Light Of Day
by DorkJunkie and Sassysouix
Disclaimer: This story is a piece of fanfiction containing characters which are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I do not make any claims to these characters.
Ezra slipped on his jacket, adjusting the cuffs of his best silk shirt. It felt strange not wearing his ever present derringer rig but although she had stated she realized the necessity for weapons in this often uncivilized territory, he knew they made Janine uncomfortable so he left the little gun with its fancy rigging in the top drawer of his dresser. With a last look in the cloudy mirror, straightening his tie, he locked the door and made his way down the stairs.
Four Corners was gaily decorated for the following day's Fourth of July celebration and as evidenced by the busy saloon, was rapidly beginning to fill with ranchers, hired hands and homesteaders from the outlying areas, all gathering to enjoy the festivities.
With a quick glance towards his usual table, Ezra paused at the wooden bar long enough to request Inez set the players up with drinks on him and with a bright smile, added his assurance he would happily join them later to relieve them of their hard earned money.
"Hey Ezra," Buck called as he continued through the crowded room and stepped out onto the boardwalk. The mustached gunslinger was seated on the bench next to the batwing doors, a beer mug gripped casually in his left hand. He appeared to be merely relaxing, enjoying the setting sun and cool breeze but the gambler knew he was watching the street, prepared for trouble. "Figured ya'd be glued to the poker table tonight. Hell ya oughta be able to make enough in the next couple days to open the best gamblin' house in the territory."
"Indeed Mr. Wilmington." Ezra smiled. "I will be most pleased to accommodate the citizens wishing to donate to that most worthy cause by partaking in a game of chance later this fine evening. At the moment, however, I have a previous engagement."
"Taking Janine out for a moonlight ride?" The womanizer grinned, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
"Don't be crude! The lady has simply agreed to join me for the evening's repast at the restaurant." Snapping his pocket watch cover closed, Standish dropped the timepiece back into his vest pocket. "If you'll excuse me I have an errand to attend to before meeting Miss Ashton." With a two-fingered salute to his fellow peacekeeper he crossed the street making his way to the livery.
Buck watched him, then turned his attention to the man who approached, shaking his head sadly as the young sheriff tripped over the boardwalk and stumbled into two ladies. Smiling at the flustered sheriff, the ladies were quick to assure him they were unharmed doing their best to make the boy feel better. That was a move he'd have to remember.
"Where's Ezra headed?" JD dropped onto the bench next to Wilmington, his face still bright with embarrassment.
Buck opted not to tease him as he took a sip of his beer. "Got somethin' to do before his dinner date."
"He sure seems stuck on Miss Ashton don't he." The young sheriff naively stated what the other five men had already noted.
Buck smiled at the innocent comment. Out of the mouth of babes. They had all noticed the subtle changes in the gambler since the petite red headed dressmaker had arrived in town. There was a lighter step to his walk and his always-ready smile was just a bit brighter. The man who hated mornings, never rising before ten unless necessary had stunned the others often joining them for breakfast the past few weeks.
Buck's smile widened recalling the look on Ezra's face when the tiny woman with flaming hair and bright blue eyes had stepped from the noon stage. The other peacekeepers hadn't been sure if the encounter several months earlier with the Chinese slave girl he had purchased, then freed, had been romantic or strictly business but she had been the last woman Ezra had shown any interest in. Romantic involvement or no, they had all seen, despite Ezra's attempts of business as usual, how the young girl's departure had affected the cardsharp.
Seeing Standish's interest, even Buck had curbed his natural instinct to pursue the beautiful woman, leaving the road to romance wide open for the southerner. Wilmington couldn't remember a day since in which Ezra hadn't spent some time with the woman, taking her on picnics, out to dinner, for a walk or simply visiting with her in the boarding house parlor. Buck shook his head, still marveling at the southern ways of genteel courting.
"Good evening Mrs. Travis, you're looking very lovely as usual." Taking the young widow's elbow, Ezra assisted the newspaperwoman up onto the boardwalk. "May I escort you to your destination this fine evening."
"Thank you Mr. Standish but it appears you are headed in the opposite direction."
"No inconvenience at all, I assure you. It's always a pleasure to be seen in the company of a beautiful and intelligent woman." He smiled offering his arm. "And quite good for one's reputation." His green eyes twinkled merrily. "Besides Mr. Larabee would skin me alive and hang my hide from the church steeple if I allowed one of the many uncouth ruffians wandering the streets to cause you the slightest misfortune."
Mary's face flushed bright pink at the gambler's words, as a shiver of delight raced through her that Chris Larabee held her welfare in such high esteem. She mentally shook herself, focusing on the man who strolled along beside her. "I haven't seen your name on any of the entry forms for tomorrows contests." The small town was celebrating the nations birthday as if it were the territorial capitol, with a rodeo, horse races, baking and numerous other contests before the evening's dance and fireworks.
Ezra ducked his head. "Feeling my many talents would give me an unfair advantage, I intend to enjoy the events as a spectator only."
"I'm assuming you'll be taking Janine to the dance." Mary smiled, watching the con man from the corner of her eye. It was obvious to anyone who cared to look, Ezra had lost his heart the moment he met the young woman and was totally taken with the pretty seamstress.
"She has agreed to accompany me." A soft smile touched his lips as he recalled the young lady's arrival.
Janine Ashton had arrived in Four Corners with everything she owned in a large worn carpetbag, intending to stay with relatives, only to discover they had left the territory months earlier. An accomplished seamstress she'd gone to work for Widow Henson at the dressmaker's shop, taking on most of the elderly woman's work.
Enthralled, Ezra had found himself falling under the young woman's spell as he discovered her love of many things that interested him as well. They'd spent hours discussing music, literature, philosophy and a host of other subjects.
Standish's profession and upbringing, the need to leave somewhere at a moment's notice, the freedom to travel where profits were high and risks low, had always entailed he remain alone, never allowing for close relationships or ties of any kind. One of the first lessons Maude had taught him by demonstration was showing his true emotions only served to make him vulnerable and he could only rely on himself and his own resources. He'd adhered to those lessons his entire life.
That is, until he found himself hiring on to become one of the peacekeepers of Four Corners. In doing so he had discovered six men who had proven to the young con man he could not only rely on them to watch his back but taught him the meaning of friendship. Six men who had poked, prodded, pushed and pulled the reluctant gambler into being a member of their unorthodox family.
Ezra still wasn't exactly sure why he'd stayed in the backwater town after his initial thirty day obligation to Judge Travis had ended and he had his amnesty in hand. It certainly wasn't the most profitable municipality he'd ever worked and definitely it sorely lacked the culture and sophistication of larger cities. The citizens were honest, hardworking individuals intent on forging a place for themselves in the dangerous territory, yet to his overwhelming and puzzling surprise the gambler found himself respecting and even admiring the residents of Four Corners. Even more to his total confusion he had begun to feel the same towards the six men who worked beside him to protect the town.
"Thank you for the company Ezra." The gambler suddenly realized they'd stopped walking and blinked rapidly pulling his attention back to Mary. "Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?"
"Perhaps another time. I'm afraid I have a business matter to discuss with Mr. Wilcox before he retires for the evening. It's been a pleasure Mrs. Travis." With a smile and another tip of his hat, the gambler waited long enough for Mary to enter her office before starting once more toward the livery.
He still had a few minutes before he was expected at the boarding house and although he knew it was probably unnecessary, Ezra still wished to be certain with all the people in town, the owner of the livery stable had remembered to reserve him the use of a buggy for the morning. Hopefully, it was going to be a special day and he wanted everything to be perfect.
Ezra glanced around the town. When had he started thinking of the dusty little borough as home and its citizens as friends? More importantly, he couldn't help but wonder if Janine would be happy and content making a permanent home in Four Corners?
The gambler couldn't prevent the smile which graced his lips and lit up his emerald eyes. Maude would have a hissy fit if she even suspected what he was thinking of doing, however, for once in his pitiful life he honestly didn't care what his mother thought or wanted. For once, he was going to think of himself, of his own wishes and desires. Not as Maude had taught him... selfishly conning from others what he wanted or needed to survive but rather as Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and the others had shown him... It was high time to do what would make him happy.
In the time he had spent working with the other six peacekeepers, Ezra had constantly found himself doing things that went against lifelong training. He discovered he was surprising himself even more than the others for he had come to believe he didn't have an honest bone in his body and to think of someone else first, well, Maude had taught him early on that was the ultimate sin. He had been stunned when Li Pong had told him he was a good man and while he still believed himself unworthy of such a distinction, Larabee and the other peacekeepers seemed to agree with that assessment on some level he couldn't quite fathom.
He was still awed and felt unworthy that each of the men had given him the rare gift of friendship and family. The simple fact Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had extended the hands of friendship moved him beyond words. When he was much younger, shuffled from relative to relative, never truly belonging anywhere, he had often fantasized of knowing such men, but had never even in those wild dreams dared hope to have them call him friend.
He had been overwhelmed when the black clad gunslinger had given him a second chance knowing anyone else would have most likely shot him for deserting them. It had taken time but Larabee had proved he trusted the gambler. Although it wasn't on the level the man trusted the others and probably never would be, but hell, there was trust there between them and he'd happily take what he could get. With Chris' hard earned trust had come the other six's.
Vin Tanner, the innocent, quiet, unschooled tracker with a price on his head had taught him the true meaning of honor, courage and standing up for what you believe is right, no matter the cost.
Buck Wilmington, the happy go lucky womanizer had shown him what it was like to have a big brother. Someone who worried and looked out for his well being. Though most of his attention was focused on JD, Buck still managed to shower them all with brotherly affection and contagious good natured ribbings.
JD Dunne, the youngest member of their little band had enlightened him to the joy of true innocence. The young orphaned sheriff easily expressed the emotions Ezra kept behind the locked doors of his heart. He had been thrilled the first time he realized JD actually looked up to him as a role model... and older brother.
Josiah Sanchez, the gentle deep voiced, gun toting ex-preacher had shown the gambler what he had lacked all his life... a strong loving father figure. As much as he wished he could go to the huge bear of a man and tell him, Ezra knew he wouldn't. Someday in the future, perhaps, but not now... not yet.
Nathan Jackson. In another world and time, they could have been master and property but here in this place they were equals, mainly because Ezra had managed to overcome his southern upbringing. Oddly enough, he knew Nathan would laugh if he knew how much they had in common and how much he'd learned from the ex-slave about giving freely of himself and helping others.
These six so very mismatched men had become an important part of the con man's life. A wonderfully new and hither unknown part he realized he didn't want to relinquish. Their varied lessons together had taught him how to open himself up to the happiness he now felt each time he thought of Janine, of the love that surged through him with just a passing glimpse of her and the even stranger feeling of contentment he felt at the prospect of settling down and making a life... an honest life... with her at his side.
Coming back to his senses and realizing where he was, Ezra's steps faltered as he entered the dark stables. He hesitated, the sound of quiet voices reaching his ears. His hand moved to rest on his gun, as he automatically stepped into the shadows taking a moment longer to let his eyes adjust to the darkness as they sought to make out the figures illuminated by the lantern's soft glow.
Standish smiled seeing Janine in the stall doorway talking with Chris as the gunslinger tightened the cinch on the black gelding's saddle. Although she was always friendly and polite with the peacekeepers Janine had appeared unusually shy as if she were uncomfortable and ill at ease around Larabee. Evidently she'd finally decided Ezra was right in telling her the gunslinger wasn't nearly as scary as most people believed.
"Don't imagine all the doin's tomorrow'll be like anything you're used to." Chris commented. "Ezra takin ya to the dance?"
"Unless you intend to ask me." There was a strange husky dare in the young woman's voice and Chris gave her a sidelong glance.
The chuckle died in his throat as Janine stepped closer, placing a hand on his arm. "I saw the way you looked at me the day I arrived." She was so close Larabee could smell the fancy sweet smelling perfume she wore.
Straightening, hoping this was one of Buck's practical jokes, he moved away from her touch as he sputtered, "What about Ezra?"
"I know he's your friend and I know that's why you've held your feelings for me inside. One of the things I admire about you is your loyalty to the men you work with." She smiled up at him before sighing regretfully, "Please don't misunderstand, Ezra is very entertaining and has been the perfect gentleman but you don't really think I could become serious about a man like him? For heaven sakes Chris, he makes his living conning and cheating honest people."
Following him, not letting him move away, she slid her hand up his arm as she pressed her body to his. "What kind of a life could I possibly have with a man like that? I don't want to worry about having to leave town in the middle of the night or that someone he'd cheated has decided to take revenge." Her light laughter filled the air, drifting on the breeze, just as her words had, to the man standing stock still in the shadows. "He told me what happened at that Indian village... Really, could you imagine Ezra as a father? I need a real man Chris, not a coward who would probably desert me and his children to save himself. I know you want me Chris, just like I want you... I've just been waiting for you to say something..."
His heart shattering into a thousand minute shards, Ezra didn't wait to hear any more, forcing legs that suddenly felt boneless to carry him silently outside. Dragging in great gulps of air to replace the oxygen that had rushed from his lungs at her words, Standish sagged against the building.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, trying to regain his senses before realizing Chris or Janine might come out and stumble across him. Gathering all his self control, the gambler pulled himself together and pasting on a falsely smiling face to mask his broken heart, blindly made his way to the saloon.
Realizing this wasn't one of Buck's or anyone's jokes, Larabee pulled himself out of his state of shock at the young woman's cruel words. He pushed her hands away and glared down at her, his voice incredulous. "Where the hell did you ever get the idea I had any feelin's for you?"
Janine stumbled as he reached out forcibly gripping her shoulders and gave her a shake as if to jar some sense into her. When she only smiled at him, his hazel eyes blazing with fury, Chris shoved the young woman away from him. Grabbing the black's reins, he turned to stalk away then spun around to face her again.
"Let me tell you something about Ezra Standish. I don't know where you got the impression he's nothing more than a cheat and a con man but if that's what you believe after all the time you've spent with him than you ain't nearly as smart as everyone thought."
"I ain't known Ezra ta cheat since the first time we met unless it was ta help someone. He puts on this flashy show about being selfish and carin' only about money but if that's all he give a damn about he sure as hell wouldn't stick around here. He hides what he's feeling cause that's what he was taught by that witch he calls a mother but Ezra's a good man with a kind, gentle heart as big as any I've known."
Janine pressed herself against the wooden slats of the empty stall as Larabee stepped closer, towering over her, his eyes full of contempt. "As for bein' a coward... ashamed to say, I thought so once... but he's backed our play enough times for all a us ta know he's got more courage than a troop a soldiers."
Restraining himself, it took all Larabee's self control not to physically throw the woman out of the stables. He nailed her in place with a deadly glare, a cold smile that more closely resembled a sneer crossing his face. "Ezra a father?... Yeah, I can see him with a whole passel a kids... He'd be a great father! If ya really paid attention at all, you'd notice he's like the damn pied piper when it comes to kids and animals. They just naturally gravitate ta him, maybe cause they know the truth and see what he really is... or maybe just cause he treats 'em like he always wanted to be treated his ownself."
Janine, her eyes darting towards the door, praying someone, anyone would enter the building to save her from this cold eyed man, edged toward the opening, fear twisting her stomach into knots, sure at any moment Chris was going to release his anger in some way other than just words. She had seen Ezra enter the stables but didn't think, if he was still within hearing, she could count on his help.
