Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but if I did own them I promise I would share.
Characters: Old West. Ezra, the boys, OMC's
Summary: Sequel to Misplaced. Surely Maude would never have hidden the truth from Ezra?
Mules have a bad name. They are stubborn, ornery and intractable. However, they are also reliable, resilient and indefatigable. The women of Purgatorio have a bad name. They are wanton, sluttish and promiscuous. However, they are also welcoming, hardworking and sometimes loyal. Maria rode all the way from Purgatorio to Four Corners on a mule. She stopped outside the church Chris Larabee had once briefly mentioned to her and hesitantly stepped inside.
Josiah Sanchez greeted the exotic dark-haired beauty with a broad smile.
"Seņor Josiah?" she asked.
"Si," smiled Josiah reassuringly.
"I am looking for the friends of Seņor Chris? Seņor Chris Larabee? Where can I find his amigos?"
"You have found at least one already, seņorita. How can we help you?"
"Seņor, Chris Larabee he is in big trouble."
"Trouble?" asked Josiah, his jaw dropping with shock.
"Please, it is a very long story can you find his other friends first?"
"Forgive me. Please sit down and I'll go find them. You have travelled all the way from Purgatorio? I'll bring you some food back too."
Seated on the hard wooden pew Maria waited as patiently as she could for Josiah to return. It was all her fault she thought as she twisted a handful of her brightly colored cotton skirt in her hot hand. Seņor Chris was a good man he had only tried to help her.
Maria had long ago forgiven her father for selling her aged twelve to the whoremaster. She was a beautiful child and her family of six brothers and sisters were starving. Selling her was her father's only chance of keeping the rest of his family alive. It was just the way things were in her village. So when she had heard her father was dying Seņor Chris had offered to take her home to see her father for the last time on this earth.
She would never have asked such a favor but Seņor Chris had offered. Maria had long ago seen the kindness in him that he hid from others. She knew that she had been lucky to have been chosen by him and right to keep the other working girls away from him. Now she blamed herself bitterly for what had happened and must do all she could to help put things right.
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Under the withering gaze of a pair of angry azure eyes, Maria told six men the story of how she had let Chris escort her back to her home village. At first all had gone as well as could be expected. Her family had been unbelievably happy to see her and she had sat with her father until he had breathed his last.
Maria had spent a sizable portion of her precious savings to bury the old man and buy her brothers and sisters a good meal for them to reminisce over. However, late that same night the men from the village had repeatedly knocked on the door clamoring for her services. Chris had become more and more furious at the intrusions. Finally angrily confronting the men demanding that they at least show some respect for the grieving family.
Voices were raised and punches thrown and one villager had pulled a gun. Chris had winged the gunman in the shoulder, the crowd had rapidly dispersed and the rest of the trip had passed without incident only for Chris to have disappeared on their return to Purgatorio. Maria suspected that he had been kidnapped for revenge by the wounded man's friends.
"Hellfire," spat Buck Wilmington.
"We must contact the authorities at once," declared Ezra Standish. "Surely Judge Travis can clear up this unfortunate matter?"
"Judge ain't got no jurisdiction south of the border, Ezra," pointed out Nathan Jackson.
"Ah was hoping he might have connections and influence rather than jurisdiction," explained Ezra.
"We must do something!" demanded J.D. Dunne. "Let's ride!"
"We can't ride in there without a plan, JD," sighed Buck.
"Brother Vin?" prompted Josiah.
"Quickest way ta expedite Larabee's release would be cash money," stated Tanner. "Mebbe bribes an' such I reckon."
"Alas, gentlemen, I am at this particular moment in time fiscally embarrassed," explained Ezra as they all turned to him. "Maude persuaded me to invest in her latest unparalleled moneymaking scheme. A brand new, historic riverboat catering to only the wealthiest of gamblers. Mother's enterprise was indeed an unrivaled success. Sadly it proved not to be unsinkable and one storm later her floating money spinner was relegated to languishing on the bottom of the Mississippi. Leaving me in what is known in common parlance as flat busted. Without a---"
"There's a lady present, " warned Buck, "we get it, Ezra."
Maria placed what was left of her entire life savings on Josiah's lectern. Ezra counted out the twenty five dollars and added ten of his own along with his treasured gold pocket-watch.
"We ponied up all we got? Ain't gonna be enough," rasped Tanner, adding his few dollars to the pile they had all contributed to. "JD, ya got a Wanted poster on me?"
