Pack Your Dinner
Disclaimer: They are not mine. I don't make profit from this.
Thanks to my beta Laura, to Angela B., and everybody who has taken the time to write to me about this series.
Thoughts in // italics //, parts of the other stories in the series between ++
Fifth in the Dinner series, you may want to read the previous parts; "Dinner," "For Dinner," "Mourning Over Dinner" and "Maybe" before this one.
Feedback is welcome (Be kind, I'm still learning English)
It had been a long week for the Four Corners' peacekeepers.
The stopping of a bank robbery had driven them apart for a while. After all the commotion they had forgotten the invitation the gambler, Ezra P Standish, had given them.
Nobody knew how the town had found out, but the rumor mill was that the gambler had been forced to cancel the special dinner and fulfill the other's responsibility toward the town, covering all their patrol schedules and then, in despair, he had abandoned the little town.
When the remaining peacekeepers returned to Four Corners the townspeople were witnesses to the bad feeling between Larabee and Wilmington, the fact that Jackson and Sanchez weren't on the best terms concerning a potion the healer had administrated the preacher without his knowledge, and that the young ones, Dunne and Tanner, were mad at the rest of them over their mistreatment of Standish.
Mary Travis, the Clarion's editor, didn't know the entire story, but what she had seen and told them, days earlier, was enough to leave the six gunfighters without words.
Her voice had sparkled with the angry tones.
++ "Ezra took all the responsibilities each of you dropped on him, so you could help your friends, cool off or sleep."
She had turned from J.D. and Vin to Chris and then to Nathan, Josiah and Buck who found the floor suddenly interesting.
Chris was the first to look at her, before he asked. "Did he say...?"
"He didn't say a thing...he didn't rest... and he didn't eat at all the entire day." She was furious, and showing it.
With a controlled voice, she resumed her chastisement. "That's why Inez went after him."
At their astonished faces, Mary continued. "Didn't you notice that the saloon was closed?"
She was now shaking her head disapprovingly.
"Inez was so worried, that she packed some food and left town, just to be sure he arrived in Eagle Bend safely."
Mary crossed her arms and let out a small sigh. Then as she was in the process of leaving, she turned back to say, "Inez thought that he would appreciate the company. After all, the ride does appear to be longer if you are alone." ++
Then she had left.
The seven had known of Ezra's planned trip to Eagle Bend that same week, but the realization that nobody had partaken of the food Inez had made for the occasion wasn't as shocking as the knowledge that all of them had left Standish to look after the entire town by him self for almost 24 hours until he departed.
Or, that Inez had been so concerned about his state that she had gone after him.
They could only hope the newspaper editor and the barmaid had exaggerated their concern and the gambler wasn't in as bad shape as the ladies thought, but the uneasiness Mary had shown made the peacekeepers nervous.
After hearing the townspeople's criticism, J.D. had dared to ask if they thought that the gambler would not come back...
For the relief of all of them, Ezra and Inez both had.
Three pairs of blue eyes had observed with great interest when Ezra had returned to the town.
Buck had almost fallen from his chair when Inez kissed Ezra; from his point of view, he had missed the fact that she had kissed him on the cheek.
Vin, also in a bad angle to the view, had let out the breath he was holding and went to the livery.
The preacher had just chuckled and, with a smile, went inside the old church.
+ + + + + + +
That same day, around noon, J.D. bounced along the dusty streets, as he went to the jail to relieve Buck of his duty.
The young man was a little worried, as he had seen Vin leaving town on his horse. That could mean Ezra hadn't come back in time for his patrol or that Ezra wasn't coming back at all.
Buck was sitting outside the building, with a worried face.
Expecting bad news J.D. put his hand in Buck's shoulder. Startled, the rogue lost his equilibrium and fell off the unbalanced chair with a thud as he connected with the floor.
"Dammit, J.D." said the tall brunette "Since when do you sneak up on people?"
"I didn't," J.D. responded, conflicted between the worry he felt and the humorous situation. "I even tripped at the step and dropped my hat, but you were so deep in thought that an army regiment could have stormed through, shouting and you wouldn't have noticed."
Then the young sheriff shifted nervously. "Hum, Buck, aren't you getting up?"
"What? Ah yes, I should" said the man, who was once more distracted.
