The Secret Hand
Disclaimer: I don't own 'em or the show they rode in on. No profit made from this.
Archive: At Cowboy Dreams and my regulars.
Summary: Cowboy Dreams' Willow Challenge Answer - An ordinary day at work for the Seven in the Old West, and Ezra takes a hand in things
Pairing: Ezra and Vin.
Rating: SLASH, PG
Completed: 13 May 2005
Near Four Corners, spring doesn't last long, the transition from winter to summer takes place in a hard driving series of rain storms that sweep through the area, drenching the earth and creating floods, mudslides, and misery. The edge of heat that follows will coax wild flowers into bloom for a brief flurry of incredible color and show, then burn them away heartlessly in the heart of its furnace.
Such was this day in Four Corners, on the cusp of spring's brief glory. The sky was endlessly blue, vibrant with the hint of the rains just over. Every spot that could harbor a weed spouted an abundance of nature's palette, the light breezes wafting the sweet perfumes aloft. The few children of the town gathered the precious flowers in tight little bouquets and presented their fistfuls to their weary mothers, coaxing smiles from careworn faces.
Vin presented his to Ezra.
Buck Wilmington stood by his horse, stroking the gray's hide without real thought. He'd been riding the north and east patrol swing outside of town and just returned. It was nearly mid-morning and the air had just enough warmth to relegate his leather jacket to the ties above his saddlebags. Inhaling deeply, he smiled and stretched, surreptitiously rubbing his ass, a bit numb from all those hours on the trail. His eyes closed as he got a whiff of someone's apple pie baking.
He was observed by various town folk out on business, but few of them actually spoke to any of the peacekeepers, choosing to pretend that the rough gunmen were strangers just passing through town, not permanent guardians. So no one bothered Buck. The young man who had become sheriff by default came out of the jail across the street and spotted Wilmington.
"Hey, Buck!" When Wilmington swung around in acknowledgement, scratching at his head as he dragged his hat from it, JD Dunne continued, "See anything out there?"
"Nope, quiet as a sleepin' mouse full of cheese." Buck wiped at his mustache and added, "Think I'll get a drink and cool down."
Dunne stepped down into the street, waiting as a freight wagon rolled past before crossing to his friend's side. "Chris and Nate are inside." He nodded toward the batwing doors of the saloon behind Buck.
Together the men entered the cool shade of the building, Buck stomping out trail dust as he walked. "Hey there, boys!"
"Buck." Chris Larabee squinted down his morning cheroot. "Any trouble?"
"Nope." Buck dropped into a chair, one hand clamping down on Nathan Jackson's wide shoulder. "Nate."
"Buck," Nathan shrugged off the heavy hand and smiled, "bet you could use a beer about now."
"You'd win that one!"
JD was still standing and gazing around the largely empty hall. "I'll get it." He strolled on over to the vacant bar and behind to help himself to two mugs, filling them from a keg against the back wall. The bartender wouldn't be on duty until midday and the seven had the run of the place before that. The manager, Inez Recillos, had long since worked out a simple system for them to note down anything they took on a slate board behind the bar. JD scratched two hack marks next to the B and came back out carrying the drinks.
Buck had settled into his seat and stretched mightily, nearly knocking one of the beers out of JD's hands. "Hey, watch it!" Dunne ducked under the long arms and thumped Buck's mug down in front of him, the beer sloshing.
"JD!" Buck grabbed at his drink, steadying it before more ale was lost. He quaffed a third in a single long swallow and smacked his lips together. "Thanks, kid."
Dunne sank into his own seat next to Jackson and took a small sip of his brew, nodding.
The four men sat quietly, relaxed and meditative. When things happened in this town, it got frantic and violent very fast. Most of the time, it was quiet. Like today. As long as they were visible, Larabee had determined, the locals tended to go about their business without fuss or fear. And the undesirables just kept on riding through, without stopping. And that is the way he liked it.
