The Art of Rhetoric

by Helen Adams

Author's Note: I asked a friend for a first line, to which I had to write a short story. Her choice was, "How long do I have before the offer expires?" This is my answer. :)

"How long do I have before the offer expires?" Ezra asked, looking completely unfazed by the gun pointed in his face.

"Exp- . . . why you little . . . take it now or die!"

Green eyes blinked in seeming surprise. "Ah, well that hardly leaves much time for mulling the pros and cons."

The outlaw sputtered. "Mulling! You get me into that bank without anyone knowing or I kill you right now. Those are your choices."

Ezra sighed gustily. "I'm still not certain this deal has merit. If I get you into the bank, someone will eventually figure out that I had some part in the robbery. Consequence? They hang me, and I'm dead. On the other hand, if I don't get you into the bank, you shoot me between the eyes, and again, I'm dead. Truly, I just don't see an up-side to this. Particularly as I'm sure you have no intention of sharing your ill-gotten gains and allowing me to enjoy a brief respite of high-living before my inevitably consequential demise."

The outlaw's mouth had fallen agape as he listened to the oh-so-reasonable southern accented voice. "Well . . . well . . . what if I tell you that I'm going to kidnap one of your friends and make him the same offer if you don't co-operate!"

He jerked his head in a triumphant 'so there!' motion, only to receive a pitying shake of the head in response.
"My dear fellow," Ezra told him, "I'm afraid you still aren't quite getting this. If you shoot me, I won't be alive to care who else you've laid hands upon, will I?"

"Um, I guess not," the man muttered, looking confused.

"Besides, I assume you're referring to the six men who assist me in guarding our little burg," Ezra continued, "And I really cannot think of a single advantage to kidnapping one of them."

Almost pouting, the outlaw scratched his head and demanded, "Why not?"

Ezra's shoulders jerked as he moved to tick off the reasons on his fingers, then scowled at recalling his hands being tied securely behind his back. A small huff of irritation signaled his feelings on the subject. "Well, sir, allow me to elucidate. Mr. Larabee is a notoriously foul-tempered and quick-triggered person. One who would likely shoot you before you ever had a chance to state your business, particularly if he happened to be down-wind at the time of the conversation."

His abductor scowled. "You sayin' I stink?"

"Let us just say that I'm remembering the head-cold I suffered last month with unusual fondness at this moment."

The man tightened his grip on the trigger but did not pull it. "What about them other men, then? Reckon any of them would do as well as you."

Ezra laughed mockingly. "My dear sir, surely you jest! You would never find Mr. Wilmington alone, that is to say lacking in female companionship, long enough to get the drop on him. Mr. Jackson is another surly type who would surely introduce you to his favorite throwing knife if he caught even a flicker of your true intentions."

"Well, that still leaves . . ." he paused to count on his fingers, "three of them lawmen who could get me inside."

Ezra sighed. "Such a shame you didn't think to simply steal the bank manager's key before you shot him yesterday. Truly, sir, that was poor planning on your part. For that matter, what induced you to try and rob a bank all by yourself, in a town that you knew was guarded by seven peace-keepers? Atrocious odds, if I do say."

"Figured them's just rumors," he admitted. "No town that size has seven lawmen! Hell, Dodge City don't even have that kind of protection!"

"Ah, yes, it is a rather unusual situation," Ezra admitted. "Quite an entertaining story, too. Would you care to hear it? You see, it all began when Mr. Jackson . . . the fellow with the knives I mentioned a moment ago? Well, he was about to be hanged, quite unjustly I assure you, by a gang of ruffians. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner happened to see the crime taking place and since they clearly have a better understanding of unfair odds than you have demonstrated, decided that simply would not do. It was quite a thrilling escapade, I'm told. So when..."

The outlaw was nodding interestedly, then abruptly caught himself and shoved the pistol forward, nearly smashing Ezra in the nose with the barrel. "Shut up!"

"You asked," he said with a shrug, wincing slightly as the motion pulled at his left shoulder.

"I . . . no, I didn't!"

Ezra frowned. "Of course you did. You wanted to know why the rest of my compatriots would be equally poor choices to help you rob the bank, and I assumed you might wish some proper enlightenment as to that situation. However, if you're going to be rude about it..."

It was the other man's turn to frown, but his was an expression of confusion as he seemed unsure whether or not he should apologize for offending his prisoner.

"Ah, well," Ezra said cheerfully. "To return to the point of our discussion, Mr. Sanchez would be a terrible choice as a hostage. The man is strong as an ox and would snap you and all your nefarious intentions into kindling with one flex of his mighty hands. Mr. Tanner is what you might call an untrusting soul. Eyes in the back of his head, as they say. You'd never manage to capture him."

"Well, what about that youngster? I seen him yesterday. He ain't any of those things you said, big or strong or suspicious or nothin'."

