of a bullet from some distant hill top but then again that might be the answer to his problem. At least, with him dead Jake would have no reason to hang around and hurt anyone else.
He suppressed a shiver, mentally reinforcing the walls which held back the memories threatening to surge forth. He had thought he'd successfully put that horrific period of his life behind him yet since Maude's announcement he been struggling to keep the nightmare memories at bay.
Tears welled as a pair of large bright blue eyes flashed through his mind. Eyes the color of Vin Tanner's. Blue eyes shining impishly with happiness and laughter. Blue eyes filled with terror. Lifeless blue eyes staring emptily at the grey sky.
Swallowing hard around the lump in his throat, Ezra pulled the flask from his pocket taking a large swallow. A bittersweet smile touched his lips. At least now he wouldn't die wondering any longer how his mother felt about him. Maude had almost said it or as close as she would probably ever get. In all his years, he could never remember her actually telling him she loved him but he'd heard it loud and clear. 'I don't want to lose you.'
Guilt washed over him. He knew she'd never understand why he had chosen to remain in Four Corners...hell, even he didn't understand it....but he also knew she would scorn his true reasons for leaving. Six very real and important reasons.
The six men listened in silence as Maude continued her story. "......Ezra specifically requested I not attend the trial, however I long ago learned what my sweet boy don't know doesn't hurt him so while I remained in the closest town, a representative reported to me every evening on the court proceedings."
At the time, Maude had convinced herself, she was acceding to her son's wishes but the undeniable truth was she couldn't bear to see the vivid reminders of his brutal treatment at the hands of Sam Cole. Even when Ezra was a child, she had hated seeing her only child hurt or ill. Then, at a loss as how to make him feel better, she had taught him to ignore the pain, to pretend nothing was wrong.
"How come Jake didn't hang too?" Josiah's soft question drew her back to the table as he finally slipped back into his chair.
"He wasn't with his brother that day. Seems he was laid up with a broken leg or some such inconvenience. However, the judge did pass down a verdict of life imprisonment as a result of several other crimes he was known to have committed."
"What makes ya think this scumbag knows Ezra's here?" Tanner questioned, exchanging glances with Larabee who also saw the con woman's hand tremble as she refilled the brandy glass. "It's a big country."
She nodded. "Yes it is, Mr. Tanner and Ezra said much the same thing. Normally I might have agreed with you both," She hesitated. "However, a certain book has been written naming the Magnificent Seven men who protect a small backwater frontier town named Four Corners."
Comprehension dawned. Jock Steele's dime novel. "Knew that book was gonna bring nothing but trouble." Chris grumbled. "Shoulda shot that pencil pushin' little son of a bitch when we had the chance."
Maude glared at Larabee as she took a fortifying swallow of brandy. "I won't pretend to understand why my darlin' boy decided to remain in this....town....but he has finally agreed this is the perfect opportunity to make good his escape."
Chris bristled at the statement, before a small nudge of Vin's foot against his chair, forced him to remember who he was dealing with. How many times had Maude attempted to persuade her son to return to his old life? She'd do anything necessary to get what she wanted. While the wire JD had received corraborated her story about Jake Cole, past experience warned Larabee she was no doubt twisting the gambler's words to suit her own selfish desires.
Maude sipped the amber liquor before steadily meeting the men's six pairs of eyes. She recognized that these men may be her son's best...perhaps his only....chance at survival. Although, Ezra was wiley and resourceful, he certainly wasn't cold blooded enough to take on Jake Cole alone. It went against her grain to outright ask for their help. It seemed except for Josiah none of them particularly cared for her and she wasn't really sure any of them would lift a finger or offer aid even if they did like Ezra.
They would not be as easily manipulated as most the people she dealt with. These men would not be taken in by flattery and smiles or a sob story and tears. This called for a entirely different strategy on her part.
With a deep breath, setting the glass back on the table, she threw down the gauntlet. "I would greatly appreciate it if you gentlemen did nothing to impede my son's decision."
Bullseye! Chris thought, Afraid that's exactly what they would do, she hoped to make it sound as if the con man had always wanted to leave.
"Don't ya think it would be safer for him here?" Wilmington questioned. "I mean...hell....at least we'll be able to watch his back."
Maude lifted her chin defiantly. "He won't need anyone to watch his back, in a larger city and with a new name."
"And he'll be able to help you with a con any time you need him." Larabee pointed out sarcastically, drawing a look of hatred from the woman before she rose and smoothed the front of her skirt.
"I'm told a man is only as good as his word, so I know I can trust you gentlemen to say nothing of this to Ezra." She graced Chris with a sardonic smile. "As you said, Mr. Larabee, what's said at this table stays at this table. Upon further consideration, I've decided refusing your company to Eagle Bend will only arouse my darlin' boy's suspicions so I shall meet you at the stage Josiah. Good afternoon gentlemen." Trying to hide her smile of triumph, nodding to Inez she moved from the room.
Maude watched as the driver secured her luggage to the top of the stage. She turned to the black clad gunslinger leaning against the support post next to the tracker.
"You're not going to let him leave are you?" She could read their expressions as easily as she could that damn dime store novel of Steele's.
"Not if we can help it." Larabee shook his head, pulling a cheroot from his pocket. "Buck's right ya know....He'll be a lot safer here where we can watch his back than alone out on the trail somewhere."
Maude turned her gaze to where Josiah held the stage door for the boarding passengers, a small feeling of satisfaction racing through her. As much as she wanted Ezra to leave this piss ant town in the middle of nowhere, she didn't want that exit to be the cause of his death.
She had known her son had changed his mind about leaving simply because of the six peacekeepers and Maude had hoped they felt a minute portion of the absurd sense of loyalty Ezra had developed towards these men. If not, she could at least count on their noblity when it came to protecting someone in need.
She momentarily wondered what it was about these men which caused her darlin' boy to toss aside life long training against permitting people to get too close. How had they not only managed to get past the con man's natural defenses but had also inspired feelings Ezra had learned as a child to suppress? She could only pray these men whom her son so greatly admired would prove worthy of his trust.
"Time to go ma'am." The driver's words pulled her from her musings.
"Thank you." She turned to the man in black, her words low. "Mr. Larabee, please take care of my son....whether you believe it or not, I do love him."
Accepting Josiah's hand, she climbed into the coach and as Maude took her seat next to the window, she blinked back the tears as her blue eyed gaze came to rest on the shadowed figure of her son watching from the second floor window.
With a small smile Ezra raised a hand in farewell as Maude gently pressed her fingertips to her lips, sending him a kiss.
Ezra rechecked the loads in each weapon. Damnit!!! He should have been gone days ago. He'd planned on leaving as soon as Josiah returned and he knew his mother was safely on her way, but something always seemed to prevent his departure. With his first attempt he'd been stunned to discover Vin's battered old wagon parked next to the livery having a damaged wheel repaired. Knowing what a light sleeper the tracker was, there was no chance Ezra would be able to leave unnoticed under the cover of night. He couldn't help but wonder how the wheel got damaged since the wagon never went anywhere.
To make matters worse, Buck had taken to spending almost every night with Molly, his favorite bar maid, in the room across the hall from the gambler's own.
It appeared as much as he tried to avoid them, tried to keep them away, lately it seemed as if one or more of the peacekeepers was always underfoot. Of course that made it easier for him to watch over them for he knew, given the chance, Cole would target his friends. Until he could make good his escape, he would do everything in his power to keep them safe.
He figured his next best chance to leave would be the following day. He had the late patrol and as soon as he was finished he'd just keep riding, as fast and as far as he could get from Four Corners. He'd telegraph Chris from Willow Creek with an excuse and assurances that everything was fine and he'd be back as soon as he concluded some pressing business matters. Larabee would be pissed but then when wasn't he? The wire, at least, would keep him from searching for the gambler and Ezra's justification was pissed off was better than dead.
A short time later, Ezra hesitated on the landing, his weary gaze raking the almost full saloon below, automatically seeking his friends. He already knew Josiah and JD were making rounds having seen them from his bedroom window. Chris, Vin and Nathan were seated at the peacekeeper's usual table. Buck leaned against the far wall near the swinging doors, one arm around Molly. Ezra couldn't help but wonder if the womanizer would ever realize Molly was in love with him or how much he actually loved her.
With a sigh, knowing he wouldn't be around long enough to discover the answer, his emerald gaze searched the faces of the other customers, releasing a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding when he didn't spot the vision of his nightmares.
Damn he was bone weary but still believing appearances were everything, he took a deep breath, straightened his jacket and pasted a smile on his face before starting down the stairs. Intent on his own thoughts, he didn't see the barely perceptible nod, Chris sent in Buck's direction nor did he notice the amiable gunslinger slip momentarily away from Molly and out the door.
"Hey Ez," Vin smiled shoving a chair away from the table. "Looks like a big night."
"That it does Mr. Tanner." Ezra sat down, accepting the shot glass Larabee passed him. Although he claimed not to be superstitious it had become a tradition for the gambler to join the other peacekeeper's for a drink before starting his nightly poker game. "Could be a profitable night indeed."
"Ya feelin okay Ez?" Nathan questioned, eyeing the cardsharp suspiciously. It was evident to all of them, the con man hadn't been sleeping and no one could remember him doing more than pick at his food since Maude's sudden appearance. "Ya didn't catch Billy's cold did ya?"
Ezra shook his head, trying to divert the healer's attention. "I assure you Mr. Jackson, I'm quite well. Thank you for asking."
JD suddenly burst through the doors and hurried to the table. "Chris, this came over the wire. Ya might wanna take a look at it." He handed Larabee the flimsy sheet of telegraph paper as Ezra tossed back the shot.
"What's up Pard?" Vin leaned forward, still watching the gambler out of the corner of his eye.
"Aw hell, they want us to keep an eye out for some fool that escaped Yuma prison....Anybody ever heard a Jake Cole."
The color washed from Ezra's face and he struggled not to choke on the fiery liquid at Larabee's seemingly innocent question.
"Ya sure yer okay Ezra?" Nathan questioned as the gambler passed the table. Knowing he was unable to concentrate on the cards, they'd heard Ezra make his excuses to the other players, leaving the gaming table after only a couple of hours.
"Just tired." Ezra forced a smile, wishing the healer would just leave him alone. "If you want to heal what ails me, perhaps, you might persuade the nefarious lothario of our intrepid band to spend the night romancing the lovely Miss Molly in his own room thereby permitting the rest of us a decent night's sleep."
"Mrs. Jenkins would fill his ass with buckshot if she caught him sneakin' Molly inta the boardin' house. She threatened ta toss him out on his ear last time she found his latest conquest in his room." Josiah chuckled. "Why don't ya sleep in his room since it ain't bein' used."
Ezra grimaced. "Lack of sleep is perferable to nightmares."
"You havin' nightmares Ezra?" If the peacher hoped to catch their friend off guard he was out of luck.
"I would if I slept at Buck's." The gambler grinned. "I shudder to think what takes place in that bed. Maybe I can get a few hours sleep before Romeo retires for the evening. Goodnight gentlemen."
"Think he bought it?" Chris asked, forcing himself not to watch the southerner climb the stairs.
The tracker's sharp eyes watched Ezra over the rim of his beer glass. Larabee knew the sharpshooter could read the enigmatic conman better than any of them. "Think so....." He glanced at the other men seated at the table. "He's hidin' somethin'...."
"We all know that." Nathan stated, staring at the younger man as if he'd lost his mind. Chris was beginning to regret giving his word to Maude. This would be a hell of a lot easier if he could just grab the stubborn southerner by the collar and confront him head on. Admit to the man, they knew about Jake Cole's threats and the seven of them would face the man together.
Tanner shook his head. "Ain't just that. Somethin' he ain't even told his ma."
Chris' eyebrows arched as Tanner finished his beer and shoved back from the table.
"Gonna take a walk over to the livery." Vin answered the unasked question as he moved for the door.
Why was everything suddenly working against him? Ezra lay staring at the ceiling, the lamp's wick turned down so low, it barely emitted any light in the small room. If that damn wire had only arrived twenty four hours later, he'd have been long gone. Now his best chance to leave without explanation or argument was gone. Just his luck, until they were sure Cole wasn't in the area, Larabee thought it best if the peacekeepers took extra precautions and no one was to ride patrol alone.
He pushed up from the bed and crossed to the window. Barely moving the curtains his green eyed gaze carefully searched the nearly empty street. The muted noise of the saloon grew louder as quickly taking the carpet bag from it's place in the closet, he extinguished the light and hastily slipped through the window.
The gambler kept to the shadows as he made his way to the livery. He breathed a sigh of relief as he reached to push open the door. At the sound of soft footfalls behind him, he whirled, snapping the arm rigged derringer into his hand. He relaxed, sliding the gun back up his sleeve as Vin struck a lucifer lighting the lantern hanging from the end of his wagon.
"Evenin' Ez." Tanner seated himself on the tailgate, seemingly taking no notice of the carpet bag the gambler had tossed into the hay to free his other hand. "Nice night. Ya gettin' some fresh air?"
"Indeed." Ezra cursed himself wondering why he hadn't been aware of Tanner's presence but then again his mind had been elsewhere and the others always said Vin was like smoke.....
Vin opened an old wooden supply trunk, digging around before finally coming up with a whetstone. Settling himself more comfortably on the hard tailgate, he set about sharpening his knife. "Yer welcome ta sleep here iffen the saloon's too noisy." He offered.
Chris, standing unseen in the shadows, almost laughed out loud vividly imagining the delicate shudder that coursed through the gambler's body at Tanner's offer. It had taken him longer than normal to realize Vin suspected the con man was going to make a break for it and with that realization, Larabee had made his own way to the livery stepping quickly into the dark as Tanner lit the lantern.
"I appreciate your most generous offer Mr. Tanner but I'm confident I can discover a reasonable solution."
A lopsided grin flashed on Tanner's boyish face. "Well jist don't shoot him...Nathan'll have yer ass, ya make any more work for him."
"Never crossed my mind." A dimpled grin graced the gambler's face at the sharpshooter's dubious expression. "Okay, perhaps it did cross my mind....briefly....." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Well I won't keep you any longer....Sleep well Vin." With a side long glance at the carpet bag laying half buried in the loose hay, Ezra turned to leave.
"Ya know I've seen corpses with more color than you had when Chris mentioned that Jake Cole fella." Tanner kept his eyes on the whetstone as Ezra froze. "Wanna talk about it?"
"Mind your own business Mr. Tanner." Ezra's tone was as cuttingly sharp as the knife in Vin's hand. He took another step before hesitating, regret washing over him. He half turned back to the younger man. "I apologize for exhibiting such rudeness Vin, my only excuse is that I must be more weary than I thought."
Vin shrugged it aside, his voice soft. "No problem Ez." His sharp gaze saw the poker face settle into place. "Jist thought it'd be helpful iffen we knew more about this Jake Cole." Ezra looked away, chewing on his lower lip as he admitted softly, "I've heard of the man and if what I've heard is partially correct, the less y'all know about him, my friend, the better."
Chris had to strain to hear the gambler's quiet words.
Vin saw the gambler's shoulders slump. "Ya know Ez.....Ya don't-"
"I know Vin." Ezra hesitated again, wanting desperately to tell the tracker. He'd relied only on himself, his wits and his skills in dealing with problems his entire life. He had never trusted anyone to help, certain the payment they would exact was more than he was willing to pay. That was until he had encountered these men. These six men had offered their friendship with no strings, no price attached. They had been there when he needed someone to back his plays, asking only that he do the same.
He knew the tracker was right but still had doubts. As much as Ezra tried to convince himself otherwise, he was still certain their best chance against Cole was the gambler's absence. Without him in town there was no reason for the man to even stop in Four Corners, yet the more his friends knew about the escaped criminal the better prepared they would be for a confrontation.
Vin watched silently as Ezra struggled with himself knowing the gambler was trying to decide how much...if anything...to tell him. Standing there, digging the toe of his boot in the dirt, one thumbnail rubbing across his lower lip, the silver tongued con man resembled a small boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Tanner couldn't help but realize they had made progress where the gambler was concerned. To everyone's surprise, none moreso than Ezra, the con man had chosen to remain with the peacekeepers after receiving his pardon and as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, had slowly shown them that not only could they put their trust in him but most importantly, that he had come to trust them.
The sharpshooter set the whetstone aside and replacing the knife in its sheath, scooted over making room for the gambler to sit as Ezra slowly stepped back towards him. "I'm afraid Mr. Tanner, I can impart very little information concerning Jake Cole."
Vin half nodded with a slight shrug. "Ya know what he looks like don'tcha?"
"Unfortunately, that I do." Ezra sighed, scrubbing a hand across his eyes as if attempting to wipe away the memory before softly calling out, "Mr. Larabee ya might find it more comfortable if ya joined us. Standing there in the dark someone is liable to mistake you for one of the less than upstanding citizens which roam the territory."
Chris choked back a soft laugh. One of these days.... he grinned and striking a match lit a cheroot before stepping to the back of the wagon. Damn southerner had instincts like Tanner, at least when it came to Larabee's presence. The gunslinger was honest enough with himself to admit that while he had waited in the shadows to insure Ezra's safe return to the saloon, he'd also remained quiet hoping the gambler would open up to Vin. He knew with Standish always on guard around him, that was less likely to happen with him there. "Sorry Ezra....I -"
"No problem." Ezra grinned as Tanner elbowed him gently in the ribs when the con man repeated his words. The southerner's expression sobered as his thoughts returned to the topic of their discussion. "I was about to describe Jake Cole for Mr. Tanner.....Half a head taller than Nathan perhaps." He was silent for a moment, pulling up the vision of the man he had tried so hard to forget these past years. "When I saw him last he weighed approximately two hundred and fifty pounds, of pure muscle.....of course prison life is not always condusive to health and he may have lost some of that weight...."
Vin tried not to laugh seeing Chris roll his eyes as Ezra rambled on about the effect of prison on some people.
"Sorry." The reprimanded con man ran a thumb over his lower lip again. "He had jet black hair about the length of Eli Joe's with a very distinctive streak of white near his widow's peak....marked like a skunk...Funny I never put that image together before...." The words trailed off as Ezra's mind wandered, a shudder wracking his body before he pulled his thoughts back to the present. "Perhaps Jake's most distinctive feature is his eyes....They are the coldest deadest eyes you'll ever see....I've not seen eyes like that before or since as they are such a light grey as to almost have no color what so ever."
The two men sat in silence waiting for Ezra to pull himself back from whereever his memories had taken him.
Abruptly the conman blurted out, "I'm sorry to say Mr. Larabee, that I must tender my resignation-"
Chris stiffened, glaring at the man. "What the hell are you talking about?!"
Ezra refused to meet his eyes as he spoke, his voice soft in the night stillness. "I don't want to be responsible for people being hurt or killed and that's just what will happen if he comes to Four Corners....Trust me, he will come."
"How's him comin' here yer fault?" Vin hated keeping up the pretense of ignorance concerning Jake Cole but they'd given their word and somehow he knew Ezra needed to tell them himself about his involvement with the escaped convict.
"I....." Ezra took a deep breath. "I......" His mind was screaming at him to shut up....not tell them....lie.... but he couldn't. For some reason he didn't fully comprehend he found it becoming more difficult to lie to these men. "When Cole comes here......he'll be looking for me." The words were barely audible as the nightmare memories rushed over him yet again.
"Why?" Tanner's quiet question broke the silence and once more pulled Ezra's thoughts back to the two men staring at him, awaiting his response.
"Why doesn't matter....." The gambler's resolve diminished as he forced himself to meet Chris' steady gaze, suprised it wasn't one of the man's fierce 'don't jerk me around' Larabee glares. Seeing honest concern in the man's unwavering stare, he took a deep breath. "I was the sole witness to his brother committing murder. I testified to said act in a court of law and due to that testimony.....Sam was hanged shortly there after."
Vin's quiet question broke the long silence following his confession. "So ya reckon he'll be lookin' for revenge?"
"I don't reckon, Mr. Tanner,....I know." Ezra stated. "For that very reason, I must leave." The gambler shoved himself off the tailgate and started for the stables. "I would appreciate it if you would relay my goodbyes to the-"
The con man jerked violantly away, stumbling as Chris grabbed his arm.
"It's over Larabee! Don't you see that?" Ezra shouted. "Call me a coward if ya want but I gotta get outta here! It's safer for-" The con man clamped his lips shut gritting his teeth as he realized he had almost admitted too much.
Seeing the intensity of the emotions playing across the gambler's expressive face as he stood struggling to compose himself, Chris backed off. It stunned the gunslinger to realize the gambler's first concern was Larabee would think of him as a coward.
Ezra studied the ground, fists clenching and unclenching as Chris stepped closer placing a hand on the gambler's shoulder. The gunslinger tried to ignore the tremors he felt racing through the con man's slender form. "No one thinks you're a coward Ezra. Only a fool doesn't get scared and no one could ever call ya a fool."
His eyes still locked on the ground, Ezra shook his head. "I don't think my mother would agree with you."
"Since when do Maude and I ever agree on anything." Larabee smiled giving the thin shoulder a soft squeeze before dropping his hand. "Problem is yer tired and ya ain't thinkin' real clear. If Cole's headed this way,....and I repeat if....there's a more likely chance ya'll meet him out on that road than here in town."
The southerner raised his head, his expression puzzled. "I don't..." He began but Tanner cut him off.
"Ya ain't alone no more Ez." Vin pointed out quietly. "Ya got friends here who want ta help."
"Ya don't understand.....I can't...." Ezra stammered, slowly shaking his head. Damn! When had he lost the ability to form a coherent sentence. "I wish.....Ya just don't....under-"
It was Chris who spoke. "Understand this Ezra and it's all ya gotta know.......He comes here, the seven a us will face him.....together." There was a strength and determination in Larabee's words as he tried to offer the gambler comfort and reassurance.
The sharpshooter saw the longing and the fear in the gambler's eyes. Ezra wanted desperately to believe their words. With every fiber of his being, the man wanted to believe he no longer had to face the world and its dangers alone. He knew the six men would watch his back. Knew they would back his play just as they had before, but Vin could see the overwhelming fear winning out over that newly budded belief and he somehow knew the fear Ezra was struggling with wasn't for himself.
"I-I-" Ezra faltered and seemed to crumple in on himself. "I'll...think about it."
"Okay then, try and get some sleep...." Chris winked and gave the cardsharp's shoulder another squeeze. "I'll make sure Buck is otherwise occupied tonight."
With a nod and a wan smile directed toward the two men, Ezra turned to leave.
"Hey, Ez ya fergot somethin'." Tanner lightly vaulted from the tailgate and snagged the carpet bag from where it lay. Offering it to the gambler he held onto it as Ezra grasped the handle forcing the cardsharp to look at him. "Ez," His gruff voice was soft. "We can't force ya ta stay.....but we sure as hell don't want ya to go."
Seeing the sincerity in the blue eyes, Ezra tried to swallow around the lump that had reformed in his throat. Clenching his jaw to stop his chin from quivering, the gambler simply nodded.
As the darkness suddenly parted around him, Ezra watched in horror as his bullets seemed to bounce off Cole's body as the large man's hands continued to tighten around Vin's throat, suffocating the life from the tracker even as he was shaking the sharpshooter like a child's rag doll. Screaming with rage, the gambler continued to fire until each of his guns were empty before throwing himself bodily at the man, trying desperately to pry Cole's hands away from his friend, tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched the bright sparkle of life drain from Vin's blue eyes, leaving them flat, lifeless....dead.....
With a strangled screaming sob, Ezra bolted up in the bed, his heart racing. Stumbling to his feet, he grabbed his Remington from the nightstand and jerked open his door. He had to help Tanner! Cole had Vin!
Buck, dozing in a chair in the hallway, keeping watch over his friend, let out a startled yelp as the door was thrown open. His chair, which had been tilted on two legs, against that same door, flipped backwards, spilling the gunfighter inside at the gambler's feet.
Seeing the cocked weapon in the gambler's hand, he yelled, "Ezra it's Buck!" Rolling to avoid the weapon pointed in his direction, keeping his hands away from his own gunbelt, he carefully climbed to his feet as the gambler blinked several times and finally lowered his gun slightly. "Ezra, you okay?"
Blinking rapidly, the con man without warning vaulted the over turned chair and rushed down the stairs, his rapid breaths bordering on sobs.
Wilmington caught up with the distraught gambler as he reached the saloon's front entrance. Not sure what was happening, but not willing to let the cardsharp run into the street, Buck grabbed the smaller man, wrapping his arms around him, effectively pinning the gambler's arms at his sides.
