Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
The saloon was crowded. The heady aroma of sweat, liquor and smoke mixed with the noise of clanging bottles and boisterous laughter, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and diversion from the toils of surviving everyday life on the frontier. A cattle drive had brought all manner of men in for some rest and relaxation, which by the looks of things they were doing everything but. JD Dunne, Sheriff of Four Corners, leaned against the wall, pushing his bowler back on his head and causing a couple strands of black hair to fall in his face. He was trying to appear older than his boyish visage portrayed and trying to keep an eye out for any trouble. The rest of the seven lawmen, who protected the town, went about their own pleasurable tasks, but also kept an eye out for anything that might disrupt the peaceful uproar of the town.
JD glanced up to the second floor landing where Buck Wilmington was trying to persuade a young woman out of saving herself for marriage. She flirtatiously eyed the handsome scoundrel, having no intention of taking him up on his proposal but enjoying the attention. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were at the bar and actually appeared to be enjoying themselves as evident by the slight smile on Chris's usually somber countenance. Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez were allowing Ezra Standish the pleasure of taking their money in a friendly poker game, the idea of friendly meaning the gambler leave them enough to bathe.
Two men entering the saloon quickly garnered the young sheriff's attention. The first was a tall gruff-looking man, who wore a tan duster that billowed out behind him, causing a swirl of dust to rise up behind him. He removed his rather beaten and worn Stetson hat, revealing thinning red-gray hair, which he swept to the side. His loose, fleshy face was stubbled with the same red-gray color. A long ragged scar disfigured his weary visage, cutting a line through the stubble on his right cheek. All seven of the gunslingers could spot trouble a mile away, or when it walked right in the door.
JD straightened, and his easy-going grin fell as he casually laid a hand on his gun as a much younger man followed close behind the first one. This man was a couple inches shorter with the same reddish hair cut close to his head. His face didn't possess any of the hardness the older man seemed to carry like a badge of honor. JD watched as the older man scanned the saloon, pulling his duster aside to reveal twin revolvers strapped to his hip. He then continued inside, the younger man falling in step alongside. JD stepped forward as the older man stopped in front of Ezra's table.
"Well, well as I live an breath, lookey Billy, it's our old friend, Ezra," the stranger announced, his voice loaded with sarcasm. It was evident to JD that the man knew he would find Ezra here.
The man's voice boomed across the room getting Chris and Vin's undivided attention, not so much for the volume, but because of the accent--a definite southern brogue.
Josiah and Nathan looked up at the dusty, raucous man. Then in unison, they turned to Ezra, who continued to stare at the cards in his hand. His easygoing expression had fled, replaced with a flat, hard look that gave nothing away.
Josiah noticed that the younger man fidgeted nervously, like a young boy wishing his mother would finish her shopping so they could leave.
Buck's attention diverted to the sudden commotion downstairs, and with great regret he asked the young woman to depart, promising to continue their 'conversation' at a more opportune time. She smiled over her shoulder as the ladies' man watched her ascend the stairs. He then released a frustrated sigh, and reluctantly returned his attention to the scene below. Buck wondered who Ezra had pissed off this time. He casually leaned against the railing, placing one hand on his gun.
"Jake, this ain't the place," the younger man whispered with the same southern inflection, his eyes darting about nervously.
Jake ignored the young man's warning and glared down at the silent gambler, who slowly raised green eyes to meet Jake's hostile brown ones.
"Hello Jake, Billy. Its been a long time," Ezra drawled, keeping his voice steady. He laid his cards down, revealing a full house, aces high. Billy gave the suave gambler a faint smile, which earned him an elbow to his ribs from Jake.
Jake looked pointedly at Nathan his eyes narrowing in contempt as his face twisted in a sneer of hatred. "I shoulda' known we'd find you in the company of one of them," he snarled, hitching his chin toward the dark healer.
Nathan knew exactly what the man meant; he had heard the derogatory phrase often enough in his life. Nathan's hackles rose, but he remained seated, not wanting to be the one to start anything. It looked like Ezra had enough trouble to deal with anyway.
Ezra continued to gaze dispassionately at the man that stood before him. He had seen Nathan flinch at Jake's words but was grateful the knife-throwing healer chose to ignore the obvious slur.
Larabee listened with a deepening frown at the subtle exchange between Ezra and the two strangers. He looked up to see that Buck was now alert to what was taking place and ready for any trouble. He also saw that JD was waiting to see what would transpire. Chris hoped whatever it was would end quietly but he doubted it. Nothing ended peacefully with Ezra, or any one of them for that matter.
