Chris leaned against the wall of the Gold car and watched as Standish once again ran his hand gently over the large lock. Larabee made no motion or noise. Instead, he leaned with arms and ankles crossed and watched as the gambler scrutinized the lock and then the door and back to the lock.
The leader was about to make his presence known when the lock suddenly snapped open. He blinked and watched as a sly smile slid across Standishs face. A dimple and then a chuckle. A decidedly sleazy sound.
"Put it back," Chris did his best to hide his smile. The mans skill was impressive. There had to be some way to put it to good use like the gambler himself. Larabee just couldnt quite place how. The gunslinger never even saw the lock picks or the movement of hands that did the job. The lock just seemingly snapped open under the Southerners soft caresses.
Divine Intervention? Not hardly that was Josiahs bag of tricks.
Ezra visibly jumped, "Mr. Larabee," he stammered, caught holding the proverbial smoking gun, "its not .its not .Sir what are you doing sneaking around like a common criminal .Its a fine way to get oneself injured." Redirect redirect
Chris merely raised his eyebrows in disbelief, "Dont start Ezra. Put it back and lock it."
The gambler eyed the gunslinger as if judging his demeanor and then gazed back to the lock in his hand. Both men swayed with the gentle rocking of the train.
"Would you believe," Ezra started again, his mind turning as fast as the wheels on the cars, "that someone else manipulated this foolishly simple lock? And I luckily found this door unsecured .Imagine the unscrupulous people that might have made off with all that Gold." Ezra paused, swallowing and closing his eyes for a brief moment as if the potential thievery frightened him to the core.
Chris could only think Standish was imagining lining his pockets and coat with Gold chunks and shavings. Sometimes discrete was not a coat that fit the gambler.
"Put it back Ezra," Larabees voice took on more of a warning tone.
"Would you believe," Standishs eyes roved the small corridor that they stood in looking everywhere but the other man, "someone much more skilled than I did this? ." He held up the opened lock. "Perhaps an inside job " At the sudden raised eyebrows the Southerner stumbled over his words, "Not one of us mind you Never one of us." He let his eyes switch back and forth as if looking for some hidden thief in a shadow.
"Ezra," the warning took a harsher tone. Larabee had half a mind to listen to some of the tales, if only for the entertainment. Thank goodness Buck and JD werent around to hear this faltering oration. Those two would get ideas.
"Fine, fine," Ezra sputtered in exasperation, "I undid the lock." He bowed his head as if this simple truth was a great revelation.
Larabee leaned against the wall of the car with a tired sigh waiting for the But.
"But," Ezra continued lifting his eyes to watch the man in front of him, "I was merely attempting to ascertain the effectiveness of the locks." Standish held out the lock as if it were offensive, "it is woefully apparent that this is ineffective and mere childs play a simpleton could undo such a mechanism."
Larabee quirked an eyebrow, "Its a good lock Ezra not many are known who can undo that particular kind," Larabee quietly answered. Neither he nor Buck or Nathan could manipulate the lock once it was securely snapped closed. They had been reassured by Travis and his unknown experts that the locks in place were extremely difficult to manipulate successfully without the key. Larabee had declined the key. He suspected Standish had a knack for emptying pockets not associated with a poker table.
Standish stared at the gunslinger not bothering to hide his confused look. Did Chris just compliment him on his skills? A small smile twinged across his face. Perhaps there was an ally in Mr. Larabee .
"Well sir, since the door is unlocked," Ezra licked his bottom lip, "what would it hurt to look inside," He moved to push the door open, "just to be sure the Gold is truly there. None of us have actually laid eyes on it and if the defenses on the outside are this deplorable, imagine what foolishness lays behind this door." Ezra paused licking his suddenly dry lips, "if the system is this lax ." He let his words taper off. Perhaps open crates of Gold bars, no nailed down wooden covers .yes that would be terrible absolutely terrible, short sighted of those who wished to protect the Gold from opportunistic thieves but if there were no nailed covers then a crow bar would no be needed .less muscle work yes a terrible, terrible oversight. One should always be prepared.
