Disclaimer: No profit, I'm not a gambler. This is purely creative fun. All OCs and the story belong to myself; all else created by the series is simply borrowed.
The question threw the startled gambler before he could remember his Arizona accent. "I-err, this is a diary for my folks back home. Yeah, see they err- they just want to know I'm doin' well."
Emory walked forward a step, eyes widening. "Them numbers?"
"Why no- I-I mean, yes my wages. Tellin' them that I'm doin' well."
"Numbers of cattle? What- hey you got a piece of a ledger there- what the-" His voice was muffled suddenly by a balled up coat.
Standish ran to shut the door and threw the ranch hand against the wall. Emory raised his arm to protect his face from the impact and balled his other fist into Ezra's gut. With the gambler stunned, Emory made a grab for the book before strong arms held on desperately to his legs, bringing him to the ground with a rumble.
The ranch hand turned to take a swing at Ezra just as the gambler threw his own solid punch, knocking Emory's head against the bunkhouse cot and sending him to the floor in a crumpled heap.
Standish stifled a cry of pain as he drew his hand back, shaking it carefully to ease the throbbing. "Damn, damn, damn." He whispered and suddenly heard footsteps on the landing. Oh, hell.
"Hey, Emory, you up here?"
It was Angus Lloyd. Ezra held his breath and clutched his bruised hand to his chest, leaning back against the rough-hewn timber wall and all the time praying the foreman would go away. In panic his eyes flew across at the boneless heap on the floor, hoping he'd stay that way. Damn it, I'm a coward.
"Come on, Angus it's probably that Edward fella; he took a shine to Louisa."
"Yeah, probably makin' his 'acquaintance' before Quinn gets back!" another voice called further away.
Angus frowned at this but shrugged. "That boy had better watch himself, Bill had his eye on that young girl."
"Billy wont give him no trouble- if he does, I'll bet ten on Eddie."
Lloyd barked a laugh and plodded back down the stairs of the bunkhouse, his hand easing away from his sidearm.
Releasing his breath, Ezra panted a little in his relief and the throbbing in his hand. He reached over to slide the book from beneath Emory and backed away to curl himself around his bruised stomach. After composing himself for a few moments, he retrieved the stick of graphite from his coat to write down some names of the thirty or more ranch hands he'd seen or met; Derek Sail, Wayne Constable, Billy Favor, the other, Lucas Pastor. And Emory Decker
He looked up suddenly and remembered the downed ranch hand before him. He still hadn't moved. Standish craned his neck to see Emory's face and raised himself to his knees.
I hadn't hit him that hard, surely? He edged closer and pulled the man's head back with a fistful of hair.
Emory's face was covered in blood from hitting the bed frame and was growing colder to the touch. Ezra's stomach rebelled at the mangled sight as he let the head fall back in the puddle of blood, forcing himself over to the washstand. After drawing handfuls of water over his face, he clutched the bowl feverishly as he struggled against the cold sweat coursing through his body.
Standish was not a man who took gore very lightly. He had always tried to avoid confrontation with the macabre side of life and whenever he was forced into such a situation he always made the time to vomit violently out of sight. But now he didn't dare, too afraid the noise would carry downstairs.
After forcing air in and out of his lungs for a few moments more, Ezra began to feel a little more human and, with it, all the urgency a human could feel. He ran a hand roughly over his face and looked down at the corpse, the eyes staring back at him; mocking him.
He'd killed a man and there was no way to get rid of the body.
"Think, man, for Christ's sake!"
Standish shook off the panic forcefully and removed his coat. He bent down, grabbing Emory's shoulders, and set about pulling him beneath the cot. With every move he made he listened out for approaching footfalls but heard none and carried out his task with teeth clamped tight in his efforts.
By the time the body was stowed beneath the bed, a worried sweat had broken out over his face. He reached over for the blanket and used the corner to wipe his forehead and rolled up his sleeves. Then he spread the rest of the blanket over the cot and pulled it down low to hide Emory's corpse from view.
When he'd done, the normally work-shy gambler rocked back on the balls of his feet to survey his efforts before he noticed the vibrant trail of blood. With a frown he hurriedly reached under the bed and pulled Emory's bandana from around the grimy neck to try to wipe away the clotted blood sticking to the timbers, knowing the attempt was in vain.
"Hell, this'll never do." Standish sat up and pulled his hipflask from his coat pocket. He poured the liquid onto the stain little by little, lifting the blood from the boards with hasty dabs. It didn't get rid of it but at least while it was still damp it looked like spilt liquor.
After he'd finished he stood up gingerly and looked about the room, neatening any signs of disturbance before lifting the lamp from the bed stand with shaking hands. To a stranger the room would look impressively neat, but he knew the others wouldn't be as slow on the uptake. They'd know something as amiss.
But as he was about to rearrange the room someone began the climb up the stairs. He hid the lamp quietly and listened for the creaking floorboards, hand shifting slowly for the Remington on the bed.
"Hey, Lucas? Luke- get Rosie a wine or something, would ya?" A drunken Derek boomed from the hallway.
"Get it yerself!"
"Can't, I got my hands full." The oafish ranch hand shouted suggestively, laughing with a woman in the hallway. The shrieks and giggles continued for many minutes before Standish could have a clue who was where and as the noise ebbed away to the other end of the bunkhouse he finally heard a door slamming shut. Chancing the quiet, he pulled the door open and peered out slowly.
He looked up and down the hallway and listened out for other movement but all he could here were Derek and Rosie's amorous activities behind the closed door.
"And you can tell that boy if he's late for work again I'll have him flayed by his own whip, you tell him!" Angus shouted from below.
Standish pulled back into the room quickly at the sudden voice and shut the door, cursing under his breath.
Lucas Pastor ambled up the stairs following the foreman's words and pulled his waistcoat off in disgust. "Cranky son of a bitch." He strode past Emory and 'Edward Engle's room without a second thought before disappearing into his own.
Frustratingly, Standish could see no easy way of leaving with all the movement within the bunkhouse. There seemed to be a man in every damn room of the building! But there was the window....
As the thought occurred, he blew out the oil lamp and walked across the room before peering between the curtains and sent thanks heavenward there was no moonlight yet. So there was a way out; it was a sash window with a rusted latch.
Oh it had to be rusted...
He sighed and pinched the top of his nose before trying to ease the latch open. It began as a small shifting creak before getting as loud as Ezra dared. He stopped and pulled out his pocketknife and tried the screws only to find the heads had worn down with age.
Suddenly a thought came to him. He closed the knife shut and shoved it into his pants pocket then reached for the table lamp. He shook it a little and was dismayed to hear very little oil in the base but it would do. He unscrewed the casing and pulled away the glass before removing the base. He set the discarded items on the bed and carefully reached up to pour some of the oil on the latch, not thinking of the mess it would leave.
With a corner of his handkerchief he worked the oils into the latch before teasing it open carefully. After an agonizing minute of pulling the latch round little by little it finally gave with a click. But without thinking, Ezra let go of the latch and the window pulled out from the sill with a loud grinding c-c-rrrreak!
His stomach leapt up to his throat when he heard a door open from the landing and with as much speed as he dared he shoved the rickety window open and clambered up onto the sill.
"Hey, Emory, Eddie, you okay in there? You even in there?" There was a knocking at the door as Ezra swung his leg through the window to touch the sloped roof beneath.
The knocking became louder. "Hey, damn it, answer would ya?"
Another voice called from the stairs. "What's goin' on?"
"They ain't answerin' the door." He banged a fist against the door.
"They're probably out."
"No, I heard somethin'."
"I did, damn it! Somethin' creaked in there."
"What did you hear, son?"
Standish froze at the sound of Fin's voice, his boot slipping on the wet sill.
Oh God, no! If he were caught, he'd kill him for sure.
He heard another rap on the door and pushed himself the rest of the way from the room to tumble ungracefully down the damp roof. As his descent got quicker he clawed at the roof, digging his fingernails into the tiles in time to stop his rapid descent, just as someone tried to kick the door from its hinges.
He scrambled to his feet and got his balance as more noise added to the commotion behind him. He peered frantically over the drop before him and took a surprised step back with a gasp, considering his chances against the fall.
Oh, hell! Now what?!
Give me a break! He turned with frightened eyes, thoughts running through his mind of the angry mob streaming from the windows behind him.
Just jump, you coward! No! Go!
He moved back and forward on the balls of his feet, willing himself to make the move.
He swore and leapt from the rooftop, all twenty-three feet rushing past him at terrifying speed. Before his body took the impact, he landed firmly with both feet on the ground and rolled as the momentum carried him forward with a short yelp.
The fall had hurt something awful, knocking the wind from his lungs but as a door splintered above he thought only of getting the hell out of there, dragging his sore body from the ground. He took one last look back at the room and shoved the muddied book in his coat pocket as light filtered through the open window.
Here they come!
He darted through the shadows on giddy legs, willing them to work as he sprinted to the stables. His boots skidded on the wet earth through the doorway as the commotion spread. His bleeding fingers snatched for a braided halter to loop around the bay's head and with all haste he leapt onto its back without taking his saddle. The peacekeeper thumped his heels into the gelding's sides before landing a kick to the door to throw it wide open.
Finally given his freedom, Gallant stretched his neck out and pulled against the reins when he sensed his rider's panic, feeling Ezra cling on for dear life with his legs wrapped tightly around the girth as the lithe quarter horse dug in for speed.
As they jumped the first fences, Standish chanced a look over his shoulder and saw the workers pouring from the bunkhouse, lanterns held high and guns splayed. Feeling little comfort despite their get away he pushed his face against his horse's neck as the first volley of bullets flew around them and prayed like he never thought he could.
As the others stumbled over each other to get their tack and weapons in the small light, Jacob Fin watched the retreating forms with a bloodthirsty snarl.
"EDWARD!" Jacob bellowed, spooking his paint mare. "You will not last the night! Do you hear me?!" He fired off two shots in Ezra's direction and looked back impatiently as the others arrived.
"Find that cheating son of a bitch before dawn! Do not let him leave the territory- if his blood is not on someone's hands by noon you will answer for it! Now go!" He turned in his saddle and grabbed a stray worker by the jacket. "Go and tell Mark what happened, tell him we'll need the other men for the search."
He roughly pushed the younger man away from him and pressed his spurs into his horse's sides ready for the chase when suddenly he heard movement on the driveway.
A four-horse coach bumped and rattled over the hard-core surface, the luggage on top bouncing as the vehicle took on the ruts. "It's about damn time." He seethed before riding his horse over to block its path. As the lamp-lit coach came to a sudden lurching halt, he grabbed for the handle on the glossy black door and yanked it open impatiently. "Sir."
An aged, worn voice greeted him form the dark. "Jacob, the men are running around in the middle of the night, I hope you're here with good news." Coat tails were pulled out of the way as Quinn Cauldwell stepped down carefully, looking around with great dissatisfaction.
"Sir, it's best your son explained everything." He growled bitterly. "He'll have a shock; he wasn't expecting you for another day or two." He threw Quinn's carpetbag to the coach driver and nodded to the house dismissively.
Quinn scowled at the mention of his eldest son and drew his cane from the coach. " I gave him false dates for this very reason, Fin. If he knew I was coming back he would have had everything laid out spotless. No, I like to catch him unawares. And it comes as no surprise to me to find my home in disarray."
He strode over to the house saw his son wrestle with the main door, before bursting through clumsily onto the porch. "Father! Pa, I'm so glad you're home! We've missed you, I-"
"Oh, give it a rest, boy." He sneered, ignoring his son's attempts at affection. "Running to daddy when the chips are down, eh? So what the hell did you do, Mark? I arrive from a business venture to find my men chasing around for something at midnight and you say you missed me? How sweet."
Quinn stopped to look down at his son and saw nothing but a weak-willed blundering fool; and it pained him.
"So just what exactly went so wrong that you're now glad of my return?"
Mark swallowed at the threat-laced tone his father adopted and followed behind meekly, eyes kept to the ground.
Within the study, the anger damn near shook the walls. "I knew it! I knew this leave of absence would test you, Mark, and there we have it, I was right! You blatantly disobeyed my instructions by bringing an unknown onto the ranch and now I've lost a loyal man. You sniveling whelp!"
