by Sassysouix and Dorkjunkie
Disclaimer: The characters of The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, CBS and Trilogy. I am not profiting by their use in any way.
Warning: There is some language in this story.
~ 1 ~
Brushing the clinging trail dust from his clothes, Ezra Standish made his way down the boardwalk intending to check in with Larabee at the jail before heading to the restaurant for a much needed meal. The gambler hated riding the dawn patrol but circumstances beyond any of their control deemed it necessary. Those very same circumstances in fact had him also taking the afternoon patrols.
Three days earlier, Buck, JD, Josiah and Vin had left escorting the remaining members of the Wheeler gang to stand trial in Peterson, nearly a week's ride each way.
The previous week, Larabee's horse had gone down in the pursuit of the Wheeler gang and while the gunslinger had managed to kick free of the animal, the tumble down the rocky incline had resulted in a badly bruised hip and wrenched knee.
In the same pursuit, the gambler had sustained a slight wound in the altercation, which ended in the gang's capture. Realizing they were cornered, the fleeing criminals had chosen to stand and fight. The resulting gun battle had killed four of their number but a ricocheting bullet had grazed the southerner's skull.
Realizing the sheriff of Peterson, as well as Judge Travis wanted the remaining members to stand trial in the town where they had wrought murder and mayhem, Chris had JD send a wire that his men would be escorting the prisoners back to Peterson as soon as possible. Leaving the recovering members to watch over the town and Nathan to watch over his patients, the four lawmen had ridden out at dawn promising to make the trip as quickly as possible.
With Chris still unable to ride it had fallen to the con man to take the patrols. Ezra had made the obligatory complaints expected of him but hadn't failed to do the job Judge Travis paid for.
Bone weary from all the hours in the saddle and dustier than he ever believed possible, he made his way down the street, his thoughts on a hot meal and an even hotter bath.
"Good day Mr. Standish." Mrs. Potter smiled at him as he approached where she was sweeping the dirt from the boardwalk in front of her store.
"Ma'am," he tipped his dusty hat. "You're looking lovely as usual this fine day." Ezra made a great show of sniffing the air, a twinkle in his green eyes. "That wonderful aroma wouldn't happen to be Gingersnaps would it?"
"Fresh out of the oven." The widow gave him a small wink, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I'm quite sure there will be some waiting when you stop back by." The storekeeper promised.
"You are indeed an angel from heaven." Sweeping his hat from his head, he made a grand bow, kissing her hand before continuing on his way as Nathan, the bag containing his medical equipment in hand, exited the jail.
As Ezra entered, Chris looked up from the book in his lap. His injured leg propped up on the corner of the single desk, a scowl darkened his features as his gaze swept over the dusty con man.
"Everything alright Mr. Larabee?" The gambler crossed to the stove in the corner wearily pouring himself a cup of coffee. "I saw Mr. Jackson leaving..." He trailed off, fishing for information.
"Yep. He just come by ta take care a Homer." The gunslinger nodded his head toward the large man sleeping in one of the two cells.
Slouching down in one of the empty chairs, the gambler sipped at the bitter coffee. "And just what has the esteemed Mr. Jenkins done to bring about his latest visitation to our humble establishment?"
Homer Jenkins was no stranger to the lawmen. He owned a nearly played out mine and was becoming a regular customer of their small jail. Once a month he came to town with enough ore for needed supplies and a two-day drinking binge.
Chris smiled. "Ol' Sally Mae got a mite upset when he decided she could carry both him and the supplies back. Reckon she figured to show him who's boss when she tossed his big ass inta the water trough. Damn mule stood there brayin' like she's laughin' when he smacked his head on the side. Figured we'd just let him sleep it off."
"Will he never learn he can't win an argument with that spotted jackass? I admit though, I'd love to know why he named her that." The gambler's chuckle faded. "And did he accept Nathan's help this time?"
"Nope... Same as always." Larabee shook his head sadly. "Didn't want one a them touchin' him. Said he'd rather suffer than let Nathan look at him"
"Bigoted fool." The southerner ridiculed, shaking his head in disbelief.
Watching the con man, listening to his tone of voice, the gunslinger couldn't help but wonder if Ezra was remembered his own behavior the first time he had met the ex-slave. At the outset, the gambler had, in fact, refused to ride with them if Nathan did. Being a fairly good judge of character and having worked with the gambler for almost two years now, Chris had to wonder how much of the con man's initial reaction hadn't been more for show and only partially what the southerner actually felt.
"I assume our esteemed healer made good use of the time by examining your injury." Standish pried.
"As much as I let him." Larabee grinned. "Didn't figure this was the best place ta be caught with my pants down so to speak. By the way, he wants ta take a look at your head. Told him you'd stop by after ya got somethin' to eat." The grin widened. "Told him I'd see to it personal."
Ezra made a face in disgust. "How very... kind of you."
"My pleasure." Chris laughed as Ezra stood and set the empty cup aside and moved for the door. His astute gaze swept over the southerner's weary movements. He was well aware the con man had to be beat, riding all the patrols as well as helping Larabee with JD's normal duties. Unfortunately, until Nathan gave him leave to ride it would have to continue. The healer was tending half a dozen town folks... Hester Shannon's baby was due any time, Silas Baines had pneumonia and the four Ford children were down with the chicken pox. "I'll meet ya at the clinic in an hour... And Ezra?"
"Yes Mr. Larabee?" Ezra's expression was one of pure innocence.
"Don't make me come lookin' for you." Larabee growled good-naturedly, smiling slightly when the gambler flipped him a two fingered salute before moving on outside.
His hunger satisfied, Ezra stopped by Mrs. Potter's. He carefully examined the contents of the apple bin before picking several suitable specimens for Chaucer as well as buying three cents worth of peppermint candy. As Mrs. Potter bagged his purchases, a half dozen Gingersnap cookies wrapped in a napkin found their way into the bag. Purchases in hand, Ezra stood outside the store, judging his chances of avoiding the visit to the healer and still living to take his place at his usual gaming table that night.
As far as he knew, Chris was still at the jail and he could see Nathan seated on the clinic's balcony, enjoying conversation and a cup of coffee with Amos, the new blacksmith. Realizing, injured leg and all, Larabee would hunt him down if he didn't go to see Nathan, he strolled toward the healer's clinic.
'Aww hell. Might as well get it over with.'
Stepping from the boardwalk, nodding at passing citizens the gambler made his way to the stairs and slowly climbed to the landing.
The men's conversation stopped as he approached and he nodded politely. "Good mornin'. Mr. Jackson. Mr. Lincoln. Beautiful day isn't it. Mr. Larabee said you wished to see me." The southerner remained at the top of the stairs ready to flee if necessary. "Before you begin, may I put your mind at ease? My head is fine. No headaches, nausea or blurred vision. You have, as usual done a magnificent job."
"You all through?" Nathan sighed in exasperation when Ezra paused for a breath.
"Yes thank you. I believe I am. If y'all will excuse me," he turned to start back down the steps, "I have an appointment and then the afternoon patrol. I hope to see you at dinner."
"Not so fast Ezra." Setting the cup aside and rising from the chair, Nathan stifled a smile as the gambler's steps paused and he stiffened. "Wanna take a look at your head."
Blowing out a long breath, the con man turned back and removed his hat. Tilting his head, he tried not to cringe in anticipated pain as Nathan gently pushed aside the thick hair above the gambler's temple.
"Looks good Ezra. Don't see any sign of infection." Gripping the smaller man's chin, he turned Ezra's head examining the man's emerald eyes. "I want ya ta promise you'll let me know if ya have any problems."
"My word as a gentleman." Ezra grinned replacing his hat and starting down the stairs.
"See ya at dinner."
As he headed toward the bathhouse, he heard someone call his name. "Ezra."
Turning, the gambler Ezra hurried back across the street encountering Mary in the shade under the clinic balcony. It appeared the fates were determined to keep him from soaking his sore muscles in a tub of relaxing hot water. 'Probably a waste of time anyway riding the afternoon patrol.'
He swept his hat off, "Mrs. Travis, you are a vision of loveliness... as always."
She flashed him a bright smile. Although there were those in town who disliked and distrusted the man, she herself loved his southern grace and charm even if she'd never tell him so. It was a refreshing change from most of the townspeople's manners. Mary flustered slightly under his direct emerald stare.
"Ahh this came for you on the afternoon stage yesterday. I told the driver I'd make sure you got it." She handed him a slim package that was obviously a book. "I saw you coming from Nathan's. How's your head?"
He grinned. "Hard as ever. Nathan has declared me the picture of hea..."
Harsh words from the clinic balcony drifted down to the two below. "Sho' don't know why ya put up with it Nate!" The words were clearly audible to the newspaperwoman and gambler. "You're a better person than he'll ever hope ta be and he treats ya like shit, yet ya still go runnin' ta help even though he don't want ya touchin' him." The words were bitter with recrimination.
"If he needs help, I'm gonna offer it." Ezra didn't have to see Nathan to know he'd given the blacksmith a self-deprecating shrug. "Ya do what ya gotta do, no matter who it is."
Amos' tone was acrimonious as he blurted out, "Includin' sittin' down ta supper with a lyin' coward who spends all his time cheatin' honest folk outta their hard earned money?"
Mary was surprised at the anger surging through her mixing with disappointment when Nathan didn't immediately respond to the insulting words, jumping to the gambler's defense.
"Eavesdroppin', my dear Mrs. Travis, even accidentally, is an appalling habit and in extremely bad taste." Firmly taking Mary's arm, Ezra pasted his dimpled smile in place and guided the fuming woman down the walk in the direction of the Clarion's office. "It's also something a proper lady and gentleman even one who's not always so proper ignores and doesn't bother mentioning to anyone."
Mary had glimpsed the hurt in the emerald eyes before the poker face fell into place and understood the request he was trying to convey. 'Please don't repeat what you heard.'
Although hurt by the snippet of conversation, the southerner was willing to let it go but the slight against him vexed her and she reached out to lay a hand on his arm. "Ezra-"
He gently stepped away from her touch. "Thank you for everything. If you'll please excuse me Mrs. Travis, I have no wish to be late for an appointment." Tipping his hat politely, the gambler strolled toward the saloon leaving Mary to stare after him.
Unbeknownst their words could be heard the two men on the balcony continued their conversation. "Sho' don't know why ya put up with it Nate!" Amos picked up the conversation where they'd left off when Ezra arrived. "You're a better person than he'll ever hope ta be and he treats ya like shit, yet ya still go runnin' ta help even though he don't want ya touchin' him."
"If he needs help, I'm gonna offer." Nathan shrugged. "Ya do what ya gotta do no matter who it is."
"Includin' sittin' down ta supper with a lyin' coward who spends his time cheatin' honest folk outta their hard earned money?"
The physician stared at his friend in confusion trying to remember when he'd ever even had a meal in the same room with Homer Jenkins or who Homer might have cheated. As the realization Amos was referring to Ezra sank in, Nathan almost dropped his cup. "What the hell's that supposed ta mean?"
"I just don't know how ya can tolerate bein' round someone like that." Amos stated bluntly, his voice full of anger. "It's hard enough for our people without purposely associatin' with his kind." He uttered the last word as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Have ya done forgot what it was like Nathan...? Did ya forget the beatins and workin' from dawn till dark in the heat and the cold... Have ya managed ta wipe from yer mind watchin' yer family bein' sold off to God only knowed who or what at the whim of people just like him."
The healer straightened indignantly. "I ain't forgot a damn thing Amos... Not one hellish nightmare moment but Ezra Standish didn't have nothin' ta do with any of what I went though. And it sure as hell ain't right condemnin' him just coz he's from the South. Lots a good folks lived there too." Nathan inhaled deeply bringing his building anger under control understanding the man's bitterness. "Ezra ain't no saint by anybody's standards but he's a good man and no matter what he done before, he's makin' up fer it now."
Chris, who had been making his way to the clinic, stopped at the bottom of the stairs, not surprised to hear Nathan defending the gambler. The two southern men, born and raised so totally opposite and yet sharing so many traits had come a long way in a friendship which had formed through trials and tribulations, adversity and laughter, bullets and barroom brawls.
Larabee knew that Nathan, with a compassion born of hardship, morals taught by loving parents and ethics made stronger through the suffering of those he loved often expected the very worst in the gambler. Those pre-conceived expectations had more than once caused him to jump to the wrong conclusion where the southerner was concerned but through it all, his inherent compassion had allowed him to recognize the kind heart Ezra fought so hard to keep hidden.
The gambler was often the undeserving target of Nathan's anger and frustration, the southerner more often than not absorbing their hurtful words with uncharacteristic silence. Chris had to admit Nathan wasn't the only one guilty of that action. He, himself, often targeted the southerner.
Looking back on their beginnings, the gunslinger knew it had taken Jackson longer than the other five men but eventually the former slave had seen past the walls Standish hid behind and that one small insight had been the crack the wily con man needed to wiggle his way into the healer's heart.
Smiling to himself, Chris was well aware the ex-slave would never trust Ezra out of arms reach when it came to money and financial matters but there was never a shadow of a doubt in his mind, the gambler would lay his life on the line for any of the men he'd come to consider his family. Ezra had proved himself in that matter more times than they cared to count.
The conversation continued, the two men still unaware they were being overheard. "Damnit Amos! Ezra Standish ain't the enemy. He's arrogant, cocky, cynical, suspicious, sneaky, greedy and belligerent but that's no crime. I've known a helluva lot a colored folk who were the same way. He's stubborn as a Missouri mule and that damn pride and independence a his gets him into more trouble than a passel a unsupervised younguns but that's no sin either. Most of the time he don't know when to shut up and he has a way of pushing ya right ta the edge of insanity but he's also smart, funny, optimistic, trusting, generous and courageous."
The ex-slave yearned to enlighten the blacksmith that while Ezra hadn't been born into slavery his childhood upbringing had been just as bad as anything either of them had suffered. At least the abuse they'd suffered hadn't been at the hands of family who were supposed to love them. He held his silence believing a man's past was his alone to discuss.
"Courageous?" The other man's brows raised in disbelief. "So that's why he run out on y'all at that Indian village cause he's so brave?"
Nathan couldn't hide his surprise at the question.
"Where'd ya hear that?" He was certain only the seven men who'd ridden out to the Seminole village knew of that incident and the healer was just as certain none of the seven would have ever repeated the information. As far as he knew no one had asked Ezra where he'd gone or why he'd come back. The only thing which mattered to the six of them was that he had come back and in doing so saved their lives.
Amos snorted and shrugged. "People talk. They might watch what they say around you cause ya work with him but mostly they act like anybody who ain't white is deaf, dumb and blind. I ain't none of them things. I hear things and I see things Nate."
"And half the time the people doin' the talkin' don't have the sense God gave a goose and the people doin' the listenin' got even less." Nathan scoffed neither confirming nor denying the accusation. "We all make mistakes, even you and me. It's part a bein' human. We just try ta work past 'em and move on."
"Tell me somethin' honestly. Ya truly believe that southern peacock don't think us darkies are anything more than animals to jump and do his biddin'? Ya honestly think he considers you a friend?" He shook his head. "Hell half the time he don't even call ya by your first name." Amos pointed out refusing to easily let go of his argument.
"What's he call you Amos?" Nathan quizzed. "I know ya shoed Chaucer last week."
The other man studied on the question for a moment then admitted. "He calls me Mr. Lincoln."
"Ya ever heard him talk to Chris, Josiah and the others?" He waited for the affirmative nod. "He calls them Mr. Larabee, Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Tanner or whatever. He says it's the way a proper gentleman addresses another man. At first I figured he did it ta drive us all crazy but then I got ta payin' real close attention and realized it's his way of showin' his respect. Don't know 'bout you but I kinda like bein' called mister... Like I'm his equal..." The healer fell silent for a moment letting the words sink in. He finally turned serious eyes to his friend. "Ya think Ezra's so bad, ya just watch the children. Children know a man's true nature."
"Children have a remarkable ability to truly see someone. Not the person they pretend to be but the person inside, they keep hidden from others. I'll tell ya somethin' Amos... Children just love Ezra... Not coz he buys 'em candy or does card tricks for 'em and such. Just watch 'em flock around him. And iffen ya don't believe me just ask little Emma. She'll tell ya what Ezra's like." Nathan stared at the man he'd known for more than twenty years. "Ya reckon Ezra's a bigot because he's a white man born and raised in the south but you're judgin' him without botherin' ta get ta know him so tell me Amos, just what's that make you?"
The healer recognized the mixture of anger and shame on the blacksmith's face. It was the same expression he'd worn when he had been confronted with that very question.
Figuring he had heard enough and needed to let Amos off the hook, Larabee moved up the steps calling out, "Hey Nathan, ya up there?" His arrival saved the smithy from answering. It was a question which both Nathan and Chris knew took a lot of self-examination.
"Yeah Chris... up here." Nathan sang out, gaining his feet to watch the gunslinger's slow progress.
"Reckon I better head back. Ain't gettin' no work done sittin' here jaw jackin'." Amos pushed from the chair as Chris reached the balcony. "How's the leg Mr. Larabee?"
"Better everyday." The blond admitted. "Thanks for askin'." He turned to Nathan as Amos with a nod to the healer moved down the staircase. Once the smithy was out of earshot, Chris turned to face Nathan. "Better get the bandages ready cause I'm gonna wring the scrawny neck of a certain southern Banty rooster. Told Ezra ta meet me here."
"No need for bandages Chris." The healer shook his head with a grin. "Ez's done been here and gone."
Larabee's eyebrows arched in surprise. "He actually showed up?"
Nathan couldn't stifle his laughter hearing the genuine amazement in Larabee's voice.
~ 2 ~
Hidden by trees, Ezra sat staring into the small tributary of water, the piece of overheard conversation echoing in his ears. The others would be surprised to discover this small cutoff from the stream running past the small town of Four Corners, looping through the tiny glade before rejoining it's origin was one of Ezra's favorite spots.
There'd been no doubt who Amos was referring to. Even Mary had recognized the description.
The gambler knew Amos cared little for him. Hell that was no surprise. Most of the town's resident's considered him little better than the devil himself. At least Amos had a good reason assuming because he was from the south he was the epitome of everything evil. Ezra was a constant reminder of everything he had suffered at the hands of whites. Seeing in the gambler everything he despised.
Heat flamed the con man's cheeks as he thought of his own shameful reaction when first meeting Nathan. He'd allowed his own prejudices to cloud his judgment in regards to the healer. Injured in the fight with Anderson's men he had been willing to endure the pain rather than accept help from the black man. Only Nathan's persistence and a little trickery on the healer's part had resulted in the southerner having use of his left arm again.
Ezra understood that with Nathan it wasn't so much the gambler's color the healer objected to as much as it was the way he made a living. It had taken time but the two men had built a bridge over their differences agreeing to disagree and discovering a mutual respect. Or at least Ezra had thought so.
It hurt more than he cared to admit thinking the last two years had been nothing more than a lie.
The southerner had been as pleased as the others when Amos had decided to stay in Four Corners taking over the blacksmith shop for Mr. Wilcox. The livery owner did his best but readily admitted he was no smithy. Like the others, the gambler thought it would be good for Nathan to have other people of color living there especially when those people were already long time friends.
Amos and his young niece were looking for a home when they arrived in Four Corners. Like everyone else in the world they were seeking a place to belong. A place where people would look past the color of their skin and accept them for who they were. A place where the child could grow up without fear.
Hearing the quiet footsteps of someone attempting to sneak up on him, a smile touched the gambler's lips seconds before two tiny dark hands closed over his eyes.
"Guess who?" A tittering sounded near his ear.
Ezra hesitated seeming to give his choices serious consideration. "Cleopatra Queen of the Nile?" He suggested.
"Nooo." The person giggled.
Standish pursed his lips in mock concentration then questioned, "Could it possibly be the mighty Aphrodite herself?"
Another happy giggle rang out.
"Then it can only be the lovely Miss Emma Lincoln." He concluded.
The precocious five-year-old, 'almost six' she had stated proudly, had stolen the gambler's heart the first time he'd seen her peeking at him from the corner of the building as he sat in front of the saloon showing Billy Travis a card trick.
Ezra had continued to perform as she slowly inched closer watching his agile hands in fascination. He knew from Nathan, Amos Lincoln had become the child's guardian when her mother had succumbed to consumption just after the child's first birthday. No one had asked and no mention was made of who or where her father was. With her uncle working dusk to dawn Emma spent most of the day alone finding ways to amuse herself and pass the time.
Concluding the trick, he pocketed the deck of cards and stood. "I'm afraid I must be on my way to relieve Mr. Dunne at the jail. Mr. Travis why don't you escort Miss Emma over to Mrs. Potter's for a Peppermint stick? Perhaps you could introduce her to the Potter children while you're there." he suggested.
Billy bobbed his head up and down. "Sure thing Ezra but I don't have any money for candy."
"I assumed you had hidden this here for that very reason." The gambler plucked a nickel from behind the young boy's ear and had winked at Billy when Emma laughed with delight displaying an empty space where her two front teeth had been.
With childhood wisdom, Billy had played along with Ezra when the little girl stepped closer searching for anything else he might have hidden in his hair.
"Perhaps," Ezra added, "you would be so kind as to buy Chaucer some carrots with the remainder of the money. He hasn't had the pleasure of meeting our new friend yet."
As the days passed, Emma's fondness for the gambler grew much to Ezra's delight. He had a soft spot for children and their guileless ways.
It was Tanner, with his keen eye, who was the first to point out Emma seemed to constantly be in the vicinity when Ezra was around, usually following several feet behind the colorfully dressed man. "Seems like ya got yourself a second shadow Ez." The sharpshooter teased with a lopsided grin.
Ezra had simply smiled, not really believing what the tracker suggested, yet later that day, laying on the saloon roof enjoying the afternoon sun, engrossed in Charles Dicken's 'A Tale of Two Cities', the gambler's heart had almost stopped, when the child had casually sat down beside him. Realizing he'd left the small door to the roof ladder open he extracted her promise not to follow him onto the roof again. He had taken to reading to her from the novel and not really desiring an audience to this unselfish gesture, he found out of the way quiet places, sitting on the back steps of the church or seated in the tiny glade by the creek.
He enjoyed spending time with the little girl. With a bright mind and an endless hunger for knowledge the child asked numerous questions about anything and everything she didn't understand, quickly memorizing the gambler's explanations. It made Ezra feel useful in an unexplainable way, that his education and experiences could entertain and educate this small child of the untamed frontier.
Laughing with delight, the little girl flopped down onto the grass beside him tucking her bare feet up under her, her enormous eyes full of adoration. "Who's Apwofite, Mr. Ezwa? A fwiend a yours from faraway?" She knew he'd traveled extensively and to the small child anything that didn't happen in her small circle of Four Corners was 'far away.'
"It's Aphrodite." He pronounced the name carefully handing her one of the cookies. "And no my dear Miss Emma, I've never had the pleasure of meeting her. Aphrodite was a Greek goddess of immeasurable beauty. Legend has it that every man who saw her immediately fell in love with her."
"Is there a stowy 'bout her in that book?" The child asked breathlessly, her huge eyes glued on the object in his hands, scooting closer to his side as Ezra unwrapped the slim package Mary had delivered.
"Not in this one. This is a very special book just for you."
Emma's mouth fell open her eyes grew even larger if that were possible. Carefully wiping her hand on her gingham dress, she reached out tentative fingers to touch the smooth cover.
"For me?" she whispered in disbelief.
"Yes, child, it's for you." Ezra carefully pressed he volume into her hands a smile of delight dancing on his face at the child's awed reaction to his simple gesture.
The street fires lit the dark night as Ezra slowly made his way to the saloon after settling his weary horse in the livery stall. He'd purposely stayed out on patrol longer than necessary knowing the dinner hour would have long since passed by the time he returned.
He didn't need anyone's pity and with Nathan's conversation still ringing in his ears, he'd be damned if he'd force someone to sit down at the supper table with him out of some absurd sense of obligation.
Riding patrol had given the gambler plenty of time to think, and the overheard conversation had been his constant companion repeatedly running through his mind. Ezra tried to convince himself there was a dozen reasons why Nathan hadn't immediately answered the blacksmith's accusation but no matter how many arguments he concocted the answer seemed painfully obvious.
With that answer other seemingly forgotten incidents pushed themselves to the front of his mind. Nathan's somewhat innocent statement that he hadn't considered asking for Ezra's help when his father was on trial. The healer's comment about Standish's motives for helping the Chinese at the railroad camp. His constant biting snipes about the gambler's cheating, strange sleep habits, apparent laziness and any and all the other short comings the healer perceived.
Of course, Ezra told himself most of the ex-slaves remarks and reactions were long before either could call the other man friend.
Now he had to wonder if he was the only one who considered them friends. Perhaps the closeness he felt toward the healer and the other five men for that matter was all perceived from his side only. Did the other feel the same way toward him and had just managed to hide it better? No he couldn't believe that. He wouldn't believe that! The others accepted him. Nathan resented his southern heritage that was understandable but he didn't want the ex-slave feeling because they worked together, the healer had to go out of his way for the gambler.
The snippet of conversation had opened the door releasing all of the southerner's self doubts and giving them free rein to prey on his mind. With the thought all the men felt toward him as Nathan did, a sadness had settled over him.
To his surprise and chagrin Ezra had come to care deeply for the six men he rode with but even more surprising was how much he'd come to like the dusty town in the middle of nowhere and how much he'd come to feel safe and... content... in Four Corners.
Had his mother been correct once again? How many times had Maude warned him to break the ties and move on? How many times had she pointed out he was losing his touch, getting soft and too trusting? Had he blindly let himself be set up to be played for a fool? If Nathan, so honest and ethical, had been able to keep his true feelings hidden from Ezra it stood to reason the other five had done the same as well.
Lost in thought, the gambler was half way up the stairs to his room before he realized someone was calling his name. He turned to see Chris staring at him expectantly.
"I assure you there is no need to shout Mr. Larabee." Retreating back down the stairs, Ezra crossed to the lawkeeper's usual table. "I have perfect hearing."
Larabee snorted. "Then how come I called three times before ya noticed?"
Ezra shrugged. "My apologies, sir. I'm afraid I was rather preoccupied." He tossed back the shot of whiskey Chris slid forward.
Chris' tone became serious as he eyed the younger man. "Was kinda worried when ya didn't show up for supper. Nathan was ready ta come lookin' for ya."
Standish frowned, turning the empty shot glass over in his hands. "Nathan?"
The doubts were shoved toward the exit only to rush forward again as Chris added. "Still won't let me ride." He shifted in the chair grimacing slightly. "Ya run into any trouble?"
The gambler shook his head. "Chaucer simply picked up a stone... Nothin' serious." It was a plausible lie.
"Why don't ya have Inez fix ya up something ta eat?"
"I'm not really hungry." His grumbling stomach reminded him he hadn't eaten since that morning. "If you'll excuse me Mr. Larabee I would like to freshen up before relaxing with a game of chance." Seeing Nathan push through the swinging doors, Ezra rose and hurried up the stairs.
Nathan was still sitting with Chris when Ezra having changed clothes and hungrily finished the bowl of stew provided by Molly via the backstairs, returned to the main floor. With a nod in the two men's direction, the con man avoided his routine of having a drink with them and continued on across the room to take a seat at his usual gaming table.
Seated at the corner table with his foreman and his most trusted ranch hands Andrew Webster unobtrusively watched the interplay between the three peacekeepers.
The rancher had purchased his property shortly before Larabee and his men had taken on the job of protecting Four Corners and the surrounding area. From the onset, he saw only Guy Royal as standing in the way of his plans to become the biggest, most powerful property owner in the territory.
