Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Ezra Standish's flamboyant attire was a beacon amongst the drab dress of the saloon's patrons. It announced his profession as a gambler as it concealed his job as lawman. At the moment, his foremost calling was the attraction at a center table with five other men. Ezra glanced at the five cards he held--three queens and two tens. His face remained impassive as his eyes circumvented the table, eyeing the other players. He raised the pot another dollar.
Ezra listened to the din that surrounded him; husky laughter competed with the nameless song pecked out on the out-of-tune piano, the clank of glasses punctuated friendly banter. These were the harmonies of his life, ones he was very well acquainted. Any change in the familiar rhythm of the saloon's vocal expression would not be overlooked. He smiled at the thought that his life as a gambler had proven advantageous for a lawman. He loved life's little ironies.
Ezra's thoughts turned to six men, who also managed to stand out in their own distinctive way within the confines of the saloon. Vin and Josiah were situated on the other side of the table, allowing him the privilege of taking their money. He was already devising a strategy that would allow Josiah to win sufficient funds to aid in the replacement of the orphanage's roof. There had been a severe windstorm early that week and many homes had been damaged. Ezra also hoped that, given enough money, Vin might replace his rather rancid buckskin coat. His mother would be truly appalled at this altruistic behavior. He actually took a certain amount of pleasure from his philanthropic activities, not that he would admit it to anyone.
"Your call, Ez," Josiah's baritone voice broke through the southerner's pleasant musings.
"Yeah, Ez, don't keep us waitin' to hand over our money," Vin chuckled. The other players at the table were not amused with the tracker's confidence in the gambler.
"Ah, Mr. Tanner, I shall endeavor not to disappoint," Ez replied smoothly as he revealed his hand and smiled at the groans of defeat, another chord within the saloon's repertoire, of which he was intimately familiar.
Ezra regarded Buck from across the room, as another hand was dealt. The resident Casanova was trying to woo, at least for the evening, a young blonde barmaid. JD and Nathan were conversing in the corner, although it appeared more like JD was doing all the talking and Nathan was just trying to keep up with the youth's exuberant conversation. Nathan twisted his mouth as JD suddenly burst into laughter at one of his own jokes.
Ezra's eyes narrowed and a smile crinkled the corners of his mouth when he spotted Chris surveying the room from his place at the bar. Chris actually seemed to be enjoying himself. His face was relaxed; a faint smile melting away the years and putting a light back into his eyes that was too long absence.
The seven lawmen were at ease for the first time in days. The last of the outlaws, who had robbed the bank at Cedar Ridge, were cooling their heels in the jail awaiting the judge's return. Chris had just finished patrol and given everyone the night off.
Larabee nodded when he noticed Ezra's serene scrutiny from across the room. He wondered what the suave southerner was thinking. Of the six men he worked with the enigmatic gambler was probably the most complicated--A puzzle with some of the pieces missing. Chris downed his beer and wiped a hand across his mouth as he slouched back against the bar. He was slowly putting the pieces together and getting a picture of the smooth operator--a man who hid a fragile heart behind a mask of indifference and self-interest. Chris's blue eyes swept the room, a rare feeling of affection filling him as he gazed upon the six other lawmen he found himself irrevocably tied to.
'Content,' Chris thought. It was the first word that came to mind when he thought of his life in Four Corners and the friends he had made.
'At peace,' Ezra reflected, unknowingly mimicking his leader's thoughts, it was the reason they all remained in Four Corners a place that was fast becoming a home for the seven lawmen.
The bat-wing doors banged open announcing the arrival of Mr. Macklin, owner of the mercantile. He was a large man with a fringe of white hair and brown eyes that fought for their place above fleshy cheeks. Macklin paused at the entrance. He scanned the sea of bodies, that moved about the smoke-filled room, with furious intent. No one seemed to pay any attention to his abrupt entrance, except seven men who were instantly alert for any trouble.
Macklin glanced over at JD then stepped off the landing, the floorboards creaking under his weight. "Sheriff, arrest that man!" He suddenly yelled, pointing at Ezra's table.
The outburst brought the saloon's musical score to its finale as silence abruptly filled the room.
"Arrest who?" JD asked, stepping up alongside the annoying merchant and searching the bar room for some elusive perpetrator.
"Standish!" Macklin huffed, rolling his eyes at the inexperienced sheriff. Macklin folded his arms across his chest in self-righteousness.
JD blinked and looked over at Chris and the others, seeing the same bewildered, yet amused expressions.
"Why?" JD innocently asked.
"He stole funds for the McCray family's new roof," Macklin accused. "I knew him being a lawman was nothing but a con. He was just biding his time waiting until our guard was down."
Macklin glared at the smug cardsharp's back. He had hoped that after Standish's thirty days, the urbane gambler would have moved on to greener pastures and that the others would have soon followed, but as the weeks went by it appeared more and more that the seven gunslingers were here to stay. Macklin had a problem with gunslingers as law enforcement and especially with a black man and a wanted man holding such prestigious positions, but Jackson was a competent healer, and Tanner was a good friend of Larabee, so many of the town's folk accepted them.
Ezra remained seated and sipped at his whiskey, avoiding eye contact with the men at his table. Macklin had always been the most vocal detractor of his position as a lawman.
"What the hell are you talkin' 'bout, Macklin?" Buck called out from his spot against the bar. He gently released his hold on the young barmaid as she moved behind the bar.
"I'm saying the money is gone, stolen! And we all know he's capable of stealing," Macklin sneered.
Ezra winced; most of the town had discovered his momentary lapse of judgment when he almost ran off with the ten-thousand dollars used to buy a hit man to kill Mrs. Travis. He thought he had redeemed himself by saving her life.
Chris glared at the pompous man. He didn't like anyone coming in and maligning someone in public, and especially not one of his men. Ezra had made some mistakes, but he had more than made up for them during the past two months of putting his life on the line protecting the town.
"You got proof of this theft?" Chris asked as he stepped away from the bar his earlier good-mood dissolving under the merchant's allegation.
Macklin ran a thick tongue over dry lips as Larabee's intimidating presence swallowed some of his bravado. His eyes searched the room seeing many of the patrons listening intently; this helped to harden his resolve.
"Mrs. McKenna saw Standish just an hour ago near the donation box outside my store. There was one-hundred and thirty dollars in there and the lock was picked just as pretty as you please."
"How you know how much money was taken?" Vin asked.
