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 that I would share. Probably. Well, not Vin of course and maybe I'd keep Ezra to myself for a little while first...
Characters: Old West. Vin, Ezra, The boys, OMC's, OFC's.
Contains: The death of an original male character.
Thanks: I absolutely must thank the wonderful Mag7 author, Amber F. Drabble, for all her invaluable input (I'm really trying to curb the urge to use code names!). Thanks to the awesome Nancy for rescuing Misplaced 3! Congratulations to our published author Amelia! Special thanks to authors Mary Larabee and Gem. Plus everyone who took the time to send me such kind comments on the Misplaced series, the feedback is always greatly appreciated by this poor sinner.
Follows Misplaced 4
The locomotive rolled into Libertyville's bustling railroad depot all guns blazing. Well, no, actually it only had seven heavily armed men eager to set foot on familiar ground that wasn't constantly swaying from side to side and an older man reveling in the happiness of finally having found his long lost son.
Buck Wilmington helped Ezra P. Standish assist his father, Earl Standish, down from the railroad car. Straightening his silk necktie and looking askance at the dust already adhering itself to his smart if slightly outmoded clothes, Earl gripped his son's elbow proudly.
"So this is Libertyville? You're nearly home?" he asked.
"We'll hire a gig for you at the Libertyville livery, collect our mounts and then we'll be on our way...home," smiled Ezra.
"My, my, if that isn't the Devil's candy," whistled Earl appreciatively.
"Glad to hear you're feeling better," laughed Buck, giving Earl a hearty slap on the back as he too raised his hat to the lovely vision wearing the silk filly hat and a dark red riding habit that screamed money at the top of its voice.
"Hello, Bucky! Hello, boys!"
"That bonbon is most certainly out of bounds," warned a slightly shocked Ezra, not yet ready to consider the idea that his father might be on the lookout for a new step-mother for him.
Had there been other women? Or only Maude? Had he siblings? There was so much that he didn't know about his father.
Flustered, the normally unflappable gambler continued. "On two counts. One, Mrs. Elvira Flynn is Mr. Tanner's cousin and while the lady herself seems not to give a fig for local opinion on the subject, Mr. Tanner and his hunting knife are liable to be somewhat overzealous when it comes down to safeguarding her reputation. Two, please take note that she is wife to the trigger-happy gunslinger Orlando Flynn. Rumor has it that he is hanging up his guns for her but as yet I have witnessed no evidence of it."
"I met with the dashing Captain Orlando Flynn of Texas during the late unpleasantness. A fine man indeed and disgustingly rich. Miss Elvira Emerson, certainly parleyed her ravishing good looks into a fortune."
"Money was not a consideration as the lady was already a wealthy widow when those two met."
"And you didn't see fit to throw your hat into the ring, son?"
"The lady in question despises Maude with a vengeance. The prospect of having to suffer Maude as a mother-in-law is enough to have most women running for the hills," explained Ezra. Once again coming to realize how Maude's malevolent influence had pervaded every aspect of his life. Even when it came to courting a prospective wife. Did Li Pong have enough backbone to stand up to Maude? Yes, Ezra was sure that when the chips were down Li Pong had more than enough grit and sand in her.
"Are any of the ladies in Four Corners comparable to the Venus of Libertyville?" asked Earl, as indeed the very lady in question hooked her heavy riding skirt over her wrist and diamond lone star brooch glittering in the sun, sashayed into the Hotel.
"Two spring immediately to mind, although both are equally out of bounds. The nonpareil of virtuous womanhood, Mary Travis. Daughter-in-law of Judge Travis and sometime thorn in the side of our illustrious leader in black. Also the fiery tempered desert flower, Señorita Inez Recillos. She has given our Mr. Wilmington the mitten so many times he could outfit an octopus."
"Then grandchildren will not be on the horizon anytime soon?"
"What? Alas, no."
"A sad pity. Making Maude a grandmother would be the sweetest of revenges," chuckled Earl.
"Li Pong graciously gave me permission to begin a, ahem, romantic correspondence with her, so don't write the idea off entirely," smiled Ezra, discretely patting the love letter safe in the pocket closest to his heart.
"Ezra!" The blushing tracker waved an impatient hand at the gambler.
"You growled, Mr. Tanner?"
"Quit yer lollygagging we's burnin' daylight!"
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The journey to Four Corners was both loud and boisterous thanks in the most part to Buck and JD teasing the embarrassed gunfighter in black. The men's spirits had never been higher.
After several attempts at nipping Chester, Peso seemed to be nursing some kind of long-standing grudge and appeared bound and determined to take a lump out of Ezra's thigh muscle. Vin Tanner decided to ride up ahead for the sake of the gambler's safety.
When the town first came into view the men fell into a contemplative silence.
Mother Mary Aidan hadn't insisted that any of the men attend services in the convent chapel. Merely the mental image of a hickory switch held in the Mother Superior's hand had made Vin fearful enough to attend. After a few days Chris had found himself tagging along and taking up a seat beside the buckskin angel with the fiery sword on his hip. The tracker had gazed up at the carved marble altarpiece and the gunfighter had watched the sunlight stream through the colored glass window staining the tracker's rapt face blue and red. Leaning forward, his face tilted upwards, tightly holding his slouch hat in long well-shaped fingers, Vin gave off an air of tranquility and quietude that did indeed remind Chris of some heavenly being fallen from the firmament. There in the chapel Chris had begun to think hard on what it would take for him to find such an air of peace. How to replicate the happiness he once had.
JD wondered if he would get his sheriff's badge back. Buck mused on Inez's likely mood hoping that absence had made her heart grow fonder. Josiah pondered on the condition of the church. Chris girded his loins for Mary's stern lecture and the kiss that would stun her into silence. Lost in thought they almost ran into Peso. All having failed to see Vin Tanner hold up his hand to signal that the men riding behind him should halt.
"What is it, Vin?" asked Chris Larabee.
"What kind of trouble?"
"Cain't rightly say. 'Cept there's two men up on them rooftops, most likely sharpshooters." Untying it from its keeper Tanner unsnapped the case holding his spyglass and held the brass telescope up to his left eye. "Ain't no smoke comin' from the Chinese laundry nor from the bathhouse stovepipes."
"Perhaps they've gone out of business without Ezra's finicky ways," suggested JD.
"Mebbe but today is ladies' day. Bathhouse is normally full a women in all shapes an' sizes, makin' themselves all right purty fer Bucklin."
"He's right, Chris. My animal magnetism has that effect on women," boasted Buck.
"Could Mary or Judge Travis have employed sharpshooters to take our places?" asked Josiah.
"Sharpshooters in sombreros an' serapes? Most likely we's lookin' at a bandido gang up from Purgatorio."
"They have taken over the town?" asked JD. "Where is Deputy Sheriff Jake McKenna? Why didn't he stop them? Is he dead . . .?" JD fell silent, suddenly realizing that this was Vin's father he was referring to.
Vin's face was ashen and his jaw clenched tight.
"I'll ride in and take a look-see," decided Chris.
"No offense, pard, but you look like trouble on the hoof. We need someone sorta harmless looking," pointed out Buck.
"Me?" offered JD.
"I'll go," volunteered Earl Standish.
"You? No. I won't allow it!" exclaimed Ezra.
"Ezra, I was a Pinkerton Agent. One of the highest-paid they ever had because I always got the job done. I'll be driving into town in this sissy rig looking exactly like what I actually am, a stranger in town. I won't be able to give anything away because I don't know anything. Nor will anyone give me away because no one will have any idea that I'm your father."
