Two lawmen from Four Corners rode into the small town known as Whittling. This was an unscheduled stop and not directly en route back to home. The two men were quite a contrast; one was dressed all in black: black shirt, jacket and pants, even his hat, projected the image of the bad guy. The other wore a white shirt, brocade vest and burgundy jacket, black pinstripe pants and riverboat style hat - obviously a gambler. Both were wearing guns slung low around their hips.
"Quite the little metropolis we have here," Ezra Standish drawled to his travelling companion. "Appears as if it has already met its demise." Ezra leaned forward over the pommel and glanced up the length of the town. "Probably doesnt even have a saloon," the gambler groaned in complaint.
"Now, Ezra, not every town we enter is gonna be up to your high standards of living. As it is, we aint gonna be here long enough for you to get a game going, so dont even bother," Larabee warned. "Just need to get a few supplies and then be on our way again." Chris glanced at the gambling man and heard the dramatic sigh. Shaking his head, he wondered why Standish felt the need to indulge in a game of cards in every town they came upon. He couldnt see the lure himself. Sure, it was a pleasant enough way to pass the time of day, on occasion, but to be so utterly obsessed with winning, he just couldnt fathom that.
"Why we didnt acquire the necessary products in Red Fork is beyond me," the Southerner muttered beneath his breath. Clearing his throat, he added his own opinion on the small town. "This " sweeping his arm expansively around, indicating the lack of life, the decrepit buildings, many of them boarded up, and the lack of obvious money in the town, " would hardly qualify as a town." He paused slightly before continuing. "More like Hicksville. Where pray tell are the good citizens of this shanty town?" Standish frowned as he twisted in his saddle to further scrutinize the empty street. Why in Gods name had Larabee insisted in coming here?
"Probably saw you coming Ezra and ran to hide their money," Chris grinned in amusement.
"I take umbrage at that Mr. Larabee. I do not claim to be anything but what you see, and I certainly do not force anyone to indulge in a game of chance with me," Standish defended.
"Yer still not gonna have time to play poker here. Got that?" Chris glared at the younger man, daring him to disobey the order.
With a nonchalant shrug, he drew Chaucer away from the gunslinger. "Message received and understood." They came to a stop at a building, more than likely the saloon, although no sound appeared to be emanating from inside of the wooden structure. Both men dismounted from their horses, shared a brief look of bewilderment and took cautious steps towards the batwing doors of the building.
"A poorer sight I have not beheld," the Southerner shook his head, mortified at the buildings state of poor maintenance.
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Larabee and Standish had taken the outlaw Morgan Carruthers to Red Fork, where he was wanted for the murder of his wife and her lover. The Magnificent Seven, as they were known, were responsible for the capture of the outlaw. JD Dunne had recognised the outlaw from one of the wanted posters and pointed him out to the others. Carruthers was captured, the seven peacekeepers out-gunning the solitary criminal. Once the killer realised his situation was hopeless; he fired wildly in a murderous rage, intent on staying out of prison. And the only solution, in his feeble mind, was death, but Chris and the others had other ideas and no one shot to kill the murderer. That was until Carruthers winged the ladies man, then the young sheriff was similarly shot in attempting to drag Buck to safety. It was only a matter of minutes after that, that Carruthers ran out of bullets. Larabee had to be hauled off the criminal by Josiah and Standish, so intent was the gunslinger in making retribution for the injuries suffered by Wilmington and Dunne.
With both JD and Buck injured in the gunfire and now recovering at Nathans clinic, that prevented either of the two regulators from escorting Carruthers back to Red Fork. Although the injuries sustained by both men were not serious, it was enough to keep them waylaid in bed for a few days, and Nathan wasnt letting them out of his sight until he was satisfied of their full recovery.
Josiah volunteered to stay behind to keep an eye on Four Corners and help Nathan if needed. Vin was already absent from Four Corners, parlaying with nature for two weeks and had not yet returned. This had left Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish as the unlikely duo to make this trip together.
