Excuses: Okay, Im a Brit so I apologise for any non US spelling, but if I can make it through all your American spellings, then I sure you can struggle through my UK ones <g>.
Thanks to Julia without whose nagging this story would never have been finished and without whose beta-ing thered have been a whole lot of typing mistooks
Disclaimer: Theyre not mine, Im only playing. I promise Ill wipe em off and put em back where I found em when Ive finished.
Ezra was skulking. It was the only word for it he realised. And whilst he would be the first to admit that he was very good at it when the need arose, right now he would really prefer to be doing something else, anything else. He was on a dangerous, some would say suicidal, mission. If anyone saw him now he would be as good as dead at least he was on the home straight now. He had safely delivered the slim but incriminating package, now he just had to make it back across the street and up to his room without anyone noticing.
"Oh Lord" he gasped as he heard a muffled noise from the darkened alley to his left. Someone was there, he would be discovered! He peered desperately down the pitch- black side street and hurriedly pulled out his gun. Just as quickly his brain realised what he was doing and, with a sigh, he put the gun away again. Just because his own life was in mortal danger didnt mean he could go round shooting innocent townsfolk who just happened to be walking by. Drawing himself up to his full height Ezra took a deep breath and prepared to bluff it out, after all bluffing was another thing he was very good at.
"Excuse me good citizen but would you be so kind as to come out onto the street and explain to me why you are concealing yourself down a tenebrous alley at this time of night?" He had to admit that his own reasons for being out and about at this hour were hardly ones he would admit to, but if he acted out his law man role he figured he might get out of this predicament yet.
There was no response from the alley so Ezra drew his gun again, after all he might not be the only nefarious character out and about tonight, and prepared to go in after his foe.
This is your final opportunity sir. If I have to come in after you I will most displeased" There was another loud scuffle from the dark, followed by a hideous screech and meiow.
Chuckling, Ezra drew in a shaky breath that he had not realised hed been holding. Meiow he grinned ruefully. He did not want to think what his six compatriots would have said if theyd seen him preparing to do battle with the local moggy. Lord, he was getting too old for this kind of thing.
He made it back to his room without further mishap although he made a mental note to talk to Buck about JD the next morning. He had deliberately chosen a night on which Vin was not on patrol as he realised the odds of his sneaking around without the sharpshooter noticing were not the kind of odds he cared to place money on. Tonight JD had been on patrol and had given Ezra a bad scare by walking right past him. Whilst he had to admit that JDs lack of vigilance had been fortuitous for himself he was concerned that it could result in his young friends untimely end on some future occasion. A lesson in patrolling seemed to be called for.
Settling down onto his bed with a sigh Ezra wondered how long he could keep this up, his late night excursions were beginning to take a toll on his nerves as well as his sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Back on the street, unseen by Ezra, a dark shape cautiously peeled itself away from the shadows.
"All clear" Chris whispered hoarsely. At his words five other shapes emerged from the darkness and, as one, headed for the saloon.
JD was struggling to walk he was laughing so hard. "Meiow?" He gasped through a fit of giggles.
"Well I had ta come up with somethin after bigfoot here fell over the trash." Vin glared at Buck.
"It was a great cat impression Vin." Buck grinned, clapping the sharpshooter on the shoulder. "And at least you didnt nearly walk slap bang into Ezra."
"Hey!" JD protested "How was I supposed to know he was there?"
"You look JD." Chris stated grimly "I think me an you are goin ta have a long talk about patrolling "
They headed into the saloon helped themselves to a drink or six and sat down around their favourite table. The place was empty, Inez having locked up some time ago. Buck had let them in with a spare key that no one had realised he had and no one really wanted to ask how hed got it.
"Make sure ya keep it down guys" he hissed, "We dont want Ezra mistakin us for burglars an shootin us all fulla holes."
"Dont fret Brother Buck." Josiah soothed. "Ezra wont wake up before noon, even if a herd of steers stampeded through here."
"Yeah well wed better get on with it." Vin grumbled "I gotta get ta sleep. Ive got patrol in the morning."
"Vins right" Nathan agreed. "Ezras likely to get a mite suspicious if were all still in bed when he gets up".
"Okay," said Chris. "So, ya all believe me now?"
"Yup, wouldnt ha believed it ifn I hadnt seen it with my own eyes though" Vin admitted.