Mark put on a brave face against his fathers onslaught that wasn't to last "Angus figured he was okay-"
"Lloyd wasn't in charge of this ranch, you were, so don't take that tone with me!" He jabbed a finger against his son's chest and effectively pushed him into a chair. His father's quivering rage had Mark cowering where he sat.
Quinn Cauldwell threw his brandy glass into the fire with a snarl. "I want the son of a bitch found, Fin."
"Shut up, Mark, I'm sick of hearing 'sorry'! Make yourself useful and tell your mother to stay indoors with your sisters- and tell Hooper to get my horse saddled. I want to kill that bastard myself!" He shouted furiously over the sound of the crackling fire and grabbed his shotgun from the desk.
"Where are the man assembled now?"
"Told 'em to head out as soon as it happened, Engle headed towards the southeast. I'd be out now if you hadn't returned."
"It was as well you did, you don't tend to lie to me, Jacob. It was in the bunkhouse, you say?"
"Yes sir," Lloyd nodded.
Quinn stood in the room looking down at Emory's bloody corpse. "How sure are you boys that his name was Edward Engle?"
"Only had his word for it, Pa. Just some guy from Arizona lookin' for a job."
"And you didn't think to look into it?" He threw the blanket back over the body without looking at his son.
Mark took a step back under Fin's scrutiny. Jacob had readily given his opinion about hiring 'Engle' but Mark had smugly refused the advice.
"You don't think it was Latent do you, Sir?"
"We've threatened him enough- he's learned his lesson not to beg the law and he wouldn't be stupid enough to send one of his own."
Fin chewed his gnarled, weatherworn lip thoughtfully.
Lloyd shook his head. "Then why the hell would someone kill Emory? Why lie like this?"
"You mentioned he had a book on him?"
Jacob nodded. "Yes, Sir. At least that's what it looked like before he ran off."
"Doesn't make sense, why take off after stealing a book? There's other stuff he could have taken to make it worth his while." Lloyd scratched his head.
"It was obviously important enough for him to risk sneaking into my study to get it, whatever it was."
"He broke in? How in the hell did he do that?" Fin exclaimed; the office was a veritable fortress.
"I wouldn't guess for a million. My Katie found him one night and said she scolded him enough. And I'll see to it she is punished for her negligence. She should have had him shot."
"She let him get away with it?' Mark piped up, pushing some guilt his sister's way.
"I notice you didn't settle matters either." He snapped. " If I hadn't been gone for a week to Utah you never would have hired him!"
Mark backed up desperately. "I thought he was clean, Pa! I followed your direction- I tell you, you would have made the same mistake-"
"I know my mistake- that was putting you in charge! You've proven to me you cannot run this business and I'm fed up of giving you second chances. If it weren't for your mother's pleas I would have changed my will years ago! Get out of my sight!" He threw a hand towards the stairs and watched his son stumble from the room in fear.
Quinn took a steadying breath and shook his head at his eldest son. "It saddens me that I should be forced to break a tradition and deny my eldest son the inheritance of the ranch. But his brother Gerald always had the competence for the job." He watched Mark meet his mother at the house. "And the strength." He whispered.
He turned and took in the sight of his deadly subordinate with some small satisfaction. "Jacob take Lucas and Henry to the surrounding towns. Find the bastard and warn the others."
"Don't come back until you've got news. Everyone else, we'll start out in the morning; if he's in the wilderness the hounds'll find him. I'm going to check the study and see what's missing."
"Sir, couldn't we take the dogs now? We'll have a better shot at findin' him while he's runnin' and tired."
"No. There isn't enough light to see by. If I've got people chasing after dogs they can barely see it'll only spook the horses. Wait until first light."
Fin frowned but said nothing.
Quinn looked round at the silence. "You think I've gone soft, eh Fin?"
Quinn snorted at the honesty and shook his head. "My father nearly lost good men and profit to recklessness and bad temper. Oh, I've got my fair share from him, but I like to think my judgment isn't as clouded. I could beat Mark within an inch of his life for the trouble his stupidity caused, and I know his grandfather certainly would, but what would that achieve?"
Fin nodded silently.
"I know many believe my temper will ruin us all, perhaps Latent hopes it will be to his advantage?" He grinned. "He couldn't be more wrong; I am not my father and I do not lead my men with a whip. But I want my enemies to know me as someone else. If Latent did have anything to do with this, there will be no time to plead." He growled venomously.
Quinn Cauldwell was not in the least bit unstable. Instead he was an intelligent businessman, somebody who dealt with matters ruthlessly, mercilessly, a man who had a quick anger with a hell of a kick to it. And Jacob Fin had never had a more satisfying employer.
"You can count on that, Mr Cauldwell." Fin grinned maliciously and stalked from the room.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra looked about and allowed his horse the freedom of a steady lope from the hard running, panting hard on the rush of cold air billowing around them.
They had long since left the Cauldwell's land in the faint moonlight and were headed north from the southeastern pastures towards Small Brook. His horse was breathing heavily through flared and bloody nostrils, and his eyes were sagging with the effort to keep them open but Ezra wasn't about to stop.
"I will make this up to you, my friend, I promise." He whispered painfully and patted the lathered neck. With the long gallop his seat hadn't been the least bit comfortable and though he'd tried to elevate himself on his knees pressed against the horse's sides, he hadn't been able to maintain balance and now he was sore.
Taking a moment he looked towards the west and saw flickering lamplight in the far distance and knew the men wouldn't stop at their own borders.
He cursed at their tenacity and urged Gallant onwards across the prairie, putting his discomfort to the back of his mind. The town ahead of them was no Four Corners but it had a stable, a saloon and, he hoped, a boarding house; they needed rest if they were going to continue running and in the state they were in after a full days work neither were in their prime.
But as they reached the outskirts of what had promised to be a decent shelter something caused a chill to run down his spine. Something wasn't right, and he suddenly felt like he was being watched.
Ezra pulled the horse to a steady trot as alarms bells rang through his mind, and peered ahead through the night fire gloom. There wasn't anyone out in the street but he took one look at the five horses hitched outside the saloon and his heart clenched.
He jerked the reins and thumped the horse's sides as soon as he noticed the Cauldwell ranch mark, turning the gelding tightly around the buildings at a gallop to avoid the main street. He winced at the noise the sliding hooves made and kept to the shadows, letting his eyes dart between the buildings for signs of life as he held his breath. He threw a look over his shoulder and saw the street was still empty but he was only too aware of what could hide in the dark. And now he could only hope they weren't being followed.
"God, where now?" He whispered harshly, spurring the horse away from the town at a struggling gallop. He knew that in the very distance lay Four Corners, his home, and though he ached to return to the familiar town it was still a good two-day ride away. And for all he knew he was surrounded by Quinn's men.
He held a grubby hand to his forehead and pressed back the growing headache behind his skull as he looked about for signs of a chase.
"Think, think." They needed to find somewhere they could stay well hidden, at least for a few hours, and a place to rest up; it was a fine idea to keep running but he knew he'd only end up killing the obedient gelding and with poor light he didn't like the odds of breaking its leg in a fall.
"If what I've been told is true then Cauldwell's going to have men in every town in the surrounding area." He sighed. So there was no use heading for a town. And there was no way he would be able to head back to the west and reach the wire now that he was essentially a wanted man.
He snorted dryly. A wanted man. Ha! He was pretty sure he wouldn't get a pardon this time, and looking around he knew Lady Luck certainly wasn't doing him any favors. Fickle bitch.
The peacekeeper looked about in the diminishing light and cursed at his wilting chances. Up ahead to the north he caught the outline of a group of trees and guided the tiring beast as best he could over the unsteady ground to a rocky creek, letting it dip its head for a drink as he dismounted onto the bank.
"I'm sorry, but we must hurry." He hastily pulled the reluctant horse from the stream with a grunt and led him along the shoreline, their noise drowned out by the sounds of the running current. He pressed on towards the trees as fast as he could on foot, not just for his own comfort but to give the big bay a rest, unnervingly sure they'd need to run again very soon.
At the sound of an owl screeching through the canopies, he lifted his gaze from the rough ground in front of him and peered through the darkness as the trees loomed ahead. "We'll just have to make do with nature and each other, Gallant. The wood looks thick enough to hide in for the time being. That is until they let the dogs loose."
It just gets better and better.
Getting into the wood hadn't been difficult as they followed the stream, but the deeper they went the thinner the shoreline became and it forced them into the thicker parts of the woodland and undergrowth. Once he'd found a small clearing he pushed some small shrubs and branches out of their way and gathered some dry tinder to start a fire. He didn't dare to make it anything too bright but now that the adrenaline had left his system the chill was rapidly seeping through his clothes. He had tied the gelding to a tree nearby, leaving him to graze on what little grass there was, and soon the gambler was huddled close to a small fire.
He looked up periodically to listen to his surroundings, his nerves on edge all the while, and got easily startled by a night animal roaming nearby. But he was slowly learning to count his blessings; so far they hadn't been found.
It's funny that I should be thanking God and not good Fortune, he grunted.
Adding more wood to the flames, he knew there was no choice but to flee while the hunt was still on. If he stayed, he'd be killed and with the evidence he carried it wasn't a risk he was willing to take; the Cauldwell's were a wealthy family and his findings could cost them their entire fortune. He strongly believed they would rather murder a lawman than let it fall into the Judge's hands. He couldn't call on local law; Four Corners was too far away; and there was no use riding further south to find a town, as the territory was unknown to him.
He looked down at his grazed fingertips and sucked in a steady breath. "I have to go back. It's too soon, but I have to go back." He whispered.
He needed to return to the Latent ranch. He had the book; it contained valuable evidence taken from Quinn's ledgers. If he got the book back to William he could gather supplies and ride to Four Corners. He could have Judge Travis alert the Union army, then tell them everything he knew and what state the Cauldwell defenses were in. He'd escape the impending harm to his person....
"Oh, no I can't." He groaned to himself. That would never do. That would mean he'd leave the Latents to defend themselves and after all the trouble he had gone through to secure evidence and reinforcements, what would be the point?
But maybe he didn't have to flee the territory. Maybe William could give him refuge until Quinn ended the search? It could work, but then what was the likelihood Quinn would ever do such a thing? And what if Cauldwell caught him crossing over Latent borderlines?
"Christ, if he did he'd know who I was working for." He groaned.
Ezra bent forward and rubbed his temples, the thoughts running too quickly and feverishly through his mind to make any sense. "Where the hell has calm rational thinking gone tonight?" He cursed before thumping the cold ground in frustration.
It angered him that he was so used to turning to one of the others for advice at such a time. Years before he could have made up his mind decisively and now that he was on his own after so long he was troubled to find a better solution.
As he had predicted, that which had often give him a sense of purpose and comfort was now leading him to his early demise. It was too easy to let his guard down around the others and show his truer, good-natured qualities. This newfound selflessness was pulling the rug from beneath his feet and whereas the old Ezra would have backed away from commitments to others, he now found himself compelled to take the hard road if it meant helping innocents.
Finally he dropped his head into his hands with a long, suffering sigh. He knew what he had to do. There wasn't any other choice he could see.
He'd give himself up.
"If I get the book back to William, I can retreat quickly and meet the Cauldwells before they catch sight of me. I can give myself up gracefully and- hell, I could try to talk sense to a brood of hotheads." But he'd also need to warn the other peacekeepers of his move and that would mean reaching the telegram wire to the west.
"I'd still be crossing Latent lands. There's twice the risk I'd be seen and more exposure." He chewed his lip angrily. "Damn you Standish." He snarled to himself
It wasn't the time for cowardice; he had a family in mind- a whole family of young and old. If Ezra didn't stand between William and Quinn then innocent lives would take the full force of Cauldwell's rage. Standish knew Cauldwell would want a scapegoat- and who better than the man who cheated and robbed him? If to just give the Latents time.
He'd be risking a hell of a lot; if he were killed in this endeavor and the evidence he had gathered was insubstantial then it would all be for nothing.
He shook his head. It would have to do. He would head north to the upper most part of William Latent's land and cut through their fences direct to the house as carefully as he could. He'd give them the book then head west to intercept the wire. It would make for added distance and without spurring his horse into a flat-out run it would take more time.
Ezra shrugged resignedly "I believe I deserve a few more hours before I give myself in." He smiled, but it soon dipped. After that who knew what would happen to him? He shook off the thoughts dismissively with a wave of his hand.
