Alternate Universe "Highlander"
Characters: Ezra Standish, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, and eventually Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and JD Dunne.
Summary: An unexpected visitor to Four Corners, forces the men to come to terms with Ezra and Charlotte's Immortality
Author's Note: This is a sequel to Child of My Heart and The Truth Is Immortal.
Chris pushed his way through the batwing doors of the saloon and paused as his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the interior which was at odds with the bright day outside. He smiled as his gaze settle on the table on the raised platform where Vin, Buck and Ezra were playing poker. Chris knew their resident gambler didn't cheat his friends but it was a rare game that saw Ezra losing to the other peace keepers. Still, sometimes it was hard to believe he was simply just that good.
Chris sauntered over to take the empty seat at the table between Buck and Vin.
You keep smiling like that, Buck grinned as he poured Chris a drink, and people are gonna start thinking you might be a happy man.
Quickly followed by a loss of dread for our leader, Ezra added. A happy gunslinger does not bode well for convincing bandits that you are a fearsome presence.
Knock it off, Chris commanded as the smile broadened on his face. He raised his drink, glass poised at his lips as he realized they were staring at him with matching grins. What? he demanded, uncomfortable with their scrutiny.
He used walk around like that all the time after Sarah said yes. Buck leaned toward Ezra as he spoke. Guess Charlotte saying yes has him grinning like an idiot too.
Ezra nodded, his gaze taking on a more studious air. So that is what love looks like. I have noticed a similar besotted look on my cousins face. But while on her visage I find it a great source of joy, on Mr. Larabees it is quite disconcerting.
Get used to it, Ez. Vin nodded in sympathy. He aint stopped smiling since they set the date.
You finished? Chris asked, pouring himself another drink.
You know, something has just occurred to me, Ezra said as he rubbed a thumb along his jaw, but he failed to continue his thought.
Chris knew he shouldnt ask but couldnt help himself. What? He glared at the gambler, fully aware that it had little effect given his positive disposition these days. Hed have to work on fixing that if his men were going to take his threats seriously again.
You are to marry my cousin in two weeks, Ezra paused and Chris knew he was drawing it out just to annoy him.
Know that. Whats your point? The equally stupid grins on Vins and Bucks faces alerted him to the fact that he was being set up. Too late now as hed already asked the question.
Simply that you and I will be related after that blessed event, Ezra said, adding a belated, Cousin.
Cousin? Chris gulped as he set his empty glass back down on the table. He hadnt really registered that fact. Ezra and Charlotte were not truly blood related but that didnt matter as they were as much family as any two people he knew.
Vin and Buck were unsuccessfully trying to stifle their snickering. Chris glared at them, which did nothing to silence their good humor. He really was going to have to work on that.
Buck slapped Chris on the back. You and Ez are going to be cousins, ain't that great?
Shut up! he commanded, but the three at the table apparently had no intention of listening to him.
Now, Chris, I am disheartened to hear that being related to me would cause you such grief.
It aint that. Chris tried to retreat from the implication that the relationship was undesired. I just hadnt thought about it before.
Im sure not, Ezra chuckled.
Chris noticed silent encouragement from Vin for Ezra to continue and Chris groaned inside wondering how much more of this teasing he would have to endure.
It had occurred to me, Ezra paused as he looked between the two troublemakers at the table, the twinkle in his green eyes matched by two sets of blue ones, that since Charlotte is like a mother to me, that once you two are married it would make you something of a stepfather to me.
Chris leaned forward over the table, while encouraging Ezra to come closer which the gambler did. You ever call me Pa and I will shoot you.
Ezra reclined back into his chair, laughing, I am afraid that isnt much of a threat."
Have at it, Chris, Vin said, gesturing toward Ezra. But hes just gonna wake up and annoy ya all over again.
Mr. Tanner, I am hurt that you find me annoying, Ezra said, throwing a hand to his chest, adding to the drama of the statement.
It aint that you're annoying but youd make damn fine target practice, Buck assured him.
I do not appreciate being volunteered as a target, Ezra said as he collected the cards from the table and proceeded to shuffle one handed while feigning an air of indignation at Buck's suggestion.
Youre the only one that makes sense when Chris starts threatening, Buck said, reaching for the bottle on the table to pour himself another drink. Might as well let him do it once.
Yeah, Ezra, let me get it out of my system. Chris smiled as he shifted back in his chair, allowing his coat to fall open so that the gambler could see his gun. This wasnt the first time one of the others had volunteered Ezra as a target whenever he threatened to shoot someone, but hed never actually taken the opportunity to do it.
The shuffling stopped as the gambler's eyes met the gunslinger's. A small impish grin graced Ezra's features. You will of course replace whatever garments you damage, he said laying his cards on the table.
Chris hadn't expected him to actually agree, but he could see that Ezra was serious. Well, he was game if Ezra was. Besides it was an opportunity to prove to his men that love hadnt softened him. Though truthfully he was pretty sure it had. He was finding it harder and harder to find that black place left behind by Sarah and Adams deaths. While their memory would always be a source of sadness, his newfound love for Charlotte had successfully begun to fill the emptiness inside of him in a way he never thought would ever be possible again.
Of course, Chris replied. Care to step outside?
Vin sat up straighter. You aint really gonna let him do it, Ez?
Ezra didnt answer either man; instead he tilted his head as if listening for unseen voices. Chris had noticed the gesture before when Charlotte was near and knew it was a sign that Ezra felt the Immortal presence of his relative.
The gambler smiled, revealing his gold tooth. Consider it a wedding present, he said. But I do hope that you are ready to explain to your paramour why you felt it was necessary to shoot her beloved cousin.
The color drained from Chris face. He hadnt considered that. Charlotte probably wouldnt appreciate that is was all in good fun. Chris turned anticipating Charlottes imminent arrival in the saloon.
The batwing doors parted, but it wasnt Charlotte who entered.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra wasnt sure why he had volunteered to be target practice for Chris, but he sensed it might prove illuminating. There was a part of him that was curious about what lay beyond death. He had been killed twice but there had been no enlightenment. There had been no white light beckoning him towards heaven or demons waiting in the shadows to drag him to hell, but then he hadn't been expecting either death. Aside from the pain, he'd felt simply as if he'd gone to sleep and woken up with a terrible hangover. He wondered if he were prepared for death, would he learn what lay beyond the veil; it was an intriguing concept. As an added bonus, it would be fun to watch Chris try to explain his behavior to Charlotte, and a flustered Chris was always entertaining.
As the batwing doors swung back, Ezra realized that the Immortal presence he felt was not his cousin but instead the man who now stood staring at him from the entrance of the saloon.
Ignoring the questioning looks from his friends, Ezra stood slowly, never taking his eyes off the stranger. The man was dressed for the trail; bandana at his throat, checked shirt, brown pants, and Ezra suspected there was a sword sequestered within the folds of the man's tan duster.
"Ez, is he?" Chris hissed
Ezra moved his hand ever so slightly, a silent request that Chris remain quiet while also signaling an affirmative to the question.
The three sat up straighter in their chairs, indicating that they would back him if he needed it.
It felt as if the entire Saloon was holding its collective breath waiting to see why their resident gambler was so interested in the newcomer.
Ezra thought back to when another Immortal had wandered into town. Methos had been Charlotte's friend and mentor, so there had been no threat of challenge. In fact, Methos had taken over his cousin's job as Ezra's teacher. A role Charlotte was happy to relinquish to the more experienced Immortal. He'd just started warming to the old man when Methos had disappeared; breaking his cousin's heart in the process. Ezra was beyond angry at Methos and was in no mood to have their lives disrupted by another of Charlotte's Immortal 'friends'.
On the other hand, if the man wasn't a friend, then there was only one other reason the Immortal had entered this establishment. Challenge.
The man stared at Ezra, finally breaking into a feral smile. Ezra read the man clearly. The stranger had taken in his fancy dress, smaller stature and protective friends, quickly coming to the conclusion that he was easy pickings.
Ezra might not possess Methos' skill level but even the older Immortal had been impressed with how far he'd come in such a short period of time. With a little cunning, Ezra was sure he could determine if the odds in this duel would be to his favor.
