The sun glinted off the blade of the axe as it sliced though the thick morning air. Whining as it struck the lump of wood and splintering it into kindling. The pieces joined the growing pile of timber, and another block was centred on the chopping block. The steady rhythm and mendacity of the manual labour closed Larabee off to the approaching company. Wearing only an untucked undershirt and plain cotton pants with his braces hanging off his shoulders, Larabee stopped momentarily to wipe the sweat off his brow. The back of his shirt was damp with sweat, and it continued to run from his neck, along his spine and pool at the waistband of his pants. Rolling his shoulders, the muscles rippled in his arms as he hefted the tool above his head and slammed it back down into the log. Picking up the larger of the two pieces he readied the same block for another demolition, but a cough stopped his progress. Suddenly the thought that his guns were hanging over the fence post and beyond reach caused a moment's indecision. Finally looking up at his company, Larabee swore under his breath and dropped the axe down by his side.
Standish had ridden out to Larabee's place under duress, but at the insistence of Mary Travis. He'd studied the man in black as he'd approached; mildly surprised at the single-minded concentration he gave the job at hand. Ezra was even more surprised that he'd managed to arrive on the gunslinger's doorstep without the older man noticing his presence. Standish remained on his mount and waited, but Larabee made no indication that he'd seen the gambler's arrival, so Ezra cleared his throat. He smirked when Larabee grew tense. He couldn't imagine that too many men had the honour of catching the gunslinger unawares. His smile dropped when Chris' blue eyes locked with his. "You planning on having a bonfire, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris looked at the mountain of firewood and saw it for the first time. He dropped the axe against the chopping block, and picked up a towel, wiping his sweaty palms on the worn material. Ignoring the southerner's comments, Chris stepped closer to the mounted man. "What are you doing out here, Standish?"
Ezra sighed; he didn't expect a warm welcome, but "Judge Travis is arriving in town the day after tomorrow. He will be expecting to see you in town."
Larabee arched both eyebrows. "And?"
"He will not be pleased to find myself as the only officiating peacekeeper."
Chris watched the gambler nervously twirl the reins in his hands. He noticed the dark circles under the southerner's eyes and the slightly slumped shoulders and rumpled clothing. What surprised the gunslinger the most was that Standish actually appeared uncomfortable. He seemed to be sitting in the saddle with a certain degree of stiffness. In all fairness, Chris realised he couldn't remain hidden out at his cabin much longer. "I'll be there in the morning."
Standish nodded briefly and wheeled Chaucer around. He paused when Chris asked if there had been any trouble in town. Remaining with his back facing the gunslinger, Ezra answered over his shoulder. "Nothing I couldn't handle."
Larabee paused a fraction before finally responding. "Good." He stood motionless as he watched the southerner slowly and deliberately guide the chestnut gelding back to town.
Chris had spent the past two days arguing with himself why he didn't want Standish to be the long lost child of his father, and ultimately his half-brother. The more he thought about it the worse he felt, and the only salvation was to absorb himself in the manual occupation of chopping wood. He'd not even noticed how tall the pile had become, and now he contemplated it with narrowed eyes, wondering where he was going to store it all to keep it out of the weather. His body ached in places unaccustomed to him, but he had to grin, the exercise had felt invigorating.
Chris lifted his hand to shield out the light, and his gaze followed the slowly moving rider and horse as they disappeared down the road. Standish, the stubborn cuss. Anyone else would have dismounted, stayed for respite. Rest their horse. But not Standish. Like he was in a hurry to get away from here. Hell, it was a good hour and a half ride out to his place. Now Standish was doing a round trip, in the heat of the day. Fool man. Larabee shook his head. He hadn't noticed before how nervous the conman was in his company.
Chris wiped his sweaty brow on the towel and tossed it over his shoulder. Staring off down the road he could no longer see the southerner, but squinted all the same trying to catch a fleeting image. If he had Vin's eyeglass then he could study the gambler's retreat. There was something that niggled at him that he couldn't quite put his finger on. Of course, standing in the middle of the yard was not going to illuminate him any. If he was going to get some answers, then he'd have to go to town and get them.
With a groan of annoyance, Chris turned to the pile of firewood. He'd best put away some of this first, then he could go into town.
The slow ride back to town had only feathered his curiosity. Chris figured he was only about half an hour behind the gambler, but he'd not caught up with, or even spied, the southerner in the distance.