"I had just opened the box to take out the day's contributions to deposit them in the bank when Mr. Malloy asked me to dinner, so I left the money." Macklin glared hard at Standish's back. "And I made sure it was locked tight!" he emphasized, returning his attention to the darkly dressed gunslinger. "After dinner, I found the box open and the money gone. Mrs. McKenna said she saw Mr. Standish near the box just a short time ago."
"Hell, that box is on a public walkway. Anyone coulda taken it," Buck countered.
"Ezra don't need to steal," JD vehemently added.
Chris glanced over at the gambler who sat motionless and silent, his jaw clenched. To most people the cardsharp looked unconcerned, but Chris had learned a little about the aloof man. He knew these accusations struck as deep as any bullet and did far more damage.
Ezra could feel the silent accusations and caught bits of conversations, the doubts being expressed by the townspeople throughout the room, old insecurities flared to life, and he had to shake away the thoughts that the other lawmen might believe Macklin.
"You can't tell me that a dollar a day and what he makes gambling is enough to buy them fancy duds of his." Macklin started to talk to the whole room as if Ezra was on trial. "Larabee won't let him ply his trade," Macklin sneered as he turned in the center of the room. "He can't cheat god-fearing folk. What other way is there for him than to steal? You all have seen that fancy saddle, fine handkerchiefs and expensive whiskey he flaunts."
Macklin smiled as heads nodded in agreement. The cardsharp did seem to live well, there was no denying that.
"I demand that you search him!"
"That won't prove a thing, Ezra always has cash on 'im," Nathan defended.
Ezra smiled faintly. It was rare that the humanitarian healer defended him. They had both come a long way, from pasts that contradicted any possible friendship to ways of lives that were in constant conflict. Somehow, a friendship continued to struggle between the two men.
Ezra took a deep breath and pushed his chair back. He gracefully stood, smoothing out his jacket as he turned to face his accuser. He glanced around the room noticing the subtle and blatant expressions of doubt and belief on the faces of the people he was sworn to protect, people who had come to mean more to him then he ever thought possible.
"Mr. Macklin." Ezra's voice took on a decidedly icy tone, but his face remained unemotional. "I did not purloin any funds, and I see no reason to remain and listen to this verbal attack on my person. Good-day, sir."
Ezra tipped his hat and walked up the stairs toward his room without a look back. Vin bowed his head to hide his grin. The man had grit.
"Aren't you going to stop him?" Macklin turned to JD.
"Nope." JD turned away from the shop keep.
Macklin's face turned vivid red as he blustered. "This is madness, to let a known conman and coward walk among decent folk."
"That's enough!" Chris shouted, holding his fists at his sides.
"Mr. Macklin, I suggest you calm down," Josiah muttered, working hard to hold back his growing anger. "We'll find the money."
You're all protectin' 'im," Macklin charged.
The six lawmen stepped as one toward the store keep. "I believe you're oversteppin' your bounds, Macklin," Chris growled. "Now go back to your store and we'll find the money."
Macklin guffawed and stormed out of the saloon. Chris shook his head and looked around the room; the damage was done. Damn, Ezra didn't deserve this; he was trying hard to change his image. Why wouldn't these people give him a chance? Then again, it took a long time before Chris even trusted him.
Buck sidled up alongside his long-time friend and looked across the saloon. "Ah, hell, Chris, Ez don't deserve this."
Chris chuckled at his friend's similar thoughts. "I know, Buck, but sometimes a man's past is hard to shake."
"And even harder to live with," Josiah added as he stepped up in front of the two men.
"What are we going to do?" JD asked as he approached the lawmen.
"We're going to find that money," Chris confidently stated.
Chris stepped into the saloon, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness and seeing the six dark shapes hunched around several tables. He had asked that everyone meet after lunch. It had been two days since Macklin's accusation, and the rumors and innuendoes continued to circle the town, like vultures picking at the kill until there was nothing left but a carcass.
Chris's gaze came to rest on Ezra who sat quietly at a table by himself, not meeting anyone's eyes. He looked tired, dark circles underscored dull green eyes. Ezra had continued his duties and displayed an air of unconcern, but Chris and the others knew how much the talk hurt the suave cardsharp. The McCray family had been forced to move into town, unable to stay in their barn any longer, this only fueled the growing ire within the town.
Ezra glanced up momentarily when the blond leader entered the saloon. He was tired; tired of being verbally accosted in the middle of the street and told what a no-good, thieving polecat he was. Tired of the silent but equally accusing glares from the same people who used to greet him cordially on the street. He was unable to indulge in even a friendly poker game, and he had taken to eating his meals up in his room. He tried to ignore the rebuffs and maintain a stance of nonchalance, but inside it was tearing him apart. Why should what these people think disturb him? His mother was right. He should never have let himself become involved with the people of this town. He should have rode out when he had ten-thousand dollars in his pocket.
"What's goin' on, Chris?" Buck asked as Chris crossed the floor and stopped at the bar.
"The judge wants some of us to go check out the town of Byers just east of here. Apparently, they're missing their sheriff," Chris explained.
"What do you mean missing?" JD asked.
"How do you lose a sheriff?" Buck joked.
"No one's heard from him for over a month and some town representative says the sheriff never arrived, but we have information that he did," Chris explained.
"What do they want us to do about it?" Nathan dryly asked.
"Judge wants us to check it out and hang around until he can send another sheriff and deputy." Chris glanced around the room. His men were disheartened, having spent the past couple days trying to find the real thief and quell suspicions.
"Buck, Ez, you two go ahead and check things out, find out what's going on and then wire the judge. Vin and I will follow later." When the judge had told him of the assignment Chris immediately thought it would be the best way to get Ezra out of town for a while.
Ezra's head snapped up, and for just a second the thought that this was a way to get him out of town for good flashed through his mind.
"I know what you're thinkin', Ez," Chris knowingly answered seeing the sudden mistrust flash within the conman's eyes. "I just think you need a little time away."
"Yeah, Ez, this will be good. Give folks a time to realize that you had nothin' to do with taking that money," Buck added.
"Yeah, you know, out of sight, out of mind," JD put in.
Buck glared hard at his young friend and wished he was within striking distance. Sometimes JD's mouth overran his brain.
"What...What I say?" JD said seeing the abrupt change in Buck's expression.
Ezra sniffed and pushed away from the table. "I don't believe any amount of time will convince these people of my innocence." Ezra turned and headed out the doors. His muted anger released into the bat-wing doors, slamming them on either side of the doorway.
