HOBSON'S CHOICE

By Jordan McKenzie

"Hobson's Choice- No real choice at all."

.

"What on earth is the matter, Mr. Larabee?" Madeline asked as the tall blond rushed past her growling.

Chris glanced up to see the shopkeeper's wife sweeping the sidewalk. He unsuccessfully masked his growl by pretending to clear his throat then huffed a breath in frustration. "Hello, Mrs. Hobson."

"Are you alright?"

"Me? I'm just great! But some folks around here are a real pain in the…" He hesitated when he remembered who he was speaking to and stopped just shy of saying what he really wanted.

"Posterior?"

"Close enough."

She pressed her lips together before they curved into a smile. "Are you at liberty to discuss who has caused you such distress?" she asked knowingly with a delicious Southern accent.

"Please, ma'am," he pleaded. "Don't get me started."

"I'm betting our Mr. Standish has already had that pleasure."

"You'd win that bet," he replied grumpily. "Don't get me wrong, Ezra's a good man and I wouldn't exactly call him lazy, but..."

"There are times when he's less inclined to subject himself to labor intensive activities," she finished for him, sounding more like Ezra than Ezra.

He winced. "So you've noticed."

"It's a little hard to miss. What is it Mr. Standish is avoiding?"

"Patrol."

"Oh dear, is he up for that?"

Chris eyed her questioningly.

She set her broom aside and brushed her hands on her apron. "He has been recuperating after all."

He closed his eyes and shook his head, knowing where she was heading.

"He was thrown from his horse."

"Into four foot of water," he countered.

"That river was mighty cold."

"Me and Vin yanked him out and had him by a fire in less than fifteen minutes."

"He still managed to develop a terrible sickness."

"Which, he recovered from over a week ago."

She folded her arms in front of her. "How can you be so sure?"

"Well for one thing, he's been bitch, er, uh, moaning about drinkin' Nathan's teas."

"All you boys moan about drinkin' Mr. Jackson's teas, no matter what your state of health. Why, I've personally heard you complain, Chris Larabee, when you had a fever so high you could've baked bread on your forehead."

He looked away sheepishly.

"I'm sure our Mr. Standish just feels too ill to take patrol tonight," she said lightly, hiding a smile behind her hand.

"No offense, Mrs. Hobson, but I'm afraid Ezra's gotcha fooled."

"Now why would you say such a thing of that poor, innocent man?"

"Because I saw him in the saloon last night conning three cow… boys…" he groused then paused when he saw the smile escape her fingers. "You're yankin' my chain, aren't you."

She chuckled. "I'm sorry. I really shouldn't do that, but you were just so serious."

He heaved a weary sigh then walked over to the bench in front of the store and had a seat.

Madeline sat beside him and patted his arm when she saw the lines of frustration begin to set around his mouth. "All kidding aside, I know you're tired," she said soothingly. "You were very worried about your friend not so long ago when he was ill with the fever."

He didn't care to be reminded and started to bristle when he saw the concern in her pretty gray eyes and accepted her good intentions for what they were.

"It's alright to care for a friend, you know. There's no need to pretend with me." She leaned against the wall and let her gaze wander in the direction of the saloon. "But now it appears our darling Mr. Standish has been a bad boy and I suppose it is time to return him to the ranks of the employed."

"Well if you know how to get him outta that cushy chair of his I would love to hear it. I've tried everything including shootin' him."

"You threatened to shoot him?"

"Yeah. I gave him a choice – I could put a bullet in his, uhm, posterior, or skin him alive."

"Well that would never work."

"It worked for me."

"No, I mean, he knows better than to think you would actually hurt him. Of course he's going to play sick when he knows he's in no real danger."

"What would you suggest?"

The older woman knit her brows, apparently working on a solution. After a moment, her eyes widened with a surprising twinkle. "Perhaps you could leave the 'bad boy' to me."

An eyebrow shot up. "To you?"

"Certainly," she said cheerfully as she raised herself from the bench and motioned for him to stay seated. "I just need to fetch something." She hurried inside.

The gunfighter was stunned into silence until Buck walked up with a snarl. "What is it now?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"I swear, Chris, I'm gonna punch him into November," Wilmington fumed.

"It is November, Buck."

"What? Oh. Well you know what I mean."

"I take it you had no luck either."

"Nah, and on top of everything else he took me for five dollars!"

"Five dollars! How?"

"You don't wanna know."

"The hell I don't! You ain't supposed to be playin' cards with him, Buck. You're supposed to be gettin' him on patrol!"

"Well Vin didn't have any better luck than me."

"And what was Vin's problem?"

"Don't rightly know. I left before he got back with the beers."