With the help of middlemen and working far removed from the actual dealings, Webster was slowly buying small sections of property. A few acres here, a foreclosure there, it was adding up. He worked subtly with no intentions of drawing attention to himself or raising suspicion as he quietly added to his holdings. Arrogant and scheming he also had no intentions of letting anyone stand in the way of his carefully laid plans. That included Larabee and his six motley men.
Andrew had sat back smugly and watched as the peacekeepers had dealt with Royal, laughing sarcastically when they tried to return the ill gotten property to its rightful owners. He'd watched and learned as they handled each new situation that arose working a solution to help make this little corner of the dangerous country a bit safer for its settlers.
Staying in the background, cultivating the image of a hardworking rancher and friend to the town, Webster had watched and learned carefully considering every move before setting each piece of his scheme into motion. It was almost as if he considered the area his own private chess board and was manipulating each rancher, farmer, lawman and townsperson alike to his own gain.
Only the handful of men seated with him now knew Webster had collected a great deal of his wealth from the outlaws who hid on his property. They paid dearly for his protection and followed his rules. In return they found safety in the hills on his ranch, any and all signs of their passing wiped out by the ranch hands carefully moving small herds of cattle from one section to another.
It was highly profitable and not only provided the rancher with a nice cash flow but also with a constant source of information. Information he used to his advantage.
Nothing affected his neighbors which didn't affect him as well. He made sure if there was a problem with rustlers in the area, he reported missing cattle. If it appeared the peacekeepers needed help Webster and his men were the first to volunteer for a posse. He was a stalwart pillar of the community or so was the response if anyone was asked.
Anyone that is except a southern gambler and a Texas sharpshooter. As far as Webster knew neither Standish nor Tanner had ever uttered a negative word about him but Andrew was aware the sharp eyed tracker had been suspicious when he'd been unable to pick up any trails on the man's ranch. That suspicion had ended with the Wheelers.
They'd broken Webster's strict rules and paid the price. The ranch owner insisted three firm rules were to be obeyed no matter the circumstances. Number one: You paid and you paid him well for his silence and help. Number two: If you talked or implicated Webster in any manner, you forfeited your life. Number three: You notified the rancher in advance of any and all jobs involving Four Corners and its seven lawmen so he could be prepared for whatever evasiveness was required.
The Wheelers, on the other hand, had decided to help themselves to the contents of the dusty little town on their way to the ranch. Webster and his men had joined the fight at the edge of his property, the rancher himself taking out Randall Wheeler, the leader. Of course Randall was the only one who knew exactly where the gang was headed and his timely death insured Andrew Webster's involvement was kept secret.
Webster knew the outlaw would have spilled his operation at the drop of a hat and he certainly didn't need the lawmen onto him now. He'd spent too much time and money to give it all up and knew if even one of the lawmen became suspicious he would have problems. That was why he kept a close watch on the gambler and tracker. Either of them would be the first to smell trouble.
Andrew had sat across the gaming table from Ezra on several occasions, always making it a point to grumble good-naturedly about his losses but he always saw the skepticism in the gambler's eyes. It was obvious the gambler was an excellent judge of character and it was also quite clear the southerner was sizing him up and finding fault with his discoveries. It wasn't anything Webster could pinpoint but enough to make him leery.
He had known since these seven men had accepted Travis' offer to protect the town, they were his greatest opponents. They seemed to not only work but to actually think and function as one. In the past two years, he had seen the visible changes taking place as the seven men discovered not only a deep friendship in the others but a family as well. He was well aware any one of them would now be willing to give his life in defense of the others.
Webster had given a great deal of thought as to the best way to rid himself of the seven. The answer didn't lie with hired guns. Too many had already tried. Too many men greedy men had died trying to forcibly wrench the tiny town from the grasp of its unlikely protectors.
They were seven men. Seven different pasts. Seven different backgrounds. Seven different lives. One future. That had posed the biggest problem but also the possible solution.
Webster realized if one of the seven was killed, the remaining six might falter but they would draw on the strength of the others to help them through. In fact, a death amongst them would only serve to make them grow closer together and even more determined in their quest to protect this dusty spot in the road.
If, on the other hand, one of the seven chose to leave...
Or was somehow forced to leave...
Leaning back in the his chair his colorless gaze traveled from Larabee and the colored healer to the fancy dressed gambler, moving over the other patrons before settling back on Standish again.
A smile touched the rancher's lips. There sat the answer, the subtle solution to his problem. It might take a little time but considering all that was involved he could afford it. He could also afford to push a bit with the others out of town.
~ 3 ~
Leaning against the shadowed doorjamb of the jail, Chris watched Ezra ride out on patrol. The rising sun was barely peeking over the hills and Chaucer's gait was smooth, his long stride sure and steady.
"Picked up a stone my ass!" Larabee muttered aloud. He had wondered about the excuse when the gambler offered it but Ezra was still too good at presenting a poker face to the world. It seemed every time they figured out one of the gambler's tells, the southerner realized it at the same time.
The gunslinger grinned, remembering how often it had crossed his mind that they really weren't reading anything Ezra didn't want them to know. The subtle tells he offered and then took away were simply his idea of another game of cat and mouse.
Of the six men only Vin seemed to see behind the masks without fail. From the beginning the sharp eyed Texan had been able to read the southerner and Ezra had rarely been able to fool him completely.
Yet the previous evening had been different. Chris had seen the slight change, the hint of hope in the green eyes when he'd mentioned Nathan being worried. Odder still, Ezra hadn't joined them for a drink before beginning his nightly game. It had been a ritual with the southerner from the get go and it struck Larabee odd that he had failed to do so. Perhaps because the other men weren't present... yet he had joined Chris and Nathan every night before...
Larabee sighed heavily. He wasn't one to pry. Ezra would open up when he was good and ready and not a moment before. He was aware Standish had come the greatest distance in his relationship with the other six and none of them were willing to jeopardize that by butting in where they weren't welcome or wanted unless it became absolutely necessary.
Of course just because Chris didn't ask didn't mean he wouldn't keep an ear to the ground, a close eye on the southerner and be there to listen when the time was right. Until then, he would just have to wait.
Mary watched as Ezra strolled down the boardwalk. To most people, the gambler would appear to be his usual carefree confident self but the newspaperwoman could see there was a forced casualness to his posture and his smile as he greeted passersby was a little too bright.
Since Ezra and the other six had agreed to stay on at Four Corners, Mary Travis had come to know them quite well. Her heart belonged to Chris but she liked each of the men and although she didn't always approve of the southerner's choice of livelihood she understood it was what he'd been raised to do. Just as people were taught to farm the land, raise cattle, become storekeepers or school teachers Ezra had been taught from an early age to gamble and con people.
She had watched the changes taking place in the man as he slowly accepted the friendship offered by the other six peacekeepers. Slowly he had let himself believe he deserved the unwavering trust they placed in him, but it had taken even longer for the gambler to believe he was an important part of the family they had formed. As much as he wanted to, Mary wasn't sure he believed it yet.
An exceptionally perceptive woman Mary knew a man couldn't change his character unless the qualities were already there and was certain the other men had only seen and brought forth the inherent goodness hidden inside the con man. Like herself, they wisely continued to let him pretend to be the cold hearted money hungry cheat who'd been swindling the patrons in the saloon the first time they met but they all knew better. The people who took the time and trouble to see past the gambler's facade were rewarded with a glimpse of the kindness, love and loyalty buried inside.
With a sinking heart, Mary watched in confusion as several people muttering to each other behind the con man's back stepped from the boardwalk as he approached. Several others tossed him undisguised looks of disgust and crossed the street without responding to his forced cheery greetings.
What had Ezra done to deserve such shows of contempt?
"Mrs. Travis," The widow was kept from contemplating the problem further startled by the two men at her side each carrying the end of a large crate. "The stage driver asked us ta bring this over ta yer office." One of them offered as an explanation.
"What on earth!" More than a tad puzzled, she stared at the crate as if it would bite her. "What is it?"
"Don't know ma'am. Got yer name on it sure as anythin'." In actuality it was addressed to the town of Four Corners care of Mary Travis. "Want we should put it inside. It's a mite heavy for ya ta handle."
"Yes please." Mary nodded. As she turned to follow them inside, her gaze strayed once again to the solitary gambler as he turned down the alley on his way to the church, avoiding the building that housed Nathan's clinic.
Everything was quickly forgotten as her son in his haste, nearly collided with her, explaining excitedly that Amos was going to let him watch while he re-shoed Chris' horse.
"Maybe he'll let me help." He called over his shoulder rushing on down the street toward the smithy's.
"You'd think he'd discovered buried treasure." She smiled at the blond gunslinger who had been following her son at a much slower pace, his limp less noticeable but still obvious. "You seem to be getting around a little easier." Mary commented, her gaze lingering on the gunslinger, drinking in the sight of him, trying to remember what life had been like before his arrival in Four Corners.
"Felt worse than it was." His grin faded as gently taking her arm he led her to a nearby bench. "Need to talk to you Mary."
"What's wong Mr. Ezwa?"
"Excuse me?" Pulled from his thoughts, the gambler looked down at the tiny hand resting on his knee, realizing he'd been so lost in contemplation as to forget he wasn't alone. Ezra mentally berated himself for allowing the overheard conversation to continue to affect him. 'For God Sake's! It's been three days... Let it go!' The snippy voice in his head sounded amazingly like Maude's. 'You were warned about getting close to others. You've totally forgotten you're only welcome when people need your God given talents. They don't give a rat's behind about you so stop wallowing in self-pity and pull yourself together!'
"Ya look so sad." Seated beside him on the back steps of the church, the child pat his knee comfortingly. "Ya miss your fwiends don't ya?"
At her innocent words, images flashed through his mind. Buck's uproarious laughter and outrageous flirting. JD's terrible jokes, his hair flopping in his eyes as he adjusted the 'sissy' hat Wilmington hated. Josiah quoting scriptures while he banged heads together bringing a quick end to a Saturday night fight. Vin slouched against a porch post, the picture of innocence, his bright blue eyes twinkling as he watched the results of one of his practical jokes. Chris, no longer needing the whiskey, sharing a drink with his friends. Nathan...
"I suppose I do." Surprised by the child's wisdom and the truth of his hesitant answer, he met Emma's inquisitive brown eyes. "Just as I imagine you missed your friends when you first moved here."
"Didn't have no fwiends." The statement was made matter of factly. Emma had spent most of her young life traveling while her uncle looked for work and a place they could call home. The eyes brightened as she smiled happily. "But I got fwiends now. Billy, and Mrs. Twavis and Nathan and Miss Inez and Miss Molly and Mr. Chwis and Mr. Wilcox and the Potters and Mr. Vin and Mr. Josiah and..."
The gambler couldn't help but chuckle as the child continued with her list. A list that seemed to contain everyone in town who'd said hello to her.
Emma suddenly jumped to her feet throwing her arms around Ezra's neck. "I love you Mr. Ezwa. You my bestest fwiend."
Blinking back the tears which stung his eyes, Ezra realized his own arms had by their own volition automatically encircled the child's small body instinctively returning the hug.
"Your fwiends be home soon then you'll be happy again." A pudgy hand gently pat his cheek.
"Dear child, how could I not be happy with such a friend as you." Clearing his throat, Ezra settled the child back on the step beside him and reopened the forgotten book. "If I'm not to be late for patrol and incur Mr. Larabee's wrath we'd best continue." As they focused on the words, lost in the child's enchanted expressions, Nathan's conversation slipped, at least for the moment, forgotten into the back of his mind.
At the Clarion office, Mary's wondrous gaze traveled from the contents of the crate to the hand written note she'd found enclosed.
'Mrs. Travis. Enclosed please find the necessary items needed to begin the education of the young residents of your area. As requested, we are holding in trust the rest of the remainder of the generous funds provided to be used for any further supplies you might need. Stephan Wentworth. Wentworth Publishing. San Francisco.
Mystified, Mary closed the lid and sat back, her blue eyed gaze on the wooden box, her troubled thoughts still focused on the earlier conversation with Larabee.
Chris Larabee flicked the butt of his third cheroot out into the street. Something was happening to the town. He could feel it. It was nothing tangible he could touch. It wasn't anything obvious that he could see and pin point with accuracy, saying that's what's wrong but he could feel it like a hot breath on his neck. Frustrated by the knowledge that something was amiss and it wasn't a problem he could solve with a bullet or shove into a jail cell, he sat glaring at the town as if the buildings themselves would answer his questions.
Knowing he needed help, Chris had sought out Mary, Inez, Wilcox and a few others he knew to be helpful asking that they keep their ears open and inform him if anything seemed out of the ordinary. People would say things around them which they wouldn't dare voice in his presence.
It boiled down to the fact, Chris Larabee didn't like dealing with the unknown. He was a straight forward person who spoke his mind and minded his own business but since that fateful day when he had stepped off the boardwalk and helped an ex-bounty hunter stop the unjust hanging of a damn good man, Four Corners had become his business.
Seated at the table outside the saloon, he raised a hand in greeting as Ezra rounded the corner of the church and mounting Chaucer, sent the gunslinger a two fingered salute as he started the afternoon patrol.
Chris watched until horse and rider disappeared in the distance. Now he just had to figure out what was going on with the gambler.
It had been no surprise to him when Ezra had taken on more than his share of work while the others were gone, riding both patrols and relieving Nathan two hours before sun up when the healer had insisted on taking the night watch. The con man may put on a good show of griping and bitching but he always pulled his share and more.
What had come as a surprise was Standish's sudden avoidance of them. Again it was nothing obvious or might only be his imagination and Chris figured he was the only one who had noticed the change in the gambler's routine. Ezra wasn't returning from patrol till after dinner. He wasn't taking time for a drink with Chris and Nathan before beginning his nightly poker game. He never seemed to be around for lunch or using the excuse he wasn't hungry. Thinking on it, Chris couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Ezra eat.
Mulling over his observations he wished, not for the first time, Vin was there. The tracker probably knew the gambler better than any of them and Chris knew the sharpshooter would have noted the subtle changes before they got out of hand. Unfortunately, Tanner and the others were in Peterson and it fell to him to figure out the problem and hopefully solve it before they returned.
Movement caught Larabee's attention and a smile touched his lips as a small body in overalls, a slim book clutched to her chest dashed on barefeet from beside the church toward the small house behind the blacksmith shop.
Chris shook his head, a soft chuckle rumbling in his chest. Ezra and kids.
"What'd Chris say?" Vin waited long enough for Josiah to order his supper, thanking the waitress for the coffee, before posing the question.
"Wasn't an answer which ya know is his way of sayin' everything's fine." Josiah had stopped at the telegraph office on his way to the restaurant knowing Vin would ask if Larabee had responded to the message sent early that afternoon. "Ya know if there was anything they couldn't handle he'd send a message tellin' us to get our sorry asses back there on the double."
"Less a course he can't answer cause he's in jail for shootin' Ezra." Buck quipped with a wicked grin.
"Nah, Nathan or Mary would have sent the telegram in that case." JD responded in total seriousness.
"Probably a good thing Ezra didn't come along," Josiah chuckled. "One look at that fancy saloon and we'd a had to hogtie him and drag his ass outta town."
To save time, Vin had restocked their supplies while the other three handed their prisoners over to the sheriff, signed the necessary papers and briefly visited with Judge Travis, who assured them their help wouldn't be needed at the upcoming trial. It had been a long hard ride and they were all trail weary but equally as anxious to return home.
"Wouldn't matter if this town had a saloon or not. After a week's ride, we'd still have to hold him at gun point to get him back in the saddle and then tie him to Chaucer." Buck laughed. "And I sure as hell wouldn't wanna be the one draggin' his ass outta that feather bed at the crack a dawn."
Knowing his aversion to crowds and he would feel safer, no one had protested when Tanner had declined a room at the boarding house, preferring to stay at the campsite he'd set up in a clearing at the edge of town.
"Maybe one a us should keep him company." JD suggested as the tracker disappeared through the swinging doors after joining them for several drinks.
"Leave him alone kid." Buck's gaze settled on one of the working girls. "Think Ol' Vin's just about had more than enough company this week."
"Josiah says they'll be headed back in the mornin'." Chris informed his companion as he tossed the telegram on the table, his hazel gaze roaming over the saloon taking in the familiar faces at the half dozen occupied tables. Thanking Molly for the beer, he followed the direction of Nathan's worried stare.
Ezra sat alone at his usual table sipping a shot of whiskey, the nimble fingers expertly shuffling and fanning the deck of cards before laying out a game of solitaire. Almost as quickly, he gathered the cards and dropping the deck into his pocket, tossed back the last bit of alcohol in the shot glass pushing away from the table.
"Hey Ezra, wanna play a couple a hands." Chris called softly. The gambler's back stiffened but he didn't turn around, rather he tossed the gunslinger a quick glance over his shoulder.
"Thank you Mr. Larabee but I'm afraid I must decline." The gambler started for the stairs. "The change in my sleep habits the past week have left me somewhat tired. Perhaps another evening. Goodnight."
"Now tell me that ain't strange." Nathan stated as Ezra continued up the stairs and disappeared from the landing. "Ezra P. Standish goin' ta bed at a normal hour."
Chris leaned towards Nathan sniffing the air before smelling the sleeve of his own black shirt.
"What are ya doin'?" The healer turned confused eyes toward the gunslinger.
"Thought maybe Ezra's hintin' we need a bath." Larabee grinned.
"Hint hell! He wouldn't have no trouble comin' right out and tellin' us we stink." Nathan chuckled, momentarily relaxing. "Guess if he wants us to know what's botherin' him he'll tell us."
"And tomorrow the devil's gonna dance an Irish jig on the bar and buy a round for the house." Chris sighed. Was it his imagination or had the conversation at the other tables become more lively with the gambler's departure?
"It's a damn wonder any work gets done at that ranch a his as much time as they've been spending in town lately." Larabee commented as Webster and several ranch hands passed through the swinging doors. Something about the rancher didn't sit right with the gunslinger. He didn't want to think it was the other man's more than casual interest in Mary Travis, preferring to tell himself, Webster wasn't the man he presented to the world. It was just a niggling in the back of his mind with no semblance of proof yet it was a feeling he couldn't shake.
He'd been waiting when Ezra left the restaurant, steering the gambler to the table outside the saloon. Settled there with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, Chris kept the conversation inconsequential not wanting to give the southerner an excuse to run, hoping he would take the opportunity to talk about what was bothering him.
"Perhaps, like everyone else, Mr. Larabee, they are simply waiting on the freight wagons to arrive at The Feed and Seed."
The gunslinger exhaled a long slow breath. He knew Standish was right. The last few days the town seemed to have filled to overflowing. The farmers were waiting for the seed needed for their spring planting. The ranchers too were stocking grain in an effort to preserve the grass and help them through the upcoming hot dry weather.
"Wish ta hell they'd get here." Chris grumbled disgustedly. They both knew the longer the wait the more impatient people became. Impatience caused short tempers and short tempers caused trouble. Trouble they didn't need, at least not until their missing compatriots were back.
"As Mr. Sanchez would no doubt quote, 'ask and ye shall receive.'" Ezra nodded to the dust cloud at the edge of town, raised by the plodding hooves of oxen, the creaking of wagon wheels mixing with the whistles and urgings of drivers.
Larabee cast a sidelong look at the gambler, his hazel eyes narrowing. Ezra would have seen them while on patrol and he couldn't help wondering why the southerner hadn't attempted to con him into a bet on the expected arrival time of the wagons.
"You wouldn't have fallen for it." Standish, his eyes on the approaching wagon train, flashed a dimple grin, answering his unasked question.
Larabee's chuckle faded as Nathan following Jason McMurtry stormed in their direction. The healer fairly radiated anger, his brown eyes full of fire as he hurried after the banker. Chris knew that look all too well. It was the one which clearly said Ezra had stepped over that moral line Nathan stubbornly continued to draw in the sand. 'What the hell has he done this time?'
Somehow he didn't think that look was solely directed at Ezra alone as Nathan attempted to pacify the bank owner.
"Mr. Larabee, I think there's something we should discuss... In private." Jason stated bluntly as he huffed to a stop in front of the lawmen.
"What's goin' on Nathan?" Chris queried ignoring the puffed up moneyman to focus on the healer. A quick sidelong look revealed Ezra hadn't moved, his poker face firmly in place, meeting Nathan's furious gaze steadily.
"I'll tell you what's going on." McMurtry smirked. "Jim Roberts is going to come to me this morning for a loan. It seems he was cheated out of his seed money in one of Standish's poker games." His glare at the gambler was bristling with open hostility.
"Ezra doesn't cheat... or force anyone to play. Roberts is a grown man. He knew what he was doin'." Larabee kept his voice low, aware of the attention they'd drawn not only from passing citizens but from the occupants of the saloon as well.
The banker sniffed contemptuously. "Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to make him that loan."
Murmurs ran through the crowd and someone called out, "How's he supposed ta feed his kids?" And someone else stated bitterly, "Without that money Jim'll have ta sell out."
The banker, believing he had the gathering crowd behind him, boldly faced Chris, his tone haughty. "What I'd like to know Mr. Larabee, is how many people are going to lose their homes because you insist on letting this... gambler," The banker spat the word out as if tasting something sour, "stay in Four Corners?"
"Let's get somethin' straight right now!" Chris pushed to his feet, leaning to favor his bad leg, ready to confront the banker and the growing-angrier-by-the-minute crowd. Before he could speak, another voice cut in, drawing everyone's attention.
"Mr. Standish! Mr. Standish!" Jim Roberts, the very topic of the banker's conversation, hurried down the boardwalk. Stepping around the healer and pushing the banker aside, the farmer grabbed the gambler's right hand in both his shaking it vigorously. "Wanted ta thank ya again Mr. Standish. My wagon's first in line ta be loaded."
Larabee desperately tried to stifle his smile as ignoring the bright blush climbing up the southerner's face and the slight shaking of his head as Ezra tried to pull away, the farmer continued effusively clinging to the con man's hand. "I'll 'member what ya said. Believe me I know how stupid I was and it'll never happen again. I swear that to ya, here and now! Simply can't tell ya how much I 'ppreciate everything. It means saving the farm and my life... The wife woulda killed me sure as I'm standin' here!"
As the farmer rattled on, it became apparent to everyone listening, that Ezra... the very person they had been castigating moments earlier... had returned all the farmer's lost money along with a stern lecture on what could and would have happened under normal circumstances.
Finally running down, Roberts released Standish's hand and seemed to realize there was a crowd gathered around them, flushing with embarrassment.
"Your gratitude is unnecessary Mr. Roberts. As the wagons have arrived, I think any further delay on your part in returning home would be unwise." The con man stated.
"May take some time but ya got my word Mr. Standish, I'll pay ya back every dime I lost in that game." He looked at Larabee. "Yer my witness ta that." Clapping the gambler on the shoulder and gushing another thank you, the farmer pushed through the throng and rushed toward the grainery.
Nathan scrubbed a hand over his face as he watched the farmer. Suddenly ashamed and embarrassed himself, he turned to face the gambler. "I'm sorry Ezra, I know-"
"Your apology is neither wanted nor needed Mr. Jackson. If y'all will excuse me." Standish pushed through the milling bystanders and strolled toward the church, leaving everyone to stare after him.
Seeing Larabee's glare, the small crowd quickly dispersed, the saloon patrons returning to their drinks, McMurtry and the others deciding they had important business elsewhere.
Confused, Nathan stood watching the con man. The healer had been surprised to see sadness replace the anger burning in the gambler's emerald eyes. Despite the fact he should have been thrilled that the farmer's gratitude had exonerated him... Exonerated? Ezra wasn't guilty of anything!
"Damnation! Told that bastard McMurtry he was wrong!" Nathan slammed the heel of his palm against his forehead, the fingers digging into his scalp. He knew Ezra had seen the healer's doubt in him. It had been plain to the southerner... hell even to Larabee... the ex-slave had, if only for a moment, considered the possibility the banker's words were true.
"I-I... Chris, I..." The healer's expression when he finally turned to face Larabee was full of shame and frustration. "Worse than ever ain't it?"
Chris, his hazel eyes turning aquamarine with worry focused on the retreating back of the gambler settled down and lit a cheroot, as Nathan sank into the chair Ezra had vacated. "I'd say that about describes it."
~ 4 ~
Inez raised her eyes to the ceiling as Larabee pushed through the swinging doors making his way to the bar. Unlike the previous night, the tavern was full. The talk was loud and boisterous centering around either the confrontation between Larabee and McMurtry or the story in the Clarion thanking the anonymous benefactor who had donated a crate full of supplies to the school. Mary had included a plea asking the generous person to come forward so the town could properly show their appreciation.
Chris' gaze skimmed the room. Glancing at Ezra's usual gaming table he saw the only empty seat being that of the gambler himself.
Taking the bottle and two shot glasses, Larabee limped to his table, easing himself into his chair. He filled the glasses shoving one across the table as Ezra made his way down the stairs. He watched in amazement as the gambler worked his way through the crowd answering the smiles and greetings from men who normally wouldn't consider the man worth looking at, responding as if it were an everyday occurrence.
Spotting Chris, he angled towards the peacekeeper's table. "Might I join you Mr. Larabee?"
"Wasn't expecting anybody else." Larabee refilled the glass when Ezra tossed back the alcohol, seeing the almost imperceptible trembling of the gambler's hand. "Got time ta talk?"
The southerner glanced at the waiting players, the relaxed facade he presented as he turned back to the gunslinger was a touch to forced to ring true. It suddenly occurred to the gunslinger just how nervous Ezra truly was and how much courage it took for the man who had always made his living off the weakness and greed of others to face these men after having his own weakness displayed before the town. "Of course. Is there anything in particular about which you wish to converse?"
Offering the gambler a cheroot, Larabee lit the thin cigar, drawing deeply on his own as he studied the southerner. "I wish to converse about the reason ya been avoidin' me and Nathan."
"The fact that I'm seated here with you would contradict that statement." Ezra smiled. "It would in fact prove that I'm in no way avoidin' you." Ezra pushed back from the table as Nathan entered. "Thank you, sir, for the drink but it would be exceedingly rude to keep those gentlemen waitin' any longer."
Touching two fingers to his hat brim, he moved across the room, leaving Larabee to frown in dismay as he realized he'd learned nothing new. Fear gnawed at his belly, knowing the gambler was beginning to withdraw even further away.
Lighting his cigar Andrew Webster sat back listening to the various conversations. He'd sat in the same chair and listened and watched as the tension built when the residents had turned away from the likable gambler as the rumor he'd cheated Jim Roberts had spread through the town. He'd been fairly certain the banker would have the needed influence to drive the man from Four Corners when he'd innocently mentioned what a shame it was Roberts was going to have to take out a loan to make it through the year.
Damn! he would never have dreamed the self-serving gambler could have surprised him like he did. Who the hell would have figured the enigmatic con man wouldn't keep his winnings?
During his keen observations of the seven lawmen, Andrew had to admit, at least to himself, the con man had a certain style that had to be admired, hearing him announce to the waiting gentlemen they shouldn't expect him to return their money as he'd already allowed himself his one moment of weakness in this lifetime.
Although he was loathe to admit it, Webster felt a strange sense of envy that the con man had allowed himself that moment of weakness... something he himself would never do in this lifetime.
Snorting, he shook the thought aside and tilting the chair on its back legs, he waited until Baker, the man he'd ordered to follow Standish, had taken several swallows of beer before posing the question. "Whatcha find out?"
The man stared down into his beer, keeping his voice low. "After that scene out front, he went down to the creek, him and that blacksmith's kid. Was down there a couple hours."
Webster waited and when the man didn't elaborate, he demanded, "Doin' what?"
