Nectar de'Standish

by Pat

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish knew he was being watched. His experiment with handkerchiefs as dew clothes had yielded perhaps a whole cup of water, which he immediately gave to a half-asleep Nathan Jackson. He took the last few drops gratefully and noted that the water tasted a lot like wet tent.

He walked out and started a fresh fire in his pit, intending to set up more coals again as he had yesterday. He had birds wrapped in nopales roasting overnight and he determined that the meat was tender and even juicy.

The creosote had a tendency to burn hotter and longer than other woods. He’d heard Vin speak well of it for cooking beans. The sun hadn’t cleared the mountains yet, and the day was cool. This was the perfect time to find more food to sustain them and to harvest more of the green pods from the saguaro. He put Nathan’s share of the doves in his pan and took it to his now more awake friend.

Nathan was showing a remarkable stinginess of movement that meant he was in dreadful pain.

“Unfortunately, our attackers left us no proper cutlery, but I do have this small penknife. Here, Nathan, let me assist you.”

Nathan ate the food slowly, but then suddenly gifted Ezra with one of his dazzling smiles.

“Only you would figure a way to make fancy cooking in the wilderness, Ezra. This is moist and tender. And I seem to remember drinking water.” His brown eyes looked for reassurance that the water hadn’t been a hallucination.

“Yes, I was able to procure a very small amount using the handkerchiefs and arising early enough before the dew could condense.” Responded Ezra, “I hope you will remember I rose early in the morning for your sake, my friend.”

Nathan snorted a laugh, which became a grunt of pain. Ezra helped him lay back and did his best to make him comfortable.

“I’m going out to secure more juice.” He said. Then he handed Nathan the last of yesterday’s juice harvest, which had cooled well over night. He introduced a straw made of the blossoming portion of the aloe vera, so that Nathan could drink without movement.

As soon as he carefully left the tent, he knew they were not alone. Nearly he went back in, but he had nothing to protect Nathan with. Better to face the enemy without letting him know he was aware of him.

He gathered rocks and used the sling and the pot to good effect, capturing two birds and another chuckwalla. He knew it was odd of him, almost heathen, but he thanked each little life for helping him to preserve Nathan. After all, he was worse than an infidel to many and this felt right.

Slowly he made his way to a large saguaro. That itchiness between his shoulders indicated that the silent observer was not between him and his charge. He put the tent pole to work and harvested till his pot was full.

Again, he felt that itchiness, but noted he felt no danger. ‘Are my senses dulled by lack of water or is this watcher merely curious,’ he thought. Of course, an Indian protecting his hunting grounds might kill him with total lack of enmity. Perhaps he would be dead in a few more minutes, but the instincts that made running a con so seamless seemed to work here. He was being observed with interest. When he had finished filling the pot, he looked in the direction that seemed to make him itch the most and made the Indian trading sign for friend.

There was no response. Then he signed, “I have one lizard and two birds. Should I get one more so that you can eat with us later?”

Now that got a response.

A young warrior appeared, but amazingly, didn’t brandish weapons.

Ezra smiled at him, hoping that the young man wasn’t threatened by his gold tooth and continued to sign.

How glad he was that he had insisted Vin Tanner teach him Indian sign. It had been a ploy on his part. He had been concerned about Vin’s lack of reading talent and decided that his proud friend wouldn’t mind exchanging knowledge. So he’d asked Vin to teach him Indian sign and then had insisted on teaching him the new French sign language called finger spelling that had been developed for the Deaf.

To his charmed surprise, Vin had been much better at finger spelling then he was at reading and writing. Their practicing had resulted in much better reading skills for Vin and a way to play jokes on their friends. The gambler had never anticipated being in these dire circumstances.

He sat down, Indian style of course, and began to leisurely tell the Indian his story. How they were from miles away and had no pretensions on this lovely land, but only wanted to return to their friends north east of here. He told of Nathan Jackson, his friend and a great healer helping a mother with a difficult birth and then being rewarded by the bushwhacking thieves. He observed that he hoped he was in no way intruding on hunting grounds and that he hoped his friends would find them within a few days. He could think of no good sign for Ezra and told the young warrior that he was called Red Coyote. That ought to do.

Soon he learned that this young warrior was called Two Feathers and that he’d observed Ezra showing proper reverence for the earth and its gifts. Impressed with this, he’d watched Ezra. He explained that this was the time of harvest of the saguaro pods and soon the women of the tribe would be in the area. He had scouted ahead to check the land. He had never heard of a white man being friends with a black man or eating the gifts of the earth with proper gratitude.

