"Tell me what company thou keepst, and I'll tell thee what thou art."
- Miguel de Cervantes (1547 - 1616)
Resting his head back against the rim of the tub, Larabee ignored the sound of gunshots. There was always somebody shooting someone or something in Purgatorio. His gunbelt lay on the stool next to the tub, along with a bottle of Highland Pure and his nearly full glass beside it, all within easy reach.
“Senor, is there anything else you wish?”
He turned his head towards the lilting, accented voice, a smile touching the corners of his mouth as he watched the dark-haired woman adjusting her low-cut blouse.
“I’m fine, Ana. I’ll be leaving soon.”
She moved towards him, hips swaying provocatively. “I hope you will not stay away so long again.” Leaning forward, her full breasts showing to advantage, she kissed him on the mouth. “We have missed you,” she said as she stepped back, a sparkle in her dark eyes. “You do not come to Purgatorio so often anymore.”
He sank a little further into the warm water. “Been busy. Might not be back for…a while.”
“You have changed,” she replied with a note of regret. “Adios, vaquero,” she called lightly over her shoulder as she sashayed from the room and shut the door behind her.
Throwing a frown at the closing door, he reached for the glass of whisky. He held it up to the light and gazed at the dark amber liquid, struck by the memory of days and nights, spinning out into weeks that he’d spent with bottle after bottle of cheap Red-eye or whatever else was handy. He brought the glass to his lips, sipped it slowly, savoring the rich, deep flavor, then put it down again. He didn’t much care for Red-eye anymore.
He’d changed all right. Not like he’d expected, certainly not with any intention on his part. He could remember riding into a string of towns like Purgatorio, knowing he’d wind up blind drunk, maybe killing someone or being killed, and not really caring which way it went. That was less than a handful of years back, yet it seemed a lifetime ago.
Dipping his hands into the cooling bath water, he scrubbed at his face and finished washing up. Laughter drifted down through the ceiling, followed by a series of rhythmic grunts and thumps. The house still had a good stream of clients, even on an early afternoon. He preferred an upstairs room himself, but they wouldn’t bring a tub up to the second floor. Apart from Ana and the bath, which cost almost as much as she did, the trip hadn’t been worth the effort.
Going on a drunk was a waste of time. Running was a waste of time. He’d learned that a while back now. People took their pains with them. They eased or they didn’t.
He realized, almost with a start, that there truly wasn’t much he wanted to get away from anymore, even if it were possible, and even though he’d convinced himself of it when he’d ridden out of Four Corners three days ago.
Just three days and he was ready to go back. He’d changed all right.
He pushed himself out of the tepid water, his gaze shifting to the small, half-opened window with its thick and yellowed lace curtain. A faint smell of horses and dung wafted in along with the heated breeze, mingling with the spicy scents of tamales and chili from the cantina across the way. The sounds of gunfire and cursing had quieted for the moment. Purgatorio was a town made for outlaws and outcasts, for hard men who were looking for an escape of one kind or another. He considered that for a moment and shook his head with another half-smile.
Back when he was still a boy in Indiana, his father once told him that he was a born leader. His schoolmates followed him, just like his younger brother and sister did. He never asked them to; he just seemed to have a way about him. He’d learned what that truly meant in the War when he joined up as an idealistic, wet-behind-the-ears recruit and hobbled out a battle-wearied Captain much older than his years, having learned both the meaning of leading men and facing death. Sometime after that, Sarah and Adam had taught him the meaning of love and home. Their murders had taught him grief and bitterness and a terrible need for vengeance. For a while, he thought that would be his final lesson. Then a chance encounter in a backwater, lawless town changed his life again.
Drying himself off with a rough cotton towel, Larabee got dressed, pulled on his boots and strapped on his gunbelt. Life didn’t stop handing out its lessons. The unexpected came in all shapes and sizes. Somehow, he’d wound up a leader, of sorts, yet again.