"So whatre we gonna do?" asked JD
Chris leaned forward with an evil grin on his face "Gather round guys, I have a plan .."
The Next Morning .
JD sighed, scuffing his feet as he paced up and down outside Ezras door. Would he never get up? JD figured that hed definitely drawn the short straw in Chris plan. The gunslinger had told him to go round to Ezras room first thing in the morning and wake the gambler up. JD had amended the plan slightly, deciding to wait outside until Ezra woke of his own accord. He may be young and inexperienced but JD was wising up fast and knew that waking the gambler up was a bad idea. Ezra usually woke up mean shooting first and asking questions later. He sighed again, waiting outside was definitely sensible but it was also getting very boring "Boring is safe, safe is alive" he mumbled to himself, repeating one of Bucks favourite lessons trying to dampen the increasing urge to knock on the door in front of him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was confused. He couldnt work out why there was a little man with big feet clomping back and forth inside his head. He hadnt drunk that much last night, there was no reason for him to be afflicted with a hangover this morning. As he groaned and rolled over in bed his sleep-befuddling mind began to clear and he realised that the man in the over-sized boots was actually pacing outside his door and not in his head. Groaning louder, Ezra fumbled for the pocket watch on the table next to his bed. Good grief, it was not yet ten oclock!
"May I enquire as to who is creating that commotion and disturbing my much needed slumber?" he called out irritably.
"Ezra!" JDs excited voice came back from the other side of the door. "Youre awake!"
"Astute, even at this early hour." Ezra replied dryly.
"Early! Ive been waiting here for ages." JD was indignant.
"Yes, well now your tortuous wait is over." Ezra called back. "Pray tell, why exactly are we having this conversation through my door?"
"I need to talk to you, its important." JD explained.
"Well, if you would be so kind as to wait ten minutes I will join you in the saloon."
"No." JD hissed impatiently. "I gotta talk to you in private."
"In that case Mr Dunne, I will still require ten minutes in which to don some suitable apparel and then we may converse to your hearts content."
Ezra dragged himself slowly out of bed. He really did not enjoy mornings at all. He had to admit to being curious though. He was the last person hed expect JD to want to talk to in private. He fervently hoped the boy didnt want to learn about the birds and bees, that would be too much. He continued dressing, dividing his attention between deciding which colour jacket to wear and trying to work out what on earth JD could want.
"Come on Ezra, hurry up." JDs voice interrupted his reverie. The gambler finished shrugging on his jacket, checked his derringer rig was in working order and opened the door. The only way to satisfy his curiosity was to let JD in.
"Jeez, Ezra. What took you so long?" JD practically burst into the small room, closing the door behind him and taking a seat on a chair by the window.
"Perfection takes time to achieve Mr Dunne". Ezra flashed his gold tooth in a broad grin. "Now, how may I be of service?"
"I came to warn you." JD began earnestly.
"Warn me?" Ezra turned his gaze from the mirror hed been using while he combed his hair and gave JD his full attention. "Warn me about what?"
Yeah, well I, um, saw you last night." JD confessed.
"I fail to see the significance in that." Ezra bluffed, fixing his poker face in place even as his heart plummeted into his boots. "I was in the saloon for most of the evening. As you were there also it comes as no great surprise that you saw me."
"No, after that. I saw you sneaking into Mrs Travis place."
"I fear you must be mistaken JD. After that most prosperous card game came to a conclusion I retired early to my bed." Ezra desperately continued his bluff, although he realised the odds were definitely against him. Damn, this is what happened when he got up early. The day had already gone to hell in a hearse and it was not even noon yet.
"No Ezra. It was you." The young sheriff insisted. "What were you doing? Chrisll kill you if he finds out!"
"What I was doing was between Mrs Travis and myself and is no business of yours. Needless to say, however, I have acted only in a manner that befits a gentleman."
"Do gentleman often sneak into ladies homes after dark?" JD protested hotly, leaping out of the chair to stand staring nose to nose with Ezra.
The gambler winced inwardly at the accusatory tone in JDs voice. "Mr Dunne," he began, allowing a hint of steel to creep into his voice and eyes, "I have said all I am prepared to say on this matter. Mrs Travis and I are both adults. We have a business arrangement that I am not at liberty to discuss. Due to my current good health I believe that the esteemed Mr Larabee has not heard about any of this and I trust that you will not see fit to interfere in matters that do not concern you."