Chris watched as Standishs eyes nearly fogged over imagining untold wealth just laying about waiting in the secluded section of car to be picked up and pocketed.
Larabee stepped forward and kept the door closed, "Lock it Now" His voice dropped to a whisper but his impatience peaked.
Standish recognized a losing hand but would not give up so easily .that is until re-enforcements arrived.
Sanchez slid the rail door open and stepped through. The harsh clatter of the train filled the small area.
"Brothers?" Josiah noticed the lock in the gamblers hand and felt his heart race. One less obstacle. Temptation increased. Self loathing bubbled.
"Put the lock on the door, Ezra," Larabee stared at the southerner hoping to force the gambler to lock the door himself.
Standish screwed up his face and narrowed his eyes, "You have no vision."
Larabee waited until the padlock slid home and clicked closed. He tested the latch himself. "Alright lets go."
He pushed the gambler out in front of himself and followed Josiah back to their car.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner sat on the roof of the car. He let the wind buffet him, allowed it to swirl his hair around and off his neck. The tracker felt the breeze and leaned into it. His blue eyes watered and stung. After a bit he turned his back on it, faced outward toward the passing prairies and skiffs of desert.
A longing ached his chest. He closed his eyes and tried to fathom the unease that had settled on him just a few days ago. The confinement of town, the closeness of people, it ate at his soul. Bled something from him that he could not see or explain but feel. A hollowness had begun to grow within him. It ate at his heart, darkened his spirit and threatened something inside him he could not place.
The urge to walk away built itself slowly. The desire to turn his back on civilization grew in step with the emptiness that greyed his soul.
He had ridden out of town a few days back to leave. He had restocked his saddlebags and ridden out of town with no intentions of turning back. He reined Peso to the West, to the wide open spaces that were slowly being scarred by the wagon wheels of settlers. He pointed Peso to the West seeking solitude and a chance to escape.
Unexpectedly, a tether had pulled him short. An invisible chain had him reining his gelding to a stop not a days ride from Four Corners. A call, one that had drowned the sirens song of the natural world, stopped him. With a heavy heart, he sat on Pesos back and wrestled with himself. Fought with conflicting desires. In the end, he had cursed, had slapped the reins off his thigh in stinging frustration, and in explosive anger had turned Peso back toward Four Corners. He had ridden through dusk and into night back to the very place he sought to escape.
The heavy smell of human had greeted him before he had even reached the limits of town. The over powering stench of stalled horses had assaulted his nose as he had walked Peso through the livery. With a draught of regret, he had slid through the saloon doors into the harsh light of lamps and the abrasive sounds of too many voices.
He had recognized familiar faces, tipped his hat as was the custom of others and had woven his way toward the back of the saloon. His self directed ire had only amplified with the proximity of others.
Larabee had sat in the far corner, brooding and watching the gaming tables, dissecting those that still cared enough to live and try to better their fortunes. The fools.
Tanner had melted into the empty chair beside the dark gunslinger and had drowned his wandering spirit in Whiskey.
Vin sat on the roof of the train car watching a coyote trot across the desert plain. Its long legs skiffed the ground in a lazy manner. The slender animal trotted to the West, opposite the train, and disappeared behind a clump of sage.
The bounty hunter felt his chest constrict. He felt the hardening of his heart as the urge to leave once again threatened to drown him. Something imperceptible held him back. It struggled with another part of him that whimpered and howled from deep within himself, begging him to find his way back to the land he loved.
His time with civilization seemed at an end. He yearned for the freedom, the lazy days of a coyote.
Above the clank of the moving train, above the chug of a working engine, a hail of voices reached up to him through an open window.
Tanner listened leaning back on his elbows watching the greying of the sky. The stars would be out soon. A small smile creased his lips. The cover of night, like the grey of an early day, disguised many things. With a flint of contentment, the bounty hunter listened as Standish once again got caught trying to break into the Gold.
Everyone had their calls, their desires, and their Achilles heels. Not many had them all wrapped up in one thing.
Tanner didnt know whether to feel bad for the gambler or envy him. Ezras battles, in the end, always remained the same .well that and badgering Larabee. A vice the tracker couldnt fathom but did appreciate for the mere laughs.
