"Don't think he's listening, Ezra."
"Thank you, Mistah Wilmington. Your brilliance is perfectly personified by your pedestrian grasp of the obvious."
Buck Wilmington frowned as he calculated Ezra's meaning. He looked over to Vin Tanner and asked, "Did he just insult me?" The ladies' man knew that the tracker was receiving more advanced instruction from the gambler; Vin's vocabulary had expanded exponentially since the long-haired Texan agreed to reading and writing lessons from the card sharp. All of Ezra Standish's compatriots, as he was wont to call his partners in law enforcement … and friends in life, knew that he had not finished any advanced education. It was, however, evident to them all, and to the parents of the children he continued to instruct due to the town's inability to keep a schoolteacher, despite the new schoolhouse, that his knowledge was vast and deep, his interests broad, and his desire to disseminate it all to anyone who cared, that his presence was a boon to many in the town, namely most every child … and one Vin Tanner.
"Yep," the former bounty hunter replied, stingy as ever in conversation despite his instruction under Era's tutelage.
"Fred, Ah must insist that you get down," Ezra said to the little orange and white dog. The hound had been pestering the poker player for the last few minutes, non-stop. He'd kept his front paws up on Ezra's thigh as the southerner sat in a chair on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, attempting to read that day's issue of The Clarion newspaper. The well-read man had been interrupted persistently with what seemed playfulness from the dog, his paws knocking forcefully into the paper, whacking it from Ezra's grasp and forcing the gambler to find where on the page he had left off. The sharply dressed man was losing patience, having read through the last paragraph in a story about a traveling Shakespeare troupe at least four times. He had yet to ascertain the dates of the performances or which of The Bard's plays were on the program. That information was just ahead, but apparently, as far as young Fred was concerned, should remain out of reach.
"Don't think he's listenin'," Chris Larabee said as he stepped onto the boardwalk through the drinking establishment's batwing doors. He held a cup of coffee in his left hand, keeping his right available to his handgun, just in case.
"He is not," Ezra agreed, sounding annoyed as he folded up the paper and looked Fred in the eye. Ezra never showed an ounce of frustration with the little dog, but he was having a hard time hiding his exasperation today. "Why are you bein' recalcitrant?" Vin snorted a laugh. 'Like father like son' the tracker thought to himself. The little hound dog, who had taken to Ezra like, well, Ezra to cards, placed all four paws on the boardwalk and jumped down to the dirt boulevard. He started to step away, in the direction of the church and the livery, but immediately stopped to see if his favorite person was following. He noted the lack of movement from any of the men, and barked demandingly as he stared at the only one of them that really mattered. The Merton family had taken the dog in and treated him as a member of their family, much to the delight of their daughter and their two most recently adopted children, but Fred would always and forever consider Ezra his. The poker player might never express it out loud, but it was obvious to just about everyone that the southerner felt the same way about the formerly orphaned canine. Maude Standish might still be alive, but that didn't mean that her son didn't know what it felt like to be all alone in the world.
"Think he's lookin' for you to follow, Ez," Vin said.
Ezra looked first to the dark-haired, mustachioed man, then to the long-haired man in the buckskin jacket, and then over to the leader of the seven peacekeepers, now famous as The Magnificent Seven. Chris smirked, looked toward Fred, and then said, looking back at Ezra, "Think Vin's right." The gambler stared a little longer at Chris. He finally grinned, said under his breath, 'Ah see young Fred is the original thinker of this foursome', and rose from his seat.
"Whaddya say?" the tall blond asked.
"Why, Mistah Larabee, Ah was wonderin' if one of you gentlemen might join me in the investigation that Fred is insistin' upon."
"Don't think that's what ya said."
"Mistah Wilmington, might Ah suggest an ear cleaning is in your future?"
"Eh? What's that ya say?" Buck joked.
"I'll come with ya, Ezra. I'm curious 'bout what's got the dog all riled up."
"Mistah Larabee, he has a name. You do realize," Ezra said as he handed the newspaper to Vin and he and Chris headed down the steps in front of the saloon and followed after the quickly moving little dog, "that Fred would recognize the kindness in anyone who bothered to call him by his name."
"Don't care," Chris replied.
"Do tell. That would be a different story from what Monsieurs Wilmington and Tanner tell." They continued their walk with Chris not acknowledging his friend's comment. "You don't care about that either, do you?"
Ezra sighed. Buck previously assured him that the formidable gunman liked dogs. Vin had, within the last week, told the poker player that he saw, just the other day, their leader tossing a stick and encouraging the hound to bring it back. That Fred would do any of what the soft-spoken Texan described told Ezra that the two had been spending some quality time together.
Fred was still in their sights, but made the turn into the open livery door. As the two men approached, they heard what sounded like a fight going on inside, followed by what was clearly a pained yelp from Fred. Ezra skipped into a jog, both men had their guns drawn. As they reached the door, a horse and rider came flying out. The rider kicked hard at Ezra's right arm, forcing the lawman to fall onto the edge of the water trough not far behind them. His hip slammed hard into the rigid corner, his back landing solidly on the top edge, the sharp pain of it taking him to the ground. The horse's strong chest knocked Chris completely off his feet. His body flew into the air and landed hard on the hard-packed ground. He still had his gun, and he rose quickly to fire when he was stopped cold by the impassioned yelling of a southern-accented voice.
"No! Chris!" Ezra screamed frantically.
Chris had already started to press the trigger of his Colt, not aiming to hit the retreating man in the back, but to get close enough to put enough of a scare into him to get him to stop. The extraordinary reflexes that made Chris Larabee notorious had him pull the gun into the air at the last minute and shoot the bullet high over where the man and beast now headed out of sight. The curve of the road, not far beyond the church, and the copse of trees that skimmed the path of the road, prevented Chris from making a second attempt to shoot.
"Hell, Ezra!" Chris said angrily as he watched the southerner limp hurriedly into the stable area.
"He's gone, Mr. Standish." Tiny stood in the middle of the livery, blood covering his face, Fred limp in his arms.
Ezra stood, hardly breathing. He was sure he'd seen … but now he had something else to mourn. He walked up to Tiny and took the hound dog, who whimpered softly. Ezra's face screwed up in pain and confusion. The liveryman realized what he'd said and quickly clarified. "Chaucer, he took Chaucer."
The former con man held Fred tenderly. "Dear lord," Ezra cried as he ventured into the empty manger; the stall was the home of his horse. Chaucer.
But Chaucer wasn't there.
"Tiny, you all right?" Chris asked as he saw the blood smear on the liveryman's cheek.
"Yes, yes. He hit me from behind," the man who took such good care of their horses explained. He put his hand to the back of his head; it came away bloody. "I was stunned, but I got up as he was tightening the cinch. He kicked me in the face. He got away. I didn't think … " he said, then paused and looked over to Ezra. "I am so sorry, Mr. Standish."
Ezra was as stunned emotionally as Tiny had been physically. He stood staring at the empty manger, carefully holding and petting the dog. He looked down and didn't see anything seriously wrong, but that didn't mean he hadn't been kicked by a horse, or stepped on by accident, both of which could have caused serious bruising to a small dog. Chris knew that his friend was in shock over the events, but they needed to get moving if they were going to catch the thief.
"Did anyone see who it was?" Chris asked.
"You did not see?" Tiny asked as he looked from Chris to Ezra and then back to the intimidating blond.
Chris answered as he watched for any reaction from the gambler. The former gunslinger now questioned whether Ezra interrupted his aim because he knew it was Chaucer who might get hit from a stray bullet, or whether he recognized who stole him.
"It … It was young J.D." Just as Tiny answered, Buck and Vin showed up, weapons in hand, followed shortly by the former preacher Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson, the town's healer. The last to enter the livery was Robert Merton.
"Tiny, get Ezra a horse," Chris ordered.
"Get Ezra a horse?" Buck asked.
"Where's J.D.?" Chris asked his oldest friend.
"J.D.?" the ladies' man asked. "I expect he'll be here any minute." Chris watched as Robert took Fred from Ezra's arms. He overheard the southerner tell the cattleman that there appeared to be nothing externally that seemed worrisome. That they might get some idea from Tiny what happened. That if there were internal injuries, they would have to wait and see.
"Let's get saddled up. We need to follow Chaucer, see what the hell's goin' on," Chris said as he headed to Pony's stall. Buck watched Chris' back as he walked away, and then turned to Ezra.
"Someone stole your horse?" he asked.
Ezra looked toward Buck, finally coming out of the funk that watching his precious animal being stolen before his eyes had put him. Not knowing how badly Fred might be hurt wasn't helping. "It seems our Mistah Dunne has absconded with mah … with Chaucer."
"Like hell," Buck challenged. Ezra glared at the taller man. Vin stepped in before his two friends came to blows.
"It's J.D.'s boot tracks over in Chaucer's stall," the tracker said.
"That don't mean nothin'. You know J.D.'s got special feelins for your horse, Ez."
"Ah … " Ezra started to answer, but Vin cut him off.
"Stall's been freshly raked, new straw got kicked around enough ta see. Marks are clear. So are the footprints."
"I don't believe it," Buck said, still not aware that Tiny had been both witness and victim to J.D. Dunne's actions.
"Then where is J.D.?" Josiah asked of Buck. He and Nathan had their horses ready to go. Both men looked worriedly toward the near-silent southerner. Nathan kept an eye on Ezra even as he walked over to check out Tiny's injuries. It was decidedly unusual for the man to be so quiet about something so important to him.
"I don't know."
"Boys, I'm gonna take Fred back to my place," Robert said. Ezra nodded sadly.
"Mr. Standish, I've got Stella ready for you," Tiny's son said as he brought the big mare over to the gambler. "She's a good horse," he added, not looking at Ezra. He was a shy young man, despite the efforts that the former con man had made over the past few years to help him with his confidence; he still seemed unable to spend time comfortably amongst other people.
"Yes, Ah know," Ezra said as he took the reins and patted the young man on his shoulder. The professional poker player was an expert horseman, and was known to take some of the rental horses out for workouts, Stella among them.
As Nathan finished cleaning the cut on his face, Tiny said to Ezra, "I am so sorry." The healer took his bag of healing supplies back to his horse. The other members of The Magnificent Seven watched as Ezra and Tiny spoke quietly with one another, Tiny obviously feeling the need to tell Ezra as much as he could about the incident. The southerner's part in the conversation seemed restricted to an occasional nod of the head, some softly spoken instruction. They knew their cue to mount up as Ezra shook hands with the kind liveryman, then heaved himself up onto Stella.
"We'll find 'im, Ez," Chris said.
"Ah … " the former con man started, but his voice caught. He cleared his throat and said softly, "If J.D. would do this, then there must be somethin' awry with Miss Casey and Missus Wells, or both." He watched forlornly as Tiny followed in Robert's footsteps heading back into town.
"That's what I figured, too," Vin agreed.
"It weren't J.D.," Buck insisted angrily.
"It was," Chris said firmly. "Tiny saw him." Before the livery owner left, Chris called, "Tiny, let Robert Merton know … "
"Mr. Standish already told me to have Mr. Merton and Dave and Marty on alert while you are gone."
"All right. Let's ride," Chris ordered as they headed out on a still-crisp mid-morning, straight for Nettie Wells' homestead.
The scared young man raced the willing gelding all out as he rode toward the small, tucked-away valley where the old homesteader and her niece kept horses, grew a variety of apples to sell in town, and strawberries that also brought some money into the household, and maintained a productive vegetable garden for their own use. Chaucer was always ready for a good run, so J.D knew he would make it there well-ahead of anyone who followed him, despite the dangers of a post-winter rutted road.
The three men had threatened terrible things. J.D. hated to leave the two women he'd grown to care for alone with them, but he also knew he'd had no choice. He came up with the idea to steal Ezra's horse in order to lure his fellow lawmen out of town, and it troubled him deeply that this was the best idea he could come up with. He doubted that Ezra would ever forgive him for doing it, and he couldn't blame him. He thought of how he would feel if something similar ever happened to Milagro. But he couldn't leave Casey and Nettie alone for long with these men. He was desperate. He just hoped he could explain it all to the gambler. He hoped they would still be friends after this day was through.
"Good." The leader of the men holding the aunt and niece hostage turned to Nettie and said, "Just stay quiet and don't try nothin' and you both should be fine when we leave."
"What about J.D.?" Casey asked.
"So long as he sits quiet, he can live, too."
J.D. brought Chaucer to a fast stop, jumped from the saddle, quickly tying the reins to the post in front of Nettie's house, ran up the steps … and right into the barrel of Adam Robinson's rifle.
"Hold on, boy," Adam warned as J.D.'s chest met his Winchester at the top step. The young easterner could see his guns hanging just a few feet away, but knew he risked injury to the two women inside if he did.
"I wanna see them," J.D. insisted.
"They're fine. Are they comin'?"
"Yeah, they're comin'."
Adam stepped down to Chaucer as another of the men kept a gun aimed at the young man who was still catching his breath from the ride from town. "This is a fine horse. Can see why someone would come after him if he got stole." He petted Chaucer's neck and turned to J.D. "All of 'em comin'?"
"I ain't got eyes in the back o' my head, but yeah, they'll all be comin'. They know how important Chaucer is to Ezra. They know he'd head out searchin' on his own, but we all help … we help each other out." J.D. wondered if he would still be considered in that 'we' after this morning. The outlaw checked the handsome horse over some more. "Leave 'im be," J.D. warned. "They'll be along soon enough."
"Get on inside."
J.D. was torn about leaving Chaucer and heading in to check on Casey and Nettie. "I suggest you leave him alone," he said as he stepped back down to the ground. "He don't like most people."
"Bud?" Adam asked.
"I got 'im."
J.D. ignored the threat and stepped up to Chaucer, quickly had the buckle and latigo undone and the cinch loosened so that no one could ride the horse without spending some time girthing it up again. But J.D. knew something that these men didn't: there was no way in hell that Chaucer would let someone he didn't know strap him up. He also was a pain in the ass about being ponied. This gave him a chance that these men would not be able to take Chaucer with them, and for J.D. not to end up with one of Ezra's bullets in his body.