It was settled.
Until then they would need their rest because at that moment he couldn't ask any more from the loyal horse. If Ezra was going to make this work the gelding would need to keep going until they reached the Latent's at the very least.
Just as that thought ended, Standish felt the irrepressible desire to sleep. He had been rudely awoken at 5 that very morning and had since been either on his feet or in the saddle all day. Adrenaline had been the only thing that had let him last as long as he had.
With a wide yawn, he pulled his coat tighter around himself, patted a hand over the book in his pocket, and then eased down to get comfortable. As soon as his head touched the pillow made by his folded arms his eyelids fell heavily over bloodshot eyes. His body released an exhausted sigh, and gradually the peacekeeper's mind shut off from the rest of the world.
+ + + + + + +
Back in Four Corners the nighttime activity in the saloon was just getting started. Without Ezra to cover his own patrols the others had had to fill in as best they could and that meant taking the night shifts far too often. This didn't always agree with the others but they had each respected the gambler's wish to see his plan come to fruition and for several more days, at least, they would put up with the changes. Albeit all in different ways.
On the roof of the saloon fresh from his patrol, Vin sat in the cool night air working over a poem he was slowly putting on to paper. He had sat for many moments struggling to fit the lines together in a way that flowed when all of a sudden the paper was snatched from his hand. He spun round angrily and saw the ladies' man back into the room. "Gimme that, Buck!"
"Hold on, this could be real good. ' Brittle armor of the broken man, clinging tight to love and fury"
"Stop it Buck!"
"- still carrying firm a will of-"
"I said give it back, Buck! I mean it!" He clambered back through the window and lunged for the ladies man. "Buck, I'm warnin' ya!"
Wilmington grinned and held the paper away as he made for the door. "But this is startin' real good! Lemme show it to Chris?" He dodged a swing and ran with a laugh through the hall of the saloon.
"Buck, you son of a bitch! Get back here before I empty my rifle into your-"
"Gentlemen, what are you doing!" A scowling Inez stood at the top of the landing.
"Pardon us, Miss Inez!" Buck called with a winning smile.
Tanner tipped his hat to her; "Ma'am." Before ducking into another room. "Wilmington!"
Buck made a hasty jump from the window down on the saloon porch and scampered across the front with a gleeful laugh. Vin was no longer in the mood to play and leapt at Buck angrily, bringing them both down. "Give me the damn paper, Buck!"
"Say please! Pretty please!"
"Go to hell!"
Suddenly a part of the porch came loose beneath Buck and all fighting left them just as a shingle fell to the ground below.
"Buck, don't move this thing's gonna-"
An earsplitting snap of wood and the beam beneath them gave enough to send both peacekeepers hurtling to the ground.
Larabee frowned at seeing his two friends fall from the sky and leapt from his table to see for himself. What he saw first was a piece of paper fall in front of his face. "Brittle fury?" He read silently before hearing the groans and curses emanating from the pile of bodies in front of him.
"JD? Get Nathan." He sighed before kneeling down to roll Buck off a very sore Vin. "You two mind tellin' me what the hell you were doin' up there?" He held up a hand to Inez as she burst through the batwing doors.
"He was writin' on the roof-"
"You son of a bitch, Buck." Tanner groaned.
Buck looked up at Larabee and smiled sheepishly. "The boy writes a good poem, Chris." He whined before receiving a well-aimed boot in the rump.
"We sure as hell don't need this," the leader groaned and shivered in the cold air. Hurry the hell up, Standish.
+ + + + + + +
In the deathly silence of the night, booted feet trod carefully over the solid ground, edging through the shrubs and brush to the small campsite by the creek. The smoke from the fire still lingered in the air above the red embers, shrouding the cold breaths from the intruder.
Gallant's ears pricked up as he smelt the air and pulled at the reins tied to a tree. A hoof clinked against a stone and a whinny pierced the silence, startling the gambler from his slumber in time to see the intruder bear down on him with hands wide open. Standish rolled from the grasp and got to his knees to look straight into the eyes of Jacob Fin.
"Holy Mother...." He whispered.
"Knew I'd find ya, boy." He snarled and pulled out his gun without pulling back the hammer. "You're in a peck of trouble with Quinn Cauldwell you slippery son of a bitch! You kill one of his men then he takes offence. But what he hates most are trespassers and thieves."
"What're you talking abou-"
"You know damned well. Stand up!" He ground out.
Ezra kept his eyes fixed on Fin while concentrating on young Lucas behind him.
"You deaf?" He cocked the gun. "Stand up, or do you want a bullet between the legs?"
With his hands to his sides, Standish stood up carefully only to have Fin grab him by the collar impatiently and force him towards Lucas. Just as he was about to collide with the kid Standish saw the revolver peeking from beneath the coat and made a grab for it.
"Drop it, Fin!" He spun round and in a split second had his arm wrapped around Luke's neck firmly, pressing the muzzle under the kid's jaw. " You know I'll do it."
Clever, little shit, Jacob sneered. "You? I doubt it." He pointed his gun higher.
"I killed Emory, didn't I?" He warned hurriedly, cocking the gun with a deadly glare. "Drop the gun or so help me."
The sudden change in 'Edward' drew fear to Lucas's eyes as he looked pleadingly at Fin. "Please, Jacob." He whispered over the chokehold. "Jacob?"
Weighing the situation carefully, Fin's gun wavered in his hold. After a moment, he lowered his gun and took a step back with his hands raised. "Alright, son, easy now."
Against his better judgment, Ezra let down his guard at the calm voice and visibly relaxed.
With a clear opening, Fin suddenly spun his gun around and took a shot. The bullet pierced Lucas through the chest with a spray of arterial blood, flecking upwards onto Ezra's face. Agonizing gasps tore from the ranch hand's throat as his terror took hold of him, gabbing onto Standish desperately.
"Hel- hel-p, Gawd- help!" He wheezed, trying to press the blood back into his opened chest.
The gambler dropped his gun in horror and clutched the kid's arm as he sank to his knees, eyes wide at the brutality he'd witnessed. Luke's eyes damn near bulged as he watched the spread of blood across his shirt and bit down on his fist to keep from screaming.
With the southerner distracted, Fin ran forward and swung his foot into Ezra's chest, forcing him away from the dying boy as he whimpered in pain. With Standish lying gasping in the long grass, arms clutched to his chest, Jacob bent down and dealt another blow, before throwing his victim against a rock. Grinning wickedly at the feint sound of a snap, he snatched up the other gun and watched the beaten form sag under the fresh injuries, thoroughly loving the position of power he had regained.
Just then he heard his name and Fin looked down at his feet to find Lucas reaching for him pleadingly as the agony rolled through his body. Showing no inch of mercy, Jacob kicked off the hand and watched the boy breath his last, his eyes set in an eternal show of fright.
"It was a foolish idea to think I'd give a shit for that kid." He shook his head in disappointment. "Idiot should have watched what he was doing." He spat angrily and walked back over to the dazed southerner in anticipation.
The peacekeeper brought his hands up to protect his face as he was dragged forward to his knees and let out a pain-filled groan. He tried to fight off Jacob's hold, catching his fist across the ex-soldiers nose, before getting viciously backhanded for his efforts.
"Don't try that again." Fin wiped the blood from his nose. Grabbing a handful of Ezra's hair, he pressed the business end of the gun under his jaw. "You just bought yourself a whole lot of misery, you piece o' shit. Who do you work for? What did you steal?"
"Go to hell." He mumbled, not daring to move with the gun in his face.
Fin lashed out with again and reaffirmed his hold, drawing a yelp from the southerner. "You ain't in a position to be cocky- I've killed men for less than this. Who sent you?" His bated breath lingered eerily on the cold night air.
Ezra maintained his silence and winced as another fist went for his jaw. He barely managed to dodge the blow and took his chance to push the gun from his face. Standish threw his arm up into Fin's teeth, sending the ranch hand to the ground and made a go for the gun. Fin caught the move, grabbing a hold of his arm as he scrambled for the weapon and, before the gambler had a chance to parry the shot, he balled up a fist and threw it keenly into Ezra's gut.
The punch brought stars to his vision and dropped him to his knees, giving Jacob enough time to grab the revolver and press it into Standish's face.
The gambler made a last-ditch attempt for the fight's dominance and lashed out a kick into Fin's shoulder. It threw the bastard off balance but not enough to stop him swinging his knuckles into Ezra's exposed throat with a crushing impact.
"That oughta teach ya!" Fin rubbed the blood from his chin and grinned at the peacekeeper's stunned expression.
Standish careened to the ground with a choking gasp, clutching for air in terror as he held his tortured neck. Bloody spittle dripped from his mouth and down into his lungs, making him cough against the intrusion. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as his breathing became labored and all the while Fin stood watching in some sick state of fascination.
"It always works." He laughed, watching Standish dig his fingernails into the dirt in front of him as the pain overwhelmed his sense of composure.
The strangulating throbbing eased only a little before Jacob tired of the pain-stricken display and knocked Ezra to his side with a firm kick. He stood over the gasping, blood-hacking form and drew his knife from the sheath, wondering how he should use it.
"Still breathin', huh?" He watched the gambler try to get to his knees but kicked him back again. "Well, shame for you, because it's just gonna keep getting worse until you tell me what book you stole."
Making sure the gambler would never fight him again, he pulled the gambler's left arm behind him firmly and forced Ezra to roll over on his back, making his own weight pull against the shoulder joint. Seeing it taking affect on Standish already, Fin knelt with both knees pressed against the bruised abdomen and ribcage. He pushed down on the tortured shoulder with his free hand, holding the knife between his teeth as he caught a flailing arm.
Knowing the bigger man was trying to pin him down, Ezra tried to sit up, to roll over and wriggle from the grasp but the pain igniting in his shoulder whenever he moved and the fire in his throat damn near immobilized him, and his other hand was being held tightly to the ground.
He tensed against the pain and squeezed his eyes shut, breathing as best he could through his nose to stop choking on the blood in his throat. He released a small groan from his lips and pressed his head back against the ground beneath him to alleviate the strains.
He didn't know where the knife was when he opened his eyes, and didn't care to, until it was pressed very slowly into the palm of his good hand. He let out a cry unabashed and writhed against the pain but he couldn't move his legs. He tried to fight off his oppressor but every movement sent painful spasms through his bruised torso and the pressure increased across his chest.
The fear was all consuming and Jacob eyed it very carefully, wanting the impending fear to eat away at the gambler's resolve so he had nothing left to fight with.
Fin held the knife in the wound and dragged it down towards the knuckles slowly before he found himself unbalanced by the gambler's struggles. He shifted his weight to lean on Standish' thorax and leaned over his victim menacingly. "A lot can happen in a few minutes, can't it? But my fun is by no means over, Reb."
Oh, give me a break, you fucking animal! His mind screamed.
Standish tensed against the pain and held his breath, struggling under the heat of the laceration and the mounting pressure from his shoulder.
"You realize you can make this whole affair easier by a little answer, so let's save us both some time. See I've got this theory about that book you have. You snuck into Quinn's study to look through stuff you weren't supposed to and you killed Emory when he found out, am I right?" He leaned closer, pushing a stray finger into the wound. "So what did Emory find, Engle?" He breathed into Ezra's face as the gambler tried to turn away.
"I know you work for someone; there isn't a man stupid enough to take on the Cauldwells alone." He increased his weight on Ezra's chest and leaned closer to the struggling gambler's face. "And who would want someone snooping around Quinn's office more than William- Latent?" He spat the name slowly, like a bitter taste in his mouth.
Standish turned fearful eyes on Fin at the name.
"Did Latent send you, Reb?" He let the blade hover in Ezra's view.
"No- no one," He shook his head desperately.
"Not good enough."
Standish only let out a small cry from trembling lips as the knife was dragged down the length of his arm. Again and again it sank, always slower, and always a little deeper. His knees buckled under the abuse, pulling tightly on his contusions and bruises beneath the sharp knees weighing him down.
"Did William Latent send you?" He pressed down harder on the shoulder, feeling the joint begin to move.
When his bark was answered with a drawn out whimper he pressed his knee into Standish's stomach forcefully.
