The sun dropped lazily towards the horizon, clumsily spilling molten gold over the hills and valleys around Four Corners with nary a care. Greedily the dirt lapped it up, desperately trying to hold on to the elusive drops as they faded in brilliance. The sun barely noticed the world’s hunger, too self absorbed to do more than glance at the earth below as she yawned tiredly.
A few puritanical clouds blushed in irritation at the daystar’s extravagance, envious of her ability to blaze so brightly as they themselves could only fade from view. A few of the more clever wisps, however, drifted quickly over to the sweet rising moon, planning on bathing in her simple elegance the whole night through. The wind helped them along, then quieted, exhausted from the all the tumbleweeds he’d blown around all day.
Meanwhile, Venus and her sisters made themselves known, bursting onto the scene as if the sun was nothing but a mere weed in the face of their rosy appearance. With barely contained impatience, they watched as their mother yawned and stretched, spreading one last breath of purple and orange over the earth. Then they laughed in delight as she finally fell asleep below the horizon, their tiny lights twinkling. Another night had begun.
The moon glanced at her flashy sisters as she rose, then turned her attention to the earth below. Slowly, she scanned the peoples and towns of the earth with her enormous eyes, drinking it all in with a never satisfied thirst. Tilting her head to one side, she smiled at the laughter from below, frowned at the anger, and cried with the tears. Unlike her sister sun, who watched the whole universe with an air of calm indifference, the moon only cared for the earth, so took everything on it deeply to heart. Drying her eyes, she put on a bright smile and caught the eye of one creature staring back at her. With a coy smile, she winked, then moved on, his face already forgotten in the grand scheme of things.
Standing outside the saloon, Ezra sighed. A slow smile spread across his face as he admired the velvety sky and its queen, and he tipped his hat in silent acknowledgement of the beautiful woman that briefly glowed just for him. Then he turned, quietly moving to patrol the streets of his home before returning to the gaming tables for yet another long night.
The next day, of course, the sun was back in full regalia.
Josiah looked up from his table in the saloon, his graying head tilting upwards towards the stairs leading up from the saloon floor. He raised a glass of whiskey to the yawning gambler who struggled to keep his eyes open on his way down. It was well towards noon on yet another hot day in their little burg, but the resident night owl was only just now getting up.
“Good morning, my friend,” the ex-preacher called cheerfully, earning him a fierce scowl. In the background, Nathan looked up from the bar where he’d been chatting with Inez, a mug of coffee in his hands. He grinned as Ezra slowly made his way to where Josiah sat, and motioned to Inez to fetch him a second mug.
With a great show of annoyance, Ezra rubbed his eyes against the glare of the sun streaming into the room. He sat down heavily next to Josiah, and stretched his tired muscles. As usual, his once dislocated shoulder popped in reply.
“You probably shouldn’t do that so much,” Nathan cautioned as he sat down on Ezra’s opposite side. “You might be wearing down the joint. Could trouble you when you’re old.” He handed the gambler a cup of coffee.
Ezra looked up blearily through bloodshot eyes and smiled. “I don’t plan on getting old, Nathan, just rich.”
Next to him, Josiah laughed heartily, and even Nathan couldn’t resist a smile as he took a sip of the hot liquid before him.
“Ezra up yet?” a voice called impatiently from the batwing doors. The gambler groaned theatrically, throwing an arm across his eyes. Chris Larabee pushed the rest of the way through the doors, a half-assed smirk on his grizzled face as he witnessed the melodramatic move of the younger man. He wandered over the table and threw a small cloth bag down onto the table. Ezra’s arm dropped immediately as he heard the telltale chink, his eyes now wide open.
“Mr. Wilson says you will have a better chance at estimating the worth of this lot than him,” Chris explained, shrugging. “Says he’s not as good at jewels as he is with gold or coins.” In fact, the banker of Four Corners had nearly fainted at the sight of so much wealth, and had hastily asked Chris to leave him out of any appraising. Too damn dangerous.
“Jewels?” Ezra repeated hungrily, that word being the only one he had heard. He reached for the bag, but was stopped by a firm grip from his leader.
“Don’t get any ideas, Ezra. Its not ours. We’re just holding onto it for a little while. Part of the loot we found on Black-eyed Mike.” Chris watched as the gambler’s face passed from avarice to a schooled indifference.
“Please, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra assured the black clad gunslinger, shaking off the other man’s hand. “I’m not about to abscond with this bounty under your very eyes now, am I?”
Chris merely raised an eyebrow. “Both hands on the table at all times, Ez.”
The gambler snorted, but complied. With great care, he loosened the tie on the bag and dribbled the light contents onto the table top. Nathan and Josiah both leaned forward, unable to help themselves.
“My God…,” Nathan whispered, his eyes huge.
“Or, rather, Ezra’s,” Josiah replied smartly, smiling sheepishly as both healer and gambler favored him with looks of exasperation.
The jewels glinted in the half light of the saloon, a cluster of rubies, diamonds, emeralds and other stones small enough to fit in your palm, but worth more than the entire town of Four Corners put together. It took every ounce of strength the gambler had not to grab them and run.
Josiah watched the gambler, easily more interested in the younger man’s reaction than in the jewels themselves. If he expected something, he was disappointed. Ezra’s face looked very calm, almost pensive. With care, the gambler reached forward and picked up the largest unset diamond, bringing it up to his eye to look for flaws. Only the heaving movement of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed betrayed his agitation. Slowly, he put that one down and picked up the next, all the time aware of the shadowed eyes of Chris on his fingers.
After a few moments, he asked Inez for water, a pen and a pencil. She complied, her own eyes unable to stray far from the wealth that graced her table. A hand went to her throat after she dropped the requested objects off, her mind imagining the sight of one of those diamonds around her neck. Ezra spotted the movement, and smiled. Then he went to work, cataloguing the jewels onto the paper as he was expected. Concurrently, he began describing their value to Chris out loud in a professional tone, as if appraising such gems were an everyday occurrence.
“The three unset diamonds are of incredible quality, with almost no flaws that I can see with the naked eye. I’d value the largest to be about worth about $3000, the next around $1250 and the smallest to be just under a thousand. The six rubies are equally as valuable, worth almost as much. Indeed, that one there is the largest I’ve ever seen," he indicated a stone almost twice the size as the largest diamond. It matched in color the red of his jacket. With a flourish, he scribbled six numbers down for the rubies. He proceeded to do the same for the emeralds, then began on the lesser stones, all the time explaining their worth to the others at the table. In all, the combined worth of the stones, in his expert estimation, came to just under $20,000.
Finally, he picked up the one set stone. This diamond was almost twice as large as the free ones before him, and set in a platinum pendant. A handful of little blue Sapphires danced around the edges, highlighting the diamond within the simple Celtic filigree pattern of the metal. The diamond was shaped into a tear, and was absolutely perfect. His hands shook slightly as he estimated its worth.
“This piece,” Ezra began, his voice taking on an almost reverential tone, “is likely to be worth almost $10,000 on its own. I’ve never seen its like.”
Chris cleared his throat, and nodded. “That one is called the Moondrop pendant. You’re right about its worth. Its also how we were able to identify the owners of the other stones. Turns out, Black-eyed Mike stole them all in one night in a hit on the Saint Louis Ritz two weeks ago. Apparently, the woman who lost this one posted a sizeable reward for its return, making it easy to track.”
When he finished, no one moved for a minute. Each man simply stared at the stones, their minds drifting to the possibilities they suggested. Eventually, Josiah broke the tableau with a sudden swig from the whiskey bottle in front of him.
“He must have been a very proficient thief,” Ezra murmured.
“Proficient, maybe, but not too smart,” Nathan smiled, bringing everyone’s eyes to the healer. “He chose the wrong town to hide out in.” This caused even the serious gunslinger to chuckle.
Black-Eyed Mike had obviously hoped to lay low for a while in Four Corners, unaware of the tremendous enthusiasm with which young Sheriff Dunne memorized the faces of all the wanted posters that came his way. It certainly helped that Mike had a distinctive facial flaw – an odd skin discoloration around his left eye made him look as if he permanently had a black eye. The thief was immediately approached by the seven, and had foolishly chosen to try and shoot his way out of going to jail. He succeeded by becoming a permanent resident of the Four Corners cemetery.
With a thank you to the gambler, Chris took the tally sheet and gathered the stones back into the bag in order to tie it to his belt. Ezra’s eyes followed the bag as if it were a lifeline.
“Ummm…,” he started, getting the gunslinger’s attention as Chris worked the knots. “May I suggest that you wear that inside your shirt, perhaps around your neck? Best if I…if the town can’t see it. Never know what might happen,” he smiled shamelessly, completely aware of his slip-up. Chris watched him for a second, then nodded.
“I’ll borrow a length of twine from Vin.” He finished tying the bag to his belt for want of something better to do with it right then, and dropped his duster into place over it. He had taken a couple of steps towards the doors when Ezra cleared his throat again.
“Er, Mr. Larabee?”
“How long will we have possession of the stones?”
“Give ‘em to the judge when he comes in a week. He’ll take them to Saint Louis to be claimed.”
“Ah, thank you.”
“No problem, Ez. See you boys around.” And with a swish, he was gone.
Around the table, a collective sigh was released from the three remaining men. Ezra took a long drink from his now cold coffee, effectively finishing it. He also downed the water that sat next to it. Josiah watched him with amusement, a smile breaking his face as Ezra next reached for the same bottle of whiskey that the preacher had been drinking from. Pouring a liberal amount into the now empty water glass, Ezra grinned up at both men.
“Can I interest you boys in a game of chance?”
Four men rode slowly into the dusty hamlet, taking in the sights quietly. The street bustled around them, filled with delivery trucks and the arriving stage from Bristol City. People and children wandered down the boardwalks in front of the stores, and laughter could be heard from near the hotel. No one gave the four riders much mind, except the long haired young man in the bowler near the jail. He looked to be sizing them up. The man on the lead horse released a broad grin, and tipped his hat at the youth. The young man tipped his own hat, then dropped off the boardwalk to walk across the saloon.
“Kid has a good idea, eh gents?” the leader asked, his Australian accent thick on his tongue. He turned in the saddle to look at his companions, his grin still on his face. The others nodded, and turned their mounts towards the hitching posts outside the saloon.
The youngest member of the group wearily slid off his horse and stretched. At that same moment, a breeze blew up, and a dusty copy of the Clarion newspaper smacked him in the face. His strangled swearing brought laughter from his friends as he pulled the paper off, until his whiny tone abruptly dropped into an angry growl.
“Hell and damnation,” the young man spat, lifting off his hat and pushing a hand through his coarse blond hair as he reread the headline.
“What?” the leader asked, coming round to look over his shoulder.
“Mike’s dead. The law has the loot.” He held the paper up and pointed to the headline.
Moondrop Theft Solved: Black-Eyed Mike Matthews Dead in Gunfight with Seven.
“Who is Seven?” another man asked, looking at his boss with curious green eyes.
“The Seven, nob,” the leader replied impatiently. “They’re the law here. Don’t you ever read the bloody papers? Damn, Mike sure knew how to pick the worst places.” He shook his head, and looked around. “If the law has the jewels, we’ll need a distraction in order to get to them.” He frowned as he looked the town over, than glanced in through the large picture window of the saloon. Suddenly, the easy going grin returned to his face as he spotted a familiar face.
“And I know the perfect distraction!”
“EZZIE BABY!” a voice boomed across the saloon floor. Still at the gaming table with Josiah and Nathan, Ezra’s eyes widened until they were as wide as saucers. His cards fell limp from his fingers.
“Oh God, no,” the gambler muttered, not bothering to turn around to look at the speaker, and dropping his head to the table to hide his face. At the bar, Buck and JD turned around, instantly aware of a potentially embarrassing moment in the future for their favorite black sheep. Ezzie baby!?