"Couldn't get close without bein' seen. Looked like they had fishin' poles and some book or somethin'." Baker shrugged. "Didn't stop or anything while he was patroling just nodded ta a couple people he passed, then come back ta town."
"Watch him! I wanna know everything he does, no matter how trivial. Ya got that?"
Baker nodded, "Yes, sir. Everything he does. I'll keep an eye on him. Ya can count on that."
Webster's eyes darkened as he stared coldly at the man. "I am," he warned, and Baker felt a shiver run up his spine. He'd been around a lot of hard men in his life and considered himself no softie but something about Webster chilled him. He wasn't about to do anything to raise the man's ire.
"Damn! Y'all noticin' that boy's gettin' as jittery as a penned up bobcat." Buck questioned his companions as Vin paced the outer edge of the night camp.
"Reckon he's got one a his feelin's." Josiah nodded over his coffee mug.
"Reckon he does and we all know ta trust those feelin's but killin' our horses ain't gotta get us home any faster." Wilmington pointed out.
Upon delivering their prisoners to the Peterson's lawmen, the sharpshooter had silently set a fast pace back to Four Corners. Despite the fact he was pushing them to ride right up until it was almost too dark to make camp and heading out as soon as the sun began to lighten the sky the other men didn't complain, he felt a need for urgency. Even the usually talkative JD had eaten only half his dinner before crawling exhaustedly into his bedroll, falling asleep almost immediately.
"Vin knows that." The preacher agreed. "Must be an awful strong feelin'."
"Sure hope he's wrong this time." Buck pitched the last swallow into the dirt before wearily moving to his own bedroll. "Damn I hope he's wrong."
"Amen to that Brother." Josiah muttered softly, his gray eyes moving back to the slender shadowy figure who continued to pace at the edge of the firelight's glow. Having seen the worry etched on the young tracker's face, he closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer to the heavens... For now, it was the only thing he could do.
"Nathan!" The loud angry bellow filled the air causing citizens on the street to stop and stare, while others jumped out of the way of the giant blacksmith as he charged down the street, his little niece running behind him, losing the battle to keep up with his long strides.
'Now what?' Larabee mentally groaned.
Seated at the table outside the saloon, he and Nathan had been enjoying the quiet morning over a cup of coffee, watching for the gambler's return. Chris was determined to finally discover what was troubling the southerner. If Larabee was a superstitious man he'd have to wonder if this table was jinxed.
"Is this that slick bastard's idea of a joke?" The gunslinger and healer grabbed their cups as the man hurled a small length of rope onto the table. "Suppose he thinks this is funny!"
Nathan frowned, "Who and what are ya talkin' bout Amos?"
"That fancy assed gambler!" Amos grabbed the back of Emma's overalls pulling her away as the child slipped around him her grubby fingers reaching for the rope Nathan now held. "Leave it alone Em!"
The little girl's face fell. "But Uncle Amos-"
"I said no!" Amos nearly shouted at the child whose lower lip began to quiver.
Chris pulled the child onto his lap, wiping away the fat tears that rolled down her cheeks with his thumb as her uncle jerked the rope from the healer.
He shook the hemp in Nathan's face. "Tell me y'all don't get the meanin' behind this!" He held up the rope displaying the loop knotted in each end. "A little sick southern humor?"
"He gave the kid a noose." A cowhand leaning against one of the roof supports burst into gales of laughter, ignorant of the murderous glare Larabee sent his direction.
"Emma, did Ezra give you this to play with?" Amos didn't protest as Chris took the hemp, speaking quietly to the child. Tilting his head to look into the little girl's downcast eyes, the gunslinger kept his voice soft. Waiting patiently he smiled when she finally nodded. "Do ya know why he give you the rope Emma?"
"For jumpin'." She bashfully whispered in his ear drawing another smile from the shootist.
"That's what I figured." His hand squeezed her small shoulder. "Can ya show us? I'll bet ya do it real good."
Hopping from his knee, she stuck a hand through each loop and gripping the rope tightly swung the length over her head, awkwardly jumping as it hit the ground in front of her. She managed to skip the rope half a dozen times before it caught on her toe.
Chris joined Nathan in applauding her effort before settling the little girl back on his knee.
"That wasn't so good but Mr. Ezwa says I'll get bettah with pwactice."
"He's right and that looks like a lot of fun." Larabee agreed, pleased to see the expression of guilt and shame replacing the anger on her uncle's face as the man eased his large frame into one of the chairs. Nathan entered the saloon, returning with the coffeepot and an extra cup as Emma scrambled down from Larabee's knee and scurried off to show her jump rope to Billy and the Potter children.
"I hate to say it but that gambler sure appears to be stirring up a hornet's nest lately." Webster commented innocently. Taking Mary's arm he continued escorting the newspaperwoman toward the general store.
"Ezra hasn't been stirring up anything!" Mary stated, her blue eyes flashing as she defended the oft-maligned gambler.
"I didn't mean any offense Mrs. Travis. Standish seems like an alright fella." Andrew quickly amended. "Just seems to me here lately like everything happening in town has something to do with him."
Webster had stopped by the newspaper office on the pretense of buying the latest copy of the Clarion. He'd dropped several subtle hints, hoping the woman would believe him to be the anonymous benefactor to the town's school. Why shouldn't she? After all, except for McMurtry, no one else had that kind of money to throw away on books. Most of the town's citizens were barely scratching out a living.
He thought perhaps if Mary believed him to have made the generous contribution she might return his interest or at the very least be more susceptible to the subtle innuendoes he voiced.
"I'm sorry Mr. Webster, I didn't mean to snap." She sighed. "I'm sure you didn't mean anything and you're right it does seem as if Ezra is at the center of the town gossip lately but it's not because of anything he's done."
"I'm sure you're right." He assured her with a smile. "You know how people love to talk and any excuse will do."
Mary nodded, "Unfortunately, talk can hurt and a lot of people seem to forget Ezra has feelings too."
He pat her arm solicitously, "There, there, Standish is a big boy and I'm sure he can fend for himself. Perhaps I could take your mind off these petty problems by escorting you to lunch." His eyes sparkled. How dare this find woman waste her time with worry and concern over that southern trash. Standish wasn't worthy of her attention.
She gave him a tight smile. "Thank you Mr. Webster-"
"Andrew," She conceded, "but I shall have to refuse your kind invitation. I promised Mrs. Potter I would help her with some paperwork she needs done."
"Another time then?" He questioned, a hopeful note in his voice as they stopped in the doorway of the store.
"Perhaps. Good day." She turned away, entering the store and watching through the glass as Andrew mounted up and headed out of town. With a sigh, glad to be rid of the man, she smiled at the storekeeper who stared at her quizzically before hurrying back in the direction of the newspaper office.
"I'm sorry. I-" Amos accepted the offered coffee without meeting Nathan or Larabee's eyes.
"Ain't us ya should be apologizin' to." Nathan stated bluntly. Unable to hide his angry expression but not wishing to draw any more attention, the healer kept his voice low. "Damnit Amos, didn't ya give any thought at all ta what we talked about?"
"I did Nathan... Honest I did!" Amos exhaled a long deep breath. "I thought a lot about it. Come to reckon if ya thought that puffed up peacock was okay than it must be true. Heard what he did for that farmer so I knew he couldn't be all bad even if people did figure he was just working a scheme... Just when I saw that rope... Guess I lost my head. All I could think about was the lynchins the good ole' boys back home found entertainin'... Didn't want Em havin' ta go through that kinda terror." The deep voice trailed off before he glanced at Chris warily. "How'd ya know?"
"Never seen a hangman's rope with a noose at both ends. Sides I know Ezra." Chris shrugged. "He may do a lot of things people ain't to happy about but he'd never do anything ta hurt a kid."
"Ya can take that as gospel Amos." Nathan nodded. "Hell me and Chris are experts at jumpin' ta conclusions 'bout that stubborn southerner and we're wrong more times than we're right but I can tell ya without a second thought there ain't nothin' Ezra wouldn't do ta make a kid happy."
Amos nodded slowly, "I've seen him performin' them card tricks a his for all the younguns. Tellin' 'em stories and buyin' 'em candy. Heard a couple cowhands talkin'... Ya gotta admit it looks a little strange him spendin' that much time and money on younguns that ain't his."
"Reckon Ezra don't see it that way. Children don't judge him." Larabee stared off into the distance, his thoughts on Adam. Chris could do no wrong in his son's eyes. To Adam Larabee, his daddy was perfect. His son with the naivete of childhood had seen only the goodness in him and hadn't needed anything but his father's love and attention. Chris knew that was something too many children didn't have. And he knew, having met Maude, it was something Ezra had never experienced. "They like him for who he is and don't expect him ta be somethin' he ain't." His voice dropped softly, "Shame us grown ups don't learn from 'em."
The ringing clang of the hammer striking against the metal anvil faded away as Amos noticed Ezra standing in the open breezeway of the blacksmith shop.
Eyeing the southerner, Amos wiped the sweat from his face as he questioned, "Somethin' I can do for ya Mr. Standish? Chaucer havin' trouble with them new shoes?"
"On the contrary. Ya did an excellent job." The gambler forced himself not to back up as the big man stepped away from the forge, the hammer still in hand. "I came to apologize Mr. Lincoln. I should have asked your permission before I made the jump rope for Miss Emma. I assure you I meant no offense by it. I just thought it was something a little girl might enjoy."
Amos stood staring at the con man too stunned to react. Uncertain what the appropriate reaction should be. Here was a southern born gentleman raised in a part of the country where the belief that people of color were nothing more than mere animals of servitude, standing before him offering him a heartfelt apology for showing kindness to a child. Shame burning inside him at how he had misjudged this man, Amos stood mute.
Unsettled by the man's silence, Ezra ducked his head. "She's lucky ta have an uncle who cares for her so much." Ezra adjusted his hat touching two fingers to the brim, adding as he turned to leave. "And I hope Nathan realizes how lucky he is ta have another friend in this town."
Before the blacksmith could respond the gambler was moving toward the saloon.
As he made his way to his customary table, Ezra glanced around the saloon shaking his head slightly as most of the patrons looked away, refusing to meet his emerald gaze. Weren't these the same people who had, just days previous, lauded him for returning Roberts money? What the hell had he done except try to make a little girl happy? Better yet, his inner voice, sounding so much like his mother, whispered, why should he give a damn what any of them thought!
Chris pushed through the swinging doors, his worried gaze searching the smoke filled room, coming to rest on the gambler's usual gaming table. It was empty except for the bottle of whiskey sitting next to the full shot glass.
He made his way to the bar, catching the Mexican woman's eye and motioning her over. "Inez?"
"I don't know Senor Larabee." The Spanish woman moved to the end of the bar. "One moment he was there... just sitting and staring at the drink... When I looked a short time later he was gone."
"Sonuvabitch!" Larabee swore, then gave her an apologetic look as he nodded off handedly at the crowded room. "Ya hear anything."
"They talk about this morning. Some say it is not right the attention he gives the children. Most think it was a funny joke but they say it was mean of him to play it on the little one. They say he should have given the noose to her uncle."
"It was a damn jump rope for God sakes!" The gunslinger growled.
"Senor?" Inez caught his arm as he turned toward the stairs. "He is going to leave."
"He said that?" Larabee's heart felt as if it suddenly stopped beating.
Blinking back tears, chewing on her bottom lip, the woman's expression was one of immense sadness. "No... he did not have to. I know that look. I have seen it before at one time or another... on each of your faces... Talk to him Senor Larabee. He will listen to you. Help him." She pleaded softly, her dark eyes shimmering. "Help him..."
Unaware Chris and Nathan were frantically searching for him, Ezra spent the better part of the night laying on the saloon roof, his eyes locked on the stars overhead, his nimble fingers unconsciously shuffling his deck of cards, much as a Catholic fingered their Rosary beads.
Returning from patrol he'd noticed the darting glances sent his direction as Chaucer carried him toward the livery. A few subtle questions and he had the repeated story of the morning events from Wilcox and the stable boys.
Ezra had shook his head in disbelief. He knew what it was like for Emma being alone in a new town. He had spent most of his childhood alone, ostracized by cousins who didn't want him around or worse still, becoming a target for their teasing and jokes or someone to take the blame for their wrong doings when they got caught.
Thinking about it he could understand why Amos had gotten upset. Although the con man had only meant to give the child something to occupy her time... a simple toy she could play with alone or with the other children, he could see her uncle's point of view belatedly realizing he should have considered the perceived implications behind a white man from the south giving a colored child a knotted rope.
The child's uncle had lived through the atrocity of slavery, had suffered the terror of war and the horrors of the aftermath as so many bitter soldiers returned to their destroyed homeland releasing their pent up hatred on innocents. Many felt the need to blame someone and the freed slaves were easy targets. Ezra, himself, had seen lynchings, the burnt homes, the beatings, the lingering pain of rape... The remembered images were with him always and he should have known how the blacksmith would have reacted.
It was unrealistic of Amos to think his niece would never see the hatred brought about by prejudice. Granted the war was over and hostilities had ceased, a surrender long since signed but the deeply rooted feelings were still there no matter where a person went, even this far west. He knew Amos would do his best to protect Emma's innocence as long as possible. He respected and admired the man for that and to be honest the blacksmith didn't know him. Ezra was forced to admit, if their roles were reversed he might have reacted the same way.
That knowledge didn't lessen the hurt caused by the man's actions and harsh words. With his profession, Ezra was used to being watched, his actions scrutinized, his motives suspect but after two years in Four Corners he had come to believe much of that lay behind him.
'Good Lord Maude was right! He had become complacent! Soft! He was losing his touch. He had come to think of Four Corners as home. A place he could relax. The sudden realization stung him deeply.
What was it Vin had once told Larabee? He'd allowed himself to care about this town and the people in it. A compassionate man it was understandable how Tanner had become involved with the citizens of this backwater settlement but damnit how had he... a cold hearted money grubbing gambler... allowed himself to fall into the same trap?
When had he started to think of the dusty burg as home? When had he begun to care about the residents? When had he first wanted to see the small town grow, not too big, just enough to bring some of the luxuries found in the cities? When did it begin to matter to him that Four Corners become civilized but not too civilized, just enough to satisfy the honest citizens and rugged enough to keep Vin from feeling the need to move on? When had he come to care enough to want to see the children given a chance at schooling? When had he begun to care enough about something other than himself and the money to be made from unsuspecting strangers?
The answer was clear... when he met a dark clad, somber gunslinger searching for his family's murderer, an ex-bounty hunter with a price on his head, an ex slave with enough compassion to help those who would rather see him hanging from a tree, a ex priest with a temper of the devil and the heart of an angel, a young Bostonian who often displayed more courage than sense and a womanizer seeking a family who took it upon himself to look after all of them.
He had felt the first inkling of caring when he'd accepted the offer to stand beside six men to help defend a poor Seminole village for a paltry fee. It had blossomed when he'd stopped as he was riding away... had stopped, hesitated and turned back. He'd begun to care when a hazel eyed shootist angry at the world had offered him a second chance. A second chance he'd been looking for all his life. A second chance he'd greedily grabbed with both hands and clung to, knowing he might never get a third.
It had changed his life. Opened his eyes and his heart but now... He hated to admit it but once again Maude was correct. It was time for him to move on.
Nathan frowned in disgust. "Tried ta get him ta talk ta me when he relieved me but ya know how he is." He wearily massaged the muscles at the back of his neck. "He jist apologized for causin' us any undo concern. Everytime I tried ta say somethin' else he talked circles around me and then when I was ready ta throttle him, he started off ta check the town. He's avoidin' me like he's afraid I'm gonna practice surgery on him."
"Hell, at least he talked to you. He didn't even give me the chance ta say anything." Larabee grumbled. Primed to confront the southerner, to his dismay, Ezra had ridden out on patrol the moment he saw the gunslinger limping toward the jail. He'd tossed Chris a small salute but hadn't stopped as he mounted Chaucer who was saddled and waiting at the hitching rail.
The wily con man had managed to stay one step a head of them the previous day, always having just left before they arrived.
Chris' voice was low. "Inez thinks he's plannin' ta leave."
Nathan was as stunned by the words as Chris had been. He had thought the gambler had come to accept the town as home and had accepted their friendship. There had been plenty of opportunities for the con man to move on. With his pardon in hand, they had all awakened each day expecting to find Ezra gone. Each time he approached them, they had feared this was goodbye.
Yet Ezra had stayed. He'd stayed and fought beside them to protect each other and the town. He'd stayed and driven them to distraction with his constant arguments, his fancy ten-dollar words and his endless scheming. He'd stayed, continually surprising them with his acts of selfless courage and generosity. He'd stayed and fought them every step of the way as they slowly struggled to prove to him he was a member of the unique family the seven men had become.
Anger surged through the healer. The stubborn bastard was willing to destroy the family they'd built... and he was certain the southerner's leaving would destroy them... for what? Greed? His damnable pride?
"Guess that ain't no surprise. We always kinda figured he'd just disappear one day." The hitch in the ex-slave's voice betrayed his true feelings. "Reckon he finally realized he can't cheat enough money outta the folks around here ta ever get his saloon... Maybe he's heard from Maude. Bet she's got some big scheme goin' and needs his help." There was a hint of hope in his voice.
"That ain't it." Chris lit a cheroot, his eyes searching the road for any sign of the returning gambler. "Somethin's goin' on. Somethin' he can't control. Somethin' he can't fight."
"Hell, Chris, I think that boy was born fightin'. Think that's the only thing he loves more than gamblin'."
"You're wrong Nathan."
A woman's soft voice interrupted and they both turned to see Mary Travis. She waved Chris back into his seat as he struggled to rise at her sudden appearance. Ignoring the chair Nathan offered, the woman stood staring at the two men, her eyes flashing fire. "If Ezra's thinking of leaving, it doesn't have a damn thing to do with not being able to cheat people out of enough money to buy his saloon or because Maude needs his help on some con."
"What'd ya find out Mary?" Chris questioned, studying the woman's face intently, not quite sure why he saw anger in her eyes.
"I've known all along." She answered Chris, her angry gaze nailing Nathan to his chair. "Ezra heard you Nathan... or should I say, he didn't hear you when you were talking with Amos on the balcony." She finally sank into the chair a portion of her anger draining away at their confused expressions. "Ezra specifically asked me not to say anything about it."
"It'll stay between us Mary," Larabee assured her, glad they were sitting outside the jail instead of the saloon, "but we can't help if we don't know what's wrong and ya know damn good and well Ezra ain't gonna tell us."
Mary chewed at her lip, uncertain if she should betray Ezra's confidence. She hadn't actually promised not to say anything but her silence had implied her agreement and the gambler trusted her. Yet if she chose to remain silent she was certain Ezra would leave. She was just as certain his departure would be the downfall of the seven as well as Four Corners itself.
The seven men had separated before only to find themselves seeking out each other, drawn back to this place in the middle of nowhere. As much as the six might bitch, moan and complain about the con man, he was truly one of them. Death was something the men faced every day but she knew if Ezra left, was forced to leave this odd little family they'd formed because of something which wasn't even his fault, each of the other six would follow or worse face destruction by their own hands.
Realizing the weight of the decision she had to make, knowing the fate of the town and the men who guarded it might well depend on what she decided, Mary took a deep breath and began her tale.
Lost in thought, Ezra let Chaucer set the pace, picking his way slowly back to town. By his estimation he had two more days, possibly three, in which to compose a plausible excuse for tendering his resignation when the others returned.
It had to be a reason they would believe without hesitation or question. They would try to change his mind and when that failed they would insist on helping.
As sure as his name was Ezra P. Standish he knew it would take all his considerable powers of persuasion to convince Vin not to follow.
Ezra treasured the friendship he'd found with the other men, especially the tracker but Larabee needed the five men. Just as the town needed Chris' strength and fortitude he needed the gift each of them offered. He needed that special connection with the sharpshooter to help him see the purpose of his life, just as he needed his oldest friend to lean on when faced with the truth and the preacher's guidance toward forgiveness. He needed Nathan to bring out his own compassion and JD to remind him of the naive goodness in people. Chris had begun to live again because of those men and they would see to it he continued to on the path destiny had laid out for him.
Larabee would soon forget the gambler. He wouldn't forgive the broken promise of loyalty but he would forget the man who betrayed that oath.
Two days and he would leave behind everything and everyone he'd come to care about.
"Damnation! Why can't anything with him ever be simple?" Nathan swore as the pretty newspaperwoman concluded. He scrubbed a hand over his face before meeting the woman's steady gaze, his own eyes shining with a mixture of sadness and sincerity. "I remember that conversation. We started out talkin' bout Homer. When Amos asked that particular question it took me a bit ta figure out he meant Ezra. I thought he was still talkin' about Homer. That's why I didn't answer right away but I swear ta ya Mary, I swear, I did tell Amos what a good man Ezra is!"
Chris nodded, finally speaking. "I heard him Mary." Larabee ignored Nathan's surprised expression. "He stood up for Ezra and gave Amos a lot to think about."
"Too bad Ezra didn't hear him." The woman retorted sharply, still angry.
"I admit Ezra pis... makes me made enough ta shoot him most days but ya gotta believe I'd never intentionally do anything ta-"
Mary cut his words short. "I believe you Nathan. I think deep down Ezra even believes it but..." She trailed off searching for the words she wanted, disgusted with herself. She was a writer and the words she wanted eluded her grasp.
"But he hasn't had enough experience with friendship to get past his own doubts." Chris provided.
She turned to stare at the gunslinger, amazement sparkling in her eyes. For a supposedly uncouth 'bad element,' Larabee had a better insight to the gambler than most people. "Exactly. That's something he needs your help with."
"All that work blown away like a tumbleweed in a windstorm cause a one stupid comment." Nathan muttered in self-disgust.
"It ain't just that Nathan." The gunslinger reiterated, absently rubbing his thigh. "Ezra got his feelin's hurt... that's understandable under the circumstances but we all know that wouldn't be enough to make him think about leavin'... Gettin' even? Now that's another story altogether." He couldn't prevent a smile, thinking of the various harmless but embarrassing methods Ezra had used for revenge.
"Billy's waiting at the Potter's." The newspaperwoman rose. Hesitating as she stepped into the street, she turned back to the two men. "You were wrong about something else Nathan. There's something Ezra loves more than gambling or arguing. Something he values more than money or prestige... The six of you."
~ 5 ~
The licorice whip Mrs. Potter had given her, dangling from her lips, Emma sat among the crates and barrels in the alley using a short stick to draw in the dirt. It was almost time for Mr. Ezra to return. He would pass by the alley on his way to the restaurant and she could ask him if he was going to the creek.
The day before, Emma had sat beside the water most of the day, leaving only long enough to see if the gambler was sitting on the church steps but her friend had never arrived. She was afraid the lawman was mad at her because of the fuss her uncle had made about the jump rope
She understood Mr. Ezra was an important man. He helped Mr. Chris and Mr. Nathan watch over the town and keep the people safe. She understood in her own childish way that grown ups couldn't spend all their time with children. Emma knew from experience some adults never paid any attention to her at all and she was aware some adults never even had time for their own children.
Because of that knowledge she knew her Uncle Amos always did the best he could for her. He always told her how sorry he was they didn't have more time together but he never failed to talk to her. Like Mr. Ezra and unlike some people her uncle talked to her not at her. Over dinner or seated on the porch looking at the stars they talked about what had happened during the day, made plans for the future or discussed the people and events in town. Amos took her fishing after church on Sundays and tucked her into bed each night telling her a story until she fell asleep, giving her a security she took for granted.
With a knowing beyond her years, Emma had never mentioned to her uncle about meeting Ezra at the creek. She didn't think Amos liked Mr. Ezra all that much for reasons she couldn't understand. She didn't want to hurt her uncle's feelings but she was afraid if he knew he'd tell her she couldn't be friends with the peacekeeper anymore.
The hair on her arms suddenly stood up when she realized someone was in the narrow alley with her. Voices spoke and she clearly heard the words, "Ya should be able ta get in and out without any trouble. There's only two of 'em in town right now."
Emma scrunched closer to the boxes, trying to make herself invisible. There was something threatening about the hushed tones of the men's voices.
"Larabee's leg ain't lettin' him move for shit and that fancy assed gambler ain't back from patrolling yet. Lazy, arrogant bastard's probably sleeping under a tree somewhere. Baker and Pete are waitin' at the ranch. Soon as ya pass they'll wipe out yer trail. Stay put until ya get word from me."
Frowning, Emma stuck her tongue out at the men's retreating backs as they slipped past the alley entrance. She didn't know what arrogant meant but she knew the way it had been said it had been an insult to her friend.
The little girl returned her attention to the scratchings in the dirt, determined to make the gambler proud.
As the dusty buildings which constituted Four Corners came into view Ezra steeled himself to face the looks of loathing and abhorrence that seemed to be his existence the last two weeks. He really couldn't understand what he'd done to turn the entire town against him, but then he knew, sometimes it was just a constant buildup and people looking for any scapegoat, always chose the person with the shadiest background. In Four Corners, that person was him. It wasn't the first time and he knew it surely wouldn't be the last but nonetheless, it cut him to the quick to think people who had...
Ezra's head jerked up at the sound of gunfire.
Spurring Chaucer for town, he leapt from the saddle in front of the jail, and sent the horse out of harms way with a sharp slap on the rump. Weaving for cover, working his way to the center of town his green eyes rapidly appraised the situation. Larabee was pinned down behind the water trough, the dirt turning to mud as bullets slammed into the wood and leaks poured the water on the ground. Nathan was attempting to work his way from the clinic closer to the bank hoping to catch the bandits in a crossfire.
Two men had managed to cross the street, coming up on each side of the blond gunslinger while he fired at two men firing from behind the broken windowpanes of the bank.
"Chris! Behind you!" Even as the gambler yelled, he was firing, vaguely aware of Larabee rolling to the side in the mud, emptying his weapon into the closest criminal as Ezra's bullet buried itself in the chest of the other. The impact threw the would be assassin against the weathered boards of the storefront wall before he slid to the boardwalk staring sightlessly at the bank.
"Get your ass down Standish!" Larabee ordered awkwardly crawling for more substantial cover as he struggled to reload. There'd be time to thank the man later if the damn gambler didn't get his ass shot full holes first.
At Chris' shout, Ezra moved to follow the escaping man who ducked down the alley. As he skidded into the narrow thoroughfare, an all too familiar voice rang out, the childish tone ringing with terror.
"Leave me lone!"
His heart pounding erratically at the frightened cry the gambler cringed as a bullet pierced a crate on his right, the man's aim thrown off by the squirming little girl he held pressed against his chest.
For as long as she could remember, at least once a week, knowing what could happen in frontier towns, Emma's uncle had told her what to do in case of gunfire. He had lectured her on staying down saying people got killed by stray bullets because they were scared and tried to run away without thinking. He told her, if it was possible, to hide behind something strong and sturdy which could help stop the bullets. If she didn't know where the bullets were coming from, she shouldn't move.
The repeated lessons had stuck with her and just as she'd been told, at the first gunshot the little girl had made herself as small as possible, crouching down and squeezing close to the crates stacked beside the store. When the man ran into the alley the child tried to crawl between the barrels and boxes hoping to avoid being seen. She was too late and Emma screamed as while she was trying to wiggle away as an arm snaked around her waist roughly jerking her up from her hiding place.
"Let go!... Leave me alone!... Please let go a me..." Trying to loosen his hold, Emma continued to struggle, pushing and pulling at the man whose arm held her to his chest using her as a human shield.
