When Rivers Rise
Disclaimer: I don’t own any of the Magnificent Seven, as MGM and others hold the copyright. I’ll make no money from this, and never intend to. No harm, no foul, right? I also hope Spirit of the West doesn’t mind me using their song for my title. As for the great Wordsworth, well, that’s all public domain now, I believe. Besides, I don’t think he’d mind.
Description: Chris and Buck are fighting, Vin’s getting a cold, and Ezra’s…well, being Ezra. Then it starts to rain.
“Move to high ground
Seek shelter with friends
Stay there and pray that
When it all ends
Something’s left of what you struggled for
Something to keep you strong
A reason to carry on…” – Spirit of the West, When Rivers Rise
"Four-to-one odds that Wilmington gets up before Larabee," Ezra murmured quietly, laying out cash on the top of the empty beer barrel. Quickly more handfuls of cash were laid out to join his, just seconds before Buck lurched to his feet from off the dusty street. Irritated mutterings met the movement, and Ezra collected the cash quickly into his hands with a dimpled grin. He glanced over to see Chris get to his feet as well, wiping off the blood spittle from his lip with the back of his hand.
"Five–to-one Wilmington goes down under the next punch," Ezra tossed out to his fellow spectators, his smile infectious. Once again, cash was quickly placed down just as Buck threw himself once more at the man in black.
Ezra had no idea what had precipitated the fight, only that it was no mere barroom brawl and was steadily becoming more deadly with each punch. Chris and Buck were already bloody by the time he had joined the mob outside the saloon to watch. Buck’s rage was so deep as to be almost frightening, but no where near as terrible as the icy fury that had attached itself to the ladies man’s oldest friend. They were viciously beating each other up in the middle of street, and quite a large crowd had gathered in awe to see the battle wage.
The gambler had immediately started laying odds.
He looked up as a heart wrenching yell split the air, immediately recognizing the voice as Mary’s.
"STOP THIS!" she screamed desperately, trying to get herself between them. "Chris, Buck, please! This is insane!"
As was typical in these sort of situations, the two men ignored her, choosing instead to fight around her body as if she were no more than a pebble in a stream. Her eyes flitted along the crowd and focused on Ezra.
"Stop them!" She called across, her clear blue eyes bright with worry. "They’ll kill each other!"
In response, the red coated gambler simply shrugged as if to say, what can I do? Mary’s mouth dropped open slightly in disappointment. She turned back to the fighters, and once more tried to intercede.
"Ten-to-one Chris knocks her on her rear when pushing her out of the way," Ezra suggested, relishing a little in the crudeness of the statement. The others laughed and money flowed anew. Then, as one, all eyes turned to the battlefield, just in time to see Mary grab onto one of Chris’s arms as he made to deliver a rib cracking kick to the downed Wilmington. Without conscious thought, Chris threw her off, and she fell backwards into the dirt, her blond hair spilling out of the tight bun holding it in place. Ezra grinned, and collected more cash.
The newswoman’s intervention, however, had given Buck the time he needed to roll away and stagger back to his feet using a water trough for balance. As Chris advanced on him, the dark haired gunslinger dipped his hand in the murky water and splashed the man in black. With Chris distracted trying to get the filthy liquid out of his eyes, Buck slammed his fist into the man’s midsection, and followed it with one to the side of Chris’s head. The man in black collapsed to the ground and rolled away from further onslaught.
Hooves interrupted the tense moment, and an ear splitting aerial gunshot from a Mare’s Leg shattered the momentum of Buck’s next attack. Peso forced his way through the circle of townsfolk, coming to a stop between the two men, Vin pulling hard on the reins to bring the black stallion to a halt. Leaping from his back, Vin had his gun out and raised, switching its aim between Buck and Chris.
"What the hell is going on here!" he demanded. When Buck made to get around him, he shoved the sawed off Winchester roughly into his face. "I said, what is going on?" he repeated more quietly.
Buck backed off without a word, his dark blue eyes shooting daggers at where Chris stood a few feet away. The man in black curled his lip impassively, shaking the dirt and mud from his clothes.
Vin searched the crowd until his eyes rested on Ezra, who was nonchalantly tucking cash into his waistcoat as he leaned against a nearby post. The gambler raised his eyebrows, and a small smile lit upon his features. The tracker’s eyes narrowed in disgust, but he didn’t say anything. Eventually, he looked at Chris, who looked as if he were waiting for something.
"All right," Vin said, "both of you to the jail, now!" He used his gun for emphasis, indicating the wooden structure behind the man in black. When neither man seemed willing to move, Vin raised the gun and leveled it at Chris. "That was not a request, Larabee."
For a moment, neither man moved. Ezra stood a little straighter, his left fingers lightly brushing his waistcoat near his Colt. Sensing the mood change, the spectators that had been gleefully betting with him a minute before stepped away to give the gambler room. Catching the movement out of the corner of his eye, Buck glanced at the gambler with a strange expression. Ezra’s face never changed expression, though he had no idea what the look meant. The ladies' man looked away.
Finally, Chris grunted and turned to the jail. Vin swiveled around to look at Buck, and the ladies' man scowled. Nevertheless, he too limped over to the jail. Moments later, Vin had them both locked in separate cells, their guns locked in the cabinet to one side. He dropped the keys in the desk and locked it.
"I’ll have someone bring you boys a first aid kit. With Nathan out of town, looks like you’ll have to patch yourselves up," he said quietly. "I suggest that you to talk while you’re waitin’." He glanced at them once, to see that they had both turned to face the wall away from him and each other. With a heavy sigh, he turned away himself and moved to the doors.
Vin looked up at the darkening clouds as he pushed back through the heavy doors to the outside, measuring the time to be about mid-afternoon. He took in a deep breath, and coughed slightly as something tickled the back of his throat. The crowd was gone, drifted off to find better entertainment. Mary stood by the door to the Clarion, pushing some of her mussed hair from her face. She smiled thankfully at the tracker, then disappeared inside.
Vin eyed the saloon, noting that Ezra had probably gone inside. With a grimace, he walked over to find him.
Ezra was shuffling quietly at his table, his feet propped up on a chair. He looked up only briefly as Vin pushed through the batwing doors, meeting the tracker's gray-blue eyes for only a moment before looking down again. Vin strode over and, with a rough shove, pushed Ezra’s boots off the chair and sat down opposite him.
"What happened?" Vin demanded.
Ezra shrugged, not looking up. "I am afraid that I could not even begin to hazard a response to that question, Mr. Tanner. Our fellow peacekeepers were already deeply immersed in their altercation when I arrived upon the scene." He cut the cards expertly with one hand, and tilted his head as he flipped the top card over to reveal the king of hearts – the suicide king.
Vin’s jaw tensed as he watched the movement. "Well, then, any idea what they were doing before they got into the fight, or where they were?"
Ezra simply shook his head and flipped the king back into the deck. "I was otherwise occupied, Mr. Tanner."
Vin gritted his teeth, and looked away, his gray eyes drifting over the various clientele in the saloon. The usual rabble were assembled, including some fairly well dressed businessmen types in one corner. Considering the rather acid looks they were shooting at the gambler’s table, it was fairly evident what it was Ezra had been "otherwise occupied" with.
"Ezra," Vin said, forming his words slowly, turning his gaze back to his friend, "tell me something. Were you just going to stand there while Chris and Buck beat each other to death?"
The gambler frowned and looked up, puzzled by the question. "I’m sorry?"
"Josiah, Nathan and JD are out of town, Ez. I was on patrol. Iffin I hadn’t come back early, those two might still be at it." He stared at Ezra, his eyes searching the gambler’s unconcerned face.
"Mr. Tanner, I think that you severely underestimate me. Had the fight escalated beyond what I would consider an acceptable level, I would likely have intervened at that point." He said this simply, once more cutting the cards with one hand.
Vin’s eyes shone, "acceptable level?"
Ezra just smiled, and his hands flipped over the new top card in the deck, revealing the jack of hearts. He swore slightly under his breath, so quietly as to be almost imperceptible. Vin’s brow furrowed, even more confused. Ezra looked up, and an abashed looked crossed his face.
"I apologize, Mr. Tanner. I was intending that card to be the queen of hearts, not the jack, but somehow I stacked the deck incorrectly. My incivility in using such base speech to verbalize my irritation was crude and unnecessary. Now, what were you saying?"
"You are a piece of work, Ezra."
"You should have tried to stop ‘em. That’s your job. Hell, its more n’ that; Buck n’ Chris are your friends!"
Ezra looked surprised, then amused at the younger man’s statement. "Mr. Tanner, I think you may have me confused with someone else. I do not break up fights. I may be being paid to protect this town, but that does not mean that I must intervene in every disagreement that occurs, especially those between my so-called friends. I am certain that, given time, Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington would have ended their conflagration amicably. Indeed, I would have laid odds on such an outcome."
Vin sneered, "didn’t you?"
Ezra’s eyes narrowed, then opened again as wide and clear as ever. "Mr. Tanner, is there something about my chosen profession that has eluded you?"
"You’re a lawman, Ez. As a lawman…"
"I am a professional gambler, Mr. Tanner." Ezra interrupted quickly, cutting the younger man off. "I lay bets, create odds, play the game. When that is done, then, and only then, am I a lawman." He returned his eyes to the cards in his hands, cutting the deck once more. This time, when the top card was revealed, it was the ace of spades. Languidly, green eyes looked up to meet upset gray ones.
Vin drew in an exasperated breath as he eyed the card, and shook his head. "Sure, whatever, Ez. If that’s what helps you sleep at night."
He drew himself up out of his chair with a grunt and stretched his back. "You'll have to take Buck's patrol, since I'm leavin' them both there overnight. I made the rounds through the west and southern territories, and checked the ranches. That leaves you the north and east. Watch the bridge at Breaker’s Pass. With all the rain we’ve been having lately, the river’s been swelling – might have weakened the wooden supports."
Ezra nodded, "Fine."
"I’m going to go see if those two have cooled off enough to tell me what the hell they were thinking. Wish Josiah was here to talk to ‘em, though. Or JD. Buck can’t keep anything from the kid for too long."
"Or Nathan." Ezra smiled, "in the event that they find themselves averse to your undoubtedly unwelcome interference."
Vin didn’t respond; he simply left the table. Ezra returned to his cards, spinning the Ace around until he eventually deposited it back into the deck. For interests sake, he cut the cards one more time, without attempting any sleight of hand. When he flipped the top card, he was surprised to see the queen of hearts looking back at him. With a pensive air, he tucked the cards away, then went up to his room to change for the evening patrol and to stash his money away.
The next morning was cool and wet, and Vin woke up sneezing.
"Keep it down out there, will ya? Some of us are trying to sleep." Buck yawned from where he lay on his cot, an arm draped over his eyes. Chris grunted from his own cell and rolled over to face the wall.
Stretching, Vin blinked and looked around, surprised to see that he had fallen asleep and that it was the next day already. He’d been sitting in the jail in the uncomfortable wooden chair behind the desk all night. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, annoyed that Ezra hadn’t been in to relieve him.
When he looked across at his friends, he was not surprised to see that Buck had some nasty bruises purpling on his face beneath the arm.
"You guys want out?" he croaked, rubbing his throat. The nasty weather was really getting to him, he thought.
Buck lifted the arm and looked back at Vin through blood shot eyes. Chris rolled up to a sitting position, obviously deciding that he was not going to get anymore sleep this morning. Both men shot Vin angry glances.
"Hey don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t the one trying to kill my best friend yesterday," the tracker chuckled, opening the drawer in the desk that hid the keys. His head felt like it was full of cotton, and he sniffed a few times as he sorted through the iron keys for the two cells. The last sniff sent a jolt of pain through his sinuses, and he moaned as he brought his hand to his head.
"You alright?" Chris asked, standing.
"I think I’m getting a damned cold," Vin replied in an irritated tone as he sorted through the keys.
"You?" Buck laughed. "I thought you were impervious to colds!"
Vin smiled in return. "Impervious, Buck? Nice word. Reckon you’re hangin’ round Ez too much these days."
This earned a growl from the man in black, and Buck shot Chris an angry look. Vin frowned, and let the keys fall loose by his side.
"Ezra have something to do with your fight yesterday?" he asked. Neither man answered.
"Oh come on, Chris! This is getting real tiresome. You boys want out--you’ll have to give me something that’ll tell me you won’t be at each others throats the minute I do." Crossing his arms, Vin leant back against the desk and waited, the keys jangling between his fingers. Buck looked over at his old friend, then back at the smaller buckskin clad one. Chris had his face to the ground, refusing to look at either one of them.
"T’weren't Ez," Buck whispered. "He was just where it all started, is all." He looked at Chris and frowned. "Look Chris, I’m sorry. But it wasn’t me who told that damn gambler about Antonito."
"Antonito?" Vin repeated.
"Border town in the Colorado territories. Chris had some run-ins with the law there a few years back."
"Buck," Chris warned, causing the ladies man to wipe a hand across his face.