Vin slowly made room on his section of roof. He quietly counted down from ten and by the time he reached one, Standish had the door open to the car below. In no time, he made his way to the roof still cursing and carrying on as if someone would pay attention to him.
"Mr. Tanner, I hope you dont mind some company."
Tanner shrugged and made a small gesture to move to the side.
"You get caught tryin to pick the lock again, Ezra?"
"I was not caught trying to do anything," Standish corrected snapping the cuffs of his coat down over his wrists, "the alleged lock was already tampered with "
"Uh huh," Tanner eyed the gambler in the fading light, wondering what made a man salivate over money like a starving dog over a steak, "thats why Chris tossed your ass out here."
Standish shot the Texan a sideways glance, "Mr. Larabee did not toss my ass as you so quaintly put it, anywhere." There was a pause and a light chuckle, "though I suspect he might have given it a thought."
Tanner smiled quietly and leaned back on his elbows. The scenery passing by had slowly melted into shades of grey and black. The sky had lost its whitish, grey hue and bled itself into the dark slate grey just before true night descended.
"Tell me Mr. Tanner, what brings you up here?" Ezra watched mesas and cacti race pass, saw open land that did not receive enough moisture to keep a grown man alive and land that could not harbor a thriving community. How could anyone desire to be out here? What drove people to leave the comfort of society, the security of a busy saloon to risk all in the quest to head west. What were people looking for other than hardship, poverty and a violent end? Standish understood none of it.
"Same thing that drives you into a saloon, I reckon," Tanner eyed the gambler from his reclining position watching the Southerner as he watched the passing land. The bounty hunter could feel the mans unease outside a towns limits. It was nearly palatable. Ezra could hold his own outside of civilization if forced, just as Vin knew he could survive for a small while enclosed in a city, but neither would thrive.
Ezra turned and stared at the tracker for a moment considering the answer, "I suppose so," Standish paused and then added, "A week ago Mr. Wilmington lost a dollar to me."
" Zat all?" Vin eyed the gambler suspiciously. Standish diverted his eyes and worked the cuff of his shirt.
The scenery slid past losing its sharp definition with the fading light.
"Well, in this one particular wager, Yes." Ezra had turned slightly forward nearly placing his back to the tracker. His body swayed easily with the motion of the train.
Tanner knew something lay behind the remark. "Whatcha bettin on how fast ya could piss Chris off with yer smart mouth?"
Standish chuckled, "Actually, that was two days earlier and it won me four dollars, one from Messrs. Dunne, Wilmington, Sanchez and Jackson." He could potentially make a significantly more money in such endeavors but his compatriots lacked sufficient funds and Ezra loathed to risk his prized neck.
"Won a few bruises too I bet." Tanner offered with a soft chuckle. He had missed that wager mustve been out at the outskirts of town trying to figure out what kept him from walking away.
"Our bet, the one I first alluded too," Ezra began again, pulling Tanner back into the conversation, "was one of a disturbing nature."
Tanner quirked an eyebrow. Aint much that Buck and Ezra found disturbing unless someone or something hurt a lady or a kid. Those two didnt take much to heart but when someone did wrong by a child or woman, the pair were forces on their own.
The tracker stared at the profile of the gambler trying to finagle the mans angle.
"Howd Buck lose another dollar to ya?" Tanners interest was piqued. Not Buck losing a dollar, that was a common enough occurrence, the fact the gambler brought it up was intriguing.
"He bet " Ezra shifted his seat. The wind had a bite. Spring and Winter still wrestled over the dominance of night.
Tanner noticed the subtle sign of unease. He furrowed his brow and continued to watch the man that suddenly found the emerald coat sleeve so interesting.
"He bet," Standish started again, "that the day you rode out of town with your saddle bags replenished," Ezra turned and faced the tracker, "would be your last day with us."
Tanner paused for moment. A breath caught in his chest. He then settled back down on his elbows and stared hard at the gambler, trying to read the expression on the shadow marred face. The bounty hunter became uneasy. They read him that easily. Did they understand what drove him? He swung his gaze back out to the passing silhouettes of the desert.
