Ezra sat at his table in the saloon, presiding happily over what he considered "God's greatest wonders" - a crowded game and an ever growing pile of winnings. The two supposed cowhands from earlier this afternoon were back, and were joined by Cyrus Butler, owner of the Grand Opera House, Hiram Beech, current owner of the Virginia Hotel, and Atticus Byrd, representative of the distributor from whom Inez bought liquor.
The two cowboys were every bit as bad at poker now as they'd been earlier, couldn't even be counted on to win if Standish threw the game their way. Butler, normally a fairly skilled player, was both distracted and distraught by the loss of his establishment's main attraction, Laramie Lil, the golden-throated and ample-bosomed "Songbird of the West," who had been lured out of the Opera House - and Butler's bed - by a promoter promising her fame and fortune in San Francisco. Beech, a relative newcomer to the West, was still reeling from the recent discovery that his supposedly "illustrious" hotel was an apparent favorite stopping place for assassins, having housed both the late Lucius "Long-Range" Stutz and the also-late Eli Joe. And Byrd had clearly been sampling far too heavily from his company's merchandise.
Ezra Standish, meanwhile, was neither distracted, nor reeling, nor drunk. Consequently, he was having a marvelous, and marvelously profitable, night.
"He sure looks happy, don't he?" JD asked, watching the gambler over the rim of his beer mug.
Josiah chuckled softly. "I reckon he does at that." He winked at JD. "Might have somethin' ta do with that pile of money in front of him."
"Yeah." JD frowned thoughtfully. "He seems ta be the only one havin' a good night."
Josiah grinned and leaned back in his chair. "That happens a lot when Brother Ezra plays."
"Yeah, but I don't think he's cheatin'," JD said, watching the game - and the players - intently. "I don't think he has to."
"Oh?" Josiah was sincerely interested in JD's observations. The boy had matured considerably since he'd hopped off that stage, had grown in ways he had probably never imagined he would. Among the sometimes painful lessons he'd had to learn was that it paid to study people, and that he was learning from some of the keenest observers Josiah had ever known.
"Well, yeah. I mean, look at Cyrus," the boy said, fixing his gaze on the opera house owner. "He's been mopin' ever since Lil left. You know," he leaned closer to Sanchez and pitched his voice low, "some folks're sayin' they were `involved'." And he wagged his eyebrows in a gesture so reminiscent of Buck Wilmington that Josiah laughed aloud. "What?" he demanded.
Josiah laughed again, his broad shoulders shaking. "`Involved'?" he gasped. "You been talkin' ta Miz Potter, haven't you?"
"Well, it sure sounds better'n what Buck said they were doin'!" JD defended himself hotly. "And Lil was always real nice ta me, so-"
"Son," Sanchez said gently, "Lil was nice ta lots of men."
"Now you sound just like Buck!"
"Well," Josiah grinned broadly, "I'd have ta say that in this one area, Buck likely knows exactly what he's talkin' about."
"Not takin' my name in vain, are ya, preacherman?" asked a lively voice.
Josiah looked up and smiled as Chris and Buck joined them at the table. "Just discussin' the lovely Laramie Lil."
Buck heaved a dramatic sigh as he folded his long frame into the chair at JD's side, his expression one of utter desolation. "It was a sad day for us all when she departed," he lamented, laying a hand to his breast. "Like ta broke my heart."
"Don't worry," Chris said with a sly grin, "I'm sure you'll find somebody to help ya recover."
"Women ain't like horses, pard," Buck intoned solemnly. "A man never really gets over the loss of a good one." He flashed his familiar roguish smile. "And Lil was one'a the best!"
Chris chuckled and shook his head. "What're we gonna do with you, Buck?"
"You three?" the big man asked. "Nothin'. But," his gaze traveled across the saloon and settled on the lovely figure behind the bar, "I got a few ideas for her."
JD turned and glanced at Inez, then turned back to Buck. "Yeah, and she's got a few ideas for you, too," he teased. "Most involvin' pain."
Wilmington regarded the boy with a weary patience. "Now, son, you just don't understand-"
"Me?" JD snorted indignantly. "I ain't the one havin' ta learn Spanish just so I'll understand all the names she calls me!"
"It's time well spent, son." Buck wagged his eyebrows suggestively. "Spanish is the language of love."