The large black-haired Australian bounded over and slammed his red hands down on the table, effectively scattering the chips in the pot. Ezra looked up slowly into the grinning face, unable to keep the look of shock and amazement from his expression. The man above him looked quite a bit older than how Ezra remembered him, his unshaven and grizzled face giving him the appearance of someone nearing fifty. The Australian’s dark brown eyes still glinted like a child’s, however, and he obviously had all his boisterous exuberance.
“Ezzie, me old mate! Stand up and greet your old friend proper like,” the large man commanded.
Sighing loudly, Ezra stood up and extended a hand. “Jake…” he began, but suddenly had his air cut off as the Australian wrapped him in a huge bear hug.
“Damn, Ezra, how long’s it been! Twelve, thirteen years? You were just a kid then, but look at you now! All adult, even a bit jaded, but still looking as fit as a pit bull!” The large newcomer continued, ignoring the gambler’s attempts too pull away. With a firm grip on Ezra’s arms, Jake pulled back to stare happily at his old friend. Unable to keep a straight face, the gambler finally broke into a smile of his own.
“Its good to see you, Jake,” he said quietly, and surprised himself by meaning it. Rarely did the gambler like to be reminded of his past, but Jake had been a good friend once. Very good. Ezra owed the man his life.
“That’s more like it, kid. Damn, but don’t you look fine in that get up. Better than my old cotton hand me downs, eh?”
Ezra fingered his fine red coat and grinned lopsidedly. “I’ve improved on some of my skills since San Francisco, Jake.”
“I’ll say. What are you up to now, you rapscallion? Just passing through, eh? Headed to Saint Louis again? Or KC?”
“Ummm, no, not exactly,” Ezra replied, his eyes narrowing slightly as he considered how to phrase the fact that he not only lived in Four Corners, but was a member of the law here. He decided to sidestep the question by turning his attention back to the table. Understanding, Nathan and Josiah stood up.
“Jake, these are my friends, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson,” Ezra introduced, and Jake stuck his hand out.
“Pleasure, gents,” Jake smiled. He looked at Nathan speculatively and turned back to the southerner, “And Good on ya, Ez. Nice to see you’re finally learning that all men are created equal, eh?” He grinned at the younger man’s discomfiture and gave him a fierce hug about the shoulders before looking back to the preacher and healer. “Any friends of the kid here are friends of mine, mates. Hope you can say the same!”
“Of course,” Josiah intoned. Nathan nodded.
“Does that include us, Ezzie baby?” Buck asked congenially, stressing the nickname as he sidled up to the table with a grinning JD in tow. Ezra sighed again, and introduced both men to Jake. As with the others, Jake threw out a large hand and shook theirs good-naturedly. Then he turned back to the gambler.
“Come on, I want you to meet some friends of mine,” Jake announced, steering Ezra around until they faced three rather somber figured near the door. Jake indicated the youngest, a man about Ezra’s own age, with blond hair and a bored expression. He stood a few inches taller than Ezra, but wasn’t much bigger in size.
“This here’s Sean,” Jake said, and turned to the next man, “and this here’s Charlie…”
Ezra shook hands with both, though was a little daunted by Charlie’s size. The man was at least Nathan’s height, maybe taller, and completely bald. He reminded the gambler of a wrestler he’d once bet on while visiting the gaming pits in Abilene, though the gold earring Charlie wore off one ear also suggested a piratical heritage. Neither were happy images for the smaller man who fought the urge to back away and hide. Charlie favored him with a gap-toothed leer, and Ezra returned with a weak smile.
“And, this here is Eli,” Jake continued, slapping a man close to Chris’s age on the arm. Eli nodded his brown-haired head at Ezra, green eyes matching green eyes in height and depth. The man was stockier than the gambler, though, and his face wider and more weathered. “Eli kind of took you place after your abrupt departure from Cisco, kid.” Jake explained easily, “He’s my right hand these days.”
Ezra nodded back at the man, then turned to Jake. “Have a drink, Jake, and you can tell me all about it. On me.” He turned to glance at Inez, “Drinks for these gentlemen, Senorita, whatever they want.”
Jake’s grin grew wider as he followed Ezra to the bar. Charlie, Sean and Eli followed close behind.
“Does that invitation include us, Ezzie?” Buck called from where he still stood by the gaming table. Ezra favored him with a displeased look at the continued use of the nickname.
“Not a chance, Mr. Wilmington,” He replied nastily, stressing the man’s full name, causing Jake to laugh heartily.
“You always were a bit of a snob, Ezra. Looks like that’s only gotten worse, huh? Maybe I should lend you some of my old shirts to remind you of your youth!”
Ezra merely shook his head and ordered the drinks. In the background, Jake’s men slipped into seats around one of the empty tables, and waited for Inez to serve them. Buck and JD joined Josiah and Nathan at the gaming table, and they immediately began trying to speculate exactly where the boisterous Australian fit into Ezra’s life. Jake and Ezra stayed at the bar, and were soon lost talking and laughing about old times.
At one point, JD looked up to glance once more at the newcomers, and at Jake. A small frown creased his features, but he decided to shake off the feeling of seeing them before. They were Ezra’s friends, after all, they couldn’t be that bad….
As the day wore on, Josiah and Nathan disappeared out on various errands, and were replaced by Chris and Vin. The gunslinger and tracker declined to sit with the boys, however, and were quietly sipping their drinks at the next table over. Meanwhile, Jake, Ezra, Charlie, Buck and JD were deeply into a poker game. Ezra, of course, was winning easily.
“Damnation!” Jake swore, throwing his cards down. “You weren't lying kid.” Ezra merely laughed and pulled the pot in towards him.
“You mean he wasn’t always this good?” JD asked curiously.
“Oh no,” Jake replied, shaking his head, not noticing that some of the smile had left Ezra’s features. “He was always good, but no one took him seriously when I knew him in San Francisco. Too young to be allowed to the major games. What were you, 17? 18? And a baby face to match too, kind of like yours, JD.”
The young Sheriff frowned and rubbed a hand over his face. Buck grinned and slapped him on the back. Ezra concerned himself by gathering the cards back together and reshuffling them. To all intents and purposes, he was not paying attention to his old mentor’s story.
“Ezzie here arrived in San Francisco on the heels of his mama, Maude, when he was still a pup. Have you met her?” Jake asked, to which the other men nodded. “Then, you have my deepest sympathies,” he said seriously, and Ezra’s mouth twitched into a small smile. “Well, she quickly disposed of him by dropping him off in a saloon owned by a friend of hers after a con she was running went bad, and took off to greener pastures. Ezzie, here, was left to fend for himself. I took pity on the kid after some miners accused him of cheating in the saloon. Saved his life, and took him in. It was also the first time I’d seen the boy fight.” Jake turned to look pointedly at the gambler. “You still fight, Ez?”
Ezra blinked, and licked his lips. “No…” he began, but Buck interrupted.
“Sure as hell he does, Mister. You should see the way he throws himself into the brawls we have here. That is, until someone sucker hits him from behind with a chair!” This caused both Buck and JD to enter into hails of laughter, and even Chris smiled from where he sat a table away. He and Vin had not been eavesdropping intentionally, but the Australian was a very loud man.
Ezra looked Jake square in the eye. “No, Jake, I no longer subject myself to such meaningless pursuits anymore. I have found much better ways to earn a dollar now that I’m older.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed, his head tilting slightly. “Shame, kid, really.”
Buck stilled his laughter enough to ask what the hell they were talking about. Ezra shook his head, but Jake didn’t notice. He leaned in close to the ladies man. “Ezra here was the best thing to happen to my purse for a long time, matey. The best fighter I’d ever seen. Barring myself, of course. I taught him everything he knew. Well, almost everything.” He looked slyly at his old friend, who didn’t meet his eye. Ezra pretended a deep interest in his whiskey shot.
“Fighter?” JD queried.
“Pugilist, Mr. Dunne.” Ezra explained, not looking up. JD looked even more lost. The gambler sighed. “I used to box…in a ring…for money.”
Buck whistled, and leaned back. JD just frowned, watching Ezra closely, having difficulty picturing the well dressed man in front of him as a boxer. Hell, he couldn’t even picture Ezra as a kid! The gambler’s face had become stony, and his fingers began shuffling the cards before him rapidly. Jake just grinned, ignoring his friend’s discomfiture.
“Ezzie here was a natural, my friends. I can’t even count the amount of money I won off of him in the two years he hung out in my little city. Would probably have made even more if….”
“Okay, Jake, that’s enough,” Ezra stopped the man. “No need to tell my friends everything, eh? Let’s just say that, like my mother, I felt it was time to move onto greener pastures, as you put it.”
Jake laughed, “moved on….Moved on!” The man’s face turned red and tears streamed down his face. “You moved on, alright Ez, smuggled out under my wagon in the middle of the night!” Even Ezra couldn’t resist smiling, and Jake slapped the gambler hard across the back.
“C’mon Ezra, how about you demonstrate your skills for your friends tomorrow? I saw a flat bit of space near that ramshackle church as I rolled in, we could set up a ring there real easy.”
Ezra eyes flashed, and he shook his head. “Absolutely not, Jake. I have not boxed in many years, and I do not plan on taking it up again. Besides, who would I fight?”
“Who would you fight? Why…,” Jake looked around, and nodded to where his three friends sat over near the bar, “you could fight Sean there.” The blond looked up upon hearing his name, a curious look on his face.
Ezra raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Oh, please, Jake. I’d wipe the floor with him.”
Jake grinned, and a wicked gleam came into his eye. “Care to make a wager?” he asked softly, instantly bringing Ezra’s eyes to his. Buck and JD looked at each other, and sat back to watch the show. Chris and Vin both looked over at the table, no longer pretending indifference. Ezra never took his eyes off Jake.
Jake pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, and proceeded to unroll it slowly. He peeled off two bills and laid them out. “$100.”
Ezra’s green eyes flitted to the money on the table, then back up to Jake’s face. “I take it, you’ve taught him as well?”
“Yup. And I should tell you, I think he’s better than you, kid.”
“Oh, ho,” Ezra replied, shaking his head with a chuckle, a smile on his face, “I very much doubt that, my old friend.”
“Well?” Jake tempted, pushing the bills forward. “What do you say, kid? You still good enough?” In response, Ezra carefully reached into his own pocket and pulled out his own money. He counted out $100 and placed it on top of Jake’s.
“I never pass up a sure thing,” the gambler replied, flashing his gold tooth.
The moon rose again, still waxing full. She rested her chin on her hands, and glanced over the North continent silently. She looked at all the bright lights from the fires, and shook her head in amazement. One coast was almost totally lit up now, but even the middle and the west had pockets of light. They were moving so quickly, now. Soon the whole continent would be as bright as the other one. She chanced a look at the small town in the West which, she thought, never slept, hoping to catch a glance of the same face from the night before. Tonight, though, he was nowhere to be found. Sighing, she moved on.
Inside the saloon, Ezra and Jake were the only ones left. Inez had gone to sleep after being told they would clean up, and everyone else has long since retired. Jake looked sleepily around the bar, and sighed heavily. What a small place, he thought, not for the first time that evening. He never thought his favorite boy would end up in a place like this, and certainly not as a lawman. He giggled a little at that, and Ezra looked up from where he sat looking blearily at his empty glass.
“Oh nothin’, kid. Just curious still on how you ended up here.”
Ezra didn’t reply. He himself had not told Jake that he was part of the law, and had no idea that Jake already knew. Ezra steeled himself for the next question, and Jake sat up instinctively as he felt the tension build.
“How is Moira?” the gambler asked, his face suddenly looking much younger.
Jake sighed and averted his eyes. He’d been dreading this. “She’s…well. She married a few years after you left, to someone her father picked out. Couple of kids. Happy, and all that. Shouldn’t have fallen for a member of the aristocracy, kid. They’re too fickle. I could have told you she wouldn’t give up all that money to run away with some southern scoundrel.”
Ezra smiled at the last comment, but then his face shut down. The lie was clear in the older man’s voice. “Of course. So, what really happened to her, Jake.”
