Later that morning, Thomas Jones was hurrying to the livery to make a clean escape. Morris no doubt would be waiting there for him. He'd pay the man and then it would be good riddance to him. Hopefully he'd never have to encounter the unsavoury man again.
Jones' long spindly fingers caressed the travel bag where he'd stashed the money and deeds that Hale had given him in exchange for the false deeds of a silver mine supposedly hidden in the hills behind the small town of Opago. The dupability of some people! Hah! The man didn't see him coming! He'd offered the mine because of his failing health prevented his travelling back and forth between Boston and the mine. And Hale all but drooled at the chance to buy it off him.
He was actually surprised that it had taken very little encouragement on his behalf to ouster the money from the man. The deeds he'd offered were very good forgeries, but a man of some discern would have recognised them for what they were. Fakes. Hell, he was glad Standish weren't among the living; he'd picked it up with no trouble - or so he'd been informed. Jones was surprised that Hale with all his arrogance, didn't have that Judge fella, Travis, check 'em out. Or anyone for that matter. Not that they would have been able to detect them as being forgeries. What did he care anyhow? He'd got the money like he was supposed to do, now he'd clear out of here.
"Where's me money?" Morris called out none too quietly. He leaned against the stall, cleaning out the dirt from under his fingernails with his knife.
Jones shuddered in distaste; his eyes riveted on the shiny blade. Clutching the bag closer to his chest, he looked over his shoulder, and seeing no one he remained just inside the livery doors, not entering into the stables further. "You'll get your share," he nervously replied.
"Damn right I will!" Morris uncrossed his legs, and crisply hurled the weapon at the cowering man. The knife embedded in the black bag, slitting a hole in the side of the worn leather bag. Jones gasped at the bloody threat. "Now about my share... "
"I don't believe you'll have time to spend it while in residence of Yuma prison," the southern drawl of the gambler interrupted as he stepped out of the shadows.
"Yep. Don't reckon they'd know what to do with it any how," Vin stated as he came up behind Thomas Jones with his mare's leg raised, primed and pointed at the rumpled man in front of the stall. Ezra had Jones covered with his Remington.
Standish moved forward and claimed the battered bag off the frightened Jones. He then nudged his gun into Jones' side and directed him out of the livery and over to the jail. Vin followed behind Ezra with Morris in his sights.
The two men were easily captured and locked up in the jail. Ezra threw the bag on the only furniture in the room, a small table, as he passed it. The two men were yet to say anything, and compliantly entered the cell.
Vin smiled at the gambler as he turned the key in the lock. "I'll get the judge."
"By all means, Mr. Tanner."
Judge Travis entered the jail to see Standish sitting on the corner of the table counting out the money and laying it into piles. "How much?"
"Twenty-six hundred dollars in cash," Ezra picked up the deeds and waved them at Travis. "And three deed to properties in California. As to their value I'm uncertain."
Ezra looked up as Vin whistled his surprise. "Didn't know you'd talked him into given over so much?" Tanner challenged the judge.
"Mr. Tanner, as I told Mr. Hale, it had to be enough, otherwise they'd be suspicious." Travis turned his attention back to the gambler, who was still fingering the money, "And he'll be getting it ALL back too. Just as I promised him," Travis warned the conman.
"What the hell?" The jailed conman hissed from behind the bars, "it was a set up?"
"Mr. Jones, your little scheme seems to have fallen off the wheels." The southerner dimpled at the cussing Thomas Jones.
"Hey Ezra... I reckon that fella Morris is the one who tried to kill ya," Tanner stared intently at the untidy man sitting on the bunk bed. He'd only glimpsed the man at the time, but seemed to recall that he'd been in the saloon that day, a week ago, and that he left just as Ezra was coming in. "What the hell did you give him?" The tracker growled in fury, as he edged closer to the cell.
Jones and Morris both heard the former bounty hunter address the other man as Ezra, but they knew that Standish was dead by now and buried under a rubble of rock and earth. In their ignorance, they assumed Tanner was reaching for information, and it was a ploy on his part to call the other man by the dead man's name. Unless of course they both had the same Christian name? 'Cause this man didn't even look a thing like the elegant gambler they'd disposed of.
