Disclaimer: Not mine. Never will be. No money being made.
The heat clung like a spider’s web and the citizens of Four Corners were feeling it’s silky strands tightening around them. Chris Larabee slammed back his drink and ignored the others sitting at his table. His focus was on the man that had just exited the saloon. Swearing under his breath Chris wondered if he’d ever break that man’s control.
“Why do you have ta push ‘im?” Vin asked as he got to his feet.
Since Chris was currently ignoring him, he saw no need to answer the question.
“Ya know, ya can only beat a dog for so long before he turns on you,” the tracker told him then left.
Chris shook his head at the mess his burst of temper had left behind. He’d returned from patrol hot, sweaty, and generally pissed at the world. He was just inching for an excuse to let loose on someone. Chris found the perfect someone. Now he just needed an excuse. Ezra P. Standish. Actually the gambler could do for both. Sometimes Chris swore, that Ezra was holding court up on the elevated portion of the saloon. With all those cowboys surrounding him like minions.
There was nothing new about any of this. Ezra was always in the middle of a game. Just as Chris always seemed to be in a bad mood. But something had his temper flaring and before he knew it he was standing next to Ezra’s table snapping off some comments that sent the cowboys running and Ezra slowly getting to his feet. He saw something flash in those green eyes and he thought that he’d finally done it. He’d finally managed to incite Ezra’s temper. Chris wanted to see him react without thought. Just once. But it wasn’t going to happen. At least, not today. Ezra was one cool customer and had merely gathered his cards, his money, and with a tip of his hat . . . left. Spoiling all Chris’s fun.
Later that night Chris sat at the same table nursing the same bottle of whisky. Looking up he saw Vin, Buck, and JD walk in and pretended not to notice that they hesitated before sitting with him.
“No, Buck, I don’t want nothin’ to do with it,” Vin snapped as he sat down the leaned his chair back as far as it would go.
“Do with what?” Chris asked even though he told himself to stay out of it.
“Buck’s got this wager going to see how long it’ll take for Ezra to lose his temper. You know with you riding him like you are,” JD explained.
The black clad man shot JD a look, but the younger man just ignored him.
“Nathan and even Josiah put in a couple of dollars,” Buck told him. “But tight wad here won’t even give up a fifty cent piece.”
“You fellas ever seen Ez, lose his temper?” Vin asked.
“No,” JD and Buck both said, while Chris just shook his head.
“How about either of you?” the tracker asked Nathan and Josiah as they walked up. They both shook their head no. “Did ya ever ask yourself if there was a reason for that?”
“What are you trying to say Vin?” JD asked.
“Nothing. Just know there has to be a reason he keeps such a tight rein on it, is all,” Vin told them. “It must pretty fierce and I for one don’t want to be on the receiving end of it.”
Three days later Chris still hadn’t found a suitable release for his temper and as a result he was steaming. Walking into the saloon he thought today just might be his lucky day as he spotted Nathan and Josiah arguing with Ezra about something. Probably had to do with the lost looking man sitting at the table with Ezra. The gambler was of course ignoring the two men as he placed his money in his pocket. Getting to his feet and looked at Nathan with a smile then quick as a wink snatched a piece of paper out of his hand.
“Give it back,” Chris heard Nathan growl as he stepped closer.
“Come on Ezra, don’t do this,” Josiah added.
“What’s going on?” Chris asked as he joined them.
“Ezra’s won the bank note to Mr. Clark’s ranch in a poker game and we want him to give it back,” the healer explained.
Chris looked at Ezra and said, “Give it back.”
“Why should I?” the Southerner questioned with a raised eyebrow.
“‘Cause it ain’t right,” Nathan snapped.
“What? That I won it or that he gambled away his home?”
“Both,” Nathan replied.
“His wife and children shouldn’t be made to suffer because of his mistakes,” Josiah quickly added.
“True, but then again maybe this will teach Mr. Clark a very valuable lesson. After all, that what does not break us will only make us stronger,” Ezra told them. He’d had just about enough of these people telling him how to live. How to behave. Who the hell did they think they were? Family or something? He was still feeling the stinging at their still apparent lack of trust in him. After all he’d done . . . after all they’d been through . . . and they still didn’t trust him. He wore a dress, for crying out loud! A purple one at that! That alone should have exonerated him from any future mistakes. What more did they want.
Ezra shook head and admitted to a certain amount of responsibility over that money. They caught him with it . . . so there wasn’t much use in denying it. One mistake. He made one mistake. Well, he did turn his back on the so-called reformed hit man. But still that’s only two. He frowned as the Seminole Village suddenly came to mind. Well, hell, Ezra thought to himself, you best stop while you’re ahead.
“Give it back,” Chris told him.
The Southerner looked Chris right in the eye and said, “No.” Just whom did Chris Larabee think he was pushing. Some wet behind the ears kid? Just how many cheeks does he think I have? Hell, even I will only take so much. Ezra had been fighting hard to control his temper the last few days. Hell, since signing on this lot. A loss of temper meant a loss of control. And Ezra P. Standish very seldom lost control.
“What did you say?”
He braced himself for what he knew was going to happen as soon as he opened his mouth. “I said no . . .”
Chris smiled then drew back his fist and hit Ezra square in the mouth. He had hoped to see the gambler hit the floor, but Ezra only stumbled back a couple of steps.
Ezra gave him a bloody tooth grin and shook his head then continued as if Chris hadn’t just hit him. “I won’t give it back.” He watched as Chris returned his grin for just a moment before trying to hit him again, but Ezra was ready for him and blocked the swing and answered it with one of his own. Chris stumbled back into the table behind him lost his footing and tumbled to the floor in surprise.
The gambler started removing his jacket as soon as Chris hit the floor. His vest soon followed as did his shoulder holster, his derringer rig, the holster around his waist, and finally his hat, which he sat on top his derringer. Through the whole process he held onto the bank note for the ranch.
Ezra laid everything on the bar except the holster holding his six shooters that he handed to Vin, who along with the others had just walked in. He carefully folded the note and with his back turned toward the others he stuck it in between the holster and one of his guns. Looking at Joe, the bartender, Ezra asked, “Would you be so kind as to place these behind the bar?” Turning back to Chris, he began rolling up his sleeves.
“Ezra what the hell are you doing?” Josiah asked as he stepped between the two men.
The Southerner stepped right in the older man’s face and snapped, “Step aside Mr. Sanchez. The time to play the diplomat has past. You’ve made your choice now be man enough to stand by it.”
“Guys I don’t think this is such a good idea,” JD cautioned.
“Don’t worry JD, I take full responsibility,” Chris told him then looked over at Nathan and Josiah and continued, “Once I kick Ezra’s ass we’ll give Mr. Clark his ranch back.” The blonde gunslinger had removed his hat, duster, and holster as well and was rolling up his sleeves.
“That’ll be the day,” Ezra taunted. “For one thing I intend to be the last man standing. And for another, win or lose I will be giving nothing back to Mr. Clark,” he assured them with a cocky smirk on his face. “One more thang, I feel as a gentleman, that I must warn you, that you brought on yourself and as such you must now face the consequences.”