The two peacekeepers employed by Judge Orrin W. Travis escorted the killer back to Red Fork, where he was to stand trial, and were now on their way home. Theyd originally planned on staying in town for a few days rest after they had handed over their prisoner to the local sheriff, but upon arriving, Chris was eager to set off straight away and head back to Four Corners. Knowing he had left the town with two of his fellow peacekeepers injured, and one absent, leaving only Nathan and Josiah to defend the town should any trouble arise, made him uneasy.
As soon as they had fed and watered their horses, the two men set off on the journey home. Ezra, of course, letting Chris know what he thought of this idea. He had planned on a relaxing interlude in the saloon; some fine libations and a much-needed sleep in a comfortable bed, before contemplating the four-day return trip.
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The two peacekeepers entered the saloon through the decrepit batwing doors; one squeaked noisily, whining harshly against the unoiled hinges as Chris pushed it open. The second door teetered for a moment, considered the heavy call of gravity, then succumbed to the chant and crashed to the floor with a thud. Through the dark gloomy atmosphere the pair squinted, gazing with profound bewilderment at the sight that met their eyes.
"Good Lord," Standish barely whispered. With a shake of his head the gambler stared in shock. Hed never been in a saloon that looked like this. How many saloons around the country would you find in this deplorable state? The place was empty of any patrons and obviously had been for some time. Cobwebs adorned the ceiling, and hung down like curtains from all the corners of the room. The floor had a thick layer of dirt covering it; in fact the entire room was coated in dust. Windows were broken, and the ones that werent, had a thick fog smeared across them so they were impossible to see through. An odious stench permeated about the room, indicating that something had only recently died and not been removed. Tables and chairs were strewn about; many of them were broken beyond repair and the glass in the lanterns had long since shattered. The bar was greasy, covered in dust and appeared well overdue to be cleaned. As Chris and Ezra stepped further into the room their footprints left a trailing mark of their presence.
"Well, there certainly does not seem to be anyone here at the moment, or of late. Perhaps we should return at a later time once the festivities for the day have begun?" Standish arched an eyebrow beguilingly, brushing at the sleeves of his jacket.
"Pretty dead aint it?" agreed the gunslinger.
"Mr. Larabee, Ive frequented more spirited establishments; a cemetery at night comes to mind. Now this facility certainly does seem to be lacking in some vital ingredient. Ah, I know. It would be life, human life to be precise," sarcasm dripped from his words. "I was under the impression that this was a thriving community, Mr. Larabee, especially after your determination to alter our course to come here."
"Ya know theres gotta be someone around." Plus the fact that I was told I could get supples here, Chris reasoned. "Theres signs out there suggesting that somebodys been here recently. Should be moren one, cause theres plenty of horse traffic and footprints outside," Larabee persisted. Was he trying to convince the gambler or himself? "Lets go an take a look around, see if we can find em."
Standish shrugged his compliance and took a last furtive look at the saloon. "By all means," he drawled, waving his hand expansively, allowing the gunman to proceed him.
Both men exited the abandoned saloon, split up and headed off in opposite directions, Chris taking the top end of town and Standish going the other way. "Meet cha back here in half an hour," Larabee tossed over his shoulder to the back of the retreating Southerner.
"Im certain it wont take that long to determine this hovel is bereft of a living soul," he quipped. Who was Larabee trying to kid? This place was dead! What possible reason could the gunslinger have for wanting to come here? There is nothing and nobody around. With a dramatic groan Standish kicked a pebble on the hard-packed road. He passed numerous boarded up stores, but was not tempted inside. There was no point, they would be empty. Ezra had every intention of making an expeditious trek about town then return to his fellow lawman in the quoted time and insist that they continue on with their journey.
The gambler turned back to watch Larabee ripping off the boards of a mercantile store. What did he expect to find in there? With a heavy sigh Ezra turned down an alley. Standish thought he heard a small scrapping noise. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end. Ezra was about to release his derringer, from its secret hiding spot into his hand, when a ginger cat jumped down from the roof above and landed on a rain barrel. Good Lord, he chuckled at his uncharacteristic nervousness. The gambler picked up the feline and scratched the stray under its chin. He smiled contentedly as the animal began to purr. "Guess it must be pretty lonely living here by yourself?" Standish strolled idly down the alley, cat in arms, and wasnt expecting the almighty blow from behind that struck him. The gambler crumpled unceremoniously to the ground, blackness taking over his senses. The ginger cat jumped free of the falling man and yowled in fright, hissing at Standishs assailant, then scampering off down the alley and out of sight.
