NIGHT AND DAY- the final third
"Hey, Fred, Matt." Earl Hollowell stood. "Someone's comin'."
Dusk was falling and the three had been waiting for hours for Gus and Dale, getting antsy. The five brothers had all started to journey toward the place after they'd killed the sheriff, but Fred decided mid-way that it was pointless for all of them to go, and sent the youngest ones on the task. Fred was tired of traveling, and Dale and Gus were always available to send on the annoying errands.
It shouldn't have taken the two this long.
Fred, Earl and Matt squinted at the approaching horseman. The rider seemed to have come out of nowhere, but Fred realized that the shack in the distance had most likely blocked his approach.
"Hey!" Fred shouted, and the rider drew to a stop. "Who the hell are you?" Fred frowned. It was a Mexican, in a dirty serape and the ugliest sombrero that Fred had ever seen. The hat looked little better than a flattened basket. His trousers looked as if they may have been made from burlap bags.
"¿No me recordáis?" "You don't remember me? " the traveler asked, leaning forward on his blackish-gray horse.
"Huh?" Earl asked, and looked to his brothers. "You guys speak Mexican?" he asked Matt and Fred.
"Not a lick," Matt responded.
"Why should I?" Fred asked, somewhat annoyed.
"No puedo creer que me hayais olvidado tan rápidamente." "I can't believe that you've forgotten me so quickly?" The man continued.
"You speak any English?" Fred demanded. "We just speak English here in America."
The Mexican said, "Lo siento mucho, pero no creo que sea apropiado hablar vuestro idioma en este momento." "I'm very sorry, but I don't feel it would be appropriate to speak your language at this moment."
"Huh?" Earl said again, straining to understand.
"Dang, it." Fred muttered, "Stupid Mexican can't speak proper."
The traveler continued in the same even voice, "Os aseguro que puedo hablar mejor que vosotros en unas idiomas diferentes" "I assure you, I can speak better than you in several different languages."
"He sure talks a lot even if you can't figure a word he says," Fred grumbled.
"Have you seen our brothers?" Matt asked hopefully, trying to get a better view of the rider in the growing gloom. The Mexican kept his head tilted downward, his face remaining hidden by the battered brim of the hat. "Brothers?" Matt gestured to Fred and Earl. "... you know... bro-thers?" He raised his voice and spoke with excruciating slowness. "Daaa-le and Aug-gusss-tusss Hol-lo-wellllll? Brooo-thers?"
"¿Vuestros hermanos?" "Your brothers?" The rider continued to keep head tilted. His blackish horse moved as if it were uncomfortable in its skin. "Cómo podría olvidarlos? Hubo un momento en el que ellos estuvieron disparándome" "How could I forget them? They were shooting at me at one point."
Fred waved off the rider in disgust. "Stupid foreigner. He don't know nuthin'."
The rider continued on his path, around the three men and onto the road to Cedar Ridge. "¿Extranjero?" "Foreigner?" The man's voice remained cheerful as he left them. "Creo que olvidáis que esta tierra fue parte de México mucho antes que fuera tomada por los Estados Unidos." I think you forget that this land was part of Mexico, long before it was taken by the United States."
"Yeah, Mexico!" Matt shouted. "Go on back to Mexico!"
"Con mucho gusto. Me tomaría unas vacaciones ,""Gladly! I could use the vacation,"
"Does he ever shut up?" Fred asked.
The Mexican lifted his hand in farewell and said "Adiós, idiotas." "Goodbye, idiots." and continued on his way.
"Hey," Earl said, furrowing his brow. "Did he just call us 'idiots'?"
"I dunno," Matt said with a frown. "I think that might mean somethin' like 'sir' in Mexican."
The three brothers watched the rider as he moved into the growing darkness, on toward Cedar Ridge.
They were still watching when their world came crashing down around them.
A lucky break! The man in the odd sombrero had distracted the Hollowell boys. Buck, Josiah and Nathan were able to approach the three and find cover before the Hollowells dismissed the rider.
The lawmen waited until the three Hollowells had settled themselves around their scant fire, until the man in the serape had ridden off toward Cedar Ridge, until the Hollowells had again relaxed.
The gunfight lasted longer than it should have. The brothers ended up pinned behind a group of rocks with only the ammunition that they had on their persons. The Hollowells, if nothing else, knew how to ration their ammo.
Finally, after almost an hour of tedious gunplay, the brothers gave in. They threw down their weapons and allowed themselves to be taken into custody.
Buck stormed up to them. "Which one of you is Matt?" he barked at the brothers.
They exchanged glances and Earl pointed to one of his brothers.
Buck grabbed Matt and swung him around. "You're the son of a bitch who shot 'im?" Buck demanded.
Matt looked confused. "I.. ah..."
Josiah and Nathan kept an eye on Buck as they restrained the other two brothers.
"The 'sheriff' - You're the bastard who shot him? Who sent him offa Banyon Cliff? You the one who killed him?"
"It weren't his fault!" Earl defended. "We were just gittin' him back for what he done!"
"He deserved what he got!" Fred howled. "The little shit deserved it." Fred stopped speaking and went white when he saw the look on Josiah's face, as the big man grabbed hold of him.
Matt's eyes took on a look of pure terror, his gaze locked on Buck. "It was all of us. We all wanted 'im dead. I wasn't the one that shot him first... that was Fred here."
Buck locked his angry glare on Fred and growled, "I'll deal with you later."
"I was just lucky ta git him at the cliff is all," Matt prattled on. "It was pure luck that I was the one. I was just lucky is all."
Buck dragged the man close, until they were nose to nose. "Luck's run out," he growled.
Once he was out of sight of Falling Cross, Ezra left the path to Cedar Ridge and crossed over to the Four Corners trail.
Ezra was just so damn tired. He forced himself to stay awake. He had to get to Four Corners before the Hollowells left Falling Cross. Ezra had to stay awake long enough to tell the others...to get them to go after the three Hollowell boys... to bring them in for the harm they had caused to JD.
