Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made, etc.
Thanks: Wendy H. and Mitzi, this would not have been posted without their input, Tracy’s help and corrections.
If it weren’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. Unfortunately, that simple statement rang true this morning. He shifted his weight, testing the strength in his arms and grinding his teeth. Well, at least he still had his teeth. Though, those little gems may not last by the conclusion of this sordid episode. He chuckled dryly, maybe his luck would change. And maybe, Mr. Jackson would accept him for who he was and Mr. Larabee would actually not mind his presence. Sure, and tonight he would search for a blue moon.
For now, he would have to settle for being beaten behind the saloon for alleged wrong doings. Yes indeed, bad luck. He didn’t believe in luck but this past morning it was the only reasonable explanation that made sense. Bad Luck had planted it’s vine-like roots around his body. Bad luck . . .heck, Mr. Wilmington believed in luck and all its vagaries. Buck was beginning to wear off on him. Oh Gawd, his situation was worse than just a foul run of misfortune. Wilmington had begun to influence him. Pretty soon he would probably start dressing like Mr. Tanner, ‘please delivery me from such influences.’
With his arms pinned behind his back there wasn’t much he could do to defend himself. He wasn’t one to fold his hand so easily. He lashed out with a foot and caught one of his would be assailants in the knee. A self serving smile crossed his soon to be marred face. His arms were cinched tighter behind his back.
The grizzled, foul-breathed offender swore and stepped back. His defenseless victim was not so defenseless. The deviance wouldn’t last very long. A few well placed blows would squelch any form of rebellion.
“Wiry sonofabitch, ain’t ya,” The yellow teeth became visible as the mustached lipped was raised in a snarl. The fetid breath washed over his victim.
“Hold’im tighter, boys,” the older man chuckled out. He approached the cardsharp more cautiously. The younger man had more tricks up his sleeves than cards.
The coated arms were painfully twisted behind his back and his wrists nearly wrenched up between his shoulder blades tossing his weight onto the balls of his feet. He wouldn’t be able to strike with his legs again. The cards had definitely changed for the worse. He listened with trepidation for any sounds that would indicate a rescue was in the wings.
The creaking of the settling saloon, the sounds of horses and voices traipsing unawares up and down the dusty main street were ignorant to the brutality that was about to befall one of the peace keepers. The chipped and peeling paint of the saloon’s back wall would be the only witness to the beating that would soon ensue. The pale blue cloudless sky offered no respite. The hot white sun hung high in the horizon, a pale blistering satellite that would never speak of the crime. Dust swirled lazily around nervously shifting feet. Spurs jingled as feet moved to gain purchase with the ever moving captive. The voices of the hot afternoon saloon patrons were muffled by the storage room and outside wall. Yelling for help was not only undignified, no one would hear. Worse yet, what if they did hear and ignored the plea?
He witnessed the first fist. The blur of a clenched hand flashed past his narrowed valley of vision and buried itself in his solarplexus. Air wooshed from his lungs. In the short second that passed, panic flooded his system. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t draw breath. The fist recoiled and landed again. This time ribs stopped the forward momentum of meaty knuckles. There was no air to be lost, no wind to be stolen away with the landing of the next volley of blows that assaulted his midsection. With each passing moment, greedy lungs burned for breath, muscles tried to respond. Co2 levels increased and the instinctive demand for breath raged through the body. Ribs tried to expand, tried to create space within the chest, tried to draw the elusive breath that would squelch the screaming urging for air. The effort to inflate lungs failed miserably.
Fist after fist reined down. Ribs failed, muscles did not respond. The lungs cry for respite went unanswered. Muscles began to tire without their fuel. Joints weakened and folded. The body began to shut down unnecessary components, trying to shunt what little oxygen it had to organs that sat highest on the pyramid of survival. The brain and heart still worked. Each vicious punch was registered with fuzzy detachment. A detachment that allowed pain reception to sharpen and fine tune itself to a sadistic degree. Sometimes the body worked in a contradictory fashion. The heart beat quicker urging blood through the lungs trying to sap up any oxygen that might have sat unexpelled. Hearing became a lost sense. The dull thud of fist connecting with thorax was replaced with a thready beat of a frantic heart.
The attacker watched with glee as his victim slumped in the arms of friends. The dark head drooped, the clean shaven chin came to rest on the abused chest. The booted feet no longer supported the body.