The unknown attacker retrieved Ezras weapons, also his flask and pocket watch off his person, and hoisted the much smaller man easily over his right shoulder like a bag of grain, and took him to the jail. Once there, the behemoth dropped his captive onto the cot, locking the cell door behind him, then he went in search of his second victim - the man in black.
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The gunslinger had searched the general merchandise store and a fruit and vegetable shop for their necessary supplies, but both were abandoned and held no stock anyway. Theyd been boarded up and Chris had to pry the planks of wood off the doorways to gain entry inside. By this point he didnt expect to find anything but empty shelves, but he had hoped that perhaps hed find some leftover rations. Of course, his first hunch was correct. Now he headed over to the livery, there had to be horses stalled. Surely this would prove that the town was not entirely deserted. Hell, all he needed were a few supplies, didnt matter to him how he got em. All his gunfighters instincts were out in full force and the remoteness of this town and its abandonment was causing the hairs to stand up on the back of his neck. Damned, this detour had better not be a waste of time. There had to be someone here, or Standish would constantly remind him of it every chance he got, all the way back to Four Corners. That man could be so irritating at times. Wonder if Standish has come up with anything?
The gunslinger entered and at once noticed signs of recent usage, a small sigh of relief formed on his lips. A dappled grey was even stabled here. Larabee went over and checked the feed and water and found he had been only fed recently, and was well looked after. Obviously the owner had to be around somewhere. "Hey fella, wheres your boss?" Chris rubbed the mounts muzzle. "Hello?" Larabee called out, addressing the empty stall. Mumbling under his breath the man in black checked the other stalls, but found them empty, although old hay remained on the floor from previous use. Reckon it was time to call a halt to this futile search and get on with their journey. They would just have to make do with what nature provided. And it was only for a few days. Larabee stepped out into the daylight and was blinded momentarily; he raised his arm to protect his eyes from the glare and didnt see the blow that struck him on the side of the head, rendering him to the ground unconscious.
The behemoth gathered the gunslinger under his armpits and dragged him to the jail. Two narrow trails followed their path as Chris boots gouged out ruts in the red dirt road.
Buck Wilmington stretched his long legs out across the boardwalk. His seat was a box and not entirely comfortable, but he didnt mind the inconvenience if he was allowed out of Nathans clinic. He rolled his shoulders and a twinge tugged under his jacket; he was certain once the healer removed the stitches that irritant would pass. He smiled widely as JD backed out of the saloon holding a mug in both of his hands. That boy can read my mind.
Dunne picked his way across the road and joined the ladies man on the porch. "Hey Buck," the youth greeted and handed one of the mugs to the scoundrel.
"Thanks kid, thats just what the doctor aint ordered," he winked mischievously at the young gunslinger. If he had to drink any more of that creek water of Nathans, hed puke. Buck swallowed the first mouthful and dramatically licked his lips. "Beautiful," he stretched the word emphasising each syllable.
Dunne shrugged his shoulders. "Its only beer, Buck." He sat down beside his friend and tipped his own drink to his mouth. A milk moustache was left on his lips as he lowered the mug, and Wilmington started holding his side and chuckling.
"Aint fair ta do that to a man when hes been hurt," Buck managed to sputter out between his laughter.
"Aw, you aint hurt any worse than me," Dunne countered. "I dont know how you managed to con Nathan into letting ya stay in his room as long as he did."
Buck grinned wickedly, touching a knowing finger to the side of his nose. "Son, let me explain something to you," he wrapped his arm about the smaller mans shoulder. "Now theres a few ladies in town that I havent had the chance to be acquainted with yet, and what better way to meet them then by using what that scum Morgan Carruthers did to us, to gain a better purpose."
"JD, ladies love to pamper a man whos been hurt," Wilmington explained.
