"Mr. Standish? May I speak to you privately for a moment?" Mary Travis was short and to the point, she was also nervous and angry.
Ezra Standish, the resident gambler of Four Corners in recent weeks, a member of the newly formed law contingent of seven, hired by Mrs. Travis' father-in-law, Judge Orrin Travis, was taken aback by the quiet, yet imperious, invitation. Mrs. Travis ran the local newspaper and was the power to be reckoned with in this small western town in the Territories. Only recently widowed, she was still vacillating between black widow's weeds and more lively costumes. The arrival of her son back in town, and the subsequent hunt for his father's murderer had made her much more well known to the new lawmen.
However, Ezra considered himself to be a fringe factor in all this. The leader of the seven, Chris Larabee, a widower himself, was one of the main players in the recently enacted manhunt and saving of the Widow Travis' son. All of the rest of the new lawmen had noticed the sparks between Larabee and Mary Travis. Ezra himself , with a hidden heart ache, had laid some quiet side bets with a few of his associates as to when the twosome would become serious. To do so was better than to yearn for the unreachable and it put things back into a semblance of the reality he had to face and live. So far, there was nothing to show for everyone's conviction about the two except for a slight softening of Larabee's grim features and moderating of his tone, when addressing the newspaper editor. Mrs. Travis' large, soft eyes, almost a grayish green, would open wide in her narrow, beautifully angular face, when catching sight of the gunman. To most, the two blondes seemed a match made in heaven, just waiting to be formalized. So, Ezra bowed and tipped his hat to the lady and followed her at a very circumspect distance, back to her office at the newspaper.
He wondered uncomfortably if tales of this rendezvous, not of his making, would now circulate and return to Larabee to further poison the well for him. He knew he was not a favorite of the gunfighter's, merely tolerated for his skills, but he was becoming used to the aura of suspicion here. No worse than anywhere else he'd ever stopped, but here there was actually a positive factor. Here he was able to do something legal, get paid for it, true it was a pittance, and actually be considered a respectable, well, alright, nearly respectable member of the community. Women actually nodded to him and men greeted him by name, shopkeepers ordered goods for him, and the saloon had a running tab just for him. Yes, he was becoming an established presence and he liked it. He even liked the men he worked for and respected Chris Larabee, the leader, like no one he'd ever met before. He had silently given his allegiance to the man by the end of their first mission together, to save the Seminole villagers.
Mary Travis was pale. Being blonde, fair skinned and with light eye color, she was expected to be pale, but now she was nearly white. With equal measures of trepidation and anger, she was on the attack. There was not room in this small town for her and a rival for the affections of Christopher Larabee. Mary hadn't consciously decided to pursue the dark clad gunslinger, though she'd not deny his attractiveness. But, last night, they'd gone out on a stroll that had ended badly, in the back bedroom of her living quarters. At least, from her perspective, it had been less than fully satisfactory. She intended to rectify this at the earliest possible moment and this seemed to be it.
Leading the way inside the newspaper office, Mary waited for the gambler to enter, then shut the door behind him, lowering the shade and locking the door. Once she'd done this, she turned to face her nemesis. Standish, as if anticipating trouble, had continued deep into the room and was on the other side of the cast iron printing press, leaning nonchalantly against the remainders from last week's edition of the Clarion. He raised an eyebrow at her actions, watching and silent. This was Mary's game, let her open the play, it would give him time to try to figure out the rules of engagement because he'd already sensed this was war. Why, he didn't yet know, but he suspected he soon would. Poker face in place, Ezra waited.
Finally faced with Standish, in private, Mary began to doubt the sanity of her intentions. Then, catching sight of Chris, through the window, as he stalked down the dusty street, heading for the jail, her determination returned. "Stay away from Mr. Larabee."
Stunned, Ezra could only blink and stare. His poker face vanished. Utterly speechless at this non sequitur, his mouth parted soundlessly. Stay away from Larabee?
When she didn't get any verbal response, Mary steeled herself to continue. "Mr. Standish, apparently you believe yourself to be eligible for the attentions and affection of Mr. Larabee. I find this distasteful, arrogant, and outside the bounds of decency for this small, Christian community. If you can not withhold your unwanted advances, then it might be best if you simply left."
By now, Ezra had begun to get an inkling of where the angry woman was going with her unexpected attack. She thinks I am after Chris! Totally bewildered by this groundless accusation, Ezra was truly floundering mentally. His normally glib tongue seemed to have grown slow in the past few moments. Finally, mustering his scattered thoughts, he met her pale and penetrating stare. "Mrs. Travis. Dear lady. I do not know where you came by such information but it is obviously either a fabrication or a misunderstanding. I have no personal attachment to Mr. Larabee, nor he to me. I follow the man as leader of the small peace-keeping force your good father-in-law has put in place here. That is all."
Ezra brushed at the white ruffles peeking out from the sleeves of his deep burgundy fine wool jacket. A dreadful mistake, no doubt. He shook his head.
Mary was not to be put off so easily. "Mr. Standish, my knowledge of your attempts to ensnare Mr. Larabee are based upon first hand information." She smiled grimly, satisfied with the man's start at her words. Surely he knew that she knew by now. He can't stay. I will not allow it! She leaned forward, her strong, thin fingers gripping the metal press between them as she frowned. "Leave him alone, or leave Four Corners."
"But," Ezra was flummoxed, "but, Mrs. Travis, I have done nothing!" Never had he felt more confused or pained by an accusation. So many times he'd been guilty of acts that never sat on his doorstep, but this? He'd never, ever let anyone know how he felt about Chris Larabee. That was not for public consumption nor even private knowledge. He simply didn't allow himself to dwell on forbidden fruits. And Larabee was the apple of his own private Garden of Eden. Now it seemed that somehow the virtuous Mary Travis had discovered this hidden sin and intended to throw him out of paradise. One corner of his mouth quirked up in ill-timed good humor, thinking that Four Corners hardly constituted any 'paradise' he'd ever contemplated.
Reaching across the press, an enraged Mary slapped the gambler's face with an open palm, hard. "Don't lie to me!" she hissed angrily. "I *know* and it will stop. Now." She absently rubbed the stinging palm against her dress-covered thigh. The man was not going to remain here she decided, forgoing her earlier thoughts of simply warning him off of Chris. "It would be best for all if you left."
"Left? You mean leave Four Corners?" Ezra continued to be stunned by this surprise attack. There was no way for her to know the truth, nor any reason for her to act this way, unless she had a very vivid imagination or some how he'd been less discreet than he'd thought. "Mrs. Travis, let me state unequivocally that I have never in any way approached Mr. Larabee nor attempted to make a liaison of the nature you allude to with the man. I respect Chris Larabee and follow him as one of the team of men under his command. That, my dear lady, is all." Hoping he'd laid to rest this acrid accusation, he stepped back further away from the press, creating more distance between them.
Mary stared at him like a mongoose at a snake. He wondered how he could ever have thought her soft or attractive, at this moment she was a true harridan, a woman scorned. Scorned? Was that it? Had Chris rejected her tentative advances? No one could miss her attraction to the gunman, and Ezra had honestly thought it was reciprocated. Until now.
He was lying, she was sure of it. "Last night," she began, intent on driving this unnatural man from her town, "last night, Chris and I shared some moments of intimacy."
Ezra's lips parted again in surprise. Would this nightmare now get worse. Did he really want to stay to hear the rest? He shifted uncomfortably, flicking a searching look over his shoulder to check on the back exit from the room. It might be time to leave. His own eyes were a dark green now with hurt and worry. I know that Chris and I have no future, hell, we don't even have a 'now' so I just do not understand how this woman can stand here, making these statements to me. Why am I to listen to their affair of the evening. It is NOT my business. He started to move, turning to slip out the back since Mrs. Travis stood squarely in front of the entrance door.
Darting around the press, Mary nearly ran to block the rear exit. "No! You'll stay and hear me out! Then you will know that I know and you will leave forever!"
Defeated, Ezra stepped back and clasped his hands together in front of him. "Very well, Mrs. Travis, what is it that you demand that I hear?"
"Chris, last night, when we --" finally Mary seemed to realize just what she was about to confess in the act of accusing another, pausing to regroup her thoughts and words, she then continued, "last night, Chris called out your name."
"My name?" Ezra squeaked. He gulped and to his intense dismay, found himself taking hope from this tiny fact, so isolated that it was nearly meaningless, his hope a warm cinder that flickered to life deep inside. "I don't understand."
Mary had the grace to look away, but then she was back, a determined, strong woman, out to defend her man. Protect him from things unnatural and wrong. Keep him for herself. "Yes! Your name! At a moment so private and intimate that none other should have intruded in his thoughts." She could be no clearer without revealing too much, yet she knew that Standish understood.
"Mary. Mrs. Travis." Ezra stared into her pale eyes, seeing the burning anger there, "I can not answer for Mr. Larabee's actions or words, I can only assure you that I have done nothing to provoke the intentions that you deduced from his cry. We live in harsh and violent times, we are both members of a small group of peacekeepers who are often in life and death situations. Calling out for an associate in the heat of battle is natural, and, in the stress and exhaustion that follows, events often replay in one's head. Perhaps such an occurrence produced this cry that you heard."
The editor could see that Standish was not admitting to anything and she had no proof she could show to anyone else. Yet Chris had undeniably called out, "Ezra!" as he climaxed in her bed, in her, last night. She shuddered delicately and her anger only grew. She had hoped by simply confronting this snake that he would slink off. But no, he was not reacting as she anticipated. What could she do? She would think of something. This was not over. Not so long as this man remained in her town, tampering with the affections of the man she felt she might grow to love, find comfort with in Stephen's stead. This man was not important to anyone. She would triumph. She had simply to bide her time.
Ezra began to fidget. Mary had yet to answer him. She stared at him as if he was some repulsive creature that had crawled from beneath a rock. Not here! This town was the first place he'd ever considered home, felt as if he could be part of, actually have earned some respect. Her attack was cutting away at his shaky foundations. He eyed her standing there, fierce as any lioness protecting her pride of cubs and mates. His own green eyes sharpened with insight. For some reason, I am the perceived challenger. He could see no way to dissuade her. He took a step to the side, then another, watching her turn to keep him central to her stance, her eyes locked on his face.
Finally she spoke, low and fierce. "Stay away from him," she repeated.