Ezra nodded hesitantly, inviting the other man to climb the two steps to their table. As the Immortal approached, Chris, Vin and Buck stood, and while they didn't draw their weapons they made it perfectly clear that they were willing too. Ezra was pleased by the gesture not simply because of the friendships it implied, but more because it would cement in his opponent's mind that Ezra was in need of the others to protect him.
The man ignored the three gunslingers focusing all his energy into menacing Ezra. "Karl Jaeger," he said curtly.
"Mr. Jaeger." Ezra tilted his head in a gesture of greeting. "Ezra Standish, and these are my companions, Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner."
The man barely acknowledged the introductions. "I believe, Mr. Standish, that we have some business to discuss."
Ezra took note of the heavy German accent. It could be a sign of a newer Immortal, one who hadn't had time to lose the indicators of his homeland.
"Now?" Ezra squeaked, putting an appropriate amount of fear into his voice; after all, image was everything. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to have a drink or perhaps a game of poker before we get down to business." He only hoped his friends would not ruin the façade he was building by opening their mouths.
Karl smiled, taken in by the false meekness that Ezra was projecting. "I'm sure your friends won't mind giving us some privacy while we have that drink."
"I - I agree," he began hesitantly and cast a look toward his friends, building on the idea that he would be vulnerable without them, before retuning his gaze to the other Immortal. "Some things should be discussed in private."
Chris and Buck seemed uncertain as to what to do. Vin turned toward Ezra, taking a step closer so that his face was hidden from Karl. "You sure you want us to go?" The tracker asked, the concern for abandoning his friend to this stranger clear in his voice. When he followed the question with a wink, Ezra had to suppress the urge to smile at Vin's perceptiveness.
"Thank you, Vin," he said. "I believe that Mr. Jaeger is correct. Our discussion will require some privacy." He reached out to touch Vin's arm, an uncharacteristic gesture for him, as he said softly but loud enough for Karl to overhear. "Please, don't go far."
Vin nodded slowly then tilted his head toward Buck and Chris indicating that they should leave. "Don't worry. We'll be right outside iffen ya need us." Vin punctuated his performance with a menacing glare for Jaeger.
Ezra watched them go, allowing Karl to see the distress that their departure caused him. He was quite enjoying this character of reluctant participant that he was building for the German's benefit. It had been too long since he'd pulled a proper con. The glint of satisfaction he saw in the man's eyes told Ezra that he hadn't lost his touch.
As the three gunslingers exited the saloon, the other patrons returned to their previous activities, figuring that if Chris Larabee was unconcerned for the gambler's safety who were they to worry.
Once outside, the three lawmen walked down the boardwalk to stop in front of the jail positioning themselves to watch the saloon
"I ain't never seen Ezra so scared," Buck said. "I don't think we should have left him in there alone with that guy."
Vin and Chris looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"It ain't funny guys."
"When you ever seen Ezra that scared, Bucklin?" Vin asked as he continued to snigger.
"You mean?" Buck cast his eyes back toward the saloon as understanding dawned. "He was faking!"
"Course he was faking."
"Best way to keep an opponent in the dark," Chris said. "Let them think they have the advantage."
"Well, if Ezra fooled me," Buck chuckled with admiration for their resident conman, "I reckon that guy ain't got a chance."
"Hate to break it to ya, pard, but you ain't that hard to fool."
Buck opened and closed his mouth as he looked to Chris for support.
"Sorry to disappoint you, stud, but Vin's right," Chris teased.
Huffing his disagreement, Buck dropped down into one of the wooden chairs on the boardwalk and glared at his friends.
Vin leaned over to stage whisper at Chris, "I think we hurt his feelings."
Chris nodded. "He looks so sad and alone."
Buck waved a hand at them in annoyance. "Ha ha very funny."
"What's funny?" came a lilting female voice.
Chris looked up to see Charlotte had silently joined their group. "Buck ain't feeling particularly happy." He reached out to take her arm drawing her to his side.
"Don't listen to him, Charlotte," Buck said, standing up to greet her. "He's been so happy these days he makes a clown look sad."
"It's true, ma'am," Vin said as he touched his hat in greeting. "You've made Chris so happy his glare don't even work no more."
Looking up at her intended, she smiled. "I am sorry that I have taken away your greatest means for controlling your motley crew."
"Who's she calling motley?" Buck asked.
Vin shrugged. "Who says he controls us?"
Chris quirked a mischievous smile. "I can still shoot them."
"That's not really the best solution," Charlotte teased.
Buck got an evil glint in his eye. "He was gonna shoot Ezra for target practice and Ez was gonna let him."
Charlotte pushed back from Chris. "You weren't?" A hint of disapproval in her tone.
Chris sent an ineffectual glare toward his oldest friend. "It was a friendly conversation. I wouldn't have done it." He snaked an arm around her waist pulling her back to him and she came willingly. "I know your 'condition' is nothing to joke about."
"You keep calling it her condition," Buck laughed, "and people are gonna think " He moved his hand over his stomach with the suggestion of a baby bump.
"Buck, shut up!" Chris snapped. How could Buck be so thoughtless?
Buck visibly blanched at the harshness of Chris' command and then sagged as he realized what he'd said. He stepped toward Charlotte. "Ma'am, I am sorry. You know I didn't mean
Charlotte gave him a weak smile. "Do not worry yourself, Buck. Apology accepted." She reached out to squeeze his arm.
Immortals could never have children of their own. Buck should have known better than to mention pregnancy because that had been one of the stumbling blocks in Chris and Charlotte's relationship. Assuming that Chris would want to start a family of his own, she had initially refused his desire for a more permanent commitment. What Charlotte had failed to understand was that the six children she'd adopted over the years were more than enough family for him. Hell, it was more family than he ever hoped to have again and they'd accepted him as he'd accepted them. The twins had already asked if they could call him Pa after the wedding. He smiled at that thought; surprising himself with how much he was looking forward being called that again; as long as it wasn't Ezra doing the calling.
He shook himself out of his thoughts to find himself once again the object of Vin and Buck's childish grinning.
"See, that's the look!" Buck pointed at Chris while addressing Charlotte. "You done that."
"I know." Her face was a mirror of his contentment. "Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have to see Ezra. I wanted his advice on some of my business investments," she gestured to the small ledger Chris hadn't noticed she'd been holding, "and I am already late."
Chris was smacked back to reality with that statement. In the midst of all the lighthearted banter, he'd allowed himself to forget that Ezra might be in real danger from their Immortal visitor. He really was slipping.
"He ain't here," Vin said. "He's on patrol."
Chris was grateful for Vin's quick thinking. He had no intention of letting Charlotte anywhere near that other Immortal. He fully expected that Ezra would be able to talk the man's ear off and convince him to be on his way without any challenges taking place. If that didn't work then Chris fully intended to shoot and behead the German bastard himself before Charlotte even had a chance to know another Immortal was in town.
"Well he's back," she said gesturing toward the saloon. "And most likely wondering why I have yet to appear."
The three gunslingers exchanged frustrated looks that did not go unnoticed by Charlotte. Chris knew that they felt an equal responsibility to keep Charlotte safe from the dangerous Immortal.
"Surely you must realize by now that I always know where Ezra is?" Charlotte asked "Did Ezra ask you to delay me for some reason?"
"No ma'am," Vin said, covering his earlier lie with another. "Didn't know he was back already."
Charlotte nodded, accepting Vin's explanation.
While Chris hated that they had tried to lie to Charlotte, he felt her safety justified the small deceit. He was only angry that it had never occurred to him to ask just how far one Immortal's perception of another could reach. He wished she hadn't been close enough to challenge Vin's story.
"Why don't we take a walk? Ezra can wait," Chris offered.
"Later," she squeezed his arm, I really shouldn't keep Ezra waiting. Gentlemen."
She tilted her head in farewell and headed toward the saloon. Chris followed, reaching out to grab her arm, turning her to face him. "You're not going in there." He hadn't meant to sound so harsh, but the danger presented by the other Immortal made him speak hastily.
