Disclaimer: No profit, I'm not a gambler. This is purely creative fun. All OCs and the story belong to myself; all else created by the series is simply borrowed.
Standish couldn't seem to think of anything to say to his friend's lackluster method of drinking brandy, his lips pursing together in expectation. The kid fairly choked on the beverage before slamming the glass down on the bar.
"Sonuva-b-itch!" He coughed through his expletive, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
That did it. "For the Love of God, son, you don't drink brandy like water!" He carefully placed his beer down on the bar and straightened himself lest any of the other patrons thought less of him. "It is considered a gentleman's drink- like whiskey there is an art to its consumption." He returned to drinking his beer before he noticed the spit and brandy that flecked his coat through the gritty dust. "Of all the,"
JD shook his head as Ezra's frustration trailed off and refilled his beer mug. "Sorry Ez- just figured I'd better try it, seeing how you go on about it a lot- it was only 10 cents after all!"
Standish sighed. 'stolen liquor." He mumbled into his beer.
"Never mind." He tipped back the rest of his beverage carefully. "Look we're due back in town tomorrow. I suggest we book ourselves a fine hotel room and get some rest."
JD snorted. "What fine hotel?"
Ezra turned to look outside and gave the 'sated Rider Hotel" the attention it deserved - all of two seconds. It was little more than a boarding house with a fancy sign. Bastard owner was probably charging higher prices to make up for the cost of the thing, which, now he paid attention, was painfully gaudy.
Standish sighed and closed his eyes, wishing he'd stayed at Wicker for another day. The trail hadn't been tempting even then with the icy chill sweeping the land; and by the afternoon of the next day it had become extremely uncomfortable. The frost had broken up the earth to dust as the sun had risen, getting into hair, eyes, ears and nostrils and sneaking beneath hems and lapels. The frigid air itself was enough to sting their eyes but the bright February sun and the gritty dust had made it all damn near blinding. But they were on a deadline and so the horses were forced to perform above par, their riders struggling to guide them on with sore eyes. There was some small comfort to be gained at the end of their ride however- at least the saloon here was warm.
"Fine." He slammed his glass down and pulled on his thick woolen overcoat. "I'll see to the horses then and when I"m finished I'll meet you there. I implore you to get me anything but an east facing room."
Dunne nodded within the soft coils of his scarf and watched the gambler stroll out with his saddlebags. "Bossy." He mumbled.
Dust swirled around the gambler's legs as he walked to the hitching post, the wind playing with the tail of his woolen coat. The gelding stood impassively as Standish took up the reins, chewing in some state of boredom at the bit as his owner fumbled with the knot. His fingers felt thick and clumsy through the gloves and ached to move despite the brief thawing in the saloon.
Catching his horse about to take a nip at his frozen ears he threw a hand at the offending muzzle and eyed the beast up with distaste.
"The more I look at you, my friend, the worse I feel. Do us both a favour and don't drag your feet."
As he led the way to the livery, the gambler didn't notice his mount smelling the air, shifting his weight to his back legs in alarm.
Mistaking it for stubbornness, Ezra simply tugged on the reins irritably and cussed the horse.
All at once came a thundering of sound as a stagecoach rumbled into the deserted main street, abruptly waking the quiet town from its noontime siesta. The coach bumped and bounded behind the team of lathered horses charging fractiously behind a blinded Roan, the blood marring the velveteen face and harness. Muscles pumped and hooves dug deep against the pitted ground as their commotion shook the earth and buildings through a veil of dust.
Ezra spun around at the noise and watched the bloody spectacle with some morbid curiosity before the Roan pitched forward over the rough track, pulling the others to the ground around it with a chilling wail. The harnesses entangled and tripped the baying animals before the coach came to a shunted halt amid the carnage.
Before he could question the reckless cruelty before him, four armed men leapt from the splintered coach onto the street as three others caught up from behind leading spare horses. Guns and rifles fanned out quickly all aimed at buildings and fleeing townsfolk and before he knew it the gambler himself.
He dropped the reins and slapped his horse on the rump, pulling himself behind a support pillar as the bullets chiseled into the wood and stone, winging JD's Bay at the hitching rail. The little horse whinnied and danced on the spot desperate for escape, it's eyes rolling wildly.
From the noise came one clear shot from a Winchester. "Y"all stay inside and don't none of ya interfere, then ya stay alive, got that?" A voice scratched through the screen of dust before the shadows moved off towards the bank.
A bank job. "Don't you people realize it's a Sunday?" Ezra threw in before bullets peppered the saloon wall behind him. "Damn it!" He hissed and drew his side arm, casting sympathetic eyes at the struggling horse. He knew what it was like to get shot in the shoulder. With forced calm, the gambler tore his gaze between the outlaws and the team in disarray, torn between the two as he ran his fingers sensitively across the gunmetal of his Remington. The weight itself was a comfort he truly appreciated in these situations.
As soon as the gunmen had entered the bank the young sheriff darted out between the batwing doors, eyes wide from the confusion and horror.
Standish caught the lack of control in the kid and drew him by the elbow away from the boardwalk behind a cart. "JD, we're outnumbered, we should let local law enforcement handle this." His voice though firm carried with it yearning to flee that went unnoticed by the trembling sheriff.
"Ain't none." He whispered in a shaky voice as he pulled his colts from their holsters.
"What do you mean none?" Ezra peered as far as he dared around the cart and squinted up and down the street looking for a sheriff's office.
JD regained composure as he checked his weapons. "Barkeeper told some local that Barney was ill."
Ezra ducked as a shot ricocheted past them. "Barney?
"The sheriff." His voice had risen as the adrenaline kicked in when he roughly pulled his jacket out of Ezra's hold. "Look, Ezra, we're all these people have got for real peacekeepers. We can't just h-hide."
Standish leaned back against the wall and heaved a sigh. Dunne wasn't thinking irrationally, he knew, but from the innocent rage of what he'd seen. He had to admit the kid wasn't alone with what he felt, but damn if his conscience wasn't picking out his headstone already.
In the momentary lull of gunfire he looked across towards the bank and realized he had a good view from behind the shelter, and Standish was no longer a man to scorn a little help. He quickly grabbed JD by the shoulder, much to the youth's contempt, and pushed him towards the wagon in his place. 'stay behind these, there's a good shot from here- and you'll be out of harm's way."
"Ezra, stop it!" His anger was quickly flaring. "Wha- where are you going?"
"Round the back." He sighed again.
"Wait- no Ezra, I'll go, I want to!"
"Listen!" He spun and pushed a finger into JD's chest vehemently. "I can't have you getting hurt or, God forbid it, killed." He wasn't about to give up the chance to protect his young friend now that he could.
Not comprehending his friend's responsibility the sheriff scowled angrily. 'they shot my horse, Ezra!" A shot flew from the bank window and thumped into the porch railing above them. "And no, I didn't miss it."
"You go behind there with a hot temper you'll miss something and get killed- so knock it off!"
"I"m probably the closest this town has for an official lawman!"
Exasperated, Ezra snarled at the comment. "We're not in Four Corners, JD. And out here few are going to give a damn about you. Out here, to them, your badge doesn't exist!"
Seeing the hurt and anger on the kid's face the gambler could only manage a contrite smile and a quick explanation before the gunfire erupted again and a man trying to defend his home was shot down from the rooftop.
"You're a better shot with the colts than I- especially at a longer range. I"m one for short range so I"m best to try round back. If no one comes out or shows themselves and you're sure it's safe, join me but for Christ's sake keep you're head down." His plea fell on deaf ears.
The kid still stared at the downed man clutching his bleeding leg so Ezra took the kid's face between his hands and grabbed his attention. "You understand? Keep your head down, JD."
JD nodded a little, still looking a little put upon.
"I need you to watch my back."
Purpose lit the sheriff's eyes and he nodded and mouthed ok, his breath dancing on the cold air. "Good Luck, Ez."
The gambler winced at the jinx and picked up his gun from his lap. He looked out from the alley to check the safety as the last lookout gunman ran into the bank and turned back to JD with a steadfast glare.
"Move only if it's necessary."
With that he took his leave and ran full tilt across the street, barely missing a bullet aimed for his leg before near diving around the side of "Horace's Mercantile".
"Damn it, Ezra." JD breathed shakily, watching with widened eyes as he ran a thumb under the brim of his bowler hat. He took aim with his gun and felt utterly useless for hiding behind a cart, wishing his best friend were with him.
Round behind the bank four men played sentry with loaded rifles, while the three others inside stood guard over the hostages loading up the money and valuables. Ezra wouldn't dare to break his cover despite how easy the targets were, he was but one man and even with his derringer and Remington he was still severally outgunned.
When the vault was finally emptied clean the three moved out gingerly with a young bank teller shoved in front. Just as soon as they made to leave one erupted into a coughing fit, pulling down his bandana with a scratchy cough.
Another turned around and clumsily grabbed the man's coat lapel to hide him. "God damnit Harry! Put your cover back on-"
Harry could only wave away the hand trying to smother him but looked up in time to see JD dive behind a barrel. "Lyle- look "ere g-got company!"
Standish cursed and swung his gaze round to see his young friend peering round for a shot. Gunfire aimed at the kid's position spat at the ground, enough of a distraction for Ezra to break cover and let off three shots before pulling back out of sight. His mouth curved in a weak smile at the sound of a bark from a colt followed by a sharp grunt as he sat back quickly - kid got a shot in.
"Damn it! Boys, get up and get out o' here!" The thieves were running out of ammo and ran blindly for their horses, their mounts rearing and kicking out at the explosion of sound and movement. Sensing opportunity, Ezra aimed at the man still holding a gun near the hostage and shot him above the elbow, catching a bullet across the top of his hat as he knelt. The outlaw dropped the rifle and howled as he stumbled to his horse in the ending fray.
Over the settling dust and ebbing hoof beats, the young Sheriff grinned and looked about. "Good shot Ez!" He called wickedly as he picked up the bloodied rifle. "Nice."
Leaning wearily against the corner of the frosty wall Standish took in the fallen thief and the kid. "We were incredibly fortunate, that is all there is." He mumbled and dusted himself off.
"Aw, come on Ez- tell me honestly you didn't enjoy yourself."
Standish looked up then avoided JD's gaze at what he'd heard. "Let's proceed in moving him to the jail- if they've even got one, and inform the sheriff." He holstered his guns and caught the disbelief on JD's face. "I'd like to end this business sometime soon, Mr Dunne, if you please?"
They each took the outlaw by an arm and dragged and carried him to the jail, having no interference from townsfolk still hidden behind doors. All the while, Standish felt sorely disappointed that the sheriff's innocence had been bested by rage and desire for revenge. They had all expressed expectations that the West would change JD's perception of life and with every passing day it became a reality.
As the gambler walked on deep in thought, the kid had peered over the top of the outlaw's lolling head and seen the regret in his friend's eyes. In the back of his mind he felt responsible for that look, knowing he had dragged Ezra into the fight. He'd make it up it him; he just had to pick the right time to apologize without causing the gambler any embarrassment.
