The Past Redeemed
Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8| Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37
"All right, then. Everyone know what to do?"
Hanley's gruff, businesslike tones cut through the warming desert air as he addressed his small, deadly group. They all stood now in front of the rocky caves, ready to ride, their mounts saddled up and packed.
"Yes, sir!" Trent said firmly with a confident smile as he adjusted the tilt of the beaten-up silk top hat on his head.
"Stop fiddlin' with that silly hat, Trent!" Gray barked, annoyed.
Trent glared at him. "Look, just because noone else here cares how they look-"
"Forget the damned hat!" Hanley interjected angrily.
Trent sighed and shot Gray a dirty look. "Me an' Stan are supposed t'go to Sutler's Forge an' see about scarin' up some extra guns."
Gray cast a glance at the large ex-convict. "Glad you can put up with this sissy, Stan."
Stan grunted and said in a deep voice, "If it means I kin get some decent chow an' some new faces, I'll put up with anythin'!"
"An' what was wrong with the rabbit I fixed you fellers?" Pony asked as she adjusted the straps on her saddle.
"Nothin', if you like yer food gamey an' fleabit," Stan replied.
"Ain't my fault grub's scarce round here," the girl growled, brushing off her dusty hands. "You wanna fix your own meals, you're sure welcome to."
"Once we take care of Yates an' them lawmen we can get to Mexico an' use our stash to live like kings," Hanley assured them. "Til then shut your damned spoiled mouths. Now me an' Dark Sun - " He jerked a thumb towards the buckskin-clad, sharp-eyed young man with the long, dirty blonde hair who stood nearby with arms folded in silence, " - are gonna watch 'em as they leave town an' track 'em as they go. We have to wait til they get where noone can help 'em. An' if they're goin' to Tascosa I know just the spot."
Stan shifted a little. "Uh, you sure that's a good idea? Remember the last time we had Dark Sun shadowin' somebody?"
"Yeah," Trent grunted, placing his hands on his belt and leaning back a bit. "Jumped 'em early an' by the time we got there he'd cut 'em up so bad their own mothers wouldn't know 'em."
Hanley eyed the silent Dark Sun carefully for a moment. The young man stared back, his blue eyes cold and without emotion, save a barely contained killing rage.
"Hell, boys, why you think we got 'em with us?" Hanley chuckled with satisfaction. "Never saw someone with such a talent an' taste for killin'."
Dark Sun's eyes were impassive. "I move only as the spirits command me," he said quietly.
Hanley seemed unshaken. "Yeah, well, I'm commandin' you to keep that fancy knife of yours in that belt til I say so. Right now I just need you to be quiet an' keep an eye on that travelin' party, an' I know you can do that."
"Hell, he's snuck up on me enough times," Pony muttered, folding her arms. Dark Sun's eyes darted over to her, passing over her body once before returning to gaze at Hanley. His expression remained unreadable.
Pony noticed it and glowered at him as a shiver ran through her.
"Now Gray," Hanley said, pointing back to Four Corners, "you git back to that town an' keep an eye on things there, make sure they don't send out any reinforcements or anything to the posse once they leave town. If they do you get some guns an' take care of it."
Gray scowled and hefted his rifle. "Wish you wasn't givin' me the borin' job, Hanley."
Hanley sighed. "Dammit, Gray, this is gonna be a rough ride, an' let's face it, you just ain't up for it. You're too old-you've almost got yourself killed three times lately."
"I can kill a man same as Trent can, or Dark Sun!" Gray insisted.
"May be," was the unimpressed reply, "but we're gonna be ridin' far an' fast, an' this is too important to take any chances with. Just wait for us here-when we get back it'll be Mexico an' freedom."
Gray gave up and stood back, still unhappy but unwilling to argue further.
"What about me, boss?" Pony asked, stepping forward.
Hanley glanced at her and paused, as if he'd forgotten she was there. "Oh. Um - you go with Trent an' Stan, watch their backs."
Pony's eyes blazed. "Why can't I come with you an' Dark Sun? You might need another gun, an' you know I can shoot!"
Hanley eyed her squarely. "Because you're just as apt to go off as he is, that's why, an' I got enough to do without havin' to watch both of ya. I know you - first chance you get, you'll go put a bullet in Yates' worthless skull before we're ready, just to prove how tough you are. Wouldn't you?"
He was standing before her now, towering over her sixteen-year-old frame. She glared at him, unable to lie about the anger flaming her cheeks.
"I owe it to Eli Joe," she hissed, staring firmly into his eyes.
Hanley laughed. "Forget that shit, Pony. You just want to prove what a tough little bitch you are - not that you ain't done that already, God knows."
Trent snorted. "Any girl who'd be with you would have to have an iron stomach, Hanley."
"One more smart remark, Trent," Hanley snarled, "an' I'll have you hog-tied an' give you to Dark Sun for some knife work on that pretty mug of yours."
Trent grimaced and shut his mouth.
"Now we'll all meet at White Wolf Gorge on Thursday morning," Hanley continued. "'Cept for Gray, of course."
Gray sighed. "Shit."
"They should be at least that far along by then, an' we'll go from there. Now get going."
The parties split up. Hanley and Dark Sun mounted up and rode towards Four Corners with Gray, while Trent, Stan and Pony prepared to ride east to Sutler's Forge.
"Hanley's a touchy bastard, isn't he?" Trent griped as he swung his lean body easily into his saddle, once Hanley was out of earshot.
"Ya shouldn't mouth off to him like that, Trent," Pony said as she picked up her reins.
Trent smiled. "Worried about me, darlin'?"
Pony snorted. "No! But he wasn't kiddin' about Dark Sun."
"That boy scares me," Stan confessed.
Trent laughed. "Hell, Stan, you're so big that if he ever tried anything, you'd just have to fall on him."
"I could snap 'im like a twig, sure," Stan replied. "But you seen his eyes? He ain't right in th' head. Someone like that could murder us in our sleep or somethin'. An' you know he killed that Indian family that raised 'im - it was only cause he so good at sneakin' off an' hidin' that the rest of the tribe didn't get 'im."
Pony smirked. "You've killed three prison guards armed with guns an' that skinny little boy has you scared, Stan? That's funny."
"Men with guns I can fight," Stan shot back. "Crazy folks is different. An' Dark Sun is crazy."
"Good thing he's on our side, then," Trent said, turning his horse's head and spurring him into a trot. "C'mon, let's get to Sutler's Forge an' start hiring some guns."
Stan smiled teasingly as he goaded his huge chestnut forward. "We'll get some handsome fellas for ya, Pony."
The girl sat for a moment before urging her mare to follow the others.
"Pick whoever you want, boys," Pony said in a weary voice, mostly to herself. "I learned early they're all the same."
Without another word they rode towards the rising sun and Sutler's Forge.
Vin grunted as he loaded up the last of his saddlebags onto Sire, his blue eyes squinting in the bright morning light.
"Don't get in no trouble while we're gone, Buck," he said to the handsome, black-haired man standing behind him. The other man laughed and pulled on his tan hat, his mouth grinning widely beneath a long black mustache.