Chris watched Ezra walk out, wondering if he was doing the right thing by sending him away. "Buck, when you get to Byers, stay close to town, and keep an eye on each other."
"Don't worry, I'll watch 'im, pard," Buck assured as he followed the troubled gambler.
"Ez didn't put up much of fight 'bout going," JD intoned. JD was right, Ezra had been too compliant, and it wasn't natural.
"Yeah, he usually beats the devil around the stump to git out of things," Nathan added.
"I fear our brother is growing weary with having to prove himself time and time again," Josiah remarked. He was growing concerned for his friend. Ezra was feeling betrayed and alone, and Josiah feared that he would leave them.
"Well, he has to expect it," Nathan added, earning a fierce look from Vin and Josiah. "He is a conman," Nathan said in way of defense.
"Was...he was a conman," Vin stressed. "He hasn't pulled a con, at least, not one that benefited himself since he joined us."
Nathan thought quickly over the past few days. Ezra had remained aloof from them and the town. Nate always believed that very little could crack the gambler's wall of indifference. It wasn't the accusations themselves, but the people making them, people he had come to trust.
"Well, maybe it just takes some people more time than others. There are a lot of people who don't accept me because of my skin color," Nathan said in way of an apology.
"Yeah, but everyone ain't always reminding you of it," JD blurted out.
"Okay," Chris said grabbing the other's attention. "I don't care how long it takes or what we have to do, we find out who really took that money."
The steady clop of the horses' hooves on the hard-packed road was the only sound breaking the morose silence that had settled between the two men. Even the light, refresh breeze, wafting with the smells of spring couldn't improve the mood of the dejected southerner.
Ezra had remained lost in thought for most of the morning, allowing the quietude and the soothing movement of his horse to mince up his stray thoughts. He was actually grateful to Larabee for sending him away, although he'd never admit it. The looks and whispered allegations were starting to take their toll on his normally cool facade. Why couldn't people see beneath a person's exterior? That wasn't exactly the correct question. The people of Four Corners accepted Mr. Jackson, ignoring his skin color due to his aptitude in medicine, a skill most coveted in this region. They seemed to accept Vin's innocence, even though he was still a wanted man. They ignored or accepted Josiah's fall from grace, and even Larabee's deadly demeanor. It would be more accurate to ask why people couldn't see beyond one's profession, but then Ezra was the best at what he did. He could still see the disgust and distrust in some of the townspeople's eyes as he rode out of town. He knew some hoped he would never return. Yes, he was a conman, but he was trying to change; didn't anyone see that?
Buck was growing uneasy at Ezra's uncharacteristic silence. He much preferred JD's chatty demeanor to the cardsharp's recent melancholy behavior. It just wasn't Ezra without his sarcasm and dry wit making everyone crazy, and driving Chris to the brink of murder. He knew Ezra was having a hard time with the past events and hoped he wasn't contemplating leaving. He glanced over at his quiet companion... Ezra needed people, even though he shied away from those who tried to get close--he was a man trying to keep his head up in a raging river and reluctant to take hold of any life line thrown out to him.
It was early afternoon by the time the two lawmen rode into the town of Byers. Ezra frowned as he took in the quiet and clean streets and watched as people moved cordially along the boardwalk and across the street. Buck pushed back his hat and stared wide-eyed. Both lawmen glanced at each other in bewilderment.
"Are you sure you got us to the right town, Ez?" Buck asked.
Ezra rolled his eyes and continued down the street noting the townspeople glancing their way.
Buck locked eyes with a pretty young woman walking up the boardwalk and had to pull up sharply when he realized that Ezra had stopped in the middle of street.
"What the hell," Buck murmured as he looked up at the cause of the gambler's sudden halt.
Two men hung about the neck from the limb of a large oak tree like some macabre decoration. By the looks of them, they had adorned the tree for at least a day.
Buck scratched his ear. "Looks like the town has decided to dispense their own justice."
"Obviously." Ezra released a tired breath and pulled his Colt, firing it into the air.
The people on the boardwalk froze and others poured out of the shops and saloon to stare at the two lawmen.
"Now that we have your attention," Ezra announced, draping his gun hand over the saddle horn. "I am Ezra Standish and my companion is Buck Wilmington. We're the new provisional law sent here by order of Judge Orrin Travis."
Out of the corner of his eye, Buck watched a cowboy go for his gun. Buck's hand was on his own gun, whipping it free of its holster with a crisp snap of gun metal on leather. Buck stared down the barrel at the other man's startled wide-eyed expression as he relaxed ever so slightly--the killing pressure he'd just begun to exert on the trigger. "I wouldn't if I were you," Buck growled, his own gun pointed at the cowboy's chest. "Didn't you just hear my friend? We're the law!"
The gunman slowly moved his hands away from his holster and stepped back.
"We are initiating a curfew to begin at..." Ezra pulled his pocket watch from his vest. "... six o'clock, so please finish any immediate business you have and depart, or risk being incarcerated," Ezra explained.
Murmurs of discontent rose up around them. Ezra knew his proclamation would arouse some reaction, this was the quickest way to find out who was in charge. Buck sat back and watched as Ezra took hold of the situation.
Ezra turned as a shaggy white-haired, bespectacled man with fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows stepped out and stood on the step of the saloon like a soapbox.
"Gentlemen, I'm Gideon Ashcroft the unofficial mayor of this town."
"Where's the sheriff?" Buck asked. He felt an instant dislike to the pompous man.
Ashcroft's eyes flashed anger then just as quickly eased back into practiced good humor. "Ah...he never arrived." Ashcroft glanced around the surrounding crowd. "We see to ourselves here."
"Does that include the two corpses hanging from that tree," Ezra said pointing his Colt for emphasis.
"Ah, yeah, those two," Ashcroft stammered through a smile. "Well, they a tried to rob our bank. What did you expect us to do?"
Ezra eyed the corpses turning slowly at the end of the ropes. One was dressed in a three-piece-suit a little unusual for your run-of-the-mill robber. The cardsharp's eyes narrowed as he noticed the expensive boots
"They get a trial?" Buck asked. He wasn't as keen as Vin or Ezra at spottin' a lie, but he knew Ashcroft was telling a whopper. The man wasn't any better at lyin' than JD.
Ashcroft glanced over his shoulder and leaned back as a man with dark hair and long side burns whispered into his ear. He returned his attention to the two lawmen. "They were guilty and got what they deserved."
