Series: Five Dollars
Fandom: Magnificent Seven
(Time Line Note: This story begins the morning after the night where "Putting Down Roots" ended.)
Ezra Standish was awakened by the sound of gunfire. Gunfire that was entirely too close for comfort, almost certainly coming from the saloon below him. He came instantly awake, cursing silently and sprang out of bed. He grabbed his pants and slid into them, not bothering with underwear. Slinging on a shirt, leaving it unbuttoned, he grabbed his Remington from its holster and cautiously opened the door, peeking out into the hall. A quick glance up and down the hall showed it to be empty. In barefooted silence he slipped out the door and down the hall, to peer around the edge of the wall at the end of the hallway, looking down over the banister of the stairwell. He swore again at the sight that greeted him.
At least eight armed men were arrayed around the barroom below. Vin was on the floor with a gun to his head. Chris lay bleeding a short distance away. Inez knelt beside him screaming in Spanish at the men standing over them.
One of the men looked up.
Ezra jerked back behind the edge of the wall but he wasn't quick enough. He had been seen.
A voice rang out, "You up there! Show yourself! Now! ...Or I shoot Tanner! He's worth just as much dead as alive!"
Ezra swallowed hard and took a deep breath then stepped out into the open, his face an expressionless mask. He couldn't let them see how much Vin meant to him.
"Throw down your gun!" The same voice ordered. It came from the man with his gun to Vin's head.
"Now come on down here." The man ordered.
Ezra walked slowly down the stairs to stand near Chris and Inez.
The man with his gun to Vin's head signaled two of his men to take the tracker. They dragged him to his feet and hauled him out of the saloon.
The leader and the others remained, their guns covering Ezra, Chris, Inez and the scattering of townsmen who were present. The gunfighter sat in a limp heap on the floor, glaring up at the man.
"We're leaving now. Anybody follows us, we kill Tanner. Understand?"
"We understand." Ezra said, nudging Chris with his knee when the gunfighter would have said something.
The men backed out of the saloon and joined the others outside. Vin had already been put on a horse.
As soon as they were gone, Chris struggled to his feet, clutching at his wounded shoulder as Ezra bent to pick up Chris' discarded gun.
"And just where do you think that you are going?" Ezra demanded, catching the gunslinger's uninjured arm.
"You are in no condition---"
Larabee flung off the restraining hand and pushed past the gambler, "I'da thought *you'd* be the first to head out after them!" He snarled, staggering away towards the door.
Ezra shook his head and smiled, grimly. He took three long quick steps to catch up with the staggering gunfighter and slapped his hand down on the wounded shoulder, gripping it firmly.
Larabee cried out and went to his knees.
Ezra increased the pressure.
Blackness danced in front of Chris' eyes then claimed him. His last conscious thought was, 'Why, Ezra? Why? I thought you loved him.'
Standish watched impassively as the gunfighter collapsed. His gaze fell on a couple of nearby cowboys.
"You two. Take him to Nathan's!" He snapped.
The men exchanged glances, hesitating.
The gun in Ezra's left hand snapped up. "I do not have the time, the patience *nor* the inclination to argue, *gentlemen*." His voice was deadly quiet, "Do. It. Now."
The taller of the two cowboys swallowed hard, staring at Ezra. Gone was the easy going, smiling gambler that routinely relieved them of their wages as he told stories and jokes, entertaining them even as he fleeced them. In his place stood one of the seven... a deadly gunman who lurked behind the façade of a gentleman gambler. Ice green eyes bored into them as unwavering as the gun he held so casually pointed in their direction.
The two men picked the unconscious Larabee up and moved towards the door with him.
Ezra fell in step behind them.
Mary Travis stepped back as they came out of the batwing doors. As Ezra followed them out she asked, "What happened?"
"Bounty hunters." Came the curt reply. "I shall require assistance at the clinic, Mrs. Travis. Please send Mrs. Potter over at once." He turned to Inez who had followed them out of the saloon. "Send someone to the Seminole village to fetch Nathan then have Yosemite, saddle Chaucer, Peso and his two best livery horses."
"Si, Senor." Inez said turning to go to the livery.
Moments later the two cowboys were standing outside Nathan's door.
The gambler stepped past them, shoving Chris' gun into his waistband and with a quick twist of the knob and bump of his shoulder easily sprung the lock on the door and moved through ahead of them to open the curtains and light a lamp.
"On the cot. I need to be able to get to him to work." Standish snapped.
As soon as the men lay Chris down, Ezra began to cut away the shirt he was wearing, ignoring the two cowboys who slowly edged their way out of the clinic.
They passed Mrs. Potter and Mary Travis as the two women came up the stairs.
Ezra glanced up as they came in. "The bullet is still in there. I don't have time to try and get it out. I've sent for Nathan. If you clean it, he should be all right until Mister Jackson arrives." He paused then went on. "I'm going to need some supplies, Mrs. Potter."
"Josh can get them up for you."
"Good. Mrs. Travis would you be so kind as to make a list for me. I need to send some telegrams and get properly dressed." He rose and started for the door.
Inez was just coming in. "Senor Standish. Senor Yosemite said he would have the horses ready in a few moments... and he sent his son, Matthew to get Nathan and Josiah."
"Thank you. Please remain and assist Mrs. Potter with Mister Larabee. I must go after Mister Tanner. Under no circumstances allow Mister Larabee to attempt to follow me. I don't have time to deal with an injured man. Mrs. Travis' please come with me. Do you have your notebook? Good. I will need the following from Potter's..."