"Hell, Vin, you don't got to worry about that," Buck said with conviction. "This boy's learned his lesson the hard way. No more playin' around for me!"
The tracker chuckled. "Reckon Hell's freezin' over right about now, Josiah?"
"Could be," the tall preacher mused as he tightened the cinch on Prophet's saddle. "That's the only time I ever thought I'd hear Buck swear off women."
Buck smiled and nodded in acknowledgement of his comrade's derision. "Yeah, you all think this is a big joke, don't ya? Well, you just wait an' see. You're gonna see a new Buck Wilmington."
Vin finished with Sire and turned to Buck. "I hope I can come back an' see that, Buck. Should be quite a sight."
The other men grew quiet, and Buck cleared his throat.
"Look, Vin," he said seriously, "they're still lookin' t'hang you in Tascosa. Why don't you stay here an' watch things, an' let me help Chris take that yella snake Yates to trial?"
Vin eyed Buck thoughtfully, then the others; he could see they were all hoping he'd take Buck up on his offer. But he smiled a little and shook his head.
"Sorry, Buck. It's my own fight, an' I aim to see it through." He began to climb onto Sire.
Buck nodded. "Well, I sure hope that Yates fella gets to feelin' like helpin' ya out soon."
Vin's jaw was set as he picked up Sire's reins.
"Leave Yates to me," he said in a soft, deadly tone, and spurred forward to the jail.
"Time to go, Yates."
Chris's voice echoed loudly in the jail and mingled with the rattle of the metal keys as he unlocked Yates's cell. Behind him, Nathan held a rifle on the prisoner, daring him to try anything.
"And I was just getting comfortable," Yates said with a smile as he picked up his hat and walked out. Chris glared at him and began cuffing his wrists.
Yates eyed Nathan and smirked. "You coulda left your gunman outside, Larabee. I know you wouldn't dare kill me as long as you think I'll free your friend."
"Oh, don't worry 'bout that, mister," Nathan said, his eyes flashing. "One of the things I've learned is where a man can get painful shot without dyin'."
"You don't cooperate, he might just have to pass on that knowledge," Chris grunted as he fastened the cuffs.
Yates chuckled, not at all disturbed. "That'd just be a waste of bullets, boys. I got nothin' to say, 'cept that Tanner's gonna hang like the guilty dog he is."
Like lightning Chris's hand shot forward and grabbed the collar of Yate's dusty shirt, dragging him up a little bit so he could stare into the gunslinger's blazing ice-green eyes.
"Easy, Chris," Nathan counseled.
Chris said nothing, simply staring furiously into Yates's smug eyes.
Yates smiled. "Yeah, you don't like that idea, do you, Larabee? Or maybe you just don't like the fact that it's your fault Tanner's in this little spot. You think I'm Tanner's enemy, but what would he need me for when he's got friends like you?"
Chris's fist tightened on Yates' collar and he pulled him up so violently that Nathan became alarmed.
"Chris!" he cried, but the other men ignored him. He now regarded Yates quietly, with one hand locked around his collar, too angry to speak.
The door opened, and Vin popped his head in. He sized up the situation and sighed. "Still ornery, huh?"
Chris stared at Yates for another moment, then released him with a rough shake. "Yup," he rasped.
"Well, maybe some ridin'll loosen 'im up," Vin offered. "We're all set to go."
Chris glared at Yates, grabbed him by the lapel of his musty jacket and shoved him at Nathan and Vin. "Good, I need some fresh air."
"C'mon," Vin said, latching onto Yates and dragging him outside towards the horses.
Nathan hefted his rifle and looked at Chris, whose face was still contorted with anger. "You gotta take it easy, Chris. You know he ain't gonna do us no favors."
Chris leaned against the desk and wiped his mouth, still staring after Yates. He shook his head slowly. "Can't take it easy when it's Vin's life on the line."
"We all know that," Nathan agreed calmly. "An' with five of us workin' on 'im, I bet we can change his mind by the time we reach Tascosa."
Chris sighed, stood and adjusted his gunbelt. "If I don't kill him first," he muttered, and walked out the door. Nathan took a deep breath and followed him, knowing too well the truth which lurked behind the threat.
"Now you all ride real careful," Buck was warning them as Chris and Vin mounted up. Yates was secured on a brown gelding, with Josiah holding the horse's tether.
"We'll wire you when we reach Tascosa," Chris said as he gathered Valor's reins. "Keep an eye on things here, an' get a few townfolk t'help you out if you need it."
"Oh, don't you worry 'bout ol' Buck," Buck smiled. "I already sworn off the only thing that ever gave me a lick of trouble, an' I can handle anything else they throw at me."
His last words were drowned out by the clatter of the arriving stage; all of the mounted men and Buck turned to watch it stop up the street. The door opened, and the sole occupant stepped out, a buxom young woman in a clean but very worn low-cut dress which denoted her status as a working girl. As she brushed the tight black curls away from her face and looked around, clutching her patched carpetbag, Vin smiled and looked at Chris.
"Reckon this beats the old record," he grinned, glancing at Buck's dumbfounded expression. He was obviously smitten.
"Just be careful this time, OK?" Chris said with the hint of a smile in his eyes. Buck could only nod wordlessly, not looking as if he'd really heard what Chris had said.
A rattling noise filled the air, and a small supply wagon lumbered around the corner into view, driven by JD. He pulled up alongside Chris and gave a nod.
"We got enough supplies t'last us to Tascosa an' back," the young man announced, pushing his bowler hat back on his head a bit. "Mrs. Potter even threw in a bag of jerky on the house!"
"That was right nice," Josiah observed.
"Yeah, I'll have t'say thanks when we get back," Vin added, giving Yates a significant glance. The prisoner glared at him with a small, smug expression, and said nothing.
Chris then looked back at the small group, a serious light in his eyes now. "Right. Let's go."
Buck recovered enough to wave and say "Good luck!" as his friends and Yates moved out of town. As the group rode down the street and out into the vast desert towards Tascosa, they remained oblivious to the thin, gray-clad figure who stood far up the street, watching their departure, Buck, and the newly arrived working girl with equal interest.
Ezra sighed as he dipped his fine handkerchief in the cool water of the small stream; not even noon and it was hot already. This was not going to be a pleasant trip.
He wrung out the damp cloth and applied it to his face and neck, idly watching Chaucer as the beautiful horse drank from the running water. They were in a small rocky patch of rough growth beneath the shade of some sparse trees, far enough away from Four Corners to suit Ezra's taste. Now, he thought as he stretched out in the shadows and rested on his elbow, he needed a plan.
First, he had to resolutely put Four Corners behind him. It felt good to finally be away from the painful memories of that place; now he could just chalk it up to another in a long line of misadventures, and go on. No doubt he would soon be able to forget all about it-at least this is what he told himself with confidence. No different, after all, from the dozens of other places he'd been. Simply another stop on the way to his fortune-it obviously wasn't going to happen there.
A frown creased his brow as he pondered this idea. If it were true, then why did this odd burning persist in his gut? Why did this feel more like a mistake than a blessing?