"Makes sense," said Larabee. "It's your decision, Ezra."
"Very well. I agree."
"Did one of you learn any Morse code in the war?" asked Earl.
Ezra along with Chris, Buck and Josiah all nodded.
"Good. I'll signal with a light at the hotel window when it gets dark."
"Mr. Larabee, Chris, could I perhaps have a moment alone with Papa?" asked Ezra.
The other six men tactfully moved away.
"Papa, please, be careful. I only just found you and if anything were to happen . . ."
"Son, I have no intention of doing anything foolhardy. I swear that nothing will persuade me to shuffle off this mortal coil," promised Earl.
Father and son quickly embraced and then Earl took off in the gig.
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"He's signaling," hissed Vin.
They gathered together in the darkness.
"It's a name," decoded Chris, "Calvera."
"Fuck," rasped Vin.
"You know him?" asked Chris.
"Yep. What else do Earl say?"
"Thirty bandits in town. More already left taking all women. Robbed bank. McKenna alive."
Vin nodded, obviously relieved.
"They kidnapped all the women to keep control over the town's menfolk?" snarled Buck.
"Calvera is a devotee of the tactics of General Armstrong Custer," muttered Vin.
"Transporting women isn't easy so they won't be too far away. Where could they keep all the women under lock and key?" pondered Chris.
"The abandoned Barker place cross the river from Larabee's shameful ruin of a shack, gotten a big ol' barn," suggested Tanner.
"Sounds likely," said Buck. "It's deserted, there's the river for watering the women and a cabin for cooking etc." His angry expression made it plain exactly what he meant by 'etc'.
"Makes sense to rescue all the women first," decided Larabee.
"It won't be easy," commented Josiah.
"Good, 'cos The Larabee Gang ain't never done got the hang a easy," drawled Vin.
"Gentlemen, may we make our next action a reply to my father's signal? Having barely recovered from his malady my father urgently needs his rest," pointed out Ezra.
"Lordy, lordy, I never thought to see the day Ezra played the mother hen," chuckled Nathan.
"Buck, signal Earl that we're going after the women first," ordered Chris. "The rest of us need some shut-eye too. We'll be riding out to the Barker place at dawn."
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"What happened to the Barkers?" whispered JD, as he waited for all the men to hunker down in the scrub out of sight of the dwelling.
"Old man Barker got throwed off his horse on the road from Watsonville an' died of a broke hip an' his wife an' sister-in-law sold up fer a fair price," supplied Vin.
"Who'd buy this miserable little passel of land?" asked Buck.
"Cousin Elvira," mumbled Vin.
"Why in hell would she buy this hovel?" puzzled Buck.
"Water rights. Cousin Orlando made sure she owns all the river now. Chris is plumb stealin' her water an' poaching her fish ev'ry time he comes out here."
"I am? She never once mentioned it."
"Guess y'all is family now," grinned Vin.
"Does that mean I can bring Casey out here to fish too?" an excited JD asked Vin.
"See what you've gone and started, Tanner," hissed Larabee. "I won't get any damn peace out here now. Ezra, how many horses in that corral?"
"Looks a mite more ta me," rasped Vin.
"Plus a mule team, Mr. Tanner."
"Why can't ya say that straight out, Ezra?"
"Mr. Larabee asked me how many horses were in the corral. He did not inquire as to how many mules were in the corral, Mr. Tanner."
"Mr. Larabee isn't a pedant, he merely prefers accuracy, which is why he asked myself for a reckoning and not you, Mr. Tanner."
"Chris ain't no pedantic sonuvabitch he's jus' a persnickety sonuvabitch, yer the pedantic sonuvabitch, Ezra," growled Vin.
"Will you two sons of bitches shut the hell up!" hissed the furious gunslinger in black. "How in hell the pair of you didn't murder each other in New Orleans is beyond me."
"Murder? Hellfire, Chris, we dotes on each other don't we, Ezra?" snickered Vin, nudging Ezra in the ribs.
"I wouldn't go quite that far, Mr. Tanner. For the most part we did get along tolerably well as I recall," twinkled Ezra.
"We's even shared a room with only one bed," Vin informed Chris with a sly wink.
"Be assured that Mr. Tanner slept outside on the balcony, Mr. Larabee!" protested Ezra.
"When you two lovebirds have finished canoodling we need a plan." Chris smiled at the banter, glad that things were back to normal between the seven peacekeepers.
"Reckon me an' JD can get in back of that ol' barn an' iffen it's as rotten as it looks mebbe we can stove in some planks an' get the womenfolk out. Ya got some dynamite with ya, Bucklin?"
"Never leave home without it!" nodded Buck.
"We'll attack the cabin while you two rescue the ladies. You can expect us to start a ruckus in roughly ten minutes," decided Larabee, as Vin and JD crawled away through the long overgrown grass.
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Vin and JD had almost reached the barn when the cabin door opened. They froze in place as the bandit stopped right in front of the spot both men were saying their last desperate prayers in. Chris and the others held their breath until the bandit buttoned up his dark red pants again and returned to the tumbledown cabin.
"Vin? Please tell me that was rain?" cringed an embarrassed JD.
"A regular cloudburst, JD," snapped the furious tracker shaking his hat dry.
Ezra consulted his gold pocket watch. "Please light the fuse, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck lit the fuse and crouching low ran towards the cabin door. Throwing down the stick of dynamite and then diving off the verandah into the thick brush.
"What the hell is Brother Vin doing?" yelled Josiah.
Their collective blood turned to ice water as the tracker ran towards the cabin. They all saw Tanner pick up the dynamite, kick open the cabin door and disappear inside. Seconds that seemed like hours passed before the tracker reemerged with two fleeing women before turning and hurling the dynamite back into the cabin. The blast propelled him up into the air like a broken puppet.
Running at breakneck speed Larabee was the first to reach the tracker. "Tanner! Tanner!"
The tracker's raspy moans indicated that he was still alive.
"TANNER!" Larabee pulled Tanner a little way up off the ground by his shirt front. "Answer me!"
"Awwww! Cowboy . . ."
"Are you hurt? Tell me!" demanded the gunfighter.
"Cowboy . . . it hurts . . . real bad . . ."
"Nathan!" bellowed Larabee. "Where does it hurt, Vin?" asked the gunfighter a little more softly. His panicked green eyes now full of concern.
"My chest . . . hurts . . . ," groaned the tracker, desperately trying to pry the gunfighter's fingers off his bunched up shirt front, ". . . y'all got some chest hairs trapped in there, Cowboy."
"Damn! It hurts ya big galoot! Yer pullin' 'em out by the roots! Nathan! Nathan! Thank the lord, Nathan. Cowboy here is tryin' ta pluck me like a Thanksgiving turkey!"
"Larabee! DROP!" demanded Nathan. "Vin, are you hurt anywhere else?"
"Naw. I's rightly fine. Had worse pain off'n Cousin Elvira. Help me up. Got payback on m' mind," declared a vengeful Vin, eyeing the bandit wearing the dark red pants.
"Lay still and let me check on your spine," Nathan ordered in his sternest doctoring voice. Briskly rolling the slender tracker over on to his belly in spite of Tanner's indignant protests.
"What possessed you to run back towards the dynamite?" Larabee wanted to know.
"Miz Travis tol' us they's gotten two women inside the cabin with 'em. Ain't wantin' 'em hurt. Had ta get 'em out. Thought I's got more time."
