Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, TNN, and Trilogy/Mirsch. I will not make any money from this. Ever. I swear on my honor as a Tipper (not a Gore), a Bostonian (who lives in New York), and as an American Citizen (with a British Passport). Hmm…Does that oath sound a bit flimsy to you?
Notes: First, just to warn you, this is the longest story I have ever written (so far) and I apologize greatly for its length. I considered trying to shorten it, but gave up after a while. It was taking me too darn long just to revise the thing. Second, as Marshal Vivienne Garret is my creation, I imagined her to look a bit like Rene Russo from the Thomas Crown Affair. Her personality, though, is born of Sharon Stone in the Quick and the Dead. Everyone else, well, they can be whomever you like. Third, the horses were all named by someone else, for which I thank them, except Gray (which I lazily named Buck's horse), Gideon (Nathan's horse), and Solon (Chris's horse. Solon was a famous Athenian lawgiver who worked to bring social equality, peace and the rule of law to a barbarous city). Finally, just to quote my best friend, I think the reason this one got a little long is because I was "feeling a tad ambitious." Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from attempting to write a sequel….
Description: Robin Hood, Othello and The Quick and the Dead were all the inspirations for this one. The Seven agree to help a Lady Marshal capture some cattle rustlers.
Chapter One: The Edge of the World
Sunday…mid afternoon…hot and dry
The Edge of the World, she thought, as she rode into the rough town. Around her, people and smells swirled in slow moving eddies, as if she were no more than a rock in the stream. She watched them drift away, never quite able to discern one face from another, as transitory as this place. What a shame.
She came here because it had a story building around it, one she felt necessary to see for herself. She knew of the seven peacekeepers, of course, her profession demanded it, but that was not what brought her here. She didn’t really expect much from them, hired gunslingers as they probably were, and loyal to none but the money they were paid. No, she came here because she’d heard about the women.
According to the stories, women here actually owned their own businesses, and not just the brothel on the edge of town, though one obviously existed. She’d been told that a woman owned the saloon, another owned the general store, and that a third ran the newspaper. There were also women ranchers, controlling homesteads that anywhere else would have been transferred into the hands of a man, according to the law. But out here, on the edge, women could be ranchers.
In the established world, regardless of whether you were on the bowels of Africa, the mountains of China, or the plains of Europe, women were always the subjected class. Didn’t matter your religion, or the color of your skin, or your class. If you were of the weaker sex, then there was always a man above you. The only exception was a Queen. Victoria. One woman among millions, and only by accident of birth.
But that was not true out here. Not where the world didn’t exist yet. Necessity had created a bubble of unreality, one that, undoubtedly, would burst soon. But for now, women like her were allowed to exist.
Slowly she eased her horse through the unsettled people, none paying her much mind, and made her way to the saloon – the Standish Tavern. As she reached the hitching post, she paused before dismounting, pulling off her riding gloves and wiping a callused hand across her sweaty, dirt lined brow. Her horse, which she had not named, bowed its beautiful golden head into the nearby trough, taking in the sainted water in long draws. Its rider’s procrastination meant nothing to it, so the horse barely registered the movement as the woman finally dismounted.
With a dusty pat to its hide, the newcomer drew here saddlebags off its back and threw them over her shoulder. With one last glance at the town, she sidled into the saloon, barely aware of the small group of people gathered out front. Three of them, a tall man in black, a fancy dressed gambler, and a boy in a brown suit, followed her inside.
At the bar, she nodded to the woman tending the customers and dropped her saddlebags onto the floor by her feet with a clatter. Inez nodded back, finished the cowboy’s order who was standing there, and wandered over.
"Whiskey," the woman ordered quietly, her voice low and husky, "Leave the bottle."
Inez retrieved the desired drink, meanwhile trying to make sense of the apparition before her. The newcomer was a woman, probably in her mid forties despite the fact that the lines were only just beginning to make themselves apparent on the burnished skin. Her low slung hat was pushed back off her head, revealing dark red hair, almost brown, with a few silver highlights, cut short to just above her shoulders. Dark hazel eyes stared back at Inez with an almost cynical air, and her dark red full lips looked as if they rarely curved into a smile. Last, there was no ring on her finger.
All in all, a formidable looking person.
The newcomer threw the bill on the counter, and Inez took it almost gingerly. "This is too much, Senorita."
"I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon." The older woman looked up at the stairs to the side. "You rent rooms here, correct?"
"Si, twenty five cents a night," Inez replied as she pocketed the bill, her mind calculating how many drinks it was worth.
The newcomer nodded, her dark eyes watching as the Mexican woman suddenly glanced past her, then turned around to pull two mugs from off the shelf. Looking into the cracked mirror behind the bar, the woman was able to discern the man in black and the boy moving in to sit at a table, both unabashedly looking her way. She returned her attention to the bar keep.
"Twenty five cents? That include meals?"
"Only breakfast. For thirty, I will also provide dinner." Placing one mug on the bar, she started to fill the other one under the tap with beer.
"Sounds like an awful lot for a place like this."
"Inez’s cooking is worth it," a southern drawl interrupted smoothly before Inez could reply. It was a pre-emptive strike. Inez’s face had instantly darkened at the mention that the saloon and her food were anything less than the best in this town. Ezra’s simple goal had been to prevent the explosion he knew would happen. Luckily, Inez’s face relaxed at the compliment. She moved onto the second mug, moving to reach under the bar and into the icebox for a bottle of milk. She slowly filled the second mug with the frothy liquid.
The newcomer didn’t turn to face the man next to her as he leaned across the bar to grab a bottle of dark amber whiskey for himself. She had jumped a little at his voice, not having heard him creep up beside her, or seen him in the bar’s mirror before this. Such a thought should have worried her, but the bartender’s reaction, or rather, non-reaction, kept her from going for her gun. Inez merely ignored the transgression as he took the bottle without paying, so the newcomer saw no reason to acknowledge him either. She did however, catch the bright red of his coat and the fine cut of his hair in the mirror – a gambler.
Inez finished pouring the drinks and placed them on a tray. Looking up, she stared brazenly across at the woman. "So, do you want the room?"
The woman sighed and reached up to tuck her auburn hair behind her ears. "How much is the hotel?"
"60 cents a night, with dinner and breakfast. My food is better, though the accommodations may be more suited to one of your…obvious stature." The sarcasm was thick on her tongue. The woman ignored it.
"And the boarding house?"
"Por favor, do I look like the town clerk? If you don’t want the room, fine. I have other customers." She pushed the tray with the two drinks across the bar to the gambler, who still stood there, slowly pouring the whiskey into a silver flask. "Senor Standish, kindly take this over to Senors Larabee and Dunne."
Ezra opened his mouth to argue, especially since he had been sent over here to eavesdrop on the new woman, but shut it quickly at Inez’s look. With a nod, he placed the bottle and flask on the tray, picked it up and wandered off. This time, the woman did turn to watch him. She followed him with her hazel eyes all the way until he sat down with the man in black and the boy.
"Is he the Standish of Standish Tavern?" she asked. "I was told a woman owned this place."
Inez sighed. She still felt a bit sad for Ezra, though it had partly been his own mule-headedness that had allowed Maude to win. "He did once, but his mother bought it out from under him. Then she sold it to someone else awhile back, on the condition that they keep the name," she shrugged.
The woman turned back to Inez, an eyebrow raised. "His mother bought it? Is she some sort of dowager?"
This time Inez grinned, and shook her head. "Maybe in her own mind," she chuckled. "No, Senora Standish is merely a very clever, very single minded woman. If she were a man, she’d probably own half the country by now." Still smiling, she turned to grab a couple more mugs off the shelf behind her.
This thought from the bartender sobered the older woman, and she took another long draw on the whiskey in front of her. After watching Inez begin to fill the two new mugs for a moment, she understood that more people must have arrived. She looked once more over at the table, and noticed that five men sat there now, all pretending not to watch her. Only the gambler and the long haired tracker were any good at the subterfuge. She noted the gambler looked to be rubbing something in his hands with his handkerchief, his whole attention devoted to it. She raised a glass, and the boy and a tall gunslinger with a moustache raised theirs in return.
With a twitch of her lips, the woman turned back around. "Then Standish is the manager now, I suppose."
"No," Inez put two more mugs full of beer on the bar, "I am." With a bob of her head to indicate he return, she had Ezra on his feet and coming back to fetch these as well.
"You seem to have the gambler on a tight leash," the woman noted, smirking slightly.
Inez waited until Ezra was actually at the bar before she replied, and then she smiled at him. "No, he is just helping so that he can spy on you Senorita. You really are losing your touch, Senor. I could smell your snake oil cologne a mile away."
Ezra flipped an eyebrow and dropped his empty tray on the bar with a clatter. "Senorita Rescillos, may I say that you are particularly shrewish today. How do you do it?"
"I merely need to think of your face, Senor. It can bring out the worst in anyone," she replied easily, a winning smile on her face as she leaned over to muss his cravat.
He frowned as he reset it. "Funny, I’ve always been told most people turn to stone upon seeing yours." In response, Inez stuck her tongue, but before she could say anything, he had turned to face the newcomer with a knowing smile on his face.
"So, are you planning on taking the room, Marshal Garrett?"
The woman nearly choked on her whiskey, and the retort on Inez’s lips died. Wiping away a little of the spittle on her dark lips, the Marshal turned to look at Ezra with wide eyes. Really look at him. He was only slightly taller than she was -- probably about five foot ten -- and had an unwavering stare. Those green eyes pinpointed exactly who she was, and, for the first time in a long while, she felt somehow exposed.
"How the hell…" she muttered darkly. He responded by turning his back to the bar and leaning his elbows against it. His green eyes now focused on an object in his hand.
"I am afraid that, when you dropped your saddlebags to the floor, this fell out." He held out her star, looking a little shinier than it had before. "I took the liberty of shining it up a little for you before I returned it. After that, it was merely a matter of asking our resident expert on faces, Sheriff Dunne, to put a name with the face. May I say, it is an honor, Marshal Garrett, to make your acquaintance."
Without him staring at her with those awful eyes, Garrett was able relax some and turned to look at him more carefully. He had to be very sly -- she had never even seen him behind her when he got her star. The idea that it had fallen out had been a lie, as she knew that the star had been pinned to the inside of the saddlebag flap, hidden from view and unlikely to come off without help. When he had unpinned it, she had no guess. But he had to be good at sleight of hand, very good. The traits of a thief as well as a gambler. This thought made her frown more deeply.
Ezra was watching her out of the corner of his eye now, and, seeing the frown, decided to quit his attitude. Standing up straight, he turned and asked her politely if she might like to join him and his fellow peacekeepers at the table. As if in response, the other four men stood. She favored them, and then him, with a quizzical look.
"Peacekeepers? You’re one of the seven hired guns?" she asked. A gambler? The only gambler lawmen she’d ever heard of was a judge – an old judge.
Ezra understood the implied disparagement -- it was one he’d asked of himself many times, and was sure Chris still asked every time Ezra bristled at one of his orders. Without replying, he simply grabbed the two mugs Inez had given him to carry and led the way to the table.
The Marshal paused for a moment, but upon glancing back at Inez, she decided to join them. The Mexican woman had had her head raised, and a sincere look on her face. At the Marshal’s silent question, Inez had nodded. Yes, he is. They are. And they are good men. You can trust them. Garrett nodded a thanks in return, and holding her glass in her hand, followed Standish.
The men were all still standing as she reached the table, and the man in black indicated to a spare chair near JD. She sat down slowly, and they followed suit.
"You are the lawmen of this town?" she asked.
"Yes, ma’am, and you are Marshal Vivienne Garrett?" the man in black asked in reply.
"I feel a bit odd, you all know who I am, but you remain a mystery…though I suspect you may be Chris Larabee." She nodded to him. He smiled back lightly.
"Yep. The others are Vin Tanner…."
"The bounty hunter?"
The Texan shook his head imperceptibly. "Not anymore, Marshal."
"No…but yet another interesting switch – though your gambler here may be the oddest. Next thing you’ll do is tell me you have a cowboy on your payroll."
Vin grinned under his hat, still hiding his face, and elbowed the man in black. Chris ignored him.
"No ma’am. But we do have an ex-Texas Ranger. Buck, say hello."
"Buck Wilmington, Ma’am," Buck tipped his hat and stood, "and may I say that your beauty would make a rose in the desert seem as common as…."
"Of course," she nodded curtly at the compliment, cutting him off and looking to JD. Buck raised an eyebrow and sat back down – not the first time he’d failed to charm, though he’d never had one seem to agree with him before. He sent a poisonous glance at Ezra, who was playing with a deck of cards and had a smirk on his face. JD grinned upon being noticed by the Marshal.
"Sheriff JD Dunne, Marshal, and may I say this is an honor! A real honor. I’ve been reading about you for years! There must be at least three dime store novels about you. You’re a real hero in the East, you know? The girls just love you. ‘Course all the guys thought you were made up. Oh, but I knew you were…"
"Shut up, JD," Chris commanded. JD looked at Chris, open-mouthed, then back at the Marshal. She wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, but was instead staring intently at Ezra, who was spinning a queen of diamonds around the deck. Feeling a bit put out, JD grimaced and resolved to sulk.
"And Ezra Standish," Chris finished, as the gambler seemed disinclined to introduce himself.
"Strange," the Marshal nodded. "I find this somewhat hard to reconcile. As I said, being a professional gambler is an unusual occupation for a lawman. In fact, you may be the only one I've ever heard of." She tilted her head, her brown eyes flashing in the subdued light of the tavern. "You know, your kind are not much liked in the towns that I’ve had the opportunity to police, Mr. Standish, as they are often, if not always, on the other side of the law. In fact, I’ve hanged quite a few of your fellow professionals. Gunned down a few as well who were under the mistaken impression that they could take a woman. I always find it interesting how their fancy clothes don’t look so fancy when the townsfolk filch them off the body. Yours would undoubtedly fetch a nice price, however."
The silence that permeated the air after this remark lasted for almost a minute. In the Marshal’s mind, she was merely getting him back for catching her off guard earlier. Meanwhile, the others looked to Chris to defend Ezra, but Chris merely seemed puzzled -- and maybe somewhat amused. Vin frowned. The tracker was about to stand and demand she explain herself when Ezra stopped him. Interestingly, the gambler’s expression had remained calm, and he looked almost bored as he got to his feet.
"If you’ll please pardon me, Marshal, gentlemen, I have a previous engagement at the hotel." With deliberate care, he pocketed the cards, dusted off his hat from where it rested on the table, and placed it on his head. With an easy smile to the table, he tipped it and slowly walked out. The Marshal smiled thinly in return, and took a sip of her whiskey.
Vin stood and stared daggers at the Marshal. "Please ‘scuse me too, ma’am, as I don’t much like the air in here at the moment." Pushing his hat on his head, he strode out of the saloon after Ezra, pausing only once at the doors to send a disappointed look at Chris. JD looked to Buck and Chris, but as neither seemed inclined to follow, he decided to stay put. Vin could take care of Ezra.
Chris watched as the Marshal casually sipped the rest of her whiskey, then reached for the bottle Ezra had left behind. It was still half full after having only filled his flask. Her own bottle she’d unintentionally left at the bar. Her fingers barely brushed the neck before it was abruptly pulled away.
"Sorry, Marshal, that is not yours," Inez said as she breezed by, grabbing the bottle firmly by the neck. In almost the same motion, she placed the bottle Garrett had bought earlier on the table in its place. With a nod to the others, she strode away. The Marshal watched her leave, then turned questioning eyes to the others.
"That’s Ezra’s Scotch Whiskey, Marshal. Glen something or other. Inez orders it special for him. Won’t let anyone else touch it," Buck explained, a hint of jealousy touching his usually easy-going manner. Marshal Garrett frowned, then shrugged. She refilled her glass then offered the bottle around. The others held up their mugs of beer in quiet decline, so she simply put it down.
"What are you doing here, Marshal?" Chris asked abruptly.
The Marshal sighed, and looked up at the others. "I was wondering when you were going to get round to asking. Mostly, I’m just here to see the sights. I’m following a gang of cattle rustlers who, from what I’ve learnt, are going to hit some of the ranchers up north of here, though not necessarily in your purview. Four Corners was on the way, so, seeing as your town has been garnering something of a reputation, I thought I’d check you out." She took a sip of her whiskey, part of her mind wondering what the dark amber liquid in the Scotch bottle tasted like.
"A reputation?" JD asked, unable to keep a little of his usual eagerness from the question.
"Oh, I’m not saying y’all are as famous as Bat Masterson or that Wild Bill Hickock over in Abilene, but the rumors of the seven men who are single handedly taming this area of the world has become a source of interest. You do know there is a dime store novel about you boys?"
"Unfortunately," Chris groused, while Buck chuckled.
"Yes ma’am, but it’s a bit exaggerated," JD tempered, but he sat a little straighter in his seat. "Did you read it?"
"Of course not. I don’t read such trash."
"I do, however, read the papers. Tell me, is the Clarion Editor Mary Travis nearby?"
Buck looked at Chris, who shrugged. "Across the street, Marshal," Buck said.
"Good. I might go speak with her later. And the general store?"
"Down the street. Turn right as you leave the saloon. But you shouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss us, Marshal, if there’s cattle rustling going on nearby, we should know about it." Buck said this with his palm upraised towards the woman, as if sensing her impending departure. Garrett looked at the hand disdainfully, and shook her head.
"I do not believe they will be bothering any of your ranches," she answered.
"So?" JD asked.
Garrett looked at the boy, and allowed a slightly puzzled look to cross her face. "I mean that they are not within the area for which you have been paid to protect," she explained.
"So…its not your problem?" This time it was the Marshal who turned the statement into a question.
"Marshal, if someone is rustling cattle, whether nearby or not, it is our problem," Chris answered. "Just because they’re north of here, doesn’t mean that they will stay there. Now, who are you after."
Garrett tensed her jaw, her eyes narrowing as she looked at the hired guns. Were they serious? A sudden thought tickled her suspicious mind. What if the reason they knew her name was because her quarry had already paid them off to prevent her from continuing on?
"Marshal, we can help. We’ve dealt with rustlers before, and, thing is, we’re pretty good at it. You don’t believe us, just wire Judge Travis. He’s the one who hired us." The young sheriff spoke determinedly as he gripped his empty mug of milk, the condensation on the glass making it almost slip from out his fingers.
Garrett’s suspicious stare lightened, and she looked at JD with more interest. "Did you say, Judge Travis? I’ve met him. An honest man."
"He’s also Mary’s father-in-law. If you still don’t trust us, just go and talk to her. She’ll tell you what we can do," JD added. The Marshal watched him a moment longer, then allowed herself a very brief nod.
"That’s all right, I simply didn’t realize it was he who hired you. Most hired lawmen I know are paid for by the town, and tend to have a loyalty only as long as it takes for someone else to buy them off. I suppose, though, if the Judge hired you, you might be a little better than that." She paused, her eyes glancing to the seat where the gambler had sat, "well, most of you anyhow."
JD frowned, both at her attitude and at her unsubtle dig at Ezra. But curiosity kept him seated, along with Buck and Chris.
"So, you want our help or not?" Buck asked, leaning forward.
Garrett shrugged, "I suppose I’d be a fool to reject it. Be wary, though, this is my game, not yours. If you join me, I state the rules and you follow, understand?"
"Of course," Chris acceded.
"I may also need to call up the bluecoats for back up. Will your men work with the Union army?"
This time Chris simply nodded.
"Then fine. Gather your men tomorrow morning at the jail. I will inform you of the situation then." And she got up to leave. "Now, I plan to take a look around your town, then have a bath, so please do not bother me again this night."
"What time in the morning?" Buck asked.
"Ooh, Ez’s not going to like that," JD chuckled.
"The gambler?" The Marshal pursed her lips as she looked down at the boy. "Is it necessary to involve him?"
"Yes it is," Chris replied without hesitation. He stood to face her, as if he would challenge any statement to the contrary. Garrett watched the unsubtle show of force with amusement, and half-smiled. With a shrug, she turned to leave.
"So long as you are responsible for him," she stated, moving back to the bar. As Chris sat down, they causally listened as she officially let a room from Inez, picked up her saddlebags from off the floor, and then disappeared up the saloon stairs.
Grabbing the still half-full bottle of whiskey that Garrett had left behind, Chris stood up and left the bar to tell the others of the plan. JD glanced at Buck, who seemed far more interested in trying to figure out which room the attractive Marshal had disappeared into, the usual wicked smile on his face.
Vin had stared dumbfounded at the quiet and empty street after following Ezra out of the saloon. Weirdly enough, the gambler had somehow vanished, an amazing feat considering that damned red jacket he favored. The tracker tried the hotel, the livery, Digger Dan’s bar, and even the bathhouse. The man had simply disappeared. When Chris strode up to tell him about the Marshal’s plan, he found Vin sitting in front of the jail wearing an irritated grimace.