"It's okay, Chris," Vin interceded. "I don’t care what you did. Just tell me what started all this. If Ez has a part, I don’t mind sticking him in here with you." He rubbed his aching neck where it had been unnaturally cramped while sleeping. Then he sneezed, sending another jolt of pain through his head.
Chris frowned, and sighed. "Ezra asked me if any of my friends in Antonito could take care of his mother for a few days. She is, as usual, on the run from something."
Vin looked at Chris for a couple of minutes, absorbing this seemingly innocuous fact before speaking. When he realized Chris was not going to say more, he frowned.
"That’s it?" he said finally.
Chris looked up sharply, enflamed red eyes catching Vin’s puzzled ones. An ugly red and blue bruise covered half his face, forcing one blue eye almost closed. "Now how exactly would he know I had friends there, Vin? And how would he know that the sort of friends I might have there would be the type willing to hide someone." His bruised mug turned to Buck. "Unless someone told him."
"I told you I don’t know! I didn’t tell him!" Buck stated, his voice rising.
"I warned you before about talking about my past, Buck."
"I didn’t tell him! I didn’t damn well tell him! Why the hell won't you believe me!" Buck’s hands lifted, his arms outspread. Chris leapt forward, slamming into the bars that joined his cell to Buck’s.
"Don’t lie to me, Buck! There’s no other way he could have known!"
"SHUT UP!" Vin yelled, throwing the desk chair at the bars. It slammed into the iron, the loud clang ringing inside the small office like a mini thunderclap. Both gunslingers jumped back, staring at him wide-eyed.
"There’s only one man who can answer that question," the tracker stated fiercely. Chris crossed his arms, and Buck put a hand to his head, rubbing his forehead roughly. Vin continued to watch them both. "Shall I go get him, or do you to want to keep beating your heads against a brick wall?"
Chris simply shrugged, and Buck scowled, still angry that Chris didn’t trust him. Taking their silence as a yes, Vin grabbed his hat from off the desk and put it on his head. He dropped the keys back in the desk and looked over at his prisoners.
"I’ll be right back. Try not to kill each other, and I might bring you some breakfast when I come back." With a finger to his hat, he left them alone.
Buck sighed, and moved back to sit down on the cot. It sank a few inches under his weight, and dust puffed up around him. He sneezed slightly, and leaned his head back against the wall, shutting his eyes.
Chris watched his movements from out of the corner of his good eye. His head was pounding from the beating it received yesterday, and he guessed that Buck didn’t feel much better. Tentatively, he felt along his ribs under the duster, amazed that the bigger man hadn’t broken every one. He looked out the door to the cold April world beyond. It was unseasonably cold, and, with the seemingly relentless rains, it had made everyone a little on edge. He wondered if he might’ve been a little hasty accusing Buck. Not that he would ever admit as much–not until he was proven wrong. He narrowed his eyes, a small seed of worry gnawing at his chest as he wondered what Ezra would say.
The man in black didn’t move for a moment, then he tilted his head in Buck’s direction, indicating he was ready to listen.
"I don’t want to fight with you anymore," Buck informed him quietly. He was fingering the bruises on his face with a light touch, wondering what they looked like.
Chris smiled crookedly and turned to look directly at his old friend. Buck’s lips were grossly swollen under his dirty moustache, and his noise was red and shiny. He watched as the ladies' man tested his bruises, his eyes crossed in concentration, and knew instinctively what the man was wondering.
"You look terrible—like a painted clown," Chris chuckled. Buck uncrossed his blue eyes, neither of which were blackened like Chris’s, and raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, and you’re looking so much better. Though, considering those eyes of yours, I’m surprised you’re looking at anything at all." He smiled, and moaned as his lips protested the movement. He put the back of his hand to them, to cool them off.
Chris shook his head, the smile still on his lips, and looked towards the doors again. It was still too early for anyone to be up and about. The smile slipped and he returned to his usual taciturn countenance.
"I wouldn’t have killed you, you know," he whispered.
Buck drew his hand away from his mouth, not looking at Chris. "I know."
Silence coated the two men, the only noise being Chris as he approached the cell doors to hang his arms through them. After about ten minutes, Buck mimicked him inside his own cell. Both men were thinking the same thing – it shouldn’t have taken Vin this long to wake Ezra.
"Think Ez shot our boy?" Buck asked, emitting a short laugh.
Chris smiled, "Maybe."
A few more minutes passed, until finally a shadow appeared at the door. Both men straightened as Vin pushed his way in – alone. He went directly to the desk, and pulled out the cell door keys again from where he had stashed them when he left to find the gambler. Chris frowned, and Buck stood up as Vin approached his door.
"Vin?" Chris asked, noting the younger man’s stern expression.
Vin’s eyes glanced up before returning to the task of unlocking Buck’s door. The worry in them was clear.
"Ez didn’t come back from patrol last night," he stated matter-of-factly. "No one has seen him since he left for patrol over 16 hours ago."
Gray light flooded the landscape, dulling the colors and depressing the mood of the riders as they rode East. A cold breeze occasionally lit through the valley that hid Four Corners, ruffling the tall prairie grasses and the loose limbs on the budding trees. Vin sneezed a few times, and rubbed at watering eyes. Chris and Buck were silent as statues, refusing to look at each other.
The three men had only traveled perhaps a mile out of town before they saw him. Ezra was walking, leading Chaucer, both looking as if they had been to hell and back. As they got closer, they could see that Ezra’s clothes were ruined, and mud and dirt stuck to his face and hair in ugly patches. Chaucer didn’t look much better, bits of mud and dirt encrusting his normally shiny chestnut colored coat, his head bowed towards the earth as if Atlas had momentarily shifted his burden to the normally irrepressible beast.
Instantly, all thoughts concerning the fight of the previous day were banished.
They rode up next to him and swiftly dismounted. Vin reached over to take Chaucer’s reins, and, for once, the horse didn’t complain. Ezra simply let it happen, his eyes revealing a depth of sorrow the others had never seen in him before. Chris moved to walk next to him, as the gambler had not bothered to stop walking. Buck took up the pace on the other side.
"The bridge over Breaker’s Pass…collapsed…beneath the weight of a wagon," the gambler began without preamble, his green eyes dull. To the casual listener, the statement may have sounded calmly delivered; to his friends, the imperceptible tremor under the normally smooth drawl spoke volumes, the pause before and after the word 'collapsed' suggesting stronger words had been omitted for the sake of sanity. The gambler blinked, no longer viewing the landscape in front of him, but picturing the one he’d just left behind.
"The river…was so swollen and powerful…that it sucked the wagon under in moments, taking with it the man, his wife and two sons. The oxen pulling the wagon were missing from the area, either having escaped or drowned, I don’t know. I came upon the scene too late – brought to it by the haunting howling of their dog. A small black and white sheepdog, she died almost as soon as I appeared, her final act of loyalty accomplished." Ezra shivered slightly, his eyes downcast to the ground. Buck moved to put an arm on the younger man’s sleeve, but changed his mind, not sure if the comfort would be accepted by the normally private man.
"With Chaucer’s help, I pulled them out as gently as I could from the river. It took me a few tries to get the boys….one of them had gotten caught up with all the debris from the destroyed surrey. Then I managed to get to the wagon itself, hoping to find something to identify them with, but I couldn’t shift it. Not that it mattered….Here." He pulled a wallet from his jacket pocket and handed it to Chris. "I found this on the man. His name was Carson Miller. His wife was Sadie, their sons Ted and Andrew."
"I’ll give it to Mary," Chris said unnecessarily.
"I buried them as best I could in a small clearing not far from where I found them. The crosses are rude, but it was all I could manage…." His voice trailed off, and he looked off in the direction of the town. He could just make out the smoke curling up from chimneys on this cold April morning, where people were desperately trying to keep warm. The cloud cover remained heavy, and he wondered absently if it would rain again today.
"I’ll find some men to go and clear the wagon from the water," Buck said, breaking the stillness. Then he too lapsed into silence. They walked a ways further, until the town itself became visible on the horizon. From here they could hear it: the chatting, cooking and laughing of the townsfolk intruding on the quietude of the bleak landscape. Ezra stopped, and the others stopped with him.
"I can’t do this anymore Chris."
The man in black stiffened, but he didn’t respond.
Ezra sighed. "Their bodies…were bloated with the water, and so horribly mottled as to make them almost unrecognizable as human. The elder boy had lost his arm, the younger had his head crushed and…and the father weighed so much from the swelling that I almost went under myself trying to release him from the wreckage. And the sound of that poor, sweet dog on the wind…." He started to shake, and drew his arms about himself. When he looked up again, he stared directly into the ashen face of Chris Larabee, as if daring the taller man to contradict him.
"I had a great deal of time to think about this last night, Chris, and I’m sorry. I was not cut out for this. I never, ever, want to have to do what I did last night ever again. My world is inside the warmth of a saloon, with light and life, not out here in the cold, with the dead. It's not worth it." He continued to shake, his green eyes now tightly closed against the gaiety of the town before him.
"Let’s get you home, pard," Buck whispered, his arms aching with the need to hold the gambler next to him and stop his shaking. Ezra shook his head.
"Not my home, Buck, never was," he swallowed and somehow managed to get his feelings under control enough to stop shaking. His green eyes remained dull as he looked off in the distance. "I'm leaving as soon as the others return."
He started forward again, stepping down the slight hill leading to the valley containing the pretty town. Buck followed close behind, almost protectively, leading Gray. Chris and Vin remained on the hilltop, Chaucer not caring at this instant whether he was still near to his rider or not. He simply waited for someone to get him home. Peso nipped at him, trying to wake his friend from his reverie. Chaucer ignored him.
"You going to let him go, Chris?" Vin asked finally, watching the expressions of disappointment, anger and sadness drift across the older man’s face in rapid succession.
"It is not my choice anymore," the gunslinger replied evenly. "He didn’t stay this long because of me. You know that as well as I do….Hell, I expected him to leave long before now." He pursed his lips, his eyes narrowing as he took in the peaceful scene. Buck’s casual gait caught his eye, and he frowned. "But maybe he’s right, Vin. Maybe it is time to leave, before…." He didn’t complete the sentence, just shut his mouth and looked up at the sky.
The tracker didn’t answer. He simply continued to watch the world below him and the man next to him with a aloof countenance. He had always thought it would be him that would leave first, what with the bounty on his head. But now that he was faced with the specter of actually doing it….
"Wait and see," he suggested finally, quietly, whether to himself or the friend by his side, he couldn’t say. Chris glanced at him, and shrugged. Together, they led the horses down the hill after the others just as the thick wet air gave way to a spitting rain.
"What’s the story, JD?" Chris asked, stepping off the boardwalk to face the young Sheriff as he pulled in front of the jail beneath the steady drizzling rain. It was two days after the fight, and Ezra’s discovery of the wagon. The bruises on both Buck and Chris’s faces had faded, though were still quite visible. JD, Josiah and Nathan were finally returning from dropping a prisoner off at Fort Garland. The preacher and healer just tipped hats to their friends in front of the jail before heading off to the livery.
JD took in the bruises on his leader’s face, but tactfully chose to ignore them as he shook his hat to dry it a little. "No problems, Chris. Easy as pie. But the soldiers did offer a warning. Apparently, the Barrow gang has been seen in our area."
"Barrow gang?" Ezra looked up from his chair in front of the structure, tipping his hat back.
"Thieves and cutthroats, Ezra. You know, the usual," Vin replied hoarsely. He was leaning against the door to the jail, one arm resting on the doorframe. Water was misting down over the quiet and muddy street, and the tracker started coughing.
JD didn’t hide his surprise at the sight of a sick Vin, and looked curiously at Ezra. The gambler, however, had returned his gaze to the ground, no longer looking at anyone.
"Get inside by the stove, Vin," Chris ordered tiredly. "I don’t want you getting any sicker than you already are."
"Chris," the tracker whined.
Vin shot him a deadly glare, mitigated by the fact that his face was flushed with fever and his eyes bloodshot. JD hid an amused smiled as Vin nevertheless did exactly as he was told, grumbling the whole time.
Chris returned steel blue eyes to the young man in front of him. "Any idea where they are now, or if they might be coming here?"
JD shook his head. "I checked in at a few towns on the way back, but no one’s seen hide or hair. I’m beginning to think the soldiers were playing with me. Except for the fact that I met the Marshal who is supposed to be tracking them down, a Marshal Malcolm Churwell. They followed us out of the Fort, but took off in a different direction after a few miles." He frowned, then shrugged. In the background, Ezra had flinched slightly upon hearing the name of the Marshal, but he quickly recovered. No one noticed.
Chris nodded and looked in the direction of the saloon. Buck was jogging over, a wide grin on his face.
Within moments, the mood of the little gathering had lightened considerably as Buck welcomed his little brother home. They headed off together towards the livery leading JD’s horse, chatting away loudly about whatever else the kid might have seen on the trip. Chris and Ezra watched them leave, unbidden smiles on their lips.
