Main Character: Ezra
How long had it been? How long ago had he made this one room shack his home? How many months since he'd seen the others except from a distance? How many months since he'd shared a meal and conversation, a drink or a game of cards with the men he still considered his family?
Pouring a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove, he crossed to stand in the open doorway, staring at the vista. The leaves were just beginning to change colors, the first real indication of the coming fall. If he walked to the edge of the trees he would have a fairly unobstructed view for miles. From there, far off in the distance, he could see most of the old Guy Royal property, bought almost a year earlier by Samuel Hayes, the Bennett, Jenkins and Treymore farms and Nettie Wells small spread. In the other direction lay the town of Four Corners.
He'd stumbled across the small secluded building hidden amongst a grove of trees on his first trip to Four Corners, when he'd left the main road and followed more of a foot path than trail, up the hillside at the sound of approaching horses. He always found it a good idea to have a place where he could avoid anyone who might have nefarious plans that put his well being in jeopardy. Situated with its back wall toward the cliff, a lean-to on one side and a tiny creek on the other, it was obviously abandoned but in remarkably good condition. When he decided to remain in Four Corners, he'd gradually stocked it with plenty of supplies, made it comfortable and had spent many a free afternoon away from the watchful and often suspicious eyes of the town residents in the peaceful little grove on the hillside. The others would be surprised to find the nomadic gambler held the land title and rights to this small piece of paradise
He wasn't sure why he had never told the others about the cabin or at least told Vin. Of them all, the sharpshooter would appreciate the surrounding beauty and understand his need for a private, safe and peaceful place to while away some time. Now he was glad they didn't know.
Tossing aside the last of the coffee, he set the cup on the shelf, moving the queen of hearts to the king of spades, he left the cards spread on the table and slipped into the faded jacket and old hat.
Time for afternoon patrol.
The tall rancher sat down and stretched out his long legs, sipping at the warm beer and watching the batwing doors. He'd picked this table and this particular chair for a reason and knew he wouldn't have to wait long for a reaction.
Although he had to admit Guy Royal had built himself a nice ranch , Four Corners was a typical western town, the surrounding area being settled by little farms, tiny ranches and homesteaders looking-- hoping to put down roots and make a better life for themselves and their families.
There were still the idiot outlaws who tried to take what they wanted by sheer force, eventually being smacked down and taught a lesson by the seven men who protected this part of the territory, but other than the occasional celebration or traveling show, the saloons were about the only entertainment for hard working men in the area.
Hell, from what he'd been told even Wickstown wasn't the wild fun it used to be although it was still the place most cowhands went to satisfy their more carnal needs.
Thinking about Guy automatically turned his thoughts to the man now wasting away in Yuma prison. It's not that he really gave a damn, but there was a family obligation to make the regulators pay for their involvement in his cousin's current situation. Of course the fact that he would be able to collect on that debt and therefore further his own ambitions held a certain satisfaction.
Like himself, Guy wasn't content with what he had---, money, and a big piece of property with a good water supply, he wanted more and he didn't necessarily want to work for it. Guy's greed and lack of planning had been his downfall.
The truth was Samuel was just as greedy but, had far more patience. An officer during the war, he knew the benefit of having a strategy and laying out a plan of attack. Unlike his cousin, Samuel also knew the benefit of waiting and not rushing fool hardily into action. Form a long term plan and patiently see it through. Step one had been purchasing Royal's ranch when Travis had sentenced the man to life in prison. He'd only avoided the hangman's noose because they couldn't prove he'd paid Top Hat Bob to do anything more than run the dirt scratchers off the land he wanted.
He'd lived on the ranch going on a year now. As far as the local yokels knew, he'd never heard of Guy Royal until his lawyer had put the property up for sale. He'd kept his nose clean, occasionally attended church services, joined in town celebrations, offered help when needed and was friendly and respectful to everyone, including the seven peacekeepers. Mary Travis had helped him contact the families of the people killed and those who hadn't returned, whose property adjoined his and he purchased the land for a fair price. As far as everyone was concerned, he was an upstanding citizen and was shown the respect he deserved.
What they didn't know was how many Union payrolls had disappeared into his private coffers hidden away until the end of the war; the robberies blamed on the Confederacy. They didn't know about the businesses he owned in other towns. What they didn't know was he was watching, listening, learning, planning and implementing the expansion of his own private empire. When he was through, he would own and rule most- if not all- of the territory.
He didn't look up as Larabee pushed through the batwing doors followed by Tanner, the gunslinger moving to the bar for a bottle of whiskey and glasses before joining the sharpshooter at their normal table.
He could literally feel the tracker's anger every time the man glanced in his direction, could almost hear his thoughts that anyone would have the audacity to make use of the missing gambler's chair. Even on the busiest nights, the table might get used, but as if expecting the man to walk through the door any moment, pulling the ever present deck of cards from his pocket, ready to challenge all comers to a game, that particular chair always remained unoccupied.
Samuel had gotten to know these men, had studied them, had read every back issue of 'The Clarion' Mary Travis had on file and listened to her and others talk about the men they considered friends, but also heroes.
He knew, because of these men, the death of Mary and Mrs. Potter's husbands had been avenged and Mary herself had escaped death by an assassin's bullet. He knew because of these lawmen, Nettie Wells owned her ranch outright and his cousin sat in prison. He knew because of these men, not one, but two Indian villages had been saved. He knew because of these seven men, people felt safer settling in the territory and starting new lives.
What Samuel also knew was that these seven men were tighter than a hangman's noose. A gunslinger, a ex-bounty hunter, a womanizing ex-Texas ranger, an ex-slave, a defrocked priest, a green horn easterner and a conniving con man had been brought together under unusual circumstances, had stayed together, hired to protect a nothing town and in doing so had become a family of misfits.
They fought as one, almost knowing without speaking what the others would do in any given situation, willing to lay their lives down for any of the others. Most importantly, he knew attacking head on or even from ambush wouldn't work. However, dividing them would lead to their downfall.
Since arriving he had watched the interactions of these men. He had seen how Larabee and Tanner, Wilmington and Dunne, Jackson and Sanchez had paired off and how Standish seemed to float among them all.
They were seven unique, independent individuals each with their role in this unusual family they had formed.
There were few residents of Four Corners who didn't like, respect, sympathize with and fear the black clad gunslinger. Larabee was a natural born leader, not asking for respect, but earning it and giving it when appropriate. He was hot tempered and cool headed. He knew when to charge ahead and when to back down and rarely said what he didn't mean. The six men who rode with him had fanned the dying ember of life deep in the gunslinger's soul and one by one had become the family he'd lost. His innate sense of responsibility and the guilt that weighed so heavy it would, at times, drive him to seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, was his weakness and without the support of the others, would be his undoing.
Vin Tanner was their spirit. He was the wild that all men wanted to be, but didn't have the courage and that all women wanted to tame, but knew it wouldn't be entirely possible. He was the calm at the center of the storm. Quiet and ignored, he was able to blend into the woodwork, but was, himself, a force to be reckoned with if he sensed an injustice-- especially if that injustice involved someone he cared about. The soft spoken sharpshooter seemed to have a gentle heart which could be deadly for someone who had hunted bounty and was now hunted . Eventually it would make him hesitate just long enough to get him killed.
The jovial womanizer was their heart. Larabee's oldest friend had stood steadfast by Larabee like a faithful dog, always coming back no matter how much the angry drunken gunslinger kicked and pushed him away. Buck Wilmington hadn't let death or grief harden him. He brought out the fun and laughter in the others, made even the saloon whores feel special, but never hesitated to defend someone with his gun, fists or words.
His need to protect others, to put their safety above his own, was a weakness that could be exploited.
Like any father, Josiah Sanchez was their strength, fighting his own demons while attempting to keep the younger men on a path that wouldn't let necessary actions destroy their souls. He was as strong as the wood in the church he repaired and yet could be as pliable as the softened wax of the altar candles. The philosophical ex-priest knew when to step in and keep the peace and when to let his family fight it out among themselves before offering comfort and a possible resolution. HIs need to search for the good in people and guide them in the right direction could easily be used against him.
Nathan Jackson was definitely their conscience. Perhaps it was because of the atrocities he'd witnessed and suffered as a slave that had made him want to help others, either with his weapons or his healing talents. The compassionate, ethical ex-slave held everyone to his own high morals, especially the immoral gambler, and never failed to let them know when they didn't meet those standards. He fought his internal battles against his own prejudices and preconceived notions, but it was his fear of failure, of not being able to save one of the others that could destroy him.
JD Dunne was the keeper of their long lost innocence and naivety. The young Bostonian had come west and found, not only the excitement and adventure he sought, but six big brothers, who watched over him and subtly imparted their wisdom and knowledge. Until he was proven wrong, the boy always found and believed in the good in someone and it was this quality the others wanted to preserve. With an zest for life and boundless energy, the youngest among them kept their own inner child alive. He was learning from the others, but with the brash fearlessness of youth, rushing into a situation would get him killed.
Samuel's thoughts turned to the man whose chair he now lounged in. It had taken him longer to ascertain just what role Ezra Standish played in this little family. By their very nature gamblers and con men were loners, moving on to the next game, looking for marks for their next con. They didn't let people get close. They looked out for themselves and used others to accomplish their goals, yet Ezra Standish had joined these six men to protect a village of Indians, nigras and half-breeds and stayed to protect a town where most citizens considered him less than contemptible and as trustworthy as a rattlesnake.
The rancher had spent more than a few Saturday nights at the gambler's table losing money, but gaining knowledge about the arrogant con man. Standish used charm, wit and an extensive vocabulary to attain his goals. Watching him laugh with Vin and JD, tease Buck, have lengthy intellectual discussions with Sanchez, remain silent as Nathan lectured his lack of morals and argue with Larabee, the last piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. He was their protector.
He would stand with these men, watch and protect their backs, but if there was a way out of a situation that didn't involve weapons Ezra would find it. He would protect them from others and from each other. The con man would often use his sharp tongue to deflect an argument between the men causing them to focus their anger on him. He was adept at sensing Larabee's dark moods and pushing the man over the edge, letting him release his growing rage on the gambler rather than taking it out on one of the others, when his words could possibly do irreparable damage. While he may not consider himself worthy of having these men as friends, that's exactly what he wanted and would do whatever it took to keep them together. He could hide behind his poker face, let hateful hurtful words or actions roll off him like rainwater, but that desire to be worthy of their respect, that desire to keep the family together and perhaps be thought of as a friend, was the chink in his armour.
Yes, as long as they remained seven strong they were unbeatable so he knew he would have to divide in order to conquer. Fortunately that plan was already well underway.
Staying among the trees as much as possible, riding parallel to the road, Ezra followed Buck Wilmington, staying far enough back so as not to be seen yet close enough to be of help if the womanizer ran into trouble. It was so much easier to follow the others than Tanner. While the other men were always alert, Ezra would bet the money in his boot, the sharpshooter immediately knew when he was being watched and from which direction. That uncanny ability made following the tracker, without being spotted that much harder.
Unfortunately that instinct had worked against the tracker and Ezra when, a month earlier, heading back to town as the sun hovered on the horizon, the gambler heard a gunshot ahead of him. Leaving the woods, Chaucer raced full out down the road, Ezra slowing the horse only when he came to the area where he thought the shot might have originated. Replacing the rifle into its scabbard and pulling the Colt from the holster on his hip, at the sound of a scared voice, Ezra rounded the bend at what would appear to observers as being someone in no particular rush.
His heart had plunged to his feet at the sight of a young man, no more than a teenager, kneeling beside Tanner's inert body.
"I'm sorry mister! I'm so sorry...I didn't mean it...I…"
"What the hell," Ezra had leapt from Chaucer and rushed to Vin's side, using his weapon to wave the boy away, but keeping him in sight.