"Not the way she speaks it," Chris said with a small grin. "Unless turnin' bulls inta steers is a new way of courtin' in Mexico."
Buck instinctively crossed his legs at that, then glared as his friends laughed. "You all just wait," he declared. "She's comin' around, I can tell. I ain't ever been wrong about a woman-"
"Except maybe that `funny cowboy' with the McCormick brothers," JD said with a smirk.
"Now, hang on there, boy!" Buck said hotly. "I knew there was somethin' strange about that `gal' from the first!" He nodded forcefully. "Soon's I saw her... his... throat 'n noticed that Adam's apple-"
"Eyein' him that close, were ya?" Chris asked with a wicked smile.
Buck assumed an air of wounded dignity. "Now that was low, pard."
Chris's eyes gleamed. "Best place ta aim with you. Stud."
Buck glared at his old friend and rose to his feet. "I'm gonna go talk to Inez."
"Be careful," Chris called as the big man walked away. "I hear she aims low, too!" He laughed as Buck jerked as if he'd been shot. From Wilmington, his keen gaze traveled to Standish, and he whistled at the sight of the gambler's winnings. "Ezra's havin' a good night, I see."
"Well, Cyrus is still upset about Lil," JD explained, "and that Byrd fella don't seem ta hold liquor as good as he sells it." His eyes went to Beech, and he sighed and shook his head. "And poor Mr. Beech... I think he's learnin' more about his hotel than he ever wanted ta know."
"What about those two others?" Chris asked softly.
JD studied the two strangers seated across from Ezra. "They came into town today," he said. "They ain't done much but play poker and lose." He shrugged. "They're cowboys just in off the range, lookin' for a little fun."
"They ain't cowboys, JD," Larabee said with a quiet certainty.
The boy frowned. "How can you tell?"
Chris watched as one of the two placed a bet. "First of all, they got way too much money. You know how long a cowhand would have ta work ta earn that much? And look at their boots. Too run down in the heels. No cowboy worth his salt'd wear boots in that shape. They need good, strong heels to brace in the stirrups when they rope or ta dig inta the ground when they're tyin' and throwin' calves for brandin'." He nodded toward the boots in question. "First time one'a them had to brace those heels, they'd have 'em snapped right off." His green eyes narrowed as he continued to study the two. "You talked to 'em at all?"
JD shrugged. "Some. I know their names are Hank and Lem. Hank's the taller one. And Lem seems ta do most of the talkin'."
Josiah watched the two men in question for several moments, then turned to Chris and said, "I've seen 'em around town." He frowned thoughtfully. "Almost seem ta be watchin' for somethin'. Or waitin'." He considered a few moments longer, then shrugged. "They're quiet enough, I reckon. Just... watchful."
A memory stirred in Larabee's mind. "They were in the saloon this afternoon. Playin' Ezra then, too. And losin'." He frowned. "Why would they keep playin' when they keep losin'?"
JD snorted derisively. "From what I've seen, they're not too bright." At Chris's interested look, he explained, "I saw 'em at the livery a little while ago, talked to 'em then. Hank was admirin' Peso. Said he'd seen Peso and Vin out in the street, wondered if there was any chance Vin might wanta sell him." He laughed. "Can you imagine Vin sellin' that horse? Anyway, I told him he'd best stay clear of Peso, but he sure didn't seem ta be listenin'." He glanced back at Hank. "Guess he did, though, 'cause he seems to be all right."
Chris gave a grim smile. "First Peso, now Ezra. They must love gettin' stomped."
JD shrugged. "Maybe they think their luck'll change."
Chris chuckled quietly. "Nobody's luck everchanges when Ezra plays." He watched the two for several moments more, then shook his head. "Keep an eye on 'em while they're here," he ordered in a low, thoughtful voice.
"You expect trouble?" JD asked, frowning worriedly.
Chris gave a thin smile. "I always expect trouble, JD," he said quietly. "That way, I'm never surprised when I find it."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra, too, was growing increasingly intrigued by the two "cowhands" who were so generously enriching him. They professed to be strangers in town, having only ridden in this morning, yet now and then let slip some bit of conversation that showed them to be more familiar with local happenings than such recent arrivals should have been. Nor did they exhibit any concern about their steadily dwindling cash supply. When, in a gesture inspired more by curiosity than concern, he asked if they wouldn't prefer to leave the game before they lost what little they had left, the taller of the two, the ever-affable Hank, gave a sly grin and a wink at his partner and said this was nothing, that they had a job waiting on them that would make them both rich men.
