Vin, Josiah, and JD sat out on the porch watching the day roll by. Nathan was due back from the Seminole village today, Chris had been in and out of sight, Buck was busy with a young lady undoubtedly, and Ezra had a poor sap engulfed in a game of five card stud inside the saloon. All three men were engulfed in the inevitable deadline that loomed ahead of them within the next week.
Everyone in town knew that the thirty days Judge Travis had hired the seven men on for to protect the town was up this week, and rumors floated freely amongst the townsfolk, as to what would become of their seven guardians. None of the seven men themselves had commented on it to one another, it was the closing of a chapter in their lives that no one really wanted to face.
"It looks to be a fairly uneventful day, unless the stage due in today brings us some trouble," Josiah finally commented, breaking the silence, knowing what was weighing on his friends' minds.
JD nodded in agreement, glad for the conversation. "Yeah, things've really died down around here, this might be the first week we don't get shot at."
"You fellas ever hear of knocking on wood?" Vin asked.
"Why?" JD wondered.
Vin nodded towards a rider coming into town with two horses trailing. One was a packhorse, and the other had a dead man draped across the saddle.
The three observers along with a few passers by watched as a young man drew rein in front of the saloon where JD, Vin, and Josiah were perched. He was in his early twenties and had obviously had a hard ride. His paint horse showed signs of a rough trip, the fine boots he wore no longer shone, his black pants, matching vest, and fine Stetson were covered in a coat of dust and the left forearm of his white shirt was wrapped tightly with a bloody handkerchief. "Pardon me gentlemen, might I inquire of you where I could find an undertaker in an illustrious town such as this?"
Josiah indicated the shop down the street. "You can leave your friend down there."
A humorless smile crossed the young man's face. "Hardly a friend, but thank you. By the way, would you know where I might also locate a gentleman by the name of Ezra?" the stranger asked with a hint of a southern drawl to his voice.
Vin nodded behind him towards the saloon door. "Right through there. You got the same plan for him as that fella?"
"Hardly, sir." A wry smile crept across his face. "I haven't seen any reason to do away with my brother yet, he can come in handy once in a while." With that, he touched the heels to his horse and moved towards the undertaker's shop.
Ezra glanced over at his opponent who was down to his last twenty dollars and grinned slightly as the portly man called. Ezra flipped over his hole card to reveal the ace of spades, giving him a pair of aces, beating the man's pair of kings. He raked in the pot as JD came bustling in the door, Vin and Josiah sauntering behind with hints of humor on their faces.
JD headed straight for the table where the game was taking place. "Ezra, a fella just rode into town with a dead body. He's at the undertaker."
Ezra merely leaned back in his chair and waved a hand, motioning for the boy to continue, hoping this had some relevance to him.
"He says he's your brother."
Ezra's jaw dropped. Before he could collect his thoughts, Vin added, "His arm looks pretty tore up, too."
The gambler pocketed his winnings and thanked the men for the information as he brushed past them out the door towards the undertaker's shop. When he approached there, the young man was just exiting, a grim look on his face.
The young man looked up at the familiar southern voice to see his brother before him. "Ezra, you look surprised to see me."
"As well I should. Why on earth are you in such a town as this? I thought you were in Phoenix."
A perplexed look crossed Eli's face as the stage rolled into town. "Didn't you get mother's letter?"
Ezra shook his head. "No, mother never mentioned you coming to see me."
Eli leaned his back against a nearby post and held his left arm. "Ezra, mother sent you a letter telling you she and I were coming to meet you here today."
"I never received any such correspondence. That still doesn't explain why you are here."
Eli opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, a familiar voice rung out from the stage. "My babies. Ah, what a sight for sore eyes." Eli and Ezra looked over to see their mother, Maude, moving towards them, Josiah standing by the stage, ready to help with the ungodly load of luggage she'd brought along. Off to the side, JD and Vin were talking with Chris, obviously telling them of the family reunion taking place right before them.
Maude approached them and hugged Ezra first, still a bit sore from her son's rude awakening in becoming a town's defender that she learned of in her last stay in Four Corners last time, but happy to see her son none the less. Unless his contract had been extended, his duties would be done soon. She then turned to Eli and noticed his bandaged arm. "What happened to you, darling?"
Eli nodded towards the undertaker, who was bringing the corpse out in a coffin. "That fella there decided to give me a not so welcome welcome on my way here."
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah, just sore a bit."
"Mr. Jackson should have a look at your arm," Ezra offered. "He should be arriving in town some time today."
Eli nodded towards the dead body. "You recognize that gent Ezra?"
Ezra looked at the corpse Eli had brought to town and was heartstrickened. "That's Jeremy Barton. How did you run into him again?"
Maude's brow furrowed at Ezra's perplexity. "They obviously think we still hold those damned land deeds."
"Ezra never received the letter, mother," Eli offered.
"Oh," Maude turned back to Ezra, realizing how unpredictable the mail service could be in the west. "Son, your cousins found me somehow and informed me that it would be a good idea for all of us to meet to discuss the problem we seem to have with family relations. I offered this place as a juncture point because of your notable position in town and hoping your friends could help us when trouble arises. So, I sent you and Eli letters, which you apparently never received."
Ezra clenched his teeth at the thought of meeting with the Sheardons, a branch of the family who could murder someone in cold blood and sit down to dinner with their relatives all in the same week. And to top it all off, his mother had brought them here!
Eli looked back and forth between his brother and mother and finally asked. "What notable position do you have in town, Ezra? Mother just mentioned that this would be a spot which might hold a slight advantage for us."
"He is a protector of the meek," Maude answered, almost disdainfully. "Come now boys, and get your mother's luggage for her."
As she moved across the street, Ezra pulled Eli aside. "Go check in with her and clean your arm. I'm sure I can find someone willing to help carry our mother's 'image' to the hotel." Eli agreed and headed off with Maude as Ezra made his way over to the waiting Josiah.
Eli guided his mother through the doors of the hotel and to the registrar's desk, where they signed in Maude and Eli Standish, on the line underneath an eloquent handwriting that proclaimed Faith Vazbeck of Pittsburgh.
The clerk handed them their keys and Eli leaned over to the man. "I would be grateful if you would keep our whereabouts secretive to any passersby, my good sir."
The man nodded in agreement, knowing trouble when he saw it.
Eli left his mother at her room and proceeded to his own where he dropped his two bags and other items on the bed before leaning against the dresser in pain. It felt like a hot poker was lodged inside his arm and was being twisted around as he removed the handkerchief and shirt to reveal a bloodied, yet well toned upper body.
He quickly bathed off the dried blood of his own and of Jeremy Barton's. Once he was clean, he looked down to the ghastly wound Barton's knife had dug in the underside of his forearm two days ago. Although the bleeding had stopped, the area around it had a green and purplish tint to it which worried Eli that some sort of infection had gotten in his arm. He would surely be glad for this Doctor Jackson to arrive back in town, he thought, as he removed a brush from his bag and began to remove the dust from his hat and jacket.
After Josiah and Ezra had unloaded Maude's luggage in her room, Ezra led the big man outside with a worried look on his face. "Mr. Sanchez, might I implore you to round up our associates in the saloon so as I might inform everyone at once of our current situation."
Josiah agreed, more than happy to help out Maude, yet wondering what trouble Ezra's family had brought. Once he had left, Ezra rapped on his mother's door and entered to find her dragging her suitcases off to one side of the room.
"Keeping up an image can be grueling work, can't it, mother?"
She smiled primly at her son. "Yes, but appearances are everything. Tell me you at least haven't forgotten that."
"No mother, you'd be surprised at the finer points of our delightful career that come in useful here. But might I ask you a question?"
Maude sat down on her bed and motioned for Ezra to do the same. Once he sat next to her, he continued, "Why did you agree to meet with the Sheardons at all, mother? They undoubtedly have further atrocities planned for us as they did in Kansas City."
"Yes, honey. But I hoped that this could be the end to our troubles... with you and your gunman friends, I hoped we could be rid of such vermin. Besides, we couldn't keep running from them forever."
Ezra stiffened at the implication that he was running from anything, then shook his head and answered. "Mother, I can't merely kill a whole side of a family without suspicions arising, here of all places."
Maude patted her son on the hand. "You'll think of something, you always do. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's been a dreadfully long trip, and I feel the need to freshen up."
Ezra picked up his hat, exited the room, and made his way to the saloon, where Nathan, just back from the Seminole village, JD, Josiah, Chris, and Vin all sat at a table awaiting his arrival. Upon sitting down, Vin pushed a bottle towards him, and Ezra downed two shots before asking about Buck's whereabouts.
"No one could find him," JD answered.
Ezra took another large shot of the whiskey as Chris tipped his hat back on his head. "So why don't you tell us what's bothering you, Ezra."
A humorless smile appeared on Ezra's face as he looked over his partners. "Family trouble. I assure you, I never would've brought it to your attention unless it was of the utmost importance. Everyone has undoubtedly heard of my mother and brother's arrival with the possible exception of Mr. Jackson."
Nathan nodded. "I heard 'bout it. I also hear he needs tending to."
"Dreadfully so, but his ailment must wait until I share my details with you gentlemen, for it is a story I only wish to tell once." He took another drink and proceeded. "Three years ago, my mother and I parted ways in New Orleans after a fruitful venture at various gaming establishments. She was on her way to Chicago, and I was to meet up with my brother Eli, and other brother Ephiram in Kansas City. Ephiram was the middle of the three of my mother's sons, and had acquired a profitable real estate holding in Montana that we were all to turn into something grand.
"After a long a weary trip, I finally reached Kansas City. But upon my arrival, Ephiram was nowhere to be found. After searching the local gambling establishments, a drunken cowboy on the street finally told me that my brother. . ." Ezra took another shot and stared at the table, stonefaced. "He told me that my brother had been murdered."
The five faces of the other men all tightened at Ezra's pain. After a moment of silence, JD asked, "Did you find who did it?"
Ezra, still looking at the table, answered solemnly, "Unfortunately, yes. It was my own cousin, Felix Sheardon."
Everyone was silent, wondering why family members, even of the Ezra's, would kill one another. Before anyone could venture to ask, the saloon, empty except for the six men at the table and the bartender, was suddenly filled with a echoing of boot heels on the floor coming towards the table. Everyone except Ezra looked up to see Eli standing over them, much cleaner than when he first arrived, just an hour before.
Everyone took the young man, obviously the youngest of the three brothers, with a glance. Shined black boots underneath smartly pressed black pants, with a black holster off his right hip and a pearl handled buntline, like his brother's, weighing it down. He wore a clean white shirt with pearl buttons covered with a black vest with gold stitching and a golden pocketwatch dangling from it. The left side of the vest seemed a little worn, obviously from a shoulder holster like the one Ezra was known to wear. He had a strong, tanned face, similar to Ezra's, stood a good three inches taller than his brother, and his soft brown hair was tucked away underneath an immaculate black Stetson hat.
"Gentlemen," Ezra drawled, "My brother Eli Standish." He motioned for Eli to take the seat next to him. Eli nodded to them and sat next to his pale brother. "I can see my brother is bringing you up to speed on our pressing family matters."
Josiah nodded sympathetically. "No two people of the same bloodline should be against each other."
Eli looked to Ezra, who merely stared at the whiskey in his hand. "It's more than a mere Cain and Abel story, Mr..."
"Josiah Sanchez." He motioned around the table and introduced the others. "Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, myself, Nathan Jackson, and JD Dunne. I believe I speak for the others when I share my sorrow for you gentlemen and family. Please, go on."
Eli folded his hands on the table and proceeded where Ezra had let off. "When I say it is more than a Cain and Able story, I mean that it is more than one person behind such a heinous task. Not only is Felix Sheardon a man to be watched, but his family and their following are also likely candidates for a noose. Felix is notably the shrewdest of the bunch, but his sister Delphine is pure poison. She is beautiful one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, but would put a knife in between your shoulders as quickly as she would smile at you. And the youngest brother, Maxwell, is one of the most hot tempered people I've ever come across. He fancies himself a gunman, yet his brother still makes him behave properly somehow. These three, gentlemen, are the worst curse that could be bestowed upon a family. Our family has had their share of business done on the shady side of the law, but always in a gentlemanly nature. For some reason, the Sheardons despise us for that, seemingly because they could never evolve past simple robberies and murders."