"What? No, I burn any that come in. Why?" the young sheriff frowned.
"Mebbe we can trade me fer Chris."
"No," said Buck.
"But we need---"
"No, Vin!" chorused five voices. Clearly the decision was unanimous.
Ezra collected the money up into a neat tidy pile and replaced his gold watch in his vest pocket. "Gentlemen, meet me at the livery in an hour."
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Ezra P. Standish abhorred gambling and as such left nothing to chance. Inside the hour he left the poker table with a hundred dollars and change. Inez Recillos watched the man in the red jacket mount the stairs to his room. It was a conundrum to her as to why Ezra went to great lengths to hide his true self even from his friends. Such a kind and gentle soul encased in a shiny shell of red and gold as hard and brittle as shellac.
Once inside his room Ezra sat down in front of the mirror. "Mexico? You couldn't volunteer to stay behind to 'protect' the town? You'd rather face down an entire village of irate miscreants? Whatever would dear Maude say?" He opened the drawer and removed his shaving kit. A pair of glass eyes stared up at him from the depths of the drawer. Ezra held up the well worn stuffed skunk. "I know, Jack. Whatever was I thinking?" with a sigh he packed the toy in his saddlebags, "Come along and bring me luck, Jack. I shall undoubtedly need it, especially if the boys ever discover that I travel everywhere with a toy skunk."
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They had tried to persuade Maria to wait for them in Four Corners but she insisted on returning to Purgatorio. Maria may have been under no illusions as to how "decent" folk viewed her but she had her pride. She would not return to her village and expect her poor family to offer her food and shelter. She had handed every last peso she had in the world to these men and she was glad to do it for the sake of Chris Larabee but now she had to earn more money the only way she knew how.
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Purgatorio was no better nor no worse than the last time they had ridden in. It was still Hell, Purgatorio merely its non de plume. A labyrinth of evil it was difficult to search every nefarious nook and cranny so after a cursory search they congregated in the bar with the least filth to decide on a further plan of action.
"I'll go see what I can find out on my own. I may be some time," decided Buck Wilmington.
"Yeah? Ya hopin' ta find Conchita or Rosita too?" drawled Tanner.
"Ahem," coughed Ezra. "This may be a more complicated trap than we first suspected. Perhaps for Mr. Tanner."
"Damn your mind is twisted, Ezra! You could chew nails and spit out corkscrews. How did you come up with that idea?" asked Buck.
"It is a gift, Mr. Wilmington," replied Ezra silkily.
"Yeah? Not from God I reckon. Might be worth considerin' though," drawled Tanner.
"It's hardly likely to be a trap for me so I'm safe to go search. I'm not exactly a stranger to this place they could just wait for me to show up without this elaborate charade," pointed out Buck. "I shall interrogate every working girl I cross the path of."
"Damn, Buck, can't ya keep yer mind above yer belt fer once?" rasped Tanner angrily, worried for his best friend.
"You can all leave if you want," huffed Buck.
"Naw, we can all wait here fer ya," conceded Tanner.
"We can?" inquired Ezra, wrinkling his nose and gathering up his coattails in case anything brushed up against him.
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"It's going to be dark soon where is Buck? " complained Nathan several hours later. "Do you think we should go look for him?"
"Best go find him," agreed Tanner.
"This should be an education," griped Ezra.
"Vin, you stay here with JD," ordered Josiah.
"You and JD are too young for the sights we'll find."
"But Josiah!" objected JD.
"But J'siah!" objected Vin.
"Just do as you're told for once or I'll tell Nettie Wells that you've both been frequenting brothels," threatened Josiah with a smug smile.
"Ya think y'all be smilin' when I's tellin' her y'all got us two stinkin' drunk first?"
"Surely would," nodded Vin.
"Look, someone should stay here in case Chris or Buck come back here on their own," said Nathan.
"Fine," agreed Tanner.
Tanner watched them all leave before saying, "C'mon, JD, knows where Chris might be."
JD followed Vin to the sleaziest part of town and for Purgatorio that was another step further down into Hell. Chris was unconscious and covered in blood when they found him.
"Hurts," Chris groaned up at Vin.
"Hell, Larabee, ya jus' ate a dead skunk?" Vin waved his hand in front of his face as his eyes watered.
"Did they drug him?" asked JD.
"Most likely. We can't leave him here we have to get him ta Nathan," decided the tracker. "There's a knife wound, something short an' narrow bladed. Stiletto mebbe."
