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"Chris!" Mary Travis called out breathlessly to the man in black. She'd seen the sombre widower stalk past the Clarion News so she dropped the ink board onto the table and ran out after him.
Hearing his name, the tall gunslinger turned to meet the Clarion editor. His lips curled slightly into a smile watching her glide down the broadwalk and absently wring her ink stained hands down the front of her sturdy work apron that protected the cornflower blue dress. One hand rested comfortably on his holster; the other absently smoothed down his windblown hair. His black hat swung at his back, held in place with the cord around his neck. "Mary," Larabee nodded his head in greeting.
Mary Travis smiled in return. He certainly was a handsome man, especially when he's not scowling, she mused. She licked her lips and held out a white envelope that she'd retrieved from a pocket beneath the heavy apron. "This came for you on this morning's stage. I said I'd pass it on."
Larabee dropped his gaze from her face to the letter. He tilted his head and frowned slightly as he tried to read the inscription, but the words were hidden from his view. "Thanks, Mary." He accepted the letter and automatically tucked it inside his breast pocket.
"You aren't going to read it?" The woman editor quizzed. Realising she'd asked this out loud, Mary clapped her hand over her mouth in embarrassment, a tinge of pink heightened her cheeks. "Oh, you don't need to answer that. It was intrusive of me to inquire." She curled a loose strand of hair around her finger nervously. "If you'll excuse me, I have a paper to get out." Mary couldn't look up into his blue eyes, but picked up her skirt and spun on her heels making a hasty retreat back into the Clarion office.
The black-clad gunslinger stood transfixed for a moment, confused by the meeting with Mary Travis. He chewed at his bottom lip, staring after the golden haired woman long after she'd left. Leaning his shoulder against the verandah post, he mused on where his feelings were for the forthright widow and her son. Although he wasn't blind to the comely widow's charms, Chris wasn't sure if his attraction was solely to Mary, or if it was her young son, Billy that held his interest. It didn't seem all that long ago that his wife and son had perished in a blaze of fire. And it was hard not to blame himself for their demise. If only he'd been there, he was certain their deaths could have been prevented. He'd been devastated by their deaths, did he really want to replace them? Chris wasn't certain that he was ready to embark on another relationship. He lived his life by the draw of his gun and had made many enemies. Publicly acknowledging Mary and Billy as someone important in his life, brought the very real possibility of endangering their lives also. He didn't want to be the cause of their deaths, because some outlaw wanted revenge on him, and was willing to take it out on an innocent woman and child.
"Ya planning on holding up that post all day?" The soft Texan drawl drew Chris from his introspection.
"Nope." Chris pushed his shoulder off the post and fell into step with the tracker. Stopping out front of the saloon, Larabee noted that Peso stood at the hitching rail, saddled and kitted out. "Ya ready ta leave then?"
"Yep." The lanky tracker stepped off the wooden boardwalk and onto the dusty street. A sweltering breeze did little to alleviate the humid conditions. "Ya sure I ain't gonna leave ya short handed, with Nathan and Josiah up at the village, and Buck and JD doing that prisoner transfer tomorra?"
"Nah. It's been as quiet as a tomb here lately." The black-clad gunslinger flicked his eyes to the saloon and reluctantly added, "And Ezra's still gonna be here."
"That ain't real assuring. Just leaving the pair of you in the same room together is enough ta set the pot ta boiling over." Tanner grinned wickedly and mounted the black horse in one swift motion.
His comment brought a genuine smile to the gunslinger's face. "We'll be fine, Vin. Get outta here." Larabee slapped the rump of Peso and chuckled as the horse whipped its head back baring his teeth, intent on biting his offender. Fortunately, Tanner had seen the byplay and tugged back on the reins, growling at the cantankerous animal to behave. "You oughta see if you can find yerself a new mount, while yer gone. This one ain't worth the grain ya feed him," Larabee heckled.
Vin circled his mount and grinned at Larabee. "Ain't nothin' gonna make me trade him in. He's a good horse. Smart too."
"Yeah, whatever. See ya in a week or two." Larabee lifted his hand to his hat and gave the customary salute.