Because you're a sentimental fool, he chided himself as he stared at the sparkling waters of the stream. You allowed yourself to be conned by all their hollow talk of honor and justice. How many times were you almost killed alongside them, and what reward did you get for your efforts? Nothing but broken promises and betrayal, and no gentleman worth his salt would stand for it. Even if this didn't feel right, it was right. He just had to get used to being on his own again, and he would, in no time. He had always worked best by himself, and he knew now that it would never be otherwise. A sad thought to others, perhaps, but just fine with Ezra, now more than ever.
His mind wandered back as he contemplated his past; he should have known by now that the pain of association was simply too great. He remembered how much he had loved his father, a gambler with more skill than sense; his disappearance when Ezra was five had hurt, but Ezra had been too young to really feel the pain. Then later, the abandonment by his mother, dropping him off like so much dirty laundry whenever he was too inconvenient to have around. The cousins never wanted him there - or if they did, the friendship was soon ended when his mother returned for him. No one he loved ever stayed in his life for long.
The hope when she came back for him, that maybe this time she'd stay and he could actually have a home again like his cousins did, was shattered every time. And the pain grew with each betrayal, until it became unbearable. Then he discovered a simple truth - that he could end the pain by relying only on himself. He'd forgotten that fact for a while, but now he knew it would be his credo forever. It was the best way, for him.
He shifted and rubbed one eye, going over his plan one more time. It was very important to him that his former comrades never knew he had decided to leave; it had to look like an unavoidable occurrence, not a deliberate action. Not that they'd probably care in either case, he thought sourly, but he didn't need an angry Chris Larabee coming after him for desertion of duty.
After a week he'd send a telegram, telling them that things in St. Louis were too complicated for a swift return. He'd wire Judge Travis, too, apologizing for his prolonged absence. Damn good thing he signed that pardon before he left, Ezra thought - at least his bail jumping at Fort Laramie was no longer a concern. Then, after another week, he would send a final message-it would be a long time before he would be able to resume his duties. If they wanted to hire another gun while he was gone, he would tell them, he certainly wouldn't be offended...
He reached into his boot to retrieve his wad of bills. His nimble fingers flew as he carefully counted the stash; two hundred and sixty dollars. Enough to go pretty much anywhere, and put some more away for the saloon besides. He grit his teeth as he replaced the money; he was going to own a saloon some day, no matter what tricks or betrayals he had to face.
How he longed, right then, to stand in the glittering barroom of his future establishment and bathe in the success they had denied him. He wished his former comrades could see it; they'd probably try to win his favor then, all men wanted to court the wealthy and they would be no different. But he'd just ignore them, as they had ignored him. It was childish but damn, that thought felt good.
He sat up; it was getting time to move on. Ezra sucked his gold tooth in thought; where to go now? San Francisco was promising, but the journey would be rough on horseback and he didn't want to give up Chaucer. Phoenix or Dallas beckoned, but there was a good chance his mother might be in Phoenix and he definitely did not want to run into her. And the road to Dallas might cross with the one to Tascosa, and he'd have a hard time explaining to the others why he was going to St. Louis by way of Texas.
Perhaps, he mused as he stood up and adjusted his fine brocaded vest, he should simply do as he had always done - ride down the road and see what lay ahead. It had worked before, and if he just reminded himself to keep his mind on his goal and not get involved again, everything should work out. Let the others fight for justice, if there was such an entity - he was going to fight only for himself from now on, since no one else seemed interested in the job.
He folded the wet handkerchief and placed it in his pocket, then strode to Chaucer, patting his neck before climbing into the saddle. The horse nickered a bit, licking its wet lips as Ezra gently guided it back onto the dusty road. Ezra smiled as they resumed their journey, trying to banish the odd heaviness in his heart with the hope that the unhappiness of Four Corners was now behind him, and only good fortune lay ahead.
With that aspiration, he spurred Chaucer along to the next town, which the crudely made signpost at the side of the road indicated to be Sutler's Forge.
Hanley stood next to Dark Sun as they waited on the rocky, brush-choked rise near Four Corners. Neither man moved as they scanned the barely discernible road leading out of the town towards Tascosa. The hot wind stirred Dark Sun's long blonde hair, but that was the only motion on the hill. Behind them the horses chewed silently on the dry desert grass, bored; they had been out there for hours.
Of the two motionless figures, it was Hanley who was the most impatient. His mind kept wandering back to the hidden stash, its location known only to him, a hoard of almost a thousand dollars collected from various jobs. Eli Joe had intended that money to take them to Mexico, and they would've gone if it hadn't been for that ridiculous grudge the desperado had held against Vin Tanner. Forget about him, Hanley had told Eli; you know he's got some pretty mean friends now, and he'll never find you down in Mexico.
But no - that stupid fool just had to go after Tanner. And now instead of living it up in Mexico, they were all in danger of becoming wanted. Even if Yates didn't talk, the other men who survived might. Hanley couldn't get to them, but he could make sure Yates never told anybody that some of Eli's gang had escaped. And of course while he was at it, get Tanner and his friends for good measure. If it wasn't for Tanner they'd be south of the border, and free, now.
Dark Sun suddenly straightened, staring off towards town; Hanley followed the direction of his gaze and smiled.
"Bout time," he muttered, as they observed a small group riding towards Texas. They were close enough to tell that there were five riders, Yates and four of the lawmen. The fifth was driving a small wagon, probably supplies for the trip. But one of the lawmen was Chris Larabee, a man whose prowess with a gun was legendary; he was worth two ordinary gunmen, maybe three. Hanley sure hoped Trent and the others could get a few more guns.
"We could get them so easily from here," Dark Sun murmured quietly, one slim hand dangling to the gun which hung low on his hip.
But Hanley shook his head. "Be better to wait til they're out farther, an' we got more guns. These boys ain't gonna go down without a fight."
Dark Sun kept his gaze fixed on the group, a dreamy smile on his scarred face. "I hope they do fight. I'd like to see what they're made of before we kill them," he said in the same gentle, languid tones.
"Well, keep yer shirt on," Hanley huffed, slightly unnerved by his companion's detached behavior. "Mebbe after it's all done I'll let you cut up the bodies."
Dark Sun didn't look at him, but Hanley still saw an anticipatory smile creep across his lips as he stared at the traveling figures.
Hanley couldn't help laughing at his expression. "Damn, boy, I wish I could figure out why you like killin' so much."
"The Spirits bid me to slay, and I slay," was the languorous reply, as if it was obvious. "It is the only way they will leave me in peace."
The older man coughed. "Yeah, well, too bad them spirits can't carry a gun, else we could get this taken care of a whole lot sooner."
They began to walk back to the horses.
"We can keep an eye on 'em while we're ridin' to meet Trent an' the others," Hanley said as he mounted up. "If we hang far enough back even Tanner shouldn't be able to spot us. Once we get the men an' the chance, we'll finish 'em off and head south for good."
"Perhaps we should collect the bounty on Tanner," Dark Sun offered as they began to ride off.