"I-I-" She stammered.
"Ya know Ezra's real good at readin' people. I figure he must be head over heels not ta see ya for what ya really are." Clenching his fists in anger, Larabee turned back to his horse, ordering roughly. "The only thing I feel for you is disgust so get the hell outta my sight before I do somethin' I might not regret."
The woman didn't need to be told twice as she turned and fled the gunslinger's wrath.
"Hey Ez, how..." Tanner's question died in his throat as the usually verbose cardsharp brushed past on the street as if unaware of Vin's presence.
"Ezra you okay?" The tracker called worriedly, hurrying after his friend. Grabbing his arm, he pulled the man to a halt, noticing the washed out complexion and empty eyes. The man actually looked ill. Maybe he should get Nathan. "Ya okay Ez?" He questioned again, concern filling his gruff voice.
Ezra gave him a small smile as he licked at too dry lips, trying to hide his shattered emotions from the eagle eyed tracker who could read people almost as well as Ezra himself. "My apologies Mr. Tanner. I'm afraid my mind was otherwise occupied."
His poker face firmly in place, wanting nothing more than to escape to the sanctuary of his room, Ezra again curled his mouth in the semblance of a smile. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Vin stared at him a long moment. "Just wanted to make sure you's okay. Ya kinda looked like ya was gonna be sick... Ya sure yer okay?"
"I assure you Mr. Tanner, I'm quite alright. If you would kindly excuse me." With a slight nod of dismissal, the gambler continued toward the saloon, leaving the tracker staring after him in worried confusion. Vin couldn't help but note that seeing Buck still seated next to the saloon entrance, Ezra's steps slowed before he had turned down the alley and entered through the rear.
"Wanna talk about it?" Tanner's quiet question broke the silence which had settled over his friend.
"No." It was the only thing Larabee had said since they'd ridden out of town. With the hotel and boarding house both full, folks were camping on the outskirts of town and Chris had thought it best to avert any kind of trouble with their presence. Neither man was much for conversation and often their travels were made in companionable silence but tonight the tension visibly radiating off the black clad gunslinger had the tracker's senses on full alert.
First Ezra and now Chris. What the hell was happening? The ex-bounty hunter twisted the problem around in his mind. He had seen an obviously upset Ezra coming from the direction of the livery and Chris was waiting there with both horses saddled when Vin arrived. Had the gunslinger and gambler had another one of their never-ending confrontations?
More alike than either cared to admit, the two friends were often like fire and kerosene, their arguments hot, explosive and done with, the anger burning out quickly. The gambler knew exactly what to say or do to push Larabee to the very edge of his self control. There were several times when Tanner was sure, knowing the gunslinger needed a release, Ezra deliberately took that extra step and boldly pushed Chris over the edge. Was that what had happened this time? Although it seemed likely, Tanner couldn't even begin to imagine what the cardsharp could have possibly done to put the deadly glare on the gunslinger's face?
The town was silent, the street fires burning low when Ezra Standish quietly saddled Chaucer and led the animal from the stables. Turning the leather reins in his agile fingers, his green eyed gaze roamed over the street one last time, then with a heavy sigh, bordering on a sob, he lifted himself up into the saddle and urged the gelding down the empty street and away from the town and all he had come to hold dear.
Lanterns lit up the gaily decorated small field behind the church where long tables surrounded three sides of the makeshift dance floor. A little raised platform for the musicians on the fourth. Despite the peacekeeper's worries the day had passed without incident. Nathan had patched up the scraped knees and elbows of some rambunctious boys and Buck had put a stop to one not so friendly argument before it came to blows. Everyone had seemed to have a good time, including the peacekeepers, who on the alert for possible trouble had kept a close eye on the bank and other business' knowing as Ezra had pointed out earlier in the week, they would be easy marks while the town was enjoying itself.
Escorting Mary back to one of the tables, Larabee crossed to where Tanner leaned against the church wall, his hazel eyed gaze searching the milling crowd. Chris knew Nathan and Josiah were making a quick inspection of the nearly empty town while Buck having a break from patrolling the streets, whirled Molly around the dance floor. JD was seated in a corner with Casey sharing a piece of cake under the watchful eye of Nettie Wells. However, his searching gaze didn't spy the seventh member of their band.
"Seen Ezra?" He questioned Vin with a scowl.
"Nope." Tanner shook his head, again wondering what the two men had said or done to each other this time. Although the tracker had noticed the gambler's absence he'd simply figured the con man was lost in the crowd taking bets on the contests or perhaps watching the events from someplace with Janine. Someplace where he didn't have to share her company or where Larabee couldn't find him to send him out to watch the empty streets. With the town so full of people it wouldn't be hard to overlook someone. "Course ain't seen Janine neither" He grinned. "Reckoned they was..."
"I didn't ask about her!" Chris interrupted brusquely, his tone and expression growing colder.
"That's it!" Tanner straightened, determined to confront the man who'd become his closest friend. "What the hell has Ezra done this time to put a burr under yer saddle?"
"I ain't pissed at Ezra... just..." Before he could finish, the sound of gunshots filled the air, drawing everyone's attention toward the saloon. Followed by Buck and JD, they raced for the tavern, guns drawn only to discover Josiah had the situation under control.
"These two boys couldn't agree on who was the best shot." He grinned holding two squirming ranch hands by the collar, a wide grin on his face. "Figured the contest this afternoon didn't prove nothin'."
"Let em cool off in a cell." Chris growled, his angry gaze sweeping the saloon, coming to rest on Ezra's empty chair.
Tanner saw the almost haunted look which came to Larabee's face. "Chris?"
"Later." Pushing past Josiah, Chris made his way through the gathered crowd and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Hesitating, he reached out and knocked, then turned the knob. Ezra's door was locked and there was no sound from inside.
~ 2 ~
Up with the rising sun, Tanner found Larabee sitting in the empty saloon, the gunslinger's eyes locked on the amber liquid in the shot glass before him. Pouring two cups of coffee, he sat down shoving one toward the gunslinger. The haggard look around the hazel eyes was proof enough Larabee hadn't slept nor had he spent the night drinking, as indicated by the nearly full bottle of whiskey.
Vin waited, hands cupped about his coffee mug, certain the blond peacekeeper would tell him what was on his mind when he was ready. From experience he knew prodding Larabee would only anger his friend and make the man pull deeper into himself.
Without prompting Larabee relayed Janine's conversation with him in the barn. "I swear Vin, I never gave her any reason to think I was interested... I mean, well even if I was even slightly attracted to her, knowin' Ezra's feelin's... we all..."
"I know that Chris." The tracker waved a hand disparagingly. "Awww hell, ya ain't gotta explain nothin'. Ain't none of us would believe ya'd do anything ta hurt Ez... Even Ezra wouldn't think that."
Vin's face suddenly paled, his stomach twisting in knots as that night's events replayed in his mind. Ezra was coming from the direction of the stables when the tracker had first spotted him. A sinking feeling hit him and he silently prayed he was wrong, but somehow he knew he wasn't. Uncertain if he should mention his suspicions to Larabee, knowing it would only add to the guilt the man was already feeling he concentrated on the cup in his hand.
"Vin?" Larabee glared at the man across from him. Tanner was no better at hiding his feelings from the gunslinger than his son Adam had been and Chris could read the quiet tracker just as easily. "Out with it."
Vin hesitated, continuing to stare at the coffee mug, his long fingers tightening about it as he softly murmured, "I think he heard her... what she said ta ya... I saw him... comin' from the livery..."
Chris was out of the chair, overturning it in his haste as he raced up the stairs before the tracker could stop him.
"Chris!" Knowing Ezra's or anyone's reaction to someone bursting into his room unexpectedly, Tanner shouted a warning as he dashed up the steps on Chris' heels, hurling himself at the gunslinger just as Larabee slammed his booted foot against the door, splintering the frame. Off balance both men crashed to the floor as the door slammed back against the wall.
"Ya better start thinkin' straight cowboy," Vin stated dryly helping Larabee to his feet before gingerly stepping through the ruined doorway. "Iffen Ezra'd been here ya'd be full a holes bout now." The room was immaculate as always, several of Ezra's fine jackets hanging in the closet, most of his clothes neatly folded in the dresser drawers, the bedspread as wrinkle free as if someone had run an iron over it, but there was no sign of the gambler.
Eyeing the splintered doorframe, Chris closed the damaged door in the entranceway, attempting a stab at normalcy, then followed Tanner down the steps to the bar.
"Ya seen Ezra?" Chris questioned, finding Buck, JD and Nathan at the bar ordering breakfast when they returned to the lower level.
"Let me guess... he done hightailed it for greener pastures." Nathan snickered, not at all surprised Chris was having trouble finding the conman. He was probably off with that pretty little dressmaker, making more work for the other six.
"Shut up Nathan!" Chris growled. "Any of ya seen him?"
Buck scrubbed a hand over his face, sleepily searching his memory. "Don't 'member seein' him since... night for last... He was taking that pretty little Janine to dinner."
"Don't think he left for good Chris..." Vin pointed out. "His carpet bag was still under the bed and he'd a took all his clothes iffen he weren't plannin on comin' back."
Buck straightened, all signs of sleepiness vanishing. "What'da ya mean, Vin... gone fer good? What's goin' on?"
Chris didn't give the tracker time to explain as he ordered. "Spread out. See if anyone's seen Ezra. Talk to everybody. Somebody has to know something... have seen something."
"Most the town's still sleepin' Chris." JD stated. His eyes widened and he unconsciously took a step backward as Larabee approached, his hazel eyes turning almost solid green with anger.
"Then wake their sorry asses up!" The menacing words were as close to a shout as anyone cared to hear. Chris turned to the Spanish barmaid behind the wooden counter as the men scattered. "Inez, ya got any idea where Ezra's got to?"
She shook her head. "Sorry Senor, I have not talked with Senor Ezra since he paid his bill."
'Paid his bill?' Chris mouthed the words not vocalizing as he stared at her in disbelief.
"Si." She nodded pushing a cup of coffee across the bar. "Just before I closed. He bought four bottles of whiskey and paid his bill in full."
"When?" Chris barked.
Knowing the blond man's bark was worse than his bite, when dealing with most people, she took a moment to think. "Two nights ago... the night before the big fiesta."
Larabee leaned on the bar, staring her full in the face as he demanded, "Ya didn't see 'im yesterday?"
"Not that I remember but we were very busy and I wasn't here all the time." She moved away to take care of several ranch hands who'd entered, leaving Chris with his thoughts.
Where the hell was the stubborn southerner? Was Vin right? Had Ezra overheard the conversation in the stables? Damnit! It had taken months to even partially figure out how Ezra's mind worked and it hadn't been easy. Eventually the others had learned to see behind the walls the southerner had built around himself, and had come to realize he wasn't the cold hearted, money hungry son of a bitch he wanted people to believe. Chris knew if he'd heard any part of the dressmaker's harsh, hurtful words, the gentle, fragile heart Ezra had struggled to keep so well guarded would have been broken into a million tiny pieces, each of them steering him towards re-erecting those walls the six men had worked so hard to bring down.
Wandering in, yawning and scrubbing at his grizzled face, Josiah stepped up beside Chris. "Somebody wanna explain to me what's goin' on'." The ex-preacher questioned pouring himself a cup of coffee. "Why's Vin walkin' the rooftops and why'd Wilcox just asked me if he should rent out Chaucer's stall? Ya send our black sheep outta town for a few days?"
"What?... Why?" Chris turned his full attention to the ex-preacher, barely noticing the others pushing through the batwings..
Josiah shrugged his massive shoulders as he took a long swallow of the coffee. "Said he found a envelope shoved under his office door. Said it was from Ezra payin' his bill. Since Chaucer ain't in the stable he wanted to know if he should hold the stall till Ezra gets back or just go ahead and rent it out."
Chris ran a hand through his short hair. He wasn't up to this, this morning. He turned to the other men. "What'd ya find out?"
"Nothin'. He ain't in town and nobody remembers seein' him yesterday." Nathan's despair was evident in his voice. "Vin's checkin' his favorite place but don't look like he's around."
"His second favorite. We all know Ezra ain't in his favorite place." The gunslinger's gaze swung to the poker table.
Turning to Wilmington Chris' scowl deepened. "Why you grinnin' like ya done discovered a gold mine?"
Buck's grin widened. "Stopped by the Widow Henson's. Seems Janine left her a note, night for last thankin' her for the job and sayin' she had ta go and maybe she'd come back sometime so the widow could meet her husband."
"Husband?" JD questioned, his jaw dropping low enough to hit the bar. "Think her and Ezra done run off together and..." That joyful thought vanished and his words trailed off at Larabee's stricken expression.
"Don't think so." Vin cut in as he stepped through the entrance. He shook his head. "Talked with Wilcox. Janine paid extra ta have Henry drive her to Eagle Bend. Henry saw her buyin' a ticket on the stage as he was leavin'."
"Maybe Ezra went after her." JD suggested. "Ya'll know how he felt about-" He coughed as Buck jabbed a well-placed elbow in his ribs.
Wilmington didn't know what was going on but he knew Larabee well enough to realize something serious had happened between him and the gambler. He'd seen his oldest friend's reaction lately whenever the young dressmaker's name was mentioned. Looking closer at the gunslinger, he now saw, the hurt and regret in the hazel eyes. His voice was low as he questioned. "What happened Chris?... You and Ez at odds and ya say something ta him ta make him take off?"
"Maybe this will explain everything." They turned to find Mary standing in the doorway holding out a white envelope. "I found it on my desk this morning. It's addressed to you Chris."
Without a word, looking as if the paper would explode in his hand, Chris crossed to their normal table and sinking into a chair pulled the single sheet of expensive vellum paper from the envelope. He didn't have to see the scripting or the signature to know who it was from. His dark eyes skimmed over the fine scripted wording. Closing his eyes, he let out a long deep breath.
"What's it say Chris?" JD asked the question they all wanted answered as the other men crowded around the table, staring at the piece of paper Larabee clutched tightly in his hands.
"Dear Mr. Larabee," Chris read aloud. "It is with deepest regrets that I must inform you I am relinquishing my employment as a peacekeeper of Four Corners. Through a former associate I have discovered a golden opportunity which with the use of my God-given talents will reap the financial benefits to open as Mr. Wilmington so distinctly phrased it, 'the best gambling house in the territory.' Perhaps as my former business associates you will all do me the honor of visiting once I have opened the aforementioned establishment. It has been my great pleasure serving beside such honorable men and I sincerely hope you shall remember me with fondness. Yours truly Ezra P. Standish."
"He's runnin a con!" Nathan snorted in disgust as he dropped into one of the chairs. "Should a knowed it! He couldn't fight the urge no more and left to con some poor souls."
"Yeah..." Chris agreed, nodding his head to Vin and Buck's stunned amazement. Then softly the gunfighter added, "...us."
"Chris?" Buck watched the anger wash from Larabee's face to be replaced with self-recrimination. His hazel eyes were shining with tears as he wadded the paper into a ball and tossed it aside, leaving them to stare after him.
Scooping the crumpled paper from the floor, Vin smoothed away the wrinkles and handed the paper to the amiable womanizer. "What else it say Buck?"
