Title: Silver Linings
Disclaimer: Donít own them, never will, and won't be making any money off of them. Thanks to John Watson for creating them, to MGM for bringing them to life (even if only for a short time) and to TNN for bringing them back to us.
Notes: I tend to write these in a sort of haphazard order, then try to make them chronologically coherent. Then, I change my mind. But after this, they follow an even keel, I promise. For those who may be noticing the way I've been playing with months and seasons, the order should probably be something like this: When Rivers Rise (spring -- April), The Quiet Week (early summer -- May), Truth, Trust and Other Fictions (high summer -- July), Adverse Possession (October), Three of a Kind (October), Lady Marshal (early November), and now this one, which takes place in December. Thanks. This one is pretty serious; I think I was feeling a little sad when I wrote it.
Description: Ezra's past rears its ugly head.
It was a day like any other, a little quieter than most, but otherwise fairly average. The time was early December, and the brief rainstorms that had peppered the canyons around Four Corners seemed to have no effect on the dusty plains town. A cold breeze twisted the tall grasses in the fields around the growing hamlet, blowing them in lazy circular patterns, and the thin ash trees huddling together for warmth swayed like drunken fools at a rodeo. Pulling his brown wool coat in tighter to his body, Ezra clicked his tongue at Chaucer, letting the horse have its head as he rode patrol along the northern territories.
The patrol was mind numbing for the gambler, whose attempts at reading in the saddle had failed because of the persistent wind. His thoughts, usually good company for the solitary man, refused to follow any coherent threads, and, though he hated to admit ever being in such a state, Ezra was bored. He pushed his black hat up off his forehead, and wiped a handkerchief across his dust covered face, knowing all the time what a useless endeavor it was. The dust out here seeped into your soul, coating everything you held dear, and, unless you accepted it, could drive a man crazy.
Ezra accepted it. He just figured he didnít have to like it.
He looked up at the cloudy sky for the third time in as many minutes, wondering if the invisible sun had moved any, and sighed. Just a few more hours and he could be home in his saloon, making his fortune, dreaming of a time when he would be free of this place and free of the six men who protected it. The day would come when he would have enough money to leave, perhaps to set himself up as a gentleman somewhere on the West Coast. There the ocean breeze would keep him clean and dust free.
Ezra scoffed inwardly at his pitiful attempt to con himself. Thing was, he did have enough money, and he knew it. Not enough yet, perhaps, to buy himself the saloon heíd always wanted, but more than enough to leave. Fact was, it would not take him more than a few weeks in a city like San Francisco to double his money. But here he was, slowly pacing around the empty landscape of the West, blowing hot breath on his dry hands to warm them.
The familiar question tugged at his fogged brain cells. Why was he still here? He had his pardon, had his money, had no reason to stayÖ.
Ezra gritted his teeth, knowing the truth but hating its reality. He was scared. His body shook at the thought, at the implicit weakness that underlined the statement, and he drew the brown wool tighter still. How did it happen? When did it happen? When did he become so used to having the others around that he was afraid to be without them? He was terrified at the simple thought that, if he left, he would be adrift forever, without a home. He was whole when he was with the others, and he knew that nowhere else, or rather, no one else, would ever mean as much to him as this place and these men.
Not that he would ever tell them that. Indeed, last April, when the heavy rains had been here, he had made sure that they knew he could leave whenever he wanted to, if he wanted to.
What a load of crock.
The gambler leaned forward on the saddle horn, the creak of the saddle leather a familiar sound in the suddenly oppressive silence that surrounding him. Frowning, he let his melancholy thoughts dwell even deeper into his psyche, his green eyes drifting dazedly over the dirt track under Chaucerís hooves.
Ezra knew he would not leave, not unless circumstances forced his hand. He would stay for as long as the others let him stay. The gambler trembled again as his deepest fear revealed itself, like a jaguarís claws gripping at his lungs. He shook his head trying to clear it, but the thought remained.
The day would come when they would finally realize exactly who and what he was. And, on that day, they would tell him to leave. All heíd be left with would be the same empty dreams that plagued his mother, and the same loveless life.
A dark shape off in the distance caught his eye, causing his hand to move unconsciously to the Remington rifle that hung to one side. Squinting, he recognized that the figure moving towards him was a horse and rider, trotting along at a leisurely pace. It did not take him long to recognize Pesoís dark coat and white star, nor the buckskin shod man on his back.
Vin waved a hand in greeting, and Ezra turned his mount to face him.
"It being such a nice day and all, I thought you might like some company," Vin called out, his gray eyes smiling. Ezra smiled in return, nodding his head.
"As always, Mr. Tanner, you have impeccable timing."
"Oh?" the tracker asked as he pulled in alongside Ezraís chestnut quarter horse.
"Indeed, I was just thinking about how much I would enjoy a little conversation. I was, I am embarrassed to say, getting somewhat wearied with the monotony of this task."
Vin grinned, pushing his hat up off his head to fall down his back. "You mean you were bored," he stated simply, shaking loose the long brown hair that had matted to his skull.
"Dead to rights, Vin."
"Well, Iíll see what I can do. You know, JD just told us all another one of those terrible jokes he loves. It's not quite as bad as his usual stuff. You want to hear it?"
Ezra looked at him sideways, the sarcasm thick on his southern tongue. "I am not that bored, Mr. Tanner."
Buckís eyes twinkled as he gazed upon Inez sitting at a table going over the accounts. She had her hair up in a twist, her dark brown eyes narrowed as she assessed the monthís take. He watched with delight as her fingers rapped the wooden tabletop, drumming out a tune that sounded like the sweetest of melodies to the besotted man. She raised her eyes and took in his glanceÖand immediately rolled her eyes.
"Donít you have somewhere better to be Senor?" she asked, the edge obvious in her tired voice.
"Nope." Buck leaned backwards in the wooden chair, causing it to creak warningly with his weight. Luckily, the saloon chairs were used to such rough treatment and were generally built to withhold even the most careless of customers. Inez grunted.
"Then may I suggest you find somewhere worse?"
Chuckling from off to Buckís left made him cast a sideways glance at Josiah. The ex-preacher was sitting at the same table, playing a game of cards with Nathan. The healer had his feet propped up on a chair and had a playful smile on his lips.
"Ha ha," Buck whispered acidly at them, getting up to leave. Just then, JD wandered into the saloon, a strange look on his face as he scrutinized the telegram beneath his fingers. Buck stopped and waited for the young sheriff to join them.
"Something interesting, kid?"
JD looked up at Buckís smiling face, "huh?"
Buck indicated the telegram with his head.
"Oh, yeah. Itís a weird message, come from Kansas City. Is Chris around?"
"Heís down at the Blacksmithís getting a new shoe for Solon, but I reckon heíll be back soon. What does it say?" Buck moved to look over JDís shoulder, and Nathan and Josiah placed their cards down to listen.
"It's from the Marshalís office. It says they will be here to pick up the prisoner on Tuesday morning. Theyíre sending six men and a prison coach." He looked up at Buckís face, noticing the puzzled look as the tall men read the message himself.
"We donít have any prisoners," Nathan said, stating the obvious.
"And tomorrow is Tuesday," Josiah added.
JD looked up at his best friend, but Buck merely frowned beneath his moustache. "Well," the ladies man said with a shrug, "we canít stop Ďem now. If theyíre planning on getting here in the morning, then theyíre probably planning on camping out tonight. Weíll just have to explain that they made a mistake and hope they donít get too riled."
JD smiled crookedly, and nodded. "I guess Iíll just go tell Chris." With a slightly more genuine smile, he turned to leave, narrowly missing bumping into an older man flanked by a couple of thugs as they pushed through the batwing doors.
"Uh sorry," the young sheriff muttered.
"No problem, son," the man replied tiredly with a soft Virginian accent. He was not a tall man, maybe around JDís height, with graying hair and soft blue eyes rimmed with red. He sported a nearly white moustache that looked desperately in need of a trim, and a short beard. He looked up at Buck, a polite smile on his face.
"Excuse me sir, but may I ask who operates this establishment?"
Buck looked over to where Inez was still staring at her ledgers, and inclined his head. The older man raised his shaggy eyebrows at the sight of a woman being in charge, frowning a little at the sight, but quickly covered himself. Heíd been searching this wild territory long enough to learn that certain truths heíd grown up with, such as a womanís proper place, could no longer be relied on. He nodded at Buck and indicated his men to follow.
Curious, as well as typically over-protective, Buck followed at a distance, leaning against the bar not far from where the man introduced himself to Inez.
"Madame, my name is Colonel Mitchell Macavee. I understand that you run this place?" He stood politely next to the table, his hands clasped behind his back. His two thugs, as Buck had decided to think of them, went to lean against the bar near Buck. They eyed him suspiciously, but made no move towards him.
Inez looked up and then stood as she saw the gentleman in front of her. "Yes, Colonel, that is correct. My name is Inez Rescillos. May I help you?"
"I certainly hope so. I have been trying to catch up with an old acquaintance of mine by the name of Seamus OíNeill. He is a gambler by trade and frequents taverns such as this. His hair is dark, his eyes green and he owns a silver flask that should have the engraving of a robin on the side of it."