No one could tell by looking at Ezra's smooth, chiseled features that these men were stirring up emotions and memories that he had thought long repressed.
Without warning, Jake pulled his gun and pointed it directly at Ezra, who didn't even flinch. He had expected it sooner or later from this man, and a small part of him didn't blame him. If he had been in Jake's shoes, he'd probably done the same thing.
"Too fast for ya' huh, Ez?" Jake hissed out sharply, thinking he had got the jump on the urbane southerner.
Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow, and a small smirk tugged at his lips. "Not at all," he replied coolly.
The saloon had become deathly quiet, and Jake couldn't miss the sound of a cocking gun...then another...and another...and another. The clicks reverberated throughout the bar followed by the sound of several chairs scraping across the floor as their owners quickly vacated to safer locations.
Josiah cleared his throat, bringing Jake's gaze down to peer into the barrel of his Smith & Wesson peeking out from under the table.
Billy tugged earnestly at Jake's arm, as his eyes grew wide. He turned his head and saw the five guns pointed directly at them. He knew this had been a mistake.
"I shoulda' known you'd be in alliance with Yanks," Jake growled out.
Ezra had gambled on his associates backing him up. It was a sure bet, one he had learned to trust, even though it was hard for the others to reciprocate. "Jake, the war has been over for a long time, let it go," Ezra intoned imploringly.
Jake carefully returned his pistol to its holster and raised his empty hands, but the five guns remained on him.
Billy looked around appearing apologetic for his brother's actions. Jake glared down at Ezra. "This ain't over," he said, his voice taking on a decidedly icy tone. Jake turned on his heel, slapping Billy in the chest, getting him to follow him toward the exit. When Jake reached the batwing doors and took hold of them he stopped. Without turning around he called out, "Do you all know you're friends with a traitor?" Jake turned his head and stared at Ezra's back. "A traitor to his own people and a murderer."
Ezra's breath caught halfway between his lungs and throat. He closed his eyes and bowed his head as Jake stormed out, followed by Billy who turned and gave another apologetic smile then raced out.
Nathan and Josiah caught the flicker of chagrin across Ezra's face. 'What the hell was that all about?' was the one thought the six gunslingers all shared.
The saloon noise gradually rose as everyone resumed their previous activities, some, a little disappointed that more hadn't occurred. Ezra absently shuffled his deck of cards waiting for the inevitable onslaught of questions, or accusations. Chris and Vin stepped up to the table, holstering their weapons but still watching the door. JD and Buck joined them. Chris and Buck sat down in the two empty chairs at the table and looked sternly at Ezra.
"Don't suppose you're goin' to tell us what that was all about?" Chris asked in annoyance, already knowing the answer he'd receive from the ambiguous conman.
Standish brought a steady gaze to bear on Chris, and in a curiously flat voice replied, "Just a couple of old friends from the war?"
"Jeez, Ezra, I'd hate to meet your enemies," Wilmington chided kindly, clasping his hands together and placing them on the table.
"What about this traitor business?" Chris continued to push the issue.
"Just a difference of opinion," Ezra replied matter-of-factly, his face maintaining the same indifferent appearance that he had been taught to use since he was a child. Never let them see the truth his mother always told him.
Larabee glared sternly. He hated that he couldn't read this man; it sometimes scared him. He knew this was how Ezra survived but it still angered him. Chris's infamous rage started to rise to the surface. His fist struck the table causing JD to jump. "Damnit! Ezra, can't you give us a straight answer?"
"What about murder?" Vin interjected, hoping to get some answers out of the cryptic conman before Chris exploded and got blood out of him instead.
Ezra's sea-green eyes locked directly on the buckskin-clad tracker. "Sir, I murdered no one. We were at war. Mr. Jake Orrson has his version, and I have mine, and I would kindly ask you all to mind your own business," he replied defensively.
Nathan caught the anguish that passed across Ezra's face as he stood up and headed toward the stairs, not even taking the time to collect his nightly winnings. Something lurked in the shadows of the gambler's face, of that, Nathan was sure.
JD chewed his lip in consternation as his gaze followed Ezra up the stairs until he lost sight of him down the hallway.
Chris leaned back in his chair and let out the breath he had been holding, hoping to expel the frustration he always felt when dealing with the troublesome gambler. It was a long time before he trusted the arrogant cardsharp, and Chris now felt that Ezra was testing that trust. He thought of them all as family, but sometimes Ezra was the errant stepchild.