"P.S. Take care of her Chris, she deserves the best and rightly so as do you my friend. My fondest wish is that you will find a fr-fra… ction," Wilmington sounded out the unfamiliar word, "of the happiness you once had." He pulled his gaze from the paper searching the other men's faces with a confused expression. "What's goin' on?... Any of ya know what the hell that's all about?"
"Where ya headed cowboy?" Vin slouched against the barn's center support post as Chris leading out his black from the stall, reached for the saddle.
"Gonna find Ezra." Chris muttered as he smoothed out the saddle blanket and hoisted the heavy saddle into place.
"How ya gonna do that? Ya don't know which direction he headed and with all the people comin' and goin' the last few days findin' his tracks is damn near impossible." The sharpshooter began saddling Peso, not asking if the shootist wanted company or help.
"Don't care... Gonna bring him home." Larabee responded stubbornly, pulling the cinch tight with a savage jerk which caused the gelding to roll it's eyes.
"Ya open ta suggestions?" Tanner didn't give him a chance to answer as the others entered and without a word moved to tack up their horses. The tracker wasn't one to carry tales but had taken time to explain the situation. Vin didn't want them believing Ezra had run out on them for money or Chris had done anything to instigate the gambler's abrupt departure.
Adjusting the stirrups Vin climbed into the saddle. "Figure somebody camped outside a town mighta seen Ezra. Iffen we all split up in different directions we gotta better chance a findin' that somebody."
Larabee's gaze traveled over each of the men, seeing their understanding and desire to help retrieve the missing member of their family before he nodded gratefully. "We'll meet back here at dark."
He swung into the saddle and reined the black out of town, hearing the sounds of the other riders scattering behind him.
Nothing! Not one damn person who even thought they might have caught a glimpse of Standish. Chris was bone tired. Slapping the dust from his hat, he wearily stepped through the saloon batwings his heart sinking, seeing the obvious despair on the faces of his four friends, knowing they too had failed to find the elusive gambler.
"Josiah?" He asked.
"Ain't back yet." Tanner shoved a chair away from the table with his booted foot, staring at the beer in front of him with disinterest. No one had to ask if Chris had had any better luck then they had. "Ya know iffen we're gonna find him we gotta think like him."
"Easier said than done." The healer's quiet words brought the first smiles to the men's faces since hearing Ezra's letter. "Don't know bout the rest a ya but I don't know enough fancy words ta think like him."
Tanner wrapped his mind around the current problem. He had hunted, one way or another, all his life and had learned early on following the signs of a trail didn't always lead to the quarry. A true hunter had to anticipate the prey's next move and be one step ahead, waiting where the prey was not expecting. It was the same, be it animal or human quarry. He had hunted too many bounties, dangerous felons attempting to escape justice, not to have learned their predictable ways always led to their capture.
Ezra Standish was another matter altogether. The wily gambler was anything but predictable. The easygoing cardsharp kept a tight grip on his self-control but he could be as dangerous as a nest of rattlers when riled. The self-educated man could think circles around most people Vin knew and his thought processes rarely, if ever, seemed to follow the same paths as those around him.
Now though he was a man on the run, but not from the law or any wrongdoing. The man plain and simple was running from a broken heart. Because of the men seated at the table, the gambler had gone against life long training and opened his heart to friendship and trust. That simple human act had caused him more pain than he was prepared to deal with. The gambler could cope with physical injuries, even aspersions to his name, talents and character, but a wounded heart was totally alien to the man. Vin knew, like any wounded animal, he'd find a safe place to lick his wounds and heal. But where? What place in the vastness around them would Ezra consider safe enough?
It was a silent group that greeted the ex-priest, each man lost in his thoughts and sorrow as the grizzled oldest member of their group entered the saloon, his face solemn.
Vin, glancing up at the man saw a slight glint in the preacher's eye. "Ya found somethin'." His hopeful statement drew the other men's attention to Josiah as well.
"Johnson boy..." Wood creaked and chair legs scraped the floor as everyone sat forward, hope flaring through them. The Johnson family lived less than ten miles outside of town. The house, an old stage stop was located near the main road at the base of the foothills. "Stopped there on my way back. Seems couple hours afore dawn Tommy was comin' back from the privy... saw a lone man ridin' by..."
"Did he say it was Ezra?" Chris asked hopefully. There was a lot of traffic on that stretch of road and it could have been anyone... Of course most people didn't travel that late unless they didn't want to be seen.
"Didn't get a good look." Josiah shook his head. "Said he only remembered because the man stood out." He hesitated half a second then softly added, "because he was wearin' a red jacket."
"Ezra." Five voices spoke as one.
"Well we know which way he's headed," Buck shoved his chair back from the table and jumped to his feet. "So let's go get him!"
"Sit down Buck!" Chris ordered, shaking his head.
"But-but-" Wilmington stammered confused and stung by his friend's harsh demand.
"To late to leave tonight Buck." Josiah pointed out, motioning toward the batwings and the darkness which had settled beyond.
"Sides ya ain't goin'. None of ya are." A stunned silence fell over the table as all eyes turned to the blond gunslinger. "This is my mess and I'll clean it up..."
"Ya ain't ta blame for this Chris." Vin defied the man to correct him as he met Larabee's angry glare steadily. "Feelin' guilty won't do you or Ez any good. You didn't cause this... A lot a people did... includin' us... Ya shouldn't go alone but it might be easier on him iffen he didn't hafta face all a us at once." His blue-eyed gaze raked the five men, returning once again to Larabee, a slow lopsided grin curving his lips. "Sides, now, I gotta pretty good idea where he's headed."
Larabee stared into the blue eyes for several long moments, mulling over the tracker's words. Seemingly as different as day and night, of the six men Vin was probably the closest to the gambler. Both men had learned at an early age to survive on their own. If anyone had a chance of finding the missing gambler it was Tanner. "All right. You and me then. We'll leave at first light."
"I'm goin' too." Nathan stated quietly. "Just in case he needs medical help."
"Mr. Larabee?" Tom Blaine cautiously approached the table. "This came for Mr. Standish this afternoon. Was wonderin' what I should do with it?" The telegraph operator passed Chris the flimsy paper.
"Thanks Tom, we'll see he gets it." Larabee flipped the man a coin, passing the telegram to JD. He didn't think he could handle any more messages. "Tell Inez I said ta put ya a drink on my tab."
"Damn," The young sheriff moaned passing the short note to Wilmington.
"Shit, just what we need." Rolling his eyes, Buck strolled to the bar and grabbed a full bottle of whiskey. Removing the cork, he took a long swallow before handing the bottle to Chris. "Take it Pard. You're gonna need it... Maude's comin' in on the noon stage tomorra."
Taking a long pull Ezra set the bottle aside and automatically returned to shuffling the deck of cards in his left hand, his unfocused eyes on the dark horizon. It wouldn't have mattered if the sun was blazing high over head for all he saw was Janine looking up at Chris with adoring eyes. Her bitter harsh words rang in his ears like an echo through the canyon, haunting his thoughts like some bad dream he couldn't escape.
The gambler knew he could never run far enough to escape the truth of the words. Hitting on a truth he had always harbored deep in his own soul, they would follow him his whole life just as they always had, but at least in leaving Four Corners, his humiliation wasn't on display for the entire town and he'd smoothed the path for Chris' well deserved happiness. Larabee was far too noble to pursue Janine's affections if he even thought there was the slightest chance for Ezra.
Damn! He begrudgingly had to admit he'd out done himself this time. He'd planned everything so carefully and no one would be the wiser. Janine and Chris could start their lives together guilt free and he would try to return to the profitable life he'd led before experimenting with honesty .
Upon returning to his room, after the incident in the stable, Ezra had packed a few changes of clothes in his saddlebags and composed the needed letters before forcing himself to take his usual seat at the poker table. Hurting as he'd never hurt before, Standish had played with a viciousness he hadn't used since coming to the small town, releasing the pain tearing his insides apart on the cards and the strange men at the table.
With the celebration in full swing, the six peacekeepers wouldn't miss him for at least twenty four hours and if for some reason, his absence was noted, the clothes left behind would suggest his imminent return.
Pocketing his substantial winnings, knowing he could put the additional monies to use wherever he ended up, he waited in his room until he was certain everyone was asleep before he gathered his gear, saddled his horse and rode out of town. Traveling at night, always dangerous for horse and rider, had slowed his progress but he'd found the searched for trail at daybreak and turned off the main road climbing into the foothills.
Just when he was beginning to think all was working out, it seemed Lady Luck had other plans for the gambler. Chaucer had picked up a stone an hour from the tiny meadow where Ezra planned to sleep... or drink... he didn't particularly care which, the day away.
Now, having stopped and made a small camp he glanced across the fire to where the horse was ground hitched. Chaucer was his best friend and as much as he wanted to be on his way, the cardsharp wouldn't risk crippling the animal who'd served him so well. He could afford to wait for the deep stone bruise to heal. He knew the peacekeepers were probably still unaware of his departure and even if they deemed it necessary to search for him, Tanner would have trouble locating any sign on the well traveled road.
"Damn fool." Chaucer whickered at the softly muttered words. Ezra cast an apologetic look at the gelding. "Not you my ol' friend... Me."
He took another long pull before speaking to the horse again. "You my dear friend are traveling with the biggest damn fool ever to breath air." The horse raised it's head and eyed the man before snorting and returning to its grazing.
Maude was right! As always. How many times had she warned him of the dangers brought about by allowing others access to his heart. A successful con man played on the very emotions of others, while he himself kept his own locked safely away. He'd broken that cardinal rule and now painful though it was, he was paying the price.
He snorted as he upended the bottle and drained the last of the whiskey from it. All those men who preached of hellfire and brimstone were wrong. There was no hell in the afterlife. Hell was here! Now. Hell was having to deal with the pain and confusion of a myriad of emotions. God must have laughed himself silly, when he endowed mankind with emotions. After all it was the perfect practical joke.
Joke... well, this joke was on him. Born and raised in the art of manipulating others, Ezra Standish had fallen victim to the oldest and ultimate con game... Love. He had fallen in love.
"When did I become so damn weak?" The ruffling of the cards as they moved through his fingers was his only answer.
"Better put your slickers on. Them clouds is gonna let loose anytime."
At the quiet words, Chris glanced once again from the dismal grey clouds which appeared to be following them back to the tracker squatted on his heals, his fingers lightly tracing something on the ground which only he could see.
Larabee told himself again, if anyone could find Ezra it was Tanner. Chris had never given it much thought before but just as he had with Larabee, there was an almost mystical connection between the sharpshooter and gambler. Perhaps it was the similarity in their backgrounds, neither having experienced more than a tiny amount of the security provided by a loving family during their childhood or the common bond of not giving trust easily. Both had grown to manhood, relying only on themselves and their skills to survive.
Whether it was the time he'd spent with the Kiowas or traveling alone, Tanner had what Ezra would refer to as an unearthly correlation with nature and those he cared about, sensing trouble before it arrived whether in the form of a thunderstorm, an outlaw or an inner turmoil. He could read people almost as well as he read tracks and had been the first to see the loneliness Standish kept locked behind his protective walls. He'd been the first to see the cardsharp's desire to be part of their group and his innate fear of being rejected if he did.
To a stranger it would appear Ezra had nothing in common with the other six men who had banded together to protect the citizens of Four Corners, yet over time, Chris had come to realize he shared a commonality with each of them. He had Josiah's faith, Nathan's gentle need to help those hurt or in danger, Buck's sense of humor, Vin's quietness and strength of character, JD's innocence and if Chris were honest with himself he knew Ezra possessed his own strong sense of loyalty. And like each of the men, the gambler had his share of private demons.
The gunslinger knew most people, concerned only with themselves, never took the time to look past the self serving front the con man used to face an often unforgiving world. The six men themselves had been guilty of that very indiscretion, Larabee and Nathan, more so than the others... No that wasn't exactly true... JD with the innocence of youth had never seen anything but the goodness in the fancy dressed member of their group.
The dark clouds rolling overhead finally released their wet burden as the three men turned off the main road ducking beneath branches as Vin led them along an the overgrown trail which more closely resembled a footpath.
Taking the woman's hand, Josiah helped Maude Standish step from the stage assisting her onto the boardwalk where the porch overhang would protect them from the sudden summer downpour as the driver tossed several pieces of expensive luggage towards JD.
"Josiah! You're looking as handsome as ever." Maude graced him with a dazzling smile. "Why JD Dunne I do declare you seem to have grown at least two inches since my last visit." Those pleasantries out of the way she turned, looking up and down the street. "Now where is my darlin' boy?"
"It's good to see you again Maude." Taking the largest suitcase from the young sheriff, the preacher steered her toward the hotel, ignoring her question. "How long are you plannin' to visit?"
"I'm afraid this is hardly more than a stopover. I have a pressin' business matter to discuss with my son." Signing the hotel register with a flourish and receiving assurances her luggage would be delivered to her room, Maude dropped the key in her bag. "Now Josiah, would you care to escort me to the saloon. I assume Ezra is too engrossed in some game of chance to meet his loving mother at the stage."
"Ya gotta excuse me ma'am. Gotta go relieve Buck at the jail." JD muttered, avoiding Maude's gaze. Tipping his hat cordially, he turned and rushed out the door, not wanting to be in the vicinity of the explosion when Maude discovered her 'darlin' boy' had left Four Corners.
Sensing something in the young man's actions, she spun to face Josiah. "I would appreciate a straight answer." Hands on her hips, the blonde woman glared at the large man almost daring him to make a run for the door. "Why didn't Ezra meet the stage?"
"Did my telegram arrive?" She questioned bluntly as she moved for the saloon leaving Josiah to catch up.
She spoke over her shoulder as she breezed through the saloon's batwings. "Is he still angry over that silly incident with the tavern? For land sakes that boy always could carry a grudge longer than anyone I've ever met... excluding Mr. Larabee of course."
'Silly incident? That's what she called crushing Ezra's dream beneath her heel? The woman continued to amaze the gentle hearted preacher with her callous disregard of her own son's feelings. Then again, Maude probably thought her son an emotionless void having taught him to ignore his own using them only when there was a profit to be made, much like an actor in a stage play. The preacher had tried to convince himself although she was far from maternal, Ezra's mother did love her son, in her own peculiar fashion but he couldn't ignore the fact she hadn't even questioned if Ezra had been detained from being injured, not an unlikely assumption considering his occupation as a peacekeeper.
"Maude!" Josiah caught her arm as with a nod to Inez behind the bar the older woman started up the stairs.
"I told you Mr. Sanchez, I have business to discuss with my son. Now please release me, I simply will not allow him to sulk in his room until I depart."
Scrubbing a huge hand through his greying hair, the big man drew in a deep breath and cut to the truth. "He ain't here Maude."
Maude Standish studied him for a long moment before descending slowly back down the stairs and crossing to the peacekeepers table. Calmly, she settled into the chair he held out and carefully began removing her gloves. "Now Josiah, since I've never known you to lie to me and you say he isn't here would you please be kind enough to tell me where he is."
Her eyes flashed. "Can't or won't?"
"I don't know where he is... No one does."
"Ya really think he come this way?" Nathan asked yet again, as they once more dismounted and began leading the horses up a particularly steep incline.
"Yep." Reaching a small plateau, Tanner knelt to study the ground again.
"Horses need a rest." At Vin's nod, Larabee quickly built a fire and started enough coffee for three cups, while the tracker on foot scoured the area for signs of passage and Nathan loosened the saddle cinches, turning the horses out to graze. The coffee had brewed by the time Tanner returned.