He corked the bottle of Highland Pure and picked it up. He sure wasn’t leaving that behind. Walking over to the window, he eased the curtain aside and looked at the peeling paint that covered the wooden shingles of the building across the alley. A tawny, long-haired cat padded silently towards the livery further down the road, away from the general racket and sounds of raised voices coming from the main street.
Larabee smirked, suddenly thinking of Vin, a man who was his friend and one of the half dozen reasons he needed to get back to Four Corners. Of course, those six men were the main reason he’d hightailed it out of town in a huff to begin with. They drove him crazy, one or the other of them, and sometimes all of them at once. Mule-headed, confounding, opinionated bastards, the lot of them. It was like trying to corral a pack of ornery tomcats.
A sudden knocking on the door broke his reverie and he gritted his teeth as he heard a distinctive Southern drawl. “Mister Larabee? Mister Larabee? I have endured a long and tiresome ride to get here and must speak with you forthwith.”
Larabee shook his head and walked across the room. He stared at the door as the knocking began again.
“Mister Larabee, kindly open the door. I know you’re in there.”
Hell. He grabbed the doorknob and jerked the door open. There before him stood his fellow peacekeeper and all too often pain-in-the-ass, Ezra P. Standish, his red jacket and black hat covered in a layer of dust, staring back at him with a stony expression.
“Whaddya want, Ezra?” One arched eyebrow responded to his question so, with a sigh, Larabee inclined his head, allowing the other man to enter.
Standish walked in, removed his hat, his gaze taking in the almost full bottle of whisky that was still in Larabee’s hand and then pausing again at the tub in the corner. “I am here on behalf of the others to request your immediate return to Four Corners,” he announced.
“Really?” Of course, he was planning on heading back to town anyway, but now that Standish and the others wanted him to, he decided to keep that fact to himself for the moment. Hopefully, he could make Ezra squirm a little. The thought nearly brought a smile to his lips. “Why?” he asked.
“Some…difficulties have arisen that would benefit from your presence.”
“That’s a little vague, Ezra.” He moved away and set the whisky bottle on the small table by the lone armchair in the room and sat down.
Standish tapped his hat against his thigh, sending a small dust cloud wafting towards the floor. “It’s rather complicated. You appear to be dressed for the day; perhaps if we could start our journey back now, I will endeavor to fill you in on all the pertinent details along the way.”
“You can fill me in right here and now, Ezra.” He slouched back in his chair, stretching his legs out and crossing his ankles, seemingly settling in. He wished he had a cheroot to light up as he watched the gambler’s mouth tighten for a moment and then his shoulders slump ever so slightly.
“Mister Larabee, we really have to be getting back.”
“I’m in no hurry.”
“Yes, so I see.”
They eyed each other steadily until Standish dropped his gaze to the floor. “Judge Travis has threatened to incarcerate Mister Wilmington and Mister Tanner. They may already be residing in the jail.”
Damn, that certainly wasn’t what Larabee had expected, but at least it was a partial explanation as to why Standish was the one standing there talking to him. He took a calming breath. “Didn’t know the Judge was in town.”
“He arrived on the stage the day after you rode out. He finished some court business with the sheriff in Julestown and decided to pay Mary and young Billy an impromptu visit.”
“Why does he want to throw Buck and Vin in jail?”
“He seems to believe that negligent behavior on their part was responsible for the fire in Bucklin’s Grocery and the small but disruptive stampede of sorts that led to some further commercial damage.”
Larabee sat up straighter. “They set the grocery on fire and started a stampede?”
A one-word answer from Ezra Standish never bode well. He glared.
“Well, that is to say, they were not directly responsible…exactly. While it could be argued that the circumstances that transpired and led to the unfortunate conflagration were unintentionally instigated by our compatriots—“
“Damn it, Ezra, just tell me what happened. Don’t make me get up. You won’t like it.”
The gambler’s eyes rounded slightly and it looked like he was considering his options.
“Right now Ezra, and say it plain.”