Ezra struggled violently against him, trying to break free of the strong grasp. He didn't want to hurt Buck but he couldn't let Cole get a hold of Tanner. "Vin!....Gotta help Vin!...Pleeease!"
Buck held him securely, keeping his voice even as he tried to talk sense to the tormented man. "Ezra! It's just a dream.....It's just a dream....Vin's fine." He repeated, feeling the smaller man's struggles weaken. "It's a dream, Vin's fine."
Ezra continued to shake his head. "Vin.....Gotta.....help....."
"He's alright Ez, I promise." Buck continued the reassuring litany slowly loosening his hold. "Give ya my word Ez, Vin's just fine." Gently tugging the Remington from the gambler's hand, he steered the southerner over to the bar. "Chris asked him to stay at the boardin' house till this Cole fella is caught.....He's probably over there snorin' away. Ya got my word Ez, he's fine." Reaching across the bar the ladies man snagged a bottle of whiskey and a glass, quickly pouring a shot and shoving it into the gambler's trembling hand. "Musta been a hellava dream."
"Dream....?" His breathing slowly returning to normal, Ezra tossed back the shot and raking a hand through his sleep tousled hair, stared at the mustached gunslinger in confusion.
"Come on Pard, let's get ya back upstairs afore someone thinks this place is open and expects us ta play barkeep." He led the barefoot gambler back up the stairs.
"Why....?" Ezra looked even more confused as Wilmington shoved the over turned chair out of the way and moved to the dresser pulling a nightshirt out of a drawer. He was surprised to see other than a couple of nightshirts the drawer was empty.
"Here Ez. this'll be more comfortable than sleepin' in yer clothes." Laying the con man's weapon on the nightstand, his eyes filled with worry as the gambler absently took the offered nightshirt. "Ya get some sleep....Ol' Buck'll be right outside the door ta keep anybody from botherin' ya."
Ignoring the nightshirt, the smaller man curled up on the quilt and closed his eyes. He understood what Buck was trying to do but the happy go lucky man could offer little protection from the nightmare visions which haunted Ezra's sleep.
Buck watched until the gambler's breathing evened out in sleep, then quietly crossing the room, he tucked the blanket about the man and with a soft sigh, returned to his post outside the door.
As they entered the saloon, Chris nudged Vin, nodding to their usual table where Buck sat dozing, his chair tilted back against the wall. Approaching the bar, the blond man looked questioningly at the Spanish barmaid.
"He was there when I came downstairs," Inez responded with a shrug, keeping her voice low, as she poured three cups of coffee. "I did not have the heart to wake him."
Chris grinned, an impish twinkle coming to his normally somber eyes. "We'll take care of it."
Setting the coffee mugs on the table, the two men quietly moved to position themselves on either side of Wilmington's chair and with a wicked grin, Vin leaned down and gently blew in the amorous gunfighter's ear.
"Give me a minute Molly....need a...nap..." Wilmington mumbled, smiling slightly as the tracker again blew in his ear. "C'mon darlin'...One...min...."
Chris choked back his laughter as he eased his gun from its holster. Holding the weapon near his oldest friend's ear he clicked back the hammer.
Buck's eyes flew open, his arms pinwheeled as his booted foot smacked against the table, sloshing coffee over the rims, as his sudden shift in weight caused the now unbalanced chair legs to slide. Only Larabee and Tanner's quick grabs kept the chair from coming completely out from under the startled peacekeeper.
Righting the chair and its occupant, Vin grinned lazily. "Must a reckoned Miss Molly wasn't gonna take no for an answer."
"Damn ya Larabee iffen I'd hit the floor again, I'd a had ta fill ya both full a holes." Buck grumbled, reaching for what was left in the coffee mug in front of him.
The two perpetrators finally got their laughter under control and settled into chairs beside the scowling ladies man. It was obvious Buck had not had a good night and they both knew it had nothing to do with Miss Molly.
Buck toyed with the coffee mug. Josiah had relieved him a couple hours earlier but still worried about the gambler, Wilmington found himself unable to sleep and wanting to be near if he was needed. Leaving the door to the gambler's room open a crack, he'd listened to the con man toss and turn, the rest of the night, occasionally mumbling incoherently.
"Whatda ya mean again?" Chris pried as he tried to smother another laugh. "Molly throw ya on the floor often?"
With a shake of his head, Buck quickly related the gambler's reaction to the nightmare he had suffered. "....Don't know what would a happened iffen he'd made it ta the wagon and not found Vin there....Ain't never seen Ezra so shook about a threat before." He scrubbed at his eyes. "Usually he just shrugs things like that off with a smart ass comment."
"Awww hell Pard." The sharpshooter groaned, setting the cup aside and leaning back in the chair. "Shoulda knowed it....Shoulda knowed that's what I's seein....Damn! How the hell could I a been so stupid....."
The two men stared at the Texan, waiting for him to elaborate.
"Ya wanna keep beatin' yourself up or tell us what the hell yer talkin' about so we can join in?" Chris questioned.
Vin ran his fingers through his long hair. "What he's hidin'....Ain't fer sure but makes sense.....We gotta get him ta talk bout the threats...."
Wilmington leaned back in his chair with a snort. "Like that's gonna happen." He scoffed. "Ya know full well iffen Ezra don't wanna talk about something he'll either get sarcastic as hell or he'll use so many fancy words, nobody'll understand him anyway."
"Buck's right," Larabee conceded. "Ain't never seen him run cause of a threat. Hell that first day we met, we all saw him take on a whole saloon of pissed off men he'd suckered." He scrubbed a hand through his short hair. "Hell, when I threaten him...and everyone else has sense enough to take my threats seriously... he just looks at me and grins.....Drives me nuts!"
Tanner shook his head, his voice low as he murmured, "He ain't scared Jake Cole's gonna hurt him...." Anguish filled Vin's expressive blue eyes. "He's scared ta death Cole's gonna hurt one a us."
Within the hour, Nathan and JD had joined the three around the somber table. Josiah, hearing the gambler moving about his room and knowing the private man would be embarrassed at finding him standing guard, came down the stairs, chair in hand to join them. The preacher placed the chair down next to Nathan and dropped into it. "He's movin' about." He offered to no one in particular as he poured himself a cup of coffee and took a long swallow.
'Either hell just froze over or he hardly slept.' The healer kept the thought to himself.
Larabee quickly filled them in on the information he and Vin had gotten from the gambler the previous evening.
As soon as he had finished, Nathan crossed to the bar, speaking quietly with Inez before returning with the coffee pot and an extra cup.
Josiah hid a smile behind his coffee mug. "Fraid ya just wasted your money Brother Nathan.Ya know Ezra don't eat breakfast."
"That's cause he ain't usually up till lunch time." JD's grin faded as the gambler came down the stairs. The con man's usually impeccable appearance was marred by the dark circles under his eyes and the tight lines around his mouth. Pushing out a chair, the youngest member questioned, "Sleep well Ezra?" For a change, Buck didn't slap him for his curiosity.
Ezra forced a small unfelt smile, avoiding Buck's eyes, "Exceptionally well."
The gambler settled into the empty chair as Nathan shoved the cup of coffee at him, his steely gaze inconspicously raked over the tracker assuring himself his friend was indeed healthy and uninjured.
Buck exchanged puzzled looks with Chris and Vin. They were all aware of the gambler's ability at deception but it was as if he'd wiped the previous night's incident from his mind.
"Mr.Wilmington, if Miss Molly's headache is no better this morning, I'm sure Nathan has some powder that will help."
Buck's frown deepened with confusion. "Headache?...Molly?"
"I assumed the blessed silence last night was due to her not feeling well." The con man hid his smile behind the coffee cup as the others chuckled. The smile was quickly replaced by a frown as he looked up in confusion at Inez who placed a plate containing an egg, two slices of bacon and two biscuits covered with butter and jam in front of him.
"I didn't order-"
"I did." Nathan interjected, stopping the gambler from pushing the plate away. "It ain't that much so eat it."
"Thank you Mr. Jackson but I don't normally partake of a morning meal."
"Well the last few days ya ain't normally partook of any meals," Nathan argued, "So ya can eat it or I can have the fellas hold ya down and force feed ya."
The green eyes took on an hardened look at the healer's threat. "I don't take well to-"
"Ezra!" Chris leaned closer to the protesting man and whispered in his ear.
The con man's expression softened and he almost looked ashamed at whatever Chris had said. "You are of course correct Mr. Larabee." He admitted as with a weary sigh, he picked up the fork staring at the plate as if it were full of rattlesnakes before forcing himself to eat. Trying not to stare, amazed at the gambler's copitulation, the other men focused their attention on their own plates.
Josiah stifled a grin and seeing Vin duck his head slightly, knew the tracker had also observed the con man's slight of hand as he slipped the bacon and one of the biscuits onto Buck's plate. No one said as word as Chris, with a patient fatherly sigh, reached over and firmly placed one of the slices back onto the southerner's plate earning a pained put upon look of derision from the gambler.
"Thank you Mr. Jackson. That was very....nutritious." Ezra smiled, turning on the charm for Inez as she came to gather the dishes. "Delicious Inez as always."
As the pretty dark haired woman beamed him a smile and returned to the kitchen, Chris leaned back lighting a cheroot. "We need ta talk Ezra."
The gambler gave him a childish pout. "As you saw I cleaned my plate, Daddy, so just what is it we need to discuss?"
Larabee shook his head slightly at the sarcastic sobriquet as the others roared with laughter. It was good to see a glimpse of the obstinate con man who always seemed to have a smart ass answer for everything, especially Larabee. Chris hated being the cause of more distress to the younger man by bringing up a subject he was sure would cause Ezra to balk but also knew there was no time to put it off. "Jake Cole."
The gambler stiffened, the tension settling over the table as thick and cold as a sudden winter blizzard's blanket of snow and ice. Needing time to think the southerner ran a thumb over his lower lip, the only nervous habit the six peacekeepers had ever noticed him having.
Ezra had hoped to put off announcing his decision.....Hell, he'd hoped to slip quietly out of town that afternoon without having to face his friends but evidently that plan had once again been thwarted. These men had no intention of making it easy for him to leave. He had to concede whether he was here or not, his friends had a right to any information which would enable them to protect themselves from the cruel man he was certain was coming to Four Corners. As surely as Tanner could read the sign and know the weather, he, himself, knew Cole would be descending on this town like a biblical plague.
He firmly settled his poker face into place. "And just what is it about Jake Cole you wish to discuss?"
Chris' one clipped word said it all, "Everything."
No one was surprised to see the deck of cards magically appear in the gambler's hand. Those fifty two pieces of pasteboard were the gambler's security blanket. As a religious person might finger their rosary, unconsciously, he shuffled and cut the cards, bringing the Ace of Spades to the top of the deck. They waited silently, knowing he would talk when he was ready.
His eyes down cast, still continuing the incessant shuffling, Ezra cleared his throat and spoke softly. "Other than what I told you and Mr. Tanner, last evening, there really isn't much I can say about the man......I first met Jake Cole when I testified against his twin brother for the brutal murders of Catherine and Angela Cross.....It seems he and his brother, not having the brains of one person between them decided to rob the bank in a town a few miles from where Sam had recently robbed the stage." Ezra's voice was controlled and eerily neutral as if he were discussing an everyday occurance but Vin noticed the slight tremor that streaked through his body. "My understanding is a posse followed them back to an old ranch house they were using....whether it was abandoned before they arrived or after was never fully determined........I was later informed most of the men riding with the Cole brothers were killed when they thought it more prudent to fight than face the hangman......I can tell you if Jake is anything at all like his brother he's an insane, cruel, cold blooded maniac who will do whatever he deems necessary to achieve his goal."
"What goal?" JD questioned hesitantly, knowing the answer.
"If one is to consider his threats with any degree of credibility, his goal is to kill me.....as slowly and painfully as possible." Ezra graced the youngest member of their band with a small smile. "Don't worry my young friend, I have no intentions of allowing that to happen." Returning the cards to his vest pocket, Ezra turned his somber gaze to their leader, rising to his feet. "I've made my decision Mr. Larabee.....I will no longer jeopardize any of you further by remaining here. I.....I....it's been a pleasure and a privledge-"
"We ain't lettin ya leave Ezra, so ya might as well plant yer ass back down in that chair." Chris interrupted, his tone one of pure steel. "Ya can get the idea of headin out right outta your head cause if I have to lock your skinny, stubborn, southern, ass in the jail that's what I'll do cause you're stayin' right here with us."
Shocked, Ezra dropped back into the chair. Lifting his chin, he stared at Larabee in defiance, his green eyes flashing with anger. "You're an intelligent man Mr. Larabee so act like it!" He slammed a fist against the table. As if realizing he'd come close to losing his emotional control he glanced around the nearly empty saloon before turning back to the gunslinger. Licking his lips, he spoke in a lower controlled voice. "Tell me, sir, have you suddenly gone deaf or do you only hear what you choose to hear?"
"Guess that's somethin' we have in common." Chris' expression was as serious as Ezra's but the twinkle in the hazel eyes brightened as the gambler continued to stare him down.
Ezra suddenly began to chuckle, shaking his head in disbelief. "Are ya sure you're from Indiana Mr. Larabee?....I have been told only those born in the south are as stubborn as two headed mules."
"Somethin' else we seem to have in common." Larabee refilled both cups before bringing his gaze up to meet the con man's again. His voice was low and somber as he questioned gently, "What did he really threaten ya with Ezra?......Your family?......Your friends?.....What?.....The truth Ezra. That's why ya made Maude leave ain't it?"
"Mr. Larabee I would deeply appreciate it if you'd just mind your own damn business." Ezra jumped to his feet, this time toppling the chair with the force of his movement. . "I no longer wish to discuss this subject. As Mr. Tanner so sagely pointed out last night, ya can't force me to stay." Needing to release his emotions, he gave the chair a vicious kick, knocking it out of his path, as he turned and bolted for the stairs.
"Also told ya we didn't want ya to go." Vin's quiet words carried across the saloon. One hand on the banister, his foot resting on the bottom step, Ezra closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying desperately to hold onto the anger. He needed that anger burning in him to do what he knew was necessary. He needed the bitter anger to do the only thing he was certain would save his friends' lives.
He dropped his chin to his chest. "If I stay and he manages to elude the law long enough to arrive at this little....corner of paradise....you will die....Do none of you comprehend plain English?" His voice broke.
"Hell Ez, when did ya ever speak plain English?" Buck teased, deeper emotions in his tone. Pushing to his feet, he crossed to where Ezra still stood with his back to them. "Come on Pard....Let us help."
Ezra shook his head, not looking at the man or turning around. "Not this time." He whispered.
"You're right about that Standish!" Chris called out as he violantly shoved back from the table and followed as Ezra sought to escape up the stairs.
"Chris-" Wilmington reached out to grab his friend's arm, knowing what an asshole Larabee could be when riled and there was no question the man was riled, not so much by the stubborn gambler but by the circumstances.
"Back off Buck!" Larabee snarled as he shrugged off the restraining hand and marched up the stairs, his spine ram rod straight, ready to do battle if that's what it would take for the gambler to see the light.
The five peacekeepers cringed and held their breaths, fully expecting to hear gunshots and the sound of Larabee's body hitting the floor, as they heard Ezra's door violantly slam against the wall.
Startled, not believing the gunman's audacity, Ezra stood, carpet bag in hand, as the door suddenly flew open, banging back against the wall. Larabee stood in the doorway like a vengeful demon from hell, his angry eyes almost the same color as the gambler's.
"Ya ever heard of knockin'?" The harsh words were out of his mouth before Ezra realized it would be healthier to glue his lips shut. "Your manners are deplorable."
"Damnit Ezra, just shut the fuck up and sit down!" Chris growled, shoving the smaller man backward with a strong hand to his chest.
"I would advise you to keep your hands off me, sir." Ezra's frigid demand matched Larabee's, his emerald eyes darkening with barely controlled anger. "I don't appreciate being manhandled by anyone!"
"What the hell ya gonna do, if I don't?" Chris taunted, shoving him backwards again. He wanted to make the gambler angry. Wanted to rile the man into action. "What the fuck ya gonna do huh? Gonna shoot me?" He snickered mockingly. "I don't think so.....That's not how you deal with your problems is it?....No, not Ezra Stand-"
Larabee's head snapped sideways as the gambler's fist connected with his jaw, sending him stumbling to his knees against the wall. Pushing to his feet, Larabee grinned, rubbing his chin and maneuvering his jaw. "Feel better?"
The gambler studied him a moment, his own smile growing. "Yeah....Actually I believe I do."
"Good. Now sit your stubborn southern ass down and listen to what I got to say." Chris pushed the con man toward the rocker, waiting until he was seated, before closing the door and taking a seat on the side of the bed. He eyed the gambler as he rubbed his jaw again. Damn, he'd expected the punch and knew the con man's reactions were quick but he hadn't even seen it coming. He pinned the gambler with his steady stare, all seriousness. "Ezra, I want ya ta listen ta me...."
"Please don't try to change my mind Chris." Ezra pleaded, unaware he'd used the man's given name. "I know ya think I'm runnin' out on ya again, but this is different.....I almost got ya killed when we went up against Anderson.....I didn't even know ya then....Don't ya understand? Now that I do, I can't be responsible for any of ya gettin' hurt....Please.....
"'Bout time ya let that go Ezra.....Only thing that matters now is ya come back.....Ya saved our asses and ya helped save that village.....Don'tcha think it's time ta stop feelin' guilty?"
Ezra shook his head, not meeting the man's hazel eyed stare. "I'll have plenty ta feel guilty about if I stay here..."
"Aww hell, Ezra, ya've proved time and again we can trust ya......Ya been there ta help everytime one of us needed ya.....All we're askin' is for ya to let us be there to help you." Larabee could see the gambler wanted to agree. His fear for these men he had come to accept as friends and his need to protect them at any cost was overriding his desire to stay in the town he'd come to think of as his haven...as his home. His fear was overriding the seemingly irrational and probably never before experienced longing to remain with the people he thought of as his surrogate family.
The gambler stared at the floor, twisting his hands nervously. "That day in court...." Ezra's barely audible voice shook with emotion, realizing he had to make Larabee understand what would happen. "The day the judge pronounced sentence....as they led Cole outta the saloon....Jake....." His voice hitched and he swallowed hard, as he continued softly, "he told me.....he swore...before he killed me....he'd make me watch...." A shudder rippled through the southerner. "I'd watch.....everybody I cared about.....suffer....."
"Tell ya what Ezra..." Chris reached over and gently tugged the deck of playing cards from Ezra's pocket, swiftly fanning them out on the quilt top beside him. "We'll cut for high card....I win...you stay and we do things my way.....You win, I won't try ta stop ya from leavin'...."
Standish studied the shootist intently searching for Larabee's angle. What advantage could the man possibly see in this endeavor? This was going to be easier than he thought. "You do understand, sir, you're not only gambling with your own life but those of our esteemed associates, as well. Don't ya think you should ask them how they feel about it?"
"We feel fine about it." Buck's voice interrupted, carrying through the wooden barrier and both men had to chuckle picturing the other five men with their ears pressed to the door.
"You have a deal Mr. Larabee." He nodded towards the cards. "Would you care to pick first?"
"Be my guest."
Ezra leaned forward and slowly trailed his long fingers over the cards, a frown furrowing his brow as he glanced up from the cards to observe Larabee watching him studiously.
Chris dropped his gaze to the slender fingers as they brushed over the cards, trying hard to hide the glee shining in his hazel eyes. "Somethin' wrong there Ezra?" He questioned droolly.
"Of course not." Standish muttered as he focused his concentration on the cards finally pulling one from near the center of the line. Jack of Hearts.
Chris locked his hazel gaze on Ezra's emerald eyes seeing the obvious suspicion flickering there as he took a deep breath and quickly yanked a card from the deck, slowly raising it to face the gambler. He stifled a laugh at the con man's wide eyed look of disbelief. Ace of Spades.
Gaining his feet and smiling widely, Chris handed the stunned gambler the card and slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "I'll see ya downstairs as soon as ya finish unpackin'. We got plans ta make."
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, JD turned and waylaid Larabee. "How'd ya do it Chris?" JD asked, excitedly. "Ezra can pull that ace outta the deck just thinkin' about it!"
"That he can," the gunslinger agreed, "but not if it ain't there." Chris had known the ace was on top when he pulled the deck from Ezra's pocket and had simply palmed the card when he spread them out on the bed. It was a simple trick he'd learned from a gambler who'd spent a couple of days in their jail curtisey of Standish, after the cardsharp had caught him cheating the townspeople. Larabee knew of all the things, Standish planned for, it was the last thing the con man would have expected from Chris.
"Ya cheated?" Buck roared with laughter, relief flooding through him. He'd known Larabee long enough to understand the man would do everything possible to protect those he cared about, but the fact he'd successfully cheated a man who was an expert at spotting the less then honest efforts in others surprised him. He slapped Chris on the shoulder. "I gotta whole new respect for ya Chris....Just gonna hafta make sure I watch real close when we play cards from now on."
Chris shugged lightly, "Whatever it takes to keep him here..."
"Yeah, well, what I wanna know is how ya got him to eat breakfast?" Nathan questioned.
Chris took a swallow from the coffee mug Vin shoved in his direction. He would have preferred whiskey, but realized he needed a clear head as he explained patiently, "Ezra is a gentleman and I simply pointed out that it would be bad manners to waste the food after you had spent hard earned money you could little afford to pay for it." Larabee shrugged. "As Maude pointed out, guilt works everytime."
The healer ducked his head, embarrassed as he admitted, "Uh...yeah....'Cept I had Inez put it on his tab."
Buck roared with laughter again, wondering when his friends had become such sneaky, conniving men. "Looks like Ezra's had a bad influence on y'all."
Chris looked up with a smile as Ezra rejoined them at the table.
The gambler accepted the fresh cup of coffee which JD poured. With a nod of thanks to the young man, he turned his attention to the blond gunslinger. "If I could prove you cheated Mr. Larabee, our agreement would be null and void." The green eyes twinkled with merriment. "As it is, I would like to know where an honest man such as yourself learned to palm cards with such ability. Surely it is not the company you have been keepin' of late."
"A man has to have some secrets." The laughter was relaxed and easy when Larabee threw the gambler's words back at him.
"Chris I'm assuming since you talked our black sheep here, into remaining in the fold," Josiah placed a large hand on Ezra's shoulder, "you have a plan to put his mind at ease regarding everyone's safety."
Larabee nodded, taking a sip of his coffee before speaking. "First, we're not sure Jake Cole is even coming here." The gunslinger met Ezra's steady gaze, hoping to offer reassurance. "Second, if he does he's not gonna wanna hang around any longer than necessary. That means he's gonna be looking and listenin' for any information on Ezra or his whereabouts."
"Best place to find information in a new town is at the saloon or the general store." Vin offered, drawing on his own bounty hunting experiences.
"Yep, but just to be on the safe side and putting the odds in our favor we're gonna hit every business in town. I want everyone on alert for this fool and I wanna know if any...and I do mean any....strangers come around askin' questions about Ezra or any of us for that matter." The gunslinger's hazel eyed gaze hardened as they came to rest on each man at the table. "Until this bastard's caught, nobody...nobody....goes anywhere alone....That especially means you, Ezra."
Expecting an argument from the tenacious cardsharp, they were all surprised when none was forthcoming, as the gambler held his tongue, giving Larabee a nod.
"Okay, y'all know what Cole looks like so let's find out if the son of a bitch has been anywhere near here..." As the men stood to scatter about the town, Larabee added, "Not you, Buck. You go get some shut eye."
"Oh, and Mr. Wilmington?" They all turned around as the con man called out to the ladies man. "Ya might wanna visit with Miss Molly while ya have the chance." Ezra commented innocently. "With Mr. Larabee's latest orders, I expect it'll be awhile before she'll welcome ya into her private chambers. She doesn't strike me as the type who enjoys....an audience." His smile widened as the other men laughed and Buck groaned.
"Somethin's gotta give soon," Vin commented glancing to where the gambler sat at his usual table dealing another round of cards. "He's gettin' as jumpy as those frogs he was readin' 'bout the other day."
"Frogs?" Nathan looked at the sharpshooter in disbelief, finding it amazing that the well read con man would spend time reading about amphibians. "What frogs?"
"Ya know...the ones in that jumpin' contest they held in Calla....whatever the hell county." Tanner explained with patience that not everyone knew of Twain's jumping frogs.