"You just lost another of your nine lives, Vin," chuckled Buck, looming over the prostrate tracker with a lewd wink. "The two ladies are unharmed and licking their lips in preparation for thanking their dashing hero."
"Naw," blushed the tracker, attempting to get to his feet and glowering as Nathan pushed him back down and slapped something that stung like a bitch on to an itty bitty little scratch. "Ain't wantin' thankin' by no women, Bucklin."
"It wouldn't be gentlemanly to refuse a lady's grateful kiss," teased Larabee.
"Aw hell, ain't no gentleman."
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Mary Travis made her way over to join the seven men. Nervously holding her arms wrapped around herself, she waited for Chris to ask the inevitable question.
"What the hell happened, Mary?"
"Calvera rode into town with maybe half his men and demanded that Deputy Jake McKenna come out of the jail house and face the bandits." Mary looked nervously down at Vin Tanner, who brushed Nathan aside and got to his feet.
"Miz Travis?" prompted Vin.
"Jake took both of his rifles up on to the roof top and opened fire, shooting a couple of the bandits dead. Calvera yelled at him to cease fire and it was then that we all saw that Calvera had a gun on Nettie Wells. Jake shouted back that he was an ex-Army major and he wasn't about to hand over the entire town for the sake of...one crusty old biddy." Mary took in a harsh breath and hardly dared to meet Vin's eyes, knowing the depth of feeling Vin had for the elderly lady rancher.
"He was right, Calvera wasn't going to kill Nettie Wells out there in the street. She was the only person preventing Jake from shooting most of them like fish in a barrel and Calvera would know that Jake would shoot him next," Chris said, casting a concerned glance over at Vin.
Mary's pale green eyes slid away from JD's worried hazel gaze. "Then Calvera called out that the rest of his men were holding Casey Wells just outside of town and if Jake didn't throw down his rifle his men would start...passing her around. Only those aren't the exact words he used," finished Mary, her cheeks reddening.
"No! No!" howled JD.
"Easy, son," said Josiah as Buck wrapped his long arms around a struggling JD.
"So Jake threw down his rifle?" asked Chris.
"Yes," nodded Mary. "He's locked in the jail house. They took all the rifles and shotguns from the jail house gun rack away with them."
"What happened next?" asked Buck.
"The rest of Calvera's men rode into town and rounded up all the women. The men in town were told to carry on as usual or we'd all be killed. They marched us all here and held us prisoner until you came to our rescue."
"All the women?" asked Vin.
"Well, except old Mother York. They tried to take her from her house but she beat them back with her walking stick and cursed them in Spanish. I only recognized enough words to get the gist of the curse. Whatever she said about 'devils and demons' seeking them out and dragging their leader down into the lowest circle Hell had them crossing themselves in abject terror and turning tail," replied Mary.
"I suspect that the malediction was merely a graphic description of our Mr. Larabee when in his cups," chuckled Ezra.
"Mary? Can you and the women make it to Libertyville on your own? I don't want to leave you alone out here," asked Chris.
"Chris? Better iffen the womenfolk head fer the Stacey Ranch. It's a mite nearer an' they'll be safer there," Vin whispered so that Calvera's men couldn't overhear. "Calvera can take over towns but he ain't gotten a chance out at the Stacey Ranch it's a regular fort."
"Mary?" prompted Chris.
"May we take the wagon and the mule team? Some of the older women found the journey here hard going and I'm not sure how far away from here the Stacey Ranch is exactly."
"Follow the river, Miz Travis. Ya'll find yerselves headed straight fer the ranch house afore ya run outta river. Ya'll most likely come across Stacey ranch hands waterin' cattle iffen ya stick close by the river. They'll help y'all."
"We've got to get back to town now, Chris," begged JD.
Mary hurried off to collect and organize the other women.
Chris looked at the tracker. "Vin? You know this Calvera well?"
"He's gotten some real smarts. Few years back he hornswoggled me down in Mexico. I's the one finished up in jail while he escaped me. Mighty likely he's after more than jus' the town bank."
"What?" demanded Buck, crowding in on Vin, distressed as he was by JD's anguish over Casey Wells.
"Look like I knows?" The tracker squinted up at the tall ladies' man.
"Is it revenge on you, Mr. Tanner, that he is seeking?" inquired Ezra.
"Hell naw. Money. Comes down ta money with Calvera."
"Then it is the First National Bank!" snapped Buck.
"Hell, Bucklin, iffen it were jist the town bank he'd be long gone. What ya smilin' fer, Cowboy?"
Larabee turned to glance over at Calvera's men.
"Let us inquire of one of those gentlemen," suggested Ezra, following Larabee's line of sight.
"JD? Follow me," rasped Vin.
The other five men watched as Vin and JD cut the bandit wearing the dark red pants out of the herd and dragged him off into the trees. The other men waited anxiously as the minutes ticked by. Ezra was about to consult his pocket watch for the seventh time when a bloodcurdling scream echoed around the trees. JD ran towards them and it was doubtful if he would have ever stopped running until he reached Texas if Buck hadn't grabbed him around the waist.
"Vin, he...aw...my gawd. . . ." JD parted company with his breakfast as Vin reemerged from the trees calmly wiping his hunting knife on his bandana.
"Vin?" Larabee viewed the tracker with suspicion. "Did you remember your manners?"
"Got answers," drawled the tracker, with a shrug of a fringed shoulder.
"And?" sighed the gunfighter, deciding that he didn't want to know exactly what Vin had learned about interrogation methods from his time spent with the Kiowa and Comanche.
"Calvera is goin' after a gold shipment comin' through town on its way ta the Libertyville railroad depot."
"Wait, why would a gold shipment pass through Four Corners?" asked Buck.
"Apparently," the tracker grinned at Ezra before continuing, "railroad company figures Four Corners is a mighty safe place since we done cleaned up Marshal Walter Bryce's nasty little mess," rasped Vin.
"Damn. They might have warned us before they made the town a target for every robbing bastard from here to the border," snarled Larabee.
"An' dare spoil yer fun, Cowboy?" snickered Vin.
"How many men are escorting the gold?" asked Larabee.
"Want me ta go find out iffen he knows?" asked Tanner, drawing his hunting knife.
"No, you've had enough fun for today."
"The escort's scout will see a normal busy little town and they'll ride right in without a second thought," sighed Josiah. "That's why they took the women captive, to keep the menfolk in line."
Vin Tanner watched patiently as Chris Larabee brooded, his expression changing ever so slightly as a glimmer of a plan formed in his mind.
Kin smell yer wood burnin' from here, Cowboy. "We let the women take the wagon and the mule team . . ."
"Wagon over at yer ol' shack," interrupted Vin, following Larabee's line of thought.
"Cabin," corrected Larabee, "I own a cabin."
"Yeah? Where ya gotten that hid?" scoffed Vin.
"I've seen that wagon out at your old sha...cabin, it won't carry the weight of the gold," said JD.
"Don't need to, we can put a canvas over something that might look like a strongbox," pointed out Buck.
"Ain't a smart idea ta use any movables from inside Larabee's ol' shack. Nuthin' he owns is fer standin' the weight of a canvas on 'em."
A gunslingerly glare that could cut glass washed over the tracker totally unheeded by the man in buckskin.
"At present we do not look as if anyone would trust us with a plug nickel let alone a money chest containing gold bullion. May I suggest that we all dress in the clothes we wore in the city?" suggested Ezra.
"Aw hell," groaned a miserable Tanner. "Is we really obliged ta git all dandified up ag'in?"
