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" . . . staring again. They're all after my gold!"
They don't know where the gold is, none of 'em! Only we know. Ignore them. Finish eating your beans.
The man winged his tin plate into some brush. "I've lost my appetite. How'm I suppose to eat when these crazy homesteaders are starin' all the time?
The trail's almost over. We can hack 'em for a few more days.
"I can't!" The man scrubbed knobby fingers through scruffy gray hair. "They know."
A motherly woman in a blue-checked gingham dress turned her head toward the man as she passed him, her gaze alarmed. The man stared at her until she walked briskly away, taking quick peeks over her shoulder.
They don't! You're just imagining things. See, they're going back to the wagons.
"They're just biding their time." The man sat down and petulantly began drawing pictures in the dirt with his fork. "They know about the gold, why else would they stare?! I need to do something about it."
So let's kill 'em.
"Yes! . . . No."
"There's too many of 'em. I don't have time to waste, not out here. I don't need a trail of bodies for the lawdog to follow. He's already gettin' too close."
Fine . . . . Leave the wagons. We can get to the town on our own now.
"Yes, yes." He jammed the fork into the ground. "What was the name of that place again?"
"Right. Four Corners, here I come."
+ + +
The late morning sun as it shone down on the town of Four Corners turned the dust hanging in the air into motes of fire. Striding down the boardwalk in the shade provided by the buildings' awnings, Ezra Standish finished the Clarion's headline article and turned to the second page editorial, an impassioned piece denouncing greed and corruption in society. It's called human nature. Don't fight it, employ it, Standish advised silently to the writer of the editorial. He tipped his hat at Mrs. Potter as they passed on the boardwalk. The matronly widow smiled and nodded in return. Not that Mary Travis would ever take counsel from a conman and cheat. The Clarion's idealistic reporter, editor and owner was much too prim and proper to employ such tactics as Ezra used in his profession. Standish passed between a bear of a man with stooped shoulders and a rotund fellow whose heavy muttonchops threatened to engulf his face. Of course, Travis' homesteader article seemed to suggest that she was at least aware of her fellow man's baser instincts.
"'Homesteaders bring new business and wealth to Four Corners' economy,'" Ezra read as he returned to the front page. It was an even bet that the ranchers whose grazing land had been usurped by the new settlers would not see it that way. A good economy to them was their own personal prosperity.
No matter. It was none of Ezra's concern, so he tossed the paper aside and entered Four Corners' favored saloon for a game of poker. Time to see to his own personal prosperity.
A short time later as he sat at his preferred table, Ezra Standish picked up two cards and made a show of carefully studying his new hand. Three aces, a four and a queen. Not a bad line up. A better line up when Ezra knew his opponent only held three eights, a king and a deuce. The wannabe card player across from Standish was Ezra's favorite type to pitch his skills against: barely older than JD, the kid was obviously betting with family wealth and had little experience playing with a veteran card sharp. The skinny little whelp was nervy though, which made him somewhat unpredictable.
Ezra called and made a modest raise on the kid's bet. It shouldn't have been enough to scare the kid away with the hand he held, but inexperience combined with nerves made the young man hesitate. After a moment the kid shakily picked up three bills, but instead of throwing them in the pot he fingered them and glanced at his cards, all the while chewing his lower lip. Standish resisted the urge to roll his eyes. The hand was good and the bet wasn't that much, especially for a kid throwing around as much money as he had been earlier. Ezra held his breath as the youth extended his wager toward the pot.
"Buy a copy of the Post?"
The kid froze and Ezra cursed inwardly before looking over his shoulder. Eyes even greener than the gambler's own met his. Greener than the felt-covered poker table where Ezra now stood to gain a considerable sum of money.
"I just know you'd like a copy of the Four Corners Post," a curly-haired sprite asserted with annoying assurance.
The Four Corners what? Framed by a mass of sandy brown curls held back by a red silk scarf, the face that belonged to those green eyes also held an elegantly refined nose and sweetly curvaceous lips that were now tipped up in a pleasant smile. Any other day Standish might have been happy to sample the wares of this superior specimen of a female, but today . . . Ezra returned a glance to his young opponent. Shit! The kid was staring at his cards and biting his lip again.
"Thank you, but I already read the Clarion this morning," Standish responded curtly and turned back to the table. "It's your move, sir," he prodded.
"You'll find news in the Post that you won't find in the Clarion," the woman persisted.
This new chronicler of local events was a stubborn saleslady. Ezra threw the brunette an irritated look over his shoulder. She met his appraising stare with one of her own, taking in the sleeves of his red jacket and the lace at their cuffs to the cards in his hand before returning his gaze. A superlatively friendly poker face, but it held some tells. That pleasant smile was in fact too pleasant. The corners of her mouth were squeezed just a bit too tight, her eyebrows lowered a bit too far. What reason could this new face have to dislike him?
The Southerner's tone made little attempt to mask his impatience. "I said no, is that clear? I am not interested in your rag. Now if you please, we are attempting a poker game here."
The green-eyed menace glared briefly before turning to Ezra's opponent with a dazzling smile. "What about you, sir?" the brunette addressed the kid. "I'm sure a well-read, distinguished gentleman like yourself reads the Post."
"Uh, yeah. Sure," the kid looked up and stammered at the beautiful news seller. She graced him with a friendly grin and handed him a paper. Ezra stared in horror as the kid took money from his wager to pay for the brunette's wares. The woman doled out some change, thanked him pleasantly and moved on to the saloon's other patrons, but the damage to Ezra's game was done.
"I fold," the kid said, shakily putting his cards down on the table and standing up. Before leaving he picked up his drink and shot back the contents like a man who had just had a brush with a specter named Death. All Ezra could do was watch his easy money walk away.
Standish stared in disbelief at the abandoned cards lying face down on the table. His gaze vacillated between the discarded hand and the saloon's batwing doors until a flash of motion out of the corner of his eye broke the spell.
"Off to ruin someone else's day?" Ezra asked the news seller as she made for the exit.
The perky brunette paused and tucked her remaining papers under an arm. Putting the other fist on her hip, she tilted her head and gave Ezra a tight smile. "Change your mind? You'd like a copy of the Post?" she asked.
Ezra huffed a sarcastic laugh. "No, thank you, my dear. Your cheap publication has already cost me quite enough."
The curly-haired news seller pulled the end of the red scarf in her hair over her shoulder and casually toyed with the end. "You wouldn't have won, you know."
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra asked.
"That last hand. He had you beat."
"Ah, I dare say he did not."
"You had three of a kind. He had a full house."
"Eights on the bottom, twos on the top."
"No, he had-"
Standish stopped. He couldn't very well protest the kid's hand, not without admitting to some . . . massaging of the rules. But he was sure he had dealt the kid three eights, a king and a deuce. He was positive. Positive.
Ezra looked up at the brunette news seller. She was giving him an annoyingly knowing look. Standish suddenly realized he was gaping like a fish. He shut his mouth.
The woman looked insufferably pleased with herself. "No newspaper, then?" She winked at Ezra before she left.
The Southern gambler was still sitting at the table eying the kid's abandoned hand, considering whether or not to pick it up and see, just see, when Josiah Sanchez sauntered through the saloon's batwing doors.
"What's the matter, Ezra? Someone just beat you at cards?" The preacher man reclined in the now-vacant seat across from the cardsharp. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, Brother."
Standish recalled himself and began collecting the less-than-desirable pot from the table. He glanced at the loathsome newspaper that had cost him his mark. The kid hadn't even taken it with him. Ezra tossed the paper to the edge of the table disdainfully.
"The, uh, good Lord seems to be doing a great deal more taking than giving as of late, Josiah."
Josiah picked up the curséd paper and flipped through the pages.
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that, Ezra. Take this newspaper for instance." Standish paused in his collecting to sneer at the hated publication. Josiah, engrossed in it's pages, didn't notice. "Yesterday an angel came to my church and offered to run an advertisement. I told her I couldn't pay for such a service, but she said she wouldn't charge me. 'God will provide.' Those were her exact words."
"An angel, hmm?" Ezra raised a skeptical eyebrow. "This heavenly apparition didn't happen to wear a red sash in her hair, did she?"
"As a matter of fact she did. Heavenly."
"More like the devil if you ask me," the gambler muttered, pocketing his earnings.
"Ah! There it is. 'Sunday Services, 7a.m. every week.'" Josiah pointed proudly to little square of print.
Ezra passed an uninterested glance at the paper. He was about to stand up and walk away when the headline caught his attention. Underneath an incredibly detailed illustration of a caravan of wagons rolling across the plains, bold-faced letters declared, "Wagon Train Misplaces Millionaire!" Standish leaned closer to read the article. Josiah, still admiring his advertisement, ignored the gambler until Ezra grabbed the newspaper right out of his hands.
Josiah stared at the Southerner who was now engrossed in the front page.
"I believe the phrase is: 'May I borrow your newspaper?'"
"It's not yours," Standish reminded. "It was left here by that spineless pup who just departed with his tail tucked 'tween his legs."
"Clearly a situation designed by the Lord to provide me with a newspaper," Sanchez assured the gambler as he made a grab for the Post.
Ezra twisted the pages away from the preacher. A wry smile crossed Standish's features.