Charlotte looked down at his hand on her arm and then up at his face. She quirked an eyebrow at him. "And why don't you want me to go into the saloon?" Her tone was even, but he could sense the temper waiting just behind her words.
Chris hesitated. His lack of response provoked an immediate reaction. "Unbelievable," Charlotte snapped as she yanked her arm away. "You do not get to suddenly dictate where I can go just because we are betrothed."
"You know I would never do that, he entreated, trying to calm her down. He knew better than to command her behavior. Charlotte was a strong, independent woman and he loved that about her. "It's just that " he stumbled, looking for a reason she would accept that would prevent her from leaving.
"Actually, ma'am," Buck spoke up. "Ezra's wantin' to avoid you. Asked if we couldn't keep you away for awhile. "
"Oh really?" The skepticism dripped from her words as she folded her arms across her chest.
Chris knew they were playing a dangerous game, deceiving her, but he saw no other solution. "Might be best if you didn't confront him just now," Chris said. "Why don't we have lunch and you can wait for Ezra to find you."
Charlotte narrowed her eyes as she studied the men in front of her. "For as much time as you spend with Ezra, you boys continue to be terrible liars."
Chris wasn't surprised she wasn't buying it. Ezra would never have dismissed plans with his cousin so carelessly nor asked them to lie to her.
"Please, Charlotte. Can't you just trust me that it ain't in your best interest to go looking for Ezra right now?"
"Tell me why and I'm happy to leave Ezra alone for the moment."
Chris looked to his companions hoping they might come up with answer she would accept.
"Truth is he's entertaining a lady," Buck said. "Might put a damper on his chances if his cousin were to come around demanding his attention."
"That was weak, Mr. Wilmington." She glared at the men, daring them to attempt to lie to her again.
Chris might have laughed seeing his own ability turned against him if he weren't so busy scrambling for a story.
Suddenly Charlotte's face went pale as she glanced toward the saloon. "It's Maude, isn't it? She's back."
"No! I promise you it isn't Maude," Chris assured her.
After Charlotte had stepped in to save the Standish Tavern from Maude's manipulations, Chris had finally gotten the truth about how Ezra had died the first time. He'd made it perfectly clear to Maude that she was unwelcome in Four Corners. He didn't expect to see the con woman again for a long time. Though, and Chris almost smiled at the thought, Maude was the Standish he'd prefer to use for target practice if the opportunity ever arose.
"Last chance, Chris," Charlotte demanded. "I want the truth."
Chris caught Vin's eye. The tracker shrugged and with a tilt of his head indicted that it was time for the truth. Sighing, Chris knew that Vin was right.
"Ezra is in the saloon with another Immortal. We think the guy wants to challenge him." Chris said. "I think it's best you stay away and let them work it out." Chris waited as his words penetrated hoping that she would understand why they'd tried to keep her away and obey his request.
Anger flared in Charlotte's eyes before turning to concern for Ezra. "You should have told me," she said coldly. "You have no idea what you're dealing with." She turned and took measured strides toward the saloon.
Chris knew she wasn't going to let him off the hook for keeping this from her, but he was also curious what she'd meant by her last pronouncement. She'd told him all about challenges and just like gunfights he didn't think they required much understanding.
Without looking back she snapped, "We will talk about this later," and disappeared through the batwing doors
"That went well," Vin drawled without humor.
"Get the others," Chris ordered as he stalked across the street, Buck and Vin following close behind. "May need 'em."
They nodded and took off to find their missing members.
Chris knew that Charlotte didn't have her sword on her. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad one. He spared a glance down the road to where she'd left her wagon; he knew that she kept it under the seat whenever she traveled. He had no intention of retrieving it; he'd put a bullet in Mr. Jaeger before the Immortal ever have the opportunity to draw on his woman. Immortals, Charlotte had once explained, were too discrete to pull their swords when there were potential witnesses about. He hoped she was right. If not, they had numbers on their side. With the other six to back him, he hoped Ezra could convince the German to simply leave town.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was almost enjoying the conversation with Karl. The other Immortal was arrogant, self-assured and completely taken in by the picture of the scared, inexperienced novice that Ezra was painting. If not for the fact that the ultimate goal of their little tête-à-tête was a duel to the death, he could have taken more pleasure in the con.
They had just finished negotiating the details of their challenge when Ezra felt another Immortal's presence. This time he was sure it was Charlotte because Mr. Jaeger frowned, indicating he had no idea who it could be.
Silently he cursed Chris, all the while keeping a pleasant smile plastered on his face. He was sure the gunslinger didn't want Charlotte involved in this, but obviously Chris had been negligent, allowing her to get too close. Ezra was sure Charlotte would sweep in and try to take over the challenge. While Charlotte was an able swordswoman, the gambler was not about to let her endanger herself. The gentleman and the son in him would not allow it.
"I believe that is my mentor," Ezra said neutrally.
Karl absorbed this information. Ezra noticed a twinge of fear cross his face and disappear before he spoke, "Still new enough to need a teacher." There was disgust in his voice. "I killed mine, first opportunity I had. Happy to take care of yours once we've finished."
Ezra clenched his fists under the table. As if this cretin stood a chance against either of them. The time he'd spent in Mr. Jaeger's presence convinced Ezra that he could take the braggart. After all he'd held his own against Methos; a point that even the older Immortal had grudgingly granted him.
"Your skill must be quite remarkable to take out such an experienced Immortal." In truth Ezra had no idea who the man's teacher might have been, but the dead man had obviously misjudged his student's loyalty.
Any response was interrupted as Charlotte pushed through the batwing doors, halting at the entrance. Both men stood to face her.
Karl turned back to Ezra. "That is your teacher?" he laughed. "This is going to be easier than I thought."
Normally, Ezra would threaten to shoot any man for insulting his cousin in such a caviler manner, but the persona he'd created was a bit of a pushover. Instead he bowed his head in a sign of defeat.
"She has done her best," Ezra said ruefully.
"I'm sure she has." The condescending tone was almost more than Ezra could stand. "But one cannot expect a woman to play the Game well."
The man was baiting him and Ezra knew it; yet, he found himself fighting to control his temper. Focus! he thought as he regained his center. He could not allow himself to be distracted by his concerns for Charlotte.
"I find her to be a competent instructor," Ezra said, forcing resignation into his voice. "I'm sure her instruction will serve me well." Everything about Ezra's body language and tone projected a defeatist attitude which Karl was lapping up. It was almost too easy.
Ezra hoped Charlotte would recognize the con he was playing. It was one she and Maude had used to great effect, or so she'd said, to lure foolish men into underestimating the skills of female Immortals.
He raised his gaze to see Charlotte climbing the two steps to stand behind Karl. Her face betrayed nothing as to her course of action but neither did she appear upset at his casual dismissal of her training skills.
"Mr. Karl Jaeger, may I present Mrs. Pearl Black." His friends had taken to calling his cousin 'Charlotte' once they'd learned that was her true name, but Ezra was taking no chances that this man might have heard of Charlotte Sparrow, Immortal and pirate's wife.
"Mr. Jaeger." Charlotte nodded solemnly.
"Mrs. Black," Karl returned the greeting.
Ezra held his breath waiting for Charlotte to take over the challenge. She'd been an encouraging teacher, but now that Ezra was faced with a real opponent would she be so quick to believe in him? Surprisingly, she made no move to interfere and Ezra relaxed as Charlotte simply joined the supposedly friendly conversation.
"I assume you gentlemen have concluded the preparations for your business later," she said, her tone still giving Ezra no clue as to what she was truly feeling.
"We have," Karl replied. "I look forward to conducting future business with you." The egotistical bastard smirked at the euphemism.
Ezra had to struggle to keep from rolling his eyes. The man was so arrogant it was almost funny.
Charlotte gave a polite laugh. "I do hope that it won't come to that."
Ezra allowed himself a small smile. She knew the game and was playing along. Her ambivalence about her student's skills would only add to the charade. A small part of Ezra wondered if she truly felt that way, but he clamped down on those thoughts immediately. It was a bad conman who started believing his own story.
