Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Copyright @ Aug2002
The Conestoga wagon wheeled slowly into town its high, rounded, white canvas billowing sporadically with the light wind. The four horses downtrodden steps mimicking the sadden expressions of the riders. Two young men, no more than boys, sat solemnly in the driver's seat. They didn't even appear aware of the town rising up around them or the curious glances from several townsfolk.
JD Dunne glanced down the street and set down his dime-store novel as he watched the sturdy wagon slowly rumble toward him. It was not unusual for wagon trains to detour through town for supplies, but a single wagon, well a single wagon wouldn't have made it this far on its own. Maybe they got lost or broke down on the trail, JD thought, standing and adjusting his gun belt. The wagon pulled up in front of the jailhouse as Buck stepped out from the jail licking his fingers and trying to swallow the last bite of an apple fritter.
"Looks like we got visitors," Buck remarked around the apple fritter. He wiped a hand across his mouth, trying to remove the crumbs from his mustache.
A bearded, middle aged man, riding a bay horse swung around the wagon and pulled up in front of the JD and Buck. The rider stiffly dismounted and flipped the reins once around the rail before looking over at the two men standing on the boardwalk.
"What town is this?" The rider asked, removing his hat and slapping it against his leg, sending up a cloud of dust.
JD's dark eyebrows arched at the man's soft easterner accent. "Four Corners," he answered, stepping down off the boardwalk and pushing stray hairs back up under his hat.
The tired looking stranger gazed dispassionately at the young man, noticing the star. He ran a hand through salt and pepper hair. "You the sheriff?"
"Yup," JD replied.
The older gentleman stared off down the street at the church. He took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled allowing his shoulders to drop. I guess this is as good a place as any, he thought.
"Is there a preacher here?" the stranger asked.
JD glanced over at Buck before answering. "Yeah, his name's Josiah Sanchez."
"Good, I'll be needin' his services," the man simply explained his gaze shifting to the back of the wagon. "We need to bury someone."
JD's eyes widened. "Oh, I'm sorry."
The gentleman shook his head and forced a formal smile suddenly remembering his manners. "I'm sorry, the name's Lucas Clayton these here are my nephews Reuben and Peter."
The two young men nodded respectfully, but their cheerless demeanor remained. Buck and JD followed Lucas as he made his way to the back of the wagon. Lucas flipped the flap up to reveal a woman sitting dutifully beside a body that was covered with a blanket. The woman's eyes were red and glassy, and she never glanced at the three men who stood outside the wagon.
"This is my sister, Natalie," Lucas explained, his face saddened as he glanced at the shrouded form. "That was Jeb Downing, her husband."
JD bowed his head feeling that he was intruding on a tragic slice of a family's life. He understood the mind-numbing sorrow that filled a person with the death of a loved one. Death was a common occurrence on the frontier, but that didn't make it any easier to accept.
Buck noticed Judge Travis, Chris and Vin stepping out of the news office across the street. He waved to get their attention. He hoped there was nothing amiss about this death. People died for numerous reasons out here; Buck just thought it would be a good idea if Chris and the judge were informed.
"Ay Bucklin, what's going on?" Vin asked as he stepped up behind the tall cowboy.
"This here is Lucas Clayton and his sister," Buck introduced. "They need a preacher to bury this man," Buck explained as Chris and the judge stepped up behind the wagon and peered inside. Chris frowned at the sight of the distraught woman and body.
"I'm going to get Josiah," JD abruptly announced and headed toward the church. He detoured when he saw Nathan coming up the street.
Chris stepped back from the wagon to allow the judge a look inside.
"That was Jeb Downing, my sister's husband," Lucas explained. He paused when the dark healer appeared behind Chris. Lucas then took his first hard look at the men who surrounded him. He swallowed a nervous lump in his throat as he looked at the dark dressed man who held the hardness and wariness of a gunslinger. Lucas shifted his gazed to the older man who stood next to Larabee. This older and sharply dressed gentleman was definitely someone important. The long-haired man smiled. Lucas forced a nervous smile in return toward the buckskin-clad man. He felt as if he was looking at someone who wasn't entirely civilized--a wild thing. The tall mustached cowboy just appeared curious.
"So, what happened to him?" Chris asked. He didn't like dead people coming to his town.
"He kilt himself," Peter, the older of the two boys, answered from the front of the wagon.
Chris raised a sandy eyebrow; the young man's voice carried a strong note of disgust.
"Shut up, boy!" Lucas yelled, annoyance erasing the melancholy from his face.
"Well, he did," Reuben said, defending his older brother. His tone lacked the anger of his older brother but sadness still colored his words, and he hung his head to hide his tears.
"Yeah, well, Jeb just couldn't live with himself after losing everything he'd worked his whole life for," Lucas reluctantly admitted. "Hung himself yesterday when he made camp outside of Gypsum."
Lucas glanced at his sister who appeared oblivious to everything around her. Her eyes focused only on the form under the blanket. Lucas exhaled, releasing his frustration. It had been a long hard trip from their home. The prospect of a new and better life had turned into one endless nightmare. Lucas felt the darkly dressed gunslinger's gaze and looked up to see his suspicion. He didn't want any trouble; they just wanted to bury Jeb and be on their way. They had all had enough of the godless towns that dotted the wild frontier.