"Youll just have to put that advice away for future reference," Josiah Sanchez flopped down on the step of the sidewalk. He held a wire in his hand and waved it above his head to gain their attention. "This is a wire from the deputy in Red Fork. Says the sheriff helped Carruthers to escape."
"Does it say anything about Chris and Ezra? They aint hurt are they?" Dunne interrupted.
Buck knocked the younger mans bowler hat off his head. "Let the man finish and well all know," he admonished.
Dunne blushed a light shade of red. "Sorry, Josiah."
The former preacher smiled patiently. "Deputy says that Chris and Ezra had already left. Should be on their way back."
"Yeah, but they dont know that Carruthers is out. They might need some help," the ladies man stood, all traces of joviality gone. "Best git Nathan, JD," the gunman ordered. "If we leave now well have a few hours light. Should meet up with them in two days."
Ezra Standish woke, startled into alertness, his legs peddled and his arms swung wildly, brought into action by the gamblers sensation of falling. The abrupt movements caused him to become aware of the pain that throbbed at the back of his head. Damn, his head really hurt! Why did it hurt so much? The gambler rolled his neck on his shoulders and drew in a deep breath. His eyes fluttered open, but quickly closed again at the bright intrusion of light. He heard a muffled groan and realised it had escaped from his own lips. He tried once more to pry open his heavy eyelids and this time succeeded. Ezra stared vacantly at the ceiling, but recognition of his whereabouts failed. Where was he?
Standish lifted his head off the hard mattress and glazed green eyes scrutinised his confines. A small laugh echoed in the silence of the cell, as he finally recognised his current location to be the local jail. Now why did that not surprise him? Although, at the moment he could not remember exactly how he came to be in this predicament. Standish lifted his hand and prodded the back of his head where the throbbing seemed to be worst. "No blood at least," he commented, massaging the enormous pulsating lump. "Ezra, you do get yourself into some rather perplexing situations," he mused out loud. But why is it always me, he pondered. Just for once, hed like to wake up in his own bed. What had he done this time? Nothing out of the ordinary came to mind. Though his thoughts were a little jumbled at the present.
Ezra Standish raised himself up off the bed to a sitting position and swung his legs over the side. The abrupt change in position caused the room to spin wildly out of control. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, attempting to bring the room back onto an even keel, and at the same time hold the nausea at bay. The gambler swallowed the rising bile, choking down the vile secretions that rose from his empty stomach. Sucking in several more deep breaths assisted with controlling his bodys baser instincts. Within a few minutes the gambler was left with an acid taste on his tongue, but at least he didnt have to face the effects of dry retching, which is all that the spasms would have produced.
Once his vision cleared, Ezra discovered a familiar figure lying in the adjacent bed on the opposite side of the cell. Seeing the blond haired lawman similarly incarcerated did not bode well for their escape. "Aw Hell," Standish swore. Forcing himself off the bed, he staggered over to the inert form. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Larabee . Chris? Chris, Dammit! Wake up." Ezra raised his voice and was almost shouting, worry and concern crept involuntarily into his voice. What had happened? How did they both wind up in here? The last thing he remembered, was the Southerner screwed up his handsome face and attempted to retrieve his most recent memories, but this only caused the throbbing at the back of his head to worsen. Damn! Hed have to think on that later. At the moment, his attention was needed elsewhere. He could resolve the problem afterwards.
Ezra gently grabbed Chris arm, manoeuvring the gunslinger onto his back. The Southerner discovered the head wound and became disturbed at Larabees lack of response to his manipulation and words. The wound appeared to be a few hours old, but the bleeding had stopped of its own accord. The discolouration around the laceration had already started to show. With shaking hands, Standish smoothly ran them over the gunmans limbs, checking for broken bones. He pressed on Larabees chest and sought the ribs beneath the black shirt, and though he was no physician, Standish was satisfied that the gunslinger was sporting no other injuries.
The gambler pulled up the moth-eaten blanket from the bottom of bed, shuddering to think where it had previously been, and placed it over Chris. The gunslinger was in a world of his own and not ready as yet to come back to consciousness. There seemed little more he could do for the lawman, but sit by his side and wait for him to awaken.
