Judge Travis glanced around at the seven men seated with him. The large round table sat toward the back of the saloon allowing not only privacy but a view of the room itself. The Judge watched the men for a reaction anything that might tip their hands to indicate whether or not the job would be accepted.
"I need an answer now, Gentlemen, the train pulls out of Ridge City tomorrow early morning. You would need to hit the trail within the next few hours."
"Kind of short notice, isnt it Judge?" Buck Wilmington stared evenly at Travis, gauging the man, trying to find some kind of deception within the plan. Wilmington had been a law man before, a Ranger, and though legendary in their prowess and loyalty, Buck had a brush during his stint. Trust, though freely given, did not always mean Wilmington would walk blindly into a situation.
Larabee raised his eyes and watched Travis waiting for an answer. The Territorial Judge nodded his head at Wilmington though he kept his eye on Larabee.
Larabee led this group. Though they did not always agree, or live together in quiet peace, they were a gang of sorts. Chris decided only for himself but in his decision he would sway the others. even Standish. He influenced them, but they were independent individuals used to making choices for themselves. They were not sheep. At times their brash personalities and freewill irritated the Territorial Judge while other situations it was that unrelenting eccentricity that saved the day.
The gambler though autonomous, in his own thinking, had found comfort in the group, what they decided he would eventually do, vocally objecting but always moving with them. Voicing his disgust and their foolishness but always moving just quick enough so not to get left behind. Standish would follow if Chris and the others deemed they would go, and of course if a profit were to be made . Or so the Judged hoped.
Something in the Seven, something in the mix of men before him, kept them safe. Travis feared that if the Seven should fall to six or five or dwindle in any number, the magic of the group would fade with potentially violent repercussions.
Tanner sat back in his chair, leaning back into the shadows, keeping his eyes hidden under the slouch of his hat. Though the man stretched low in his chair, reaching lean legs under the table in an air of detached nonchalance, the Judge knew he himself was being weighed. Tanner followed no man. Though he held a loyalty to Larabee that had not been seen in men matched as equals, Travis knew Tanner would quietly filter away if he found the job to be unnecessary.
If one should balk, especially Tanner or Wilmington then the Gambler and Kid and perhaps a few others would most likely stall. The preacher maybe next.
These men followed Larabee, like a pack. A highly evolved, specialized pack. They had their own hierarchy, their own set of rules of self government within their circle, but one thing remained obvious only to the Judge. These men would not follow blindly. None of them. Each had lived long enough to temper loyalty with hard learned experience. They accepted Chriss leadership and will because they simply respected him. And he in turned accepted and valued them.
They would fight and challenge one another, they would strike out at one another, driving their peers into rages. They mocked one another, teased and reigned abuse about the group but in the end they closed ranks to face the world. Decisions were not left to one member. And yet they were not a democracy. They did not vote for the well being of the group. Instead, they wove their free will amongst the others, with the door opened to allow anyone of them to leave. They could come and go as they pleased. It was that very freedom, the Judge figured, that kept the seven so tightly bound. They chose to stay. And they chose to watch out for each other. That was part of what held them together. The Alpha wolf in this pack did not lead with autonomy. Though he held the tentative reins, the rest tempered his decisions with their own unwillingness to be led without contention.
They were a pack, made of strong willed individuals, that in the end, knew they could survive on their own if the need arose. But they could not survive as peacekeepers and they would not thrive without the others.
A pack that needed a leader and a leader that needed a pack, but they were a group of men that lived believing that they needed no one.
The Judge waited patiently for their answers.
It seemed as if Josiah Sanchez no longer fought to embrace his crows. He no longer searched the horizon everyday, hoping to find a bullet or instrument of destruction that would end his life. The rebuilding of the church had metamorphosed from an act of raw penance to a labor of love. A goal. Sanchez would one day teach the masses with his own brand of formal informality.
If Josiah found the Judges request too dangerous or unacceptable the man would simply not go. He had lived enough to balance the pros and cons of such foolish adventures. If Josiah backed away from the job there stood a good chance that Nathan too would be hesitant to join.
The healer, a deadly man in his own right, was no fool. He had earned a place of respect in a world that disregarded him for the very color of his skin. He learned his letters and to read in an environment that promised death to those that held such an education. Nathan Jackson had proven to the world that he was not a sheep, he would not follow blindly and he was more than willing to defend himself and those around him. Nathan would weigh the issues on his own. He would see the merits as well as the detractors in their actions and make and educated well balanced decision. His mind would not be easily swayed by those around him. He was his own man; he fought hard to be able to make his own choices based on his very own hard learned logic. Friendship and self confidence would hopefully pull him in the same direction as his logic. He would pay heed to what choices the others made -- especially Josiah -- and then make his own decision.
