Josiah Sanchez raced into the restaurant, breathing hard; worry lines creased his aged forehead. He headed directly towards the table occupied by Chris, Vin and JD. The three men looked up from their breakfast at the ex-preacher. "Something wrong Josiah?" Never one for beating about the bush, Chris asked him directly.
"Anyone see Ezra this morning?" Josiah's worry caused his voice to crack as he spoke.
"He hasn't gone again has he?" JD asked concerned for his friend.
"I dunno, last night some fella threatened him to leave town, I'm worried something's happened to him. I've looked everywhere I can think of." Frustration and fear knotted his gut.
"Sit down for a minute Josiah, we'll split up and start searching for him once you tell us what happened last night." Chris stated, trying to placate the troubled man.
At that particular instance Ezra choose that moment to enter the restaurant. All four men turned and stared at him. Uncomfortable with being the focus of everyone's attention, Ezra floundered, uncertain of his next move. "Something happen?" He stood on the threshold of the doorway, undetermined whether he should enter.
Josiah stood to his feet, relief at the gambler's reappearance, and walked the distance to the smaller man, running his eyes over the man's form, assessing him for any injuries. Finding none Josiah grabbed him by the sleeve of his red jacket and dragged the southerner behind him over to the table the other's occupied. "Where've you been?" The question sounded harsh even to his own ears.
"You keeping tabs on me?" A smile dimpled his cheeks.
"Hell I's worried about ya, 'specially after that guy threatened you last night." Josiah freely admitted.
"Actually it was early this morning." Ezra clarified. Seeing the worry still evident on the ex-preacher's face and also reflected on the other three men's as well, he added, "I'm fine. You gonna let go of my arm now?"
Josiah looked down at the gambler's arm he had a firm grip on and presently let go. Rubbing a hand over his tired eyes he sank slowly into the chair that Chris had kicked out for him. "Didn't know having a son, could be so... exhausting, and frustrating."
"Welcome to the realm of fatherhood." Chris offered, then fondly reminiscing his time with Adam he added, "though it's a lot easier when they're younger," he grinned. Ezra shook his head at the by-play between the two older men and sat down between Vin and JD stealing a biscuit off Vin's plate and washing it down with some of JD's coffee.
Ezra explained to the other's that he'd been visiting with Floss and Joe early that morning and that was why Josiah couldn't find him. He mentioned his run in with Hal Murgon to Floss, and she was mystified by his reaction to Ezra's presence in town. Apparently, according to Floss, he did own half the town, but normally he was 'pleasant, understanding and very approachable'. She was at a loss as to why he would want the gambler out of town.
"Sounds to me like the man's hiding something, and it's got something to do with you and your friend McTaggart." Vin surmised.
"Great...didn't even like the guy." Ezra grumbled, his comment raising a few eyebrows around the table.
"Son that's what ya get when ya do good deeds." Josiah teasingly admonished.
"Remind me not to next time, Josiah."
"Floss and her son seem to be real nice." Ezra frowned at JD, he wasn't sure whether to agree with him or not, but quickly recovered his poker face.
Chris was rubbing his thumb over his lower lip, thinking about everything that had happened of late, "Floss give you any reason why McTaggart wanted to see you?"
"Not exactly, although the gentlemen I was playing cards with last night, before we were rudely interrupted, informed me that McTaggart had apparently lost a deed to Mr. Murgon. That said deed by rights belonged to Miz Carter and her son, for the saloon, or so the rumour goes. Now how George came by possession of the deed in the first place, I don't know, but Miz Carter was previously unaware of it's disappearance. George told Miz Carter that he had acquired a deed, obviously he neglected to mention that it was her deed, and needed my help with the legalities. My summation is that he lost the deed in a poker game and Murgon was the victor, and somehow he managed to reacquire it prior to going to Talon Creek. According to Floss, Murgon hasn't made any claims on the saloon as yet."
"McTaggart didn't have the deed with him did he?" Chris was really beginning to hate this McTaggart.
"No, just the watch." Ezra confirmed.
"So why ain't somebody claimed the saloon?" JD asked, he was rather confused by the whole proceedings.