After a moment, Chris looked down at the gambler. Ezra was still watching Buck and JD.
"When are you leaving?"
Ezra looked back at him, his face expressionless.
"After lunch." He stood and brushed some dust from his sleeves, then ducked his head out from under the eave to look disgustedly up at the wet sky. "I suppose I should go and inform our companions."
Nathan was leaning against his stall, watching as JD brushed down his horse, an easy going smile on his face. The boy had lost to him and Josiah at cards on the way back from Fort Garland, the stakes for which had been the care of the horses upon returning. Josiah had already wandered back to his church, but Nathan was enjoying watching the repartee between JD and Buck as the older man tried to give the boy a few pointers on why he shouldn’t have tried to bluff two such obviously honest men.
"Honest?" JD shot a look at Nathan, who grinned back with raised eyebrows. "Come on, Buck. When it comes to cards, them two’s about as honest as Ezra."
"Did I hear my name, gentlemen?" The gambler drifted into the livery, sidling up next to Nathan as smoothly as an eagle comes in to roost.
"Ezra, tell Buck that trying to bluff Nathan and Josiah wasn't a stupid idea," JD said petulantly.
"Your tried to bluff a healer and a preacher?" Ezra answered, brows raised.
"What? Oh, come on, I’ve seen you bluff ‘em hundreds of times…." He stopped when he saw the dimpled smirk on the con man’s face. "Damn it, sometimes you are as bad as Buck!" Turning his back on all of them, JD continued to brush his bay’s coat with more vigor, the sulk on his face obvious.
Buck grinned in victory, until he saw Ezra’s countenance fall. The chameleon like man had switched to a poker face, his visage as cool and serious as when he stares down any man that dares to call him cheater. Buck swallowed, his heart having been hoping that Ezra would have changed his mind over the last two days. Now he knew that he had been a fool.
"God, Ez. Already?"
Nathan and JD both stopped their thoughts to look over at the ladies' man, then at Ezra. The gambler’s jaw tensed, flexing the muscles beneath his cheekbones, the only sign that he was worried about something.
"Already what?" Nathan asked, his chocolate brown eyes searching his friend’s face.
"Gentlemen, I, uh…," Ezra paused, and his eyes dropped to the floor near JD’s feet, a smile cracking his straight face. All attempts at keeping up the façade of indifference left him, and Buck had to look away.
"As may come as no surprise to you, I once…attempted to…set down roots in this town, by purchasing the saloon we so often frequent. Obviously, those plans never came to fruition. As it stands, therefore, I find that I am no longer as keen to…remain within its guardianship."
"What?" JD looked at Buck, trying to see the reason for this change.
"I am afraid that the, uh, dictates of my calling require that I move on when times are such that my skills are no longer of use. My chosen role in life is to seek out the most profitable ventures, the games with higher stakes, until such time as I can retire to a comfortable standard of living. Those ventures do not exist here." He paused, and licked his lips. The entire time, his eyes never left the ground by JD’s feet. "Thus, I will be leaving today…as soon after lunch as possible."
JD’s eyes grew huge as he stared at Ezra, then at Buck. Nathan frowned, but his eyes were also shining in shock.
"You’re leaving ‘cause your not making enough money here?" the healer restated, his tone incredulous.
Ezra nodded, "Crude, but correct."
"BULL!" Nathan shouted, shoving Ezra in the side. The gambler stumbled a few steps, a startled expression on his face.
"Why are you really leaving, huh? Did Chris and Buck do something to you?"
"Hey!" Buck defended, but JD was also looking at him suspiciously.
Ezra stood tall, his mouth agape. "I assure you sir, this is entirely of my own making. What I have just told you is the truth. Of all people, Mr. Jackson, I expected you to be the first to accept the veracity of this rationale."
Nathan didn’t know how to take that statement, so he continued to argue. "Don’t feed me that crap, Ezra. You’re right, I do understand you….Maybe there was a time that I didn’t, but that was a long time ago. Your life is no more ruled by money than mine is by slavery."
Ezra blinked and shook his head. "On the contrary, Mr. Jackson. My life has always been ruled by money. And always will." He stood straighter, as if admitting such a terrible thing was something to be proud of.
Nathan was about to argue some more when JD’s hand reached over to grab Ezra’s arm. The healer’s acerbic words died on his lips as he saw the undisguised fear on the boy’s face. The young Sheriff gripped the gambler’s arm tightly, watching as Ezra looked first to the white fingers pressing into the green wool, then into his face.
"God, Ezra. Please don’t go," JD pleaded.
Ezra almost recoiled from the naked emotion on the young man’s face, and did in fact take an involuntary step back. He shook his arm free, and smoothed the fabric down.
"I am sorry, JD…Nathan….But you must understand. I don’t belong here anymore. It's time to move on." He backed away from them slowly, then, with a final glance at Buck who was watching him darkly, he attempted a weak smile and turned to stride rapidly out of the stable.
"Coward!" Nathan shouted after him.
"Is he serious Buck?" JD asked.
Buck just nodded and leaned tiredly into a nearby post.
Ezra wrapped his arms around his torso as he walked down the street, not really noticing the funny stares he was getting. He was muttering to himself, mentally slapping his foolishness for the paucity of his behavior in the stable.
"Damn it, I should have just left," he said under his breath, watching the dirt ground beneath his boots. "Why didn’t I just leave? In the middle of the night, with none the wiser. Chris, Vin and Buck could have told them why I left, explained to them….It would have been easier all round. But no, no, I had to stay and tell them face to face…."
"EZRA!" a booming voice called gaily, and Ezra halted his progress towards the church in time to see Josiah jogging up to meet him.
"Well, met, son." The older man grinned as he came to a stop. Ezra sighed, and shut his eyes in exasperation.
"Josiah, please don’t call me that."
The preacher smiled, pretending not to have heard. "I have something for you…." He started to pull something from his coat pocket.
"Josiah, no, wait," Ezra placed both hands on the older man’s arm. "There something I have to tell you first."
"Can’t it wait? This will only take…"
"No, it can’t. Please."
Josiah stopped his movements and shook off Ezra’s hands. With a puzzled and somewhat disgruntled air, he crossed his arms and tilted his head to the side.
The gambler’s mouth suddenly went completely dry, and he had to swallow a few times. His eyes locked on the taller man’s, then danced away, focusing on something in the distance.
"Well?" Josiah demanded, getting impatient.
"I’m leaving." There, Ezra thought, I said it.
"Chris sending you somewhere? Well, that’s fine. Makes this present all the more apt."
"No, no!" Ezra looked back up into the other man’s features, his green eyes narrowed in annoyance. "I’m leaving, Josiah. For good."
The preacher didn’t move a muscle. Just stared at Ezra quietly. Uncomfortable, the younger man diverted his gaze to stare back out at the street.
"Your mind is made up?" Josiah rumbled quietly.
Ezra nodded, not trusting his voice.
"Well, good luck then."
Ezra looked back, surprised. Josiah eyed him impassively.
"Don’t you even want to know why?"
"Oh." Ezra looked to the ground and pulled his hat off his head in order to run his fingers through his hair.
"Don’t mean you can’t have what I got for you," Josiah’s smile was back, and Ezra looked up curiously. Josiah finished pulling the object from his pocket, and gave it to the younger man just as the gambler replaced his hat. It was a book.
Ezra unwrapped the brown paper encasing it slowly, and turned the small, red, leather bound volume over. A short laugh escaped his lips and he looked up at a smirking Josiah.
"The Prelude, by William Wordsworth," he read, shaking his head.
"I read a bit. He seems to enjoy getting in touch with his inner child – something I thought would be a propos." The preacher waggled his eyebrows, and Ezra just narrowed his eyes in response to the light wisecrack.
Bringing the thin volume to his chest with his left hand, Ezra stuck out his right, "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez. I shall treasure it."
Josiah looked at the hand for a second, then took it warmly in his own. With a single fierce shake, he acknowledged the move for what it was. A goodbye.
"Be careful out there, Mr. Standish," Josiah said quietly. Then, grasping the hand more tightly, he pulled Ezra in closer so that he could whisper in his ear. "You get into trouble, son, any kind of trouble, you know you’ll always have six people here to back you up. Whenever you want to come back, just come. Okay?"
Releasing his grip, Josiah allowed Ezra to step back. The gambler’s face was a puzzle, unreadable in the gray light of morning. He simply tipped his hat in answer to Josiah’s words, and walked away, book still pressed tightly to his chest. Blowing air out his mouth, Josiah watched him leave.
"Josiah?" JD appeared beside him suddenly. "Ezra tell you he was leaving?"
"Think he means it?"
JD’s shoulders slumped and he leaned into the big man, allowing Josiah to drape an arm over his shoulder. "Think he’ll come back?" he asked quietly, pleadingly.
"No doubt in my mind, brother Dunne."
JD stood up straight and looked at Josiah. The preacher looked back calmly, and almost laughed when a broad grin lit upon JD’s face. Still smiling, both men walked off together towards the jail.
Ezra’s departure was quiet. Inez and Nathan had each refused to come and say good bye, which had made the gambler a little sad, but not surprised. The others were gathered on the boardwalk, and he shook their hands solemnly. Josiah had tried to hug him, but Ezra ducked out from under his arms and backed away with a smile.
Then he was on Chaucer’s back, and gone, galloping out of town without looking back, his green wool dove coat flying behind him, until he was lost in the fog.
Everyone soon wandered off, except for Chris and Vin. The black clad gunslinger sat down heavily on the boardwalk, and pulled out his knife in order to finish whittling a dog for Billy. Vin lithely sat down next to him.
"So," the tracker said, sniffing a little.
Chris didn’t say a word.
"Still think this is a sign?"
Again Chris didn’t speak, his eyes focused on the wood in front of him. Vin watched him for a while, then sneezed fiercely.
"Inside," Chris ordered. Rolling his eyes, Vin got up to and did as he was bid.
The church bell was tolling one o’clock when the rush of hooves caused Chris to look up. He’d long since finished the dog and was now simply enjoying the calm of the wet afternoon. Irritation showed in his face as he contemplated that his sojourn was about to be rudely interrupted. But, as he recognized the face of the rider, the irritation instantly fell away. Behind him, Vin appeared in the door of the jail, and both men walked out in the rain to meet the man.
Ezra drew Chaucer in tight, the chestnut's hooves slipping a bit in the mud, both himself and the horse panting harshly.
"Chris, I saw them! Hell, I almost rode right into the middle of them. The Barrow gang. They can’t be more than twenty minutes behind me." He leapt to the ground, pulled off his rifle, and smacked Chaucer on the rump to send him off to the livery. The horse responded immediately, trotting quickly to familiar stable.
"How many?" the man in black demanded, peering in the direction Ezra had just returned from.
"Twenty three men, all armed to the teeth, and making a bee-line for our little hamlet." Ezra wiped a hand across his mouth, and shook his head. "I got close enough to hear that they’re planning to run a swath of devastation through this area, starting here." He made a short laugh, and shook his head. "And they’ve heard of us. They’re coming here first because they think we’ll give them the most trouble."
"Well, they got that part right," Vin noted, pulling out his Winchester and checking to see that it was loaded. At that moment, Buck and JD were jogging over from the saloon, both with surprised looks on their faces at seeing Ezra back so soon.
"What’s going on?" Buck called as he arrived.
"Barrow gang is fifteen minutes out, twenty three strong," Chris announced. "You and JD alert the town and get everyone hidden, then take up position at the west end of town. Hopefully we can get you at their backs. And keep watch for scouts." Taking their cue, Buck and JD took off, calling out to the townsfolk and heading swiftly for the far end of town. Chris turned to the tracker.
"Vin, go get Josiah. You and the preacher find yourselves good places to perch – I’m thinking you on the second floor of the jail here and Josiah on the roof of the Merc."
Vin tilted his head, his flushed and pale features making him look somewhat ghoulish in the color draining atmosphere. "Wouldn’t the roof of the jail be a better…"
Chris gave him a don’t-mess-with-me look, and Vin tried to glare back, failing miserably when he suddenly let out a whopping sneeze all over his friend’s shirt. The tracker jumped back, chagrined.
"Right, okay then, inside, second floor of the jail. Gotcha," Vin stuttered, wiping his nose on his sleeve and running off before Chris could attack. The gunslinger plucked the front of his shirt from his body, and Ezra repressed a chuckle. Covering his annoyance, Chris looked to Ezra, his mood darkening as he recognized the con man’s weak attempts not to smirk. He growled.
"Ezra, you get Nathan. Tell him I want him covering the other end of town, and, of course, to start boiling water. Then find yourself a good spot by the saloon and the alley."
“v pořádku, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied, snapping his heels together and giving a mock salute. He started to jog away when he heard Chris bellow his name angrily.
"Yes?" he asked innocently, turning around.
"What in the name of all that is holy did you just say to me!" Chris’s face was almost red with rage, and this time the gambler couldn’t repress the grin. The man in black probably thought he’d just been insulted, or mocked.