Larabee could see the town of Four Corners come into view and he stopped on the edge of town, watching the steady movements of the citizens hustling about, doing their daily chores. He searched for the telltale sign of Standish's red jacket, but didn't see it. He was probably already at the saloon. Chris pulled on the reins of Saber, jerking him from the impromptu feed the mount had started on, and guided the animal down through the main street. He turned in his saddle when he heard Mary Travis call out his name. "Mary." Chris could see the obvious relief in her manner to his return. What had Standish done?
"Mr. Standish said you wouldn't be back until tomorrow?" Mary Travis shielded the sun off her face holding up her palmed hand, as she looked up into the chiselled features of the gunslinger.
Chris shrugged his shoulders non-committally. "Something happen?"
The editor of the Clarion News frowned, twisting her hands together tightly. "Didn't Ezra tell you?"
"Tell me what?" The gunslinger growled impatiently. He shifted in his saddle, scanning the streets for anything out the ordinary.
"About the three prisoners he's got locked up in jail. You know he's barely had a wink of sleep since you left," the tenacious woman scolded. Didn't Ezra tell him about the bank robbery?
"Ain't gonna hurt him to do a little work to earn his pay," Larabee snapped.
"Does that include having to protect the entire town on his own, in your absence, and guard the prisoners even though he's hurt?" Mary asked incredulously.
Chris arched his eyebrows. Standish was hurt? How did that happen? "Where is Ezra?"
"He went directly to the jail. Mr. Parsons wasn't particularly keen to play jail-keeper even while Mr. Standish went out to inform you of the situation."
The blond nodded, kneed the black and headed for the jail. He heard Mary take a few steps after him, and say something that sounded suspiciously like ' horse is dead,' but he was anxious to get the gambler's version of events, so didn't turn back to clarify what she had said. Horse horse he repeated over in his mind. What did someone's horse dying have to do with anything?
Chris Larabee flung open the jailhouse door; ignoring the startled expression of the gambler, he strode to the bars and scrutinised the occupants. Staring intently at the prisoners the gunslinger growled in annoyance. "What'd they do?"
"Attempted to appropriate the bank of its legal tender. Held Mrs. Connell and Mr. Horst at gunpoint and used them as hostages to shield their escape. Killed the bank teller, Mr. Horst, in their attempt and, unfortunately, Mrs. Connell was injured also, though not seriously. Mr. Patterson," Standish pointed out the sleeping form on the cot. Only a mop of black hair peeked out from under the covers of the worn blanket. "Knocked himself out, don't ask me how. I found him in that state afterwards. Mr. Bretherton," Ezra nodded at the slouched form in the chair, "surrendered. And Mr. Burgess, came around after some persuasion."
"That why the Judge's coming?" Larabee almost smiled at the gambler's simplified explanation.
"When were ya plannin' on tellin' me all this?" Chris queried, swivelling hard on his heel to face the gambler; his stance one of intimidation.
Standish abruptly scooted the chair away from the desk and cautiously rose to his feet. A wry grin played at the corners of his mouth. "You stated, you would be arriving back in town in the morning."
Chris stepped up to the southerner and swept a cursory glance over the southerner searching for injuries, but not detecting anything obvious. "You hurt bad?" Concern for the gambler softened his words.
"The rumour mill in this town is amazing," Standish drawled. "No," he dismissed when Chris still waited for an answer.
The gunslinger nodded at the prisoners. "They given you any trouble since they've been in here?"
"Other than sharing with me their colourful scope of the English language, No."
Chris thinned his lips. "Reckon I can keep watch, if you wanta rest up."
Standish silently stared at the gunslinger. He blinked twice, then rubbed the nape of his neck to dispel the growing tension. Ezra tried to figure out what angle Larabee was working on, but couldn't for the life of him work it out. He stared at the man in black for such a long time that Chris became concerned at the southerner's silence and waved a hand in front of his face. He heard Larabee's soft droll voice ask if he was okay, but his tongue had become thick in his mouth and stuck to the roof refusing to allow him to talk.