Ezra invited him to supper later and caught two more birds, expecting the young man to have a hearty appetite.

Two Feathers watched all this with deep interest. Red Coyote was obviously ignorant of the desert, but still had great wisdom. The fact that he didn’t kill more than he needed was very impressive. The few white men of Two Feathers’s acquaintance had been wanton brutes who killed more than they needed and left meat to rot.

Ezra went back to the tent and began to prepare his smokeless oven to receive more four doves and one large lizard. He prepared the food the same way as he had yesterday, with the addition of saguaro pulp that he’d painstakingly freed from all seeds. He used this to stuff the birds and lizard. He then covered the oven up and smiled at Two Feathers. A quick glance in the tent revealed that Nathan was sound asleep.

“It is good that he sleeps. He was in much pain yesterday.”

Two Feathers evidently agreed with this because he nodded solemnly. Then he pointed to the empty whiskey bottle and its homemade straw and made a questioning sign.

“That is the juice from these good plants,” explained Ezra in sign. “I cannot find water, so I used the juice.”

Two Feathers again was impressed. He drew a skin container from his side and handed it to Ezra.

“Your friend needs water. Let him have this.”

Ezra realized that the man had just handed them their lives. He was overcome with joy and pleasure at the gift.

Quickly he went and retrieved one of the bigger cooking pots and handed it to Two Feathers.

“Please, the women of your people may find this useful for cooking. Thank you for the gift of the water.”

Two Feathers smiled at him. “The mothers of the tribe will be pleased with this,” he signed.

Then he stood up and signed that he would return when the sun was setting. He clutched the big pot to his chest rather gleefully and left solemnly, disappearing into the sparse vegetation much like Vin did when tracking an enemy. Ezra was impressed and quite glad to be alive.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson woke to the delight of cool water being held to his mouth.

He drank carefully and then looked up at Ezra. “Where did you find this?” he asked.

“A young warrior named Two Feathers of what I believe to be the Papago Nation gifted me with it for you.”

“Lord, an Indian, and he didn’t scalp you?” asked Nathan, looking around and then moaning with the resulting pain.

“No,” Ezra sounded pleased with himself, “I spoke to him in the sign language that Mr. Tanner taught me and he was impressed with me for not being destructive of the gifts of nature. He recognized that we have no weapons and feels we are no threat.”

“Lordy, Ezra, are you sure?” asked Nathan, groaning as he finished another glorious mouthful of the water.

“No, but he has offered me no violence. I invited him to supper this evening,” replied the Gambler

Nathan lay down and chuckled feebly. “Damn, Ezra, you can even charm Indians. I’m impressed.”

“But of course,” shot back the conman and they both grinned.

Nathan suddenly frowned. “That’s a full skin of water. You drunk any yet?”

“Er, no,” said Ezra, “I don’t know if we’ll be the recipient of more and I’m making due with the juice. You need it more.”

Nathan gave him one of his nastiest scowls. “I appreciate your wanting me to have most of it, but you better have some right now, or I won’t drink any more.”

They glared at each other and Ezra sighed. “I had no idea you were such a stubborn patient, Mr. Jackson. I shall comply with your request, if only to be at peace.”

He took two small thankful swallows and then hung the water next to where two whiskey bottles appeared full of juice.

“You been busy,” observed Nathan, in a tired voice, “I thought you didn’t do menial labor.”

Ezra snorted, “No labor that protects your life can be called menial, Mr. Jackson.”

Nathan had the courtesy to actually look shocked at his comeback and the grace to fall back asleep.

Ezra slept next to him, alert and ready, but with more hope.

+ + + + + + +

The Sheriff of Two Roads didn’t seem to be upset at all with Josiah breaking the man’s arm, although Vin noted he did eye the tall preacher rather cautiously at all times. He also tended to keep Vin between him and Josiah, which would be damn amusing if Vin weren’t so worried about his friends. A part of the tracker’s quick survival defenses was pleased though that Josiah had done such a fine job of taking all the attention from one slightly wanted ex-bounty hunter. He knew that Josiah cared for public notice even less than he did, which was a shame, since he was practically a legend for having the brute strength to snap a man’s arm like that.

