Dropped and Caught
When Vin regained consciousness he groaned. Not so much from the pain he felt in every inch of his body but from that he had seen on J.D.'s face when he had spewed out those goddamn lies he'd meant him to tell Chris. Vin couldn't work out whether his plan was such a good one any more; maybe the boys could have managed to come and help him. Aw well, he shrugged philosophically, too late now. The empty pit he felt in his stomach had nothing to do with the fact he hadn't eaten for too long, though; the thought of his friends feeling betrayed and hurt by him and the image he had in his mind of J.D.'s bewildered face as he had hit him was fraying the edges of his heart - much more of this, he thought, and it would just be wrenched apart, simple as that.
The blindfold had been removed, and through bloodied eyes he saw Gill glance over his way and instantly shut them again, hoping the fact that he had woken up would go unnoticed. He had no such luck.
"Why, Mr Tanner!" Gill greeted jovially. "So nice of you to rejoin us. I do hope you aren't trying to play possum down there..." He dug a toe into Vin's bruised ribs and the tracker's eyes opened a slit, staring directly into his captor's.
"Nah, I'd hate to miss whatever it is you've got in store for me today, Gill," he replied hoarsely, and knew he'd made the right decision. He wouldn't have been able to cope with the responsibility of his friends enduring the same treatment as he had received - and was going to receive. If J.D. hadn't been... persuaded to return to Four Corners, God knows what these bastards would have done to him. He hoped his young friend had made it back to the refuge his friends -and, no doubt, the saloon - would provide.
"Oh, no," agreed Gill mildly. "I'd hate you to miss it, too. Now, my esteemed bounty hunter, if you would care to stand up... Adams...?"
A hand shot out from nowhere and grabbed hold of Vin's collar, dragging him upwards to his feet. Much to the amusement of Gill and the other onlookers, he crumpled back down again almost immediately, but despite the pain he forced himself upright and stood, swaying slightly, eye to eye with the other. The man's polite attitude to him annoyed Vin; he was reminded uncomfortably of Ezra, and tried to dredge up some of the five-dollar words the gambler confused him with out of his memory. He failed, and waited instead for Gill to say something. It had slowly dawned on him that they were no longer on the road where he'd been found the night before, but instead what seemed to be a stable. The memory of his horse's fate sickened the Texan, and he quietly made up his mind to give his captor as much difficulty as possible. He would not be an easy prisoner.
Simon Gill looked at the man in front of him with distaste. It might be nice, he decided, to just kill him now. But he wanted to hear him apologise for Jack's death and to beg for his own; he would have to content himself today with just making the tracker realise the error of his ways. He made a beckoning gesture and a strange little ginger-haired man trotted up to him, smiling through nasty, pointed teeth at the captive.
"Mr Tanner I would like to introduce you to Bernard Huxtabey," Gill informed him. "I don't think the normal introductions are quite necessary - I daresay you'll have the opportunity to make each other's acquaintance soon enough. Adams!" he added in a roar, and immediately a huge shadow loomed over Vin; looking up, he saw that its owner was of a proportion that would dwarf Josiah. "And this," continued Gill, enjoying the resignation that now dwelt in Vin's already battered face. "Is Joseph Adams. I'm sure you'll have no difficulty in making friends with him, Mr Tanner - you do possess a certain degree of what is, I believe, termed as 'animal magnetism'".
The words twisted in Vin's gut as he was reminded of Buck Wilmington, a man he knew would, by now, if J.D. had reached Four Corners safely, surely hate him for what he'd said and done. He liked Buck - hell, he loved him like a brother, but Vin would not allow himself to repent his actions. He couldn't. It was for their own good, he reminded himself - what they thought about him didn't matter, just as long as they didn't come looking for him and didn't feel guilty about his disappearance. Better that they hated him so much they wouldn't bother to wonder where he'd gone.
"Delighted to make your acquiantanth, Mr Tanner," lisped Huxtabey, licking his lips. Bloody hell, thought Vin, one of them. Oh dear. Huxtabey slipped out a hand to fondle Vin's hair and Vin spat at him: the caress quickly changed into a forceful yank that wrenched the tracker's head back.