"When Quinn gets a hold of Latent he'll know only a little of what a lifetime's suffering feels like. Those blessed, dear children he holds so dearly to his heart?" He twisted the blade tip. "They'll spill their own blood before we're through." He whispered tauntingly.
Standish bit back a groan as more weight was applied to his chest and breathing got harder, the feeling of suffocation rapidly escalating.
"Quinn was beaten and lashed for the bitterness his father felt after the abuse the Latents gave them so many years ago."
"They were scorned and looked down on and betrayed by the self-righteous, self-serving sons of bitches and now Quinn's looking for his revenge. " He growled quietly.
Revenge? I thought this was over profit and greed? Standish looked up at Fin with questioning, fearful eyes and clamped his teeth down on his lip. Oh, Christ, what hadn't he been told?
Jacob leaned in to whisper. "And no words, no matter how deep will stop his fury."
Fin knew he was no closer to getting the peacekeeper to talk. With that he pushed the knife down to the hilt and leaned on the handle as the gambler tried to bellow out in his agony, the blade pushing straight through his hand. Blood seeped through the wound and welled in his palm, melting the frosty earth beneath and dripping over spasmodic fingers.
Standish's body shook and trembled as he fought to control the pain and desperately writhed against the hold Fin had him in with a strangled cry. 'Jacob- you f-fucking son of a bitch!"
Fin just shook his head and smiled. "This little demonstration shows very little of what I can really do with a knife. The Natives couldn't teach me anything more, boy, you think you'll stand up to that kind of torment?"
Jacob pulled himself off the southerner's chest and knelt to the side, ignoring the pain filled sobs. He took a good hold of the jacket and sat Ezra up, leaving his hand pinned to the earth. "I'll ask you one more time, and if you keep up this silence then be very aware of what I will do. Did William Latent send you?"
Fin watched for signs of an answer, reaching down to pull another knife from its sheath. Ezra caught the movement and followed it with horrified eyes as his expression betrayed him.
"No- don't!" He shook his head, eyes welling up with the hurt. He tried to crawl backwards with his numb left arm and yelped with the knife still embedded through his hand.
Fin grabbed his lapels and dragged him forward, snatching the blade from the sheath. "Did William Latent send you?"
The stoicism slipped completely and exposed the raw, naked fear in the peacekeeper's eyes as he gave the subtlest of nods.
"I knew it was them." He dropped the southerner with a grin. "You couldn't hide that for long, could ya, Reb?" He taunted mercilessly. "You just sent them little pups to their shallow graves! What was it for, evidence?"
Standish closed his eyes in shame. You're pathetic! You stupid- stupid bastard!
He couldn't do it. He couldn't keep going, he was in so much agony and the devil-loving, vengeful sadist promised him worse. He couldn't take any more; and then suddenly the bloodied knife was pulled from his wound. Jacob grinned at the defeated yell and tapped the tip of the blade against Ezra's cheek playfully.
NO, please no, no more...
"You gonna tell me where the book is- or do I make this nice and slow?"
Standish shook his head desperately, the nausea welling up in his stomach from the blood he'd swallowed. "N-no-n--no b-book-" The bile was about to rise when Fin struck him across the face impatiently.
"I saw you take a book when you fled. Where is it?" He began patting down Ezra's coat as the gambler fought for air.
"Please-" he choked.
His plea ended swift as Fin lashed out savagely with the back of his hand and drew the gun from the holster. "You got one more chance before I kill you and find it myself."
Fin cocked the gun with a growl.
"No!" Ezra cried, turning as far away from the hand as he could manage. "It- it's n-not on my p-per-sson." He mumbled hurriedly through broken lips and a swollen jaw, the blood from his nose running wickedly down his chin.
"Then where is it?"
"I- I- I don't know."
Fin growled and punched Standish in the gut viciously. The beaten gambler let out a weak cry and fell back limply, his muscles screaming against the blow. Jacob grabbed a fistful of shirt and hauled the southerner forward, pressing his face into Ezra's with a snarl. "Wake up! You lie to me again you son of a bitch and you'll cry for the world to hear. Where's the book?"
He didn't get an answer.
In his semi-dazed state Standish felt no pain, only a steady numbness from the torture and, by God, he almost felt fearless. Jacob was wearing down; his ferocity stealing all his patience to leave a desperate man. And Fin had his hands full.
Presented with an opportunity, and too weak to sustain more abuse, Ezra began to mumble incoherently and closed his eyes, letting his left hand creep to his boot.
Jacob threw the gun aside when he knew it would have no effect on Ezra and shook the gambler in his impatience. "It's where? Damn it talk!" He wrapped his fingers tighter around Standish's throat. Ezra was mumbling so quietly he had trouble hearing and leaned closer- his final mistake.
Ezra's arm flew up, jamming his knife up between Jacob's ribs, piercing his heart. Before Fin had a chance to fire his gun, Standish grabbed the weapon and trained it on the ranch hand as he watched him struggle for life.
"You- you bastard." He sputtered, hands drenched with blood pouring from his torn arteries.
Ezra scrambled away and spat a mouthful of coppery-phlegm to the earth. "Yes, s-so I've been told." Standish grimaced, testing his bruised face with his fingertips. In a moment of sheer spitefulness, he drew the small book from within the folds of his jacket with swelling fingers and waved it in front of Fin.
"You- dumb- son of a - bitch!" He snarled. "It was right there in- in f-front of - you!" He gasped. "This will b-bring your Mr Cauldwell to his knees- and if it doesn't I will." He growled before knocking Fin's arm out from under him
"Quinn wont r-rest, you fuck!"
Fin let out a feral growl as weakness took hold and thrashed angrily against his condition. "See you- in hell, Engle!" Jacob stared across with wild eyes at Ezra's fading image, the life leaving his body in a jack-knifing spasm with the knife protruding from his heart.
Ezra's aim never left the body, his terrified imagination telling him Fin was still capable of doing him harm even as the corpse lay motionless amongst the grass.
"Cut it out Standish, he's dead." He hissed.
"Fin?" He whispered in the quiet. He edged closer and nudged the body with a toe but got no response.
Gotta be a trick. The bastard's just waiting for me turn my back. "Fin?"
He shifted forward a little more and rolled the body.
"Argh!" He yelped as the head twisted towards him.
"Oh, God dammit!" He hissed and scrambled away. Ezra looked up and saw the eyes staring up lifeless and heaved a heavy, grateful sigh.
"He's dead." He gasped, laying a hand across his abdomen. "He's dead."
After several moments, Standish tossed the gun aside and curled up around himself to ease his throbbing and get his breath back, the gasps coming hoarse and raw in the quiet. He ached as though he'd fallen down a cliff and landed on his face, the bruises swelling up tight against his skull. He ran his blood-sticky fingers over his burning shoulder and felt small relief that it hadn't dislocated, but knew it'd hurt for a while.
Just then a breeze drifted through the trees and caught Ezra's hand. He drew it towards him with a choked whimper, cradling the mangled limb carefully. He tried to move his fingers, needing to know if his hand was beyond repair but the pain was too much. Feeling at an awful loss, he pressed it flat against his chest and laid his other hand over it to maintain a pressure as sobs wracked his body.
"And you're still alive. Ezra- S-Standish, you lucky bastard." He whispered and wept convulsively where he lay, shivering in the cold as the chill breeze picked up.
Unable to control the nausea he rolled over and let his stomach empty on the dirt between heart-wrenching groans. He gripped the grass tightly as he fought against the spasms running through his ribcage and drew his knees beneath him, getting his emotions under control in the quiet reprieve.
"You're still alive." He breathed calmly and spat more blood onto the ground. "Who'd have bet money on that?"
He looked about the forest tiredly and across at the two bodies. Then all of a sudden he jumped in fright at movement to his side. He made a grab for the gun and spun round as far as he could, aiming the weapon towards the trees. A few seconds later he realized nothing was coming at him and turned rapidly blinking eyes on the horse he'd nearly shot.
Gallant eyed up his new rider skeptically and backed off with a huff.
Shit. He dropped the gun and nursed his bad hand with controlled breathing.
He needed attention immediately and that was enough incentive to begin the slow climb to his feet. Ezra gasped and breathed through the fresh pain as he stood but ended up doubled over for his efforts. The tremors were running up and down his body more frequently but he had to keep himself moving, he needed to stay warm.
With the desperate escape from the ranch he hadn't brought a saddle with him or any of his bags and that left him in a sorry state with nothing to tend to his wounds with. His only option was to look around for Fin's horse, or Luke's.
He lifted his head against the dizziness and saw one beast hidden among the pines carrying a loaded saddlebag and bedroll. All twenty feet away. Standish knew he couldn't do it on his own and looked around for a stick or branch to help support his weight.
Having grasped a piece of dead oak he pushed one end underneath his arm and slowly hobbled over to the curious mare.
"Easy there, steady now." He whispered awkwardly and latched two fingers around the reins. The horse stepped back and flattened her ears at the smell of blood but a few soothing words settled the fear. Standish held a gentle hand to the soft muzzle and reached over to feel for a canteen or water bag, groaning in his dismay when his search came up empty.
What did I expect? Fin was a ranch hand and from what he'd learned they rarely bothered carrying one; too much weight for the cow ponies. He sighed. It didn't help him very much though, did it? He looked around for any sign of Luke's horse and shook his head. The horse had already bolted.
Ezra dragged himself to lean against the weary pinto and pulled out his hipflask instead. The fiery whiskey burnt his mouth before he'd even tried to swallow and it only served to ignite the pain from his punched jaw. After he had managed to at least wash his mouth out, he eyed his wounded hand critically and saw what damage the knife had done. It may not have been as big as the Bowie Fin could have used but it still hurt like a son of a bitch.
"My dear Mr Jackson." He hissed to the night. "Now what do I do?" Ezra pushed himself back to his feet and fought the giddiness threatening to force him to him knees. Taking a spare shirt from Fin's belongings, he led the pinto back to the camp, knowing his energy was draining fast. Ashes were all that remained of the fire when he returned to its warmth. He sat down unsteadily and pulled the stopper back off the flask, giving himself a chance to look at the gruesome wound in the light.
Then the comfort-loving gambler took a moment to catch his breath.
"Christ, this is never easy when someone else is doin' it for ya." He drawled before pouring a trickle of beverage over his hand and resisting the urge to holler.
Not daring to go any further her grabbed the spare shirt and shoved it between his teeth for something to bite down on.
He hissed loudly with teeth bared as he arched back, pouring more before he lost his bravery. As the last drop left the flask he threw it aside bitterly and wrapped the spare shirt around the dripping hand. He let himself fall back and fought the dry heaves from his stomach. The desire to pass out was immense, even his head felt like lead-weight when he tried to lift it, but he was more afraid of dying from the shock, cold and alone, than the pain he was about to feel. So he forced himself to finish the job.
After many minutes of trial and error, the sleeve was knotted around his hand using his aching teeth. He let his own sleeve fall down over his slashed arm and pressed the fabric against the furrowed flesh as best he could, wrapping another piece of torn shirt around it gently.
He felt woozy, and it was no mistake he had lost enough blood and suffered shock, but sheer grit got him back up. There wasn't much smoke rising from the fire and the ashes were soon stamped out. Standish scooped more earth over it and looked about the campsite. A child could see that someone had been in the area, so he'd have to move quickly.
He stooped dizzily and shoved his bad hand into his jacket pocket out of the way before he unbuckled the pinto's cinches. The rim-fire saddle stayed as it had fallen when Ezra spooked the horse clear of the area; he didn't possess the strength to haul it over Gallant's back so all he could do was hide it.
And the saddlebags? He frowned.
If he had to ride all the way to the Latent's he wouldn't need the bag but the few essential items within, so Ezra planned to drag it to the stream some yards away; bedrolls and all. He pulled out the spare gun and bullets and pocketed them hurriedly; fishing around for any other weapons the sadist may have carried. There was little in the way of food except some hard tack and mould, but needs must.
He shoved a mouthful of food between his split lips after taking what he deemed useful, then Ezra dumped the rest into the flowing current before standing up sickly to eye up the area. The discarded hipflask was thrown in with the bags and all that remained was his knife...
The peacekeeper looked across at Jacob's body and considered pulling it from between the dead man's ribs. In honesty, he preferred not to have to touch the weapon ever again and opted for Fin's gun belt to add to his own small arsenal instead. If the Latent's needed more, he could give them what he had gathered together. After all, as a captive, he wouldn't need them.