"What’s the matter?" the man in black queried.
"Lost that damnable snake in the grass," Vin replied, looking around the dusty town with disgust.
Chris grinned, "Ezra lost you, huh? He’s getting better." He looked over at the church, just able to spot Josiah off to the side sawing away at some wood. "Did you ask Josiah?"
Vin glanced at the preacher, and shook his head. "Nah. Figured Ez would avoid the church."
"Hmmm…. You ever thought to figure that Ez might figure that’s what you’d figure?" Chris drawled.
Vin blinked. "Say again?"
Chris simply held on to his grin, and indicated with a tilt of his head that Vin follow him over to where Josiah was working. As they reached him, they could clearly see Ezra sitting in the shadows on the ground behind the preacher, reading a book.
"Ezra!" Vin practically shouted. "I’ve been searching all over for ya."
The gambler looked up, and Josiah stopped sawing. They both looked at the tracker with the same curious stare. One was easily more innocent than the other though.
"I apologize, Mr. Tanner. Why, may I ask, were you searching for me?" Ezra asked. Josiah leant against the sawhorse and rubbed his stubbled chin as he listened for the answer.
"Oh, well, I wanted…I mean, you know…after what the lady Marshal said…." Vin grimaced.
"Lady Marshal?" Josiah said, looking at Ezra. The gambler grinned, and unconsciously stuffed the book inside his dark red waistcoat as he stood up.
"A most inspiring woman, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra explained, a touch of respect coloring his words as he dusted himself off.
"Really," Josiah grinned.
Ezra nodded, stepping forward to stand next to the preacher. "Indeed. She has succeeded in breaking the antiquated notion that only men can be enforcers of justice, and shown us a little of what the future can be. To my mind, Marshal Garrett is proof that the enforced roles of men and women are basically specious. God knows that, if my mother had been accorded the same status as a man, I am certain she would be wealthier than Rockefeller by now." He finished his soliloquy with an almost wistful air, wondering what it would have been like to grow up rich. His mother had always tried to use her sex to her advantage, but there was no question that it had always been more of a disadvantage to her dreams than not.
"Or Maude’d be filling out a life sentence in Fort Laramie," Chris said.
Ezra nodded, turning to look at him with a crooked grin, "probably."
Vin, meanwhile, looked properly confused. "Wait, you’re…praising the Marshal?"
"Why yes, Mr. Tanner. Do you not think she is deserving?"
Vin’s jaw dropped, and Josiah chuckled. The preacher had no idea what the Marshal had apparently said to Ezra to cause Vin to want to protect the gambler, but Vin’s reaction to Ezra’s attitude was priceless. Josiah was sure that Ezra was doing it on purpose. Even Chris couldn’t hide the grin.
"Who is deserving?" Nathan asked, wandering up. He was carrying a couple of paint cans, one of which he handed to Josiah. "Mrs. Potter asked me to bring these to you," he explained to the preacher. "By the way, I saw this new woman in the store as I was leaving, Chris, dressed up like a man…looks like a real mean character to me. Think we should send Ezra to find out why she's here?"
Laughter exploded from all the men, except Vin who was trying desperately to hold onto his indignation in the face of all the mirth, and Nathan, who just looked dumbfounded.
Chapter Two: The Marshal's Story
Monday…far too early in the morning for a gentleman…cool and dry, but heating up
The next morning, the Marshal was frowning as she checked her watch for the third time. She stood behind the desk at the jail, six of the seven sitting and standing before her. She glared at the man in black, as if demanding an explanation for why they were waiting.
Chris shifted in his seat, a little uncomfortable under the woman’s gaze. Well, he grimaced, there was nothing he could do about it. He knew Ezra was awake, he’d seen to rousing him himself. But for some reason, the gambler was still late even after promising his leader that he would be down in "five minutes." Chris was going to kill him.
"Well, that’s it," Garrett stated. "I do not have the time to…"
"Ahem. Pardon my laxity, Marshal. Senorita Rescillos needed a hand bringing in some crates from the icehouse," Ezra drawled from the door. The smile on his face was so innocent as to be almost infectious. Only the Marshal and Chris didn’t return it to some degree. With a casual air, he sidled into the jail and leaned against the wall next to Josiah, perhaps a little behind him. The preacher patted him on the shoulder.
Garrett gritted her teeth, annoyed that this man could so easily get under her skin with just a few words. One glance at the man in black calmed her slightly, however. It appeared she was not the only one.
"That is fine, Mr. Standish. But, trust me when I tell you that I would prefer it if you were not here at all. However, Mr. Larabee tells me that you all work together or not at all, so I suppose I must suffer your presence." She said this with a frown, and Ezra inclined his head to show he understood. Only a flickering of his eyes across the back of Chris’s head betrayed the slight surprise he felt at the endorsement from the gunslinger. He’d never tell him, of course, but the implied support meant a great deal to him.
"In any case," Garrett opened up her saddlebags to pull out some papers – wanted posters. She handed them around. "The man we want is named Robert Moore, aka Robin Moore. Originally from a wealthy Texas family near Houston, he ran out on his fortune to start his gang of cattle rustlers." She paused as the posters started to float around, a pack about ten thick. "He runs a group of men maybe fifteen, sometimes twenty large. Obviously, I do not have posters for all of them, as the names change fairly often. The ones you have there are the ones who are the permanent members." She waited a few minutes to allow them to circulate some more before continuing.
"His right hand man is Michael Cash, aka the Italian Hammer. A former heavyweight boxer, Cash was drummed out of the profession after biting the nose off of one of his opponents." She smiled at JD’s grimace. "Apparently it was the last straw in a series of vicious attacks that he took part in, including several tavern brawls where he supposedly knifed two men to death. In self-defense, so he reported."
"The older black man you see is Otto Burns, also called the Ancient. He…" Ezra’s surprised laugh stopped her.
"Something funny, Mr. Standish?"
"Have you ever read any Shakespeare, Marshal?" came his reply, his hand to his lips.
"Ahh, then you would not understand the infamy of the man’s title. Let’s just say that I would never have a man nicknamed ‘The Ancient’ on my side unless I wanted to destroy my life as quickly as possible," he grinned.
"Well, this man has been with Robin since the beginning. A former slave on his ranch, the Ancient chose to go with his former master after the war. It is said that he would do anything for Robin, no matter what the cost." She saw Nathan frown at this news, and shrugged at the implications. "I don’t know the particulars, Mr. Jackson. Suffice it to say that Burns is supposed to be almost maniacal in his protecting the young Moore."
"And who is this?" Buck’s voice lit up as he held up the picture of a woman. In the drawing she looked extremely young, almost innocent, with long, light colored hair, big eyes, and a small mouth. Garrett paused, showing the first sign of faltering since she began her description.
"That is Emily Durgin. She…joined the group only recently." She paused, and leaned back against the rough stone wall behind her.
Chris reached across to take the poster from Buck, and looked at the girl. "It says she is from Calliope. Isn’t that your home town, Marshal?"
Garrett didn’t answer, her eyes staring at the floor.
"Marshal?" JD said.
"Emily…is very young, Mr. Larabee. Young and foolish. Robin Moore kidnapped her from Calliope, and now they are saying she’s part of the gang. She’s the main reason I’ve chased them this far. I intend to bring her home."
"Who is she, then?" Buck leaned forward, his eyes narrowed.
"My ward." She licked her dark lips, and shut her eyes. The others quieted, ready to listen to the story they knew was coming.
"Emily’s father was the saloon owner when I first got to town. He died in a gunfight before I even took on the job of Marshal. Back then, I was just another drifter, chasing after the men who took my husband from me. Turned out they were the same men that killed Emily’s father." She frowned, her down turned eyes taking on a far away look. The Seven leaned in closer as her voice softened.
"With an accuracy born of anger, I somehow managed to take them all down, and…well, the town sort of adopted me as a gesture of thanks. Apparently these men had been terrorizing them for years. Next thing I knew, they had hired me on as Sheriff. I did a good enough job that some of the local landowners and ranchers recommended me for Marshal. Well, it wasn’t that simple, but that’s the way this all happened in a nutshell." She turned to look out the window, and the others shifted quietly in the seats, a rapt audience.
"Emily…she was just six when her papa died. Her mom had died giving birth to her. She was to be brought up by her uncle, but he paid her almost no mind, treating her no better than a stray dog." She shook her head, the memories drifting across her mind in a dreamy fashion. "She got into the habit of following me around, and, I guess, I sort of got used to seeing her there. I taught her how to read, and to fight, and to…well, be like me, I guess. When her Uncle died when she was ten, I took her in as my ward. To her, the town, and me, it was a natural progression. We were very happy that way for almost ten years." She frowned and looked back at the seven, indicating what was to come next.
"When Robin and a small handful of his men came into Calliope, I did not know them at first. He is a very genteel young man, so charming he could con the guns off a Texas Ranger. No offense, Mr. Wilmington."
"None taken," Buck replied evenly.
"I let them have the run of the place, and saw nothing wrong with letting Moore take Emily out on walks. That was until the rest of his gang arrived a few days later." She frowned, shaking her head. "It was pretty obvious who they were after that. I telegraphed for help, knowing I couldn’t possibly take down his whole gang by myself, but by then they were gone. And Emily with them."
Chris frowned in return. "You said she was kidnapped?"
"She wouldn’t just leave, Larabee. Not after everything we’d been through together." She shook her head.
"She might if she was in love…" he pressed.
"How can you fall in love with someone in three days? Three days after fourteen years?" She slammed her hands down on the desk, scattering the papers there.
Chris shrugged, and continued to look at the picture of the girl in his hands. "And if she is part of the gang now?"
The Marshal’s dark lips curled into a sneer. "She’s not. She has only ever been seen on the fringes, according to the stories I’ve heard. I have followed Robin for six months now, Larabee. I know how he works. I do not need your bull shit interfering with me getting my girl back."
Chris looked up, ready to argue, when he felt a hand grip his shoulder tightly. Looking down at the green jade ring, he grimaced.
"Marshal Garrett, please, there is no need to fret. We will guarantee that no harm comes to your ward when we go after these men. We will extricate her from the melee, and get her to safety." Ezra’s cool voice caused Chris to calm some, but he still roughly shook the hand off. The gambler’s hand fell away, and he returned to his place by the wall, once more a little behind Josiah. The older man seemed to accept the protective position without question.
"Ezra’s right ma’am. We’ll get Emily free, no question," Nathan agreed, nodding. Garrett, who had been watching Ezra with a steely-eyed gaze, switched the look to Nathan. The healer swallowed anxiously under the scrutiny, wondering at its power. No wonder she made such good Marshal.
Finally, Garrett nodded. "Fine."
"So what else is there to these outlaws, Marshal? I mean, it ain’t often you hear about rustlers that travel so tightly together, or for so long, without getting caught," JD asked, handing his papers over to Josiah and Ezra.
"Robin, as his adopted nickname may suggest, is more than a mere rustler, Mr. Dunne. He fancies himself a Robin Hood -- you know, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? He even jokes that his gang are the "merry men."
JD brightened immediately, as his face lit up with recognition. "Oh! Now I know who you're talking about! These guys are famous. Wow, you really think we can take them?"
"JD," Buck warned, trying to curb the boy’s sudden enthusiasm.
"I can take them," she replied vehemently. She looked around at the others to see if they too had heard of the gang. The tracker and Buck had knowing scowls on their faces, but the others looked blank.
"Moore and his men have made a living stealing cattle bought by rich landowners. They stake out the local cow towns, watching as the new cattle are traded, and determine the likeliest marks. Then, as the new owners are driving their purchases back to their ranches, Robin and his men swoop in and steal off half, sometimes all, of the herd. The cattle are not marked yet, of course, so difficult to trace. You would think, however, that a stolen herd would be easy to track down. Unfortunately, Moore is cleverer than that. First thing he does is spilt the mavericks up between the group and they spread out in three different directions, heading towards any nearby small ranches in the area. They then sell off a handful of cows at a time to the small holders, at rock bottom prices. Needless to say, these small farmers are more than willing to offer their protection in return."
"And he’s been doing this how long?" Nathan asked.
"Maybe three years. Long enough to get a story behind him as thick as the real Robin Hood. He makes almost no money himself on the deals, just enough to live on and pay off his men. They stay with him not for the money, but for the idea of it." She sighed. "That’s what makes it so hard to get to him. That and the fact that he moves very quickly once the cattle are sold off." She snarled, "but taking Emily…. Well, he isn’t going to get away with it any longer."
"What makes you think you’ll succeed where others have failed?" Chris questioned, his glare back in force.
Garrett matched the gaze, her eyes narrowing. "Because, Mr. Larabee, I am the best."
"Yeah, well, we’re not so bad ourselves." JD announced proudly, standing up. Buck rolled his eyes behind him.
Garrett nodded, and smiled for perhaps the second time since she arrived. "Yes, so I’ve been told." Quietly, she pulled out a map from her bag and laid it out on the table.
"The next major cow town will be here, near Tower Hill, where they’ve just brought in the railroad. I have learned for a fact that Moore will be there." She patted a spot with her finger that lay perhaps four leagues northwest of the town. She was right, it was well outside their jurisdiction, but Chris knew that Stuart James and several of the other rich ranchers were heading up to take part.
"It begins on Friday and ends Monday. I don’t know whom they will hit, but it is unlikely they will hit any of the ranchers that live North or East of the city. Most of those they’ve hit before. No, they’ll either attack someone coming from here or from further west."
"It’ll take us about two and a half days to get there," JD noted unnecessarily. "We leave tomorrow, we should get up there by Thursday afternoon."
"That should give ol’ Ez enough time to work some of his 'subtlety,' eh pard?" Vin flexed an eyebrow at the gambler. Ezra simply shrugged in return. The Marshal looked over at him, but didn’t comment.
Seeing her look, Chris explained. "Ezra is our resident smooth talker, Marshal. He should be able to discern whom your merry men are going to hit before they do. He might even be able to learn their plan for doing it."
"I don’t think such detail will be necessary," the Marshal frowned. "We can simply follow the band as they leave."
"Marshal, no offense, but you said yourself that you don’t know every one who will be in the gang. I’d rather be waiting to ambush them than risk following them and having someone spot us," Buck stated. "Besides, the better the information we have, the better chance we’ll have of getting them unawares."
She looked at Buck, at Chris, then back at Ezra. The gambler was not looking at her, his green eyes staying focused on the face of Robin Moore displayed by the wanted bill in his hands.
"So long as he doesn’t give us away," she muttered. She tapped the map to indicate the nearby army base, Fort Cahill. "This is the local army, most of whom will be helping the Sheriff of Tower Hill keep the trail hands in line. I may call on them, if I think we’ll need them. But I’d rather not. My experience with the bluecoats is that they come late, if at all. Plus, they’ve never been all that fond of taking orders from a woman." She grimaced, some of the bitterness in her tone causing JD to berate himself for the unconsciously sexist thoughts he himself had been having. Seeing Vin and Nathan frown, the boy wondered if they were thinking the same thing.
Finished, Garrett began folding up the map. "The rest, gentlemen, will have to wait until we get to Tower Hill."
After dismissing the seven, the Marshal wandered back to the newspaper office where she’d spent much of last night. She’d hit it off almost immediately with Mary Travis, recognizing her immediately as a woman as straightforward as herself. They’d had dinner and then Mary had introduced her to some of the other women in the town.
She’d been surprised to learn that women not only owned the store, the paper, and managed the saloon, but that a woman also ran the boarding house, and another worked as both the town seamstress and tailor. As a group, they’d had a long discussion in one of the hotel parlours about the town, its future, and, of course, the seven men who protected it.
Now, she was meeting Mary for a late breakfast to tell her what had happened this morning. Mary had promised her that Chris and the others wouldn’t try and take over her job from her, although they were not without their prejudices. But, even after the fairly smooth meeting, Garrett still felt on edge.
She knocked politely on the door to the Clarion, then walked in to find Mary stacking papers into piles.
"Oh, Marshal, I’m sorry, but I have to get these papers out first," she smiled. "Normally I get them out first thing, but, well, I sort of lost track of time last night." She gathered a bunch up in her arms and looked a mite sheepish. "If you don’t mind, we could walk while I pass these out…."
"Sure, can I help?"
"Oh no. Actually, I probably won’t have to go that far myself. Usually, when I’m this late, Buck takes them from me before I make it ten feet." She grinned, and the Marshal followed her back out.
True to form, She was maybe only halfway down the street before Buck came bouncing up. He took the papers from her and did her rounds.
Mary continued to walk, her eyes watching the ladies man as he jogged about the street. The Marshal watched him as well, though her face was creased in a frown.
"Why does he do that? Help you, I mean."
"Oh, he can’t help himself. He’s a natural flirt." Mary shook her head. "He knows he’s not going to get anywhere with me, but he helps anyway. Makes my life easier. Normally, I get the papers out before anyone is awake, except maybe Vin, who gets up as soon as the birds start singing. It's much easier to deposit them in the doorways of my subscribers at that time than now, when the whole world is awake. But, if I’m late, then Buck is always there. Better than any paper boy."
"Hmmm," Garrett kept her opinions to herself.
"Marshal, I know what you’re thinking, but Buck is harmless. He loves women, that is true, but he’d never disrespect one. He almost married a career woman once, but couldn’t go through with it. He couldn’t leave his life here to join her on the road."
"A career woman?"
"Oh, whoops. I suppose I shouldn’t use that term." She grimaced. "By career, I didn’t mean a working girl. He fell in love with a public relations manager who used to work for the territorial governor, governor Hopewell."
"The one who was murdered in his bed?"
"Yup." Mary sighed, "Hopewell was not a good man, but that was a horrible way to die."
They walked in silence for a while, until they reached the hotel. Buck spun around, only a few papers left, and tilted his hat to the ladies.
"Have a good brunch, Marshal, Mary," he smiled, dancing off to finish the rounds. Mary laughed, and the Marshal simply nodded.
Once inside, they ordered quickly, and Mary leaned over to hear about the meeting. "So?" she asked curiously.
"They were polite. I guess they’ll be useful."
"I told you they’d help."
The Marshal frowned, and shook her head. "A real motley crew you have there, Mary. Are you sure I can trust them? Some of them look as if they’d run out at the first sign of trouble."
"I understand your hesitation, Marshal, but, for some reason, when they’re together, they’re unbeatable. I’ve seen them perform miracles, and they’ve saved this town and its people more times than I can count."
"So you told me last night." The note of skepticism in her voice did not go unnoticed. "However, I can’t help but wonder if the stories you told me weren’t, perhaps, exaggerated slightly? After all, it would not be the first time that someone overplayed their hand to bluff their way out of trouble or to impress a newcomer."
Mary snorted, thinking about the first article she’d ever run about Chris Larabee, ‘to scare the bad element away from this town,’ she’d told him.
"Or," the Marshal added a little more quietly, "because they had feelings for one of the men in question."
Mary smiled crookedly, shaking her head. After a second, she raised her head to stare Garrett directly in the eye. The Marshal leaned back, and waited. When Mary spoke again, the conviction in her words seem to echo through the room.
"Marshal, there is very little that I feel I can rely on out here in this place. I trust my mind, my beliefs, and my love for my son, and …without question…I trust those men. Whether you believe me or not, there is something that ties them together and makes them one of the most powerful forces in the West. I have no doubt in their ability to achieve whatever it is that you ask of them. All I can advise is that you make sure you work with them, and not just try to order them. They do not work well as soldiers, but as a team they are near nigh invincible."
Garrett watched Mary a moment longer, then shrugged. "Well, I guess I’ll have a chance to figure this out for myself, won’t I?" she replied.
Mary nodded, "yes, I suppose you will."
Chapter Three: The Marshal’s Plan
Thursday…noonish…hot, though cooler because of the higher elevation…perfect red jacket weather…
As predicted, it had taken them a couple of days to get to the newly titled Tower Hill Junction, the longer name due to its position as a rail hub. The place was overcrowded with people and animals, driving Vin away before they even crested the small hill that overlooked it. Chris let the tracker stay out of town – the Seven understood he’d be there if they needed him. The Marshal hadn’t said a word, though she was clearly annoyed at the concession.
Ezra grinned wolfishly, taking in the sights and smells of the crowds. People were all around him, rushing to wherever they needed to be, barely paying him any mind. The screeching brakes of the train arriving indicated that soon even more people would be pushing their way into the throngs. He took a deep breath. God he loved the smell of money and greed that permeated this town.
