'Damnit Ezra don't you ever shut up!'
As if reading the gunslinger's mind, Vin Tanner grinned when Chris Larabee rolled his eyes in exasperation.
'Least he don't expect us to answer him.'
'Thank the Lord above!'
The three lawmen had completed their prisoner delivery, arriving in Bluffton during the town's annual Founder's Day celebration. Due to the large influx of locals, Standish had paid what he referred to as an exorbitant amount of currency to secure them the last vacant room in town, all the while apologizing profusely for the fact the three men would have to share the room above the saloon.
The three friends had grabbed a meal at the nearby restaurant before joining the male residents of the town who were congregating where a boxing ring had been erected behind the stables. Following the gambler's advice Chris and Vin had both doubled their money, placing bets on the winner of each match.
Much to the con man's chagrin, lamenting lost opportunities and money to be made, they'd ridden out of town heading back for Four Corners, shortly after sunrise hoping to spend one less night on the trail.
As they had ridden along, truly curious, Tanner had questioned the southerner as to why he had bet on two boxers who should so obviously have lost their matches, being shorter and definitely outweighed by their opponents, which to the blond leader's dismay had set the gambler off on tales of other 'pugilistic exhibitions' he'd witnessed.
As much as Larabee wanted to tell the man to 'shut up', he realized, he'd rather listen to the gambler's constant chatter than give the southerner time to think about and possibly realize the true reason he was making this trip instead of Buck as had originally been planned.
Having received a letter stating his mother had plans to stop in Four Corners for several days before traveling on to San Fransisco, Standish had actually been looking forward to the visit from Maude. It had been several months since he'd last heard from her and while hiding it well, Ezra's friends were well aware of his excitement.
The day before they were to depart for Bluffton, the con man had received a brief telegram stating Maude was in the middle of a business deal and would have to cancel her visit. The southerner had taken the news in stride shrugging it off with his unusual carefree grin, but hadn't been able to fool the other peacekeepers.
Buck had willingly agreed with Larabee's announcement that Ezra should take his place rather than spending time in town, being constantly reminded that once again his mother had disappointed him. While he had whole heartedly agreed with Larabee's decision, the womanizer had pointed out, Standish would easily see through Chris' sudden decision unless there was a damn good excuse for Wilmington's absence.
It was Nathan who had informed Ezra that Buck had injured his knee and wouldn't be able to ride and therefore Larabee needed the gambler's help, if, of course, the gambler could spare time from the gaming tables. Ezra had agreed without comment, packed his saddlebags and retired early, knowing all to well the men's penchant for early departures.
Tanner's soft drawl drew Chris' attention back to the present.
"Reckon that there's a good place ta noon." Vin nodded to a stand of Cottonwoods a few yards ahead. The trees would give them shade and wood for a cook fire. Down a mild incline, a sliver of water that could hardly be called a stream would quench the animals thirst and allow them to refill their canteens.
"Good. Maybe if he's feedin' his face, he'll stop talkin'." Larabee muttered as he swung down from the saddle.
"Haven't you ever heard that friendly conversation over a good meal is beneficial to the digestion, Mr. Larabee?" Standish remarked drolly.
Vin choked back a chuckle at the gambler's comment as Ezra reached to take Peso's reins.
"If you gentlemen will proceed with the preparations of our lunch, I will tend to the needs of our noble steeds." Taking the proffered reins of Larabee's black, the con man led the horses through the trees toward the small stream. "While they may not be big on chit chat, I'm certain these fine creatures appreciate the fine art of conversation."
Ezra loosened the cinches and using an old cloth he kept in his saddlebags, wiped down each of the animals as they drank their fill.
The wily cardsharp hadn't been the least bit fooled by Nathan's phoney story of how Buck had twisted his knee while escaping the bedroom of a married woman before her husband filled him full of holes.
Well, let them think they'd conned the con man! He knew they were simply trying to keep him from thinking about the fact his mother had once again put her finances before her son. The constant chatter which so irritated the gunslinger was his own small form of payback. They expected it. They would be suspicious, certain their little ploy had failed if he didn't grumble, complain and keep up a river of often one sided conversation.
Standish did in his own fashion appreciate their concern but his mother's change of mind was nothing out of the ordinary. That was their way of life and she wouldn't be Maude if she reacted any differently. While he had looked forward to seeing her, he refused to dwell on the disappointment, certain like a force of nature, she would blow into town without warning to disrupt his life. A dimple appeared as a small smile touched his lips. She certainly kept life interesting.
The voices muted by the trees, made him realize he could say the exact same thing about the six men he worked with. With personalities as diverse as their upbringings, the men had added a magnificent multiplicity to his life that he enjoyed immensely, no matter how much he denied it.
The horses's sudden nervous whickering and prancing drew his attention back to the task at hand. Gathering the trailing reins, whispering reassuringly to the animals, the gambler's emerald gaze made a subtle sweep of the surrounding countryside wondering what predator's scent the animals must have caught.
"Don't think we fooled him at all, Pard!" Tanner stifled a grin, pretending not to notice when Larabee snatched the coffee pot away as the ex-bounty hunter reached for it. "Reckon ol' Ez knows exactly why ya made him come along on this trip. He's rattlin' on like that just ta make ya nuts."
"Doin' a damn fine job of it too." Chris growled as he set about preparing the coffee while Vin heated beans and tossed several strips of bacon into a skillet. "Don't care what he knows. Least he ain't sittin' in town broodin' and pissin' everybody off. There's nothin' but trouble when he pisses people off and..." He glanced up as Tanner tensed, the tracker's blue eyes squinting. "What?"
"Listen." Vin hissed as he eased his mare's leg from the holster on his thigh. "Birds stopped singin'."
His hand resting on his own six shooter, making his actions appear casual, the gunslinger moved closer to the trees. Like the ever vigilant tracker, his own hazel eyed gaze raked over the surrounding countryside for any sign of danger.
The danger became apparant as a low rumbling like distant thunder was accompanied by the very ground shaking beneath their feet.
"What the hell!" Trying to keep his balance, Larabee's fingers dug into the rough bark of the nearest tree trunk seeing Tanner throw himself backwards away from the fire.
Discreetly searching for and not finding any signs of danger, either human or animal, tugging on the reins, speaking softly in a reassuring tone, Ezra quietly urged the skittish animals up the incline. They had almost reached the summit when the tremors began, knocking the southerner to his knees.
Attempting to regain his feet, the ground movement threw him off balance and into Chris' horse. The animal, already skittish and frightened, lashed out iron shod hooves. Flaying the air repeatedly, one hoof struck the gambler a glancing blow and sent the man tumbling. Landing hard and attempting to avoid the frightened horses who were screaming in terror trying to flee, the con man stumbled away, trying to avoid not only the the animals but the rocks and debris shaken loose and rolling toward the brook. As the ground shook again, a massive chestnut shoulder struck him sending him tumbling head over heels down the incline.
Blackness settled over him as his head struck a small boulder at the edge of the water.
The tremors lasting less than two minutes seemed to go on forever, growing in strength knocking both men from their feet.
They barely escaped serious injury, Larabee crawling in the opposite direction as the young tree groaned and started to fall, the ex-bounty hunter rolling aside to narrowly avoid being crushed beneath the branches.
"Well that was damn interestin'!" Larabee blew out a deep breath, checking himself to see if anything was damaged, as the movement ceased. He gave Tanner a wary grin as the tracker checked the weapon he'd dropped before slipping it back into the holster. "You okay?"
"Yeah...You?" Brushing the dust from his hat, the sharpshooter pushed the hair from his eyes positioning the hat on his head and crossed back to the fire, pleased the tree had fallen to the side instead of on top of their small camp. Using his bandana Vin righted the spilled coffee pot and pulled the now empty skillets from the flames. "Guess lunch is gonna take longer than planned."
"Just glad, we're all in one piece ta eat it." Larabee, pulled another tin of beans from his saddlebags, tossing them to the sharpshooter as he checked the rest of their gear. "Even be glad to hear Ezra run his..." Exchanging looks of horror, the men pushed to their feet, dashing through the grove of trees and skidding to a stop at the top of the incline.
Ignoring the horses milling aimlessly at the edge of the brook, they half ran half slid through the grass and gravel, to drop to their knees beside the unconscious form of the injured gambler.
Hearing a groan, wondering if someone had been hurt, Ezra tried to force his eyes open, immediately closing them again, realizing the groan had come from him as a shaft of pain stabbed through his head. Feeling someone push aside the hand that reached for his forehead, the southerner once more forced his eyes open, trying to focus on the faces swimming into his vision.
"Lay still Ez."
He rolled his head in the direction of the voice, a grimace of pain was the best he could manage in a vain attempt to return the smile given him by the long haired man at his side. His eyelids fluttered closed as the gambler let sleep take away the pain.
Working together the gunslinger and tracker had managed to get the gambler up the hill and settled on a bedroll beside the fire. Laying a damp cloth on the knot growing on the con man's forehead which was already turning several colors, they gently cleaned the minor scrapes on his hands and grimaced at the vivid bruise forming on his shoulder, glad to see the joint hadn't been dislocated.
Ezra groaned, his eyes fluttering open and immediately closing again as he lifted a shaky hand towards his head.
Tanner pushed the hand aside. "Lay still Ez."
Ezra looked up at the tracker, grimacing in pain before the eyelids fluttered closed and his breathing evened out.
"His eyes didn't look that bad." Vin commented, remaining at the gambler's side as Chris passed him a cup a coffee and set about making them something to eat. Thanks to Nathan they all knew the symptoms and consequences of a head injury.
Larabee shrugged, his relief evident in his expression. "Don't matter. He ain't gonna feel up to ridin' so we might as well camp here and see about headin' out in the mornin'."
Without a word, the sharpshooter hurried back to the creek, returning with the horses. Ground hitching the animals, he removed the saddles, pulling his rifle from its boot. "Reckon, I'll see iffen I can scrounge up somethin' we can use to make a broth. Don't figure he'll be able ta keep much solid food down."
Chris nodded quietly in agreement, his worried gaze on the gambler's still form as Tanner moved off.
Ignoring the consistent throbbing in his head, Ezra lay motionless staring up at the last of the stars in the late night sky, trying to piece together the fractured portions of his memory.
'Which town did ya get run out of this time?' His inner voice taunted.
Escaping unhappy marks, for his own safety and well being, was the only reason he would be sleeping on the trail, rather than in some half way comfortable rented room.
'Alright...Think...What do you know?' He took a deep breath trying to calm his queasy stomach. His name was...was...Hell what was his name? Ez...someone had said Ez...Ezra!...Ezra P. Standish. 'But what name were you using?'
His name was followed by other facts. He was the son of Maude Standish, consumate con woman. He was a con man and a gambler, himself, although as he had once stated to....to....Damnit who? His mind refused to draw forth a name...Well he knew he'd once made a statement to someone....that he abhorred gambling and therefore left nothing to chance. He always made sure the odds were stacked in his favor. It was one of the many rules his mother had instilled during his childhood. His inner voice giggled at the irony...a gambler who abhorred gambling!
'Okay, so you know who you are...not the name you were using on this con but who you really are...Then the next question is obviously...Where are you?'
That one was going to be a bit more difficult to answer.
He slowly lifted his hand to his throbbing head flinching as his fingers brushed the large knot. Well that explained the headache.
At least it wasn't a hangover. Ezra rarely drank to excess, it made one lose control and placed the person in a vulnerable position.
As reality became more clear, demanding their share of his attention, each ache and pain in his battered body made itself known.
'So what the hell did ya do ta get yer ass kicked...besides getting caught...and which town should you avoid for awhile?'
He slowly turned his head, his fuzzy vision sweeping over the tiny camp and coming to rest on the figures laying on bedrolls a few feet away. Had these men been the reason for his current predicament? Were they the cause of the pain growing in intensity with each beat of his heart?
The memories of someone spoon feeding him broth, holding a cup of cool water to his lips and supporting him as he emptied the meager contents of his stomach, pushed to the front of his mind. Had it been one of these men who had cared for him?
He didn't think so but....His heart skipped a beat as the emerald eyes moved back to the saddles and supplies neatly placed close to where the horses were picketed. The tip of his tongue raked over his lips, his mouth becoming as dry as a desert mirage. In the growing light of dawn, the objects were shiny bright, capturing and holding his full attention.
'Damn Ezra! Ya sure stepped in it this time!'
The men in the bedrolls came instantly awake at the small groan Ezra couldn't stifle.
"Hey Pard!" The man in buckskin moved to his side, pushing the long curly hair from sleepy blue eyes as he hunkered down beside him. "Want some water?"
At the southerner's nod, the young man hopped over the gambler and carefully eased him into a seated position, supporting the con man against his chest as the black clad man poured water from his canteen into a cup, then knelt, his hand covering Ezra's, helping hold the cup steady as the gambler raised it to his lips.
As he sipped the liquid soothing his dry throat, Ezra stared into the older man's intense hazel eyes looking for some sign of danger, but finding only worry.
These two didn't act like men who would use their fists in anger against a stranger, even if they thought he was cheating them...their guns maybe...Perhaps they had found him after some other displeased miscreants had worked him over.
"Think you'll feel up ta eatin' something besides broth Ezra?" The blond man's smile didn't wipe the worry from his eyes. "Vin makes a pretty good rabbit and wild vegetable stew."
Double damn! They knew his name. How?
Were they lawmen taking him to justice? Bounty hunters, maybe? He had jumped bail...somewhere...He did know that and it would certainly explain the wrist irons. However, it wouldn't explain their show of kindness. Most people, especially those who made their living working on the right side of the law, didn't give a damn what happened to the numerous nameless con men and gamblers who roamed the territories.
Shit! Had he told them his name, sometime in the night while they were caring for him? Realizing he hadn't answered the man's question, the gambler nodded.
"Good. Why don't ya get some more rest while we reheat that stew and make some coffee."
His muddled thoughts were even more confused. They had called him by his real name. He had seen nothing but concern and maybe even worry in their expressions. They had cared for him, just as they would a friend.
Not likely. A wave of regret more painful than the bodily injuries he now suffered, rushed over him. He didn't have friends! Acquaintances. Yes. Temporary partners. Sometimes. Marks. That's all he had. All he had ever known. There were plenty of people he'd conned but never friends. Friends were a luxury a con man couldn't afford. Maude had taught him that lesson all too well.
Maude! His mother! With her memory came the fleeting thought perhaps they were associates of hers, sent to bring him...somewhere. That also seemed doubtful.
They didn't appear rich enough for Maude to give a second glance. The long haired one would be too uncouth and unrefined for her to deal with and he thought even the unflappable Maude would be afraid of the man in black. Yet, even if she was desperate even to hire someone to fetch him, he somehow sensed there was an honesty about them that his mother would avoid like the black plague.
Ezra realized he was in a predicament and needed time to assess his current situation and more than anything he needed answers. Life...and Maude...had taught him, if he didn't know the correct questions, the best way to get any needed information was to simply listen.
All he had to do was keep his mouth shut and his ears open. He would survive this just had he had everything else life had thrown at him. He would listen and learn and above all, be constantly on guard for he couldn't allow anyone to discover just how vulnerable Ezra P. Standish truly was at the moment.
Thankful for Chaucer's smooth easy gait, Ezra fought to appear relaxed, feeling the stares the two men constantly turned in his direction.
He had fallen asleep before the remains of the evening meal had been reheated and they had patiently waited untill he awoke, breaking camp while he ate. The bowl had contained more broth than meat or vegetables, but had satisfied him without upsetting his already uneasy stomach.
They had saddled Chaucer and helped him mount, neither complaining that they'd lost several hours travel time. Still bewildered, Ezra never wondered why there were two sets of shackles, only relieved that neither of them were placed about his own wrists.
The men had kept the pace slow, stopping several times to allow the gambler to rest, making travel tedious. Pushing aside the aches and pains, the reins wrapped around his right hand, his left braced against his thigh hoping to support his bruised shoulder, the gambler forced himself not to ask if they could stop again. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep until the bruises had faded and the sore damaged muscles had healed.
While he wasn't certain where they were headed or if even he wanted to reach their intended destination, the gambler was equally certain he didn't want, under any circumstances, to incur the wrath of the man in black, who kept studying him with intense hazel eyes.
Other than his horse, the only thing Ezra truly trusted was his instincts. The gambler had always been good at reading people. The ability was an absolute necessity in both aspects of his livelihood and his instincts told him, this man, the other called Chris was no one to mess with. There was an air of authority about him, a power that seemed to emanate from him so tangible as to be almost visible.
The gambler cast the man in buckskin a weak smile hoping it didn't come across as sick as he felt. The man...Vin?...who had paced his horse along side Ezra's, saying little other than asking after the gambler's health or passing him the canteen.
Like the man in black's authority, there was trustworthiness about the long haired man, a sense of fairness and caring that shone in the bright blue eyes. This was a man to ride the trail with. Someone who could be counted on to watch a man's back during trouble and not steal his money while he slept.
'When did you start getting so sappy Standish?' He gave a mental snort. 'You know damn good and well there is no such person. People only look out for their own best interests.'
Concentrating on the black shirt of the man in front of him, Ezra contemplated his two companions. He would guess they had ridden together most their lives. They seemed to share a singular connection which allowed them a silent form of communication as if they were reading each other's mind. It was easy for the gambler to surmise that these men were the type dime novel writers made into heroes and the ancient people made into mythical legends. Noble, honorable, men who would sacrifice their own lives to save the other, or to aid the helpless and protect the innocent.
'You really are turning into a sap! Dime novel heroes are nothing but fantasy and you know it!' The gambler's inner voice chided.
Lost in thought, the southerner blinked in surprise, realizing the men had reined up and stopped. Grateful for the respite, Ezra slid to the ground, leaning against Chaucer's side, momentarily resting his head on the saddle.
"G'on and sit down, Ezra," Vin moved to his side and began unsaddling the gambler's mount.