A package containing the book for Ezra had arrived a few days earlier. Maude had evidently mailed it from the first train stop. An encoded message inscribed on the inside cover informed the gambler where she could be reached if needed and there were two hastily written letters inside. One for Ezra, the other for Chris.
Vin sighed heavily, "Sure wished I'd seen them frogs....Must a been somethin'." It seemed since the sharpshooter had finally begun to master the skill of putting letters together in the form of words, he happily struggled with every bit of reading material he could lay his hands on.
Chris glanced toward the cardsharp's table quickly scanning the faces of the other players before focusing on the gambler, himself. Even facing the opposite direction from his stare, he noticed Ezra's back stiffen slightly as if he was suddenly aware of the gunslinger's scrutiny. Chris pulled his gaze away, his dark eyes roaming the saloon, registering each person, but his thoughts remained on Ezra.
To anyone who didn't know the man well, Ezra appeared as calm and cool as a soothing spring breeze but looks could be deceiving, and deception was a craft in which Ezra excelled. Having worked and fought beside the stalwart gambler for so long it was obvious to the other peacekeepers, the con man was rapidly reaching the end of his rope.
"He's wound up tighter than a two bit watch." Chris remarked softly, turning his attention to the dark healer. "Ya got anything to help him sleep?"
Nathan nodded and licked at his lips. "Yeah but gettin' him to take it is somethin else altogether."
"He'll take it." A sly smile touched Larabee's lips.
With an inward sigh, Ezra handed Dan Evers the two cards requested, announcing he'd play the ones dealt, distinctly aware of the worried gazes focused on his back from the peacekeeper's table.
It had been over a week since he'd lost the bet to Chris, thereby keeping him in Four Corners and in that time it seemed the only way he found himself alone was by going to the privy or retiring for the night. Even then, he was aware, there was someone always outside the locked door.
Chris and Vin seemed to have appointed themselves his guardian angels, one or both always within arm's length and the other four were always within sight. The constant companionship, his persistant worry over Jake Cole's inevitable appearance, his overpowering fear for his friends and his chronic lack of sleep had the normally placid gambler's already frazzled nerves nearly to the breaking point. The other men accepted his biting sarcasm with grace knowing it was brought about by his anger and frustration at a situation he couldn't control.
Ezra couldn't remember the last time he'd slept more than a few minutes at a time. He had come to dread closing his eyes, almost immediately thrown into nightmares of his friends falling victim to Jake Cole's sadistic methods of torture before he was forced to watch them die, helpless to prevent their suffering or their senseless deaths.
He knew these men would die to protect him just as he would give his life for any and all of them but the thought of living because one or more of them had been sacrificed was something he found incomprehensible. Bet or no bet, having given his word or not, he had to find a way to get out of the territory before it was too late.
The crowd had finally thinned out and left and the saloon was closed as Ezra moved from his table approaching his friends.They were gathered at their usual table, killing the last of a whiskey bottle.
"How'd ya do Ez?" Vin asked passing the gambler the last shot of whiskey.
"Sufficently well, Mr. Tanner." He sipped at the whiskey to keep from shouting at them to stop staring. "And which of you has the pleasure of being my guardian tonight?"
Buck held his hand in the air like a schoolboy in class. "JD's got first watch and I got second." He grinned. "And yeah we know it isn't necessary but up till now I'm still more afraid a Chris than you."
"Besides Ezra, it ain't like yer ya in jail...."
"Sure feels like it." The gambler sulked.
"We just wanna make sure nothing happens ta ya." JD continued what he'd been saying before Ezra interrupted..
"I appreciate that Mr. Dunne.....Honestly I do. It's just...." Ezra squeezed the bridge of his nose, wishing the nagging headache which seemed to have decided to cling to him since Maude's arrival would cease. "I'm sorry gentlemen if I seem ungrateful-"
"No need ta apologize Brother." Josiah assured him. "We all understand."
"Everything." Chris added. Raising his glass in a mock toast, the gunslinger tossed back the fiery liquor pleased to see Ezra do the same.
"Hey Ez, tell Nathan 'bout them frogs ya was reading me 'bout." Vin urged. Their interest in Mark Twain's story gave them a reason to watch the gambler, each of them, smiling as the young con man yawned several times, struggling to keep his eyes open. When it became apparent the southerner was losing his battle with the sleeping powder they'd slipped into his drink, Josiah and Buck helped Ezra upstairs. JD followed to take his place outside the door.
"Sleepin' like a baby." Buck admitted with a grin when they returned to the table. They had barely removed his boots, coat, vest and guns, pulling his suspenders off his shoulders when the gambler's head fell forward, his handsome features relaxing in a deep dreamless sleep. Easing him back on the bed they'd tucked a quilt around him before heading back downstairs.
"Hopefully a good night's sleep'll help his mood." Chris sighed.
"Or maybe he'll jist figure out what we done and shoot all a us." Tanner grinned, copying Larabee's earlier gesture of the mock toast as the others laughed.
Having taken over for JD earlier, Buck squirmed in the chair, outside Ezra's room, cursing himself for having that last beer. Damn! He'd never last another two hours until Inez was up and starting breakfast. Twisting around in the chair, he carefully opened the door, quietly calling the cardsharp's name, as he quickly glanced into the gambler's room. Ezra was still sleeping soundly, curled on his side the quilt pulled up to his chin. Easing the door closed, Wilmington made a quick decision and hurried down the stairs. Hell he'd just step outside the kitchen door and empty his bladder. It wasn't like there would be anyone around for him to offend.
With a deep sigh of relief, Wilmington fastened the buttons on his pants and fumbled for the door latch. A brief blinding pain exploded through his head as a heavy object slammed against the back of his skull, dropping him into blackness before his body collapsed to the ground.
"Figured Buck would be down here keepin' ya company by now." Chris smiled at Inez as she poured his and Vin's coffee. To date, Inez had successfully avoided becoming one of Wilmington's conquests. A fact which made the amorous gunfighter try all that much harder to win her affections.
The two men were later than normal arriving at the saloon. Mrs. Jenkins understanding the situation hadn't lectured them about having breakfast at the tavern lately but this morning she had reluctantly requested their assistance with some of the heavier chores before they left as her husband was under the weather. Upon finally leaving the boarding house they had checked the livery for any arrivals in the night and satisfied they knew each of the horse's owners had headed for the telegraph office, hoping for news of Jake Cole, nodding at merchants getting ready for the day's business before making their way to the saloon.
Inez paused to push a strand of hair from her face. "I have not been blessed with that pleasure yet this morning."
"Damn she sounds more like Ezra every day." The sharpshooter chuckled. "Want me ta see iffen he's ready for some coffee?"
"Nah...I'll do it." Chris set the cup on the table and started up the stairs. Vin and Inez exchanged knowing grins, realizing it was simply an excuse for the hardass gunfighter to check on the gambler.
Approaching Ezra's door and seeing the empty chair beside it, anger began to rise in the gunslinger. Fighting it, Chris quietly pushed open the door to Ezra's room, calling out a soft warning to the gambler before poking his head inside to discover the southerner still curled up under the quilt. There was no sign of his oldest friend.
Fear suddenly surged through him, replacing the anger. Closing the gambler's door, the gunslinger crossed the hall to Molly's room, telling himself Buck had finally fallen prey to the temptation of spending just a few minutes with the pretty saloon girl, as every instinct screamed he was wrong. He'd known Wilmington most of his life and knew Buck wouldn't risk Ezra's life to chase after a pretty skirt.
A shrill scream pierced the air as he raised his fist to knock on Molly's door. Spinning, Larabee ran down the steps, taking them two and three at a time in his rush to reach the lower level. Clearing the last step, he saw the sharpshooter had already dashed from his chair and was running for the back of the saloon, even as another scream for help tore through the morning's stillness.
Tanner reached the kitchen door first with Larabee right on his heels. They skidded to a halt, momentarily stunned at the sight of Inez struggling through the door, her arms wrapped around Buck's waist, as she tried valiantly to keep the big man on his feet.
Buck tried to cling to the doorframe to stay upright but his hands were tied and he began to slip from the small woman's grasp. His colorful bandana had been used as a gag and still muffled the gunman's groans of pain. His shirt was hanging in shredded tatters, so blood soaked, only spots of its original blue color shown through.
"Oh God!" Chris' words were hardly more than a stunned whisper, his heart racing as fear for his old friend pumped through his veins. He and Vin grabbed the gunfighter letting Inez move away when Wilmington's knees began to buckle.
Supporting the man, Chris carefully removed the gag while the sharpshooter pulled his knife and sliced through the ropes binding the gunman's wrists, allowing them to drape his arms around their shoulders for added support.
"Inez run and tell Nathan what happened and we're comin' up! Then fetch Josiah. Ask him ta come stay with Ez, till I get back." Once they got Buck to the clinic he'd relieve Josiah, so the preacher could help the healer.
Obeying Tanner, the barmaid, fled back out the door and down the alley as supporting the now unconscious womanizer between them, they slowly followed.
Concerned for the injured man, none of them noticed the gambler standing in the shadows of the kitchen, an expression of horror on his pale face, the hand holding the Remington trembling uncontrollably.
As the two men's voices faded, Ezra took several seconds to pull himself together, then stepped into the alley. Stooping by the door, he searched the ground, combining his limited knowledge of tracking with what Vin had been teaching him on patrol to piece together what had occurred. It wasn't as hard as he'd thought it was going to be. The gambler simply followed the spots of blood that had dripped from his friend's body and clothes.
"Good Lord!" At the bloody trail's end, the southerner dropped to his knees, clapping a hand over his mouth as bile rose in his throat. At the end of the narrow dirt thoroughfare, just before it turned toward the main street, a small stake had been driven into the ground. A large pool of still glistening blood was soaking into the hard dry earth. There were two deep grooves dug into the ground and he closed his eyes vividly imagining, Buck's hands tied to the stake, the heels of his boots digging those ruts into the alley's filth and grime as the man attempted to avoid the torture being inflicted on his body.
The gambler whirled, the weapon in his hand automatically coming up into firing position, slowly lowering it only when his eyes finally focused on the large form of the ex-priest. "Come on Ezra....let's go see Buck."
Seeing the pale complexion, fearing the cardsharp was going to be ill, Josiah gently bent down and took hold of the smaller man's arm. Pulling the unresisting southerner to his feet, the preacher slipped an arm around the thin shuddering shoulders and gently steered the con man toward the clinic.
The soft jingle of Larabee's spurs mixed with the occasional sniffle from JD as the black clad gunslinger paced the clinic's small landing. Vin sat next to JD on the wooden bench, silently offering the worried youth comfort. The tracker's blue eyes kept straying to where the gambler sat on the top step his back turned to them, his shoulders hunched, his eyes glued on the weapon he still clutched so tightly in his hands.
The hustler had refused to meet their eyes, saying nothing, moving away if any of them got to close, finally sinking onto the step when Nathan threw them out of the clinic so he could work.
Tanner knew Ezra needed comfort as much as the young sheriff but even more he needed to be convinced what happened to Buck wasn't his fault. Vin made a move toward the gambler before sinking back onto the bench, realizing Ezra wasn't ready to hear it.
Vin had checked the alley after Josiah told them where he'd found the con man but other than coming to the same conclusions as Ezra he'd been unable to find any sign of the perpetrator. Catching Chris' eye, the tracker made a barely perceptible nod toward the gambler. Helping Ezra might take Larabee's mind off what was happening in the clinic.
The gunslinger's hazel eyed gaze settled on the despondent figure of the barefoot con man. Ezra was still wearing the wrinkled clothes of the previous evening, his suspenders hanging around his hips, a trembling hand nervously raking through his sleep tousled curls.
The gambler jerked away from the gentle hand that came to rest on his shoulder, almost toppling down the stairs. Regaining his balance, Standish spun to face Larabee, his expression clearly one of guilt, self-recrimination and something more.....fear.
"I warned you Mr. Larabee....I told you but none of you would lis-" The words trailed off as Nathan stepped through the clinic door, drawing all their eyes to him.
The dark man sighed heavily as he massaged the back of his neck nervously. "He's gonna be okay." The healer assured them before anyone could ask. "It looked alot worse than it was. Somebody cut him up pretty good but nothing really life threatening. Most a the cuts didn't even need stitchin'." There was a collective sigh of relief. "He's gonna be all right but it's gonna be a while afore he's entertainin' the ladies again."
"This is Buck we're talkin' about." Chris smiled in a vain attempt to ease the tension. "Where there's a will, he'll find a way."
JD immediately started through the door when it opened again but the preacher's large hand gripped his upper arm stopping him.
"Ezra?" Josiah's quiet baritone drew the gambler's attention back to the door. "Buck wants ta see ya."
The southerner's emerald gaze darted everywhere, avoiding looking at the others. His mind told him to run, flee this town and the horror being brought down on them due to his own actions years earlier, while his heart argued his injured friend was asking for him, needed to see him. How could he face Buck, knowing it was because of him the funloving cowboy was now laying helpless in the clinic? What could he possibly say to the man? How could he begin to apologize?
Larabee seeing the indecision flooding across his face, made the decision for him, carefully placing a hand on the gambler's elbow, urging him into the clinic with a nod and small smile.
Showing his support as well, Josiah gave his shoulder an encouraging pat as he stepped over the threshold.
Ezra cringed as Josiah closed the door, fighting the urge to fling the wooden barrier aside and escape the sickroom rather than face the accusing eyes of the normally amiable gunfighter.
His heart breaking at the weak voice, Ezra took a deep breath to fortify himself and raised his eyes to meet Wilmington's sleepy, painfilled gaze. He sucked in a breath at the sight of the large gunman, his torso and arms swathed in white bandages, spots of blood showing through in some places.
Buck licked his lips and almost whispered, "Wanted...."
Ezra couldn't stand it anymore. He knew what the man was going to say, knew he was going to blame him and rightfully so but he had to make Buck listen to him, to his apology. "I'm so sorry Buck!....I shoulda left...."
Buck slowly shook his head, grimacing with the effort. "Weren't yer f-fault....Wan..." Pain flashed across his face as Buck tried to find a more comfortable position.
Ezra rushed forward stopping at the side of the bed, uncertain what he could do to help.
Wilmington looked up into his face. "Wanna...couple favors....Ez."
"Anything, I can do Mr. Wilmington." As soon as the words left his mouth, the gambler realized the very composition of the sentence was a mistake and he hastily amended, "As long as it doesn't require my remaining in Four Corners, longer than it takes me to pack."
Buck's brows furrowed into a frown. "Ya always put conditions on....f-fav...ors?"
"I apologize but unfortunately without that stipulation, yourself and the others will remain in danger of losing your lives." Ezra hadn't realized he still held the Remington until he saw Buck's eyes follow the gun as he pointed at the man. "Again I apologize....You should be resting."
"Got...nothin' to be sor-ry for Ez.....That's the first favor." Buck stated, trying to shift again with out putting any weight on his injured arms. "Want ya....stop....blamin' yerself.....Hell......don't even know....who did this...."
"I have no doubt who inflicted the injuries upon your person or who is to blame." Ezra lowered his eyes, hating himself, hoping Buck wouldn't see through the lie he was about to utter. "However, if it will allow you to rest and speed your recovery I will accede to this favor."
"Damn Ez....can't ya....ever just say....okay?" The mustached man grinned.
"I believe ya said a couple of favors Mr. Wilmington. What might the second one be?" Ezra forced a smile.
"Keep an eye on....the kid till....I'm back on m-my f-feet." It was so like the gentle man to worry about the boy he'd taken under his wing, adopting as a younger brother.
Ezra chewed his lower lip. Damnit! He knew it! He had known they'd find a way to keep him here! This man wouldn't be laying here in pain if not for his desire to help the gambler and now he was asking for a favor that would continue to jeopardize the peacekeepers. Ezra knew he could argue that the others would look after JD but he was indebted to this man. In truth he was indebted to all of them. Damnation!
The con man could see the medicinal tea was taking effect as Buck fought to keep his eyes open. "Speaking of your young charge I'm sure he's pacing a hole in Nathan's balcony by now so it would be in all our best interest if we allowed him inside."
He moved for the door, but Buck's words halted his actions.
"Didn't...answer...m-me." Wilmington accused.
With a soft sigh, Ezra nodded once. "I will give it my best endeavor Mr. Wilmington."
"One m-more....th-thing...." Buck yawned. "Let me....get a-a...nap and....th-then....s-sneak Molly up here....would ya?...Only need...a....few.....min...utes..."
Ezra smiled. Chris was right. 'Where there's a will, he'll find a way.'
Chris stepped through the batwings, removing his slicker and shaking the rain from his hat, his gaze searching the dark saloon. The sudden thunderstorm had already turned the street to mud, sending the town's residents scurrying for cover. If he hadn't been searching for a way to reach the obstinate southerner who had begun withdrawing into himself, he and JD might not have been caught in the downpour a couple miles outside of town, while on patrol. It had been two days since Inez found the badly injured Buck bleeding in the alley. Two long days in which the gambler bit by bit had pulled farther into himself. It seemed as if only JD had been able to get near the con man without getting his head torn off or Ezra running for the privacy of his room.
The gambler had rushed from the clinic straight back to his room above the saloon, spending most of the morning behind the locked door. With JD sitting inside with Buck, Nathan had informed the other three, Wilmington's injuries had been for one reason and one reason only.....to inflict pain.
Slouched against the wall, his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt, Vin shook his head. "Sorry Nate but yer wrong."
The others had stared at him dumbfounded the tracker would presume to contradict Nathan's opinion. Looking up, his blue eyes dark with emotion the long haired man softly added. "Were done ta scare the hell outta Ez.....Worked too."
Now, leaning against the bar, Vin nodded to a dark corner, where the gambler sat alone, staring despairingly at the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table next to his untouched deck of cards.
Ezra refilled the shot glass, his shaking hand spilling almost as much on the table as he got in the glass. In the past two days, Ezra had put as much space between the other peacekeepers and himself as possible without breaking his word and leaving town which he was certain would involve him having to shoot one or all of the five men. At least he didn't have to worry about JD today. The young sheriff had patrol with Chris and would spend the rest of the afternoon visiting with Buck.
Uncertain how the man was accomplishing such a task, Ezra was as sure Jake Cole was watching his every move as he was the Ace of Spades was laying on the top of the stacked deck.
Why didn't they understand? They being the men who were determined to keep him in this town. It certainly wasn't that he no longer wanted their friendship, their help, or to be part of their unique group. If they were so insistant on his remaining in Four Corners, than keeping them at a distance was his only way of insuring their safety. Why didn't they understand the very real danger presented by Jake Cole? He thought he'd made it quite clear to Chris, just how menacing the escaped convict was but it seemed as if they either didn't believe him or just didn't care. While it was true, his past made it difficult for people to believe what he told them, Buck laying in Nathan's clinic should be ample proof he was speaking the truth.
Without looking up, the gambler spoke around the glass he'd lifted to his lips, as Chris straddled the chair across from the gambler. "I don't remember inviting you to sit down Mr. Larabee." When it was apparent the gunslinger wasn't going to take the hint, the gambler grabbed the whiskey bottle and made to rise only to find his path blocked by Tanner.
"Thought ya might wanna see this." Larabee tossed the soggy piece of paper on the table. "They caught Jake Cole this morning in Hadleysburg." Tom Blaine, the telegraph operator had stopped him as he and JD had returned from patrol.
Ezra stared at the soaked piece of paper, the wetness smearing the words on the page as if it would vanish should he touch it. Could it be true? Was it really over?
"Couldn't a been Cole that jumped Buck, Ezra." Vin pointed out. "Hadleysburg is over four days a hard ridin' from here."
"It was Cole." There wasn't a trace of doubt in the southerner's voice although they could both see he wanted to believe the blurred words on the flimsy paper. It would be easier to believe the man was on his way back to Yuma prison. So easy to relax and let his guard down but Ezra knew from experience nothing was ever that simple. "I know it was Cole." He repeated adamantly.
"Reckoned they mighta got the wrong fella or been mistaken so I asked Tom ta send a telegram ta confirm it." Larabee took a long swallow from the bottle, letting the liquor warm his insides. "Should have an answer shortly."
"Don't need no telegram...." Ezra lurched to his feet and uncharacteristically swore. "Damnit, Larabee!....It was Cole." Rudely pushing past the sharpshooter and grabbing another bottle of whiskey from behind the bar, he staggered up the stairs to his room.
"Whatda we do now?" Vin dropped into one of the chairs, his worried azure gaze still on the upper landing. Ezra rarely got drunk, preferring to be in control of his facilities, yet since Buck's ambush the gambler was rarely seen without a drink in his hand.
Shaking his head, Chris shrugged. "Beats the hell outta me."
Jake Cole stood in the doorway of the abandoned shack, sipping his coffee and congratulating himself. Everything was going even better than he'd thought possible. Even better than he had hoped or planned.
He'd never forgotten his promise to avenge his twin's death. He could still remember the exact words he'd shouted at the fancy big mouthed gambler as they were taking Sam and Jake from the temporary courtroom. All these years and now he had the opportunity to make good on that promise.
For years, he'd fed off his hunger for vengence, using it to survive the hell that was Yuma prison. Jake had used his hatred to keep the desert stronghold from breaking him, while watching other men wither away, shoulders bowed, cowering under the authority of the warden, guards and even other prisoners.
Even his thirst for vengence, his blood lust to see the man, who'd caused his brother's death, suffer almost hadn't been enough. His determination had begun to falter, only to be strongly bolstered again by the dime novel one of the guards had given him. John was all right for a guard, still young and fairly naive he had treated the prisoners decently, doing what he could to make their lives more bearable. During his escape, Jake had actually felt a touch of remorse when he felt the kid's neck snap between his hands but he felt an even deeper remorse that he'd had to leave the book behind.
It didn't matter. He knew Jock Steele's novel by heart. It had rejuvenated him. It had given him the strength to continue fighting and it had renewed his desire for revenge. Even more it had told him exactly where to find the target of that vengence.
Before his death, Sam had told Jake about the stage robbery, his eyes sparkling with exhilaration as he vividly described each detail. Even as children Jake's twin had found a warped pleasure in giving pain and causing fear, sharing each experience with his brother, searching for imaginative ways to torture any creature which had the misfortune to cross his path.
Having seen what they were capable of, the other men riding with the brothers, feared Jake and Sam but respected the youngest twin for his ability to plan their crimes and keep Sam's bloodlust curbed under his tight rein. Jake had tried to tell Sam not to rob the stage that close to the town, had tried to convince his brother to wait until Jake was back on his feet before leaving their hideout but the food, money and liquor were all running low. Sam probably would have listened and waited if he hadn't heard about the large payroll for the lumber camp being carried on the outbound stage. A stage carrying not only the money, but several passengers, including one no account con man named Ezra Standish.
Like Sam, Jake hadn't believed the soft young gambler had a chance of surviving. When he'd stepped into the makeshift courtroom conducted in the closed saloon, Sam's face had gone as white as the corpse he was soon to become. It all seemed as though it had happened just yesterday and now, Jake knew the time was right for retribution. It was time for the sonavabitchin' gambler to pay the price.
Crossing to the old stove, he refilled the coffee mug and returned to lean against the doorframe, his lips twisting in a parody of a smile as he imagined the gambler's screams of pain echoing in his ears. Prison had hardened Jake Cole, making him as sadistic and even more vicious than his long dead twin.
Jake had had years to consider and plan exactly how the mouthy southerner would suffer and pay. The harsh prison existance had nearly crushed down his will to live and forced him to focus all his attention on surviving. That is until the day John had handed him the slim dime novel with the seven horsemen on the cover.
How he had snorted and laughed over that. Some peacekeepers. Jake had spent an entire day in their dusty little town, falling back on the his old standby.....anonimity. Taking no chances, the criminal had always entered a town he planned on looting, disguised as someone people were used to seeing and absently took for granted. Usually, like at Four Corners, he dressed as a prospector, his shoulders hunched with false age and weariness, his clothes dusty, his normally clean shaven face hidden behind a few days growth of beard, the distinctive white streak in his hair hidden under a battered hat and either leading an old mule or carrying his equipment on the pretense his mule had died and he needed a new one. Jake had discovered most town residents ignored people they didn't consider threats, talking freely in front of them as if they weren't there at all.
Four Corners hadn't proved the exception to the rule. No one including the peacekeepers had given him more than a passing glance. He'd spent the day, watching the interactions of the seven men, the young sheriff had even taken time to speak with him. Just a casual conversation, concerning his luck and his next destination. He'd had a good laugh later when the big gunfighter fixing the church had offered him a meal and a warm place to spend the night. He struggled hard not to burst out laughing, knowing he was right there under their noses, enjoying the kind hearted lawman's offered meal.