Hanley grunted. "Yeah, that's an idea-an extra five hundred dollars wouldn't hurt. But that means you can't cut his face up, or else we'll never get them to believe it's Tanner. Think you can promise me that?"
Dark Sun said nothing as they rode into the rocky hills.
"I told you, Senor Wilmington, I know nothing about her except for her name!"
Inez's voice was soft but insistent as she hustled about serving drinks and wiping down the counter in the busy saloon she had just acquired. She barely threw a glance at Buck's handsome form now leaning against the bar, his eyes bright with curiosity and seemingly oblivious to the elbows of the patrons around him.
"Aw c'mon now, Inez-"
She tossed him a scalding look. "It is Senorita Roscios to you, Senor, until you improve your manners or offer a proposal."
"One thing at a time, darlin'!" Buck grinned. She sighed, rolled her eyes and returned to work.
"Look," he continued, sliding off of the barstool to follow her as she darted back and forth between the counter and the tables, "I already asked at Dan's, he said she didn't come there. So you're my only hope of findin' out who that poor workin' gal is."
"She said her name was Molly Havers," Inez replied in a terse, distracted tone as she hefted several empty glasses onto a tray, "and that she was looking for a place to stay and work. I told her she could work here if she pleased, it was none of my concern, but that all of my rooms were rented."
Inez sighed and shoved the tray of glasses into Buck's hands. "Here, Senor-if you are going to buzz around me like a bee, you may at least make yourself useful."
She saw that the bartender was becoming swamped again and hurried back to the bar, Buck trailing after her.
"Yeah, but did she say where she was goin'? To th' boardin' house or - "
"Hey, sonny!" a drunken voice drawled from nearby. Buck looked down to see a swaying railroad worker seated at his elbow. "Gimme another glassa beer!"
"You 'sonny' me again, friend, an' you'll be drinkin' that beer through your nose," Buck said in a friendly voice before hustling off after Inez. The worker scowled after him and stared forlornly at his empty glass.
"He ain't too friendly, is 'e?"
The worker started a bit and looked around, his blurred vision finally settling on a thin figure standing nearby, an older man clad in what looked like a castoff Confederate uniform. He chuckled.
"Aah, they're all that way. No time for us workin' stiffs," he groused.
The other man smiled a bit and sat down, pouring some of the beer from the bottle in his hand into the worker's glass. "They are, huh? Here, it's on me," he said with a half-toothed smile. "And who are 'they'?"
"Hey, thanks, mister!" the other man slurred in surprise. "Aaah, that whole crew, the 'peacekeepers' ol' Travis hired to protect this cowshit town. Hah!" He spat bitterly before downing the drink.
"He's one of 'em, huh?" his companion said, eying Buck closely. "Oh -name's Will Foster. Folks call me Gray."
"Paul McVey," was the smiling, bleary reply. "Folks call me-uh, Paul."
"Well, Paul," Gray smiled, pouring some more of the beer into McVey's glass, "I never heard of no town with more'n one sheriff. Exactly how many of these peacekeepers are there?"
McVey belched and wiggled his fingers, a confused look on his face as if he was trying to work out the sum in his head. "Uuuuh-six. No, seven, seven. But he's all that's left now, I heard the rest took some guy out somewhere. Damn, that's good beer."
"There's only one peacekeeper left in town?" Gray said with some astonishment. "Guess they better hope nothing happens, huh? Heh!"
"In this town? Not likely, old man," McVey grunted.
Gray's eyes flashed a little but his smile stayed on his weathered face.
McVey's red eyes traveled over Gray's coat. "Hey, was you in th' Reb army, Greg?"
"That's Gray, friend," Gray replied, drawing himself up proudly and fingering his coat. "Yep, served in the last year of the war. Wanted to 'fore that, but they didn't have no use for a ol' man like me til all the young ones was used up."
"Huh," McVey grunted, idly rolling his empty beer glass on the table. "You should meet this fella, Ezra Standish. He's a Reb, too. Young guy, about your size. Great fella fer cards an' dressin', has this fancy red coat an' this gold tooth. He's one o' them peacekeepers too."
"Well, this here's the only color jacket any true Southerner oughta wear," Gray affirmed with a nod as he tugged at his tattered coat. "Now, my friend, I'm a stranger to these parts, an' you bein' so familiar with things round here, mebbe you could show me around a bit."
McVey looked at Gray for a minute, then laughed. "For another bottle o' beer, Reb, I'll give ya the damn grand tour. Do ya need a place to stay? There's a roomin' house up th' street. That's where Wilmington - " he jerked a thumb at Buck, who was now nursing a beer alone at the bar and keeping a sharp eye on the door - " lives, come t'think of it, so at least you'd be safe, with one o' them gunmen livin' there."
"The only lawkeeper in town lives there, huh?" Gray said, studying Buck with narrow eyes. "Yeah, friend. I s'pose that'd suit me just fine."
The afternoon sun filtered through the dusty, narrow streets of Sutler's Forge as its inhabitants went through the motions of another day. Few of the citizens of the small mining town spared any attention to the trio of riders as they meandered down the road, glancing through the crowd for likely hired guns.
"See any likely prospects?" Trent asked as they ambled along. A few of the girls were noticing his handsome features and well-cut, though faded, clothes, and waving at him. He smiled and winked in their direction, enjoying the attention.
"Look like a bunch of damn sheep to me," Pony said sourly. "Typical scrawny farmers an' yella shopkeepers."
"Damn, I'm hungry," Stan muttered through his thick black beard, rubbing his stomach with one huge hand. He had doffed his convict clothes for more subdued, though just as ragged, ordinary wear.
Trent sighed. "Yeah, I could do with a bite myself. Guess we'll have to do the honest thing an' pay for it this time."
Pony nodded. "There's a saloon over there. Bet they got food."
They all looked up the street, to where a large hanging sign proclaimed the establishment of the Dancing Dog saloon and restaurant. A few patrons could be seen coming and going, mostly rough-looking types.
A smile slowly spread across Trent's face. "Yeah, they got food. An' plenty of toughs lookin' for a buck too, I bet."
"Good a place as any to look," Stan agreed.
"Yeah," Trent said absently, as if he were deep in thought. "An' I bet I know how we can find the best of 'em to join us." Then, "Hey, Pony, you go get some supplies from the general store. We're gonna be needin' bullets."
"The store?" Pony asked. "I thought we was goin' to the saloon."
"Dammit, girl, do as you're told!" Trent snapped. Pony's eyes blazed and she went for the gun strapped to her side, stopping just short of pulling it out.
"Don't you order me around, Trent," she snarled, her expression deadly. "I don't much take to that."
Trent looked at her and laughed. "Jesus, Pony, calm down for God's sake."
She hesitated, then straightened, still eying him warily.
"I just got an idea, that's all," Trent continued as they rode on. "An' I don't need no arguments right now. So get that skinny little ass of yours to the store an' then meet us outside of town when you're done."
Pony scowled at him, puzzled. "Well, where are you guys goin'?"
Trent smiled in reply. "Oh, we're going to the saloon," he said casually, "to start a fight."