The entire gang was identified and put in jail by a crowd of Josiah’s admirers. Now Josiah was interrogating the men. Nothing like being scared spitless to make a man cooperate. They’d left Nathan and Ez in Papago country. Vin sighed. The Papago were a friendlier tribe than Apache that was for damn sure. However, who knew if they’d been found yet. It was a big country. They could be on their ways to being a pile of bones bleaching in the sun.

“We gotta try to find our friends,” Vin said.

The Sheriff eyed Josiah and said mildly, “You think they’re alive?”

Vin forgot all about maintaining a low profile, “I gotta know, Sheriff. They’re our friends.”

“Our brothers are not familiar with the desert, but they are stubborn as hell.” Josiah offered.

The sheriff nodded. “Then there’s hope. Many’s a stubborn son of a bitch has made it out alive, when a healthier man up and died.”

Their horses were watered, provisions were gotten and they set out. Chaucer led the group. Pony, the sturdy and dependable horse belonging to Nathan, seemed anxious as well, but Chaucer was smart as hell. The horse could do everything on the trail but make coffee, and Vin figured Ezra was fixing on teaching him that too. He’d almost have ridden Chaucer, but Peso would get jealous and the two big horses tended to bite when overly jealous so he rode Peso next in line.

They followed grimly. The odds as Ezra would put it, were against their friends, but Vin Tanner didn’t care. They’d come through against worse odds. He would find his friends. He had to.

+ + + + + + +

As the beginning of coolness started, Ezra heard the distant voices of many women and children laughing and talking. He sat up and came to the opening of the tent.

There stood Two Feathers. Ezra smiled at him and made the sign for welcome. This was returned solemnly and then the young man smiled back at him.

”The mothers liked your gift,” he signed. “We brought more water and medicine for pain.”

Ezra’s eyes filled with tears and he blinked them away fiercely. Surely they mustn’t see him crying like a baby.

“My heart is very grateful to you and the spirits for this kindness,” he signed back.

Two Feathers’s response surprised him, “Tears of joy are a good thing. Do not be ashamed, Red Coyote. Soon Black Healer will be better.”

Now an entourage of women descended upon them, eyeing him almost fiercely and then entering the tent.

Nathan’s eyes opened and his astonishment made the women laugh pleasantly. Water was held to his lips and then some foul medicine that Ezra could smell from outside the tent. Nathan would no doubt be asking the recipe for using on innocent gamblers and gunslingers. The healer drank it all gratefully.

One woman brought a backrest, decorated with beadwork and feathers and propped Nathan up comfortably. The black man was already looking at the dregs of the loathsome mixture with interest and Ezra knew he was going to end up trying to interpret information on medicinal plants any minute.

Ezra took his red jacket back and looked at it for a moment. Then he turned and handed it to Two Feathers.

“Please accept this as a gift, friend. You have saved our lives.” He signed this solemnly.

Two Feathers was delighted with the color of the garment and Ezra helped him put it on.

“This is beautiful,” signed the young warrior and Ezra nodded in agreement. He was very attached to the jacket, just more attached to Nathan Jackson.

He opened the little fire pit and shared supper as promised with Nathan and Two Feathers. The women all watched his culinary efforts with interest, commenting endlessly to one another. Rich now in water, Ezra offered the oldest and bossiest of the women some of the juice that he’d cooled in the whiskey bottles. She was delighted. Then Ezra handed out those pots that he didn’t need to those individuals he determined to be leaders and signed to Two Feathers.

“This is in gratitude to the mothers of the tribe, who like the earth mother, bring life,”

This went over well. Ezra was smiled at. He smiled lavishly back.

Nathan was making interrogatory noises behind him and he bowed to the ladies and excused himself.

“May I offer my services as interpreter, Mr. Jackson,” he said, sitting next to his friend, who was looking absolutely chipper for a man recuperating from a broken leg and a shotgun wound.

“Could you ask these nice ladies what is in this drink?” he said with an aura of excitement that Ezra recognized in himself when about to win a large stakes card game. Nathan was enamored of the study of medicine in all forms and even had copious notes and sketches of the plants he was studying.

Ezra found it difficult translating, since the sign language was limited in some respects, but he found that asking for dried and fresh samples of the herbs in question made Nathan extremely happy. And Nathan seemed to be ignoring pain right now. Whether this was the result of the herbal mixture or just plain joy in learning, was not certain, but the results were worthwhile.

Later, Nathan slept, and Ezra noted that many men of the tribe were now here, gathering firewood and doing heavy work for the women. He noted that they too seemed to leave the heaviest tasks for when it was most cool.