Inez blinked, immediately recognizing the flask. She frowned, "I am afraid, Senor, that I am not familiar with the name. However, I will certainly tell this man should I see him that you are looking for him. Perhaps if you were to tell me where you plan on visiting next, I could send a message to you."
Colonel Macavee looked across at his men, but they didnít say a word. He looked back at Inez. "Actually, I think we might stay here for a couple of days. We were informed by the barkeeps in Eagle Bend and Bitter Creek that we might be successful here, and, if not, they too promised to send us word here if they learned anything." Smiling now, he pulled out a five dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her. "For your trouble, my dear."
"That is not necessary, Senor, but thank you," Inez replied primly, before looking over at Buck by the bar. "Senor Wilmington, would you be so kind as to serve these gentlemen? I am sure they have had a long journey." With that, she nodded at the Colonel and sat back down to finish her work. Buck blew out of his moustache, annoyed at her assuming manner, but not denying it. Making his way around to the other side of the bar, he proceeded to ask the men what he could get them.
At their table, Josiah and Nathan continued to play cards, also aware of the odd conversation. Dropping three cards on the table for Josiah to change, the healer quietly asked when Ezra was expected back.
Josiah looked up into the otherís dark eyes, pursing his lips. "Anytime now."
"Think we should warn him?"
Josiah looked across at the Colonel, who was leaning against the bar staring at the batwing doors. The preacher sighed.
"I am not one to let men run from their troubles, but there is something evil hereÖ" He paused, and stood up, folding his cards. "Iíll go and see if I can catch him at the livery."
Nathan nodded, intending to stay put in case the Colonel and his men followed Josiah. He gathered the cards as Josiah pulled on his poncho. Unfortunately, Ezra chose that moment to breeze into the saloon, followed closely by Vin. He was smiling, grinning even more widely at the sight of Nathan with a deck of cards.
"Seamus," the name was spat with an ugly vehemence. Ezra turned to look at the speaker, his eyes wide.
"Oh GodÖ" he managed, before turning and sprinting out of the bar, barely avoiding knocking over Vin as he flew. The Colonel and his men took off after him.
Ezra made it perhaps only twenty feet before he found himself facing three more men appearing from nowhere, all with weapons pointed at his head. Two held rifles, cocked and ready to fire, and the man in the middle pointed a sawed off shotgun at his heart. He skidded to a halt, his black boots kicking up dust, his eyes searching for an escape. He found himself looking back into the icy blue eyes of the Colonel.
Up the street, returning from the blacksmith, Chris and JD watched as Ezra burst out of the saloon, followed by three men, including an older man in a black suit. They broke into a run as three more men melted out of the shadows and penned in the startled con man, bringing him to an abrupt halt. Ezra spun around, his arms out by his sides, crouched down as if he were ready to strike. The six gunmen surrounded him in a rough circle.
The Colonel stepped forward between the two men who had shadowed him from the saloon, his hands empty by his sides. His thugs, however, had mimicked their partners and now held their own weapons on the gambler, daring him to try something. Cold air whistled loudly around their heads, but it was nothing compared to the icy hand that had gripped Ezraís heart as he faced down the Colonel.
"Hello Seamus," The Colonel stated simply. "Or whatever name you go by now. Ezra something or other, isnít it?"
"Standish," Ezra whispered in return, "Ezra Standish. Ezra is my given name."
The Colonel nodded, his voice also low. "I have been looking for you for a long time, son. I must thank you for staying in one place long enough for me to find you."
"Youíre welcome," Ezra replied, equally sarcastically. He looked up, to find that his friends were standing just outside this circle of men around him. He knew they would prevent anything happening to him, if only he asked. Chris stood just to the left of the Colonel wearing a bilious expression. He had a hand on the gun at his hip, waiting for Ezra to give him the sign. But the gambler merely shook his head, earning him an even darker look. Heíd see this through, even though his leader didnít like it. Chris nodded once and didnít move.
Straightening his shoulders, Ezra pulled his eyes back to those of the Colonel. The old man looked as if he could care less that he was surrounded, his only acknowledgement being a slight furrowing of the brow at Ezraís head shake to the man in black behind him. The move was a little confusing to the hardened man, who expected the gambler to use his friends to get him out of this, but it didnít faze him for long. The Colonelís gunslingers also looked surprisingly unperturbed, none of them dropping their aim.
Ezra sneered, "I suppose youíve come for your money? Unfortunately my motherÖ."
The Colonel shook his head, stopping Ezra. The gambler frowned, puzzled.
"How is your mother?" the old man asked, acidly.
Ezra shrugged, not overly surprised at the question. "As of the last time I saw her, I believe she was well. She goes by Maude now." The Colonel nodded, but didnít reply. Ezra stood a little straighter, trying desperately to appear nonchalant as he glanced at all the gun barrels facing him. "How is Kelly?"
He asked the question without thinking, and immediately regretted it. The Colonelís features darkened, melding from mere anger to a black rage. The guns in the other menís hands were raised a little higher, and tension radiated across the circle. The sudden mood change surprised Ezra. He realized too late that heíd just pulled his finger from the hole in the dam, and it was coming down.
"How is Kelly?" the Colonel repeated dryly, his old voice shaking suddenly with pent-up emotion. "You have the gall to ask me about my daughter, boy? My beautiful daughterÖ" He wiped a shaking hand across his forehead, smearing a dirt line across his pale skin. Ezra backed up a step, wishing he could run after all. The Colonelís face cracked into an insane smile.
"Sheís dead, Seamus. Two years gone. Two years that I have searched for you to avenge her death."
Ezra stepped back as if heíd been slapped. "What? HowÖNo, it canítÖ."
"No? No? Oh, I assure you, Seamus, she is very deadÖand it is very much your fault. Sheís lying now in the cold ground in Baton Rouge, far from home and far from any hurt you might ever cause her again. Tell me, Seamus, do theseÖtheseÖfriends of yours," he waved his hand around at the six men watching, ignoring their frowns, "do they know what you are? Do they know what low, base, vile piece of filth lives among them? Or perhaps I should enlighten them?"
Here the Colonel turned to look at Vin and Josiah, who stood to the left of the rough circle surrounding Ezra. "Would you like to hear what he and that trash he calls his mother did to me?" He looked back at Chris, then to JD and Buck standing off to the right, and finally to Nathan in the back. The Colonel sneered at the sight of the black man, then at Ezra. "My, Seamus, youíve even managed to con a darky. Never thought Iíd see the day one would stand up for you. Well, he wonít for long."
Ezra wasnít watching the Colonel anymore. His eyes were fixed on the ground at the manís feet, his mindís eye seeing only the Colonelís beautiful daughter. He recalled her long dark hair and soft blue eyes, just like her fatherís, and that incredible laugh that would make a whole room turn just to join in. Gone? His eyes blinked rapidly, and he drew his coat closer around him. In front of him, the leer fell from the Colonelís face as he spoke again, the old manís voice taking on the quality of a storyteller.
"I met Margot OíNeill, or should I say, Maude Standish, Seamusí mother, in Richmond, at the governorís ball in 1868, almost five years ago." He paused to shake his head, his eyes drifting. "My God, I thought she was an angel when I first laid eyes on her. Her blond hair was perfectly done, the curls cascading down the side of her exquisite face like ribbons. And I swear those blue eyes seemed to see right through me the moment she looked my way. And that dress, the very best I am sure, it suited her lithe figure so well, all blue silk and white lace. I was lost before I even knew her name." He paused, glancing at Josiah, who had reddened a little in empathy. The Colonel nodded at him. "Margot made me fell like a king, dancing with me all night and standing behind me at the poker tables. I won so much that night, I figured she had to be a good luck charm. And I asked myself, what could such a goddess see in me?" He stared hard at Ezra, who still hadnít raised his face from the ground.
"Well, it didnít take her long to wind me up, did it boy? All she had to do was drop a few hints, and I would have done anything she asked. She took me aside late in the evening, and told me she had learned I was on the Board of Trustees for the University of Virginia. She had a son, she said, who was very bright but was lacking a little in the refinement necessary to fit in -- the result of having lost her husband a few years back. She wanted you to be in the next law school class, and needed my help. Before I knew it, Iíd agreed to take you into my home, teach you, and help you pass the law school entrance exams. I would have agreed to anything just to have her stay with me." He shook his head, his eyes fixed on Ezraís bowed figure as if searching for the mother in the manís ashen visage. "The next day, I met you."
"You were as perfect as your mother, werenít you, Seamus? What a guileless young man you seemed, with those huge green eyes and polite manner. You even had a slight stutter at the time. I took you in, introduced you to my home and to my daughter without question. Gave you every advantage, believing every word that passed those silver cast lips. You were amazing, so charming and honest. I began to think of you as my own son, even though I knew you were not as wealthy as my peers. And KellyÖKellyÖ." The Colonel looked to Josiah again, seeing in the older preacher some sort of kindred spirit. Josiah met his eyes softly, without reservation.
"Kelly was supposed to marry the wealthy son of a rail magnate. A real coup for my family, and for someone whose dowry only amounted to $5000. But she couldnít go through with it, not after she met you. You charmed her as your mother had charmed me, seducing her into believing you couldnít live without her. She fell in love. God, how I remember that night she came to me in tears, begging me to let her marry you instead of her fiancé. How could I refuse true love?" He shook his head, and a tear streaked its way down the Colonel's dust covered face, leaving a muddy line.
