A/N Now presenting the fourth and final chapter of my first ever TM7 fic! Hurrah!
Disclaimer What's that, officer? You think I have seven men tied up in my basement? Whatever gave you that idea?
"You actually thought you could double cross me?" Tony Carboni's voice was cold.
"I didn't! I never!" Daniel Searles sputtered, half indignant and half afraid.
"Goliath, help him to remember," ordered Carboni.
The enormous man picked up Searles and shook him like a rag doll, until the lawyer whimpered for mercy.
"Nobody steals from me," Carboni said.
"Please," gasped Searles. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"No? Then how do you explain this?" Carboni held up a black leather portfolio.
"That's the deed to the Clarion. You were holding it for me."
"Really? Because that's not what I find in here. What I find is the deed to my own casino." Carboni opened the case and held it in front of Searles's face.
The lawyer's jaw dropped in shock. "That's impossible."
"Apparently not." Carboni slammed the case shut. Goliath dropped Searles to his knees.
"Larabee," gasped the lawyer. "He's setting me up!"
"Is that so? But how could that possibly happen? By your own admission, you left him in your office a prisoner and a broken man. Even if I did not believe you, I myself have had him watched since he set foot in this town."
"His friends helped!" Searles pleaded.
"The friends who deserted him? The friends we watched ride away without looking back?"
"I can't explain, but they did it! You must believe me!"
Carboni gently shook his head and drew his gun. "But how could they have done what is so clearly impossible?"
Earlier that day
"What do you mean one of the waiters hasn't shown up?" bellowed the staff manager of Casa Carboni.
The bartender shrugged. "All I know is, he's not here, the others are barely keeping up with the dining room, and somebody needs to take Mr. Carboni his pre-dinner drink."
The manager swore. "I suppose I'll have to take it myself." He spun around and nearly ran into a humble looking black man.
"Excuse me, sah, but I'm lookin' foh a job."
The manager snapped, "You got any experience waiting tables?"
"Oh, yes, sah, I worked the dinin' room of the Ritz in St. Louis, and I—"
"You're hired," interrupted the manager. "Thomas, get this darkie into a uniform and send him to Mr. Carboni with three stiff whiskies."
Thomas hurried the stranger away to a storeroom and thrust a uniform at him. "Put this on. You need to serve drinks in Mr. Carboni's office. Mr. Carboni is in there with his son Mr. Carlo and his right hand man Mr. Marco. You go in, you put down the drinks, you leave. Understand, darkie?"
"Yes, sah!" I understand that if you call me 'darkie' again, I'll put a knife between your ribs.
Thomas hurried away, and Nathan changed into the uniform. After collecting the drinks and getting directions, he headed for Carboni's office. He paused a moment before starting down the final hallway, to steady his nerves. This was the moment of truth. Except for Chris, Vin, and Buck, they'd been careful to keep away from Casa Carboni and anyone who might be here tonight. But if Carboni had ever kept watch on them himself, or sent one of his sons, the charade was about to be over.
The giant guard stood outside the office door. "You new?" he asked suspiciously.
Nathan nodded. "Yes, sah, they jist hired me, sah."
The guard looked him over, then nodded and opened the door. Nathan kept his head humbly bowed, looking at the men only out of the corners of his eyes. He served Carboni first, and then the man who sat next to him. He heard Carboni sip his whiskey and sigh in satisfaction.
"Life is good," Carboni said, as Nathan handed a glass to the third man. "Here I sit with my sons, an empire at my feet, my enemies fleeing before me. Life is good," he repeated.
Nathan was nearly to the door when Carbon called, "Waiter."
Nathan froze, then turned slowly, keeping his eyes down. "Yes, sah?"
"Be sure you come back for these glasses before Mr. Carlo locks up. The man yesterday forgot."
"Yes, sah, I won't fohget," Nathan promised, and escaped.
Ezra finished tying up his horse and straightened his coat sleeves before striding through the front door of Casa Carboni. He appreciatively eyed the expensive décor, the open casino floor, and the elegantly uniformed staff. This was the kind of place he pictured himself operating one day. Too bad he wasn't actually here to make a killing at the tables.
Ezra sauntered through the room, pretending to assess the various games of chance. He kept a discreet eye on the wait staff, and very casually wandered into the path of an elegantly coated black man carrying a tray of drinks.
"Champagne, sah? On the house."
Ezra smiled and accepted the glass. "Uniform suits you," he murmured.
"Shut up," Nathan muttered back. "Carlo Carboni has an office key in his right jacket pocket. He is currently at the roulette table."