The grizzled man smiled triumphantly. He loved paybacks. Sweat traveled in tiny rivulets between his rounded shoulders. He rubbed a sun-weathered forehead against his upper arm preventing the passage of perspiration to enter his narrow brown eyes. The attacker flexed his gloved hands again. The leather gloves were tan and worn to the same degree as the man that wore them. He rolled his wrist, it had become sore after landing so many blows. The fingers curled one more time clenching themselves into a blunt weapon. He still had his wind. He and his ‘boys’ could still play their game. The assailant cocked his blue dust covered arm back preparing to let loose with another volley. His leather vest open and flapped gently in the breeze, the low crown whitish hat was pushed back off his weathered forehead allowing wisps of blackish hair to show through. He stepped forward placing his worn boots in the same print that he had made numerous times before delivering a similar blow. When his foot landed solidly on the sun baked earth his fist would bury itself once again in the now yielding midsection.
The punch was never uncoiled.
“Hit’im again an’ your a dead man.” The voice was soft. The attacker almost missed it. The cocking of two distinct revolvers rang through the afternoon like church bells.
“Let’im go,” The voice spoke again. It was even, unangered and quiet. No hostility laced it’s smooth tone. The tension in the small dingy area behind the saloon rose exponentially.
Without waiting for an okay from their ‘boss’, the two men holding the blue coated gambler let go of the limp arms. The body folded to the ground without resistance.
“Step away from’im,” the voice took on a cold edge when the body crumpled to the unyielding dirt. A small billowing of dust and dirt were displaced by the collapsing form.
The two men quickly complied to the order, holding their arms away from their guns. They had no intentions of fighting the man before them.
He held only one gun. They had all distinctly heard two hammers get cocked backward. There was a second man nearby.
The two trail hands stepped over the balled up form on the ground and stood next to their leader. They silently cursed him. The gambler wasn’t worth this kind of trouble. They had found no money on him. Hell, they never even got a chance to search him. The southerner definitely wasn’t worth the risk of taking a bullet over.
The leather clad man held the gun steady. His blue eyes never leaving the trio in front of him. He never let his gaze wander over to the blue-coated mound in the dirt. Instead, he watched his captives before him with disgust and unadulterated ferocity.
It wasn’t lost on the three men. Nor was it lost on the voice that suddenly made itself known behind the three assailants.
“You feel the urge to kill’em, Vin . . .jus' go ahead,” The deep chuckling statement undermined the seriousness of the situation. “I’m sure you and I can come up with somethin’ to satisfy the ole’ Judge.”
None of the three bothered to turn their heads. They didn’t want to bear witness to the face that just gave their captor permission to execute them.
The leer that cracked the young long-haired man made the three nervous. Did the buckskin dressed man really contemplate killing them?
“Git a move on,” Tanner hissed out waving his mare’s leg in the direction of the alley. He narrowed his stare almost daring one of them to resist or make a break for freedom. Vin would take Buck up on his earlier suggestion.
The three trail hands shuffled down the darkness of the alley. The narrow corridor between the closely packed buildings wasn’t afforded the comfort of the afternoon sun. For the first time in their adult lives, the three men were afraid of the shadows. Afraid that under the disguise of shifting darkness, their captor would mistake a miss-made step or dropped hand as an overt show of aggression. For the long agonizing trek down the shadow encased alley, the three men held their arms outward staring straight head, hoping a citizen of this fair town would recognize their plight and come to their aid. None of the three realized those were the same thoughts that had plagued the gambler when he had been hauled to the back of the saloon.
Buck holstered his peace keeper and knelt down on one knee. He didn’t bother checking for a pulse. He could easily make out the shallow rise and fall of ribs. With a delicate touch that belied his size and mannerisms, Buck rolled the gambler onto his back.
He was met with a groan. Wilmington smiled.
“Ezra, ya hear me?” Buck asked lightly tapping the surprisingly unmarked face. He ran his hands over the gamblers chest. He didn’t have Nathan’s skill but he knew busted ribs when he felt them. Apparently so did Standish because he groaned in response moving his legs back in forth. A desperate useless motion to get away from the pain.
The legs worked to whisk the body away from further insult but failed to realize that the body was in a prone position. Still the body worked on instinct while the mind tried to gather facts and sort out the rotten details. The legs continued to move and the body remained put.
With no help coming from the legs and no way to out-maneuver the distinct discomfort radiating from the chest, the body did the next thing it could do. It tested other routes of potential escape and information. Olfactory senses failed to work, hearing had reduced itself to a dull roar and sensation only seemed to be able to focus on the pain in the chest. The body took the next sensible step. The eyes blinked open.