"Maybe you should start at the beginning," Chris stated, trying not to jump to any conclusions.
Lucas frowned, wondering why a gunslinger would be interested in his affairs. He was about too rebuff Chris's demand and just move on to the next town.
"We're the law here," Chris said in way of explanation as he motioned to the others. "This here is Judge Travis."
"If we can help in any way, Mr. Clayton," Travis said, adding a smile to his offer.
Lucas rubbed the back of his neck, taken aback that these hard looking men were in any way involved in law enforcement -- A rough and lawless land called for formidable men to tame it.
"We all understand 'bout hardship mister," Vin said, trying to put Lucas at ease. "It ain't easy out here."
Lucas sighed and leaned against the wagon drained of all anger and sadness. He just wanted to get this over with. His family's future was unknown and he was just going to take things one day at a time for now. He smiled, one that felt genuine. Maybe these men could help.
"Me and my family are from Pennsylvania. We were headin' to California."
"Alone?" Buck asked.
"We were with several other wagons, but..." Lucas paused and his smile fell. "They went on and we stayed in Gypsum." Lucas waved his hand as if this was inconsequential and continued, "Jeb and I worked in the coal mines since we were youngen's. It was hard and dirty work, but the pay was good. We finally saved enough to come west to live our dreams. Those dreams had kept us going, enabled us to walk every day down into a dark and cold mine wondering if we'd ever see the light of day again. A fellow returning east from California sold us his saloon in a small town north of Frisco. We had it checked out and it was legit, so a month ago we headed out with another wagon train going to California. We stopped in Gypsum two days ago for supplies." Lucas started pulling at several loose threads on the tarp. "Jeb and I got involved in a friendly game of cards. I still couldn't tell ya what happened, but I think we was cheated, although I can't prove it."
"He was the devil," Natalie suddenly said.
Lucas snorted, no we were just fools, he thought. "Well, the wagon train left without us because Jeb refused to leave the table. He was winning at the time. He kept saying we would get enough to make the saloon one of the best this side of the Mississippi."
Buck and Vin exchanged looks. They were all too familiar with families losing everything to some slick conman.
"I got caught up in it too I guess. Now I'm not a bad poker player but this gambler." Lucas shook his head in disbelief. "Maybe Natalie is right and he was the devil. He conned us good with his gentlemanly manner and slick talk. We played cards all night and by morning Jeb and I were cleaned out and watching him pocket our dreams."
"Why didn't you stop playing?" Nathan asked.
Lucas bowed his head. "I tried to get Jeb to stop, but it seemed like we were winning. God when I think how much we had at one time." Lucas bowed his head remembering the huge pile of money on the table. "It was more money than we'd ever seen. It was just suppose to be a friendly game. That gambler sweet talked us, tellin' us we wouldn't be riskin' anything, and could win enough to take care of our family through the winter and we believed him."
Lucas paused a moment. "We were fools and I know that, but Jeb couldn't live with that. That fancy talkin' gambler laughed as he left the saloon, he just laughed."
Travis's eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't mind describin' this here fella, woulda ya?"
"I'll never forget him," Lucas said. "He was a fancy dresser, all bright colors and such. Educated. I didn't know what he was sayin' half the time.
Chris's eyes narrowed and something hard formed in the pit of his stomach. "Is there anything else?" Chris tentatively asked. "Did he give you a name?"
Josiah and JD stepped up behind Chris as Lucas replied, "Yeah, he was a southerner and called himself Ezra Simpson."
Buck swore under his breath and JD's eyes went wide. Nathan just shook his head. He always knew that Ezra was capable of this, but he thought the conman had changed. He hated being proved right this time.
"Let's get Mr. Downing takin' care of shall we," Josiah said, breaking the sudden silence and trying to hide the astonished expressions that showed on all the lawmen's faces.
Lucas stared at the giant preacher no longer surprised by the extraordinary individuals that made up this town. Lucas climbed inside the wagon and placed an arm across his sister's shoulders. "C'mon on now Nat, we have to go. These nice people will take care of Jeb."
Natalie turned her head and looked at the gunslingers who stood outside the wagon then gazed back down at her husband, a man she had loved all her life. "They'll take care him?" She softly asked.
She returned her sadden gaze toward the lawmen. "It wasn't his fault. He was trying to give us a better life. Everything had been so hard for so long. He was a good man." She felt as if she had to explain, make these people realize that her husband was a good man.
"I'm sure he was, ma'am," Josiah answered reaching out to take Natalie's hand and help her off the wagon. Natalie looked up into his gentle gray-blue eyes and smiled.
Reuben's jaw clenched at his mother's rationalization. He had loved his father and couldn't come to terms with how foolish he had been.
"Peter, Reuben, take the wagon to the other end of town and tend to the horses," Lucas ordered as he jumped off the wagon and returned to his sister's side.