The wheels immediately started turning in Standish's brain, for he knew of no legal means in this God-forsaken wasteland that could bestow wealth upon two such cretins as these in a matter of days. He could, however, envision countless illegal means, and he began watching the two with even sharper, if well hidden, interest.
Though, really, they seemed far too inept to be a true threat to anyone but themselves...
"That feller who come limpin' inta town earlier today, leadin' his horse," Lem remarked casually, discarding two cards and taking two more that did not help him in the least, "heard he's some kind'a tracker. Works with you an' them others as one'a the lawmen here."
Ezra drew a card to complete a straight and merely flicked a chestnut eyebrow upward in bored disinterest. "I believe you are referrin' to Mr. Tanner," he drawled. "Yes, his skills in the wild are truly uncanny." He glanced at Butler. "Cyrus, I believe the bet is to you."
Butler regarded his hand for several moments, then shook his head and exhaled sharply in disgust. "Hell, Standish, I haven't seen anything this ugly since Tophat Bob came ta town. I fold." And he tossed down his cards.
Ezra clucked his tongue sympathetically and regarded the man through sorrowful eyes. "A pity," he sighed. "Lady Luck seems to have turned her capricious back upon you, my friend."
"Hell, I ain't surprised," the opera house owner said bitterly. "Like any woman, she can't be trusted. They all turn on you in the end. She's probably gone to Frisco, too!"
Ezra smiled slightly. "Well, let us hope she is nearer to hand. Mr. Byrd?" He turned to the liquor salesman. "Are you in or out?"
Byrd was staring through glazed, unblinking eyes and tilting noticeably to one side in his seat, his slack mouth hanging open. A thick, unintelligible mumble escaped him, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he tipped out of his chair, crumbling to the floor in an unconscious heap.
Ezra frowned and watched the man fall, then looked up and swept his gaze about the table. "Well," he said with a gold-toothed grin, "I believe I distinctly heard him say he was in." He reached over to Byrd's meager pot and brushed it in its entirety to the middle of the table. "Now, eh, Mr....?"
"Jist Lem," the small man said. "I ain't much on fancy handles." He studied at his cards, stared down at what remained of his money, then gave a careless shrug. "What the hell." He slid it all into the pot. "There's twenty fer ya, Stanley."
"That's Standish," Ezra corrected for what had to be the thirtieth time that night, both appalled by and grateful for the man's careless attitude toward money.
"There's twenty more," Hank said, adding to the pile. "I call."
"Really?" Ezra drawled, noting that the man still had five dollars left and wondering why he hadn't thrown away that, as well. "What a surprise." He smiled broadly, exhibiting both gold tooth and deep dimple, and lay down his cards. "A straight, king high."
Hank and Lem both blinked in unison, while Cyrus Butler chuckled. Hank had a pair of threes, and Lem didn't even have that. Ezra wondered if these two had brothers who might also happen into town.
For them, he might very well relax his rule against gambling with clans...
"Well, if that don't beat all," Lem marveled in true amazement. "Mister, you are good!"
"Yes, well," Ezra gleefully raked in his winnings, "one would have to be skilled indeed to best such worthy adversaries as yourselves." He found himself almost wishing Maude were here, and wondered how long it had been since she had sold any "prime acreage" in Florida. "Well, gentleman," he sat back and pulled a cigar out of his vest pocket, deeply pleased with the state of the world, "before we call it an evening, shall I buy us a round of drinks?"
Lem and Hank agreed at once, and Butler, in no mood as yet to return to his cold, empty, Lil-less bed, nodded his assent. Ezra lit his cigar, then turned in his seat and gestured to Inez, who smiled fondly and shook her head at him.
"That Tanner feller," Lem said when Ezra turned back to them. "He looked purty beat up." He smiled slightly. "Reckon it ain't easy bein' the law in these parts."