"Ya find something?" Larabee questioned hopefully.
"Not much." A slight smile touched the tracker's lips. So Ezra had been paying attention during their patrols.
"Don't that seem strange?" The healer looked from one man to the other, confused. "I mean if we had ta walk the horses up here, wouldn't he?"
"Unless he carried him." Vin grinned.
"Ya been hangin' round Ez to much." Nathan quipped. "I was tryin to say, shouldn't there be some tracks or something?"
"Reckon he wiped em out." Chris remarked, seeing Vin's unspoken pride in the gambler's ability shining in his blue eyes. Of course if the tracker had known the con man was going to use the skills he taught him to hide from the sharpshooter, he might not have been so eager to teach him. He'd have to make sure he sent the gambler on patrol with Vin more often.
"Reckon he did." The sharpshooter shrugged, squatting by the small flames. "Reckon he's headed ta Devil's Gate."
"Piss ant place sits the other side a these hills on the edge a the desert." Larabee answered the dark man's question. "Ain't much better than Purgatory, cept it's damn near a ghost town."
"What makes ya think he's headed there?" The healer was even more confused then before, certain Ezra wouldn't head for somewhere he couldn't make enough money to travel on.
"He can pick up enough supplies there ta make the two day trip ta Bates Crossing." Vin adjusted his collar as the leaves dripped cold rain down his back.
"Well iffen ya thought that's where he was headed, ain't there a faster route we coulda taken... Maybe caught up with him afore he headed out." Nathan poured the coffee, passing them each a cup.
"Wasn't sure and it's better to follow than guess and be wrong." Larabee studied the quiet tracker and softly uttered. "Figure this is the only trail Ezra was ever shown."
Vin nodded absently as he spoke. "He didn't make it there." Seeing his companion's eyes widened in fear at the quiet words, the sharpshooter rushed on. "He didn't get all the tracks... Looks like Chaucer lamed hisself... Picked up a rock..."
"Ezra loves that damn horse." Larabee stated, understanding the cryptic message. "He'd rather put a bullet in his own brain than take a chance on havin' ta put that animal down."
"There's a meadow, more like a open grassy spot with a couple trees, a few miles further on... Reckon he'd hole up there, rest Chaucer a day or two afore pushin' on..."
"And just how would Ezra, who don't leave the comforts of town less he's forced to, know about this meadow?" Chris stifled his smile watching the red flush climb up Tanner's tanned cheeks. How indeed... His thoughts sobered. If Vin was right and Larabee had no doubt he was they would probably find Standish in the next few hours. What was he going to say to the gambler? How was he going to convince the man to return with them to Four Corners? How could he even begin to make the gambler see he was in error. Shaking his head he moved to gather the horses. "Let's head out."
"How'd ya know Vin?" Nathan asked as they doused the fire and tightened their saddle cinches. "How'd ya know he'd come this way?" The healer had seen Vin track before and hadn't failed to notice that once they passed the Johnson homestead, Tanner had barely glanced at the ground until they reached the trail off the main road.
Resting his forearms on the saddle, the sharpshooter sighed deeply. "Everybody's got someplace they go where they feel safe... even iffen it's just someplace they got pictured in their head... For Chris it's his cabin, you... it's yer medical books... me I take ta the hills... Ez-"
"It's the roof." Nathan smiled in understanding. How many times had they found the gambler sitting on the saloon roof, reading shuffling his cards or simply staring off into space?
"Ezra goes up." Vin nodded, the leather creaking as he swung into the saddle. With a gentle touch of his heels, the sharpshooter urged the horse forward.
The young healer's thoughts were in turmoil, wondering, like Larabee, how he could face the gambler. How had he missed something so obvious about someone he thought of as a friend. Nathan knew what it was to be unfairly judged and daily fought his own prejudices, trying to remember Ezra wasn't the embodiment of the evil he'd experienced before the war. The ethical healer didn't agree with Ezra's choice of livelihood and often jumped to the wrong conclusion where Standish was concerned but to his own surprise Nathan truly liked the con man and considered him a friend. The ex-slave couldn't imagine what life would be like without the man who could be arrogant, obnoxious and irritating, always doing the opposite of what you expected. And with a sudden flash of insight, he realized, deep in his soul, he really didn't want to know.
Tanner pulled Peso to a halt at the edge of the clearing, nodding to where Chaucer stood contentedly grazing. Dismounting the three men approached the small campsite, their sharp eyes searching the surrounding area for any sign of their missing friend. Ezra's saddle, bedroll and saddle bags lay under an enormous tree with spreading branches. Nearby a circle of stones enclosed a smoldering campfire. The clink of glass drew their attention as Nathan's boot knocked two empty whiskey bottles together.
"Where the hell is he?" Larabee growled, his hawk eyed gaze searching the obviously empty meadow.
With a lopsided grin Tanner raised an index finger upwards and watched as both men swiveled their heads to see what he was pointing out to them. Chris actually gasped aloud at the sight.
The errant gambler was snugly nestled in the crook of two large branches approximately fifteen feet above their heads. Using the trunk for a backrest, one leg dangling lazily, a half full bottle of whiskey in his left hand, the fingers of his right smoothly maneuvered his ever present deck of cards. The southerner appeared relaxed and totally oblivious to the three as he stared at the desert visible in the distance.
"Inez thought ya might like something ta eat." Molly carefully set a plate in front of Maude before passing the other one she held to Josiah who gave her a quick smile of thanks.
"Thank her for me." Maude smiled at the young woman who, intimidated by the sophisticated woman, shyly returned the smile before hurrying back to the kitchen. Taking a dainty bite Maude lowered the fork and returned her attention to the ex-preacher. "I would have thought Josiah, since my son decided to remain in this quaint burg against my better judgment, the men he worked with would have at least had the courtesy to learn something about him."
In a small town like Four Corners, tales traveled quickly and often without actual fact, embellished as it passed from person to person. As it was, Josiah knew Ezra was the subject of enough disdainful gossip without adding fuel to the fire so without going into too much detail he explained why her son had left for parts unknown.
"Nonsense!" The woman scoffed when he finished.
"Please don't take offense, I do know Ezra is very good at what he does." Maude patted his hand tenderly. "After all if I must say so myself, he did have a most excellent teacher. You must realize I know my son better than he even knows himself and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, there's no possibility my sweet baby boy would have allowed himself to truly care for someone such as you've described."
A quick vision of Ezra's dimpled smile and shining emerald eyes each time he saw Janine, flashed before Josiah and he realized how very wrong Maude truly was. The preacher had come to know the gambler fairly well in the time they'd been together. Maude may have been right about Ezra being good at what he did but she didn't realize the man had changed. He had learned to trust and believe in the six men he worked with. As a result he often had trouble hiding behind the poker face he'd perfected in his life before. More times than he cared to admit, Josiah had seen a quick flash of hurt in the younger man's eyes caused by an unthinking callous remark and he'd seen the happiness radiating from the con man at the mere mention of the dressmaker. If the old adage were true that the eyes were the windows to a man's soul, then the preacher knew that Ezra Standish had truly unshuttered his during his time in Four Corners.
The preacher drew his attention back to the woman at the table and what she was saying.
"...The only type of woman that would capture Ezra's attention would have to be beautiful, sophisticated and most importantly... wealthy. Being the handsome rogue that he is, my son has never lacked for willing participants for his more..." She dropped her eyes as if suddenly embarrassed, "wanton desires but he certainly wouldn't become seriously involved with a simpering little dressmaker no matter how pretty she might be, especially if she's anything like those Harris relatives of hers."
"Ezra's not the man you think you know." Josiah pointed out rather bluntly. "He's not the 'darlin boy' you raised to-" The large man sat back in his chair staring at the woman across the table, as her last words echoed in his mind. How...? No, surely even Maude wouldn't be that despicable.
Seeing the sudden change in his demeanor, the con woman quickly changed tactics and nodded in a self sacrificing manner with a small sigh. "Perhaps you're right." She sighed dejectedly again. "Although as I said I had a business matter to discuss-"
"What kind a business?" Josiah interrupted, a surge of anger beginning to build in the gentle man as he suddenly felt as if both he and Ezra were being played for fools by this conniving woman and her devious mind.
"It really doesn't matter now I suppose." Maude suddenly switched tactics again and became the loving worried mother. "You say Chris and Vin went after him. Oh I do hope they find my darlin' boy and bring him back safe and sound. How long do you think it will be before they return?"
~ 3 ~
"Ezra! Get you sorry ass down here!" Larabee shouted at the man who continued to ignore their presence.
A response drifted down. "Don't wanna." The two words might have been spoken by a petulant five year old.
Vin snorted, choking on the chuckle which bubbled out of him, receiving an irritated glare from the blond gunslinger.
"Ya enjoyin yerself Tanner?" Chris growled, his gaze traveling to Nathan who, his lips pressed tightly together, studied the ground as if he expected the grass to suddenly start square dancing.
'At least he's all in one piece.' The healer thought sending up a small prayer of thanks.
With a disgusted sigh, Chris moved for the base of the tree. "Well if he ain't comin' down, guess I'll just have to go up."
"Don't think that would be such a good idea." Vin reached out stopping the man as Larabee grabbed one of the lower branches. "Don't take this wrong Chris but we don't exactly know how he's gonna react to ya right now... Might be wiser ta wait till he's back on the ground afore ya try and talk ta him."
Releasing his grip on the limb, Chris turned to eye the tracker. "Any suggestions on how we manage to get him back on the ground?"
"What kinda business dealings Maude?" Josiah repeated. His deep baritone voice held a stern note usually reserved for the criminal element they encountered in the line of duty.
The woman met his blue grey eyes unflinchingly, her soft voice icy. "Don't think my fondness for you entitles you to butt in where you don't belong Josiah."
"Wouldn't dream of it ma'am... however my fondness for your son means I'm gonna do just that." He wrapped one large hand around her tiny wrist in a iron grip. "You come here cause ya need him for some con job ya got planned didn't ya?"
She arched her perfect eyebrows, giving him a haughty look. "And if I did?"
"Then ya can get your connivin' ass back on that stage and keep on goin'." He released her wrist and leaning back in the chair studied her. "You were wrong Maude when ya said ya know your son better than anyone... Ya don't know Ezra at all."
Her lips lifted in a parody of a smile. "And I suppose you're going to say you and those other... common," she made the word sound distasteful, "ruffians do?"
Josiah considered the question for a long moment. Did any of them really know the complicated gambler? There were as many layers to the man's personality as a Georgia grown onion.
Seeing the con man as Ezra was today, remembering the man he'd first met, the preacher realized it was almost a day to night change and he couldn't help but wonder, seeing the small insights into Ezra's blossoming personality, what the southerner had been like as a child. He couldn't help but wonder what Ezra would be like if he'd had the normal care free upbringing of a typical child with a loving mother and family. There were times he caught a glimpse of the fun loving little boy in the practical jokes Ezra played, a precocious bright little boy begging to see the light of day.
Josiah had discovered, despite Ezra's profession there was a trustworthiness about the man which even Ezra himself didn't seem to recognize or acknowledge. Josiah knew beyond a shadow of a doubt there was a caring, loving, giving, gentle man tucked inside the unfeeling hard as stone shell the gambler struggled to show the world.
Leaning forward, his elbows on the table, he caught Maude's eyes with a steady gaze, refusing to let her look away. "Let me tell ya about your son."
"Whatcha doin there Ez?" Tanner settled himself on a strong branch slightly below and to the left of the gambler. Although the branches were wet from the earlier heavy rain, the tree's foliage helped protect them from the light mist which was still falling. He wasn't sure how long Ezra had been in the tree but a glistening mist shown on the man's chestnut hair, his black hat abandoned on the ground below, victim to the swipe of a tree limb and his clothes appeared more than a little damp.
Ezra barely glanced in his direction, his expression priceless as he saw his friend perched nearby. "I am attempting to avoid a hangover brought on by the over-indulgence of alcoholic beverages."
"How ya doin that?" Vin asked, squirming for a better seat on the slick limb.
"By staying drunk of course." Ezra took a long swallow, his slightly slurred words the only indication of inebriation. "My manners seem to have deserted me. Would you care for a libation?" He leaned over, passing the bottle to the tracker who held his breath, afraid the man would lose his seat.
"Don't mind if I do." The fiery liquid warmed his insides as Tanner held onto the bottle.
Without looking in his direction, the gambler leaned closer and retrieved the whiskey as if sensing the sharpshooter's reluctance to return the alcohol to his grieving friend.
Grieving? An uncommon word for the current circumstances, but yes Ezra admitted to himself he was grieving. Mourning the loss of not only the woman he'd fallen in love with but also everything that he'd come to treasure and rely on.
As much as he wanted to deny it, the gambler had found himself happy to be part of the strange group of misfits that made up the peacekeepers of Four Corners, even if it meant remaining on the fringes, never fully trusted or accepted. He'd discovered himself wanting to be more like the six men he secretly admired and considered friends. They were well liked and had the respect of the town residents. Hell, on some level even his own mother liked and respected them. To a degree perhaps even more than she did him. Oh, he had always told himself Maude loved him in her own warped fashion, and he knew she respected his talent and ability to earn money, but he had never truly felt as if she respected him for the man he was... the man he was becoming.
Ezra had long ago accepted the consequences of the life he had chosen. Deceitfulness. Mistrust... Loneliness. He'd never been given a reason not to capitalize on his God given talents and had grown use to the cost and the looks thrown his way.
By the age of seven, his dreams of a permanent home, friends to play with and a family that loved him unconditionally had been relegated to the hours he slept. Dreams... Dreams were for fools. His mother had proven that fact all through his childhood and even the one time he'd recently let himself believe otherwise.
Despite the hard lesson, Ezra had allowed the dream of owning his own saloon to reawaken and with that reawakening other yearnings only acknowledged in his dreams had begun to stir, seeking life as well. Dreams he kept close to his heart, never daring to share with anyone including the man now seated high in a tree beside him. Somehow he knew if he gave voice to the dreams in the light of day, the fantasies would dissipate like mist in the bright sunshine.
A single tear slipped unnoticed down this cheek. How had he deceived himself into believing he was anything more then what he'd always been... a worthless gambler. His life had always revolved around the almighty dollar. Whether it was his mother paying someone to treat him as a farm hand until he was needed for one of her cons or his own way to earn a living, it always came back to the money to be made. It didn't matter the cost to the other person or the hurt, just how much money Ezra Standish walked away from the table with. It didn't matter how much that was, it was never enough to fill the huge empty place in his heart. He had always known he was only welcome when his skills were useful.
Six men in a nowhere little town had changed all that. They'd worked hard to change his perspective, gradually making him feel as if he mattered and had asked nothing in return. They saw the man Ezra wanted to be and seeing himself through their eyes, the cardsharp had let himself believe he deserved the love and happiness that always eluded him.
"Whatcha thinkin' bout Ez?"
"Nothin' important." Standish shrugged, nodding toward the horizon. "Pretty ain't it."
Vin gazed out at the vista spread before them, his blue eyes alight with appreciation of the beauty God had created. "Sure is... kinda peaceful too... Got a right good view from here."
"Mr. Tanner, when ya was a youngster did ya ever pretend ta be somethin ya wasn't?" The gambler asked softly after several long minutes of silence.
"Sure... Guess all kids do."
