Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
This was a hard story to write. It takes place three weeks after the boys meet. I had to forget all my previous stories and all the ones I've read to try and make their relationships new, which was tough to do since I'm so intimate with them now. I want to thank my betas and idea gurus, MaryA and NotTasha who really bring my stories to life.
JD Dunne stepped out of the jailhouse and into the early autumn dusk. Fingers of cool air ruffled his dark hair. He tugged on his black bowler and then rested his hands on his twin Colts. The young gunslinger surveyed the area searching for anything out of the ordinary. The saloon earned his attention first. He was relieved to hear only the familiar tuneless piano banging out some undecipherable song.
The town had been quiet for the past couple of days. Many farmers and ranchers were busy with their crops and herds and only came to town for supplies. It had been two weeks since Judge Travis had appointed him sheriff of Four Corners. He knew he was still proving to the townsfolk, and himself, that he was capable of maintaining the peace in the fast growing town. The people were willing to give him a chance, not so much because of his enthusiasm and honesty, but because he had six deputies who were more than capable of keeping order.
JD sauntered down the boardwalk, his stride buoyed by his responsibility and pride. He loved helping people it's what made life worth living, at least for him. Halfway through his circuit of the town he looked west toward the setting sun, its sphere tinged red as it kissed the desert horizon. He squinted and shaded his eyes as he watched three dark forms appear out of the desert landscape.
Three chestnut horses plodded down the street, their downtrodden gait was enough to tell the young sheriff that they had traveled far. The sun's glare obscured the riders and JD strained to make out their features; strangers were always a concern on the wild frontier. They were probably only drifters or cowhands, but one thing JD had learned over the past couple weeks was that if you wanted to live to a ripe old age, you never let your guard down. He turned and jogged back toward the jailhouse.
The three riders continued up the street, seemingly oblivious to the town and its inhabitants. JD could now make out the individual riders as they approached. The leader was a heavily jowled man, who sat ramrod straight in the saddle. Two considerably younger men trailed behind, not bothering to disguise their weariness as they sat slumped in their saddles.
JD watched as they stiffly dismounted. He tried to overcome his inexperienced manner in favor of a more professional attitude but wariness and curiosity churned within him and were all too prevalent on his boyish features. He glanced over toward the saloon hoping one of the others would appear. He relaxed when he noticed the symbols of law pinned to each of the riders' shirts.
"Where can I find the sheriff?" The older man asked looping his reins around the railing. The voice was hoarse and tired, but carried an air of authority that JD found hard to ignore.
JD stared at the older man, who was about Josiah's age. His eyes were deeply set and the pale gray color of woodsmoke. The tin star was the only thing that glistened on the dust-encrusted clothes.
"You're looking at 'im," JD replied, pushing aside his jacket to reveal the star pinned to his vest.
"You're the sheriff? You're just a kid," one of the younger men scoffed and adjusted his gun belt.
The older lawman grinned. To a man of his years most everyone seemed young. But now that he looked more carefully at the young man he felt his deputy's skepticism was justified. The boy barely looked old enough to shave let alone carry the weight of authority.
"I'm Sheriff Jim Kane and these are my deputies Mitch Peters and Tom Weller. We're from Fort Laramie." Kane removed his hat and ran thick fingers through his dirty gray hair. He failed to notice the quizzical expression on JD's face. Kane pulled a bandana out of his pocket and wiped his brow. "We're here to pick up the prisoner."
JD rubbed the side of his face and frowned. They didn't have any prisoners. He recalled that Fort Laramie wasn't actually a Fort or hadn't been for some time. After the war, a small city had built-up around the obsolete stronghold and had taken on the name of the Fort.
Kane rolled his eyes in exasperation at the young sheriff's confusion. Damn, he hated hick towns. It had been a long and dusty ride. He had pushed hard so that they could get back to Laramie by the end of the week. "Judge Travis sent me," he added in way of clarification.
"Who are you here to pick up?" JD asked.
"Ezra Simpson, also known as Ezra Standish," Kane explained.
JD's eyes went wide and he pushed his hat back on his head. "Ah, we don't have any prisoners."
"He escaped!" Kane retorted hotly shoving his bandana back into his pocket.
"Well, no sir, not exactly," JD stammered, shifting nervously.
Kane leaned over, his large hands grasping the hitching rail. "Son, we've traveled a long way, and I'm not in the mood for games. Now, either you have Mr. Standish or you don't."
JD exhaled. He could feel the man's growing irritation. "Maybe you better talk to Chris Larabee." JD stepped off the boardwalk and past the perturbed men.
Kane straightened and looked over his shoulder at his two deputies. With a nod he indicated that they would follow the young sheriff.
The saloon was catering to a small, but boisterous crowd. A heated game of poker, orchestrated by Ezra Standish, was the center of attention. The flamboyant cardshark was enjoying a prosperous evening.
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat at a corner table enjoying the sociable and peaceful atmosphere. Chris glanced over his shoulder and smiled when he saw Buck flirting with a barmaid. The past three weeks had been extremely eventful, as well as revealing, for the seven new lawmen. Chris found his thoughts revolving more and more around the six men he worked with. They were discovering that they all shared a common bond, something that tied them together heart and soul. His musings steered his gaze to Josiah Sanchez. The grizzled, former preacher sat at the next table sharing a drink with his friend and healer, Nathan Jackson. Josiah explained the strange bond as their destiny and was satisfied that it sufficiently explained everything, leaving the others even more perplexed.
Ezra Standish laid down his cards and flashed a smile wide enough to show his gold tooth. Chris and Vin shared a grin at the sound of defeat from three business men who saw fit to challenge the skilled gambler. Both lawmen also made sure grumbling was the only show of displeasure.