Ezra snorted disdainfully. "It is rough, primitive, and thoroughly inappropriate for a gentleman. Consequently, it suits Mr. Tanner perfectly. However," he took a deep draw on the cigar, delighting in its smoothness, "I dare say even he has his limits, and he seems to have reached them today. And though he certainly would never admit to such, fortunately Mr. Larabee was able in this instance to impose his will upon our injured comrade and force him to submit to his infirmities, even if he will not acknowledge them."
Lem and Hank exchanged puzzled glances, neither exactly certain what the Southerner had just said, yet having to admire the way he said it.
Seeing their confusion, Ezra sighed resignedly and explained, "Mr. Larabee has confined Mr. Tanner to town until he is somewhat healed."
"Oh," the two answered in unison.
Inez brought the tray of drinks and distributed the glasses. Lem and Hank both ran frankly admiring glances over the lovely young woman, but both had noticed how friendly she seemed with the town's peacekeepers, and wisely did nothing more than look.
Roy'd kill 'em if they got into trouble with the law over a woman...
"Well," Lem went on, raising his glass to his lips and sipping from his whiskey, "I surely hate ta see any feller, even a lawman, git too busted up ta do his job. Still," he drained the glass, "I reckon he'll be grateful fer the rest."
Ezra laughed aloud at the notion. "Rest? Mr. Tanner? The notion is as foreign to him as is fine apparel! Oh, no, no, I assure you - in fact, I would wager upon it - that within twenty- four hours he will find some way of contravening Mr. Larabee's orders and will be quite blissfully doing everything he has been forbidden to do. And then the entire town will be treated to yet another lively exhibition of Mr. Larabee's notorious temper and Mr. Tanner's equally infamous stubbornness." He sighed happily. "Yes, indeed, it's always such a glorious spectacle when those two clash. Frankly, I've often considered selling tickets."
Lem and Hank exchanged glances, then Hank asked cautiously, "So, this Tanner feller, he ain't likely ta stay put? Even though he's hurt?"
Ezra puffed at his cigar. "`Hurt' is always a relative term with him. So long as he is ambulatory, he considers himself, in his own terse expression, `fine.' So, no, he is no more likely to stay put than would a cat on a burning stove."
"Well," Lem said thoughtfully, "I guess some folks is jist hard- headed." He glanced at his partner. "Reckon we'd best be headin' up fer the night, Hank," he said. "Mornin' comes early, 'n we got a long ride ahead of us." He rose to his feet and smiled down at the gambler. "Bin real nice knowin' ya, Stanton. If'n we ever git up this way agin, we'll be sure ta look ya up."
Ezra gave a pained smile. Good Lord, how difficult a name was "Standish" to remember, even for such an imbecile? "I shall look forward to it, sir," he answered. "Seldom have I met a card player of your calibre."
Butler watched the two walk away, then turned to Standish, frowning worriedly. "They seemed awful interested in Tanner," he said quietly.
"Yes, they did," Ezra answered evenly. "Most interesting, wouldn't you say?"
"Interesting? That what you call it?" Like almost everyone else in town, Butler knew of Vin's past, of the threat that hung over him. "Could be they're after him."
Ezra studied the glowing tip of his cigar thoughtfully. Since knowing Vin, he'd had ample opportunity to study several bounty hunters at much closer distance than he would have liked, and he was fairly certain he'd now be able to pick one out in a crowd. And Lem and Hank had not struck him as representatives of that particular breed.
Still, they had mentioned their expectation of coming into a rather large sum of money soon, and five hundred dollars would certainly qualify.
"I shall bring the matter to Mr. Larabee's attention," he said, putting the cigar to his mouth and drawing deeply on it to conceal the worry niggling at him. Lord, when had he started caring enough about these uncouth ruffians to worry about them?
"Besides," he added, as much to reassure himself as Butler, "even if they are set upon making their fortune at Mr. Tanner's expense, I dare say they will quickly find that five hundred dollars is poor recompense for the pain of being force-fed their own entrails by the grim hand of one Chris Larabee."
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat outside the boardinghouse in the darkness, having one last cheroot before going up to bed. With a booted foot propped up on the railing and his long, lean frame slouched in the chair, he was to all outward appearances relaxed. Appearances in this case, though, were deceiving. His body was still, seemingly at ease, but his mind was working furiously.