"Wow, what do you suppose that was all about?" JD asked no one in particular as he brought his gaze to the men around the table.
Buck shrugged as he casually collected up Ezra's winnings.
"I don't know brother, but it appears that Ezra might have wronged Mr. Orrson in some way during the war, or Mr. Orrson just believes he did," Josiah conjectured. The ex-preacher looked over at Nathan who had remained quiet throughout the whole affair.
Nathan was lost in thought. The statement about Ezra being in the company of a black man had struck the healer as odd. Nathan knew he an Ezra were friends now, but in the beginning Ezra had appeared to him as any other haughty southerner, bitter about the outcome of the war--Could there be something more?
Ezra had retired to his room. Taking off his jacket, he removed his flask and took a long swig. He stretched out on his feathered bed and stared up at the ceiling. Why did his past life always seem to intrude upon his present one? He had known Jake and Billy Orrson during the war; it felt like a lifetime ago--someone else's lifetime. They were brothers; Jake being twelve years older than Billy but the three had become friends.
Ezra had still been the consummate conman back then, but even he realized the value of friends during war. He and Billy had watched out for each other, and Ezra developed a deep respect for Jake, who never risked his men needlessly. He knew he probably wouldn't have survived the war if it hadn't been for Jake Orrson's skillful command.
Jake had owned a fair size plantation in Georgia before the war, and even had a lovely wife, at least, by his description, as Ezra had never met her. Ezra had heard that Jake had lost everything after the war, even his wife, who had run off with a Yankee soldier. The Jake he saw in the saloon was not the same man he fought with during the war. The conflict within Ezra was rising again; he took another swig from his flask, trying to ease his tightening stomach. Was he a traitor to his people? Or was he just trying to right a wrong? Ezra fell into a restless sleep long buried memories spinning in his head once again.
The next morning Buck discovered that Jake and Billy Orrson were part of the cattle drive that was passing to the north of town. He also discovered that they had collected their wages and left the drive, acquiring rooms at the hotel in town
"Do you think they mean trouble?" Vin asked Chris as the three men stood outside the saloon.
Chris puffed on a cheroot clenched tightly between his teeth. He placed his hands on the railing and glared over at the hotel. "I don't know," he replied flatly, not liking the situation at all.
"What do you want to do?" Buck asked, not sure this was really any of their business. A man had a right to his privacy. They all had things in their past they weren't proud of, especially during the war.
"Find out what it's all about first," Chris replied dropping the cheroot and grinding the stub out with his boot heel. He didn't like the feel of things. Tension was all around, and growing, like a dark thundercloud on the horizon. Anything to do with the war had a way of stirring up bad feelings in people, and bad feelings had a way of broaching dangerous ideas.
"You still don't trust Ezra do you?" Vin bluntly asked, rubbing his thumb across his bottom lip.
Chris turned his head and looked over at the tracker, a man he'd known only a short time, but trusted with his life. Why couldn't he trust Ezra the same way?
"Someone comes in calling him a traitor and accusing him of murder, and he doesn't deny it or even fight. We know nothing about Ezra's past. He's more secretive than you." Chris straightened and crossed his arms. "He didn't even draw his gun when Jake drew down on him, and I still don't know how Jake managed that; Ezra is twice as fast as him. It was as if Ezra expected it." Chris was angry; anytime the taciturn gunslinger spoke more than four words something was eating at him.
"Did it ever occur to you that he trusted us enough to protect his back?" Buck added with a touch of disgust for the dark-clad gunslinger. Sometimes Chris's irrational mistrust of the gambler was infuriating.
Chris only stared back at his long time friend seeming to contemplate this statement. He knew Buck was probably right, but he couldn't help it. He survived by trusting and following his instincts. Maybe his instincts were wrong, but he was not about to take that chance.
"Chris," Vin began getting the gunslinger's attention. "Ezra has proved himself and that's all that matters." He didn't know why he felt the need to defend the obtrusive gambler, but he did consider Ezra a friend, and didn't cottonin' to talkin' behind someone's back.
Chris looked into Vin's matching blue eyes. "Not always Vin, sometimes the past has a way of catching up to a person, and if'n they've been runnin' from it they have to face it sooner or later. It looks like some of Ezra's past just walked into the saloon last night." Chris paused a moment and took a deep breath, his face thoughtful. "It wasn't that long ago Ezra was a conman, a cheat, and a liar, anything for the almighty dollar that's not to far removed from being a traitor," Chris quietly remarked.