Tanner waved behind him as he raced out of town.
It wasn't until mid afternoon when Chris remembered the letter Mary had given him earlier. Retrieving it from whence he'd pocketed it, the lawman turned it over in his hand, immediately recognising the owner of the scrawled words on the front of the envelope. Sinking heavily onto the bench seat out front of the Gem hotel and with trepidation, he opened it.
27 July 1881
It is with a heavy heart and a guilty conscience that finally I pen this letter. I know we ain't always seen eye to eye, but I hope you'll understand and forgive me.
Reckon the last time we crossed paths was a difficult time for us both. I couldn't have asked for a better daughter in the pretty gal you married, nor the fine grandson ya gave me either. It was a damn shame to lose them both in such horrific circumstances. Sarah was a beautiful woman, reminded me a lot of yer ma. She was a strong willed woman too, fiery and determined.
I guess we got more in common than either of us care to admit. Losing yer mother destroyed me. You were lucky to have Buck Wilmington, but I had no one. Reckon I've been sitting at the bottom of a bottle near on ten years. Took a real special lady to get me sober. Trouble is, she's already hitched and ain't gonna leave him. But she did get me thinking. I've been sober now for six months and I can't stop thinking on another place and time.
I've got a confession, son. One I ain't proud of, and one I never told yer ma. Bless her soul, it would have broken her heart. When you were about ten years old, I met this most amazing woman. A right Southern Belle, from St Louis. Real sassy little thing she was. Fine looking woman. She was a gambler, with a lot of class, well-educated and wore real expensive silk dresses and feather hats. Not something ya could wear on a ranch; she was refined, a city lady, not intended for the rigours of ranch life. She flew into town with her nose high in the air, but was a breath of fresh air to our dusty little hometown. She stole my heart with her first smile.
I ain't proud of what happened, but she and I spent a lot of time getting to know one another, on a personal level. You might wonder why I'm telling ya this all now? Well she didn't stay in town for more than a few months, but when she left, it was with my babe in her belly. She didn't give me a chance to take care of her, just took off in the dead of the night, I ain't never seen her since. She wrote me after the babe was born, - told me I had a son. He'd be a grown man now, just turned thirty, he would have.
After she left, I spent the next twenty years making it up to your mother, trying to absolve my mistake. She was a good mother to you, and a faithful wife. Thank God she never found out. She deserved better, but was saddled with me.
Chris, I want you to know, I got a lead on my lady gambler, two weeks ago. I know after all this time that nothing will happen between us, but I thought it was about time to meet my boy. A boy needs to know his pa, too. I realise you probably can't forgive an old man his infidelity, but I hope you'll welcome your brother with open arms when I find him. (If I find him.) I'd like us all to be good friends.
I will drop by for a visit soon, I hope you'll not shun me, and my trip won't be wasted.
Chris Larabee screwed the two pages into a ball and tossed it angrily into the street. His black hat sat low over his face, leaving his face in a dark shadow. A deep frown furrowed his brow as he silently cursed his father's betrayal of his mother.
The crumpled note sailed through the air and landed with a soft flutter at a pair of black boots. The owner of the polished boots stopped, crouched down and picked up the discarded letter. Smoothing out the creases, he promptly sought to return it. "Mr. Larabee, you seem to have dropped your correspondence."
The thick drawled southern accent of the gambler instantly drew a fetid scowl from the gunslinger. Larabee vaulted to his feet, and snarled, "Can't get enough suckers for your conniving and scheming mind to meddle with, that now you got to resort to reading other people's mail, Standish?"
The southerner's eyes grew round, and his mouth dropped a fraction before he clamped it shut. "I did not read " indignation evident in his tone, but he was unable to finish as Larabee interrupted, snatching the letter as he shouldered the gambler aside.
"Yeah, whatever ya reckon, Standish." Chris left the southerner standing in the middle of the street, dumbfounded. He didn't turn back to see the hurt look briefly flicker in the gambler's green eyes, or hear the heavy sigh that accompanied the pained expression.