"No need for that, my dear," chastised Huxtabey, his voice deadly low. "I was just being... friendly. I admit, I'll have plenty of time for that later on, but... well, I was just tho taken with your looks, I..." The others laughed at the look of disgust on Vin's face. His hair was released and the blindfold replaced, and he was pushed roughly away - half-dragged, half-carried, he was moved outside to where he felt a soft breeze float over him. He could feel his hands being bound to what seemed to be a stake of some kind; the rough wood splintered into his wrists but gave him hope that maybe he could loosen his bonds on it. He was not to be given the opportunity.
He could hear the voices of Gill, and Adams, and that little man Huxtabey. He couldn't make out what they were saying and neither did he want to; he would no doubt discover his fate soon enough. Shifting slightly, Vin started to rub the rope that tied his hands against the wood he was attached to and was rewarded by a quick slap across the face - by the feel of it from Adams - that sent him flying into another man. Vin presumed this was Huxtabey because he could hear Gill laughing and a startled "Ooh," from the soft bundle he'd knocked into, and gained some satisfaction from the grunt of pain he heard as he ground the heel of his boot into whatever part of the little man had been left on the ground.
For the second time that morning he felt his head tugged backwards by his hair, and Vin sighed. This was likely to be a long day.
Buck had spent the night trying to bury his sorrows in bed with a pretty little brunette called Alice; Chris Larabee had spent it with three bottles of whiskey and a heap of discordant memories.
He had thought Vin to be his friend. Hell, he'd known Vin to be his friend - or had he? He didn't doubt that J.D. was telling the truth, and the kid's words echoed emptily round his drink-sodden mind. Vin had become close to him in a way Buck never could; Buck reminded him of all the good times he'd had with Sarah and Adam. Deep down, Chris Larabee had always known that what Vin had just said about Buck being responsible for their deaths was not true, even though he'd maintained this for years when he'd pushed his old friend away from him. It wasn't for persuading him to leave on that fateful night that Chris had distanced himself from Buck Wilmington; it was because he reminded him of the times when there'd been laughter, and happiness, and love. The only way Chris could ease the pain of his wife and son's deaths was by forgetting them, totally and utterly, and Buck being there was a constant reminder that they had existed.
Vin Tanner, on the other hand, had filled the gaping hole they'd left in him - Vin was like a brother. No, he corrected himself, Vin was not like a brother; he obviously never had been. Another failed friendship, Larabee, he told himself bitterly. But surely, there was something wrong? Something... Vin had never even pried into his past before; why should he suddenly come out with these accusations? Accusations Chris had fought for years but believed all the time... and that Vin had helped him overcome. Fuck the bastard, he thought savagely, hurling an empty bottle at the wall of his hotel room. Fuck him to hell. What gave Vin the right to hurt him - and the others - like this? Just what was he trying to do?
Chris looked through a pair of blurred eyes at the walls that refused to stop spinning around him, and his attention was arrested by some foreign article hanging by the window. Squinting, he tried to work out what it was - it was unfamiliar to him; how the hell did it get to my wall? he wondered. And what the fuck is it anyway? He lurched to his feet and staggered over to it, his lip curling in a sneer when he realised it was Vin's painting, a birthday present to him. His gut seared with pain as he remembered the giving: Vin had handed him the carefully wrapped parcel almost shyly then looked like he was ready to bolt. When Chris had uncovered the picture, a beautifully painted replica of the ranch he had shared with Sarah, he had fallen silent. Vin had mistaken the silence of astonishment for one of pain that he'd created, and grabbed it back from Chris, muttering something like 'Sorry, cowboy, it's shit anyway' in a typical Vin self-deprecating manner, and Chris had reached out and tried to plucked it back. When the tracker wouldn't relinquish the valuable connection with his past for fear it would hurt Chris, the man in black had simply punched him in the face and grasped it to his chest like it was the most precious possession he owned, leaving a shocked and black-eyed Vin staring at him in amazement, then laughter, and finally hysterics. Chris had joined in, then bought him a drink, and the event was a well-worn joke between the seven.
Chris had been touched to the quick by the gift, by how Vin had borrowed paints from Mary and crept out to the ranch to put it on a piece of paper where it would remain forever. Now, Larabee hated it. Hated it because it reminded him of the only three people he had ever truly considered real family and who were all now gone. He snatched it down from the wall, stared at it for a few silent moments before he was disgusted to realise it was being splashed by his own tears. In a sudden outlet of fury he threw it from him into the fire, and looked on as it melted first the varnish then burst into flames - and, as he watched for the second time his beloved home burn and smoke, and with it his family, Chris Larabee collapsed onto his bed and cried.