“Fine,” Chris said with a shrug of his shoulders. The gunslinger popped his fingers then raised his fits and took a step closer.
The other five peacekeepers watched as the cool facade fell from Ezra’s green eyes leaving them cold and hard. Then with a growl Ezra charged Chris fast and hard sending them both crashing through the saloon window. Stumbling back they the hitching post then tumbled over it.
Ezra was the first to his feet and he danced backward further into the street making Chris come to him.
Chris got to his feet then grinned at the gambler. “This might prove to be even better than I thought,” he said mostly to himself.
Vin swore as he watched his two friends trade punches. He hated that it had come to this, but knew that it was long over due. Both men were too stubborn to give up or give in. Vin winced as Chris hit Ezra sending him to the ground and he heard Josiah tell him to stay down, which was like throwing whiskey on a fire because Ezra surged to his feet and all but shoved the older man away from him.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt any worse Ezra,” Josiah told him, but Ezra was lost in his temper and paid him no mind.
Ezra hit Chris with a quick jab to the ribs and was rewarded with a hard right that sent him tumbling back into Vin, who caught him and prevented him from hitting the ground. “Thanks,” he mumbled then pulled away.
Chris swore as he saw that Ezra was still standing and went to meet him as he advanced. After trading a couple of more punches they both fell to the ground. Chris grabbed Buck’s hand and pulled himself up. “Is Ezra up yet?” he asked trying to catch his breath.
“Not yet,” Buck said with a big smile.
“Good. He’s a wiry little shit, ain't he,” Chris said with pride and would have smiled except it hurt too much. “I never would have guessed Ezra would have lasted this long.”
“He’s getting up,” JD announced.
“Aww hell,” Chris swore and turned around to see Ezra struggling to his feet.
“Come on Ezra!” Vin shouted. “Kick his ass!”
Chris looked at Vin in surprise before turning his attention back to the gambler. “We can end this now Ezra,” he said offering the younger man an out. “Hand over the note and nothing will be said about you cheating.”
Something ugly flashed in Ezra’s eyes as he wiped the blood from his chin and straightened his shoulders, his spine, and his resolve. This Southerner would not go down again. “No,” he said in a harsh voice full of steel.
The gunslinger shook his head and said, “This ends now.” Then gathered his strength and rushed the gambler. Ezra ducked and caught Chris by the waist then used his momentum against him and sent Chris flying over his shoulders. Chris lay stunned on the hard unforgiving ground for a moment then with a groan got to his feet only to have Ezra punch him and send him right back down.
Vin grinned as he saw Ezra circling their downed leader just waiting for an opening. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said to none in particular, “looks like Ezra’s done got his second wind.”
“What the hell is going on here?!” shouted a very angry Judge Travis, who had just arrived on the stage.
“Just a little difference of opinion, Judge,” Buck said.
The Judge paid him no mind and stepped right front of Ezra and said, “I pay you gentlemen to fight to protect this town not each other.”
“Excuse me, Sir, but you are in my way,” Ezra felt the need to point out to him as Chris got to his feet. Darting around the Judge he hit Chris again, then again. Ezra barely heard the Judge holler to break it up, but he felt the hands grabbing him trying to pull him away. But Ezra was fit to be tied and would not go easily. His temper had been spiked and would not go quietly back into hiding. With one last surge Ezra broke away from them and hit Chris one last time sending him to the ground. He would have hit him again accept as he looked down at the blonde Ezra could tell the man was barely lucent. So when he tried to get up Ezra pushed him back down swung around and punched both Nathan and Josiah, for getting him into this mess to begin with, causing both men to stumble back a couple of steps.
He then popped both Buck and JD when they tried to grab him. Feeling someone come up beside him Ezra whirled around and just did stop himself from hitting Vin. Panting for breath the Southerner watched the tracker very carefully and with a shrug of his shoulders he hit Vin as well.
“Dammit!” Vin swore as he wiped the blood from his lip. “What’d you do that for?”
“I don’t know!” he cried. Taking his guns from Vin, Ezra then pulled the bank note out the holster and with a raised eyebrow he looked at all of them and taunted, “Mine.”
“Mr. Standish!” the Judge shouted. “I want to see you and the your fellow peacekeepers in the saloon now!”
Ezra gave serious thought to just ignoring the man, but decided against it. Stumbling into the saloon he banged his hand on the bar demanding his property back. Once he retrieved them, Ezra righted his usual table and sat down.
“What the hell happened?” the Judged asked. “Ezra would you join us.”
The look Ezra sent him had Vin hesitating for just a minute before he sat down at his table.
“No?” the older man repeated in disbelief.
“He’s getting good at saying that,” Chris mumbled around the towel he held to his split lip.
“Because he’s a stubborn bastard and doesn’t know when to quit.”
“Not you!” the Judge snapped at Chris. “I was talking to Ezra.”
“I do wish to share a table with those gentlemen at the moment,” Ezra told him in a hard voice.
“Fine, you and Vin sit over there,” he conceded. “Now would someone please tell me what happened?” When no one answered the Judge looked at JD. “JD?”
“I don’t know . . . they started fighting right after me, Buck and Vin walked in,” JD told him.
“Ezra come on over here so I’ll take a look at ya,” Nathan said when Chris threatened him with a look.
“I’d rather bleed to death,” Ezra told him in a cold voice.
Vin slammed in fist on the table making everyone except Ezra jump in surprise. “Dammit it all to hell! I told ya to leave him be, but ya wouldn’t listen would ya,” he snapped. “You wanted to see ‘em lose his temper. Well, here it is. Ezra’s pissed at the world and is gonna make us all pay!”
“Not all of you,” the Southerner corrected.
“Someone tell me what in the hell is going on!” the Judge bellowed. Still, no one volunteered. “Ezra tell me what happened and keep it simple.”
“Very well, I was playing poker with a gentleman about Mr. Larabee’s age . . . you know an older gentleman. William Clark is his name, however I do believe that some call him Bill or Billy . . .”
“Ezra he said to keep it simple,” Chris reminded him.
Ezra’s eyes flashed green fire before he quipped, “I’m sorry Mr. Larabee, are you having more trouble than usual comprehending?” When Chris just gave him a dirty look he continued, “Mr. Clark didn’t have the means in which to cover his bet so he offered the note he owed. Saying that with what was in the pot I could purchase his ranch for next to nothing. I asked him several times if he was sure he wanted to take such a chance. Mr. Clark was very adamant that he was so I agreed and he lost.”
“Okay, what happened next?”
“Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez decided to interfere, words were past, then Mr. Larabee butted in, and then,” he paused and grinned in spite of the pain it caused him, “I kicked Chris’s ass.”
Vin couldn’t help, but grin in response and slapped Ezra on the back. “Damn Ez, if you ain't the sassiest bastard I ever met,” he said causing them both to laugh.
“What did Mr. Clark do?” the Judge asked.