"I didn't... Weren't no sense in thinkin' I was ever gonna be anything but what I was... What I am." Ezra stated, his voice flat. "Unless a course I was workin' a con." Gone was the extensive vocabulary, his accent growing thicker. "What'd ya pretend ta be?" Before the sharpshooter could answer the southerner continued on. "Ya know some cultures believe when a person dies, their soul comes back in some other form... sometimes human... sometimes... other things depending on the life they led while they were here... Maybe that's why..." The words trailed off as the gambler fell silent. Taking another long swallow, he held out the bottle.
Accepting the offered drink, Vin glanced down to where Chris and Nathan were seated around the rekindled campfire. Larabee, his shoulders slumped in dejection couldn't prevent his worried gaze from constantly returning to his two friends seated precariously high above him.
"Why ya'll here Mr. Tanner?" Ezra questioned quizzically as if just suddenly aware of their presence.
"Come lookin' fer you Pard. Was hopin' we could talk ya in ta comin' back home where ya belong." Tanner heard the slight hitch as Ezra caught his breath and the ceaseless shuffling slowed slightly.
"I'm afraid ya've wasted your time on two counts." The gambler sighed. "I regret there wasn't time to say goodbye to you and the others but it was imperative I leave immediately. I hadn't counted on Chaucer sustaining a slight injury but as I stated in my letter to Mr. Larabee, I have a golden opportunity that is just too good to resist... Sides you're wrong thinkin' I belong there." The last was added so quietly Vin had to strain to hear it.
"Ezra..." Tanner chewed nervously at his lip. He didn't want to add to the man's pain by revealing they all knew the truth behind his sudden departure. "Chris really wants ta talk with ya... He needs ta talk with ya."
'What about what I need?' As if reading the thought that raced through the gambler's mind, the sharpshooter added. "Ya need to talk to him too Ez."
Ezra shook his head, causing the wetness to shake off his hair in dew-like drops. "Can't... not right now..."
Deciding there was no way around it, with a deep breath, Tanner took the plunge. "Ya know Chris wouldn't do anythin' ta hurt ya... not on purpose... none a us would..."
"I'm not angry with him Vin," Ezra hurriedly assured him. "I meant what I said in the letter... Chris deserves to be happy again... In fact I-" The southerner clamped his lips together as if realizing he was about to reveal more than intended. "What intelligent woman wouldn't pick any a ya over a worthless con man such as myself?... And I do admire an intelligent woman."
"I don't know how much ya heard that night but-"
The gambler really looked at him for the first time and Vin was stunned at the desolation he saw in the emerald eyes. "I heard only the truth. I can't fault the young woman for bein' honest."
"Ya don't really believe that do ya Ez?... I mean..."
"She didn't lie Mr. Tanner. She simply stated the facts. Fact number one. I am a gambler and a con man. Both professions are aptly associated with cheatin'. Was I or was I not cheatin' those gullible men with blanks in the saloon the day we met?"
"Not the first one... You're a hellava shot Ezra."
"Thank you, however the fact remains I was cheatin' to win the wager I made with those scruffy gentleman." He shrugged. "I was in dire need of funds to leave the territory..." he trailed off.
"Fact number two. Did I or did I not desert you and the others at the Seminole village when the true fightin' began?"
"Ya come back and saved our asses." Vin pointed out.
"Your asses might not have needed savin' if ya hadn't had a coward watchin' your back, therefore your point is moot."
"Moot?" Tanner rolled the new word around on his tongue.
"Debatable... Questionable... Subject to argument." Ezra explained patiently.
Vin frowned, realizing he needed to make the man see the light. "Okay, ya wanna talk about facts? Fact number one. Ya saved Miss Nettie's ranch by loanin' her that money to get Royal offen her land."
"Purely selfish Mr. Tanner. I was thinkin' only about the financial gain to be made off the loan." The gambler continued to paint himself with a money grubber brush.
"Don't rightly recall ya makin' no financial gain." Vin grinned, a mischievous twinkle entering the blue eyes when he caught a glimpse of a dimple in the gambler's cheek. He had never paid the gambler the promised interest on the short term loan and it had become a private joke between the two friends. "Fact number two. Ya damn near got yerself killed helpin' the Chinese at the railroad camp."
Ezra waved a hand dismissively in the air. "Again, purely financial gain. The railroads have been known to generously reward those who look out for their interests."
"Fact number three. Ya bout got yerself blowed ta hell helpin' out Hank."
"Merely self preservation, Mr. Tanner. I had no wish to face whatever revenge the Nichol's clan had planned for the sight seeing expedition I sent them on."
Damn! Vin swore to himself. Man has an answer for everything. There had to be something the con man couldn't turn around, couldn't twist into something negative.
"What kinda self interest was there in sending Li Pong back to her family? We all know it couldn't be nobody else."
"I-" Vin tried not to smile as he watched the southerner search his alcohol befuddled mind for a suitable explanation. "Cheaper in the long run."
"As a gentleman I couldn't leave the poor child to her own limited resources and the fare to San Francisco where her family resides was far less money than it would have cost to feed and clothe her until I could find someone to take care of her." Satisfied with his answer and flashing the sharpshooter a smug smile, Ezra tilted the bottle to his lips taking another large swallow.
"Speakin' a family, yer ma's probably in town now... Suppose ta be on the noon stage."
"Awww hell." Ezra groaned, dropping his head into his hands and hitting the bottle with his forehead. Could this week possibly get any worse? "If my mother bothers to ask my whereabouts, please tell her ya simply couldn't find me."
Tanner chewed his lip with a dubious expression. "Think she'll believe me?"
The gambler studied him for a long moment before a slow smile spread across his handsome features. "Probably not. You my friend are far too poor a liar to convince anyone with Maude's powers of deception."
"She'd believe Chris though." Vin suggested.
"That she would." Ezra agreed. "Mr. Larabee's poker face is almost as good as mine." A genuine smile lit the gambler's face. "Sides, I think she's kinda fraid a him." He whispered, giggling drunkenly at the thought of the great Maude Standish afraid of Chris Larabee.
"Make ya a deal Ez... Ya talk ta Chris... Listen ta what he has ta say and iffen ya still wanna head out for that... golden opportunity... We won't try and change yer mind... Even tell yer ma we didn't see ya... My word as a Tanner."
The gambler sighed heavily. "I don't suppose there's any chance ya'll just give up and be on your way?"
Vin shook his head. "Ain't gonna happen."
The gambler dropped the deck of cards in his pocket turning his attention to the panorama once more. Vin waited patiently while the con man mulled over the proposition. He knew the man was looking for a way out of the current situation without giving in to the request.
"A dog." The con man spoke up suddenly.
"Buck's soul... If he was something other than a person... A big, lovable faithful dog... one of those Saint Bernards I once read about maybe... They use them in Switzerland for rescuing people trapped in the mountains... A male dog of course so he could continue to enjoy his carnal pleasures." A flash of dimple appeared and disappeared. Tanner's worry increased as the southerner's words became more slurred and he seemed to be having trouble keeping his eyes open. "JD... a terrier... playful, loyal and ready to protect his loved ones against predators... Ain't figured Nathan out... an owl maybe... wise and helpful... Josiah... a giant oak tree... it's branches outstretched offerin' shelter to them in need... standing strong against the elements."
"Chris?" Tanner asked quietly, his interest momentarily overriding his concern as the gambler took another deep swallow before passing the bottle to him.
"A lion... King a the jungle... proud, fearsome and respected... protectin' what's his... You, Vin... your spirit demands you come back as only one thing..."
Mystified by how the gambler saw him, he had to ask. "What's that?"
"A white buffalo."
Stunned, choking on the whiskey, the ex-bounty hunter wiped the alcohol from his chin staring in amazement at the gambler. "The white buffalo is sacred to the indians."
"Sacred... Powerful medicine... mystical... a symbol of protection and good fortune... I can't think a anybody that describes better than you. It was a fortunate day when you entered Four Corners and those considered your friends are indeed lucky." Pulling the bottle from the embarrassed sharpshooter's grasp, Ezra took a last swallow before replacing the cork and shoving the container into a bole in the tree's trunk. "Best get this over with so I can be on my way. Opportunity awaits."
"What about you Ezra?" Tanner asked quietly as the gambler swung gracefully to the branch below him.
There was no guile or self pity in the red rimmed bloodshot eyes that looked up at him. "Why, Mr. Tanner, certainly you should know. A scorpion a course... Just like you my very nature would demand it." He turned his attention back to the task of climbing down to the ground.
Josiah sat in the silent church, his mind replaying the conversation with Maude. Her light laughter sounded like far off bells on a spring morning as he described the open, loving man her son was becoming as result of his stay in the small town. He had no doubt the woman, in her own obscure way, loved her son but couldn't understand why she would choose to see the dark, nefarious traits rather than encourage the beautiful side of his nature.
Why couldn't she see the potential in Ezra? Why had she always urged her son to suppress his natural instincts for love and caring, teaching him people were nothing more than targets to be used and tossed aside. She'd raised him to believe his value to others was nothing more than what he could do for them. Without money, if his natural talents couldn't be helpful, he was worthless. Although he didn't understand it, the preacher could sympathize, reasoning that was how she had been raised.
Yet something she'd said, something he couldn't bring to the forefront of his mind still nagged at him, like an itche he couldn't reach, demanding to be scratched.
A crack, loud as an gunshot in the late afternoon filled the air. As if time itself were slowing, attempting to grind to a halt, Vin watched in horror as the branch gave way under the gambler's slight weight. Tanner made a desperate attempt to grab the con man as unable to retain his grasp on the wet wood of the limb above his head, Ezra plunged toward the hard ground, his limp body bouncing off the tree boughs before impacting with the unyielding soil.
Alerted by Tanner's terrified shout, Chris and Nathan witnessed the gambler's uncontrolled descent.
"Ezra!" Larabee was the first to reach the injured gambler, dropping to his knees beside the cardsharp's still body.
"Don't move him Chris!" Nathan ordered, forcing himself to remain calm as he rushed to kneel beside his unmoving friend. The healer's hands trembled as they moved expertly over the gambler's body, assessing his injuries, trying to ignore the pool of blood forming beneath Ezra's head. "Help me turn him over."
Vin dropped lightly to the ground running to get Nathan's bag as Chris and Nate carefully eased the southerner onto his back.
"Oh God!" At the hoarsely uttered words, Larabee glanced up into the fear filled blue eyes of the ex-bounty hunter as the younger man approached, his gaze locked on Nathan who was attempting to wipe away the blood flowing down Ezra's face.
Snatching the bag from Tanner's grasp, the healer pressed a wad of cloth against the gash on Ezra's forehead and began issuing orders. "Chris, get the canteens and find me something to use for extra bandages and splints. Vin get that pop gun riggin' off his arm and be careful, that wrist is broke."
"Sorry Ez," Vin apologized to the unconscious gambler as he used his knife to slice away the con man's jacket sleeve. "He ain't wearin' it."
"It's here." Chris tossed the leather and metal contraption aside as he rifled through Ezra's saddlebags, pulling out several shirts and a full bottle of whiskey.
"Take the gun offen it and we'll use it for splintin' his arm." Working quickly and with their help, Nathan cleaned and bandaged the head wound, using the appropriated whiskey to sterilize the scrapes on Ezra's face and hands. Chris carefully supported Ezra while the healer used the torn shirts to wrap the cardsharp's damaged ribs, the gunslinger absently thinking Ezra would ream them out when he discovered they'd torn his best shirts to shreds for bandages. Using their oilskins, Vin quickly erected a makeshift lean-to which offered the gambler a little protection from the constant drizzle.
Chris and Vin watched as Nathan tightened the leather straps of the hide out rig using it to hold the small pieces of wood in place, which would prevent the gambler from bending his injured wrist. Ezra definitely wouldn't be using that hand for shuffling cards any time soon. Covering the still unconscious man with a blanket, Nathan sat back on his heels, continuing to stare at his patient.
"Nathan?" A quavering fearful note crept into Chris' voice as he uttered the one word.
"Don't know Chris. Looks like he's got a concussion. Busted his arm and a couple a ribs. I think his nose is broke which is not gonna make him happy at all." The healer grimaced seeing the bruises already forming under the gambler's closed eyes. "He ain't gonna be very pretty for awhile. Cut on his head is deep but didn't need stitches. Wish we could get him outta these wet clothes and we need ta get him back to town where I can look after him proper like."
"Better start buildin' a travois." Vin made to rise.
The dark healer shook his head. "That'll just jostle him around to much. 'Fraid it might dislodge them ribs."
"Then let's get the horses ready. I'll double him back with me." Larabee's tone left no room for argument. With another worried glance at his friend's pale face, Vin followed Nathan.
"Think they found him?" JD asked as he wandered up the boardwalk and joined Buck in front of the jail.
"Sure thing kid." Wilmington responded as he leaned against the porch rail his worried gaze on the road, his voice belying the reassurances. "Vin's the best. He'll find him." 'Whether they can talk him into comin' back is a whole 'nother matter.' The womanizer kept that thought to himself. He'd seen a lot of good men succumb to a broken heart and hated to think Ezra might be one of them. He'd damn near lost Chris that way and wasn't sure he could go through that again.
Wilmington knew Tanner was right. They were as much to blame as Janine. Despite Ezra's protests the six had struggled, tugged, pushed and pulled the con man into their family and had begun teaching him how to trust. Impatient at times they had still allowed the gambler to proceed at his own pace, slowly opening up to them, finally willing to trust them with his feelings as well as his life. Each of them had come to understand what a precious gift the gambler was bestowing on them for the con man had finally begun to realize his mother and her hard learned lessons were wrong... not everyone was so self consumed they only looked out for their own interests.
Yet in opening up to them and exploring this new trust, the gambler's feelings had been left wide open and totally unprotected against the hurt caused by the unfeeling dressmaker's betrayal.
"Come on kid." Buck dragged himself from his thoughts of guilt and wrapping a strong arm around the young sheriff's shoulders, he steered him toward the saloon. "Ya can help me fix the door ta Ezra's room so he won't come gunnin' for us when he sees it all damaged."
With Vin ponying the big black along side of Peso, Chris' full attention was on Ezra. His arms tightened protectively around the injured man as a shiver racked the gambler's body. The con man was draped in Larabee's poncho and wrapped in a blanket to keep him dry and hold in as much body heat as possible but Chris had worriedly noticed the minute convulsions were becoming more frequent.
Nathan, riding on the other side of the gelding, glanced at the con man and his worried scowl deepened as the gambler continued to show no signs of regaining consciousness. He hadn't told Chris or Vin it was a bad sign, but he knew they could read it in his face and eyes.
They'd lost time searching for a safer trail down the steep overgrown incline and it was well after dark when they finally reached the main road. Keeping the horses at a steady pace they were still several hours from town.
Chris looked down at the bruised pale face resting against his shoulder.
Damnit! How had everything gone so terribly wrong? The past two months, watching the gambler with the little dressmaker, had brought back long buried memories of his and Sarah's courtship. Memories that now, surprisingly, brought happiness instead of pain.
Seemingly so opposite of each other, everyone had been surprised when Janine had seemed to return the gambler's affection but then again no one except Buck had thought Sarah was right for Chris, yet she'd given him the happiest years of his life. As he had watched the two, Larabee had prayed Janine and Ezra could find the same happiness he and Sarah had known for those short years before he lost her.
