Disclaimer: None of them are mine. If only they were
Summary: When Chris's confidence is shaken by one of his own men, the seven have to try to regain their balance.
Author's Notes: This is the first M7 fic I've actually managed to complete, and my first to make it into the public eye. I finally managed to watch enough episodes to gain a little confidence in my characterisation and my meagre abilities, with a little help from a friend. This is for her, and despite the bribery, I thank you.
For some time, rumours had spread around the neighbourhood that the hired guns posing as the law in Four Corners were too good to go up against. That the possible benefits of hitting such a plentiful bank were not worth the odds of coming out alive. Some occasionally thought the rumours were just that and thought to give it a go. Thought that with firepower, manpower and a good plan that they would be living it up in some slick cantina on the southern side of the Mexican border. At the end of their escapade, barely a one would still consider the rumours to be just that. If they were still alive to think on it. Not many of the most recent group to attempt it were still available for comment.
They had tried. Buck had been hit in the thigh when someone had crept up on him from behind. But that had been the height of their triumph. Each of the peacekeepers had picked off targets from the street that had been acting as look-outs. Chris had resorted to utilising the dynamite from the hardware store and Ezra's uncanny knack with the substance to persuade the remaining bank robbers that giving up would be the better option. Josiah and JD had picked off the men that sought escape through the rear door of the bank. Those that survived had made a futile attempt to try to run under a barrage of gunfire.
Josiah didn't bother to announce himself as he headed for the open doorway of the now ruined front of the First-National bank. He knew without a doubt that his comrades were not trigger-happy, they would look and assess in that millisecond before they fired.
He spared a quick prayer for the souls of the three would-be robbers that now lay crumpled in the street. He dipped his head once to mirror the gesture from the man in black who rose from behind the wagon he'd used as cover for the duration of the fight.
A flash of white brought his attention to the hardware store where the gambler was stripping his jacket off awkwardly, the reason for his lack of usual grace explained by the bright red stain covering the right sleeve. Josiah was anxiously assessing the devastation in front of him to map the best path across the destroyed boardwalk even as Chris approached Ezra.
The gambler hissed as he attempted to raise his right arm to re-holster the Remington. Tossing the jacket over the hitching rail in front of the store, he freed his left to complete the task before turning his attentions to another ruined shirt clinging to the heavily bleeding wound.
"You ok, Ezra?"
"Fine, Mr Larabee, thank you for your concern," Ezra muttered sarcastically.
"Don't look like fine to me Ezra, you're bleeding all over my town."
Ezra huffed and turned to look at the gunslinger, holding his tongue as the concern on the older man's face registered. "The bullet went through and it hurts like a bitch. Happy now?"
Ezra sniffed audibly, knowing the gunslinger found amusement as much in his decision to lose the 10-dollar words as he did with the admission of pain. "Outstanding," the gambler mumbled as he turned his attention back to his arm.
"Well then, Mr Larabee, when I stop bleeding all over your municipality, be it through death or by having Mr Jackson forcing his ministrations upon my person, we need to sit down and have a little talk about the value of blowing up a bank. Especially one that contains money."
"You don't bank there, Ezra."
"That's not the point. All money has ."
"Your attention," Chris interrupted with a grin.
" value," Ezra huffed, wincing as he peeled shirt fabric away from the wound.
The gunslinger snorted. "Well, hell Ezra, it's money."
Both men turned quickly to seek out whatever threat had caused the young sheriff to shout a warning. The healer spun from where he was tending to Buck, a hand reaching over his shoulder to his throwing knives, the ladies man grabbing his Colt and struggling to play his own part.
The tracker was swinging down from the Virginia's balcony as JD's shout went up, even as the only man that still held a gun, there was no way he could get the new threat in time. Josiah was blocking JD's aim, and as the big man was picking his way through the debris that remained of the exploded boardwalk, he couldn't get out of the kid's way fast enough.
"Shit," Vin cursed, landing ungracefully as he struggled to bring his rifle to bear at the man that had just come barrelling out of the batwing doors of the saloon.
As he straightened himself up, the twin Colts of Chris and Ezra barked out almost in unison. His shot was not needed. The man was already spinning down onto the dusty street.
"Now you just stay there, Buck," Nathan admonished as the ladies man attempted to stand. "You ain't gonna undo my hard work, everyone else is still standing so stop fretting."
Buck huffed and settled himself back against the wall. Nathan nodded, satisfied that the man would stay put. "I'm just gonna see if he's still breathing."
"If he is, make sure he ain't shootin," Buck called after him.
Nathan jogged over to the where Chris and Ezra were stood over the sprawled man. As he got closer he realised there was little good he could do even if the man was still alive. Both bullets had pretty much hit the man dead centre. As the healer crouched down, the feeble struggles of the gunman slowed further, his energy concentrated on one final glare at the black-clad gunslinger.
"You murdered my brothers," the man managed.
"You picked the wrong town," Chris sneered just as the man coughed up more blood and his body shuddered before becoming still.
Nathan shook his head at the gunslinger's questioning gaze and rose back up to his full height. Time to deal with his own wounded.
" 'Siah, JD, you reckon you can get Buck up to the clinic?" the healer asked as the two men approached.
"Sure thing brother."
"Is Buck going to be ok, Nate?"
"Sure thing JD, he'll be back on his feet in no time so's you just better keep one hand on your hat."
Nathan watched them go before turning to the gambler. "You too, Ezra."
"I assure you that "
Whatever it was the southerner was going to say, he didn't get the chance to finish. "Don't even start with me Ezra," Nathan warned as he stepped over the body of the eleventh man and grabbed the conman's good arm. "You're bleeding all over the place and I for one ain't cleaning up after you."
"What is it with you gentlemen and your concern for me bleeding all over the thoroughfare ?"
Chris silently watched the arguing pair as they made their way down the street to the clinic, then turned his gaze to the body at his feet.
Eleven men. Somehow, between the seven of them, they'd missed the scout.
"We're getting too damn cocky," Vin muttered as he ambled up to Chris. "We missed one."
"Cowboy?" he prompted, when he failed to get a reply. "Ezra and Buck'll be fine," the tracker added as he followed Larabee's line of site to where Josiah and JD were helping Buck into the clinic and Nathan was hauling a still protesting Ezra up the stairs after the trio.