"Its your funeral Ezra," JD said in a hurt tone, "Chris wont hear anything from me, but this is a small town and it wont stay a secret for long."
"Well, I thank you for your advice Mr Dunne, I will take it into consideration. Now if you will be so kind as to allow me to finish dressing " Ezra determinedly steered JD out of his room and closed the door firmly behind him.
+ + + + + + +
JD managed to keep a straight face as he made his way back down the stairs and into the saloon, but as he walked out onto the street his face broke into a huge grin.
"Yes!" he exalted, punching the air, startling Mrs Potter who happened to be walking by. He had done it, he had conned the conman! JD hadnt been sure he could do it and had worried that hed cause Chris plan to fall at the first hurdle, but it had worked, Ezra hadnt suspected a thing. Now it was down to the others.
+ + + + + + +
With the door safely closed Ezra sank down onto his bed, running his hands through his hair. JD had appeared genuinely afraid for his safety. Understandably so, Ezra conceded. He and Mr Larabee did not see eye to eye and the best of times, if he were to find out about this Ezra shuddered at the thought. He sat still for a while, considering his options. They were extremely limited and he did not like any of them. Explaining the situation to JD or any of the others was inconceivable. He would just have to go over to Mrs Travis and bring their agreement to an end. He knew she would be disappointed in him, but there was no other feasible solution.
His decision reached, Ezra stood up, looked in the mirror and rearranged his ruffled hair back into its customary immaculate style, straightened his jacket and strode out of his room. He headed straight out onto the street deciding to forgo breakfast. It was still too early and his stomach was still churning slightly after his confrontation with JD.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was concentrating hard on just what he was going to say to Mary and not paying due attention to where he was going when he walked straight into a wall. "Most peculiar" the gambler thought to himself as he did not recall there ever being such an obstacle in the middle of Four Corners main street.
"Brother Ezra" the wall boomed out, "You look like a man with a lot on his mind."
The gambler looked up to see Josiah towering over him. That made sense Ezra realised, the man was the closest thing to a living wall that hed ever seen.
"I do apologise Mr Sanchez, I was not paying due attention to where I was walking. Please allow me to assist you." Ezra bent down to help Josiah pick up the nails that hed just bought from the hardware store then dropped when Ezra had walked into him.
"No problem Brother Ezra. In fact I was hoping to talk to you anyway," the preacher announced, dropping to one knee to help Ezra gather nails.
"Yes, I just wanted to warn you." Josiah replied his long face looking even more sombre than usual.
Ezra suddenly experienced a feeling of déjà vu. Hadnt he just had this conversation with JD? "Warn me?"
"Yes. When I walked past the saloon this morning I saw a whole flock of black crows sitting on the roof of the saloon."
"Yes Brother, crows. I ve never seen so many in one place before, cept on a killing field. They are a bad sign, death isnt far away. I want you to be careful, think about what youre doing before you do it and dont take any chances. Warnings from the Lord should be taken seriously." With that Josiah scooped up the last of his nails from the dirt and dropped them into his brown paper bag strode off to the church to continue his repair work
Ezra gulped nervously a few times. That was it, he was going to Mrs Travis office and he was going now! Pausing only the wipe the dirt from his trousers he set off, only to come to a panicked halt several steps later as Chris came strolling round the corner. The gunslinger tipped his hat at him, uttered a casual "Mornin Ezra" and disappeared into the very office the gambler was headed for. Ezra pulled his frozen thoughts back together. Chris couldnt know, he wouldnt be alive if he did. It was merely an unfortunate coincidence. He would have to visit Mrs Travis later in the day when the gunslinger was busy elsewhere.
Taking a deep breath Ezra decided he needed to do something to calm his frayed nerves. He thought for a moment, then headed for the livery stables. An hour on his own grooming Chaucer would fit the bill perfectly.
+ + + + + + +
As Ezra hurried off Josiah turned to where Chris was peering out of Marys office window. He paused to give the gunslinger a thumbs up before continuing to the church. Chris smiled darkly to himself, so far so good .