"Okay, Mr. Larabee," and he turned, once more to be called again. He turned back, dimples on his cheek bright.
"What is okay?" This time Chris just looked supremely puzzled, but his face was still flushed.
"You really must brush up on your Czech, Mr. Larabee," the gambler admonished, shaking his head in mock disgust, before jogging away more purposefully.
The black clad gunslinger blinked, and frowned. Reminding himself that ignoring Ezra was always the best route when then man spouted random languages, or peculiar words, he rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. With a final glance around, Chris stepped slowly towards the jail to get the rifles from the cabinet. In the back of his mind, however, he had to wonder what the hell Maude had been thinking.
"Why the hell would anyone need to learn Czech?" he grumbled as he opened the doors.
Ezra knelt behind some of the barrels that, just a few days before, he’d been using as betting platforms. He was absently loading and cleaning his guns, the motions so familiar as to be instinctive. His mind drifted over the past few days at the same time that he considered Nathan’s reaction to his appearance at his door. The others had all accepted his return without thinking, but the healer had not only stood amazed at the gambler’s return, he’d looked genuinely pleased! He hadn’t said a word throughout Ezra’s recitation of Chris’s orders, nor had he moved the entire time, just standing there with a silly grin on his face. The look unnerved Ezra. Nathan was never happy to see him. Shaking his head, the gambler told himself that his ability to read people must be slipping.
Ezra’s head shot up, and he involuntarily raised his gun. Not that someone trying to get his attention by hissing was likely to be a member of the Barrow gang but, well, one can never be too careful.
"Hsst, Senor! I have something that might be of use." Inez’s whisper came from behind him, and Ezra twisted in his crouch to see her. Her hair was pulled back, and dirt smudged her face. She grinned foolishly upon being seen, and he couldn’t resist mimicking it slightly.
"There’s no need to whisper, darling. They’re not here yet," he said.
"Oh, right." She headed over, keeping her head down, and set herself down next to him. He looked curiously at the leather satchel that hung from her shoulder, the sound of glass clinking away inside only increasing his interest. His smile fell when she made no move to hand it over or leave.
"But that does not mean you should be here. Why aren’t you in the hide-hole under the Potter’s store with Mary and the others?"
Inez pinched her face, and pointedly ignored him. Slowly, she drew three bottles from out the pouch and a handful of wicks, soaked in oil. "Here, I filled these with a mixture of alcohol and lamp oil. I thought you could use them as explosives." She smiled, proud of herself.
Picking up one of the bottles, Ezra glanced at the label. Instantly he was on his feet, staring at her wildly, his face reddening rapidly in agitation.
"My Glenlivet Scotch!" he cried, shocked. "Inez, how could you? After all I’ve done for you!"
"Um, well, Senor, I…." The Mexican bit her lip, almost cowering where she remained kneeling in the dirt. But Ezra wasn’t listening, still looking at the Glenlivet label as if he hoped the name would change to Red-Eye.
"Do you know how much this cost? Exquisite nectar such as this from the hallowed highlands of Scotland does not come cheap, my dear. Besides which, the profit you could have made serving this to your more discerning customers….Oh, It pains me to think on it. What in God’s name possessed you?"
She didn’t answer as she finally stood to face him, slowly wiping off some of the dust from off her skirts. She didn’t want to admit she had begun to pour them out because she had felt the need to hurt him somehow. The idea to make them into bombs had occurred to her to be an even better form of revenge. Now she was embarrassed to find herself feeling a mite bit guilty. So, she chose to avoid answering by asking a question of her own.
"So, um, who are these Barrow people? You boys sure you can handle them?" Her nonchalant tone sounded forced, even to her. She kept her gaze down, hoping not to give herself away.
Ezra watched her for a second, still trying to determine if she were crazy, but not missing the flush that lit in her cheeks, or the downcast gaze. Suddenly the Glenlivet seemed less important. As changeable as a cat, his mood changed abruptly. He drew the bottle to his breast and looked up at the sky, one hand moving dramatically to his brow.
"Lord, ‘tis a sad day when 15 year old scotch must lay down its life for the rash act of a maniacal senorita. Oh the horror, the horror!"
Hackles rising, and embarrassment fading quickly, Inez bit her bottom lip and tried again. "Are they a large group? Should I be worried that you won’t take care of my saloon if I leave you here?"
Ezra turned his face away from her, to hide the small smile that had formed. Shamefacedness didn’t become her nearly as much as annoyance, and he knew she was feeling more comfortable by the moment. He put the bottle down on the empty beer barrel and shook his head.
"Your saloon? As if that poor excuse for a house of libations could even consider itself worthy of remaining standing now that it has lost its only redeeming quality – Glenlivet on hand. Let it fall to rubble." He waved his free hand dismissively in the structure’s direction.
"Ooooh!" That was it, Inez smacked him so hard on the arm that he nearly lost hold of the bottle. "You are so infuriating! Why I ever felt….! To hell with you!" She smacked him again, and stalked away, back into the saloon. Grinning, Ezra watched her swish away, then sighed as he once more looked down at the bottle.
"Ezra," Chris called from where he stood in front of the jail.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?" the gambler met his leader’s gaze distractedly.
"Oh," the gambler looked into the distance, spotting the just forming dust cloud on the horizon. "Right." He moved to hide again when he remembered the bottle. "By the way," he sloshed the amber tinted liquid around to draw Chris’s eyes to it, "Inez has kindly provided us with a little extra boom." He smirked, and put a cigar in his mouth from out of his jacket pocket.
Chris’s eyes widened slightly, and he heard laughter float down from above where Vin was hiding. Unfortunately, it quickly turned into a hacking cough. The man in black quickly turned to look in the direction of the noise. He caught a glint of metal where Vin had established himself on the roof beneath the steady rain, the tracker wiping his nose with his sleeve.
"What?" the tracker yelled back, sounding a little miffed at the officious tone of his leader.
"I said INSIDE the jail."
"Oh, Chris, come on…."
"Don’t make me come up there!"
Grumbling floated down, but the metal flash disappeared from view. As Chris looked back to the ground, a hint of a grin lit upon his features.
A little less than fifteen minutes later, the dust cloud on the horizon coalesced to reveal a large group of figures on horseback. The only noise that could be heard in the quiet town was the sound of their hooves on the muddy earth and the creaking of leather as the gang slowly rolled into town. Soft mist blanketed the scene.
Chris was the only visible figure as he sat unconcernedly on the bench in front of the Clarion office, his legs outstretched before him and his hat low on his head. From his hiding place, Ezra puffed away contentedly on his cigar, rolling it across his lips and teeth in anticipation. He was counting the outlaws, just as he knew the others would be, to make sure none had been left behind.
He grimaced as he realized only fourteen men were visible. That meant nine men were wandering about somewhere. He closed his eyes and listened to the wind, hoping to hear the sounds of anyone creeping up the alley behind him. His ears perked up as he heard glass shatter in what was likely the back of the saloon. With a worried glance, he looked over to see Inez suddenly appear, moving to kneel just inside the doorway under the batwing doors, hidden from view from the incoming riders but not from him.
She smiled, and held up a shattered bottle by its neck. She also put up one finger, and then made a motion to indicate that someone had been creeping around behind the saloon when she’d knocked him out. Then she looked back inside as if hearing something, put a finger to her lips, and grinned again.
He waved her to hide, and tried to keep his mind on the task at hand. Another bottle shattered, and he couldn’t resist a grin. She was back in the doorway again, and now held up two fingers. He nodded, and watched as she mouthed "Be careful."
"You too," he mouthed back. With a cocky grin, she threw him a kiss, and disappeared again from view.
In the back of his mind, he noted that now only seven outlaws remained unaccounted for.
JD looked up from the man he’d been tying up in time to see Buck dragging another figure behind him. He tossed the limp man to JD. The young sheriff finished his knots on the first man, and made to quickly hog tie the second.
Buck watched his handiwork for a second before grinning. "Nice job, kid. You’d make a good cowhand."
"Nah," JD replied, "I’m too smart for that."
"Hey," Buck retorted, "I used to drive cattle myself, boy!"
"Case in point," the young man said smartly. He ducked just in time to stop Buck from knocking his hat off.
"C’mon Buck," the boy smiled, backing away with his hands up in front of him, "we gotta get back to our posts." He glanced at the two unconscious gang members, "Though I still can’t believe these guys thought they could sneak up on us on our own turf."
Buck still seethed, but reminded himself that there would be plenty of time to rib the boy later. "Well, I guess you can’t blame ‘em for trying."
"Yeah…but what do they think we are, stupid or something?"
"Must be they heard about you, JD," Buck smirked.
"Ho, ho, ho," the boy replied sarcastically as he sidled out of the saloon back to his post. Buck melted out right behind him and vanished in the other direction.
Mary looked over at Mrs. Potter as the steps creaked the floorboards above their heads. They could hear just the one set, and the newswoman considered her options as she gripped the rifle in her hand.
She knew that none of the seven would have used the Potter’s store for cover, as it might lead to harm for the people hidden beneath the floorboards. As it was, she, Mrs. Potter and their children, were hiding there now.
Making up her mind, she drew a her finger to her lips to hush the others and made to open the trap door. She felt a hand on her arm to see Mrs. Potter there. The older woman whispered for her to be careful…and to try not to damage any of the china. Mary grinned back, and saluted.
Silently, she popped the well-oiled trapdoor open and peeked out. The back room in which they were hid was empty, but she could hear the telltale sounds of someone rifling for extra ammunition from the Potter’s stock in the front of the store.
In a few steps, she was at the curtain separating the two rooms. The object of her attention had his back to her as he selected a rifle from the three he had gathered around himself. He began to fill it with cartridges, then ducked suddenly, looking outside. Mary mimicked his actions unconsciously, and glanced outside to see the large group of men ride past slowly on horses.
The outlaw stood, and mock saluted his friends though they wouldn’t be able to see him within the darkened interior, then went back to his rifle. He stopped suddenly when he felt someone tap he shoulder. Confused, he turned around, glimpsing only a mass of golden blond hair before the rifle butt smacked him squarely across the jaw.
Mary clicked her tongue as she grabbed a roll of twine from off the counter in order to tie him up. The outlaw was really very good looking, and she couldn’t help but shake her head.
"What a waste," she sighed, rolling the handsome man over and pulling his hands behind his back.
Ensconced in the window on the second floor of the jail, Vin looked up at Josiah’s position just in time to see an outlaw pull himself up on the roof of the mercantile on the other side of the peaked structure – outside of Josiah’s view. Pulling out the mirror from his back pocket, Vin flashed the preacher to get his attention. Josiah looked over to see the tracker motioning that someone was sneaking up behind him. The preacher grinned, and made a mimicking motion back, except that he pointed upwards. Then he moved to prepare himself for his own attack.
Vin disappeared from view, heading for the roof. Apparently, Josiah was not the only one with a bat in the rafters. In the adrenaline surge that filled his slight frame, the former bounty hunter didn’t even notice that his cold seemed to have vanished.
With Nathan’s knife at his throat, all the ninth man could do was gurgle.
"Sorry about this," Nathan said kindly, just before knocking him out with the hilt of the blade. "But you boys really have to learn somehow. Wood boards creak. Don’t you know you can’t sneak up on a man across wood boards?" With a heavy sigh, he let the figure drop bonelessly to the ground and dragged him across to the one he’d knocked out earlier. Two men trying to sneak across the balcony of the clinic – real dumb move.
"Well," he said casually after he finished tying them both up, "back to the main show."
Slowly, the healer crept out onto his balcony, stepping as quietly as possible and keeping himself low and hidden within shadows. He stopped behind some purposefully placed crates for protection and checked his rifle for bullets. Stopping, he listened intently for the sounds of any more trespassers either up here, on the roof or in the livery stable below. Hearing nothing, he peeked through the cracks between the wood protection and watched as the leader of the gang pulled his horse up in front of where Chris still sat, seeming oblivious to all around him.
The leader of the gang was Clement Barrow, a rather ugly, spindly figure in a large black Stetson and turd brown jacket. His face, while unmarred, bore a striking resemblance to a donkey – including a low forehead, large slanted eyes, a long nose pointed low over his thin, sunburned lips, and a chin that seemed to extend forever. A single thick eyebrow framed the visage, thicker almost than the long, unkempt moustache that hung off of the man’s face like the tusks of a walrus.
He rode slightly ahead of his men, with his brother Lyle on his left and cousin Stan on his right. The rest of the group were indiscriminately attired, and seemed almost to blend into the scenery behind.
Barrow had ridden in slowly but directly towards the man in black, knowing already from the ghost like quality of the town that they had been expected. It didn’t bother the tall man too much–he might have been disappointed otherwise. Nevertheless, his slow progress had been designed to distract the other six peacekeepers that he knew were hidden about, so that his nine scouts could ambush them unawares. By now, most if not all of the other lawmen should be out for the count.