The dark-clad gunslinger slowly turned back to tracker, and Vin frowned at the look of confusion on his face.
"You ever see Ezra draw?" he finally asked.
The tracker shrugged. "Only that pea shooter of his, don't think he's ever had the call for a fast draw, seems that Derringer does him fine." Vin studied his friend's face. "You asking for a reason?"
Chris shot a look over to Nathan's clinic where JD had just been shoved out of the door and from underfoot, before turning back to the sharpshooter.
"He just outdrew me from a left-handed shoulder holster."
Vin raised his eyebrows, and breathed in a long loud breath. "Scared?"
Vin shrugged off the sudden cold glare that was thrown in his direction. "You can frustrate the hell out of each other whenever one of yer's got a burr under your saddle, don't mean anyone'll reach for their hip."
"Can't say I haven't had that notion," Chris admitted.
Tanner shifted his weight to slouch more comfortably as he studied his friend. "Maybe it was a one off, Chris. A lucky grab in response to a yell, probably already reaching 'fore JD called."
Vin held Chris's gaze for a long moment before the gunslinger finally nodded once.
"Now, ya gonna help me clean up this mess?" Vin asked, silently motioning for JD to give them a hand to clear the bodies.
Chris turned to follow the tracker, but not before casting one last frowned expression towards the clinic where Ezra was holed up.
"I assure you Nathan I am not in any need of that sling." Ezra Standish was perched on the edge of the healer's bunk, trying to ignore the stench emanating from one rather used stocking on the foot of Buck Wilmington who was sprawled on the bed next to him. He eyed the tattered piece of cloth that Nathan was trying to attach to his person with unmasked disdain.
The healer huffed at his southern patient's stubbornness. "Ezra, quit yer whining. That bullet ripped straight through your arm and I know it's gotta be sore as hell. I don't care if it don't match yer fancy clothing, it'll keep that arm still and it'll heal a lot quicker."
"Ezra, the quicker it heals the faster yer can get back to yer card games."
"I assure you I am quite adept at dealing single-handedly." Ezra's manner was rather offended, his posture straightening at the supposed slight on his abilities as a cardsharp.
Nathan huffed and ignored the snickers coming from his other patient. "You wear the sling until I say so and I'll not force you to drink any more herbal remedies."
"Hell, Nathan, I'll offer to wear a sling on this leg if you promise not to make me drink that pond water."
"Shut up Buck," Nathan muttered, careful to maintain eye contact as the gambler considered the pros and cons of the deal offered to him. After what seemed like an eternity to Nathan, who was rather uncomfortable with the whole calculating look he was receiving, the gambler finally nodded.
"Very well, Mr Jackson, you have an agreement. But as a gentleman I trust you to keep to your word."
Nathan glared at Buck this time as the ladies man started chuckling again. "You can just shut up Buck, cos you ain't going nowhere for a few days and there ain't no way I'm letting any of your lady friends past my door."
Buck's sniggers spluttered to a coughing halt that just started off the gambler. "Now, now my friend, you can't expect to entertain the fairer sex with our resident healer keeping his medicinal eye on you."
"Ah come on Nate, I've had worse wounds from shaving," Buck moaned.
"A few nights ain't gonna harm ya, Buck," Nathan answered, a vengeful smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Nathan, let me tell you, you know how to wound a man."
The healer's snickers were matched by the gambler. "Buck, my friend, the man is of the medical sciences, I believe he can find more permanent measures with which to wound you."
"Buck, ya just lay there and behave and I promise it won't hurt a bit," Nathan grinned as Buck began to protest. "Now Ezra, go on and get, I've got to sort Romeo out here. You just keep your word and that sling on, I'll have another look tomorrow. You take it easy now."
"Thank you, Mr Jackson. Now maybe you could find it within yourself to do something about Mr Wilmington's foot odour then we'll all breathe with less constraint."
"Out!" Nathan shouted as Buck started wriggling with the sole intention of gaining some payback from the gambler.
With a broad grin on his face, the gambler grabbed his hat and made a quick exit from the clinic, rejoicing in the muttered curses coming from the ladies man. He paused on the balcony of the clinic to slip his hat back on his head, re-schooling his features to smooth away the lines caused by the pain that had settled in his arm. He glanced across the street to where JD was just exiting the undertakers with a stack of wanted posters tucked under his arm. The gambler's mind began to calculate the amount a bounty or two would have to add up to before being split seven ways in order to pay for a replacement jacket, or at the very least a talented seamstress to repair the latest casualty to his wardrobe.
With a resigned sigh he surveyed the rest of the dusty burg before deciding on his intended destination. With the removal of the dead from the street, the living had emerged. Some returned to their daily business, some gathered to clean up, some formed groups to applaud or more likely to censure the actions of their peacekeepers. Deciding that Nathan's prescribed rest was the better option available, especially when the route incorporated the saloon, Ezra plotted a way back to his room that would steer him away from the gathered residents and more importantly Niall Jarrod. Graced with more patience than a saint, even Ezra Standish was not about to tolerate the verbal backlash from the bank manager over the state of his real estate. He'd leave that particular joyful experience for their unofficial leader. A quick glance at the ruined front of the bank suggested Josiah had already decided that he owed God for some misdemeanour. Ezra knew the preacher had less respect for the bank manager than he did for rattlers, but ever one for hopeless causes and, for some reason, menial labour, it appeared that Josiah had taken on the task of rebuilding the boardwalk.
He tipped his hat as the preacher turned to investigate whatever had triggered his sense of being watched. Turning, he began to pick his way back to the saloon via the rear of the buildings.
Chris Larabee had barely said a word since they had started to clear the street of the evidence of the gunfight. It hadn't taken the three of them long to clear the ten bodies - the eleventh was resting an aching head in the saloon and waiting on the judge to arrive. Most of his comrades had fallen conveniently within a few yards of the undertakers and the establishment's owner now had a full house and more to his liking, a full wallet. The appointment of the peacekeepers in the previously lawless town had significantly reduced business for the undertaker; that was until someone came along who was stupid enough to test the legends.