Chris was so deep in thought that he stumbled into the saloon unaware of the concerned glances from Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne. A dark shadow covered half his face, shaded from the brim of his dark hat, but the tight lines about his mouth were still visible. He procured a bottle of whisky from the bar, strode determinedly past his fellow lawmen, and selected a table in the far corner of the room.
"He didn't even see us." JD shot a confused glance at the ladies' man. "Should we go over and join him?"
"Nah. Leave 'im be, JD. Reckon Chris has some demons riding on his shoulder," Wilmington advised his enthusiastic friend while trying to hide his own concern.
"But he's sittin' all by himself." Dunne made to get up, but Buck pushed him back into his seat.
"Kid, I said no!" Wilmington firmly iterated.
Dunne reluctantly nodded his head, watching his hero empty his first bottle. "I reckon I coulda helped," the young and naive man boldly stated.
"Yeah, well take my word fer it, it ain't worth gettin' yer head blown off. And I still need ya ta come on this transfer with me in the morning." The moustached man swallowed another mouthful, dropping the beer mug down to the table with a thud. He didn't know what had caused his friend's sudden shift in mood. That morning the gunslinger was trading insults with him like old times, but now ? Of course it could have something to do with Vin Tanner leaving town for a few weeks to go hunting. Those two seemed to be joined at the hip these days. A time ago, it used to be him and Chris that shared that camaraderie. Wilmington rubbed his chin between his thumb and forefinger, staring in contemplation. Maybe he should stay in town for a few more days. Ain't no hurry to get this prisoner to Yuma.
The tall cowboy squinted when the bright light from outdoors invaded into the gloomy interior of the saloon as the swinging doors flew open to allow the entry of Ezra Standish. "Hey, Ezra." The scoundrel's grin returned, and the gregarious man leapt from his chair and joined the southerner at the bar. Clapping the smaller man heartily on the back he didn't notice the gambler flinch at the touch, nor the haunted look that peppered his facade.
"Mr. Wilmington," Standish curtly addressed the ladies' man. He ducked out of Buck's hold and turned, leaning his back against the bar. Ezra's lips thinned and his face grew taut as his gaze fell onto the figure of Larabee in the far corner of the room. His gaze quickly passed over the sombre man and continued its path around the room. Not particularly full, but as evening grew more patrons would venture into the saloon.
Buck watched with growing confusion, the animosity and tension that stretched thickly between his long time friend and the southern gambler. The tall cowboy twirled the ends of his moustache and chewed on his bottom lip. His confusion heightened when Standish abandoned him at the bar without a backward word and headed for a vacant table. A despondent air followed his departure. Wilmington folded his arms and leaned back into the bar, swinging his attention back and forth between the two. Couldn't hurt to keep an eye on the both of them for a bit, Wilmington thought.
Dunne joined him at the bar and handed the ladies' man his unfinished beer, silently watching Larabee and Standish. The kid was learning, Buck smiled wanly. He gained a moment's satisfaction that JD had trusted him and not gone over to either Chris' table or followed after Ezra.
Larabee leaned back on his chair, offered a mute thankyou as another bottle joined the empty on the table. It didn't remain on the table untouched for long. He knew Buck and the kid were blatantly watching him. He trusted Buck to keep the kid from coming over; he didn't feel in the mood for the exuberant Bostonian's chatter. He could always depend on Buck.
Chris noticed the minute Standish entered the saloon. The man seemed to draw attention toward himself just by his natural affinity for elegance and his dress and style. His hand automatically clenched, forming a fist. The arrogant gambler was everything he despised - a con, cheat, a fraud, and untrustworthy. He could think of other words that characterised the southerner, but figured the four he'd chosen covered it sufficiently. Chris lazily lifted the bottle to his lips and relished the burn as the liquid slid down his throat. His eyes narrowed, watching the short interlude at the bar between the gambler and Wilmington then they followed the uncharacteristic retreat of Standish to an empty table.
