Rating: PG-13 (violence, ?able language)
Disclaimers: Dont ownem, No money made etc.
Thanks: Barb (again) for the original idea, Mitzi (again) for the sounding board, Wendy(again) for the constant encouragement
Notes: I think this can stand on its own... If not Shackles came first
The four horsemen remained silent as they peered down the hillside. The winter wind had kicked up biting through clothing and hats. Prairie grass bent and waved casting alternating hues of tarnished gold through the undulating meadow below. The youngest man shrunk slightly down in his over coat indiscreetly protecting himself from the bitter cold. The weather was unusually raw for this territory. Below in the midst of the grassy plain stood the wood and brick buildings of Four Corners. The town stood out like an oasis in this flat semi arid wilderness. Small farms and ranches dotted the landscape popping up haphazardly amongst the wild sage and struggling pines. The Indian reservation lay a few hours ride to the west of the town. The natives and citizens of Four Corners seemed to have developed a tranquil co-existence.
The oldest of the four men sat impervious to the wind and cold. He sat upon his bay gelding surveying the town as a predator would a herd. With a practiced eye he sought out a weakness. With his craggy face paling under the relentless breeze he was relaxed watching the town learning its movements. Every town was different, some woke earlier than others, some never slept, some towns were just victims waiting for something to happen. Four Corners did not fit neatly into any category. It woke early but its saloon lights did not dim until the morning rays of the sun crested the hill. Its citizens moved about with the false security of safety under the watchful eye of the seven protectors that lived within its borders.
It was these seven men that the horsemen would target. Two in particular but with the downfall of the two the other five would crumble as well, leaving the town defenseless. A feral smile creased the hollow cheeks. Without the seven the town would be a lamb to the slaughter. The four men had no vested interest in the town nor its citizens but destroying the very thing the peacekeepers fought to protect would be an added bonus.
Frederick Delany almost laughed out loud. Larabee and Standish would pay with their miserable lives. Maude would be brought to her proud knees. The town of Four Corners would succumb to the tyrannical element Larabee struggled to shelter it from.
Delany turned a cold eye to his sons, three in total. The oldest Scott sat beside him quietly rolling a piece of old Timothy between his chapped lips. He too ignored the freezing weather instead he focused on the project at hand. It was his hounds that had been struck down by the lawmen. It had been his hounds that had tracked Larabee and Standish and nearly succeeded in dragging them down. The hounds had never failed Scott before and the oldest Delany boy had never failed his hounds...until now. He would wreak his revenge.
Brian fidgeted with his reins. His hands protected by thick gloves. The shiny reddish stock of the rifle clearly testified of the love the middle boy had for his weapons. The father bubbled with pride at Brian's dexterity with a gun. The boy could shoot a stinger off a bee in a wind storm. His skill seemed unmatched but the tracker for the seven was also know for his marksmanship ability. Delany hoped his son would have a chance to strike the other man down.
David the youngest of the family, huddled from the cold. His young eyes watered searching furtively trying to fulfill the request of his father and older brothers. He struggled with his inexperience. The war had taken not only their home and most of their wealth, but with it the chance for David to follow in the foot steps of his older siblings. Frederick Delany wanted nothing more than for his youngest to come into his own, to learn the thrill of a worthy hunt and kill. Larabee and Standish had cheated the boy of his chance. They had found friends and slipped through the hunters fingers. Things would not go so well for the two lawmen this time.
Delany turned his weathered face back toward the distant town. He watched a solitary rider enter the small port of civilization from the West. It was the ending of the morning patrol. The horse and postured indicated that it was the older man, the preacher. Strange to have a gun toting short tempered preacher as a lawman, but then the seven did not fit into any neat categories, just like the town they watched over.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah slapped his hands against his thighs trying to beat some feeling back into them. It had become down right miserable outside. Sanchez jogged up the three wooden steps to the dusty boardwalk and pushed his way through the heavy batwing doors of the saloon. The saloon was by no means elegant. Like the rest of the town it was functional. A few amenities dotted the place to put it a step above the taverns in surrounding towns but still it held nothing of the wealth that its one time southern owner hoped to accumulate.