The dime novel had described each of the men in detail as well as the way they worked together and fought with and beside each other. In studying the men, it had become apparent to Cole they cared about the gambler almost as much as he cared about them. Seeing that closeness, that brotherly affection, only served to remind Jake how much he had loved his brother and he became more determined than ever the gambler would pay and pay dearly. First he would witness his friends being punished for his past indiscretion and then when Cole was done with them, the gambler himself would finally be put out of his misery. Paying the ultimate price....with his own life.
It looked as if Lady Luck was on his side. First that stupid marshall hadn't recognized him when the idiot had wandered into his campsite, a final mistake which cost the man his life and now the storm. No doubt it would be blamed for telegraph lines being down. Needing the peacekeepers off guard, Jake had sent the telegram using the dead marshal's name and then cut the wires, fairly isolating the tiny town.
The convict smiled. Ezra Standish would soon be joining Sam in hell.....but not too soon.
Chris, Vin and Josiah sat in silence at the peacekeepers' table, oblivious of the noise building around them as the saloon began to fill for the evening. The gambler hadn't reappeared as yet. Nathan had taken Buck dinner and without a word, JD had taken his post outside Ezra's room. Tom Blaine had reported the telegraph lines down assuring them he'd send Chris' telegraph as soon as the wires were repaired.
Toying with the idea of refilling the empty shot glass. Larabee couldn't help but notice, like himself, the ex-priest's gaze kept straying to the upper landing hoping to see the gambler coming down the stairs ready to empty the pockets of the unsuspecting souls willing to try their luck in a game of chance.
The gunslinger admitted only to himself, he missed Ezra. True, the con man hadn't left town, although he still persisted in trying, but the gambler they had come to know, was no longer in Four Corners. The puzzling, stubborn, smiling, seemingly care free hustler with a smart ass answer for every situation, who always kept them guessing, no longer seemed to exist. Larabee wanted Ezra back. Not the sullen, silent, angry....frightened man in the room above their heads but the laughing, obstinate, argumentative, conniving pain in the ass southerner he'd come to think of as a trusted friend and part of his family.
Beside him, also lost in his thoughts, Vin absently ran a finger around the rim of his beer mug, certain he would be reacting the same as Ezra and wondering if they had the right to continue forcing the gambler to stay with them when it was obvious he was desperate to leave. They understood his reasons for wanting to move on, just as he understood their reasons for wanting him to stay but bending to their wishes was destroying Ezra. Their desire to protect their friend....hell, a member of their family...had literally made him a prisoner in a place he'd finally come to accept as home. Their well meaning but selfish need to keep one of their own safe had blinded them to Ezra's needs. His basic need for privacy. His need for independence. His need to know they trusted his judgment....trusted him and his own need to protect them.
Tanner mentally berated himself for not seeing how their best intentions were going to affect the young gambler? He should have known. Besides Larabee Vin felt closer to Ezra than any of the other six. Like the sharpshooter Ezra was a loner, used to being on his own, relying on no one but himself. The ex-bounty hunter fully understood the gambler's need for freedom. A freedom which didn't allow for attachments to people or places. Vin had always wanted a family and somewhere to call home, a place of permanency, perferrably somewhere away from civilization.
With a price on his head the long haired tracker, had long ago given up that dream only to rediscover it here in this dusty little town of Four Corners. Tanner knew the con man may not have recognized it or admitted it even to himself but he shared the same dream. The sharpshooter had been certain of it when the gambler hadn't ridden away from the tiny dust covered town with his pardon in his pocket.
The sharpshooter knew how he, himself, would react to his every move being scrutinized, unable to step outside for a simple breath of fresh air without someone at his side. Hell, Larabee's order of no one traveling about alone had long ago gotten on his nerves but he'd pushed the feelings aside wishing to help Ezra. Knowing all that, why hadn't he foreseen the gambler's reaction? Why hadn't he done more to help the southerner through the confinement?
Neither Chris or Vin asked when Josiah silently rose and moved away from the table. They knew he was going to see if there was anything he could do to help the gambler. Aside from Vin if anyone could reach behind the walls and draw Ezra out of his mental prison, it was the preacher.
There was no doubt in any of their minds the big man with a heart to match cared for all of them but Ezra was special to him. The gentle gunfighter loved the self educated gambler with the easy smile and quick wit like a son. The gambler had entered his life when both men needed someone. The younger man's actions more often than not irritated and aggravated the preacher to no end but with a laugh and wink or a reluctant although sincere apology, soon all was forgiven. Josiah saw qualities in Ezra, the arrogant gambler didn't even recognize or acknowledge himself. Just as Tanner had, Josiah accepted Ezra, not only for the man he showed the world, but also for the shy man he hid behind the walls he'd erected over the years to protect himself from hurt.
On the upper level, the preacher paused, then with a soft knock, Josiah turned the doorknob, surprised to find the door unlocked. Assuring the young sheriff, sitting his post, reading, he'd stay with the gambler, the gunfighter sent JD downstairs, reminding him not to leave the saloon without one of the others.
Josiah locked the door behind him and quietly crossed the dark room, lighting the lamp and turning the wick down until it gave off just enough illumination to allow him vision. Ezra was sprawled on his stomach across the bed, his face buried in the pillows, the whiskey bottle having dropped from his hand spilling into a puddle on the wooden floor. Moving to the bed, the large gunfighter rolled him over and proceeded to remove the gambler's weapons and boots. Ezra mumbled incoherently, feebly trying to push the hands away as the preacher pulled him into a sitting position and worked the southerner's arms from his jacket, speaking quietly to assure the smaller man he was safe as Ezra's struggles grew more frantic.
Covering the gambler with a blanket, Josiah lay a loving hand on top of Ezra's head before settling himself in the rocker fully prepared to spend the night with the young man who was as close to a son as he was likely to know.
Ezra stood staring out over the distant hills. The rain had continued for almost three more days, slowing to a drizzle at times before strengthening again in intensity, thunder rumbling over the small town loud enough to shake the buildings before the sun finally broke through.
"Pretty ain't it?" Vin asked quietly from where he slouched against the roof support, nodding toward the brilliant colors of the rainbow stretching across the blue sky.
"That it is Mr. Tanner." The gambler agreed. Ezra felt as if he should apologize once again to his friends for his behavior over the past days although they had all shrugged off his first attempt, assuring him they understood and would have probably been worse.
"That's God's promise of renewal." The preacher clapped a large hand on the gambler's shoulder. Josiah had stayed with Ezra nursing him through the slight hangover, realizing the alcohol had only enhanced the gambler's weariness. Ezra hadn't been as drunk as much as mentally and physically exhausted. Few words had passed between the two, the large man's presence reassuring, his refusal to be pushed away enough proof the gambler's friends were willing to stand by him come hell or high water...torture or death. Ezra still wasn't pleased with their decision but he sure as hell would no longer belittle their loyalty with sarcasm and anger.
He also wouldn't allow them to sacrifice themselves for a conniving con man, unworthy of such an allegiance. He had written the letter this morning tucking it safely away, to be left behind when he made good his departure. Ezra hated deceiving his friends, and hated himself even more for putting them through any of this hell but he could live with the self loathing knowing they would live to continue the fight against people such as himself and the Jake Coles of the world.
"Looks like someone else is feeling that renewal." Grinning Josiah drew their attention to where Nathan was helping Buck cross the mud hole which used to be the main street of Four Corners. They could all hear the mustached gunfighter complaining there were several things he was in desperate need of and a male nursemaid wasn't one of them.
"Hey, it's Buck!" JD shouted, hurrying down the boardwalk to greet his big brother.
Dismayed by the younger man's seemingly boundless energy, feeling every day of his forty odd years, Chris followed at a much more sedate pace.
"I gotta a dollar says one or both ends up taking a mud bath." Ezra wagered, flipping the silver coin in the air.
"That's a sucker bet if I ever heard one." Chris grinned.
At that particular moment, the combination of slick mud sucking at his boots, weakened muscles and his attempt to pull his arm from the healer's supporting grasp, threw Buck off balance. His arms flailed wildly, one booted foot sliding on the slippery ground, the other stuck solidly in the clinging muck, Wilmington tilted forward at a odd angle.
Nathan, attempting to keep the gunslinger on his feet, was sent sailing face first into the mire when Buck's right arm landed a solid blow across his shoulder blades. Trying to save himself, the healer followed his natural instinct to grab the closest object, which happened to be his patient, his actions pulling Wilmington to his knees in the muck.
The five men observing it all from the boardwalk, roared with laughter as Nathan, using Buck for a hand hold, tried to stand only to have his feet slide out from under him landing on his back and causing the womanizer to land on his backside, splashing mud and water in all directions.
"Don't just stand there, JD! Go help before Buck ends up drowning poor ol' Nathan." Anticipating the strong shove from the large preacher standing next to him, the young sheriff grabbed the wooden porch post, swinging around it and landing back on the boardwalk with a smug grin.
"Not me!" he protested, ducking another shove from Josiah. "You do it. I ain't played in the mud since I was a kid."
"Yer still a kid." Vin rasped with a wink and quick nod at Chris.
"Hey!!!" The sheriff's startled exclamation drew everyone's attention as the gunslinger and tracker grabbed JD's arms, tossing the younger man off the boardwalk.
Slipping in the mud, JD hit his knees before sliding several feet on his stomach, his chin and nose leaving a groove in the muck, setting off a new round of laughter from Buck and Nathan as well as the men still standing, mud free, on the boardwalk. The four men turned and hastily scrambled through the batwings as JD whirled, hurling the mud that filled both hands in their direction.
"Sure do appreciate y'all's help." Nathan growled as he staggered through the doors.. The four men seated at the peacekeeper's table, fought a losing battle against their laughter as the remaining members of their group straggled through the swinging doors. Inez spat an angry stream of Spanish as Nathan and JD, covered from head to toe in mud, and Buck, his pants wet and filthy, his shirt showing several muddy hand prints, the ooze dripping from strands of his hair, left a well-defined trail across the saloon floor as they approached their usual table.
"I've missed ya, Inez darlin'," Buck winked, easing himself into a chair, trying to ignore the squishing sound and feel of the mud as it oozed from his pants, "even more than I've missed that nice cold beer I know yer gonna bring me."
"Ya mean that nice hot cup of coffee," Nathan corrected.
"I said and meant beer." Buck glared at the healer. "I've spent almost a week laying in that bed....alone..." He placed great emphasis on the last word.
"Don't be lookin' at Ezra like that," the healer warned. "He did his best ta get ya the company ya requested....Fortunately, knowin' ya two, I's expectin' it."
Ezra had the good grace to look embarrassed, as the other men chuckled at the memory of Nathan, receiving a message JD may have broken his leg, rushed from the clinic only to wait in the alley long enough to catch the gambler hurrying Miss Molly up the clinic steps.
The gambler shrugged. It had been a good plan and would have worked if JD had ridden out on patrol with Josiah as scheduled instead of trading off with Tanner. As it was, the healer, alert for something sneaky, had seen the young sheriff making his rounds when he was supposed to be laying out on the road needing his leg splinted. Ezra had planned on stopping the healer before he actually rode out of town, with the excuse the message had been someone's sick idea of a joke, figuring Buck really wouldn't be able to stay awake long enough for anything to happen between him and the saloon girl while still having kept his promise.
"As I was sayin'." Buck continued. "I been layin' in that bed for damn near a week waitin' on ya ta decide I could heal just as good in my own room, with nothin' to quench my thirst but water, coffee and that god-awful tea a yours. I need a beer.....I deserve a beer....and by heavens, I'm gonna have a beer."
Nathan shook his head. "Whatcha need is ta get a bath and inta some clean clothes. Need ta see if any a the bandages got muddy."
"First off, gettin' a bath would just be a waste a time cause afterwards I'd have ta cross that mud hole again." Buck pointed out logically.
"I'm sure Miss Molly would be more than happy to assist Mr. Wilmington in washing up and changing clothes." Ezra offered. "Inez wouldn't mind him usin' the tub in the back room and I'm more than willing to retrieve a change of clothing from his room at the boarding house."
"Sounds like a fair compromise ta me." Josiah agreed.
"Fine." Nathan huffed. "Y'all can look after him whilst JD and me get cleaned up. We can fetch his clothes since we gotta cross that damn street again anyway." Everyone's eyes widened as Nathan lightly slapped Buck on the back of the head when the womanizer reached for the beer Inez had delivered. "One beer and ya better be cleaned up and ready ta be checked out when I get back...." Each of the men slid lower in their chairs as he turned on them. "I'm holdin' all a ya responsible!"
One hand on the batwings, Nathan rolled his eyes refusing to look back as Molly's squeal of delight at seeing Buck filled the air.
Being a cautious man and having received no confirmation of Cole's capture, Larabee, wanting to make the situation easier for the gambler, had taken the opportunity to have a talk with the other peacekeepers while Ezra helped Buck get settled in the room next to his.
Nathan had agreed to let Buck stay at the saloon until the street was easier to traverse on the condition he spent the nights sleeping which he knew wouldn't happen if the womanizer stayed with Molly who had more than happily volunteered to tend her favorite peacekeeper.
Chris had quickly informed the agreeable men that they were going back to the original plan of watching over the con man as unobtrusively as possible until they had confirmation of the escaped convict's recapture. Someone would still be in the hall outside the con man's room, now having double duty of making sure Buck spent the night alone and no one would be taking patrol alone. Late night rounds in town would be done by both men at shift change.
"Hey Ezra," Larabee's low call stopped the con man at the stairs. Being the middle of the week, the saloon had emptied early. "Thought ya might like to get outta town for a while...."
Ezra's look of astonishment turned to one of consternation. Had Chris finally come to see the wisdom of what the gambler had been trying to tell him all along? Or had he decided Ezra was to much of a liability to the others to allow him to remain in Four Corners? Either decision was fine with the gambler as long as it insured the safety of the other six men.
It didn't matter. The gambler had planned on slipping out of town that very night. Buck, still stiff, but sporting fewer bandages than when he'd left the clinic, had moved back to the boarding house. With the womanizer's room empty once again, Ezra, could slip out his window undetected. Nathan had the first watch of the night and if the con man feigned sleep, he knew the healer, not wanting to disturb the gambler wouldn't knock on the locked door.
The past days, the men had backed off when it came to constantly being at his side, although they still managed to keep him within sight. Ezra had volunteered for the late shifts at the jail -- hell, it wasn't like he was getting any rest-- but after a lengthy heated debate, Larabee had agreed with Nathan that Ezra needed to sleep. Begrudgingly, the gambler realized he needed all his wits about him. Instead he'd been given the afternoon shifts, usually in the company of Tanner or Josiah while the others rode patrol.
Now, as if reading his thoughts, Chris grinned. "Just for a couple days. Thought we'd take a ride over Eagle Bend way. Check the wires and see if we can send a telegraph. Maybe get an answer to our question."
"I'm sure Chaucer would enjoy the exercise." Ezra nodded, giving no hint that he would be miles from Four Corners by the time Larabee was ready to leave.
"We'll head out after breakfast." Accepting Ezra's nod of consent, Larabee crossed to the swinging doors, tossing over his shoulder, "Be back ta relieve ya in four hours, Nathan."
Awww hell! The gambler mentally swore, using Tanner's favorite line. So much for leaving tonight! Larabee would use the extra key to check the gambler's room when he took over the night watch. Finding the man gone, he would enlist Tanner's tracking skills and the two of them would have caught the gambler before Chaucer could work up a good lather.
With a smug feeling of satisfaction as if seeing the southerner cringe as his escape plans were crushed beneath the gunslinger's boots Chris made a cursory check of the quiet town before heading to the boarding house.
Vin topped off the coffee in his mug and crossed to the window. He and Josiah had made a thorough check of the town before the preacher had headed off to bed. The sharpshooter didn't mind taking the last watch of the night, hell, most times he volunteered. The quiet beauty of the rising sun washing the world in the light of a new day inspired the poet in his soul. Sometimes he practiced his reading or used the time to struggle with putting his composed thoughts on paper without worrying about the curious gaze of onlookers.
'Sure woulda liked ta see them frogs.' Tanner thought moving to where the book Maude had sent was open on the desk. Ezra, knowing how much Vin had enjoyed the story, had given the book to the tracker with the excuse he might has well practice his reading with something he liked. 'Bet Ezra woulda picked the winner.'
The sharpshooter spun, immediately pulling his mare's leg as the jail's outer door opened, cautiously aiming the weapon at the tall lanky figure who limped through the door. Damn! He hadn't even heard a horse approaching the small building.
"S'cuse me." The stranger carefully kept his hands away from his own weapons. "You the sheriff here?"
Vin shook his head, not lowering his weapon an inch. "One a the peacekeepers....Who might ya be?"
"Name's Landers.... U.S. Marshal...." The man smiled as pulling the jacket aside he revealed the badge pinned to his shirt, then passed the smaller man several sheets of paper he had dug from one of his pockets. "Identification.....Horse broke his leg yesterday mornin'.....Reckoned it'd be cooler walkin' at night....." The man looked ready to fall asleep on his feet. He nodded towards the gurgling pot on the stove. "Mind iffen I have a cup a that coffee?."
"Help yerself." Tanner reholstered the sawed off rifle, watching as the man greedily drank down a mug of the hot brew, then refilled his cup. "Whatcha doin' in these parts?....Iffen ya don't mind my askin'."
"Don't mind at all.....Huntin' a murderer....." The marshall turned, his own weapon now out and aimed at Tanner.
Vin's azure eyes widened, not at finding himself at the wrong end of a gun, but at the white streak in the man's hair as the supposed marshal tossed his hat on the desk. "A murderer named Standish....Ezra Standish...."
"Ezra ain't-" The sharpshooter's denial was cut short as Cole's gun smashed against the side of his head, sending the tracker to his knees, his hand frantically grabbing for the gun resting against his thigh.
"That's a bad boy." The laughing words were the last he heard as darkness descended and blood gushed from the deep slash on his forehead as Jake hit him again.
Larabee wasn't as surprised as he should have been, when Ezra's door opened just as the sun was beginning to peek over the hills. He'd known the gambler was only pretending to sleep when the gunslinger had poked his nose in to check on him, having sent Nathan to his own room for some rest.
Trying to read, Chris had been distracted by the sounds of the man tossing and turning, and had heard a muffled cry followed by several minutes of pacing. He'd listened for half hour before sticking his head back in the door only to have the con man bolt upright in the bed, his eyes unfocused and full of terror. Focusing on the gunslinger, eyes wide with fear and his face white, not speaking a word, Ezra had turned away, curled up on his side to ignore the man who watched him with such concern on his face.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee." Ezra forced a bright smile.
"Mornin'." The gambler's clothing was impeccable, his red rimmed eyes the only sign of his sleepless night. "Ya didn't seem to sleep to well....Figured I'd wake ya in a hour or so." Chris wasn't known for mincing words or his subtly. "Don't even think Inez has the coffee ready yet."
"I'm sure we can procure a cup from the jail." The gambler ignored the less than tactful attempt to discuss the nightmares which had interrrupted his night.
"Vin had last watch." The gunslinger grinned at the gambler's groan of disgust as they stepped onto the boardwalk, the long dirt street still laying in shadows, with the sky just beginning to lighten. It was a well known fact the tracker's coffee was strong enough to melt a spoon.
"Hey Chris! Ezra!"
"Aww, the energy of youth." Ezra grumbled as the young sheriff hurried in their direction, bounding up to his two friends like an over grown puppy.
"Comes from gettin' a good night's sleep." Chris pointed out drily. He didn't have to ask when Ezra had slept more than an hour at a time. He knew the answer would only serve as a painful guilty reminder of what had happened to Wilmington.
"Mornin'!" JD pushed a lock of dark hair from his eyes before resetting the bowler hat which Buck detested so much, on his head. "Where ya headed?"
"We resolved to begin our day with a modicum of adventure by ingesting that offensive formulation of water and three day old grounds Mr. Tanner compounds together."
"We're goin' to the jail for a cup a coffee." Larabee's translation erased the confusion from the younger man's expression as the gunslinger pushed open the jail door.
JD frowned, "Well why didn't ya say so?"
"I believe I just did,. Mr. Dunne." Stepping inside, past the young man, Ezra's smile vanished, replaced by an expression of sheer terror --the same look Chris had witnessed hours earlier.
The sharpshooter, his hands tied to the highest cross bar of the cell, with his feet barely touching the floor, sagged against the bars. Blood trickled down his arms as the ropes bearing his unconscious weight, cut into his tightly bound wrists. His chin lolled on his chest, his long blood matted hair obscured his battered face. His bandana was cruelly tied across his mouth, the twisted fabric cutting into the corners. Every visible portion of the tracker's skin was covered with blood and bruises, his tattered shirt blood soaked.
Chris was the first to pull himself from his stunned stupor as the three men froze in the doorway. "Get Nathan!"
Trembling uncontrollably, nightmare memories washing over him in waves, Ezra backed up, coming to a stop with his back pressed against the wall, unable to force his muscles to obey as JD spun and ran from the small building.
Grabbing the bloody knife laying on the wooden floor at Tanner's feet, Larabee used the honed blade to slice through the ropes, pulling the limp body to him as the tracker collapsed. Easing the smaller man gently to the floor, Chris fumbled with the gag, carefully removing it. Afraid of the answer, he didn't bother to check for a pulse, but instead lifting the lean frame of his best friend, he hurried from the building, heading for Nathan's clinic.
"God, Chris what happened!?" Nathan's dark eyes widened at the sight. He hadn't bothered to pull on his shirt or boots as he dashed down the stairs and out onto the street following the frightened sheriff. Josiah, hearing JD's frantic shouts for help rushed from the church, making the sign of the cross at the bloody sight of the ex-bounty hunter hanging limply in the gunslinger's arms and the fear so clearly etched on Larabee's face.
Ezra wasn't sure how long he stood frozen in place in the jail, his eyes locked on the bloody ropes hanging from the cell bars, seeing not that hemp, but another rope in another place and time. He could actually feel the rough hemp tearing into his own flesh, before he finally regained enough control to make himself move.
Slowly, crossing to the cell, he knelt and picked up Vin's knife from where Chris had tossed it aside. Pulling the handkerchief from his vest pocket, he carefully began scrubbing at the sharp blade, taking great care to remove all the bloody traces. His hand involuntarily began to tremble as he stared at the blackened tip. With a shudder, he finished and laid the knife on the desk with the book he'd given his friend. As he moved to stand, his boot hit an object, and frowning, he focused on it. Tears began rolling down his pale cheeks as he gathered the silvery tin and wood object, the blood soaked handkerchief smearing its redness into the intricate carved crevices as he tried to wipe it clean. Having lost all sense of time and place, his long fingers tightened around the object, clutching it to him in a desperate attempt to stop his tears, but failed. Tears obscuring his vision he finally moved from the jail, not bothering to close the door behind him.
"Nathan?" Chris, his gaze never leaving the unmoving bloody man in the bed, found his voice enough to rasp out the healer's name as he carefully tucked the blanket around Vin and sank wearily into a chair beside the bed.
It had taken over two hours to clean and bandage the tracker's injuries. Two hours in which the only sound in the small room was Jackson's quiet voice giving orders.
The other men had quietly gathered in the small room. JD, his youthful face pale, his hair hanging in his eyes stood in the corner as far from the bed as he could get and yet still be in the room. His clenched hands were shoved into his pockets, not wanting to, but unable to keep from staring at the tracker. Buck, kept one eye on the youngest, worried as much for Chris as he did Tanner. After Nathan had shoved the older man out of his way for the fourth time, Wilmington had pulled Larabee over by the window, giving the preacher more room at the bedside to assist Nathan.
"I think he'll be okay." The healer spoke haltingly, not looking up from his patient. He didn't go into detail. It was plainly obivious someone had nearly beaten Vin to death. The evidence was right there in front of their eyes.. If they hadn't known it was Tanner, none of them would have recognized the sharpshooter, his handsome features distorted by the swollen colorful bruises. Broken ribs, broken arm, concussion, bruises, numerous knife cuts..... "He ain't gonna be sleepin' anywhere but here for awhile." Nathan pointed out absently.
"That's sure gonna put him in a lousy mood." JD commented with a relieved sigh, lightening the oppressive mood.
"Wanna bet he's tryin' ta sneak outta here in less than a week?" Buck grinned, gently nudging Chris.
The gunslinger obliged them with a small smile. "Bet Ezra can sneak him out a hellava lot easier than he could sneak Molly....." Larabee's worried gaze swept over each of the men, searching the room. "Where the hell's Ezra?"