Small shelters had been set up and many of men appeared to be playing games of chance. Nathan was resting peacefully. Ezra picked up a small pot and made his way over to a game where Two Feathers was apparently doing well.

“Can you show me how to play?” asked Ezra genially, in sign even though he could already understand a little. They smiled at him and made welcoming signs back. He took a seat and grinned at them. He was always up for a game of chance and he figured he could bear to lose a pot or two, but decided not to part with any of the handkerchiefs. They were worth their weight in gold.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner saw Indian cook fires ahead and began to travel with more caution. The trail of the chase appeared to be headed right in that direction. He checked his guns thoughtfully and slipped into true hunter mode, ready to either rescue living friends or to avenge dead ones.

Josiah rode silent beside him. Chaucer started to dance about with excitement, pulling on his lead rope.

Vin’s heart lightened a bit. Chaucer was smart as a rattlesnake and wouldn’t be happy if his daddy was in trouble. Maybe he sniffed Ez on the wind.

They finally came to some kind of food gathering encampment. Immediately, warriors who looked serious, but not particularly threatening surrounded them. Vin immediately signed to them that he was a friend and seeking lost companions. The Indians smiled at him.

Chaucer squealed joyfully and stomped. Then he grabbed the lead with his mouth and whipped it right out of Josiah’s hands and tripped forward merrily.

An Indian decorated heavily in red ochre and dressed in fringed beads, loincloth, breastplate and Ezra’s hat came forward. Vin’s heart sank – maybe they had killed his friend.

But Chaucer proceeded to slobber all over the poor man. Then Vin realized, the Indian was too pale, the Indian WAS Ezra.

“EZ?” he yelled.

“SON?” yelled Josiah, just catching himself from falling out of the saddle.

“I am NOT your son, Mr. Sanchez,” yelled Ezra, while attempting not to be drowned in joyous horse slobber. Chaucer was carrying on worse than he had at the town when they found him.

The Indians started really laughing, especially when Ezra kissed Chaucer and was kissed back.

Vin cautiously dismounted and Ezra came up and grabbed his arms joyfully.

“Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez, how delighted I am to see you! It has been most difficult without you. Nathan was wounded, but he appears to be doing much better.”

Chaucer knocked his hat off and sashayed around Ezra triumphantly as though he’d found him all by himself.

Vin was tempted to smack the cheerful gambler. He’d been scared spitless he’d find two dead bodies in the desert. Now from all the fancy decorations he was sporting, it appeared that old Ez had skunked a whole tribe of Papago. Probably owned the whole tribe by now. God Damned irritating man. He could at least be desperate, or hungry, or dirty, but no – he actually looked stylish and cool and like the host at some fancy party.

“Where the hell did your clothes go?” he said.

Ezra grinned at him and his gold tooth shone. “I lost them gambling. However, I did make up for that discrepancy later.”

Vin looked around and realized that a lot of the Indians appeared to be wearing parts of Ezra’s clothing. They all looked pleased with themselves.

Josiah picked Ezra up in his arms and damn near crushed him to death with a huge hug.

”You scared us to death, Ezra P. Standish. I thought I’d never see you again ‘til I stood at the gates of glory.”

“I sincerely doubt I’d be heading for that particular location, Mr. Sanchez, but I appreciate the thought,” said Ezra, “Come and meet everyone. The tribe has been exceedingly kind to us and helped me with Mr. Jackson’s injuries.” He looked intently at Vin, “I told them my name is Red Coyote and they call Nathan, Black Healer. You must meet Two Feathers. He brought us water.”

They were introduced to a young warrior who was wearing Ezra’s signature red jacket with real pleasure.

Vin nodded to him and then signed, “Thank you, Two Feathers, for caring for my friends. They do not know the way of the desert and I feared for them.”

To his surprise, Two Feathers signed back, “Red Coyote indeed didn’t know the desert, but he has great wisdom and respect for the gifts of the earth. He told us that he learned much of his wisdom from you.”

Vin blushed and blinked his eyes. “I am proud to have him and Black Healer as my friends. You saved their lives, and for this, I honor you. Your people will always be my friends.”

Touched, he took out the new bowie knife he’d purchased in Yuma before all this fiasco had started. He handed it to Two Feathers. “Please take this and remember that Vin Tanner is your friend.”