Jake sighed. He should have known. With a topic this sensitive, it was impossible to lie to the boy. He was too quick.
“I’m sorry, Ezra. She…she did marry someone her father picked out. He was the only one who would take her after you made her pregnant, and she miscarried. The man beat her. She died of a sickness brought on as a result.”
The gambler hissed and shut his eyes in pain.
“If it’s any consolation, her father did right by her in the end. He had the son of a bitch hanged for murder.”
Ezra didn’t respond. Her father had been the reason he’d had to leave town. That, and Moira had insisted that she didn’t love him. They were just kids, after all, and she admitted to being in love with someone else….
Ezra looked up to see Jake’s eyes on him. The Australian’s mouth was set in a straight line. Ezra shook his head.
“You can’t stay here, Jake.”
Jake blinked, “What?”
“The law here…they’re very good. I’d even go so far as to say that they are the best you’ll ever see. Trust me, I know this from personal experience.” He offered a wry smile, which Jake returned weakly. Ezra continued, “They’ll figure out who you are, Jake, and I won’t be able to stop them. I know you’re wanted, Jake, and they won’t hesitate to hang you for it.”
Jake sighed, his brow furrowing. “So what do you suggest?”
“Leave tonight. Leave now.”
Jake smiled, “What about our little wager?”
“It’s not important. Just, please, leave.”
Jake watched the man in front of him for a minute, surprised. He knew that the kid would have had to have changed to become a lawman, but he just assumed it was part of some scam. But to hear him willingly call a $100 wager unimportant….Ezra’d changed even more than Jake imagined. This was not the kid he knew anymore. The one with the one-track mind where money was concerned. This man was someone else.
Jake shook his head, and stood up. “The night has grown long, kiddo. I’m going to retire myself. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. I’d practice some moves, if I were you.”
The Australian turned away from the gambler’s pained expression and began walking towards the saloon doors. “You may be able to turn down a hundred dollars, kid, but not me,” he explained. Nor can I turn down a fistful of jewels, he reminded himself.
“I’ll concede. I’ll give you the cash,” Ezra tried, his throat constricting a little at the thought. Damn, when had he become so soft?
Jake’s movement stopped. He turned a completely shocked look at Ezra, still sitting at the table, a worried expression on the younger man’s face. For a moment, Jake saw his old friend with clear eyes, untouched by ulterior motives, and almost took the offer. Finally, cold reason returned and Jake remembered the purpose of his visit. He shook his head and chuckled to dispel the tension. Ezra’s shoulders slumped.
“Don’t worry about me, Ezzie. We’re cats, remember? We always land on our feet. I’ll trust you to keep the dogs at bay, just as I did once for you.” With a two-fingered salute, he left the gambler alone in the bar.
Ezra looked down at his hands and balled them into fists. He looked at the faded calluses that graced the knuckles. He was older, yes, but not out of practice. And his skills with cards had not been the only thing to improve over the years. He looked out the batwing doors, and at the bright celestial globe hanging in the sky. Standing, he tipped the remaining chairs atop the tables, and blew out the lanterns still lit. Then he went outside and around to the moonlit side of the structure. After stretching, he started in on his usual workout, shadow boxing in the light of the moon.
Jake found his companions still awake in the hotel room, awaiting their leader. The Australian locked the door behind him, and sat heavily on the side of the bed. When he didn’t speak for a moment, Sean cleared his throat.
“What is the plan, boss?”
Jake looked over at the young blond, and shrugged. “Tomorrow, when Sean is fighting, Charlie and Eli, you will grab the man dressed in black. Word is, he wears the jewels around his neck in a bag. Kill him somewhere out of sight, then ride out of town and wait by that saddle canyon we rode past on the way in. Once the fight is over -- which I expect you to win, Sean, as I don’t want to lose $100 -- we’ll ride out to meet you.”
“Won’t it seem suspicious, leaving so soon after just one fight?” Eli asked from where he stood by the window. He was watching the alley where he’d seen the gambler disappear into, wondering what he was doing. He didn’t like the man and rubbed his hands together absently.
“No. Ezra will see to it that no one follows us, neither. He owes me that.”
Eli looked over at his boss, an odd look on his face. “You sure you can trust him?”
Jake didn’t answer at first, then snorted. “Yes. At least until he finds out what we did to his friend, and how we used him.”
The next day dawned gray, heavy black clouds sitting on the horizon like a bad cold waiting to happen. Ezra crawled out of bed and frowned at the sight. Then he heard the hammering. With a sigh, he got dressed and wandered down and outside.
Over by the church, Josiah and several other men were involved in setting up a ring. Josiah looked up just as the gambler ambled over and smiled brightly. Ezra returned the look wryly, and came to stand next to his friend as Josiah hammered the rope ring into place on the post.
“I didn’t know you were a fighter, son,” the ex-preacher said, using the now familiar term. Ezra didn’t even flinch anymore. “You know, I also used to partake in the pugilistic arts a little when I was a boy. My father thought boxing was a healthy means by which we could exorcise our demons.”
“That would explain why I’ve never seen anyone best you in a fight,” Ezra responded, his face slipping into a grin.
“Ah, but I’ve never fought you,” Josiah replied, waggling his eyebrows as he hit the nail with one last resounding blow.
“Josiah, you’d kill me,” Ezra laughed, his tongue darting out to lick his lower lip, his eyes on the hammer. “Hell, you could probably take us all on and not break a sweat.”
Josiah pulled on the rope to ensure that it was taut, then looked up, “Ah, but from the way Buck tells it, this Jake fellow painted an impressive picture about your skills.”
“Jake exaggerates. He always thought a little too highly of me,” Ezra grinned, glancing over to the hotel. His face fell a little when he saw the Australian’s large black mount still outside. The falter did not escape the preacher’s notice. Josiah stopped his hammering, and handed the tool to another man. He stretched his sore muscles, and tapped the gambler on the shoulder.
“Let me buy you a drink, brother.”
Ezra looked across at the preacher and shrugged. “I could use some coffee.”
Together, they walked back to the saloon and inside. Josiah ordered two coffees from Inez, then joined Ezra at the gaming table. The gambler had already instinctively taken out his cards and begun to shuffle them.
“Jake was someone very important to you,” the preacher said matter-of-factly. Ezra shook his head in amazement. Josiah was getting too damn good at reading him.
“He saved my life, Josiah. I’d never been to San Francisco before, and he was right to say I was still a kid. I thought I was good enough to handle it on my own, but I was wrong.” He looked up from the cards rippling between his fingers, and smiled.
“Jake took me in, took good care of me, and then, when I made the mistake of developing a crush on an old rich Irish aristocrat’s daughter, he got me out of town. I wanted to marry her, but her father was more inclined to shoot me first.” He laughed, and Josiah nodded his head in understanding. “Well, when I couldn’t convince Moira to run away with me, I knew I had to leave. Jake gave me money, smuggled me out on a wagon train heading east, and that was the last I saw of him. The war was full blown by the time I returned to the South, drawing in everyone within its vicinity with the undeniable intensity of a tornado.” He looked back down at the cards in his hands as if seeing them for the first time. He placed them gently on the table.
“I…thought I’d never see him again,” the gambler finished quietly.
Josiah watched the emotions wash over the younger man’s face, “And now?”
Ezra didn’t answer for a few minutes, during which time Inez brought them the coffees. He took a sip and grimaced a little at the bitterness. When he set it down again, he sighed. “I don’t know what he is doing here, Josiah. He once swore that he’d never leave San Francisco. Something must have happened to get him all the way out here.”
“You think he’s wanted?”
Ezra laughed. “Oh, I know he is wanted, my friend. I just don’t know for what, or for how much.” He looked outside, in the general direction of the jail where he knew JD and Buck were probably hanging out. “I asked Jake to leave last night, Josiah. I don’t want them to catch him here.”
Ezra favored the preacher with a guileless stare, “Us.”
Josiah nodded again, and looked in the same general direction of the jail. “Jake hasn’t left, Ezra. I saw them eating breakfast at the hotel this morning.”
The gambler didn’t respond, himself already aware of that fact, and took another draw on the coffee. Josiah eyed him speculatively.
“And if Brother JD figures out who they are?”
Ezra shrugged, “I know what I am, now, Josiah. I will do my duty. But I will not be the one to give them away.”
Josiah smiled slightly, and took a long swig form his own mug. “Well, I best be getting back to that ring. I don’t trust those boys too set it up properly without me.” He stood and placed the empty mug on the table. As he left, he placed a heavy hand on the gambler’s shoulder. “I expect you to make me proud today, son. I have a goodly sum of money riding on you.”
Ezra smiled as well, and nodded. “You won’t be disappointed my friend.”
Josiah nodded, a wolfish smile creasing his face, “I know.”
A substantial crowd was gathered about the ring as the clock above the mercantile store headed towards three o’clock. The voices of bookies could be heard above the general murmur, calling out odds and taking bets. Inside the ring, Ezra leaned against a post, dressed in a light cotton shirt and brown trousers, his suspenders hanging loose by his sides. He was talking with Buck and Josiah as Nathan wrapped cloth around his knuckles. The healer looked unhappily at the gambler, but was determined to hold his tongue. Let the man dig his own grave, he thought.
On the opposite side, Jake was whispering intently into Sean’s ear, obviously giving him pointers. No one noticed that neither Charlie nor Eli seemed to be around.
Above it all, the gray clouds loomed ominously. Several townspeople looked up at the gloomy sky and shook their heads, hoping it wouldn’t interfere with the sport at hand. Many had come out to see one of the Seven fall.
Vin and Mary stood off to one side, and Mary was scribbling in her little notebook. Vin looked over her shoulder, occasionally saying something. Mary would smile and nod, and then go back to her writing. Vin swelled with pride, far more interested in the fact that he could read her words than about what she was writing. He was suggesting phrases to her, and would grin as she added them.
Chris and JD still stood near the jail, the only ones not over by the fight. The gunslinger was trying to figure out what was bothering the boy, who’d seemed agitated all morning. He was rapidly losing patience with the young sheriff.
“Damn it, JD, I’m not going to ask again. You said you had something on your mind, and if you don’t spit it out in the next ten seconds, I’m leaving you to go watch Ezra fight.”
JD swallowed, his face pinched in indecision. He knew he recognized Ezra’s friends from wanted posters, and he was pretty sure what they’d done too. He had yet to check the bills yet, though, afraid that he might be right and would have to arrest them. Hell, he knew he was right. He looked up at Chris and shook his head. He couldn’t do it yet.
The gunslinger sighed in exasperation, and turned on his heel towards the church. JD dropped his eyes to the ground, and went back inside the jail. Slowly, he headed towards the desk and pulled out the stack of wanted posters. Maybe he was wrong. But if he wasn’t…well, now he’d have no choice. Not if he knew for sure.
Chris paused by the side of the jail, shaking his head. He pulled out a cheroot from his pocket and placed it in his mouth. As he lit the match to light it, cupping his hands around the tiny flame, he felt the cold press of steel of a gun barrel against his skull. Aw hell, he thought. He let the smoking cheroot fall from his mouth to the ground.
Charlie placed a firm grip on the gunslinger’s arm, and led him away from the open air. Chris complied begrudgingly, knowing already what these boys wanted. As he noted who they were, he shook his head in disappointment. Damn it, Ezra.
Inside the jail still, JD pulled out Jake’s poster. His hands shook as he read the long list of warrants, and his eyes lingered on the last for a while – “murder.” With a groan, he stood and walked outside, looking for Chris’s retreating figure. When he didn’t see the black duster, he went from puzzled, to slightly alarmed. He started in the direction of the ring just as the first raindrop fell, stopping when he caught something out of the corner of his eye.
He came up abruptly, and looked down at his foot. A smoking cheroot. Chris’s. He looked down the empty alley, then over at the crowd of people a hundred yards away. He couldn’t see any of the others. Making a quick decision, he headed down the alley, after his leader.