Ezra found the man with his eyes, nodded, and moved on. He spent a few moments apparently in serious contemplation of the blackjack table before drifting over to roulette. Reaching to set his now empty glass on the table, his arm bumped into Carlo, who immediately turned and glared.
"So sorry," Ezra apologized. "I'm always shaky before a big game. Guess I need a drink to settle my nerves."
He walked back across the room, made a sharp turn to avoid the wrong purveyor of free champagne, and droped the office key onto Nathan's tray as he picked up a fresh glass. "Thank you, my man." Nathan glared, and Ezra repressed a chuckle as he went to shoot a little craps.
Buck sat at the bar in Casa Carboni, trying to catch the eye of a pretty waitress.
"Gee, Buck, you sure look funny without your mustache," J.D. whispered.
"Shut up, kid. We don't know each other, remember?" Buck reflexively rubbed his upper lip and sighed. Such a beautiful mustache had been too recognizable, but it had been a real sacrifice to shave it off. At least it didn't seem to be affecting his style with the ladies. When he winked at the pretty bartender and held up his glass, she blushed as she refilled it.
J.D. bumped Buck with his elbow so that the contents of the glass sloshed over the side.
"Watch it, kid," Buck snapped.
"What, are you made out of fine china?" J.D. asked impudently before smiling at the waitress. "Say, honey, would you fill this up for me?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Buck saw Nathan in his waiter's jacket slowly raise an arm in front of his face as though stretching. That's the signal.
Buck grabbed J.D.'s arm. "Don't you go gettin' fresh with this lady, greenhorn. She's more woman than a kid like you can handle."
J.D. shook off the hand and jumped to his feet. "I ain't no greenhorn, and I ain't no kid either, grandpa."
"Grandpa!" Buck bellowed. "I reckon you and me better go where I can teach you some manners."
"Suits me fine, Gramps."
"Gentlemen!" The alarmed waitress tried to intervene, but the two angry men were already striding out of the room. They turned a corner into a hallway, empty except for one enormous man standing in front of a door.
"How about here?" Buck asked.
J.D. smirked. "Suits me fine, Gram—OW!" he yelped as Buck socked his shoulder, the one that had been shot. Without wasting more breath, the kid tackled the taller man and brought them both crashing to the floor.
Nathan watched Goliath lumber away to break up J.D. and Buck's brawl. Now, he thought, and ran down the hallway, slipped the key into the lock, and was safely inside Carboni's dark office just as Goliath's massive fist closed on J.D.'s collar. Nathan struck a match and lit the candle he'd stashed in his pocket, then carried the small light over to the safe. I sure hope we're right about this. Wiping his sweaty fingers on his pants, he gently turned the dial of the combination lock.
The number of enemies Carboni has killed? Seventeen notches on his gun. He let the dial rest on number seventeen and felt a promising click. The number of sons he's fathered? Two, Carlo and Luigi. The number of dead friends? Eight bouquets of flowers in the cemetery. Nathan took a deep breath and pulled the safe door handle. Nothing happened.
We were wrong. He's not actually arrogant enough to tell his enemies his combination. "No, that's exactly the kind of man he is," Nathan said out loud. Maybe the numbers needed to go in a different order. He tried permutations of the three, but with no luck. One of the numbers has to be wrong. Maybe Juanita lied to Buck. Or maybe not all of Carboni's friends are buried in Albuquerque. He was running out of time. Don't panic, Nathan. Think. Juanita told Buck Carboni had seventeen notches carved on his gun. She had no reason to lie—she's proud of it. And it's not the kind of thing it's easy to miscount. All right then, two sons, that's easy enough. We asked around—no dead children, and all of Carboni's kids are here. He keeps them close.
Nathan remembered Carboni in this very office saying, "Here I sit with my sons." Sons? Only Carlo was here. Unless … Buck had said Marco had escorted Juanita at the cemetery. And it was Marco who had brought the message from Carboni to get out of town. Juanita had said that Carboni did important things himself, or sent his sons who were an extension of himself. Nathan had assumed that Carboni hadn't considered kicking Larabee's friends out of town to be important enough for the personal touch, but maybe not.
Maybe Marco was more than Carboni's right hand man. Maybe he was his illegitimate son.
Nathan twisted the dial again. Seventeen enemies, three sons, eight friends. With a businesslike click, the door swung open.
