Maude stared at the telegram from Mrs. Potter, her eyes instantly recognizing the code. The Golden Hart. Alaric Von Dietrich had found Ezra again.
“My poor baby,” she whispered. Unbidden, the image of Ezra’s beaten face after her father’s funeral came to her mind, his shaking voice as he apologized over not being able to stop the fires that had destroyed the Golden Hart and the rest of the block, and she shivered. Except for that one time when he was sixteen…her anger towards him for that betrayal had long ago been purged, aware that she had been somewhat deserving…she knew that he had suffered at that bastard’s hands every time Alaric had tracked him down, looking for her. Ezra had warned her every time…the same words on the same telegram…the golden hart. And she’d run…and he’d always escaped.
Her eyes looking up at the clock above the bar. The ship she had been planning on taking was
supposed to leave within the hour, but she still sat within the main parlor of
the Gentle Breeze Hotel in
“He has friends there,” she said softly, glancing over at the piercing blue eyes opposite her. “Alaric won’t be able to touch him as easily. He has men who will protect him….”
“Does he now,” the man said, neither agreeing or denying the statement. She looked down, then at her bags sitting by the door.
“And Ezra may eventually be forced to tell him I’m here. I should get on that ship,” she said.
“Yes, you probably should.” Again, his tone was noncommittal.
She looked down at the telegram again. She thought about the woman who must have sent it. Gloria Potter was upright, honest…and obviously cared for her son. Did she know that Ezra would have to run away as well? To leave her and that town….Four Corners….
She frowned. That
thought should make her happy. Isn’t that
what she wanted? For him to leave that
horrible, dirty little town and rejoin her? Or, at the very least, use his
talents to really make something of himself somewhere of value? He could join her in
A single tear ran down her cheek, and she looked up at the man opposite.
“Charlie,” she said finally, “I need your help.”
Ezra walked into the hotel’s restaurant the next morning and walked straight to Alaric’s table. Without being asked, he sat down opposite the older man. Alaric looked up, and smiled.
“Still here, I see. That’s a good boy.”
“Any word from
“Not as yet. Any idea if she might have moved on?” the older man cut into the fried bread and eggs in front of him, cramming them together onto his fork.
“She might have.”
“And when was the last time she visited you, exactly?”
“About eight months ago.”
“Eight months. Long time.”
“You know Maude.”
“Yes. I also know she loves you. She won’t be far.”
Ezra snorted, but Alaric shrugged. The older man took a bite of his food, watching Ezra as the younger man turned to look out the window.
“By the way,” Alaric said, “I found myself several men short this morning. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
Ezra couldn’t resist a tiny smile as he lowered his gaze to the table, “My…fellow peacekeepers do not take kindly to being watched, Alaric.”
“Yes, well, my men had best be back by my side this afternoon, or I might have to start sending letters.” Alaric grabbed his napkin and dabbed his mouth with it. Ezra’s smile fell. Alaric smiled for him and cut himself some more food. “By the way,” he continued, “my older brother Wilhelm will be here in a couple of days.” Brown eyes glittered as they looked up, “And did I mention that Wilhelm is a judge himself now? Studied under Chief Justice Chase, no less, in the old man’s dotage, and now sits on the fourth circuit. Turned out he was visiting the Arizona territories with his wife, for her health you understand, and when I told him that I was coming here and that you were here already…well, he seemed inclined to join the family reunion, as it were.” Alaric laughed, “I can’t wait until he sees what has happened to you…how low you have become!”
His laughter grew louder as Ezra quietly stood up from the table and walked out.
Mr. Jensen walked out of the telegraph office, scratching his head. He glanced across the street at Chris and Vin, arguing with Buck and Nathan about something in front of the saloon, while Ezra stood off to one side, staring almost longingly down the street, as if towards escape. Frowning, the telegraph operator turned and walked to the mercantile.
The bells jingled as he walked inside, alerting Gloria to his presence. She smiled as he entered and put down some items she was arranging on one of the shelves.
“Mr. Jensen,” she said, “Can I help you?”