The boxing match began earnestly, with Sean charging Ezra like a steam train. The gambler easily sidestepped him, and danced back. Growling, Sean took a few steps towards his adversary and looked for an opening. He took a few practice swings, which Ezra easily blocked. Then Ezra struck, landing a solid blow to the blond man’s belly. Sean gasped and staggered back. In the background, the crowd cheered and booed equally. Sean quickly got his breath back, however, and now took a more defensive posture. Ezra watched him warily. They danced around each other for a few minutes, until Sean charged again.
The blond man rained blows down on the gambler, getting him in the side and the back. Ezra kept his guard up, never letting the man get in more than glancing blows in the places where it counted. When he felt Sean beginning to tire in his onslaught, he threw the man’s arms aside and started in on Sean’s midsection. Taken by surprise where he’d thought he’d been winning, Sean didn’t have time to come up with a good block. Instead, he fell backwards, trying to get space between him and the other man’s fists. Just then, Buck rang the bell to signal the end of the first round.
Grinning, Ezra danced back and headed over to his post, looking nearly as fresh as when he first started. Sean coughed, eyed the gambler angrily, and went to stand near to Jake. Jake handed him a towel and shook his head. A small smile lit upon the Australian’s face as he watched Ezra take a drink from the water bucket. The kid still had it.
The rain began to spit down lightly, and people put up their umbrellas. The bookies were now shouting new odds.
JD lay flat against the side of the building at the end of the alley, and counted to three. On the last number, he glanced around the side, his gun raised, ready to fire.
Frowning, he looked around desperately for any sign of Chris’s passing, and his eyes lit upon a still smoking match off to his right, in the direction of one of the hotel’s ice houses. Smiling, JD jogged across the space and then slowed as he reached the side of the first ice house. He listened intently at the door, but heard nothing from inside. With great care, he moved over to the next, and again listened at the door. Still nothing.
Lying flat against the front of the ice house, he stuck his head briefly around the corner. Again, there was no one to be seen. He crept around the side and moved slowly down the side. At the back, he finally heard voices.
The second round seemed much like the first. It was clear from the first minute that Ezra was the superior fighter. He was quick, and expended very little energy until he absolutely needed it. He let Sean take the first shots, always blocking or letting him hit the few areas that could take the blows. Then, as Sean backed up, Ezra struck. This time, Ezra landed several blows to the man’s head, until the blond man had a streak of blood leading from the edge of his mouth to his chin. One eye was also beginning to swell. As Ezra was winding up for the knockout blow, Buck rang the bell again. Sean staggered back to his corner, and Ezra bounced up and down in place before turning around. The adrenaline rush caused him to shake a little, but by the time he got back to his corner, he was his usual calm self. Nathan took his bloodied fists, and worked on rewrapping them.
The rain started to come down harder, and several people started to drift away towards overhangs and other shelters. Josiah looked upwards at the dark sky, letting the rain splash on his face. A flash of light lit off to one side, as lightening struck the ground in the distance. The preacher started counting seconds, waiting for the thunder.
JD listened quietly for a few minutes, unable to discern exactly what was being said. He frowned when he realized he couldn’t hear Chris’s voice. With great care, he lowered himself down until he was squatting on his haunches, and looked around the corner. His eyes widened, and he drew back, taking several deep breaths. “Shit,” he muttered.
Chris lay unconscious on the ground on his side. The large man named Charlie stood over him with a knife, while Eli pulled the jewels out from the inside Chris’s shirt. The smaller man grinned as he opened the pouch, and nodded up at Charlie.
Charlie, knelt and pulled the body towards him, his knife going for the jugular.
“FREEZE!” JD screamed leaping out from behind the ice house. Both men jumped up and reached for their weapons. With a speed Chris would have been proud of, JD had his gun up and fired.
Thunder rumbled loudly across the plains, causing a few of the more timid ladies to squeal. Ezra looked up, noticing the rain for the first time. He looked over at Buck, who shrugged, then over at Jake and Sean. The rain started to really come down then, making it difficult to see.
The Australian shrugged his shoulders, then smiled. “Declare it postponed!” he called over the noise of rushing water. Ezra nodded, and looked to Buck.
Buck jumped into the ring and raised his hands. “Ladies and Gentlemen, due to the weather, this match has been postponed.” He had to yell to be heard over the din caused by the sudden downpour.
Several people muttered in irritation, but most shrugged and moved to get out of the rain. The outcome was already obvious, even without Sean going down. The bulk of the crowd headed towards the saloon, where Inez was already pouring drinks in anticipation.
Jake helped Sean out of the ring, the younger man leaning quite heavily on his boss. Jake tipped his hat at the “kid” then headed off towards the livery. Ezra watched him leave silently, knowing that the man was intending to leave. As expected, Ezra made no move to stop them, despite the knowledge that he would have undoubtedly won in the next round. He looked down at his bruised hands and closed his eyes. Josiah laid a comforting arm across the younger man’s shoulders.
Lightening streaked the sky again, followed by another heavy clap of thunder.
Inez had just finished pouring Buck’s “pre-victory” drink for the gambler when JD burst into the room, gripping his arm. Water dripping off of him like a waterlogged rat.
“Nathan! Where’s Nathan! Buck!” He staggered forward, and Buck rushed up to meet him. Nathan came up right behind him, taking the boy’s arm in his adept hands.
“Kid! What the hell happened?” Buck asked.
“He’s been shot in the arm, Buck,” Nathan said worriedly.
“Its just a graze, Buck. But they knocked out Chris. He hasn’t moved, Nate! You gotta help him. Behind the ice house behind the hotel. Hurry!”
Nathan nodded, agreeing with the kid that the wound was merely a graze, and took off, Vin and Josiah right behind him.
Buck got JD to sit down, then knelt down in front of him. JD looked terrified, and the ghoulish blood running down his fingers didn’t help matters. Inez came forward with a clean cloth and handed it to Buck. He pressed it against the boy’s arm and looked up into the young man’s eyes. He frowned when he realized JD was no longer looking at him, but at Ezra who stood nearby.
“Who did this, JD?” Buck asked quietly, the anger clear in his voice. JD swallowed, not taking his eyes off of Ezra. The gambler turned away, already knowing the answer.
“Jake’s boys. They were after the jewels,” JD whispered.
Outside, the rain poured in full force, unrelenting.
“Man, what hit me?” Chris asked sleepily from where he lay in Nathan’s clinic half and hour later.
“The butt of a gun, most likely. Or maybe the handle of a long knife,” came the smart reply. Chris peeled an eye back to find two Vins standing over him, a sheepish grin on their faces.
Chris shut his eyes again, and then opened them up more fully. Vin still stood there, but this time there was only one of him. “What happened?” he asked.
Nathan came forward with some water in a tin cup. Allowing Chris to take a sip, he asked the gunslinger what he remembered. Chris frowned for a minute, then groaned. His hand went to his chest and immediately felt the absence of the pouch of jewels. He looked at Vin. “Why ain’t I dead?” he wondered.
Vin grinned, and looked over at where JD sat self-consciously on the next cot. He had no shirt on, and had a bandage wrapped tightly around his upper left arm. The boy smiled weakly as he cradled the limb.
“JD there saved your life, cowboy. Scared the two bastards off. Not in time to save the jewels, though. But, he was pretty sure he winged one of them in the arm before he got hit himself,” Vin explained. Chris flexed an eyebrow and smiled across at the young Sheriff.
JD swelled with pride, and he looked about the room at the others. Everyone nodded their approval, and he grinned even more broadly, if that was possible. When his eyes caught the downcast expression of the gambler, though, the boy’s face fell. Chris’s eyes caught the look, and he shifted his gaze to the gambler. He took in the man’s somber mien, and his eyes narrowed angrily.
“Did you know?” he demanded quietly. Ezra jerked slightly, startled, and his light green eyes lifted from the floor to stare wide-eyed at his leader. Josiah frowned where he stood next to Ezra. Abruptly, the gambler’s expression darkened.
“Did I know what, Mr. Larabee?” the gambler replied, his tone caustic. Chris’s jaw clenched.
“Did you know why they were here? Were you part of it?” he reiterated, speaking slowly to make the full impact of his question known.
Ezra frowned, his eyes flashing, and instantly turned to leave the room. Buck grabbed his arm, but one look at the younger man’s stormy face convinced him to release him. Ezra disappeared out the door. Five irritated faces looked at Chris.
“Where the hell did that come from?” JD demanded, perturbed. “Why’d you have to ask that?”
“Yes brother, why did you ask that?” Josiah repeated, stepping forward. “I realize that you are perhaps a little out of sorts, but that was….” He shook his head. Chris didn’t reply, and tried to sit up. He’d thought the reason was obvious. The man had nearly run off with $10,000. How could he resist $30,000 in jewels?
Vin helped him upright, but even he was surprised by his leader’s lack of faith. Josiah, meanwhile, slipped out the door after the gambler.
Chris sighed and put a hand to his aching head. He looked questioningly at Nathan, who shrugged.
“You got awful lucky. The blow hit above your temple. It was enough to knock you out, but you don’t have a concussion. You’ll be right as rain in a couple hours. Well, except for a splitting headache,” the man explained, though the healer’s displeased countenance belied his light tone. Even Nathan was taking Ezra’s side? Trying not betray his surprise, Chris frowned and looked at Vin.
“What’s the story?”
“They lit out of town as soon as the match was called postponed by the rain. No one thought to go after them until it was too late, and, with the rain, I’m not sure I could track them. However, the rain also means they couldn’t have gone far. As soon as it lets up, I’d suggest splitting up into two groups of three and looking for them. Ezra’s guess is, they headed west, back to San Francisco.”
“Two groups of three?” JD asked, still thinking about Ezra. Were they going to leave the gambler out?
“You’ve been shot kid,” Vin replied. JD’s mouth made a little “oh” and he looked down at his arm. It throbbed, but he felt okay. Maybe a little lightheaded…and dizzy....Aw nuts.
Chris looked at Vin, his eyes narrowed. He too had been thinking that Ezra would be the one left out. Buck came up and sat next to JD, letting the boy lean on him a little, his face calm.
“Ezra had nothing to do with it, Chris,” the ladies man stated matter-of-factly. “You should have seen his face after JD told us what happened. That Jake character used him as effectively as a maid uses an old duster.”
Vin nodded, adding his own assent to the ladies man. Chris shut his eyes, and silently berated himself for jumping to conclusions. When he opened them again, it was to look at Vin again. “Fine, you organize the search. As soon as the rain lets up a little, we’re heading out. And somebody get that good for nothing gambler back up here.”
Damn, he hated saying he was sorry.
Josiah found Ezra in the livery, brushing down Chaucer. He moved a little slowly, not entirely recovered from the fight earlier. The large bay nickered softly in appreciation, not sure what he had done to deserve such nice treatment, but also not about to break the spell that brought his rider here. When Josiah cleared his throat, Chaucer lowered his head in disappointment.
“Josiah,” Ezra answered, not turning around.
“Chris has a habit of jumping to conclusions, brother Ezra. He is just hurting from the blow.”
Ezra shook his head, lowering the brush and resting his head against his beast’s warm side. Chaucer craned his neck around to look at him, and nudged his arm. With a start, Ezra looked into the horse’s huge eyes, smiled, and started brushing him down again. Josiah sat down on a nearby stool, patient to wait for the gambler to start speaking again on his own.
Finally, Ezra turned to face the preacher. “It isn’t Chris, Josiah. Its me. Mr. Larabee is right. I let this happen.”
Josiah frowned, “How do you figure…?”
“I knew Jake was a hustler, Josiah. I should have known why he was here. I should have turned him in the second he walked through the doors of the saloon….”
“Ezra,” Josiah began, shaking his head.
“He nearly killed Chris, Josiah. And JD. He obviously had this planned from the minute he saw me. And I just let it happen. My God,” he shut his eyes and rested his head against Chaucer’s side again. “I am such a fool,” he whispered.
“We can’t choose our past, brother Ezra, only how we choose to deal with it when it comes back to haunt us. That is how we move on, and create who we become in the future.”