Ezra sighed as he sat back in the Dancing Dog saloon, raising a whiskey glass to his lips as he surveyed the room. It was a dim, narrow little place, only a quarter of the size of the Four Corners saloon, with dirty green walls and a long dark counter running along the side wall over which huddled a tawdry collection of inebriated patrons.
Despite the small size and grim interior, the crowd was surprisingly lively, much more raucous than Ezra had encountered lately. He frowned as he finished the whiskey; he was finally liberated of Four Corners and the men who had betrayed him. He was back in his element, in a brand new environment through which he could move unimpeded by senseless thoughts of morality. There was no one looking over his shoulder here, judging his every move and expecting him to play by the rules. He was free again, as if Four Corners had never happened, living the life he had known for years.
Then why did it feel so wrong?
He frowned to himself as he absently shuffled his cards, his green eyes not really seeing anything as he sat in thought. For years he had traveled from bar to bar, saloon to saloon, cantina to cantina - he'd always been able to sit in any place where a game was being played, and call it home. He'd done it with the saloon at Four Corners, too. But now, the atmosphere seemed to hold an eerie displaced quality, as if some part of him knew he wasn't supposed to be there. But that was nonsense - where else did he belong?
He shook the feeling off, or tried to. It was his own fault, really, he decided, he'd gotten complacent and stayed in one place too long. He'd lost his traveling skills. Well, he'd soon have them back. He could no longer call the Four Corners saloon home, now, could he? His mother and the others had seen to that. Best to forget it and move on.
Even if it did seem odd to drink a whiskey without listening to Buck's hearty laugh, or JD's awful jokes. Even if he did expect to see Vin or Chris lounging quietly nearby, watching it all with wordless vigilance. Ezra pursed his lips, and told himself he'd get used to it.
"Card game, mister?"
Slightly startled, Ezra glanced up to see a young dark - haired man in fine but shabby clothing standing beside him. Quickly putting away his pensive mood, Ezra flashed a bright smile and picked up the deck of cards which had been lying ignored in front of him.
"I'm never one to turn down a challenge, my young friend," Ezra said smoothly as the cards flew effortlessly between his nimble fingers. "Which game of chance did you have in mind?"
The dapper stranger shrugged as he plopped into the seat opposite Ezra and pushed back the battered silk top hat on his head. "Hell, it don't matter to me. Draw poker's fine."
"Very well." Ezra finished shuffling, reached into his pocket and withdrew a coin, laying it on the table between them. "We'll make the ante at four bits."
His opponent leaned back as he dug around in his coat for a moment before producing a similar coin, tossing it casually onto the wooden surface. "I'm in. You ain't from around here, huh?"
Ezra smiled indulgently as his Southern voice drawled, "What tipped you off?"
The other man laughed a little as Ezra dealt the cards. "Well, your Reb voice for one. An' the fact you actually got some style for two. Wish I could lay my hands on a red coat like that."
The dealing finished, Ezra gracefully picked up his hand, saying, "Well, you may get the chance to win it off my back if Lady Luck is against me. I myself won it - "
"THERE YOU ARE, YOU SON OF A BITCH!"
All heads, including Ezra's, turned to see a huge man with a scraggly black beard and mustache standing at the saloon doors, his ugly face red with fury. For one shocked moment Ezra thought the new arrival was staring at him; then he realized that it was his partner who was in danger.
"Oh, shit!" the young man said, throwing down his hand.
The large man barreled into the bar, shoving drunken men aside as he plowed his way to their table. He towered over both of them as he stood eying Ezra's partner with barely contained fury.
The young man seemed only annoyed. "What do you want, Jack?"
"We ain't finished our business," was the furious reply as the aggressor curled his hands into huge, meaty fists.
Ezra put out a hand, trying to calm things down before anyone - including himself - got hurt. "Now gentlemen, surely - "
The huge man shot him a lethal stare. "Who's the sissy?"
Ezra blinked and drew himself up, insulted but unsure what to do about it, as the man appeared highly dangerous.
Jack - that seemed to be the young man's name - scowled at the intruder. "For God's sake go away, Frank. I told you I never touched your sister."
"That ain't what she says!" the huge man bellowed back, and gave Jack's shoulder a firm shove.
There was a loud metallic clicking sound, and both Jack and Frank turned surprised eyes to the source of the sound. Ezra was sitting calmly watching them, his right hand gripping the small Derringer he'd been hiding up his sleeve.
"I believe you were told to go away," Ezra said in an even voice as he stared at Frank. "I'd advise you to comply, unless you'd like a sissy bullet in your behind."
There was a pause, and Ezra noticed that both men were regarding him with the same expression. They looked impressed, although by what exactly Ezra couldn't tell. Then the expressions swiftly changed; Frank grabbed Jack by his worn lapels and hauled him out of his chair. With a mighty heave he swung him at Ezra, causing both men to collapse to the ground with a crash as the table flipped over, sending cards and drinks flying through the air. As they fell the Derringer discharged, the bullet shattering a corner of the already cracked mirror above the bar.
As Ezra struggled to stand, he saw Jack had already gotten back on his feet and was actively attacking his much larger adversary. Other men stepped in to separate them, but they soon found themselves targets as the combatants turned on them as well. The rowdy patrons cheered and laughed as the punches flew, and the aggression soon spread among the entire population of the saloon.
Ezra finally gained his feet. He sighed as he pushed the Derringer back into his sleeve and pulled his hat down.
"Aw, hell," he muttered, and dove into the fray to find his card - playing partner.
Fists, beer bottles, pieces of broken chairs and various unidentifiable objects were flying in all directions, and Ezra was clipped a few times as he waded through the tangled mess of battling humanity. He was able to deflect all blows, and punched more than one attacker out as they tried to drag him down.
Finally he spied the young man, who had been hauled off by the huge beast who had started this whole fracas. They were in a corner, exchanging blows in an animated manner. Ezra began to rush to his aid - he felt he should at least protect a fellow gamesman - then something made him pause. He studied them for a moment, ducked a spittoon which went flying by his head, and then approached the two men in a calm manner which was at variance with the chaos surrounding him.
"I believe it is time we quit this establishment," Ezra announced to his partner, who was actively being throttled. "May I assist you in overthrowing this Goliath?"
"It's under control," the young dandy gasped, and ferociously kneed his opponent in the groin. The huge man went down with a surprised groan, and Ezra, seeing his chance, grabbed the young man's arm and dragged him out through the back door. As he closed it he heard the sound of a bottle shattering against the other side, which would have struck his head had he hesitated a moment longer.
They found themselves in a back alley, a deserted area littered with discarded barrels and bits of garbage. The young man was panting heavily and trying to adjust his disheveled finery.
"Whew!" he breathed with a huge grin. "Thanks, friend. That was quite a scene, wasn't it? Did you see where my hat went?"
Ezra was standing quite calmly, eying the other man with intense suspicion. "I believe your associate will be bringing it out to you, 'Jack' - if that is your real name."