A long, drawn out breath later, Standish spoke again. “Buck noticed that Vin seemed to be in low spirits due to the general lull in activity and in an effort to, ah, liven up the dreariness of the day, he decided to perpetrate a relatively innocent prank. Unfortunately, it spiralled out of hand.” At the look on Larabee’s face, he quickly continued. “When Vin found himself covered in whitewash, he chased Buck into Bucklin’s Grocery whereupon a brief tussle ensued. Alas, a newly arrived and poorly sealed container of kerosene oil and a lit lantern were upended. The flames spread with alacrity. Amazing how many combustible items were nearby. The establishment was completely engulfed in a matter of moments. Thankfully, no one was hurt, except for a couple of chickens,” he added.
“And where does the ‘stampede of sorts’ fit into all this?”
“Well, realizing their attempts at extinguishing the fire were futile and with no humans in danger, Vin and Buck went around back and opened the pens behind the establishment. As you know, Rufus Bucklin rents out some of the large area behind his grocery to the hotel restaurant in addition to using it for his substantial number of egg layers, and they would have all been well on their way to being fricasseed. Well, alas, a sudden turn in the wind changed the direction of the smoke and flames, sending the now freed herd of pigs and chickens and the odd goat towards the main street. A number of horses were already upset by the ash and smoke and with the added agitated fauna, a level of pandemonium took shape. A couple of buckboards and wagons were spooked and the whole kit and caboodle tore down the street. Both the Clarion and Mrs. Potter’s store, whose doors were unfortunately wide open in deference to the heat of the day, were invaded by several large swine and some highly nervous poultry.”
Larabee didn’t know whether to swear or laugh. He decided to do neither.
“Buck attempted to remove the chickens, somewhat unsuccessfully, from the Clarion office. Mrs. Travis is quite upset about the feathers in her press and…everywhere else. In the scramble that followed, no pun intended, Buck slipped on some…fowl debris and wrenched his shoulder and nearly concussed himself. Vin was somewhat more fortunate in his efforts to remove the pigs from the Potter’s store, but they did kick up quite a fuss. Literally. And despite his valiant effort, several shelves and displays were destroyed. Vin himself suffered a mild, but still debilitating and somewhat embarrassing, bruise to the groin. The extent of their injuries may be the determining factor as to whether or not they are presently residing in the clinic rather than in the jail.”
Larabee considered that for a moment, recalling the results of the initial round of tomfoolery that had driven him out of town. “How are the others doing?”
“Josiah’s foot has healed enough that Mister Jackson has released him with a sturdy pair of crutches to his residence in the church. Nathan informed me before I left that J.D.’s ribs may warrant another day of bed rest but he would probably let him go back to the boarding house today. Our resident healer has certainly had his hands full lately, given he is still nursing his own sprained wrist and toe injuries.”
Standish tried to give him a bland smile as he waited for Larabee’s response.
Chris let the silence stretch, mentally reviewing the series of bumbling antics in which even his usually more sensible friends had taken part. Ezra’s smiled faded as Larabee pinned him with a flinty look. “How did you manage to stay out of this latest round of trouble?”
Tugging at his lapel with a hint of indignation, Standish straightened his shoulders. Larabee was reminded of peacocks. “You wound me, Mister Larabee. I’ll have you know that I have worked diligently at carrying out our peacekeeping duties at the exemplary level that our little burg has come to expect in the face of my compatriots’ temporary impairments.”
Larabee rolled his eyes. “That poker game with the traveling salesmen finally broke up?”
“When Bucklin’s Grocery went up in flames,” replied Standish with surprising succinctness.
“If Buck and Vin aren’t able to handle their shifts now and the others are still healing, I guess that leaves just you to watch the town, doesn’t it?”