Once the bodies had been removed from sensitive eyes, Larabee had wordlessly headed to the saloon, equally soundlessly ordered a bottle of whiskey and made his stand at the seven's usual table with the batwing doors in plain sight. After checking that nothing more was needed of him and JD had something to keep him away from the clinic and Nathan's hair, Vin had followed. He knew that before the day was through he was likely going to end up as a buffer between Larabee and someone stupid enough to ignore the gunslinger's obvious bad mood.
The tracker nodded a greeting as he hooked a foot around the seat adjacent to the gunslinger and reached for the opened bottle as he slouched down in the chair. There had been many a time where the friends had shared a bottle in near total silence. On the majority of those occasions the silence was companionable, today it felt stifled, as if Larabee's unease wound itself into all that came within its reach. Vin took the time the silence availed to study his friend. With the exception of the occasional glance around their surroundings, a natural act of a gunfighter, Chris barely let his eyes roam from the batwing doors. Vin sensed it had to have something to do with that moment in time during the gunfight where the only two people able to act were Chris and Ezra. That one instance shaking the gunslinger's normal confidence. Not one to step on any man's private matters, the tracker was left wondering if Buck had any better insight to his friend's thoughts. It was when Ezra walked in from the rear of the saloon, that Vin knew whatever was eating at Chris had something to do with their gambler.
Chris gave the half-empty bottle a shove in the southerner's direction as Ezra gingerly dropped into one of the vacant seats, the liquid sloshing as the bottle skittered over the uneven surface to rest in front of the gambler. Ezra nodded his thanks as he poured himself a generous amount into one of the spare shot glasses.
"How you feeling, pard?" Vin drawled.
"Better now I have one of these in my hands and our resident healer has someone in more dire need to attend to."
The tracker chuckled. "How is Buck?"
"Complaining about Nathan's no-fraternisation-on-the-premises rule, other than that he seems in fine spirits, unlike myself and this particular beverage," Ezra groused. "Opting for the good old fashioned rot-gut I see, Mr Larabee."
Chris shrugged once, but kept silent as he downed his shot and reached out for the bottle to garner a re-fill.
"Loquacious as ever," the gambler muttered, but pushed the bottle back across the table.
"Don't mind Chris here, Ez, I think someone crawled up when he weren't looking and snuck away with his friendly stick." Vin's comment earned him a glare, but not the verbal backlash he was trying to provoke.
Ezra downed the remainder of the whiskey in his glass before rising to slightly unsteady feet. "Well gentlemen, despite the stimulating company on offer, I fear I shall have to excuse myself in order to adhere to Mr Jackson's instructions and reacquaint myself with my mattress."
Vin nodded, "Take care of yourself now."
"Have no fear, Vin, that is always my number one concern."
The gambler tipped his hat as the tracker snorted at the parting comment, knowing full well that Ezra rarely put his own well-being so far in front of others. He kept an eye on him as he slowly ascended the staircase. He knew Nathan had probably had a battle on just to get Ezra to listen to him, also guessed from the southerner's current destination that the loss of blood had knocked the normally energetic man for six.
He wasn't the only one keeping a very close watch on Ezra's progress. As Vin glanced at his companion, he realised Chris was also carefully observing the southerner. If Ezra was aware of the scrutiny he was currently under from the man in black, which the tracker was fairly certain he was, there was no outward showing.
And so it had continued for five days. Vin had kept one eye on Ezra and the other on Chris. He had hoped that when Buck finally finagled his release from under Nathan's protective wing that Chris's oldest friend would pick up on the tensions and know what was going on and how to deal with it. Buck, however, had stuck to his first priority, which was to get some tender care from someone who could offer the kind of loving that Nathan did not provide under the umbrella of his professional services.
Chris had managed to improve on his silence to mere one-word answers, or when he could get away with it, non-committal grunts. However, he rarely left the saloon unless it was to complete the necessary tasks as an appointed peacekeeper. With both Ezra and Buck unable to fulfil their duties, the patrols around town had to be spread a little further amongst the remaining lawmen, leaving Vin little time to keep his eye on the gunslinger.
Buck had ventured little from the room of his latest paramour, the young lady eager to remain at the beck and call of the ladies man. Ezra had barely left the saloon, preferring to showcase his left-handed abilities with a deck of cards. When in the position with no audience other than the subdued gunslinger, he amused himself with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the variations of solitaire and in sampling the varying grades of liquor the establishment had to offer.
Chris continued to keep his watch on the gambler. The remainder of the seven were left to ponder over the tension in the air.
The gunslinger's scrutiny did not go unnoticed by its object. Ezra had spent much of the past few days contemplating Chris's silence and his friend's complete intolerance of company, even from within their band of seven. Ezra had watched as first JD, then Nathan, and finally Josiah had sat at his table and tried to strike up a conversation or strove to decipher what was eating at the sombre man. All to no avail. It seemed to Ezra that only the tracker had some inkling as to what was disquieting the man in black, and since the reticence had begun when the guns fell silent after the failed bank robbery, Ezra also had his suspicion of what the issue was.
Standish had committed himself to waiting until Chris decided to come out with it, but where the bullet hole in his arm had burnt for the first few days, it now was a constant itch, and an irritation that the gambler could well do without. Ezra was struggling to keep his promise to the healer to keep the sling on until told he could liberate himself. But as another game of solitaire fizzled to stalemate, and as the itch in his arm harassed his patience as much as Chris's eyes on his person, Ezra finally decided enough was enough.
"Is there something I can help you with, Mr Larabee?" Ezra finally asked in a moment whereby the saloon was empty except for their tense presence. "You seem to be rather fond of the same personal space that I have been frequenting for the last few days."
Chris's eyes remained on the gambler, raising to lock their gazes. A slight shift in his posture was the only real indication that he had heard the question. Ezra waited him out. It was a long while before Chris finally spoke, his voice gruff with the lack of use and the over lubrication from cheap whiskey.
"Do you think you're faster than me?"
Ezra dipped his head to break the eye contact and shrugged lopsidedly. "My family motto is be the best at what you do. I was raised on that tenet, to be the fastest, the sharpest, the slickest, the most dextrous. When I was found to be lacking, I was forced to endure more practise, more tutelage, more repercussions to ensure I understood my failures and did not repeat them."
"That doesn't answer my question."
Ezra re-stacked his cards and tucked them back in the pocket of his waistcoat. "Tell me, Mr Larabee. Did you wake up one morning and realise you were gifted with a fast draw, or did you become one out of necessity?"