Wilmington shifted his stance and hooked his thumb into his gunbelt. What Chris said made sense. Buck shook the thoughts away, Ezra was a friend, and he deserved their trust. Damn, why did he make it so difficult?
Chris could sense his friends' unease at what he was saying. Were they being a traitor to Ezra, not giving him the benefit of the doubt? "Listen, I want to trust Ezra fully, but he doesn't make it easy," Chris stated, reflecting Buck's own thoughts.
"You're not all that open with your past either," Vin remarked, finding it harder and harder to defend Ezra.
"But I wouldn't keep something like this a secret either. Not at the risk of everyone's lives. If he was a traitor during the war what's to stop him from being a traitor to us now?" Chris replied.
Buck and Vin stared at the dark-clad gunslinger. There it was, out in the open; Chris's fear that Ezra's past could get one of them killed. Chris turned and walked into the saloon, leaving his two friends with their doubts churning inside them.
Nathan removed his hat as he entered the restaurant. He quickly searched the half dozen or so tables, which were full of customers having a leisurely lunch, until he spotted Ezra and Josiah at a corner table. He made his way through the maze of chairs and tables, a good-natured smile on his face. Even after a childhood of slavery Nathan's countenance held none of the bitterness that so many ex-slaves did. Nathan came up and stood behind Ezra.
"Well Brother Jackson, how are we this fine afternoon?" Josiah asked a smile on his long face as he finished the last bite of his meal and moved the plate away, belching quietly.
"Okay Josiah, but I would like to talk to Ezra for a moment." Nathan couldn't see Ezra's face but noticed the slight drop in his shoulders.
"Quite alright I was just about to leave." Josiah stood up. "And I'm sure you won't mind picking up the tab there." The huge gunslinger slapped him on the shoulder and departed before Ezra could object. Nathan came around and sat in the chair opposite the now annoyed cardsharp.
"Yes, Mr. Jackson, and what pray tell can I do for you?" Even Ezra's southern drawl couldn't hide the underlining irritation in his voice.
Nathan decided to come right to the point. "I want to know why Jake wanted to kill you. And what did he mean about the company you keep?"
"My, we are blunt and intrusive." Ezra picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth. "I'm afraid Mr. Jackson, you will just have to take my word that I'm not a traitor or murderer."
Before either could continue Mrs. Willer, the owner of the restaurant, stepped up to the table, nervously wringing her hands and looking over her shoulder. Ezra looked up at her, perplexed by her condition. "Yes, Mrs. Willer how can we be of assistance?"
She was about the same age and height as his mother but that was the extent of any similarities between the two. Where Mrs. Willer was caring and compassionate Ezra's mother was aloof and sometimes demeaning, teaching him to look out for only himself. Mrs. Willer's husband had passed away several years ago and she worked hard to maintain the small restaurant--The seven lawmen being her best customers.
"Ah, Mr. Standish," Mrs. Willer stammered. "The other patrons requested that I ask you to leave." She paused, embarrassed by the whole situation. "I'm sorry, I don't have any problem, but it seems others...I can't afford to lose that much business," she pleaded, her eyes showing the regret she felt.
Ezra smiled up at the pleasant woman and suddenly noticed the disquieting silence that had descended on the small cafe. He saw the glowering looks of mistrust directed at him from a few of the surrounding patrons; others wouldn't even look at him. "No need to fret dear lady, I will depart."
Nathan sat dumbfounded, not believing what was happening. The irony of the whole occurrence would be humorous, if the situation was not so serious. Ezra stood up, laid several coins down on the table and left without saying a word.
Having left the unpleasant atmosphere of the restaurant, Ezra strolled down the boardwalk toward the mercantile, trying not to let the incident disturb him. He turned his thoughts to more pleasant dealings, like picking up the new saddle he had ordered a month ago all the way from El Paso, Texas.
There were only two things in life he lavished money on, himself and his horse. He tipped his hat at a young woman, who snapped her head forward and continued past. Ezra bit his lower lip, and his stomach muscles clenched. He continued his walk across the street aware of the withering looks from several townsfolk. A man passed by and spit down on the toe of Ezra's calfskin boot. Ezra paused momentarily, drew in a deep breath and continued. When he reached the other side of the street he placed his boot up on the railing, removing a handkerchief from his jacket he wiped the offending saliva from his boot.