He got to his feet looking with sad eyes toward the saloon.
Following his gaze, J.D. noticed that the establishment was open and a cloud of dust was slowly going out from under the swing doors.
"Are they back?" he asked.
At Buck's nod, the young man let out a happy "Yeah!"
The kid's yell finally got Buck out of his trance-like state.
The rogue's heart couldn't hold a grudge against a friend.
"Yes, they are back... And they seemed to be in good humor too."
Even if the prospect of Ezra and Inez getting together destroyed his hope of the pretty barmaid responding to his advances, the idea of losing the gambler was far worse than any heartache he endured.
J.D.'s excitement was contagious, and the suddenly happy tall man said, "So kid, you better be ready to beg for forgiveness".
"Me?" JD asked incredulously. "I wasn't the one who shattered all the saloon chairs."
J .D's smile grew when the tall man grimaced. Yes... Buck had forgotten that.
He had been thinking about Ezra and had forgotten that Inez was going to be angry when she saw the chaos inside the place.
"It was just a couple of them but, maybe I should go and see if Miss. Rose is in need of some company," said Buck a little nervous and he left, almost running.
Chuckling, J.D. carried Buck's damaged chair into the jail. With the cells being empty, there was no need for J.D. to remain inside, so he crossed the street to the saloon. From the seats outside the building, he could see the jail just fine.
Sitting on a bench to the side of the swinging doors, he heard some of the conversation going on inside and smiled.
++ "How bad is it?" asked Ezra as he approached the small pile of wood.
"Not so bad, if you don't think about it too much, I am taking deep breaths and trying to remember that I can't just go and kill Buck," said Inez with a forced smile.
"Why would you want to kill Buck, aside from the usual reasons, that is?" Ezra asked with amusement.
"Who else do you know who always go for chairs?" huffed Inez.
Ezra chuckled. ++
Outside the building J.D. chuckled too.
People strolled up and down the street, but only J.D. heard Ezra and Inez making the promise to share dinner after his patrol as the gambler approached the swinging doors still talking to the barmaid.
++ "So, my dear, about that important discussion we have pending. I'm afraid it will have to wait until I come back from the evening patrol."
"O.K.," called back Inez from the other side of the room. She had not stopped cleaning and re-positioning all that was out of place.
"Perhaps we could talk over dinner? What do you say if I treat you to a repast at the hotel's restaurant?" Ezra asked.
With a smile, Inez put down the cleaning rag and walked across the room to get closer to her friend. "I'd say that it's a date Mr. Standish." ++
Ezra left the saloon. Taking the duty of patrol upon himself once again, he went in search of a fresh mount.
The gambler's poker face fell in place when he noticed that J.D. was very close to the door.
The blank face worried the young sheriff, their mistake had hurt his friend and he hoped that they still have a chance to make things right.
If he was going to convince Ezra that they were sorry and would never let him alone again, he should plan it carefully, and he would need help.
J.D. saw the gambler leave on a loaned horse. The Southern would not use his own steed so soon after he had just rode him from Eagle Bend.
//Ezra spoils that horse. Even speaks to it as if it was a child// thought the young man with a sad smile. //He treats it as if the horse is his only friend.//
+ + + + + + +
The open space always helped Vin to think, or like Ezra would say, to see his life in perspective.
The tracker had started to compare his and Ezra's dissimilarities.
Vin would look for the solitude and peace that nature bought him like the gambler would pursue time indoors.
The danger in a poker game wasn't too different of that in the wilderness; the loss of concentration for just a second could be the end your life or the loss of all your possessions.
They both knew the odds and sought the challenge every day they could.
Their clothes did make a powerful first impression, showing to the world what they were. Even if Vin's shirts sometimes rivaled Ezra's coats in color, who would expect to see Vin without buckskins or Ezra without fancy coats?
Vin sighed at the thought of both of them having to take care of themselves from a very early age.
They weren't used to staying in towns like FC, to having friends to cover their backs or worry if they didn't come back after riding alone.
Friends that would abandon everything else to go after them, would risk their lives to make sure you came back home, safe and in one piece...
Friends that could forget things...
Like a birthday dinner.
Vin breathed deeply, to spend those special dates without company wasn't a new experience for either of them.