The gambler's voice faded as he and Mrs. Travis moved down the steps, leaving Inez and Mrs. Potter to deal with a slowly rousing Chris Larabee.
Mary Travis hurried to keep up with the fast walking gambler as she scribbled a list of the items he wanted from Potter's store. He trotted along towards the telegraph office without paying any attention to the small stones he stepped on, apparently totally focused on the list he was dictating to Mary in a clipped precise voice that held almost no trace of his usual slow drawl.
As they reached the telegraph office he added. "... and half a case of dynamite from Watson's along with a spool of fuse and half a dozen alarm clocks. Tell them I'll be by to pay for everything before I leave."
She blinked. [Alarm clocks?]
He grabbed the doorknob of the telegraph office then frowned when he found it locked.
"Oh! I'm sorry, Ezra. I forgot!" Mary broke out of her musing, about what on earth he wanted alarm clocks for, to tell him, "Mister Lister had to go over to Eagle Bend. His mother's very ill."
"Oh?" Ezra raised a brow and turned. Without a second thought he drew back his fist and jabbed a quick short punch into the glass of the door, breaking it out and reached through the hole to unlock and open the door. "Then I suppose I'll just have to send the messages myself. Please make a note of the damages and I will leave remuneration with you for it before I leave."
He opened the door, stepping carefully over the glass and made his way to the telegraph equipment, leaving her standing gaping after him.
She blinked and looked down at the list in her hand. "I'll... uh... I'll just go get this stuff for you." She said as he glanced back at her.
"Please do. Thank you." He replied shortly and sitting down behind the operator's table began to tap away at the telegraph.
Mary left Potter's and went to Watson's giving him the list of things that Ezra wanted from him.
Watson grinned when he saw the alarm clocks on the list. "Timers." He told her.
She blinked again. She probably didn't want to know what Ezra was going to do with half a case of dynamite and half a dozen timers.
She headed over to the telegraph office to tell Ezra that everything would be ready shortly. He wasn't there.
Her son, Billy sat on the counter swinging his legs and staring at the telegraph key with wide eyes. He looked up when she came in. "Hi, mom!" He grinned at her then announced proudly. "Ezra asked me to listen for messages and come get him it anything came through!"
"Really... and where did he go?"
"To get dressed. He can't go after the bad guys barefooted."
"Of course. I'm going up to Nathan's, Billy. When Mister Standish comes back tell him where I am and come get me. Okay?"
"'kay, mom!" He beamed at her.
A half an hour later Ezra emerged from the saloon, dressed and armed. He was wearing his black suit including a black shirt that no one had ever seen him wear before. There was a cold, hard edge to him that most of the town people had never seen. He went straight to the bank and spoke to the manager, emerging shortly, slipping a thick wallet into his inside coat pocket.
He then went to the livery to fetch the horses.
He nodded to the livery owner, "Mister Brewster."
"Mister Standish. Got ya the best two I have."
Ezra looked the two horses over and nodded. "How much will you take for them?"
"You wanna buy them?"
"I can not guarantee their safe return. If I must sacrifice a horse or two to save Mister Tanner, I will do so. I would prefer to pay for them now as there is a possibility that I will not survive to do so later."
Yosemite nodded, understanding that Standish intended to do whatever it took to recover his friend. "They're good horses... but nothing special... not like those spoiled devils of yours and Mister Tanner's. Forty dollars."
"I will give you fifty each... and another fifty to take Mister Larabee's black out to the McGlamory place so that he can not find it and attempt to follow me... at least not until the others return. He is in no condition to ride out alone. That will not, however, stop him from trying."
"Understood. Him and Vin's right close."
"Indeed... but Mister Tanner would never forgive me if I allowed our illustrious leader to come after him in his current condition. Mister Jackson and Mister Sanchez should be back by tonight. The Sheriff in Red Rock said that Mister Wilmington and Mister Dunne had already left when I telegraphed him. Therefore they should be back by nightfall tomorrow. Please tell that to Mister Sanchez and Mister Jackson when they return. You may fetch Mister Larabee's horse back from the McGlamorys late tomorrow afternoon."
Yosemite nodded. "Yes, sir."
Ezra turned away, starting down the street then turned back, "Mister Brewster?"
"Yeah?" The big man gave him a puzzled look.
"Thank you... for everything."
Leading the horses down the street Ezra tied them to the hitching rail in front of Potter's store. He went in the store and gathered up the supplies he had ordered. He paid young Josh Potter for the items and cleared his tab at the same time.
He methodically made his way down the street stopping at every store where he had an account and paying his tabs. His last stop was at Watson's hardware where he got the dynamite, fuse and clocks. He had gotten extra saddlebags at Potter's and now divided the dynamite between them, putting the fuse and clocks in the saddlebags he would put on Chaucer.
Then he headed back to the telegraph office. Smiling pleasantly at Billy, he said. "No response yet?"
"Nothing yet, Ezra. Mom said to come and get her when you came back."
"Then run along and fetch her, young man." Ezra helped the young boy down from the counter and patted his shoulder as he set him on the floor. His smile faded as the young boy ran out the door.
He stood silently staring off into space for a long moment his mind far away until the clacking of the telegraph key drew him back to the present. He turned and quickly made his way to the desk, sitting down and acknowledging the transmission, telling the other operator to go ahead.
He scribbled quickly on a notepad on the desk as the message came in. He nodded to himself as he listened to it. He sent a reply and waited as an answer came back to him. Apparently the sheriff in Willow Creek was in the telegraph office. Several messages later Ezra leaned back, pursing his lips. Then he leaned forward and sent another message.