Shaking his head and bowing to the inevitable, he agreed. "I will." What else could he say? He hadn't been near Chris in that sense, but he would not go there now either. He was, however, hopeful as never before. For some reason, in a moment of intense intimacy with another, Chris had called out his name. He called out for me. Ezra hid a small smile behind one hand as he backed up around the press and finally reached the front door. Taking the handle in one hand, he turned slightly, looking back over his shoulder at Mary Travis as she stood there, tall and straight and righteous. Ezra bowed, two fingers going to his hat in a mock salute. "Ma'am."
He opened the door carefully, leaving it open behind him, and walked back out into the sunshine of a lovely day. It was like waking from a nightmarish dream. Behind him, he heard a loud crash, as if Mrs. Travis had slammed a few books onto the floor. He hesitated, thinking he should check on her, then deciding that it might be wiser to send in someone else. He eyed Mrs. Potter, just coming down the boardwalk. "Ah, Mrs. Potter? Mrs. Travis seemed a bit distraught just now, I fear another lady might be better able to lend an ear and perhaps a hand. Would you--?" He gestured toward the open door.
Gloria Potter looked puzzled, but she liked Mary Travis and respected the gutsy news editor. "Why, of course, Mr. Standish," she replied, turning into the doorway without hesitation. He could hear her call out, "Mary, is everything alright?"
Hearing Mary's reply, in a low and steady voice, reassured Ezra that the sound at least had not been of her injuring herself. With that thought, he quickly moved down the sidewalk toward the saloon and sanctuary. He had much to think about.
Chris sat at his usual seat at his usual table in the back of the saloon. He had a bottle of whiskey in front of him, near the center of the table, a signal that it was alright for others to share it. Between his strong fingers, a short thick glass stood. He'd moved it several times in the last few minutes, leaving a succession of wet rings on the old scarred wood of the table. His eyes traced the patterns he was creating. His mind was far from the saloon.
He was reliving the night before and examining the startling revelation that his unconscious had thrown out as he lay with Mary Travis in a heated moment. Sure, he had feelings for her. Mixed up ones. She was a widow, still grieving her dead husband, as he did Sarah. She was a mother with a very brave, very smart young son who was sneaking into Chris' heart. She was also brave and intelligent, forthright and passionate. He'd been with plenty of working women since he'd lost Sarah, it had been one of the ways he'd tried to find ersatz comfort for short, mindless periods of time. No obligations afterwards, just relief for his body and temporary suspension of his pain.
But last night had been different. He certainly hadn't planned to end up in Mary's bed. Looking back, he still wasn't too sure how that had happened. The funny thing was, he wasn't all that sure that Mary had any feelings for him. Almost like she'd just decided she needed a man again and that Billy needed a father. 'Course, out here, weren't a lot of ways for a passionate woman, her needs awakened by a husband now gone, to find relief. Not like for men. But he felt uncomfortable. Like he'd been the prey for a hidden trap. Not that he hadn't enjoyed the encounter, he had. A bounce in bed would give him needed relief and some pleasure, even.
Only this time, something strange had happened. Always before, the working girls would tell him and he often heard himself, he'd call out for Sarah at the moment when he came. Not last night. Logically, he should have called out Mary's name. Wasn't a hard name to say or remember, damn it. He shoved the glass further away, slopping liquor over his fingers. So, why had he called out Ezra's name?
Irritated, Larabee shoved back his chair as he stood, tugging down on his hat to the level with his eyes, hiding his face. He settled his gun belt, one hand resting comfortably on his weapon. This wasn't helping. No answers in the bottle, none in his thoughts. He looked up in surprise as Standish pushed his way slowly into the saloon, parting the twin half-doors and moving through them, barely causing them to swing with his passage. The gambler did not look Larabee's way, but Chris knew his men well enough by now to know that Ezra had noted his presence and, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore it. That did not sit too well with the gunman. "Ezra? Like to share a drink?"
Standish, who'd just pulled out a chair at his own regular table, wondering why Larabee was standing in the back of the saloon, looking solemn and poised for battle, was startled enough to jar the chair, causing it to rattle against the table edge. He quickly stilled it's movement and looked toward the seven's leader. "Why, thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra's mind raced back to his recent encounter with Mrs. Travis. He bowed slightly and adjusted his cravat nervously. "I think I will decline at this time, sir. I find myself a trifle indisposed from overindulgence this past evening. I shall have to forgo any immediate return to alcoholic consumption." With another bow and turn, he sunk into his seat, cards appearing like magic to dance between his talented fingers, before he began to lay out a game of solitaire. From a distance, he didn't think that Chris could see that his hands were trembling.
Chris stared at the gambler's back. He was actually feeling hurt at the genteelly couched refusal. Hurt was quickly followed by anger. Damn man can't even share a drink with me. He was about to say something, do something, something truly, monumentally, stupid, when he realized that Vin Tanner was standing in the doorway, holding the doors open with both hands, quiet blue eyes studying him. Larabee subsided back into his seat. Vin was here. He'd share a drink with the tracker, there was always a sense of comfort and rightness when Vin was by his side, like a long lost brother, found.
"Hey, cowboy," was Tanner's quiet greeting as he lowered himself into the chair at Larabee's side. Bright blue eyes took in the tense form of his friend and he silently wondered at the scene he'd just witnessed. Ezra was looking shocky and upset, in his quiet, understated way. The sharp-eyed shooter saw the faint tremor in usually quick and steady hands. He'd heard the exchange of offer and withdrawal, curious at both men's unusual behavior. Chris never invited others to join him for a drink. And Ezra, he'd acted strangely, too. He was usually smoother than that, and, would likely have come over for the drink out of curiosity if nothing else.
Vin settled in to watch. Looked like somethin' was brewing.
Buck and Josiah, the two tallest of the seven, arrived a few minutes later, walking over to join Larabee and Tanner, though both nodded in Standish's direction. The team had learned to respect the southerner's distance at times. Usually cheerful and social, when Ezra withdrew, he could be downright dangerous. Best to let him be and wait. Most of the town folk had yet to figure that out about the smallest of the seven, but the gunmen were closer to the gambler and were learning to read him.
Josiah's eyes kept straying to their isolated friend. It was much too early for him to be setting up in wait for some players at his nightly poker game. Sanchez's stare went slowly over to their leader. Larabee seemed unduly tense and hadn't drunk yet from the glass in front of him, his fingers simply playing with the glass, rotating it. Yep, something happened between those two. Unhappily, Josiah wondered what had caused it this time. He knew better than to pry, wasn't ready to get his head bit off. Not yet, anyways.
Buck flickered interested looks between the men at the table. Josiah had caught the whiff of tension, too, he could see by the uneasy look in the preacher's eyes and the way he was shifting in his seat. Vin was laid back, but it wasn't a relaxed slump, he was alert and watchful. And, Chris, his oldest friend, was staring down at an untouched whiskey. Somethin' definitely up. Buck looked over at where they could only see the back of Ezra's jacket. Not his normal seat. Buck raised an eyebrow. Damn. Something is seriously wrong. He scratched his chin and lifted his glass, rising again to his feet in a liquid movement. "Think I'll go sit with Ez for a spell."
Instantly, hard hazel eyes looked up into his, nothing was said, but Buck knew that for some reason, Chris was worried. That surprised him. He'd expected anger from what he'd seen coming into the saloon, but not this. He nodded, letting his dark blue eyes crinkle. "Gonna be alright," he murmured, earning him sharp looks from Sanchez and Tanner. He ignored them in a style of lese majesty that he seldom displayed but which he was powerfully capable of using.
Ezra was not unaware of what was happening at the other table, a small angle of mirror and another reflective surface kept him informed. His shoulders tightened however at the sound of footsteps behind him, even though he'd already seen enough to know it was Buck, not Chris, coming up behind him.
"Hey, Ez." Buck did not ask to join the gambler, just sat down in the chair at Ezra's side and began to study his game. "Looks like that red seven belongs on that black eight." He grinned as an eyebrow went up like a flag and Ezra hunched over his game with renewed concentration - or at least the appearance of that.
Ezra was silently cursing himself. Where was his gifted ability to hide his inner thoughts? To use sleight of hand and body to misdirect others, to conceal his own true self? Buck and the others seemed capable of looking through him as if he was transparent. With a sigh that was more of surrender than of impatience, he looked sideways at his companion. "Buck?" The quiet serious query had the taller man leaning forward attentively, all signs of easy camaraderie gone in favor of a sympathetic and solemn look.
"Yeah, Pard?" Buck managed to convey the privacy of the moment in his quiet tone. This was just between them, even though they sat in a public place, in full view of their friends.
"Does Chris --? is Chris --?" Ezra licked suddenly dry lips, studying his cards intently as he gripped the remaining part of the deck in his hands. All motion of the game stopped. He tried again. "What would you say is my role in our little band of merry men?"
Buck stole a glance back over his shoulder at the others. Not one of them was looking their way, but he'd bet his last dollar that they were all focused very much on this table over here. He returned his attention to the smaller man at his side. Ezra was always a surprise, this time no different. He liked the little gambler, full of life, laughter, funny plans for manipulating the fates and winning wealth, and yet, also a good man to have at your side should danger raise its ugly head. In a few short weeks, he and the others had learned what a brave and efficient fighter the southerner was. He suspected that the man's layers were just barely pierced by the newly formed friendships.
What Buck didn't know was that this was the first time Ezra had ever really had any friendship that wasn't dependent on his gift of the con. The gambler waited for Wilmington's answer, wondering at his own stupidity for asking the question, for being tongue-tied to start with. He toted it up to the surreal experience of the confrontation with Mary Travis just a short time earlier.
Buck answered quickly, afraid his momentary hesitation might convey the wrong message to the sensitive conman. "One of us, Ezra, you're one of us. Same as all of us, I reckon." He wondered exactly what Ezra really wanted to know, something to do with Chris, that was clear. He went on, expanding on his theme in hopes of helping with whatever was wrong. "We each are part of the team and do our parts. You're a real good fighter, Ez, know I can trust my back to you and I'd walk down any street in any town, with you at my side." He pressed one large hand on a tense shoulder. "Ezra, we need you, Pard."
Standish blinked back tears of surprise at the praise. Maybe he'd figure out a way to stay here anyway, despite Mary Travis' antipathy. He'd just keep his distance from Chris in public. No need to worry about private, since there was no 'private' for them. He ignored the prickle of despair at that thought.
Buck leaned in closer still, dipping his head slightly to look up into those bright green eyes of Ezra's. For once, they were not hiding anything and the taller man read the pain and sadness there. "Ez? Pard? You want to tell old Buck what's wrong?"