Ezra snorted, not looking up, “And I chose wrong, Josiah.”
Josiah stared at Ezra, and shook his head slowly. His words as he spoke them rang with the weight of truth. “No, son…you didn’t. You chose loyalty, and honor. You chose friendship. You chose integrity. Those are all virtues, my son.”
“You couldn’t know he wasn’t the same man, Ezra. I saw how you reacted to the sight of his warrant list. I’m guessing the Jake you knew is not the same as the one who came into town yesterday morning. More to the point, the fact that you wanted to protect him, even though you guessed correctly that he had a price on his head, shows that you are indeed a changed man. A better man than he can ever hope to be.”
Ezra took deep breath, taking Chaucer’s heady scent into his nostrils to wake himself up. Then he straightened his shoulders, and placed the brush into the shelf behind him in Chaucer’s stall. The horse whinnied in annoyance, and Ezra smiled, patting him on the side.
“I’ll be back my friend,” the gambler whispered, then looked to Josiah.
“Feeling better?” the preacher asked. Ezra was about to reply, when Buck burst into the room.
“C’mon Ez,” Buck ordered quickly, “Chris wants to apologize for being such an ass. Then we got work to do.” Without waiting for an answer, the ladies man popped back out the door and back upstairs to the clinic. Ezra looked at Josiah, a wry grin on his face.
“I’m about to feel a whole lot better, Josiah.”
Two hours later, as the rain finally lessened to something less than a flood, six men headed out, while JD looked on. The young sheriff waved them good luck, then turned into the jail, holding the sling that held his arm tight to his small frame. Mary sat inside, near the desk. She glanced at JD, and he nodded back.
“I’ll go make sure the clinic is ready,” she sighed, getting up and throwing her long coat on. With a shake of his head, he watched her head out into the downpour, then sat behind his desk for the long wait.
Chris, Vin and Nathan headed northwest, towards Eagle Bend and the mountains. There were caves in those hills that made good shelters. If Jake was intending to hide out, they’d be a good bet. They waved as they disappeared into the gray fog of rain.
Josiah, Buck and Ezra headed Southwest towards Beggar’s Canyon, a saddle canyon in the general direction of Bristol City. Again, caves interspersed the clay cliffs, offering good places to hole up in this weather, and a thick forest graced the top if climbing up was the outlaw’s inclination. The agreed to meet back at the point where they split up in three hours, when the sun would be going down.
Ezra pulled his coat tighter about his neck, hoping more than expecting that the rain wouldn’t run down inside his jacket. By the time they’d gone five miles, he was already soaked to the skin and more than willing to exclaim his displeasure over it.
“Now Ezra,” Buck replied patiently, “Vin says this weather will stop within a couple of hours, and, as this is partly your fault, I don’t think you got the right to complain so much.”
Ezra merely stuck his tongue out at the ladies man, who responded in kind.
“Now children,” Josiah admonished, “play nice.” Buck and Ezra looked at each other, then turned to stick their tongues out at the preacher, who pretended not to notice.
They rode in a companionable silence for the next few miles, interspersed occasionally by a few southern accented remarks about “Mr. Tanner’s spurious weather predicting,” until a straightening of Buck’s shoulders in front indicated that they were nearing the canyon. All three men tensed, and more than one hand drifted towards the guns at their belts.
“Alright,” Buck said quietly, “we do this slowly and methodically. If they’ve got a lookout, he’ll be up there.” The ladies man pointed to the top of the ridge, which was somewhat obscured by the still powerful rain. “So long as we skirt by those rocks over there,” he pointed at some grayish boulders off to the side, out of sight of the potential lookout spot, “we should be golden.”
“Umm, Mr. Wilmington…” Ezra began tentatively. Buck swung in his mount to look behind him at the sodden gambler. Josiah, in the rear, pulled up closer.
“Just a suggestion, but, if you were posting a lookout on the side of a clay ridge in the driving rain, would you put it up there?” Ezra asked. Buck just blinked at him, and looked back up at the suddenly precarious looking lookout. The rain would have made the clay even softer and more likely to landslide.
“Well, where do you think they might be?” the ladies man replied sarcastically.
“By the rocks, the ones you suggested we skirt behind,” the gambler replied.
Buck looked at the rocks, and frowned. Damn. “Josiah?” he asked, looking for the deciding vote. The ex-preacher sighed.
“Please don’t look at me, Buck. Strategy has never been my forte.”
“Great,” the ladies man mused. He looked up the side of the canyon at the lookout spot, then over at the rocks, then back up at the lookout. He had to admit, the lookout did look a mite bit hazardous, but then the rocks weren’t as effective a place to keep watch. Finally he decided. “On your head, Ezra,” he said, moving to ride under the lookout instead of the rocks. Ezra grinned smugly, and followed.
Ten minutes later, they were looking down the business end of four rifles.
“Nice, Ez, nice,” Buck muttered angrily as Charlie bound his wrists to the saddlehorn. The gambler at least had the decency to look sheepish.
“Not my fault the fool has a death wish,” Ezra replied looking at Sean’s smirking face. The blond man had been sitting lookout exactly when Buck had thought he would be. Still grinning, the outlaw pulled on Chaucer’s reigns, ponying the gambler’s horse behind him as they ascended up the slick trail to the top of the canyon wall and the forest beyond.
The rain did indeed let up within the hour, and the setting sun dissolved the remaining clouds. In the distance, a rainbow graced the sky, which the three captured lawmen might have admired if they weren’t kneeling uncomfortably in the mud atop the canyon wall. The sky blazed a fierce red, as if angry at the turn of events below it. Above, bright and full, the moon was already high in the sky despite the fact that it was still technically day. One might even have suggested that her impatience in rising reflected the worry she felt for the men below.
Sean was back in the lookout position about fifty yards below their vantage point, keeping an eye out for the others, while Jake and the other two sat watching their captives. Eli nursed a bleeding shoulder, courtesy of JD’s gun, and sneered at the men with complete contempt. Charlie just favored them with his gap-toothed leer, and sharpened his knife with a small whetstone he kept in a pouch at his belt. Jake paced back and forth in the small area, a square clearing ringed on three sides by trees and the fourth by the cliff edge. It was obvious the Australian wasn’t happy.
He stopped, looked at Ezra, then started pacing again. Charlie turned to look at his leader questioningly. Why hadn’t they killed them yet, the bald man wondered curiously, as if contemplating the weather.
Finally, Jake stopped and looked out over the view, his shoulders shaking in annoyance. It was obvious he wasn’t admiring the landscape below, despite its beauty. The hills and valleys that seemed to stretch for miles before him, luxuriating warmly beneath the sunset’s golden mantle, were as plain as a brick wall in his mind. Angrily kicking dirt off the side of the high cliff, he spun around to stare at his old pupil, his eyes flashing.
“Why the hell did you follow me, you fool!” he spat out, wringing his hands behind his back. When Ezra didn’t answer, he started pacing again. “Damn it, Ezra, I don’t want to kill you.”
“Then don’t,” Ezra answered easily. He cocked his head to one side, and flashed his gold tooth. Jake shut his eyes at the glint of metal, knowing full well how it was Ezra lost that tooth. Jake had been the one to help pay for the replacement, out of the winnings he’d received from that fight. Ezra dropped the look to one of pure innocence. Jake shook his head.
“What do you want me to do, Ezra. You know I can’t leave you lot here to come after me again. How in God’s name did you become a lawman! You, of all people.”
“We often ask that ourselves,” Buck threw in. Josiah snickered, earning him a glare from the gambler.
Jake stopped in his pacing. He looked at the men before him, then at Ezra. “How long before the others come after you?” he asked. Ezra just stared at him. Jake nodded to Charlie, who lifted a large stick off the ground and headed towards Josiah. Ezra turned away as the outlaw lifted the weapon like a baseball bat, then smashed it into the preacher’s back. Josiah cried out and fell forward. Nearby, Eli followed the blow with a kick to the ribs for good measure.
“Hey!” Buck yelled, moving to stand. Charlie brought the stick up again, and smiled wickedly at the ladies man.
“Buck!” Ezra ordered, “Don’t!”
Buck whirled around to look at the gambler, ready to argue, but one look at the younger man’s anguished face stopped him. Instead, he sat back down, his features betraying a barely controlled fury.
Ezra looked up at Jake, shaking his head. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know. The others set off in a different direction. However, I doubt that they would come looking for us until morning, what with the unpredictable weather and the falling night.”
Jake watched Ezra for a minute, trying to discern whether the man was lying or not. Eventually he nodded, and told Charlie to lower the stick. Eli spat on Josiah’s back. The preacher twisted his head to look evilly at the younger man. Jake started to pace again. Dirt from his frenzied movements skittered off the edge to the canyon floor five hundred feet below.
“Let’s just kill them and go, Jake!” Eli urged impatiently, glaring at Josiah, his green eyes almost black in the falling light. Jake just shook his head and continued pacing.
“Look, its easy!” Eli asserted, drawing his gun. Before Jake could stop him, Eli shot Josiah in the back.
“NO!!” Both Ezra and Buck screamed, Buck was on his feet in an instant, charging Eli with his hands still bound behind his back. Ezra jumped over to Josiah, calling his name and hoping beyond hope for a response. The preacher lay on his side, his face contorted in agony. But he was still alive.
Charlie instantly manhandled Buck to the ground before he could touch the other outlaw, eventually stilling the ladies man with a blow to the head. Ezra stood up, looking at his two friends, visibly shaking. He turned on Jake, his anger so thick on his southern tongue it was palpable in the still wet air.
“If they die, Jake, so do you.”
The Australian blinked at the gambler, soaking in the anger like a sponge. With a slightly dazed air, he looked down at the bleeding preacher, and over at the unconscious ladies man, then back to Ezra.
The gambler raised his head in defiance of the older man’s gaze. Jake saw determination in those green eyes, knowing innately that this man would not hesitate to back up his words.
Slowly, Jake raised his gun and pointed it at Ezra’s chest, his black eyes flashing with emotion. The gambler stood straighter, waiting for the bullet without blinking. At the last second, Jake switched the gun’s aim to point at Eli, and fired. The outlaw fell like a stone.
Sean appeared atop the hill seconds later, his gun out, panting with the exertion of running up from the lookout point but ready for anything. With a tentative air, he lowered the weapon and grimaced at the sight of Eli dead, and at Jake’s still smoking gun. He also saw the two lawmen on the ground, and the gambler standing in the middle of it all, still bound and watching Jake like a hawk. Charlie stood off to one side, also watching Jake, his hands away from his sides in a submissive manner.
“No one,” Jake commanded quietly, “moves without my expressly ordering it. Is that understood?” He looked at Sean and Charlie, who both nodded after a short pause. “Good. Sean, saddle the horses. Charlie, break camp. We leave this God forsaken country in five minutes.”
“What about…” Sean asked, looking at Ezra.
Jake looked one last time at the man he once called brother, then turned away. “Leave them for the scavengers.”
Ezra watched as the three outlaws disappeared into the trees. Then he dropped to his knees near the preacher in order to reach the knife he knew Josiah kept hidden under his poncho. In minutes, he had his hands untied and was working on the bonds of his two friends.
As he waited for Buck to wake up, he pressed down hard on the seeping wound on Josiah’s back, willing the blood to stop flowing. The bullet had entered the right side near the shoulder, and Ezra could only pray that it wasn’t deep enough to have reached the lung. The gambler muttered a short prayer thanking whatever god made Eli stupid enough not to know where the heart was located, and Josiah clever enough to wear such thick clothes. In the background, a groan from Buck indicated that the ladies man was finally rejoining the living.
“Oh crap!” Buck muttered, holding his head with one hand and feebly searching the ground for his hat with the other. Once he smashed the soft tan Stetson back on his head, he risked looking around. Ezra was watching him worriedly from where he sat next to the supine Josiah, obviously trying to stop the preacher from bleeding to death. The younger man’s face looked close to breaking. “Make that, oh hell,” the ladies man amended as took in the scene.