At that moment, Chris pushed his way into the tavern and stalked up to the table to stand menacingly behind Charlotte, making it clear that he was protecting his own. Ezra stared at the man, willing him to turn around and go before he ruined everything.
Ezra shouldn't have worried; Charlotte took control of the situation as she turned to face him. "Chris!" she said, the excitement at his presence ringing false to Ezra's ears. "So nice of you to join us." Ezra noticed that she squeezed Chris arm as she met the gunslinger's steely glare. The gambler could only imagine the unending torture she was threatening with her eyes while maintaining a seemingly cheerful demeanor. "Have you met Mr. Jaeger?
Chris shifted his gaze to Ezra who shook his head imperceptibly hoping Chris would keep his mouth shut. For once, Ezra seemed to have mastered the ability to send his thoughts to Chris as Vin did so naturally, because the gunslinger visibly relaxed, trusting Ezra to handle the situation.
"I have," Chris replied. He nodded at Jaeger and then settled into the same seat he had vacated earlier. "You ready to finish our game?" he asked Ezra as he gestured to the cards on the table.
Nicely done, Chris, Ezra thought. Out loud he replied, "In a moment," then turning to Karl he continued, "I assume we are finished?" Ezra was now grateful that Chris return could act as a catalyst to dismiss the Immortal.
Karl was oblivious to the silent conversations that had been swirling around him. "Yes, of course," he said. "But I look forward to finishing our discussion later this afternoon."
Ezra tilted his head. "Mr. Jaeger."
The Immortal sent a gesture of farewell to both Chris and Charlotte before exiting the saloon. When he was sure Karl was gone, Ezra dropped triumphantly back into his chair, letting the false persona slip away, congratulating himself on a con well initiated. Ezra knew there was a chance that he was being played as well. Karl was so sure of himself that it bordered on manic, usually a sign of false bravado; an Alpha male in the wild whose roar was worse than his fight.
Now, all he had to do was deal with an irate gunslinger and his, for once, unreadable cousin. Somehow fighting the challenge seemed less intimidating.
+ + + + + + +
The minute the batwing doors stopped swinging she whirled on Chris. "What in the world did you think you were doing?"
Chris, taken aback by the sudden attack, was struck speechless.
Charlotte sat forcefully down in the seat next to him to continue her rant. Ezra couldn't help but feel sorry for Chris which was followed quickly by thanks that is wasn't directed at him.
"You could have ruined everything! Ezra had that arrogant idiot handled perfectly. There was no need for you to come in guns practically blazing!"
Ezra smiled. She'd approved of his play. As much as he enjoyed seeing Chris flustered, because of his good mood, he felt a certain obligation to rescue the man. "Thank you, cousin "
She held up a hand indicating he wait to join the conversation. It seemed she wasn't done with Chris.
"He was dangerous," Chris snarled. He had found his voice and wasn't going let Charlotte dictate to him. "I wasn't about to let you come in here and take the challenge."
"Let me!" she hissed. "Any challenge I take or do not take is none of your business."
Ezra felt like he'd been punched in the gut. It was her intention to force him to stand aside.
"Bullshit! You're going to be my wife, of course it's my business," Chris spat back. "And you," he turned his glare on Ezra, "what the hell are you thinking agreeing to fight that man? Where's that sliver tongue you're so proud of? Why the hell didn't you talk him into walking away?"
Ezra was taken aback at becoming the focus of Chris' ire. Did Chris really think he could have talked that man out of a duel? While Ezra was flattered by the confidence his friend displayed about his manipulative skills, Chris had no idea what he was asking. Perhaps because the first Immortals the gunslinger had met were friends, he had no idea that there were certain Immortals that would never walk away.
"Don't be ridiculous, Chris," Charlotte said. "Ezra is doing exactly what is necessary. And based on what I've seen of his opponent, I have complete faith that he will be the victor."
She had confidence in his skill; was sure he would win. Ezra was overwhelmed by those few words. Ezra was about to face a deadly challenge and yet the irony was he never felt more alive than he did in the face of Charlotte's support. He was pulled from his musings by the rising voices of Charlotte and Chris.
The argument was becoming heated and the saloon was no place for this discussion. "Chris, Charlotte!" he snapped interrupting them and receiving matching glares of displeasure for his intrusion. "Forgive me, but perhaps we should move this dialogue to a more private location, such as the church?"
Both Charlotte and Chris appeared appropriately chastised. The three rose and made their way to the door only to find the other five lawmen on their way in.
Wonderful, Ezra thought sarcastically. The cavalry.
Chris pushed past his men without a word and headed toward the church. He expected all of them to follow without being told. He was furious with Ezra for not convincing the other Immortal to leave, with Charlotte for acting like her Immortal dealings were none of his concern, and with himself for believing that he'd found someone he could never lose.
He flung open the doors to the church, stalked to the front and waited for everyone to file in. He'd have preferred a private conversation with his future relatives, but knew that the others would find out what was going on anyway. Might as well hash it out together.
Maybe they could do what Ezra had not; make this Immortal go away.
He sat down in the front pew waiting for the others to catch up.
Buck plopped down next to him. "So Ezra really gonna fight this guy?"
"Yes, Buck, he is," Charlotte said as she walked to the front of the sanctuary. "And none of you are going to interfere."
Buck turned to look over his shoulder at the gambler who had settled into the pew behind Chris. "You sure about this, Ezra?"
"It's what needs to be done." Ezra pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. "In about one hour, I will take my leave, gentlemen, to face our intruder."
"No you won't," Chris growled without turning around.
"I don't see that it's your concern," Charlotte said. "This is Immortal business."
Chris roared to his feet rounding the pew to face her. "That's bullshit! How can you be so cold? A man you raised like a son is about to lose his head and you act like he's going for a Sunday ride."
"Thank you for that vote of confidence, Chris." Ezra smirked.
"Shut up!" Chris snapped "I'm still angry with you too."
"Ezra is well trained. He should have no problem defeating that odious man."
"How can you be so sure this guy isn't better?" Josiah interrupted. "No offense, Ezra," he added hastily.
The gambler nodded his understanding of the question.
Chris couldn't beleive the matter-of-fact way they were both approaching this. Charlotte could lose Ezra; why didn't that bother her more? It sure as hell bothered him.
"I have found that truly deadly men have no need to boast about their skills." Charlotte stared at Chris. "His arrogance is just a mask for his own insecurities."
Chris thought about her statement knowing it to be true. He was renowned for his skill as a gunfighter; yet, never felt the need to brag or even draw attention to how deadly he truly was. Still, she couldn't be sure and the alternative was unacceptable.
"I have trained Ezra myself," she continued as if sensing Chris' skepticism. "And he has held his own against Methos; one of the most accomplished swordsman I know. Ezra will prevail." Her confidence in her declaration was apparent but Chris wasn't convinced.
"And if Ezra doesn't win?"
"Then I shall face him."
"Like hell you will," Chris barked. "I'll shoot him and take his head myself first. I will not allow you to put yourself in that kind of danger."
"Allow! You have no say in this." Charlotte stepped closer to Chris, her arms folded defiantly across her chest. "You will not interfere in the Game."
"Game!" Chris threw his hands up in frustration. Charlotte had explained this Game to him. There could be only one; it made no sense to Chris. "I don't care about your stupid Game. You are gonna be my wife and I will protect you." Because I failed to protect Sarah, he added silently.
He wanted to grab her and shake some sense into her, but failing that he wanted to just hold her and make her understand why she couldn't do this to him.
Charlotte sagged at his last words. "Chris, you can't protect me from this." Her voice was quieter now.
"Well, I'm damn well gonna try," he said. "I will not lose you too." And there it was, his secret fear laid plain. He was angry he'd let it slip, but how could she not know why he felt so strongly?
He could see her anger fading away replaced with concern for him. She reached to lay a comforting hand on his heart. "I will do everything in my power to ensure you do not have to face what you fear. I have faith that Ezra will defeat this man; there is no need to distress yourself this way."
Chris didn't want to fight and as frustrating as she could be, he could never hold onto his anger when she looked at him that way. He reached up to take hold of her hand, clasping it to his chest as he studied her face. A face he'd fallen in love with, a face he might lose before he really had the chance to be with her because of some foolish ritual.