"That ain't none of your goddamn business," Chris sneered.
The gambler huffed at the gunslinger's stubbornness, shaking his head wearily as he rose to his feet. "We share one thing in common, my friend. Confidence in our abilities. Once you lose your confidence that you are faster than anyone else, or better at manipulating a deck, you lose your ability to be faster."
"What the hell are you saying, Ezra?"
After a moment's pause, Ezra approached the gunslinger's table and lowered his voice. "Confidence gives you the edge you need to win. If you do not believe you can win a gunfight, if you do not believe that you are the fastest draw, there will be a strong part of you that expects to lose, and therefore you will lose. To be the fastest, Mr Larabee, it is crucial to believe you are just that."
"I need to know," Chris whispered harshly.
Chris caught the gambler's good arm as Ezra made a move to exit the saloon. "When your arm gets better."
The southerner paused, eyes locked with the gunslinger's. "And what if you come out second-best, Mr Larabee?"
It seemed like forever that the two men held each other's gaze, neither willing to give in the mental battle; Chris's hand maintaining the hold on Ezra's arm. After what seemed like an eternity, Ezra wrenched his arm from the bruising grip, raised two fingers to the brim of his hat and nodded once.
"Think on it, Chris," he whispered as he turned on his heals and exited the saloon, leaving Chris Larabee to stare after his departure.
Buck Wilmington had decided that he needed slightly more jovial company than he had been keeping for the last couple of days. After milking Kate's kindness until he was steadier on his leg, he felt it was time to head back to the saloon and catch up with the boys. By some strange fate, the moment he chose to venture out of the boarding house was the same instance Ezra strode out of the saloon. Knowing instinctively from Ezra's gait that something had upset the resident gambler, and not having the strength yet to chase after him, Buck figured the saloon might give him some inkling as to what the reason was.
The moment he pushed the batwing doors open and his gaze brushed over his old friend, he knew Ezra would have given him poor odds for his money should he have bet on Chris. The new question was what the hell had crawled up Larabee's ass this time.
"Chris," he nodded as he lowered himself into a vacant chair.
From the tone, Buck figured to play it softly. "Have I missed much then?"
"Only the usual."
"Three attempts on the bank, cattle rustlers and a stagecoach hold-up then?"
Chris didn't raise his head from where his eyes were seeing something in the amber liquid swirling in the shot glass in his hand. Buck sighed inaudibly. "How's Ezra doing? I see Nate hasn't let him outta that sling yet."
The carefully angled comment finally brought Chris's gaze to meet his, and Buck's mind travelled back several years to the last time he'd seen such uncertainty in his friend's eyes.
When the door to the clinic opened, Nathan glanced up from the table he was using to mix his herbal remedies to find Ezra with a determined look on his face. He placed the pestle carefully back on the wooden top and turned his attention fully to his visitor.
"Nathan, in light of the deal we brokered, I've continued to wear this infernal contraption awaiting your sanction for its removal. Can you see it within yourself to see an end to our agreement?"
Nathan beckoned Ezra over and he started to undo the knot. "Any particular reason you're in such a rush to see it removed?"
"Only that I feel it is time I started to regain the use of the affected appendage."
"Well let me take a look at the wound and I'll let you know."
Ezra huffed but removed his jacket and shirt without further comment. Nathan tried to ignore the tension that was almost running from every pore of the gambler as he gently inspected the healing wound.
" 'spect it itches a mite," he commented as he re-bandaged the wound to protect it from the dust that covered every inch of the town.
"In moderation," Ezra admitted.
Nathan chuckled. "Which means you want to grab the nearest curry brush and scratch the skin off."
Ezra simply cocked an eyebrow at the healer as he re-dressed. Nathan sighed. "There's no sign of infection and the wound is drying up nicely. You can take the sling off, provided you don't overdo it that is."
Ezra tipped his hat. "Thank you, Nathan."
"You're welcome," the healer muttered to the gambler's retreating back, a concerned frown dragging his eyebrows down.
Josiah wiped the back of his hand across his brow to clear the sweat from his eyes, the other hand dropping the hammer back into the tool box at his feet. He squinted at the afternoon sun promising himself that one day soon he'd be sensible enough to not try to work through the midday heat. At least now the window wouldn't fly open every time the breeze strolled down the street.
He glanced up in surprise as the stable door opened and Ezra led Chaucer out. It hadn't escaped many of the townspeople's attention that Chris Larabee was not his usual charming self. What those outside the seven did not notice was that Ezra Standish was not on his usual game either. Those of the seven not privy to what was troubling two of their clan could not help but wonder whether the two bouts of melancholy were intricately connected, and just what the cause was.
Ezra rode past the church and out into the countryside with barely an acknowledgement. Josiah anxiously watched him go. A glance at the clinic next door revealed he wasn't the only one interested in the occurrence. Nathan had ventured outside and was leaning on his balcony, his posture indicating his pensive mood. From the alleyway by the general store across the street, Josiah met Vin's eyes. The tracker quickly looked away to where his boot kicked at loose stones before he swung on his heels and disappeared back to whence he had come. The preacher's frown deepened.
"Hey Buck, you're up."
JD's exuberant greeting broke the silent stare that had been locked between the two old friends. As Chris looked away, Buck sighed and flicked his eyes towards the younger man.
"Well JD, a man can't live on love alone, although I give it a damn good try."
"Yeah we've noticed," the Bostonian teased. "So how you feeling?" he asked as he literally bounded into his seat.
"Fit as a fiddle, JD," Buck beamed as he slouched back in his chair.
"Been quiet around here without you."
Buck slapped his friend on the back. "Well hell, JD, what ya expect. Buck Wilmington is always the life and soul of any town."
"Yeah right," JD scoffed. "Usually those are the towns you get run out of for chasing the life and soul in 'em."
JD's timely duck was partly due to practise as Buck swung for his hat. "Say Chris, you send Ezra out for any reason?"
The dark-clad gunslinger finally acknowledged the new company with a frown. "Nope. Why?"
"Well, he's just ridden out, figured you'd sent him somewhere."
Chris glared at JD for a few seconds before he wordlessly stood and exited the saloon, long black coat swirling in his wake.