"My guess is, whoever claims ownership of the saloon is the murderer of George McTaggart."
"I came to the same conclusion Mr. Larabee." Ezra agreed with the gunslinger.
"Then ain't nobody gonna claim it cause everybody'd know." JD concluded.
"Not if he leaves it long enough, says he bought it from a travelling fella, nobody'd question that. Hell it's probably only us who've worked this out." Josiah surmised.
"We need to find out if this Murgon fella was in Talon Creek the same time as McTaggart." Chris looked at Vin as he said this.
"JD and I could go back and do some snooping around." Vin volunteered, and Chris agreed with this.
"Shouldn't Ezra and I go, seeing as how that fella wants him outta town." JD pressed.
Ezra was about to reply but Chris answered before the Southerner could and he was moderately surprised by his answer. "No. We need to keep him here JD, in case Murgon decides to take things one step further. That way we can watch his back."
The Southerner remained silent as he shifted his gaze from Chris back to JD as he continued to question Chris. "But wouldn't he be safer away from this place?" Ezra swung his head back to Chris waiting for his new answer.
"Not likely," Ezra now directed his attention back to JD, eyebrows raised; as they discussed him as though he weren't there.
"Um, Okay, I guess that'd be all right." The Southerner swung back to the black-clad gunslinger, for his next comment.
Josiah and Vin had been watching the actions of the gambler and finally couldn't contain themselves any longer. Both men started chuckling, drawing the attention of Chris, Ezra and JD.
A man normally of few words, Chris relaxed back into his seat and raised an eyebrow at Vin. The tracker still chuckling, managed to gasp out between the fits of laughter, "You two should'a been watching Ezra," the gambler raising his own eyebrows in confusion at this statement. Vin now directed his comments to the gambler; "it's a wonder you didn't get neck spasms after following that conversation."
Larabee realised what the gambler had been doing and grinned at the conman. Vin continued to laugh, his face going red with the effort. Ezra sat there watching him as his uncontrolled laughter grew, tears running down his cheeks, and he was doubled over, half on the table, almost falling out of his chair. Ezra gave the tracker a quick shove, and the laughing man fell off his chair and onto the floor. This immediately put an end to the laughing. Vin looked back up from his sprawled position on the floor at Ezra, "that weren't nice." Although a grin was still visible on his face.
Josiah Sanchez and Chris Larabee stood together on the broardwalk along from the saloon. Their friends, and fellow lawmen, Vin Tanner and JD Dunne had not long left the town heading out for Talon Creek. Ezra had only momentarily left them and gone looking for a game of chance with some of the locals.
"Think they'll find out anything?" Josiah asked.
"Hard to say, won't know anything for at least three days anyway. May as well get to know as many people here as possible. Find out if they know anything."
"I believe Ezra's already a step ahead of you."
Josiah and Chris began to talk to everyone and anyone. Chris found that most people were nervous around him, and didn't want to stay in his company, let alone talk to him. Josiah had no trouble in that respect, finding that the citizens of Cannon Falls were only too willing to talk to him. Of course the rumour mill was running hot, and the townsfolk all knew of Josiah's former occupation, and most wanted to be absolved of their sins, take confession, be blessed or even married. No one was willing to speak out of turn about Hal Murgon. Ezra was not making any progress either.
The dark-clad man entered the saloon with the stealth of a cougar; his duster billowed out behind him, annoyance at the unco-operativeness of the townsfolk showed like a black storm cloud hovering over his head, the air was electrified around him. Chris was frustrated and the frown that crossed his face spoke volumes. He approached Ezra's table and sank heavily into the chair that was proffered by the gambler. Larabee noticed that the southerner had his deck of cards spread out on the green felt table playing solitaire.
Ezra met the man's gaze with a ghost of a smile touching his lips. The thought that someone other than he could irritate the gunslinger amused the Southerner no end. He gathered his cards together and began absently manipulating them between his adroit fingers. Chris saw the amusement flash in the gambler's eyes and the smile that followed, and was curious about what had caused it. "Something funny?" The irritation in his voice quite obvious.
Ezra's grin grew showing the dimples in his cheek, "nope." Chirs' interest was peaked, but he wasn't in the mood for mind games.
