Ezra strode down the boardwalk with a distinct swagger, leaning heavily to one side as he walked. With his head down and his brown hat covering his features, he surged unsteadily to the saloon. Some of the more genteel folk crossed to the other side of the street to avoid coming into contact with the obviously drunken man. A wry grin crossed Ezra's features as he realised the effect he was having on the townsfolk.
His heart leapt into his mouth as he stumbled through the batwing doors of the saloon and collided with a departing Buck Wilmington. As they spun around and did an awkward dance Buck clapped his large hands on Ezra's upper arms and held the unstable man upright as they regained their balance. Buck didn't probe into the shadowed depths of the darkened features, just offered a friendly piece of advice - same as he'd been doing for Chris ever since the death of his wife and child four years prior. "Son, think you've probably already had enough," but the constrained man's only response to the unsolicited advice was to push roughly against the restraining hold until Wilmington loosened his grip; Standish ignored him and swaggered up to the bar.
Buck marvelled at the man's strength and control when he pushed him away, thinking that most drunks lost that edge when they were under the influence of alcohol. Shrugging his shoulders he pushed the drunken man from his immediate thoughts and went in search of JD. The young man had abruptly left with tears threatening the already red rimmed eyes. "Now where'd ya go, JD?" He growled in frustration.
Tanner went directly to the Clarion. His intention was to obtain the newspapers for Ezra then keep a relative low profile for the remainder of the day. After suppling Mary Travis with the reasoning that Standish had suggested, the longhaired tracker easily gained the required papers. He was rather surprised at the ease of success. The golden haired woman did not even question him about the supposed reading. She even offered her assistance with any of the stories that he found difficulties with.
As Vin stepped out of the newspaper office he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up on end and knew someone was watching him. Stepping onto the boardwalk he searched for the prying eyes. He looked up to the jail and found Chris leaning against the support post for the overhang. Uncomfortably, Vin managed a meagre smile at best, but tipped his hat in the direction of the gunslinger, which was immediately returned in favour.
With his parcel of papers still in hand Vin detoured, taking the long route to the Hotel, via the livery, and around the back of the church then returning to the Hotel some twenty minutes later. Confident that he'd succeeded in throwing Larabee off his scent he deposited the newspapers off at Standish's room, then decided it was time to retire for the day.
Standish spent the entire day seated in the corner of the room with his back against the wall apparently in a drunken stupor. Some of the time he lay sprawled passed out on the table top and some of the time he sank down into the chair just tipping the bottle upwards until it was drained, then requesting another. He had in fact drunk some of the strong rotgut whisky to give his breath the odour he required for such a ruse, but the majority had been tossed out. Some on his clothing to again give the added authenticity to his scheme.
He observed the remaining six peace-keepers enter the building and even caught the glimmer of a grin on Vin's face as he swept the room when he entered. True to form though his gaze didn't linger on the southerner. He rested his head back down on the table, and closed his eyes while he concentrated on listening to the various conversations that were being carried on within his surroundings.
Darkness had fallen and the black blanket of night had enveloped the town of Four Corners. Tanner paused in the doorway of the saloon and let his eyes become accustomed to the blaring light. Once his eyes adjusted he automatically scanned the room for trouble. He nodded in the direction of his fellow lawmen and made a beeline to what had become their table. As he continued to pass his gaze over the rowdy patrons he unwittingly allowed a small smile to touch the corners of his mouth when he discovered Ezra in the far corner of the room. Vin mentally kicked himself for the minor display but recovered quickly and let his gaze continue around the rest of the saloon. He looked to his friends when he heard JD call his name.
"Vin, expectin' trouble?" JD had watched the tracker enter and pay particular attention to the patrons present. Trusting Vin without a doubt, JD also scanned the crowd of noisy cowboys and with a shrug of defeat wondered what had caused Vin's intense scrutiny.
"Reckon it's always best to be on the lookout for trouble, JD. Best to know who's in the same room as ya too, especially if ya got a bounty on yer head." The young man reluctantly agreed and pushed the vacant chair in Vin's direction.
"Heard ya lost the trail?" Nathan asked incredulously.
"I ain't gonna talk about it, Nathan," Tanner hoarsely declared leaving no room for argument.
The others shared worried looks amongst themselves. Feeling the mood begin to slip once more into solemn oblivion Buck knocked the youngest team member's bowler hat, sending it flying across the table. "Dang it, Buck! What cha go and do that for?" Buck's simple action caused a ripple of laughter to spread through the peacekeepers.
Chris watched the arrival of Vin, and suspected that he'd actually been avoiding contact with the group all day. He considered the information he gathered.
Vin's real nervous about something, and he ain't talking.