The tall silhouette of Josiah Sanchez filled the doorway from the street and the man walked in on soft feet. His brow was glistening with a sheen of sweat and his shirt sleeves were rolled up above his elbows. He half-smiled as he lowered himself onto one of the remaining chairs at the Seven's table, his back to the door. He was one of the few who would sit thus. Not that the others didn't trust their brethren to watch their backs, but instinct and personal history were powerful dictators of where and how one might rest. Josiah simply didn't care. He reached for the whisky bottle at the center of the table and one of the cluster of untouched shot glasses there. Pouring himself a half-glass, he spoke, "Getting hot out there now."
"Likely be full summer soon," Nathan agreed, leaning back and taking a mouthful of his warm beer.
"Herds are moving." Buck spoke from experience. "We'll see some coming through in the next few weeks."
Chris frowned and nodded, not happy at the thought. This was their second year in Four Corners as a team and they'd found out the first year what that could mean. Shouldn't be as bad this year, though, he'd made it clear what was expected in this town. The trail bosses knew it now. No, shouldn't be as bad. He sighed and nudged his glass of whisky, making a small circle of dampness on the scarred table. "Best we scout out further once a day from now on."
"Vin will like that." JD said, thinking of their tracker's preference for the wilds and the open spaces.
Knowing looks were exchanged over his head, but no one tried to correct the young man.
Sanchez rolled his shoulders to ease some kinks from heaving large rocks behind the old church he was rebuilding. "We have a small mystery to solve."
Larabee raised his head to stare silently at the preacher. No one spoke but attentiveness sparked in the air.
Josiah took a measured sip of his whisky, he'd learned to be careful. Meeting the flat gaze of Chris Larabee, he said, "Things are turning up missing." He looked at the other men, then back at Larabee. "Got some complaints."
"Dang it!" JD gave the table a pound with one fist. Buck grabbed up his beer mug before it could tilt and gave Dunne a reproachful look. JD ignored him and scowled at the group at large. "Why can't they come to me? I'm the sheriff!"
Sanchez shrugged pacifically. "It's small stuff, brother, a missing pie, a shirt from the drying line, a book, a bucket." He eyed Dunne, "Not exactly big crime for the law."
"Irritating though." Chris puffed on his smoke. "Any ideas?"
The rest of the men shook their heads, then Nathan looked up toward the back stairs. "Might be Ezra's heard something over the tables."
Buck took another large gulp of his beer and stared regretfully at the nearly empty mug before adding, "Too early to ask."
"Maybe not." Josiah nodded toward those same stairs where their nattily dressed partner was now descending. Raising his voice, he called, "Good morning, Ezra."
"Gentlemen." Standish nodded as he came to the foot of the stairs and then strolled over to the others. "You look pensive. Is something amiss in our small burg?"
"Got a petty thief." Buck upturned his mug and then shoved it toward JD Dunne.
"Nope! You go get your own!" Dunne shoved it back in Buck's direction. It wobbled and began to tip over but Wilmington caught it and sighed.
Ignoring the byplay, Ezra repeated, "Thief?"
"Nothing important missing," Josiah clarified, "just personal items, no cash."
"More information will be needed to determine a culprit." Ezra poured himself a whisky and pulled it close to his chest without tasting. "Who is missing items? What items? How many? From where? Just today or has this happened before?" He finally took a sip from his glass with a small smile, lowering his eyes.
Everyone stared at the gambler. "I'm not sure that I can answer all those questions, Ezra, but you're right, guess they do need answers." Sanchez drummed the table with his fingers.
Chris leaned forward. "I'd say you need to speak to the folks who came to you, get more information if you don't know those answers. Take JD along."
Dunne immediately stood up. "Yeah. I should find out. Might be others, too." He lifted his mug and took another short gulp of the small beer, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked at Sanchez who had yet to move. "Come on, Josiah."
With a slow deliberation, Sanchez finished his drink and then rose to his substantial height. "Let's go, brother." He rubbed at his neck as he followed the bouncing young sheriff out the door.
Before the door wings could slap closed, Vin Tanner appeared and strolled in, pushing them aside to swing rapidly behind him. He ambled over to the table and nodded at the others, easing into a chair next to Ezra Standish.
Ezra pushed a full glass of whisky to Vin.
