Poised at the edge of the boardwalk in front of the jail, with his hands on his hips and a furious glower on his face, Buck Wilmington surveyed the crowd of townsfolk milling around in the street. They were clustered in twos and threes, staring at the building behind him while they whispered among themselves. The conversations were pitched low, not meant for his ears or Josiah's, but he could still hear some of the wild speculations that were passing from man to man. He heard it, too, when a storekeeper named Conklin leaned close to his neighbor and muttered with malicious triumph, "I knew that lot were trouble! Knew it the first minute I set eyes on them! Maybe now we'll get some real law around here."
Conklin darted a furtive glance at Buck and flinched from the boiling anger that lay within the big man's eyes. With a little hiccough of dismay, he remembered urgent business that needed him elsewhere and slunk off towards home. As he progressed down the street, he stopped to talk to a half-dozen other people who were drifting in to see what was going on, passing his poison along to willing ears.
"What the hell are you people gawking at?" Buck yelled at the rest of the crowd. "Ain't you got anything better to do?"
"Buck." Josiah laid a warning hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off impatiently.
"Nothing but a gaggle of human vultures, the whole lot of you. Turn out to see all the good shows, doncha? Man gets shot. Man gets arrested. Bet you throw a goddamned picnic when somebody gets theirself hung."
The door of the jail house rattled behind them, and Ethan Mandrell emerged, flanked by Patrick and a big, burly man with the dead eyes of a gunfighter. Mandrell surveyed the milling populous with amusement, then fixed his attention on Chris's two companions, the insolent curiosity in his gaze demanding they explain what they were doing loitering around.
"Real law, huh?" Buck muttered, staring right back at him.
"Come on, Buck. You aren't going to do anyone a bit of good if you get yourself shot."
This time Josiah's grip on his elbow was so powerful that it cut off the circulation, and he couldn't shake it off. Josiah was such a mildly spoken man that it was easy to forget his size and strength. Short of staging a fist fight right there, Buck had no choice but to accompany the preacher as he headed off in the direction of the saloon.
Ezra was standing outside the saloon's swinging doors, watching the spectacle in front of the jail house but feeling no inclination to investigate it more closely. Lawmen of any sort were trouble in his line of work, and that inbred wariness was stronger than his curiosity.
"What's going on?" he inquired, when the other two men reached him.
"Better if we talk about it inside." Josiah had finally released Buck's arm, but he was keeping close to him in case he decided to turn around. Buck had been running on a hair-trigger for days, worrying about J.D., annoyed with himself for worrying, and spoiling for whatever sort of a fight he could find to relieve the tension. It was starting to look as if they had all finally found one, but it wasn't the sort they had been expecting. Chris and Vin were in no immediate danger, so they all needed time to think before they made any serious mistakes.
The three men retired to the dim sanctuary of the saloon and the corner table which was starting to become theirs by right of occupation. Even when the rest of the room was packed, that corner had a way of becoming available whenever they wanted it. Right now, between the early hour and the excitement outside, they had practically the whole room to themselves. Only the barkeep and a couple of drunks who had long-since lost all interest in anything that didn't come out of a bottle kept the bar from being empty.
Buck plunked himself down at the table and Ezra settled in across from him, but Josiah remained standing.
"You stay here and fill Ezra in on what's going on," he said. "I'm going to go find Nathan. Vin looked like he could use a few bandages, and we can use a way of communicating with him and Chris. Somehow, I don't think our fine new marshal is going to be amenable to giving the rest of us visiting privileges. And I need to look up Mrs. Travis and find out where the Judge is likely to be."
"I ain't plannin' to just sit here and grow old."
"I'll be gone maybe ten minutes," Josiah told him with a flash of impatience. "Then we're going to have some planning to do."
"Oh, that ought to be entertainin'," Ezra offered, looking pointedly at Buck with doubt written prominently on his features.
"Don't laugh," Josiah advised him. "You're going to help."
He left the saloon with the sound of Ezra's first question trailing after him.
It took him no time at all to find both Nathan and Mrs. Travis. The healer had left his quarters to fetch J.D. some food, only to find the street filled with malingering curiosity seekers. He had gotten the overall picture before Josiah reached him, but a succinct description of Vin's condition sent him high-tailing it back home for his medical supplies.