"Yeah," grinned Larabee, noting that revenge on the long haired tracker was sweet. "Each man will carry an extra rifle from the pile of arms we collected from the prisoners as well as his own. Ezra? Vin?"
"Ezra, you'll act officious as we ride in."
"I think you mean official---"
"Officious, overzealous, bumptious. Consult your watch and complain loudly that we aren't sticking to the schedule. That arriving early is as bad as arriving late. Vin, you'll ride slightly up ahead posing as the convoy's scout. If it's possible you'll slip away, get up on the rooftop and rid us of those pesky sharpshooters. Josiah will drive the wagon with Nathan riding alongside him in the shotgun seat. JD will sit on the 'strongbox' while Buck and me will bring up the rear. Any questions?"
"Yes, where did I leave my last will and testament?" sighed Ezra.
"When the shooting starts, if you're able, throw your spare rifles to someone you can trust to back us up. Earl Standish, Yosemite or Virgil Watson for instance. We need to even the odds up some," instructed Larabee.
"Hey, Cowboy," drawled Vin.
"Ya think one day we kin pick a fight with a mite less than an entire regiment?"
"Not a chance in hell."
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The town of Four Corners did indeed appear normal. The livery stable was open. The blacksmith employed at his forge, hammer ringing out its metallic anthem on the unyielding anvil. The stores and saloons all vying for business as usual, unless you were looking for female company. The Larabee Gang rode in cunningly disguised as the guardians of a large gold shipment. Ezra playing his part most admirably as the meddlesome railroad company official. Gold tooth gleaming as he consulted his treasured gold pocket watch while complaining long and loud that they had arrived in town early.
Worried emerald eyes met relieved jade green eyes as Earl Standish caught Ezra's attention before the older man lit a fat cigar and calmly took a seat on the boardwalk very close to the jail house door. All the attention focused on Ezra Standish led to the enemy sharpshooters failing to notice Vin Tanner calmly dismounting from Peso and slipping away down a narrow side alley.
The Larabee Gang were expert at creating a distracting ruckus causing even Calvera's men to chuckle at the exchange of protests that rapidly degenerated into crude insults. Earl proudly noted that Ezra even changed his walk and the angle of his head in order to be convincing. The gambler's usual languid southern charm absent as he bossily denigrated the other men in the escort.
The last thing either of the two inattentive sharpshooters had anticipated was a catlike Vin Tanner efficiently dispatching each of them with his hunting knife. Speedily, the tracker arranged the two bodies. Sombreros over their dead-eyes and rifles protruding from their serapes gave the convincing impression of continuing vigilance. From his vantage point up on the roof tops Tanner spotted Earl Standish sidling even closer to the jail house door, presumably intending to seize the soonest available opportunity to free Jake McKenna.
"Effecting m' pa's emancipation," chuckled Tanner.
Vin continued to smile at the idea of Ezra's pa, Earl Standish, working closely with his own beloved pa, Jake McKenna. Minutes later, mission accomplished, Earl reemerged on to the boardwalk and seconds later Jake's tattered cavalry hat popped up on the roof opposite Vin's own sharpshooter's perch. Tanner pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and shined it up against his fancy dark blue jacket. Across Main Street the sunlight reflecting off Vin's harmonica caught Jake's eye. Grinning broadly at his adored son's urgent signal the deputy sheriff discretely displayed the custom made rifle he had stashed on the roof before Calvera had demanded that the deputy from Libertyville throw his Winchester 73 rifle down into the street and surrender.
Freed from sharpshooting duties, Vin made his way towards his old wagon in order to rescue Calvera's hostages, Nettie and Casey Wells. Once there he speedily divested himself of the fancy disguise he'd worn on entering the town and found less restricting attire. A deep growl greeted him from the dark depths of his wagon.
"Ain't ya meant ta be standin' guardin' Ol' Mother York, dawg?"
The longhaired creature wagged a thick bushy tail and pale eyes regarded his beloved man with a hint of derision.
"Yeah, that's one old witch that ain't needin' our help," chuckled Vin.
When Tanner once again slipped out of sight he had acquired a stealthy canine shadow.
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Inside the saloon Casey's hand trembled as she poured Calvera another shot of cheap tequila.
The middle-aged, gaudily dressed bandit whispered in her ear, "Later, mi corazón, I will be the first man to make love to you."
In Inez's kitchen Nettie Wells was cooking food for Calvera and his more favored cohorts. By keeping Casey constantly at his side Calvera had ensured Nettie's cooperation for now. Nettie having been left in no doubt what Casey's fate would be if the doughty old woman stepped out of line.
As he crept along the maze of narrow alleys behind the town's more prominent buildings Vin Tanner's nose twitched. Pausing he scented Nettie's plain wholesome cooking issuing from the saloon's open backdoor which gave the tracker both an idea and hunger pains.
Nettie was startled as two shaggy heads poked around the edge of the saloon's backdoor.
Tanner held a warning finger up to his lips.
Nettie picked up the blue enameled plate containing vegetable peelings and noisily scraped them into the slop-bucket. "There are four men sitting in the saloon including Calvera. The rest are scattered in small groups all around the town. Vin, Calvera has Casey in there with him," she whispered.
When she turned around Vin had already vanished. "Boy makes less noise than a mouse peeing on cotton," chuckled Nettie.
Nettie returned to her current task with a much lighter heart. Salvation was nigh, thought the old woman, as she uncorked the glass bottle of Ipecac Vin had procured from Nathan's clinic and added it to her bubbling stew. Wiping her work roughened hands on the borrowed apron, she patted the deep pocket's new addition for reassurance.
Capturing the gold would be like taking candy from a baby, thought a smug Calvera. Calvera was certain his men could carry out his plan without anymore assistance from him. He would enjoy his meal as they did the hard work before reaping the rewards of his well thought out stratagem.
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Chris Larabee was the only rider not to have dismounted and he scanned the town as that now familiar feeling of having someone close by his side, even when he was completely alone, washed over him. Catching a glimmer of movement it took his brain a second or two to catch up with the bizarre vision his eyes had glimpsed. He wasn't sure what the tracker had in mind or if indeed whether the tracker hadn't lost his mind but he was sure that Nettie Wells and Casey were safe.
From his vantage point in the saddle Larabee was well aware that Calvera's men had formed a loose cordon around his friend and the wagon containing the 'gold'. Ezra bustled along the side of the wagon ostensibly checking the ropes securing the canvas but seizing the chance to make eye contact with the horseman. Even when these two wildly differing personalities had clashed over such character flaws as Ezra's perceived, ahem, dishonesty, their ability to work together as a team had never been compromised.
Now the look of cold resolve overtaking Larabee's expression was signal enough to galvanize the gambler into action. The southerner drew his Remington Army revolver from its holster and reached into the wagon for his disreputable Remington revolving carbine. The handgun barked and the first of Calvera's men bit the dust.
The gun battle was on as, black duster flying in the wind, Larabee galloped down Main Street. Throwing Earl Standish his spare Winchester Yellow Boy Larabee shot two of Calvera's men as they blindly stepped off the boardwalk, both hit the street dead as doornails. Pulling up Pony and turning he opened fire back up the street. Fatally wounding two more men before vaulting from the saddle and dragging his Winchester rifle from its boot to take cover behind a water trough while hurriedly reloading his Colt Peacemaker.
Buck and Josiah were grinning at each other as they took cover behind the wooden barrels and packing cases that littered the boardwalk and opened fire. The Schofield .45 in Josiah's left hand finding a number of targets before he slid his spare Winchester rifle along the boardwalk. Darting from cover a determined Virgil Watson scrabbled in the dust for the rifle and joined the fray.