At the sheriff's home just outside of town, the two peacekeepers stood patiently for the doctor to leave. Barney was sitting up in a wing-backed chair covered in blankets but sweating profusely from the effects of a fever. His newly deputized son took his leave from his father's side and welcomed the two strangers.
With a strong grip he shook hands with each man with an apologetic smile. "Ms Colins just told me about the bank job y"got involved in- gotta say I"m real appreciative of what y'did. Ain't many in town who'd help."
No, only one. Ezra silently grumbled.
The deputy shook his head sadly. 'they were all shook up enough when word got through of the attack on the stage outpost."
JD motioned with his bowler. "You mean the one a touch south of here?"
"Yup. They didn't seem to think it was planned so I"m hopin' this is all we'll be gettin'."
"Were any hurt at the outpost?"
"One fella got shot; another woman caught a ricochet but nothin' fatal. Figure the horses got caught up in the fire. Thing was, and this is another puzzle, it wasn't an attack as such. They only took a shot when one o'the guards took one at them. Don't make sense to go steal a coach and mean no harm, y"know?"
Standish nodded politely while JD stared questioningly at the carpet.
"Did anyone in town take care o'the team of horses?"
As soon as the outlaw hit the bed, Standish reloaded his gun and made for the door. "JD, go and find a doctor or suitable healer. Ask him to come to the jail, then inquire as to where to move the bodies."
JD followed with a frown. "Bodies?" He tailed Standish to the boardwalk then watched the gambler stride over to the fallen team. Though knowing what his friend was about to do he was still startled by the shots. A bullet to each dying animal put a final close to the day's atrocities.
"With haste, Mr Dunne, please." He called over the ebbing echoes and walked over to the bank.
Ezra cleared his throat carefully. "None of the horses could be saved but the company will be pleased to know their coach is salvageable- for a price."
The deputy winced and folded his arms. "How's Mitch? I heard he got shot from his rooftop."
"We didn't hear much but the doctor was pretty sure he'd be okay. Got shot in the leg."
"Damn, I guess if he'd got a family he wouldn't of bin up there."
"Am I right that it's solely you and your father as the law around here?" Standish motioned in the direction of the town with his hat.
"Yup- there's a couple o'ranch hands that try "n help when they're here but town's mostly made up o'God fearin' cowards- if I can be blunt. Any chance y"got a look at who it was that robbed that bank?"
JD shook his head. "No sir- didn't get a chance."
"Damn, look here I got another problem- with it only being me in town, the doc watchin' over the wounded man, there ain't a lot that can be done if they come back. Would y'think on stayin' a little longer?"
"No-I"m afraid we-"
"We'd be glad to." JD chanced a look at Ezra only to see murder in his eyes. He shrugged apologetically and turned back to the deputy who looked positively relieved.
'swell, that'd be a real help. I only ask fer a night so I can get other help rounded up."
JD ignored the sound of Ezra's teeth grinding furiously. "Not a problem. We'll stick around town if you need us." Wow, that sound could really cut through you.
"Thanks- oh hey I didn't get yer names."
"Oh, I"m Sheriff Dunne from Four Corners. This is-"
Standish unclenched his jaws long enough to reply, "Ezra Briar," as pleasantly as he could muster.
JD suppressed the question forming on his lips and turned back to the deputy.
"Sheriff Dunne, well it's a pleasure. Mr Briar. We owe y"both."
Yes you damn well do- and so do you, my young friend. Ezra tipped his hat to the deputy and walked outside with JD across the crunching ice and gravel before rounding on him when they reached the stable. "I beg your pardon?"
The kid tensed up unconsciously. "What? Oh, come on Ez the guy- the town needs our help."
"There are plenty of other people in that TOWN to help-" the gambler mimicked bitterly. And I could sure as hell do without you trying to play hero again.
"But none would have, they're strict Christian folk, remember?"
'they're cowards JD, all they need is- is simple encouragement."
JD dropped his hands from his loaned horse's bridle and stood akimbo to the gambler. "You upset because of a card game?"
Standish wasn't about to be talked down to by the lad and prodded a gloved finger at him. "Not just any- I was meeting an old acquaintance of mine that just happens to be filthy rich from a recent inheritance and loosing his touch at the table. He's leaving the morning after tomorrow. Not to mention a personal preference of mine to leave this bullet riddled town that has more buried than living."
JD shrugged and pulled his gloves on. "Ride back then. I gave my word I'd stay- dead bodies don't bother me." He challenged bravely before swinging up into the saddle. He watched the play of emotions on Standish" face anxiously, relived to hear the low growl of grudging acceptance.
But determined not to dent his pride, Dunne only grinned smugly. "Knew you'd come round." I wont forget it, Ez.
Standish bit his lip from the retort. There was never an option; he was always going to stay with the lad- and the kid had to of known this very well. "Don't practice self-flattery, Mr Dunne. I"m merely looking out for myself- Mr Wilmington would doubtless seek retribution if I were to let you get hurt." He grumbled as he mounted.
The kid chuckled at the show of stubbornness but stopped quickly. 'speaking of hurt, I err- I recognize the man I shot." He toyed with his reins in the momentary pause.
If he were to say honestly, this didn't surprise Standish that much. "Why didn't you tell the deputy?" He rested his arms across the saddle horn and pushed his hat up with a finger.
"Despite what it looked like, they aren't criminals."
Standish began sputtering out sentence fragments before squinting questioningly. "JD, because of them five horses had to be destroyed and a man was nearly killed, they held other townsfolk hostage in the bank- and stole a great deal of money. And that town isn't as poor as it looks."
"Yeah, and they shot my horse- will you at least hear me out? I meant they aren't normally. This- by all accounts, is way too different."
The gambler sighed dejectedly. "I"m listening."
"The man's Clive Hill- a ranch hand at the Latent Ranch."
"You heard of "em?" It was more a statement than a question.
"Only from Josiah, William Latent isn't it?"
"Uh-huh, him and Annie. Got quite a family on the ranch, a lot of land too."
"And a profitable business I gather from what Mr Sanchez told me. But that doesn't come close to explaining why on earth they held up this little town."
Dunne shook his head. "You catch any names? I heard Lyle and Harry."
He ran this tongue over his gold tooth in thought. "Lyle- Lyle is William's son."
"I believe so-"
"You gentlemen need anything?"
The two peacekeepers turned to see Ms Colins at the door to the stable; hands perched on the top of a pitchfork.
Ezra tipped his hat and smiled. "Ah, no ma"am, we're just on our way out from seeing the deputy. Our apologies for keeping you."
"No trouble, mister." She replied as she watched them gather themselves and ride from their stalls with clipped movements.
Past the gates, JD turned to Ezra with a puzzled frown and pointed to his own hat. "You got a hole in your hat, Ez, you know about that?"
"Pardon?" Ezra pulled it off his head and scowled. "Oh for the love of God!"
The sheriff chuckled and nudged his horse on to keep up with Standish. 'so- how come the son of a wealthy rancher goes and robs a bank?"
+ + + + + + +
Clive Hill sat up after the doctor's ministrations, clutching his thigh tenderly. "Who's Lyle?"
Standish shook his head and closed his eyes. "Don't- just don't begin to lie. I've neither the time nor the patience for your futile game. I'll remind you we've been on the trail for several bitterly cold days coupled with dragging a prisoner upstate to Gauze Mount prison, and then you have the nerve to rob that bank- that one right over there. So spare the crap and answer the sheriff's question!" His voice rose with every word and his eyes glared manically at the prisoner.
Clive squinted in the dim light. 'sheriff?"
"Of Four Corners but none the less a figure of the law."
JD tried to hide the grin at his description and swelled a little more.
Clive stared at the kid for a few seconds before edging his gaze back to the gambler seated on the edge of the table. "I"m not feelin' good right now, why don't-"
He was cut short when Ezra palmed his derringer in his direction. "Like I said I don't have the patience- and I am quite exhausted." Plus he was itchy, uncomfortable and impatient for a hot bath.
Clive cast his eyes downwards and licked his lips. "Not what you think" He mumbled.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It- we- we didn't plan it this way."
"To be a robbery we-"
"You charged into town with guns, hold up a bank and steal a substantial collection of money- how was that never supposed to be a robbery? And why steal a stagecoach? As I speak Wells Fargo and Company are doubtless sending a telegram demanding to know what happened to their property and who did it, backed by, I assume, some rather powerful attorneys."
"You don't understand, we're desperate out there."
"You always are-" Standish snapped.
"No wait," JD stood up and placed a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Where? Desperate out where?"
Clive looked unsettled and looked to the windows and the door. 'the ranch."
Seeing the distress JD walked to the bars. 'the Latent ranch?" He asked quietly.
Clive nodded and held up in hands for a chance. "Listen, I can't be seen talkin' to anyone about this- if they see me, the ranch'll have hell to pay."
"Who is 'they"?" Standish frowned, his interest peaking.
"Cauldwells- Quinn Cauldwell's boys."
Standish got up after a moment and walked over to the door, locking it carefully before closing the shutters to the windows. "No one will hear you beyond these walls. You'd best explain everything to us- and no half truths."
Clive licked his lips nervously and leaned forward. 'the Latent's, the family I work for are sufferin' real bad for the land they have. Because the Cauldwell's want it. Oh, the feud goes way back to when the families first set up but now its getting" worse. There's gonna be bloodshed."
"That doesn't explain the robbery."
"We needed the money-" He held up a hand at Ezra's pinched look. "And it's not as foolish as it sounds. They've been stealin' from us and damagin' property- they steal our cattle but the Latent brand can be changed to look like theirs so no outsider could ever tell the difference."
"You told the sheriff?"
"Hell yeah, plenty of times- even the Marshall when he rode through but no one buys our story. Our profits are dropping and that's the idea- to drive us off the land to make it look like poor management or some such crap."
"Have you expressed these ideas to anyone? I mean surely people familiar with the ranch wouldn't believe poor management ruined the business?"
"Tried." Clive shook his head. "No one gives a shit. Cauldwell's even threatened the lives of the family- our families if we ever got outside help they'd suffer for it. We're prisoners of the land and they keep takin' from right under us and destroying what we've all worked hard for."
"You're taking this very personally, Clive."
"I should! I've been working with the Latent's damn near my whole life, I got a wife and daughter on that ranch. We owe our livelihoods to the Latents! That's why I've been stealin' for "em. We need the money for defense."
"Things that bad?" JD wondered.
"Never bin like this. Just the other day one of the newer men, Jake Hinckley got a bullet in him for runnin' into two of Quinn's muscles in a taverna. The lad came close to dyin'." Clive clenched his fists in front of him angrily. "I swear those bastards even threatened the doc, he was mighty shook up when he got to the ranch that night."
"I find it hard to believe that no one would pay attention."
Clive looked Standish dead in the eye. "Reasonable. But when you see the tight hold that bastard and his sons have on the towns closest you'll understand. He's got hands in every sheriff's purse and money enough to keep "em there for a long time to come. I"m a good citizen mister, there's not one man on that ranch, or woman I wouldn't bet my savings on for being honest, hard working Christian folk. That I assure you. And we, sure as my word, wouldn't steal but for the loftier purpose of saving our beloveds and property. Our legacies are tied up on that ranch, sir, and we'll be damned if we let those sons of bitches get their filthy paws over it."