Ezra couldn’t quite hide his grimace. “The Judge’s arrival was mere hours after the, uh, minor stampede. Mary greeted him with a hand full of feathers and a rather sour disposition, I am told. So, yes, Judge Travis was not thrilled with any of it, and particularly the prospect of my being the only, ah, able-bodied of our seven in town, a feeling we both share, I might add. That is why I assured him that, as de facto leader of our peacekeeping group, you would be returning as soon as you were made aware of the situation. He, er, suggested I inform you immediately and he would remain in Four Corners until we return. He is assessing the cost of the damages. I’m afraid that Buck and Vin will be paying that off for quite some time.” The gambler cocked his head slightly. “So there you have it. Now, shall we go?”
Larabee bit back a smile. “De facto leader, am I?”
“Well, for all intents and purposes. If the mantle fits, as they say.” Ezra tapped his hat against his leg, with more than a hint of impatience, sending another puff of dust to the floor.
How could they get into so much idiotic trouble without even trying?
They were a good group of men, smart and capable, thought Larabee, despite the current evidence to the contrary. He hadn’t expected to ever care so much about another human being again, let alone six.
Each and every one of them had become important to him before he’d even realized it. He saw their faces in his mind’s eye. With Buck, well, the both of them went way back to when they were just boys. Buck had known him at his best and at his very worst. And Buck was still his oldest friend. With Vin, it had taken one look and the understanding was just…there; there was a soul bond between them that Chris couldn’t even explain to himself. Josiah was a man with as many demons as Larabee, yet the big man never stopped searching for a reason to believe. Nathan prevailed against all odds. He was a gifted healer and a man of deep compassion. J.D. was brash and naïve and filled with a kind of righteous innocence that Chris couldn’t ever recall having himself. And Ezra, well, on the surface, Ezra was a gambler and a con artist, but beneath that and all his fancy clothes, he was a man with more layers to him than an onion. Larabee figured it would take him years to figure that one out, assuming Standish didn’t irritate the hell out of him in the meantime.
Somehow, they’d stuck together for three years now and created something together that none of them could have ever envisioned before. They were independent men, strays and loners who had somehow formed into a pack, a formidable unit that was greater than its parts. A singular wild bunch.
And they were his wild bunch.
As far as Larabee could tell, there was only one thing that could wreck havoc within their group. And that one thing was boredom. Fortunately, it was a seldom thing. Four Corners and its environs was still having growth pains, was still a wide open territory and still ripe for trouble. It looked to stay that way for quite a while yet.
Unfortunately, though rare, boredom had descended like a load of bricks on the peacekeepers a few weeks ago. After a string of hair-raising run-ins with bank robbers, horse thieves, a runaway stage coach, and a trail herd full of drunken cowboys, the dust had settled into a numbing quiet. They had all greeted the tranquility with relief, at least for the first week. But as the days of boredom stretched, Larabee could see his men starting to get antsy. And with these men, antsy was a bad state of mind.
Maybe if Vin hadn’t been nursing a sore back after that last saloon fight, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But Vin wasn’t able to ride off into the hills like he usually did. And with the jail emptying out after the bank robbers had been delivered to Eagle Bend for rail transfer and the drunken cowboys all sobered up and back on the trail, J.D. was more than itching for something to do. Buck had run out of amorous conquests, and Josiah had nothing left to fix on the church. It was so damn peaceful that, aside from bothering Vin about his back, there wasn’t even so much as a colicky baby or cut finger for Nathan to tend. About the only one who appeared unaffected was Ezra. He seemed content to hole up in his room ‘til near noon and then play endless games of solitaire in the Saloon, waiting placidly for a fresh pigeon or two to come through the batwing doors and walk up to his poker table.
Larabee’s mistake was not getting out of town right away. Maybe if he’d headed out to his shack like he had initially planned, he wouldn’t have wound up losing his temper and storming off to Purgatorio instead. Then again, he wouldn’t have had this chance to mull things over and, moreover, to amuse himself at Ezra’s expense.
Speaking of which. “That mantle didn’t seem to keep the rest of you from carrying on with those damn idiotic dares and challenges before I left. “
“The effects of extended ennui can have a peculiar effect on our little group of peacekeepers, but Mister Larabee, may I remind you that I was in the Saloon for the duration and did not participate—“
“You were running the betting pools.” He got up and slowly walked over to stand right in front of the gambler, crossing his arms over his chest, head tilting slightly.