“Why, nothing at all. He just sat there as if in a daze.”
“Well, do you blame him? The man just lost his home,” Nathan said.
“That’s not my problem. He knew the risks. One should never gamble with more than they can afford to lose,” Ezra told them in a heated voice. He slammed his fist into the table and then in a rare display of temper he surged to his feet. “Dammit people! It’s the same type of game that we’ve played since signing on as peacekeepers! We each knew the risks before we agreed to defend this dust-ridden-broken-down-half-abandoned-hell hole!”
When the others had no arguments to that he continued, “Anyway, after I won the ranch Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez decided to be judge and jury and condemned me before even giving me a chance to defend myself. Neither of them once asked me if I intended to keep the damned thang.”
“Do you?” the Judge asked.
“Hell no! I don’t want it and never did. Ask me what I know about ranching? Nothing! That’s what. Now ask me what I wish to know about ranching? Nothing. But thanks to men like Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington this is a free country and I’ll be damned if I’ll be ordered to return something that I won fair and square,” Ezra said with a thick accent. “After all, I was not the one gambling away my home. He was! It was his choice! His! What? Am I to reward him because he lost? No, I don’t think so.” He looked especially at Josiah before saying, “You’re always telling me that we are held accountable for our actions. Well, if that’s true then does that not apply to him as well?!”
“So how did Chris get involved?”
“As I told you, he appointed himself a part of the judge and jury.”
“Who hit who first?”
“Mr. Larabee drew first blood. I merely defended myself,” Ezra said. Then with a smirk on his face added, “Then I kicked his ass.”
“JD go see if you can find Mr. Clark,” the Judge said. Then looked at the other and sadly shook his head. “All this came about because of a poker game?”
“Oh, no. This has been building for some time,” the gambler told him.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just that some people within this group get treated differently than others.”
“What the hell are you talking about Ezra?” Chris snapped.
“Oh, how soon we forget,” he quipped.
“Ezra I’d rather you didn’t bring that up,” Vin suddenly said.
“Very well, but you know what I mean don’t you?”
“Yeah, I get what you’re saying. I didn’t then, but I do now,” he confirmed.
“I meant you no offense.”
“I know.” Vin hadn’t believed Ezra when he told him that the others would never treat him like they had the gambler, but he was right. Even though he’d run out on them as well. Chris had been a little distant, but for the most part nothing changed.
“What the hell are you two talking about?” Chris asked again.
“You gentlemen made your opinions of me quite clear when I liberated that money, but not a one of you said a thang about Vin using the assassin’s gun,” Ezra explained.
“That’s different,” Nathan said.
“Why? Because Vin’s a sharpshooter? Well I’m a gambler and could have used that money. Money I was more than willing to share, which in itself should say a lot.” Ezra was mad as hell and saying things he knew he would regret, but said them anyway. “And another thang; why is it that Buck was allowed to spend all his time with Louisa and not take his turn on look out?”
“I did my part!” Buck shouted as he got to his feet.
“Of course, you did,” Ezra quipped.
“Gentlemen let’s keep to the subject at hand,” the Judge said trying to regain control. Just then he noticed that JD had returned with who he guessed was the rancher. “Mr. Clark?”
“Would you please tell us what happened earlier?”
William Clark nodded his head and sat down. “I was playing a game with Mr. Standish and didn’t have enough money to cover my bet so I offered him the deed to my ranch in exchange,” he told them. “He asked me three or four times if I was sure and told him yes, so he finally agreed.”
“I lost,” he said with a sigh.
“Did you have any reason to believe that Ezra cheated?”
“No, sir. Ezra don’t cheat. He don’t have to,” Mr. Clark said. “I’ve played with Ezra before and he’s always been real fair.”
“So you did not ask Mr. Sanchez or Jackson to interfere on your behalf?”
“I have ta tell you that at first I was glad I had lost. It was as this huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders, but then I remembered all the blood, sweat, and tears that I had shed for that land and I was hoping to have it returned. But no, I didn’t ask for their help” the man told them.
“How did Mr. Larabee become involved?”
“He walked in and asked what was going on then told Mr. Standish to return the note and when he refused Mr. Larabee hit him,” Clark said.
“Would you be willing to work out some kind of payment schedule so that you can repay Mr. Standish so that you may have your land back?”
“Mr. Standish . . .”
“No. No deals.”
“I could make you,” the Judge warned.
“You could try,” Ezra called his bluff. “I have been granted my pardon and have not broken any laws. The most you can do to me to put me in jail. And that would only be over night,” he pointed out with a grin. “And I would still own the ranch.”
“Dammit Ezra! Why are you being so stubborn?!” Josiah finally snapped and got to his feet. “You said yourself that you didn’t want it. So why?”
The Southerner gave the older man a go to hell look.
“Ezra we should help those less fortunate than us . . .”
“Don’t you dare start preaching to me you self righteous hypocrite!” the gambler warned. “I went to you for advice! For help! Hell, I was about to bare my soul to you and you . . . you turned on me.”
Josiah hung his head. “No Ezra, not you. Those words were more directed at myself because I was more tempted by all that money than I should have been,” he explained.
“What about the ranch?” Chris asked.
“It’s mine and I’m keeping it,” Ezra told them in a defiant tone. “Mr. Clark you and your family may remain on it until I decide what I wish to do with it.”
“Judge?” Nathan asked looking at him.
“I’m sorry, Nathan, but Ezra’s right. There’s nothing I can do,” he said then looked around. “Now we need to decide who’s going to pay for the damages to the saloon.”
“Well, I can help you there,” Ezra replied then looked at JD. “What did Chris tell you when you advised us against fighting?” he asked with a cocky smirk on his face. “Come now, Mr. Dunn, lawmen are suppose to be impartial.”
“What did he say JD?” Judge Travis asked.
JD looked at Chris and mumbled, “That he’d take full responsibility.”
“Did you say that?” the Judge then asked Chris.
Chris nodded his head, yes.
“Well, then Mr. Larabee you can pay for the damages done to the saloon, but I must say that I am disappointed in each of you for allowing this to happen in the first place,” he said as he got to his feet. The judge nodded his head as everyone except Chris and Ezra apologized.
“Sorry,” Chris finally muttered.
“Don’t look at me,” Ezra told him. “I’ve done nothing wrong and will I not apologize.”
“Fine,” the judge said with a tired sigh. “Mr. Clark I hope you have learned your lesson,” he told him then left.
“What am I going to tell me wife?” he suddenly asked and slowly left the saloon.
Inez and the bar keep had been listening to the goings on and looked at Ezra then asked, “What is he to tell his wife?”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Ezra said then gathered his things together and left.
“I hate to be the one to tell ya I told ya so . . . no wait that’s not right,” Vin said with a big grin. “I’m happy to be the one to say it.” He laughed then followed Ezra out of the saloon.
Chris watched them go and couldn’t help but grin. Not only had Ezra kicked his ass, but he still owned the ranch. Only Ezra could have that kind of luck.