All the while his gaze had never wavered and fixed Standish to the spot with a sound belief in the man. Even JD who wasn't so hypnotized by the man's eyes felt the truth and passion behind the promise.
Ezra ran his tongue over his dried lips and shifted in his seat. "Mr Hill, you mentioned the money was to go towards the defense of the Latent homestead. What, may I ask, is it you mean exactly?"
Clive sighed and broke his gaze, looking instead at his clasped hands. "We got word that Quinn's looking to drive us off sooner than we'd hoped."
"You mean- attack? Kill you off?" JD asked astounded. "But- that's criminal intentions, can't the law do something about it?"
Clive shook his head. "Apparently they can't do anything until they've already attacked us." He smiled bitterly. 'there's no evidence to suggest they have or are planning to harm us- heck there ain't even evidence to suggest theft. And there's no law against buying weapons for use on private property- especially a ranch. All we can hope is that we can outgun them- "cause we sure as hell can't outnumber them." He held his head in his hands, tired now that his words were spoken.
Standish watched the man for a moment before nodding to JD and spoke quietly. "Mr Hill, as far as any one else knows you never said a word and are simply a convict. Rest assured for the remainder of the night you'll be under our protection and supervision."
Clive looked up from his bed and nodded thankfully, eyes glistening but not from the pain in his thigh. "I couldn't ask for more from you fellas."
JD tipped his hat and walked back to the desk with Ezra out of hearing distance of Clive. "What do you think?" He sighed.
Standish shrugged with a frown. "I think there's a lot of truth behind his words- it was too clearly told to be an on-the-spot lie." And I would know.
JD nodded firmly. 'so what now? We can't let him go to prison. They'd have one less man up at the Ranch."
"I know, and we've got to consider the law." Ezra ran his fingers through his hair, his longing for bath and bed forgotten. "We'll stay here tonight, before dawn we'll let him go." With resolve, Standish removed his scarf and motioned to the cot in the cell. "I'll take first watch, Mr Dunne, and then I'll wake you at midnight. Stay alert, we may need to move quickly if a certain brood come looking for this man."
"You got a plan?"
Ezra shook his head and smoothed out his woolen jacket before getting comfortable in the wooden chair. "Not a one." He smiled and threw another log on the stove as the soft sound of snoring drifted from Clive Hill's cell.
As dawn broke, the smoke from the cooling embers rose and drifted across a lifeless JD by the cell door. Close by, Ezra lay with a bleeding wound across his forehead, slumped against a wall, his pallor gray and deathly. Everything was silent. As the light filtered across the jail it seemed no one would discover the abandoned cells and scattered forms until, as the town awoke, a shrill scream cut through the morning quiet.
+ + + + + + +
"Easy, son, lay ya still. Took a nasty knock, young fella."
Standish tried to bat the gentle hand away and open his eyes even as the pain cut through his skull. "Wh- JD?"
"Quiet now, yer friend'll be fine. Got some bruisin' but healthy enough. Here, you're so intent on movin' you hold this to yer head." He slapped a wadded bandage in Ezra's hand and pressed the cloth against the sutures, ignoring the yelp from his patient.
"What happened?" He croaked, knowing full well what had gone on to get him in that state.
'that prisoner you weren't watchin' so closely got the drop on ya both- done battered his way out, stole yer keys by the looks of things. Unless you didn't search him proper for lock picks- that wouldn't surprise me, I mean you were sloppy to get close enough to let him hurt ya both in the first place."
The old man's ramblings would have ended Ezra's patience if he weren't so keen to find JD. But after little searching he saw the kid across the other side of the clinic room resting on a cot similar to his. He had some bright redness to his throat but otherwise looked okay.
"Ez?" He drawled and opened his eyes blearily. "Ezra?"
"You're quite safe, Mr Dunne, let the doctor work." He figured if he helped the man he'd stop his cussing.
The doctor waved a hand irritably. "You can both get on and leave if you have a mind to. I'd suggest stay and rest till I was blue but no one listens."
"Unfortunately- ow!" He winced as the doctor pulled away the bandage to check his head wound. "We must be heading back to our own domicile. We're most- *hiss!* appreciative of your efforts."
The doctor must only have been half listening as he wrapped a bandage around Ezra's head to secure some wadding, as the only reply Ezra got was a grunt. "Bled a lot as head wounds do but it shouldn't mark you too badly, stitches are as neat as I've always done "em. Keep it dry and you'll do fine- the bruisin's gonna bother ya fer a bit mind."
"I'll take your word for it, sir." He made to stand up and fought a bout of dizziness under the doctor's impatient gaze. He pulled his jacket and overcoat from the end of the bed and began to dress gingerly. Steadily and with his poker face fixed firmly in place, he walked over to JD's side to assist him getting up. The kid was struggling with the swaying room, eyes owlish in the sunlight but recognized the firm grip the gambler had on his elbow.
"Steady now, son, I don't want to have to explain to Mr Wilmington I let you fall down steps."
"Full o'shit Ez." He drawled with the barest lucidity.
Through their pain and misery was a strong thread of satisfaction. Their plan was convincing and their medical bills were all paid for by the sheriff for their "inconveniences" and put to right any ill thoughts Ezra had of staying on.
In the cold silence of the morning before dawn, both peacekeepers had formulated a plan and talked it through with Clive. The man concerned was relieved to say the least that the two peacekeepers were willing to help and finalize his escape to a point where his enthusiasm had gotten the better of him.
As planned, Ezra was pretending to sleep in one of the adjacent cells whilst the young Dunne was bringing water to the prisoner. JD would be "caught off guard" by Clive with a strangle hold enough to cause bruising but not enough to knock him out- the laudanum laced in his coffee would see to that. Then, awoken, Ezra would run across and intervene, but not before Clive had grabbed JD's keys and freed himself. Encountering the peacekeeper, Clive was supposed to punch Standish to daze him, giving himself enough chance to make a break for freedom. Minutes afterwards Ezra would then raise the alarm when Clive had gained enough distance between himself and the town.
However, in his eagerness, Clive hit Ezra too hard, knocking the gambler senseless until an hour later in the clinic.
And when helping his young companion down the steps, the gambler couldn't help but smile like a drunkard.
"Yes, Mr Dunne?" He grimaced as he became unbalanced with the kid's weight.
"It work?" His mind was still muddled from the laudanum, which the wizened doctor couldn't differentiate from effects of strangulation.
"Indeed it did." He whispered. No one as yet had mentioned gathering a posse and if they did they wouldn't track him far- the strengthening breeze had shifted the brittle earth hours ago.
"We goin' home now?"
Ezra grinned at the word and huffed out a laugh. 'thankfully, yes." But with JD's horse out of action, Ezra had to think of replacing the animal until they reached Four Corners. It made him cringe at the thought of using the aging mare in the stall but if they wanted to get back to the town before evening of the next day they had to take what they could.
And what they got was an unwilling nag that refused to push above a giddy trot. Between Ezra's headache and the cold air, and the horse's stubborn streak borne from long days in a warm stall as age took it's toll, the gambler's patience fizzled out to a last raw nerve. That Dolly the sway-backed pinto promptly stomped on.
Fed-up and sore, Standish pulled the little group to a halt at the first decent site they came across. As evening brought with it an inappropriately poetic rosy hue, the two companions sat around their camp in the hollow picking at their food, neither one caring for the delights the sunset had to offer.
Ezra's headache was bothering him and the laudanum had begun to play havoc with JD's stomach during the ride back, knowing full well he'd used a little more than his own stomach could handle. Now over the worst the young sheriff stared dumbly at the ground at his feet.
"If there's a next time we help another man escape, can I not have the laudanum, please?"
Ezra passed Dunne his hipflask and sighed. "If Mr Wilmington has his way there wont be a next time."
JD looked up, pulling the flask of whiskey away from his lips, and frowned irritably. "Why do you always say that?"
"That Buck'll kill you or hurt you if something happens to me?"
"You have to admit it's not a far fetched idea-"
"Is that how little you think of yourself? Honestly?" Innocent brown eyes struggling under the questioning gaze.
Standish felt uncomfortable at the suggested praise that the small smile did little to conceal. "Come now, JD, I"m being realistic."
"Realistic is him forgiving you or understanding your position- hell, I"m the one he'd be mad at! Do you really think they'd all sooner blame you?"
Ezra shook his head emphatically. "I"m not the most trustworthy person in town-" He began to mutter.
"Bullshit- I trust you with my life, Ezra- hell more times than I remember!"
To this Ezra was pushed for his argument because, honestly, it surprised him.
"We all do. Hell the only reason we've stayed alive these three years is because of you and the others- that's why we're there for the next day and the next- and here again tomorrow." He rubbed a hand gently across his stomach and stifled a belch.
Ezra clean ignored the loud and throaty sounds from across the other side of the fire and stared at the ground intently.
"Weren't for you we'd of lost Chris and Josiah- and Vin a long time ago." His voice grew quiet as the words suddenly became more personal. "And me." To this Ezra turned towards his friend and JD looked him straight in the eyes. "You saved my life again today, Ezra. I"m probably gonna keep sayin' it for as long as we know each other but every time I mean it- thank you." He looked back down at the ground. "I would have ran blind into that bank- that's where I was headed. You stopped me from making a stupid mistake."
"You're intentions were noble, JD they shouldn't be confused with stupidity-"
"They were unplanned I'll admit but I've rarely had the pleasure of meeting men as brave as yourself. And I, my friend, have traveled- a lot. Might I remind you, you forgot yourself in that monologue of yours, Mr Dunne- you've performed admirably in your duties and towards your fellow peacekeepers and I urge you not to forget."
JD felt his anger raise a little. 'there you go again! You're shiftin' the compliments, it's like they're- like poison or something. Or debilitating!"
"Because they're not meant for me." Ezra sat forward with a sigh and leaned his elbows on his bent knees. "Mr Dunne, I protected you today because I feared for myself. I was concerned of what the others would say- I was- I was scared for your life and mine. I protected you because I felt worried and responsible so do not compare my deeds as heroic or courageous because I don't deserve them." He finished tiredly. With that he got up and smoothly walked away from camp with slumped shoulders.
JD called after his friend. 'so, what? You feel like a coward is that it? Listen, Ezra, I don't care what you think, I know what I saw and I sure remember you savin' my hide back there. And that's what I'll tell the others."
At this Ezra stopped mid-stride.
"You might not be a hero- you sure ain't perfect."
To this Standish smiled.
"But- you're a damn good friend Ezra, it's just we don't always tell you- heck, you don't give us a chance to! But I promised Josiah I'd say something to you this trip after what you did for him and I wanna make sure you understand."
Standish turned to his friend with almost sadness in his smile. Seeing the kids wide brown eyes softened any anger he had left. "You have some way with words, Mr Dunne."
JD smiled, relived he had managed his apology to the gambler, and then cocked his head thoughtfully to one side. "Was debilitating the right word to use? I heard you use it before, I never got a chance to try it out myself."
Ezra grinned and nodded as he returned to his spot by the fire. "It was well used." He smiled across at his friend. 'thank you, JD. And I meant what I said, because I don't waste words."