"Yes," Ezra mumbled. "and these beasts have quite a following of other vermin. Delphine, not one to travel alone without female companionship, has found another estranged cousin of our family, Virginia Bequette, a fairly plump lady, but none the less a femme fatalle. Virginia had married into a wealthy family, but her husband unexpectedly died within months of the wedding. No one could prove it was her, so no court could convict her. The family however, did manage to rid themselves of her with ways still unclear to me. She left in quite a hurry, with only a bag of clothing, some jewelry that had been in the gentleman's family for years, and a servant named Walter, who has been faithfully devoted to her since then and throughout her association with the Sheardons."
"So there's five of them, and two of them are women?" JD asked.
"Not quite so, Mr. Dunne," Eli added. "The appearance that the family has money and is active in a number of illegal operations can interest quite a number of lowlifes, and our family has only the best of such company. They are accompanied by a former circus performer, Vladof Guttentag, a sheer brute of a man with muscles that would rival any two men's strength. Gentlemen, I've personally put three bullets in this man, one in the chest and two in the stomach, and he's still around to haunt us. I say this in the sincerest of terms, if he's after you, put a bullet in his head, or he will crush every bone in your body."
Eli looked to Ezra, who seemed to have some color coming back to his face to finish the lineup. He sipped a bit of his drink and continued. "There was Jeremy Barton, but you gentlemen undoubtedly know about the corpse Eli brought with him - Mr. Barton is no longer an adversary. And finally, we have the two gunmen brothers who have quite a taste for killing, and don't mind the money that they are able to take off their victims' bodies, either: Ray and Justin Highpoint."
Chris nodded solemnly. "I've met them. Highpoint's not their real last name, I think it was Andrews. It didn't have enough ring to it for the newspapers, so they changed it. They're two trigger happy boys who should've been dead a long time ago."
"Six men and two women, all coming to town for you." Vin said. "Why?"
"After Ephiram was killed," Ezra began shakily, "the Sheardons tore Kansas City apart looking for the numerous and prosperous land deeds for the before mentioned Montana property that were in our name. Once they couldn't find them, they naturally assumed I had them, since I had arrived in town so soon after my brother's death. Unfortunately, I had no knowledge of the deeds' whereabouts or of Eli's, for that matter. While I searched for what I could find to piece together the puzzle, the Sheardons watched me from a distance the whole time. Yet, unbeknownst to them, Eli was watching them."
"If they knew so much about you and Ephiram's whereabouts, why couldn't they spot Eli?" Chris asked.
Ezra looked to his brother to field this one.
"Each of the three Morton boys had a specific talent that came in useful during our business endeavors. No doubt, you all know of Ezra's talent with a deck of cards. Ephiram's unique gift was that of oratory nature. My brother could talk a nun out of her belief in the almighty. I presume that's how he came to acquire the land deeds. I, on the other hand, couldn't talk my way out of a box, and have only minimal talent in poker. I can, however, blend quite well into a crowd. I can become inconspicuous, something very useful when watching people who are looking for you."
Chris leaned forward. "Did you say Morton?"
Ezra winced as everyone looked at him, and Eli grimaced in his direction, realizing his brother apparently hadn't told them of their real last name.
"Yes," Ezra began. "After our departure from New Orleans, it was decided that it would be best for us to change our name to make the Sheardons' search for us not quite as simple as could they would have it. Hence came the name Standish."
"All the while Ezra was searching for our fortune," Eli continued, "and the Sheardons and associates were watching and waiting for him to find it, I had my eye on them. I couldn't just let him know however, with the vultures dogging his every move. So, I hired a local teamster to get a message to him, letting him know of my whereabouts and of a rendezvous point where we could escape the overbearing conditions we were under."
"Yet," Ezra added, "little did we know, that Delphine had made contact with the teamster and had cooed the information out of him. So when the two of us met at an abandoned farmhouse where he and a few of his friends had been using, there was our family and their hired guns to welcome us and ease our burden of the deeds."
"It was a dreadful fight," Eli tacked on. "The two of us along with two men I'd been riding with against the whole clan we've just described to you along with three more. The cabin somehow was set ablaze and their three didn't make it out, and neither did the land deeds. A bullet grazed my left side and I dropped to the floor, spilling the papers out of the packet I'd been carrying them in inside my shirt. Once everyone else was out, more gunfire was exchanged, and one of my friends was cut down by Maxwell. During this volley, Ezra had acquired our horses and I placed three bullets in Vladof Guttnetag before retreating with my brother."
"When are they due here?" Nathan asked.
Eli shook his head disdainfully. "They could be here even now, we can't be sure when they'll arrive. And when they do, they'll most likely take in the scene before showing themselves if at all possible."
"Everyone keep an eye out, then," Chris said as he rose from the table.
Vin and JD followed the black clad man outside as Josiah mulled around, wondering if Maude would appear for a friendly game of cards. Nathan stood up from his chair and faced Eli and Ezra. "You better let me have a look at that arm."
Eli glanced at Nathan, and without making eye contact, answered, "I'll be fine, thank you." He abruptly stood up and made his way from the table as Nathan looked to Ezra.
"Everyone in your family have a problem up front with my kind?"
"Mr. Jackson, I assure you it is more of a stubborn pride we have than a form of racism."
"Yeah, well that stubborn pride might get him killed. If it's infected, he needs to get it treated soon, or his arm might have to come off."
Ezra poured himself another drink. "I thank you for your concern, and I assure you I shall have my brother see you about his condition. Thank you."
Maude had just stepped out of the general store from picking up an order that had come in when she was greeted by a familiar face, that of Mary Travis. "Mrs. Standish, I'm Mary Travis. Billy was my son, the boy from your last visit."
"Yes, how is the young man?"
"Oh, he's doing much better now."
"That's good to hear." Her eyes scanned what she could see of the street, trying to spot any of the relatives that might be in town as she tried to hurry the conversation along.
"Yes, well, I didn't get a chance to on your previous visit, and I just wanted to thank you and let you know if there's anything I can do for you during your stay, I'd be happy to help."
Maude pursed her lips and shook her head. "No, nothing comes to mind right now, and you're most welcome. I was just happy to see such an atrocity brought to an amends. If you'll excuse me, I have-"
Before she could finish her sentence, a voice rang out from behind her that sent chills down Maude's spine. "Aunt Jessabelle, Jessabelle Morton!"
Maude and a confused Mary turned to see a blonde, plump lady dressed in a flowered dress holding a parasol and a small handbag; an aging but well built man stood a bit behind her. The lady cocked her head to one side. "I'm sorry, where are my manners, my dear aunt? How dare I call you by your real name. I believe it is Maude Standish, now isn't it?"
A scowl crossed Maude's face. "Hello, Virginia, how nice to see you. I didn't expect you to make the trip out here. Where are my manners? Virginia Bequette, Mary Travis."
The ladies exchanged hellos and Mary excused herself, leaving the two women face to face on the sidewalk. "Oh, it was hardly a trip," Virginia continued. "Why, it was worth it just to see you again. And how are your boys?"
"Oh, just fine. Ezra has made quite a name for himself here and Lord only knows what's become of Eli. He's blown three sheaths to the wind in the past few months."
"Ah, children. Frightfully, I never had the chance to have any of my own."
"Well, Alfred's death did come about so unexpectedly to the rest of us."
Just then, Josiah appeared at Maude's side. "Ma'am, it would be my honor to carry your packages."
Maude, seeing the opportunity, handed Josiah the two small packages and wrapped her arms around his elbow. "Virginia, I don't believe you've met Mr. Sanchez yet. Mr. Sanchez, this is my niece Virginia Bequette."
Josiah nodded to her as Virginia made a slight bow. "Josiah, I was just on my way to ask you to lunch, and here you are, saving me the walk."
Josiah flushed and flashed a toothy grin. "The Lord works in mysterious ways. I would be delighted to join you for a meal."
"Well then, we must be off, I'm frightfully hungry. Good day, Virginia."
"Good day, Jessa- Maude. We really must get together while we're both in town. I'm just dying to see Ezra. And who knows? Maybe Eli will show up, too."
"We'll see. Good day." With that, the couple strode past them and towards the restaurant. Once out of earshot, Maude leaned over to Josiah. "Thank you sir, you have no idea what a blessing you were at that moment."
"I have a good idea. Ezra and Eli told us of our guests. I'm assuming the man behind her was Walter?"
"Yes, a very loyal and fairly dangerous man. Perhaps your friends should be informed of their arrival."
"Indeed they should. But I believe lunch would be another good idea."
Vin and Chris left the boardwalk following Josiah and Maude after witnessing the meeting of the two women across the street. If the Sheardon clan was beginning to filter in, everyone needed to be ready. JD was informed to keep a sharp eye out for Buck, who still hadn't been seen all day.
JD sat tossing his knife into the dirt, wondering what everyone was going to do when their job was up. He got a little choked up at the idea of everyone leaving. He figured Josiah would stay, but Vin and Chris were going to Tuscosa, Nathan would probably go to the Seminole village, Ezra wouldn't stay around, and Buck - well, JD could only hope Buck would stay. He was working out an idea of Buck taking the sheriff's job, after all he said he'd been a lawman before, and JD could be his deputy, when boot heels on the boardwalk caught his ear. He looked over to see Buck coming towards him, a bounce in his step and a smile on his face. The breeze was blowing through his black hair and ruffled his mustache and bandanna around his neck slightly. He was fingering a purple flower in his left hand as he approached.
Buck plopped down in the chair next to his friend, a broad smile across his face. "Howdy, JD. Nice day, ain't it?"
"It was, but some stuff came up. What's gotten into you? You act like you're in love or something."
Buck's smile widened as he shook his head. "Come on now, you know me better than that. I got all these women in town, why would I devote myself to just one?"
"I don't know, but you sure are acting like it. What's going on?"
He leaned forward like a young boy about to tell a great story. "I just met a wonderful gal from Pennsylvania. Her name's Faith Vazbeck. Doesn't that name just sound beautiful?" Before JD could answer, Buck pressed on. "JD, she's got these dark brown eyes that just seem to see right through you and hair as soft as a baby's skin. It's long and dark and..." He stopped to catch his breath and moved his hands in a curved figure in the air. "And she's got this body... Lord Almighty, JD, this girl's a godsend, I tell ya."
JD couldn't help but laugh at his friend's condition. "Buck, you are in love! And you made fun of me!"
Buck placed a firm hand on JD's shoulder. "You hush. Just think of all those broken hearts if that rumor got out."
"Buck, it's a good thing I got boots on, cause it's getting pretty deep here."
"Now, I'm serious JD. Think about all the trouble that could come up if the women in this town think I'm spoken for. We wouldn't want that, we always have enough trouble as it is."
"Oh, that reminds me Buck. We do have trouble." As quickly and briefly as he could, JD reiterated the story Ezra and Eli had shared with them in the saloon, and Buck's smile quickly faded.
Buck shook his head after JD had finished. "What's the plan?"
"Chris and Vin just went to check with Josiah and Mrs. Standish. They think some of them are here already. Chris figures if the Sheardons don't know how many of us there are, it can only help us, so we're supposed to lay back until something happens, but keep our eyes and ears open."
Buck nodded solemnly. "Yeah, sounds like a good idea. How's Ezra taking it?"
"Not real good. He's been drinking hard and his brother's got a bad arm, so Chris doesn't expect us to rely on them even though it's their fight."
"Chris can't expect them to handle it on their own."
"He doesn't, he just doesn't think Ezra should be drunk for this."
"Yeah, maybe I'll go talk to him. He in the saloon?"
"He just went to the telegraph office. When you talk to him, tell him about your new lady friend. He might like a good laugh."
Buck swiped his hat at JD before entering the saloon for a drink.
Josiah and Maude watched as the waiter brought their plates of food. The preacher looked at her packages and commented on what she'd purchased, a fine shirt and an oddly wrapped package. "I can't say I recall seeing such a shirt in our humble store before."
"No, that's a shirt I ordered for Eli. I had the company ship it here, because I rarely see him. It's from the finest shirt maker in San Francisco."
"Yes, it is quite a shirt. It's clear to see your children sure did get their fashion sense from you," he said, still wondering what could be in the other package.