Ezra put his cards down with deliberation. Then pulled a soft linen handkerchief from one sleeve in a simple gesture, bringing it up to his eyes with such aplomb that Buck was full of admiration for him. Admiration and respect. "Hey, Pard, it's a really nice day and I don't have patrol 'til much later, what say you and me take a ride out around the town, check in at some of the ranches? We could be back before dark, before you get any likely players for your poker game." Buck wondered if he'd gone too far. But then grateful eyes slanted up at him.
"I'd like that, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck slapped happily at the shoulder he'd been gripping. "Good! Let's go, Pard." Standing, he ignored the cards and Ezra's half-hearted protest, pulling the gambler to his feet with a strong arm. "Come on." He wrapped an arm around the other's stiff shoulders and steered them toward the front of the saloon. Looking back at the others who were now openly watching, he called out, "Hey, old dog, Ez and me are going out for a ride 'round the town, we'll check some of the homesteads out by Pydell's Creek." His casual wave met with surprise from the others.
Chris started to climb to his feet. He'd been watching his old friend go to Ezra, then huddle close. It made him restless, irritable to see the two men like that. No reason, just did. He was as surprised as Josiah and Vin when Buck and Ezra were suddenly standing and moving toward the door to the street. He began to rise as well. An iron grip on his arm stayed his motion. "Don't think so, cowboy." Vin spoke in a low, steady voice. "Let them go."
Josiah, picking up anew on the tension here, turned away from the now empty swinging doors. "Something going on?"
Chris subsided. Vin was right. He didn't know why he was acting so strangely. He shrugged. "No." He didn't add anything to that because he really did not know what else to say.
The silence at the table was broken as JD Dunne, the boy sheriff burst through the hinged doors and into the room, followed closely by their lanky, laid-back healer, Nathan Jackson. JD looked upset and confused, Nathan simply puzzled.
"Hey, guys!" JD dragged out a chair without asking and sat down heavily. Nathan took the empty seat at Sanchez's side.
Vin leaned back to signal Inez, now behind the bar, with a slight jerk of his chin. She caught his gesture and nodded, turning to fill some mugs and set them on a tray. In moments, she was at the table, putting the men's usual drinks in front of each man.
As soon as the lovely barmaid had retreated again, Dunne leaned forward on his elbows and stared around the faces at the table. His own youthful countenance, framed in loose, unstructured black hair, was serious, worried. "Just heard some really strange talk." He met Larabee's gaze steadily. "Mrs. Travis just stopped me, told me that we should be thinking about getting rid of Ezra."
Chris' eyes widened, then lightened, making JD slide backward in fear. He'd only once before seen the gunfighter look like that, and then the man had just killed several outlaws who'd captured and been hurting Buck and Vin. The deadness to the eyes was terrible. He couldn't help but wonder whether Mary Travis was safe. Or Ezra.
"She say why?" Vin interjected, tipping his chair forward on to all four legs.
Nathan interrupted. "I was there, too. Miz Travis was acting mighty peculiar. She seemed to want to tell us more, but she shut up right quick when Miz Potter came by."
JD nodded vigorously. "Something don't seem right."
"Where is Ezra, anyway?" Nathan looked around the saloon, seeing for the first time the cards lying discarded at Standish's regular gaming table.
"He and Buck went out for a ride just now," Josiah said thoughtfully. It was like some great puzzle, with only a few of the pieces yet out on the table and no picture of what the whole would look like. Yet, he began to have a feeling. Not a good one.
Chris stood abruptly, this time shaking off Vin's hand. "Going to go keep watch at the jail."
The others stayed seated as Larabee strode out of the saloon, watching in silence, wondering. Then JD spoke, "Think Chris knows something about all this?"
The older men exchanged looks. No one could think of a thing to say.
The mid-day sun burned into Larabee's eyes, forcing him to tug his wide brimmed hat lower over his face. He sniffed the air and let his gaze travel up and down the single thoroughfare of the small town. Down near the livery he could see Buck still leading Standish toward the stables. Why had Ezra refused to sit with him just now? He was getting a strange feeling about things. He didn't buy the polite refusal or the reason said. No, something's wrong.
The blonde woman emerging from the newspaper offices across the street caught his eye. Mary looked tense, tired. He felt sorry for what he'd done last night but there was no way to repair that bridge. He shrugged slightly. He was part of that, but then, so was she. It took two to make that happen and he had never even thought to go there on his own. No, remembering the persuasive words, the small inviting smiles and the gently petting hands, pulling at him, drawing him into her bedroom as he hesitated, the hands so delicately unbuttoning his shirt -- Chris knew he was reacting all over again as he hardened and grew. Almost angrily, he swung away just as the woman spotted him and raised a hand in greeting. He ignored her and stalked down toward the livery, the jail an incidental goal, halfway down the street. The movement and his anger went far to cause his spontaneous arousal to subside again. Chris was nearly opposite the bank when the first shots were fired, the sounds muted within the building, but still carrying.
The two men had moved in silence once they stepped out of the saloon. Buck kept hoping that Ezra, who could be quite a chatterbox, would start one of his interminable artifices, trying to wangle a partner in some latest get-rich-quick scheme. He always seemed to have one ready. Not today though, the southerner was silent and seemed upset. Damn, if Chris did this -- Buck shook his head, tightening his arm momentarily around the smaller man's shoulders. Nothing to say, he let his touch convey his friendship.
Ezra numbly allowed Wilmington to lead him away, out of the saloon and out from under the troubling gaze of the man in black. Chris and he had not yet found ways to be comfortable around each other. Ezra half-suspected that in his own case, he was hampered by his attraction to the man. Something he was constantly suppressing. Whatever had happened last night between Mary Travis and Chris Larabee, this morning, Ezra felt like prey, beaten out of the woods between two hunters. Mary made her feelings quite clear this morning. And Chris? Ezra sensed resentment, confusion, in the other man. He'd wanted to remain distant the moment he laid eyes on him in the saloon, and then the contrary man had invited him, Ezra Standish, over for a drink! He shuddered at the thought of being caught sitting with Chris over a drink -- and Mary striding into the saloon like a Valkyrie. A subtle tremor shook him and he hoped Buck didn't notice.
But, Buck did notice the fine tremble that shook the smaller man's frame. He drew them to a stop there in the street, intent on asking Ez if he was alright. As he opened his mouth to speak, the sound of gunfire interrupted. "Damn!" Releasing the gambler, Wilmington spun around, gun already in hand, identifying the source as the bank, just as he spotted Chris at the other end of the street, nearer to the bank, duck for cover, his gun also drawn.
Ezra's dread at the feel of Buck slowing their progress was abruptly terminated as, at the sound of guns firing, he was released. He stepped back away from Wilmington, anxious to spread them out as potential targets. Like Buck, he quickly assessed the situation, identifying the robbery in progress, Larabee's position, and the rest of the folk out on the street at that moment. Mary Travis was frozen outside the Clarion offices. Several shoppers were already dropping to the ground near the mercantile, some closer to the doorway, scuttling back inside. Other folks melted into alleys or doorways, or sank behind water troughs and wagons.
It was the sight of two children across the way that turned the blood in his veins to frozen ice. Billy Travis and Tommy Jerrold were standing, confused and scared, outside of the large grange. They each held the end of a rope that they'd likely been playing tug of war with. Ezra, keeping them in sight, turned slightly as Wilmington ran for cover back towards the bank, obviously concentrating on the entrance and forming a balanced trap with Larabee's position. The southerner knew he should be moving to make it a tripod but the small boys had to come first. Keeping his eyes moving between his fellow lawmen and the still empty bank entrance, he noted the rest of his colleagues piling out of the saloon to form a phalanx of shooters melting into the cover available near the bank. Just then, even as he ran toward the boys, a short stick flew out of the bank entrance, trailing a thin line of smoke. "Hell!" Ezra dove at the boys.
Larabee ducked down and put his hands over his head as he saw the stick of dynamite fly from the front of the bank, tumbling end over end, fuse trickling smoke, heading his way. It exploded with a deafening roar in midair. The lack of materials to destroy had the explosion simply pushing air out with a fury of sound and force. Windows rattled and hanging items in front of Potter's Store shivered in the new wind. Chris felt as if he'd been slammed to the ground, breathless. He had to force himself up to look around the watering trough he'd been using as cover. Three men were emerging cautiously from the bank. Two held sticks of dynamite, and had cigars held tightly in bared teeth. The third shouldered a bag that was likely filled with the looted money. Larabee shoved himself to his feet, eyes on the men, spotting Buck moving in from the north side of the street, sensing Vin, JD and the others edging closer as well.
"That's far enough." He cocked his gun and held it aimed at the robbers. "Drop the money and the dynamite." His voice sounded hoarse from the dusty grit in the air, still settling from the single explosion.
Instantly, the men spread out, looking around as they aimed their guns at the tall lawman facing them. The one with the money shouted out, "To hell with you! One move and we'll turn this old town into a pile of cinders!"
Each of the two armed with explosives now held their sticks close to the smoking ends of their cigars, the free hands full of guns that aimed at Larabee's heart.
"Two can play at this game, gentlemen." The southern tones rang out over the unnatural stillness. Eyes swung to where Ezra stood in front of two small boys that he'd pushed back into the closed doorway of the old grange. He held what looked like an identical stick of dynamite in one hand, a lit cigar in his other. He didn't wait, once he'd gotten their attention, he lit the 'fuse' and hurled the stick at the outlaws.
One of the two, responded with mirror actions, his attention caught by the fancy dressed man across the street. He tossed his lit stick that way, even as he used his pistol to try to hit the other's flying stick. The other two outlaws had also turned their attention to this new threat and before they could turn back, Larabee had shot the dynamite from the hand of the second outlaw. The man cried out and clutched at his hand, dropping his gun and falling to his knees in pain. The remaining gunman, still holding the bag of money, tried to shoot and run at the same time. By now the rest of the seven were firing and he was cut down quickly along with the first of the outlaws who'd finally realized that the stick the fancy man had hurled at him was only a piece of kindling with a thin bit of rope on one end, still smoldering as it hit the ground near his feet. Too late he turned back to fight, only to be shot several times on his way to the ground and a quick death.
The second explosion threw the men still standing to the ground, only to rise shakily to their feet again when all realized it hadn't been near them and they only experienced the passing explosive force of air. Chris wove over to stand above the two dead outlaws, and looked scornfully at the remaining, wounded one, still on his knees, moaning in pain. Buck staggered out from the porch of the restaurant and joined Chris, putting a steadying hand on his old friend.
Nathan was grabbing, none to gently, at the living outlaw's hand, checking to see the damage as he tossed aside the man's guns. JD and Josiah were already moving into the bank with drawn guns to make sure it was empty and check for anyone left behind within.