"Beers?" Chris yelled incredulously, coming off the bench so fast it slid backwards and hit the wall. "He went for beers?"

"Yes, beers," Tanner said as he joined the two men in front of the store. "And don't ask."

"Don't ask? Unbelievable! Both of you get back there and tell that lazy, no good, arrogant little aaaaa…." He ground to a halt when Madeline stepped up beside him. For a moment he thought he was going to explode.

For a moment, so did she. "Oh my, you are working yourself into a right fit, aren't you." His face turned red, the vein above his right temple bulged and his jaw set so hard she feared he would crush his teeth. "Go ahead, son, get it out!" she yelled with a pat on his back.

"Asshole!" he screamed. "Tell that no account gambler I want him in his saddle and headin' out on patrol in one hour!"

"Dear me," Maddie said quickly. "I'll be right back." She disappeared again into the store.

"What's goin' on with Mrs. Hobson?" Buck asked curiously.

"She says she can help."

"With Ezra? How's an innocent little thing like that gonna get a smooth talker like him movin'?"

Chris shrugged.

"Ah Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington, how good to see you," she called happily when she returned.

Vin tipped his hat. "Afternoon, ma'am."

"Mrs. Hobson." Buck bowed his head.

"Now then, I believe I'm ready to visit with Mr. Standish. I just need one small favor from you, my dear," she told the ladies man.

Buck eagerly came to attention. "Well now, you know I'd do anything for you, ma'am."

"Why thank you. I was wondering if you would mind fetching a nice large bucket of water."

"Water?"

"Yes, and if you'd be so kind as to take it to the saloon and wait for me."

Confused but intrigued, he agreed and rushed off to the bathhouse.

She turned to Vin. "Mr. Tanner, would you mind terribly escorting me to your young friend's room? It would be a bit unseemly for me to go there alone."

"Certainly, ma'am," he replied offering her an elbow.

"I can take you to Ezra's room, Mrs. Hobson," Chris announced, his voice tense.

Detecting the tiniest bit of, was it jealousy, she took his clenched fists in her hands and walked him backwards to the bench. "I want you to stay here, Mr. Larabee, and leave everything to me. So much anger isn't good for you."

He sat and stared, at a loss for words.

Vin grinned. "Listen to her, Chris, she's right." He waited for her to take his arm before he looked back over his shoulder. "And close your mouth before the flies move in."

The gunfighter clamped his lips shut and watched in amazement as the tracker escorted Mrs. Hobson toward the saloon.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Buck took the stairs leading to Ezra's room two at a time, being careful not to spill the water he had collected. Entering the hallway, he spotted Mrs. Hobson and Vin talking just outside the gambler's door.

"You don't have to do this," he heard Vin say.

"I'm only too happy to lend a hand, Mr. Tanner."

"Please ma'am, call me Vin."

"And I wish you'd call me Buck," the ladies man announced as he lowered the bucket to the floor.

"You are such charming gentlemen," she answered, taking a certain amount of pleasure in seeing both men blush. "Now then, I suppose I'd best get to work."

Vin eyed her carefully as she brought her closed fists beneath her chin. "What'cha got hid in your hands there, Mrs. Hobson?"

She gave him a grin he would have described as devilish had he not know her better. "It's an old cure my father used to prescribe for lethargy," she answered softly.

"Prescribe? Was he a doctor?"

"More a student of human nature."

"Well, there's been three grown men tryin' to root Ezra outta that chair of his for the better part of two days, so I can't hardly imagine what you could be holdin' in your hands that might budge him."

"Oh, the cure is only in this hand," she replied, holding a single fist up for him to see.

"So what's in the other?"

"Why that's the remedy for the cure."

Vin was puzzled to say the least, but held too much respect for the shopkeeper's wife to doubt her. "I suppose we outta get on with it then."

"Uh, what is it I'm supposed to do with the water?" Buck asked.

"When the time comes, dear boy, you'll know. Just keep your eyes and ears open." She smiled at the look of bewilderment on his face. "I promise all will be revealed very shortly. Just wait here until Mr. Standish leaves."

He nodded agreeably but worried her overconfidence might lead to disappointment.

"Shall we?" she asked Vin.

The tracker knocked on the gambler's door and waited for the pitiful reply he knew would come. Ezra didn't let him down. A pathetic, "Come in," quickly followed by an airy cough, could be heard on the other side. He turned the knob and ushered Madeline inside.

Buck waited patiently, and at first didn't hear a sound coming from the small room. Then, predictably, he heard Ezra's at-death's-door performance take on a whole new intensity. From the sound of it, he was pulling out all the stops, but all the while the voice of the woman in the room remained gentle and even-tempered. He had to hand it to her; it was more than he had been able to do. He had wanted to punch Ezra in the face during his fifteen minutes with the man, but here was the elegant, fifty-five year old Madeline Hobson facing off with the infuriating gambler with a grace he had never seen the likes of.