Mary Travis stood on the boardwalk in front of the jail, arguing heatedly with Mandrell. It would have been more accurate to say she was attempting to do so. All the heat was on her side and so was the arguing. While she stood in front of him, a stiff-backed Fury in starched cotton, the marshal leaned comfortably against a post, blowing the occasional cloud of blue tobacco smoke into the air and listening to her with what could only be described as amused condescension.
"...And I do not for a minute care who sent you, you cannot expect to just march into this town and take over. You have no authority," Josiah heard as he came into range.
"I have every authority."
"I want to see it."
Mandrell raised one eyebrow, apparently fascinated by the demand. "I wasn't aware that they had started admitting women to the Bar in this territory. Even Wyoming hasn't gone that far, last I heard."
"The lady has a point," Josiah offered, as he came up beside them. Mandrell's companions had stiffened at his approach, and Josiah caught the small, warning gesture from their boss that kept them from pulling their guns. "In all the fussing around, we haven't really had a chance to look at the papers you've got, authorizing you to take in Chris and Vin."
"This town does have a sheriff, you know," Mary put in stiffly, "and we have duly hired peace officers to--"
"I know," Mandrell inserted. "I just arrested two of them. And as for your sheriff, I believe he is somewhat... indisposed... at the moment."
"You seem to know a lot about what goes on around here," Josiah observed mildly.
"It is my territory."
"That has yet to be established," Mary reminded him.
Still smiling, Mandrell reached into an inside pocket of his coat and withdrew a sheaf of folded papers. He extended them to Mary, then went back to surveying the town while she read through them with Josiah looking over her shoulder. They had the look of official documents. Whether there was any substance behind them, the preacher had no way of judging, except the way he judged all the events and men he encountered: by instinct. He had a good feel for people, and right now it was telling him that the man in front of him was anything but what he appeared.
Mary finally handed the papers back and said, "They appear to be in order." The stiffness in her voice told Josiah she was of the exact same mind on the situation as he was. She knew that Mandrell knew she did not have any immediate way of determining whether the documents were legal, but her every instinct was screaming at her that they were not.
Mandrell refolded the papers and returned them to his pocket, then sagged comfortably back against his support post.
"I'm glad to see you're satisfied."
"Oh, nothing of the sort," Mary assured him. "You may rest assured that I mean to investigate all of this quite thoroughly."
"Help yourself." He took a long drag on his cheroot, held the smoke in his lungs for a moment, then let it trickle out slowly through his nostrils. "Was there anything else?" Although the question was nominally addressed to Mary, his pale eyes were fixed on Josiah when he said it.
Nathan was approaching down the street, so Josiah said, "Vin Tanner looks like he could use some patching up. Nathan there--" he indicated the healer with a nod of his head as Nathan reached them "--wants to take a look at him."
He was expecting an argument or a flat-out refusal, but the blond man simply nodded. "Why not? Wouldn't want him to expire before he can be extradited, would we?"
Straightening up, he turned back to the jail and walked inside. Josiah, Mary and Nathan all followed.
Vin was stretched out on his bunk, asleep or too exhausted to care what was happening around him, but the moment the group entered, Chris shot to his feet and came to the bars. As they touched Mandrell, his eyes were cold and angry, but they filled with concern when they moved on to question Mary's presence. After lingering on her face for a long moment, they travelled onward to Josiah, asking a silent question that Josiah could only answer with a shrug.
Mandrell caught the attention of the man he had left on guard duty and gestured towards Nathan.
"Search him, then let him into the bounty hunter's cell." While the man obeyed, he returned his attention to the two people hovering in the door. "Was there something else?"
"Are you all right, Mr. Larabee?" Mary queried, ignoring the marshal's question. When Chris answered with a nod, she went on relentlessly, "I plan to contact my father-in-law and make a full investigation of all this. You and Mr. Tanner shouldn't worry. Everything will be fine."
Some men would have laughed at her stubborn, absurd idealism, but Chris just nodded gravely. "I'm sure it will, Mrs. Travis." As he said it, his eyes returned to Mandrell, filled with the dark promise that he planned to make the statement come true one way or another.