A pang of guilt raced through the gunslinger. Had he inadvertently caused the latest betrayal in the southerner's life? Doubt welled in him as he searched his mind for something... anything he might have said or done to give the woman the impression he was interested in her. Something that might have brought about the scene in the stable. He still didn't understand how the woman had spent so much time with Ezra and not have solved the complex puzzle of the enigmatic con man. If she had any feelings for the gambler, how could she not have seen the gentle, insecure man hiding behind the walls of cocky self confidence?
Chris refused to acknowledge the bitter thought that reared it's ugly head. What if Janine didn't have feelings for Ezra but was just playing some kind of sick game.
He shook his head as he again heard her words. 'He told me what happened at the indian village...' Why hadn't she seen the courage it had taken for the gambler to bare his heart to her? For a man whose life and livelihood was built on deception to come forward and tell her the truth.
Chris' soft expression was drawn back to the gambler's unconscious face... so childlike and open. It tore at his heart to think that Ezra's honesty had cost him the one thing he craved the most... love.
Light spilled onto the street as JD threw the jail door open and rushed to meet the three men as they rode past, Buck on his heels.
The youngest member of their group had a wide smile as he called out. "Hey Chris! Vin! Ya found him! Buck said ya would!" His eyes widened and his expression fell at the sight of the gambler cradled against the gunfighter's chest. "Is he okay? What happened? Nathan is he-" The words tumbled from the young sheriff.
"Calm down kid. Yer gonna wake up the whole damn town." Buck lay a reassuring hand on the younger man's shoulder, his own heart pounding in fear, as they hurried along the boardwalk beside the horses. "Run and get Josiah... let him know they're back."
JD made a dash for the church as the men wearily reined up beneath the clinic landing. Buck eased the still unconscious con man from Chris' grasp and carefully carried the smaller man up the stairs, laying him on the bed as Nathan quickly followed, hastily lighting a lamp and gathering his medical supplies.
"We gotta get those wet clothes offa him afore he catches pneumonia. That goes for the both a you too." Nathan threw a quick glance at Larabee and Tanner as Josiah and JD entered. "I mean it! Don't need no more patients... This one gives me more trouble than ten sick folk. Get outta here and don't come back till yer dry."
Knowing Ezra needed the healer's full attention, Josiah shoved the tracker and gunslinger toward the door. "Sooner ya go, sooner ya get back."
Nathan had rewrapped the ribs, cleaned and bandaged the head wound again and was gently washing the facial scrapes careful of the swollen nose, by the time the men returned.
"I'll wait till tomorra to work on his arm." Nathan explained as he moved to the small stove and poured Chris and Vin a cup of coffee before mixing a combination of herbs for tea. "Drink that down, warm yer insides."
"Looks like he wrestled with a bear." Josiah commented, standing by the bed, his gentle gray eyes raking over the gambler's many abrasions and contusions.
JD frowned as he gazed at the injured man. "Don't understand what was he doin' in a tree?" He looked at the other men in confusion. Nathan had already explained where they'd found the gambler and how he'd been injured.
"Thinkin'." Vin set the coffee aside and began gathering the con man's discarded clothing, carefully folding the trousers and vest, laying the pocket watch and several bills on the bedside table with the money Ezra kept hidden in his boots. The deck of cards joined the watch as he searched the pockets of the ruined jacket for any other valuables. His back to the others, the sharpshooter's heart shattered as finding a small piece of cloth and feeling the shape inside he carefully opened the folds to reveal a feminine version of Ezra's ruby ring.
"I'm stayin'." He whispered as blinking away the tears welling in his eyes, Vin's fingers closed around the tiny ring as with a nod, the healer ordered everyone else out, telling them to get some rest, assuring them there was nothing more to be done but wait.
Vin dropped the ring in his pocket before anyone noticed. He'd leave it in the cardsharp's room later with his other belongings.
Chris had already settled in the chair next to the bed and it was obvious to everyone, the two men weren't going anywhere. They also knew they would each find their way back to the small room, needing to be there for Ezra whether he was aware of their presence or not.
The gambler emitted a barely audible groan as Vin gently replaced the cold cloth, Nathan had lain over Ezra's eyes and the bridge of his nose to help with the swelling and bruising. Tanner wasn't surprised to find Larabee, who had finally dozed off in the uncomfortable chair, moving to the other side of the bed at the small sound.
"Ez?... Ez can ya hear me?" The tracker leaned closer to Ezra's ear, one hand soothingly stroking the unconscious man's soft brown hair.
Chris pressed the back of his hand to the cardsharp's cheek, feeling the rising heat of fever beginning to consume his friend. His concerned frown deepened as Ezra rolled his head away from the soft touch, releasing a raspy cough. "I'll get Nathan."
"Easy there Ez... Yer gonna be okay... Nathan's gonna take good care a ya..." Vin offered reassuringly as the con man mumbled incoherently. Supporting the man's head, Tanner held the cup of medicinal tea the healer had left to Ezra's lips urging him to drink as much as possible. Most of the liquid went down the gambler's chin, but he did manage to swallow a little and Vin knew sometimes, even a little liquid went a long way with a fever.
Tanner continued to whisper reassurances, his own gentle heart breaking into tiny pieces, as he listened to the feverish gambler call for the woman who had casually tossed aside the love and trust he'd offered her.
The sharpshooter made one word out of the mumblings and shook his head in frustration. Even in his semi-conscious state, the gambler was repeating the word over and over... "Sc-scor... pn..."
The tracker compressed his lips, his blue eyes welling. How the hell could the gambler even begin to compare himself to the repulsive deadly desert creature?
Vin knew Ezra may have convinced himself the reason he'd ridden away from Four Corners was to avoid the pain and humiliation of seeing the woman he'd given his heart to, hand it back to him in shreds, but the postscript on his letter to Chris had painted an entirely different story. It was all to clear to anyone who looked the supposedly heartless gambler had stepped aside. Stepped aside so a friend he loved and admired could find peace and happiness again. A happiness which it seemed the gambler felt Chris was more deserving of than he himself.
"Not a scorpion Ez... An eagle..." Vin whispered, hoping his injured friend could hear him and understand. "An eagle pard. They fly free and high and the indians value em for their special powers and fer all the gifts they give..." His breath hitched, "J-Jist like we value you."
Anything else the tracker was going to say was pushed aside as Nathan burst through the door followed by the other four peacekeepers. Checking the gambler's forehead and feeling the heat emanating from the unconscious hustler, the healer pressed an ear to the gambler's chest. "Just what I feared. He done caught a chill. Need ta prop him up. Don't want his lungs gettin' congested."
Without a word JD rushed from the clinic as Josiah pulled the healer's extra bed clothes out of the closet. Buck shot a worried look after the youngest member of their team, knowing the kid had a weak stomach and soft heart. Perhaps he thought the gambler was dying and couldn't stand to watch. He started to follow, stopping when Nathan yelled at him to stoke up the fire. The kid might need his comfort but right now Ezra needed him more.
Chris and Vin supported the unconscious gambler while Nathan forced him to swallow more of the tea. All three men threw quick glances at the door as JD returned to the room, his arms ladened down with pillows.
Buck grinned at the kid as the men quickly arranged the pillows behind the gambler's back, knowing if the peacekeeper's wanted to sleep before the con man was back on the road to good health, their heads would be resting on their bedrolls.
The men settled in to watch over their friend. Buck and JD sat at Nathan's small table, Vin settled on the floor beside the bed where he could touch the con man with a reassuring hand. Josiah paced near the door, his softly whispered prayers a comfort to the others. Nathan busily prepared another batch of her tea as Chris gently wiped Ezra's face with a cool cloth. The town would have to fend for itself for now. None of them were going anywhere.
~ 4 ~
It was near dawn when unable to sleep, Vin leaned against the window frame, his eyes never leaving the southerner's pale bruised face. The tracker didn't consider himself a vindictive person... unless it concerned someone who'd hurt one of his friends... his adopted family but right now he wanted nothing more than to hunt down the seamstress and drag her back here to face the havoc she'd caused . He could see the gambler's lips moving slightly and without hearing the words again, knew he was calling for Janine.
The sharpshooter didn't delude himself with the belief he understood women... hell, far from it, but how could the seemingly sweet little dressmaker have used his friend in such a way? Tanner knew there were those who would bitterly point out that Ezra had used other people in his days as a con man and turnabout was fair play, but somehow the tracker reasoned that was different. Ezra had used the greed of others to take their money always leaving them enough to survive, whether they deserved it or not. Vin simply couldn't imagine the kind hearted gambler deliberately hurting someone by toying with their emotions. Was Janine so blind she hadn't seen how the southerner felt? Why hadn't the woman seen what a special man Ezra was? Even more perplexing, why couldn't the con man himself see it?
The sharpshooter's azure gaze moved from the gambler and drifted over each of the men sleeping in various positions about the small room, thankful they had come into his life. They each brought their own special and unique gifts to the strange little family that had formed around him. Their various talents made them a formidable united force but like all families, personalities clashed, arguments ensued, were resolved and life went on. Tanner orphaned and alone at an early age could barely remember what it was like to truly belong to a family until coming to Four Corners and instinct told him, although Ezra had a mother and various relatives the con man knew even less of what it meant to be part of a family than the tracker.
Like himself, Vin knew, Ezra had been taught to rely only on himself. And like Tanner, the gambler wasn't used to having others watch his back in a gun battle, let alone anywhere else. Whereas Vin had once known, before his ma died that families and loved ones stood together and helped each other through every situation, it was obvious Maude had never instilled that sense of security in the southerner. Every instinct, every lesson the gambler had learned early on told him a person fended for themselves and ran when things got difficult or faced the problem alone.
Vin sighed softly as he scrubbed his hand through his long hair. Had he made the gambler's motives clear to the others or would his seemingly selfish actions destroy the group? The tracker had given his word, they wouldn't try to change Ezra's mind if he truly wanted to leave when he was able but he hadn't promised they wouldn't do everything possible to make him want to stay. Tanner knew the other five, would stand by the man, doing what ever it took to make him stay. He was family. Vin was determined Ezra would stay... His family would survive.
As the hours passed, Chris, Vin and Nathan stayed at the clinic continuing to bath the gambler's face and neck with cool cloths as his fever climbed, releasing the demons of Ezra's personal hell. The others left only long enough to take care of their duties to the town before hurrying back to the small room to sit with their brother. Only Vin understood the incoherent mumblings of dogs, lions and scorpions.
With a weary sigh, Chris twisted the excess water from the cloth for what seemed like the hundredth time and gently lay it over the gambler's closed eyes before slumping back in the straight wooden chair. He raked a nervous hand through his short blond hair. What was he going to say to this man... his friend... when Ezra was lucid? How was he going to explain what the gambler had so obviously witnessed and misinterpreted in the stable?
A pang of guilt rushed through him. Would Ezra believe he had actively pursued the dressmaker's affections behind his back? Moreover would the sensitive gambler blame the blond gunslinger for the emotional turmoil he was now suffering? Chris knew all too well the con man had been raised to believe everyone looked after their own self-interest, using others only to obtain what they wanted. In the time the gambler had been around them, the six peacekeepers had tried to change that jaded point of view, showing the con man that not only was he trusted but that he could also trust them.
No one was more surprised than himself at the anxiety washing over him as he waited for Ezra to announce he was moving on to a more profitable town. They had all been certain, hell Buck and Nathan had even bet on it, the southerner would hightail it for greener pastures the moment he had the pardon in his hand, yet for some reason he had stayed.
It had taken months after Ezra had received his pardon from the judge for that still unknown incident in Fort Laramie before the sick feeling of dread had stopped filling the shootist's stomach as he waited each morning to see if the gambler would come down the saloon stairs, almost certain each time the con man had left like a thief in the night. Even now, knowing Ezra accepted this place and them, Chris worried the man would leave.
Knowing their belief in him was built on sand, the gambler had faced their skepticism with his ever-present smile, certain there would always be an inkling of doubt about him in their minds. Each time they faced a dangerous situation he believed they would always question his presence when it ended and accepted it. After all, he had run out on them before and according to Ezra, himself, a leopard couldn't change its spots. So the gambler, perhaps just to aggravate them or simply to prove them wrong, had put up with their hurtful barbs and the unkind comments of the townspeople with a courage which revealed the true man hiding behind the selfish facade he showed the world.
Staring at the man's battered face, Chris knew in his heart the gambler would blame no one but himself. He had already convinced himself, he was the one in error. He had made a mistake which caused the dressmaker to refuse his love. With that certainty, the gambler now had the perfect excuse to close himself off from everyone again and to rebuild the walls the six men had struggled so long and hard to breach. Ezra had shown them all his new trust and faith when he had opened himself up to the seamstress, honestly spreading his true past out before her to be viewed in the harsh light of day, holding his breath and praying, that like Sarah had with Chris, Janine would see the man before her had changed.
Chris tiredly rubbed the back of his neck. God, he had to fix this. Had to find the words to convince the obstinate gambler to stay with them. Chris had to make Ezra believe they would all be there to help him through this rough time. They would be there to help him deal with the pain of this loss. That no matter how badly he was hurting, he didn't need to hide behind walls with them. Larabee knew he of all people had to be there for the gambler just as Buck had been there for the gunslinger in his dark times of need. Hating himself for his selfishness, the shootist knew he could not lose another member of his family. He had lost Adam and Sarah to death but he was not going to lose the gambler to a broken heart. As bitter as it seemed he knew Janine wasn't worth it.
"Chris?" Josiah's quiet baritone drew his attention to the large man standing in the open door of the clinic. With a glance at the tracker, Vin took Larabee's place beside the gambler as the gunslinger followed the preacher out onto the landing.
Larabee leaned against the railing and lit a cheroot, waiting patiently as Josiah paced the small balcony area. Chris had realized earlier there was something bothering his friend besides worry over the man the ex-priest thought of as a surrogate son.
When the big man didn't speak, Chris cleared his throat. "Josiah... I hope ya don't think I'd do anything ta hurt-"
"Hell no Chris... I know you wouldn't..." The somber man slumped down on the wooden bench staring at the floor. "Wished I could say the same for Maude."
"Maude?" Chris had completely forgotten about Ezra's mother coming to town.
Josiah sighed heavily. "Talked ta her, right after she got here..." There was an unbearable sadness in the blue grey eyes that met Larabee's. "She told me Ezra wouldn't let himself become serious about Janine... especially if she was like those Harris relatives of hers." Seeing the confusion on the younger man's face, Josiah took a deep breath. "I never mentioned no relatives, Chris."
As Josiah watched, he saw anger flare in the hazel eyes as comprehension settled over the gunslinger. "Don't go gettin' riled till we know for sure what's goin' on Chris. There's no proof she knows anything about this mess... just a feelin'."
"Where is she?" The words hissed through Larabee's clenched teeth as Chris flipped away the cheroot and Josiah flinched inwardly at the sound, not wanting to say, but knowing Chris would find out with or without his help.
"At the jail." The older man shrugged giving him a sheepish grin. "Didn't want her skippin' town while I was ponderin' the problem... Like I said, ain't no proof..."
The sounds of shattering porcelain and the frantic tones of muffled voices had the two men racing back into the room. Vin was trying to support Ezra as Nathan forced the gambler to swallow a mixture of green tea and honey between hacking bouts of coughing. The water bowl lay shattered in several pieces on the floor by Vin's feet where the southerner, thrashing about in his delirium and struggling for air as the coughs racked his body had knocked it from the night table.