"What's eating him?" JD huffed, wondering what he'd missed when Buck didn't comment on the abrupt departure. "And I don't mean just now," he added waving a frustrated hand to encompass the immediate area. "He's been stalking about the saloon ever since the robbery."
"Why don't you ask him," Buck said quietly helping himself to the whiskey Chris had abandoned.
"Are you kidding? And get myself shot? No thanks," JD huffed, unconsciously straightening his jacket. "I figured what with Vin keeping an eye on him it'd all been taken care of."
Buck rose an eyebrow at the last comment but didn't respond.
"First Chris goes all mute, then Ezra and Vin, now you. What is it with everyone?" JD inquired, the long pause beginning to make him feel uncomfortable.
"I ain't sure kid, but I reckon I'm gonna find out." Buck downed the remaining liquor and strode out of the saloon as evenly as his healing leg allowed.
"Finally," JD exclaimed, slapping his hat against his thigh, sighing loudly when he realised he was on his own again.
"You work out what's eating Chris and Ezra?"
Vin had heard Buck's uneven approach long before the man had ventured close enough to his wagon to utter his hushed question. Cinching the rope tight to secure the canvas flaps, he turned slowly once the ladies man had spoken his piece.
"Reckon that's for them to say," he drawled.
"JD said you've been keeping an eye on the old dog."
Vin kept silent, easing his posture into the natural slouch his aching back preferred while he waited for Buck to get to the point.
"You try to bring him round?"
Vin sighed and scratched his stubbled jaw. "He ain't talking, Bucklin."
"Ain't nothing new. And Ezra?"
"Ezra says a hell of a lot, just ain't about what's going on 'tween 'em. To be honest with you, I ain't sure he'd let me say anything to him either."
Buck turned his thoughtful gaze back out to the main street. He nodded once to the tracker before heading off.
The ladies man paused at Vin's call.
"You reckon you can fix it?"
"Been there before, pard," he answered sadly. "Just gotta see if the old Bucklin magic is still there. Hopefully if I work on the old dog, he'll bring Ez round."
Vin nodded once. Buck tipped his hat and turned back to his self-appointed task. He couldn't chase Chris, would be a waste of time to try even if fit, he'd just have to wait for the gunslinger to come to him and there was a chair on the boardwalk in front of the saloon that had his name on it.
Josiah looked up as Chris stormed down the street. It was a brave or a stupid man that paused before getting out of the gunslinger's way this afternoon. Avenging Angel came to mind as the preacher watched people scatter, Larabee barely giving anyone a glance as he kept to his route.
As Chris approached the livery, Josiah figured that the Devil on a mission would be a more appropriate analogy. And as he held out a big hand to stop Larabee's forward motion, he wondered whether he was one of the brave, or the very foolish.
"He'll come back, Chris, no need for you to make things worse by hauling him back here before he's good and ready."
Chris's stormy eyes met Josiah's determined ones. "I think you better move your hand."
"I'll move it, but you ain't going in there."
Chris's hand dropped to rest on his Colt. "You telling what to do now, Preacher?"
Josiah's hand remained against the gunslinger's chest. "Wouldn't dream of it, brother. But whatever is going on between you and Ezra, it's got the rest of us watching your tails to make sure we don't step on them and I've done walking around with my head to the ground."
Sanchez dropped his hand but moved his body to maintain the barrier between Chris and his intended destination. He stepped close enough to ensure that Chris had to step back to draw properly should his barely held control slip any.
"We all have our demons. Between the seven of us we've likely got more than the majority. Now I've been guilty of letting those demons brag us all down, and it pains me to look back on it. You be the better man here Chris, get a handle on it."
Josiah didn't answer straight away. The gunslinger had remained tense throughout his entire monologue. There had been no movement and the look that promised death did not warm even now the silence had fallen. A lesser man would have buckled, likely not even tried, but Josiah had not lived to his age letting anyone stare him down.
"Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends."
Chris's eyes flashed fire and by some stretch of sheer will he bit down on his instincts and spun on his heel. Spurs clinked loudly with the force of each step taken, but still Josiah's hushed voice reached him.
"Don't make us strangers, Chris."
Buck let his chair drop back down onto four legs and leant his weight on his knees. He'd watched Larabee's confrontation with Josiah from a distance, hearing nothing of what was said but knowing from his old friend's taut stature that whatever the gunslinger was having to listen to, it was stoking his barely checked temper. As Chris turned and headed back down the street, Buck prepared himself for the confrontation.
Chris Larabee, however, did not appear to share his friend's need for conversation. As the two men's eyes met, Buck knew he'd lost that particular round. Chris was turning on his heels even as JD came to stand by the side of the ladies man.
"So what do you reckon that's about?"
"JD, what do you think it's all about?" Buck sighed. If there was one thing he'd learnt from hanging around the other six guys was that if you wanted to know something you first of all had to ask, secondly you had to ask it right.
"You mean the whole mood from hell?" At Buck's nod JD continued. "Well, at first I thought it might have been because Ezra got hurt, thought maybe Chris messed up or something. Then I thought maybe it was because Ezra blew up the bank and Chris got the earful from Jarrod, but I ain't seen Jarrod mouthing off or anything. So I figure Ezra likely said something to wind Chris up, you know how he gets sometimes."
"Yeah, I know," Buck admitted. But Buck knew that it was unlikely Ezra could ever say anything that would get Chris in such a state for so long without getting a fist in the face for his trouble.
It was morning by the time Buck saw Chris again. The ladies man had ventured little from the saloon figuring that Chris would find his way back there once his anger had fazed out a little to something more manageable. It had taken longer than he had expected for Chris to crawl back to their usual haunt. Buck had at one point gone looking for the gunslinger in Digger Dave's but his search had not been successful. When the possible places to find a drink had all shut down for the night, Buck took that as his cue to go to bed and start again in the morning.
His own talk with Josiah could barely have been described as that. The preacher had been rather tight-lipped about what he'd said to the gunslinger that had sent him underground. All Sanchez would say was that the man was running from fear, and that in turn meant he was running from his friends. Vin had little clue as to where Chris was holed up and seemed disinclined to find him, and was just as tight-lipped as Josiah when asked what the hell had gone on.