“Ey’, pard’. . .ya alright?” Buck knew the answer to the question before he asked it. He needed to hear Ezra say something . . .anything . . .just to reassure him that everything was okay . . .well, taking into account the busted ribs.
The greens eyes stared at the mustached features above them. They relayed the information to the sluggish mind. The intellectual part of the mind peeked out from around the partially closed doors it hid behind when the primitive brain kicked into full gear. It recognized the face, categorized it and put a name with it.
“Buck?” The hoarse southern drawl put a decidable twist to the name. Buck recognized it all the same and smiled.
“Ya’ve had a tough day, Ezra,” Wilmington smiled. This morning had started off badly for the gambler.
+ + + + + + +
He had woken late, starting his turn at patrol well over an hour behind schedule. It would have gone unnoticed except he was to relieve Mr. Larabee. Chris let him have it with both barrels. Standish still suffering from a miserable hangover merely sipped at his coffee and took the verbal barrage without comment. A first. The other four were grateful.
On his way out of the saloon, he bumped inadvertently into Nathan Jackson. The healer then took it upon himself to point out the moral and ethical character flaws in the southerner. The hangover and large sum of money Standish had won the night before on the unsuspecting trail hands, of course, hadn’t gone unnoticed by Jackson.
The remarks, though not undeserving, had Buck taking some pity on the young southerner. The hangover had to have magnified somewhat under Larabee’s verbal lashing but even that paled in comparison to Jackson’s tirade. Manure rolled down hill and Ezra seemed trapped at the base of the mountain.
Standish nodded in agreement to whatever the healer had to say and stumbled out toward the livery. JD had run out after him to let Ezra know his horse had thrown a shoe and he would need to borrow a livery nag. Standish’s only response was the further slumping of shoulders and imperceptible nod of the black low crown hat. That was all before mid-morning.
+ + + + + + +
Buck gazed up at the sun. It was just passed noon. The day was half over. Hopefully, Ezra would make it to dinner time. The way his luck was running it would be touch and go.
“Come’n, Ezra . . .let’s get ya up ta see Nathan,” Wilmington gripped Standish’s coated shoulders and eased him into a sitting position.
The battered body wasn’t impressed with the undo movement. The legs stopped moving and drew themselves up closer to the bruised midsection. The eyes closed, not wanting to report anymore on this harsh reality. The roaring increased, hoping to drown out the encouraging pleas from Wilmington about standing up. The only sense that seemed to increase with intensity was the pain. A low groan somehow escaped tightly clamped teeth.
“Sorry, pard’ but ya gotta stand up for me,” Wilmington wrestled the smaller man into a sitting position and then hauled him to his feet.
The legs cooperative out of spite. Finally, they had a chance to do what they wanted to do earlier. Now the mind kicked in and changed tactics.
“Oh, no ya don’t, Ezra,” Buck chuckled out as the knees began to buckle. He stood for a minute giving the gambler a chance to get his breath. It would be difficult with the beating his ribs took but Buck would be patient.
Wilmington waited a few moments and when some of the weight left his supporting hands, he chuckled, “Ya doin’ better?”
“I’m glad this amuses you, Mr. Wilmington,” Standish whispered out.
“Ahh hell, Ezra. I’m just glad it’s you and not me,” Buck gleefully informed the ailing southerner, “’sides think of all the nice things Nathan will have to say to ya for gettin’ yerself beat up over a card game.” Buck laughed out right when Standish groaned audibly muttering something about a preferable death.
Together the two men picked their way down the alley. Wilmington squashed Ezra’s hat back on his head. Ezra was a gentleman after all. Buck chuckled quietly to himself not trying to hide his mirth. Chris was due to have a flying conniption when he gets down wind of this little episode.
+ + + + + + +
Last month, it had been Vin taking on some bounty hunters alone with a green broke stud colt underneath him. A few cracked ribs and a couple of ‘knowledge’ lumps and Tanner escaped unscathed. Chris damn near ripped his head off. Even Ezra had tossed in his two bits. If Vin were in trouble, all he had to do was speak up. The others would gladly help take down some misguided individuals. It was always preferable than digging a friend’s grave. Chris laid into Vin like a wolverine into a trespassing black bear. It amused just about everyone but Vin and Chris.
Today, Ezra would get his ‘come up’ins’ . . .again. Wilmington had started to wonder if the gambler did such things just to provoke Larabee. Ezra seemed to smart for such gross misjudgments but then again, Standish had a habit of poking a short stick at a long rattler. He had riled the ex-preacher enough, a few weeks ago, to get his fool southern butt thrown through the saloon window. Ezra had been still laughing at Josiah as the giant loomed over him. Not a sound step in logic if one considered how Standish had found himself wedged in the small confining space between boardwalk and hitch rail.