Mandrell had settled down on the edge of the desk, and was studying the silent interplay taking place in front of him with detached interest. The man would have needed to be blind not to see how Chris and Mary reacted to one another. It was one of those in-the-blood things that neither of them could control. It made Josiah distinctly uneasy to observe how the marshal considered Mary with new interest, as though she had suddenly taken on a value he had not anticipated.
"I think we should be going now, Mrs. Travis," he said quietly.
"Go on," Chris prompted. "There's nothing you can do here right now."
She hesitated uncertainly, but finally nodded. "Fine. We'll be back."
When Josiah had pulled the jail house door closed behind them, she murmured, "This is all ridiculous," in a furious tone. "Who does that man think he is?"
"Oh, first and foremost, I expect he thinks he's a man with a gun, who has six friends with guns."
Mary shot him a seething glare and opened her mouth to argue the point, then closed it again with the words still unspoken. "Unfortunately, you're probably right."
Josiah fell into step beside her as she strode off down the street, heading for the Clarion.
"Do you have any idea where the Judge is right now, Mrs. Travis?"
"He should be somewhere up around Haverton Wells. I'll give you a list of that part of his route. You can start there and track him in either direction."
Josiah smiled to himself, not in the least surprised that she had instantly understood the point of his question. He lengthened his stride slightly as they reached the newspaper office and pushed the door opened for her, standing aside to allow her to precede him inside. She went around her desk, picked up a paper and pen, and began to write quickly but in a neat, legible hand. The paper filled, but not with a list of towns. When there was no more room, she flipped it aside to allow the ink to dry, and kept on writing.
"What's all this?"
"If we're going to discover if his authority is legal, we'll need to know what it contains," she explained, still writing.
Picking up the first page, careful not to smear the still-damp ink, Josiah found himself rereading one of the documents Mandrell had shown to them. It was probably not word for word, but the gist of it was there.
"You can remember all this?"
She gave him a quick, unexpectedly sweet smile. "I'm a newspaperwoman. A good memory is one of the tools of my trade." Another page was tossed aside, and this time she did write down a list of a dozen settlements. "This is my best guess on the order. He sometimes changes his route, skipping a town if it doesn't need him, or giving one priority if a sheriff has a case that needs immediate attention. But it's the best we can do."
"It's a lot of help."
"I hope so. I have lived in this town when it was without any form of law or held in the grip of corrupt law. I don't wish to do so again."
"Nor do any of us," Josiah assured her quietly. "Could I get you to do me another favor, Mrs. Travis? Nathan was just heading off to get J.D. something to eat when all this started. When he's done with Vin, we're going to have some things to do, but J.D. shouldn't be left alone too long. Could you pick up something from the hotel and take it over there? He could probably use a little news by now, too. If I know Nathan, he didn't take time to stop and explain what was going on."
"Oh..." Mary had never been comfortable dealing with the sick, but she found it impossible to admit that the idea intimidated her far more than facing Mandrell. She hesitated only briefly before saying, "Of course."
Josiah folded the papers she had given him, then said his farewell and headed back outside. The crowd in the street had broken up, though people huddled here and there in groups, discussing events with curiosity or excitement. Some of them paused to watch him pass, then returned to their conversations and speculations.
Far more than the ten minutes he'd promised Buck had already gone by, so instead of heading straight to the telegraph office, Josiah turned his steps toward the saloon. He needed a few minutes to think about what he was going to do next anyway. If the truth be told, he wasn't entirely convinced of the wisdom of involving the Judge just yet. Unfortunately, he couldn't see any way around it. This was a situation where they needed to have some idea of their ground before they decided on the proper course of action. The Judge understood that the letter of the law was sometimes less important than justice, but he would never openly condone breaking it. It went against everything he believed, and the very reasons he had hired them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris could still faintly taste the smoke from Mandrell's cheroot, even though the marshal had tamped it out on a corner of the desk and tossed the butt into the brash spittoon, which J.D. liked to use as a footrest. He listened with half an ear to Vin's light voice from the cell beside him, filling Nathan in on events while the healer cleaned and bandaged his injuries, but most of his concentration was focused on the gunman in front of him. His natural urge was to ask a hundred questions, demand his freedom, demand an end to this whole farce, but Chris hung onto his temper and voiced none of them. All they would have earned him was laughter or lies. He was better off saving his energy and anger until he could find a productive outlet for them.