"I didn't mean it to happen...I was scared and the horse jumped and the gun...the gun just went off...I didn't mean it...I swear...I…" Shaking, the kid babbled on as Ezra quickly examined the wound in the unconscious tracker's shoulder.
"You got any extra clothes?" Ezra questioned pulling a shirt from his own saddle bags before approaching Peso. Like Ezra, even on patrol the sharpshooter usually had an extra shirt. He was happy to see Nathan still insisted each man carry a small medical bag.
"Ya got any extra clothes with ya?" Wadding Vin's shirt into a thick pad he placed it under the tracker to stop the bleeding from the exit wound while using his own to put pressure on the entry.
"Yeah…" Digging through a gunny sack tied to his saddle, the kid handed Ezra a well-worn threadbare shirt.
"Keep pressure on this." The boy fought not to gag as the gambler forced his hand against the blood soaked cloth. If the young man was going to shoot people, he might as well, literally, have that person's blood on his hands.
"What's your name, kid?" Ezra quickly began tearing the boy's shirt into long strips.
"Jeb Tyler, sir."
"Well, Jeb Tyler, wanna tell me why ya shot this fella?"
"Was an accident, I swear."
"Why'd ya have a gun out if you weren't going to use it? Was he attempting to relieve you of your money and other personal effects?"
"Was he trying to rob you?" Vin released a small moan, but remained unconscious as the southerner sat him up, instructing Jeb to hold him as he used the strips to bind the bloody makeshift bandages in place.
"No, sir." The boy looked embarrassed. " My pa died a while back and Ma's havin' a real hard time. Got us a farm over by Jubilee, but the bank's gonna take it iffen we don't come up with almost two hundred dollars. Don't know what we'll do if that happens. Got five little brothers and sisters."
"Help me get him on your horse...You're gonna have to ride double to get him to town."
With Ezra ponying Peso, they started at a slow steady pace toward Four Corners.
"So needing money you were attempting to rob him?" Ezra continued the questioning.
"NO SIR!" Jeb shook his head emphatically. "Was lookin' for work and one a the ranchers told me weren't none anywhere in the area, but he knew this fella was wanted by the law for killin' somebody. Said he was worth five hundred dollars. That would save our farm and get us through for awhile." The boy's young face was a mask of shame. "Ain't never done no bounty huntin', but we need the money real bad. I was afraid he'd kill me too so I had my gun out when I stopped him, but guess Rusty was just as scared as me 'cause he suddenly crow hopped and the damn gun went off." Adjusting his hold on the tracker, Jeb glanced at Ezra with tears glistening in his eyes. "He ain't no murderer, is he?"
"No, young man, he's not. He's Chris Larabee's brother and one of the peacekeepers who protect this part of the territory. I'm afraid, someone misinformed you and perpetrated a grave injustice on him." Ezra slowed Chaucer, dropping back as Vin roused stirred, raising his head and trying to determine what was happening through the pain filled fog.
"I'm real sorry, mister, but we'll be in town soon and you'll be okay," Jeb assured him.
"No, sir, my name's Jeb." He looked at Ezra as the tracker slipped into unconsciousness once more. "I'm goin' ta jail, ain't I?" Tears glistened in his eyes. "My ma's gonna be so ashamed a me."
Ezra rubbed a thumb over his lower lip. "No….you're not." Darkness was settling as they neared the edge of town. "You're gonna take him into town. Tell Mr. Larabee you found him on the road. You did what you could to patch him up and brought him into town. Once he's under their care, you hightail your ass back to the farm quick as at that crowbait will take you. There's better ways of making money than huntin' someone who might have a price on their head."
Ezra looped the loose reins over the horse's head knowing Peso would follow his man into town.
"Ain't you comin' with me?" The kid turned scared eyes back to the road leading down the main street of the small town.
"Young man if I accompany you Mr. Larabee will want to question me about what happened and then you'll be lucky if he doesn't kill you where you stand. Do as you're told and everything will be fine." Ezra hesitated as he turned his horse and started back the way they'd come. "Hey, kid. What was the name of the rancher who told you about the bounty?"
'Damn, I knew that man was trouble.' Pulling up in a strand of trees he watched as Jeb rode down main street.
Certain his friend was in Nathan's capable hands, with a soft sigh he had returned to his small home.
A cool breeze lifted the hair off his neck and the gambler realized, not for the first time, he needed to visit a barber. Without benefit of a barber's touch or hair tonic, the dark auburn waves brushed his shoulders. The three day growth of beard and plain brown clothes completed the picture, or disguise if that's what someone wished to call it. Without close scrutiny, no one would recognize the man as Ezra P. Standish. Only his horse would give away the identity of its rider to those who knew him, but Ezra had already given up his home, his friends and his family. He didn't have it in him to give up his faithful companion.
He would definitely shave when he returned to the cabin. Three days was about all he could stand. How was it Vin never seemed to mind the constant scruff he habitually wore?
How long had it been?
It had been late spring when he'd received the telegram from Maude. She had broken her ankle and invited him to spend some time with her and her current husband in San Francisco while she recovered. A train ticket for a sleeping berth was waiting for him in Eagle Bend.
The others had encouraged him to go and Buck and Josiah had seen him off at the train. He'd spent almost a month in that magnificent city. They had gone to the theater, attended parties, dined in the finest restaurants, shopped in the most expensive stores and he'd spent most of his evenings in one of the many casinos. Best of all he'd made enough money to put a sizable down payment on a building and buy enough stock for a month. He'd finally have his own saloon. Perhaps he'd even inquire into repurchasing the Standish Tavern. Without his mother's interference, this time he would be a success.
He enjoyed his stepfather's company. Jonathon Weston was intelligent, witty, generous and sharp as a porcupine quill, but it was the change in his mother that fascinated him. He knew every con Maude had ever thought of, had watched her twist men around her little finger like thread on a spool yet to his amazement he believed his mother, while she may not love him, truly cared for and was more than a little fond of her husband. There was a genuine sparkle in her eyes when she looked at him, her laughter wasn't forced and there was an affectionate tone in her voice when she spoke of Jonathon. Ezra didn't believe this was a marriage that would end in a year with Maude accepting a more than generous settlement. Whether she realized it or not, his mother might have been caught in her own web.
Not once had his mother complained about Ezra wasting his God given gifts or tried to convince him that returning to Four Corners would ruin his life. Rather than telling Jonathon the made up stories of Ezra's childhood as she had in Four Corners, she told him about the good he and his friends were doing. Of their exploits and how they were protecting the citizens of that untamed territory. And hearing a ring of pride in her voice he was amazed to realize, in her own way, Maude was proud of him.
It was while seated at one of the poker tables in one of the finest saloons he had the overwhelming urge to return to Four Corners. Folding his hand, he had gathered his winnings and went to the hotel to pack. Truth be told, the urge wasn't as sudden as he would tell others. A week after he arrived he found his thoughts straying to the small town and the friends he'd left behind. Those thoughts had become more frequent when he spotted a ornate mantle clock that would be the perfect birthday present to give Nettie Wells at the surprise celebration Mary, Mrs. Potter and the others were planning for the woman. Running the little ranch and taking care of her orphaned niece kept life down to the basic necessities, but everyone deserved something nice once in awhile and every woman, deserved something pretty. Of course it would come from all seven of them, as there was no reason in ruining a perfectly good feud.
For the last few days his thoughts had been on what might be happening in that dust bowl of a town and preoccupied with thoughts of the six men who had come to mean more to him than he dared to admit even to himself. Maybe if luck was with him he would be back in time for the Fourth of July celebration. Of course it was nothing like this city would put on, but it was where he wanted to be. Those were the people with whom he wanted to celebrate the country's Independence Day.
Jonathon had arranged for Ezra to make the long trip home in his private rail car and promising to visit when they returned from Europe, his mother had kissed his cheek and wished him a safe journey home. To his astonishment, Maude and Jonathon had waited on the platform until the train disappeared into the distance and he could no longer see them.
Traveling in the luxury car had been pleasant enough, even with constant stops, in tiny towns and what passed for cities, for fuel and water, giving the passengers time to stretch their legs or enjoy a meal. Being a social creature by nature, Ezra had spent as much time in the passenger cars or inviting others to partake in a game of chance in his car.
Three days from Eagle Bend, Ezra had just awoken when the train pulled into a town that was little more than a train stop. Pouring water into the bowl, he quickly shaved, knowing there was less chance of cutting your throat if you performed that action while the train was stopped, and was pulling on his jacket when the conductor knocked on the door.
"Good morning, Thomas. Do I have time to enjoy a meal before we pull out again and could you perhaps suggest a good restaurant?"
"I'm sorry to say you have more than enough time," the older man sighed. "It seems there was a rock slide a few miles up the track. A crew will be here this afternoon, but It's gonna take a couple days or more to clear it off. Once that's done, they'll check the tracks and do any needed repairs."
'Damn! Damn! Damn!' Ezra had turned his attention back to the conductor who was offering to get him a room at the local hotel although the private car was nicer than any of the hotel rooms.
"So we're stuck here for at least three days and possibly longer?"
"I'm afraid so, sir," the man agreed apologetically.
"Would you please arrange to have my trunk kept at the depot if I'm not there before the train arrives?" His decision made, Ezra had quickly changed from his Royal blue tailcoat to his tan traveling jacket and placed several changes of clothes in the carpet bag. "Give me an hour to find nourishment and have someone meet me to release Chaucer."
"Horses are being put in the corral now sir. Been a long trip already without the poor things being locked in the car longer than necessary."
"I'm sure they appreciate your kindness as do I." Grabbing his hat and pressing a hefty tip into the man's hand, Ezra had exited the train and glanced toward one of the cattle cars as Chaucer was carefully led down the ramp and into the corral, laughing when the horse grabbed the handler's hat in his teeth and tossed it into the air.
Carrying his saddle and carpet bag, the saddlebags thrown over one shoulder, Ezra had been headed for the corral when Thomas called his name, hurrying to catch the gambler before he left town.
"This came for you while you were at breakfast." He held out the folded flimsy. "It must be important because Murphy said it was sent to every stop between Eagle Bend and Denver."
"It's been a pleasure having you travel with us, sir." The man had tipped his hat and turned to leave as Ezra set down the carpetbag and opened the telegram. He knew the color had drained from his face and his heart shattered into a thousand pieces as he read the words more than once.
E Standish- Don't come back <stop> We don't want you here <stop> McMurtry was right <stop> C Larabee
Ezra wasn't sure how long he'd stood there before getting his emotions under control enough to think clearly. Shoving the paper in his pocket, he called Thomas back and asked him to replace his carpetbag in the car. He had several things to do before leaving, including exercising his horse.
Quickly saddling Chaucer, he had ridden out of town needing someplace to think. Happy to once again be in the open air on ground that wasn't moving, with a slight touch of his man's heels, the horse had broke into a full out run until Ezra had finally pulled back on the reins, easing the animal to a much slower pace.
Finally returning to the little town, Ezra had sat for hours in the tiny saloon, running scenarios and options through his mind. Was there trouble and this was their way of protecting him? Was this their way of warning him so he didn't unknowingly walk into the middle of whatever trouble they faced? It didn't matter what he thought of, or how many different ways he twisted it in his mind, the prevailing truth always slapped him in the face. It wasn't a warning. It wasn't code. It was the plain and simple truth. The last line of the telegram was all the proof he needed.
Ezra went through a myriad of emotions, from sorrow to despair to anger, one second deciding to hell with the men who had conned him, to hell with that patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere and the next second grieving the loss of the friendships he thought he'd found there. What had happened? What had he done wrong?