All the regular visitors to the Four Corners saloon the nest morning were somewhat disturbed to see Ezra Standish sitting, as usual, at 'his' table - but without his usual trademark pack of cards, pile of money, and mischievous smile. Instead, he seemed to be propped up by it and half asleep rather as though he'd spent the night there - which, in fact, he had. As the door opened and Josiah strode wearily in, Inez threw him a questioning glance. Josiah merely shook his head once, and went to sit down with the gambler.
"Good morning, Ezra," he said. Ezra looked at him as though the thought had just occurred to him, and blinked.
"Is it morning," he said thickly, sounding puzzled. "Yes, I suppose it is. Well, then, good morning Josiah." There was a vaguely mocking quality to his voice that Josiah had never heard there before, and it worried him. As did the fumes of alcohol he couldn't help but smell that accompanied the conman's words.
"Are you drunk, Ezra?" he enquired neutrally.
"Me? No. Sober," he added, giggling, "As a Judge. Although I do believe I may have been at some point last night. I was not even aware it wasn't last night until you decided to grace me with your delightful presence, which I must say is unbelievingly welcome..." The slurring in the Southerner's voice was becoming more evident, and Josiah looked up to where Inez was leaning against the bar watching them curiously.
"How many?" he asked.
"Enough. I don't know. Too many, maybe... I lost count after the first six."
"That's glasses, señor, not bottles."
"Thank the Lord for that."
Inez turned away from him and when she revolved again she was bearing a tray laden with two steaming hot mugs of black coffee. Josiah grabbed them from her gratefully and all but spoon-fed Ezra his; when the job was completed, he leant back in his complaining chair and regarded the pale Southerner.
"I think we're going to need Buck's miraculous hangover cure," he remarked.
"I don't believe Mr Wilmington will be in any state to remember the ingredients himself," replied Ezra with a grimace. "I doubt I was the only one of us to spend the night not entirely... sober."
"Well, someone'll remember it. I have a feeling we're going to need it... obviously not just for one patient."
"And who, pray tell, do you consider fit to recall it? Mr Larabee will no doubt be in a far worse state than my humble self, Mr Dunne has - oh, by the way, how is Mr Dunne?"
"He'll be okay."
"Good. Mr Dunne has, as I was saying, luckily for him never been in the unenviable position of having to imbibe the foul concoction and if he knows what is good for him never will, and Mr Jackson will hardly approve of the combination of substances that goes into the poison. He will no doubt offer me something equally as dreadful such as that wretched willow bark tea he always insists I drink so no, Mr Sanchez, I do believe I will suffer in silence."
If Ezra had resigned himself to the fate of recovering from his hangover in silence, Chris Larabee had not. In fact, Chris had not even reached the stage of hangover. Chris Larabee was still drunk.
This was a fact that Josiah appreciated as soon as the black-clad man burst in through the doors of the saloon and ordered several drinks in quick succession. It was one that, however, oddly for a man as perceptive as the gambler, somehow managed to escape Ezra's notice and this resulted in the kind of interface that, Josiah tiredly accepted, had been bound to happen. Edging warily towards the bar, he decided he would just sit this one out with Inez until something drastic happened that called for his assistance. The big man had no wish to be caught in Larabee-Standish crossfire.
"'Nother drink," shouted Chris to a retreating Inez, making Ezra wince.
"Mr Larabee," he whimpered, "I would take it very kindly if you were to refrain from using quite that volume when addressing Miss Recillos - my head feels somewhat... tender." To prove his point Ezra let said head loll gently into his hands and passed out on the table, limp as a rag doll. Chris Larabee took exception to this.
"Standish, get up!" he bellowed and, when eliciting no response from the unconscious conman, he strode over to where the smaller man sat slumped, grabbed his meticulously kept red jacket and shook him violently. Josiah started forwards, alarmed, only to double over before he reached his goal with a Larabee fist in his stomach.
Ezra was rattled into consciousness but not, unhappily, sobriety. "Mr Larabee, may I enquire as to what in God's name you are doing?" he gasped as Chris let go to punch his would-be rescuer. Larabee rocketed round to face him again.