He was still waiting for a reply when a bedraggled looking Mary Travis arrived.
He shook his head and gave a small chuckle, "I take it that Mister Larabee is unhappy with his current location and condition."
"Very... and he's furious at you."
"Then I shall simply have to go and calm him down." He rose and moved for the door. "Please listen for the telegraph for me."
She nodded, sitting down near the desk and called after him, "You might want to duck going in the door. He's threatening to shoot you."
"But threaten is all he does. I am the one who shoots." He gave her a slight bow and an enigmatic smile and was gone.
When she heard the sound of his derringer a few minutes later she had to make herself not jump up and run for the clinic. She really hoped he hadn't shot Chris.
"Now! Mister Larabee, kindly lay back and shut up!" Ezra Standish snapped at the blonde gunslinger who lay looking up at him... and the small derringer in the gambler's hand... in utter disbelief.
Ezra waited for Chris to settle back on the cot, then he smiled wolfishly. "Settled?" He asked sweetly.
Chris swallowed hard and nodded.
"Good." The derringer disappeared back up Standish's sleeve. He seated himself in the chair beside the bed ignoring the two gaping women hovering in the background. "Now, I am going to talk... and you are going to listen. When I am done, I will be going to recover Mister Tanner and you will be remaining here--"
As Chris started to surge upward, Ezra raised a hand and gave him a look that made him sink back on the cot. "Do not interrupt me, sir." The voice was deadly.
Again he waited until Chris gave a slight nod of acquiescence. He took a deep breath. "I know that you are desperately worried about Vin... and I assure you that I am no less so. However, going off half-cocked will not get him back safely. The... gentlemen that took him clearly stated that if we follow them they will kill him. Therefore we must outthink them and out maneuver them not rely on your usual chase and destroy methods. So let me explain what I have done. I have sent for Nathan and Josiah. They should be here by tonight. Buck and JD have already left Red Rock and should be here tomorrow evening. I have sent telegrams to the sheriffs of every town in a fifty-mile radius asking if a group of bounty hunters have left prisoners with them to be picked up at a later date. I'm rather afraid that I used Judge Travis' name in vain for that. However I got replies from several towns including Willow Creek and a place called Inch Long...."
He paused, then shook his head. He really didn't think that he wanted to think about how that town might have gotten its name. He cleared his throat and went on, "Inch Long is south of us, while Willow Creek is to the north and the other towns from which I received affirmative replies are in an arc moving south from there. According to the timetable that the bounty hunters gave the sheriffs for reclaiming their prisoners they will be going to Willow Creek first and then working the arc going south as all the prisoners they have being held for them are wanted in Texas."
Chris raised his hand, like a schoolboy with a question.
Ezra stared at him a second then with a snorted chuckle said, "Yes?"
"How'd you know they had other prisoners waiting?"
"Five hundred dollars split eight to ten ways would not be worth their while. Once they covered their expenses, the members of the group would not realize more than fifteen to twenty dollars each if Mister Tanner were their only target. Such a group of bounty hunters would of necessity have to be taking more than one bounty at a time to make it pay off. It would be standard operating procedure to make a sweep through an area, picking up every bounty that they could find."
Larabee raised his hand again.
Ezra nodded, amused.
"Why wait till last to take Vin?"
"He was safely ensconced here. Not only is he a dangerous man in his own right, but he was surrounded by equally dangerous men who would watch his back. They no doubt scouted us out ahead of time and waited until we were low on man power to attack."
"I should have realized that." Chris gave a resigned sigh. "What's your plan? An intercept course?"
"Exactly. They said not to follow them so I shall simply have to get ahead of them and trust Mister Tanner not to get himself killed before I arrive. According to their schedule they should pass through Lone Tree late tomorrow. There is only one way they can go from there to reach Inch Long and the prisoner in Inch Long is a major bounty... twelve hundred dollars... so they will most definitely not forgo him. From there it is a straight shot to Texas."
He tilted his head and looked at Chris, "Are you familiar with Devil's Gorge?"
"Heard of it."
"Mister Tanner and I have camped there. Not at all what you'd expect from the name... except that it is deep and has a stone bridge over the entrance. It is easily reachable from the trail between Lone Tree and Inch Long."
"You're going to try to get him loose from them on the trail between Lone Tree and Inch Long then head for Devil's Gorge..."
"Where I will drop the stone bridge into the mouth of the gorge cutting them off."
"They'll have to go around. That's what five-six days?"
"...and going through is two maybe three days, if Vin's up to traveling?"
"You know that there is no way that we can be there to back you up if you're going to hit them tomorrow night. Buck and JD won't be back till tomorrow night. We'll have to wait for daylight. It's all going to be on you and there's eight or ten of them."
Ezra grinned as he rose to leave, "That, Mister Larabee, is why Ah fully intend to cheat."
Chris reached up and offered the southerner his hand, "Bring him home, Ez."
"Ah intend to... if Ah do not it will be because Ah am dead." He held Larabee's eyes for a long moment as he took the hand and gave it a quick shake.
As he turned to go Gloria Potter gave him a hug. "You take care... and good luck," she whispered in his ear.
Inez gave him a hug as well, "Vaya con Dais." She said.
He drew back and gave her a sad smile, "No offense, Senorita, but I don't think that your god would approve of what Ah am about to do. The only god I am interested in having on my side at this time is Ares."
As he stepped through the door she turned a puzzled look on Chris, "Senor? Who is Ares?"