Maude nodded as Chris and Vin entered the restaurant and tipped their hats to Maude as she reached the table. "Ma'am," Chris started, "that lady you were talking with outside wouldn't happen to be one of your family members you're expecting would it?"
"As a matter of fact, it would."
Chris and Vin left Josiah and Maude alone to finish their meal. As they exited the restaurant, Vin turned to Chris. "What's the call?"
"All we can do is wait. We know at least some of them are here, but not how many or where they're at."
"I'll let the boys know to keep an eye out." As Vin walked away, Chris turned to see Ezra coming towards him. "Ezra," Chris said as he nodded at the gentleman, a little more composed than he was in the saloon.
Ezra nodded in acknowledgment. "Mr. Larabee, when is Judge Travis due in?"
"Day after tomorrow."
"Thank you sir. And thank you for your backing in my family ruckus."
"Don't mention it."
"Might I make a request of you and our other esteemed associates?"
"I implore of you not to make any action until at least tomorrow."
Ezra thanked him and headed towards the saloon, to retire to his room. Upon entering, Buck caught his attention as he nursed his beer from a table by the bar, a starry look in his eyes. But when Buck saw Ezra, he snapped out of it and headed over to the gambler, who stopped to allow Buck to catch up to him.
"Ezra, sorry I missed the meeting earlier."
The first touch of humor crossed Ezra's face since his brother's arrival earlier today. "I hope the young lady was vivacious enough to suit you," he said, assuming the only thing that would keep Buck away was a young beauty.
"Oh yeah, this gal's great."
"I'm happy to hear that. Now if you'll excuse me, it's been quite an exhausting day and a night no less demanding approaches." With that he moved up the stairs to his room. After unlocking the door, he walked in to receive quite a shock, Eli was sitting on his bed. "Eli, how did you get in?"
Eli cocked his head. "C'mon Ezra, you don't think I couldn't get past that little lock?"
"Of course not, that's not what I meant."
"I wanted to ask you if what mother said was true. About you settling down here."
"For the time being, yes," he answered, still unsure of where he would be next week.
"What's keeping you here?"
Ezra removed his black jacket and hat. He moved over to his window and watched as people moved about their business. "That's a good question. And, in all honesty, I don't know. Maybe it's because of the sense of belonging I have here. It feels like I'm a part of something now. I almost have enough money for my own saloon, and the six other gentlemen -- I don't know, maybe I just grew tired of all of the traveling, trying to dodge the law, and not get caught up in my own scams."
"What about the six other men? What do you owe to them that's keeping you here?"
"There's almost a sense of brotherhood between us. The seven of us have fought together on numerous occasions. Against such odds as a civil war regiment, tracked down the murderer of Mr. Larabee's wife and daughter, protected a wagon of courtesans, brought down a powerful rancher together, amongst other tales of bravery. After being in such scrapes with the same people, a bond forms between you and them." A wry smile came across Ezra's face. "I've even become a literary hero after my stay here in Four Corners." He moved to his dresser and withdrew a copy of the dime store novel they were all characters in after their trip to Purgatory, a heinous bandit town. "We all made a financial gain once this hit the market, and Mr. Steele plans to return to tell more of our adventurous outings soon, all of which rewards each patron handsomely."
Eli shook his head and smiled as he flipped through the miniature novel. "Quite intriguing, brother. But is this worth the exhilaration you feel after just conning a poor buffoon out of hundreds of dollars?"
"Only to lose the money to one of the many pitfalls of our occupation? Yes. At least here, I'm not looking over my shoulder for anyone chasing me as I leave town. I can watch who comes into town, and I no longer have to worry about the small bounty on my head."
"Judge Orrin Travis granted me a pardon in exchange for my assistance in keeping the town in line, just another reason I stay."
Eli's face grew hard at the mention of Judge Travis. "Travis isn't in town, is he?"
"No, but he's due back in two days, which can only help us with the Sheardons. All we have to do is hold them in town until he comes back. I'm sure they're all wanted for something somewhere else, as for which Judge Travis can incarcerate them."
"I'm not going to be able to go along with this plan. Judge Travis arrested me a while back."
"What's the crime now?"
"Horse thievery and accomplice to murder. Lane and I were in a town after just buying fresh horses when Travis comes in and arrests us for stealing the very horses we'd just bought. It turns out that the man we bought them from killed a local rancher for his line of horses and decided to sell some of them. Well, after being locked up for a few hours, Lane got stir crazy and called the guard over to us, where he proceeded to kill him and break us out. We rode together for a while, but after seeing the murder he'd committed, I figured we'd best part ways."
"Lane would be one of your friends from Kansas City?"
"Yup, same one."
"So now Judge Travis is looking for my brother," Ezra sighed.
"Not exactly. All the time I'd been riding with Lane, I would change my name in each town we were in, so instead of looking for Eli Morton or Eli Standish, he's looking for Eli Wallach."
"But the trouble with the judge is he has a good memory for faces," Ezra added, remembering his first interaction with Judge Travis.
"Well then, we'll just have to keep you out of sight once the judge arrives. But until then, I need to get some rest."
As Eli shut the door behind him, Ezra locked it and lodged a chair underneath the knob and slid off his two holsters. He then pulled off his vest and shirt and removed his derringer on his right arm. After slipping his boots off, he nestled in his bed for a few hours of restless sleep before the night began.
As a few men walked around town lighting torches and fires to light the dark street, the crowd bustled inside the saloon, unusually busy tonight. Ezra, Maude, Josiah, Nathan, and Vin all sat around a card table, Maude sharing more stories of Ezra's childhood, none of them true, but cute just the same. JD sat at the table next to them, knowing better than to play two Standishes in cards, he couldn't even beat one. His eyes drifted across the room, taking in the element that was well on their way to becoming drunk: cowhands, townspeople, and a group of teamsters who'd stopped in town just a few hours before.
Eli sat with his chair leaned up on the wall on the other side of the crowded room, oblivious to JD's scan. After he'd left Ezra's room earlier today, he moved quickly back to his own, where he caught some sleep before changing out of his gentlemanly attire into a cowboy's outfit: worn down brown boots tucked into sturdy, well worn pants, an old holster carrying a much used Colt, yet still in good condition, a black and red checkered shirt with a blue bandanna around his neck, and a large brown hat with a braided leather headband pulled down low on his head.
The barmaid brought him another beer, and he paid her as he saw a sight that immediately brought him to attention: Ray and Justin Highpoint pushing their way through the crowd, headed for the bar. Once the gunmen brothers reached it and received their drinks, they turned to take in the room, immediately spotting Ezra and Maude, but merely glancing over Eli as he sipped his beer. Eli's mind raced with the possible ways to handle this. He could walk up to them and engage them himself, which would reveal to them that he was in town, something his mother had strictly warned him against. He could move out and look for Chris and Buck, seeing how his family and his brother's friends didn't show any signs of noticing them. That might attract their attention, too. They could also be expecting that of him and have someone waiting outside for him. Eli came to the conclusion that his best course of action was to simply drink his beer and keep an eye on things without being noticed, hoping someone from the card game would recognize them before trouble started.
Chris sat outside, smoking a cheroot as he watched the two gunmen enter the saloon. The two men did cast a glance in his direction as he sat across the street, but didn't seem to care who he was. A flicker of a smile crossed Chris' face, attitudes like that could get them shot. The thought crossed his mind to enter the saloon after them, but it was mighty crowded tonight, and Chris wasn't in the mood for crowds. Besides, Everyone else was in there besides himself and Buck, who'd spent the better part of the evening with Miss Vazbeck.
The man in black drew on his small cigar and exhaled slowly as he almost envied Ezra. It was funny, he thought, in a round about way he and Ezra had a lot in common. Although the two men never did totally see eye to eye with each other, the similarities were there. Those similarities must be what kept Ezra sticking with Chris after all of the scrapes that he could've easily walked away from.
Ezra and Chris both had their demons. Hell, everyone had things in their past that haunted them, Vin and the bounty on his head, Nathan's scars both physical and emotional from slavery, Josiah and his life of following the Lord's word and the struggle that came with it. But Chris' and Ezra's were much darker. Chris lost his wife and son in an arson fire set by Cletus Fowler. But even though Fowler was dead, his employer was still out there somewhere, a man who had hired him to kill Chris, but was just as happy when his family was murdered instead. And it burned a hole in Chris' soul not being able to find that man, even after years of searching.
That's why he was almost envious of his gambler companion. Ezra at least knew who his demon was, even if it was a whole side of his family. Just like Chris' wife and son, Ezra's brother would never be back. And both men lost someone close to them when it could've been averted. If Chris had only come back from his trip with Buck a day earlier. . . He still blamed himself for that. And with Ezra's brother, if Ephiram would only have seen Felix before he placed a bullet in the base of his skull, there still might be three of the Standish, or Morton, boys.
Now was the time of judgment for Ezra and his brother and mother. Their challenge awaited them. And Chris was determined to help Ezra and what was left of his family do whatever it took to bring his brother's murderers in. For no one should ever have to endure the sheer torture that both Ezra and Chris were living through. And if Chris could help put Ezra's demons to rest, maybe that would be another step in the right direction to putting his to rest too.
Ezra had noticed the two gunmen enter the saloon, but was acting nonchalantly about it, hoping his associates wouldn't notice them and start anything. Ezra simply had to wait the Sheardons out until tomorrow without any incidents before the next step in his plan could unfold. He laid down his hand of three aces, the aces of spades, clubs, and diamonds, and was about to rake in the pot when his mother stopped him.
"Haste makes waste, son. I thought I taught you better than that," she mused as she laid down a flush of hearts: the deuce, six, jack, king, and ace.
"Every ace between those two," Vin commented as he tossed his cards on the table. "I think I've lost my share of money to your family for tonight."
"Yeah, me too," Nathan agreed.
Maude cocked her head in mock sympathy to the two men and then turned her head to Josiah. "Are you leaving me too, Josiah?"
Josiah blushed a little and grinned more. "Maude, if fate would permit me, I would never leave you."
Ezra rolled his eyes as he lined the pockets of his black jacket with his winnings of the night, a notably smaller sum due to his mother's presence at the table. He never did care for playing her in cards, they knew each other too well to really do any good at the tables. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I'll be escorting my mother back to her hotel before the floor of our illustrious establishment is overrun by lovelorn emotions," he said, half grinning at Josiah.
The three men at the table rose and tipped their hats as Maude departed. Before following, Ezra looked to Nathan. "Sir, if you would be so kind as to occupy your place of business, I would be willing to provide you with a patron."
Nathan nodded in acknowledgment as he put the remainder of his money back in his pants pocket. As Ezra moved out the door with Maude, he made eye contact with Eli, who was still leaning against the wall keeping an eye on things. Eli nodded at him and waited for a few minutes before following his brother and mother to the hotel room, making sure no one really noticed his departure. The Highpoints were too interested in the barmaid to pay any attention to some cowboy leaving the bar, anyway.
Upon Eli's arrival at his mother's room, he found the two waiting for him to discuss the plans for tomorrow. He shut the door behind him, placed a chair underneath the doorknob and turned to them. "So we know Ray and Justin Highpoint are here. Mother's seen Virginia and Walter. That's four, where are the rest? Delphine, Max, and Felix have to be here if the others are."
"And you can bet on Guttentag gracing us with his presence, too," Ezra added.
"So we move on them tomorrow?" Eli asked.
"Patience is the key to this game brother. We have a distinct advantage. We know what we're up against. The Sheardons don't have a specific number of our allies, and they can't be sure if you're here or not."
"That's why we hit them when they're still trying to figure things out. If we get them while we know we still have the upper hand, they'll never see the bullets that kill them."
A slow burn began to take effect on Eli as he argued with his older brother. "No what? You don't want to kill them, fine. But don't stand in my way. Apparently, I'm the only one of us who wants to see Ephiram's murder avenged."
Ezra moved quickly from his seat on his mother's bed to within an inch of Eli's face, his own distorted by his strong emotions of loss, anger, betrayal, and hatred. "Don't you ever accuse me of not wanting that. You know how bad I want those bastards dead, but getting ourselves shot won't do Ephiram any good now. Our best option is to turn them over to Judge Travis."
"I already told you I can't do that, Ezra. You play how you want, I'm going to kill them." With that, Eli turned to remove the chair from under the knob and exit the room.