"Trying to shake some sense into you!" he shouted. "Drunk... absolutely hammered... you should be out on... patrol, or..." He seemed to be pursuing another line of thinking and lost his trail slightly. Ezra waited, expectantly, and looked on in interest as the blond head swivelled round to rest only inches away from his own, the green eyes flashing ominously.
"Am I drunk?" said Chris, taking the conman slightly aback.
"Um..." he hesitated, not entirely sure how exactly he should answer. Chris shook him again.
"Welllll...?" he prompted.
Ezra considered the man gripping him. "I - er - well, yes," he admitted finally.
"Good!" Larabee took a step backwards and released his prey, but kept his eyes resting at some invisibly point just above Ezra's head. This unnerved the Southerner, and he felt it his duty to inform his admired leader of this.
"Would you kindly desist fucking staring at me like that?" he snapped, regardless of the collective gasp this brought from the other occupants of the saloon. Chris's gaze slowly dropped so it was boring holes through Ezra's eyes.
"I've shot men for less," he announced quietly, and with an alarming lack of drunkenness.
"Mr Larabee, may I point out that you have shot men for more or less everything?" Ezra too seemed to have sobered up remarkably quickly, and was matching the green-eyed glare with one of his own. "And, while I understand your plight, I would prefer it immensely if you chose not to take your anger out on me. As far as I am aware, it is Mr Tanner who is the guilty party in this case and not, for once, myself. I would therefore be grateful if you were to - er - " he faltered slightly as he saw the look in Chris's eyes " - well actually you look as though it is your intention to kill me," he concluded lamely, and Josiah almost laughed. Ezra shot a dirty look at him. "I haven't done anything wrong," he insisted plaintively.
"You wouldn't call riding out on me 'wrong', then?" enquired Chris in the friendliest voice Josiah had heard him use that morning. Deceptively friendly. This was getting just a little bit too personal now, the preacher decided, and he had better step in before someone did something they might later regret. Or, strictly speaking, he reconsidered, someone else had better step in. He called softly to Inez.
"Mr Larabee," replied Ezra, keeping his tone even, though his eyes betrayed his emotion, "I have never considered that unworthy action of mine to be right - as I believe I have tried to inform you of many times now. May I also remind you that that was over half a year ago now and has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on our present difficulties and I resent you bringing it up now. I thought you were a better man than that."
Chris Larabee launched himself at the smaller man who, despite his attempts to side-step his attacker, remained slightly disorientated by his consumption of alcohol and merely succeeded in walking forwards to head-butt Chris in the chin. Both men went down and started rolling around on the floor in a whole-hearted and enthusiastic brawl.
"Vin was right about you!" Chris hollered as he thumped him across the head. "You don't give a damn about anyone apart from yourself, you selfish, pig-headed slave-driving bastard!"
Ezra stamped down hard on Chris's shin and was rewarded with a howl of pain. "And I can see that you, of course, do!" he replied, vainly attempting to retrieve from Larabee's grasp the sleeve of his favourite jacket.
"Inez!" shouted Josiah, as he prepared to wade in and separate the two angry men, not relishing the prospect in the slightest, "Get Buck! Now! And Nathan," he added as an afterthought. Who knew what these men were capable of when they were both drunk and angry? Okay, Josiah admitted, he did. His experience of which made him even more determined in his last decision. "Yes," he repeated. "Definitely get Nathan."
Just at that moment Buck walked down the stairs from the room where he'd spent the night and straight into the fight.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed, tripping over the melee and earning himself a boot in the ribs from either Chris or Ezra. "Josiah, what in the name of all that's... what the fuck's going on?"
"I think Chris might want to kill Ezra," explained the preacher calmly, relieved that someone else was here to cope with the situation. He screwed up his eyes and squinted at the fast-moving mess on the floor. "I think he might be succeeding," he added thoughtfully, then, as Ezra lashed out a fist that caught Chris on the underside of his chin, "Or maybe not. They're both drunk, anyway."
Buck's face darkened. "Oh," he said. "Best let me deal with this, then. You might want to take Ez over to the jail in a while... let him cool down a mite..." Without hesitation the tall man grabbed an excess of Chris clothing and, despite the stray fists and feet that were coming his way hauled his friend from the struggling gambler.
"Get off him, now, Chris," he soothed paternally. "Calm down. It's only Ezra and you don't want to kill him, now, do you?"