Ezra had relayed his suspicions about Lem and Hank, had told him of their poorly disguised interest in Vin and of Hank's remarks about some job that would make them rich. And Larabee's instinct for trouble, already aroused, had gone on full alert.
Like Ezra, he could not really picture the two as bounty hunters, unless they were the most inept ones he'd ever seen. They'd made their interest in Vin too plain, and they'd already passed up several good opportunities to make an attempt to get him. And no bounty hunter worth the name would continue to hang around town when it was clear Tanner wasn't going anywhere.
Not with six other regulators constantly watching his back.
Nope, Lem and Hank weren't bounty hunters, Chris was certain of it. But they were up to something, he was equally certain of that. So he'd do what he always did: watch 'em. Closely. And if they made so much as one move toward Vin, he'd kill 'em. Gladly.
Satisfied with his plan, he tossed down the stub of his cheroot and ground it out beneath his heel. Then, with a silent grace, he rose to his feet and went inside, remembering his pledge to sleep extra lightly for the sake of the friend who slept right next door.
+ + + + + + +
Lem heaved a sigh of relief as the black-clad gunman finally went inside the boardinghouse. He and Hank had watched Wilmington saddle up and ride out for night patrol, had watched the preacher and that kid sheriff take a slow walk around the town, and knew the gambler was still in the saloon. But their main concern was Larabee, and they'd hidden in the shadows to wait him out.
"Damn, I thought he'd never leave!" he breathed as Larabee closed the door behind him. "Don't these sonsabitches sleep?"
"Well, they are the law," Hank said reasonably. "Reckon ya cain't sleep much if'n yer the law. Never know what mischief folks'll git up to at night."
"Reckon yer right," Lem sighed. "Let's go."
Sticking to the shadows as best they could, the two slunk to the livery, watching all the while for another damn regulator to appear. None did, and at last they slipped inside the dark and silent structure.
"Light a lamp," Lem ordered in a harsh whisper.
In the darkness, Hank stumbled over and into a variety of buckets, stools, tools and stalls, cursing fluently, until finally he made contact - literally - with a lamp hanging on a post. Still cursing, he rubbed his forehead, now nicely creased by the base of the lamp, and reached into his coat pocket for a lucifer.
"Now why'n the hell didn'tcha do that b'fore?" Lem growled as his partner struck the match. "What if somebody'd heard ya stumblin' around in here like a blind man?"
"You coulda done it!" Hank spat, lighting the lamp. "Don't see why I always gotta do all the work!"
"'Cause I'm too busy doin' all the thinkin'," Lem reminded him. "Now," he looked around at the various horses stabled there, "which'n is that damn tracker's horse?"
Hank took down the lamp and moved at once to Peso's stall, a smile creasing his long, thin face. "This'n here," he breathed, his dark eyes lighting with love. "Ain't he a beauty?" As Lem came up, Hank thrust the lamp into his hands and lifted the latch of the stall, pulling open the door.
Peso immediately gave a low whicker and shook his head, shifting uneasily. As the stall door creaked, he snaked his head about to look behind him, then lay back his ears.
Hank ignored what every other man who'd ever had dealings with the horse could have told him was a clear warning to get the hell away. Still grinning, he pushed past Lem and stepped into the stall, and was immediately slammed into the wall by a big black rump. He fell to the floor, then yelped and rolled frantically away from the hooves that came slashing down toward his head, losing his hat in the process.
"Sonuvabitch!" he shouted, lunging to his feet and pressing himself against the other wall, watching as the horse ground his hat into the dirt.
Lem laughed aloud. "You said he was a spirited one, 'n I reckon you was right. You- Shit!" he spat, throwing himself to one side to escape the back hooves that came flying toward him.
Peso tossed his head, blowing fiercely and backing quickly out of the stall, his dark eyes rolling with a mixture of fear and fury. From one side, a hand shot out for his mane and he struck his head out toward it, snapping long, strong teeth viciously about a forearm.
"Jesus fuckin' Christ!" Hank yelled as agony shot up his arm. He flung himself against one powerful black shoulder and yanked his arm free, then dove away from the devil-horse.