"God of war... also know as Mars. I think our resident gambler is more than a little familiar with him."
"You think he fought in the war?" Mrs. Potter asked.
"Never asked... and he never said... exactly... but when we were facing Anderson, he dropped a cannon ball on a flag pole, direct hit from three hundred yards and that takes training... takes practice. But if he fought in the war, he'd have had to be real young. Just a kid." His voice faded with sadness at the memory of the horrors of that war and the thought of a fifteen or sixteen year old Standish facing them.
After a moment he grinned up at her. "I did overhear him telling Vin a story one time, something to do with his headmaster, the headmaster's mistress, her favorite red bloomers, a flagpole and a cannon. Sure wish I'd heard it all. It sounded real interesting."
Vin Tanner slumped in his saddle, leaning forward a bit to ease the pain of his bruised ribs. They'd knocked him around a bit, nothing too bad. He'd have bruises and be sore for a few days but they obviously didn't want him too badly injured to ride.
The treat of killing him had apparently been just that, a threat, not that the leader wouldn't do it if he became too much trouble. He had made that clear. He was a big man, quiet, methodical and businesslike. Collecting bounties was just a job to him. Catch them; get the money and go on to the next job. He didn't care if they were guilty or not, as long as he got paid for them.
They were headed north, not the direction to go to get to Texas but he'd heard one of them say something about leaving a bounty sitting in the Willow Creek jail. They hadn't wanted to deal with dragging the man with them while trying to take him. They were going to pick the man up before swinging in an arc south and picking up several others on the way to Texas.
Vin saw one of the men come up from behind and heard him tell the boss that there was no one following them. Vin hadn't expected anyone to be obviously following. Chris had been shot. Someone had to deal with him. Tend him, fix him up. Nathan was gone. So was Josiah. Buck and JD were way out of it. That left Ezra.
He had tried not to think of his lover. The thought of never seeing him again was just too painful but now he knew he had to think about Ezra, not Ezra his lover but Ezra the gambler, the conman, the dangerous gunman who was one of the Magnificent Seven.
[What would Ezra do?]
The man was much more than just a gambler and a conman. Ezra had told him things he hadn't told anyone else. He'd told him about the Virginia Military Academy and getting kicked out in his sophomore year for doing assignments for the seniors... for a price, of course but those assignments had earned the seniors high marks until the scam was discovered. So, Ezra was smart and he understood military tactics.
[But what would he do?] Vin felt frustrated. He knew Ezra so well and yet he understood so little. If it had been him left behind and Ezra here, he knew what he'd do. Take out after them, hanging back, staying out of sight, tracking them and trust Ezra to stay alive till he got to him.
[So, first priority (as Ez would say) is to stay alive. Then what?]
'An Army lives and dies on intel. You have to know what the enemy is up to.' His old captain's voice echoed in his mind.
He'd been just a kid when he'd signed on to fight for the south, two years before the war ended. He'd ended up in Barksdale's sharpshooters and the captain of his unit had taken a liking to the quiet young Texan with the eagle eye. He'd often sit around and regal the kid with war stories of battles won and lost and he'd always stressed how information about the enemy made the difference in those battles.
Ezra reminded him of the Captain.... Ezra loved information. What all he knew about the people in Four Corners and the surrounding areas amazed Vin. He'd want to know the enemy. He'd want information... and Ezra knew how to get information. He'd find out where they were going and he wouldn't be coming up behind them. Ezra would be cutting them off.
He felt himself relax a bit. He didn't have to worry about being shot cause Ezra was chasing after him. Ez was too smart for that. He just had to stay alive and wait for Ezra to come for him. Course that didn't mean he couldn't see what he could do about being loose when Ezra got there. There was a reason Ez had taught him to pick locks... and pockets.
He began to watch the men closer now, looking for something that he could lift off one and use to his advantage. A knife would be good. Several of the men had boot knives but he discarded the idea of lifting one of them. They were too big, too hard to conceal. A penknife would be better. Small and easily hid until needed. He resolved to pay close attention when they stopped for lunch... if they stopped for lunch.
They didn't. They rode into Willow Creek shortly after noon and went straight to the jail. They dropped him off with the sheriff leaving one man to guard him and the other man that was waiting there.
Sheriff Greeley ignored him, not paying him the slightest attention, acting like he wasn't aware that Vin was one of the peacekeepers from Four Corners.
Vin knew that Greeley knew him. The sheriff had always acted like he liked him. He and Chris had dropped prisoners off several times, not to mention that he and Ezra had been back twice since Ezra had won the poker game almost two months ago. Hell, Sandalson and the other regulars at the game now knew that Ezra was one of the seven and a property owner in Four Corners. Ezra now had a standing invitation to attend the monthly games and Vin normally attended with him although he didn't play.
The gang of bounty hunters returned about an hour later, having had lunch in the saloon and hauled Vin and the other prisoner out and put them on their horses.
As Greeley stood in front of the jail watching them get ready to ride out, he caught Vin's eye and reaching up touched his hat in the two fingered salute that the seven always used rather than simply giving a wave of his hand like he usually did.
Vin felt a wave of elation sweep over him. Somehow he knew that Ezra had telegraphed Greeley and the two-fingered salute was Greeley's way of telling him that Ezra had a plan.
Vin looked over his shoulder as they rode out and saw Sandalson, the saloon owner who hosted the monthly poker tournament, standing on the porch of his saloon. Greeley was walking towards the telegraph office and Sandalson dropped into step beside him as the sheriff passed him.