+ + + + + + +
This was more like it, Ezra sighed contentedly. The livery stables were dark and peaceful, the only noises came from the dozing horses. He was in Chaucers stall, hed already checked and cleaned the chestnuts feet, now he was giving his horse a thorough grooming. Chaucer whuffled happily, leaning into the brush as Ezra ran it over his body. His troubles were nearly over Ezra thought to himself. He didnt know why hed allowed himself to become so agitated. All he needed to do was lie low here for a while until Chris had left the newspaper office, leaving the way clear for him to go and talk to Mrs Travis and bring this sorry situation to a close.
"Pssst!" Ezras head jerked up in surprise. Chaucer snorted his irritation and surprise at the sudden movement. Ezra glanced around trying to locate where the sound had come from.
"Pssst, Ezra. Over here." Ezra still couldnt see anyone in the gloom, but the sound seemed to be coming from Pesos stall. Thoroughly puzzled Ezra put down the brush he was using, opened the door the Chaucers stall and walked cautiously over to where Vins horse was stabled. There still wasnt anyone in sight. He stared at Peso and the horse stared back down his long nose at him.
"Peso?" Ezra whispered incredulously. His query was met with a burst of unsuccessfully stifled laughter.
"Nah Ez. Its me." Vin said uncoiling from the dark corner of his horses stall.
"Wait til I tell the guys ya thought my horse was talkin to ya." The sharpshooter chortled.
Ezra sighed, he seemed to be doing that a lot today he realised. "Mr Tanner, I was unable to see anyone who might be responsible for the hissing noise you were making, and when something lacks a logical explanation sometimes one must consider an illogical one."
"Ya really thought Peso had started ta talk?"
"Not really Mr Tanner. Ive just had a particularly bad day so far and Peso striking up a conversation would not be the most disconcerting thing to have happened to me since I arose this morning."
"Hell Ezra, its not even eleven yet, how can ya be havin a bad day?"
"I fear that mornings simply do not agree with me." Ezra replied turning back towards Chaucers stall "Now if you have no objections I shall return to the care of my steed."
"Ah, well I was hopin to have a word with ya Ez." The gambler turned back to Vin, his heart starting to sink in a way that was becoming disconcertingly familiar. He looked back at the sharpshooter waiting to see what he had to say.
"Im not one ta be pokin my nose inta other folks business." Vin began hesitantly, studying the ground at his feet not wanting to meet the gamblers eye.
"But?" Ezra prompted.
"Well I seen ya with Mrs Travis, at night." Vin continued glancing briefly up at Ezra before returning his gaze back to the straw covered floor. "I dont want ya thinkin Im spyin on ya or anythin. I just saw ya is all. Now I aint judgin ya Ez, hell Im hardly in a position ta judge after Charlotte an all, but I just think ya goin about it all wrong. Sneakin about at night, it dont look good, and ya know Chris is goin ta find out one way or another."
"Good Lord Vin" Ezra said, stunned "I dont think Ive heard you say so much in one month, never mind in one conversation.
"Ez, Im serious" Vin was annoyed now, "I know you an Mrs Travis are both adults, but ya know how Chris feels about her. He aint gonna take this well. Are ya sure its worth it?"
Ezra was starting to feel quite ill now. Did everyone know of his visits to Mrs Travis? He had been so sure that he would able to complete his plan undetected but now it appeared that half the town knew of his nocturnal escapades. The gambler realised Vin had finished talking was looking at him expectantly, waiting for some sort of explanation. Well the sharpshooter was going to be sadly disappointed.
"Mr Tanner, I thank you for your concern," Ezra began "but you have grasped the incorrect end of the proverbial bough. There is nothing going on between the good lady and I. You have no need to be concerned for my safety.
Vin snorted. "Then ya wont mind ifn I were ta tell Chris about your night time visits?"
Ezras poker face actually slipped allowing Vin to see a flash of total panic cross the gamblers face, before the usual blank mask fell back into place.
"Why I dont think that will be necessary Mr Tanner. I will not be undertaking anymore visits to Mrs Travis establishment so I dont believe there is any cause to upset Mr Larabee unduly.
"Why dont ya just tell me whats goin on Ez? Other folks are bound to have noticed an ya know theyre only gonna think the worst."
"I have a gentlemanly agreement with the lady Mr Tanner. More than that I am unable to say." Ezra replied. "Now I believe I will retire to the saloon. Good day Mr Tanner."