“What do we do now?” Nathan asked with a frown.
JD got to his feet and put his hat on then squared his shoulders. “Don’t know about you fellas, but I’m gonna go and make things right,” he told them then walked out.
“When he’d get so smart,” Chris muttered and tried to get to his feet, but couldn’t quite manage it. After about the third try he snapped, “Dammit one of you help me up!”
Buck laughed and extended his hand. “You coming Josiah?” he asked the older man when he kept sitting.
Without a word Josiah got to his feet and meekly followed them. But smiled as he heard Chris mutter, “Damned Southerner.”
Vin hurried to catch up with the irate Southerner. “Ezra!” he called then skidded to a stop as the man suddenly spun around with his gun drawn. “Woah! It’s just me!”
Ezra shook his head and replaced his weapon. “I apologize Mr. Tanner,” he said. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear you approaching.”
“Where ya headed?”
“To hell, according to the others.”
“Mind some company?” Vin asked with a smile.
“Might as well, you’ll just follow me anyway.”
“You ain't plannin’ on leavin’ are ya?” he asked when he saw that they were headed for the livery.
“Not at present.”
Vin sat on a bale of hay watching as Ezra paced back and forth. Every once in a while he’d stop and kick the stall nearest to him and mutter something under his breath. “Why don’t ya just spit it out and get it out of ya system.”
Ezra looked at him for a long while then finally asked, “Why does everything always have to be done the hard way?”
“Ya askin’ the wrong man.”
“I proved them right.”
“Chris and Nathan,” he replied. “Neither of them have trusted me from the start. I proved that they were right not to.”
“That’s not true. We do trust ya Ezra.”
“I took that money Vin.”
“I was headed for my horse.”
“I was gonna leave.”
“But you didn’t. Hell, Ez, you saved Mary’s life,” Vin told him. “You wouldn’t have been able to hit him where you were positioned . . .”
“Chris . . .”
“Chris wouldn’t have been able to do a damned thing. Stutz would have shot Mary before Chris knew it. And she wouldn’t have had a wad of money protecting her neither. Hell, if you hadn’t left your post then who knows . . . they both could have been killed.”
Ezra wanted to believe him, but wasn’t sure if he dared too.
“Since you’re being so talkative can I ask you something?”
Ezra nodded his head, yes.
“Why’d you sign on with us?”
Raising an eyebrow Ezra thought for a moment then finally answered. “The gambler in me causes me to weigh the pros and cons of every move very carefully. After all, some things just cannot be left up to chance. Do I stay in town and risk running into those irate cowhands? Or do I take Mr. Larabee up on his offer?” he cocked his head to the side as if he was reconsidering it. “Oh, and let’s not forget about the five dollars, which we still have not received. So after careful deliberation I did what all good gamblers do and,” he stopped and flashed Vin a grin then said, “flipped a coin.”
Vin laughed and repeated, “A coin? You let a coin decide your fate?”
“I’ll have you know that many a great decisions have been decided by the flipping of a coin,” he quipped. “The best of five I told myself. And then I did the opposite.”
Vin frowned then started laughing. “So you’re saying we lost and won at the same time.”
Ezra laughed and nodded his head. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Why didn’t you want to ride with Nathan?”
That wiped the laughed right out of Ezra’s eyes. “I was merely responding to the contempt I saw in Nathan’s eyes. He judged me as soon as I opened my mouth, just as others have judged him based on the color of his skin.”
Thinking back, Vin could remember Nathan tensing as a supposedly drunk Ezra began to speak. He looked up as Ezra stumbled back into Chaucer’s stall and slid to the floor. “You all right? Want me to go get Nathan?”
Ezra cleared his throat and peered at him through one eye. “I am perfectly fine. And do not require Nathan’s services.”
“Stubborn son a bitch,” he muttered under his breath, but Ezra heard him.
“Would you like for me to call your mother a bitch?”
Vin tensed and warned him, “You’d best not.”
“Then, please, refrain from calling mine one,” Ezra retorted. “I’ll be the first to admit that I while I would not recommend Maude for mother of the year, hell I wouldn’t recommend her for anything, she is mine. And like it or not, she’s all I have.”
“I shouldna said that,” he said. “I’m sorry. But you’re wrong . . . you got us.”
Ezra snorted and quipped, “Oh, how silly of me to have forgotten.”
Vin sighed and shook his head. “So what are ya gonna do with that ranch?”
“I don’t believe that’s any of your concern.”
“I was just askin’ . . .”
“You askin’ a hell of a lot tonight aren’t you?”
“No one told ya to answer.”
Ezra ignored that and instead said, “I don’t know why you gentlemen are so hell bent on my giving the ranch back. Mr. Clark still doesn’t have the money he owes. He’s lucky I have the damned thang. The bank sure as hell wouldn’t give him the time I have.” The southerner struggled to his feet and snort, much to his disgrace, “If you people are going to feel sorry for someone then it ought to be me.”
“Do seriously believe he carries that bank note with him every where he goes?”
Vin shrugged as if to say that, he hadn’t given it much thought. “Why should we feel sorry for you?”
“I have a ranch I don’t want and I bank note that I have no intention of paying!”
“If you don’t want then ya shouldna taken it to begin with!” Vin snapped him in an aggravated tone.
“That’s not the point!”
“Then what is the point?”
Ezra and Vin both turned and looked at Josiah in surprise. They also noticed the others standing just behind him.
“How long have ya’ll been there?”
“Long enough,” Chris said with a small smile.
“What is the point, Ezra?” Josiah asked him again.
“He needs to face the consequences of his actions . . .”
“So you’re teaching him a lesson?”
“And you think you’re qualified to do that?” Nathan asked.
“As much as you gentlemen seem to think you are,” Ezra countered.
“What are you going to do with the deed?” Josiah asked him.
Ezra snorted again, much to his horror. “No need to worry, Josiah . . . er . . . Mr. Sanchez, I’ll not be asking for your assistance,” he taunted. But found no pleasure in seeing the older man flinch. Ezra suddenly realized how tired he was and gave deep sigh. Then headed for the door.
“Ezra would you please let me check and see if anything’s broken?” Nathan asked.
“Ezra . . .”
“NO!” he bellowed leaving no room for them to doubt he was serious.
The others watched him leave. Vin looked at his friends and suddenly grinned. Ezra never ceased to amaze him. Only he could stir up so much dust without breaking a sweat.
“What the hell are you grinning about?” Chris asked with a frown.
Vin shook his head as his grin grew and said, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“You know you’re enjoying this entirely too much!” They’re leader snapped. “Stop all that damned grinning!”
Vin ignored him and actually laughed as he heard Chris mutter, “Damn Texans and Southerners aren’t worth wasting bullets on.”
For two days Ezra glared and snarled at anyone who ventured to close to him. Even Vin, at least for the first day. Ezra was pissed and didn’t care who knew it. He did his job, but that’s all he did. He no longer sat with the others for any reason. He only spoke if spoken to. He had done nothing wrong and absolutely refused to act like he had.