Larabee stared, watching the cards the gambler manipulated in his hands, spreading them on the table to commence a game of solitaire. He leered in distaste at the conman. Scooting back his chair, he strolled over to the southerner's table. One hand rested on the hilt of his gun; the other carried the half-full bottle of whisky. He stood, waiting for Ezra to acknowledge his presence, but when the gambler continued to play with the cards Larabee felt the rising anger shoot from his mouth. "You got patrol."
Ezra felt the intense scrutiny of the man in black as he walked into the saloon. The sombre blue eyes followed him even as he sat down at the table. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason for the newest animosity, but he was certain it had something to do with the letter he'd picked up and returned. Regrettably, he now wished that he'd left the letter where it had landed. He thought that his presence in the group had finally been accepted, but the icy glares from Larabee were anything but welcoming. Ezra kept his eyes pinned to the turn of the cards, refusing to lift his gaze even when the gunslinger stood within a breadth. He heard the laconic demand, but continued to ignore the irate man.
"Hoss, don't ya go doing anything yer gonna regret." Wilmington intervened, stepping between the feuding parties, but he only garnered the brunt of his friend's anger.
"One of you should be watching your prisoner," Larabee snapped icily in return.
Wilmington looked to Standish, but the cardsharp with slow deliberation laid out more cards. Hands on hips the large man ran his tongue under his top lip. Wilmington tried to catch Standish's eye, but the gambler wouldn't look up. Come on Ezra, do you want me to help or not? Waiting impatiently, Buck sighed; he didn't want Dunne to witness a bust up between his two friends. "Come on, JD. Got a prisoner to watch." Dunne was dragged out of the saloon trailing behind his best friend.
When the boisterous pair had left, Chris rudely overturned Ezra's table, scattering the cards in a flurry toward the floor. Not surprised by the viscous outburst, Standish merely flipped the remaining cards still held in his hand, sending them on the same path as those that were exposed on the table. Without comment, the southerner pushed back his chair from the upturned table. For half a second he held eye contact with the gunslinger, then left, leaving the cards strewn across the floor in abandon.
The saloon was quiet, subdued to a fault, especially after the antagonistic confrontation. The few patrons that stayed whispered behind cupped hands, offering their own opinion on the events. Everyone in town knew of the volatile relationship between the black-clad gunslinger and the southern gambler. A few snickers were directed at the absent gambler. Larabee silenced these with one stern look; the recipients immediately ceased further comment. Some unobtrusively slipped from their seats and wisely departed the saloon. Chris returned to his previous table and had a ready scowl waiting for anyone foolish enough to interrupt his thoughts.
His eyes grew moist as Chris remembered his mother. Her death was many years ago, and it was even longer since he'd seen her. But the faded image still came to mind. Unlike that of Sarah and Adam's, his mother's features were dull, unclear and fairly distorted. Without having a photo to remind him of what he'd lost, Chris had to rely solely on his waning memory. It seemed easier to remember how warm he felt whenever his mother had cocooned him in her arms, when he was little. Or how much love she had for him, and the smell of gardenias that she was so fond of. She had Chris' father dig a garden and fill it with the bushes and the heady smell would waft through the house when the shrubs were in bloom. He wished his mother had been alive to meet Sarah and Adam, but she'd passed on several years before he'd even met Sarah. Chris knew Judith Larabee would have loved being a grandmother, doting on Adam. A small smile crept across his face. He sighed deeply lost in the distant memory.
A hoarse cry of delight from a drunken cowboy whipped him from his reminiscing. He rested his chin in his cupped hands, elbows resting on the table. He shook his head, wondering where time had gone. It angered him that his father had betrayed his mother, if only that once. Did he really know it was only once? Chris always assumed his parents were the loving couple they portrayed. Obviously not. Well, on consideration, his mother was naive to his father's betrayal, so she was exactly as he remembered. No one could fault that woman in his eyes.