He should be relieved to be rid of his obligation to Travis, Four Corners and the six peacekeepers. He should be relieved he no longer had to rise with the sun to ride patrol, or chase after some moronic miscreants hell bent on creating mayhem. He should be relieved he no longer chanced being shot by some fool wanting to take what wasn't his or ignore the looks of disgust from the high and mighty citizens he passed on the boardwalk. He should be relieved he no longer had to silently endure a lecture from Nathan when the ethical healer thought he was crossing some moral line, or pretend not to hear the silent questioning of his true motives when voicing an idea. He should be relieved he no longer had to face the doubt in the other men that Ezra would be there when needed.
Instead he found himself mourning the loss of so much. All his life he'd been taught that only money brought respect, that people were nothing more than marks to be fleeced and kept at bay so you, yourself didn't become a mark. He had learned the hard way, time and again, people kept you around only as long as you were useful. Obviously now, Ezra was no longer useful to the six peacekeepers.
Even if they had only been pretending to be his friends, he would miss playing pranks with Vin, discussions with Josiah, Buck and JD's horseplay and he would even miss Nathan's lectures and Larabee's glares.
He would miss sitting on the roof with Vin while more words became available to the tracker through the pages of books. He would miss JD's incessant questions, horrible jokes, his hesitant courtship of Casey and boundless enthusiasm for his new life. He would miss playing chess with Nathan as what he thought of as their cautious friendship became less adversarial when with each passing day they accepted there was more to the other than either knew.
He would miss Josiah calling him son , his rumbling laugh, his constant repairs to the old church, and his covert attempts to keep Ezra on the straight and narrow. He would miss Buck's teasing him about his extensive vocabulary, his fancy clothes or the way Ezra spoiled Chaucer. He would miss the good natured man's tales of his exploits with the ladies. Ezra knew Buck, having so much respect for women, never used a real name and he would miss the silence if Wilmington ever succeeded in wooing Inez.
He would miss watching Larabee come more alive each day, smiling more, laughing with the others and slowly shedding the cloak of mourning, his shirts becoming blues, greens and occasionally even white as his desire to join his wife and son faded. Of course Ezra knew the rest of Chris' clothes would always be black and he would never rid himself of that black duster. That would be like Vin setting fire to his buckskin coat.
Ezra had spent a restless night in the private car finally dozing off to dream of a white buffalo, an eagle flying against a blue sky and hearing Vin's soft whisper of being valued. The dream changed to find Larabee standing before him at the Seminole village demanding the con man never run out on him again.
He had jerked awake, his decision made. Purchasing a pack mule from the livery, he had loaded his trunk, bought supplies and immediately headed for Four Corners.
Four months. It had been just over four months since Ezra had stepped on the train bound for San Francisco. Over three months since they'd received a telegram saying he was on his way home and but not a word since. Using his foot to push out the chair as Larabee returned with their drinks, Vin saw his own irritation flash in the gunslinger's eyes when he glanced over at the rancher.
"Reckon the man's got a right to sit where he wants," Larabee mumbled.
"Not there," Vin declared lowly, shaking his head. "Not yet."
Larabee understood his feelings. The six friends had been sharing the noon meal when Tom Blaine's apprentice had hurried in with a telegram announcing it was for the Illustrious Peacekeepers of Four Corners.
"Ez!" The others had only grinned when, quick as Larabee's fast draw, the tracker had snatched the flimsy from the young man's hand, leaving one of the others to tip him. "Taking morning train home <stop> E. Standish <stop>"
Whoops erupted from the table and Inez poured them each a drink on the house, her own smile brighter.
"Shortest sentence boy's ever said," Buck grinned.
"Coz he had ta pay for it. Ya know how he covets his money,," Nathan quipped, bringing laughter from the others.
"Perhaps you should charge him for every word he says, Brother Chris," Josiah chuckled.
"Have ta consider it. Sure would make trips peaceful," the gunslinger agreed, setting off another round of laughter. With JD practically bouncing in his chair, he and Buck immediately started planning a welcome home party.
Days later a telegram to Eagle Bend regarding the train's arrival had informed them of the rock slide and Larabee had replied that they were to inform him when the train was once again in route and the arrival time.
He and Tanner had arrived in Eagle Bend as the train pulled into the depot only to discover Ezra had left the train before they cleared the tracks.
"Ya tellin' me Ezra left the comfort of that," Larabee pointed to the private car, "to sleep on the ground, instead of waitin' a few days."
"Yes, sir," the conductor nodded. "As soon as I told him about the rock slide, he made arrangements for his trunk to be kept here until he picked it up, but then he changed his mind after he got that telegram. Left the next morning with all his luggage."
"What'd the telegram say?"
"I don't know, sir," The conductor appeared insulted they would assume he read a passenger's mail or would gossip about said passenger.
"If he took his trunk he wouldn't have to come here," Vin stated the obvious. "He's probably sittin' in the saloon waitin' ta empty our pockets in a game a chance."
"Well, we wouldn't want to deprive him of that opportunity, now would we?" Larabee grinned.
But Ezra hadn't been waiting and they hadn't seen or heard from him since.
Deciding he'd waited long enough, looking as if he had just realized where he was, Samuel quickly rose from the chair. Taking his glass to the bar, he requested Inez put a drink for all the peacekeepers on his tab and slowly made his way to their table as trying to ignore the portly banker on his heels, the young sheriff pushed through the batwings and joined the other two men.
"Chris, McMurty wants-"
"I think we should discuss this at the jail," the banker stated indignantly. "I don't appreciate having my business discussed where every ne'er-do-well and reprobate can-"
"Excuse me, gentlemen," Hayes interrupted. "I just wanted to apologize. I've had a few things on my mind and didn't realize I was using Mr. Standish's chair until a moment ago."
"You were usin' Ezra's chair?" JD's eyes automatically darted to the gamester's usual table. At the mention of their missing friend, Dunne's shoulders slumped a touch lower. "Don't guess Ez'd really mind someone usin' it till he gets back." There was still a tinge of hope in the Bostonian's voice.
"Oh for Pete's sake, it's just a chair!" McMurtry huffed. "I don't understand what the fuss is about. Inez is losing money not renting out his room. Yosemite won't let anyone use his horse's stall and no one wants to sit in a chair!"
The large room had gone quiet, the few afternoon customers' eyes on the fat little banker who didn't seem to realize he'd just stepped in a pile of shit.
"Perhaps we should make a memorial plaque… "'Here sat Ezra Standish, cheat, liar and conman.' " Dunne's face paled at the mention of a memorial. "Why are you all so surprised he ran out on you? I'm surprised he didn't do it before…" McMurtry's statement ended in a small yeep as without rising, Larabee grabbed a fist full of the man's shirt and yanked downward, bending the banker almost in half and putting him nose to nose with the gunslinger.
"Ezra didn't run out on us." The statement was made for everyone in the room to hear before Chris lowered his voice. "If I hear ya malignin' Ezra again when he ain't around to defend himself, I'll take ya to the woodshed." The gun man's smile didn't melt the ice in his eyes. "And I promise ya one of us won't be comin' back." He released the man with a hard shove, almost knocking McMurtry off his feet. "You got business ta discuss, meet us at the jail in an hour."
"I'm sorry if I caused any trouble, Mr. Larabee, and again I apologize for my absent minded decision of where to sit," Samuel stated as McMurty scuttled through the doors with as much dignity as possible. "How's the shoulder, Vin?"
"Was better a minute ago." The tracker rubbed absently at the healed wound where Sanchez's fingers had dug into his flesh. Arriving as McMurtry was making his speech, Josiah had placed a strong hand on the sharpshooter's shoulder to keep him from tearing the fat man's head off . Battling his own rising fury, he'd been unaware of the tracker, sliding down in his chair attempting to rid himself of the fingers that tried to clench into fists.
"Well, I best see if my supplies have been loaded and head out." With a tip of his hat, the rancher followed McMurty.
Josiah's expression told them his trip had been as fruitless as all their others. Using the excuse to visit his sister, the ex-priest had stopped in every saloon and jail between Four Corners and Vista City, questioning everyone he came across if they might have seen their missing southerner.
Larabee had sent telegrams to all the nearby towns, inquiring about the gambler and asking to be informed if he was spotted. No one believed for a minute the gambler had run out on them and while no one wanted to believe Ezra was dead, even JD knew how dangerous this country was. A man traveling alone was often an easy target, not only for outlaws, but without help even the smallest of injuries could be fatal.
"Bartender in Whistle Stop said there was a fella nobody really knows who comes in once in a while and plays a few hands a poker. Usually wins more than he loses. Was there a few days back, but his description sounded more like Vin than Ezra." The big man eased his weary body into a chair and nodded his thanks to Inez as she placed a beer in front of him. "It's like Brother Ez fell off the damn face of the earth."
Aware of the jingle of harnesses and the creak of wood from the wagon behind him, Samuel's thoughts were once more on the seven...correction....six peacekeepers in Four Corners. If things had worked out right there would only be five, most likely four men left protecting the town. If it had worked out perfectly, there would most likely be only the healer left and he couldn't watch over the town by himself.
Even if he did say so himself, the telegram to the gambler had been a stroke of genius and apparently had worked like a charm. Of course there was always the chance the con man wouldn't receive it, wouldn't believe it or would ignore it which could have created a problem, but there was no proof of who sent the message. Knowing how often the banker heralded the contemptible traits of the conniving con man to anyone who would listen, the last line would make the telegram believable. He'd gotten rid of one of the peacekeepers without a link to him or a shot being fired.
He'd seen the signs their southerner's disappearance eating away at each of them. Tempers with town residents and each other were shorter, words were sharper, smiles were fewer, the young sheriff grew more silent, the sharpshooter grew more restless and the preacher had stopped working on the church.
He had looked at all the possible scenarios when he mentioned the bounty on Tanner's head to the gullible kid desperate for money. One, the kid would actually get Tanner headed toward Tascosa, in which case Larabee and most likely at least one, possibly two of the others would leave to chase them down, leaving the men in town vulnerable. Two, the kid might actually kill Tanner, in which case Larabee and one or more of the men would be hunting him down, leaving the others vulnerable and bringing their number down to five. It was also likely the guilt of not protecting his friend would send the gunslinger back into the bottle, making him useless. Or third and most likely, Tanner would kill the kid and without witnesses to prove it was self defense, the sharpshooter would hang for murder, thereby destroying the other men. Either that or most, if not all, would go on the run with the ex-bounty hunter who now had a bounty on his head in this territory.
Hayes wasn't sure what had happened except that the kid had brought the injured man to Larabee.
Since Tanner was still alive and not on his way to a hangman's noose in Tascosa, he would have to target one of the others, knowing Larabee would be watching over his best friend like a guardian angel.
The logical choice was Dunne. Losing their youngest would devastate the men, but then again, while they would be down to five men, their grief might bring them closer together. Besides Wilmington was worse than a tick on a dog when it came to sticking close to the young sheriff. Samuel smiled to himself…'You'd think he was afraid the kid was going to vanish into thin air.'
It might be easier to target the preacher the next time he took one of his trips out of town or perhaps the healer when he was searching for the herbs he used in that makeshift clinic of his.
He'd give it some more thought.
Wearing the moccasins Vin had given him, so his boot heels wouldn't click against the boardwalk, Ezra walked the dark, silent streets of Four Corners, remaining in the shadows and being sure to avoid Vin's wagon. He'd stood for several long moments watching JD seated in the jail, reading one of his beloved dime novels. He couldn't help wonder why the young man looked so sad and seemed distracted, his gaze constantly turning to the dark street.
Ezra wasn't there to watch over the young sheriff, if there was trouble he knew the others would help the youngster The truth was he wasn't sure why he had taken to visiting the tiny town in the dead of night once or twice a week except that it eased the loneliness
Yes, Ezra Standish, was lonely.
The southerner, who had spent nearly his entire life alone, moving from town to town, from one poker game to the next, from one con to the next, never staying in one place longer than it took to accomplish his goal, never letting anyone close enough to become more than friendly acquaintances, was lonely.
