Ezra Standish smiled grandly as he reached out to rake in another stash of money in the middle of the round table. His gold tooth flashed in the afternoon sunlight that filtered in through the saloon's windows. The wily gambler was having a good day so far, and it appeared nothing would spoil it.
The tall, slender figure of Cole Blackston sauntered into the tavern, his beady brown eyes instantly resting upon the man sitting at the gambling table. A smile came to his thin lips as he recognized the old acquaintance. It had been years since he last laid eyes on Ezra.
"Gentlemen, are we interested in partaking in another game of chance?" Ezra asked in his smooth, Southern drawl.
"I'd be interested, Standish," Blackston intoned, walking up to the table.
Ezra struggled to keep his mouth from frowning as he gazed upon the familiar form. "My my...Mr. Blackston," he managed to say with a tight smile. The bright, promising day had just been visited by a black cloud.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee paced back and forth inside the jailhouse like a caged animal. His black attire matching his dark mood. The re-known gunfighter had seen Blackston in town, and he knew from experience the man had a bad reputation for causing trouble.
The younger man with him looked up at his best friend, stretching out his wiry frame in a nearby chair. "Reckon ya know him?" Vin Tanner asked in his soft, husky voice. A stranger just minutes ago had walked in front of the building, sending Chris into the disposition he was now in. Whoever he was, he did it deliberately, his strides slow and cocky as if wanting to be noticed.
"We don't need his kind in our town," Chris replied testily.
"Somethin' personal?" Vin wondered aloud.
Chris nodded. He knew Vin wasn't requiring more of an answer than that. It was one of the many reasons he instantly clicked with this quiet spoken, expert tracker and sharpshooter.
Vin folded his arms across his chest. "Maybe he's just passin' through."
"That man doesn't just do anything, Vin. He wants something, and I aim to find out."
"All yer gonna find is a fight, Cowboy," Vin cautioned, rising from his seat.
Green eyes flashed angrily at the calm, vivid blue ones. Tanner had no idea what kind of man Cole Blackston was. The gunman allowed the fury to subside. No, Vin had no idea, and didn't deserve the brunt of his frustration. Blackston deserved that solely.
Shrugging his shoulders, Vin flashed an impish grin. "Josiah'n Ezra are gonna be takin' over watch soon," he said, referring to two other members of the band of seven regulators who protected the citizens of Four Corners. "I'm mighty parched. Saloon's soundin' good 'bout now."
"He could be there you know," Chris replied.
"I reckon, but ya might be friendlier if'n ya had yer daily whiskey."
"And shadowed by a buckskin wearing tracker who carries a sawed off Winchester," Chris mumbled. Vin was going with him to make sure there wasn't a fight.
"Ya mean that smart lookin' feller who watches yer fool back?" Vin mocked.
"I was thinking more smart mouthed," Chris shot back, not able to hide the smile playing at his lips. That damn dry humor of Tanner's....
+ + + + + + +
Shuffling the cards absently to the other players, Ezra tried his best to appear aloof to Blackston's presence. Why him? Why now? Hadn't he finally rid himself of that loathsome cad's influence? Squelching the defeated sigh that threatened to spill out, the gambler forced his emerald eyes to look at the cause of his discomfort.
"We are going to be engaged in five card stud. Are you interested Mr. Blackston?"
The thin lips smiled, but the dark eyes were cold as ice. "Sure Standish, deal me in. I'm waiting for someone, and I can't think of anything more amusing than passing the time with an old friend."
Ezra caught himself before he cringed. Friend? He would hardly begin to describe their relationship as friendly. "Who are you waiting upon?" he hazarded to ask. Whoever it was, they almost had his sympathy. If Blackston was waiting on someone, it didn't bode well on the person in question.
Eyeing the other men at the table, Blackston shook his head. "You know Standish, why don't we go over to the bar and have a drink. Talk about old times."
A cold chill raced down Ezra's back as he placed his hand upon the table. This wasn't a request, this was an order. "Ah'm sorry gentlemen, but it is accurate that myself and Mr. Blackston have a great many things to discuss." The gambler tipped his hat in parting and followed Blackston to the bar, willing his legs to keep moving.
"Two whiskeys, barkeep," Blackston ordered, sliding a glass Ezra's way. Taking a slow sip, he glanced sideways at his drinking companion. "Seems you've been doing well for yourself."
"Doing what Ah always do best," Ezra offered half heartedly. "What brings you to this hovel? You always preferred the larger towns."
"Surprised to see you here myself," Blackston countered.
"Less recognition," Ezra answered, taking a drink from his shot glass.
"You familiar with the law around here?" the thin man questioned. "Seven men?"
"Ah am familiar with those brutes," Ezra replied without looking up. He knew those beady eyes would be watching his reactions. "Ah highly suggest that you not entertain any ideas of scuffling with the odious likes of them."
A sarcastic laugh filtered out of the gambler. "A few." Licking nervously at the tip of his lips, the con man stole a side ways glance. What was Blackston up to? Surely Four Corners had nothing to interest him. The bank was far from the richest in the area. Had it to do with him? He quieted the voices of alarm. No, he hadn't given Blackston any reason to doubt his silence.
"Tell me about all of them," Blackston demanded.
"Why are you concerned about these men? This small town holds nothing of any value or interest," Ezra hedged. How could he tell this man about his friends? About his own role in the group?
"I'm more interested in one man," Blackston relented. "I want to know who he has running with him."
"Which one has the honor of your attention?"
Fixing the gambler with a hard glare, Blackston pulled upon the lapel of Ezra's finely made jacket, pulling him closer. "Just tell me, Standish."
Knowing he couldn't avoid the question, Ezra decided to bluff. He would make his friends sound like a force too dangerous to be reckoned with. "If you must insist, but Ah will deny all accusations of my informing you."
"Shut up and tell me about these men," Blackston said irritably.
Clearing his throat, the gambler nodded. "The leader of this group of ruffians is a man known as Chris Larabee. He has quite a formidable reputation as a fast gun, and with an equally fast temper. He wears black."