Into this bustle of sudden movement, the sound of Mary's shriek was piercing. "Billllllllllyyyyyyyy!"
Then she was darting across the street toward what remained of the front of the grange.
Vin was the first to reach the site of the explosion, having already been heading in that direction as the dust settled from the shoot out. He grabbed at broken pieces of wood planking and dragged them aside, somewhere under the collapsed porch roof were his friend Ezra and some kids. He was trying futilely to lift the tin roofing sheet when two other sets of hands joined his. Chris and Buck were at his sides, lifting with him. The three men quickly dragged off the roofing and exposed a jumble of additional timbers, beneath which they could see the back of Standish's jacket, the dark burgundy color draping an unmoving form.
Mary stood hovering over the working men, eyes fixed on the shambles in front of her. Somewhere in there was her Billy. Unconsciously, she wrung her hands and leaned forward, biting at her lower lip in her fear.
Now that the men could see Ezra, they moved with care and more planning in their actions, picking out which pieces of board and tin to lift to free their friend. There had so far been no sign of Billy, though they too had seen Billy and the other boy half-hidden behind the southerner when he called out his challenge to the outlaws. Silently, or with only grunts at their efforts, they continued to unearth their friend's body.
With a mighty heave Buck and Chris lifted and tossed aside the last remaining shaft of wood, Vin sliding in beside Ezra's quiet form as they did so. "Ez? Can you hear me?" Vin's hoarse demand was not answered.
Buck and Chris squatted down beside Vin. Chris hurt, deep inside, in a way that he couldn't interpret but that left him breathless, aching. He rubbed at his chest as his other hand came to rest on the back of Ezra's dark head. "Ezra?" He barely managed to get out the name from a throat squeezed dry in fear.
Buck took a deep breath and carefully gripped the small man's shoulders, easing him up and over onto his back. Exposing two smaller yet huddled shapes, small anxious faces peering up at their rescuers. Vin spared a worried glance at the unconscious body of his friend, resting in Wilmington's arms. He'd felt a pulse before letting go of the man's wrist. Thank god. Turning his attention to the two little boys, he painted a smile on his face and tried to be reassuring. "Here ya go, boys." He easily lifted one, little Tommy Jerrold who squirmed free and was on his feet in a moment, waiting only as Billy Travis was likewise freed.
"Mr. Vin, Ezra saved us," Billy whispered confidingly to the tracker, then with a nod at Tommy stepped away to meet his mother. Mrs. Jerrold was there as well, catching up her Tommy and hugging him closely, weeping in relief.
Mary snatched up Billy in her arms and turned in a circle, holding him tightly and crying his name over and over in her own relief.
Chris who'd seen the boys safely pulled free by Vin, then engulfed in their mothers' arms, looked down on the pale, still face of their gambler. Buck was gently rocking the small man, wiping his face free of dirt with one large, soothing hand. Chris stood, Ezra was alive, that much he knew. "NATHAN!" His bellow caught the healer who was leading the wounded outlaw toward the jail.
JD and Josiah were stepping out of the bank again and quickly relieved Jackson of his prisoner so that he could go to their own wounded team mate. With a half-running stride, the dark healer reached the group sitting among the ruins in front of the grange. He sank to his knees beside Buck and carefully began examining the crumpled form of the gambler.
Chris stood, staring out across the street, his whole body focused on the sounds at his feet but unable to look down. Damn fool southerner. Risking his life for them, and for those children. A bluff. The man had pulled another colossal con out of his hat at a moment's notice. Chris wanted desperately to be on the ground, holding that precious, clever man in his arms. He crushed his fingers into fists and his mouth tightened in frustration. Damn, what's wrong with me?
Mary finally set a now squirming Billy back on his feet. The boy had quickly recovered from his shock and fear and now was ready to look more closely at the damage he'd survived -- and help the man who'd been hurt saving him and Tommy. "Mom, Mr. Ezra, he --"
Before the young voice could finish, Mary Travis interrupted with a cutting, cold tone. "Billy, get back to our home, go wash up." She turned her son away from the scene still unfolding and gave him a quiet push.
She had witnessed everything - her eyes glued in sheer terror on her vulnerable, exposed son and his little friend as the face off outside the bank escalated. She'd seen Standish run for her son, dive and shove him and the other boy to the ground at the first explosion. She'd weathered that explosion herself, clinging to a porch post. Then she saw to her horror that Ezra had cobbled something together from the ground and yelled out a challenge to the outlaws. His tactic did divert their attention from Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven, but it focused their attention on him, and incidentally, on her son, Billy. A mother's anger grew now as she sent her son home, safe for the moment.
Fear turned to fury.
This was the same man who already was interfering with her relationship with Chris. Now he put her son's life in jeopardy. "You murderer!" She screamed this and pounced, irrationally accusing Standish of that which never happened, her mind's eye seeing the two little boys as dead children -- all because of this monstrosity.
Buck stared up in surprise at Mary Travis' scream then leaned protectively over the unconscious man in his arms as she dropped down in front of them and reached out claw-like hands, clearly intent on hurting the man. Nathan shouldered his body between Mary and Ezra, confused but unwilling to allow the woman to hurt his patient. Vin and Chris reacted quickly, each grabbing an arm of the hysterical woman, pulling her back.
"He nearly got my Billy killed!" She cried out, tears streaming down her face as she struggled between the two men. Vin was shocked and worried as he tried to subdue her without hurting her.
Chris was getting angrier by the minute. She wasn't making any sense at all. Ezra had saved the boys -- and his fellow lawmen -- with daring and courage. He lay there now bruised, maybe even broken, having used his own body to protect the boys from the second explosion. With a frustration borne of the strange morning and the unexpected night before, Chris spun Mary out of Vin's hands and around to face him. He gripped both her arms now and shook her hard. "Mary!" He shook her again, seeing her face finally ease from its manic tautness. "Mary! Ezra saved the boys, he didn't harm them!"
She wasn't to be put off though, shaking her head and then meeting Chris' greenish hazel eyes with her own pale green ones. "He called out to those men, got their attention. He had the boys with him! What could he have been thinking?" She let her anger and disgust show.
Chris' eyes matched hers. Disgust foremost as he shoved her back a step, letting her go. "He was thinking about saving us. All of us." He let his disgust and disappointment at her behavior show in his voice as he added, "He saved those boys and probably at a cost to himself." He closed his eyes, suddenly tired. Hung his head in fatigue. "Mary, go home to Billy." Dismissing the woman, he turned to look down at Nathan who was still examining their seventh.
"How is he, Nathan?"
The dark brown eyes of the healer rose to meet the hazel eyes of their leader. "Concussed for sure. Got hit pretty hard by some of that wood from the roof, but don't seem to have anything broken." Jackson nodded as if doing a mental tally. "Likely be up and around in a few days."
Nathan climbed to his feet just as Josiah strode up. Mary Travis with a final look of pure hatred for the recumbent gambler, stalked off across the street, a figure of virtuous anger. Chris stood, Vin at his side now, and looked down at Ezra. Standish lay limply in Buck's lap, head resting on the man's broad chest. Larabee had an urge to demand he trade places with his old friend, hold Ezra himself. He repressed the unexpected feeling as Josiah squatted down and eased the small man into his large arms. Standing the preacher sighed as he settled the gambler further into his arms and nodded to Jackson. The two men walked off toward the clinic, leaving behind three worried men.
Buck accepted a grip from Vin and hauled himself to his feet, dusting off his pants and looking around at the devastation with tired eyes. "Seems like we can't ever keep this town in one piece."
Vin quirked a small smile. "It's our destiny," he said ironically, quoting their friend, the mystic preacher.
Chris watched Nathan and Josiah as they took his southern gambler away. He wanted to call out, tell them to be careful, be gentle, with the brave man. He sighed as they disappeared up the stairs to the clinic.
Turning to his remaining men, he grimaced at the mess at their feet. "Looks like we got some cleaning up to do." Better to be occupied for now, they'd find out soon about Ezra. He tried not to think about their seventh, not to worry. Nathan had said he thought Ezra would be alright.
Chris bent over and picked up an armful of timber shards and walked over to the mouth of the nearby alley, dumping them there. When he faced the grange again, he saw that Buck and Vin had likewise begun to work on the shattered bit of building, other townsmen joining in now that the gunfire was over. He stepped closer, noticing something shining on the ground where Ezra had lain. Stooping, he picked it up. A pocket watch, Ezra's. Chris closed his hand around the timepiece, his heart calming and centering. Somehow, he felt as if it would all be alright now. He slipped the small watch into his trouser pocket and joined the rest of the men working on the broken porch. The slight bulge of the small clock in his pocket was a comfort. He refused to think about Mary Travis and her hysterical accusations. She'd calm down, once she recovered from the fear of that past moment. Everything would get back to normal.
Evening shadows were kept at bay in the small town with the scattered bonfires that lit the main street each night. Tonight those flames were fed with the broken bits of the grange's collapsed front porch and roof. The dusty hamlet stirred in the coolness of the evening, men strolled with wives on their arms, enjoying the evening coolness, exchanging passing pleasantries. Inside the saloon, other men were gathering for a bit of relaxation, maybe some entertainment, a chance to meet with friends over a warming drink. Or two. The gambler's table had a few players, working a desultory game without the resident master of ceremonies to preside over the event. No flashy colored clothing, no gold lit smile with dimples deep and merry, green eyes gleaming in secret amusement as the man would keep the game lively, relaying interesting tales and anecdotes that entertained and distracted. The rest of the seven peacekeepers were only seen briefly, in for a drink and out again. Patrolling the streets, guarding the prisoner in the jail, checking in at the undertakers, keeping watch over their seventh as he lay, unaware, on the healer's bed.
Chris sipped gratefully at the cup of hot coffee that Josiah had handed him, Sanchez having just arrived from the saloon. The preacher was now listening attentively to Jackson's report on the gambler. Chris had heard it all. He simply sat in the chair beside Ezra and waited. Once he'd helped clean up the mess at the grange and made sure the bank and the jail were secure, he'd allowed himself to come to the clinic. He'd been here ever since and had no plans to leave until Ezra opened those glorious green eyes of his. Chris closed his own in embarrassment. If his men could only hear his thoughts! He shook his head slowly. Took another sip of the dark brew cupped in his hands, cold with banked fear. Ezra, just open your damn eyes. Please.