He silenced a sad chuckle; he realized that instead of being different, he was in fact a lot like the gambler.
That would explain why he had been worried sick about Ezra. The gambler had been hurt by their non-showing at the dinner and he had retreated, just as Vin would have.
// If he thinks that we don't care about him, he is going to leave... I would //
A gut feeling made him stop thinking about Ezra and look closer at the ground. A slightly perturbed bush led him to some horse prints, and then to the rest of a camp.
Reading the signs was easy for him, three or four men had stayed there, and they had left in haste, not long ago.
The tracker was leaving when he noticed a disturbed patch of dirt. Getting close he found a shirt, half buried there.
The hole suggested a gun shot, the color of the material and the dirt camouflaged the blood that had soaked the side of it.
The tracker cursed softly. He recognized the silver horse stitched on the front.
He had seen that shirt not long ago in Four Corners; the owner had been one of the men that attempted to rob the bank that same week.
A bunch of fools that thought stealing from a town with seven peacemakers would make them famous.
The blue-eyed man breathed deeply while musing. // Why are those three still around? //
With a bad feeling running through him, Vin mounted and headed home at a gallop.
The facts were that now five of the robbers were pushing up daisies, at least one of the remaining three thieves was badly hurt, the seven peacekeepers weren't on good terms with each other, and the town was fretting the loss of one, or more, of them. What a mess!
+ + + + + + +
The tracker reached the town and went straight to the saloon, but didn't go inside all the way.
From the doors, Vin located Chris, and after a look and a nod, he disappeared.
J.D., still seated near the swing doors, had watched Vin step to the batwings and then watched him go towards the boarding house.
The young man was going to follow him when Chris appeared at the doors of the saloon. Looking his way, the blond leader instructed, "Get Josiah, I'll get Nathan. Meet us at the jail."
The sheriff didn't waste time and left at a run toward the dilapidated church.
As Buck wasn't in the saloon, the tracker made a quick detour through the boarding house side alley; he let out a long whistle and waited until the rogue appeared at one of the windows.
"Vin?" The rogue's shadow was obscuring the barely lit alley.
"Jail" drawled the Texan.
The tall man frowned, but went back inside to gather his clothes.
The Texan left the alley, giving a small tip of his hat to the pretty redhead now occupying the window.
When Vin arrived at the jail, J.D., Josiah and Nathan were there talking with Chris.
Buck entered as the Texan put the bloodied ragged shirt he had found, on the desk surface.
"Found it in an abandoned camp. I remember the fancy horse," he said in a raspy voice, pointing to the silver design trimmed at the front of the shirt.
"I remember the bank robber too" said Buck with his finger in the hole of the fabric, "seems Ezra got him in the shoulder."
Chris was concerned; he looked at the Texan "How long ago..." he didn't have to complete the question.
"Less than a day" answered Vin.
"And Ez is on patrol, alone," Buck said, already checking his guns and securing his hat. "I'll go after him," he stated with a quick glance at their leader. Buck didn't like the idea of Ezra being alone with bandits on the loose.
Chris nodded approving to his oldest friend. "Do that, and then find us..."
His gaze went to the tracker briefly.
"South road," the long haired man completed.
With a nod the tall brunet left the jail.
J.D. had always been amazed at the communication thing that Chris and Vin often did. They seemed to know what the other was going to say or do. It was a bit scary... sometimes.
+ + + + + + +
After everybody left the jail, the young sheriff went to the saloon.
There he talked briefly with Inez, explaining that they were going after the bank robbers.
"Mr. Standish is going to need food; the breakfast was long ago," thought the barmaid out aloud.
"I need provisions too," stated the young sheriff, "I'll get things for Ezra while I'm at it."
After a quick visit to Mrs. Potter's store, J.D. went to the livery to saddle his horse.
Buck had already left in search of the gambler, but the others were still gathering supplies.
Looking around the stalls, the sheriff located an extra canteen, filled it and put it close to his own.
Stopping to scratch Ezra's horse, the young man noticed that the gambler's travel saddlebags were there. Taking them, he quickly redistributed the supplies he had purchased.
J.D. was still arranging the bags when Vin arrived to get his horse ready. Watching as the sheriff struggled with the many items, "These for Ez?" he called out.