The five men looked at each other in confusion. In their fear and worry for the tracker no one had realized the gambler hadn't joined them in the clinic.
A picture of Ezra standing immoblized, his face a study in horror and....guilt....as Chris carried Tanner from the jail, flashed through Larabee's mind.
"Shit!" With a last glance at Vin, Chris pushed past the others, flinging open the door, disappointment settling over him at not seeing the con man sitting on the landing. "JD, check the jail and his room!" Larabee tossed the order over his shoulder as he ran down the stairs, running for the livery.
Chris released a sigh of relief seeing Chaucer still in his regular stall. The animal wore his bridle and saddle blanket, the saddle itself laying on the ground beside the gelding as if it had been tossed aside in disgust. The peacekeeper told himself if Jake Cole had taken Ezra, Chaucer wouldn't be here. The gambler would either be riding or tossed over the saddle. It was quite evident Ezra had been planning on leaving but something had stopped him. Chris fervantly wanted to believe the con man couldn't bring himself to ride out without knowing the ultimate welfare of his friend.
Reaching out a trusting hand, hoping the damn horse didn't decide to take a chunk out of him, his voice barely above a whisper, the blond man stepped into the stall. Hanging the leather saddle back in its usual place, the gunslinger gently removed the bridle, placing it and the blanket with the saddle.
"Where is he, Chauce?....Where's Ezra?" The horse whickered tossing his head, a front hoof nervously pawing the ground. "Sure wish ya could talk....."
Damnit! Think Chris. Try and think like him......Yeah right.....This is Ezra, not Buck....Be a hellava lot easier if it was Buck. All I'd hafta do to is search every woman's bed in town.....What was it Vin once said about people feeling safe? Larabee whirled, truly expecting the sharpshooter to be standing behind him as the tracker's soft Texas drawl echoed in his mind. 'Look up Chris.....Ezra always goes up.'
Larabee turned worried hazel eyes upward. The hayloft?
Josiah quietly entered the building as Chris crossed to climb the ladder. A quick glance at the older man revealed a sad shake of his head indicating they'd found no sign of the missing gambler.
Climbing the ladder, Chris' head cleared the loft floor. His gaze searched the hay strewn area, finally coming to rest on a small figure huddled in a dark corner. Ezra had his arms wrapped around his legs with his forehead resting on his knees.
A quick downward look and nod at Josiah, letting the ex-priest know the lost lamb was found, Chris climbed on up into the dim loft, knowing without asking the preacher would not let them be disturbed.
The loose hay muffled his steps, silencing the jingle of his spurs as he slowly approached the younger man. "Ezra?" He softly spoke the man's name to get his attention, not wanting to frighten him further.
Jerking away from Larabee's soft touch on his shoulder, the con man scurried as far back into the corner as possible, cringing away from the gunslinger. The expression in the man's emerald eyes clearly stated he expected Larabee to release his wrath on the gambler. A punishment he so richly deserved.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth as Chris hunkered down in front of the man, speaking softly but clearly. "Vin's gonna be okay, Ezra.....Nathan says he'll be wantin' ya ta sneak him outta there in no time at all."
The southerner's head dropped back to his knees as his body rocked back and forth. "Shoulda left......Knew.....shoulda left...." he whispered brokenly, guilt swamping the words.
Seeing the tremors which racked the southerner's slim body, Larabee stood and crossed back to the ladder motioning for Josiah to hand him up a blanket. The huge man pulled a saddle blanket from a saddle slung over a nearby partion and pitched it to the man.
"Ezra?" Chris approached the con man as cautiously as he would a skittish colt, his heart breaking at the muffled words but moreso from seeing the southerner flinch from his closeness. He wasn't sure how to assuage the burden of guilt the gambler was carrying, but it had not just been guilt he'd seen on Ezra's face at the jail. It was sheer unadulterated terror.
Larabee carefully eased himself down to settle on the floor beside the con man, careful not to touch the southerner, as he draped the saddle blanket around Ezra's shoulders. He watched in bewilderment as the younger man continued to scrub furiously with a bloody handkerchief the small object he held. Chris leaned forward straining to hear his low mumbling.
"Can't.... get it clean...." The man's tone was bordered by tears, "All that blood....Vin's blood...Won't come clean...."
"Ezra?.....Whatcha got there, Ezra?" Larabee questioned softly and was stunned at the desolation he saw in the watery eyes as Ezra slowly held out his palm, revealing Vin's cherished harmonica.
"Blood won't come off.....I...t-tr.....It won't...." Ezra half sobbed.
"It's alright, Ezra...." Chris tried to reassure him. "We'll get it clean. I promise."
"Too much blood......" A look of horror flashed across his face. "Vin's blood..." he repeated as his breath hitched in his throat.
"We'll take care of it Ezra....Vin'll be real happy ya found it for him. Ya know how fond he is of that damn thing." The gunslinger gently pressed the gambler's fingers around the musical instrument. "I'll help ya clean it up and ya can give it ta Vin when he wakes up....It'll give him something ta do while he's laid up. Maybe he can actually learn to play something on it. "
Clutching the harmonica tightly, the gambler curled protectively back into himself, his forehead resting on his knees. Seeing his friend, beaten, bloody and possibly dying, his bound hands the only thing keeping him on his feet had done to the gambler what nothing else had accomplished. The horrific sight had completely demolished the walls he'd spent years building and reinforcing, leaving the stubborn southerner utterly vulnerable and defenseless.
Chris did realize the con man had finally come to consider his fellow peacekeepers his friends. He had known the sneaky swindler would do anything possible to protect them not only from outside threats, but from the southerner himself as well. Until this moment, seeing the shattered man huddled in the corner of the loft, Larabee hadn't understood just how deeply those feelings ran. It became clear, Ezra had fought to keep the men at arm's length to protect himself from the pain of their loss. Not just a physical loss caused by death, but also the emotional loss brought on by rejection of the small gestures of friendship he overtly offered. Not wanting to embarrass the gambler, no one made mention of the more grand and often anonymous demonstrations.
"Did he...he....burn 'im?"
The quiet question startled the gunslinger. How had Ezra known about the ugly burns marking the sharpshooter's shoulder and chest?
"Did he Chris?" The bereft voice persisted as the gambler raised sad eyes to meet the gunslinger's hazel gaze, an unvoiced glint of hope Larabee would deny what the con man already knew.
Larabee momentarily considered lying to spare the man any further pain, but knew Ezra would see through the deception. "Yeah." Watching the gambler absently rub his own shoulder, Chris realized what prompted the question. Jake Cole was forcing Ezra to relive what had happened, using the con man's friends to re-enact the brutal actions which brought about his brother's death. "What happened that day Ezra?.....What else did Cole's brother do?"
Standish shook his head and sat in silence for several long moments, staring at something only he could see.
Chris understood the man was struggling to rebuild his emotional walls, needing the protection they offered against the memories that brought more horror than any one person should have to face.
Long moments passed and then Chris looked on in astonishment as the gambler's poker face finally fell into place, but it was the emptiness in the emerald eyes, and the flat hollow sound of the younger man's voice which sent the gunslinger's own heart dropping to his stomach. He was ashamed to admit it scared him to see the gambler so disheartened and disspirited. It frightened him almost as much as he had been while carrying Vin to the clinic, uncertain if the man who had come to mean so much to him was alive or not.
Larabee knew Ezra Standish, perhaps more than any of the seven, was a fighter. In one form or another, the man instinctively railed against everything and everybody. For every two steps the others took pulling him into their unique family, the gambler had stubbornly taken at least one step backwards. Now, to see the fire gone from the man's green eyes, to feel as if the very spirit that made the southerner alive had finally been squelched, sent a shaft of fear stabbing into Larabee's heart.
The con man was still alive,still breathing and walking around, but Chris couldn't help wondering if they hadn't already lost the obstinate, conniving, irritating, high spirited, lovable man who embodied all they knew as Ezra P. Standish.
Then in the silence of the dusty loft, the gambler softly began speaking, so low, Larabee had to strain to hear the words. "I was taking the stage to meet Mother. There was a young woman, Catherine Cross and her five year old daughter, Angela, on the stage with me. They were going to visit Catherine's parents. It would have been the first time Angela met her grandparents. A child truly befitting her name for she was indeed an angel. Sweet natured, and happy she never once voiced a complaint about the unpleasent conditions or the long hours spent being tossed around the uncomfortable coach." Knowing the gambler's affinity for children Chris suspected the young scoundrel had kept the little girl entertained with card tricks and fairy tales. "A miniature copy of her mother, she had wavy hair the color of spun gold and enormous blue eyes....the same color as V-" Ezra closed his eyes, his voice catching in his throat.
"He's gonna be okay, Ezra." Larabee hurried to again reassure the southerner, hoping he wasn't lying to the man. Chris had learned early on Nathan rarely gave false hope but, often, like both the gambler and the sharpshooter, one had to listen to what the healer didn't say. "He looks like he's been tromped on by a herd a cattle, but Tanner's tough....Nathan reckons he'll be just fine with alotta rest."
The words seemed to appease the southerner who nodded once, then after another long silence, began speaking again. "We were three days into our journey, and it was a beautiful morning....." With a barely contained tremor, Ezra continued without any urging, describing how Sam Cole and five men had stopped the stage, killing the driver instantly.
Larabee listened, his stomach churning with horror as the con man calmly described how the sadistic criminal had tied the young gambler's hands to a low branch of a nearby tree, and then had proceeded to try numerous variations of torture on the southerner.
Ezra's voice never faltered, his stare never wavering as in his mind he relived that day, remembering with bitter hot tears how he had been unable to help as Cole and his men used Catherine for their perverted pleasure. He could still hear her voice just as when he been forced to listen to her screams and her pleas for help while throughout it all, Sam had laughed, his sick mind searching for ways to bring about those same screams and pleas from the southerner.
Hearing the soft pained words, Larabee, who had run smack dab into the wall of Standish's stubbornness on many occasions, knew Ezra had pushed aside the pain, refusing to give the man the satisfaction of hearing the cocky southerner beg. Standish would kill, would do everything in his power for that matter, to protect others, but he would never beg for his own salvation.
Chris knew Catherine and her daughter had died that day for Maude had told them. He hated asking his next question for he knew he would hate the answer even, more but if Ezra was going to get past this he had to release it all. "What about Angela? What happened to the little girl, Ezra?" he queried softly.
The gambler swallowed hard several times and blinked rapidly, still caught up in the horrible memory of that awful day. "She-she-she was my undoing,......and I-I-I was the cause of her death." The gambler stammered, remembering how he had lost all track of time, hanging there, tied helplessly to the tree, drifting in and out of consciousness as he concentrated on finding a means of escape for them, struggling to block out the pain, Catherine's screams and Angela's sobs.
Closing his eyes, Ezra could still see Cole's heavy booted foot pushing the precious little girl to the ground whenever she sought to reach her mother. The child had finally huddled at the base of the tree, staying as close to the gambler as she could. He had tried to soothe her fears, assuring her everything would be fine and she would soon be on her way to visit the grandparents who loved her so much, saying anything to keep the child distracted from the horrors surrounding them..
Seeing the child's effect on the arrogant swindler who refused to add to his pleasure with little more than stifled groans, Sam had yanked the child to her feet by her long hair, moving to where Ezra could not escape watching. Wrapping his large hands around her small throat, her tiny feet dangling off the ground, Cole had laughingly squeezed until the child had finally stopped squirming, all the while his insanely glittering eyes on the gambler, his smile growing as Ezra, tears streaming down his pale face, begged, cajoled, pleaded, and threatened the man. Struggling with all his being against the ropes binding him, Ezra had kicked out at the brutal man, trying to force him to release his hold, but Cole was just far enough out of his reach to escape damage or determent.
As the light of life flickered out of Angela's azure eyes, Sam had tossed the small body at the southerner's feet, like the child was some piece of garbage to be thrown aside. The sweet child's demise had shattered the southerner's heart but a new spark was beginning to build within him, rapidly flaming higher and that was revenge. Revenge for Catherine and for the blue eyed little girl who had done nothing to warrant such brutual deaths. No matter what they did to him, he vowed he would not die until he knew Sam Cole was burning in hell.
With Angela's death, Ezra had shut down, his hatred the only thing keeping him alive as Cole continued to amuse himself, using his fists, his knife and the campfire in a variety of imaginative methods attempting to bring the screams he so desired to hear from the gambler's lips. But his actions were fruitless. Ezra had never given him the satisfaction.
The sun had long since set before Cole had tired of his game and ordered his men to mount up. Standing over Catherine's inert battered brutalized form, Sam had placed a well aimed bullet in the middle of her forehead, but Ezra had to believe she was already dead. At least he prayed she was.
With a sneer, Cole had turned to face the bound gambler, his eyes glittering with insanity. Ezra had been sure he was going to die, but Cole, toying with the barrel of the gun in his hand had walked around and around him, jeering, "Know how long it takes to die when yer gut shot?....Days and days. It's agony they say... Guess you can find out iffen they're right.." Pausing in front of the young man, a sick smile smeared on his face, he pulled the trigger, turned and walked away, leaving the gambler slumped in his bonds, and the two bodies lying in the dirt.
It had been late the next afternoon before they were found and medical help finally arrived. Too late for Catherine and Angela and nearly too late for Ezra. Lady Luck, who seemed to desert him when he needed her most, had truly been riding on his shoulder for Cole's aim had been off. The madman's bullet had caught Ezra low on his left side.....
The gambler 's voice fell silent as he concluded, seemingly unaware of the freely flowing tears which streamed unchecked down his pale cheeks. Tilting his head back, eyes closed, he gave an inarticulate cry and collapsed. Only Larabee's sudden move to grab his shoulders stopped the man was striking the floor. Unabashedly, gathering the trembling man in his arms, ignoring the tears escaping from his own eyes, Larabee, held him silently offering comfort as the man once again grieved for the woman and child he'd barely known.
Below them, standing in the dusty light of the ancient old barn, Josiah scrubbed a hand over his long face, wiping away his own tears of sorrow and silently saying a prayer for the young gambler who had survived such a hideous event only to have it return to haunt him again..
Huddled against the gunslinger, his words muffled in the black fabric of Chris' shirt, Ezra choked out, "My fault.....Couldn't stop 'em......Couldn't save 'em.....Shoulda...."
Chris shook his head. "You couldn't be expected to stop them, Ezra. Hell, ya's jist a kid yerself back then and nobody in their right mind takes on half a dozen gunmen at point blank range." the gunslinger pointed out logically. "C'mon, Erza," he cajoled, "Yer a gambler. What kinda odds ya give anyone in that situation."
Ezra pushed away from the gunslinger, swiping at the tear tracks as he stubbornly gathered his composure about him."I'm sure a man such as yourself would have dispatched them post haste, Mr. Larabee. You are a man of great skill and courage...."
"So are you, Ezra., only yer too blind to see it." The gunslinger interrupted. "While I appreciate the vote of confidence, you can cut the crap cause both of us know I'da been no better off than you were." Looking the gambler full in the face, Chris was stunned to see the truth revealed in the younger man's green eyes. Standish truly believed if it had been Larabee on that stage, Catherine and Angela would have escaped with minimal harm.
Realizing the young swindler had been carrying the guilt of those two deaths on his slim shoulders for all these years, Larabee grabbed Ezra's chin, forcing the younger man to look at him. "You didn't kill 'em, Ezra!" He lightly shook the slender man, trying to get through to him. "Damnit! Some sick bastard who shoulda been put down like a rabid dog did! You avenged 'em, Ezra....and ya did it the right way! Legally, by walking into that courtroom."
"And if I hadn't walked into that courtroom then, Vin wouldn't be layin' in the clinic right now fighting for his life.....Buck wouldn't a been sliced up like a side a bacon...." Ezra jerked away burying his head in his arms again. Gone were the fancy words he so loved to use and his southern accent was thicker than normal. "Shoulda left.....Ya shoulda let me go......Why....Why didn't ya let me leave?" The last was more a moan of despair than a question. "Nobody woulda been hurt, iffen ya'd jist let me go......"
"Ya think so?...." Chris half snarled, the man's stubborn reluctance to see the facts which were so plainly in front of him sparking Larabee's temper. "What about you?"
"Don't matter...." Ezra persisted doggedly.
"The hell it don't!" Chris did not try and stop the anger which was washing over him. Why was it this willful, hard headed, pain in the ass couldn't see his own worth? Why did he continue to believe his life wasn't as worthy as any of the other six? Chris knew Ezra rarely asked anything of the men he considered friends yet, when he'd asked them to understand his reasons for leaving they had blindly refused. Instead they had stooped to trickery and force, practically holding him captive much as Sam Cole had. Taking a deep breath, calming himself Chris questioned, "Why, Ezra?"
"What?" The gambler looked up, confused by the question.
"Tell me why it doesn't matter. Tell me why you don't matter. Explain to me why it's any different if you get hurt instead of one of us."
"You're not stupid, Mr. Larabee!" The southerner's voice shook with emotion and Chris almost smiled at the spark of fire in the emerald eyes. "It's me Jake wants! Me! He wants his revenge and if I wasn't here, none of you would be in danger! None of you would be hurt and that's all that matt--!" he broke off.
"Then tell me something, Ez....honestly......If you were given the choice to go through what Jake did to Buck and Vin or to never see them again, never knowing if they were dead or alive, which would you choose?"
The green fire was fairly flaming in the gambler's tear bright eyes. "That's an utterly stupid question, Mr. Larabee!"
"Humor me. Answer it anyway." Chris ordered.
"Surely you know I would rather face Jake Cole than....." Ezra's voice trailed off.
A faint ghost of a smile flickered on Larabee's face. "Then explain to me why should it be any different for any of us? Why do you think your leaving would hurt any less than what Jake did? Always wonderin' what happened to ya,...never knowin'...." Larabee studied the gambler, seeing the pain he, himself, was causing the southerner but knowing it was a necessary evil. "How ya think JD would feel if ya left? He looks up to ya, Ezra, whether you believe that or not.. Ya think it wouldn't hurt Josiah....or Nathan, Buck.....or me?.....What about Vin? Ain't he lost enough in his life without havin' to wonder what mighta happened to ya?" He reached out lightly shaking the gambler again. "Don't ya get it, Ezra? You're part of us and ain't one of us who wouldn't move heaven or hell to help ya when ya need it."
"Moving heaven and hell is one thing, Chris....." Unaware of his familiar use of the gunman's given name, the tears again were rolling unchecked down the gambler's cheeks. "However, I can't.....I won't.....ask you to suffer the demon of hell that's Jake Cole....."
A soft smile flickered on Larabee's face. "Ya ain't askin' and we done volunteered."
Ezra gave him a fierce look, his voice sharp. "A moment ago I said you weren't stupid....I'd like to retract that statement! Isn't Vin proof enough of what Cole is capable of? Did you conveniently forget how you felt seeing your oldest friend, a man who's stood by you most of his life, bleeding all over the saloon kitchen......Have you suddenly gone blind or don't ya give a damn that the man who's supposed to be your best friend could die because he feels some absurd obligation to defend someone who isn't even worth defending?" Ezra couldn't believe the gunslinger was willing to sacrifice the others out of some misguided sense of loyalty or nobility. Jumping to his feet, he pushed past the blond man, pacing in frustration, his white teeth nervously worrying his bottom lip.
Why couldn't they understand he was nothing more than a liar and cheat? Why couldn't they see how much more important their lives were then his? He understood they too had their demons, but while they had spent their lives doing what they considered right, helping where they were needed, the gambler's own life had been mispent in the single minded pursuit of money. He was a master at the art of the con, but these six men seemed immune to his talents. They not only saw through the masks he wore but had penetrated defenses he'd spent his entire life cultivating.
Scrubbing his fingers through his hair, he turned to face Larabee, "Catherine and Angela died because I couldn't defend them! I couldn't protect them from that vile bastard but by damn, I'll protect the rest of you and I'll be damned if I allow any of you to sacrifice yourselves for me!"
"But it's alright for you to sacrifice yourself for us?" Chris asked calmly, gaining his feet to face the man, turning the debate back on the gambler. "It's perfectly alright for you to be willing to die for your friends, but not the other way around?.....It's alright for you to stand by us....It's alright for you to take a bullet protecting Mary or run into the middle of a gunfight ta blow up an armored coach, but we're supposed to just stand aside and let ya ride out and meet some lunatic on your own?"
"YES!" Unwilling to concede defeat, Ezra met the gunslinger's steady gaze, his mind searching frantically for a viable response to the man's synopsis. Damn the man!
"No." Larabee smiled shaking his head. "Friendship doesn't work that way."
The fury that raged through the gambler gave way to futilty, realizing by Larabee's expression it didn't matter what answers he came up with, he'd have to shoot the older man to win this argument. The energy fueled by his anger draining away, Ezra sank back down to the floor, his shoulders slumping in resigned capitulation as he wearily raked a hand through his hair, his eyes settling on the harmonica he still clutched, Vin's blood still visible on its surface.. He couldn't let them do this! He'd find a way out! He would!
"Ya might as well get it through that thick skull a yours, Ezra....We're here ta stay." Chris crossed to sit down beside the con man, sliding a comforting arm back around the southerner again. He hadn't seen Ezra this flustered since trying to decipher out the cheating gambler with the false leg. "I want ya ta listen ta me, Ezra.....I want ya ta listen real good.....You did what you could for that woman and her daughter....It wasn't your fault.....You did what you could and that's all that can be expected of any man.....It took just as much courage to walk into that courtroom and face the sadistic bastard as it did takin on Anderson's men.....And if anyone of us is ta blame for what happened ta Vin, it's me..." He cut off Ezra's protest before it could be voiced. "I shoulda listened when ya was so sure Jake hadn't been caught....I won't make that mistake again. We'll find this bastard, Ezra....Tomorrow we're gonna make that ride to Eagle Bend.....See what we can find out and then we're goin' after that sick sonavabitch!"
"Tomorrow, Ezra." Chris insisted. "Today, you're goin' get some rest....I want ya alert, not falling asleep in the saddle.....And, Ezra, one more thing...." Larabee pulled the con man to his feet. "I want ya to do me one favor."
"What might that be?" The southerner asked, certain he was going to regret the question.
"I want ya to believe your life is just as important as anybody else's.....and that friendship is a two way street. I wantcha ta start coming to us with your troubles and let us help ya."
"You and Mr. Wilmington seem to suffer from the same affliction." Ezra couldn't stop the tiny smile that graced his lips as he moved toward the ladder. "Neither of you seem to understand the concept of one favor."
Chris eased himself into the rocker Josiah had recently vacated, watching the con man sleep. Ezra mumbled occasionally, his muscles twitching as caught in his dreams, the man tried to escape the abuse of his torturer.
There had been no subterfuge this time. They'd stopped at the clinic so Nathan could put the gambler's mind at ease concerning Vin. While the gambler struggled to satisfy himself concerning the long haired man's condition, Nathan had been busy mixing herbs in a cup of tea. Knowing he would have no luck with the southerner, he had handed the cup to Larabee and nodded toward Standish.
Stepping up beside the quiet man, Larabee pressed the drink into his hand. "Drink this, Ezra."
"Ain't thirsty." The gambler mumbled, not pulling his gaze from the motionless sharpshooter, fighting the wetness that filled his eyes and mentally asking for his friend's forgiveness.
"It ain't for thirst, it's for sleepin'. Now drink it." Chris ordered, the threat in his voice clear as he wrapped the southerner's slender fingers around the mug. "Drink it or I'll pour it down your throat myself. Told ya I want ya alert tomorrow and that ain't gonna happen without some decent sleep."
To everyone's surprise, Ezra had drunk the concoction without another word of argument and silently followed Josiah back to his room.
Now, watching the man sleep, Larabee shook his head in amusement. The gambler had insisted Chris remain at the clinic and Vin having awakened for a few moments had asked the gunslinger to stay with Ezra, wanting to be sure someone was watching over his friend. He couldn't help but wonder if the two men realized how very much alike they truly were. Both of them were more concerned about their friends' welfare than their own. Giving it serious thought, though, Chris realized it was a trait all seven of the men held in common.
At times it still amazed and overwhelmed him that whether by accident or devine intervention, seven men from various walks of life had come together in one tiny frontier town, each finding something which had been lacking in their lives. Seven diverse personalities somehow came together to compliment each other, each drawing their strength from the whole. 'All for one and one for all,' came into his mind.
Chris hadn't been looking for friends or a home that day when he'd entered Four Corners. In truth, if he'd been searching for anything at all, it would have been death, hopefully his own.
