Three of a Kind
Ezra paused outside the saloon, brushing the trail dust from his clothes, and grimacing at the cloud that rose in response to his actions. When he was reasonably satisfied with his appearance, he pushed aside the batwing doors and entered the building.
"Everything quiet?" Chris asked, as Ezra headed across the room, joining the five regulators that were seated around the back table.
"There is nothing stirring within miles," Ezra answered, adding, "including a breeze," in a martyred tone.
"Good," Chris responded with a satisfied nod, patently ignoring the southerner's typical response to riding patrol during the heat of the day.
"Hey, Ez," Vin called, pushing out a chair and sliding a full mug of beer in Ezra's direction. "'Magine you could use this 'bout now."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I could indeed." Ezra settled back into the chair and picked up his drink.
"Hey, maybe we should ask Ezra," JD suggested, turning to look at the southerner.
Ezra took a sip of his beer. "Ask me what, pray tell?"
"Well, before you got here, we were talking about those two ladies over there." JD motioned toward the two women sitting together near the bar.
"New members of our community, perhaps?" Ezra asked, eying the young women with interest.
"No, they came in on the morning stage."
"And these two guests of our fair city were the topic of conversation because...?" Ezra broke off, awaiting JD's explanation.
"Well, I heard them talking about Buck, so I sorta listened in."
"Mr. Dunne, I'm appalled. Eavesdropping is a serious offense."
"I was just doing my job as sheriff," JD defended himself. "I wanted to make sure they weren't up to no good."
"Ah, yes, suspicion of nefarious intent," Ezra said, ignoring a muffled snicker from beside him, his poker face firmly in place. "And what *\i were\i0 * they, as you put it, up to?"
JD's face grew slightly red. "They were arguing about which one of them Buck would, uh, choose."
"Good lord," Ezra groaned. He rolled his eyes. "I didn't realize word of Mr. Wilmington's prowess with those of the feminine persuasion had reached the surrounding environs."
"Our brother means he didn't know that people living in other towns have heard about Buck's reputation with the ladies," Josiah translated.
"Oh." JD nodded his understanding. "And then, *\i we\i0 * started talking about which one Buck would be interested in."
"I see. And did you come to any consensus regarding a romantic assignation?"
"Ezra, will ya quit using them five-dollar words," JD complained. "Just talk plain so we can all understand you."
Shaking his head, Josiah stepped in to interpret for a second time. "He wants to know what we decided."
"Well, why didn't he just say that?" JD snapped.
"I believe I did. It's not my fault that-"
"Shut up, Ezra," five voices chorused, cutting off the gambler's rant.
"I said he'd pick the redhead," Nathan said, answering Ezra's question.
"Right," JD agreed, jumping back into the conversation. "But I said the blonde looks more like Buck's type."
Ezra lifted an inquiring eyebrow. "And what exactly is Mr. Wilmington's 'type'?"
"Breathin'," Vin commented sarcastically, exchanging a grin with Larabee. He leaned back, propping his feet casually on the edge of the table.
"Hmmm, I believe I concur with Mr. Tanner, as inconceivable as that may seem," Ezra said, ignoring the look sent his way by the sharpshooter and pushing Tanner's boot-clad feet back down to the floor.
"But he was seeing a redhead last week, Ez, so I'm guessing he's ready for a change."
Josiah drained his glass, licking his lips in satisfaction. "Our brother does seem to appreciate diversity."
"Right!" JD exclaimed.
Ezra smiled, revealing his gold tooth. "Are you willing to make a wager on the outcome?"
"Sure." JD reached into his pocket. Searching for a moment, he finally pulled out a quarter, and laid it on the table. "My money's on that blonde."
"My, my, that certain of your choice," Ezra drawled, eying the paltry sum with disdain.
"That's all I've got left," JD apologized.
"Yer the one that cleaned him out last night," Vin reminded Ezra, shaking his head when the gambler quickly feigned a look of innocence.
"I think he's gonna pick that redhead," Nathan responded, tossing two bits of his own to join JD's, "so, I'll take that bet."
"So will I," Josiah said, "but my money's on that brunette." Five more sets of eyes swung to the brown haired woman that had just come through the batwing doors, and was now taking a seat with the other two ladies.
"Another recent arrival, I presume?"
"A mighty fine woman," Josiah said, a wide grin on his face. He deposited a coin on the growing pile.
"And where is your wager, Mr. Tanner," Ezra asked, eying the sharpshooter.
"I s'pose I can spare two bits," Vin replied, adding his own quarter. "The one with the red hair."
"Aren't you gonna pick one, Chris?" JD asked the gunslinger.
"Go ahead, Cowboy," Vin invited, finishing his drink. "Ya been Buck's friend fer a long time. Which one do ya think he'll pick?"
At Vin's urging, the black-clad man turned to study the women in question. "The blonde," he said after a minute's consideration, tossing a coin on the table.
"What about you, Ezra?" Nathan asked. "Can't imagine you're gonna miss a chance to win some money, no matter how little."
"Yes, well, I thought perhaps that I would, instead of participating in this high stake adventure, make sure this money finds its way to its rightful owners." Ezra carefully swept the coins into his hand, his eyes twinkling mischievously. "For a small fee, of course. Say, half."
"Give that back," Nathan snapped. "Either you're in or you're not. We don't need no banker."
"Very well," Ezra sighed dramatically. "If I must." He returned the money to the table, and added his quarter. "After careful consideration, I believe the brunette will be Mr. Wilmington's companion of choice."
"So, I guess all that's left to do is wait until Buck gets here," JD said, glancing at the door.
"So, where is our self-proclaimed ladies' man?" Ezra asked.
JD shrugged. "I don't know. He's usually here by now."
"Prob'ly had a late night," Nathan offered.
"Could be he didn't get much sleep," Josiah suggested.
"Might not 'a got any sleep at all," said Vin with a grin, earning a second blush from JD, a knowing smirk from Chris, and a tip of his hat from Ezra.
Just then, the batwing doors swung open and Buck entered, a smile on his face. Spotting his friends, he took a step toward them, then, as if pulled by an invisible lure, his head swiveled around. He saw the redhead first, and his smile quickly transformed into a look of sheer admiration. Next, his attention was drawn to the brunette, and his eyes grew wide. Last, his gaze fell on the blonde, and he let out a deep, almost worshipful sigh.
"And the winner is..." Ezra drawled.
Buck didn't take long to make his decision. Totally oblivious to his audience, with a dramatic flourish, the rogue caught the eye of each woman, smiled, and opened his arms wide in invitation. As his six friends watched in disbelief, all three young women immediately rose to their feet, gracefully glided across the room, and joined Buck in a four-way hug.
"So, who won the bet?" JD asked, wrinkling his nose in confusion.
"It appears we were *\i all\i0 * correct," Ezra answered.
Nathan just shrugged.
"Brothers, I suggest that we pool our money and buy another round."
"Sounds good to me, Josiah," Vin agreed, "I'm ready for another beer."
"Me, too," Chris said.
Nathan nodded. "Yep."
"Okay," JD said.
Ezra hesitated for a moment, his fingers gently caressing the coins.
"Ezra," five voices prompted in unison.
The gambler sighed, reluctantly releasing the money. "If you insist."
"I'll get the beer," Vin offered, rising to his feet.
A few minutes later, Ezra raised a glass in salute, and five other peacekeepers followed suit, as Buck headed for the exit, a woman on each arm, and one in close pursuit.