It all had come down to the last thing Buck wanted to do. He was going to have to be as stubborn as Chris if he was going to get anywhere. When the gunslinger stalked into the saloon, Buck braced himself. Chris paused upon seeing his friend waiting for him. While deciding whether to turn on his heels, Buck took the opportunity to get the first punch in. With the saloon being deserted he wouldn't get a better opportunity, and so with his good leg he shoved a chair out from under the table.
"Have a seat, Chris."
The gunslinger stayed where he had come to rest, but Buck refused to budge. He topped two glasses up with the amber whiskey and held one up towards his friend. A quick glance around the deserted saloon revealed to Chris that there were no reasons for him to walk away from this. With one last frustrated glare over his shoulder to the street beyond he stalked to the table Buck had carefully chosen in the corner of the saloon and dropped his tense frame into the offered chair.
Buck let Chris take the shot of liquor, waiting for him to finish that one and refill the glass before he considered starting the conversation. But before he could start, Vin pushed through the batwing doors, rifle hooked over the crook of his arm. The two men sat at the table tensed as alertness rose.
"Just so's you know, Ezra ain't back yet, I'm heading out after him."
Chris made to rise but was halted by Buck's hand on his shoulder. "You need any company, Vin?"
Vin cast a brief look towards Chris before turning back to Buck. "Nah. Any trouble I know where to find you."
Buck nodded. "Watch your back."
Vin tipped his hat. "Always do."
"Should have someone riding with him," Chris said after Vin had left. He shook off Buck's hand that had remained on his shoulder
"That boy's been riding on his own for years, so's Ezra, likely just couldn't bring himself to look at your smiling face s'all."
Chris glared. "You draw the short straw?"
"No," Buck sighed. "You forget sometimes, Chris, that I know you better than you think. I stand back most of the time and let you go your own way, but I ain't about to let you slide, certainly not when you're bringing the rest of us down with you." Buck leant forward across the table. "You gotta know pard, that we'd all follow you even if you were going down."
Chris's gaze dropped to shot glass he held in one hand, thumb absently wiping away random drops of condensation.
Buck sniffed and leant back in his chair in sudden realisation. "You don't know, do you?"
Larabee raised his gaze briefly before dropping it again. "Ain't ever asked them to follow me."
"Maybe not, but you've told us not to run out on you. Means the same if you ask me."
The gunslinger's eyes flashed. "Buck "
"What happened this time, Pard?"
"What the hell "
"What happened this time, Chris, to make you doubt again, make you wanna run again?"
Buck could almost feel his own teeth grinding in sympathy as Larabee's jaw tensed.
"I remember all the times you got a bad notion in your head. About not being good enough for Sarah once you'd asked her to marry you. Not being quick enough to come back in time to save them. Not being man enough to admit you need someone from time to time."
"I'm a gunslinger, Buck. That's who and what I am. You walk that road alone," Chris said, voice grating as it forced through his clenched teeth.
"That's what you wear to the outside, but that ain't all there is on the inside. I know you better than that. So I'll ask again, what's got you stalking around town with your teeth bared?"
Buck didn't move or speak as he waited for Chris to decide whether or not he was going to speak. It was several pained minutes before Larabee realised this would not be dropped.
"I ain't sure I can be that gunslinger anymore. Ain't sure I'm fast enough to be who I'm supposed to," he finally vocalised.
"Must have had a reason to think that, Chris. Ain't like one morning you wake up and you've lost your touch," Buck shifted slightly. "What happened last week?"
Wilmington returned to his silent watching, and for everyone's sake willing Chris to open up.
"Ezra outdrew me with that Richards from his shoulder holster."
Buck took a deep breath. "So now your confidence is shaken and you think you're a has-been and no use to anyone."
The glare returned.
"As I said Chris, been there before. I know when you get a bad notion."
Buck topped up his whiskey glass, leaving Larabee with his second still untouched.
"So you wanna tell me why up until last week you considered yourself a gunslinger, and why now you can't cut it?" No answer. "Ok, you reckon Ezra can beat you left handed reaching for a gun that ain't even slung as a fast draw."
Still no response.
"You ever stopped and looked at Ezra's armoury?"
Chris shook his head once, when it became evident that Buck wasn't going to continue without a response of some kind.
"Not a good move for a gunslinger, you're supposed to read how fast someone is from what they carry and how they carry it. It's how you stay alive," the ladies man admonished. "Ok, so Ez don't have a typical fast-draw set-up, don't mean it ain't fast."
Buck sipped at the whiskey, eyes doing a quick scan of the saloon to ensure they were still alone.
"Maybe them fancy duds of his distracted you into thinking he was something else. Lemme tell you something, Chris. Ezra's guns are conversions, you ever stopped to wonder why? The Derringer and that rig is custom built for a fast draw, needs to be for that boy to keep the disgruntled card players from getting their money back and a piece of his flesh. The shoulder rig and the gun belt are Morris belts."
Buck let that fact slip into Chris's sub-conscious. It was well known amongst men in the west that Charles Morris gun belts were the epitome of skilled craftsmanship, design and prestige. But Charles Morris was a man who picked the men for whom he made them; and his standards were high. He didn't just measure exceptional speed and accuracy, he also measured the man that would wear them. Every inch of leather and stitching was as unique as the man he sold it to. Such gun belts were the archetypal symbols of fast draws; of men that would have the time and inclination to think before they drew. Buck had been surprised that Chris had not noticed that work, his old friend was familiar with it because his own black leather rig had come from Morris.
"With two Morris rigs Hell, Ezra likely is faster than you. But if he is, he always has been, pard. You wanna tell me what's changed?"
Buck knew the only thing that had changed was Larabee's perception of how fast he was in relation to the men he led. He was hoping his old friend would have known that he was more than just a fast gun to the rest of the guys, looked like Buck was going to have to point that fact out for him. It took a while for the gunslinger to respond.
"I'm supposed to be a gunslinger. I'm supposed to be fast."
"Hell Chris, you still are. But what you call fast and what the next man does is all relative. One day someone will come along that is faster, just a matter of timing, and fate. You just didn't expect it from one of your friends, certainly not when you'd already dismissed them as being slower," Buck paused for effect. "You trust Ezra and the rest of the guys enough to turn your back to them, for them to cover it."
Chris finally downed the second glass of whiskey he had held since Buck started his lecture, the liquid warm from his grasp.