The seven had split up, each finding their various elements. High up on Chaucer’s back (the ornery horse nipping at anyone who got to close), Ezra saw that Buck and JD had fallen in with some of the trail hands at a mid-sized saloon, both lawmen playing their parts naturally. Chris had gone straight to one of the more disreputable saloons and was probably brooding in the corner, looking mean and outlawish. (If outlawish was a word…. Ezra thought on that a moment, and decided it made as much sense as any other term).
Josiah was meandering around the shops and merchants, his soothing voice eliciting information while he purchased supplies for the group. Nathan had found a group of ex-slaves gaming in a corner, and had quickly ingratiated himself. Telling them a bit about Four Corners to get them interested in talking, he was keeping an eye out for the Ancient.
The Marshal, meantime, had gone straight to the Sheriff’s to alert him of her presence. The gambler saw her standing on the boardwalk in front of the office, her jaw tensing as she was forced to wait for the Sheriff to stop overlooking her. What a fool.
With a shake of his head, Ezra guided Chaucer to the richest looking saloon in the town, and parked him between Chris’s Solon and Buck’s Gray. The choice was purposeful, as Chaucer would not have put up with being in such close quarters with anyone else. The others had complained, as they had each gone to different taverns, but Ezra had to insist. Chaucer was used to the two large stallions, so he would put up with them, otherwise Ezra’d have to stable the Chestnut. Not a good idea if he needed to get out of town quickly.
The chestnut stallion nipped at Solon, and the bigger black bared his teeth in return. Gray just lowered his head sleepily, as easy going as his master. Chaucer shook his head. He’d put up with these horses…. It didn’t mean he had to like them.
Throwing a dusty pat to his horse’s hide, Ezra loosened the strap and whispered calming words to the beast. When Chaucer stopped acting up, Ezra straightened his red dovetailed coat, dusted the sleeves, and tugged down on his brocade burgundy waistcoat. The book tucked next to his heart bit into his skin slightly, and he grinned. He always forgot when he stuck a book inside his waistcoat, so used was he to having decks of cards in hidden pockets pressing against his skin. Books were not much different, and usually a lot less thick, albeit wider. The current book he was reading was Othello – inspired by the moniker used by the ex-slave they hunted. He patted it comfortingly, and pulled out a marked deck from his left pocket.
With a sly smile, he headed inside, his eyes surreptitiously looking for Robin Moore. The Texan would be here, using his "genteel" manners to mix with the rich, staking out his next target. Ezra planned to make sure he was nearby when Moore chose the unsuspecting rich rancher that would be losing his cattle.
"For I am an honest man…" Ezra quoted under his breath, spying the handsome blond rustler in the corner almost immediately and gliding over.
Tuesday, several days later…cool, and, as Ezra would say, ungodly early…
"Stuart James," JD shook his head, amazed. "To think we would be protecting that low life." He leaned against the ridge watching the prairie below with a keen eye.
"Well, at least we can say we’re doing this for someone within in our jurisdiction," Vin replied lightly, his eye to his spyglass. He was looking for the herd, knowing that the cowhands would be pushing them through the curtain of the dawn and into this valley soon. This flat area surrounded by ridges was less than two days ride from Tower Hill Junction, and only about a day’s ride from Four Corners and the James ranch. Pink and orange light oozed lazily over the brown grasses.
JD sneered, and looked over to where they knew the others were hiding, and then to where he knew the Moore gang was preparing to strike. "I don’t know Vin. I’m sort of tempted to just let Moore do his thing. It is certainly more than James deserves. Its not like he couldn’t afford the loss."
Vin glanced towards the young man, and lowered the glass. He looked at the ground and licked his bottom lip, wishing just then that it was Buck up on this ridge and not him. "JD…."
JD interrupted him with a wave. "Don’t worry, Vin, I’m not serious. It was just a thought. Believe me, I know better."
Vin nodded in return, and sighed thankfully. "Well, in a way we are going to let them get away with it, if we follow the Marshal’s plan."
"You mean, waiting until they split up the cattle, then take them out in groups?"
"Yeah," Vin frowned. He didn’t like the plan. It meant splitting up the Seven as well. The Marshal had set them each out to follow three groups – She, Chris and Josiah were to follow the western runners, while Ezra, Buck and Nathan the south. Vin and JD would chase the ones that headed southwest.
Moore’s plan, as Ezra had found out, was that the rustlers would hit James in this valley, taking half of the two hundred head the man had purchased. Moore had mined the valley with dynamite several days earlier (this Chris had found out from some of the more loose lipped members of the group) planning to set them off right after the raid occurred. That way, James would be to busy trying to keep hold of the remaining hundred to chase the rustlers.
Moore then intended to split up into three groups – one west, one south, and one southwest. As he had fifteen men with him other than his core group, that probably meant groups of five. The Marshal’s plan, obviously, was to capture them all as soon as they split, when they would be more vulnerable to capture.
Chris had instantly disagreed.
He argued that they should stay together and chase down Moore, as leader. Without him, the rest would be lost. Plus, the odds would be better that way, and it was how the Seven worked best – as a team. But Garrett wanted them all.
Besides, she couldn’t be sure which group Emily would be in.
After ten minutes of debate, the Marshal called the black clad gunslinger on his promise to follow her orders as she dictated. They were here on her sufferance only, she said. She would get the army to help, if need be. She didn’t need them. Although, she did mention that she wouldn’t hesitate to tell Mrs. Travis about how the great Chris Larabee was not a man of his word.
Chris had fumed, but eventually he nodded. He hated rustlers with a passion and he wasn’t going to let Moore get away. Plus, James was a rancher of Four Corners, despicable though he might be, and it was their duty to protect him. He honored his promises, he told Garrett firmly. They would follow her plan. Of course, the others followed their leader.
Now Vin frowned, his chest tightening with anxiety. It was more than the usual nerves that he got before a gunfight. This was fear that the plan was going to go horribly wrong.
JD watched Vin’s face, seeing the undisguised emotion there. He swallowed nervously. He too was worried about them splitting up, but Chris had finally said he thought the plan could work. And if Chris was okay with it…
"Here they come," Vin announced. With a shaky breath, JD peered back out over the prairie. In the distance, he could just make out the plume of dust that followed the herd.
"Show time," he whispered to himself, pulling his gun.
Chris couldn’t help but admire the precision with which Moore executed his plan. His band had gone in, raided the herd, and gotten out all without killing any of James’s men. Stuart James himself had gotten shot in the arm, but part of Chris couldn’t help but smile at the thought. Then, before James could mount a counter attack, the dynamite charges went off, effectively preventing them from doing anything but trying to save their remaining cattle. James was out of the game.
The Marshal and the seven listened in as Moore gathered everyone together a few miles away, and split them up. Moore headed west with eight men; Michael Cash went southwest with three; and the Ancient and Emily rode south with four.
With a nod to the others, the seven moved out after them. Only the Marshal hesitated as she watched Emily head south. Chris grabbed her arm, reminding her that this was her plan. With a curt nod, Garrett followed him as they went west after Moore.
By far the largest contingent had gone with the handsome young leader of the merry men, taking almost half of the stolen cattle with them. The group of eight outlaws headed west quickly, before finally stopping for a late lunch near a small stream. They were fairly exposed, meaning it was going to be difficult to sneak up on them, though the tall grasses surrounding the dirt clearing provided some cover. The wind blew coldly across the wheat colored stalks, brushing them down in circles and creating a somewhat eerie background noise to the lawmen’s actions.
The outlaws had set up camp as any cowboys might, with the cattle off to one side calmly eating the grass. Only three men watched the cattle, the rest either cooking or sleeping under the warm sun. Moore himself had wandered over to the shallow stream, kneeling at the water while he stared dreamily southward.
Leaving their horses behind some large boulders, the peacekeepers silently crept forward towards the camp on their bellies. Silently, the Marshal directed Chris to take right flank and Josiah the left, while she went down the middle. The two men disappeared into the brush, and Garrett exhaled through her teeth as she considered just how much she was relying on them to do their job. After a moment, she moved forward some more until she was barely ten feet from the campsite, lying next to a mid sized rock.
"Three, two, one…"she muttered to herself, "go." Swiftly, she stood up, rifle raised and pointed directly at where Moore had been filling a canteen with water.
"DON’T MOVE," she yelled. "My name is Marshal Garrett, and you are all under arrest for cattle rustling and kidnapping. Put up your guns and stand with your hands up."
"You heard the Marshal!" Chris shouted from where he stood just north of the camp. He too had his rifle raised, his aim covering the three men hovering around the herd.
"Please," Josiah added jovially. "I don’t want to blow too many of you up." He stood on the opposite side, his rifle pointed at the wagon upon which Moore and his men had their supplies and, the lawmen knew, some of the gunpowder and dynamite used for the charges. It was also in the same general direction as the four men sitting around the cook fire.
Robin stood slowly, his hands outstretched from his sides, away from his guns. He waved his men not to react, and to do as she commanded.
"Marshal Garrett, so nice to see you again," the man drawled, his Texan accent rolling as smoothly off his tongue as the most charming politician. "I must say, this is a surprise."
"You are going to jail, Moore. You and your men are done -- all of them. As we speak, your other little side groups are also being rounded up." She stepped forward as she spoke, until she was standing inside the dirt clearing about five feet from the younger man. Her rifle bead never wavered from where it was drawn on the young man.
If Moore was dismayed by the news he showed no sign, instead he simply grinned. "Well, sounds like you have everything well planned. Emily will be impressed."
Garrett paused, her eyes narrowing in annoyance. "I don’t believe you care one whit about what my ward thinks."
"Oh, but that’s not true. Why, Emily and I have long talks during our nights together…. When we’re not otherwise occupied, of course."
She lowered the gun slightly, her face contorted with anger and spat in his direction. "You filthy bastard," she hissed, moving closer to him. Moore chuckled, and Chris frowned. She was getting too close.
"Come, come, Marshal, she is a mature woman now."
"If you forced her into anything…."
"Now, Marshall, why would I do a thing like that?" A winning smile lit upon his handsome face, and his blue eyes sparkled. "Surely, you must know I would never deliberately harm my wife."
"WHAT!" Garrett nearly dropped the rifle in her shock, giving Moore the opening he needed. With a flick of his wrist, he had a derringer in hand and pointing at the Marshal’s head. Instantly, Chris twisted where he stood to adjust his aim to cover Moore, ready to fire.
Chris staggered sideways and he heard the cattle scream, his eyes widening as he realized that the cattle were now suddenly stampeding wildly in his direction. When he'd changed his aim to cover Garret, one of the men guarding the cattle had set off a charge behind the beasts. Losing his gun, Chris took off running, desperately trying to stay out of the herd’s way.
Reacting quickly, Josiah did as he promised and shot up the wagon. An even larger explosion rocked the plain, sending the cattle in a more northerly direction and away from the black-clad gunslinger. It also provided the preacher with the cover he needed to get away. Over the noise of the outlaws scrambling for their guns and the still exploding wagon, he heard his leader’s sharp high-pitched whistle calling Solon. Instantly, the black horse appeared from behind the boulder and charged directly for the man in black.
The almost simultaneous second explosion had thrown off Moore’s aim, the derringer's bullet missing Garret's skull by inches, and he staggered to the left as the air rushed past his head. Seeing the opening, Garrett clocked him with her rifle butt, then took off running as bullets suddenly began to ricochet around her. She barely noticed as one grazed her arm.
Chris threw himself onto Solon's back and was quickly beside Garrett, sweeping her up into the saddle behind him as they headed back to the large boulders where her horse and Josiah’s Quincy still hid.
The preacher ran for all he was worth, not even slowing as he heard Moore yelling at the others to stop shooting and go after the cattle. Moments later, he was behind the boulders with the others, untying the horses and pulling himself up onto Quincy’s back just as the Marshal jumped up onto hers. They took off for the cover of the trees to the east of the campsite, knowing full well that any chance they had to capture Moore off guard now was completely gone.
Chris just hoped the others had fared better than they did.
"What do you think?" Nathan whispered. They were on a ridge overlooking the place where Emily, the Ancient and four others had stopped for lunch.
"We need to get her out first," Buck noted. "She might get caught in the crossfire otherwise."
"You know," Ezra pursed his lips. "She doesn’t exactly look like a kidnap victim to me."
"Nope," Nathan affirmed darkly. Emily was wandering about the camp, dressed in breeches and a short tan duster, the white Stetson on her head cocked at an angle. Her long blond hair was thick on her head, framing her small heart shaped face beautifully. Buck had whistled appreciatively upon seeing her for the first time. There was no question why Moore had fallen for her. A mixture of innocence and complete confidence in her ability to take care of herself radiated from her posture. She handled the rifle over her shoulder with skill as well, having been part of the hunting party that had retrieved the rabbits for lunch.
"Well, a promise is a promise," Buck shrugged.
Ezra leaned forward, tapping a long piece of grass against his chin. "At some point she will have to separate from her compatriots to, shall we say…."
"Perform her ablutions?" Nathan finished, quoting Ezra from the time they’d been on the wagon train. Ezra half smiled.
"In a manner of speaking," the gambler agreed. "I’ll capture her and take her behind those trees yonder," he pointed to a small copse of trees on the other side of the campsite. "As soon as I give you the signal, start firing. We’ll get them between us."
"Sounds good. Wish we had the others here though." Nathan said, as he watched the Ancient talk quietly to Emily. She looked to be arguing with him about something, though they couldn’t hear what. Moments later, she slapped the old man across the face and stalked off. She headed for the trees, beyond which there was a small river.
"Goodness, wonder what that was for?" Buck mused.
"I couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess, Mr. Wilmington, however," Ezra jumped to his feet, "it has provided us with the opportunity we need." He jogged off, his body almost bent in two in order to stay low, disappearing into the tall grass. Moments later, the two lawmen saw him skirt behind the camp and into the trees on the far side. Nathan shook his head. The gambler’s red jacket burned like a fire beacon in his vision – he was always amazed the gambler could sneak past anyone wearing that thing.
Ezra peered around the trees in time to see Emily crouch down by the river, her hands dipping into the water to wash her face. He shoulders shook slightly, and she appeared to be wiping tears from her face. Over the rush of the river, she was oblivious to the gambler as he crept up behind her.
With one swift move, he wrapped a hand across her mouth and pressed the Remington into her side. She inhaled deeply, indicating that she planned to scream as soon as he loosed his grip.
"I wouldn’t," he drawled, pressing the gun deeper. "Now, I’m going to lower my hand. You make one sound and I’ll clock you on the back of your head with this gun hard enough to knock you out. Now, I don’t enjoy hurting people, particularly women, but, frankly, self-preservation is far more important to me than principle in moments like these. Do I have your cooperation?"
After a moment, Emily nodded. Slowly, Ezra lowered his hand and backed off, gun still pointed at her. She turned to face him, her eyes widening as she recognized the gambler from the saloon where her Robin had met Stuart James.
"You," she hissed. He’d ingratiated himself with Robin, and her lover had let him overhear their plans. He’d seemed so harmless. Looking into his cold eyes now, Emily realized what fools they had been. "Robin trusted you," she muttered unhappily.
"Please put your hands in front of you, Miss Durgin." He reached around his back with his free hand for the handcuffs that the Marshal had given them.
"Mrs. Moore," Emily corrected quietly, doing as she was ordered with a downcast expression. Ezra hesitated only momentarily upon hearing the new information, then snapped the cuffs into place on her wrists.
"Then I’m sorry to have to do this, Mrs. Moore. But I’m afraid I work for somebody who cares very much about your welfare. She is under the mistaken impression that you were kidnapped."
Emily looked up, "She?"
"Vee is here? Oh God." The young girl shut her clear blue eyes, turning her face away from him.
"Obviously, you were not kidnapped, which is why I’ve had to cuff you," he explained, to which Emily simply nodded understandingly. "But what your husband does, however romantic, is against the law. His thieving raises the price of cattle for everyone, and puts those small farmers that he sells to in a great deal of danger. Men like Stuart James are not good men, Emily. If he were to ever try and get retribution for what you’ve done, I guarantee he would not hesitate to hurt any of those small ranchers in order to get at you." Emily opened her eyes as he spoke, but she didn’t respond to the argument.
"Not to mention what he would do to any of you, had he managed to catch you first," he added. When she again didn’t respond, Ezra sighed, and pulled out a white handkerchief from his coat pocket.
"Just thought you should hear the other side, my dear." He stepped forward and stuffed the handkerchief unceremoniously into her mouth. She gagged slightly, and he looked properly contrite. "Sorry. Self-preservation instincts again," he smiled, flashing a gold tooth. She didn’t respond, her eyes looking tired. Leaving her standing there, he moved to the river and retrieved her white hat from a rock. He handed it to hold in her cuffed hands.
"This’ll all be over soon," he stated, taking her gently by the arm, "and I promise that we will not harm anyone unless we have to, okay?" She looked at him balefully for a moment, then nodded.
Quietly, he led them back through the trees until they were once more on the outskirts of camp. Sitting Emily down next to a tree, he pulled out a second handkerchief and waved it at the ridge.
"There he is," Buck grinned. He stood up, and loudly cocked his rifle. A ways down the ridge, Nathan stood as well and did the same.
"GENTLEMEN!" Buck yelled down to the camp. Five pairs of eyes swiveled upwards. "I advise that you lay down your arms. You are surrounded, and we have no problem in shooting your prizes in order to get to you!" He raised the rifle to his eye, as did Nathan. Down by the trees, Ezra showed himself enough to be seen, guns in both his hands.
The men in the camp checked out their adversaries, then did what was instinctive. They went for their guns.
"Why don’t they ever listen!" Buck yelled in frustration, firing downwards. Nathan aimed for the cattle, spooking them and getting them to run off. Ezra aimed for their guns, and for the wagon on which he knew there was some powder hidden. Seconds later, his aim hit true, and the wagon went up in an explosive blaze, throwing men to the ground with their hands over their heads. Up on the ridge, Buck laughed, and even Nathan cracked a smile.
The Ancient bellowed at his men to lower their weapons, which they did. As Ezra had promised, no one was seriously hurt – just dazed from the blast and the craziness of the gunfight. The gambler grinned, and stood up, his eyes on the camp. He never saw Emily behind him as she raised the heavy branch in her cuffed hands.
Then all he knew was blackness.
Emily dropped the branch, momentarily shocked by all the blood on the back of his head. She couldn’t see him breathing, and all that blood everywhere – she even had some of it on her shirt. Horror filled her as she realized what she'd done.
She'd killed him.
Getting a hold of herself, she pulled the gag from her mouth, and fumbled for his Remington with her hands. Moments later, she stepped out of the woods.
"LOWER YOUR GUNS!" She yelled up at the ridge. "Lower them or he dies!" The young girl pointed the gun two-handed at the man on the ground, hoping they couldn’t see that he was already dead, her hands shaking. The men in the camp turned to look at her, and the Ancient smiled.
Buck looked down at the red coated body, unable to see the blood from his vantage point. But that Ezra was unconscious was obvious. He glanced at Nathan, who bit his lip and nodded in return.
"Okay, okay," Buck called down to her. "Don’t hurt him!" He threw his rifle down and raised his hands. Next to him, the healer did the same. In the camp, the outlaws picked up their own guns and trained them on the lawmen.
"I think you’d best come down here, boys!" The Ancient called up. The two lawmen did as they were ordered, and slipped down the ridge carefully. Behind them, the three lawmen’s horses whickered curiously where Ezra had ground tied them. Chaucer pulled at his reins, pulling them free of the other two. Moments later Gray and Gideon were alone as a couple of the Ancient’s men arrived to collect them.
Down at camp, someone was tying up Buck’s wrists, while Nathan looked worriedly over at where Ezra still lay. Emily had joined them, the Remington tucked into her pants. She seemed totally disinterested in them, her blue eyes fixed dispassionately on the ground. As the same man who tied up Buck moved to tie up the healer, Nathan tried to pull away.
"No wait, please. I’m a healer. Let me go check up on my friend, please." Emily looked up at his words, her eyes wet.
"No need. He’s already dead," she stated hoarsely.
The Ancient’s head snapped up at the news, obviously surprised. She stared back at him for a moment before walking away towards to horses. In the background, three men took off after the running cattle.
Nathan just blinked, not even noticing as the ropes bit into his skin. He continued to look at Ezra, unwilling to believe it. But the gambler hadn’t moved since they came down the hill, and the blood on the ground by his head was spreading.
Buck shut his eyes, and brought his bound hands up to cover his face. When he dropped them a few minutes later, it was to shoot a murderous glare at the retreating back of Miss Emily Durgin.
Michael Cash had the smallest group, with only three men and less than twenty cattle. He was, however, leaving the most obvious trail. Vin didn’t even have to get off his horse to see the huge swath Cash was creating. When the huge man and his henchmen stopped for lunch, Vin and JD were already ahead of them, hiding in the small canyon Cash would have to cut through.