Jack scowled at him as he buttoned up his shirt, which had been pulled loose in the fray. "What the devil are you talking about? You mean Frank?"
An exasperated sigh escaped Ezra's lips as he walked towards the other man, a bored expression on his dusty face. "Indeed, if his name is really Frank -which I doubt about as much as I do your identity. Exactly what was that charade in there all about?"
Jack seemed thrown for a second, then assumed an air of insult. "I don't know what you mean, mister. You saw that lummox - he attacked me."
Ezra's lips twitched into a bemused, skeptical smile. "If a man that size truly wanted to injure you, I hardly think you'd be in any condition to have this conversation."
Jack's eyes flashed. He started to say something, but Ezra held up his hand.
"Never mind, young man. I've learned enough in my profession to know a scam when I see one, but I am hardly interested enough to wait around for the real story. If your aim in this enterprise was to destroy the bar, then I must say you've succeeded admirably. I can hardly wait to see which of this town's businesses you and your friend assault next. Good day."
He tipped his hat to the flummoxed young man and walked away.
"Hey, hold it!"
Ezra knew he shouldn't, but he stopped and turned around, eying the other man with mute expectance.
The young man approached him, his clothing now smoothed out but his face writhing in confusion. "I - how'd you know?"
Ezra smiled slightly. "I used to work a boxing scam as a youth, where I learned how to pull a punch. You and your partner were doing the same thing -I had no trouble recognizing it. Just a word of advice - if you want your audience to believe you're fighting, it's generally wise to get a little bloody."
He patted the bewildered young man on the shoulder and turned to go when his way was blocked by the large man, who was now accompanied by two rough -looking men from the bar.
The large man pointed at Ezra. "He with us?"
His partner shrugged. "Actually, Stan, we haven't gotten that far."
Stan blinked. "Oh. Well, these two guys say they're in. Here's your hat." He handed the young man the silk top hat, now a little dented and dusty but still intact.
"Damn!" the other man said in dismay as he looked at it, beating the crown a few times with his palms to knock the dirt off. As he put it back on his head he looked at Ezra with admiration. "Well, I must say, mister, you did a good job seeing past our little job. I'm Trent, this here is Stan."
Ezra looked from one to the other. "Ezra Standish. Charmed, I'm sure. Is there a reason I should give a damn who you gentlemen are?"
"Several little gold reasons, I'd say," Trent said with a smile, putting his hands on his belt. "How'd you like to make some money with that fast trigger finger and quick wit of yours?"
Ezra started, and glanced at them all for a moment, slightly stunned. Good Lord, he thought, this is how it all started before - a temporary job for a few dollars, which had turned into something more. At least, he thought it had. Amazing, that two such opportunities would come along in his lifetime. But this time he knew what to say.
"I'm sorry, my fine friends," Ezra said aloud with a sigh, "but my days as a hired gun are over." He turned and began to walk quickly away, determined to untangle himself as soon as possible. He pushed through the two men standing next to Stan without looking at them.
"Oh, now, come on," Trent pleaded as he ran behind him, trying to catch up. "It's just for a few days, and there's fifty dollars in gold in it for you."
Ezra stopped, the amount catching his attention. Fifty dollars? Slowly he turned to face them, his green eyes sharp.
"Do you have it on you?" he asked in a low voice.
Trent dug into the pocket of his ratty coat, producing a small leather bag. "There's twenty-five here. Half now, half when we're done. I saw how you handled yourself in there, I know you're worth it. Fifty dollars for a few days' work - not a bad sum these days." He held the bag out towards him with a clinking sound. "Yours if you want it."
Ezra's mind whirled. He really didn't want to get involved again, with anyone. And whatever these men wanted his gun for was almost certainly illegal. But - fifty dollars would certainly aid in his saloon fund, and he desperately needed the money. And what did the legality matter, anyway? He'd learned that even 'honest' men couldn't be trusted. These specimens could hardly be worse.
"What exactly will you be needing my services for?" he asked warily.
Trent smiled. "I'll let our boss explain that. If you aren't interested, then you can go, with twenty bucks in gold for your trouble."
Ezra looked them all over very carefully. It sounded tempting, and it would be one way to have some company while traveling across the desert. A small voice protested the obviously illicit nature of the situation, but he ignored it. This had been his life before he had met Larabee and the others, and he had to get used to it again if he was to survive. He could worry about the morals after he was rich.
"Very well," he said.
Trent smiled. "Great," the young man said as he pocketed the bag again. "You'll get the money after you've heard our plan and decide you want in. Now let's go."
They began walking, down the back alleyways towards the edge of town. As the buildings petered out, Ezra saw a very young girl standing with several horses behind the last structure, waiting.
"'Bout damn time," he heard her mutter in a sore tone. He studied her closely; she couldn't have been more than sixteen, but the sullen glare she gave him indicated a soul which was far older, and already full of bitterness. He was taken aback at such an expression in one so young, and felt a stab of sadness in his heart on her behalf.
"Oh, stop complaining, we had work to do," Trent said casually. "Pony, this here's Ezra Standish."
Ezra tried to smile at her, but found he couldn't; there was something in those angry eyes which killed any attempt at even superficial kindness. So he simply nodded at her, and was not surprised when his gesture met with a blank, suspicious stare.
"An' this is Mark an' Lew," Stan said, jabbing a thick thumb at the two men behind him. She glanced at them as well, and sighed.
"Great, three more mouths to feed," she said with disgust as she swung up onto her horse.
"Aw c'mon now darlin'," Trent said in a playful voice as he mounted up, "you're forgettin' the fun part."
She glared at him briefly, and a shiver ran through Ezra when he considered what the 'fun part' must consist of.
"You men go get your horses an' meet us at the fork in the river," Trent was saying. "We'll fill you in there."
With that, the three of them whirled and rode off. Mark and Lew chuckled at each other and walked away.
"Goddamn, can you believe it? Fifty bucks!" said one.
"They must be bank robbers or somethin'," the other mused.
"Hell, who cares. Be some excitement anyways, an' I ain't above breakin' the law for money like that."
"You said it! It's the only way a fella can get rich these days."
"Wonder if that gal's a fringe benefit? Heh!"
The other man burst out laughing. Neither of them had noticed Ezra walking silently behind them, rubbing his chin with one finger as he sank deep into thought. The expression of ancient anger on that girl's face haunted him -she was only a child, what was she doing with these men? And what could have happened to her to so totally destroy any traces of youthful joy she must have once possessed?
He knew he should concentrate on the money, it was all that was important here. He'd learned too well not to open his heart to anyone. This wouldn't be like his last stab at employment; he was only in it for himself, and when it was over he'd be riding away for good. The young girl's plight tugged at his sympathies, surely, but he couldn't afford to be concerned. He had his own life to watch out for.
As they mounted their horses and rode towards the river, Ezra squared his jaw and steeled his soul, determined to view this as just another step on his journey, to be forgotten the moment he moved on.
A small corner of his heart, however, whispered to him that it would not be that easy.