"The morning of the weddingÖI took you and your mother down to the bank to sign over the dowry. I saw the way you grasped that money like a man drowning and should have known right then, but I was a fool. Your mother sent me off to be with Kelly, promising to have you at the church on timeÖ. Kelly was so happy that day. She looked like a princess all dressed in white, the smile in her face bright enough to outshine the sun on a summer day. And we waited for youÖ. For hours, we waited, in front of all our friends and relatives, until we finally figured it out. You and that viper were gone." The Colonelís hands clenched into fists, overgrown nails digging into his palms as if he would pierce the skin. He took a step closer to Ezra, and the gambler stepped back.
"But you didnít know what that money really meant, did you, Seamus? All the time you were sleazing your way into my family, you had no idea that I was losing money in my business hand over fist. I was in debt up to my ears, boy, and that dowry was the only hard cash I had left. The man Kelly was supposed to marry was to be our ticket out of bankruptcy, but she forsook privilege for you. She promised she could convince you to put the dowry into my businessÖ. Oh, by God but we were fools. After you left, it all went to hell. I lost everything. My life's work, my dreamsÖgone. I had to go and work for my competitors just to make ends meet. Then Kelly left."
Ezra had raised his head when the Colonel started talking about the money, watching silently as the man wiped his sleeve across his face to dry the tears, leaving more streaks of dirt. Around him, the thugs with the rifles still stood as if made of stone, unyielding. It was clear this was a story theyíd heard several times. The Colonel stepped closer to Ezra again, and this time the gambler did not move. His green eyes were mesmerized by the man in front of him.
"She left in the middle of the night, leaving me a note to say that she couldnít stand to see me this way anymore. She was going after you, to get the money back, and to bring you to justice. She took half of whatever money we had left and hopped the train to Kansas City, where someone had told her theyíd seen you. Of course I followed her, but I was not fast enough. By the time I reached KC, she had already moved on, following another lead. I chased her for three years, boy. THREE years! And do you know how she afforded to stay on your trail all that time? The money she had taken ran out almost immediately and for a woman with no skills and nothing else to offer other than her beautiful faceÖI gave up punching out her clients after the first few months. All it did was slow me down by sticking me in the lock-up for a few months."
"Oh God," Ezra whispered, looking away again. The Colonel took a final step forward, and lashed out with his hands to grab Ezraís lapels. The gambler did not fight, just stood there with liquid eyes.
"I finally caught up with her in Baton Rouge, with the help of some of my friends here." He let go with one hand, and waved to indicate the thugs. "They came with me after I got out of prison, and have been with me ever since. They hate you now almost as much as I do. Especially after we found Kelly." He grabbed Ezraís jacket again, and shook the man roughly.
"We found her in this hovel on the outside of town, her diseased ravaged body almost unrecognizable. She barely knew who I was. I tried to get the doctor to look to her, but he refused. He wouldnít debase himself by treating filth, he said. MY daughter, filth Ė clearly heíd never met you." He brought his face so that it was just inches from Ezraís, and his voice dropped until it was barely audible. "The night she died, she was lucid enough to scream your name Seamus. She wanted to know where you were. Why you werenít there when she needed you." He spit in Ezraís face, and dropped him. The gambler fell to the ground, his legs refusing to hold him up any longer.
"After all of it, she still loved you, you maggot-ridden piece of shit."
Ezra wrapped his arms around himself, shaking his head. The Colonel squatted down to look at him, his blue eyes like ice. "So what have you to say, boy? I want to hear you explain what the hell went through your brain the day you ruined my life and killed my daughter?"
Ezra couldnít talk. What could he say? That he didnít know what was going to happen? That Maude had assured him Kelly and her father had more money than they knew what to do with? That it was all Maudeís idea from the beginning, as usual? None of that excused him. He was the one who had convinced the Colonel to trust him. He was the one who had seduced Kelly. He was the one who backed out of the wedding at the last minute. Maude had wanted the marriage to happen, wanted her son to be part of this wealthy family in Richmond and be set for life. The dowry was all he could offer to get her off his back Ė his mother couldnít understand why he wouldnít marry a woman he didnít love, couldnít understand why he couldnít do that to Kelly or himself. Seething with anger, Maude had taken all but two hundred dollars of that five thousand and taken off to New Orleans without him, refusing to speak to him again for years. And Ezra had run West for the last time.
Well, now he was found.
He glanced around one last time, and noticed that Buck and JD had left. He didnít need to turn around to know that Nathan had gone as well. He had been amazed his friends had put up with him for this long. He looked at Chris, but the gunslinger had not taken his eyes from the Colonel, his face impassive. Vin and Josiah were also still there. The trackerís expression was equally unreadable, cradling his Winchester in his arms and keeping an eye on the thugs as if nothing had been said. Josiah was the only one looking at Ezra. The gambler nearly choked when he realized the preacherís face was filled with pity. He shook his head, he didnít want it and he didnít need it.
"Well boy," the colonel spat again, "come on! Letís hear you defend yourself."
Ezra looked up at the Colonel crouching in front of him, and said the only thing he could think of.
"Iím sorry," he whispered.
The Colonel stared at him, mouth wide open, and stood up. He started to laugh, quietly at first, then with vigor. "Sorry?" He yelled, spinning around to look at is men. "Thatís it? Youíre sorry? Iíll show you sorry you sack of shit!" Walking up to the kneeling man, he slammed a boot into Ezraís ribcage, sending the gambler to the ground. He followed it with another and another, until Ezra heard the telltale crack of a bone breaking. The Colonel backed up, and pulled out his silver six-shooter from his belt. "Sorry. Oh God, Iíll show you sorry." He leveled the gun at where Ezra lay in a heap in the dirt and pulled back the hammer. Behind him, Chris brought up his own weapon, and Vin and Josiah did the same in the direction of the ex-cons. Ezra buried his head in his arms and rolled into a fetal position.
For a moment, no one moved. The Colonelís hand shook as the wind picked up again, and the birds that called to each other overhead seemed unnaturally loud in the tense silence. It felt like an eternity to Chris, and he was about to finish it when he noticed a change in the Colonelís posture. Macavee tilted his head, looking at the defeated man before him covered in dirt and manure from the street, and slowly reset the safety.
"My God," the old man muttered, "you really are pathetic, arenít you? All this time, I had this image of you in my head as some kind of devil. The source of my nightmares. But youíre not, are you? Youíre not even a man." He lowered the gun, his eyes wide.
"Youíre sorry, you say. Christ, if Kelly could see you now. Sheíd laugh so hard, and then probably cry her eyes out as she realized how little you really are. You are nothing but a sorry waste of life, boy, less than the excrement that lines the fields at seeding time. How the hell did we ever fall for you?" With deliberate movements, he carefully put the gun back into its holster and snapped it closed.
"I was going to kill you, SeamusÖEzraÖWhatever. But, somehow I think that would be too good for you. You deserve to live as you are, knowing that you are nothing. Hell, you donít even have a name of your own. How do you live with yourself?" This last sentence was delivered in a hiss.
The Colonel backed up, and looked at his men. They glanced back questioningly, a little surprised, but not about to interfere.
"I think it is time to go home, gentlemen." The Colonel announced tiredly. "There is nothing left here for me to bother about." With a despondent air, he walked away towards the livery, his movements those of an old man. He nodded at Inez where she stood in the doors to the saloon, but she didnít meet his gaze.
Slowly, the other five men lowered their rifles. Several of them spit on Ezra as they stepped over him, and one of them delivered one more blow with his foot to the gamblerís back, forcing a dull moan from the smaller man. Then they too were gone, following the Colonel into the livery to collect their horses.
Vin wandered to stand over next to Chris, and watched as the men left. "Think we should follow them?" the tracker asked quietly. "They might come back."
Chris shook his head. "Nah, I think the Colonelís found his peace." The gunslinger looked at Ezra, who hadnít moved from where he lay. "But maybe we should post a guard tonight at the saloon, just in case any of the Colonelís friends decide to come back." Vin nodded, and turned to watch Ezra as well.
Josiah approached Ezra slowly, nervous because the gambler hadnít moved yet. He stopped when Ezra began to cough violently, then rushed forward as the gambler began to gather himself up. He held out a hand, which Ezra looked at and ignored.
"Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," the gambler coughed, "but I am not in need of your assistance at this time." Josiah dropped his hand, and watched concernedly as Ezra struggled upright, an arm pressed against his ribs. As soon as he managed to get to his feet, the younger man stumbled, and the preacher caught his arm. Ezra immediately pulled the arm back.
"Mr. Sanchez, I have already told you to leave me be," the gambler repeated angrily, straightening.
Josiah shook his head. "Ezra, youíre hurt. We should get you to Nathanís to wrap your ribs," he insisted. Ezra was in the process of inspecting his brown jacket, brushing some of the dirt from the sleeves.
"It would appear that I have ruined yet another jacket in this God forsaken town," Ezra replied quietly, and sighed. "Well, at least it was not one I particularly liked." He began to walk away, acting as if the preacher wasnít there. Josiah frowned, annoyed because Ezra had yet to meet his eyes much less answer his statement about going to Nathanís. He followed, matching Ezraís limping gait as the gambler headed back to the saloon, trying to get the man to look at him.