"Josiah, quick bring me some a the willow bark tea." Nathan tossed the bear of a man the now empty cup as Chris searched out another bowl, filling it with cool water from the pitcher before pulling a clean cloth from the cupboard.
Taking the refilled cup from Josiah, the healer held it to the gambler's lips. "Just a little at a time Ezra," Nathan kept his voice calm and reassuring talking as if the feverish gambler understood every word, explaining that while the first cup would help with the cough, this one would ease his pain and fever.
"Easy Ez... it's gonna be okay..." Vin's soothing reassurances were added to Nathan's as they eased the con man back onto the pillows, trying to make the man as comfortable as they could. Following the dark healer's example, Vin continued to talk, wiping away the sheen of sweat on the gambler's face with the cloth Chris handed him. His voice trailed off as his blue eyes momentarily met Larabee's gaze. The anger shining so bright in Chris' hazel eyes turned them almost as green as Ezra's.
Glancing from Josiah who only shrugged to Larabee who had opened the door, Vin called out softly, not wanting to disturb Nathan's patient, "Chris... what's...?"
Larabee paused in the opened door, turning to give him a tight lipped look. "Got business." He spun and stormed from the room, the angry sound of his spurs echoing in the deadly quiet room.
Vin cast a puzzled look at Nathan as with a fiercely muttered, "Awww hell." Josiah threw the pieces of broken bowl on the table and rushed out the door after Chris hoping to divert the coming disaster.
Startled by the door slamming back against the wall as if thrown open by the wrath of the devil himself, JD dropped the coffee mug splashing the hot liquid everywhere as his hand swooped for the gun on his hip, relaxing immediately upon realizing the intruder was Larabee. He tensed again at the fury he saw burning in the gunslinger's eyes.
"Hey Chris, how's-" His voice trailed off at a look from Chris and his stomach twisted in knots.
"Make your rounds now JD... then head on over to the saloon." Chris didn't look at the younger man as he gave the orders, knowing the kid would obey without question.
The young sheriff's dark his eyes immediately jumped to the only occupied cell but seeing Josiah enter, he looked to the older man, unsure about leaving Chris and Maude alone. There was a rage burning in Larabee and JD knew he was going to unload on someone... and it wasn't going to be a pretty sight.
Josiah gave the youngster a weak reassuring smile, nodding toward the door. Knowing the preacher would be there to keep the enraged gunslinger from doing something they would all regret, JD grabbed his hat and sidled past the older men. As he stepped onto the boardwalk he heard the heavy wooden bar drop into place across the inside door. No one was going in or out and with a shake of his head and a last glance at the jail door, thankful he wasn't Mrs. Standish, he jammed his hat into place, and raced off for the clinic, needing to know his friend was still alright.
Inside the small jail, Maude Standish was fuming, her rage nearly as incensed as Larabee's. Unlike the last time, she'd been a guest of their jail, the cell had none of the feminine trappings and homey touches Mary had provided. Ready to spit nails, Maude paced the floor, her angry gaze matching Larabee's in intensity, yet a shiver raced down her spine as she watched the gunslinger, almost afraid of his next move.
Dragging the desk chair to the bars, the blond gunman sat and calmly lit a cheroot, drawing on it long and hard to get it to light, dragging it out, watching the woman through slitted eyes.
Unnerved by the man's unwavering stare, Maude took an uncharacteristic plunge and broke the silence. "Mr. Larabee, I hope your presence means my immediate release otherwise I will be forced to press charges against young Mr. Dunne for false imprisonment." She continued to fight the uneasy feeling surging through her as Chris remained silent, his hazel gaze locked on her, wondering if she'd made an error in threatening charges against the youngest of the peacekeepers. In her line of work, the con woman had learned to be prepared for every contingency, using her Southern charm and elegant words to wiggle her way out of any unexpected situation. However her capacity for reading people warned her Larabee was not a man who was in the mood to be won over with sweet words and a smile.
Prepared for every contingency? Normally that was true but she found herself confounded by these men her son considered his friends. She still hadn't figured out what it was they hoped to gain from Ezra. They didn't seem all that interested in money or they wouldn't be here working for a paltry sum and she knew they were much to honest to need his God given talents for running a con on the simple townsfolk. In fact these six men had done everything in their power to persuade Ezra against using his skills. The man staring so intently at her seemed to have gone the most out of his way to show her son the straight and narrow... with no apparent gain on his part and this she found extremely perplexing.
Josiah, settling one hip on the desk corner, made himself comfortable and stifled a smile, watching Maude take a seat on the small cot, her back stiff, using every ounce of her self control to keep from fidgeting under Chris Larabee's cold stare. He knew Chris' silence was as much a ploy to bring his own emotions under control as it was to unnerve the woman.
Larabee, aware of Josiah's presence behind him struggled to contain his disdain for the woman on the other side of the bars. Josiah had once been enamored of Ezra's mother, and she had used those feelings to make him an unwitting accomplice in destroying Ezra's dream of owning his own saloon. He wasn't surprised the kind-hearted giant had gone to such extremes where Ezra was concerned. Chris hadn't failed to notice or been surprised by the way the ex-priest watched over the young gambler just as any loving father would protect his son. Ezra had laughed, charmed, and wiggled his way into the man's heart, just as he had Chris', the gunslinger grudgingly admitted.
Chris knew as smart as he was, as sneaky as he could be, Ezra would never be as sly as his mother but Larabee had learned enough from the gambler to know, normal straight ahead tactics would never work with Maude. Asking her outright what he wanted to know wouldn't get him anywhere.
"Well Mr. Larabee," she drawled out his name contemptuously. "I must say I don't appreciate the treatment I've received since my arrival in your little corner of the world." Maude could match Larabee's icy tone, note for note. "Do you intend to let me out of here or not?" She demanded haughtily.
Chris didn't move but a cold smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "All in good time... Just savoring the sight." The smile widened with no warmth in the angry eyes. "Told Ezra I'd come and get ya but I didn't say how long it would take... Figure I'll let him enjoy himself a little longer before you try and ruin this day for him."
Confused, Maude blinked rapidly. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're referring to." As if suddenly realizing Josiah was present, she reverted to her always useful role as the worried mother. "I take it you were successful in finding my sweet boy. To be honest with you Mr. Larabee as resourceful as my son can be I wasn't certain you would. Is he alright?"
As if you really give a damn! Chris thought. "He's fine... Hand me the keys Josiah." Larabee rose and stepped to the cell door. "Before I open this door Maude, I'm going to make something real clear... You do anything to spoil this for Ezra, anything at all, and I'll take ya to the woodshed myself."
Maude froze. "Spoil what?"
"The party celebratin' him and..." Chris looked startled. "You mean JD didn't tell ya Ezra and Janine run off and got married?" He chuckled, glancing at Josiah to hide his pleasure at seeing the woman pale at his words. "Guess the boy's finally learnin' to keep his mouth shut. We got to Eagle Bend in time to stand up for him at the church."
Maude took several deep breaths, watching him carefully, judging the depth of his ability at deception. "Mr. Larabee has your association with Ezra taught you nothing at all about running a con." She laughed lightly. "To be successful, you must have a believable story and it's always helpful if your mark knows nothing about the people they're dealing with. Janine left Eagle Bend before..." The words trailed off, realizing Larabee's well-baited trap a split second too late.
Larabee returned to the chair and crushed the thin, half smoked cigar under his boot. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees his hands clasped tightly together as he glared at Maude. "Well now... why don't ya start at the beginning Maude and don't leave anything out. I wanna know exactly what kind of hustle you're runnin' and where Ezra fits into it." If possible his tone was colder than Josiah had ever heard it. "Lie to me and I'll personally see to it, you rot in hell."
Chris sat in stunned stupefaction having listened to Maude describe how the dressmaker's husband was extremely ill and they'd desperately needed the money Maude had paid the young dressmaker to come to Four Corners. The con woman had instructed her on everything she would need to know to attract and hold Ezra's attention. A good student the little seamstress had played her role well... too well it would seem.
"It was all a set up?" Josiah, horrified by the woman's actions, couldn't make himself believe any mother would purposely set out to hurt her only child in such a heartless manner. "Why?... Why would you do such a thing to that poor boy?"
"Oh for God's sakes, Josiah, don't be so naive. It's for his own good. Ezra is one of the best in the business but you said it yourself... He's changed. Bein' with ya'll he's gotten soft." She looked from Josiah to Chris and frowned, unable to understand why they didn't see the obvious. "He needs a lesson now and again to keep his skills sharp. To remind him what can happen if he let's his guard down."
"A lesson?..." Chris stared at Maude as if she'd suddenly grown two extra heads. The stunned numbness was quickly being replaced by the anger burning through his veins. "This was your way of sharpening his skills... of keeping..." He had never felt at such a loss for words. Pushing to his feet, he paced by the bars, his spurs jingling in tune with his growing anger. "Why me? Why use me in your little scheme?"
"Actually Mr. Larabee you were the most logical choice. I told you the story has to be believable and I never underestimate my son. Ezra is extremely intelligent and would have easily seen through any of the others. Think about it... JD is far too young. Nathan was obviously out of the question. Mr. Tanner is much to shy and of course with Buck's reputation Ezra would have seen it as nothing more than a dalliance and might have forgiven her..." Her expression softened slightly as she turned to the gun-toting preacher. "Josiah, dear man that you are, would never do anything that might jeopardize your friendship with Ezra... You on the other hand," she turned her attention back to Chris. "For some reason totally beyond me... he respects you Chris. He acts like you're some kind of legend. Ezra would easily believe a woman would choose you over him every time." Judging by his earlier reaction, Maude thought it in her best interest not to mention that Janine's betrayal with Larabee, a man he looked up too, would force her son back into the conning life he was destined for.
Larabee spun, grabbing the bars, his fury causing Maude to involuntarily back up several steps. "You bitch!" Chris was shaking with the intensity of his emotions.
"Chris!" Josiah grabbed the younger man's arm as Larabee moved for the door, pulling the keys from the enraged gunfighter's hand and dragging him away from the cell.
Backing away and raising his hands to show Josiah he was once more in control, Chris turned, snarling at the woman. "Tell me you conniving selfish bitch... Did it ever occur to you how any of this would affect Ezra... Did you even stop to think he might actually fall in love with her?"
Maude laughed at the very thought. "My son knows how to control his emotions. It's one of the first things he was taught. Besides," she added, "broken hearts heal."
Anticipating Larabee's reaction to the snide comment, Josiah wrapped his arms around the gunslinger forcibly dragging the struggling man to the front door.
"Josiah I demand to be released!" Maude shouted as the ex-priest shoved the bar aside and bodily pushed Chris out onto the boardwalk.
Ignoring the gunslinger's glare and muttered threats, Josiah turned to call over his shoulder. "Trust me Maude. For now, you're a hellava lot safer right where you are." With a look of disgust the preacher slammed the door behind him.
Chris sat on the bench outside the clinic door, the coffee in the cup he held forgotten, his gaze locked on the jail, his mind on the gambler.
It had been three days since Ezra's fever had released it's hold and he'd awakened in the clinic. Nathan no longer worried about the gambler's cold, his temperature was almost normal and the coughing seizures had subsided to irregular intervals.
What troubled the six men now was not Ezra's physical ailments but rather the man's silence. Ezra had never been shy about speaking his mind. Hell, he was one of the most verbose, out going people Chris had ever met but now, other than mono-syllable answers or a curt shake of his head to Nathan's inquiries about his health the gambler had maintained an unaccustomed silence.
The care free con man who under normal circumstances would be giving the healer hell to get out of the clinic, lay silently staring out the window ignoring all attempts at conversation. He seemed unaware of the sling supporting his broken arm, circumstances which before had driven him to distraction, trying to maneuver out of wearing the hated device. He complacently obeyed Nathan's every order to eat and sleep without argument. He was even drinking the medicinal tea he hated so much without a complaint.
Ezra had silently allowed the others to care for him. He sat motionless when Nathan removed the head bandage to check and clean the cut, leaving it off while Josiah shaved him and Vin attempted, without tonic to arrange the con man's hair in the careful style the fastidious southerner always wore, finally settling for combing the tangles from the unruly curls before Nathan replaced the bandage, fully expecting Ezra to complain but no words were forthcoming from the quiet gambler.
"He don't blame ya Chris." Larabee looked up at the man who had spoken, having forgotten he wasn't alone. They had all tried without success to draw the gambler out of the silent shell he'd withdrawn into, none more so than Larabee.
Vin glanced at his best friend from where he sat on the top step, working the worn leather of the old bridle he was repairing through his fingers. He had to do something, anything to keep occupied, otherwise he knew he would be crossing the street and wrapping his hands around Maude's throat. The only thing which would please him more would be to hear the gambler bitching, at great length, about being stuck in the clinic. The sharpshooter had failed miserably at convincing himself Ezra just needed time and would soon be back to his ol' laughing self, telling Vin of the next practical joke he had planned for Buck.
What worried Tanner the most was the awful blank expression on Ezra's face as he lay in the clinic bed. It was the same one the gambler wore when playing cards, the same expression Vin had seen when the con man was scheming to get the seven out of a sticky situation with as little trouble as possible. It was the same expression the wily gambler used when he was trying to hide an injury or illness.
It was all too evident to the six men, Ezra had once more retreated behind the high walls they had struggled so hard to tear down. "Unfortunately the only person he'll blame is hisself."
"You're right." Chris soft words broke into his thoughts. There was a note of grief in Larabee's voice, knowing the gambler would shoulder all the blame rather than shove it off on him. Well, damnit! He wasn't going to let the southerner do that and he wasn't going to let him suffer any longer! "But not if I have anything to say about it!" He growled and Vin drew his legs up to his chest to keep from being stepped on as Larabee slammed down the coffee mug and stormed down the steps.
Maude paced the small area of the barren cell, her anger growing with each step. She'd never been treated with such disrespect in her entire life, not even the times she had been jailed in the south for running her cons and fleecing people. How dare these men... Men! She gave an unladylike snort. Ill mannered, uncouth, insulting ruffians was more like it... How dare they behave as if she were no better than a common criminal. Why her own dear sweet boy hadn't even been to see her. What had they told him to keep him away from her? She had finally asked after Ezra but the men ignored her questions as if she had said nothing at all. She passed the time plotting her revenge against the six men. They would pay and pay dearly. She'd see to that if she had to call in every favor owed her from there to the ocean.
The sharp tinny jingle of spurs jarred the woman from her introspection and she forced herself not to shrink back against the far wall as Larabee entered the jail. Anger was radiating from every line of the man's lean body as he wrenched open a desk drawer and jerked the keys from it, approaching the cell.
"Am I to assume Ezra has finally convinced you of the sensibility of my lessons?" She forced a smile she didn't feel, patting at an imaginary stray strand of hair as he unlocked the door and flung it open, clanging back against the bars with the force of his actions.
"Get your sorry ass out here!" Grasping her upper arm in a bruising grip, Chris stormed outside, nearly dragging the woman as she struggled to keep her feet under her.