"Ya came close to losing a dollar that day, Ezra." The words were soft and barely discernable.
Ezra nodded his head and turned his attention back to his coat sleeve, "I would have lost more than a dollar, Mr. Tanner." His words equally soft and mumbled.
Tanner swung his gaze back toward the Southerner. The initial shock bled way to intense scrutiny. Another invisible chain ensnared his wrist. The imperceptible call that sought to drag him away flashed suddenly. The need to run flared briefly, powerfully, constricting his chest almost painfully. He stared at the gambler in an accusatory light as if to blame the man for the sudden flash of pain. Then it faded, diminished to a dull ache that he had learned to live with for some time. The tracker uttered a soft curse.
Standish gazed up at the darkening sky, staring at the new stars wondering what ever possessed him to pass on that tendril of friendship.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey Buck," JD swung his hat around his index finger. Riding guard on a car full of Gold did not herald the excitement one would expect especially not the adventure ridden action stories he read in his Dime store novels. All in all this whole trip was turning out to be a big bore. He almost wished someone would make an attempt for the Gold well someone other than Ezra.
"Yeah, Kid," Buck spoke without moving. He sat with his long legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles and his hat pulled over his eyes.
"Ya wanna check out the other cars," JD paused in his restless pacing and cast a furtive glance at Wilmington. He did not look like he wanted to move. Dunne tossed out a tempting proposition, "bet there are some good looking ladies in the next cars over."
A singsong cadence waved through his words.
A small smile lit his face when Buck slowly sat up and lifted his hat off his eyes.
"You know kid you might be onto something." He pushed himself to his feet and adjusted his gun belt. "Lets go."
Chris leaned back against the seat of his bench with his eyes closed, "Stay out of trouble." The command held little levity. This wasnt some dusty backwater town and they werent just passengers on a train. They had a job.
"Always do, Stud," Buck smiled as he clapped JD on the shoulder. He noticed Nathan and Josiah sitting quietly, "You boys want to come?"
Nathan considered it and shook his head. He had never been on a train legally before and a black man wandering around a car full of white people might cause a stir. If they werent on a job, he would go, trouble be damned. Right now though, Chris needed things quiet, especially with Vin slinking around like a caged wolf and Ezra chomping at the bit to reach the Gold.
"Josiah?" JD waited for an answer before opening the outside door.
The preacher stared at the two younger men. His frustration and temptation was slowly melting towards anger. He needed a diversion, anything to keep his mind off the wealth in the next car over.
"Count me in," Sanchez sighed. He pulled himself from his seat as if something weighted his shoulders down.
"Chris?" Buck laid eyes on his old time friend, knowing that Larabee would not want to join them.
Larabee merely shook his head. He had no interest in the affairs of strangers.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pulled his coat collar up trying to protect himself from the sharp wind. His eyes watered slightly as he watched dark cloaked scenery fade from view. The desert was slowly transforming into grass lands with a few trees dotting the landscape.
If he had some Gold a significant cache of wealth, perhaps he could make a saloon work out in place like this , attract not only travelers loaded with savings, but the wild ones like Mr. Tanner himself ,maybe seek a living out in the cities like New Orleans or Frisco, but with enough capital he could build a saloon here Yes with enough Gold he could appease his dreams of a wealthy saloon owner and still maintain his contact with the others
"So tell me, Mr. Tanner," Standish spoke without turning around. He found the lack of conversation bothersome, unnatural. It ate at him. People needed to talk, needed dialogue, otherwise how was one to glean information from their targets. How could one learn anothers tell if they did not engage in some kind of activity? Conversation proved an exemplary medium for information gathering and not just the spoken words. Verbal language, seemingly important, occasionally, or more precisely, proved to be in most instances inaccurate. It was the unspoken words or speaking habits of others, that gave an opponent or mark away. Games of chance herald a more advantageous device in which to study ones companions. In an ideal situation, a combination of both dialogue and cards almost always proved lucrative. With hands busy and minds trying to focus on two things at once, the gambler found that most people floundered. They sacrificed either their game, thus lining his pockets with cash, or they exposed more of themselves than they expected and thus empowered him with knowledge. In both instances, Ezra found himself in a profitable situation.