Ezra P. Standish, gambler and con man extraordinaire, had never felt more alone or lonely in his life, than in the last few months.
He had broken the golden rule to always watch out for number one and it had all started with a tiny gold medallion and a newspaper article in some nowhere town.
Contrary to what most people including the six men thought, Ezra had meant it when he said he wasn't interested in riding with the others even when Larabee had covertly displayed the sculpted piece of precious metal. He had needed money, but not desperately enough to ride to the rescue of a bunch of strangers, with a group of total strangers for a mere five dollars worth of gold.
Locked in his room that night, he'd found himself considering the proposition again. Where did the people get gold and did they have more? If there was a mine perhaps he could work a deal or at least con them out of more than what they had offered. No matter what excuse he had come up with in favor of accepting, he had continued to reject the idea.
Although he'd seen the mistrust and disgust in Nathan's eyes, it didn't bother him to ride with a negra as he'd suggested. That had just been a convenient excuse and one they would believe considering his Southern accent. He'd known many people of color he considered more honorable than white men. He'd known slaves he liked or admired much more than their owners.
The fact was he hadn't known any of the other men. How was he expected to ride into a dangerous situation with people, no matter how good their intentions, whom he didn't know would watch his back and in circumstances such as they were riding into, that was a necessity.
It had been Mary Travis' article in The Clarion the following morning which had him saddling Chaucer, ready to ride with the gunslinger. Anyone who'd been in the territory for any length of time, knew of the black clad man's reputation. This man who had only the previous day stepped in to help save the life of a total stranger would most certainly watch the backs of the men who chose to ride with him.
Ezra hadn't meant to 'run out' on the others. The truth was even if he hadn't stopped patrol to check the mine, he was on the other side of the camp and wouldn't have seen Anderson's men in time to warn them. Hearing the battle and knowing how outnumbered the village was, he had almost kept riding… almost. The faces of the children and what he'd told them about courage only the day before had flashed before his eyes and he'd turned the horse around.
Ezra glanced up at the dark window of what had once been his room. His home. He couldn't remember another place he'd ever thought of with that sentimental notion. Home. A place where people cared about you. A place where family was glad to see you, happy to help when needed, give you a swift kick if deserved and was willing to give you more than one second chance.
What the hell was he doing here? Living in a shack, like a hermit, traveling to dinky towns where he wouldn't be recognized for supplies, a visit to the bathhouse and a few hands of poker, not for the money, but for the sound of a voice other than his own. Haunting the streets and alleys in the dead of night just to be near the friends sleeping behind closed doors. It suddenly dawned on him if he hadn't connected with these men, that might that might truly be the life he would be living even if residing in the middle of a metropolis.
He had broken every rule his mother had instilled in him since birth. He had stayed in one place long enough to become attached. He had stopped thinking of people as marks to be relieved of their money. Instead of monetary gain, he had sought respect and friendship.
Little by little, these men had chipped away at the protective walls he'd built around himself. Step by step, they had pulled him closer, earning his trust.
Then like so many other times, he'd done something wrong and like so many other relatives, they had cast him aside. He still didn't know what had happened. He still didn't know what he had done wrong to incur such treatment from the men he valued as friends.
His green-eyed gaze wandered down the street to the covered wagon, wondering once again, what he had done that had cost him the sharpshooter's friendship. It had to be something horrific for while the others may be angry enough to want him gone, Tanner didn't take friendship lightly. Normally, Vin would want to hear his side. Vin would want to give him a chance to explain. Vin would make the others give him a chance.
What had he done wrong?
How had he messed up the best thing that had happened to him in his entire miserable selfish life?
What the hell was he doing? Why the hell hadn't he thanked Josiah's God he was no
longer under any obligation to these men, stayed on the train and returned to that glorious city with its fabulous casinos and rich, but piss poor poker players.
Why hadn't he just said to hell with Chris Larabee?
The answer was simple. He had made a promise. Oh not to the black clad gunslinger as so many people assumed. That day in the Seminole village when Larabee had demanded in that quiet voice that Ezra never run out on him again, Ezra had remained silent. Standish, his poker face firmly in place had simply met the hazel eyes steadily and wordlessly. Yet, as they set about preparing their own attack on Anderson, his mind had been on Chris and the unbelievable fact that this man who others respected had done the unimaginable. He'd given an untrustworthy con man a second chance to prove his worth.
That day, the promise he made never to run out on the leader of this unorthodox group of do gooders hadn't been to Chris Larabee, but to himself.
Maybe someday he would release himself from that promise, but not yet. Maybe after he figured out what Samuel Hayes was up to.
Placing a coin in the can, Ezra took a newspaper from the basket beside Mary's door and quietly returned to where Chaucer waited patiently.
Climbing from the wagon, Vin automatically stepped deeper into the shadows and stretched lazily before pushing the long curls from his eyes and adjusting his slouch hat. About to start for the jail to relieve JD, he hesitated, listening intently, certain that soft sound interrupting the still night was horse's hoofs on the hard packed road. The street fires were mere embers as the sound faded and he made his way to the jail, checking locked doors and looking for anything out of the ordinary.
"Everything's been quiet." JD dropped his novel into the desk drawer as Vin poured himself a cup of coffee and mixed the fixings for a new pot.
"Vin?" JD stopped at the door, fidgeting from foot to foot, fiddling with the hat in his hand. Tanner waited patiently as Dunne tried to decide if he truly wanted to say the words aloud or hear the answer. "Do you think Ez is dead?"
"No, kid, I don't." The sharpshooter stated truthfully after a long moment. "Don't ask me why, but I don't and it's not cause I don't want to believe it," the kid sighed with relief. He knew Nathan and though he continued to search for the southerner, even Josiah thought that was the only reason for the gambler not to have come home. He knew Nathan would much rather believe the conman had finally given in to people's expectations and run out on them. At least he would be alive. He knew Wilmington, while trying to keep the kid's and his own hopes up, denied it, he was beginning to think the southerner had met his death somewhere between San Francisco and Four Corners.
He knew Chris angrily pushed the thought aside every time it crept to the forefront of his mind, refusing to believe he might have lost one of the men who had become family. He knew that JD was holding on with both hands to the hope the southerner would come riding into town, grinning about all the money he'd won at some unexpected poker tournament.
"I know if he was in some kinda trouble he couldn't handle on his own, he'd get in touch." Seeing the doubt in the kid's brown eyes, Vin smiled. "Awhile back he wouldn't have, but he's come around ta the idea that we'll be there if he needs us."
"So how come he ain't here?." JD tried to keep the sound of a whining five-year-old out of his voice. "He missed the Independence Day celebration. Ya know he loves the fireworks and betting on all the different events. He missed Mike and Anna gettin' married and Nettie's birthday is this weekend. Mary and Mrs. Potter have been plannin' this party for months. He said he'd help me pick out her present. He should be here for Nettie. He promised…"
"I know, JD. Don't know what ya want me ta say." Vin shrugged. "Just know what I feel."
A large grin slowly spread across the younger man's face. "That's good enough for me. Night." Pushing the hair from his eyes, he headed for the boarding house and his bed.
"Where the hell are ya, Ez?" Coffee cup in hand Vin leaned against the door staring out into the darkness. "Why the hell ain't ya home where ya belong?"
Tanner hadn't lied to JD. He didn't believe the sneaky gambler was dead, but why hadn't he contacted them for help to extricate him from whatever situation he'd gotten himself into. He knew Nathan and probably Josiah would say the sharpshooter was denying what was becoming more evident each day. They would think he didn't want to believe his friend wasn't able to come home because the Grim Reaper had claimed another victim. Of course, they wouldn't admit they didn't want to believe it either. However, something inside him told Vin, the con man was not only alive, but closer than any of them thought.
Tanner was probably closer to Standish than any of the others. Almost as close as he was to Chris. There had been an instant, unexplainable connection between Vin and Chris, but while it hadn't been nearly as strong, he had felt that same connection to the gambler. He'd had to admire the way the man had handled himself against the angry marks in the saloon and how he hadn't denied Larabee's claim about the blanks in his gun. It had been a hell of a shot though. Dead center. Had to admire a man with that kinda skill.
Vin had been ready to step in and help if the con man had needed it. Yes the men had been conned, but they had been willing to take advantage of someone they thought was drunk so it didn't make them any better in his estimation.
When Anderson's men attacked while Standish was on patrol, it had never occurred to the sharpshooter Ezra had run out on them. He'd thought the man had been caught and killed. Whether or not Ezra had considered leaving them to their fate, he'd never asked, because the man had been there and saved their asses. Under the circumstances, Vin didn't think any of them had the right to throw that moment in his face.
Maybe the connection with the gambler had been because of their background. Vin didn't know which was worse, growing up with a angry hermit of a grandfather before being sent to an orphanage as he had been or being passed from one uncaring, sometimes abusive, relative to another as Ezra had.
Over time, Vin saw the conniving conman for the generous, caring courageous man he truly was, rather than the selfish, heartless, money grubbing cheat he wanted everyone to believe.
"I miss ya, Ez," Tanner sighed. It was true, he missed the sarcasm, the dry wit and money making schemes. He missed watching Ezra charm the other players at his gaming table, the ladies in town and befriend all of the children. There wasn't a day went by that Emma didn't ask if Mr. Ezra had come home yet. He missed watching the gambler prove Nathan wrong when the healer jumped to the wrong conclusion just as he had with Li Pong. Even Nathan had to admit that if Ezra's bridal service had worked, the ladies of Wickstown would most likely have a better life.
He missed watching the gambler go toe to toe, point for point in a philosophical or moral discussion with Josiah. He missed watching Buck try to translate Ezra's fifty dollar sentence only to realize he'd been insulted and he missed the way Ezra offered JD advice without making it sound condescending. He missed the way the conman could make the vein in Larabee's forehead throb one minute and have the gunslinger grinning the next.
Vin missed sitting on the roof with the gambler, deep in discussion about anything and everything, practicing his reading or planning a practical joke.
"Damnit, Ezra, just come home!"
Seated on the bench outside the jail, Larabee waited for Tanner to return from patrol. He still wasn't happy about the tracker riding patrol alone after what had happened a few weeks earlier, but understood the sharpshooter's need for solitude occasionally.
The gunslinger's heart had almost stopped that day when the kid had stopped his horse in front of the saloon asking for a doctor, the ex-buffalo hunter slumped in front of him, Peso following as placidly as a puppy.
It had broken the gunslinger's heart when Vin woke the next morning expecting to see Ezra at his bedside, certain he'd heard him out on the road.
Larabee watched as people went about their business as if it was any other day, Well, he supposed for them it was. It wasn't a member of their family who had 'fallen off the face of the earth'. Most of them knew Standish, a lot of them liked him and a few even cared about him, but most figured in typical gambler fashion he'd moved on to richer pastures. Somehow, Chris couldn't make himself believe that. Ezra wouldn't have wasted money on a telegram if he hadn't intended to be back. Ezra wouldn't have gotten on that train, if he hadn't intended to come home. Knowing his family would worry when he didn't show up, Ezra would have let them know if he suddenly made other plans.
When had Larabee started thinking of the con man as family? With Vin it was easy. There had been an instant connection and immediate trust with the tracker. Having practically grown up with Buck, the womanizer standing by him through the best and worst times of his life, Wilmington had always been more of a brother than just a friend.
Josiah and Nathan were both dependable and trustworthy and had much the same temperament as himself, although he was much easier to anger than either of them. Although at times JD's hero worship made Chris uncomfortable, it was hard not to think of and want to protect the kid like he would a younger brother.