Discussion centered around the expected trail herds and sweeping patrols to watch for their arrival. Nathan filled the tracker in on the local small crimes that Josiah and JD had gone off to investigate. Tanner reported on sign he'd found of a group of Apache that had camped on nearby Parton's Trace, near the fishing hole. No one was unduly concerned, that happened every so often. So far, the tribe had not bothered any ranchers or settlers and never showed close to town.
Then Ezra brushed his coat sleeves and leaned in to fold his hands in front of his closely pressed lips. Chris lifted his chin and cocked an eyebrow, Buck and Nathan both edged towards the fronts of their seats. When Ezra did that, he had something important to say. Vin slouched bonelessly lower in his seat, he'd heard this last night, early this morning.
"I listened to Mr. Thomas Bartlett complain at length last night about intrusions on his parcel by riders from Guy Royal's stable."
Chris frowned. "That's a bit off their routes."
"Exactly." Ezra agreed with a short nod. "When I commented to that effect, Mr. Bartlett got quite affronted and explained in minute detail," here Ezra paused to drop and fold his hands on the table in front of him, "that HIS water rights extended to the East RingGold River."
"What?" Buck sat up straight. "That ain't right!"
"No," Standish's lips quirked and he tipped his head in agreement, "And I did point that out to him." Ezra leaned slightly in toward Tanner at his side, the movement so subtle that others might not have noticed, but his friends simply allowed for it tolerantly. "He became defensive, expounding on the worthless quality of the water on his land."
"Should have thought of that before he took it up." Buck had no patience for whiners and ignorant greenhorns.
Jackson, though, thought of Mrs. Bartlett and the three young Bartlett girls. "Should be something we can do."
"Royal's grazing land includes the East Ring," Chris stated unequivocally. "Don't much want to defend him but we don't need a range war."
Tapping the table silently with his fingers, Ezra turned to fully face Chris. "I had a thought."
Larabee settled back in his seat. One thing he'd discovered about Ezra Standish was that the man was cautious and planned ahead. If he brought a problem to the table, he already had a solution as well. Suppressing a smile, he waited.
"Neat's Creek runs through the small canyons just beyond Bartlett's. No one has watering rights there now." Ezra stopped.
"And if we could resettle the Bartletts on old Homer Everson's spread, they'd have their own water in those canyons and better prospects too." Jackson sat up in excitement, slapping the table with energy.
"What would it take?" Chris kept his voice neutral. He didn't mind Ezra's theatrics, especially when the man fixed what was wrong before most even knew there was something needed fixing.
"A deposit of a small amount of lucre for the exchange of lands with the land registry office and some simple paperwork." Ezra paused. "And, of course, moving the family and their possessions."
"How much still needs doing?" Larabee knew his Standish. The smile was getting harder to suppress but he kept his eyes on the table now.
Ezra cleared his throat. He didn't care to get too involved in such machinations but it had seemed preferable to dealing with the obnoxious Mr. Royal and a range war. Under the table, he felt the warm pressure of one of Vin's knees on the outside of his thigh. "Amazingly enough, poor player though he is, Mr. Bartlett won enough last night to pay those fees and to hire a wagon..."
"...and two of Yosemite's roustabouts..." Vin said cheerfully.
Ezra nodded, continuing without losing his rhythm, "and by now," he peered down at his pocket watch that had materialized with a sleight of hand on the table, "be well on the way to moving his kith and kin to the larger, if older, homestead."
"Amazing." Nathan repeated with a grin.
"Ez, I like your style." Buck eased back in his seat and raised JD's unfinished mug of beer in a silent toast before draining it.
"Problem solved." Chris spoke with satisfaction and tipped another measure of amber liquid into Standish's now empty whisky glass.
"Problem solved," Ezra agreed, his watch vanishing.
Vin leaned forward to look at Larabee around Ezra. "Seeing as how we just did a full day's work," he quirked a tiny grin at his friend, "Seems like Ez and me need some time off."
"Ezra sorted out the Bartletts and Guy Royal. What have you done?" Chris ignored Buck's chuckle and Nathan's snort.
"Why, he watched my back." Standish relaxed in his seat, leaning away from the table, full whisky glass cupped in his agile hands.
"We need that long scout." Chris wasn't letting them off that easy.