Nathan's Remington Army revolver covered Earl Standish as the older man found cover and put the donated Yellow Boy to good use. Earl found time to calmly offer a two fingered salute so like Ezra's own gesture that even in the heat of battle it had a very amused Nathan Jackson laughing gleefully. High above them Jake McKenna was also having a good day, his custom made rifle expertly picking off two members of Calvera's band that had mistakenly thought that they had found cover.
JD's matched Colt Lightnings were living up to their names as the young Easterner peppered the enemy with .38 caliber bullets right and left. A loud boom from the end of town indicated that Yosemite had produced an ancient Colt Dragoon and somehow managed to hit one of Calvera's men.
"Have we killed them all, Mr. Larabee?" called out Ezra.
"Not hardly!" bellowed Larabee.
"I swear that there are more miscreants now than when we first started," groused the gambler, reloading the revolving carbine again. "Where do they come from? It is the same scenario in every gun battle I have ever participated in. They must multiply like rabbits."
"Shut up and shoot!" yelled Buck.
"Mr. Larabee? Be informed that I shall be tendering an expenses chit to Judge Travis demanding that he reimburse me for the extra ammunition I have expended."
"Ezra! Stop whining or I'll damn well shoot you myself!" barked Larabee.
"A dollar a day doesn't even pay for my bullets," muttered Ezra, coolly leveling his Cattleman's Carbine and smiling smugly as one of Calvera's men fell to the ground screaming in agony.
Although severely outnumbered The Larabee Gang had the element of surprise working well for them. A number of Calvera's blood-soaked men still weren't sure what was happening and how this devil led demon army had got the drop on them.
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Only moments before Calvera's foolproof plan to steal the gold shipment went to hell in a handbasket the saloon had been a haven of peace for the bandit. Certain that deliverance was at hand, Nettie Wells had served each of Calvera's men a generous portion of her savory stew. While filling Calvera's plate Nettie had rested her hand on Casey's shoulder and briefly dug stubby fingernails into her young niece's flesh. The quick flash of pain jolted the girl back from the dark realms of despair and brought her to her senses.
Calvera's men greedily attacked the stew. Shoveling spoonfuls down as if food was going out of fashion. Barely pausing to taste the nourishing meal with its extra added ingredient. Until their guts began to alert them to imminent discomfort. Turning various colors ranging from green to ashen the men hurriedly got to their feet. Pushing and shoving desperately at each other to ensure that they reached the privy first only slowed them down.
Taking cover behind the stinking outhouse, Tanner thoughtfully eased their pain with a bullet from his Winchester 73 rifle as each frantic man began his do-or-die dash for relief.
Having been served last and eaten his meal at a more leisurely pace Calvera gripped Casey's wrist and fixed Nettie with a furious look. "You old hag! What have you poisoned my amigos with?" he demanded, as the agonizing stomach cramps forced him to let go of Casey.
Nettie seized her chance and pulled Vin's seldom used Colt .45 out of her apron pocket. "Casey, move away from him," she ordered. "Set your gun down on the table you skunk or there won't be enough left of you to snore."
"Señora, please, have pity on me---"
"Ya gotta problem here, Miz Nettie?"
"No, son," answered Nettie.
"Tanner!" exclaimed Calvera. "Amigo!"
Taking advantage of Vin's sudden appearance Casey grabbed Calvera's silver inlaid pistol from the table and emptied it onto the floor.
"Ain't yer amigo," snarled Vin.
"Many times I asked you to join with me, compadre. You are much admired on my side of the border!" said Calvera, spreading his arms wide. "I will share the gold with you, blue-eyes. Equal partners. You have done much worse for far less. So good with the gun and I have seen your work with the knife, it too is magnifico!"
"Yer lucky they's ladies present, Calvera, or ya'll see some knife work close-up," warned Vin.
"Do you still ride all alone but for the lobo?" Calvera wisely let his hands cover the front of his pants as Vin's snarling animal bared its vicious yellow fangs. Then greedily licked its drooling lips as if it could already taste him.
"Reckon ya might be advised ta lock Calvera in the storeroom with a bucket an' The Clarion News fer company, Miz Nettie, 'til Larabee gits in here an' takes over maneatin' duties from m' dawg."
"Good idea," agreed Nettie. "Move you varmint."
"Larabee? The Chris Larabee? You watch the back of the blond gunfighter all in black?" Calvera asked, taking an ill-advised step back in amazement as Savage sprang forward loudly snapping his slavering jaws in warning.
"I heard he was a fast pistolero?"
"He heard that too," drawled Vin.
"It is true that he never practices with his pistol?"
"And he has a glare that makes men throw down their arms?"
"Out stares rattlesnakes fer practice."
"Madre de Dios!" groaned Calvera.
Calvera now under lock and key, Vin looked down at Savage before slipping away. "Stay in the saloon an' guard the womenfolk, dawg. Ya ain't ta let no man near 'em."
Savage rolled his pale eyes and gave a jaw-popping yawn of disgust at the very idea that he needed to be told how to carry out his duty.
"Casey! Put those eyes back in your head, girlie."
"But, Aunt Nettie, did you see---?"
The old lady sank down on to the nearest chair. "I saw," she chuckled.
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Main Street was still bathed in lead and gunsmoke but the gun battle had eased a smidgeon. The last survivors of Calvera's once sizable force were pinned down in a small area near the Butterfield Stageline office.
Covered by Jake's rifle Ezra shifted position and joined Earl Standish.
"Good afternoon, son. Glad you could drop by," smiled Earl.
"A relaxing afternoon saunter is often on my agenda," replied Ezra, handing over a fresh box of ammunition.
"It is a habit that I have acquired only recently. Having found that stimulating company makes all the difference to one's enjoyment."
"I usually manage to enjoy my perambulation without the option of lead poisoning."
"I have to say that I am impressed both by the well-executed plan and the marksmanship of your companions. Your skills complement each other's in a most advantageous manner. I may have to thank Señor Calvera for affording me an opportunity to witness The Larabee Gang in action while hoping that for you, this is not a daily occurrence?"
"Not a daily one," answered Ezra dryly, "but somewhat regular."
"And the overwhelming odds?" continued Earl, shouldering his reloaded Winchester and firing at his chosen target.
"That too is not an unheard of phenomenon. I hold Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner jointly responsible, both men are veritable bullet magnets. Attracting lead as readily as Mr. Wilmington attracts the ladies with what he laughingly refers to as his 'animal magnetism'."
"Then I am sure that you have negotiated suitable disbursements for these onerous duties?"
"Alas, my agreed remuneration is a dollar a day plus room and board," answered Ezra, energetically slapping the dust from his best jacket in order to avoid his father's scrutiny.
"Are you sure that's all?" pressed Earl.
"I have recently discovered that one cannot put a price on brotherhood," admitted Ezra.
"I am inordinately glad to hear that my son is so highly paid."
Ezra found it hard to continue the conversation due to the lump in his throat but both father and son found themselves somewhat distracted as Calvera's men began to advance. Wheeling something into the middle of Main Street.
"Dear Lord!" Josiah crossed himself.
"Hell's Teeth!" growled Chris.
"Hell's Teeth!" growled Vin but from a different location.
"Sacred bleu!" gasped Earl and Ezra in unison.
"No! No! No!" cried Nathan.