Sensing the southerner's reluctance to accept the offered help, Chris gently took his arm, his hazel gaze declaring he would accept no argument, and led the con man to a patch of grass. "We'll camp here tonight...Sit there Standish!" The gunslinger growled as wanting to do his share, Ezra slowly moved to pick up several pieces of firewood. "Don't make me cuff ya to that log..." he warned. "Guess we should be in Four Corners by sundown tomorrow."
Images of weathered buildings, a broken down saloon, laughing men and gunshots filling the air pushed to the front of the gambler's memory. He'd been there before...running a con on the drunks...proving his marksmanship with blanks...Aww hell, he groaned inwardly, they were taking him back to face the angry men he'd swindled.
To tired to worry about it at the moment, the gambler stretched out on the lush soft grass and curling on his side, fell asleep almost instantly.
It was late afternoon but several hours yet until sundown when the dusty little town came into view. Tanner's brow furrowed in consternation as Ezra visibly stiffened in the saddle when the buildings of Four Corners appeared on the horizon.
The gambler had slept straight through the previous evening and night, not even waking when Vin and Larabee had eased him off the grass and onto his bedroll before covering him with a blanket.
They were aware it would be several days before the soreness left the cardsharp's muscles and the bruises began to heal but they were more than a little surprised when without a word of complaint or sarcasm, upon awakening, the gambler had eaten a small breakfast of biscuits and peaches before stiffly climbing into the saddle.
Hoping to help keep the con man's mind off his pain they had asked questions about his many travels. The southerner's answers were often short and to the point but more than once they saw a glimmer of their charming friend's old self as he described a particularly favorite spot. More often than not, they rode in silence, Chris calling a rest stop when the gambler began to grip the saddle horn so tightly his knuckles turned white.
"Won't be long now Ez." Vin exchanged a puzzled glance with Larabee as the con man straightened in the saddle, at the remark and appeared to be drawing his dignity around him like a cloak to protect him from some evil.
The dust covered town looked just has it had in Ezra's dream the previous night. The dreams had been filled with images of knife wielding men, gunshots, cracked mirrors, talk of gold and the men called Chris and Vin.
That dream would explain the overwhelming sense that Ezra knew these men. That he had known them before waking on the trail to find them caring for his injuries. If his dreams were accurate they had also been in Four Corners. They had seen him trick the men out of their money and witnessed his subsequent battle to safely leave the filthy saloon.
In the dream...or was it a memory?....Chris had asked him to join them. Join them? Now that was a laugh. Ezra Standish wasn't a joiner. Being part of any group, be it outlaws...family...friends...meant putting his trust in others. Trust was not something he gave easily or...willingly. The mainstay of his mother's teachings had always been to look out for number one and he had been a prize student.
To his credit, while Ezra may not exactly walk on the side of the law he wasn't an outlaw. Tricking people out of their money may not always be as lucrative but it was definitely safer than robbing banks or stages or ending up in the middle of a range war being paid by some greedy rancher who didn't want to get his own hands bloody.
The gambler glanced at the dark clad man riding with him, attempting to study him without being obvious. Ezra was well aware first impressions weren't always correct and appearances could be deceiving.
Upon first seeing the gunslinger, anyone with a modicum of sense would immediately believe this was a man to be reckoned with...and they would be right. They might also assume this was a man who didn't let anyone stand in his way, doing what he wanted and taking what he wanted and the law be damned!
They would be wrong.
There was an aura of danger about the man almost as strong as the impression of authority, but somehow Ezra couldn't believe this hazel eyed man was an outlaw.
From the glimpses the gambler had seen of the man's eyes, he knew this was a man who had faced death more than once and beaten the grim reaper at his own game. This was a man that people automatically cleared a path for when he strolled the boardwalk and drew the attention of every person when he entered a room.
This was a man other men followed. A man they respected and looked to for leadership...and perhaps something more.
Despite not really knowing why, Ezra knew no matter what side of the law he was on, like Vin, this was a man to be trusted.
Ezra's instincts said the men who flanked him wouldn't allow him to be hurt and for reasons beyond his current realm of understanding, Ezra fully trusted his instincts. He wasn't in any condition to defend himself but uncertain why, the gambler had no doubts these men would keep him safe. They would protect him from those demanding his hide as retribution. Even now, when he wasn't exactly sure of himself, Ezra trusted his instincts. They had kept him alive for a lot of years.
Standish realized when it came right down to it, a few days in a dirty jail cell was better than another beating or a tar and feather greeting. In fact he might be able to avoid the jail visit altogether if his marks would simply be satisfied with the return of their money.
As they entered town, the horses slowly walked down the main street, Standish ignored the curious looks of the residents they passed. Keeping his gaze straight ahead, looking sideways only once he hadn't been surprised by the expression of disgust and derision on the face of the man locking the bank's door as they passed.
Squinting, trying to focus vision that was becoming increasingly fuzzy as his headache gained strength with his weariness, Ezra looked up as Vin waved to a man hammering shingles on the roof of a building at the far end of the street.
The con man cringed at the loud exuburant greeting turning his attention to the young man who bounded from the boardwalk and dashed up to their horses. He caught the glint of a tin star under the jacket as the youth pushed the mop of dark hair from his eyes before shoving the Bowler back on his head.
'Either this is the most peaceful town in the country or that boy is damn good with those guns he wears.' flickered though his thoughts.
Expecting the hardened cynical version of most western sheriffs, the southerner was taken aback by the youthful appearance of the man wearing the badge as the kid laid an almost gentle hand on his knee, walking along beside Chaucer to look up at the gambler.
"Damn! What happened?...You okay?"
Ezra bit back the sarcastic retort stunned to see genuine concern in the young man's dark eyes.
"Where's Nathan?" Chris questioned.
The sheriff didn't slow his steps, keeping pace with the weary animals. "Don't know. Saw him headed ta the restaurant earlier."
"Find him, JD." The gunslinger ordered. "Tell him we're bringin' Ezra up to his place."
"Sure thing Chris." The sheriff turned and ran back the way they'd just come as the men reached the livery.
"Easy there Pard." Tanner reached out catching the gambler as Ezra staggered when trembling muscles faltered under the sudden change in posture as he dismounted.
"Thank you, Vin." The con man straightened, giving the younger man a small smile.
"Little wore out myself." The sharpshooter grinned, maintaining his light hold on the con man's arm. "Reckon we shoulda stopped more often. Sometimes ferget we ain't all hard asses like ol' Chris there." He joked softly
Ezra looked anxiously over his shoulder at his loyal four legged companion as Vin tossed the reins to the two boys who dashed from the stables. With Chris' firm grip on the gambler's other arm, the two men helped steered the somewhat unsteady southerner down the street.
Ezra frowned, embarrassed that everyone saw these men escorting him to his fate, their relaxed grip on his arms preventing his escape, 'as if he had the strength or energy to run.' As they reached the stairs and started up to the second story balcony, Ezra was thankful for their firm support certain he wouldn't have been able to master the steps on his own.
Pushing open the door to a small room, the men helped him inside and had just seated the gambler on the edge of the bed when the door burst open and a tall black man followed by the sheriff rushed inside.
It took every ounce of his remaining will power for Ezra not to react as the dark skinned man pushed Vin and Chris aside to stoop before the gambler. He didn't have a chance to pull away before the man reached out and gripping his chin tilted the gambler's head to the light to better examine the bruised lump on the con man's head.
"Damn Standish, who'd ya piss off this time?" The man growled, although there didn't seem to be any real animosity in the words.
"The Great Spirit." Vin answered before the con man could respond as he and Chris gave a brief version of the events in which Ezra had been injured.
Ezra listened in astonishment as the two men explained what had caused the injuries and what had happened since. His thoughts jumbled together, his disbelief mixing with what the two men were saying. It hadn't been angry marks taking justice into their own hands? They hadn't found him on the trail and stopped to help? The three of them had been traveling together?
"How many fingers am I holdin' up Ezra?" The healer questioned, capturing the gambler's attention as he held up two fingers.
"Don't you know?" Shuffling of feet and sudden coughs hid the other men's laughter.
The healer sighed in a greatly put upon manner. "Pretend I don't and answer the question."
No one was surprised at the wrong answer. They all recognized the con man's pain and weariness and were well versed, mostly from first hand experience, with the effects of a blow to the head.
Working quickly, issuing orders as he moved about the small clinic, Nathan gathered supplies and prepared a herbal tea as Chris and Vin eased the gambler out of his upper clothing. There were groans of sympathy as the vivid colors of various bruises were revealed.
Steeling his expression, not wanting to offend anyone since these men obviously respected and trusted the nigra's abilities, Ezra remained motionless as Nathan ran his hands gently over the gambler's torso checking for broken bones before applying a soothing salve to the mottled discolored skin.
Only Vin frowned as the gambler drank the cup of tea without a sarcastic word of protest before he was eased down onto the bed and covered with a light blanket with orders to get some sleep. The tracker stayed even as the others left the room, his expression puzzled as a troubling thought niggled at the back of his mind.
"Welcome back son."
Blinking rapidly, hiding his surprise behind a grimace of pain, Ezra stared at the enormous gray-haired man seated at his bedside.
'Son?' The gambler knew his memory wasn't exactly up its normal standards, hell he had to concentrate to remember what his mother looked like but...'Son?'
Had this man been one of his many stepfathers? He didn't think so. It wasn't that the man didn't meet Maude's standards physically, he was, after all, handsome enough in a grizzled sort of way but he didn't have the appearance of a man with much money and Maude would never make the mistake of marrying for anything other than money and lots of it.
The man moved to help as Ezra struggled against stiff, sore muscles to sit up.
Steadying the gambler, certain he wouldn't tumble head first to the floor, the man handed Ezra a cup of water before moving to the table and returning with a clean shirt and the gambler's tan coat.
"JD dropped these off for ya. Figured ya wouldn't wanna walk down the street half naked." The man grinned holding the shirt as the con man eased his arms into the sleeves.
"I suppose my presence is required at the jail." Ezra stated unequivocally when he'd finally finished dressing and slowly slipped on the tan travel coat. At least his fancy tailored jackets wouldn't be damaged during his incarceration. Perhaps he could convince Vin to find suitable storage for his belongings if he had to be away for a long period of time.
"Thought ya might wanna go to the saloon...Get ya something ta eat." The man suggested following rather than trying to stop the southerner as he stepped onto the balcony. Dark shadows filled the street and the fires were being lit as the last of the sun disappeared beneath the horizon.
Still confused, Ezra didn't know if he had slept only a few hours or straight through until the next evening.
Ezra wasn't so sure he wanted to return to the saloon. He had no idea where his two protectors had disappeared to and although they'd left him his weapons, the gambler wasn't ready to defend himself against the men he'd swindled.
They'd left him his weapons! Why would they leave a prisoner armed? Had he given them his word he wouldn't use the instruments of death against them? Of course they had left a guard to watch over him. Was it for his protection or the town's? Had he made some type of deal with them? Damn! Why couldn't he remember?
How the hell was he supposed to keep a promise when he couldn't remember what it was?
He knew most people believed every word he spoke to be a lie but Ezra always kept his word...In fact he prided himself on the fact that he rarely gave his word but when he did he always kept it.
Ezra didn't realize he'd been following the large man until the older man held open the batwing doors and waited for the con man to step inside the smokey saloon.
When Ezra hesitated, the big man reached out and placed a huge guiding hand on the smaller man's back steering him through the opening.
A small surge of relief rushed through the gambler's veins as his emerald gaze swept the occupants coming to rest on Chris and Vin seated with JD, Nathan and a mustached man who was laughing and slapping the young sheriff on the back.
While the saloon looked vaguely familiar Ezra knew it wasn't the same one where he'd first seen the two men who had accompanied him back to town.
"Come on Son, let's get some food into ya." His hand still on Ezra's back, the grizzled man gave a gentle push starting the man moving and guided the gambler to where the others waited, calling out to the woman behind the bar, his bellow startling the con man. "Inez ya wanna bring my boy here a bowl of stew and a few slices of lightly buttered bread."
Ezra pretended not to see the frown which momentarily crossed Vin's face before being replaced by a lop sided smile as the southerner slowly took the seat beside him.
"You'll have to settle for a beer Ezra, steada whiskey." The healer stated filling a mug from the pitcher on the table and passing it to the gambler. "Not to much. Yer brain's already scrambled without the liquor muddling it up even more."
The con man nodded compliantly, his eyes once again scanning the room. Being early in the week, the enormous room was only about a quarter occupied with town residents, a few cowhands from neighboring ranches, transients and travelers.
"Damn boys I thought ya said he was bettin' on them matches. Looks more like he was one a the boxers...a losin' one at that." The mustached man commented. "Ya doin' okay there Ez?"
Ezra struggled to focus on and remember the jovial man's name but like other things it eluded him. "I'm fine, thank you." He muttered with a slight nod.
The men exchanged subtle glances of concern. They all knew the gambler well enough to understand 'I'm fine,' really meant 'I hurt like hell but you'll never get me to admit it.' The con man would bitch and moan about the agony caused by a splinter but rarely said a word when it came to a serious injury as if afraid it would draw unwanted attention to himself.
"Eat Senor Standish."
He smiled up at the woman he was obviously supposed to know as she sat the meal in front of him, fumbling for the name the gray haired man had used. "Thank you, Inez. It smells delicious."
"It is and I did not give you that much so I expect you to eat every bite." Her gentle smile didn't match her stern tone of voice. "If you want more, just ask."
"Inez, darlin', I-"
"I know what you want Senor Buck." The woman interrupted the jovial man's request, a teasing smile playing at her lips. "But it is not on the menu." She waved over a little redhead in a frilly costume that displayed her many attributes. "Molly, would you get a couple more pitchers for the gentlemen?"
The mustached gunslinger's blue eyes twinkled merrily as he watched her sashay back to the bar. "I tell ya boys, it ain't gonna be long now." He grinned, unoffended by his companions' good natured chuckles. "Got her right where I want her."
"Ain't it uncomfortable sleepin' behind the bar?" JD's question set off another round of laughter.
Ezra passed the evening, listening to the conversation as the men described what had occured in Vin and Chris' absence, the minor damage caused by the mild earthquake, a story that had appeared in the local paper and rumors that had begun to circulate about gunmen hired by the railroad to ride rough shod over the local farmers in an attempt to force them to sell their lands.
Keeping up his pretence of normalcy Ezra said very little, commenting only when required, his emerald gaze continuously unobtrusively sweeping over the room, all to aware several of the saloon's patrons kept glancing their way.
As the night grew later and the bar began to empty, one by one the men made their excuses, leaving the table, JD heading for the jail, Nathan to his clinic and Buck, his arm around the pretty, little Molly to what pleasures they would find on the upper floors of the building.
Pushing to his feet, Chris adjusted his hat, "See ya in the mornin'."
Vin stood as well. "Get some rest Ez."
Standish swallowed his sudden panic watching forlornly as Vin followed Chris into the dark night. What was he supposed to do now? What did they expect?
"Feel like I put a whole new roof on the church in a single afternoon." The man, whose name Ezra had learned was Josiah, pushed to his feet, stretching. "You okay son?"
Realizing he was under close scrutinization from his obviously appointed guard, Ezra forced a bright smile. "Of course Josiah." Glimpsing the four men seated at a nearby table, the gambler returned his attention to the preacher. "Having enjoyed a nap, I was considering seeing if any of the remaining gentlemen would care to indulge in a game of chance."
"Not too late."
'Damn! The man really does sound like someone's father.'
"Nathan's right, ya need to get some rest." Giving the con man's good shoulder a light pat, Josiah moved to the batwings stopping long enough to cast a last worried glance at the man left sitting alone at the peacekeeper's table.
"Ya didn't tell me we had a prisoner." Buck poured himself a cup of coffee and sank into the only other chair in the jail, propping his feet up on the desk.
"We don't." Dunne muttered quietly.
"Ya tellin' me that lump under the blanket is a figment of my imagination?"
The sheriff motioned for his best friend to keep his voice down. "It's Ezra."
"What the hell is he doin' here?" Wilmington demanded to know.
"Sleepin'." JD quipped with a shrug. "He come by earlier...Said he couldn't find anyone to partake in a game of chance. Fell asleep while we was talkin' so I woke him up enough to get 'im onto one of the cots. Reckoned it was better than sendin' 'im back ta his own room, alone."
"Probably a good idea." Buck nodded. Leaving Molly's room he had stood outside the door of the southerner's room for several minutes, but hearing nothing and knowing Ezra kept his door locked, Wilmington didn't want to disturb the gambler's rest by knocking. "'Cordin' ta Chris and Vin that goose egg made him pretty sick ta his stomach." The womanizer took a sip of the brew, watching over the cup rim as his 'kid brother' stifled a yawn. "Ya got about thirty seconds ta head for your bed, or I'm gonna go back and keep Molly company for the rest of the night."
He chuckled as the younger man jumped to his feet and grabbing his hat, tossed a soft goodnight over his shoulder as he hurried through the door. The laughter faded as he returned his attention back to the sleeping figure in the jail cell.
Ezra sighed sinking lower in the tub as the hot water slowly began to ease his sore, aching, stiff muscles.
He hadn't been surprised to awaken in the jail cell. He had, however, been extremely surprised to find the door standing open and Vin, slouched in the opening holding out a cup of coffee.
Sitting alone at the table, as Josiah departed into the dark night, Ezra wanted nothing more than to crawl into a nice soft feather bed and sleep until the bruises healed and his memory returned to normal. Surely if he'd spent any time at all in the dusty town, and enough people seemed to know his name to indicate he had, then he had to have slept somewhere.
He knew the hotel clerk would be asleep, the whole town seemed to be asleep. Even if he woke him, how could he begin to explain needing to rent a room if he already had one and if he already had one how would he explain not knowing that fact or where that room might be?