She balked, attempting to drag him to a halt. "Mr. Larabee you're hurting-"
"Shut up!" He whipped around glaring at her, unmindful of the townspeople stopping and staring. Larabee visibly struggled to get himself under control his voice lowering to a deadly hiss. "Do ya ever come to town just to visit your son... just ta see how he's doin'? Do ya ever wonder if he's happy or do you even give a damn!... You breeze into town and steal his dream out from under him and then breeze in again long enough ta sell it off without even giving him the chance to buy it back... Did ya even know, Ezra's dream is ta own his own saloon?"
Taken back by the man's outburst she drew herself up to her full height, giving herself time to gain her composure. "Dream's are for fools, Mr. Larabee." She stated icily. "Ezra has always known the hazards of indulging in fantasies."
"Another lesson which I'm sure you taught him early on. Who'd ya hire to help ya with that one." Chris sneered pulling her toward the clinic once more. "This time lady yer gonna see the results of your lessons." He spat the word out as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. "And this time you're gonna deal with the consequences."
Josiah stood in the doorway of the church, a large grin settling on his lips as he watched Maude literally running to keep up with Larabee's long strides. He chuckled as she struggled to grab the front of her skirt with her free hand to keep from tripping over it as Chris hauled her up the stairs to Nathan's room.
Knowing someone, and he was sure it wasn't Chris, was going to need all the help they could get, he offered a small prayer. "Father, grace us with your divine presence," Turning his twinkling eyes heavenward, he added. "And protect those poor fools who don't have sense enough not to get caught in the crossfire."
He looked back at the clinic where Chris had shoved Maude on into the room. The door suddenly flew open again and Vin, Buck and Nathan practically stumbled over each other in their mad rush to escape the small sickroom.
Only the man laying in the bed didn't glance up as Larabee yanked the blonde woman into the room before releasing his hold on her arm.
The dark healer just shrugged at the gunslinger's quiet question. Buck had been regaling Ezra with tales of his latest conquest but Nathan wasn't sure if the small smile on the gambler's face had been actual amusement or because Buck had commented that he might at least smile and pretend to be interested.
The bruises on the gambler's face had finally faded to light blues, greens and yellows but were still a stark contrast to the rest of his complexion which was almost as pale as the bandage encircling his head.
Chris jerked his head toward the door but before fleeing the room, Maude was aware Ezra's three friends had given her looks which rivaled Larabee's glare.
Chris waited until the men had closed the door behind them before speaking. He didn't give a damn about saving her the humiliation of repeating her tale in front of the other men. On the contrary, it probably wouldn't have bothered her in the least but he did want to spare the gambler's feelings as much as he possibly could.
As the door closed and the latch fell into place, Larabee placed a hand in the small of her back shoving the woman in the direction of the bed. "Ya, got a visitor Ezra."
Maude glanced apprehensively from the bed to where the gunslinger had moved back to lean against the door, his arms folded across his chest, his expression just daring her to try for it. Her heart pounding, her mind raced for an avenue of escape. She felt a twinge of guilt, realizing it had never crossed her self centered mind, Ezra might not have been to see her because of an injury. Was this what Larabee had meant about the results of her lesson? She fumed inside for if that were true, her sweet boy might not be so understanding about this lesson perhaps giving Chris and the others an advantage she hadn't counted on?
Hoping to turn the miserable situation back on the gunslinger, she whirled on Larabee, suddenly becoming the loving mother lioness defending her downed cub. "What have you done to my darlin' boy?! Is this why you've kept me from seeing him?" Rushing to the chair Buck had so hastily vacated earlier, she reached out and gently stroked Ezra's hand. "I'm so sorry sweet boy... They all told me you'd finally come to your senses and left this godforsaken town..."
"Tell him Maude." Chris ordered harshly, as Ezra continued to stare out the window as if she wasn't there. "Damnit you tell him the truth and don't you dare leave out anything or I guarantee I'll make good on my promise."
She spun in the chair to stare up at the gunslinger, her eyes flashing fire. "For heaven's sake I don't understand why you're making such a fuss about this!"
Seeing no give in the hazel eyes which bore into her, with a sigh of resignation, Maude pulled her gaze from Chris to find herself staring into a pair of puzzled emerald green eyes.
"T-tell me what mother?"
Vin slouched against the wall, once more working the smooth leather through his fingers, his thoughts on his injured friend. Tanner had remained behind when Josiah convinced Nathan and Buck to join him for a drink at the saloon, uncertain which of his friends would most need someone when Maude finished what she had to say.
He kept his eyes on the bridle as the clinic door opened and Maude stepped out onto the landing, turning back to the man who followed her out.
"You see Mr. Larabee, everything worked out fine, just as I told you it would." Maude stated smugly. "Ezra knows I always do what's best for him."
Chris took a step forward and despite herself, the woman dropped back from his approach. "Your luggage is already on the stage and the driver has your ticket." Larabee gripped his gunbelt to keep from tossing the insufferable woman over the rail and into the street below. "Get the hell outta here before I-"
Maude straightened defiantly. "Don't threaten me Christopher Larabee. I'm sure you wouldn't want to do anything else to upset my darlin' boy." Flashing the men another smile believing she'd won again, Maude gathered her composure about her and moved for the stairs. "Good day gentlemen. I look forward to seeing you again in the future." There was a cutting edge of sarcasm in the words.
Vin's soft Texas drawl cut the stillness. "Ya don't get it do ya Maude." Tanner levered his lean muscled body away from the wall, effectively blocking the narrow stairway. "The only reason Ez believed Janine's lies was cause he can't believe anyone would love him... Hell... after all his own ma... the one person who's s'posed ta love him no matter what, only shows up when she needs somethin' from him... Or like now, when she needs ta show him how worthless he is unless his God given talents are sharp." Seeing the woman's poker face slip, her complexion almost as pale as Ezra's, Vin leaned closer his next words for her ears alone. "He loved her Maude... was gonna ask her to marry him." He slowly opened his clenched fingers, revealing the tiny feminine ring laying in his palm, its red gem sparkling in the sunshine.
Maude's eyes were large as she gathered her skirts and moved past the young sharpshooter when he stepped aside. His lowly hissed words followed her down the steps. "Sure hope the damn lesson was worth it."
As the afternoon stage pulled out, Chris stood on the clinic landing and watched it and its conniving passenger leave, thankful Maude was temporarily out of their lives. That cleared up one problem but another still lingered in his mind. Doubt surged through him as he replayed the scene between Ezra and his mother. Had he done the right thing forcing the woman to confront Ezra with her sins?
The gambler had lain motionless, those expressive emerald eyes devoid of all emotion as he listened to Maude explain how'd she'd hired Janine and the reasons behind her actions.
Sensing his approach, he wasn't surprised to hear Vin's soft reassuring words as if hearing his best friend's doubts. "Ya did the right thing Pard."
"Then how come I feel like shit." Chris sank down on the wooden bench and with a deep weary sigh dropped his head into his hands. "He agreed with her Vin... even though she told him everything... She sat there and without batting an eye told him how it was all for his own good and damnit, Vin, all he did was nod and said that he understood." He shook his head. "I just don't think I'll ever understand that man at all."
"Ain't nothin ta understand. She's his ma, Chris... It's the only way he can believe she loves him." Tanner slipped the tiny ring back into his pocket and tossed the bridle aside, squeezing Larabee's shoulder. "Come on, he's gonna need his friends."
Vin pushed open the clinic door, Larabee on his heels, surprised to find Ezra standing at the window, his body trembling with the effort of remaining on his feet, watching the stage until it was out of sight.
Vin gave Chris a worried look then crossed to stand near the gambler. "Ya okay Ez?"
"I'm fine, Mr. Tanner." There was slight quiver in the gambler's voice which caused Chris to grit his teeth with the knowledge even though the bitch had left town, she was still hurting Ezra. The southerner's voice was soft as he admitted, "Ya'd think after all these years she couldn't surprise me any more."
The poker face was firmly in place when he turned to face them, the only sign of hurt was the shimmering liquid green eyes. "Do either of you gentlemen know what happened to my deck of cards? They seem to have been misplaced."
"Nah... ain't lost Ez. I put them in your room with the rest a yer stuff." Taking the gambler's elbow, giving him support, the tracker helped Ezra the few steps to the bed. "Was thinkin maybe the fellas would wanna check em for marks or somethin'" He teased. "Want me ta fetch em for ya?"
"On the contrary." Ezra flashed them a dimpled grin, but it was a little too bright, a little too forced. "I would rather ya fetch my clothes so that we may retire to the comfort of the saloon."
"Don't know Ezra. I think Nathan'll have something ta say bout that." Chris commented, not ready to face the healer's ire. He'd had his fill of angry face-offs for one day.
"Then we won't ask." Ezra pointed out. "I give you gentlemen my word, if it will appease our illustrious healer, I will return after a drink and a game of chance."
"Throw in a meal and I think we can persuade him to see the light." Larabee grinned. "Course we may end up joinin' ya if he gets upset."
Ezra nodded. "In which case I shall enjoy the company."
The sun was peeking over the distant hills turning the sky an array of colors as Larabee poured himself a cup of coffee and leaving the jail, eased himself into the rocker on the boardwalk. His worried hazel eyed gaze automatically traveled to the second floor window of the saloon.
It had been over a week since Nathan had permitted Ezra to return to his own room. The gambler seemed to be his old self, flattering Inez with flowery phrases, passing the time of day with the residents as he sat outside the saloon, charming the occupants of his regular gaming table, and listening patiently to Buck's wild tales and JD's terrible jokes, acting for all intents and purposes as if everything was back to normal. Yet each of the six could see it for what it really was... a show.
Chris, from experience, knew the man was doing everything in his power to keep from dealing with his churning emotions. Unlike Larabee who had tried to drown his pain in bottle after bottle of whiskey, Standish was using denial and avoidance, hoping to bury the pain so deeply it would never resurface.
He sat up straighter the coffee forgotten. "What the hell..." The gunslinger's eyes widened in disbelief, wondering if anxiousness and lack of sleep were causing him to hallucinate. Tossing aside his untouched coffee and pitching the cup onto the bench he stepped to the edge of the boardwalk and watched as Ezra led Chaucer from the stables. Stiffly and with less than his usual grace, the gambler climbed into the saddle and reined the horse out of town.
"Damnation!" Knowing JD would soon be at the jail to relieve him Chris hurried to the livery, hastily tacking up his black gelding. Why hadn't he seen this coming? He thought Ezra still seemed more than a little uncomfortable around him, becoming more quiet, not quite meeting his eyes when he did talk to the gunslinger but Chris had hoped the gambler had decided to remain in Four Corners, despite everything that had happened. Mounting, he spurred the big black after the departing cardsharp. The southerner was not going to leave... not like this.
When the gambler finally drew rein and awkwardly dismounted, Larabee was stunned. He would never in a million years have expected... He stood at the edge of woods, watching in puzzlement as Ezra slowly crossed to kneel by a place which was all too well known to Chris. A place which made his own heart ache. Yet there was Ezra, placing a small bouquet of wild flowers next to the marker on Sarah's grave removing his hat once his good hand was free.
As the gunslinger watched from a discreet distance, he couldn't hear Ezra's monologue but he could see the tears making wet tracks down the gambler's face.
Larabee remained in the shadows almost too stunned to move, realizing the con man was releasing his pain and sorrow in a manner which he found acceptable.
It was almost an hour before the gambler finally rose, replaced his hat and taking up the reins led Chaucer to where Chris waited.
He ducked his head as he stopped in front of Chris, twisting the leather reins between nervous fingers. "I apologize if I intruded where I don't belong Mr. Larabee."
Chris wasn't sure who was more embarrassed, Ezra for having been caught trespassing or himself for spying on his friend's actions. "Ya weren't intrudin' Ezra... Sarah-" His voice caught for an instant. "Sarah... she loved wildflowers." He watched the younger man shuffle his feet, his gaze locked on the ground. The older man cleared his throat. "Ezra I hope ya know... I mean I would never... I'm sorry about my part in-"
Ezra shook his head as he slowly brought his eyes up to meet Larabee's. "You, sir, have nothing for which to apologize... On the contrary, it should be I apologizing to you for my mother's reprehensible behavior... I -" He trailed off suddenly at a loss for words.
"Come here Ezra." Taking his good arm Larabee led the gambler to a fallen log and waited until the man was seated before stooping in front of him. "I want ya to listen ta me Ezra... We ain't really talked about what happened... I don't-"
"Ya don't have to explain anything ta me Chris. I-" Ezra cut him off then taking a deep breath he pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to the gunslinger. "Josiah gave this to me the other day... I guess Janine sent it to him, thinking I wouldn't accept it, knowing it was from her... I'd like ya to read it... Please?"
Chris moved to sit beside the gambler and hesitantly read the dressmaker's brief words explaining why she'd taken the job and how she had truly come to care for the con man. She went on to repeat what Chris had said that night in the stable, explaining to Ezra how Larabee had defended him and that she agreed whole-heartedly with the shootist's opinions.
Larabee felt self conscious reading the final few personal lines: Ezra, I'm certain someday you will find the perfect woman. Someone who will appreciate the good kind gentle caring man you truly are and will bring you the love and happiness you so richly deserve. I pray for your forgiveness for the pain I have caused and hope you realize how very important you are to the people who really matter... those six men who are truly your friends. Sincerely, Janine.
"She's right Ezra." Chris slowly refolded the letter tucking it safely back in the cardsharp's pocket. "Especially about how important you are to us... to me. I've missed ya Ezra... The others just don't have your knack for aggravatin' the hell outta me." The comment was rewarded with a flash of dimple, although the gambler still avoided looking at him. "Vin keeps sayin ya don't blame me for-"
"He's right. I admit, I have been avoiding you but not for the reasons you may think..." Ezra swiped at his eyes and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I wasn't mad at you Chris..." He admitted softly, "I'm ashamed to say... I was jealous."
Jealous? Chris frowned, not understanding. "I-"
"Of the love you shared. In the all too short time you had with Sarah you experienced more love and joy than I've known my entire life..." He took another deep breath trying to compose himself as the tears welled again. "I came out here this morning ta..."
"I know why ya came Ezra..." Chris assured him as the words trailed off. "Come here anytime ya need to... It helps and I'd be proud if ya did... I know it would make Sarah happy too."
Larabee squeezed the younger man's shoulder as they sat in silence, both lost in thought. They stayed for another hour, Chris, touched by the younger man's presence, found himself opening up, quietly sharing little memories of Sarah and Adam, still remembered memories of love and laughter that had filled his heart. Memories which made him realize he was a rich man who could now share that remembered wealth with someone less fortunate.
Finally, realizing the passage of time and that the other men would be worried about them, the two gathered up their horse's to head back to town. Ezra hesitated as he took up Chaucer's reins and gripped the saddle horn. "Mr. Larabee, I must apologize again for Maude's-"
"No offense Ezra but I really don't want to talk about your mother." Larabee stated, swinging up on the black gelding. "Sarah used ta tell me iffen I didn't have something nice ta say about a person, then not ta say anything at all."
Ezra ducked his head as he swung into the saddle. "I understand perfectly Mr. Larabee, although I have to admit Maude's a remarkable woman." Ezra burst into laughter at Chris' expression of astonishment. "Of course, I must also add, despite the fact she is my mother, she is also the most vicious, conniving, deceitful bitch I've ever met in my life."
As the two friend's laughter joined together, ringing over the quiet little meadow, a lone eagle soared overhead and an angel named Sarah smiled.
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