“You want to try again?” Chris’s amusement laced his words, “You hurt anywhere else?”
His only response was a slowly shaking head. Standish still stared at the floor, his neck bowed tensely between quivering shoulders. He carefully sat back on his shins holding tightly to his midsection
“Mr. Larabee, that was not kind,” Ezra rasped out with some difficulty, “not kind at all.”
“Nope,” Chris grabbed one of Ezra’s biceps and turned to where the other peacekeepers sat.
“Josiah, you wanna give me a hand,” Larabee smiled in a predatory fashion, “Ezra here has decided to see Nathan about some ribs.”
Josiah sighed and pushed himself wearily from the table, “Duty calls, boys.” With that he meandered over to Chris and Ezra. Together they hauled Standish to trembling legs.
“Man, jist don’t know how to ask fer help,” Buck shook his head. A large smile plastered on his mustached face. He would wait a few minutes before he headed up to the clinic and to hear what Nathan had to say. That would be good.
“Not’n’is nature,” Tanner replied wondering what motivated such actions but recognizing the same behavior himself. He would have been no different than Standish. Well, he probably would have headed out of town to safer territory. Tanner had to concede, however, for someone like Ezra the saloon was his den. Chris could be down right ornery when he thought one of his men were injured. No den or personal territory would stand as a deterrent for the dark gunslinger. He would barge through like a cowcatcher in drifting snow.
“Think Nathan’ll wrap’is ribs?” JD asked. During this morning’s verbal assault, Jackson had sworn not to fix the gambler should he befall injury do to his gambling.
“Yup. Nathan didn’t mean it,” Buck said swallowing down the last of his beer. Jackson figured Standish was the antithesis of everything honest in the world. Buck admitted Standish’s views of an honest living contrasted sharply with Jackson’s.
“This ain’t been Ezra’s day,” Dunne said sadly shaking his head. If he were the gambler, he never would have come back from patrol. Maybe just gone fishing and waited for the day to end.
“You should’ve seen Mz. Travis tear into him at Mrs. Potter’s store. Slapped’im in the face even,” Dunne shook his head remembering the scene all to vividly. He had never seen Mrs Travis so mad before in all the times he had known her.
Buck and Vin exchanged confused glances. Neither one of them had heard of that confrontation. It was the anniversary of Stephen Travis’s death and poor Mary had been a walking bundle of anger and pain. Even Billy shied from her, seeking friendship from the gambler and Chris on different occasions.
“Why she do that?” Buck asked. It wasn’t like Mary to get so angry. Lately, she could be found crying alone or swearing like a sailor at her printing press. Everyone gave her her space, not sure how to deal with her.
Dunne shot glances between the two older men and shrugged, “Ezra taught Billy some new card tricks and stuff and Billy used them to win some money off of Silace down at the livery.” JD could maybe understand Mary’s anger but when she belted Ezra, that took him by surprise. It certainty turned heads, especially Ezra’s. Dunne thought maybe Mrs. Travis knocked his head off. “Mz. Travis told Ezra not to go near Billy ever again,” JD finished.
Buck and Vin exchanged glances, that would have hurt more than the slap to the face. Mary packed a hell of a punch. Chris knew first hand.
“Well, let's go see how Nathan and Ezra are gettin’ along,” Buck said pushing himself from the table. He would ask Jackson to go easy on the gambler. Not being able to see Billy would be enough to ruin any ones day or week for that matter. Definitely not Ezra’s day.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was heading across the dirt main street as Buck and Vin headed up the stairs. JD wanted to follow after the preacher. He really didn’t cherish listening to the healer laying into the gambler again. Once is enough for one day. Buck had grabbed the back of Dunne’s coat and directed him away from the jail. Josiah had some lessons to dole out. JD didn’t need to be a party to that kind of education.
The threesome ascended the stairs and entered the small modest clinic.
Standish sat stripped to the waist on a stool. Bruises dotted his midsection and ribcage. Vin didn’t think he had ever seen such deep maroons and blues before.