Standish hadn't felt this vulnerable, so out of control of his fate...or so completely alone since...since he had been staying with Aunt Sophia and Uncle John and his cousins had...No! He didn't want to remember that! He valiantly pushed the childhood memories back into the darkest corners of his mind.
He could always bed down in the livery loft but if discovered that would be even harder to explain than not knowing the location of his current abode. He needed answers as much as he needed sleep. Making a sudden decision, Ezra rose from the table and giving the barmaid a tip of his hat left the saloon.
Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, letting the warm water momentarily drain away the tension, wishing the hot bath could soothe his troubled thoughts as well as his body, Ezra thought about the previous night. Was everything JD had told him true? Was it possible? Perhaps his ability to recognize a snow job had gone the way of his memory. Yet, he still trusted his instincts. Closing his eyes his thoughts turned once more to the previous evening.
Ezra had slowly made his way to the jail. Of the men seated at the saloon table the con man considered JD his best bet of getting at least a few answers without raising undue suspicions. Besides he readily knew where to find the sheriff at the moment.
Explaining he wasn't tired, Ezra had engaged the youth in seemingly innocent conversation, steering JD down memory lane, listening intently to Dunne reminisce.
Unable to believe what he was hearing, the southerner had studied the younger man with an intensity that JD either ignored or was totally unaware of, but was unable to find any sign of deceit in the youth's demeanor or expression.
Two years? According to Dunne, Ezra had been in the town of Four Corners for nearly two years, working with the others as one of the town's seven peacekeepers.
He had been flabbergasted. Only a lifetime of training had kept the sheriff from seeing his shock. Ezra Standish a peacekeeper? A lawman?
He almost burst into laughter. Either he was running the biggest con job of his life or this was the ultimate practical joke.
Considering the poor conditions he had observed of the town, Ezra opted for it being a joke. Surely there wasn't enough money in the backwater western burg for him to invest two years...Two years!...of his life.
Then again, maybe there was something about the town which was locked away with the rest of the memories he couldn't find. Maude would never have let him piss away two years, dragging him out of there at gunpoint if necessary, unless she recognized a potential and substantial monetary gain if not for him than for herself, for such a prolonged effort.
With the thoughts of Maude, Standish tried to remember the last time he'd seen his mother...and couldn't recall. Did she even know where he was?
The southerner had finally dozed off as JD was expounding on the dime novel written about them by Jock Steele. Sometime in the night, he had ended up in the cell and had awakened late that morning.
Testing the truthfulness of Dunne's testimony, the gambler had forced down a cup of the black fermentation, Vin had the temerity to call coffee and rubbing a hand over several days growth on his cheeks stated he needed to get cleaned up before breakfast.
Vin hadn't tried to stop him as he strolled from the jail, simply pointing out with a lopsided grin, the fact it was closer to lunch than breakfast.
Standish's first stop had been at the barber's followed by a quick visit to the Mercantile where he purchased one of the plain gray shirts from the shelf before heading to the bathhouse returning greetings from those who appeared to know him well enough to pass the time of day.
Ezra Standish, a peacekeeper. Had the whole world gone completely mad? Or had he?
"What's on your mind cowboy?" Lighting a cheroot, Larabee didn't bother to look at the man seated at his side.
"Know that." Larabee sighed. "What about him?"
"Don't know...Somethin' ain't right." Tanner shrugged.
They'd been more than a little surprised to find the gambler asleep in one of the jail cells when they'd arrived to relieve Buck. The womanizer had repeated what Dunne had told him defending the younger man's actions stating JD had done the correct thing in putting the con man where they could keep an eye on him in case the head injury made him sick again. In his condition, the gambler didn't need to be climbing the steps to his room and sure as hell didn't need to be alone.
The gambler had returned to the jail after cleaning up and consuming a meal at the restaurant, or at least part of a meal. Worried about the con man, wanting to know if he was alright, Mrs. Martin, had approached Tanner and had informed the tracker, Ezra had eaten a few bites of steak and potatoes, assuring her the food was excellent but he found himself without much of an appetite.
Until an hour earlier, Ezra had remained within the vicinity of Tanner or Larabee, accompanying them as they strolled about the town or sitting quietly in front of the jail, nervously shuffling the new deck of cards he'd purchased at the mercantile.
"He don't say nothin' unless we ask him a point blank question. He didn't give Nate any argument at all...even drank that shitty tea he hates so much but...he seemed uncomfortable with Nate tendin' him...kinda like when they first met. He let Josiah get away with callin' him son...more than once. He don't say one word 'bout sleepin' on one of them lumpy cots 'stead a his soft fancy feather bed and did ya happen ta notice what he's wearin'." The sharpshooter rose, and slouched against the jail porch post turning to face Larabee. "To top it off....Have ya heard him call ya anythin' other than Chris in the last few days?"
Tanner waited as the gunslinger chewed the end of his thin cigar, mulling over the tracker's observations adding them to his own and seeking plausible answers.
Ezra had suffered a fairly good blow to the head which as they all knew from experience would cause an upset stomach, explaining the lack of appetite. That, unfortunately, was the only thing Chris could reasonably explain. Yes, it was understandable Standish had been confused and willing to do anything to feel better when they took him to the clinic, but he hadn't argued at all about the healer issuing orders in the saloon.
Despite the way he was feeling there was absolutely no reason Ezra couldn't have returned to his room for a fresh set of clothes. In fact, knowing the southerner's penchant for keeping up appearances and how he went out of his way to hide the fact he was ill or injured Larabee would have expected the con man to have insisted on returning to his room at the first opportunity. Instead, he was wearing an off the shelf chambray shirt...A rough chambray shirt to someone who abhorred the crasser things and always wore the best in public.
They'd come to know the gambler very well, or at least thought so, over the past two years and while he was still able to confuse them and hide behind his barriers, they were able to read a few of his tells.
"Let's go." Tossing the cigar stub into the street, Larabee pushed to his feet. "Reckon if we ask the right questions we might get some direct answers."
"Wanna bet yer boxin' winnin's?" Vin muttered as he fell in step beside his friend. Ezra Standish would never give a direct answer if there was a round about way of dealing with the interrogator.
Pushing through the batwing doors, the two men were surprised to find the gambler's usual gaming table empty. Catching Inez's eye, they followed her slight nod to discover the con man seated at a corner table playing solitaire, his back to the wall where he could observe the coming and goings of the patrons.
A bottle of whiskey minus the amount in the shot glass beside it sat on the table top, ignored as seemingly lost in thought the southerner stared at the cards which lay in front of him.
"Hey Ez." Motioning for two beers, Vin straddled the chair next to Ezra while Chris sat down across from the gambler.
"Gentlemen." The con man nodded, giving them a dimpled smile that didn't erase the contemplation from his green eyes. He waved a hand towards the cards. "Would you care to join me in a friendly game of chance?"
"Maybe later..." Chris glanced at the tracker, when Standish turned his attention back to the cards. Waiting until Molly had delivered their beer, Larabee sharply tapped on the tabletop, startling the gambler who looked up guiltily.
"I apologize gentlemen, I should have realized you'd need something to quench your thirst. I'll be more than happy to purchase the first round."
"Don't wantcha ta buy our drinks," Chris frowned. Was that fear he saw mixed with the puzzlement in the gambler's emerald eyes? "How's your head?"
"Fine thank you." The con man visibly relaxed.
"Still got a headache?" Vin asked, finding his answer in the pain filled eyes.
"Minor." Ezra shrugged, scooping up the cards, shuffling and dealing himself a new game. The movements were slow and stiff, displaying none of nimble fingers usual agility.
"Nothing to be of cause for any concern." The southerner attempted to point out as a sudden realization poured over him like river water after the snow thaw, nearly freezing him.
'Damn! They know! Somehow you've given yourself away Ezra. You've let something slip! What? What did you do wrong? Think!...Doesn't matter. You're a con man! You can do this! A little misdirection. A little evasion.'
Larabee's words drew his attention back to the two men confronting him.
"Nice shirt Ezra." Chris knew Vin was right. He wouldn't discover anything going head on at the con man. They would have to play his game, his way...at least for the time being.
The shirt! They'd seen him buy the shirt. He should have known they'd be curious about the purchase.
"Why thank you. It's one of the best the Mercantile has to offer." He attempted to straighten the unweilding cuffs. "Fortunately, I'm one of those rare individuals who can make even the most drab clothes appear stylish."
"Chris has got one just like it." Tanner chuckled as the flustered con man's mouth soundlessly opened and closed several times, realizing his remarks may be considered an insult.
"Indeed." The gambler arched his eyebrows. "Probably why I chose this particular style. It just proves he has excellent taste in apparel, although I do wish there was a decent haberdashery in the area. I didn't realize until I was on my way to the bathhouse that I seem to have misplaced my saddlebags and I detest wearing the same clothes two days in a row." The gambler quickly improvised, hoping to expunge the insult and explain his need for a new shirt at the same time.
"Ya misplace your room too?" Larabee questioned. "Ya got enough clothes there without havin' to buy new ones everytime ya take a bath or lose your saddlebags."
"True enough, however after several days on the trail, a bath was foremost in my mind." Ezra responded a bit too quickly.
Larabee leaned forward. "Do you know who I am Ezra?"
The gambler kept his poker face firmly in place, hiding the fact his heart was pounding like a virgin bride on her wedding night. "A most unusual question, don't you think sir? Is there anyone in the territory who hasn't heard of you?"
The gunslinger leaned closer, his voice a low hiss as he growled, "Just answer the damn question Standish."
The con man silently thanked the residents who had stopped to pass the time of day as he walked the town with both men. "You, sir, are Chris Larabee and before you ask our long haired friend here is Vin Tanner." He feigned a look of bewilderment, hoping he was wrong about where this conversation was leading. "Are you perhaps suffering some form of identity crisis?"
Tanner snorted in amusement choking on his swallow of beer.
"Perhaps you have a reason for wanting to change your moniker. I can, of course be of some assistance, although Christopher Larabee is such a strong noble na-"
"Ya know Ez, ya never did tell us how ya know so much about boxin'." Tanner interrupted before the gambler pushed Larabee past the point of control.
"Enough!" Larabee slammed a hand down on the table, causing both men to jump and drawing the attention of the saloon patrons as Standish began repeating one of the stories from the trail. "We've heard this all before Ezra." He grumbled.
"My apologies. Apparently Vin's memory isn't as accurate as yours." The gambler sighed, turning his attention to the sharpshooter. "This subject seems to be of some annoyance to Chris. Perhaps we should take our conversation els-"
"It's your memory we're wondering about Ezra." Chris growled lowly, throwing the staring customers a glare that quickly had them turning their unwanted attention elsewhere.
"Perfectly understandable, considering I recently suffered a blow to the head but while I appreciate your apparent concern I assure you both it is completely unwarranted."
"Cut the shit Standish!" Ignoring the warning look Tanner shot him, Larabee shoved the cards aside and rested his forearms on the table. He'd never been any good at deceit and was certain to lose if he continued to play by the gambler's rules. "I got some questions and ya damn well better tell me the truth."
"Of course." The southerner capitulated. "I'm more than happy to be of assistance."
"Not good enough Ezra." A smile played at the corners of the gunslinger's lips. "I want your word as a gentleman."
Both men heard the slight hitch as the gambler sucked in air, and saw the flash of panic which momentarily flared in the emerald eyes before he slammed the poker face back into place.
'Some con man you are Standish! Can't even fool a couple a cowboys in some nowhere dirt water town the wind's just waitin' ta blow away.'
The gambler pulled out all the stops. "I suppose I should be offended that after two years you would feel it necessary to insist on such a condition in order to obtain the desired information."
Neither man was fooled by the two year reference, having sought out Dunne in order to discover what he had already discussed with the gambler the previous evening.
"Don't mean ya no offense Ez-"
"I stated that I should feel offended, Vin. Not that I was." He gave the sharpshooter a reassuring smile.
"He's right Ezra. We ain't tryin' ta hurt your feelings but after two years, we have learned the best way to get the most honest answer outta ya." Larabee grinned hoping to ease the tension which seemed to have the gambler in its grasp. "Your word Ezra."
"I will endeavor to provide the desired information in the most distinct manner possible."
"Plain English will do." Larabee refilled the shot glass when Standish tossed back the fiery liquid.
"I always speak English Chris, just more eloquently than most people." He nodded his thanks but didn't touch the renewed drink.
"Do you know me?" Larabee reiterated.
"As I stated earlier, anyone who's been in the territory any length of time knows of Chris Larabee. And I must say, knowing your reputation and having seen you in action, I'm pleased not to be considered one of your enemies." Ezra didn't even dare speculate that he might be thought of as a friend by the gunslinger. A man didn't have to like the people he worked with and he was certain that Larabee being the honest and honorable man described by the young sheriff would only associate with someone as unsavory as Standish out of necessity. The con man was certain the only reason he hadn't been run out of town on a rail was because the other men found his fast gun and devious mind to be of use to them.
Vin heard the bare hint of sadness in the southern drawl. Directing another look of warning at the gunslinger, knowing the fierce expression and hard ass attitude would only push the gambler further behind his walls, the sharpshooter waited patiently ready to intervene as Chris pressed on.
"When did we meet?"
"Approximately two years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't mark such an auspicious occasion on a calender but I'm certain given time I could come up with an exact date."
Tanner again snorted in amusement, this time avoiding choking.
"Not necessary." Larabee snarled. 'Given enough time you'd have me answering the damn questions.'
The gunslinger mentally ran down the list of topics JD had stated were discussed, a glint lighting his hazel eyes. "Who's Orrin Travis?"
Unprepared for the question a flush highlighted the cardsharp's cheeks before he could prevent it.
'Shit! How did they know about Travis? Had they found a wanted poster? Is that what had prompted this discussion?' Honesty? Evasiveness? After a moment's hesitation the con man decided on a mixture of the two.
"The only Orrin Travis I know is a federal judge." The southerner feigned a casual shrug. "I had the unfortunate experience of meeting the gentleman through a...slight misunderstanding of the law...shall we say."
"When was the last time you saw him?" Chris questioned stubbornly.
"I can't remember." Standish smiled, adding, "And to be perfectly honest, the next time will be much too soon."
Tanner bit his lip, stifling his laughter, seeing the gunslinger's growing frustration as the gambler danced around several more questions. This course of action was getting them nowhere fast serving no purpose other than to bring Larabee's blood to a rapid boil.
The headache intensifying, Ezra's eyes narrowed as he reached for the scattered cards only to find his wrist captured in Larabee's firm grip.
"We're only tryin' to help Ez." Tanner intervened, forcing Chris to release his hold.
Trying to get his anger under control, Larabee sat back, regret filling the hazel eyes as he watched Ezra rub the sore joint.
Hoping that somewhere in his shattered memory, Ezra would find a flicker of remembrance or sense the friendship he and the tracker had built over the years, Vin shifted to face the gambler. "Ez, did ya know us before we got back to town? Other than our first names I mean."
The southerner chewed at his lower lip, toying with the shot glass. Damn! If he was going to be honest with himself, he had to admit he wanted to confide in these men. He wanted to ask for their help but how could he? How could he reveal his weakness and allow them to realize how susceptible and defenseless he felt?
Fighting the urge to crawl behind the walls and strengthen his protective barriers ten fold, Standish glanced warily at the two men. The cautious con man knew that for some unexplainable reason, deep in his soul he trusted these men with his very life. Could he trust them not to use his weakness against him?
For a brief moment green eyes met blue and Ezra was stunned by the feeling of security which washed over him. This was a man who would never betray a confidence. Just as he had on the trail, Standish instinctively knew these men would die to protect their friends. What shocked him the most was that in those clear blue eyes he saw friendship. It rocked him to the depths of his soul, this man truly considered him a friend.
Unable to meet their eyes, shame and self loathing flooding through his veins, Ezra kept his gaze locked on the amber liquid in the shot glass, slowly shaking his head.
"Why didn't ya tell us?" Vin whispered softly.
"The life of a con man is not exactly built on a foundation of trust." Standish sighed running his thumb over his bottom lip. "I didn't even know what happened until you told the healer...As far as I knew you may have been my attackers..."
"What do you remember Ezra?" Chris questioned softly. "Besides what ya conned JD into tellin' ya." His smile kept any reprimand from his voice.
"Being here before." Standish shrugged. "I dreamed about meeting you two in the saloon that time but nothing else."
"That why ya slept at the jail last night?" Tanner tilted his head trying to force the gambler to look at him.
"I didn't know where else to go." The softly whispered admittance sounded for all the world like that of a lost child.
"Take him to his room, Vin, I'm gonna go get Nathan." Ezra's head jerked up, his face paling as Chris pushed to his feet. Seeing the color drain from the gambler's face, understanding the silent almost desperate plea, the gunslinger gave the southerner's arm a gentle squeeze. "I think it would be best if we kept this between the seven of us for the moment."
Tanner slouched against the wall staring out the window, not really seeing the town residents hurrying to finish their daily business as the sun sank toward the horizon. Rather his troubled thoughts were on the man sleeping in the feather bed behind him.
Telling Inez that JD had locked Ezra's key in his room with his saddlebags, Tanner collected the spare from the barmaid and hurried to where Ezra waited as instructed on the second floor landing.
The tracker closed the door behind them, saying nothing as he watched the silent gambler move slowly about the room, examining the contents. His defenses down, Vin saw the emotions, the expression of raw hope that something...anything...familiar would bring back the memories he'd lost, clearly displayed on the southerner's handsome face.
Sensing Standish's tension, Vin remained close when Chris returned with Nathan, knowing only Larabee's stern intervention kept the healer from admonishing the con man about hiding the symptoms of the head injury.
Ezra sat on the edge of the bed his muscles taut as Nathan examined him, checking his eyes, casually asking questions, taking the opportunity as well to check the many scrapes and bruises that covered the con man's body.