+ + + + + + +
Buck guided the slow moving gambler out of the ally onto the boardwalk. Stepping up released a groan from his partner.
They passed the bat wing doors and Ezra steered himself toward the entrance.
“No, ya don’t, Ezra . . .ya need ta see Nathan,” Buck said gently forcing the southerner away from lure of the saloon.
“I’m all right,” Ezra rasped out. The intellectual mind had begun to kick in as they trudged down the alley. The last thing he needed was that sanctimonious healer poking at him and lecturing him about his lack of morals and ethics.
Standish did what he did best. He balked. He literally dug his heels in and shifted his weight to lean backward. He would have jerked his arm out of Wilmington’s grip but the arm muscles were attached to thorax muscles which in turn were intimately associated with the ribs. Erratic arm movements were out. Hell, just stepping up or down was out. It was amazing but it seemed every part of his body was directly attached to his ribs. He blinked testing his theory. Well ok, his eye lids seemed indirectly connected. It didn’t hurt so bad.
“Quit clownin' around, Ezra . . .ya busted some ribs . . .let Nathan at least wrap’em for ya,” Buck stopped. He didn’t want to pull Ezra down the board walk. Wilmington had had his fair share of busted ribs and understood that the slightest wrong movement would result in agony.
“Let’s get a drink first,” Standish answered. He had no intentions of visiting the healer. Why would he voluntarily listen to another tirade about his supposed character flaws.
Wilmington could understand Standish’s obstinance. Buck paused, it was hot out and he had spotted Violet in the saloon. If Ezra wanted to wait then so be it.
The two men entered the saloon.
It took a moment for eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. Actually there was no lighting except the natural light afforded by the penetrating rays of the summer sun. Buck stepped through heavy back wing doors first holding them open. The weight of the door alone were enough to irritate raw bone edges. Standish shuffled passed gamely doing his best not to lift his feet to high or place them down to solidly. The ribs would start screaming in protest.
“When yer ready to see Nathan, give me a shout,” Buck smiled slapping the conman lightly on the shoulder. Wilmington’s mustached grin broadened at the suddenly paled features of the gambler. That had to have hurt, Buck would do what he had to to get Standish up to see the healer.
Ezra silently cursed Wilmington and the mother that bore him into this thankless world. Standish hobbled over to the bar. The ribbed back chairs suddenly took on the appearance of instruments of torture. He slid on down the far side of the old worn mahogany bar. It effectively kept him away from the other patrons and anyone who might be glancing over the batwing doors trying to search him out.
Vin no doubt passed on the latest encounter to Larabee. It would be no time before their leader came storming in here after him.
Ezra sighed. Sometimes having associates and the occasional friend was more of a hassle than it was worth. Not that he longed for his days previous to his current association with the other men. Sometimes, however, he wished someone understood his perspective. Saw the world through the same jaded view that he had come to perceive it. He waited and hoped that someone would one day explain to Mr. Jackson that Ezra didn’t force his ‘marks’ to sit at his table. Standish’s dress and mannerisms alone should alert people to his profession.
No one criticized Larabee when he would out draw or out shoot an opponent. Then again if someone should utter a disparaging remark toward the black clad gunslinger, they might find themselves in an unfortunate position.
Why did no one ever approach Josiah about his alcohol and tendencies toward violence when drunk. He was suppose to be a man of ‘the cloth’, in a manner of speaking, yet everyone accepted his idiosyncrasies and kept their comments to themselves. Then again, Mr. Sanchez could undoubtedly snap a person’s back in his powerful grip if he saw fit.
Ezra’s blood shot green eyes traveled down the bar. He waited impatiently for service. Inez was busy at the other end. Standish would have served himself but the whiskey bottles were kept under the bar and would require stooping over. He wanted, needed a drink badly but cherished the respite of biting grating bone edges.
Then there was Buck. There was not a woman in town that he didn’t have cardinal knowledge of, well except maybe Nettie Wells, Mrs. Travis, and Gloria Potter. Everyone was aware of Buck’s nefarious habits but it was accepted and even joked about. Hell, Chris and Vin had even gone so far as to protect Buck from enraged husbands a time or two.
What of Nathan? He practiced medicine without a license. Though he professed not to be a doctor the citizens of Four Corners and surrounding area’s came to the ex-slave in search of help.
Standish stopped his stray musings.