The Judge looked around the table. JD would follow Buck. The young mans loyalties demanded that he stay with his older friend. Dunne had come a long way from the kid that had all but snatched the sheriffs badge from Traviss hand long ago. He had proven himself over and over to these men and this town that he was capable. But hard lessons learned, even a distant touch of cynicism hadn't diminished that sense of loyalty. That's what made JD, JD.
The Judge had no qualms about asking the young man to ride along with his six counterparts. Dunne was one of the group. They functioned better as a whole not as fractured pieces.
Travis faced Wilmington, finally answering the mans question, "Rushed on purpose, Mr. Wilmington." The Judge looked to his hands and then back up at the group, "this gold shipment is heading for Denver ultimately. The less people know about it the safer it will be for everyone."
"What about the town?" Dunne pushed his hat back off his head. The town was his responsibility, and though Chris called the shots, it was JD who wore the badge.
The Judge inclined his head to the young Sheriff, once again realizing he made the right choice in granting the boy the badge, "the town will survive a week without you men .If not you can make right anything that has gone amiss while you were gone."
"How much gold we talkin about?" Nathan raised the question that the Judge had skirted around. He purposefully did not volunteer that information. For a moment his eyes slid to the gambler. For a flash of time, he focused on the one man in the group that had an Achilles heel when it came to currency. The Judge found Standishs lack of eye contact somewhat disturbing.
They all had their frailties, their private demons, but only one would be trapped on a train with a his obsession in the next car over.
Standish kept his head down, his cards flying from hand to hand. For a time, it used to irritate the Judge, for a while he wished the man would put the deck down and listen to what was being discussed. Over a period, Travis had realized that Standish listened best when the cards moved. The gamblers mind turned things over as quick if not quicker than his hands flashed cards in soaring arcs left to right, right to left. If the cards stopped then a decision normally was made or something had changed that had disturbed the thought process.
"A full car worth Enough to keep every person in Denver independently wealthy."
The cards stopped.
Low whistles and intakes of breath punctuated the statement.
The Judge leaned forward mimicking Larabees gesture.
"You sure you want us?" Chris nailed the Judge with a penetrating gaze. Neither his men nor himself were trained at protecting rail cars. Protecting a town against drunks and cattle men was one thing but a moving load of cash seemed to fall within the jurisdiction of the army.
"Dont want the Army near it," The Judge surveyed the group, "itll just attract attention, everyone will know the golds on the train."
"What do we get in return?" Standish finally pulled his eyes from his hands. The Judge found himself under intense scrutiny.
"My thanks." Travis nearly laughed at the look of disgust.
"Cant eat your thanks, Judge," Tanner spoke for the first time since they sat down.
"A months wages," Travis answered turning his attention toward Tanner. The Judge then pushed back from the table and stood, "Boys Im leaving on the noon stage, I need your answer by then." The Territorial Judge gathered up his hat and coat and left the table, crossing the floor and heading out the batwing doors.
Chris watched him leave and then turned his attention back to the others, "Well?"
"Im in if everyone else is," JD stated matter of factly.
"Cant see what itll hurt," Buck added. It would be good to get out of town for a while. Ridge City had some good looking saloon girls.
"Aint never been on a train as a legal passenger," Nathan uttered in quiet contemplation.
Josiah held his tongue, feeling tension mount in his chest. A rail car full of Gold well over a measly Ten Thousand dollars, he closed his eyes briefly and tried to imagine it.
"Josiah? Ezra?" Larabee held his eyes on the gambler searching for any hint of anxiety. It seemed pointless.
"Oh, by all means," Ezra looked up at Chris, a wide full face smile cut his dimpled cheeks, "count me in if just for the mere enjoyment of keeping you gentlemen company."
Larabee nodded, scrutinizing the gambler a little longer. Standish continued to smile innocently, quietly wondering what type of lock they would use on a rail door.
The gunslinger chuckled quietly, concluding that Standish would be a handful. He could read the contemplative look already. Damn man is already trying to undo the lock.
Larabee faced the preacher, "Josiah?"
The resigned tone had Chris pausing, "No one is forcing you Josiah."
The big man stood up from the table, "I know that Brother."
"Well I best get us some supplies," Vin kept his eyes on the retreating back of Sanchez as he too stood.
Chris nodded and climbed to his feet, "JD, go check the horses, make sure theyre ready to go .Buck I want extra rifles and ammo .Nathan bring what you think youre gonna need and then some extra." Chris started heading for the door.
"And what am I to do, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra followed the gunmans retreating form with his eyes. When Larabee stopped and turned to face him Standish dropped his eyes to his cards.