“Actually, Mrs. Potter, I have a reply to one of your
telegrams yesterday. From
Her smile wavered, but she maintained it. “Really? I…wasn’t expecting a reply.”
“Well, it is a little odd.” He walked forward and indicated the back room with his head. Still smiling weakly, Gloria nodded and led the way.
The next morning dawned bright and cold. Neither Josiah nor JD had returned, causing some anxiety among the peacekeepers. It was decided that Vin and Nathan should go look for them – Vin to track them and Nathan…just in case. Ezra stayed in town of course, because Alaric was still there keeping tabs on him and waving the threat of ruining the judge’s reputation over his head. Chris, meanwhile, gnashed his teeth and tried to ignore the fact that Alaric’s men were all out and about again…watching them. He stalked them almost as much as they stalked him…and by sheer force of will managed to drive at least three more of them away, leaving Alaric with only seven men. The bruisers knew Chris’s reputation, and weren’t inclined to meet it. Buck, on the other hand, had retreated into the arms of some of the more amenable ladies in town and seemed intent to ignore everything going on. It seemed the easiest thing to do.
Ezra straightened his cravat, sighed, and walked into the hotel again. His step was heavy as he walked over to the waiting chair at Alaric’s table, where the older man was once more eating breakfast.
“She’s not in
“I’m sorry,” the gambler said, shrugging. “I admit that is her usual pattern.”
“So where did she go?”
Ezra shook his head.
“Don’t lie, Ezra. She
has haunts. Where are they? Where might she go after
Alaric slammed a fist into the table, “you think this is fun for me, Ezra? I need more than that! Where does she go when she is successful?”
Ezra shut his eyes, feeling the weight of the derringer on his right arm. It would be so easy. And his mother would be free. The judge and his friends would be safe. So easy….
“Cities, Ezra, names of taverns, hotels, saloons. Details, boy! Give them to me!”
Glazed green eyes opened, the urge fading away as the stupid fact that he couldn’t kill in cold blood, no matter how much he wanted to, woke him up.
“She…often goes to gamble in
Alaric stared at him a moment, then nodded. “She wouldn’t go east again, then?”
“No. She hasn’t returned to the east coast since before the war.”
Alaric continued to nod.
“All right. So,
Ezra’s eyes met the man’s brown ones, “Pick one?”
“Pick one. And if you’re wrong…well, I can’t be responsible for the consequences now, can I?”
Ezra frowned, “consequences? Already? But….”
“Oh, I’m not talking about the judge. I was wondering, Ezra, if you’ve noticed the fact that the preacher hasn’t returned yet?”
Ezra’s eyes widened.
“Pick one, Ezra.”
The gambler’s heart quickened, his eyes darting to the window and back again.
Alaric grinned. “Actually, I have no idea. But I thought that might get your attention. He is somewhat overdue, isn’t he?”
Ezra stared at the man who had just bluffed him so easily. Alaric knew him too well – he’d known Ezra had been stalling, and had simply played the game better in order to get the information he’d needed faster – as the older man always had done. The weight of the derringer was almost overpowering, his right arm shook with anticipation…and then Ezra was gone, out the doors and running to get away somewhere for a while.
Day three dawned with the same crispness, the sky as crystalline as before.
“Bastard’s brunos are really beginning to way on me,” Buck said, leaning against the saloon’s window frame, one arm raised up over his head as he scanned the early morning movements on the main street. His eyes tracked Alaric’s men as they talked and hovered outside of the restaurant and further along the street. “How much longer we gonna put up with this crap?”
“You got a way to make ‘em leave?” Chris asked, leaning back in his chair.
“I got a way to make ‘em dead.”
“Yeah,” Chris nodded. “But we can’t touch ‘em until they make some kind of move.”
“You don’t think I know that?” the ladies’ man growled back. “Hell, Chris, I know the rules. So do Nathan and Vin and Ezra. Did you see the way Ezra pulled that derringer rig of his off his arm yesterday? Like it was poisonous snake with its fangs in his arm. That Ricky’s got us by the thumbs and he knows it. Never knew mere words could be so powerful.”