Still leaning on the edge of the desk, facing the cells at the back of the building, Mandrell took out his pistol, extracted the cartridges, and fastidiously began to clean the weapon with a handkerchief. Like his horse, the gun was expensive and unusual, its barrel etched with elaborate scrollwork designs, its grip inlaid with mother of pearl. That kind of showiness could be an outgrowth of stupidity or empty bravado, but Chris knew better than to take either for granted. Men advertised what they were in different ways, and for different reasons, from the headlong bravado of young J.D.'s battle to prove himself to Josiah's silver cross and soft-spoken manners, which invited the world to see only a small part of who he was.
There weren't many men who could remain unaffected in the face of Chris's fixed attention, but as the minutes ticked slowly away, he could detect no sign of nerves in his opponent. Mandrell's hands were rock steady as he finished with the gun, reloaded it, and put it away, and he hadn't once glanced up to confirm that he was still being stared at. It was only when Nathan was gone that the marshal finally turned his attention to his prisoner and broke the long silence.
"She's an interesting woman, Mrs. Travis--"
"Leave her alone," Chris snapped, then wished he hadn't when the outburst earned him a smugly amused glance.
"She's quite determined to investigate the legalities for you," Mandrell went on. He pulled some folded papers from his pocket, held them up, and raised an eyebrow. "If you want to check them for yourself...?"
"No point. I'm sure it's all in order. That's not the same as it being true."
"Of course not. Truth is a flexible thing, whether it belongs to the man who holds the gun, the man who writes the history book, or the man who can afford the best legal counsel." Strolling back to stand in front of the bars, slightly beyond the reach of a sudden grab, Mandrell commented, "You know, I really have been looking forward to meeting you."
"Can't say the same."
"You have quite a reputation, especially since I've heard you go out of your way not to build one."
"I've heard of you, too."
"I'm sure you have. Notoriety is a tool, like any other, don't you agree? Get too much of it, and it becomes a nuisance. Too little, and you waste time and energy establishing yourself in each new situation. Balance is everything."
"Sounds like you figure you've got this down to an art," Vin drawled softly. He still hadn't moved from the cot. In fact, he was making it a point to move as little as he possibly could. A couple of hours on horseback had turned his body into one giant ache. Both of his hands were now cocooned in a heavy layer of bandages that made them virtually useless. He had protested when Nathan started to put them on, then thought about it a bit more and agreed. He'd already figured out that he could get them off in a hurry if he needed to. If he didn't need to, he might as well enjoy the little bit of relief that came from having the scrapes coated in soothing ointment and protected. Only trouble was, he'd had them on for all of ten minutes and they were already starting to itch. Vin made a half-hearted attempt to ease the irritation by rubbing the back of one hand against his knee, then gave up and told himself he was just going to have to ignore it.
Mandrell considered his statement at length before responding to it. "I think I would prefer to refer to it as a science."
"How much is James paying you?" Chris demanded.
"Why? Are you planning to double his offer? Believe me, my friend, you couldn't begin to afford my services."
"You don't deny you're working for him?"
"Why should I? We're all professionals here."
"'Cept those of us who are dead men," Vin murmured.
His words were spoken so softly that they barely reached Chris's ears, but Mandrell heard and smiled coolly.
"All in good time," he returned. "In your case, I could be doing you a favor, don't you think? Hanging is an unpleasant way to die, especially if it isn't handled well. Slow strangulation can take quite some time to finish a man."
"Wasn't really planning to find out, seein' as how I'm innocent."
"Every jail in the country is filled by innocent men. Though this is one of those rare cases where I suppose it might be true. Not that it matters, of course."
"'Course not," Vin agreed. "Never does to men like you."
"What now?" Chris inserted.
"Oh, I'm sure you'll figure it out as time goes by. For now, I'd love to stay and discuss it with you, but I have a town to become acquainted with. And which needs to become acquainted with me. Gentlemen." He gave them a small bow and left them alone with their single guard, who settled down in the desk chair and proceeded to ignore them.
+ + + + + + +
Weakness eventually overwhelmed J.D.'s curiosity and frustration, and he was drifting in a light doze when the door finally opened again. It wasn't Nathan who entered this time, but Mrs. Travis. She was carrying his dinner on a wooden tray, and her face held a tight, worried expression that added further fuel to his already rampant unease.