"Ezra, I want you to bring an extra deck of cards its gonna be a long ride," Chris turned to leave for a second time but stopped midway. He swiveled back around, "Oh and Ezra," Larabee paused waiting for Ezra to look up at him. When Chris had his eye he continued, "leave your little cache of lock picks behind we shouldnt be needing them."
Ezra smiled and tipped his hat. Like Hell enough money for all of Denver
Vin watched the exchange and smiled, dropping his gaze to the floor. He patted Chris on the shoulder and the two headed for the batwing doors, following on the heels of Buck and JD.
Probably should frisk the Son of a Bitch before we leave Chris seriously contemplated the thought
+ + + + + + +
The ride to Spring Creek was uneventful, in a sense that no one had died. It had been touch and go for a while. Buck had, at one point, leaned over and popped the cinch on JDs saddle. Chris laughed at the memory. He had to admit JDs balance was second only to Vins. The kid kept the saddle in the middle and his little bay ignored the swinging leather that threatened to tangle its feet. The horses had gotten used to the foolery of the group.
Pesos mean temper kept his rider safe from such shenanigans. Chriss questionable disposition kept him out of reach and Josiahs long arm, staved off any pranksters. Nathan seemed too quick with his knives. That left JD, Buck and Ezra. Standish had ridden on Wilmingtons left conversing in low tones. No one could hear what was being said but a few minutes later JD had found his cinch undone.
As Chris remembered, the kid had kept his balance and his seat. He was doing right well for himself until he tauntingly laughed at Buck. Loudly calling on the older mans inability to dump him off his own horse. Josiah had simply rolled his eyes at the futility of youth. Ezra had laughed like the mouse that put the sleeping drought in the cats milk and Nathan waited for the repercussions with a resigned fate.
Buck merely slapped the little Bays rump with his reins causing the young gelding to skip ahead with haunches tucked. It had been enough to roll the saddle and his rider.
JD had hit the ground with an indignant yelp. He jumped to his feet waving his arms and threatening both Wilmington and Standish. Buck laughed, a heaving belly mirth that proved contagious. The gambler lay innocent eyes on the young sheriff in a feigned look of hurt. How could he possibly be to blame?
JD had lived with these men long enough to refute the silent claims of innocence.
Chris had chuckled and tried to ignore the exchange of money between Wilmington and Standish. The satisfied smirk on the Southerner, clearly indicated he had won another nickel or more. Larabee shook his head in bewilderment. One would have thought Josiahs lessons on the wraith of God would have sunk in a little longer. Apparently not.
JD had re-saddled his bay and they were soon riding again. Josiah had ridden the rest of the way keeping himself between Buck and Ezra.
The early spring day had remained brisk, the sun cut the chill and almost cleansed the land of the dark tinges of a dying winter.
They entered Spring Creek by late evening. The train would pull out just at sunrise. While some of the group headed for the hotel to book rooms, others headed for the saloon and most likely trouble. Larabee followed the group heading for trouble. He would not interfere, hardly, but he would enjoy the impromptu night show that was sure to erupt when his men found themselves away from home.
He had no intentions of babysitting, had no intention of becoming a mediator for his men, or acting as a lawman. He headed for the saloon, with Vin keeping pace beside him, with the sole pursuit of getting a drink.
He succeeded in sitting quietly for an hour perhaps an hour an a half before the fight broke out.
Not just any fight. Not with his men, his group. Not with their egos and sense of pride. And Chris was content to let his men handle their own troubles. He fully intended to ignore the raised voices, the knocked over chairs and coarse threats thrown at the gambler and Wilmington. Chris Larabee had remained focused on his drink. He even ducked, without looking up, when a whiskey glass sailed by his ear thrown by an infuriated patron. He felt twinges of sympathy for the throwee. Standish and Wilmington put a special twist on irritating.
Vin Tanner sat slightly straighter in his chair. A hand discreetly dropped to his hip hidden by the table. The bounty hunter had a greater sense of duty to his fellow lawmen.
Both men waited for Standish to soothe hurt feelings and frayed nerves with his calm drawl and disarming smile. The man loathed to fight, it meant exerting oneself and there was the horrible possibility of damage befalling ones person. Ezra Standish had proven time and time again, he would not engage in the grueling basic brutality of men and succumb to blows. Getting hit and being hurt made one sweaty. And everyone knew that Gentlemen dont sweat.
Everyone also knew that Ezra P. Standish was no gentleman.
With a sense of unease, but of a mindset not to interfere, the two lawmen, Tanner and Larabee, sat quietly in their corner desperately trying to ignore the raised voices across the room.
When the rail worker threw a punch at Wilmington, Larabee paused mid swallow. When Buck easily parried the blow and followed through with an uppercut of his own, Chris finished his sip.