'My, my, Mr. Orrson has been busy,' he thought to himself. His fingers curled into fists of frustration as he entered the store, stopping in the doorway to allow his eyes to adjust to the sudden gloom. He stepped up to the counter, clearing his throat to get the storekeeper's attention. "Sir, has my purchase arrived yet?"
The storekeeper, a middle-aged man with more girth than brains, turned to Ezra. "No, and I don't think it'll be comin' anytime soon," he spat.
Ezra could see his new saddle over the storekeeper's shoulder in the corner of the room. Trying to keep his voice even, and his anger in check he replied, "Sir, I believe you are mistaken and that is my saddle."
The storekeeper turned and looked at the new saddle sitting behind him. "No, you're mistaken that belongs to someone else," the storekeeper churlishly answered.
Ezra chuckled and shook his head. "Sir, and I do use the term loosely. No one else in this backwater town has the same discriminating taste as I do."
"I want you to leave!" The storekeeper demanded, a twisted smile appearing on his face as he puffed out his chest.
Ezra could no longer hold back his building rage. He grabbed the storekeeper by the shirt, bringing half his massive body across the counter and his face to within inches of his own. At the same time releasing his derringer into his hand, and pointing it right into the storekeeper's pudgy face. The storekeeper's eyes widened to twice their beady size.
"I'm having a rather unpleasant day, and your contemptible customer service isn't helping any. Now, my horse is looking forward to that saddle. I either take it without trouble or over your dead body. Your choice?" Ezra bitterly exclaimed through clenched teeth.
The storekeeper's bravado disappeared as soon as the deadly derringer appeared. Sweat formed on his high forehead as Ezra's steady green eyes burned with rage. Ezra directed the man out from behind the counter and retrieved his property, nodding his head as he promptly walked out the door. As he left he caught the slur from under the storekeeper's breath. "Traitor."
Ezra spent the remainder of the afternoon in his room, thoughts of leaving town criss-crossing his mind several times. He could meet up with his mother, who was down in Tucson staging a new con, but this was not a satisfying option. Ezra no longer got the thrill he use to achieve in bilking people out of their money. He had no problem taking it in an honest poker game, but he now found it distasteful to con naive people out of their hard earned savings. He sometimes regretted the change. It was easier when he only cared about himself. Now there were six other men he cared about, and a whole town he was sworn to protect.
"Ezra?" a young and worried voice called from outside his door. "It's me JD, are you alright?"
JD placed his hand on the doorknob. Ezra was still stretched out on the bed, staring up at the bare white ceiling, allowing his thoughts to ramble. He smiled slightly at the young sheriff's concern but did not answer.
JD looked at the door, knowing Ezra was in there. He had heard the talk, or more like the accusations that were whirling around town. JD wished there was something he could do, but Jake Orrson had done nothing illegal.
JD had managed to talk the storekeeper out of pressing charges, basically threatening him that the seven lawmen would take their business elsewhere. Since the seven purchased more ammo in a month than most stores did in a year the storekeeper relented. JD walked back down the hallway, still trying to figure out a way to help his friend.
By nightfall Ezra could no longer remain in his room. The life he had grown accustomed to was being destroyed. He was not about to sit passively by, and allow that to happen. He donned his dark green jacket and palmed a new deck of cards, hoping to get into a good game of poker to forget his troubles.
The night air felt good after the hot afternoon and confines of his room. Ezra breathed in the night coolness to clear his head. He could hear the familiar laughter and music spilling out from the saloon across the street, and it lifted his dreary spirits. Ezra paused just inside the doorway of the nearly filled establishment. He immediately noticed Buck and Josiah in quiet conversation at a far table. Ezra stepped up to the bar requesting a bottle of whiskey.
Ezra ignored the sneer thrown at him as the bartender slammed the bottle of whiskey down on the bar. He grabbed the bottle, preparing to join Buck and Josiah when he heard Jake's voice from the other end of the bar.
"I don't know what kind of town accepts a traitor, and someone who shoots one of his own men in the back to protect his own hide," Jake taunted.
Ezra stiffened as he heard the murmurs of agreement from several patrons surrounding Jake.
"You know what? I think this night might git interestin'," Buck cheerfully murmured to Josiah. Both men tensed in anticipation of what was to come. Josiah removed his hat and placed it on a hook for safe-keeping.