And Peso was now every bit of that. With eyes flashing and nostrils wide, he was a wheeling, rearing terror, lashing out with hooves at the two men who threatened him, baring his teeth, fighting for all he was worth. Powerful back legs smashed the door of his empty stall, a stool was broken, pails were stove in. Anything he could break, he did. He didn't know these men, he didn't like these men, and, if he had to, he'd kill these men.
Neither Lem nor Hank could recall the last time he'd seen such sheer, murderous fury concentrated in one animal. The horse seemed to be able to twist himself in all directions at once, to kick at one even as he was biting at the other, and seemed to take a perverse pleasure in doling out pain. Even his tail was a weapon, whipping about with a force that tore flesh and left bloody welts. The two were still determined to take him, knew they had to keep the tracker from coming after them. First, though, they had to survive this goddamn horse.
Hank found a lasso, uncoiled it, threw it, and watched as the loop settled around that gleaming black neck. But his cry of triumph turned quickly to a yelp of startlement, then of pain, as he was yanked off his feet and into a support post by that furious black horse. Then inspiration - or simple survival instinct - hit, and he frantically began winding his end of the lasso around the post, pulling hard to take up any slack.
"Lem, gimme a hand!" he shouted hoarsely.
The small man forced himself to his feet and limped shakily toward his partner, his left hip on fire from where one vicious hoof had struck it. His right shoulder throbbed from an equally savage bite, his left coat sleeve had been torn off by those wicked teeth, and he wanted nothing more than to shoot the damn horse and be done with it.
"Grab the rope and pull!" Hank directed.
Lem did so, and, together, the two men threw all their weight back, straining mightily and cursing harshly as Peso fought their efforts. But it worked. Slowly, slowly, they gathered in the rope, dragging Peso ever closer to that pole, leaving him less and less room to fight. When they were able, they wrapped still more of the length around the pole, until they dared go no closer to the enraged black. By then, though, it was done, and Peso was snugged so close to the pole, with so little lead left to him, that he could no longer rear.
"Hold him!" Lem rasped, breathing hard and bathed in sweat. While Hank did so, he limped to a bin against the near wall and rummaged through it, hoping he'd find what he sought. He did. With a snort of triumph he rose to his feet, holding aloft an empty grain sack, and started toward the black.
"Now, you sonuvabitch," he growled, "it's high time you learnt who's boss!"
Peso watched him through rolling eyes, nostrils flaring, ears twitching, muscles bunched for the next strike, his whole body quivering. He nervously pawed and stamped the ground, giving a long, rolling snort as he watched his foe approaching, but there was little he could do.
Still, Lem knew the big horse was not entirely helpless, and carefully avoided the back legs, which he knew posed the most danger. With slow, cautious movements he approached the animal's head, then, when certain he was close enough, tossed the bag over it, effectively blinding the horse.
"Keep holdin' 'im," he growled.
While Hank hung on for dear life, Lem made another search through the stable and found a set of hobbles. Cursing the gelding with every breath he took, hurting now in every part of his body, he managed - God alone knew how - to get the hobbles on Peso's forelegs, then stood up and backed away.
"Let 'im go," he ordered. "Let's see how he likes this."
Peso didn't like it, but could do little about it. Unable to see, unable to raise his forelegs, he was reduced to the indignity of standing still and simply waiting for whatever came next.
"Git a halter on 'im," Lem said. When Hank shot him a terrified stare, he sighed sharply and grabbed the rope, holding securely to it. "All right, I got 'im. Now git that damn halter on!"
Hank swallowed hard, eyeing the big horse with a very real fear, not at all certain he was as helpless as he appeared and wondering just how in the hell he was supposed to get a halter on an animal that only moments before had been trying to kill him. But he was just as aware of the danger of going against Lem in his current mood, and knew he had no choice. With a heavy sigh of resignation, he found a halter and moved slowly toward the gelding.
Hell, who'da thought somethin' that purty could be that goddamn mean?
Lem watched with sneering satisfaction as Hank managed to get the halter on the now-compliant animal without further injury and use it to secure the blindfold. When that was done, he reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a small brown bottle. "This oughtta settle 'im down some."
Hank eyed the bottle suspiciously. "'N jist how'n the hell're we s'posed ta git that down him?" he wheezed, still breathing hard from his battle with the black devil-horse. "I don't see him jist lickin' it off'n our fingers."