They both hoisted the bigger man onto his feet and between them half-carried and half-dragged him outside. They were almost back at the bar when Tanner was attacked from behind. JD yelled out at the top of his voice as Tanner was knocked down and kicked mercilessly as he lay on the ground. Staggering under Larabee's weight JD shouted for Buck until he thought his lungs might burst.
Out of the shadows a huge shape appeared. As big men went he was well, big. Towering well over six feet six without his boots and he might have measured the same around the waist but who was going to be stupid enough to try and find out?
Thick black hair joined an equally thick black beard in trying to cover a face so ugly clocks stopped when they saw it. Across his face starting under the hairline was an angry, well, frankly furious at having to be seen on a face that ugly, red scar that crossed the path of a milky white left eye and ended near the corner of his mouth.
"Leave him!" he bellowed in a thick accent JD couldn't place.
JD wasn't immediately sure whether he was supposed to drop Chris Larabee but he steeled himself to refuse when the other men suddenly let go of Tanner and ran away like rats leaving a sinking ship. Ignoring JD and his human burden, the giant knelt beside Tanner and gently stroked the fallen man's hair.
"You still with us little, Lionheart?" he asked obviously distressed.
When there was no answer he effortlessly picked up the fallen man and began to carry him away. Pausing briefly he turned and motioned with his head that JD should follow. JD staggered along almost losing sight of the big man. Slowing the man looked back at JD and turned into a building's brightly lit doorway. Working girls hurried out moments later and helped JD with his heavy load. Chattering nonstop in Mexican and looking JD up and down they hustled him inside too.
When JD entered the room the big man had already laid Tanner on a huge bed and was shouting orders in the same heavy accent. Girls darted back and forth with bowls of hot water and flannel cloths. Doors opened and closed. Shouts and curses echoed around the brothel.
JD no longer knew where Chris was but Vin Tanner was being tended by the giant. He was attempting to rouse Tanner by carefully shaking him. JD realized it must have taken amazing self control on the giant's part not to do Tanner further damage and shake him so very tenderly. Tanner came awake suddenly and lashed out violently.
"Lionheart!" exclaimed the giant laughing heartily.
"Cajun Jack?" rasped a confused Tanner.
"Lionheart!" cried the giant grabbing up Tanner in a bear hug that lifted him half off the bed like a rag doll.
"Hell! My arm's broke!" screamed Tanner.
"Forgive me!" the giant begged.
"Chris...?" gasped Tanner.
"My girls have him safe, mon cher. They are bringing your other friends to you. They try to find the town 'doctor' as well but he is usually too drunk to help."
"Yeah? What the hell happened?"
JD stepped forward. "You were attacked in the street after we rescued Chris."
"Recognized me as a bounty hunter. JD, this is Cajun Jack, Cajun Jack, this is m' good friend, J.D. Dunne."
JD prepared himself for a bear hug but apparently did not merit one. Seemingly they were all reserved for Tanner. He got a quick nod of the giant's head though.
"Hell, looks like I's ain't able ta arm wrastle ya this time, Cajun Jack."
"You're still the only man to have ever bested me my little Lionheart!" guffawed the giant stroking Tanner's hair again.
"What ya doin' here?"
"Had a little trouble at the bar back in New Orleans. They accused me of murdering a rich man's no good son. They couldn't arrest me without a body but they sure enough put me out of business for a while."
Cajun Jack flipped his eye-patch down over the milky eye to make himself look more dashing when the rest of The Larabee Gang all tried to get through the door at once and became wedged. Ezra managed to wriggle free and shot forward like a cork out of a bottle.
"Ezra!" bellowed Cajun Jack, clearly even more delighted to see Ezra than he had been to see Vin.
JD tried not to feel jealous as Ezra was swept up in another huge bear hug and happy tears ran down the giant's face. JD noted Ezra didn't merit a sobriquet. JD wondered how Tanner had earned the nickname 'Lionheart'. He couldn't help be surprised that neither man seemed to mind Cajun Jack's familiarity. Tanner in particular seemed unconcerned at all the hair stroking and Ezra was uncharacteristically silent, his large emerald eyes gleaming wetly in the lamplight.
"Leave me. See ta Chris. He's got a knife wound, Nathan," pleaded Tanner worriedly.
One of Cajun Jack's girls immediately led Nathan Jackson away.