The sheriff jumped a little, he had been focused trying not to wrinkle the gambler's clothes too much as he repacked the bags.
"Some food," he hedged, getting the bags over his shoulder, "and water" he pointed toward his own steed and to the extra canteen already there.
"Blanket?" asked the Texan.
"Not yet" explained the younger man. "I couldn't find his travel one. Must have taken it to his room after he returned."
The sharpshooter smiled, "Got a spare, not as fancy as his, but sturdy enough."
"That would do." The young sheriff finished with his horse and started saddling Nathan's.
Most of the time, the healer needed the help because he always packed slowly, checking that he had enough bandages, herbs and laudanum.
Josiah and Chris joined them shortly.
Nathan arrived with Mary Travis close behind. The widow was curious about their sudden leave.
It was Josiah who explained about the remaining bank robbers, while the others led their horses out of the livery and mounted, ready to go.
When the ex-preacher joined them, they rode out south.
Passing the mercantile, J.D. was surprised to see Inez trying to get his attention. Stopping close to the walkway, the barmaid handed him a small parcel. "Biscuits and an apple," she mouthed.
The young sheriff smiled and nodded to the woman before he went after his friends.
The five peacekeepers left at a gallop. Vin lead the way, followed closely by Chris.
Josiah and Nathan almost flanking J.D.
+ + + + + + +
They were well down the south road from Four Corners when the Texan slowed, nodded to Chris, then towards distant riders, and reassumed the pace. Within minutes, Buck and Ezra were cutting across the open land to join them.
++ They fell easily in their usual positions.
The "Magnificent Seven" rode like a live entity, side by side, fanning out and folding in at the same time.
Showing off his riding abilities and without breaking pace, J.D., managed to get level with the gambler. ++
Passing Ezra his saddlebags and a full canteen, J.D. was glad to see the bright smile the conman showed at the news that he had already explained to Inez that they had to ride out and that Vin had a spare blanket for him.
Ezra had been worried about having to depend on the other peacekeepers, but J.D. and Vin's thoughtfulness gave him hope.
++ // Maybe Inez is right and the reasons for me to stay in Four Corners are stronger than the ones to leave... maybe. // ++
The last day Ezra had spent in F.C. hadn't been a good one even if it had been his birthday.
Then the opportunity to buy a saloon in Eagle Bend had been a temptation and only the lack of funds had kept him from doing the deal.
++ The Southerner continued to ponder the benefits and disadvantages of staying in Four Corners.
Unfortunately, the benefits were all of sentimental nature while all the disadvantages turned around monetary gain.
Their escapades and services to the town usually left his attire in need of reparations. In addition, proper cleaning had a high cost in a town like this.
The payment for their pacemaker role was not enough to cover his expenses and, by the lack of leisure time that his responsibilities tolled, the profit he acquired in poker games was seldom of enough importance.
Hence, his actual situation, he had not enough money to buy Mr. Dylls' place in Eagle Bend.
Nevertheless, he had been planning to depart from Four Corners++
+ + + + + + +
It was near dusk when the peacekeepers stopped. The horses needed the reprieve.
After dismounting, Vin and Chris discussed their next move.
J.D. and Ezra took the horses near the creek, the tired animals still saddled.
Vin went to scout around before they could safely set camp, which to Ezra's dismay would have to be a cold one.
Having spent almost all the day riding, the gambler enjoyed the short walk and the opportunity to stretch.
Wandering along the river's edge, he observed the interaction of the nature: the river, bees, ants, small rodents, fish, trees, and a variety of water plants coexisting in a little space without interference, sometimes even depending of each other to survive.
// Like the seven? //
+ + + + + + +
J.D. was checking the levels on the canteens when the first shot was heard.
Both young peacekeepers ducked by instinct. With a grimace, they registered that the noises came from where the rest of their friends were.
Quickly tying the horses, Ezra joined the sheriff who was extremely anxious.
"We need to go back Ezra, to help"
Restraining the younger man, Ezra explained the situation. "If we run in there, we are going to end up shot by whatever miscreants we have been chasing, or by our own compatriots J.D. What we need to do is get close enough to see what is going on without risking our safety."
