The Past Redeemed
Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8 | Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37
Chris Larabee sat on the edge of his bed, heedless of the morning sun which streamed through the open window of his sparse rented room. He sat alone, bent over, hands clasped, his green eyes lost in deep, painful contemplation as he stared at the wall.
You've got to stop this bull, he told himself sternly. After all the excitement of the past few days, they'll be looking to you to hold things together. The Judge is counting on you.
A bitter voice from Chris's soul replied that maybe he didn't want to be counted on anymore. Not if things ended up like this.
Unbidden, the scene replayed itself in his mind, the same nightmarish image which had been haunting his waking and sleeping hours since it had happened. Vin Tanner, his partner, the one man in the world he'd truly call his brother, chasing Eli Joe across the rooftops of Four Corners. Vin had been framed for murder by Eli Joe, and the bank robber and murderer was the only man alive who could clear Vin's name. And Chris was behind Vin, trying to help him.
Then Chris had lost them both; when he found them again, Eli was dangling above the ground, with only his grasp on Vin's arm between life and a plummet to the grave. For a moment, Chris had allowed himself to feel relief; it was over, they could take Eli to Tascosa and clear Vin's name, and his brother would be free.
There was a flash; Eli was holding a knife, poised to run it through Vin's gut. And Chris, flooded with anger and dread, had lifted his gun and protected his friend the only way he felt he could.
He saw Vin jump at the shot, saw Eli start as well. Chris felt his heart scream with frustration when he saw Eli fall backwards over the edge of the roof. He didn't have to look to know Vin's one hope of freedom was dead.
And Chris was responsible.
Chris covered his face with his hands, rubbing it as if to erase the image from his tired mind. He knew Vin didn't blame him, he was only trying to save the tracker's life. Clearing Vin's name would mean nothing if there was no living body to hang it on.
But there had been a moment, after Eli's fall, when Vin had turned to Chris, when there was no understanding on Vin's face. The look which had passed between the two then was not one of forgiveness; it was one of shock and frustration, of Vin realizing that his only hope of being free was gone, and his closest friend had caused its extinction. It was a look which had not been erased from Chris's mind for almost a week. A look almost of betrayal. Later, of course, Vin had said he knew why Chris had done it; but Chris supected - feared - that the first reaction was a more accurate reflection of what the tracker truly felt.
Chris ran his hands through his short blonde hair and stood, feeling the effects of several nights of bad sleep burning its way through his weary body. Eli was dead, and Chris had shot him, without really thinking about the consequences. It was an old and well-honed reflex, one which had saved his life a hundred times during his wild years, the days when he'd kill a man for looking at him crooked, when the gunfights and the whiskey were all that mattered because they were the only things that took away the pain.
Chris shuddered at the memory of that time, after his wife Sarah and son Adam had been murdered, when all he did was wander the territory picking fights and drinking. It was then that he'd attained his reputation, when he had learned to draw fast and aim true so that he could survive to the next gunfight, the next bottle. He could see now the blank despair of those years, the burning rage which had formed him into a lonely, hard drifter with no ties or cares beyond the moment.
Then he'd found this town, and this job, not really because he was looking for it. He'd never thought that simple five-dollar job protecting a Seminole village would unite him with six men he'd now consider allies and even friends. If anybody had told him there would be a time when he didn't need to get drunk, didn't feel that horrible emptiness burning through his soul, he would never have believed them. But lately, things had been better, and he hoped the old days of killing without thought, of using his gun to solve every problem were behind him.
Now he wasn't so sure.
He rose, walking across the room to where his gun belt lay in the dim reflected morning light. One fingertip brushed the metal barrel of his gun, feeling its cold, deadly metal. His face was pale and grim as agonizing questions flew through his troubled mind.
*Was there another way to save Vin?* he wondered to himself. *Did I even try to stop myself from shooting Eli Joe? Or has this become second nature to me, to the point where I can't control it?*
*Is this still who I am?*
He saw no answers in the breaking day, and expected none soon. But as Chris slowly shaved and dressed himself, his eyes seldom strayed from the guns, and his mind continued to play out the dreaded thought that, like Vin, he might never be free of his past.
The more Ezra thought about what had happened, the angrier he became.
Time had not worked its healing power on the gambler's feelings-it had been four days since his mother Maude Standish had swept into the small frontier town of Four Corners, driven his newly opened saloon into bankruptcy, bought the establishment herself, and swept back out again. Strangely enough, it felt like ages since Ezra had watched his fondly held and briefly realized dream of saloon ownership get crushed into dust-but maybe that was what slow-burning rage did to a person.
As the lean young man slouched in the early morning sunshine gleaming across the porch of the jail, slowly sipping his morning coffee, he continued to mull over his situation. What his mother had done was bad enough-how she could buy a competing hotel and drive her own son into despairing insolvency and then justify her actions as merely keeping him sharp was something even Ezra's nimble mind could not fathom. He had been angry at her before for her callous, occasionally cruel treatment of him, but he had a feeling he would never be able to forgive her for this.
But still - still, he should have expected it. Maude was still Maude, mother or not, and she rarely passed up a chance to better someone and prove her superiority, even if it was her own son who got ground into the dirt. Her behavior was despicable and inexplicable but not shocking, for her.
His friends, on the other hand -
Ezra coughed at the sudden tightness in his throat and sat up abruptly, rubbing his eyes wearily with one hand. He'd done it again, called them friends when they had clearly proven themselves to be nothing of the kind. The other men who'd been hired along with Ezra to protect Four Corners had worked well together these past months, faced threats as a solid team, watching each other's back. And Ezra, who'd wandered all of his life never daring to call any place home, any man friend, had foolishly begun to believe that maybe that was over now. Here was a place he belonged, a group of men he could respect.
Gone, now. All gone, and all he had left were the bitter memories of his comrades turning their backs on him and going to Maude's hotel to drink and gamble, instead of Ezra's. Maude had driven his business into the ground, but of all the empty seats in Ezra's saloon at the end, there were six which really hurt.