"Yep." Blackston smiled to himself. "Saw him in the jailhouse. Who's the one in buckskin? He was with Larabee."
Ezra swallowed and took another drink. "Shoulder length hair?" Receiving an affirmative nod, he continued. "Vin. He's the sharpshooter and tracker of the group. Best there is, Ah've heard. Can shoot a bullet between your eyes without the slightest effort. And if perchance you are simple enough to try and hide, he will most assuredly find your whereabouts."
"Got a last name?"
"We exactly aren't on speaking terms," Ezra lied. He feared Blackston recognizing Vin from a wanted poster. The tall man wasn't above bringing in a fugitive for extra cash, and Vin was worth $500 for a murder he didn't commit.
"There's the local scoundrel, Buck Wilmington. He's very adept at a gun and the female persuasion."
"Tall with a dark mustache?"
"Yes," the gambler forced himself to say. Did Blackston know them all? "How pray tell, did you know that?"
"Saw him as I came into town with a young saloon girl. He appeared the type to pack a gun."
"There's the actual sheriff, JD Dunne. Although young, he is not to be underestimated. He is brave and determined."
"All right. Three more."
"Josiah Sanchez. A former priest who is not above bloodshed, and is well versed in the art of fisticuffs. Nathan Jackson is the town's healer, who is very proficient with a knife, and not only for surgical navigation." Ezra paused, his mind groping for what to do next. Should he admit he was in with this band of make-shift lawmen? Did Blackston know more than he was letting on?
"Know anything about the seventh one?"
"Alas, Ah had not the pleasure. Heard he is on sabbatical." Putting on his best poker face, Ezra looked intently at his old acquaintance. Did he buy it?
"Don't much care," Blackston shrugged. "They all pretty loyal to Larabee?"
"From all apperances...yes." Ezra took another drink, wishing he could disappear into the floorboards. It was Chris he wanted. The grandfather clock chiming in the corner gave the con man a way out of the conversation, but posed a new problem. He was to take over patrol at the jailhouse. Going in the front way would be out of the question, and he couldn't allow Blackston to see him there. A covert entrance would be required. He would figure out what to do next after that.
"Ah do appreciate the refreshment, but Ah'm afraid Ah must attend to other matters at the moment." Ezra started to leave when a cold hand gripped around his wrist.
"I don't want any more contact the rest of the time I'm here," Blackston said conspiratorially. "Keep your eyes and ears open, and I know I can trust you to remain silent. If things happen, I want to know."
Feeling as if his wrist was on fire from Hell itself, Ezra nodded and hurried out the saloon, quickly scanning the street and ducking behind a building. He'd continue the rest of his journey to the jail hidden by prying eyes. Satisfied he was safe, the gambler stilled his quaking limbs. "I know I can trust you to remain silent," rang in his head. All these years he had tried to put Blackston and the horrible deed he witnessed behind him, finding some sort of solace in this town of Four Corners and in the six new friends he acquired. If they only knew.... Ezra shook his head forcefully. If he played his cards right, they'd never know.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah Sanchez's large frame entered inside the jailhouse, amused by the sight before him. In one corner was a scowling Chris, his meanest glare being met by a laconic smile by Vin. They were communicating in their unique way again. No words spoken, but volumes understood.
"Brothers," Josiah greeted warmly.
"He's here," Chris said brusquely, leaping from his chair and heading towards the door.
"Ezra's not," Vin pointed out. "And Josiah's here ta relieve me. Yer gonna have ta wait."
"Like hell I will," Chris groused. "You wait here for Ezra."
"Nope. Made my claim first." Vin rose from his seat and pushed himself past the gunman and out the door. "Thanks Josiah."
Chris turned and faced the preacher. "Tell him you're relieving me," he ordered.
Josiah shrugged his broad shoulders and grinned. "You heard Vin. He spoke first."
Mumbling a curse under his breath, Chris gave the departing tracker a dirty look as he saw Vin enter into the saloon. Blackston was sure to have seen Vin when he made the purposeful gait in front of the jail earlier. He didn't want his friend anywhere near the likes of that man.
The gambler slunk inside the jail through the back door, careful to keep out of view of the window. Blackston was probably still at the saloon, but he also knew the man didn't always travel alone.
"You all right, Ezra?" Josiah queried, noticing the pale features of the younger man. "You look almost ill."
"Ah must confess that Ah am not feeling well. Might Ah be excused from this duty?" Ezra refused to look either man in the eye. This was the coward's way out, but how could he tell his friends different?
"Sure, but maybe go by Nathan's on your way to your room," Josiah suggested. "Might be catching something."
"Ah just might my friend," Ezra said sadly, exiting the way he came. He would have to lay low for awhile and pray Blackston didn't go asking more questions about the seven lawmen. Hopefully the old demon from his past was content enough to have him as an informant.
Frowning, Chris glanced over at Josiah. "He didn't look too good did he?" Pushing Ezra's ailment aside, he stared back out the window, his green eyes glued on the tavern. Vin shouldn't be in there alone.....
Seeing the trepidation in the blonde's face, Josiah placed a hand on the gunfighter's shoulder. "Go on. I can handle it. And if there's trouble, I know you're nearby."
Nodding his gratitude, Chris quickly made his way to the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Vin casually strolled into the tavern, his eyes searching the crowd warily. Within seconds he spotted the tall visitor near the bar and ambled up for a drink. A wry smile touched his lips as he thought about how Chris was back at the jail fuming. But it wouldn't be long before the black clad gunfighter stormed in here. He better get acquainted...fast.
"One whiskey, Joe," Vin said, giving the man next to him a nod of acknowledgment. The stranger returned the silent greeting, looking the young tracker up and down with an appraising look.
"I saw you at the jailhouse earlier," Blackston began, "when I first came into town, and you are?"
Taking a sip of his whiskey, Vin straightened, placing his hand on his sawed off Winchester. "All ya need ta know is that if'n ya give Larabee any trouble, yer gonna have trouble with me."
"I don't recall giving this Larabee any trouble," Blackston feigned innocence.
"Ya know what ya were tryin' ta do," Vin answered, his eyes narrowing. "And so do I."