"You remember what I said to you that last time we had a talk like this?"
Chris thought back to that time when grief had him by the throat. "Have the courage to live. Anyone can die." Buck's words had kicked in about the same time as the alcohol had finally run out of his system for the first time in weeks.
The older man closed his eyes and whispered, "Just when I think I've figured out how to live, life changes."
Buck chuckled softly. "It's a bitch ain't it."
Chris shook his head slightly, and allowed one corner of his mouth to curl up into an imitation of a smile.
"Being the faster draw likely makes you feel like a king, but if you think you're not enough without it, you've never been enough with it. These boys look up to you, Chris. They know you'll take them through the gates of Hell sometimes, but you give them the confidence to believe that you will bring them back out again without getting burnt. Ezra don't strike me as the type of man to follow anyone who he would consider a lesser man. Don't matter if he's faster than you, if he is at that, maybe we'll never know. You ask him to follow and he'll bitch and moan but he'll stand beside you hell, even in front of you, when it comes down to the wire."
Chris leaned back in his chair, releasing a long drawn out sigh.
"You wanna know what your real strength is?" Buck asked after a long pause. The gunslinger rose an eyebrow in question.
"You just look at the calibre of men willing to follow you through those gates, and if that don't tell you something then I can't say anything that's gonna help you get your balance back."
Buck nodded once and headed out of the saloon, hoping that their hushed conversation had given Chris something else to think about. Chris watched him go, his thoughtful eyes remaining on the batwing doors long after they had stopped swinging.
Vin had steadily tracked the characteristic prints left by Chaucer. It wasn't hard, there had been no effort made by the gambler to hide his progress or his destination. After a couple of hours, Vin was pretty much certain where the man had headed to yesterday. It was a small glade by a nearby stream that the tracker and the gambler had come across on return from escorting a prisoner to Carson Springs. It was also reachable in the time Ezra had between leaving town and sunset.
The tracker hadn't been all that concerned when Ezra failed to return. He knew the man was quite capable of looking after himself, and what with the latest tensions running between him and Chris it was more than likely he just needed space. Although more than anyone, Vin appreciated the need for space, he also knew when space was not the answer. Sometimes even a loner needed company.
As the tracker neared the glade he slowed his pace and ensured he made enough noise so as not to startle Ezra. Peso pushed through the trees to enter the glade and the tracker's watchful eyes scanned the area. Ezra had stripped down from his colourful jacket, the piece of clothing draped over the saddle resting on a downed tree trunk. The two gun holsters hanging from the pommel. He was stretched out, booted feet crossed at the ankle, resting against a tree with hat tipped low to shade his face from the already hot sun.
Chaucer whinnied in greeting to the newcomer. The horse's owner didn't move from his position of repose.
"Ain't healthy for a man to leave his guns outta reach," Vin said with a smile as he slid lithely from Peso's back and ground tethered his mount by Ezra's ornery chestnut.
Ezra waited until the tracker had finished settling his horse before he acknowledged his presence. Breathing out a heavy sigh, Ezra pushed his hat up from his face with his left hand, his Derringer snapped into his hand from the rig he had secured beneath his shirt.
Vin stiffened slightly at the sound, but tried to maintain a nonchalant appearance as the small twin-barrelled gun came to bear on his chest.
"I always like to keep a little something up my sleeve," Ezra stated, making his point before securing the gun away. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Mr Tanner?"
Vin shrugged, shoulders slipping back to a relaxed position, before dropping to sit Indian-style on the ground to one side of the gambler. "Ain't like you Ezra, to sleep under the stars when you've got your feather bed in reach."
"Sometimes in the height of summer the great indoors can be a mite oppressive," Ezra drawled, a touch of sarcasm lacing the smooth southern lilt.
Vin snorted. "And it don't have anything to do with what's crawled up Larabee's ass?"
Ezra's lips curled into a wry smile at the tracker's eloquence. "Oppressive is a word that would currently describe our illustrious leader also," he admitted.
The glade fell into silence, punctuated by the movements of Chaucer and Peso as they nickered to one another. Their owners had fallen into a rather tense silence, blades of grass were tugged from the earth in sacrifice to the unease. Vin threw aside a twig he'd been peeling the bark from and turned to look at the silent gambler. Ezra was carefully tying knots in a single blade of grass, the agile fingers coiling the vegetation without tearing.
Vin tore his eyes from the display of dexterity to look Ezra in the face. The gambler was intent on his task. The silence was getting them nowhere.
"You figured out how you're gonna handle it then?"
Ezra's eyes raised to the tracker, his fingers continued their routine. "Handle what?"
Vin bit down on his urge to comment on what he figured was the shortest complete sentence Ezra had ever uttered. But then Vin's could be shorter. "Chris."
"I take it you have some inkling as to what, as you so expressively articulated, has crawled up his derriere."
"He reckons you outdrew him."
"And what do you think?" Ezra asked, hands stilling momentarily.
"I reckon you did. But that ain't a problem. Problem's how he's gonna deal with it."
Ezra snorted, "My dear friend, our resident gunslinger is not dealing with it, and by default he is not allowing me to avoid the repercussions of that moment."
Vin paused, debating whether or not to voice his next question, not sure he wanted the answer. "He call you out?"
Ezra plucked another lengthy blade of grass and proceeded to secure it to the end of the previous one, starting again on his chain of knots.
Vin's prompting brought the gambler's eyes back up. "Not in the traditional sense of the word, but our friend feels the need to have his uncertainties laid to rest."
"What you gonna do 'bout it?"
The question was hushed, but the content was loud enough to light up the indecision in the green eyes.
Vin dropped his eyes to his own hands that were now fiddling with the threads poking from the seams of his buckskin pants.
"I know you ain't likely gonna agree with me on this but you 'n' me are a lot alike." Vin didn't look up, not wanting to see any ridicule from Ezra, and was grateful that there was no indignant outburst.
"We've both been watching our own back's for as long as we can remember, ain't relied on anyone 'cept ourselves. It ain't easy being a part of a team, part of me doesn't want to settle, don't want to give or to rely. The rest of me doesn't want to give it up. I know you gotta feel the same, else you wouldn't stick around."
Vin paused, and when no reply was offered from the gambler, the tracker risked a glance upwards. Ezra was splitting the grass now into fine strips, his attention overly focussed on his task. Vin decided to press on.