Tanner nearly stood when a second spike pounder reached for a gun. The tracker settled back down in his chair when Standish merely trapped the mans wrist and wrenched it, hyper-extending the elbow sending the man nose first to the floor.
Standish and Wilmington exchanged pleased grins.
Tanner and Larabee shared a knowing look of doom. The cocky fools.
Things looked to be under control. A terrible fallacy when concerning the men from Four Corners.
Ezras shouted warning to Buck was cut short by an unseen blow to the side of the jaw. The gambler staggered sideways over the railing of the raised dais and crashed onto the table of miners enjoying a quiet drink. Drinks and men flew from the table, tempers rose as beer saturated clothes. In the middle of this sudden growing tempest, floundered the dapper ever smiling Southerner. His apologies were cut short by a huge hand snaking around his neck.
Chris climbed to his feet.
Wilmington lunged for the person that blindsided the gambler with the haymaker but fell short when a beer mug was smashed down between his shoulder blades. The large peacekeeper folded to the ground, dragging two bodies with him.
Tanner sighed and pushed himself to his feet. The two peace keepers stood and watched, making sure no one pulled their weapons.
Things seemed to be under some assemblage of control until Nathan, Josiah and JD entered the saloon.
Nathan and JD could be controlled easily enough. Over the increasing din of the escalating fight, Nathan found Chris and Vin and headed in their direction. Josiah and JD followed. They circumvented the nexus of the brawl making note of their two friends that stood back to back exchanging blows with understandably irate patrons.
For a brief flash of time, Chris thought that perhaps Josiah and JD would avoid getting dragged into the melee. Two men were easier to remove from jail then three or four. Perhaps cheaper ..Group rates did not apply to bail.
It was with an uneasy air that Tanner and Larabee watched the expressions of Dunne and Sanchez. They could tell simultaneously when the two decided to join the fray.
Ezra disappeared under the flying tackle of a railroad worker as thick as he was tall. The southerner flew backward, shielded from immediate view by the flying body. The gambler slammed into the back of Wilmington throwing the tall ladies man forward into a half circle of cowboys.
The two peace keepers from Four Corners disappeared from sight. It was then, Josiah and JD leaped into the brawl.
Things deteriorated rapidly.
Chris cursed quietly, not sure whose side he would take
The sky had begun to lighten. A few hearty stars still dotted the paling skies.
The heavy smell of urine and sweat finally dissipated under the fresh smell of newly erupted vomit.
"Mr. Wilmington, will you please desist with that horrible retching sound," Ezras soft voice tried to sound angry without moving his jaw. "Or Ill be forced to shoot you."
Wilmington hung over the side of his cot, one arm dragging on the floor. The wooden bucket by his side did very little for his psyche.
Standish lay on his cot an arm draped over his eyes. He kept his legs bent and feet still, hoping that his immobilization would cease the incessant spinning of the world.
"Promise," The quiet plea went unanswered.
"Breakfast boys," The sheriffs jocularity was lost on the two men. Sheriff Timmons slammed open the solid wood door, and then kicked it closed with a boot heel. He entered the back cells carrying a breakfast tray. He clanked keys, rattled bars and spoke loudly. "You boys sleep well?" His bright morning smile grew with the desperate sounds of the two lawmen within one of his cells.
Standish rolled over and onto his stomach hugging his knees close to his midsection and watched with red sunken eyes as the sheriff merely pushed the cell door open.
An unlocked cell door.
Mother of God, the humiliation. Shameful. He attempted to throw a withering glare at his cohort, but the relentless pounding in his head forbade it. Besides, Mr. Wilmington looked like death. Good.
The railroaders in the next cell immediately pushed on their cell door only to find it locked, "Ey! How come they aint locked in?" Indignity marred the raised voices.
Standish managed to raise a hand, and without looking, waved at the men locked in the cell across the way. Somehow he managed to infuse the simple gesture with an abundance of mockery.
The Sheriff watched and wondered what someone like Chris Larabee was doing with the likes of this gambler and tall cowboy. "Better eat boys," Timmons lay the tray on the floor at the head of Wilmingtons bed, "sounds like you got a long day ahead of you."
Twin groans rolled from the cell.
"Tell me boys, howd a couple of drifters like you hook up with the likes of Larabee?"
Standish arched an exhausted eyebrow from under his coat sleeve, "Messrs. Larabee and Wilmington are a match set or is it only obvious to the outlaw kind?" The gambler shifted his back slightly trying to relieve some pressure without disturbing his stomach no small feat. "You, dear sir, are one of the first souls not to see some kind of connection. Every other outlaw with a vendetta against our stalwart if not misguided associates, sees them as attached with an umbilical cord not unlike the one that ensnares itself to our tracker and fearless leader." Ezra sighed dramatically, "And such selfish, if not foolish acts, of outward revenge against either man have dragged some of us innocent bystanders into some rather heated if not embittered battles." Standish moaned as the world dipped precariously from behind closed eyes. Good Lord, death would be a kind outcome.