Ezra placed an unusually forceful hand on his brother's right shoulder and spun him back to face him. "Damn it, tell me you wouldn't want to see all of those murderers swing from a rope, gasping for their last breath as the noose closes their lungs off from life. Tell me you wouldn't enjoy that."
Eli and Ezra stared at each other icily for a moment before Maude broke in. "Stop it now, both of you. We'll never get anywhere if you two are at each other's throats." When her two sons were still staring each other in the eye, she grabbed both of their chins, and forced them to face her. "Stop acting like children. You two are grown men, and this town is full of people trying to kill us. Do you think it can do us any good to be fighting amongst ourselves?"
The two men glanced down at the floor guiltily, trying to avoid their mother's steely gaze. "Now listen," Maude continued, "Ezra has a good plan. He's wired a few people making sure that every one of the Sheardons and their cohorts are wanted somewhere for some crime. We have six men here willing to help us arrest them so they can be jailed or hung, and that is what we'll do. I will not have another one of my sons killed by them. Do you understand me, Eli?"
Eli tensed his jaw in response to his mother's direct question.
"Do you understand me, Eli?" she repeated.
"Yes mother," he answered, begrudgingly.
"Good. Now everyone settle down. We all know how hard it is to bluff when your heart is on your sleeve. Ezra should receive responses tomorrow, and when he does, you boys will arrest the Sheardons -- without getting shot."
Eli took a deep breath and realized his brother and mother were right. He nodded in compliance.
Ezra looked Eli in the eye. "Can I trust you to keep your head?"
Eli cocked his eyebrow and answered, "If you can't trust your brother, who can you trust?"
"Splendid. Now, how's your arm?"
Eli faltered, but only for an instant, and answered, "Fine, it's healing quite --"
Before Eli could finish, both of Ezra's hands darted out and put pressure on his brother's left arm, sending him to his knees in pain. Eli clenched his jaw and stared up at Ezra as he applied more pressure to the wound. Within a matter of seconds, Eli was passed out from the intense pain shooting through him.
Maude removed the chair from underneath the doorknob and opened it, letting in Josiah and Vin who'd been waiting outside. They quickly picked up Eli's limp body from the floor and moved towards the door. Ezra stopped Vin as they were about to leave. "I don't need to tell you that discretion is advised in this matter."
Vin nodded. "We got JD watching the back way for us, making sure it's clear." They moved out the door and quietly down the stairs, Josiah stealing a few glances back at Maude as they departed.
The hallway was empty as Ezra left his mother a few minutes later. "Tell your friends thank you," Maude said.
Ezra nodded and closed the door, making his way to where Nathan would be working on Eli by now. Ezra could only hope his brother's stubbornness wouldn't cause him to lose another person he cared about.
Chris was still perched across the street when the Highpoints left the saloon. The two men stumbled out the door, and both seemed to notice Chris' silhouette in the same place it was when they went in the saloon, a few hours ago. The leader of the seven men grimaced when the two drunken gunfighters began to move across the street towards him.
"Hey, mister, ain't you got nothing better to do than sit there and watch people all night long?" Ray antagonized.
Chris drew on his cheroot. "Apparently not," he answered, without looking up at them. He kept his face partially hidden to them under his hat brim while he kept an eye on their guns.
Justin hit his brother in the shoulder. "I don't like the way he's talking to you."
"Me either. Why don't you look at me when you're talking to me."
"No thanks," Chris answered.
"What's the matter," Justin taunted, "you too good for us?"
"I don't recall saying that, Highpoint. Or was it Andrews?" Chris stood up suddenly, and faced the two men, less than a foot from him. "You know how hard it is to keep up with all the different names two bit gunmen use."
"What the hell . . ." Ray said to himself. Suddenly, realization struck him. "I know you."
A steely glint came to Chris' eyes as he recalled his first interaction with the two gunmen in some run down hell hole just after his family's murder. "I don't really care if you know me or not. All you need to know is if you go for your gun, at least one of you two is going to die. I'm too close to miss."
Justin hadn't let his eyes off Chris, but asked his brother, "Who is this cowboy?"
"Chris Larabee. We ran into him a couple of years ago."
"Yeah, I remember you, Larabee. Yeah, you can try and kill us, but like you said, we're all too close to miss."
A gun cocked behind the two gunmen and Buck's voice added, "So am I, so why don't you gents stumble on down the road."
The two men sobered up quickly and moved solemnly away from Chris and Buck, who picked up a nearby rock as he uncocked his gun. Chris watched Buck fling the rock at the two retreating men and yell, "And he don't like being called a cowboy, neither!"
When Buck turned back to Chris, his face was filled with a broad smile. "Why is it trouble seems to find you so easily?"
Chris shook his head as a trace of a smile crossed his face. "Just lucky, I guess." He moved back to his bench he'd been sitting on all night and asked his old friend, "Where've you been all night?"
Buck leaned up against a nearby post. "Out with a real fine lady."
"I should've known. You know about Ezra's friends in town?"
"Yup, JD told me earlier. Those two part of all this commotion?"
Chris nodded. "Ray and Justin Highpoint. They fancy themselves as gunfighters."
"A dangerous profession for stupid people like them."
"A dangerous profession for anyone." He paused and changed the subject. "So, do I know your new friend?"
Buck smiled even more as the conversation turned back to him. "Naw, she just got into town from Pennsylvania. Her name's Faith Vazbeck and she's staying around for a few days and headed to California."
"Kind of odd that she's staying for a while here. There's not much for an eastern lady around here."
"Well, she didn't plan on staying 'till she met me."
"Ah, you worked your animal magnetism on her?" Chris smirked.
"Charm, Chris, charm. But you're right, there ain't much around here. Not just for eastern gals, for anyone really."
"And you were thinking there might be something in California for you?"
Buck's smile faded as he scratched around with his boot. "Yeah, I was kinda thinking that."
A moment of silence passed between the two men, men who'd stood by each other numerous times over the years, as the thought of parting ways for good was thought over.
"You know," Buck offered, "our time's almost up here. Our thirty days we were hired on for is up in a few days."
"Yup," Chris answered stonefaced, "just about."
"And maybe a change of scenery would be nice for us?"
"Well, I've kind of grown attached to JD and was gonna offer it to him. And I was hoping you'd come along, too."
"Hell, Chris, there's nothing here for you. We're hired guns brought in to help a town get settled. Look around! Except for a few drunken cowboys, this place is settled. We've done away with all the people like us. Sooner or later the town's going to want us gone too. You can't deny we attract trouble, everyone around knows about our reputations by now."
"What's Miss Vazbeck think about her possible company on the trip?"
"She's hinted that she wants me to go, and I ain't brought you up. I expect she wouldn't mind. And I know I sure want you to go with me. Maybe even all of us could go."
Chris scratched his chin as the thought of California sank in. "There's a few things left for me to do, Buck. You know about Vin's bounty."
Buck closed his eyes and nodded. He'd forgotten about how Chris had agreed to go to Tuscosa with Vin to clear the bounty that was wrongly placed on his head. "Well, I could go with you two and clear it up. When that's taken care of, we could meet Faith in California. Vin's more than welcome to come. Maybe a trip to Tuscosa could be one last romp for the seven of us."
"We'll see, Buck. Right now we've got business to deal with."
"Yeah, I'll see you tomorrow. JD says that's when something should happen."
The two men said goodnight and Buck retired to his room at the boarding house, leaving Chris with a whole new twist of life to deal with. Just as Chris began to mull the idea of leaving over, a shadow caught his eye down the street. Chris' first guess as to who it was was the Highpoints, but his suspicions were proved false when he recognized Ezra moving towards Nathan's room. Chris caught Ezra's attention, and he changed his course to come up on Chris.
"How is he?" Chris asked upon Ezra's arrival at his perch.
"He passed out from the pain of his wound and Mr. Tanner and Sanchez are moving him to Mr. Jackson's room."
Chris nodded, and asked, "What's the move tomorrow?"
"I'm expecting some correspondence on a matter dealing with our new guests. If the outcome is what I suspect, we will then arrest the unwelcome element and hold them until Judge Travis arrives the day after. Hopefully, all of this can be handled without gunplay, but between the two of us, I fear that to be impossible."
"We'll do our best to keep it that way, Ezra."
"I don't doubt your sincerity, Mr. Larabee, yet my relatives are not ones to be taken in easily. Maxwell alone has killed two lawmen that I know of."
A long moment passed between the two men before Ezra said goodnight to Chris and headed for Nathan's. As he took his first few steps away, Chris called out from behind him, "Ezra."
Ezra turned. "Yes?"
"What are your plans for after the thirty days are up?"
"Mr. Larabee, when you live a life such as I, you learn not to make too many plans. Luck has a tendency to make a path for me. Why do you ask?"
Chris pursed his lips. "Just wondering what's going to become of us, with the world becoming more civilized."
"Undoubtedly, some of us will adapt, while others will still look for whatever it is that plagues them. Civilization is not suited for all, Mr. Larabee."
"Yeah, I guess it isn't. Good night Ezra."
"Good night fearless leader."
When Ezra arrived at Nathan's, he found Eli knocked out in a bed and Nathan just finishing up on his arm. "How bad is it?" Ezra asked grimly.
"It's a nasty wound. I'm not too sure if we got it in time or not. He got cut up real good and it's infected real bad. If we would've waited another day, he definitely would've lost his arm to the infection. Now he still might get to keep it."
"Nathan," Ezra began with all sincerity, "thank you. Eli would never have let his arm be cut off, and I have no doubt in my mind that the infection and his pride would have killed him. I am indebted to you for saving my brother's life. Is there anything I can do to help you with him?"
"You'd best stay here with him tonight. I'll stick around, but after our first meeting in the saloon, if he woke up and it was just him and me here, something might be said or done that we'd all regret. I don't expect him to wake up for some time, but just in case."
"Of course. I'll just rest in this chair for the duration of our stay." Ezra removed his hat and jacket and propped his feet up on a nearby set of drawers. As he laid the jacket across his lap, he felt the dime store novel about their adventure and he pulled it out, and flipped through it. After a moment, he turned to Nathan. "Mr. Jackson, if you don't mind me asking, what are your plans after our time is up here?"
Nathan was just finishing cleaning up as he turned to Ezra. "Well, I kinda figured to head on out to the Seminole village for a little longer stay than I've been getting. I'll probably spend most of my time between there and fixing up folks here until a certified doctor comes along. Why?"
"A conversation I had with Mr. Larabee earlier about civilization sparked my interest."
"We were just discussing how the settling of the western frontier will bring an end to our lives as we know it for most of us. Some of us will simply adapt to it, such as you, while others of us fight the oncoming changes."
"Perhaps." Ezra smoothed out his vest. "The settling of our frontier couldn't be quite as intrusive to one's life if he adapts. It simply takes a will to adapt. But that is not the matter at hand, my friend. What presses my mind the most is the health of my baby brother."
"Don't you worry Ezra, if he's as stubborn as you say, he should be alright." Nathan settled down in a chair on the opposite side of Eli's bed and pulled out a medical manual and began to flip through the pages. "All we can do is wait 'till tomorrow."
An hour after dawn broke, Nathan was awakened by Mary Travis rapping on his door, bringing him and Ezra breakfast, a normal custom for when she knew he'd been up all night with a patient. After learning that Ezra had been lying to the town about his last name for the past month, Mary looked at him in a whole new light. If he would lie about something like his name, how soon would it be before some kind of trouble came to town after him? His element always did attract trouble. Although the town seemed to have a knack for finding trouble on its own, they didn't need any help. But, it being the polite thing to do, she still arranged a small meal for the gambler along with Nathan's.
As she set the meal down for the two men, Ezra awoke groggily, his lack of sleep evident in his disheveled appearance. Upon seeing Mary, Ezra immediately tried to smooth back his hair and smiled cordially at her. "Good morning Mrs. Travis."
"Good morning Mr. Standish, I took the liberty of making you and Nathan some breakfast."
Before Ezra or Nathan could comment, Eli suddenly awoke. His gaze focused on Mary and then, to his left, Ezra. "Wh- what happened?" he asked.
"We got your arm fixed up. It was pretty nasty, but you'll manage," Nathan answered.
Eli looked down to his forearm, which looked much better than it had the previous night, and then to Nathan. For an instant, he almost jumped after the black man who'd healed him, but was overcome by his senses. "Thank you, Mr. Jackson. It seems I am indebted to you."