Vin tried not to let his improved spirits show... but if he were a gambler like his lover, he'd give odds that Greeley was on his way to report to Four Corners that the bounty hunters had passed through Willow Creek and that he was alive and well at that time.
Mary Travis was sitting watch in the telegraph office. Hoping for a message from Willow Creek. Ezra had told the operator there that there would be no one who actually knew code to send back to him but if he sent slowly Mary would be able to write down the dots and dashes then use the code-book to decipher the message. So, Mary sat and waited, praying for good news.
Ezra had taken the time to show Mary the signal that meant the message was from Willow Creek. It would be repeated three times so that she would be sure to recognize it then the message would be sent and she would have to mark down the dots and dashes as they came over the line. Ezra had shown her the signal for a STOP and a FULL STOP as well to help her separate the words. She hoped she could do it.
She had brought a book to read but was too nervous to read it. She kept looking at the clock and getting up to pace.
She was torn.
She wanted to be at the clinic with Chris.
She wanted to be at the Clarion writing a scathing editorial about gangs of bounty hunters who didn't care if the men they took in were guilty or not as long as they got their money.
She wanted to be with Billy reassuring him that his friend, Vin, would be home safely and soon.
But she stayed by the telegraph because a very determined Ezra Standish had told her that that was where he needed her to be.
Ezra himself was gone. He'd ridden out headed on an interception course that would bring him to the trail between Lone Tree and Inch Long well before the bounty hunters. He had four horses, food, water, weapons, ammunition and dynamite.
Inez had told her what Ezra had said about the god of war. Mary figured that if Ares had gotten a look at Ezra's face when he rode out of Four Corners, the god of war wouldn't be riding with Ezra, he'd be running from him.
She was making another circuit of the floor in front of the counter when the telegraph key started to clatter. She almost tripped over her skirts getting to the desk and grabbing a pencil and a pad of paper when she recognized the Willow Creek code that Ezra had drilled into her before he left.
She waited for the third repeat. It was followed by a pause then the message began. With a shaky hand she began to try and mark down the dots and dashes thankful that the operator wasn't sending at anywhere near the speed that Ezra had been tapping the key when he was on the line.
She almost held her breath trying to get the marks down and only breathed a sigh of relief when the key fell silent.
She leaned back just as the key began to clatter again. It was the signal for Willow Creek and she quickly grabbed her pad. After the first few dots and dashes she realized that the operator was resending to make sure she had gotten it and just followed along on her pad where she had marked down the dots and dashes. She found a couple of mistakes and corrected them. The operator sent it once more before signing off.
She wished she could thank him but she knew she didn't know enough to send. She consoled herself with the thought that when Ezra returned he would make sure the operator was thanked properly.
Opening the code-book she began to transcribe the message. It was short and to the point.
To: Ezra Standish, Four Corners
From: Greeley, Willow Creek
Hunters here noon STOP Tanner bruised but alive STOP Gave signal STOP Went south FULL STOP
She stared at the message. What signal? She didn't know. Rising she headed for the clinic. Ezra had told her to give the message to Chris when it came.
Chris Larabee lay back on the narrow cot in Nathan's clinic and silently cursed. He hated feeling helpless, yet he knew that Ezra was right. He wasn't in any shape to ride out with the gambler after Vin. He'd only slow the man down.
He shifted uncomfortably, his shoulder aching. Mrs. Potter and Inez had agreed with Ezra's evaluation that the bullet could stay in his shoulder until Nathan arrived later that evening. They had cleaned the wound and packed it to stop the bleeding and bandaged it. Then they had given him a bit of the laudanum that Nathan kept on hand but he'd refused to take much wanting to remain alert in case he was needed.
He couldn't help grinning at the thought of how the gambler had handled his temper tantrum. He'd been too shocked to react when Ezra popped out the derringer and put a bullet in the bed frame just inches from his head and when the gambler had snarled at him to lay back and shut up, he had done so.
He chuckled to himself. [Damn conman!] Ezra had used his surprise that the man would actually shoot at him to get the upper hand and had never given it back.
Damn but he was glad Ezra was on their side.
The gambler had shown an incredible knack for strategy that had surprised him, although he supposed it shouldn't have. After all, he had played chess with the man and much to his annoyance had yet to win a game. Ezra had an amazing ability to predict what he would do... but then that was what Ezra did, wasn't it? That was what he'd seen in the conman that had made him ask the southerner to ride with them.
As a conman Ezra had to be able to read people and predict how they would react. Running a con was pure maneuvering and manipulation. Size the mark up, predict how they would react, then manipulate them into doing what the con artist wanted them to... and Ezra was damned good at it.
He shouldn't have been surprised that Ezra's first move was to gather information, either. A con worked or failed due to whether or not the con artist had good information about his mark just as battles in a war were won or lost due to the intelligence that the commanders used to make their decisions on how to fight the battle.
Hell, he used Ezra's information gathering abilities all the time. Whenever he needed to know what was going on he asked Ezra. The man seemed to know everything that happened between St. Louis and Denver, Kansas City and San Francisco. Now, he understood how Ezra kept up with stuff in San Francisco. Lydia wrote the man regularly... and his mother frequented St. Louis. But who Ezra knew in Denver and Kansas City was a mystery.
Thinking about that made him think about the fact that Ezra got more mail than any ten people in town including Mary, in spite of the fact that she ran the paper and could be expected to have a considerable correspondence. He wondered if Mary knew anything about that.
Almost as if thinking of her had conjured her up Mary chose that moment to step through the door into the clinic.