"Ezra Hey, Standish " Larabee was concerned at the vacant expression on the gambler's face. Chris gripped Ezra by his forearm and dragged him out of the jailhouse. "Come on." Chris hauled the compliant man across the main street, stopping in front of the elderly Mr. Wicks who's fortuitous luck placed him in the same vicinity as the two lawmen. "You guard the prisoners for a bit." It wasn't a request, but an order. The grey haired man opened his mouth to protest, but thought the better of it and trudged off to the jail. Larabee grinned, why wasn't it that easy when it came to the six men he worked with?
The older man propelled Standish into the restaurant and forced the southerner into the first available seat, holding him in place with a restraining hand on his shoulder. "You eaten today?"
Ezra slowly shook his head; he couldn't remember the last meal he'd sat down for. Resting both elbows on the table he rested his face into his cupped hands. Lord he felt exhausted. He was unaware of how long he'd remained seated, but within a short time a hot meal was placed on the table before him. Chris hitched a chair opposite him and tucked into his own meal.
The man in black watched the gambler through his lashes, covertly watching the slow and methodical demolition of the meal. Standish seemed to push the food around his plate, but barely managed to put any of it into his mouth. "Ya gonna eat any of that?"
The gambler stilled the fork in his hand, the urge to know outweighing his need for sustenance. "Why did you return to town earlier?" Ezra lifted his gaze from his plate and forgetting to set his poker face, clearly showed his bewilderment.
Chris bit his lip to prevent the smile and almost choked on the lump of food in his mouth. He covered this with a cough and rolled his tongue along the back of his teeth. "Ya looked like ya were about ready to drop off ya feet."
Standish raised both eyebrows in astonishment. "And when did you come to this conclusion?"
This time Chris grinned, nothing was stopping the genuine smile that the gunslinger bestowed. "This mornin' out at the ranch."
Ezra reflected on this, drawing his fork through the mangled meal he stabbed a portion of meat and raised it to his mouth. Ugh, it had gone cold with all his musings. It wouldn't please the cook to return the plate still piled high. Maybe he could slip outside and dump the leftovers and return with the empty plate. He tilted his head to the side, watching the gunslinger watch him. What the hell had gotten into Larabee? He was acting strangely, almost friendly in nature. That was not normal. He must surely be up to something? Sighing, Standish rose from the table, this was getting quite wearisome. "If you'd kindly pass on my apology to Mrs. Greer " Ezra waved in the direction of the unappetising leftovers.
Larabee swooped the plate off the table and walked out the door, leaving the gambler to ponder his actions. When the gunslinger returned it was with an empty plate, scraped clean. A dimpled grin crossed the southerner's visage. "Now don't tell me you weren't thinking on doing that?" Standish's grin widened, the gold tooth showing for the first time in days. "Yep. That's what I thought."
Chris Larabee returned to the jailhouse, satisfied that the gambler was asleep in his bed. He absently pulled out a cheroot and lit the stubbed end. Chewing on the end of the cigar, Larabee relaxed into his seat and enjoyed the exquisite aroma that circled above his head. He drew the smoke deep into his lungs savouring the exotic taste. There was nothing like a fine cigar to heighten a man's perspective. Pursing his lips, he bit down on the cigar and manoeuvred it with his tongue and teeth, to the side of his mouth.
Larabee slowly scrutinised the occupants of the cell. Standish had named them for him when he first arrived back in town, but he admitted to not really paying a lot of notice to the criminals at the time. Ezra named them as, Patterson, Bretherton and Burgess. Chris raised an inquiring brow; now who was who? Breathing a stream of smoke out the side of his mouth, he propped his legs up on the edge of the desk. Now it would ultimately be much easier to ask the fools their names, but Chris had already spent the past two hours listening to the grumbling robbers complain about being stuck together in the same cell. And each of them blaming the other for getting caught. This came to an abrupt end when Chris shot a few rounds into the floor of the cell. A few bullets located only a few inches from the robbers' boots. Since Larabee threatened each man with imminent death should they utter another word, the jail had become ostensibly quiet.