When had Standish wiggled his way into the gunslinger's makeshift family and his heart? Had it been when he put on that damn purple dress to create a distraction in Wickstown? Had it been when he used his tact and skills to discover Larabee's whereabouts when he'd been locked in that hell hole of a prison camp or when he'd stepped in front of a bullet to save Mary's life and then asked again about the ten thousand dollars?
It truly didn't matter when he started to think of the cocky conniving con man as a brother it only mattered that he did. The two men often mixed like dynamite and a lit fuse, but to be honest with himself, he missed that dynamic. He missed Ezra pushing him to the edge of sanity. He missed hearing him complain about rising with the sun or missing his soft bed when making a night camp. He missed Ezra constantly trying to scheme for a raise in pay, stating their job was too dangerous for a dollar a day and room and board. Of course he was right about that. He missed the gambler's five dollar words, the smart mouth and the smug smile. Hell, he just missed the sneaky little bastard.
"Is Mr. Ezwa home yet, Mr. Chwis?"
Chris had seen the little girl happily hurrying down the street, with the ever present book clutched in her hand and had prepared himself for the daily question.
"Not yet, sweetheart."
"Shoot! I wanted ta show him my new book. Unca Amos found it leanin' against the door this mownin'." She proudly held out the precious item for him to see. "Unca Amos says iffen I keep pwacticin' someday I'll be able to wead stowies about Apwofite to Mr. Ezwa."
"Well that's a really good reason to keep practicin'." Chris forced a smile. 'And a really good reason for him ta come home.' He settled the little girl on his knee and listened as she began to read, her words distracting him for a while from his missing brother.
Crouched among the shrubs in the shadows of the thick trees surrounding the area behind the church, Ezra watched the gathering. It seemed half the territory had come to Sunday services to wish Miss Nettie Happy Birthday at the party afterward. Rather than trying to fit everyone in the small church, Josiah had held the morning service outside. Ezra had remained in his hiding place, listening intently to the ex-priest's sermon on the prodigal son. He still didn't understand why his friends had looked so sad or why Miss Nettie and Granny Hinkley had wiped at tear filled eyes. Had he misunderstood? Wasn't this supposed to be a happy story?
'Standish had kept his intense gaze on Hayes, standing near the back door of the church. He'd seen the small smile as the rancher glanced at each of the peacekeepers. What was the man up too? What game was he playing? Why had he told Jeb about the bounty on Tanner's head? How had he even known about the bounty? Those in town who knew the sharpshooter was wanted in Tascosa didn't talk about it and they definitely didn't talk about it to an outsider. Until the gambler discovered what game the rancher was playing, he didn't have a chance of winning.
Ezra watched as Nettie opened the small pile of presents on the table, exclaiming over each gift and thanking the giver. He saw the brown wrapped package he'd left at the stage depot in Whistle Stop to be delivered to Nettie Wells in care of The Clarion, with the rest of the mail on the stage. Would the peacekeepers be angry? If they were, he knew they wouldn't let on to Nettie. He knew the gift could possibly give him away, but he really wasn't worried because there was no way to trace where the package had originated or when it had been mailed. As far as the men knew he could have mailed it from San Francisco or Canada.
Making certain not to let his lonely gaze rest too long on any of the men, especially Vin or Chris, knowing they would feel someone watching, he raked his gaze over each of the men he had...he still...considered family. The only family, besides Maude, who really mattered, soaking up their nearness.
A smile graced his face as Emma clapped her hands in delight, when Nettie exclaimed over the picture the little girl had drawn for her before the child turned her attention back to Granny Hinkley, showing her the book in her small hands.
A silence fell over the gathered people as Nettie removed the brown wrapping on the package Mary handed her.
"It's beautiful, Aunt Nettie!" Casey exclaimed, everyone suddenly pointing out different things on the fancy clock. Giving each surprised man's cheek a quick kiss, Nettie's smile brightened as she handed the brown paper to Tanner.
The tracker read the neatly printed words on the inside of the wrapping before his head jerked up and he passed the paper to Larabee.
Ezra eased further back into the woods before hurrying to where he'd left Chaucer. He didn't see the bright smiles on the men's faces as Larabee read aloud.
"Happy Birthday from your favorite peacekeepers."
"Ezra," Vin sighed softly, a small amount of weight lifting from his shoulders.
Having finished his business and visited the bathhouse, Ezra sat in the Golden Palace Saloon, a grand name for a hole in the wall that was barely smaller than the tiny town of Jubilee. Seated in a dark corner near the back door, a glass of watered down beer in front of him, the gambler scratched at the two day growth on his chin, wondering once again how Vin managed to go for days without shaving.
For two weeks he'd been watching Hayes' ranch, always careful to position himself where he couldn't be seen or a ranch hand chasing a stray cow wouldn't accidentally stumble across him. It was a good thing he had an unlimited well of patience as until the last three days, it had been the most boring thing he could ever remember doing.
For almost two weeks he'd watched as the men went about their business, checking and mending fences, moving cattle and horses from one place to another to keep from overgrazing any area, and a dozen other mundane activities. The most entertaining thing he'd seen was the hands branding that year's new calves.
Shortly after he began watching, Pat Kelly, Hayes' foreman, had ridden out alone and hadn't returned until three days later, which puzzled the conman since he didn't return with supplies, stock or extra help. Of course there were other reasons why he could have been gone that long that didn't involve ranch business, but in the few conversations he'd had with the man over the poker table, he didn't recall the mention of any relatives in the area or even a woman he might be visiting.
If memory served, both Hayes and Kelly were from Pennsylvania and had served together in the Union. Other than that, there wasn't much said about either man's personal life or background. Ezra had gotten a bad feeling about both men, although it was nothing he could put his finger on. They appeared what people thought, but Ezra knew all too well how easy it was to hide a person's true self behind a manufactured image.
He'd watched in confusion as three days ago, two of the cowhands had cut ten head from the herd and driven them away only to return later in the day without them. The next day two different men had repeated the act. The following day, Ezra had followed as ten more head were cut from the herd and driven several miles from the ranch to Kiowa Canyon.
Why in the hell would Hayes have cattle left in a box canyon? Kiowa Canyon was a pretty little place with groves of large old trees scattered among the boulders and along the rock walls. A little spring fed stream ran along one side and while it might be fine for a small homestead, there wasn't enough grass or water to support cattle.
"Well, that was a damn waste of time."
Ezra's heart leapt into his throat at the deep rumbling voice, his gaze swinging to the entrance as Josiah and Vin pushed through the batwing doors.
"That fool couldn'ta been more than five three," Vin chuckled. "Either the man can't read as good as me or he don't know the difference between somebody the size of a half grown kid and and a giant."
Knowing both men would automatically sweep the room for any sign of possible trouble, Ezra quickly laid his head on his folded arms, appearing to have drunk enough to pass out.
Paying for their drinks, the men moved to an open table on the opposite side of the room.
"If we don't find out what happened to Ezra soon, Chris' gonna explode."
Waiting until they were seated and deep in conversation, the conman shakily rose and staggered past the end of the bar and out the back door, hearing three words mixed among the voices intermingling in the small room...Ezra...Chris'...explode. His heart racing, praying the kid he'd paid to groom Chaucer had finished, he was happy to see the horse re-saddled and awaiting his man's return.
Peso and Prophet were tied to the hitch rail, indicating Ezra's friends didn't intend to spend the night, but knowing he couldn't ride the recognizable mount casually past the saloon, Ezra turned his horse in the opposite direction, circling around the town before touching his heels to Chaucer's side sending the animal into a full gallop.
"If we don't find Ezra soon, Chris' gonna explode." Josiah dropped into a chair. The two men had been sent to Jubilee to escort Too Tall Thompson back to Four Corners to be held for trial for stage robbery. "Tell ya the truth I don't know how much more Buck can take either."
Just as Ezra had, Wilmington had taken to stepping in and accepting the brunt of Larabee's anger when the man's temper erupted which had been even more often than usual the past few months.
Each of the men had taken to dealing with Standish's disappearance in their own way. When he wasn't searching every saloon, jail and poker game within fifty miles, Josiah spent most of his time secluded in the church, praying for the safe return of their southerner. When he wasn't needed, Nathan had taken to staying in the clinic, constantly cleaning the medical instruments Ezra had given him.
JD spent more and more time at the jail, finding things to keep his mind occupied, his usual enthusiasm dampened.
Josiah knew Vin had ridden to the stop where Ezra had left the train, hoping against hope to track the southerner, only to return discouraged and doubting his skills.
Larabee checked the telegraph office three or more times a day, withdrawing further into himself with each day there was no word on the missing gambler. While they were all thankful he hadn't sought solace in a whiskey bottle, they all had experienced the backlash of his quick temper. They were all aware of the anger that continued to build in the man.
"Buck'll do what he's always done," Vin sighed. "He'll roll with the punches and be right there when Chris needs him. What worries me is what happens when he loses that last bit a hope." The truth was he was worried about each of them losing that hope. As it was, the makeshift family seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Tanner knew it would be different if one of them were killed protecting the town or chasing down some fool outlaw. They all knew the inherent dangers of their job. They all knew the dangers of simply living in this yet untamed part of the country. It was the not knowing that was tearing each of them apart. They had worked so hard to pull the suspicious southerner from behind his protective walls. They had all eventually come to see the man Ezra hid behind a glib attitude and smart mouth. It was not knowing that let their imaginations run wild with horrible images and fill their dreams with nightmares of what might have happened.
"Where ya think that clock come from?"
The question caught the preacher off guard.
"Nettie's present. Where ya think it come from?" Vin leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "Been thinkin' on it and iffen Ezra sent it from Frisco it sure took a long time ta get here. Ain't no reason for him to send it anyway. Weren't like Nettie's birthday was gonna happen afore he got back." He hesitated not wanting to raise Sanchez's hopes. "I think he's close. I think he's a lot closer than we think. Don't know why, but I can't shake the notion he's near and hidin' out. I just ain't riddled out why."
Josiah knew Tanner was certain he'd heard Ezra that day the would be bounty hunter had shot him while on patrol, but this was something new. Vin had never voiced the thought that Standish may be near and purposely avoiding the other men.
"What the hell kinda trouble has that boy gotten himself into?" Josiah mumbled, unable to dampen the hope that Vin's quiet words had flamed brighter. God, he hoped Vin was right.
"Guess we'll know when he's ready for us ta know."
Samuel Hayes strode into the jail with a purpose and a sense of urgency. The young sheriff sat behind the desk, his right arm resting in a sling, looking through a stack of wanted posters, closely comparing each face to the two men sitting in the cell. The womanizer occupied the other chair, a cup of coffee in his hand, his feet propped up on the corner of the desk.
"How's the arm, Sheriff?" Hayes couldn't believe his luck when he'd been in town the day before as some fools had attempted to rob the bank. He'd watched the six men in action and while two of the robbers were dead and two in jail, he hadn't seen the cohesive fighting unit he had heard so much about.
With his men in place, Samuel and been willing to wait, but watching the events of the previous day and knowing the men were now down to five since the sheriff wouldn't be able to ride, he had decided now was the time. Taking out the five would leave the young sheriff on his own and without the others to back him up, he would be no threat to anyone.
"Nathan says it'll be good as new in a few days," Dunne replied. "Just lookin' to see if these fools might be wanted somewhere else. What can I do for ya?"
"Got some missin' cattle."
"I'll get Chris." Wilmington dropped his feet to the floor. Spotting Larabee leaving the telegraph office as he stepped onto the boardwalk, Buck gave a shrill whistle and waved his friend to the jail.
"He was at the telegraph office," he told JD, knowing the younger man would heed the unspoken warning about the gunslinger's mood. "Mr. Hayes was just tellin' us he had some cattle come up missin'," Buck spoke up as soon as the gunslinger stepped through the door, before the man could take someone's head off.
"Had a couple disappear awhile-"
"Cattle don't disappear," Larabee declared angrily. "They ain't people! They don't just vanish like smoke."