Morris lay down on the bed, ignoring Vin's question, and bellowed out his laughter, his face turning a bright shade of red as he continued on his campaign of laughing senselessly. He thumped his hand down on the side of the bed and stopped as suddenly as he'd started. Then he looked up in the inquiring faces of the two lawmen and the judge and began his snorting laughter again.
Ezra shook his head and rolled his eyes heavenward, before pinning Jones with his imposing and hostile glare.
"You get me outta here, away from that lunatic," Jones pointed at the man in the cell with him, and cringed, "and I'll tell ya what yer friend was given." Jones tried to bargain, not caring if they knew now, as they would not be able to save the gambler anyhow. It was, after all, a week ago that he'd been buried. What could they possibly do? Jones looked over his shoulder to the other occupant of the cell and he hugged himself closer to the bars, as Morris continued his sadistic laughter.
Ezra shared a look with Vin; these two didn't know that Standish was still alive, and didn't realise that he was standing right in front of them. "How about you tell us and we'll consider letting you keep your miserable life," Standish snarled in anger, his accent thickened as he threatened the conniving wastrel. Vin put a restraining hand on the cardsharp's shoulder as he shortened the distance between himself and the jailed man.
Taking a step back away from the cell's bars Jones eagerly spilled the requested information, on seeing the deadly glare the southerner was giving him. "It was curare! Something the Indians use. A drug that puts someone ta sleep, paralyses 'em, and they look dead," he finished in a rush.
"You buried a man knowing he was alive?!!" Travis' eyes widened in shocked disbelief. Who would intentionally do such a thing?
Jones just shrugged his shoulders. "You gonna let me have a separate cell to that loon?" He cringed back away from the maddened Morris, who was yet to mutter a single word, but laughed raucously` at something only he could see.
"You'll be staying right where you are son," Travis gravely informed him.
A gunshot from the street caused a stunned silence to fall over the cell.
Charlie McBride hid his face beneath the broad brim of his hat. His eyes darted anxiously over the faces that had become familiar to him over the past week. McBride watched as Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington stepped into the saloon, but lowered his gaze to his drink when the two men swept their eyes around the interior of the room. He swallowed a mouthful, then tipped the glass upward for a second, but a solid grip on his arm prevented him from doing so. Lifting his eyes he looked into the hard steel glint of Larabee's. Behind him stood the solid form of Wilmington. The clear liquid sloshed from the glass and onto the table, as he jerked his arm free of the tight restraint. "Ain't done nothing wrong!" McBride declared a little too loudly, drawing further attention from the patrons in the saloon.
Larabee curled his top lip upward into a sneer. "Buck? Did'I say McBride'd done anything wrong?"
"Nope. But he sure is acting guilty for a man who claims he ain't done nothing wrong." Buck offered as he took up the chair opposite the conman. "You got something to hide?"
Chris lifted his leg and rested his boot on the wooden chair, leaning down close to the scared man, Larabee whispered, "We don't want any trouble. You stick around here much longer, and I'd say that would be what yer gonna get. Capiesh?"
McBride moved suddenly and without warning, tipping the chair Chris had his boot on and throwing the gunslinger off balance. Pulling his gun, he waved it at the two lawmen, his arm shook with the weight of the gun, uncomfortable in his delicate hands. At that moment the barmaid stepped up to the table and McBride grabbed her and wrapped his arm around her neck, pulling her close into him. Pointing the gun at the woman's head, he walked out of the saloon and into the street.
The gambler stumbled as his feet tangled with the barmaid's long skirts, but he righted himself before he fell. Cursing the woman for her clumsiness he pulled her tighter to him. He pulled the woman's head back, exposing the long length of neck, and he sucked in the scents of the womanly aroma and lavender that drifted to his nose, momentarily distracting him. Once more he stumbled over the barmaid's skirts, causing his finger to tighten on the hammer, and firing the bullet into the dirt.
Larabee and Wilmington had followed McBride out of the saloon, and were joined almost at once by JD Dunne.
When the bullet's shrill sound echoed on the street, both Josiah and Nathan appeared as if on cue. The residents abruptly left the area, but curiosity didn't stop them from watching.
"Why don't cha drop the gun, before you hurt yourself and the lady!" Chris ordered.