There was a long silent pause .
"Yer kind of long winded aint ya son," Timmons eyed the immobile gambler with piqued curiosity. The man seemed a bit of an oddity all by himself.
"How come they aint in a locked cell!" another voice shouted out adding to the cacophony of noise in the small room.
The sheriff turned and faced the railroaders across the narrow corridor, "they aint much of a flight risk."
Standish, contemplated sitting up but instead, rolled to his side facing the wall, a pitiful moan rolled from his lips. His humiliation lay buried for the moment. He would make a break for the door when the floor stopped fluctuating on its own.
Wilmington merely stared at the bucket at the head of his cot. He and Chris didnt have that many people popping out from behind trees gunning for revenge .
Timmons smile blossomed, "Well boys, it werent no raving maniacs that started the brawl last night, now was it ." The sheriff chuckled to himself as he left the cell, simply swinging the door closed. No keys jingled the lock.
"That aint fair!" someone rattled their locked door.
Timmons ignored the remarks and headed for the heavy wooden door that separated the sheriffs office from the holding cells. He chuckled outright when he heard the gambler speak.
"Gentlemen please, a little dignity and decorum," The slightly muffled plea quieted the area for a small second.
"Ill give you dignity you little pansy ass sawed off rebel mongrel piece of shit ." A spike pounder pulled on his locked door.
Buck Wilmington desperately tried to ignore the runny eggs and undercooked bacon. He closed his eyes and weakly slid the tray away from the head of his bed on the floor. Screech of tin on sand laden rocks created an irritating shriek that once again brought about twin groans.
"For Gods Sake Mr. Wilmington, are you in league with the Devil himself?" The pitiful whine of the gambler brought a smile to an unannounced visitor. The railroaders recognized the man in black and stepped away from their bars and quieted down.
"Shut up, Ezra," Buck hissed back, though in honesty it came out merely as a gasp of unrelenting pain. "This is your fault."
Ezra closed his eyes and tried to convince his stomach that the world was not spinning about in both clockwise and counter clockwise directions at the same time. Logically impossible, but it seemed his inner ear and stomach did not agree. "I fail to see how you came to that conclusion."
Truth be told, Ezra did not think that Buck had any more idea of what happened last night than he did. In fact, the only thing Ezra could clearly remember ,and even that was shaded in mists of grey, was Josiah slinging him over his shoulder and JD patting him on the back of his head like he was some kind of mischievous puppy.
Buck groaned as the smell of greasy eggs filtered toward him. "Oh God no," He arched forward his hands gripping the edges of the cot as dry heaves once again erupted from his midsection.
"Good Lord," Ezra put his palms to his ears trying vainly to muffle the sound. His stomach gurgled with sympathetic tendencies. "Oh Lord oh Lord .No No " His soft mantra proved futile. He quickly flipped onto his other side just in time.
Chris leaned against the bars of the jail cell almost enjoying the miserable sight of his two men. Almost because in half an hour the train would be pulling out and the rest of them would be stuck with those two in a confined rail car.
"You ladies done?"
Buck gazed up from his bucket, sweat ran into his blue eyes, irritating already bloodshot eyes. "God, Chris shoot me now."
"Me first, Mr. Larabee," Standish wiped his mouth on the corner of the wool blanket.
"Dont tempt me," Chris pushed off the bars and opened the door.
"Whos tempting," Buck closed his eyes and tried to settle his head in a comfortable position on the sagging cot. "Be a friend."
"Yes, please," Standish croaked, "show mercy." He closed his eyes hoping that in the blackness he could trick his body into thinking he was still unconscious. It wasnt working.
"Git your asses up," Larabee kicked Wilmingtons bunk causing the ladies man to roll over and moan wrapping his arms around his head.
The gunslinger hauled Standish by his upper arm to a sitting position, "On your feet."
"Mercy," Ezra mumbled out trying desperately to lay back down. The spinning only increased.
"Josiah!" Chris raised his voice causing both inflicted men to cringe weakly.
The large preacher entered the cell area, "Ahhh brother, I see you are trying to roust our wayward brethren."
"Git Ezra on his feet and cleaned up," Larabee let go of the gamblers arm. Standish immediately folded back down on his side. "Ill git Buck." The blonde kicked the wooden, remarkably near empty, bucket out of his way and pulled Wilmington to a seated position.
"You have my permission to vomit on him, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra groaned out, trying to hide under his meager blanket, hoping Mr. Sanchez would not see him.
Buck needed no urging. His stomach revolted against the sudden movement, forcing his feet off the ground and his shoulders to his knees. Larabee merely stepped to the side though nothing was brought up.