Josiah and Nathan climbed into the wagon. Nathan pulled the blanket down to reveal Jeb's face, cast forever in a mask of resignation and regret. He had failed his family, taken a chance and lost it all. Nathan couldn't help but feel a small amount of anger toward the man. In death, Jeb Downing could never redeem himself. Nathan took note of the deeply red and bruised neck, looked over his shoulder, and nodded toward Chris, affirming Lucas's story. Carefully they removed Jeb's body from the back of the wagon.
Travis stood silently, his back to Chris, watching as Josiah and Nathan carried Jeb toward the undertaker. Lucas held onto his sister's arm as they trailed the two men. Travis turned around and locked eyes with the blond gunslinger.
"When is Mr. Standish due back?" Travis asked, his voice tinged with restrained anger.
"Day after tomorrow," Buck answered.
Travis turned on his heel and strode down the street the end of his cane stamping hard into the ground after each long stride.
The town continued around the stunned lawmen and for a moment it was like they were locked in limbo. Ezra had taken a leave of absence a couple days ago, planning on going to Gypsum. Chris had allowed it because the conman had pulled double duty all last week while Buck, Vin and JD were escorting a prisoner to Tucson.
Chris's jaw clenched. Had the conman been playing them all this time? They had been lawmen for the past six months. They all thought that the slick cardsharp had changed. He still liked to gamble, but his thirst for monetary gain seemed to have taken second place to his friendship with the six lawmen. Chris didn't like being made a fool of, and it looked like Ezra Standish had pulled the wool over all their eyes.
"What the hell is Ez doing?" Buck exclaimed, recovering first from his shock. He couldn't believe that Ezra would do such a thing. He thought he knew the cardsharp better.
"I don't know, but he better have a good explanation," Chris said.
JD stared up at his friends. "You all don't think Ez...There must be a good reason," JD tried to defend. They all knew that Ezra used the alias Simpson in his past. They weren't even sure Standish was his real name. Maybe they had been kidding themselves that they knew the suave southerner at all.
JD looked toward Buck for assurance.
"I don't know, kid, maybe that saloon was just too much for Ez to pass up on," Buck said.
Chris glared at Buck and JD then turned on his heel and headed for the saloon. He had given the cardsharp a second chance. Had Standish thrown that chance into his face?
Vin had remained silent. Had he been duped? He was the first to see something other than a selfish and conceited gambler. Ezra had a fragile heart. The man loved children and animals, but Vin had met men before who could pat a child on the head as he slit their father's throat. Vin whirled around and headed toward his wagon.
The next morning was promising another hot day as the six lawmen and several of the town's folk attended the funeral for Jeb Downing. Josiah had spent time with Lucas and his sister, learning everything he could about the man he was to preside over. His discovery didn't help ease his growing irritation and disappointment. Jeb Downing had been a hard-working, dedicated family man -- maybe too dedicated. He felt he had failed his family when he lost all they owned. He couldn't bear returning to Pennsylvania in disgrace. Josiah could understand his shame, but not the taking of his life. The man was a coward to leave his family alone, although Lucas was doing an admirable job of stepping in as head of the family.
Josiah ended the service with a prayer and a moment of silence. The crowd began to disperse, some paying their respects to the widow. Natalie stood motionless in front of the grave as several town's women came up alongside her.
"We're all very sorry for your loss," Mrs. Potter said. "I lost my husband not so long ago."
Natalie forced a tight smile. "Thank you, everyone has been so kind. If my husband had only met you all, his faith would have been restored."
"Maybe you could stay here. This is a good town," Mary Travis added.
Natalie glanced over at her brother who stood on the other side of the grave. "I don't know what we're going to do."
"Well, just know that you all are more than welcome here," Mrs. Potter said before turning and walking back toward town.
Chris watched as Mary and Mrs. Potter tried to console Mrs. Downing. Both women knew the pang of loss, and he hoped they could help the recent widow through a difficult time. Chris was wondering how he and the others were going to get through a difficult time when a certain southerner returned. His reverie was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder.
"Mr. Larabee," Lucas voiced. "I'd be beholden to ya if'n you'd watch over my sister and her sons. I have some business to attend to in Cedar Ridge. I should be gone only a couple days."
Chris bowed his head. He still couldn't believe all the heartache that Ezra had caused. Did the cardsharp feel any remorse at destroying a family? Chris raised blue eyes to lock with Lucas's pleading expression. "Not a problem, Mr. Clayton."
"Yeah, we'll watch over them," Buck added, suddenly appearing at Chris's side.
"I want to tell everyone how much we appreciate your kindness."
Chris smiled tightly wondering how appreciative Mr. Clayton would be if he knew that the man who had devastated his family was a lawman. Clayton nodded and walked back toward his sister.
"Don't you think Lucas has a right to know about Ezra?" Buck asked.
"Yes, but I want to deal with him first," Chris growled, whirled and walked away.
Reuben and Peter had moved off by themselves after the service, watching as strangers gathered around their mother and Uncle. They watched as several men began to fill in the grave. Tears streaked Reuben's face, but Peter's eyes remained hard and dry. He was angry, this was something that should not have happened. How could his father had done this to them? Peter wanted to keep the anger burning, it was better than the sorrow that would eat away at his heart. He focused all his anger on who he believed was responsible -- the gambler.
"So, what do you think is going to happen now?" Reuben asked as he wiped his eyes with his sleeve and sniffed.