A smoky haze filled the room, and one of the prisoners coughed into the back of his hand, trying desperately to smoother the choking sound, not wanting to incur the gunslinger's further wrath. Riffling through the drawer of the desk, Chris discovered a bundle of wanted posters. Normally JD would go through the new ones as they arrived, then discard them to the reject pile that grew high in the corner. Larabee turned and gazed at the disrupted pile. Someone had been through them recently. JD? Hard to say. He and Buck had left a number of days ago and Chris had not checked in the jail prior to leaving for his cabin. Ezra? Chris shook his head in scepticism. Surely the conniving conman hadn't become that conscientious during his absence and actually checked through them. Chris drew out the tattered posters from inside the drawer. These were not new posters, he quickly determined. The corners were folded, and creases stretched across the page. He leafed though the small bundle. A grim smile touched his lips, so much for assuming the worst of the gambler. He spread the posters out on the desktop. Three familiar faces stared back at him in return. Larabee picked up the closest and held it at arm's length, sizing up the apparition with its original in the cell; Rick Burgess, AKA Warwick Bartelli and Warren Burns, the picture did him little justice. But it was definitely the man in jail. The description alone would have been sufficient; it must be inordinately hard to disguise the pockmarked face, even under a beard, or especially the missing left ear. Two hundred dollars reward for his capture, for holding up a mail stage and murdering the stage driver. Now added to that, the murder of Harry Horst, the bank clerk, and robbery of the First National Bank.
Chris mused silently and picked up the next poster. Billy Patterson, wanted for an assortment of robberies from Omaha to Phoenix. He seemed rather young, only a few years older than JD, but he's obviously gotten in with the wrong crowd at a very impressionable age. Nothing that can be done to help the boy now. And finally, Bretherton - James Bretherton, also wanted for a list of robberies and in connection with the mail stage robbery bungle. Ezra had certainly taken on and won this time. Hell, he could have wound up dead. What was he thinking? One man against three? Why did this news bother the man in black so much? He rubbed his hand over his stubbled chin, puffing another plume of smoke into the air.
Standish had obviously done his homework to find the wanted posters on each man. There were several posters for Burgess. Of course, Chris expected that any of the other's would have automatically done just that. But realising that his confidence in the gambler didn't stretch quite so far, Larabee immediately felt shamed by the lack of trust he afforded Standish. If only Ezra hadn't run out on them at the Seminole Village. That was the root of all their underlying problems. Plus the fact he is a conman, a silent voice in his head added. Thoughtfully, he fingered the edges of the papers. When had Standish become so involved in the protection of the town? Yes, he knew that Judge Travis hired the gambler at the same time as he and the others, but that was only for thirty days. And Standish only signed on so he could get his pardon. So why was he still here, two years later? Larabee fully expected to return to town and find the gambler in the saloon. Having spent the entire time Chris was gone, doing nothing better than flashing that smug smile and showing off that gold tooth, all the while delving into the pockets of anyone foolish enough to play poker with him. Why did it perturb him that Standish had done the exact opposite of that? Protected the town, continued with his patrols and captured the felons in the jail, all single-handedly.
He reminded himself that his demeanour toward Standish had not changed since he'd received that letter from his father. Had it? He still treated the southerner the same as always. Didn't he? But as much as he despised the prospect, there could be the very real possibility that the southerner was indeed his half-brother. Now, if it had been Tanner, that likelihood didn't bother him nearly so much. The bond between the pair had formed at the very outset. But with Ezra, that just didn't happen. They were nothing alike, Larabee vehemently denied. Not just in looks, but in every other possible way. They certainly did not share a common thread. Except, maybe a father, that small and irritating voice reminded him. "Damn!" He swore out loud. The three prisoners lifted their heads as one to gaze at the gunslinger after his outburst.
Flicking the stub of the cigar to the floor Larabee scowled, narrowing his eyes to slits at the three prisoners; in turn they dropped their eyes back down, sufficiently cowed by the menacing stare. The sooner the judge came and passed sentence, the sooner he could get them off his hands. Chris' mood had darkened with all the brooding, and he'd still not found any satisfactory answers. Hell, he wasn't even sure of the questions. With a grunt he dropped his boots to the floor; they replied with a solid thump. Stretching his spine, he wriggled on the seat. The quiet in the jailhouse was beginning to have an adverse affect on him. The silence seemed to be deafening. One moment he wanted nothing but the accused peace and quiet and then, the silence became so great that all the time in the world was far too much time to spend pondering. He cursed his father for the umpteenth time.