"Nathan asked me to bring this up to you," she said quietly, while J.D. was hastily pulling his blankets a few modest inches closer to his chin. "He isn't sure yet when he'll be back."
"What's going on out there?"
"I don't know."
"Look, I'm not a kid! I wish people would stop--" A stitch slammed through his side, sharp as a knife, and the rest of the angry complaint got lost while he clenched the bed clothes in his fists and waited for it to ease.
"I'm not trying to protect you." The blonde woman set the tray down carefully across his lap, then went over to stand by the front window. "Something is happening, but I don't know what it means yet."
When she finished telling him about Mandrell's arrival, and the arrests of Vin and Chris, J.D. guessed, "Nathan went to have a look at Vin?"
"Damn," J.D. muttered, then blushed and murmured a hasty apology for the bad language. He couldn't tell if Mary heard either the curse or the apology. She was staring through the window while she chewed on a fingernail. From where she stood, she could probably see at least a corner of the jail house down the street.
"Mr. Sanchez plans to wire my father-in-law."
"Judge Travis doesn't have any control over a U.S. Marshal."
"He's the circuit judge for this county. No one else can bring them to trial."
"They aren't wanted in this county. This Mandrell guy will have to send them back to wherever the warrants were issued." Mary threw him a puzzled glance, so J.D. gave a small, very cautious shrug. "I found some law books over at the jail. Been reading through them a bit to pass the time."
"You seem to take it for granted that the warrants are legal." Finally turning away from the window, Mary came and sat down in Nathan's chair beside the bed. Her hands, which were elegant and permanently ink-stained, began to play with the heavy material of her skirt, arranging and rearranging its folds.
"Don't know about that." He found it hard to believe that Vin Tanner had a criminal past, but with Chris, he wasn't so sure. Not that it mattered what Chris had dragging behind him, of course. They were going to have to help him out of this mess anyway.
<What 'we?' I'll still be lying here, useless, by the time it's all over...>
Looking over to find the young man glowering down at the bowl of soup in front of him as though it were a personal enemy, Mary could guess the direction of his thoughts. Smiling slightly, she said, "Why don't you eat your dinner before it gets cold?"
"'M not hungry."
He slanted her a suspicious look, waiting for the platitude she would have given her son without hesitation--<If you don't eat, how do you expect to get better?>--but Mary kept her peace. He had probably heard the same words from his mother at some time in the not-too-distant past and wouldn't appreciate hearing it from her. J.D. had an unfortunate way of reminding her that in a painfully brief span of years, her own Billy would enter this same, uncomfortable transition, desperate to prove to everyone around him that he was no longer a child.
"How about I just leave it here with you, in case you want it later?" Mary asked gently.
"Sure... Mrs. Travis? I figure everyone's going to be pretty busy for a while. Do you think you could...?"
"As soon as there's any news, I'll be sure someone comes to tell you," she promised. Looking at his pallor and the bluish shadows which gave a tired, haunted look to his young eyes, she wavered in her resolve not to coddle him. "Try to get some rest, if you can."
J.D. nodded, too preoccupied with his own thoughts to bristle at the admonition. When she was gone, he threw another frustrated glower at the window, which remained tantalizingly close and completely beyond his reach. The mouth-watering fragrances of soup and fresh bread were becoming a distraction, so he carefully picked up the thick heel of bread, tore off a corner and dipped it into the soup. Yesterday, he wouldn't have been able to do that much for himself. Now, he managed to get on the outside of most of his dinner rather than the reverse, even though he had to stop at frequent intervals to rest up from the heavy-duty exertion of lifting the spoon clear up to his mouth. When he finished, he was even able to lean carefully forward and shove the tray towards the foot of the bed, out of his way.
All that activity pretty much finished him off, though. Entirely against his will, he went back to dozing, then jerked awake again some unknown amount of time later when the door was shoved open. This time a stranger came through it, and J.D.'s hand made an automatic grab for the holstered Colt Lightnings hanging near his head.
"I wouldn't recommend it," the intruder said in a bored voice. The instruction was punctuated by the distinctive click of a pistol being cocked.