Larabee opened the crumpled letter, spreading out the two pages side by side. He smoothed the creases with his hand and blankly studied the untidy script of his father's hand. The letter held many mistakes, crossed out words and ink blotches, even half a thumb print was smeared at the bottom of the first page. Chris re-read the section about his father's mistress, and one woman inevitably came to mind. Only one woman could possibly fit that description. Maude Standish. How could his father have been so blinded by the conniving woman? That self-serving money grubbing con artist. Oh God, he didn't even want to contemplate the consequences of his father's actions. How could he have betrayed his mother? The only consolation was that Judith Larabee had gone to her grave, naive to the behaviour of her unfaithful husband. Larabee rubbed his thumb down the neck of the bottle, mesmerised by the simplistic numbing ritual. Fresh tears filled his eyes, but an erratic swipe prevented them from falling. Savagely lifting the bottle to his lips, the gunslinger emptied the bottle and waved to the bartender for another.
Chris barely nodded as a new bottle replaced the empty; his thoughts grappled with the idea that he had a brother, a half-brother. And he sure as hell didn't want it to be Ezra Standish. Larabee massaged his temples, trying to ease the ache that was forming behind his eyes. Another mouthful of whisky glided down his throat. With any luck he'd manage to obliterate the hurt that sat in the pit of his stomach by the end of the night. And furthermore, without any unwanted interruptions from well-meaning friends. Smiling wryly, he wiped the droplets from his chin. At least he'd successfully guaranteed Buck and JD, and even Ezra, would not prevent him from his indulgence this night.
Ezra Standish, resplendent in his dark green jacket and dark pinstripe pants, idly flipped over the pasteboards outside of the jailhouse. His legs stretched out in front, as he lounged in the straight back chair, tipped up on its hind legs. He lifted his gaze from the pack of cards, long enough to notice Buck Wilmington leading a string of three horses over to the jail - Brutus, JD's horse - Padgett, and a rental horse. Resisting the urge to yawn after spending all night inside guarding the prisoner, Standish had a ready smile for the jovial man.
Wilmington clicked his tongue between his teeth, announcing his arrival. "Mornin' Ezra." Buck rested a boot on the top step and leaned his weight onto this leg; his left hand tucked in the band of his pants. "He cause any trouble last night?" The tall cowboy referred to the prisoner.
"Buck," Standish greeted. "Slept all night." The younger man pocketed his deck of cards and stood to join the ladies' man on the landing, but frowned as he looked over the larger man's shoulder. "Where is your dauntless young friend?"
Buck snorted. Why couldn't he plain out ask a simple question so I could answer it without having to decipher it first? "Ya mean JD?"
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington," Standish drawled his agreement.
"Oh, he'll be here in a few," Wilmington confirmed.
Ezra rolled his eyes and shook his head indulgently. Such a vagrant disregard of the English language. In a few what? Minutes presumably. "And where is our illustrious leader this fine morning?" It was only polite to ask; not that he really wanted an answer, especially after the gunslinger's abrupt manner toward him the day before. Of course, knowing where he was helped the gambler to avoid the gunslinger for as long as possible.
"Chris'll prob'ly not see much of the mornin'. Reckon he'll spend the time recovering from last night's excesses," Wilmington chuckled. Slapping his hand down his leg, he shuffled past the gambler and into the jail. Calling out from inside when Standish didn't follow him in, "Let Chris know we got away early, and we'll be back by the end of the week."
"By all means," the gambler called out, directing his voice into the jail.
Buck led his prisoner through the door as the young gunslinger jogged up from across the road. With his prisoner's hands tied, the tall cowboy assisted in his mounting the ruddy brown mare. He took the lead and strode to Brutus, mounting the grey in one swift motion. The gregarious man boldly winked at the gambler, his grin widened at the arched eyebrow the gambler responded with. "You and Chris, make sure ya don't kill each other, huh? Kinda got used ta havin' ya both around."
Standish folded his arms and tilted his head back to stare at the ladies' man. "That wouldn't be my first thought " He grinned showing the gold tooth, then added, "But one never knows do they?"
Buck shook his head, rolling his eyes. "See ya, Ezra."
"Yeah, bye." JD added to the conversation, uncertain as to what his best friend and the gambler had been discussing prior to his arrival.