Larabee held his timepiece out and rested it on the desk. The soft tick of the hands reverberated loudly in the jail. The slow sweep of the minute hand rose to the twelve; it was now six o'clock. A wry grin came to his features. Once more, Standish proved his true colours. Even in the midst of all the confusion and self-denials, the southerner showed his genuine form, late as usual, if indeed he intended to show. The gunslinger studied the watch face and flipped it over in his palm. He rubbed his thumb fondly over the inscription on the back; the watch had been a gift for his birthday from Sarah, she'd saved for months to afford it. It was one of very few items of his past that he still possessed and treasured. A sole tear formed in the corner of his eye and a tremor stole down his frame. Lord, he missed that woman, and his son. He pinched the bridge of his nose and hung his head, attempting to rein in his tumultuous emotions. With a deep shuddering breath, he forced the sad memories back to the corner of his mind so he could contend lucidly with the present.
Flipping the pocket watch back over, it now read ten minutes past the hour. He pursed his lips and settled an intense gaze on the door. "Come on, Standish. Prove to me I'm wrong," Chris pleaded. "Show me that I can trust you." He held his breath as footfalls sounded on the porch outside. The door stuttered open and Standish backed through the entrance, balancing a tray in front.
"My apologies, Mr. Larabee for being tardy. Mrs. Potter appropriated me en route, and requested I deliver these," he indicated the meals, with a bobbed head, "so she could return to her offspring."
Larabee grinned from ear to ear. "You being the perfect gentleman and all, couldn't refuse now could ya?"
Standish raised a speculative eyebrow as he dropped the cumbersome tray onto the desk. The mutterings in the cell increased in volume as soon as the gambler had entered, the aroma off the trays making hungry mouths water with anticipation. Larabee continued to smile, confusing the normally unflappable southerner. It was so unusual for the man in black to even consider Ezra worthy of conversation that the gambler was stunned into silence. "Are you mocking me?"
The smile remained in place. "Nope," Chris honestly answered.
Chris rested his elbows on the bar, slowly draining the bottle of whisky. With a practised ease, he scrutinised the people who gathered about the room, without a flicker of betrayal to his set features. A rumbustious melody was being thumped out on the piano and several patrons hovered around, singing out of tune and a beat behind. Larabee moved from the bar and strove to claim the only available table, which had just been vacated. Sliding into the chair he raked his arm across the tabletop and collected the empty bottles all together. The table surface was wet with spillage from beer and spirits. The waiter drew up along side, removed the empties and balanced them on his tray then proceeded to haphazardly wipe the table with a grotty rag that was draped about his neck. The stained wood surface was left streaked with the sloppy ministrations.
Larabee relaxed back in his seat, straightening his long legs beneath the table. He stretched his neck to look over the patrons who blocked his view of the swinging doors. It proved to be more of a battle to keep a constant vigil on the doors, as the bodies kept moving about the room, almost deliberately obstructing his vision. But he did manage to see the smaller figure of the gambler slip into the saloon. Chris watched the gambler scan the saloon, and felt the trepidation in Ezra's green eyes as they fell on him. He held eye contact with the southerner for a full minute, then beckoned with his head to the empty chair at his table. Standish gave a small nod and pushed his way through the sea of bodies. Larabee shook himself. Did that just happen? He queried in his mind the unspoken message that travelled across the patrons to Standish, where he readily understood and answered. Now where did that come from? Sure, he reasoned, that it worked between Vin and himself, but with Standish too?
Ezra sank into the empty seat and arched an inquiring brow at the frowning gunslinger.
"I sent Giles to relieve ya at the jail," Larabee answered the unspoken question.
The southerner tilted his head to the side and stared in confusion. Why would he do that?
"Thought we needed ta talk some more." Larabee intuitively answered. God, he was doing it again!
"By all means, Mr. Larabee." Standish stiffened in his chair. "What did you wish to converse about?"
Chris slid the bottle of red eye whisky to the dubious gambler. A feral grin accompanied the gesture, tempting the conman with the libation. Larabee watched his companion snake out his hand and capture the bottle, then just as quickly lift if to his lips and swallowed the fiery substance. The bottle returned to the table with a heavy thump. The gambler's green eyes sparkled with defiance. "Let's start with the bank robbery."
Standish shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "Correct me if I'm wrong," the gambler sardonically drawled, "but haven't we already discussed the miscreant's criminal transgression?"
"So humour me," Larabee grinned.