JD looked to Buck for reassurance but saw the tall ladies' man grow pale. "Buck? Buck? What is it?"
"A Mitrailleuse," groaned Ezra.
"Chris?" yelled JD, eying the long metal cylinder with twenty-five holes punched into the end. It was mounted on a gun carriage with two metal-rimmed wheels but it clearly wasn't a cannon. Would no one tell him what in hell it was?
"It's a French volley gun," Buck told him in hushed tones.
"Ezra? Have you come across one before?" called out Chris, watching as the rest of the bandit took cover, leaving two men to feed the hungry volley gun its ammunition.
"Sadly I have, Mr. Larabee."
"Ezra, may I say that it has been a pleasure and an honor to have spent this time with you---" began Earl.
"Whatever you are thinking, please, I beg you to reconsider," interrupted Ezra.
"I have achieved my heart's desire---"
Ezra dusted off his red jacket and calmly reloaded his Remington. "A Southern gentleman often faces atrocious odds so why should today be any different?"
"Two Southern gentleman and the atrocious odds would at least be halved!"
A lethal volley of shots erupted from the Mitrailleuse.
"Left or right?" politely inquired Ezra.
"Your legs are younger than mine so I would prefer to be on the left."
"You are right-handed---" pointed out Ezra.
"I liked it better when there was only one of them," groaned Larabee.
"Double trouble," agreed Nathan.
"You are ambidextrous," argued Earl.
"Your current apparel is somewhat outmoded whereas mine is new."
"EZRA!" bellowed Larabee, "get on with it for fuck's sake!!!"
"Your facial profile on the right is slightly more handsome than the left one," suggested Earl.
"Ah cannot find fault with that argument."
Hesitating the two man crew watched incredulously as a man wearing a frilled shirt and a red cutaway coat scrambled across the dusty street before springing to his feet slightly right of center. Simultaneously, a dashing Southern gentleman stepped into the street slightly left of center. Calvera's men stopped cheering and gaped as both men stood with straight backs and right arms outstretched, guns level with their shoulders as if about to take part in some Southern antebellum duel.
Faced with so much braggadocio the two astonished men behind the Mitrailleuse were late to realize that the volley gun was still aimed dead center. The volley gun stuttered to a halt as its gunners fell back quite dead. The man on Earl's left, shot neatly through his right eye. The man on Ezra's right, shot just as neatly through the heart.
Two more bandits tried to run from cover to take their fallen comrades place only to be driven back by a barrage of rifle fire.
Then at exactly two p.m. the 'noon' stage arrived in town.
"Aw hell," muttered Earl and Ezra.
Both men were compelled to watch in horror as in seconds the remnants of Calvera's band overran the noon stage. Ruthlessly slaying both the stagecoach driver and the messenger as they attempted to make good their escape.
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Nine men grimly watched as the stagecoach doors were wrenched open. There seemed to be some kind of desperate struggle inside the stagecoach, a gunshot rang out then three female hostages were dragged screaming into the street.
"Mother!" cried out Ezra, as Maude Standish was used as a human shield by one of the bandits.
Up above Main Street Jake McKenna removed his hat and jacket. Calmly he shifted his position and refocused the long brass sight on his custom made rifle. Then he waited for the one split second that would afford him the kill shot.
"Señors! The gold shipment for the lives of two of the señoras. The third will be released when we have Calvera returned to us!" demanded the tall bandit holding Maude Standish.
"Damn it!" cursed Larabee.
"We don't have the gold," Buck needlessly stated.
"What we need is a distraction," pointed out Josiah.
"Where the hell is Vin?" demanded Larabee. "Somebody has to make sure that this time Ezra and Earl don't risk their fool necks alone."
As Ezra started to rise from his crouched position Earl dragged him back down.
"Let me go! She's my mother," protested Ezra, endeavoring to wrench his arm free of Earl's grip.
"You're no good to her dead, son. We need a diversion of some kind before we act."
"Earl! Ezra! Go get Calvera out of the saloon!" ordered Larabee. "Listen up! We'll trade Calvera for all three women!" yelled out Larabee.
"No! We want the gold and Calvera!" insisted Maude's captor.
"No! We want all three women for Calvera!"
"Calvera for two of the women," renegotiated the bandit, as a triumphantly grinning Calvera was manhandled out of the saloon and onto the boardwalk. "Hand him over now or you get one of the three women back dead!"
"Ezra! Hand over Calvera! You," Larabee shouted to the bandit still holding Maude, "let two of the women go free!"
"Gracias, Blondie!" Calvera sarcastically saluted Larabee before swaggering towards the remainder of his gang.
Released from captivity two of the women lifted their skirts and casting dignity aside ran hell for leather towards the safety of the saloon. Earl hustled the two women inside and left them to the kind ministrations of Nettie Wells.
"Now, Blondie, hand over the gold!" Calvera instructed Larabee, taking the reins of a high-strung gray horse from the sweaty hand of one of his cohorts.
Larabee was aware of two sets of green eyes burning into him from across the street. Without any gold to exchange for Maude now more than ever they needed that distraction.
Through all the lingering gunsmoke moved a slight figure walking steadfastly down the center of Main Street. Looking neither left nor right staring only straight ahead, totally focused on the man now in the saddle of the gray horse. Larabee found himself desperately screaming Vin Tanner's name. Vin was surely going to be cut down in the street as Calvera's remaining men opened fire. Dust sprayed up into the air at his feet, splinters of wood zinged past him and water from the water trough showered his bare chest and legs as the bullets ricocheted all around him.
JD cried out as he saw a bullet lift the long tawny hair as it passed by the man's ear. Still Vin kept walking. Still he was unscathed. The gray horse reacted before the rider did, frantically side stepping across the street. Trying to avoid the cold blue stare, the eagle feather tied into the hair, the handsome face and bare chest striped with warpaint.
Chris Larabee briefly closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, certain that he was trapped in the pages of one of Jock Steele's overly dramatic dime novels.
As the horse turned away its master forced the gray back around to face the warrior. Calvera's face twisted into a rictus grin. Seeing that Tanner wasn't wearing a gun, he brazenly rode out to meet his Nemesis. The horse was twisting and turning. Its coat lathered up, tossing its finely shaped head, madly rolling its eyes until only the whites showed, desperately trying to avoid looking into those deep empty pools of icy blue.
They all watched but no one was ever in complete agreement as to what happened next. Some men recalled the events in a different order some remembered entirely different versions as they helplessly watched the madman draw a gun and aim it directly at Vin Tanner's own beating heart.
The gray horse suddenly reared up on its hind legs and immediately plunged back down, frenziedly trying to unseat its rider, seeking only escape as the warrior sprang up on to the horse's back. The men saw the shining blade rise up in the air from behind the bandit leader before arcing back down. The bandit's head snapped up and he slid bonelessly from the horse to slump onto the ground, twitching helplessly as the warrior vaulted from the gray horse with fluid grace. Tanner stared down for a single moment, blue eyes looking into the other man's tormented soul before calming the foam flecked gray horse.
A solitary gunshot rang out from the rooftops and Maude's captor fell backwards. A bullet hole in the exact center of his forehead. Maude shrieked like a banshee, hit the poleaxed bandit barring her way in the face with her reticule and scampered towards safety.
Defeated and leaderless Calvera's wounded men threw down their guns and surrendered without further resistance. The Larabee Gang collected up the discarded weapons and shepherded the few prisoners towards the jail.
"Are you going to get dressed now, missy?" asked Larabee, eyeing Tanner's bare knees and fringed hide boots. "You're frightening the horses."