"Well, its your funeral Ez." Vin said resignedly to Ezras back as the gambler headed for the entrance to the livery "Ya cant say I didnt warn ya."
The tracker waited until Ezra had left the building and turned Peso who was whickering softly in his ear. "What you laughin at? he asked the horse, grinning broadly to himself. "Do ya think our friend was looking a mite worried there? He sure left in a big hurry". Vin gave the big black a pat on the nose, moving his hand back quickly as the yellow teeth snapped together. The tracker then headed out into the daylight, tugging on the brim of his hat as he walked past Chris. Vins part was done.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was convinced that this was the worst day of his life. What had started off as a good deed had turned into a veritable catastrophe. He could hear his mother laughing at him from here. Hurrying out of the livery he headed, once again, for Mrs Traviss office. This time nothing was going to prevent him from ending this sorry episode once and for all.
"Hey Ezra, I want a word with you!" Nothing except maybe Buck, Ezra thought miserably as the mans voice boomed out across the street. Ezra looked up the street to see the ladies man thundering towards him.
"Ah, not now Mr Wilmington." Ezra tried to side-step the irate man. "I have some rather important business to attend to."
Buck was not to be put off however. "Were going to talk now!" He insisted, making his point by grabbing the gambler by his coat collar and dragging him down a side street. Passing townsfolk hurried nervously by, looking everywhere but down the alley that the two men had disappeared into.
"Mr Wilmington would you please explain why you have accosted me in such an undignified manner." Ezra protested, trying to squirm out of the bigger mans grip.
"I want to know what ya think youre doing!" Buck shouted, refusing to release his grip on the gambler.
"What Im doing, is being attacked in broad daylight by one of the men who is employed to maintain the law in this fair metropolis." Ezra replied, his eyes glinting angrily. Now unhand me Mr Wilmington, before I am forced to do something we will both regret."
Seeing the dangerous look in the gamblers eye, Buck reluctantly let Ezra go."
"Thank you." Ezra said, straightening his coat. "Now let us see if we can continue this conversation in a more dignified fashion. I presume that, like everybody in this godforsaken town, you have seen me visiting Mrs Travis and have leaped to the wrong conclusion."
"What other conclusion do ya expect us to come to Ezra?" Buck asked "What I want to know is how you could do it? I thought Chris was your friend. You know how he feels about Mary. Chris needs a chance like this, he deserves it, and then you come along and take it all away."
"Mr Wilmington, I assure you, as I have assured countless people already today. I have taken nothing away. I am assisting Mrs Travis in a matter of business, that is all." Ezra replied.
"Since when is do ya do business in the middle of the night?" Buck demanded.
"Since Mrs Travis requested that I keep our arrangement a secret. I cannot tell you any more than that, on my honour as a gentleman."
"You aint no gentleman Ez." Buck growled.
"Think what you may," Ezra responded. "But I am not going to explain myself any further."
"You might not explain it ta me Ez, but youd damned well better explain it to Chris before he finds out. The manll kill ya and you wont see me getting in his way". Buck threw his hands up in disgust and walked off, leaving Ezra standing alone with a slightly stunned expression on his face. What else could go wrong, he wondered.
Pulling himself together, he took a deep breath and headed back onto the main street where he came face to face with Nathan. Ezra took a step back in surprise, then sighed resignedly.
"Come on then, get it over with."
"What?" Nathan was confused.
"Tell me of the error of my ways. Inform me of how I have reached new depths of depravity through my clandestine visits to Mrs Travis."
"Aint going to say anything Ezra. Ain't got nothing to say you havent heard before and if you havent listened to any of the others you sure as hell aint going to listen to me. Now Ive got to go and get some supplies before the store closes for lunch." Nathan shrugged Ezra off and turned to cross the street.
"What supplies?" Ezra couldnt help but ask.
"Gotta get me some extra bandages and carbolic" the healer replied. "I figure Im gonna need it once Chris has gotten through with you."
"Chris knows?" Ezra gasped in panic.
Nathan slowly looked the gambler up and down, "Youre still in one piece aint ya? In that case I think its safe to say that he doesnt." With a last look of disgust Nathan turned on his heel and headed off to the store.
+ + + + + + +
Once again Ezra headed for the newspaper office wondering what would stop him from reaching his goal this time. He was pleasantly surprised when he arrived at the small office without further mishap. Determined to get off the street before anything else could go amiss he knocked firmly on the door and strode in without waiting for an answer.