He'd only been gone for twenty-four hours and
He apparently lost the trail of the man that stole Ezra's horse.
He's been to the Hotel early this morning and then later again that day.
Tanner had visited Mary at the Clarion, which wasn't totally out of character, as he knew Vin had been seeing Mary about learning to read and write, but...
He left the Clarion with an armful of papers and headed back to the Hotel, where he apparently left them? As he did not have them in his possession when he left.
Then, Chris hadn't seen Vin for the rest of the day. Which he thought wasn't that unusual but with everything else he wondered what the hell was going on.
"Hey cowboy, you with us tonight?"
Larabee blinked and realised that the object of his musings was talking to him. What did he just say? "Huh?"
"Geez Chris, where were you?"
Standish returned to his room at the Hotel around midnight. Most of the patrons at the saloon had petered out by that time, and his presence in the saloon would become more noticeable as fewer patrons remained. Stretching his arms above his head to relieve the tension that had taken up possession of his neck and shoulders, he noticed the requested papers on his bed. Yawning and sighing at the same time he reached for the materials. The day had been long, uneventful and exhausting.
Even though he projected the guise of a drunk, his mind was constantly deciphering the snatches of conversations and analysing the information to ascertain its importance. And as much as he'd not wanted to, his eyes continually sought his fellow lawmen, as they in turn sought solace in a bottle and each other's company. He'd felt their pain, in the easily conveyed slumped shoulders, and heavy walk. The hollowed emptiness that reflected in their exhausted eyes, caused a pain of its own, as the dread ate away at the gambler as he saw first hand the misery his death was causing the five uninformed men. He had not realised that his death would affect them so deeply. He now doubted his own reasons that he'd convinced Tanner with, as to why they'd not inform the others of his falsified death. He wondered if they would forgive him once the truth came out? Standish shivered as he recalled the desolation that covered JD's young and innocent face. If he was given a chance, he was going to make it up to the youth. That he promised himself.
Physically shaking these thoughts at bay, he pushed the urge aside to just fall into bed and sleep. Staring at the bundle of reading that he had to undertake, Standish groaned at the enormity of the task. Knowing he'd not get any sleep anyway with these thoughts constantly intruding, he resigned himself to his fate, and pulled the first paper out of the string that had tied them together, and settled in for the long haul.
At the early hour of two in the morning the flutter of paper turning was the only noise in the room number 9. Standish managed to dissect some relevant information from the newspapers and then sorted them into ordered piles littering his room. His bed was blanketed with Mary Travis' publications of the Clarion News, as well as the only table and numerous piles cluttered the hardwood floor as well.
Ezra folded the pages back on themselves and studied yet another story, when the coded knock reverberated against the door. Standish jumped slightly at the sudden intrusion and laid down the article and cautiously approached the door. Unbolting the lock he stayed hidden behind the open doorway but motioned for his visitor to come in.
"Mr. Tanner, are you aware of what time it is?"
"Yeah," Vin acknowledged, as he absorbed the disorder of the room. "Took a chance on ya still being up. Didn't think it was such a good idea to come any sooner. Damn, Chris is gettin' real suspicious."
"Perhaps it might be advisable to not make contact with each other for a few days."
"Hell NO!" Tanner vehemently disagreed, "But I reckon we might need to tell someone else."
"And who exactly do you have in mind?" Ezra had been thinking along these lines himself.
"What?!" Standish had not considered the Judge as an option though.
"Judge Travis. Chris ain't gonna be keeping close tabs on him, like he has been with me. That way I can do my patrols and stuff I normally do, and check in with the Judge to find out what you're up to without it seeming unusual." Waving a hand over all the reading material that encompassed the room he added, "Judge might be able ta help ya with all the reading too."
Ezra seemed to be contemplating the feasibility of Vin's proposal. "I'll give your suggestion due consideration."
Vin nodded. "Ya find anything?"
The gambler smirked at his friend. "Do you want to know what I've discovered or only if I've discovered anything at all?"
Standish couldn't prevent rolling his eyes to the ceiling, but the dimpled smile remained in place. Waving a hand at one of the piles on the bed. "Those all are articles about the upcoming arrival of Lawrence Carter Hale the Third." The gambler paused to glance up at the tracker to ascertain if the man was aware of who he was referring to.
"Ain't he some rich dude?"
Ezra raised his eyebrows in astonishment, which Vin easily read.
"Ain't like I'm dumb, Ezra. Just cause I can't read, don't make me stupid!" Vin growled in irritation at the southerner.
"Vin, it was never my intent to belittle your intelligence. It was, I admit, a surprise that you are acquainted with the social tenor of Lawrence Hale." Seeing his words were not having the desired effect the southerner tried for the simple approach, "I'm sorry."