The Clarion deed was easy to find, protected in its black leather case, just like Mary had described. Nathan removed and folded the deed, tucking it safely inside his shirt. Now for a replacement. He rummaged through the neat stacks, trying to leave things just slightly out of order so that Carboni would know someone else had been there.
And then he found it—the deed to the casino itself. The document was even visually similar to the Clarion one, so that it might fool a quick glance in dim light. Nathan put the deed in the Clarion's case, shut the safe, and went to the door to wait for the signal.
"For the wages of sin is death!" Josiah stood in the street in front of Casa Carboni. His impromptu sermon was receiving a lot of attention from the passerby. "I entreat you brethren, if you value your immortal souls, do not enter that portal of iniquity!" He pointed dramatically at the door of the casino. "Do not be lured by the glitter of the world, for it is but the glitter of the fires of damnation!"
One young man who had been about to enter, suddenly looked frightened and turned away. That's right. Run, kid, Josiah silently approved. In general he had nothing against a hand of cards, but there were some places that sucked men dry and left them for the vultures, and he suspected this was one of them.
Two men—not gamblers, judging by their sober business suits and sour faces—came out of the casino and approached Josiah.
"Excuse us, reverend," one said with mock courtesy, "but you're going to have to deliver the good word somewhere else. You're bad for business."
Josiah looked upward with an exalted expression. "He pours blessing upon my head. If my words have turned even one sheep away from the wolf's den, then I will not be moved."
"Look, reverend, you can leave or you can discuss it with Mr. Carboni himself. But believe me, you don't wanna do that."
"Carboni? Is that the name of the chief devil of this hell? I would welcome the chance to describe the judgment that awaits his iniquity. Brimstone," Josiah said with relish, "and eternal flames."
Carboni's men looked at each other and shrugged. "It's your funeral," one said. "Come along, reverend."
Josiah followed meekly as they led him into the casino and down to the basement. They locked him in a small room with no light and no furniture. The big man sat peacefully in the middle of the floor and recited the first three chapters of Genesis. Then he got up and kicked the door down.
The basement seemed deserted, so Josiah went upstairs. Moving cautiously, he managed to avoid hostile notice until he found the quiet hallway with the giant in it. "Goliath!" he bellowed. "David slew that evil giant in the strength of righteousness. Even so shall I defeat you, minion of Satan!" With a bull-like bellow, he charged.
Goliath met him head on, and it was like the collision of war elephants. Neither of them saw the waiter who slipped out the office door and ran down the hallway, dropping a key on the floor as he went.
Vin watched the window of Searles's office through his spyglass, the other hand on his rifle. The two guards had apparently gotten tired of slapping around Chris's limp form, because they were untying him, hauling him to his feet, and herding him toward the door.
Vin climbed down from the roof of the building across the street and followed as Chris staggered away from Searles's office. When the tracker was certain the guards were really gone, he fell into step beside his friend.
Chris glanced over at him. "Thanks for waiting."
"Well, somebody had to shoot those two if they stopped playin' nice." He examined Chris critically. "They worked your face over pretty good."
Chris gingerly probed one swollen eye. "Did they improve it any?"
"No comment," said Vin. "Anything broken?"
Chris gingerly flexed his arms and patted himself along the ribs. "I don't think so. They wanted to be sure I could leave town."
They didn't speak again until they had retrieved their horses and ridden hard out of town, only slowing after an hour to save their mounts.
"You know what the hardest part was?" Chris asked.
Vin looked at him inquiringly.
"Not bustin' out laughin' when Josiah told me he hoped I would find my way back to the light."
Vin snickered. "How about when Ezra went storming out with his face all pinched up?"
"Or J.D. lookin' like I'd shot his favorite dog?"
"And you swillin' all that tea like you was ten drunks!"
"I thought I was gonna drown!" Chris gasped, howling with laughter. "Sittin' in a saloon, havin' a damn tea party!" He abruptly stopped laughing and groaned, clutching his side. "Maybe I do have a cracked rib or two."
"Nathan will patch you up," Vin said.
"He just got done patchin' me up after Ella's little surprise. Maybe it's time to give him a rest."
"He don't mind. He's always pluggin' up a hole in one or the other of us."
"Yeah, I guess this job ain't too good for your health. Maybe it's time you all got a rest."
"Maybe," Vin drawled thoughtfully. "On the other hand, ain't like what we was doin' before was pickin' daisies. Likelier than not, some of us mighta been pushin' daisies by now if we'd been ridin' alone. It's useful havin' someone watch your back."
They rode in silence for a stretch, and then Chris said flatly, "Trackin' Ella's no one's business but mine. No reason to for you all to leave town. There ain't even five dollars for doin' this job."