He turned and hurried inside to find Casey and Nettie all right, scared but all right. Both now had their hands tied behind the backs of the chairs they sat in. He heard Chaucer shriek, one of the men yell, and then the sound of only three horses charging away from Nettie's house in the opposite direction of Four Corners. He breathed a sigh of relief as he pulled his knife and started cutting through the rope.
"Are you two all right?"
"J.D., they could come back," Casey said.
"No. I heard all three o' their horses, and I can see Chaucer through the window," he added. "Reckon they're supposed to meet up with the ones in town. Figure they're lookin' to rob the bank."
"Chaucer? Ain't that Mr. Standish's fine horse?" Nettie asked as J.D. cut through her bindings. He moved over to work on Casey's as Nettie rubbed her wrists.
"Yeah. I had to do what they asked."
"They asked you to steal Ezra's horse?" Casey questioned, her forehead furrowed, showing her confusion.
"Well, no, that was my idea. They wanted me to do something that would draw 'em out o' town."
"That would do it," Casey said as the ropes slipped from her wrists. "Ezra loves that horse," she noted as she stood, turned and gave J.D. a smothering hug.
"We appreciate what ya did," Nettie said as she patted him on the back and walked to the stove to retrieve her tea kettle. She went to her new indoor sink with her new indoor pump and filled the kettle. "Not too sure Mr. Larabee will feel the same."
"Yeah. Reckon they got others in town planning to rob the bank. I didn't hide it was me takin' Chaucer. Tiny put up a good fight."
"I don't doubt that he did," Nettie said with a chuckle.
"It ain't funny, Miss Nettie," J.D. said. "Chris is gonna be mad at me. And Tiny could o' hurt me."
Casey stood looking at her hero and said, "I think he'll understand."
"He might, but we still got trouble. We'll have to head straight back."
"I'm sure Mr. Larabee got Mr. Merton and a couple o' the other fellas to watch things," Nettie surmised. "Had to've known that there was something wrong once Tiny was able to get to someone."
The sound of horses galloping full-out was heard coming through the open door, from the direction of town.
"That'll be them," J.D. said with apprehension.
"Reckon," Nettie agreed. All three of them looked out the front door to see Ezra fly off the rental horse before she'd even stopped. The action halted the horse in her tracks, disconcerted by the actions of her normally gentle and attentive rider. Ezra gave Chaucer an unashamedly affectionate hug, then a good petting behind each ear, and then started looking him over for injury, all the while offering sweet nothings the likes of which would put Buck Wilmington out of a job if they'd been offered to any of Buck's ladies by the handsome and gentlemanly southerner.
"He's fine, Ez," J.D. called out as he stepped out onto the porch of the small ranch house. "I wouldn't … "
"There are many things Ah wouldn't have expected of you," Ezra said, the contraction sounding odd coming out of his mouth. Nettie and Casey shared a look, knowing that Ezra had the words to make J.D. feel even worse than he already did. Ezra lowered his head, pressed his hand to his forehead and went on. "Ah understand that the situation heah must have been dire. But despite what you would have wanted, any numbah of things might have happened to change what you would have wanted or what you would have done."
"Ezra, I think he gets it," Buck said as he slipped off of Clyde and took the steps up to stand beside his young friend. Buck and J.D. had grown as close as brothers early on in the story of The Magnificent Seven, and that bond had only grown in the three plus years they'd known one another.
"That's comfortin', Mistah Wilmington," the former con man retorted bitterly. "Ah trust that you will remembah that when someone absconds with Clyde."
"J.D. came up with the idea to … " Casey began, but a stern look from her aunt convinced her that relating that part of the day's events would not help how anyone was feeling. "Well, I mean … " she continued, before she finally – and wisely – stopped speaking.
Ezra stared at the young man a few steps away. Casey had gone too far, despite her efforts to stop herself.
"Of all of the options that could have drawn us out of town, you chose stealing mah horse and puttin' him in mortal jeopardy." It was not a question. It was how Ezra felt. The professional poker player rubbed his fingers up and down his nose, then leaned against his trusted steed.
"That's a bit of an exaggeration, ain't it, Ezra?" Josiah asked.
"You were not present as the boy rode out." Ezra turned to Chris, the only one of their group who was also witness to the encounter. The blond saw his upset friend grab hold of Chaucer's stirrup, as though to steady himself, but he was quickly distracted from that by Ezra's question. "Mistah Larabee, how would you characterize Mistah Dunne's exit from town and the treatment of mah horse?"
"I'd say he was desperate to get back here," the tall man from Indiana said as he looked toward the door to Nettie's cabin. Both Wells women gave him a relieved smile.
"See," Buck interrupted, but Chris was not finished.
"He rode hell-bent for leather. It was dangerous and foolish, both for him and for the horse," Chris said.
"Chaucer," Ezra noted. Vin snorted a laugh.
"Look, it don't matter," Buck said. "Miss Nettie and Miss Casey are fine. Your horse," Buck added, though the angry look Ezra sent him had the ladies' man quickly amend his phraseology. "Chaucer is fine."
"You are failin' to understand mah point," Ezra said as he lowered his head again and rubbed his fingertips between his eyes and down the bridge of his nose. He looked up, squinting. He wasn't doing a great job of hiding that he was hurting; he lowered his hat farther down to avoid the pain that squinting brought him. "If Ah did not know you bettah, Ah would say that you were doin' it purposefully."
Buck frowned and looked to Vin.
"Yep, that was an insult," the former buffalo hunter said, looking with worry at the card sharp. He wouldn't call Ezra out on the fact that he wasn't feeling well, but he stared at his friend so that he understood that Vin was on to him. He looked back to Buck. "You saw how we had ta be careful out on the trail. Been used a lot this winter. Lots more ruts."
"I was careful," J.D. insisted.
"Ah have heard enough. We need to return to town forthwith. Ah believe there is a bank bein' robbed," Ezra said, giving J.D. a hard glance. He then gave Chaucer one more good look, checked the cinch, paused as he noted it completely loose, tightened it and was quickly on his horse and heading back to town, leaving his fellow lawmen standing around Nettie's steps, a cloud of dust drifting by.
"Miss Nettie," Vin said as he headed toward the old woman who had become so dear to him.
"Best catch up to 'im. Don't need him meetin' up with those varmints all by himself," she said. Josiah and Nathan joined Vin and Buck on the trail, hoping to catch up to the accomplished rider and his fine equine. None of them expected to have trouble in that regard; Ezra would want to give his horse an easier ride back than he'd received on the way out. And it wasn't just Vin and Chris who had noticed the pained eyes, Ezra's fingers trying to ease the ache.
"Go get Stella, J.D.," Chris ordered. Ezra had not bothered to tie the horse as he rushed to Chaucer. As it turned out, she only grazed her way as far as the near end of the corral. The closer she got to the windmill, the sweeter the new spring grass, no doubt. J.D. ran down the steps to gather the mare.
"Don't be too hard on the boy," Nettie said to Chris.
"Can't promise that," the tall blond replied. "And he stopped bein' a boy a long time ago. Just ask him," Chris added.
"He thought he had to do somethin' to save me and Casey. We're both grateful that he did."
"I know you feel that way, Nettie. But he's the reason those men are likely tryin' to steal the town's money. He needs to learn to think on his feet, think smart, learn ways around the obvious," Chris explained.
"Reckon that's true," the rancher said. "He gonna be all right?" she asked, nodding her head toward town.
"Ezra?" Chris asked. "He'll get over it, so long as his horse is all right."
"You men can be so oblivious. I'm talkin' 'bout his headache. Heard he gets 'em bad."
"Yeah, he does. But he don't have one now."
"I hate to be the one to point this out to you, Mr. Larabee, but that man is sufferin' from the beginning of a bad period of headaches. One of my boys gets those sick headaches. Mr. Standish has one, right now. You could see it in how stiff his shoulders and neck were, and you could see it in his eyes. It probably wasn't wise to let him go, but I could see there was no stoppin' him."
Chris looked down the path, past the corral, in the direction his men had just gone. "Hell."
"What's wrong?" J.D. asked as he held Stella's reins.
"Lots o' things," the former gunslinger grumbled. "Put the horse out in the corral. Stay here, watch Nettie and Casey. I'll send Buck when everything's clear."
"But … "
"Stay here, J.D. How many of them were there?"
"Three here. Don't know about how many're in town." The young easterner paused and then said, "I don't think I have to stay … "
"All right," J.D. said testily as he stomped toward the corral.
"Your guns're hangin' on the hitching post."
J.D. looked to where Chris had indicated. He realized that he hadn't bothered to check for them since Robinson left. He felt his face flush in embarrassment, but realized he had to risk more of the same.
"Chris, one of the men was Adam Robinson."
The blond took a double take, the first name meaning so much to him. But his Adam was not this Adam. He offered a faint shrug and queried, "Am I supposed to know that name?"
"I … I don't know. Maybe not. But he was on a wanted poster in the last batch we got," J.D. told his boss.
Chris returned a steady stare before answering, "That would have been good for the others to hear," the accusation in the comment clear.
J.D. lowered his head, finding the dirt that he dug with his boot fascinating. "I know," he admitted shamefully.
"What's he wanted for? Bank robbery?"
"Yeah." J.D. paused just long enough for Chris to mount his horse, but he quickly added something else, though not loud enough for anyone to hear.
"What's that, J.D.?" Chris asked as he settled Pony down. He had been ready to tell the horse to head out, and as always, Pony had anticipated the signal. J.D. took longer to reply than Chris liked. "I ain't got all day, J.D."
"He's also wanted for murder."
Vin, Buck, Josiah and Nathan were about a third of the way back to town when they saw Chaucer at the edge of the road, nibbling on some grass. They slowed, worried that the gelding's owner wasn't obviously about.
"This ain't good," Buck said.
"Ezra!" Josiah yelled, followed quickly by the same shouted by Nathan.
"Back heah," they heard from behind. Vin turned Peso back the way they came and dismounted as Buck took Clyde ahead and pulled Ezra's horse back toward where Vin was looking over the edge and into the ravine. The Texan found Ezra leaned into a gnarly, dead pine tree in the dry riverbed alongside the road. The tracker headed down as he heard the unpleasant sounds of unproductive vomiting.
"Nate!" he called as he made his way down to Ezra. "Yer lucky there ain't water down here, pard," he said as he reached the former con man.
Ezra spit the last of the bile from his mouth and gave Vin a glare, followed by, "You can see the mud." He turned away, unable to finish his thought as a new wave of nausea hit. This one was far more than the unproductive retching Vin just witnessed. Ezra moved to his hands and knees, the only way he might possibly keep from soiling his fancy clothes.
"What's wrong?" Nathan called from the road.
"Be right back," Vin said to his sick friend, patting the red-coated shoulder as Ezra sat back down. The tracker jogged up the embankment to meet the healer. He noted the tall, thick grass that had benefited the gambler in his obvious tumble from his horse, making for a soft landing.
"Think he's got one o' them sick headaches," Vin told the black man. "Been throwin' up."
"Damn. He's supposed to let me know … " Nathan said as they both headed down to where the former con man sat, eyes closed, breathing heavily.
"Think he would o' if what happened with Chaucer hadn't happened," Vin said quietly. "Can you take care of 'im? Rest of us oughta git ta town."
"Yeah. We may be a while, though," Nathan replied. "Let me have your kerchief," the healer added, looking up at the blazing sun. Vin complied without question.
"I know. We'll see ya when ya git there," Vin said as he pressed his hand warmly to the neck of a quiet and sick Ezra Standish.
Nathan kneeled next to his fellow lawman. He didn't have much with him that would actually help his friend. What Ezra needed was to be in his room on his comfortable feather bed, the heavy drapes the southerner had Gloria Potter make just for these instances of illness drawn to block out the light. The man would do better in some place less noisy, but there was too little of that option left in what now truly felt like a bustling town instead of the 'dusty burg' that the professional poker player had dubbed Four Corners when he'd first arrived there now more than three years ago.
Ezra had enough experience being treated by Nathan Jackson that he knew immediately who was beside him without opening his eyes. "Nathan, Ah offer mah apology." The gambler winced as he spoke, and then continued in a near-whisper. "To say that Ah had been forced to ignore signs of an impending episode would do the definition of 'exaggeration' an injustice." Nathan could read all of the signs that his companion's head was killing him, the tears of pain not the least of those signals.
"I know," the healer said with sympathy. "You think you can ride back to town?"
Ezra was already terribly pale, but the suggestion of getting back on his horse at that moment had his visage grow a shade whiter. He swallowed as though attempting to stave off another bout of nausea. Nathan noticed the rapidly increased breathing, the sweat on the poker player's face. He was going to be sick again. No sooner did he note all of this, then it happened. This effort resulted in just a small amount of spittle, followed by a long bout of dry heaves.
"You done?" Nathan asked, knowing that his patient was. Ezra nodded. He was in immense pain, and still working on catching his breath. They both knew, as Ezra cracked his eyes to look at his friend, that there would be no riding back to Four Corners for quite a while.
Nathan took a look around the area. He knew he couldn't make a fire to heat any of his pain-healing tea; the wind had kicked up, as happened throughout the area during the springtime. Despite the sixty degree temperatures and the brilliant sunshine, the stiff wind could still chill a man. It was precisely at that moment of revelation that he saw Ezra tremble.
The healer had some work to do.
Vin, Buck and Josiah kept a brisk pace to town, and just as Chris, Vin and Ezra had suggested, the road full of new holes and exposed rock caused Peso to throw a shoe. "Damn!" the tracker yelled as he knew, first from the sudden slowdown, and then from the slight limp favoring the unshod hoof, exactly what had happened.
"What?" Buck called back. The tall, dark-haired lawman was in the lead now that Vin had Peso at a standstill.
"Threw a shoe. Go on, town needs ya. I'll have to ride 'im slow, walk through Old Ham Ridge."
"You sure, brother?" the town's de facto holy man asked.
"See you back in town," Buck said. "Watch yer back," he added.
"That better?" Nathan asked.
Ezra was still catching his breath after moving to the warmth of the grouping of boulders, and another bout of nausea. Nathan figured that the sun beating on the rocks would help ease his friend's trembling. Getting him away from the messy puddles from earlier sickness was another factor in moving the ailing card sharp.
"Yes. Thank you."