With one hand on the comforting ivory handle of one of his guns, and the other pressed with all his strength against his wounded side, J.D. looked over his shoulder and found himself facing the business end of a Peacemaker. He withdrew his hand carefully and sagged back against the pillows, scowling furiously.
"After all, we are on the same side... Sheriff." The blond man holstered his gun, and closed the door.
"You must be... Marshal Mandrell." J.D. was proud of himself for reining in his temper to the point where he remembered to add the title. Maybe Chris would decide there was hope for him yet. "If you're really a marshal, then how about you turn around and get out of my town--after you let my friends out of jail."
"Not bad." Mandrell's pale eyes studied J.D. with a cool curiosity, analyzing the obstinate defiance on his face, and his slow, wobbly movements. There was nothing about the young man to make him dangerous, but his cheekiness in the face of his present situation earned him a measure of approval. Mandrell was more than willing to admire courage, so long as it didn't inconvenience his plans.
"That mean you're gonna leave?"
"Of course not. I suggest we save our jurisdictional arguments for a better time, Sheriff. Say when you're able to walk as far as your own jail. In the meantime, I have made this town my problem. You look to have enough of your own to keep you occupied." He touched the brim of his hat. "Good day."
"That's all you came up here for?"
Mandrell smiled, the expression emphasizing the knife-edged lines of his cheeks. "Consider it a courtesy call, if you wish. Before I settle down to a game of poker, I like to understand the men I'm playing against. It makes it easier to predict what risks they will decide to take--if any."
By the time J.D. had puzzled out the meaning of that comment, he was alone again. As he scowled at the door, he felt a shiver walk up his spine, as though someone had just stepped over his grave. His own nervousness made him angrier than Mandrell's contempt. Lots of people underestimated him because he was so damned short, but he tried never to let it get to him. He shouldn't have let it get to him now, except he could barely think of a time when he had felt more helpless or more frustrated. Mandrell was right. As long as he was stuck in this bed, he was totally vulnerable, and if it came to a fight, he was going to be useless to play any part in it. He couldn't even protect himself right now, far less offer any help to his friends. All because he'd made one stupid mistake.
+ + + + + + +
When he arrived back at the saloon, Josiah was both relieved and surprised to discover Buck and Ezra sitting exactly where he'd left them. He hadn't been worried about Ezra, of course. The dapper little gambler wasn't the sort of man who volunteered himself for trouble. On the other hand, while Buck Wilmington possessed many admirable virtues, patience and calmness of temperament were not to be numbered among them.
"Well?" Buck demanded, as Josiah settled down in a chair and helped himself to a measure of spirits from the bottle on the table.
"Nathan is checking Vin over right now. He's going to find out what he can. Mrs. Travis thinks the Judge might be somewhere up around Haverton Wells. We'll have to wire some of the towns around there, see if we can catch up with him."
"What the hell good's that going to do? He didn't hire us just so's we could yell for his help the first damn time we get ourselves into trouble."
"He hired us to handle a different kind of trouble than this," Josiah reminded him patiently. "Right now, we are in bad need of some legal advice. There are two lawyers in town, but I don't think either one of them has a better grasp of the law than I do. I put more faith in the Judge. Plus, he has influence in the territorial capital. He can find out whether or not this Mandrell is legitimate."
"If he ain't, then he's got a lot of goddamned gall."
"I don't know about you, but having met the man, that wouldn't surprise me in the least." Josiah leaned forward and patted Buck's arm. "Come on, let's go see about sending some wires."
"It don't take two men to send out a damned telegram, Josiah."
"No, but you have nothing better to do right now," Josiah returned, letting Buck draw his own conclusions about the fact that the preacher had every intention of keeping him close until he cooled down.
"And what course of action do you require from me, Mr. Sanchez?"
Outwardly, Ezra seemed entirely unruffled by the situation, but the blue eyes which met Josiah's were thoughtful and wary. The gambler's reasons for staying among them were open to speculation, but Josiah didn't believe they were quite as simple as the pardon Judge Travis had offered him in exchange for his services. Whatever they were, Ezra was now almost visibly re-evaluating them.
"Nothing at the moment." Josiah shoved back his chair and stood up. "No use running around too much until we get more information. We're liable to just get ourselves into worse trouble."