"I kinda have to wonder if them men would have disagreed with ya," Buck intoned sarcastically. Ashcroft's eyes narrowed in contempt at the cowboy's insinuation.
"Did they have benefit of counsel?" Ezra interrupted.
"Did anyone defend them?" Ezra translated.
"Hell no, who's going to defend a couple of robbin' drifters," Ashcroft laughed, drawing smiles from several of the townspeople around him.
Ashcroft stepped down into the street. "Listen, you both seem like reasonable men. As you can see this is a peaceful town. We take care of things in our own way and we don't need a sheriff mucking things up." Ashcroft's smile grew and his voice lowered conspiratorially. "Now, I know you boys came a long way, but if you'd be willing to go back and tell that Judge that we really don't need any law I'm sure we can make it worth your while."
Ezra glared down at the unofficial mayor. "Sir, Judge Travis sent us; Judge Travis is the only one who can dismiss us. Now, if you'd be so kind as to direct us toward your jail house and have someone remove those men as the afternoon heat is making them rank."
Ashcroft's smile fell and he exhaled. The silenced stretched on a moment as he glowered at the lawmen, realizing he wouldn't get anywhere with these two men. He nodded toward a small building across the street.
"Thank you, sir," Ezra replied and turned his horse away.
Buck grinned and tipped his hat toward Ashcroft as he reined his horse around and followed. Ashcroft turned and walked back into the saloon. He stopped in the doorway and watched as the two lawmen hitched up their horses in front of the jail.
"What are we goin' to do, boss?" A young man asked coming up from behind.
Ashcroft scratched at his beard. "We don't need a couple a officious piss-ants screwing things up. We need to convince them boys that we don't need them here, or they're goin' to end up just like the sheriff--Dead."
"We'll have to wire the judge and let him know what's goin' on. Tell 'em 'bout those dead men." Buck stated as they stepped into the jailhouse. He stopped and scrunched his face. "Gawd, I've seen better outhouses."
The small building was in a definite state of disuse with bullet holes decorating the walls and several spiders having set up a small burg in one of the cells.
Ezra wiped a finger across the dust covering the desk and cringed. "It appears this town has had little use for their jail facilities."
Buck tentatively settled down into a rickety rocking chair. "Yeah, we saw why, well, anyway we won't be here long enough to take up housekeepin'. You git the feelin' that something's going on here?"
"Why Mr. Wilmington, I do believe my suspicious nature is rubbing off on you," Ezra intoned.
"Hey don't go insultin' me none. It just don't smell right here."
"Buck Wilmington, as I live and breath."
Buck shot out of the chair at the familiar feminine voice. A voice that immediately put his heart in his throat. He stared slack-jawed and wide-eyed at the beautiful heart-shaped face under piled dark hair just inside the doorway.
"Sadie, Sadie Jordan," Buck whispered hoarsely.
Ezra folded his arm across his chest and leaned against the desk, straightening when he remembered how dirty it was. He watched in amusement as a wave of lost emotion engulfed his friend. For a second Ezra thought that Buck would faint dead away.
The stunned cowboy suddenly whooped, and taking three giant steps, swooped up the young woman in his arms twirling her into the center of the room. "Sadie, is it really you?!" The woman wrapped her arms tight around Buck's neck and laughed.
"Well a course it's me, you big galoot. I hope I haven't changed that much," she laughed.
"I take it you know each other?" Ezra amusingly asked.
Buck set Sadie down but kept an arm around her waist. "Sorry, Ez, this is Sadie Jordan. It's been what...?"
"Over ten years," Sadie interjected.
Buck's eyes widen and his exuberance diminished a little at the shock of just how much time had past. Ezra cleared his throat as silence filled the small room. "Oh, sorry, Sadie, this is Ezra Standish."
The young woman nodded toward the handsome southerner. Ezra stood and took the young woman's hand kissing the back of it lightly. Buck rolled his eyes at his friend's show of chivalry.
"What are you doing here? How long have you been here..."? Buck's questions suddenly shot out.
"Buck." Sadie laughed, bringing her hand to her chest to try and quell her racing heart. She stared back at a man who had never left her dreams.
Ezra had to hold back a laugh at his friend's look of contrition, it was something he was not used to seeing on the gregarious cowboy's face.
Sadie pushed some loose strands of hair back into place. "Well, I gather you boys need some time to get settled, so how about meeting me at the restaurant in an hour and we can catch up. It's just down the street and the only one in town."
"I'll be there." Buck paused and looked toward Ezra.
Ezra waved a hand dismissively. "I don't see a problem with you getting reacquainted with Miss Jordan."
Buck grinned. "Thanks Ez."
"In one hour then." Sadie turned and walked out the door. Buck followed her, afraid that if he blinked she would disappear. Sadie glanced over her shoulder and smiled.
"Well Mr. Wilmington, care to enlighten me on this previous conquest?"
"She weren't no conquest, Ez." Buck continued to watch Sadie cross the street as he leaned against the doorframe. "We met ten years ago in a town outside of Kansas City and fell in love."
Ezra flinched at the admission. Buck never used the 'L' word. Buck turned to his stunned friend and smiled as feelings from a bygone time welled up inside him. It was another life, someone else's life.
"So what happened?"
Buck's smile paled as he remembered. "Her father didn't approve of a ramblin' cowboy courtin' his daughter. He dragged her back East, end of story. Figured it just wasn't meant to be." Buck looked at Ezra with serious eyes. "I would have married her had she stayed. Never told her that though didn't want to put her in the position of choosing between me or her family."
"Well, Mr. Wilmington, sometimes life gives a man a second chance." Ezra's eyes revealed how true that could be.
Buck's grin returned. "Yeah, maybe it does."
"I'll make the rounds and send a wire off to the Judge," Ezra exclaimed as he headed out the door. "Meet with you later this afternoon."
"Yeah, and Ez...thanks, I'll owe you one pard."
"And I will collect, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra slyly quipped as he tipped his hat and started down the street.
Buck strolled down the street after checking out the local barber for a quick shave. He didn't have time for a bath and borrowed some of Ezra's cologne. For once the urbane cardsharp came prepared with something that he could use. The town was quiet with only some cowhands leading their horses to the livery and the store owner sweeping the boardwalk outside his store. It felt unnatural. He thought he felt someone watching him but every time he turned around the street was empty. Buck shook away his disturbing thoughts as he neared the end of the street.