Nathan had also taken Vin's large bandanna and tied it over Ezra's eyes. All of the squinting and the bright sun was exacerbating the headache. The healer also had somehow managed to corral Chaucer, who had someone loosed the reins from the tree where Buck had tied him, and placed the tired horse and his own, ground tied, something that so far Chaucer had agreed to do for Nathan, J.D. and Vin besides his own man, under a nearby tree. He sat quietly with Ezra, knowing that Chris and J.D. would be along shortly. He was only slightly surprised when, about fifteen minutes after Vin, Buck and Josiah left for town, Chris came along. Alone.
"He all right?" the leader of The Seven asked quietly as he walked to the edge of the road and looked down at his friends.
"He's been better," Nathan answered in a hushed tone.
"Nettie said he was sick." The former gunslinger had been keeping his eyes on the side of the road for exactly what he found.
"She is a wise woman," Ezra murmured. He winced, though, as even his own voice speaking softly was adding to his discomfort.
"J.D.'s staying with Nettie and Casey?" the healer asked.
"Figure he'd cause less trouble there than tryin' to grab whoever's doin' this," Chris explained.
"Indeed," Ezra breathed out lazily in agreement.
Chris gave the gambler a glare, even though he would get no satisfaction of a reaction because of the blindfold, then added, "Might be good there, though." Ezra only answered with a shrug, then a groan as he leaned a little heavier into Nathan's shoulder.
"Take it easy, Ez," the black man soothed.
"This damned road," Chris said. "Those fellas probably knew this would slow us down. Ezra was right."
"Ah us'lly am," the southerner slurred. Chris shook his head and grinned. Nathan let loose a chuckle. "Don't," Ezra added, even the slight movement from Nathan's laugh aggravating the sick headache.
"Should I send back a wagon?"
"Might be a good idea," the former slave said as Ezra moaned in pain beside him.
"By the way, J.D. told me one of the men who kept Nettie and Casey hostage is wanted for murder. We'll get back as soon as we can."
"All right," Nathan answered as he settled in as Ezra's pillow, pulling out his gun and keeping it handy, just in case.
"So what you're sayin' is that we hurried back here for nothin'," Buck said to Robert Merton as the ladies' man glared at the three men under arrest in the jailhouse.
"I wouldn't say it's for nothin', Buck. It's good to see ya," the rancher and sometime lawman said with a wry smile. The famous Lothario turned to the man manning the jail, his frown from looking at the three men who had placed Nettie, Casey … and Chaucer in jeopardy morphing quickly into a warm, mustachioed smile.
"Well, it's good to see you, too, hoss," Buck said. "You boys got all of 'em?"
"Yep. They aren't too bright."
"That don't speak too good for J.D. then, does it?"
Robert shrugged. "Maybe the others are smarter. Besides, you don't know what you might do when a loved one is in danger until it happens."
"Maybe. But sometimes J.D., he don't always think everything through."
"I think he forgets that it's not just seven of ya who cares about protecting this town. There's more of us than just Dave, Marty and me who have families to protect."
"Yeah, I'm gonna need to have a talk with that boy."
"Josiah said Ezra's sick back on the road from the Wells place?"
"Yeah," Buck said sadly. "Nate's with 'im. Figure he'll let Chris 'n' J.D. know on their way back whether he'll be able to ride home on his own or if we'll be sendin' a wagon."
"Don't know if Josiah's gonna wait for that," Robert said with a knowing smile. More than just the seven lawmen knew how Josiah felt about the card sharp.
"I had a cousin once who used to have those kind of headaches. He wouldn't be able to ride a horse for a day or more after the symptoms went away. The lightheadedness seemed to linger."
"Guess we're sendin' a wagon, then," Buck noted. The rancher seemed deep in thought; Buck figured he was still pondering on his cousin. "You said your cousin used to have the headaches. He don't still?"
"No. He … He died." Robert shook his head sadly. "He'd been down for more than three whole days with the sick headache. He decided to get up, thought maybe he was just feeling sorry for himself. Got to the end of the hall, in front of the staircase. He yelled, put his hands to his head, and fell down the steps. Broke his neck. Dead at the ripe old age of twenty-two."
"That's, well, damn awful," Buck said with sympathy.
"Yeah. Wish I could have been there when it happened. We were like brothers."
"It sounded like you were, from the description."
"My aunt watched the whole thing. Tore her up pretty bad. She would tell the story for the rest of her life," Robert said as he looked from the floor up to the town Lothario's kind, empathetic eyes. "Never missed a word in the telling. She never really ever got over it."
"I'm sure it was hard for her, to lose a son who was so young. And so sudden like that."
"It was." The cattleman sighed and said, "Well, that's enough of all this melancholy. I've got a beautiful wife and three great kids waiting supper on me."
"Go have a nice meal with your family. Hey, how's Fred?"
"He'll be fine. The kids are pampering him."
"That's good. Ez'll be glad to hear that." Robert continued to the door, but Buck called once more. "Robert, your cousin, did he … was the sick headache the reason he died?"
Robert smiled sadly. "No, Ezra's not gonna die like that. The doc said Jason had other stuff wrong in his brain, and that sick headaches might have been from whatever abnormality he had." He shook his head. "It was such a shame … he was a real bright kid. Put all the rest of us Mertons to shame. He was going to be someone, invent some amazing thing, or cure some awful disease." He shook his head again and then smiled at Buck. "Night."
"Good night, Robert. Thanks."
A few minutes after Robert Merton headed down the avenue for home, Josiah joined Buck at the jail.
"I'm headin' out to get Nate and Ezra."
"Figured you would. I'll stay here. Vin ought to be back soon. Chris and J.D., too."
"Those three might have friends comin' to spring 'em," the preacher said.
"We do!" one of the prisoners said. Buck and Josiah ignored him.
"Dave and Marty both had early suppers. Said they'd come over and watch these through the night."
"That's good. Arnie Fletcher said he'd patrol the town, keep an eye on things 'til we're all back," Josiah noted.
"Good men," Buck said admiringly. He looked out the window. "You best get goin'. You'll wanna get back before dark."
"See you later. You take care, Buck."
"Same to you, 'siah."
Josiah and Vin exchanged information as they met about a mile outside of town, and then the big man headed the wagon in the direction of where Nathan and Ezra were waiting, quite a bit more than halfway to Nettie Wells' house.
"Josiah," Chris called. "Everything all right back in town?"
"Yep. Robert, Dave and Marty caught the three tryin' to rob the bank. According to Robert, they were pretty inept."
Chris smiled. "Never hurts to be on the receiving end of good luck."
"Fate did not favor those three, in any way," Josiah agreed.
"J.D. said that one of the ones who was at Nettie's is wanted for robbery and murder."
"Do the others know that?" the preacher asked, looking down the road to see if J.D. was following.
"He's still at Nettie's. And no, they don't." Josiah could see there was more to tell on the J.D. front, but decided not to waste their time; both he and Chris had places they needed to be. "Vin probably just got to town. Horse threw a shoe."
"Ezra was right. And this wagon is rattlin' these old bones. Don't know that the ride'll do him much good."
"Maybe not. I'm gonna head on in to town. Let 'em know about Adam Robinson."
"Yeah, you know him?"
"I know of him. He's no good. He will try to break his men out, and he won't care who gets in the way."
"All right. Best get goin'. Don't need you three out here any longer than necessary, not with the likes of Robinson running loose."
"I will. You, too, Josiah. And Josiah?"
"Don't mention to Ez that he was right about the road.
"Ain't no benefit to that," the big man agreed.
Close to an hour later, forced to go slow for fear of breaking the wagon apart on the ruddy road, Josiah joined up with Nathan and Ezra. The sun was well on its way to disappearing to the west. In the almost two hours it would take to get home, it would be near dusk.
"You two all right?"
"Ready to get home," Nathan said. At the same time, Ezra uttered a feeble 'No'. "Everything all right?" the healer asked.
"For now. But we're expectin' Robinson to try to break his men out of jail," Josiah said as he lowered the gate to the wagon. The back was overloaded with straw up toward the front, covered in several layers of blankets. Extra bales of straw were pushed up against the sides, leaving just enough room in the center of the wagon bed for Nathan and his patient.
"Robinson?" Ezra mumbled, looking up despite the fact that his eyes were still covered.
"Adam Robinson. He's wanted for bank robbery and murder," Josiah explained.
"What?" Nathan asked.
"Brothers. His gang is made up of two brothers and three cousins." Someone other than J.D. had been studying the recent batch of wanted posters.
"Let's get home," Josiah said as he and Nathan ushered Ezra gingerly up from his position against the rocks, carefully maneuvered him up the steep slope, watched and waited as Ezra divested himself of the water Nathan had encouraged him to drink, waited another few moments as the gambler heaved painfully and vainly, and then helped him up onto the wagon. Josiah had to take the wagon up above the ridgeline to find a flat spot to turn around. The rutted, bouncy ride had Ezra utter the only words he would speak for the duration, right at the beginning of their journey home.
"Kill me now."
It seemed as though Four Corners might make it through one night without Adam Robinson, along with one cousin and one brother, trying to break his other brother and two cousins out of jail. Nathan, Josiah and Ezra had been back for hours, the gambler ensconced in his feather bed, dosed, gratefully for once, with the healer's awful tasting, pain relieving and sleep inducing tea.
Josiah and Dave Landon were guarding the prisoners. Vin and Buck were getting some rest in preparation for taking the overnight shift, now that all seven were back in town, save for their youngest. Chris chose to leave J.D. where he was, refusing, in spite of Buck's protestations, to send the handsome rogue to fetch his 'little brother'.
Marty Ellison and Robert Merton were with their families. They both lived in town, however, and would be available right quick should they hear gunfire.
"How's he doin'?" the former gunslinger asked as Nathan took a seat beside him in front of the saloon. The healer was just returned, the second time since arriving back in town from checking his sick friend.
"He's a single-minded son-of-a …"
"I meant how's he feelin'?" Chris interrupted the healer's tirade.
"Sick. In terrible pain. It's the worst he's had this sick headache since we first found out about 'em. He ain't helpin' himself by worryin' about Fred," the black man complained. "And he's refusing to drink any more water. Doesn't want to keep getting sick, but if he gets dehydrated from refusing to drink it'll make his headache twice as bad. And for some reason, the tea ain't workin'."
"Can't imagine how it's possible that he could be in twice as much pain," Chris said as he inhaled on his cheroot. "Why's he not sleepin'?"
Nathan shrugged. "They say that the pain can break through. Don't want to give him laudanum. That didn't work so good last time."
"He told you what would happen if you gave him that."
"Yeah. He was right."
"Annoying, ain't it?" Chris asked. Nathan looked up and scowled at his boss. "It's not really twice as bad?"
"You know what I mean, Chris."
"Guess I do." He took another draw on his cigar and asked, "How is the dog?"
"Hell. That dog takes after his favorite person. Mr. Merton had his cook look at him."
"Out on the trail," Nathan clarified. "He knows animals, according to Josiah." It was the first thing the preacher did upon returning to town and getting Ezra settled. He knew it would help Ezra rest easier to know what had happened to the little hound dog, but the gambler had been more out of it than in and they hadn't been able to get him to understand much beyond his own pain for hours now. "He said Fred has a bruise on his front paw, probably got stepped on in all the excitement. Other than that, he's a little scared, anxious."
"Can imagine a little animal getting scared when an animal the size of Chaucer is runnin' around him, especially as violently as he was."
"That horse and that dog are like family. I'm sure Fred was as worried as he was scared," the healer said.
"He alone up there?"
"Yeah. He should be fine. Tommy is going to check on him some. I took his guns and put 'em in his dresser."
Chris watched his friend. He looked extra worried. "What else is wrong?"
"Well, every time Ez ends up on his left side, he moans and then moves to his back. He don't like sleepin' on his back. I rolled him onto his right side and checked and he has some nasty bruising at just above his waist and down his left buttock."
Chris nodded his head. "I can sympathize. J.D. knocked me to the ground. Well, J.D. and Chaucer did. Ezra fell into the corner of the water trough."
Nathan 'hmm'd', then said, "It ain't overly close to the kidney, but you know … "
"Yeah. He is one unlucky son-of-a-bitch," Chris noted.
"He's still with us. Considering all that he's suffered, you could also say he's damned lucky."
"I guess." Chris wasn't completely sure he agreed. Some of Ezra's hurts had been pretty severe. The tall blond took one more drag from his cheroot and then the last swallow of his coffee. Just as he headed back inside to return the mug, he and Nathan looked worriedly toward the jail, the direction from where sudden explosive gunfire could be heard. They both pulled their weapons and headed for the shadows, knowing the best way to hide in plain sight as they made their way to the jailhouse in the murky gloom a little more than an hour beyond dusk.
The sound of bullets fired and ricocheting off wood woke Ezra from a less-than-restful sleep. His head felt like Josiah's damnable hammer was pounding all the way around it. He felt sick to his stomach. His lower back and hip were killing him. But that was all that he knew. The day, the time of day and where his compatriots were was all information that seemed muddy in his barely-functioning brain. He didn't know who of his brethren was in town or how many of his fellow lawmen were on their way to investigate the dangerous firing of weapons in town.
Ezra at up and felt the room spin. He breathed through the nausea, his eyes closed. Good lord, another sick headache. He rose to his feet and immediately tipped toward the hard floor, a quick grab to the thick wooden footboard of his bed all that kept him from landing with his face on a piece of the wide-planked floor. He held tight to the post until he felt ready to move again. He reached for his Colt, only to find nothing there. He made his way to the dresser, knowing precisely which drawer to check for his weaponry. He grabbed the Derringer, checked that it was loaded, despite how hard focusing was for him at the moment. He started to place it in his pocket when he realized that all he was wearing was his undergarments and a nightshirt.
The card sharp placed the tiny gun on the dresser, pulled the Colt out, checked that it was fully loaded. He took the Derringer from the top of the polished piece of furniture and turned, and fell directly to his knees, the dizziness finally taking him down. He cried softly at the pain the landing caused to his left hip. "Lord," he whined as he leaned his head up against his mattress. He pushed himself to his feet, both guns in one hand as he required the other to keep from falling into things in the small room on his way to the window. He fell to his knees once more, stifled the scream that his body so desperately wished to unleash and dropped his head to the windowsill. He breathed heavily through the growing nausea but admonished himself silently. 'Get yourself together, Ezra.' He looked down once more at his state of undress; a nightshirt was no way for a gentleman to venture from his quarters. Then again, a real gentleman wouldn't often be found climbing around on a saloon's roof.