McBride walked backwards, pulling his hostage along with him. "Go ta Hell, Larabee!"
"Charlie McBride!" The southern accent rolled over the name.
Charlie turned and glared at the newcomer. His eyes roamed over the man, taking in his appearance. He looked passed the wrinkled clothing and the bearded face and into the green eyes. In them he saw the truth. He recognised the man. "You're... you're dead!" And his face paled as he stared in horror at the southerner.
"Guess you're mistaken," Ezra declared, as he slowly walked around the man, drawing the man's eyes and attention away from the others, and the woman, and solely on the southerner. "What are you doing here McBride?" Standish continued to move slowly around the man, and oddly enough the gambler followed Ezra's moves.
Eventually McBride's back was exposed to the five lawmen that circled him, but he still had a firm grip on his hostage. "It ain't you! I watched 'em bury ya!" he shouted in agitation.
"Then you're articulating with an apparition. First signs of insanity they say." Standish paused, not taking his eyes off the other man; "you can't murder a spectre, McBride," he taunted.
McBride drew the gun away from the woman and aimed it at the southerner, and pulled the trigger.
Three shots were fired simultaneously and found their marks.
Chris' bullet shot the gun out of his hand, but not before McBride's own weapon fired. Vin's bullet hit McBride directly between the eyes. Charlie McBride's eyes rolled up in his head, the gun dropped harmlessly to the ground and he followed its descent, dragging the screaming woman down on top of him.
Standish also collapsed to the ground, hearing the cry of his name, echoing in his ears.
"He's damn lucky is all I can say," Nathan said. "If that bullet had gone any lower... " he stopped there, knowing that everyone present knew what he was referring to.
"I still find it hard to believe that he ain't dead!" JD smiled, and Buck squeezed his hand over the younger man's shoulder.
The southern accent rose up from the bed. "This is worse then being dead, let me assure you, Mr. Dunne. Didn't hurt this bad when I was dead," Standish complained.
"Hey Ezra! You're awake!" The young man sat down on the edge of the bed, smiling from ear to ear.
"Thanks for informing me, JD," Ezra deadpanned.
"Here, drink this." The healer shoved a cup under Standish's nose, and motioned Josiah to help sit up the injured man.
Standish screwed up his face as he sniffed the contents of the cup, but reluctantly agreed to drink the horrible liquid after the pain that erupted in his shoulder sitting up had caused. "Ahg! What do you put in this to make it taste so vile?"
"It's a secret."
Larabee watched his seventh quibble with Jackson, and was undeniably happy that for whatever reason Standish was back with them. Once he realised that it was indeed their gambler that confronted McBride, he felt immediate relief. The heavy black cloud that had hovered over him the past week dissipated. Then he goes and gets shot. The stubborn man doesn't know how to look after himself. Fancy taunting the madman until he shot him. Larabee almost personally wanted to strangle Standish for that. And was still tempted to.
Chris looked around the crowded clinic, and studied the faces of the other men there. In all their faces Chris could easily read the relief and happiness that radiated from them. He smiled at JD; he'd not left the room since Ezra had been brought up. Even when Nathan threatened to kick him out, JD remained firm and refused to leave. He'd held onto Standish's hand while Nathan removed the bullet, and now he sat on the side of the bed, trying to stay as close to the gambler as possible.
Chris shook his head in astonishment; Vin had been almost as bad! He looked nonchalant standing back, but every time Ezra groaned in pain, Tanner winced as well. They'd yet to discover how Standish had come back from the dead, but now he was awake, they could get some answers. "You feel up to answering some questions?" Chris looked first to Nathan to gain permission, and once that was given, Larabee turned back to the gambler, who nodded his assent.
Ezra had been awake for a while, listening to the men quietly talking. He would have remained silent, but the pain in his shoulder was becoming more noticeable.
After getting shot, he remembered the sound of the tracker's panicked voice as he rushed to his side, probing his body to find what damage had occurred. He'd closed his eyes tightly as Vin pushed his scarf into the bleeding wound, and telling him over and over again, that he's "not to die, not again!" Standish had opened his eyes, and holding back the scream that he wanted to voice saw the hurt and concern in the angry blue eyes that stared down at him. He'd tried to smile, and reassure the tracker that he was going to be okay, but it was more a grimace than a smile.