Josiah strode in removing his hat and breathing into clenched fists. He noticed Chris, Vin, Nathan, JD and Buck seated around a table near the woodstove sipping coffee.
Brothers. Sanchez greeted in a brusque baritone voice. His humor was back since the burden of the holiday sermon had been lifted from him. It had gone well, he had received many compliments on it. This surprised him greatly considering he did it off the cuff so to speak.
Hows everything? Chris asked in usual curt manner. Larabee had slumped into a foul mood since the ending of Christmas. The others had noticed it and reined wide of him. It seemed only Billy Travis could approach the dark gunslinger without fear. Josiah wondered if Larabee was feeling some how guilty over enjoying this years holiday season instead of grieving within a bottle over his lost wife and son.
Buck shadowed his life time friend from a distance leaving the tracker the privilege of watching over the sullen man from within striking distance. Wilmington liked Vin, loved him as a brother, so it was without regret he stepped down from his post as watcher and guardian over Larabees self destructive behavior. Tanner slid into the spot effortlessly and efficiently. He took on the burden with the same tenacity he approached everything else, with stealth and cunning. Chris had a difficult time adjusting to the subtle technique having been so used to Bucks bold and brash approach to everything. Between the two men they had been able to keep the gunslinger on an even keel with or without his permission.
Four days since Christmas or six days since the five had found Chris and Ezra, Larabee had quickly slipped into a dark smoldering anger. Noone knew the cause, noone tried to broach the subject. Silently they all hoped it would pass like a blowing storm. Hoping the blizzard that raged through the gunslinger would dissipate before all hell broke loose. Larabee was a man looking for an excuse to explode. Noon knew why.
Quiet, Josiah answered pulling up a ribbed chair and sitting down. He peeled off his heavy over coat allowing the warmth created by the crackling wood stove to reach him better. His red tipped ears began to tingle as blood raced to areas that had been shunted of blood for warmths sake. Sanchez held onto a steaming mug of coffee as redden fingers burned and itched under the sudden insult of heat. It was good to be out of the cold. He curled and uncurled his toes within his boots. The toes ached complaining stiffly at their use.
Whos got next patrol? Chris asked eyeing each man before him critically almost challenging them.
Buck could feel Larabee spoiling for a fight. Wilmington made a point not to look to the tracker. He knew Vin could feel the same thing as did Josiah. Sharing knowing glances in front of Larabee would only rush the impending storm. Buck gazed down at his coffee as if trying to discern who was expected to go out and brave the weather. Wilmington already knew who it was suppose to be and knew that it held the potential spark to set the explosion.
Vin tried to head off the flood, Ive got it. Tanner started to ease himself to his feet. He had done the graveyard watch. Peso had finally been stalled by four in the morning. Vin did not relish the thought of heading back out into the cold. The wind seemed to have cut him to the bone. That was unusual for the tracker. He enjoyed the outdoors and being out of the confines of the town, but this bitter weather had put a damper on his earnings for solitude in the great open desert. The wood stove felt pretty good.
Like hell. Chris snarled out. He pushed his chair back screeching the legs against the warped dust laden wood floor. He rose from the chair and headed for the saloon stairs. He knew who had patrol next.
Ahh Chris leave im alone. Buck said trying to deflect the confrontation that was about to occur. He could not understand the friction that had seemed to suddenly increase between gambler and gunslinger but something had happened to unbalance the scales. The even ground the two men had recently found between each other had somehow heaved and erupted. The old animosity was back. Standish distanced himself from the others hiding within his cards and endless poker games. Chris watched him with ill disguised ire waiting for a chance to pounce. Up until now Standish had hedged his bets put buffers between himself and the building fury but did nothing to stop the growing flame. In fact he had done just the opposite. He fanned them with quick remarks simple looks and a sudden uncaring facade. The others watched the escalating friction and wondered amongst themselves what had happened.