"Ezra, please. Your ribs."
"I do not wish to see Mr. Jackson right now, Mr. Sanchez. More to the point, I doubt Mr. Jackson would be interested in seeing me." The gambler said, his eyes to the ground.
The gambler stopped, his eyes closed. "If you are really so concerned, Mr. SanchezÖI have some bandages in my room from my last mishap." He coughed again, his arm once more moving to press against his side. "Perhaps you might be so kind as to wrap my ribs yourself. I will of course remunerate you for your time."
Josiah didnít answer, but then he thought about how Nathanís face had looked just before the black healer had walked away. Perhaps Ezra was right. He was about to agree when Ezra spoke again, misunderstanding the hesitation.
"I quite understand, Mr. Sanchez. You do not need to trouble yourself. I will pay someone else to do it."
"No, Ezra. Iíll do it."
Ezra didnít reply, he simply allowed Josiah to follow him into the saloon and up the stairs. Inez watched them go, her eyes worried. She nodded at Chris and Vin as they moved to sit on the boardwalk outside the saloon, preparing to keep watch. She stopped just inside the batwing doors as Chris conversed quietly with Vin, unable to stop herself from listening to their words.
"Ezra got lucky today," Vin mused, settling himself.
"How you figure?" came the gunslingerís reply as he leaned against the post.
Vin shrugged, "Iím not sure we could have stopped six guns fast enough with just our three. He was lucky."
Chrisís eyes darkened, pulling out the cheroot from his pocket and lighting it before answering. Inside Inez stifled a sob and drifted back to the bar.
"Lucky." Chris repeated, looking over at the jail and then down towards the clinic. "He should have had six guns at his back, Vin. Fact is, I think weíll be lucky if he stays."
Buck paced the floor of the jail, his eyes darting every so often to the young man who sat behind the desk. JD had his elbows on the table with his head in his hands and rocked. For the past few minutes, Buck had tried to mollify the young sheriff, but JD seemed inconsolable. It was the first time JD was a witness to the consequences of one of Ezraís old cons. All JD knew was the work Ezra had done since coming to Four Corners, his ignoble ways used to further the cause of the right. Of course he knew that Ezra had a bleak past, but it had always been so easy to ignore that before. He was having a hard time reconciling the two. Ezra the uncaring con man, and Ezra his friend.
"Do you think I should arrest him?" he finally asked, his voice soft.
"For what?" Buck replied. "That dowry was signed over to him. You may think he stole it, JD, but nothing Ezra did was illegal per se."
"But there must be something. Fraud, breach of contract, or something."
"Maybe," Buck said. "But do you really want to do that?"
JD shook his head.
Buck sighed. "JD, I saw Ezraís face when that old man told him about not having any more money. He was shocked, to say the least. He didnít knowÖ."
"That is no excuse, Buck! And you know it. If Ezra really knew what he was doing, he would have done a better job researching his mark. Besides, the money ainít whatís bothering me."
"The girl," Buck nodded, looking out the window. He saw Josiah follow a dirt covered Ezra back to the saloon opposite. The gambler was limping, not surprisingly.
"Kelly. Her name was Kelly."
"BuckÖ."JD pleaded. He needed an explanation, something to remind him of who Ezra was.
"Heís not the same man, JD. The man that the old man was talking about, Seamus OíNeill, is dead and gone. Our friend Ezra Standish is the one who has been there for us for the past two years. The one who has been there to save our lives and stand up for us when the ghosts from our own pasts come to haunt us." Buck stopped just as Ezra disappeared into the darkened interior. Chris and Vin followed, and sat down out front of the saloon. The ladies man knew they would watch over the gambler.
"I know," JD replied, drawing up his knees to his chest and resting his heels on the edge of the large wooden chair. He propped his chin on them, and said nothing for a couple of minutes. "I guess I just need a little time."
"Sure, kid." Buck made to leave, but a small cry form JD halted him.
"Donít leave, Buck, please?"
Buck smiled back at him, then moved to sit in a chair by the small stove. The air was cold enough that he considered lighting it, but without prisoners in the jail, it seemed sort of foolish. He looked back at JD, who was staring morosely into space, and got up to go and collect some wood.
Up in the room above the saloon, Josiah slowly wrapped his friendís ribs as Ezra stared out the window. The gambler had only grunted slightly as heíd changed out of his clothes and raised his arms so Josiah could work. His face had not changed expression, remaining completely stoic. Neither man spoke, until Josiah finished, tying off the fabric.
"Iím not sure brother Nathan might not have done a better job," Josiah stated, "but this should do."
Ezra looked down, lowering his arms gingerly. He patted the bandages and nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez." He stood up, using the bed as leverage, and limped over to his dresser. He pulled out some money from the small wallet there, and handed it to Josiah.
"Hell, Ezra. You know I donít want that." Josiah said, shaking a hand at the proffered money. He would have been angry, but the offer had been made so perfunctorily that Josiah found it difficult to feel anything but pity. As if sensing this, Ezra put the money back, and kept his back to the preacher.
"Well then, if you donít mind, I would like to get ready for this evening."
"Enough, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra stated with a cold finality, turning and looking Josiah in the eyes for the first time. The big man physically cringed. Heíd never seen Ezraís eyes so devoid of emotion. If Ezra hadnít been standing there, the preacher would have thought he looked into the eyes of a dead man. Ezra continued speaking, his tone bitter. "I wish to be left alone, sir. I am asking that you honor that wish. I promise it will be the last thing I ask of you."
A terrible fear gripped the preacher, one he didnít know what to do about it. He stood shakily from where he had been sitting on the edge of the bed and nodded. Ezra turned away from him again and moved to the window. Opening the door, the preacher glanced back once, then left. Outside, he placed a hand over his heart and prayed that Ezra was wrong.
"I hope that is not the last thing you ask of me, my friend," he whispered before slowly making his way downstairs.
The night seemed incredibly long to Josiah. He stayed in the saloon all evening, sitting with Chris and Vin as they all watched the gambler. Ezra sat at his usual table, playing poker with some ranch hands and looking as if he were having the time of his life. He gambled and won again and again, his gold tooth flashing inside his broad smile. Finally, noticing the other menís scrutiny, he gathered his money to him and excused himself.
"Gentlemen," Ezra nodded walking past on his way to the bar. Chris looked to Vin, who shrugged.
"Well, he looks okay," their leader mused, taking a draw on his mug.
"Looks can be deceiving," Josiah muttered, "especially when it concerns our young friend there."
"This canít be the first time an old con has come back to haunt him, Josiah," Vin replied unconcernedly. "Its probably just water off a duckís back."
Josiah just shook his head. At that moment, JD and Buck entered the saloon, and made their way over to their companions. JD watched Ezra at the bar, where the gambler was having Inez refill his brandy flask. It was obvious that Inez wasnít talking to him, avoiding their usual banter. Ezra seemed unfazed and merely stared benignly over the crowd. As he caught JDís eyes, the gambler touched two fingers to his hat. JD turned away, avoiding responding by sitting at the table and looking at the others. Buck sat next to him and placed a hand on the kid's arm. If the gambler noticed the slight, his countenance didnít betray him.
"Howís Ezra?" Buck asked, leaning forward as Seth came to the table with two more beers.
"Fine, I guess," Vin replied. "Though Josiah thinks it's an act."
"Josiah?" JD asked, blinking. The boyís face looked tired, but he gamely tried to hide it. In the background, Ezra, flask full, returned to his table at the top end of the bar and rejoined the game in progress. The preacher shrugged.
"Iím just going to try and be there when he comes apart," Josiah stated. The others didnít answer, burying their noses in their drinks.
JD looked around the room and at his companions. "Where's Nate?"
"Heís at the clinic," Chris said. "Heís hiding. Afraid he might get into a fight with Ezra he couldnít control." He smiled crookedly.
JD nodded, understanding. He looked back at Chris. "Iím sorry I left, before. I justÖI couldnít listen to it anymoreÖ."
The black clad gunslinger didnít answer, just took another draw, finishing his mug. "I feel like some whiskey, eh boys? This beer just isnít doing it for me." Standing, Chris walked to the bar, not waiting for their answer. JD's face fell.
Buck slapped a hand on JDís back. "Thatís just his way of saying he would have liked to walk away, too, kid. He donít blame you. Not you." Inadvertently, Buck glanced to where Ezra sat, and glowered a little as Ezra started to laugh. Josiah shivered.
Ezra sat in front of the saloon the next morning by himself. It was not quite dawn and an eerie stillness blanketed the town -- not even the birds were singing yet. He hadnít been to sleep yet, having spent the rest of the evening packing after the others retired. Next to him sat his duffel bag, ready to be tied to the back of his saddle with his bedroll. His saddlebags were also there, filled with odds and ends and the rest of his life. He had planned to leave as soon as first light came up, but found himself stalling.
He didnít want to leave.
He looked around, memorizing each structure that he came across so that they would be forever imprinted on his brain. His eyes strayed to the rooms where he knew Chris, Buck and JD slept in the boarding house. He looked to the Church at the far end of the street, where Josiah was abed, and to Nathanís clinic. And finally, he glanced at the alley where he knew Vin kept his wagon. No one was awake, as there were no obvious threats to the town that would merit setting up a watch. It was as he planned.