"Gotta find Bucklin," groaned Vin, trying in vain to sit up again.
"Buck Wilmington, he was searching for Chris too," explained JD.
"My girls will find him," Cajun Jack reassured them.
"Most likely," agreed Vin.
"You all stay here," Cajun Jack decided rather than invited. "You take my bed, Lionheart."
JD wondered if Tanner would get to sleep in it alone. Tanner seemed unconcerned so JD presumed that he would.
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JD had often hoped to spend the entire night in a working girl's bed although he had never imagined it would be with the freshly found Buck Wilmington. JD tried not to stare at the various items of feminine apparel strewn around the room. He had never seen so much red silk and black lace. Obviously, Buck was not in the least perturbed to be in a working girl's room and was soon snoring soundly.
If JD had expected peace and quiet he was going to be bitterly disappointed. Doors slammed constantly as the girls plied their trade into the small hours. Cajun Jack's brothel was easily the busiest in Purgatorio and his girls the most welcoming feeling as they did, safe with Cajun Jack to protect them.
As Buck sprawled across the bed JD gave up nudging him in the back with a sharp elbow and inched to the edge of the mattress. He envied Tanner alone in that giant-sized bed downstairs.
Tanner lay on his back his broken arm now splinted thanks to Nathan. He fretted over Chris. Until Chris was able to speak to them, hopefully in the morning, he had no idea if the attack on Chris was because of Maria or a more complicated conspiracy. Ella Gaines and her evildoings were never far from Vin Tanner's thoughts. He lay awake glad to hear the busy working girls. It at least smacked of business as usual.
Cajun Jack scratched at the door, "Awake, Lionheart?"
Small talk wasn't Cajun Jack's strong suit.
"On the worry 'bout Chris."
"Came to tell you that he was awake for ten minutes or so. He told your friend Nathan that he was stabbed by a working girl jealous of Maria. Does that make any sense to you?"
"Yeah, sure does."
Hell, Cowboy, ya always gotta get all the womenfolk ta feudin' over yer favors?
Vin understood that to Chris Larabee paying a woman to be with him in Purgatorio wasn't being unfaithful to Sarah's memory, it was only physical relief. Chris enjoyed the company of working girls, he always had. He admired their honesty. The way they left immediately when he paid over their money the next morning without expecting anything else from him. No small talk, no endearments, no promises. He found now that he preferred women who looked him straight in the eye. Sarah had stolen his heart with one quick, shy glance from under her lowered lashes but he would never have that again. So he treated all women with respect, recognizing that they were merely earning a living the only way left open to them and this made him popular with the girls who vied for his custom. After all, hadn't he once earned his living killing men? Who was Chris Larabee to judge anyone?
"So now you sleep, cher?"
Knowing that the tracker would still not sleep, Cajun Jack asked, "Want me to carry you in to see Chris?"
"Naw but ya can give me a hand up," laughed Tanner.
Cajun Jack grinned but completely ignored Tanner's strident protests and effortlessly hefted him up off the bed, striding across the narrow passage way to the next room. Nathan stirred in the chair by Larabee's bed, years of looking after these six men had turned the healer into a light sleeper par excellence.
Tanner tried to shrug his shoulders at Nathan as he rested in the giant's arms. Nathan smiled one of his beautiful reassuring smiles and Tanner knew that Chris wasn't going to benefit from his fretting as he was already on the mend.
"Cajun Jack, ya can put me down ya know," he drawled.
"I know, Lionheart," grinned Cajun Jack, clearly enjoying himself.
"Please put me down."
"You weigh nothing, Lionheart."
"Hell, I's glad Chris can't see this," sighed Vin. "He'd rag on me 'til I's got ta shoot him dead."
Still grinning Cajun Jack carried Tanner back to his room.
"They gone?" asked Larabee, cracking open a mischievous green eye.
"Yep," smiled Nathan.
"This is going to be good. I could use this for years."
"He's a sharpshooter you wouldn't even hear the bullet," Nathan reminded him.
"Nathan, Lionheart? It's just too good to let go. How? Why?"
"He'll never tell whatever you do to him," smiled Nathan. "He's too ornery."
"Perhaps Ezra knows?"
"Even if he knows why, Ezra is well aware that Vin would scalp him or worse."
"He lets him stroke his hair?"
"I've got to see that!" smirked Larabee.
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The moment Tanner fell asleep Cajun Jack slipped out of the room to find Ezra pacing the hard packed, red mud floor of the narrow corridor.