Tanner slid down the wall and seated himself among the news items. "So what's he got to do with you anyhow?"
"Mr. Hale is passing through Four Corners in a few days time, according to this article." He moved to the bed and picked up an item that was on top and held it up for Tanner's inspection. "He is in the habit of carrying on his person obscenely large amounts of cash, with little or no protection from anyone other than himself." Focusing on the article he found the paragraph that aroused his interest. "And I quote 'Lawrence Carter Hale the Third is the grandson of the well respected and wealthy entrepreneur Lawrence James Cameron Hale senior, and the only son of the recently departed Lawrence Emerson Hale the Second. Travelling with his wife and two children, valet and ladies maid, he has graciously acquiesced to give his time to attend the First Four Corners Business Acumen.' It goes on to say that, of all things, he likes the easy accessibility of ready cash, and does not hold with the current trend of 'leaving his money or his holdings in the bank'."
"So Mr. Tanner, he is a likely candidate for nefarious miscreants to take advantage of and swindle him out of his fortune."
"Oh yeah," the tracker hesitantly agreed. "I still don't get why ya needed ta be dead?
Ezra looked up from the article he finished reading, and ran a tired hand through his hair. He could feel Tanner's eyes boring into him as he waited patiently for a reply. The gambler rolled his neck on his shoulders and sighed deeply, contemplating what to tell the former bounty hunter. He'd thought about what motive had inspired his fraudulent death. And if he'd been successfully buried, as was intended, he shuddered to think of the slow and tortuous death he'd had suffered entombed alive. "Vin, I don't know why they'd go to so much trouble to facilitate my death. Having me out of town would have worked just as well. My guess is that it's personnel, a grudge, or maybe revenge for some slight I may have done against the instigator of this con."
"We'll get 'em, Ezra." Vin confidently declared.
Standish blinked at the cocksure attitude of the tracker, "I certainly hope so Mr. Tanner."
The long-haired man decided to get the conversation back on track, "So, all we gotta do, is get the boys to babysit the Hales till they leave."
Standish smiled as he recognised what the tracker was doing, by changing the subject back to the original topic. "If, we could be assured that he is in fact the intended victim that would be a wise choice of action, but as we are not we'll have to settle for watching him and the others."
With a groan Vin grumbled. "What others?"
"That pile is about the arrival of Harold Clarke, a banker of notary importance from San Francisco. This lot relates to the cattle magnate from around Denver whose got a cattle drive heading through this part of the country as we speak... "
"I do believe you are correct, Lionel Michigan, and sons. Shall I go on?"
"There's more?" Vin stared at the gambler with his mouth agape.
Ezra returned to his chair and fell heavily into it, his weight causing the chair to creak. "As I'm not sure what I'm looking for, all of them remain possibilities. And as far as I know there's probably more as I've yet to go through all the papers." A yawn escaped his mouth and the gambler rubbed his tired eyes as he resumed the odious task of groundwork.
Vin's head hit his knees that were planted in front of him; the fall jerked the tracker back into wakefulness. He didn't move for a moment, but listened to the quiet in the room. He lifted his eyes up and looked through the curtain of hair that had fallen over his face, and blinked back the brightness of the early morn. Close to six was his guess. Feeling the tightness of his muscles complain at the cramped position in which he'd fallen asleep, he languidly stretched out his legs and rolled his head on his shoulders, trying to relax the tenseness.
Tanner surveyed the room to find Standish and grinned at the sight of the rumpled southerner with his head buried in his arms over the table he had been working at. He gathered his legs under him and reached out and nudged the sleeping man. Ezra's only response was a muttered oath, causing a grin to split the tracker's mouth. "Come on, Standish, time for bed." He clapped the southerner on his shoulders but still the gambler didn't wake.
Eyeing the bed, Vin decided that he'd need to find it before getting Ezra into it anyhow. Picking up the piles, he relocated them to the floor then pulled back the covers. Tanner's mind wandered, and briefly contemplated falling into the bed himself, after the uncommonly late night he himself had. Dismissing the idea before its full fruition, Vin recovered the distance between him and the sleeping gambler. Standing behind the chair, the long-haired man grasped hold of both Ezra's shoulders and pulled the unresponsive man back into a sitting position.
Why am I waking up now? Feel so tired. Not ready to wake up and face the day. The southerner thought as he slowly regained his awareness. He kicked out his legs as his position changed to adjust his balance but he banged his knee on the rim of the table. Standish winced and opened his eyes at once and voiced a muttered curse at the same time.