Well, that wasn't entirely fair, Ezra thought as he squinted up the street. Chris Larabee, their black-clad leader, had been too busy helping to save their comrade Vin Tanner from an undeserved hangman's noose to really be involved in what happened to Ezra, and Vin had been even busier trying to avoid getting hung for a murder he didn't commit. Now Vin was safe, but Eli Joe, the man who had committed the murders, was dead, and Vin had new worries.
And Buck Wilmington's gallivanting with the ladies had caught up with him and he had spent the whole time dealing with a pregnant girlfriend whose child ultimately was proven not to be his. So, Chris and Vin and Buck were let off the hook, at least a bit. There were much more appropriate targets for Ezra's anger.
Of the three men left-Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and JD Dunne-Ezra was definitely the most angry at Nathan. Ever since they'd met, the former slave and healer had acted as Ezra's self-appointed conscience. And, too, he had always rigidly corrected people whenever they called him a doctor. He wasn't a doctor, he'd always say; he just wanted to help folks. Ezra was often annoyed at his meddling, but had to admire his honesty; Ezra knew that if it had been him, he would have been milking people's credulity to the last penny. Nathan's humanity and compassion in the light of his horrible past had earned him Ezra's grudging respect, and he had even shown the gambler some unprecedented kindness.
But now Ezra knew the truth, which had glared out at him the minute he walked into Maude's hotel and saw the sign proclaiming the presence of Dr. Jackson-Dr., for God's sake-on the premises. How Maude ever talked him into it, Ezra didn't know or care. All he knew was, Nathan was a hypocrite who was just as willing as anyone else to tell a lie for a dollar. Ever since Maude had left town, Nathan had left the hotel and moved back into his humble third-floor clinic; he had also been avoiding Ezra. Which was fine with Ezra, who had lost all respect for the healer. Kindness, it seemed, did not guarantee friendship.
And Josiah! Ezra knew the former preacher was smitten with Maude, but Ezra was surprised his mother was spending any time with the penniless holy man. Until he realized that she just wanted to show him how powerful she was, how helpless Ezra was, and how superficial his friendship with the other men was. And Josiah had allowed himself to be used, seemed happy about it in fact, and completely ignorant of Ezra's pain. It angered Ezra that he couldn't even rely on the help of a supposed man of God.
JD. Ezra stretched himself out again, trying to work out the soreness n his muscles from another night of lousy sleep as he considered the young man. True, JD was still barely out of short pants, and he was no match for Maude's wiles, so Ezra shouldn't have been surprised to see him gambling his savings away in Maude's opulent casino, lured in by her promises of sure fire systems and easy money. But - although Ezra would never admit it - JD had also seemed to be more mindful than the others of Ezra, hanging around him more and genuinely enjoying his company. Ezra had enjoyed having JD around; he had been like a cheerfully annoying younger brother.
Now, Ezra could only try to ignore the hurt as JD blithely forgot all about helping out Ezra's business in the bright glare of Maude's promises. JD, apparently, could be bought, leaving the gambler disappointed; he'd felt for sure he could at least count on JD's support. The boy supported everybody else; Ezra recalled how impressed he was when JD faced down the corrupt Marshall Yates and tried to stop him from taking Vin. They had all been there, ready to help Vin if they could.
Where had they been when Ezra needed them?
Without really meaning to, Ezra found himself resenting Vin, simply because it seemed that he enjoyed the friendship the men denied to Ezra.
He allowed his gaze to drift up the street, though he wished he hadn't. There they were, the saloon-his saloon-and the hotel, across from each other. His gut clenched when he recalled how happy he'd been when he bought the saloon; all of his dreams, so long fought and saved for, were finally going to come true. Then, in the space of a few days, it was all over; his mother was gone, his dreams and money were gone, and his friends had turned into mere business associates. Ezra turned his gaze away; he used to go to the saloon and the hotel every day to dine and gamble, but now he could not bear to even look at them.
Dammit, he thought, shaking himself. He hated this burning self-pity he was wallowing in. The pain was too much to bear, firmly convincing him that he'd been right all along to be closed and solitary, that he'd have to be more careful in the future. He'd been careless this time, and look what happened. Here he was, broke.
A small thought nudged itself into view, that worse than the monetary loss was the betrayal of the tiny hope that just maybe he'd been wrong about the world, and his solitary place in it. For just a moment he'd allowed himself to believe that maybe there was another way to go, a brighter path than the one he'd been treading all his life. But the men who had convinced him of this had proven themselves to be false, and something was trying to tell him that it was the pain of that realization which seared the worst.
But Ezra quickly pushed that thought aside, unwilling to admit this to himself. To do this, he'd have to realize that he was weak enough to think he'd ever need anybody. He'd learned his lesson: Ezra Standish didn't need anyone. Friendship only caused pain.
Ezra stood and adjusted his red jacket; the time was past for brooding, although he knew the anger would not subside for a long time. It was time for action.
Ezra Standish did not stay where he was not wanted.
The dust danced in the hot sun as the lone rider tore across the desert plain towards the rocky cliffs on the horizon. No mercy was shown to the gaunt, panting horse or the filthy, gruff-looking man who rode it; both creatures were drenched in sweat and dust as they raced to the coolness of the shadows just ahead.
As they closed in, a bullet suddenly tore the air close to the man's head. He looked up, his eyes furious.
"Dammit, Gray, it's Hanley! I got word on Yates!"
There was an embarrassed pause, then a fearful voice said from among the rocks, "Sorry, Boss! Thought you was law!"
The man reined in at the base of the cliffs and glared up into its rock-strewn heights; somewhere in there, he knew, was a cave, a dark, cool cave full of outlaws as hard as he was.
Outlaws who had, until recently, followed Eli Joe.
As Hanley dismounted, a thin figure clad in a worn Confederate jacket appeared above him amid the huge, yellow-white rocks, toting a long rifle. Hanley glared at him.