"Don't mention it. But you're going to have to take it real easy on that arm for a few days, otherwise your wound might reopen and get infected again."
Eli nodded and leaned back in his bed, still feeling the pain, but not nearly as bad as it was.
Just then, a knock came on the door and Mary answered it to find Maude and Chris. Mary excused herself, feeling too crowded in the small confines of the room as Maude looked despairingly at Ezra. "They're here, I just saw Felix and Maxwell dismount their horses and they saw me before I could avoid them."
"Where's Delphine?" Ezra asked.
"We don't know," Chris said. "Maybe you and your mother should see them before they can get situated."
"What about me?" Eli inquired.
"They haven't seen you yet, so you are to stay out of sight," Ezra answered.
"What's the call?" Nathan asked.
Chris looked to Ezra. Although it was against his nature to take orders from someone else, he figured it would be best for Ezra to handle his own affairs and they back him when needed.
A determined look came over Ezra's face as he said, "Mr. Larabee, would you please contact our other compatriots and inform them of our new arrivals. Keep the gentlemen watching the vermin we're up against, but out of action until we make it known of our firepower, I've yet to receive any response as to my inquiries from yesterday."
Ezra stood up and looked down at Eli, still bedridden. "You are to stay here for the next few hours, or at least until after we meet with Felix and Maxwell. Hopefully they'll not know you're here."
Eli clenched his jaw as he thought about Maxwell in this very town and he being stuck in a bed as Ezra smoothed his vest and held his arm out to his mother. "Mother, we have a date with two murderers."
Vin was sitting outside the boarding house on a bench, drinking a cup of coffee. The thought of his trip to Tuscosa plagued his mind, wondering what would await him when he got there. He kept wondering why he was even going, the town suited him well enough. If he could settle down here, there would be a good chance of no one ever coming across him after his bounty. But he knew ducking out in a town like Four Corners wasn't the answer, he had to face up to his problem. It might not be the smart thing to do, go hunting his own bounty, but it was still what he felt needed to be done.
Just as he was mapping out the trip he would make, Buck appeared from the doorway, tired from his night before. "Mornin' Buck," Vin offered as he snapped back to the here and now.
Buck stretched out his arms and sucked in the cool morning air. "Mornin' Vin. You talk to Chris last night after me and him came across them two gunslingers?"
"Nope, didn't hear any guns either."
"Yeah, we scared 'em off, then had a talk about what's gonna happen after this week."
"Yeah?" Vin asked, wondering if Chris had changed his mind about riding along to Tuscosa. He doubted it, but Mary Travis could be a convincing woman.
"I was wonderin' if you and Chris might like another rider with you."
Vin shrugged, masking the swelling he felt in his chest as he thought of another of his friends offering to ride along to clear his name. "It ain't gonna be an easy trip."
Buck leaned against the post and looked at Vin, almost shyly. "Compared to some of the scrapes we've been up against here? I reckon we could handle it." He paused for a moment, and then continued. "After that, Faith Vazbeck asked me to go to California with her."
"Yeah, I was kinda thinking on it. And thought the three of us could head out to California with her, maybe spend a few more years in a land that's a little more wild than a town that's basically tamed down."
Vin furrowed his brow as the thought of California rolled over in his mind. "We'll see," he answered.
Buck nodded and asked, "I'm gonna go get some breakfast, you wanna come?"
Instead of answering, Vin nodded down and across the street where Ezra and his mother were standing, talking to two well dressed men. Chris was crossing the street a little farther down, behind the men's backs. "That'd be Felix and Max Sheardon," Vin offered.
Buck looked hard for a minute, then turned back to Vin, trying not to draw attention from the two men. "They both look like men who'd shoot someone in the back."
Vin and Buck stood silent for a minute, processing the picture across the street. Maude was dressed in the same black dress and hat she'd first arrived in the last time she was in town and Ezra had smoothed over his jacket and pants and put his hat on to cover up his disheveled hair from his sleep the night before.
They faced two men dressed in fine suits. The first was a tall, wiry man and had slick, black hair and a matching thin mustache adorning his face. He held his hat in his hand as the wind whipped at his black string tie. On his hip was an ivory handled Remington revolver. The second, slightly shorter man, still wore his hat, covering his black hair. He was freshly shaven and wore a similar suit to the first man, differing only in his broad tie that was tucked underneath his vest. Resting in his black leather holster was a well used, walnut handled Colt .38, a very light gun, one often used by gunfighters for its lightness and easiness to draw.
Vin and Buck nodded to Chris as he walked up to them, indicating JD as he headed into the restaurant for breakfast. "We got some visitors in town to deal with. Might as well get something to eat, it's gonna be a long day."
The morning passed uneventfully, yet the seven men could feel the tension in the air. Ezra and his mother had agreed to meet with Felix, Maxwell, and Virginia for lunch at noon, just fifteen minutes away. Chris had informed Vin, Buck, and JD at breakfast, and Josiah and Nathan soon knew of the plan to keep an eye out for any newcomers to town, and to watch those who they knew were already here: Felix and Maxwell Sheardon, Virginia Bequette and her follower Walter, and Ray and Justin Highpoint. The only two players still missing were Felix and Maxwell's sister Delphine and Vladof Guttentag, the muscular monster of a man who'd Eli had already shot once before.
Mary had been meaning to discuss the information she'd just learned about Ezra with Chris, but hadn't yet had the chance. She figured he should know what kind of men he was working with to defend their town. In just a few days, though, their contract would be up, and Mary, like the rest of the town, couldn't help but wonder what would become of the seven men who'd banded together to protect a town that they had no bindings to.
She was remembering Chris and Vin's impressive saving of Nathan from hanging on the day it all began, one month ago. Then, she saw Chris Larabee as merely a gunslinging outlaw who would soon meet his demise by another of his kind's bullet. In the past weeks, another side had come to surface from the gunslinger, a man tormented by the murder of his wife and son, a man who could round up six other hard men with soft hearts to defend a defenseless Seminole village, a man who'd saved her father-in-law from possibly being gunned down right upon his arrival as the new circuit judge, a man who'd brought her own son out of his seclusion and brought to justice the murderers of her husband, a man Mary Travis admitted only to herself she would be sorry to see leave Four Corners.
As if on cue, Chris entered the restaurant where she was just being served her lunch. He was quite a man, indeed. The bright afternoon sun shone through the windows over his flat brimmed black hat, grey shirt covered by a colorful serape given to him by Josiah, and his much used gun, a gun that had killed scores of men, but how many lives had it saved in the process?
Chris immediately noticed her and moved to her table. "Mr. Larabee," she began, looking up at him, "won't you sit down and join me?"
He made a quick sweep of the room, making sure the two Highpoint brothers weren't present and sat down where he could see every patron of the restaurant. He removed his hat as Mary looked down at her plate, and then suddenly met his gaze, asking him, "This may be presumptuous of me to ask, but how much do you know about Ezra Standish?"
Chris raised his eyebrows and tilted his head slightly as he answered, "'Bout as well as anyone else in town, I guess."
She exhaled as she began where she was leading the conversation. "Yesterday, I was talking with his mother, when a lady came up and addressed her as Jessabelle Morton and then said something along the lines of how her and her sons had all changed their names. Once I got to thinking about it, I figured they would only change their name if they were running from the law, and I can only wonder as to what some sort of trouble a conman such as Mr. Standish and his family could bring. Now, the judge will be in town tomorrow --"
Chris held up a hand before she could continue any further. "Mary, the judge already gave Ezra a pardon, he knows about Ezra's past, as do I and the others. All of us have had our troubles in the past, Ezra's no exception."
"But who was the lady who knew his mother then? I hardly think it to be a coincidence that his mother and someone who'd known her before she changed her name could be in town at the same time, and I saw her and Mr. Standish talking to two new arrivals in town this morning."
Chris took a deep breath, and wondered what to tell her as Nathan and JD entered the restaurant and sat at a table on the other side of the room. "Ezra's ma's here in town to wrap up some family business. That woman you saw was a niece of her's, I believe, and the two men were her nephews."
"But when she saw her niece, they seemed hateful to each other."
"Ezra and his ma might not be the most upright citizens, but they're definitely better than the ones coming to visit." He paused for a moment, deciding whether or not to tell her why they were here. In a hushed voice he said to her, "those two men killed one of Ezra's brothers and now they're after Ezra and Maude. We told him we'd help him."
Mary gasped at the thought of family members killing one another. Before she could say anything, the door opened again and the two gentlemen Ezra and Maude were talking with this morning and the lady from the boardwalk yesterday entered and sat at one of the few tables open, a table fairly in the center of the room. Chris couldn't help but wonder if they'd planned for a table in the middle, maybe having extra help watching the meeting as Ezra did.
Mary, not wanting the men to overhear a conversation about them, quickly changed the topic to the first thing that crossed her mind. "What are your plans for after this week?" she asked, suddenly wishing she'd thought of a different topic. The men's plans were their own, and a taboo subject when any of them were around.
Chris winced at the question, still wondering about the answer himself. "I don't really know, Mary. A few things have come up."
Trying to back out of the subject, she said, "I hope staying in town for a while is one of them. I know Billy would miss you if you left."
Chris' gaze moved upward from the plate of food that had been placed in front of him as he met the blue eyes of Mary, trying to disguise any emotion from him. "It's a possibility," he answered.
Mary quickly looked away, her eyes catching movement outside the door. Chris noticed it too, and Mary was relieved that his direct attention was focused on Ezra and his mother entering the room, instead of her.
Felix, Maxwell, and Virginia stood up and greeted them as if old friends when Ezra and Maude approached their table. Maude smiled primly at them, hiding the deep hatred she felt for the two men who'd killed her son. Ezra, on the other hand, had lost all semblance of the cool poker face that usually graced his features in times of trouble and merely glared at the two men and the fat woman who'd murdered her own husband.
The five took their seats and ordered their meals. Once the waitress had left, Felix looked to Ezra and Maude, his cool, calculating eyes taking them in. Maude was dressed in the same black dress and hat she'd had on the first two times he'd seen her today, yet Ezra had changed into a deep green jacket with a gold and black vest.
"That's a very nice jacket, Ezra," he began the conversation with.
"Thank you," Ezra answered flatly.
Maxwell looked at his two relatives with obvious contempt through his beady black eyes. "Where's Eli? I've been meaning to meet up with him again."
Virginia watched Maude carefully as she answered. "Eli couldn't make it today. Apparently I couldn't give him enough notice. He's such a busy young man. I thought Delphine was supposed to be here today too."
Virginia smiled dryly at her. "Oh, you know how she is. She's just blown three sheaths to the wind," she answered, mocking Maude from the day earlier.
"I've noticed your gunmen are in town, dear cousin," Ezra drawled to Felix, trying to break out of the pitifully disguised pleasantries.
Felix merely smiled a cold smile from underneath his thin mustache. "And I've noticed you've picked up a few of your own, Ezra."
Ezra stared at him. "My, whatever do you mean?"
Felix withdrew a book from his jacket pocket and began to read, " 'Would Chris Larabee ride again with the hard men he'd come to know? Gunmen like Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, the bounty hunter with a price on his own head, the gambler Ezra, or the greenhorn JD, Nathan, both healer and destroyer, and Josiah placing his faith only in God and his gun.' "
He tossed the book across the table to Ezra and Maude. As the title 'The Magnificent Seven' stared them in the face, Felix continued. "I've done my homework, Ezra. I know about this town and how you're one of the hired guns who protect it. Funny, how such a lowlife such as yourself can ingratiate yourself so well just from doing a few good deeds in front of unsuspecting strangers. I know who Chris Larabee is, the Highpoint boys have already run into him. And I'm assuming the young boy in the bowler is JD and the black man is Nathan. And if I'm not off my mark, Eli's around somewhere, too." He smirked at Ezra's hate-covered face. "And you thought you were so sly. Ezra, why don't we stop playing our little games and you just hand over the land deeds. They're rightfully ours, anyway."
Ezra's eyes narrowed. All he could see was Felix sitting right in front of him. His mother, his friends, his past didn't matter anymore. The man had outguessed him and was sitting not two feet away from him, loving every minute of it. "Rightfully yours, did you say rightfully yours? I wasn't aware that shooting a man in the back of the head constituted transferring his belongings to you."