Peter slouched heavily against the giant tree that grew stately just outside the fenced in cemetery.
"Uncle Lucas is going to try to get some money so we can continue to California," Peter dryly replied. "But I don't know what we'll do when we get there. We'll have to take odd jobs and who knows where we'll live." His earlier excitement at heading for a new land with new possibilities was ground into the dirt that was slowly filling his father's grave.
"Still can't believe that pa would do such a thing," Reuben remarked. "I mean why would he leave us like this."
Peter looked sharply at his brother. "He was forced into it by a greedy low-life snake. It weren't his fault." Peter turned away as his eyes watered, surprised at his sudden rush of sorrow. He refused to show any weakness, not now, not when his mother needed him strong. The two young men turned away as two women walked past. They didn't want anyone telling them how sorry they were. Peter hated being pitied.
Mrs. Feldman and her younger sister, Alicia, stopped under the shade of the large elm tree.
"That poor thing," Mrs. Feldman remarked as she glanced over at Natalie. "I know what she's going through."
Alicia looked knowingly at her sister who had lost her husband last year. "But for Mr. Downing to kill himself, leaving that poor woman and her boys alone in the world." Alicia intoned.
Reuben and Peter cringed at Alicia's obvious disgust. They knew people thought their father was a coward. How could a man who worked almost twenty years in a mine be considered a coward? Peter knew men who would never step foot in a mine.
"Yes, but the worst of it is that our own Mr. Standish is responsible, and I thought he was such a gentleman. How could he have taken advantage of that family like that?" Mrs. Feldman said.
"I still can't believe Mr. Standish would do such a thing," Alicia admitted. "Mr. Larabee isn't at all happy."
"I guess the temptation of that saloon was just too much," Mrs. Feldman replied.
"What do you think will happen?"
"Mr. Larabee is going to deal with him, of that you can be sure and I wouldn't be surprised if this town is short by one lawman when he's through."
"If he even comes back," Alicia said.
"C'mon, we need to help with the food before everyone returns to town." The two women stepped out from under the shade of the tree and headed down the dusty path toward town.
Reuben and Peter stepped out from behind the tree. Their melancholy expressions replaced by flat, hard looks.
Chris wiped his thumb down the side of his glass as he stared intently at the dark liquor. Any patron entering the barroom immediately reconsidered and left. The tension within was like lightning sparking in a summer storm and no one wanted to get struck. The four other lawmen in the room kept a low profile. They knew it was only a matter of time before the storm that was Larabee let loose. Lucas had left for Cedar Ridge and the citizens of Four Corners had taken it upon themselves to care for the Downing family. Josiah and Vin had repaired one of their wagon wheels, and several of the townspeople had given the family some much needed supplies.
Many of the townsfolk had voiced their outrage at Standish's behavior, some even adding an I-told-you-so. Larabee's leadership was questioned several times, of course not to his face, but he had heard the allegations. Why hadn't he known what Standish was doing? How could he have allowed a lawman, one of his own, to do such a thing?
Chris grasped the glass and tossed back the fiery liquor. He looked up into the mirror that hung over the bar seeing the reflection of the four other lawmen. He realized that he didn't know much about any of them. Were one of them also not who they seemed? Doubts whirled about his head. He had been fooled once, couldn't he be fooled again? That's what happened when you let emotions intertwine with common sense, when you let people have a piece of your heart. Chris slammed the glass hard upon the bar.
"Damn!" Chris murmured out loud. This was all Standish's fault. He now doubted everything, including himself.
Ezra looked up at the church roof as he rode into town. He could hear Josiah's incessant hammering a mile away. The preacher seemed intent on putting a hole through the roof of the church. Ezra continued down the street wondering what demons were tormenting his friend today. He made a note to talk with the preacher later on. The town was quiet, the mid-day heat persuading the populace into keeping cooler confines.
It actually felt good returning to town -- he looked forward to it, something that had never happened before. Many times he had left towns never to return. His memory of them faded within the multitude of places that filled his nomadic life. He knew it wasn't so much the town itself, but the people, especially six unique and stalwart individuals who allowed him to be a part of them. His mother still believed his law enforcement duties were a sham, part of a devious con he was unwilling to relate to her. His horse pranced a few steps. "I know you're happy to be home, too," Ezra said, patting the high-spirited animal on the neck.
"Ah, Mr. Standish, what a surprise," Griffin greeted as he stepped out of the stable.
Ezra smoothly dismounted and grabbed his saddlebags.
"Did ya have a good trip?" Griffin slyly asked.
Something in the man's tone gave Ezra pause. Ezra's eyes widened when the gruff man actually winked at him. Griffin was the temporary caretaker when Yosemite was away. The man was an offensive lout who barely spoke a civil tongue to anyone and when he opted to speak, carried a vocabulary that could never be construed as any known language. Today the man was talking to him like some long lost relative.
"It was profitable," Ezra warily replied not understanding the sudden camaraderie. Griffen despised him and the feeling was mutual.
"I bet it was," Griffen guffawed, lightly elbowing Ezra in the ribs. "Here, I'll take care of your horse. Always knew you hadn't changed."