Staring fixedly at the stagecoach Tanner didn't reply, instead he seemed to be waiting in silence for something. Worried by the tracker's unresponsiveness, Larabee draped his long black duster over the slightly shorter man's naked shoulders.
Jake McKenna joined the two men down in the street and together father and son opened the door of the stagecoach. Inside was Orlando Flynn's dead body.
"Where are his pearl-handled guns?" asked Larabee, realizing that Vin's Cousin Orlando had died from a single gunshot in the heart while trying to prevent Calvera's men from dragging the three women out of the stagecoach.
"Back in Libertyville," answered Jake. "He finally made good on his promise ta Elvira an' hung up his guns."
Larabee put his hand on the tracker's shoulder quickly realizing that this was the reason for Vin's reckless slaying of Calvera. Respectfully, the three men removed the body from the stagecoach and loaded it onto the old wagon from Larabee's ranch.
Inside the saloon a trembling Maude clung to Ezra. "My darlin' boy, I've never been so mortally afraid!" she declared in a loud voice.
"There, there, Mother," soothed Ezra, distractedly patting Maude on the back and hugging her awkwardly.
"Listen up, Ezra, join that dreadful McKenna man and his son when they take the body back to the Stacey Ranch," whispered Maude. "Orlando Flynn's new widow is now the richest woman in Texas. You can use her grief to your advantage. Offer her your deepest sympathy, a shoulder to cry on and make yourself indispensable when it comes to business matters. In no time at all we'll have our hands on her fortune---"
Ezra's arms fell stiffly by his sides and he stepped away from Maude as if she was aflame. "A good man just died trying to save your worthless skin and all you can think about is how we, you, can defraud his heartbroken young widow?"
"Darlin' boy, I'm only thinking of your future. A rich wife in tow and you'd finally be a somebody---"
"A somebody? Right this minute Ah'd rather be anybody other than your son!" snarled Ezra.
Earl stepped in between them and took Maude's elbow. "Come with me!" he snapped, half-dragging her from the saloon.
Ezra turned on his heel and headed for the bar. Quickly realizing that he would have to serve himself in Inez Recillos' absence he poured himself a glass of the good brandy. Silently, he drank a toast to the retired gunslinger who had died trying to save an ungrateful Maude. He shuddered as he recalled Calvera's death under Vin Tanner's knife. Vin had greatly liked and respected his Cousin Orlando Flynn but Ezra didn't think he had cared about him as much as he did about Chris Larabee or J. D. Dunne for example. Or, dare he hope, maybe even as much as Ezra himself. He felt that cold shiver skitter down his back once more as he hoped to God that he never witnessed Tanner inflicting his bloody revenge on anyone that had fatally harmed one of The Seven.
The raspy voice sounded even more broken than usual. The long haired man had ghosted into the saloon still wearing Larabee's long black duster. Ezra was suddenly struck by the tracker's youth. In the floor-length garment Tanner looked like a child playing dress-up in his father's clothing. Anyone but the murderous avenging angel who had just exacted a terrifying retribution in the dusty street outside. How was it possible that one so young had experienced so much grief in his life and yet still gave off an air of innocence?
"Vin? I . . ." Ezra was praying that the tracker hadn't overheard anything that Maude had said.
"Mebbe, ya kin come with me out ta the ranch? Ain't got yer fancy way a talkin' an' ain't rightly sure what ta say ta Cousin Elvira, sure ta say all the wrong words."
Ezra shook his head. "You'll know what to say, Vin, because you speak from the heart. But if you need a friend to ride along?"
Tanner nodded his head and Ezra followed him outside to their waiting horses.
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Standing guard the heavily armed Stacey ranch hands waved the wagon with Jake McKenna at the reins and its three outriders across the wooden bridge.
The elder residents of Four Corners were doubtlessly sipping gallons of hot sweet tea inside the well-appointed parlor, the younger element entertained the smaller children with sundry games outside in the gardens. While the unmarried maidens lingered around the corral, shamelessly ogling a remuda of strapping young ranch hands. Cousin Elvira and Mary Travis stepped through the half-glazed front door of the ranch house to welcome the riders. Cousin Elvira hadn't reached the verandah's last step before she realized that the four men weren't here merely to reclaim the female population of Four Corners.
"Bring him inside," was all she said.
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"Unhand me!" demanded Maude.
"I have a gig waiting at the livery, you can use it to take you to the railroad in Libertyville."
"But I've only just arrived in town! You have no rights over me! You failed in your duty as husband and protector so get your hands off me!" protested Maude vehemently. "I paid for that stagecoach ticket not you! I just got here."
"Congratulations, you've outstayed your welcome in record time!" sneered Earl, as he opened the livery door and pushed her inside. "Count yourself lucky that I don't intend to repeat the advice you gave Ezra back there in the saloon to any of Ezra's brothers."
"Someone has to have that boy's best interests at heart and who better than his own loving mother? As for those men," spat Maude. "Brothers? They are merely a bunch of stray saddle tramps and rootless gunmen. I wouldn't give you five dollars for the whole sorry bunch. I wash my hands of Ezra. He has taken leave of his senses and will not be pried away from those cowboy outlaws in order to make something of himself. "
"I never really knew you at all did I, Maude? I have held this idealized version of you in my heart for over thirty years. A sweet girl whose smile could light up the darkest room. I spent every spare dollar I had in my quest to find you and Ezra. If I had but known the gorgon you had become I would have sold my soul to the devil to rescue Ezra from your scheming web of lies. Now all I have to give Ezra are the proceeds from the sale of my house in New Orleans and my railroad shares."
If it was at all possible for a woman's ears to prick up then Maude's did. "That was such a sweet reunion in the saloon between JD and little Casey. Perhaps we should follow their example and let bygones be bygones, Earl?"
"Lordy! You aren't even aware that you are doing it are you? I can read you like a book, Maudie," sighed Earl. "Did I do this to you? Did I create the monster you have become?"
"Yes! Of course you did! You abandoned me, Earl! Deserted me! Ran out on me, left me all alone, flat broke and carrying your child!"
"I told you that I was coming back for you, Maude. I left you my gold pocket watch as proof and don't dare deny it because Ezra has the watch even now."
"I would have sold that too if Cajun Jack hadn't stolen it from me. It meant only that you would go to any lengths to make your lies believable!" sneered Maude.
Earl stared at her long and hard. Taking in her flushed face and angry, rage-filled eyes. "Confound it, Maudie, I still love you!"
Maude felt the rug being pulled from beneath her feet. "W-w-what?"
"I know you still love me."
"Bunkum and balderdash!"
"You never divorced me, Maude. All those years and you still bear my name. You could have easily sweet-talked any judge into granting you a divorce."
"It means nothing! Elsewhere I am known by several names it merely suits me to use the same name as Ezra when in this miserable little cow town. Why are you laughing? Unhand me, sir! What are you doing? Put those lips away! I won't be kissed! Is this straw clean? I won't...aw! Dear Lord...Earl...yes darlin' . . . yes . . .yes . . .I awww---"
"Shut up, Maudie."
Jasper F. Carradice had found his métier in the funeral trade. He had spent his whole life giving people the macabre creeps. In school all the other children in his class had avoided him. His cadaverous appearance had unnerved his teachers. Even his own parents had kept their distance. He ushered the three men from Four Corners into the ice cold room in back of Carradice's Funeral Parlor as he bustled about collecting the implements of his profession.