Standish took in the scene with a quick glance. "I feel it my duty to inform you there's no way out and offer you the opportunity to release that child and surrender." Ezra called out capturing the man's attention. He kept his eyes on the man in front of him, blocking out everything around him. He couldn't bring himself to look at the little girl. He couldn't afford to see her fear or her expectation that he would rescue her. "I'm quite certain jail is preferable to death."
"Hell, ya ain't gonna shoot me... Ya won't take a chance on hittin' the kid." The man pressed the barrel of his weapon into Emma's side as he continued to slowly back down the alley. "Or that I'll shoot her out of reflex."
A flash of pride surged through the con man as Emma, now as angry as she was frightened kicked and fought for her freedom, pounding her tiny fists against her captor's body.
The man had his hands full as he tried to keep his eyes on Ezra and still maintain his grasp on the child. He roughly shook her. "Hold still damn ya!"
Praying Emma understood, his poker face firmly in place Ezra smiled sardonically, thickening his accent. "Sir, I would advise ya ta listen ta my voice and ascertain from which part of this great country I originally hail."
"What?" Confused, the man adjusted his hold on Emma, surprised to find he'd chosen an angry bobcat kit as a hostage.
"I asked where ya think I was born and raised."
"The south..." The man frowned. "So?'
"So ask yourself just how much ya think that little pickaninny means to me." Taking the bluff one step further, he eased back the hammer on his Remington.
Ezra saw awareness enter the other man's eyes and threw himself sideways, as the would be felon tossed the suddenly useless child aside into the dirt, at the same time swinging his gun in the gambler's direction. The seconds it had taken him to rid himself of the child was his downfall. Thrown against the crates by the bullet ripping a path through his shoulder, the culprit's head impacted with a barrel, the gun falling uselessly to the dirt beside his unconscious body.
Ezra kicked the gun away as Emma threw herself into his arms.
"It's all right Gingersnap, it's all over." He soothed as she clung to him, sobbing hysterically, her tear-wet face buried against his neck. "You were so brave, baby girl... Bravest person I know... I'm so proud of you." He held the trembling child securely rubbing small circles on her back keeping his voice soft, assuring her she was safe.
He smiled offering her his handkerchief when she finally pushed away fisting at her eyes with grubby little hands.
"I weren't bwave..." She denied between hiccups. "I fought he was gonna shoot me."
"No way would I let that happen." He guaranteed her, wiping at her tears with his thumb. Realizing the gunfire had died away, he gave her another quick hug and lowered her to the ground. "I have to take this miscreant to jail now. I want you to run on home. I'll come check on you as soon as I can okay?"
"Love you Mr. Ezwa." Her thin arms tightened around his neck, clinging to him.
"Love you too Gingersnap." He whispered. It was true. This tiny child held a special place in his heart. Placing a light kiss on her forehead, he gently shoved her in the direction of home. "Go on now. I'll see ya as soon as I can. Promise."
Sending her scurrying away, Ezra waited until she had disappeared before hauling the moaning criminal to his feet. Placing the barrel of his Remington in the small of the man's back, a promise of what would happen if he tried to escape, the gambler pushed him in the direction of the main street.
Stopping a nearby cowhand and ordering him to guard his prisoner, Ezra frantically pushed through the crowd gathered around the spot he'd last seen Larabee. His heart pounding loudly in his ears, he knelt beside the gunslinger's inert body as Nathan pressed bloody cloths to the visible chest wounds.
"Nathan?" The healer's name held the fear and trepidation flowing through his veins as the gambler's emerald gaze remained on Chris' pale complexion.
"Don't know." The healer glanced up long enough to give the southerner a cursory once over, satisfied when he didn't immediately see any gaping holes.
A rough hand grasped his arm, jerking Ezra to his feet. "Where the hell were you!" McMurtry demanded as Larabee was quickly and gently placed in a basket brought from the mortuary, several citizens carrying him toward the clinic. "Where were you when my bank was being robbed and the town was being shot to hell?"
Eyes locked on Larabee's still form being carefully ushered to the makeshift clinic he murmured. "I was doing my job."
"Doing your job? Wonder if Larabee would agree?" In a fit of anger, the banker spun the gambler around to face him. "Is that why two of them got away with the money? Or why they were able to rob the bank in the first place? You'd be wise to remember we pay you to protect this town not play slap and tickle with our children behind the church."
"You don't pay me at all." Seeing the ice in the man's voice reflected in the emerald eyes, the banker released his hold on the gambler and took a hasty step backwards. "Furthermore, you, sir, would be wise never to voice such a vile, slanderous and disgusting allegation again," Ezra's voice dripped with the hardly contained rage as he stepped closer to the man, pleased to see all the color drain from the banker's face. "Because if you do you have my solemn word as a gentleman I will demand satisfactory retribution." He lowered his voice, his next words not meant for the meandering crowd. "And I vow I'll cut your heart out and feed it to you."
The banker was the first to break eye contact. Ignoring the snickers and murmurs Ezra turned and moved to collect his prisoner from the cowhand, steering him toward the jail.
"What are you doing here Nathan?" Ezra jumped to his feet as the healer entered the jail. "Chris...? He isn't..."
"Mary's with him. Heard the prisoner was wounded." Taking the keys from the desk drawer, Nathan crossed to the cell. "Thought he might need tendin'."
"Let him suffer." The gambler drawled softly, not catching the look Nathan tossed in his direction. "How's Mr. Larabee?"
"Neither bullet hit any vital organs but he lost some blood." While he talked, the ex-slave examined the shoulder wound. Knowing Chris needed Nathan's attention, Ezra had sent someone to the saloon for a bottle of whiskey and bandages. Shackling the man's good arm to the cell bars, he'd cleaned and bandaged the injury. Afterwards, locking the jail, he'd quickly checked on Emma before seeking out and questioning those who'd been in the bank when it was robbed. "I think he'll be okay if he don't take a fever. We'll just have to wait and see."
The healer nodded in approval of Ezra's ministrations. "Ya did a good job Ezra."
"Shoulda just killed him." The southerner ground out bitterly, his emerald eyes flashing.
The bitter remark shocked the healer. Ezra preferred to use his charm, sharp mind and silver tongue to talk his way out of trouble only resorting to his gun when absolutely necessary. "None of this was your fault Ezra. It would have been a lot worse if ya hadn't got back when ya did."
"Guess I'll have to take your word for that." The gambler crossed to the stove warming his almost full cup from the coffeepot. He didn't want or need Nathan's pity. If he'd just put a bullet through the brain of the man in the cell, Emma would have been safe and he'd have been able to cover Chris' back.
"I'll stay for a bit if ya wanna go see Chris." The healer offered, thinking perhaps his worry for their injured leader was the cause of Standish's edginess.
"He needs you... not me." Ezra sighed. 'I wasn't there when he did need me.'
"I'll keep ya posted then,"
"I'll be up later." Ezra called after him as the healer headed out the door.
Ezra remained in the jail, occupying his time by doing a thorough search of the stack of wanted posters looking for anything that fit either the prisoner's description or that provided by witnesses of the missing members. While refusing to give his name, the man in the cell had constantly complained until Ezra drew his weapon, threatening to end the pain permanently. It had the desired effect and the man remained silent but continued to glare at the southerner.
Ezra reached for his Remington at the light rap on the door.
"Mr. Standish?" Molly called before opening the door balancing a tray of food. "Inez figured ya might be hungry. Said there's enough here for him too."
"Thank you." Taking the tray, Ezra set the food on the desk. He wasn't hungry and didn't give a damn if the prisoner was fed or not. "And thank Miss Inez for me."
The working girl hesitated in the doorway, her eyes focused on her shoes. "Think ya should know Mr. Standish... Some men over at the saloon... They're gettin' kinda worked up and talkin' crazy... Probably just the liquor but figured ya might oughta know."
"Thank you again Miss Molly." She blushed as holding the door for her, Ezra dropped a light kiss on her hand. "Do you need an escort back?"
"Nah... I ain't been afraid of the dark since I was a kid." She smiled stepping onto the boardwalk with a swish of her short skirt. She hesitated turning back to him, her expression serious. "You be careful Mr. Standish."
"Vin, if ya don't sit yer ass down, I'm gonna knock ya senseless." Buck threatened as the sharpshooter continued to pace the campsite. "Probably be the first sleep you'll have gotten since we left Peterson."
Tanner dropped onto his bedroll, and withdrawing the weapon silently began cleaning the mare's leg usually strapped to his leg. Earlier, they'd watched as ignoring his dinner, munching a biscuit the sharpshooter had set about cleaning both his rifle and the sawed-off Winchester.
"Brother Vin," Josiah gently pulled the weapon from the tracker, pushing him back onto the bedroll. "It's so clean ya could eat outta it. Brother Buck's right, ya need to sleep."
"We'll be home tomorra afternoon." JD pointed out the obvious fact as he stifled his own yawn of weariness.
"Ain't soon enough." Tanner complained lowly rolling onto his side, his back to the others. Josiah continued to sit beside the younger man, gently massaging the ex-bounty hunter's shoulders and back until he felt the muscles relax and his breathing even out.
"Ain't never seen him this bad Josiah." Buck kept his voice low, offering the preacher a cup of coffee as the man moved back beside the fire. His frown deepened, worry furrowing his brow. He knew, as did the other men, that Tanner and Larabee had an undeniable bond between them. For the Texan to be this agitated, he knew without voicing it that his oldest friend was in trouble. "Hate ta think a what's happenin' in town that's got him in such a state."
Inez and Molly exchanged worried glances as the conversation and speculation grew angrier and more animated. Inez offered the bartender a small smile as he exited the backroom carrying several bottles of whiskey. The Spanish woman knew and silently approved of the fact Joe was watering down the alcohol hoping to keep the small crowd from turning into a drunken mob. She turned her attention back to the pieces of conversation.
"Everything I had was in that bank."
"McMurtry was right. Where the hell was he?"
"He shoulda knowed Larabee's leg would put him at a disadvantage."
"He's a damn gambler. They count on ya bein' at a disadvantage."
Molly's eyes flashed with righteous indignation. "I didn't see any of your yella asses out there helpin'." The barmaid was ignored.
"We all know he cheated Roberts outta his seed money. Shoulda run that bastard outta town on a rail then…"
"Roberts don't think so and he did give the money back." Webster spoke up, defending the absent con man. Pleased at the direction of the conversation, the rancher had remained silent, letting his men keep the others fired up. By pointing out the obvious if, by some fluke, his plan backfired it wouldn't come back at him.
"Ya can damn well bet he only give it back cause he's got something else in mind." Someone else sneered. "Roberts may not know it but ya can bet he'll end up payin' for gettin' in that game and probably a lot more than he actually lost."
"As many times as him and Larabee been at each other's throat, surprised he ain't let somethin' happen before."
"Larabee shoulda run his sleazy ass outta town a long time ago."
"This is a respectable town. Sure as hell don't need his kind here."
"What the hell did McMurtry mean about him and them kids?"
"Hell, he's always buyin' 'em candy and doin' magic tricks for 'em."
"Ain't nothin' wrong with that." Someone protested.
"Oh come on any of ya ever seen him with any a the women in town?" Baker scoffed, seeing the slight nod from his boss. "He's always fondlin' the kids in town. Seen him and that little nigra gal myself down at the crick... her sittin' on his lap..."
"You sayin' he..."
"Just sayin' I wouldn't want his kind around any kid a mine." The cowhand shrugged. "If I'd been that nigra girl's uncle I'da made sure he's never able to touch a youngun' agin."
Inez had heard enough. She slammed a palm down on the wooden bar top, the loud sound capturing everyone' attention. "Enough! Ezra Standish is a good man and none of you have any right to say otherwise." With Molly's help the barmaid hurriedly began gathering bottles and mugs, jerking glasses out of the men's hands. "Molly's right. You knew Mr. Larabee's leg was still bothering him. You knew the others are still out of town but like frightened little rabbits you all hid inside instead of helping." She glared at Baker. "Ezra treats those children with respect and only a sick mind would think something so perverted." She spun to face the others. "Or listen to it!"
"Hell, missy, ya been throwin' yerself at him since he come ta town." Baker laughed. "Pretty little piece of tail like you, it makes sense the only reason he ain't crawled into your bed is if grown women don't do it for him... Maybe he ain't doin' them kids. Maybe he's one a them that gets off playin' with the same kind a toys. Either way we don't need that kind livin' here!"
Inez spat out a string of Spanish that everyone clearly understood to be an insult. "Bar's closed. Go home!"
The shotgun Joe lay on the bar prevented any arguments.
Slivers of moonlight mixed with the tiny flickering flame of the kerosene lamp to illuminate the ghastly pallor of the unconscious gunslinger's complexion. The sharp angles and planes which usually gave him a hardened appearance were relaxed now giving way to a soft look of vulnerability the man would loathe if he were aware of it.
On the table next to the lamp was a large bowl of cool water and a damp cloth as well as a battered enamel mug which Ezra knew contained the herbal tea, Nathan used to combat the pain and fever.
How many times had the healer mixed that concoction for one of the seven? How many times in the past two years had one of the seven lain in this very bed while the others kept vigilance hoping and praying the self educated healer could work another miracle?
As the gambler stood staring down at one of the few men he respected, Chris stirred, his head rolling on the pillow, a grimace of pain on his handsome face as his eyes fluttered open.
With a quick glance at the weary healer, who had dozed off in rocker Ezra stooped beside the bed supporting Larabee's head as he held the glass to the shootist's parched lips.
"Shhh... go back to sleep." The southerner whispered, using the damp cloth to wipe the beads of sweat from injured man's forehead. "Nathan says you're gonna be fine... But ya need to rest." He continued the soothing litany of mindless reassurances as the gunman slipped back into painless oblivion.
Pushing to his feet, he lay the cloth next to the bowl.
"I'm sorry Chris." He sighed tucking the blankets around Larabee's shoulder. "Guess ya put your trust in the wrong person after all." He murmured softly, regret coloring the words.
Careful not to disturb the exhausted man, Ezra carefully placed the extra blanket over Nathan before stepping back out into the night. He paused for a moment on the balcony, letting the darkness wash over him. Perhaps, out here in the shadows, in the black of night was where he truly belonged. Alone as he always had been and as he knew he always would be.
As he strolled the dark town, checking the closed business' and silent homes for any sign of intrusion, Ezra tried to concentrate on the job at hand but found his thoughts constantly returning to the man lying injured in the clinic.
Chris Larabee was a singular man. He had done what no other soul had ever even attempted. He had given Ezra Standish a second chance. A second chance to show the bravery the gambler constantly denied even having. A second chance to prove the gambler was a better man than Ezra believed himself to be. A second chance to reveal the man the southerner so desperately wanted to be. A second chance to be trusted. A second chance at friendship.
Now because of that second chance, the man who had survived gun fights, ambushes, the senseless slaughter of his family, his battle with alcohol and every obstacle destiny threw at him, lay in a makeshift clinic in a dusty nowhere town fighting for his very life.
Ezra hadn't broken his unspoken promise to the gunslinger but at the moment try as he might the con man could see no difference. He hadn't been there when Chris Larabee needed him most.
With that realization came another. 'Damnation! How am I ever to face Mr. Tanner again?'
There was a special connection between Tanner and Larabee and the gambler was well aware, Vin trusted the other men, including Ezra to watch over Chris when he couldn't. From the beginning, the sharpshooter had offered his friendship unconditionally, treating Standish with the same respect he gave the other five men. Ezra was ashamed to admit he couldn't say the same.
Heat flushed Ezra's cheeks as he recalled Vin shyly requesting his help with that poem. Yes, Ezra had been upset and more than a little drunk that night but his reaction was inexcusable and yet Vin had forgiven him without his even asking. It wasn't the first or only instance in which he'd given the tracker a hard time but Vin never failed to remain steadfast in his loyalty... Until now. This would be the breaking point. This would be the final straw, which snapped the tenuous hold the gambler had on his friendship with the other men.
A chill went down the gambler's spine, raising the hair on the back of his neck as he neared the jail. He started to turn a moment too late as the derringer he'd palmed flew from his grasp when a rope suddenly encircled his chest, pinning his arms and jerking him from his feet. Ezra grabbed the rope as it tightened about him, struggling desperately to free himself as the rider dug his spurs into the horse's belly sending the animal racing down the dirt road, dragging the helpless gambler behind him.
Fighting to keep his head up as his body twisted, rolled and spun at the whim of the hemp, Ezra kept his eyes closed in an effort to protect them from the dirt and debris kicked up by the animal's iron shod hoofs. He could feel the rocks ripping his clothes and tearing his flesh and abstractly though how he hated to damage this particular jacket.
The horse suddenly reared snorting wildly as its rider sawed back on the reins and Ezra rolled out of control, the rope wrapping itself around his body as the man released the end he'd secured around the saddle pummel. The injured southerner couldn't prevent the sharp painful outcry from escaping as his forehead slammed against a small sapling, the tender skin splitting, and blood streaming down his face.
Fighting to open his eyes, he didn't see the heavy boot which brutally connected with his ribs forcing the air from his lungs. Half way to his knees trying to gain his feet, the southerner dropped back into the dirt struggling to retain consciousness.
Pain washed over his body in waves as strong hands pulled him to his feet, holding him tightly while hard fists were driven his exposed face and torso. The rope still held his arms at his sides and he kicked out at the men in the only way he could protect himself, mentally smiling when he felt his foot meet flesh followed by a painful groan. The bitter copper taste of blood filled his mouth and flowed from his nose and split lips. Vague, seemingly familiar jeering voices became distorted and indistinct as the punishing fists continued to pound his body. Several of his attackers used their feet to kick and pummel his unprotected body as the southerner finally collapsed, curling into a ball in a vain effort to keep himself from further injury.
Hovering between reality and blackness, his senses oddly cleared and he could plainly hear the voices above him arguing over his fate.
"I say we string up the sleezy bastard. Keep any more a his kind from ever thinkin' 'bout settlin' here."
"Ya forgettin' he's still a lawman...? Y'all swing right beside him ya do that..." The man snickered as if he found something excessively humorous in the situation. "Sides them others'll do it themselves when they find out he let Larabee get killed."
'Killed...?' That one word froze in his mind. 'Chris had died?'
The accusing voices continued to argue following as, no longer caring what they decided, the gambler gave up letting himself fall over the abyss into oblivion.
~ 6 ~
'Have to run... Have to hide... Keep going... Find somewhere safe... Have to run... Chris... dead... dead... dead...' The single thought that Larabee had died, stayed with him repeated over and over like some maniacal mantra stuck in his pain fogged mind.
Ezra's very existence consisted of nothing but agony as he stumbled, fell, crawled and regained his feet, lurching several steps on weak legs only to fall again. On some instinctive level, some sense of self preservation kicked in telling him he had to get away before his attackers returned. He had to find someplace safe. Someplace where they wouldn't find him until he was better able to protect himself. With a bittersweet pang of regret he realized if Chris was dead there wasn't any reason to bother protecting his own life.
On another level, he was surprised and pleased to discover the Colt still in its leather on his hip and the Remington resting in his shoulder holster. At least he was armed. He could defend himself... or end his misery.
His head spun as he pressed an arm to his damaged ribs. Bitter hot bile rose in his throat as reeling the gambler crashed to his knees before falling heavily onto his side. Rest. He had to rest... just for a moment.
Laying there, his bloody cheek pressed into the dirt, tears, not of pain but of loss, dripped from his eyes and soaked into the dust as he heard the voices again talking of Larabee's death. Chris had died. That's what they'd said. He'd gotten the gunfighter killed.
As his senses slipped away into the darkness, a melancholy thought drifted through his mind. 'Should have said goodbye.'
Rubbing sleepily at his blurry eyes trying to decide what had woken him, JD glanced around the campsite the creaking of leather drawing his attention. The younger man poked roughly at Josiah and Buck's legs to awaken them as the sharpshooter swung into the saddle.
Josiah was awake in an instant, his gaze jumping to where JD stared.
"Brother Vin?" The preacher rolled from his bedding as the tracker reined Peso about, heading in the direction of Four Corners.
Ignoring the concern and question in the older man's voice, Vin called over his shoulder. "See y'all in town." Putting heels to his horse, the ex-bounty hunter quickly disappeared into the slowly dissipating darkness.
The sun was rapidly reaching its zenith when Tanner jumped from the saddle taking the clinic stairs two at time. One of the livery boys, seeing the tracker's hurried arrival, rushed over to take Peso's reins, assuring Tanner, he'd take care of the tired animal. Not wasting time to answer the boy, Vin rapped sharply on the wood in warning before he burst through the door, his heart leaping to his throat at the sight before him. He froze, his hand still on the latch
Seated on the edge of the bed, Nathan was retying the bandages that encircled the motionless gunslinger's chest.
Finally able to move, the sharpshooter closed the door and crossed to the bed as the healer stood and adjusted the blankets before wearily crossing to the stove.
"What happened?" Vin's question was sharp in the stillness of the room, the only other sound Larabee's raspy breathing.
Nathan pressed the cup of coffee into the tracker's hand as Vin sank into the chair. "Two wounds to the chest. He's running a slight temperature but that's ta be expected."
"What happened?" Vin repeated, his eyes locked on the gunslinger's pale face.
"Half dozen fellas robbed the bank yesterday." The healer quickly described the events as witnessed from his position. He shook his head, concluding, "They had him pinned down. Guy on the roof kept me from bein' able ta get to him."
"Where was Ez?" The question held no rancor, just a touch of curiosity.
"Don't know. Thought I heard Chris holler his name but I was a little busy at the time. By the time I finally got to Chris he was already down and two a 'em had got away."
"Ez... le... left." Larabee's head rolled as he struggled to utter the barely audible words.
"Easy there cowboy." Tanner looked at Jackson in confusion, moving to support his friend as Nathan poured a cup of tea, urging the man to drink. "He sayin' Ezra left?"
"T-t-tol... m..." The words faded away as the herbal tea did its job and healing sleep claimed Larabee again.
Vin's blue eyes darkened as he stared at the blond man. "Nate," the words seemed to catch in his throat, "did he make Ezra leave?"
"No!" The healer's answer was adamant as he vehemently shook his head... He chewed at his lip unable to meet Vin's blue eyes, certain how his next words would affect the tracker. "But seems Ezra's been thinkin' on it mighty strong."
"Why?" Tanner had known it was a mistake to leave the three men alone in town with no one to run interference for Ezra with the gunslinger and healer. "Nathan?" The sharply spoken word demanded an immediate answer.
The healer paced the small room explaining everything he knew about what had happened while the others were gone. His voice was full of pride and shame as he finally paused to face the ex-bounty hunter again. "Ezra's done most a the work... He took all the patrols... I had the late night shift at the jail and he relieved me a couple hours before sun up." He half smiled. "He actually ordered me ta wake him if I had a night call and he bothered Chris ta stay off his leg even more than me... Hell it was him caught the one that's in the jail..." He shook his head again. "I'd never have believed he had it in him, if I hadn't seen it my own self." The healer didn't mention Ezra's middle of the night visit to the injured gunslinger. It would only serve to embarrass the gambler. "If he hadn't misunderstood..."
"Where's he now?" Vin cut in impatiently. Damn the healer had spent the better part of two years working and fighting beside the gambler and still seemed to expect the worst from Ezra.
"Probably back at the jail... Inez came by this mornin'... She's kinda worried cause he wasn't there when she took breakfast over but figured he was out checkin' over things in town. I'm tellin' ya Vin, ya'd think Judge Travis was payin' him a million dollars the way he's been takin' care a this town."
"Too bad McMurtry and them didn't notice... or care." Tanner crossed to the door. "See if I can talk to him." He paused, his hand on the latch, his eyes on Larabee.
"I'll take care a Chris." Nathan lay a reassuring hand on the sharpshooter's shoulder. "Ya take care a Ezra... Reckon he's blamin' himself for all this. Tried ta tell him it wasn't his fault but... Well... don't reckon he cares much what I think."
Tanner's voice was soft. "Don't ya get it Nathan? If he didn't care none, hearin' that conversation wouldn't a bothered him a'tall."
Ignoring the prisoner's loudly vocalized complaints, Vin slowly paced the jail scrutinizing every detail with a sharp eye. Ezra's hat, covered with a layer of trail dust hung on the hook by the door. The tray, Inez had delivered that morning sat on the desk, the towel still covering the untouched food. The last embers in the stove had turned to ash hours before, the coffee in the pot growing cold and undrinkable.
The tracker rifled through the few flyers still lying on the desk, the top paper displaying a remarkable likeness to the man behind the bars. Joe Carter. Wanted in three states for murder, robbery and a host of other crimes. Even without the reading lessons, Vin's experience as a bounty hunter let him recognize several of the crimes listed.
"Ain't right!" The man called out from the cell, pouting and whining. "Law says ya gotta feed me!... Didn't have nothin' last night... Damn fancy fool dumped it in the slop jar... I get my hands on that fancy bastard and I'll wring his scrawny Johnny Reb neck..."
"Coulda let ya bleed ta death... I would have." Tanner mumbled carrying one of the plates to the cell. It didn't matter one way or the other to him if the robber ate but if he could bribe him with food. "When'd ya see Ez last? He here this mornin'?"
Tanner watched Carter's hunger wage war with his desire to tell the tracker what he could do with his questions.
Common sense and hunger prevailed as the man finally admitted. "Heard him leave late... don't know what time it was. Far as I know he ain't been back since."
"Anybody else been here?" Vin prodded.
Carter shook his head. "Just the good lookin' whore what brung the food and some young guy... Dropped off fancy pant's hat... Said somethin' 'bout findin' it in the street."
Vin's heart hammered against his chest. Ezra's hat had been found in the street?
The prisoner glared at Tanner, then at the plate as the sharpshooter hesitated. "So damn hungry I could eat a dead dog."
"So eat." The sharpshooter shoved the plate through the slot in the cell door, releasing his hold on the dish. A small smile graced his handsome face at the clatter of the tin dish on the floor, Carter's curses following him out the door as he called over his shoulder. "Better clean that up. Sheriff'll be back soon and he shore hates a messy jail."
Hearing the pounding hooves of approaching horses, the tracker nodded toward the clinic, sending his arriving friends to Nathan's before pushing through the swinging doors of the saloon.
The chatter from the lunch patrons faded and all eyes followed the sharpshooter as taking the spare key from Inez Vin hurried up the stairs to Ezra's rented room.
Hating to think it was a useless gesture, Tanner nevertheless politely knocked on the door before turning the key in the lock. Calling Ezra's name, praying to hear a weary or even sarcastic reply the ex-bounty hunter stepped into the immaculate room.
Emotions warred for dominance while, just as a he had at the jail, Vin carefully examined the gambler's sleeping accommodations. He was pleased to find the southerner's clothes neatly folded in the drawers and hanging in the closet, his razor and other grooming items on the dresser. A book the con man was obviously reading, his place carefully marked, rested on the bedside table and his carpetbag was empty under the edge of the bed. A small sigh of relief sounded from the tracker. At least the gambler hadn't packed and moved on.
Worry began to push aside the pleasure aside as Vin carefully locked the door and thoughtfully returned the key to the woman behind the bar. As he nodded his thanks and turned to leave, anger surged through his veins when his cold blue gaze swept over the tavern occupants. How many of these so called God fearing Christian folk had helped spread the vicious lies and rumors about Ezra? How many of them had turned up their noses, treating Ezra with contempt as something not fit to be in the same town with them? Had any of them even bothered to worry about the southerner while they hid in safety during the gun battle that resulted in Chris' injuries? Shaking his head in disgust, Vin moved out on the boardwalk and let the cool breeze fan away his hot emotions.
Fear began to gain control as he hurried toward the livery, crushing the small hope the southerner might have lost his hat during the previous day's altercation or while in pursuit of the remaining bank robbers when he discovered Chaucer still in his stall. Quickly running his hands over the gelding, checking for injury and finding none, he stepped from the stall.