Heíd left them with the image heíd wanted them to have Ė that of an uncaring, unfeeling gambler who didnít need them anymore than they needed him. What they hadnít noticed was that, while Ezra had continued smiling, heíd been losing. As soon as he felt the otherís interest in watching him wane last night, heíd begun to cheatÖand to lose. He dropped almost five hundred dollars last night on different folks, oneís heíd picked out, and gave them all he had. After the others had gone to sleep, heíd deposited whatever was left (outside of the fifty dollars he had tucked into his boot) into the Church poor box.
Gathering his things, Ezra stood and walked towards the livery to fetch Chaucer. A low rumbling stopped him as he reached the doors.
From out of nowhere, a prison stagecoach and six riders rumbled into the still dark town, looking for all the world like a ghostly hearse out of a gothic novel. The men riding with it looked exhausted as they dropped from their saddles, and the lead man approached Ezra.
"Good morrow, sir," the Federal Marshal said, stopping the gambler in his tracks. "I did not believe anyone would be up this early besides the law. Tell me, is this Four Corners?"
Ezra couldnít mask the surprise on his face at seeing this group of men. "I believe this fair hamlet owns that title, yes."
"Wonderful," the Marshal replied, rubbing his fist into one eye and yawning. "Can you direct me to the jail? We are here to pick up a prisoner."
Ezra frowned, shaking his head. "Prisoner, Marshal? Iím sorry to tell you this, but there is no one in the jail at the moment."
The Marshal frowned in return. "Well, then perhaps you can direct me to the sheriff of this town."
Ezra shrugged, and pointed to the boarding house at the other end of the street. "You will find Sheriff Dunne asleep in room 12, Marshal, but he may be a little hung over should you wake him." He paused, and looked up at the wagon. "Tell me, sir, who is it you are supposed to be picking up?"
The Marshal had removed his hat and was scratching his head as he looked at the dark boarding house. He returned his gaze to Ezra, and shrugged. "Well, I suppose thereís no harm in telling you if there ainít no prisoner. Man, what a mess." He pulled out a document from the small pouch on his belt and unfolded it.
"We are here to pick up one Jacob Isaacs. A murderer and thief, by all accounts. We were to take him back to Kansas City for trial and hanging."
Ezra blinked, recognizing the name. It was the title of a man the Seven had shot down two weeks before, after Isaacs attempted to rob the bank. Somehow, the telegram to Kansas City, where the warrant for the manís arrest originated, must have been muddled. He also recalled what the man Jacob had looked like Ė not very tall, with dark hair and green eyes, just like the gambler. Ezra looked back at the boarding house, an odd look on his face.
"Well then, Marshal, it looks like you may not have to wake young Sheriff Dunne after all," Ezra replied, dropping his bags to the ground and holding his arms out in front of him, wrists upraised. "It's about time some real lawmen got here, I was beginning to think Iíd never be caught. You know, they let me go here after just a few days. Pathetic excuse for peacekeepers."
The Marshal stared at him for a moment with red rimmed eyes, and then an angry look came over his face. "What are you talking about," he demanded.
"Isnít it obvious, Marshal? You have found your prisoner. I am Jacob Issacs."
The man looked at the gambler in front of him with confusion. For his part, Ezra merely looked bored.
"Come, come, if you donít believe me, just look to the description of the man you are looking for. You will see that I am he," Ezra stressed.
Still frowning, the Marshal looked down at the paper in the faint morning light. "Says here Isaacs has a moustache."
"I shaved it. Trying to be more inconspicuous." Come on, Ezra complained inwardly. We donít have time to hang around. The others will be awake in a moment.
The Marshal still wasnít buying it. "And youíre giving yourself up becauseÖ?"
"After seeing all of this?" Ezra replied, waving towards the other five Marshals, who were now watching him intently, and at the prison wagon. "Fact is, Marshal. Iím tired of running, really tired." Ezra didnít have to lie to make that point. Yesterday had proven to him just how tired he was. "Please, Marshal. I am Isaacs and I am giving myself up. I was considering running again, as you can see from the bags, but I just donít have the energy to escape six Marshals, especially with a busted rib." He patted his abdomen for emphasis, feeling the bandages tied under there.
The Marshal glanced down at the invisible injury, then shrugged. "Well, I guess Iíd rather have someone than no one." He pulled out handcuffs from where they hung off his belt and shackled his new prisoner. As he led Ezra to the wagon, one of the other Marshals gathered up the gamblerís bags to throw on top of the wagon. No one spoke as Ezra was placed inside.
The Marshal looked through the bars on the carriage door and watched as Ezra settled himself into the wooden seat, pulling his black hat over his face. Another Marshal approached.
"Think I should go and check with the Sheriff, Mitch?"
Mitch shook his head and turned from Ezra. "Nah, we can see from here that there ainít no light on in that jail. There would be if theyíd had a prisoner locked up in there. This guy says heís Isaacs, who are we to dispute him? Frankly, I'm too tired to care. Letís just get going home." And with that, Mitch indicated his men to remount. As surreptitiously as it came, the wagon turned and left.
Vin wandered out of the alley wiping the sleep from his eyes. He frowned as he saw the black prison wagon rolling away quietly out of town and considered chasing it to see what they wanted. The he remembered JD mentioning something about a telegram, and picking up a prisoner.
"Guess they figured out they were wrong on their own," he mumbled to himself. With a final stretch, he wandered over to the hotel to see if Inez was up and making any coffee yet.
Nathan pushed through the batwing doors of the saloon quietly, seeking out his friends. They were where he expected on this blustery morning, sitting at their table sipping coffee. The weather was even colder than yesterday, and had driven most people inside, the dark gray skies lower to the ground than they had been for weeks. Snow was coming.
He sidled over and slid into his seat, getting nods from the others. He looked round to Ezraís table, then at the others.
"Heís not up yet?"
They shook their heads, and Nathan sighed. "Fine, Iíll wait."
"What are you going to say to him?" Josiah asked. Heíd been nervously watching the stairs all morning, hoping for sight or sound of the younger man. He knew the others didnít feel the dread he did, but it was not something he could ignore. If the gambler wasnít down in a minute, the preacher was going to go up there and make sure he was okay.
Nathan met Josiahís blue eyes carefully, then dropped away. "Iím going to apologize for leaving him yesterday. I heard from someone that they busted one of his ribs."
Josiah shrugged. "I wrapped him. I donít think its bothering him much."
"He was gambling all night," Buck filled in, his tone icy, "acting like he hadnít a care in the world. Seemed like he won a bundle too."
Josiah shook his head at Buck, who raised his eyebrows apathetically in response. Nathan frowned, but didnít say anything. He stood.
"Well then, maybe he doesnít need my apology," he muttered, planning on leaving again.
"No, wait," Josiah said, standing. "Donít leave just yet. IÖheÖplease, just wait." He looked to the stairs, and at Inez who had just wandered out of the kitchen. She glanced at Josiah, her normally visible smile Ė or scowl if she were looking at Buck Ė was missing. She looked away immediately.
Josiah grimaced, and a determined expression drifted across his face as he looked at the table, daring any of the others to move. "Stay here, all of you. Iím going to go and get him. We need to clear the air of thisÖthisÖthing." He lumbered over to the steps. Behind him, Nathan sat back down in his seat and took the coffee that Josiah had left behind.
No one spoke, listening for the sound of Ezraís complaints at being woken up early. When none came, they all looked worriedly at the stairs. Josiah appeared moments later, a pained look on his face. He bounded down the stairs and out the doors. As one, the others followed, including Inez.
The preacher jogged down the street to the stables, returning to the street just as the others arrived at the huge doors. He looked at them, pain having been replaced by confusion.
"Chaucerís still there."
"I take it Ezra was not in his room," Chris said, stating the obvious. Josiah shook his head.
"Heís not merely not there, Chris. It was as if he was never there. His things are gone, and the bed has been stripped. But, if he left, why didnít he take Chaucer? He loves that horse more than anything, except maybe usÖ." He said the statement matter-of-factly, not catching anyoneís eyes, but no one disputed him. Not even Nathan. Josiah shook his head again, "I knew this was coming. Damn it, I should have watched over him." He looked accusingly at Chris, "I thought you were going to post a guard on him."
Their leader shrugged. "He seemed fine, and I didnít think those men were coming back." He wandered into the stable, and saw Chaucer staring back at him. As if sensing that there was a problem, the Chestnut whinnied and moved about in his stall. Chris backed out, knowing well the animalís temper when it thought Ezra was in trouble. Josiah was right, Ezra wouldnít leave Chaucer behind unlessÖ. He did not want to think about it. When he walked back out again, he saw that his men were in discussion, listening to something Vin was saying.
"ÖIt was rolling away when I woke up. I admit I thought it odd at the time, butÖ."
JD was shaking his head, "you are absolutely certain it was the prison wagon." Vin just gave him a dirty look in response. JD grimaced, "Well, fine. Well, you said you saw six riders with it, right? Well then, Ezra couldnít have gone with them."
"Unless he was inside it," Buck suggested.
"What are you talking about?" Chris looked to Vin, who shrugged back
"The prison wagon came this morning while we were asleep. I have no idea why they were so early, but, when I came around the corner, they were already leaving. I thought it odd at the time, but just figured they learned we didnít have their prisoner."