He pulled to a halt in front of the leader of the town, and waited for Larabee to acknowledge him. After a few seconds, the first vestiges of an irritated scowl flexed the muscles around Barrow’s wide mouth, and he decided he was tired of this game.
"Chris Larabee," he stated coldly. His voice was deep, and expressive. It also earned no response. Repressing a frown, Barrow pressed on, his voice taking on a jaded quality, as if he were reading an old script.
"My name is Clement Barrow, and this here group behind me is my men. We’s tired and hungry from a long ride, and we’ll be needing food, drink and entertainment. We is also low on supplies. So, we plan on spending the night here and raiding Four Corners to get what we want. Just so’s we is clear, we will not be paying for any of the provisions we take. In fact, we expect you and your people to pay us for the privilege of having such a famed group of outlaws grace your pitiful town. Now, you got anything to say about this, boy?"
Chris tipped back his hat with the gun that he held in his hand, and blinked owlishly at the man on horseback before him. Then he yawned, as if waking up from a long nap.
"I’m sorry. Did you say something?" He scratched at the stubble on chin with the gun barrel and stood up.
Barrow’s face reddened, and some of his men looked surprised. Stan pulled out his rifle and pointed it at Chris’s heart. The man in black turned fearless blue eyes to him and tapped the gun against his chin in a contemplative gesture.
"You boys wouldn’t be thinking of raiding my town now would you?" he asked curiously, looking back at Barrow.
Barrow snorted, his moustache twitching as a result of the motion, and narrowed his eyes. "I’d ride out of town real fast, Larabee. Trust me, your friends ain’t gonna save ya. Tell you what, you leave right now, and I won’t shoot you in the back on the way out. Whaddya say, cowboy, think you can scurry away before I get real mad?"
The gunslinger straightened, pursing his lips in an amused fashion. "Did you just call me cowboy?"
Barrow raised his brow, and sneered, leaning over the pommel of his horse to stare Chris straight in the eye. "Would you prefer cowgirl, Miss Larabee? Or maybe swineherder is more your thing?"
"Oh, mister, that was really the wrong thing to say. I mean, you’ve sounded pretty dumb up until now, but that was just plain wrong," Vin chastised loudly from his perch on the roof of the jail, his golden assassin’s rifle pointed directly at Barrow’s head. As one the outlaws looked up, and Barrow frowned slightly.
"Indeed, the abuse of the English language never ceases to amaze me either, Mr. Tanner. And this churl appears to have a knack for some truly egregious solecisms," Ezra drawled around his cigar, standing up to show himself to be just behind the outlaws so that most had to turn in their seats to see him. He had both his Remington and Colt in hand, pointed directly at their backs.
"Now, now, Ezra, not everyone has had the benefit of a decent education," Nathan admonished, standing up on the balcony above the livery, his rifle trained on the men below. Some of the men’s nervousness began to be felt by their mounts, and a general feeling of skittishness became visible.
"However, brother Nathan, there is no excuse for stupidity," Josiah quipped from his perch behind and above the men.
"Something these boys seem to have in abundance," Buck agreed, striding up behind the gang from the left hand alley, rifle raised.
"Seriously, what were you guys thinking?" JD finished, grinning broadly from his position in the alley opposite Buck. His colts were pointed at the exposed flank of the gang.
During this time, Chris had sidled along the wall until he was in front of the open door to the Clarion office, and he leaned casually against the stout door frame. By this time, he had both of his guns in hand, his arms crossed over his chest.
"Now, see here Mr. Barrow. I don’t much like fools, and neither do my men, but, as you were kind enough to offer me a choice, I will offer you one. You can surrender now, or you can die. And," he lowered his voice to imitate the gang leader, "just so’s we is clear, I’d like to point out that the fancy dressed gambler behind you always has several aces up his sleeve. Unless you want to find out what they are, I’d suggest you take the first option."
Barrow turned round to look at Ezra, and the gambler flipped an eyebrow, the smirk on his face self-evident as he puffed away. When Barrow turned back, the gang leader’s sneer had degraded into a snarl.
"You and that popinjay don’t frighten me, Larabee."
"Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you," Chris grinned. At almost the same instant, Vin and Josiah threw the unconscious bodies of the two scouts who’d tried to sneak up on them off the roof to the ground below, landing heavily among the group, and even knocking a couple of outlaws off their horses.
And all hell broke loose.
Chris dived inside the Clarion, barely avoiding the bullet from Stan’s rifle. The other lawmen got themselves back behind their covers and started firing on the very exposed Barrow gang. It was almost too easy. Indeed, compared to the fight at the Seminole village, Ezra might have described it all as a "piece of cake."
Within minutes of the beginning of the melee, most of the gang were on the ground, hands over their heads, trying to avoid being stomped on by the terrified horses. The simple animals had freaked when Ezra threw one of his bombs into the group, throwing their riders and fleeing for all they were worth. Barrow and cousin Stan were both dead, as were a handful of others. Lyle sat next to his older brother’s body clutching a bleeding arm, and whimpering. In other words, it was both quickly and effectively over in less time than it took Vin to get through one of his coughing spells.
Buck, Josiah and Nathan shoved the remaining outlaws into the jail, stuffing five men into each small cell in order to fit them all. JD went to check the telegraph office with Ezra, to ensure that Marshal Churwell and his army men were on their way to take the men away to prison.
Vin was hacking up hairballs inside the jail, causing everyone to shy away from him. Chris had already shot him an angry look for having been on the roof instead of inside as he’d been instructed, and his excuse about the Barrow's gang's scout had been thoroughly ignored. Now he was sniffling away and sending Chris venomous looks.
The man in black leant back in the seat behind the desk, and watched discreetly as Ezra entered quietly and leant on the doorframe. He appeared to be waiting for something, and kept straightening his cuffs nervously beneath his jacket. Finally, JD pushed his way in past the gambler and sighed happily in the center of the room.
"Marshal Churwell from Fort Garland should be here pretty quick with a bunch of bluecoats. Turns out they weren't that far behind the gang–been chasing ‘em almost since we left them at the Fort last week. Might even be here by tomorrow evening." He smiled at the outlaws, who all did their best to look away. Buck came up and smacked him on the shoulder in a brotherly fashion.
Chris nodded sleepily, yawning again. "Good. Now go double check the town for any more of these manure haulers, and alert the townsfolk that it's over."
"Um…before you do that," Ezra stuttered from the door. All eyes turned to him, though he kept his own to the ground.
"I, uh, just wanted to say that, um, as you appear to have this matter well in hand, I see no reason to remain any longer. If I leave now, I should be able to get to the next town just before sundown, so…." He bit his bottom lip, and glanced up. Everyone, except Chris, who looked as if he expected this, and Josiah, who was favoring him with a rather odd, knowing smile, looked honestly surprised. With an abrupt nod, and an annoyed look at the preacher, Ezra dashed back out into the drizzle and disappeared.
For a couple of minutes, no one said anything, most too dumbfounded to react. Suddenly, Nathan threw one of the captured gangster’s gunbelts at the wall with tremendous anger, swearing violently at the same time, and stalked out of the jail.
"Lordy," Vin drawled quietly, his eyes wide at Nathan’s behavior. Looking around, he saw the others looked the same.
Buck glanced across at Chris. The gunslinger was rubbing his forehead and eyes with his hands. Sensing the scrutiny, he looked up to meet Buck’s frown.
"Can he just do that?" Buck asked, honestly surprised. "Leave…just like that?"
Chris gave him a weak smile, and shrugged.
Josiah looked up at the clock in the saloon, and considered the fact that Ezra had been gone almost five hours this time. The sun had just fallen beneath the horizon, and, if the gambler had indeed made it all the way to either Bitter Creek, Red Rock or Dry Ridge (he didn’t mention which direction he’d run off in), then he’d probably be setting down for a quick drink and a game right about now.
But Josiah, running on pure intuition, knew the gambler was nowhere near either of these towns. In fact, Josiah was keeping an eye on the outside….
Rain was pouring down heavily now, the skies having opened up an hour before, drenching the town. Vin was sleeping in Nathan’s clinic, reduced to taking one of the healer’s herbal concoctions (laced with alcohol, of course) for his cold. Nathan was also asleep, as was JD. Chris was on watch at the jail, and Buck was…off somewhere. With Allison McAdam. That left Josiah on his own to watch the dark, wet road.
Inez plunked another cup of coffee in front of him to replace the one he’d finished off, and he thanked her with a nod. She eyed him curiously as he stared out the window, wondering exactly what it was he was waiting for. Sweeping around the large room, her skirts brushing the floor, she found herself also taking quick peeks outside every time she passed a window. If he was waiting for what she thought he was waiting for, then she’d like to see him too….
The sounds of a stage rolling on, its wooden wheels sucking desperately at the muddy earth, had Josiah on his feet and to the door. Peering through the rain, he could just make out the dark outline of the coach in the fading twilight, crawling along at a funereal pace. He squinted and pulled his arms closer, trying to discern the hunched over figure at the helm hidden under a thick black tarp to keep the rain off.
Inez wandered out behind him, a shawl about her shoulders, her face pale. On the opposite side of the street, Chris stepped out of the jail to watch its approach as well.
It was the afternoon stage, but it was several hours late. Chris had considered sending some of his men out to meet it, but the rain, the excitement with the Barrow gang, and Ezra’s leaving had caused it to slip his mind.
The stage pulled up in front of the hotel, laden with packages above and pulling three horses behind. The driver, with the tarp still wrapped around him, jumped down lithely to get the door for the passengers. Chris and Josiah headed over, just as the hotel manager, the hotel's day clerk, Mr. Chambers, and one of the bellhops rushed out of the hotel with umbrellas and lanterns. The driver had just finished opening the door, and was helping a young, dark haired woman out of the cab when Chris tapped him on the shoulder.
"Trouble?" the gunslinger queried.
The driver turned to look at him, and gave a lopsided smile.
"Ezra?" Chris gasped.
"Well?" Chris asked, leaning forward in the plush chair. He, Josiah, and a sleepy-eyed JD, were all sitting in the hotel’s handsome parlour, ensconced in the large plush armchairs, watching Ezra. The gambler sat opposite them, next to the fire.
"The stage was already being held up when I came upon it, about halfway to Red Rock," Ezra said, shrugging slightly, his hands wrapped around a steaming mug of tea. The hotel manager had given him a blanket to wrap about him, and he snuggled his shoulders deeper into the fabric as a chill hit him. "It was being held up by an old man and what looked to be his son. Unfortunately, the driver himself also appeared to be part of the scam, and, together, the three men looked to be intent on murdering their victims. I intervened just as the driver raised his gun to shoot that young woman you saw me helping down from the carriage." He shook his head in disgust, and took a sip.
"Miss Thalia Miller," Mary said, joining them. She sat down next to Chris, and opened her small notebook to take notes. Ezra arched an eyebrow in her direction.
"What happened then?" she asked, pulling the pencil out from behind her ear.
"Is this going in the paper tomorrow, Mrs. Travis?"
"Of course," she replied.
"May I then expect some monetary recompense for my story?" He grinned, his gold tooth flashing in the light of the fire.
She rolled her eyes, and snapped the book closed. "I have more than enough quotes from the other passengers to fill my by-line, Mr. Standish. However, if you would like to ensure that you yourself are pictured in the most favorable light, may I suggest you be a little less fiscally minded?"
Ezra continued to grin as he shook his head, the water droplets still clinging to his thick brown hair dripping off onto the blanket.
Josiah laughed at Mary's frustrated grimace. "I’m afraid, Mary, that asking Ezra not to think about money is akin to asking a wolf not to howl at the full moon."
Sighing heavily, Mary shrugged and leaned back in her chair. But the book stayed close.
"Keep going Ezra," Chris ordered.
"Well, as I was saying before being so pleasantly interrupted," Ezra nodded at Mary, who raised her eyebrows in return, "I intervened just as that villain of a driver was about to shoot Miss…Miller." He stopped, the name Miller ringing in his head for a minute. Blinking it away as a coincidence, he plunged on. "Then, through a feat of impressive skill and a hell of a lot of luck, I managed to disarm all three. Unfortunately, I was not aware until too late that the driver had hidden a gun in the waistband of his trousers at his back. When he drew, I had no choice but to shoot him."
"Well that explains who the dead one was that we pulled out from under those two. I like the way you had them tied down to the luggage rack on top, by the way." JD nodded at Ezra, then switched his gaze to his leader. "Oh, and Chris? Buck had to stick ‘em in with the Barrow gang 'cause there wasn't enough room. He’s watching them all now, but those cells of ours look fit to bursting."
"Marshal will be here tomorrow, JD," Josiah shrugged.
"Yeah, I know. I just was thinking maybe we should post a double guard ‘til they come, just in case." The boy sheriff looked to Chris, and the black clad gunslinger mimicked Josiah’s shrug.
"If it’ll make you feel better, JD. You can go join Buck at the jail now if you want. Nathan and me’ll spell you in a few hours after the healer’s got some rest."
"And me?" Josiah asked.