"He giveth and He taketh away, Josiah."
"Touché." Sanchez settled back into his seat. "And what divine inspiration do you find in that paper which inclines your mind towards the spiritual this morning?"
"Money," Ezra answered. "Listen to this: '. . . the eccentric gentleman started out with the homesteaders on their grand journey. During the trip it was rumored that he was the possessor of a huge hidden wealth. It was only when the courageous group had reached their destination that they discovered he was missing. With the disappearance of this old man, speculation has turned to the location of his fortune.'"
A sudden shot rebounded in the distance, followed by a piercing scream. Josiah looked to the exit and sighed. He turned to Standish, who had made no move to get up.
"Don't you think we ought to investigate?" Sanchez asked. Silence met the preacher's suggestion as Ezra remained immersed in the article.
"Ezra! Scream? Shot?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes. Protect the town and all that," The gambler tucked the newspaper into his jacket. "What would Mr. Larabee do without us?"
+ + +
The bullet whizzed past Chris Larabee's left ear, deafening him with its high-pitched whine. He and the other six men who protected the town of Four Corners dove for cover as the drunken rowdy on the other side of the cemetery fanned his gun, sending a wash of bullets at the lawmen. Vin Tanner threw himself forward in a roll, coming up in a crouch behind the hearse's back wheel. Nathan Jackson and Josiah both spun and lunged behind the partial remains of a low stone wall that had once surrounded the graveyard. Buck Wilmington shielded his tall frame behind a young oak tree while next to him, Ezra and JD Dunne ducked behind a couple of granite headstones. Chris followed suit behind a tombstone of his own.
JD cringed as a bullet striking the headstone caused bits of gravel to rain on the young sheriff. "Earl's gonna be mad," Dunne commented as pebbles bounced off his bowler hat. "He spent a fortune to replace all them wood crosses with 'stones."
Standish pulled his arm closer as more bullets chipped away at the tombstone providing his cover. "Remind me to express my gratitude to the good man after we've dispatched this nuisance," the gambler said.
"What kind of idiot throws down against seven armed men?" JD wondered. "Once he runs out of bullets we've got him dead to rights."
A volley of those self-same bullets punctuated the statement. The barrage came from more than one gun, Chris realized.
"The kind of drunken idiot that has nine idiot friends," Vin answered dryly. Larabee risked a peek above his headstone to see two of the drunk's more sober compatriots drag the man down behind another remnant of wall. More sober but just as stupid, Chris thought grimly as the three men and the seven other late additions continued to fire.
"What's the plan, Brother?" Josiah asked Larabee.
Chris cast a look over the cemetery and assessed their position. The ten rowdies had settled behind their own cover on the other side of the graveyard and looked like they had no intention of moving for a while. On the other hand Larabee's men, though somewhat pinned down, seemed to be in no immediate danger behind their own respective cover. Vin was the most exposed behind the back wheel of the hearse, but the rowdies hadn't seemed to notice him. The sharpshooter, laid out on the ground and leaning on his elbow, his rifle ready and aimed, was taking no fire.
"We've got good cover here," Chris said. "Let 'em waste their bullets for a while."
"Just how long to you intend we sit here?" Ezra flicked a piece of gravel off the sleeve of his scarlet coat. "I, for one, have better things to do than recline on some unfortunate soul's final resting place all afternoon."
Larabee opened his mouth to snap at the complaining Southerner but was interrupted by Nathan.
"Uh-oh," the healer said with concern. "We've drawn a bit of a crowd," he observed.
Chris looked around. Jackson was right. As the ten ruffians expended their bullets at Four Corners' seven lawmen, curious citizens one by one began to gather at the outskirts of the cemetery to gawk.
Larabee swore under his breath. If these drunken idiots couldn't get to any of the seven they were liable to start shooting into the crowd. Chris swore aloud as a bullet grazed his shoulder. He shifted his position to get more cover. Beside him, Buck threw a glance at Larabee's bleeding shoulder.
"Tired of these fellas yet?" Wilmington asked.
Larabee traded looks with the other six lawmen. Vin looked over his shoulder and nodded at the black-clad leader. Nathan and Josiah also expressed their readiness. At Larabee's glance JD drew his second gun and gave it a twirl. Behind the young man, Ezra rolled his eyes but gave their leader a nod. Chris locked eyes with Buck and gave a nasty grin.
At Larabee's unspoken signal, Tanner brought his rifle up and fired two shots in rapid succession. The dead branch that had been hanging over the head of two rowdies plummeted and crashed on top of them. One lay unconscious while the other pulled his foot from beneath the wreckage. All firing ceased momentarily.
The seven lawmen broke cover.
JD sprang from behind his tombstone, both his sidearms drawn and firing. Buck shook his head at the kid's flamboyant style and fired a couple shots from behind the oak. The scoundrel who had been aiming at JD fell dead. Lead from both sides filled the air as Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, Vin, Chris joined the fray.
Through his peripheral vision, Larabee was vaguely aware that the crowd had retreated slightly. Only now, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a red flash advance out the spectators to a distance that was less than safe.
"Holy moly! I must've died and gone to heaven. Who is that vision?" Buck stopped and ogled someone in the sidelines in a moment of dangerous distraction. Chris had no time to investigate Wilmington's untimely mystery woman as he dodged oncoming fire. Ezra, though, spared an instant.
"Good Lord!" the gambler exclaimed. "What is she doing here?"
"You know that angelic creature?" Buck asked, only then remembering that they were in the middle of a gunfight as a bullet whizzed over his head. He joined Vin behind the hearse.
Ezra grumbled under his breath. "Why does everyone insist on bestowing celestial comparisons on that woman?" he muttered, firing at an ugly rowdy. Larabee tuned out the rest of the conversation and instead concentrated on not getting shot.
For the next few minutes the air above the cemetery was filled with smoke and lead. Then hollow clicks began to resonate across the graveyard as the ruffians ran out of bullets.
"I'd drop that 'bout now if I were you," Nathan told a dirty unshaven lowlife panickingly beginning to reload his weapon. The cretin brought the gun up to fire, but with a flick of his wrist Nathan sent a throwing knife through the man's hand. The man dropped the gun and grimaced as he shakily put up his uninjured hand in surrender.
All around the cemetery, the men who had started the gunfight were doing likely.
Larabee surveyed the graveyard. Bodies littered the ground, but none of them were his men. Good, none of his friends had been shot dead on the spot.
"Excuse me . . ."
Were any of them injured? Well, besides Chris himself. Larabee took a quick look at the tear in his shoulder and decided it wasn't serious. He looked to the other members of his team. Vin was leaning against the hearse, wiping sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. Josiah knelt beside one of the bodies, mouthing words of prayer. Ezra stood in the sparse shade of a small tree taking a sip from a small silver flask, while Buck and JD were at the far end of the cemetery directing the surviving rabble rousers to the jail. Buck was imparting advice to JD to which the young sheriff was only paying half a mind. The other half was on Casey Wells, who was in the crowd of spectators. The spectators . . .
"Excuse me . . ."
Aw, dammit. One of the townspeople had been shot. Nathan was examining the wound on the arm of Pete Mills, the stock boy who worked at the hardware store. Chris sighed silently in relief when Nathan smiled and nodded at the boy, signaling that he would be all right. The healer led the lad away from the crowd, to the clinic presumably, where Nathan would be able to bandage the wound.
"Excuse me, I'm from the Four Corners Post. What just happened here?"
Why did people feel compelled to place themselves in danger just to gawk and stare? Would they ever learn to show a little care for their own lives, not to mention the lives of Larabee and his men? He couldn't have his mind on bystanders in the middle of a gunfight, not when such risks weren't necessary.
Chris' ruminations stopped. He looked down his right shoulder, where dust settled on the glowing brown curls of a woman who was gazing at Larabee with expectant green eyes. In her hands she held a pad of paper and a pencil.
"From the what?!"
She should have been cowed in the face of Chris' dark stare. But the lady showed no intimidation, smiling brightly up at Larabee and responding, "From the Four Corners Post. Whose funeral is this?"
The Four Corners Post. That meant exactly nothing to him. Judging by the way this woman was pestering him, it was sure to be trouble. Chris put a hand on his gun belt and looked down at her. "What's the Four Corners Post?"
"It's soon to be the biggest newspaper in the country," she responded with an assured nod. "How did the shooting start?"
Yep. That was trouble all right. "Who are you?"
The brunette twisted her lips with exasperation. "You know, this isn't going to work." She tapped the end of her pencil on the notepad and looked up at him thoughtfully. "You answer one of my questions and I'll answer one of yours, is that fair?"
She smiled at him with the perfect assurance of a girl who had gotten everything she had ever asked for when growing up. Usually Chris would love to destroy the expectations of a spoiled woman making a nuisance of herself, but the problem was he really did want to know. And answering a couple questions seemed the quickest way to answers. "Fine. Who are you?"
"Nuh-uh," she shook her head. "My turn. Who's in the hearse?"
Larabee's glare deepened, but he did answer. "Rancher name of Tom Hub."
She scribbled the name onto her paper. "Why were these men shooting?"
"Nuh-uh," Chris shook his own head with a sardonic smirk. "My turn."
"Oh." Her pencil stopped and she smiled expectantly. "Go ahead."