Nathan, in this instance, was above reproach. His actions were benevolent and done with no other motivation than to make people well again. Jackson only wanted to stop pain and suffering and heal those who were hurt and injured.
Ezra cursed himself for trying to find fault with Nathan. Hell, even the others. It bothered him though that the others were so quick to find fault with him. Not only see it but point it out and do so publicly.
Was it necessary for Chris to confront him before the other patrons in the saloon? Why did Larabee find it important to reprimand the gambler for his tardiness before witnesses? Hell, the infamous Larabee glare would have sufficed.
The benevolent Mr. Jackson was not so benignly forgiving when his delicate sense of right and wrong were threatened. Why was it every time Ezra found success at the tables he had to face a verbal assault the next day or sometimes even that evening? Could Nathan not be happy or even slightly proud of the fact that he was associated with a professional cardsharp?
Ezra wanted to drop his chin to his chest, he wanted to raise his arms and rest them on the bar. Hell, he wanted to move without hurting. It wasn’t going to be today and for many days to come. His life was going to take a sudden uncomfortable turn for the worse.
In a few minutes, Mr. Chris Larabee would come barging through the bat wing doors shouting for Standish. Jackson would be summoned and together the two men would set their holier than thou judgments down upon him.
Ezra needed a drink.
Inez still sat conversing with a customer at the far end of the bar.
“Inez, dear,” Ezra tried to keep the rising frustration and anger out of his voice.
The dark look the Mexican barmaid tossed at him clearly indicated he hadn’t succeeded.
Standish shut his eyes, this day was going to get a lot worse very soon. He lived on the second floor, that meant a staircase. As much as he wanted to hibernate away from the others and delay the onslaught of righteous indignation, his battered ribs would not tolerate the stairs.
Inez stalked the length of the bar toward him. Her anger at being summoned emanated off her like smell of a dirty stall on a hot summer afternoon. The cowpokes that had descended on the town like a swarm of locusts had demanded more of her time than she care to donate.
“Yes, Senor,” She forced a polite smile on her face managing to disguise any of the politeness.
“A bottle of whiskey, please,” Ezra returned trying to maintain some air of civility. The elusive bottle lay only a few feet from him at knee level. It might has well have been in Texas for all the good it did him.
Inez cocked an inquisitive, irritated eyebrow. She was not amused. With a fluid motion fueled by hostility, she grabbed the bottle that was well within his reach and slammed it on the bar top.
The room quieted down. Curious heads swung on dusty clothed shoulders. Drinks, cards, and conversations were momentarily forgotten. The feisty barmaid had her dander up. Someone was going to take a fall.
“Anything else, Senor?” She hissed out. Her hands rested defiantly on her hips just daring him to make a second request. If he even so much as said the wrong thing, Inez would deck him and knock one of those now elusive dimples off his face.
Ezra wanted nothing more than to drink out of the bottle. The weight of the container and its contents were to much for the broken ribs. He would not be able to successfully lift the simple bottle to his lips.
“A glass, please,” He whispered out, embarrassed by her display of anger and the prying eyes that got amusement from the small volatile scene.
Inez narrowed her gaze at the southerner. She angrily pursed her lips bit back a nasty reply and slammed a shot glass down next to the bottle. Bad enough she has to put up with the leering gazes and overtures of the cowpokes that entered town the other day, now she has to cater to Standish. The damn man could be irritating at times.
“Thank you, my dear,” Ezra mumbled out. Not an ally in sight.
Inez shot him another dark glare and stalked off. Standish slowly shook his head and carefully poured himself a shot of whiskey. He up ended it quickly. It would only be a matter of moments before Larabee stormed in here and set his bared teeth into him. Ezra didn’t want to be lucid.
He poured another glass.
Buck shifted Violet from his right knee to his left. This gave him an unobstructed view of the gambler. He watched as Standish poured his first shaky glass and shoot it back followed by a second. This morning alone was enough to put one in a foul mood but then to have some cow pushers use your midsection like a side of beef did nothing to improve ones outlook on life. Right now watching Standish, Buck felt pretty safe in assuming Ezra thought life dealt him an unfair hand.
The third and fourth shots were carefully tossed back. He was trying to numb the blows that were sure to fall at any moment. Buck didn’t think that Chris would actually raise a hand against the gambler but the mere physical intimidation would be enough to send aching ribs screaming.
Standish was in the midst of pouring his fifth glass when the bat wing doors flew open. His head snapped up. He was afforded the luxury of light over his hunter, while he himself bathed in dark shadows.