There was a part of him that was sure Ezra would handle this situation, but what about the next one? What if another Immortal came to town and Ezra wasn't the first one he ran into? Suddenly the idea of her Immortality was no longer the panacea he'd thought when he'd allowed himself to give into his feelings for her. She could die. Just like Sarah, Charlotte could be taken from him and he wasn't sure he was strong enough to face that.
He needed a drink and he needed a plan. One that Charlotte didn't have to know about. She could hate him forever, but at least she would be alive. There was no need to continue this conversation.
Sighing, he brought the hand he was holding to his lips. He would admit defeat at least for now. "I will never understand this, but I ain't gonna argue any more."
She leaned into him. "Thank you."
Kissing the top of her head, he said softly, "You are too damn stubborn. We're going to have to work on that."
He could felt her chuckle against his chest. "I promise to let you win the next argument."
Chris pulled back from her. "I'm gonna hold you to that one."
Buck came up beside him and in a stage whisper said, "Best get that in writing, stud.
"Buck, I am a woman of my word," Charlotte said with exaggerated indignation.
"No offense, ma'am, but women have a way of forgetting those kinds of promises," he laughed and the other men joined in.
"I think Buck is right." Chris turned to Ezra. "You have a pencil?"
"Chris!" Charlotte chided and playfully smacked him on the shoulder.
He smiled and pulled her close. "Ezra's taught me to always insure my investments with a formal contract."
Charlotte smiled up at him. "I believe I was the one who taught him that."
"True, cousin," Ezra said. "I find it a prudent policy."
As contented as he felt with Charlotte in his arms and his men smiling around him, it was the calm before the storm. This issue with Charlotte and her Immortal nature was not over yet, even if he was willing to let if go for now. Chris looked over at Ezra. "You kill that son of a bitch, you understand me?"
The gambler nodded. "I had no intention of doing otherwise."
Ezra continued to stare at Chris, before his eyes flicked momentarily to Charlotte and then back up again. Chris tilted his head indicating he understood the inquiry and sent a silent promise that he would not play by the rules if Ezra was unsuccessful.
"I have another question," Josiah said.
"Yes, Josiah. What is it you wish to know?" Charlotte asked as she pulled back from Chris' embrace to face the former preacher.
"I was wondering. Will you someday have to challenge Ezra?"
"Of course not," she said.
"But you said they can be only one," JD blurted out. "What if the last two are you and Ez?"
"Hush, JD," Buck said. "Don't go giving 'em any ideas."
Chris had never thought of that. Even though they were Immortal, someday they would all die except the so called winner of the game.
"Should it come down to my cousin and me, I assure you I would cede the prize to her," Ezra said.
"I have little interest in this prize and certainly not at the cost of your life," Charlotte countered.
"Nevertheless," Ezra insisted as he moved toward her. "That is how it shall be." The steel in Ezra's words gave Charlotte pause and the cousins seemed to reach a silent understanding as they stood facing each other.
Chris knew that Ezra would hold to his word. While it didn't mean much in the current situation, he found comfort in the idea that, if it were in his power, Ezra would make sure Charlotte survived.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had wished Ezra luck and headed to his wagon. He left the others gathered on the church steps as they each took their turn offering their support to Ezra.
During the meeting, Chris had given Vin a look and he'd known exactly what the man wanted. Chris was in a tough spot. In order to keep peace with Charlotte, he wasn't in a position to back Ezra up if the duel went south, but Vin was.
Vin paused to look back and noticed that Charlotte had taken Ezra aside to stand in front of the livery, Chaucer was already saddled and ready to go. Vin was too far away to hear the words they exchanged, but he was touched by the love he saw between them. Vin watched as Charlotte pulled Ezra into a fierce embrace. Ezra stepped back, dropped his head in a small nod before running a hand lightly down her arm. Then he mounted his horse and rode away. Chris came up beside her and she sagged into his embrace, but before she could break down completely Chris led her away.
Anyone watching the exchange could see that it was killing Charlotte to be strong and let her cousin...hell son... ride away. Vin was almost embarrassed to have witnessed such a private and emotional goodbye. Visions of his own mother swam before his eyes and he knew there was no way he was going to let Charlotte experience the pain of losing Ezra.
He resumed the trek to his wagon and rooted through his things until he found the rifle. He hadn't touched it since that awful day that Ezra had been shot trying to stop Stutz from killing Mary. The money they'd found on the elder Stutz had gone toward general repairs in the town, helping Josiah finish up his work on the church and building a new school as well as paying the salary for a teacher. Everyone, including Judge Travis, had agreed that was the fair solution since the whole town benefited from the unclaimed money. The Judge had even given them all a small bonus. Then his friends had decided that Vin should have the rifle. Since he protected the town, they'd explained, the fancy gun would go a long way to helping that cause.
He'd felt a little guilty about keeping it considering the big misunderstanding about the money, but even Ezra had insisted it was the right choice. As he pulled the case from its hiding place, he felt the last of that guilt melt away. Now, he might use this killing tool to protect his friend and for the first time he was grateful he'd been gifted the weapon.
Vin headed back to the livery and saw that Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah were standing abreast in the middle of the street just staring at the direction Ezra had ridden, even though the gambler was long gone from their sight. As Vin came to stand beside Buck, the big man's eyes flicked down to the rifle case and back up.
"You goin' somewhere, Vin?" Buck asked, the grin on his face indicating he knew damn well where Vin was going.
"Figured Id ride patrol," Vin replied casually. "Maybe do a little huntin' while I'm out."
"Sounds like a good idea," Josiah replied. "You thinkin' you'd like some company?"
Vin shook his head. "Easier to hunt iffen it's just me. All of us goin' out would just scare the game."
He stared at the men in front of him as each nodded their understanding, except JD.
Frowning, the young easterner complained, "But I was wanting to "
Buck cut him off with a cuff to the back of his head. "No arguing, JD; Vin hunts better alone."
Vin chuckled at the disappointed look on the kid's face. JD had been out many times to watch Charlotte and Ezra spar and he'd obviously wanted to see Ezra fight for real. Vin knew that Buck had cured JD of his romantic notions about gunfights but it looked like the big man would be lecturing the kid about how swordfights were no different.
Buck gestured for Vin to be on his way. "I'll explain it to JD."
"Good hunting, Brother." Josiah said.
"Be careful," Nathan added.
Nodding, Vin headed into the livery relieved that none of the others had tried to come. The solitude allowed him to maintain the illusion of an ordinary patrol If things went sideways and he had to step in, at least none of them would have to lie to Charlotte. Vin was pretty sure she wouldn't be angry at him well, not too angry.
Ezra had adamantly refused to share the location of the challenge. Vin laughed, like that would pose a problem for him. Chaucer's trail was easily followed and after ten minutes, the tracker realized that Ezra had to be headed toward Chris' spread.
Vin approved of the choice. With Chris staying in town until the wedding and his stock already moved to Charlotte's place, the secluded ranch was deserted. Plus, the house would provide a place for Ezra to rest up when he finished.
It also meant that Vin knew exactly where to set up to cover Ezra's back. He still wasn't exactly sure what he was going to do. There was an honor code associated with duels that he respected and it meant that Ezra was on his own. On the other hand, he knew his friend well enough to know that Ezra would have no problem if Vin were to bend the rules to save his life. Charlotte might be upset if Vin interfered, being the honorable woman that she was, but then she would never have to know.
That was the other reason he'd insisted on coming alone. If he had to take action, he figured it was a secret he and Ezra could keep for themselves.
After another twenty minutes of riding, Vin pulled his horse into the copse of trees to the east of the house. Making sure Peso was secured, he grabbed the rifle and edged toward the front of the tree line.
Ezra and Karl Jaeger appeared to be chatting by their horses in front of the house. Vin was too far away to hear what they were saying, but it didn't appear to be a friendly conversation. From his position within the grove, Vin would be able to see everything that was taking place during the challenge. He quickly assembled the rifle and sighted on Ezra. The gambler removed his green coat, and then systematically divested himself of his arsenal. Vin always got a chuckle at the number of weapons that man carried. Finally, Ezra pulled his sword from the scabbard attached to Chaucer's saddle.