As he stepped out the window and remained crouched down, a position not at all kind to his back, he spotted Chris in the alleyway across the avenue. At that moment, a bullet shot past the former gunslinger. Both Ezra and Chris, instinctively understanding exactly where the firing was coming from, each took a shot in the dark. A yelp of pain, and then a body falling hard to the ground told both men that at least one of the bullets had found its mark. Chris looked up and saw the bright white of Ezra's nightshirt acting as a beacon to the bad guys.
"Get down from there!" Chris growled.
"Ah am only tryin' to help," Ezra explained. He felt momentarily woozy and fell back hard against the outer wall of the second floor of his favorite drinking establishment and the place he currently called home.
"If you fall I'm gonna … " The tall blond was cut off by another bullet, this one headed toward the easy target of the card sharp. Both lawmen shot once more toward the direction of the bullet's origin. They heard a frustrated 'shit' yelled, followed by the familiar thwack of one of Nathan's knives working its way through clothing and into human flesh. One of Robinson's men stumbled into the street, dropped his weapon and dropped like a fast melting snowman to the ground. They would have to wait to determine if the man was dead or just unconscious.
Vin's recognizable whistle had Chris back up into the shadow and wait for the tracker. Ezra watched, far less enthralled with being where he was crouched on the roof than he was just moments earlier. A spike of pain behind his eyes forced him to a seated position; better than taking a nosedive to the hard-packed ground.
"Chris," Nathan called, not needing to yell; Nathan had the kind of voice that, when necessary, could carry with little effort. "The jail is secure, the three in the cells aren't goin' anywhere.
"Two're shot or got one o' Nate's knives in 'em," Vin confirmed. "Neither one is Adam."
"All right!" Chris yelled. "Adam Robinson," he called, knowing that Vin would have been able to identify the faces based on some time spent earlier familiarizing themselves with the wanted posters. "You're done, give yourself up!"
"Nope. My cousin can rot in jail, but I'll need to be avengin' what ya done to my brothers."
"No you will not," Ezra offered irritably from one floor up. Robinson was not visible to Chris, Vin and Nathan, but they could see from the way Ezra looked down where the man must be within the darkness of the alley.
"I've had it with you," Adam said. He fired his gun up, not really aiming. Once more, Chris, this time along with Vin, fired toward the direction of Robinson's voice and the echo of his gun.
"You'll have to do better 'n that," the outlaw said.
"Is this better?"
"Huh," Adam said as he found himself face-to-face with the young man he'd tricked into doing his bidding earlier. "Thought you'd still be with the women folk. Ain't you worried … "
"No, I ain't," J.D. interrupted. "Put your gun down." A moan from the roof of the saloon's boardwalk overhang had Robinson look up, drawing J.D.'s attention away, briefly. The outlaw lunged for J.D.'s gun. His friends were in no position to fire, the fading street fires and doused oil lamps left them unsure now that they might hit the kid as he struggled for his weapon. Just as J.D. got the upper hand on maintaining his gun, a shot was fired from above. For someone as dizzy and sick as he'd been, Ezra's aim was remarkably true, hitting Adam Robinson through the thigh and forcing the man to the ground.
Vin ran over to help J.D. secure their newest prisoner as Chris and Nathan looked up to see Ezra carefully crawl to the edge of the overhang.
"Ezra, what are you doing?" Nathan asked with a mix of exasperation, worry and admiration.
The gambler said quietly, so as not to suffer the pain of his own voice banging around in a head already pained by the percussive nature of the last few minutes, "Preparin'," he started, swallowed once, and then again in an effort to stave off the inevitable, "to vomit." He tried some deep breathing, too. The bang-bang-bang of boots down the boardwalk was surely the last straw for the southerner. He may have thought that the swallowing and careful inhalations could forestall the unpleasantness, but the spike pounding in his brain of those boots, and the picture all of the effort brought to his mind of Top Hat Bob and rail splitting – or in his case head splitting – forced him to gag, the small meal Nathan had insisted he eat coming up, or rather down, along with all the water and tea, in all its ingloriousness, and just as Buck Wilmington arrived.
"You all right, kid?" Buck asked just as something slopped down from above, knocking his hat well off to the left side of his head. "What the hell?" he asked as he heard and felt another wet slap knock the hat off his head entirely. The ladies' man looked up just as his friends calling to him finally broke through. Ezra's vomit hit him right in his forehead. Buck looked back down at the horrified looks he was now receiving from Chris, Vin, Nathan and J.D. Buck reached his hand up and swiped the regurgitated food from his forehead before it could reach his eyes, and then felt another mess hit his head and work its way down the back of his head, down his neck and into the collar of his shirt.
"Oh, shit," J.D. said.
Nathan looked up. "You going to head back inside now, you fool?"
Ezra lay sprawled on the roof, his head hanging over the edge. His face was just visible as he pressed his cheek into the metal of the roof. What could be seen of it shone as white as his nightshirt.
"You damn well are," Nathan said as he marched toward the saloon's entrance.
"Can't," he moaned pitifully.
"Take this over to the jail," Vin said, shoving Robinson back over to J.D.. "I'm gonna go help Nate," he added as he jumped up on the nearby wagon, climbed up a corner pole and worked himself the rest of the way to the roof and over to his friend.
"You best go get a bath, Buck," Chris suggested.
"Ya think?" the lanky former sheriff asked.
"It wasn't his fault, Buck," J.D. said in defense of the sick gambler. "'Sides, if ya weren't in such a hurry to check on me – and I'm just fine, by the way – you wouldn't've been in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I think he's got ya there, Buck," Chris said as he stepped up to the youngest member of their group. "You did good, J.D." The young man, who finally and satisfyingly had the Robinson gang leader at the proper end of his gun, beamed at the praise.
"Ah concur, Mistah Dunne," Ezra agreed from his prone position, Vin's strong hand pressed against his back to assure he didn't slide over the side.
"Hell," Buck said as he swiped vomit from his hair, shoulder and hat and headed to the boarding house for a change of clothes.
Chris and J.D. escorted Robinson to the jail.
"You didn't listen to me," Chris said.
"Well, I guess I'd have to say my gut told me I'd be better use here," J.D. admitted.
"You weren't worried about Casey and Nettie?"
"No. Nettie and me, we talked. Figured if him and his gang was goin' ta kill us, he'd've done it."
"God damn," Adam Robinson exclaimed.
"Shut up," Chris and J.D. said in unison.
"He could o' sent someone back," Chris suggested.
"No. They were in a hurry. They were gonna take Chaucer, I could tell. But I loosened the cinch all the way. They didn't bother to tighten it. Knew then that they would either shoot us or head out pretty darn quick. As you know, they did the latter. Plus, I could see the way he," J.D. said, nodding his head toward their prisoner, "was lookin' at Nettie. It was like he wasn't gonna hurt her. Wish I realized that before."
"Fuck it all," Robinson said as he limped ahead of them to the jail.
"Watch your language," Chris and J.D., once again, chimed in together.
"Sorry," J.D. said.
"Don't be. Not for that." The former gunslinger looked up at the wanted man. "You came through, your instinct was right," Chris added.
J.D.'s smile was nearly bright enough to light the way down the avenue. Robinson grumbled a barely-heard 'Son-of-a-bitch' as they approached the jailhouse. It was uttered so quietly that neither Chris nor J.D. felt the need to warn the man further.
Ezra sensed it was morning, but he wouldn't hazard a guess at the time. That would be a sucker's bet if ever there was one. The other sense he had was that someone was with him in the room. That was unfortunate; it meant that he wouldn't be able to express the still-nauseating pain in his head and persistent dull ache where his back met his hip. He tried to move in the hopes of alleviating the pain, but just that little adjustment sent searing pain through his head and his hip. He saw lightning bolts of bright light streaking behind closed eyelids. He knew what was coming. Despite the pain, he forced himself onto his good side, hung his head over the side of the bed and proceeded to throw up.
"Don't worry, Ezra. We got ya." Chris, sounding like he was right in front of the southerner. Someone else was behind him, holding his back, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. He didn't have much left to give up. Nathan would be all over him soon enough, forcing water and broth into him. The thought had him gagging again, painful and a completely wasted effort.
"Ya done?" Chris asked. Ezra drew in a trembling breath and offered the faintest nod of the head in answer.
"This is the worst he's been with these sick headaches." Vin. Ezra had no strength left and melted back against the tracker. "That may be comfortable fer you, Ez, but not fer me. Let's get ya up against some more pillows."
"'s not." The card sharp whispered. He hoped that, by his own example, his friends would speak softly in deference to his aching head.
Chris put his arm around Ezra's back; the former con man's head rested up against the tall blond's shoulder. Chris both felt and heard the sigh. An empathetic rub of the back had Ezra rest heavier into his friend's chest.
"It's not what, Ez?" Chris asked as he waited for Vin to finish arranging the pillows. Ezra sighed as his fellow lawmen helped him into a slightly raised position on the bed. It was the best position for the gambler when the bouts of vertigo would hit.
Ezra took a long breath, the movement, though handled as gently as possible by the two men and meant to be helpful, had done nothing to ease the queasiness he felt. He hoped he could avoid being sick, because the miserable dry heaves would feel like a hammer to his head.
"'s not the worst headache."
"It is since we found out about 'em," Vin said as he poured a glass of water. He helped Ezra take a drink – he would only take a sip – then both Vin and Chris waited to hear the poker player's explanation.
Ezra kept his eyes shut as he spoke. "Worst was when Ah … lost the saloon."
"You didn't lose the saloon. Maude stole it," Chris clarified. Ezra nodded as he rubbed his forehead.
"Thought you were jest up here lickin' yer wounds."
"You were sick like this, all alone?" Chris asked, angry that none of them had thought to really check on him after that fiasco.
"Inez knew." The short reply reminded both of Ezra's companions that they hadn't seen her these last few days.
"Ain't seen her around," Vin commented, meaning since Ezra had been sick.
"You and Inez not getting along?" Chris asked.
"What did you do?" the tall blond asked, just a split second before Vin asked the same thing.
Ezra's eyes popped open at the dual accusations and he scowled at his friends. "Ah did nothin'. She … requested a break from 'us' and went to visit 'family' in Las Cruces."
"That don't tell us what ya did."
"Good lord, what did Ah just say, Vin? Ah. Did. Nothing."
"A woman don't usually go a couple o' hundred miles away if nothin' happened," Chris suggested.
"Yes, well, Ah have chosen to stop tryin' to understand Inez. She is a perplexin' woman." The ailing man closed his eyes and rested deeply into the pillows.
Chris and Vin shared a long look. Vin uttered a 'huh', and then everyone in the room remained silent. It was so quiet, in fact, that the silence kept Ezra from falling asleep, sleep being the thing that his body most desperately needed. He opened his eyes to see Chris and Vin sharing one of their irritating non-verbal conversations.
"What?" he asked.
"When did you start feeling sick this time?" Chris asked.
"Oh," Ezra said. "No. She had decided to vacate the premises last week. If Ah am recallin' correctly, she left five days ago, a little more than three days before Ah felt ill." He looked lazily from one friend to the next. "You did not notice that Inez was not here?" Both men looked at each other, annoyed with themselves, and ignored the question.
"So you were feeling sick before J.D. … "
"Stole mah horse."
"He didn't steal Chaucer, Ez," Vin corrected.
"Ah suppose one's perspective on that depends on what one's definition of 'steal' is, Mistah Tanner."
"Why didn't ya go to Nate?"
"Chris, not every headache Ah have results in a sick headache."
"You get other headaches?"
"Yes. We all get headaches, Ah would imagine."
"But yours. Why … "
"Nathan knows. And this … infirmity is bad enough," Ezra said, waving his hand up near his head. "Ah have no intention of further burdening our healer for somethin' that simply needs time to resolve itself. And they are not bad enough to not perform mah duties."
"Ezra, you do more than enough around here that you are entitled to more time off than you take," Chris said. "Maybe you'd get fewer headaches … "
"No?" Chris asked.
"No. Nathan has said that the sick headaches can happen any time. He has said that Ah could remove stress from mah life and only possibly see them diminish in frequency and duration. And as little as is known about the whys and wherefores of sick headaches, the same could be said for something as simple as a regular headache."
Chris was already aware of all of this from the healer; Ezra had obviously only bothered to go into this detail for Vin's benefit. And Vin did not look happy. Both Chris and Nathan tried to talk Ezra into changing his role as peacekeeper. He refused each time the suggestion was brought up, explaining that his duties as a lawman were simply a part of who he was now. He said he felt no desire to change that in any way, just as he would continue working with the children even after they finally found a schoolteacher who would stay for longer than two weeks. And just as he would continue to help the long list of businesses for which he offered his bookkeeping services, at a ridiculously miniscule fee, he would be the first to tell you.
"So when did ya figure it was a sick headache?" Vin asked, not happy that he had been kept out of the loop.
"Playin' with … well, this mornin'. Ah had not felt well all day yesterday, but the distractions of patrol and the children and helpin' Missus Potter with inventory took mah mind from it." Ezra closed his eyes and tried to massage the pain away, rubbing his fingers lightly over them.
"You're a pain in the ass, Ezra." The gambler nodded his agreement.
"Yes. And you, Mistah Larabee, are a constant breath of lilacs in spring." Vin snorted a laugh, which caused Ezra to let out his own chuckle, which brought on an echo of pain in his head.
"He's all right, by the way," the former gunslinger said.
"Who?" Ezra asked.
Ezra opened his eyes anxiously. "He is? Ah had thought … "
"Yeah, I could tell. Believe it or not, Ezra, you're easier to read than you think."
"Only when Ah allow it."
"Right," Vin scoffed. Chris took his turn to laugh.
"Fred was just bruised. Nothing broken. He's takin' it easy, getting pampered by the Mertons."
"That is a relief. Thank you for tellin' me."
"Were you just goin' to sit there and think the worst?"
"Chris, thinkin' is not somethin' Ah am doin' particularly well right now."
"No, I guess not. Sorry."
"'s all right."
"Ez, you should have more ta drink."
"No thank you, Vin."
"Nate'll make you when he gets back."