“Nice colorin’, Ezra,” He quipped as he stepped just over the threshold. Larabee stood just behind Standish, ready to raise the gambler’s arms when Jackson needed him too. The simple action would not be tolerated by fractured ribs.
“Yes, well, I wish they adorned someone other than myself,” Ezra answered back tiredly. Between the whiskey and the laudanum he was feeling pretty detached and wiped out. Not numb enough to mask the ache but enough to dull the sting.
“Well, if ya quit cheatin’ folks at the tables maybe this wouldn’ happ’n,” Jackson retorted as he retrieved a roll of cloth bandages from a shelf. He had used these on Vin a few months back after the tracker had taken a fall from a green broke stud.
A feral look crossed the normally impassive gambler. It was gone almost as soon as it had appeared.
“Ahh, now Nathan . . .them cowpokes knew what they were gettin’ into when they sat down at Ezra’s table,” Wilmington said. The fun loving cowboy thought it was time someone stood up for the gambler. “It ain’t like he disguises what he does for a livin’ . . .look at how he dresses.” Buck smiled and gave Standish an amused wink. The surprise on the gambler’s face was priceless.
“No, I guess not but there are better ways to make a livin’ other than connin’ and cheatin’ people,” Jackson answered. He motioned with his chin for Chris to elevate Standish’s arms. Four busted ribs and he probably only won fifty dollars. To Nathan it didn’t seem worth it.
“I reckon so fer the likes of you or me but not someone like’im,” Tanner returned casually picking up Bucks cue. Standish could use a friend right about now. Damn, not allowed to see Billy. That had to hurt more than busted up ribs. “Side’s, Ezra didn’t have ta cheat ta best’em,” Vin continued, “JD coulda beatin’em. Isn’t that so, Ezra?”
Standish figured it had to be the combination of the whiskey, empty stomach and laudanum. Did those two just defend him? His eyes were getting heavy and the dull roar was coming back. Vin asked him a question, “Yes, Mr. Tanner, our Mr. Dunne would have prevailed quite easily,” he murmured out. His head began to droop to his chest.
“Hold yer chin up a second longer, Ezra,” Nathan chuckled lifting the gamblers clean shaven chin back. The healer pulled and cinched the wraps tighter. It elicited only a slight groan from the southerner. Laudanum had kicked in fast.
“Ya eat this mornin’, Ezra?”
“Coffee,” He whispered out his eyes closed. Gawd he felt tired.
“And whiskey,” Buck added helpfully. His smile grew as Jackson shook his head in dismay.
“Ya better hurry, Nathan . . .he won’t be sittin’ up much longer,” Chris chuckled lightly. A few minutes later, Jackson and Larabee eased the gambler into a bed, pulled his boots off and tossed a quilt over him.
“Well, he bust’ed hisself up good this time,” Jackson remarked stepping away from the bed. The gambler slept slacked jaw flat on his back. “He won’t be horse back for a couple of weeks.”
Nathan led the others out of the clinic onto the porch. There was really no sense in hanging around. Standish would sleep for a couple of hours before the laudanum whiskey combination would wear off. In that too short a time period, he would be back to his smiling disagreeable self. Jackson sighed wearily, great, he could hardly wait.
Larabee merely nodded in response to Nathan’s spoken statement. This all could have been avoided if Standish just asked for or sought out help. Chris heard a commotion at the jail, “Where’s Josiah?” he asked tiredly. Spearheading these six men sometimes got tiresome. Why couldn’t they just behave quietly for a few days? Was it to much to ask to go a whole week or a month without some major calamity? Hell, if trouble didn’t find Four Corners, one of the other six would go find trouble. Larabee wondered if he should just send them off to Eagle Bend in order to keep the peace here.
“Over at the jail teaching bible class,” Vin chuckled quietly. Funny thing about Josiah. He had the patience of Job when dealing with families and wayward children. The poor soul that crossed one his ‘flock’, however, tended to fall under the old testament form of retribution.
Chris shook his head in dismay and trotted down the planked steps. It wouldn’t do anyone any good if Josiah landed himself behind bars. Ah hell, Vin or Ezra would just release him when no one was looking.