The gambler spent a lot of time with Floss and her son Joe over the next three days getting to know them. Surprisingly the Southerner found he enjoyed the company of the vivacious woman and the younger male version of herself, although she seemed to be nervous in his presence.
Standish had studied the features of the boy for any familiarity between him and his father, but it was not there, the boy resembled his mother only. None of his habits seemed to remind the gambler of the dead man either. The more time Ezra spent with Joe the more he was convinced that the boy was not the son of McTaggart. Although he had only been an acquaintance of George McTaggart, he was successful at reading people like a book. Something he could attribute to his mother. He was curious to ascertain how close McTaggart and Floss were. The woman put on a good show of being over George, and this seemed to confuse the gambler somewhat.
After the midday repast on the third day after Vin and JD had left, Ezra stumbled upon a heated argument between Floss and Murgon behind the back of the bank. Ezra had taken a short cut through the alley on his way to the stream that ran parallel to the town. He remained secreted in the shadows of the alley, out of sight of the two who were having a heated discussion. Unfortunately he was too far away to clearly hear the words spoken, but the gestures indicated that it wasn't pleasant. As Floss moved to leave, Murgon grabbed her by the arm and forcefully swung her around back to face him, his beet-red face contorted in rage, as he spoke angrily at her again. Ezra felt concern for Floss at this mistreatment, but was bewildered by what he had witnessed and was hesitant to intercede.
So intent in his observation of the couple he didn't hear the approach of the two men as they crept up behind him. Ezra belatedly saw a flash of movement out the corner of his eye, then felt a crashing blow to the side of his head; his eyes rolled up into his head, as he collapsed unconscious to the ground.
Josiah was bored, plain and simple, and his large chest heaved a sullen sigh. He wished to be back in Four Corners and spending time working on repairs that needed to be done at the church. This town they were in made him feel ill at ease, and the constant worry about Ezra was driving him to distraction. He was sitting in a wooden chair on the porch, with his long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles, watching the people go about their livelihoods. Some gave him obscure looks while others just ignored his presence.
The stagecoach thundered into town stirring the dust from the street, forming a hazy cloud in its wake making visibility difficult until it resettled. Josiah noticed that only one passenger alighted the mud-strewn coach, a man in his early forties, slim build brown hair and sporting a beard. He wore a brown suit and a vest was under his jacket. The man dusted his jacket and a plume of dust erupted from him. The man retrieved his luggage from atop the coach and headed off towards the hotel. Josiah heard a snort of disgust, and realised that it had come from him. What was he doing? Spying on newcomers as they come into town? Hell he didn't normally stoop to those nefarious activities.
He sat straighter in his chair and reminded himself that he should be keeping an eye on that stubborn Southerner. Nothing untoward had happened to the man yet, although Chris and he had hardly let him out of their sight in the last few days. Probably why he almost shot them this morning when Ezra said he was going to the Bathhouse and both of them rose from the table to go with him. Josiah smiled in remembrance at the look of surprise, horror, anger, and even confusion that assailed his normally controlled features. Stubborn man! The southerner had told them in no uncertain terms that they were not coming with him. To leave him alone. He reflected on his moment of introspection and shook his head. Stretching the kinks out of his long limbs he decided the gambler had had enough time by himself, and he was going to look for him whether this was wanted or not.
The thickset man stood at well over six foot, towering over many of his fellow man, he held the block of wood in his large callused hands by his side. His chiselled features were hard to see beneath the brim of his hat, but the growth on his face was shaggy and untidy, testament to the man's refusal to shave regularly. His clothing hung about him as though it was not his own, the pants far too short and the blue shirt fit too snugly across his barrel chest. The muddied black boots were worn with age. His partner was of slimmer build, but they stood at about the same height. This man was similarly dressed in ill-fitted clothing. His face bore a scar that ran the length of his face, from the hairline down to the chin. He was unshaven, and had a few days growth.
The man's woolly eyebrows quirked in annoyance at the other man, "what cha hit 'im so hard fer?" Irritation and disbelief was directed at his partner. "How we gonna git him out of here without anyone seeing?" the man snapped at him. "Huh?" The smaller man poked the larger man in the ribs with his finger, and then he started pacing in the small confines of the alley, muttering to himself.