Instead, exiting that saloon, he had come to discover a peace he hadn't known in years and thought he would only discover with the finality of his life. All because a long haired young store clerk had opted to save a man he didn't know. That blue eyed sharpshooter, a smart mouthed gambler, an ex-priest, a freed slave, a kid from Boston and Larabee's oldest friend had turned his life around and had given the gunslinger a new hope and a new family.
Emitting a small moan, Ezra rolled onto his side, burying his face in the pillows. Leaning forward, the gunslinger pulled the light blanket back up over the gambler's shoulders, his hazel eyes coming to rest on the harmonica still clutched in the cardsharp's hand. Josiah had told him how the con man had fought the sleep trying to claim him by scrubbing the small instrument until it shone before finally, unable to fight it further, he had relinquished himself to Nathan's medication.
The gambler's long fingers closed tightly around the harmonica at Chris' half hearted attempt to ease it from his grip and a single tear escaped from beneath the southerner's closed eyelids.
"It's alright, Ezra....You hang onto it." Chris whispered, understanding it was the gambler's way of keeping his friend near.
Settling back in the chair, watching the sleeping southerner, Larabee's mind turned to the pressing problem at hand. If his theory was correct, Jake was carrying out the oath he'd made at his brother's trial, using Ezra's friends to re-enact the torture the gambler himself had suffered fifteen years earlier. From what little bit the con man had revealed, Chris was certain the man hadn't told him everything, each time Jake picked a victim he escalated the abuse inflicted on the young swindler. The only thing that hadn't come to fruition yet was the gunshot wound and strangulation.
"Aww, hell." Leaving the door open, Chris crossed the hall, thankful when Molly answered his knock, asking the young woman to find Josiah for him.
Jake Cole settled himself on the roof overlooking the street, the thrill of the hunt surging through his veins. Oh how he'd truly enjoyed himself working on the long haired member of the seven. Watching the man writhe and twist as he tried to escape the knife, the sight and smell of the blood and burnt flesh, the fear and pain flickering in the blue depths of the man's eyes....the deeper fear when he couldn't escape....Jake finally understood why his brother took such heady pleasure in the brutal intoxicating games he had played. It made his blood run hot just thinking of it again. His only regret was that he'd had to use a gag to insure the man's screams hadn't brought help. Like Sam, he'd wanted to hear the long haired man utter those helpless screams. He'd wanted Standish to hear his friend screaming in pain and begging for mercy.
Yet as much as he wanted to continue playing with the gambler's friend, tormenting the man even further it was time to bring this game to an end. It was high time to make the fancy sonuvabitch pay for killing his brother.
The gambler was surprised to discover Tanner watching him through eyes nearly swollen shut, as he stepped hesitantly closer to the injured man's bed. Chris had remained out on the landing issuing final orders to the others before he and Ezra headed out for Eagle Bend and so the gambler faced the tracker alone.
"'Kay?" Spoken through swollen lips, the tracker's word was barely discernable.
"I believe I should be raising that question...." Ezra's voice trailed off as he found himself unable to force a smile, his heart breaking, feeling the pain his gentle friend was bearing. "I'm so sor-"
"No." Vin grimaced at the pain caused by the simple act of just shaking his head. But even through the agony, the sharpshooter saw the color drain from Ezra's face and the grief in the emerald eyes and he realized the conman had misunderstood the simple word. The southerner thought the tracker was refusing his apology, unable to forgive him for something he considered his fault. "No need....weren't....y-you."
Ezra gently sat on the side of the bed, supporting the Texan's head, as he held the cup to the man's bruised, swollen lips. The gambler knew the medicinal tea, while tasting like something scraped off the bottom of his boot, would not only quench the injured man's thirst but also ease his pain and make it easier for Vin to get the rest he needed to heal.
As he set the emptied cup back on the stand beside the bed, he saw Vin's blue eyes settle on the tan coat Ezra wore.
"Goin'...?" Tanner questioned, blue eyes locking on the gambler's face, knowing the con man only wore the tan jacket when he was riding any distance.
"Yeah,....but I'll be back....." Ezra assured him. "Chris and I are riding over to Eagle Bend. Gonna check the wires between here and there....See if it's possible to send a telegram." The gambler prattled on, afraid if he stopped talking, his emotions would get the better of him and he'd break down in the hated tears that lately seemed to constantly be hovering just below the surface.
Finally seeing the sharpshooter succumbing to the healer's tea, Ezra pulled the silver harmonica from his vest pocket. Placing it in the ex-bounty hunter's hand, he gently curled the young man's slim fingers around the musical instrument much as Chris had done his own the day before. "I expect ya ta be playin' this the next time I see ya." he whispered when he saw Vin clutch the familiar object as sleep claimed him.
Pushing to his feet, he stood watching Tanner sleep, and with a fierceness he hadn't known was in him, Ezra vowed to make amends for the terrible suffering which he had inadvertently brought to his friends.
Ezra couldn't stop himself from looking back at the clinic as he mounted Chaucer and slowly walked the horse toward the merchantile where Chris was replenishing the few supplies they would need. Standing on the landing, Nathan saw the look and gave the gambler a nod of reassurance. Vin would be fine. They'd take care of him.
"You watch your back, Ezra." Buck called from where he and JD lounged in front of the saloon. "We'll see ya in a couple days."
The gambler was aware Wilmington had planned on riding with the gunslinger and gambler only to be told he was more urgently needed to watch over the young sheriff. If Chris was right, JD would be the bait used to force the con man's hand.
The southerner forced himself not to fidget in the saddle, but Chaucer danced nervously under him, instinctively picking up on his rider's distress. Ezra's nervous gaze darted about the town, searching each passing face, peering into the shadows, his nerves on edge. A cold chill racing down his spine, told him they were being watched. Cole was here. He was as certain of that fact as if the man was standing in front of him.
Cole was here! He wanted to scream it, wanted to spur Chaucer away from the town and never look back. Hopefully Jake would follow. He steadied his nerves and adjusted the leather reins he clutched so desperately in his hands. Chris was here. The other men were here. It would be all right. They would face Cole....together. He took a deep breath and calmed his racing heart, locking his gaze on Larabee, knowing nothing would fluster the man in black.
Watching Chris step from the merchantile as Mrs. Potter forced another small package into his hands, Ezra pulled his gaze from Larabee long enough to give the womanizer a less than confident two fingered salute. Gathering the reins, he heeled Chaucer in the gunslinger's direction. He needed to tell Chris there was no need for the trip now. All they needed to do was turn this dusty town upside down and they would find Cole.
Mrs. Potter's terrified scream drown out the sound of rifle fire. Ezra, his green eyed gaze on Larabee as he rode up to the man, watched with horrified dismay as the black clad gunslinger was suddenly slammed back against the store wall, blood spurting from his chest before he slid to the wooden planks. There, he lay motionless among his scattered purchases, his blood draining and soaking the old dirty boardwalk.
With no other shots fired, a crowd quickly gathered blocking Ezra's view of his dead friend. Spinning Chaucer with a bitterness rising up in his throat, Ezra's gaze frantically searched the area, seeking the man who had brought such destruction to the tiny town.
The panicked shouts of townspeople, Buck and JD loudly ordering the people to back off as Nathan pushed his way toward Larabee all faded as the gambler reined Chaucer around spurring the horse after the sound of pounding hooves, his green gaze catching a glimpse of a retreating figure, which raised a rifle over his head in a symbol of victory.
Common sense finally prevailed in the battle against Ezra's rage as he neared a thickly wooded area several miles from town. Killing his horse or riding into an ambush wouldn't bring Chris' murderer to justice. Slowing Chaucer, he reined off the road into a small patch of grass enclosed by boulders. Stopping he swung down, walking the animal until the horse's breath returned to normal. Ezra used the time to try and think clearly, yet the image of Larabee laying sprawled on the boardwalk, the red life giving fluid pooling around him crowded everything else from his mind.
With a strangled sounding sob, Ezra slid to the ground, his back resting against one of the larger stones, as tears of sorrow rolled down his cheeks, allowing himself a moment to grieve for Chris Larabee.
In his days as a youth, the gambler's only example of brotherhood had been watching the self serving, backstabbing cousins who seemed to care only about those things which would suit their own best interests rather than that of their siblings. But here in Four Corners, Larabee and the other five men had shown him what it truly meant to have brothers. Brothers who cared about each other and would do everything in their power to help and protect those they loved...It had nothing to with blood or kin, but the seven of them were united as his family as surely as his cousins
In the years of living by his wits, Standish was as good at seeing behind other people's masks as he was at wearing them. He knew the hardened gunslinger who had been Chris Larabee was nothing more than a facade. The blond man's heart which had turned to ice with the death of his family, or so most people thought, had begun to thaw when he met a long haired, ex-bounty hunter with a price on his own head. The man's cold heart had eventually melted completely as he came to care about the town, its people, and especially the men who stood beside him. They had became his family.
The con man, a master at deception himself, knew Chris had been extremely adept at hiding those feelings, almost as adept as Ezra himself, behind the famous Larabee glares, only allowing his concern or regard to be seen when one of the six needed more than a soft word of approval or a sharp word of reprimand. Somehow, with a minimum of words, Larabee had conveyed to each of the peacekeepers just how special they were to him.
Now that man who had just found life again was dead. Cowardly ambushed in a nowhere shit hole of a town to avenge the death of a man he'd never even heard of until a few weeks before.
Swallowing hard, Ezra swiped the back of his hand across his eyes and glanced around, realizing he was letting Cole get further away and he wasn't helping Chris by sitting there crying. Pushing to his feet, squaring his shoulders, he walked to the road, kneeling to study the tracks. The gambler took several deep breaths, forcing the churning emotions, except for the rage, behind his newly erected walls, knowing grief and regret would only get in the way of what he had to do.
'Wait for the others Ezra! Let them help you.' Larabee's voice echoed in his head.
"Not this time, Mister Larabee!" Ezra growled. "If I hadn't listened to you in the first place, you'd still be alive and no one else would have been hurt."
Two sets of prints stood out against the wagon tracks and other evidence of travellers in the dusty dirt road. One set of tracks, which had to be Chaucer's, stopped there. The other, which he prayed was Cole's horse, continued on, hooves digging deep into the soil as the running animal put distance between his master and Four Corners. The gambler studied the prints, grateful for the tracking lessons Vin had aimed in his direction, burning them into his brain until he was certain he'd recognize them if they were nothing more than a faint shadow on the grass.
'Look fer anythin' outta place, Ez.....Anythin' outta the ordin'ry.' The Texan's soft voice ringing in his ears, the southerner slowly scanned the area before riding down the trail to Granny's small homestead. Realizing the direction the convict's tracks were leading, Ezra's heart had nearly stopped.
Two days! Two days he'd been trailing Cole. He was certain the man was leading him in circles, his trail as erratic as a drunken cowhand, but it didn't matter, he'd follow him into the bowels of hell and back if that's what it took. Anything to catch the man and when he caught him, Ezra'd kill him. That was the only thought in the southerner's mind: to find Cole and kill him. The man would never have another opportunity to hurt anyone else.
Wrapped only in the blanket from his bedroll, Ezra had spent the previous night huddled inside a crack of the rock face on the ridge overlooking Nettie Wells' tiny ranch. He knew he had already passed it once that day. A small smile had touched his lips as he imagined Cole taking on Miz Nettie and her old Spenser carbine. Man wouldn't have a chance to blink before she sent him on his way to hell to meet his brother. He knew nobody messed with that old woman or her friends and if she knew the convict had a hand in hurting Vin Tanner, Ezra might be forced to have a second's pity for Cole for what the old woman would do to him.
Ezra hadn't worried about Cole sneaking up on him while he slept. Sleep had eluded him, seeing Chris fall victim to the rifle bullet each time his heavy eyelids slid closed. When the sun had finally broken night's darkness, he had saddled his rested horse and started on the trail again, ending up here as he urged Chaucer toward the cabin.
The gambler breathed a sigh of relief as the cabin door opened and Granny stepped onto the porch, water bucket in hand. Shading her eyes, a smile lit up the old woman's face as she recognized the rider.
"Afternoon, Ezra. Step down and set a spell." Granny invited, crossing to the well. "Done put lunch away but won't take but a minute ta heat ya somethin' and I gotta a pie coolin' as we speak."
"I would appreciate it, dear lady, but I'm sorry to say, I don't have time." Dismounting, he stepped to the well, turning the crank until the wooden bucket surfaced, Ezra filled the bucket for the house, pouring the rest into the small trough for Chaucer. "Was wondering if you've seen any strangers in the vicinity....A tall man, long black hair with a streak of white..."
"Ain't seen nobody, white streak or not." Granny shook her head, noting the weariness and sorrow on the young man's pale dirt streaked face. "Who'd he hurt?"
Ezra gave her a puzzled look. "Excuse me?"
"Ya got that look about ya, boy."
Confused, Ezra lifted the water bucket and silently carried it into the house, his curiosity getting the better of him when she said nothing, but moved to pour him a cup of coffee.
She motioned him to a chair, before pulling bread and meat from the pantry.
"What look?" he finally questioned as he wearily sat down and sipped at the hot coffee.
"The look of a man on the hunt." Granny stated. "A man set on killin'. Reckon a good man only gets that kinda look for one reason... Someone done hurt his loved ones....people he cares 'bout most." She glanced at the gambler out of the corner of her eye. "Think they'd want this? Ya huntin this desperado alone?"
"Maybe not, but I'm afraid Mr. Larabee is no longer able to state his objections to my activites." He couldn't bring himself to voice the statement 'Chris Larabee is dead.' out loud. Not just yet.
The old woman's heart broke, hearing the grief and the guilt in the young con man's voice. She was stunned to see self hatred shining in the emerald eyes that had twinkled mischieviously as he shamelessly and harmlessly flirted with her while repairing her homestead, making her long to be thirty years younger.
Granny Hinkley had walked this earth long enough to know nothing she could say or do was going to ease the southerner's pain or quench the bloodlust burning in his veins, but she felt for the gambler's sake she had to try.
She stepped around the table and placed a gentle hand on Standish's shoulder, the other hand soothingly stroking his dusty brown curls, just as she had done for her own son so many years ago. "Go home, son....Let yer friends help ya through this....Huntin' whilst yer grief is still raw can only get ya killed."
"Doesn't matter." Ezra now had a better understanding of how Chris had felt after his family was killed. Dead. Numb inside. Nothing mattered any more. Nothing he would ever do would matter ever again for Cole had succeeded in taking more from Ezra than just a friend. He'd taken his security, his home and his family. Chris' death, beyond any doubt, was his fault and in time the others would come to agree. With that knowledge, he knew he would no longer be welcome in Four Corners. He would once again be adrift in a world of strangers, lost to those he had come to value beyond even his love of money and cards.
"'Bout half a day's ride ta the south, there's some old mine shacks. Most done been abandoned years ago. Good place for a man on the run ta hide." Granny tied the sandwiches she'd made in a old linen cloth, shoving them into the cardsharp's hands as he thanked her for the coffee and information.
Gaining his feet he moved for the door, "You keep your rifle close at hand, Granny. You see the man I described....don't think twice, just put a bullet in him." Ezra stepped onto the porch, giving a low whistle for Chaucer. "Promise me, Granny.....The man won't give a second thought ta killin' ya. You see him, don't hesitate."
"Don't be worryin' none 'bout me, boy." The old woman admonished watching the swindler pack the sandwiches in his saddlebags as carefully as if they were made of china. "I done took care a myself alotta years...."
The young man spun around, his eyes flashing green fire as he hissed out, "Promise me!"
She took a step back from his intensity but nodded. "I'll do what I gotta do." Granny felt heat rise in her face as, satisfied with her answer, Ezra gave her a small smile and a gentle kiss on the cheek. "You do the same, boy." She whispered as he stepped into the saddle, turned Chaucer and with a polite tip of his hat, headed south.
Ezra pulled the tightly woven saddle blanket, smelling heavily of horse sweat, tighter around his shoulders, scrunching further back amongst the rocks, wondering again if he shouldn't have stayed at the broken down shack. Granny had been right about the possibility of where Cole was hiding. Ezra had spotted the convict's tracks again shortly after leaving the old woman's homestead. He had followed them until they left the deep pine woods, fading out, as the rich loamy terrain gave way to the dry hard packed soil at the edge of the desert. He had Granny's directions and convinced that's where the convict was now headed, he'd made his way to the old mining camp.
The first ramshackle cabin he'd come upon it didn't appear as if any human had set foot inside it for at least a dozen or more years. Part of the roof and one wall had collapsed, but at least what was left standing would have offered partial shelter against the cold night wind. With two hours of good light left, Ezra had continued on with his pursuit.
Now, settled in the cold rocks, waiting, the gambler had forced himself to eat one of Granny's sandwiches, more for nourishment rather than hunger. The only appetite he'd had since the bullet had taken Larabee's life was for vengence. A small sip from the flask warmed his insides and helped his muscles relax slightly.
Chaucer, ground hitched a few feet away munched at small patches of scrub grass nestled among the rocks. Ezra had apologized to the faithful animal for the long hours of hard travel as he removed the saddle thanking him for use of the blanket knowing it would be warmer than the one from his pack.
'Yer not goin 'bout this the right way, Ezra. You're lettin' yer heart overrule your head. That ain't the way yer Ma taught ya ta deal with things.'
"Shut up, Larabee!" Ezra snarled, taking another pull from the flask, before tightening the lid and replacing it in his pocket. There would be plenty of time to get drunk after he dealt with Jake Cole.
'What happened to that heartless sonovabitch who don't give a damn about anythin' but money? The man who plans out everything. The schemer who looks at all the angles....the uncaring bastard who never tangles in other folks' lives....'
"I said shut up!"
Chaucer raised his head and nickered softly at the quiet, anger filled words, as if wondering who his rider was talking to.
"Just shut the hell up." Damn, since when had his conscience begun to sound like the blond gunslinger? Ezra smirked in the darkness. It figured when the gunman was alive he usually had less ta say than Tanner. Now he couldn't keep him quiet. "Shoulda known he'd decide to get his own revenge by haunting me." Ezra growled in the darkness.
'Come home, Ezra. Come back where you belong. Come home to yer family..."
"Don't belong no more," his soft words rasped out in despair "I ain't got no family, I no longer have a home." In his grief and loss, his words were slurred, as Ezra shook his head disparagingly. Jake Cole had come to Four Corners because of him and his actions. Buck had been staked to the ground, unable to escape as the convict's sharp knife had sliced through his skin. Vin had been beaten, burned and stabbed, left to die, just as the gambler had been so long ago. And Chris...Chris had died because the cardsharp had ignored his natural instincts. Foolishly, he had allowed himself to believe the formidable force of his friends was enough to deal with the insanity of a known killer.
That absurd belief had cost him everything he had come to hold dear. "Make ya a deal Mr. Larabee. When Cole kills me, as we both know he more than likely will, ya can say I told ya so for all eternity, but until then, would ya please go back to bein' your usual uncommunicative self?."
Huddling further down in the blanket, Ezra closed his eyes fighting the re-occurring image of Chris slowly crumpling to the boardwalk and waited for sleep to take him.
Loosening the reins, Ezra let Chaucer ramble, his green eyed gaze studying his surroundings as Vin had once shown him when they were on patrol, hoping for anything that would reaffirm he was going in the right direction. Cole's trail had disappeared among the rocks, but if Granny Hinkley was right, all he needed to do was keep going in the general direction.
Vin, on their frequent patrols together, had patiently taught him enough to know what he needed to be looking for. Iron shod hooves left strike marks on the rocks when the metal struck against the stone, or small rocks overturned at a horse's passage. He just had to look and follow. The convict's trail wound its way through a tiny copse of scrawny trees which struggled to survive under the harsh sun with too little water.
Chaucer's ears pivoted and the animal focused on something only he could see. Ezra's head came up, and he automatically reined the animal to a stop as Chaucer whickered lowly.
Dismounting and pulling his rifle from its scabbard, Ezra cautiously worked his way forward, a feral smile coming to his lips as he caught a small wiff of smoke drifting on the air.
'Easy, Ezra, ya don't know it's him.'
'It's him.' Ezra silently answered his inner voice which sounded so much like Chris' voice. Taking cover among the boulders, the gambler stretched out his stomach, his green gaze sweeping the area around the broken down building situated a few yards from a dark hole in the hill side. Smoke drifted from the rusty piece of stove pipe protruding from the sagging roof. A spotted roan snorted and stamped the ground near the old mine entrance. "It's him."
The gambler pressed his face into the dirt as a bullet whizzed over his head, the sound of the rifle shot echoing out over the desert.
"Been waitin' for ya, Standish!" Cole called. "Thought ya'd done gave up!"
Ezra remained silent, sliding slightly to his left. Returning fire would have been a waste of ammunition and time. The sun reflected off the tiny piece of broken window pane, making it impossible to see the man on the other side. Patience being one of his few virtues, the gambler settled in to wait.
Vin glanced from the window back to the bed as Chris stirred, then settled again without waking. It had taken him a lot of cajoling but Nathan had finally relented, allowing the still weakened tracker to sit in the chair by the window, as long as he felt up to it, knowing the only other way to insure the sharpshooter would rest would be to keep him totally unconscious.
The blond gunslinger lay in the bed Mrs. Potter had found in her attic and donated to the small clinic. If Nathan happened to have more than one patient at a time the old bedstead allowed them to rest in comfort and in this instance the healer was able to watch over both friends at once.
Nathan had assured Vin repeatedly, Chris was going to be fine. The bullet had followed a clean path through his body, hitting nothing vital before lodging deep in his chest. Still..... Tanner's azure gaze returned to the street below, grimacing at the pain shooting through his ribs as he shifted position. Chris would be fine. The sharpshooter just wished he could be as certain about Ezra.
Vin swiped angrily at the tear rolling down his cheek. "Come home , Ezra....We need you here." he softly pleaded.
He had learned, earlier, in the street, with everyone's attention on Larabee, only Billy Travis who had hurried to his window at the sound of gunfire, had seen the gambler spur Chaucer at a dead run out of town. Vin's own heart had almost stopped when he awoke to discover Chris in the opposite bed, his chest swathed in bandages. His fuzzy pain filled observations brought the tracker to only one conclusion. He was certain the cardsharp's absence could mean only one thing...Cole had won.
"He....back?" The softly rasped question brought his attention back to the man on the bed, a man who had instantly become closer to him than a brother.
"Not yet." Tanner barely shook his head, knowing the movement would only intensify his growing headache. His eyes widened but he couldn't quite move fast enough to stop Larabee as the gun man tossed aside the blankets and pulled himself into a sitting positon on the side of the bed.
"What the hell ya think yer doin'!" Nathan's voice boomed through the clinic as he slammed the tray he was carrying down on the table and rushed to the bedside. "Get yer sorry ass back in that bed afore ya pull them stitches out!"
"I'm fine!" The blond growled, attempting to push away Nathan's hands, his face regaining some of the color which had drained away when he'd moved. "Tanner's got more stitches than me and he's up and about."
"He's sittin' in a chair, not plannin' on climbin' into a saddle and tearin 'bout the countryside." He shot a warning look at the tracker, indicating he had best not be harboring any such thoughts. They'd already had this argument and he wasn't about to go through it again. Turning back, Nathan laid a gentle hand on Chris' shoulder, his voice growing soft. "We'll find him, Chris.....Josiah and JD are out again today tryin' ta pick up his trail..." The healer could only hope he sounded more encouraged than he felt. He swung back to glare at Tanner, "And no, they don't be needin' yer help, so plant yer ass back in that chair! I swear," he muttered, "I'm gonna have to tie ya two down!"
"Damn, stubborn, fool!" Chris leaned back against the pillows Nathan propped against the headboard, and for a moment the healer thought the words were aimed at him, but then realized from Chris' added soft words, they were directed at the missing con man. "Come back home, Ezra. Let us help you."
The bright sun which had turned his exposed flesh a deep red, was balanced on the horizon, casting long shadows across the countryside before slipping out of sight and bringing relief to the unrelenting heat which had soaked Ezra's shirt with sweat.
Considering the possiblity Cole would offer him extra ammunition if needed or invite him down for a drink from the rain water that had gathered in the rock basin next to the shack was about as likely as Tanner cutting his hair, Ezra had earlier worked his way back to Chaucer long enough to grab his saddlebags and canteen.
The cardsharp had kept his silence, constantly moving his position as the convict fired randomly, shouting taunts and jeers, attempting to lure him out.