It, thus, became unnerving that he should be in the company of someone and not strike up some kind of dialogue. Though he may not see his companion, voice inflection and topic were often times very telling. A mark, most times, never knew that they were being dissected or tried to disguise themselves with shadow or camouflage.
Not that Mr. Tanner presented an objective. Lord No but Ezra found the lack of conversation disheartening. It seemed as if Mr. Tanner had undue advantage in this present situation and though Ezra saw no reason to fear the tracker, it did unsettle him.
Friend, foe or stranger, Ezra did not like unequal footing unless of course it existed for his benefit. Vin was a friend, but it did not prevent Standish from delving into old habits.
Deeply ingrained lessons learned from an early age had Ezra engaging his companion into a conversation. With little control over his acquired instincts, he started trying to manipulate the man sitting just within his strained eyesight. "What compelled you to return to town?"
Ezra did not look up, did not glance at the mere shadow that sat just in the periphery of his vision. In fact, if Standish could not actually see the man, he would have thought Tanner had simply disappeared; once again merged with the present background and slid off into the night.
Vin watched the gambler. A small smile graced his face. The tracker understood the motivations behind the Southerners words. Tanner had been raised outside of the accepted, suffocating circles of civilization. He had been raised to search out his food, his shelter and his clothing. The tracker had learned to read Nature and the nature of beasts in order to survive. At a young age, when he still existed merely as prey, Tanner learned to recognize a predator. He never lost that ability, only honed it. Vin recognized Ezras hunting tactics.
Tanner had only just uncovered the parallels. After observing the gambler from afar, the tracker learned the nature of Standishs hunt. The conman did not seek out any type of trail, or a foot print, or broken twig, nor did he scan for scratched or overturned rocks. His signs existed in another realm. Instead Standish, attempt to ferret out sign as mannerisms and body language. He did not hunt for meat or hide. He simply sought the feel of coin or information for the simple purpose of bringing down his victim for his own personal improvement.
Not much different than a hungry hunter on the trail of game meat.
Vin had watched as the gambler caught the scent of a stranger as they had stepped off the stage, or left the livery. The tracker had observed the citified lawman, as he had weeded out his potential targets and had stalked them. Ezra snuck up on them in broad daylight. He engaged them in polite, easy conversation, toyed with them or enticed them into a game of cards. All the while he gathered information, learned their habits and when the time was right went for the kill. No remorse, no doubts. He did it as he had been trained to do in order to survive in his world.
No different than a brave that teaches a young blue eyed boy to stalk meat on the hoof.
The bounty hunter appreciated the work and effort. Their hunting styles vastly different, their goals worlds apart, Tanner recognized a predator when he met one.
Standish was a predator, just like the others, the difference lay in his hunting ground.
Vin knew he was being stalked, being sized up and ignored it.
Standishs instincts were too well honed, like a cat playing with its own twitching tail, Tanner realized the gambler worked right now sorely because he could not resist it. And like a cat swatting at its own tail, he would not devour it .
Tanner played along, because even he had snuck up on a deer a time or two just to swat its butt, because the hunter in him could not resist testing his abilities even when they were not needed.
Vin considered Ezras question letting the smooth motion of the train to shift him slightly right and left as he lay back on his elbows. He found his answer in scenes and feelings that painted themselves in his mind. He felt the tendrils of society tighten their grip attempting to smother his sense of freedom. He started speaking.
Standish listened to the soft words and found his mind conjuring pictures. He felt his emotions churn and lurch. How can one man weave words to make such powerful images? Evoke such feeling? How could Vin Tanner know exactly how one Ezra P. Standish felt at one particular moment in time and capture it so clearly in words.
It frightened the gambler almost as much as it intrigued him.
Ezra knew he chose to toy with a predator and now that predator seemingly turned the tables on him.
Vin wove his magic in the crisp night, under a biting breeze, answering a question without truly realizing he artfully played the gamblers game of words.