Larabee could not understand why sensible people continued to play the slick cardshark. As far as he could tell Ezra never cheated. He allowed the gambler to ply his trade as long as it didn't interfere with his peace-keeping duties, or until he caught him cheating. At least Ezra didn't hide his profession. The man dressed the part; from fancy tailored jackets and silk shirts, down to the calfskin boots: Ezra was proud of who he was.
Chris watched as two players left the gambling table, only to be replaced by two eager cowhands. Of all his men, Standish was the most complex. The southerner flaunted an air of arrogance and indifference, but his six comrades had caught glimpses of another man underneath; someone who secretly gave money to the orphanage or let a destitute farmer win to pay his mortgage. Ezra never took credit for any of his quiet good deeds. It was as if they were an embarrassment or a betrayal of his upbringing-After meeting Ezra's mother, Chris could understand why.
Chris tossed back the last of his beer and glanced over the empty glass at the tracker. He had known Vin Tanner for barely three weeks and already felt as close to him as a brother. He trusted Vin with his life from the day he had met him and Chris was convinced of the other men's loyalty, too; all except; Ezra.
It was true the southerner had proven himself reliable in a gunfight. In addition, his acute understanding and manipulation of the English language, at times perplexing to the point of maddening, had managed to defuse an impending saloon brawl and ended an attempted robbery peacefully. Chris liked to think that one day Ezra's skill would save one of their lives. But he still couldn't help but feel that this was just a transitory job to the conman and that when the time came he would move on without a second thought.
Larabee knew the others were forging strong friendships, but none of them could forget that Standish had left them high and dry at the Indian village, almost getting them killed. Ezra had come back and saved them, but his betrayal wounded them and it was a hard thing to let heal, especially, when Ezra picked at the scab with some self-seeking deed. That alone kept the wily cardshark on the outer fringes of their little family. Chris believed some of the exclusion was Ezra's doing. Taught to hide his feelings at a young age, Ezra never trusted anyone but himself. Chris hoped that maybe Josiah was starting to make a dent in the impenetrable shell that the conman had built around his emotions.
Gambler turned lawman. Chris chuckled as he rolled the empty glass between his hands. Guess it wasn't any stranger than a womanizer, a green-horn kid, a de-frocked preacher or an ex-slave.
"What'cha thinkin', cowboy?" The soft Texas drawl drew Chris's attention back to the man beside him. A man wanted for a murder he didn't commit. Yeah, life was full of ironies and contradictions. Lord, he was starting to sound like Josiah.
"Just wonderin' where we'll all be in a week."
Vin knew what Chris was thinking. He could even hear the slight melancholy in his new friend's voice. Would Ezra's leaving be the beginning of the end of the seven?
"The man is a puzzle," Vin quietly stated as his gaze stretched out over the fancy dressed southerner.
"Yeah, with some of the pieces missin'."
"Nah, he just uses that slight-of-hand of his to hide what he don't want us to see."
Vin felt that he and Ezra were developing a rapport. He sensed that Ezra had been hurt one too many times in his life. The suave southerner may come off as a carefree and unconcerned spirit, but deep inside was buried a fragile soul and heart that could easily be broken. It was something they all had in common, only Ezra guarded his more vigilantly, his distrust of others not easily overcome. Whenever any of them managed to knock out a piece from the cardshark's wall of indifference, something would happen and Ezra would quickly reinforce his barrier and retreat behind it once again. It was a survival instinct. If no one got inside, no one could hurt him.
Vin also worried about what would happen to their little band. Would they all eventually go their separate ways? He knew he would stay with Chris. Nathan and Josiah would probably stay in town or go to the Indian Village; Buck and JD would go off together. That brought him back to Ezra the odd man out.
JD's hurried entrance into the saloon was followed closely by three men. Vin tugged the brim of his slouch hat down when he caught sight of the badges on the stranger's vests. Any lawman outside of their little enclave was potentially dangerous. Vin decided to stay put. If he abruptly walked out, he'd only draw attention to himself.
Chris was quickly on his feet and moving toward the three lawmen, hoping to keep attention away from Vin.
"Ah, Sheriff Kane this is..." JD began as Chris approached. Kane pushed JD aside, interrupting his introduction, and stepped up behind the red-jacket clad gambler.
"Ezra Standish, you are under arrest." Kane's two deputies immediately fell on both sides of the slick conman. The ripples of conversation in the room died away at the sheriff's edict.
"We'll have to continue this another time, darlin," Buck whispered into the blond barmaid's ear, keeping his eye on Chris.
Standish recognized the voice and cringed. He saw Larabee standing off to the side and wondered what the somber gunslinger was thinking. Ezra was generally good at reading people's intentions; Larabee had proved a difficult book to decipher. Ezra sighed and looked over his shoulder.
"Sheriff Kane, as I live and breath," he smoothly exclaimed. "What brings you to our humble burg?" Ezra returned his attention to the game, not waiting for an answer from the sheriff. "Gentlemen, I call."
Kane sneered at the rebuff and motioned to his two deputies. Tom and Mitch roughly grabbed Ezra by the arms and yanked him to his feet, scattering his winnings and cards.
"Gentlemen, there is no need for hostilities. I'm sure this is all just a misunderstanding."
Kane glared at the smug conman and struck his left arm, activating the hidden derringer. Chris and the others curtailed their reactions. These men were officers of the law. Chris did hope that this was just a simple misunderstanding and not one of the cardshark's past faux pas catching up with him. Although when it came to Ezra, nothing was ever simple.
Ezra hissed as the deputies bent his arms behind him, forcing him to his toes. Tom Weller removed the cardshark's other guns.
"Jeez this guy has more weaponry than the army," Tom quipped.
"You can never be too prepared."
Larabee finally stepped forward. "What hell is going on?" He felt Buck and Josiah's presence behind him and knew the two big men were using their bulk to hide Vin from view. The less the lawmen saw of their renegade tracker the better.