"Neither do I." JD grinned around a mouthful of biscuit, the irony slipping his mind.
"Touché," Ezra mumbled.
+ + + + + + +
Mid afternoon, Wilmington stood running a finger under the rim of his hat as he watched the two dots on the horizon. "Boys'd better have a good reason for bein' late." Just that morning they had received a telegram from Warren Break's deputy sheriff informing them their friends would be delayed and since he hadn't included an explanation, Buck had begun pacing relentlessly ever since.
Tanner looked up from his paper where he sat on the Clarion porch. 'they seem okay?"
Buck rolled his eyes and turned to look at the calm sharpshooter. "How the hell can I tell from here?"
Vin half smiled and folded his paper, ignoring the snaps from the worried ladies" man. He stood up with a sigh. "Are they being followed?" Making Wilmington look for himself.
Oh. Buck squinted and shook his head. "Nup."
"Comin' in slow?"
"Then they're okay."
"How d"you figure that?"
"If they were comin' in slow that means someone's hurt. If they ain't bein' followed at that speed it just means they're tryin' to make up for lost time."
Buck half nodded then looked back and forth between the distance and the tracker.
Vin shrugged and picked up his paper. "Makes sense."
Wilmington sighed and calmed his concern. "I guess."
By the time they reached town the two horses were wide eyed and coated with sweat. The exhausted Pinto shot angry eyes at the tall ladies" man bearing down on them, backing into the wounded gelding behind.
"He's just worried, Mr Dunne." The gambler whispered softly as he dismounted.
"What took you guys so long- and what the hell did you do to yourselves?" He grabbed Dolly's reins and drew in the sight of his young friend.
"Buck, we're fine, but we've got a hell of a story."
"That prisoner give you any trouble?"
"You start a fight Ezra?" Nathan called down from the clinic balcony, smiling.
"No." Ezra refrained from sneering.
"Have trouble on the ride back?" Tanner threw in.
JD scowled and raised his hand. "Look- we're the one's with the story so just shut up." He turned to catch Ezra's eye. They hadn't immediately blamed Standish, just like he'd said.
Standish smiled and gave the kid a small nod. "Quite. Where is everyone else?"
"Josiah and Chris'll be back in another half hour, just gotta finish taking Jeremiah Newing back home."
"He ain't dead is he?"
"No, JD, but he ain't got long I don't suppose." Nathan joined then. 'took a bad fall, done busted his foot. He'd be better in town but he loves his own home. Can't hardly blame him."
JD nodded solemnly and shouldered his saddlebags. "We gotta talk to everyone. I"m sorry we kept all of you guessing but," he kicked a booted toe into the dirt in thought.
"We couldn't risk sharing our news until we'd ridden a fair distance away from Warren Break. It would have compromised the safety of others, as well as our own."
Nathan frowned, joining in with Vin and Buck, none of them liking the sound of things. "We'd best gather at the jail then. Either of you need help? Ezra you got quite a lump."
Standish smiled, shaking his head, and touched his tender bruise with his fingertips. "We both saw a doctor prior to leaving."
"He hit you pretty hard, Ez." JD squinted to get a better look at his friend's forehead. "He needed stitches, Nate."
Standish shot a betrayed expression at the smiling kid. "I've ridden back in relatively good health. It's no longer a concern." True, it was more superficial; he was knocked out more by exhaustion than the blow itself.
Jackson shrugged. "Alright, let's get a move on."
As evening brought a hush to Four Corners, Sanchez and Larabee rolled into town tired and bone-weary from settling the old man back into his home. The two had felt compelled to make some small repairs to the property before they left, both unwilling to leave the ailing resident too soon. But the day pressed on and left them no time to fix the well pump and so after pulling up five buckets of water they made their farewells and left with good light.
Easing up in front of the livery, the wagon jumped and skittered over the rough main street before jerking to a stop behind a team of two of Jeremiah's old horses.
The gunslinger climbed down from shotgun and stretched out the knots in his back, noticing the warm glow of firelight from the jail. "Looks like we got bad company, Josiah."
The preacher turned from securing the reins with a raised brow. 'the Lord sets these things to challenge us, Brother." He grumbled before joining Chris.
"Thought that roof was enough for one day." Larabee groaned as he ambled alongside his friend.
The thunderclap sound of hooves in the street had brought hands to guns instinctively. JD looked across at Ezra and saw a steely glint in the gambler's eyes; he way ready.
"Wagon just pulled up." Tanner peered from behind the shutters. "It's them."
The jailhouse door swung open with Josiah leading the way, taking off his hat with a nod to everyone. "Evening brothers- we thought you'd of had a guest or two."
Buck motioned towards the stove. "JD and Ezra got back not long ago."
Nathan handed them both a coffee each. "You boys took a little longer than we expected. Everyone okay?"
Sanchez nodded grimly. "Got him settled, he- err, wanted me to say a small prayer before we left."
Chris shook off his coat and paused when he saw the bruises on the kid's neck. "What happened?"
Dunne fidgeted under the scrutiny and looked at Ezra. With a hard put-upon sigh, Standish began from Warren Break, detailing as much as his shaken memory would allow to the five eager listeners. Midway, Vin struggled to remember where he had heard of another man that was overpowered by an inmate with a strangle hold. Then he shrugged it off and put it down to ill storytelling.
Larabee leaned back in the chair thoughtfully. 'so what happened after he told you all this, his friends break him out?"
"Not exactly." "Well, kinda."
Larabee looked between the two. 'so which is it?"
Standish sighed and held up a hand for JD to carry on.
"We let him go."
Chris opened his mouth but was beaten to it. "Wanna run that by us again?" Buck scowled.
"Gentlemen, it was the wisest decision. Without Clive the ranch would have been a man short. And if any of the Cauldwell's suspected us of helping him it might've worsened the situation for their families- who've already been threatened should action against them be taken. By planning an escape it kept us clear of suspicion and made Mr Hill look very uncooperative."
"Didn't they realize that leaving the ranch to rob a bank left their homes open to attack?"
"I think they'd already considered that option, if Quinn thought such action was viable those left behind would have been ready, I've no doubt."
"Yeah, what Ezra said- I don't think they had a choice. It's like fight or fall."
"I don't mean to insult you boys but-"
"The 'but' eradicated the 'don't mean', Mr Wilmington."
"Just hear me out, how sure are you two that Clive was as honest as he made out? I mean how much do we know about the Cauldwell's side of things?"
"Mr Wilmington I'd bet my reputation for being able to read people on my belief in this man's word."
"If he wasn't he'd make a fortune on the stage coz he damn near cried when he talked about his wife and child in his sleep. I believed him; Quinn's prepared to kill. And some of you already know the Latents enough to realize they wouldn't do this kind of thing for fun."
Sanchez shook his head. "Especially not Lyle. He's a smart lad with a good head on his shoulders. So are the others for that matter."
Chris ran his hat rim through his fingers. "Did you two come up with anything? This town could do without a private war going on that close to it."
"I regret to inform you we never discussed options while Mr Hill was in our custody."
Tanner looked up from beneath his hat, eyes pinched at the corners. "But..."
Standish cocked his head to one side in thought. "It's agreed that we alone would have very little leverage on the situation than our guns and the threat we would pose together would allow. And one man is better hidden than seven." His voice died away as he considered his idea.
"You mean one of us should stop it?" Wilmington smiled astounded. "Err- how?"
"With that much anger around one man could do very little... except to gather evidence." He raised a hand for silence. "If we gathered tangible proof linking the Cauldwell's to the thefts, the vandalism and the shooting of one Jake Hinckley, the law would have to intervene, buying them time for the army to reach the territory. By then the gentlemen at the forefront of this decades long spat would have been separated."
"Weaken the opposition." Nathan nodded in agreement.
"Would you be willing to do this, Ezra?"
Vin snorted. "He wouldn't pass off as a ranch hand- his hands are too pretty." To this JD and Nathan had to chuckle.
Standish opened his mouth to reply then scowled at the sharpshooter.
Larabee shook his head. "No, I think Ezra's the best one among us to do the job."
Josiah smiled. "We lack subtlety."
"I appreciate your faith, gentlemen. And yes, Mr Wilmington, I would. It was my idea, I should like to carry it through." Then in Josiah's proud gaze he added as an after thought, "Besides you'd ruin it."
Sanchez shook his head with a grin.
+ + + + + + +
In the flickering lamp light of the livery, JD walked through to find Ezra on a stool beside his mount, checking its feet with a hoof pick. Dunne watched Standish's face pull into a frown, deep in concentration.
"Can I help you, Mr Dunne?"
The sheriff grinned and shook his head. 'sorry, Ez. I was in two minds whether to disturb you or not."
Ezra gave his gelding his hoof back and stood up, straightening the creases in a borrowed apron from Yosemite. "What about?"
JD looked at his hands on the stall door. "You sure you want to do this?"
"Go to the ranches? Of course."
"I'd be willing to take your place."
Standish studied the kid for a moment before it fell into place. "Are you still feeling so guilty about what happened at Warren Break?"
"Shouldn't have told "em we'd stay on." He whispered then scowled and kicked at the floor in his temper. "If I'd told that sheriff who Clive was maybe we wouldn't be involved." By we, I mean you.
Standish rubbed the back of his hand over his forehead with a sigh. "JD, neither of us told the Sheriff or the deputy. And we had ample opportunity. In all honesty, I doubt the Latent's situation would have been handled any better. Without the law being directly involved and with few people helping the Latents as possible they have a better chance. This is not a situation we can simply solve by telling the sheriff, or any Marshal unless he has a substantial back up." He looked at JD once more and saw no anger but simple guilt in his eyes.
"It seems to me you'd bear the weight of the world on your shoulders if you thought you could." Ezra walked to the door and placed a hand on JD's arm. 'the situation gained purchase on us both. But this is my idea. I don't want to involve the others because- it's not worth their lives, or yours."
Dunne looked up incredulously. "Is that you talkin' down about yourself again?"
Standish smiled and shook his head. " No, son, I learned my lesson. And it's not that I don't trust the others- I simply want to be sure it's done correctly and I can only know that if I do it myself. Understand?"
JD nodded after a moment and watched Standish pull a bucket of water from the trough and carry a net of hay in the other hand. "You takin' him with you?"
"He'd be recognized by the observant. I'll be loaning that Bay behind you." He hauled the metal bucket up to the brackets and turned to hook the net on the wall. "Not as fine an animal but needs must." He turned a winning grin to JD and heard the kid chuckle.
The Sheriff, though not entirely satisfied with the outcome, felt a little better that Ezra neither blamed him or expected anything from him. He scooped two buckets of oats and handed one to Ezra. "I'll look after him for you."
"I'd appreciate that. Thank you."
As he turned to feed his own horse, JD stopped suddenly. "Ezra Briar?"
Ezra's shoulders slumped in defeat but the smile remained. "I just assumed the name Ezra Simpson would have been circulated among the law enforcers in the territory for a while now. Simpson sounds too much like Standish. I've often learned it pays to keep your head down and yourself out of trouble."
"You were pardoned."
"You think Warren Break knows that?"