Vin, seeing that Standish was actually awake, pulled the man to his feet and dragged him to the bed. "Best get some sleep, Ezra." Once Vin had manoeuvred the man to the edge of the bed, he then pushed the now compliant man down.
Standish sat on the edge of the bed with his legs hanging over the side. "You woke me up, to tell me to go to sleep?" His accent thicker than usual as Ezra sleepily asked.
Vin knelt down in front and pulled the gambler's boots off for him and pushed him down onto the bed. He looked into the red rimmed eyes that were barely visible behind the hooded lids, and offered a weak smile. He realised that he understood the simplistic statement that the southerner had said and grasped the extent of the man's exhaustion. Stubborn man! "Go ta sleep, Ezra." He pulled the blanket up over his shoulders and watched the eyelids droop closed. Tanner let himself out the room and locked it.
Tanner had finally managed to slip away to talk to the Judge. Chris and the other's were obsessed with his company that morning and didn't seem to want him to leave their sides. He ended up agreeing to go on patrol with JD to escape the unexpected attention. He figured that Ezra would be sleeping in late that day anyhow so he readily agreed to the extra patrol. He reckoned JD wanted some time away from the over-protective tendencies of Brother Buck.
Judge Orrin Travis shifted his old frame into the chair. The elderly man picked up the menu and when the waitress came he ordered the steak and buttered mushrooms with a large helping of potatoes and gravy. His mouth watered as his meal was placed on the tabletop, and he immediately began to spoon the food into his mouth.
He contemplated the note that Billy, his grandson, had innocently handed him that morning, and pondered on the reasons that Vin Tanner wanted to speak with him privately. It was just as he finished the last of his meal that the man in question entered the restaurant. Pushing back the empty plate Travis hungered for his coffee to wash the meal down and keep his indigestion at bay.
Tanner strolled unhurriedly to the table occupied by the Territorial judge. "Afternoon Judge, mind if I join you?"
Travis motioned at the empty chair but didn't utter a word. Numerous ideas had come to the man as to what Vin wanted to talk to him about. The foremost thought was that Vin was going to leave Four Corners and take care of his unfinished business that he'd mentioned when the seven men first took on the roles as peacekeepers two years prior. The older man looked up into the worried blue eyes. He watched the tracker fidget in his chair and look generally uncomfortable in his presence. Orrin decided that he'd best start this off or they'd be here all day, but as he opened his mouth to speak Tanner began.
"Judge... I've got a friend who needs some help." Vin hedged.
The Judge had his ideas of what to expect from the man but this wasn't one of them. "This friend of yours, what precisely has he consummated that warrants my deliberation?"
Geez, Tanner thought, he talks just like Ezra. "Um, he ain't 'zactly done anything wrong, but trouble sure has a way of finding 'im." Tanner smirked. "If you have time could you meet with him? That way everythin' would be explained all at one time."
"Mr Tanner," Travis leaned over the table closer to Vin, "your manner touches of a deviousness that I'd not associated with you, and that certainly makes me suspicious of your intentions."
Ah hell, what'd he say? Something about being suspicious. Damn! "Judge, it ain't like that," he quickly reassured him. "The fella I want ya to meet, he's in the Hotel where you're staying at... its just that he's... shy? Yeah... he don't like crowds none."
Travis nodded his agreement and hoped he wouldn't regret it. Although to be fair, Vin Tanner had never, in the two years that he'd known the man, connived, schemed or done anything that was unjust. Vin was a respected member of the town, and a member of the finest group of men that he'd ever had the privilege of working with. So with that in mind he followed Tanner to the Hotel to meet with his friend.
Vin rapped out the coded knocks and hoped that the southerner was out of bed. Tanner was relieved when the door swung inward and Vin hustled the Judge into the room. To say the Judge was shocked was an understatement. The man practically fell back to the wall and started gasping for breath. Vin and Ezra were quick to respond and both grabbed an arm and guided him to a chair. Travis' mouth hung open and he'd yet to take his eyes off the southerner.
"Mr. Tanner, do you think we should acquire the services of Mr. Jackson?" Ezra was beginning to get worried as the Judge had yet to speak, and he could see the racing pulse throbbing at his neck, and he was still struggling to breathe. "Vin, get Nathan!" The urgency in the southerner's voice galvanised Vin into action. The tracker had his hand over the doorknob ready to open the door when the Judge found his voice.
"Mr. Tanner, that won't be necessary," the judge weakly countermanded, but he continued to stare at Ezra, which was beginning to unnerve the gambler. "Son... I take it you have a very good explanation as to why you're not six feet under?"
"Well Judge Travis, I believe I can enlighten you, up to a point. As I've yet to fully comprehend the whole ramifications myself." Between the two younger men the Judge was apprised of the situation.