"Who are you?" Kane growled.
"That's Chris Larabee," JD interjected with a hint of pride.
Kane eyed the darkly dressed gunslinger. The man looked dangerous, but maybe that worked for him. He noticed the two men behind him, both looked ready to back the gunfighter without hesitation. Very few men ever attained or deserved that degree of loyalty. The sheriff glanced over at Standish; did this man fall within that realm?
"I'm sheriff Kane and I'm here to arrest this man for jumping bail in Fort Laramie," Kane explained.
Larabee looked to Ezra. He knew the conman was probably wondering if he was going to throw him to the wolves or save his sorry hide. "Sorry, but Judge Travis pardoned him." You owe me one, Chris thought, the hint of a smile crossing his hardened features. "Judge Travis must have forgotten to inform you."
Ezra's smile grew, and he shrugged out of the deputies loosen grips. Josiah wished his friend would humble himself a little. Sheriff Kane didn't appear to be a man who took kindly to being made a fool of.
Kane furrowed his brow and looked at Ezra. The man was positively glowing with self-satisfaction and this burned a hole in the sheriff's gut. "Do you have the papers?" Kane watched the smug smile slip a little from the cardshark's face.
"A simple oversight on the judge's part, I assure you," Ezra commented, looking toward Larabee for assistance. Damn, he was finding himself relying on the gunslinger more and more. He definitely had to get out of this town. He could already hear his mother's mantra: The only one you can trust is you.
"He has to put in thirty days as a lawman first," Chris explained. The judge was no fool; he wasn't about to hand Ezra his pardon until after he completed his prescribed duty.
Kane's eyes widen as his mouth fell open. "He's a lawman?"
"Yeah, hard to believe ain't it?" Buck laughed. "Reckon we're as confounded by it as you are."
Ezra glared. "You're not helping, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck's smile only grew. It was fun to see the cardshark squirm a little. He really liked Ezra and hoped the man planned to stay past his thirty days.
"What's he to you?" Kane abruptly asked Chris.
Yes, Mr. Larabee, what am I to you? Ezra silently mused. Chris Larabee was a man he had come to reticently respect. He didn't believe that Chris thought of him as anymore than a reliable gun and a pain in the ass.
"He works for me," Larabee simply said, folding his arms over his chest. "Me and my men were hired by Judge Travis to protect this town."
Kane shook his head and wiped a hand down his haggard face. This was just the sort of lamebrain, goodwill idea that Travis would think of--hire a gunslinger as a lawman. The aged magistrate had a reputation of doing whatever it took to preserve and up hold the law. However, hiring a conman was definitely stretching the bounds of sanity.
"You really think he'll stay the full thirty days?" Kane asked. Thirty years as a lawman and he was now having to answer to a two-bit gunslinger.
"I take offense to that affront to my character," Ezra quipped.
Both Kane and Chris glared at the smart-ass gambler.
"If he don't, I'll hunt him down myself."
"I believe you would," Kane chuckled. "But that don't change the fact that he doesn't have that pardon yet. So, I'm takin' him in."
The two deputies renewed their grip on the conman. Josiah's eyes narrowed when the deputies jerked Ezra's arms up and Tom slapped cuffs on his wrists. Chris didn't like to see one of his men treated like this, but he knew getting angry wouldn't help the situation.
"You're wastin' your time," Buck interjected. "We'll just get hold of the judge."
"True, but it's my time to waste and until then Mr. Standish is my prisoner." This was better, he could see Larabee's uncertainty. He had the upper hand and they knew it. Kane turned to JD. "Sheriff, I'll need to use your jail. My men and I will rest up a day or so before heading back."
Chris met JD's questioning stare and Ezra's neutral gaze. What was the southerner thinking? Did he think that Chris wanted this to happen? That getting rid of him a week early would be a blessing? What else could he do? The sheriff was within his legal right.
Kane smiled at Larabee's hesitation and nodded to his deputies. They pushed Ezra toward the door.
"I'll be expectin' to hear from the judge soon," Kane stated.
"You can count on it," Buck replied.
Chris and the others watched as the group exited the saloon.
"It's about time that cheatin', good-fer-nothing snake was discovered for the low-life he is."
The six gunslingers turned as one to the loud retort from a middle-age man. Mr. Branson, the bank manager, seemed to shrink into his chair as six pairs of eyes fixed on him.
"Ah, I didn't mean nothin' by it," Branson stammered. He quickly stood and left the saloon feeling the gazes of the six gunslingers on his back.
Vin turned on Chris his eyes blazing with anger. "Why'd you let them take him?"
Chris was surprised at the tracker's vehemence. "What was I suppose to do? He's the law."
"Yeah and we don't need any more trouble," Nathan stated looking toward Vin. "What if that sheriff got a look at you?"
"Vin, you need to keep a low profile. We'll do all we can for Ezra," Chris tried to assure the displeased tracker. "JD, talk to Mary. See if she knows where the judge is. Then send a wire and tell him what's going on."
"Don't worry, Vin, Ez can take care of himself," Buck said throwing an arm across the tracker's shoulders. "Maybe we'll finally find out what he did."
Josiah glanced over at Nathan. "What are you smilin' about?"
"Oh, nothing. Just lookin' forward to seeing Ez behind bars," Nathan answered. "Missed it last time." The men left the saloon and headed for the jail.
Josiah grinned and shook his head as he picked up his hat. He knew that Ezra and Nathan didn't always see eye to eye. He wasn't sure they ever would.
Tom removed the cuffs and shoved Ezra into a cell. Ezra caught himself and casually turned around, rubbing his sore wrists.
"So, how you con them boys into thinkin' you could be a lawman?" Sheriff Kane stepped up to the cell. How could Travis make this snake- in-the-grass a lawman? It was definitely a slap in every decent lawman's face.