"You need some sleep, preacher. You can have the early morning shift. I’ll guess I'll stay up with you."
Ezra coughed politely. "That won’t be necessary, Chris. You too need your rest. I’d be happy to sit guard duty with Mr. Sanchez, seeing as I am certainly not planning on heading back out tonight or while this storm is raging. So long as you’ll permit me to have a few hours of repose myself first." He tilted his head, waiting for a response.
Chris watched him a second, then shook his head, a slight smirk on his face. "You never cease to amaze me, Ezra."
"I live to please, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied easily, a dimpled smile on his own face.
"See you in about eight hours, then, Ezra," Josiah said, standing and stretching. Now that Ezra was back, the preacher suddenly felt incredibly tired. JD stood up as well, and offered a hand to Mary.
"Can I walk you home, Mrs. Travis?" the young sheriff asked. Mary nodded, and let him help her up. As a group, Josiah, Mary and JD wandered out the door, stopping only so that Mary could open her umbrella.
Ezra stayed seated in his comfortable armchair, leaning back and soaking up the warmth of the fire. He shut his eyes, and wrapped the blanket tighter around his frame. Chris looked at the fire, and, unbidden, the question he’d wanted to ask Ezra ever since that fight with Buck popped into his head.
"Ezra?" he asked quietly.
"How did you know that I had friends who might be able to shelter you mother in Antonito?"
Ezra’s eyes popped open, and a puzzled frown creased his brow at the non-sequitor. "What?"
"Antonito. How did you know I knew people there?"
Ezra glanced at him askance, then shut his eyes again as he stifled a yawn. "You told me. One night over a poker game in the saloon. You’d had a bit to drink, and were losing, and proceeded to tell me all about the night you once threw a cheating gambler out from the second story of a saloon in that fair town. Some friends hid you from the law. Needless to say, I let you win after that." He grinned wryly, but didn’t reopen his eyes.
Chris watched him in silence for a few minutes, absorbing this information slowly as the younger man’s breathing evened out. Guilt, embarrassment and self-recriminations bit at the gunslinger’s soul, until his own eyes shut under the weight of tiredness. He’d have to apologize to Buck in the morning. Damn man would probably make him take all his patrols for a week to make up for it. With this painful thought in mind, he slowly drifted off.
Both were sound asleep within minutes.
Mr. Chambers and the bellhop peeked into the room, and, a few silent communications later, the bellhop crept in to throw another blanket over the man in black.
The rain ceased around midnight, during Nathan and Chris’s shift. By the time Ezra and Josiah took over two hours later for the two to six shift, the stars were out for the first time in what felt like weeks. With the hotel blanket still wrapped about him (a "gift" said the manager), Ezra stood on the boardwalk and took in their beauty. There was only a sliver of a moon tonight, making it appear as if one could see all the way to the edge of the milky way. An almost childish thrill ran down the gambler’s spine when he happened to catch sight of a shooting star.
"You make a wish?" Josiah queried from the door.
Bringing his head down so that it was level with the preacher’s, Ezra gave him a sidelong glance. "Now why would I do that? You know I do not believe in such superstitions," he replied.
"So you say," Josiah shrugged. "I myself can’t help but feel that there is still some magic left in the universe." He sighed, and sucked in a deep breath of the crisp, cold air. Ezra lowered his head to hide his smile.
"I didn’t think preachers were allowed to give credence to such pagan notions."
"Magic? Ahh, you probably know better than I that there is more magic in the bible than miracles. But that is not why I like the idea of it. To me, magic is a means of explaining the way the world functions. Certainly makes more sense than anything else I’ve ever read – including the bible."
"Hmm," Ezra looked away, back up at the stars.
"In fact," Josiah continued, aware that he was about to press his luck, "you might even say I even prefer to believe in such ancient whims as kinship and destiny."
This time Ezra simply grunted. "Aren’t you supposed to be guarding the wolves we have incarcerated or something?"
"They’re all asleep."
The night quieted down, all except for the screaming of the coyote, and the wind as it tickled the loose wooden signs. Josiah was about to return inside when Ezra started speaking again, his voice lyrical above the steady hum of the world.
"What are you stepping westward?" – "yea"
-- ‘Twould be a wildish destiny,
If we, who thus together roam
In a strange Land, and far from home,
Were in this place the guests of Chance:
Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?
The dewy ground was dark and cold;
Behind, all gloomy to behold;
And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of Heavenly destiny:
I liked the greeting; ‘twas a sound
Of something without place or bound;
And seemed to give me spiritual right
To travel through the region bright.
The voice was soft, and she who spake
Was walking by her native lake:
The salutation had to me
The very sound of courtesy:
Its power was felt; and while my eye
Was fixed upon the glowing Sky,
The echo of the voice enwrought
A human sweetness with the thought
Of travelling through the world that lay
Before me in my endless way."
He stopped, licking his lips and breathing in the clear air like a drink of ice water. He glanced at Josiah, who was simply standing there, watching him expectantly.
"Wordsworth, again," Ezra explained. "I read that poem a few years ago – read it so often that I can’t seem to let it go. It is why he is my favorite poet, and why I find myself so hard pressed to contradict you when you wax mystical on me. That poem was one of the reasons why I came out here, to step westward in my endless way…." He shrugged. "I may not believe in destiny, or wishing, or even luck, Josiah, but I do like the feelings they evoke. Reading a beautiful poem, or looking upon a radiant starlit sky on such a night as this--it makes one whimsical about a great deal of things." He looked upwards once more, then shut his clear green eyes. "Yet who would stop, or fear to advance, with such a sky to lead them on…. Tell me, Josiah, are you ready to stop?"
Josiah bowed his head, unable to think of what to say in reply.
"Perhaps you are right, Josiah. Perhaps destiny did bring us together, but it is free will which will decide our fate from now on." Ezra watched as Josiah frowned, the preacher, for once, at a loss for words. Eventually, Ezra sighed.
"Go inside, my friend," he whispered, his mind on the stars in the distance. "I’ll be in momentarily."
Josiah nodded, and walked back inside. Once out of view of the younger man, he fell heavily into the desk chair and covered his head with his hands.
Ezra was gone early the next morning, as soon as the sun came up. Only Buck, JD and Josiah were witness to his departure. When the young sheriff looked at the preacher’s face, though, it did not hold the same conviction of certainty that it had the first two times Ezra left. When Buck moved into the darkened interior of the jail to take charge of the prisoners, JD stopped to whisper Josiah a question.
"What’s wrong?" the young sheriff pestered anxiously.
"Nothing, JD. Just figured something out last night."
Josiah snorted, and shrugged. "Sometimes….sometimes I forget that there is a force more powerful than destiny or friendship or love, more powerful than religion or truth. The simple--and irritatingly irrational--existence of free will." With that enigmatic statement, he wandered home to the church to get some extra sleep. Behind him, JD’s face fell.
"What did he say?" Buck asked from where he leant on the doorframe. "You look as if someone just ran over your dog with a stagecoach."
JD shook his head, and placed a hand over his heart. Buck’s eyes narrowed slightly, then the tall man faded back inside.
Vin sniffed, then coughed into the handkerchief for the third time in the last fifteen minutes. Nathan frowned, and leant forward to put a hand on his forehead. They were in the jail, the tracker having insisted he was well enough for guard duty when he woke up this morning. Chris finally acquiesced when Nathan volunteered to sit with him. The black clad gunslinger himself was sitting out front, eating some breakfast that he got from the hotel.
Nathan leaned against the desk, and crossed his arms where he stood over the tracker. "How do you feel?"
"Like my throat is made of sandpaper," Vin spat angrily. His nose was bright red, but the flush in his cheeks from yesterday had faded. He also looked less pale, which is why Nathan hadn’t thought to disagree when Vin insisted on doing his duty.
"You been coughing a lot?"
"Yeah. I hate this, Nathan. I really, really hate this."
"Yeah, well, colds are not something that people know much about. Basic wisdom just says rest, liquids and sleeping potions. How’s yer nose?"
Vin tilted his head to one side, and sniffed again. When he looked at Nathan again, his face seemed a bit less dark. "Actually, that feels better….Its not so stuffed. And my ears aren’t hurting as much."
Nathan nodded, a small smile forming on his lips. "Then you’re probably over the worst. I know I always get the cough last."
"Really?" Vin immediately perked up, sitting up straighter in the creaking wooden chair. "So how long does that mean I’ll be coughing?"
"Oh, that?" Nathan chuckled, standing up and heading towards the door to check up on Chris. "Coughs usually linger for weeks."
Behind him, Vin blinked at the offhand remark, then stuck his tongue out at the retreating healer like a petulant child. As Nathan opened the door, he caught the mumbled grumbling from behind him about how annoying healthy people can be, and smiled.
As he pushed through the heavy oak doors, Nathan took in a deep breath. The air definitely smelt sweeter than it had in weeks, more like the spring it should have been. The sky above was no longer a uniform gray, but a mixture of shades. The cloud cover was still thick, but white dewy clouds were as common as the heavier charcoal ones. And the sun streamed through in places, sending sporadic rays of sunlight to light up pieces of town. Best of all, it wasn’t drizzling, raining, or misting. It was simply clean.
Chris was leaning back on the bench in front of the jail, feet outstretched before him, an empty plate precariously balanced on his thighs. Nathan plopped himself down next to him, and mimicked the laid back position.
"How’s Vin?" Chris asked lightly.
"Dreadful. He whines worse than a cat stuck up a tree," Nathan replied. "How are you?"
The curt answer would have stilled anyone else, but Nathan’s natural need to help would not be fazed so easily. "Really? Even though what’s-his-face took off again this morning?"
"I don’t care about that," came the gruff reply.
"No, of course not," Nathan replied smartly. Chris ignored the tone. Neither man spoke for a few minutes, and the healer shut his eyes as the sun brightened the air about them for a brief instant. It passed quickly, and the gray returned. When he reopened his dark brown eyes, it was to see Chris balling his hands into fists above the plate, looking as if he would pick it up and throw it at the slightest provocation.
"You thinking that maybe Ez had the right idea?" Nathan suggested quietly.
Chris gave him a sideways look, but didn’t respond right away. Across the way, Buck pushed his way out the saloon, his arm around Allison McAdam’s shoulders. The tall gunslinger led her down the boardwalk, until she stopped to lean against the wooden slats of the structure. Buck leaned in close, one arm blocking her from moving anywhere. She giggled and blushed as he continued to whisper in her ear.
"I’m thinking that maybe we're getting too attached," the gunslinger stated. "People start to learn things about you, like your past, that you don’t necessarily want them to. Means that, to them, you aren’t just another drifter anymore. You’re someone they think they know, and maybe expect to see around."
"And that’s a bad thing?" Nathan asked.
Allison laughed out loud, and smacked Buck on the arm. He staggered back as if struck by a far more forceful blow, and melodramatically placed his hands over his heart. The two men in front of the jail could just make out Allison’s "oh, Buck!" as she reached forward to pull him back in. She hugged him, and Buck kissed the top of her blond curly head. Then they moved further down the boardwalk.
Chris watched his oldest friend do what he did best, and wondered at the fact that Buck seemed to be spending more time with Allison than with any of the other working girls here, or anywhere else he’d been.
"Getting attached…out here?" he said, answering Nathan’s question finally. "Yeah. It can be." He relaxed his fists, and pulled his feet in so that he could sit straighter. From inside, light coughing and a string of curses could be heard.
Chris lifted the plate off his lap and stood up to take it back to the hotel. "It’s no good getting attached when everybody just leaves, Nathan. And everybody leaves. Or dies. That’s part of what this place is all about. Take Buck and JD. Buck’s a drifter. He’ll eventually tire of this place and move on, and think what that’ll do to the kid? Or what if one of them gets themselves killed? It’d destroy the other one." He shook his head, tapping the plate against his thigh. More coughing punctuated the quiet, and Chris’s eyes looked involuntarily towards the structure behind him, the cold steel softening briefly.
"Or Vin…" Nathan suggested, watching the increasingly agitated movement of the plate. "You worried about what losing him might do to you?"
"Or Josiah, or you, or…." Chris stopped, and stared at the saloon as if he expected to see the gambler walk out and tip his hat at them. "But then Ezra’s already gone."
With a sigh, the gunslinger looked into the distance, and imagined he saw a small dust cloud on the horizon in the direction that Buck had told him Ezra had taken off in.
"That’s ‘cause Ezra’s a coward, Chris," Nathan said coldly. "I thought you were stronger than that."
Chris looked at him sharply, immediately catching the healer’s meaning. Nathan was watching him carefully. The man in black frowned, and chose to look back into the distance. All of a sudden, he straightened, noting that the dust cloud had gotten larger. Meanwhile, Nathan had returned his gaze to his feet, and continued on more sorrowfully.
"Josiah seemed certain he’d be back, but when I went to see the preacher this morning, he looked like someone had just wrenched the heart out from under him. That damn gambler, thinking about no one but himself all the damn time…." The healer shook his head and sighed. When he looked up at Chris, he realized that something else had caught the other man’s attention.