Ezra's back was turned to Jake, and he placed the bottle of whiskey back on the bar and slowly turned to face the contemptible man, who he had once looked up to. At the beginning of the war, Jake had protected his men with unprecedented courage. By the end of the war, Jake's good-humor and benevolence was lost forever, as he realized that he had lost everything he had worked for--including his wife. He needed someone to blame and that someone became Ezra Standish. Jake Orrson now was just a man consumed with hate--a hate that had taken over his whole life, and gave him his only reason for living.
"I lost everything because of you!" Jake snarled, trembling with rage from memories that refused to leave him.
"Mr. Orrson, I had nothing to do with the outcome of the war," Ezra tiredly replied, trying to reason with the hate-filled man.
"You collaborated with the Yanks, the enemy! You knew that Dillon had the goods on you and was going to the commander, so you killed him," Jake blurted out for the whole bar to hear.
The enthusiasm Buck had felt for the prospect of a good brawl, turned to disgust, and a desire to plant his fist into Jake Orrson's lying face.
"I had nothing to do with Lieutenant Dillon's unfortunate demise. Now, if you'll excuse me this conversation is at an end," Ezra snapped, turning his back on Jake.
"Coward!" Jake spat. He knew how to goad this man. You learned a lot about a person fighting side by side and protecting each other's back.
Ezra froze, and his placid facade fled. He no longer tried to hide the disdain he felt. He had run out of patience, and it was time to take matters into his own hands. Ezra curled his fingers into a fist and slowly turned around to face Jake, who had an unpleasant smile on his face. Ezra's southern drawl thickened, as his, not inconsiderable temper grew hot. "If you continue to throw about these accusations, I will be forced to end your miserable life." The underlying menace in the gambler's voice seemed to have the desired effect as Jake's smile vanished from his face.
Three cowhands stood behind Jake, hate evident in their dark eyes. Ezra recognized them as regular patrons, people he had sworn to protect. Now they were turning on him, believing what Jake was telling them. Jake looked over his shoulder at these men and smirked, as he turned back around Ezra's right fist connected with his chin, sending him sprawling back into the cowhands.
It had felt good, and Ezra grinned until a fist connected with his own jaw, slamming him into the bar. He grabbed the whiskey bottle and swung it, striking a rather large gentleman on the head, sending him to the floor where he remained.
Buck gave a whoop of delight as he and Josiah jumped up to help Ezra, who was being attacked by half the bar.
Jake pulled himself up off the floor. He rubbed his jaw and watched as everyone joined in the free-for-all, most not even sure why they were fighting. Jake smiled and quietly walked out of the saloon.
Josiah made his way over to his besieged friend. Two ranch hands were holding Ezra while two others administered punishment to his mid-section. Josiah grabbed two of the men by the collars and threw them aside. He then took a third, raising him up over his head and sending him smashing into a table turning it into so much kindling.
Standish swung out and connected with the last man's jaw, sending him sprawling to the floor. Ezra pulled down his jacket; turning just in time to see another enraged cowpoke barreling toward him and knocking him to the ground. Ezra dodged back as the toe of a boot missed his chin by only an inch. Buck came up from behind and slammed a chair over the man's head, and then helped Ezra to his feet. Three more cowboys suddenly piled on top of the two lawmen sending everyone to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs.
JD and Vin suddenly rushed into the saloon, staring slack-jaw at the melee for a moment. There was hardly a table or chair still in one piece. Vin raised his mare's leg and fired into the ceiling, bringing down dust and wood splinters.
JD pulled his pistol but kept it pointed up at the ceiling. "Okay, that's enough!" he yelled.
Quiet fell over the barroom except for the occasional groan. Buck, Josiah and Ezra were still standing, as were a couple other men, who were using a table to hold themselves up.
Buck was bent over, his hands on his knees trying to get his breath. He had a cut on his forehead and blood was running down the right side of his face. He couldn't hide the huge grin on his battered face, having enjoyed the fight immensely.
Josiah walked over and gave a hand up to another man, who was trying to stand. The ex-preacher had to use his left arm since he believed that his right one was dislocated.
Ezra checked out the slowly forming bruise on his jaw in the saloon's mirror, which had somehow managed to survive the brawl. He didn't miss the fact that Jake Orrson had somehow managed to disappear during the fracas.
"Okay everyone, let's go," JD ordered.
Buck's grin disappeared, replaced with an incredulous look. "Now wait a minute, JD?" He sputtered.
"Everyone Buck, you too Josiah...Ezra." JD glared at each man showing he was serious and there would be no discussion on the matter.