"Handing them over could save your family and this town a world of hurt, Ezra. Why don't you hand them over and save yourself the risk of losing another family member over them?"
"Under normal circumstances, I would try to disclose the source of such hatred you hold towards myself and my immediate family, but frankly, I don't give a damn. I'm very well aware of the fact that nothing is more sacred to you than money-- not even family, for you are bereft of any family relations. So, instead of trying to reason with you family member to family member, I'll merely see you in hell."
He rose quickly and produced the derringer from his sleeve, inches from Felix's head. Felix merely stared down the barrel into Ezra's stormy green eyes, as the rest of the room seemed to appear to Ezra as he held the gun on the man who'd killed his brother. As Ezra held a gun on Felix, Maxwell held a gun on Ezra and Virginia produced a small derringer from her handbag, keeping Maude at bay. Outside of their table, Chris stood protectively in front of Mary, his pistol extended at Ray Highpoint, who'd appeared out of nowhere, their guns on the leader of the men. JD had moved across the room, and kept the barrel of both of his pistols in the mens' backs, while Nathan balanced a knife over an unknown man's throat, about to go for his gun.
The whole room was silent as every eye was on Ezra, knowing he could set off or defuse the situation in a heartbeat. "What'll it be, Ezra?" Felix smiled at him. "You can riddle the dining room with bullets or put your pea shooter away and play civilly like a grown up."
Ezra's stern face never flinched as he stared down the barrel at Felix Sherdon, a sight he'd wished to see since the moment he'd learned of his brother's untimely death. "Well, touche`, Felix." The derringer slid back into his sleeve as easily as it had appeared. Felix nodded to Virginia and Maxwell to put their guns away. After the slightest instant, he grabbed Maxwell's arm and thrust it down, a harsh look in his eye. Slowly, the other guns were uncocked and lowered, a sense of relief flowing over the patrons, yet a new sense of fear flowing through their veins. For, this was now a town on edge, a town primed to explode at the slightest move, and the two men who could set it off simply stared at each other over the table where a family meeting had been only seconds ago.
Maude rose and handed her son his hat. As he placed it on his head, Ezra looked once more at the three seated at the table. He reached for a glass of water and took a sip before saying, "We will most certainly be in touch, Felix."
Just as Felix was about to reply, the remainder of the water in Ezra's glass was splashed on his face, catching him off guard as Ezra turned on his heel and escorted his mother and Mary Travis from the restaurant, every muscle of his body tense and shaking, as Chris, Nathan, and JD followed, their faces to the room, keeping an eye on them as they rounded the corner.
Josiah and Vin had watched the proceedings from different spots across the street, and hastily joined the other four men and two women in the saloon. Josiah was the last to enter and turned around behind him to look one last time on the street and caught a fleeting glimpse of a mountain of a man ducking around the corner of a building. He sat down at the table as Vin poured drinks. "The German's in town."
"You sure?" JD asked.
"Can't be two men in this area that size."
Mary looked around the table, knowing she was now a part of this whether she liked it or not. That woman had seen her with Maude the day before and she was sitting with Chris when all the guns were drawn. Mary had no illusions that she was safe from harm, now. Her mind drifted back to when she was kidnapped by Wicks, hoping the men would arrive in time to save her. Fear clenched at her throat, yet she wasn't helpless this time. Those seven men she and the rest of the town had come to depend on were all near.
Ezra downed his glass and looked over the seven people at the table. "Ladies and gentlemen, it appears that our plan has gone awry. They know our numbers and have compensated, I'm assuming, from the gentleman Mr. Jackson was entertaining in the restaurant. He is, in fact, a new face to me."
JD shook his head. "No, I've seen him somewhere before."
Everyone looked at him, hoping the memory would come to him when Nathan interjected, "He was in Purgatory when we were there."
JD nodded. "That's it!"
"So they're hiring more guns," Vin observed. "We've been up against bad odds before."
"But in the heart of the town, where innocent people dwell," Josiah offered, his gaze going to Mary and Maude.
"Mrs. Travis," Ezra drawled, "I am truly sorry to have unwittingly entrapped you in our present situation. I know my apologies can't help you now, but I want you to know that I regret the unfortunate turn of events."
Mary tightened her lips and answered, "That's alright, Mr. Morton."
A glint of humor crossed Ezra's face. "Mrs. Travis, those days are behind me. My name is Ezra Standish, and I reside in Four Corners. Now, our town is in danger due to my relatives, and the time is at hand to take care of things."
Before Ezra could elaborate, Buck busted through the doors, cussing, until he saw Mary and Maude. "Sorry, ladies. Boys, I got here as fast as I could. Here," he handed Ezra a telegraph. "Gent at the office stopped me on my way here. What's the plan?"
Ezra read the telegram quickly and looked up at the awaiting faces. "Gentlemen, now we go make some overdue arrests."
"Ray Highpoint, wanted for three counts of robbery and seven counts of murder. Justin Highpoint, three counts of robbery and nine counts of murder," Ezra read from his telegram. "Jeremy Barton, wanted for two counts of robbery and four counts of murder. Eli reaps the reward for his demise, if you gentlemen will recall. Virginia Bequette, wanted for the poisoning of her husband, apparently, our stories were a little off. After all this time, she's been wanted by the law. And her assistant, known only as Walter, wanted for accomplice to murder. Vladof Guttentag, wanted for two counts of robbery, and eleven counts of murder. Delphine Sheardon, wanted for fourteen counts of robbery. Maxwell Sheardon, wanted for nine robberies, two arsons, and seven murders. Felix Sheardon, five robberies and four murders, but one in particular."
Ezra looked at the faces of the six hard men he'd ridden through hell and high water with for the past month. "Gentlemen, this paper gives us the right to arrest every member of the group and anyone who would try to stop us." He paused only a moment. "This may likely be our last stand together, with our contract ending, and I want you all to know --" he cleared his throat and continued, "that it has been a pleasure to ride with the six of you."
Everyone remained motionless, not wanting to go face their last fight together. Eyes drifted around the table at one another, remembering all the scrapes they'd pulled out of together. Suddenly, the silence was broken by Buck. "Maybe this ain't our last fight." Everyone's eyes turned to him as Vin and Chris knew what was coming. "After our contract's up, me and Chris are riding to Tuscosa with Vin to clear up the bounty he's got on him. And Vin, if you don't mind, I'm inviting everyone else with us. Then, after that's all said and done, I'm going to California."
"California?" JD was incredulous. "When the hell did this happen?"
"Well, remember the gal I told you about? She asked me to go along with her. I told her about my plan to go to Tuscosa and help out my friend here and I told her I'd meet her in California after that if she still wanted me to, and I'd marry her."
Eyebrows were raised all around the room, except for Maude, who didn't know what the big deal was, she'd conned men into such things herself.
"You're gettin' married?" Nathan asked.
"It's just some girl you've known for a day!" JD cried.
"No, this just ain't some girl, this is the girl. Dark black hair and beautiful brown eyes, soft skin, fairly pale, but she's a looker anyhow..."
Maude and Ezra looked at each other before Ezra asked, "Does your beauty have a small scar on her chin?"
"Yeah, it's the cutest -- How'd you know that?"
Ezra leaned back in his chair and took another sip of whiskey as all the pieces fell into place. "Mr. Wilmington, your bride to be is none other than Delphine Sheardon."
After a moment of processing, Buck shook his head in disbelief. "Hell, it can't be. This gal's from Pittsburgh, and she's heading out to California."
"And she'd only stopped to stay the night, but saw you and decided a longer visit would be in order" Maude offered.
Buck nodded as logic began to play with his plans.
"Clever," Vin observed.
A smile came across Ezra's face for the first time that day. "Of course, Mr. Tanner, we are related. And I for one would be happy to join you on your quest, assuming I make it out of this little incident alive."
"Me too, Vin. Maybe you could teach me more 'bout tracking on the way," JD smiled.
"Sure somebody's gonna need me to bandage you fellas up on the way," Nathan added.
Josiah nodded in accord. "Maybe I'll see some more of my crows along the way."
A faint smile crossed Vin's face at everyone's willingness to help him. While Mary's throat tightened at the thought of the seven men riding away, possibly forever, after the dust cleared the street today. But, instead of protest, she sat placidly and listened to Ezra and Chris work together, devising a plan .
"Mother," Ezra began, "you go to my room up above us and lock yourself in." When she didn't argue, he let Chris instruct Mary.
"Mary, I'll take you to the hotel. There's a lot of folks there, so you should be alright until all this blows over."
"Maybe I oughta go find your cousin, Maxwell," JD offered.
"That, I believe would be imprudent, Mr. Dunne. If you wish to live to see more high adventures in the untamed west, I'd advise you and Mr. Jackson acquiring Virginia and her friend Walter." He turned to Nathan, "Walter is very adept in knifeplay."
Nathan cocked his head to one side. "That makes two of us."
Chris placed his hat back on his head. "Everyone else filter out and find 'em. Anything else Ezra?"
"No sir, I believe my orations are done."
Chris and Mary hurried to the hotel while Josiah escorted Maude up to Ezra's room. Ezra himself, along with Buck and Vin, moved out amongst the street while Nathan and JD moved towards the restaurant, where the party was last seen. Upon entering, they found Virginia sitting primly at the same table where she and the two Sheardon boys had been only minutes before. The rest of the restaurant had cleared out after the sight of all of the guns being drawn, leaving only Virginia and the waiter left in the room.
"Virginia Bequette," JD said flatly, "you're under arrest for the murder of your late husband."
Virginia rolled her eyes as the two men approached her table. "This will plague me until the day I die, won't it. How many of you two bit lawmen are going to come after me for this?"
"If things work out right," Nathan observed, "we'll be the last ones."
The door to the kitchen opened, revealing Walter. "Clint, you'd best get outside." JD said. As he left, Walter moved in stealthily as he withdrew a knife in each hand. He and Nathan and JD circled each other warily. As JD moved around, he inadvertently turned his back to Virginia, and before he could get her back in his eyesight, a wooden chair crashed over his back, sending him sprawling on the floor. When he rolled over, he looked down the barrel of her derringer. He couldn't help but wonder if everyone in this family had one of those as he watched Nathan and Walter circle.
Nathan had withdrawn one of the three knives on his back and waited for Walter to move in. After a few moments, the older man made a move for him, a lunge accompanied by a few quick flicks from each knife. Only one time did the blade catch him, but Nathan knew instantly what the man was trying to do. If he could move in and out quickly enough using only small cuts, Nathan would soon have numerous slices in him, and would weaken from them quickly. Nathan quickly changed his fighting style to match, and hopefully overcome the man. He flipped the knife he held in his hand over, so he held the blade in his hand, and quickly hurled it underhand at Walter. The two men were too close for Nathan to miss. The knife stuck in the left side of Walter's stomach as Nathan pulled out another knife from his back.
If his plan worked, Walter would go to pull out the knife, and when he did, Nathan would move in on him. But Nathan was shocked when the man merely glanced down at the shaft of the blade sticking out of his body, blood beginning to ooze down his leg. After he noticed the blade in him, Walter moved in again with numerous flicks from each knife, only a bit slower this time. Nathan moved back and tripped over JD's body, still lying on the floor. As he did so, he fell back and landed against Virginia, her derringer going off, sending splinters from where the bullet hit in the floor flying into JD's face. He rolled quickly from underneath Nathan's boots and drew a pistol and held it on Walter, hoping Nathan would keep Virginia subdued.
Walter crouched and dove for a nearby table, tipping it on its side to give him cover as he landed behind it. JD placed three shots into the table, and suddenly a flash of metal flew by his face. He dove for cover, knowing luck was the only thing that kept that knife from landing in his skull. His mind flashed back to the time a knife was thrown into his left shoulder and the pain that accompanied it. If he could, he was going to keep that from happening again.
JD caught a flash of movement as Walter darted from behind one table to another. Quickly, he hammered off two shots, one catching the man in the leg. The blow of the bullet threw his momentum off, and he landed sprawled out behind the table he was moving for. Before he could recover, Nathan's boot was on his hand that still held a knife, and his own was balanced on the man's adam's apple. Walter and Virginia were quickly bound and marched to the prison where Nathan kept himself and JD watching over them, despite JD's anxiousness to join back in the fight.