"You're right," Samuel agreed refusing to reveal his smile of satisfaction. "I assumed since it was only a couple that maybe they'd been lost to wolves or at the worst some poor family had taken them to feed their children, but in the last few days it's gotten worse and I've lost about thirty head."
"JD, go find Vin," Chris ordered before turning his attention back to the rancher. "Where were they last?."
"North pasture. Couple of the fellas tried to track 'em, but they're cow hands, not trackers so didn't have any luck."
"Tell 'em ta just do their jobs and stay outta the way," Larabee ordered dismissing the man as Tanner entered.
Ezra leaned against the boulder at his back. With Chaucer hidden in a small grove of trees, the gambler had made a cold camp the night before, tucked away in the small alcove of boulders, watching the men seated around the campfire below him.
He'd counted a dozen men including Pat Kelly. None of them looked like ranch hands and while there was a branding iron laying next to the fire, no one was paying any attention to the cattle grazing a few yards away.
The sound of a fast approaching horse drew the men's attention to the canyon entrance, each of them reaching for their gun, but visibly relaxing as Samuel Hayes rode into view. Taking the reins as the man dismounted, one of the men led the horse to the hitch line out of sight, while another passed the rancher a cup of coffee.
Not for the first time, Ezra wished he was close enough to hear the conversation around the fire. He wasn't sure what Hayes was up to, but he was certain something was about to happen. Standish once again checked each of his guns and his rifle although he knew they were loaded and made sure the box of shells were within easy reach.
Ezra watched, noting the position of each man as several minutes later all but three scattered into the countryside, out of sight. Hayes, himself was to his left almost level with the gambler's position. He knew an ambush set up when he saw one but who the hell was the victim?
"What's wrong?" Chris maneuvered his horse closer to Tanner's when the tracker slowed Peso as the five men rode through the mouth of Kiowa Canyon.
"Somethin' don't feel right," the tracker stated, his eyes on the ground. "Hayes said his cow hands tried ta track the cattle without any luck, but hell's fire, JD coulda followed this trail."
"Think maybe they're the ones that stole 'em?"
"Guess we'll find out soon enough, iffen they're still here."
Time seemed to stop for Ezra as Vin and the others rode into his line of sight, their eyes on the three men who appeared to be about to brand a steer that didn't belong to them.
"Aw hell!" If he was Hayes, he would have his men wait until the peacekeepers were close enough to the supposed rustlers to be caught in a crossfire. Without thinking about anything but stopping the men from riding headlong into an ambush, Ezra raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired, placing the bullet into the dirt a few feet in front of Peso.
Gunfire filled the air, and cattle stampeded toward the back of the canyon, as the peacekeepers leapt from their horses, diving for cover among the trees and boulders. Ezra focused on the three men who'd been the bait, cutting down two of them before they could reach cover.
He could hear Vin and Josiah's rifles, evidently they were the only two able to pull the weapons from their saddle sheaths, and the sounds of Chris, Buck and Nathan's Colts. Taking a moment to assess each of his friends' location, he turned his attention back to the men still within his range of fire. From what he could see, the lessening of gunshots and shouts of wounded or dying men, he counted seven men down.
As he raised the rifle to sight, a bullet ricocheted off the boulder, nicking his collarbone and cutting through the flesh and muscle at the top of his left shoulder. Taking deep breaths in a vain attempt to push away the pain, Ezra leaned against the boulder and listened as the shots became fewer at longer intervals as men took better aim.
He heard Larabee call for the remaining men's surrender and two voices shouted they were coming out.
Pushing away the blackness trying to engulf him, Ezra watched as Pat Kelly and another man tossed their guns aside and stepped from cover. His blurry gaze sweeping the area, he quickly counted eight bodies as Nathan, Buck and Josiah checked the wounded while Chris and Vin held the two men at gunpoint.
Motion to his left caught Ezra's attention. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he could see Hayes lift his rifle, taking aim at Larabee. His own body screaming in agony, Ezra grabbed the pistol laying at his side and fired as the torture of movement pulled him into the blackness of unconsciousness.
The peacekeepers hit the ground, Larabee keeping his gun trained on the two prisoners as everyone's gaze searched the surrounding area waiting for another shot.
"That sounded like Ezra's Remington and it weren't aimed at us," Vin stated, his blue-eyed gaze sweeping the rocks and trees in the direction the shot had come from.
When no further shots were forthcoming, the men cautiously rose and continued their search.
"Oh, God," Reaching Ezra's hidey hole, immediately recognizing the weapons although he wouldn't have recognized the unconscious man slumped among the surrounding boulders if he'd passed him on the street, Vin stooped and felt for a pulse. "Nathan!"
Leaving their prisoners shackled beside the still burning fire, the other men made their way to Vin.
"Reckon he'll live, but need ta get him down by the fire so I can see how bad it is," the healer stated moving aside as Josiah tossed the unconscious man over his shoulder. "Since he wasn't shootin at us what was he shootin' at?"
"Probably Hayes," Wilmington shrugged as he joined them, pointing in the direction behind him.. "He's over there. Head shot."
"Who is he and what the hell's he doin' with Ezra's guns!" Larabee demanded as Vin and Buck gathered the weapons, canteen and battered hat.
"Wanna bet he's got green eyes and a gold tooth?" Vin grinned following Nathan and Josiah ignoring his friends' stunned and then doubtful expressions.
"That fool ain't one a us," Kelly stated as they reached the fire.
"Hey Nate, might wanna get that rig offen his arm afore ya start patchin' him up. Don't want him shootin' ya outta pure reflex," the sharpshooter called, as Josiah eased the wounded man to the ground.
"Sun done got ta-" Wilmington's sentence trailed off as Tanner squeezed the man's forearm, catching the derringer that shot forward. "Well, are ya gonna fix 'im up or just stare at each other?" The tracker's question broke the men's stunned stupor sending everyone into action.
"Buck, ride over to the ranch and get a wagon. Tell 'em they might wanna bring a wagon to take their boss and these other fools ta the undertaker or they can leave 'em for the critters. I don't give a damn either way! Vin, ya think ya can backtrack 'im. I wanna know where the hell he's been." Larabee's eyes never left the conman Nathan was tending.
Letting out a whistle, Vin waited, his smile spreading as Chaucer trotted from the trees in answer. "Can now." He stooped next to the gambler. "I'll see ya in town, pard."
Larabee stood staring out the clinic window, his mind and emotions in turmoil. Nathan had assured them Ezra was going to be 'sore as hell for awhile but fine', yet no one looking at the southerner would recognize the man laying in the bed as the smiling self- assured well-dressed gambler who had left Four Corners a few months earlier. It wasn't just the long hair and scruffy face. Ezra had obviously lost weight and the dark circles under his eyes had to make anyone wonder when he had last slept.
The happiness that had washed over Larabee when he'd accepted the fact the man wounded in Kiowa Canyon was indeed their southerner, had turned once more to fear at the reality they may still lose him to relief when Nathan had given his assurance the man would live to dismay when Ezra had momentarily woken, struggling to rise insisting he would leave.
How in the hell had Standish ended up in Kiowa Canyon? Where had he been all this time and what had he been through? Chris was certain it was the gambler who had fired the shot into the dirt, warning them of the ambush and they were all just as certain it was Standish who had killed Hayes.
His eyes drifted to the jail, where Buck sat on the boardwalk bench, his shoulders slumped, guilt radiating off him as clearly as heat waves off the desert floor. Returning with the wagon, Wilmington had announced that replaying the battle in his mind he was certain it had been his bullet that wounded the southerner. No one blamed the womanizer, except himself, repeatedly pointing out there was no way to know it was Ezra and not one of the men intent on killing the peacekeepers. Most likely it would be Ezra who would make him finally accept that fact.
He watched as Inez threw open the window airing out the gambler's room in preparation of the southerner's release from the clinic.
Larabee glanced at the silent man in the bed. Where the hell have you been Ezra? Why didn't you let us help you? I thought you'd finally come to realize you could trust us; count on us to back you up. Don't ya know how worried we've all been? Damn, he was gonna have to do a helluva lot of apologizing for taking his fear, frustration and anger out on the others. At least, unlike the southerner, they wouldn't make him grovel or seek some type of payback.
Since their return to town, each of the men had wandered into the small room more than once as if to convince themselves the black sheep was truly back in the fold.
A soft moan had Larabee and Nathan both moving to the bed.
"Ezra, come on and wake up," Nathan coaxed. "Ya need ta drink some water for me."
As the green eyes fluttered open, Larabee moved to support the weak man as Nathan held the glass to his lips, urging him to drink as much as possible before switching the drink to the cup of medicinal tea.
"I...I...assure ya...Mr. Jack...son, I'll leave your...vicinity as qui-"
"Ya ain't goin' nowhere for awhile, Ez," the healer warned as the green eyes slid closed once more. "Why's he keep talkin' 'bout leavin'? We just got 'im back."
"Who the hell knows what goes on in that brilliant mind of his," Larabee shrugged, easing the man back onto the pillows. "Guess we'll have to wait until he's up ta tellin' us." A smile twitched on his lips belying the threatening tone. "And he will tell us."
The sun was balanced on the horizon when Tanner tossed Peso's reins to Tommy, thanking the stable boy for taking care of his weary horse and crossed to the clinic. He knew having seen him ride into town, the others would be right behind him as he climbed the stairs.
"How is he, Nate?" Keeping his voice to a whisper, Vin crossed to the bed, laying a gentle hand on the sleeping man's shoulder.
"Like I told the others, he's gonna be fine. Ain't no sign of fever, thank the Lord, but he's gonna be sore as hell for a while," the healer explained. "His collarbone ain't broke, but I think the bullet mighta took a small piece of it."
"Did ya find where he'd been stayin'?" Chris questioned motioning everyone onto the balcony as the other men crowded into the room.
"Yep." The sharpshooter nodded as Nathan eased the door closed. "Found this, too." He handed the yellow flimsy to the gunslinger. "Had it tacked ta the wall."
"What the hell!"
Buck yanked the telegram from the gunslinger's hands as the color drained from Larabee's handsome face.
"I didn't send that!" The black clad man exclaimed as the yellow paper was passed to each man. "I did not send that," he reiterated, his voice gruff. "I never would have!"
"No shit, Pard!" Wilmington grinned at him. "None of us think ya did or we'd be kickin' your ass. But who would, and why? Don't make no sense at all to me.""
"Someone thinks you did," Josiah sighed, his sorrowful gaze on the clinic door.
"Aww, hell," Larabee gripped the railing until his knuckles whitened. No wonder the southern gambler hadn't returned or made any sort of contact. How many times had Larabee, when the conman was pushing him to his limits, threatened to kick him out of town or worse shoot him?. They all knew it was just empty threats, the gambler giving him a smug grin and a smart ass comment. Had the cocky conman actually come to believe Chris would make him leave? Had he believed any of the others would let Larabee send him away?
The Hoosier's gaze fell on the banker who was locking up for the night and heading to the restaurant for dinner. Snatching the telegram from Josiah, he pushed through the men and raced down the stairs.
Grabbing the banker as he reached for the doorknob, Chris slammed the man against the wall, shoving the telegram in his face. "Did you send this?"
"Wh-what?" The smaller man didn't struggle, frozen in place aware the gunslinger's mood was as black as the clothes he wore.
"Did you send this?" He repeated, emphasizing each word.
"I..I...I don't know what you're talking about!" ?"
Larabee slammed him back against the wall again. "Did you send this telegram to Ezra?"
Recovering his courage, the arrogant man pulled himself to his full height and straightened his jacket as Buck and Josiah pulled Chris away. "I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I wouldn't waste one cent on contacting that….particular person. I certainly wouldn't send him a telegram asking him to return to our municipality."