The restaurant sat on the bottom floor of a two-story building. The upper floor was for let. The building was freshly painted a sky blue with white shutters that melted away his uneasy feelings. Buck stopped inside, stunned at the opulent interior. White linen tablecloths and napkins covered a dozen or more tables, each decorated with an arrangement of flowers. He wasn't an expert but it appeared that rich looking Asian rugs covered the floor, sculptures and paintings adorned every corner and wall.
"May I seat you, sir?"
Buck blinked and stared at the neatly dressed waiter who stood dutifully in front of him.
"Ah yeah." Buck made a quick search of the tables not seeing Sadie, in fact not seeing anyone. It was almost dinnertime and he wondered where people were. Maybe no one ate out during the week. "I'm expecting someone."
"Very well. I can seat you at this nearby table."
Buck removed his hat and followed the waiter to a table in front of a large window. Gossamer drapes gave a measure of privacy and diffused the sun's rays.
Buck fidgeted with a silver fork as he waited. He stood when he saw Sadie, dressed in an elegant blue gown appear out from the back. She stopped and whispered something to the waiter, before coming up to Buck.
"You look wonderful," Buck breathed as he lightly brushed his lips against her cheek and pulled out her chair.
The waiter immediately appeared at her side.
"We'll have the chicken, Maurice," Sadie said. "And my private wine."
"Very good, madam."
"Some service," Buck casually commented.
"Well, thank you. I expect nothing less from my employees."
Buck scrunched up his face.
"Didn't you know I owned this place?" Sadie laughed, and then added, "Or at least part of it."
Buck grinned as he took another look at the impressive interior. "How?"
Sadie removed her neatly folded napkin and laid it in her lap, dropping her eyes. "Pa died a couple years back and I came back out west. I never married, guess I just never found the right person." Sadie's liquid brown eyes looked up at the only man she had ever loved. "I happened into this town a couple months ago and opportunity opened its door and here I am."
"You said part owner." Buck took a sip of water that had been placed on the table.
"Yes, my associate is I guess what you'd call a silent partner. He wishes to stay anonymous and only helps out financially. Everything from the menu to the decorations to hiring the staff is left up to me."
"I'm impressed." Buck sat back as the waiter served their wine. "Looks like business is a bit slow."
Sadie's smile dropped slightly. "Ah, yes, it isn't a good time of year right now. You know, all the ranchers are busy with their fields and livestock." Sadie wrung her napkin for a moment, before smoothing it against her lap again.
Buck cocked his head and looked at the woman who was far removed from the naïve girl he once knew. When he looked into her face those long ago feelings returned and he felt like he did ten years ago.
"Now enough about me." Sadie suddenly interjected. "What happened to you after I left?"
"Well, I joined the Texas Rangers for a spell."
Sadie chuckled. "I can't imagine you being a lawman." She smiled over her glass of wine, remembering a wild and adventurous young man who caught her up in his exploits. She would have married him had it not been for her family.
"Yeah, hard to believe sometimes, but it's been pretty good to me so far."
"Whatever happened to that wild young man you used to hang around with; what was his name?"
"Chris Larabee," Buck reminded, knowing immediately who she was referring too. Him and Chris had hooked up several years before. He could still remember his old friend harping on him about getting involved with one woman. Buck inwardly smiled, remembering how Chris adamantly pledged to never get tied to one woman that was until Sarah came into his life.
"Yeah, always thought he'd get you both shot or locked up in prison," Sadie confessed, pulling Buck out of his reverie.
"Nope, that old hound dog is still alive and kickin', and in fact I work with him."
"There are seven of us. We're lawmen out of Four Corners, and Chris is sort of our unofficial leader."
"Now I've heard everything, Chris Larabee a lawman?" The two became quiet as the waiter brought their food served on fine china.
"Lord, Sadie, I'm used to eating on a tin plate. I'm afraid I might break this stuff."
"Don't worry on it, Buck." Sadie cut a small piece of the tender chicken and ate it. "So do you plan on staying a lawman forever?"
Buck paused in mid-spoonful. It was the first time the question had ever been asked. "You know, if'n you'd asked me that a couple months ago I'd 'ave said no, but now things have changed. It's not a bad life and I have some good friends who I trust."
Buck returned to his plate of food missing the disappointment in Sadie's eyes.
Ezra stood for a time on the boardwalk outside the jailhouse, checking things out before walking across the street. Buck had left for his long overdue rendezvous with Miss Jordan. Ezra didn't think he'd ever seen Buck so utterly excited about meeting a woman. Oh, the ladies' man always looked forward to his romantic trysts, but this seemed different. He never thought Buck would be the first of their little band to fall under the enchanting spell of the female creature. He would have bet money on JD being the first.
Ezra strolled down the boardwalk and noticed right off how quiet and orderly the town was, as if put on their best behavior for a visiting relative. He stepped into the mercantile slightly overwhelmed by the crates, boxes and barrels filling the spacious store. Saddles hung in bulky ranks across the ceiling, and shelves were piled with everything from tobacco and corn meal to lanterns and shovels, from boots and riding tack to hats. He hadn't seen anything like this since leaving St. Louis. The west just couldn't hold a candle to the extravagances of the east. He casually walked over to admire several linen shirts, reaching out to feel the quality of the material.
He noticed a small man wearing an apron and a handlebar mustache on the far side of the counter. He stood between an ornate green-brass cash register and a set of scales, seeing to two cowhands who were rattling off a list of supplies.
The apron-coated man looked up to see Ezra surveying his shop. He immediately recognized the fancy dressed man as one of the two lawmen who had come into town. 'Now here was a man who had some taste,' the store keep immediately thought. "With ya in a minute, sir," he called out.
"No hurry," Ezra replied and continued to study the array of merchandise displayed on one of the shelves. The two men departed shortly, their arms laden with ammo, flour and hard tack.
"All the way from California," the storekeeper exclaimed as Ezra admired several linen shirts.
"Very impressive." Ezra drawled. He continued to eye the goods as he walked up to the counter. His eyes were drawn down to several beautiful vials of perfume under the glass top counter.
"And these came all the way from Paris," the merchant proudly explained, resting his hands on the glass. "Maybe you have a special someone, huh?"
Ezra smiled politely. "No offense, but the clientele in this area hardly seems the type to purchase such finery. How do you support such costly wares?" Ezra asked.
The storekeeper's smile disappeared and his eyes darted back and forth as if looking for a means of escape or hoping that someone would come to his rescue. He'd never been asked that question before. "Well, er... my partner handles all the finances and buying of merchandise."