He stood still for a moment and frowned in thought. Quinn couldn't of known he was hired by the Latents- else why send someone to find out? So it was still safe. But then for all he knew there were others in the area and if so they'd be on him in minutes.
He let out a breath and bent forward to control the giddy sick feeling, the smell of blood hitting his senses. He had to get rid of the bodies. Again. But doubtless Cauldwell would have dogs on the hunt and if he could mask the smell of the corpses he would have a better-hidden trail behind him.
As steadily as he could he grabbed Lucas's shoulder and tried to pull him into the stream but soon gave up. Instead he tied a rope around the dead lad's waist and secured the other end around the gelding's neck, guiding Gallant towards the calm water. At the deepest part he could find he cut the rope and let the body sink to the bed before turning weakly to retrieve the other.
As he walked, it occurred to him that Fin had found him; Standish hadn't led him to the camp, so they were looking very carefully. He couldn't get an approximate number of exactly how many men there were on the ranch at any one time but at a guess it was probably close to thirty-five. Even over such a large area and with a lot of land to scour there could be more near by so he would have to leave the area very carefully.
"If only Mr Tanner were with me." He had done his best with what he had learned from the tracker but he was by no means an expert.
He looked down at the Fin's corpse at his feet and eyed him with sudden apprehension. "Lord, it's not as if he's going to wake up, is it?" He growled at himself and booted Fin into the deeper water.
It was over, at least for now.
The wounded peacekeeper waded through the stream leaning heavily against his horse and used a rock midway to ease himself up onto the gelding's back.
"God, I want to go home." He whispered and leaned forward over the horse's neck. His exhausted mount snorted into the early morning quiet and wheeled himself at the touch of the reins to follow the shoreline.
+ + + + + + +
Mark Cauldwell watched his father pace from his hiding place on the landing. The older man would never rest until 'Engle' was brought to justice and all night he ranted and swore to everything and everyone that came near him. He had not long taken the time to look through his study for anything the murderer may have taken and damn near burst a seam when he saw the defiled ledger in the locked cabinet.
"Dammit! Dammit, NO!" He picked up the decanter on his desk and bodily threw it against the wall in his trembling rage. "It better not be your doing, Latent! I swear to all the saints in heaven, you will pay if it is!"
As he listened to his father's heated threats, Mark's bitterness grew. How could his father hate him for this? How the hell was he supposed to have known that 'Engle' had other agendas? Heck, they didn't even know why he'd done it in the first place. All they knew was that Mark was to blame; he as the one who authorized the employment, he was the one who didn't pay attention.
Well, he thought, I'm sorry for not being born a fucking psychic! I'm sorry for being too damn busy finishing the fucking paperwork you ordered me to do to look for a murder that even you wouldn't have seen coming! He fumed silently, fuelling his rage. He was getting tired of his father kicking him down. He was sick of the look of disappointment he got all too frequently after his many failed attempts to impress his father. But what he really loathed was the pride and affection in Quinn's voice when he spoke about his brother, Gerald. He'd had enough of the whole fucking household.
Mark leaned forward to peer over the landing to the study below and watched his father swipe papers from his desk angrily. Licking his lips in anticipation he turned and padded back to his room, sticking to a well-practiced route that avoided all the creaking floorboards, before pushing the fine oak door shut quietly.
So, you haven't changed the wills yet, huh? Well, that'll certainly work in my favor. He grinned wickedly. Maybe just before I kill you you'll look on me with something close to respect?
He'd make sure of it. All he had to do was pick his moment carefully and the ranch, and all its inherent wealth, would fall neatly into his lap. Lots of accidents happen on a ranch...
"And all this coming from a 'sniveling whelp'." He sneered. What a nasty surprise Quinn would have.
+ + + + + + +
As the sun crested the hills, Ezra turned his ashen face towards the south, wondering if the bodies had been found yet. He shuddered at the images, the smell of a kill still fresh in his mind, and nudged his horse onwards with rekindled strength, keeping their path to the shadows.
They had ridden since the earliest hours of the day since the ambush and had reached the northern pastures of William Latent's ranch. It wouldn't be long before the book was in their safekeeping and himself in the murderous hands of Quinn. He hoped William would understand and not stop him from leaving. He had to give himself up; it was the only way he could see. But before he did he needed to know more about the feud.
Though his gut was telling him the Latents were the victims to it all, he couldn't help but run Fin's words in his head over and over and felt he had been cheated out of the full story. He needed to know he was doing this for the right reasons and not to settle some petty dispute that had resulted in a few thefts. It would give him closure to know that if he went to his grave over this affair it wasn't because he had been conned into getting rid of a nuisance.
"Now I can't even spot a con. Standish, that town is bad for you." He shook his head and pushed away the thoughts to the back of his mind. Fin's ill intentions should have been proof enough of just how far Quinn was willing to take things.
He pulled a little on the reins and eyed the rocky terrain he neared. He could be tracked over the sandy rock, but the chances of them having a better tracker than Fin was a small one. He clicked his tongue and guided the gelding among the boulders and lifted his wounded hand from his pocket. The blood had long since dried the makeshift bandage to his skin and the jacket pocket, gruesomely caking around his hand. Deciding not to undo what healing had begun he left his hand where it was; happy at least that the tight binding had stopped the seeping.
As he rode over the small rise he saw the ranch fencing and grinned with relief. "I don't know what I'm smiling about. I've still got to hand myself over to who knows what." But smile he did and urged the horse into a steady canter. He closed his eyes against the gentle breeze and let the wind pick at his soiled shirt and jacket to cleanse his pains.
And almost a mile away, a spyglass trained on him from between the trees.
Constable pulled his piece from his eye and turned his horse away from the hill with a click of his tongue. The big black charged down the incline and galloped across the field as Wayne let off two shots from his rifle excitedly. In the distance he knew Quinn had heard the signal and rode to meet him, eager to tell his boss his findings.
+ + + + + + +
With better dawn light for the search, Angus rode his heavy horse through the wood and clopped through the undergrowth to where Billy and Derek stood looking at the ground. Two others began pulling something from the stream and a curse rang out through the quiet. "It's Fin alright, God damn, that Emory fella's a piece of work!"
Angus looked up at this and rolled from his horse, his heavier girth spilling over his belt. "Tom?"
Tom Stone turned to the foreman and shook his head. "Found both of 'em. Fin and Luke."
Angus clenched his fists in anger. "Luke? He killed Luke?"
"Reckon so. Bin dead a few hours by the look of things." Their amateur tracker, Donald Hayes flipped over the youth's body and began dragging the body towards the shoreline with Tom. "He'll be hard to find, too."
Billy walked over with teary eyes at the sight of his dead friend and toyed with his guns. "Why?"
Don stood up and wiped his hands on his pants. "He didn't leave the camp through the trees, didn't cross over either."
"Walked along the stream?"
Hayes nodded solemnly and walked to his horse. "We'll need the dogs here to pick up a scent. If he left the stream the tracks'll be fresh enough."
Angus blew out a deep breath and eyed Fin's corpse. He wasn't sad to see Fin gone, in fact he was grateful. "Couple of boys are bringing the dogs up from the west. Mean time spread out, head up stream, Billy take Tom and go south. That bastard could be tryin' to pull the wool over our eyes. Best we don't give him much chance." The foreman clambered back onto his horse when a voice called from through the trees.
"Angus! Boss, wait up!"
"What is it Hooper?"
The young ranch hand rode through the trees and reined the horse in. "We just heard two shots further up north. Quinn's drawing us all back to rendezvous; it doesn't sound good."
"Right. Well, we ain't got such pretty news ourselves, Fin and Luke are dead."
Hooper looked across at the corpses and shook his head. "Now Luke, I'm sorry for. But Fin? Bout damn time, I say."
Angus grabbed the young man's shirt and almost pulled him off his horse. "I'm givin you a warning, kid. You say that in front of Quinn and there'll be hell to pay, understand?"
Billy Favour wiped his nose angrily and nodded at Hooper. "Hell, he's right though, Angus."
"Doesn't matter, the same applies to all of ya. Keep 'em shut, boys." He let Hooper go and pointed to the bodies. "You two, Tom and Derek, cover the bodies with a blanket or two, we'll see about burials when we get back. The rest of us will head up north and meet Quinn before he gets impatient. And don't take your time!"
+ + + + + + +
An hour later in the warming sunlight, Ezra had begun to doze off in the saddle when he heard his name.
"Ezra! Lyle, get Pa! It's Mr Standish!"
The gambler looked up and saw several riders approaching. "Master Latent." He greeted Andrew weakly.
"Hell, Standish, what the hell happened to you?" Clive called. He drew his horse up to the peacekeeper and took the reins. "You better come with us, son, you look terrible."
"It would surprise you then to know I've never felt better." He grinned and patted his jacket. "I have the evidence. But time is running out, I have to deliver this to the elder Latent immediately."
Andrew Latent had finished eying up Ezra's injuries and shook himself. "Steady now, you can rest up here and we'll call in the Judge-"
"No, Andrew." He placed a hand on the youth's arm and urged his horse to a lope. "I have to make a hasty retreat from your lands- there were complications."
Another ranch hand, Fred Housen, drew up alongside. "What do you mean, mister?"
"It's best I explain when William is present. Trust me." He tried to stop himself slumping over the saddle and felt a steadying hand on his arm. Clive nodded and smiled.
"You done well, son."
After the short ride to the ranch house, Ezra was helped off Gallant's back and walked to the porch when William burst through the door. "Mr Standish? I've got a healer on the premises, get inside."
"We have to talk."
"Not yet, let him see to you-"
Standish pulled from his grasp and shook his head in exasperation. "No. We talk now." He pulled the book from his coat.
William nodded at the forceful demand and led the way to the plush study. "At least take a seat."
Ezra did so very willingly and all but fell into the offered chair.
"Patrick, get a glass of brandy. Have you eaten, son?"
"Unfortunately not, but- I can't afford- to stay here any longer than I already- have." He panted through the pain. "After gathering the evidence I wasn't able to make a silent retreat and- thus gained some unwanted attention." He nodded thankfully as a glass of fine brandy was handed to him.
He looked up as Annie Latent walked through carrying a small bowl of water and a cloth, wincing at the beatings. The gentle wife sat down beside him silently and set about trying to clean his scratches and swellings. Standish was about to stop the woman's ministrations but a look from William ended any arguments.
"Let Annie see to you, son."
Andrew stood to one side, watching as the bruises were revealed from beneath the caked blood. "They worked you over pretty good, huh?"
You haven't seen anything yet, lad. He nodded quietly.
"Must have been a hell of a find, Mr Standish" William asked as his sons gathered at the desk.
"While I managed to find some of your belongings on the ranch, like young Paul's saddle, I wasn't finding anything substantial. Until I snuck into Quinn's office."
That got him some looks.
He took another tentative sip of brandy, letting it burn his aching throat, and wiped a hand across his forehead. "I was caught with a piece of the ledger. I had to kill one of the ranch hands and because of it I've since had a posse of enraged men on my tail."
Annie scowled. "Language, Patrick."
"They see it as murder?" Paul Latent spoke up.
Standish nodded. "Precisely." Annie tilted his head upwards and wiped a cool cloth under his chin, 'tutting' at the dark bruising across his neck.
"I must convey my apologies. I managed to slip their sights but one caught up with me." His hand motioned to the injuries. "They followed my trail and, well, that may lead them to you. They could make the connection easy enough."
Lyle covered his face with his hand and closed his eyes as Paul patted his sidearm reassuringly.
Andrew looked at the peacekeeper with misting eyes. "Pa?"
Ezra sat forward and looked William straight in the eyes. "There is but one option available to us that should give you extra time. I need to head west to the telegram wire and call for reinforcements, then I'll head south and turn myself in."
"What? And face execution?"
Lyle shook his head. "No way, just ride out of here! We don't even know they've figured you out yet, we could have a chance."
Standish shook his head sadly. "I have brought enough trouble to this homestead, I can act to prevent anything further by handing myself in. If I do they'll have me as a scapegoat for their troubles and leave you be if only for a short time. I'll be directing attention away from you and hopefully some of the rage. They're angry and Quinn has been conned. He won't take it lightly. Now there's a strong possibility they haven't worked out our arrangement. Fin could only guess the book was for you so they haven't got any solid proof-"
Andrew shot from his seat. "Fin! Jacob Fin?"