Sometimes, Larabee wondered if the Judge realized what it entailed to lead these six men.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Vin kept pursuit just behind Larabee. They didn’t bother glancing at one another. It wasn’t necessary. Both gunslinger and bounty hunter knew the body language. Chris had been putting out mini-fires for the past month. He had been squelching little rebellions and idle pranks for the for a little over a month now. The arrival of the twenty-five cattle drovers was just enough of a push to nudge him over the line.
+ + + + + + +
The normally tightly controlled Chris Larabee started to unravel. The once steady blue eyes and outside calm facade had begun to show cracks. It all started last month, when Vin’s green-broke painted stud pony galloped home without a rider. Larabee then had to deal with the presence of three slightly ‘touched’ bounty hunters running loose in the grassy rolling hills surrounding Four Corners.
Larabee’s quiet mannerisms began to shimmer when the giant ex-preacher tossed the gambler out the saloon window managing somehow to wedge the conman between the water trough and the boardwalk. All concerned were laughing, even Standish . . .well, all except for the riled preacher and the interfering Larabee. Buck and Vin had stood back at a distance and watched as Chris Larabee tried to rein in six conflicting individuals and keep the peace.
Of course, there was the incident ten days ago with Buck and Cindy Gallagher and the untimely arrival of her husband, Sean. Chris had nimbly avoided the haymakers and the roundhouse swings. He even parried the short jabs and restrained himself from pulling his gun. He even quietly subdued the draft horse-like farmer into submission without so much as throwing a punch. He lost his composure when Vin handed a Double Eagle to the gambler apparently loosing some kind of wager made on the altercation. The little vein on the side of his head started to jump with a warning pulse. Standish and Tanner slinked out the back way, whiskey in hand.
Then there were the drovers. They had hit town three days ago. A herd of 5,000 head sat six miles north of town. Unfortunately, upwind of town as well. The drovers came calling to Four Corners and her saloon in groups of tens. Trouble followed on their heels like the smell of hoofed beeves.
+ + + + + +
Today appeared to be the last straw. Larabee had rolled with his last punch. Buck and Vin wanted to witness the undoing. It is a strange phenomenon with people. The bigger the explosion, the more dangerous the tidal surge, the more threatening the storm, people wanted to inch closer witness the danger, feel the tension and relish the adrenaline rush. Buck and Vin were not above such contradictory behavior. They were human after all, but they realized they should know better.
The two peacekeepers couldn’t check their curiosity, apparently neither could JD and Nathan. The four men kept a discreet distance from their leader and entered the tornado-like environment that had consumed the small sheriff’s office.
“Josiah,” Chris sat on the corner of the sheriff’s desk. His voice sounding more tired than angry. The preacher had managed to lock himself in the small cell with the three offending occupants. The drovers were strewn around the small cell like dirty laundry that had been shed balled up and tossed indiscreetly out of the way. The large man stood amongst his ‘students’ heaving slightly for breath.
Larabee waited with fraying patience for acknowledgment. He received none.
“Josiah...” His voice took on a sharper edge but didn’t increase with volume.
Sanchez’s large head swiveled around on powerful shoulders and faced the voice that demanded his attention.
“Brother Chris,” Sanchez smiled as he spoke. He nonchalantly stepped over an inert form on the floor of the cell and came to rest on the bars.
“What’d ya think yer doin’?” Larabee asked. His men had gone mad. The summer heat had finally sapped what little common sense they had and charred it. First Vin, then Standish, Buck and now Josiah. That left JD and Nathan with all the level thinking of the group. Nathan fine, he could think for the rest. JD, damn, the seven were in trouble.
“Teachin’ these boy’s about the Golden Rule,” Josiah explained a wide smile plastered on his grizzled features. He did enjoy a good day preaching mingled with a little physical activity.
A new voice vibrated through the room. It was rich, deep, and quiet but seemed to carry itself to the far reaches of the dusty building. “Do unto others . . .”
“That’s the one,” Josiah answered pleased someone, even if it was a stranger, was familiar with the age old adage.