"Tommy!" Vin sought out the youth cleaning stalls at the far end of the building. "Tommy, did Ezra ride one of the livery horses when he went out on patrol this mornin'?"
The tow headed boy shook his head as he leaned on his pitchfork. "Nope Mr. Tanner. Come ta think 'bout it I ain't seen Mr. Standish since yesterday mornin'. What with all the excitement, I don't think he even came ta see ta his horse. But I took care a him real good though."
"He knew ya would. Ez knows ya always do a good job." The youngster puffed up proudly at the compliment. "If ya happen ta see him would ya tell him I'm lookin' for him?"
"Sure thing Mr. Tanner."
Worry furrowing his brow, the tracker slowly made his way from the livery. His thoughts on his missing friend, he wasn't aware of his name being called.
At the edge of the street, the sharpshooter paused, his hat in one hand, staring at the town as he raked a weary hand through his long curls.
The ex-bounty hunter turned unguarded, frightened eyes to the large preacher who approached.
"Nathan says Chris is gonna be okay Vin." JD tried to assure him as he came up beside the ex-priest.
"Ezra ain't." Vin murmured brokenly, drawing worried stares from his friends.
"What da ya mean Vin? Ya sayin' Ez's been hurt?" Wilmington questioned, exchanging a puzzled look with Josiah. "Nathan tole us people been givin' him a hard time but-"
"He ain't here." Tanner interrupted irritably.
"Where is he?"
Tanner stared at Buck as if the womanizer had just swallowed a live rattlesnake.
"Sorry. That's a JD question if ever there was one." Buck joked hoping to ease the fierce tension they all saw gripping the sharpshooter.
The young sheriff didn't protest the comment. He'd learned early on, Wilmington not only relied on a sense of humor to comfort the others but to hide his own anxiety as well. "Chaucer's here. I saw him when I took the horses ta the livery so he's gotta be here somewhere. Least we know he didn't leave for good, cause he'd never leave that horse behind. Let's find him."
"Accordin' ta Nathan you got a prisoner to look after JD." Sanchez reminded him. "We'll look for Ezra." He turned to the sharpshooter. "Reckon ya done checked his room and the saloon so we'll just have ta spread out. Talk to everybody. Search every possible space he coulda crawled into, onto or under."
"So yer sayin' leave no rock unturned." Buck grinned. "I mean this is Ezra we're talkin' about..." Wilmington was unprepared for the fury in Vin's blue eyes as the tracker rounded on him.
"It's bad enough Ez has to take that shit from the town folk... Yer 'sposed ta be his friend!"
"Hey c'mon now Vin... Ease up." Josiah drew the younger man away. "We'll find him."
Vin threw off his hand and stormed away as Buck called, "We'll meet back at the saloon in an hour."
"Nothin'." Buck shook his head as he and Josiah sank into chairs at their usual table, waiting for Vin. The three men had spent the last hour turning the town inside out and upside down without a sign of the southerner. "It's like he turned into a bird and flew away."
"Don't ya mean turned into a chicken and ran away?" A skinny cowhand leaning against the bar cast an amused glance at the peacekeepers. Josiah's scowl stifled any snickers caused by the comment and Buck watched as several citizens shifted uneasily in their seats. The man met his stare defiantly muttering, "Reckon he hightailed it outta here, just like he left Larabee yesterday."
"What do you know 'bout yesterday?" Derision laced Wilmington's voice.
The man sniffed haughtily, "Whole town knows how that yeller bastard run off and left Larabee ta face them killers alone."
It was evident by their expressions the two men hadn't heard all the circumstances or speculation behind Chris' injuries.
"I know that worthless piece a shit wasn't there when Larabee was bein' shot down. Useless coward didn't show up till after the fightin' was all over."
"He knows nothing." Inez scoffed, wiping the wooden bar. "He cowered in here shaking in his boots with the rest of these brave gentleman while the senors were fighting to stop the robbery."
"Watch your mouth whore!"
Buck's gun jumped into his hand and he waved toward the cowboy who had his hand raised to strike Inez. "I think a better suggestion would be that you apologize to the lady and then come over here and have a seat. Think we need to talk about just what did happen yesterday." He turned to the large man who moved up along the ranch hand, effectively preventing him from leaving. "Don't ya agree Josiah?"
"I think that would be an excellent idea Brother Buck." He dropped a heavy hand on the man's shoulder steering him toward their table. "I'm sure you agree," he smiled.
The cowboy swallowed hard as he nodded and dropped into a vacant chair.
"Mr. Tanner?" Mary hurried to where Vin stood in the middle of the street staring at the bank and surrounding buildings. She knew he was trying to piece together exactly what had happened.
The tracker had talked at length with Mrs. Henson about the robbery. The widowed dressmaker was perhaps the best witness to the events, which had transpired in the lawmen's absence. She had just returned to her shop, two doors down from the bank when the shooting began. She had explained to him how she'd heard that polite Mr. Standish yell out that someone was behind that nice Mr. Larabee. She'd been quite certain of the voice and the warning as Ezra had been just a few feet from her door at the time.
As the tracker's searching eyes swept over the area he realized the water trough had been repaired, all the bullet holes plugged. The holes adorning the wall of the building behind it had been ignored. Looking closer he saw the rusty traces of a stain in the dirt near the boardwalk. Blood. Chris' blood...
If Larabee had been hunkered down behind the trough and Ezra across the street near Mrs. Henson's, it was plainly obvious the southerner would have seen Chris' peril. No matter what had happened before Vin was positive Ezra would never have left Larabee alone to face the gunmen. Not unless something else had transpired, something no one else was aware of but made it essential the southerner act immediately.
'Ezra left.' Larabee's words danced in his mind. Had the gambler literally taken leave? Or had Chris meant a warning, wanting the gambler to see something... to his left? Tanner frowned in frustration and moved to where he imagined the gambler had been standing.
"Any luck?" Mary's soft question broke into his thoughts.
H shook his head dejectedly. He'd heard a dozen different versions of the shootout, everyone wanted to offer their opinion on why the gambler hadn't been there when Chris was shot. Some assuring him they didn't believe the rumors circulating about Mr. Standish, others voicing their distrust of the wily southerner but no one had admitted having seen the gambler since the confrontation with McMurtry as Larabee had been moved to the clinic.
"Vin," The newspaperwoman caught his arm pulling him to a stop. "I want you to know something... Most people here in town like Ezra. They may not approve of some of the things he does or his lifestyle, but they do like him and most wouldn't want to see him leave."
"Sure gotta helluva way a showin' it! Seems ta me this town and its good citizens have done everything but throw 'im a necktie party." Immediately regretting venting his rising frustration on a good and caring friend Vin sighed sagging against the nearest wall. "Sorry Mary... Just don't seem fair... Ezra don't talk about it but he does a lot for this town. Nobody ever bothers ta see the good side a him but let 'em think he's done somethin' wrong and they're all ready ta tar and feather 'im." He jerked his hat off and raked his hand through his hair. "It jist ain't right!" He growled.
"I know Vin. But you have to remember the good-" She fell silent as he jerked a hand up, tilting his head searching for the sound that had caught his attention. As the sharpshooter stepped into the alley, drawing his mare's leg, Mary followed.
Abruptly holstering the weapon, Vin moved quickly to kneel beside the familiar form of a little girl. She was sitting on the ground, her forehead on her knees, her arms wrapped around herself quietly sobbing.
Tanner cautiously touched the trembling little shoulder, afraid the child was injured in some way. "Emma...? Ya okay? Emma what's wrong?"
Tears streaming down her cheeks, she raised sad eyes to meet his. "I can't find it Mr. Vin... I lost it!... I looked and looked but I can't find it nowhewes... Mr. Ezwa's gonna be so mad at me..." she sobbed out grief stricken.
"What are ya lookin' for Emma? What'd ya lose?" Tanner sat down in the dirt beside her, slipping a comforting arm around her small shoulders. "Maybe I can help ya look for it."
Swiping the back of her hand under her nose, she looked up her expression hopeful. "Ya will?"
"Course I will. Now tell me... what did ya lose?"
"My book." The child wiped at the tears with the back of her small hand. "Mr. Ezwa gived it to me... And I-I losted it! Billy says you can find anythin' and Mr. Ezwa says it's cause ya can wead dirt and wocks. He says not evewybody is smawt enough to be able to do that."
"Ezra said that?" Amazement and a touch of wonder filled the young tracker's voice.
Mary standing a short ways from the pair, smiled seeing the surprise in Vin's eyes, a slow blush coloring his stubbled cheeks as the child rambled on. Glancing up, seeing the newspaper woman's small smile the tracker ducked his head to hide his embarrassment and pushed to his feet to begin searching through the boxes and barrels which littered the narrow alleyway.
"Uh huh... Mr. Ezwa says ya make up pwetty poems in your head... Will ya tell me one sometime?" She didn't seem to notice the slight pause in Vin's actions as she continued on. "I'm glad you'we back. Mr. Ezwa's been weal sad since ya went away."
"Are ya sure ya lost your book around here?" Embarrassed, Tanner tried to change the subject.
She nodded assuredly. "I lost it when that bad man gwabbed me."
Leaning over several barrels the lost object caught his eye and stretching he slid his hand between the containers and the wall, retrieving the precious book.
"Ya did find it!" Emma squealed as he held it out her. Clutching the gift with one hand she wrapped her other arm around his neck squeezing tightly. "They was wight you can find anythin'!"
Gently setting back on her feet and holding her at arm's length, Vin remained stooped before the little girl. "What do ya mean ya lost it when the bad man grabbed you?"
Mary had stepped closer at the previous statement and now her eyes widened seeing the book the little girl held. It was a Reader, exactly like the ones in the trunk she'd received. Her attention was pulled away from that observation by Vin's softly repeated question.
"That bad man Mr. Ezwa put in jail. He was gonna shoot me but Mr. Ezwa stopped him. He said he wouldn't never let that happen." She smiled wiggling free of his grasp to hug Vin's neck once more. "Thank you! I was gonna tell him I lost it but he was sleepin' so I come here ta look for it first. Now when Mr. Ezwa wakes up, I can show him-"
"Emma!" The child jumped as Tanner suddenly gripped her arms again. Seeing the sudden fear jump into her eyes, the tracker took a deep breath, feeling her relax as his smile wiped the alarm from his eyes and voice. "Do ya know where Ezra is now?"
Emma nodded vigorously. "Uh huh. He's takin' a nap at our weadin' place."
"You're readin' place?" He frowned shaking his head not sure where she meant. He thought he knew all of Ezra's hidey holes.
"His special place by the cweek. He teaches me schoolin' and I'm teachin' him ta fish." She nodded proudly. "Want me ta show ya?"
"Thanks sweetie but I know where it's at." He pulled her to him hugging her gratefully before straightening and leading her over to where Mary stood. "Ya think Ez will mind if I visit him at his special place cause I sure missed him too?"
"He'll be happy but..." She hesitated biting her lip.
"I don't think he feels vewy good... I think he's weally tiwed. He's been asleep all day."
"Don't ya worry none, I promise I'll take care of Ez. Ya know I'll bet Mrs. Travis has some fresh pie in her kitchen just waiting for some special little girl to visit and have a piece." He flashed a quick pleading look at the woman who nodded her understanding. She'd keep the child occupied.
"Weally?" The bright eyes sparkled as Emma looked from Vin to Mary and back to Vin. "I love pie! Just like you Mr. Vin."
Both adults had to smile and Vin muttered, "Ezra tell ya that too, did he?"
"He said one a these days ya was gonna turn into a peach pie." She giggled, slipping her hand into the one Mary offered and as Vin hurried from the alley, the child happily skipping along beside the newspaperwoman, didn't see the fearful expression which had come to the sharpshooter's handsome face.
~ 7 ~
Stopping at the swinging doors, Tanner motioned for Buck and Josiah not waiting to see if they followed as he hurried on toward the church.
Wilmington grabbed Tanner's arm attempting to drag the rapidly striding young man to a halt as they neared the back steps of the church. "Did ya find him?"
"Know where he was." The tracker pulled away.
"Reckon we better take it slow then." Josiah suggested. "Don't know what frame a mind he's in right now. 'Ccordin' ta what Inez and that fool in the saloon was sayin' he's had a pretty rough time since we been gone." A strange tone of guilt ran in his deep voice. The preacher knew these men with him cared just as deeply for the gambler as he did. When they were together, few would dare face the wrath of the seven to get at the gambler but when they were apart Ezra was unprotected, open to whatever kind of target the local town gossips and busybodies made him, depending once more only on himself.
"Aww hell!" The sharpshooter's words didn't express their own fear as Vin pushed through the hanging boughs and brush to enter the small grove of aspen trees. Any other time the glade would be a peaceful hideaway but now, the men froze as one at the sight before them.
The gambler lay curled on his side next to the waist deep water. The dirt stains and ragged tears in his usually immaculate clothes were visible evidence of a painful dragging.
Vin dropped to his knees beside the still body, reaching out to gently lay a hand on the gambler's arm. "Ez?"
Tanner fell back stunned as with a startled shout, the southerner swung wildly, the Remington gripped tightly in his hand. Disoriented, crying out in pain, the gambler pushed to his knees and attempted to scrambled away, stumbling and splashing through the creek.
"St-stay... way..." The words, forced through bloody battered lips, were barely understandable.
The three men stood helpless at the water's edge staring in horror at their terrified friend. Crouching on the other bank, an arm pressed against his stomach, Ezra frantically aimed the weapon at every sound, real or imagined. Trembling uncontrollably, rapidly blinking eyes that were so swollen as to be nothing more than mere slits in the bruised and bloody face, he stuttered in pain and fear, "D-d-don't... h-hurt me... I'll go... P-promise..."
Tears filled the tracker's blue eyes at the pleading words drifting on the cool breeze. Without hesitation, saying nothing he waded into the stream, the flowing water pushing against his body as he slowly moved across the distance, his focus on nothing but his injured friend.
"Vin..." Buck called an unnecessary warning as the gambler's gun swung in the sharpshooter's direction.
The tracker continued his forward motion his words soft and sure. "Ezra ain't gonna shoot me."
"I don't think he knows it's you." Wilmington wished he felt as confident as Tanner sounded. "Reckon he figures it's whoever did that ta him." His inner voice added. 'The someone I'm gonna take pleasure in killin'!'
As the con man's gun wavered, then straightened, Buck made a move for the stream before the ex-priest caught his arm.
"Stay still Buck. Let Vin handle it." Josiah whispered holding his breath as the tracker continued his slow advance toward the southerner. "Don't wanna spook him any more than he already is."
'Please God. Don't let Ezra pull that trigger.' Buck's silent prayer joined Josiah's winging their way to heaven.
Almost afraid to breath they watched the scene playing out in front of them They could hear the soft words as Vin spoke to the gambler telling him about their trip to Peterson, warning him about a joke JD had heard and couldn't wait to repeat. As he drew near the opposite bank, the tracker told Ezra how Emma had told them where the gambler was explaining how the child had been waiting for him to finish his nap. They listened as the sharpshooter managed to talk as if this were any ordinary day, trying to keep things as normal as possible in the abnormal situation while continuously repeating over and over who they were and that they only wanted to help.
The men listened, their hearts breaking as Ezra repeatedly pleaded with them not to hurt him anymore and begging forgiveness for whatever it was he was supposed to have done. What tore their hearts into shreds was the gambler promising he would leave without a word to anyone, never to return to Four Corners if they would just stop hurting him.
"Ezra...? Hey Ez it's Vin..."
The gambler, reliving the abuse he had suffered, jumped and pointed the gun startled to find the soft voice so near as Vin finally reached the opposite bank and took a tentative step out of the water. "Ez?"
Ezra shook his head uncertain if the voice was real or imagined.
"V-Vin?" The gambler's trembling increased. "B-b-b... ck?"
"Yeah Ez. We're back." Tanner forced a smile, stopping several feet from the gambler. "Buck and Josiah's here too. Chris sent us ta find ya."
"C... is?" The gun hand lowered a inch. "D-de... d." The nearly indistinguishable words were choked.
"Nah. Ya know Larabee's too mean ta give up the ghost." Vin chuckled, hoping the gambler wouldn't hear how false it sounded. "Hell he ain't goin' nowhere without the rest of us..." He abruptly changed subjects not wanting to agitate the southerner any further. "Sure is peaceful here Ez, ya suppose it'd be okay if I's ta come over there and sit with ya awhile?" It was obvious the southerner was quickly losing his battle with unconsciousness.
Josiah absently nodded as the ex-bounty hunter offered Ezra some of the control over his life which had been so brutally stolen from him.
When he got no response, Vin softly questioned, "Is that alright with you Ezra?"
The gambler shrugged ever so slightly. "'Spose."
Vin cautiously moved closer and eased himself to the ground beside Standish. "Don't think ya need yer gun Ez, lessen ya was plannin' on shootin' ya some fish fer dinner." He waited, sighing with relief when the weapon finally dropped into the thick grass. "Think it would be alright for Josiah and Buck ta come sit with us. It was a long ride and we're all kinda tired."
Ezra hesitated then nodded, no longer having the strength to form words.
"Why don't ya get some rest Ezra." Seeing the gambler's alarm he quietly added., "I'll be right here watchin' yer back." As the con man half nodded, the sharpshooter gently suggested, "Ya can lean against me iffen ya want."
Feeling like intruders as they watched the interaction between the Texan and southerner, Buck and Josiah forced themselves not to rush toward the other two.
Tanner wrapped his arms around the shorter man, careful not to frighten Ezra or cause him anymore pain as the injured man finally gave in and sagged against him.
"V... n?" Even in his current state of mind Ezra was resisting the fact he needed someone and as if realizing what he had done, struggled weakly to push away from Vin's protective embrace.
"It's okay Ez..." Vin didn't release his hold, knowing the man hadn't the strength to fight him. "We're gonna take of ya... Won't let nobody hurt ya anymore." He whispered brokenly, the tears spilling down his cheeks as Ezra, feeling safe enough to stop fighting, slipped over the edge into unconsciousness.
"I'll get Nathan." Tanner started at Buck's remark realizing the men were beside them.
"It'll be faster ta just take him to the clinic." Josiah's deep baritone stopped Buck's retreat. Easing the gambler onto his back in the grass, his head resting on Vin's thigh, the big man carefully examined the con man for broken bones, chewing his lower lip when Ezra moaned. "Have ta be real careful though... feels like he's got some busted ribs and probably worse."
With Vin and Buck on either side to steady him on the slippery bottom Josiah crossed the creek, Ezra cradled in his arms. Blinking back his own tears, the preacher glanced down at the battered face of his surrogate son and vehemently vowed to avenge this needless assault.
"Hold on a minute." Vin ordered entering the back door as they neared the church. He returned with a blanket from Josiah's room. "Don't want him seen like this... Bad enough they did this ta 'im without lettin' 'em gawk." He carefully lay the light cover over Ezra hiding the man from the town's prying eyes.
The sun had sunk below the horizon before Nathan sank wearily into the bedside chair nodding his thanks as Josiah carefully tucked the blanket around the unconscious gambler's still form.
It had taken hours before the healer, fighting his growing anger, was completely satisfied that he'd gotten all the dirt and gravel cleaned from the cuts and abrasions which covered Ezra's body. He'd wrapped the damaged ribs and stitched the deep cut in the gambler's forehead, stopping every few minutes to force a few drops of water or medicinal tea down the unconscious con man's throat silently promising to repay those who'd done this to his friend. He realized as he worked, Ezra Standish, despite his uppity southern upbringing, his gambling lifestyle and exasperating ways, was his friend. A spark flared up in him. He could never confront the man face to face with how he felt but by damned he could certainly show him. The things he'd told Amos were the truth. Ezra was a good man...
"He gonna be okay Nathan?" As usual JD was the first to pose the question everyone wanted answered. They were all seeking reassurance the healer would once again work his magic and have the gambler arguing to return to the poker table.
"Somebody worked him over pretty good. Boy's one huge bruise... Ain't gonna be movin' worth shit for awhile. He's got some broken ribs and a concussion. His arm ain't busted but I wouldn't be surprised if the muscles are damaged. The bruise itself'll keep him from usin' it for a while." They'd all seen the deep ugly bruise clearly depicting the shape of a boot heel where someone had bore down on the gambler's left wrist.
The other three knew Nathan was worried most about the concussion. How many times had he told them head injuries were tricky with really no way to treat them and they all knew the southerner had barely recovered from the previous wound which had kept him in town instead of going to Peterson with them.
"But he's gonna be alright ain't he?" The sheriff insisted.
"Physically he should be okay with time." The ex-slave sighed, hoping the younger man would be satisfied with that answer.
"What's that mean?" JD looked at each of them for an answer. "He's okay... right?"
"What Nate means is the bruises'll fade and the cuts'll heal up but..." The tracker searched for the right words, "iffen they destroyed Ez's spirit, they might as well have gone ahead and killed him." The Texan's quiet words belied the rage flowing through his veins.
"Shucks, don't figure we gotta worry 'bout that." JD relaxed. "He's been beat up afore. Ezra told me once it comes with bein' a gambler. Said part a his profession was knowin' how ta stay one step ahead a those intendin' ta retrieve their money through painful methods."
Vin frowned as he thought, 'Cept this time he weren't bushwacked by strangers.' He moved across the room. "Be back in a bit. Got somethin' ta do." Vin stopped himself from slamming the door as he exited the clinic.
Tanner swung the child up into his arms, settling her on his hip. Emma and Amos were approaching the blacksmith's cabin when Vin rounded the corner.
Emma stared at him with serious eyes, "Was Mr. Ezwa happy to see ya like I said?" She demanded to know.
"Yeah sweetie just like you said." He knew by the look of concern Amos gave him, he hadn't been able to completely hide the hitch in his voice. "I come by ta tell ya that ya's right. Ezra ain't feelin' too good. Nathan says he's caught a pretty nasty cold so he's gonna hafta stay in the clinic fer awhile but I'm sure he'll be wantin' ya ta come see 'im jist as soon as he can have visitors."
"Iffen he's really sick, Uncle Amos can make him one a his politics." Emma offered.
"Poltice." Her uncle corrected with a gentle laugh.
"I got a cold last winter and he made it for me." She leaned close to Vin's ear as he lowered her to the porch step whispering loudly. "It stinked like a skunk in a outhouse but I didn't get congesticated."
Vin burst into laughter, stunned to discover he couldn't suppress the uncontrollable fit of hilarity. With all the stress of the last hours, he really had need an outlet for his emotions and was glad the child didn't realize the tears he wiped from his cheeks were actually caused by fear and grief.
"Emma darlin' be a good girl and go inside and pour Mr. Tanner a glass a that lemonade we made yesterday." Amos suggested, giving the sharpshooter a chance to pull himself together. Positioning himself where he could keep one eye on his niece as she obeyed he softly questioned the tracker. "How's Mr. Larabee?"
"Doin' better. Wanted ta thank ya for helpin' Nathan." Amos had been one of the men to carry Chris to the clinic and had stayed to help the healer tend his wounds.
"Be happy ta help ya look for them two that got away. Can tell ya they was headed northwest. Damn near run me over." Having delivered a repaired plow to the Jones farm, the blacksmith had just reached the edge of town when the fleeing felons had raced past him startling his mule and forcing him off the trace.
"Here Mr. Vin," Careful not to spill any, Emma passed him the glass. "Wanna have dinner with us? Uncle Amos makes weal good wabbit stew."
"Thanks sweetie but I reckon Ezra and Chris'd like some company. It's no fun bein' sick."
"I put some more sugar in it for ya." The little girl grinned when her uncle stepped into the cabin. "Uncle Amos don't make it very sweet."
Thinking the child must have added an entire cup of sweetener, Vin choked down the drink. "That was mighty good Emma. Thank you." He handed the glass back to her with a smile as Amos returned to the porch.
"Ya take this Mr. Tanner." Amos extended the covered stew pot, it's tantalizing aroma wafting on the evening air. "Y'all gotta eat and we got plenty." His gesture was giving the peacekeepers the opportunity to stay with their friends. "Ya give us a holler iffen ya need anythin'."
Ignoring the untouched beer on the table in front of him, Vin sat silently watching the saloon's other patrons. Nathan had chased them from the clinic shortly after dinner, knowing it was a futile gesture. They would all wander back in after an hour or so, gathering around offering silent support to their injured friends.
Buck, wisely knowing the Josiah would have the best chance of talking the exhausted healer into getting some rest made plans to relieve JD at the jail. Suggesting the tracker try and get some rest would be a waste of time and breath. Once he was back inside they wouldn't be able to force the sharpshooter from the clinic at gunpoint.
It had been unspokenly decided, having gotten Ezra to the clinic without being seen, to leave the town ignorant of the con man's condition. Tanner had pointed out, and the others wholeheartedly agreed, it would be easier to discover the gambler's attackers if they didn't know he'd been found... If they believed he had left town. It was a know fact most people had a tendency to talk more freely when they felt safe.
Now sulking in the saloon, killing enough time to satisfy Nathan, Vin studied the occupants. The sharpshooter's blue eyed gaze passed over several townsmen, flickering over a young man sitting alone. He suddenly sat up slightly and focused on that young man... Danny Bishop.
The young cowhand sat alone at a table in the corner, staring at the bottle of whiskey and shot glass in front of him. A couple years younger than JD, Vin knew Bishop was a good kid who'd gone to work for Andrew Webster in an effort to help his parents support their large family. Friendly and outgoing, Danny always took the time to stop to talk with the peacekeepers when in town. Normally spending his time off with his family the young man was rarely in the bar, didn't stay for more than a beer or two and never came in alone.
As if sensing the tracker's searching gaze, Bishop looked up from the drink in front of him, meeting the sharp blue eyes and just as quickly diverting his own. Tanner frowned. Was that guilt he'd glimpsed? Surely Danny wasn't... Vin didn't have time to ponder the idea as leaving the doors swinging wildly behind him McMurtry advanced across the saloon to the peacekeepers' table.
The banker didn't waste time on small talk. "I heard you were back."
"And now you've seen for yourself." Buck retorted sarcastically. "Happy?"
"I won't be happy until that stolen money is returned to town."
"Didn't steal no money." Wilmington quipped. "We all got alibis."
"I'm sure the townspeople will be pleased to know you find the loss of their savings so humorous." The portly man sniped. "You know damn good and well I'm talking about getting back the money stolen during yesterday's bank robbery."
Vin didn't raise his eyes as he murmured, "Don't reckon that's gonna happen. Trail's cold and any sign woulda been wiped out by all the comin's and goin's."
The banker turned his attention to Tanner. "That shouldn't be any problem for someone with the exceptional skills I've heard attributed to you." He snorted derisively. "According to what everyone says you're supposed to be able to track a scorpion across a bone dry desert or has your reputation merely been exaggerated by simple minds."
"Could be." Vin shrugged nonchalantly. At the moment he could care less if the bank's money was ever recovered. Right now more than anything he wanted to take his time stripping the skin inch by inch from the men who had beaten the gambler and left him for dead. While it was also true he wanted to see the men responsible for Chris' injuries punished, those men had been strangers intent on thievery while he was certain those who had attacked the southerner were men Ezra knew. Men he had fought to protect. "Sides, got somethin' more important ta do." He drawled softly.
The banker reached for the empty chair usually occupied by Chris.
In a flash the Texan used a booted foot to kick the chair aside as the banker prepared to sit down, glaring at the man. "A gentleman waits for an invitation before joinin' someone."
"Damn he sounded just like Ez." Buck chuckled, nudging the ex-priest.