He grinned up at her, "Mary. I was just thinking about you."
She smiled back coming to sit in the chair beside the cot. "Really?" She held out the telegram to him. "This just came in. It took me a bit to get it deciphered. Ezra told me to give it to you when it arrived."
He took it and read over it. "Then he was right about their intentions. If they continue on southward, he'll be able to cut them off as planned. What's this about a signal?"
"I don't know. I suppose he had Greeley do or say something that would let Vin know that someone was coming for him."
"Makes sense. He wouldn't want Vin doing something foolish and getting himself killed before Ezra's in position." He looked up at Mary. "Did he tell you anything about his plan?"
"No... but he rode out of here with four horses and enough weapons and ammunition to supply a small army... not to mention half a case of dynamite." She knew how Chris felt about dynamite and wasn't sure if she should mention it.
"Dynamite! Goddammit! How many times do I have to tell that man not to..." he broke off suddenly with a snorted laugh, "Reckon *that's* what he meant when he said 'Ah fully intend to cheat'." He did a credible imitation of Standish's drawl.
She laughed softly, "I almost feel sorry for the bounty hunters. Almost," she reached out to take his hand, "until I think about them shooting you and what they may still do to Vin."
He curled his fingers around hers. "I'll be all right. Nathan'll be here shortly to take the bullet out. I'll have tonight and tomorrow to rest up. Soon as Buck and JD get back we'll ride after them... until then, we just have to trust Ezra."
She stared down at their joined hands then said softly, "Ezra won't let anything happen to Vin. It'd kill Ezra to lose him."
Chris looked at her a long moment, "You know about them?"
"I suspected." She gave him a saucy grin, "*Now* I know."
He was silent a moment. "Do you think anyone else knows?"
"I'm pretty sure Inez does. She doesn't miss much and Ezra lives in the saloon... and Vin's wagon is parked in the alley beside it. A coincidence, I suppose, that it just happens to be directly under Ezra's side window..."
Chris rolled his eyes. He could almost see her visualizing Vin climbing up the wall and into Ezra's window.
Everyone in town considered the two men to be part mountain goat. They both liked high places. Ezra could often be found lying on the steep back slope of the mercantile roof, reading. Sometimes Vin joined him and Ezra read aloud to the tracker. They had even been known to play chase across the rooftops, justifying it by saying that they were just practicing for when they needed to be up there during a gunfight.
"Yes. She told me once that Ezra lets Vin charge what ever he wants to on Ezra's account at the mercantile... but that he had a conniption fit when Buck tried to charge a handful of candy on it."
"Ezra keeps a tight hold on his money." Chris commented.
"Except when it comes to Vin." Mary added knowingly, "That's what started Gloria wondering. Then there was the shampoo..."
"Three dollars a bottle shipped in all the way from France. Ezra special orders it and buys up the entire stock when it comes in. However, she never smells it on Ezra's hair. She does get a whiff of it, though... whenever Vin is in the store."
He sighed, "*Anyone* else?"
"I'm not sure... maybe Virgil Watson... and Yosemite... Maybe the McGlamorys. I imagine Nettie would know... maybe Casey... if she thought about it... and the judge."
"In other words half the damn town knows."
"Well, maybe not half the town... and no one has said anything... and I don't think that they will. Everyone likes Vin and Ezra and they are part of the Seven. They've done a lot for the town and a lot for the people who may suspect that they are... together. It was Ezra's money along with Vin's idea that saved Nettie's ranch. Their buying the McGlamory place kept the couple from losing everything. I believe that they helped Yosemite to rebuild the livery when it burned last summer. Virgil always liked Vin and he appreciates the peace the seven have brought to Four Corners."
"Still I wouldn't want just anyone to find out. There are a lot of people who don't hold with two men being together. Prejudice is a hard thing to overcome." Chris said quietly.
"I know but there are a lot of good people here, Chris... people who will stand up for Vin and Ezra, because Vin and Ezra have stood up for them. All we can do is hope for the best and be prepared to stand up for them if someone does try to start something."
"You'd speak out for them if trouble started?"
"Yes. I would." She said firmly.
He squeezed the hand that still held his. "Mary Travis you are something special... and I love you." The last was barely more than a whisper.
She blinked back tears and bent to kiss him softly, "I love you too, Chris Larabee. Now, get some rest. You'll need it when Nathan gets here to take out that bullet."
"Will you stay?"
"I have to go check on Billy. He's with Gloria but I'll come right back."
She bent to kiss him again then was gone leaving him with his thoughts.
Ezra Standish knew exactly where he was going.
In the months since he and Vin had become lovers versus mere sex partners the two men had spent a lot of time 'riding out' as Vin called it. They almost always volunteered to deliver or pick up prisoners in the various towns surrounding Four Corners, knowing that either coming or going depending on whether they were delivering or picking up a prisoner, they would be alone on the trail, allowing them the opportunity to sleep together.
As a result Ezra had learned a lot about the lay of the land betwixt and between the towns surrounding Four Corners.
He left Four Corners heading due west, straight towards the black slash on the side of Riddle's Peak. The slash was the first landmark Vin had shown him. Riding straight for it would bring him to the river at the ford they normally used. From there he would turn southwest, using the compass to set his heading and Vin's spyglass to check the route ahead for any obstacles.
Unknown to anyone other than himself and Vin, he had a copy of the official territorial map folded up in his inside coat pocket where he kept his compass and now had Vin's spyglass. He and Vin had made corrections to the map in their travels, making it more accurate and up to date than the one hanging on Mary Travis' wall in the Clarion's office.