With a few swaying steps, he managed to close the gap between himself and his friends, and knelt down to look into at Josiah’s pained face. The preacher popped open an eye as Buck came closer, then shut it again.
“He’s alive,” Buck sighed in relief. Ezra nodded to indicate he knew and looked down at the red stained shirt he’d retrieved from Chaucer’s saddlebags. Another sat nearby, torn into strips for a bandage. All three lawmen’s horses were standing quietly nearby, seemingly unaware of the mess before them.
“Can you get him back to town?” the gambler asked quietly. The blood had nearly stopped, but without Nathan’s help to remove the bullet, the wound would get infected quickly.
“Me?” Buck replied, “by myself?”
Ezra nodded again, still not looking up.
“You’re not thinking of going after those bastards on your own, are you?” Buck guessed, his eyes narrowing.
Ezra didn’t answer immediately, and when he did, his voice was so low as to almost be a whisper.
“I have to.”
Buck watched as the gambler turned his attention towards where Jake had disappeared, before moving his haunted gaze to look at Buck. Ezra swallowed, and spoke to his friend in calm tones. “I don’t believe the bullet is deep. I’ve almost stopped the bleeding. I’m going to bandage it in a minute. If you move slowly, Mr. Wilmington, I think you can get him to the rendezvous point and Nathan without too much hardship.” If Buck didn’t know better, he would’ve thought the gambler was merely reciting his laundry list.
“Easy for you to say,” Josiah wheezed. “You don’t have a bullet in you.”
Ezra smiled slightly, and looked back at Buck.
“I can’t let you go alone, Ez.” Buck tried, putting a hand to his still aching head. God, he hoped he didn’t have a concussion. It was getting awful hard to keep the damn southerner in focus. And was that blood on his neck? That was hell to get out of leather.
“You should encounter the others coming in this direction, as we have failed to be present at the designated time. They will have ascertained that we have met with some… calamitous exigency.” Ezra looked up at the dark sky, and at the bright moon. She smiled on him, encouraging him, knowing full well the fear he was hiding.
Buck shut his eyes, and shook the fuzz from his head. Was it just him, or were the gambler’s words getting longer? Did “exigency” mean that all hell had broke loose and they needed help? Ezra sighed, looking once more under Josiah’s “bandage,” happy to see that the blood was down to a trickle.
“Send Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee after me if you believe it necessary. I’ll leave a trail they can follow.”
He paused and looked directly into Buck’s worried eyes. The ladies man frowned. Ezra smiled weakly.
“He won’t kill me, Buck,” he said simply.
Buck was about to argue again, then shut his mouth as he finally realized what the gambler was trying to say in his round about way. Demons, as Josiah would say, Ezra had to face his demons. He nodded curtly, then went to get their horses, his steps still a little unsteady. Ezra sighed, and leaned over to kiss Josiah on the side of the head when Buck wasn’t looking.
“Now, don’t you die on me while I’m gone, preacher,” he whispered.
Josiah grinned despite the pain, and risked turning his head a little to see Ezra’s face through slitted eyes. “Likewise, son.”
The three outlaws were easy to track, despite the late hour. The sun had finally fallen several hours before, but the full moon shone like a diamond in the sky, its white light brightening the dark landscape. The rain left behind a great deal of mud, which held onto the hoof prints of the men’s horses as securely as if they’d put them there deliberately. That and the fact that these men were city bred meant they were sticking to those most obvious landmark to guide them home – the cliff edge.
Ezra dismounted Chaucer a few yards away from the edge of the clearing where Jake and his boys had set up camp. It was very similar to the one they’d left behind – three sides of trees and one of cliff. From beneath his cover, Ezra could make out Jake standing on the edge, staring out into space. Charlie was over by the large fire, feeding it wood. Sean…was nowhere to be seen.
The gambler stood still for a moment, weighing his options. He had no guns, not even his derringer, as the outlaws had taken all the lawmen’s weapons with them as they left. That left only one other possibility. With a shrug, he cupped his hands to his mouth, about to call to the camp to announce his presence. He stopped when he felt the rifle barrel near his face.
“Don’t even think about it,” Sean demanded.
“Think about what?” the gambler returned innocently.
“Calling your friends.”
Ezra smiled, his teeth glinting in the half light. “Young man, it may have escaped your notice, but I was about to call in the direction of the camp, not behind me.” He dropped his hands, waiting for Sean to work out what he’d just been told.
Finally, with a grimace, Sean shrugged. “Whatever. Get moving,” he commanded, pushing Ezra forward towards the clearing. “And, as far as I can tell, we’re the same age, so don’t go calling me ‘young man,’” he hissed. Ezra smirked, and clasped his hands behind his back, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as Sean continued to push him forward. Behind him, Chaucer whinnied curiously, and tried to follow. Ezra turned to shake his head at the horse, who stopped.
“Looky here what I got!” Sean called, bringing both men’s attention to him. Charlie stood up, his hand instinctively moving to his knife. Jake’s face tensed, the vein on the side of his temple throbbing in annoyance, but he didn’t move. Ezra never took his eyes off of the big Australian. He even nodded to him as if their meeting like this again was expected.
“Where are the others, Ezra?” Jake asked. Ezra shrugged.
“Josiah is dead, thanks to your friend Eli, and, last time I saw him, Mr. Wilmington was still lying facedown in the mud. I untied his bonds, but I doubt he is going anywhere for a while.” He looked about the camp and smiled at Charlie. The huge man sneered in response. Jake watched Ezra silently for a minute, then turned away to gaze once more at the black valley floor below.
Sean kept his rifle on the gambler, but his eyes showed his confusion. Wasn’t he going to shoot this bastard? Charlie stayed standing, waiting for the order to kill the interloper, or at least tie him up. Ezra sighed, crossing his arms in front of him.
“Jake?” The gambler queried, tilting his head.
“What are you doing here, boy,” Jake asked in response.
“Well, as Buttons here can tell you, I was planning on joining your camp before he rudely stuck that poor excuse for a gun in my side.”
“Buttons?” Sean whispered, knocking Ezra forward a few more steps. Ezra turned to glare at the blond man, who raised his rifle higher the puzzled look now even stronger on his face. Jake glanced over, a small smile on his face as he remembered the play Ezra had made him read all those years ago. He still kept a copy of it by his bed at home in San Francisco.
“He means you’re an jackass, Sean.” Straightening his shoulders, Jake turned to look down at Ezra, who was now only a few feet away. “Go on.”
“Obviously, I am not here to take you in, Jake, as if I could. Three armed men against one unarmed one is not exactly good odds, and you know how much I detest having the deck stacked against me.” He smiled. Jake just nodded. “Moreover, I do not expect you to simply give me the jewels, not after the treatment you gave my associates.” His smile faltered a little, but he gamely slipped it back in place.
“Then you are here for revenge?” the Australian stated, not missing a beat.
Ezra’s eyes widened in surprise, his eyebrows almost disappearing beneath the brim of his black hat. “What? Hell no, Jake. You know me better than that.” His smile fell, and his expression hardened. “I’m here for my hundred dollars.”
Jake blinked, his face blank. The next time he blinked, he broke out laughing, the hearty noise echoing across the quiet valley. In minutes, he was wiping his streaming eyes with the back of his hand, and trying desperately to get his breathing under control. Ezra watched him with an amused expression on his face.
“I fail to see what is so funny, Jake. You know I won that fight.”
Jake shook his head, and stilled a cough. “My god, kid. You still have a one-track mind….” He reached into his vest pocket for his cash, then stopped.
“Oh, no.” He dropped his hand, letting it rest on the gun at his belt, and his eyes narrowed. “The match was postponed, kid. You haven’t earned this cash yet.”
Ezra pursed his lips in annoyance. More relaxed now, Jake crossed his arms and regarded the man in front of him.
“What are you suggesting?” Ezra demanded.
“As I recall, you were about to enter the third round, right mate?” Jake grinned.
Sighing heavily, Ezra shook his head and began to remove his slightly muddy rain coat. Sean looked up, his eyes widening as he realized what was happening.
“Oh no, now, just you wait a minute, here.” He looked at the gambler, who regarded him with raised eyebrows. Sean shook his head. “I ain’t fighting him again, Jake. Damn near killed me last time.”
“Stop exaggerating Sean,” Jake remonstrated. Ezra quietly tucked the long jacket over his arm.
“Exaggerating? Look at the bruises on my stomach and then say that.” The blond replied. He pointed the rifle to the ground, taking a defensive posture. “You ain’t making me fight him again. I don’t care what you say.”
Jake turned to Ezra, and shrugged. “Well, kid, what do you say to that?”
“Forfeiture. My pot.”
Jake considered this, then shook his head. “Nope, my money, my prerogative. I still want to see you fight.” He looked over his shoulder at Charlie, who grinned back. Ezra followed the gaze, and gritted his teeth.
“Different player, and much bigger,” the gambler intoned professionally. “Raises the stakes.”
Jake nodded, and pulled out his wad, starting to count bills. “Name it.”
Jake paused, and looked up. “You know I don’t carry that sort of cash around with me, kid.”
“One of the blue sapphires should cover it,” Ezra replied, eyeing the pouch that now sat around Jake’s neck. The Australian regarded his old friend for a minute, then lowered his head in acknowledgement.
The gambler smiled, and reached down into his boot. Sean raised his rifle again, just in case. Within moments, Ezra pulled out a rolled up wad of bills, tied tightly with a piece of twine. This he tossed at Jake, who caught it deftly.
“No need to count it, Jake.”
The Australian grinned, “I know, Ezzie.” The Australian turned to Charlie, who still stood near the fire. The large man sighed, and spoke the first words that Ezra had heard since making his acquaintance. Up until this point, he’d just assumed the large man was mute.
“What are the rules, Jake?” The bald man asked, eyeing Ezra.
“No rules,” Jake replied. “First man down. But I expect a clean fight. No cheating, Ez.”
The gambler assented with a finger to his hat, then moved away to hang his coat carefully on a convenient branch. He followed this with his tie, then his waistcoat. Finally, he took off his hat and placed it on top. As he rolled up his sleeves, he turned to see that Charlie was already stripped to his waist, and was flexing a set of impossibly large muscles. He favored the smaller man with a large gap-toothed grin.
Willing his stomach to settle, Ezra quietly repeated a little mantra in his head as he finished his task. “The bigger they are, Ezra, the bigger they are…”
Buck was barely conscious when Nathan, Vin and Chris found the two men, flopping in their saddles like rag dolls only a couple of miles from the canyon. Fortunately, a few angry words from the black-clad gunslinger had him awake once more. Within moments, Nathan had Josiah on the ground, assessing his injuries, then turned to check Buck’s head.
“Damn, Buck, you have to stop antagonizing people like you do,” Nathan berated, to which Buck merely grunted. The healer looked over at Vin and Chris, nodding to tell them it was okay.
“I need to get them home and lying down, but they should be okay. You fellas go on ahead.”
Chris nodded, and moved to get back on his horse. Nearby, Vin mimicked him. Buck looked up, placing a hand on Chris’s thigh.
“The trail up the canyon is really slick with mud. Be careful, I nearly lost it several times trying to come down.” He paused, and let go. “And make sure you bring him back with you,” he finished. A slight smile lit upon the older gunslinger’s features, and he tapped a finger to his hat. Vin shook his head, and pushed off, his friend right behind.
With difficulty, Nathan got both injured men remounted, and they made their slow way back to town.
The audible crack as Charlie’s fist connected with Ezra’s chin echoed across the small space, and the gambler stumbled back several steps. The big man smiled, moving to follow. He slammed another fist into Ezra’s face, splitting the gambler’s lip. They were the first real punches Charlie had landed, and they were powerful. Shaking his head to clear it, Ezra ducked quickly as Charlie came at him again, and delivered a blow of his own to the man’s midsection.
Charlie didn’t even flinch.