"Yes," spat Chris, along with some blood that landed down the front of Buck's shirt. Ezra was pulled up by Josiah and dragged outside, still complaining, past a startled Nathan and J.D.
"What was all that about?" asked J.D. shakily - he obviously hadn't fully recovered form the ordeal of the previous night. Buck was surprised Nathan hadn't put a leash on him - hell, he was surprised the healer had let him out of his clinic at all.
"How many men did Ez just get beat up by?" enquired Nathan, cautiously eyeing Chris's tattered state of rebellious imprisonment in Buck's arms.
"Oh, just the one," said Buck meaningfully, elbowing Chris in the ribs and trying to inject some joviality into the situation by adding, "Which is quite enough - 'specially if it happens to be Chris Larabee an' 'specially if he's drunk - take it from me. Been there, done that, hey Chris?" He shifted the blonde-haired man's weight slightly and his captive friend corkscrewed round to face him, his mask of loathing taking even Buck by surprise.
"Fuck off, Buck," he said quietly but with unmistakable menace. "I mean that. Let me go."
Buck shook his head sadly. He could see what was coming; he had helped an extremely drunk Larabee in this state before once too often. "Can't do that, pard," he replied.
"I said, let me fucking go!" Chris was shouting now, and J.D. and Nathan winced.
"Chris, maybe ya' should..." Nathan hazarded, before he was cut off by a snarl.
"I wouldn't," said Buck, wrapping his arms even tighter round Chris's chest in a bear hug. "Let it go, Nate. Don't want any more casualties than necessary here. Why don't ya go an' see how Ezra is? Probably got a coupl'a broke ribs or something."
Nathan took the hint and turned tail and ran - taking a reluctant J.D. with him. He had never seen his leader in this state before.
Once they were alone, Buck let Chris go and didn't bother to try and deflect the blow he knew would come. Chris hit him squarely on the nose, breaking the bone instantly and extracting an involuntary curse from Buck.
"Goddamn it, Chris, I'm damn near done with being your fucking punching bag!" the tall man exclaimed in pain as he sank to the ground and Chris yanked him back up, only to knock him over again; this time over a table, breaking the glasses that sat there. The noise this caused brought J.D. and Nathan running back to the spectacle of Buck Wilmington lying prone over a snapped table and Chris Larabee sinking to his knees and finally to the floor in a drunken exhaustion. Josiah appeared at their shoulders and raised his eyebrows at the scene.
"Ezra's more or less sobered up now," he informed the little company. "That's a damn good hangover cure you've got there, brother. You must show me your technique some day."
"You're welcome to it," replied Buck as he stiffly clambered to his feet, his hand clutching his nose in a vain attempt to staunch the blood. "Because I honestly think it's wearing off on me. Do that too often an' you'll end up a dead man. Stupid bastard." But his tone was fond, and he gently lifted Chris's limp body up to Josiah, who took it from him easily. Nathan frowned at everyone, genuinely angry.
"Why the hell can't y'all just quit hittin' each other!" he exclaimed. "I've a mind to just shove the lot of you in jail an' not even bother lookin' at all ya bruises 'n cuts. Damn fools the lot 'a yer." Then, taking in the sorry sight of Buck and Chris and the huge amount of blood they seemed to have produced between them he relented slightly and amended, "But y'all had better get yourselves an' Ez up to my clinic now. If I catch one of ya' lay a hand on another though..." He left the threat hanging, wagging a admonishing finger at his patients and Buck could tell, from the looks on J.D. and Josiah's faces, that he was not the only one there scared by the healer's warning.
When the three casualties had been successfully repaired, Nathan flopped down wearily onto the only chair in the clinic and looked despairingly at Josiah. The other four had insisted on limping out - on their own; Ezra and Chris were ignoring each other, Buck was still too livid to be good company and J.D. was scared at the violence he had just witnessed and partaken in - and the healer had come to the conclusion that the seven appeared to be self-destructing. And it was all Vin Tanner's fault.
"Why'd he do it, J'siah?" he said, and watched as the preacher's elbows came to rest on his knees.
"I don't know..." he replied carefully. "But, well; there's something about the whole thing that just doesn't make sense."
"Too damn right there is!" exploded Nathan. "Vin Tanner, that's what. Why the hell did he say all that crap? Why did he hit J.D.? Can't you see what it's doing to everyone?"