Vin had never liked the man who was now glaring down at him. McMurtry's sense of self-importance, self indulgence and self-centeredness made Ezra seem modest. The moneylender didn't give a damn about Four Corners or the citizen's lost savings. This scene was merely an attempt to make himself look good before the town.
From the moment he'd stepped from the stage announcing he was the new proprietor of the town's only bank McMurtry had made his feelings toward the gambler known and according to what Nathan, Widow Henson and others had told him, while they were gone, the banker had gone out of his way to add fuel to the flames of rumor licking at the southerner's already less than sterling reputation.
"More Important?" The banker sputtered indignantly. "More important! Just what in the hell could possibly be more important than retrieving this town's lost money!?" He demanded.
McMurtry stood momentarily stunned by Vin's simple answer, his face reddening with anger, his mouth moving soundlessly as he searched for words.
"Ezra's more important." Vin repeated stubbornly. Out of the corner of his eye, the tracker saw Danny squirming uneasily at his words.
"You're joking of course! You honestly want to sit there and tell me... tell all of us," He waved an arm around the room suddenly making Tanner aware the saloon seemed to have filled to capacity and the two of them were the center of attention, "that that worthless gambler's so important you aren't interested in bringing to justice the men who robbed this town and shot your friend." His gaze focused on the townspeople to see their reaction to his words, the banker didn't see the rage flaring in Vin's blue eyes as the derogatory term used to describe his friend. Only Buck's strong grip on his arm kept the tracker from decking the banker where he stood.
"Ezra's our friend too." Josiah growled. "And yes he's just as important ta us as Chris and a helluva lot more important than your damn money."
"I must admit I don't understand you gentlemen." McMurtry shook his head in confusion playing to his rapt audience. "Has it not occured to you that Standish himself may very well have been involved with the men who robbed the bank. After all he wasn't there to back Mr. Larabee and no one has seen him since he escorted the supposed prisoner to the jail... Then again maybe he wasn't involved... Perhaps you should see if any of his little playmates are-"
The banker's last sentence was nothing more than a startled squeak as Vin shook off Buck hand and lunged from the chair. People scattered out of their path as wrapping his hands in the lapels of the other man's jacket, the lean ex-bounty hunter propelled him backward slamming him into the wooden bar which dug into the small of McMurtry's back with bruising force. "Shut your filthy mouth ya fat fuck afore I shut it permanently."
With an expression of total disgust, the sharpshooter gave McMurtry another hard shove against the bar before releasing him and wiping his hands on the buckskin pants as if he was trying to remove something repulsive. "Ya don't know a damn thing 'bout Ezra!" He swung around to face the stunned people who were staring at him. "None a ya know Ezra!"
Behind him, swallowing his fear, the banker straightened and smoothed his rumpled jacket. He was well aware few of the residents of Four Corners liked or even respected him but as a man of wealth and standing he considered himself a community leader. He didn't want to lose the small amount of influence he held by backing down from a common ruffian like the uncouth Vin Tanner. Gathering his nerve, he waved his hand calling out, "Then by all means, sir, enlighten us."
"Tell 'em Vin." Buck encouraged. The womanizer was certain Tanner had discovered more of what had happened while they were gone than either Josiah or himself.
The tracker raked his furious gaze over the crowd before shaking his head sadly. "Just be a waste a words."
"Might be so but they're words that need ta be said." The quiet statement drew everyone's attention to the smithy who had slipped into the saloon during the altercation. Certain Emma was sleeping soundly, hoping the nightmares that had plagued her sleep the night before didn't return while he was gone, the blacksmith had hurried to the clinic to offer Nathan his help.
He'd understood Vin's story about Ezra's cold had been for Emma's sake but thought it was simply a way of giving the gambler time to deal with the townspeople and their accusations. He'd been shocked by the con man's condition and sickened by the actions taken against Ezra. Amos wouldn't have recognized the colorful distorted features of the unconscious man laying on the small cot as belonging to the handsome southerner.
Knowing there was nothing he could do to help the gambler, Amos had stayed nonetheless and assisted while Nathan checked Larabee's wounds, satisfied there were no signs of infection. Nathan had turned the lamp down and blocked Larabee's view of the smaller bed when Chris had awoken long enough to drink a cup of tea and ask if remembering Vin and the others being there was simply a dream before falling asleep again.
At Amos' look of puzzlement, the healer had admitted to making the medicinal tea stronger than normal telling the blacksmith, worry would keep the gunslinger from getting the much needed rest he required to heal if he knew about Ezra.
"They don't wanna hear the truth. Easier ta believe lies." Vin pushed through the doors disappearing into the dark night.
The smithy's dark eyes raked over those gathered. "Mr. Standish wasn't there when Mr. Larabee was wounded cause he was busy... savin' my niece's life." Amos deep voice resounded throughout the saloon. "That fool in the jail tried ta use her for a shield. Threatened ta kill her if Mr. Standish didn't let him go." Although several people nodded, the air of doubt and derision was so thick in the room as to be suffocating. Amos shook his head as he muttered. "He was right. Just a waste a words."
~ 8 ~
The wind had picked up, a strong breeze rustling the curtains. The deep rumble of thunder echoed in the distance and lightening illuminated the sky as the late night storm moved closer to Four Corners.
Josiah's deep voice broke the quiet. "Need some more water. I'll swing by and make sure everything's okay at the jail before this storm hits."
Vin nodded silently as taking the nearly empty bucket, the preacher slipped out the door. They'd spent the last two hours, bathing the gambler's upper body with cool rags and forcing water and tea down him in an effort to fight his rising fever.
"Hey cowboy." Tanner moved to the other bed, using a gentle hand to keep Larabee still as the gunslinger tried to sit up. "Good ta see ya." He reached for the cup of medicinal tea Nathan had left to ease the older man's pain.
"No tea." Larabee weakly pushed away the offered cup.
Vin returned the cup to the nightstand knowing he would catch hell from the healer for not forcing it down the man. "How 'bout some water then?" He filled a glass and held it to the older man's lips so he could drink.
"Thanks," Chris sank back into the pillow as Vin set the empty glass aside, the cold liquid soothing his parched throat. His voice was a little stronger as he questioned. "How long?"
"No wonder I'm hungry." Larabee managed a small smile.
"Reckon I can heat ya up some a the broth from Amos' stew." The sharpshooter offered softly silently crossing to the stove in the corner. "Nathan says you'll be up and around in no time a t'all."
Larabee shifted around in an attempt at a more comfortable position. "Did we get 'em?"
"All but two. Three's dead and one's in jail." Vin proceeded to tell him what they knew of the men who'd committed the robbery as he stoked the small fire and reheated the stew ordering the gunslinger to lie still as Chris struggled to sit up. "Nathan'll have my ass ya bust them stitches."
Tanner ignored the summons as he went on, "Don't reckon there's much chance a findin' 'em'. Storm'll wipe out any sign mighta been left."
"Vin!" The alarm so evident in Larabee's voice sent a chill through the tracker as he gathered the heated stew and returned to the bedside. Setting the cup of thick broth on the bedside table Tanner busied himself propping the pillows behind the gunslinger's back, hoping to avoid answering the question he knew Chris was going to ask. The shootist's hazel gaze was locked on the small cot in the shadows. "Who?"
"Ezra." He stated simply as he wrapped the gunslinger's long fingers around the cup, gently guiding his hands upward, urging him to drink.
Larabee studied the tracker waiting for an explanation to accompany the soft one word response. None was forth coming.
"Vin?" Chris coaxed impatiently.
Tanner sank into the chair, raking a hand through his hair before wearily massaging the tight muscles in the back of his neck. "Don't know what happened yet..." His eyes on Ezra, finding that painful view easier than meeting Chris' furious glare, the sharpshooter described the southerner's injuries and Nathan's predictions for his recovery.
"Why...? Why would-" The question was forgotten as mumbling incoherently, Ezra began to thrash about.
Vin quickly crossed to the small bed and replaced the blanket Ezra had kicked aside, only to have the gambler throw it off again.
"H... t." The con man muttered feverishly.
"I know Ez. It's coz ya got a fever." As he reached to replace the blanket once more, the wind caught the opening door whipping it from Josiah's hand and slamming the barrier against the wall.
With a terrified outcry, the gambler leaped from the bed, frantically knocking Tanner aside. Weak and disoriented tangled in the blanket the southerner stumbled to the floor, crawling blindly away desperately seeking safety.
"Ezra... It's alright... It's okay..." Vin soothed, warily approaching the injured gambler. "It's Vin... Ain't gonna let nobody hurt ya now... 'member...?"
Lowering the bucket of water to the floor and wrestling the door shut, Josiah quietly moved to Larabee's side, resting a large reassuring hand on the gunslinger's shoulder, keeping the wide-eyed man in bed.
"D-don't... hrt..." Frantically reaching for weapons he wasn't carrying, fear flashed across the feverish southerner's face as he realized, too weak to fight he had no way of protecting himself. "Pl... se... D-din't... do... nothin'... din't do wr-wrong... swear... wouldn't hrt..."
Tanner moved closer, reaching out a trembling hand to the gambler. "It's Vin, Ez... It's just me and Josiah and Chris here..."
Ezra, licking at dry lips, winced as his tongue touched the open cuts. With his back pressed against the wall, he scooted away from the calming voice. "Sh-shoulda... said... b-bye..."
Anticipating the man's move, Vin moved quickly to intervene as the con man's retreat brought him dangerously close to the hot stove. "Ezra, listen..."
He froze, as in a panic, Standish scrambled the other direction. Sweat plastered the gambler's dark curls to his head and ran in rivulets down his face its only color the deep ugly bruises which distorted his handsome features. Muttering, shivering uncontrollably, each movement becoming more strained, Ezra's breathing was becoming more labored as the con man huddled in the corner trying to make himself as small as possible.
"Ez... Listen ta me Ez..." The sharpshooter stooped down in front of the rapidly weakening man hoping to break through the fever induced voices in the gambler's head. "Ez... c'mon, listen ta my voice Ez... nothin' else matters... just my voice. Can ya hear me Ezra... It's Vin... C'mon now, focus on me..." He softly cajoled.
Something in his voice or perhaps just the gentle words themselves finally reached the gambler. "V-V-"
"Yeah Ez, it's me."
"Ba... k?" The gambler at least remembered they'd been gone.
"Yeah Ez, we're back," Tanner forced a small smile. "You're at the clinic Ez... Ya know there ain't nobody here gonna hurt ya... It's just me and you and Josiah and Chris..." Easing closer, Vin gently stroked the back of the con man's hand with his fingertips, undeterred when Standish flinched, his expression flaring with pain and fear. "It's okay Ez... ain't gonna let nobody hurt ya... nobody..."
The southerner turned his head attempting to focus on the tracker. "V... n"
"Yeah Ez... I'm right here." Moving next to the gambler, he eased an arm around the injured man's shoulders, waiting patiently when his friend cringed, muscles tightening in fear before relaxing at the gentle touch. "We'll protect ya... my word as a Tanner..."
As the terrified gambler visibly relaxed, surrendering to the sharpshooter's embrace a small smile mixed with sadness and relief touched the gunslinger's lips and Josiah silently nodded approval.
"Nothin'... w-wrong..." Ezra mumbled, his head dropping to rest on Vin's shoulder as the ex-bounty hunter gently wiped his face with the cool damp cloth Josiah had passed him. "D... d... n't... do wr-"
"I know Ez... Never thought ya did." Vin quickly assured him. The preacher pressed the cup of tea Chris had refused earlier into his hand and he held it to the gambler's lips. "Ya thirsty Ez...? Drink as much as ya can, it'll make ya feel better." While Nathan had mixed the herbs for Larabee's pain, he knew it would ease the gamblers as well.
"Nothin'... wr-wrong... s-sw... r." Standish gasped between swallows tears rolling down his cheeks. "Swear... d-d-didn't... do..."
"We know pard... Shhh... ya just rest now... just rest... Ya been workin' awful hard lately..." Setting the empty cup aside, Vin continued to wipe the southerner's battered features. "Nathan and Chris told us ya took real good care a the town while we was gone."
Ezra shook his head stubbornly, "Shoulda... s-said... bye..."
"Shhhh now... Go ta sleep, Ez. We got your back... Ya just rest now and get well."
Shivering from shock and fever in Tanner's arms, the gambler's mumblings grew softer until he finally succumbed to his weak body and let sleep claim him. Not wanting to frightened him further, Josiah gently lay a blanket over the two men as Vin shifted into a more comfortable position, carefully shifting the gambler's weight against his shoulder, his arms holding the man securely. They could move him later when he was more deeply asleep.
His cheek resting against Ezra's sweat damp curls, Vin offered the gunslinger a small smile, silently telling Chris to rest. The shootist needed sleep as much as Standish and he knew they could talk later. Chris was going to be fine.
Giving in, grumbling under his breath, Chris settled down and let Josiah tuck the blankets over him but it was some time before they saw the older man give in to his own weakness, keeping his eyes locked on the two men huddled on the floor.
Vin's arms tightened protectively around the gambler as the clinic door opened, the wind blowing the rain in as Nathan slipped through the opening.
"What the..." Wiping the rain from his eyes, the healer stared round the large room.
Seated in the chair, Josiah jerked awake and scrubbed a hand through his hair before drowsily adjusting the blanket over Larabee's sleeping form. The ex-slave's worried gaze settled on Vin and Ezra. "Why the hell is he-"
At the strongly uttered words, the southerner jerked in the Texan's embrace. "Shhh Ez, it's alright... Go back ta sleep." Tanner soothingly stroked the gambler's hair as the southerner flinched cowering closer to the sharpshooter at the unexpected intrusion. "It's just Nate... Nobody's gonna hurt ya." He shot a fierce look of warning at the healer.
"Why the hell is he on the floor?" Nathan whispered as Josiah poured them each a cup of coffee.
"Long story but right now he's where he feels safe." He shrugged at the question in the healer's eyes but didn't have an answer. It was just another of the many mysteries which made up the gambler and his past. Josiah didn't think it was Ezra's location that made him feel safe at the moment as much as it was the man seated beside him. The preacher explained he and Vin had tried twice before to move the con man back to the bed only to have him struggle against their efforts. "Didn't figure ta see you for a couple hours yet."
"Storm woke me." Nate nodded to the southerner, smiling in appreciation of the man's goose down mattress. "Can see why he hates gettin' outta that bed."
They had convinced the healer to use Ezra's room to get some sleep, knowing the gambler would have insisted as well. Exhausted, Nathan had quickly succumbed to the lure of the large feather bed but worry for his friends had haunted his sleep and prevented its return when the crashing of thunder had brought him bolt upright and fully awake. He had hurried back to the clinic to check on his patients but hadn't, however, planned on finding one of them sleeping on the floor.
Gulping the hot liquid, Nathan quickly and efficiently examined the sleeping gunslinger listening as the preacher quietly detailed the events before the healer's arrival, his worried gaze constantly drifting to the small figure huddled in the corner, to be certain their conversation wasn't disturbing the southerner.
Finishing with Larabee, Nathan stooped down beside Vin. "We should get Ezra back in bed. I need ta change some a them bandages and check his ribs."
Vin nodded in understanding shifting slightly from the gambler in preparation of standing. "It's okay Pard. I promise. We're just gonna make ya more comfortable." Vin murmured reassurance as Ezra tried to wiggle closer to him whimpering in pain as Josiah maneuvered his arms around the gambler.
Retaining his grasp on Ezra's hand, cramped muscles screamed in protest as moving in unison, Nathan helped Tanner stand as Josiah lifted the smaller man and carried him to the bed.
Vin kept up a litany of reassurances as they situated the con man on the bed, urging him to drink the cup of laudanum laced tea, releasing his hand only after the healer had cleaned the injuries, changed bandages, re-wrapped the ribs, and Ezra's breathing had evened out in deep sleep.
Certain Vin needed to be there as much as Ezra needed him there, the preacher had returned with Tanner's bedroll before going to his own room at the church to rest.
Nathan sat in the bedside chair, sipping his coffee and staring out at the empty street, the driving rain kept the citizens indoors but hadn't prevented either Buck or JD from stopping at the clinic to check on their friends. The soft snoring of the sleeping tracker, stretched out on the floor between the two beds, was the only sound breaking the silence.
He never thought he'd come to hate this town, but it was easier than he realized. All he had to do was glance at Ezra. All he had to do was think about what the townspeople had done or allowed to be done to the gentle con man. The gambler had risked his life more times than he could remember to protect this nowhere town and it's honest upright citizens and they had repaid him with vicious rumors, unfounded accusations and a nearly fatal beating.
"Is he okay?" Larabee's words rasped in the stillness.
Lost in thought, Nathan was surprised to see Chris sitting up and hurried to adjust the pillows behind his back, passing him a glass of water to ease his dry throat.
Chris pushed the glass aside, pinning Nathan with a fierce glare. "Is he okay?" The gunslinger repeated.
"He will be." 'I hope.' The healer nodded. "His fever's under control for the moment. The rest is cuts and bruises. A couple broken ribs." He didn't tell Larabee the concussion worried him more than anything. Any head injury was dangerous but Ezra had suffered two in less than a month...
"And what'da ya think the odds are of him hangin' around once he's back on his feet." Stretching cat like, Tanner rolled to his feet, moving to check on the gambler, resting a comforting hand on the damp curls before crossing to pour himself a cup of coffee. Slouching against the wall by the window, he stared silently at the healer and gunman awaiting an answer.
Unwilling to face the question and it's obvious answer, not wanting to think about life in Four Corners without the enigmatic con man, Nathan shrugged into his jacket muttering he'd be back with breakfast and slipped out the door.
"I wanna know why they did this damn near as much as I wanna know who did it." Chris growled as Vin crossed and poured him a cup of coffee.
"I'm a workin' on that." The sharpshooter sighed. He'd formed a fair idea listening to the townspeople while searching for Ezra. The gunfighter's hard glare softened as Vin sank cross-legged on the floor near the small cot where he could keep a watchful eye on Ezra. "Wanna tell me your version of what happened? I seem ta have heard damn near everybody else's includin' folks who weren't even in town at the time."
Chris had just finished telling Vin about the robbery and subsequent shootout, including how he'd sent Ezra into the alley after the escaping felon when Nathan returned. Buck was right on his heels dragging a reluctant Danny Bishop with him.
"Said ya wanted to talk to Danny so here he is." Wilmington shoved the youngster forward before sweeping his hat from his head and smacking it against his leg to shake it free of water. "Was out at his folks place."
Taking the plate of food Nathan had brought for Tanner from the tray, the womanizer sat down at the small table, digging into the eggs as if he hadn't eaten in a week, his expression plainly telling the sharpshooter it was payment for the rainy ride.
Earlier, Vin had asked him to bring Danny to the clinic if he saw the boy in town. Sensing the importance of the man's request, Buck had ridden out at first light, taking a chance the ranch hand had spent the night at his parents farm rather than make the long ride out to Webster's in the storm.
"Mr. Wilmington said ya needed my help with somethin'." Politely removing his own hat, the young man kept his eyes on the floor of the softly lit clinic, shuffling his feet nervously.
"Thought ya might be able ta help us figure out what happened ta Ezra." Tanner shrugged casually.
Danny shook his head, puzzled. "Don't know what ya mean. Heard he left for parts unknown."
"Ya heard damn wrong." The ex-bounty hunter barked, stunned by the rage he felt flowing through his veins at the very sight of this young man, standing before him, strong and healthy. He was certain Bishop had knowledge of what had happened to Ezra and the kid was playing dumb but he was gonna tell 'em what he knew if Tanner had to beat it out of him. Struggling to rein in his emotions, he muttered softly, "Ezra ain't gone nowhere."
The kid shrugged noncommittally, "Don't know what I can tell ya Mr. Tanner. I sure ain't seen Mr. Standish since the night them fellas held up the bank."
"What'd ya stop at the jail for?" According to both Nathan and Molly, as far as they knew Ezra hadn't left the jail until long after the town had settled for the night.
"I didn't I... I meant I hadn't seen him since that afternoon." Bishop flustered momentarily. "I'd tell ya all iffen I'd talked to him but I didn't."
"Then take a damn good look and see 'im now!" The sharpshooter moved before anyone could react. Gripping the cowhand's arm he dragged him over beside the cot. "Look at him Danny! Take a damn good look!"
Bishop focused on the motionless battered figure and paled, his eyes widening, his mouth moving soundlessly as he tried to back away only to find escape impossible as Vin held his arm in his fierce unrelenting grasp.
"Take a good look, Danny! He was dragged afore somebody beat the hell outta him. Wasn't some accidental draggin'... but deliberate and cruel. Ez's a fighter. Ya can damn well bet it took more than one person ta do this to 'im." He jerked the young man around to face him, his words hard and brittle. You one a 'em Danny? You help the bastards who done this to 'im?"
Tears suddenly spilled down young man's cheeks and the lean ex-bounty hunter's grip was the only thing keeping him on his feet. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry... so sorry..."
"Funny that's the same damn thing Ez keeps sayin'. Can't figure out what he thinks he needs ta be sorry for." Tanner scoffed as Wilmington, no longer interested in breakfast sprang between the youngster and sharpshooter. He forced the tracker to release his hold, shoving Bishop into the rocking chair.
"Can't believe you're involved in this Danny." Buck leaned against the wall folding his arms across his chest. "Thought yer folks raised ya better."
"Ain't... Wasn't... I..." The youngster scrubbed at the tears.
"Tell us what happened Danny."
The soft order appeared to shake the cowhand as he seemed to realize for the first time Larabee was in the room. He had heard the stories of the man's temper and the rumors of the men Larabee had killed. He knew this man was not someone he wanted pissed at him.
"Mr. Larabee? I thought... They said..."
Realizing the kid was terrified of the tracker and gunman Nathan stepped in, certain they would get nowhere until Danny calmed down. "You eat!" Setting the plate of eggs and potatoes in Chris' lap and forcing the fork into his hand Nathan turned to Bishop. "You, start at the beginning."
Taking a deep breath, his gaze jumping back and forth between the silent sharpshooter and the gunman toying with the food on his plate, Danny cleared his throat. "The night of the robbery... I'd come inta town with some a the fellas... Everybody was talkin' 'bout what happened. They kept sayin' how Mr. Standish had run out and left y'all... They said ya was shot up bad and wasn't gonna make it Mr. Larabee." His pleading tone begged them to understand as his words tumbled forth in a rush. "Miss Inez she closed the saloon but some a us went out ta this place Baker knows about and got some home made 'shine from a friend a his... They kept talkin' 'bout Mr. Standish, sayin' things 'bout how he's always cheatin' people and how he was never around when needed and always lookin' out just for hisself and... and... 'bout him spendin' so much time with the kids... They kept talkin' 'bout how they didn't want his no good kind here and how maybe they just oughta teach him a lesson." He shook his head, staring at the floor as he attempted to justify what had happened. "Maybe if everybody hadn't been drinkin'..."
"What about him and kids?" Buck interrupted, afraid he already knew what Danny was going to say. He was certain it was what the man in the saloon had hinted at.
Bishop's embarrassed gaze locked on his fingers twisting in his lap, red suffusing his cheeks.
"What about him and kids?" The young man jerked as if Wilmington had hit him, frightened by the fury in the womanizer's low voice.
"Buck!" Tanner warned quietly, the room falling silent as Ezra stirred restlessly.
They waited, Danny watching sadly while Vin tenderly bathed the gambler's face with a cool cloth whispering reassurances until the southerner was motionless once more.
"Go on." Wilmington hissed.
"They... they said he likes kids for... for... ya know... man and wife pleasures... Said he buys 'em candy and tells 'em stories and things so he can... you know..." The kid's face was almost as red as Ezra's favorite jacket, refusing to meet Buck's enraged gaze. "Baker was tellin' everybody how he saw him and that little nigra gal down at the creek... I didn't believe it though! Mr. Standish has always been real nice ta my kid brothers and sister. Wasn't ever no hint of what they was implyin'. Probably what brought me ta my senses." He admitted. "I realized they's all wrong and slipped away and headed back ta the bunkhouse. Saw Mr. Standish as he was leavin' the jail... Shoulda warned 'im... I really didn't think anything was gonna happen... I honestly thought it was just all liquor talk..." The kid's voice trailed off. Taking a deep breath he finally met each man's angry gaze. "Next mornin' Bemis was braggin' 'bout how they showed that sissified dandy whatfor and it would be a long time afore he thought about comin' back ta this territory... I couldn't stand it so I got my things tagether and quit. Told Mr. Webster, pa needed my help and lit out there as fast as I could."
"Who all was there Danny?" Chris asked, setting the untouched plate aside, his direct question breaking the tension filled silence which had descended on the room following Bishop's confession.
"Didn't know most a them. Baker, Ron Bemis, some hands from a couple other spreads, that new fella that's been helpin' at The Feed and Seed..." His voice trailed off as Wilmington stormed from the clinic and with a muttered curse Nathan rushed after the furious womanizer
The young man hesitantly pushed from the chair and when no one attempted to stop him crossed to the door.
"He's gonna be alright ain't he?" Danny turned sorrowful eyes to Vin and Chris. "Ya don't know how sorry I am 'bout all this... Reckon if I was any kinda man I'd a stuck around and helped him... Shoulda at least warned him... Would ya let me know when he's up and around? Would like to tell him myself how sorry I am."
"Danny!" Vin's call stopped the ranch hand before he could step out into the rain. "We all make mistakes. Takes a man ta stand up and admit when he's wrong and do what he can ta make it right."
"Thanks Mr. Tanner but lookin' at him... That don't help much and it sure don't make things right." Ramming the battered old hat into place, poor protection against the drizzling rain, he shuffled off down the steps.
~ 9 ~
"Come on Cowboy, ya gotta see this for yourself." A wide grin splitting his handsome features, Vin slipped an arm around Chris' waist gripping the wrist of the arm that encircled his shoulders, he supported the gunslinger's weight as they moved the few steps to the chair the tracker had situated at the window.
With Bishop's departure, an ominous silence had fallen over the clinic. Neither man needed or felt the desire to voice the feelings of infuriation, contempt and bitterness eating at their insides as the mental images of what Ezra had suffered floated at the front of their minds.
Worried about Ezra's fever, Vin had once again bathed the gambler's face and arms before laying a cool rag over the southerner's swollen eyes and moving to the window to stare out at the steady downpour.
"That crazy sonuvabitch." A small smile tugged at Larabee's lips seeing what had amused the sharpshooter.
Citizens filled the boardwalks, some laughing and jeering, others exchanging puzzled expressions or whispering behind their hands, everyone speculating on what had brought about the scene being played out in the street beneath the clinic window.
Several feet of the rope normally coiled at Wilmington's saddle horn was wrapped tightly around the squat muscled body of the grainery employee the lady's man was dragging behind him as he trudged down the middle of the muddy street.
Chris and Vin watched in amusement as Nathan, followed more slowly by Josiah, hurried into the street blocking Wilmington's path and placing his hands against Buck's chest finally bringing the gunfighter to a halt.
Without taking his eyes off the ex-slave, the womanizer took a step backward and placed a booted foot against the man's backside and giving a rough shove sent the bound man floundering back into the mud as he struggled to gain his feet.
In the clinic Chris fought to control his laughter. He had known Buck most of his life. He knew the man's every expression and could read every nuance of his body language. Hell he could almost give voice to the thoughts in the womanizer's mind with one quick glance in the twinkling eyes and at this very moment he knew the most persuasive orator on the face of the earth wasn't going to dissuade Wilmington from the course of action he'd set himself upon. If Nathan were God himself, he'd still be wasting his breath.