"He c'n try." The poker player yawned and fell asleep as he started to ask but did not finish his question. "Gets back from … "
Ezra opened his eyes, but closed them quickly. He moaned and turned away from the light sneaking in through the slight separation of the drapes. Unfortunately, that position placed him on his sore hip, which immediately forced him to his original position on his back.
"Hell," he whispered with a scratchy voice, not the regular sweet, southern lilt that everyone who knew him had gotten used to. He heard the rustling of clothes – someone moving – and then the sound of the drapes whooshing, hopefully to a more closed position.
"I've drawn them all the way, Ezra." The gambler knew the voice, was surprised by it, and opened his eyes.
"Ezra, we have an agreement, at least I thought we did."
"We had come to an understanding."
"We're friends, right?"
"Yes … Mary." The southerner uttered her given name, despite his internal struggle and the upbringing that still convinced him it was both ungentlemanly and discourteous to do so.
"Why are you here?" he asked. His headache had settled into a persistent dull roar. He remained dizzy, sensitive to light and sound, but the overwhelming nausea of the previous day and a half had finally abated. His limbs felt limp, weak. And he was so thirsty.
"Nathan said you wouldn't remember."
"Remembah what?" The newspaper publisher smiled affectionately.
"That when he returned from the Corcorans … Helen had a baby boy, they're both doing fine, by the way," Mary started. Her pause had her looking at the still-sick man, who smiled at the thought of a new citizen of Four Corners. "He woke you, had you drink some of his tea and told you I'd be with you for the late morning. You slept right through Abigail's watch."
"You make it sound like a military exercise," Ezra groused.
Mary smiled warmly. "It sort of is. Getting you to wake up, once you're down, is one of the hardest jobs I've ever had."
He looked at her in disbelief … until she let her sly grin show. She was a beautiful woman with a surprisingly wicked sense of humor. 'Ah bet she's a handful,' he thought. Despite that thought, he still considered Chris Larabee a lucky man. He hoped the former gunslinger treasured what he had in her.
"Ha, ha. Having some fun at mah expense," he said.
"Only a little," she admitted.
"It is quite late in the day?"
"Nearly one o'clock. I've had the easy shift. Nathan said to let you sleep, so we did." She stood from her chair and joined him at the bed. "How do you feel?" she asked as she sat next to him. She put her hand between his back and his pillow. "Lean forward," she directed. He did so, though he could feel her pushing him decidedly forward.
"Bettah," he admitted as Mary placed a plump pillow near the small of his back, and then another for him to rest his head on in his now more upright position. She let go and helped ease him into the new pillow configuration.
"Is that comfortable?"
"Indeed it is. Much obliged."
"You're welcome. Now, how do you feel?"
"Ah believe Ah just answered that question," the gambling man said, trying to keep from sounding as annoyed as he felt.
"Yes, well, 'bettah' isn't going to do. I need to know specifics so that I know which tea to prepare for your symptoms."
"Because Ah am most anxious for mah next dose of Mistah Jackson's vile brews."
Mary reached out to feel her friend's forehead. 'Slight fever.'
"Mary," Ezra warned as he leaned away from her touch. "Ah do not have a temperature."
"You'd be dead if that were the case. We all have a temperature, Ezra."
"And yours is slightly elevated. I can do something to the tea for that."
"It is amusing how we are willin' to refer to those … concoctions as teas. High tea it is not."
"Nobody said that it was." 'The man can be downright crotchety when he's sick,' she thought. "Are you still sick to your stomach?"
"No." 'At least not enough to mention.'
"I can see that the headache is still pretty bad."
It was not a question and Ezra wasn't denying the truth in the statement.
"Buck will be here any minute with a little something for you to eat. Once he gets here, I'll head down and make you the … tea."
"Ah will await your return with enthusiastic anticipation," Ezra replied dryly.
"Sarcastic. And prickly. I hadn't realized," the town leader commented.
"That Inez is a saint."
Ezra snorted, then immediately grimaced in pain. He rubbed his aching head. He shook his head slightly, seemed to be in deep thought, and then nodded.
"Ah suspect her … saintly qualities will not be required henceforth," he noted gloomily.
Mary Travis rolled her eyes and moved from her seated position. She turned to the prone man. "Oh for heaven's sakes," she said as she stepped to the pitcher, poured a small amount of water into the bowl, wet a cloth and returned to her seat. "Close your eyes," she demanded. "Sit back and listen to me." Ezra gave her a look that said he'd had about enough of being ordered about. "Close. Your. Eyes. This will help ease your pain. You'd like that, right?"
Ezra closed his eyes.
Mary placed the cool cloth over his eyes, but there was something other than just water making the compress wet.
"What is …?"
"Sssh. It's eucalyptus." Ezra didn't reply, just breathed in the coolness of the fragrance that matched the soothing coolness of the cloth. "I know you and Inez are … struggling with your relationship." The former con man snorted, winced, and then was ordered, "Quiet. She loves you. Very much. You are very different from one another, not unlike Chris and myself."
Ezra sighed. "Ah fear our differences are not our problem."
"I know." Mary looked at her sick friend, his eyes still covered by the cloth. She figured he was grateful for that. She loved Chris Larabee, she knew that now with every ounce of her heart and soul. And of all of the men that Chris had partnered with to protect this town that had come to mean so much to her, she had also truly fallen in love with Ezra Standish. It was a platonic love, but it was a love that she held very dear. She wanted him to stay in town, she mourned any thoughts that he might not. This up and down and all-around mystifying relationship between Ezra and her dear friend Inez Rocios needed some assistance. Inez had been frustrating in her insistence that there was nothing to be done. She had even hinted that she might not return from her trip south. Mary couldn't allow that, not without trying to help them work through their differences.
"Then if you know, might Ah suggest that we just let it go?"
"No, I'm afraid I can't. Maybe you can, and maybe Inez can. But I cannot." She watched as Ezra breathed deeply in and out, his mouth shut, obviously figuratively biting his tongue, not wishing to argue the point. She knew that the eucalyptus was doing its job as he settled his head comfortably against the pillow she'd placed behind it earlier. "Ezra, what's going on? Inez hasn't told me everything. I'm sure she hasn't told me the most important thing. I know she's the reason you aren't togeth … "
"It is not her fault," he replied sternly.
Mary's eyes grew wide at the undoubtedly clear admonishment in Ezra's response. "A … All right. But I know it's not you. I'm afraid Maude would be disappointed to see how you wear your love for Inez all over your face."
"Indeed, though it has been quite some time since Ah have done anything to please mah mothah."
"You're not going to tell me," the newspaper owner asked.
Ezra removed the cloth from his face and looked his friend in the eyes. "It is not mah place."
Mary nodded. She saw the pain in the southern gentleman's eyes, a completely different pain from the one caused by his sick headache. She also realized that she was not told to stop pursuing the issue, at least not in a strong enough way that would deter her from finding out what was wrong. Mary Travis considered herself to be a very observant person, and at this moment she knew two things: One, that Ezra wanted to keep his relationship with Inez, moving forward, even if making that ultimate commitment of marriage was still not in the picture. And two, that she would need to work harder with Inez, even if it meant making the difficult trip down to Las Cruces.
"Well, at least now I know what I need to do."
Ezra frowned, rubbed his forehead, and said, "Ah trust that means that you will no longer pursue this line of questioning and mind your own business?" It sounded harsh coming out of his mouth. He added, "No offense, mah dear."
"I know. But my two friends hurting is my business."
"Ah am not surprised, knowin' the fine person you are, that you would think that way. Unfortunately, Ah would not be surprised if we nevah saw Inez back in Four Corners again."
A knock at the door preceded Vin and Buck entering with two trays.
"You're in for a treat, hoss," Buck said to Ezra. "Gloria Potter's made flapjacks and a peach maple syrup."
"And bacon," Vin added with a smile. The smile faded as the two men looked to one another, sensing the tension in the room.
"Well, I need to make preparations, and make you some tea. I'll send it up with Tommy." Tommy Johnson had been hired on by Ezra to do various small jobs while Inez visited with her family. Mary was at the door quickly, but was still in Ezra's room when he said, "Preparations? What preparations?"
Mary replied, "Make sure he eats something. No bacon." She knew that he would; pancakes were his favorite and peaches were impossible for Ezra Standish to resist.
"Mary," the card sharp pleaded warningly.
"Make sure he drinks all of the tea that Tommy brings," she said, equally warning both Buck and Vin.
"Yes, ma'am," the two answered in harmony. They looked to each other, laughed, and then punched each other, Buck on Vin's upper arm, Vin to Buck's chest. Mary left during the convenient distraction.
"Mary," Ezra called as the door closed. "Mary!" he yelled, then gasped and put both hands to his head.
"Settle down, Ez," Vin said as he took the tray with the feet and set it on Ezra's lap.
"That ain't too smart, Ezra," Buck said as he looked worriedly at the hurting man. "What's got you so riled up?"
"That damned woman," he started, then rushed to add, "Ah meant no offense, please refrain from relating this conversation to Mistah Larabee."
"We'll keep the 'damned woman' part to ourselves," Vin promised.
"You have mah gratitude."
"Probably save your life, too."
"Most assuredly," Ezra agreed with Buck.
"So, what happened?" Vin asked as he started in on his own breakfast. He had already removed the bacon from Ezra's plate, with no complaint from the card sharp.
"Ah believe Missus Travis is plannin' to travel to Las Cruces to speak with Inez."
Vin looked at Ezra as he held his fork and did nothing with it. "Ya gotta eat some o' that. Gloria made it special for ya."
Ezra took a bite, and then another as Buck said, "That's over two days' travel." Ezra nodded his agreement, as did Vin, both men chewing the delectable breakfast with enthusiasm. Buck continued, his concern for such a trip and his oldest friend's thoughts on the subject far more important that his food going cold. "Chris needs to know. He ain't gonna let her go alone."
Ezra finished the food in his mouth and countered, "He should not allow her to go at all. It would be a grueling trip, and for nothing. Chris would never forgive me if something should happen to her."
"She don't think it'd be fer nothin'," Vin said. "She's jest tryin' ta help."
"Ah … " Ezra started, but a stab of pain in his head had him stop suddenly. He dropped his fork and leaned back into the pillow, closing his eyes.
"Ezra," Buck started, taking advantage of the pause caused by the renewed pain. "I never thought I would say this, but you and Inez? You're near perfect together."
"No," the gambler challenged.
"Yeah," Buck and Vin both said.
"No. There is not … there are issues … a divide far too significant to overcome."
"Ah am afraid Ah am right, Mistah Tanner."
Vin Tanner knew trouble when he heard it. Hearing Ezra use his last name after years of breaking the man of the habit was nothing but trouble. The man was rebuilding his walls, holding in his pain. Mary had decided to do something about it. Vin was determined to help her succeed, even if it meant going against Chris' own wishes on what Mary should and should not do.
"I'll talk to Chris," Vin said.
"Perhaps that is best. He can convince her not to go." Ezra still had his eyes closed as Vin and Buck shared a look. A light knock at the door had all three men watch as Tommy entered the room.
"Mrs. Travis sent me, Mr. Standish. I'm to watch you drink it all," the young man said.
"We'll watch, too," Buck joked.
Tommy looked at Ezra's plate, gauged that he had eaten well over a third of the food and nodded his head. He and Mary had talked about putting extra flapjacks on the plate; the ruse seemed to have worked. The former con man looked at the boy with an annoyed countenance. Vin and Buck laughed.
"Hand it over," Ezra said. He took the first long draught, practically gagging at the smell, let alone the taste. His head was killing him; he so hoped this tea put him to sleep and out of his misery, at least for a while. He finished the contents of the mug in two long swallows. He handed the cup back to Tommy.
"Thanks," he said. "Hope you're feelin' better soon, Mr. Standish."
"Thank you, Tommy." The young helper quickly shuffled his way out of the room, taking the stacked trays with him. Buck kept his plate in order to finish his own breakfast, along with the remnants of Ezra's that he'd piled on top of his own.
"You know, Ez," Buck said between bites, "If I was still in the picture, this question 'bout Inez would be moot." He shuffled another pile of food into his mouth. By now, Ezra had closed his eyes and was leaning heavily back against the wall of pillows Mary had previously piled up for him. He had a smile on his face, though, as he faintly shook his head at the things Buck could say that could be so easily misconstrued.
"Still in the picture?" Vin asked.
"I doubt it, Buck."
"Why not?" the ladies' man asked.
"Don't think yer Ezra's type," the former buffalo hunter said with a straight face.
"Now you know damn well that ain't what I meant," Buck argued, punching Vin hard in the arm.
"Others wouldn't," Vin returned, giving back a hit on Buck's chest.
"If others got a look at this handsome mug, they'd get it."
"Ladies 'round town think Ezra's better lookin'," Vin said, playing with his friend. Vin knew that the quiet, friendly and humorous banter would lull Ezra to sleep, especially after getting a little food in his belly.
"Pshaw, that's the most ridiculous thing ever come out o' your mouth, Vin," Buck said as they both kept looking at their friend. Ezra was asleep. They were pleased to see the smile still there; it was quite a difference from the pinched look of pain over the last two days that was evident on the handsome face, both awake and at rest.
"Should we get rid o' one o' those pillows?"
"Nah. His back is probably happy for the change. You go on," the tracker said to the former Texas Ranger. "Nettie'll be here soon. She wants ta take a turn watchin' 'im."
"That works for me, pard. Maybe Miss Amaryllis wants to have a little afternoon delight with old Buck."
"Amaryllis?" Vin asked.
"Don't ask me. I know her name and I know a couple o' special things she likes," Buck said, wiggling his eyebrows lasciviously, "like … "
"Don't need ta hear it, Buckin." Vin held his hands up hoping to forestall receipt of too much information.
Vin pushed his big friend in the chest once more.
"Ow! I'm gonna get a bruise," Buck complained.
"Sssh," Vin reminded the boisterous gunman.
Buck put his finger in front of his lips. "Sssh," he voiced quietly. "See you later," he whispered to Vin, punching him hard in his upper arm as he ran out the door.
"Some things just aren't meant to be, Mary."
"There have been plenty who have said that about the two of us."