The gambler stared intensely, bewildered by the request. He'd come to understand, over the past two years, how to anticipate the gunslinger's dark moods, and when it was wise to stay away. He'd found, that in general, the man in black basically wanted to spend as little time with him as possible, and when forced into situations where it was required that they do indeed find themselves in each other's company, that silence usually prevailed between them. Now this change of tactics on the part of Larabee was anything but clear to Ezra. Sighing deeply, he picked up the whisky bottle and downed another mouthful. What exactly was Larabee searching for? Some fault on the part of the gambler? Or maybe, he was just covering all his bases, preparing for when Judge Travis arrived?
Standish licked his lips and leaned back in the chair. Appearances were everything; he was relaxed and unconcerned by the intent questioning. Say it often enough and you'll believe anything. "Is there a particular point I can clarify?"
"Yeah," Chris growled, leaning across the table. "I want to know how you managed to capture three bank robbers on yer own."
"Are you saying, that I didn't?" Ezra raised his voice and jumped out of the chair.
"Sit down, Ezra." Chris waited until the southerner complied. "That ain't what I'm saying at all. I mean it was three against one you see my problem?" Ezra slowly shook his head. "Um " Larabee struggled for words. "It ain't that I don't believe ya, just that it's kinda hard to take in." Seeing his words were not having the desired effect, Chris opted for simple praise. The gunslinger was genuinely proud of the way Standish had assumed responsibility in his absence. It was about time he let the gambler know. "Ya done good, Ezra. I appreciate the effort ya put in while I was out at the cabin. I shouldna' left ya ta look after the town alone but I'm glad ta see that I can depend on ya to do just that."
"You're thanking me?" the gambler deciphered.
Chris chuckled, "Yeah." He liked this flustered man before him. Chris would have to make certain to praise the gambler more often, it certainly kept Standish muddled and confused, it was bound to keep them both on their toes.
Ezra smiled, the dimples showing in his cheeks. "Waiter," he leaned back and waved his arm over his head. "Another bottle and two glasses."
A smile curled up the corners of Larabee's mouth, watching the southerner summon the waiter to their table. His defences were down, and he appeared younger than usual. If they'd been given the chance, then the pair of them could have shared more of their life growing up together. Like normal siblings. So much lost time. Chris sighed audibly and shook his head. It wasn't too late. They had plenty of time to bridge that gap. He watched as Ezra poured a good measure into each glass and pushed one across the table. The smile on the gunslinger's mouth remained, and it widened when the gambler paused, disconcerted by the steady gaze that Chris held on him. Larabee raised his glass, and was pleased to see the southerner follow his action. It felt good to have family close. Even if Ezra didn't know it yet.
"I think you've probably had enough to drink, Ezra," Chris lightly censured. The saloon had emptied out and only the pair of them remained. The gunman admitted that he hadn't enjoyed himself so much in a long while. Standish certainly knew how to spin a yarn. And his jaw was starting to ache from laughing so hard. Although, over the past half-hour, the gambler had been drinking more and talking less.
Weary red-rimmed eyes blinked as they gazed unsteadily at the gunman. Slurring his words together, the southerner reached for the whisky bottle, but Larabee's hand closed over the top of his and held it to the bottle. "Chris I've only just begun " he closed his eyes and fought the effects of the alcohol. "I thought we were sharing this." Ezra grinned mischievously, anxious to continue.
"Yeah, we were," Larabee agreed, though he was not nearly as drunk as the southerner.
"Then I suggest we continue." Standish thumped the glass on the table and pulled the bottle out of Chris' grasp and filled his shot glass.
Chris covered his glass with his hand when the gambler offered to refill Larabee's. "What's the matter, Ezra?"
Standish stared vacantly and frowned. Tilting his head to the side, he licked at his suddenly dry lips. The drink had loosened his tongue. "A man was killed, Mr. Larabee. And Mrs. Connell was injured because " he bowed his head to his chest, Chris had to strain to hear the gambler's muffled words. " Because I could not protect them."
Larabee nodded his head. He felt an overwhelming need to reassure the gambler that he was not to blame for the bank teller's death, and that the southerner did everything that was expected of him. "Seems to me, you did a mighty fine job, Ezra. Coulda been a hell of a lot worse, and ya stopped 'em from robbing the bank. Yeah, a man died," Chris eyed the sullen gambler, "but if you hadna stepped in, then maybe the woman woulda died too. And they might not of stopped at just those two." Chris uncovered his glass and slid it across the table, nodding at the southerner to fill it now. "Heck, if I was here, it mighta turned out different but we'll never know fer sure. Ya did the best ya could, given the circumstances."