Blackston found himself chuckling. This young man before him had mettle, he had to give him that. "And if I don't follow your friendly advice...?"
Finishing his whiskey in one swallow, Vin stepped up closer to the stranger, his eyes dancing with a dangerous glint. "I wouldn't be in a hurry ta find out."
Chris charged into the saloon, immediately heading towards Vin. Dammit. Vin was doing the one thing he hoped the sharpshooter wouldn't do. Pushing himself between Blackston and Tanner, Chris glared at his best friend, his eyes speaking for him.
'Leave right now.'
Vin stared back intently with his own message. 'Not leavin' ya alone with him.'
The gunman growled under his breath, his teeth clenching together in frustration. He lifted up his index finger. 'One minute.'
'All right, one minute.' Vin agreed silently, raising his own index finger. Setting himself at a table nearby he watched the pair. If this stranger tried anything, he was ready to blow a hole the size of Texas in him.
Ordering a bottle of whiskey, Chris averted his gaze to the mirror behind the bar. "I strongly suggest you keep riding," he said in a low voice, his lips barely moving.
"Can't a man get a drink and relax?" Blackston asked amiably.
Chris jerked his head in the direction of Blackston's empty shot glass. "You've had your drink, you seemed relaxed...now get the hell out of this town."
"Such hospitality from the local lawmen," Blackston replied with a cocky grin. "I all ready received fair warning from your young friend, and now you. Is that any way to treat a potential paying customer? Imagine the wealth I could spread around these places of business."
"We don't need anything you have to offer," Chris snarled, still staring straight ahead.
"I'm going to get me a room for the night," Blackston continued, enjoying his vexation of Chris Larabee. "My horse is tired and so am I. If I'm fully rested, I'll leave in the morning."
For the first time in the conversation, Chris looked at the man, a feral look on his features. "You will be...." Snatching up the bottle of alcohol, Chris left the bar and joined Vin.
"Get the message?" Vin asked when the gunfighter sat down.
Frowning, Chris said nothing, pouring himself another drink. It took everything in him to stop from beating Blackston senseless. And obviously Vin threw himself into the fray, something that didn't please him either.
A sigh escaped as Vin sunk down into his chair. "I'm gittin' a message too?" he asked, grabbing the bottle and filling his glass.
"You will," Chris grumbled. The discussion with Tanner would be better served in private. "I'm too mad at him to be mad at you."
Vin lifted his glass, a crooked grin on his handsome face. "I'll drink to that."
Chris tried to intimidate the young sharpshooter with his harshest glare. "Don't drink too much...I want you sober when I have at you."
"Here, ya can have the rest," Vin replied, giving the bottle of whiskey a shove over to Chris. "I personally want ya drunk so I can't understand a word ya say."
"This ain't a time for jokes," Chris snapped. "I don't want you going near that man again while he's here. Is that clear?"
Shrugging, Vin twirled the glass slowly between his fingers. "He knows what'll keep me outta his face."
"Worry about what will keep me out of your face," Chris mumbled to his friend.
Ready to give a sassy retort, Vin fell silent as he saw the agitation written on Chris' countenance. This stranger was working on the gunman's last nerve, and it would best serve the town, and Chris' sake for him to retain that last bit of control.
Pacing back and forth in the modest room he was given by the man who hired this band of seven men, Judge Orrin Travis, Ezra called upon all his vast mental facilities to figure a way out of this situation. The best case scenario was for Blackston to pass on through town, but he had to prepare himself for the worst case also. If the tall man found out he was a peacekeeper, all bets were off. Blackston would feel he could betray his confidence.
A sarcastic chortle interrupted the quiet. Confidence.... Either he shut up or died. What a choice. But if he gave his word, Ezra P. Standish kept his word. Even to a murdering crook like Cole Blackston. He did know one thing. The others had to be warned somehow. To antagonize Blackston would definitely bring trouble to Four Corners. And with the cruel man all ready picking a target, the one who would light the fuse would be Larabee.
Checking the derringer he kept hidden up his right sleeve, Ezra crept secretly out into the night air, making his way to the jailhouse. A meeting needed to be called.
+ + + + + + +
Chris slammed his glass down on the table, feeling Blackston's mocking eyes watching him. Insufferable bastard! Everyone in Eagle Bend knew the cruel card sharp was behind that murder years back.
Vin sat silently as he watched his best friend obviously reliving a past episode. Looking up at the stranger at the bar, he frowned when he noted the pleased expression the man wore. Chris was being baited into taking action, he was sure of it. Not while he was around.
Without saying a word, Chris rose from the table, Vin following suite. Turning to face his friend, Chris threw Vin a hard glare.
The tracker knew he had to risk drawing Chris' ire to keep him from a fight. "If'n ya want ta give him what he wants, go ahead and start somethin',"Vin spoke plainly.
His fists clenched tightly at his sides, Chris stood transfixed. He didn't want to give Blackston the satisfaction of losing his temper, but dammit...he couldn't stand to have that filthy piece of gutter trash walking around in his town. As much as he hated it, Vin was right.
"It's starting to stink in here," Chris growled, throwing a hateful look in Blackston's direction. The black clad gunman charged out through the saloon's batwing doors and headed towards the jailhouse, with Vin matching him step by step.
+ + + + + + +
Resident ladies' man and lovable scoundrel, Buck Wilmington, watched Chris and Vin's exit from the saloon with interest. An old friend of Chris' for over a decade, Buck knew the gunman was in a sour mood, and Vin as always, was watching his back. Something was definitely wrong in the town of Four Corners. Nudging the young man next to him wearing a bowler hat, the mustached, woman lover gestured to the jail.
"Chris looks 'bout ready ta have puppies," Buck said with a frown. "Wanna check it out, JD?"
JD Dunne glanced over and saw Chris' dark expression. "Let Vin help him deliver the litter," the youthful sheriff shot back. "You better than anyone know not to mess with Chris when he's this mad. Besides, Vin has the best chance of calming him down."