Buck whistled to himself as he stepped out of his rented room and carefully locked the door behind him. A heady sense of optimism buoyed his spirits; today, he promised himself, he was going to find Molly Havers and let her get a taste of the Wilmington charm. Inez had been no help, but then Buck had never needed anyone's help when it came to women. He could do this on his own.
He pocketed his key and trotted down the worn wooden stairs. Wonder how Chris an' them are doin', he thought as he came down into the small dingy room which served as the boarding house's parlor. Sure hope they don't run into any trouble...
The parlor was usually empty at this time of day, but Buck saw a new face standing at the table where Mrs. Miller conducted business. It was an older man, skinny and grizzled, dressed in a threadbare gray jacket which looked to Buck as if it were of Confederate make. They must have just been finishing up, for Buck saw the thin old woman hand hand the stranger a key.
Curious, he walked up to the table, studying the new arrival. "Afternoon, Mrs. Miller. Got yourself a new resident?"
She glanced at him, a thin smile on her sharp face. "This is Mr. Adams. He's taking the room across from yours."
"That a fact?" Buck replied with a slight smile. There was something about this guy that he didn't like, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
"Yes it is, mister," Adams said brightly, a pleased smile on his fleshy, stubbled face. "Hope that don't put you out none."
"Me? Aw, hell no," Buck said, forcing a laugh. "Always happy t'have new folks come t'town. Where you from?"
Adams shoved his key in his pocket. "Oh - all around. Heard tell you're the law here."
"Just part of it, friend," Buck replied. "But if you got any trouble just come get ol' Buck an' I'll do what I can for ya."
The other man gave him a very keen look, then nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that. Thanks, mister."
Buck gave his arm a friendly whap. "Anytime, friend. 'Scuse me."
He stepped out into the street, unaware of the penetrating gaze which followed him. The man in gray studied Buck for a few more moments, then picked up his saddlebags and went up to his room.
The sun was beginning to set as Ezra and his traveling companions neared the end of their ride. It had been an uneventful trip, and Ezra had stayed silent for most of it, content to observe the situation and figure out his place in it, if any.
The other two new hires were excited and gregarious, talking with anticipation over the new venture. Despite their entreaties, Trent, the dandy with the top hat, refused to give them any more information on what the job was all about. However, he was more than willing to divulge with pride the number of men he'd shot, and soon the trio were exchanging tales of their prowess with a gun with bloodthirsty zeal.
Stan, the huge mustached man, said little other than the occasionally voiced complaint that he was getting hungry, and how even in prison he'd gotten more square meals than he did now. Trent's reply had been that if Stan wanted to be back in prison he would be more than happy to turn him in, which had effectively put an end to the escaped convict's laments.
Ezra had noticed that the girl Pony was riding silently at the back of the group, and he guided Chaucer to ride beside her, hoping to draw her out in conversation. Purely out of curiosity, he told himself.
"Your friends seem to be in a testy mood," he observed, nodding at Stan and Trent.
Pony snorted and gave him a glare. "They ain't my friends. I just ride with 'em."
"Hm," Ezra muttered, a bitter reflection rising in his mind. "I sympathize with your plight, my dear."
She eyed him sharply. "What's a plight?"
"Your situation," he smiled. "The fact that you must trust your back to someone who does not have your best interests at heart." He gave a rueful shake of his head. "I've discovered that unfortunate feeling, believe me."
Pony grunted as she spurred on her horse. "Well, that's too bad, mister, but don't waste no pity on me. Hell, I ain't trusted no one since I was a little kid."
To hear such hard words from someone so young caused Ezra's heart to twinge just a little. "A tragedy, to be sure," he said quietly, thinking on his own lonely childhood.
She looked at him and shrugged. "Ain't no tragedy. Just the way things are," she said in a resigned tone, and kicked her horse into a gallop. As she trotted away, Ezra looked after her, trying to keep himself from giving a damn what happened to her. He had to be careful not to care again.
They topped a small, rocky rise, and the river plain came into view, the narrow waters diverging and spreading out to their separate destinations. Two riders were there already, their camp marked by a small fire which flickered in the setting sunlight. Must be the rest of our merry band, Ezra mused as they picked their way towards the figures. Let's see what this is all about.
As they rode up, he could see that Trent and Stan had already dismounted and were speaking with one of the two men, a large burly fellow with red hair and a beard wearing a long tan duster. After a few words, this man gave Ezra and his traveling companions a sharp look, his round face serious and suspicious.
"You the guns Trent hired?" the man snapped.
Ezra reined in. "If the job is as agreeable as the money offered, then I believe I can answer in the affirmative."
The bearded stranger gave Ezra an angry glare and shook his head.
"Great, another smart-ass," he muttered, walking around their horses. "Go get yourselves some coffee. Then we'll talk."
Soon they were all gathered around the fire, Ezra holding a battered tin cup of a substance which could only loosely be termed coffee. The bearded man was standing and pacing back and forth in front of them, fiddling with a riding whip as he spoke.
"Okay, here's the deal," he said in a firm, explanatory tone. "We're ridin' after some men who've crossed us an' need takin' care of. You feel like helpin' us out, you get the money when we're through."
One of the other hired guns, Lew, perked up. "Sounds right good ter me. I ain't kilt nobody in quite a while, an' I been gettin' restless."
The other man looked less certain. "Hey, if you're talkin' about murderin' folks, I ain't in for that. I thought this was gonna be a holdup or somethin'."
The man stopped, flexing the whip, his eyes glinting in the orange firelight. "If all goes as we want, yeah, there'll be some killin'. If ya ain't got the stomach for it now's the time to run."
Ezra sat still, thinking as he looked at the hulking figure. This was a mistake, he thought; this group was out for blood, and he did not want to involve himself in someone else's vendetta. Besides, he did not fancy himself to be the sort of cold-hearted killer these people obviously were -including, sadly, the girl.
He was just about to voice his concerns when Mark, the other hired gun, took a deep breath and stood up. "Well, then, I'll say goodbye to ya. I don't want no part of this."
The burly man eyed him carefully. "Then you'd best git. An' don't tell nobody or you're dead."
Mark laughed as he stepped toward his horse. "Hell, I won't. I'm a wanted man myself, I don't truck with the law. Just don't want no more blood on my hands." He paused, then glanced at Trent. "I still get twenty dollars, right?"
Trent smothered a smile, reached into his pocket and tossed a small leather bag at Mark. "Sure, friend. There ya go."
Mark caught the bag, walked quickly to his horse and mounted, as the rest of the group watched in silence. He touched the beast's sides with his spur, and began trotting away into the twilight, the bag of coins jingling faintly as he rode.
Ezra was watching him go, wondering if he should follow him, when a loud explosion caused him to jump. Mark tumbled off of his horse with a cry as a bullet tore through his back, his body landing in the hot dust with a lifeless thud. He lay still as his horse skittered nervously, spooked by the noise and the loss of its master.
Startled, Ezra turned to see the bearded man holstering his gun, his expression grim as he examined the dead man's motionless form. The other men seemed highly amused; Trent was on the verge of laughing aloud.
Ezra swallowed, all thoughts of leaving now gone. "I see you have no compunction against shooting men in the back," he said quietly.