"Dear Lord is there no end to my misery," Standish hugged the moth eaten blanket over his head. Surely if he could not see Josiah then Josiah could not see him.
"On your feet brother," The preacher reached down and simply lifted the gambler up off the cot by one arm. "Id just as soon drag you as carry you. Your choice," Sanchez did not bother disguising his mirth.
"You, sir, are a cretin." With trembling legs and an equally unsteady gait, the gambler allowed the preacher to tug him from the cell. "And I hope, Mr. Wilmington, you have learned your lesson," Standish schooled in a half hearted angry tone. Surely, he himself wasn't to blame for their current state
Buck leaned heavily against Chris, "Ill kill him."
Larabee merely chuckled.
+ + + + + + +
The Train lurched forward. The black steam engine lurched against its traces and lunged ahead. Iron wheels spun and gripped a length of track. The heavy engine gained ground spilling steam from her pipes and smoke from her massive wheels. The wood car behind her clanked against its connector and soon rolled forward too, pulling the car attached to it. This process continued until ten cars rolled along the iron track.
Townspeople waved from the wooden depot while passengers hung out windows waving back or blowing kisses or yelling last minute instructions. A young boy on his horse raced the train for a while until the length of cars simply diverged from any clear trail. The young boy and horse loped to a stop and the rider stood in his stirrups and waved to any that would wave back.
The town shrank from sight.
The seven lawmen made themselves comfortable in their Spartan car until one simply made the comment that they were one shy. There were six lawmen in their car not seven. Their leader cursed. The bounty hunter smirked but continued to oil his gun, the healer shook his head without surprise and the youngest worried they forgot one of their own. Buck Wilmington snored quietly curled on the floor using a bent arm as a pillow. The preacher sought divine intervention or patience whatever came first.
Chris Larabee walked the length of the train, searching each car, letting every passenger on board know that he was present and not to be interfered with at all. Like a dark presence, he stalked car to car, his black duster billowing behind him like a black cloud of discontent. His holster remained visible, the well used revolver in plain sight. He tread between benches, strode through small crowds that simply created space as he drew near. His hazel eyes glittered like pressured coal reflecting nothing but his dislike for crowds. He scanned the faces and the bodies threatening to encroach his space, with an air of un-approachability.
Voices dropped as he passed, whispers paused and heads turned, eyes deviated to the ground and out windows. Wives were held closer and children pulled in from aisles. Men found other things to stare at until the dark spectre left their car.
Rumor swirled in his wake.
The sleeping car gave him pause. His step slowed and finally ground to a halt. A young man held his wife and whispered soft encouragement to her. They would be fine, they did not really need a sleeping bunk. Though, they had paid extra for one, they could not deny a sick man the right to lay down, especially if he too held a ticket for the same berth. The young woman nodded her head and buried her face in her husbands shoulder. She held a supportive hand to her newly growing midsection. Her young husband merely rubbed her back and stared out the window, worry masking his handsome face.
"There a problem?" Larabees curt manner had the husband cinching his wife tighter to his chest, protecting her.
"No sir," sharp blue eyes spoke a different tale.
"Someone in your berth?" Chris had no patience for those who could not care for themselves but he could not help but see Sarah in the woman that shied deeper into her husband.
"He has a ticket for it as well and hes sick," The wife answered for her husband hoping that the terrifying man in black would leave them in peace and find no challenge in her or her husband.
"He show you this ticket?" Chriss jaundic view of the world colored his question.
"No sir," The wife spoke again, her corn colored hair lay hidden in a bun under a spring bonnet. "Hes awful sick"
"Uh, huh," Chris stepped toward the sleeping berths. The train swayed side to side in a rocking motion. The narrow corridor had the gunslinger turning sideways his back to the row of windows. "Which one is yours?"
The husband shifted his wife and skirted around her before pointing to the third one on the bottom. "That one sir."
Larabee nodded. The husband and wife watched as the dark clad man slid down to the third curtained off berth. The young wife gasped when the blondes hand shot out and whipped the curtain back and in the same fluid movement dragged the white shirted man out of the small bed area and onto the rail floor. The sleeping man hit with a resounding thud and a yelp.
"Mr. Larabee," Standish groaned finding himself suddenly on the floor of the car, "is there a reason for your brutality?"
"Ezra, git your slithering lazy ass back to our car," Larabee leaned back against the wall of the car and stared at the gambler sprawled cramped between his feet and the berths.
"Mr. Larabee, I am infirmed," Standish pulled himself into a sitting position trying to regain some of his dignity.
Josiah then burst through the car door with the fury of a plague, "You found our lost lamb I see." Sanchez fixed his eyes on the gambler, spoke to Larabee and tipped his hat to the young expectant mother that had jumped at his explosive entrance.