"Ya might as well be tryin' ta rope a tornado Nathan." Larabee mumbled bringing a lopsided grin to Tanner's handsome face. They both knew Buck was steadfast in his loyalty to friends. Chris, himself, was living proof of that fact. Wilmington had stayed by the gunslinger's side through all the years of Larabee trying to drown himself at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Just as he had known Buck was there the first day he'd ridden into Four Corners, it was no small coincidence that Wilmington had chosen to spend time in the small town. Despite his supposed surprise at seeing Chris and Buck's fervent denials, the blond man knew, Wilmington had been keeping an eye on his best friend. Oh he knew Buck always tried to stay out of sight but he was well aware the amiable gunman made it a habit of arriving just ahead of or just after Chris, no matter where the shootist rode.
Watching the events in the street, Chris knew how it would end as throwing his hands up in exasperation, Nathan turned to Josiah depending on the preacher to talk some sense into the outraged gunfighter.
Vin snorted, stifling a laugh as Buck stood stiffly letting Sanchez have his say placing a muddy booted foot in the middle of the struggling man's back holding him firmly in place. The tall gunslinger stood toe to toe with the bear of a preacher, meeting Josiah's eyes, his tense jaw barely moved as pointing to the figure in the mud he made his own argument.
Seeing Nathan's sigh of relief as the enormous ex-priest wrenched the rope from Buck's grasp, Chris burst into laughter, pressing a hand to the bandages covering his wounds as Josiah moved toward the jail at a much faster pace than Wilmington had set, the worker's wiggling form leaving a deep trench in the muck and mire.
Larabee dashed at the laughter tears in his eyes. "Damn I shore wish Ezra coulda seen that."
"Just hafta make sure he hears about it." Vin nodded wiping at his own tears of hilarity, his gaze sobering as it shifted to the unconscious man in the small bed.
"Need ya ta do me a favor Vin."
"Name it cowboy."
"Get Buck and-" He held up a hand stopping the tracker's protest. "Bring him back here. I know Buck and if we don't corral him now he'll go after all the bastards by himself." A slow feral grin spread across the gunslinger's handsome features. "Can't let him have all the fun, can we?"
"Buck! Damnit would you stop for a minute!" Nathan hurried into the street moving in front of the livid gunfighter.
Wilmington, his eyes flashing fire stopped, glaring down at the dark hands forcibly pressing against his broad chest. Raising his eyes to meet the healer's worried gaze, Buck took a step back and with a muddy boot shoved the man bound in his rope back into the muck before he could get his feet under him.
"Okay, I stopped. Now get the hell outta the way so I can get this filthy piece a scum ta the jail."
"This ain't the way ta go about it Buck and you know it!" Nathan was distinctly aware of the gathering townspeople watching from the boardwalk. "I know ya wanna kick the shit outta this fella. Hell ya think I don't!? We gotta do this the right way or-"
"I don't give a flyin' fuck about the right way! At least this rope ain't," he shook the hemp coiled in his hand at the healer, "ain't tied ta a horse. Don't make a damn bit a difference ta me if the judge fires my ass or puts me in jail, this sorry sonuvabitch is gonna regret the day he ever even thought about hurtin' Ez. Now get the hell outta my way Nathan. I ain't askin' ya again!"
"Damnit Josiah, see if you can talk some sense into that hard head." Nathan pleaded throwing his hands up in surrender.
"Might as well go back ta bed and try and get some more sleep Josiah. Ya look like hell." Buck remarked dryly. The three lawmen stood in the middle of the street ignoring the rain soaking their clothing and the audience watching from the relative dryness of the boardwalk various doorways.
"I'll be honest with ya Buck, I'm not quite sure what the hell this is all about."
When Wilmington had stormed into the livery, Nathan had burst into the preacher's room in the back of the church insisting Josiah come with him, rambling frantically about Buck going off half cocked and needing the preacher to keep the womanizer from doing something he probably wouldn't regret if he lived through it. By the time Josiah had slipped on his pants and boots and followed Nathan outside, Buck was dragging the helpless, protesting grainery worker down the muddy street. Now the preacher's sleep fogged mind was still trying to sort it all out.
"Nathan's right in sayin' ya need ta go about things in the right way. Ya may not wear a badge but yer one a the law in this town and that don't mean ya can be hogtyin' people and draggin' em around like ya was movin' old logs." The ex-priest pointed out, still uncertain why the ladies man was on a rampage against the portly grainery worker.
"I'll tell ya what's goin' on Josiah. This no good piece a shit was one of the cowards that jumped Ezra. Ya saw what they did to 'im." Wilmington hissed lowly, placing his foot on the man's back again, holding him still. Larabee could have taken lessons from the glare the womanizer gave the preacher. "'Member what that asshole in the saloon was insinuatin' about Ezra and the kids in town...? Well that's just one a the many lies they's spreadin' about Ez, talkin' about how they's gonna teach him a lesson so he'd never come back. This lowdown scumbag was in on it and I know two names a the others. When I get this trash ta the jail I'm gonna find out who the rest of 'em were even if I gotta beat 'im within a inch a his life... Then I'm gonna do some teachin' a my own." He glared at the other two peacekeepers. "And don't be tellin' me I'd be just as bad as them that done it. They had no call ta hurt Ez and they're gonna pay."
Buck had a valid point. Josiah's own fury had sparked by the creek as he listened to the gambler frantically plead for them not to hurt him. It had only flared higher in the clinic when the gentle man he loved like a son, his emerald eyes swollen shut, unable to protect himself had cowered against the wall, like a whipped dog, all the while denying any wrong doing. That smoldering rage now flared in his blue eyes as the preacher wrenched the rope from Buck's hand and without looking back dragged the frightened worker toward the jail.
When Buck, Nathan and Tanner returned to the clinic, Larabee called the womanizer to task. While he and Vin had laughed at the antics on the street, the gunslinger knew there was a danger in letting Wilmington loose. He knew all too well the jovial man's anger was slow to burn, but once it caught fire it was volatile and heaven help whoever got in the irate cowboy's way.
"I want your word Buck," Chris insisted trying to ignore the look of obstinence set on the other man's handsome face. "Your word, ya won't do anythin' without the rest a us. We'll get the bastards and on that ya got my word."
Vin had arrived at the jail catching the young sheriff as Wilmington gently shoved him out the door, ordering Dunne to get some lunch and make his rounds. Assuring the younger man, he'd take care of everything, Tanner had stepped through the door in time to see the mud covered man pick himself up from the floor wiping at his bloody lip with the back of his hand anger burning in his eyes and in his very stance as he belligerently faced the lawmen.
Telling Buck that Chris was asking for him, Tanner had played to the womanizer's love and concern for his oldest friend, to convince Wilmington to return to the clinic, smiling at Josiah's guarantee that he would get the answers they sought.
Nathan had been unsure it was wise to leave Josiah alone with the target of Buck's vengeance, knowing how the preacher felt about the gambler, but accepting the big man's word he'd control his temper had followed the other two back to his clinic.
Slouching against the wall, Vin stared at the amiable gunfighter, speaking up when Wilmington remained silent. "Ya know Ezra will blame himself iffen ya get hurt goin' after 'em alone and seems ta me he's gotta enough ta deal with for awhile."
"I'm with ya whatever ya decide Buck," JD added. "We all want revenge just as bad as you do but they're right and ya know it." They watched, acknowledging their own pain at the sadness and anger which filled the big man's eyes as Buck slowly crossed and knelt beside the gambler resting a large gentle hand on top of the southerner's head.
In his heart Buck knew he wouldn't be honest if he said he was as close to the gambler as he was JD or felt the same way about Ezra as he did Chris but in their time together in this small town he'd gotten as close to the southerner as Standish would allow and Buck cared as deeply for him as he did Vin, Nathan or Josiah. They weren't just his friends, they were his brothers, not by blood but by choice and someone had hurt this younger brother. Knowing the gambler didn't deserve such foul treatment only made his blood burned with the desire to repay that hurt ten fold.
JD crossed the quiet room to rest a hand on his best friend's shoulder. "We're strongest when we stick together Buck."
Vin smiled at the wisdom displayed by their youngest brother. It was hard to believe the somber young man offering Buck silent support was the same naive boy who'd stepped off the stage seeking adventure. Dunne had grown up, matured into a responsible, wise young man and Tanner hated seeing the laughter that usually lit the young sheriff's face replaced with sorrow for their injured brother.
"Ya got my word."
"You're doin' good Ezra," Nathan encouraged as his patient swallowed from the cup held to his lips. "You're gonna be feelin' better in no time."
Ezra's fever had peaked and plunged several times during the day keeping the other men jumping to tend their injured member, everyone doing whatever they could to help.
As if somehow physically connected to the con man Chris had slept when Ezra was still, waking almost immediately when Standish's temperature began to rise.
Josiah had returned to the clinic with the promised answers having exhibited unimaginable self-control in dealing with the grainery employee. That man now sported two black eyes and it was a certainty his nose would never look the same but he was alive and at the moment that was about as much restraint as the ex-priest had been able to guarantee.
"His name's Steve Crane. He come ta town a couple weeks ago. Says he really didn't know Ezra bein' as how he's too smart ta play cards with a professional cardsharp since they're all nothin' but cheats, thieves and liars don't ya know." The preacher reported to the men gathered in the clinic. "Bein' drunk and feelin' like he does it wasn't hard for him ta believe what was bein' said about Ezra. Says it was Baker that was the ringleader but Bemis that dragged him. He roped Ez and drug him outside a town where the others was waitin'." The ex-priest took a moment to get his emotions under control. "He said the entire time they were... teachin' him a lesson... they kept yelling at Ezra what a cheat and a coward and a pervert he was," He looked at Chris with hooded eyes. "They kept talkin' about how cause he wasn't there, it got ya killed. Says one of 'em suggested hangin' 'im but Webster showed up and put an end to it."
"Kept 'em from hangin' him but he didn't bring him ta Nathan!" Vin growled. "The sonuvabitch just left him there beaten and bleedin' ta death!"
Buck chewed at his lower lip, exchanging a knowing glance with Josiah. The fierce expression now worn by the soft-spoken Texan was what they all privately referred to as 'Vin goin' injun.' The gentle tracker rarely lost his composure invariably remaining calm and level headed in almost every situation. The rage that surged through Tanner's blood brought with it the deep-seeded lust for a slow and painful revenge. That fierceness was brought to the fore only when someone the tracker cared for was unjustly victimized. Normally, seeing that look submerged the affable gunfighter in waves of worry that the wanted man in his desire to protect and avenge the victim would draw unwanted attention to himself. Somehow he never considered that Vin would lose so much control as to step over the line and justify the bounty on his head... until now.
As his worried gaze met Josiah's again, he realized the huge preacher was thinking the same thing. Vin's need for revenge might counter caution for his own life.
As much as they themselves needed to repay the debt incurred by the attack on Ezra, a silent agreement passed between Wilmington and Sanchez to keep close watch over the sharpshooter.
Ezra's fever had broken several hours earlier and the healer had chased everyone to their beds hoping they would get some much needed sleep with the assurance that Ezra was out of danger. No one had commented when the tracker spread his bedroll under the clinic's only window.
Like the healer, dozing in the bedside chair, Vin came instantly awake each time the gambler stirred disturbed by the nightmares haunting him. Quietly slipping from the bedroll, he helped support the southerner while Nathan urged Ezra to drink the medicinal tea. When the concussion caused the cardsharp to empty the meager liquid contents of his stomach Vin's long fingers gently stroked Ezra's tangled hair whispering soft reassurances until the con man returned to sleep.
"He alright?" Larabee's question was low in the dimness of the quiet room.
"He's gonna be fine." Nathan nodded. "Go back to sleep Chris."
"S-shoulda... sa... bye..." Ezra mumbled unconsciously responding to something in the sound of Larabee's voice.
"Why the hell's he keep sayin' that?" Larabee waited until Ezra's breathing had evened out before posing the question keeping his voice low.
"Reckon iffen he hadn't decided to stay here with us he'd be sittin' nice and comfy at a poker table somewhere," Vin drawled.
"Charmin' the money right outta some unsuspectin' fellas' pockets." Chris grinned, unable to hide a yawn as he wiggled into a more comfortable position. "Sure glad he chose ta stick around."
Nathan stepped out onto the balcony taking several deep breaths of fresh air. 'You. He should have said goodbye to you.' He had been unable to utter the words to Chris but he knew what Ezra's mutterings meant. The steady rain had faded to occasional drizzle and the healer leaned against the wall oblivious of the wet wood. Ezra had believed the healer asleep during his late night visit to the injured gunslinger and he wouldn't embarrass the young gambler by saying anything to indicate otherwise but having listened to Danny and Steve Crane the ex-slave had quickly realized the meaning behind Ezra's repeated statement. If only Chris knew the con man was lamenting the fact he believed Larabee was dead and he hadn't told him goodbye.
The wily con man never ceased to surprise the ex-slave and Nathan prayed for many more years of astonishment.
"'Nother storm brewin'." Tanner's comment broke the comfortable silence he shared with Larabee as they sat on the clinic balcony. Reluctant to leave Ezra but weary of laying in bed unable to help, Chris had put up only a token argument when Nathan had gently shoved the two men out the door, firmly suggesting they have lunch at the restaurant rather than have Inez or one of the others deliver the food as they'd been doing. With his assurance the gambler was sleeping peacefully and he could send for them if need be, he pointedly remarked the shootist needed the fresh air and exercise. However neither man had made it past the bench beside the door.
The street below them was bustling with activity as taking advantage of the break in the wet drizzling weather, the citizens hurried to finish their errands. None of them appeared to take notice of the two men on the balcony.
Tanner and Wilmington had balked but finally acceded to Larabee's wishes that they wait until the other four men named in Ezra's attack came to town on their own or at the very least until the weather cleared for more than a few hours at a time. Chris would prefer to have them seven strong when they repaid the debt owed the gambler but more than that he wanted Ezra healthy and able to face the cowards who had chosen the darkness of night and the safety of numbers to dole out their warped brand of justice.
Chris glanced around at the sharpshooter's softly uttered word, a smile touching his lips as he finally spotted the enormous dark eyes, which peeked, over the balcony landing.
Quiet as a church mouse, the little girl had crept unheard up the stairs finally reaching a high enough step where she could observe the two men.
"Hey lookee here what I found!"
The child suddenly squealed in delight as bounding up the stairs, followed by Josiah, Buck snagged Emma around the waist. Light as she was he tossed her into the air and caught her as her peals of laughter rang out across the dreary street.
"Whatcha got there Bucklin?" The tracker chuckled as tossing the child over his shoulder, like a sack of feed, Buck climbed the rest of the stairs.
"Reckon it's a injun tryin' ta take yer and Chris' scalps." Wilmington drawled, propping his foot on the railing as Emma squirmed on his shoulder knocking his hat askew with her elbow.
Vin snorted. "That there's jist a papoose. Better put it back where ya got it."
"Uh-uh. It's mine! I found it fair and square." Buck argued. "Finders keepers. Ain't that right Chris? Whatever ya find, ya get ta keep right?" Emma's squirms and giggles continued, her elbow in his ear. "Hey now, hold still ya sneaky injun."
"I ain't an injun." Emma retorted, wiggling as Wilmington playfully pat her bottom.
"C'mon Chris, can I keep it? Can I huh?"
Larabee shrugged. "It's okay by me Buck but I reckon ya best be prepared."
"For what?" He questioned, his tone half-serious.
"For either a shotgun weddin' or a certain blacksmith ta kick yer butt." Josiah snorted. "Reckon Amos is kinda fond a that there injun."
"Aww shucks." With an exaggerated pout, the womanizer set the little girl on the landing. "Guess I gotta let ya go for now but I'm warnin' ya... when ya grow up..." He left the sentence hanging, placing a light kiss on her forehead.
With a laugh, clutching the thin book she carried with one hand, she threw the other arm around Buck's neck kissing his cheek before hurrying over to the gunslinger and tracker, her bare feet leaving small muddy prints on the landing.
Her bright eyes darted over the two men. "Mr. Vin! Mr. Chwis!"
"Whatda ya know, Cowboy, weren't an injun a'tall." With a lopsided grin, Vin returned the child's hug. Unwrapping herself from the sharpshooter careful not to hurt the injured Larabee, she wrapped a thin arm around Chris' neck for a moment. No one blinked when the older man returned the little girl's hug with one of his own.
She stepped back, solemnly eyeing the pale blond man. "Are you feelin' betta Mr. Chwis? Uncle Amos said Mr. Nathan would fix ya up weal good."
"I'm feelin' a lot better." He chuckled. "And you're my first visitor."
She shook her head giggling, "No I'm not. Mr. Vin and the west of your family was."
"Well then how about if you're my first visitor from town." The gunslinger suggested.
The little girl's dark gaze dropped to the wooden floorboards. "I ain't 'sposed ta be here..." she admitted in a small voice turning pleading dark eyes to the two men. "Uncle Amos said I had to wait till Mr. Nathan said it was alwright but..." She trailed off looking at the boards again.
"But what Emma?" Gently gripping her chin, the shootist lifted the child's head to meet her eyes.
"I wanted ta ask Mr. Vin somethin' and I knowed he'd be here with you," she whispered.
"What is it Emma?" The others looked as puzzled as Tanner himself.
"You'll tell me true?" She pressed with childish persistence.
"Promise." Vin nodded, suddenly apprehensive at her serious tone, his heart sinking as a look of doubt crossed her face. "I'll always tell ya the truth if I can."
She seemed to contemplate this for a moment, then with a sigh pointed at the clinic door. "Is Mr. Ezwa weally in there?" She pointed at the door.
"Why would you ask that Emma?" Josiah questioned before Tanner could respond. They were all aware of what Vin had told her and why.
"I heared some people talkin'... They said he left town and won't never be comin' back." Fat tears rolled down her chubby cheeks.
The tracker threw a pain filled look in the direction of his silent companions, wishing one of them would bail him out of this situation but knowing they couldn't. "I give ya my word, Emma, right now Ezra is sleepin' in one a them beds." The sharpshooter squeezed her hand in reassurance. "Nathan's takin' real good care of him."
"Cause them bad men huwt 'im?"
Chris' breath caught at the child's innocent question. Vin had wanted to protect the little girl not only from the vicious rumors being spread but also from the harsh reality of what had happened to her friend. Now it seemed as if that small protecting lie had come back to haunt him.
Their expressions guilt ridden, uncertain what they could do to help, each of the three men watched as overwhelmed by the sadness in Emma's enormous eyes, the ex-bounty hunter lifted the child settling her on his lap.
Focusing on the girl, Vin forgot his companions as he spoke, his husky voice gentle. "When I told you that Ezra was at the clinic, Emma, that weren't no lie." The sharpshooter's soft voice was choked with emotion. "When I told ya he was stayin' there cause he had a cold... now that part weren't the truth... I'm sorry I lied to ya but I jist didn't want ya ta be worryin' 'bout ol' Ez. Here and now I promise ya Emma, my word as a Tanner, Nathan says Ez is gonna be fine... He just needs ta get lots a rest and take his medicine." She nodded somberly in understanding. "Ya know Ezra wouldn't want ya ta worry about him none... And I know just as soon as he's feelin' up to it I know he'll be real happy ta have ya come see him."
Shaking her head, her bottom lip trembling, Emma pressed her beloved book into young man's hands. "Will ya give him this and tell him I'm sowwy."
"For what?" Stunned by the request, Tanner didn't realize his fingers had closed on the book. Their focus centered on the little girl only Josiah noticed the blacksmith's arrival. "What on earth do you have ta be sorry 'bout?"
"It's all my fault those men huwt Mr. Ezwa... I heared people say they was mad cause he took me ta the cweek."
Josiah placed a large hand on Amos' shoulder barely shaking his head at the blacksmith's stunned intake of breath.
Vin's arms tightened around Emma as she leaned against his chest sobbing. Although muffled in the tracker's shirtfront all the men her plaintive words. "Why'd they get s-s-so m-mad Mr. V-Vin? I j-jist wanted ta wead. B-Billy can and I-I wanted to."
Amos' face paled. He had always felt guilty that Emma had to spend so much of her time alone but while he didn't like her wandering about unsupervised he'd found the women in town had a tendency to keep a watchful eye on all the children. As if understanding the only other solution was for him to have his niece stay at the shop while he worked the hot forge, Mary, Mrs. Potter and others had taken it upon themselves to watch over Emma. While he didn't like the fact that Emma had been caught up in the vicious rumors that were circulating about the gambler he didn't believe the accusations which were being pinned on the southerner. Actually it was more of a shock to him now learning what had actually been taking place between the southern gentleman and the daughter of an ex-slave.
Hugging her tightly, the sharpshooter rocked the distraught little girl, her tears wetting the front of his shirt.
"That's enough Emma!" Everyone jumped, startled by Larabee's sharp tone. The child pulled away from Tanner, sitting up straight and wiping the back of her hand across her tear stained cheeks. Sniffling she turned to face the gunman.
Grimacing as he shifted positions, Chris softened his tone. "Do you trust us Emma?"
The little girl nodded hiccuping as she tried to stop the flow of tears. "M-Mr. Ezwa says you'we the best people he knows... Says he twusts you like I twust Unca Amos." She sniffled again. "He says bein' with people ya love and twust is like findin' buwied tweasure and ya should hold onto them weal tight lessen ya lose somethin' a gweat... vaa... value."
Larabee blinked, taken back by the child's statement. "Ezra said that?"
Vin couldn't hide his smile at the amazement in Chris' voice, knowing he'd sounded the same while helping Emma search for her precious book in the alley. A quick glance at Buck and Josiah revealed their own smiles of bewilderment. He knew the question racing through his mind had to be in theirs as well: Why was it their friend could express his feelings more easily to a child than to them?
"Uh-huh... He said he knew what it was like for Uncle Amos twyin' ta find a home for us but we had one now in a town with good people." Emma sat up a little straighter proudly repeating her friend's words. "He said this was a good place and we could count on the wesidents to help us if we need it, especially all you guys. He said y'all had helped 'im in more ways than he could 'member." An expression of puzzlement crossed her face. "He said it real funny like... like nobody never done that before and it meant a lot ta him."
"Damn!" Josiah pinched the bridge of his nose, willing away the tears filling his blue gray eyes.
"Well," Larabee cleared his throat, struggling to bring his own emotions under control. "If you trust us than I want ya to listen to what I'm sayin'... I want you to understand somethin' really important Emma... Nothin' that's happened is your fault. Absolutely nothin'! You didn't do anything wrong and neither did Ezra."
"Ain't no buts about it!" He told her sternly. "The men who hurt Ezra are the only ones who did anything wrong and we're all goin' ta see to it that they get punished for it. We're gonna make sure they go to jail for what they did. There a thing wrong with wanting to learn to read." His hazel gaze raised and momentarily locked with Tanner's before returning to the child. "Ezra loves to read and I know he loves teachin' somebody like you who wants ta learn. Now Ezra give ya that book and I just bet he'd be awful upset if he thought ya didn't want it no more."
"I do!" Emma declared adamantly, jerking the item from Vin's fingers. Her eyes widened with guilt her lower lip beginning to tremble again seeing her uncle standing beside Josiah. "I'm sowwy Uncle Amos I know ya said I-"
"It's alright Emma. I understand." The blacksmith smiled stooping in front of his niece. "Next time though..." The little girl nodded, understanding the unspoken sentence. Giving her another reassuring smile, he straightened to address the men. "It's good to see you up and around Mr. Larabee."
"Hear you had a bit ta do with that." Chris smiled. "Appreciate it."
"Well I don't know about the rest of ya but I'm starvin'!" The large preacher announced clapping his hands with a resounding slap before rubbing the palms together. "Buck, Amos whatda ya say ta the three of us makin' a trip ta get us all somethin' ta eat?"
Seeing the blacksmith hesitate, knowing, like other tradesman, most of his payments were made in bartered goods rather than cash money, Larabee interrupted before Amos could refuse. "While y'all are fetchin' lunch, Emma can read ta me from this fine book a hers."
"Please Uncle Amos, we're Mr. Chwis' first visitors." The little girl pleaded.
"And we owe ya a dinner." Tanner added with a wink at the child. "That stew was some of the best I ever tasted."
"Told ya so." Emma beamed with pride.
The blacksmith hesitated, uncertain if the invitation was made out of some misplaced sense of obligation. He didn't want the peacekeepers feeling as though they had to pay for his help. Lunch from the restaurant was a treat for the little girl. A treat Emma deserved but unfortunately wasn't something her uncle could afford at the moment.
Emma tugged at his hand. "Please Uncle Amos."
"Pleeeease." At the tracker's childlike plea, everyone burst into laughter as Tanner looked up at the tall blacksmith emulating Emma's expression. "I hear Miss Glenda just made some fresh peach pies for dessert."
Under siege from the child and sharpshooter, Amos relented. "Well if yer sure it ain't a-"
"We're sure." Chris stated firmly. "Nathan's always sayin' fresh air is good for the appetite so he won't mind at all if we haul his table out here to enjoy the sunshine…As long as we remember to bring him some pie." He motioned Emma closer, whispering loudly, "I ain't quite up to it so you're gonna have ta be in charge a guarding the pie. Vin only gets one piece."
The Texan groaned pitifully and the little girl laughed, reaching up to brush his scruffy cheek. "Mr. Ezwa's wight... He said Mr. Vin's gonna turn into a peach one a these days."
~ 10 ~
"Seems ta me Ezra has himself an excellent student." Chris smiled in approval as Emma finished the first page.
"What's the matta Mr. Vin? Don't ya like this stowy?" Feeling the tracker tense up beside her, Emma frowned as she followed the blue eyed gaze spotting Webster strolling down the boardwalk at Mary's side. "I don't like that man... I don't think Miss Mawy does neither."
"Vin!" Chris warned lowly. He knew the determined set of the stubbled jaw, recognized the fury flashing in the bright blue eyes and knew it was a reflection of his own. "Tanner!"
"Whewe ya goin' Mr. Vin?" Larabee caught Emma's hand keeping her from following the sharpshooter. "Whewe's he goin' Mr. Chwis? I thought we was gonna have lunch hewe?" She moved to the railing watching as the ex-bounty hunter crossed the street a determination in his step as he made his way toward Mary and Andrew. "I hope he beats that bad man up for sayin' those mean things 'bout Mr. Ezwa."
Fearing what was about to happen, the shootist slowly gained his feet. "Emma, whatda ya say we do some teachin' of our own."
A chill of alarm running up his spine as he stepped from the restaurant, Buck quickly scanned the street, instantly spotting Tanner, each determined step gaining speed, his fists clenching and unclenching as he fought the anger rapidly taking control.
"Awww hell!" The tray Wilmington carried hit the boardwalk scattering dishes and food in all directions as he rushed to stop the sharpshooter. "Vin!"
Hearing Buck call his name and Vin's growl of anger, with a startled cry Mary stepped aside just as outraged sharpshooter slammed his shoulder into Webster's side just above the man's hips, wrapping his arms around Andrew's waist. Unprepared for the onslaught, unable to brace himself, Andrew wrapped his hands in Tanner's shirt as the tracker's momentum carried them through the swinging doors of the saloon.
Chairs and tables were overturned in the patron's frantic efforts avoid the confrontation. A table collapsed beneath them as Tanner fell on top of the rancher, his fist smashing into the bigger man's jaw.
"Damnit Vin! Get off a 'im!" Driven by rage, the sharpshooter was oblivious to Wilmington's frustrated shouts as he tried unsuccessfully to stop the fists pounding into the rancher.
Tanner kicked out, feeling minutely satisfied when his boot connected with Webster's thigh as Buck and Josiah forcefully pulled him away, dragging him out of reach.