Suggesting the gambler try to get some rest, stating he knew how much Ezra hated what he sarcastically referred to as Nathan's noxious concoctions, the healer assured him he'd be back shortly with something to help with the con man's headache.
The cardsharp had given them a small smile of appreciation when telling him they'd be right outside if he needed help, they'd given him privacy to wash up, surprised to find he'd changed into a nightshirt and was dozing off when Nathan returned. It was testimony as to how bad the gambler truly felt. He rarely went to bed until a few hours before dawn.
The man in the bed elicited a small moan as he sought a more comfortable position for his battered body. Adjusting the quilt as the southerner settled back into sleep, Vin took a seat in the rocker determined to stay, hoping to make his friend feel a little more secure in this strange world in which he was truly lost to himself.
"Well, Nathan?" Wanting to insure privacy, Chris waited to pose his question until they reached the jail where Buck, JD and Josiah anxiously waited.
"I don't know Chris." The healer ignored the chair JD offered, choosing instead to pace the floor, rubbing at the tight muscles in the back of his neck. "Even if I was a full fledged doctor I don't think I would have an answer for this one. You heard what I heard...He seems to remember things from his childhood but isn't sure if he even remembers what his mother looks like....He remembered coming to Four Corners...remembered the con he was running in the saloon when we all first met him but he doesn't seem to remember anything after that. I get the feeling though he didn't say it outright there are things before comin' here that he don't remember either."
"So he really don't remember any of us?" JD questioned, before adding quizzically, "But he called us all by name."
"Not really." Leaning against the cell bars, his arms folded over his chest Josiah studied the floor. "He called us all by our given names. That's somethin' Ezra rarely does."
"But he knew Inez." Dunne persisted.
"Maybe..." Buck slowly shook his head, recalling the previous evening in the saloon. "No,...no, Josiah called her name first...when he asked her to get him something to eat. Sonuvabitch! That's all the sneaky little bastard had to do to keep the con goin'...Wait for someone to call us by name."
"But he's gonna get it back right?" The youngest member of their band of misfits sought assurance from his older brothers. "I mean, he'll start rememberin' and-"
Nathan finally sank into the chair. "Since there's only a partial memory loss it could be just an effect from the concussion and once his head heals..." He shook his head. "Then again, he might never get it back."
"So we just tell him what's happened since we all first met." To JD the obvious answer was simple. "Maybe talkin' to him will help him remember."
"Could." The healer agreed.
"But you don't think it's a good idea?" Larabee probed, sensing the dark man's reluctance.
"It's not that."
"Than what?" The man in black persisted.
"If we talk to him about it...tell him about the time he's lost," Nathan was uncertain how to explain what it was he wanted to say. "It might end up confusin' him...It might make it hard for him to tell the difference between what he really remembers and what we told him. Sides ya all ought to know by now, no matter what we tell him, it may not be the way he saw or remembered the same thing..." he trailed off.
"Okay, so basically we just wait." Larabee growled, his frustration growing at being unable to help one of his family. "We sit around and do nothin'."
"No Brother." Josiah smiled. "We help him anyway we can with whatever he needs and...And we watch over him."
"Hey Pard," Vin sat down on the side of the bed hoping Ezra who was seated in the rocker would turn his attention from the window. "Wanna talk 'bout it?"
Other than taking his meals with the peacekeepers in the main floor of the saloon, Ezra had remained in his room the past two days, sleeping or simply staring silently out at the dusty street. Surrendering to Vin's urgings or perhaps his own need for a touch of freedom, after lunch the gambler had agreed to join the sharpshooter for a drink at the table outside the batwing doors.
The observant Texan hadn't failed to see the southerner tense each time someone approached and had unobtrusively provided the person's name by wishing them a good afternoon. As the afternoon progressed, each of the peacekeepers had visited with the gambler. Only Buck seemed not to have any trouble finding a topic of conversation that didn't revolve around the southerner's lost memories, expounding on his romantic exploits but while Ezra smiled, laughed or commented at the appropriate places, the gambler only appeared relaxed when in the company of Tanner or Larabee.
A lopsided grin appeared on the Texan's face everytime Tanner remembered the look of total astonishment on the con man's face when Billy and Emma accompanied by a large gathering of children surrounded the man's chair, each clamoring for his attention.
Vin couldn't be certain but thought he might have seen a flicker of recognition or perhaps remembrance in the emerald eyes when Emma had climbed into Ezra's lap as naturally as if he was her father, staring up adoringly at her friend.
The con man had entertained the children for several minutes with card tricks and tales of heroes and heroines before sending them on their way.
Little Emma was the last to reluctantly depart. Like a loving mother wanting to comfort her child, the blacksmith's niece had wrapped her small arms around Ezra's neck and placed a soft kiss on what remained of the knot still gracing the gambler's head. "Wuv you Mr. Ezwa."
The child didn't seem to notice but Vin did, that she received only a soft smile of confusion in response as she hurried after the others.
"I was considering the fact it might be in everyone's best interest if I tendered my resignation and relocated." The quiet words pulled Tanner's attention back to the man at the window.
"The hell it is!" Both men jumped, startled by the man standing in the doorway.
"I'm tellin' ya Granger, it was him!" The thin man paced the small campsite, needing a release for the energy caused by his anger.
"Ya sure?" The man seated on the other side of the fire questioned, his emotionless tone sending icy chills down the other men's spines. As if lost in his memories, his cold gaze never left the flames, the now forgotten bottle of whiskey dangling loosely from his hand.
"Ya think I could ever forget that sonuvabitch?" The first man growled, staring at his lifetime friend as if the man had just asked him if he wanted to have sex with his horse, before raising his mangled and nearly useless left hand. "Not likely I'll ever forget that bastard's face! I carry a constant reminder."
The other two men who made up the quartet of criminals exchanged worried looks. Both were hardened men who feared no one...except the man sitting silently staring into the firelight. They knew that expression...had seen it more times then they wanted to count. That look said someone was going to die.
As usual, Granger had sent Dix Donavon into Four Corners to check out the town before the little gang hit the bank. The leader always liked to know what he was facing and Donavon wasn't the type to draw unusual attention to himself. He had a knack for fading into the background and not being noticed, which allowed him to pick up pertinent information.
"Ya should a seen that bastard! Sitting at a table outside one a them saloons. Ladies smilin' at him, people noddin' and stoppin' ta talk like he was some damn respectable business man or somethin'." Donavon continued to rant. "I swear it was all I could do not ta pull my gun and send that black hearted bastard ta meet the devil in person right than and there....Figured you'd want that pleasure yerself."
"He see ya?"
Dix snorted derisively. "Course not." Taking the offered bottle, he swallowed several gulps, swiping a sleeve across his mouth as he sank to the ground beside his partner. "I want him dead Dan! I wanna watch him take his last breath while his blood soaks into the dirt. I wanna hear him beggin' for his life and then beg ta die...I want him ta suffer like we done."
"No more than I do." Granger stated bitterly. "Jimmy might have been your best friend but he was my brother and that no good sonuvabitch is the reason he's dead. He's the reason for your crippled up hand and the reason we spent them years in that hell hole they call Yuma prison." Giving his friend's shoulder a light squeeze, the smile didn't warm his voice or wipe the deadly intention from his eyes. "He'll pay! Gave you and Jimmy my word and I always keep my promises."
"Ya ain't goin' nowhere Ezra, except to see Nathan, so get that idea right out of those scrambled eggs you're using for brains at the moment." Larabee growled, kicking the door closed behind him.
Ezra had been lost in his own thoughts and Vin's attention had been so intent on his friend neither man had heard the soft knock or realized the door had opened until Larabee spoke.
"Pray tell, why would I need to see the illustrious healer. I dare say, while I appreciate the medicine he has provided for the headaches, there is nothing more he can do to help." Ezra sighed, absently massaging his temples. "As we are all well aware, time and only time will tell if this injury has caused a permanent loss of certain pieces of my rather checkered past."
"So ya figure if ya run you'll remember things?" Chris sneered, leaning against the door and folding his arms over his chest.
"I'm not running!" The gambler snarled, angry the gunslinger thought he was deserting them again. Again? Had he run out on them before? Damn! Why could he remember!
He calmed inwardly and responded, "I simply believe it would be in everyone's best interest if I were to move on."
"Why?" In the brittle silence of the small room, Vin's whispered question seemed to echo.
"As one of this town's peacekeepers I assume I share in the duties I have observed the rest of you performing...Riding patrol, assisting young JD at the jail and the various other responsibilities of a regulator?" The southerner turned his attention to Larabee. "Or am I mistaken in that assumption. Being a con man and a gambler it would be perfectly understandable if I were only allowed certain...tasks...such as joining you in chasing criminals rather than being trusted to guard the bank for instance."
"Ya do all the same jobs as the rest of us." Larabee stated brusquely. "Including guardin' the bank when necessary."
Neither man commented on the fact Ezra seemed momentarily stunned that they would trust a man of his dubious character to carry out the same responsibilities they, as honorable trustworthy men, performed.
"If in fact that is the truth," Standish inhaled deeply, determined to push aside the pain caused by his growing headache. "It is most imperative that I resign my position whether I remain in this municipality or leave. I know your very lives depend on being able to count on those you associate with and-"
"We always have counted on ya Ez." Tanner interjected quickly. "Ain't let us down yet."
"Thank you, Vin, although I find that statement somewhat unbelievable knowing myself as I do."
"I don't think ya really do know yerself Ez." Vin argued. "Even when ya are in yer right mind."
Ezra chuckled, wondering how he had earned such loyalty and wishing he could remember the time spent with the young Texan. "Be that as it may, you no longer have the luxury of that...dependability. I fear my present situation would put everyone in danger if trouble were to arise."
Neither man spoke, giving their friend the time he needed to gather his thoughts.
"You can understand what I'm saying can't you? I don't know anyone here...Well, hell, of course I do but....You know what I mean! What good would it do for me to ride patrol when I don't know who I'm supposed to be protecting...Suppose trouble were to arise how am I to watch your backs if I don't know the good guys from the bad. I could easily kill an innocent simply because I don't remember that they belong here." He glanced from one man to the other before resting his head against the back of the rocker and closing his eyes. "If I hesitated, trying to remember...one or more of you could die."
"Everything can be worked out Ezra. Hell, ya can ride patrol with me." Vin was quick to reassure him. "We didn't know most a the folks here when we first took this job and you're a quick learner."
Ezra shook his head, not opening his eyes. "Gentlemen, you're totally ignoring the facts-"
"Ya just trust your instincts Ezra." The gambler's green eyes snapped open at the gunslinger's words. "They've kept ya alive so far."
Wasn't that what he'd told himself on the trail.
"Not ta mention pullin' our asses outta the fire a few times." Tanner added with a grin. The tracker leaned forward resting his forearms on his knees, his expression becoming serious. "Ez, downstairs, with the kids...ya remembered somethin' didn't ya?"
Ezra's gaze focused once more on the growing darkness outside the window pane, his thoughts turning inward, trying to picture again the images that had flashed through his mind. "I'm not sure...I...The little girl..."
"Emma." Vin volunteered the name of the child who loved Ezra above all others except her uncle.
"Emma." Standish repeated as if testing the name, hoping the very name itself would bring forth missing memories. "I thought I remembered something about a...book..." He waved a hand in the air, metaphorically brushing aside the statement as unimportant.
"That's good!" Vin practically jumped to his feet, his bright blue eyes alight with happiness. "Ya been teachin' her ta read. Ya see Ezra ya are startin' ta remember. "
"Thank you Vin but I could simply have been-"
"Don't Ezra!" Chris ordered sharply. "Don't try to analyze it away. Don't think of all the things it could be. Simply let it happen." Larabee could see the pain in the emerald eyes that met his, certain the headache was growing worse, and was mixed with the uncertainty about the future. He crossed to the rocker, taking Ezra's arm and pulling the man to his feet. "It'll work out. Now let's go see Nathan and then we'll get some dinner."
"Thank you but I really don't require an escort." The gambler protested.
"You might not remember Ez, but there ain't nothin' wrong with our memory." Vin chuckled following the two. "Trust me, there's a reason, Nathan had Chris come get you."
After dinner and a few drinks, the gambler had retired to his room, surprised when Tanner had tagged along although his silent presence was an odd comfort to the gambler as he finally settled down to sleep.
Ezra sat bolt upright in his bed, gasping for air, his heart pounding wildly, a fine sheen of sweat covering his skin.
"It's alright Ez."
Startled by the unexpected voice in the darkness, Ezra jerked around grabbing for the gun laying on the bedside table. A lucifer flared, revealing Tanner's scruffy cheeks and worried blue eyes as the tracker lifted the glass globe on the kerosene lamp and lit the wick, turning up the flame.
Realizing he should have remembered the tracker had stated he'd remain nearby in case Ezra needed anything, the gambler flopped back on the pillows, struggling to get his emotions under control. Vivid images of the nightmare he had just escaped flashed before his eyes as he once again heard the accusations being voiced and felt the physical blows raining down on his body.
Rolling onto his side, his back to the ex-bounty hunter, Ezra pulled the blanket to his chin attempting to hide his trembling from the observant eyes of the sharpshooter, who seemed to have taken up residence sleeping on a bedroll in the gambler's room.
The Texan's soft drawl sounded quiet in the stillness. "It was just a dream."
"It must be fuckin' wonderful to be so damn certain of everything." Ezra snapped, instantly regretting the sarcasm. "I'm sorry. I-"
"No need." Vin sank back down into the rocker. He'd been awakened by the gambler's small moans and barely audible mumblings just seconds before Standish had cried out. "Ya think it might be caused by somethin' yer rememberin'."
"Hell, I hope not."
Tanner had to strain to hear the soft words as tossing aside the blankets, Ezra crossed to the dresser and ignoring the glass, took a long pull from a bottle of whiskey he'd purchased the previous day.
"Talkin' might help." Vin had seen the trembling of the hand that gripped the bottle, wishing for some way to comfort his friend
"I greatly doubt that." Ezra kept his back to the tracker. How the hell was he supposed to tell this man who probably had never done a dishonorable or dishonest thing in his entire life of the dreams that haunted his sleep. Dreams of Emma sitting on his lap by the creek, hidden from view. Dreams of the little girl, holding onto him, kissing him just as she had that afternoon. How was he supposed to face the disgust when the sharpshooter learned the accusations and punishment doled out by the irate townspeople was well deserved.
Were they only dreams or actual memories? How the hell was he supposed to know the difference between the two?
The gambler didn't want to believe he would ever do anything to hurt a child but...his dreams indicated otherwise.
He took another long swallow, feeling the fiery liquid burn its way down his throat.
"Know yer scared Ez." Tanner's rough voice was soft, as he moved to lay a gentle hand on the gambler's shoulder. "Only a fool wouldn't be...Wish I could promise ya, ya was gonna remember everything and was gonna be happy with everything ya do remember but I can't...No one can. I can promise ya one thing though..." He felt the southerner tense at his touch and knew the man was forcing himself not to pull away. "I can promise ya we'll all be right here to help ya through it."
The con man didn't resist as Vin recorked the bottle and calmly steered him back to the bed, taking a seat beside him. "I can promise ya a couple more things Ez....I can promise ya that nothin' ya ever tell me will change our friendship...And I can promise ya that in the time I've known ya...ya've never ever done anything ta be so ashamed of ya couldn't talk ta us about it."
"You might be surprised." Ezra stared at the floor blinking away the wetness which filled his eyes, recognizing and deeply touched by the sharpshooter's sincerity.
The gambler found a small smile. "I do so love that word."
Tanner caught the flash of a dimple, as the sad smile crossed the gambler's lips. Certain the gambler needed to talk about the nightmare that plagued him, and with a fairly good idea what that dream might entail, Vin made a quick decision and pushed ahead. "The dream was 'bout little Emma weren't it?"
It was a long moment before the gambler finally nodded.
Vin sat in silence as taking a deep breath, the gambler described every detail of the dream, pacing the room, occasionally raking a hand through his sleep tousled hair in agitation.
Winding down, he faced the quiet Texan who had sat so still and silent during his testament. "So tell me Vin, do you honestly believe you can be friends with someone so...depraved...so perverse...as to..."
Tanner finally moved stopping Ezra as the southerner once again reached for the bottle on the dresser. "You're wrong Ez! Ya never done nothin' ta hurt Emma. Never done nothin' ta be ashamed of. Ya treat her like she's a person instead someone's property and ya been teachin' her ta read. Should be proud not ashamed."
The southerner growled still not seeing the truth Tanner was painting for him. "So rather than actually being a vile twisted individual who does such debase things I only fantasize about them." His voice dripped with sarcasm. "What a relief."
Ezra turned away, swiping at the tear that escaped as shame washed over him.
"Shut the fuck up Ezra and listen ta me!" Grabbing his shoulders, Tanner forced the con man to face him, barely stopping himself from shaking some sense...or memory...into the southerner. "This is a good thing. It means yer startin' ta remember...Ya just got the facts all twisted up."
Seeing the hope clearly displayed in the emerald eyes, Vin loosened his grip giving the cardsharp a lopsided grin and leading the man back to the bed for a second time. "Get comfortable and I'll tell a bedtime story."
Tanner had watched, seeing Ezra's doubt and self loathing slowly give way to relief as the sharpshooter related the events which the con man had relived in his nightmare. Vin knew Nathan didn't want them telling the gambler anything about his stay in Four Corners, afraid it would only confuse the wily con man but this was different.
Vin couldn't and wouldn't let the man continue to believe himself to be as vile and contemptible as his nightmares indicated.
Thankful for the contented expression on the gambler's face as Ezra let sleep reclaim him, Vin turned down the lamp and ignoring the bedroll settled into the rocker to watch over his friend, prepared to chase away or do battle with any other demons that might decide to visit.
Chaucer nickered, leaning into his owner, his velvety nose nuzzling the pockets of the gambler's jacket searching for the sweet peppermints Ezra usually hid there.