Chris turned his attention to the new voice. It belonged to a man as tall as Buck but as physically intimidating as Josiah. The man pushed his battered sweat stained hat off his head. He wore the clothing of a trail hand but carried the authority of a man running a herd.
The gentleman stepped forward. A gentleman because no one would dare assume otherwise. The man had a dangerous authoritative air about him. Much like Larabee but ensared in the physical body of a giant. “William Gunthry,” He held out a weather worn hand in greeting.
Chris accepted the proffered hand without hesitation. He liked the bear of a man right off. Larabee also noticed Vin didn’t appear alarmed or even the slightest bit on edge. A good sign.
“Mr. Gunthry,” Larabee repeated the name, no smile touched his lips. Such overt shows of emotion were saved for Billy and his mother.
“I’m . . .”
“Mr. Larabee,” Gunthry finished stepping into the room confidently. Sure of himself, but not cocky, he was a balanced individual, the others saw this right off. He made his way over to the cell, just as Sanchez locked the door joining Buck and Vin near the far wall. “You and your boys are the law around here, correct?” A simple statement that really didn’t brook answer.
JD answered anyhow, “Yup.” He stood proud next to Buck squaring his shoulders. He lacked their height but surpassed them in enthusiasm.
Gunthry nodded and tipped his head in acknowledgment of the young sheriff. He turned his attention back to Larabee, “I’m the . . .”
“Trail boss fer the herd sitting just north of town,” Larabee finished. One good turn deserves another.
Gunthry smiled and nodded. It wasn’t lost on him.
“These are my boys,” He indicated with a hitch of his head to the three forms groaning trying to climb to unsteady feet.
No one said anything. Chris settled himself back down on the large desk that occupied the office. His hands rested in a lazy fashion across his knee.
“We’re headin’ out tomorrow and I’m goin’ to need my full crew.” Gunthry said. He eyed the man before him but didn’t miss the other five men standing quietly in the outskirts of his vision.
“They,” Chris indicated with a slight nod of his head towards the cell, “took on one of my men behind the saloon.” Larabee wasn’t looking for a fight but he wanted to clear the air.
“He cheat’d us in cards, Boss,” one of the incarcerated mumbled out.
Gunthry faced the six peacekeepers. If he thought they made up a strange lot, he kept it hidden well. “That true?” He asked throwing the question out to the room in general.
“Ezra, don’t need to cheat to win,” Jackson answered and then clarified, “it’s what he does for a livin’.”
“Besides acting as part of the Law,” Gunthry added a smile tweaking his dust covered features. He still faced the room but addressed his three men behind him, “you mule-headed fools took on a professional gambler . . .and expected to win?”
“We didn’t know he was a professional,” a weak voice protested from behind.
“You’d’ave to be blind not ta notice Ezra,” JD piped up. Shoot even JD had pegged Ezra for a gambler the first time he laid eyes on him.
Gunthry nodded, a picture of the events beginning to take shape in his mind. “You know he was a law man?”
“Ahh, no way’n ‘ell, Boss,” Another voice rasped out.
“We nev’r woulda set inta’im if we’d knowd he was da law,” a pitiful whine tinged the statement.
Gunthry nodded his head. He turned to Larabee, “He hurt bad?”
Chris frowned and shook his head, “Naa, jist some busted ribs.” Larabee liked this trail boss. He was a man to sit and drink with, a man of few words. Finally, some quiet company.
“They hurt bad?” This time Gunthry directed his attention to Josiah.
Sanchez merely smiled and said, “Just some bruised ribs.”
Gunthry chuckled. It rolled across the room like soft rumbling thunder, “ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . .” He finished his earlier quote. Sanchez shrugged.
“ They musta want’d bang’d up ribs, huh?” Tanner chuckled out softly.
“Can I have my men back,” The trail boss asked. As far as he was concerned the guilty party had been justly punished. The incident was over. There was work needed doing and he needed those three belly achers.
Larabee allowed a small smirk to crease his features, “JD, let’im out.”
Dunne jumped up happy to play a role.
Ezra woke to someone sitting on the bed flipping cards.