"And does this partner have a name?" Ezra inquired sensing the man's sudden nervousness.
"Sorry, he sort 'ave likes to stay nameless."
"I got things to do in the back, so if'n you ain't buyin' I need to ask you to leave." The storekeeper's polite decorum had evaporated with his smile and Ezra tipped his hat and headed toward the door.
Buck and Sadie spent the next couple hours catching up on old times and enjoying their meal, the years seemed to slip away with the afternoon.
Buck swirled the last of his wine at the bottom of his glass, momentarily at a loss for words.
"So, where do we go from here?" Sadie abruptly asked.
Buck looked up. "I'm not sure, but I want a chance to see where this could go."
Sadie smiled and the two tapped their glasses, their eyes locked in promises from the past.
Across the street, Gideon Ashcroft's eyes narrowed as he watched Sadie and Buck through the window. Things were beginning to get complicated.
Ezra stood outside the saloon and turned his head as Gideon Ashcroft appeared at his side. "Please, Mr. Standish, is it? Come inside." Gideon held open one of the bat-wing doors for the lawman to enter.
Ezra entered the saloon to the sound of click-clack-click of a billiards game in progress, blending with the tinkling of a player piano in the corner and the laughs and lightly bandied conversation that filled the impressive saloon. His heart raced at the sight of a saloon that he saw every night in his dreams. The conversations died away momentarily until Ashcroft appeared at the gambler's side and nodded.
Ezra stiffened as the older man gripped his arm and guided him to a nearby table. "Please allow me to buy you a drink. I feel I should make-up for my earlier rudeness."
Ezra was put on-guard at Ashcroft's sudden friendliness, but allowed himself to be led across the floor. He eyed the colored balls that rolled across the green felt as they passed the ornate billiards table. He shook away his feelings of longing. He had a job to do and Larabee would have his hide if he allowed a life-time aspiration to interfere with his duty. Ezra removed his black low-crown hat and smoothly sat down, turning his attention to the white-haired gentleman who kept a smile pasted on his face.
Gideon sat down and gestured to get the attention of the waitress behind the bar. "Bernice, my finest whiskey."
The young woman nodded.
Ashcroft exhaled and his grin took up half his face. "I must admit, you have me mystified, Mr. Standish. Are you a gambler masquerading as a lawman or a lawman masquerading as a gambler?"
Ezra smiled. "I'm a gambler by profession, and have taken the job of lawman temporarily."
"I see. So you are someone who would appreciate the finer things in life." Ashcroft sat back in his chair and eyed the suave southerner. "You like my saloon?" he abruptly asked.
Ezra raised an eyebrow at the disclosure. "I must admit it is one of the better establishments I've run into." Ezra glanced around the room noticing the two players at the pool table. A couple of patrons hunched over the bar, and several gruff looking men were settling back into a game of cards at one of the far tables. One of the men at the bar rated a second look, and Ezra recognized the man with long side burns from earlier. "However does such a small town afford such first-rate accouterments?"
Ashcroft's eyes widened and he laughed out loud. "Well, you don't beat around the bush do ya, Mr. Standish?"
Ezra nodded as the waitress placed two glasses and a bottle of whiskey in the center of the table. Ashcroft grabbed the bottle and pour generous amounts of liquor into both glasses.
"We may be small but we have a lot of can-do spirit here in Byers," Ashcroft finally replied.
Ezra's brow furrowed and his fingers rubbed the brim of his hat. Ashcroft could see that the fancy-dressed lawman was not satisfied with his answer.
"We have some very wealthy and farseeing investors who see the promise of our town," Ashcroft added voluntarily. He wondered how much he should reveal to this man. He and others had big plans they were going to make Byers a town that everyone wanted to come to.
"I see, and I gather these investors control other establishments within the town?"
"Yeah, a few, but it's a partnership, one that works well here." Ascroft answered.
"I consider myself somewhat of a novice investor and would like to meet these influential people that are supporting a whole town."
Ashcroft took a sip of his whiskey and eyed the lawman his smile having dropped from his face.
"Sorry, they prefer to remain anonymous."
Ashcroft's answers were becoming curt and Ezra allowed suspicion to narrow his eyes. It was nothing strange for businesses to have financial partners, but normally backers were renowned and wanted to be known. How many could afford to support a whole town with very little potential?
Ashcroft's breath quickened and his smile dipped at the gambler's dubious expression. Ashcroft guffawed and slapped the table his smile returning to his face as he tried to lighten the mood. "I have a proposition for you."
Ezra's eyebrows arched in interest. "And what would this proposition entail?"
Ashcroft leaned closer. "If you and your friend give up this idea of bringing law to Byers, I can make you a very rich man, even make you a partner in this saloon."
Ashcroft sat back in his chair a smug smile on his face. He was taking a chance that this law business was some type of con; most gamblers were only out for themselves.
Ezra picked up his glass and held it up looking through the amber liquid. He stared through the golden liquid at the long elaborate bar that stretched across the back wall. This was a test, like the ten-thousand dollars was a test, at least that was how Josiah explained it to him. "Sir, I'm afraid I will have to decline your offer."
Ashcroft sputtered and choked on his whiskey, bringing his arm up to wipe his mouth.
"The territorial governor has made it clear that every town will have adequate law, and my associate and I are here to comply."
"But we don't need any law, surely you can see that," Gideon's voice rose and his pleasant attitude quickly disappeared. "We've done just fine without it."
"I believe the two gentlemen who greeted us from a most undesirable position would disagree," Ezra reminded.
"They deserved what they got!" Ashcroft growled. He was angry. They should have buried those men right after the hanging, but they were left up there as a warning to others.
"They also deserved a fair trial," Ezra interjected. "I would imagine a business man such as yourself would want the law to protect your investments."
"My investments are protected. I mean..." Ashcroft blurted out then suddenly bit off the words as if realizing he had said too much. "All the law does is put restrictions on a man's right to make a living," he amended.
Ezra smiled slightly.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ashcroft, but I have already notified the judge, and Mr. Wilmington and myself will be staying on until relieved by the new sheriff." Ezra drained his glass and stood, grabbing his hat. "Good-day, sir."
The man with long side-burns slipped into the vacated chair, looking over his shoulder and watching as the fancy dressed lawman left.
"Sounds like we might have another problem. Guess we didn't shut up that banker and his brother soon enough."