Chris switched his gaze to Buck, and then to Josiah. The preacher's face was pinched with worry, something rarely seen on his stoic visage.
"Well, if they rode all night, theyíll have to stop somewhere soon. We know theyíre headed towards KC soÖ." He looked around at his men. "Someone should stay here to watch the town and be here in case weíre wrong and Ezra shows up."
"Heís in the wagon, Chris," Josiah replied. No one said anything in response.
Finally, Chris sighed, "I take it no one is staying?" He favored them with a knowing look. "Fine, Iíll tell Mary to tell the townsfolk where weíre going. Buck, you tell Inez. JD, go get your badge. Weíre out of here in ten minutes." He looked back into the stable, and at the increasingly agitated Chaucer. He looked to Vin and JD, a small smile on his face. Both men groaned as they realized he wanted them to bring the chestnut stallion along. They hated that damn finicky horse.
Ezra fell asleep for a while as they traveled, despite the painful ride in the wooden wagon. Without cushions, it had felt like someone was deliberately hitting every bump in the road just to aggravate his bruised body and busted rib. He considered complaining, but, in the end, he was just too tired. He woke when the wagon came to a stop.
He looked out the window, and swore when he realized he could still see familiar landmarks. They couldnít have gone far. He was about to say something when the door was pulled open roughly.
The Marshal named Mitch stood in front of him, leaning against his horse. The man who had opened the door was fiddling with a series of keys on his belt.
"Thought you might like some food, Isaacs," Mitch stated, indicating to Ezra to step out of the wagon to the ground. "Pete here is gonna unlock you, but donít worry. Heís switching the cuffs to your legs to make sure you wonít run off." As he spoke, Pete found the key he was looking for and indicated to Ezra to put his arms out.
The gambler complied with a goofy smile on his face as Pete unlocked him. Fact was, Ezra had only just slipped the cuffs back on. Theyíd been aggravating his wrists as they traveled, so heíd undone them himself with the pick he had secreted in his waistcoat pocket lining.
"I must commend you on your kindness, dear sirs. I did not realize that prisoners were treated with such courtesy as to be fed after such an enjoyable ride. I simply assumed weíd ride through the days and nights to get me to justice as quickly as possibleÖwith as many bruises as possible." With a jaunty air, Ezra leaned against the door of the wagon, crossing his legs. Grumbling, Pete bowed down and wound the cuffs around them, annoyed because the gambler had made it more difficult. When he came back up, he pushed Ezra backward into the wagon in payment. Ezra couldnít suppress a small cry of pain, and he put a hand to his ribs as he struggled to a sitting position on the wagon floor. Mitch raised his eyebrows.
"Werenít kidding about that rib, eh?"
"No, sir, I most certainly was not." Using the wooden bench for leverage, Ezra somehow got back to his feet, and stumbled out of the wagon again. He had some difficulty on the small steps because of the cuffs, but he made it down. He sat in the door and smiled up at Mitch. "Sir, may I suggest that we not tarry too long? There are some wild men in these parts, and I am sure that you do not wish to come across any."
Mitch smiled, and shook his head. "You sure are in a hurry to die, ainít ya. Well, donít worry, boy. Weíll be on our way soon." The Marshal looked up, and watched as his men watered the horses. Pete stood next to a heavily bearded man who was handing out apples and jerky. Moments later, the same man came over and handed an apple and a piece of jerky to Mitch and Ezra.
"Thank you, kind sir. Rough food, but one can not expect the Ritz out here, or even oneís motherís wonderful cooking." He looked askance at his server, a funny look on his face. "Now, you did have a mother, didnít you? It so hard to tell under all that hair." The man growled and took a step forward, but a barked warning from Mitch stopped him and sent him back to the others. Mitch shook his head and grinned at the gambler.
"You really are a piece of work, Isaacs. Do you try to annoy everyone you meet?"
"Why no," Ezra replied, looking directly at the older Marshal. "Just every other person, or every few people, depending on my mood. I find it makes them too angry to bore me with tedious and asinine questions."
Mitchís grin fell into a sneer. "Well, maybe we will pick up the pace for you a little sir. Donít want you to miss your hanging."
Ezra just smiled guilelessly and scooted back into the wagon.
They didnít travel through any towns, for which Ezra was grateful, but they still moved much too slowly. He didnít know if the others would come after him, in fact, part of him believed that they wouldnít. But, if Chris found out what he did, the damn man might think it was his duty as a lawman to stop him. That would not fit with his plan at all.
Actually, at the moment, the gamblerís plan was pretty simple. He knew that once they reached KC it would become quickly obvious he wasnít Isaacs. So, at some point before then, heíd attempt to "escape" and let the Marshals shoot him down. He just wanted to make them angry enough to shoot him in the back without hesitation when he tried. But if Chris showed upÖ
Chills hit Ezraís spine. Maybe it's not them, he begged.
"Several men. Lead oneís wearing all black and on a black horse."
He heard Mitch yell for the men to get into position. Ezra buried his head in his knees. He waited for an eternity, listening as the horses got closer and closer, their hooves sounding on the ground like death knells.
"Federal Marshals!" Mitch yelled out to the newcomers. "State your business!"
The horses thundered to a stop. He heard the creak of leather as someone dismounted.
"My name is Chris Larabee, Marshal, and this here is Sheriff JD Dunne. Weíre the law of Four Corners. Weíve been chasing you all day. We think you may have one of our men in your wagon." Chrisís voice sounded strained to Ezra, and tired. Maybe if he played his cards right, he could get Chris to shoot him in the back. Yeah, and maybe pigs will fly. Still, Ezra mused, he might succeed in aggravating the man enough for Chris to shoot him in the heart Ė heíd threatened to several times before and only the others being around had prevented him. If JD were the only other one with him, then boy wouldnít be able toÖ
"The law of Four Corners?" Mitch replied, breaking Ezra's reverie. "I was told there were seven of you. I only see six."
Damn again. The gangís all here.
"Exactly. One of my men, Ezra Standish, is missing. Heís about five foot ten with dark hair and green eyes. Wears the clothes of a gambler. He disappeared this morning about the time you came and left."
"Standish? No, sorry. Weíre carrying a prisoner by the name of Jacob Isaacs. Heís up for murder and theft in KC."
"Isaacs?" JDís voice sounded confused, and more leather creaked as the boy dismounted as well. "Jacob Isaacs was killed in Four Corners almost two weeks ago during an attempted bank robbery. Didnít you get the message?"
Silence reigned for a while, and horses huffed and shifted, waiting for the men to get on with it.
"He said he was Isaacs," Mitch eventually replied, his tone cautious, "and I see no reason to disagree with him outside of your word. That tin star could be stolen." Again no one spoke. Finally, he heard Chrisís voice again.
"Marshal, let me ask you this. From where does Jacob Isaacs hail from?"
Some mutterings and the sound of a paper being unfolded floated into the wagon. He heard a different Marshal speak, someone Ezraís didnít know the name of. "Says on the poster here that Isaacís from New York, Mitch."
Mitch swore. "New York? Christ," the Marshal sighed. "Your man Standish, I take it heís a southerner."
Clever man, Ezra thought, you figured it out.
He heard Chris reply in the affirmative to the Marshal, then the sound of the Marshal ordering Pete to let him out. With a jangling of keys, the door swung open revealing an annoyed looking Mitch. Pete ordered Ezra out. The gambler replied reluctantly, his eyes once more deadened. Within moments, he was unlocked and standing alone. He saw Chris and JD standing on the ground a few feet away and the other four still astride their horses.
Mitch wandered up and grabbed Ezraís chin in his hand, pulling the manís face up so their eyes matched.
"Whyíd you tell us you were Isaacs?" he hissed.
Ezra shrugged, replying quietly so that only the Marshal could hear. "Because I am Isaacs. That name is about as real as any other Iíve used over the years. What does it matter since I am guilty of the same crimes Ė murder and theft." He paused, "Iím just not the Isaacs you were looking for."
Mitch shook his head, and let Ezraís chin go. "I donít know what is wrong with you, boy, but youíre damn lucky these men bothered to come after you. Iím not sure I would." He stalked off, ordering his men to get ready to move out. The wagon driver crawled up on to the top of the wagon and threw off Ezraís bags and his gunbelt.
"No," Ezra replied to Mitchís retreating back, "neither would I." He looked over at the six, who hadnít moved. He smiled slightly when he saw Chaucer trying to pull away from where Vin held his reins in a tight grip. Seeing the gamblerís gaze, Vin let the horse go. Elated, Chaucer danced over to his master, and Ezra began to speak softly to the quarter horse. Then he turned to gather his things to place on the horseís back, after strapping his guns back around his waist.
Chris stepped forward. "Ezra," he called.
The gambler turned. "Thank you for bringing Chaucer. I guess I should have realized youíd worry about why I hadnít taken him. An oversight on my part." He started tying the bags to the saddle. "Well, youíve done your duty. You can leave now."
Chrisís eyes narrowed in annoyance, but JD spoke before he could. "Ezra, weíve come to take you home," the boy tried. Ezra paused for a moment, then continued on as if he hadnít heard him.
"I don't believe in homes, Mr. Dunne. But since I surmise that you are may be speaking of that god forsaken dust bowl called Four Corners, you should know Iím not going there either."