"Mrs Travis, I apologise for disturbing you at work, but I require a moment of your " Ezras voice gave way as he glanced up and saw Chris Larabee looking at him.
"Ah, hello Mr Larabee." He managed to croak out.
"Hi Ez." The gunslinger replied amiably. "Marys gone out for a coupla minutes. You wanna wait with me?"
"Erm no, I think not. I will endeavour to contact Mrs Travis at a later date." Ezra replied, hastily backing out of the small room.
"Can I give her a message then?" Chris asked helpfully.
"Ah, no. That wont be necessary thank you. It was only a trifling matter, it can wait." With that that Ezra practically sprinted for the safety of the saloon, missing the huge, evil grin plastered over his leaders face.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra looked down at his dwindling pile of money and sighed. He could not recall the last time he had lost so badly in a card game. He had started the game in an attempt to take his mind off his current predicament. He had spent the better part of the day in the saloon, keeping a watch on Mrs Travis office and waiting for an appropriate moment to head over. As of yet that moment had failed to arrive. He couldnt recall the newspaper office ever having so many visitors. As often as not it was one of his own comrades. Ezra couldnt imagine what they wanted with Mary, but he was hardly in a position to ask. All he could do was watch and wait - and lose at cards, he amended silently. As if the waiting wasnt bad enough he currently had Vin, Josiah and Nathan sitting nearby giving him pointed looks and Buck and JD were in a corner near the window laughing over an article in the latest edition of The Clarion. Ezra had a nasty suspicion as to what article that was.
"Are you gonna bet or what?" His current opponent brought his mind back to the game. Ezra was determined to gain back some of his currency and he held the right hand to do it.
"Ill raise you five, sir" he replied depositing his money at the centre of the table.
They sat in silence for a few moments as the ranch-hand considered his next move. Ezra waited patiently, happy to let the man sweat.
The momentary lull was shattered as JD leapt to his feet, knocking his chair over backwards.
"What is it?" Buck cried, instantly on the alert for danger.
"Ohmygosh!" JD shouted pointing a shaking finger in the direction of the window. "Its Chris, hes coming this way, and he looks real mad!"
"Please excuse me sir, Im afraid I have a rather pressing engagement somewhere else, anywhere else " Ezra explained hurriedly to his opponent, jumping to his feet and dropping his full house on the table with only a momentary pang of regret. He backed away quickly, heading for the rear exit only to run straight into Vin who was stood blocking his only route to survival.
"Mr Tanner, would you be so kind as to move, Im in somewhat of a hurry." Ezra was somewhat embarrassed to hear the pleading note that had crept into his voice.
"Sorry Ez." Vin looked anything but remorseful as he crossed his arms and stood his ground between Ezra and the door. "I reckon ya got no choice but ta take ya licks an get this over with."
As the door crashed open the few remaining townsfolk took one look at Chris Larabees face and decided they didnt want to be in the saloon right now and headed for the door. Inez strategically withdrew from behind the bar, leaving the regulators to their argument. She really didnt want to know what had got the gunslinger so mad and she just hoped they wouldnt be reduced to the magnificent six when she returned.
Where is he?" Chris roared as he entered the saloon. He looked around, his gaze quickly settling on the gambler as he made a dash for the stairs.
"Oh no you dont." Bucks outstretched leg tripped Ezra as he tried to sneak past.
Ezra was still trying to find his feet when he was lifted bodily off the ground by an enraged Chris Larabee. The gunslinger pinned him against the wall "I want an explanation". Chris shouted, mere inches separating his enraged face from the face of the panicked gambler.
Ezra gurgled incoherently in reply.
"Erm, Chris" Vin interrupted nervously, "I think ifn ya want an answer youre gonna have ta let go of his throat for a minute.
"Oh, right." Chris eased his strangle hold on Ezra slightly giving him a chance to breath. "Well?" he demanded.
"I can explain." Ezra began, deciding that feigning ignorance would be a bad, if not fatal idea.
"This had better be good Ezra. Tell me why exactly youve taken to visitin Mary in the dead of night for the past six weeks."