Ezra's mouth opened, but before he could say a word Griffen led his horse into the stable. Ezra stared and closed his mouth, throwing his saddle bags over his shoulder. The groomsman must be hitting the sauce earlier than usual.
Ezra started across the street, swiping at the dust that covered his jacket. He looked up and tipped his hat as Mr. and Mrs. Patterson crossed his path. "Good afternoon."
The couple turned their heads sharply away and Mr. Patterson, taking his wife's arm, hurried away. Ezra could have sworn he heard Mr. Patterson murmur a very unflattering remark. The couple was always very congenial even though they didn't approve of his profession.
Ezra stared in confusion at the snub. 'What is going on? Has everyone gone completely daft?' Ezra continued across the street.
Ezra entered the saloon, expecting to find the other lawmen. They usually hung out in the saloon at this time of day. He smiled when he spotted Buck, Nathan and JD playing a game of cards as Vin and Chris stood by the bar.
"Gentlemen, if you'll give me a few moments to clean up I'll join you..."
The three men dropped their cards on the table.
"Don't bother, we're finished," Buck snarled.
Ezra's smile dropped from his face hearing the hostility in Buck's voice. He suddenly found himself the source of all their angered gazes and the room had taken on a decidedly chilly atmosphere. What could he have done to elicit such animosity? Hell, he'd been gone for four days.
"Surprise to see you back," Nathan muttered.
Ezra frowned. 'Did they think he wouldn't return, that he'd run out on them?'
"And where else would I go?" Ezra carefully asked. He felt like someone who was holding a lighted match a little too close to a fuse, not wanting to get caught in the explosion.
"Oh, I don't know, California, maybe," Nathan glibly answered. He was surprised the cardsharp had the nerve to return. He had hoped that they'd never see this two-faced liar again. It would have made things easier, especially for Josiah who looked at Ezra like a son.
Ezra ran his hand over his head knocking his hat back. "Have I done something to offend you?" He was wondering if this was some sort of retribution for any earlier slights, but he was at a loss to think of anything he'd done recently to garner such obvious animosity. Ezra's mind was whirling. Maybe they had realized they no longer needed a conman.
"Cut the crap, Standish," Chris said, pushing away from the bar and stepping into the center of the room. "We know what you've been up to."
"Really?" Ezra stood his ground as Chris stepped toward him.
Damn, he was good, Vin thought as he eyed the seemingly perplexed conman. "How long you think you could keep on foolin' us?" Vin put in. He was hurt. He thought he knew the cardsharp, that they were friends. How could he have been so wrong?
Ezra looked around Larabee's towering form at the tracker. "Sir, I have no idea what you are talking about." Anger was starting to well up and Ezra fought to remain in control. He would not show these men the emotions raging inside.
"We thought you'd changed, that you were one of us," JD said in a very small voice that diminished some of Ezra's growing anger.
"You play it straight when you're with us, but as soon as you're out of eye sight you go back to your old ways, conning good people," Buck exclaimed.
Ezra's eyes darkened at the slight.
"Jeeze, Ez, we know!" Nathan blurted out as he jumped from his chair, his anger rising at the cardsharp's mock show of ignorance. Did Ezra really think they were that stupid? Nathan wanted nothing more than to wipe that mask of indifference right off of Ezra's face. Buck grabbed hold of Nathan's arm and forced the healer back into his seat. Chris had told them that there would be no violence on their part.
When Nathan sat down and regained some measure of control Buck looked over at Ezra who still stood in the center of the room with the same aggravating look of disregard. "Mr. Clayton and the Downings came through here the other day out of Gypsum," Buck explained. Chris continued to glare at the cardsharp. Ezra ignored the blond gunslinger's palpable intimidation.
Ezra cocked his head slightly to one side. He'd never made it to Gypsum. He had found sufficient and adequate card players in Pine Bluff and stayed there. "Are these names suppose to mean something to me?"
Buck and the others couldn't believe Ezra's impudence. He continued to treat them like simpletons. Didn't he know when the con was over?
"Damn, you don't even know the names of the people you cheated and ruined," Buck put in.
"Cheated them out of all their money and a saloon. Does that jar your memory?" Chris spat out.
"These people," Ezra paused a moment and ran a thumb over his bottom lip. "Said it was I who committed this offense?"
"Damn, straight they did," Nathan said. "Told us a fancy pants, smooth talkin' southerner going by the name Ezra Simpson cheated them out of everything they owned."
"A man kilt himself because of your greed," Chris growled.
Ezra stood silent trying to comprehend what was going on. He was being blatantly accused of this crime without any second thoughts. Ezra felt like he was suddenly falling into a dark hole. They all believed the worst.
Chris's eyes darkened and his hands opened and closed trying to siphon off his growing anger. He should never have given the cardsharp a second chance.
"Gentlemen, I can assure you..." Ezra began. He had to swallow the sudden fear that he wouldn't be believed.
Ezra's explanation was cut off as Judge Travis entered the saloon.
"Standish, your services are no longer required, collect your pay," Travis stated, glaring at the gambler. He had come to trust the brash southerner and now felt the fool like the others.