Ezra nodded. "Quite so, but he is something much worse for you."

"Yeah?" he asked warily. "What's that?"

A rueful smile flickered over the gambler's face. "He's loud. You wouldn't get two steps out of sight before he'd sound off and have everyone else at his side, guns loaded, within seconds. Even if you assaulted his cranium in the same manner you did mine, it's most likely that he'd have time to get off one good shout. Besides, it wouldn't matter. That boy couldn't pick a lock if his life depended on it."

"Which yours still does," the outlaw remembered, pointing the drooping barrel of his gun with renewed enthusiasm.

Ezra gave him a mournful look. "You'd really kill me? Without even offering me a last meal, a libation; perhaps a final game of poker before I shuffle off this mortal coil? I must say, you aren't a very gracious host."

"I ain't your host!" the man snarled. "I'm a bank robber, remember? A kidnapper, a thief, a murderer! Why ain't you afraid of me?"

The gambler winked and smiled, further confusing his companion. "Because, you, my soap-challenged friend, have just confessed to enough criminal activity to insure that I never have to consider your threats seriously again. And why not, you ask? Perhaps you should turn around and see for yourself."

"Aw, no! I ain't gonna fall for that old trick."

Suddenly, the air behind the outlaw was filled by sound as seven hammers clicked back with frightening synchronization. The man gulped and turned around, the gun falling from nerveless fingers as he found himself looking down the barrels of six handguns – JD was holding two – and one sawed-off Winchester, each held in the hands of a hard-eyed lawman.

"You okay, Ezra?" Nathan asked, eyeing the outlaw as if he might just carve him like a Christmas ham with the long sharp Bowie knife he was fingering with his left hand, the gun in his right never wavering an inch.

Ezra grinned. "I'm quite well, thank you, or I will be if one of you would be kind enough to release my hands from these ropes."

"Heard you say you'd been whacked on the head," Vin commented, spitting a long stream of tobacco juice at the kidnapper's boots. "He hurt ya?"

As Nathan put his gun away and circled around to apply his knife to Ezra's bonds, the gambler made a non-committal sound.

"That a yes?" Chris demanded, the question almost a growl as skewered the outlaw with a harsh glare. The man promptly wet himself.

Nose wrinkling in delicate disgust at the display, Ezra edged back further from the puddle as his hands were freed, getting to his feet and hurriedly brushing himself off as if he feared contamination. "I have a rather severe headache," he admitted, smirking as he saw the panicked expression this statement brought to his abductor.

"Looks like having your hands pulled back that way wasn't so good for your shoulder, either," JD shouted, shooting Ezra a playful wink when the outlaw jumped about a foot from the loud noise in his ear. Clearly, the young man had heard his description and had decided to tease a little. "Should I shoot his shoulder, just to make you even?"

The bank robber gulped.

"Don't do that, kid," Buck advised, smiling in a companionable way that seemed to unnerve the man even more. "No point getting blood all over everything before we throw his ass in jail."

Beside him, Josiah nodded and stepped forward, taking firm custody of the outlaw with an iron grip on his arm that brought forth a whimper of pain. "I agree. After's good enough."

"I appreciate your timely arrival, my friends," Ezra commented, picking up his possessions from the ground and settling them back about his person. "I wasn't sure you'd got my message."

"Your hat lying on the boardwalk with a double-eagle inside?" Buck laughed. "No way you'd be that careless with money unless it meant something. We figured out pretty quick that you'd been taken by the same feller who tried to rob the gold shipment yesterday."

Vin smiled. "Trail of blood drops was pretty damned easy to track, too."

Ezra rubbed his head carefully over the bandage Nathan had just applied before gingerly pulling on the hat Chris handed to him. "Yes, well, if I'd realized he intended to strike me upon the head, I might have left a different clue. Which reminds me..."

He held out his hand to Buck, eyebrow raised. The gunslinger smiled and fished the gold piece out of his pocket. "How'd you know I'd had it?"

Ezra smiled. "Call it an educated guess." Tucking the money into his waistcoat, he asked, "Did anyone think to bring my horse?"

"He's back over the ridge with the others," JD said, using his normal voice this time. "We didn't want your new friend to realize you had company."

"Sensible," Ezra approved. Watching his kidnapper, squawking and protesting with every step as Josiah roughly marched him toward his horse, he shook his head. "You know, in spite of his fortunate escape of arrest yesterday, I think that fellow may be the worst outlaw I've ever had the misfortune to meet."

Vin snorted. "Lucky for us."

"Indeed!" Ezra took a sip from his flask and raised it in a toast. "Here's to ineptitude, may we encounter it in our enemies far more frequently."

The men chuckled, Buck and Chris each accepting a sip from the offered vessel. That was a sentiment that they could happily drink to.