Ezra's easygoing expression fell, replaced with a flat, hard look. It disturbed him when people thought he was pulling a con. He had found himself actually taking pride in the honest employment. Lord, if his mother ever found out, she'd disown him. Ezra's lips twitched at the thought. He had to admit that he enjoyed the company of the six gunslingers.
"Sir, I have sworn allegiance to Judge Travis, and the others, and intend to fulfill my obligation," Ezra stated. "At least for another six days, four hours and..." Ezra looked down at his watch. "Thirty-seven minutes."
Kane snorted then turned as a shadow passed behind him. The dark form entered the dimly lit jail, the light in the doorway diminishing as three more bodies crowded behind him.
"May I help you, Mr. Larabee?" Kane crossed the room and hung the cell key on the wall. The gunslinger still came across as a dangerous man, but he had one flaw. Larabee exuded a sense of honor and fair-mindedness and would uphold the law even if it went against what he believed to be right. Kane had no problem exploiting this judiciousness for his own means. He desperately wanted to take Standish back to Laramie. The man had made a fool out of him when he jumped bail right under his nose.
"Just here to see my man and make sure he's being treated fairly," Chris said.
"As you can see, Mr. Standish is fine. So if you'll excuse me I'm going to get something to eat and a bath." Kane turned to his two deputies. "Mitch, you stay here and guard the prisoner. Tom, you take care of the horses and then get something to eat."
Kane stopped in front of the four gunslingers, regarding them through narrow eyes. Chris stepped aside and the others quickly followed his lead. Kane tipped his hat and headed out the door with Tom Weller right on his heels. Josiah looked over his shoulder at the sheriff and felt something very disturbing; this man was going to be trouble.
"You have ten minutes with the prisoner," Mitch stated firmly as he moved behind the desk, trying to hide his uneasiness. There was something foreboding about these men. He fell heavily into the chair, which promptly dumped him on the floor. Mitch jumped up and glared as the four gunslingers snickered and walked over to Ezra's cell.
Ezra sat on the cot, calmly shuffling a deck of cards through his nimble fingers. He didn't look up when the others approached the cell.
"You going to tell us how this all started?" Chris abruptly asked.
Ezra raised his head and leaned back against the wall. He stared at the four men before him, his face remaining impassive. He still felt the outsider, but Ezra trusted these men and was beginning to admire them. He wanted to call them friends. He had been raised in an environment where such pointless emotions were paramount to suicide. He was still trying to sort out these conflicting feelings. Maybe this was why he decided to tell these men the truth.
Ezra inhaled then slowly released it. The four men waited patiently.
"My mother and I were enjoying a sojourn to Fort Laramie. It was my idea to bilk wealthy business men by pretending to be investment brokers in a new hotel."
Nathan snorted his disgust and then felt Josiah's elbow in his ribs. The healer glared at the preacher, but refrained from further comment.
Ezra pretended not to notice Nathan's obvious aversion to his profession. His southern drawl softened and his fingers continued to absently dance between the cards. "I lost interest when mother became enamored with the banker, and returned to the gaming tables. I was unaware that my mother was actually continuing with the scam."
Sadness flashed across Ezra's clean-shaven face. It quickly vanished and the astute preacher wondered if he'd even seen it.
Ezra halted his shuffling and looked into the four lawmen's faces, not seeing any disbelief or condemnation. He released a deep breath. "My gracious mother left in the middle of the night with a substantial amount of money, none of which I received."
Ezra bowed his head, the arrow of his mother's betrayal still embedded in his heart. Maude always told him to watch out for number one. Apparently, she followed her own maxim even when it came to her own son.
The four gunslingers waited for their friend to resume, and yes, they did consider Ezra a friend. They had been trying to pull the stubborn gambler into their extended family, and did not understand why he fought against it. Listening to him as he sat in the jail cell, they were beginning to understand Ezra Standish.
"What happened after your mother left?" Josiah quietly prompted. He glanced over to see remorse slowly descend upon the healer.
Ezra chortled as if remembering some private joke. "Well, some good citizen remembered seeing me in her company, and I was promptly arrested. The honorable Judge Travis presided over my hearing and set the trial for two weeks. I spent a few nights in jail until mother sent someone to bail me out. Sheriff Kane, of course, kept an eye on me but two weeks is a long time and I bided my time until I could make my escape."
"Did it ever occur to you to just face your punishment?" Nathan tried to keep any presumption out of his tone.
Ezra glared at the healer. "Sir, I was innocent. I may have planned the scheme but at no time did I take part in it. The thought of being incarcerated did not appeal to me, and I was being unfairly judged by a town that thought I was no better than a stray dog."
"Probably didn't like you scammin' in his town either," Buck added.
Ezra calmed his growing irritation. "I believe that Sheriff Kane took it personally when I escaped." Ezra looked over at the deputy who sat cautiously in the rickety chair at the desk. "I don't suppose you gentlemen could convince Sheriff Kane that I will remain within the confines of this town, so I don't have to remain in this dismal cell?"
Ezra caught the flash of doubt in each of the gunslingers' faces and sighed.
"I see my past transgressions are still very much an issue."
"Ah, Ez, it's probably better you stay locked up so there's no misunderstandin'," Buck tried to soothe.
"We're trying to get hold of the judge," Josiah added. "Hopefully we can clear this up before the sheriff drags you back to Fort Laramie."
Ezra tried to believe in their assurances but it felt like he was being hung out to dry, again. He couldn't blame them for their lack of faith in him.
"Worse comes to worse, you go to Fort Laramie 'till the judge sends word," Chris explained. "It's only a couple days ride."
"Wonderful," Ezra mocked stretching out on the cot and laying an arm across his eyes.