Vin laughed as he watched the others practically tiptoe around the Southerner. He had them all on the run. Well, except for Chris. But Vin did notice that Chris watched Ezra with a newfound respect.
“What the hell are you laughing at?” Chris snapped still suffering from his fight with Ezra.
“I’m just enjoying the show.”
Just then they heard someone yell, “You cheatin’ son of a bitch!”
Looking up they were afraid that Ezra may have found someone to vent his anger on, but the accuser sat at another table.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Chris asked for once hoping to avoid a confrontation.
“He cheated! That what!” a man about Vin’s height and Buck’s build replied.
“I didn’t!” a young thin man stated.
“Yes you did,” Ezra added and grabbed the young man by the collar. “Now you have two choices. You can admit your guilt and repay what you stole. Or we can hang you up side down and shake it out of you. It’s your choice,” he told him. Then tightening his hold Ezra jerked him to his feet and said, “Personally I opt for the ladder.”
“All right! All right!” the young man shouted. “I did cheat. Here . . . here’s the money,” he said tossing it on the table.
“Spoil sport,” Ezra whined as he shoved him back. “Now get out.”
“That’s it?” the other man asked stepping in front of Ezra.
“He confessed and you got your money back,” Nathan pointed out. “What more do you want?”
“Stay outta of this darky,” the man said shoving the healer to the floor.
“If you wish to live then I would recommend that you refrain from touching the gentleman again.”
“Don’t touch him!”
“You defending him little man . . .”
“Little man? Little man?” Ezra repeated feeling his hackles rise even more.
“Aww hell,” Vin muttered. “You gone and done it now mister.”
“Even when he’s not at fault he’s in the middle of it,” Chris mumbled under his breath.
Ezra ducked the first punch, but the second caught him square in the stomach. He managed to keep his feet, but just barely. The next thing his knew the man was holding his face and groaning with blood seeping through his fingers. Looking around he saw a smug looking Josiah standing beside him.
“I don’t recall thanking you. And I don’t recall asking for your assistance.”
“Ezra . . .”
“I could have taken him . . .”
“Well, now you don’t have to . . .”
“Yeah, thanks to your interference!”
Ezra growled and threw his hands in the air. Turning he found himself face to face with Nathan.
“Thanks Ezra,” Nathan said looking a little uncomfortable.
“Oh, I bet that hurt,” the Southerner taunted. “I must say it boggles the mind for someone as high and mighty as yourself to thank a low life like me. Someone with no morals to speak of.”
“Ezra . . .” Nathan started only to have Ezra continue.
“Oh, look Nathan,” Ezra cried and grabbed the man’s hand. Nathan had scratched the back of his hand on something when the man pushed him. “Your blood’s the same color as mine.”
Nathan didn’t say a word because he knew he deserved everything Ezra was saying. Had deserved it for some time now. “Will ya let me check and see if you’re all right?”
“Because there’s no need.”
“So you’re a doctor now?”
“No more than you are,” Ezra shot back. “Besides I know what a broken rib feels like.”
“Let him check you out Ezra,” Chris told him.
“You may dictate to me concerning the job, but you will not concerning my person,” the Southerner told him in calm voice. Then turned and walked back to his table.
Chris started to follow, but a hand on his arm stopped him. He glared at Vin, but the younger man did not release him.
“Leave him alone,” Vin said. “The three of you ganging up on him have made a mess of things. If ya keep pushing him then he’s gonna leave.”
Ezra slowly made his way to his room, unlocked the door, struck a lucifer, and lit the lamp. Looking at himself in the mirror, he frowned at what he saw. Both eyes were blackened, he had a large bruise on his jaw, a cut on his lip, and if that wasn’t enough he’d ruined his favorite shirt in the confrontation with Chris the other day. Ezra shook his head and eased his shirt off then dropped it on the floor. After washing his face he put on a clean shirt and strapped on his derringer rig, then grabbed a bottle of bourbon and crawled out the window.
He carefully made his way across the roof of the hotel to his favorite spot and sat down. From this vantage point Ezra could see and not be seen. He could also watch the sun rise and set on this dusty little burg that he called home.
Crossing his legs under him he opened the bottle and took a large swallow of the fiery liquid. Ezra welcomed the burn it caused. Hoping it would burn his self-directed disappointment. A conscience was a hell of a thang to have. It shouldn’t bother him what the others thought of him, but it did. It shouldn’t bother him that the others were disappointed him, but it did. It shouldn’t matter that he’d proven them right, but it did. It shouldn’t matter what Josiah said, but it did. It shouldn’t matter what Vin said about Stutz, but it . . . he paused. Did that matter? Was the longhaired tracker correct in his assumption that if he, Ezra Standish, had not taken that money the outcome would have somehow been different? It is possible, he admitted to himself. He more than anyone should know just how much things can change with just one act.
Ezra knew that when he flipped that coin if it had gone the other way then he would have stayed in Four Corners and would have been long gone by the time the others returned.
Taking another swallow of bourbon, Ezra drew his knees up and rested his weary head on top of them and asked himself just what had changed since he misappropriated those funds. Nothing. That’s what. Nothing had changed. Ezra frowned as he pictured Nathan looking at him with a disapproving eye. He shrugged as he realized that Nathan had always done that. And Chris? With a snort, which caused his aching head to vibrate, Ezra knew that Chris was . . . well just Chris and his bark wasn’t quite as bad as his bite. He also, knew that if Chris didn’t want him there then . . . Ezra knew that he would have been gone the moment the thirty days were up.
He tensed as Josiah suddenly popped in his head. Ezra surged to his feet and nearly lost his footing on the slanted rooftop. He hated that he’d disappointed the older man. He’d come to value Josiah’s opinion. He enjoyed their lively conversations. He suddenly snorted and then cringed at the disgusting habit he’d picked up from his unsavory friends. Friends? Were they his friends? Ezra tried to think of at least one thang that told him the other six men were his friends and smiled as he remembered all the laughs they shared. He’s laughed more in the little while he’s known these men than he had in all his 30 years. It felt good to have friends. Even friends like these. Especially friends like these.
Josiah flashed in his head again and he shook his head. If this was how children normally felt when they disappointed a parent, then Ezra was glad that him and Maude weren’t that close. He rubbed his tired eyes as he tried to figure out what to do about Josiah. Then with a shrug Ezra told himself he’d worry about him tomorrow. Turning he went to step further up on the roof. “Oh, shit,” he muttered as he slipped and was unable to right himself this time. Hitting the roof with a thud Ezra began to slide.
Vin, Josiah, and Nathan jumped and went for their guns as a pair of legs suddenly dropped in front of them as they walked toward the saloon.
“Ezra,” Vin said with a grin and a nod of his head.
“Gentlemen,” Ezra greeted them as he hung from the hotel roof for a moment then calmly dropped to his feet as if he did so every day.
“Ezra . . .” Nathan began only to have Ezra hold up a hand to stall him.