Ezra nodded carefully and watched the boy wring his hands.
William glared at Ezra and looked at his son. "That the fella you were talkin' about before?"
"Oh God, I thought he was dead!"
"He is." Ezra motioned to his hand still in his pocket. "Took a while but he is." He whispered reassuringly. "This brutality was from one man. If a fight breaks out, the damage will be worse for everyone involved. You understand why I must give myself in?"
William Latent looked at each of his beloved sons in turn and closed his eyes.
"Judge Travis will have reinforcements at the ready within a day of receiving a wire, and when he arrives you will have the evidence needed for a conviction. And if something were to happen to me that'll give the Judge more of a reason to arrest the Cauldwells. You all know the punishment for attacking a lawman."
Annie looked up at her husband with widened eyes. "The boy'll go to his death, Will." She whispered.
He nodded. "Mr Standish- Ezra, will- will you not wait a little longer before you make any decisions? Is there no way Travis's men will be here in time? I mean this idea, it- it's reckless!"
"You can't take the chance, sir. You have children, your men have children and some newborn and they need protection. And you don't have enough men for the kind of trouble Quinn threatens. If I let it lie for another day they'll have enough time to gather the others from the surrounding towns and double their strength. I already roughly counted thirty permanent staff in a few short days, I have no idea how many others are in his pocket."
The elder latent scrubbed a hand across his face and watched his wife try and tend to Standish's hand. But the peacekeeper wasn't having any of it. "Ma'am, thank you but I cleaned it prior to coming here." The pain it inflicted shadowed across his features.
Clive stood behind Ezra's chair and saw the blood crusted around the pocket. "At least let the doc patch your hand up, it's a god awful mess."
Mrs Latent nodded. "What did you clean it with? Infection could kill you."
He pushed away her hands gently, fearful of pain the ministrations would cause. "With whiskey- please, ma'am, there's no need-"
"Mr Standish. Let them help you." William ordered across the room. He caught the weak glare from the southerner but smiled at the reluctant defeat.
Annie saw how tense he was at the idea. "My dear this hand has to be looked at, try to relax." She whispered, soaking the cloth to moisten the sleeve. "Andrew, get the doctor, then all you others leave and give us some privacy."
Ezra ran his tongue over his lip as an opportunity presented itself to talk to William more privately. "Mr Latent, I'd like you to stay, if you'd be so kind? We have some things to discuss." He spoke quietly.
William caught the look beneath heavy, bruised lids and nodded, watching his sons leave before closing the door to. "I'm listening, Mr Standish."
"I'm afraid-" He swallowed as Annie unwound the shirt. "I'm afraid it is I who will be doing the listening, Sir. I'm going to need a few answers."
"I don't understand."
"I came here under the impression that I was to help stop this bickering turning into something far worse and uncorrectable. And I have reasons to believe there is more to the story than Quinn simply getting too greedy for anyone's good. It doesn't sit comfortably with me, Mr Latent, especially considering the possibility I may not last another day."
"What are you talking about?"
Ezra frowned down at the wound and winced as the fabric pulled. He bit back a groan with a sharp gasp when Annie finally lifted the old shirt from around his hand. Her hand flew up to her mouth at the sight of the stab wound and the other grabbed at a fresh cloth hurriedly.
"When Fin intercepted me he told me Quinn was looking for revenge for past crimes. Now, where I'm not one for believing the word of a sadistic animal, I am however very curious to know what he meant. Am I to believe he lied to get me to sympathize with the Cauldwells? Or am I being kept in the dark about the real reason they harbor so much hate against you?"
William looked at his wife, then the floor. Was that guilt?
Ezra frowned. "Mr Latent?"
"We have a history but it's one that none of us alive here today had any hand in- and it's not what you think."
Oh here we go. Standish could have rolled his eyes if they weren't closed against the pain.
The doc was in the room within moments and set his bag on the desk. He walked over and took Ezra's hand and sucked in a breath as he examined the wound.
"Mr Standish, if I had my way I'd have you drugged to the eyeballs to perform full surgery. A knife wound is nothing if not brutal." He turned to his patient and saw the color drain from his face. "Why the hell you haven't died from the shock by now I'll never know, son, but let's not question it." He got to work collecting his instruments and supplies before sterilizing his hands with carbolic.
"Annie, can you clean the hand and wrist, then lay it out flat on a sheet. Mr Standish, if you'd like to bite down on this, I'll be as quick as I can."
Ezra shook his head to remove the leather strap between his teeth. "No, we still have to talk."
"Have it your way." The doc shrugged. "Just scream if you change your mind."
Ezra looked at William then looked back at the doctor with a frown. Smart-ass.
William almost seemed reluctant to begin and Ezra felt obliged to reassure the rancher.
"Mr Latent, I will still help you. The men that are threatening you may have lost their most vile, but they are still very dangerous. What I'm troubled with is the fact that you seem to have drawn me into this under some false pretenses."
"No! No, we didn't. We've been nothing but honest to you. I promise. Some things were just better left unsaid."
"Go ahead." Standish watched the physician place cleaning fluids, suture thread and needles and a scalpel nearby. He eyed them worriedly and felt a hand stroke across his hair. He looked to his right and saw Annie smile gently.
"You just hang on, I think you've been through the worst already."
"If it helps, Mr Standish, don't look." The doc advised.
Ezra nodded gratefully and turned back to William.
"The family feuds go way back since the two families first set up. My grand father, Barnaby Latent, had set up this ranch with a hundred cattle having inherited a large amount of money from his own father back in Jersey. He was considered a rich man. Anyway the ranch was established over a few years and by that time he had made his acquaintance with locals towns and neighboring ranches, and one Marcus Cauldwell."
Ezra looked down as the physician tweezed out some strands of fabric from the wound. "I take it they didn't see eye-to-eye?"
"Oh no, at first they were on good terms. Marcus would often help out on the ranch and my grandfather returned the gestures- that is until Marcus bought some sheep to graze. Then it unsettled things. The local cattle ranchers gave Marcus hell for having the flock and in the end he was forced to sell them off or kill them cheap. It cost him a lot of money.
In those days it was common to pick your friends by what money they had, just like today, I guess. What made relations worse was Barnaby's daughter, my aunt Violet, was courting Marcus' second son, Julian."
"Julian being Quinn's father?"
"No, Julian was killed on a long drive shortly after the trouble started. Anyway, my grandfather took notice of their sweet affections and forbid Violet to see Julian again. He forbid their request for marriage-"
William stopped as Ezra's back arched against the pain of the scalpel and a cry escaped through his clenched teeth.
"Oh damn it!" Standish hissed.
Annie closed her eyes and soothed him quietly as she would her own child. "Steady now." She whispered, running her fingers through his sweat-damp hair.
Ezra looked up as the cutting eased and saw the doc wipe the blade clean.
"I'm just removing some dirt that got in. It's fairly clean though- you're lucky."
Standish shook his head at the comment. And there I was cussing Lady Luck for not having a heart. My apologies, ma'am.
"Mr Standish, are you okay to continue?"
"Yes." He gulped and looked up, blinking back the tears pricking the corners of his eyes. "You were saying he forbid the marriage?"
"Twice. I think Marcus had hoped that when the marriage went ahead then their finances would be spared. It turned out Barnaby wasn't as good a friend as he had believed. He felt betrayed and understandably very angry when he found out about the refusal and stormed over here demanding answers. They had words and in the end Marcus accused Barnaby of being a sell-out, unreliable and weak.
The locals caught on to the news and gossip fed on the Cauldwells like a disease. Julian and Violet had happily told others of their intentions to marry and when others found out the wedding had been denied rumors spread. It humiliated the family. They were fresh from the east coat and already people were dragging their names through the muck. Rumors of poor business management, poor family life, and poor this and that circulated until the family was damn near pitied. And for a proud man like Marcus it shook him up something awful."
Standish released the breath he had been holding s the doc wiped away at the wound. "Poor management? So Quinn is trying to replay something that happened to them years ago to get his revenge? Or is that just a happy coincidence for him?"
"Who knows? He ain't stupid, so maybe he is."
"I suppose the trouble didn't end there?"
"Well, not really. A year later, the Cauldwells found out that Violet was planning to marry Thomas Chord, a local hotelier and saloon owner. He wasn't a man from wealthy stock, believe you me. They had had to scrape their living together through tough hard graft but Quinn just saw a sleazy individual. Owning saloons wasn't very Christian, and to some it still isn't. Marcus was insulted that his own son was turned down for someone of so little virtue. And it hurt Julian too."
Standish frowned at this. He'd always dreamed of owning a saloon, he'd known others who had achieved such a goal and in his mind it was a sound, profitable business. Not filthy.
He was interrupted from his thoughts when the doc grabbed hold of his arm. "I'll need you to hold very still, I have to wash out the wound. Then I can begin the sutures."
Ezra frowned and didn't register the intentions until the carbolic was poured liberally over his hand and arm. He damn near bucked in the chair and pulled away from the torture, squeezing his eyes shut with a yell.
William stepped forward to hold him steady, watching the doc spread the fluid all over the hand.
The physician shook his head with a smile. "I always thought it was best not to know about it before it happened. Guess I was wrong." The physician grinned before handing Annie a towel to dab the wound. "Take a few moments to relax, then I can stitch you up good as new."
Standish turned a suffering look on the doctor and got a laugh in return. "Mean individual." He glowered.
"I've heard worse."
"Give me a few moments to gather my wits and I'll do better."
"That's more like it!" The doc slapped his arm in good fun as he took up the thread to dig the first stitch into Ezra's hand. "Now you try to stay as still as possible and this'll be over very soon."
Oh, finally! Standish closed his eyes and felt utterly exhausted. "So why have relations become so horrific? Have there been no attempts at reconciliation?"
William adjusted his footing. "Yes. My father tried to talk to Marcus before he died, then to his eldest son Anthony, Quinn's father. He inherited the ranch and my father figured he might have been able to reason with him, as the new head of the household. Heck I've tried myself but after the initial troubles Marcus became a very angry man. He lashed out at his family and when Julian was killed he targeted the son who was set to carry on the family name. It was as though Julian had reminded him of the shame his family suffered through and when he was no longer around he wanted to make sure his eldest didn't let them down. And he did it the only way he knew."
"Yes. Treated the boy as a scapegoat in the name of education." He shook his head. "Quinn witnessed the beatings as a young boy and got the same treatment from Anthony right up until he was a full grown man. I hear he even took a hand to young Mark Cauldwell when he was a little 'un. He said he needed to beat good virtue into the boy. Just plain out of control."
Annie picked up a fresh washcloth and wiped the gambler's face as the doc started on his hand. "I'm surprised you didn't hear anything while you were over there."
Ezra shook his head firmly. "Mark expressed some worries that his father would beat him but other than that I kept my head low. I couldn't afford to ask too many questions."
After several minutes of biting his lip and controlled breathing, the last suture was finally threaded through the skin, pulling a slash wound closed tight. Standish let his head loll against his chest and closed his eyes, thoroughly relieved the ministrations were coming to an end. Lingering shivers still spread across his chest and it concerned the physician some, but he held his tongue. The younger man didn't seem to need the added worry.
The doc drew a roll of bandaging from his bag, prodding Ezra's chest for his attention. "Don't fall asleep yet, son, you ought to know some things. Firstly, the blade slipped between the bones mostly cutting up muscle so I doubt you'll get full working use out of it for a while, but there's the possibility that you never will. Second, it took a few stitches and I'll warn you they'll burst. If your right hand is your best you'll pop a few of 'em soon enough."
The aching southerner opened and closed his eyes to rid the blurred vision and nodded obediently
"The best way I can think of to avoid permanent disability is to keep the hand well rested but work it a little every so often so it doesn't weaken. You'll lose a lot of strength in your hand while it mends so be patient."
The doc pulled his spectacles off his nose and folded them into a pocket. "Before I go ahead and bind this up, just how much movement do you have?"
The gambler was eager to know. Yes, he was ambidextrous but his skills would be sorely tested if his right hand never recovered. As it was he could only move his little finger and thumb to anything close to a fist but the doctor seemed happy.