The muffled banter continued, and on occasion he heard Vin's voice enter the fray, no doubt in defense of the lady, but in the end Ezra's whining persisted until the female persuader fell silent. Buck hung his head; it was evident Madeline had lost the battle.

Chris, having recovered from the force of nature that was Mrs. Hobson, climbed the stairs in the back of the saloon and made his way into the hall. Buck was distracted from his eavesdropping by the heavy footsteps and the strain in his friend's voice. "Any luck?"

"Nah, not yet. Sounds like our champion has met her match."

"Yeah, I figured that'd be the case."

Wilmington looked up. "Have ya considered hog tying him and puttin' him on his horse yourself?"

The gunfighter held up a coil of rope from his saddle.

Buck laughed.

Chris didn't.

Then a shriek penetrated the walls, so shrill it was hard to know if it came from a man or a woman. The two men startled. "Damn," Buck exclaimed, "what was that?"

"I don't know, but we best be findin' out! Get that door o…"

Someone could be heard banging on the door from the inside, fiddling with the knob but failing to make it turn.

"Mr. Hobson! Vin!" Buck hollered, trying the handle from his side. "Ezra! Are you alright?"

Another yelp sliced through the air.

"Answer me! Is everything alright?"

Chris stormed forward, fury in his eyes. "I've had enough of this! Damn it Ezra, I want you…"

The door swung sharply on its hinges and banged on the wall inside. Ezra burst through, flushed and out of breath.

"… out here now," the blond finished.

"Mister… Larabee," he replied with a hard swallow. "You didn't…" He spun around looking the hallway up and down. "I mean, you didn't have to… I would've…"

"What the devil's wrong with you?"

"You're a cruel man," he wailed at Chris. "A vicious… ouch … and cruel man."

"Me? What'd I do?"

"Gotta go… got patrol," Ezra slurred uncharacteristically and sidled, skipped and ran off towards the stairs.

The gunfighter looked at Buck who shrugged and watched the gambler out of sight. Tanner sauntered out of the room and Chris caught him by the arm. "Vin, what the hell just happened?"

"Mrs. Hobson just persuaded Ezra it was time to get back to work."

"She did?" Buck asked, astonished.

"Yeah," he confirmed, "and it was a sight to see."

"But how? How the hell did she straighten him out when none of the rest of us could? What did she threaten him with?"

"Oh she didn't threaten him."

"She didn't?"

"No." He chuckled. "She set his chair on fire."

"She what?" Chris cried.

Buck peeked into the room. "Oh, crap," he mumbled as he realized what the bucket of water was for. He grabbed the pail and ran inside.

"She set his chair on fire?" Larabee repeated.

"Yep. It took a minute for Ezra to realize his gettin' warm wasn't his fever comin' back, but he caught on soon enough. Mrs. Hobson scorched his backside pretty good." The tracker doubled over, finally caving to his desire to laugh out loud.

Then he and Chris leaned in the door and heard Madeline thank her water bearer for a job well done. Buck stepped away from the still smoking chair and sat on the sill of the open window. "You did it, ma'am. I wouldn't've believed it if I hadn't seen it myself, but you surely got him goin'." He leaned back to peer down the street. "And I see he's still goin', straight to the livery. Although his gait's a mite peculiar."

Vin laughed harder. "Yessir, ol' Ezra's liable to find walkin' and sittin' slightly uncomfortable for a spell."

"Uh, Mrs. Hobson," Chris began worriedly.

"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"

"It's not that I don't appreciate your help, ma'am, but I was needin' Ezra able to sit a horse."

"Oh don't you be fretting about that now," she replied. "I have just what he needs."

Vin straightened and wondered at the delicate fingers wrapped tightly around what she had referred to as 'the remedy for the cure.'

"Now you take this," she instructed as she took the lawman's hand and placed a small blue tin across his fingers, "and apply it right away. In about an hour or so, he should be good to go."

Chris looked down to read the lid of the tin, Maudine's Cooling Salve. "Apply it?" he stuttered. "To Ezra?"

"Why of course." She beamed. "I got him off his 'posterior', it's up to you to get him back on it."

Vin and Buck howled so loud no one heard the gunfighter's curses as he stormed out of the room.

The End

A/N: I know, it's not the sequel to ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS!, but Maddie is just a hard character to deny. When she gets a bee in her bonnet, dang.... Actually, when I created her in OYHB I had no idea how much I would love writing her. So as I try to overcome writer's block, I'm giving her her head and allowing her to play for a while. I hope you enjoy! Jordan