"Of course I can. But that's it - don't you see? This is so unlike Vin; he'd never do anything to hurt anyone. I know that boy - hell, I thought we all did."
"Well, we obviously don't know him as well as we thought," remarked Nathan dryly. "Seems to me he's gone out of his way to make sure he hurts us all."
Josiah ignored him. "And there's another thing," he continued. "J.D. said his horse had been shot. So tell me; why would Vin shoot his horse? If he was riding out on us surely he'd need something to ride out on. Of course he wouldn't kill his horse. He loved that thing; told me once it was one of the few things he could actually call his own and how the hell would he get anywhere without a horse anyway? Just doesn't add up."
Despite his anger towards the younger man's actions, Nathan had to admit there was something in what Josiah said. "I s'pose," he conceded after a moment's thought. "You're thinking someone else shot the horse, then?"
"Well, how could it be Vin? Even a two-faced bastard as I think I heard Chris call him last night would have enough common sense to realise that to get somewhere it's advisable to use a horse - and one thing Vin Tanner has a surfeit of is common sense. So... what I'm wondering is, who the hell did?"
"Maybe his friends gave him another horse. Maybe the dead horse was just another... message for J.D. to give to us."
"Come on, Nathan. You know the... respect Vin has for life. Any life - and especially his horse's, surely?"
"Well he sure as hell don't have much respect for ours."
Josiah could see he was getting nowhere. "Doesn't it just seem a bit... odd?" he persisted.
"Okay, brother." Josiah laid what he hoped was a comforting hand on the black man's shoulder for a second, then turned and strode out of the room. He would find someone that agreed with him.
He hadn't reached the stairs when a smaller figure in a red coat charged up them and past him, pausing briefly as he realised who he'd just hurtled by.
"Mr Sanchez," gasped a rather out of breath Ezra. "Come - come to Mr Jackson's clinic. I've got something that may interest you."
"Not another proposal for partnership in some scheme of yours, is it?" replied Josiah, regarding the Southerner with interest.
"Not in the least. Please, Josiah."
God, they were on first-name terms, thought Josiah; this must be serious. "Right behind you," he told his friend, and together they walked into Nathan's room to find him just as Josiah had left him - staring out of the window in silence. On noting their arrival, he looked up.
"J'siah, Ez... what's the matter? Chris been busting some more heads?"
"No." Ezra perched himself on the bed and rifled around in his pockets. To two identical gasps of amazement he produced J.D.'s missing watch and telescope.
"Where in the name of God did you conjure them up from?" asked Nathan, grabbing the telescope and extending it to see if it was in working order. Ezra took a deep breath.
"After my unfortunate... scuffle with Mr Larabee this morning," he began, "and after you very kindly bandaged me up, Mr Jackson, I repaired to the saloon and partook in a small game of chance. I - "
"You were gambling? At a time like this?" interrupted Nathan angrily. How this man could appear so calm and unaffected by what had just happened was beyond him.
"Yes." Ezra ignored the interjection and continued. "I happened to be sitting at my usual table when three somewhat disheveled and, I must say, atrociously dressed cowboys entered the premises and decided they felt inclined to play cards. They did so, very badly, and I thought it may be beneficial to their education if I were to show them the finer points of the game... so I did..."
"You mean you fleeced 'em."
"Well, if you insist on applying that vulgar terminology to it, yes. However, when I began to raise the stakes and my friends discovered they had no money, one of them offered me a telescope in payment and the other a watch. So of course I obliged them..."
"Of course," muttered Nathan.
"... and you can imagine my shock when I saw whose telescope and watch they happened to be."
"Yes," agreed Josiah, "I think we probably can. Where are they now?"
"In jail. It seemed they found my skills slightly too advanced for their liking and decided they would follow Mr Larabee's example of taking their frustration out on an innocent bystander... namely, myself."
"Innocent?" enquired Nathan, smiling now. Ezra smirked.
"Well, I suppose I may have provoked them somewhat... however the result of the unseemly brawl is that the two felons are now safely locked in the jailhouse where Mr Dunne is keeping a considerate eye on them."
"Does J.D. know about his watch? Or does he think Vin took it?"
"I didn't tell him. I thought maybe one of you should."
"Now there I would agree with you, brother." Josiah yawned and stretched to his rather intimidating full height. "I also suggest that we pay these cowboys a little visit... what do you say to that?"