“Hmmm,” the gunslinger didn‘t respond. He wished Josiah were here. Man might’ve had the right words to defuse the situation…or at least to make a good joke. Then his mind drifted to the conversation he’d had with Gloria Potter and Ted Jensen the night before. His jaw tensed.
Leaning his head against his upraised arm, Buck switched his gaze to Mr. and Mrs. Greene, Mr. Chambers, Mr. Jensen and Mrs. Potter standing in front of the mercantile. Mrs. Potter was talking to them quickly, and her hands moving agitatedly.
“What do you suppose that’s all about?” the ladies’ man asked, nodding at the small gathering. Chris just shrugged, keeping his eyes down.
“Wait a minute…” Buck said then, standing up straight. “Well…thank God,” he grinned. Chris looked up, then stood and went to look out the window at what Buck was looking at.
“Finally,” the gunslinger muttered, heading outside as he spotted the figures riding into town beyond the talking townsfolk. Buck shook his head and smiled genuinely for the first time in days.
Vin and Nathan had returned, and they had a rather bedraggled looking JD and Josiah with them. Turning, the ladies’ man turned to run upstairs and get the gambler.
The preacher explained about his horse going lame out on the far edges of Royal’s ranch, way out in the middle of nowhere, and then being forcibly warned by Royal’s men that he couldn’t take the shortcut through the rancher’s lands because he’d be “trespassing.” Normally, Josiah wouldn’t have listened, but even the preacher hesitated when he was on foot and facing six of Royal’s men with rifles and fast horses. So he’d started walking the long way round…and had a run in with a cougar. Miraculously, he’d gotten away, but found himself even further afield and without a clue as to how to get home without going back through the cougar’s territory. Josiah rubbed JD’s hair with his hand, telling the seven of just how lucky he had been to have the kid show up when he did. Laughter rose from the group for the first time in days.
After a while, Ezra wandered away and walked out of the warm saloon, before the discussion could become more subdued. The small smile on his face fell slowly as he looked across the street at the saloon. Alaric stood outside, smoking a cigar and watching up the street for something. He’d told Ezra that Wilhelm would be here today, and was waiting for the stage from the east.
Ezra glanced at his watch for the third time, and settled down on the bench outside to wait as well.
Maybe fifteen minutes later, the rattle of the arriving stage had him on his feet again. Crossing his arms and moving forward to lean on the post, Ezra watched as it stopped in front of the hotel.
When a tall man, taller than Alaric, with more silver in his air and a much more subdued air stepped off the train, Ezra sighed. Even though he’d been expecting it, he’d vaguely hoped that Wilhelm Von Dietrich was not really going to be there. Ezra hadn’t seen the man since he was a child, when Wilhelm returned from college to be there at his mother’s divorce hearing, but there was no mistaking his resemblance to Alaric, and, in particular, to Claus.
Wilhelm nodded at Alaric, who shook his hand and then pointed down the street at Ezra. Wilhelm looked in the gambler’s direction, raised an eyebrow, then turned back to Alaric. He asked something, and Alaric nodded. Wilhelm shrugged then walked into the hotel, his younger brother on his heels.
Ezra shook his head. He didn’t know why the older Von Dietrich brother was here. Wilhelm had never gotten involved before.
“So, that’s his brother,” Buck said, sidling up next to him. Ezra jumped about a foot, then glared at Buck. The ladies’ man smiled and patted him on the back. “Come on, hoss; come back inside. We’re all together again now; we’ll figure something out.”
“I don’t think so, Buck, not this time. This isn’t some bank robber or cattle rustler….”
“You gotta have trust, Ez. Have we ever lost before?”
“We had the law on our side those times. The judge was here, and right was on our side. This time…this time, I’m the bad guy, Buck. And when you’re on the wrong side of someone that powerful, and you try to fight him….”
“We’ll find a way, Ezra.”
Ezra shook his head, then quieted as another stage rolled
into town, this one from the west. Truth
was he didn’t know how to argue this anymore.