He never saw the truths that flashed cleanly and clearly across a smooth shaven face.
+ + + + + + +
Buck gazed up from the pair of Queens he held, to Larabee who sat quietly across from him contemplating his own cards. The two of them played a quiet game of cards. No money graced the seat between them. Wilmington could not help but wonder why Standish had never felt the inclination to deal him decent cards whenever they played together. Damn Gambler.
Scouting the train with JD and Josiah did not herald the excitement Buck had been hoping to find. JD imposed himself on every conversation Buck had struck up with one of the fairer sex, and Josiah had seemed intent of finding a saloon car. Not that Wilmington would have minded such a discovery, but Josiah lacked any finesse in his search and got down right surly. It seemed best to head back to their own car. It took some convincing but eventually Buck had managed to steer both JD and Josiah back to Nathan and Larabee.
"Gonna turn out to be a long ride," Buck picked the three odd cards in his hand and discarded them. Long ride, indeed, even Josiah seemed tense.
"Yup," Chris discarded two.
"Whatta ya gonna do with Ezra?" Buck let his eyes travel out the window to the darkening night. Standish must still be on the roof with Tanner. Something s been eatin at the tracker too got the itching to run
Chris didnt answer. He had no idea. Tomorrow the train would stop at the only town on their schedule and unload the passengers and disconnect the passenger cars. They then would get back on the line and head to Denver with only the Engine and their cargo.
"You think maybe we should let him off at town?" Buck couldnt see letting Ezra fight himself the whole trip.
"More like Josiah," Chris answered softly slowly pulling his dark hazel eyes from his cards to meet his long time friend. He should have seen it earlier should have realized it when Stutz blew into town all those weeks back.
"Josiah?" Buck settled back in his seat collapsing his two cards into a neat pile. He contemplated Larabees words and finally conceded a nod, "might be best aint fair to him." Buck couldnt say when he noticed it, maybe it was when Stutz slinked into Four Corners that one week. Or maybe it had been when Josiah dumped the cash into Ezras hands Buck couldnt be sure, but something tipped his hands to Sanchezs raging demon.
Somehow it was different, Josiahs yearning for the Gold held a tinge of danger to it. An overcast of violence palled Sanchezs silent war. Wilmington had felt it, like a building thunderstorm but had difficulty in placing it until now. Chris unveiled the hidden tempest.
"Think hell get off tomorrow?"
"Better chance of him than Ezra," Larabee dealt Wilmington three cards and himself two.
Buck conceded the point. The desires of the two men, though, seemingly the same, their pursuit of the Gold and their efforts of resistance were a far cry apart. Josiah fought quietly, with tension building from within himself. The air around him nearly sparked with furious self loathing. He would eventually snap and probably violently.
Ezra on the other hand, danced and parried with his obsession. He saw nothing inherently wrong with his desires. Sure he understood it was unlawful to steal, and somewhat fraudulent, perhaps, to cheat at cards but these things were only wrong if he were caught. His actions were only as dishonest as others perceived them to be, because as far as Standish was concerned, ones loss should be someone elses gain and why should he not be the one to benefit? And what harm was it if he tipped the scales to favor his own self improvement?
Josiah understood his hunger for wealth and Gold to be wrong, acknowledged he should not be consumed by the blind lusting for wealth, and felt humiliated to feel its hungry lure. His quiet humiliation quickly smoldered toward self loathing which in turn quietly boiled into a rage. He stood ready to explode and rightfully so.
Ezra wanted the Gold and honestly saw no convincing reason why he shouldnt have it.
For all of Maudes callus teachings, it seemed her darlin boy embraced his desires and accepted them. Thus he could live with himself . better than Josiah at least.
Sanchez knew he was wrong, knew he sinned and yet he could not ignore the sirens call. In an attempt to do the right thing, he would disembark the train, should Larabee suggest it, and put distance between himself and the serpent that hissed his name.
Ezra would tempt the serpent, and try to con it of all its wealth. He would not leave the Gold, because after all, it was his obligation, his God given duty, to try and attain it.
Buck leaned back in his chair and faced Larabee. A long trip indeed.
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