Ashcroft glared at the cowboy. "Don't you think I know that!" First it was the sheriff then Horace and Henry developed a conscious and tried to get a message out
"Get Clem and go and inform Mendoza. This is his problem now. We can't have the law moving in, it will ruin everything."
Ashcroft poured himself a generous amount of whiskey as the other man left out the back. He downed the fiery liquid and a shudder went through him. He tried. It was out of his hands now.
Ezra's brow furrowed as he stepped out of the saloon and glanced up and down the street. Everything was quiet and peaceful--a little too peaceful. Something was not right; the town appeared under control, but he wondered whose control? Ezra knew that there was not enough money coming into town to support the amount of business he had seen. The hotel wasn't even half full and the population was smaller than that of Four Corners. They weren't anywhere near the rail line and this wasn't a regular stage route, yet the town prospered. There were only a few scattered ranches that amounted to anything nearby. Someone wanted this town to succeed at all cost, but why?
Ezra glanced down the street at the bank, which was closed and had been since they came into town. Maybe it was because of the robbery attempt. A middle-aged man with brown hair stepped out from the alley and walked toward him. "Excuse me," Ezra said as the gentleman past alongside him. The man jumped and stopped. "Do you know when the bank will be open for business?"
The man's eyes widened and he looked over his shoulder. "No, I don't and if you're smart you'll stop asking questions." The harried man rushed away and turned into a nearby building.
Ezra stared at where the man had disappeared bewildered at the baffling warning. He then noticed faces peering out from several windows. Ezra made his way back to the jailhouse to wait for Buck.
"Shoot, Chris, I've talked to everyone in town -- twice. No one saw anyone suspicious near that contribution box," JD explained, throwing his bowler down on the table.
Chris leaned back in his chair. They had all spent the better part of the day trying to gather information on the real culprit but continually came up on dead ends.
"What do you want us to do now?" Vin asked.
"We keep looking until we find someone," Chris said.
Nathan fidgeted in his seat at the bar. "What if there isn't anyone?"
Four pairs of eyes glared at the healer. "Aw c'mon, don't tell me it didn't cross any a your minds?"
"Brother Nathan, I'll forget you said that, because we're friends," Josiah said. "But do you really believe that Ezra would take money that was meant to put a roof over the heads of children?"
Nathan slumped in his chair, ashamed of his thoughts. "Nah, I guess not."
"Good, now let's get back out there and clear Ezra's name," Chris growled.
Ezra and Buck sat outside the jailhouse as the sky grayed with the coming night. Ezra glanced over at his friend who had been unusually quiet. Throughout the course of the day, Ezra had learned far more about the ambiguous town of Byers and some of its inhabitants. He already knew Ashcroft was not a man to be trusted.
"Ay, Ez, you think a man like me can fall in love with one woman?" Buck suddenly asked.
Ezra smiled and took a sip of his coffee. "Mr. Wilmington, does this concern Miss Sadie?"
"Yeah, she makes me feel something I haven't felt in years."
"Sometimes you should listen to those feelings; you do not always get another chance," Ezra said.
Buck didn't miss the sadness in the conman's voice. Everyone had regrets, but at times it seemed that Ezra had more than his share.
"I don't know. I've been on my own for so long. I'm not sure I can give myself to just one person."
"Sometimes you have to take a risk to win the big pot," Ezra replied.
Buck chuckled and stood. "Yeah, maybe you're right. Well, I guess I better be doin' rounds." Buck grabbed his rifle that rested against his chair.
"Take extra caution, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck paused. "Somethin' eatin' at you, Ez?"
"I'm not sure, but something is not right here in Byers."
Buck looked up and down the street, noticing only a few people out and about. "I don't know, seems pretty quiet to me." Buck tried to ignore his own feelings of apprehension.
"All the more reason to be on guard," Ezra added.
"Now Ez, don't go lookin' for trouble that ain't there," Buck admonished. "You're startin' to sound like Chris."
Ezra guffawed quietly. "Perish the thought of me and Mr. Larabee sharing any of the same thoughts."
Buck laughed and slapped the gambler on the shoulder as he stepped down off the boardwalk.
Ezra watched Buck walk down the street as he downed the last of his coffee. He stood and breathed in the cool night air. The heat of the day had finally given way in the wake of a cool dank wind that blew promises of rain. Ezra looked up at a moon that was so wan it threatened to expire from exhaustion. The latest sense of dread wasn't helped by the silence of the town.
"Mr. Standish," a whispered voice called out of the darkness from his right. He turned his head to see a young blond woman appear from out of the alleyway.
"Madam, what can I do for you?"
The woman looked anxiously around before approaching the fancy dressed gambler. "My name is Nora Ashcroft, I'm Gideon Ashcroft's daughter. You and your friend must leave."
Ezra stepped into the shadow of the building and looked over his shoulder, feeling the woman's apprehension. "And why is that?"
Nora quickly looked around as she wrung out her hands. She knew she was taking a risk of being spotted. "I can't tell you. Just please leave before something terrible happens." Nora gathered up her skirt, turned and ran back down the alley.
Buck rattled the doorknob of the bank, locked. He hadn't seen anyone use the bank all day. Where was the bank manager? Ezra was right, something funny was going on, but his thoughts shifted to Sadie. He couldn't get the woman out of his mind. Buck froze when he caught movement off to this right and swung his rifle around. "Alright, who's there?"
Buck let out a breath as Sadie appeared from out of the shadows.
"What are you doin' out here, darlin'?" He stepped up and laid a hand on her shawl-covered shoulder.
"I missed you," Sadie coyly said as she leaned into his grasp.
"Well, hel...heck it's only been a couple of hours since I saw you."
Sadie smiled. "No silly, I mean I've missed you these past ten years. I don't think a day went by that I didn't wonder where you were."
Buck bowed his head, ashamed that he couldn't say the same.
"And I know you probably haven't thought of me everyday."
Buck raised his head and stared into her liquid brown eyes. "You know me too well, but my feelings for ya are still there."
Sadie was terribly aware of Buck's closeness, of the mingled smells of leather, sweat and man. When she came back out west, she never believed she'd ever find the man she loved again, but here he was standing in front of her.
"Should I have left my family for you?" It was a question that had haunted her for these many years.
Buck scuffed his boot along the boardwalk. It had angered him at first when she left, but he slowly realized that she had done the right thing.
"No, Sadie, you would have hated me if you had. I wasn't ready to settle down then anyway."
"Are you now?"