He’d just have to leave soon. To
send those letters and run away as soon as Alaric got a bead on his mother and
took off after her. She was in
He turned to walk back inside when he heard Buck swear loudly. And not just one swear. The ladies’ man was pouring out a stream of invectives that the devil would hesitate to string together. Ezra turned and looked towards the newly arrived stage that had pulled up in front of the Clarion, right behind the eastern stage.
“No,” he hissed, “no, it can’t be!”
He took off running, while Buck slammed open the doors of the saloon and shouted two words to the five men sitting there.
“Get back in!” Ezra shoved his mother bodily back into the stage, “hurry!”
“Ezra! What in the world are you doing?” she shouted as she fell into the arms of one of the passengers who was disembarking. The man caught her and fell backwards himself as the weight of her threw off his balance in the tiny space. Ezra slammed the stage door and jumped up onto the driver’s seat.
“Hey!” the actual stage driver shouted, coming around from the back where he’d been unloading the rear. “Hey, stop!”
Ezra snapped the reins to get the horses moving just as the driver reached up to grab the coach gun from the back. “Move!” the gambler shouted at the horses, “Go, go, go!”
“Ezra! Stop this at once!” Maude shouted, having managed to get her bearings again. She squealed as the stage swung sharply, riding for a moment on two wheels as the horse’s responded by pulling to quickly to the right into the street. She and the other passenger were flung sideways into the opposite side of the coach until it steadied itself again.
“Stop!” the driver yelled again as he ran after them. Stopping, he raised the coach gun. “Stop or I’ll shoot!” He pulled back the hammer, only to find a large hand slam on top of the barrels and shove it down. “What the hell are you doing!” he yelled, swinging around to glare at whoever had stopped him. Josiah just ripped the rifle from his hands and turned to watch as Chris, Vin and JD ran after the stage.
Ezra half sat, half stood as he shouted at people to move, snapping the reins harder and harder. The horses’ were not moving fast enough…they were tired, he knew that, but they had to move! “Move!” he screamed.
Suddenly, men were in front of him and the stage. Five of them, all aiming guns at his head. He knew they were Alaric’s men. When he didn’t slow down, they started firing.
“Ezra!” Maude leaned her head out of the window, and screamed as a bullet buzzed past her ear. She instantly ducked back inside, still yelling her son’s name. “Ezra!”
The gambler hunkered down, willing the horse’s to run the men down, but they were spooked now, by the gunfire and the people running all around and the screaming. They started running out of stride with each other, pulling in opposite directions as the men blocking there way didn’t move fast enough.
The lead horse pulled to the left, heading into an alley, using his sheer strength to make the others follow.
“No!” the gambler fought with the horses’ sensing their fright. “No, stop!” He pulled hard, but, just then, a bullet slammed into his right arm and his left arm pulled the reins harder, further confusing the poor beasts. His balance shot, he fell sideways, nearly losing his seat. The wagon teetered again on its side, and he heard his mother screaming as the stage slammed into the corner of the hardware store, taking part of the edge with them.
“Ezra hold on!” He heard JD shout…unnecessary, really. The walls of the alley righted the coach but the vehicle’s maneuvering had slowed the horses, and the trash in the alley had further slowed them. They still moved, but as if they were stuck in molasses, twisting around the boxes and other debris and the coach splintering as it slammed into those same boxes. Miraculously, it didn’t stop….
Ezra was determined. He still held the reins, somehow, and he just needed to get through. Once out in the open, maybe they’d have a chance….Getting himself back together, he snapped them again.
Suddenly, someone was at the other end of the alley and leaping on the back of the lead horse.
“No!” he yelled, instinctively tensing his right arm to engage the derringer…that wasn’t there. Instead, pain shot down the limb, and he shouted in agony as he realized he had to have broken a bone. The person on the lead horse pulled it to a stop, and the others followed suit. Ezra nearly pitched forward off the driver’s seat, but rocked back in time. Gripping his arm, his eyes fixed on the man who had prevented his and his mother’s escape.
Chris stared back. There was no apology in his dark gaze.