Two Feathers solemnly took the knife and then handed Vin an eagle claw necklace of great beauty. “I thank you for your gift,” he signed, “Please accept this from me. Red Coyote keeps winning games and giving me presents, so today I am rich in beauty.”

Vin laughed and put the necklace on with great pleasure. “This is beautiful,” he signed in agreement.

Then he and Josiah went to the tent, where Nathan appeared to be dressed up in even more Indian finery, with a fancy backrest behind him, and surrounded by old woman who were showing him herbs. It looked like Ezra had splinted the break with a pot handle. Nathan grinned at them and waved, a little more enthusiastically then usual.

Josiah, who didn’t know any sign, grinned at everyone, obviously filled with gratitude for the life of his friends. Ezra introduced the leading women of the tribe, who were apparently discussing different types of horse-piss-for- what-ailed-you with Nathan. Nathan definitely had a broken leg, but appeared well, if not a little drunk on something. Probably some kind of painkiller for the leg.

Ezra conned Vin into interpreting for Nathan, who was happy as a pig in shit to talk about herbs and medicines. Josiah wandered off with Ezra and apparently played games of skill (but not gambled) with a bunch of children.

Then the whole group seemed to disappear, leaving the four peacekeepers alone with their horses.

“They are preparing a feast,” explained Ezra, “to celebrate the harvest and to rejoice in us being reunited.”

“They gave me something for pain that is good as laudanum,” said Nathan, “although I think it’s got tequila in it too.”

The feast was a happy event, and Ezra ended up giving Josiah and Vin more of his gambling loot as well as redistributing the wealth around the tribe. For once, Ezra didn’t have any disgruntled marks mad at him.

That night, full of good food, Two Feathers told in sign of finding Ezra and Nathan, and Vin told the tribe of their adventures in the town with the men who had left Ez and Nathan for dead. The tribe was almost as impressed with Josiah breaking the bastard’s arm as the people in the town had been. Vin was right proud of Ezra for taking such fine care of Nathan and for having listened so well to his stories about survival.

The next morning, early, Vin and Josiah went back to town to buy a wagon, and returned. The harvest was still going on, and Ezra had a whole mess of whisky bottles filled with Saguaro syrup and juice. He’d harvested the juice himself.

Nathan called it Nectar D’ Standish. Vin and Josiah tasted it and found it right pleasant to drink, especially when it had cooled in the tent, wrapped in wet handkerchiefs and hanging from a tent pole.

Vin had brought a passel of blankets for Nathan, and the wagon had a cover to protect their healer from the shade. He’d also purchased some fine mules, so they should make good time getting home.

Ezra had been pleased to get his stuff back, although he was a bit put out when none of his clothing had resurfaced.

“That’s okay, Ez,” said Vin, smiling, “I’ll just tell folks you’re our injun guide.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee was in a bad mood. Four of his men were late coming back from Yuma and telegraph lines were down, so he couldn’t check on them. He was sitting in a rocking chair outside Mrs. Potter’s store, watching the street into town where he hoped to see his friends returning safe and sound so he could shoot them.

Then he saw dust in the distance. To his surprise, a horse bearing an Indian warrior with a hat next appeared. Larabee stood up, his guns ready. Josh Potter came out of the store and looked.

Chris put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, “Tell your Ma to stay inside and go fetch Buck and JD for me.”

The only sound was that of the boy’s running and a shout for Buck.

Then more dust appeared along with a covered wagon. Larabee relaxed a bit. Most likely the Indian was a guide or a friend. He peered at the driver and straightened. Vin Tanner and Josiah Sanchez were driving the wagon. Where the hell were Ez and Nathan?

He strode to the end of the street and stared, shading his eyes with his hand. Buck and JD came up behind him.

“Who the hell is the Indian?” said Buck loudly.

“He’s riding Ezra’s horse.”

“Shit!” said Larabee softly.

The group got closer, the Indian in the lead, and Chris recognized the hat.

“He’s got Ezra’s hat,” he exclaimed, eyes narrowed.

He was tempted to shoot him out of the saddle, but realized there had to be some explanation. Vin and Josiah didn’t seem upset at all and if the Indian had hurt Ezra they’d have brought him to justice, not let him ride Chaucer, a pretty trick in itself.

Then the Indian rode closer and Larabee’s jaw dropped.

Buck and JD gasped behind him.

“That’s no Injun. That’s EZRA!” said JD.