Vin checked his Winchester a few times before looking across to where JD was on the other side. JD saw his gaze and held up the stick of dynamite he was holding, showing he was ready. The plan was simple. As soon as Cash entered, they would pin him down and trap the men and the cattle inside the canyon. JD would throw his stick of dynamite behind them, while Vin threw one up ahead, blocking the two exits. So long as the cows didn’t freak so much that they ran down the four outlaws on horses, it should be easy to capture them.
Still, Vin knew that nothing was simple. He was frightened, and something was gnawing at his gut. Dispelling the feeling, he put up his spyglass and watched as Cash drew his men together to head out. Slowly, they made it to the canyon. Cash rode in front with an old Indian scout, while the two other outlaws rode behind the quiet herd.
After what seemed like an eternity, they were all in, and Vin gave JD the signal.
Simultaneously, two sticks of dynamite were thrown, and the ensuing rockslides rained down as predicted. It was all the four outlaws could do not to be trampled by the frightened cows. By the time they could look up, it was to see both JD and Vin staring down their rifles.
"Throw away from your guns and put your hands up!" JD shouted. "My name is Sheriff Dunne and you lot are under arrest. If you do not do as we tell you, Vin will pick you off one by one, understand?"
As proof, Vin shot a Colt out of the hand of one of the outlaws who looked like he was tempted to use it. Cash twisted in his seat and told his men to stand down and do as they are told.
"Today, we do as you ask," Cash called up, his thick Italian accent coloring the words. "But tomorrow, watch your backs!"
Vin grimaced but didn’t drop his aim. JD quickly made his way to the canyon floor and shackled the prisoners. The entrance and exits to the canyon were not so blocked that they couldn’t get out if they moved single file, and, under Vin’s watchful eye, the men did just that.
"Where are we going," Cash asked finally, as they quietly made it out of the canyon.
"Four Corners jail, Cash, where you will soon be joined by the rest of your merry men." JD replied gruffly, his gun loose in his hand. "Now move it."
Behind them, Vin shuddered as another wave of dread washed over him.
Chapter Four: The Aftermath
It hadn’t taken the Ancient and his men long to round up he bulk of the cattle they’d lost, although a few mavericks were still wandering about by themselves. Soon, they were moving back the way the came, although in a more westerly direction. If anything went wrong, Moore had a pre-planned rendezvous point for them to meet. As the Ancient looked back at the two deathly quiet prisoners, and at the equally quiet Emily, he figured this classified as something going very wrong. With any luck, Moore would soon learn of the disaster and meet up with them.
They left the dead man where he had fallen, expecting that the predators in the area would soon take care of the body. They didn’t see the chestnut horse that appeared from out of the woods after they left, the quarter horse quickly taking up a protective stance over his rider.
The town was quiet when Vin and JD rode in that evening. They’d dropped the cattle off at the James ranch on the way in, and, surprisingly enough, Stuart James had not only thanked them heartily, but had offered to let them borrow some men to help guard the prisoners. The two lawmen thanked him but said no, though they also asked if any of the other Seven had been by. James had said that he himself had only returned an hour earlier, so didn’t know for sure, but he’d keep an eye out.
Now, as they entered the town, they realized it was much too quiet for the others to have beaten them here. The knots in Vin’s stomach continued to twist as they put Cash and his men in jail, and he immediately went outside to watch for Chris and the rest. JD sat behind his desk and pulled out a deck of cards that Ezra had given him to play with. The gambler had told him they were marked, but so far JD hadn’t been able to figure out how. Sighing, he started to play solitaire.
Mary and Inez came by almost immediately to ask questions, although Inez had also had the forethought to bring them some food. Just as Vin was starting to tell the story, he heard the approach of more riders. Looking up, he saw Chris, Josiah and the Marshal coming in hard…and alone.
"What happened?" Vin called, stepping away from Mary and Inez. Chris pulled Solon up hard in front of the jail and looked at the tracker with cold eyes.
"They got away," he stated quietly. "How’d you fare?"
"We got Cash and his boys. Dropped off the twenty head they had at the James ranch."
Chris nodded, and dismounted. Josiah and the Marshal had already gotten down and were tying up their horses. The evening light played tricks on their faces, deepening the shadows and making them look pale and ghostlike. Vin shook for the third time that day, and wrapped his arms tightly about his body.
"Buck and the others back yet?" Josiah asked, looking for the familiar horses near the saloon.
"No, though we only just got here ourselves," JD answered from the door to the jail. "They should be back soon."
Vin shut his eyes and turned away, no longer trusting himself to hide his worry from the others. Chris and Josiah saw the move, and the preacher looked unconsciously towards the sky. It was pinking against the darkening atmosphere, the red sun bruising the clouds that drifted across the manse. Then the shriek of a crow broke the quiet, and Josiah’s eyes widened. He looked over at the man in black, who was watching him with equal intensity.
Chris threw up a hand, "No. Not one word, Josiah. Not one word."
The man woke with a start, his first thoughts being that he couldn’t see. It only took a few minutes for him to realize that it was because it was dark out and he was looking at the ground through a whole mess of dark hair. Brushing it back, his hand accidentally brushed the wound in the back of his head and he cried out in pain.
A chestnut colored stallion was there instantly, snuffling around the man’s head, trying to rouse him. The man brushed him away, not understanding the intent. Slowly, with one hand holding onto his neck, the man got to his knees. The pain radiating down his neck from his skull was so intense, it nearly drowned out everything else and threatened to send him back to oblivion. Gamely, he fought against the urge and looked around. A black hat lay nearby and he unthinkingly placed it on his head, though he did avoid the gash he knew existed just below its brim.
He was lying at the edge of a small wood and he could hear a small river rushing nearby. Before him was an empty clearing, though the trampled grass and black fire pit suggested that it had become empty only today…or maybe tonight. He squinted around at the black and blue landscape, and at the moon and stars above. It was a full moon, thankfully, and his eyes adjusted quickly.
The stallion came up next to the man again and lowered his head. The man looked up at the horse in puzzlement for a moment, until he realized that the horse was offering to act as something for him to lean on.
"Thank you," he whispered, putting his hand on the horses golden hide. With a lot of grunting, somehow the man got to his feet. He vision swam vividly, and if the horse hadn’t been there, the man was certain he would have fallen over again. Somehow, the horse got up right close to him, catching him as he listed to the side.
"Thank you again," he smiled, patting him. "You’re a good horse." He stumbled a bit until he was standing up straight, grimacing as he felt something against his ribs. With care, he extracted the book out of his waistcoat and tried to read the title in the moonlight.
"Othello," he muttered, staring at the odd name, "by William Shakespeare." He looked over at the horse, which was obviously keeping close tabs on him. He held the book up and smiled thinly. "I suppose I should know who this is, huh, horse. Of course, I probably also know who you are…or…who I am." He frowned, and his knees threatened to buckle again. Instantly, the horse was there, acting as a brace. The man leaned against him, tucking the book back inside his vest, and took in the horse’s heady smell. It seemed to clear his head a little. Gingerly, he reached up to grab the saddlehorn.
"Well, perhaps you can help me get to someone who can tell me," he told the horse, pulling himself up onto its back. With a gentle nudge of the knees, the man sent the horse into a steady walk. Pretty soon, it was all the man could do to stay conscious as the dark scenery blurred past. Chaucer slowed down instinctively, shifting his direction slightly every time he felt his rider list sideways in the saddle, then resuming the course home.
"What ho, the camp!" Robin shouted as he approached the rendezvous point. Seeing the cheerful fire had immediately brightened the rustler’s mood. So, he mused, the Marshal had not been wholly accurate in her assumption that his other men would be caught. The Ancient stood up, and the guards on the outskirts lowered their weapons.
"Are you alright, masser?" The Ancient called back. The term brought Nathan’s head up with a jerk, his eyes bright despite the fact that he’d been worriedly watching over Buck the whole evening.
"Fine, Burnsy. Is Emily alright?"
"As well as can be, masser, but…well…we ran into some trouble." The Ancient pointed to the two lawmen. Buck was curled up on his side, not bothering to look at Moore as he entered the camp. He’d not spoken since he saw Ezra on the ground, despite Nathan’s attempts to draw him out. It was clear the ladies man was blaming himself for not realizing that the girl had been more than she seemed. She was a killer.
"What happened," Moore asked, dismounting and allowing someone else to take his horse for him. The Ancient sighed and proceeded to tell of the ambush and how it ended. Robin stared at him dumbfounded, his face stretched with worry for the first time that day.
"She killed someone?" he whispered.
"Yes, and she hasn’t spoken since." The ex-slave turned away, his cheeks a dark red beneath the sun-roughened skin. "I’m sorry. I know you entrusted me with her protection."
"Oh God. I suppose she had to learn sometime, but I was hoping…damn. Where is she?"
"In the tent over yonder." He pointed towards a small lean-to tent near the edge of the clearing they were in. As if aware that she was being spoken of, Emily herself stepped out of the shelter and looked at her husband. Her blond hair cascaded down her back in loose curls, her face pallid in the moonlight. She hugged her arms close to her body, and, even from here, Robin could see that she was shaking in the cold night air.
Moore looked back at his friend and patted him on the arm. "I know it wasn’t your fault, Burnsy. I’ll take care of her." He sighed and looked over at the group of men he’d come in with. "We ran into the same trouble, ambushed by the Lady Marshal on our way to Red Springs. Post a guard tonight, and keep your eye out for Cash. I’m guessing he might have had trouble too."
"What about them?" The Ancient looked over at the prisoners.
Moore sighed and shook his head. "I don’t know. I’ll be more clear-headed in the morning. We’ll deal with them then."
Wednesday morning…false dawn blankets the landscape…the temperature has changed abruptly, hinting at the coming winter with a nasty cold spell…
"Damn, damn, damn!" Garrett fumed, pacing the small jail furiously. How could she have been such a fool, letting Moore get the upper hand like that? She had known about Moore’s derringer, that damn gambler of Larabee’s had told her, but had she absorbed that information? Hell no. No, she let her emotions cloud her judgement and it all went to hell.
Worse still, the others hadn’t returned. How could she have trusted them with something as important to her as Emily? She looked over at where the young sheriff was still playing solitaire. Dark rings were visible under his brown eyes after a sleepless night, and she knew that her own eyes mirrored them. Shooting him a disgusted look, she stormed outside to look out at the landscape.
Chris looked up from where he sat in front of the jail wrapped in a rough blanket. "Marshal," he welcomed coldly. She glared at him, as if that one word were all that she needed to rip his throat out. Chris didn’t even flinch…he had bigger things to worry about now than her glare.
"Is that damn tracker of yours awake yet? Or the preacher?" she barked, setting her hat on her head.
"I’m right here, ma’am," Vin stated, coming around the corner. "And Josiah is in the church, doing his thing."
"No, I’m here," Josiah rumbled as he walked up. As with all the rest, he had rings under his eyes.
"Finally," she spat, stepping out into the street, her back to them. "Do you think we can leave now? Or do you still think those three idiots will show up?"
"What is your problem!" Vin suddenly stormed. "You think that you’re the only one in pain? Three of our boys are out there, somewhere, maybe dead, and all you can think about is your precious Emily!"
"Dead?" Garrett whipped her head around to face the tracker. "They’re not dead. I know exactly where they are. They’re in some saloon somewhere laughing at me, at you! They probably killed Emily and the Ancient and took the cattle for themselves. I know what men like those drifters of yours are like. All they care about is money, and selling off that cattle would get them a lot of it."
"What the hell!" Vin shouted. "What gives you the right to…" he stopped as someone laid a restraining hand on his arm. Chris had stood and was now favoring him with a 'what's-the-point?' look, but Vin shook him off. The tracker glared at the Marshal.
"Buck and Nathan would never even consider what you're proposing, Garrett. And Ez may love money but he knows where the line is – he’d never cross it for a few measly bucks. Hell, any of ‘em would die first before ever hurting a girl. Are you so blind that you can’t see that?"
Garret snorted. "On the contrary, Tanner. I can obviously see more clearly than you ever will. I knew I should never have trusted you, any of you, especially not that lascivious ladies man or that slum-dwelling gambler whom you," she pointed at Chris, "YOU, sent after that innocent girl. God knows what that moustached rake of yours is up to…." She shuddered at the thought.
"Buck would never hurt Emily," JD pronounced from the open door to the jail. He stood there, hands clenched into fists. "And Ezra and Nathan wouldn’t neither." The statement was delivered so quietly, and with such resounding conviction that Garrett actually hesitated before responding. She stared at him for a moment with narrowed eyes, perhaps seeing something in him she didn't notice before. Finally, she inclined her head once.
"No," she admitted slowly, watching him. "No, maybe not they would not hurt her…. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t leave her."
"Marshal," Chris intoned dangerously, "I think it best that you stop now. Believe me when I tell you that I know Buck Wilmington better than I know myself – he would never leave anyone behind." Garrett shot an incredulous look in his direction, clearly not as willing to accept his opinion as readily as that of the kid's.
"Really," she replied. "Well then, maybe you should be out sending out telegrams to other sheriffs looking for that gambler of yours. I certainly wouldn’t put it past his kind to have shot both your men and my Emily in the back if the money was right. Gamblers like Standish are bottom feeders, Larabee, I’m surprised you haven’t figured that out yet."
The hand that grabbed her jacket from behind caused Garrett to jump, and she had to fight not to react violently as Josiah twisted her around to look at him. He literally loomed over her, and she found herself shaking slightly at the malevolence in his face.
"Let go of me," Garrett demanded, trying to regain her dignity.
"Josiah," Chris warned, stepping towards the preacher.
The preacher’s hand shook where he gripped her jacket, all his fear and frustration demanding release. The tentative control he held on his temper wavered, and for a moment Garrett saw something in his eyes that none of the others had ever seen. She saw the man Josiah had once been – and it terrified her. He started to lift her off her feet, ignoring her gasps for breaths.
"JOSIAH!" Chris yelled. Like a bolt of lightening, the preacher woke. He let go of the Marshal and backed off, never taking his eyes off of her. Finally, he took in a shaky breath, then quickly moved passed JD to hide inside the jail.
Her lips still trembling slightly, the Marshal smoothed down her jacket and shook herself. Looking up, she saw Chris watching her coolly. Vin was turned away, his arms crossed, and JD was looking at his feet.
"I’m sorry," she said quietly, her hazel eyes hard. Inwardly, she was surprised to note that she actually was sorry, to a degree. She knew she had simply been taking out her fear and worry for Emily out on them, and that they probably didn't deserve it.
"You trust them, your men," she asked the man in black. He nodded once.
"Tell me, Mr. Larabee, if…if you had a daughter taken from you, and you had to trust complete strangers to get her back, ones who, upon first glance, seem more like criminals than anything else…" She paused, shaking her head slowly and sighed. "What I mean to say is, you can trust your men, Larabee, because you know them. I do not have that luxury. I only know that Emily does not belong out there, and if I have to go through you or any of your men to make sure she is safe, then I will." She looked down at the ground when he didn’t reply, and licked her lips. "But if anything I have said is untrue, or unwarranted in this case, then I am sorry."
Chris just stared back, not acknowledging the barbed apology. "Marshal, this is my town. Your power to order us around is over. From now on, it is purely on my sufferance that you are even here. You say one more thing against my men, and I will personally see to it that you leave Four Corners never to return."
Garrett tensed her jaw and looked away down the street in the direction of where they had lost Moore. She had crossed her arms and was leaning heavily on her left hip, as if ignoring the men in behind of her. Still, she listened as Chris turned to the tracker, his voice dropping to a calmer tone.
"Vin, if we go back to the site where the Moore group split up initially, you think you can track our boys?" Vin simply favored Chris with a sarcastic look, and the man in black nodded. "Good, go get the horses." Then he turned to go inside and talk to Josiah, stopping only to pat JD on the arm where he still stood in the doorway, the boy's eyes downcast. Vin started walking in the direction of the livery, away from the Marshal.
Garrett straightened as she saw the red coat on the lone figure coming into town, his black riverboat hat low on his head. He was slumped slightly in the saddle, but not enough that it appeared he was hurt. Without waiting for the others, she started to stride swiftly across to where Chaucer was pulling to stop in front of the saloon. JD saw the Marshal move off out of the corner of his eye, and bellowed for the others when he saw what she was aiming for. As a group they jogged to catch up with her.
The gambler stumbled slightly as he dismounted, forcing himself to keep a hand on Chaucer’s hide to keep himself steady. He looked up in time to see Garrett grab him forcefully by the lapels and drag him to her.
"Where is she, you loathsome no-good son of a bitch! Where’d you leave her? If she is hurt, so help me God!" Every word was punctuated with venom, and she shook Ezra as if he were a ragdoll.
"Let him GO, Marshal!" Chris ordered, coming up behind her.
"Not until he tells me where she is!" she yelled back, shaking the gambler some more. Ezra just tried to stop from passing out again, his vision starting to swim again with the rough treatment. "Where’d you dump Emily, you self-serving bastard!"
"Damn it, Garrett," Chris shouted, pulling on her arm. With a final shake, the Marshal yelled in frustration and threw Ezra down onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon. He fell on his back, his hat rolling off to land somewhere near the doors. Inez chose that moment to push one of them open. Gingerly, she picked up the hat and brought it close to her chest, but she didn’t step closer to the altercation.
Chris pulled Garrett away, forcing her to step behind him. JD stood off to one side, his hands resting unconsciously on his pistols as he watched. Vin squatted down on the right side of Ezra, watching as the gambler levered himself up onto his right elbow from off the boardwalk. Josiah moved to stand on Ezra’s left side, and watched Chris with Garrett. For his part, the gambler never took his clear green eyes off of the Marshal, focusing on her like a guiding light.
"What happened, Ezra," Chris urged, one hand gripping Garrett’s arm as his eyes searched the gambler’s for answers. Ezra’s eyes swiveled to meet the man in black, and he smiled oddly.
"I, uh…" He blinked a few times, and looked over at Chaucer. The horse watched him balefully, and snorted. Ezra gestured to him with his left hand, "I’m not sure. After I woke up, he…the horse there…he brought me here…." The explanation was soft, almost unintelligible, and Vin frowned. Josiah's brow knit in confusion at the words, and knelt down on Ezra’s left side in order to get a better look at the younger man.
"No, Ezra, where is the girl? And where are Buck and Nathan?" Chris rephrased, his mind not registering the odd statement.
"Did you just call him ‘the horse?’" Vin interrupted softly before Ezra could answer Chris, indicating with his head towards the tried looking chestnut stallion. "Do you mean Chaucer?"
Chris blinked, and looked at Vin, suddenly realizing what Ezra had said. Ezra turned to look bemusedly up at the tracker, seeing the concern and kindness there. Without thinking, he leant his head against Vin’s crouched knee and closed his eyes.
"Is that his name? S’good horse," he mumbled. "Never let me fall…."
"Chris," Josiah whispered, reaching forward to touch the back of Ezra’s neck. The gambler didn’t even flinch. When the preacher showed his fingers to his leader, they were covered with blood. "He’s got a nasty gash on the back of his head," he stated unnecessarily.
"Hell," Chris hissed, gritting his teeth.
Garrett sighed and took a step back, shaking her arm out of Chris’s now loose grip. JD’s hands fell to his sides, his mouth agape in wordless concern.
"Son, do you know where you are?" Josiah asked, placing a hand on Ezra’s shoulder.
The con man turned his head to peer up at Josiah, his eyes curious. "Son?"
"Ezra," Vin tried, "do you know who we are?" He placed his hand under Ezra’s jaw to force the gambler to look back over at him.
Ezra grinned as he took in Vin’s serious expression, and started to chuckle nervously. "No, sir, but then again, that’s okay," he laughed a little harder, "…'cause I don’t know who I am either." For some reason, Ezra found this statement hilarious. He started to laugh uncontrollably, and closed his eyes again. Josiah gritted his teeth. Vin looked up at Chris, the fear in the tracker’s eyes complementing the consternation in Larabee's. Garrett threw up her arms in frustration and turned away.
"Ezra," Chris said, trying to get the gambler's attention. When it didn’t work, Josiah tapped Ezra's shoulder. Green eyes opened again, liquid from laughter, and looked up at the preacher. He hiccupped a few times, then managed to still his giggling.
"Ask him if he remembers where he woke up, and if there was anyone else there," Chris said to Josiah.
"Do you?" The preacher asked, watching Ezra carefully.
The gambler's eyes narrowed slightly as he stared at Josiah, then he grinned again. "Just me, the horse, and Shakespeare, all alone in the dark!" he replied jovially, patting his chest, and started laughing again. Chris raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn’t respond.