Buck shook his head sadly. Unfortunately he had well earned knowledge of the Chris Larabee temper, having been on the receiving end more than once. After his wife and son were murdered, Chris became a man possessed, and drove anyone he ever knew away...by any means necessary. Only by coming to this town and allowing the other six regulators, Vin especially, into his life, did Chris finally start showing some desire for living. The lanky gunslinger relaxed a bit. If anyone could get Chris to settle down, it would be Vin.
"If'n the jail don't blow up before then, we'll go check on 'em in a bit," Buck offered.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan and Josiah were engrossed in a friendly game of chess when Chris came stalking into the jailhouse. The two men noted the storm cloud brewing over the gunfighter's head, telling them to keep quiet for the moment. Josiah had alerted the dark skinned healer to Chris' irritable mood earlier. They continued their game.
Vin entered inside, giving his shoulders a shrug when he met Nathan and Josiah's questioning glances. "Ya two look mighty parched, why don't ya take a break?"
Josiah rubbed his greying mustache. It was Vin's way of telling them to leave. Larabee wasn't fit for company right then. "Y'know Brother Nathan, I am thirsty now that I think of it."
"A beer does sound good," Nathan agreed.
"There's a coffee pot on the wood burner," Chris grumbled, throwing Vin a dirty look. "I know what you're up to Tanner, I ain't stupid."
"Now ya tell me," Vin shook his head.
Larabee turned away, not wanting the younger man to see the tiniest of smiles tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Are you two planning on staying here the rest of the day?" Josiah ventured to ask as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"And all night," Chris muttered absently. He couldn't possibly ride out to his little shack a short distance from town, and a room in town was out of the question. Blackston had to be monitored, and until that snake left Four Corners, he wasn't letting his guard down. "You and Nathan can go. Vin and me can handle it from here."
"Vin and me?" Tanner echoed. "Didn't I just spend five hours with ya? Half of that time with ya grumpier than a badger."
"You ain't leaving my sight since you decided to make yourself known to Blackston," Chris snapped.
Vin bristled at the order. He had brought in men twice the size of Blackston when he was a bounty hunter. Chris knew better than anyone he could take care of himself...so why the protective stance?
"Listen here, Larabee...," Vin began with a tightness in his voice.
The gunfighter realized he had hit a nerve with his best friend. "Dammit Vin, you have no idea what kind of man Blackston is...."
"You're right Mr. Larabee."
All eyes turned to see Ezra standing in the back of the jailhouse. "Which is why it behooves me to call an immediate assembling of our group of regulators." His emerald eyes lifted to Nathan. "Mr. Jackson, would you kindly bring in our two friends who aren't present? Ah do believe they were in the vicinity of the saloon."
"Buck and JD?" Nathan asked with a curious frown. He had heard from Josiah that con man had felt ill earlier, and the pale features only proved the point. This was not the cocky, debonair Ezra he knew. Nodding, he went in search of the two missing lawmen.
"You know that sonovabitch?" Chris asked accusingly, surprising the gambler with the voracity of the question. There was definitely bad blood between Blackston and the seven's leader.
A hand snaked out and grabbed the gunman firmly on the arm. Vin met Chris' eyes with a scolding look. "So do you...," he said quietly, instantly diffusing Larabee's suspicion. He turned his attention to Ezra. "Take it yer not on friendly terms with him?"
Grateful for the opening Vin obviously gave him, Ezra relaxed some. "Ah will state emphatically that Ah loathe the man, but unfortunately, he views me as somewhat an acquaintance." Glancing quickly in Chris' direction, he continued, satisfied there would be no outbursts...for the time being. "When the others arrive, Ah shall explain more fully."
"What? Ran some scams with him?" Chris said tersely.
"We all have pasts we ain't proud of, Chris," Josiah spoke up.
Glowering at the men in the room, Chris sullenly sat down behind the desk. Either you were a friend of Blackston's or an enemy. Ezra better have a damn good reason for being that bastard's acquaintance.
+ + + + + + +
When Buck entered the jailhouse with JD and Nathan close behind, he could feel the tension about to explode. No doubt Chris was the one with the fuse, but the question remained who would bear the brunt of the debris. He looked over at Ezra's nervous features. That man never appeared unruffled, yet the gambler seemed as skittish as a deer. What the hell had happened to have caused so much trouble in only a few hours?
Ezra watched the arrival of the other three with trepidation. Now he would have to explain his reasons for the hasty meeting. Was he up to this? He shook himself inwardly. These were his friends, he had to give them some sort of warning of the events to come. Clearing his throat, he stepped into the middle of the room, waiting till all eyes were upon him before he began.
"A very odious man has entered our fair community," the gambler spoke. "One Ah had the misfortune of helping once. Because of that cooperation, we had developed a mutual understanding."
"Stop the double talk," Chris groused, "how well do you know Blackston?"
"Ah haven't laid eyes upon him in years," Ezra admitted, "but he still perceives me as an informant. And he has been asking about the seven regulators who protect this town."
"An informant?" Chris rose from behind the desk, his eyes skewering the con man. "And what did you inform him of us?"
"Ah made you all quite a formidable force to skirmish with, hoping that would discourage him. Ah'm not positive Ah succeeded, but the seed is planted, and with more contact, Ah hope to drive the point home...."
"Why would he trust you Ezra when he knows you're one of us?" JD wondered, his hazel eyes questioning.
The gambler lowered his gaze. "He is not cognizant of my participation in this group," he answered quietly.
"What?" Chris' voice boomed through the room. "Why the hell didn't you tell him?"
Straightening, Ezra pulled on the lapel of his purple silk jacket. "Ah would not be addressing you now if he knew," he said in defense of his lack of admission. "Besides, Ah found it more fruitful to pretend to be on the outer circle, to cultivate trust."
His pent up frustration and anger escaping with the help of the whiskey he had just consumed, Chris threw Ezra a harsh glare. "And we trust you to stand with us."
"Damn it all, Larabee," Vin shook his head. "Maybe Ez is right...it would be better if'n he played this Blackston along." Looking over at the gambler he nodded. "Did ya find out anythin'?"