Waving away the offered hands of assistance, Webster climbed to his feet, wiping at the blood streaming from his nose and split lip. "Someone wanna tell me what the hell brought this on?"
"Ya no good sonuvabitch! Ya left 'im!" Vin growled trying to release the fierce hold on his arms.
"I take it I'm supposed to know what that means."
"He's talkin' about Ezra." Buck retorted stepping toward Webster when Amos replaced him at Tanner's side.
JD pushed through the crowd, surprised to discover the tracker was not only involved in but had in actuality instigated the altercation. He'd been at the bank with McMurtry when the town had seemed to erupt in chaos, people running toward the saloon. "What's goin' on?"
"Why don't ya ask your friend there?" Webster snorted. "I was merely talkin' with Mrs. Travis when he jumped me. Seems he's got some absurd idea I had somethin' ta do with Standish leavin' town."
"Damn gambler doesn't even have to be in town to cause trouble." McMurtry sneered, having followed the young sheriff.
"Shut the fuck up fore I kick your fat ass too!" Tanner ordered, struggling with the preacher and blacksmith to reach the banker.
Realizing Mary, as well as what appeared to be the rest of the town, was watching the scene in puzzlement Webster decided it was in his best interest to play to his benevolent image. Scooping his hat from the rubble on the floor, Andrew concentrated on brushing off the dust and straightening the brim taking several deep breaths. "It's understandable y'all bein' upset... I mean with Standish leavin' the way he did. I didn't know him real well but he seemed like an alright fella. Hopefully, he knew I'd help if he needed it."
"That's why ya left him right!" Josiah's grip tightened on Tanner. "That's why ya didn't go get Nathan or-"
"See we got this fella over ta the jail who has a real interestin' tale about what happened ta Ezra." Wilimington stated, his disdain flashing in his eyes.
"And he told ya it was my fault your friend decided ta head for parts unknown?" Shaking his head in disgust, Webster crossed to the bar, ordering a beer. "Most likely he took off, figurin' he'd be blamed for damn near gettin' Larabee killed. The way a lot people feel if Larabee dies they'd probably be riled enough ta wanna stretch your southern friend's neck."
"Done tried that didn't they?" A silence fell over the crowd to be quickly followed by whispers as a path parted for the gunslinger. Mary nodded as he gently placed Emma's hand in hers before continuing onto the bar.
Feeling Tanner's muscles relax slightly, sensing the gunslinger's presence helped the tracker regain control of emotions that had run wild, Josiah released the sharpshooter, righting a table and chair for Larabee.
"As ya can see I ain't anywhere near dyin' and even if I was, it sure as hell wouldn't be Ezra's fault." Chris smiled his thanks to Inez taking a sip of the whiskey-laced coffee she sat near his left hand. "Seems there's been a whole lot a speculatin' goin' on lately and I reckon it's time ta set the record straight. Reckon, Webster, Vin here's a mite upset seein' as how..."
Chris hesitated remembering Emma's presence. While she knew Ezra had been hurt she didn't know the details and he didn't want her already fragile innocence completely shattered with vivid descriptions. Remembering her wish that Vin would beat the bad man up, he was barely able to contain his own smile seeing her grin as she watched Webster wipe the blood from his face with a bandana.
Tanner his eyes never leaving Webster seemed unaware of the fact he was now sitting at the same table with Larabee, Amos having silently maneuvered the tracker into the second chair Josiah had set upright.
"Mr. Larabee, do you really think this is an appropriate place for a child?" McMurtry questioned eyeing Emma with disdain.
"Appears ta be a town meetin' goin' on and Emma Lincoln is part of this town... And seein' as how a lot of the conversation lately has been centered around the friendship between her and Ezra I think it's more than fittin' she be here and hears what ya have ta say 'bout things." The gunslinger responded. "Figure she's got a right ta have her own say too."
"Seems fair ta me." JD nodded, daring anyone to disagree as he backed his hero.
"Ya don't mind answerin' a few questions for us do ya Emma?" Seeing the child glance warily at the interested crowd, as chairs scraped the floorboards mixing with the sound of rustling clothing and shuffling feet as people settled in to watch the show, Chris was quick to reassure her, "Ya don't have to if ya don't wanna."
He smiled when she nodded. "Ya like spendin' time with Ezra don't ya?"
"Uh huh. He's my fwiend." She smiled. "But he's been sad and wowwied about his family."
"Poor baby misses his mama." A nearby cowhand joked.
"You shut up!" The little girl's angry shout surprised everyone. "You stop sayin' bad things about Mr. Ezwa or Mr. Vin will beat you up too."
The ranch hand flushed at the laughter rippling through the room.
"What do you mean about his family?" Mary asked wanting the men to hear how Ezra felt about them.
"Mr. Ezwa loves his mama but they're his family." She pointed to the peacekeepers. "He was sad cause they wasn't all together like families should be."
"Is Ezra your friend because he buys you candy and-"
"No!" Each of the peacekeepers struggled not to laugh at the insulted expression on the child's face as she stared at Larabee. "He talks to me... Like Uncle Amos and you and Mr. Vin and the others... You're my fwiends too."
"But he does buy you candy and presents for no reason." The banker persisted.
Emma looked around as if wondering why everyone didn't understand how wonderful her friend was. "Mr. Ezwa says evewy kid desewves candy once in awhile even if thewe pawents can't affowd it. He says childwen are supposed to be happy... that's why he takes Jimmy Atkins for a wide on Chaucer when he's by their house cause it makes Jimmy smile and Jimmy don't smile so much anymowe since his bwother went to heaven."
There was an uncomfortable shuffling in the room. The accidental drowning of Jimmy Atkin's twin brother was common knowledge.
Chris posed his next question as gently as possible. "Has Ezra ever done anything to hurt you or the other children?"
"He wouldn't neva do that!" The little girl declared with a stomp of her small foot. "When I went to see him on the woof he got mad because he said I could be huwt and that would make Uncle Amos sad. Mr. Ezwa says people huwt each other enough without doin' it on puwpose or huwtin' ourselves. He says you have to think before ya talk cause wowds huwt just like a spankin'."
"McMurtry ya been makin' some mighty nasty implications about Ezra's interest in the children of Four Corners. Ya've been talkin' a lot about the time he spends with Emma down by the creek..."
"Mr. Larabee I don't appreciate the-"
"I don't give a damn whatcha appreciate!" Larabee's glare was enough to silence the banker. "You've been causin' more shit than a herd a cattle! I don't know what ya got against Ezra but ya open your mouth again without proof and I'll happily shut it for ya."
Satisfied the banker wasn't going to object or make further comments, Chris turned to the wide-eyed child watching the proceedings. "Emma darlin' why don't ya demonstrate for the good people of Four Corners just what you and Ez do down at the creek?"
Wiggling a finger for Mary to lean down, Emma whispered in her ear, "What's demonstwate?"
"Chris means you should show everyone what you and Mr. Standish have been doing down by the creek." The newspaperwoman explained.
"But I don't have no fishin' poles."
"That's okay." She didn't think they'd believe Ezra was learning to fish from a five-year-old. Mary tapped the book. "Ya got what ya need."
Smiling widely, displaying the gap in her teeth, the little girl hurried over and climbed onto Tanner's lap. The smile faded and she looked up at the sharpshooter fearfully as whispers ran rampant through the crowd.
"It's alright Emma," Vin whispered encouragingly when the peacekeepers' furious expressions had silenced the saloon occupants once more. "'Member what Chris said... Neither one a ya did anythin' wrong."
Amos puffed up like a peacock showing his colors, beaming with pride when, with a nod and last bashful look at the observers, the little girl opened the book and falteringly began to read for her audience.
"What's that wowd Mr. Vin?" She asked half way through the second page. Inez and Mary saved the sharpshooter from answering, clapping their hands together, and starting a round of applause. The peacekeepers joined in, nodding approval as the others hesitantly brought their hands together in appreciation of Emma's reading.
"That was wonderful Emma." Chris stated. "If you teach Ezra half as well as you read, he'll make a fortune sellin' fish to the restaurant. Now would ya do me one more favor?"
"Sure Mr. Chwis."
"Wait for us back at the clinic. Tell Nathan lunch is gonna be a little late."
Hugging her tightly, Tanner leaned his forehead against hers, his raspy voice barely audible. "Ezra would be real proud!"
The saloon was silent as the little girl slowly made her way through the crowd, clutching her precious book to her chest. Both Amos and JD moved to the doors to make sure she safely crossed the street to the clinic.
The child had no more than cleared the boardwalk when the red-headed Molly spoke up giving everyone a hard look, "Miss Inez tried ta tell y'all ya's all wrong 'bout Mr. Standish." The working girl stated vehemently. "Said youse all sick for even thinkin' somethin' so disgustin'!"
"If all he was doing was teaching the child to read and if he isn't responsible for Mr. Larabee's injuries," McMurtry addressed the lawmen as JD nodded that Emma had reached the balcony, "why didn't he deny any wrong doing instead of sneaking out of town?"
"Why the hell should he hafta deny anythin'?" Tanner flared taking a step toward the banker like a Banty rooster going after a Leghorn. "He don't gotta explain nothin' ta the likes of any of ya."
"Ya know Mr. McMurtry for someone who's supposed to be fairly intelligent, you don't seem to have the brains of a wild turkey and we all know how stupid they are." Josiah spoke up for the first time, the insult loudly spoken in the man's booming voice. "If Ezra had left town it would be to spare the children any damage caused by all the unfounded and slanderous accusations thrown around by you and the rest of these... these..." He pinned each of his parishioners with a hard stare, "these righteous, God-fearin', law abidin' citizens. You all so stupid as ta think that little girl and Billy or the Potter children or any other child in town doesn't hear what's being said?"
"What'da ya mean, if he'd left town?" A puzzled voice called out from the back of the room. "We heard he'd sneaked out of town in the middle of the night like maybe he had something to hide."
"Ya heard wrong." Vin declared ferociously, advancing a step toward the rancher. "Course you know that don't ya Webster?" He hissed, his blue eyes glittering like fire.
The rancher met the indignant blue gaze steadily remaining silent, knowing his wisest option now was to see how much the lawmen had discovered. "Just what are ya implying Tanner?"
"Ain't implyin' a damn thing. Sayin' it outright." Vin growled rage vibrating through the words. "Ezra's been up in the clinic since the day we got back ta town." He ignored the rancher's white faced look of shock and the mutterings of the crowd. "That fella Buck was tellin' ya about... Seems he had a whole lot ta say about the night Ezra was bushwhacked."
"Bushwhacked." The one word was picked up and spread through the crowd like a crackling flame through dry brush.
Realizing Vin was ready to take on the rancher again, Chris spoke up. "Fella told us how Baker..." Larabee pulled a thoughtful expression pointing a finger at Webster, "that's your foreman right? He told us how Baker got a few others all riled up... He told us how Bemis," He glanced at the rancher again, "he works for you too doesn't he...? He told us your man Baker and free liquor got a few a the others riled up. He told us how Bemis," He focused on the rancher again, "He works for you too don't he? He told us how Bemis was waitin' for Ezra ta make his rounds. When he did, your man roped and horse dragged him like some mad dog just past the edge a town where him and Baker and the others beat the hell outta ol' Ez."
"Crane, the fella in jail," Buck clarified for the crowd, "says they was all pretty drunk and the only reason they didn't go ahead and string 'im up was cause you, Mr. high and mighty rancher, didn't think it was such a smart idea. Reckon ya figured the rest of us might come after y'all if ya went that far." Wilmington leaned against the bar closer to Webster than necessary. "I got news for ya asshole... ya thought right."
Webster flushed and wiped at the sweat which popped out on his upper lip. "That's true. I got wind somethin' was up, but by the time I arrived the damage had already been done." He attempted to explain. "I tried ta talk some sense into 'em and sent them home ta sober up."
"Then, ya sorry bastard, ya just walked away and left Ez bleedin' on the ground like some piece a-" Only Josiah's hands on his shoulders kept the sharpshooter from grabbing for his gun.
"I offered to help him back to that nigra's clinic but he refused." The rancher insisted. "Said he was alright and that he didn't need any help. Last I saw him he was walkin' back ta town."
"Yer a damn liar!" Vin hissed struggling against Josiah's restraining hold.
Anger flashed in the rancher's colorless eyes but with a self-control that could have rivaled Ezra's, the man squelched the emotion. He wisely kept his mouth shut.
"Reckon, it's only fair ta tell ya Webster, we'll be out ta your place for them two assholes and it wouldn't be wise for anybody ta try stop us." Larabee warned. "They're gonna stand trial for the attempted murder of a peace officer."
Webster shrugged. "Ain't nobody gonna stop ya but Baker's already in town. I left his body at the grave digger's place a little while ago, along with the two fellas that robbed the bank." The rancher took a long swallow of his beer, judging the peacekeeper's reaction to his bit of news.
Returning from town, several ranch hands were amusedly retelling the story of Wilmington and the grainery worker. While speculation was running high about just what had caused the scene, Webster was rapidly working on a solution to the problem he was certain could bring about his downfall.
As planned, Baker had instigated the gambler's beating while the rancher had waited, being the voice of reason that rode to Standish's rescue diverting the peacekeeper's suspicion from himself. The only explanation for the womanizer's action against the grainery worker was that once again the gambler had surprised him. Rather than the southerner running for his life with his tail between his legs thereby drawing the others away from the town, Standish had remained in Four Corners.
Webster knew he was in trouble. Bemis was no problem. The man knew nothing of Andrew's operation and while Baker had never failed to follow his boss' orders, Webster couldn't trust the man not to cave in and spill everything he knew to save his own hide. Weak kneed, the rancher knew if faced with the peacekeeper's wrath, Baker would give up everything he knew.
Webster had come up with a plan to solve his problem and simultaneously make himself a hero in the eyes of the town. He and Baker had taken two ranch hands to the canyon where the remaining felons were camped. Letting the ranch hands take the lead, Webster had used the ensuing gun battle to kill his foreman and place the blame on the men who'd robbed the bank.
He swirled the beer in his glass before bringing his gaze up to meet Larabee's. "Couple a the hands told Baker they spotted some unfamiliar tracks and we followed 'em ta Comanche Canyon. Those two had set up camp and were skinning out one a my calves... Guess they thought we were a posse or somethin' cause they started shootin' soon as they spotted us."
"That oughta make you happy McMurtry." Josiah sneered at the banker. "Got all your money back safe and sound."
"The town's money was returned." The banker retorted correcting the ex-priest before adding for the crowd's benefit. "I offered Mr. Webster a reward but he declined asking instead that I donate it to the school fund."
"Well ain't that just so sweet." Buck scoffed. "Sure hope it helps clear your conscience."
The womanizer and tracker immediately turned their attention from the rancher and banker, quickly moved to Larabee's side as the gunslinger slowly rose to his feet. Both men had noticed the slight trembling of the hand Chris raked through his blond hair. They knew it was only one indication of the weakness still caused by his healing wounds and that he should have been in the clinic not here facing down Webster and the mealy mouthed banker.
"I'm shore glad the town got its money back." Chris' derisive hazel gaze raked the crowd. "I'm thinkin' maybe ya all better be thinkin' about how much you'll be needin' ta put aside ta hire yourselves some protection. I can't speak for the others..."
"Ya done a good job so far." Wilmington grinned, silently telling his oldest friend they'd go along with whatever he suggested.
With a short knowing nod, Chris turned to the crowd, "Ezra Standish is a good man who put his life on the line for us and for this town more times than any of ya will ever know. The last couple a weeks he's taken on more than his share of the work coverin' for those of us hurt or gone. He's put up with the shit the people in this town have dished out and he's held his head high through it all refusin' ta stoop ta your level. As many times as I've cussed that damn pride and stubbornness a his myself, I sure as hell hope it helped him through this." He knew the other men had stepped up beside him facing the townspeople as a united front as he concluded, "If Ezra decides ta leave after the trial he won't goin' by hisself."
He slowly moved for the doors and the stunned crowd parted to let them pass.
"Ain't never heard ya talk so much cowboy." Vin grinned as they stepped into the street. "Didn't think ya knew so many words."
"Ya do realize though, that was Ezra's table ya smashed."
"Ya shoulda seen him Mr. Ezwa." Seated on the side of the bed, Emma chattered away enthusiastically. "He punched him wight in the mouth. It was gweat!"
Slouching against the wall, Vin blushed, his gaze on the coffee cup he held as she swung her arm wildly, her small hand clenched in a fist attempting to describe his fight with Webster to the gambler.
It had been more than two weeks since the confrontation in the saloon.
Ezra's lingering bruises had faded to light yellows and green, the stitches had been removed and while his vision was still fuzzy around the edges, the concussion that had so worried Nathan was healing. The stiffness of the gambler's movements revealed his still sore muscles and while he made it a point to grouse when the others, seeing his grimaces of pain, rushed to help only once had he resisted their efforts.
That had been three days earlier when Ezra Standish had shaken off Vin and Buck's supporting hands and with a deep breath to steady himself, had walked unaided into the makeshift courtroom and slowly carefully took the witness chair to face his attackers.
"We gotta do somethin' Chris. He's pullin' away and if we don't figure out a way to stop him..." The lump in Vin's throat had prevented the tracker from finishing the sentence.
They had all noted that Standish had expertly changed the subject each time the ambush was mentioned and while he appeared to be the cocky confident carefree gambler they'd all grown fond of, none of the other six men were fooled into believing it was anything more than a show put on for their benefit. Ezra never once argued to return to his own room or even to sit on the balcony.
"He needs ta know he's not alone and that not everyone believed what was bein' said." Chris needlessly pointed out.
The men knew Mary Travis had taken it upon herself to do a different kind of damage control. The wily newspaper woman was quietly hinting to the other women in town that while she had no proof other than the book he'd given Emma and knowing the con man, he would never admit it, she was fairly certain Ezra had provided the school supplies. They were all experienced enough to know if you got the mothers and wives on your side the husbands soon followed.
"And just how do we convince him a that if he won't see anybody?"
Ezra always claimed weariness or a headache if visitors were mentioned and feigned sleep if anyone other than the peacekeepers arrived to check on his condition.
A slow smile crossed Chris' lips, as a devious twinkle illuminated the gunslinger's hazel eyes. "Well, we just don't give him a choice." He proceeded outlining his idea
As planned, Vin had returned to the clinic with lunch and Emma in tow, not giving the southerner time to react. Thrilled at finally being able to visit her friend the little girl had rushed to the bed, throwing her arms around the gambler's neck. The sharpshooter was certain his heart was going to break watching as the con man momentarily hesitated before returning the hug as if afraid how the gesture would be interpreted by the Texan.
Happily the child had babbled non-stop while Ezra picked at the food on his plate, his eyes only lifting long enough to drill Vin with an accusatory glare.
"Now Miss Emma is that any way for a proper young lady to talk?" The gambler gently chastised, feigning interest in the girl's tale of the fight.
"But that man was sayin' mean things about you." She argued.
"And did you believe what he said?"
"Course not." Emma blurted out, her expression hurt that her friend would even ask such a thing.
"Then whatever he said does not matter." Ezra watched as she contemplated the statement knowing it didn't equate with the earlier conversations by the creek.
Belatedly he realized he should have explained to her, words only hurt if you let them. All his life he'd been trained not to allow anyone close enough to hurt him and now looking at the loving, trusting child seated beside him, the con man couldn't bring himself to teach her how to close herself off from a world of love and caring.
Spotting a diversion the gambler pointed to the book lying on the table near Tanner. Discovering he really had missed the child's company he smiled at her, "Are you ready for another lesson?"
"I been pwacticin' weal hawd. Mr. Vin said ya would be pwoud a me." Snatching the book from the table she climbed back onto the bed and opening the cover snuggled up next to the southerner.
Realizing things were getting back on the right track, Vin smiled as he glanced back seeing the gambler tuck his arm about the little girl's shoulder. His smile widening he slipped from the clinic quietly closing the door behind him. Sinking down on the top step, intent on stopping anyone who would interrupt the two friends he leaned back against the railing and stared at the mountains in the distance.
Gripping the top rail of the stall, Ezra waited for his muscles to stop screaming from the effort it had taken him to lift the heavy saddle onto Chaucer's back.
The horse suspiciously eyed the carpetbag lying in the straw at his feet before turning his head to gaze at his owner. If Standish didn't know better he'd swear the animal looked disappointed in him.
"I know ya like it here old friend but it's time we moved on." He stroked the horse's sleek neck.
Ezra had slipped from the clinic as the sun was just beginning to lighten the sky. It had seemed to take hours to work his way back to his room and pack the few belongings he intended to take. "You know as well as I do it just isn't in our nature to stay in one place this long... It just means more loss than profit."
Chaucer stared at him with sorrowful brown eyes.
Ezra shook his head averting his own eyes "Don't be looking at me like that. I'm well aware of the fact we gave Mr. Larabee our word we wouldn't run out on him. However, I don't consider this breaking that promise. We are merely removing an annoying source of considerable irritation and trouble."
Yes he was rationalizing his decision to leave Four Corners but the truth was he needed to rationalize to strengthen his resolve. With Emma's visits and a few subtle questions to JD, Ezra had learned everything which had occurred while he'd been secured in the clinic. The knowledge that Vin had attempted, in JD's words, "to beat the livin' tar out of Webster" and that Larabee had spoken up defending him--him, Ezra P. Standish, gambler and notorious con man--to the entire town had warmed his heart. The fact that they'd been put in that position to begin with, which horrified him and had convinced him he had to leave.
Ezra blinked back tears at the thought of never again seeing the people he'd come to care about. He abstractedly made a mental note to post a letter at the first town he happened across, explaining his logical reasons for deserting those who'd become his family.
In his time re-cooperating at the clinic, bit and pieces of his attackers accusations had invaded his dreams giving him an even clearer understanding of the events surrounding his recent mistreatment. That Vin, Chris and the others had heard tore at his heart. Dear Lord people had honestly believed...
The gambler jumped at the tracker's cheerful greeting. He watched in puzzlement as gathering his gear, Tanner exited the livery returning in a few moments with a halter and followed by Larabee.
Chris nodded in his direction. "Ezra."
Puzzled the gambler could only nod as the gunslinger silently began saddling his gelding and Tanner expertly checked Peso feeding the horse an apple before slipping the halter on. Whistling a tune under his breath, the tracker led the animal outside.
The southerner watched in confusion as one by one the other four men filed into the stables and began tacking up their mounts.
Snugging the stirrup leather into place, Chris looked over the saddle seat catching the gambler's eye. "Decided on a destination yet?"
"If ya want Ez, I'll carry your bag in my wagon." Vin offered stepping back inside and leaning against the wall beside the door. "Mite be a tad easier on you iffen ya wanna ride with me."
"Excuse me Vin," Mary stepped up beside the tracker, snagging his sleeve. "Inez and Molly want to know if you have room in your wagon for a small trunk?"
"They can put it in mine. That goes for you and Billy too." Amos volunteered as he and his niece came around the corner. "Me and Emma got plenty a room ta spare."
"Can I wide with you Mr. Ezwa?" Emma skipped into the stall, resting a cheek against Chaucer's foreleg reaching up to pet his side. "Billy said Mr. Chwis is gonna let him wide with him."
Ezra looked from the child to the adults who were moving about the barn. He blinked several times, shaking his head. "Excuse me, Mr. Larabee-"
"Oh Chris, I almost forgot," Josiah stepped past Ezra, reaching out to tighten the cinch on the gambler's saddle as if it was something he did every day. "Mrs. Potter said ta let her know if there was anything in particular we needed and she'd bring it along as soon as she found a buyer for the store."
"Better have Miss Molly checkin' her silk stock. Bet she makes a weddin' dress soon." JD joked. "Ya know Buck, if ya ain't careful Molly'll have ya sayin' I do before we ever get there. After all, we'll be travelin' with a preacher."
Wilmington reached out and snugged the kid's Bowler down over his eyes. "Ya better be more worried about Miss Nettie's Spencer carbine about the first time she catches you and Casey in the bushes gatherin' firewood." He teased.
"Good thing I got plenty of bandages." Nathan quipped.
"That reminds me Ezra. Casey found this stickin' out from under the boardwalk by the jail." JD tossed the gambler his missing derringer. "Thought ya might like ta have it back. It was kinda dirty but she cleaned it up real good."
Frowning in total bewilderment, Standish finally found his voice. "Would someone please explain to me what the hell is goin' on?" Silence fell over the livery at the gambler's demand. "Where are y'all goin'?"
"Hell Ez, I guess that depends on you." Chris admitted with a shrug.
"We're goin' with you Mr. Ezwa." Emma declared with a bright smile, reaching up to latch onto his hand.
Buck bit back a joke about Ezra being speechless as the southerner, his mouth moving silently slowly sank onto a nearby bale of hay his stunned gaze moving over each of them.
"B-but-" he finally started to protest.
"Don't you want us to come with you Mr. Ezwa?" The little girl's lip trembled as she climbed onto the bale beside him. "Don't ya love us no mowe?"
"Of course I do Gingersnap... Always." Ezra quickly admitted.
The others exchanged pleased smiles as quick to reassure the upset child, Ezra hadn't realized he had let down the walls which protected him and hid his true feelings. "It's just... It'd be best if you stayed here... This is your home."
"It's your home too Ezra." Larabee's quiet voice broke the ensuing silence.
The southerner hesitantly shook his head, emotions jumbling through him. "I can't... It's best..."
"Not everybody believed the lies Ez." Vin dug the toe of his boot into the straw. "Only people who don't really know you would think anythin' so disgustin'."
Sensing the gambler's doubt, Amos stepped forward. "Mr. Standish I know we didn't get off to a very good start but you helped make Four Corners a home for Emma and it wouldn't be the same without ya." The blacksmith stated.
"We all done took a vote," JD explained. "If you decided ta leave we were goin' with ya."
"It was umanimous." Emma nodded vigorously
"Unanimous." Ezra automatically corrected the child. "Unfortunately it's not that simple. Y'all don't understand..."
"It is that simple and you're the one who doesn't understand." Chris squeezed the gambler's shoulder blinking back his own tears as Ezra's emerald eyes welled. "You're family Ezra. We're family. Come hell or high water, thick and thin we're family and families stay together." He reached out tugging lightly on one of the little girl's small pigtails, "Isn't that right Emma?"
"Wight." She nodded. "'Member Mr. Ezwa that's what you told me."
"It won't do any good to tell us to stay behind Brother we'll just follow ya anyway and ya know Brother Vin there can track anyone anywhere." Josiah's deep rumble reflected his smile.
"That's right Ez, ya won't be able ta lose us." Buck laughed. "Your Texas brother is the best tracker in the country. He can follow a scorpion across a bone dry desert... Just ask ol' banker McMurtry."
"We're family Ezra." Larabee repeated. "We belong together."
Attempting to steel emotions that had suddenly leaped out of control, Ezra's emerald gaze earnestly searched each of their faces for the trap his mother had always warned him of, that fatal error of needing and being needed. As his searching gaze lingered over the faces of the caring people surrounding him, he saw no deception, no guile, finding only a sincere desire of friends to keep him among them.
"Well," The southerner cleared his throat, struggling to steady his voice. "It seems as if my departure would leave Four Corners a virtual ghost town..."
"So?" Vin urged.
"And I don't suppose Judge Travis wouldn't exactly be happy about having to take on the more undesirable elements who would rush to claim this particular corner of the territory."
"So?" Tanner sighed in exasperation.
"So I suppose I should remain awhile longer."
His dimples flashed as everyone talking at once hurriedly unsaddled the waiting animals before surrounding the con man and with the lost sheep once again enclosed within their fold, escorted Ezra to breakfast.
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