"Praise, Mr. Larabee?" Standish goaded, relaxing back in the chair.
"Give me that bottle," the gunman chuckled, grabbing the bottle from the gambler's side of the table. "I'll deny it all, if you mention it to anyone."
"Well, just so as you know I'll be unlikely to remember much from tonight," Standish slurred, raising the shot glass to his lips. No need to hold the gunman to a promise of friendship when he was under the effects of alcohol.
The judge came to town the next morning on the stage, and a hearing was set for the three bank robbers. A jury of twelve men found them guilty on all charges and Burgess was sentenced to hang for the murder of Harry Horst. Both Patterson and Bretherton were imprisoned, to be sent to Yuma.
Buck and JD returned to Four Corners early Saturday morning, and brought a well-needed joviality with them. If either of them noticed a more serene and comfortable relationship between the gambler and the gunslinger, neither mentioned it. Although rumours abound in small towns, and keeping secret the events of the past week was neigh impossible.
Three weeks after Mary Travis had given Chris his father's letter; she delivered him with a second piece of correspondence. Chris grunted his acceptance and sought a quiet place to read his father's news. Larabee's hand shook as he tore open the envelope, anxious to learn of his brother.
22nd August 1881
So much has happened since I last penned a note to you. First of all, I won't be coming to see you, not for a while anyhow.
Where do I start? First off, I found my little lady down in Alabama, been in the same town since she left me. Who'd a guessed? Reckon there's still some spark left between us after all. She's hardly changed in all these years. I recognised her the moment I set eyes on her. We decided to stick together for awhile, for old time's sake, share a few laughs, and shed some tears. Ain't got nowhere else I oughta be. Least wise the time I spend with her deadens the pain some.
Reckon I mentioned to you about having a baby brother. Guess I shouldn't have mentioned the boy till I'd spoken with his mother. Trouble is son, the boy died almost 25 years ago. He was only five when he succumbed to the fever. Barely enough time to live, and his life was taken away. Marion, that's his mother, buried him at Bessemee, reckon she didn't want to be too far from him, that's why she couldn't leave. She named him after me, James Tobias Keenan-Larabee.
It seems poetic in a sense that I spend some time with my boy, getting to know him. It's so unfair to find that I don't have another boy after all. The few years of his life that I missed will forever be etched on my soul. There is only so much a photo and a few momentos can tell. Even a mother's memory has lost the sharp detail of a small and courageous boy. I was deeply upset by Marion's revelations. That's so far back in the past for her, but to me it is a newly formed wound and I must grieve. Reckon it's tough on her too, seeing me after all these years, brings back a lotta memories she thought she'd buried. Need to help her get through 'em. We'll help each other. I'll be staying on here for a while, if you feel the need to talk to me.
I'll keep in touch. Would love to hear from you, Chris.
Chris bit his lip, balled up the page and angrily threw it onto the street. His father had done it to him again. He slammed his head back against the wall, rattling a few loose boards. "Damn!" Chris thumped his fist hard onto the bench seat. Bruised knuckles were his only comfort. A small part of him had died. A burning in his chest so great threatened to overwhelm him. And a sole tear trekked its way down his cheek, until it was brushed away with ferocity. How was it, that Chris had wanted so badly for Ezra to be his brother? When did that southern gambler break down all his barriers?
Speak of the devil. In his red jacket and refined sophistication, - everything his own brother could have been, if only he'd survived. Here, Standish tentatively held out the discarded missive from his father. Déjà vu. Does Ezra recognise the similarities? Chris looked into the dubious green eyes, and silently accepted the return of the letter. He heard Ezra's quickly spoken words - that he'd not read the letter - and watched as the gambler hurried away.
Chris sighed and pushed the letter into his breast pocket and dashed down the street after Standish. He draped an arm across the gambler's shoulders and changed their direction with a few sidesteps to the saloon. "Ezra now ya don't have to answer this if ya don't want to. You know yer father?"
The gambler stopped and stared incredulously at the gunslinger. "That is a very personal question, Mr Larabee."
Chris nodded his head. "Mind if I tell ya about mine?"
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