"We have an appearance, and folks think they know us based on what they see. But they don't. You ain't just a gambler, Ezra. That's just what you want people to see. I ain't just a buffalo hunter."
"No, you're not," Ezra said quietly. "But I am of the gambling profession."
"Yep, and I am a buffalo hunter. Chris doesn't often see more'n what's at the surface. He knows we're good enough to watch his back and he trusts us to do that, but sometimes I reckon he don't see much beyond that anymore. Reckon he lost a lot more than his family. Chris is a gunslinger, but I don't reckon he sees himself as anything more. That's why I guess he never thought you'd be faster than him. That's his problem to deal with, Ez."
The gambler sighed deeply and shook his head, green eyes locking again with the blue ones of the tracker. "It might be his problem, Vin, that he didn't see it coming, so to speak. But unfortunately he's extended the issue to myself. I don't know what I am going to do about this predicament I find myself in, only to wait to react to the situation as it arises. I will be honest with you and say that I am hoping that Chris comes to his senses before this goes any further."
Vin snorted lightly. "Ain't we all, pard."
The two men settled down into silence again. The sounds permeating through the glade limited to the sound of water flowing down the river and the shuffling of the horses.
"How long were you planning on staying out here then?"
Ezra raised his left shoulder in a simile of a shrug. "Let me just say, it did not take as long as I had foreseen for someone to notice my absence."
"Can't help but know when one of us ain't around. Just ain't the same," Vin said quietly.
Ezra locked eyes with Vin as if to test the tracker's sincerity. It was a long quiet moment before the gambler spoke. "I hope that the dynamics haven't been irrevocably upset by recent events."
"Well, you ain't going to find out hiding out here," Vin replied with a small smile. He rose nimbly to his feet and held his left hand out to the gambler.
Ezra sighed once and shook his head imperceptibly. The knotted blades of grass were discarded, slightly damp palms were smoothed down only marginally crumpled trousers. The gambler's left hand reached out for that of the tracker. A single nod of thanks was exchanged as the men came eye-to-eye.
"Well, shall we not see what it is that Fate awaits to administer to our little troupe."
It was Josiah who was the first to attempt to join the subdued gunslinger at his table. The silence was expected but it seemed companionable for the first time in days. Josiah's relaxed demeanour attracted first Nathan, and then JD. It was the younger member of the peacekeepers that broke the silence with a joke so atrocious that it even provoked a reaction from the gunslinger.
"One of these days son, you're gonna die laughing at your own jokes," Josiah said before emptying his glass.
"At least you can be sure they'll be plenty of people that ain't laughing with you to pick you back up," Nathan added, mouth curled into a grin.
"Hey, it was a funny joke."
"JD." Chris's hoarse voice, though hushed, brought all three men's attentions to him. "With your last 'funny' joke you managed to get a drunk to laugh and that was it, this time even he ain't gonna find that funny."
"Ah, come on fellas, the dog's run away, dawg-gone. It's funny."
"Nope," Nathan stated.
"Ok, ok, then try this one. A cowboy moseys into a saloon and orders a whiskey. When the bartender delivers the drink, the cowboy asks, "Where is everybody?" The bartender replies, "They've all gone to the hanging." The cowboy asked, "Who are they hanging?" The bartender answered, "Brown Paper Pete." "What kind of name is Brown Paper Pete," the cowboy asked. The bartender explained, "Well, he wears a brown paper hat, brown paper shirt, brown paper pants and brown paper shoes." The cowboy said, "That's weird. What are they hanging him for?" The bartender said, "Rustling!". Rustling, paper rustles, cattle rustling ."
JD eagerly looked from one person to the next awaiting a comment, a laugh, anything. "Well?"
"Brothers we laugh now or we cry later when we've heard a few more of these," Josiah muttered.
"Someone die and no-one's told me?" Buck asked as he flopped into a seat at the table.
"Yep, JD here's all 'bout murdered our senses of humour," Nathan quipped.
Buck took silent pleasure when Chris joined Josiah in snorting at Nathan's comment. "Hell, JD, now I done told you a thousand times not to load up on that verbal ammunition. If you're gonna kill a man be merciful and just shoot him with lead."
"But it was a good joke," JD protested.
"Mr Larabee! Mr Larabee!"
The recently rejuvenated camaraderie between the peacekeepers was interrupted by the sudden arrival of a young man into the saloon. The youth was pencil-thin with an aura of barely checked panic about him.
"Ma name's Warren Massey, I ride the stagecoach. They hit us ten miles out of town, took the payroll that was coming in for the wire service down these parts. They set the horses loose but I managed to catch one and get into town to come look for ya."
"Anyone hurt?" Chris asked as he rose from his chair. He'd barely caught the message as it fell in garbled chaos from the teen's mouth.
"They got Garrett the driver in the leg, we weren't carrying any passengers, was due to pick up some here s'all."
"Can you lead us back there?"
"Yeah sure," Warren answered the gunslinger's question. "You gonna go after them?"
"That's what we do, kid," Buck answered for the departing gunslinger as he followed Chris from the saloon.
Chris led the lawmen back to the saloon to retrieve their guide. He paused at the Clarion, leaving a message with Mary to inform Vin or Ezra of the situation should they return first. After a brief pep talk to Warren about staying out of the way and listening to what he was told, the gunslinger turned to mount his horse, surprised to find all six of his fellow peacekeepers ready at his back. Vin and Ezra had wordlessly joined the group they had spotted as the pair rode back into town, not even bothering to ask what the problem was or where they were headed, simply taking it as written that they would be tagging along.
Chris paused briefly, locking gazes with the gambler he'd been stalking and gunning for during the last week. He knew Ezra was waiting for a reaction, deserved one so as not to be left hanging, wondering even if he should watch his own back from within their own ranks. Buck's words came back to him - 'look at the calibre of men willing to follow you'. He had then, and he took another look now.
Allowing a genuine smile to grace his face, Chris nodded once. Ezra's eyes flickered, but the gambler returned the gesture, two fingers tipping his hat brim, a motion Chris knew was his means of showing respect.
Easing himself into the saddle, the gunslinger turned his horse to head out of town and kicked his boot heels into his mount's flanks.
"Let's ride, boys."