"If you need anything just holler." Chris stared at the stubborn cardshark then turned and left. Buck and Nathan followed leaving Josiah to study their suddenly reticent friend.
"We are trying to help, Ezra," Josiah said.
Ezra moved his arm enough to gaze up at the older man. "I realize that Mr. Sanchez."
"Try not to worry. I'm sure we'll get this straightened out before the sheriff leaves."
"Maybe it would be better if things were left to run their natural course."
Josiah frowned. "You want us to let him take you away?"
Ezra did not reply. He covered his eyes and listened as Josiah left.
"What are we going to do, Chris?" Buck straddled a chair between the tracker and his old friend. He really didn't think the sheriff would take Ezra and thought it amusing that Ezra, for once, was locked up for something he didn't do. How many times had the slick southerner gotten away with his elaborate moneymaking schemes?
"Not much we can do, Buck, they're the law," Josiah answered from his position at the doors, watching for any sign of the three lawmen. Vin was staying in Ezra's room and using the back entrance of the saloon. They all wished that he would leave town for awhile.
"We're just going to have to sit tight and wait," Chris replied.
"I talked to Ms. Travis and she told me where she thought the judge might be," JD explained. "I sent telegrams to three different towns."
"So we hope one of those wires reaches him in time," Chris said. He didn't like the idea of the sheriff taking Ezra away and the anxiety he felt at the thought surprised him. Ezra was going to leave anyway, wasn't he?
"We can't let them take Ezra." JD slammed his fist on the table in front of him. "What if he never comes back?" This solidified the very thoughts that swam in the minds of the other gunslingers.
"Why not?" Nathan asked suddenly, watching as the others each glanced at him. "He only has another week left. Do any of you really think he's gonna stay?" Nathan wanted to trust the urbane southerner, but Ezra's prior activities and heritage made it hard for the ex-slave to accept anything other than the first impressions of his smug attitude.
The six lawmen sat silently for a moment, regarding each other with a mixture of doubt and hope. Buck furrowed his brow at the thought of the gentleman gambler leaving. He thought they were finally on the road to becoming friends. He had discovered the slick conman's devious sense of humor and would miss it.
"We don't want our brother to feel we've abandoned him," Josiah pointed out, remembering the forlorn look on Ezra's face back at the jail.
"Ah, Ez knows we care about 'im," Buck assured.
"Does he?" Vin shot back. "Anyone said or done anything to give him reason to believe we care?"
The gunslingers regarded each other in turn, feeling that strange connection and wondering if those ties stretched to the wily cardshark.
Ezra stared at the ceiling of his cell. He was a fool. A fool to think his life could change simply because he was a lawman. All anyone saw was a conman and a cheat. He had started to believe that he found a place where he could belong, even fit in. Six men were showing him another side of life, one that was totally alien, but he wanted to be a part of it. He should have kept moving. What was so bad about his previous life? He slept late in expensive hotels and ate fine cuisine. Of course, there were negative aspects to his conniving and nomadic life style. He often found himself leaving town unexpectedly just ahead of enraged townspeople. He was always alone even in a crowd. He couldn't trust a soul. His life started over in every town he visited, and he had told so many lies it was sometimes hard to remember the truth.
It was the only way of life he knew. However, six extraordinary individuals had given him a taste of a different way of living. He now knew what he was missing: a sense of belonging, of caring about others and having them care about you. It was a feeling that was both exasperating and pleasing. Mr. Sanchez didn't consider their meeting an accident, but attributed it to divine intervention. They were fated to be together. Ezra smiled, maybe Josiah was right.
"It's 'bout time you all got back. I'm starvin'," Mitch greeted Sheriff Kane and his fellow deputy.
"How's our prisoner doing?" Sheriff Kane asked.
"Been quiet as a mouse." Mitch stretched from his seat behind the desk then stood and scratched his lean stomach. "Lord, I could use a good meal. I can still taste the dust from the trail."
"Try some of that apple pie over at the restaurant," Tom suggested as he hung up his guns. "It's the best I've ever had."
Ezra's heart raced when he saw the wanted posters in Kane's hand. Keeping his face impassive, he slowly pushed himself up on the cot.
"When we getting out of here anyway?" Mitch asked.
"Soon." Kane set the stack of papers on the edge of the desk. "Are you in some kind of hurry to get back on the trail?"
"No, guess not," Mitch replied. "But those gunslingers don't seem to appreciate us here."
"Don't worry about them," Kane answered raising his voice. "They're lawmen. They're not going to protect some good-fer-nothing conman."
Tom looked over at Ezra and grinned. He felt no pity for the conman. To him gamblers were all cheats and liars and out for themselves.
"I want to go through these posters later, no tellin' who might turn up in this town," Kane said. He walked up to the stove, and tentatively picked up the coffeepot. It was cold. He set the pot back down.
"Yeah, remember the last one we caught?" Mitch reminisced. "Found him sitting in a restaurant just as content as you please. We got over eight-hundred dollars for him."
Ezra's thoughts swirled as he absently manipulated his cards between his fingers, staring intently at the posters. Somehow he knew that Vin's likeness would be among those damning papers. He would be blamed for Vin's capture, and rightly so. The sheriff wouldn't be here if it weren't for his dubious deeds. He wished Sheriff Kane had just taken him to Fort Laramie; the whole town would have probably been happy to see him carted off in chains.
"Tommy, you keep an eye on him now, ya hear? I'm gonna to do a little checkin' around town," Kane said.
The young deputy eased himself cautiously into the creaking wooden chair.
"Sure, go ahead, boss. Hey, Mitch bring me back another slice of that pie."
"Sure, kid," Mitch chuckled as he followed the sheriff out the door.
Ezra stood up, rested his arms on the upper bar, and eyed the young deputy. His gaze shifted to the papers sitting on the corner of the desk. He then flashed his most confident smile. "Sir, can I interest you in a game of chance?" Ezra pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and watched the young man's eyes light up.