"Damn near took my head off, Gray!"
"Said I was sorry!" was the defensive reply as the older man scratched the dirty gray stubble of his loose, fleshy face. "Been purty nervous since Joe got killed, y'know."
Hanley sighed as he began to climb the cliff. "Yeah, I know."
After a few moments he entered the cave, a shallow recess lit by the reflection of the blazing sun and a small fire in the floor, over which some unidentifiable food was roasting.
Standing or slouching around the fire were four dirty, glowering figures, all clad in worn clothing showing much abuse. The most readily noticeable was a large, muscular men clad in torn Army pants and a tattered jacket thrown over the remains of a striped convict's shirt. His head was clean-shaven, but his chin and mouth were hidden behind a prodigious growth of thick, dark beard.
On a rock nearby reclined a glowering young man clad in well-worn buckskin, his handsome face disfigured by a long scar across his right cheek. The youth's long, filthy blonde hair gleamed dully in the firelight, and he seemed to be giving most of his attention to the ornate Indian knife he was sharpening. His actions were graceful and deliberate, his blue eyes bright and completely focused on his task. There was a fierce, unsettled light flickering in their blue depths, at variance with the blank expression on his face.
Tending to a small stack of firearms in the corner of the cave was another young man, slightly older, with thick black hair neatly trimmed, clad in clothing once dapper but now running to seed. Perched on his head was a battered silk top hat, cocked at an angle which seemed at once jaunty and mildly threatening. He manipulated the weapons with remarkable skill, cleaning, repairing and loading them with the careful touch of a practiced killer.
The final occupant of the cave crouched by the fire, poking the roast to see if it was done yet. The slim figure was just as filthy, just as ragged as the others, and the expression it wore was just as deadly, the eyes just as dull with jaded anger. The only real difference between this outlaw and the others was the fact that it was a girl, no older than sixteen, her brown hair cut short to an inch of her scalp, her face already lined with care and hate. Like the others, she turned to watch Hanley as he came in, her brown eyes intense and grim.
Hanley stood panting for a moment, meeting all of their eyes.
"They're takin' Yates in," he finally said, his voice low and angry. The others were still for a moment, then stirred, clutching their weapons.
"We ain't gonna let 'em, are we?" cried the gun-cleaning dandy.
"If he fingers us as part of Joe's gang, they'll send the Goddamned army after us!" the girl snarled, jumping to her feet.
"I bet he'd do it just to save his neck," the large man in convict's clothes exclaimed.
The knife-wielding youth sat on his rock, and said nothing, watching them all with calm detachment.
Hanley closed his eyes in frustration. "Will you idiots shut the hell up!" he bellowed. When the clamor subsided, he opened his eyes again, sweeping them all with a furious glare. "Course they ain't gonna get away with it. We just gotta plan it, that's all."
He moved into the circle, glowing orange in the flickering light of the cook fire. "When we find out where they're takin' him and who'll be guardin' him, Yates won't be able to tell nobody nothin'. Gray an' me'll go into town an' see what we can figger out."
Gray nodded, swinging the rifle over his shoulder.
"What I can't see," said the large man, walking up next to Hanley, "is why they waited this long t'move 'im. They had 'im for almost a week."
"Hell, who cares 'bout that?" Hanley grunted. "Got their own reasons. Maybe they're beatin' the hell out of him to save us the trouble. Wouldn't be surprised, with Chris Larabee in charge. But their reasons won't count for shit when we get through with Yates, and whoever's unlucky enough to be ridin' with him."
"I sure wish we didn't have to take Yates to Tascosa so soon."
JD's glum voice could barely be heard above the din in the saloon as he, Josiah and Nathan sat eating breakfast amid the bustling early-morning crowd.
"Sooner we get 'im there, the sooner Vin might be a free man, JD," Nathan pointed out as he unfolded his napkin. "Chris don't want Vin goin' by hims elf, an' I don't blame 'im. Who knows how many of Eli Joe's men are still around?"
"An' we don't want Yates thinkin' he's got any chance of runnin' off," Josiah added, smoothing back his gray-black mustache before sipping his coffee. "He won't try anything with five pairs of eyes watchin' 'im."
JD sighed sadly. "Well, I know how important it is t'get Yates to Tascosa so's he can clear Vin's name, but I was sorta hopin' to stay in town this week."
Josiah shrugged as he lifted a steaming cup of coffee to his lips. "I dunno, things've been pretty dull round here lately."
"That's fine with me," Nathan observed, as the healer dug into his plate of eggs. "After spendin' all my time patchin' you men up, I could use a little dull for a while."
"Well, it ain't dull for me!" JD declared, running one hand through his long black hair in frustration. "Casey an' I were goin' to attend that travelin' minstrel show that's comin' Saturday."
Nathan winced. "That show ain't real, JD. Just a bunch of white men in blackface actin' like fools."
"You wanna hear some fine Southern singin', just ask Nathan," Josiah smiled as he sat back with his coffee. Nathan chuckled.
Josiah sat up. "Take heart, JD. Next show that comes through, I'll get you an' Casey front-row seats."
JD perked up. "Really? I heard we got some French show comin'. I think Casey'd really be impressed if we saw somethin' cultural."
Josiah frowned. "French?"
"Yeah, it's called-uh, 'burlesque'."
Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances.
"All right," Josiah said, "the show that comes t'town AFTER the next one, then."
This seemed to satisfy JD as he sat back and looked around. After a moment, a frown creased his youthful face. "Hey, you guys notice how Ezra never hangs around in here no more? He's always over at Digger Dan's now, an' Inez told me he moved his room to Virginia's Hotel. This place is a lot nicer now that Inez is runnin' it, you'd think Ezra would come over here to clean up."
Both Nathan and Josiah shifted uncomfortably.
"Reckon he's still smartin' over what happened," Nathan said quietly, picking at his food. "Inez told me about it, she was worried about him. Guess his ma did him over pretty good."