He thought he heard gunfire at one point. His head was swimming and he couldn't be sure of anything at that moment. Just my imagination, he decided. So damnably tired. Hearing things now. I'll be seeing angels next.
He was still so far from home. He brought Chaucer to a quicker gait to try to hurry their progress, but the tired horse soon slowed, and Ezra had no ability to encourage him any longer. At least they were still moving forward.
"Don't fall asleep, Ezra," he said to himself. "You must alert the others. You must return home tonight."
The lights of the town never looked better to the weary gambler as he approached his home. Chaucer made his way down the familiar street, not needing any direction from his rider to find the livery.
Nobody paid much attention to the man in the dirty serape and shapeless hat. Ezra dismounted at the livery, catching his balance on the saddle. He found his legs could hardly support him anymore.
It was dim in the building, but the gambler knew his way around. Somehow, even the effort of lighting a lantern was too much at the moment. He led the horse to his stall and unsaddled him, talking softly as he did, apologizing for the last few days.
He glanced at the neighboring stall and smiled to see Buck's horse quietly stabled, and JD's across the aisle from the gray. "Thank God," Ezra said with a sigh. They had made it back.
The boys who watched after the livery were nowhere in sight, so Ezra realized he'd have to look after his own horse. He ensured that there was water and feed in the stall and Chaucer gratefully dropped his head to the water bucket once Ezra removed the bridle. The gambler picked up the brush from the shelf and started a valiant effort to groom the animal. The movements were more automatic than anything - he could hardly see straight, let alone think.
He frowned to see how much soot still remained in Chaucer's pelt after his first attempt to brush the horse. Even in the low light, it was obvious that he was making no headway. Chaucer was going to need a bath. Ezra tried to lift the brush to try again, but his arms had lost all their strength and the buzzing in his head was increasing. He leaned his head against the horse for a moment and started to drift. He had to jerk himself back to consciousness.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, Chaucer," Ezra said with a sigh, replacing the brush to its customary place. "I will have to tend to you later." He shuffled out of the stall and took a moment to pat the horse's muzzle. "Promise..."
He made his way out of the livery and across to the jail. He had to find out about JD and Buck. Thinking of the young man, he pulled the bowler out of his gun belt held it by its brim.
He pushed open the door to the jail and found a quiet scene. Cal Stoker, a local rancher, was asleep at the desk, tipped back against the wall. Two prisoners were sleeping in one cell. Where was everyone? Where could they have possibly gone? Didn't they realize the Hollowells were still about?
Ezra stood for a moment, listening to the buzz, feeling the floor swaying beneath his feet. He absently set the hat down on top of a cabinet and peered into the cell. He smiled numbly, realizing that the sleeping men... boys really... were the missing Hollowells. They had the same dark hair, the same stupid faces.
Somehow...someone had captured two of the Hollowell brothers. He needed to tell Chris about the other three at Falling Cross. He needed to find out about JD.
He turned a little too abruptly and crashed into a wall. He steadied himself, rubbing his nose dolefully, not sure if he had hurt himself or not. So tired.
Ezra shuffled away from the cells and noticed Stoker had left a glass of water on the desk ...water.
He had to grip the side of the table in order to keep his balance as he downed the glass and set it back in front of the sleeping rancher. "Thank you, Mr. Stoker," Ezra said quietly, touching the brim of the shoddy basket/hat. "You're a saint to provide such nectar." He then left the jailhouse, intent on reaching the clinic.
Halfway there, he saw someone glare at him and vaguely heard a voice say, "Would ya take a look at that? Looks like he's wearin' a rug."
"Filthy drunk," Mrs. Underwood, a washerwoman, uttered and steered clear as Ezra staggered past her.
"Someone should keep that sorta element outta town," Simon Richards, from the saddle shop, grumbled. "Ain't that the reason we got them Seven hired?"
Ezra noticed that the citizens of Four Corners were giving him a wide berth, scuttling away from him in disgust. He stopped and looked down at his rather shameful disguise. He was covered in dirt and soot, wearing rags. He shouldn't be caught dead looking like this. How did he let this happen? He couldn't allow JD or the others to see him dressed so disgracefully. At least the hat hid his face well enough so the locals hadn't recognized him ... yet. No one would ever suspect it was he in these foul garments. He changed his direction and headed to the saloon.
The noise and the heat of the saloon hit him like a wave as he moved through it. The voices were undistinguishable. The faces were nothing more than a wash.
He considered looking for the others at their usual table, but decided he'd prefer that they didn't see him at all. If he were just able to slip past, get to his room and change into more presentable apparel, then he could face them.
He carefully made his way up the stairs to his room. It took him a moment to find his key before he could unlock the door. He had to lean against he doorframe and squint at the lock to ensure the key found its mark. The door opened with a familiar and welcome creak and he stood for a moment on the threshold.
He smiled. That feather bed never looked better to him.
No time to waste. Just get cleaned up a bit, and go see about JD. Tell the others about the Hollowells. Just take a moment to change into something presentable.
He tottered into the room, swinging the door shut behind him, and sat down on the edge of his bed with a sigh. Just a moment, he thought.
Chris and Vin slowly entered the town and headed to the livery. People on the boardwalk stopped as the two riders moved past them, and watched them sadly. Rumors had started circulating throughout the town in regard to the missing Standish. Anyone who passed the two riders could easily see that the stories had proven to be valid.
Chris and Vin had just dismounted when Josiah, Nathan and Buck approached from the other direction with their prisoners. Chris was grateful that at least the rest of the Hollowells were in custody, that his remaining men were alive and well. The three boys looked a little roughed up, but in one piece at least.
Nathan and Josiah said nothing once they saw Chris and Vin's faces, but Buck stepped forward and asked quietly, "Didja find him?"
Chris answered with a shake of his head. He didn't want to talk about it. He felt as if he had failed the gambler miserably. Larabee sighed, wishing that he could have at least brought home Ezra's body, not left it to the river.