Tom started going through his pockets pulling out stray bills and piling them on the desk.
"You don't play none of that fancy poker do ya?" Tom asked as he approached the cell.
Ezra's smile grew as the boy approached. He had already picked the lock. He hadn't planned to escape and only did it to keep his skills sharp. Tom stopped in front of the cell door with a foolish smile on face.
"I'm sorry," Ezra said quietly and bowed his head.
Tom's smiled remained on his face as his brow furrowed at the gambler's comment. "For what?"
Standish raised his head and slammed the door of the cell into the deputy's head. The young man crumpled bonelessly to the ground. "For that, my friend."
Ezra squatted down next to the deputy and laid two fingers aside his throat, relieved to feel the strong pulse. He grabbed the posters and began sifting through them. His frantic shuffling stopped and his hand tightened on one poster. The black sketched image of Vin Tanner glared back.
"Hardly a flattering likeness," Ezra chuckled. The sketch was meant to arouse scorn and disdain. Tanner looked dangerous with his wild mane of hair and his eyes drawn as narrow slits.
Ezra glanced around the small jail cell, wishing that there were a fire in the stove. He couldn't risk hiding the traitorous document in the jail. The deputy groaned, his head rolling to the side and Ezra froze. He quickly folded the poster and tucked it into the lining of his coat. Grabbing his gun, Ezra glanced outside before slipping out the door and down the alleyway.
Autumn was fighting a losing battle against winter's imminent arrival. The air was crisp and dark clouds rolled in, chased by a coming storm. When he saw that it was deserted Standish slipped into the stable. He planned to get rid of the poster, then leave: luring the sheriff and his men away from town and Vin Tanner.
"You son of a bitch!"
Ezra turned at the angry voice. The fist came out of the shadows and struck his jaw, sending him staggering back. A bale of hay stopped his progress. Ezra looked up into Chris Larabee's looming glare. He grinned and rubbed his jaw, using his tongue to check for any loose teeth.
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra climbed to his feet. Why did it have to be Larabee that caught him? He could have talked his way out with any of the others, but not Larabee.
Chris stood with fists clenched and the muscles in his jaw twitching. "Are you tryin' to make things worse for yourself? I thought you learned your lesson about running out!"
Ezra visibly winced at the reminder of his previous misdeed. It would forever be a chain around his neck with Larabee and the others constantly tugging at it.
"The judge gave you a second chance, and you go and throw it back in his face."
Ezra brushed stray straw from his jacket. "Mr. Larabee, please believe me when I say this is in the best interest of everyone."
"You mean in the best interest of your sorry hide. The judge will pardon you only if you hold up your end of the deal." Larabee couldn't believe how angry he was. He thought the flamboyant conman was coming around, starting to take responsibility. He thought Ezra was beginning to care.
Ezra bowed his head. Larabee was far from trusting him, not that he blamed the scrupulous gunslinger. Ezra reached inside his jacket. His hand stopped next to the wanted poster at the distinct sound of a cocking revolver.
"Don't," Chris growled.
Ezra froze and slowly looked up to see Larabee's gun pointed directly at him. Did Chris actually think he would draw on him? Ezra glared into those icy blue eyes hoping to see some hint of skepticism.
"Damn," Ezra murmured under his breath, slowly pulling his hand out from his jacket--empty. Ezra kept his hands away from his body; he was not about to test his speed or disbelief against Larabee's obvious mistrust. Ezra had thought he'd earned a certain measure of faith these past weeks. He had risked his life numerous times for the town and the other gunslingers. These ruminations lit the gambler's fuse. Ezra's eyes darkened at Larabee's implied affront.
Ezra swallowed back his anger. His irritation toward Chris was not important. His voice tightened with seriousness. "Mr. Larabee, there is something I need to tell..."
"Ah, Mr. Larabee, thank you for capturing my prisoner."
Ezra bowed his head at the sound of sheriff Kane's voice. If he revealed the poster now the sheriff would see it and he couldn't risk it.
Chris turned to see the sheriff and Mitch step into the stable, their guns drawn. Mitch crossed in front of him and immediately pulled Ezra's revolver out of his waistband. He grabbed the southerner by the arm and spun him around, slamming him against the wall. He roughly slapped cuffs on the fugitive.
Chris had reacted on instinct, his survival had always depended on it. Now he stood stunned at what he had done. His anger-induced stupor surrendered to uncertainty at the sound of Ezra hitting the wall. Chris slowly holstered his gun. Was Ezra really going to draw on him?
"You don't have to be so rough," Chris spoke.
Mitch held Ezra against the wall with one arm.
"He assaulted my deputy at the jail," Kane explained.
"Is your deputy okay?"
"Yeah, just his pride is wounded and he got a bump on the head."
Mitch pushed Ezra toward the door. Ezra spun around to face the sheriff. "I demand we depart immediately for Fort Laramie. I do not wish to delay the wheels of justice from turning any longer." Ezra's usual placid demeanor was lost behind his growing frustration and anger. "I don't want to remain in this miserable town a moment longer."
"What's wrong? You don't like it here anymore?" Kane snidely asked.
"Shoulda known someone like him couldn't cotton to being a lawman," Mitch growled.
"Sir, I was under duress when I joined this pathetic charade. The sooner I'm free of this town's trappings and Mr. Larabee's tyranny the better. This dark demon of disaster and his cohorts have made my life a living hell."
Chris stiffened at the character assassination.
"Well, we'll see what we can do," Kane chuckled as he forced Ezra out the door.
Standish stumbled into the jailhouse with a little help from Mitch. He looked to the right to see Tom, holding a cloth to his head. The young deputy stood up his hand falling to his side; a bruised and swollen impression of the cell bar ran across his forehead.