It looked like Ezra was hard-pressed not to take a step back, but he drew in a breath and stood his ground. “All right, y-yes, but…” Standish paused as he caught the glimmer in Larabee’s eyes. His gaze narrowed for a moment. Larabee could almost see the slick wheels turning in the man’s head. “Good lord, you are actually enjoying this,” declared Standish.
Larabee let his grin unfurl.
Ezra slapped his hat against his thigh. More dust. “I am truly shocked and dismayed that you would find amusement at the mishaps that have befallen our colleagues.”
“Well, actually, I’m finding a helluva lot of amusement at your having to come after me like this. As for the mess back in town, seems like you all asked for it by behaving like a bunch of smart-assed schoolboys.”
The gambler huffed and paced a few steps towards the door and then back again. He opened his mouth and closed it again as if, uncharacteristically, he couldn’t quite figure out what to say. Finally, he blew out a long, measured breath and looked up at the gunslinger’s face, his voice soft and steady. “You ran out on us, Mister Larabee.”
He could scarcely believe the gall. He almost let out a curse but just managed to hold himself in check. In the next instant he grudgingly admitted to himself that, at least on the face of it, what Standish said to him was true. And he remembered something similar that he’d said to the other man back in the beginning, when the circumstances were far more dangerous and their trust in one another was a struggling, newborn thing.
Ezra held his gaze patiently and Larabee recognized, despite his poker face, the sharp glint of humor in the man’s green eyes. Quid pro quo. Yup, the wily little bastard had nerve. Or perhaps Standish was remembering, too.
With another grin that was deliberately more feral than agreeable, he gave Ezra a nod of acknowledgment. “I just needed a little vacation from the rest of you.”
“I suppose I can scarcely fault you for it. I concur that we were behaving somewhat childishly, yours truly to a lesser degree than the others, of course.”
Larabee snorted a laugh.
Ezra made a show of craning his head and looking around the small room. “And when might this…vacation be coming to a close?”
He couldn’t resist. “Hmm, well, I’m not really sure. Thought I’d have a meal, take a siesta, maybe see if the senoritas in the other bordellos are as pretty as the ones here.”
The expression on the gambler’s face was comical. “Is there something in the air here that has transformed you into Buck Wilmington?”
“I’m not sure but I think you just insulted me, Ezra.”
Standish carefully put on his much less dusty hat and ignored the gunslinger’s comment. “It’s clear that I have drawn the short straw in this endeavor. Suffice to say, Judge Travis will not be pleased if I return without you. Buck and Vin may be spending the rest of the year in a Four Corners jail cell.”
“It’d serve them right. Damn jokesters don’t know when to quit. Still, the Judge won’t leave them in jail longer than it takes to scare them a bit. Or until Mary calms down.”
The conviction in Larabee’s voice had the gambler’s head bowing in defeat. When he finally looked up again it was with an open and near vulnerable expression that Larabee rarely saw. “Chris…can we please just go back home where we belong?”
Almost as soon as the words left his lips, Ezra bit down on his lip. It seemed as if the words had been a surprise even to him, and he quickly glanced away.
For once, Larabee knew the gambler was as sincere as he appeared. Simple truths could catch a man unawares sometimes. Simple truths were the most important.
He walked over to the little table, grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair and pulling it on. He adjusted his gunbelt and took a last look around the room. Then he reached for the bottle of Highland Pure and turned towards the gambler. “Can’t go back without this. Might want to share it with some friends,” he said, with a warming smile.
Standish returned it with one of his own that included a brilliant flash of gold tooth. Larabee slapped him on the back and gave him a gentle push towards the door.
“I’m going to make sure none of you has too much free time on your hands from now on.”
He almost bumped into the gambler as he froze in mid-step. “Uh, pardon? What was that? Did you just say—“
“C’mon, Ezra, time to go home.”