The larger man still stood over the fallen gambler, confused by the sudden disapproval of his partner. With a slow and steady drawl he grumbled, "but he wanted us to take him out." The whine of his voice aggravated his partner more.
The lean man stopped his pacing and whirled on the larger man, "yeah, but we can't just shoot 'im here, you imbecile! We were s'posed ta get him out to the farmhouse and do it there. Geez!" He shot a look of exasperation at the man, and began pacing furtively again in the limited space. A few minutes passed while the smaller man, Gunther contemplated the situation. Stopping mid stride, he turned and faced his partner and the critically considered the crumpled man on the ground. "We gotta take off his jacket, it's too noticeable." The larger man finally dropped the plank of wood and bent down to help Gunther remove the gambler's jacket. "Seth, you think you cin carry 'im over to the stables?" The smaller man asked as he threw the red jacket away.
"We'll haveta go the long way round, gotta keep 'im outta sight." As Seth hoisted the unconscious Southerner over his shoulder, his partner placed his own worn hat over the gambler's head.
"Put him down, nice and gentle," the booming hard voice of Josiah ordered. The two men nervously looked up into the murderous scowls of Josiah, Chris and down the barrel of two guns.
Ezra's limp form hung unmoving over the shoulder of Seth. The larger man looked for guidance from his partner, and when none was forthcoming his lowered his prisoner back to the ground. Ezra remained deathly still, unmoving from the slumped position he was lowered to.
"Move away from him, and undo your gunbelts and toss them away." Seth and Gunther could see the threat behind the words if they didn't comply, and quickly obeyed removing their weapons and throwing them out of reach.
"Let's go visit the sheriff boys." The cordial words didn't match with the harsh tone or the dangerous expression of the black clad gunslinger. "I'll meet you at Ezra's room, once I've disposed of these." Gun directed at the two men Larabee headed off towards the sheriff's office.
A sheen of sweat broke out on Josiah's forehead as he assessed the unconscious man for injuries. A man he considered close enough to be his son. The closest he'd ever get to having one. And now, he was so scared that he was not going to get the chance to strengthen that bond between them.
Tentatively he reached out, his hand shaking with a pronounced tremor and touched the side of the gambler's neck to check for a pulse. Standish was pale, but was still breathing. He rolled the smaller man onto his back, and straightened out his legs. He clumsily ran his hands over the gambler's head, feeling the large knot that sat behind the man's ear, slightly relieved to find no blood on his hand as he removed it. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes and the knot of fear and uncertainty tightened in his gut. Grabbing the red jacket that had been negligently tossed aside Sanchez then gently lifted the man into his arms and cradled him like a child, resting his head into the crook of his arm; he took the slight burden up to his room.
On the way into the hotel, the large ex-preacher spied the hotel manager and growled at him, asking if there was a doctor in town. Of course there wasn't. The manager suggested he could get Miz Dulcie as she usually helped the sick. Josiah agreed to this, and the man scurried away, relieved to be away from the scrutiny of the larger man. Sanchez climbed the stairs one at a time, being careful not to trip. The man in his arms had yet to move. The ex-preacher had only just deposited his cargo onto the bed when Chris followed him into the room. "How's he doing?"
"Got a good sized lump on the side of his head. Hasn't moved an inch... I dunno Chris... I ain't no doctor." The large man's worry was reflected in his words.
Before either man could do anything further a resonant voice erupted from the doorway. "Well now, who needs the help of Dulcie Wainwright?" The two peacekeepers turned as one to face a short rotund woman standing in the open doorway. The woman was in her mid sixties with greying hair pinned haphazardly to the top of her head. Her chin was in rolls down to her neck, and a massive bosom projected from her chest. The woman obviously liked her food, and plenty of it. Her voice was full of vigour and energy and commanded attention by the sheer veracity of her presence. "Never mind," she forestalled them with an upheld hand; "I can see him for myself. Lordy ain't he a cutie? Kinda reminds me an old beau of mind, of course that was a few years ago now." She paused for a second pondering this fond memory, "actually that was even before my Abner, rest his soul, and I were married." The largish woman manoeuvred over to the bed where Ezra lay unconscious, and wiped her hand over his forehead and then down his cheek. Turning her attention to the two others in the room she asked, "so what happened to the Dear?"