"Only one gunshot? Good, umm, yes. Excellent." Jasper rubbed his cold clammy hands together, not even bothering to disguise his glee in front of the the tall firm-jawed man dressed in black clothing even more suitable for a funeral than his own or the scruffy "ranch hand" in buckskin and the clean-smelling man in the fancy red cutaway coat.
"I have a most elegant slab of black marble, very rare, so a little more expensive than is usual for these parts but the new Widow Flynn can afford it. Eh? Or perhaps a granite monument? I could order a weeping angel? No, a tomb! A veritable mausoleum! Angels weeping over the fallen body of a heroic gunfighter on a marble plinth wreathed in laurel? Of course the casket will be silk lined, solid silver handles plated in gold, the finest finish on the wood---"
"Plain pine box," rasped Vin. "We's shippin' him home ta Texas."
"Texas? He's not to be interred here?" Jasper saw the highest ever fee paid for his services slipping away and almost sobbed out loud at the injustice of it. The culmination of his entire life's work coming to nothing. Crumbling like dust before his very eyes. "No casket? No tombstone? No paid mourners? My finest black plumed Friesian horses wearing new silks embroidered with the Widow Flynn's brand not needed? The etched glass-sided hearse constructed at great cost in San Francisco, it won't be required?"
"No. A plain pine box of a suitably sturdy construction for transportation by railroad," insisted Ezra, sickened by this open display of disrespectful greed.
"He is to be buried by the side of his first wife, Amelia Flynn, alongside the child they lost," said Larabee, looming menacingly over the undertaker.
Jasper F. Carradice was proud of the fact that he could always get more out of a client than they had originally intended to pay. It was all part of the job. He had a genuine flair for it. Grief and guilt were the powerful tools of his trade. Removing his tall black hat he opened his mouth to try again.
Vin Tanner looked at the undertaker once only before pulling his hat down low over his eyes and striding out of the office.
Jasper F. Carradice shuddered, indeed he felt as if someone had just walked over his grave. He found himself offering Ezra his services for free, including the glass-sided hearse and the coal black matched horses to transport the flag draped pine box on its final journey to the railroad depot. It would be a good advertisement for his business and show the entire town that he was a sympathetic citizen. At least that's what Carradice told himself. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the bone-chilling look in Tanner's azure eyes. No, nothing at all.
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Nothing the three men from Four Corners could say would dissuade the penitent Widow Flynn from walking behind the hearse on its long journey to the railroad depot. Wearing the medal presented to him by the President, Jake McKenna led Blackie, Orlando Flynn's imaginatively named black gelding, in the funeral cortège. Orlando Flynn's own medals were pinned to the officer's saddlecloth and his cavalry saber and boots tied to the empty saddle.
Vin Tanner, clad in his buckskins as requested, rode Peso at the head of the funeral procession. Scouting the way home for Orlando Flynn. The plaintive whine of a set of Scottish bagpipes, its chanter in the talented hands of a kilted piper in full tartan regalia and towering bearskin, played its sorrowful lament.
When Ezra had tried to express his sincere condolences to the new widow and speak of his gratitude for Orlando Flynn's courageous sacrifice, his words were forgivingly brushed aside with a peck on the cheek. Instead he had been specifically asked by the Widow Flynn to join Mary Travis in the Widow Flynn's landau. There he was entrusted to watch over Hope and Lucy, the Flynn's two adopted daughters.
Dressed as a miniature version of her adoptive mother in head-to-toe black, small gloved hands demurely folded in her lap, Hope sat stiffly beside Mary Travis. Bewildered and uncertain whether or not Judge Travis would take them both away from their new mama now that she was a widow without a man to provide for them, Lucy crawled onto her Uncle Ezra's knee. Placed her chubby arms around his neck and rested her dimpled cheek against his. The gambler enveloped her in his arms. Completely identifying with the tiny child's fear of abandonment he whispered exactly the right words of comfort and reassurance into her ear.
Totally understanding Orlando Flynn's last request to be buried in Texas with his first wife and child, even though Orlando's decision had caused some gossip amongst the shocked townsfolk of Libertyville, Chris Larabee had elected to walk beside the Widow Flynn. He wished that he was the one on his way to being buried beside his dead wife and son because he knew in his heart of hearts he'd never have the strength to hang up his own guns.
He couldn't expect a decent, law-abiding woman like Mary Travis to marry a gunslinger. Elvira Flynn had accepted that one day this day might come. She had understood the kind of man she had married and how Orlando had lived his life, recognized that Orlando's past was a major part of who he was. Able to love the dark quality gunslingers like Chris Larabee could bury deep down inside themselves but never entirely get away from. Perhaps she had done things in her past that she wasn't proud of.
Sarah too had been capable of both acknowledging and lovingly accepting it as part of what made him who he was. But Mary couldn't love that side of him. Her ingrained sense of right and wrong wouldn't allow her to. She could only choose to close her eyes to it. Love only half of him.
Entirely swathed in black, her long veil too opaque to allow even a glimpse of her grief-stricken features, the Widow Flynn rested her black gloved hand on his arm only once as he helped her board the private railroad car.
"Don't you dare envy Orlando." She turned on the steps and poked him hard in the chest with her index finger, "Build a new life with Mary Travis. You underestimate her."
Chris shook his head. Stepping back to watch Vin and Ezra put Hope and Lucy aboard the train, he caught Vin's eye. The tracker's faint smile indicated that he clearly agreed with his Cousin Elvira. Chris shook his head again. Why did all his friends think they knew what was best for him? If it wasn't Vin then it was Buck or even Josiah dropping none too subtle hints about his love life. Then again, perhaps taking a walk in the moonlight with a lady newspaper editor one balmy evening wouldn't do any harm . . .
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Chris had insisted on taking Vin back to his small horse ranch. The Texan was still taking his cousin's death hard. Bitterly blaming himself. Chris wondered if this might be a good moment to raise the idea of a pardon. Even though no fault could be attached to his brave actions during the bloodthirsty gun battle the tracker's shoulders clearly bore the crushing weight of his misplaced guilt as the three peacekeepers parted company at the crossroads and two rode south.
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Arriving alone in Four Corners after carrying out his solemn duty, it seemed to Ezra that his life had been turned topsy-turvy. Earl and Maude were in the hotel dining room billing and cooing. Ezra felt quite nauseated at the sight.
"Papa? Have you completely taken leave of your senses? Maude will strip you of every dime you possess then you won't see her bustle for dust!" warned Ezra.
"I am quite well aware of that, son."
"She'd steal the coins off a dead man's eyes!"
"The pursuit offers so much lively entertainment and the prospect of witnessing Maudie's countenance when she eventually discovers that I hold a grand total of a thousand worthless shares in a now defunct railroad company and that the monies left from the sale of my house, once all debts have been satisfied, are to be securely placed in your name."
"Funds not to be drawn on until you yourself embark on the matrimonial path."
"With Maude and yourself serving as examples I very much doubt that I shall ever enter the state of wedded bliss."
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety," smiled Earl, shooting his cuffs and straightening his silk vest with a wry wink.
Ezra watched as his father made his way back across the floor and leaned solicitously over Maude's shoulder.
The chase was on.
The astonished gambler was further taken aback as he saw the one expression on Maude's shining face that he'd never ever seen there before.
"Why, she would hang on him As if increase of appetite had grown By what it had fed on: and yet within a month," quoted Ezra, as he crossed the street to the saloon and hurried upstairs to his room. There finding pen and purple ink for a long letter to Li Pong. "Let me not think on't, -Frailty thy name is woman!"