The burly man looked at him for a moment, then burst into hearty laughter.
"I'll shoot yella cowards anyplace I want," he declared. "Dark Sun!"
Another figure stepped silently into the firelight, a slight young man in buckskins with long blonde hair and a blank expression. Ezra's skin crawled at how severe and haunted he appeared, and how he seemed to move without making a sound. The new arrival stood without speaking, gazing expectantly at the man in the tan duster.
"Go bury that carcass," the man said, jerking his head towards the dead man. "If he really was a wanted man, maybe we can get a few bucks for the body before we go to Mexico. And you know what that means - no mutilation!"
As these words were spoken, Trent sidled up to the corpse and nonchalantly retrieved the small bag of money, humming with a smile as he jammed it into his pocket and sauntered away. The blonde youth disappeared, and the bearded man turned to address them once again, his eyes studying each man closely. Ezra was sitting up now, every nerve wary; he had no idea what this was all about, but he felt a good deal of sympathy for whoever it was this man had a grudge against.
"Okay, well, we got seven, that's a pretty good number, it should be enough. I'll give you the details when the time comes, but for now all you need to know is, my name's Hanley. An' you're gonna help me teach some stuck-up gunmen a very, very hard lesson."
"Sounds good t'me," Lew chuckled. "We campin' here tonight?"
"Yup," Trent said with a grin as he came forward, a saddlebag slung over one dusty shoulder. "We got a few extra bedrolls if ya ain't got one. Just pick a spot."
He moved off to talk to Hanley, and Ezra went to unsaddle his horse, his mind spinning. He was getting a very bad feeling about this situation, but escape seemed foolhardy at the moment - perhaps he could slip away later when no one was looking. The fifty dollars did not seem quite as attractive as it used to.
Why was that, he wondered as he undid Chaucer's saddle. He'd been around men like these all his life, they'd never bothered him before. They were like all of the usual cutthroats and reprobates in every saloon he'd gambled in. Before he could look on their actions with a jaundiced eye, accepting that all men were like this, and feeling no reason to believe any different. It was the way he'd lived his whole life.
So why was it so hard to be among them now, he mused as he plopped his heavy, dusty saddle on the ground. So they were outlaws - what did he care? All men were heartless and self - serving, out for only themselves. Some were simply more honest about it than others. Ezra had always believed that, and now he had more reason to think that way than ever.
But for some reason the conviction was not as strong as it used to be...
Ezra jumped a little and looked up from where he'd been brushing down Chaucer. Pony was standing on the other side of the horse, her hard eyes glittering in the twilight.
He regained his composure and nodded. "Thank you. You're certainly a fast cook."
She shrugged. "Any fool can cook beans," she muttered, and walked away towards the campfire. Ezra put down the brush, watching her with heartbroken amazement. Only a child, and already she had the look of a seasoned outlaw.
Dinner was eaten quickly, and afterwards each member of the group prepared to bed down. As Ezra looked over the ground and tried to find where the fewest rocks and scrub bushes were, he noticed a dark figure riding briskly around the camp, and recognized it to be the silent blonde-haired young man.
"Your associate is certainly active this evening," he remarked to Stan, who was walking by with his bedroll.
The huge man shivered. "That there's Dark Sun. You seen him earlier, the skinny kid with the long blonde hair. He don't sleep much so Hanley has him patrollin' for the law."
"A member of the night owl persuasion, hm?" Ezra noted, unrolling his bedding. There was a pause, then Stan crouched down beside Ezra, his voice low.
"Look, mister, lemme give you some advice," he said, glancing around. "You gotta take Dark Sun seriously. Whatever you do, don't get him mad at you. He ain't right in the head. Killed the Indian family that raised 'im when he was only a kid an' he's been killin' ever since. Says he hears spirits tellin' 'im to do it, whatever that means. So just stay out of his way."
Ezra gave the former convict a calm look. "That should be easy enough. I plan to only be in your fair company for a day or two."
"Huh." Stan rose, shifting his bedroll on his shoulder. "Thing is, if Dark Sun don't like you, you'll find yourself in his way sooner or later. He'll make sure of it."
With that, Stan walked off. Ezra sighed; this really was turning out to be a bad idea, but he didn't dare try to ride off if there was a psychotic killer standing guard. He'd figure another way out of this.
Footsteps caught his attention, and he looked up to see Pony standing in front of him as he knelt on the ground.
"Need anythin'?" she asked in a flat tone.
He grunted as he brushed of the bedroll. "Other than a nice, warm featherbed, no, thank you, my dear."
She shrugged. "Suit yourself," she muttered, and walked away. Ezra frowned as he watched her; that was certainly odd, he thought. When he looked up again, he saw that she was now standing with Lew, the other hired gun.
"How 'bout you?" she was asking him.
Lew was unrolling his own bedding as well, and seemed puzzled as he glanced up at the young girl. "What's that, gal?"
"Your friend over there didn't need nothin'," she replied without emotion. "Hanley wanted me t'ask both of you, as you're new an' all."
A grin spread over Lew's dirty face. "You offerin' me somethin', gal?"
Pony shrugged, as if it meant nothing to her. "Just what the other men get. You interested?"
Lew gave a small whoop. "Hell yes! Just lemme get myself ready."
Ezra felt his blood go cold. It was bad enough that this child was living the life of a hard - bitten outlaw, but he could not abide the thought that she was prostituting herself so casually as well.
Pony was leaning against one of the rocks, arms folded, patiently waiting for Lew to prepare himself, when Ezra approached her. She barely glanced at him.
He tapped the brim of his hat with one finger. "Excuse me, Miss - um - "
She stared at him. "Name's Pony."
"Yes," Ezra said quickly, "is your, shall we say, offer still valid?"
"Sure," she said shortly, glancing behind her at Lew, who was struggling with the buttons of his shirt. "I'll be with you soon as I'm done with this feller."
Ezra forced a smile, though his stomach was turning over. "I must insist on the whole night."
"Yeah?" She leaned back, appraising him in the campfire's glow. "You must be one hell of a guy. Even Trent gets wore out after a while."
Lew suddenly appeared, shirtless and slightly irritated. "What's goin' on here?"
"I was simply negotiating for the young lady's services," Ezra replied. His green eyes studied the man closely; he was short, stocky, unshaven, with a full, dull- eyed face and short, dirty brown hair. Ezra's instincts told him Pony could expect rough treatment at Lew's hands.
"Oh you were, huh?" Lew retorted, and grabbed Pony's arm tightly. "She's already taken. Go get your own gal."
Pony wrenched free and drove one small fist forcefully into Lew's stomach. Caught off guard, Lew gasped out in pained surprise and fell to his knees grabbing his stomach, his eyes large with amazement.
"It's up t'me who I'm with tonight," Pony snarled at Lew, her eyes blazing, "an' I'm goin' with this guy. He smells better'n you."
Ezra smiled, trying not to let his relief show too much. "A wise choice, my dear."
They walked away, leaving Lew gasping on the ground and staring after both of them in bewildered disappointment.