Chris and Josiah both stunned by the abrupt entrance of the woman into the room had yet to move. Josiah finally realised this must be who the manager had sent for. "Someone decided to take a piece of wood to his head."
"Humm...He been out for long?"
"Half hour? Maybe more." Josiah answered the woman.
Dulcie rolled the gambler's head to the side to feel the lump. Nodding her head and voiced and audible sigh. "I ain't no doctor now, so's we'll just haft to wait till the young fella wakes up."
"Figured as much," Chris agreed with Dulcie.
+ + + + + + +
"Seen you boys around town the last few days." There was no judgement in the words just a passing statement. Introductions were made between the three.
"Ezra was a friend of George McTaggart," Josiah admitted, wary of how much he should tell the woman.
"George and my Ginny were close friends." The older woman confessed.
"Ginny?" Both men asked in unison.
"Virginia, my daughter, her and George were gonna get married." Both men frowned at this piece of conflicting information.
"Ah... Ma'am, we heard that McTaggart was going to marry Miz Carter." Josiah said not wanting to offend the woman who was willing to help them with Ezra.
Dulcie wiped a damp cloth over the unconscious man's face before replying. "George weren't gonna marry her, the little strumpet. She was only using him, making him guilty over that child. If you ask me it weren't his anyhow." Dulcie was not afraid of offering her opinions.
"That's right interesting Ma'am, don't s'pose you'd care to help us work out this mystery?" Chris moved to the door and closed it shut, he picked up a chair and turned it around backwards to straddle it.
Dulcie sat on the edge of the bed Ezra was laying on picking up his hand and stroking the back of it. "What cha want ta know sweetie?" Josiah couldn't help the smirk that formed on his face at the term of endearment that the woman attached to the gunslinger. He couldn't imagine Chris being a sweetie.
Dulcie Wainwright wiped the southerner's face while she told the two lawmen everything she knew about George McTaggart. He had been courting Ginny while he was in town, brought her flowers and candy. Ginny had even shown her mother a poem that George had written to her. When asked about Floss, Dulcie said that George and Floss barely spoke to one another. The boy seemed to be the only bond between the two. "You know, now that I think on it, when Floss Carter came to town seven or eight years ago, she was heavily pregnant with her boy. If I remember rightly she said at the time she was a widow, and her husband had died only recently."
"What about Murgon?" Came the thickened accent from the man lying on the bed. Josiah and Chris moved closer to the bed so they could see for themselves that the gambler was indeed awake.
"Oh be still my racing heart," and the woman clapped a hand to her large bosom in mock surprise, "the boy comes from the South," turning to face Josiah and Chris, "don't ya just love a man with an accent?" Not waiting for a reply the woman held three pudgie fingers up and asked Ezra to tell her how many she held upright.
"Sonny do you feel dizzy, sick or have a headache?"
"No, no and yes." He struggled to sit up in the bed but Dulcie put a hand on his chest and easily pushed him back down.
"No sense you gitting out of this bed till yous are all better. You need time to rest, and you cain't be doing that if you're up." She handed him a glass of water, and Ezra took it begrudgingly. "I'm Dulcie Wainwright, and you would be?"
"Ezra Standish," Ezra caught the glimmer of humour in both of Chris and Josiah's eyes, before Dulcie again reclaimed his attention.
"Sorry about the headache sweetie, I cain't help ya with that, but I can claim to be the best cook in town, and it looks as if you could do with something to eat." Tapping the southerner's chest with her hand, and shaking her head, "Lordy boy, yer skin and bones." Ezra's stunned expression was evident to Josiah and Chris. The rotund woman's hips swayed as she walked about the room, "looks as if you two could do with a feed as well."
"We won't say no to a good meal Ma'am." Sanchez agreed with the large woman.
"Good, I'll git Ginny to help me bring it over."
After Dulcie had retreated from the room, Ezra cast a confused gaze over his friends. "What happened?" He saw the amusement that passed between the two.