"Well, they were all wrong," the tall blond said as he stepped up to the woman he seemed more and more likely to be spending the rest of his life with. He could hardly believe the changes in his life over the last few years. Two years ago, a year after signing on to lead the team of seven men hired by Mary Travis' father-in-law to protect a small, dusty town in the high desert of the Southwest, Chris Larabee had found, finally, a reason to live again. A town, these men, a woman … her child. He still desperately missed his wife and his son, he knew that he always would. But the unbearable pain of loss had somehow, and certainly not overnight, become bearable. Life held meaning once more for a man who for years hadn't cared whether he lived or died. Oh what he would have missed if he had been too drunk or too distraught during one of the dozens of time he had been called out over the years by so many young men who were, fortunately for him, not the fast draw that Chris Larabee was, even on a bad day.
"I know they were," Mary said as she melted into Chris' solid embrace, so grateful that neither of them had listened to all of the talk about town. "Ezra and Inez, they should be together."
"You want them to be together." He pulled away and looked the newswoman in the eye. "They're like oil and water, Mary."
The beautiful widow sighed and stepped away crossing her arms across her breast. She turned back to her lover and said, "I don't see them like that. I see two people who have been hurt. 'Once bitten, twice shy,' as the saying goes."
"Doesn't it make sense to just let fate figure this out?"
Mary smiled. "All women know that where men are concerned, fate sometimes needs a little push."
Chris looked at the pretty blonde who had stolen his heart and said, "I can't talk you out of going?"
"No," she said as she looked up at him, her eyes blinking demurely.
Chris raised his eyes to the heavens and then looked back down at the woman before him. "I didn't think so." Mary smiled at him, satisfaction showing in her twinkling eyes and her upturned lips. "The judge'll be here tomorrow for the trial of the remaining Robinson gang. I need to be here."
"I can go … "
"I'm sending Buck and Josiah with you."
"That's not neces … "
"It's the only way it's gonna happen."
"Well, I'd like to get there sooner rather than later. I'll go check with Gloria about watching Billy. Can you check with Buck and Josiah about leaving on today's stage?"
"Mary, that's in less than two hours."
"All right. Then tomorrow?"
"Thank you," Mary said as she reached up to kiss the former gunslinger. Chris leaned down and took her lips with his, the passion as though it was their first time, the execution as though they'd been doing it all their lives.
"Come on and wake up, boy."
"Ah am not now nor do Ah have any positive recollections of when Ah was a boy," Ezra complained. He hissed quietly as his own voice continued to bang like a hammer in his head. He could tell that the pain had receded … some. He rubbed his forehead and asked much more softly, "Lord will this nevah end?"
"It will. Here, have some water." The card sharp took the glass gratefully. "Would you know the time?"
"Does it matter? Yer gonna have some of the soup and then get back to sleep," the old rancher said as she helped him to sit up, adding a couple of pillows to help in the effort.
"Soup?" Ezra asked, his eyes lighting up.
"Yes. Mr. Jackson figgered ya kept Gloria's flapjacks down, he's lettin' ya have some o' my vegetable beef and barley soup." The soup didn't have a lot of meat in it, but the broth was rich and flavorful, the vegetables chunky and cooked just enough. Aside from Nettie Wells' wonderful baked goods, it was the southerner's favorite meal that the homesteader cooked.
"Ah am much obliged, dear lady." The two completely opposite personalities had come a long way since their first acquaintance. 'Wizened crone.' Ezra felt his face flush with embarrassment.
"You all right?" Nettie asked, putting her hand on the ill man's forehead. The coolness felt good, but lingering with his head being soothed like that seemed wrong. He pulled his head back just enough to break the contact.
"Yes. Ah … Ah do not recall … no, that is not correct. Ah know that Ah nevah apologized for mah abhorrent behavior during our first encounter."
"Lands sakes, son. That was a long time ago. And you were bein' asked to do somethin' – hell, not even asked, pressured – for someone you didn't know by someone you'd only known a very short time."
"That may be so, Missus Wells, and Ah appreciate that you understood mah hesitancy at the time, but Ah had no right … Ah called you …. As we continue to know one another bettah, Ah find mahself quite mortified by mah words that day. You are a fine person, most assuredly not a wizened crone."
"You sayin' I ain't smart?" she demanded, followed by a wry smile.
Ezra smiled back. "Please accept mah apology for bein' such a … "
"Dolt? Sure, I can do that." Ezra smiled, knowing that he wasn't keeping up with many people these days, and Nettie Wells was smarter than the average citizen of Four Corners. She would be leaving him in the dust if she didn't feel badly about how poorly he was feeling. The old woman said, "I'll tell ya a secret."
"You by no means need to, but Ah would be happy to hold your secret between just the two of us."
She leaned in close and then said in a whisper, "I've been called worse."
Ezra snorted a laugh, winced at the renewed pain in his head, and then said, "It is fortunate that Ah had not yet started on your delicious soup, madam, or you would most certainly be wearin' it now."
"Reckon you're right about that." She could see Ezra's pain, though it was miles better than when she spent time with him yesterday. She wasn't sure he remembered much of her visit. He slept a lot, but moans of pain were murmured in his troubled sleep when she stopped in overnight. Now, his eyes seemed squinty, and averted from the light of the lamp. "Would you like me to lower the light?" The curtains were still closed tight from earlier; even lowering the wick a little bit would bring the room to a seriously darkened state.
"No. Let us have our midday meal. You will be joinin' me?" he asked, having noticed the two bowls resting on the tray on his dresser.
"Thought it might be nice, but it's an early supper."
"Really?" Ezra really was having trouble with this bout of headaches. He was losing time, sleeping long hours.
"You needed the sleep son. Don't worry about it."
"It is difficult not to." He looked from her to the closed drapes and then over to the cooling soup. "Shall we enjoy this wonderful soup you were so kind to provide?"
"Yes we shall. I also have some of Nathan's tea ready for you. Best you get some more rest. Maybe you'll feel better in the morning."
"Mistah Jackson's remedies … "
"I took care of that, son. Put some o' my own ingredients in. You won't recognize that awful taste."
"You are very thoughtful. Ah feel certain that tomorrow will bring relief. In fact, you could take leave after Ah fall back into the arms of Morpheus if you would like. You no doubt have bettah things to do than watch me sleep," he added as Nettie set the tray on his lap.
"I do not, but I will let Mr. Jackson know that you seem well enough to be left unattended."
"Then shall we partake in this delectable supper you have provided?"
"Before it gets too cold, I think we should."
"Is there anything else that you need?"
The handsome man scratched at his two day beard and said, "Well, I'm new to town. I've got a few extra dollars saved, but that ain't always the case. I'm hopin' this might be the kind o' place where I could settle, least for a little while.
"I think you would find Four Corners a very nice town to call home. There used to be quite a lot of trouble," she said, trouble that eventually lead to the murder of her husband she chose not to disclose, "but that seems to have resolved itself, for the most part," Gloria Potter said to the kind young man. "Do you have family with you?"
"No, ma'am. Lost my wife to, well," he said, lowering his head to look at the counter with his purchases, "she died. Ma and Pa are back east. Lost my brothers and …. " He didn't finish, but he didn't have to. His boots and his holster appeared Army regulation. He would have been very young to have been in the war, but many too young to fight were enlisted toward the end. 'Lost his brothers' was a terrible euphemism for what war did to families.
"Well, I hope you find what you're looking for," Gloria said. She reached in her drawer for some change for the purchases he made.
"No, ma'am. I was wonderin', could I ask ya to take that change and these few dollars and put 'em on account? Figure they're better here, where I could use 'em, 'stead of at the saloon where I could lose 'em."
"Of course." Gloria reached under her back counter for her ledger. "Your change was seventy-five cents. How much did you want to put down?" she asked.
"Another ten dollars."
Gloria looked at the sad young man. She didn't have to wonder what it was that placed such melancholy on one so young. The war could do that, as could the death of his wife. Gloria knew better than most the awful pain of losing the man she loved. She was fortunate to have children she loved who needed her, and a town that she had grown to care about filled with people who continued to do all they could to make her life easier as she continued raising two young children on her own. Maybe he needed to confide his worries to Josiah. She had found him a wonderful resource to talk to when things seemed too hard to endure. Josiah would certainly be able to get the man to open up, talk him through whatever seemed to be resting so heavily on his shoulders.
"So, ten dollars and seventy-five cents?"
'So polite.' "And your name?"
"Ah, lovely name. It means manly, brave, courageous," she smiled. "It was my father's name." He smiled back as she asked, "And your surname?"
"Uh … do you need it?"
"I'm afraid I do. You are not the only Andrew in town. It is important that I not confuse one for another." She leaned in over the counter and said, "It's even more important for my children, or some friends who occasionally help out here at the store."
"Of course, what was I thinking? My name is Andrew R. Cuthbert."
"Andrew R. Cuthbert," Gloria spoke as she wrote the name down. "And that is 'b-e-r-t' at the end?"
"Do you prefer Andrew to Andy?"
"Yes, ma'am, if you don't mind."
"Of course not, Andrew." She finished making the notation in her ledger. She looked up, saw the sad look on his face and said, "Would you like me to show you around, maybe introduce you to some of the townsfolk?"
"No. No ma'am."
"You're sure? I could introduce you to some of the boys close to your age."
"I … I'm not a boy, ma'am," Andrew said, his head down.
"Of course you aren't. But to an old woman like me, you are."
"You're not old, Mrs. Potter."
Gloria laughed heartily. "You have learned well … from your mother?" The store owner said admiringly.
"I like to think that."
"I am sure she is proud of you," she said. She placed all of the items Andrew R. Cuthbert procured in a stack. She smiled at him warmly, and his lips twitched up shyly. "Your saddlebags?" she encouraged.
"Oh! Right," he said as he picked up the worn leather saddlebags, also military issue, from the floor beside him. "My mind is on a half a dozen things I need to do," he said in apology as he placed his items in his bags.
"Of course it is, dear. Do you have a place to stay?"
"Figured I'd try the boarding house first."
"Mrs. Broughton is a very nice woman. You'll like it there. Her rooms aren't anything fancy, but it's clean and dry and warm. She has a very nice garden behind the house to escape to when it gets too hot inside in he summer. And it's quiet there at the end of town."
"That's nice to know." Andrew grabbed his saddlebags, tipped his hat and said, "Thank you for your kindness and for stayin' open late."
"You're welcome. And welcome to Four Corners."
Andrew tipped his hat once more and left the mercantile.
"Don't what?" Vin asked as he placed his foot on the first tread of the staircase that lead up to Ezra's room above the saloon.
"Nate says we gotta stop botherin' 'im. Nate says Ez won't turn us away, even though he needs to rest, said Ez is subconsciously forcin' himself to stay awake to entertain whoever's sittin' with him. Or some hooey like that."
"Wouldn't surprise me," the tracker said as he backtracked back toward the ladies' man and joined him in a seat at the table.
"Been near three whole days," Vin said as he poured himself a shot from the bottle on the table.
"Brother Ezra is handlin' it better than I would," Josiah said.
Chris walked up to the table. "Reckon there'd be a stack o' broken furniture if you were in that kind o' pain for that long," the leader of The Seven agreed.
"No doubt," the preacher said as he sipped his whiskey.
"Everyone handles pain different," Vin offered.
"Ezra likes to hide his," Buck said.
"It's his way," Josiah agreed. "Anyone know where Nathan is?" he asked as he poured a drink for Chris.
"Over at the Bradys. The little one twisted his ankle tryin' to catch one o' the baby goats. Nate's makin' sure it ain't broke," Buck answered. The handsome, dark-haired lawman took a swig of his beer, took a look around the saloon and then out the window and wondered, "Where's J.D.?"
"He's watchin' the prisoners and goin' through the wanted posters and waitin' to hear back from Mary on some telegraphs she sent. He wants to make sure all of Robinson's men are accounted for."
"When's the judge due?" Vin asked as he slouched in his chair, crossing his legs at his ankles.
"He said today or tomorrow." It was near seven in the evening, and the judge had scheduled to come to town before the troubles with the Robinson gang blew to town. "So it'll be tomorrow. I hope. The sooner he sentences Robinson and the rest of 'em, the sooner we can schedule to have a transport come and … transport 'em to Yuma."
"Stage has been downright unreliable lately," Buck said. The last week had seen the stage arrive late every day, and forced to spend the night at the way station one night. They never did find out why that was. "You still want us goin' with … "
"Yeah," Chris said. "But she might not get her chance. If the judge arrives tomorrow, he probably won't let her go."
"Come on, old dog. He'd let her go if you went with her."
"And that's why I ain't offerin', Buck."
"You really want ta make 'er mad like that?" Vin questioned his friend.
"Better she's mad at me for a while."
"Me and Buck are set to head on out with her tomorrow," Josiah noted.
"I know. I still don't like it. Think she should let Ezra and Inez handle it."
"She don't like how Ez is handlin' it. Neither do I," Vin offered.
"Or me," Buck agreed.
"Well, it ain't your say how it's handled. I made my case with her. We'll see if she can persuade Judge Travis," Chris said as he drank down his shot and poured himself another.
"You talked her out o' goin' today, didn't you?"
"I ain't a miracle worker, Buck. 'Sides, I didn't have to. Just told her that two hours' notice wasn't enough time."
The sudden, loud clap of the batwing doors against the saloon walls was the announcement that J.D. Dunne had some news.
"Slow down, kid," Buck said as he pulled a chair out for his young friend.
"What is it, J.D. And who's with … "
"Robert's over there. There's two more of 'em."
"Two more members of the gang? Brothers? Cousins?" Chris asked.
"Both wanted?" Vin added.
"Oh. No, Vin. Only one's wanted. Adam's youngest brother. He's supposed to be nuts. Mary says they think he's killed at least three men. He's only twenty years old. Name's William."
"Damn," Buck said, his reaction saying what everyone else was thinking.
"And the other one?" Chris asked.
"Cousin, but on the mother's side. All them other cousins were on his father's side. But he ain't part of the gang."
"Yet. Any idea where these fellers are?" Vin asked, his handsome face marred by a scowl highlighting his concern that they were possibly expecting retaliation from this family.
"Mary sent a telegraph to Santa Fe on William. He'd been in jail there, but escaped during transport to Yuma. No one knows where he is now."