He knew the trail that the men would have to take to get from Lone Tree to Inch Long. It was a day and a half's ride and there was only one campsite on it with enough water and grass for fifteen men and their horses.
He crossed the river just after noon, noting as he did that if the hunters were on schedule they should be in Willow Creek. He hoped Greeley would give Vin the salute and not let on to the bounty hunters that a rescue was in the works. He trusted Greeley... as much as he did most people other than the seven, which was to say not very much. Still, he had needed to let Vin know that he was coming for him so that the wily tracker would bide his time and not get himself killed before Ezra was in a position to insure his escape.
Josiah was sitting with Tastanagi, talking quietly when the lookout stationed above the village gave a shout.
Tastanagi stood and turned to the lookout, who announced, "A rider comes. White man."
Tastanagi climbed the path to join the lookout.
Josiah was right behind him. Reaching the top, Josiah shaded his eyes and squinted towards the rider.
"Looks like one of the livery horses. Could be one'a Brewster's boys. If it is we're needed back in town. I'll go see where Nathan is." He turned and was gone down the path.
Tastanagi remained with the lookout until the rider was close enough for them to see that it was, indeed, Yosemite's oldest boy, riding hard towards them.
As soon as he was close enough he pulled up and yelled, "Hello, the village! I got a message fer Mister Jackson!"
Tastanagi nodded and the lookout stood and yelled back. "You may come!"
Josiah had found Nathan cleaning a cut on one of the children's leg. The healer had simply shrugged when told he might be needed back in Four Corners. "Reckon I got time to finish this 'fore he gets here."
Josiah had nodded and Nathan had continued his work, finishing and sending the boy limping home just as Matt Brewster hopped off his horse a few steps away.
"Mister Jackson! Pa said to fetch you quick as can be! Mister Larabee got shot! They took Mister Tanner!" The teenager babbled excitedly.
"Whoa, there. Slow down a bit." Nathan said soothingly. "First off, how bad's Chris shot up?"
"Just one bullet, I think! Some where's around here!" He placed his hand over the left side of his chest high up. "I don't know no more. Miss Inez come running inta the stables an' said Mister Standish said to send me after you right then! I's saddling my horse an' heard her tell Pa to saddle Chaucer and Peso and two of our best horses cause Mister Standish was going after'em."
Nathan and Josiah exchanged glances again.
"How many of them were there, son?" Josiah asked.
"Ten of'em. I saw'em ride in but I didn't know they's after Mister Tanner or I'd'a told someone. They went straight ta the saloon then I heard the shots."
Josiah bowed his head and sighed. [Lord please don't let my boy get himself killed.]
He looked up at Nathan who was already packing up his things.
"We better ride." The healer said quietly.
A few minutes later the two men rode out of the village pushing hard to get back to Four Corners.
Matthew remained behind. He'd rest up his horse, eat a meal that the village women had quickly offered then head back at a more leisurely pace.
By late afternoon Ezra was on a ridge overlooking the Lone Tree-Inch Long trail. He had ground tied Chaucer and Peso knowing it was useless to tie them to anything and had left the two livery horses attached to his and Vin's horses by the pony lines. Now he lay on his belly on a flat rock with Vin's spyglass to his eye studying the trail. His map was spread out in front of him, held down by his elbows, with the compass sitting on it.
He slid the spyglass closed and pulled out a pencil. He carefully made marks on the map indicating the route he intended to take. He would cut sharply south here, cross the trail between Inch Long and the campsite. That way the hunters wouldn't see his tracks cutting their trail before they camped. He'd circle past and go on to Devil's Gorge. He would set up camp for the night and scout the rock-bridge, picking his spots for the charges to bring it down.
He would have all day tomorrow to scout the site where he expected the bounty hunters to camp.
Vin sat silently watching as the hunter's picked up their next prisoner. He recognized the man as one he had tracked for a while just before going after Eli Joe. He wondered if the man knew who he was. He hoped not. He'd been staying quiet, hoping not to draw attention to himself.
He was convinced that Ezra was out there somewhere on the trail ahead of them, waiting for the right moment to ambush the hunters and set him free. All he had to do was stay alive and as unhurt as possible until then. When Ez made his move, Vin would need to be able to run.
If Hutchins? (Yeah that was the man's name) recognized him there could be trouble. The man was a violent and brutal man. If he knew that Tanner had been on his trail he'd try and jump him if he got the chance.
They moved out again, still heading south. If they continued in the general direction they were going, they would pass close to Devil's Gorge. Thinking of Devil's Gorge brought his mind back to Ezra and the week they had spent camped up there shortly after they had made their relationship permanent.
There was a secluded cave up there, high up on one of the sides of the gorge. The larger outer cave was a good campsite, having a vent hole up above it so that the smoke of a campfire wouldn't choke up the cave. The inner cave had a hot spring that Ezra had fallen in love with. It was barely hip deep, except at the center where the spring bubbled up, and was perfect for soaking and bathing and other activities that made Vin smile to himself.
Thinking about the cave and Ezra started him thinking again about what Ezra might do.
If the hunters were going to Texas from here they had several ways to go. However the farther south they went the fewer trails they had to chose from. If they were going from Lone Tree to Inch Long, and he had overheard the leader say that they would be staying in Lone Tree that night, then they would have only one trail they could take. It was the only trail that led to Inch Long from Lone Tree... which was a day and a half ride and there was only one place on it that this many men could camp and have water and grass for their horses.