Ezra now rode up to the livery. He tipped his hat and grinned at his fellow peacekeepers. Chaucer snorted with excitement at seeing the livery where he would be brushed, watered and given oats.

Josiah and Vin drove up to the livery, tipping their hats at their comrades.

Inside the wagon, a very exasperated voice belonging to their resident healer was shouting, “Goddammit, are we there yet?”

“I gotta hear this one,” said Buck.

Immediately they converged on the wagon, where Nathan Jackson appeared to have a broken leg. The healer was as mean as a mule too.

“About time!” he snarled. He looked up at Buck and JD, “Well just don’t stand there like fools, come help me get up to the clinic. I’ve been banged around in this here wagon the whole damn day and I’m tired.”

“Why is your leg splinted with a pot handle?” asked J.D.

“It’s all Ez had at the time,” said the healer, grasping his arm.

Vin and Josiah were taking care of the horses and looked dusty, tired and relieved.

It took all three of the men to move Nathan into the clinic. He fussed all the way. Chris could see why Vin and Josiah were so taken up with the horses. They were probably ready to knock Nathan upside the head.

“What the hell happened?” asked Chris testily. He was used to Nathan being patient and himself being the one bitching.

“Ez and me helped with a birthing and got dry gulched and left to die in the desert. Ezra tended me and made friends with a bunch of really nice Indians until Vin and Josiah could catch up. I’ve been in that stupid wagon for days and my ass hurts.”

Buck snorted. “I bet. You hurting bad?”

“No,” said the healer testily, “I’m hung over. The injuns gave me a painkiller mixed with tequila and I got a bit carried away last night. My head feels like it’s going to bust right open.”

Chris found himself grinning. Nathan was turning out to be just as irascible a patient as Vin or Ezra or hell, even himself. But his smile faded when he remembered a bet with a certain gambler. Aw, hell.

Buck was chuckling, “Let me get you some laudanum for the pain and tell you what was happening in town. Mrs. Westin done had a fine baby girl and seems to be doing well. Her husband did the delivery and said the instructions you gave him were a life-saver.”

Nathan grinned, pleased. “Did anyone else get sick?”

Buck settled down, ready to impart all the local gossip. Chris nodded to J.D. Buck would watch over Nathan. He wanted to go and check on the others.

He headed for the saloon.

Walking in, he heard Ezra’s voice raised disagreeably, “Suh, Ah don’t really care if you object to my attire. I’ve ridden all the way from Yuma and I want a libation.”

“Well, hell, he talks just like a white man!” exclaimed a voice.

“Oh shit,” said Chris.

Ezra was at the bar and Inez, who for some reason was red in the face, was serving him some of her special stock.

Two cowboys were preparing to pick on the smaller man.

“Your perception and insight are incredible, Sir. I AM a white man, as you so loosely put it. Now leave me be.”

“Why the hell you dressed like an injun then?” ask the other cowboy.

“Because, Sir, I was bushwacked and left for dead in the Arizona desert and befriended by kindly hearted, civilized children of the native soil who provided these excellent garments.”

Ezra took a long drink and then turned and stuck his Remington in the nose of the tallest cowboy. Chris wasn’t sure how he’d hidden the thing, but it sure did look big stuck up the man’s snoot.

“Now, Sir, I have answered your rude, impertinent and uncivilized questions. I shall say this only once. Leave me to my drink.”

The cowboys apparently weren’t complete idiots. They backed up and moved out of the saloon, hands raised high.

Ezra picked up the bottle and glass and went to his favorite table; the one that afforded him a good view of the door and room. He held the bottle up and said, "Please join me for a libation, Mr. Larabee, as I celebrate our rescue."

He turned and pulled out a chair in a friendly fashion, bending just a bit.

Chris observed that Inez turned even redder.

"Miss Inez, you all right?" he asked

"Oh YES, Senor Larabee." she replied, her eyes glued to Ezra Standish.

Chris stared at Ezra, but for the life of him, he couldn't see what the problem was.

Women were a true mystery.

Then Vin Tanner and Josiah Sanchez entered the saloon and headed straight past Chris and Ezra for the bar.

"Whiskey," said Vin

"Amen," said Josiah

"Why Senors, you seem very tired. Are you all right?"

"Yes'm, Senorita," said Vin politely, "We just want some quiet and some whiskey."

"If you are ill, perhaps Mr. Jackson can help?" said Inez, unconvinced.