Chris broached the stairs with the finesse of a hackled boar. He turned on Buck, Hes got a job to do. The fury in the eyes paled compared to the words.
Brother he is still recovering from your last escapades. Sanchez intoned gently. Both southerner and gunslinger suffered the effects from last weeks captivity and subsequent hunt. Though Chriss limp had finally disappeared the tired dark circles around his eyes had yet to melt away. The swelling in his nose and eyes had faded completely. Ezra still had his left arm pinned to his chest wrapped tightly in hopes of keeping the lax joint in place as ligaments and tendons tightened up. His limp still present was not as pronounced as it had been a few days ago.
Hes recovered enough to play poker until early this morning hes recovered enough to pull his weight. Larabee nailed the older man with a punishing glare, almost as if warning him not to defend the southerner again.
Ill go git im. Tanner said heading for the stairs. If Chris was hell bent on Standish doing mid morning patrol then Vin figured he might save the gambler the morning wrath of their leader.
Stay put. Chris bit back climbing the stairs with predator determination. His black pants and grey shirt clearly mirrored his frame of mind.
The others watched him ascend the stairs and proceed down the hallway. His boots rang out like a death march.
He paused in front of the closed door as if contemplating whether or not to knock.
Buck, Vin and Josiah watched in tense silence. They did not fear for the gamblers life. The animosity had not reached that level...yet. Instead they worried over the quickly dissipating friendship. There was a reason behind the growing hostility and noone knew what it was, what had occurred. Think we should do something?
Nuthin we can do.. Buck answered speaking from experience. Chris was spoiling for a fight and Ezra just provided the target. Standish was no innocent victim either, Buck chided himself. The gambler had away of stirring the hornets nest. This time he was bound to get stung.
Anyone know whats been eating at those two? Josiah asked keeping a weary eye on the gunfighter who raised his foot about to kick in the door.
Just as Larabee was about to lash out with his foot the door opened. Standish over coat slung over his right arm hat in hand raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the gunslinger.
Most people knock using their hands. Standish purred out turning the flat statement into a mocking challenge. The conman knew the others sat downstairs and knew they would not allow the boiling anger to spill over into a physical confrontation, least ways not now.
He doesnt know when to quit. Tanner whispered hearing the conversation.
Does it on purpose. Josiah answered wondering why the man courted potential physical abuse like a dance partner.
Chris is going to nail him one day. Buck pointed out knowing the others realized this as well.
They watched as Ezra brushed past the gunslinger lightly knocking the older man out of his way with a satiric apology. Josiah held his breath. Standish was playing a dangerous game. A game he was sure to lose if he did not change his tactics real soon.
Standish skipped down the steps with a carefree attitude as if the whole confrontation had not occurred. He donned his hat and struggled into his coat the left arm hanging unused at his side. Gentlemen. He smiled grabbed a mug of coffee and joined them at the table. No one spoke watching him warily.
Standish ignored the curious gazes of his compatriots as he pulled out his flask and pour a few ounces of Bourbon into his mug.
That really necessary? Nathan asked. He had watched as both Chris and Ezra had crawled back into the bottle each seeking something from the liquid retreat. At the end of the night whatever they sought was not found in the bottom of the bottles and they would repeat the process the next day. Jackson worried about them, concerned they may slip from the others never to be retrieved again.
Ezra threw the healer a biting stare, Good sir do I interfere with you morning rituals? No. So please return in kind the same respect. The politeness was there but the warning clearly evident. Back off.
JD bit his tongue. Christmas had been so much fun and now things spun out of control. Chris and Ezra were viciously at odds. Things were escalating beyond control and noone knew why.
Larabee stormed down the steps and leaned stiff armed on the table between Buck and Vin. He glared at the gambler. What the hell do you think your doing?