"Claimed stake to their berth," Larabee jutted his chin at the young couple now standing quietly in the corner watching the proceedings in quiet confusion.
"Scuse him, maam, sir," Sanchez latched onto Standishs ear and tweaked it dragging the now stumbling southerner up to his feet. "Poor up bringing but I aim to change that this trip."
"Unhand me you lout," Standish tried to wiggle out of Sanchezs Jesuit type grasp to no avail. The preacher strode past the husband and wife with Standish in tow by his ear, "Maam." He tipped his hat and led the gambler out the door and to the next car. The sudden outside clamor of a running train drowned out any profanity or exclamations that might have issued forth from the gambler. The outside door slammed closed once again muffling the sounds of the train.
Chris faced the quiet young couple, "He wont be bothering you folks again."
Larabee followed Sanchezs path and headed back toward the other cars.
When the car door slammed shut a second time, curious heads peered out from behind the bank of curtained berths.
+ + + + + + +
The train rolled and swayed down its iron tracks clanking with a rhythm matched by the rocking motion of the car. The Seven peacekeepers sat throughout the car in various poses of relaxation. Or forced inactivity as was the case with some of them.
Larabee sat facing their car his back to the door leading to the Gold car. They were the ninth and tenth cars from the engine, with the wood car being second. The passenger lines would be unhitched at the next stop a day and night ride away. Open land graced every view. Flat clay-covered mesas and plattes dotted with hearty sage and proud cacti stretched for as far as the eye could see. The sky paled with the passage of the sun toward its zenith and few clouds dotted the sky.
The peace keepers ignored the scenery for its view. Though one in their number kept a roving eye always searching for something that did not quite fit the natural lines of the passing vistas.
Vin Tanner slipped from the car and quietly found himself seated on the roof. The wind buffeted his body and whipped his hair about his face and off his neck. His coat fringes beat against each other and his eyes watered. The spring air, at this speed, had a bite that quickly reddened his cheeks. A smile played on his lips. It felt good to be away from the crush of bodies and out from under the heaviness of stagnant air. With his back to the wind, the Sharpshooter watched the passing landscape hurl by at unnatural speeds.
Buck Wilmington found himself waking and no longer wishing for a painless death or sudden unconsciousness. Though, he did not feel spry, he certainly did not find Death to be his first wish of the day. Amazing what a little nap did for ones constitution. How did Larabee do this for years on end?
"Ey Buck," JD skirted over to the Ladies Man and stared down at him, "ya gonna live?" Dunne felt his skin crawling with boredom. Vin had disappeared outside, Buck was sleeping, Ezra was practically drooling for the Gold. Nathan distracted himself with his knives. Josiah kept his back to Chris and his attention on Standish.
JD asked Nathan how to throw a knife but after Dunne slapped a knife off the far wall and ricocheted it over to Chriss feet, Dunne decided to wait.
Finally Buck woke up .about time.
"Think so kid," Buck pushed himself into a seated position and stared around the car. Nathan flipped one of his knives from hand to hand before hurling it at an unseen board across the room. The hard thud of a blade sinking into his target was unmistakable.
Chris sat facing the room. It seemed as if he guarded the door quite seriously.
Josiahs, "Dont do it, Brother," had Buck following the voice until he found the preacher sitting at the opposite end of the car from Larabee. Sanchez directed his comment at the gambler who sat slightly forward staring at the door behind Larabee, at the other end of the car.
Buck couldnt help but think the southerner looked like a dog kept from his favorite meal even though he could smell it.
Wilmington tossed a silent question to JD. Dunne kind of chuckled, "Chris caught Ezra inspecting the lock to the Gold car."
Buck nodded in silent understanding. It was going to be a long trip. "Vin?"
"On the roof," JD paused and kept real still, "Hes playin his harmonica."
"Guess its time ole Buck got up," Wilmington pushed himself to his feet and staggered slightly under the swaying of the train. JD steadied him, "Ya wanna play some cards with Ezra?"
Buck considered the question for a moment and then nodded, "Might be a good idea."
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Five peacekeepers watched their sixth as he prowled the far end of the car pacing like an expectant father. They had tried to divert his attention with card games, bets and challenges. In the end, they were all a little poorer and the gambler slightly more frantic.
"Geez ya think he would give it up," JD mumbled to himself more than the others. Vin had yet to come down from the roof of the cars. In fact, they could hear him skipping from car to car as if for those brief instances that he leapt between them he could actually fly. It was a sense of freedom the others did not fully understand. They left the tracker to his own devices. He bothered no one and no one truly complained. A few rumors ran amok between a small number of children about the ghost Indian haunting the train but few travelers did much to investigate.