Standish slipped down onto the floor beside the bed. He sat, with his knees drawn up to his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs; next to the man he called a friend. He reached out and clasped Larabees hand in his own; it felt odd to do this, but strangely comforting also. His stomach rolled at the sickening sight of Chris blood that had soaked into the mattress. It was still damp, but drying around the edges. Standish wiped his brow with his free hand and squeezed the hand he held. "Youve got to wake up soon, Chris. How will Misters Dunne, Tanner and Wilmington cope if you pass on? Even Nathan and Josiah?" A tremor ran down his spine; how will I cope?
Strange that he should consider this man a friend. Six months ago he had none and now he could honestly say he had six loyal friends. Even though the relationship was strained at times. A small smirk presented itself on his face. They may not trust him with their money, but they would trust him with their lives. Even after that incident at the Seminole Village, when he ran out on them, Larabee gave him a second chance. Not that he really deserved it. Nobody had ever done that for him before. That was probably the reason why Standish decided to stay; he felt he owed the six men something. He needed to prove that there was more to Ezra Standish than just a con and a cheat. He wanted to show them that theyd not made a mistake by allowing him to stay. He wanted a place he could call home, and Four Corners seemed to be just the place. Ezra rested his aching head against the cold stonewall and waited for Chris to regain consciousness.
A chair scrapping itself across the wooden floor alerted the conman to the presence of another in the outer room. Hed not even considered that there was anyone else in the room. Must be slipping, or perhaps it was the effects of the blow hed taken. A gruff voice brought his bleary and confused focus to the mountain of a man that held them prisoner. Ezras eyes widened a fraction as he absorbed the sight. A real behemoth, at least six feet six tall, chiselled face, massive chest, and powerful muscular arms, a strong physical presence. The giant stood with his arms folded very close to the bars.
"Hey, fancy man, you finally woke up. Hows the head?" The behemoth taunted, not at all concerned with his prisoners well-being.
"Just fine," Ezra drawled sarcastically. "You couldnt perhaps enlighten me as to why Mr. Larabee and myself have been physically assaulted and incarcerated in this fine establishment?"
A few moments of stunned silence echoed around the jail while the behemoth stared blankly at the conman. "What?"
Thick as a block, too, Standish mused. "Why are we here?" Exasperation and confusion was evident in his voice.
"Hell, damned if I know, or care," the behemoth snorted out the lie. "Why dont ya wait an see what we can come up with." Grinning widely, he was clearly enjoying himself.
Ezras normal cool facade slipped, as he grew annoyed with this gargantuan of a man. Jumping to his feet, he swayed unsteadily and had to pause momentarily before he rushed to the cell door and grabbed an iron bar in each of his hands. "I demand to be released from this place of confinement. There is no plausible reason for Mr. Larabee or myself to be held prisoner. We have not violated anyone or even caused any trouble," he reasoned, trying to sort the events in his mind. At least he couldnt recall doing either of those things. "You Sir, and I use that word extremely loosely, can not even come up with a plausible explanation for our detention." His voice raised in volume, as this situation clearly did not make any sense to him, and the throbbing from his head was not helping matters either. "There has obviously been a mistake made."
"All right, sure, you can leave." The behemoth smiled a sadistically evil smile. He picked up the ring of keys off the desk and proceeded to unlock the cell door.
The Southerner stepped back from the swinging door in a stupor. His mind was muddled and he struggled to complete a coherent thought. In his stunned impassivity, he waited while the behemoth unlocked the jail cell door. He truly did not expect this response to his plea.
The behemoth entered the room, making it appear even smaller with the guys massive frame filling the already crowded cell. He sauntered toward the gambling man, towering over him. Quickly pulling back his arm, he clenched his hand into a tight fist. But the arm froze in place.