"Who are you?"
"Claire Danae, head reporter for the Four Corners Post." The brunette hastily tucked the pencil behind her ear and stuck out her hand. When Chris didn't reciprocate, her lips twitched briefly and she took up her writing implement again. "Why did the fight start?"
Larabee shrugged. "Men were drunk and didn't like Hub. When did this Post thing happen?"
"Got into town Monday, set up shop yesterday, first issue came out just today." Claire answered absentmindedly as she wrote on her notepad. "What was these men's argument with Hub?"
The gunfighter exhaled impatiently and shifted his weight to his back foot. "He thought the ranchers should welcome the new homesteaders been coming into Four Corners lately. They didn't agree."
"You sound like you don't either," Claire observed, glancing up as she wrote.
Chris rolled his shoulder in a half-shrug. "People . . . complicate things. Life used to be simpler around here."
"Change makes the world go 'round," the brunette commented, sounding as if she were quoting a phrase she heard often, "and the West has become the place for people wanting to make that change. A place to start over," she added quietly, to herself. She shook her head and turned a smile back to Larabee. "Where are the homesteaders coming from?"
"You first." Chris crossed his arms across his chest. "You own the Post?"
"Heavens, no!" The reporter's brow furrowed lightly as she regarded him oddly. "My editor, Buster Hedgecock, is the owner. Tommy and I just work for him." She shook her head. "The homesteaders?"
"You tell me. I'd guess they came from the same place you came from." Wherever that was. "Who's Tommy?"
"Our photographer." Claire pointed over her shoulder with her pencil to where a large camera was set up overlooking a body sprawled on the ground. Two roughly clad legs stuck out from underneath a large black cloth behind the camera. Tommy, Chris presumed. He considered asking what the hell a newspaper would need a photographer for but decided that he really didn't care. "Are all of you," Claire's gesture encircled the cemetery, "the law around here?"
Larabee glanced around at his colleagues. Nathan had left with the stock boy from the hardware store, leaving Buck and JD with the remaining rowdies although it was evident that Wilmington wanted to come over and flirt with the attractive brunette. Vin collected the ruffian's discarded weapons as Ezra sauntered around the graveyard, casually eavesdropping on Larabee's conversation with Claire. Josiah walked past and tipped his hat at the female reporter, a gesture she returned with a friendly smile.
"We're as much law as this town needs," Chris answered.
A moment of quiet passed between gunman and reporter.
"Don't you have any more questions?" Claire finally asked.
Chris shook his head. "Nope."
"Oh." The perky brunette looked down and scanned what she had just written. "Well, I guess I just have one more." She looked back up. "Who are you?"
"Chris. Chris Larabee."
Claire grinned crookedly. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Larabee. Ever consider a career as a reporter?"
A small smile tugged at Chris' lips despite himself. "No, ma'am. Got too much respect for myself for that."
Claire laughed without ire at the comment. She stuck her pencil behind her ear again and took a lingering glance around the cemetery. The female reporter pulled over her shoulder the end of the red scarf that tied her hair back and sighed. "Have you ever needed some place to start over, Mr. Larabee?" Claire asked.
She was looking away, or she would have seen his face darken as Chris answered, "I reckon we all have, one time or another."
Something in his tone, perhaps. Claire regarded him out of the side of her eye. "Tell me about it," she said.
"Hey, Chris! How 'bout lending us a hand with these fellows?" Buck called.
Larabee smiled wryly at Claire Danae. "Some other time," he answered insincerely.
"I'm sure we'll meet again."
Larabee watched the attractive brunette shamble down the hill, scribbling furiously on her notepad. Tommy the Photographer emerged from under his darkcloth, revealing a grizzled giant of a man wearing old frontier attire. The Post photographer gathered up his equipment and hauled it after the reporter. Chris shook his head.
Mary was going to love this.
Mary Travis walked into Watson's Hardware store with a spring in her step. Her son Billy was due home by way of stage one week today after a month of visiting his grandparents. Thoughts of Billy's return kept her mood light as she dusted newsprint off her hands on the skirt of her blue dress. It had been unusually difficult to unload the last copy of the Clarion today, especially considering the dynamic headline story. Mary must have spent an hour trying to drag the details of the shoot-out at the cemetery out of Four Corners' seven resident lawmen. It always seemed a war between her and the recalcitrant peacekeepers when it came to providing the intimates of any exciting event.
The hardware store hummed with quiet talk between the few townspeople who circulated the building as Mary walked in. Mr. Watson greeted Mary uneasily before hastily occupying himself in dusting the counters at the other end of the store. Mary frowned quizzically.
"Hey, Mrs. Travis, have you read the paper this morning?" Peter Mills, the stock boy at Watson's Hardware Store, called out as he leaned against the shelves he should be stocking, an open newspaper spread out before him.
"Of course I did, Peter," Mary Travis put the owner's strange reaction aside for a moment and smiled at the lazy stock boy. "I put it together."
"No, not your paper," Peter responded. "The Post."
Mary blinked. The rest of the townspeople took the opportunity to make hurried departures. Watson slowly sunk down behind the counter.
Not my paper? "The what?!"
"The Four Corners Post," Pete said, oblivious. "I got it from . . ."
Mary snatched the paper out his hands before the young man could explain its existence. "Dead Disturbed by Shoot-out at Cemetery - Rancher's Controversial Opinions May Have Gotten Him Killed." Mary took in the header and scanned the front-page article about the previous day's gunfight. "Mr. Hub died of a heart attack," Mary muttered incredulously.
'"In the ever-raging battle of rancher versus homesteader, Hub was just a casual victim,'" Mary read. "'The men who disrupted his funeral, however, probably did not expect to end up as casualties. According to Chris Larabee . . .'"
"He gave her a quote?" Mary exclaimed in disbelief.
"My name's mentioned in that article too," Pete ventured.
"He never gives quotes!" Buck, yes. Buck Wilmington would give a quote to any woman willing to listen. Once you sorted fact from exaggerated fact, you had something to work with. Nathan. Nathan Jackson was a wonderfully reliable source of news. Only he was usually too busy tending to the wounded after any sort of scuffle to talk to Mary. Josiah. His willingness to talk usually varied depending on his mood, but it was not uncommon to get a good quote from him. JD. JD would talk, although the young lawman was usually too excitable to remember the details of an engagement. Ezra. Mary hadn't bothered to ask Ezra anything for the newspaper since the time he had insisted he receive paid compensation for his "contributions to community information bulletin." Vin avoided his name in print, but he knew Mary would never intentionally endanger the former bounty hunter. He would talk to her.
Chris just . . . never spoke to Mary in her context as a newspaperwoman. And to think the gunslinger had known about this Four Corner's Post thing the whole time Mary was attempting to interview him yesterday.
"It says 'as bullets tore the air above the peacefully sleeping departed, a brave young hardware store employee' - that's me - 'nearly joined their number when a stray bullet struck and wounded the young man.'" The stock boy lifted his arm to display the bandage that surrounded the upper part. Mary looked at Pete incredulously.
Chris Larabee had some explaining to do.
+ + +
Chris stepped out onto the porch overlooking Four Corners' main street and pulled the door of the jailhouse closed behind him, smiling lightly and shaking his head. He turned to his right but a flash of motion to his left twisted him that direction instead. Mary had just exited the hardware store and was stalking up the road toward the jail. Normally that was a sight Chris did not mind in the least - Mary had a way of walking that would draw the attention of any man - but the blonde woman had a very peevish expression on her face that boded ill for whoever was in her path. A tall man touched fingers to the tip of his hat and smiled at the Clarion reporter as she passed. Mary strode by him without ever seeing him, and the tall man walked away muttering to himself.
The source of Mary's consternation became clear when she drew near enough for Chris to see the newspaper clutched in her hand. Today's copy of the Four Corners Post, it seemed. Damn, Chris had been hoping not to be around when she found out.
Larabee threw a glance over his shoulder at the doorway he had just exited. He had two options. He could either stand here on the porch and meet Mary head on or he could tip his hat at her and walk away. Chris opted for the second choice, fingering the brim of his hat and stepping quickly in the opposite direction of Mary. His progress was halted before he'd even left the porch, however, as Mary assumed a burst of superhuman speed to position herself in front of the dark cowboy.
Damn. "Morning, Mary."
Her pale green eyes fixed icily on him. "Mr. Larabee. What do you know about this 'Four Corners Post'?" she asked with her typical directness.
He could feign ignorance and say, "What Four Corners Post?" but that probably wouldn't work. She must have already seen his name in that article, although Larabee couldn't figure why she'd be this riled at him. Chris wished he had Josiah's way of speaking in vague riddles.
"Not too much more than you, I expect," the gunfighter tried before taking a step to try to get around Mary.
She sidestepped to bar his escape. "Well how much more?" she demanded. "Why didn't you tell me when you first found out? Who's running it? Who is this Claire Danae?"
Chris remained calm in reaction to Travis' brusque tone. "She's nobody, Mary."
The blonde head tilted in assured skepticism. "If she were nobody you would have told me about her yesterday."
Women! Chris removed his hat to rub his hand through his hair. "Mary, why would I tell you about nobody?"