Sanchez kept one eye on Larabee, hunched over on the seat next to Ezra's bed, as he listened to Nathan describe Ezra's injuries and treatment. The healer sounded tired as he finished with a summary. "So, he's not really that bad. Got some bad bruises on his back, shoulders -- it's a miracle that his bad shoulder didn't go out on him, and some splinters on his hands, but mostly, it's his head that we have to watch. Got hit hard. Won't know how bad it is until he wakes up." Nathan sighed, wiping his face. Then added quietly, unable to keep his own fears to himself any longer. "If he wakes up."
Chris looked up sharply, clearly having been listening without comment until now. "What?"
Nathan looked over at the black clad gunman staring at him in horror. "I'm sorry, Chris, I ain't no doctor, and head injuries are always dangerous. We just got to wait and see."
His honesty might not protect him this time, Josiah thought as he gazed at his long time friend, then turned to face Chris Larabee who was rising to his feet with a look of pure rage. "CHRIS!" Sanchez's booming voice froze the gunman. "Sit down." Sanchez took two long steps into Larabee's face and put big hands on the tense shoulders, pushing. When Chris resisted, he simply pushed harder, and suddenly Larabee was sitting again, looking up resentfully. "We are all doing what we can. Now we wait. Ezra doesn't need fussing around him right now."
Larabee leaned back and turned to stare at the small body curled up in the narrow bed. Ezra had moved, turning on his side and kicking back the blanket covering him. Chris ignored the others to reach out and pull the blanket back up. If Ezra was moving, even in this unconscious state, that had to be good. Chris said nothing to Jackson and Sanchez, choosing to keep this thought to himself, not wanting some voice of reason to cut away his new found surety with justifications for hopelessness. No, he'd sit here and wait for Ezra. Ezra, you are going to stop playing possum soon, damn it, and then we are going to have us a talk about this morning. And, maybe about last night.
Mary tucked her son into his trundle bed, making sure the quilt was high over his shoulders and warm around him. Tenderly, she brushed back his long blonde hair. Every day she could see more of Stephen in him. She kissed him lightly on the forehead and stood up, leaving the room quietly, a nightlight still lit within. Slumping shoulders, she walked down the stairs to her office and through it to the kitchen and sitting room beyond. When did things go so wrong. She could still see the dead look in Chris's eyes as he'd chastised her earlier this afternoon. When she'd gotten so mad at that damn gambler. Ezra Standish simply had to go. He'd nearly gotten her child killed today. Last night, he'd invaded her bed, in spirit anyway, to steal away the love of the man she had decided she wanted. Mary sank onto a stool in the sitting room, drawing her knees close to her chin with long thin arms. Pensively, she stared into the low burning fire of the small fireplace.
She tried to reach for rational thought but her feelings were strong and passionate and at the moment, governed her heart. With determination, she shook off her melancholy and moved over to the hearth to shovel ash over the fire. Time to go to bed, alone.
Two long days. Chris Larabee stood at the clinic window and stared down on the early morning street. He wanted to be anywhere else, wanted to renew his hopes which were slowly dying, along with the man still comatose in the bed behind him. Nathan had spoken to all five of the peacekeepers here in this room the night before.
"It's been too long. I wired some doctors for advice; they all sent back the same. If he don't come round in 24 to 48 hours, there's not much hope he ever will, or, if he does, that he'll be himself anymore."
"What's that mean? Himself?" JD wanted to know, moving closer to Buck Wilmington without actually touching his friend.
Nathan looked down at the floor, this was not news he willingly shared with the others, but needed to be said. "Might not be able to remember too well, might not be able to think too well, might not be able to do things normally, like walk, talk, feed himself --" He trailed off, looking up to meet shocked eyes. "Nothin' more I can do, I'm sorry."
Sanchez put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Brother Nate, we know you are doing all you can." His voice came out a grieving rumble.
Buck stood taller, casting a sad glance over at the unmoving con man. "Don't seem right, Ezra not being all there. Be better if he didn't make it at all, if that's what's likely to be happening to him."
Vin nodded without speaking. The thought of Ezra as slow-witted and handicapped left Vin numb with sorrow. The lively conman was smart-mouthed and bright-eyed, nimble-fingered and quick on the draw, a deadly shootist and a trusty fellow fighter; the man didn't deserve such a fate. Might not know he'd been dealt that hand, but the rest of them would have to look at him, see the man he was in the man he had become. Oh, god, Ez, please.
JD had choked back a cry, turning to bury his face in Buck's nearby shoulder, not afraid to show his feelings in front of his 'brothers.' Buck was glad to hug his little 'brother' to him, comforting both of them in the process.
Chris Larabee had been stoic throughout Nathan's assessment and final confession. When Jackson finished, he turned back to face Ezra and picked up one small, fine-boned hand, capturing it in his own work-worn, calloused one, gently stroking the back of it with a tender touch. Come on, Ez, show them all. Show them that you're still here. Please.
It was the morning, the second day. Chris moved back away from the window. He was alone with Ezra. Even Nathan needed to sleep sometime and had left them a few hours earlier, promising that someone would be by with food later.
He sat down beside his silent friend and picked up a lax and thin hand again. Held the precious commodity in his own larger hand, careful not to press too hard, leave a fresh sore on the unresponsive flesh. He let his other hand trail lightly over the back of Ezra's hand. Please Ezra, come back to me.
Ezra lay in a stupor. He knew he was somewhere safe and warm, the pains in his body were like muffled drums in the distance. They did not impinge upon his inner sense of self. He was lost in a fog, dark and formless, he floated incorporeal and weak, unable to even struggle for a single thought. Hands touched his body, cleaning it, cooling it, covering it, touching, touching, touching. One touch among them all warmed him, penetrated his confusion, gave him strength. One touch. One hand that held his, gently soothing his skin with a tender touch. Chris? "Chris?" he murmured softly.
Larabee blinked and straightened in his seat, staring hard at the gambler. Had he just imagined that?
"Chris?" a breath of air, nothing more.
"Ezra?" Hope colored his voice as Chris leaned forward and ever so gently turned the smaller man's body back towards him, never relinquishing his hold on the man's hand. "You awake?"
"I think so." Opening his eyes with an effort, Ezra stared up into worried, hopeful hazel eyes. No anger, no disgust, no disquiet. Heaven, he'd died and gone to heaven and angel Chris, his dream lover, was there to greet him. "Hello."
"Hello yourself!" Chris could not suppress the grin that broke out across his face. He carefully stroked down the side of the southerner's face, utterly happy at the sight of those longed-for green eyes that studied him so intently.
"Are you here to take me?"
Ezra's hesitant question struck fear anew into Chris' heart. He remembered in a rush all the warnings about how Ezra might be upon waking. This strange question worried him. "I'm here to watch over you, welcome you back, Ez. You've been out for a couple of days now. We've all been worried."
"Then --" Ezra swallowed with difficulty, "Then you're real?"
Chris stared in shock. Oh, god, no, Ez, please, be alright. Aloud he simply answered, "Yep. Now let's get you sitting up a bit so I can give you something to drink, you must have a powerful thirst by now."
With slow, deliberate care, Chris Larabee tended to the weak, confused man. Easing him up on the bed pillows, supporting him with strong arms as he held a cup to the small man's lips. "Slowly, Ez, sip it slowly."
The patience and care were a new side of Larabee that Ezra had never before seen or experienced and it left him still wondering where he really was. Tired and unable to do much more than keep his eyes open, he finally succumbed to temptation. As Larabee leaned over him, tucking in the quilt around the reclining man, Ezra lifted his head and kissed the nearest cheek. Unable to keep his head up, he dropped back down to the pillows and waited.
Chris froze. Then slowly turned to look down into mild green eyes that stared back at him with no hidden screens, just a look of curiosity and amusement, tempered with what looked like affection. He tentatively raised a hand to his cheek to touch where a heartbeat ago, he'd felt dry lips press against his skin. "You just kissed me," his astonishment clear in his hushed tones.
Ezra nodded weakly, eyes already drooping. "Angel Chris." His head moved slightly, tipping to the side, eyes closing, a small smile lighting his features. "Nice place, this heaven."
Softly, he answered, "Damn it, Ez." But Chris smiled now, understanding a bit better. Ezra thought for some reason that he was in heaven.
He leaned close, hesitated, and then, pressed his thin, dry lips on the moist feverish brow of Ezra Standish, gambler, conman, gunman, lawman, and his friend. His very special friend. He'll get better, Chris assured himself. Nothing else would do. He needed Ezra, they all did.
"Chris!" Mary Travis stood in the open clinic doorway, hissing his name in something between anguish and anger.
Larabee straightened away from Ezra, hoping the man was really asleep. He shifted slightly so that he stood between Mary and the gambler's bed. "Mary?" He wasn't sure what she'd seen, but he really didn't care.
Coming swiftly into the room, Mary faced the dark clad gunslinger, the leader of her father-in-law's troop of peacekeepers. "Chris, what are you doing? What did he do to you?"
The tall blonde gunman looked the distraught woman up and down. He hadn't seen her since the morning of the attempted bank robbery and now she had barged into Nathan's clinic and was making demands that he really didn't see she had a right to make. "Maybe best if you left."
"Left? I just got here!" She tried to step past him toward the bed, but he stepped sideways with her, then caught her shoulders firmly.
"Yes. Now." His hazel eyes were hard as flint. This was going to stop now. "We have nothing to say to each other, and I don't want you anywhere near Ezra."
The woman paled and swayed in his grasp, staring up at him with wide eyes. "We have nothing to say to each other?" she repeated, stunned. "But Chris, the other night --"
"Sorry about that. Hadn't intended to go there, Mary, but somehow we did." The gunslinger's eyes softened in regret. "Didn't mean to lead you on, either. It just happened."
"You -- you called out HIS name." It was an accusation.
Chris hung his head for a moment, then raised his eyes to meet hers. "Yes, I did."
"You and he? You're together?" She knew she sounded lost but she couldn't help herself, surely he'd deny this, tell her it was all a mistake.
"No." The word was spoken slowly, consideringly. "Not yet."
"I don't understand, Chris." Mary realized, even as she spoke, that she'd lost this man. To another. To that gambler. It was inconceivable.
"No need for you to understand anything except that there's never likely to be any 'us', Mary." Chris spoke gently but firmly.
Mary was about to try yet again when the weakened voice of the gambler sounded behind them. "Angel?"
Chris dropped his hands from Mary Travis' shoulders and turned swiftly, going down on one knee beside the bed. "Hey, Ez, thought you were going to sleep some?"