Lem gave his partner a thin smile. "Yer gonna hold his mouth open whilst I give it to 'im," he explained.
"I'm gonna WHAT?" Hank yelped, crossing his arms against his chest and thrusting his hands into his armpits, as if to save his fingers. He started backing away, but Lem reached out and grabbed his shoulder, yanking him forward. "I ain't-"
"Y'are, 'n that's that!" Lem ordered, staring grimly at his partner. "Yer the one always sayin' ya got such a way with horses. Now's yer chance ta prove it!"
"By stickin' my hands in his mouth?" Hank whimpered. "Why the hell don'tcha jist ask me ta stick my goddamn head in there, so's he kin bite that off, too?"
"He won't bite ya if'n ya do it right," Lem assured him. "All's ya gotta do is git yer hand in through the side of his mouth, where he ain't got no teeth, 'n hold his tongue while I git this down him." He clapped Hank on the arm. "That don't sound too hard, now, does it?"
Hank narrowed his eyes and scowled down at him, deeply suspicious of both Lem and that horse. "Seems I'm the one always gittin' the dirty jobs," he groused. "Why is that?"
Lem shrugged. "We all got our talents, I reckon. Now, git his mouth open, 'n let's git this done 'fore any'a them goddamn lawmen show up."
Hank licked his lips and drew a slow, steadying breath, then walked over to the still-blindfolded horse. Peso blew and shifted uneasily at the man's approach, but did nothing more. Speaking to him in low, even tones, Hank reached up and, suddenly feeling as if he were teasing an alligator, forced the gelding's strong jaws apart and slid a trembling hand into that mouth, into the gap between the grinding molars and front nippers.
Peso shuddered and shifted at the indignity being done him, but could not bite. Being blindfolded and hobbled had taken the fight from him, though his deep uneasiness remained.
More than a little surprised that the devil-horse had not found some way to bite him, Hank screwed up his resolve and took hold of the gelding's thick, slippery tongue, grimacing in distaste. He pulled the tongue out to the side, feeling as if he were handling a raw sausage.
"Goddamn it, hurry up!" he spat as Peso gummed around the hand gripping his tongue.
"Quit yer bitchin'!" Lem scolded, stepping forward and uncapping the bottle. "C'mon, git his head up so's I kin see what I'm doin'! Won't do no good if'n I don't git this far enough in."
Hank stepped closer to Peso, still holding that fat, wet tongue, and forced the gelding's head up. "If'n he bites me, I'm shootin' you!" he growled.
"Jist you be quiet 'n hold 'im still," Lem answered. "Now..." He thrust his hand into the gaping mouth, reached up behind the tongue and upended the bottle. "Done!" he announced, yanking his hand free and tossing the empty bottle over his shoulder. "Now, hold his head 'n clamp them jaws shut 'til we're sure he's swallered it!"
"Sonuvabitch, I ain't-"
"Yer the one what wanted 'im in the first place!" Lem reminded him. "I was ready ta jist shoot 'im, but, no, you wouldn't have it. All right, ya want 'im, ya gotta work fer 'im. Now, do it!"
Cursing foully, Hank did as told, holding that fearsome mouth shut until he was certain the gelding had swallowed the drug and wouldn't be spitting it out. "Goddamn horse better be worth all this!" he growled.
Lem smiled thinly. "Laudanum should take the starch out of 'im fer a while, leastways 'til we git a decent ways from town." He nodded at Hank. "Git the rope. You'll be leadin' 'im out. 'N keep 'im blindfolded fer a while." He eyed the troublesome horse with disgust. "Don't want 'im gittin' no ideas 'bout takin' off."
Hank released Peso and jumped back, not wanting to be any closer to that mouth than he had to. He knew horses generally wouldn't bite what they couldn't see, but he had a strong suspicion that what was generally true for other horses didn't necessarily mean shit with this one.
Still, he was awful purty. 'N had a fine spirit, too...
Lem saw the besotted expression on his partner's face and snorted in disgust. "Let's git the hell outta here," he growled, starting forward. "I fer damn sure ain't goin' ta jail or dyin' fer no goddamn man-eatin' horse!"
Behind him, Hank led the drugged and hobbled Peso out of the livery stable and into the night, leaving behind the destruction that spoke eloquently of the gelding's fierce but futile fight.
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