Buck drew her close, pulling her into his chest. He breathed in her clean fresh scent. "With you...yes, maybe," he whispered into his ear. He felt the slight shudder go through her body. He looked down into her face, their lips, inches apart. Everything around them seemed to disappear. Buck was back in Clear Creek, sitting on her back porch trying to steal a last kiss before she went inside.
Their lips touched, softly at first, then with a passion that had been buried for the past ten years. It lasted moments, but held a promise of a lifetime.
"Oh, Buck..." Sadie breathed as they parted and stood quietly, feeling the evening breeze cool her flushed face.
"You better git home. I'll see ya in the morning."
"You'll be in my dreams," Sadie said and blew Buck a kiss.
Buck turned and continued down the boardwalk. Sadie smiled when she heard him start to whistle.
Sadie froze as Ashcroft suddenly appeared at her side.
"Oh, Gideon, you scared me."
"I'm sorry dear, but I believe we need to talk." Ashcroft looked around and gently took Sadie by the arm pulling her into the blackness of a doorway. "I must warn you that your little dalliance with that lawman is putting us all in danger."
"Buck and I are old friends."
"Nonetheless he is a lawman and I'd hate to see you hurt."
"Buck would never hurt me."
Ashcroft smiled and laid a hand on the young woman's shoulder. "My dear, the Mendoza is coming."
Sadie's eyes widened and her mouth went suddenly dry.
"Now, I'm only telling you this so that you can break any ties with him. We have a good thing going here--you have a good thing. Do you want to lose everything you've achieved?"
Sadie's heart pounded hard in her chest. She loved owning her own restaurant, being in charge, able to do whatever she pleased. She knew one day her restaurant would be renowned throughout the territory. People would come for miles to sample the cuisine and delight in the cultured ambiance. She would never again be known as a some poor, unsophisticated girl from some backwater town. "Isn't there another way? I'm sure I can convince Buck to join us in time."
Ashcroft bowed his head, holding back his irritation. They had to stick together if they were to survive. "I don't think these lawmen can be convinced. There's something uncommon about them." He thought of Standish, a gambler who actually wanted to do the right thing, it was bizarre.
Ashcroft squeezed Sadie's shoulder. "I know you'll do the right thing, for all our sakes." He turned and walked away, leaving the young woman to dwell on what was said and the consequences.
The five discouraged lawmen flopped heavily into chairs within the clamor of the saloon. They were frustrated with their efforts to clear Ezra of theft. Either none of the townspeople saw anything, or they were trying to protect someone, or the negative consensus was that they wanted the gambler to take the blame.
Everyone's attention was drawn to the swinging doors as a large man in overalls entered dragging an unwilling youth within his grip.
"Now what?" Chris murmured from his seat and he pushed himself up with a grunt.
"Mr. Caplan, is there a problem?" Josiah asked turning around in his chair to face the newcomer. He could see that the boy was terrified. He'd never known Seth Caplan to be a violent man, but the man's face was twisted in rage.
Vin's eyes narrowed under his slouch hat. The respected rancher usually only came to town for supplies a couple times a year.
"My boy has something to tell ya," Caplan growled shoving his son in front of Larabee and folding his arms across his chest, barring any escape.
Luke Caplan was no more than sixteen, and sinewy and lean from the hard labor of ranch work. He helped out Yosemite with the horses during the summer for a little extra pay.
Chris stood solemnly in front of the boy.
"Go ahead, boy, tell 'em." Luke looked over his shoulder at his father. He turned back to face the menacing gunslinger and tried to force some moisture back into his mouth. The air seemed to thicken as his father pushed him closer. Luke reached a shaking hand into his pocket and pulled out a large wad of money. He swallowed the lump that seemed to block his breathing. "I took the money from the collection box."
"Sonofabitch," Vin muttered next to Chris.
Chris glanced out over the crowd, watching as they all quickly returned to their drinks and meals. He took the wadded up bills.
"Why, son?" Josiah asked.
"There was a new rifle that I wanted. I'm sorry. After I took the money I felt so awful I couldn't even buy the rifle," Luke quickly explained.
"How you git the box open?" Josiah curiously asked.
Luke swallowed. "I know how to pick locks. I sometimes lose the keys to the shed so I just practiced a little, it weren't to hard."
"Damn, looks like Ez has some competition," Vin joked.
Caplan stepped forward, pulling his son behind him. "Mr. Larabee, my son is a good boy, but he did wrong and he'll accept any punishment you see fit."
Chris wiped a hand down his face. He didn't think the boy realized all the harm he had caused, especially to one misunderstood gambler, but he also didn't believe the boy did it out of any malicious intent. "I want him to go over to the hotel and apologize to the McCray family and offer his help in any way, then I want him to go over to the newspaper office and have Mrs. Travis print his confession in tomorrow's issue."
Caplan nodded and smiled, grateful to the lawman for going easy on his boy.
Luke released a breath and a slight smile creased his face. His smile fell when his father grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
"Don't look so happy, boy, I ain't done with ya yet," Seth added as he shoved the young man toward the door. "It'll be a month of Sundays before you have any freedom." Seth looked over his shoulder and winked at the lawmen.
Chris spread the money out on the bar and started to count the crumbled bills. "How much Macklin say was in that box?"
"One-hundred and thirty dollars," Josiah replied.
"There's one hundred and fifty dollars here." Chris picked up a crisp new twenty dollar bill and held it up.
"Aww geeze, Ez was puttin' money in," JD said as he glared at Nathan. The healer threw up his hands.
"Alright, as soon as I see him I'll apologize."
"I want to see that," Vin chided.
"As do I, brother," Josiah said.
"We should wire Byers and let Ezra know," JD suggested.
"I got a better idea. Vin and I will head up to Byers a little sooner," Chris said as he folded up the money.
"That's a good idea. I'm sure Ezra would like to hear this in person," Josiah said.
"I'm still wonderin' how a town loses a sheriff," Chris said.
"You don't think they're in any trouble, do ya?" Nathan asked.
"Never can tell with them two," Chris pointed out.
Vin broke into a wide grin and stifled a chuckle.
"Shut up, Vin, you ain't much better," Nathan good-naturedly admonished.
"We'll wire you as soon as we get there," Chris said as he grabbed his hat and headed toward the door with Vin on his heel.
"Git the horses ready," Chris said as they stepped out of the saloon. "I'll meet you at the livery after I shove this money in Macklin's troublesome mouth."
Vin grinned and jogged off toward the livery.