Ezra moved up the street to where his brother lay, hoping that no one had learned of his whereabouts. If they did, Eli would be a sitting duck. His boots echoed against the wooden planks as he hastily walked up the sidewalk, suddenly stopped by boot heels echoing behind him. He spun around, his Buntline Special revolver drawn, only to find Eli moving up behind him in attire matching his brother's. The two men stood facing each other for a moment, both in black hats, boots, pants, and vests, gold chains hanging from each vest, their matching white shirts were both held up on their biceps with black sleeve garters. The only differences in their appearance was Ezra's gun was drawn while Eli's rested easily in his holster, and Eli's shoulder holster couldn't be seen from behind the sling his left arm was in.
"You're to be in bed," Ezra stated as he replaced his revolver and checked his own shoulder holster for easy access, if need be.
"Don't lecture me Ezra," he argued. Max and Felix ran out behind the restaurant after you left. I watched them tell their men what to do, and their still sitting back there, waiting for them to take care of all of us. They've hired on at least two others from around here."
They marched down an alley leading behind the restaurant where shots rang out from inside and, side by side they paused as they reached the end of the alley right before it cleared to where Maxwell and Felix awaited. The brothers looked at each other and moved out to face the other set of brothers as they sat nonchalantly on barrels a few feet behind the restaurant.
Felix and Maxwell merely watched as the two men approached, guns drawn from their hips. "Well, brother," Ezra began cooly, "it seems that we have come upon two sacks of manure awaiting us to escort them to jail."
Eli cocked his gun. "I'm still pretty weak, and I don't know if I can make it back to the jail. So I say we just shoot them now."
Felix and Maxwell stood up and faced them. "Cousins, no need to argue over what to do with us, we'll just eliminate you two." Ezra and Eli heard a gun cock from closely behind them. "Uncock your guns."
They placed their guns back in their holsters, both men's minds racing to find a way out of the turn of events.
"Now, will you hand over the land deeds, or do we have to go on killing our family members?" Felix asked coyly.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Ezra drawled, "but the deeds were destroyed in the fire. Maybe you didn't understand that when our mother told you. I can see why that would happen, you two being on the dense side of the family."
Maxwell's eyes blazed at the insult and his gun flashed out of its holster. "You're pretty cocky for a man about to die."
Eli shook his head and put his hands on his hips. "Max, you're a pretty big man when someone's got a gun to my back. You care to try it without any advantage?"
Maxwell turned his gun on the younger of the Standishes. "Shut up and get your hands away from your guns."
A plan had formed itself in Ezra's head, but it would only work if Eli could follow him and they could keep Felix and Maxwell talking long enough. He turned his head slightly to his brother. "What time is it?"
Eli, Maxwell, and Felix all looked at Ezra like he'd lost his mind. "What?" Eli asked.
"I was just wondering what would our time of death be if we were to die right now. Would you gentlemen indulge me in an answer?"
Felix removed his pocketwatch while Maxwell held his gun steady on Eli and their new employee held his gun on Ezra. "It's one twelve, a good of time as any, unless we'd receive the land deeds."
Ezra shook his head. "I believe your watch is slow. It has to be later than that."
Felix stiffened up. "My watch has the correct time. Where's the land deeds?"
Eli shook his head, hoping Ezra knew what he was doing. "Nah, Felix, Ezra's right. It's got to be later than that," he said as he pulled out his pocketwatch slowly. "I've got one twenty," he lied. His watch too said one twelve.
"Who the hell cares?" Maxwell asked as he lowered his gun slightly. He was growing tired of their stall tactics. "Give us the deeds."
Ezra held up his left hand to silence Maxwell. "That can wait, I'd really like to know for certain what time it is." His hand moved slowly to his vest pocket and he quickly removed a small derringer on a pocketwatch chain. The pointless conversation had caught the man holding him at bay off guard, and Ezra slapped his gun down as he spun and held the small gun on him.
Eli didn't know where Ezra was leading, but knew something was about to happen. When Ezra made his move, Eli's derringer flew out from his sleeve and was held in the general direction of Maxwell and Felix. "You've only got one shot," Maxwell said, wishing he hadn't lowered his gun. He cursed himself for being so careless; Eli would be dead right now if it weren't for that.
Eli glanced over at his brother and grinned at the two men in front of him. "Then I guess you discuss amongst yourselves which one of you is to die."
Ezra saw Felix's hand move towards his gun, and the gambler brought his hand off the man's gun and smashed a fist against his chin, sending him to the ground. He dove into his younger brother and knocked him down behind a stack of nearby boxes, where the man had obviously been hiding, as a shot kicked up dirt close to them and another landed strayly in the stomach of Felix's new lackey.
The alley was just off to their side, and Ezra and Eli dove for it, bullets hitting inches away from them as they raced back out to the main street, hoping not to find any more of the Sheardons or their employees. Once they reached the street, Ezra and Eli quickly moved off in different directions, Felix following Ezra as he ducked inside the saloon and Maxwell stalking Eli as he made his way around another building, and down the street.
Buck saw a flicker of movement in the office of The Clarion, Mary Travis' town newspaper, upon his departure from the saloon with the others. He moved around and came at the door from the side, unable to be seen from anyone who would be inside. He paused for a second, and removed his sawed off shotgun from its holster. With a bound, Buck burst through the door, finding two gunmen loafing inside talking to Faith Vazbeck, or as Ezra knew her, Delphine Sheardon, who sat primly behind Mary's desk.
His sudden arrival caught the two men off guard. When they first saw him, the man off to the left side dove for Buck while the other went for his gun. Instinctively, Buck's gun roared, ending the threat of the man drawing his gun as he slumped against the wall, and was dead before he hit the floor. As soon as his gun roared, it was flung from his hand as the other man slammed into him.
Buck hit the ground as his gun clattered on the ground out of reach and he rolled out from underneath his assailant, who was also down on the ground. The two men jumped up and faced each other as Delphine watched, almost uninterested. As far as Buck could see, the man didn't wear a gun, but looks could be deceiving. Instead of making a move for a holdout gun like Buck suspected him of having, the man lunged at him again, arms spread wide. Buck stepped in and to his right as the man neared, grabbing his hair once he was within reach. Before the attacker could react, Buck slammed his head down on a table full of metal letters used for printing.
"Look at the mess you're makin'. You know how mad Mrs. Travis is gonna be?"
Before Buck could spout another line or slam the man's head down again, he broke free and jumped back from him. The two men once again faced each other as the outlaw jumped at Buck again. Buck moved inside again and grabbed the man's hand, moving it deftly into the printing press. As Buck slammed down the metal plate on his hand, a fearsome shriek escaped from the attacker before he crumpled to the ground, holding his broken hand. He looked up at Buck just in time to see his fist coming to meet his face, knocking him out.
Buck then turned to Delphine. "I don't cotton to being made a fool of."
Delphine shrugged and produced a revolver from underneath the desk. As she pointed it at him she smiled. "I'm sorry, you and your friends were merely in our way. It was nothing personal, darling. You should thank my aunt, she taught me everything I know."
He leaned down to face her, his hands resting on the desk. "At least your aunt's a lady, you surely aren't. That's why I don't feel bad."
She looked at him cooly. "Feel bad for what, my white knight?"
With his left hand, Buck swept the gun away, and with his right he connected a fist with her chin, watching her crumple on the floor. "For that."
As everyone left the saloon, Maude and Josiah moved upstairs to Ezra's room where she was to stay until everything blew over. When they reached the door, Maude unlocked it and stepped back as Josiah opened the door. Before either of them knew what was happening, a huge bulk flew out the door, smashing into Josiah. Once Maude could figure out what was happening, she realized it was Vladof Guttentag, obviously sent to kill her.
The force of Guttentag's body was meant to knock Maude off the balcony, making her an easy kill once she hit the floor beneath. Finding Josiah where Maude should have surprised Vladof. But Josiah grabbing onto him and bringing him off the second floor with him was even more of a surprise to the large man. Once they had cleared the railing, Josiah released his grasp on the man and pushed away from him, allowing him to land with a few feet in between them, instead of under him.
Guttentag hit the ground face down with a huge crash, a few nearby chairs fell over from the force of his landing, while Josiah landed in the middle of a table, it breaking underneath his back as it broke his fall. Maude watched in horror as neither man moved for a second. She caught her breath when Josiah shook his head and stood up groggily. He looked around and saw Vladof starting to rise slowly, so he picked up the large leg of the table he'd just broken and held it like a club as he moved towards the monster.
Vladof had arose to his hands and knees, shaking his head. Josiah slammed his makeshift club down over Guttentag's head, breaking the stick. The preacher stepped back, dumbfounded as the huge man shook his head again and rose to his feet. The man towered over Josiah, who was well over six foot tall. His head seemed to join his shoulders without the use of a neck, and he easily weighed three hundred pounds, most of it muscle. He balled up a fist, almost the size of Josiah's head, and slammed it into the preacher, knocking him back into another table.
The blow had brought Josiah back to the here and now. This man was larger than he'd first believed, but if he didn't stop him, he would kill Maude; that was evidently his intention with his first move from Ezra's room. Josiah's mind raced as he tried to figure out a way to stop him.
Suddenly, two shots rang out from upstairs and small eruptions on his shoulder caused Vladof to stop from moving towards Josiah. Maude had placed two bullets above the man's right arm which gave Josiah the chance to move around him giving him more room to work with. He moved to the table where everyone had sat minutes before, grabbing for his own gun. His holster was empty, he had obviously lost it in the fall. Vladof turned to face Josiah again as Maude fired another shot, this one hitting the floor off to his left. Josiah searched the table in vain, hoping someone might have left behind a gun, but found only some shot glasses and their bottle of whiskey.
Guttentag was moving in quickly, and Josiah picked up the bottle and smashed the butt of it on the table. Holding it by the neck, the broken, jagged glass jutted from his fist as he wielded it as is only defense. As Guttentag took another step towards him, a small burst of crimson appeared above his left foot, causing him to stagger, but not fall. When the large man faltered, Josiah took his chance and rushed him, slicing Guttentag's face on the right side with the bottle as he slammed it into him. Josiah was knocked back by Vladof's large hand again, this time less forcefully.
The bottle crashed on the ground as Josiah rose again to look at the man turning towards him. The right half of his face was almost gone from his blow, and blood spewed from his left shoulder and leg as Maude fired her last two shots into the man, landing in the right side of his stomach. Josiah realized the only thing he had working for him now was his speed, and he moved in and landed four powerful blows to Guttentag's face. But before he could pull out, two huge arms wrapped around him and began to tighten down. As Josiah twisted in pain, feeling his ribs crack from the intense pressure, he remembered the warning that was issued to everyone about this man: don't let him get his arms around you, he'll squeeze you to death.
Josiah knew if he didn't do something soon, this would be the end. He had managed to twist around so his back was to Guttentag, and he raised up both of his feet. Letting Vladof's shins guide him, Josiah slammed both of his boot heels into the tops of Guttentag's feet. No matter how big a man was, such a force would break many of the small bones in the top of the foot. Vladof fell back and Josiah leaped forward. He landed in a crouch, his sides on fire from the pain. Amazingly, Guttentag stood back up. He shook his large head and took a few steps to the right and then a few steps to the left. He repeated this a few times, speeding up as he went. Josiah was perplexed at the man's behavior, but leaned down and picked up one of the pieces from the railing they'd fallen from. One end was flat from where it connected with the handrail, while the other end was jagged and splintered from the break.
Guttentag made one more sweep around, this time almost running, and barreled towards Josiah. He rushed forward, both hands forward with his huge fists extended and flailing, blood steamed from his leg, shoulder, stomach, and face, but he still seemed undaunted, yet a bit slower.
When he moved within three feet of Josiah, the preacher crouched down, spear in hand and rose up with the spear just as the two met face to face. Josiah looked into what was left of the face of the man as they pulled apart from each other, the wooden stake impaled deeply in Guttentag's heart. Vladof took a few steps back, and collapsed on the floor with a loud thud. Maude hurried down the steps to Josiah who'd collapsed in a nearby chair. When she reached him, he looked up and smiled meekly. "Goliath hath fallen."