Instead, he shoved the gambler backwards onto his haunches. The gambler immediately jumped up into a crouch, and this time, as Charlie approached, he dove sideways around him and threw a blow into the small of the man’s back with both hands. The huge man fell forward, and a hand went to his back as he slowly turned around.
Ezra, relying on his speed, jumped in again and, with his hands clasped together, put all his force into slamming them across Charlie’s jaw before the other man thought to block him. This time Charlie staggered, in which time Ezra hit him again. Charlie fell back, one hand to his aching head, the other in front of him to ward another blow. Ezra used the opening to spin around and send a roundhouse kick to the man’s stomach.
“Hey!” the bald man whooshed as the air left him. Ezra closed in, raining blows across the man’s head and arms, until Charlie fell backwards onto his own rear. The gambler danced backwards, smiling. Charlie looked up, fixing a deadly glare on the younger man.
Ezra’s smile fell.
With deliberate intensity, Charlie regained his feet and gripped his hands into fists. He didn’t even looked fazed – merely angry. The gambler shook his head as the behemoth stepped towards him slowly, hands automatically coming up in a defensive posture. With a loud bellow, Charlie charged, and again Ezra ducked. But the big man was ready, and drove the gambler sideways with a well timed blow to the side.
Stumbling, Ezra stayed bent over as Charlie attacked again, trying to get his breath back. This time Charlie drove his fists into the gambler’s back, driving the smaller man to the ground. Then he picked Ezra up in his arms and enveloped him in a bear hug, squeezing the air out of him. Black spots appeared in Ezra’s vision as he struggled to inflate his lungs, while he fought to free himself. With an action born of desperation, he used his only free limbs, his legs, and kneed Charlie harshly in the groin.
The bald man screamed and dropped Ezra to the ground. In the background, Ezra heard Jake call his name in a reproachful manner. Ignoring him, the gambler struggled to his feet, panting heavily, and looked at Charlie’s bent over form. The behemoth returned the angry look, and stood up himself, albeit with great care.
“You’re dead,” Charlie whispered, advancing slowly with an exaggerated bowlegged walk, arms outstretched. The gambler seemed to simply watch him, as if stunned. Then, at the last second, he dove between Charlie’s long legs. As the giant yelled in frustration, his movements still slow from the ungentlemanly blow, Ezra spun around and jumped on his opponent’s back, wrapping his arms around the thick neck.
Charlie gasped, his air cut off. Desperately, he clawed at the vice like arms, and spun around in an attempt to dislodge the monkey on his back. As Ezra had felt before, blackness started to impinge on the giant’s vision, and his movements became more and more sluggish. Finally, with one last choked gasp, Charlie collapsed face first, unconscious, to the ground.
Ezra held on a few more seconds, just to make sure. Once he was certain Charlie was out, he let go and withdrew from off the man’s prostrate form. Trembling slightly, Ezra managed to pull himself back to full height and turned to face Jake, wiping a hand across his split lip in a poor attempt to stop it from bleeding.
Off to the side, Sean stared at the downed Charlie with wide eyes. “Damn,” the blond man muttered, absolutely amazed. Part of him wanted to clap. Then he looked over at Jake, and his hands tightened around the rifle at the sight of his master’s obvious enmity.
“Well?” Ezra asked of the Australian, once he got his breath back, ignoring the other man’s icy expression. He stretched slightly to take some of the ache out of the pain creeping up on him.
“What the hell was that?” came the abrupt reply.
Stopping in his movements, Ezra stared at Jake, his brow furrowing. “That…Jake…was me winning a sapphire from that pouch on your neck.”
“I’m not giving you bull crap, kid. You call the a fight? That was a joke!”
Moving to wrap a protective arm around his irritated ribs, Ezra moved forward to glare at the tall man before him. “What are you suggesting, sir?”
“I am suggesting, Ezzie, that what I just had the distaste to witness was more akin to a barroom brawl between some two-bit cheat and his mark than a real fight. Hell, if that is what you’ve been degraded to, I’m glad I don’t own you anymore. You wouldn’t last five minutes in a clean fight.”
“Oh really?” the gambler retorted, his eyebrows raised. “And what would you know of clean fights, Jake? I took more dives for you than I can remember. And don’t think I’ve forgotten the killings you made off of my hide when you would put me in the ring with freaks twice my size. You’d them rail on me for a couple of rounds, then dope their water. How many fights did I win simply by learning to stay standing longer?” He shook his head, and watched as Jake’s face reddened even more deeply with anger. “Only difference now, Jake, is that I have simply learnt how to win without drugging them first. I save more teeth that way.” He finished, tapping his gold tooth for emphasis.
“Why you ungrateful little….”
“Ungrateful? Oh that’s rich. I’m supposed to be thanking you for how you used me? Tell me something, old friend, how was it possible for me to get Moira pregnant when the closest I ever got to her was a kiss on the cheek?” the gambler demanded sarcastically.
“She told me, Jake. She was in love with you. I took the fall for you with her father, let him chase me out of town, so that you could be with her. I should have known you’d fail her.”
Jake stood stunned. “You never…?”
Ezra laughed sadly, shaking his head. “I thought you knew me, Jake. I do not take advantage of women, especially when they are in love with my best friend. I thought I was doing a favor for a good man. Well, I know what good men look like now, Jake, and believe me…you are not even in the same category.”
“Is that right?” the Australian replied darkly.
“You’re not even good enough to clean up after my horse, you odious piece of sewer scum.” The gambler punctuated the insult by spitting a mixture of blood and saliva at the man’s foot.
Jake’s face shut down, his black eyes glittering in the bright firelight. “You always did talk to much Standish….It is Standish now, isn’t it?” he mocked. Ezra merely raised an eyebrow in response. Jake smiled nastily, “Well, If I’m sewer scum, I suppose that makes you the sewer rat that I’m about to teach a much deserved lesson in humility.” With deliberate intensity, The Australian took off his long oiled duster.
Ezra and Sean watched quietly as Jake folded the coat on a nearby rock. He followed this with the pouch of jewels around his neck, tucking it under the coat, then his guns and belt. Last, he rolled up his sleeves, just as Ezra had done earlier. The whole time, the gambler just watched him, not blinking. Above, the moon held her breath in anticipation.
Vin plucked the ace of diamonds from the knot in the pine, and dismounted. He could see the light from the blazing fire not far ahead. Chris followed suit, and silently the two men crept forward, leaving their mounts behind. Within minutes, they stood in the same place Ezra had stood in over an hour ago. Vin sucked in a surprised breath.
They saw the blond man called Sean standing off to one side, vaguely pointing a rifle in the direction of the gambler. The huge bald man lay unconscious on the ground near the cliff edge. A muddied and battered looking Ezra stood facing Jake, the two men circling each other in an attempt to size each other up. It was clear what was about to happen.
Vin raised his Winchester up to point at Sean, but Chris laid a stilling hand upon his arm. The black-clad gunslinger shook his head in the half light.
“I’m guessing he planned this. We should let him play the hand out,” the leader whispered. “This is his catharsis. Just be ready in case it goes wrong.”
Vin nodded once, but didn’t lower his bead on the blond man. Chris indicated with a tilt of his head that he was going to creep around to the other side of the clearing, and moved off stealthily. Before long, he was hidden behind the trees near where Ezra and his old master paced.
Jake stopped his movements, and Ezra stopped with him. The Australian shook his head, and grinned. This was going to be fun.
“Tell me, Ezzie, those men you work with, do they trust you?” he asked innocently.
Ezra started slightly, but shook his head. He would not be baited into making the first move. Jake smiled nastily.
“I mean, I certainly never did. You ever wonder why you used to feel a little dizzy whenever I asked you to take a dive? Its because I poured a little opium in your water to make sure you fell when I wanted. Worked pretty well, too, wouldn’t you say?”
Ezra shook his head, and willed himself to ignore the taunting. “I thought you were going to fight me, Jake, not blather inanely,” he replied menacingly. Jake ignored him.
“Maybe those men don’t know you as well as I do, huh, Ezzie? If I were them, I would have guessed you’d planned this little escapade with me. Did they even question you?”
In his hiding place, Chris winced.
“It isn’t going to work Jake,” Ezra retorted.
“Tell me Ez, didn’t it even cross your mind? There is at least $30,000 in that little bag with that Moondrop pendant. All that money, and all you had to do was catch that fool leader of your unawares behind the tavern….” Jake’s eyes narrowed. Ezra gritted his teeth.
“Tell me, Ez, what would that preacher man of yours have said had he known what a base man you are?”
This time Ezra visibly flinched. He’d been deliberately trying not to think of Josiah…maybe dying…without him there. Jake smiled, seeing the naked anger on the younger man’s face.
“Did he die in your arms, kid? Did you sing him softly to sleep with that sweet voice of yours? Or did you just leave him there to bleed to death?”
“Shut up, Jake!”
Jake grinned. The Australian crouched lower in readiness. Chris licked his lips, and unholstered his gun. This was not going well.
Just one more push, Ezzie, Jake thought. Out loud, he fairly spat his next words. “You left him. Good thing he didn’t live long enough to see your true colors after all, huh, Standish? He never even knew you’re real name. Lied to, to the end.”
“Shut UP!” Ezra yelled, launching himself at the bigger man. Jake deftly stepped aside, slamming Ezra with a two fisted punch to the side identical to the one the gambler had used earlier. Ezra fell instantly to the ground and rolled, groaning. The Australian managed to hit him in almost the same place Charlie had pounded.
Suddenly, Jake was standing over him, kicking him in the stomach, ignoring the gambler’s cries as each blow landed. Desperately, Ezra tried to roll away, and almost went over the edge. Jake laughed as the younger man realized his predicament, and somehow managed to dive away, his fingers scrabbling at the mud encrusted earth. As Ezra got back up, Jake charged him, slamming his sideways into the ground again. This time, Ezra landed in the direction of the fire.
Looking up, Ezra reached and picked up a thin log sticking out of the bonfire. As Jake came at him, he climbed to his feet and started swinging it in front of himself, forcing the other man back. With shaking limbs, he looked at the Australian’s sinister appearance beyond the edge of the torch as Jake sneered at him. It was like looking at the devil.
“Always a cheater, Ezra,” the Australian taunted.
Still hypersensitive, Ezra took the bait. He backed up and dropped the brand back into the fire pit. Jake didn’t move, patiently letting the gambler regain his stance. It was obvious from the way he held himself that Ezra was not going to last much longer. Jake was surprised the man was still standing.
“You’re still as stubborn as hell, though, aren’t you, Ezzie?” Jake credited, amused. Ezra didn’t answer. Instead, he crouched down and readied himself for the next attack.
“Give it up, gambler,” Sean snapped, his gun pointed towards the ground now. The young blond was getting tired of this game.
“Listen to the kid, Ezra,” Jake agreed. “Leave while you still have all your teeth.”
Ezra tilted his head, his grin widening until the gold tooth flashed in the firelight. “At least I still have all my balls,” he whispered crudely through sore lips.
Jake’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s it!” the Australian cried, and came in swinging. Ezra blocked the first punch, but his injuries and all the fights he’d been in today had slowed him down. The Australian landed three solid blows to the gambler’s midsection. With a cry, Ezra bent in two and staggered back, again towards the cliff edge. Jake wound up for the final punch, muttering darkly about a waste of good talent. Chris raised his gun.
Suddenly, Ezra grabbed a handful of mud from the ground and slung it into Jake’s face, stopping the Australian’s advance and causing him to instinctively raise his hands to uncover his eyes. Quickly, the gambler followed the move by falling to the ground and sweeping the older man’s feet. Taken completely by surprise, Jake fell backwards bodily into the mud. Ezra was on his feet in seconds, jumping over the older man, and grabbing him by the shirt collar. Still working the mud out of his eyes, Jake growled and tried to release the other man’s hold on his shirt, but the grip was like iron. With strength born of pure adrenaline, the gambler heaved Jake up and threw him harshly on his side, causing the older man to skid several feet.