Vin’s grin grew as Ezra stepped back and looked up then took a couple of steps to the side and neatly caught a bottle as it rolled off the roof. He then twirled the bottle in his hand as he would one of his pistols.
“Gentlemen,” he said then with a tip of his nonexistent hat Ezra stepped up on the boardwalk then into the hotel.
Josiah laughed and slapped Vin on the shoulder. “I’ll be damned if that boy don’t beat all,” he said with a shake of his head then headed for the church.
“Night Josiah,” Vin called and watched as the older man waved a hand at him in acknowledgment. Him and Nathan continued on to the saloon.
“Hey fellas!” JD cried as soon as he walked into the saloon the next morning. “Have you seen Ezra this morning?” he asked.
Buck looked at him with a frown and said, “JD the sun’s just come up so you know we won’t see Ezra for at least a couple of hours yet.”
“Why ya askin’?” Vin wanted to know.
JD frowned, bit his lip and looked at Chris and asked, “You haven’t sent him somewhere?”
The younger man dropped into a chair and sighed, “Because Chaucer’s gone . . .”
Vin jumped to his feet cussing, “Damned son of a bitch! He told me he wasn’t gonna leave!”
They all ran to the livery and skidded to a stop as they saw Chaucer standing by the corral calming chopping on some grass.
“Damned horse is opening his stall again,” Vin grumbled in relief.
“So he’s not gone,” Chris felt the need to vocalize that.
“All right that’s it,” Josiah said then turned on his heel and headed for the hotel.
“Oh, oh, Ezra’s gonna get it now,” Buck said with a smile then hurried after him.
Not ones to be left behind the others quickly followed.
Josiah stepped up the front desk and said, “I need the key to Ezra’s room.” And when the clerk hesitated he gave him a hard look and warned him, “Don’t make me ask you again.” Josiah took the offered key with a nod.
Climbing the stairs he quickly made his way down the hall and only hesitated a second before placing the key in the lock and called out, “Ezra, it’s Josiah and I’m coming in.” Even with the warning Josiah fell to the floor as he pushed the door opened. When nothing happened he slowly got to his feet and stepped into the room. He frowned as he saw the room was empty. He shook his head as he saw the open window. Turning back around he closed the door behind him then came face to face with the others. “Room’s empty,” he told them, even though they already knew.
Chris nodded his head and said, “Split up and let’s find him. Vin I want you to check the roof tops.”
Thirty minutes later they met outside the saloon and not a one of them had the gambler with them.
“So now what?” Buck asked.
JD frowned and twirled his hat on his hand then mumbled, “If I were a gambler where would I hide?”
Vin looked at him, with a raised eyebrow and added, “Where’s the last place a person would look for a gambler?”
Collectively they all turned and looked at the church then back at each other. Chris shrugged and replied, “It’s worth a shot.”
“Wait,” Vin said with shake of his head. “Ezra once told me to expect the unexpected . . .”
“That’s why we’re gonna look in the church . . .”
“He’s not in the church,” Josiah told them. “Sometimes the unexpected is the expected. Some of the best hiding places are right under your nose.”
“So you’re saying he’s in the saloon?” Buck asked to be sure.
“I know he is.”
“What makes you so sure?” Nathan asked.
“‘Cause I can see him through the window and he can see us,” Josiah replied with a grin. Then headed for the swinging doors.
Ezra was just about to step from the hotel when he saw the others running toward the livery and was about to join them when he spotted Chaucer by the corral. Then with a grin he headed for the saloon to wait.
From his vantage point near the window Ezra ate his breakfast and watched his friends scurry about. With a smirk on his face he wondered how long it would take for one of them to notice him. Half an hour later Ezra sat at the same window. He grinned as Josiah finally spotted him. “You gentlemen must be slipping,” he teased with a slight edge to his voice.
“Dammit Ezra . . .”
“I must say I am disappointed in you Mr. Tanner.”
“Well, hell, I’ve only had one cup of coffee,” Vin told him with a grin.
Ezra grinned and with a tip of his hat said, “I knew there had to a reasonable explanation.”
“How long you been in here?”
“Since shortly after you gentlemen existed this establishment.”
“Why the hell didn’t ya say something?!” Chris demanded.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Ezra taunted. He couldn’t keep his grin from growing as he took in the blonde’s appearance. Cocking his head to the side Ezra said, “My, my, Mr. Larabee I must say you’re looking even worse this morning than you did yesterday.”
“Well, you ain't exactly Suzy Sunshine yourself, you know!”
Ezra laughed and nodded his head in agreement. “At least I’m young and . . . you’re not.”
“Ezra,” Chris said with a shake of his head and grin playing at his lips. “One of these days I swear . . .”
“You had your chance,” he told him. “Do not blame me because you . . .”
“Ezra,” Chris warned.
“Could not . . .”
“Ezra . . .”
“Take advantaged of it.”
Josiah shook his head, quickly grabbed the smaller man, and pulled him out of harms way. “Why do you push him like that Ezra?”
Ezra jerked away from the older man and said, “Funny how no one seems to mind that he pushes me.” With a sigh he reached for his jacket and slipped it on. After straightening the sleeves Ezra picked up his hat and with a nod said, “If you gentlemen will excuse me I have some business to take care of.”
Josiah sighed and watched him leave. Then looked at the others and opened his mouth to say something only to change his mind and leave. He made his way to the church and wondered how things had gotten so bad. Sitting in one of the pews, Josiah ran a weary hand over his face. Then flinched as he heard the words he hurled at Ezra that fateful day. Words that had haunted him every since.
He remembered how that damned money had tempted him and shuddered to think how it must have tempted Ezra. Josiah cocked his head to the side as he suddenly realized that even though Ezra had been tempted he’d only taken a portion. While he, himself had visions of all that money and he felt even more ashamed for the words he’d spoken.
Getting to his feet Josiah geared himself for the battle ahead and headed for the door. He brushed past both Vin and Nathan as they stood on the boardwalk.
“Hey Josiah, where ya going?” Vin hollered out.
Josiah ignored him and continued on his way. He had to find Ezra now or he’d lose his nerve. The older man came to a sudden stop as he realized that he didn’t know where Ezra was. His sudden stop caused Vin to bump into him from behind. Turning to look at him Josiah asked, “You seen ‘im?”
Vin didn’t even pretend not to know who he was talking about and said, “Bank.”
Just then Ezra stepped from the bank and started to cross the street when the Clarks rode into town.
“This should be interesting,” Vin said with a grin.
“Mr. Standish!” Mrs. Clark hollered.
Ezra paused for just a moment then continued on his way.
“Mr. Standish! We had a deal!” she shouted and hurried after him.
Josiah, Nathan, and Vin looked at each other and repeated, “Deal?”
Ezra turned and waited for the lady to reach him. “Ah, Mrs. Clark, what a lovely surprise,” he said with a tip of his hat.
“Mr. Standish,” she said with a sigh, “I’ll take our deed.”
The Southerner grinned then gave her a pointed look.
Chris, JD, and Buck soon joined them on the boardwalk and they could all see Mable Clark squirm under that look.