Larabee smiled unpleasantly at the cardsharp's attempt to hide his shock. He took another step toward Ezra and with a voice dripping with malice growled, "I want your money-grubbing ass out of town come morning."
Ezra's mask of indifference cracked, and he took a step back. He felt a strange hard squeezing under his breast bone, making it difficult to take a breath. He glanced around the room and met the others hot, accusatory gazes. He felt as if he'd been set adrift, and no one was going to throw him a life line; he was on his own.
Travis stood silently off to the side letting the other gunmen handle the slick southerner. He wished that he had sufficient evidence to arrest the cardsharp.
Ezra took a deep breath and adjusted the saddlebags on his shoulder. "I see. I shall be gone by morning, Gentlemen," Ezra replied succinctly as he tipped his hat, turned and headed out of the saloon.
"Damn," Buck muttered, crimping the cards he held in his hand.
Chris returned to the bar and grabbed the whiskey bottle, taking a long pull. He had grown to trust and even like the obstinate gambler, and Ezra just threw that trust in their faces.
"Maybe he'd planned on giving the money and deed back, but them folks left," JD suddenly blurted out. "You know, maybe that's it. He hadn't meant to." The young gunslinger shifted his eyes quickly over the four men then slumped back in his chair.
"JD, he's a conman, and he'll always be a conman," Nathan snapped.
"Guess some people just can't escape what they're born too," Vin said. Vin's brow furrowed. Ezra looked genuinely surprised at their accusation. Was he surprised at being caught? Or something else? The tracker glanced over at Chris who stared morosely at Ezra's table in the corner of the room. He suspected that table would soon be so much kindling when Chris or one of the others eventually let their anger loose.
Ezra stopped outside the saloon and grasped the railing with both hands, squeezing the rough wood trying to siphon off his indignation. 'What the hell had just happened?' His life had completely turned upside down in a matter of minutes. The others believed him guilty without a moment's hesitation. Was this just a ploy to make him leave? Ezra shook his head. His friends were not that devious and apparently they were no longer his friends.
Alright, there has to be a reasonable explanation; someone masquerading as him or just a case of mistaken identity. Ezra turned and looked back at the saloon, tempted to stride back inside and proclaim his innocence. This sudden attempt at virtue was quickly swallowed by his damnable pride. He turned his back on the saloon and on the men he had come to call friends. They probably wouldn't believe him anyway.
Well, if no one wanted him around, he certainly wouldn't stay. He no longer cared about the reason. These were supposed to be people he trusted and who were supposed to trust him. Yes, they'd only known each other a short while, but he had come to believe something was forming between all of them. Maybe this was fate's way of kickin' him in the ass and getting him moving again. It was unnatural for him to remain too long in one place. Ezra glanced over his shoulder at the saloon then stepped off the boardwalk.
Reuben and Peter watched from across the street as Ezra exited the saloon. "That's him, that's Standish," Peter said.
Reuben's dark eyes bored into the red-jacketed man. This was the man responsible for his father's death. "He sure fits Uncle Lucas's description. Are you sure?"
"Hell, the townspeople knew it was him right off," Peter replied. "Standish probably ain't even his real name, just another alias."
"Everything fits, the fancy clothes the southern accent and he's a conman. And I overheard that sheriff saying he was going up to Gypsum," Peter added. He stepped away from the building to watch the gambler walk across the street, heading toward the telegraph office.
"What we goin' to do?" Reuben asked.
"Is that all, Mr. Standish?" Mr. Quigley asked as he finished adding up the words on the telegram. The telegraph operator didn't hide his disgust at having to do business with the cardsharp. He always knew the man was no-good and a cheat. Quigley wondered if he could possibly get back the money he had lost to Standish at cards over the months. He would have to talk to the judge about that.
"Yes, and I need it sent as quickly as possible," Ezra explained.
"That'll be two dollars," Quigley said.
Ezra placed two coins on the counter. "If I'm not around when the reply comes in see that Mr. Larabee receives it," Ezra said as he tipped his hat and left the distressing atmosphere of the office.
Quigley slipped his pencil behind his ear and collected up the two coins, wondering if this was some of the Downing's money. His high forehead crinkled as he read over the puzzling telegram. Why was the gambler asking the sheriff of Gypsum about himself?
Ezra returned to his room using the back staircase. He had no wish to meet any of the other lawmen or anyone in this god-forsaken town for that matter. He still couldn't believe what happened. As he lay on his bed he thought about what the others had told him. The description was definitely incriminating, and he had used the alias of Ezra Simpson on many occasions. It still hurt at how readily the others believed he would do such a thing.
Ezra's eyes snapped open and he drew a deep breath as though surfacing from a pool of water. He blinked and stared up at the ceiling. Had it been a dream? He got up on his elbows and looked around the small room. He fell back on his bed as reality crashed down on him. No, it hadn't been a dream, and his time in Four Corners was finished. What did he expect? It was bound to happen sooner or later. He had come to believe that he had found a home here. He tried to push his emotions away, out to some distant boundary, but the hurt remained and clawed at his gut.
He never said he was a great man and sometimes he wasn't even a good one, but there was within him the capacity for decency. Wasn't that the lot of most people? Only the smallest portion were people of character; rather most people were good and bad mixed together. Was he so much different from most people? Ezra rubbed his eyes. He never belonged here. He would never live up to these people's high moral standards.