When they were gone, Ezra made no move to return to his customary table and deck of cards. Now that the immediate excitement was over, men were filtering back into the saloon, but Ezra was in no hurry to resume the poker game he'd been engaged in when Mandrell arrived. He had too much to think about--starting with how long it would take him to pack if, upon further assessment of the situation, he decided it was in his own best interest to leave town. He knew Ethan Mandrell by reputation. His quick mind had already run down the same path as Chris's speculations, at least to the extent of concluding that the marshal's arrival and subsequent actions must represent some sort of power play aimed against Chris and, by extension, the men who worked with him.
Ezra considered the terms of the pardon Judge Travis had granted him, and the fact that a pardon would do him no good at all if he were dead--a state that men who crossed Mandrell routinely achieved. That thought led him onward to consider the reverse side of the balance. The technicalities of the situation didn't matter. If he left town now, Ezra had no doubt that Chris would view his departure as a personal betrayal--and he remembered quite vividly what Chris had promised him if he double-crossed the man again.
Pouring himself a shot of watered-down rotgut bourbon from the bottle Buck had abandoned, he tossed it down his throat, coughed in disgust, and set the glass down on the battered wood with a quiet thump.
<Well, I tell you something, Mr. Larabee, sir: I was never particularly dazzled by this hamlet in the first place, and it is sinking in my estimation from minute to minute. You may believe that I have no intention whatsoever of dying here.>
That risk still seemed far off on the horizon, so he decided not to be too hasty in whatever decision he made. There was no point in inciting Chris's ire or putting himself on the run again until he was certain there were no better options. He'd allow himself a day, two at most, to assess the situation. After that, he would be in a better position to make a final decision.
Taking another drink, Ezra silently cursed the thieving moonshiner who supplied the saloon with such home-brewed poison and tried not to think about why the decision to stay brought him a totally irrational sense of ease.
Before the excitement started, he had been playing cards with a few of the locals. One of them was a small-scale rancher named Billy Parks, who liked to waste his time and money on a card game whenever he drove his wife into town to do her shopping. The rancher came back into the bar and settled down at the poker table they had abandoned. Spotting Ezra, he held up the deck of cards and tilted his head to the side, silently inviting the gambler to resume their game. When Ezra nodded, Parks went to gather a few more players, and they soon had five men around the table.
The second hand had been dealt, the players throwing a few more coins into the paltry pot, when a man barrelled through the door of the saloon looking as though he had the devil himself on his tail. His worn, hardy clothes and the pungent scent of too long spent in the wilderness with only a mule for company proclaimed him as a prospector, down out of the foothills to restock his supplies. He searched the room with his eyes, then strode over to Ezra's table.
"I need to talk to the sheriff or someone called Larabee," he proclaimed breathlessly. "Heard tell he's in charge of lookin' after the town nowadays, so I reckon he's the one I need to see. Him or the sheriff."
"Well, that's specific." Ezra shifted his chair back a couple of inches, to give himself a little more air. "As it happens, both parties are presently indisposed."
"Just tell me what you want."
"You a deputy?" The old man took a step closer, searched Ezra's vest front with near-sighted suspicion and found it clean of any such indication.
"Something like that. Look here, you odoriferous buffoon, allow me some air or state the nature of your predicament." He was tempted to add a third possibility--aiming the man at the new marshal--but the explanations required seemed likely to take longer than listening to the old man's problem.
"I 'uz on my way into town, me and Penelope--Penelope's m'mule, y'know--to pick up some supplies. I'uz walkin' in past ol' Slow Joe's cabin--you know Joe?" he demanded, squinting at Ezra.
"I cannot say that I have had that pleasure."
The old man went off in a fit of wheezing laughter. "You sure ain't if you think it's a pleasure. Orneriest old cuss this side of Wyoming... Not that it's right to speak bad of the dead, I guess."
"Old Joe's dead?" one of the other card players, Samuels, interjected. "When?"
"That's what I was just gettin' to, weren't I then?" the prospector grumbled. "I'uz passin' his cabin, and I smelled smoke. Lotta smoke. Old Joe's half-Paiute--was half-Paiute," he corrected himself, "so he never did like wasting smoke. So I wandered over t' have a look-see, and the whole cabin's gone, and Joe with it."