The black clad gunslinger stood in the door way holding both halves apart scanning the room with a predatory gaze for his wayward peacekeeper. The black duster wrapped itself protectively around the black clad legs, almost like a bat at sleep. Light tufts of blonde hair peaked out from under the brim of the dark hat. Shards of sunlight fell on the thin face. The eyes were hidden from view.
Ezra unconsciously stepped back further into the shadows allowing the welcoming darkness to engulf him.
The patrons stopped their quiet conversations and watched the gunslinger at the entrance of the bar. Each hoped the steel hazel eyes didn’t rest on them. Larabee could be a demon on a good day and today one of his men had angered him. This morning the demon smoldered in plain sight.
Ezra left the whiskey bottle and glass on the bar top and slinked slowly against the wall. The back room lay a few steps behind him and to the right. It too was enshrouded with darkness. He would make his escape. Clutching his midsection tightly, Ezra slid down the planked wall using it as a guide. He never took his eyes from the searching gunman.
Buck watched quietly. He knew Chris was looking for Ezra. Wilmington held his tongue. Standish had had a hard morning and then some. Larabee had been in a frightful mood and it seemed to have only gotten worse. Wilmington hid his smile as he watched Standish sleaze into the thick shadows of the far wall. He would try for the back door. Not a bad plan just overly used.
Larabee stalked into the saloon one booted heel ringing out like a toll followed methodically by the other. Patrons who met his gaze suddenly found their beers and whiskey glasses very interesting. He cut a swath down the center of the room.
Ezra felt his pulse racing. He actually feared Larabee might be able to hear it.
Standish reached the back room entrance. With his coated shoulders to the doorway and still facing the saloon main floor, he stepped backward . . .
. . .Into something almost solid. Almost. More like a body. A large body.
“Going somewhere, brother?”
A body attached to a deep sarcastic baritone voice.
A large callused hand clasped his blue coated shoulder, firmly. Strong enough to convey that it would not be wrestled free without undo effort.
“Ahh, Mr. Sanchez . . .perhaps you could see it in yourself to . . .let me go.” Ezra whispered as if talking about a Sunday sermon. Hopefully, Josiah had found it in his heart to forgive the southerner’s transgressions a few weeks back. If there really was a God, maybe dear Mr. Sanchez forgot all about it. He licked his lips nervously. The large hand only cinched its hold tighter. Ezra really had to learn not to irritate these men.
Larabee still searched the room slowly making his way toward the back. “I have pressing business elsewhere,” Ezra whispered again trying hard not be overheard.
“At brother Nathan’s, maybe?” Sanchez inquired. He gently but forcefully moved the smaller southerner out of the shadows. It did the soul good to face its demons once in a while. Josiah smiled, it would seem both Larabee’s and Standish’s spirits were due for some overhauls.
“Well, no . . .actually, I was heading over too . . .” Ezra let his sentence die on his lips as Larabee’s searching gaze narrowed on him.
Oh, Lord. I’m a dead man. Vin and Buck should have left well enough alone. No, they have to come riding in to save the day. Great. Save him from the wolves just to toss him to the sharks. Thanks but no thanks. Life on his own was good. It had to have been better than this.
“You want to tell me what happened?” Larabee’s voice was soft, but somehow managed to carry across the room. He closed the distance and stopped a comfortable three feet away from Josiah and Standish.
Ezra found the three feet much to close. His personal space had suddenly magnified to encompass the whole town. He would be a lot more comfortable in Eagle Bend or maybe up at Bitter Creek.
Buck tapped Violet on a voluptuous hip indicating she should vacate the area. He whispered something in her ear that made her smile with anticipation. JD and Vin entered the saloon. Both men quickly searched the area and joined Buck at the table. The two newcomers followed Wilmington’s gaze.
Standish stood held in place by Josiah, like a puppy by the nape of the neck, while Chris stalked forward as if sizing up his next meal.
“We miss anything yet?” Vin asked quietly. Chris had nearly blown a blood vessel when Tanner had led the three cowpunchers into the jail. The tracker calmly conveyed the short episode or that which he witnessed all the while gaging the anger of his older friend. The vein on the side of Larabee’s head had stuck out and took on a pulse. Tanner couldn’t be sure who Chris was more angry with, the cowpokes or Ezra. It was all the same to Vin, he was just relieved it wasn’t himself that would be the target of the venting rage. He had been there last month and it wasn’t pretty.
“Nope, just started getting good,” Buck whispered back smiling. Life sure got interesting when Chris and Standish were at odds. It was almost as entertaining when Vin and Chris butted heads.