"ButÖ" JD looked at Buck, who shrugged. "Why not?"
Ezra stopped his work again, and leaned heavily against Chaucerís hide. The horse nickered softly at him, turning his beautiful head to try and nuzzle the gambler. He buried his head in his arms as they pressed against the saddle. Why was this so hard? Couldnít they see that he was poison to them?
Josiah dismounted and moved forward. He reached a hand to take the gamblerís shoulders, and was surprised when Ezra jerked away as if heíd just been touched by a hot poker. Chaucer neighed and danced away a little. Angry green eyes burned into the preacher.
"Donít touch me," he hissed. "Why canít you all just leave me be? Canít you see I donít belong with you anymore? I have gotten everything I needed from you, and no longer feel it necessary to hang around with such a pitiful group of rejects."
"Ezra, you donítÖ" Josiah soothed.
"Stop! Not another word you pathetic old man. What could you possibly say to me that would be worth anything?" Ezraís eyes narrowed venomously, causing Josiah to step away. Ezra warmed to his role and followed the preacher, a dark leer forming on his face.
"You are nothing but a washed up, ex-preacher whose existence has become so stained in blood that you will spend the rest of your life trying to wash it from your hands. How many people did you betray, huh, Sanchez? How many lives did you destroy with your so-called words of wisdom? You thought God had forsaken you? Hell no, you forsook him when you picked up the gun in your hand and started on you own personal road to hell. You are not dragging me down with you as you have done others."
"Ezra!" Nathan reprimanded, dismounting to stand next to the startled preacher. Josiah could do nothing more than blink under the onslaught.
"Oh ho! Is that the forked tongue of one of natureís lower born, I hear? The voice of a slave whose only business should be picking the cotton on my ancestorís soils, not pretending to heal people in a town where he probably does more harm than good. How many lives could have been saved had they had a real doctor to tend them, Nathan? Every time you lay those dark hands on a body, they risk their lives two fold! I pity every man that must come under your butcher knife."
The healer staggered back into JD. The boy looked shocked, but before he could say something, Ezra was off again. "Oh, donít look so shocked, pretend sheriff. A child in a manís world. Tell me, what would your mother say if she saw you hanging out with this group of reprobates? Would she be proud to know that her son, the one she raised to be a gentleman, threw all her hard work away to come West as soon as she was gone?"
"Ezra, whatÖ." JD had tears in his eyes.
"But perhaps she would be more shocked to know that you killed an innocent woman in your glory driven ambition?" Ezra sneered. A sob wracked JDís body as if a stake had been driven through his heart.
"Thatís it!" Buck yelled, vaulting off his horse to rush the smaller gambler. Ezra had his derringer out and in the tall manís face, bringing Buck to a halt.
"Uh, uh, uh, Mr. Wilmington," the gambler said, stepping back and waving a finger in Buckís red face with his other hand. "I am not finished yet."
"Yes you are, Ezra," Chris said from somewhere behind him. Ezraís eyes blackened as he turned to face his former leader, backing up sideways so that he could have both men in his sights. Chris had his own colt out and trained on the smaller man. Ezra grinned, switching his derringer to point at the black clad gunslinger. Chaucer danced to match his ownerís movements, shadowing him and blocking him from Buck. The horse bared its teeth at the ladies man, daring him to step closer.
"Oh no, I most certainly am not, Mr. Larabee. There is such a thing as freedom of speech, and I feel it necessary to exercise that right."
"Ezra, please stop this!" Vin called from where he still sat on his mount.
"Why, is that the ever silent Mr. Tanner? How wonderful to hear your voice, sir, sometimes I wonder if you can speak at all. Especially considering you have so much trouble reading what you say. Or is it writing what you say?" He ignored Vinís suddenly betrayed expression as he dug deeper into the manís fears.
"But those words, "stop" and "please," why, you probably know them so well that your could recognize how they look on paper from memory. Tell, me, did you plead like that to Charlotte when she went back to her husband?" Vin cringed as if heíd been shot, and still Ezra continued, "or perhaps those are the words the bounties you captured used on you? Did any of them swear their innocence, as you do? Its no wonder no one believes you anymore than you believed them. Have a lot of innocent blood on your conscience, sir?"
"No more than you, you bastard!" Vin retorted.
"Oh, I seriously doubt that!"
"I said thatís enough!" Chris yelled. Buck tried to step forward again his fists raised in a murderous position. Chaucer reared, forcing the man back. Ezraís derringer never moved from where it was held on Chrisís face.
"Mr. Wilmington really hasnít learned yet, has he, Chaucer? He keeps trying to move forward where heís not wanted. Similar to the way he works with Inez, donít you think? Iím surprised he lets her get away with it, since he clearly doesnít let any of the other women he comes across have the same courtesy. How many women have you forced yourself upon, eh, Bucky boy?"
"How dare you, Standish! You know perfectly wellÖ"
"No, Mr. Wilmington, I do not. I know nothing of the sort. All I know is that you change women as often as I change my shirt, and I donít see you offering them more than the chance to watch you lavish attention on someone else the next night. But what else can you expect from the son of a whore."
Buckís scream as he tried for Ezra was cut short when Chaucer bowled the man over. Buck rolled a few feet, gasping for breath. The horse had hit him solidly in the chest with his body, and threatened to chase him with his hooves. Ezra stopped the horse with a shout. JD yelled his Buckís name, and both he and Nathan were by the tall manís side in seconds. Ezraís lip trembled, and he risked looking away from Chris to make sure Buck was all right. When he looked back, Chris was still staring at him, gun still aimed at his head. Off to the side, Josiah frowned. Heíd seen the crack in Ezraís armor, and suddenly realized what the gambler was doing. The preacher worked to gather his shattered soul back around him.
Ezraís face fell into a grimace. "I saved the best for last, didnít I, Mr. Larabee?"
"You can talk, Standish, but I do not have to listen."
"Oh, how apt," the gambler sneered. "We have to listen to you moan on about your dead family when youíre so damn drunk that whiskey comes out your nose, but you refuse to listen to those around you when they try to tell you the truth. The only thing that arriving home earlier might have done was allow you more time to hear Sarah and Adam screaming as the fire consumed them. Is that what you want to be told, Mr. Larabee?"
"Ezra, I would shut up now," Chris replied menacingly, the vein in his temple throbbing.
"Or what? Youíll shoot me? I donít believe you have the strength, Larabee. Just like you donít have the strength to move on. Look at you! Still wearing black. Is that what Sarah and Adam would have wanted you to do? You let the bastards who killed them win every day you don that damn outfit, every day you ignore the fact that you canít bring them back. Theyíre dead, Larabee! Get over it, you pathetic excuse for a man!"
The shot Chris fired echoed loudly in everyoneís ears, Ezraís louder than most. Chaucer screamed and reared, but he never left Ezraís side. The gambler, meanwhile, opened his eyes slowly, amazed he wasnít dead yet. When he looked again, he saw that Chris had aimed over his head. The man lowered his gun again to point at Ezra.
"Be quiet Ezra."
His chest heaving, Ezra could only grin back. "Quiet? Like you? No way in hell. There is only one way to quiet me, and you know it. Until that time, I suggest you practice your aim. Itís a little off. Here, let me show you." He placed the derringer against his temple, and tapped the metal against his skull. "You either aim for the head," he moved the gun, and tapped it against his chest, "or for the heart. Otherwise, I suggest you let me leave."
"No," Josiahís weak voice was heard from where he still stood after receiving his own tongue lashing from Ezra. The others ignored him. Chris kept his gun on Ezra, but the gambler had replaced his derringer in his sleeve and was straightening the cuffs as if nothing had just occurred. Buck got to his feet, a hand on his chest, and with some help from JD and Nathan, the three moved slowly back to the horses and away from the gambler. Vin, still on his horse, was now looking into the distance, unable to look Ezra in the face. Only Chris and Josiah watched as the gambler finished tying his things, mounted, and rode off, away from where the sun was setting.
Only after Ezra had disappeared over the rise did anyone try to speak again. Josiah licked his lips, looking around at the others.
"Damn, he knew exactly where to strike, didnít he? Hit each of us square on the mark."
JD looked up, his brown eyes startled, tears streaming down his face. "What?" he whispered.
"I knew he was good, but that was truly impressive," Josiah said by way of explanation, shaking his head. He moved over to Quincy, the young quarter horse neighing softly.
"Where are you going?" Chris asked, as Josiah mounted.
"Well, after him, of course." The preacher wiped a hand across his face to wipe away some of the moisture that had arisen unbidden to his eyes. He swallowed, and smiled benignly at the black clad gunslinger. "You donít think he meant any of that, do you?" When Chris didnít answer, Josiah looked around at the others. They all looked to him with a mixture of anger and bewilderment.
Josiah clenched his jaw. God, were they all that blind? Ezra had just pulled the most painful con of his life, but that was all it had been, a con. He had hit every single possible nerve in every one of them, exposing to the world their deepest fears, specifically so that, if they didnít kill him, they would at least him leave so he could go kill himself. Well, it wouldnít work. Over to his left, Nathanís eyes widened in sudden understanding.
"Damn it!" the healer spat, shaking his head as if trying to shake the fog of self-pity that had enveloped it. Leaving the ladies man to JDís care, he moved to Gideon and mounted. Buck was fine, just had the wind knocked out of him. The healer clicked at his horse so that he came astride Josiah.