Buck closed his eyes and hoped to any greater power present that Ezra would keep his mouth shut. Wilmingtons prayers fell on deaf ears.
Enjoying a cup of coffee. Standish replied politely a smirk hidden behind his raised mug. Josiah wondered why the gambler had to flirt so openly with danger.
Get your ass out on patrol... Larabee hissed leaning forward threateningly.
Or what. Standish hissed back raising himself out of his chair his mug forgotten. Everyone pushed back from the potential combatants. The woodstove crackled in the background sparks traveling up the black stove pipe popping off the metal. Noone moved, noone spoke.
I said... Larabee repeated closing the distance with a challenging posture.
Or what... Ezra bit back. Neither man wavering, neither giving ground.
The voices were low just a barely a whisper between clenched teeth and unmoving lips. Both men stared at one another the building fight palatable.
Nathan watched as Standish used his right hand to reach inside the right side of his jacket and remove his colt from the shoulder holster. The gambler placed the loaded weapon on the table. He matched Larabees withering stare each burning the other with seething ire. Ezra slid the gun over to the leader of the seven. The silver metal revolver scratched against the scarred wood rumbling to a stop near Larabees spread partially curled fingers. Standish eyes unwavering spoke quietly, articulating every word and calmly said, That ones loaded.
The other five men watched the confrontation wondering what the had happened out on the trail last week. What had transpired between these two men that made them so volatile. Why did Ezra challenge Larabee to kill him and why did Chris contemplate the handgun at his finger tips.
JD made a move to interfere but Josiah laid a stern restraining hand on the boy. Innocents did not deserve to get killed in the cross fire. If these two fools wanted to kill each other so be it but he would not allow JD or any of the others to be dragged down with them.
Standish grunted in satisfaction, figures youd leave your dirty work to Delany...
He no sooner uttered the words than Larabee launched himself at the southerner. The table was knocked sideways, coffee spilled and mugs flew. Men jumped to their feet as Chris tackled the gambler following him to the floor. Chris landed two solid punches before Vin and Josiah hauled him off Ezra and dragged him a few feet away. Standish climbed to his feet shrugging off Buck and Nathans support.
The gambler smiled between cut and bleeding lips. He wiped dribbling blood off his chin with the back of his hand. He stared at it and then Larabee, the mocking dimple smile never faltering.
Guess Im done with my coffee. He quipped. He turned his back and strode out the doors. Josiah and Vin still restrained the gunslinger as the doors swung close repeatedly eventually thudding to a stop. Noone moved noone breathed. Larabee angrily shoved Vin and Josiah aside and headed for another table.
The other five watched him. His seething black mood quickly spiraling to new heights.
With great difficulty Standish saddled Chaucer. The horse stood quietly as his master struggled one armed with swinging the heavy saddle onto the chestnut back. Using a combination of his teeth and right hand he gamely worked the cinch tighter around the horse.
Good way to lose another tooth. Buck said as he leaned against the stall doorway. The ladys man had followed the gambler out of the saloon to the livery. Josiah and Vin could handle Chris. With JD in the saloon Larabee would maintain some civility. If not Nathan would be there to patch people up.
With the cinch tightly held between clenched front teeth Standish worked the excess slack out of the leather.
Yes well at least then I would have a matching gold one for the other side. Ezra breathed out as he dropped the stirrup back down to Chaucers side. The gambler then rechecked the leather ties that secured his saddle bags and bedroll to the saddle. The leather was well oiled and weathered so it molded itself comfortably around both saddle apron and horse. Like the others Ezra saw no need to constantly remove his worn bags or sleeping roll from the saddle unless absolutely necessary. The supplies in the bags were fresh and the spare clothing clean. Standish mused he could probably take a day or so jaunt to Eagle Bend or maybe Junction City before having to return. It would probably madden Larabee into a blind rage but then why not?