The gambler saw the flash of disappointment in the brunet's eyes. He knew that J.D. hated to be left out of the action.
Ezra tried to clarify, "Vin is somewhere around here tracking, we just need to be extra cautious to stay out of his line of fire."
J.D. nodded, accepting that in his haste to reach their friends he had forgot about the sharpshooter. He also realized that Ezra didn't know whom they were tracking.
"Buck didn't tell you what was going?" JD asked in shock. Even though he was relatively still new to the west, he had learned one thing: know who the enemy was.
"No, he didn't," Ezra answered, as he readied for the gunfight. "He simply rode up and said there was trouble." Ezra stopped for a second as he realized he had followed Buck out here without any further explanation from the man. He would have to ponder on the meaning of that later on.
"They are the same ones that tried to steal from the bank." J.D. explained.
The gambler was assessing the firepower they had. He got Buck's long rifle and the extra ammunition from the rogue's saddles.
"The robbers? I thought they would be long gone."
"We thought that too, but Vin found tracks and a shirt that belonged to them," the sheriff murmured as they prepare to go close to the camp.
The young peacekeepers listened with interest; there hadn't been any more shots after the first round.
Approaching the camp, they evaluated the situation. It seemed all of the participants were trying to locate their enemies without being seen. A hard job now that the sunlight was disappearing.
Ezra and J.D. went carefully; staying low and pausing constantly. They tried to hear anything that could show the location of their friends or the outlaws.
Ezra saw a glint of metal from a distant boulder, close enough for a sharpshooter to be hidden behind.
"J.D.," he whispered, "I'm going to investigate the high ground, stay low until we locate our fellow compatriots."
The sheriff suppressed the urge to roll his eyes, // I'm not a child! // he screamed in silence.
The gambler smirked at the glare the young man threw him. "J.D., even if it is Vin up there, he could shoot our way if he doesn't recognize us. I'll have a better chance to get close if I go alone," Ezra said more calmly than he felt.
"Yeah, but what if it is not Vin? There was three of that gang still alive when they escaped," the sheriff recalled.
"Don't you worry my friend, I'll be careful." Ezra circled the camp slowly, attempting to disguise his approach to the boulders doing it from even higher ground.
Unfortunately, his arrival wasn't as noiseless as he would have liked because he slipped on a patch of lose rocks.
Having barely recovered his balance, he stumbled when a bullet ricocheted off the stone wall.
Ezra felt a burning in his check and his vision blurred a little as his head connected with the rocky surface. Still dazed, he heard a shot and a yelp in close succession. Then silence.
Concealing his movement, Ezra activated the mechanism of his derringer. With the small gun in his hand, he waited.
"Don't shoot," whispered a voice.
Ezra allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment, breathing in relief as he recognized the soft drawl.
"Hey Ezra, you alive?" worry tinged the Texan words.
The gambler chuckled. "Yes, Mr. Tanner I'm still among the living."
Pieces of rock had hit the side of his face; he could feel the tendril of hot blood running down his cheek and neck and starting to soak the neck of his shirt.
"Was it one of the thieves?" Ezra asked, wiping away some of the blood.
"Yep, the hurt one. Watching his friend's backs, I reckon." Vin evaluated the gambler's state. The bleeding cheek seemed to be the worst of his injuries, but the pain filled blinks worried him.
"Here, hold this," the longhaired man said, pressing his bandana to the gambler's bloody face. "Where else you hurt?"
"I'm fine," grumbled the Southern rising. "We better check our coworkers," he said. "J.D. was close to the camp. This way," Ezra stated, as he quietly took the lead.
It was Vin's turn to chuckle as he followed the green-eyed man. He would let it go for now, but later the Texan planned to let Nathan check the gambler's injuries.
They got close to where the sheriff was hiding, with a soft whistle Vin let the younger man know that they were approaching.
"Mr. Dunne, have you located where the others have taken cover?"
"Ouch, Ezra! Are you o.k.?" hissed the sheriff seeing the bloody bandana the gambler was pressing to his face as he sat down at J.D.'s side.
Vin, coming after the Southern, crouched close. "Hey kid," he greeted, already appraising the situation.
J.D. was worried "I heard shots, what happened?"
"I was careless and if it hadn't been for Mr. Tanner's opportune intervention there would be one less peacekeeper at Four Corners."