Surveying the situation, the gambler knew the odds were stacked against him. Jake had the advantage and the convict knew it. With enough supplies and barricaded in the relative safety and comfort of the cabin, he could out last Ezra. If the killer slipped from the shack under the cover of darkness, the man could overtake the gambler's position. Ezra knew he had to put a stop to this...and soon. He couldn't let Cole escape to torture and kill again.
"Where's yer friends, Standish?" Jake laughed, the sound echoing against the hills. "'Ccordin' ta everythin' I've heard, ya'll are thick as thieves when it comes to a fight."
'He's tryin' ta rile ya, Ezra. Gettin' angry'll get ya killed.' The blond gunman's sage words filled Ezra's mind.
"It's not necessary to reiterate the obvious, Mr. Larabee." Ezra mumbled.
"Course....guess it would take all a ya ta win cause ya ain't shit alone!" The brutal man's chuckle sounded sick in the growing darkness, tauting the gambler. "Sure did have fun with them two friends a yourn...'specially that long haired fella...he shore was pretty......" Ezra fought the rising anger, remembering the bloody bruised face and pain filled blue eyes that had looked up at him from the clinic bed. The image of Buck's blood staining the alleyway flashed through his mind.
"Shoulda seen him ,Standish." Jake called again jeering,. "Shoulda heard him cryin'....Cryin' like some little baby wantin' his mama....beggin' me ta stop...."
Ezra knew the man was lying. Vin Tanner had a stronger spirit than anyone the gambler knew, but remembering his own painful suffering at the hands of Jake's brother, bitter anger welled in him and for a moment that anger won out over everything else.
With a bitter howl in the darkness, Ezra send a bullet winging through the window then quickly scooted to another position.
Jake's mocking laughter floated on the air. "Thought about takin' that purty hair a his with me....remind me a all the fun I had....maybe next time....." A bullet whined over Ezra's head before striking the rocks behind him. "Been thinkin' 'bout it, fancy man! Been thinkin' yer just as close ta them as I was ta Sam......Been thinkin' maybe I'll keep ya alive till I finish up with yer friends....There's still a couple I ain't had the pleasure with ....."
Rage burned through Ezra's veins as he attempted to block out the sadistic killer's taunts. Licking dry lips, the gambler jerked his flask from his pocket and took several long sips, saving the last swallows of water in his canteen.
"Reckon I'll have me some more fun with y'all first though......That little dark haired boy aplayin' at bein' sheriff....make a nice play purty, don't ya think?....You're a gamblin' man.....Wanna bet when I get tired afunnin' with him I can snap his neck just like that little girl's?" At the mention of Angela, Ezra trembled with the effort of restraining himself from simply running toward the cabin with his guns blazing. "They're all gonna die just like Sam.....Just like that friend a yourn.....only not as quick....Gonna make 'em suffer and scream, cry out and beg. It'll be so sweet, them dyin' and ya not bein' able to help 'em..... jist like that gal and her brat." His sick laughter taunted Standish as he went on, "Them trees ya passed.....Kinda a scrawny, don't ya think....but they'll hold a man's weight.....Gonna hang em, Standish.....Them bodies'll all be decoratin' the woods, and I'm gonna sit and laugh while the buzzards feed on yer flesh for a long time.....You'll be the last to die, Standish....Promise ya that.....Yer gonna watch em all swing afore ya join 'em....Gonna watch em, kick and squirm, their eyes bulgin' while they try ta breath and ya watchin' 'em suffocate....Gonna make ya watch. Just like I watched Sam."
"You'll never touch any of them again!" Ezra vowed vehementantly. "You have my word on that!" The southerner's furious gaze came to rest on the long neck of the whiskey bottle poking out from his saddle bags, an idea beginning to form.
The blanket of darkness had settled over the land by the time Ezra had worked his way around the cabin, stepping from the rocks and silently pressed himself against the side of the structure. His heart racing, he took several deep breaths to regain control of his trembling hands as striking a lucifer, he lit the thin strip of shirt material hanging from the opened whiskey bottle. Drawing his gun, he stepped into the open, hurling the flaming bottle through the small window.
He heard the loud bee like whine of a bullet as a white hot agony burned through his side, spinning him to the ground as flames engulfed the dry wood of the cabin. He rolled, raising the Colt as bellowing with fury, Cole burst through the door, firing his sidearm, the bullets burying themselves in the soil around the gambler, kicking dirt and small stones into the southerner's face. Ezra emptied his own weapon, watching Jake, still bellowing, but now in pain, jerk and twist as each metal projectile found its mark
A sick, evil smile crossed Cole's face as the Colt's hammer finally clicked on an empty chamber. Hatred shining in the jade eyes, Ezra refused to look away as swaying unsteadily, Jake brought his own gun level, the barrel muzzle pointed at the gambler's head.
With a twist of his wrist, Ezra activated the hideaway rig, the little derringer jumping into his waiting palm. With a grim smile of satisfaction, feeling that emotion surging through him with the bleak knowledge he would be taking Cole to hell with him, he raised his hand and felt the gun's recoil even as he saw the puff of smoke from Cole's gun. At least, he knew his friends would be safe and Chris would be avenged. There was no way, Jake would survive the amount of lead now embedded in his body. He closed his eyes and waited for the bullet that would end his own life.
Opening his eyes, Ezra released the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding as Cole's gun wavered, dropping from lifeless fingers as the man's eyes rolled up in his head and he crumpled into the dirt.
Ezra pushed back the waves of pain, thankful for Chaucer's smooth gait as the horse slowly traveled the road to Four Corners. The gambler had cleaned, bandaged and used the last of the alcohol in his silver flask to sterilize the gunshot wound, grateful the bullet had found an exit rather than lodging itself in his side. He found it ironic that a fraction of an inch to the right and Jake's bullet would have entered his body in the exact same place as his brother's.
He had retrieved Chaucer, avoiding looking at the trees, sure he would only see the images, Jake had planted in his mind. Lifting and tying the dead convict's body onto the back of his own horse had depleted the gambler's waning strength finally sending him spiraling into the black void of unconsciousness, waking with the morning sun shining brightly on his face.
The southerner had refilled the canteen and ripped up his last clean shirt, changing the bandaging. His muscles quivering, gritting his teeth in determination, he had managed to climb into the saddle. It had taken several moments before the agony washing over him in waves had abated enough for the gambler to straighten and with a deep breath start Chaucer in the direction of Four Corners.
Ezra concentrated on keeping himself in the saddle, not wanting to think what returning to Four Corners would mean. He knew there was nothing left for him in the tiny town except hatred. Every thing he'd come to treasure over the past months was lost to him. Even if the other members of their intrepid little group didn't blame the gambler for what had happened, he knew he couldn't say the same for himself or the townspeople. They had come to admire and respect Chris Larabee and although they had come, after a fashion, to tolerate the gambler's presence, few of the residents truly cared for the cardsharp or his self serving ways. They would need...in fact would actively seek...a release for their hurt and anger and what better target than the man who'd brought about the means of their pain and suffering.
Try as he might, the gambler couldn't find fault with their reasoning. It was his own emotions of sorrow, pain and anger that had fueled his need for vengence, overriding his common sense and making him ignore the odds stacked against him. Surely, the good people of Four Corners deserved justice and the right to seek their own retribution, just as he had.
It was late and JD sat on the wooden bench in front of the jail. The single lamp inside spilled a tiny portion of its light onto the street from the half shuttered window. The young sheriff's usual exuberance had vanished with the disappearance of their seventh peacekeeper. Their search for the gambler had proved fruitless. With too large a start, it was as if Ezra had dropped off the face of the earth. They needed Vin's tracking expertise but the tracker was nowhere near healed enough to sit a horse.
The young sheriff's thoughts were muddled as he sat alone in the darkness. He had come west after his mother's death, seeking adventure and a place for himself in the wild frontier he had read so much about. In finding a place for himself, he had come to discover a home and a family. Six unique men with varied backgrounds and lifestyles who often times treated him as a naive schoolboy but who always accepted him as a man and an equal.
That day in the Seminole village, while Buck had ranted and raved his advice to the younger man, Vin had laughed, translating the womanizer's actions and Chris had begrudgingly told the Bostonian he could join their fight, but it had been the enigmatic con man who had readily accepted the youth's extended hand.
More times than he cared to admit, Dunne didn't understand the gambler's words or actions but the only thing that had come to matter to the easterner was the fact Ezra Standish was his friend. That was the one important lesson JD had learned from the southerner. Ezra accepted people for who they were without judgment or trying to change them. JD had puzzled that unfortunately, the gambler wasn't always afforded the same luxury.
Sighing, bringing his attention back to the present, JD examined his swollen knuckles, flexing his right hand, flinching at the soreness, before resting his back against the jail wall and closing his eyes, running through his mind the current whereabouts of each member of his adopted family. Nathan had allowed Vin and Chris to have dinner in the restaurant, stopping by the saloon for a drink afterwards before escorting both injured men back to the clinic. Josiah had taken to spending his evenings in the church praying for the safe return of their black sheep and JD had left Buck at the saloon, shrugging off the other man's offer of comfort.
He knew if Wilmington saw him now he would pitch a fit, telling him it was a sure fire way to get himself killed but at the moment all he could think about was Ezra somewhere out there, alone, facing the brutal man who had tomented his friends.
Buck stepped through the batwing doors onto the dark boardwalk, his gaze automatically turning to the jail, hesitating, uncertain what he could say to help the kid. JD was no different than any of them, and the only thing that was going to ease his mind was the gambler's safe return.
Wilmington hadn't failed to notice, with the gambler's departure, Dunne now kept a much closer watch over the rest of his friends as if he were afraid they too would vanish without a trace. Buck, although not wanting to admit it to himself, found he was also keeping a sharper eye on the other men who'd come to mean so much to him.
Staring out into the darkness and the mountians beyond, he lowly growled, "Damnit, Ezra! Where are ya? Why ain't ya here with us where ya belong?'
Each of the six men had faced death in their lives, and they knew in this wild untamed land, it could happen at any moment, in any number of ways, yet there were times when it appeared to the womanizer that Ezra often seemed to be rushing to meet the Grim Reaper. Buck had seen the same thing in Larabee after the death of his family but it wasn't something he ever expected from the easy going gambler.
The conniving southerner had a mischievious streak as wide as he was tall, allowing him to find something humorous in most situations and he seemed to love life as much as Buck loved women. The con man appeared to let everything roll off his back which is why even with his poker face in place, it was usually so easy to tell when something bothered him. Each of them had their demons, things they didn't want to think about, let alone discuss but while he was the most verbose of the seven, Ezra was probably the most private with the exception of Larabee. No doubt about it, Ezra P Standish was a paradox.
A small grimace crossed Buck's handsome face as the hard rough wood pressed against the newly healed wounds when he sagged against the wall. The eternal optimist was finding it difficult to hold onto the belief the southerner would return to Four Corners and make their rag tag family whole again. What frightened him even more than the thought of the con man's death was the death of that exceptional spirit which enabled the gambler to face his adversaries with that damn sparkling gleam in his green eyes.
Hell, Buck half believed he could see the wheels spinning in the gambler's head as his quick mind schemed and plotted. That undampened spirit that kept the con man's dimpled smile on his face and drove them all crazy with his stubborn tenacity. How would they be able to help Ezra if the gambler survived, only to have his infallable spirit extinguished by all that had happened?
A small smile touched Buck's lips as Jed Crowley left the clinic stalking angrily toward the saloon entrance. The early bruising forming beneath his eyes evidence of the damage done by the young sheriff of Four Corners.
"Bastard broke my nose." The cowhand's normal disgusting whine had a nasal tone to it now.
"Yer lucky I didn't let him tear yer damn head off." Buck growled. "Maybe next time you'll think twice before ya open yer mouth." he warned not so subtly.
The cowhand, a worse gossip then any woman Wilmington knew, was a trouble maker from the get go. Jed had lost most of his month's pay the one time he'd sat down at Ezra's usual gaming table, loudly proclaiming afterwards to anyone who'd listen he'd been cheated. Anger toward the gambler had grown when the southerner refused him another game, stating not only was the cowpoke a bad poker player but an even worse loser. Afraid of the con man's speed and accuracy with a gun, Crowley had sought revenge with rumors and inunendos, although never within Ezra's hearing.
Earlier in the evening, ignoring repeated warnings, he'd been spouting his theories and opinions regarding Standish's disappearance, stating it was no great loss and how it had been a shame Larabee had been the one nearly killed rather than the coward who spent his life swindling decent folks out of their hard earned money. And had anyone gotten a look at Tanner? The gambler had probably run leaving the sharpshooter to take his punishment for cheating someone out of their hard earned money.. After all, not everyone was as forgiving as himself.
When he'd hinted it had actually been Ezra who pulled the trigger, shooting Chris, JD had flown from his chair like a tornado. He had torn into the larger man with the fiercness of a mother bear defending her cub, and it had taken both Buck and Nathan to pull the furious sheriff off the ranch hand.
Now, wishing they had let the youngest of their group tear the man into tiny pieces, Wilmington's sorrowful gaze traveled over the dark buildings. Four Corners would never be the same if the gambler didn't return. None of them would be the same.
Without a word, Chris joined Tanner on the bench next to the clinic door, both men's minds on their missing member. Larabee had said nothing, as he'd watch Vin slip through the clinic door or sit silently next to the window, the fear and yearning clear in the azure eyes which constantly searched the distance, searching for that one sign of movement which would indiciate their missing brother was coming home.
Larabee knew Vin had been the first to recognize the good in the gambler. He had been the first to know Ezra would be good in a fight and the con man hadn't disappointed him. Chris knew Tanner had never thrown the incident at the Seminole village in the southerner's face, had never mentioned it in fact and even gone out of his way to let the con man know his efforts were appreciated. Things Chris, as the leader, should have done himself but hadn't.
Being alone most of his life, the sharpshooter understood all too well the fear associated with relying on other people and having them rely on you. Tanner had taken to this new family created out of a town's need for law, like a duck to water and had been determined to make the southerner see the advantages and joys to be found by allowing others close.
He never failed to stand up for the gambler when he thought Larabee or the others were wrong, never failed to be near when the gambler needed him and never failed to forgive any slights or indiscretions.
Looking back on it, Larabee knew it was as if he and Tanner had found some missing piece of their own souls, and with one look across the dusty street, there had been an instant connection between the hardened gunslinger and the sensitive tracker. Larabee believed in first impressions, but hadn't become so cynical as to believe that impression was completely accurate. He'd been as incorrect where the gambler was concerned as he had been correct about the ex-bounty hunter.
Certain the con man had deserted them at the Indian village, when they were captured, Chris'd been surprised when the gambler had suddenly appeared taking on the half dozen men standing guard over the captives. To this day, Chris had never asked where the gambler had disappeared to, had never wanted to know. He'd looked into the gambler's eyes, ignoring the hint of shame and self disgust he saw in the green depths as he quietly voiced his veiled threat. Without a saying a word, Ezra had given his promise yet Chris who believed a man's past was his own and mistakes made shouldn't be used against someone had nonetheless done just that a few days later. Once again, Ezra had faced the gunslinger down, never offering excuses or explaining his actions. Something which Larabee had to admire.
It had taken time but a measure of trust had been born in both men and now Chris found his heart breaking at the thought of never seeing the gambler seated at his usual gaming table. At never again hearing him ask if they wished to partake in a game of chance. At never seeing the gleam of delight sparkle in the green eyes as he realized he'd managed to drive the gunman to distraction, pushing him to the very ragged edge of his control, once again.
Larabee glanced at the man seated beside him, watching the sharpshooter finger the silver harmonica absently his eyes on the stars overhead, wondering if he'd have the strength to help his friend deal with the loss.
'Come home, Ezra.'
Damn it was hot! Ezra'd thought the heat would release its relentless hold once the sun set, but the gambler was wrong. He wanted to remove his tan coat but feared the pain that had become his constant companion would intensify to the point, he would no longer be able to fight the blackness hovering at the edge of his eyesight if he even attempted such an action.
"Better get used to the heat." He laughed to himself. "If the preachers are right, this is a spring breeze compared to what you'll soon be facing." Chaucer tossed his head, whickering at the sound of his master's pain slurred voice. "No need to fear, my four-legged friend....I have arranged for Mr. Dunne to become your new owner.....He'll take good care of you....You like JD....he's a fine young man."
'Come home, Ezra.' The hot dry breeze seemed to taunt him with Larabee's words. He could hear him repeatedly, "Come home, Ezra.....come home...home...."
"Ain't got no home anymore, Mr. Larabee." Ezra wiped at his eyes pushing back the darkness, wishing once more he dared to remove his coat. "Don't ya see, Chris....That bastard Cole won after all....He took everything away.... Everything that meant anything to me.... Home....friends....y-you....bastard took it all...."
At least he felt a fleeting flash of self worth. The gambler had paid his debt. He'd avenged the death of the man who meant so much to so many people, yet how could he bring himself to look into the sad blue eyes of the tracker who'd lost his best friend?
How could he face the amiable gun man who had stood by Larabee through the worst times of his life, knowing he'd caused the death of Buck's oldest friend? And Josiah, and Nathan, and oh, God...JD! That kid worshipped Larabee..... How could he face him?
He couldn't. He couldn't face them every day knowing Larabee had died because of his worthless sorry ass. He shuddered at the thought of watching, feeling the tentative friendship he'd developed with these honorable men disintegrate as each day they faced the fact Chris Larabee had given his life for someone as undeserving as himself.
Swaying in the saddle he continued to carry on his conversation with Larabee. "There's no way ta tell ya how sorry I am, Chris. Maybe God'll find it a just reward and let ya personally hand me over to Hades himself before joinin' your family in the Aluchian Fields." The gambler shook his head in confusion. No that's not right...That's Greek...Chris definitely wasn't Greek.
The swindler searched his memory for everything he'd read in the Bible while working his traveling evangelist con. If Josiah's God was the loving forgiving being the good book made him out to be, Ezra was certain, Larabee's past misdeeds had been forgotten, far overshadowed by the good he'd done in his life. Chris had already suffered the flames of hell with the loss of his wife and son. It wouldn't be fair of any God to punish the man further.
Ezra knew he himself would gladly face the fires of hell and an eternity of Larabee's 'I told you so's' as long as God saw fit to allow the gunslinger a place in his heaven with Sarah and Adam.
A feverish giggle escaped his lips as he pictured Chris floating on a cloud, harp in hand as he stubbbornly graced Saint Peter with the infamous Larabee glare while the angel informed him, his black attire was not the requisite uniform of heaven.
The street was quiet and empty as JD slowly opened his eyes, searching the darkness as the sound of approaching horses mingled with the normal night sounds. His heart began to race, as he pushed to his feet, the sound pounding in his ears, his hand resting lightly on the handle of his gun as a figure slowly emerged from the shadowy darkness.
"Ezra!" A wide smile on his face, the young sheriff vaulted the hitching rail, rushing to meet the man he'd never thought to see again. "You're back!" A wide smile split his face as he ran up beside Chaucer.
"Apparently." Ezra blinked several times trying to bring the youth into focus, before tossing him the reins of the horse carrying Cole's body. "Mr. Dunne, y-you may inform the authorities at Yuma prison, Jake Cole will no longer be requiring his accomodations."
The sheriff looked puzzled as the southerner reined Chaucer around and kneed the animal back in the direction he'd just come. He hurried along side the animal, dragging the other horse behind him. "Where ya goin', Ezra?"
"To the cemetary......" Unwilling to face the sorrow and disappointment he was sure to find in his young friend's eyes , Ezra spoke over his shoulder. "You have my word as a gentlemen.....JD....I will re-return shortly. I wouldn't co-consider depriving the good citizens of Four Corners....their just retribution....Hell, I'll even supply the rope.....However, first I...I wish to pay my respects to Mr. Larabee..." Ezra nudged the weary horse forward.
"What....?" JD shook his head in confusion. What was Ezra talking about? Why the hell would they need a rope for a dead man?
Chaucer had taken only a few steps when the gambler lost his hard fought battle with unconsciousness, the horse side stepping as Ezra tumbled from the saddle, to land in a boneless heap on the dirt street.
"Ezra!" Rushing forward, dropping to his knees, JD gently eased the con man onto his back, bile rising up in his throat as the gambler's coat fell open, revealing the blood soaked white shirt beneath.
"Nooo....!!!!!!! " The sheriff glanced back at the lit saloon, torn between running for help and staying with his injured friend. Realizing he could do both, he quickly pulled his gun and fired two shots into the still night air.
Jerking at the sound of gunfire in the street, Chris jumped to his feet, seeing Buck rush from where he'd been standing outside the saloon entrance.
"The jail!" Chris called to Nathan and Josiah as both men emerged from the church, guns drawn and ready for trouble. "Stay put." He ordered, his hand on Vin's shoulder kept the tracker, mare's leg in his good hand, seated.
JD looked up at the sound of running footsteps, hearing Buck calling his name.
"Hang on, Ezra, Nathan'll fix ya good as new." he promised, looking up at the womanizer who skidded to a halt beside him. "It's Ezra, Buck, he's hurt real bad!" The fear in the boy's voice matched the terror shining in his dark eyes.
Wilmington pulled the kid to his feet,hustling him out of the way as Nathan and Josiah converged on their position.
"Good Lord Almighty!" Buttons flew in all directions as Nathan dropped to his knees beside the unconscious man, ripping open the gambler's shirt. He could feel the heat eminating from the gambler's slender body as he gently lifted the soiled and blood soaked bandage. "Let's get 'im ta my room. Can't see a damn thing out here."
"Nathan?" A fearful quaver shook Wilmington's one word.
"He's alive, Buck...That's all I can tell ya right now." The healer hurried after the preacher who had gathered the smaller man in his arms and was moving for the clinic.
"Ezra...." The Texan's soft drawl was barely a whisper as he and Chris watched the others approach, the gambler's limp body cradled against Josiah's massive chest like a small child. Their breath caught in their chest realizing how lifeless the con man appeared.
"Nathan?" Larabee's one word held the same quiver of fear as Buck's.
"Alive." The healer tossed over his shoulder in answer, hurrying into the clinic, quickly gathering the items he would need to help the southerner as Josiah eased through the narrow doorway with his injured burden.
It was a silent procession that followed the preacher into the small room, each man saying a silent prayer as Josiah placed the smaller man on the bed Chris had so recently occupied. Ignoring the healer's orders to wait outside, the five men pressed into the room, finding places out of the healer's way, none of them wanting to leave the gambler after just getting him back.
Taking hold of the tracker's arm, Larabee led Tanner to his own bed, the sharpshooter's blue eyes never leaving the colorless face of the con man as Chris sat him down, silently taking a seat beside him. Near the door, Buck draped a reasssuring arm around JD's shoulders as they watched Josiah, help Nathan remove Ezra's coat, tossing it aside as the healer carefully cut away the ruined shirt and makeshift bandage.
None of them needed to hear Nathan's soft exclamation to know the wound was bad. They could all see the red streaks of infection beginning to spread across the con man's abdomen.
Josiah, tears shining in his blue grey eyes, filled a basin with cold water and began to bath the gambler's face with a cool cloth as the healer worked quickly and efficently wanting to finish the painful process of pressing hot towels to the wound, hoping to draw out the infection before it got a firmer hold the wily southerner.
Each of the silently watching men had seen enough wounds and suffered enough gunshots to worry when Ezra made no response to the agonizing treatment.
Working swiftly, Nathan finally tied off the clean bandage and moved to wash the blood from his hands as Josiah gently tucked a blanket around Standish, the ex-priest's large hand pausing for a moment before brushing the sweat soaked curls off the unconscious man's forehead.
If the circumstances hadn't been so dire, Chris might have smiled as a few moments later, the ex-priest took the chair Vin was struggling to drag closer to the bed and placed it next to where Ezra lay, helping the sharpshooter settle into it before crossing to the stove and pouring a cup of coffee for each of them. Chris knew all too well, Nathan was now going to play hell getting Tanner to rest and recuperate until the tracker was certain Ezra was well on the road to recovery.
"He's gonna be okay now, ain't he, Nathan?" JD's quiet question cut through the tension as the youth pleaded for the one reassurance they all sought.
"I wish I knew." The healer sighed, his dark gaze returning to where Vin had taken over Josiah's job, tenderly wiping away the sheen of perspiration which coated the gambler's pale face. "I can help with the infection, but he's lost so damn much blood....I just don't know...."
"But ya said the same thing about me when Maddie shot me.....Buck told me so.....Ya got me well...ya can do the same thing for Ezra....I-" JD's words tumbled over each other as he blurted them out.
"I ain't no damn miracle worker, JD! Hell, I ain't even a doctor!" Nathan shouted, then lowered his voice, wearily massaging the back of his neck.