JD shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets.
"Exactly". Standish turned to fill the troughs. 'that and I met up with Sheriff Barney Mullin several years ago en route to California."
JD couldn't admit he looked impressed.
"It was a simple case of mistaken identity." He caught the look on the kid's face. "Lord as my witness, a young man who I only found out to be called Thomas stole my jacket and under the name Simpson bought drinks on my tab and haphazardly tried to steal another man's pocket watch. I should have been insulted but I had to profess my innocence- priorities, you see. It was my height that saved me in the end."
"So... he's not out looking for you?"
"Oh, no not for that particular misfortune. But then my trouble in Fort Laramie happened a few years later." He shrugged. "He may not remember me."
Suddenly concerned, JD walked back to the stall. "You're- no one would recognize you, would they?"
"I doubt it. It was one visit, at 12 in the morning, which soon ended shortly around three. That and most of the occupants were drunk or unconscious from the raucous young Thomas caused." He turned from combing his gelding's mane. "Have little fear, my friend."
"Well... okay. When are you heading out?"
"It'll take a couple of days at most to get there. I'll leave before dawn."
JD nodded thoughtfully. 'that's good. I can see you off."
"That's not necessa-"
"I'll see you in the morning, Ezra."
Standish watched the young sheriff turn abruptly to his own horse and decided not to argue the matter. If it made the kid happier to see him off in good health, then maybe it would ease his concerns.
+ + + + + + +
"So you're a drover, boy? I know this ranch?"
:The D-Dasher Ranch, Arizona t-territory, Mr Latent- sir."
William shook his head. "Can't say I've heard of it but there's plenty of land in Arizona, I guess."
"Oh yes s-sir- lots of land. We- we herded near 450 head o' c-cattle."
"How many years you worked there?"
"Oh I bin there fer- well since I was a kid. My Pa worked that ranch and I b-bin there most my life." The simple man stuttered through his sentence with a small smile on his lips the whole time. His eyes flitted round to the other men in the room as William Latent lit another cigar and took his seat.
The men looked at his shoes momentarily before fidgeting with his hat. "Well- sir I, my employer he err- he was-he was k-killed, Mr latent. I- I don't know why. I was told to ride out a-and find another j-job, I figured I'd head east a ways and look fer a job here, s-sir."
William looked at the man patiently and steadily for a long moment before taking a deep breath of smoke. "Did you ever get any complaints, Mr Hickory?"
"About your work- did you work well? Was your employer pleased with how well you performed your duties?"
Hickory seemed to consider this a few moments before shaking his head vigorously. "No sir- Mr Benson was real pleased with my work. He said I had t-talent with a rope n' horse in place of-of words, sir."
Latent had to admit he'd taken to the fidgety, scruffy man before him. "Well." He scratched his chin with a absent knuckle and nodded slowly. "I hear the boys need an extra hand. If this Mr Benson believed you were as good as you say he did, I see no reason you can't work with us."
Hickory's face lit up into a grin before he nodded enthusiastically. 'thank you, sir- thank you Mr Latent."
William nodded and put out his cigar before rising to stand in front of Hickory. "Now this job might not be as much as what you had back in Arizona, we've got some business my family and I must take care of that you need not be involved in. Do your job and you'll get your pay. You have anywhere to stay?"
"Not yet sir, b-but there's a town not far away, I could stay at."
"No need to yet. There's a room you can use for a couple of weeks in the boarding house with the other workers."
"Lyle, don't interrupt. You can put your things there tonight and work first thing in the morning."
"You wont regret this, sir. Thank you." With that, Hickory gathered his saddlebags and headed out the door. In the subsequent quiet, Paul Latent eased the door shut to his father's office.
The elder Latent saw their looks and nodded closing his eyes. "I know what you boys are thinkin'. I admit I"m reluctant to take on another ranch hand but as far as the business is concerned we've little option."
"We could be getting" an innocent man involved. Hell, pa, he doesn't know what's goin' on."
"Yeah, Quinn coulda seen him headed this way already. What's to stop him from gettin' to Ezekiel too?"
William raised his hands to end the gentle tirade. "As far as the Cauldwell's are concerned Hickory is a replacement if anything; Clive can't do much now, what with that run in with the law." He sat back down with a sigh. " If Hickory does find out what's going on it'll be up to him if he fights or flees. You know I'll do my best to emphasize the latter to him but for now we need help with the cattle. I"m three men down as it is with Hal's busted arm and Clive's leg and Jake's- well, he isn't getting any better."
Jake was a good friend to all five Latent boys and only twenty-one himself. Knowing their friend was slowly dying of a gunshot wound to the stomach hadn't just enraged the siblings. Paul stood beside his younger brother, Patrick, reining in his emotions as the atmosphere in the room heated. "Maybe we should tell him, warn him in case."
"No, that could scare him off. I offered him the room in the bunkhouse to keep him safe and if I have my way he'll stay just that, safe- for two weeks at least. If I'd sent him back to town then he would have gotten hurt. This way we keep a worker and keep him out of Quinn's way."
Lyle sat on the edge of his father's desk and ran a hand through his hair. "What work are you going to be giving hi-"
Suddenly a pale Clive burst through the door and stood in the entrance with a puzzled frown. "Why the hell is he on the ranch?"
"I beg your pardon?" William frowned at the rude interruption.
"That man, one they're calling Ezekiel Hickory- that man ain't a ranch hand, Mr Latent."
At this the five brothers squared their shoulders as their father strode to face Clive. 'then who is he?"
"He's the man that shot Hal in Warren Break durin' the robbery."
"He did that? That simpleton?" Lyle sneered mockingly.
"I"m tellin' it like it was. He was the one who helped me escape too- with that young sheriff."
William's eyebrows shot up surprised. "He's a lawman?"
"Oh Jeez, this is just what we need."
Andrew ran a hand through his hair. "If Quinn gets a holda this- this is out of control already."
William held up his hands impatiently. "Boys, knock it off! Lyle you and Patrick bring the lawman back here." He looked around angrily, throwing a finger to the air in his temper. 'they shouldn't have sent anyone now- they should have sent someone months ago! How dare they-!"
"Pa, got him." The two boys pushed "Hickory" through into the office firmly.
William spun at "Hickory" and resisted the strong urge to clip the liar across the jaw. "You son of a bitch- who sent you? Don't you understand what your actions could have triggered! Well!" His voice raised lividly, his face red with anger. William took a step back like a bull ready to charge and stared at the man between his eldest sons. 'stutter out your real name before one of us makes you- or is that fake too?"
Ezra straightened steadily, glad for the moment he was allowed to get a word in. "I wasn't sent by anyone, Mr Latent. I"m a peacekeeper from Four Corners; my name is Ezra P. Standish." Came the hurried but steady reply.
"Peacekeeper? You mean our safety wasn't even compromised by a real lawman- just a peacekeeper!"
"We- six others and I were assigned by Orrin Travis to protect the town in his absence."
"The circuit judge? He sent you?"
Standish shook his head calmly. "Like a said before, I wasn't sent. I volunteered."
To this William could only spit out an astonished laughter. 'this isn't even official, you little shit?"
"Sir, if I may, I'd like to explain my reasons for being here with some level of reason on your part."
"You've a nerve or two askin' for something from me. But alright, speak your piece, Reb."
Ezra ignored the taunt and composed himself silently. "As you know during the standoff in Warren Break two of your men were shot. While one got away we took Mr Hill here into custody. In the jail after his treatment, Mr Hill explained to Sheriff Dunne and myself the cruelties your ranch and families are suffering at the hands of the Cauldwells."
"Oh he did, did he?" He raised a brow at the slumped form of Clive in the chair at the desk.
"In Mr Hill's defense, Mr latent, he was pressured to tell the truth regarding the robbery. As enforcers of the law, regardless of the lack of a badge, we are obliged to uncover the truths behind the crime."
In the slight pause as William's eyes removed themselves from Clive, the elder Latent nodded to Standish to continue.
In a room full of eager listeners, Ezra explained the plan he and the other peacekeepers had scraped together with what time they had.
"The whole purpose of my being here was to gather evidence, in total secrecy, regarding their vandalism and thefts to present to Judge Travis that would enable us to arrest the important members in the Cauldwell family, thus weakening your opponents long enough for the army to enforce the Judge's orders."
William looked up from his thought filled gaze. "I don't appreciate being kept in the dark and certainly never will on my own property. Why keep it so secret?"
"If you all knew why I was here you wouldn't of acted normally. To the observant, which I"m sure the Cauldwell's are, the slightest change in behavior would have looked suspicious. With working in secret I could collect evidence relatively unhindered and prevent the ranch from coming under attack too early."
William nodded. "I could argue with you, Mr Standish- and you know I'd love to, but I understand your thoughts. For keeping our families" safety in consideration, well, I"m grateful to you."
"We wouldn't have gone through with this thinking anything less, Mr Latent."
"Something is puzzling me, and I hope you don't mind my asking?"
"Go ahead, please."
"Why would seven peacekeepers from Four Corners want to help us? It's not what you'd call a particularly close town."
"Indeed. At first we were concerned for the welfare of the Latents and that of the ranch. We understood that families were involved and more importantly women and children. Later when we'd discussed the impact that such an attack would have, we felt we had the safety of Four Corners to consider. That town will always remain our priority and a private war in a relatively close proximity could have serious consequences for the innocents we protect."
Joseph's face pinched into a puzzled frown. "But Four Corners ain't that close to us- how could that be in any danger?"
"Son, angry men of any age, fresh from a fight still carry a certain amount of bloodlust and will to cause damage. Some men cannot let go of such feelings as easily as others and from what I've been told the Cauldwell's are very adept at holding a grudge."
William had to grin at this. "He's right. But it wouldn't just be Four Corners either. There are three other towns pretty close to us- the nearest being Little Street just off our eastern pastures."
"Damn, we can't warn "em can we, Pa?"
Standish looked from between Andrew and William. "Rest assured when the fighting breaks out- if indeed it does, the local towns will be warned. The telegram wire runs underground two hundred yards outside your western boundary. I can use it to send a wire to Four Corners and the surrounding towns if possible."
William's eyes widened in surprise. 'that's news to me."
Joseph grinned. 'that's illegal, isn't it? Tampering with a telegram wire?"
"Of course, however given the situation I doubt the Honorable Judge Travis would complain. Not if it meant protecting many others."
William sat thoughtfully as the room fell quiet. The early misgivings he'd had about Standish working on the property had faded as his confidence in the peacekeeper grew. He just couldn't get his head around the fact that someone outside wanted to help them after they'd been turned away for so long.
Finally and with some sadness, William sighed. "Mr Standish, I"m afraid there is very little you could have done on my property even if your identity had not been uncovered. What evidence we had has already been destroyed. The sheriffs around here have all been bought and whatever we showed them quickly disappeared- taken for "evidence"."
"Ah. Well, hope isn't lost. There's still the Cauldwell ranch to search."
"You're crazy." Paul stated as though it were common knowledge.
Lyle nodded. "Paul's right, they take one look at you and know who you are they'll shoot you where you stand and claim you were trespassin'. Hell, I've seen it."