"The woman is certainly a sly charmer," Josiah noted, his eyes somber.
"Yeah," JD nodded, then said reluctantly, "Hey, you...you don't think he's still mad at me, so you? For goin' to Maude's place instead of his?"
Nathan nodded. "That may be, JD. Way Inez was talkin', he's a mighty bitter man."
"Oh." JD sat for a moment, his face thoughtful. "Well-then, I guess I better apologize."
"Ezra's pretty proud, JD," Josiah noted, placing his empty coffee cup down with a gentle thud. "He might not accept it right now. Better let him cool off a little first."
"Gotta admit, I was gonna talk to 'im yesterday, but just couldn't get up the nerve," Nathan said with a touch of regret. "He's pretty angry, I think he's still workin' it out. When we get back, he'll likely be more willin' to talk."
JD nodded. "Yeah. An' maybe by then I'll know what to say."
The small, dusty jail sat perfectly silent in the muted glare of the hot afternoon sun, the three men within its walls doing nothing to disturb its somber quiet.
One of the men was a prisoner, sitting still in his cell, a tall, solidly built specimen in dusty leathers leaning back on the motheaten cot and watching his captors in wordless amusement. Derision gleamed in his small, sharp gray eyes, a contemptuous smirk on his round-nosed features, previously clean-shaven but now showing signs of stubble. he was clearly in little fear of his jailers, sitting with one hand dangling carelessly propped up on his drawn-up knee.
The other two occupants of the building sat on the opposite side of the bars, studying their trapped prey with angry eyes. One of them leaned against the desk, his buckskin-clad form unmoving as he regarded the prisoner. His face was hard to see in the dim, dusty light, beneath his battered hat pulled low over his long, dark curls. But his blue eyes blazed with furious intensity at the man behind the bars, and his handsome face was set in fierce concentration.
Chris was seated at the sheriff's desk, leaning back in a casual way, his hands folded across his stomach. The pensiveness of that morning had been set aside in favor of the present situation. His black clothes made him almost impossible to see in the gloom; his face was barely discernible beneath his wide-brimmed black hat. The observer who cared to look hard enough, however, would be able to make out a face worn by a lifetime of hard living and years of grief, tempered by calm deliberation. He studied the prisoner intensely as well, his green eyes boring through the iron bars as if he could will the desired reaction from the man through sheer force of presence alone. His calm demeanor belied the ferocity of his gaze, and his clothes and attitude gave the impression of a reclining panther about to spring on its victim and devour it whole.
Finally the prisoner sighed, the noise breaking the silence of the jail.
"You boys can stare all day if you want," he said, the slightest hint of a smile in his smooth voice. "I ain't changin' my mind."
"Don't be a damn fool, Yates," the buckskin-clad man said angrily, standing up and striding to the bars. "I can make you tell the judge in Tascosa the truth, but you ain't gonna like it."
Yates laughed, regarding his interrogator smugly. "Only truth I know, Tanner, is that you're wanted for murder in Tascosa."
Vin Tanner grabbed the bars and leaned in close, his blue eyes blazing. "Eli Joe killed that farmer, Yates. You heard him confess it right before he was going to hang me. You were there!"
Yates smiled. "I heard no such thing."
Vin paused, then turned to his comrade.
"Gimme the keys, Chris. I got a few ideas that'll settle this up real quick."
Chris Larabee sat up and glared at Yates. "I'd advise you to think this over, Yates. Vin an' I are both gettin' pretty cranky."
"Think what over?" Yates said with surprise. "I'm tellin' the truth here. I never heard Eli Joe say nothin' about any frame-up or murder. I got the idea the whole thing was some kind of personal grudge."
Vin smoldered for a moment, then slowly put his hands on the bars and leaned forward. "You're lyin'," he growled, his voice guttural with fury.
"Tell it to the judge, Tanner," Yates replied calmly, sitting back. "There's only one man can prove me wrong, an' unfortunately your, uh, 'friend' there killed him. Maybe you should be workin' him over instead of me."
Chris jumped to his feet. "One more smart remark like that an' we'll both take you out."
Yates grunted. "Go ahead. Then I can tell the jury how you men beat confessions out of people."
Chris and Vin stared in frustration at Yates.
"You're gonna tell that jury in Tascosa the truth and clear Vin's name," Chris said with calm finality.
The prisoner returned the gaze, unruffled. "We'll see about that, Larabee."
With that, Yates lay down and turned his back on the two gunmen. Chris and Vin eyed him for another moment, then made their way back to the front of the jail, clearly frustrated.
"Five minutes, Chris," Vin said softly, rubbing one fist with his other hand. "Give me five minutes with him, an' he'd tell 'im Eli set me up."
"If we had more time, I'd say go ahead," Chris replied, sitting on the edge of the desk and rubbing his chin with one hand. "But Tascosa wants him by next Tuesday before Judge Watkins leaves for Phoenix, an' he's got to be fit to travel." He looked at Vin. "Can you do it so it doesn't show?"
Vin pursed his lips and let out an agitated sigh, glancing at Yates. "Knew there was somethin' the Comanches forgot to teach me."
The jailhouse door swung open, and Ezra's lean figure appeared in its warping frame.
"I apologize for interrupting your tete-a-tete, gentlemen," the Southerner drawled. "Is our guest feeling any more cooperative?"
"Not yet, but it's a long trip to Tascosa," Vin said, glancing back at Y ate's supine form.
"And an interesting one it will be, I'm sure," was Ezra's response. He looked at Chris. "I'm afraid I shall have to hear about the details later, as there is an urgent matter in St. Louis which requires my immediate attention."
Chris glanced up. "Trouble with your mother?"
Ezra tried to hide a grimace. "Not directly, although she is involved. Is a short sabbatical permissible?"
Chris considered the question for a moment, studying Ezra as he did so. Then he glanced at Vin.
"Think Buck can watch things by himself for a while?"
Vin shrugged. "Don't see why not, long as no pretty ladies come to town."