"That was Dulcie." Chris stated matterafactly.
"I gathered that." Came the droll reply.
"Real motherly type ain't she?" Josiah asked. Chris nodded his assent.
"Doesn't remind me of my mother," the Southerner grumbled as he tentatively rubbed the lump behind his ear, causing a grimace from the man.
"Hell son, Maude certainly is one of a kind."
"Oh...that she is Josiah."
Ezra lay asleep stretched out on his stomach with one arm hanging over the side of the bed. Josiah sat in a chair beside the bed determined to keep a close watch on Ezra, and Chris sat in a chair beside him. They talked in hushed tones so as not to wake the Southerner. He needed the rest, following the knock on the head he'd received earlier that day. The Southerner had woken when Dulcie was with them but shortly after her departure, he lost the fight to remain awake.
Darkened shadows flickered outside the only window in the room, and the light in the room began to dim. Chris got up and lit the lamp illuminating the darkened room. Before reclaiming his seat he touched the gambler's forehead, brushing back the loose hair that had fallen forward, checking for a fever. Ezra stirred slightly but didn't wake up.
Dulcie returned with her daughter Virginia at suppertime with two trays brimming with her fine cooking. Ezra continued to sleep undisturbed. Chris thanked Dulcie for the meal and suggested she come back in the morning when Ezra was awake. The large woman checked the sleeping man, and agreed that she and her daughter would return in the morning.
"Think he's got a concussion?" The bear of a man couldn't hide his concern for the smaller man.
"Maybe, he's sleeping a lot." Even the blond haired gunslinger was concerned for the gambler.
"So much for keeping 'im here so's he'd be safe." Josiah bit out angrily, although he kept he voice lowered.
"Yeah, well Ezra's a mite stubborn when it comes to accepting help."
"You think we'll hear from Vin and JD soon?"
"I'm kinda hoping to hear something in the morning."
"I'll stay with him tonight if you want to get some sleep."
"Reckon I'll do just that Josiah, you have any trouble with him over night, I'm just across the hall." Chris pushed back his chair, and gathered the dirty plates, deciding to drop them off at Dulcie's place before heading to bed himself.
Chris Larabee could hear the raised voices as he approached the door. A smirk formed on his lips as he listened to the argument between his two friends. Thinking to himself that those two certainly argued a lot, almost as if they were really father and son. Chris understood how Josiah felt about the younger man, it wasn't something that the ex-preacher had told him, it was just...obvious. That is, to everyone else, he wasn't sure if Josiah realised it himself until recently. Standing outside the door, he put his ear to the wood, pressing up against it so he could hear more clearly. He didn't consider this to be eavesdropping, but more a form of control management, a preventative measure. Maybe he would hear something that he could use to help the pair in their father son relationship.
"Dammit Josiah let me up!" The irritation Ezra was feeling towards the larger man was increasing.
Josiah pushed him back until he was lying on the bed, leaving his large hand on the Southerner's chest. "Now son, it'd be better if ya stayed in bed," Josiah was calm and spoke quietly, this only increased the gambler's anger.
"Josiah, it's a little lump, and I don't even have a headache this morning." Well he did in reality but he wasn't letting that piece of information slip to the former preacher.
"Ezra..." Standish didn't allow Sanchez the opportunity to finish.
"I'm fine, F I N E!" He spelled the word, emphasising each letter as he said it.
"No you ain't!" Sanchez growled. "You ain't leaving and that's final!" This time Josiah's voice was raised, as he hissed out the words between clamped teeth. Ezra made another attempt to escape, pushing against the giant who hovered above him. Unfortunately, all this did was to unbalance the former preacher, and instead of moving away as Ezra had hoped, Josiah stumbled, landing on his backside on the floor beside the bed. Josiah instinctively grabbed onto a lifeline to prevent his descent and grasped onto Ezra's forearm, pulling the gambler with him as he fell. Ezra landed with an 'oomph' as the air was forced out of his lungs when he connected with Sanchez. Josiah let out a startled bellow as the smaller man was pulled off the bed and collapsed on top on him.