Ezra looked across to see Clive nodding sagely.
"They're very defensive of what's theirs. Some ten or twelve years ago a prospector traveling down the stream caught a bullet for being 30 feet within their border. Didn't give him a chance- just saw someone stealin' their gold."
Lyle shifted uncomfortably, a dark frown spoiling his boyish looks. "Me and Joe were just letting the ponies stretch their legs a while and I saw Jacob Fin shoot him dead. He's a man for the devil if ever I saw one." He ended with a hardened whisper.
Andrew nodded eagerly. "Heard somethin' in town about him bein' in the army once. He went and changed his name because he got a reputation."
Lyle screwed up his face. "What?"
"Yeah, it's true. He was a savage man, I mean worse than the stories you hear about the tribes!"
"No way." Lyle shook his head.
"If that's true why haven't we heard about it?"
"That's the whole idea- if you change your name, you ain't supposed to tell anyone what you used to be called."
"Why do you know about it then?"
"I overheard someone talkin'-"
"Boys," William called patiently.
"Why haven't you said anythin' before?"
The two turned suddenly.
"I'll remind you not to argue in front of guests and not to raise your voices in this house."
"It's just not everyday you hear somethin' like that." Andrew piped up apologetically.
"Men like him are all too common, lad. But we can thank the Lord that he at least was killed." Clive added in a harsh whisper before slumping back down with a grimace.
Seeing his employee's discomfort, William motioned to his sons nearest the ailing man. "Paul, Andrew, take Clive back to his room. Let him get some rest."
As the two youths helped the older man from the room, William stood up from his seat and stood beside the wood fire. "What now, Mr Standish?"
Ezra stretched his legs out where he sat.
At not hearing a reply, William turned to look at the gambler with a hint of amusement. 'that's a hell of risk you'll be taking. Quinn isn't a man with whom to mess around with, and he certainly doesn't like being made a fool of."
"The odds couldn't be clearer, Mr Latent. Unfortunately there is little choice. No law enforcer within ten miles will help you, outside of that no one can interfere and the army is seven days away. Our choices are painfully very clear."
"Will your friends be expecting this set back?"
"I voiced my expectations, what I could predict. I gave myself 14 days to find something substantial. Any longer and there was some concern over my safety- my absence in town will be noticed before long and then it wouldn't take much to put two and two together and come to a conclusion over who I really am."
"You'll need a new disguise?"
"Certainly. But that I have already taken care of, courtesy of the late Stephen Travis. It'll take some finessing but it should work."
"Well you fooled me- and my boys. You can't usually put one past Paul easily so savor it- it may not happen again." He added with a grin before pouring a brandy for Ezra. "What can we do in the mean time?"
"Very simple, gather written and signed accounts from people who have witnessed the destruction, any sabotage that's been reported, write it down. And date it if you can. Make an exact copy of the ledgers containing profits and losses that will show how much of your business has been affected. Then get a statement from Jake, as thorough as possible about the night of the attack. If he can identify and name the men involved it'll be of great help. If you can, keep hold of the bullet he was shot with and see if there were witness. Also ask the other family members of their experiences; how hard life has become. The more pressure we can ply onto the Cauldwell's the better when it comes to the trial."
He took a sip of his brandy before neatly placing the glass on the desktop. "As for myself, I'll need to find and record the stolen equipment taken from your ranch to present to the Judge when he arrives. Then I'll look at the brand on the cattle, any that look unusual should prove to have been tampered with. Then if I can get my hands on any ledgers they should, with Lady Luck's favor, show a pattern where your loss is there gain and vice versa."
This all didn't seem enough to William. "Anything else?"
"I can take down anything that I hear. With a little time and liquor even the most loyal of men can over come their sense of duty and tell me what I need to know. Hell, I could probably get them to sign a written confession. And then there's the added benefit of them not remembering what they told me when the next day arrives."
"I don't know that all of this will be enough, Mr Standish. I can't see Quinn or any of the others keeping strong evidence against themselves for others to find."
"I appreciate your skepticism, but consider this. If I fail, what's changed for you? There will still be an attack if the Cauldwell's truly are that way inclined. What's there to lose?"
"Damn, son, do you not care about your own life?"
Standish grinned. "Always. I put a lot of faith in my talents, Mr Latent. And I"m neither reckless nor naïve. Those points alone should keep me from an early grave a little longer."
William raised a hand and dropped it down on the arm of his chair. "Well then, son I don't believe I'll ever be able to repay you. I can't say anyone else has ever tried to help before and the idea is still a little strange to me. Thank you for what you're doing."
"Here, here. It's nice knowing all lawmen ain't the same." Patrick added.
Standish smiled and dropped his head in some embarrassment. 'the err-" he coughed. 'the Judge should be arriving in two days to await the outcome of the investigation. I doubt he'll try to contact you but keep the thought in mind because you may need to contact him." Standish checked his pocket watch and rose gracefully.
"Thank you, Mr Standish." William stood to shake Ezra's hand. "Will you be heading back tonight or can I offer you my guest room?"
"The offer is most appreciated, Mr Latent and on another night I would gladly accept. However to maintain this disguise I need to head away from your homestead under cover of night and ride out a small way. That way come tomorrow afternoon it would appear I've ridden east for several days looking and certainly feeling the part."
William shrugged his shoulders happily. "Got to admire your attention to detail."
Ezra grinned and picked up his jacket and his borrowed hat from Vin. "I should make my leave, gentlemen thank you for your hospitality. Once again I apologize for my abrupt introduction to your household."
"Oh, I think we can let it slide this once."
After shaking the elder Latent's hand firmly he headed back to the stable to find one of the youngest, Andrew, waiting for him with his canvas bag. "Couldn't let ya leave without it, Mr Standish."
"Why, thank you, son. Simple wares but Lord knows I'll need them out there tonight." He tipped his hat and grabbed Gallant's bridle from the hanger.
"Sir, I feel pretty useless stayin' out here. Is there anythin' I can do? I couldn't ever go with ya but maybe I could send for stuff for ya? Or give messages to your home town?"
Ezra turned with a wistful smile at the word "home". "It's Andrew, isn't it?"
"Andrew I could never ask you to perform the tasks of an errand boy for me. But when the time comes this ranch will need to be protected. Help your father in anyway you can to prepare defenses for the home. In particular your sisters and relatives, the mothers and wives on this ranch will need a place of refuge. See to that, it'll be one less problem for your father and brothers to worry about."
Andrew clicked his fingers and walked over to Gallant's stall eagerly. "A refuge- hey yeah! You mean like a err- boarded up room or somethin'?"
"Of the like, yes. As I said, discuss it with your father. He'll know best."
Andrew nodded then looked up seriously. "You know I didn't make it up before. Fin really was an evil man."
"I don't doubt what you heard. It could very well be the truth, but try not to take everything you hear in passing to be gospel. Those men may well have been weaving a tale in some inebriated state."
"I guess. I don't even know why I got so worried, I mean he's dead after all."
"And fear not, that is how he shall stay." He tightened the cinch on the saddle and mounted gracefully before turning to nod a farewell. 'take care, young Latent."
"Good luck, Mr Standish."
Ezra turned his horse and cringed out of sight. Why was it people said that to him? Did they want him to fail? With a shrug he kneed his horse down the yard into the shadows.
As the horse settled into a steady lope, the gambler looked out to the south. In the back of his mind he wondered what the Cauldwells were doing, what they talked about. But in the forefront he recognized a strong urge to inform the others of where he was. If he was to step into the Cauldwell fold this early they needed to know where he was. In the pit of his stomach Standish felt some trepidation he wasn't usually accustomed to. And it unnerved him.
He took one last look across the pastures and wheeled Gallant to the west in search of the line. When he intercepted it he planned to send a wire directly to Josiah. Though he doubted the Cauldwells were keeping checks on the incoming wires from all the surrounding towns, he didn't doubt their ingenuity and keeping any well-known names from the telegrams meant, he hoped, they would be ignored.
+ + + + + + +
In Four Corners, Larabee sat perched on the windowsill in his room looking down absently as the town fires were lit. As Tanner lit the last pile he turned to nod Chris a goodnight before retiring to his wagon.
The gunslinger stood up slowly and picked up his duster as he made his way out to the boardwalk. The night was cool and quiet enough for him so much so he felt tempted by the call of sleep. But it was his and Nathan's patrol duty for the next six hours whether he wanted it or not. But would a full working ranch be any less work?
The thought itself pleased him. He doubted the work would bother him because he liked to be busy. Running it on his own probably would though.
He was disturbed from his musings by the new telegram assistant, Garrett Meyer. The young boy hopped along the boardwalk with a paper in his hand, waving it as he caught up to Larabee. 'sir, got a late wire for Mr Sanchez but he ain't in town."
"He'll be back a little later, son. Give it here, I'll see he gets it."
"Thanks, Mr Larabee. Goodnight, sir."
Larabee took the paper and slipped it into his pocket.
The gunslinger looked up to see Nathan walking over from the livery.
"I just checked the south end of town. Maybe it'll be peaceful tonight?"
Larabee snorted. 'somethin's bound to start soon enough. There's three strangers over at the saloon. Buck checked "em out earlier but from first impressions he couldn't say anything."
"What'd the telegram office want?"
"Got a message for Josiah."
Nathan nodded and hooked his thumbs around his belt. "We had any news from Ezra?" He whispered.
Chris frowned in puzzlement. "It's been two days, Nate."
"I know." He grinned sheepishly and rubbed his hands together.
Larabee released a snort of laughter. "Oh, jeez."
"He got to ya."
"Finally- yes you. Hell, it took three years."
"No. No." He forced and stabbed a finger at Chris.
Larabee chuckled. "I"m no seer but I saw that. He doesn't piss you off like what he used to."
Enduring Larabee's laughter for a few moments, the healer finally spun round. "You know what? Yeah, okay, I he's not- he's a friend, I consider him a friend. I still find his methods and his motives leave a lot to be desired but-"
The gunslinger raised a hand. 'there we have it."
Jackson stood akimbo to the blond. "Well ain't you the slightest bit concerned?"
Larabee stopped laughing and faced Nathan blankly. "Yes"
Jackson frowned at this. "Really?" That struck him as a little odd; despite covering more than 3 years with their friendship, he naturally assumed the gunslinger had kept his walls.
"It'd make a fool of me not to. Anythin' happens to him I'll have people to answer to. Especially Vin. There ain't enough whiskey in the world to sound him out when he's got a bug up his ass." He joked, keeping his distance from Jackson's open sincerity.
Jackson shook his head. 'vin ain't that bad."
"You weren't with him comin' back from Whitsun Sand, ain't seen anything of the like. He got a half bottle of liquor in his gut and swore my ears to bleedin' by the time he finished. Tracker's got some fire in him when he's angry." He grinned in wicked mirth and leaned back more comfortably against the support.
The healer sighed disappointedly and sat down on the step. "Fine." He mumbled
Larabee caught the sigh from the healer and glanced at him for a second, knowing he'd pushed away an honest attempt at friendship. Chris drew in a full breath of night air and decided he should offer the healer at least something in return, despite his gut telling him not to. "But, you're right, I am."