The young sheriff looked startled toward Vin, but relaxed after seeing the tracker grinning. Ezra's injuries couldn't be serious if the longhaired man was in good mood and the gambler was using so many words in each sentence.
Winking, Vin drawled, "We have one less worry"
After offering a clean handkerchief for the gambler's abused cheek, they went back to their initial predicament.
Taking advantage of Vin's exceptional eyesight, they located the rest of their friends. The problem was they couldn't alert them without the thieves knowing too.
"I think the best option is to distract the troublemakers enough to guarantee an easy apprehension. Hopefully without the loss of lives," concluded the green-eyed man.
J.D. was eager to finish this stand off, "What's the plan?"
"I'll redirect the attention of the thieves..." the Southern halted his words seeing both men shaking their heads.
"You're hurt," said the sharpshooter by explanation. "I'll go. I can get real close without them noticing."
The gambler would have rolled his eyes and made a face if it didn't hurt.
"Mr. Tanner, the purpose is for them to notice or it would not be a proper distraction."
J.D. snorted forgetting they were hiding.
Vin scowled at both of them.
The Bostonian checked his guns. "I'll go. I'm fast and I always get accused of making a lot of noise," he said with a flashing grin.
"Mr. Dunne the endeavor is too dangerous. I'd better do it alone."
"And end shot in the head like before," finished the sheriff.
Vin barely managed to suppress the snort that J.D.'s words provoked. He had to bite his tongue when he saw the outrage reflected in the gambler's face.
"I was not shot in the head!" Ezra hissed angrily.
"Shush," Vin warned "They're gonna hear us"
"And what do you recommend as a line of action, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra said snappily, turning his attention away from J.D. to Vin.
"We need something that distracts them without getting us killed," the sharpshooter whispered peacefully.
After a little thinking, the green-eyed man smiled in anticipation. "What would you do if a beehive fell on your head?" Ezra asked devilishly.
"A bee's nest?" JD said puzzled. "Run, I think. Wh..." he began.
"Good thought Ez," interrupted the longhaired man. "But that can be almost as dangerous as being shot."
"It won't if we are cautious. And while one of them deals with it you can sneak up and get the other one by surprise," finished genially the gambler.
"You sure?" Vin remembered a time when he had been stung, it had really hurt. He couldn't imagine how bad it would be having a whole swarm attacking him.
"Don't fear my friend," Ezra said with a smile that sent shivers down Vin's spine. Turning to the younger man, he pushed him toward the river. "J.D. I'm going to need your help."
+ + + + + + +
Vin was waiting when the feeling of being observed alerted him. Shifting a little, he caught Larabee's gaze in the dim light. The sharpshooter nodded to the blond leader, and another of their silent talks ensued:
//Be ready cowboy//
At Chris puzzled face, the Texan smiled. // Trust us //
The blond leader started hitting his head softly against the boulder he was hiding behind, clearly having understood the meaning of the smile.
The young'uns were planning something, another of their crazy plans. Chris just hoped none of them would end up seriously hurt or killed.
Meanwhile at the river's edge, Ezra and J.D., with the help of some smoke managed to confuse the insects enough to wrap the nest in one of their saddle blankets.
They got back to Vin's side and the tracker helped them to get the projectile ready with some rope and a couple of knots.
When it was ready, Vin showed them where one of the robbers was hiding. Then he circled the camp in silence.
When he got in position, he whistled.
The sound distracted all the men around the camp enough that they didn't notice the sheriff throwing the blanket at the closest thief. The man saw his shirt splattered with honey and heard the buzz of the not-so-happy insects.
The thief broke cover shouting and swinging his arms, alerting the peacekeepers of his location, but more concerned about the bees stinging him.
His partner in crime was ready to shoot the fool when a cold rifle barrel rested at the base of his skull.
He thought of turning quickly to shoot the intruder, but the sound of a colt being hammered back and a growled "I don't think so" let him know that he was surrounded.
+ + + + + + +
It was at Ezra's shift of watch duty that he got to think about the last events.
Mr. Larabee hadn't been happy with them sacrificing the bee's home in the line of duty. He had said it while grinning, but then made Vin and J.D. take the hive back to its original place.