Chris was indeed not listening, trying to discern what the cloud was about. Nathan stood to see what it was Chris was peering at, and clicked his tongue.
"I’ll go get Vin’s spyglass," the healer said, heading back into the jail. Putting the plate on the bench, Chris sauntered into the street to whistle for Buck. The tall gunslinger looked up, hearing the tuneless call, and quickly said a few good byes to Miss Allison. With a peck to his lips, she wished him luck and then watched as Buck jogged over to talk with Chris. For a brief moment, she felt oddly jealous.
Nathan came back out, and raised the spyglass to his eye. After a moment, he put it down and looked at Chris and Buck--then nodded.
"Cavalry. It’s the Marshal."
All six lawmen were assembled in various strategic positions around the main street when the Marshal rode in. He had about fifteen men with him, all cavalry men from Fort Garland, ready to escort the prisoners there for trial. But he also had one prisoner with him already, which was why the peacekeepers of Four Corners were all present, and why the streets were otherwise empty of folk. The hostility of the welcome was not lost on the somewhat disconcerted U.S. lawman.
"Well, Josiah," JD whispered, impressed by the furious countenance of the preacher. "I think I get it now. I guess he didn’t come back of his own free will, did he?"
Josiah simply growled in response and looked up at Ezra, noting angrily how the young man’s hands were shackled behind his back, his normally clear face red from both the bruise to his cheek and his embarrassment at his situation. He was sitting astride Chaucer, buried near the center of the large group, his bright red coat making him somewhat distinctive among the dusty navy blue of his captors. Chaucer danced about in irritation at being ponied behind a rather large slate gray charger; the only thing preventing him from rearing was the awareness of his rider on his back.
"Mr. Larabee," the Marshal greeted, looking to the man in black. He smiled in an attempt to defuse the tension he felt. "It is so good to finally meet you sir. My name is Marshal Malcolm Churwell, and I have heard a great deal about you from my superiors."
Chris walked right up to the man on horseback, his jaw clenched so tightly Nathan was afraid it would lock.
"Why have you got that man in chains?" Chris hissed, not breaking eye contact with the blond whiskered Marshal.
Churwell smiled, still not understanding the reason behind the hostility, but willing to ignore it.
"Oh this?" He waved in Ezra’s direction, where the gambler was trussed about five men back, smiling at the younger man’s sullen expression. "This vagabond is nothing more than a thief and a knave. I recognized him from my days as the Captain in charge of Fort Laramie in the Wyoming territories. His name is Standish, alias Simpson, and weren't we lucky to run across him on our way here. He jumped bail from Fort Laramie almost three years ago, the result of which was my discharge from that post. I have recently returned to the profession of upholding the law as a United States Marshal, and find it my distinct pleasure to be the one to haul his flashy, overdressed ass back to prison where it belongs." He sneered at Ezra, but, as he once more looked down at Chris, the smile fell completely away.
Livid was the only term to describe the expression on Chris’s normally stoic countenance. The man’s face appeared to have paled to the point that he looked almost demonic, his eyes were almost black as his pupils dilated, and every vein in his neck and brow looked fit to burst. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and strained.
"That man’s name is Ezra Standish. He is one of the lawmen of this town, placed here by Circuit Judge Orin Travis himself well over a year and a half ago. At that time, he was pardoned of his previous crimes, including the bail jumping at Laramie. Since then, he has done nothing but risk his life time and time again for the citizens of this town and territory. He has more than earned the right to traverse this land without certified idiots like you--who wouldn’t know a criminal from crabgrass–waylaying him at every turn in an attempt to make a name for yourselves. If you had truly done your homework concerning the law of this area, Marshal Churwell, or had bothered to ask Mr. Standish about these facts instead of simply beating him up, you would have known this. Now, release him, or I guarantee you sir, your reputation after this incident will be the last thing on your mind."
The sudden quiet as he finished affected everyone in hearing, and a somewhat bemused -- though impressed -- air settled on the town’s peacekeepers. Even Chris seemed a little surprised at the sheer number of words that had just dripped icily from his lips. It was rare indeed that Chris Larabee spoke more than a sentence at a time, and here he’d practically given a speech.
It was enough to betray just how much the black-clad gunslinger had changed since moving to this place. He had tried hard to remain stand-offish from the others in the beginning--refusing to support JD after the boy had accidentally shot Annie, or Josiah when the Pinkerton detective had accused him of being a murderer, and even Vin had gotten a cold shoulder after the whole Charlotte fiasco. Now, though barely a year had passed since that miserable wagon train blew through, he found he did not want stand down any longer. Without thinking, he had stepped forward, defending, even forcefully protecting, the most unreliable, irritating, arrogant, obnoxious member of his unit--the same man who had run out on him just this morning. The last man in the world whom he ever thought he would become friends with.
And it felt good.
Chris allowed a small smile to grace his face, and suddenly, the old, cold Chris Larabee was back in control.
"Well?" he said finally.
Marshal Churwell swallowed, and tried desperately not to show his fear. Reminding himself that he had fifteen uniformed men at his back, he straightened in his saddle and asked, his voice cracking slightly, "You have proof of your claim?"
"He does." Mary’s clear voice cut through the still air, and Churwell frowned at the blond woman who stood in the door of the Clarion newspaper office. She shut the door and strode purposefully up to the Marshal, a rifle tucked under one arm. "I am Mary Travis, Marshal, and I will vouch for Mr. Standish."
Churwell snorted, and disdain distorted his otherwise plain features. "And why should I give one whit what a woman thinks, little miss?"
Mary couldn’t avoid a slightly startled expression, and she looked at the man standing to her right. "Chris, did he just call me ‘little miss?’"
Chris nodded, "Yup."
She leaned back and put a hand to her chin, tapping it with her fingers. "I wonder how to best describe him in the headline….Which do you like better? Pompous oaf or contemptuous fat-head?"
"Oooh, the second one," JD called from over by the saloon.
Churwell’s sneer decreased into a frown, and his brow furrowed. "Headline?" he asked, confused.
"My name is Mary Travis, Marshal," she repeated, stressing her last name. When his face showed no recognition, she shook her head, "Travis…as in Judge Travis? I am his daughter-in-law, a fact which any half-way competent Marshal working in this territory is aware. I am also the editor of the Clarion newspaper, which has quite a large circulation, including your Fort Garland. Captain Daniel Rhenford, the commander of that Fort you are working out of, has not only written to my paper, but happens to be a friend of mine. As one of the Marshal’s working within his purview, I would have expected you to have been informed of this, as well as of my newspaper. Either you are the laziest Marshal ever to be granted a badge, or the stupidest. At this point I am not sure which, but I am sure it will come to me soon."
Churwell’s frown deepened, until the blond whiskers hiding his mouth seemed to almost press in on themselves. He looked to Chris, back to Mary, then back to Chris. Finally, he lowered his head to his chest and sighed.
"Unlock those shackles," Chris ordered.
"Um, that’s…okay. I got it," Ezra interrupted sheepishly. He lifted his hands and unloosed the shackles, obviously already unlocked, and handed them over to one of the bluecoats who’d been guarding him. The man stared at them a minute, obviously confused, then grabbed them roughly from out the gambler’s hand. The soldier on the slate gray charger also loosed his hold on Chaucer’s reins. Ezra leaned forward to grab them, his movements a little slow from the beating he had endured.
Meanwhile, Chris had backed away from the Marshal, and Churwell recognized this is a subtle order to dismount. Waving to the others under his command to follow his example, he got down and faced the gunslinger. He was probably several inches shorter than Larabee, perhaps only 5’6" in stature. Even JD appeared tall next to him. It didn’t help that the Marshal man was also slouching. He tried to appear aloof in front of the gunslinger, but the attempt merely made him look constipated as he looked up at Chris. The man in black, however, was looking at Ezra, the gambler gamely trying to guide Chaucer out of the pack of now riderless horses.
"Ezra, come here."
The gambler stopped, and frowned. Chaucer pawed impatiently at the ground, seeing freedom only feet away. Inwardly, Ezra quickly pondered his options. If he rode out now, then Churwell might think that Chris and Mary had lied, putting them in danger, as well as himself if the Marshal succeeded in getting out from the town and after him. Then there was also Chris’s own wrath to contend with. If he left now, embarrassing Chris in front of everyone, then he would never be able to come back.
But…then there was his pride to consider. He didn’t want any more humiliation. And there was the fact that his ribs were sore – getting down off Chaucer would not be easy. And then there was his freedom. What if he got off and Chris wouldn’t let him go?
He looked down and saw that Josiah had come forward to take Chaucer’s reins. For once, the chestnut stallion didn’t fight. In fact, Chaucer seemed unusually docile. Ezra looked at Josiah, and the preacher responded by repeating the hand signal he had just used on the horse, the one he’d seen Ezra use on Chaucer a hundred times before to quiet the normally irascible beast. Ezra grimaced, knowing that Chaucer would not move again until the opposite hand motion was given.
Scowling, Ezra dismounted slowly and whispered into the horse’s ear as he stumbled to the ground, "Et tu, Brute?"
"Now, Ezra," Chris barked impatiently.
Ezra flinched, but found himself doing as he was told. With as much dignity as he could muster, the gambler moved to join Larabee, feeling a bit like a French aristocrat on his way to the guillotine. He kept his hat low on his head to hide as much of his face as possible.
When he was a foot from the man in black, he stopped. He was about to ask the purpose behind the summons when Chris’s hand shot up to grasp him fiercely by the jaw. The gunslinger tilted the shocked gambler’s face up so that he could clearly see the bruising, as if he were a horse trainer checking a horse’s teeth for its health and age. Recovering quickly, Ezra swatted the hand away and stepped back, his green eyes flashing in embarrassment and anger. But Chris had already turned away to look at Churwell.
"Who hit him?" Chris demanded coldly. Churwell’s face reddened beneath the sunburned visage, and he looked back at his men. The soldiers all looked at the ground. Churwell turned back and straightened his shoulders somewhat.
"I take full responsibility," the Marshal stated.
"Probably means he started it," Buck whispered to Nathan, who stood on his right. The healer didn’t respond, his jaw still tense. His dark brown eyes were watching Ezra. The gambler had once more turned his face to the ground, and looked as if he would sprint away if he could.
"Well then," Chris nodded, "you have committed assault and battery on a member of the law of this territory. That is a punishable offense by…." He snapped his fingers at JD. The young Sheriff answered immediately.
"By both fine and imprisonment. As much as five years in prison," JD smiled.
"It probably also means the loss of your badge, Mister Churwell," Chris finished, stressing the lesser title. The Marshal simply looked away, pursing his lips in annoyance.
"Ezra?" Chris asked, not looking away from the Marshal. "You want to press charges?"
"What?" the gambler was barely listening. He seemed to be focusing on something in the distance. Truth be told, he was staring longingly at the stirrup hanging off of Chaucer’s saddle.
Chris changed his gaze to look at the gambler squarely. "Are you going to press charges?"
The head came up and the green eyes were widened slightly, then the face became hidden once more. "Charges? No."
Ezra allowed himself a small laugh. "I believe you already have a full jail, Chris. Burdening it even further would not be the most prudent of ideas. Besides which, I believe that the Marshal, while perhaps a little overzealous in his apprehension of me, was not necessarily acting wholly without cause. Merely a regrettable misunderstanding, which I am certain he will not quickly repeat."
Chris watched him for a minute, then shrugged. "If that’s what you want, Ezra. In that case, you may resume the errand I sent you on. Go…before anyone else tries to stop you." He said the last sentence with a slightly softer air, and Ezra looked up one last time. The gratitude in his eyes was clear, and he turned away to rejoin Josiah with Chaucer.
Chris turned to the Marshal and nodded. "The men you want are in the jail. I want them gone within the hour."
Churwell nodded in return. "Of course. I will also be needing to purchase a wagon to transport the prisoners. If you could have someone instruct some of my men where to get one, that would be very helpful." He paused, and licked his lips below the heavy whickers, "and may I apologize for…."
"Fine, fine." Chris cut the Marshal off and motioned Buck, JD and Vin forward to join them, which they did without expression. "Buck and JD will take you inside. Vin here will find you a wagon."
After that it was all business between them, for which Churwell was grateful. Mary stepped aside to let them pass, then headed back to her office without another look. Chris moved to join Nathan, who had taken up residence off to one side. The Marshal and several of his men entered the jail with Buck and JD, while the rest followed Vin down the street.
Nathan was watching Ezra and Josiah, who seemed to be arguing about something heatedly, though their voices could not be heard. Twice Ezra had reached for Chaucer’s reins only to have his hand swatted away by the preacher. Nathan shook his head and looked at Chris. The gunslinger looked a lot calmer, the veins in his head and neck no longer throbbing.
Sensing the scrutiny, Chris looked over at the healer and smiled. "I am not a coward, Nathan," he stated firmly.
Nathan nodded, returning the smile, then turned his gaze back to the two men in the street. Chris joined him.