"He's obviously interested in vexing Mr. Larabee, in the hopes of attempting to cause a ruckus."
"Blackston, Blackston...," Buck mused out loud, stroking at his black mustache. "It ain't that bastard ya had a run in with back in Eagle Bend was it, Chris?" The black clad gunman's steely silence spoke volumes. It was.
"What the hell does he want here?" Buck continued.
"He's leaving in the morning," Chris said forcefully.
"And Ah would highly suggest you do not antagonize him, Mr. Larabee," Ezra ventured to say. "One of the many things Ah've noticed, Blackston wants a reason to retaliate. If he does not receive it, he doesn't act."
"He won't git one," Vin inserted. The expansive blue eyes worked between Buck and Ezra. Though he respected Chris' privacy, he needed to know about the man who was threatening his best friend. He didn't need details of what happened, just information of how Blackston played.
"So if this Blackston doesn't git Chris riled up, he'll just leave?" Vin pursued.
"It's his rather twisted sense of honor," Ezra sighed in disgust. "If you harm him, he harms you. But if you resist his aggressive advances, he will not feel justified in claiming vengeance."
"That sounds strange," JD said with a cock of his head. "He's looking for a reason to come get Chris? Most guys just do it."
"He's a sick bastard," Chris muttered, "he don't need to make sense. He picked a fight with Wellman, then killed Joseph in revenge."
Joseph Wellman? Ezra felt the room spin around him. It couldn't be the same... "Was Joseph his son?" he forced his constricted throat to ask.
Chris nodded solemnly. "Wasn't much older than JD...butchered that poor kid...a kid who did nothing to him." The gunman's face contorted into a mask of hate. He'd never forget the almost unrecognizable body of Joseph Wellman, beaten and slashed to death. His father was a friend from Indiana, visiting Chris and his wife Sarah.
A high stakes card game was taking place in Eagle Bend, drawing all sorts of undesirables into the town. Cole Blackston was the worst. Caught cheating by Chris' friend, a nasty war of words broke out, forcing the tall con man from the area in disgrace. They thought the episode was over, until two days later Wellman's 19 year old son disappeared. After a week of agonizing searching, they found the battered and cut body of Joseph staked out as if attacked by Indians. But knowing the Indians in the area were not noted for that kind of brutality, Chris strongly suspected Blackston, yet could never prove it. He chased down Blackston and confronted him, but without proof, he couldn't do anything. The murder was never solved and Chris had hated Blackston ever since, wishing to see the killer hang.
He felt Vin's hand rest firmly on his left shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze. Chris found his enmity lessening for the moment. Going after Blackston wasn't worth the risk to his friends. He'd rein in his feelings for now.
Ezra struggled to maintain his composure as his mind reeled from the discovery. Chris knew the murdered boy? The arrival of Cole Blackston had indeed brought a black cloud to his life. He was finally beginning to feel a sense of belonging with these men, their trust slow in coming, but coming none the less. Now a sinister phantom from the past was poised to destroy all he had built up here.
"You all right?" Nathan asked the gambler, concern etched in his face. "Look 'bout ready ta fall over there."
"The manifestation of my former associate has caused me great distress," Ezra admitted. "Ah fear what he may have in store for our fair town, and our illustrious leader, but will do all in my power to find his motives and purposes."
"Just be careful, Ezra," Vin said, voicing the worry the rest were feeling.
Throwing the sharpshooter a look of gratitude, Ezra nodded. "From now on until Blackston departs...Ah do not know you...you do not know me."
+ + + + + + +
Having chased everyone away except Vin, Chris fidgeted in the jail's desk chair, his eyes constantly watching the walkways for any sign of Blackston. Getting careless could cause another situation like Joseph Wellman. The black clad gunfighter frowned. He had no family left to threaten. He sat up straighter, is eyes drilling the young sharpshooter across from him.
Vin felt the mental daggers as he dared look in the direction he knew they were coming from. "What?" he feigned curiosity. The little talk Chris promised in the saloon was about to happen.
"What all did you say to him?" Chris demanded.
"Enough," Vin replied, pulling out his weathered harmonica.
"No you don't," Chris threatened. "You ain't getting out of answering my questions and I ain't about to be tortured by your playing."
Blowing out a slow note, Vin paused. "I just let him know I was watchin' yer back, that's all."
"Dammit," Chris groused, running a hand through his blonde hair. "I don't need you drug into the fight."
The sharpshooter looked at his best friend steadily. "Ya reckon he'll wanna start somethin' with me?"
His fist slamming on the desk, Chris nodded, his eyes blazing. "Yes! You damn well about twisted his arm to make you a mark! Smarting off to him was stupid!"
"I was only lookin' out fer an ungrateful cuss who I thought was 'bout ready ta beat the guy's head in!" Vin replied testily. "And from what Ez said, good thing I was."
The gunman's brow furrowed at the mention of the gambler. It still bothered him that Ezra was considered a friend by Blackston. The con man must've had a very sordid past to have been linked with that heartless bastard. And didn't Ezra run out on them once? Chris stopped himself. It was once...the first time the men fought together. Since then, the gambler, though sometimes begrudgingly, has always been there for them. Was his hate for Blackston clouding his judgement? Despite his more selfish traits, Ezra was a part of them....the Magnificent Seven. Setting his gaze back to the street, Chris continued his vigil. He wasn't going to let Blackston get the better of him again.
+ + + + + + +
Sneaking back into his room, Ezra slumped onto his bed, the beads of perspiration dripping down the sides of his face. Joseph Wellman...Chris knew him.... It took everything he had not to show his shock in front of his friends. If Larabee knew his involvement....
He didn't want anything to happen to the boy, and he implored Blackston time and again not to wield his vengeance towards the son. One day to his horror he found the requests had fallen on deaf ears; Joseph Wellman had been murdered. But would all that matter to Chris? Could he even begin to explain his actions to his friends?
Ezra pulled out his linen handkerchief, wiping at the sweat pouring more profusely. He wasn't proud of what happened, but he did all he could to prevent it. Yet with the hatred he saw in Chris' face, could he get the gunfighter to understand? His heart sank. No, he didn't think so.