Ezra tried to force his eyes open. It proved a difficult task, but not unfamiliar for him, especially out on the trial with the others. They were forever leaving at first light. To a gambler, first light should only be met at the closing of a successful night. It was not the time to greet a new day. Hence, the familiar difficulty in opening his eyes wasn’t alarming. Just disconcerting. He could really use the rest.
The lashes unstuck themselves and parted. It’s a strange sensation to know one’s eyes are still rolled in ones head. Trying to rectify such a state is both troublesome and confusing. It normally means that the body isn’t ready to wake and the mind to sluggish to realize what a colossal mistake it is about to make.
The enticing flipping of cards demanded his attention.
The eyes unrolled . . .blinked . . .opened and blinked again. Now he was getting somewhere. Focus was the next obstacle. Sometimes the body was as uncooperative as the fates. Nathan’s clinic. Memories began to seep back into a foggy mind. Late to relieve Mr. Larabee . . .Mrs. Travis taking exception to her son’s acquaintances . . .and oh yes, the three thugs behind the saloon. All and all a deplorable morning. Sleep would be a suitable refuge.
Ezra opened his eyes and tried to focus on the large form sitting next to him.
“’Ey, Ezra,” Wilmington boomed out. He dropped his booted feet down from the bed and leaned forward. “How ya feelin’?”
“Like I’ve been rode hard’an put away wet,” Standish drawled out quietly.
Buck furrowed his brow for a moment and then his face lit up, “Oh, you mean like a horse?” Wilmington chuckled, “Ya had me worried for a moment pard’. I like being rode . . .” He noticed the irksome expression on the gambler’s face and stopped, “forget it.”
“I will,” Ezra responded. “What are you doin’ here?”
“Well, pard’, ya had a bit of a tough day.” Buck leaned back in the chair like a person who held the secrets to the universe.
Standish sighed carefully. Rough wasn’t the half of it.
“Vin is trying to make things right with Mz. Travis. Billy bought some pretty flowers for his Pa’s grave with the money he won from Silace.” Wilmington said trying to soften the damage Mz. Travis’s anger might have done earlier in the morning.
“He’s a good boy,” Standish muttered quietly. Billy had such a tough rode ahead of him. Ezra just wanted to smooth some rough spots for the boy. Helping him grieve on the anniversary of his father’s death was the least Standish could do for the young child.
“Yeah well, Vin was going to try and straighten Mary out,” Buck reassured.
“Best warn him . . .she’s got an intimidating right hook.” Standish smiled sheepishly embarrassed by Mary’s angry public display.
“Vin can handle’imself,” Buck answered. Wilmington checked his pocketwatch. His blue eyes widened and he quickly leaned forward.
“Come’n Ezra, we gotta go,” Buck said pulling the blankets off the conman.
“Go where?” Standish asked as Wilmington gently but forcefully made him sit up. Standish gasped in pain but was unable to fight off the persistent efforts of Buck. The gunslinger grabbed Standish’s boots from under the bed and began pushing them onto relenting feet.
“What pray tell is the rush?” Ezra asked through gritted teeth. The sun hung just above the horizon, the long shadows that marked dusk stretched across mainstreet. A slight cooling breeze kicked up swirling dust in small dirt devils down the near empty street. While Standish gazed out the window, Buck rambled nonstop in a twisted convoluted manner.
“Well, ya know how Chris ‘as bin a bit touchy lately,” Wilmington pointed out unnecessarily. Standish had been the brunt of that ‘touchy’ness this morning. “Well, Vin and I came up with an idea to help him see the lighter side of life.”
Standish merely raised an eyebrow. Those two scheming about anything together meant something was bound to get destroyed or irreplaceably damaged. Ezra cringed quietly hoping the two well-intentioned hooligans kept him out of their misconstrued plans.
“Vin put a pole cat in Chris’s room,” Buck answered an appreciating smile washed across his face.
“Really?” Ezra asked, “and this is suppose to create a beneficial change in Mr. Larabee’s attitude?” He ignored Buck’s efforts with the boots, his disbelief clearly echoed around the room.