"That would hardly prove an obstacle," Ezra offered. "I understand from our mutual friend that after his impending fatherhood scare with Miss Lucy, Buck has sworn off women until marriage."
Chris chuckled shortly. "The last time he said that it lasted about five minutes." He looked at Ezra. "Take care of things quick as you can, then get back. Way this place is, who knows what could happen."
"An' give our best to your ma," Vin smiled. "Heard she stirred things up quite a bit when she was here."
Ezra gave the slightest of starts, then nodded and smiled quickly.
"Oh, yes, she certainly did. Well," he touched the brim of his flat-topped black hat, "I shall see you gentlemen upon your return. Best of luck, I am quite assured of your success."
He began to close the door before Vin stopped him.
"Hey, there anythin' we can do t'help y'out, Ezra?"
Ezra paused for a moment, his hand on the doorknob. His green eyes flickered a bit, somewhat sadly, and he finally looked up at Vin.
"No thank you, Vin, everyone here has done quite enough for me already."
With that, Ezra pulled the door closed, and they could see him quickly walking up the street to Digger Dan's saloon.
The night streets of Four Corners were deserted beneath the midnight moon, so none but a few wandering drunks saw the two horsemen ride into town from the eastern end. The two shadowy figures rode slowly towards the jail, the hollow thudding hoof beats of their mounts bouncing unheeded off of the wooden buildings. Finally they reached the jail, one man dismounting while the other rode along around the structure.
Stepping quickly to the jailhouse door, the slim, gray-clad rider pushed the door open and peered inside.
"Scuse me? Mister? You the sheriff?"
The man inside put down his religious reading and regarded the visitor warily. "One of 'em, stranger. Name's Josiah. Got a problem?"
"Yeah, I think there's a fight up the street by the saloon. Damn near got my head shot off. Better take a look."
Josiah paused, then drew his gun. "Can't leave the jail, son, but I'll step outside an' see what I can do."
He glanced back at Yates, who was dozing on his cot, then stepped quickly to the jailhouse door. The gray-clad man pointed to an active knot of men far up the street.
"See 'em? There's five of 'em, all liquored up-"
In the jail, Yates was scowling at the disturbance and trying to get some sleep when he heard a voice hiss at him from nearby.
The marshall sat up and peered through the small window above his cot.
"Who's there?" he whispered, looking back to where Josiah was trying to talk to the gray-clad man.
"Hanley," was the quiet reply, "You 'member me, I'm with Eli Joe's gang."
Yates didn't move, knowing that Josiah would be keeping an eye on him. "About time! Get me the hell out of here!"
"Geezus, not yet, Yates!" Hanley hissed. "We're outnumbered here in town, we gotta wait til they're out in the desert where they can't get help. How many are takin' you to Tascosa?"
"Five, I think," Yates said quickly. "Includin' Larabee an' Tanner."
"Shit!" Hanley spat. "Well, we got six, maybe we can take 'em. Might need to get some more guns, just to be sure. "
"You wanna even things out here," Yates suggested, "there'll be just one of 'em left in town. Don't reckon you'd want him helpin' the others."
"Let me do the thinkin', Yates," was Hanley's icy reply. " Just stay low an' don't cause no fuss an' we'll get you out of this."
"Hanley, you gotta know," Yates said anxiously, "I tried to help Eli get away. An' I ain't told 'em nothin' 'bout the rest of you. They still think they got all of his men."
"We'll see it stays that way," Hanley hissed back.
A soft series of scraping footsteps indicated Hanley's retreat; Yates swiftly plopped back onto his cot, trying to look as relaxed as possible as Josiah walked back in with the gray-clad man. He could almost feel Josiah's glance as the preacher checked on his only prisoner.
"Could be trouble," Josiah was saying. "If they don't break up soon, go knock on room 5 of Mrs. Dierdrich's boarding house. Buck Wilmington lives there, he'll help ya out."
"Thanks, mister," the other man said. "Can't let th' bad guys run th' streets, can we?"
"Nope," was Josiah's lazy reply as he sat back down to his book. "An' the gods of justice thank you for your contribution to the peace."
The stranger nodded and dashed out, hopped onto his horse and rode away. If Josiah had watched him leave town, he would have noticed another, larger rider join him halfway up the street, and the large rider tossing a handful of coins to the now remarkably docile knot of men.
"What'd Yates tell ya?" Gray asked Hanley as they rode out of town.
"Enough," was the terse reply, and they rode the rest of the way into the desert without exchanging another word.
Ezra sat alone at the rough table in Digger Dan's saloon, going over his winnings as the staff prepared to close up around him. Not a bad night, he thought as he thumbed the wad of bills; should be enough to get to at least Kansas City. He wasn't planning beyond that at the moment, eager only to get going and let fate take him where it may, as he always had before.
He sighed and sat back, fingering the last shot of whiskey as he watched the young kid who worked for Dan sweep up the floor. Dan's saloon certainly lacked the charm of his former haunt; the tables and chairs were unpolished, the floors were stained with beer, blood and tobacco juice, the lighting was murky, and the denizens who frequented it were considerably more dissolute than the clientele he was used to gambling with. Fortunately, that worked in Ezra's favor, and he had cleaned up without too much effort.
A strange sadness coursed through his gut as he realized this would be his last night in Four Corners. He hadn't wanted it to end like this, but there was nothing else he could do. Every sight and sound of the place only reminded him of the dream he'd lost and the men who'd helped destroy it. It was time to move on, and Ezra knew that it wasn't Four Corners he'd miss so much as the illusion of what he had hoped it would be - an illusion now hopelessly shattered.
Nathan paced in front of Digger Dan's, nervously fingering his hat and trying to figure out what he was going to say to Ezra. He wanted to clear the air before they all left - Ezra for St. Louis, Nathan with the others to take Yates to Tascosa. But try as he might, Nathan could not think of a thing to say.