“What’d he do this time?” JD asked. He wondered how Ezra managed to anger Chris so easily. Standish had once explained it was a gift. Dunne figured Ezra could keep it.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra licked his lips again. He would’ve preferred to run his thumb over his lower lip as he was known to do on occasion. The broken ribs prevented such free movements. With options severely curtailed, he settled for a half smile and a wet lip.
“What happened?” Ezra repeated innocently. He would play dumb. Not a smart move but hence the name of the plan.
“This morning?” Chris asked. Why did the gambler have to be so difficult? If he were in trouble or in danger, why didn’t he just tell someone. Larabee understood perfectly well about independence and taking care of ones own problems but three against one behind the saloon? The man had to have more brains than that? Why not just trust them to stand up for him?
“I thought you covered my tardiness rather thoroughly this morning,” Ezra answered back. Why did he have to bait this man?
Josiah released his grip on the gambler. Sparks were flying and he didn’t want to get caught in the building inferno. Sanchez made his way over to the others. A few patrons at table in close proximity to the clashing duo, discreetly moved to safer ground. Besides, Sanchez needed time to unravel the lesson he would impart on their prisoners. Education was important for ones future success.
Chris bit his cheek. Josiah recommended patience. Larabee would try it just this once. Hell, even Sanchez wore a gun; patience must not be the cure all it was toted to be in every instance.
Standish raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Okay, so the eyebrows weren’t connected to the ribs; another simple move that didn’t jar raw bone edges. The mere action seemed to rile the older gunslinger. Good, a simple move that didn’t directly result in painful ribs and actually upset Larabee. He would have to remember that little gesture.
“Vin told me an interesting tale,” Larabee answered back. He would wipe that cocky no good smile off Standish’s face before this conversation was over.
Ezra raised both eye brows in surprise, “That is unusual,” he drawled out, “considering Mr. Tanner is a man of very few words.” Ezra knew he should stop there, but what the heck, he was already in trouble for a verbal lashing, why not earn it. “In fact, it has been rumored he may actually be mute.”
Chris didn’t redirect his gaze from Standish. The man was irritating but quick. Larabee had no doubts that if he removed his gaze from the gambler, Ezra would be gone.
“Why’d it happen?” Larabee asked. He would cut to the meat of the matter and then haul the stubborn southerner up to spend time with Nathan. Chris almost smiled, that would be revenge enough.
“Vin becoming verbose? I couldn’t begin to guess. Stranger things have been known to occur though,” Ezra answered truthfully. He would have shrugged his shoulders but he knew for a fact that shoulders were connected to ribs.
Chris had had enough. The sinewy taut muscles that had been coiled with frustrated tension suddenly lashed out. The resounding slap of his palm against the bar was punctuated by an exasperated, “Ezra!” It was enough to make people jump. Even Inez.
Standish would have like to have jump but as proven earlier in the day, legs were mysteriously directly attached to ribs. Besides, any sudden jarring movements wouldn’t be tolerated by jagged bone edges.
Larabee leaned closer to the gambler. His hazel eyes, and the curl of his lip exposing straight white front teeth conveyed the level of anger and frustration that had been building all morning. He had found an outlet for dark energy. Unfortunately, it was the same familiar target. Chris wondered if Ezra was getting as tired of this as himself.
Vin, JD, Buck and Josiah all cringed at the sound of Chris’s voice. Those two never let them down. All four gunslingers each entertained similar thoughts of, ‘better him than me.’
The hissed utterance that occurred between the darkly dressed gunslinger and colorful gambler were lost on their audience.
“You get hurt?”
This made the gambler pause. He hadn’t expected this question. It threw him, unbalanced him. Why would Larabee care? Well, of course, with banged up ribs Ezra would be unable to ride patrol therefore allowances would have to be made. Standish realized the question entrenched itself deeper than that foolish thought. The problem was if Chris cared that much then it should be reciprocated.
Reciprocity was one of the many things Ezra Standish avoided.
To gain trust one must be trustworthy, yet his whole life and education was based on the creative image of trust. Trust me with you savings, ‘trust’ me with your cash. He had run many a con with and without his mother based on the false image of trust and friendship. The disguise of mock concern and understanding when fleecing a mark made him a master at his profession.
If Larabee and the others actually carried concern for him, then in truth, he should return the concern. In order to gain their trust, he had to trust them. To have friends, he had to be a friend. All the things he had feigned so easily before coming to Four Corners, before becoming associated with these six trying men, were falsified. He never trusted anyone, cared for very few people, and had been friends with even less. These six foolhardy men demanded it from him and he begrudgingly doled it out.