Vin's tone remained easy as he said, "Not to step on your toes, Chris, but we took it kinda personal when she tried to kill us. Besides, how long do you think Ezra will dirty his hands with actual work unless you're there to scare him into it? Buck'll chase some skirt right outta town, and J.D.'ll probably volunteer for sheriff again and get hisself killed before Christmas."
Chris asked, "You tellin' me I'm stuck trailin' six men behind me like a string of ducklings?"
"Quack quack," said Vin.
It was almost dawn when Chris and Vin reached the little town where they'd first waited while Ezra went on his initial reconnaissance mission. The others were camped under a large tree on the outskirts.
Chris swung down from his horse and nodded at J.D. "How's your shoulder, kid?"
"It was fine until Buck punched it and made it bleed again."
"I had to make it look real, didn't I?" Buck protested.
"You didn't have to kill me!"
Chris turned away from their bickering to ask Nathan, "Did you get it?"
"Would I be here if I didn't?" Nathan handed over the deed. "We didn't quite have the right combination, but a little clever thinking on my part saved the day."
Josiah chuckled. "You wouldn't have saved the day if I hadn't slain the giant."
Nathan pointed at Josiah's black eye. "Looks like the giant slew you."
"He was a worthy opponent," Josiah conceded. "But he trusted too much in his own strength and doubted my right hook." He held up one of his massive fists to demonstrate.
Ezra lifted his flask. "Gentlemen, we all played our parts to a perfection that would have made Shakespeare himself weep. I think we can toast a complete success. Mr. Larabee, may I offer you a potation somewhat stronger than those you have been imbibing as of late?"
Chris took the flask and nodded his thanks to the gambler. "It was a good plan, Ezra. Smart."
Ezra leaned back against the tree and looked smug. "My mama did raise me to be a smart boy. And charmin' and good lookin' and …"
Vin rolled his eyes. "Ezra, shut your mouth while you're ahead."
Chris looked at the sky lightening in the east. "We've still got to get this deed home to Mary. Boys, let's ride.
Mary heard the riders from her desk inside the Clarion office. She'd known they were coming, ever since she'd received the telegram informing her the challenge to her ownership had been dropped.
Boots on the boardwalk. A tall man in the doorway.
Mary told her heart to stop beating so hard. "Hello, Chris," she said quietly, then caught her breath in horror as he removed his hat and she saw the bruises around his eyes and cheeks. "Your face! What happened?"
"Nothin' much. Looks worse than it is."
Mary bit back another question, determined to pry the whole story out of Buck later.
Chris removed a folded piece of paper from his pocket and held it out. "This belongs to you. Sorry it's kinda wrinkled."
"Thank you. Thank you so much." Mary took the deed, wishing she had the right to repay him with more than words and a few dollars. "Actually, I have something for you too." She handed him a stack of paper.
"What's this?" Chris asked.
"Everything I've been able to find on Ella Gaines and her mining company. Investments, associates, locations."
Chris thumbed through the stack in amazement. "You found all this in two weeks?"
She looked up at him through her lashes. "I don't like to brag, Mr. Larabee, but I'm very good at my job."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Is there anything you're not good at?"
Making you stop hurting. Out loud, she said, "I also telegraphed Ella's description to my newspaper contacts. I got this letter yesterday. It describes a woman who passed through Gold Valley three weeks ago."
She watched his face as he read, failing as always to pin down the emotions flickering behind his quiet eyes. "Do you think it's her?"
"Well, if it's not, I'll probably have leads from other towns by the time you get back."
You will come back, Chris Larabee, Mary thought fiercely, pinning his gaze with her own, as if by sheer force of will she could make him stay.
Unexpectedly, a smile tugged up the corner of his mouth. "All right."
"You're staying?" she asked, afraid of the hope that suddenly filled her. "I mean, you'll come back?"
Chris put his hat back on his head. "The judge hired us to protect this town. I reckon it wouldn't be right to leave before the job's over. Thank you for this, Mary." He lifted the letter to show what he meant, and then he tipped his hat and was gone.
Her knees suddenly shaky, Mary let herself lean against the edge of her desk. He would come back. As long as they needed him, he would keep coming back. And now, for once, he needed her too, if only to help him track down Ella.
For now … that was enough.
A/N Thank you all so much for reading, and a special thank you to those who took the time to review. Your notes really cheered and encouraged me. Thanks for welcoming to this delightful community! I hope it won't be too long before I'm able to publish another story.