The problem was, he thought, that he was still too ashamed of himself to even want to admit he'd actually allowed Maude to pass him off as a physician. He hadn't even known about the sign until after she put it up -he'd simply agreed to look after Maude's guests in exchange for a larger, nicer room in her hotel.
Nathan punched his hat in anger as he recalled that he had actually enjoyed it for a while. Folks had actually treated him with some respect, and it had been quite a change to tend people in a big, well-lit facility instead of his small, dim rented room.
Then he had seen Ezra peering angrily up at him from the hotel lobby, and Nathan did what he had never done before - he ran in shame from the Southerner, unwilling to face him. Nathan had often felt disgust at Ezra's conning, deceptive behavior, but now he realized he was guilty of the exact same thing. And he did not like that feeling at all.
Part of it was the fact that Nathan had tried all of his life to be an honest person; it was one of his mother's most fondly taught virtues, and it hurt him to think he had betrayed her ideals. But more than that, he felt that he had badly damaged his fragile relationship with the gambler, one which was frequently frustrating but which he found oddly challenging. Nathan had seen enough bigoted, mean-spirited Southerners to know that Ezra wasn't one of them, and he didn't want to give up on Ezra yet. For some reason, he wanted Ezra to know it, too.
He stopped his pacing and squarely faced the saloon, screwing up his nerve. He knew Ezra was angry at him, almost as angry as Nathan was at himself, and Nathan hated to let such matters be. If he was going to forgive himself, he had to ask Ezra's forgiveness first.
Ezra barely looked up as Nathan strode through the doors of Dan's saloon.
"Well, good evening, Mr. Jackson," Ezra drawled sourly, returning his attention to his money. "Making house calls now, are we?"
Nathan shrugged awkwardly; Ezra was angry, all right. "Heard you was leavin' tomorrow for St. Louis. Everythin' all right?"
The other man glanced at him quickly, with an expression which looked to Nathan like surprise, before adopting a nonchalant attitude. "Merely a family affair. Nothing you need to trouble yourself over."
Nathan stood for another moment, then sat down nearby.
"Y'know, I don't mind helpin' if I can," he offered, hoping to get Ezra to relax. "You don't got to think you gotta be proud an' hide everythin'."
"Much obliged, but I'd like to hang on to my pride," was the acid response, as Ezra leveled bitter green eyes at him. "It is about all I have possession of, at this point."
He knocked back the last of the whiskey and began folding his bills. Nathan shook his head.
"Avoidin' your friends an' comin' in here to drink an' gamble ain't gonna make things right," Nathan pointed out. Ezra sighed and shot the healer a warning look.
"I do not recall asking you for moral advice, 'Dr'. Jackson," Ezra said in an icy tone.
"Look, forget that 'Dr.' hogwash, Ezra," Nathan urged. "That wasn't my idea, you know I ain't no liar when it comes to that."
"Yes, well, your searing conscience did not seem to move you to quit my mother's employ, did it?" Ezra asked sharply, shaking his head. "You of all people, Nathan - I thought you could have resisted her, what with your strong virtuous character and all."
Nathan started a bit, stung with shame. He could hardly argue with Ezra about his lapse of good judgment, especially since it had been bothering him so much lately. Nathan had been hoping that no one had noticed or held it against him; he had worked so hard to establish himself in Four Corners, and it pained him to think he may have undone it all with one careless act of selfishness.
But then, Nathan thought as he allowed anger to overwhelm his shame, who was Ezra to throw Nathan's mistake back in his face? It wasn't like Ezra's soul was spotless, after all. Nathan had only been trying to help people-unlike Ezra, who had only been looking to profit from other people's misery.
"Hey, she didn't offer me nothin' but a room an' some respect," Nathan shot back, "which is more than I'm gettin' from you right now."
"My apologies," Ezra said quickly, rising from his chair and never taking his eyes off of Nathan, "I really cannot respect a man who pulls a con and then insists on blaming others for it. At least be honest in your deceit."
Nathan stood up and pushed his chair back with a clatter, his eyes snapping. "You a fine one to accuse me of lyin' when you're linin' your cheatin' pockets with other people's cash," he said hotly. "Good thing you don't have that saloon no more, else you'd be fleecin' every man in town!"
Ezra's expression didn't change, but his right cheek twitched just a bit. He took a deep breath and slammed his chair back into place under the table.
"You will forgive me if I do not share your dance of joy over the grave of my most dearly held desire," he said in a husky voice. "Now I must excuse myself, as I am finding your self-righteousness even more unpalatable than this establishment's whiskey."
Ezra grabbed his winnings and strode out of the saloon. Nathan followed him as far as the door and watched his dim form disappear down the empty street. He felt as if he should shout something after him, but he was too angry to form any words. Imagine Ezra Standish saying his company made him sick! Not half as sick as Ezra's activities made Nathan. The loss of his business had taught Ezra nothing at all - he was still taking other folks' money and not caring at all who got hurt in the process. All Ezra seemed to care about was who to blame for his problems, and anybody would do-anybody, of course, but himself.
Nathan sat himself down hard and rubbed his head with one hand, feeling suddenly exhausted as the anger slowly subsided. Dammit, this wasn't how he'd wanted this to go. Ezra was the most stubborn fool he'd ever seen, and Nathan still didn't like how he made a living off other people's pain, but...
The memory of Ezra's face right after Nathan spoke of the loss of his saloon flashed across Nathan's mind; it had only been for a moment, but there had been pain in the gambler's eyes, an expression very close to grief. He was still deeply wounded over what had happened, and Nathan had known it, and made that remark anyway. Instead of patching things up between them, Nathan had made things even worse.
He sighed and stood, looking over his shoulder at Dan as he extinguished the last of the lamps. He had to get back to the clinic; they were leaving early tomorrow. There'd be no chance to talk to Ezra again until after they all got back, a fact which made Nathan very uneasy. He hated leaving things go; anything could happen in the meantime. But there was no choice - well, none that he wanted to think about, at any rate. If Ezra wanted to be stubborn, well, Nathan could be stubborn, too.