You awlright? Buck asked. The concern in his voice forced the southerner to turn around and face him skeptically. Standish held Chaucers reins and the horse turned dutifully in the confines of the stall.
Yes Mr. Wilmington just fine. Ezra intoned pleasantly in an off hand manner. His green eyes held the caution. He strode pass the gunslinger forcing Buck to step out of the way of the large quarter horse that paced his owner at a practiced distance.
Uh huh. Buck followed the large chestnut horse unwilling to let sleeping dogs lay. He knew Standish well enough to know that the southerner was fighting against something. The cool exterior only hid the turmoil that bubbled inside. Wilmington was not one to let such things smolder. He could do nothing to help Chris, not anymore, that was Vins place now. Standish he could. With Ezra as well as the others, Buck would come to the line and help in any way he could. He knew the conman would shun him off, it was his way. He dealt with life on his own unwilling and unused to aid from any other source but himself or his fleet footed horse. Buck smiled at Chaucer. The poor beast was probably the only living thing that could put up with the cocky southerner on both good and bad days.
Ezra halted the horse just outside the livery and checked the cinch again. It was unnecessary but Buck still hounded his heels. The man was a nuisance at times. Another one of Larabees watch dogs to keep him in line.
Is there something you want Mr. Wilmington? Ezra did not intend for the shortness of his temper to come across in his tone but it had. Buck recognized it.
You want some company? Wilmington asked.
Mr. Wilmington why dont you just go back and report to Mr. Larabee that I am doing as ordered. Ezra said swinging awkwardly into the saddle using only his right hand. His annoyance freely tinged his words.
Bucks anger began to grow, Geezuz Ezra is that what you think?
Standish merely gazed down at him impassive. Wilmington and Larabee had along history. Their friendship had survived hostile and tragic events that would have shredded most bonds. A testament to Bucks loyalty and their friendship. Ezra knew he stood outside that circle and that was expected. He also knew Bucks first inclinations would be to watch out for Larabee. Ezra was the cause of turmoil and unrest with the leader and so Buck would try and settle any dispute.
Wilmington bit his tongue arguing with the southerner would get him nowhere, Im here as a friend...
Excellent then go back to him. Standish cut him off nudging Chaucer forward angling the horse out of town, out of the lions den. The shod hooves thudded mutely over the frozen dirt road.
You bastard. Buck whispered back peddling out of the way.
Yes I am well aware of that fact. Ezra answered back slightly dejected.
+ + + + + + +
Delany and his sons watched the lone rider exit town at a leisurely walk. Delany began to smile. The horse was different but the hat and familiar hunch of the shoulders clearly pronounced the departure of Standish.
His wolfish smile grew. The hunt was on. He and his boys reined their mounts over the backside of the small knoll.
+ + + + + + +
Buck dropped his head as the tan coated back rode out of town. Damn that went well. Buck gazed down the street and noticed Josiah standing outside the saloon watching him and the receding form of Standish. Wilmington merely nodded his head he would follow. Buck would not be easily defeated. He handled Chriss foul dangerous moods far to long to be turned off by Ezras untrusting nature.
+ + + + + + +
Standish rode mindlessly flipping cards carelessly between the fingers of his right hand. His left arm still wrapped across his chest had proven to be a major inconvenience. He could not efficiently shuffle cards and dealing was difficult. It put a slight hamper on his slight of hand but it challenged him and so he continued to practice. He needed to improve the dexterity of his right hand. He would work equally hard on the left when it regained its freedom. One must maintain the ambidextrous ability. It did no good to have favorite or dominant preponderance in one's hands. They should be equal in their ability. Maude had made him practice as a child and all through his life. Now that practice worked to pacify him and occupy his rapidly turning mind.
Chaucer plodded along following the familiar trail. The sorrel head bobbed slightly in rhythm with its pace. The reins were slack and unresponsive. The quarter horse swiveled its ears forward and back and occasionally out. It blew its nostrils at the winter chill its crystallized breath freezing on whiskers. The horse walked on oblivious to the danger he and his rider trod toward.