"No more today my friend. You've had quite enough." Standish smiled, giving the animal a pat, replacing the curry brush in the tack box. "Wouldn't want you losing your fine figure."
Ezra had ridden patrol with Tanner that morning but had graciously declined the invitation to accompany the sharpshooter to Miss Netties, not certain he could handle meeting more people he was supposed to already know.
Needing time alone, and sick of sitting in his room, Ezra had made his way to the livery and spent the last hour brushing down the only creature he remembered truly trusting. His movements automatic, the con man had let his mind wander, concentrating on fleeting images only to have them slip away without giving him any real answers.
Discouraged the gambler sank onto a bale of hay in the livery's darkest corner and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes wishing fervently something...anything...would happen to bring his past back into focus.
Ezra had never believed in luck, insisting a person could manipulate any situation to their advantage but somehow he couldn't help but smile, thinking Dame Luck, fate or whatever a person chose to call the powers that be, had finally looked favorably on him when leading him to this dusty little town in the middle of nowhere.
From what he'd been able to discover in the past few days, he'd found something more valuable than any fortune he or even Maude could imagine. He had found people who truly appeared to care about him. Honest men who seemed to accept him for who he was and offered him friendship without expecting anything in return.
Ezra couldn't help but wonder if he had used his considerable skills to con these men into believing he was worthy of their trust. Was he, in fact, really after some hidden asset the town had to offer as he had first thought?
It disturbed the gambler to think he might simply be doing what he had always done so well, running a con and fleecing the town for the monetary gain.
"Here Chaucer, I bwought you a pwesent."
The gambler opened his eyes at the small voice, but remained silent and motionless, watching as Chaucer delicately took the apple the child offered. Quickly consuming the treat, the horse dipped his head nuzzling the little girl as she stroked his long nose.
With a bright smile, her enormous eyes lighting up with happiness, Emma rushed to the corner where her friend sat. "Mr Ezwa! You feelin' bettah?"
"Yes, young lady, thank you for asking."
"I bwought Chaucer a apple Mrs. Potter gived me when I finished sweepin' the walk in fwont of her store. I twied to give her part of my nickel for it but she said it could be a pwesent fwom both of us." The child chattered happily as she scrambled up onto the bale snuggling close to Ezra.
The gambler didn't remember seeing Emma, her sad eyes admiring the various colorful items the Mercantile had to offer. He didn't remember having Mrs. Potter offer to pay the six-year-old a nickel a week for sweeping the walk in front of the store. Nor did he recall that nickel was one he provided.
He didn't remember how proud he'd been of the child when her uncle had bragged how she had offered him her hard earned nickel to help with their expenses, rather than spending it on candy or something for herself and how when he gently refused her offer, she had began saving the precious coins in a old can she kept under her bed.
"It had a bad spot but she cut it out for me cause I was afwaid it would give him a tummy ache." She explained.
Ezra nodded in approval. "That was very considerate of you. I'm sure Chaucer appreciates the thoughtfulness."
"She gived me this book too. Said her kids done readed it and I don't even have to give it back. I asked her if there was a stowy about Apwofite in here but she didn't know who that was so I told her what ya said 'bout how Aprofite was a beautiful lady and all the men falled in love with her."
Staring down into the child's angelic face, he inwardly sighed. 'That goddess is going to find herself with some serious competition when you grow up.'
"How did you huwt your head Mr. Ezwa?"
"I fell down during the earthquake."
"Oh...That scared me silly." Emma stated empathically, shuddering with the memory. "The buildings was shakin' and one of the twees by the cweek fell down. Uncle Amos is choppin' it up for firewood."
"Earthquakes are very scary." Ezra agreed.
"Bet you wasn't scared." She declared confidently.
"My dear, never bet unless it's a sure thing." The gambler advised with a grin. "I was scared silly!"
The little girl giggled as he repeated her statement.
Ezra was surprised to hear his own soft laughter mix with her giggles. Perhaps, like JD, this child could provide some of the answers, the gambler needed. Ezra understood Nathan's reluctance in letting the others tell him about his time in Four Corners. He knew the healer was right but while the intensity of his headaches had lessened, so far very little other than this child had jogged loose any memories at all.
He listened as the child chattered on, responding appropriately when necessary, his questions leading the child down memory lane, smiling as she unwittingly told him about the people of Four Corners and the six men with whom he worked.
"Mr. 'Siah and Mr. Nathan went to the Indian village to make sure nobody got huwt by the earthquake. Mr. 'Siah said I could go sometime when Uncle Amos goes. I ain't nevah seen a weal indian have you?"
A myriad of images flashed before the gambler's eyes. Men in gray uniforms. Native women and children screaming in terror as cannonballs exploded around them. Sweat streaming down his face as Nathan worked to help the injured. Blood dripping from shackled wrists. Angry hazel eyes.
'Don't ever run out on me again!' The words rang through his mind, jarring him.
He had run out on Larabee and the other men, leaving them to their fate. Left them to die. He remembered riding away, hearing the attack. Oh God! What kind of man was he that he had turned his back on these men who considered him a friend. He had turned his back and ridden away without a backwards glance, leaving those men...those same men who now rallied around him...to face overwhelming odds. He nearly gagged on loathsomeness as he realized he'd been willing to let the children die, children he had played with and entertained, children who looked up to him, just as little Emma was doing now...He had abandoned them all, willing to let the invaders destroy the village to satisfy their own greed, killing the six noble men who had struggled to save it.
"Ya okay Mr. Ezwa?" The little girl tugged on one lapel, drawing his attention. Emma gently pat his cheek. "Ya look like ya wanna thwow up. Are you sick? Want me to run and get Mr. Nathan or Mr. Chwis?"
He shook his head. No, he didn't need those men. All he needed was a bullet to put through his brain but he was too much of a coward to put everyone out of their misery.
"I'm fine." He lied, rubbing a shaky hand over his face. Seeing the child's worried expression, Ezra forced a smile. He wanted nothing more than to slink away and crawl under a rock where he belonged but deep inside he knew Tanner would track him down and Nathan and Chris would lecture him...Certain he could do nothing to cheer himself , he realized he could brighten the little girl's day. "You know what would really make me feel a lot better?...Hearing you read a-"
"I'm tellin' ya Shorty I got a bad feelin' 'bout this. If we had any brains, we'd say ta hell with Granger and that fuckin' bank and just keep on riding."
Ezra put a finger to his lips, and sank back into the corner's darker shadows, certain the child would remain silent as the two men set about saddling their mounts.
"You really want that insane bastard huntin' ya down? Ya know he would and it wouldn't be pleasant!" The one called Shorty questioned. "'Member what happened when he thought Clem was back talkin' him?...Gutted the poor sucker like a fish and I tell ya he's gettin' crazier by the day!"
"Ya ain't lyin'! Hell, he don't give a damn about the money no more...All he's thinkin' about now is revenge pure and simple. We go along with it, we might as well just pay the undertaker now. Make sure we got a decent spot in the graveyard." The first man tightened his saddle cinch. "We gotta be as crazy as he is ta go along with this."
"Way I see it, there's four of us and only one Lara..." The voices faded as the men led their horses from the stable.
Waiting a few moments longer, to be assured they wouldn't be seen leaving the livery, Ezra lifted the child and settled her feet on the ground, grasping her shoulders to get her full attention. "I have a very important job for you Miss Emma."
Ezra rapidly saddled Chaucer as the child hurried from the barn and in short order the gambler was following the two men from town, staying far enough behind the riders to keep them in sight while appearing to be casually traveling the same road.
He shook his head, not quite believing his actions. 'What the hell's the matter with you Standish? Have you completely lost what little was left of your mind? You're following two men who according to their own words are on their way to meet a mad man.' his inner voice castigated. 'Why?'
He didn't want to analyze the reasons he had saddled Chaucer and immediately set out on the trail of the two would be criminals. He didn't want to think he was attempting to make some sort of amends.
He could never redeem himself for that earlier act of desertion but he knew he would do everything possible to prevent the death of even one of the men who had looked past that loathsome cowardly act and offered him aid...and friendship.
It had been instilled in Ezra since birth to look out for number one at all costs. The gambler never intentionally hurt anyone except in self defense but he refused to apologize for living. And he refused to owe anyone a damn thing.
The way Ezra saw it, he was paying off a debt. Nothing more.
Knowing the gambler had turned down Vin's invitation to visit Miss Nettie, Chris had been alarmed to find Chaucer's stall empty when he returned from the afternoon patrol. Not finding Ezra seated at one of the gaming tables and certain the con man had taken seriously Nathan's threat to tie him to the bed in the clinic if he caught him up on the roof, the shootist started up the stairs to check the gambler's room.
Larabee halted half way up the stairs. From the other side of the batwing doors Wilmington motioned the gunslinger outside. The womanizer's voice gave no indication of anything out of the ordinary but Chris had known him long enough to read every nuance of Buck's body language. Something was definitely wrong.
Wilmington had already taken a seat at the table on the boardwalk when Chris pushed through the doors. Seeing Emma standing with Sanchez and Dunne, the man in black forced a casual expression as he approached them.
Buck nodded in the little girl's direction. "My little injun here has been lookin' all over town for Vin."
"Told ya afore Mr. Buck, I ain't no injun." Emma giggled as the big man lifted her up and settled her on his knee. Her expression grew serious as she wiggled back to the wooden planks and prepared to hurry away. "I gotta find Mr. Vin! I'm 'sposed ta tell him somethin' 'portant!"
"He should be back soon Emma. He went out to see Miss Nettie." Chris squatted on his heels in front of the child. "Can you tell me what you need to tell Vin?"
Seeing the smiling Sanchez look away Larabee pressed his own lips together in an attempt to hide his growing amusement as Emma contemplated his suggestion, rubbing a thumb over her lower lip in a perfect imitation of her hero.
She slowly shook her head. "I don't know. Mr. Ezwa said I was 'sposed to tell Mr. Vin."
"Did he say you couldn't tell us?" Chris questioned softly.
She looked down at the boardwalk and scuffed her toe the against the wood. "No, he just said ta tell Mr. Vin-"
"Speak of the devil." Dunne commented as the tracker rode down the street.
"Mr. Vin ain't no devil!" Emma empathically protested JD's statement stomping her small foot.
"That's just a expression, my little injun." Buck chuckled. "It means there's Vin now." He pointed to where Peso cantered in their direction. "As our resident gambler would say his timing is impeccable."
Emma dodged around the men running to meet the tracker who easily swung her up onto the saddle in front of him giving her a ride back to where the others waited.
She was chattering excitedly as Vin dismounted and carried her to the table. Gently lowering her into one of the chairs, the tracker looked at the others in bewilderment. He squatted on his heels in front of the little girl. "Start over Emma. Tell me exactly what he said...Slowly."
Seated on the edge of the chair, she took a deep breath giving them all a look of exasperation. "Mr. Ezwa said to tell ya he'd be back as soon as he could but no matter what ya was ta watch out for Mr. Chwis."
"Where did Ezra go Emma?" Larabee attempted to keep the alarm from his voice, afraid it would only frighten the little girl.
"I don't know but I think he was chasin' those two men."
"What two men?" Chris questioned brusquely.
"The men fwom the livewy who was goin' to meet the insane bastawd that gets cwazier evewy day."
Buck spewed the swallow of his beer to keep from choking and Sanchez gave a barely perceptible shake of his head, silently telling the impatient gunslinger to let Tanner handle it.
"This is very important sweetie." Vin kept his voice soft, holding the child's attention. "Can ya tell us exactly what happened in the livery?"
"We was visitin' Chaucer and I was gonna wead Mr. Ezwa a stowy fwom my new book...Mrs. Potter gived it to me."
Vin chewed his lower lip. "Sweetie, can ya tell me what the two men looked like?" He questioned hoping to keep the child on track.
"I couldn't see them but I was weal quiet like Mr. Ezwa wanted so I heared them weal good."
"And what did they say?"
Her face scrunched up in fierce concentration. They all knew Emma's memory was damn near as good as the gambler's...when he had his memory...having heard her repeat Ezra word for word before.
"The first man told the one called Showty if they had any bwains they'd say ta hell with Gwanger and the bank. Showty asked him if he weally wanted the insane bastawd huntin' them down and guttin' them like a fish just like he did Clem for back talkin' him." Emma suddenly looked ashamed, her eyes darting to each of the men. She'd been so determined to answer Vin's question it only just occurred to her Uncle Amos would punish her for some of the words she'd repeated. "I said bad words didn't I?"
"It's alright Emma. Nobody's mad at you." Vin reassured her.
"But Uncle Amos said I ain't 'sposed ta say those words and Mr Ezwa says pwoper ladies never use..pwo..pwo...pwofanity."
"That's true Emma but I promise your Uncle Amos and Ezra will understand this time." Chris smiled reassuringly. "What else did the men say?"
"I didn't hear the one man's name but he said all Gwanger was thinkin' bout was wevenge and if they went along with it they might as well pay the undertaker now for a decent spot in the cemetawy."
"They got that right." Wilmington mumbled, drawing a dark look from Vin who was urging Emma to remember more.
"Do ya know why Ezra said I should watch out for Chris?"
"I didn't hear weal good but when they went away Showty was sayin' somethin' 'bout four of them and only one of him...and it sounded like he was sayin' Mr. Chwis' name...his other name...I think he was." She looked hopefully at the peacekeepers seeking their approval. "Did I do good?"
"Ya did real good sweetie." Tanner grinned. "Just one more question and then I want ya to scoot on home okay?" He waited for her nod. "Do ya know which way the men went?"
"I didn't see them go but Mr. Ezwa went that way." She pointed to the end of the street opposite Vin's arrival.
Giving her a quick hug, the long haired man set her on the ground telling her to hurry home before her uncle began to worry and promising to bring Ezra by for some Lemonade.
With a bright smile, the little girl skipped down the street towards home. No one spoke until she was out of earshot.
Chris focused on Vin. "Ya think she got everything right?" He needed assurance from the man who knew the child almost as well as Ezra did.
"Emma's sharp as a tack." The tracker nodded. "If she said that what she heard, than that's what she heard."
Larabee chewed his lower lip and looked off in the distance, hoping to see Standish riding back into town. If the child was right...."We gotta assume they're plannin' on hittin' the bank. JD, you, Buck and-"
"I'm goin' with you Pard!" Wilmington interrupted, his expression telling Larabee that ordering him to stay behind was pointless.
"I'll get Brother Nathan." Sanchez nodded. "The three of us will be able to handle things here till ya get back...Just find that stubborn southerner and bring his sorry ass home in one piece."
Nodding, Chris turned to the silent member of their group. "Vin?"
"Depends on how fast they's travelin' and how far out they are." Tanner answered the unasked question. "Can't say we'll catch 'im but might get mighty close before we lose the light."
"Then let's ride."
Catching the faint smell of burning wood, Standish left Chaucer tied out of sight and moving as silently as possible slowly worked his way through the thick underbrush hoping to get close enough to the campsite to hear what was being said without being seen.
"The bank shouldn't be to much of a problem. Sheriff is some snot nosed kid what don't look like he's old enough ta know one end of his gun from the other."
Ezra froze, surprised by the voice that was only a few feet from his position. He recognized the voice as belonging to the man called Shorty.
"Forgettin' about his six friends ain't ya?" The other man from the stable sneered. "Most a the town is pretty tight lipped but 'ccordin' ta the talk in the saloon, there's six other men who help protect the town...hired by some uppity judge."
Knowing there was every chance he'd be discovered, Standish carefully parted the brush wide enough for a quick glance hoping to see the face of the man who was so determined to kill Chris Larabee.
The gambler's emerald gaze settled on the person directly across from his position. A stocky man with salt and pepper hair as long as Tanner's, a pock marked face and emotionless eyes. This was Chris' would be murderer.
Ezra could easily understand why the other men feared him. Evil seemed to radiate from the man like heat waves in the desert. This was plainly a man whose soul had died long ago.
'Granger.' Wasn't that the name spoken in the stables.
"Some damn fool easterner dubbed that sorry lot the magnificent seven." The man continued. "Says they're the toughest men in the territory."
Granger gave a derisive snort. "What would some citified dandy know about tough?"
"Heard a them!" A thin man with a large mustache which made his face look skeletal beneath the scraggly beard, absently rubbed at the twisted fingers on his left hand. "Heard they took out Top Hat Bob and his boys."
"Then they did everybody a favor. Saved the world from havin' ta listen ta that blow hard brag. Man talked to damn much!" Granger glanced at the man with the mangled hand. "What else did ya find out when ya was there?"
He trusted the man who'd been at his side most of his life. Shorty and Cotton were alright both having proved their mettle but neither of them had Donovan's knack for scoping out a situation, hearing things that weren't spoken. Cotton squirmed as the older man studied him. The kid was always nervous before a job but this was somehow different. He actually looked as if he wanted to run.
"Nothin' much. 'Sposed ta have some kinda hot shit sharpshooter 'mongst 'em."
"Gotta make sure we take him out first." Granger ordered. "That'll be your job Shorty."
Ezra's green eyes flashed. 'Over my dead body!' He silently vowed.
"Ain't one of them the fella Jake Cole talked about?" Donovan questioned, his brow furrowed.
"Who gives a damn!" Granger snarled coldly. "Ain't none of 'em gonna be breathin' soon!"
Ezra felt as if he'd been kicked in the stomach by an angry mule and all the blood in his veins had suddenly turned to ice.
On his hands and knees, unconcerned with the damage being done to his clothing, acting purely on survival instincts, Ezra silently backed away from his hiding place.
Certain he was far enough from the campsite not to be observed, Ezra forced himself to stand on legs that felt made of water and dragging in deep ragged breaths, he stumbled back the direction he'd come, trying desperately to escape the vivid memories and visions which were rolling through his mind at the mention of Cole's name.