Mary crossed her arms across her chest. "It's okay, Chris, you don't have to feel guilty. You have the right to talk to whomever you want."
Guilty? Who the hell felt guilty? Not Chris Larabee. "Of course I do. Why wouldn't I?"
Mary's lips pursed as her stare grew even frostier. "Of course. Right."
Right. He could damn well talk to whomever he pleased. Of course, if he had known that this conversation was going to be the result he might have kept his mouth shut when Claire Danae had come around.
A loud laugh pierced the tense silence. Buck's laugh. Followed by a higher, musical laugh. A female laugh. Mary looked at the jail and looked back to Larabee with wide eyes.
"Who's in there?" she demanded.
Damn. "Sounds like Buck to me," Chris said indifferently. He made another attempt to bypass Mary, which she deftly countered.
"There's a woman in there."
"There's always a woman where Buck is." Impatience began to wear through his voice.
Mary drew herself up even further, which Chris wouldn't have thought was possible. "Then you won't care if I just go and see who it is, will you?"
Larabee nodded with his best detached expression and stepped aside to allow Mary to pass. He watched her enter the jailhouse.
Now that his path was clear, Chris found himself still stuck on the porch by a morbid curiosity to find out what happens when two overbearing female reporters clash for the first time. But the moment passed quickly.
With a fleeting thought for poor Buck, Larabee took off at a brisk walk towards the saloon.
+ + +
Inside the jailhouse, JD Dunne idly flipped through wanted posters. He could have been turning handstands and clucking like a chicken for all he was noticed by the jail's other two occupants, the curly-haired reporter sitting on the edge of his desk and Buck, leaning forward with his foot up on a chair. A pad of paper on Claire Danae's lap and a pencil in her hand - with another pencil rested neatly behind her right ear - Claire listened attentively to Buck as the ladies' man animatedly described one of his adventures.
" . . . So Chris and Coltrane make for the saloon, and a couple of ugly hombres drag my body to the morgue. I lay stiff for a while, 'til the undertaker rolls around. You shoulda seen the look on his face when I sat up! He looked more like a ghost than I did!"
"Buck, you tell the funniest stories!" Claire's sandy brown curls bounced as she laughed. Dust off the paperwork flew up JD's nose. He sneezed.
A whirlwind in a blue dress thundered into the jailhouse. Dunne hastily stood as Mary Travis pushed through the door like a farmer into the coop when a fox was lurking. Buck straightened up and took his foot off the chair. Claire looked to the new arrival but remained seated, and as Mary's eyes locked onto the brunette reporter the temperature of her stare dropped about ten degrees.
"Howdy, Mrs. Travis. My, you're looking right nice today. You probably haven't met Claire yet. This is Miss Claire Danae. Claire, this is Mary Travis." Buck rattled on like a boy who'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Mary approached with an expression that made her seem slightly overwhelmed, but with a glint in her eyes that seemed of a she-cat ready to defend her territory.
"Good morning, Mrs. Travis," Claire offered with a bright but wary smile. "Your name sounds familiar. Should I know you?"
"Mrs. Travis runs the Clarion," JD volunteered helpfully.
Claire turned to give Mary her whole attention. Her eyebrows arched. "Oh, really?
Wilmington cringed and shot the kid a glare that unmistakably screamed, "Shut up, you idiot." Dunne caught the look and returned a bewildered glance. Buck shook his head.
"Whoa! JD, did you hear that? Was that gunshots? That sounded like gunshots to me. We'd better go check it out." Buck grabbed the young lawman by his elbow and pulled him towards the door.
"What? Gunshots? I didn't hear anything," JD protested.
"Trust me, it was definitely gunshots. Come on." Dunne had just enough time to grab his hat as Buck dragged him along and the two of them scooted past Mary out of the jailhouse.
Wilmington didn't loose his grip on JD's arm until they were well down the street. He looked behind them and heaved a sigh of relief, slowing to a casual walk.
JD stuck his bowler on his head. "What the hell was that about?" he asked Buck.
"That was about me saving our hides." JD began to sputter a question, but Buck held up his hand. "Son, you'd just stepped in a nest of vipers and didn't have a clue. Don't you know any better than to get between two females fightin' over territory?"
"Claire and Mrs. Travis? I don't think the two of 'em will cause any trouble."
The ladies' man snorted incredulously. "Kid, did you see the look in their eyes? I saw a lot of that look when I was growing up. Trust me, the best thing we can do in this situation is to keep quiet and out of those reporters' way."
Wilmington must have read in JD's expression that the young sheriff hadn't a clue what Buck was talking about. He began to elaborate.
"Let me tell you a little story. It's about these two women, Kate and Mattie. Now Kate and Mattie were in the same business, a, uh, less than reputable business, if you know what I mean. They weren't friends, but they got along sociably. Fellow named Cort was Mattie's beau, what they call a 'kept' man. Anyway, one summer afternoon all of them were on a picnic near the South Platte River, just outsida Denver. You payin' attention, kid? 'Cause this is where it gets relevant."
JD rolled his eyes. "Just get to the point, Buck."
"See, that's the problem with today's youth. No patience for a finely crafted story. Alright, so during the course of this picnic, Mattie seems to think that Kate is paying too much attention to her man. Lot of hair pullin' and name calling, someone throws a punch, one of the gals get her nose broken. So what happens but Mattie challenges Kate to a duel."
"A what?! You're making this up."
"Kid, would ol' Buck ever steer you wrong? I haven't even gotten to the best part yet. So Mattie makes Cort her second, and then the women strip to the waist so their aim don't get spoiled."
"Now I know you're pulling my leg."
"Hey, I'm just tellin' it to you the way it was told to me."
JD still wasn't convinced. "So what's the point?"
"Don't you see?" Buck gestured to his own eyes. "It all about territory! Once women get a hold a something, they don't let anybody share it for nothin'. And I'm just tellin' you, watch out for when Mary and Claire start to butt heads."
A horrified look crossed JD's face. "Geez, do you think we shoulda left the two of them alone?"
"Trust me, it's better not to get involved," Wilmington assured him.
"But, why not?"
"Y'know what happened to ol' Cort? One of them soiled doves missed and shot him in the neck."
JD turned and looked over his shoulder at the jailhouse. It was ominously quiet.
"Walk faster, Buck."
+ + +
Mary had barely registered the presence of Buck and JD in the jailhouse, so their departure went equally unmarked. Mary's full attention remained locked on the pert little brunette sitting on JD's desk.
Claire smiled with an annoying lack of awkwardness and nodded to Pete's newspaper still in Mary's hand. "I suppose you must have already heard about me. I'm the head reporter for the Four Corners Post." She gracefully levered herself off the desk and stood. "That makes us competitors, I guess."
Mary blinked and strained to put on a curt smile. "Miss Danae," she returned in a tone of forced politeness. "Welcome to Four Corners. I did happen to read your paper this morning. It was . . . interesting. Really though, there's no reason for us to be enemies."
"Thank you," Claire acknowledged. "I picked up a copy of the Clarion the other day. You put out a very nice little paper, Mrs. Travis." She delivered the left-handed complement with a cheerful upbeat tone that made Mary want to slap her.
Mary's smile tightened. She took a step forward. "I hardly think the Clarion is a 'little' paper, Miss Danae. Its reach is far beyond this territory. In fact, the new homesteaders' settlement here is largely due to the Clarion."
Claire nodded. "I'm sure it's done all right up 'til now. But this territory is growing by leaps and bounds, surely there's room for a bit of competition, Mrs. Travis." The brunette tapped her pencil on her notepad as she moved toward Mary. "Or can't you handle it?" Claire challenged.
Mary bristled at her tone. "Surely, I agree, the territory is growing but Four Corners is still small. There's really no demand for two publications."
"Are you saying that this town isn't big enough for the two of us?" a blustering voice boomed from behind. Mary turned to find a man two sizes larger than portly walking through the open jailhouse door.
"And who would you be?" Mary challengingly eyed the fat man stuffed into a blue suit.
The man's giant muttonchops bristled as he blustered. "I am the Four Corners Post! Buster Hedgecock, editor, owner."
The Clarion was unimpressed. "Mr. Hedgecock, this town won't support more than one paper, and you know it," Mary rejoined bluntly.
Buster harrumphed in agreement. "Which means one of us will have to go. Unfortunately for you, we just got here and I have no intention of leaving."
Mary let her polite smile drop. "Let me remind you before you both unpack that I've been 'handling it' for several years now and I have been very successful with the Clarion," she glared at Buster Hedgecock, "despite the fact that it's a man's work and a man's world."
The Post editor opened his mouth but his brown-haired reporter interrupted. "You own the Clarion?" Claire asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.
"It was left in my care by my late husband," Mary responded grudgingly. And what she didn't need was some young Easterner and her hedgehog putting their nose in and threatening that livelihood. "I refused to leave it when he died, and I refuse to abandon it now."
"I have the uttermost respect for you for that, Mrs. Travis." Claire asserted. Mary folded her arms skeptically. The insufferable young cub almost sounded sincere. "Women in the west have a real disadvantage," Claire continued. "That's why I'm so determined to make the Post work in Four Corners. And I will make the Post work."
Buster rolled his eyes. "We will make the Post work. So maybe you're the one who should pack up, Mrs. Travis."