Josiah had Ezra’s right arm firmly held in an iron grip, the gambler trying desperately to pull away or otherwise make the preacher let him go. Dragging the younger man away from Chaucer, Josiah stopped only to slap the chestnut stallion on the rump, sending the pleased animal back to the stable for some much needed rest. All three men heard Ezra’s peeved "Josiah!" as the preacher continued to drag the gambler down the street and towards the church.
At some point, Ezra must have given in, because Josiah let him go. Ezra strode ahead of the older man and entered the church first, his anger obvious in every step. Josiah followed him up the steps a couple of seconds later, barely avoiding the doors as Ezra slammed them in his face. He glanced back once at Nathan and Chris, offered them a determined nod, then opened the doors and disappeared inside after his quarry.
"Whaddya think?" Nathan leaned over to Chris.
"Wait and see," Chris replied, unconsciously repeating Vin’s words from the time Ezra had first mentioned leaving. He then turned to go help the men in the jail. Nathan watched him leave, then moved to lean against a post.
"I hate waiting," he muttered to the air.
Josiah shut the doors behind him softly, and padded quietly up the center aisle of the small church to the front. He noticed that Ezra had already settled himself in the front pew, his posture hunched, as if he were praying. As Josiah passed him, however, he realized that the gambler was merely leaning forward, his arms resting on his knees, twisting the brim of his hat between his fingers. He did not look up as Josiah passed, though the tension in his facial muscles betrayed his still seething anger.
The preacher sighed as he reached the dais, moving heavily up the few steps to the platform as if he were a much older man. He looked about the small space -- at the crude, but functional wooden alter, at the candelabras to either side, and at the high wooden lectern in the center front. With measured steps he moved to the lectern and leaned against it, the dark wood creaking in familiar response.
Neither man spoke for a moment -- Ezra because he was still angry, and Josiah because he was waiting for Ezra to calm down a little. Finally, the younger man raised his head, his expression appearing slightly calmer but no less irritated at having been forced here. Deciding no time like the present, Josiah licked his lips and cleared his throat.
"Josiah!" Ezra exploded, sitting up in his seat, his green eyes flashing anew.
The preacher flinched immediately, knowing full well what had caused the retort. For some reason, this knowledge only served to make him angry as well.
"I realize you are not my son, MISTER Standish," he said, as sharply as he could muster. "I am not an idiot. It is merely a term often used by those in my former profession. I unfortunately have not been able to break the habit."
"Really," Ezra spat, "I find it odd, then, that you only seem to use it when speaking either to Mr. Dunne or myself. While I understand Mr. Dunne– his obvious youth almost screams for such an appellation–I fail to understand why you seem so willing to burden me with it."
Josiah frowned angrily, taking the opening without even thinking, "Burden you with it? Damn it, Ezra, I have never known any other grown man who so reminds me of a selfish, spoiled child as you do when someone tries to talk seriously to you. Its just a term of art! There is no meaning behind it. Honestly, I wonder how you ever made it out from behind your mother’s skirts – if you ever did."
Ezra stood, his face turning redder by the moment. "How dare you! Who do you think you are?" he snarled, shaking his head in disbelief. "You deign to upbraid me? At the very least I know who I am. I may indeed be a scoundrel, a cheat and a knave, even a spoiled child at times, but I do not hide this fact. Who are you, Josiah? Do you know? Are you a preacher? A devil? Or maybe you’re just a fool, looking to save souls when you can’t even save your own. No sir, I will not be told off by you. If that is all you have to say to me, then good day." He spun on his heel, aiming to head out the door.
"SIT DOWN!" Josiah boomed. Ezra stopped halfway down the aisle and turned back to look at him, expecting fury. Instead, the preacher was down off the dais, standing in front of the lectern, his face a mass of confused emotions.
"Please," the preacher added, his voice plaintive.
Ezra frowned, disconcerted by this sudden change.
"Why should I?"
Josiah drew a hand across his face, pulling it down over his formidable jaw, trying to calm himself. When he looked up, he merely looked sad.
"Because I am asking you to."
"As what? My preacher? My father? You do not...."
"No, Ezra, as a friend. As your friend. Please."
Ezra grimaced and stared at Josiah, trying to read his face. After a few moments, he looked down at the floor, then over at the doors leading outside, and finally back at Josiah. Shrugging, he turned and went back to his seat. Once more, he leaned forward on his knees, and returned to playing with his hat.
Josiah watched him sit back down, and suppressed a sigh. Slowly, he let himself slip down so that he was sitting on the dais steps. When he spoke again this time, he was more careful choosing his words.
"Ezra, I just need to understand one thing. Why are you leaving? I mean really?"
The gambler frowned.
"I already explained this…" the younger man tried, but Josiah waved him off.
"Oh, yes. JD told me about the whole saloon and money excuse. You told him something along the lines that, being a gambler, you have to go where the money is. And there is nothing left to keep you here, correct?"
Ezra simply shrugged.
"Well, as both Nathan and JD quickly surmised, that is, pardon the language, a honking load of horseshit. Tell me, if money was the reason you stayed in Four Corners after your pardon was over, why the hell are you leaving now? As Mary constantly reminds us, this town is growing, with more money and more businesses flowing in every month. At the same time, if buying back the saloon here is no longer a good venture, why the hell did you want to purchase it in the first place? Why not go to Santa Fe, or Phoenix, or San Francisco to find your saloon? You had the money….No answer? Well I think I know why, but before I say it, let’s talk about that other excuse of yours."
"Other excuse?" Ezra asked.
"The one you told Chris after the Miller’s wagon went under." He paused, and nodded at the gambler’s suddenly sullen expression. "Oh yes, Chris told me about that. Just answer me this, Ezra, if you weren’t a lawman, what exactly would you have done differently?"
Ezra didn’t respond, his lips shut tightly in a thin line.
"Would you have ignored it? Ridden on and pretended that you didn’t see it?"
"Possibly," Ezra allowed quietly.
"Right. Just like the way you ignored the men holding up the afternoon stage."
"That was different."
Ezra hesitated, unsure of how to respond. When he did speak, it was vaguely. "Well, for one thing, those people on the stage were in immediate danger, while the wagon wasn’t going anywhere…." The words sounded hollow, even to the gambler. He put a hand to his face and wiped it across his eyes, stopping to rub the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
"You would have done the exact same thing with the wagon, Ezra. It is part of who you are now. Perhaps two years ago you might have ridden on. But you can’t anymore."
"So?" Ezra suddenly spat, "What does that have to do with anything?" He tried to find his earlier anger, but found it had waned under the soft voice of his friend.
"Just trying to understand, Ezra."
"Well, then, perhaps it is because I am exactly what Nathan says I am. A coward. I don’t want to stay because I’m afraid of getting too attached to having you all around."
"I’m guessing that’s got a ring of truth to it." Josiah nodded, looking at his feet. "Course, maybe its also because you’re afraid of becoming stuck here."
Ezra’s jaw tensed, then he nodded. "That too."
Josiah looked up, his normally hidden blue eyes appearing bright in the odd light. Ezra’s frown faded, and he sighed.
"So, does that answer the question to your satisfaction, Mr. Sanchez?"
Josiah never took his eyes off of Ezra’s, until the younger man finally had to look away.
"Oh, for Christ’s sake," the gambler snapped. "Why the hell not?"
"Because I don’t think you believe it either. I think perhaps that, in the beginning, the drowned wagon…the depression it created…it did frighten you enough to want to run away. But neither that, nor the money, nor being a coward was why you left the second time, or the third. Or why you want to leave now," the older man replied.
"I’m sorry?" The gambler was honestly puzzled.
"You rode back to warn us about the Barrow gang, then you took part in taking them down. I saw the look on your face, son. You enjoyed yourself. And when you helped out with the stagecoach, you must have realized that being a lawman had become somewhat ingrained into your habits. Fact is, you like it here, you like who you’ve become, and I know you like being around your friends. Us. Me." He grinned slightly as Ezra raised an eyebrow. Then Josiah’s face became solemn once more.
"I don’t think you are leaving because you’re afraid of becoming too attached to us, Ezra. You’re not Chris. You want to form attachments. You want a home. Hence the saloon. And the reason you stayed after you got your pardon. And the reason you didn’t break out of jail when the Judge first put you there, though we all know now how easily you can pick a lock….So, once more, I ask you, why are you leaving?"
Ezra didn’t answer, instead he simply crossed his arms. "I have a feeling you’ll tell me."
Josiah nodded, moving over to sit next to Ezra on the pew. Glancing askance at the gambler, he noted that the younger man’s poker face was in place, as Ezra waited for the gem of wisdom to reveal itself from out of the preacher’s lips. Settling himself down on the hard bench, he watched as Ezra continued to play with his hat brim, the only outward sign of his nervousness.
"You are leaving, Ezra…because you can, and you need people to know and understand that."
Ezra’s eyebrows shot up, and he turned so he could better see Josiah’s face where he sat next to him. "What?"
"Everything you choose is done very deliberately, Ezra, for, as you once told Chris, ‘you abhor gambling, and as such leave nothing to chance.’" When Ezra didn’t respond, Josiah smiled, getting in to the swing of his thoughts.
"You hate it when other people choose for you, Ezra. Or assume things about you or the way you should be. You refuse to be taken for granted, or to bow down before predictability, because, as our leader implied to Clement Barrow in that fight, you are a gambler – the surprise element no one can pin down, always having an ace up his sleeve." Josiah stopped as Ezra snorted at the description, not sure whether the gambler was mocking his theory or agreeing with it by that noise.
"But, most of all, you hate the idea that luck or destiny or some unknown higher power might be guiding your path. The love of free will, above all, is what defines you." Josiah leant back, and looked up at the already cracking ceiling.
"Tell me, son….did that Marshal find you, or did you find him? A single man on horseback, especially one who knows the area well, could have easily avoided the army…especially one who knew the name of the Marshal leading it and the fact that he’d be gunning for you."
"Are you saying I wanted to be beat up?"
"No, of course not. But it brought you back, which is something you wanted. Gave you another opportunity to find your way back. And I think that, if you left this time, you would probably return again. Maybe not immediately--but you’d find some reason. ‘Course, then again, now that I’ve said all this, maybe you won’t." He frowned, wondering if he’d just blown it. He glanced at Ezra, to weigh the other man’s expression. Ezra just watched him blankly.
"Regardless," the preacher finished, "based on the last thing that Chris said to you, I think you can safely assume that you have made your point. Whether you stay or not, it is your choice, and yours alone. We all know that now."
Ezra sat stunned for a moment, then a chuckle escaped his lips. "You really are much too clever Josiah. It’s annoying."
The preacher nodded, accepting the compliment. He stood up then, and brushed down his poncho. With a nod to Ezra, he crossed in front of him and headed off towards the front doors.
"Well, Ezra Standish, I am not going to make the choice for you this time, or assume anything about you from now on. So whether you stay or not….I’ll be in the saloon, getting myself a stiff drink. Or rather, several stiff drinks." Without a look back, the preacher opened the doors, letting in the cool air, and left Ezra alone.
Leaning back in his pew, Ezra pursed his lips and shook his head. "Too clever by half…" he muttered.
He patted his chest, feeling the outline of the book Josiah had given him tucked inside his waistcoat. An ugly purple bruise was probably forming around the edges, but it had prevented the destruction of any of his ribs. His smile faded as he thought about that.
Whether Josiah knew it or not, he had in fact said something that Ezra had been unwilling to admit to before. Oh, the preacher was completely accurate about why Ezra left--but that wasn’t what was new. He valued his sense of freedom highly, and didn’t like the idea of anyone thinking they could lay a claim to him, or to what he was, as Vin had done after the fight. No, it was the accuracy with which Josiah had explained why the gambler had stayed in the first place that had surprised him. The preacher had indeed laid it out for him, almost as an afterthought, and yet it was what had struck him the most. He was right. Ezra liked it here. He liked having friends. He liked having a home. He even liked being a peacekeeper. Sort of.
The choice was, in the end, really very easy to make. But it was his choice. The selfish, cowardly choice of a knave who knew it would be highly unwise to give up such a "profitable" investment.
Slowly but deliberately, he got up and walked out of the church.
Outside, the sun shone done out of an almost cloudless sky. A spring breeze tickled at the town, and everyone basked in the knowledge that the miserable winter was finally over.
Josiah sat sullenly in the saloon, avoiding the worried stare of Inez. None of the others were around, and she hated it when the preacher drank alone. It usually led to a bad end. His fingers drummed the tabletop nervously, clearly waiting and hoping for something to happen.
The sound of the doors swishing open on the well oiled hinges brought her head up from the glasses she was drying, and a hint of a smile lit upon her face. Ezra nodded to her, then walked over to where the preacher sat. He pulled out a chair and sat opposite his friend, a wry smile on his face.
"I’m looking for a handful of prudent investors for this new venture I’m working on, and, if I remember rightly, didn’t you once say something about money being like manure…?"
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