"Hmm. Not too bad. As I said keep it steady and let it mend. These bandages should help to restrict movement."
Yeah, and I've no doubt when the Cauldwells get a hold of me it'll be the first thing to go. Standish looked down at his stitched and swelling hand. The surgery hadn't been the worst but it had set his nerves on fire and he was relieved it was over. "I'll take heed. Thank you."
The physician laughed. "They don't usually thank me so soon after but you're welcome." The doc sat down in front of him and took the hand carefully to check his work. "Try to keep it dry." He wound a length carefully over a softer padding of gauze that wrapped around the palm. The end of the bandage was tapered off to his wrist and knotted tightly before another began to wrap the slash marks.
William had been transfixed for a moment at the sight of the thick black sutures before he drew himself up to his full height. "Is what I've told you any comfort, Mr Standish? It was never my intention to keep things from you, especially considering your sacrifices. If this was simply a family row I would never have called for aid."
"I was never in much doubt, as I said I don't tend to take the word of a malicious reprobate. However, circumstances are making me very weary of late and I needed to be sure I was doing this for a damn good reason."
"And do you?"
"Never more so." He smiled.
William grinned in relief and nodded. "When do you plan to go?"
Standish didn't bother consulting the physician. "Immediately."
The doc frowned.
Standish caught the look. "If things go to hell too soon then no matter how much you tended to me, they will happily undo it all if they mean to. The sooner I go the easier it may be."
The doc said nothing but turned to sort out his equipment and supplies.
Annie frowned and looked at her hands as she wiped them clean. "I can't believe they'd even want to hurt you. You're a lawman!"
"And they've got a lot of land to bury me in. A dead body can be hidden very easily in terrain like this." He whispered to a horrified Annie and held her hand kindly. "Let's just hope it doesn't come to that."
William took a deep breath and walked over to the door. "Lyle? Paul? Get Mr Standish's horse ready, fetch a new saddle and wipe the beast down." He called through the door. "Doc? Do you have a spare bottle of laudanum for him?" He pointed towards the peacekeeper.
"I do, a few actually." He nodded in understanding.
Ezra looked up questioningly.
"If they catch you, it'll hurt." The doctor frowned. "And if it gets too bad, you can finish off the bottle before they reach you." He added quietly. "More dignified than a bullet, I find."
Ezra looked up in surprise as the man left the room. Had he just suggested killing myself?
William stood before the younger man. "Take that advice; it could be the best you have. If you have the means to kill yourself, at least you're still in control. And the saddle is a token. If you get out this alive, if we all do, then at least you'll have a comfortable ride back home."
Home. He smiled wistfully. As much as the dusty town disgusted him at times he wanted nothing more than to return to his home and lounge in his favourite chair. Four Corners's unpredictable and distasteful façade belied the comfort it brought him and the friends with it. His heart crumpled a little at the thought that maybe he wouldn't get to go back. But his poker face remained stoically intact.
"A very fine idea, sir. I admit a ride without a saddle can be a little painful at times." Standish grinned a winning smile and eased himself from the seat for William to escort the weakened man to the door, holding a hand to the peacekeeper's elbow.
"Before you go, I'd like Annie to rustle you up something to eat. You look like death, if you don't mind me saying so."
Standish felt his stomach rumble and remembered having to throw up so many times. "I'd be very grateful."
+ + + + + + +
Quinn turned to see the approach of his men and rested his hands on the saddle horn. "You're late."
Angus held up a hand. "We got the message and rode straight over. But you ain't gonna like what we found."
"I wont have a chance to dislike it if you don't tell me." He snapped impatiently.
"We found Fin and Luke dead down by the creek south of here."
Quinn glared despite the bright sunshine. "Engle killed both of them?"
"Yup. Luke got shot, and Fin's still got the knife in his chest. It had some initials on it; E.P.S. Guess he wasn't who he said he was."
The cattle baron gripped the reins in his hands angrily and twisted them tightly. "That son of a bitch!" He looked up at the others angrily. "That son of a BITCH!" He bellowed. "We've let our threats lie for too long, he was warned what would happen! Damn that son of a bitch, he'll get no inch of mercy!"
"Mr Cauldwell, what's goin' on?"
"Vengeance! That's what's going on! He killed one of ours, he stole from me, he conned and cheated us all and he had the gall to hide behind someone else while it happened! Well he wont get away with it. I've been too kind and by God he will know what fury feels like when I'm through! DAMN him to HELL!" He spat, his eyes bulging as he sent hate filled glare to the west.
"So Latent had something to do with it." Lloyd stated pointlessly.
"Well who else would it be!?" He snapped ferociously. "Constable saw Engle, or whatever his fucking name really is, leave the Latents' property before he came to us. He crossed back into their borders just hours ago."
"And why the hell didn't you say anything before? You've seen him right?" Billy threw across at Constable.
"No I haven't seen him! I've been stuck in the other towns keepin' an eye on things, ya cocky little shit!" He shot Angus an accusing glare.
"You were there for a purpose, you're good with faces and you keep to yourself. So cut the crap!" Lloyd shouted back.
"Shut up!" Quinn bellowed. "This is what it's come to- an eye for an eye. He was warned!" He pulled his rifle from his saddle and snatched his horse's head round. "Lloyd, go and gather the others to the forest south of here, get them ready on the high ground. Billy, go with him. I aim to get us a lure for William that he will not refuse. Be waiting in two hours. He's had long enough to make a move, and now his time is up!" He snarled viciously and spurred his nervous horse across the open ground.
Further back with the other men, Mark watched his father and hid his smile. Oh, this'll be perfect.
+ + + + + + +
Standish squinted as he stepped into the bright sunlight and pulled the book from his coat pocket.
"As for this, give it to someone they wouldn't suspect. Maybe one of your men, one that keeps to the yard a lot. That'll deceive them a little more if they are looking for it."
"They know you've got it?"
"It's likely. They know I was in the study and Fin saw me pocket it before I fled. "
Latent nodded grimly and handed the book discreetly to Fred Housen, the stable yard foreman. The tall man took it carefully and tucked it into the pocket of his vest.
"I trust Fred with this. He's a good man- and better with his gun. If it comes to the worst he'll know where to stow it away."
William took the peacekeeper's good arm and helped Ezra amble down the steps from the porch to where his horse stood patiently. Andrew had readied Gallant with a new black saddle and after a brief combing the horse looked better for it.
The southerner nodded gratefully to the young man and stroked a palm down the horse's neck. "A fine job, young Latent."
"He had some feed and water so he should run real good, too."
William patted his son's shoulder proudly. "Andrew, go take care of inventory in the shed. Add the newest supplies."
Ezra cocked an eyebrow at this and smiled knowingly.
William grinned. "Yeah, from the robbery. But we didn't steal these weapons. Had three men go east to meet a seller and bought a cartload back. You have my word when this is over we'll make it up to Warren Break for the damages. Good folk don't deserve that kind of hounding no matter what the cause."
"Can't argue with that." He grinned. "I thank you for your help gentlemen. Mr Latent I will do my utmost to ensure a fair end to this foolishness. Until then may I offer my sincerest wishes and best of lu-'
Boom! They all jumped as a gunshot rang out.
Everyone crouched and turned, seeing a lonely rider coming in fast having fired the warning shot. The horse swerved this way and that to balance the weight on its back, the rider having lost all sense of control when he'd passed out. Before anyone could realize who it was, Hollow, a ranch hand, fell like deadweight from his galloping mount and hit the earth with a bounce.
"Who in the hell? Lyle, get the others!" William ran over, letting the fiery horse barrel past him. "Colby? Colby, damn it answer me, what happened?" He dropped to his knees and held a hand to Hollow's neck. "Get the doc!"
Andrew ran up behind his father. "Heck, he was with Joe, Pa!"
The elder Latent rolled the ranch hand over and found his chest peppered with slugs. "Colby?"
Hollow's eyes opened wide to the rancher and shook his head bitterly. "Bastards caught us across the border-" He bit back a cry.
"-they got Joe."
"What! What happened to my boy? Who? Was it Quinn?
Colby winced and nodded. "I held 'em back, told him to run for it but they just kept goin' for him. They ch-chased his horse, I hid away- I had to w-w-warn ya. I'm s-sor-I'm sorr-ry Will." He cried in his pain, the damage to his stomach and liver increasing the pain uncontrollably.
Andrew wanted to bolt at the cries from his friend, his eyes wide in horror, his stomach rolling at the sight of the punctured flesh.
Tears spilled down William's anguished face and spattered on the dying man's shirt. "They crossed the border?"
Colby nodded, his eyes glazing. "They k-killed him before they broke through. Headed- h-headed south- God it hurts so bad!" He gripped William's shirt as Latent pressed a bandana against the wound. "Stop! Please, oh God!"
Andrew shook his head defiantly and looked at his father, pleading for answers as he clung to Colby's sleeve.
He took in short breath and turned his pain-filled gaze onto William. "They just w-wanted to kill the b-boy, Quinn- he..." He took a final sharp breath and held it in, his eyes rolling in to the back of his head as the agony seeped from his body after one awful spasm.
William gripped the splayed out hand and shook his head. "Colby? Oh no, damn it boy, stay awake. Where's the doc!" He turned and bellowed, but it was no use.
"Doc!" He bellowed, pressing the bandana into the wound desperately.
But no one came.
Lyle, Clive and Standish watched the life leave Hollow's body, a soft moan escaping the bloody lips to dry in the sunlight.
"No, I need to know! Where's my boy? Colby!" He cried, holding the man's face in his bloody hands. "Please." He whispered when no answer came.
Lyle bent forward and gripped his knees, unable to stand hearing his father's pleas and his brother's sobs. "Hell no." Standish hadn't seen Colby Hollow before, but he knew he didn't deserve that. He heard Lyle's quiet words and held a hand to the back of the younger man's neck. "I'm so sorry, Lyle." He whispered, feeling the boy's head bob gratefully.
At that moment, Patrick and Paul rode up from the yard, guns at the ready. "Pa? What happened?"
Paul took in his brother's state in surprise. "Lyle, what's goin' on? Colby okay?" He leaned over to see. "Clive?"
Clive Hill looked at the lad he knew from birth and shook his head. "He's dead, lad."
Paul shared a frown with his younger brother and walked over to see. "What happened? How- oh Christ!" He staggered back when he saw the shotgun wound and would have fallen if it weren't for Patrick behind him.
"Quinn came, he's here! He's on the land, now!" Andrew cried, looking at his older brothers angrily. "He- he killed Joe!" He wept.
A heart-wrenching plea drew tears to everyone's eyes. "Oh, Joe, no, no, no..." William gripped Colby's bloodless hand against his cheek and shook with agonizing sadness.
Patrick's eyes widened angrily in his confusion. "What do you mean, what the hell happened here?"
Clive put a hand out to stop him and looked him in the eye. "Quinn killed Joseph, Patrick."
"Joe? Quinn killed our brother?" Paul whispered.
Patrick's temper was quick off the mark in his disbelief. "Where was he?"
"The southern pastures-"
"But he was supposed to be safe on the southern pastures! You said he'd be safe there!" He jabbed a finger at Lyle's chest. "Why the hell would you send him there?" Patrick demanded as his temper flared
"I didn't- it wasn't my fault, I didn't know!" Lyle grabbed his brother's flailing hands. "He should have been out of the way."
"You promised, you said he'd be okay!"
"Patrick, I didn't know!"
Paul could only watch helplessly as Lyle struggled against Patrick's rising fury.
"You put him in the middle of this- I told you to let me go!"
"I didn't want this- no one did! Okay? I didn't know!" Lyle shouted, his hold on his emotions failing at the sight of his desperate brother.
"Enough!" Clive bellowed and pulled them apart. "Enough, now! Patrick, no one knew this would happen, least of all Lyle and shouting blame isn't going to help the situation!" He had their attention. "Calm down. Now!"
Patrick shook his head in denial as the anger dissipated to heavy grief. He held his hands over his tears, whispering his brother's name as Lyle drew him into a firm hold. "Why would Quinn kill him? Jesus Christ he wasn't even involved!" He whimpered into Lyle's shirt, his sobs muffled by the checked flannel.