Chris and Mary hurried to the hotel where he hoped to keep her safe from everything happening, even as gunshots rang out from the restaurant and the newspaper office and sounds of fighting were coming from the saloon. They stepped inside the door of the hotel to find an unwelcome sight: Ray and Justin Highpoint lounging in the lobby with no one else in sight.
Ray sat with his feet propped up on a table, cleaning underneath his fingernails with a knife. "Howdy cowboy. You and the little lady need a room for a little while?"
Justin chuckled as he stood up and removed the thong from the hammer of his sidearm. "Sorry Larabee, we'll go ahead and entertain her after we're done with you."
Chris gently pushed Mary behind him as he slid the thongs off his guns and Ray stood up. His silent, steely stare obviously disturbed the two men. "You ain't so outspoken when we're sober and you ain't got no one behind us, are ya?" Ray sneered.
Chris merely stared at the two as Mary's worried blue eyes darted back and forth between the two parties. She had moved as far back in the corner as she could.
Justin had become deftly somber. "You still think you're too good for us, don't you?"
"What the hell's your problem, cowboy? I asked you a question!"
"You think you're too close to miss this time?" Ray asked.
"Well, you do know how to talk!" Justin exclaimed. "I could hit you from across the street."
Justin thought about it. "No," Ray interjected. "This'll do."
The conversation had ceased. For a few intense moments, no one spoke. Mary's eyes darted between the two parties still, while they stared at each other. A fly buzzed in the silence of the hotel and shots crashed outside, sounding like they were from behind the restaurant.
In a flash, Justin moved for his gun as did Ray. Shots rang out in the small confines of the lobby of the hotel as Chris Larabee's pistol seemed to appear from nowhere, spouting flame as he hammered off three shots. Another shot rang out and wood splinters kicked up halfway between Chris and the two gunmen. Ray's shot had gone severely short as his hand tightened on the trigger of his gun as two of Larabee's bullets hit him in the chest, within an inch of one another.
Justin Highpoint was on his knees, his left hand holding the wound he had just acquired in his upper stomach, as he tried to level his gun to fire at Chris. Mary cried out at the leader of the seven men just as a fourth shot left his gun and entered the base of the man's throat, right where the collarbones joined. Highpoint fell face down on the floor, never firing a shot. Chris replaced the four spent shells in his gun and finally turned to face Mary as she leaned against the ledger and the counter of the hotel.
He helped her up by her elbow and glanced down to notice she'd smeared the names of some of the hotel dwellers: Maude Standish, Eli Standish, and Faith Vazbeck. Ironic, he thought as he looked into her eyes. "Are you alright?" Mary asked.
Chris felt his chest. "No holes in me. Maybe this isn't a safe place for you."
A moment passed between them. Mary wanted to tell the gunslinger that she felt safe no matter where she was just as long as he was there, but that would be much too forward. They held their gaze for a second, and Mary thought Chris might kiss her when boot heels on the boardwalk outside caught his attention and his head spun to see Eli tearing around the corner of the hotel into the street, Maxwell Sheardon after him.
Chris and Mary moved to the door to see what was going on: Eli had run out of the alley and turned to face Maxwell. The two men stood facing each other in the middle of the street as Chris left Mary and stepped outside. The two men stared at each other and didn't seem to notice him as his boot heels sounded when he stepped outside. "Eli," Chris said, wanting them to know who had the upper hand in this showdown.
Eli kept his eyes on Maxwell and his right hand hovering less than an inch above the butt of his pistol. "This is between me and Max, Chris. Thanks."
Chris stood in front of the hotel, looking at the two men. On his right stood Maxwell Sheardon, a beady eyed little man who'd taken part in killing Eli and Ezra's brother. On his left stood Eli Standish, the brother of Ezra. His left arm in a sling and his clothes covered in a layer of dust, just like yesterday when he arrived in town.
Eli and Maxwell stared at each other through cool and calculating eyes. Both men hated the other. No words were spoken as the action came to a head. Maxwell went for his gun, and with lightning speed, drew it and had it leveled by the time a bullet smashed into his body, jolting his figure. Eli's gun had never left its holster. Instead, he slouched down slightly and grabbed the butt and trigger of his Buntline special, spinning the holster and gun on a swivel hinge.
Maxwell fell to his knees as Eli withdrew his gun from the holster and aimed it at him. As he squeezed the trigger, the gun shot out from his hand, backfiring and burning his hand as the bullet exploded in the chamber. Maxwell sneered at his fortunate turn of luck. Eli had dropped his derringer when running through the alley and was now without a firearm. He leveled his gun and was about to watch another one of his cousins die when he felt the blow of a bullet crash into the left side of his rib cage and another one into his heart.
As Maxwell Sheardon lay dead in the street, Chris Larabee and Eli Standish replaced their smoking guns. Chris in his hip holster and Eli in his shoulder holster which was hidden underneath his sling. After replacing his gun, Eli hurried over to the water trough where he plunged his hand in, trying to relieve him of some of the pain.
Just then, JD and Nathan appeared from the jail where they had deposited their two prisoners, Buck came out of the Clarion office, leading Delphine, and Vin dragged two scruffy men behind him towards the jail. Chris looked around, noting that everyone was accounted for except for Josiah, Maude, and Ezra.
Josiah was too weak from the fight to move too much, so Maude helped him up to Ezra's room, instead of trying to get him over to Nathan's. Besides, she figured, there's already been one fight in here today, everything else would be happening outside the saloon. This was probably the safest place now. Just as she was helping in the door of her son's rented room, Ezra burst through the door of the saloon, gun in hand. He darted across the floor and ducked behind the bar just in time before Felix raced in after him.
Felix moved over behind one of the overturned tables as he looked around the room. Vladof Guttentag lay dead not twenty feet from him, his face a bloody mess and a wooden post sticking from his chest. Parts of tables, chairs, a discarded gun and broken glass were scattered around, and a large piece of railing was missing from the second floor, right in front of an open door where Maude Standish and Josiah Sanchez stood. Felix picked up a shot glass and hurled it towards the bar, it smashing a bottle when it hit, spewing its contents inches from Ezra as he devised a plan.
But before anything could really mold in his mind, a shot rang out, but nothing hit over in his direction. A woman screamed from the second story, and the woman was his mother. He dove to the end of the bar where he could see his open door. A large piece of wood was missing from the left side from where Felix's bullet had hit. Ezra stood up behind the bar. "I thought you were here to fight me."
Felix looked around and stood up likewise. "I am, but mommy made a good enough target up there."
Ezra, his eyes never leaving Felix yelled up to his room. "Mother, are you harmed?"
"No, Ezra, I'm fine," came the reply from upstairs. "But Josiah's hurt badly from Guttentag."
"Well, at least Vlad didn't die in vain," Felix observed coyly.
"I wish the same were true for you," Ezra drawled as he moved around the bar to face Felix Sheardon for one last time. No matter what he had told Eli, Ezra and Felix both wouldn't walk out of here alive today. Today would end it all. "Your men are all dead," he bluffed. "Discard your gunbelt."
"No, I think not, cousin." Instead of dropping his belt, he went for his gun, but Felix never removed the thong off his hammer, hindering his draw. Ezra smoothly pulled out his Buntline Special from his holster and let two shots roar, both catching the murderer of his brother in the stomach.
Felix lay crumpled on the floor, a look of helplessness replacing his usual confident, smug grin. His mouth tried to form words as the pain of the bullets took their toll and blood began to trickle slowly from the corner of his mouth. Ezra stood over him, his gun still sighted on him as he stammered, "Ezra, don't kill me. We're family, we could work together . . . "
"I think not, and you are no relation of mine anymore," he answered, a dark shadow of hatred covering his face as he swiftly kicked the man in his chin, knocking him back onto the floor even more.
Felix fumbled to rise on his left elbow. As he did so, his right arm shot forward, destined not to die alone, and Ezra heard the mechanism that would release his derringer. But by the time the small gun reached Felix Sheardon's hand, Ezra Standish had put a bullet in his head, finally avenging his brother's death.
Delphine awoke the next morning inside the jail cell and found herself sharing the accommodations with Virginia, Walter, two outlaws Vin had rounded up, and one of the gunmen she'd hired to protect her. JD sat at the desk eating breakfast and beamed at her disgruntled appearance. "Sorry it's not some fancy hotel, but we don't get much complaints. Those who do," he smiled as he twirled his gun on his finger, "they don't complain twice."
Before any more could be said, the sound of the approaching stage rolled into town and JD moved outside to watch it come in. Buck and Vin stood next to him as they watched Judge Travis step off, greeted by Mary and Chris, and Ezra escort his mother to it. Nathan leaned up against a post on the other side of the street, taking in the morning air after staying up all night with Josiah. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, and when he opened them, he found Josiah leaning on the wheel of the stage, talking to Ezra and Maude.
"Maude, I beg of you to stay," he pleaded.
Maude patted him on the side of his face with a gloved hand. "Josiah, I truly do appreciate all you've done, but staying in one place too long can be hazardous."
"Well then, at least promise to visit."
She smiled at him, melting his heart. "I'll see what I can do."
Nathan placed a hand on his shoulder. "I thought I told you to lie down and rest. You're gonna meet those damn crows of yours if you don't listen to me."
Josiah followed Nathan off to his room, awaiting Maude's next visit as Ezra turned to his mother. "It's over, mother."
"Yes, darling, it's over. Thank your friends and say goodbye to your brother for me." She looked over at Judge Travis as Chris filled him in on what awaited him in the jail. "I can understand why he didn't make it out this morning."
The stage pulled out of town, and Judge Travis asked all of the seven men to meet with him in the saloon. As the eight of them sat around a table, Judge Travis began, "Gentlemen, I hired you on for thirty days, thinking thirty days would be a long enough time to settle this place. Apparently I was mistaken. It's going to take a little while longer to make it safe for folks to live here." He looked around the saloon, still littered with pieces of glass and wood from yesterday. "And you boys have a mess to clean up," he smiled. "So, I'm extending your employment contract for those of you who want it."
Everyone looked to Vin, waiting to see what his call would be on Tuscosa. "I guess it'll keep a while longer."
Buck grinned, wondering how he could be so dumb as to fall for Delphine Sheardon in just two days. "Hell, I got no one waiting on me anywhere."
JD grinned, knowing damn well if Buck stayed, he wasn't leaving. "I'll stay."
Josiah rested his heavy forearms on the table. "The Lord's seen it fit as to keep me from travelling for a while, I'll take this as a sign."
Nathan leaned back in his chair. "Someone's got to keep these fellas bandaged up."
Chris glanced out the door, seeing Mary move down the street to the office of the Clarion. A slight sparkle came to his eye. "Maybe I'll stick around too."
The only one left was Ezra. Judge Travis looked at him. "There's no obligation to stay anymore, you've been pardoned, son."
Ezra looked around the table at the six other men. "I believe our quaint little town could use my diverse sophistication."
Judge Travis beamed and stood up. "It's settled then, good. Now if you all will excuse me, I believe I have some prisoners to escort. JD, you want to introduce us?"
After they'd left, Nathan moved Josiah back to his bed for more rest, while Buck meandered outside, and Ezra went down the street to the livery stable where Eli was saddling up to leave, leaving Chris and Vin around the table. Vin looked at the mess all around them. "Who wants to grab a broom?"
"I remember you looking downright purty with your broom and apron when we first met," Chris smiled.
Eli was just tightening down the cinch on his saddle when Ezra moved up behind him. His arm was still in a sling and his other hand was bandaged from the burn. "This town's dangerous, Ezra," he smiled.
"Every occupation has its pitfalls. Judge Travis is in the jail with what is left."
"Now's a good time to leave, I guess," he said as he swung into the saddle.
"You take care of yourself, brother."
"You know better than to tell me that. Look what I did in just two days," he said holding up his hands. "By the way, Ezra, where'd you get that pocket gun? I'd never seen that before."
"Mother just bought it for me the day before."
"Damn, all I got was a new shirt. Well, you always were the favorite."
Ezra patted his brother on the leg and said goodbye. As he watched him ride out of town with his packhorse trailing, Buck came up beside him. "Quite a family you got, Ezra."
"Yes, quite a family indeed. My con artist mother and my outlaw brother," he smiled as they walked back towards town.
"Through all this, I never heard one mention of your pa."
Ezra chuckled slightly as they entered the restaurant to eat. "That my friend, is an entirely different story."
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