“We had a deal!”
“Yes, ma’am we did and until you live up to your end of it . . . the deed’s mine.”
“What? You want me to do it now? In front of everyone?”
“Excuse me, but it was you who approached me and in the middle of the street,” Ezra pointed out. He watched as she bit her lip and dart a glance at her clearly confused husband.
“Mable?” William said as he walked up to them. “What’s going on?”
“William, you know I love you, right?”
William nodded his head yes.
“Do you remember how I offered you money to pay what we owed the bank . . .”
“And I told ya I wouldn’t take your money . . .”
“It’s our money!” she told him and slapped him on the arm. “It’s because of your pride that I sought out Mr. Standish and asked for his help!”
“What’s Standish got to do with this?”
“Everything. I . . . I gave him the money that you wouldn’t accept and had him put it with the money you lost and he paid the note for us so that we wouldn’t lose our home,” Mable told him in a rush.
“You . . . you expected me to lose?”
“No! I hoped you’d win!” she said. “I . . . I wasn’t going to allow your pride make us lose everything! Don’t ya see William when we got married that money became ours!”
“What did he get out of it?” William asked.
“Mr. Standish agreed to help so long as I agreed to tell you the truth,” Mable told him.
“So we didn’t lose our land?”
“No, we saved it with our money.”
William nodded and gave his wife a kiss on the cheek. Then turned toward Ezra and said, “May we have our deed back?”
Ezra smiled and pulled the deed from his pocket and handed it over. Then with a tip of his hat continued on his way. He’d only taken a couple of steps when he heard his name being called and he turned back around.
“Thank you, Mr. Standish,” William and held out his hand.
Ezra took the offered hand and gave it a firm shake.
Chris threw his hands in the air and swore under his breath. Then jumped as he was suddenly slapped on the arm. Turning he glared at Mary before following Ezra into the saloon.
“You know that all of that could have been avoided the other day if you’d told us what was going on,” Chris told him.
“It wasn’t my story to tell.”
“You could have told us you were up to something . . .”
“You should have given me the benefit of the doubt,” the Southerner countered.
“You make that hard . . .”
“You make it even harder . . .”
“Ezra . . .”
“I am not the only difficult one around here!”
Josiah watched as the two volatile men squared off and quickly stepped between them. “Come on, brothers, lets not do this again . . .”
“Stay out of this Josiah!” Chris warned and in a fit of temper shoved him out of the way.
Vin and the others took a step back so they wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire.
What happened next Josiah would remember for the rest of his days.
Ezra stepped directly in front of Chris and in hard voice warned, “Don’t you shove him.”
Suddenly Vin saw the perfect opportunity to right some wrongs and quickly asked, “Your gonna defend him after what he said to ya?”
“He’s my friend!”
“Yeah, but what about what he said?”
“That was more directed at himself than me . . .” Ezra trailed off as he realized what he just admitted. He gave Vin a shrewd look then suddenly grinned. “I’m pleased to see that at least one of you has picked up one of my habits,” he told Vin.
Vin grinned at him in return and said, “Well, hell, Ezra I learned from the best.”
Josiah was almost afraid to believe what he’d just heard. Ezra had called him his friend. And it seemed as if he’d understood why he said what he had. “Ezra . . .”
“Don’t go getting any ideas, old man,” Ezra warned him. “I didn’t mean a word of it.”
“Of course, you didn’t,” Josiah went along with him. “And don’t call me an old man.”
“I’m telling you that didn’t mean it . . .”
“Well I think you did.”
“Well, you’re wrong.”
“You meant it.”
“I did not!”
“Yes you did!”
“Josiah . . . Mr. Sanchez . . .”
“Look Ezra, I’m sorry about jumping to conclusions . . .”
“We all are,” Chris quickly said.
“We’ll try and do better in the future,” Nathan told him.
“Apologies accepted,” Ezra said. Then held out his hand and shook each man’s hand. Except for Josiah, who Ezra didn’t trust not to try and hug him.
“Aren’t you gonna shake my hand?” Josiah asked with a frown.
“Are you going attempt to hug me?”
“Why, do you want a hug?”
Ezra snorted and said, “What do you think?”
“That’s not a answer.”
“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours,” Ezra countered.
“Why should I?”
“I asked you first.”
Chris was getting dizzy turning his head from man to man as the traded questions and replies with each other. “Just answer his damned question Josiah before I shoot you both!”
“Some people just have no patience,” Ezra quipped.
“No,” Josiah suddenly said causing Chris to give him a go to hell look. “I was answering Ezra’s question!” he quickly explained.
“What the hell are you doing?” Vin asked as he suddenly found himself standing between Ezra and Josiah.
“I’m not taking any chances,” Ezra told him then reached around and offered his hand to Josiah.
“Thank you,” Josiah said with a grin.
“You are most welcome,” he replied then stepped away from Vin.
“So you aren’t leaving, are ya Ezra?” JD asked.
“No, Mr. Dunn,” Ezra told him. Then with a wink said, “You see I have mission to complete.”
“That is correct.”
“Dare I even ask what that might be?”
Ezra grinned and said, “Why to help you gentlemen complete your journey.”
“What in the hell are you babbling about now, Ezra?”
“First of all, I do not babble,” the gambler felt the need to point out. “And second . . . I would have thought that was oblivious . . .”
“Well, it ain't so just spit it out. What journey?”
“Why your journey to insanity.”
Vin and Josiah were the only ones that laughed. Buck and JD looked a little confused then they didn’t know if they should be insulted or not. Nathan just rolled his eyes. And Chris merely reached over and slapped Ezra on the back of the head knocking his hat off.
“Hell, Ezra, you’re the perfect man for the job.”
“Son, we wouldn’t have any other way.”
Chris snorted and shook his head. “Perfect? Hell, he’s the reason the rest of us are on the same mission.”
Ezra grinned as he replaced his hat. “Just doing my part, Mr. Larabee, just doing my part.”
“Hell, between you and Vin it’s any wonder we’re as sane as we are . . .”
“Hey! You leave me outta this, Cowboy,” Vin told him.
The Southerner’s grin widened as he listened to them argue. Then with a tip of his hat he stepped out onto the boardwalk. He squinted his eyes while his eyes adjusted to the bright sun that Mother Nature decided to grace them with. Ezra was headed for the livery when heard his name. Turning he found himself engulfed in massive bear hug.
Vin and the others laughed as they watched Ezra struggle to get away from Josiah.
“JOSIAH!” he bellowed then stumbled back as he was suddenly released. “Dammit it all to hell!” he muttered as he straightened his jacket. “And just look at my hat!”
“What’s wrong with it?” Josiah asked as he looked at the hat.
“It’s on the ground!”
“So pick it up . . .”
“I didn’t put it there! You pick it up!”
“You either pick that hat up or else I’ll . . .”
“I’ll . . . I’ll . . .” Ezra sputtered a couple of times before falling silent.
It didn’t matter how many times they saw Ezra slip behind his poker face it still amazed them and this time was no different.