The healer turned back at this, knowing how the gunslinger had struggled to admit it.
Larabee caught his gaze before turning away. "Can't hardly ignore a man who's at your side. Him goin' off the other day to help sort that mess out," He shrugged. " Says a lot about him."
Jackson smiled gratefully.
Chris slapped a hand against the support in finality. "He'd better come back in one piece or I'll- hell, I'll give Vin a bottle of the barman's best and leave the room"
Jackson grinned and allowed a smooth flow of laughter to drift from his body. "Not in my clinic, you ain't."
Larabee snorted and dug a cheroot out from his waistcoat.
"I know some of us ain't always shown the best welcome to him, I guess when this is over he'll deserve the finest we can get our hands on." Nathan whispered sagely.
Larabee stared at the naked flame within his palm as the words sank in. They likely had more of a bearing on his own attitude towards the gambler than any of the others. He finally lit his cigar and shook the match out. "No mistake there." Hell, it's taken three years.
+ + + + + + +
When the horse was given it's freedom, it ran smoothly over the rough hewn earth left by last night's sharp gales and cold rain, allowing Standish to hold the reins loosely as his other hand rummaged for his canteen. The dust kicked up by the hooves had completed his make-up as the well-worn and ridden traveler seeking his fortunes east and now a formidable thirst had set in. He was still a good half hours ride from the main house and used the time to create his new persona. Mr Edward Engle, formally of the Snow Backed Ranch.
"We had ourselves some 500 hundred head o' cattle, yes sir. Set in a beautiful mountain valley, like a second home if I say so- hell, it was my only home since I was 19!" He pulled the cork stopped from the canteen and washed his mouth out. "Yep, we had a good life, until the boss decided another zero after the ranch's purchased value was enough of a reason to sell up to a railroad company-"
A shot rang out from across the prairie.
Gallant pulled to an abrupt stop before Ezra could register the warning, prancing unsteadily as his rider tried to pull himself back into the seat.
Another shot skimmed the top of his bedroll. "Hold yerself, mister! This is private property!"
Standish thrust the canteen back into his saddlebag and held his hands up clearly. "I meant nothin' by it, sir-"
The rider cantered across with the rifle drawn. "I need a good reason why you're here, son, there's some men who'd have put a bullet in ya by now."
Ezra put on a show of panic as he tried to figure out if he had seen the man before ir not. "Oh, hey, now I"m just here lookin' fer work- I didn't realize I'd slipped through lines, I"m awful sorry-"
"Son, you'd have to be pretty dumb not to have recognized the fencing around the property."
"Yes sir, if I'd seen any at all- I came from the west a ways, I"m real sure I didn't come across any fencin'."
"You sure about that, fella?"
"Absolutely. I come from a ranch sir, I'd know a border if I saw one."
The rider lowered the rifle and kneed his horse closer. "What's you're name?"
"Edward Engle, sir."
"West you say?"
"Yes sir, all the way from Arizona. Ranch went under, I came here looking for work."
"How'd ya know about us?"
"Oh that was easy, I rode through to a town called Lucky Mines a day and a half or so ride from here. Man in the bathhouse was tellin' me about some ranches headed further east. Told me some landowner named Ribbin was sellin' his to a mining company. I tell ya, I've had my fair share of sell-out ranchers. My last boss didn't even sell up when the getting was good. He could of taken a hell of a lot more-"
"Knock it off with the diatribe, sonny, I don't know and I don't care. But I'll tell you this, the man who owns this land ain't one of those sell outs."
Ezra forced his eyes to sparkle. "Really?"
"Hell yeah, the Cauldwell's have lived here for generations and it's still on the up and up."
"Well hey! Hey, you reckon I could get a job with him? It sure would be a nice opportunity."
The rider's expressions hardened for a second before he turned his horse round. "I can't answer that, Engle, but I can take you to the man who can. Mr Cauldwell ain't here for a few more days or so but his eldest runs the place nice and tightly."
"Oh, heck that's mighty fine of you, mister-"
"But first you gotta remove yer guns. I don't want to take the chance of you pluggin' me on the way there."
"Come on now, I wouldn'-"
He stopped mid sentence when a rifle was leveled straight between his eyes.
"O-okay, easy now." He pulled his gun belt from around his waist and the rifle from his saddle.
"Can I trust you ain't got anythin' else?"
Deciding caution was the best way to play it, Ezra removed the hunting knife from his boot and handed it over with the guns.
"Alright, come on then." The rider bagged the weapons and rested the extra rifle across his lap before leading the way.
"You mind me askin' what your name is?" Ezra called across, feeling thoroughly pleased with himself- he wasn't dead yet anyway.
"It's a pleasure." I"m sure.
The Cauldwell house itself was a sight. It's foundations sat on the top of a small rise, which supported a magnificent, well-kept three-storey family home with tile roofing and a porch running across every side.
The barns and bunkhouse were a similar whitewashed panel but not as grand as the main house and if the state of their stables and corrals was anything to go by, a stranger to the property would recognize an immediate respect for their horses.
'the animals are kept better than we are." Angus muttered upon seeing "Edward's" awe. "Come on, you can leave your horse here, I'll take you through- oh wait, hang on."
Ezra turned to see two men hurrying over from the bunkhouse.
"Luke, Billy, is Mark home?"
"Yeah, and who the hell is this? You know we ain't supposed to have strangers on the property." Lucas stomped over.
"I heard well enough, this fella's lookin' for work. He's given me his weapons, he's no harm."
"A cute puppy can still bite ya." Billy held up his hand.
Angus grinned. "Well, I don't know about "cute", but he is willing to work for us."
Billy shared a look with Lucas. "Hell, do what you want- you just remember we didn't think this was a good idea."
Angus waved his younger friend away. "Get back to your cards."
Ezra watched the two leave and dismounted slowly. "Not too friendly."
"Only to women." Angus called over his shoulder.
As they clambered to the porch, Ezra stopped and pointed to his clothes. "Do I look okay?"
Angus turned incredulously and rubbed a hand across his nose with a nod. "Reckon so. Hell, this is a ranch not a bank, boy."
"Mama always said first impressions count."
"That's sweet." Angus sneered out of sight and led "Edward" through to the large drawing room. "Ah, Mr Cauldwell, sir? Mind if we take some of you're time?"
A young, sharply dressed man lowered some papers and frowned over his spectacles. "Better be good, Lloyd, and who do you mean by "we"?"
Angus coughed carefully and introduced Ezra with a hand. 'this here is Edward Engle, he's lookin' for work, sir."
Mark Cauldwell looked every inch the spitting-image of his father at the polished desk. He threw his glasses among the letters and books before pushing from the desk impatiently. "My father's instructions were very clear- no strangers without appointments. Does he have one I wasn't aware of?" He threw a finger towards Ezra rudely.
"Err, no sir, I found him ridin' across the western pastures-"
"You trespass and expect my time?" Mark spat.
"N-no sir, I-"
Angus stopped Ezra mid-sentence. "Mr Cauldwell, he didn't realize he was on our property. He says he didn't come across any border fencing on his way through."
"Impossible, it's around the whole perimeter."
Lloyd turned to Ezra. 'tell him, son."
"Edward" cleared his throat and held his hat in his hands. 'sir I've ridden from a ranch in Arizona, where I used to work and I know what fencing we used. Whether you folks have somethin' different here I can only guess but on my way East here I didn't pass any fencing. I swear."
"So there's damage to the fence?"
"Sounds like it, sir."
"If my father comes back and hears of this, I'll be beaten purple." He mumbled.
Lloyd caught the worried mumblings and turned back to Standish. "Which way did you ride, Edward?"
"I took a small detour when I hit the river; it was too deep for the ride. So," He pointed to a map of the ranch estate. ""Bout here, I guess. Past the copse here and here."
Mark tore his eyes from the flagstone flooring long enough to see Ezra's finger pressed against the southwestern corner of the ranch. 'those trees cover that corner quite thick. So it's possible the fence isn't damaged too badly."
He walked over to ponder the map a moment before snapping his fingers and pointing towards the door. "Lloyd, take Mr Engle and three others to find the damage and fix it. Don't come back here until you're done. I don't want my father finding out what happened. And I want to know how it got damaged." He shouted as an afterthought as he walked back to his desk to collapse in the chair.
Lloyd looked at Ezra with raised brows before touching his hat and leaving the room. 'that went down better than I thought."
Standish let himself smile a little as he followed the aging ranch hand. Buck's tip on how to level fencing poles was never supposed to be helpful, just something for the rogue to enlighten him with on one particularly monotonous ride. It had helped give him the nearest to perfect entrance to the Cauldwell household with the pretense he was a great help for spotting the fencing down. "You think I got a job, then?"
Angus turned with a grin. "I didn't hear a "no'."
As the afternoon sun had risen to it's peak above the pastures, the men were busy checking the damage and pulling new timbers from the cart.
Billy stood with his chin rested on his thumb and index finger as his eyes roved over the damage. "Don't look like much." He turned to Ezra. "Don't seem like you were lookin' hard enough either."
"Edward" turned to face Billy with a frown. 'the rest of that fencin' is hidden by the trees, I came through here too busy lookin' for what huntin' traps were likely to lame my damn horse!" He ground out across the space between them.
"Ain't no traps around here-"
"How the hell am I supposed to know that? It was dark when I came through here!"
"Dark, huh? Okay, so what's with the lamp I saw tied to your saddle bags?" He threw at "Edward" tartly.
Ezra stepped closer into Billy's space for added grit. "I swear you so much as imply I"m a liar I'll wrap the fuckin' wire around your neck-"
"Hey!" Angus barked. "Enough o' that! Billy he ain't got a reason to lie and Edward- you're new so I can let this go. This once. But keep that attitude goin' and you can say good-bye to the job and piss off back to Arizona for all I care. You got that?" He snapped and jabbed a finger into Ezra's shoulder.
Standish backed off and nodded, swallowing hard on the vulgar language he'd had to adopt. This occupation was truly ruining his finer character. But as much as he hated the idea of confrontation he needed to begin setting a place for himself among the others. He needed respect but distance. Maybe a hot head could get him punched but it'd settle suspicions if he wasn't the quiet, nice guy of the group.
Angus eyed both men and turned back to sawing the new post. "Both of ya get a log a piece and start splittin' some railin's while it's still fine out." He spun round when he realized they hadn't moved and glared hotly. "Now!"
Ezra turned away, rolling up his sleeves with exaggerated roughness. Watching the others prepare their workplaces, he snagged a pre-cut length of timber from the cart and took his time carrying it to the boundary line. He'd never performed these tasks before and if he was going to pull his disguise off he needed to pay attention to the others and learn from example. In the three years he had been with the others he had become involved with many "levels" of work and that included lending Larabee hand at the growing ranch.
As Ezra gathered the nails and a hammer from the supplies a smile tweaked at the edges of his mouth. Back then he hadn't readily agreed to slaving under the full blazing sun all for a friendly gesture. But on the threat of a 48-hour ban from the saloon for which he partly deserved, he was quick to drop his cards and hipflask for a planer and sanding block.