"Can do that." Tanner nodded. "Need to get old Ez here out in the fresh air some anyway."
When Ezra sat up with an indignant air, Jackson and Wilmington looked at each other with amusement. Chris Larabee simply nodded wisely. "Need to air him out once and a while."
Everyone grinned at the gambler who lost his look of false outrage with a shrug and roll of his eyes.
Vin started to push his way up to his feet when, with a thump and swoosh, Josiah Sanchez marched back into the saloon. Dropping back in his seat, Tanner watched along with the rest as the preacher clomped his way to the table and sat heavily.
"Josiah?" Larabee's gaze swung towards the empty doorway, then back to Sanchez.
"JD has the culprits in hand." Josiah leaned his elbows on the table and wiped at his face with both hands before straightening to look over at Ezra Standish. "Did you know?"
Innocence radiated from the Southerner. "Know?"
Josiah sat back, hands now resting on the table's edge. "You knew, didn't you?"
Chris Larabee wasn't a particularly patient man and this was becoming irritating. "Josiah, what happened?"
"We," Josiah beetled his brows at Standish before turning to face Chris, "we began by going to Mr. Logan over at the feed store. He was missing a book. We found the Tyler boys there, playing tag in the back lot."
"And the book?"
"Aaron Tyler dropped it right at JD's feet when he skipped by us." Josiah shook his head. "Fell out of a hole in his pocket."
"Mrs. Tyler isn't going to be very happy." Nathan rubbed at his face, stretching the skin into a frown. Those two hooligans were only eight and nine but managed to get in trouble more than any of the other kids in town. Mary Tyler, a widow, was one of the laundry women at the edge of town and eked a living from her drudgery.
"That's why JD is setting the boys to work as restitution for their crimes." Josiah's solemn face broke into a grin and he looked slyly over at Standish who appeared intent on fixing a cufflink. "Seems someone suggested to the boys that if they returned their ill gotten gains and traded chores for payment, they could 'buy' things instead of 'acquiring them inappropriately.'" Sanchez laced his fingers on his stomach and looked benignly at Ezra. "Mighty big words for such little tykes, eh, Ezra?"
Standish looked up and cocked his head to the side, studying Josiah with a blank face. Then a small smile grew as his green eyes twinkled. "Education is a great leveler, Josiah. It appears that those two young gentlemen are learning."
"Yep, it does." Josiah smiled.
"So, no more missing things?" Buck pushed the two empty beer mugs together and yawned, suddenly tired as his long trail ride caught up with him.
"No more." Josiah nodded with satisfaction.
Vin stood up again, looking down at Ezra. "Ready?"
"For a ride through the wilderness?"
"Yep." Vin blinked slowly, a wry look at Larabee to share secret good humor, "I like riding through wilderness." Then his bright blue eyes found Ezra's. The rest was said silently, though the other men at the table had no difficulty 'hearing' it.
"Very well." Ezra rose and adjusted his suit coat with tiny tugs at the lapels. "We bid you adieu, gentlemen."
"Ezra." Chris Larabee shoved his chair back as he stood abruptly.
Standish, in the act of moving away from the table, froze for a moment, then turned to face the man that led them.
"Ezra, thanks." Chris hitched his thumbs in his belt and nodded slowly. "You two take it easy now, you earned some quiet."
"On the trail?" Ezra's astonishment was clear in his voice.
"Come on, Ez, before the man changes his mind." Vin slapped a hand on his lover's shoulder and tugged.
Buck and Nathan both laughed and Chris reached out to pick up his whisky, then stood straight and raised the glass to his two men. "Boys, be good."
And suddenly, Tanner and Standish looked like mischievous little boys, both blushing and smirking. With a meeting of eyes, the two turned to offer identical salutes and then dashed for the door with dignity left behind along with Chris' bark of laughter.
It was a typical day in Four Corners. Chris drank down his whisky and nodded to Buck who was already traipsing over towards the stairway, sleep and comfort clearly on his mind. Josiah, still chuckling, wandered back out of the saloon, mind already turning over the possible ways he could fix the splinters on the third pew. Nathan Jackson joined Larabee and the two men walked side-by-side out into the sunlight.
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