Buck gazed up at the gambler not sure he understood why Ezra seemed so unsure of the plan. It was flawless. It would take Chris’s mind off his trouble and give him something to focus his energy on other than the other five men. “Sure, it’s a great plan.” Buck sat back on the chair beside the bed and scrutinized the gambler. Did Ezra already uncover their plot? Had he discovered who Buck and Vin planned on using as a ‘scape goat? . . .Naaaah.
Standish smiled. The fools. Those two were going to get themselves killed. Well,better them than him. He used Wilmington’s shoulder as a guide and pushed himself upright. His feet slid easily into the boots. “This . . .I’ve got to see.”
“Right behind ya, pard.” Buck was nearly bursting with anticipation. Larabee was going to kill someone and it sure as heck wouldn’t be Vin or Buck.
The Clinic door was slammed shut in haste and the two men shuffled across the porch and down the steps.
“Two to one odds, Mr. Larabee guesses the perpetrators behind this little charade,” Standish said between shallow gasps. He hobbled gamely trying to keep up with Wilmington.
“You’re on,” Buck grin widened. Vin had ‘accidentally’ left Ezra’s silver flask in the room with the skunk. The planted evidence would be damaging. Wilmington laughed out right. He would best Standish at a bet . . .had left Vin to do the dirty work . . .and would witness the success of a wicked prank and remain unscathed. Life was beautiful. Buck Wilmington was a master at manipulation or so he told himself.
Standish didn’t bother hiding his dimpled smile. Ezra had asked Chris just yesterday, why Vin would abscond with his flask. Larabee didn’t know but Chris had asked Ezra to let it go. Larabee would get to the bottom of the thievery before the week was out. He wanted to give Tanner time to explain himself or return the misappropriated property on his own.
Buck and Ezra settled against the railing across the street from the boarding house. It was a lovely spring late afternoon. Standish groaned slightly as he settled himself down in a chair that flanked the saloon’s batwing doors. The two men waited patiently.
Vin joined Buck and Ezra. Soon JD, Nathan and Josiah stood with them across the street in front of the saloon. A quiet tense moment passed.
A howl of protest and exclamation cut threw the boarding house shattering the tranquillity of the late afternoon. A number of rapid fire pistol shots rang through the first floor. A few moments later, the offending polecat trotted unperturbed from the confines of the building using the front door, apparently unscathed. Its unmistakable and unmaskable scent preceding and following it. It permeated the area in almost visible waves of offending odor.
Larabee appeared in the boarding house front door. He was dressed only in black pants, no boots no shirt and no hat. Just pants, a revolver, and a silver flask.
Buck and Vin grinned knowingly. They were in the clear. Both purposefully avoided any eye contact with the gambler.
“VIIIIIINNNNNN!!!!” Chris hollered at the top of his lungs. Tanner’s blue eyes widened in shock. An innocent hand to his chest spoke volumes on his assumed innocence.
Larabee’s vengeful eyes found Tanner’s.
“Oh, shit,” Vin muttered. He took off up the boardwalk at a dead sprint shouting over his shoulder in uncharacteristic panic, “It was Buck’s idea!”
It either fell on deaf ears or Larabee just plain ignored him.
Ezra simply held his hand out to Wilmington palm upward expecting payment. The ladies man cursed.
“Four to one says Mr. Tanner will make it to morning,” Standish purred out.
“I don’t know Ezra, Chris is powerful mad,” JD pointed out.
“Brother Larabee does appear determined,” Josiah said absently as the chaser and chasee disappeared down around, behind the church. Vin must be heading toward the livery in a round about way.
“Chris won’t let this sit unanswered,” Jackson returned thoughtfully.
“Chris ain’t ever lost this kind of race,” Buck intoned.
“Well, gentlemen. Then you all accept the odds?,” Standish could practically taste his winnings. Mr. Tanner wouldn’t let him down. Besides Peso was saddled and hitched waiting behind the livery.
“Yer on,” a confident chorus of voices rang out around him.
Everyone loves a sure thing.
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