"C’mon son, let’s get you up to bed," Josiah whispered, placing a hand under Ezra’s left arm. With Vin’s help, they got Ezra back to his feet, the gambler using Josiah for support, his laughter fading with the exertion. By the time he was standing upright, Ezra was deathly quiet, his breathing ragged, and the paleness of his features stuck out grimly against the dusty red coat. He had both arms around the preacher’s neck, his eyes intent on ensuring that his legs didn’t buckle. He failed. In one swift move, Josiah used his free arm to hook under Ezra’s collapsing knees, and picked him up.
"Thanks, Da," Ezra whispered, before the blackness encroaching on his vision overtook him completely. Josiah’s eyes widened as he looked at Vin, who was making sure that the preacher had a good hold on the man in his arms. Vin shrugged.
"You called him son a couple of times," the tracker suggested. "Since he don’t seem to know who we are…. I guess he just assumed."
Inez pulled open the doors to the saloon and waited for Josiah to walk through. Josiah swallowed, and, shifting his burden to a more comfortable position, proceeded to take Ezra up to his room. Inez followed quietly on his heels.
Chris watched them leave, then turned back to Vin. "We can follow Ezra’s tracks back to the site he was hurt. With luck, we’ll find a trail that will lead us to the others from there."
Vin nodded, and looked at the saloon. "He needs to have that head seen to first, Chris."
"I know, but who…."
Vin tilted his head. "I can do it. Lord knows I’ve sewed up myself enough times to have gotten used to it. It won’t be as pretty as when Nathan does it, but, then again, the scar’ll be hidden beneath all that thick hair of his." He smiled slightly.
"Now wait a minute, here," Garrett interrupted. "We’ll need Tanner’s help to track."
"Chris is a fine tracker, Marshal, as I’m sure you are. Besides, I’ll catch up as soon as I’m done," Vin interjected. Garrett opened her mouth to argue.
"Go on, Vin," Chris ordered, before she could speak. "Me and the Marshal will set out now. Soon as you’re done, you come out after us."
"Wait, leave the preacher and the boy too? Oh come on!" the Marshal demanded angrily. "You expect us to take on thirteen men with hostages with just the three of us?"
"You know full well JD and Josiah need to stay here and wait for the army to pick up Cash, Marshal. We can’t risk the town being unguarded should Moore figure out where his men are before we find him. As soon as the army comes, they will come out to help us."
Garrett looked ready to disagree, when a pinpoint of reason pierced her single-minded brain. She shut her mouth and turned away. Chris turned to his best friend and nodded.
Tanner took off for the clinic at a run, intending to get the supplies he needed. The Marshal grimaced as she saw him leave, then went straight to the livery for her horse. JD and Chris followed more slowly, JD watching her unhappily.
"I don’t like her much anymore, Chris," he muttered.
"That’s alright, JD. I don’t think she much likes herself either."
Josiah took the proffered wet cloth from Inez and started to clean the blood and grime from Ezra’s neck. They had turned the young man on his side, his back to the window for the best light. The head wound was perhaps an inch in diameter, and had resumed bleeding with Josiah’s ministrations. With tremendous care, the preacher did what he could to clean it out without hurting Ezra too much.
The gambler hadn’t stirred since losing consciousness in the preacher’s arms.
Inez stroked Ezra's forehead with her finger, and watched Josiah work. She had never seen such pain on the older man’s face before. He looked a little lost.
"Will he be alright, Senor Sanchez?" she asked quietly.
Josiah frowned and shook his head. "I think if we can find someone to stitch this up, he should be fine."
"And his memory?"
Josiah swallowed, and the knot in his chest tightened. Ezra calling him "Da" had been a shock to him. But, at the same time, it had ignited something in him he thought long dead. The pure joy he’d felt, even if only for a second, had flared so hot in his soul he could still feel it. Now reality reminded him that it had been an aberration, brought on by the younger man’s pain.
"I don’t know, Inez," he sighed. Just then, Vin opened the door, carrying Nathan’s doctor bag. He moved to replace Josiah, and inspected the wound.
"Nice job, pard," Vin said. "I’m going to use some of Nathan’s herbs to disinfect it as best I can, then I’m going to stitch it. Could you stay and hold him down in case he starts to wake?"
Josiah nodded, mutely accepting the idea that Vin could do exactly what he said he could do. Inez, however, was slightly less trusting.
"Can you do that? I thought only Nathan…."
"I can do it, Inez. And iffin I don’t, well, it won’t matter anyhows. The wound has to be closed."
Inez watched him start to dig through Nathan’s things for the herbs, and swallowed nervously. "Oh….well, ca…can I get you anything?"
"Hot water? And some more cloths like the one Josiah is using?"
She nodded, and almost ran from the room. Josiah looked out of the window in time to see Chris and the Marshal ride off.
"We catching up with them later?" he asked.
"I am. Soon as we’re done with Ez, here. You and JD are staying here to guard the prisoners and watch for any rescue attempts." Vin glanced up as he spoke, and noticed that Josiah wasn’t really listening to him. Instead, the preacher had his eyes shut tightly, and was wiping a hand across them tiredly.
Vin knew Josiah was capable of more love than the rest of them combined, and likely also more rage, but it was the first time he’d ever seen it focused so squarely on just one person. Vin was not oblivious to the sudden wanting that had lit in Josiah’s frightened eyes at hearing Ezra call him "da." He just hoped the preacher didn’t take it too literally. Seeing the large man standing there, barely suppressing his feelings, however, worried the tracker somewhat.
Reminding himself of his purpose, Vin turned his attention away and went through the black bag. It only took him a few seconds to find the herbs he needed and lie them out on the nightstand.
By the time Inez had returned, Josiah was back to his old self, sitting on Ezra’s opposite side and watching as Vin did his best to finish the cleaning job the preacher had started, while binding the gambler’s hair back with some cloths to better expose the gash.
The boot to Buck’s side was vicious, and the one that followed it no less so. He jolted awake instantly, though his confused mind had still to figure out what was happening. Purely out of instinct, the ladies man leapt to his feet, a growl in his throat, fully intending on giving his offender a piece of his own medicine. That’s when he noticed that his legs were shackled together, as were his hands. Completely unbalanced from the fetters, he quickly fell back to the ground in a heap.
He found himself looking up into Nathan’s bloodshot eyes, the healer giving him a small smile. That’s when Buck remembered where they were…and what had happened to Ezra. In the background laughter echoed, mocking Buck’s predicament.
Still angry, Buck rolled over and tried to get himself into a sitting position so as to face the man who kicked him.
"What the hell was that for!" he growled, finding himself faced with a small party of about five men.
A younger man, close to thirty in years, bent over him, his chapped lips curled into a snarl. Frizzy hair topped his lanky frame, jutting out at all angles like an old toothbrush. Buck retreated under the force of his breath.
"Only what you deserve, lawman, for thinking you could take the us. Now, where’s Cash?"
"Cash?" Buck sneered. "I got five bucks in my pocket, you frizzy-haired runt, if you're weasel enough to try and take it from me." He stopped as the frizzy haired man slapped him hard across the face, driving him backwards a bit under the blow.
"Michael Cash, you lily-livered piece of horse manure. Tell me where he is or I’ll beat it out of you."
"Ooh," Buck rolled forward again, his cheek reddened from the blow. His eyes sparkled with malice as he replied, "that’s a new one. Bet it took you a few minutes to come up with that threat, huh, runt." This earned him another smack, giving him a matching bruise on his other cheek. He rolled forward again on his knees, and regarded frizzy hair coldly.
The outlaw took the look as a challenge and dragged Buck to his feet by his jacket lapels. "I ain't going to ask you again, old man." It didn’t seem to bother frizzy hair in the least that Buck had at least three inches in height on him. Buck simply smiled.
"Old man? Nathan, did he just call me old man?"
"Yep," the healer replied, settling back against the tree. He was actually feeling an odd sense of relief as he watched Buck spar with this peon of Moore’s. It signaled that Buck had gotten his spirit back, something he’d lacked all the day and night before. Nathan smiled as he looked at the frizzy haired man, "probably shouldn’t have done that."
Frizzy looked at Nathan, and in that same instant Buck brought his bound arms up to knock away the man’s grip, sending the man back a step. As Frizzy tried to regain his balance, Buck drew his hands back and proceeded to deliver a two fisted blow to the side of the man’s head. Frizzy went flying. The other four outlaws were there instantly, pushing and pulling Buck to the ground. Nathan jumped on them, shoving them off. Somebody else grabbed Nathan from behind, dragging him off. An all out brawl ensued, as blows rained down on both shackled captives.
The gunshot echoed through the clearing, startling all the men in the melee. They all looked up to see Moore holding his gun up in the air, the Ancient to his right and Emily on his left.
"BACK OFF," Moore barked, "NOW!" The reaction was instantaneous. The outlaws almost ran to get out of their leader’s way, and frizzy hair bowed his head.
"Manny, what the hell do you think you are doing?"
Frizzy hair licked his lips, and seemed to bow his head even further. "Cash didn’t come back last night, Robin. I was just trying to get these guys to tell me where he is."
"Funny sort of interrogation, Manny. Looked more like you were beating on two defenseless men who are bound hand and foot." The disdain in Moore’s Texan accent was thick, and Manny actually blushed. As Nathan wiped some of the blood from his face, he couldn’t help but wonder at the power the young blond man seemed to wield over his men. Just a few words had them all cowering.
"Go water the horses, Manny. I’ll speak with you later." Moore looked at others, "the rest of you are all going to be pulling double shifts this week, understand?"
Mumbled assents could be heard among the six men who’d gotten involved in the fight, and a few stilted apologies could be heard. Moore looked to the ex-slave, "Burnsy, work it out will you?"
The Ancient nodded curtly, and snapped his fingers. The six men followed him dejectedly. Moore then turned his attention to his prisoners. Emily stood just behind him, looking as if she hoped she would disappear behind his lean six-foot frame.
As Nathan sized him up, he understood why Emily had so easily fallen in love with this man. Besides being extremely handsome and dressed in the sort of finery that Ezra would have salivated over, he had an air about him that legends were made of. He stood rim rod straight, feet firmly planted in the ground, and his face exuded a confidence that Nathan knew he would never have. It was something that was bred into a man.
He looked like a hero.
Buck, on the other hand, barely glanced at the leader of his captors. His eyes never strayed from the blond creature behind him – the murderer of one of his best friends. Aware of his scrutiny, Emily drew herself even more behind her husband.
As soon as he was sure that the rest of his men were back to doing their various duties, Moore stepped forward and crouched down in front of Buck and Nathan. The two lawmen had managed to pull themselves back into sitting positions, despite the fact that they both sported a few bruises and aches from the recent brawl.
Moore sighed. "So, gentlemen, what are we going to do with you?"
"You could always turn yourselves into us," Buck replied, smiling. "We have a nice cell all ready for you to sleep in."
Moore chuckled, and shook his head. "I’m afraid that was not what I had in mind for my immediate future, boys. However," he turned open blue eyes to meet Buck’s dark blue ones, "I must admit I would like to know where that cell is."
"In a jail, of course," Buck answered. Moore pursed his lips, and tilted his head.
"Mmmm," he turned his eyes to Nathan. The healer met his scrutiny impassively. "Perhaps your boy here might be more inclined to tell me," he said, obviously still directing his words to Buck.
Buck couldn’t help but snort at the idea, and soon he was laughing at the idea of Nathan being his "boy." Nathan, for his part, never even cracked a smile. Moore turned a slightly puzzled gaze back at Buck, then opened his eyes wide as if understanding had just hit him.
"Oh, he’s not yours!" He looked back at Nathan and smiled. "I’m sorry for the assumption, boy. I sometimes forget that not all black men are as loyal as my Ancient." He grinned.
"Loyal? I think you mean addled in the brain, boy," Nathan replied coldly, emphasizing the last word. Moore’s smile faltered slightly, before he nodded.
"As you wish." He stood and backed up a step. "Well, gentlemen, it appears we are at an impasse. Now, I don’t want to have to kill you, or let my men have another go at you, but I will if you don’t tell me what I need to know. You see, Mr. Cash is a very important person to me, as are the men riding with him, and I would very much like to see him returned. Is there anything I can do to convince you to tell me where he is? Perhaps money? Or cattle? gold?"
"There is one thing," Buck said. Nathan arched his eyebrow at the ladies man, surprised.
"Buck," he hissed, not sure what his friend was planning.
"Anything you want," Moore grinned, moving forward again.
Buck’s eyes took on the hardness of steel as he caught Moore’s stare, and a strange, almost wistful smile touched his lips. "You can bring Ezra back."
A small cry erupted from Emily, and she brought a hand up to her mouth. Moore turned to her, his cool façade breaking a little. When he tuned back to Buck, his face was decidedly darker.
"I’m sorry about your friend. But remember it was you who attacked us. From what I’ve heard, it was simply self-defense," he stated.
"Self-defense?" Buck laughed sarcastically, and Nathan shut his eyes. Just as quickly as he had started laughing, Buck stopped, his voice dropping to an icy level. "I hate to break it to you, Moore, but that wife of yours is as wretched and scum encrusted as you are. She murdered our friend, hit him from behind with a killing blow, never even giving him a chance. And if I know Ezra," Buck fixed his gaze on Emily, who kept her face turned away, "he told her we wouldn’t kill any of your men, or her. I guarantee that he never even once threatened her life." Emily’s flinch at the statement was all Buck needed to confirm his words, and he turned back to Moore.
"She did what she had to, to save her men and me, lawman," Moore spat, his handsome visage twisted into a snarl. "Do not hope to twist her honorable act into something else."
Buck raised an eyebrow at that. "An honorable murderer? Well, that really is one I haven’t heard before. No, I’m sorry, Moore. She’s a heartless, cold-blooded killer." He turned his cold gaze once more to the girl, who still refused to look at him. "And she’s gonna hang."
Moore’s reaction was swift, and cruel. He threw himself at Buck, knocking him back against the tree behind him and delivering three hard hits to the man’s face. Buck just took it, and when Moore finally stopped, Buck still managed to fix him with an intimidating glare despite the blood on his chin and the already swelling bruises forming on his cheeks.
Moore backed off, licking the blood of his knuckles. "You’re a fool, lawman." His light blue eyes swiveled to look at Nathan who regarded him impassively. "What about you, boy, you got anything to say?"
Nathan just raised his eyebrows, and an amused look crossed his features. He tilted his head as if seeing something new about Moore for the first time. "Just one. That mole on your neck…I suggest you have it lanced. Looks diseased to me." He grinned, his white teeth shining, "But then I guess it just matches your soul."
Buck chuckled coldly, and Nathan continued to smile.
Moore’s jaw tensed, and he spun on his heel. "Burnsy!" he yelled.
The Ancient ran up from where he had been conversing with some of the men. "Yes sir?"
Moore looked back at the prisoners, his face a picture of distaste. "Take the black man over to the river and teach him some manners. Maybe by the time you’re finished with him, the lawman here will more inclined to answer my questions."
The Ancient nodded coldly as he looked at Nathan. "Yes, sir." He reached down to grab Nathan, but Buck shoved him away with his shoulder. All this did was earn the ladies man a kick to the chest from Moore that sent him sprawling. He watched helplessly as the Ancient unlocked the chains at the healer’s ankles and dragged Nathan away, the healer shaking his head at Buck not to worry.
But Buck did worry.
If they killed Nathan then he would have failed once again to protect his family.
He didn’t know if he could handle failing twice.
It took Vin close to an hour to put what amounted to twenty stitches in Ezra’s head. He knew that it probably would have taken Nathan a third of that time, but the tracker wanted to ensure that he did it right. Luckily, Ezra hadn’t stirred the whole time, except to mumble something incoherent under his breath about the moon. He leaned back with a sigh after tying off the thread, and allowed his body to shake off some of the stored up adrenaline.
Josiah had been there the whole time, occasionally mopping Vin’s brow but mostly just keeping an eye on Ezra. He’d unconsciously brushed some of the curls off the younger man’s forehead a few times, stopping when he caught Vin glancing at him with those damned, overly observant gray eyes.
"You done?" the preacher asked, a little self-consciously.
Vin nodded, and Josiah stood up and leaned over to look at the boy’s handiwork. He whistled appreciatively.
"Well done, brother! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such tiny stitches before. I think you even did a better job than Nathan. The scar’ll be invisible."
Vin allowed himself a brief smile, and actually blushed a little. "Well, considering that’s the first time I ever stitched anyone up other than myself, I thank you kindly Josiah."
The preacher, however, looked a mite disconcerted. "Did you say, the first time?"
This time Vin’s response was to furrow his brow, "Hell now, Josiah. You just got through telling me what a good job I done. What’s it matter that it be the first time?"
Shaking his head, Josiah waved a hand to conciliate his friend. "Sorry Vin. Wasn’t thinking." Vin snorted and stood to stretch his tense muscles. With a casual eye, he watched as Josiah slowly sat himself back down on his chair and returned to watching Ezra sleep. An almost beatific smile crossed his face, and Vin frowned.
"Ezra…calling you Da…don’t mean you are."
Josiah’s deep blue eyes looked up, startled. "What?"
"I’m saying, don’t start thinking that you can be something you ain’t. Its not right."
Anger crept into the older man’s face, his eyes narrowing menacingly. "I am not a fool, Vin."
"I ain’t saying you are. Just…wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing." The tracker looked down at his hands, absently noting the dried blood on his fingertips. He dipped them in the basin of water by the bed, then grabbed a clean towel.
Josiah continued to simmer, watching silently as Vin washed his hands. When the tracker once more turned to look at him, Josiah stood in order to face him. Under the steel gaze, Vin was tempted to back up a step, but the small confines of the room prevented him.
"I know well who I am and who Ezra Standish is, young man. Do not think that, merely because you know a little about my past, you can pass judgement on me. You have no idea what I am thinking."
Vin blinked. "Josiah, I didn’t…."
"Chris will be wondering where you are, Vin. I suggest you go after him." The finality of the statement shut the tracker up. With a curt nod, Vin gathered his things together and handed Josiah the cloths for dressing Ezra’s wound. Josiah took them silently, no longer able to look at the tracker. Thus it was that Vin left without a backward glance.
The Ancient kept a rifle pointed at Nathan’s back the whole way down to the river, constantly prodding and pushing the healer until they reached the water’s edge. With a final shove, he propelled Nathan into a tree, knocking the breath out of the younger man. Turning, the healer shot an angry gaze to his captor.
"Why are you doing this!" he demanded.
"Turn around," the Ancient growled back.
"No, you tell me why you’re doing this! You’re a free man! Why do you continue to act as slave to that southern leech?"
The Ancient didn’t answer the question, just favored Nathan with a dark look. He put down the rifle by his side in order to pull the belt from about his waist, watching the healer out of the corner of his eye to make sure he wouldn’t attack. Nathan watched wordlessly, knowing exactly what was intended. He looked at the old black man in front of him with horror in his eyes.
"You can’t be serious. Damn it, man, you don’t have to do this! You can leave him."
"I said," Burns growled quietly, wrapping the belt around his fist, "turn around."
"No. Not until you explain to me why."
The Ancient paused, his dark eyes flashing in the late morning sunlight. Tension wracked his frame. "If you don’t turn around, I will whip your front as easily as I would your back, and believe me when I tell you that it hurts a hell of a lot more."
Nathan swallowed, and stood straighter. "You called him master when he arrived. Does he still believe he has some right to you? You can leave, you know, be whom you want to be."
"And who is that!" the old man hissed suddenly. "Another penniless, spat upon old nigger who is of no use to anyone except as a door mat? What would I do, boy? Huh? You tell me?"
"You could do what I did. Move out here, set up your own place. Lots of people have done it, and you wouldn’t even have to pay for the cost of getting here. Just up and leave. I know lots of places that would hire an experienced farmhand, no matter what the color of his skin."
The Ancient shook his head, his face twisted into a sneer, and continued to wind and unwind the leather around his wrist. "I am what I am, boy, I can’t change that."
"A slave? No one is a slave, Burns. No one should be, and no one can be."
"I am more than a slave."
"Oh? Do tell," the healer replied sarcastically.
"I am father to that young man back there. His only family. Do you think I could leave that?"
This time it was Nathan who was dumbfounded. The Ancient stood a little straighter as he said this, and he loosed the belt so that it hung limply from his hand.
The healer's dark brown eyes narrowed, and he shook his head, his hands clenched into fists where they were shackled. "Family. You’re not his family, Burns. Emily is his family. You are, at best, the family dog."
Whatever he said struck a chord because the next thing Nathan knew Burns was screaming and striking out with the lash. The healer had just enough time to throw his arms up to cover his face before he felt the leather bite into his arm, drawing blood on the first strike.