Buck frowned. "We have to go back. We have to find him."
"Not tonight, Buck," Chris said. "Let's get these boys put away. We'll get some rest and go out again tomorrow."
Buck couldn't miss the sorrowful sound of Chris' voice. He turned to his charge and roughly pulled Matt Hollowell from his saddle. He would have slammed him up against the side of the livery if Chris hadn't interceded and pulled Matt out of his grip.
"Take care of the horses, Buck," Chris said, dragging Matt along with him. He looked to Tanner. "You, too, Vin," knowing that the care of the animals would help sooth the tracker's troubled soul.
Buck and Vin said nothing, watching their friends drag the Hollowell brothers to their awaiting cell. The two men stood silently side-by-side, even after Chris and the others disappeared into the jail.
"We looked and looked," Vin said quietly. "Couldn't find him."
Buck turned to Vin and saw the lost look on his face. He threw a brotherly arm over the tracker's shoulders and said, "Let's get the horses settled. Then you and I are gonna get drunk."
Buck lit a lantern and they moved the small herd of horses into the livery. Buck's eyes narrowed when he saw the strange horse with the streaky-black coat in the stall that Ezra rented for Chaucer. "Goddamn son of a bitch," he muttered under his breath. "He's not even cold yet and they've let the stall to someone else."
Chris and the others entered the jail, banging open the door, sending the tipped and startled Cal Stoker slamming to the floor.
"Sorry, Mr. Larabee," the rancher said as he stood. "I dinnent know you were coming back so soon."
"Stoker?" Chris called, shoving the first of the three new Hollowells into the empty cell.
"I, ah...sorry," Stoker said as he righted the chair. "I guess I drifted off."
Josiah and Nathan pushed the other two brothers after the other and the door was closed behind them.
"Nothin' to worry about, really," Stoker said. "If anything happened, I would've woke right up. Nobody could've gotten in here without me knowin'. I'm a light sleeper." The rancher nodded to the cell, where the youngest Hollowells were standing and gazing at their siblings. "No harm done. They didn't go no place."
"Go home, Stoker," Chris said tiredly. He had no patience left.
Nathan took Stoker by the arm and started to lead him from the jail before Chris could think of anything to do to the tired guard. Stoker paused for only a moment, to stare at his empty and soot-smudged glass, before leaving without a fuss.
" 'Ey, Fred. 'Ey, Earl," Gus greeted quietly.
"Hiya, Matt," Dale put in.
Fred, the eldest of the group, turned to Gus and Dale. "Was it you?" he growled.
"What do ya mean?" Gus asked innocently.
"You gave us up, dinnent you!" Earl screamed.
"Weren't me!" Dale said, giving the youngest brother a shove. "It were Gus!"
"Dale started it!" Gus shouted. "I weren't gonna say nuttin', but Dale started fartin' off his mouth."
Dale threw his younger brother an angry look and then turned to Fred. "None if this would 'ave happened if you dinnent make me and Gus go back for the stuff alone. It's all your fault!"
Chris watched the five brothers yelled at each other through the bars. They looked as if they wanted to tear each other to pieces. Chris rubbed his hand over his eyes as he turned his back on them.
Nathan and Josiah moved around the room slowly, absently.
Finally Nathan said, "I can't believe he's gone."
Josiah nodded, his eyes lowered and misty. "I just can't quite imagine it yet," the preacher said. "Doesn't seem possible."
"It ain't right," Chris responded and leaned against the desk. "It just ain't right."
Nathan stood for a moment more, wishing he could say something to fix this, but he couldn't think of the words. Finally, with a shake of his head he made his way to the door. "Goin' to check on JD," he said. At least, he thought, I can do something there. Nathan dreaded the question that he knew JD would ask. How could he tell JD that Ezra was dead? How could he convince JD not to blame himself?
Josiah watched Jackson leave and he leaned against the desk beside Chris. The two men said nothing for a long time. The words of the Hollowell boys, as they tossed accusations back and forth between the cells, meant nothing to them. They were both lost in their own thoughts.
"He was a good man," the preacher said after a long time, his voice sounding almost hollow.
"Doesn't deserve to be left at the bottom of a river," Chris stated.
"We'll get him tomorrow," Josiah assured. "He'll be buried in town. He earned it." He deserves a home of some sort, Sanchez thought.
"Doesn't deserve what happened," Chris said.
"He made a damn fine lawman, all in all." The thought made Josiah smile. Yes, he was damn fine. If only someone could have explained that to him.. He ran the back of his hand over his eyes, not wanting to believe he was gone.
Chris smiled. "Who would'a thought it."
"Gonna miss him," Josiah said sadly.
"Yeah," Chris agreed after a minute.
"Just don't know how to go about it yet," Josiah said with a sigh. "Just don't seem possible yet. Hasn't quite set in." In a way, he wanted to keep it that way. He didn't want to thoroughly believe. Maybe, if he could hold on to this minute for a while longer, he'd feel better. Maybe, he never wanted to find a body so that the door would always be left open – because one never knew when it came to Ezra.
"I'll bring him back tomorrow," Chris promised. "I'll bring him back. Not gonna leave him out there."
They had ignored the brothers for so long that it surprised Chris to find one of them talking to him.
"Hey, you! You in the black!" Dale said, signaling Chris through the bars. "I want it."
Chris fixed him with a baleful stare. "What could you possibly want?"
"The hat," the young man stated, pointing to the cabinet. "It's mine, fair and square. I called it."
Josiah and Chris turned to see JD's bowler hat sitting in its usual place on the top of the cabinet. It looked so familiar and perfect in its position, that neither of them had noticed it when the came in
"Josiah," Chris said softly, "Did you bring that in?"
"No, Chris," Josiah said, squinted at the sight, wondering if it were a mirage. "I could tell you that none of us found it. You think it was Vin?"
Chris stood and grabbed the dusty hat from its perch. "No, not Vin." Had Stoker brought in JD's bowler? How could Stoker have found it?