Ezra stood stock-still, his eyes still shining with unshed tears, his skin pale. His hand trembling, he held out the stuffed skunk.
"Jack the skunk!"
"It is you!" sobbed Ezra, throwing himself into Cajun Jack's open arms.
"I wasn't sure that you would remember what you meant me," cried an equally emotional Cajun Jack.
"All I knew for sure was the name 'Jack'. I once asked Mother who you were and when we would see you again...she said you were...a nobody."
"That sounds like little Maudie! In later years she found our bigamous marriage a great embarrassment!"
"She never divorced your father."
"There was no need, he died of yellow jack fever a month before I was born." Ezra paused remembering how he had been young enough at the time to blindly accept Maude's explanation without question.
"Yellow jack fever? Maudie always had a colorful imagination, cher! In that case why did she never get around to divorcing me before she married again?"
"She divorced her second...no third husband, Chauncey Beauregard," pointed out Ezra.
"She had no liking to be saddled with his debts or to be reminded of the fact that her third marriage was bigamous too," chuckled Cajun Jack.
"Then how and when did my father die?"
"Is he dead? I am sorry, Ezra, I didn't hear the news of his passing."
"He must be dead Mother married again..." Ezra's voice faded away.
"Ezra, when you were kidnapped by Maude's henchmen I---"
Cajun Jack caught Ezra as the gambler's knees buckled and easily carried him up the stone stairs. Carefully placing Ezra on the bed the giant gently patted the hand of the man he had never ceased to love as a son. Still dazed, Ezra stared up into the soft-hearted leviathan's one black-eye.
"Maude left you with me for so long that I came to think of you as mine. It wasn't possible for me to love a son of my own blood more than I loved you, chile. I made plans for your care and education only to have men in Maude's employ spirit you away. I offered a hefty reward merely for news of you and on hearing of it your father sought me out."
"To claim the reward?" sneered Ezra.
"No. No," said Cajun Jack, shaking his huge head. "Ezra, listen to me, your father isn't anything like the cold-hearted Maude. He was distraught to find out that you and your mother had disappeared without a trace. Wait."
Moving with remarkable swiftness, the giant left the room only to return with a bottle of tequila and a bundle of dog-eared letters.
"He corresponded with you for all these years?" asked an incredulous Ezra, examining letter after letter.
"Ezra, my dear one, he never stopped searching for you! If he got close to finding you Maude always outwitted him somehow. She was always at least one step ahead."
"We moved around countless times and she left me with so many distant relatives...often we left in the middle of the night or she changed our name. For almost an entire year she braided my hair and dressed me as a girl! I always assumed that it was because the law was on her trail."
"It was, your father became a Pinkerton agent after the war. For several years he hoped that their vast resources would help him to find you, cher."
Ezra held out the most recent letter in a trembling hand. "Is this address still valid?"
"I always mail my replies to that address, yes. I always get a reply even if it isn't for a few months or so."
"Mah gawd," gasped Ezra, falling back onto the bed in a dead faint.
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Over a hearty breakfast, after Ezra had returned almost double her life savings to a very surprised Maria and Cajun Jack had insisted that from now on she allow him to take her under his wing, the seven men studied the letters at length.
"Your father lives in New Orleans?" queried JD. "He's not dead then?"
"Goin' ta visit him, Ezra?" rasped Vin.
"We'll all go! Yahoo!" whooped JD.
"JD, we all have a town to protect," began Ezra.
"The town can spare you for a short while," stated Larabee. "It will only be a short while?"
"Ain't wantin' ta go alone?" prompted Vin.
"I'll go!" beamed JD.
"Don't believe he invited ya, Kid," smiled Vin.
"I shall leave when both Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner are completely recovered," stated Ezra. "If in due course I may be relieved of my obligation to the town?"
"I'd be happy to volunteer for double duty to keep watch over the town, Chris, so that Ezra can be spared. I have patients waiting on me and I can't say that the South holds any attraction for me, Ezra."
"I understand completely, Mr. Jackson," said Ezra, falling back on formality to disguise his highly emotional state.
"You can go whenever you're ready, Ezra. I'm looking forward to returning to Four Corners," decided Chris with an evil smile, "and hoping that Maude shows her face in town."
"Mr. Larabee, you would not be intending to shoot her?" inquired Ezra.
"Only if she tries to escape from the jail house," smiled Chris.