Larabee found his eyes firmly fixed on the gambler. Standish paced, made excuses and disappeared from time to time. Without question, he was found tracing his fingers along the lock to the gold car. Caressing it longingly as if a lover or perhaps a Genie to his wildest dreams. Each time, Larabee or Sanchez hauled him from the locked door and back to the main car with the rest of the others.
"I know I wouldnt," Nathan remarked quietly but loud enough for the others to hear. The healer wiped the blade of one of his throwing knives.
"You?" JD stared at the healer as if he had lost his mind. Nathan didnt give two hoots about the Gold. Heck No. Nathan didnt even charge for his services and when people did offer to pay him he got all embarrassed like.
"Yup," Nathan leaned back in his chair watching the furious pacing of the southerner at the far end of the car. It was a toss up whether the man would wear a hole in the floor or his boots first, "iffen my freedom lay behind a locked door," Jackson held JDs gaze, "aint no tellin what I would do to git it ." Jackson ran the cutting edge of one of his throwing blades against his thumb testing its sharpness.
"Aint the same thing, Nathan," JD whispered leaning back in his chair watching as Standish, at the far end of the car, once again ran his hand along the cuff of his emerald coat.
"Sure it is," Buck responded shuffling cards with some difficulty without a table to balance them on, "Ya met Maude, havent ya JD?" The rhetorical question garnered no answer but did drag Dunnes attention to his large mustached friend. " His whole lifes been aimed at gittin his hands on gold. Whether its his own, yours or mine, it dont matter, he git his hand on money and all is problems disappear." Buck snapped the cards nearly losing three, "wont be hungry, wont ever be cold, be surrounded by friends, never want anything Hell Kid, in Ezras mind he gits his hands on that Gold and well be his friends for life aint no one gonna walk away from him if hes rich Hell not even his Ma." Wilmington stared at his young friend hoping the boy understood the desires that drove some men.
Josiah leaned back and shut his eyes. Aberrant visions of Mary dancing around him with money cascading from the skies filled his visions. Yes, Money would solve superficial problems but deepen ones darker vices. Still, if one was strong in faith perhaps they could avoid the lure of the dark side of wealth. He was strong, steadfast in his beliefs and every day he felt himself grow closer to the God he had drifted so far apart. He could handle the wealth maybe. Yet, the dreams invaded his sleep, filtered unbidden in waking moments. Their power caused his heart to hammer and sweat to bead his brow. Anger, self righteous, and self directed boiled deep down, fighting for a presence next to his growing hunger.
The yearnings for wealth were acknowledgeable if not understandable in regarding the gambler perhaps they even bordered on wanton. The dark stirrings of greedy desire within the preacher, however, seemed treasonous, a poisoning of the spirit which he fought and struggled against very much alone. No one kept him under close scrutiny to catch him if he should falter to his desires. He fought silently and alone.
Who would understand the unquenchable urge for wealth in a man whos calling professed a disregard for most things of the material world? Or the world of Flesh?
The preacher felt the stirrings of jealousy. The others safe guarded the Gold from the gambler and the gambler from the Gold. Sanchez fought his battle in solitude.
"Comen, Ezras gotta know better than that," JD said with some exasperation. The other six men were leaps and bound smarter and more experienced than him. Just as Chris was the quickest draw, Nathan the best healer, Vin the best shot, Josiah the strongest and Buck the most loyal .JD knew Ezra to be the smartest at least in book learning. Everyone knew money did not solve all your problems just change the nature of them. Ezra was smarter than that .Wasnt he? Though, JD had to concede, he did purposely knock the outhouse on Josiah the other day, and he did haggle Chris into a blind rage just the other week, and they suspected he put glue in Vins boot Not exactly stellar examples of genius....Dunne gazed up to study his older friend pacing in front of the far end of the car and found him missing.
"Uh oh," JD sat up, "Hes gone again."
Chris sighed tiredly and pushed himself to his feet. Damn man has the balls to pick the lock in broad daylight.
"Ill gitim Chris," Buck volunteered struggling to get his long frame off of the small bench. He honestly didnt think Larabee would berate the Southerner. Perhaps tie him down somewhere, or threaten him with bodily harm but not humiliate him. Wilmington had a feeling that Chris understood the blind impulse that drove the gambler. Perhaps not the greed itself but the pursuit of something that was beyond his reach. Ezra salivated over something that he thought would bring untold happiness. His dreams and aspirations came in the guise of money. For Chris it took the shape of small budding family. No, Chris would not berate the southerner, but he would tie him up and perhaps gag him eventually.
Larabee merely shook his head No. Cant place a man that close to his temptations and not expect him to stumble. Larabee just wished it was not every few minutes. Damn man.
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