Nathan grinned, his white teeth snapped together in approval. "I'd say that you're full of good ideas this morning. You speak to them at all, Ezra?"
"Only to inform them of their destination. Unhappily, they didn't appear inclined to talk to me much after that, other than to lecture me on my unhealthy relationship with the female gender of the canine species - "
"Son-of-a-bitch!" exclaimed Nathan suddenly, widening his eyes and pounding his fist on the wooden arm of his chair.
"Yes, I believe that was the term they used..." agreed Ezra, then peered more closely at his friend as he realised the healer was not attempting to decipher his explanation. "Mr Jackson? Are you well?"
"If Vin did take J.D.'s stuff, then these men must be his friends. Either that or they took it off J.D. after Vin'd knocked him out - or they took it off Vin. And they could be the ones as shot his horse - or maybe..." He was interrupted by Josiah's cough and patient smile.
"Why," he said, "don't we go and ask them?"
On route to the jail they picked up Buck Wilmington, who looked oddly mummified in the swathes of bandages Nathan had wrapped carefully round his nose.
"Where you boys off to?" he asked nasally, with an obviously forced attempt at cheerfulness.
"Jail," they answered in one voice. Buck looked at them curiously.
"It's usually 'saloon' when you talk like that. Mind if I ask why?" he said.
"Ezra's just arrested three goons who had J.D.'s watch and telescope," Josiah informed him shortly. "We were going to ask them where they got them from."
What could be seen of Buck's face grew dark. "Then I think I'll join you," he announced. "Might be they could tell me where that sorry bastard of a tracker's got to."
With a curt nod, Josiah accepted this and the four of them strode onwards, to be met by J.D. dangling an unread and tattered dime store novel in one hand.
"Howdy, boys," he muttered. "What can I do for you?"
"Smile?" suggested Buck. His young friend's depression hurt him.
"Yeah, whatever. You come to see the prisoners?"
"Indeed we have, Mr Dunne. Are they inside? I trust their recuperation has not been too taxing on yourself?"
J.D.'s customary "Huh?" that Ezra's questions invariably elicited was a welcome return to a semblance of normality - albeit a shaky one - and served to ease the tension slightly. Buck grinned and thumped the sheriff lightly on the back.
"He says, they been giving y'any trouble, kid?"
"Oh." J.D. shook his head. "I thought that's what he meant. Er, no, they've been quiet. One of 'em's sleeping an' the other two're havin' a chat, all nice an' calm-like. Why? You gonna let 'em go now?"
"Son, we've got a few things need saying to you... why don't we step inside, now."
J.D. sensed something ominous about the big preacher's words, and in silence traipsed back inside the jailhouse with the others behind him. Sitting down at the desk, he stared up at his friends.
"Yeah?" he asked, in the world-weary voice of a man many years his senior. "What is it?"
Ezra handed him his watch and telescope, and the sheriff sat studying them as though he'd never seen them before.
"Where'd you find these?" he enquired finally.
"On your prisoners," replied Ezra. "I..." - he hesitated to say the word 'won' - "...removed them from their persons this morning. We were debating," he added, raising his voice, "whether to persuade them to tell us how they came by them with knives, or just Josiah's fists. I'm sure both methods would be equally effective... myself, I prefer knives. Leaves them with something to remember us by, if you take my meaning."
The two men that were awake in their cells looked at each other uneasily. Buck grasped what Ezra was doing immediately, and joined in.
"Oh no," he disagreed. "Too much blood. J.D. here's a bit squeamish - I think Josiah."
"I am not squeamish!" squealed J.D. in protest, scowling at his friend. Then, as Buck winked at him, understanding dawned and he added, "Actually I like blood. Lots of it. I say knives."
It was Nathan's turn to frown now. "And who do you think would have to clean them up?" he snapped. Ezra looked at him blankly.
"My dear Mr Jackson," he said stiffly, "I had no intention of leaving them in the condition where they needed to be cleaned up."
"They still gotta be in a fit state to get into a coffin, Ez."
"Oh, very well." Ezra's tone was petulant, and he lapsed into a sulky silence. "Can't I just cut them a little bit?" he begged wistfully a few seconds later. Nathan regarded him indulgently.