Ezra barely kept his feet as Mitch shoved him back into his cell. He snapped around and glared at the deputy. "Are you going to remove these restraints?"
"Nope, figure you won't be escapin' again with out the use of your hands," Mitch stepped back as Kane sauntered up to the bars holding the stack of wanted posters.
"Mr. Standish, they're only twenty-three posters here. I had twenty-four."
"You either miscounted or misplaced one." Ezra was starting to feel like he was holding a losing hand.
"You tryin' to protect someone?" Kane asked, pacing in front of the cell like a lion sizing up its prey.
Ezra snorted. He was just apprehended by a man he had come to respect and trust. Did the sheriff believe he held any regard for anyone in this wretched town? "I assure you, sir, I protect no one but myself. Ask anyone in town what a self-serving bastard I am." The words belied the feelings that strangled his heart.
"Mitch, Tom, search him."
Mitch opened the cell door and both deputies entered. Tom glared hard at the gambler. "I owe you one," he snarled as he unlocked Ezra's cuffs and pulled off his jacket. He snapped the cuffs back on, squeezing them tight and smiled as Ezra flinched from the pain.
Mitch tore the bedding from the cot as Tom went through the pockets of the tailored jacket. He threw it aside when he failed to find anything. Ezra stood in the corner of his cell, his jaw clenched.
"Nothing!" Mitch announced after tearing apart the cell and half the jail. "Maybe he hid it in the stable?"
Kane eyed the red jacket on the floor and picked it up. "I don't think Mr. Standish had time to dispose of it." Kane ran his hands up and down the lining and frowned.
"Then what did he do with it?" Mitch asked. He watched as the sheriff pulled out a knife and began slicing the inside of the jacket.
"Sir, I hope you plan on compensating me for damaging my possession," Ezra calmly stated.
Kane's fleshy face broke out in a toothy grin when he found the poster. "Well, well...Lookie what I found." He looked at the picture. "Vin Tanner, wanted for murder in Tacosa. $500 reward dead or alive."
Mitch and Tom stepped around and looked over the sheriff's shoulder. "Hey, I think I saw that man in the saloon when we arrested Standish."
"Really?" Kane stared intently at the picture.
"I didn't pay much attention," Mitch added. "But there was a man with long hair, wearing buckskins, sitting at a corner table. I didn't get a good look at his face."
Kane brought his gaze up and stared intently at Standish who seemed unconcerned.
"You a friend of this Vin Tanner?" Kane prodded.
"Never heard of him."
"Why'd you take the poster?"
"Five hundred dollars is a good enough reason," Ezra easily explained.
"Perhaps." Kane scratched at his face and picked up the remainder of the posters. "You understand the money's not important to me."
Ezra arched an expressive eyebrow.
"This stack of posters represents a life long endeavor of becoming the most famous lawman in the territory. I go after bounties of five-hundred dollars or more, only the most notorious of men earns my attention." Kane's eyes brightened. "I started out with forty-seven. Capturing someone of Tanner's notoriety would definitely go far in accomplishing my goal."
Ezra felt his heart thump hard against his chest. There was nothing worse than a supposedly noble endeavor perpetrated by a less than ethical person. Why did these things always happen to him? He had been trying to protect Vin, but instead, he deposited the man right in the sheriff's lap.
"Boys, I think Mr. Standish needs to be convinced into helping us," Kane said.
The deputies' mouths twitched into crooked smiles at the challenge and moved into Ezra's cell.
Ezra stepped back his balance hindered with his hands cuffed behind him. He fell onto his cot. Mitch pulled the gambler up. "Ay, Tommy boy, bet you want first crack." The large deputy moved behind Ezra and interlocked his arms behind Ezra's restrained arms.
"You bet." Tom stepped up to Ezra and drove his fist into his mid-section, doubling him over. Mitch held the gambler as Tom continued to pummel the hapless man, each punch coming with added glee. This man was responsible for making a fool out of him in front of the one man he admired. Tom knew Sheriff Kane didn't blame him, but he probably wondered if the young man could handle the job.
Mitch released Ezra, allowing him to crumble to the floor, gasping for the air his lungs were denied. He lay on the rough floor in a fetal position every gasp bringing on clutches of pain in his stomach.
"It's my turn now." Mitch pulled back his foot and drove it into Ezra's ribs causing him to tighten up into a smaller ball. Mitch continued to lash out with his boot.
Tom winced at the sound of a rib cracking under the barrage. A wave of regret surged through him. He looked over his shoulder at the sheriff who sat on the desk watching the whole thing in detached silence.
Tom and Mitch stepped over the inert and bleeding gambler and moved out of the cell.
Kane was studying the face on the poster, searing the sketchy features into his memory. He vaguely remembered seeing a man in buckskins, out of the corner of his eye, in the saloon. His attention had been on Standish and the darkly dressed gunslinger. Now he wondered if that was Larabee's intention all along. If it had been Tanner he was probably already gone.
"Is he still alive?" Kane asked as his two men approached.
"Yeah," Mitch replied.
"Good." Kane returned his gaze back to the poster of Vin Tanner.
"What'cha thinkin', boss?" Tom asked pulling up a chair. He rubbed at his abraded knuckles.
"Well, we need to find out if this Tanner fella is still around," Kane answered leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head.
"How we going to do that?" Mitch asked.
Kane stared at the motionless gambler. "Maybe we need to find out how Larabee really feels about his men."
A bad feeling settled into Larabee's soul, and plagued him as he walked down the boardwalk. Thoughts clamored for attention leading him to distraction, a feeling he wasn't comfortable with. Something didn't set right about Ezra. Why would he try to escape? The worst that would happen is he'd spend a few days in the saddle until the judge was able to validate his pardon. His escape attempt just made things worse. Standish never came across as stupid--arrogant and self-serving, but not stupid. Chris still couldn't believe that he had drawn on the southerner. He could still see Ezra's shocked expression. Why did he always let his temper dictate his actions when it came to the gambler?