That had been a slow process because the tracker refused to get close to the thing. Ezra thought it was the blond gunslinger's prankster side getting back at the two youngsters for prior foul ups.
Ezra had been pardoned of that duty on the condition he let Nathan clean the cut on his face. He was also checked for a concussion or unreported bullet holes.
They had organized a proper camp. With both prisoners properly shackled, and the body of the third thief buried far from their campsite, their leader had approved a fire to be lit.
Ezra had munched on one of the biscuits that Inez had sent while Buck and Josiah prepared a meal with the provisions they had at hand.
After the meal, they settled around to rest.
Ezra took first watch, as the healer wanted him to stay awake some more before ruling out the possibility of a concussion. J.D. had insisted in keeping him company.
Pretending to be asleep, the rest of the peacekeepers monitored both younger men. Nobody had mentioned it, but all of them too were worried about their conman. Ezra hadn't protested at Nathan's ministrations or at J.D.'s chattering. Even when the gambler had sent the sheriff in search of more firewood, he had stayed too still, his cards nowhere in sight.
Then J.D. had came back and had resumed his one-sided talk, explaining how awed he was at Ezra's ability to tame the bees, asked him how he felt and if he wanted some more food, basically, the brunet was babbling.
Then J.D. asked a question that got the rest of the peacekeepers holding their breath.
"Are you planning on leaving Four Corners, Ezra?"
Ezra didn't give an answer. He hadn't made up his mind yet.
The minute shrug they saw in the faint glow of the fire was the only assurance the others got that said they still had a chance of keeping their friend in town.
The next day the gunfighters went back to Four Corners with the prisoners secured to their mounts. The ride was subdued and slow, as if the men wanted to stay out longer on the trail to prevent the gambler from leaving after reaching their little town. Still, they found themselves at the town limits late in that same afternoon.
The mind state of the gambler was exposed as he just nodded when J.D. took the reins of the rental horse and told Ezra that he would take care of it.
Nathan got only a nod too, as he repeated to the distracted man that he needed to check the cut on Ezra's face.
Buck, in an attempt to lighten the mood, invited everybody to join him at the saloon for a drink and a hot bowl of stew.
Six men were disappointed as Chris reminded them that they'd have prisoners at the jail, but it was the defeated voice of the gambler that left them speechless.
"Would it be ok if I took a bath before my shift, Mr. Larabee?"
Soft words that struck a chord in all the peacekeepers.
How many times had Chris assigned Ezra first watch?
Looking at Vin's penetrating blue eyes, the leader got his answer... Always.
Usually, the gambler complained so much while on the trail that sending him to the jail was the only solution Chris had found to prevent one of them throttling the Southerner. Then a couple of times, when one of the others had been hurt while riding after gangs, the first duty had rested in the gambler's hands to leave the rest of them free to help the healer.
At those times, it had seemed the logical solution. Now... Chris wasn't so sure.
The lack of response made Ezra turn back and face his co-workers. For a second he was alarmed by their inactivity. Fortunately, he recognized the glare the sharpshooter was directing at their leader.
That made him remember the promise he had made to Inez in Eagle Bend. He had told the barmaid that his Martyr Complex was well in the past. That he wouldn't take the other's shifts for a long time. It was time to put his words into action.
Touching his injured cheek softly, Ezra smiled at the thought.
Turning, he proceeded to leave the livery before speaking,
"Of course I require a long soaking after spending so many days in the wilderness. After that, a decent meal with a lovely señorita as company would be required and then, maybe, Mr. Jackson would check my wound before I seek the comfort of my feather bed, of course the medic's logical advice would be to rest to recuperate from the blood loss, and I would have to agree..."
The gambler's words were drowned by the street sounds as he walked out of the livery.
Josiah was the firs to react. "Well, brothers I would let the lovely señorita know that we are back and that I would watch the saloon for her."
Nathan hurried after him "I'll go with you"
Vin took their abandoned reins, "We'll take care of the horses, come on J.D.," said the tracker, already unsaddling the beasts.
Buck laughed. "Well pard, looks like we both have jail duty. Hopefully those two will remember to send something to eat later," he pushed their prisoners toward the jail while talking to the blond leader.
Chris, shaking his head, went with him.
End... for now