A sudden tap at the door made Ezra jump. Who? His curiosity turned to dread when he heard Blackston's voice on the other side. Fear gripped at his insides. Had the tall man seen him with the others? With a quick check of his derringer, he hesitantly opened the door. Either this was his last moment on earth, or a ripe opportunity to glean some knowledge.
Cole Blackston slithered through the slightly opened door, his eyes darting around the room conspiratorially. "I don't think anyone saw me come here," he smirked. "Ol' Larabee would probably run you out of town if he knew you were with me."
Ezra wanted to scream, 'was with you,' but held his tongue. "Wouldn't be the first time such an event has occurred," he replied without much emotion. "Is there some specific reason you have decided to call upon me? Ah was under the distinct impression there was to be no further contact. "
Blackston nodded, his dark eyes foreboding. "I want you to keep an eye on that tracker friend of Larabee's."
The gambler felt his body go numb. "What? Why are you interested in that dust covered individual? Ah thought it was Larabee you wanted to vex."
"Oh, I'll get to Larabee all right..., but his little buddy threatened me in the saloon, and I don't want to have to worry about him too." A sly smile embraced Blackston's mouth. "If he tries to cause me any trouble, you take care of him."
An incredulous chuff of air left Ezra's throat. "Me? How do you envision me seizing someone like him?"
Rolling his eyes, Blackston threw his hand up in agitation. "I don't want you seizing him. Just put a bullet between those big blues of his. But only if he interferes."
"Shoot him?" Ezra's felt the two words ring hollowly through the room.
"Only if he bothers me," Blackston reiterated. "Larabee's my main target." He paused, his mind working over a new idea. "Y'know, maybe you should shoot him. That'll get Larabee stirred up."
"Yes it would," Ezra concurred, his brain reeling from the plan. He had to come up with some determent. "But Ah fear it would rile Mr. Larabee up to a level where it would become unfavorable for your goals. He would battle the Devil himself if anything befell his young friend."
Blackston rubbed a finger over his pencil thin mustache. "You're right. I want an angry Chris Larabee, not a blood thirsty one." He laughed, slapping Ezra on the back. "Besides, I can use their friendship to my advantage. I knew it was a good idea to come up here."
Ezra felt sick. He had just given Blackston a plan! Falling down into a chair, he tried to quell his stomach as it lurched in disgust. Time was of the essence. He had to warn either Chris or Vin of the impending trap. With his mind churning in intense deliberation, the gambler was caught unawares by Blackston's hand pulling on his arm.
"C'mon," Blackston ordered. "Get out your deck of cards. I feel like catching up on old times." He gave a wink. "It'll also help my creative juices get flowing, not to mention drive Larabee crazy wondering where I am."
Reluctantly Ezra pulled out his deck of playing cards from his silk vest. How was he going to warn his two friends now?
The sun began to set below the horizon, painting the sky a brilliant hue of pinks, reds, and purples. Vin sighed quietly. He loved watching sunsets. It promised the coming of a new day, putting the old one behind. Tomorrow he hoped promised the departure of Cole Blackston. The blue eyes turned to his friend. But would Blackston cause trouble before he left? What if he refused to leave?
"Forget it," Chris growled from his perch near the jailhouse window.
"What ya talkin' 'bout?"
"I'm talking about whatever little plan you got hatching inside your head," Larabee answered.
Looping his thumbs under his gunbelt, Vin shrugged. "Wonder how a man forgits a plan that ain't even there?"
Chris scowled. "It'll be there soon enough."
This caused the younger man to chuckle softly. "I reckon I can ponder on it."
"I wouldn't bother."
Vin shook his golden-brown mane. "Got myself a real lively evenin' with ya, huh Larabee? Hell, might as well go ta sleep."
"Might as well," Chris said with a nod. He watched the sharpshooter settle into the chair opposite him, his lean legs kicking up to rest upon the desk.
"Wake me up in a few hours," Vin said as he placed his slouch hat down over his eyes, "can't let ya have all the fun."
The gunfighter grunted his reply, setting his gaze back out into the street, which was now being lit by the several small stacks of wood situated down the road. Gas lit street lights was a luxury this small town couldn't afford. Was Blackston still in the saloon? Maybe he got a room there for the night. He remembered the tall man being one who liked to burn the midnight oil. The frown deepened on Chris' face. As much as he wanted to check himself, he couldn't risk it. Vin was a light sleeper and if he tried to sneak out, he'd know it, following along. Chris definitely didn't want Blackston and the tracker laying eyes on each other again. A shudder of anger ran through the black wearing gunman when Joseph Wellman's battered body came flooding back into his memory. But could he allow the boy's killer to walk out of town? A quick glance in Vin's direction answered his question. Yes...he had to, or history may repeat itself.
+ + + + + + +
Evening had finally descended upon Four Corners, much to Ezra's relief. Hopefully only a few more hours of Blackston's company. The vengeful con man obviously had a long journey from the looks of him, and would retire earlier than usual. At least any normal man would. Ezra shivered mentally. This was no ordinary man.
To describe the man before him as cold was an understatement. The sheer depths of Blackston's meanness was frightening. Joseph Wellman found out. An innocent boy who's only crime was to be the son of a man who humiliated Blackston in front of others.
"What's wrong with you?" Blackston's voice invaded Ezra's thoughts.
"This whole affair with Chris Larabee," Ezra blurted out. Blackston hadn't discussed any further his plans about the gunman, and that alone was maddening. Several hours wasted, having to listen to Blackston's bragging. He needed more detail. Why was he going after Larabee now? His interest in Vin was another unsettling twist. The gambler knew that whatever scheme was working in Blackston's mind, Tanner was the catalyst.
"Why are you all bothered about it?" Blackston asked with a curious raise of his brow. "It's my business."
Ezra gave an exasperated sigh. "Ah would like to know beforehand what Ah'm getting involved in. Ah don't want to be mislead like...." The gambler immediately stopped, mentally berating himself for letting his emotions slip.
"Like that Wellman kid?" The tall con artist finished. "Do you think I mislead you?"