The gunslinger turned the hat in his hands, wondering if it were possible. Couldn't be...
He took three quick steps to the door. Couldn't be...
Buck and Vin dutifully cared for the horses. They had finished with Chris, Nathan and Vin's horses, as well as the animals borrowed by Josiah and Buck. Then they moved on to the three blue roans owned by the Hollowell brothers. Throughout the process, Buck threw angry glances at the sleeping streaky-black horse in the end stall.
"I can't believe they'd do it," Buck muttered. "You'd think that they'd wait a day or two before renting Ezra's space to someone else."
"Maybe it's a mistake," Vin suggested. "Someone got in late and thought the stall was free." He moved his hand over one of the roans, letting the action calm him. The boys who watched the place didn't seem to be around in any case. Who would have rented the spot?
Buck snorted in disgust. "Ezra has that stall set up like an apartment. How the hell could someone not notice it was being used?" He stopped his movements and looked back to the end stall. Damn, he thought. There were so many little things that he would miss.
Vin looked in the same direction. He had been avoiding it up until that moment. He didn't want to admit to Buck how hard it was to see some strange horse there. It was too soon. When the tracker's gaze fell upon the animal, he stopped. The brush fell from his hand as he moved away from the roan, toward the stall.
"Ya gonna move 'im outta there?" Buck tossed his brush aside. "Lemmie give ya a hand."
Vin smiled as he came closer to the sleeping horse. It was only once he stood in front of the stall that he could clearly see the creature's strange markings, how its body was grayish-black, but streaked as if...the horse had sweated away some of the color… as if someone had tried to brush away the black. Its back, where a saddle might sit, was a familiar chestnut color.
Vin glanced at the shelf alongside the horse and noted the fine boar-bristle brush with the mother-of-pearl handle all matted with soot. A familiar saddle was exactly where it should be.
The tracker reached out to touch the horse's head and the animal suddenly jerked awake. It glared at the tracker before dropping its head to return to sleep.
"Chaucer," Vin whispered.
Buck stood, opened mouthed, looking at the sooty horse, just as Chris and Josiah burst into the livery.
Chris held up JD's bowler hat and started to speak, but Vin cut him off.
"Chaucer!" he said urgently, pointing to the horse. The animal opened its eyes and reproduced the same glare. "Chris, it's Chaucer!"
A grin spread across the gunslinger's face. He gestured with the hat and said, "He's here!" Chris spun around and headed out the door.
"Saloon!" Josiah decided, running toward the gambler's favorite haunt. He dared to hope as he sprinted out of the livery and across the street.
The four men burst through the batwing doors, quickly searching for the familiar face. The room fell silent as the patrons looked anxiously toward the lawmen. These men were after something and the customers of the saloon shrunk away from them in fear.
A quick scan of the saloon did not reveal the gambler.
"Inez?" Buck shouted to the woman behind the bar. "Has Ezra been through?"
Inez looked confused. She had heard the rumors going about town, and had feared the worst.
"Señor Standish?" she said questioningly. "But Señor Larabee, Buck..." she trailed off and moved her hands across the bar.
"Have ya seen 'im?" Chris demanded. "He been here?"
"No," she responded, looking from one man to the other, not understanding what was going on. Of course she had not been keeping such a keen eye on the saloon that night, too distracted by the news. A heard of bison may have traipsed through without her realization.
"His room!" Vin said, elbowing his way around the others and storming up the stairs to the room rented by the con artist.
The door was flung open and the four men stopped in their tracks. There, wrapped up in what appeared to be a rug, with a squashed basket near his head, and tipped over on the bed, was Ezra.
Chris laughed and then muttered, "I'm gonna kill him."
Josiah just grinned at the sight, and gave Chris a hearty slap on the back as Vin and Buck barreled into the room. Thank you, Dear Lord, Sanchez prayed. Good God, thank you.
"Hey, Ez," Buck said softly, kneeling down beside the bed. "Hey, Ez, you okay, hoss?" He grasped Ezra by the shoulder and shook him gently.
Ezra muttered incomprehensibly.
"Sleeping," Vin declared. "Fast asleep."
"What the hell is he wearing?" Chris asked stepping forward.
"Disguise," Vin said and grinned up at Chris. "I told ya. He cheated." Vin shook his head in wonder. How did Ezra pull this off? How did he get home?
"Does he look familiar to you, Buck?" Josiah asked.
Buck gave Josiah a confused look and then he turned his attention back to the shapeless hat on the bed. He laughed. "I seem to remember a certain very lucky distraction that let us get all nice and close to the Hollowell brothers." Damn, they had been that close to him.
"Should we wake him?" Josiah asked, anxious to know everything. "Find out what he's been up to?"
Chris replied quickly, "Let him sleep. He looks exhausted." Ezra's face was pale, and dark circles marred his complexion. Yes, let him sleep. "I may have to shoot him tomorrow though." The gunslinger sighed and added, "Let's get him comfortable at least."
"Come on, Ez," Buck said tossing the makeshift hat onto the floor. "Let's getcha out of this." He pulled the sleeping man upright, drawing more garbled speech from the gambler. "You'd be mad if you found out we let you wear this stuff all night."
Ezra half-heartedly tried to bat away Buck's hands. "Stop it, Chaucer," the gambler mumbled.
Vin took a moment to figure out how to remove the serape-rug. His attempts to unwind it were met with further slurred comments and an increased struggle.
"No, lemmie go," Ezra murmured. "Can't have it." He tried to clasp the rug back to himself.
Vin smiled. "Now if he knew what it was he was protectin', I think Ezra would be mighty embarrassed."
Ezra continued to fight feebly against Vin's attempts. "No..no...no... Can't stop now. Must tell Chris 'bout those...Hollowells...Falling Cross...Must detain them."
"Don't worry 'bout it," Chris said, "We already got those boys."
Ezra turned his head at the sound of Chris' voice and smiled, but he did not open his eyes and his voice was reduced to impenetrable rambling again.