Buck nudged his large grey into a trot and then an easy canter. Its iron shod hooves pounded the frozen mud quickly gaining on the gambler. Wilmington let his horse have its head. The horse covered ground in lazy stretched out strides. Rider and horse comfortable in their individual tasks. The gelding had traversed this road countless times before always with the same self assured rider. Buck moved instinctively with the motion of his horse, how many times had he ridden after Chris in hopes of saving the gunslinger from himself. Why had Standish fallen back into his old self protecting mold? Why did he flaunt his independence and devil may care attitude in front of Larabee? Wilmington was going to get to the bottom of it even if he had to tie the conman up to do it.
Chaucer snorted and swung his head to peer behind him. He whinnied in recognition of the grey gelding that quickly closed the distance on him. Ezra diverted his attention from his cards to his horse and then over his shoulder. A rider approached. Wilmington. Standish considered spurring his horse into a gallop but what would it gain him? Where would he go and what would he solve? Running never got him anywhere. He tried it once and even then he turned around. Sometimes he wished he had kept going. He rubbed his right ear at the sudden flash of remembered pressure of a gun barrel placed to his head. If only he had never returned to the Seminole Village. The click of an empty chamber, the laughter that followed filled his mind. If he had kept going and not turned around then this nightmare would never have hounded him. He clenched his teeth, pocketed his oldest and most coveted deck of cards and steeled himself to face the intrusive Wilmington.
Buck reined up beside the southerner. Wilmingtons mustached features were pink. His eyes watered from the whipping wind. Chaucer and the big grey nipped at one another shaking their heads in familiar greeting. The two riders failed to display such instinctive behavior. Instead of being met by words or assaulted by filthy looks, as Wilmington had come to expect from Larabee, he was met by a curious raised eyebrow.
Mr. Larabee was not satisfied? Standish asked innocently. He was not surprised. Chris was waiting for him to run out again. Hell it was that exception that kept Standish in town. Ezra glanced up at the sky. Thin grey clouds dotted the even darker sky. Did the sun ever come out in this God forsaken country? The southern states were looking more and more inviting. He had no home there and the war burned down any thing that might have passed for familiar surroundings. Four Corners had been his home for awhile. He liked it, grew to accept it and came to enjoy the comfort of the others. The gun will be loaded tomorrow. It was time to leave. He had stayed to long he had become dependent on the others. It was a mistake. Maude had been right his instincts and gifts were being squandered and wasted.
Ezra you are a pig headed insufferable pain in the ass. Buck spouted.
Insufferable? Ezra quipped again raising an eyebrow at the gunslinger.
Shut up. Buck answered back. Sometimes he could not figure if the southerner was making fun of him or truly impressed.
Ezra frowned and faced forward. The wind kicked up blowing the empty left sleeve of his coat behind his back. He left it. With his arm trapped to his chest he kept slightly warmer. Unfortunately his feet did not have the same respite.
Ya wanta tell me whats going on between you and Chris? Buck asked. No more subtle, no more being discreet he was going plow into this his normal fashion.
What is there to impart? Standish asked not sure what the Ladys man wanted. To be honest Ezra had no clear idea why he bristled so adamantly against Larabees authority. Chris had saved his life just before the holidays. Ezra was pretty sure if it had not been for Larabee then he himself would have been dragged down by the hounds. Yes, they did have their disputes and tempers flared and blows fell but it was over. They escaped met up with the others. Christmas came and went things should have gone back to normal. They had not, something had changed. They had reverted back to their old mistrust and second guessing of each other. The caustic nature of their relationship reared its ugly head and had become even more pronounced if not harsher. It even spilled over onto the others. Buck and Chris were at odds more so now than before, Ezra and Nathan had fallen into more than a few heated disagreements. Everyone knew and recognized Chris and Ezra were on a down hill spiral. Something was going to give.
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