When Jake looked up again, it was to see Ezra standing over him, his bloodied lips curled in derision. The kid didn’t even look fazed.
“Get up,” Ezra demanded, never blinking.
For the first time, Jake felt fear. He scrambled backwards towards the fire on his rear away from the advancing gambler, and tried to regain his feet. Breathing hard, the Australian licked his lips, stood and threw back his right arm for the punch. Without skipping a step, Ezra threw up his left arm to block the throw, deftly knocking it aside as he drove his own right into the older man’s face.
The Australian fell backwards, not even noticing as Ezra clasped both hands together and slammed them across the older man’s jaw, once to the left, then to the right, effectively spinning the older man around. The gambler then placed all his weight on his left leg and delivered a solid sideways kick to Jake’s exposed back. The Australian staggered away towards the fire, his streaming eyes searching for the same firebrand Ezra had used. But he wasn’t fast enough. Ezra grabbed him from behind and threw him sideways. Jake landed face first in the mud, gasping for air.
“You taught me very well, Jake,” the gambler heckled, advancing towards his old mentor. “It’s amazing how much use I’ve gotten from being able to stay standing longer.” He chuckled slightly at this echo of his earlier statement, and came to a stop a few feet from the downed Australian, his back to the cliff edge, his body back lit by the proud moon.
Jake lifted himself unsteadily onto his arms and knees to get out of the mire, and turned his mud covered face to stare incredulously at the now stick straight gambler. The Australian was shaking as he finally stood up, his arms now wrapped tightly around his stomach. Sensing that the Australian was on the verge of capitulation, Ezra took a couple of steps backwards towards the edge in order to give him some room. Jake shook his head as Ezra moved, seemingly without any of the discomfort the match should have caused him. When the hell had he gotten so fast? With a grin, Ezra raised his fists in an implicit threat.
“No, no more,” the Australian gasped, waving a hand in front of him. “You win.” He stood up a little straighter, using the same hand to wipe the mud from his face. Ezra backed up another step, his fists unclenching, and dropped the grin. When Jake looked over at him again, the Australian’s mouth was set in a thin line, his eyes like granite. Ezra’s eyes widened at the unfamiliar gaze.
“Kill him, Sean.”
The blond man jerked awake, and suddenly grinned. “Finally!” he shouted, raising the rifle just as Ezra’s mouth fell open in disappointment at Jake’s betrayal. For all this, the gambler had still not believed that the Australian could kill him. Shutting his eyes, Ezra flinched as a shot echoed across the clearing, then grinned with relief as he heard Sean scream and drop the weapon, his left arm covered in blood.
At the same time, Chris and Vin entered the clearing, both men’s guns trained on the blond. Yelling bloody murder, Sean reached for his sidearm, and was blown away by dual shots from the gunslingers.
“What took you!” Ezra laughed, his relief clear on his face, no longer looking at Jake. The Australian wheeled round with wild eyes to stare at the gambler.
“Bastard!” Jake shouted, suddenly charging the younger man. Before either of the others could react, the Australian slammed himself into the con man, driving them both over the edge with a roar.
Dropping his gun, Chris ran to the edge, diving on his belly to catch the men, but he was too slow. Somehow, though, Ezra had managed to fling himself at the wall as he fell, his desperate fingers catching an exposed tree root. Below him, Jake hung from where he clung desperately to the younger man’s right leg.
“Ezra!” The Australian shouted from where he hung on desperately. “Help!”
“Vin, rope!” Chris yelled behind him.
Vin ran to Chaucer, who had charged into the clearing at the sound of his master’s scream, Ezra’s rope tied to his saddle. Nearby, Charlie was waking up groggily, revived by the gunshots. Unthinkingly, the huge bald man grabbed for the tracker that darted past, bringing them both to the ground. Hearing the grunt, Chris turned and drew himself from the edge. Quickly, he pulled out his other Colt and ran to aid Vin. Ezra’s eyes widened as he saw Chris disappear. Where…?
“Ezra, help me!” Jake screamed in fear, his hold slipping because of all the mud on his hands and on the gambler’s clothes.
“Hold on, Jake!” Ezra yelled back, wrapping the fingers of his left hand more tightly around the root. Letting go with his right, he reached with that hand for the Australian, who tried to catch it with his own. The sound of a gunshot from Chris’s colt echoed across the valley, followed by the sound of Charlie bellowing in agony.
“Chris, hurry!” the gambler shouted, as he felt his hold on the root slip. He was forced to grab for it again with his right to keep his purchase.
“NO, EZZIE!” Jake screamed, as he saw the hand go away. “Ezra, please! Don’t let me die like this! Please! Not in the middle of nowhere, not like this!” he begged. His fingers gripped the leg more tightly, but it was to no avail. His slipped down until his hands were only holding onto the gambler’s boot, and Ezra tried to keep his foot bent inside it. A second gunshot was heard from above, this time from the Winchester, then silence.
“Jake!” Ezra tried to get a better grip with his left, so he could reach down again. “Chris!” he called up. “Hold on, Jake! Please!” His eyes saw the fear on the older man’s face, and the tears shining in the moonlight. All at once the Australian’s hands slipped, taking Ezra’s boot with him.
“NOOOOO!” Ezra howled, instinctively letting go with his right hand again to reach out after his old friend as Jake disappeared screaming into the blackness below. Just then, he felt his left hand begin to lose its purchase as the root pulled out from the earth. “CHRIS!!!!!”
Instantly, the rope was there. He wrapped it around his right wrist just as the root gave away under his left, and held on to the coarse material for all his worth. Chris and Vin pulled him back up to the edge in three great jerks. By the time they got him up, Ezra was shaking so much he could do little more than curl up into a ball. Vin knelt next to him, placing a hand on the gambler’s trembling shoulder.
“You okay, pard?” he whispered urgently. He could see Ezra’s eyes were tightly closed, and was surprised to see that the gambler was crying. Tears rolled rapidly down his cheeks from beneath his lids, leaving crooked lines through the mud on the normally impeccably clean face.
“Ezra?” Vin tried again, tensing his jaw in worry.
“Please, Mr. Tanner…”Ezra replied so quietly, Vin almost missed it. “Just…give me a minute.” Nodding, Vin stood up and looked over at Chris. The gunslinger was by the fire, wiping the blood from his face where Charlie had hit him.
“He okay?” Chris asked. Vin just shrugged and nodded as he wiped some of the blood away from his swelling nose. He was amazed Charlie hadn’t broken it. Sighing, Chris looked around him at the two dead outlaws, then to the pile of clothes by the fire. He moved slowly to it and began sifting through, throwing aside the duster disgustedly. Finally, he found his reward, and held up the pouch, still tied with Vin’s twine. Silently, he hung the jewels back around his neck. When he looked back up, it was to see Vin still watching the gambler.
“Vin?” The gunslinger asked quietly.
“He’s asleep, Chris. Out cold.” The tracker looked out across the moonlit expanse of the valley, and sighed. Chris shook his head, and looked at the fire.
“We’ll camp here tonight. Take him home in the morning.” Whistling, Chris watched as Solon entered the small clearing, followed by Peso. Chaucer whinnied a hello. The gunslinger wandered across to his horse, and pulled out his bedroll and blanket. Tossing them to Vin, he then moved to Peso and pulled out Vin’s blanket. Vin had already wrapped Ezra in Chris’s blanket when his leader approached with the second. Without a word, Vin took it and repeated the motion. Then the two men gently carried the cocooned gambler over to the fire and laid him down onto Chris’s bedroll.
Afterwards, they moved around to clean up the garbage.
It was perhaps three a.m. when Ezra jolted awake, feeling extremely disoriented and confused. Vin looked over from where he sat on watch. Ezra looked at him, then seemed to look past him, an odd smile forming on his features. The tracker frowned at the strange expression.
“What?” he asked quietly.
“Behind you. Isn’t she beautiful?” came the whispered reply.
Vin turned around, and looked out over the landscape. The moon had fallen in the sky so that she was close to the horizon, and she looked huge in the distorted light. Glowing warmly, she was near to twice her size, and she seemed to be watching the little campfire almost protectively. Vin smiled himself, amazed that someone like Ezra would notice such things as the moon. The he realized that, considering the man’s past time, the moon was probably one of his best friends.
When he looked back, Ezra was watching him again, his face creased with sadness.
“Vin…I don’t want him to just waste away down there, or end up…a prize for vultures,” he coughed, earning him some pangs from his bruised torso.
“Ez…” Vin started.
“Please, Vin. Promise me you’ll take care of him for me. Please. You’re the only one I trust to do it besides…besides Josiah….” Ezra shut his eyes as pain washed over him again, both physically and mentally. Vin came to crouch next to the gambler, brushing the man’s hair out of his face. Ezra looked up, tears in his eyes again. “How…?” he asked.
“Nathan said Josiah should be fine. Buck too. And so will you.”
Ezra merely nodded, blinking the irritating wetness away. Vin watched protectively as his friend succumbed again to the blackness of sleep.
Josiah tossed fitfully in the clinic, mostly delirious and calling worriedly for Ezra, the fever from the infected wound keeping complete consciousness at bay for almost two days. Finally, the fever broke, and he awakened slowly to the sound of quiet voices, complemented by soft snoring from something warm lying on his chest. Blinking, he lifted his left arm to his face and found Ezra sleeping slumped forward in a chair, his head resting near the preacher’s heart.
“Josiah?” Nathan whispered, smiling as he approached the bed. Chris came up behind him, sporting a huge bruise at his mouth.
“How do you feel?” the gunslinger asked, quietly.
“Terrible,” the preacher rumbled back, also whispering. “But better for seeing him here,” he added, bringing the hand to rest lightly on the gambler’s head. When the gambler didn’t stir at the touch, Josiah looked questioningly at Nathan, who shrugged.
“He needed to sleep, so I slipped him a little something. He got pretty beat up by those men, but he’s healing.” He stepped away, and came back with a tin cup of water. Josiah drank the few drops Nathan allowed him greedily, licking his parched lips.
“Thank you, Brother,” Josiah smiled slightly, “from both of us.” He was stroking Ezra’s head, and the gambler nestled his head closer to the preacher.
Several days later, the Judge arrived in town on the late afternoon stage to find all seven men waiting for him. He noted Josiah sitting in a rocking chair in front of the saloon, wrapped in a heavy blanket and nursing a large glass of water. Ezra stood next to him, leaning against a post with his arms crossed, his face tired and bruised. Buck leaned against the hitching post, the white bandage around his head obvious under the large buckskin hat. Vin stood over by the jail with a swollen nose, his Winchester cradled in his arm, and Mary by his side. Chris and JD stood in the street near the stage, the boy’s arm in a sling. Chris sported a nasty red bruise near his mouth. Only Nathan, standing on the other side of Josiah, appeared unscathed.
“Quiet week?” Orrin asked.
Chris merely shook his head, a crooked smile on his face. With deliberate care, he lifted the bag of jewels from around his neck and handed them over. The Judge smiled, thanking him. Then, as Chris turned to walk away, the judge stopped him.
“Oh, wait, Mr. Larabee. I’ll need an escort to Bitter Creek, where a small regiment of cavalry will meet me to get me back to the territorial seat,” he explained. In the background, the others shared a pained look. JD just groaned.
Chris turned back to face his boss, his expression blank.
“Well, then,” he nodded solemnly, “I wish you luck on finding someone, Judge,” and turned to head back to the saloon where Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had already gone. The Judge’s face fell, and he turned to look at JD, but the boy was gone, jogging over to join Buck as the ladies man walked slowly towards the boarding house. Vin had disappeared into the jail, leaving only Mary. The judge’s daughter-in-law giggled uncontrollably where she still stood, a huge grin on her face as she witnessed his flabbergasted expression.
Above them, the sun blazed brightly, proudly. She winked at his sister moon near the horizon, and the white lady winked back from her hiding place, awaiting her moment to rise again. The clouds sighed in exasperation at their childishness, and floated stately on.
And so it goes.