"Come on!" Vin added, walking over and grabbing any others who were in any condition to move. Buck and Josiah walked out submissively, Josiah cradling his right arm. Vin had to subdue a smile that was threatening to come to the surface. Ezra fastidiously brushed the dust and dirt off his jacket as he walked stiffly passed JD a faint smile on his bruised face.
Tanner found Chris in the stables brushing down his horse. The reticent gunslinger didn't even look up as Vin's shadow crossed the light coming from the lantern. "What happened?" Chris wearily asked. He had heard the ruckus over at the saloon and saw JD and Vin race over there. He figured they could handle it.
"JD locked up Buck, Josiah and Ezra," Vin replied with a slight chuckle in his voice and a mischievous glint in his eyes.
Larabee detected the amusement in the tracker's voice and a slight smirk raised the corner of his own mouth. JD took his job as sheriff seriously and didn't let personnel feelings get in the way. Chris knew it had to have been hard for the youth to lock up his friends, especially Buck, who was like a big brother to him.
"I don't know all the details, but it appears that this Jake Orrson has been gettin' the townsfolk a bit riled up about Ezra," Vin continued, shifting his rifle to his other hand.
Chris looked over his horse's back, laying a hand on the arched neck. He paused, and then turned to retrieve his duster, which hung over a stall door. He tugged his broad-brimmed hat on and tightened the chinstrap. "Well, let's git 'em out," he finally answered.
Chris and Vin entered the jail to find JD haughtily leaned back in a chair, his three jail cells filled to capacity. The young gunslinger had a very pleased grin on his face. JD rose from his chair as Chris walked over to the cell that held Buck, Josiah and Ezra.
"I had to lock 'em up," JD quickly explained. "You shoulda seen what they did to the saloon."
Vin sat on the corner of the desk, his mare's leg laid casually across his lap. He definitely wanted a front row seat for this.
Chris came up to the bars, folding his arms across his chest. He glared at his three men. Nathan had already attended to their injuries and was in the next cell tending to the others. Buck and Josiah sat together on a bunk. Buck had a bandage wrapped around his head, and Josiah's right arm was bound to his chest. Ezra was stretched out on the other bunk his hat over his face. "What happened?" Chris put the question to Buck and Josiah, knowing he wouldn't get an answer from the insolent southerner.
"Well, Chris ah... uhmm...it was just a bar room brawl. Hell, we needed one it was getting dull around here," Buck admitted, trying to lighten the dark mood that surrounded his old friend like a blanket and threatened to smother them all. Buck's eyes dropped away from his friend's cold hard stare. Chris was only a few years older than he was, but the brooding gunslinger could make him feel like a disobedient child being scolded by his father.
"How did it start?" Chris calmly inquired, trying to keep his voice even and unassuming. If there was one thing he had learned, it was getting angry didn't get him anywhere with his friends. They knew him too well.
Buck and Josiah regarded each other, not sure what to say. Josiah leaned back against the wall, holding his aching right arm. He then closed his eyes, leaving the explanation or lies to Buck.
"Well Chris, I don't really know...ah...you see it happened so fast," Buck stammered, fidgeting with the brim of his hat.
"Mr. Wilmington, you are a dreadful prevaricator," Ezra remarked from under his hat.
Standish removed his hat and sat up. "I started it, Mr. Larabee, protecting my honor and name, such as it is. Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Sanchez were just unfortunate bystanders."
Josiah snorted. "Now who's lying?" He murmured, keeping his eyes closed.
Standish stared at Chris's harden features, trying to see beneath his granite exterior. The designing conman made a living at being able to read people's faces. Most people could not hide their emotions or motives very well, something always gave them away: a twitch, a blink, a shift of their eyes or stance. Larabee was a different story. He was almost as good as Ezra at procuring a mask of indifference that no one could crack--Almost.
"Okay, out!" Chris barked out.
JD quickly came over and unlocked the cell door. Buck helped Josiah to his feet, and the two strolled out. Ezra followed until his movement was cut short by Chris. Ezra looked down at the arresting hand in the center of his chest.
"Not you, Ezra," Chris coolly stated.
Ezra raised green eyes to meet the taller man's stormy blue ones. His jaw tensed as he clenched his teeth together. "Am I to understand that my name as slandered, I'm assaulted, and I'm the one to remain incarcerated?" Ezra sharply asked.