Now he stood before Larabee faced with an earnest question. He knew Buck and Vin and the others were sitting just a few yards away enjoying the small battle. Hell, if it were someone else standing in here and him at the table, he would be making and taking bets on the outcome.
Chris asked a legitimate question, laced with true concern. He deserved a direct answer.
Chris couldn’t understand why it was such a difficult question. If Standish was injured, all he had to do was speak up. The others would cover for him. They would get him up to Nathan’s, get bones on their way to mending, and see he got the needed rest. Why did Ezra have to suspect a slight of hand or some kind of treachery with every offer of help?
“No,” Ezra answered without hesitation and directly. He wouldn’t let the others use his injuries as an excuse to say he was trying to get out of his fair share of the work. If he was feeling 100%, well, then of course, he would try and shirk his responsibilities. It was expected of him to a certain degree. Besides a gentleman does not debase himself with menial labor. Riding as a peace keeper didn’t truly constitute labor. Unfortunately, it was honest employment. That in and of itself was something that shouldn’t be shouldered quietly without argument. His mother had taught him better. Slightly bruised and disused would get him out of the monotonous duties as a law enforcer but the idea of being incapable of performing said duties just plain bothered him. There was nothing Ezra Standish couldn’t do, but there was a plethora of things out there he wouldn’t stoop to do either. It was a fine line that he toted rather gracefully, or so he thought.
Larabee seethed under the obvious lie. Vin and Buck had witnessed enough to know Standish took a respectable beating. Chris narrowed his gaze slightly, sizing up his prey. A recent trend of events had begun to reveal slight clues in the motivations of the southerner. Chris Larabee had begun to unravel the corkscrew view of the world that tended to monopolize Ezra’s perspective on things. Larabee had begun to figure out Ezra Standish.
The man was motivated by the simple lure of money. Greed drove Standish. At one time, Larabee had assumed that was all the moved the southern man to action but lately he began to see something else. Sure monetary gain still played a major role, but something else forced the southerner to remain in town and play peacekeeper with the others. It certainty wasn’t the pay and housing arrangements. Larabee almost chuckled at the thought. Maude had other plans for her son, that was obvious. It wasn’t the threat that Chris had softly uttered so long ago in the Seminole Village either. Standish was a slippery son of a bitch that could slither his way out of the harriest situations. A simple threat wouldn’t glue such a wandering soul to one town.
It had nagged persistently at Larabee every time he saw the gambler win moderately small ante from local farmers and drifters. There wasn’t enough money to keep a professional such as Standish in a town like Four Corners. Why did he stay then? Larabee had finally retained a grasp on the elusive answer.
Standish belonged. A misfit: a gambler with a fledgling conscience found a place amongst other square pegs. A preacher: who shot first and spoke second. A healer: that could cut your eye out at 10 yards with a thrown knife. A bounty hunter: with a bounty on himself. A boy trying hard to be a man amongst others who tried hard to keep him a boy. A wanton ladies man: that searched for a family of his own. And a hardened unemotional gunslinger: painfully mourning the loss of his family. Standish stayed because he was the proverbial square peg that found a round hole that accommodated him.
The answer was layered and hidden almost caked like boots in March mud. With each flaking layer, something new was revealed. The gambler sharing a joke with Buck or amazing JD with a card trick, the simple bantering with Josiah and pranks pulled with Vin. With Nathan and Chris, the gambler walked on eggshells trying hard not to set off their smoldering natures. Larabee smiled, sometimes like today the damn gambler purposefully lit the match just to watch the explosion. Today, as with most times, Ezra would get caught in the blast. The fool for all his education didn’t know enough when to duck.
It was Chris’s turn to raise an inquisitive eyebrow. A mischievous leer burned across his face. “Is that so?”
JD leaned over to Buck and asked, “What do you think they’re talking about?”
Wilmington kept his gaze on the two men who spoke softly a few yards away. He shrugged his shoulders straining to hear the hushed words between Gunslinger and gambler.
Suddenly Larabee lashed out with his hand and squeezed the gambler’s unprotected rib cage.
Standish dropped to all fours like a sack of feed.
The four men at the table all cringed in sympathy as Standish collapsed to the floor with a strangled gasp. They all remained in their seats each holding their sides with empathy.
Larabee slowly knelt down on one knee, resting a lazy forearm over his bent leg. He tilted his head slightly trying to get a better perspective on the gambler’s suddenly pale features. Chris could hear the painful panting and trembling arms. He smiled.
“Chris must be offering medical advice,” Josiah answered JD’s question.
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