He put on his hat and stepped outside into the softly moonlit street, turning his steps away from the saloon and towards his humble room, and bed.
Dawn was just beginning to pink the eastern sky the next morning, its gentle light slowly battling with the darkness for dominion of the sky. The desert rocks, just beginning to cool from the previous day's heat, began to emerge from the nighttime gloom, their hard forms becoming discernible in the creeping light. Around the mouth of the cave where Hanley and the other survivors of Eli Joe's gang slept, there was no movement, save for one slim figure which was carefully perched on one of the rocks, busily cleaning a well-used but still serviceable Colt .44 by the light of a battered tin lamp.
The girl barely spared a glance at the breathtaking sunrise unfolding before her; she was too intent on cleaning the weapon in her hands, making sure that when the time came it could fulfill its deadly purpose with lethal accuracy.
Every now and then she might glance up at the sky, now blazing with pink and purple hues, but the expression on her young face would be only a twitch of agonized memory rather than appreciation of the scene's beauty. She didn't want to remember the times when she was a very little girl, watching the frontier sun rise outside her bedroom window with innocent wonder. That little girl had not known what lay ahead, the day when the sun would rise on her own personal hell and never set again. It was much easier to forget, and live for the day, and accept life for what she now knew it was: a night with no end.
She sighed with satisfaction as she hefted the gun in her hand; all finished, finally. She'd been too angry about Yates last night to tend to her tools, and she knew Hanley would want them all ready for work today. But that bastard Yates would get what he deserved, and the remnants of Eli Joe's gang would never have to worry about getting caught again.
Why did it take them so long to let me shoot with them, she wondered with a touch of anger as she felt the gun in her hand. She'd been in the gang for years now, but only as a nurse and cook, which frustrated her endlessly. She wanted to fight, to ride, to take the anger in her out somewhere and let it burn away. But it had only been recently that they'd finally allowed her along, and while she hadn't killed anyone yet, she'd caused at least a few nasty wounds. It was hard, learning to kill, but she felt sure she could do it. Any squeamishness she might have had had been beaten out of her long ago.
The gun was quickly loaded; she prided herself on being faster than any of the men when it came to loading her gun. It was one of the few good things her Pa had left her, the other being the gun itself, and the realization that life was only won by those hard enough not to care. He'd taught her to expect no kindness or justice, and she'd found it a very sound philosophy. It was much easier to deal with life when all you expected from it was a hard ride, and all you asked for was a quick death. There was no reason she could see to think that there was any more to it than that.
She sat for a moment, palming the Colt in her hand, her keen brown eyes scanning the desert landscape a short distance below. A movement caught her eye; a large brown jackrabbit had hopped from its hole and was searching for food. She sat perfectly still, watching as it came closer, close enough that she could see its liquid brown eyes looking up at her thoughtfully as it sat on its haunches, nose wriggling as it sniffed the air. She cocked her head and studied it for a long, silent while.
Then in one lightning motion she brought up her gun and blew the rabbit's head completely off.
The echo from the gunshot had barely finished bouncing from the cliffside walls when she heard another sound, a man's voice from close by.
She turned, the smoking Colt still in her hand. In the brightening gloom she saw a form coming towards her; it was the dark-haired dandy, his fancy, threadbare shirt hanging out of his trousers, his hatless hair ruffling in the warm morning breeze.
She stood, looking down at the bloodied corpse of the rabbit without emotion. "Ain't no cause for alarm, Trent, just gettin' us all some breakfast."
"It ain't rabbit I was hankerin' for, girl'," Trent replied with a smile, coming up next to her and grabbing her in an aggressive embrace. "Just noticed you were gone, is all, wanted to pick up where we left off last night."
"I don't recall that we 'left off' anywhere," was Pony's reply as she wriggled from his grasp. "You was too drunk to do anythin' but snore in my ear."
Trent blinked, then took her wrist. "Oh. Well, c'mon-we got some time til Hanley gets up."
"I gotta get breakfast made," she said, annoyed.
He grinned back at her. "I'm all the breakfast you'll need."
"Dangit, Trent, I mean it!" she hissed, yanking her wrist from his grasp. "Shit, you're worse'n Eli Joe was."
Trent looked back at her, a little angry now, and stopped, turning and leaning against one of the rock walls in a casual way as he spoke to her. "You sound right ungrateful, Pony. If it wasn't for Joe you'd still be rollin ' drunks an' turnin' tricks in Wolf Tooth Run 'stead of ridin' with us an' gettin' rich."
"I ain't ungrateful," she insisted, wiping her nose with the back of one hand. "But Jesus, give a gal a rest. There's five of you fellars, y'know."
"There'll be more, if Hanley can find extra guns so we can take care of Yates," Trent said calmly, surveying the morning sky before looking back at her with a bemused expression. "But you're a growing girl-I'm sure you can handle it."
She eyed him seriously, one hand gripping her gun. "Reckon I can," she said quietly. He smiled, then turned and walked back up to the cave.
She sighed, and looked once more at the sunrise, now far enough along to spread the first golden gleams across the horizon.
Then her eyes dropped to the mangled, bloody rabbit's body.
"It ain't like there's anything else," she said bitterly, and climbed down the rocky foothills to retrieve the dead jackrabbit.
Ezra carefully led Chaucer from the livery into the street, trying to be quiet; the sun was just coming up and he wanted to be gone before the others arose. He hadn't really anticipated his leaving to be difficult, but for some reason he wanted to be out as quickly as possible.
He stifled a yawn as he adjusted his saddlebags; he'd slept poorly, and the softness of his featherbed and down pillows had been of no use. He'd miss that bed, he thought, it was undoubtedly the nicest one he'd ever slept in. But after that fight with Nathan, even the most comfortable bed in the world would have been no match for his churning mind.