"I still need to check that bastard's rib. Thinks he can con me, huh? Well he ain't getting away with it. No matter how good a con he is, that rib's still gotta be hurting him." He closed his lips into a tight line, his dark eyes catching Josiahís thankful ones.
Vin came up next to them, his head up as he searched the area where the con man had disappeared.
"Heís not that good a con," the tracker said quietly.
"Speak for yourself," Buck replied, coughing and patting his chest. Shaking off JDís arm, the ladies man walked to where Gray was watching him sleepily. Patting the horse on the side, he mounted, a sharp exhale the only sign that he was still sore.
JD looked to the ground and wiped his face with his sleeve. When he looked up again, he had a smile on his face.
"Can I deck him when we get him home?"
Buck laughed, slapping JD on the back after the young man got on his own horse. "You gotta wait in line boy."
Josiah looked at Chris who was still on the ground. Blue eyes met blue eyes, and Josiahís sparkled as he raised his eyebrows in a silent question. Chris shut his eyes, shaking his head.
"Fine. But if he tries a stunt like this again, I will blow his damn fool head off," he announced angrily, grabbing Solon and mounting. Together they set out after Ezra.
Ezra had ridden in a fast gallop after cresting the ridge that hid him from the others, trying to distract himself from the way his breath kept catching in his throat as if he were on the verge of, God forbid, crying. He would never allow himself to give in to such a useless display of emotion. Thankfully, Chaucerís brilliant speed had succeeded in bringing him back to himself, allowing him to build his walls up again, making him calm.
He slowed as he approached a small forest at the top of the next rise, and headed directly for the hardy oak he could see on the far side. With care, he wound Chaucer through the mixture of ash, pine and smaller oak trees towards it, never taking his eyes from its sturdy branches. In the distance, some wild mustangs were running free. The horse beneath him bounced a little in excitement. Ezra smiled as he pulled the rope out from one of his saddlebags.
"You remember them, huh boy?" He dismounted and took off the horseís saddle. Then he took of the rest of his best friendís tack until Chaucer was barebacked. He brushed him down a little, then pulled himself back up onto the horseís back.
"You remember it was with a group just like them that I found you, boy? Or maybe you found meÖ" He began knotting the rope into a noose as he talked. Heíd gotten mixed up with some rustlers stealing Mustangs from federal lands. Chaucer, who had still been very young at the time, belonged to the leader of the rustlers, and, for some reason, took an immediate shine to the gambler. Ezra got into the habit of feeding him lumps of sugar, and was the only one whom Chaucer would allow on his back for longer than two seconds other than the leader. Then one night, Ezra had one of his first serious bouts of conscience. On Chaucerís back, heíd freed all the mustangs and, conveniently, all the rustlerís other horses, and disappeared into the night. He had no idea what happened to those men, but, even though he had given Chaucer the opportunity to leave as well, the horse had stayed with him. Followed him for hours, attacking the other horse that Ezra had borrowed from the rustlers to ride. Finally, the gambler had given in and the two became inseparable. Well, until now. He finished the knots and looked at the rough noose.
"After Iím gone, I want you to go and join that lot, okay? Iím sure youíll fit right in, what with your strength and speed. Every mare in the bunch will be after your hide. The stallion ruling them now wonít stand a chance." He laughed, and threw the noose over the branch over his head. He tied it tight and pulled on it a few times to ensure it wouldnít slip or break. The smile on his face fell as he looked through the hole for his neck to the meadows beyond.
"Iím sorry, my friend, to make you an instrument of this. It is not what I would have planned, but no one else seems in the mood to kill me today. So, I choose the cowardís death. Fitting, really." He took the noose in one hand, and moved forward to put his head through it.
"Youíre not a coward Ezra," Chrisís voice broke the stillness.
He hadnít even heard them come up behind him, so intent was he on the rope. But just that one voice was all it took to break him.
His walls shattered.
"Oh God," Ezra groaned, his hand shaking where it still held on to the noose. He bent over Chaucerís back, and in moments his whole body shook as he completely lost control.
Chris and Josiah dismounted and approached the chestnut, and for once Chaucer didnít react to their nearness. The horse just watched them come, and Vin could have sworn he seemed almost thankful. Behind them, the others were all dismounted, forming a rough semi-circle.
Ezra turned a tear stained face towards Josiah, his breath coming out in gasps. The ex-preacher placed a hand on the gamblerís leg, and this time Ezra didnít move away. There was so much pain in the gamblerís face, it nearly took the manís own breath away, but, instead, Josiah smiled. Finally, the preacher thought to himself.
"WhyÖ?"Ezra begged, his voice trembling. "After what I said, you should haveÖ. Why couldnít you just let me go?"
"Afraid you canít get rid of us, son," Josiah replied.
"We own you," Chris stated.
Nathan walked up and held his arms up to the gambler. "Are you coming down here so I can look at that rib of yours, or are you going to make us drag you off?"
A small laugh escaped the gamblerís lips, but he swung his legs over and slid to the ground off Chaucerís back. "I guess I need to work on my conning skills, eh Nathan? Saw right through me, didnít you."
Nathan merely smiled and waved at Ezra to unbutton his waistcoat. The gambler brought his hands up, but they still shook so much that he couldnít manage it. His face got redder, and he brought his hands to cover his face.
"God, Iím so sorry," he pleaded, falling to his knees. Josiah was there immediately, grabbing and holding the hurting man to his chest.
The others came closer as well, getting down on their own knees and reaching out to touch their friend.
"We are taking you home, Ez," JD stated with finality. "And one word in argument and youíll head home in cuffs, got it?"
Through his tears, Ezra laughed and looked up at the young sheriff. "Yes sir," he replied with a smile. Then JD looked up, frowning a little at the equine glare that seemed to settle on him, and an odd look crossed his face.
"Um, but, you gotta saddle Chaucer yourself. He nearly took my head off last time."
It was about a week later and Ezra was on patrol again. The Northern reaches. Indian Summer had once more settled over the territories, the warmth unnatural after the cold, and no wind to lighten the heat. Annoyed, the gambler pulled off the maroon wool jacket and laid it across the front of the saddle, and pulled his high collar away from his sweating neck.
Chaucer came to a stop without any directions from his owner, and put his head down to eat some grass. Ezra leaned forward on the saddle horn and looked at the field in front of him. It was the same field that he been staring at the day he had thought himself too bored to be in this town, the same day the Colonel had arrived and nearly took it away from him. A smile crossed his face, and he chuckled.
Horse hooves echoed behind him, and he turned in the saddle. As before, he quickly recognized the horses and their riders, the two men grinning as they came galloping towards him. Ezraís own smile grew and he tilted his head patiently.
"Hey, Ez," Nathan called as he got closer. "Thought you might like some company."
"Vin said you might be bored or something," JD agreed, pushing his bowler hat off his forehead and wiping at some of the sweat gathered there.
"Nice to see you as well, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Dunne. And yes, company is always appreciated up here." Ezra tipped his hat in thanks.
JD grinned, "I got a new joke, Ez, wanna hear it?"
Ezra was about to say no, but Nathan interrupted him. "Oh come one now JD, donít torture the man anymore, not after the week heís had."
Ezra laughed as JD glared at the healer, and shook his head. The gambler's face became thoughtful then.
"Actually, Nathan, I donít consider my week to have been that bad."
Nathan looked incredulous, and even JD looked surprised. "What, are you nuts?" the kid asked.
"Why no, kind sirs. Truth be told, I found there to be a silver lining surrounding this frightful debacle."
"Oh?" Nathan looked at the young sheriff, who shrugged.
"Absolutely. For one thing, I donít think Iíll ever admit to being bored again. Second, well..." he looked away in the direction of town, his voice dropping a little of its usual swagger. "I think I discovered that JDís jokes are a small price to pay for the company."
Nathan laughed, and JD switched his glare to the gambler. He was pretty sure heíd just been insulted, but it had also sounded like a compliment at the same time, so he figured heíd glare just for good measure despite being a little confused. Ezraís mouth twitched at the boyís odd expression. Then the boyís face returned to its normally guileless visage.
"Oh by the way, Ez," he fished something out of his breast pocket. He smiled as he handed the bills over to the astonished gambler. "Some of the ranch hands came by and gave this to Inez. Said it was yours. Said they figured youíd been cheating so as they could win, and they didnít want to win that way. I think thereís almost three hundred dollars here."
"What?" Ezra didnít take the money, just kept looking at JD like heíd sprouted two heads. Nathan smirked. He loved seeing his friend so nonplussed.
"Well," JD shrugged, "I think Josiah had something to do with it. Kept grabbing the guys heíd seen you play against the night when, well, you know, and telling them how gambling was a sin and stuff. He can look really big when he wants to."
Ezra nodded, and took the money quietly. He rolled it up and tucked it in his waistcoat before turning and grinning at JD. "I have a lot to thank that man for," he said.
"Hell yes," Nathan replied vehemently.
"So you want to hear my joke?" JD asked.
Ezra just looked at Nathan, and the healer looked back. Suddenly, they both took off at a gallop heading back towards town.
"HEY!" JD screamed, and kicked his own stallion. "This oneís a good one! I SWEAR! Oh come on guys!"