Standish crossed his right ankle over the left and leant against the vertical post. Giving both men a genuine smile; once more showing off the gold premolar, the southerner gave them his customary two-fingered salute. "Godspeed, and safe trip, gentlemen." The two lawmen and prisoner left Four Corners at an idle pace, leaving the gambler to resume his contemplation and manipulation of cards.
Chris had finally woken that morning with red rimmed eyes and stale whisky breath. Licking his lips with distaste, the hung-over lawman groped for the jug on the nightstand and filled a stained coffee mug with a measure of water. He swirled the coffee-tainted water around in his mouth just long enough to rinse the foul taste from his mouth then swallowed the liquid. He rolled his neck on his shoulders and winced at the unpleasant stream of light that invaded his room. Still seated in the jumbled mess of the bed, Chris dragged the discarded black jeans from where they'd been thrown the night before and struggled to put his foot through the leg. Once the pants were pulled into place the gunslinger searched the floor for the rest of his clothing.
Not wanting to consider the reasons behind last night's fall into the bottle, Larabee left his room at the boarding house. Pulling the black hat down lower on his face, the grizzled appearance of the gunslinger was shielded from the glare.
He stepped onto the street in time to watch Wilmington and Dunne depart, escorting the prisoner from town. He groaned audibly at the sharpness of the morning light and pulled the brim of his Stetson lower on his brow. Deciding that he needed some time to himself, Chris headed to the livery. He'd head out to the cabin for a few days.
"Headin' out for a few days," Chris snapped, unable to meet the gambler with his eye, he looked at some spot over Standish's left shoulder. Larabee waited a beat, expecting the southerner to argue with him, but the gambler surprised him with his compliance.
Standish controlled the urge to dispute the gunman's decision and allow the anger he felt to surface, but that would only result in more bad feelings between the pair. And as Mother always said, appearances are everything. And besides, Standish was beginning to like staying in Four Corners. It was the longest he'd ever stayed in one place, and he was hesitant to jeopardise it all by angering Larabee, especially when everyone else had gone. Without one of the others around to intervene and be a buffer, it was likely the gunslinger would carry through on his frequent threats and shoot him. The best possible solution was to agree with the man in black, and hope that if anything occurred in town while Chris was absent, Ezra would be able to handle it. So Standish forced a thin smile to his lips and assumed an air of indifference to the whole situation. "Enjoy your solitude."
Larabee furrowed his brow and contemplated Standish's easy compliance. He waited another minute for the gambler to convince him to stay in town, but when Standish remained closed-mouthed, Chris slowly nodded. "Yeah thanks." He turned Saber toward his cabin, leaving the burden of responsibility for Four Corners in the hands of the gamester, but this thought never entered the gunslinger's mind, so intent on the letter's allegations that he could barely think straight.
Standish remained out front of the jail long after the gunslinger had left the town limits. He felt a modicum of nervousness at being the only lawman in Four Corners, and hoped that his predicament was not widely broadcast. There was no telling what miscreants would deem to visit if word leaked out that six of the regulators were not in attendance.
Ezra flicked at the dust that had settled on his jacket, and reflected on his decision to stay in this dusty backwoods. It certainly amused his mother that he had fallen into a career of law enforcement, but she was under the misapprehension that her son was working on an elaborate con - one, which involved the whole town. He chuckled in amusement. It seemed to Standish that the only person being conned in this arrangement was himself if he believed that.
Perhaps he should stroll on over to the saloon and check out the new arrivals, see if anyone was interested in a game of chance. With the town so inordinately quiet, what else was he supposed to do?
The southerner stepped onto the sidewalk and hesitated on the entrance to his destination. A harsh groan reverberated deep in his throat, Ezra stepped back shaking his head in resignation and mumbling to himself. How long could it possibly take to make a quick patrol around the town? Once satisfied that everything was indeed secure, then the gambler could relax knowing he'd made an effort - and that would be all that was counted in the final analysis.
The air had a sultry stillness, a pre-emption of fates yet known. The heat from the sun, baked the hard earth, and if a close inspection of the road were undertaken, small spirals of steam would be seen evaporating steadily through open cracks in the earth's crust. But the southerner paid no heed to the vagaries of nature, other than the acknowledgment that it was indeed hot.