Mary was too angry to muster a response. Steven's legacy couldn't slip through her fingers, she wouldn't let it. "I've had to fight for the Clarion every single day I've owned it." She struggled to control the rising tide of her emotions. "I'm not afraid of you or your gimmicky newspaper."
With those words Mary chucked the rival publication to the floor and stalked out of the jailhouse.
+ + +
"Well, this town sure went to the dogs," the man's voice, dripping with disgust, rasped like wood over gravel.
Yeah, the lawdogs.
"Only one lawdog I'm worried about, and he ain't here. Ain't seen a sheriff since I got here, neither." His dusty gray head swiveled as he looked both ways down mainstreet.
Worse'n sheriffs, they got gunfighters!
The conversation stopped as two of the lawmen in question walked by. The tall one wearing a green shirt seemed highly involved in the story he was telling the young, shorter one in the stupid hat. They passed by without noticing the man on the boardwalk. He ran his fingers through long white hair as rough as his voice.
Gunfighters could be problems.
"I got enough problems. Where's the gold? The town weren't near this big when I hid it."
We gotta keep lookin' is all. We search every square inch of Four Corners. It's here somewhere.
The sun burned low on the western horizon as Ezra returned from his patrol. It had been an uneventful watch, spent mostly observing the new homesteaders making themselves at home. It was a bit of an art to avoid helping any of them with their unloading or some such nonsense. Of course he had gotten closer to exchange a few friendly words with the new residents, since apparently there had once been a millionaire amongst them. Unfortunately, although the homesteaders were perfectly willing to share information the gambler had been able to learn distressingly little about their "missing millionaire." A lone old man, he'd been known to none of the other settlers before the start of their journey. According to the homesteaders the man had talked to himself incessantly, and his rambling conversations with himself had more often than not made reference to gold hidden in the wilderness. But it seemed the loony old coot had clammed up most inconveniently whenever he thought somebody might be listening, leaving not a clue as to the location of his fortune.
Ezra was reflecting on the information he had obtained as he groomed his horse. He had just finished brushing down the chestnut when he heard sounds emerging from behind the barn. It sounded as though people were whispering. Ezra crept quietly around the back, his ears perked alertly.
"Do you see her?" a hushed voiced asked in concerned tones.
The voice that answered was not as deep, but equally full of tension. "No. It's clear."
As Ezra snuck up around the barn, he saw two men with their backs to him. They were exchanging conversation while hiding against the back of the stable, with just enough of a view of the street to spy on any passersby without being seen. The smaller of the two had his head peaked around the corner. The taller one was bent over something and casting worried looks at his partner.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Buck, if I say it's clear, then it's clear." JD turned away from his watch and joined Wilmington in peering at whatever they were concealing.
"Okay, okay. Sorry kid. Now let's just-"
"What are you gentlemen up to?" the gambler spoke loudly, revealing himself from behind them.
Buck and JD gave identical guilty starts and turned to face him, hiding something behind their backs. They relaxed visibly when they saw it was Ezra.
"Oh, it's you." Buck threw JD a look. "All clear, huh?" The kid shrugged sheepishly.
"Thought you were Mrs. Travis," Buck explained to Standish.
The gambler raised a curious eyebrow. "And why would you be . . . ah, the Post." The illicit publication was spread out over the top of a wooden barrel.
"We're reading it," Dunne explained, taking his hat off to run fingers through his dark hair.
"I have eyes, JD." Ezra rolled them just to illustrate the point.
"Oh. Right. Anyway, everybody's talking about this story in the Post, but we didn't want to hurt Mrs. Travis' feelings or nothing so we figured we'd just sneak back here, behind the livery, and-"
"Y'all have got to be more quiet," a soft voice broke into JD's ramblings. Ezra looked behind him in alarm. Vin had joined the club behind the stables.
"Mr. Tanner, you too are an accomplice on this escapade?"
The sharpshooter shrugged and looked over his shoulder guiltily. "Well, Mrs. Travis has helped me out a lot and I figure I gotta be loyal to her. But . . . word about the Post sure has been buzzin' around town. Have ya read any of it yet?"
"Just a few lines." Buck answered. "Keep an eye on the street and listen to this." He began reading in a low voice. Ezra found himself listening carefully for any details he might have missed when he'd read the Post that morning.
"'Speculation is that the lone man traveling with the wagon train struck it rich at Gregory Gulch in Denver during the gold rush of '59. Taking his fortune back east, smart investing multiplied his wealth.'"
Wilmington had barely begun when the sharpshooter called out a warning.
"She's coming!" Vin hissed.
The four fugitives scrambled to conceal themselves behind any available cover. A few tense moments passed. Finally, Vin peeked his head up from his horse's stall.
"All clear," the sharpshooter said.
"Good," Buck said as he stood up from behind a crate. JD emerged from inside one of the barrels.
"Why don't you ask him if he's sure?" the young peacekeeper asked.
"Now don't take offense, kid. Vin's just got more skill and experience than you in this sorta stuff," Wilmington replied.
JD shifted his feet defensively. "I've got plenty of skill and experience, Buck."
"I wasn't saying you don't, son. I was just sayin' Vin's got more of it."
The two of them delved into an argument only slightly tempered by the need to keep the volume low.
Vin looked at Ezra. "So what's it say?" he asked.
"Oh, mostly it's a gimmicky article about money. Just an appeal to humanity's basest instinct," the gambler replied.
"You mean your basest instinct."
"I am just as human as the next man, Mr. Tanner."
"Hmm," Vin hmmed skeptically. "So you don't believe there's any truth to this story?"
Standish shrugged casually. "I think this is merely the calculated device of an underdog news publication to sell more papers. Have you met the illustrious Miss Danae?"
The tracker shook his head. "Seen her around - she's hard to miss - but I've heard folk say she's nosy 'bout people's pasts. Last thing I need is some snoopy reporter asking me about wanted posters in Tascosa."
Ezra nodded. If he had been branded a criminal for a crime he did not commit, he would stay as far away from Claire Danae as possible. Standish wouldn't be thrilled to find some of his own dubious history in print, at that.
"Ran into her boss," Vin continued. "Buster Hedgecock. You met him?"
"I have," JD broke in before Ezra could respond. "What a peacock! They were moving into that building next to the boarding house. All I did was ask if they needed help carrying in their things and that Hedgecock tells me to get stuffed. Thought I'd drop his valuable equipment. Reminds me of this fellow used to work at the mansion back in Boston. A butler. Man always walked around with his nose in the air."
"Man walks around with his nose in the air is likely to trip over his own feet," Buck inserted sagely. The other three stared at Wilmington.
"My, my, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled. "What a profound observation. Your association with Mr. Sanchez has evidently expanded your realm of thought."
"Yeah, I'm deep. So what exactly did the article say about the hidden treasure?"
Ezra closed the pages of the Four Corners Post and waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, Miss Danae's just guessing now. Manufacturing detail in order to enhance a story."
"That sweet little thing?" Buck shook his head disbelievingly.
"But what if it is real?" JD asked. "Think about all that money."
"I'm, ah, I'm thinking about it," Standish muttered.
"Hello, there, Mrs. Travis," Vin proclaimed with uncharacteristic volume. As the Clarion editor approached from the alley, Buck, JD and Vin stepped to block her view of their contraband publication while Ezra quickly folded the paper and tucked it into his jacket. Buck tipped his hat and beamed a great smile as he greeted the blonde reporter.
"Well, howdy, Mrs. Travis, you sure look radiant this evening."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington." Mary smiled but tilted her head quizzically at the group. "I've been looking for you boys."
"Oh," Buck's brows furrowed as his mind worked. "We were just, ah, that is to say we were here behind the livery because, well you see, we were . . ." He sent a significant look at Vin and JD. They opened their mouths but only vague mumblings emerged.
"We were discussing the rising prominence of our dusty little backwater," Ezra broke in smoothly. "It seems these homesteaders are bringing progress in leaps and bounds to Four Corners."
Mary perked up. "Can I quote you on that, Mr. Standish?"
Ezra smiled at her. "Of course, Mrs. Travis."
"I wanted to ask if you've heard anything more about the range dispute between Tom Hub's children," she directed the question to all the men.
"Well, I think Bill Hub is getting a shave at the barber's right now. Might want to ask him about that," Vin piped up helpfully.
Mary nodded at everyone and hurried back down the alley to main street in the direction of the barber's. Buck heaved a huge sigh of relief.
"Wheewee, that was close! Well, boys, I'm late for patrol already." He headed off to the livery, shaking his head. JD tipped his bowler hat at Vin and Ezra and scuttled out from behind the livery stable back to the main road, where the street fires were just being lit.
Vin nodded to the paper in Ezra's jacket. "So you gonna finish reading that?"
"Hmm? Oh." Ezra removed the paper then frowned and gestured to the now-descended twilight. "It seems we've lost the light. I'll finish reading this article in my amply-lit room and I'll inform you of its contents on the morrow."
Vin eyed Ezra for just a second longer before nodding and slipping off to melt into some shadow. Ezra watched them leave before looking down to consider the newspaper in his hands. He really needed a word with this Claire Danae.