Warily, the two Immortals, strode out to the empty ground between the house and corral. Vin noticed that Ezra walked like a man unsure of his skill. He assumed the charade the conman had begun in the saloon was still in effect.
Without a word, the two faced each other, swords raised. Vin was surprised to see that Ezra carried his sword in his right hand. He recalled Charlotte commenting that her cousin was really better with his left.
With a feral smile gracing his lips, Karl charged forward and the duel was begun. The resonance of the two swords meeting sent a flock of birds flying from the tree in the courtyard beyond the combatants. Vin focused on watching the duel, fascinated by the interplay. The only sounds in the clearing were the clanging of metal on metal, punctuated by the combatant's grunts as they fought for dominance. Vin was no judge of sword fighting, but it did seem like Ezra was consistently on the defensive. Karl pressed forward causing Ezra to retreat, backing him up toward where Vin was hidden.
Ezra parried an overhead slash from the German, his sword flailing widely as he defended himself from the onslaught. Vin was puzzled by what he saw in Ezra's form. He'd seen Ezra and Charlotte spar a few times. Then, his swordplay had been crisp and precise. That polished swordsman was not the man Vin was observing now. Was Ezra truly outmatched, or was he still trying to draw the German in by pretending to be a sloppier fighter than he actually was? It was one thing to deceive the man with words, but Vin thought Ezra was playing a dangerous game to continue the charade into the fight. The gambler's back was to him so he couldn't see his friend's face to judge the truth of the situation.
Ezra raised his sword to block a hard chop by Jaeger and as their swords connected he pushed the bigger man away. The German growled and surged forward, using his size to force Ezra to retreat once more. Ezra stumbled and Karl smiled in triumph as he tried to spear the smaller man through the chest. Ezra turned the stumble into a roll avoiding contact.
When Ezra climbed to his feet he was now facing Vin. Immediately, the tracker noticed that something had changed. The sword now rested in his left hand and the tentative façade slipped away as the gambler's bearing straightened. Vin recognized a coldness in Ezra's eyes that he'd often seen during battle.
Vin shook his head with admiration, it seemed that the mouse had become the cat.
+ + + + + + +
As Ezra rose to his feet, he decided the time for games was over. Surreptitiously switching his sword to his left hand, he let the unnatural personality he'd created slip away. He had learned all he needed to know about Jaeger's fighting style and it was time to end this.
He stalked toward Karl, no hesitation in his swing as he thrust his sword toward his opponent's chest. The German blocked it - barely. But before Karl could fully recover, Ezra was swinging his sword back up. A series of quick attacks drove Karl back. As Ezra's motions had become tighter and more precise, Jaeger's parries were becoming more and more frantic.
There was fear in the German's eyes as he realized that this left handed-Ezra was not the same man he'd been fighting at the start.
Their swords took on a slow rhythmic clanging until finally Ezra found his opening. Dragging his weapon down Karl's right side, the sword opened a deep gash that ran from shoulder to elbow, rendering Jaeger's sword arm useless.
The German staggered backwards, his sword hanging limply at his side. Ezra hesitated; not sure he could actually take the man's head. Gun fights were distance battles, many times he'd never even seen his opponent clearly, but here well, he was staring right into the man's eyes. The fear was pouring off Karl as easily as the sweat from their exertion.
Taking advantage of Ezra's hesitation, Karl bolted toward his horse. The unexpected behavior left Ezra stunned. Was the man actually running away? He wasn't going to let that happen, not with the chance that Jaeger might go after Charlotte. He had to end the threat this Immortal posed. Stirring from his confusion, he started after the man.
Halfway to the horses, Ezra heard a shot ring out and felt a bullet impact his chest. The pain drove him to the ground as his sword slipped from his fingers. He looked down at the red stain spreading across his white shirt and then up to see Karl stalking toward him, sword held awkwardly in his left hand.
"No way I let some fancy pants little gambler take me out," he sneered. They were the first words Karl had spoken since their duel began and Ezra suspected they might be the last he'd ever hear.
He was struggling to hold on to consciousness against the pain in his chest; his mind reeling against the idea that he was going to die. "You cheated!" he cried as the darkness overtook him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Josiah and Nathan sat outside the jail, while in front of them JD paced a rut in the boardwalk.
Buck had tried to get the kid to sit down, his constant motion was making him crazy, but JD refused to listen, just glared at him and continued walking.
Josiah finally broke the silence. "Ya think it's over yet?"
Nathan shrugged. "You think he won?"
"Course he won," Buck insisted.
JD stopped his motion. "We should be there!" he insisted. "We should have gone with Vin."
"I done told you, kid, Vin's got it handled. Now sit down." Buck tried to reach for JD, but he backed away still furious. Somehow the kid had gotten it in his head that not being there was some kind of betrayal and Buck had all but given up trying to explain it.
"Well if you won't go, I will. I ain't gonna let Ezra think I don't got his back." JD started down the boardwalk.
Buck jumped to his feet, motioning for Josiah and Nathan to stay put. He chased after JD, grabbed his arm and pulled him into the alley.
"Will you calm down?"
"No, Buck I won't. We always back each other up and Ezra needs us."
"How many times I gotta tell you? It don't take six guns to take out one swordsman." Buck glared down at the younger man. "You keep going on like this and Charlotte's gonna suspect something and then she'll get mad at Chris when she figures out where Vin went and then Chris'll get mad at us. You see where I'm going with this?"
JD nodded. "I just it's I mean ." His shoulders sagged as he struggled to express his feelings.
"Yeah, I'm worried too, kid." Buck grabbed JD by the back of the neck in a gesture of comfort before using the grip to propel JD out of the alley and back toward where Nathan and Josiah sat waiting.
Coming around the corner, Buck wasn't surprised to see that Chris and Charlotte had joined their little vigil. The two of them had taken off, after Ezra had ridden out, to finish their talk in private. Charlotte was gazing up at Chris with a look of contentment on her face. Buck reckoned that Charlotte had finally gotten through to Chris that you couldnt always control the ones you love and that was just life.
Just like they were all waiting on Ezra; the man had a job to do and they couldn't help him. It was frustrating to sit around helpless while he risked death, but that's how it had to be.
Maybe he should have Charlotte talk to JD if he started ranting again. It was clear that she must have said the right thing to Chris because while his friend wasn't exactly happy, at least he wasn't scowling anymore. When Chris looked up to catch his gaze, Buck knew instinctively that it was concern for Ezra he saw in his eyes
"Well hey there, Charlotte," Buck said as he approached. He stepped onto the boardwalk and then settled down into the seat beside her. "You two make up?" he teased.
Charlotte smiled at him before turning her gaze up to Chris who was leaning against the wall next her. "I believe we have reached an understanding."
"Which ain't your business, Buck," Chris added.
Buck nodded. The two of them could be as stubborn as mules, but Buck believed that Chris and Charlotte were good together. They must have reached a compromise to be smiling at each other now and that's all he needed to know.
"Thought you'd be out watching Ezra, Charlotte?" Josiah questioned.
Buck tried not to glare at the preacher. No need to be giving Charlotte ideas, he thought. If Charlotte found out that Chris had sent Vin to watch Ezra's back, there would be more fire works. Vin was too discrete to be found out and Buck knew Ezra would never breath a word. That man was very good at keeping secrets. But if Charlotte decided to ride out there, it would be a lot harder to hide their back-up plan.
Charlotte shook her head. "As much as I would have wanted to be there for him, I fear my presence would only be a distraction. Ezra needs to know I trust him to get the job done without looking over his shoulder."
Josiah nodded his understanding. Buck relaxed and while he wanted to know more about what Ezra was facing, he didn't want to risk riling Chris and Charlotte up again. Not when his friend had made it clear that there was nothing more to say. Buck was just glad that Charlotte hadn't yet thought to question Vin's absence.
The six of then drifted into an uneasy silence and then JD started pacing again.
"Kid, if you don't sit down I'm going to tie you to a chair!" Buck growled.