The Southerner realised, not a moment too soon, what the behemoths real intention was. He flexed the muscle in his forearm, releasing the derringer from beneath his sleeve, and shooting the miniature weapon into his hand. Thank the Lord he had not lost this gun. His arm sprang up and Ezra smirked at the look of stunned horror that flicked across the giants craggy face. They stood a foot apart, at an impasse. The giants arm dropped reluctantly to his side. "Ill have your weapon, please," Standish barely nodded at the gun holstered at the large mans hips.
The behemoth slowly drew out the weapon, waiting for his chance to use it against the gambler, but finding none. He paused as the gambler motioned for the gun. A cold sneer erupted across his facade and instead of handing over his gun he threw the peacemaker out the open cell door, clattering loudly as it landed on the floor. "Go and get it if ya want it," he grinned malevolently, raising both hands up in surrender.
Standish kept his gun pointed at the giants heart, the derringer steady in his grip, as he backed up to Larabees cot. "Mr. Larabee Chris, we need to leave," Standish called urgently over his shoulder, praying desperately for a response. A soft moan distracted the gambler, and he turned slightly, taking his sights off the behemoth for only a second, but that was the instant the larger man attacked.
The giant barrelled into him, tumbling the pair of them to the floor. The gargantuan used his weight to an advantage and pressed down on the gamblers chest. Using only one hand, he squeezed the gamblers right wrist and thumped it hard on the floor several times until Ezra released the derringer. Once Standish was relieved of the gun, the giant hauled the smaller man to his feet. "Yer gonna pay fer that," he swore with malice. Ezra had no chance to react to the onslaught and was slammed across his jaw sending him sprawling backwards. His head hitting the edge of the cot as he fell, splitting open the skin on his forehead.
The behemoth nudged the unconscious man with the toe of his boot; he was satisfied at the lack of response. "Seems to me like youre gonna hurt some more now, fancy man," he snickered, noticing a puddle of blood seeping out from under the gamblers head where it lay on the floor. "Now dont go and die before the fun begins," he chuckled to himself.
He crouched down and picked up the small gun, turning it over in his large callused palms. Damn, shoulda checked Mr. fancy pants more thoroughly. Randall woulda castrated him if the smaller man had succeeded in escaping. Theyd gone to a lot of trouble to get the two lawmen to Whittling. Aint no one gonna be looking for em either. At least for a while. By then, theyd both be dead.
As an afterthought, he squatted by the unconscious man and made a more thorough search of the conman for any other hidden weapons. The giant roughly flipped the gambler onto his back and ripped the buttons off Ezras brocade vest to reveal the white shirt beneath. Finding no hidden weapons under the vest, he proceeded to turn the pockets out on the burgundy jacket. He found a pack of playing cards and tossed them out the open door and continued his search. Standish remained limp in disregard of the larger mans handling, not even groaning as he was once more tossed negligently about the cold floor. Lastly, the behemoth tugged off Standishs boots, tipping them upside down he was rewarded with a small wad of rolled up cash. Throwing the boots aside, his toothy grin widened at the find. He kicked Standish twice in the lower back and getting no response he abandoned the gambler, leaving him lying in a tortured heap, to count his booty. There was no need to share his find with the others. Or even mention it. This was his reward, and his alone.
The giant of a man was mildly surprised that the conman hadnt made the most of his opportunity and just escaped, leaving Larabee behind to fend for himself. He wasnt aware that there was such a strong loyalty between them. Everything hed heard about the relationship between Larabee and Standish was that the pair couldnt tolerate each other. But this put a new perspective on things. Hed have to inform Randall of these circumstances, it might change his partners plans. Of course that meant hed also have to inform the other man of Standishs near escape.
With a grunt, he pulled the cell door closed behind him, locking it with a loud clink. Neither of the incarcerated men showed any signs of movement. The behemoth dropped the derringer on the table with Larabees Colt and Standishs Remington, then returned to his chair to wait. He unrolled the booty and licked his finger to flip the corners of each note. There had to be at least one hundred and fifty dollars in the palm of his hand. He looked nervously into the cell, and quickly at the door then slipped it into the inside pocket of his coat. He played anxiously with his neck-scarf while he waited for his partners to arrive. Once they arrived, they could begin. That was the best part, the giant chuckled. He loved the next part of the operation.
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