"You most certainly did," Ezra replied, trying to keep his voice calm. "When Ah was told to trick the lad into convincing his father to invest in that phoney land deed, Ah had no idea it would lead to what transpired later."
A wicked smile came over Blackston's face, causing Ezra's stomach to churn. "That bit of inspiration just came to me. Why only take the bastard's money when I could take something worth much more."
"You didn't have to take the boy's life," Ezra couldn't help but say.
Fixing the handsome gambler with a searching glare, the rangy man lit up a cigar, the smoke quickly filling the small room. "No...no I didn't, but things happened. Guilt's still eating at you I take it? After all, you only brought the boy to me, to leave in my tender graces." Blackston laughed at Ezra's grimace.
Swallowing the bile of hatred leaping into his throat, Ezra decided to fish for more information. He had to change the subject before his animosity overcame his senses. "Is that why you came to Four Corners? To confront Larabee? Ah remember him being a friend of Wellman."
"Actually, I only heard of Larabee being here a day ago. Of course it changed my travel plans some. Haven't seen him in years." Blackston paused and inhaled his cigar. "I guess my curiosity got the better of me."
"Are you attempting to suggest that you came to this insignificant town out of curiosity? Not to consider revenge?" Ezra was unconvinced.
"If Larabee would've been nicer...maybe I wouldn't be so upset," Blackston shrugged. "I did nothing to draw such an hostile response." The tall man rose, stretching with a loud yawn. "I think my travels are catching up to me. I best get some sleep. Maybe see you tomorrow, Standish."
Wanting to leap for joy at Blackston's departure, Ezra kept himself seated, nodding his head in parting. He'd wait an hour or so before sneaking out to warn Chris. He may not have gotten specific details, but he knew enough to stop whatever Blackston had planned.
+ + + + + + +
Vin bolted upright, his mare's leg un-holstered and ready when he heard the back door to the jail creak open. Chris reacted as well, his pearl handled colt aimed at the intruder. Both men exchanged a glance of relief when Ezra's figure came into view.
"Did you find out anything?" Chris asked before the gambler cleared the cell area.
"He's up to something," Ezra answered. He looked in Vin's direction. "And Ah'm afraid he'll use Mr. Tanner to achieve his goals."
"I knew it," Chris growled, giving the sharpshooter a harsh glare. Turning his attention back on Ezra, the gunman frowned. "How?"
Ezra noted the worry in Chris' eyes, wishing he had found out more. "At first he wanted my assistance in keeping Mr. Tanner in check, but then he decided to use your friendship instead. He did not elaborate further."
Chris raked his hand through his blonde hair in frustration. "Damn. We're going to have to figure out something."
Sitting up straighter, Vin re-holstered his weapon. "I reckon if'n I ain't here, the bastard can't use me."
"You ain't riding off somewhere alone, Vin," Chris inserted, "it's too dangerous."
A...And if Chris ain't here," Vin continued, "Blackston can't start nothin' neither."
"Now listen...," Chris began.
"Ah think it's a brilliant plan, Mr. Tanner," Ezra smiled, sharing a knowing glance with the tracker.
"I ain't leaving!" Chris said forcefully.
"Thought I wasn't leavin' yer sight?" Vin asked innocently.
"You won't...you ain't leaving," Chris answered irritably.
"I ain't gonna wait around and let someone like that piece of dirt call the shots," Vin said calmly. "I'm goin' scoutin' come dawn with or without ya."
Giving the sharpshooter a look that would make most men tremble, Chris stayed silent. Tanner knew damn well what his decision would be...he'd follow.
Vin gave the gunman a smug smile. "Look at it this way, Larabee...it'll be catchin' him off guard. He's probably expectin' ya ta be in his face come mornin'."
"Where's he at now, Ezra?" Chris asked, not wanting to acknowledge Vin's point.
"He retired to his room early."
"He has traveled extensively, and Ah feel this little unplanned excursion has stretched him even further."
Chris gave the gambler a surprised glance. "Unplanned?"
"According to Mr. Blackston, he only discovered about your residency here yesterday. Ah imagine that's what drove him into our fair community."
"Could be stringing you along too," Chris mumbled.
"True," Ezra conceded, "which makes Mr. Tanner's plan more appealing. If you are not here to vex, he will have no excuses."
"I want to make sure that bastard leaves," Chris said, unwilling to give into his friend's wishes.
"We can see a proper escort is found," Ezra smiled. "Ah know of four able and willing gentlemen who come highly recommended."
"I ain't drawing no one else into my business," Chris persisted.
"Ya best be goin', Ezra," Vin said with a wink only the gambler could see. The wiry tracker had all evening to convince Chris to see things his way.
"Gentlemen," Ezra parted with a tug on his hat's brim. At least his friends had been warned. Now all he had to worry about was Blackston's departure.
+ + + + + + +
Blackston greeted the new dawn with a smile across his thin lips. He had slept well, his plan to get Larabee to erupt all mapped out. Having heard the gunfighter's name mentioned the other day brought back an unpleasant memory...something that needed to be rectified. No one called him a murdering coward. Blackston chuckled. At least not without proof.
All he needed was a staged run-in with the tracker and things would be set into motion. Wound tight as he was, Larabee would snap at the slightest sign of physical contact with his friend. A hard shove, followed by the tracker's falling to the ground would provide the groundwork. Of course he would be there to help the young man up, a physical move that would send Larabee into action. It was almost too simple. Packing up the remainder of his belongings, the tall gambler headed out into the brisk morning air, the figure of Ezra Standish following in secret.
+ + + + + + +
Leaning against the livery's doors, Josiah stood to attention when he saw Blackston depart. He nodded his greying head in the direction of JD and Buck, who were waiting across the street. Buck waved an arm, alerting Nathan to their prey's emergence from the saloon.
In sync with each other, the four men enclosed the circle around Blackston, who was too busy scanning the streets for Larabee or his buckskin clad friend to notice. He stopped abruptly when he almost ran into the solid wall that was Josiah Sanchez.