"That straw-haired harlot is not his family!" The black man cried as he drew back for another lash. "Don’t ever say that again!"
Nathan’s eyes widened, and suddenly something Ezra once told him popped into his head – about why the gambler refused to lose his temper. It meant he lost control, and without his control he couldn’t be sure to maintain the upper hand when he had it. Without really thinking, Nathan grasped this idea and words flew out of his lips.
"She’s his wife, old man. She shares his skin and is the same age. Can you compete with that?"
This time the lash struck even more forcefully, cutting into Nathan’s arm just below the shoulder as the healer attempted to twist himself out of the way.
"I brought that boy up, scab! Seen him through his whole life. He’s all but my flesh and blood. He’s known that girl barely six months." He punctuated the last statement with another lash, cutting Nathan again on the forearm, and driving the healer to his knees.
"He doesn't love you, Ancient! He uses you, can’t you see that?"
Nathan inhaled sharply as the pain hit him. "Emily is his world now. And you are nothing but a lackey! Just as you always were."
"Damn it, man! You’re a damned slave! And while you’re with him, you always will be! And now you belong to her as well!"
This stopped the old man, his face tortured with veins and blood rush, "I…will…NEVER…belong to that woman!" He raised the lash high over his head, gripping it in both hands and pulling it so tightly, Nathan was amazed it didn’t break.
It also gave him the opening he needed.
With a roar, the healer threw himself forward into the Ancient, knocking the old man off his feet and driving him into a tree on the other side of the small clearing. As the slave tried to regain his bearings, Nathan quickly rolled away and picked up the rifle, aiming it straight for the Ancient’s heart.
"Now you turn around!" he spat. Burns watched him for a second, his dark eyes surprised. Then, as if in a daze, he did as he was told…just as he’d always done. Cursing the revolting situation he was placed in, Nathan did the kindest thing he could think of. He knocked the man out with the rifle butt.
His face tight with strain and the pain from his lashes, Nathan slowly made his way back to the camp, trying to make as little noise as possible. First thing he did was crawl into the hastily formed remuda and cut the straps on the rustler's horse’s saddles, praying the whole time to providence to keep him from being observed. He hesitated before cutting Buck’s Gray’s saddle and that of his own mount, Gideon, trying to figure out if he could get the horses away without anyone noticing. After a moment’s thought, he put the knife away and gently maneuvered both horses so that they would be near the back of the pack, near the woods. Maybe…just maybe.
Carefully, Nathan made his way to the bushes behind Buck, and glanced around at the men guarding the camp. Buck had his head resting on his knees, clearly oblivious to the world around him. The guards were not paying him much attention.
Picking up a loose rock, Nathan chucked the small projectile at Buck’s back. The ladies man looked up abruptly, his eyes scanning the camp. Seeing nothing amiss, he risked turning his head around.
"Buck," Nathan hissed quietly. Buck’s eyes widened slightly, and a tiny smile lit his features. His lips soundlessly formed the word "how?" but Nathan waved him off. Instead, the healer held up the shackle key he’d taken from the Ancient, and indicated that he was going to toss it over. Buck nodded, and blue eyes watched carefully as the tiny black object was thrown in his direction. As soon as it landed, Buck scrambled over to hide it in his fingers.
Nathan knelt back into the bushes as the frizzy haired Manny and another of Moore’s lackey’s wandered past, both favoring Buck with black looks. The ladies man kept his head down to appear humbled. The frizzy haired man snorted.
As soon as he was sure that no one was watching, Buck carefully unlocked the shackles on his wrists and legs and set them to one side. Then, he counted slowly to three before quickly darting to hide in the bushes with Nathan. The healer grinned, knowing that they had perhaps only a few seconds before someone noticed Buck was missing.
Wordlessly, he handed Buck the rifle, ignoring the ladies man’s worried glance at the lash marks on his arms, and lit off through the woods towards where the horses were kept. They had just rounded the trees next to the remuda when the call went up, and the camp instantly bolted into action.
Both men made a run for it, each leaping up onto their saddles even as the bullets started to fly. Miraculously, nothing hit either of the moving targets and both horses leapt out of the corral and away.
Back in the camp, Moore watched them leave, Emily holding tightly onto his arm. Slowly, the blond man curved his lips into a smile.
After a few miles, Nathan looked across at Buck, his red rimmed eyes wondering why they weren’t heading for home. Sensing the scrutiny, Buck glanced back, his lips set in a thin line.
"Too easy," the ladies man yelled. Nathan opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again quickly. It had been easy. They had been let go. The Ancient was supposed to let Nathan get the upper hand. Swearing, the healer hoped that the slave had one hell of a headache when he awoke.
But then again, those emotions on the old man’s face had seemed so real…. He shook his head. Damn.
"Can’t lead them back to Four Corners," Buck yelled again, his eyes forward. "Figure we’ll lead ‘em to Ez instead. Maybe we’ll get lucky and meet some of our own boys on the way. They gotta be looking for us by now." Beside him, Nathan just nodded, though he knew that the ladies man wasn’t watching him anymore.
Not far behind, the two rustler's tailing the lawmen were keeping easy pace with them.
Vin leapt off the horse and inspected the area that had been Emily and the Ancient’s camp yesterday, pointedly ignoring the ugly patch of black-red ground where Ezra had obviously been hit. Ha had caught up with the Marshal and Chris only a few miles back, the two having managed to almost reach this spot on their own. With his help, though, things progressed much more quickly. Both the Marshal and Chris were more than willing to give him back control of the hunt.
Chris leaned forward lazily on his saddle horn, noting the bits of blown up wagon and smiling slightly. Great minds, he thought wryly, then his expression fell as he silently prayed that Buck was still alive. After a moment, he looked over at the Marshal, curious as to what might be going through that one-track mind of hers. Like Vin, she had dismounted, but her interest went directly to the blood on the ground.
For some reason, Garrett felt determined to understand what had happened. Kneeling down, she wondering how, since Standish had obviously been standing among the trees away from the camp, someone had managed to sneak up on him. For all his faults, she knew from experience that the gambler was a proficient sneak himself, thus it seemed unlikely that he would not have heard someone come up behind him.
She wondered if he wasn’t faking all of this somehow. To cover himself for having deserted his friends as she suspected.
Kneeling down, she put a finger in the dried "blood," and smelled it. Immediately her face twisted into a grimace, recognizing all too well the sickening smell. Okay, so that was real. Still, could be a dead animal’s….
She noticed the signs of horse activity all around the area. The gambler’s horse, probably. Surely the horse didn’t hang around its master the whole time he was down, if down he was. Horses are not dogs; they do not hold loyalty like that unless trained to, like cavalry horses. Still, there was a lot of prints, all in this one area, as well as plenty of…she wrinkled her nose slightly, thinking to move off that subject.
Sighing, she looked a bit farther into the trees and noticed the discarded log. More blood. Damn.
Suddenly, her eyes caught something white, and her eyes widened slightly. Leaning forward, she picked up the bunched up cloth from where it had been tossed. ES was clearly monogrammed on the silk handkerchief. Worse, lying next to it was a pair of discarded shackles – one of the pairs she had lent the peacekeepers.
He had known someone was behind him, she realized with a shock. Someone he had captured, shackled and gagged. Why then did he then ignore the person, allowing them to hit him over the head when his back was turned? Why capture someone to begin with? Unless…unless it was someone the lawmen had wanted to separate from the main fight… Someone they had been instructed to keep safe.
Someone Standish had not seen as a threat.
Garrett shut her eyes.
"Got ‘em!" Vin called, pointing in a westerly direction from where he stood atop a far rise. Chris sat up in the saddle and looked over at the Marshal, to tell her to get a move on. He stopped when he saw her face.
She approached slowly and mounted, her face dark, her hazel eyes a million miles away. When she finally spared the black-clad gunslinger a glance, she looked lost.
"I was wrong," she whispered. "I've been so intent on…." She paused, and shut her eyes. Chris just looked down at the ground. When she looked up again, her eyes seemed softer.
"I'm truly sorry," she finished.
"Thank you," Chris replied, equally as softly and a little wonderingly. What had changed her mind?
Josiah was staring despondently out of the window in Ezra’s room, watching the swift moving dark shadows created by the clouds drift across the street below. He could feel the heat of the sun through the window, warming up the atmosphere. Perhaps the cold spell was over already. Hearing a noise from the bed, he glanced over and nearly jumped when he realized Ezra was staring at him.
"Lord, Ezra, how long have you been awake?" The preacher asked quickly, moving across to pour some water into a glass for the gambler. When Ezra didn’t answer, Josiah tried to smile and pretend he didn’t notice the snub.
"I’m glad you’re awake, son, it means I don’t have to force water down your throat anymore. I kept thinking you would choke. Plus, JD will be happy you’re awake. He keeps sending Mary over to ask about you, and I think she’s getting a bit tired of it." Sitting on the edge of the bed, Josiah held up the glass. "You want me to hold it while you drink?"
The gambler’s expression didn’t change, he just followed Josiah with his green eyes, never blinking, as if he were scrutinizing him. Josiah held his smile, and nodded.
"Well, okay then," he pressed the glass to Ezra’s lips and placed his other hand gingerly on the con man’s back to lift him up enough to allow him to drink. Still staring up at Josiah, the younger man did as he was bid and took a few sips. Josiah pulled the glass away after a moment and pursed his lips.
"Good. That better?"
Josiah chuckled weakly and placed the glass to one side. "Huh, well, I guess you don’t feel like talking. That's certainly unusual for you, but not, um…uh," he gripped his fists where they lay on the bedside table after putting the glass down, his mind fumbling for the right word. "Damn," he muttered, shutting his eyes. Why am I talking to him like a child?
"Inconceivable," a hoarse voice from the bed suggested.
"Yes! Not inconceivable," Josiah agreed, then he smiled brightly and looked back at Ezra. "Hah! So you can speak. Good. And you’re even using those ten-dollar words Buck and JD hate." In response, Ezra just looked away, his gaze now appearing to examine the room. The preacher’s smile faded as he watched the gambler raise a slightly unsteady hand to his head to touch the bandage there, the younger man shutting his eyes tightly as he realized the source of his headache.
"What happened?" Ezra asked, blinking.
"You got clubbed from behind, son," Josiah explained darkly. "It may have muddled your brain a bit."
Reaching up a little higher than the bandage, Ezra grabbed a lock of his hair where it was sticking up and pulled it forward. He squinted slightly to see it, then let it go. "Brown hair," he noted solemnly, to which the preacher raised an eyebrow. Ezra looked at him, then up at the graying hair on his head.
"You’re hair isn’t brown," he told the preacher, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Was it ever?"
Josiah frowned, confused. "At one time, yes. Though much lighter than yours."
"Am I your son?"
The abrupt question made the older man react sharply, and he got up off the bed to hide his discomfort. "Uh, no, no. You, er, you made a mistaken assumption when you arrived home this morning." He paused, rubbing his forehead briskly with his fingers, and sighed heavily. "I’m sorry about that." Looking back at Ezra, he saw that the young man was back to examining him, but without the same dark air of concentration.
"I take it this means you still don’t recall anything," the preacher noted sadly.
"No…sorry," Ezra made a face, his expression clearly showing his annoyance at that fact. "Just now, when I awoke, part of me knew you weren’t my father…but for a while there…It just seemed…." He shrugged, the word ‘natural’ sticking to his tongue for some reason. Meanwhile, his still somewhat glassy green eyes swept the room again, as if he were looking for something particular.
"Are you a preacher?" he asked. "Is that why you called me son?"
"Preacher? No, though I was once."
"No," Josiah smiled, "That’s, uh, that’s Nathan’s profession," he paused, his smile fading as he realized that Ezra was trying to understand what it was the older man was doing here if he wasn’t his father, preacher or doctor.
"I’m just someone who cares about you, Ezra. A friend."
Ezra looked back at him, his pale lips pressed together tightly. Josiah could almost feel the younger man’s brain working desperately to remember something, and knew how angry it must be making him not to be succeeding. Finally, Ezra nodded.
"Where am I, exactly?"
Josiah sat back down in the chair by the window and leaned forward to press his hands together over his knees. "Exactly? You are in your room above a saloon, in the frontier town of Four Corners, just inside the border of the Territory of New Mexico. This is your home."
"My home. Do I have family here?"
Josiah thought for a minute before replying then, with a sad smile, shook his head. "No. Your mother, Maude Standish, lives elsewhere."
Something sparked in Ezra’s eyes, and Josiah could see the boy trying to hold on to it. "My mother…Maude…" he frowned. "Are you sure that is her name?"
Josiah couldn’t resist a slight chuckle as he rocked in the chair. "No. But I do know that your name is Ezra. I once heard you tell a visitor to this town that Ezra was your given name."
The gambler grimaced at this odd statement, causing him to wince as the expression pulled on the bandage. He raised his hand to his head again, the movement more deliberate this time. "Hell and Damnation," he muttered, the pounding in his head seeming to grow in intensity with each moment.
"You want some more water?" Josiah asked quickly, reaching for the water on the bedside table, offering the only thing he could think of to distract the younger man.
"No," Ezra spat fiercely, unable to hide the annoyance at his predicament from his voice. Then he sighed. "No, thank you."
Josiah nodded and put down the glass he’d picked up, then let his hand drift slowly off the bedside table. His fingers felt the soft leather cover of the Shakespeare play they’d found on the younger man and absently wondered why they’d left it there. Ezra watched him for a moment, then pursed his lips.
"The doctor, this Nathan, is he here?"
Josiah grimaced, his chest tightening slightly at the worry he felt for the healer. "No, he’s… the captive of some cattle rustlers we were hunting. Chris, Vin and Marshal Garrett have gone to find him and Buck."
The names spilled over Ezra’s head like a waterfall, and he absorbed what he could, which wasn’t much. He knew this man was trying to help, but the frustration at knowing that those people should mean something to him was only making his headache worse. So he focused on the one aspect of the older man’s sentence he could understand – something about "rustlers we were hunting."
"Who is the ‘we’ in your sentence?" he asked.
"You, me, and the five others: JD, Vin, Chris, Buck and Nathan. We’re the law in this town."
Ezra’s eyes widened, and a short laugh escaped his lips. "Wait…you saying I’m a lawman?"
Ezra’s eyes stared up at the ceiling, and both his hands bunched at the blanket on the bed. He laughed again, then shut his eyes.
"You son of a bitch," he whispered.
"What?" Josiah frowned, his eyes noticing the boy’s fidgeting hands. He stood up to better see the younger man’s face. Ezra regarded him through slitted eyes.
"Tell you something, former preacher, I may be a little ‘muddled’ in the mind right now, but there are certain things I am sure of. One of which is, I am no lawman. Whatever it is you want from me, lying is not going to get me to tell you."
"Ezra, I haven’t…"
"Could you please leave now?"
Josiah recoiled slightly, knowing that the boy was just lashing out in his frustration, but still unable to hide the hurt. On his feet hovering over the bed, he now felt extremely uncomfortable.
"Well, then, perhaps I should let you rest a bit," he suggested, backing away.
Ezra shut his eyes, and, after a moment, nodded. "I think that would be best."
The older man repressed a shudder, and turned his eyes once more to look out at the sunny world outside the window. It seemed to mock him. Slowly, he reached across to the dresser and picked up his hat, placing it on his head so that it would hide his eyes from passers-by.
"Wait," Ezra called, causing Josiah to stop. With tired eyes, the preacher looked back at his charge, and tried not to read too much into the plaintive look he saw on the boy’s face. Ezra was acting as changeable as a cat.
The gambler struggled up onto his arms. "What is your name?"
The preacher smiled slightly, "Josiah…Josiah Sanchez."
"Is that the truth?"
Josiah's jaw tensed, "Yes."
Ezra nodded once, then turned his eyes towards the window. "I see. Thank you…Mr. Sanchez. For taking care of me. Your kindness has been appreciated."
Josiah opened his mouth, suddenly wanting to argue, but he wasn’t sure about what. Instead, he simply turned away and walked out the door.
"Riders coming in," Vin noted, peering across the foothills to the two figures heading towards them rapidly. Motioning the others to move a bit so as to cover him, he pulled out his spyglass and trained it on them. Instantly, his face lit up in a smile. He looked over at Chris, whose dark mood had lifted slightly at the nod from the tracker.
"Its Buck and Nathan."
Spurring their horses forward with a loud "hee-yah!" the three riders sped down the hill to meet their friends, and a clear whoop for joy could be heard from Buck as he recognized them. They met somewhere in the middle of the shallow valley, the excited horses jumping around a bit after their riders pulled them sharply to a halt.
"Well met, Buck! You boys alright?" Chris asked, his smile bright.
"Better for seeing you, cowboy!" Buck gaily replied.
"What happened to you, Nathan?" Vin asked, noting the shallow bleeding cuts on the healer’s arms. Nathan just shook his head in response. He didn’t want to talk about it. Grimacing, Vin nodded and looked back at Chris. In the background, the Marshal was taking in the two lawmen’s battered appearances with an unhappy expression.
"Anyone after you?" Chris demanded, looking up in that direction. Buck nodded.
"Yeah, but not to capture us. That bastard Moore wants his Italian Hammer back."
"Cash," Chris stated. "Of course. That why you’re not headed in the direction of home?"
Buck looked over at Nathan, who looked down at the ground.
"We were going to go and fetch Ezra first," the healer explained.
"He’s dead, Chris. That blond bitch Emily killed him," Buck hissed, his eyes staring daggers at the Marshal. She looked away, unable to look at any of them.
Chris looked back at the Marshal, curious as to why she hadn’t disagreed, or at least said something about the ‘bitch’ remark. Seeing her look away, he understood. She already knew. She must have somehow figured out that it was Emily that had knocked Ezra down at the campsite.
Nathan frowned, and looked at Vin. "Didn’t you see him? I mean, that is how you came to be heading in this direction, isn’t it? Tracking us from where they took us?" Oh Lord, the healer prayed, don’t let something have taken his body somewhere.
"Ezra’s not dead," Vin said, shaking his head slightly, bringing Buck’s attention to him as well as Nathan’s.
"What?" both asked simultaneously.
"He rode in the morning. He’s really out of it, but…well, I stitched up his head for him, and I think he’ll be okay. At least physically. But you better look at him yourself, Nathan." Vin frowned, not sure what the healer’s reaction would be to the idea that he had stitched Ezra’s head.
"He’s alive?" Nathan reiterated, his mind not totally grasping what Vin had just said.
"Yes. He is. Now I suggest we get the hell out of here." Chris said curtly. He wheeled Solon around and smiled back at his friends. "Let’s get you boys home."
"Wait, what about our tail?" Buck asked.
Chris just smiled evilly. "I think its about time Robin Moore was treated to a real Four Corners welcome."
Chapter Five: Coming Together Again
The Ancient woke up groggily and blinked up at the pale yellow cloth tent over his head. Putting a hand to his head, he groaned as he felt the bump and slowly moved to sit up.
"Here, let me help you." The girl’s voice was soft and sorrowful, but her strength was welcomed as she helped the former slave into a sitting position. Turning, Emily grabbed a nearby canteen and held it out to him, which the Ancient accepted with a nod. Seeing that he was all right, she moved to leave the tent.
"Emily," the Ancient croaked. She turned, the shadows under her eyes making her seem somewhat ghoulish in the diffuse light.
"Thank you," he said, raising the canteen. She nodded, and walked out.
The sun was already falling in the sky, but the mid-afternoon sun seemed warmer than it had a few hours ago. The weather was heating up again, and a ripple effect seemed to obscure Emily’s vision as she looked out across the camp. Wiping the heat from her forehead, she shifted her thin shoulders inside her off white duster and walked across to where her husband was talking with some of the men.
"Hi," he called, brightening upon her approach. His face was so innocent when he looked on her, as if nothing else mattered, but Emily had long ago learned to see past it. She smiled in return, but without humor, and sat down heavily on the downed log next to him. He turned back to discussing the plan as she leaned heavily against his shoulder, closing her eyes. It never even occurred to her that he never once asked whether the Ancient was okay.
The men’s voices floated over her as she drifted, their calm, determined tones filling her mind.
"I must admit, I never expected the Marshal to hire a bunch of gunslingers to help her," Robin was saying, his arm moving to round her shoulder, his hand resting on her head. Emily snuggled closer.
"They seemed like professionals, boss, but they had to know the odds were against them."
"Especially with that smart ass gambler with them," another concurred. "He knew our whole plan, including how many men you had." Robin felt Emily tense slightly, and he stroked her hair to soothe her. He offered the last speaker a dark look, and the man shrugged an apology.
"My guess," Robin sighed, "is that the plan was Garrett’s. She’s been known to face done fairly insurmountable odds on her own before. I think she revels in it somewhat. More to the point, if she hadn’t been distracted, she might actually have succeeded."