Ezra felt Nathan's hands pull Vin's away from the wound so he could check it himself and the kid had lifted up his head and rested it in his lap. He felt Chris' presence more than saw him, and Buck slapped him on the thigh, telling him to "stay with us, pard." It had been Josiah that had carried him up to the clinic and laid him down on the bed.
Standish had been surprised at the fuss that JD had made in order to stay with the conman, but pleased in the same token. And after holding his hand while the bullet was removed the youth was still by his side.
"The young lady and McBride?" Ezra needed to know their fate.
Buck answered, "Lucy's just fine... saw to her myself... " and a huge grin split the moustached man's face.
"... And McBride ain't going any place." Larabee finished. "You knew 'im?" It was more of an accusation than a question. Chris reprimanded himself when Standish responded with a curt nod of acquiesce. He'd noticed the gambler tense at the question and decided now wasn't the time to hassle Ezra over the minor details. "We can talk about it later, okay?"
Standish let out the breath he didn't know he was holding, and smiled his thanks at the gunslinger. Getting into a heady discussion about how he'd become acquainted with McBride was not paramount, to his disposition. Searching the room for Vin Tanner, he found the tracker slouching in the corner of the room. "Jones and Morris?" Standish directed at Vin.
"Still in jail pard. That Morris fella had Jones so jumpy, he won't sit down. Judge got someone to watch 'em for us."
Ezra saw the confusion mirrored in the other five men's faces and figured that Vin had not informed them. "Hale?"
"Already gone." Seeing the right eyebrow lift, Vin added, "with his money. The judge gave it back to him."
"Already back in his stall." Vin nodded his head at the quiet thankyou.
"What in the hell are you two talking about?" Buck groused, looking at Vin and then back at Ezra expectantly.
"Mr. Tanner can fill you in. I'm in need of more sleep." And his eyelids drooped as he struggled to remain awake.
Nathan hustled everybody out of the room, and settled the gambler.
Ezra turned the card slowly in his hand, it was more difficult to shuffle one handed but not impossible. He revealed the seven of spades. He placed this card on top of the eight of diamonds, and then turned up the next card, regarding it. Set out on the table was a game of solitaire. Just what he was in the mood to play after spending the last week trapped under Nathan's watchful eye while he recuperated from the gunshot wound to his shoulder. And what better place to play than the jail? Its empty cells were music to his ears.
Unfortunately that much sought after solitude was interrupted when Vin pushed through the door. "Hey pard, any one would think you were hiding?"
"I am... " he confided, "just don't tell Nathan."
Vin snagged the vacant chair and spinning it around sat in it and folded his arms over the back. "Glad those two have gone," Tanner indicated the empty cell.
"Yes indeed... was there something else?" The gambler had paused in his game of solitaire, while he contemplated the longhaired man.
"Been thinkin' things over... was wondering if we got everyone?"
Standish steepled his fingers on the table, and wondered how much he should reveal to the tracker. "I have revised the events also." Seeing Tanner waiting for him to continue, Ezra shared his thoughts on the situation. "It's my belief that McBride paid for Jones' and Morris' duplicity, but I hesitate in accepting that Charlie McBride had the initiative to organise this subterfuge."
"So yer saying that someone else was involved?" Vin concluded.
"That would be my supposition." Standish collected up his cards and awkwardly shuffled them.
"Nathan's gonna have a fit if he finds out you ain't been wearing that thing," Vin nodded at the discarded sling that draped over the back of the chair.
"You going to inform him?" Standish asked conspicuously.
Tanner shrugged his shoulders noncommittally, "want ta come over to the saloon? The boys are all there?" Or hopefully they are, he thought. They'd all gone out to look for Ezra, and agreed to meet back at the saloon in an hour if they'd not found him. It was just past the allocated time, so he hoped they be waiting, as he wasn't back yet.
At the gambler's agreement, Vin picked up the sling and held it out to the southerner. "Put it on."
Ezra hesitated for a moment then thought the better of it, swiping it off Tanner. "Thank you," he drawled sarcastically.