"It'll be quiet now," he stroked the unruly hair back from the southerner's broad brow, smiling softly. Then as he watched, the glowing green eyes widened and darkened. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that Mary had come closer and was practically hanging over him, staring directly at the gambler. When he turned back to Ezra, the smaller man was already trying to scoot back in the bedding away from Mary. "Hey, easy there. You're fine." He caught the struggling man and held him down. Without looking at her, he spoke up, away from Ezra. "Mary, be a good idea if you left right now."
"I told him to do that, two days ago." Mary's voice was full of scorn now.
"What?" Chris chanced a glance away from the timidly hunched form in his hands. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Mary stood back up, tall and proud. "I talked with this man the next morning. I warned him to stay away from you. I told him I knew about what he'd done to ensnare you and that it would be best if he left town."
"You did that?" Larabee thought back to that morning, nearly three days ago, when Ezra had come into the saloon, acting strangely and refusing to sit with him, to share a drink. "Get out, Mary, now, before I do something we'll both regret."
Mary Travis stepped back at the vicious tone from the gunslinger. Suddenly she saw him with new eyes. Not the quiet, grieving widower, who could also use a gun, lead men. Now she saw the anger, the rage and the deadly killer. How could she ever have thought that this man might be right for her son's stepfather? For her second husband? Shivering at the fates that had rescued her from peril, she turned on her heel and fled the room, feeling only relief to be making distance between herself and that man.
Chris didn't bother to keep watching as Mary Travis quickly left the room, he had other troubles right now. "Ezra? Ezra, calm down. She's gone."
By this time, in the distraction of the last minutes of conversation with Mary, he'd loosed his grip on the small man. Ezra had nearly twisted free, weak as he was, he was trying to climb out of the bed at the foot of it. Chris stood up, still holding on to what he could of the squirming gambler and simply sat down on the bed, dragging the man into his arms, onto his lap. "It's alright, Ez. You're safe with me. She won't hurt you anymore." He soothed with words and hands, holding the man close to his chest, tucking Ezra's head in against his shoulder, petting his arms. Finally he felt the other begin to relax, his weight suddenly more solid against his thighs.
"Angel?" Ezra strained to look up. "Is this a dream? Or am I really dead?"
"You are not dead, Ezra and this is not a dream." Chris stroked the man's face tenderly. "Likely was a nightmare for a spell, but it will get better now."
"Yep, now that I know you care. Just figuring out that I do too."
Ezra sighed. Closed his eyes and melted against the bigger man who held him so securely. "Angel Chris. Hope I remember this when I wake up." He yawned and his eyes shut, his breathing evening out easily as he was snuggled in Larabee's arms.
After a bit, Chris eased his burden back down onto the bedding and slipped out from beneath him. He stood up and stretched stiffening muscles. He had a lot of thinking to do.
The sound of heavy footsteps on the clinic porch had Larabee pulling his gun and edging toward the door. Buck stumbled in a moment later, hands full of a tray covered in a bar towel. "Hey pard, might want to put up that pistol, there." The rangy lawman grinned and laid the tray down on Nathan's table. Then his face sobering, he looked over to Ezra's bed. "Any change?"
Chris couldn't contain his grin. "Yep. He woke up, spoke to me, even drank some water." Larabee looked over fondly at the still form under the blankets. "He's sleeping now."
"Well, I'll be! That's great news, old dog!" Buck's grin returned, even wider than before. "He know himself alright?"
"Seemed to. Knew me, too."
"That's great! Wait 'til I tell old Nate, he'll be pleased as punch."
Chris nodded wearily, now that the tension of the last few days was past he was suddenly exhausted, drained of all energy.
Buck noticed the change and moved quickly to his friend, gripping his arm strongly and leading him to the other cot. "Here, Pard, you best be sitting down." Once he was sure that Chris wouldn't fall over, Wilmington stood back and said, "I think I better go get Nate now. You just stay right there, Chris. Lie down if you can. Get some rest."
Chris realized he must have drifted off because when he was aware again there were a lot of voices nearby, his men, discussing Ezra.
"He'll be better once he starts eating again." That was Nathan.
"It's good to see some color in his cheeks." Josiah.
"Shouldn't we wake him up or something? Get him to talk to us?" JD.
"Let him be, kid. He needs time." Vin.
"How 'bout old dog, over there? Should we move him?" Buck.
"No, he's fine there. Just likely tired. Hasn't left Ezra's side since the explosion, near enough. Now that we know Ezra's gonna be alright, he just plain collapsed from tiredness." Nathan again.
"Maybe we should jest let'em both sleep it off." Vin.
At this point, Larabee could no longer contain himself. "Yeah. Sleep would be nice. Ain't likely to happen though if you all keep going like this." His growl cut through the others' conversation, leaving silence for a moment only.
"Hey, Pard! You're awake again!" Buck.
Chris opened his eyes to see that it was night, lanterns providing the only light in the small room. The rest of the seven were standing around the center table, staring at him.
"Yep. Now how 'bout you all scoot and let ole Ez and me get some decent shuteye?" Chris' growl had a plaintive sound to it.
Josiah smiled and clapped JD and Vin on the shoulders. "I do believe we are being asked to leave, boys."
Buck leaned over Nathan's shoulder to add with a smile, "Seems a bit unfriendly just now."
Nathan shook his head. "Fine. You get some more sleep, Chris. But holler if Ezra wakes up again and wants anything. I should really check him out, just don't want to wake him while his body's getting some needed rest."
Larabee raised his head and nodded, meeting the healer's eyes. "Deal."
With laughter and much touching of shoulder and head, the men all bid good night to their leader, casting smiles over at the sleeping gambler. The night absorbed their sounds of departure, a stillness settling over the small clinic. Chris rolled his head on the pillow so that he could study his sleeping friend. Not much to see from here. Ezra was well buried under a pile of blankets, only the thatch of dark, curling chestnut hair showing. "Goodnight, Green Eyes." Chris smiled. He could swear the other man sighed, and turned slightly towards him before sinking deeper into sleep.
The smell of coffee roused the sleeping man. He rolled over in the narrow cot and blinked sleep dulled eyes at the ceiling. "Feel like some java, Pard?" Buck's voice was a sweet sound in the background. He felt better than he had for a while, for having grabbed a good night's sleep.
"Coffee?" His growl was the best he could do for greeting.
"Right here." A cup appeared in front of his face, then a strong arm helped him sit up and get oriented. He grasped the cup and brought the strong hot brew to his lips, smiling in satisfaction as he swallowed. He sat up away from the arm and swung his legs over the side of the cot, letting his feet hit the floor and brace him.
Buck stood there beside him, looking happy. "You done slept a real long spell there, Chris. Nate finally sent me to get some coffee and try to rouse you."
Larabee nodded. His head still felt like cotton wool but he also felt stronger, knew the sleep had done him some good. Wonder how Ez is doing? He lifted his head and looked across at the other bed. Empty. "Ezra!" He tried to stand too quickly, nearly lost his balance and fell heavily back down on his bed. "Buck, where's Ezra?" He didn't bother to try to keep the urgency out of his voice.
"Hey, Pard, relax. Old Ez was feelin' much better and argued Nate into letting him go sleep in his own bed over at the saloon. Me and Josiah helped him over there."
Chris stared at the empty cot. In his head, he heard again Ezra's mild voice, slightly fuzzy, calling him Angel. He felt unaccountably cheated. He wanted Ezra here, with him. He looked up at Buck and sighed. "So, he's doing better?"
Buck smiled and nodded. "Nate says he'll likely be a bit woozy for a spell yet, might be a bit sickish from the concussion, but mostly, he's just tired. Kinda like you, Pard."
Chris nodded again. Lifted the cup back up to his mouth and drained it. Dropping it on the bedding beside him, he stood, more slowly, cautiously, this time. "Time I left here too."
"You sure?" Buck looked dubiously at the slightly swaying gunslinger, but even as he studied his old friend, Chris steadied and stood more firmly, his eyes clearing of sleep and filling with that old determination that was damn near unstoppable. "Okay, then, best get dressed first."
Chris looked down and realized someone had removed his boots, pants and shirt, leaving him in his long johns.
The rumble of sound coming from Standish's room over the saloon resolved itself into Josiah's voice, reading from a book. Larabee rolled his shoulders and cricked his neck, first to the right, then the left, trying to work out the tension he felt. Nothing to it, really, just walk in and say hello, see those delicious green eyes warm and soften as they met his. He casually opened the door, unsurprised to see Josiah comfortably ensconced in the rocking chair, which had been dragged over to a post beside the big feather bed. Lying on the bed, beneath a down comforter, Ezra was propped up slightly on a mound of pillows. His eyes were closed and his pale face was still. Josiah stopped reading at Chris' entrance. "Brother Chris, good to see you up and around again."
"'Siah." Chris walked over to the edge of the bed, studying the quiet man there. "He asleep?"
"Hard to tell," Josiah smiled. "Just when I think he's drifted off, he'll ask me something about what I'm reading."
Chris reached out and burrowed a hand beneath the coverlet, seeking Ezra's. Got it. He lowered himself to the bed, feeling the softness support him. He folded his hand around the gambler's, drew it out and into his lap. "Hey, Ezra? You in there?"
In answer, the man stirred and tilted his head slightly. Then those wicked green eyes flickered open and turned toward the waiting man. The eyes were cautious. "Mr. Larabee?"
Chris closed his eyes, hopeful thoughts dashed. He clenched tighter on the hand held in his. Heard the soft grunt of pain. Let the hand go and it withdrew back under the covers. "Ezra, I heard you were feeling better?"
"Yes," the pale man watched him quietly. "You are looking rested also. I was told how you stayed by my side for so long. I am indebted to you, sir."
"Stop it." Chris swallowed the angry words that wanted to spill out. Where the hell was his Green Eyes? "Ezra, no thanks needed. That's what friends do." He paused then decided to ask despite Josiah's presence. "You remember anything about waking before?"
Ezra cocked his head and looked thoughtfully at Larabee. "Not really. I'm told I woke with you alone much earlier, yesterday morning, in fact. I do not remember. Apparently we had a conversation or two? The next time I awoke, it was to find you sleeping in the other cot at the clinic and dawn quickly approaching, so I would hazard a guess that a period of nearly twenty-four hours intervened."
Chris nodded. Nothing much more he could say for now. But, somewhere behind that placid, slick façade, Ezra Standish was lurking. He wanted to find the man again. He had discovered something very important yesterday. He had discovered that he not only needed the man, he wanted him, loved him. And, based upon Ezra's wandering mind and semi-lucid comments, Ezra carried feelings for him as well. Now all he had to do was figure out how to get them back on the surface, out in the open. So they could do something about them. He reached out and gently patted Ezra's comforter covered stomach. "Good to see you lively again, Ez. I'll just leave you with Josiah then." He hid a smile as he saw a look of disappointment quickly hidden. Yep, the feelings were there.