"I wouldn't count on that," Chris said as his eyes drifted toward the jail. "What about the other one, J.D.?"
"Mary found out he came into some money back east. Didn't have much of a job. She said he tried to get into the sheriff's department back east, but he didn't qualify. Some injury in the war. Her newspaper source said he talked about heading out west."
"This one have a name?" Josiah asked.
Each of The Seven present felt the temperature in the room go down a few degrees at the cold stare Josiah sent J.D.'s way.
"What's wrong, 'siah?" Buck asked.
"Andrew Cuthbert?" J.D. exclaimed loudly.
"Y … Yeah. That's me."
All of the lawmen present turned toward the table in the corner, near the window. Josiah stood, put his hand out to his friends to indicate that they should remain calm, and walked over to the young man who sat alone, nursing a beer and reading The Clarion newspaper.
"May I?" he asked as he indicated the one empty chair at the table. "Me and my friends are the law in this town," Josiah said as he indicated his companions at the table nearby. "I'm Josiah Sanchez," he said, offering his hand to the quiet young man.
"Sure," Andrew replied as he accepted the hand and gave the big man a firm shake. "Is there somethin' wrong?" he asked.
"I hope not, son … "
"Excuse me, but you ain't my pa. He's back east."
Josiah smiled, apology evident in his face and his demeanor. "Sorry. You sound like a friend of mine," he said as he sat down. "He's not too happy for me to call him son, either. It's a habit, no disrespect was intended."
"I know. I guess I'm a little touchy on the subject. I love my pa and my ma. I ain't got much good family left."
"Good family?" the former preacher and de facto religious leader of the town questioned.
Andrew lowered his head. "Yeah," he started, raising his eyes to capture Josiah's. "My brothers, Thomas and Matthew, they died in the war."
"Sorry to hear that, s … " the big man replied, catching himself before saying again what was so obviously a sensitive topic for the young man. "It was a conflict that tore families apart, left far too many good folk dead."
"Yeah. All I got left is Ma and Pa and … "
"And?" Josiah coaxed.
"I got cousins, but they're … they're thieves. Think some of 'em might o' killed folk. Know one of 'em did." Andrew looked toward Chris, Buck, Vin and J.D., and then looked back at the older man before him. "I came out here thinkin' I might find 'em, even though … "
"Even though?" Josiah continued to encourage in a warm and thoughtful tone. The man went on with his story as he found the tabletop more fascinating than it truly was.
"I … I have friends, sheriffs, back in Albany, and they said all of 'em are wanted for robbery and … and f … for murder." His head remained down as he said, "Pa said I shouldn't bother, that once they turned to 'illegitimate pursuits' that there wasn't much to be done."
"That's not always the case," Chris said as he joined the conversation. Andrew raised his head to the imposing man. Chris pulled his chair around to sit with Josiah and Andrew. "I'm Chris Larabee."
Andrew leaned away from the former gunslinger, who retained an aura of menace with strangers, the aura that helped him avoid more than one gunfight in his life, despite a reputation that forced him into far more. It was evident by Andrew's reaction that he had heard of Chris Larabee.
"'Fraid it is the case this time. We've got four of your cousins over in the jail, including Adam Robinson."
"Damn." Andrew realized how that might come across. "No, I didn't mean … I mean, I was hopin' … I guess Pa was right. My friend, Sheriff Moore back in Albany, he said that it looked like there was a lot of activity out around here. I took the train from St. Louis to Kansas City, and then took the stage and rented horses between here and there. Kept in touch with Jimmy, Sheriff Moore. He sent a telegraph that Adam and the boys were run out of Dodge City by other outlaws. I've been weeks behind them, through Kansas and Colorado until here. How long they been in your jail?"
"Just since yesterday," Chris said. "Two of 'em are in the undertaker's."
"Guess I shouldn't be surprised. My aunts and uncles have all pretty much written 'em off." Andrew looked into Chris' eyes. "We're good people, I mean, my ma and pa, my aunts and uncles … my brothers." He shrugged his shoulder. "We don't know what happened."
"Were they in the war? Some didn't come out so good after that," Buck said as he joined the conversation. "Buck Wilmington."
"H … Howdy. Uh, no, they headed west when the war started."
"You were in the war?" Josiah asked.
"At the end."
"How old were you, son. Sorry. I will try to do better," Josiah added with an apologetic grin.
"No, that's all right. I was … young."
"You were a child," Chris challenged.
"My brothers, they were heroes. I left home and joined. The Army was takin' everyone then."
"How old were you? Twelve, thirteen?" Buck asked, appalled that children that young would have been conscripted to service.
"Ten," he answered softly. Silence fell across the two tables. Vin and J.D. sat quietly, listening to the conversation. They all knew that ten-year-olds couldn't legally enlist, but that didn't mean that desperate measures weren't taken toward the end of that terrible war.
"Your cousin William is out there, on the loose. He escaped from jail. He's wanted for three murders." Chris stared into Andrew Cuthbert's eyes and asked, "Do you know where William is?"
Andrew's eyes grew wide at the accusation. "No." Chris continued to stare him down. "No! I just got here today on the stage from Pueblo. You wanna see my ticket?" he asked as he patted his chest pocket in his vest and then turned to grab his jacket, which rested on the back of his chair. He noticed both Chris and Josiah tense at the movement, and watched behind them as Buck, Vin and J.D. all put their hands to their guns. "I think it's in my coat p … pocket," he stuttered. He knew at that second that he was very close to having a gun pointed at him for the first time in his life. That hadn't even happened in his short time in the Army.
"Just be careful," Josiah suggested.
Both carefully and quickly, Andrew Cuthbert presented his ticket for today's stage.
"If you want you can send a telegraph to Sheriff Moore. He'll vouch for the towns I sent him telegraphs from, and on what dates. I've been trackin' Adam. If William wasn't with Adam, then, well, I don't know. Where did William escape from?"
"Santa Fe jail."
"That's south o' here, right? This is as far south as I've been."
"It's south and east," Josiah said.
"Well, I haven't been there. And I haven't done anything wrong."
"If I go over to the stagecoach office, will they vouch for you that you came in on today's stage?" Chris asked.
Andrew visibly sighed in relief. "Yeah. Mr. Franks'll remember. He had to call me three times before he tapped my shoulder. He was talking on my right side, and a bunch of people were goin' on kind o' loud at others who arrived on the stage on my left."
"You couldn't hear him?"
"No, I can't hear out of my right ear at all. Got some trouble in my left. It's why the sherriff's office turned my application down in Albany. I didn't see much action, but there was an accident with one of our cannons. I was standing, well, Iost my hearing. And I know your next question. If there's not other noise close by, I can hear pretty good. And when there is, if I'm looking at the person speaking, I'm pretty good at reading lips."
"This happened when you were ten?" Josiah asked sympathetically.
Andrew shrugged his shoulder again. "Yeah. It's not a big deal. I'm used to it."
"Mrs. Potter said you might want to have a talk. Do you want to join me at the church tomorrow?"
"I don't know. Maybe." He rubbed his eyes. He looked pretty tired after what must have been at least a half day's travel, plus the delayed arrival.
"We'll check in with that sheriff," Chris said.
"Do you want to see your cousins?" Buck asked.
"No. Maybe tomorrow. We obviously don't have anything in common." He looked at all of the men looking back at him. "You're all the law here?"
"Us and two others," Buck said.
"I'm really tired. Can we talk some more tomorrow? You can tell me what they did, why they're in jail, why two of 'em are dead. I wish I could tell you more about William. He's the closest in age to me, but he was doin' bad things even when I was young. My ma and pa wouldn't let me spend any time with him."
"Why don't you head on to bed. You stayin' at the boarding house?"
"Yeah, Mr. Sanchez."
"Call me Josiah. How 'bout you meet us here for breakfast at nine?"
"That's kind of late."
"He ain't much like Ezra 'cept for the 'son' thing," Vin murmured lightly.
"You've had a long and stressful day. Get a good night's rest. We'll see you here at nine tomorrow."
"Good morning, Mr. Sanchez."
"It's Josiah, Andrew."
"All right, Josiah."
"Food'll be here any minute." The two men sat down where Buck and J.D. were talking loudly and Chris and Vin were sitting quietly. "Nathan will be here soon. He's another one of the lawmen here and our town's healer."
"Do you all have second jobs like Nathan?"
"Hell no, one job's enough for me," Buck answered.
"Me, too," J.D. agreed.
"No," Josiah replied, "well, unless you consider Ezra's gambling. He's a professional poker player."
"And I haven't met him yet, right?"
Vin grinned. "It's a lot of people to meet all at once."
"No, he's upstairs."
"And here comes Nate coming down the stairs," J.D. said as he sat looking straight at the staircase.
"How's he doin'?" Chris asked.
"He's tired and weak. Back is still sore. Had some toast and coffee. Some tea for pain. He'll be up sometime this afternoon."
"Nathan, this is Andrew Cuthbert. Andrew, Nathan Jackson." The two men shook hands.
Josiah gave Nathan a summary of who Andrew was, his relation to the men in the jail and the undertaker's and why the man, by happenstance and strange timing, was in Four Corners. As they ate, all of The Seven seated at the table took turns explaining to Andrew what had gone on these last days.
"You figure William will come here?"
"I figure William is well on his way here. He already knew Adam was workin' the area," Chris said.
"I guess it makes sense for you to know what I know about William. He was awful when we were growin' up. He's a few years younger than me, but he was mean and angry all the time. Don't know what happened to him, but something must have. Anyway, he was very good at hiding. He'd find the best hiding places when he pretended he wanted to play hide and seek, but he never really played the game. He'd try to find me and when he did, he'd beat the shit out of me. But he always managed to find a story to tell his mother and father and even though they saw my bruises, they always stood by him. He's also really good at hiding in plain sight. I'm a little worried … "
"You're worried that he's already here," Vin surmised.
"I am. Is there someone at the jail?"
"Yeah. Two of the townsfolk who help us out a lot are watching them."
"Does he, I mean William, does he know what happened? I mean, if he's already here, could he have seen something that might give him some leverage … "
"Nettie and Casey?" J.D. asked.
"No. I talked 'em both into stayin' here in town. They're at the hotel," Vin said.
"That's good," J.D. said, relieved.
"What about Ezra? He was in the middle of a lot o' this. He could o' been seen when J.D. near run 'im down, or from the shadows when he was up on that roof," Buck said.
"I didn't run 'im down," J.D. challenged.
"Well, ya did, but ya had a reason," Chris clarified.
"I just left him. He was pretty close to sleep. Kicked me out, said staring at him wasn't gonna get him to fall asleep any faster," Nathan offered worriedly.
Vin stood. "Don't think he should be left alone. Can't defend himself when he's asleep."
"Go ahead up there, Vin. The rest of us … " Chris was interrupted by the sound of banging and pounding against walls and the ceiling. Dust filtered down from the activity.
"Ezra," Josiah said. All of the men at the table, including Andrew, headed for the stairs.
"Buck and J.D., head for the back stairs."
"You bet, old pard," Buck said as he and J.D. headed for the rear of the building.
"Andrew, you should stay here," Josiah called back to the last person to rise from the table.
"No, I think I'll come. Might be I could keep him distracted enough for you all to grab him."
"Just stay back at first," Chris said. "We'll try to handle it."
"Figures that Ezra would get caught up in this," Nathan said. 'More bad luck', he though to himself.
They reached the door to Ezra's room. It was open, and the sound of fighting could be heard. The sound of Ezra's yelp of pain brought Vin and Chris to the door, where they found William holding the gambler up, the wanted man pressing his forearm hard up against Ezra's throat and holding him tight to his chest with one arm, the criminal's gun held up to the southerner's head.
"You should let him go. You ain't gettin' away from here today," Chris warned.
"Don't care what you have to say. I want my brothers and my cousins out of that jail."
"No. But if you let him go, you might be headed to the jail and not to where your other kin are laying quietly at the undertaker's," Chris said.
"Chris," Ezra said, but that was all he got out before William tightened his hold on his throat."
"Just sit tight, Ez."
"Tight," Ezra noted, "yes, tight."
"Shut up!" William said as he tightened his hold again.
Ezra, knowing that William was distracted by the card sharp's compatriots and keeping a solid hold on him and a gun to his head, kept his hands low and sent hand signals to his friends. He would lean forward on three. Vin shook his head 'no', too risky. He would kick the man in the shin. This time Nathan motioned 'no'; he wasn't wearing his boots, he might not get the pain reaction they needed to rush him.
"William, it's Andrew."
"Huh. Well look here. The cry-baby is all the way out west. You come on your own, or you with your mommy and daddy?"
"William, let him go. You might be able to live the rest of your life in prison. That's better'n being dead, isn't it?"
"You always looked at things like a chicken shit, Andy. I'm gettin' out o' here. And it'll make no mind to me if I have to take you out. Then you'll be able to join her, if you believe in that sort of thing."
"William, you can't get out of here. Look at these men. And there's others comin' up the back, and still more who care about the people in this town. It's the end of the road."
"Your hearin' must still be messed up. You ain't hearin' what I'm sayin'. It's better for me to die trying and take some of you out as I do."
Ezra picked up on what William said about Andrew's hearing. And how wonderful … more Robinson relatives. The gamester started mouthing a conversation, hoping that the man he saw across the room would have learned some lip reading. If he had to, he would move on to some sign language. Chris saw what Ezra was doing, and he chose to distract the man who held his friend at gunpoint.
"Circuit Judge Travis is arriving tomorrow to have a trial for the rest of your family. It's up to you whether you get to enjoy the trial, which is your right, or whether you end up dead today."
Chris kept up the conversation, occasionally assisted by Josiah, as Ezra continued to 'talk' to Andrew. Ezra knew to offer options that required only a 'yes' or 'no' answer, and young Andrew was quick enough to pick up that he should move his head just slightly to return the appropriate indicator of a nod for yes and even just half a shake of the head for no.
"You all sure do seem to like to talk," William said as Ezra made certain to make eye contact with both Chris and Vin. Ezra moved his head down, as far down as he could with William's forearm choking him. The man felt Ezra's head move too far forward, and he pulled him back quickly. Ezra used his hand, position in front of his crotch, to count down: 3-2-1.