"Distracted?" Emily murmured sleepily.
Robin’s eyes flashed, and he grimaced slightly. "Yeah, uh, one of the men managed to light a brand behind the herd, sending them in the direction of one of her hired guns. When she looked his way to protect him, I got her gun from her."
Emily’s eyes opened slightly, and she looked blankly out at the world with blue eyes. If she read the lie in his voice, she didn’t say anything.
"In any case, we will have to have a very good plan when we go to break out Cash," Robin continued. "If she hasn’t already ensconced him in a prison fort somewhere like Garland, we shouldn’t have too much difficulty breaking him out of any of the local sheriff’s jails. I doubt the Marshal still has those men she hired on her payroll, so it’ll likely just be her, a sheriff and some young deputy."
"I don’t think so, masser," the Ancient said softly, wandering up to the group. Robin smiled broadly at the approaching slave and nodded his hello.
"It's good to see you up, Burnsy. Have a good rest?"
"Yes sir, thank you."
"What did you mean by you don’t think so?"
The Ancient pursed his lips as he settled himself down on the ground near his boss, his old bones creaking a little. "Just that I get the impression that these men are more than simple gunslingers."
"Oh come on," the frizzy haired Manny interrupted, "that big guy with the moustache looked like any other pissed off cowboy to me."
"Maybe," the Ancient agreed, "but the black man…he said something about having set up his own place. If he were just a roving mercenary for hire, I don’t think he’d of said that."
"So, what, you saying the black man might be a lawman or something?" Manny laughed. "Ain’t no darky lawmen, Ancient, only bad guys, like you." The others all agreed with smiles and nods, including Robin. Only Emily didn’t smile, her pale blue eyes quietly reading the old man’s face. The darkness she saw there made her shudder. The Ancient looked at the ground.
Suddenly, a loud rustling from the trees caused everyone to look up.
"Riders coming in!" the lookout called from his treetop. The group got to their feet, some looking up the tree as the lookout peered into the distance.
"They’re ours!" the lookout called down happily. "Looks like the hunt was successful boys!"
A little over five minutes later, two exhausted looking men charged into camp and dismounted quickly. Someone took their horses as they made their way across to their leader. Robin stood quietly, his head slightly tilted to one side, a smile on his face.
Both men accepted canteens before the taller one stepped forward.
"They went Southwest, sir, to the town of Four Corners."
Moore frowned suddenly, wondering why the town sounded familiar. Looking around, he glanced at his men. "Anyone know anything about it?"
No one spoke, and most shrugged. Emily looked off towards the tent, thinking vaguely about a dime store novel she had read not long ago, maybe a year past. Vee had taken it from her. 'Jock Steele novels are all just a load of horseshit,' the Marshal had told her, but Emily had read the ones about Vee. She knew there was quite a lot of truth in them.
The novel she remembered now was about a town called Four Corners…and about a group of lawmen called the Magnificent Seven. For some reason, she found herself unable to speak about the story. Her mind’s eye kept drifting to the man in the red coat lying beneath the trees, and what he’d said to her. Did his friends go to take him home? Or was he still lying there….
On Moore's other side, the Ancient stared blankly at the ground. He too knew of Four Corners. It had been the talk of the gaming tables at Tower Hill, about whether the young black man named Jackson had been telling the truth about what he did there. He ground his teeth together. No darkie lawmen, were there? Something broke inside the old man, and he looked coolly at the back of his young master.
"I’ve heard of Four Corners, I think, masser. Heard something while we was in Tower Hill at the gaming tables."
"Really Burnsy?" Robin smiled, nodding his encouragement. Emily regarded them quietly.
"Yes sir. It's just a frontier town, one that is pretty nice to ex-slaves, so they say, which is why it was being talked about. Apparently, there ain’t no formal law there. Just a long haired kid pretending to be sheriff."
"A kid sheriff?" Manny asked, amused.
"You sure about this Burnsy?"
"Oh, yes sir. He took the job ‘cause no one else wanted it. It's supposed to be a real loose place."
"Huh," Robin shook his head, and pursed his lips. "I guess Garrett must have figured we’d never look in a place as far below her station as that."
"Sounds like this is gonna be a piece of cake, boss," Manny said happily.
The Ancient looked askance at Emily, noting her suspicious look. Slowly, she inclined her head, telling him she knew he was lying…but wasn't going do anything. The ex-slave swallowed and looked back to the ground.
Inez dropped the tray she was carrying as she walked into Ezra’s room, causing the man to jump up from where he sat buttoning up his waistcoat. China shattered everywhere.
"What do you think you doing?" she demanded fiercely, stepping over the broken dishes and food to get to his side. Ezra backed off before she could touch him, one hand reaching back to steady himself on the bed knob on the headboard.
"Frankly, my dear, I could ask the same of you. When I said you could come in, that did not mean, come in and scare the hell out of me by dropping an entire tray of food onto the carpet!" he responded quickly.
"You know what I mean, Senor! You should be in bed. If Josiah sees you he’ll…"
"What? Lie to me some more? No thank you, I’ve already had enough of that." Turning away, he finished buttoning up the top button and leaned across to the chair to grab his jacket.
Inez stomped her foot. "What are you talking about? Lie to you. He hasn’t lied to you."
"Oh, but he has, Miss…Miss whoever you are. I’m not sure how, but I know there is something innately wrong with all this. I don’t belong here and I don’t plan on sticking around to figure out why."
Inez took a determined step forward in his direction, and her foot slipped on a piece of food. With a swear, she caught herself clumsily by grabbing hold of the dresser chair, barely avoiding ending up on the floor on her butt. Blushing angrily, she looked up to notice Ezra staring at her curiously.
"I’ve never seen you slip before," he said, not thinking.
"That’s because I never slip, unless some annoying cardsharp provokes me!" she retorted. Then her face brightened, switching moods abruptly. "Wait, did you just remember something?"
Ezra blinked, and inhaled sharply. After a moment, he blew the air out and shook his head. "It's gone."
"But you do remember me!"
"I don’t know."
"Yes, yes, you do! You remember me. See? you’re wrong. You are from here. This is your place. Well, it was your place, then it was your mother’s, but I’m sure you can win it back someday. But, regardless of who owns the saloon, this is your room. Your home." She paused, smiling brightly, but Ezra just shook his head at her onslaught. He leaned heavily against the wall at the head of his bed, his hands moving to cover his face.
"I don’t understand what you are talking about," he said tiredly.
Inez's smile fell. "Look, I'm sorry. But Josiah said we should talk about things from your life to help you remember." She watched him for a moment, and bit her lip. "We just want you to remember…." Ezra didn’t respond, and Inez had to fight the urge to reach out and touch him. Looking behind her to the floor, she sighed, "I’m sorry about this. I’ll bring you another."
"No," he said, removing his hands from his face. "No, that’s not necessary. I’ll come down and get it. My head may hurt, Madam, but the rest of me is fine. I just…I need some air."
Inez frowned, her eyes worried. "I still think someone should be there in case you, uh, slip yourself," she pleaded. "I could go and call Senor Sanchez…."
"I’ll be fine," he said curtly, his features hardening. Swallowing tightly, she looked away, hating that terrible poker face he favored so much. How could he remember how to do that, but have no idea who I am, she thought darkly. Again, Ezra reached for his coat, lifting the red fabric gingerly from the chair. For a moment, he looked at the black bloodstain on the collar, then dropped the jacket on the bed.
Inez watched him carefully, thinking she would try to get the stain out for him when he went out. As she bent down to pick up the dishes, she noticed him looking over at his closet with something akin to trepidation. Pretending disinterest, she watched as he walked over and opened the door, his eyes drifting across the handful of jackets he kept there. In front of him, neatly pressed and hung, were the plum, green, black, brown and navy blue jackets that he so loved, along with their accompanying vests. Reaching in, he pulled the black one from the rest and fingered the material.
"You don’t wear that one too often," Inez remarked. "Mostly, you like the red, the plum and the green. Personally, the green is my favorite…." She smiled slyly, "it goes with your eyes."
Ezra looked back at her blankly, still holding the black jacket. "My eyes are green?"
She laughed, then stopped when she realized he was serious. She turned back to the china, and finished picking it up onto the tray.
"I’ll bring a mop to clean the rest of this up," she stated, looking at the mess of food still lying there. He nodded, and put the jacket away. It was too warm for one anyway.
"Uh, before you leave, Senor, will you do me a favor?"
Ezra shrugged where he stood, busily straightening his sleeves. As he brushed down his right arm, his hand slowed down, as if aware that something was missing.
"Take these with you?"
He looked up to see her holding up a gunbelt…his gunbelt…and a shoulder holster. She moved forward and handed them to him, for which he nodded.
"And you’re derringer is on the dresser," she said, pointing to the wooden antique. He looked over at the odd contraption lying on top, and then at the small oval mirror that stood above it. He’d been avoiding that particular object.
Inez nodded once more to him, then went back out the door, the tray balanced on one hip. Behind her, Ezra strapped on the guns, interested at how natural the motions felt, then looked once more at the dresser. Shutting his eyes, he made his way past the mirror without sparing his reflection a glance, and walked to the bedside table. He picked up the slim book sitting there and flipped through the pages. After a moment, he nestled it in his hand and followed Inez from the room. The derringer was ignored.
Josiah looked up from where he sat near the window in the jail, his feet propped up on the cold wood stove. The coffee in his left hand had long gone cold as he casually flipped through one of Nathan’s medical books. Something had caused him to look up -- now, what was it?
As if in answer, JD slammed open the tall doors of the jail, his face a dark mask of irritation. Glancing out the open doors, Josiah could just make out Ezra as he sat in front of the saloon, reading Othello. Even from here, Josiah could see the forced indifference barely staying in control on the gambler’s face. Meanwhile, JD glared briefly at the preacher, then stalked over to his desk to fall heavily into his chair behind it.
Over in the cells, the four prisoners looked up, interested despite themselves.
"Something the matter, Sheriff?" Cash called coolly. JD sneered at him and looked over at Josiah.
"I hate this. I hate waiting for the others to return; I hate not knowing if Buck and Nathan are alright, and I especially hate Ezra!"
The preacher sighed, shutting the huge tome with a heavy slam. "You don’t hate Ezra, JD," he said softly.
"Fat lot you know. How could he not remember us? I mean, are we so unimportant to him that…."
"JD!" Josiah hissed, standing up. His voice dropped in timbre as he approached the desk. "The man has a knot the size of my fist on the back of his head. You think he likes not being able to remember you?"
JD shook his head. "He remembers how to do those damn card tricks of his. I saw him playing with a deck earlier. You know that one where he slips the card from the bottom of the deck to the top with one hand as he’s cutting the cards? How come he knows how to do that, but still has no idea who I am?"
Josiah grimaced, "I don’t know JD. I’ve been trying to figure it out, but Nathan’s medical journals are not set up for the uninitiated." He frowned, and raised one hand to rub his forehead. "You just have to give him some time."
"And then there is the way he looks at me," JD continued, ignoring Josiah’s refrain. "Like this house cat they had at the mansion where my momma worked back in Boston. Big, fat, ugly monster with too much hair and a nasty disposition. The darn thing would just sit there on the windowsill and stare at you for hours on end without blinking, making you feel like fish in a bowl. And if you went near it, it hissed."
Josiah raised an eyebrow at the young man, surprised by the aptness of the simile. "Well, maybe its time I go talk to him again."
"Don’t bother," JD spat, pulling out his gun and checking the chamber. "He asked me specifically to keep you away from him. Something about not wanting to talk to false fathers."
Josiah visibly cringed at the words, and JD instantly regretted his statement. "Oh man, Josiah, I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have repeated…"
No, no, JD, its fine," he sighed, leaving the desk to resume his seat. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," he muttered sadly. He stopped at the doors, planning on closing them again, and glanced once more at the gambler across the way. As if aware of the scrutiny, Ezra looked up to stare directly at the preacher, and his mask slipped. For a moment, Josiah found himself acutely aware of the fear the other man was feeling, and his grip on the doors tightened. Then the gambler looked away, back to his book, and Josiah shut his eyes.
He slammed the doors shut just as viciously as JD had opened them.
"Josiah?" JD asked, worried. The preacher was about to reply when the thunder of rapidly approaching hooves broke in on the moment. Both lawmen were on their feet, rifles in hand and out the door in seconds. By the saloon, Ezra glanced up for a moment in the direction of the riders, his mind stumbling for a moment at the sight of the man in black leading the pack, but then it shut down again. Grimacing, he returned once more to Othello.
JD was halfway into the street, his face aglow as he recognized his friends.
"BUCK!" he yelled ecstatically.
"Nathan!" Josiah added, stepping up next to JD, his eyes on his old friend, "Lord its good to see you!" He saw the lash marks, and frowned. "Are you alright?"
"We’re fine, Josiah," Buck grinned, leaping from his Gray’s back. Reaching out in a practiced move, he tipped JD’s bowler off his head and ruffled the kid’s hair.
"Its all skin deep," Nathan agreed, dismounting more slowly. "Nothing a few bandages won’t cure, and a lot of whiskey." Josiah grabbed him fiercely by the shoulder, shaking him slightly, and causing Nathan to grin. Then his face became more serious.
"How’s Ezra?" the healer asked, switching tacks.
Josiah looked down at the ground. "See for yourself," he said, stepping back to give Nathan view of the man sitting quietly in front of the saloon. Buck saw Ezra at the same time, and he whooped for joy for the second time that day. He was off and running towards the gambler before Josiah could warn him.
"Ezra!" Buck called loudly. The man in question frowned, aware that that was supposed to be his name, and looked up to see a steam train heading his way. Buck was still shouting as he hit the boardwalk, "Ezra! My God, it's so good to see you! We thought we’d lost you back there. Nearly cut my heart out to think on it."
In response, Ezra stood up, the ladies man never noticing the sudden fear that crossed the younger man’s features. It wasn’t until he reached out to grab the gambler by the arm, and Ezra scrambled backwards to get away from him, that Buck stopped.
"What’s the matter?"
"Who are you?" Ezra hissed in response, hiding behind the chair, one hand on his Remington. The others ran up a second later, and Vin pulled Buck back.
"He’s lost his memory, Buck. I told you that already," the tracker whispered urgently.
"What? I thought you meant he’d forgotten being ambushed by that harpy, not…." He paused, and took another step back, shaking his arm from Vin’s grip. "He gonna be okay?" he asked of Josiah. Ezra gritted his teeth at being talked of in the third person.
"Let me have a look at you, Ezra," Nathan said, stepping forward. Ezra switched his now controlled glare to the healer, his eyes narrowing slightly.
"And who might you be?"
"This here’s Nathan, Ezra," Josiah said, coming around so that the man would see him. Ezra looked at him, then back at Nathan.
"Ain’t no doctor, Ezra. Just a healer," Nathan explained, tilting his head slightly. "If you’ve got a headache, I can help. You just gotta let me look."
Sucking in a harsh breath, Ezra blinked owlishly, "I’m fine."
Nathan grimaced. "Where have I heard that before," he mumbled sourly. "Now, that ain’t no small bruise on the back of your head Ezra. If you let me have a look, I might be able to help."
"I said I’m…."
"Ezra!" Josiah’s voice cut through the air like a knife. "Let him look at you!" The gambler jumped slightly at the order, and he looked back at the preacher. After a second, he bit his lip and his hand fell from his gun in defeat. Stepping forward, he bowed his head to allow Nathan to lift the bandage and look at the gash.
"Still has his winning personality I see," Chris noted, staring at the gambler and crossing his arms.
"No," JD shook his head, "he doesn’t."
Marshal Garrett paced around the saloon with determined strides, occasionally looking over at the men sitting around the center table. They were all there, except Josiah who was watching the prisoners, and Ezra, who was still sitting outside reading his book. The gambler was sipping some tea Nathan had given him, only vaguely aware of the soporific effect it was having on him.
"I would guess, seeing as they have to repair their saddles and do something with the remaining cattle, that we have until at least tomorrow afternoon before they attack," Nathan was saying, his hands gripped together in front of him on the table.
"What do you reckon they know about us and this town?" Vin asked, leaning back in his chair.
"Well, they know that the Marshal had herself some extra guns. But they may think that we moved on already," Chris answered. "But then, if he’s half as smart as they say he is, he would have looked up the towns in the area where he knew he’d be selling his cattle."
"Plus, Emily has read your dime novel," Garrett said quietly. The men’s heads all looked up.
"You’re kidding," JD said, his voice dancing dangerously close to pride. Buck cuffed him on the head again, earning the ladies man a glare.
"The damn Steele," Chris growled.
"Tell me about it," Garrett replied sourly. "In any case, it's likely that Moore will know about you seven."
"Well shoot, that just makes it more interesting," Buck laughed, slapping the table.
"Never did much like interesting," Vin snorted.
"May you live in interesting times," Nathan quoted, laughing. "Remember? The Chinese railroad workers told us that old curse."
No one answered him, and Nathan mentally slapped himself. The Marshal looked over at them confused by the sudden silence.
JD looked over at the door to the darkening sky outside, thinking about their missing friend. "I told him about that girl of his, you know, the one he helped? Li what's-her-name? He didn’t remember her. Said I must be making it up. Why is he denying the idea that he might be a lawman so much?"
"Think he’ll be able to help tomorrow? I saw him checking the barrel of his Remington – he knows how to handle a gun," Buck said, following JD’s gaze.
"No. Leave him be. I want him in his room, safe. Nathan, I might even suggest you keep him drinking that tea of yours," Chris stated. He looked over at the Marshal. "Garrett, you will have to take his place."
She frowned. "His place?"
Chris nodded, a small smile on his face. "Yeah. We have a bit of a routine here. Ezra covers the saloon and our backs from here. Think you can do that?"
For the first time in a while, Garrett found herself smiling back. "Yeah, I think I can manage that."
Chris nodded, his grin broadening, "well, alright then."
Buck grinned. "Ladies and Gents, Robin Hood is about to meet the Sheriffs of Four Corners, and, this time, King Richard is on our side."
Standing just outside the batwing doors, yawning into his hand, Ezra listened to their conversation with a bemused expression. Maybe…just maybe…he was what they said he was. He stepped back, leaning heavily against the wall, and stared across to the brightly lit jail where he knew the former preacher sat. His mind tripped around from thought to thought as he tried to figure out what was truth and what was not.
Inside the saloon, the voices quieted as the plan formed, and Ezra tried hard to stay attentive. After a moment, he found it was taking all his energy just to keep his eyes open, and he moved over to collapse into a chair, nearly dropping the book he’d been carrying like a lifesaver. Unconsciously, he tucked it inside his waistcoat…and fell asleep.
Ten minutes later, Nathan walked out of the saloon with Buck and Vin and headed towards the sleeping man. Between them, they carried the gambler up to his bed.
Chapter Six: A Real Four Corners Welcome
Thursday Morning…just another day in Four Corners…
The next dawned hot and bright as the first Indian Summer of November blasted the town and forced many of the residents inside. Of course, most of them had already planned to stay in after being warned by the Seven about Moore’s gang.
Up in his room, Ezra blinked his eyes open slowly, woken up by the steady noise of someone snoring off to one side. Looking over, he recognized the preacher sitting in the rocking chair by the window, covered by a blanket and looking decidedly uncomfortable as he napped. Smiling slightly, Ezra closed his eyes again, and fell back asleep.
By late afternoon, the men of Four Corners were beginning to get restless. In contrast, the Marshal seemed to become calmer. She sat in front of the saloon, her feet propped up on a barrel, sipping a tall glass of water. She looked across at JD in front of the jail, noticing the nervous way he kept spinning his twin colts in his hands and shook her head.
A sharp whistle echoed out from atop the jail, where Vin was stationed on the roof. He pointed in the direction of the west…and then the east. They were coming from both sides. Chris, dressed in his poncho and with his head down, looked up from where he sat in front of the Clarion, the door open for a quick retreat. Josiah and Nathan were both up at the Church end of the street -- Nathan on the balcony of his clinic, Josiah down the alley next to his work in progress. Buck was at the other end, hanging out near the blacksmith’s and the boarding house. As the street quieted, the sound of gun hammers being pulled back in preparation echoed through the streets.
Marshal Garrett began to inspect her nails.
Up in his room, Ezra glanced outside the window, the still full cup of tea in his hand, the liquid inside now cold, and watched the movements of those he could see. He drummed his fingers on the sill as he considered his options. After a moment, he put the tea down and strapped on the derringer. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror, the muscles in his cheeks tensing slightly at the unfamiliar face staring back at him. Finally, he pulled on the red jacket, the stain on the collar having been removed. Probably by the kind Senorita who managed the saloon (the one with the wonderfully sharp tongue). With a smile, he crept out of the room and down the back stairs to the rear of the building.