"Well" Ezra prevaricated, thinking fast, there had to be some way out of this, some plausible explanation. "Mrs Travis was concerned that someone was planning on breaking into her office and she requested that I check up from time to time to ascertain that the building and its contents were secure from harm."
As one six men snorted in disbelief. Not one of his better bluffs Ezra conceded.
"Whyd she ask you?"
"Whod break into the office, theres nothing worth stealing?"
"So whyd ya only check once a week?"
"Why didnt she tell the rest of us?"
"We coulda just checked while we patrolled."
"Whod she think was going ta break in?"
All good points, Ezra admitted to himself, realising that this story definitely wasnt going to work. Time to try another tack.
Chris tightened his grip slightly, lifting the gambler higher, his eyes challenging Ezra to come up with a much better story.
"I regret that you are forcing me to betray a confidence." Ezra tried again, "The good lady asked that I not breath a word of this to anyone but she was afraid that someone, some man, was stalking her. She wanted me to keep an eye out in case he tried to cause her trouble. She didnt want Mr Larabee to know," Ezra continued quickly "because she didnt want him to overreact. You do have quite a reputation for overreacting." Ezra returned his gaze back to the gunman holding him.
"That's horseshit Ezra." Chris ground out. " There aint no-one stalking Mary. Now ya got one last chance to tell me why I shouldnt blow ya brains out all over this saloon. Think about it Ez, itd make a terrible mess for Inez to clean up"
Ezra closed his eyes. There was nothing for it. He had to admit to Chris what was going on. The results would probably be worse than death, definitely not as quick and painless he realised but there was Mrs Travis reputation to consider as well as his own life.
"I had a business arrangement with Mrs Travis." Ezra began simply.
"Go on" Chris encouraged, with a fist. The other regulators gathered closer to hear what theyd been waiting for.
"Mrs Travis was concerned that the readership for The Clarion seemed to be diminishing."
"Well I suggested to the lady that she try to gain a new audience, appeal to people who would not normally purchase the newspaper. She asked me what I was implying."
"Keep going." Chris growled.
"I suggested that she include some articles that would interest a female audience."
"Such as?" Chris asked, knowing they were getting to the good part now.
"I thought a horoscope of romance serial would achieve the desired aim. Mrs Travis however said that she would be unable to afford to pay for a writer. It would cost more than she would gain in income from the increased readership." Ezra hurried on, wanting to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible and move on to dealing with the hideous consequences of his admission. "I declared that writing a romance novel was such a simple undertaking that anyone with a reasonable vocabulary could do it, even myself."
The others all began grinning, this was it. This is what theyd been waiting for.
"Mrs Travis said that in that case why did I not write such a story for her to include in the paper. She agreed to make some financial recompense for my efforts, so with the proviso that absolutely no one found out about it, I agreed to assist. For the past five weeks I have been writing Romance on the Ranch. Ezra confessed, looking at his boots. "The story by Madame de LAmour that Buck and JD were enjoying so much this afternoon was written by me. That is why I have been visiting Mrs Travis during the night." Ezra took a deep breath and looked up as Chris released the grip from around his neck. That was it, his life was over. He would never be able to look any of them in the eye again. The gambler shuddered to think of the humiliations he would suffer now that his fellow lawmen knew his secret.
"Damn, you were right Vin", Buck cursed handing a considerable amount of money to the sharpshooter. Swearing loudly Nathan and Josiah also started digging in their pockets,
"I never thought hed admit it, not even to Chris".
"Never bet against the Glare" JD admonished them, waiting impatiently for his payout. "Not even Ezra can withstand the glare."
"Excuse me, would you be so kind as to explain what is going on." Ezra was at a complete loss, and appeared to have been forgotten admit the exchanging of money.
"Oh, Buck, Nathan an Josiah made the mistake of bettin against Chris bein able ta make ya admit ta writin that trash." Vin grinned.
"Admit?" Ezras eyes snapped open wide as he figured it through. "You mean you already knew of the reason behind my visits?"
"Yeah." Vin said, his grin got even wider. "Chris saw ya the first time and went round to Mrs Travis the next mornin. She told him everythin cos she was worried he was gonna kill ya."
"He did look a mite peeved." Buck confirmed.
"My biggest problem was convincin this lot what you were up to." Chris explained. "I had ta drag em all out in the middle of the night sos they could see ya with their own eyes".