Vin had watched from his spot on the roof of the saloon as the sheriff led the gambler back to jail. He knew the others still harbored reservations about the crafty conman, believing he kept a hidden agenda, and if things got tough he'd leave. What Vin noticed that the others apparently missed was that over the past three weeks Ezra was changing. It was subtle, like a winding river changing its course, eating away a new path. Ezra probably didn't even notice or would never admit to it.
Chris leaned easily against a support post, legs crossed, staring intently at the jailhouse across the street. He pulled a cheroot from his pocket and bit down on the end. The creak of the saloon doors and the sound of several boots signaled the end of his solitary musings.
"Ay, pard," Buck said laying a hand on Chris's shoulder. He felt the gunslinger's muscles tense.
"He tried to escape," Chris stated.
"He what?" JD exclaimed coming up from behind Buck.
Nathan snorted in disgust and sat down in one of the chairs. His tight-lipped smile showed this was something he expected from the ambiguous cardshark. A leopard never changes his spots.
Chris turned to his friends. "He knocked out one of the deputies. I caught him in the stable."
"Doesn't he trust us to get him out of this?" Buck asked with real asperity in his voice. When would Ezra give them a chance? Maybe never. Maybe it just wasn't in the southerner's nature to trust anyone but himself. These thoughts rushed through the mustached cowboy's mind and diluted his growing anger.
"So what do we do now?" Vin's Texas drawl wafted out from just inside the saloon. He was getting tired of staying hidden.
"Nothing's changed," Chris replied. "It just might make things more difficult for Ezra when he reaches Fort Laramie. I'll talk with the judge and see what we can do." Chris didn't mention that things had indeed changed. He had pulled his gun on one of his own men.
The next morning Chris exited the bank to find Sheriff Kane leaning against the railing, waiting.
"Sheriff, can I help ya?" Chris asked. He couldn't explain why, but he was beginning to dislike this man.
"I hope you can, Mr. Larabee," Kane said seriously. "It would save us all a great deal of trouble." Kane pushed off the railing and pulled out the folded poster of Vin, holding it up to Chris's face. "Do you know this man?"
Chris stared impassively at the face of his friend for a moment and then coolly replied, "Nope."
Kane raised a thick, dark eyebrow and lowered the poster. He couldn't tell if the gunslinger was lying or not. "I believe he might have been in your saloon the other day when we arrested Mr. Standish."
Chris shrugged. "Lots of people come and go in this town, don't notice everyone, especially if he ain't causin' any reason to be noticed."
"Funny." Kane carefully folded the poster and put it back in his pocket. "Your man Standish found him interestin' enough. He tried to make off with his poster last night."
Chris flinched. Kane's eyes crinkled as a smile stretched across his face. "Of course, he claimed that he was only after the reward."
"Well, that's Ezra's business," Chris said.
"Mr. Larabee, I'm not a fool, and you don't strike me as a man who misses much that goes on in his town. I doubt a flea could annoy a dog without you knowing it."
Chris frowned and Kane's smile dropped from his face at the sudden transformation in the gunslinger's face. The man suddenly looked beyond caring. Maybe he had Larabee pegged all wrong.
"Now, we're both men of the law." Kane felt the sudden need to remind the gunslinger of this. "I believe that Vin Tanner is in the area and together I think we can flush him out."
"As I said I ain't seen 'im, and I have no interest in the bounty money." Chris turned on his heel and walked away.
Sheriff Kane watched as Larabee crossed the street, heading for the restaurant. He released a deep breath trying to shake off Larabee's intimidating authority.
Ezra began, quite painfully, to come around. His first sensation was an incessant pounding in his head and the cold, hard feeling on his cheek. He slowly opened his eyes, but couldn't make sense of what he was looking at. His vision swam in and out of focus and he closed his eyes as bile rose up in his throat. He was on his side and tried to roll over only to gasp at the pain that ran up his arms. His hands were still cuffed behind him. Ezra sucked in his breath and opened his eyes.
"Well, well! Sleeping beauty awakes."
Ezra turned his head slightly, enough to make out the form of Mitch Peters squatting in front of the bars with an asinine smile on his face.
"Thought I mighta hit ya too hard there," Mitch chuckled and stood up.
Ezra struggled to a sitting position and leaned his head against the cot. His arms ached from being in the same position for so long. Thunderous waves of pain surged through his head and his whole body throbbed. It was difficult to take a deep breath. Ezra looked over to see Sheriff Kane sitting in a chair a few feet away.
"So, Mr. Standish, I'm going to ask you again," Kane said holding out the wanted poster. "How do you know Vin Tanner and where is he? Is someone protecting him?"
Ezra stared at the older man. Did Kane really think that he would betray one of his fellow lawmen? Well, let the man think what he wanted.
Kane leaned forward, the chair creaking with his shifting weight. He rested his hands on his knees an oily smile appearing on his face. "Listen, we'll cut you in on the reward. It's not like yer plannin' on staying on here."
That hit a chord. Ezra looked into his past and into his heart the two always in conflict. He licked his lips. His throat was parched and he couldn't remember when he had any water. Ignoring the pain in his head and chest, and the numbness of his hands, Ezra struggled to his feet. "I'm afraid...I'll have to...decline your cordial offer."
Kane's smile changed, becoming feral and deprecating. He studied the battered conman drumming his fingers on the chair rest.
"Tom, Mitch go out and start talkin' with some of the town's folk. See what you can find out."
The two deputies nodded and left the confines of the jail.
Ezra closed his eyes and tried to breathe through the pain gnawing at him.