The sun was setting, spreading rays of red and gold across the sky. With twilight, the breeze shifted directions, and a coolness for the first time that day wafted through his room. Ezra climbed to his feet and decided to prepare his horse for tomorrow's departure. He looked around the square room that he had called home for the past six months. The shelves and books under the window and the neatly hung jackets in the closet were the only things belying the transient occupant. He wondered if any of the others could be persuaded to send his things, but then dismissed the idea. He could buy more.
The walk to the stable was one of the longest in his life. The town was quiet except for the music and laughter pouring out from the saloon, making his heart ache all the more. He could almost see Buck trying to persuade a young barmaid into an evening of romance and he could hear young Dunne trying to tell another one of his bad jokes. He would miss the taciturn tracker the most, Vin, who could look into his soul. Why hadn't Vin seen the truth?
Ezra stepped into the darkened livery hearing the snickers of several horses.
He heard a faint rustle and turned his head, glimpsing motion from the corner of his eye. The board slammed into the side of his head, knocking him onto the wooden floor. The impact hurt. His shoulder hit the ground first, jolting sharp pains up his neck, then his head thumped hard on the floor bringing bright dots of light flashing across his vision in sync.
Two pairs of hands grabbed him by the arms and hauled him to his feet. Ezra squinted trying to bring the men into focus and feeling the blood run down the side of his face. All he could see was a large dark shadow in front of him.
"We don't like thieves or cheats. It weren't right what you did to those folk," the shadowed voice said.
Ezra shook his head. "Didn't...it wasn't..." he tried to say but the words refused to form. A fist sunk deep into his stomach. Ezra doubled over only to be pulled back up by the hands holding him. He gasped and swallowed some of the blood flowing down his face. He heard the large shadow moving around in front of him.
"When I done wrong my pa took a switch too me. It appears your pa was a bit lacking on your upbringing. I think we need to change that."
Ezra struggled weakly in the two men's grasp as they quickly removed his weapons, jacket and shirt. Panic rose up into his throat, and he was pushed into a stall and draped over one of the low walls. A dirty rag was shoved into his mouth and he gagged on the stench. The rough hewed board of the stall rubbed under his arms.
The large dark form paced behind him, his boots scuffing along the hay-strewn ground, cracking a switch on the sides of the stall. Ezra flinched every time he felt the breath of the switch near his face.
"Need to teach you a lesson," one of the men who held him voiced. "Been wanting to do this for a long time."
A hand grabbed Ezra's hair and forced his head back. "Ain't so high an' mighty now that you're just a good fer nothing conman again, no one to help ya." The hand released his hair shoving his head forward. "Hell, Larabee and the others probably wished they could join in." The three men laughed as Ezra tried to shut out the insults.
The switch landed on his back with all the force his attacker could muster. A scream stuck in his throat and his eyes watered. Another strike across his shoulders caused his legs to buckle, but the two men continued to hold him up as the third began a violent barrage of strikes. He soon felt blood traveling down his back and his muscles trembled.
Ezra's legs gave way and this time he was aloud to crumble to the floor. He listened as the three men chuckled and left the stable. Ezra curled up on his side trying to steady his breathing and come to terms with the fierce pain emanating from his back.
He placed a foot on the next step and pushed himself up as he leaned against the wall. It was well past midnight. His body shook as he took another step.
He could just make out the door at the top of the stairs, just a few more steps. He leaned against the door frame as the world spun, and he had to close his eyes and take a deep breath. He slowly raised his hand and knocked, hoping the resident wouldn't slam the door back in his face.
"I'm coming...keep your shirt on," Nathan grumbled as he stumbled his way to his door trying to wipe the sleep from his eyes. 'Damn, if this is another drunk he would personally throw the person down the stairs.'
Nathan threw open the door and tried to focus on the hunched form in front of him. "Yeah, what'cha want? Do you know what time it is?"
Nathan swiftly put his shoulder under Ezra's arm as the conman fell through the door. Ezra's head lolled and he mumbled something but the healer couldn't make it out. Ezra went limp, nearly dragging them both to the floor. Nathan struggled to get the unconscious conman to the bed.
"Ah Ez, what'cha gonna done now?" Nathan quietly admonished as he moved with familiarity around the room. He lit the lamp that rested on the table next to the bed. Nathan gasped at the sight that the light unveiled. Ezra's face was covered in dirt and blood. His shirt was missing. Nathan gently turned the gambler onto his side and eased him out of his jacket he winced at the slash marks that criss-crossed Ezra's back.
"Damn." Nathan squeezed Ezra's shoulder, feeling the tremors that ravaged his body. He stood and grabbed the ewer that sat on his dresser. Nathan stopped at the door and looked back at the injured form on the bed, feeling the familiar concern he had developed for the enigmatic conman. Nathan sighed and slipped out the door to get some water.