+ + +
Claire Danae finished her article for the next day's edition of the Post by the light of a gas wall sconce, penning the final sentence with a sigh. She brushed a curl of hair off her forehead with the back of a lead-smeared hand and re-read the story.
"Buster's gonna have my head," she muttered.
The brunette reporter scrawled a quick headline on the completed piece and stuck the pencil behind her ear as she rose from her chair, picking up the article to take to her editor.
The building that the Four Corners Post had acquired for its headquarters had only one set of windows, two large panes on either side of the entrance, and consisted of two rooms, a small office in the corner of a large, open area. The rough wooden table that served as Claire's desk butted up against the east wall, out of the way of the large printing presses and other equipment that filled the spacious room. As the Post's owner and head editor, the small office had gone to Buster.
Framed editions of news publications from around the country lined the walls leading to Buster's office. The Rocky Mountain News and the San Francisco Chronicle with their tremendous success were examples of what the Four Corners Post aspired to be. Though it had gone under in 1866, the Kearney Herald with its slogan: "Independence in All Things, Neutrality in Nothing," was Claire's personal favorite.
A muffled affirmative answered Claire's questioning knock. The reporter opened the door and entered Buster Hedgecock's office.
"Where's Tom?" Hedgecock greeted brusquely.
"He's in the shed preparing an image for my front page story," Claire returned, throwing her notebook on Buster's desk.
The newspaper owner casually spun the notebook to face him and began to read the article with a dubious eye. "I don't know why Tom couldn't set up in the main building like every other illustrator," Buster complained as he read.
"Because he's not an illustrator, he's a photographer," Claire explained. Again. It wouldn't be the last time, Claire realized. Buster was obviously not listening. She continued regardless. "If he set up in here we'd be dead of chemical fumes in an hour. You would have had to construct an outbuilding anyway; we're just lucky he found that crumbling wreck."
The decrepit edifice Claire spoke of was apparently a relic of the founding days of Four Corners. Either abandoned or condemned for the past quarter of a century, nobody had objected when the Post's grizzled photographer cleared the junk out of the shack and renovated it for his purposes. Now, behind expertly mended walls the photographer performed his mysterious processes that turned glass plates into precisely detailed images.
"What is this?" Buster slapped Claire's notebook with the back of his fingers. "We're not running this story on the front page," he said darkly.
Buster looked up at Claire for the first time since she had entered his office. Sitting behind his desk, he resembled a fat little hedgehog who'd had a bad encounter with a manic barber. Perhaps to compensate for his own comic appearance, he furnished his office simply but with a couple elegant touches. On the wall behind Buster hung two newspapers, framed beneath glass. One of them was a small eastern paper, the first article Buster had ever published, and the other was Horace Greeley's now-famous 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune extorting readers to "Go West, young man!" Signed by the world famous editor himself, the news journal was Buster's most prized possession.
On the wall to Hedgecock's right hung a decorative map of Four Corners and its surrounding territory. Buster had found it among the rubbish Tom Poppin had cleaned out of the abandoned shed. Claire had stood right beside him as he had unrolled the oversized map, and studying it he had said to Claire, "Take a good look, girl. All this is going to be ours." The newspaper owner had had it framed that day and hung in his office. Inspiration, he'd said.
Obviously Buster had not found inspiration in her article. "Unless you've got a better one hidden in your saddlebags, that's the story we're running with," Claire responded tiredly to his critical tone.
"This is the third article on this missing homesteader that we've committed to the front page," Hedgecock complained. "The thrill is gone. I'll grant you, this millionaire story has kept us afloat so far. Barely. But this," Buster scanned her notebook again, "this is the same story we published last issue, rephrased."
Drat. He had noticed. Buster's heavy muttonchops framed his deep frown. "I've tapped out my sources." Claire explained. That didn't lighten her editor's expression. "But the missing millionaire sells. And," she added reluctantly, "it's all I have." Besides rumor and speculation, that was. What Buster didn't know - and wouldn't, if Claire had any say in it - was that her last three articles had been nothing more than just that.
Hedgecock shook his head at her notebook. "What about that that shoot-out at the cemetery? We need more of those kind of stories."
Claire raised her hands in frustration. "Four Corners has been quiet since then. If I had another gunfight, or a bank robbery or a kidnapping or a, a horse race! I would report on it. There's just not enough news in this town for a daily." Claire bounced her pencil on her palm. "Maybe we should go weekly," she suggested.
Buster looked at his reporter flatly. "Weekly," the editor repeated. "Is the Clarion weekly?"
"Well, no, it's daily, but Travis doesn't have any better headlines than we do."
"Is that so?" Hedgecock opened his desk drawer, pulled out a folded newspaper and tossed it in front his reporter. Claire picked up the publication and looked at the front page. It was the Clarion, dated with today's date.
Tom Hub's Offspring Contest Will - Rancher's Range Object of Dispute.
"I don't believe it!" Claire exclaimed.
"Neither could I," Hedgecock said acidly. "You're supposed to be my crack reporter. We have a possible range war between two siblings here; how'd Travis find out about it before you?"
Claire shrugged. "She knows the town, she knows the people." Drat her. "People tell her things that they wouldn't tell me."
Buster rose from his seat and maneuvered his bulk around the desk to stand in front of the framed map. "I'd suggest you start cozying up to this town, Claire. Do whatever it takes to get a story. It's a growing territory. A little girl like you could get lost here out west real quick without an attachment to something like the Post."
Claire took a deep breath but bit down on her intended rebuttal. For once in your life remember your father's advice. Think before you act. Don't do anything rash. The female reporter grit her teeth at Hedgecock's back, but controlled her desire to stab Buster in the ear with her pencil. She needed the man and his newspaper.
"Don't worry about me," she told the editor. "I'm not so easy to get rid of." Let him take that whichever way he wanted. Without waiting for Hedgecock's acknowledgement Claire snatched up her notepad and left his office to set up type.
Once out of sight of her editor, the reporter paused and took a determined breath. However she had to get a story, the Post would be a success in Four Corners. Claire would make sure of it. She had to.
"My, my, Miss Danae, you look positively . . . disgusted," Ezra told the brown-haired reporter as she exited the land office. Standish tucked his flask of Kentucky whisky back into his pocket and affected a casual attitude, sitting on a high-backed chair on the porch with his boots up on the railing as if he had nothing better to do than soak up the afternoon sun, rather than as he'd been waiting patiently for Claire's departure ever since having seen her enter the land office.
Claire's lips curved downward as she pulled a pencil from behind her ear. "Tom Hub's children reconciled," she muttered, scribbling on her notepad. The red scarf in her hair fell across her face. She blew at it from the side of her mouth.
"How unfortunate," Ezra commiserated. "Those inconsiderate miscreants. Really, the younger generation has no consideration for the needs of the press."
The Post reporter threw Standish a sidelong look. Ezra raised his eyebrows innocently. Claire lowered her pencil and notebook and turned to face the gambler. She looked the Southerner up and down from the tips of his expensive boots to the brim of his black hat.
"I don't think I ever caught your name," the brunette said finally.
Ezra grinned, the sun's heat absorbing into his gold tooth. "Ezra Standish," he introduced. "A peacekeeper of our quaint little town."
"Guardian of the poker tables?" Claire asked snidely. She began writing again.
Ezra's grin softened to an amused smirk. "Well, well. It seems our little angel has some bite." The pert reporter shot a glare at Standish. "And here I was intending to offer my apologies for my hasty comments the other day concerning your fine publication."
"Oh, really?" Claire said skeptically.
"Oh, yes." Ezra stretched before lowering his feet and rising from the chair. He took a step toward Claire. "You caught me at a bad time, I'm afraid, and my remarks were quite rude. In the intervening days I have had a chance to peruse the Post and have found it to be quite edifying."
Challenging green eyes stared up at Ezra, amusement dancing behind them. "And is there a particular story that caught your interest, Mr. Standish?" Claire asked.
"All of your pieces are exceptional, Miss Danae, but I find your missing homesteader series to be most fascinating."
"Of course you do," the reporter nodded. "Thank you for your interest."
Claire moved to step around the gambler but Ezra countered the action to block the brunette. She glared and began tapping her pencil against the notebook she still held. Standish licked his lips uneasily.
"I am, in fact, very interested, Miss Danae. I would love to hear the particulars of that story."
"Keep reading the Post, Mr. Standish."
Ezra smiled sardonically. "I had something else in mind. Perhaps we could discuss it over lunch at the hotel?"
The brown-haired reporter laughed, sweeping the end of the red scarf back behind her shoulder. "As charming as that sounds, Mr. Standish, I'm afraid you'll have to dine alone. My front page needs a story."
Ezra opened his mouth to suggest a late dinner but was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. He turned to find a burly cowboy standing behind him.
"You Standish?" the cowboy asked.
"That depends," Ezra replied cautiously. "Who's asking?"
The cowboy lowered his hand and grunted. "They say there's only one person worth a game in this hick town. I'm lookin' for a game worth playing."
Ezra squared his shoulders and adjusted his red jacket. "Well, if that's the case, I'm happy to oblige. Ezra Standish, at your service."
The cowboy nodded. "I'll be at the saloon," he said. The porch thudded under his heavy steps as he walked away.