On '1', Andrew pushed Josiah farther into the room, forcing the big man to the floor. The young man went for his gun, and William did exactly as expected. His eyes were distracted by the big preacher's fall, and then immediately redirected to Andrew's hand going for his gun. William's gun came away from Ezra's head, and Ezra became dead weight and fell through William's arms, no longer holding as tight as before with all of the distractions before him. Chris drew his gun and fired, the bullet ripping William Robinson's left ear completely off of his head. He screamed, Ezra dove away further, and the bullet from Vin's mare's leg caught the wanted man in the stomach. William dropped his gun and dropped to the floor. The Seven converged, Chris grabbing the gun, Nathan going for Ezra, Vin checking that Josiah hadn't been hurt in the melee. Buck and J.D. came running in as they heard the shots being fired.
Andrew Cuthbert walked over to his dying cousin.
"You planned this," William said through gritted teeth.
"No. This was all your doing."
"No, you … you made all this happen."
"What's he talkin' about?" Chris asked.
"William thinks that I planned to have him killed because he killed my wife."
"He killed your wife?"
"Raped her and then strangled her," Andrew said as he watched his cousin writhe in pain.
Ezra moved his hand to his throat. "The man seems adept at manipulatin' the throat, Ah can vouch for that," he eked out.
"Stop talkin'," Nathan warned. They were all able to hear that the rough handling had not been kind to the gambler's throat.
"I don't doubt that young Mr. Cuthbert would want to see you dead, if what he says is true, but he had no plan in what transpired here. Even if he knew you were here, he didn't make you take the actions you took," Josiah explained.
"Well, Andy," William said as blood began to ooze from his mouth, "looks like I'll have her for myself again before you get to see her again."
"That ain't true. She's an angel in heaven. And you're goin' to hell. And there ain't no priest who will get here for you to confess your sins to that'll change that."
William recognized the truth in the statement. Despite all of the terrible things that he had done, he still held with his religion, despite having turned against every good thing it had taught him in his life. He took a breath, whispered, "Hell," and then breathed no more.
"Yep," Andrew Cuthbert agreed as he walked out of the room.
Buck stopped at the outhouse behind the saloon on his way in. As he approached their regular table, he heard the distinct sounds of kissing. It irked him to hear it; there had been more times than not when kissing in public had gotten him into trouble. Well, if he was honest about it, it wasn't exactly the kissing that was the problem.
"What's that noise?" he asked as he sat down at the table next to his oldest friend.
"Ezra's makin' out on the boardwalk."
"Is Inez back?" the ladies' man asked.
"No," Vin answered.
Buck stood quickly. "Why that lowlife, pond scum, son-of-a … "
"Don't hurt 'im," Nathan said, barely able to keep the laugh in.
Buck stormed out the batwing doors and said, "You got a lot of nerve you two-timin' … " He stopped yelling when he came across Ezra giving loving kisses to … Fred.
"What was that, Buck?" Ezra asked, hardly stopping the canine-human lovefest. The mustachioed man heard the laughter coming his way from his soon-to-be ex-friends. "You see how much Fred missed me?"
"Seems like you missed him a little, too, hoss," Buck said, immediately no longer upset with the southerner. "You gonna save some o' that for Inez when she gets back?"
Ezra stopped kissing the little hound dog and rested back in his chair, pulling Fred into his chest, petting him sweetly. "Ah would have, well, Ah suppose that Ah would have enough love for both should Ah be so lucky."
Buck looked down at his friend and then kneeled in front of him. He gave Fred a quick rub on his exposed chest and said, "I'm sure she's comin' back."
Ezra snorted and said, "Is that why Mary is taking the stage out with Josiah and Vin today?"
"Now, that's just Mary makin' sure, that's all." Buck looked at him accusingly. "How'd you know about that?" He realized that the answer didn't matter and the ladies' man reiterated, "I'm sure she's comin' back."
Ezra opened his eyes and looked to the south. The day had started out better than the previous three, that was undeniable. He wasn't feeling up to much yet, but his headache was gone. And more than anything, he wanted to make it right with Inez. He hadn't done anything wrong, not really, other than be far more understanding and realistic than Inez could handle. It wasn't his place to tell her story, and he wouldn't. Maybe it would be best if Mary made the trip, forced the beautiful Mexican woman to reveal her secret, her worries, her heartache. Lord knew he wasn't having much luck moving them forward.
"Perhaps." Ezra blinked his eyes, trying to keep his tears from pooling, to keep his own heartache from being revealed. "So, for now, we wait to see what Judge Travis has to say about our full jailhouse."
"Yeah. Mary's sent off telegraphs back east to see if that Cuthbert fella is tellin' the truth."
"Ah have not heard his story but Ah suspect he must be comin' across as honest or he would be in jail as well."
"Yeah." Buck stood up. "These old knees can only take just so much o' that. If his cousin did what he says … "
"The man deserved what he got. He had killed three people. Ah would have been the fourth … "
"Indeed. Well, Ah suppose Ah should come in before Nathan sends the Cavalry."
"Buck is the Cavalry," Nathan called from inside. The two friends on the boardwalk smiled.
"Buck, would you please take Fred. Ah do not wish him to jump up and down for a while."
"Sure. He comin' to join us for breakfast, too."
"Not in the least. Ah eat because Ah must this day."
"Your throat?" Buck asked. It was easy to tell that his throat was still paining him from the rough treatment from William Robinson.
"Among many other reasons, mah friend. Do not tell Nathan. Ah will eat, Ah just … "
"'Bout time you came inside. Your resistance is still down. Could catch yourself a chill."
"That is indeed why Ah have come inside, Nathan." Ezra looked to each of his friends and asked, "What's for breakfast?"
"What is wrong with you?"
Ezra jumped in his seat. The sun warmed the morning enough, and Ezra had spent time enough inside that he could not bear returning to his room after his morning meal. He'd fallen asleep in the chair in front of the saloon, his feet resting on an upturned crate, and despite the recognizable voice of the person who just spoke, it was nothing less than a rude awakening.
"What …?" the card sharp looked up in the direction of the familiar voice. "Inez?"
"What are you doin' …?"
"I came home early. I arrived on the stage."
"The stage is early?"
"Yes. Judge Travis was on the stage with me. He threatened the driver if he did not arrive on time. It is surprising how the stagecoach company can run late as it does. It seems if the right person is in the coach they can make it here in plenty of time. Early, in fact. The judge and I believe that there is possibly some ... "
"Home?" Ezra interrupted, followed by a yawn.
"What?" The fiery Latin woman returned. She leaned her bosom into his face as she placed her hand on his forehead. "Are you feverish?"
Ezra pushed her hand away. "Ah am not."
"But you have been sick."
"Ah, well, yes. But you had left … "
"You should have sent me a telegraph … "
"Ah would not interrupt your visit … "
"Madre di Dios. They are barely related to me. You know why I was visiting them."
"Yes, Ah do." Ezra looked around and saw no one about, but then again, he couldn't see out the back of his head. He knew at least a few of his friends were likely listening in on this conversation. He knew he couldn't say certain things, but he also knew it was time that she understood precisely what her erratic behavior was doing to him: precisely the opposite of what her erotic nature did.
"Then … "
"No, Inez. No 'then', no 'because', no 'you had to get away'. Ah want to know, what did you mean when you said that you came home early?"
Inez looked into the saloon and called, "Are you sure he is not sick from fever?"
"He's not. He'll be fine," Nathan called back.
"Damn it, woman! Answer the question!" Ezra demanded. It was a tone that was hardly ever heard from the southern gentleman.
The pretty saloon manager stood back, placed her hands on her hips and asked, "What question?"
Ezra gave her his best Chris Larabee glare and said pointedly through gritted teeth. "What did you mean when you said you 'came home early'?"
She looked at him sadly, sorrowfully, lovingly. She leaned toward him again, took his face gently in her hands and said, "I have come home. To you." Their eyes held each other's as they moved in to one another for a long, passionate kiss. A familiar yell of 'Hooo-ee!' from inside the drinking establishment had them separate. Another murmur of 'Shut up, Buck!' from J.D. forced a shared laugh from the handsome couple.
"You don't look very well, mi amor," she said.
"Ah am gettin' bettah."
"I'm sorry I was not here."
"You are not at fault for that," Ezra told his love.
"That is not true. It is all my fault that I left."
"It does not mattah. You are here now." He grabbed her hand. "Would you like to join me upstairs?" he asked so only she could hear. Inez laughed out loud.
"We can go upstairs, but do not think anything will happen. You still need time to recover." She helped him up. "I will tell you what the judge believes will happen with the gang."
"Are you and the judge conferring on legal mattahs now?" Inez frowned as Ezra seemed to move slower than expected.
"We shared a long stagecoach ride," she replied, assuming that he had been sitting in that position for too long. "He is a very interesting man."
"Yes. The judge and Ah go way back." They walked into the saloon. "Gentlemen, Ah shall be retirin' to mah room," he said to all of his friends who were enjoying their midday meals.
"With that lovely woman on your arm, I would do the same thing," Buck said, wiggling his eyebrows in a lascivious manner.
"Stupido!" Inez said as she slapped the renowned Lothario in the forehead.
"You ain't fully recovered, Ez. And watch your back."
"Your back?" Inez asked as they walked to the staircase. "What happened to your back? Why did you not tell me about that? I thought it was only the sick headache."
Vin snorted a laugh as Ezra looked back to his friends for help. He realized immediately from the looks on their faces that not one of them would be interfering between the pair. He caught J.D.'s eyes and tipped his hat, receiving a nod of the head in return, the young man's hat having already made its way to the floor. Buck looked with a furrowed brow at J.D., Ezra tried once more to enlist some assistance, everyone one of this friends looked away. He looked back to his lady love and said, "Inez, dear, Ah have been awake for fewer than five minutes. Would you believe me if Ah said that it simply had not crossed mah mind since Ah found you had returned?"
"Oh. Well, I guess you are right."
"Besides, Ah had much more beguiling concerns to deal with upon setting sight once more upon your exquisite self."
"That Ezra, he sounds like me," Buck said, preening like a peacock.
"No he doesn't," came from all of the men surrounding Buck at the table.
"And what was that between you and Ez?" Buck asked their youngest member.
"Well, it damn well was somethin'."
"It was nothing you need to worry about, Buck."
"Was it an apology?" Vin asked.
"Was it Ezra tellin' you that an apology wasn't necessary?"
"Is it possible that is was just somethin' between me and Ezra?"
"Yep," Vin said. Chris, Josiah and Nathan all offered a similar answer. Buck said 'no'.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Buck. But you know all there is that you're gonna know."
"Fine." He wasn't really mad that he wasn't getting more information from the person he considered his little brother. It was just part of Buck's nature to push to the point of annoyance. It was just one more of his many charms.
As Ezra and Inez could be heard closing the door to gambler's room, the discussion at the table turned to the Robinsons.
"The judge ain't botherin' with a jury trial," J.D. said.
"Can he do that?" Nathan asked.
"Makes sense. Too many towns would want a piece of this one. There's plenty of evidence to find them guilty with a bench trial," Josiah said.
"You think that Cuthbert kid will stay here?" Vin asked.
"Don't know," Chris replied. "Mary heard back from her telegraphs back east. His story checks out."
"That hearing problem of his ain't good," Nathan said. "Could get him hurt."
"Not if he stays in town. Seems to have a good head on his shoulders," Buck said. "Maybe he can find work here."
"There ain't that many jobs in a small town like this," Chris said.
"Town's growin' like a weed. Never know."
"That's true, 'siah," J.D. said. "I hope he stays. Sounds like he's got some healin' still to do. This town is a good place to do that. Now."
Josiah looked at his young friend. Just three years ago, Four Corners would never have been thought of as a place for healing. But the man who volunteered as sheriff when no one else would, who had lost his mother not long before arriving in this wild western town, would know about healing. His own difficult times – accidentally killing a woman, getting beat up and shot – proved that this town had a way about it, a power to make things right.
It wasn't only J.D. Dunne who had been a beneficiary of the curative powers of this small desert town. Chris Larabee was a prime example. He would soon ask Mary Travis for her hand in marriage, it was a foregone conclusion. It was a match no one could have foreseen after the couple's first difficult encounters, but love won out and healed wounds those who had come to know the former gunslinger never thought would be cured.
Vin Tanner was now a free man, in every sense of the word, the work of his friends, his fellows in law enforcement, had made sure of that. Nathan Jackson, a man who was nearly hung by his neck as The Seven made those first small steps of forming a team, was admired throughout town, a black man finding that the color of his skin no longer acted as chains dragging him down.
Buck Wilmington? Well, not all that much had changed for Buck since he officially became a resident of Four Corners. Buck remained his boisterous, woman-loving self, though he found that he had it in him to settle down – to love one woman – even if the right woman was still just out of reach.
The preacher had finally found his calling. Josiah Sanchez found, much like Chris, that life was not better at the bottom of a bottle of rot gut. His town was growing, his church was mostly patched, and a congregation seemed to blossom from the nails and new clapboard and new roof that kept the building warm and dry and transformed it into a sanctuary for all.
And their professional gambler? It may not be smooth sailing for Ezra Standish and the woman he loved, but it said more about how far the former con man had come that he and Inez were a couple, that he was able to express those feelings of happiness and love – and frustration and exasperation – with those around him. Having shed the worst of Maude Standish's teachings, and kept the very best, he had exposed himself, however reluctantly along the way, as a most exceptional man.
Some might see Oren Travis' role in all of this as more of a seer than simply as a circuit court judge with a special interest in a particular town's survival. As The Magnificent Seven became a force to be reckoned with, the town of Four Corners turned to its destiny, a Wild West town transformed to a destination for good people looking to make a life in the magnificence of the western landscape. Nathan kept busy delivering new citizens to the town, others moved in. Businesses opened, and Ezra became a key figure in their success. Chris' reputation had not dimmed, Vin's status as a wanted man had, and men looking to make a name for themselves no longer sought out either of them, knowing that they had partners watching their backs. Buck and J.D. still acted like children, and Josiah looked over them all, a father figure, not to just one of them. The future looked bright for Four Corners and its citizens, as bright as a stunning southwestern sunset.
And Andrew Cuthbert walked in to the saloon to greetings from The Magnificent Seven, only six of them present, knowing full well that they had permission to speak for their seventh in welcoming another to their corner of the American frontier.