Ezra didn’t say a word as he retrieved his hat and proceeded to slowly dust it off.
Josiah watched him and got an uneasy feeling in his gut as he saw that cocky grin appear on Ezra’s face. He’d always enjoyed watching the Southerner drive Chris mad with that grin, but now that it was being turned on him Josiah didn’t think he could handle it. “Ezra?” he asked as the younger man suddenly started walking away. “Ezra, where ya going? Aren’t you going to argue with me? Try and get even?”
Ezra stopped; turned, and cocked an eyebrow at Josiah then walked right up to the widow Hanson.
“He wouldn’t?” Josiah whispered. He’d been avoiding the recently widowed woman like the plague, especially since she’d made it more than clear that she had her sights set on Josiah. It wasn’t that he had anything against her. She was attractive enough, he supposed, with her dark auburn hair and hazel eyes. No, Rose Hanson wasn’t the problem it was those six heathens she called children. That bunch would drive a saint to drinking. It was like having two Vin’s, two JD’s, and he shuddered to even think it, but two Ezra’s. No, that was more than he could handle.
“Looks to me like he would,” Vin couldn’t help but tease as Ezra pointed toward the older man. Then motioned him over.
“Don’t go Josiah!” Nathan pleaded. “ain't no telling what she’s liable to do ya.”
“Ezra wouldn’t let her hurt me,” Josiah said wishing that he felt as confident as he sounded.
“Go for it!” Buck urged him with a big grin on his face.
“Come with me?”
“Hell, no!” Buck exclaimed, “I ain't about to let that woman get a hold of me!” Turning he grabbed JD and pushed him toward Josiah. “Here take JD. He looks like one of her kids . . .”
“Hey!” JD protested and jerked away from both of them. “Leave me out of this,” he warned as he went to stand behind Nathan.
Chris grinned in spite of himself. It was felt good to have things back to normal. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of her?”
“Of course, not,” Josiah replied. “But I see no reason to give her any false hope.”
“Here she comes!” Buck said causing the older man to jump.
“Dammit Buck!” he swore, “it ain't funny!”
Vin laughed and nudged Josiah as Ezra approached them. “Here comes your boy.”
Josiah grabbed Ezra’s arm as soon as he got close enough. “Okay, what’d you tell her?” he demanded.
“Who? Mrs. Hanson?”
“No. Santa!” Josiah quipped. “Of course, Mrs. Hanson.”
“It’s a little early in the year for Santa. Isn’t it?”
“Ezra . . .”
“You’re wrinkling my jacket,” Ezra told him as he pulled his arm free and straightened the sleeve. Grinning at the older man he said, “I didn’t tell lovely widow anything.”
“Oh, really? Then why’d you make that gesture toward me?” he asked.
“A gentlemen does not gesture. He motions,” he explained. “And as for what we were discussing, Mrs. Hanson inquired about your whereabouts so I ‘motioned’ toward you.”
“And that’s it? That’s all you told her?”
“Yes,” Ezra replied. The Southerner could tell that Josiah didn’t believe him and he really didn’t blame him, he admitted to himself. Ezra had every intention ‘of’ saying something to the widow, but decided that Josiah would suffer more if he let him think he said something. And of course, he was right.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you,” Josiah told him.
“I know,” the Southerner told him with a huge grin that showed his wet gleaming gold tooth. Then turned on his heel intent on going for a ride.
“Where ya going?” Josiah asked.
“For a jaunt through the hills.”
“Want some company?” Vin suddenly hollered out making those around him jump in surprise.
“No,” Ezra replied without turning around.
“Wait up then,” the tracker said and quickly caught up with him. “So are ya gonna leave Josiah hanging like that?”
“Over the widow?”
“I told him the truth,” Ezra said with a shrug. “It’s not my problem if he doesn’t believe me.”
“So what did ya tell Tommy?” he felt the need to ask. Ezra had that teasing glint in his eyes that made Vin think he was up to something.
“You’ll see,” the Southerner replied with a grin.
Josiah sighed as he watched Ezra and Vin head for the livery. “I ain't ever gonna understand that boy,” he muttered. Turning to look at the others he asked, “Now did he or did he not tell her something?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Buck replied with both Nathan and Chris agreeing with him.
“I don’t think he did,” JD said. At their questioning looks he continued, “You always say we should expect the unexpected from Ezra. So I’m figuring that he didn’t, but wants you to think that he did. That way you’d worry more waiting for something to happen that isn’t going to.”
They looked at JD in wonder for a minute then started smiling at his logic. The smile fell from Josiah’s face as a feminine voice said from behind him.
“Excuse me, Josiah.”
Josiah swallowed hard and turned around. “Morning Mrs. Hanson,” he said with a small smile.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said with a smile of her own.
Sanchez stood there for a couple of seconds sweating bullets as he waited for her say something.
“Excuse me, Josiah, but may I pass?”
Rose Hanson frowned for just a moment and said, “You’re blocking the boardwalk.”
Josiah felt his face flush with color as he quickly moved out of the way. “Sorry, ma’am,” he mumbled. Josiah watched her walk away and sighed. “Guess Ezra was tellin’ the truth,” he told the others as he turned to face them.
“Papa!” a child’s voice exclaimed.
Turning he just did manage to catch young Tommy Hanson as he launched himself at Josiah. The color drained from his face as the other five Hanson children quickly surrounded him. Two wrapped themselves around his legs preventing a quick escape.
“No. No. No,” Josiah almost chanted. “I’m not your new papa,” he told them. As he looked to the others for help Josiah spotted Ezra and Vin standing across the street. And when Ezra grin and tipped his hat toward him Josiah almost swore, but didn’t because of the children surrounding him. “EZRA!” he hollered, causing the others to jump and Ezra to take off running toward the livery with Vin quickly following him.
“This isn’t funny,” the older man snapped at the others as he tried to pull the children free.
“Guess you should’ve picked up his hat. Huh?” Chris quipped.
“Ha! Ha!” Josiah said. “At least, Ezra didn’t kick my ass!”
Chris narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to say something when all six of the Hanson children put their hands over their mouths and looked at Josiah with big eyes.
“Oh, you said a naughty word,” Tommy said with wide eyes.
Ezra and Vin paused at the livery door and laughed as they saw that Josiah was still surrounded by the Hanson children.
“You’re a bad man Ezra,” Vin told him with a grin playing around his mouth. “I like that in a friend,” he said and slapped him on the shoulder.
Ezra laughed and gave Vin a playful shove. Then asked the stable hand to saddle their horses.
The tracker watched in amazement as Ezra placed two fingers in his mouth, give a shrill whistle that must have been a signal cause the children to stepped away from Josiah and hurried to their mother, who was standing near the hotel.
“I do believe it’s time to beat a hasty retreat,” Ezra said as he saw Josiah headed their way. Then quickly mounted and with cocky grin on his face the Southerner pulled Chaucer up on his hind legs causing the horse to rare up. Once again he tipped his hat to Josiah before riding out of town.