Claire Danae had stayed to watch the exchange. Ezra tipped his hat at her and turned to walk away, but the reporter stepped up to follow.
"I might take you up on your offer, Mr. Standish. Would you mind if I just tagged along while you play that gentleman?"
The gambler cocked an eyebrow in surprise. "Why certainly, Miss Danae. May I ask what changed your mind?"
Claire's lips parted, her eyes twitched to her left, then she closed her mouth and shrugged innocently. "I figure someone who cheats as badly as you do must attract a gunfight every hour."
Ezra cast an alarmed glance at the hulking cowpunch just up the boardwalk ahead of them. He hadn't seemed to have heard. Standish turned to face Claire.
"Miss Danae, I don't cheat," Ezra stated. The reporter tilted her head, eyes regarding him knowingly. Standish dropped his neutral expression. " . . . badly," he added with a glare.
Claire smiled smugly. "We'll just have to see," she said brightly. With a smart rap of her pencil on her notepad for emphasis, she slipped around the gambler and entered the saloon. Ezra stared at the swinging batwing doors. The things he had to put up with to attain his fortune.
For the next hour Ezra steadily lost hand after hand to the cowboy. Standish did his best to keep from his face the gleeful grin that had been building inside him since his first round with the burly man.
Though the saloon was relatively deserted this early in the afternoon, one empty-eyed drifter had attempted to join the table once the game had started between Ezra and the cowboy. Standish normally welcomed any addition of monies to the table but his opponent had gruffly rebuffed the scrawny vagrant. The saloon's only other patrons, a small group of old-timers playing at dice at their own table and a man slouching heavily in his seat in the corner while muttering into his beer, left the cowboy and the Southern gambler to their game.
Ezra picked up his next hand straight-faced. His opponent set down the deck and looked at his own cards with the same satisfied expression he had worn since the third hand. Claire Danae sat behind the cowboy with her notebook on her lap, her pencil lying atop it. Somehow another pencil had manifested itself behind her ear.
"So, my friend," Ezra casually fingered his chips as he picked up his cards, "are you new to our delightful little hamlet?"
The cowboy studied his hand and made a bet. "Just passing through," he answered. Standish called and discarded three cards. The cowpunch followed suit. Another round of betting commenced and cards were revealed. Ezra smiled graciously as the cowboy took the pot. The burly cowboy huffed a laugh. "Looks like I'll be making my fortune and moving on," he said.
"One more hand then?" Standish asked.
The cowboy nodded. "Last hand," he agreed.
Ezra grinned and gathered up the cards for his deal. Claire looked up from her writing as Standish began shuffling. Her puzzled frown turned into a smirk as the cards flew through the gambler's fingers, and she set down her pencil to watch.
Ezra dealt the cards. A pair of fives was the only notable possibility in his hand.
Across the felt-covered poker table, the cowboy made a generous bet. Standish made a show of scrutinizing his cards carefully before making a modest raise. Satisfaction was plain on the cowboy's face as he called, while behind him Claire watched with interest.
The cowboy discarded two of his cards. Ezra threw away three. Ezra dealt the cowboy his new cards and picked up his own. Two fives and a jack.
Four of a kind.
The cowboy's next wager might have made a prospector think twice. Ezra supposed he would have felt cocky too had he held a full house of kings and tens. After a couple more bets the pile of money on the table soon surpassed that exchanged for the duration of the entire last hour.
The Southern gambler licked his lips as if he was nervously contemplating a bet. He picked up the amount to call and raise when he noticed Claire Danae behind the cowboy. She met Ezra's eye and shook her head.
Standish paused with his hand extended over the pot. Why was she shaking her head? Did she suspect and disapprove of his cheating? Was she indicating that he was going to lose the hand? Unlikely. She didn't even know what Ezra held. A full house was tough but not unbeatable. Unless . . . Could he have dealt four kings and one ten? No, no. The cowboy had started out with three kings, a seven and a six. Discarding the seven and six, Ezra had dealt him two tens. Not a ten and a king. He was positive. Positive.
Ezra had been staring long enough that the cowboy frowned and looked behind him to see what had caught the gambler's attention. The beefy cowboy twisted in his chair and observed Claire, ginning and shaking her head in a sea of brown curls as she wrote on her notepad, oblivious.
Standish's opponent narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Ezra.
"You got something going on here?" The dusty cowpunch frowned at his hand, his thick gaze vacillating between the cards and the hefty pot on the table.
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra returned his attention to the cowhand. "Now, just a moment, sir. I assure you-"
The big man lowered his cards. "I smell a hustle," he growled.
"I smell manure," Claire muttered from behind the cowboy. Standish glared at her to shut up. The card sharp opened mouth to protest the charge - and instead found himself eating the cowboy's meaty fist.
Ezra elbowed himself up from the floor and rubbed his jaw. The rattle of dice in the background faltered, then faded to silence. The hush was filled by three slow, heavy thuds on the saloon's wooden planks as two large muddy boots presented themselves to Ezra's vision. Standish licked his lips and squinted up at the burly cowhand.
"Does this indicate you fold?"
"Ooh! That was a great line! Can I quote you on that, Mr. Standish?" Claire asked, coming to her own feet while scribbling excitedly on her pad. The cowboy's hand lurked a breath away from the pistol at his hip, but the brunette's movement drew his attention to his back. The Four Corner's Post head reporter still wrote, oblivious to imminent violence.
In that moment of the cowboy's distraction, Ezra kicked his heel into the wrangler's left shin. With his other foot he hooked the right ankle and - yank! The hulking cowboy staggered back, his distressed footwear finding no purchase on the wood planking. He tumbled to the floor, knocking into Claire on his way down, his gun skittering across the floorboards. The reporter squealed as she was pulled down with him.
Standish smirked a little bit at the reporter's screech of protest and scrambled to his knees as the cowboy fought to untangle himself from the brunette. Ezra reached for his gun, but it wasn't in its holster. Ezra vaguely recalled the weapon flying out when he'd hit the floor.
The gambler looked up as Claire shrieked at a misplaced hand, then elbowed the dusty cowhand in the short ribs. The strike earned a heavy grunt from the cowboy, who then noticed Standish standing and circling for his weapon. The cowboy split his attention between gaining his feet and pulling something out his boot. A gambling man would bet on a knife. Ezra was a gambling man.
Instinctively, Standish grabbed Claire's wrist and pulled the reporterette up in an attempt to swing her away from the cowboy; but the cowboy, knife finally freed, grabbed a hold of Claire's other arm and swung the three-inch blade widely. Ezra jerked back at the rapidly moving steel, tripping over an upended chair. The world swirled gray for a moment before Ezra's vision cleared to behold the cowboy standing silhouetted in front of the door, holding Claire by means of a strong grip on her upper arm. His knife rested at her throat.
"I don't take kindly to being hustled," the cowboy leered angrily at Claire.
"Standish?" the Post reporter squeaked.
Standish prepared to release the spring-loaded derringer strapped beneath his jacket, but as he shifted his weight a bottle rolling around on the floor found its way under the gamblers foot. Ezra slipped on the debris and fell backwards onto the table upon which he and the cowboy had been playing poker, landing in a pile of loot as the whole thing came crashing to the floor.
Ezra lay flat on his back, breath driven out of him, the pile of money and shattered wood glittering around him as points of light blinked before his eyes. Ezra leaned his head back against the floor and grinned.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to bring a knife to a gunfight?" Josiah's even voice broke into the silent saloon. The disgruntled cowboy turned his head to behold the preacher standing close, his Winchester carbine resting casually across his left shoulder. The tall dark figure of Nathan Jackson materialized behind the Sanchez's other shoulder. The healer twirled a six-inch dagger easily around his fingers.
"Why don't you drop that toothpick?" Jackson suggested. The cowboy scowled but threw his blade to the floor. Nathan scooped up the steel and it disappeared beneath his sleeve.
"Josiah!" Claire exclaimed with relief. She disengaged herself from the cowboy's slackened grip and twisted around his hulking form to take the preacher's arm. "Thank goodness you're here!"
"We just happened to be walking by and heard the commotion. Seems the good Lord is watching out for you, Miss Claire."
The Post reported smiled weakly. "It seems my father was right," she said. Josiah raised a questioning eyebrow. "An investment in God always pays off," Claire explained.
"A very wise man," the preacher agreed.
Nathan bent to pick up a serpentine red form from the saloon floorboards. "Is this yours, Miss Danae?" he asked.
Claire put a hand to her hair, its sandy brown curls massed around her shoulders. "Oh! Yes, thank you." She accepted the scarf from Nathan with a grateful smile.
"Now you just relax here," Josiah advised. "Nathan and I will take this . . . uncouth oaf to the jail and give him a little lesson on how to treat a lady."
Josiah took the cowboy by the shoulder and led him to the doors. Nathan replaced his knife with his Remington and followed behind the preacher and the cowboy.
"Don't worry about me. I'm fine, thank you," Ezra muttered sarcastically as the batwing doors swung shut behind them. He lifted his head and levered himself up on an elbow.