Even pressing his hands to his ears, the con man couldn't block out the sound of Catherine's screams of terror or her little daughter's sobs and pleas. He couldn't stop hearing the sounds of insane laughter and lewd comments or the promises of what was going to happen to him when they finished with the females. He could still hear Jake Cole's promises of revenge as they had dragged the sadistic outlaw and his twin from the courtroom.
Ezra stumbled as he physically flinched feeling each blow delivered by the outlaw's large fist. He could still feel the knife blade slicing through his skin, could still smell the stink of his burnt flesh, could still feel the blood draining from his body from the bullet wounds inflicted by the madman.
'Sam Cole was dead and Jake is spending the rest of his life in prison. He can't hurt you! He can't follow through with the threats he made. He can't put you through the torture his brother made you endure. He can't!'
His back braced against a tree, certain without its support he'd crumple like a dilapidated barn in a tornado, Ezra silently repeated the mantra fighting to push the memories to the darkest corner of his mind where he'd kept them hidden for so long.
'Pull yourself together Standish! Those men back there want to kill your friends. Falling apart isn't going to do anyone any good.'
Ezra didn't know how much time had passed before he finally regained control of his emotions and once again made his way to where Chaucer waited, tiny shivers racing through his body, the only remnants of his mental turmoil.
The last golden glow of the day was fading from the sky and the shadows had lengthened blending together into a light blanket of darkness when gathering Chaucer's reins Ezra slipped a foot into the stirrup.
"Find out anything interestin'?"
The derringer jumped into his palm before Ezra recognized the barely audible drawl behind him. Slipping it back into place he concentrated on keeping his voice level as he turned to face the sharpshooter.
"Quite a bit in fact, none of which would have been of much use if you'd stopped my heart." He smiled turning to face Tanner. "You really should learn to give a person some warning instead of cat footin' up behind them."
Ezra was a master at maintaining a poker face, rarely giving anything away and anyone but the sharp eyed Texan would have been fooled by the relaxed stance and easy smile of the man before him but Vin had spent too many years making a living and staying alive by reading sign. He simply stared at the gambler who tried not to fidget under his somber gaze.
When the Texan remained silent, Ezra nodded toward the trail. "Might I suggest we depart?"
Vin nodded moving as silent as a shadow to where Peso was tied a few yards away. As he gathered the leathers, he turned to look back at the gambler who had already mounted. "Ya know Chris is ready ta wring yer neck don't ya?"
"Most certainly but there's no need to worry about such things until we return to town."
Vin swung up in his saddle and reined Peso along side the gambler's mount staring intently at the man. Something was different...'His eyes!'
There wasn't a hint of the mischievious glint which normally twinkled in the gambler's emerald eyes. Granted the last few days those eyes had been filled with pain, or worry more often than not but Ezra always seemed to find something amusing in anything less than the most horrendous situations. This was different...This was fear...Stark unadulterated fear.
"Actually him and Buck are waiting down the road a piece." Tanner grinned at the softly utter curse that accompanied his statement.
The seemingly endless ride back to Four Corners was made in tense silence, Larabee's glare silencing every attempt Standish made to explain his actions.
Ordering JD, who hurried from the saloon to greet them, to take the horses to the livery and find Nathan, the gunslinger had practically yanked Ezra from Chaucer's back and fiercely gripping the gambler's arm in his iron grasp had literally dragged the smaller man through the saloon's batwing doors.
Ignoring the curious looks of the other patrons Larabee shoved the con man into one of the chairs at the peacekeeper's usual table.
Larabee held up a hand demanding the gambler's silence, and snatching the bottle of whiskey from Josiah's hand as the big man approached, he took a long pull of whiskey before filling the empty shot glass on the table.
"Chris I..." Ezra's words trailed off at the stern hazel eyed glare he received.
The other's watched in barely controlled amusement as tossing back the shot, the shootist concentrated on getting his anger under control.
"I really must-"
"Shut up! Just shut the hell up!" Larabee growled, rounding on the gambler. "What the hell were you thinking? What the fuck could you have possibly been thinking?!"
"I-" Ezra again started to explain, only to be interrupted by the older man.
"Keep your damn mouth shut! I don't want to hear it! Did that bump on your head knock loose what little sense you have? What in hell possessed you to go chasin' off after those fools by yourself!"
The southerner sat up straighter, attempting to pull his dignity about him. "I felt it was a matter-"
"I don't care what ya felt!" Larabee bellowed.
The few customers decided it might be in their best interest to call it a night or take their business elsewhere as Larabee's palm slapped the table, causing the glasses to jump. Hurrying past the sheriff and Nathan as they pushed through the doors, the residents breathed sighs of relief that Larabee's wrath wasn't aimed at them.
Chris never saw those patrons escape as he continued to shout at the gambler. "Didn't I tell you to shut up? Was your selective hearing attached to the piece of mind ya've lost?"
Settling into the empty chair on Ezra's left, Vin gave the gambler a light nudge, stifling a lop sided grin as the gambler rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"He was worried about ya Pard." Only Ezra heard Tanner's softly whispered words as Chris continued to yell.
"Why didn't ya come find one of us? We're a team Ezra! We don't take on enemies or possible enemies alone!"
Standish didn't move, didn't so much as blink when Chris suddenly leaned forward almost nose to nose with the gambler, his voice low and deadly.
"Ya damn well better get this through that thick skull a yours...We face trouble together Ezra! Just like we did the Nichols family and Guy Royal, Top Hat Bob and every other asshole who's come lookin' for a fight. We faced 'em together Ezra...Together!" Driven by his own anger at the gambler for putting his life at risk, Chris didn't care that he was doing exactly what Nathan had advised against.
The name jarred visions and Ezra's thoughts turned inward as flashes of memory danced through his mind. A family dressed in mourning clothes...A iron carriage...Josiah's grunt of pain as the bullet buried itself in his leg...JD, bloody and beaten. He flinched, his ears ringing as the room seemed to explode around him.
Ezra blinked rapidly glancing at the tracker who was gently shaking the gambler's shoulder.
"Of course." He nodded, seeing the sharpshooter's disbelief clearly expressed in the blue eyes.
"Then answer my damn question!" The man in black insisted.
'Question?...Chris had asked him a question...Oh hell....'
"Please make up your mind Chris. Either you want me to keep my mouth shut or you wish me to answer your questions." The gambler quipped hoping to cover his temporary lack of attention. "As talented as I am, even I, unfortunately am unable to do both simultaneously."
Unable to control his laughter but determined to keep his old friend from strangling the cocky con man Wilmington jumped up placing both large hands on Larabee's shoulders pushing the livid gunslinger back down in his chair. He forcibly held Larabee down as he turned to the gambler. "C'mon, now Ez, what'd ya find out?"
Giving the jovial ladies man a slight smile of gratitude, Ezra nodded. "There appear to be four men who came to this municipality with the express purpose of robbing the bank. From the little I was about to overhear I would venture to say those plans haven't changed...just been slightly amended." The con man hurried on before they could question his odd statement. He saw no reason to cause them further distress by divulging Granger's hunger for Larabee's death since he, himself, had no intention of letting the man satisfy his appetite. "Unfortunately, I didn't hear when they had planned this sojourn into crime but I have the distinct impression the man leading the small group doesn't have the patience of our own esteemed leader."
Sanchez and Wilmington roared with laughter, Buck slapping Larabee on the back as Vin, JD, and Nathan showed the good sense to choke back their own amusement.
'Smart ass...Now that sounds like our Ezra.' Chris didn't really care if they had a laugh at his expense as long as it meant the gambler was returning to his normal obnoxious, pain in the ass self.
Larabee directed a less than effective glare at the men seated around the table, each of them recognizing the relief in the hazel eyes. "If you think you can get yourselves under some sort a control, it might be a good idea to lay out some plans. I don't think McMurtry would be too happy if we let these fools saunter off with the bank's money and I for one don't feel like chasin' 'em all over hell."
"Why don't we just go out and arrest 'em." Dunne suggested.
"Because they ain't done anything illegal yet." Buck thumped the youngster on the back of the head. "Just cause yer the sheriff don't mean ya can throw people in jail for what ya think they're thinkin' about doin'."
"Huh?" The sheriff stared at his friend, momentarily confused by the statement. "Well ya can sure bet this probably ain't the first crime they've committed." JD retorted indignantly, straightening his hat. "Most honest people just don't sit around talkin' about robbin' a bank."
"He's got a point Buck." Nathan commented wryly. "Course you got a point too but if we knew who we were up against we might be able to find something in the wanted dodgers at the jail."
"Ezra's seen 'em!" The youth turned excited eyes on the gambler. "Ya did see 'em right?"
"That I did JD."
"Than you might recognize someone if they was on a poster."
"It's a possibility." Standish agreed. "However I think Chris has something more immediate in mind."
Just over an hour later the peacekeepers had laid out the plans for the protection of the town and its resident's money.
"If you gentlemen will excuse me I'm a bit tired and since I'm to relieve Nathan at jail the later tonight I think it would be prudent if I retired for the evening." Standish pushed back from the table.
"Ezra?" Josiah stopped the gambler as he started for the stairs. "What'd ya mean when ya said their plans had been amended?"
"The man...Granger...I would hazard a guess that even more important to him than absconding with the bank's funds is..." The southerner hesitated a fraction of a second, "killing Chris Larabee."
Seeing the bedroll in the corner, Ezra turned the key again, unlocking the door he'd just locked. Although he wanted to be alone he wouldn't deny the Texan who'd shown him nothing but kindness and concern a place to sleep or at the very least his bedding.
Removing his jacket and weapons, Standish hung the Colt revolver on the bedpost, laid the Remington on the bedside table and slipped his derringer under the pillows before stretching out and closing his eyes.
Taking several deep breaths he concentrated on emptying his mind of the disturbing images which had begun to plague him since his talk with Emma.
He needed to be sharp when the peacekeepers took on Granger and his men and for that he needed sleep.
The lawmen had decided since Ezra was the only one who had seen the men they would be up against, he was to be stationed at the table outside the saloon where he could see both ends of the street as well as the bank itself. When he recognized the would be robbers, a signal from him would alert the others.
He had fervently hoped Larabee would be tucked away in a position behind some solid barrier where he would be safe from flying bullets and Granger's searching eyes but that wasn't to be. Seated in front of the jail with JD, the stubborn gunslinger would be right out in plain view when the outlaws rode into town.
It wasn't that Ezra didn't believe Dunne wouldn't be able to back up the gunslinger and the southerner was certain the young sheriff was damn good with those guns he wore, after all he was still alive, but no matter what, Ezra vowed to himself he would keep the Hoosier in sight at all times. He'd made a promise to himself and he damn well intended to keep it.
The gambler finally dozed off, unable to shake the uneasy feeling he had missed something vital but with his thoughts still in turmoil, he finally surrendered to exhaustion.
"Damn! Sometimes I think I'll never figure that man out." The healer stated angrily as the gambler disappeared from view. "Takes off after people who'd probably kill him as look at him if they caught him spyin' on 'em and then makes a statement like that just as if he was talkin' about the weather. Hell, ya think he coulda told us that right off someone was gunnin' for Chris."
"He did." Buck jumped in, receiving a nod of approval from Tanner. "That's why he had Emma tell Vin ta watch out for Chris."
"He knows we watch each other's back." JD's expression clearly said that was common knowledge.
"Our resident scalawag knows that but this Ezra couldn't be sure." Josiah sighed drawing looks of confusion from everyone but Vin. "This Ezra has lost most of the time he's spent with us. Right now, we're dealing with the same Ezra we first met two years ago. The gambler who wants to believe there are people he can trust but isn't quite able to get past a lifetime of teachings. He's the con man who learned the hard way, and more than once I might add, most people have a tendency to look out for themselves when facin' any kind a trouble."
The regret in Nathan's eyes was enough to tell the tracker and preacher that even the healer hadn't thought about the gambler's memory loss.
"He's startin' ta remember." Tanner's soft comment drew everyone's attention. "He remembered something when Chris was chewing his ass...Saw it in his eyes...Wasn't the first time either."
"Ya sure?" Nathan pressed. "If you're right then it's a good sign. It could mean he'll eventually remember everything."
Vin shook his head, his azure eyes sorrowful. "Can't help but wonder if he's rememberin' anything good...Ya should a seen him when he got back ta Chaucer...Looked worse than if he'd been told he could never make another bet the rest of his life." Tanner couldn't remember ever seeing such raw fear on the gambler's face before. "Whatever it was he remembered, it weren't good. We need to talk ta him Nathan. He needs ta know about the good things he's done."
"He's right." Consumed by the rage flowing through his veins at the thought of what could have happened, Larabee hadn't noticed the color drain from the con man's face but re-playing the scene in his mind, the gunslinger was certain the sharp eyed Texan had seen what the rest of them had missed. "Besides, I don't think I'll survive knockin' down those walls a his again." Larabee groaned, eliciting smiles from the other men.
"Might not be so hard this time." The ex-priest shrugged. "We have the advantage this go round...We've learned to read a lot a his tells."
"And we know the man he's hidin' behind those walls." Nathan added, "even if I sometimes suffer from amnesia when it comes ta rememberin' the goodness and carin' in him."
As the men finally disbanded heading to various locations, Vin didn't want to leave either the gunslinger or the gambler alone while he was on duty at the jail with JD. He had no doubt Wilmington would watch over his oldest friend just as he always had which would undoubtedly lead to an argument when Chris insisted he didn't need a bodyguard...Perhaps....
"Gotta feelin' Ez's in for a rough night." Tanner pretended not to see Josiah's small wink as he rose bidding everyone goodnight. Vin knew the preacher would gladly stay with the man he'd come to think of as a son but hadn't failed to notice the gambler, at this time, felt a sense of security with Tanner and Larabee. "Might make it easier if he weren't alone."
Sanchez paused by the swinging doors long enough to hear Chris agree to sit with the southerner. The priest caught Tanner's eye and gave him another wink. 'He'd be proud Vin. Yer damn near as devious as our conniving con man.'
"Ezra!" Shaking the southerner, Larabee grunted in pain as a fist connected with his stomach. Gripping the thrashing gambler's wrists with one hand, Chris whispered an apology before delivering an open handed slap to the southerner's cheek. "Ezra damnit wake up!"
With a sharp gasp, the con man jerked upright, dragging in great gulps of air, his green eyes frantically searching the room, coming to rest on Vin's unused bedroll in the corner.
"It was just a dream Ezra." Larabee awkwardly rubbed soothing circles on the man's back as Standish struggled to rid himself of the clinging nightmare. "It was just a dream."
"Vin...Where's Vin?" When the gambler finally managed to speak, his southern drawl was thick and unrefined, his voice full of panic. "Where is he!" Sheer terror filled the choked words.
"He's at the jail with-"
"No!" Pushing the larger man aside, Ezra grabbed the holster from the bedpost and tripping over his boots, fumbled to fasten the belt around his lean hips as he rushed for the door.
"Stop Ezra!" Reaching over the smaller man's head, the gunslinger slammed the door as Standish pulled it open. Grasping the gambler's shoulder, Chris spun the gambler to face him. Desperate to escape, Ezra attempted to throw a punch in his direction. In defense, not wanting to hurt the con man, Chris pinned Standish's arms against the door. "Vin's fine and you-"
"No!" Panic washed the man's face out to a stark while, his green eyes wide with fear. "C-Cole...hurt him...have-"
"No Ezra...Listen to me." Chris tightened his hold on the struggling man. "Vin's fine...Listen to me Ezra. Cole's dead! You killed him!...You hear me?...You killed Jake Cole. He can't hurt you or Vin or anyone else!...He's dead!"
Shaking his head, his struggles to escape growing weaker, Ezra searched for the truth of his words in Chris' worried face.
Ezra shuddered, his words slurring as he questioned, "D-dead?...He's dead?"
"Yes Ezra...You have my word." Larabee nodded, leading the gambler across the room and gently pushing him down into the rocker. Pouring a shot of whiskey from the bottle on the dresser he shoved the small glass into the con man's trembling hand.
"He okay?" Wearing only his pants, his shirt hanging open, Buck stepped quietly into the room. Worried about both men, Wilmington had spent the night in Molly's room, resisting temptation and simply holding the woman while she slept, alert for any trouble from the gambler's room.
Both men were startled when dropping the glass the gambler rushed at Buck, ripping the man's shirt wider and staring aghast at the barely visible remains of what could easily have been mistaken for dozens of tiny scratches covering the womanizer's broad chest and shoulders.
"Wa-wasn't a dr-dream." The betrayal in the green eyes was apparent as the gambler swung around to face Larabee. "You said-"
"I told you the truth Ezra...It was just a dream..." The gunslinger dropped his hands when Ezra flinched away, stepping closer to Wilmington.
Confused, Buck slipped a comforting arm around the gambler's shoulders, gently steering Ezra back to the rocker. "Chris wasn't lyin' Ez...He'd never lie ta ya...Ya've said yerself, lots a times, he's too damn honest for his own good." Stooping in front of the chair, he picked up the dropped glass and pressed it into the southerner's hand when the gunslinger had refilled it. "Drink it Ez." He guided the hand to the con man's mouth, smiling when Ezra tossed back the drink before leaning back, letting the liquor warm his insides and calm his nerves.
"Talk to us Ezra. Tell us about the dream." Chris coaxed.
Ezra shook his head, closing his eyes as a flash of panic crossed his face.
"It'll help Ezra. I promise." The southerner jerked away as taking a wash cloth from the stack of bath items on the top shelf of the closet, the gunslinger wet the rag and gently wiped the gambler's face. "I think you're havin' these nightmares cause you're startin' ta remember."
It was several minutes before Ezra felt in control enough to once again face either these men or the images that tormented his sleep and still lingered at the edges of his mind.