Nathan sat quietly in his rocking chair gazing intently at Ezra's motionless form. A sense of loss filling him, wishing things were different. He had believed the educated southerner had changed, he hated that he was wrong. The conman still lay on his side a bandage wrapped around his head. A sheet covered him from the waist down leaving his back unfettered. Nathan had applied a healing salve that helped to deaden the pain of his brutalized back. He stitched up a couple of the lashes that had broken the skin. Nathan peered out the window to see a sliver of sun climbing above the horizon. He stretched tired muscles and stood, wanting to get something to eat and tell the others what had happened. Ezra had a bad concussion and was suffering from blood loss. He would probably sleep for awhile.
Ezra's eyes flashed opened when the door shut. For a moment he couldn't recall where he was. He tried to sit up but was immediately forced back by a sudden rush of nausea. His back felt like it had been torn apart by a catamount. Ezra eyed the glass of water on the table and reached a shaky hand out. He took a couple tentative sips and tried to replace the glass on the table only to have it fall to the floor and shatter.
Ezra searched the room, seeing the empty rocking chair. He was alone. It was the first time he had been alone after being injured, usually he would find Josiah sitting nearby with his bible or Vin's silent form sitting in the corner watching over him. This time no one was watching over him. He looked out the window to see the morning sun announcing his impending departure. Ezra closed his eyes for a moment. He always hated mornings, now more than ever, mornings would forever remind him of what he was about to lose.
"Damn, Nate, you look like death warmed over," Buck declared as he and the others entered the saloon seeing the tired healer slumped over a half-eaten plate of beans. Nathan's head rested on one hand as he stared absently down at his plate of food. He raised his eyes as Buck entered.
"Yeah, I' sorta had a busy night." Nate pushed his plate away and stretched his arms up, feeling the pop as tired muscles released.
"What happened?" Vin asked as he and Chris pulled up a chair and sat down.
Nathan sat back in his chair and ran a hand over the top of his hair. "Someone jumped Ez last night."
"What?" JD exclaimed stopping halfway to his seat.
"Worked him over pretty good. Looks like they took a switch to 'im," Nathan sadly explained. Nathan kept telling himself that the arrogant southerner deserved it, but his heart just wouldn't abide it.
"Damn," Buck intoned, lowering his head. They were all still angry at Ezra for what he had done, but none of them could erase the six months of friendship they all had shared.
"Ezra won't be in any shape to leave for awhile," Nathan said.
Chris looked over at the healer. He had hoped the gambler would be long gone by now.
"Why would someone do that?" JD asked.
"Apparently someone decided to take the law into their own hands," Josiah sadly remarked. He had been avoiding the cardsharp and now felt the pang of regret. He didn't know what to say to Ezra. He didn't feel as if he knew the man anymore, if he ever had.
"Is he going to be alright?" Vin asked, unable to hide the concern he felt.
"Yeah, he just needs to rest. He's got a concussion so I'm going to have to go and wake him soon."
"Maybe one of us should go and stay with him," JD said. He saw the looks of indecision pass between his friends. "Damnit, he's still our friend!"
"Is he?" Buck asked. "I don't think we know the real Ezra Standish or whoever he really is."
"He played us, JD. How can we ever trust him?" Chris said. "This doesn't change anything. As soon as he's able I want him gone."
JD bowed his head. He still had trouble believing that Ezra would do such a thing, but it was hard to dispute the evidence. He had talked to Lucas to make sure his description was accurate or that he wasn't just making it up, but he knew the man was honest and had no reason to lie.
Ezra sat up on the bed and slowly stood, taking a deep breath. He could feel the stitches on his back pull, but there wasn't much pain -- he would miss Jackson's vile and pain relieving concoctions. Ezra pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger and closed his eyes. His head throbbed and his vision had yet to improve. He still could only make out shadows, but at least the shadows were familiar. Ezra gazed over the vague and shimmering vials that covered Jackson's dresser and the medical books lined up on the shelf. He silently opened the door and listened for a moment to make sure no one was coming up the stairs. He then slipped out and made his way back to his room. He had a few things to collect.
Ezra made his way, unsteadily to the stable and entered after several cowboys rode off. His head pounded and it was still hard to see, but he could make out shapes well enough. Peso stuck his head over his stall and nickered. Ezra scratched the horse's nose. "Goin' to miss you, too. Behave for Mr. Tanner." Ezra moved on down the stalls until he reached the end.
His back screamed when he threw the saddle over his horse and he rested his head on the large animal's neck. 'Damn, he should have taken some of Nathan's medicine.' He needed to be gone. He couldn't stand the feeling of loss that welled up inside him, threatening to drown him. He needed to move on start over then everything would be fine, at least that was what he tried to tell himself. He had promised Chris and the others that he would be gone by morning. He wasn't in any condition to face Larabee's wrath for breaking his promise. He figured the blond gunslinger wouldn't hesitate this time to shoot him.
"Are you sure 'bout this Peter?" Reuben hesitantly asked.
"Look he's leaving," Peter explained to his younger brother. "This may be our only chance. He's responsible for our father's death." Peter needed to blame someone he couldn't live with the idea that his father killed himself. He watched as the fancy dressed gambler rode slowly out of town.
Reuben wasn't so sure. Sure, this man might have taken their livelihood, but was he responsible for their father's death? It wasn't like he put the rope around his father's neck.