Standish stood and dusted himself off with decorum. A seven of clubs stuck to his sleeve. Ezra took the card and threw it over his shoulder, where it hung in the air a moment before drifting down in eddies to land at his boots. A throbbing stinging just below his pulse drew Ezra's hand to his neck, but his light touch transformed the sting to a sharp pain. Standish hissed and quickly withdrew his finger, which came back coated with blood from where the cowboy's knife had scored Ezra's skin. The wound was shallow, but if Ezra had been just an inch closer . . .
He rounded, about to inflict a serious tongue lashing on the brunette reporter who had nearly gotten him killed.
"You almost got me killed!"
Ezra blinked at the echo of his own thought, spoken in an indignant and undeniably female voice. Had he heard correctly? Did she just . . .
Claire had her hands on her hips and was glaring murderously at Ezra. Standish narrowed his eyes and spoke very slowly and deliberately. "Did you just accuse me of," he chose his words carefully, "of in some way instigating events that could have led to your demise?"
"Isn't that what I just said?" Claire fired back. "If those two fine men hadn't come along to rescue me I'd surely have been sliced to bloody pieces!"
"Now just you wait a minute. I didn't start the fight," Standish thrust a finger in the direction of the swinging doors through which the cowboy had just been escorted, "he did. And he started it because of you."
"Me! I was sitting quietly. How could I start any trouble just sitting quietly?" Claire rebutted, looking here and there for her pad and pencil as she tied back her hair with the red scarf.
"You didn't have to do anything except smile and throw tells, which was sufficient for this fellow to believe you and I were running a con together."
"I thoroughly resent that, Mr. Standish." Claire spotted her notepad and stooped to retrieve it from under the table. "After all, you were the one who was cheating," she said from underneath.
"I wasn't cheating," Ezra lied. How was it his fault if he knew where the cards were? And had put them there. Okay, maybe he'd been cheating a little bit but so had the cowboy and besides, now was not the time to concede the point. "The point is, I would have won were it not for your distracting presence. Additionally, I do recall your expressing a desire to observe the game because you expected a ruckus."
Claire came out from under the table, the notebook held in one hand. "I . . ." She paused, glancing down at her notepad. Ezra smiled smugly. The brunette reporter couldn't deny her own words. Claire closed her mouth and crossed her arms across her chest. "I expressed no desire to be manhandled and trampled on in the middle of a ruckus," she returned.
Ezra threw his hands in the air. "Miss Danae, what did you expect?" A dollar bill stuck to his left elbow. Standish snatched it up and stuck it in his pocket. "If you don't have the sense the good Lord gave a mule to get out of the way of trouble, then I can hardly be held responsible for any harm to your person." Money littered the whole floor, actually. Standish bent to pick that up too.
"I see." The contempt in Claire's tone made Ezra pause in his collecting to look up at the woman. Her gaze traveled from the coins and bills on the floor up to the sleeves of Ezra's red jacket. Claire's green eyes met his. "You don't care who gets hurt so long as you get your money," she flatly accused.
Was that true? the gambler wondered of himself. If he lived according to the dictates of his mother, perhaps, but as much as Ezra tried it seemed his soft heart always managed to get the better of his good sense. No matter. Let Claire Danae believe whatever she wished.
Standish snorted a laugh and returned to collecting the cash. "Miss Danae, you'll find that money is the only thing that really matters to anybody in this world."
"I don't believe that."
"Come now, don't be a hypocrite, Miss Danae. You know it just as well as I. If you didn't, you wouldn't write those missing millionaire stories that sell so well." Ezra grinned. "What's the matter? Has your tale of a hidden fortune run out of steam? Ah! That would explain your sudden inclination to observe this game. I will admit, I admire your resourcefulness in ensuring your front page does not run empty."
"Are you insinuating that I deliberately instigated that fight?" Claire's voice rose indignantly. "That I . . . I'm manufacturing news?"
Ezra stood and faced the brown-haired reporter. "Isn't that what I just said?"
Claire frowned deeply at him. Arms still crossed, she spun and turned toward the saloon's exit, the red scarf in her hair flouncing behind her. As Claire pushed through the batwing doors her parting words floated back to the gambler.
"Mr. Standish, I think you're going to regret saying that."
+ + +
Morning hit Ezra in the face like . . . well, like a suspicious cowboy who suspected he was being cheated, come to think of it. The Southerner squinted at the sunshine entering like an unwelcome stranger through his window and rolled to dig his face into his pillow. But even the down pillow's soft cushion felt like an anvil against his bruised and tender eye, so Standish reluctantly surrendered his comfortable bed, slid his feet to the floor and stood.
He walked over to his wardrobe, stretching and groaning as his muscles protested. He fingered through his jackets, his finger stopping on red fabric. As he removed the garment from the wardrobe, a bill floated down and gently landed on the floor. Ezra bent down and scooped up the five. At least something had come of yesterday's debacle, although the pot was spit compared to what it could have been if Claire Danae hadn't interfered. Ezra figured that cowboy would have played on for hours trying to recover his one lost hand.
Standish shrugged on his red jacket and left his room above the saloon. Today will just have to be an improvement, he thought, making his way to the bar for his morning brew.
"A coffee, please, Wilbur," the gambler ordered.
The bartender slammed a mug down. It landed with a thud on the counter, sloshing the black liquid all over the mug and counter. The bartender huffed and turned his back on Standish, grabbing a glass and polishing with vigor.
Ezra squinted strangely at the drink peddler. Usually Wilbur was a friendly sort.
Standish gingerly took the sticky mug and strode to the table where Nathan and JD were breakfasting. "Good morning, gentlemen," he greeted his compatriots.
"I can't believe you, Ezra," JD mumbled around a mouthful of egg, shaking his head. Nathan was also shooting sidelong disgusted looks at his fellow lawman. Looks Ezra was quite familiar with but usually he knew the reason for them.
"What do you mean by that, Mr. Dunne?"
JD shoveled another forkful of breakfast into his mouth and tossed the morning's edition of the Post at Standish. Ezra caught it with one hand and turned it to read the headline. He put his mug down to open the paper up and read the full banner, his mouth starting to gape. "Conman Preys on Women." The article went on to detail how Ezra had attempted to swindle a widow traveling with a wagon train out of her land and fortune, including a few details that even Ezra had not been privy to, and he'd been there.
"That's not what happened!" Ezra disclaimed incredulously. Nathan snorted.
"I'd known you to do some pretty low things, Ezra, but taking advantage of a widow? That's not right." JD couldn't even look Standish in the face.
The saloon's batwing doors swung inward to let in Vin, followed by Buck. The ladies' man spotted Ezra with the Post in hand and promptly turned back around.
"Buck," Ezra stopped him. Buck spun slowly on his heel, and Ezra saw that expression on his face, the one that said, "Oh, damn. I didn't mean it, but I'm the cause of something sorta uncomfortable." Taking a seat at the table with Nathan and JD, Vin looked on with a puzzled squint.
"Hey, pard," the real ladies' man greeted with a big fake, awkward smile.
"Do you know anything about this?" Ezra questioned, waving the Post in the air.
Buck caved immediately. "Now, Ez, all she did was ask me a question, just an itty-bitty one," he put his fingers an inch apart to demonstrate, "'bout courting. But one question led to another and pretty soon we're talking 'bout the widow Alice and the bet you and me made. I didn't know she was gonna write all that stuff about you being a scoundrel, a liar, and a oaf who takes advantage of women."
Wilmington shrugged and smiled in a quasi-apology. Standish drew back and directed his affront to the men at the table.
"Come now, you can't possibly believe this, this . . ." A strong enough word for garbage completely eluded the gambler. JD and Nathan shared an enigmatical look. Tanner shrugged. "This is a complete fabrication!" Ezra protested.
"Well," Buck rubbed his neck awkwardly, "technically, Ez, there ain't anything in there that ain't true."
True, perhaps, but please let us not attempt to con a conman here. "This whole article so completely editorialized and taken out of context that it might as well be out and out libel. I've been slandered, gentlemen."
"Why would the Post want to make you out as a sleaze?" Vin asked.
Ezra knew exactly who and why the Post would want to ruin his reputation. But if anything, he would have figured that the target of such article would be his greed. It didn't make sense to paint him as an opportunist scoundrel. Ezra was a Southern gentleman who knew how to treat a lady. Greedy might be accurate, but the other? Not true at all.
"Gentlemen, this is nothing but pure revenge on Claire Danae's part because I maligned her journalistic integrity." Responding to their blank stares, he expounded, "I accused her of instigating an infraction in the saloon yesterday as fodder for her front page. She thinks people will believe this load of manure she's shoveling. Ha!" Ezra tossed the newspaper with conviction.
JD looked at the discarded paper doubtfully. "They wouldn't print it if it weren't true."
Tanner hid a grin behind his hand and Nathan shook his head into his coffee cup.
"Well, who cares anyway?" The gambler refused to show how much their lack of faith shook him. "The good citizens of Four Corners will not believe this trash. And if they do, well, I'm hardly seeking anyone's approval."
"That's the spirit," Buck clapped a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Ain't nobody gonna be paying any attention to what some dinky little paper is saying 'bout you. Right, fellas?"
"Who reads the front page, anyway?" JD obliged the other man. Ezra groaned, sinking into a chair and putting his head in his hands.
Wilmington glared at the kid. "Now Ez, don't get too bent outta shape. Miss Danae's had her revenge, now she'll leave you alone. You'll see."