"Hello," Josiah greeted without any warmth behind it.
Irritated, Blackston attempted to move to the side.
Josiah matched him in step. "I'm here to see you leave our town," he offered in explanation. "Mr. Larabee regrets missing your departure, but he has better things to attend to."
Blackston's brow knitted together in consternation. Larabee gone? Tugging on his jacket to retain his composure, He gave a tight smile. By now all the regulators were surrounding him. "Only four? Isn't someone other than Larabee missing?"
The preacher's eyes turned hard. "Don't you be worrying over that other one," he warned in a low voice. "I'll take it awful personal."
"Just curious," Blackston countered. "Do visitors normally get this sunny reception?"
"Only low life, thievin' and murderin' scum who like ta cause trouble," Buck inserted with a scowl.
With an oily smile, Blackston pushed himself past the men. "Then gentlemen, I suggest you may find him elsewhere. Ask that gambler who's been haunting your saloon...Ezra Standish, about a boy named Joseph Wellman. You'd be surprised how much he knows. Ask Larabee himself if he knows the name."
Furious, Buck grabbed a hold of Blackston's arm. "The way I hear, yer the one who knows the most."
Shrugging off the hand, Blackston gave the ladies' man a cool glance. "I've heard Standish was the one who got the boy's trust and willingly led him straight to the man who killed him." He paused and eyed each of the stunned lawmen. "Of course...you're better off asking him. I'm not much into second hand gossip."
Hidden in a concealed spot near the livery, Ezra blinked back the moisture in his eyes. Damn that Blackston! Why did that man thrive on ruining his life? His friends wouldn't understand his involvement with Wellman, especially Chris. Even if he survived the beating the gunman was sure to bestow, he could never regain their friendship. Taking a long swig from his flask of scotch, the gambler quietly crept away,
knowing he could no longer stay.
Unable to speak, the four men watched as Blackston entered inside the livery, minutes later leaving town on his horse. The tall man might've left without getting Chris riled up enough to attack, but he left behind information that could get Ezra into hot water.
"I know Ezra ain't no saint," JD muttered in disbelief, "but he wouldn't lure that Wellman into a trap. Chris said he was butchered. Ezra wouldn't let that happen."
"Oh, there's more to it than what Blackston's sayin'," Nathan agreed.
"We'll keep it to ourselves," Josiah suggested. "First we find Ezra and find out from him before uttering a word to Chris."
"Yep," Buck agreed. "Chris wouldn't see reason if it smacked 'im in the face concernin' this. It tore Chris up somethin' awful when his friend found the boy's body."
The four regulators concurred to keep the information to themselves. With Blackston gone, they split up in search of Ezra. What that con artist had said couldn't be true.
+ + + + + + +
Miles outside of town, Ezra glanced back in the direction of Four Corners, giving a two finger salute to the friends he was leaving behind. Chris had warned him once before never to run out on him, but the gambler knew Chris wouldn't want him around once he found out his involvement in Joseph Wellman's horrible murder.
His chest felt tight as he fought the emotions welling inside. He was a fool to think he could actually stay in the midst of these men. Men who were honorable and true to their convictions. All he ever worried about was staying ahead of the game...and the law. A valuable life lesson his mother taught him. Nothing ever mattered except the well being of Ezra P. Standish. That was until this town.
Urging his horse forward, the gambler dwelt on the bitter memories Cole Blackston forced on him. Blinded by greed and self preservation, he had inadvertently placed a curse upon himself. All it was was a simple scam. Trick the elder Wellman into a failed business deal using his son. Ezra was to lay the ground work with the kid, and Blackston would provide the false papers. When it was too late, Wellman would find out the business had sucked him dry. Only Blackston changed the scheme, kidnaping the son and killing him to exact revenge.
The gambler shuddered. When he had accidentally come across the recently deceased Joseph Wellman, he couldn't believe his eyes. Blackston was standing over the body, a bloody fire poker hanging limply from his hand. The tall con artist was breathing hard from his exertion, but a pleased smile graced his lips. The smile faded into fury when Blackston caught the movement of one trying to leave.
Raising a hand to his throat, Ezra remembered the rest as if he was reliving it at that very moment. It was a scene he'd never forget...With lightning quick speed, Blackston was upon him, a bloody hand grasped around his throat, sending his back crashing into the wall next to the door. The air exited the stunned gambler's lungs while Blackston's snarled features loomed over him, the poker still gripped tightly.
"What did you see?" Blackston asked in a threatening tone.
His body starving for air, Ezra managed a mere squeak. "Nothing." Suddenly his throat was released, the life giving oxygen he needed slowly finding his gasping mouth.
The hand released, followed by the most chilling words Ezra could imagine. "I know I can trust you to remain silent." Blackston raised the poker, smearing Joseph Wellman's blood on the gambler's face. "So then... I have your word?"
"You do," Ezra reluctantly agreed. He understood the message. Either keep quiet or die like the poor soul on the floor before him.
Ezra forced his mind to the present. All these years he had been running from Blackston, from the horrible memories, only to be found in the end. One thing he was sure of, he'd never allow himself the luxury of staying in one place too long again.
+ + + + + + +
Cole Blackston dismounted at a small hilltop that overlooked the area. In the distance he could see Four Corners, the anger simmering inside as he stared in the town's direction. Chris Larabee showed him up. Humiliated him. He was practically herded out of town by his four friends. And the audacity of Larabee leaving town, with the tracker to boot, made the anger come to a boil.
Had Standish warned Larabee? Blackston curled his hand into a tight fist. If that southern, weak-kneed.... He stopped. No, Ezra wouldn't betray his trust. Standish knew better than to go against him. Larabee might've figured out his plan. His young friend was suspicious. It made sense. Larabee would try and protect the tracker...from the likes of him.
Blackston chuckled to himself as he mounted. He'd tie up the rest of the loose ends later. Standish? Well, he had taken care of the southern gambler ever stepping foot in Four Corners again. He wouldn't do any talking. Larabee would kill him on sight.
Nudging his horse forward, Blackston grinned to himself. Yes...he would definitely tie up those loose ends.
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