He remembered, as he began pulling the loose nails from the wooden posts, how he had sat in the shade with a bandana wrapped loosely around his neck as he cleaned his tools. He had looked up and watched Larabee try to ignore his horse" pestering nips, wanting food and freedom from the confines of the new corral as the gunslinger worked another wooden peg below the railing. The hammer falls increased after every nudge and bite before Larabee finally threw the tool down to spit fury and frustration at his gelding with every expletive he could remember.
Not daring to laugh aloud, Ezra had simply ducked his head and shook with damn near uncontrollable mirth, wishing so badly the tracker had seen the display.
Billy had watched Ezra for a few moments before straightening with a frown. "What are you finding so damn funny?"
Standish looked up sharply and let the smile fall from his face, unnerved at how easy the hostility came to Billy. "Wanna explain to me how it concerns you?"
For a second, Billy's eyes darkened with anger before he felt Angus" elbow brush against his ribs. "Nothing," he shrugged. " Nothin' at all." He murmured before swinging the hatchet down against the timber.
Standish watched the action from beneath the brim of his hat; the steady and controlled axe swings that cut the log into halves bit by bit before being leveled into place against the newly erected posts. Simple really.
He swallowed uneasily and returned to hammering in fresh nails through the timber as the tendrils of doubt slid through his limbs. This wasn't going to work easily. He'd look like an amateur within three days, what did he know of ranch life? So he'd offered his assistance to his friends from time to time, how did that make him believe he could pull this off?
He wiped at the little sweat beaded across his lip and dropped the hammer before walking back to the cart to get a new post. As he leaned over to drag the wood to the edge of the buckboard he froze at the name "Latent".
"Why the hell would it of bin them? Not like they want more trouble." Lucas frowned as he sawed through a beam.
Derek, a slow, bull of a man shook his head deliberately as he sharpened his axe. "Got someone else to do it? Get in a little payback, before time's up."
"Dunno, just seems a little useless."
"Not what Mark thinks."
Lucas turned and squinted. "He said that?"
"Hell yeah, he was pacin' around when we were getting" the horses ready. Sayin' he knew it was them, how they knew his father wasn't around to get in their way. He's got a point I guess. I mean, Mark hasn't got a reputation like his old man, right? Latents probably figured they could take out some of the stock, break a few fences and then skidaddle while they could."
Ezra clenched his jaw. He hadn't banked on this.
Lucas snorted then saw Derek's look. "I ain't sayin' you heard wrong, Derek, it's just why would they attack the southern fences? What cattle could get through here?" He motioned to the thick shrub and undergrowth between the tall pines.
The big man shrugged and stood up away from the sawn trunk he sat on. "Distraction?"
Lucas lowered the saw blade and wiped his brow against the rolled sleeve above his elbow. "Maybe." He mumbled before lifting his canteen.
"Dammit." He whispered. Making sure he hadn't been noticed eavesdropping, Ezra hauled the post from the cart with clammy palms and balanced it over one shoulder, not daring to look back at the pair. He trudged across the clearing wearily, feeling closed in and if he admitted it, desperate. He let the wood slide to the ground and ran a thumb under his hat before perching himself on one of the workbenches and cursing himself thoroughly for his lack of judgement.
He'd destroyed the few yards of fencing to supply a reason for his trespass so he wouldn't come to harm, he never realized it would implicate the Latents. Such a simple thing and Mark was already looking for a culprit?
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, unbalancing him off the bench.
"No time for day dreaming, leave that to when we introduce you to Sally and Beth." Angus grinned toothily before walking away lazily.
Standish plastered a fake smile across his face and shook himself mentally before getting up and setting another pole ready. "Dammit," he whispered.
The evening over the dining table got louder as the liquor was poured and the beers passed around. "Perfection in a bustle, that's what he said!" Derek nudged Lucas firmly.
Emory shook his head over his beer. "Don't sully it for the boy, leave him be."
"I didn't say any such thing- 'specially not like that, Derek!" Lucas threw his friend's paw off his shoulder.
Derek laughed through the cloud of cigar smoke in front of his face and coughed loudly. "What d"ya reckon, Eddie? You think Sally's got an eye on Luke here?"
Ezra looked up from his whiskey and shrugged. 'somethin' I learned back West was never- ever try to understand "em or guess "em coz they're all the same. Women confuse ya and say what they don't mean. They're contrary!" He pointed a 'drunken' finger at Luke. "I got too many head aches tryin' and I"m tellin' ya, quit while you still got senses, son." He slid off the chair, much to the amusement of the others and squinted to figure out what had happened.
Just then the door swung inwards and a cold draft blew into the bunkhouse, drawing moans from the most unconscious souls sprawled across the floor.
"Ah, Jacob, err-" Came Lloyds incoherent mumblings.
The man stood as tall and menacing as a tower in a thunderstorm and just as cold. Standish, as he was picking himself up, took in the shadowing presence and slumped down heavily to maintain his persona. And suddenly a light flickered on.
"Heard somethin' in town about him bein' in the army once. He went and changed his name because he got a reputation'...." He was a savage, I mean worse than the stories you hear."
Son of a bitch. It couldn't be.
"You fellas got work in six hours." He ground out as he shook off his coat and strode over to the fire. Suddenly his eyes darted to Standish and made the gambler feel caged. He couldn't move.
He frowned sharply as much to say how dare you? "Angus- who the hell is this?" He stalked over and eyed up the pale-faced drunk intently.
"New man for the ranch- bin a real help so far, Mr Fin. Spotted a broken fence early today." He stood up to rescue the new recruit from an early attack.
Oh, dear God, it was him. Jacob Fin.
"Mark give the okay?"
"Sure did. Well, go on- introduce yerself, son." He nudged the shoulder quickly.
"Eddie- Edward Engle, sir.
Jacob maintained his look of disgust before turning silently to the stove. "We'll just see what Quinn has to say. Until then, Engle, be very carefully." He whispered but everybody heard.
"Y'sir." Ezra spoke up before looking up at Angus" reassuring face before Fin's voice clawed over the silence.
"Engle, get yer horse and grab a lantern, yer ta keep watch over the herds in the east pasture. By dawn you fall in with the rest of "em and take the spring cattle south to graze on the lowland prairies." He turned with hollow eyes. "And if I find you asleep..."
Ezra paled at the intended threat and stumbled to his feet.
"Take a gun with ya, son." Angus whispered to him as he picked up his coats and hat.
Standish never would have imagined it, but he was damned grateful to shut the door closed on Jacob Fin and the others even if it meant standing shivering painfully in the cold winds at midnight. He pulled on his woolen coats hurriedly and snatched up his gun belt, cramming on his hat as he ran over to the stable.
In the small warmth provided by the collected body heat of the horses, he leaned with closed eyes against the stall door. Fin wasn't right. He wasn't even human to hear and see him - it was unlike anything he had felt before and it was in that minute he realized he could now believe the other-worldly stories told to frighten children at bedtime.
Whether young Andrew's eavesdropping had let a fear fester, he didn't know, but he knew for damn sure that with or without the forewarning about the brutal man, Ezra would have smelt the demon coming a mile away. Trouble was, now the demon knew his face and was watching him.
"He was supposed to be dead, right? Andrew had said he was dead." He whispered into his horse's neck.
"Shit," he hissed. With cold-stiffened hands he snatched up his tack, saddling his horse briskly. As he mounted Gallant it was for the first time Ezra truly understood how precarious this task was. He was out of his depth and stuck there.
Standish had managed to find a sheltered corner that overlooked the herd. With a full moon and clear sky he could see every head and kept the lamp oil unused. He huddled down against the trunk of a beech and wrapped his saddle blanket around himself. But despite his fear of catching a spring chill, all the greater was his fear of Fin. So, as the alcohol warmth worked its way out of his system, he made sure the cold was still able to seep into his clothes and keep his senses frosty.
It was in the moments of solitude, Ezra wished he had brought a book with him, something from home. His clothes weren't his own and he'd had to leave his fob watch in Josiah's safe keeping. Any other valuable possessions he had were either locked away in his room or stored in the bank. And with a frown, he hoped there wouldn't be a bank robbery in his absence.
"Oh well, Gallant, my friend. At least I have you. We'll soon have you back with Yosemite," he muttered, the breeze drowning out his words.
+ + + + + + +
JD wrapped his coat around him tighter and shut the door to the jail, the glow from the stove masking his ruddy cheeks. "All's quiet. Town's all tucked up warm I guess."
Josiah nodded and smiled. "All the better."
"You wonder how Ezra's goin' on?"
Sanchez furrowed in concern as he pulled the telegram from his pocket. "Dearly."
Dunne frowned and leaned forward on the desk. "You don't think so?"
"Let's just say I have my worries. Cauldwell is something of a temperamental when it comes to dealing with people. Reason one minute, irate the next from what I've heard."
The young Sheriff scrubbed a hand across his face and leaned back in his chair. "Oh."
"Oh, don't let my thoughts trouble you, son. Ezra has a knack for being where he needs to be when he needs to be. He's proved it. Friendly concerns, I suppose."
"Hope you're right, Josiah."
The preacher turned to the guilty voice and frowned at his young friend. "JD, you wouldn't be looking to burden yourself with misplaced guilt now would you?"
The kid looked up with honest eyes. "I wish I could have gone. I straightened things out with Ezra before he left, told him I was sorry for dragging him into the mess at Warren Break. And I trust him to see his way through it, but..." He trailed off.
"But?" Josiah urged.
"I really wish I could be there to watch his back. I can't see if he's in trouble or hurt or...." He threw his hands up.
"Son, Ezra is very capable. And like me you worry; it's natural. But remember he isn't alone. If he needs us all he has to do is wire us. He knows that, and that knowledge in itself should carry a lot of his burden."
"Would it for you?"
JD looked away and nodded. "I guess." His gaze shifted south.
Near two days ride away in the quiet of the small bunkhouse room, Standish's pencil scratched hurriedly over the notebook paper. A piece of torn ledger rested across his knee as he scribbled and traced a fingertip along the columns.
Within the last two years alone their profits had nearly doubled; their client list had increased; and worse he saw what this meant for the Latents.
He rubbed his thumb and forefinger across his knitted brow and started a new page. Ideally he needed to copy everything he could and then return the torn page back to the original ledger. But time was against him and having been caught before he didn't want to chance another trip to the study.
Of the three days he had been at the ranch he had made two worth his while. He had discovered Latent branded tack and three stolen horses. Even with the fifteen cattle he'd found the first day, Ezra knew he'd need something more substantial. Cattle and horses could be killed quickly and equipment could be destroyed easily enough. But facts and figures were something else and a celebration was just the distraction he had needed to sneak into the study.
He sighed as his eyes pinched in the fading light and checked his borrowed pocket watch. Damn, near 11 o'clock.
He hadn't gotten half way through the details, scrubbing his tired eyes and massaging his sore hands, when the door handle pushed down.
"Hey there, Eddie."
He looked up in horror when he realized his attention had wandered. The door had opened to a drunken Emory stumbling across the threshold, greeting in a stage whisper.
Standish stared open mouthed before realizing the ledger page lay sprawled across his knee but was too slow to hide it.
"What the hell is that?" Emory pointed curiously at the notebook.