Standish tipped his hat in respect to a passing couple, and sauntered at a leisurely pace in a circuit about town, showing his presence like a warning flag. By the time he returned to his starting post, a film of perspiration had beaded on his brow and a wet trickle ran down his back between his shoulder blades. Perfect timing, his mouth was hungering for a refreshing taste of something cold, and the saloon was now within his sights.
A shrill scream put an end to his anticipatory drink, followed closely by the rapid fire of guns. "Aw, hell!" The southerner swore, sprinting off in the direction of the bank. "Get inside!" He beckoned to the foolish onlookers. Ezra skidded to a halt out front of the 1st National Bank, finding cover behind a rain barrel. He checked his Remington and called out, "You in the bank come out with your hands above your head."
"Go ta hell, mister!" The course reply was accompanied with a hail of bullets. "'Sides we got two hostages."
"Wonderful," Ezra moaned. Sitting back on his haunches he rested his head against the curved barrel. Why did they have to rob the bank today of all days? Standish rose up and peered over the top, squinting as a reflected ray bounced off the bank's window and blinded him for a few seconds. He lowered back down, concealing his position. Standish reluctantly took a look over his shoulder, and as anticipated found he had no back-up. What did he really expect?
A movement caught his attention on the roof, they had obviously split up, not realising that Ezra was the only resistance between them and salvation, - not to mention the appropriation of the bank's money. Hell, he had money invested in this financial institution. Standish stood and immediately ducked back behind his cover as a hail of bullets exploded above his head. He tightened his finger on the gun's trigger and mentally counted to three. Catapulting from his position he rolled and fired at the same instant, coming to a halt on the opposite side with even less protection from a trunk that rested on the sidewalk. His bullet sailed high in the air hitting the windvane to the left of the bank robber, but not connecting with the intended target. Standish smiled broadly as the criminal miss-stepped on the roof tiles, trying to escape the gambler's bullet, tripping over the stove pipe and sliding down the sloped roof and landing in an unconscious heap in the alley beside the bank. "Thats one down," Standish ticked off, "Only two to go. The odds just turned in my favour."
The banks doors flew open and Harry Horst, the bank teller, led the way, his captor holding him in a death grip about his throat with a gun pointed at his head. This pair was followed by the emergence of Amelia Connell held at gunpoint by the remaining thief. The outlaws dragged their hostages in opposite directions, intending to head around the back of the bank, presumably, where their horses waited.
Standish stood and aimed his weapon at the first couple. Sweat appeared on his brow as the southerner realised he was in a no win situation. The brigand holding the teller at bay grinned ferally, teeth crooked and yellowed, a pillowcase tucked under his gunbelt contained the bank's haul. "I wouldn't guarantee that your horses are exactly where you left them," the conman hedged, attempting to forestall the bandit's escape long enough for him to come up with a plan.
"Like we're gonna believe that " the bandit bragged, snorting the mucus from his nose into his throat and spitting it out the side of his mouth. "We know ya the only one out here."
Standish sighed, swinging his attention back and forth between the retreating bandits. The outlaw holding Ameila Connell disappeared around the side, out of Ezra's view. Damn, he swore, worried for the woman's safety. Her eyes pleaded with him to save her, but he could no more save her than the teller at the present. After the woman and outlaw moved out of sight, the teller courageously, or foolishly, jabbed his elbow into his captor's gut and grappled for the gun. A moment's fear clouded his judgement, providing the teller with a false bravado, but it soon became apparent to him which of them had the greater strength. Horst, realising his mistake almost immediately, gave up the struggle for the weapon and decided to escape the clutches of the bandit. He took a punitive step away, but that was as far as he got.
Ezra watched in slow motion as the bank teller elbowed the bandit; "Nooooo," he called out and raised his gun to fire, but Horst was in his line of fire. In the tussle the bandit's scarf was pulled down to reveal a thinly bearded face, with old scarring under the growth. His brown worn Stetson was lost in the confusion and a missing ear was detected under the mass of curly blond hair. As the bandit buckled at the middle he automatically pulled the trigger of his gun, firing at the man who'd caused him to falter, a hole piercing neatly from the teller's back through his heart and out his chest.