He grit his teeth against the pain and anger which surged through his chest whenever he thought about that fight. He'd suspected that Nathan didn't like him, and last night had only proven it. How dare he sit there and lord it over Ezra that he was a cheat, that his bar deserved to fail, as if Nathan was some spotless angel without a fault. That was probably why he'd come by, to gloat over Ezra's misfortune.
Somewhere in Ezra's heart, he knew this was wrong, that Nathan wasn't like that, but he was in no mood to listen. It was much easier, and felt much better, to ignore that part of him and think that he had been right in the first place, that this had all been a mistake and he should leave. They had never really been his friends, not like they were with Vin or Buck or Chris. They were just like the cousins his mother had left him with when he was a child and she went off to con and gamble - they saw him as useful only when he was needed, then treated him like dirt the rest of the time.
He paused by the livery, slowly stroking Chaucer with one hand as he surveyed the misty, deserted street, glowing pink in the newborn sunlight. How different this was from the last time he left town, supposedly for good, he thought. The new law, Marshal Bryce, had ordered them disbanded; they had gathered here for only a moment before they all rode away, probably for good. Ezra could still recall the way he'd felt then, the awful unfamiliar burning in his gut, the painful roughness of his throat. It had been hard; they had all fought together, shed blood together, and as he sat in the saddle and bid farewell to them he'd been struck by the thought that he had never felt so lonely in all of his life. He had tried not to show it, but it had been positively agonizing.
He sighed and leaned against Chaucer for a moment, closing his eyes. Lord, what an idiot he'd been; Mother would laugh her head off if she knew he'd been so gullible. The burning was back, but this time it hurt even more, because he knew the loneliness would not end this time. He would never allow this to happen to him again, the blighted dreams and blasted hopes. He would leave here alone, and make his way alone, and find his fortune alone. It was the way it had always been, and the sooner he put this sentimental nonsense behind him, the faster the pain would stop and the better off he'd be. He was a fool to think it would ever be any different.
"Gettin' an early start, Ezra?"
Ezra jumped and stood up, blinking as he faced the amused countenance of Vin Tanner, hatless and without his buckskin jacket, which was slung over one arm.
"Ah, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said quickly, regaining his composure with professional skill. "Indeed I am, it is a long way to St. Louis and I detest sentimental goodbyes."
Vin nodded a bit, looking up the street as if he knew his direct gaze unnerved the gambler. "Yeah, ain't got much use for 'em myself. Just wanted to wish you luck on your trip, hope you get this mess ironed out real soon."
Ezra forced a smile. "I anticipate it may be solved even as soon as I leave town."
"Well, that'd be right speedy," Vin observed. "Sure wish we could dispense with Yates that fast." He thought for a moment, shook his head at something, then looked back at Ezra. "Ezra, I ain't sure how this is all gonna go over, so in case I don't come back..." He hesitated, then extended his hand. "Been a pleasure losin' at cards to you."
The gambler was momentarily thrown; he hadn't expected this. But he quickly recalled himself, thinking, he's just doing this for show, he knows Chris and the others would never let anything happen to him. Rich in the friendship of the others, Vin could afford to throw a scrap in Ezra's direction.
Ezra smiled and shook the extended hand firmly. "Thank you, Vin," he said, surprised at the catch in his voice. Careful, he thought as he released Vin's hand; don't slip already.
If Vin noticed, he didn't show it; instead, he shrugged on his jacket. "Well, best go get Sire ready to go. See you in a few weeks, pard."
He nodded and headed back to the livery. Ezra watched him for a moment, the quickly mounted up, trying to shake off the sadness clutching at him. Don't be an idiot, he chided himself, you should have left here ages ago. He probably just feels guilty, and wanted to make himself feel better by being nice to the wretched outcast.
Just ride and don't look back.
He trotted past the saloon, trying not to look at it, or the hotel; so he didn't see Inez rush out until he heard her voice.
Ezra reined in Chaucer and looked back to see the slim young Mexican woman jogging towards him, a small bundle in her hands, her long loose brown hair flying in the wind.
"I wanted to give you some food for your journey," she said breathlessly, handing him the bundle. He accepted it, trying not to be bitter as he looked at the woman to whom his mother had entrusted the running of the Standish Tavern. Inez was a very smart young woman, as ambitious and clever as anyone he'd ever met; but it pained him to know that his mother had chosen her over her own son to manage the bar which had been his in the first place.
"Thank you, Inez," he said simply, desperately wishing he could just get the hell out of there. She smiled, her warm dark eyes friendly.
"We have missed you at the Tavern, Senor," she said. "I hope when you return you will come back. I will even serve you your favorite meal, free of charge!"
He chuckled in spite of himself. "I wish you luck in obtaining lobster Newberg in this wilderness, my dear. They have only recently mastered the knife and fork."
She smiled. "Vaya con dios, Senor."
He said nothing in reply, only tipped his hat with a polite smile and rode off. At least he knew the saloon was in safe hands; if only it had stayed in his.
As he neared the church, he tensed; what was Josiah doing up at this hour? He appeared to be talking to one of the locals, probably about looking after the church while he was gone. Ezra felt a sense of dread settle over him; he was still angry at Josiah, and did not want to go through an attempted apology, or another farewell.
To his surprise, Josiah attempted neither. He seemed to hesitate, as if embarrassed under Ezra's gaze; then he waved and shouted, "Godspeed, Ezra!"
Ezra smiled, nodded, tipped his hat, and rode on out of town, at once thankful and saddened that Josiah had not tried any kind of apology. Well, he thought, shrugging off the unexpected disappointment, I don't suppose he was all that ashamed of his behavior anyway.
He didn't see Josiah take a few steps towards him as he rode away, and start to shout out to him for one final word. Ezra had missed the preacher's balancing on the brink of calling to him before hesitating and then changing his mind, and the self-reproaching look on Josiah's face as he watched Ezra ride off. And he certainly could not have heard Josiah damn himself for being a coward as he walked back to the helpful, but baffled, townsperson.