"He didn't send it, Chris," Vin said quietly. "He don't even know what it says."
"If you...gentlemen," McMurty spat the word, "will excuse me, I'm going to have some dinner. I'm sure you'll understand if I don't invite you to join me." Turning he scurried into the restaurant before his courage failed or the men released Larabee.
"I'm figurin' them fellas in the jail may know something about this," Josiah stated, carefully letting go of the gunslinger's arm and starting across the street, knowing the others were right behind him.
Certain Ezra would sleep through the night, Nathan had ordered the others to get some dinner and sleep. Four silent men sat at the peacekeepers' usual table, each lost in their own thoughts, contemplating what Pat Kelly had revealed about Hayes' plans. No one had even suspected any of the rancher's intentions. And no one had known of his family connection to Guy Royal.
Kelly was more than happy to implicate his deceased boss. It had been Samuel who sent the telegram to Ezra. It had been Samuel who had gotten Vin shot by a scared kid desperate for money. Several of the ranch hands had told Buck, Hayes had ordered the cattle taken to the canyon and left there. The men in the canyon hadn't worked at the ranch. Some had been with Hayes and Kelly in the war, others had joined them afterwards, willing to follow the man who paid well even when they did nothing but wait for orders.
Hayes' plan had been simple: Divide the seven and he could control this part of the territory.
"Guess I'll go relieve JD." Buck pushed away from table. "Kid needs ta get a bite ta eat and some sleep."
"I'll come with ya." Josiah swallowed the last of his beer. It had become habit for two men to watch prisoners through the night.
"See ya in a few hours." Vin nodded, letting them know he would see to the gunslinger who fingered his shot glass, his eyes on the amber liquid. He gave no indication of hearing and didn't acknowledge either man leaving.
Larabee's thoughts were in turmoil. Why had Standish believed the message sent in his name? Was it because he thought it had come from Chris? He knew Ezra well enough to know often times the gambler wasn't as confident and self assured as he let on. He knew there were times when the hateful words and indignant glances sent his way by McMurty and other high falutin' residents in the area didn't roll off the southerner's back, but rather hit their mark dead center and stuck.
Did Ezra really believe Chris would agree with McMurty about anything, especially about the men he considered family? Why, if he believed such nonsense, had he come back to the area?
He finally looked at Vin. "Where was he stayin'?"
"Ain't for me ta say." Vin shook his head. "Reckon that's a secret he'll have ta share iffen he wants."
JD pushed through the batwings, and asking Inez if there was any left over stew, joined the two.
"Found a poster on them two idiots that tried to rob the bank,"he informed them. "They're wanted in Texas for bank robbery. I done sent a telegram ta Judge Travis ta see what he wants ta do."
Chris merely nodded. Did JD believe the threats he casually made to the southerner? Did the kid believe Larabee would truly destroy the family he had discovered in this little town far from Boston?
Did any of the men doubt he wouldn't do everything in his power to keep them together?
Keeping his eyes closed and his breathing even, Ezra feigned sleep, listening to Nathan move about the room. He knew Nathan was the only one there. He hadn't expected the others. He wasn't sure how he'd ended up at Nathan's, but he was sure he had to find a way out.
He had to leave. He wouldn't burden them with physically caring for someone they didn't want around.
He needed to figure out a plan of escape, but damn, he hurt. If he had to pretend to be asleep much longer he would fall asleep again. If Nathan would just leave for a few minutes. Was it dinner time? Morning? It couldn't be the middle of the night or Nathan would be sleeping in the chair next to his patient's bed. If he twisted his head a little, he would be able to judge the time by the light from the window, but if he moved the healer would immediately be at his side, forcing the tea down his throat to help with the pain and make him sleep.
He heard Nathan cross to the door at the sound of hurried footsteps on the stairs.
"Mr. Jackson, " Realizing there was someone sleeping, the visitor's voice dropped to a whisper. "Uncle Johann needs ya. He cut his hand pretty bad."
The gunsmith's nephew.
Ezra could picture Nathan's hesitation as he glanced from the bed to his visitor before finally deciding Ezra probably wouldn't awaken before he returned. Grabbing his medical kit, he raced down the steps behind the young boy.
The gambler struggled into a seated position as soon as he no longer heard footsteps on the stairs, pushing aside the pain. After several deep breaths, Ezra shoved his feet into his boots, and taking his guns, leaving the shirt on the chair, not wasting time in trying to slip it on with his arm pinned against his chest, Ezra moved gingerly down the stairs and crossed to the livery.
He thanked Lady Luck that Tommy was still up and able to quickly saddle Chaucer and cursed Lady Luck that it wasn't late enough for most people to be asleep.
Climbing clumsily into the saddle, Ezra turned the horse and let the animal carry him away from a town that no longer wanted or needed him.
Realizing cleaning and stitching the cut was going to take longer than he thought, Nathan turned to the teenager. "Mike, would you run over to the saloon and find one of the fellas? Tell 'im I need someone ta go sit with Ez in case he wakes up."
"Sure thing." The kid was out the door almost before the healer finished speaking.
"Mr. Standish is home?" The older man flinched as Nathan picked metal splinters from his hand. "Mama!" The man called to his German wife. "You vill need to make a special streudal. Mr. Standish has finally returned."
The little round woman clapped her hands together in delight, spouting something in German or Swedish; Nathan wasn't sure which. He'd been around when the couple had been in the middle of an argument and between, the German, the Swedish and the accented English, Nathan had been completely confused, or as Ezra had said, discombobulated. The two people seemed to understand each other, no matter what language they used and he supposed that was all that really mattered.
"Did old McMurty have fits?"
"I'll let ya know soon as he finds out." Satisfied the cut was clean, Nathan threaded the needle to stitch the palm.
"The entire town vill know the minute he hears the news." Johann laughed, then grunted in pain, bracing himself for the rest of the procedure.
Mike stood inside the batwings searching the customers until his gaze rested on the peacekeepers before hurrying forward to deliver Nathan's request.
"I'll go." JD pushed the empty bowl aside and jumped to his feet, happy to be able to spend some time with his friend again. "I get to sleep all night unlike a couple fellas I know."
"Reckon that's the kid's way of tellin' us old guys it's our bedtime," Vin chuckled.
"Reckon it is." Chris grinned. "But I ain't leavin' a perfectly good drink for any of these yahoos."
Larabee and Tanner had decided to call it a night and had just reached the door when JD burst through, cringing as the swinging door clipped his injured arm. "He's gone!"
"Take a breath, JD," Chris ordered, his heart sinking to his feet.
"He ain't there, Chris!"
"What do you mean he's not there? Of course he's there," the gunslinger knew he sounded idiotic and could see Vin trying desperately to stifle a grin.
"His shirt's still there, but he ain't. To-"
"I was with you." Tanner held his hands up as if warding off the glare Larabee turned on him, declaring his innocence in helping the southerner escape the hated clinic.
"Spread out and check all his hidey holes."
"Trying to tell ya, Chris, Tommy said he had him saddle Chaucer and rode out at least a half hour ago."
"I'll go get 'im," Tanner sighed. "Tellin' ya though ain't bringin' 'im back till he feels up to it." Chris understood that to mean Vin wouldn't force the cardsharp to return unless he wanted to. "Ya might wanna get me some a Nate's tea. Reckon he's gonna be hurtin' somethin' awful."
Feeling as if he were a hundred years old, Ezra eased back the blanket--, when had he crawled under the old quilt?-- and carefully pulled himself up to sit on the side of the bed HIs shoulder and chest throbbing with each heartbeat, he shuffled out the back door to the privy to empty a bladder that was much too full.
He really needed to check on Chaucer. He remembered struggling with the cinch until the saddle finally slid to the ground and letting his horse graze rather than filling the feedbag.
Damn, it was already late afternoon, too late to head out today. He dropped into a chair at the little table. Well, he would get ready and then sleep the rest of the night so he could get an early start in the morning. Of course at the rate he was moving, it would take until morning just to pack his carpetbag.
Glancing around the room with bleary eyes, he attempted to make a mental list of what he would be able to take, knowing it would be difficult trying to pack one handedly. It would be hard enough saddling Chaucer, much less attempting to load his small trunk on the pack mule. Perhaps he would request Vin send it to him with the letter and title to the small piece of land he planned on putting in Tanner's name. He didn't need supplies, since he could make Eagle Bend by afternoon and hopefully immediately catch a train, so the best option would be to release the mule near a homestead.
He didn't think he'd ever wish for one of Nathan's God-awful concoctions but the pain pulsing through his body was enough to make him want to swallow a pitcher full without complaint.
Ezra wished he'd thought to put a pot of coffee on last night, but the truth was, he hadn't had the energy to do anything but crawl onto the bed and try to ignore the pain washing over him in waves. He didn't even remember taking off his boots or how he'd managed that particular feat with one hand.
As much as he wanted to return to bed, he couldn't let the animals go hungry, so pushing to his feet, ignoring the boots sitting beside the bed, Ezra shuffled to the door, those few steps sending agonizingly sharp spears of pain through his shoulder.
Bracing himself, he opened the door, cringing at the pain each step sent through his shoulder. Damn it wasn't this bad when he'd dislocated it or when Nathan had popped the joint back into place.
"Done fed 'em."
His head jerked up and he rapidly blinked to rid himself of the spots dancing before his eyes to find the tracker, seated in the shade of the tree closest to the cabin.
"Chaucer weren't stubborn enough fer ya? Had ta get yourself a Missouri mule." Vin grinned, rising gracefully to his feet. Taking the southerner's uninjured arm, he gently guided the swaying gambler back inside, helping him to a seat on the bed.
"Chaucer isn't stubborn, he's just strong-willed," the conman slurred with a sigh, leaning against the pillow Tanner propped behind his back.
"Know ya don't eat breakfast, but since it's almost supper time, reckon ya might be a bit hungry."
Ezra silently watched as the sharpshooter stoked the fire in the stove and set a pan of water on to heat, wondering why the man was there. Had Larabee sent him to make certain Ezra continued on his way? He wanted to assure Vin he didn't have to stay. He wanted to assure him he would be forever out of their lives in the morning, but if he did, Tanner would head out and Ezra desperately wanted a few more minutes with his friend.
"Ya know ya hurt Larabee's feelings."
'That's what he had done wrong?' He had somehow injured the feelings of the black-clad leader of the misfit band of law men. A thoughtless or mis-spoken comment had cost him the people he most admired, respected and wanted to be part of.
What had he said or done that had caused such trauma, that the others were affected as well, deciding the gambler wasn't fit to remain with them.
A sadness as overwhelming as the pain racking his body, settled on him. His life was about to change again. Just as always he would once again be alone. Well, he'd finally learned the lesson Maude had gone out of her way to teach him since childhood. Never again would he let anyone close enough to hurt him. Over the past few months he had worked on reinforcing the protective walls and never again would they come down.
"Oh, no ya don't," Vin stated as his heavy lids slid down over green eyes. "Figured ya might need this." He shoved a mug into Ezra's hand. "Drink it and ya can take a nap while I fix some grub."
Standish swallowed the foul tea without a word of protest before easing himself onto his side and closing his eyes to let the medicine ease the pain.
Ezra was pulled from sleep by mouth watering aromas and the growling of an empty stomach.
"Your timing is impeccable," Vin stated, with a wide grin, as the gambler gingerly moved from the bed to the table. "Snagged a couple good size fish from the stream." He set a plate of fish and fried potatoes in front of Ezra, then poured him a cup of coffee. "Got some more tea ready, but figured ya should fill yer belly first."
"How long have you been here, Mr. Tanner?" The gambler asked after several bites.
"'Bout an hour after you." The Texan concentrated on his own dinner ignoring the southerner's shocked expression. 'Damn, we're back ta Mr. Tanner.'