"Burned?" Parks asked. When he received a nod of confirmation, he added, "You sure Joe was inside?"
"Found what'uz left of him still lyin' there atop his bed frame. Real mess you get, if fire takes a man like that. Least he went out in his sleep, looks like."
"He was getting really forgetful," Billy Parks commented. "Probably drank himself to sleep and left a candle burning. I don't think he ever used lamps."
"I didn't even know he was still alive." Another of the players shook his head. "Haven't seen him in years."
"He didn't come into town much anymore," Parks told him. "He was in last month, though. I remember 'cause he was here the day Judge Travis pulled together that hanging jury of his. He called for men, and Old Joe right up and volunteered. Thought it was funny as hell when the Judge said sure. I'm glad it was a short trial, 'cause I got stuck sitting next to him, and I doubt he'd had a bath in forty years."
"A too-common situation in these parts, unfortunately." Ezra had taken to filtering his breath through the abundant lace that decorated one of his shirtsleeves. From where he was sitting, he had a clear view of the street beyond the saloon's swinging doors, so he saw Ethan Mandrell stroll past down the opposite side of the street and hastily reconsidered his earlier decision. "And the man you need to discuss this with has just gone past. The new marshal--"
"Marshal? Where the hell'd a marshal come from? Town's had a whole mess of sheriffs over the years, lemme tell ya. Can't remember when I've ever seen the same man twice when I've come in for supplies but--"
"Why don't you ask him, and I'm sure he'll tell you all about it," Ezra encouraged him. "He's just heading down the street, looks like he may be venturing towards the livery stable. You can't miss him. Tall man, exquisite taste in haberdashery. Hurry and you should be able to catch him."
When the prospector was finally on his way, the gambler heaved a sigh of profound relief, and waved one carefully manicured hand in the air in a symbolic attempt to clear away the acrimonious stench of unwashed miner. The demise of a man with the unlikely sobriquet of "Slow Joe" didn't seem to stir much interest in his fellow players, so by the time the pot had been claimed and the cards re-dealt, the conversation had moved on to other things.
+ + + + + + +
Ethan Mandrell strolled toward the livery stable to check on the arrangements which had been made for the comfort of his horse. Patrick walked beside him, providing a running commentary on the places and people around them, tidbits of seemingly random information he'd gathered during the couple of days he'd spent flitting in and out of Four Corners. The young halfbreed had a rare talent for scouting and tracking, and Mandrell had turned that to his advantage by recognizing how its principles applied just as easily to intelligence gathering. Patrick noticed just about everything that was going on around him, and he had an instinct for extracting those parts of it which were useful or important.
The two men were walking past the corrals adjoining the livery when the old prospector caught up with them. Mandrell granted him time to tell his story in a more-or-less complete fashion, then dispatched him on his way with an empty reassurance that the matter would be "seen to." A slight smile played across his lips while he watched the old man's departure, but it was Patrick who put his thoughts into words.
"He'll have the story all over town in an hour."
"Of course. Isn't it interesting how fate can play a role in one's plans? I didn't expect anyone to find that old man's body for weeks." Mandrell resumed walking, with Patrick keeping pace. "His death was purely for the sake of completeness. It was the other two I expected to be found to start things rolling."
"'Tis only been a couple of days since Redden and Docherty took care of them. Some of these sodbusters don't see hide nor hair of another soul fer weeks at a time. Could be a month before they're even missed."
"Well, it doesn't really matter, does it? They're dead, which satisfies the terms of the contract. Once we begin to deal with those who live in town, matters will heat up."
"I've got a first target for you," the younger man told him. "The last of the out-of-town jurors is here today. He's been playing cards in the saloon while his wife visits friends. They'll be staying in town tonight. Save us some riding, if we take care of him while he's here."
"Patrick, you never cease to astound me." Mandrell reached into his pocket and withdrew a cheroot, then broke stride for as long as it took to light it. "I hadn't planned to start the chain of events quite so quickly, but opportunities were meant to be seized, not wasted. We'll start tonight then, shall we?"
"Fine by me. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can take our money and leave."
"Impatient as always, my young friend. I believe I saw some of Stuart James's boys ride in earlier. Perhaps they'll be useful after all. Go find Redden, then meet me back here. I should have the details worked out by the time you return."