"What happened to his face?" Buck asked, noting that half of Ezra's face was covered with soot, and that his nose was a little swollen. "Why do ya think he blackened only half his face?"
Vin considered this for a moment and then said, "Doubt if he meant it. Leaned against Chaucer, I reckon." He grabbed hold of one of Ezra's feet and sighed. "He's not gonna be too happy about this," Vin said as he worked off the scarred boots. "He prizes these fancy things of his." The tracker made a startled grab as a wad of cash dislodged from its hiding place just inside the boot.
Buck took the folded bills from the tracker and counted them quickly. "Son of a bitch! He turned that $5 into almost $200!"
"Lucky bastard," Vin commented, as he removed the second boot, then stood to set the pair by the door. "We were out there all day lookin' for him in that river and here he is with his boot stuffed fulla cash."
Buck peeled off a bill before setting the wad on Ezra's bed stand. "I think we deserve a drink or two."
"Now, what do you think caused this?" Josiah asked, looking at the condition of Ezra's hands as he rotated them gently. They were filthy, caked with dirt, soot and blood. Damn, son, what did you do to yourself? He grabbed the ewer and basin from Ezra's washstand.
"Hard to say," Chris responded, sitting down beside the gambler and helping Buck to easing off JD's tattered jacket. "Got pretty scraped up, too."
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said dreamily when he heard Chris' voice again, "I'll be but a moment." He head lolled forward and Chris caught it, saving Ezra a strained neck. "But a moment and I'll be down."
"I'll let it go for now," Chris said, grinning still. He helped to hold Ezra upright, resting the gambler's tired head against his shoulder, as Josiah did his best to clean up their conman.
Buck entered the clinic just as Nathan was able to rouse JD. The healer had to keep his promise. He would tell JD that Ezra was dead. Wilmington was glad to see that JD was no longer tossing under the effects of the fever and that his color had improved.
"Nathan?" JD looked around, bleary-eyed and confused. He smiled, glad to see the healer had returned. "Doc?" he said again. "Ezra's okay, ain't he? They did find 'im?" His voice gave the impression that there was only one response that he would accept.
His hopeful expression fell as he searched Nathan's face. "Please, Nathan," he said softly, "they had to have found him."
Nathan hadn't looked up when Buck entered. The healer swallowed, wishing that he didn't have to impart this information. "I'm sorry, JD..." the healer started.
"Didn't need to find him," Buck interjected. "That slippery snake found his own way home."
Nathan looked up sharply, expectantly. "Buck?" he asked.
"I'll keep an eye on the kid here," Buck said with a wink. "Chris wants you to run over to Ez's."
"What? Why? How?" Jackson asked, unable to form any further words for his questions.
Buck smiled, broadly. He was just so dang tickled. JD was lookin' much better and Ezra... dang it... was alive. "Don't quite got an answer for those questions, Nate. All I can say is Ezra's sleepin' like a baby in his room."
"But he...you said..." Nathan started. He stopped and restated, "What the hell happened to him then?"
Buck shrugged. "Hard to say where he's been exactly. He's probably got quite a tale to tell. Long and short of it is, he's here... scratched and bruised, but in one piece at least."
Nathan smiled as he leapt to his feet, grabbing his bag before heading out the door. He turned in the doorway and looked back at Buck and JD. His grin only increased as he met their gazes. He laughed as he turned and shut the door after himself.
"How ya doin', Kid?" Buck asked, finding a seat beside the young sheriff.
JD sighed. He could feel a weight lifted from him. A pain, that was greater than that caused by the bullet, suddenly fled.
"A lot better," JD replied.
Nathan nodded to the stairs. "Look who's up," he said.
Five heads turned to face the gambler who made his way down the stairway at the back of the saloon. He looked considerably better than he had the night before. Freshly scrubbed, clean-shaven and decidedly awake. He was dressed in just trousers and a shirt, but looking as refined as ever.
Vin had to smile when he noticed that Ezra was wearing the boots that Tanner had resurrected. It had taken a full bottle of leather oil and half a dozen rags to work the scars out of the fine leather.
Ezra noticed the men, and made his way to their table.
"Gentlemen," Ezra said as his careful gaze moved from one face to another. "I take it from your relieved expressions that our Mr. Dunne is doing well?"
Chris noted that Ezra still looked tired, despite sleeping for almost twelve hours. "JD's doin' fine. Got a few days of bed-rest left."
Ezra nodded curtly and held his hands self-consciously behind him. "Mr. Larabee, I'm afraid I may be delivering news that is decidedly stale. I encountered three of the Hollowell brothers at Falling Cross...last night?" he added the last few words with uncertainty, hoping that he hadn't managed to sleep for longer than one 24-hour day. He continued judiciously, "I regret that I wasn't able to delivery this information earlier, as was my intention."
"Don't worry, we already found your friends," Buck said.
"Yes, Ezra," Josiah said with a nod. "We couldn't have captured them without your help."
Ezra looked confused and then suspicious before he said, "Ah, excellent."
Vin turned to Ezra and said, "So, what exactly were you and that horse doin' in those get-ups anyway?"
"Yes," Josiah included, "I'd like to hear about your adventures." The preacher pulled a chair out from the table and gestured to it.
"Yes, sit down," Nathan demanded. "I'll order you something to eat and you can tell us all about it."
Ezra smiled and said, "Perhaps later. I have errands to attend to."
"Yeah?" Chris started, "And what sort of errands would these be."
"Firstly, I need to retrieve my possessions from Mr. Dunne. I believe I may need to place an order for replacements of his hat and coat." He puzzled. "I seem to have misplaced them at some point."
"We found 'em," Vin said. "JD's hat is right where you left it. We found somethin' else to do with the jacket."
Ezra furrowed his brow at this comment before he continued. "Then of course, I need to wash my horse. I left him in a deplorable state."
Vin said, "Ezra, you'd better change into something a little less presentable. That horse is covered head to hoof in soot and he's none too happy. You don't want to dirty those fine duds now do you?"