Emily sat alone on the rise above the town, watching quietly as her husband and the others split up into two group of five to approach the town from both sides. Four men hung back with her, to be used as back up in case anything went wrong.
Vee was down there, she thought sadly, and maybe the friends of the man in red.
She glanced at the men with her, noting their unease despite all the assurances that this would be an easy raid. But people would die. Vee might die. Robin might die.
Her blue eyes filled with tears, and she bit her lower lip in a weak attempt to prevent them from falling. God, how she wanted this to be it. To be the end. Looking down on the town, she suddenly felt sure that, whatever the outcome of this day, she would leave Robin. She could no longer be apart of his fantasy.
Sitting up straighter in the saddle, she pulled her rifle out from where it was attached to the leather and settled it across her arms. Out of the corner of her eyes she noticed one of the men watching her curiously.
"I’m going to the church," she said to no one in particular.
"Um, Ma’am, I don’t think Robin would want…."
"I don’t care. I’m going to the church." She spurred her dark sorrel quarter horse forward, and the four men watched her leave, unsure of what to do.
"Should we go with her?" One asked nervously.
"Moore will kill us if something happens to her," another noted seriously, pulling his dark brown Stetson lower across his face. Frizzy hair was visible beneath the brim.
"But, Manny, what if he needs backup?" A third said, tapping his fingers on his saddlehorn.
None answered him, until dark brown Stetson sighed. "I’ll go with her," Manny declared. "You boys stay here." With a nod to the others, he pushed his gray dappled mustang after the girl, leaving the others frowning.
Robin Moore rode in slowly from the east end of town, winding in past the huge boarding house, easily the largest building in town, and down the central street. He saw the Marshal immediately, sitting unconcernedly in front of the saloon with a drink in her hand. Opposite, he saw a young man with long black hair under a brown bowler leaning against the wall of the jail.
Garrett raised her glass in Moore’s direction as he rode up, her face clearly amused at his appearance. Ignoring the boy sheriff, the handsome rustler rode directly up to her and pulled his horse to a halt. The four men with him spaced themselves out to cover him. In the other direction, the Ancient and his four men arrived and spread out near the church, livery and hardware store, keeping an eye out.
"Lady Marshal," Moore said, tipping his hat to her. "How are you faring?"
"Well, Robin. And you?"
"I’ll feel better once you let my man out of jail. Cash is here, is he not?"
"Uh huh," she affirmed cheerily, and tilted her head to the side. "But what makes you so sure I’ll let him out?"
"Because I know you’re not a fool. You and the boy there are no match for my men."
She stood up slowly, her face guileless. "Me and the boy?" she repeated, smiling. "You’re wrong, Moore. You do think I’m a fool, and, maybe, for a while there, I did act as one. It was foolish of me to think that Emily did not go with you willingly, but I have since readjusted my outlook. I forget the power love can have over a person, what it can do to one’s judgement…." She sighed and shook her head, absently brushing a strand of dark auburn hair from her face to tuck under her hat. Then she smiled again.
"I have also readjusted my outlook concerning you. Humbling as it may be, I have come to realize you are a little too clever for me to take on my own. So, I have acquired the help of the law of Four Corners. All of them."
Moore frowned at the odd statement and looked back at the kid. JD was watching them curiously, but, as the rustler noticed with some trepidation, also without any fear. Seeing him looking at him, the kid smiled brightly, then moved to step inside the jail's doors, vanishing. Moore turned back to Garrett. She had moved to lean against a post, and was watching him with an insolent expression.
Finally, Moore shrugged. "And who, pray tell, are the law of Four Corners?"
Garrett’s eyes widened in surprise, and she suddenly started to laugh. "You’re kidding, right?"
Moore scowled at her and a nervous chill started to drift up his spine. "What are you going on about, Garrett?" he demanded angrily.
The Marshal stopped laughing, and a hand went to her mouth. Looking out at the men facing her, she shook her head. Then she looked up at Moore, her eyes bright.
"My God, Emily didn’t tell you."
Moore stared at her with a bewildered expression. "What does Em have to do with this?"
She grinned, the first genuine, full-fledged, cheek-muscle-straining grin since Emily ran off six months ago. She laughed gaily and raised her hand up to wave across to the jail.
"Everything, Robin," her smile fell, "everything."
"Robin Moore," JD called from where he stood in the doors of the jailhouse, rifle raised and pointed directly at the blond man's head. "You and your men are under arrest!"
"Best do as he says!" Buck called from up the street, sitting atop Gray, his own rifle pointed at the men. "It's not smart to ignore a sheriff!"
"Especially ours," Nathan agreed, standing up on his balcony, his yellow boy pointed down at the Ancient and his men near the church. Josiah came around from the other side, his rifle out and pointed at their backs. Over by the Clarion, Chris had stood to help flank Moore and his men, a quiet authority to his stance.
"You're surrounded boys," Chris affirmed quietly. "I'm afraid you chose the wrong town to pick on." His lips curved into a grim smile, "you're on our territory now."
Moore's jaw dropped as he recognized the man in black, then he snapped it shut. Anger darkened his face.
"Get them!" he shouted, raising his gun at the Marshal. Before he could fire, however, the loud crack of a sawed off Winchester rifle split the air, and his gun went spinning away from him in the air. Still grinning, Garrett dove backward through the batwing doors of the saloon, pulling her guns out in one fluid move and firing.
The street came alive with dust and gunfire as Vin, the Marshal, and the others started picking off the men on the horses. Those that tried to get away were quickly dissuaded by Josiah and Buck, both men using their strength to knock the men from their horses. At one point, Garrett lit out of the safety of her position to pull Moore from his horse, driving the well-dressed man into the dirt and grime of the road. Gathering himself, he tried to discharge the derringer up his sleeve, but she simply grabbed the arm and pulled the tiny gun from his grasp. Reversing it, she pointed it directly at his forehead.
"Call them off!" She hissed, pulling him to his feet. "Call them off now!"
Robin Moore’s eyes shone with surprise and shock, unable to totally comprehend the trap he’d ridden into. But, staring into the black barrel of the derringer and the cold dark brown eyes of the woman he’d mocked for too long, a sliver of reality entered his brain.
"STAND DOWN!" He yelled over the din, his voice straining to be heard. "CEASE FIRING! STAND DOWN!"
Somehow, through the fog and exploding guns, his words were heard, and the firing ceased. Looking around, Moore saw that most of his men were actually down, either dead or unconscious. Those still standing, which included the Ancient and a few others, looked about ready to collapse behind the rather poor cover they’d managed to find. Encircling them all were six men, standing roughly equidistant from each other. Not one of them even sported a scratch. One by one, his men’s weapons were taken and the outlaws were told to lie down on the ground, hands behind their heads.
"How…?" Moore asked, his blue eyes blinking rapidly in the dusty air.
But Garrett wasn’t listening, she was staring over at Chris. He nodded, and she glared at Moore again. "Where are Emily and the others?" she demanded. Robin clamped his mouth shut, his dirt covered brow creasing.
"I believe I have a few of them here," Ezra called from the direction of the livery. He was on Chaucer’s back, leading three bound men in on foot, his Remington aimed at their backs. "I found them loitering up on the ridge south of town. Thought maybe Mr. Moore here might have left some men behind as backup." He grinned at the others, ignoring their slightly startled expressions. Recovering quickly, Buck reached out and pushed the captured men forward into the circle as Ezra dismounted. The man still wore the bandage tight around his head, but it was mostly hidden by his black hat.
"This mean you know who you are?" Buck whispered in the gambler’s ear. Ezra glanced at him, his face calm, and shook his head.
"Shreds and patches," The gambler whispered back, shrugging slightly. "I’m still running on instinct." Across the way, he noticed the Ancient staring at him in complete amazement from his position on the ground. Ezra returned the gaze without recognition.
Moore swallowed, and looked out at the seven men flanking his outlaws. Then his eyes darkened with sudden understanding.
"Four Corners," he whispered angrily. "You’re the Magnificent Seven."
"Well done," Garrett said, patting him on the cheek. "Now who is the fool, boy?"
Moore just stared back at her, his eyes narrowed into slits. "Fine. So what did the gambler do with my wife?"
Garrett blinked, not understanding. "What?"
"She was with the men he brought in. Where is she?"
The Marshal frowned and looked over at Ezra. He shrugged in return. Then she turned to the three men he brought in. "Well, boys?" she asked. "Where is my ward?"
Garrett dropped her hold on Moore as if bit, dumping him back into the dirt. Frowning, the blond man proceeded to wipe a sleeve across his sweating face. His eyes narrowed in confusion as he watched Emily walk slowly towards them from the direction of the church. Over next to Buck, Ezra straightened slightly.
"Vee? Is it over?" The young girl asked, her motions a little sluggish.
"Emily…" Garrett stepped in her direction, then, moving more quickly, almost ran in order to meet the girl and grab her into a hug. Emily hid her head in the taller woman’s shoulder, holding tight.
"Vee, I’m so sorry," she whispered urgently. Garrett shushed her, stroking the girl’s back to try and still her crying.
"I know, love," the Marshal replied.
Moore struggled to his feet, well aware that the Seven’s guns were still covering them all. He attempted to gather his dignity around him as he looked over at his wife. Somehow, she had betrayed him, betrayed them all. He brushed off his suit, and stood tall.
"Emily," he called, bringing her head up. She looked across at him with a tear stained face. Letting go of Garrett, she stepped away from her mentor and towards him. She opened her mouth to apologize, then stopped.
Like a statue, she became transfixed in place, staring at Ezra as if he were a ghost.
"Sweet Jesus," she breathed.
For his part, Ezra found himself smiling. "I know you," he said in wonder.
"You’re alive. I…how can that be? I saw you…." her chin started to tremble, and she took a step towards him.
"The girl…you’re the girl," Ezra laughed. "I know you. You’re Emily Durgin. No, you’re Emily Moore! Buck, I know her. I remember!" He laughed again, and the rest of the seven started to grin as well.
Emily blinked, confusion filling her features. She looked back at the Marshal, who had cleared her face of all expression, then she turned to Robin. He was watching her coldly. She smiled at her husband and reached a hand out.
"He’s alive, Robin. I didn’t kill him," she started to smile, not aware of the distance he was building between them. "Everything will be alright now," she continued.
"What have you done Emily," Moore asked.
"Did you know?"
"What? Did I know about what?" She looked across at the Ancient, seeing his downward gaze. "Burnsy?"
"Don’t look at him!" Moore exploded. "Damn it Emily, did you know this was a trap?"
She stared back at him, totally bemused. The whole thing seemed unreal to her, and she found it difficult to focus. She glanced around at the others, her clear blue eyes glazing across all the men lying down on the ground, her ears hearing the occasional order from one of the lawmen telling the men to "stay down" as if it were merely wind. She smiled at Ezra when she caught his green eyes, and he nodded at her, his laughter gone. He was back to being part of the Seven now, slipping smoothly back into the role of a professional lawman. Then she looked over at Garrett and the Ancient. Finally, she looked back at Robin. She raised her head slightly.
Moore roared and launched himself at her, driving her into the ground before anyone could react. Garrett screamed bloody murder, raising her guns at the blond man, but a shot from somewhere near the church clipped her in the shoulder. She fell to the ground, gripping her arm tightly.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Moore’s other men attempted to fight off the peacekeepers, hoping to win by superior numbers. The Ancient pulled a knife from his boot and aimed for Josiah, only to find Nathan crushing him back into the dirt. Emily screamed, kneeing Robin in the groin and scrambling out from under his weight. Ezra caught hold of her arm and spun her away from the danger. Vin backed away to aim in the direction of the church, trying to see the source of the shot that had gotten the Marshal. He thought he could see the edge of a dark brown Stetson in one of the windows. He brought the Winchester to his shoulder and took aim, firing a couple of wood splintering shots.
Chris had a gun in either hand as he kicked Moore’s men back into submission, noting that JD, Ezra and Josiah were doing the same. Buck had launched himself at Moore as soon as Emily was away, and the two were embroiled in a heavy fist fight.
Nathan had made his way across to Garrett, and was pressing a bandanna to her shoulder, trusting the others to cover them.
With a yell, Buck launched Moore off of him and back into the hitching post, the weak wooden contraption giving out under the younger man’s weight. The rustler struggled to his feet, to find one of Chris’s colts in his face. Panting heavily, he took one look into the black clad gunslinger’s face and fell back to the ground in defeat.
Vin cursed as the dark brown Stetson disappeared from view again, his gray eyes searching the church for the shooter. Where did he go?
Subdued, Moore’s men were down once more, under the heels of the lawmen. Ezra stood just in front of Emily, letting her hide behind him. Part of him wondered at the irony of it. Buck jumped up to stand next to him, wiping the blood from his grinning face.
Just then, the dark brown Stetson appeared again, but before Vin could draw a bead on him, this last outlaw had his gun up and aimed directly for Emily and Ezra.
Vin yelled a warning, but the shot rang out before he could fire. Instantly, Vin found his target and fired, relief flooding through him as the last outlaw, a man with frizzy brown hair that came loose as the Stetson fell from his head, fell from the church window to hang from the sill, dead.
Emily’s abrupt scream brought Vin back, however, and he turned to see Ezra gripping tightly to Buck’s inert form. A dark stain was forming quickly across the ladies man’s back.
"Nathan!" the gambler screamed.
Epilogue: The Center of the World
A week later…early afternoon…heat has let up some, but it is still miserable for the people of our favorite frontier town…At least they have the fun distraction of a trial to watch…
Judge Orrin Travis pursed his lips as he looked down at the list of charges, his eyes narrowing behind the wire rimmed glasses. Looking up, he glanced out at his men, happy to see Buck moving about, if stiffly. The ladies man was sitting in a wheel chair, still pale from his gun shot wound, but recovering. JD hovered over him like a mother hen. Ezra no longer wore that horrible bandage around his head, and looked to be writing in a small black book as he watched the proceedings, a smug look on his face. Josiah stood over him, frowning slightly as he noted what the gambler was doing. Nathan, Chris and Vin all watched from the back, near the doors, keeping their distance from it all.
The judge also looked across at Marshal Garrett, who, with her arm in a sling, was standing stiffly next to the defendant. If it weren’t for the bandages, you would never even know that the woman had been hurt. Meanwhile, the young blond girl who stood next to her had her eyes trained on the wooden boards of the saloon floor.
"Emily Moore," The judge intoned finally, "you have been charged as an accessory to the felonies of cattle rustling, murder and attempted murder. From the records before me, I understand that you never took part in any of the actual gun fighting, though you were an integral part of the selling of the stolen cattle afterwards." He paused, and sniffed. "Normally, such participation would earn you at least ten years in prison."
The crowd stirred at this, and the judge saw Ezra raise an eyebrow and scribble something down. For some reason, this irked the older man somewhat, but he dispelled the feeling quickly.
"However, due to your role in the ultimate capture of Moore gang, and, as you already appear to have suffered greatly for what you have done, I have decided that leniency would be appropriate in this case. Both the seven men guarding this town, including the one you harmed, and Marshal Garrett have seen fit to plead on your behalf, and I have taken this all into account in your sentencing. As such, I am only going to sentence you to five years probation, under the guardianship of Marshal Vivienne Garrett."
The response was quick, as a huge sigh seemed to be released among the populace. Ezra grinned again and hastily wrote some more in his little book. Again, the judge frowned. Meanwhile, Garrett had turned to embrace her Emily, who was shaking slightly under the strain.
Earlier today, Moore and his remaining men had been sent to suffer life sentences at Yuma and many had guessed that Moore’s wife would follow him. But, influenced by the Seven, public opinion had been on the side of the girl, and the judge was aware of this. Sighing, Travis stood to slam the gavel down.
"Court is adjourned," he called out loudly.
Josiah followed Ezra out of the saloon/courtroom and grimaced as he saw the townsfolk quickly surround him. The gambler laughed as the money changed hands, and he reaped quite a lot of it for himself. The older man looked heavenward, as if looking for patience, then sighed and leaned on a post.
"What’s going on?" Judge Travis asked, sidling up next to the preacher. Josiah shrugged.
"He laid bets on the outcome of the trials, Judge. Seems he did pretty well guessing what you’d do, especially with the girl."
Orrin mouth fell open in dismay, and his hand gripped the gavel in his hand tightly. "Why that little…."
Josiah slapped a hand on the Judge’s back, stopping the man’s words. "Its good to have him back, don’t you think?" The preacher asked lightly. The Judge growled at him, and turned to stalk away, heading in the direction of the hotel.
Behind him, Josiah continued to watch Ezra, moving to follow as the gambler and his entourage moved up the street towards the bank. For some reason, Josiah didn’t want to let Ezra out of his sight.
Vin leaned against the saloon railing, watching Josiah watch Ezra. The preacher was still acting protectively, even if he didn’t realize it himself, and this caused the tracker to click his tongue against his teeth. He looked up as Chris leaned against a post near him.
"What’s the matter?" the gunslinger asked.
Vin shook his head. "Just worried about Josiah."
Chris’s eyes narrowed, "because of the son thing?"
Vin glance across, mildly surprised. He didn’t think Chris had noticed.
The gunslinger exhaled deeply and turned his face towards the rest of the town. "I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about it now, Vin. Josiah’s a grown man. He’ll have to figure this out for himself." He chuckled quietly. "Course, if he ever marries Maude, maybe we won’t have to worry as much."
Vin smiled crookedly in return, although his own thoughts knew that such a union would probably only make things worse.
"In any case," Chris finished, "Ezra will probably keep the preacher at arm’s length for a while. Maybe this whole thing will just go away."
Vin nodded, though he didn’t agree. His gray eyes caught Josiah as the preacher moved to walk towards the church, his head bowed. Ezra was pocketing his winnings, the men he’d bet with long since disappeared, and was also watching Josiah’s retreating back. The gambler took a couple steps in the preacher’s direction, then stopped. His hands gripped into fists, Ezra spun around and headed back in their direction. Both Vin and Chris looked away, pretending they hadn’t been watching. Ezra frowned at their poor attempt at subterfuge, but nevertheless joined them. The gunslingers were not the only ones hoping that this "thing" with Josiah would blow over.
JD wheeled Buck out of the saloon then, both men laughing at something. The Lady Marshal and her charge followed them out, and Nathan hovered around the whole group, acting the concerned healer.
Garrett smiled as she saw Chris and walked up to him, her hand outstretched. He stood to greet her and took the hand warmly.
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee," she smiled. "It has been…enlightening."
"For me as well, Marshal," Chris replied. "You are welcome in our little town for as long as you want."
"Oh, I’m afraid we can’t stay," Garrett replied, looking over at Emily. The girl still had her eyes glued to the ground, unable to meet anyone’s eye. "Emily has asked that we head for home, and I am only to happy to oblige her. But your hospitality and especially your help were more than I could have asked for."
Chris tipped hit black hat to her in acknowledgement. Garrett smiled at all the men, shaking each of their hands, until she reached Ezra and Buck. Then she swallowed and put her hands behind her back.
"Gentlemen, I owe you both an apology. I made certain assumptions…"
"Nah, don’t worry ‘bout it, Marshal. Hell, we all do it, don’t we Ez," Buck smiled, slapping Ezra on the arm. The gambler glared down at him, then turned to smile politely over at the Marshal.
"Despite the crudity with which he made the statement, Marshal Garrett, Mr. Wilmington is quite correct. Hell, some of us make a living off of appearances," his smile turned into a smirk, then became more genuine again. "Obviously, you know all too well yourself what it means to be judged on what you look like, as do we all. As such, an apology is truly not necessary. We would only have to apologize in return and, personally, I hate apologizing."
Garrett nodded and offered him her hand. Ezra reached down and lifted it to his lips. Garrett laughed, and even Emily’s lips twitched some. Vin noticed the girl’s expression, and smiled beneath his hat.
The Marshal also gave her hand to Buck, who shook it warmly in his own. Then Buck grabbed Ezra’s hand and lifted it to his lips, causing the gambler to cry out and wrench it away.
"Oh, come on, Ez, after all, I did save your life. Least you could do is let me kiss your hand!" The ladies man said, waggling his eyebrows. "After all, I think that assumption of your that I am merely a ladies man may be a bit premature…." Ezra backed away, ignoring the others barely contained laughter. His eyes narrowed.
"Oh, very funny, Buck. Hilarious."
The Marshal shook her head, smiling as she glanced out at the frontier town. She remembered her first impressions of this place and thought that maybe she had been wrong about Four Corners, just as she had been about the men protecting it. Though this place may not last long physically…the dream of it, and the ideas it allows for, could potentially live forever.
(At least of this story)