Exchanging sorrowful looks, Chris and Buck listened as Ezra described visions of Buck laying in a alley while Jake Cole sliced him up like bacon, and of Chris, bleeding to death on the boardwalk in front of the mercantile. The gambler fought to control his ragged breathing, the details becoming more vivid and graphic as he spoke.
Gagging, he rushed from the room, dashing down the back stairs, barely making it to the alley before the pitiful stomach contents spewed into the dirt. The dry heaves became more intense as realistic depictions flashed before his eyes...Tanner, his limp bloody body tied to the cell bars...of Chris carrying the half dead tracker from the jail,...of the gentle sharpshooter laying so still and death like in Nathan's clinic.
Standish was unaware of any other presence until his knees buckled and strong hands grabbed his arms supporting him and keeping him from crumbling to the ground.
"Buck, go get Vin." Larabee ordered, turning the compliant gambler back toward the building. "I think Ezra'd feel a lot better if he sees for himself that he's okay too."
His arms folded over his chest, Chris leaned against the wall, feeling awkward and uncertain how to comfort this man who was usually so stubbornly independant he railed against any form of assistance and was now so desperately in need of it.
No matter which Ezra they were dealing with, the gambler would be embarrassed by what he would only perceive as a weakness on his part.
With his back to Chris, clutching the windowsill as if it were a lifeline that would keep him from drowning, the southerner stood letting the cool breeze wash over him, as minute tremors still racked his body.
Ezra, had been raised never to trust anyone and to look out for himself above all others no matter the cost. It had been preached to him by Maude and rammed down his throat by life that caring for anyone other than himself was the worst possible sin, leaving him vulnerable and unprotected. Now totally unprepared, Ezra was confused about the emotions overwhelming him.
The southerner was aware he wouldn't be feeling these emotions if he'd followed the rules laid out for him from the time he was old enough to understand. These six men should be nothing more than mere acquaintances. Simply associates he worked with only to achieve a common goal.
So why should these nightmares he was experiencing upset him so? Why should he care if Jake had taken his hatred out on Wilmington or Tanner or attempted to kill Chris? What was it to him? They were just acquaintances, associates and nothing more weren't they? Why should the mere thought of any one of these men suffering or dying twist his stomach into knots of agony?
The southerner might not believe it but Chris understood exactly what the con man was suffering. With the death of his family, he, himself, had vowed never to allow anyone to get close enough to care about or grieve over when they were gone. He'd pushed Buck as far away as possible, turned his back on everyone else and searched for solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Yet, fate had intervened and like Ezra, he had found himself surrounded by six men who had crept into his soul, bringing him laughter, loyalty, friendship and love.
He knew Ezra, like himself, was wondering how he'd come to care so deeply for the six other misfits who protected this small corner of the territory. He knew every nerve, every instinct, every fiber of the con man's body was screaming for him to run. To run fast and far, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the hurt that caring about these men could inflict. And Chris was certain the gambler was wondering when he had developed a conscience, knowing the gambler would never admit to himself, he'd always followed that small voice in regards to others...even those he was conning.
The gunslinger almost missed the quiet question which barely carried on the soft breeze. He crossed to stand beside the con man who hadn't turned from the window, neither man aware the sharpshooter had slipped into the room.
Neither man was aware when the cat footed sharpshooter slipped into the room.
"Why what Ezra?" Chris questioned.
"According to JD, I've been here just over two years and you think these...dreams are caused by the return of my lost memories." Ezra pried his hands from the wood rubbing the circulation back into the white knuckles. "If that is indeed the case, then it would seem I have brought about nothing but pain and disaster to the residents of this fair town as well as those of you who fight to protect it."
"That's bullshit!" Larabee growled. "Ya ain't-"
"Thank you but history seems to be calling you a liar." Standish interrupted, with a small smile of derision. "You see, if these memories of mine are accurate than your crude denial is simply a waste of breath. So that only leaves the question as to why you've permitted me to remain."
Forcing himself not to jump to the con man's defense, Tanner remained silent, waiting for the shootist's answer. They had all laughed at how Chris and Ezra often mixed like nitroglycerin and convulsions, but there was no doubt in any one's mind, except perhaps the con man's, that Larabee cared about the southerner just as deeply as he did the other five or that Ezra would give his life to protect the shootist.
"Answer a question for me...Why have ya stayed? There's got to be better pickin's elsewhere." Larabee pressed. "So what holds ya here Ezra?"
His troubled emerald gaze still locked on the darkness beyond the window, Ezra worried at his bottom lip with his teeth. "That particular memory continues to remain elusive. I can only ascertain there is something worth great value in this dust bowl."
'Ya got that right Ez.' Tanner dropped his own gaze to the floor. 'It's called family. Somethin' neither one of us has ever knowed too much about.'
Standish briefly glanced in Larabee's direction, his expression remarkably like that of a small boy begging for desert, his voice softly hopeful as he questioned the hardened gunslinger. "Do you know what the answer to that particular question might be?"
"Sure do." The Hoosier grinned momentarily before sobering. "Don't know what all you're rememberin' but I can tell ya that whole business with Jake Cole was more our fault than yours." Chris ignored the ungentlemanly snort of disbelief elicited by the gambler. "Ya told us he wanted revenge and we did everything short a holdin' ya at gunpoint ta keep ya here. Truth is we didn't listen to ya...but in our own defense all we wanted to do was just protect ya the only way we knew how...And if need be, we'd do it again."
"That is totally illogical!" Ezra flared, rubbing at the tense muscles in the back of his neck. "I deserted you...All of you! I remembered that! I left ya ta die at the hands of a crazed mad man who was willing to wipe out an entire village of innocent people to satisfy his own greed-"
Chris shook his head. "I've told ya before, it's time to let that go. Ya come back and saved our asses. That's all that matters ta us." Chris braced a shoulder against the wall, staring at the gambler's profile, pretending not to see the shame etched on the younger man's handsome face. "Ya know I never asked why ya left, cause I really didn't give a damn-"
Ezra refused to meet his eyes as he snorted sarcastically, "I would think the answer to that is quite obvious...Cowardice. Plain and simple."
"Not true." Larabee shook his head in denial. "I might have thought so at the time but a coward wouldn't have come back. I never asked why ya come back either...Like your reason for leavin', I didn't really give a damn. Still don't wanna know but I've had a lot a time ta think about it...Ya gotta know, if ya hadn't left, you would have been caught right along with the rest of us and we'd all be just as dead as if ya'd kept ridin' so I've said it before and I'll keep sayin' till ya have it memorized, it's time ta put that behind ya."
"Pray tell, other than amnesia how do you suggest one forgets they're a coward?"
"Ya ain't no coward Ezra. Ya can be an smart mouthed, irritating, cocky little bastard but ya ain't no coward! Ya realize how much courage it took to not only return but to stick around and prove time and again that we could trust ya?" He stopped any protest the gambler was about to make with a glare. "Takes a helluva lot a grit to stand your ground and put up with some of the shit we've dished out. We've all given ya an awful hard way ta go sometimes...cept maybe JD...and Vin...I don't think either of them ever had any real doubt about you."
"Our young sheriff is still very naive and has a tendency to see the good in everyone whether it's actually there or not." Ezra sighed.
"Vin's not naive and he's a damn good judge a character." Chris quietly pointed out.
"Which only proves that I am indeed a master at the craft of deception." The gambler smiled. "While you have taken responsibility, however misplaced, for the atrocities Jake Cole perpetrated upon yourselves, that still doesn't explain why you allow me to stay. Especially after such disasters as what happened with the Nichols."
"That wasn't your fault Ezra...Damn boy! What the hell else have you figured out wrong?" Larabee scrubbed a hand through his hair. "The Nichols come here lookin' for my father-in-law. Hell if wasn't for that fool stunt a yours, which by the way, I never got around ta chewin' your ass out for, we would have been in even more shit than we already were."
Chris took a step closer to the gambler, glad to see the man didn't flinch or back away from him. "Ya done a helluva lot a good in the time ya've lived here Ezra but to answer your question...You're a part of us...You're a member of this team...But most importantly, you're a friend Ezra and the only person that runs off one of my friends is me!"
Vin opened the door far enough for it to make a noise when he re-closed it drawing both men's attention, smiling at the relief that washed over Standish's face as the gambler scrutinized him from head to toe.
"Everything okay?" he drawled softly.
"Reckon we need ta get some of the things Ezra's rememberin' straightened out a bit." Larabee gave the tracker a small wink, wondering just how long the Texan had actually been there. "But I think it can wait a bit till he gets some more sleep."
"Good idea." Tanner agreed, moving to spread out his bedroll on the floor. "Got a good three hours afore time ta relieve Nate. He just showed up and Buck's taken over for JD."
"Ya gonna be okay?" Chris asked softly as Ezra moved back to the bed, certain arguing with his two guardians would do him no good at all and equally certain attempting sleep was a complete waste of time.
"I'm fine." Ezra forced a smile but the gratitude in his voice was sincere. "Thanks Chris...for everything."
From his position behind the roof sign on the building beside the bank, Tanner gave a quick glance checking the street below, his azure gaze resting briefly on the man seated in front of the saloon.
Ezra, his legs stretched out in front of him, the heel of one boot resting on the toe of the other, was casually shuffling the deck of cards appearing for all the world as if, without a care, he were simply lazing away a summer afternoon.
It was a far cry from the previous night.
Without a word, Tanner had joined the man sitting on the porch roof outside the window of his room.
Using the saloon wall for a backrest the gambler sat with his arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the countless stars, a picture of loneliness and despair. Apprehension surrounded him as thick as the cloak of darkness.
Tanner quietly cross legged beside the silent southerner, content to simply be there if his troubled friend needed to talk.
While Ezra seemed to be studying the twinkling lights in the black sky, Vin had studied Ezra.
It was a paradox, a word he'd learned from Ezra, that while everyone assumed because Vin normally kept his thoughts to himself, he didn't enjoy the frivolous conversation often carried on by the wily gambler. The truth was the sharpshooter received a great deal of pleasure out of the time he shared with the southerner. Ezra was intelligent and humorous with a sharp tongue to match his sharp wit and the ex-bounty hunter liked hearing the cardsharp describe the many different places he'd been, the things he'd seen and done.
As a child Vin had learned early on the value of listening. He'd discovered almost immediately that Ezra talked to hide his insecurities but he'd also found that hidden in the seemingly inconsequential prattle was enough information to give him a great deal of insight into the complex con man.
Normally, the southerner's handsome face and emerald eyes were a study of expressiveness. Like Larabee he could speak volumes with a single look but being a gambler Ezra was a master at maintaining what they referred to as his poker face. The observant sharpshooter knew the secret to discovering Ezra's true thoughts was not only to listen but to watch closely for the most meager signs before Standish was able to slam the expressionless facade into place.
Not a word had passed between them until Ezra announced it was time he relieved Nathan and telling Tanner the feather bed was much more comfortable than the hard floor had climbed back through the window.
Vin stepped back out of sight, leaning against the sign and adjusted his hat to shade the sun. He knew when Ezra's memory returned completely....if Ezra's memory returned completely, the gambler would find he wasn't the despicable depiction of self serving evil he believed himself to be. He would discover that he had friends and family and might even find a minute thread of hope that Four Corners was perhaps a better place because he called it home.
Even as the thought entered the tracker's mind, his inner voice was denying it. 'Nope! Ain't no way in hell Ez will ever believe that! At least he'll never admit it...even to himself. He'll find a way ta make the good things sound selfish on his part.'
Oh he'd proclaim it long and loud for anyone who'd listen how much better off they all were because of his presence but it would be nothing more than a show. A con. A con perpetrated on himself. A wish...a statement he wanted for all the world to believe!
The sharpshooter made another sweep of the street, checking everyone's positions.
Vin couldn't help but wonder if Ezra didn't recover all of his memory if they would ever again truly have the friend they'd lost. Would Standish ever really feel comfortable with them again or would everything be an act? Could they make him realize that his lost past had little to do with the man they considered a part of their family? Could they make him see that his missing memories had nothing to do with the caring, whimsical, cynical, optimistic, self serving, generous, stubborn, pain in the ass person they'd all come to recognize and admire?
Tanner released a weary sigh, scrubbing a hand over his scruffy face. He missed the smart assed barbs, carefree laughter and the fun the two of them had as they rode patrol together. He missed the twinkle in the emerald eyes when Ezra deliberately pushed Larabee to the limit of his patience. He missed the man fussing over clothes as fancy that were as his vocabulary. He missed the gambler's plots and constant get rich quick schemes. Although he rarely joined in, he missed listening to the philosophical discussions between Josiah and Ezra around the campfire or over a drink in the saloon.
He missed watching Buck trying to decide if certain remarks leveled by the gambler in his direction were thinly veiled insults. He missed Ezra unobtrusively trying so hard to disprove Nathan's pre-conceived ideas about him. As much as he hated to admit it, he even missed the con man's cynicism, the half hearted whining and the expected complaints as Ezra played his role to the hilt.
Vin missed his friend.
Unable to shake the feeling he'd forgotten something important, something which had nothing to do with his lost memories, Ezra casually shuffled the cards, taking in everything going on around him. He could see Chris and JD sitting on the bench outside the jail, wondering what the young sheriff was chattering about and how close Larabee was to gagging him...'No, only the gambler brought about that desire in the gunslinger.'
Buck lounged against a porch post in front of the mercantile, Josiah sat whittling on a stick in front of the telegraph office as if waiting for a wire and Nathan was casually braiding a rope halter near the livery. To the peacekeepers' the town's main street was busy, people going about their business unaware of anything out of the ordinary.
The gambler smiled seeing Vin peek down at him from behind the business sign. The smile turned to a frown when the weary tracker scrubbed a hand over his face. He had to wonder if the Texan had slept at all the previous night.
Ezra hadn't been surprised when the sharpshooter had followed, shortly after he'd crawled from his bed and slipped out onto the roof. Tanner had said nothing, his presence a simple reassurance that nothing was going to harm the gambler if he could prevent it. An affirmation of friendship. He was there if the gambler needed to talk.
With his mind in turmoil, Ezra had locked his gaze on the stars overhead as image after image flooded his mind, some bringing strong memories, others accompanied by nothing but more confusion.
One overwhelming question kept jumping to the fore of his thoughts. What would he do if his memory never completely returned? How could he stay here? His livelihood as a con man and gambler brought about all breeds of enemies. His way of life meant being on alert for those seeking to retrieve their money, usually in the most painful means possible. How could he remain here when he wasn't able to remember who might be seeking revenge? Of course, the other side of the coin was how could he leave when he couldn't remember who might be seeking revenge.
His survival instincts said it was better to stay where he had the help and the protection of the other men rather than taking a chance on running into someone he didn't recognize in another town without anyone to back his play or watch his back.
He glanced at the soft spoken man beside him. Staying in Four Corners meant putting Vin, Chris and the others in danger. Taking a chance with his life was one thing but even he wasn't low enough to endanger the men who as far as he knew had shown him nothing but kindness....At least he hoped he would never sink that low.
Chris had told him he'd done a lot of good things since coming to Four Corners and while Ezra wanted more than anything to believe the man, his upbringing, his history and his knowledge of himself proved that statement less than credible.
He was a con man. Had been a con man since he was old enough to follow his mother's instructions. He did nothing without a guarantee of monetary gain. Benevolance was not a part of his character. So what monetary reward was he seeking by remaining in Four Corners? What had he done to earn the friendship offered by the honorable men who risked their lives to protect this town and it's citizens from people like him? More importantly what did they expect of him? What price were they asking for that friendship?
What was the cost? Maude had always told him everything and everyone had a price. Having never experienced comaraderie before...and probably never would again once he left this place...he just wasn't up on the going rate of friendship.
The gambler's gaze was drawn to the roof across the street. What was the going rate for friendship? He wanted to believe Vin and the others were exactly what they appeared to be...good, honest men who expected no payment for something they offered so freely. Did they truly believe he was worth even a minimal investment?
Ezra glanced at the large preacher seated in front of the telegraph office, slivers of wood falling to the boardwalk as he worked on the whittling in his huge hands.
Chris didn't want anyone working alone until this situation was under control so Josiah had joined Ezra for his turn at the jail. As Standish had searched through the wanted posters looking for a likeness of the men camped outside town, the ex-priest had talked about the seven men's time together in the dust covered western town, sounding for all the world as if he were telling his son a great tale of wonderous adventure.
There was a touch of admiration in the big man's voice when he had described in detail the 'fool stunt' Chris had referred to concerning the Nichols. As he had rambled on about the various incidents, Ezra hadn't been certain which was more of a shock, hearing he'd actually stepped in front of an assassin's bullet to save Mary Travis or Sanchez's obvious fatherly pride as he had spoken of the incident.
Thoughts tumbled through his scrambled mind in confused disarray. 'Okay Ezra, according to these men and the vague flashes of memory, your return to the Indian village was a factor in the success of that venture. You've clearly put your life in danger more than once for these men and the residents of this town. Why?'
'What have you gained? What is it you're after? There was no gold mine at the village as rumored. From what ya've seen the last few days, the assayer's office isn't booming with business which indicates a severe lack of precious metals anywhere in the area. The people in this western burg appear to be farmers, ranchers and small business owners. The kind of people who seek a better life on the frontier than the one they've left behind in thriving civilizations. So what is it that holds you here? What has such value you've apparently abandoned your previous lifestyle to stay here?'
Ezra sighed taking a sip of the warm beer. It was the same questions he'd pondered last night without success. The answer,...the reason...still mockingly eluded him.
Perhaps, the only way he was going to find the answer to that particular quandary was by asking his mother. He knew Maude had to have a strong reason for not finding a way to force his defection. Would he have told her of the prize to be had? Would he have trusted her not to cheat him of what he'd worked so hard to achieve?
How many times in his life had she proven true to her nature and betrayed him to satisfy her own needs? How many times had she left him high and dry to sink or swim as best she could? Damn bump on his head must have done more damage than he thought...He was mixing his metaphors.