The rest of the meal passed in silence, Ezra eventually pushed his almost empty plate aside and carefully crossed to the trunk in the corner. Lifting the lid and removing an envelope on top, he returned to the table, beads of sweat breaking out on his pale face.
"Pretty little place ya got here, Pard," Vin commented, pouring a cup of the medicinal tea and giving the man time to catch his breath.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I have no doubt you'll take good care of it." Taking a large swallow, Ezra slid the envelope toward the tracker. "I was going to mail this from Eagle Bend, but your presence allows me to save the postage." Ezra watched as the ex-bounty hunter fingered the envelope as if making a decision before slipping it into his shirt pocket. "May I ask you a question?"
"Sayin' no ain't never stopped ya before." Vin instantly regretted the teasing, seeing the melancholy in the green eyes before Ezra's gaze dropped to stare into the cup of tea. "Ya know ya can, Ez."
For several long moments Ezra stared into the liquid wanting an answer to the question that had plagued him for months, yet not certain he wanted to hear the answer. Of course he needed the answer because, while he never intended to put himself in this position again, knowing the answer would allow him never to make the same mistake again.
"What did I do wrong?" The question was spoken so softly Tanner wasn't sure the gambler had spoken at all.
"Ya mean asides hidin' from us while we searched all over hell and gone, givin' Chris stomach pains and Josiah more gray hairs than he's already got, worryin' the next ten years off our lives, which by the way, would be the best ten years for JD and what the hell were ya thinkin' out in Kiowa Canyon? Was ya plannin' on takin' on a dozen or so men by yer ownself? That was a damn fool thing ta do!" Tanner read the befuddlement on his friend's expressive face before it was replaced with sorrow and resignation and instantly realized the problem. The gambler who had trusted no one until joining these men, who had been taught you weren't wanted if you couldn't be useful, who believed every mistake would cause you to be tossed out on your ear, was asking why he was no longer wanted in Four Corners. "Chris didn't send that telegram, Ezra."
The cardsharp's head jerked up, his eyes moving to the wall only to discover the yellow flimsy no longer hung on the exposed nail. "But-"
"Hayes sent it." Vin rose and eased the conman to his feet, moving him over to the bed. He knew Chris had wanted to deal with the telegram, but Vin couldn't let the southerner continue to think they were like all the others in his life who had tossed him aside simply because he was an inconvenience or had somehow disappointed them. "Get yerself comfortable and I'll tell ya an interestin' bedtime story."
Urging the gambler to finish the rest of the tea, the tracker related everything Pat Kelly had told them. By the time he finished, the tea had lessened the gambler's pain to a dull throb and Ezra was fighting to keep his eyes open. "
"How did I hurt Mr. Larabee's feelings?"
"Believin' that damn telegram. He's been right upset and wonderin' why ya'd think he'd do that? Reckon ya better get used ta the fellas bein' on yer heels. Don't reckon they'll be lettin' ya outta their sight for awhile."
Hoping the conman was weary enough to answer without thinking as his eyes drooped taking him ever closer to much needed sleep, Vin asked his own question. "So if ya believed that message was true why'd ya come back?"
"Made a promise," Standish mumbled softly as he slipped into his first peaceful sleep since stepping off the train that long ago morning.
"Wanted ta thank ya for yer help that day." Vin tied the trunk to the mule.
Ezra wasn't looking forward to the ride, but didn't want to wait even one more day to return home. He kept his face blank. "What day?"
"Ya know damn good and well what day." Tanner grinned. "Don't worry, nobody's lookin' for revenge. Kid was scared enough to piss his pants. Reckon he musta needed the bounty somethin' fierce."
Ezra admitted to nothing and the tracker wondered how many times the men had had a Southern shadow following them on patrol. Taking the lead rope, he mounted Peso. "Be sure and say so iffen ya need ta stop."
"It's not that far, Mr. Tanner."
"It is when ya got a bullet hole in ya and maybe a cracked bone." Before Ezra could argue, he clicked Peso forward only to have the mule fold his back legs and sit back on his haunches almost pulling Tanner from the saddle.
"What the--?!" Regaining his balance, Vin tugged on the rope. "Come on, ya hard headed jackass! Time ta get Ez home." When the animal just stared at him, Tanner wrapped the lead rope around his saddle horn and once again clicked Peso forward only to have his horse take a step without any results.
Struggling against the laughter bubbling up inside him at the sharpshooter's growing frustration, his green eyes twinkling mischievously, Ezra turned Chaucer toward the trail. "That's enough, Larabee. It's time to go."
To Vin's amazement, the pack mule stood and moved to follow the gambler.
"Larabee? Ya named him Larabee?" Tanner burst into laughter. "Yeah I guess it fits."
Running a hand over his clean shaven cheeks and chin, Ezra stepped from the barber shop feeling more like himself than he had in weeks. Reaching town the previous day, after a hot bath, he'd happily drank the tea Nathan insisted on fixing him, let the healer check his shoulder, eaten a small meal and slept the rest of the day away in his room above the saloon.
As Vin had predicted, one or more of the men had been constantly at his side since his return.
"Looks like Vin's twin has turned back into our southern peacock," Buck teased, joining the others on the boardwalk.
"Mr. Ezwa!" A happy squeal and bare feet running down the boardwalk gave the gambler enough warning to stoop to meet the child as Emma skidded to a halt before him. Seeing the arm the healer had insisted remain wrapped to his chest for a few more days, the little girl, gently wrapped her arms around his neck. "I'm so glad youw home."
"Me too, Gingersnap. Were you a good girl while I was away?"
"Uh huh. I pwacticed my weadin' evewy day just like I pwomised and been doin' my sums too."
"Well then I think that deserves a special reward." He winked. "Ya come see me after lunch and see what I brought ya."
She gently touched the bandaged arm."Did a bad man shoot ya?"
"No, darlin', a bad man didn't shoot me." He met Buck's eyes. Vin had told him Wilmington was certain it had been his bullet that wounded the southerner, stating he was the only one facing that area. "My injury was an unavoidable accident, plain and simple. Nothing more." Rising he pulled a coin from his pocket. "Now as part of your special reward, ya run on over ta Mrs. Potter's and buy yourself some penny candy."
"Didn't ya already give her a special reward," Larabee questioned slyly as the child skipped away, thinking about the book Amos had found leaning against their front door.
"I have no idea what you're referrin' to, Mr. Larabee," the conman state innocently, adjusting the familiar red jacket draped over his left shoulder before moving toward the saloon.
'Uh huh." Chris grinned.
Sensing the gunslinger needed a few moments alone with the gambler, the others suddenly found excuses to be elsewhere. Setting the beer in front of Ezra, Larabee tossed the telegram on the table.
"If I wanted ya gone, Ezra, I'd tell ya straight out, not waste money on some telegram." Lighting a cheroot, Chris held the still lit match to the flimsy, both men watching it burn before he dropped the blackened paper to the floor, stomping on the remaining embers.
"I want to apologize if I've ever given you reason to believe that piece of garbage."
"I'm afraid Mr. Larabee, the circumstances of my life had much more to do with the misunderstanding than any words or actions on your part," Standish acknowledged. As much as he admired these men, as much as he respected these men, as much as he trusted these men and wanted to remain among them, he had rebuilt his walls and they would remain in tact.
"Well, here's one ya can believe." Pulling a second folded flimsy from his shirt pocket, Larabee slid the yellow paper he'd borrowed from Tom Blaine, toward the gambler and rising, pushed through the batwings.
Ezra reached for the flimsy as cautiously as if it were a snake about to bite him and slowly unfolded the paper.
To Ezra Standish. Four Corners. Keep your conniving ass here <stop> Too damn quiet without you <stop> Your six brothers WANT you at home. <stop> C. Larabee.
Ezra read the words again and his newly erected walls crumbled into dust.
"Thought I should give this back to ya." Vin slid the envelope across the table. Frustrated trying to read the fancy handwriting, Tanner had asked Mary to read the letter to him.
I, Ezra P Standish, do hereby turn over ownership, part and parcel to the area of land indicated on the enclosed document, to Mr. Vin Tanner, current resident and peacekeeper of Four Corners.
Ezra P. Stanish
P.S. Vin, I know you will appreciate and care for this tiny piece of paradise.
"On the contrary, Mr. Tanner, I wanted and still want you to have it." Ezra pushed the envelope back toward the tracker. "If nothing else think of it as a safe place to reside away from town."
"Belongs ta you, Ez."
"Perhaps a compromise.," the conman suggested. "We'll put the paper in the jail safe so if anything happens to me, you'll have it and if anything, God forbid, happens to you, I will simply destroy the letter."
"How's that a compromise?"
"Until said actions are needed, we'll share the," Ezra grinned, "hidey hole. Deal?" He offered his right hand.
"Deal." Tanner shook the offered hand, a smile lighting his blue eyes.
"Was beginnin' to think we'd never see that again," JD commented, glancing to where Ezra sat at his usual table, a game of patience spread out before him while he waited for the evening customers. They all knew it was his way of resting and keeping himself occupied since moving about was still painful.
Standish had been home for three days and that morning, Nathan had unwrapped his arm, but insisted he use a sling, struck speechless when he received no argument. He had left a cup of tea in Ezra's room each night to ease the pain and help him sleep.
"Sure is a sight for sore eyes," the healer agreed. He hoped the desserts the ladies kept foisting on the gambler would put some weight back on the too thin southerner.
"Thought McMurty was gonna choke on his tongue to keep from sayin' somethin' Chris mighta had to shoot 'im for," Josiah chuckled, bringing a smile to the gunslinger's face.
"Yeah, well did ya see the look on Ez's face when Nettie kissed him? His face turned damn near as red as his jacket." Wilmington's laughter caused smiles at the memory. That morning while Ezra was seated outside the jail with the others, answering JD's numerous questions about San Francisco the older woman had approached and without warning, dropped a kiss on the southerner's cheek.
"Glad one of my favorite peacekeepers is back where he belongs," she'd whispered in his ear before continuing on her way.
The conversation turned to plans for escorting the men sitting in the jail cells to the prison wagon with Larabee's announcement Judge Travis would be in on the next stage.
"What the hell is he doin' here?" Conversation came to a halt at Buck's question and all eyes turned to the teenager nervously approaching their table, hat in hand.
"Excuse me." Jeb Tyler kept his eyes on Vin, trying to ignore the other men, his words spilling forth before he lost his courage. "Mr. Tanner, I wanted ta apologize for what happened and….I'll understand iffen ya put me in jail, but before ya do I wanna thank ya for what ya did. I don't know why ya wanted ta help us out after what I did, but me and Ma sure appreciate it more than ya know."
"What'd ya do, Vin?" JD scratched at the itch of his healing wound.
Vin shrugged, his confusion obvious. "Don't wanna put ya in jail, kid, but I ain't sure what the hell you're talkin' about."
"Mr. Johnston at the bank told us how ya paid off our farm and put enough in the bank for seed and ta see us through till next harvest. Our farm ain't much, but it's all we got," the kid continued. "Know ya didn't want Mr. Johnston ta say anything 'bout it, but couldn't let ya do something so….so nice without sayin' thanks. And I'll make sure ya get paid back every penny iffen it takes the rest a my life."
Six pairs of eyes turned to the gambler who kept his own eyes on the cards, moving one stack to another, a small smile playing on his lips.
"Kid, I can honestly say ya don't owe me a dime. Ya just take care a yer family." Vin shook the boy's offered hand. "Take it from us...Family's mighty important."
Six chairs scraped the floor as Jeb exited the saloon, six men surrounding the gambler's table.
"Gentlemen, would you care to partake in a game of chance?" Standish gathered the cards and began a slow, but efficient shuffle. "My pockets have greatly missed your money."
"Guess our money's missed your pockets, too." Chris grinned as the men took their seats, happy to once again be seven strong.
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