Standish slowly turned away from the raw emotion before him and suddenly felt like an intruder. Pressing a knuckle between his teeth to keep from screaming, he asked himself; had he been too careless? Or were they just too good?
Clive hung his head without answers to give. "It doesn't matter now, we know what he wants." He looked at Andrew and William then to Patrick, Lyle and Paul and saw no leadership. The only glimmer of hope among them now rested with the peacekeeper.
"You boys are gonna need to keep your heads now. No rash moves. Quinn's led a gang onto the ranch and your father's gonna need your help to settle the fight. You can mourn your brother when debts are paid. Clear?" He looked across at Standish and saw guilt written all over his face. "No one can be blamed for this but Quinn." He added firmly.
Paul looked over at the fallen pillar of strength and watched his father weep. Too afraid to succumb to the pain to embrace his father, he placed a firm hand to his shoulder for comfort and squeezed.
William looked up at his son and smiled sadly. "I've done nothing to protect this family. I never made a stand, or a show of force." He whispered.
Lyle forced back the bitter tears and cleared his throat, squeezing his brother's shoulders with resolve. "Then we've got to do somethin' now." He ground out forcefully, unnerved at his father's sudden show of weakness. "Families need help, Pa, and they don't need us blubbering on our knees to somethin' we can't fix. We gotta help them first."
He was right. As much as they longed to mourn over the dead, it wasn't getting them anywhere and, while they knelt unprepared and crushed, in the distance Quinn was probably gathering others to his side. They had to pull themselves together and make something work.
William looked at his eldest child and nodded. He turned his gaze across to his second youngest son and took in the utter despair of the boy as he knelt with his head in his hands. "Andrew?" He called worriedly.
"Yeah, Pa." He acknowledged quietly, gripping his father's hand as it came to rest on his shoulder.
Andrew nodded and sniffed loudly, refusing to look at Colby's body.
William looked up at Clive and nodded. They would be okay.
"So what do we do now?" Patrick asked, wiping his eyes roughly.
"There's no time to call the authorities, is there?" Andrew looked up hopefully.
"What authorities? Closest thing we've got to honest law around here is days away." Patrick kicked himself at his tone as his brother hid his face in his arms again. "M'sorry, Andy."
"Maybe we could fall back to the house, make a stand there? We could keep an eye on everyone and fortify the house." Paul looked at the others expectantly.
Standish shook his head. "You'd take the fight straight to your loved ones, it wouldn't do. It should only be a last resort."
"Then we have to take the fight to the pastures, take it straight to them." William stood. "God damn it, I just lost a son. Quinn must not get away unpunished. They brought the bloodshed onto my land and I'll be damned if they get away with it."
He wiped a hand over his face and turned to look at his eldest son. "Lyle, we've got to send Quinn a message loud and clear, because I'm sure as hell getting tired of being a victim! I want all the men rounded up and armed, empty the supply shed and make sure the womenfolk have weapons in hand. If we die the defenses fall to them. Clive, go with him."
"Yes sir." Lyle patted Patrick on the back reassuringly and took off at a run.
"Paul, take Patrick and ready the horses. See to all of them."
Paul got to his feet, comforted by the steady authority in his father's voice. "What about the womens' horses? You want them saddled in case they have to make a break for it?"
"To be safe, you'd better."
With that they both ran off together as William turned to his youngest, leaning down to get a better look at the red, puffy eyes.
"Andrew?" He asked gently, pulling him close as the shudders wracked his body.
"It'll be okay." He soothed. "We'll see to this our way, understand? We aren't working on Quinn's terms any more." He looked into the tear-stained face. "Listen to me, son. I want you to head back to the house, tell your mother what's happened and make sure they board up the windows. The planks and tools should be ready in the cellar, and then-"
"Yes Pa-" He croaked, wiping his nose and eyes.
"-and then, I want you to call the doc, and take Colby's body to the bunkhouse. Will you do this? Will you do this for me, son?" He pleaded softly.
Andrew looked up at his father and nodded.
"Good boy." He whispered proudly and ushered the lad on his way. " Follow Lyle's example, listen to your brother." He called after his son as he picked up his pace.
When all that remained were the two men standing silently in the quiet field, William stooped to pull Colby's guns and spare bullets from the corpse.
"I must apologize for that display, Mr Standish. God knows it didn't help the boys deal with this, Colby was a fine young man." He reached down to gently close the lifeless eyes and heaved a troubled sigh.
"You need not apologize to me, Mr latent. It probably did them good to see they aren't the only ones hurt by the ordeal." He offered quietly.
William sighed and looked down at the guns. "It never works out as you plan it, does it?"
Ezra looked down at the saddened voice, and struggled to think of any kind words to say to the grieving father. Not wanting to risk further upset, he simply shook his head and tried to rekindle some kind of hope in William instead. "I should leave while I can." He straightened his coat. "I can reach the wire in an hour or two and ride back. My horse is fresh enough for the ride so it shouldn't take too long-"
William shook his head and nodded to the west. "If you head for that wire they'll kill you. They know who you are, and as much as I appreciate your bravery it's too great a risk, and- and I need you here." He turned, all pride pushed aside.
"Mr Latent if I don't go for the wire, I can't call for reinforcements."
Standish knitted his brows in his confusion. "It'll leave you exposed- what good will that do?"
"I need you here." He snapped impatiently.
Ezra shook his head in his rising temper. "I thought the whole idea behind my endeavors was to guarantee your protection? How the hell do you expect me to do that now if you don't let me call for aid?"
William pointed towards the yard forcefully. "You see those boys? Those innocent boys! Do you think they're going to manage when the fight breaks out? For Christ's sake they're barely older than twenty except for Lyle and few have ever shot anything- let alone killed something!"
Ezra glanced at the yard, and then turned a heated glare on William.
"You saw them just now and you saw me. None of us could hold it together when we saw Colby die, so how do you think they're going to react when a man is killed by their own hand? They're children, Mr Standish!"
"I realize, but if I can't get to the wire then they'll be dead children, do you not see?" He shook his hands emphatically. "What do you expect me to do, exactly? I'm only one man!"
William spun round to face the peacekeeper. "You're the only experienced gunman here, someone who can face a target that'll try to shoot back. You're already hardened for the risk. I need you to back us up because those boys-" He pointed. "They wont stand it. They've never been asked to before and they're going to look to me for guidance; but what the hell can I give them?"
"Mr Latent, I'm no leader."
"They don't need a leader, they need a steady presence at their backs."
Ezra ran his hand through his hair and closed his eyes, heavily doubting he was capable of the responsibility William was asking of him. "What about sending one of your sons away with the evidence? If I can't call in help then at least get the book away from the property." For God's sake do something for all the pain I suffered!
"It's too much of a risk to send you out there. Can you imagine the risk if I tried to send one of them? Quinn already killed a fifteen year old boy who had no part to play in all of this." His voice cracked. "I- I can't risk another son. Please, if you're here then we've got a better chance. Those boys are likely to shy away from the fight- and I wouldn't blame them."
Standish looked William in the eyes.
"I'm already several men down now. This fight's come on too fast and they aren't prepared. I need all the guns I can get and they trust you."
Ezra couldn't chose between anger and frustration. He needed to get help for the Latents; he wanted to. That was what he had planned, and that was what the others were expecting. If he didn't get a message to them and it all went wrong then they would be stranded. It'd go to hell faster than Jacob Fin.
He shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck anxiously, thoroughly disapproving the course of action. If he went along with the fight now there would be no way to predict the outcome; the odds would be out of his control.
"You say I'm experienced but I have to tell you I've been in very few gunfights."
William snorted incredulously. "You think any of us have? We're not fighting men. This whole business was never supposed to end like this, we always hoped there was a better way- and you offered one to us. But now it's been snatched away we've got no choice. If we run, they'll chase us. If I sent the other families away to safety then they would be found- I can't risk them!"
Ezra held up his hands and nodded. "If nothing is done, then the evidence is at great risk."
William took a step closer to Ezra and met his gaze, knowing the young man was angry that his efforts had been in vain. "I am forever in your debt for what you've done for us, Mr Standish. I will be eternally grateful for what you attained." His face set in resolve.
"But if I can't defend them here, if I lose my family now, then what use will that evidence be? It's a priority I have to decide and I'm choosing the lives of my loved ones. The evidence be damned! If I can't protect them from this fight then what good will the book be? Who will it protect in one maybe two days time when it gets to the Judge?"
The gambler ran a hand over his face with a defeated sigh.
William held Ezra's arm apologetically. "I'm sorry for my words, son. But like you said it'll take two days for the army to get here. It could all be over by then. Please understand."
How can I deny that logic? Standish sighed and looked back up. "No, you're right and I should have expected this." He turned to stare out across the fields in frustration. "If I hadn't drawn attention to my self they wouldn't have known I was working with you. It got your son killed, I'm sorry-"
Latent frowned squeezed Ezra's shoulder. "Cut that out right now. Like Clive said, no one can be blamed but the devil they call Quinn." He bit his lip and looked at Standish anxiously. "Listen, no one can force you to stay either. We may need your help, and I'll get down on my knees and beg if it'd work, but you aren't obliged to stay. It's us that are."
Standish pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "I started this, and I was always prepared to see it through to the end- whatever it may be. You're right; your sons may not be able to cope. The least I can do is back you up."
William smiled in grateful relief. "I will make this up to you for the rest of my days, Mr Standish, I give you my word. For now, let me get you well armed, you'll need better guns- how is your hand for shooting?"
Ezra looked at his bandaged limb and snorted. I might be able to throw rocks at them with it. "It'll do, but I'll need a rifle, the bandages wouldn't fit around a handgun trigger."
"We can do that." He placed a fatherly hand on Ezra's back and motioned him in front. "Come on, Lyle's sorting it all out, we've got plenty to chose from."
"Will you tell them?" Standish didn't take his eyes off the ground in front of him as it spun a little; he was still very weak and the dizziness came and went.
"About the reinforcements?"
William slowed his walk. "No. They're frightened enough as it is."
While this troubled Ezra, he had to appreciate the opinion; they needed all the morale they could get.
As they walked to the storehouse he still couldn't shake off the heavy sense of failure weighing on his shoulders. He had done what he had believed was his best and he'd suffered a good deal for it, but it had effected no change on their circumstances. But maybe joining them in the fight would help turn things around, at least then there was a chance that they would be spared more bloodshed.
" Does Fred Housen still have the book?" He asked as they reached the storehouse.
"Good. A man of his size should help deter any fools from making a grab for it." Standish accepted a carbine from Lyle and added quietly, "but if Quinn should find it among our corpses then maybe that will satisfy his ire and save the house from becoming a target."
William grabbed a rifle, his colts and bullets. His sons and ranch hands loaded their holsters ready and he knew they would look to him to lead the way. "I wish we had time enough to run." He whispered privately to Ezra, needing to share his worries. His dear wife and daughters were back at the house preparing for the onslaught and he didn't have the time to comfort their loss, or say goodbye.
"You'd need more manpower." Ezra added as he loaded in the shells. "Movement like that would require a lot of protection and a strategy for clearing the mountains in the area. There are too many places for an ambush and too few of you to lay down a substantial counterstrike."
William looked at the peacekeeper as thought occurred to him. "Were you ever involved in the war, son?"
Ezra looked up sheepishly. "Err, no sir."
"Me neither." He smiled. "This should be interesting."
This is part of my first submitted fic and I'd like to explain some of what's going on in case you're scratching your head thinking, wtf?
In other fanfics there are a few constants which I've deliberately left out in this story - one being Ezra's resistance to the torture. Many would have written Ezra's character as one who would be able to withstand that kind of torment but I had to realistic; why would a gambler ever be trained to resist interrogation? Another is Chris Larabee's character. He is often portrayed as a very merciless, angry individual but having watched the episodes it's easier to see him as far more laid-back kinda guy, hence the banter with Nathan. If this wasn't to your liking, I'd like to get your feedback for later stories.
Through research I found that few cowhands ever carried a canteen with them, even in the deserts, as it would have added too much weight to the burdened horses, hence the absence of one among Fin's belongings if you were wondering. With this story I wanted historical accuracy, but I couldn't get every detail right, and as for the medical and psychological traumas I could only use common sense and creative license so what mistakes there are I'd really appreciate any corrections you could offer.