How many times had his mother run out on him, leaving him to fend for himself? How many times...?
A small smile touched the gambler's lips. To say their relationship was unconventional would be the biggest understatement in history. True they did love each other in their own unusual way. He actually admired Maude. She was intelligent, sneaky, conniving and stubborn. With a strong mind and stronger will, she knew what she wanted and went after it without hesitation, letting no one, including her son, stand in her way.
How many times had she turned his life upside down stating his need for a lesson to keep his skills sharp? It was almost a game of one upmanship between them. A game he sometimes enjoyed but rarely won. He understood her desire to keep him on his toes. He'd always had exceptional talent and while she wouldn't admit it to him, he'd once overheard her tell an associate Ezra was the best she'd ever seen.
What she couldn't understand was that while he played her games, wanting to make her proud, the only thing he'd ever really wanted was her unconditional love. Of course that was something he would never admit to her.
Still she vexed him. She had cost him his dream of owning his own saloon. Of course he'd gotten a bit of payback when he'd arranged her temporary stay in the jail for theft.
She'd cost him....
Her stay in the jail!
Dimples deepened in the gambler's cheeks as his smile spread. No one had told him about that. That memory had surfaced on its own.
Still smiling, he cut the cards bringing the Ace of Spades to the top of the deck. Maybe things would indeed return to normal.
Across the street, his gray eyes twinkling, Josiah stifled a grin of his own. With a soft whistle and barely perceptible nod the preacher drew Buck and Nathan's attention to the gambler.
Smiles at passers-by became brighter as the friends watched the solitary gambler's grin widen, his eyes on the card he pulled from the deck.
Blue eyes shone and a slow lopsided grin graced the Texan's handsome face as he watched Ezra pull the card from the deck, instinctively knowing it was the Ace.
Maybe things would be getting back to normal after all.
Ezra glanced at the two men who loosely hitched their horses to the rail near Josiah. Their hats pulled low to shade their faces against the bright sun and prying eyes, had prevented a decent look as they passed by but he would have bet every dime he had the smaller man was one of the two he'd followed from the stables.
He watched as the men stood just a moment, their gazes raking over the town, hesitating slightly as they came to rest on Larabee seated on the bench in front of the jail.
He didn't fail to notice the one outlaw's barely perceptible nod and following their line of sight, found himself closely studying the man leaning against the wall of the gunsmith's shop.
Ezra had seen the man arrive in town a half hour earlier, the apparent errands that brought him to Four Corners keeping him at a distance. Wanting a better look at the man who supposedly had business in his town, Ezra tucked the cards into his pocket and strolled down the boardwalk.
Forcing himself not to give Granger a second glance, his heart racing, the con man continued past the man he recognized as the leader. Stopping in front of The Clarion, Ezra adjusted his hat before picking several invisible pieces of lint from his jacket sleeve, knowing the six men would recognize the signal.
As the two newcomers entered the bank, the regulators began clearing the street of its citizens, their smiles, hushed words and the polite tips of their hats appearing casual but sending the innocents scurrying for cover.
Knowing Chris expected him to be in position and not wanting to alert the would be criminals, Standish dropped a coin into the basket and pulling a paper from the stack beside the newspaper office door, moved back toward the saloon, once again unable to shake the feeling they were missing something.
Something wasn't right about the whole situation. He knew it as surely as if it were written in the bold printed headlines of the paper he carried.
Three! There were only three men. Where the hell was the fourth?
Ezra's emerald gaze frantically raked the street searching for anyone who didn't belong.
Remembering the conversation in the stables, he considered it possible the fourth man had forfeited his life to the mad man's insane wrath but quickly discarded that idea. Granger knew about the peacekeepers who watched over the dust bowl known as Four Corners and while he may be insane Ezra didn't think he was stupid. He couldn't believe the man would cut his odds of success by eliminating one of his own men before the job was completed. Afterwards, was another matter all together.
Mentally running the overheard conversations through his mind at lightning speed seeking a missed clue, the gambler searched the street again seeing his fellow peacekeepers bracing for the possible conflict, each of them in a position where there was close cover.
Ezra saw Vin kneel beside the sign, bringing his rifle to his shoulder, sighting on the man who still remained in front of the gunsmith's. Granger's hand rested casually on his sidearm, the emotionless eyes on the bank across the street.
"'Sposed ta have some kinda sharpshooter 'mongst 'em."
"Make sure we take him out first."
The conversation leapt into Ezra's mind and nearly staggered him with the realization.
Dropping the paper, Ezra rushed into the middle of the street, his eyes scanning the rooftops as the two men hurried from the bank, clutching their money stuffed saddlebags.
He heard Wilmington warn the men to drop their guns and suddenly the air was filled with gunfire.
He didn't hear Larabee and Josiah shouting for him to get his ass to cover as unable to spot the man he searched for, the gambler turned and rushed down the alley.
"What the hell's he doin'?! Gonna get his self killed!" Nathan shouted to Josiah, surprised to discover the thought Ezra might be running out on them again wasn't even a consideration. The healer dove for cover as a bullet buzzed past his ear.
The outlaws had both retreated back inside the bank, firing from the door and now shattered window, hoping to catch the lawmen in a cross fire with their leader who no longer stood in front of the gunsmith's.
"Where the hell is he?" Buck yelled, motioning toward the empty walk.
"Shit," Josiah cursed, quickly reloading. They had hoped to keep all the men in sight, believing Ezra's ascertions their ultimate goal was Larabee's death.
Vin dropped flat against the sun baked shingles almost losing his hold on his Winchester as a bullet slammed into the wood sign next to his head.
Realizing the shot had come from behind him, the sharpshooter rolled onto his back automatically bringing the rifle around in time to see a stranger topple from the roof of the building across the alley.
He grinned as with a two fingered salute and quick smile, Ezra scrambled to the edge of the assayer's office roof and dropped to the ground.
Turning his attention back to the street, quietly cursing that his target had disappeared, Vin lithely moved across the rooftops, as gracefully as if he were on solid ground, working his way to where Chris and JD had now taken up position, exchanging shots with the desperate criminals.
"Ya ain't goin' nowhere so you two might as well give it up." JD yelled out to the men holed up in the bank. "Prison's a whole lot better than dead."
"Been there...Ain't goin' back!" One of the two responded sending a bullet in the sheriff's direction. "Got us a couple a hostages...Let us outta here and they live."
"Don't think so." JD grinned. They knew the only people who'd been in the bank during the robbery were the bank owner and teller. "Nobody likes ol' banker McMurtry anyway...On the other hand they do like Jacob so iffen ya hurt him most likely they'll string ya up without so much as a trial."
Buck's chuckle mixed with the sound of shell casings bouncing at his feet as he reloaded the weapon's six chambers. "Boy's learnin'."
His head jerked up as Nathan released a sharp short whistle. Following the direction of the healer's gaze, he glimpsed Ezra cautiously moving to the back of the bank
"Crazy sonuvabitch!" With a fairly good idea what the gambler had in mind, the womanizer signaled Nathan and quickly ducked into the alley.
Buck threw his hands into the air as Ezra whirled, the gun he'd holstered jumping into his hand with amazing speed.
"Damn good way to bring about your untimely demise Buck." The southerner whispered, dropping the weapon back into its holder and turning his attention once more to picking the lock of the door that led directly into McMurtry's office.
Weeks earlier, the peacekeepers had all stated their opinion concerning the banker's sanity when McMurtry had installed the door leading from his office into the alley. Everyone had laughed when the heavy set man responded with his reasons for wanting the exit, saying it would allow him to work late without everyone thinking the bank was still open to the public and would be an easy route of escape for the tellers and customers in case of a robbery and unless used for that reason, the citizens wouldn't even know the door existed.
"Hell, McMurtry, person can't take a piss without have the whole town knowin' about it." Josiah's unexpected comment had set off another round of laughter.
McMurtry had sneered in derision when Ezra pointed out it would also allow anyone with criminal intentions unseen access.
"Ezra's right," Larabee had announced, his gaze settling on the arrogant banker who regarded the gambler with open disgust, "cause I ain't riskin' the lives of my men sending them down a dark alley in the middle of the night ta rattle a door handle that don't need ta be there in the first place."
Jacob had told them, McMurtry had fallen into the habit of using the door if he had to leave during business hours but always kept it locked and never failed to place the heavy wooden bar across the entrance before leaving at the end of the day.
With Wilmington watching his back, it was only a matter of seconds before the knob turned and placing the small piece of metal into his vest pocket, Ezra once more drew the colt.
Ezra froze, his hand on the knob, as with that familiar move and memory, others suddenly flooded his mind. Two years worth of memories. Two years worth of arguments and laughter, gunfights and pracitcal jokes. Two years of suspicion and building trust. Two years of family and companionship.
"Ya okay Ez?" The whispered question pulled him from his powerful reverie.
'Never better Bucklin! Never better!'
With a silent nod to Wilmington, he eased open the heavy door an inch at a time, both men trying to hear over the gunfire for any sound that someone who posed a danger to them might be waiting in the small back office.
Vin dropped to one knee, bringing the rifle to his shoulder. Positioned on the roof across from Larabee and JD, he sighted down the barrel slowly swinging the Winchester in an arc as he searched for the fourth man...the one Ezra believed intended to kill Chris.
Damnit where was he?!
Taking a deep breath, concentrating only on the job at hand, Tanner again swept his eagle eyed gaze over the street below, peering into every dark corner, doorway or alley. Any place a person could remain concealed.
He wouldn't fail. He couldn't fail! His friends were counting on him. Ezra was counting on him!
While the southerner hadn't voice his intentions, Tanner knew without a doubt, Standish had intended to stay close to Larabee. He had put those intentions aside to keep Vin from harm.
It wasn't that he didn't trust JD, it was just a need in the gambler to protect them all, especially the one in the most immediate danger. The man he respected above all others. It wasn't something he would admit or even openly recognize but they all saw it and knew it for what it truly was. They had all caught glimpses of the true man hiding behind the walls Ezra firmly held in place.
The sharpshooter wondered if Ezra appreciated the irony that without his memory he was acting purely on trust alone when dealing with any of them. Ezra Standish, gambler and con man raised to look out for number one, to always do what was in his best interest, always needing to know what was in the game for him, raised to never need or depend on anyone, raised to relying only on himself had placed his life and his trust in six men he could barely remember meeting. Six men he needed as much as they needed him.
Vin realized it said a helluva lot about the man himself. With no memories of the time they had all shared, the gambler trusted...one small part of him had pushed through the darkness to remain when he had lost everything else. It was almost too ironic...Ezra P. Standish who trusted no one, had placed his trust in six strangers.
"Give it up boys! Ya got nowhere to go!" Josiah's deep voice resonated through the bank as Ezra, and Buck silently stepped from the back office.
McMurtry cowered in the corner remaining where the gunman had ordered their hostages. Jacob having sense enough to make himself as small as possible knowing bullets were indiscriminte about their targets, didn't have the look of fear worn by his boss, confident the peacekeepers would effect their release.
The older of the two outlaws stood to the side of the open slightly ajar door, the younger one crouched at the corner of the window where he could see both the street and the hostages. The bulging saddlebags lay on the floor between the two men.
The young teller dropped his gaze to the floor, quickly hiding his smile as the womanizer and gambler stepped around the teller's cage, understanding when Standish placed a finger to his lips signalling silence.
"We got all the advantage here." Josiah continued keeping the men's attention focused on what was happening outside. "Food, water, plenty of ammo and all the time in the world."
"And that much time...Yer gonna be to busy explainin' ta these fella's families how come they're dead." The older outlaw shouted back.
"I don't think that's going to be necessary gentlemen."
Both men whirled at the lazy southern drawl, the man at the door bringing his gun around, his finger tightening on the trigger. Buck yelped as the bullet cut a shallow path along his upper arm, the gunslinger's own bullet hitting its mark dead center, knocking the man through the door and out onto the boardwalk.
"Ya really wanna do that?" Ezra questioned as the younger man's face drained of color, his own tightly clutched gun in his hand pointed at the southerner. The kid who didn't seem much older than JD looked turned green as he listened to his friend's dying gasps. This was something he hadn't anticipated. He'd known it was a possibility, especially on this particular job but had let Shorty and his fear of Granger override his common sense. He suddenly felt like he was going to puke any second. "Do the smart thing, boy,....stay alive."
Buck waited, watching the indecision play across the outlaws features, praying the youngster wouldn't cause the guilt Ezra would feel at having to kill him. He released a breath when the man finally made his decision, slowly laying the weapon on the floor and using one finger to push it toward the hostages.
The womanizer's soft sigh of relief was short lived, the men inside the bank, jumping as the sound of a rifle shot came simultaneously with that of a six gun, followed a second later by several more shots.
Ezra groaned aloud ignoring Buck and their prisoner as he rushed for the door, leaping lightly over the body of the dead outlaw and running in the direction of the jail.
Wilmington's heart dropped to the wooden floor and shoving the remaining bank robber toward Jacob with orders to watch him, he moved quickly for the door, hearing Larabee's shout for Nathan.
Ignoring the dead body laying at the corner of the jail, Buck pushed through the gathering crowd, relief washing over him at the sound of JD's grousing at Nathan to quit fussing.
"I just bumped my damn head is all. Stop pickin' at me!"
Vin came up beside Buck, who leaned against the hitching rail as relief washed over him. The tracker leaned close whispering in his ear and the gunslinger's chest swelled with pride as the Texan told him how JD had seen the assassin at the same moment as Tanner. The man's gun was pointed directly at Larabee's back and the sheriff having already holstered his weapon when the outlaw Buck had killed fell through the door of the bank, had tackled Chris knocking them both out of the line of fire, banging his head against the wooden bench in the process.
"What'd ya do, boy, trip over yer own damn feet?" Buck grinned as he moved closer and caught the youngster's dark eyes with his own.
"Hell no, I-" JD stopped, a pink blush tinging his cheeks. He wasn't about to say he'd saved Larabee's life in front of all the town's people. It would sound like bragging and he wasn't about to crow about doing something, Larabee or any of the others would have done for him.
Wilmington helped the sheriff to his feet, draping his good arm around the young man's shoulders. "Ya did good kid."
JD's bright smile faded quickly replaced by worry at the blood dripping from Buck's finger tips. "Looks like ya got a real patient here Nathan."
Ignoring the womanizer's protests, the sheriff and healer ushered the big man inside as Chris, Vin and Ezra dispersed the crowd, dispatching someone to fetch the undertaker and relieve Jacob of his prisoner.
Buck yelped as Nathan poured whiskey over the wound, from the bottle kept in bottom desk drawer. "Damnit Nate, that arm is still attached ya know!"
"Stop yer whinin'! It's barely a scratch but even a scratch can kill ya if it gets infected." The healer, shook his head in disgust. "Thought we might get out of this with everyone in one whole piece."
JD frowned, adjusting the bowler on his head. "Anybody ever find out why that feller was so set on killin' Chris?"
"Reckon this boy might have the answer." Josiah entered dragging the young outlaw along, shoving him into the cell, Vin quickly opened and just as quickly locked.
The younger man backed as far from the bars as the small cell allowed when Larabee stepped to the locked door. "Ya wanna tell us why that man..."
"Granger." Ezra supplied the name.
"Granger, wanted to kill me?" He demanded glaring at the man.
"Me and Shorty hooked up them other fellas a few months back...ain't neither one a us wanted ta get on the wrong side a the law but we couldn't find work...." He knew the lawmen didn't give a damn about their reasons for robbing the bank. "Accordin' ta Granger, him and Donovan spent time in some prison cause a you. Hear them tell it, ya helped the sheriff of some rinky dink town catch 'em after they'd robbed the bank. Killed Granger's brother and Donovan's hand got butchered up in the process."
"Hell, Pard, that was down along the strip." Buck shook his head in amazement, before explaining to the others. "'Member we was supposed ta meet up in that no name town. I got there in the middle of all the excitement. Some fools come runnin' outta the bank and damn near knocked Chris over trying to get away. Course his temper bein' what it is 'ol Chris didn't take too kindly to their lack of manners and promptly shot one of 'em."
"Yeah but it was you that shot that fool from his saddle causin' the horse ta step on him." Larabee added shrugging. "Shoulda been gunnin' for you too," He groused.
"Must be all the black ya wear. Evidently I'm not as memorable as you...except with the opposite sex." Wilmington let out another howl as Nathan tied off the bandage.
"I trust Mr. Wilmington is going to be no worse the wear for this misadventure." Ezra questioned the healer.
"Won't even slow him down." The ex-slave nodded.
"Then if you gentlemen will excuse me I shall retire to the saloon for a libation. Catching criminals has a tendancy to make one extremely thirsty. I'd be most honored if y'all decided ta join me."
Tanner moved for the door. "Ya buyin' Ez?"
"Actually Mr. Tanner I was thinking Mr. McMurtry should have the pleasure of paying for our evening's repast." The gambler grinned and with a two finger salute strolled from the jail.
With a grin, Larabee glanced at the others to see if they had reached the same conclusion as himself. Tanner and Buck were exchanging knowing smiles each wanting the other to confirm their suspicions.
"Damn, we're back to Mr. so and so." Nathan sighed. "I was kind a gettin' used to hearin' him say my first...." The healer trailed off, his eyes lighting with joy as they all rushed out onto the boardwalk.
"Yes Mr. Sanchez?" The southerner stopped, turning back to face his friends.
The six men held their breaths.
"Everything is absolutely magnificent." The sun glinting off his gold tooth, he grinned and turned to continue on his way only to halt once more when Larabee called his name.
"Ya find that elusive answer ya was lookin' for?"
The gambler stood for a moment, his green gaze drinking in the sight of the six men. His friends. His family...His reason and his reward for remaining in Four Corners.
Larabee returned Ezra's wide smile knowing it was the only answer he was going to receive as the gambler turned and strolled toward the saloon, whistling a light tune.