Ezra glanced down at his shirt. "But I am wearing my horse washing clothing."
The five men regarded him for a moment. "Ezra," Josiah said, "What you wear to wash a horse is better than what most folk wear to church."
Ezra sighed theatrically. "The fact that your congregation prefers homespun and buckskin has little to do with my wardrobe." He turned sharply and said, "Good day, gentlemen," before heading out the door.
The five of them waited until Ezra moved through the bat-wing doors and down the boardwalk before they followed him to the clinic.
By the time they made it to the room, Ezra was sitting beside JD with his red jacket and hat in hand. In spite of himself, the con man did look concerned about the young man's condition.
"I sure am glad you're okay," JD said.
"The feeling is reciprocated, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied.
"I was real worried is all," JD continued. "I didn't know what was goin' on. Nobody was tellin' me anything. I thought somethin' bad had happened to you."
"No need for that," Ezra reassured him. "I did have a plan in mind and you can rest assured that I would not have started such an expedition without a clear sense of my own ability to survive it. It was the only viable solution that would assure the safety of all of us."
Ezra stopped talking as the other members of the Seven filed into the room. He looked up at them. His expectant expression turned to a frown when he realized that their attention was on himself and not the sheriff.
"Is there something I can do for you, gentlemen?" Ezra asked.
All six men pointed to the window, even JD, who grinned as he held onto his wounded shoulder with his other hand. Ezra stood slowly. He carefully laid his jacket over the back of his chair and settled his hat on his head before he moved to the window.
He frowned as he gazed out the window. "What exactly are you expectin' me to see?" he asked as he looked out to the backsides of half a dozen buildings.
"Mrs. Potter's vegetable patch," Josiah said, "Has a new addition."
Ezra adjusted his gaze and then groaned. "Oh please, no."
Buck slapped the gambler on the back as Ezra slouched against the window frame. "Thought since you put together such a fine outfit, we couldn't let it go to waste."
"Looks right fine," Vin said with a laugh, looking over Ezra's shoulder.
Chris remained near the door, leaning against the wall. "Personally, I think it looks better out there than it did on him."
"I understand the children are calling it Señor Ezra," Josiah said, smiling.
Ezra moaned and shut his eyes. That damn disguise was on the scarecrow in Mrs. Potter's garden. Even with his eyes shut, Ezra could still picture that filthy rug fluttering in the breeze and the damnable basket tacked onto that manikin's head, the shredded jacket, the tattered shirt, the ripped vest, the detestable burlap bags ballooning with air, his ruined trousers trailing in the dirt beneath it.
"Does a pretty good job a keepin' away the crows," JD reported. "I ain't heard one of 'em since they put it up."
"Anything that keeps away the crows," Josiah said, "Is a mighty fine thing in my book."
Ezra sighed and straightened as he turned away from the window and tried to make his way around Buck and Vin. He caught Nathan's gaze and asked, "Do you have anything to add to my embarrassment?"
Nathan opened his mouth and then smiled and said, "Nope."
Ezra shook his head and maneuvered past the others. "Gentlemen, if you forgive me, I have a horse to attend to." He picked up his jacket, and smoothed it in one easy movement before draping it over his arm. Then he moved quickly to the door, to find it blocked by Larabee.
"We're glad to have you back," Chris said, not moving.
Ezra tilted his head and tried to think of something to say.
"Pull a fool stunt like that again and I'll kill you myself. Ya had us all pretty scared there for a bit," Chris continued. "Thought we lost you. Didn't like it."
Ezra sighed, so that was it. Time to be chastised for my actions. Ezra met Chris' glance and said, "I'm sorry that I wasn't able to communicate the plan before I put it in motion. I regret any difficulty it caused you."
Chris shook his head in frustration. "It wasn't the 'difficulty', Ezra..."
"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, after the discomfort I have suffered, it shall not happen again."
"Ezra..." Chris sighed. "We thought you were dead."
Ezra shook his head. "Why, Mr. Larabee, do you doubt my abilities to survive the threat of the Hollowell brothers? Certainly they were no match to my superior intellect."
Why was it always so hard to talk to this man? Chris stared back at Ezra, who returned the glance coolly.
Larabee straightened and extended his hand. "I'm glad to count you as a friend. Glad you're still here."
Ezra looked back at Chris in amazement. He shifted his gaze to the others in the room, not knowing what to expect, what was about to be sprung on him. He saw no accusation in any of them, no anticipation of approaching doom, no one was laughing at him.
He slowly drew his attention back to Larabee, seeing the hand still offered and no sign of any subterfuge. Ezra clasped the gunslinger's hand and shook it firmly and seriously.
JD's voice came from behind him. "Hey, Ez, thanks. You saved my life. I owe ya one."
"Yeah, goes the same for me. Thanks, pard," Buck said with a grin.
Ezra nodded to the two men. "And then perhaps you could show your gratitude by removing that contemptible creation from the Potter's vegetable patch."
"No deal," Buck and JD replied together.
Ezra sighed and turned to the door and Larabee. "May I go now? Chaucer's mood is not improving."
Chris stepped aside and let the con man leave. He stood in the doorway and watched Ezra hurry down the stairs toward the livery. He smiled. It was good to have him back.
Chris watched as Ezra exited the livery. He had to chuckle at the gambler's expression of disgust and dismay as he hopelessly examined his wet and filthy clothing. The gambler still carefully carried his jacket, trying to keep it from touching his dirty shirt. Somehow, Larabee noted, Ezra had managed to keep his newly shined boots dry.
"Gave ya a hard time?" Chris asked. He could tell that the only thing Ezra wanted to do was to get out of the street and out of the ruined clothing.
Ezra sighed and said, "Chaucer did not appreciate the disguise I chose for him and decided to inform me of this fact."
Chris nodded. He couldn't say for sure who was more stubborn, the man or the horse. He had witnessed part of the 'horse washing'. Both parties had cursed and grumbled, knocked over buckets, threw tantrums and made a rather appreciable ruckus in the corral behind the livery. The final outcome was that the horse was clean, but the owner was not.