"Oh, go on then," he smiled. "But not too much, mind. Just 'til they tell you where they got the watch an' 'scope from, okay?"
Ezra's face lit up with a ghoulish grin and he clapped his hands together happily. "Thank you, Mr Jackson... it will be my pleasure. Now, gentlemen," he said, turning to the prisoners and taking the knife Nathan considerately handed to him. "Would you be so kind as to tell me what your initials are?"
Once again the two men exchanged worried looks, and one of them threw an unpalatable pellet of bread at their sleeping companion. The man woke with a start and glared at his friend.
"What the fuck was that for?" he yelped. The other man nodded towards Ezra, who smiled charmingly and waved.
"I think he wants to carve our initials into our chests unless we tell him where we got the watch from," the prisoner explained nervously. His friend gave the conman a disinterested glance and folded his arms.
"Yeah, like hell," he snorted. "Ponce couldn't use a knife 'cept to cut up his Sunday roast."
"Ha!" exclaimed Ezra, springing enthusiastically forwards. He had to be physically restrained by Nathan and Buck, and J.D. found himself having to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing.
"Control yourself, Ez," commanded Buck sternly, and the gambler subsided slightly, casting his friend a disappointed glare.
"Kindly let me go," he requested stonily. "It won't take me long to extract the information I need from these felons. I can be very persuasive when the mood takes me."
"Yeah, I saw what you did to Chris," Buck reminded him. "Promise me you won't make too much mess. Uh-uh," he added as Ezra tried to break free from his grasp. "Promise."
"Oh, very well," said Ezra peevishly. "I give you my word. Now," he advanced on his intended victims, who had all now moved to the back of their cells, "Which of you gentlemen may I have the pleasure of... attending to first?" He stopped level with the man who'd accused him of not being able to use a knife. "You, Sir?" he enquired genially. "I always find that human flesh is remarkably similar to that of roast beef. If you want to prove me wrong, I have no objection... kindly remove your shirt."
"What?" The man was not only scared now but also clearly shocked. Ezra sighed.
"I said, would you kindly oblige me by removing your outer garments? I'd hate to have to infect the wound with fibres from your clothing."
"What fucking wound?"
"The one I am about to inflict on your person."
The prisoner no longer looked quite so sure about yourself. "You wouldn't," he stated uncertainly.
"Of course not," said Ezra soothingly. "If it makes you feel better believing that, who am I to refuse you? I hate to contradict you, however - but I'm afraid I'm going to have to. Now, will you remove your shirt or do you want Josiah to assist you?" He stuck the key into the lock, wiping the knife reassuringly against his sleeve.
"Or," suggested Josiah, ever the voice of reason, "You could just tell us where you obtained this watch and this telescope." He brandished the said two objects in front of him.
"Don't spoil my fun," warned Ezra, continuing to struggle with the stubborn lock.
"Wouldn't dream of it, Ez, but you can always have your fun later."
"No!" The threatened prisoner saw to his horror that the madman in the red coat had succeeded in opening the door to his cell. "I'll - they were off some bounty hunter!"
"Bounty hunter?" Josiah was suddenly beside Ezra, his voice uncompromisingly hard. He turned to his smaller compatriot. "Vin, you reckon?"
"I have no idea." Ezra shook his head. "Can you describe said bounty hunter?" he enquired.
"Er, no - it wasn't me that took them," replied the thief, licking his lips nervously and looking from one captor to another so fast it made him dizzy.
"Well, who did?"
The man winced as Josiah's open hand slammed into his face. "All yours, Ezra," he declared, and turned to leave.
"Hey, stop! Mister - don't leave me with that - that..."
"Yes?" queried Ezra pleasantly.
"...er, that... man. Please!" This anguished plea wrenched Josiah's smirking head back round.
"Tell me who took the watch, then," he reasoned.
"A friend of mine. No one here. They went out riding last night - a party of them - looking for someone. I don't know who. They found him but he was being attacked by a bounty hunter, he knocked him out an' so they tied the bounty hunter up, took the guy they were after, and pinched the watch an' telescope. I got the watch yesterday - gambling debt. Honestly, I swear to God that's the truth. Honestly, I swear, I swear, I..." He continued to babble in this manner for some while before he noticed that the door had been closed and Ezra was nowhere in sight. Breathing a sigh of relief, he hugged himself tightly. It would be quite some while before he even contemplated a steak again.