If Ezra were thinking like the military officer he had been, and Vin would bet he was, then he would know this. If he knew they were going to Inch Long, (and the odds were now in favor of that since only three trails entered Lone Tree. One came from the town they had just left, one led west towards California and one went on south to Inch Long and on to Texas. If they were going to Texas they had to take the trail to Inch Long.) then he would chose the campsite on the Inch Long Trail as his strike point.
He found himself grinning. If Ezra struck straight across country from Four Corners, he would probably already be somewhere near the Inch Long Trail, scouting out his attack plan.
The new prisoner looked over at him, "What ya got to grin about, cowboy? You're gonna hang like the rest of us."
"I ain't hung yet." Vin replied with a nod of his head.
Hutchins stared at him a minute longer then chuckled, "Nope, we ain't."
Josiah and Nathan rode into Four Corners nearly an hour before sundown. Nathan stopped at the clinic and hurried up stairs while Josiah took the horses on to the livery.
Nathan breathed a sigh of relief when he checked Larabee's wound. It wasn't really serious. The women had cleaned it well and stopped the bleeding. It showed a little infection but that was to be expected since the bullet was still in there. Once he got it out, cleaned the wound up and stitched it, Larabee should be fine... if they could keep the stubborn man from going after Ezra and the bounty hunters that had Vin.
Chris had watched him in silence as he checked the wound and got his things ready to probe for the bullet and extract it.
"Gonna hurt," he told the stoic gunfighter.
"Already hurts," Larabee returned with a snort.
"Want ya to take some laudanum."
"Not too much. Don't want to go to sleep. Need to fill you guys in on what's happened."
Nathan nodded with a sigh. The whole damn bunch of them was too stubborn for their own good.
Josiah returned while Chris was drinking down the laudanum and prepared to hold the gunslinger down while Nathan dug the bullet out. As he leaned over to look at the wound he noticed what looked like a bullet hole in the bed frame. "Is that a bullet hole, Brother Chris?"
"Yeah. Ezra took a shot at me for trying to get up. Said he wasn't in the mood to put up with my foul disposition." Chris gave a snorted laugh, "Ezra's disposition was pretty foul at the time."
"Matthew said that he went after them... alone."
"And you let him?" Josiah demanded.
"He wasn't in the mood to be stopped."
"Lord, help the boy." Josiah whispered.
"Might wanna pray for the bounty hunters, Josiah. Don't think Ez needs any help. Mary said he lit out of here with enough guns and ammo for a small army not to mention a pile of dynamite." The gunslinger grinned at them and handed Nathan the laudanum bottle back, "Think I've had enough of this. Ya'll don't worry about Ezra... he's got a plan and he knows we won't be there in time to help...."
The gunslinger lay back with a deep sigh and let his eyes drift close.
Nathan looked at Josiah, "If that plan involves dynamite I don't think I want to be there."
Josiah shook his head. The seven had learned from experience that Vin, Ezra and dynamite was a truly explosive combination.
An hour later, as the setting sun bathed the streets in bloody red light, Nathan stepped out onto the balcony at the clinic and told Mary Travis, who had been waiting patiently, that she could go in and sit with Chris.
"He's gonna be just fine, ma'am. He's sleeping. Needs to rest up some."
"Thank you, Nathan." She started in then turned back to ask, "Did he have a chance to tell you what happened?"
"Not yet. Reckon it'll keep till morning. He did say Ez wasn't expecting any help at getting' Vin back."
"I don't know everything but I can tell you what I do know. Go get some supper and when you get back I'll fill you in."
She went into the clinic and Nathan headed for the saloon to get supper, figuring that Inez could tell him what had happened when Chris was shot.
As the sunset washed Devil's Gorge in a deep red glow, Ezra Standish was carefully studying the rock-bridge that arched over the entrance to the gorge. He stood in the sandy bed of the near dry river that flowed through the gorge with Vin Tanner's spyglass fixed to his eye, moving it slowly along the base of the bridge, looking for natural faults that he could crack with his dynamite to bring the bridge down.
He closed the glass for a moment and bent to make some marks on the schematic of the rock-bridge which he had drawn on the back of the territorial map he had carried with him. Then he went back to studying the rock formation. It looked good. If he set the charges correctly he should be able to blow the center of the bridge clean away and drop the two sides neatly into the mouth of the gorge, blocking it completely... and perhaps permanently.
He turned to look down the gorge. It was quite lovely at this time of year. The leaves on the trees were turning various shades of gold and red, the grass had greened back up from the summer drought that had almost emptied the river whose bed he stood in.
He had enjoyed camping here with Vin.
Oh well, it would make a lovely lake... and if they were lucky the cave they normally camped in would not be under water as it was quite high on one of the sides of the gorge. Of course, getting to the cave might present a challenge once the gorge was flooded.
He thought briefly of the towns farther along the river that depended on the river's water during the summer when most of the waterholes dried up then shrugged. The barrier would only be fifty to a hundred feet high, whereas the gorge was several hundred feet deep. The water would eventually spill over the top of the rock dam and continue on its way. In fact damming the river might help the towns. The spring thaws and rains almost always sent several flash floods roaring down the gorge, tearing up everything in their paths. The dam would stop the floods, keep them from tearing up the towns below... hold the water back until it spilled gently over the top and ran on to feed the stream below.
He folded up his map and turned to walk back to his horse. He would camp in the cave that he had Vin had used so many times before. Thinking of the cave make him think of Vin. He prayed his lover was still safe.