Ezra took a gasping breath and bolted upright. He was completely disoriented and unsure of what had happened, but instinctively his hand flew to his throat.
"It's still there," a familiar voice chuckled.
"Vin?" He rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on where he was. He was sitting on the bed in Chris' cabin and he was very much alive.
"Yep. Gotta tell ya, Ez," Vin smiled a mischievous glint in his eye, "I'd 'preciate it if ya'd stop dying in front of me. It's just danged creepy watching you wake from the dead."
Ezra stared at the tracker. He was not happy that Vin had reminded him of his second death, the indignity of it still annoyed him. "I shall endeavor to make sure you are not around the next time I expire."
"So'kay. I think I'm startin' to get used to it," he laughed. Vin stood, dragged the chair he'd been sitting on next to the bed and settled himself back down.
"I am glad one of us is. While I am grateful for my Immortality, I am still not comfortable with my ability to resurrect." He rubbed his brow trying to rid himself of the headache that always seemed to accompany his return to life and looked around Chris' cabin. "What exactly happened?" he asked.
"Figured if he could cheat," the tracker tilted his head toward the kitchen area, "then so could you."
The gambler looked to where Vin indicated. Karl Jaeger was tied to a chair, head bowed forward and very dead. There was a wide patch of red on the man's tan shirt.
Ezra swung his legs off of the bed and stared at his friend. "You shot him?"
"Vin, I ," Ezra hesitated overwhelmed by what he owed his friend. He wasn't sure what had possessed the tracker to follow him; but, if Vin hadn't been present, he would most definitely be dead. He was a bit pleased by the idea that his friendship meant enough that, even after Charlotte's command to stay away, Vin was here watching his back. His hand reached up to massage his neck again.
"Hell Ezra, you've saved my life a few times. Figured this might be my only chance ta save yours." Vin smiled, his blue eyes twinkling.
Ezra returned the smile. "And for that you have my undying gratitude." The two stared at each other a moment before they broke into raucous laughter at the awful pun.
Ezra stilled as he felt the Immortal presence in his head.
"He wakin' up?"
"Know what you gonna do?"
The mischievous smile returned to Ezra's face. "Yes, I do." He looked around. "My sword?"
The tracker walked over to the small kitchen area and retrieved the sword from the counter. Ezra stood and felt the room tilt a bit. Vin was at his side immediately.
"It just takes a few moments to get my bearings back after a brief trip to the great beyond." He pulled himself from Vin's grip, straightened his sleeves and smoothed down the front of his shirt. His hands hesitated at the bloody spot and he was reminded again how close he'd come to real death.
"Your assistance shouldn't be necessary but," Ezra's eyes drifted to Vins gun," just in case." He had no qualms about utilizing Vin's solution again if his opponent failed to cooperate.
Vin nodded and after handing Ezra his sword, pulled his mare's leg, keeping it trained on the now conscious Immortal.
Ezra moved to stand in front of Karl. The German didn't say a word just stared at him with hatred in his eyes. "Now what am I to do with you?" Ezra mused.
"Go to hell!" Karl barked, and struggled against his bonds.
"I doubt that I will be the one visiting that locale today." Ezra began to swing his sword in an arc in front of him, not contacting the other Immortal but tracing an invisible line across the man's neck.
"You can't kill me!" Karl insisted. "That's not fair. I'm tied up!"
Ezra snorted. "Fair? You shot me, sir!" He stopped the sword's motion, keeping it pointed at the hollow of Karl's throat.
Gone was the braggart from the saloon, replaced by a sniveling bully who'd had the tables turned on him. Jaeger gulped as he watched the sword inch closer to his neck. "But but you cheated."
Ezra's green eyes flared with anger. "I did not!"
"You aren't some scared, inexperienced Immortal. You lied to me!"
"Lied to you?" Ezra looked back at Vin. "Do you recall me lying to this odious man?"
"Nope, he's the one who cheated." Vin sent the German a cold smile as he hefted his gun a little higher. "That made me mad. So's it alright iffen I shoot him again?"
"I'm afraid not. As much as I'd like to see that, I need him awake so that I can present my proposition."
"You're going let me go?" Karl asked, a small hope flaring in his eyes.
Ezra and Vin laughed. "Of course not," Ezra said, the 'you idiot' implied in his tone. "I can not allow you to roam freely to ambush other unsuspecting Immortals."
Karl drooped. "Then what?"
"I can either take your head where you sit or you can finish the fight in an honorable fashion."
Vin leaned in to whisper, "Ez, you sure?"
Ezra nodded and pushed for Karl's answer, "Well?"
"Not much of a choice," the German groused. "I lose either way."
"True, but I somehow wouldn't feel right if the first head I took was from a man tied to a chair."
"First head," Karl sputtered.
Ezra was rather pleased at the look of surprise on the man's face. Confirmation that Ezra was as good as he thought he was. He would have to thank Charlotte for all of those wearisome days of practice, because this first challenge had really been no challenge. At least up until the point when his opponent had broken the rules.
Karl nodded as he resigned himself to his fate. "Let's finish this."
+ + + + + + +
Vin leaned against the hitching post as Ezra and Karl faced each other in an exact mirror of their positions earlier. But with one significant difference; this time it was Ezra that had a look of confidence while Karl was the one unsure of his skill.
He held his gun at the ready in case Karl decided to run or cheat, though Vin figured that was unlikely to happen again.
Ezra brought his sword up and took a step toward Karl. When the German didn't respond with like motion, the gambler hesitated. Vin understood his dilemma. When defending themselves or those they cared about, there was no uncertainty in killing a man, but neither he nor Ezra were the kind to take a man's life in cold blood.
"Ready yourself," Ezra demanded.
"What's the point?" Karl countered and raised his arms wide as if waiting for Ezra to take his head.
Ezra straightened his shoulders and raised his sword above his head ready to deliver the decapitating blow.
Something in Jaeger's demeanor triggered a warning in Vin's mind; it was a ruse, Karl was drawing Ezra in. Pushing himself off the railing, Vin wanted to shout to his friend, but immediately bit down on the words. He knew it wasn't his place to interfere, only if Karl broke the rules, again, would he use his gun.
He shouldn't have been worried; at the last instant Ezra changed the arc of his motion to bring the sword plunging toward Karl's stomach. The German's parry swung wide making no contact with Ezra's sword as he'd been expecting his opponent to be aiming higher. Now off balance, Jaeger was wide open to attack. Ezra's sword slid into Karl's stomach, driving him to his knees.
Vin could see the disbelief in Jaeger's face. He'd been conned by Ezra once again.
"This may be my first challenge," Ezra sneered. "But I am no novice when it comes to tactics." He pulled his weapon out of Karl's body and kicked the man's sword away.
Karl glared at Ezra and then at Vin as he knelt in the grass awaiting his fate. Vin thought Ezra was giving him a more honorable death than the cheater deserved.
Ezra swung his sword down severing the German's head from his body. It was over, Ezra was the victor. Vin started to walk toward his friend, but stopped when he waved him off.
He nodded thinking that Ezra needed a moment to himself and then the first lightening strike hit.
"Stay back!" he commanded as the lightening struck again and Ezra was driven to his knees.
At first, Vin had no idea what was happening. The wind had picked up and he had to place a hand on his hat to keep it from blowing off. It felt like one of those electrical storms that Vin had experienced when he'd traveled in West Texas, but something was different. He looked behind him and the sky was clear. The only storm was the one centered right over Ezra.
This had to be the Quickening ritual that Ezra had told them about when he'd first confessed his Immortality; the exchange of power from one Immortal to another. Nothing Ezra had described prepared Vin for the intensity of what he was witnessing. He stood transfixed by the explosion of sound and color as the lightening continued to slam into his friend.
And then it was over. Ezra fell forward onto all fours, panting for breath. Vin raced to his side, kneeling beside him.
"You okay?" It was a stupid question because his friend sure as hell didn't look okay.
Ezra held up a hand as if the ability to speak was too much effort. Vin waited patiently asEzra leaned back to rest on his haunches taking deep breaths.
The two stared at each other. Vin realized that Ezra was just as unprepared for the onslaught of the Quickening as he'd been.