Both men winced. Inez tilted her head questioningly. Josiah sighed and then said, "Ma'am. Nathan Jackson is one of the kindest truest men on earth, but he could beat a grizzle bear at mean when he has a hangover."

"Amen," said Tanner, putting down his glass for another refill. "Ain't nothing getting me away from this bar," said Tanner.

"Mr. Tanner, Mr. Sanchez, care to share a fine aged scotch with us in celebration of our triumphant return?" asked Ezra from across the room.

"Except that," said Vin.

Then the bat winged doors swung open and JD Dunne accompanied Mary Travis into the saloon.

"See," he said, in his usual rapid-fire fashion, "Nathan is the only one hurt and he's mending really good. Everyone is home safe and sound."

Mary looked the group sitting at the table over and came to a dead stop.

"Mr. Standish! Whatever are you wearing?" she gasped, eyes wide.

Ezra smiled, stood, and bowed. From behind the bar, Inez dropped a glass.

"This," said the conman, genially, "is native attire belonging to the Papago Indian Nation, a highly civilized and skilled people worthy of great respect. I lost most of my apparel in the desert through tragic circumstances and they kindly provided me with these alternative garments."

"He skunked ‘em" said Vin shortly and took another drink.

Mary wandered closer and Ezra, ever the gentleman, took her hand. "As soon as I have refreshed myself, I shall change my garments to something more appropriate for these environs. I hope I do not disturb you?"

Mary's eyes appeared to pop slightly.

"Bother me?" she murmured. "Um, no, not at all. I just never pictured you in a loin cloth," she whispered.

Then she shook her head, and said more loudly, "I'm glad you came home safe!" She looked at Vin and Josiah, "All of you. We missed you." Then she turned and dashed out of the saloon.

Chris stared after her speculatively as J.D. joined their little group. "I don't get it," he muttered, thoughtfully, "He looks like a damn injun."

They sat and drank companionably for a bit, while Josiah told of their adventures on the way home from the prison transport. Chris was impressed. “Damn, Ez, you done real good.”

The doors suddenly shot open and Mrs. Potter rushed in with an inquisitive look. She looked about avidly and then spotted Ezra.

“Mr. Standish, you are … er, back. I’m pleased to see you safe and sound.”

Ezra let a curious look come over his usual pleasant mask, but rose and went forward to take the lady’s suddenly trembling hand and bow over it.

Another glass behind the bar crashed to the floor and Inez said something in Spanish that caused Vin to spit fine malted scotch across the table.

Ezra turned back and walked to his seat. Mrs. Potter and Inez both stared at him.

Then Mrs. Potter grinned and nodded to the others and left, just like Mary had.

Ezra took another sip of whisky.

“Ah believe I had better head to my room and change my attire. I’m afraid I am causing some kind of stir among the gentler sex.”

He drank the glass down and headed up the stairs to his room. Inez appeared to stare at him all the whole time. Then she disappeared into the back room. Then the sound of giggling drifted from the back.

Chris Larabee stood up, annoyed, “Come on, boys, “ he said, “Let’s escape before this turns into a hen party.”

Vin stood, “I wanted to visit the bathhouse anyway.”

“Amen to that, Brother Vin,” Said Josiah.

They apparently left just in time. A crowd of the town’s ladies was converging on the saloon.

Vin looked over toward the bathhouse. Ezra, still dressed in his Papago garments was walking rapidly with fresh clothing and towels.

A whole flock of disappointed womenfolk peeked in the saloon, shrugged and prepared to go home.

Vin took all of about a second to make a decision. True, Ez was a friend, and a good one. But Ezra had scared the snot out of him in the desert. He deserved this.

“Hey, Ez.” He hollered down the street, catching the attention of every man and woman. Wasn’t often that quiet Vin Tanner raised his voice.

Ezra turned, a questioning look on his face which turned to something approaching polite horror at the sight of the women.

The flock immediately made for the bathhouse, giggling the entire time. “Oh, Mr. Standish,” one of them cried in a cooing voice.

Ez bolted.

Vin grinned at Chris, J.D. and Josiah. “Couldn’t help it. We were sure we’d lost both of them. Josiah and me was plum lathered up, dirty, mad, scared and then found him dressed like that acting like he was at a party.”

“Amen to that.” Josiah added.

In the distance, a cackling noise could be heard and dismayed cries of, “Ladies, really!!!! Please!!!!!!!!”

Vin smiled at his friends. “That just about makes up for it.”

The End