"Come on," Chris motioned to Ezra, who was trying to make his way back to his room. "I need you to do two things."
"Please, Mr. Larabee," Ezra sighed, pulling at his sodden clothing. "I need a change of clothing. Isn't there someone else who could perform these tasks for you?"
"You'll dry quick enough," Chris said, closing the distance between them and grabbing the gambler by the shoulder. "Come on."
Ezra considered digging in his heels, shrugging out of Larabee's grip and continuing back toward his room, but he realized that such actions would only cause further commotion, and he really didn't want to do anything to draw attention to his current state. He allowed Larabee to shove him toward the jail.
Inside the building, Buck was behind the desk, his feet propped up and leaned back against the wall. "Hey there, Ezra," Wilmington greeted cheerfully when the two entered.
The five Hollowell brothers were huddled around the joining wall to the cells, playing cards. Chris released his grip on Ezra and stepped up to pound on the bars.
The brothers looked at him in disgust, but Larabee smiled. "Boys," he said, "I'd like you to say hello to someone you should already know."
The five looked over at the sodden man and all shrugged. "I don't know 'im," Matt said and returned to his cards.
"Can't say I do neither," Fred commented and nodded to his brothers as if his response was enough for all of them.
Earl squinted. "Looks a little familiar." And Gus rubbed his chin in contemplation.
"He our lawyer?" Dale asked. "Ma sent out for a good one. This one looks kinda... well... wet. He's s'pose ta get us off for we dinnent do nuthin' worse than settle a score. Ain't our fault that Matt here had to kill that sheriff."
"Dale!" Matt hissed and Gus shoved him.
"I was just sayin' that you had every right to do it," Dale explained. "It was our God-given right to even the score."
"Now, boys...boys," Chris said. "Hang on there a second. I think this will help clarify a few things."
Buck tossed something to Chris. Ezra realized what it was and smiled. "Gentlemen," the gambler said smoothly, "If I indeed should affix that moniker to the lot of you... there is perhaps something you should know."
He laid his jacket over the back of a chair and then took off his hat and handed it to Chris. Larabee handed him the familiar bowler. Standish ran his hands along the brim for a second and smiled at the Hollowells. "If you may, please try to remember a night or two ago." He settled the hat on his head.
The Hollowells looked at him with puzzled expressions. "No?" Ezra asked. "Ah, yes, I think I know what's wrong. You saw me mainly from this angle." And he turned his back to the prisoners and then faced them again. "Familiar?"
"No!" Fred growled. "No, it was the sheriff that we chased! I know it! I know what I shot!"
Buck stood and slowly approached the bars. "Oh," he said darkly, "You most certainly did shoot JD, and I'll see that you rot in prison for that. But he's fine and well. At this very moment he's sittin' up in his bed havin' a little soup and maybe if he's good... a cookie."
"He's the gambler!" Earl said with a snap of his fingers. "There was that gambler with 'em when we first set upon 'em. I remember that fancy jacket there." He pointed to the coat and then looked quickly to his brothers. "It was 'im!"
"We were chasin' him all night?" Dale asked sullenly.
"I didn't kill the sheriff?" Matt sounded horribly hurt.
Fred shook his head violently. "I know you killed 'im, Matt. I done see you shoot 'im at Banyon."
"That's right," Matt said, jabbing a finger toward Ezra. "I done shot you dead."
"Mr. Hollowell," Ezra stated calmly, shoving the bowler back into place as it tried to slide down his forehead. "You did indeed take a shot in my direction, but you hardly injured me."
"But you went off that cliff," Dale said incredulously. "I seen it! I seen you die!"
Ezra smiled, revealing his gold tooth. "I jumped, and you jumped to conclusions."
Matt looked morose. "We dinnent get the sheriff. We dinnent even get the gambler."
"Damn conman!" Fred grumbled. "Ma always warned us against the likes of you!"
The others stood about with various wounded and astonished expressions.
"Come on, Ezra," Chris said, clapping a hand on the gambler's shoulder. "I got another task for you."
"Catch up to ya in a bit," Buck said as he returned to his chair. "Gotta wait 'til Cal comes back to watch these boys. He thinks he's gonna make up for fallin' asleep and lettin' Santa Ana in without noticing 'im."
Ezra smiled again, remembering, and turned before he left the jail. "Adiós, idiotas," he said as he tossed JD's bowler toward the corner of the room, where it landed gracefully in its usual place on the filing cabinet. When the door shut behind him, he heard the wail of the brothers. He headed down the stairs, directed by Chris toward the saloon.
"Are you allowing me an opportunity to change before your next challenge?" Ezra asked as they made their way along the boardwalk.
"Nope," Chris replied as he jammed Ezra's own hat back onto his head.
When they entered the saloon, Ezra quickly spotted Josiah, Nathan and Vin at their usual table. "Ezra!" Josiah boomed. "I see that you have finished your errands."
Ezra nodded. "That I have." Josiah pulled out a chair and Ezra gratefully took advantage of it. He was still so tired. Really, all he wanted to do was to go upstairs and continue with his interrupted sleep. It was only the need to give Chris the information regarding the Hollowells, to check up on JD and to wash his horse that pried him from the bed a few hours earlier.
"Gentlemen?" Ezra asked as Chris sat down beside him. "What do you want?"
"You promised to tell us about your adventure once you finished with those errands of yours," Nathan said as he signaled the bartender. "And that you'd eat something. When was the last time you ate anyway?"
It took a moment for Ezra to realize that two full days had passed since any food had passed his lips. Strange, for he really didn't feel any pangs anymore. It wasn't until the aromatic bowl of stew and the plate of bread was set before him that he suddenly realized how very hungry he was.
"Sorry, Mr. Standish," Joe said, "But all's I got right now is stew. S'okay with you?"