"Quite a light show you put on, pard," Vin teased.
"I can only imagine what it looked like from you perspective," Ezra huffed out still winded from the experience.
"Did it hurt?"
"Not exactly. It was not painful as a gunshot wound would be, but it was definitely uncomfortable and unexpected in its intensity." Ezra grabbed his sword from where it lay in the grass and used it to climb to his feet. Vin stood with him, watching to see if Ezra would need his assistance.
"What was it like; taking in that power?"
Ezra took a deep breath and stretched, rolling his shoulders as if waking from a long nap. "Charlotte tired to describe the Quickening process too me several times, but failed to truly capture it." Ezra was staring at the decapitated body as his voice grew softer. "I understand now that there are no adequate words to explain the event. Only by experiencing a Quickening can one truly comprehend it."
Vin nodded. He had wanted to ask more, but Ezra had made it clear that he wasn't able to offer anything else. Vin was grateful that he'd been here to watch the Quickening. It had been both the most terrifying and beautiful storm he'd ever seen. He hoped someday to find the words to describe it.
Chapter 6 - Epilogue
Vin had helped him bury the German and erase all traces of the battle. Ezra had claimed anything of value from Karl's things before leaving the horse in Chris' corral. He had no intention of bringing the animal back to town to raise questions about what might have happened to its owner.
Vin and Ezra headed back, and for once, Ezra was grateful that Vin was not the type to require conversation to pass the time.
It was almost full dark when they parted company about a mile outside of town. Ezra slowed Chaucer to a walk, wanting to give Vin time to slip into town before he arrived. As he approached home, he found himself lost in his thoughts.
Since becoming Immortal his life had been a bit of a wild ride. He'd been subjected to emotions that he hadn't even been aware he possessed. The feelings of friendship toward his fellow peacekeepers still surprised him while at the same time giving him a sense of belonging he'd never had before in his life.
And now he owed that life to Vin. It was a debt the tracker had been quick to dismiss, citing the variety of times Ezra had risked his life for them, but one Ezra knew he would be hard pressed to truly repay.
He was pulled from his thoughts when he heard someone shouting his name.
"Ezra!" Charlotte called as she ran to meet him. The others followed closely behind and Ezra smiled when he saw that Vin was amongst the group approaching.
Stopping Chaucer in the middle of the street, he had barely dismounted before he found himself with an armful of his cousin as she hugged him tightly.
"I am happy to see you too, Cousin," he teased.
She pulled away and smiled back at him. "I knew you would be successful."
A friendly slap on the back sent him stumbling forward. "Welcome back!" Buck boomed. "Knew ya could do it."
"Good to have you back, brother," Josiah said.
"Don't suppose I need to worry that you were hurt," laughed Nathan.
Ezra found himself manhandled from one man to the next as his hand was shaken and his back was slapped. He had never felt such camaraderie before and was a bit overwhelmed by their level of happiness at seeing him victorious.
"It is very good to be back," Ezra said. Charlotte returned to his side, grasping his hand, placing herself happily between Chris and Ezra.
"You done good, Ezra," Chris said, smiling at him over Charlotte's head. Ezra could see real gratitude in the man's countenance.
"So, what happened?" JD asked when no one else seemed ready to broach the subject. "You were gone a long time; was he any good? Were you hurt at all?"
Ezra had to stop himself from pulling his jacket closer to hide the bloodstain still evident on his clothing as JD continued to pummel him with specific questions about the duel.
"He was all bluster and no substance just as Charlotte predicted." Ezra meet Vin's eye as he continued, "He was easily defeated."
"Did you really cut off his head?" Ezra winced at the volume of JD's question.
Buck cuffed the kid on the back of his head. "Keep it down, JD. Want everyone to know what Ez's been up too?"
JD looked appropriately chastised. "Sorry Ezra." He was whispering now. "I'm just curious, ya know."
"Completely understandable and I am happy to tell y'all all that happened." Though truthfully, he'd rather never speak of it again. Still, he owed his friends at least a cursory account. "But first I need to take care of Chaucer and then I think I'd like a drink."
"I'll see to your horse," JD offered, obviously feeling the need to make up for his blunder.
"It would be much appreciated," Ezra said. He gave Chaucer a pat as JD led the horse away. He looked at his cousin. "Will you be joining us?"
Charlotte shook her head. "It has been a long day, dearest and though I want to hear all about it, I find the stress of waiting has worn me out."
"I will see you back to the hotel before joining the others then," Ezra insisted.
"I am more than capable of seeing myself across the street." She kissed his cheek. "Enjoy your friends," she added, squeezing his hand before walking away.
"Cousin," he called after her. She turned expectantly. He hesitated; there was so much he wanted to say to her. Typically, he was a man who preferred to use ten words when two would do, but he found that wasn't necessary when they were the right two words. "Thank you."
She smiled and tilted her head in an acknowledge ment at the depth of feeling he was expressing for all she had done for him over the years. Without a word, she resumed her trek to the hotel.
"The rest of y'all go ahead to the saloon, Ezra and I need to talk," Chris said.
As Nathan and Josiah left, Buck hesitated. "Shouldn't we all - "
"Go, Buck, I need to talk to my future cousin and his keeper." Chris smirked as he looked toward Vin.
Buck nodded his understanding. "'Spect I'll get the whole story someday." His tone suggested he knew that whatever Ezra shared would be sanitized for the others and Charlotte.
Once Buck was gone, Chris turned to face them. "So?"
"I can't imagine what you are asking, Chris," Ezra said solemnly. He had no intention of sharing the truth. Chris was already worried about the possibility of Charlotte facing a challenge. There was no way he was going to tell him about how the German had attempted to cheat.
"What really happened?" He glared at them.
"Veni, vidi, vici," Ezra quoted.*
Chris's brow shot up in confusion and Ezra shrugged. "Vin, what happened?" the gunslinger asked. Ezra smiled knowing Chris wasn't going to get a straight answer from that source either.
"Don't know what yer asking me fer," Vin protested, "I weren't even there." His smirk was barely concealed as he dipped his head to avoid the glare.
"Not one of ya gonna tell me what really happened?"
"What makes you think something unusual happened?" Ezra asked trying not to meet Vin's eyes. The whole thing was too ridiculous. Chris was glaring at them; yet, he and Vin were on the verge of very unmanly giggles as they attempted to obfuscate quite unsuccessfully.
Chris huffed his frustration. "You two are hiding something."
And isnt that an understatement Ezra thought as he to struggled to hold back the sarcastic reply. It wasn't helping that Vin would not stop grinning at him. The tracker was enjoying this entirely too much. Adopting a guise of complete innocence, Ezra replied, "Only the body we buried on your property."
"Figured ya wouldn't appreciate us leaving a mess," Vin added.
"You were at my place?" Ezra could see Chris found that idea a bit unsettling.
"It seemed the logical location at the time."
"Stop glaring, Larabee. Ezra won and even cleaned up after himself. What else do ya need to know? Now, I need a drink." And with that pronouncement, Vin left the future cousins to themselves.
"Guess I don't need to know the details," Chris finally admitted as he stared past Ezra to fixate on the hotel.
"No, you don't." Ezra followed Chris' gaze to the lighted window on the second floor. He assumed that was where Charlotte was ensconced.
"You'll take good care of her after I'm gone." It wasn't a question and Ezra was brought up short by the sudden turn in the conversation.
This afternoon Ezra had wondered, given Chris' history, if Immortality was the overriding reason the man had fallen for his cousin. As Ezra studied the gunslinger's face while he stared up at Charlotte's window, he knew that Chris truly loved her.
"Of course, Chris. You know I will."
Chris seemed to be struggling to hold back more emotion than Ezra had ever seen the man reveal. Unwilling to intrude on the man's thoughts, Ezra remained quiet. In the silence Ezra found a new connection to the man he followed and reveled in that bond. The two stood side by side staring at the window until the light went out.
"I love her too, you know," Ezra said softly, confirming what he knew to be true of Chris' feelings.
Chris smiled, understanding the acceptance that Ezra was offering. "Yeah, I know."
*Veni, vidi, vici = I came, I saw, I conquered