Josiah, seeing the uncertainty on the healer's face, stepped closer and laid a gentle hand on the man's bowed shoulder. "Yer doin' just fine, Brother. Most a us woulda done met our maker without your skills."
"Ya can help him, Nathan....I know ya can." JD stared at the floor, finishing what he'd been about to say. "Yer as good as any doctor I ever seen."
"JD, ya gotta understand...." Nathan focused on the trusting young man, trying to make him understand. "I patched ya up, but you're alive cause ya wanted to be.....Ya fought to live....I just don't think Ezra's got any fight left in him."
"The hell he don't!!!" Buck growled. "Ez's got more grit than sense most a the time." He pushed away his earlier thoughts, refusing to believe that this time the con man's headstrong actions would result in his death. Buck suddenly realized he was still holding Ezra's hat, not even remembering having picked it up. Brushing the dust from the brim, he gently lay it on the table. "Y'all know the thing he hates most is losin' an argument."
"Ezra?...." As one, the five peacekeepers turned to see Vin leaning closer to the gambler as the southerner's head moved, seeking the comforting touch. "Ezra? Can ya hear me?"
The others saw Vin's bright smile as the emerald eyes, the color made even more vivid with fever slowly opened, tears spilling down his pale cheeks as Ezra struggled to focus on the tracker's worried face. "V-Vin....s-s-sorry....so....sorry...." he whispered.
Ignoring the pain shooting through his ribs, Tanner bent even closer straining to hear the con man's weak voice. "Hush now....ya didn't do nothin' wrong....ya just rest and get better."
"S-sor..ry....Make 'em b-believe...." Ezra pleaded. Vin closed his fingers around the hand that gripped his, in a fiercely strong hold, refusing to let him go.
"It's okay, Ez....We know...we know...." Confused, Vin saw the sudden fear in the southerner's eyes as Chris stepped up beside the tracker. Fear that abruptly turned to acceptance.
"Guess....they....do let....a-angels wear black...." Ezra whispered, a small smile touching his lips as his eyes slid closed again.
"What the hell was that about?" Chris demanded as the other's expressions mirrored his own mystification. "JD," he turned to the boy, " did Ezra say anything to ya at all when he got back?"
Realization of the gambler's words hit the young sheriff. "Aww, hell, Chris.....He thinks yer dead!!"
Still clinging to Ezra's hand, Vin raised his eyes, bright with tears as JD finished relaying the tale of Ezra's arrival. "....He thinks he got ya killed."
The words all jumbled in Chris' head, Vin's, JD's and Nathan's sentences running together as he stared down at the unconscious gambler. 'Said he wanted ta pay his respects ta Chris.' 'He thinks he got ya killed.' 'I don't think he's got any fight in left in him.'
"Shit!" Pushing past the sharpshooter Chris leaned down and shook Ezra's shoulders. "Ezra!.....Ezra, damnit, wake up!" He continued to shout at the con man, lightly slapping the man's cheeks, blinking back tears of relief as the southerner, moaned and attempted to turn away. "Ezra! Come on, Ezra....Damn you! Look at me!"
As the green eyes opened, they all noticed what the sharpshooter had seen first. The stark fear and sorrow in the limpid green eyes followed by a resigned acceptance of the inevitable.
"No, Ezra!" Vin clutched the gambler's hand tighter. "Don't ya dare quit on us!"
"Ezra!" Larabee gripped the smaller man's chin, forcing Ezra to look at him. "I don't give a damn about some deal! It ain't your time, Ezra....." Squatting beside the bed, he rested a gentle hand on the con man's unruly chestnut curls. "Ya hear me, Ezra....It ain't yer time...Ya gotta keep fightin'....Devil's scared yer gonna con him outta his job....."
"Don't....want...it." The sarcastic reply was nothing more than a whisper, but Chris looked at Vin and saw the relieved smile and the slight nod.
The town seemed unusally quiet, perhaps as if out of respect for the men gathered in the tiny clinic. A few of the townsfolks who knew the con man well--Mrs. Potter, Mary, Inez--, prayed the six peacekeepers weren't keeping a death watch over their injured friend. Yet no townsperson passed the building where Nathan Jackson resided without their eyes seeking the door, waiting for some sign. Inez and Mary had taken to delivering the men's meals and Nettie Wells was becoming a constant presence in the clinic, fussing over the other lawmen, helping Nathan with the poultices he prepared to fight the infection, nagging and cajoling the others to eat and rest, constantly reminding them getting sick wouldn't help Ezra and would only serve to piss off the healer.
Feeling helpless, the peacekeepers watched the gambler slowly grow weaker as he battled the fever raging through his body.
Worse still to some degree, getting Tanner to leave the bedside chair for more than a couple of minutes at a time had become a task in itself as he continued to cling to Ezra's hand as if giving his ill friend the strength he needed to continue the fight against death.
Chris knew Vin was afraid to let go, just as he himself was afraid to take his eyes off the con man. Afraid if they did, it would be the end. Afraid if the sharpshooter released his hold or the gunslinger didn't watch each rise and fall of Ezra's chest with each labored breath, the gambler would slip away from them forever. Afraid it was only their persistant will which kept the failing gambler with them.
Wringing out the water-cooled cloth, Chris bathed Ezra's face and neck, his eyes straying from the faint scars on the gambler's shoulder to similiar marks on Tanner's. Succombing at last to weariness and his own weakness, Vin had finally fallen asleep, his fingers still wrapped around the con man's hand, just as Ezra had clung to the harmonica.
"True brothers," Chris whispered softly, "You'll even have matching scars."
Three long days passed. For three drawn out days, the southerner fought for his life. The six men had listened in silence as the gambler mumbled incoherently about torture, hangings, Catherine, Angela and his six friends, begging forgiveness. At times he cursed Cole and other times, harder for his friends to hear, he screamed for Jake to stop.
Still, Josiah and Buck had chuckled, JD giggled, Vin grinned, Nathan and Nettie seemingly the only ones with sense enough to stifle their amusement as the gambler argued with the dead Chris Larabee of his fevered dreams, informing the gunslinger not only was his harp playing atrocious but the white pin feathers from his wings which now clung to his outfit was the very reason black was not an appropriate color for heaven.
Chris had tried to muster a glare but in truth it was the first time since Ezra's return any of them found any reason to smile.
Sitting beside the bed, Larabee's heart skipped a beat as Ezra's breath seemed to catch in his throat, the sound escaping as a strangled gasp.
'Don't do this, Ezra....Don't leave us!' His mind screamed, the words not finding their way to his lips.
From the corner of his eye, Chris saw Vin jerk upright at the sound as the gambler stiffened, his hand convulsively tightening around the tracker's and without looking, he knew the other men had gathered in a tight circle around the bed.
"Stay with us, Ez." Tears running down his cheeks, Buck voiced what had become a silent mantra for each of them.
Chris closed his eyes when the healer pushed past him, unable to face the others, unwilling to see the fear and sorrow reflected back at him as Ezra's breath was released and his body relaxed.
Throwing back the blanket, Nathan placed an ear against the con man's chest, listening for a moment that seemed to drag on for eternity before straightening and placing a hand on the gambler's forehead, a small smile beginning to spread across the healer's face, lighting his dark eyes.
"Fever's broke." Having steeled themselves for confirmation of what each dreaded, no one seemed able to move, unable to comprehend the healer's words. "He's sleepin'." Nathan reasured them, his smile doing more for them than his words ever could.
"That's good....right?" JD searched each of their faces, hopefully, swiping at the tears filling his eyes. "That's a good thing, ain't it?"
"The best, Brother Dunne!! It appears our black sheep is going to be with us for a long time yet." Josiah's wide smile was contagious as he clapped a large hand on Larabee's shoulder, giving the motionless gunslinger a comforting squeeze which the older man shook off.
The joyous chatter faded, Buck and Vin exchanging knowing looks as Chris forced himself to his feet and silently left the clinic.
JD stared after their leader, his expression puzzled at the man's reaction. "Chris?"
"Let him be, kid." Buck grabbed the sheriff's arm as JD started to follow after the gunslinger.
"But-" JD sighed, wishing he understood what it was the others seemed to take for granted. As far as he was concerned this was cause for a joyous celebration. For three days they'd sat, watching helplessly, praying Ezra wouldn't die but believing he would, but now with the fever gone,.....Nathan hadn't said so but they knew the gambler was going to be all right. Chris hadn't left Ezra's bedside since the man's return, yet now when he should be happiest, the gunslinger looked like he wanted to be sick.
Larabee gripped the landing rail, his knuckles turning white, his whole body trembling as he took several deep breaths, desperately struggling to get his rioting emotions under control. Relief and guilt fought for control as both surged through his veins. Relief that Ezra was going to make it. Their little family would remain intact.
Chris had stopped believing in a loving God the day he buried his wife and son, placing his faith only in himself, his gun and now,...these six men. God had taken away one family but had oddly enough given him another. Six men who had somehow managed to wrap themselves around his heart, bringing love, laughter and a sense of belonging back into his life. His cold shattered heart had begun to mend that sunset on the ridge above the Seminole village when a blue eyed, long haired ex-bounty hunter who'd known him only a few days confided his darkest secret and called Chris friend. Vin had opened friendship's door and Chris, lost and alone had entered, and the other five men had followed.
To his credit, Larabee had fought as hard as Ezra against letting these men into his life, especially the irritating gambler with the mischievious smile who seemed to delight in taunting him. Well, it looked like Standish was going to be doing it a while longer. With a smile of irony Chris gazed at the clear blue sky. "I owe ya one....Thanks."
Despite the relief, guilt had pushed its way to the forefront of his mind. Guilt at being unable to keep his promise to the gambler. Everything the con man had suffered in the last few weeks had been because Chris had forced the obstinate man to bend to his will. He had promised Ezra they would face Cole together and in the end, Ezra had stood alone against the demon from his past. Just as he always had.
Chris knew to a degree, the con man had finally learned to trust them. He had accepted and finally learned he could rely on the other six....on Larabee....and Chris had let him down. The gunslinger couldn't help but wonder if they were right back where they had started.
There was a hauntingly mournful quality to the soft tune emitted from the small harmonica while at the same time the music was light and joyful. Knowing they wanted to remain near the gambler until Ezra awoke, Nettie had stopped by and insisting they needed fresh air and nourishment, had ushered the peacekeepers out onto the landing, serving them sandwiches, coffee and fresh pie. She hadn't bothered to waste her breath arguing with Vin....and Chris,...well, Chris had been another subject all together.
Inside, Ezra had curled onto his side, moaning softly before settling back into a deep sleep. They knew Nathan was beginning to worry again. The healer had explained the small amount of water they'd managed to get into the southerner hadn't lessened the dangers of dehydration.
"Hey Pard," Startled to find himself being watched by a pair of sad green eyes, Vin dropped the harmonica back into his pocket and reached for the glass of water on the night stand. Using the arm in the sling to help Ezra steady the glass, he gently raised the gambler's head, supporting him until the con man weakly pushed the glass away. Vin's bright smile faded at the sight of tears spilling down the cardsharp's pale cheeks.
"S-sorry....so...." Ezra struggled with the words.
Vin shook his head. "Told ya before, Pard, ya got nothin' ta be sorry fer."
Ezra weakly grasped his arm. "C-Chris...."
His smile returning and growing wider, the sharpshooter helped Ezra sit up, nodding toward the other bed. "Fell asleep a couple hours ago....Done worried himself into exhaustion." He whispered.
"I ain't the only one." Larabee groaned, sitting up and stretching to crack his back. Seeing the sharpshooter cringe against the pull the gambler's supported weight was putting on his ribs, the gunslinger moved to help ease the gambler back down on the bed. "Ya done scared ten years off all our lives." he admonished the gambler.
"M-my....apologies." Ezra whispered, sinking back.
"Not yet, Ezra...." Chris ordered as the heavy eyelids slid closed. "Ya need ta drink some more water."
Hearing their voices, the others rushed into the room with wide smiles, everyone talking at once their happiness at seeing the gambler awake and coherent overwhelming. Nathan quickly checked Ezra over, urging him to slowly drink as much of the water as possible.
"Hey Ez....We's all wonderin'...that is me and JD...just what's Chris look like with wings?"
Uncertain what the womanizer was referring to but remembering his dreams, the corners of the gambler's lips tilted upward, hearing JD burst into laughter and knowing Buck's question had earned him the slap to the head usually reserved for the youngest member of their family.
Ezra let himself drift into a peaceful sleep to the soothing sounds of his friends happy chatter, knowing he was indeed home.
"How's he doin'?" Nettie asked Vin, nodding toward the clinic landing where Ezra sat, his agile fingers shuffling his ever present deck of cards.
Tanner shrugged. "Seems okay." He slouched against the porch post of the merchantile, the thumb of his good hand hooked in his gunbelt, watching as Mrs. Potter's young helper loaded the last of Nettie's purchases in her wagon.
"Seemin' and bein' is two different things all together," the older woman pointed out. Nettie Wells had taken an instant liking to the young sharpshooter and knew how important the other six peacekeepers were to the quiet man. They had become the family he'd never had. "And Chris? How's he doin'?"
"Chris is....Chris." Vin wasn't sure how to put into words the nagging worry he'd been unable to shake. It wasn't as if Larabee and Standish were avoiding each other...more as if they were carefully skirting the subject troubling both their minds. "Ain't never seen two men carryin' so much guilt fer no reason at all. Both of 'em are experts at takin' blame fer things that ain't their fault."
"Must be takin' lessons from you." Nettie smiled. She knew full well the ex-buffalo hunter had a dangerous habit of shouldering responsibility for others, rushing to help those in need and feeling the loss if his efforts weren't enough. "Reckon those two will come ta an understandin' someday....maybe even today." The old woman nodded to where Chris marched purposefully from the saloon toward the clinic, a whiskey bottle clutched in one hand.
Seeing Vin's worry, sensing this was something the sharpshooter couldn't help with and hoping to turn his thoughts to a more pleasant subject, Nettie motioned to the colorful poster in the store window before taking his arm as they strolled up the boardwalk toward the restaurant. "So tell me which lucky girl is gonna have the handsomest escort at the Founder's Day Dance?"
"Don't know nothin' about her havin' the handsomest escort." Tanner mumbled, his cheeks flaring a bright shade of pink. "Was kinda hopin' my favorite girl'd go with me though....Is it a date?"
It was the old woman's turn to flush with embarrassment but her sparkling eyes were answer enough, pulling his thoughts from Chris and Ezra if only for a short time.
The warmth of the sun felt good on his skin after being cooped up in the clinic, yet a slight shiver ran through him as Ezra remembered how not very long ago, that same sun had been beating down on him as....He halted in mid-thought pushing the painful memory aside.
Focusing on his surroundings in an attempt to keep the thoughts at bay, he heard the sounds of laughter, playfully arguing voices and pounding hammers, punctuated by an occasional yelp and swear word as the carpenter's hammers missed their intended targets. Frowning slightly, he realized the town was readying itself for the annual Founder's Day Picnic and Dance. If he could talk Nathan into letting him out of here for awhile, he'd ride out to Granny's and use his numerous powers of persuasion to coax the reclusive woman into accompanying him to the upcoming celebration.
Absently as if they had a mind of their own, his fingers automatically rifled through the deck of Stutz cards, pulling forth the Ace of Spades and replacing it in the middle of the deck. As his fingers moved, Ezra's thoughts drifted back to Josiah's visit earlier that afternoon...
As unlikely as it seemed, since they were always around, stopping to visit, unwillingly to let him withdraw into himself, the gambler knew mentally he had been and still was avoiding the other men. Oh, he laughed appropriately at Buck and JD's childish antics, passed the time of day with Nathan and Josiah and enjoyed the silence with Vin and the few minutes Chris would stay but their old closeness was missing.
Knowing a piece of his past had come back to haunt him and nearly destroyed the seven in the process was tearing Ezra apart, making it harder and harder each passing day to face the men who'd willing stood by his side, facing the nightmares Cole had resurrected. They had not only faced those horrors but had been ready to die for him.
Ezra couldn't help but wonder why. What was it about him those men considered worth risking their lives to save? He could readily understand why they all stood together. They were good men, honorable men, each bringing their own unique gift to the group, each of their existences adding something special to the world. But try as he might, he couldn't comprehend why they insisted on maintaining an association...even offering their friendship...to someone as unworthy of their trust and companionship as himself. He readily admitted and made no bones about the fact that he was nothing more than a common...correction....extraordinary...con man and their actions were totally beyond his comprehension.
He had been studying on those very thoughts that afternoon when Josiah had eased his massive frame into the second chair someone had thoughtfully placed on the balcony.
Lost in his thoughts, the gambler didn't speak and after several long drawn out minutes of silence, the ex-priest cleared his throat and bluntly questioned, "Ya ever hear the story 'bout the cracked pot?"
The absurd question, totally out of the blue, captured Ezra's attention and he turned to give the older man a puzzled look. "Excuse me?"
"There was this water bearer in India who had two large pots, one hanging on each end of a pole he carried across his shoulders. One of the pots had a crack in it and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water after the long walk from the stream to the master's house, the cracked pot always arrived only half full." The preacher's story drew in Ezra and he listened intently as the man went on.
"For two whole years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master's house." Ezra wanted to ask why the bearer didn't replace the defective pot but remained silent, caught up in the tale his friend was weaving. "Of course the undamaged pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made, but the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection and miserable that it could only accomplish half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the blemished pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. "I'm ashamed of myself and want to apologize to you."
"Why?" Asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?"
"I've only been able to deliver just half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master's house. Because of my flaws, you do all this work and don't get full value from your efforts."
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot and in his compassion he said. "As we return to the master's house, I want you to take notice of the beautiful flowers along the path."
As he wove his tale, Josiah stared out over the street, not looking at the younger man who listened in silence.
"As they went back up the hill the old cracked pot saw the sun warming the beautiful colorful flowers along the side of the path and this cheered it some but at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because, as usual, it had leaked out half its load and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure."
"The man sadly shook his head as he said to the pot, "Did you notice there were flowers only on your side of the path. This is because I have always known about your flaw and took advantage of it. I sowed flower seeds on your side of the path and every day when we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his home, nor would his guests be greeted by such colorful beauty as they pass along this trail."
Josiah finally turned his attention to the gambler stifling as smile as he noticed the still fingers. Intrigued by the story, Ezra had unconsciously stopped the shuffling. "Know what the moral of the story is Ezra?"
'Everybody takes advantage of your flaws.' The con man kept the thought to himself, silently shaking his head afraid anything he might say would be taken as just another sarcastic comment.
"The moral, Ezra, is we're all cracked pots...Each of us has our own unique flaws. It's those cracks and flaws that make our lives together so interesting and rewarding. We all bring our own gifts, none worth any more or any less than the others. You understand what I'm saying?"
It had taken several long moments but the gambler had finally nodded.
Josiah smiled. "You've just got to take each person for what they are...somethin' you and Vin both just naturally do." He'd laughed and pointed to where Buck and JD following Mary's instructions were trying to hang the banner inviting everyone to the upcoming pitch-in dinner and dance.
"Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape." He'd chuckled as the womanizer did his best to withhold a string of obsentities when the hammer came down on his thumb. The big man had pushed to his feet. "Best go help them two before they turn the town into rubble. Can't celebrate the founding of a town if the town ain't there."
The large man had turned back at the top of the stairs at Ezra's soft call.
"Why'd ya tell me that story?"
Josiah had leaned against the railing, folding his arms across his broad chest, an expression of deep contemplation on his face. "Just thought ya needed ta hear it...Ya always manage to make us see the lighter side to most situations...Believe it or not that helps out more than you can imagine...It's one of the gifts ya give us. Ya definitely keep life interestin'." A small smile graced his grizzled face. "Who else would parade down the middle a the street, dressed only in his boots, hat, guns and a table cloth?" The big man had crossed back to where Ezra sat, laying a gentle hand on the gambler's shoulder. "There's alotta good in you Ezra. We all see it...Just wish you would too...Remember what Chris said about JD?...Said if he was perfect, he wouldn't be one of us. Think about it son." With a smile, his large hand mussing the southerner's hair playfully, he had given the younger man a wink and hurried off to help JD who was tottering percariously on the ladder.
Ezra had watched them, for a long while, his thoughts on what Josiah had said.
The southerner pulled himself from his thoughts as Larabee crossed the landing, dropping into the empty chair beside the gambler.
Pulling two shot glasses from the pocket of his duster, Chris filled them from the bottle he carried and passed one to the gambler. "Sent a wire ta Maude. Let her know it was over and ya was doin' okay."
"I appreciate that." Ezra offered sincerely.
They sipped the whiskey in silence, watching the goings on in the street below, each man avoiding looking at the other.
Chris straightened, stretching to refill the southerner's glass and then his own. "Figured an apology was called for."
"You are of course correct, Mr. Larabee. Regretably, I can't begin to undertake making amends for-"
"Damnit Ezra!" Larabee growled. "Not you!...Me!" The gunman shook his head in frustration. "I owe you an apology Ezra." He gave the gambler a glare which stopped any protest Standish thought of voicing. "I promised ya we'd be there ta help with Cole...Gave ya my word ya wouldn't have ta face him alone...and...ya damn near got killed cause I didn't keep that promise."
Ezra's green eyes widened. "You can't truly believe I hold any of you responsible for what happened?"
"Doesn't matter! I-"
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra set his glass aside and with a mischievious grin, reached over to extract two cheroots and a lucifer from Chris' shirt pocket, pausing long enough to light them and hand one back to his friend. "You bear far too much responsibility for circumstances beyond your control." He couldn't prevent a smile. "It's one of your cracks." The gambler blew a smoke ring upwards, watching Chris out of the corner of his eye.
The blond man's glare deepened several notches and his eyes narrowed. "What the hell are you talking about? Whatda'ya mean cracks?"
The gambler shook his head gracing the gunslinger with a dimpled grin. "Doesn't matter...Just somethin' a very wise man told me...Take it as a compliment for that is exactly what it is." The southerner relaxed watching several perfect smoke rings float away on the soft breeze. "If anyone is to blame it is I. Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilminton and yourself were injured because of an action I took several years ago. Although, I regret the consequences suffered by the three of you, I don't by any means regret that action."
Larabee stared at the amber liquid in the bottom of his glass, listening intently, not only to the southerner's words but the tone, hearing none of the self recrimination or loathing which had filled the younger man's voice that day in the hayloft.
"Believe it or not Chris, I have something to thank Jake Cole for...Because of him, I learned what it truly means to have friends who will stand by you through hell and high water...If you never believe another thing I say, please, believe this...You can no more be guilty of breaking your word than I'm guilty for the deaths of Catherine and Angela...Another very wise man once told me, a man does the best he can and that's all that can be expected."
"Will ya give me your word from now on you'll come talk ta one a us when ya got trouble...Let us help ya?" Larabee knew what he was asking of the independant gambler. He could almost see the cardsharp's thought processes frantically searching for an escape route. "Ya gotta know Ezra, ya don't need ta run anymore...Especially from us."
"I will give you my word as a gentleman...to try." Ezra's eyebrows arched slightly waiting for the gunslinger's acceptance of the only thing he could offer without telling an outright lie.
Knowing it was the best he was going to get, Chris nodded in agreement. "A wise man?"
"A very wise ma...friend indeed." Lifting the glass in a toast, Ezra waited to drink, a twinkle in his emerald eyes until Larabee, a relaxed grin lighting his handsome face, answered the toast, clinking his glass solidly against the gambler's.
As dusk began to settle over Four Corners, one by one the other peacekeeper's gravitated to the clinic landing reclining in various positions, sharing what was left of the bottle, laughing over Buck and JD's antics, ignoring Nathan's good natured grumblings about the gunslinger providing the gambler with alcohol, and sharing the news of what had been happening since the southerner had been confined to the clinic.
"So, Mr. Larabee, are we to presume you'll be escorting the lovely Mrs. Travis to the upcoming soiree?" Ezra questioned, his tone softened by the amount of whiskey he had imbibed.
Larabee frowned, shaking his head. "Don't know about that...Might be awful busy."
Before any of the others could react, Ezra retorted, "Surely you don't intend to spend the entire evening patrolling the streets of our quaint village?" He looked appalled at the thought. After the past weeks, they all needed to relax and enjoy themselves, perhaps their black clad leader most of all.
"Naw...Thought I might join the band..." Chris' poker face would have done the gambler proud. "Reckon they could use a good harp player."
The other men doubled over in laughter as Ezra choked, spewing whiskey across the small landing.