Ezra was afraid that he would not be able to talk because of all the saliva suddenly in his mouth. "Quite fine, Mr. Rutledge, quite fine." He picked up a spoon and started working on the rich stew, stopping only long enough to sop up some gravy with the bread. A mug of beer appeared at his elbow and that was quickly emptied and replaced. He thought he heard Nathan say, "Take it easy," at some point, but he couldn't be sure.
It wasn't until the bowl was empty and wiped clean with the last bit of bread that he sat back and realized that the others were still at the table and that Buck had joined them.
"Man alive, I ain't never seen him eat like that before," Buck said with a chuckle.
"I'm amazed he took time to chew," Vin added.
Ezra self-consciously pushed the bowl away from himself and picked up his mug to take another satisfying drink.
Joe, the bartender, appeared beside him and asked with a touch of awe, "You want another bowl, Mr. Standish?"
Ezra considered it for a moment as he gazed at the empty dish, but instead he smiled and said, "No thank you, Mr. Rutledge. I do believe one shall be enough. I commend you on your ambrosial ragout."
Joe looked confused so Josiah translated, "I think he said he liked the stew."
"Now," Chris declared, "You're gonna sit still and shut up for a minute and listen to what I have to say."
Ezra paused, not liking the sound of this. "Perhaps if I had some pie?"
"Pie later...listen now," Chris said emphatically.
Ezra sighed in resignation and sat back in his chair. "Very well then," he mumbled.
"All right," Chris started and then stopped. "I just wanted to let you know..." his voice trailed off as he looked at Ezra's calculating expression. He could tell that the gambler was trying to read him, trying to figure out exactly what was about to be said, waiting for the some incalculable hell to break loose.
"Mr. Larabee, if this is all you have to say, perhaps you will allow me to leave."
"Damn it, Ezra," Chris growled in frustration. "I just wanted to letcha know that we were all pretty torn up when we heard you were dead."
Ezra smiled and was about to speak when Josiah interrupted, "Hurt me to the core, Ezra, to think you would never return."
Ezra turned to the preacher, perplexed by this revelation.
"Yeah, Ez," Vin said with a nod. "I dinnent know what I was gonna do when I got back here. It just dinnent seem the same, thinkin' you weren't gonna be around no more." Vin shrugged. "Made Four Corners seem a lot less inviting. More of a lonely place."
Buck leaned across the table toward the gambler and stated, "Josiah just barely kep' me from wringing Dale's neck after he told us what he thought happened to you. I got in a couple of punches into that Matt who was 'sposed to have shot you. Still, it didn't make me feel much better about it."
"Ezra," Nathan said, "You scared us. That boy JD was just a bundle of remorse thinkin' he had somethin' to do with all of this. And I, well, I was pretty upset about the whole thing, too."
Ezra looked from one man to the next, trying to figure out exactly what they wanted of him. They certainly looked sincere. It took a moment, but he finally decided that perhaps they were sincere. It had never crossed his mind that word of his demise might reach them, that the information would affect them.
"I'm sorry," Ezra said softly. "I didn't mean to ... disturb you all so. I was only trying to slip away from my pursuers."
"Could'a done that at anytime in the night, pard," Vin said knowingly. "You kept those boys behind you for a purpose. You meant to do exactly what you did. You figured if they thought you were dead, they would leave JD alone."
"Risked your life to save JD," Buck said. "And me, too. Them boys were shootin' at ya the whole way and still ya went about thinkin' of the kid."
Ezra tilted his head at Buck and said, "You paint a pretty picture, Mr. Wilmington, but not entirely accurate."
"So," Chris said, "Explain to us how it was, exactly."
"Yeah, where the hell did you go after you left me?" Buck demanded. "Were you aimin' for that cliff the whole time?"
"How'd you get those boys to follow you all night?" Nathan inquired.
"You been thinkin' about that cliff since the day we were up there?" Vin asked.
"And where in the world did you come up with that costume and why?" Josiah added.
Ezra folded his hands over his sated stomach and sighed. "Well," he started, trying to decide the best place to start. He leaned back in his chair to get comfortable for the long tale and closed his eyes for a moment to collect his thoughts.
He smiled to himself, thinking of what he had just learned from the others. They were actually worried about his well being. They had been saddened, thinking that he had died. Funny, he had never been in such a situation before. He couldn't remember ever knowing anyone who gave a damn whether he lived or died... well... his mother of course, but that was at times debatable.
It made him feel all warm inside... a new feeling for the calculating conman.
"Ezra?" Chris said, tapping the gambler on the shoulder.
"Ez, come on now," Vin shook Ezra's other shoulder and the gambler unceremoniously tipped forward and almost crashed headfirst onto the table. Chris and Vin were able to halt his progress and leaned him back in his chair.
"Asleep again?" Josiah asked, and shook his head. That man could fall asleep at a drop of a hat. Of course, he realized, he could also stay awake for an awful long time if necessary.
"Come on, sleepy-head," Buck said as he stood. "Let's getcha to bed." He grabbed one of Ezra's still-damp arms and Vin grabbed the other. Between the two of them, they hoisted the gambler to his feet, but his legs would not hold him.
Buck changed his grip and Vin took Ezra's feet. Together they managed to haul the sleeping gambler through the saloon. They reached the stairs with a minimum of disruption in the establishment.
"Is he all right?" Josiah asked the healer anxiously.
Nathan nodded, watching Vin and Buck make their way clumsily up the stairs, somehow managing to keep from ramming Ezra's head into the spindles. "Oh, he'll be fine. Hasn't caught up on his sleep yet."
Chris stood and started heading to the door. Josiah called after him. "Where are you goin', Chris?"
Chris stopped and turned to face them. "Thought I'd head over to the restaurant. The man wanted pie. I think I'll leave a piece for him by his bed in case he gets hungry in the night."
"He likes pecan best," Josiah said with a grin.
Chris touched the brim of his hat and headed out the door.
THE END - by NotTasha - July 29, 2000
The Series continues in the next South Bridge Story - Somewhere In-Between