"It's for your own safety. Jake has this whole town up in arms. Until things calm down I think it best you stay here," Chris explained. "Consider it protective custody."
Chris closed the cell door, his eyes locked on Ezra's steady gaze. Both gazes were flat and menacing, disclosing more than words ever could.
"You believe Mr. Orrson's allegations, don't you, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra smoothly asked. Chris's eyes flickered for just a second, but it was all the gambler needed to see.
"Ezra, it's for your own good," Vin countered in a low voice, coming up behind Chris.
"Even you don't fully trust me, Mr. Tanner," Ezra added, his eyes still locked on Larabee.
"Gawd, I wish he'd stop doin' that. It's like he can read minds or somethin'," Buck muttered to JD as he stood by the desk, using it for support since the world had suddenly decided to tilt slightly.
Ezra returned to the bunk, placing his hat over his head, ending the discussion. Chris stared at the conman for a moment then turned on his heel and left the jail.
Vin, Buck and Josiah stepped outside the jail. A dying moon hung in the cool night sky, offering only a diffused source of light. They could just make out Chris's dark form, standing at the end of the boardwalk.
Larabee watched as the bartender swept broken glass off the walk, one of the batwing doors, which had been hanging by one hinge finally broke and fell, breaking the silence. Chris could hear the bartender cursing.
"Well gentlemen, I think I'm going to call it a night. This arm has excluded me from any further activities for awhile," Josiah announced and headed toward the church.
"G'night, Josiah," Both Buck and Vin called out.
"What now?" Vin quietly asked the dark-clad form standing next to him.
Buck remained silent, leaning against the wall for support. He touched his head gingerly and drew in a breath as a streak of pain went through it.
"Since Ezra won't tell us anything maybe Jake's brother, Billy, will be more forthcoming," Chris answered, his tone revealing that he was going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another. He may not fully trust the obstinate cardsharp, but Ezra was a part of them and as long as he was Chris would do everything to protect him whether he wanted it or not.
The next morning Vin and Chris watched Billy Orrson enter the livery. They waited to be sure he was alone and then quietly slipped inside. Billy jumped slightly and turned, feeling the presence of the men before actually seeing or hearing them. His hand hovered near his revolver. "Whose there? What'cha want?" His voice was somewhat shaky as his eyes shifted nervously about the dimly lit stalls.
"Don't worry, son," Chris calmly reassured him as he and Vin stepped out of the shadows. "We're not here to hurt you."
Billy recognized the two men as Ezra's friends, although the look in the darkly dressed gunslinger's face did nothing to put him at ease. He looked at the two men not sure what to make of the situation. "What'cha want?" He repeated.
"We just want to know what your brother has against Ezra?" Vin asked.
Surprise came to Billy's eyes. "He's never told you."
Billy wasn't sure now how much he should confide in these men. He considered Ezra a friend, but he also looked up to his brother, or at least he used to.
"Ezra doesn't like to talk much about himself," Vin explained, leaning over a stall door.
"Look, if you're really his friends tell him he needs to be careful. Jake is crazy; he has been ever since the war. He lost everything and blames Ezra."
"Why?" Chris asked, pushing his black hat back on his head. This wasn't helping. The boy was only adding to the puzzle they were trying to piece together.
Billy looked down at the floor, nudging straw through the slats with his boot. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Some of the men in our unit believed Ezra was passing information to the enemy, but it was never proven," Billy quickly explained.
Chris eyed the boy suspiciously trying to decide if he was telling the truth.
"I don't believe it," Vin stated. "Ezra is the most pompous and proud minded southerner I've ever met. The man bleeds Dixie."
"What kind of information?" Chris asked flatly. He had fought for the north and wasn't fond of traitors, on either side, to him they were people who would sell their own mother for a price. Could Ezra actually have been a traitor to his own people? But why? Chris always believed, as everyone else, that Ezra was a very proud and loyal southerner.
"Look, I can't talk about it, you'll have to ask Ezra, but if you care about him you better watch his back." Billy pushed past Chris and raced off. Chris motioned to Vin to let the young man go. He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his blond hair.
"What do you make of it?" Vin asked, bringing his steady gaze to bear on the dark-clad gunslinger, who seemed to be lost in thought.
"Well, if Jake believes that Ezra passed information to the enemy it would explain his anger, but Billy didn't seem to believe that Ezra was a traitor," Chris said, running a hand down his face.
"So, what do we do now?"
Chris exhaled and replied, "We watch Ezra's back."
Vin nodded in agreement.