The two lawmen entered the saloon, and headed towards the five other lawmen that had gathered in a group at the bar. JD was the first to notice the arrival of Tanner and Standish, and called out, "Hey Ezra, where ya been?"
"Around," Standish answered evasively.
"Good ta see ya know what's good for you and got that sling on," Nathan praised the southerner.
Vin snorted, and with his free arm Ezra elbowed the tracker in the ribs for his transgression. To appease the southerner, Vin changed the subject. "Let's grab a table."
Wilmington thumped his glass down on the table, time for some answers. "What I want to know is what cha did up in that room all day, Ezra?"
Vin interrupted. "Hell he was hardly ever in the damn room! Every time I turned around I nearly fell over him."
"An exaggeration to be sure, Mr. Tanner." Standish grinned, showing off his gold tooth.
"Ya mean ya weren't hiding?" At Ezra's shake of his head, JD frowned, "then how come we didn't see ya?"
"JD, you were not looking for me, I was dead remember?"
Sighing deeply, Ezra studied the six men. Friends to be sure. "JD, you remember the night you tipped Buck's beer down his lap?" The kid nodded enthusiastically, "Well... it was I who retrieved your hat from the dusty floor and returned it to you."
Dunne's mouth fell open. "That was you?" Buck slapped the kid on his back and roared with laughter, the others joined in as well.
When the laughter died down Jackson queried, "You were here in the saloon?"
"Most nights," he admitted, "unfortunately it was not very profitable to buy drinks only to dispose of them."
"So anyone else besides Tanner and the judge see ya?"
"I do believe I was on the receiving end of a few of Mr. Larabee's glares," Chris arched both eyebrows in response, "and Josiah bought me dinner one night..."
Nathan bellowed his laughter, almost toppling off the chair, tears coming to his eyes. He sought to control the bubbling, and in gasping speech Nathan asked Josiah, "He was your poor soul down on his luck?" And to Josiah's embarrassment the healer doubled over with laughter once more.
"Looks like it was just me who wasn't fooled," Wilmington boldly stated.
Vin slid his arm around Wilmington's shoulder and whispered in his ear, but loud enough for the others to hear, "Reckon that ain't right, Ezra told me you were the first, apart from me that is."
The large man swivelled in his seat, hands on his hips and waited for Standish to explain.
Not in any hurry to enlighten the ladies man Ezra took a swallow from his shot glass, and felt the warm liquid slide down his throat. Rubbing his hand over his stubble free chin, he licked his lips and figured he stalled long enough. "You tried to do the two-step with me, then had the audacity to inform me that I'd had sufficient libations."
"That was you?" As Ezra nodded his assent, Wilmington muttered a curse under his breath. "Damn."
Chris smiled broadly and his hazel eyes sought out the gambler's green eyes, and seeing the merriment dancing in them Larabee's smile widened.
Thank God they were all back together.
Judge Travis' head was down reading the telegram while he walking along the boardwalk towards the restaurant. He sighed and frowned as the words registered. So intent was he that he stumbled over a loose board and would have fallen had not an arm snatched out and steadied him. Clearing his throat, he thanked the man for his help. Hearing the distinct southern accent reply. Travis looked up into the handsome face of the gambler. "Ezra! Good to see you up and about."
"It's good to be up and about." Noticing the folded paper in the judge's hands, Ezra commented, not meaning to pry. "Must be important news to keep your undivided attention?"
"Oh this? Just news of my friend, Benjamin Chisholm, he unfortunately can't make it here after all. Unexpected circumstances."
"That is a shame Judge, will you be staying much longer?"
"No... I'll be heading back to Eagle Bend come morning. Damn pity, was looking forward to seeing him. Guess we'll catch up again soon."
Standish leant against the wall of the restaurant watching the judge head back to the Hotel with slumped shoulders, something about that wire was odd, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Shrugging his shoulders he entered the restaurant, and seeing Vin already there, ambled up to him. With a wicked smile Ezra baited the insightful tracker, "Mr. Tanner, you buying me lunch?"
"You owe me," At the inquiring stare Standish explained further, "for assaulting and bruising my body countless times."
"Sure, least I can do for a dead man."
Author's Note: I'm not really certain of the exact effects the drug Curare has on a person's body, or for how long its effect would last, so I apologise if what I've described is wrong.