"This whole thing was a set-up, a charade?" Ezra realised hed been duped.
"Its been fun watchin you get all worked up" Buck added, "I dont know that Ive ever seen a man look quite so lathered as youve been today."
"Youve put me through all this just for a bet!" Ezra was outraged, green eyes flashing. "Think about the mental stress I have been through, not to mention the financial losses." He gestured over to the abandoned poker table. "What have I ever done to you to deserve this?"
"Aw come on Ez. It was too good a chance to miss." Nathan grinned.
"And theres plenty of other stuff we needed ta get even for." Buck added.
"Such as?" the gambler queried.
"Well there was what you did to my moustache." Buck grumbled.
"And what you put on the Church pews "
"And what you did to ma boots ."
"And what ya put in my whiskey "
"And the sponge bath incident ."
"Not to mention that thing with the chicken feathers " JD conluded the list.
Ezra winced recalling the various incidents, "Well I have to admit you gentlemen do have a point. What say we call it even? You have had your fun, at my considerable expense and I have learned my lesson." Grabbing a bottle of whiskey from the bar Ezra headed for the stairs. "I believe I will retire to my room. I shall need considerable time to recuperate from the horrors of this day". He paused as a sudden thought occurred to him. "May I suggest that we keep this incident to ourselves. I do not believe that it would benefit the good people of this town to know of my literary endeavours."
Chris waited until Ezra got to the top of the stairs before replying. "Yeah, whatever ya say . Madame de LAmour".
Ezra froze in place, then shuddered slightly before squaring his shoulders, heading into his room and slamming the door loudly behind him.
There was a moments silence before all six friends burst into laughter.
One week later ..
"Hey Vin. Was I seein things or was that Ezra I just saw riding out on patrol?" Nathan asked, taking a seat next to Josiah and the sharpshooter, gratefully accepting the coffee Inez put down in front of him.
"Brother Ezra on dawn patrol? That seems most unlikely." Josiah looked sharply at Vin.
"Well, it was my patrol but Ez asked ta swap me for it. Seemed right keen too." Vin explained.
"Well he an Chaucer just lit out of here like a bat out of hell. He must be up ta something." Nathan decided. The others nodded knowingly. Ezra wouldnt be up this early without an awful good reason.
Their conversation and breakfast was interrupted as Buck staggered in laughing and choking and waving the morning edition of The Clarion around in one hand.
"Something appears to be ailing brother Buck." Josiah noted.
Nathan, concerned the large man seemed unable to breathe, started to his feet.
"Have you read this?" Buck asked as he got his breath back and sank into a chair. "I thing Ezras got a death wish. Chris going to kill him!"
"I think we are about to learn the reason for Ezras early morning exit." Josiah smiled. "What has our wayward brother done this time?"
"Listen to this." Buck began opening the newspaper, but he started to laugh again before he could get a word out.
"Give it here, before you do yourself an injury." Nathan snatched the paper away from the gasping man and began to read out loud, his eyes getting bigger and bigger as he read.
"Romancing the Regulator by Madame de LAmour."
"Hes writin' another story?" Vin was puzzled.
"Yeah but wait til you hear it."
Nathan continued. "The tall handsome gunslinger was the most formidable man Christabelle had ever met. He dressed all in black and had a steely glare that could see right through the most hardened criminal. He was the fastest gun in the West and a tough lawman. Christabelle could see into his heart however and she would not be put off by that piercing gaze. She knew that within that hard exterior beat a deeply sensual heart, a heart that needed love, a heart that needed her ."
Vin nearly choked on his coffee. "Ezra sure knows how ta get his own back."
"Yeah, but itll probably kill him." Buck added.
"Chris read this yet?" Nathan asked.
"Chris read what?" JD dropped into an empty chair next to Buck.
"The paper." Nathan replied.
"No, I just met him on the way to Mrs Travis office. I guess he was going for a paper. He said he was going to head on over to the jail to have a word with that drunk Buck locked up last night."
At JDs words the others all jumped upand crowde over to the window to get a good view of the jail house. Puzzled JD joined them. They were just in time to see Chris, paper in hand, striding across the road and into the jail. As the door closed Buck started to count out loud.
"One, two, three " He had just got to five when Chris let out an almighty roar that could be heard across the whole of Four Corners and probably all the way to Eagle Bend.
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