Christopher Larabee began planning his campaign. Nathan predicted that Ezra Standish would be back on his feet by the end of the week, cheating them out of their pay within a day of that. Chris had snarled at the other man at that unsolicited remark, causing the dark healer to clamp his mouth shut in shocked surprise. The amused looks he received from the others had him rethinking his remarks and making some mental adjustments.
Vin was the first to realize that things had changed dramatically for Larabee. Their brotherly closeness was the wedge that broke things loose. A late evening over a bottle and Larabee, still trying to come up with a decent plan, confessed his feelings. Tanner mellowed out and told of a few times he'd tried that path, back on the Indian Rez. It hadn't worked out back then, but he'd liked it, had special feelings for the man he'd been with. By the wee hours of the morning, Vin was giving inebriated advice to an equally drunken Larabee. Logic no longer had much to do with the plans that varied wildly from courting rituals to kidnapping. Morning found both men with heads pillowed in folded arms, snoring at the table.
None of the plans looked too good in that clear morning light, but at least Chris now had an ally. It was nearly noon when the impeccably dressed con man minced down the stairs at the back of the saloon and into the great hall. He nodded and tipped his hat to his compatriots and joined them pleasantly at the table, receiving hoots and laughter from Buck and JD, a pleased grin from Josiah, a careful once over from Nathan, and morose eye-rolling from Vin and Chris who were both recovering from an obviously nearly fatal dose of alcoholic poisoning.
Ezra managed to slow his fast beating heart at the sight of the darkly dressed gunman slouched down in misery at the table. Oh, lord, even now he can move me. Ezra's formidable shields got a bit firmer and his placid countenance became more pudding like. He didn't reach out yet for the coffee cup that Inez set in front of him, he had to wait until his hand stopped shaking under the table's edge. Then, ever so carefully, he snared the tin mug and lifted it congenially to his mouth. Chancing it, he looked over again at Chris, only to find hazel eyes locked on his face, looking desperate. Why is he looking at me like that? Does he despair of me ever leaving? Mary wants me gone, maybe I am an impairment to his success with that genteel succubus.
He looked at me, really looked at me! Chris felt triumphant even though Ezra had immediately moved his gaze. Chris had seen the nervousness there, the awareness. Just got to be patient. I'll figure this out yet.
Plans were once again running through his head as he sat there surrounded by his fellow lawmen, his friends, his attention riveted on the small gambler on the far side of the big table.
JD suddenly sat up alertly. "Stage comin' in." He pushed back, setting down his mug of milk, and headed for the batwing doors.
Buck rose and languidly followed. Nodding to the others, he said, "Might be a pretty lady or two in need of some assistance."
Josiah and Nathan shook their heads and smiled, sipping more coffee. Vin simply lowered his head back down on to the table with a groan. Chris pulled his hat up by the neck string and set it on his head, pulling the brim forward to make his own privacy. Ezra pulled out his deck of cards and began a lively shuffle, studying the remaining men without speaking.
Larabee took a deep breath. Okay, I'll ask him to go out on patrol with me. Hell, I'll order him out there. Take him out to my cabin. We'll talk. I'll talk, he'll damn well listen. I'll --
The batwing doors flew open as JD slid back inside. "Judge's here!" He'd barely stepped aside before the short, stout arbiter stalked into the room, Buck bobbing in his wake, toting a carryall.
"Gentlemen." Judge Travis speared the seated men with a gimlet eye. Vin Tanner reluctantly raised his head and sat back gingerly, bringing coffee once more to his lips.
Travis seated himself uninvited and stared around the table, Buck and JD joining them, Buck dragging in an extra chair since the judge had sat in his. Chris nodded noncommittally, "Judge."
"Glad to see you are all here." Travis picked up Buck's coffee and took a sip, grimacing at the cold liquid. His eye caught that of Inez, who nodded and turned to pour a fresh mug of coffee for the elderly man.
Travis turned his attention back to his mission and these men. "Got word of raiders coming into the Territories. Group something like the men you faced off at the Seminole village a while back."
The men around him had all come alert now. He nodded and continued. "Looks like this new gang or group is heading your way."
Silently, Chris cursed his luck. Shit. How the hell was he supposed to court Ezra if he was busy chasing some damn gang of malcontents? Shit. Damn bad timing that.
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever was going on with Chris, this would delay it and he'd have enough time to conjure up a new protection to allow him to remain in this little town, stay near Chris and the others, and not be sent away. Yes, this could be a very good thing.
Travis nodded again, plainly complacent with his special force of law enforcers. He spoke again. "Standish, I have special plans for you."
Chris tensed up, looking sharply at the judge. "Judge, Ezra's one of my men."
The older man nodded. "Yes, Chris, and you all are paid by me." He focused again on the small conman. "Mr. Standish, I want you to infiltrate this group, use your rather extensive talents at misdirection and fabrication, become part of them." He steepled his fingers and leaned forward on to the table. "Several law enforcement groups, including the Texas Rangers and the US Cavalry have attempted to capture or trap these men without success. From my sources, I ascertained that it is because the group trusts no one and they have their own sources. They seem to be allied with old remnants of Quantrill's Raiders and other Confederacy ragtags."
Vin had straightened in his seat at the slurs against the south and Texas, was sitting slit-eyed now, angry. Chris was also getting angrier as he realized that Ezra would be leaving him for this and would be in danger, alone.
Ezra's heart sank, would he never leave his reputation behind? He really didn't want to do this but the Judge had the power to send him away permanently and he already had trod on shaky ground with the man's daughter-in-law. There was no predicting what Mary might say to him. Best to simply do what was asked. His mind began to switch to possible scenarios that might gain him admittance to this wandering band of ex-Rebels. His own true background, a soldier in the Army of the South, was a closely held secret, or so he hoped. Now it might be the key.
The judge was still talking, describing the last known locations of the group of marauders. He turned to face the tracker now. "Mr. Tanner, I believe it might be in our best interest if you went along with Mr. Standish. Your accent and your skills will help him find and enter the group."
Tanner, already scowling, leaned back, a deep v between his brows. "Kin do that."
"Yes," Judge Travis frowned, pausing to see if the laconic man would add anything to that. When he didn't, Travis nodded back at Larabee. "That will leave you five men to guard Four Corners until such time as Messrs. Standish and Tanner send word that they have set up the gang for your take down."
Chris felt better knowing that Vin would be going with Ezra, but still, he didn't like splitting up the team. We work best together, he thought silently, then took a sip of his coffee. Cold. Like my heart. He eyed Ezra, seeing that unfocussed look that he'd come to know as Ezra thinking up a scam or proposition. My little manipulator. He sighed. Looks like personal lives are going on hold here for a bit. He sat forward and stared hard at the judge. "We do this your way only so long as my men are safe. Something goes wrong, I go in there and pull them out." Even as he spoke a niggling idea was worming into his thoughts. Maybe there was another way. One that would keep Ezra with him.
Travis nodded agreeably. He was really surprised he didn't have more of a fight on his hands. He knew how close Tanner and Larabee were. Clapping his hands together and rubbing them slightly, he nodded once and pushed back his chair. "That's all I'd expect. Good. Settled then. Mr. Standish, Mr. Tanner, I wish you well."
The two named men both tipped their heads at the judge and then returned to contemplations of their own. Travis looked around at his group of men, thinking that these seven men had turned out to be one of the best ideas he'd ever had. Now, this settled, he was ready for a visit with his grandson and the boy's mother. He pulled his hat on and with a final nod to the seated men, turned and left the saloon with a lighter step.
Larabee stared at the end of his cheroot. "Only one change in the judge's plans."
The other men looked at him questioningly. "I'm going in with Ez instead of Vin."
No one said anything for a moment, then Buck spoke up. "You sure that's smart? You don't show 'southron.'"
Chris shot him a quelling look. "I can claim to be from Kansas." All the men knew that that poor state had been torn apart by the war, tugged at by both sides. Larabee's Midwest accent would fit that state. He sat back and surveyed the group. "Vin, you'll go with us 'til we locate this gang, then fade back. Keep an eye on things from a distance, be ready to get the others and lead them to us if that's what it looks need doing. Buck, you'll head up the rest here, until we signal we're ready."
Nathan cornered Larabee later in the morning, while Vin and Ezra were off packing their saddlebags and getting supplies. "Chris, I want to give you some stuff for Ezra."
The blonde paused then finished cleaning his gun, laid out on the saloon table in front of him. He still had his rifle to clean. He tilted his head to indicate he was listening.
Jackson read the sign and continued. "He ain't altogether fit yet, I figure he's still going to have dizzy spells and sickness, maybe even see things fuzzy for a while, maybe another week before he's back to normal again." Jackson withdrew a small buckskin packet from his coat pocket. "This is some of my willowbark tea for pain. Also got some herbs for settling the stomach and helping sleep."
Larabee looked at the package lying on the table now. "Don't know that we can afford to have him sleeping so he can't wake."
Jackson thought for a moment, then opened the folds of leather. He took out one small bag. "Alright. I've just left the willowbark tea and the stomach medicine. The tea is in the brown sack, the other is in the tan one."
Larabee nodded his thanks. "He know about this?"
"Ezra?" Nathan snorted. "You know him, he's always 'fine.' Reckon if I tried to give this to him direct, he'd just laugh in my face."
"Hell, Chris, we all know he's plumb scared of you." Nathan grinned derisively, "he'll take it if you tell him to."
The gunslinger's eyes darkened but he didn't answer right away. Scared of me? If everyone thinks that, likely he is. This is going to take a bit of doing. He frowned. Looked up at Jackson. "Alright. Leave it with me. I'll see that he takes it if he has a need."
Satisfied, the healer nodded his goodbye and left the quiet gunman in contemplation of the widening crevice between him and Ezra Standish. Don't want that. Got to figure a way to build up our trust in each other, so he knows not to be scared of me. Guess that's gonna have to be the first step.