Standish raced across the short distance and slammed the butt of his gun into the side of the bandit's head; he collapsed unconsciously on top of the dead bank teller. Standish swung away and chased after the final outlaw, jumping over the unconscious body in the alleyway in a mad and frantic pursuit.
Behind the bank, three horses were exactly as they were left, still hitched to a post. The final bandit was struggling with the portly woman, trying to force her onto one of the mounts. The gambler slowed his steps, and stole quietly up on the pair. The bandit didn't hear the approach of Ezra, as Mrs. Connell was thumping on his chest and yelling obscenities in his ear.
Standish brought the Remington's barrel up level with the bandit's ear; the woman continued her aggressive resistance, fighting with all her might. "You're under arrest " Standish started, but Mrs. Connell rocked back and lost her footing, falling against her persecutor and knocking him back into Ezra.
Before the gambler realised the shift of power had been lost, he was on the receiving end of a blow to the abdomen. Standish doubled over as the air was forced from his lungs. The bandit took advantage of the southerner's submissive posture and slammed a double fist down on the back of his neck, sending him to the ground. A boot to the ribs caused Ezra to curl up and groan in pain, but the bandit continued with a battering of kicks to the gambler's arms and legs or any part that wasn't protected. He vaguely heard the woman shouting at the bank robber to stop and then a moment's relief came when his assailant turned on Amelia, preparing to shoot the interfering woman.
Ezra grimaced, not wanting to get off the ground, but knew if he didn't then the portly woman's efforts would be in vain. Standish yelled, a rebel yell and threw himself at the brigand just as the thief's gun fired, wounding the stunned woman. Where the strength came from Ezra didn't know, the rush of adrenalin gave him the advantage. Standish pounded the downed man until he remained still beneath the gambler.
Chris Larabee arrived at his cabin a little before lunch. He felt an overwhelming sense of relief to finally be coming home - even if it didn't measure up to his first home he shared with Sarah and Adam. This place represented something totally different to his previous life. It gave him the peace he desired, a little security and a place to start when he was ready to commit to settling down again. It was a place to think things through, without the constant interruptions of well-meaning friends and acquaintances.
Chris dismounted and led the black to the corral. He lifted the gate and herded Saber in to join with the others; he'd unsaddle the animal later.
Opening the door a musty odour met his nostrils. He hadn't been out here in a few days. First things first, he'd organise lunch, then the gunslinger would be free to deal with his father's transgressions, and the resulting conclusions he'd come to.
The pages were spread out on the table, and the lunch dishes were unwashed and abandoned. The cabin was aired and the smell of wood smoke filled the room, but the room was deserted. Outside the smoke soared from the stovepipe and the horses nickered softly in the corral. The gunslinger rocked on the chair tipped up on two legs, irritably tapping his boot on the ground. He chewed the end of a cigar, but had failed to light it. Chris stretched a length of rope and tied a number of knots in it; each one represented a problem he'd encountered in his life. For each new problem he remembered, Chris'd added another knot. When he finished, he contemplated how many of these symbolic knots had been solved. He'd tied a double knot to represent the murder of his wife and son. That knot would remain.
Larabee started working on undoing the knots he'd spent hours tying, and pondered how many would be left when he'd finished. Chris, incensed at his procrastination, tossed the rope across the yard in frustration. How was he going to get through this? He could barely think straight. What if Standish was his brother? Could he blame the gambler for his own father's infidelity? What had Ezra said about his past life before he came to Four Corners? Larabee screwed up his face as he fought to remember snatches of conversation that he'd had with the gambler. They didn't really amount to a whole lot. They just never seemed to talk. He had to work out his feelings before his father came to town and announced to everyone that he and Ezra were siblings. So much to sort through, and so little time.
The sun was setting, and still Larabee sat in silence dwelling on the past and his future. He'd not moved in the past three hours, a silhouette in the fading light.
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