With marked distaste, Ezra withdrew some rather old looking clothing from the back of his closet. He would not enter the enemy's camp as a gaudy gambler. He'd be a bitter Reb veteran, unhappy with the war's outcome and the way fate had dealt with him since. He'd be poor and angry, ready to turn his hand to lawlessness without question, especially if tied to some false sense of allegiance to a faded ideal and a vanished army. He dusted off his kepi. Although he'd ended the war as an officer, he'd never lost the Confederate cap that he'd worn through three battles. It was stained in places, had a singe from a loose burning fuse in one spot when he'd pounded out the errant thread with the cap. Delving deeper, he found the gray trousers with red stripe. He'd not grown much since then, they'd still fit. The war had provided the malnourishment that, during his final years when normal youths had a growth spurt to adulthood, had left him with the frame of an adolescent, much as he had been at sixteen, in the war.
He'd not overdo, no gray jacket, just his tan work coat with a simple homespun shirt, well-worn and patched in spots. The simple shirts had been part of a con and he seldom wasted anything. This would be their first use since then but they'd be perfect. He pulled out his oldest boots and then, from beneath a loose board under the bed, a weapon that had seldom been used in the last few years. Unwrapping the heavy thing, removing a thick piece of torn blanket, he looked down at it lying there in his hands, deadly and dark. His artilleryman's short sword. That would definitely be the final touch. He looked at it grimly. Nathan might be good with a rapier, but he doubted the healer could touch him when it came to short swords. This bit of metal had saved his life more than once when his battery had been overrun by union soldiers. He fingered the dark blade and shook his head. This was not a time of his life that he'd wanted to relive.
He laid his saddle bags on his bed, quickly adding the few items that would help paint the picture that he needed to present to these ruffians. Now, he lifted a flat box from where the sword had been kept. Out of the box came several sticks of dynamite, some short and long fuses, a couple of flares, and some long matches. Wrapping them all in oilcloth, he added them to the saddlebags. You never knew.
Vin shifted to his other foot as he squatted beside Peso's hind leg, tending the hooves with care. Best take care of your beast if you wanted to have it take care of you. He sighed. Hadn't wanted to go into that gang, but now that Chris was going instead he felt uneasy. Larabee could take care of himself, so could Ez for that matter. But, the two of them together? Vin rubbed his face on his sleeve and stood, dropping the horse's foot. He knew that Chris had changed, was holding some strong feelings now for the little gambler, but still, way he saw it, they were like oil and water. Wasn't sure how they'd mix or fit. And, old habits die hard. He shook his head and walked to his horse's head, stroking the ornery fellow's soft nose. "Don't know about this, Peso, just got a funny feeling."
Chris looked over at Ezra. The man was definitely full of surprises. He'd appeared in rebel gray trousers and kepi, his brown work coat and old boots. His hair was ruffled as if run through with careless fingers. Gone was their immaculate and colorful con man, in his place was a tired looking Reb, disenchanted with life, still holding a grudge from those war weary years. Chris noted the sword hung from an extra scabbard tied to the livery hack's saddle. They'd agreed to use hacks so that they would be less noticeable, more convincingly desperate. So Chaucer and Git were left behind in the comfort of their stalls.
Larabee hadn't seen fit to alter his own wardrobe, figuring it would work for the tale they'd tell. Vin, in his buckskins, would also blend right in, but Ezra, Ezra would be their most telling and convincing piece. Always figured he'd been in the war. Artillery made sense when he thought about that day at the Seminole village. Looking closely, he saw the unhappiness in the smaller man's eyes. This isn't something he wants to do. Likely bringing back bad memories. Chris shook his head, weren't no good memories from that war. He'd fought through it for the north, but both sides had suffered, hurt. No, not where I want to be rememberin' either, he thought sadly.
Ezra clucked at his ride. "Come, Gull, come." The muddy brown cut male stood forward nervously, fighting the rein. Standish mastered the animal in a few swift but gentle moves and words. He looked over at Chris. "Whenever you are ready, sir."
Larabee nodded. Work now, we'll find a way to learn to play later. He checked that Vin was also ready, mounted on Peso. "Let's ride."
The three men headed down the street and out of town with simple nods to the townsfolk, many of whom stared, mystified, at the short man riding with Larabee and Tanner. He looked familiar but it was hard to place him.
Buck stood on the end of the boardwalk and watched until his three friends shrank from sight and disappeared into the dusty haze. His mind was stuck on the image of the three warriors as they'd rode quietly out of town, an odd assortment to look at, but when you looked inside. Well, Pard, when you look inside, you see pure gold and steel. Yep. Gold and steel. He sighed and silently wished them god's speed.
It wasn't until the second night on the trail, heading in the general direction that the Judge's sources had told him might cross trail with this marauder crowd, that Ezra broke his own silence. Until then, he'd kept his own council, and with Vin and Chris, two monosyllabic men, it hadn't been hard. But, now they were getting closer and some things had to be set into place.
Settling back on his saddle, he stretched his legs towards the low burning campfire and cradled his tin cup of coffee. He eyed his two colleagues. Vin had been his usual reserved self, but also, as always, a glint of humor would spark in his eyes and he'd toss out some quiet joke or comment that provoked raised eyebrows and answering smiles. Chris had been -- different. Ezra wasn't sure exactly how, just that the man had seemed quieter in a more peaceful way, almost -- almost tranquil. The southerner let his thoughts follow each other down this puzzling path. Yes, the anger was missing. He was calm and he listened, to both Vin *and* Ezra. Standish's brows went down in a frown. Was this some new ploy? But this was Chris who'd rather bull his way through a china shop than dance around a question. Blunt, honest, usually angry, and always sparing of words, that was Chris Larabee. Only, not now. Ezra had the uncomfortable thought that Vin knew why, too. Like a conspiracy of two, the other men shared their silent thoughts and treated Ezra -- differently. With respect. There. That was what was different. Ezra doubted his own analysis. Respect? He couldn't deal with this now, he decided and turned his thoughts to their mission.
"Gentlemen." Both gunmen raised their eyes to meet Standish's. "We need a plan."
Chris shifted slightly and waited out the first thing that sprang to his lips. Was getting easier. "Thought we had one?" he asked mildly.
Ezra shot him a timid look, then took a deep breath and firmly shook his head 'no.' "We have a general concept here, Mr. Larabee, but we can not maneuver among such miscreants without definite roles and concurrence in them."
Vin cocked his head at the con man, slowly picking the meaning from the words. Chris, who caught the idea instantly, slowly nodded in turn. "See what you mean. What do you have in mind, Ezra?"
Now this was getting downright strange. Ezra looked down at his coffee and spoke without looking up. "We need names and identities, Mr. Larabee. Once we are there, fabrications should be basic and few."
"Alright." Chris studied the smaller man. He's still showing scared, he thought regretfully. Kind of like Vin said last night, treat him like a wild colt, treat him gentle and tame him like a horse whisperer would, don't break him. "So, what do you want me to call you?"
"I went by the name Ezra Sutler durin' the war."
"Sutler." Chris rolled that on his tongue. He could remember that, no trouble. "And for me?"
"We best not use Larabee, you have gotten yourself a bit of a reputation out here. Chris -- Chris James." Ezra finished with a finality that made Larabee curious.
"'s'okay with me, but any special reason?"
"Jesse James rode with Quantrill on the raid of Lawrence, Kansas." Ezra spoke matter of factly.
Vin nodded. He'd heard that too.
Chris squinted at their con man. "So I'm a relative?"
"We'll not say that. Just that you're from Kansas. Let them decide the rest. If anyone asks, just say you're a distant relation."
Vin smiled. "Looks like I'm hanging out with some real desperadoes."
The blonde smiled a bit and shook his head. "Cowboy, just be glad you aren't gonna hang out with even more."
Vin sobered and nodded. "You two be careful."
"Mmm." Ezra had a look of unfinished business.
Chris couldn't help but ask, "So that all?"
"No," Ezra shook his head slowly. "I have an actual history as a member of the Army of the South. If I meet old comrades, there will be no conflict in my story."
"But I don't." Chris nodded. He tilted his head and suggested, "Could just make something up. Knew some of the units that I fought against."
"No." This time Ezra was definite. "Lies come back to bite. We keep your history vague. You weren't in uniform but were sympathetic. Rode with some unnamed groups, in support of the South, but can't talk about it, them." Ezra looked faintly satisfied.
"Sounds like a lot of nothing." Larabee wasn't so sure about this. "But what if someone asks?"
"You say you can't talk about it, some of your former partners might have their lives at risk if the truth became known." Ezra eyed the gunslinger. "If you act like you normally do, it is highly unlikely anyone will care to question you too closely." He allowed a small smile to cross his face. "I can be vouched for, and I in turn will vouch for you by virtue of the fact that we ride together. Be gruff and blunt and use few words."
"Sorta act natural, cowboy." Vin sounded helpful and teasing at the same time.
Larabee grunted and sank back on his saddle blanket.
Erza cleared his throat. "One last thing. We met in Kansas City and have been riding together since then. We've been together for a few months now. We won't admit to criminal acts but will look knowing. We ride together for convenience and because of past ties to the old South."
"And because we're friends." Chris added almost sharply, remembering to moderate his tone at the last moment. Sounded almost choked as the result.
Ezra looked doubtful but nodded. "Alright, friends."
Vin cut trail on the third day, in the late afternoon. The tracks showed a large body of men on horseback, moving rapidly but not staying on the normal roads and trails. They were traveling across country, in a fairly straight line though, so Vin was able to estimate their destination easily. "Heading for Gopher's Creek. Likely for the old Wheeler campsite there." The other men recognized the name of the hidden, legendary stopping place. A wagon train bound for California on the old Santa Fe Trail had lost their way and come to grief there in the early 1850's. Tales said there was a flood, the small creek becoming a huge flood plain within minutes. The wagons were broken and dragged downstream, the animals and folk largely drowned. What had been a quiet, safe valley became a burial ground for foolish, unprepared pilgrims. No one camped there now, but many knew of it.
Chris pulled up on his hack, waiting for the other two men to circle back and rejoin him. "They'd know that ain't a good place to stop."
Vin scratched his chin and looked blankly up at the sky. "Maybe, but the ridge right above it would be a right nice spot, hidden too."
Larabee thought that over. Made sense. He looked over at Ezra who was waiting patiently, clearly leaving this part of their mission in Vin's and his hands. "How close can we get before they spot us?" Chris didn't want to let them see Vin.
"Figure, if you head into Wheeler's, down by the creek, to water your mounts, they'll spot you and I can just fade back out of the way."
Ezra reined his horse back a bit, then spoke. "I do believe our time for 'joining up' has arrived." He sounded tense but firm. "Mr. Tanner, safe journeys." He touched two fingers to the brim of his kepi.
Tanner nodded, then looked at Larabee. Chris smiled at his men. "Time to dance with the lady, boys." Both men grinned nervously in response. Vin led the way on Peso as they headed out.
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