Chris chose this moment to enter the room, hearing the heated conversation that led up to this, he was a little confused by the sounds that he just heard. Thumps and groans of pain didn't bode well for recuperation. On opening the door, he was surprised to see Josiah on the floor with Ezra lying on top of him. "You boys need help?" His eyes flickered with amusement.
Ezra raised his head up to view the intruder, and scowled at him, then groaned as he rolled off Josiah and onto the floor beside him. "That wasn't quite what I meant by getting out of bed Josiah. I'm sure it'd have been easier if you let me do it myself." The Southerner grumbled his complaint. Josiah, who was raised up on his elbows, fell back to the floor as he was consumed with laughter. Chris joined in, and although Ezra tried to keep a straight face he could not help but join in as well.
"I suggest we all go downstairs to talk to the ladies." Chris offered his hand to Ezra who was still sitting on the floor, and pulled the smaller man to his feet.
Josiah regained his own feet but frowned in consternation at the black-clad gunslinger for his suggestion. "Chris do you think that's a good idea? Nathan don't usually let any of us outta bed so soon after we been hurt."
Before Chris had a chance to answer, Ezra did, "Josiah, read my lips, I'm fine!" He snarled at the older man.
"Come on Josiah, you just pulled him out of bed, and he survived that." The smirk that had been on his lips since entering the room, had not dissipated, but literally grown to a full blown smile. The ex-preacher looked from one man to the other and knew he didn't stand a chance against both of them. Shrugging his shoulders in defeat his held his arm out in the direction of the door indicating that they should precede him.
Following a morning repast Dulcie and Ginny Wainwright met the three lawmen in the restaurant. Introductions were made, as Ezra was not conscious when Virginia came the night before. Virginia Wainwright was an attractive woman, the similarities between mother and daughter was astounding. The younger woman was probably the essence of the older woman's youth. Virginia was slim and had curves in all the right proportions. Her blond hair glistened, and flowed freely, her deep brown eyes were pools of lava, that in normal circumstances probably glowed with intrigue and mischief. At present they showed signs of grief, and the black bags that hung below them only added to that assumption.
Ginny, as she preferred to be called, told the three men about how she and George were planning to be married. That he owned the saloon, and once they'd married the pair would take over the running of the saloon. Floss was only managing the saloon while George was not available to do so. The young woman assured them that the boy would not have been neglected, if he were in fact George's son he would have been welcomed into their home. When Chris asked about the pocket watch that had been found on McTaggart he received a confused response. The girl, who was close to tears throughout the interrogation, denied that George even owned a pocket watch, least wise since she had known him. Apparently he had lost his in a card game and hadn't felt the need to replace it. Ezra pulled the note out of his breast pocket that had been hidden inside the watch casing and handed it to the young woman. Ginny stared at it for a minute, reading its contents and shaking her head while doing so. "NO! This ain't from George." She announced adamantly.
"How can you be so sure miss?" Josiah's soothing voice coaxed.
"It's not," she mumbled, "It's not his writin'. Look," she pulled out a crumpled and well-read piece of paper from her apron pocket, "this is one of his poems he wrote to me. See... the writin's different." She declared as she handed both pieces of literature to the gambler to peruse.
Chris and Josiah watched as Ezra studied the two pieces, waiting for his decision. Even Ginny's mother, Dulcie, who had remained quiet throughout the whole conversation, sat on the edge of her chair to see if Ezra would confirm her daughter's belief. Ezra looked up into the waiting eyes of four people. "They unequivocally are not composed by the same hand."
"Where does that leave us then?" Chris furrowed his brow in quandary. "We have a watch that's been planted on him, with reference to Floss and Joe. Some vague reason as to why he wanted to visit with Ezra. A missing deed that he should have had with him. A couple of guys in jail cooling their heels that took a lump of wood to Ezra. And where the hell does Murgon fit into all of this? Anyone else confused?" Chris ran a hand through his blond hair tousling it.
"Ah perhaps I should explain. Before those two miscreants assaulted me I observed Miz Carter and Murgon in what could only be described as an intense altercation. Unfortunately I didn't see the conclusion of their discord, being otherwise occupied."
"How long Murgon been in town?" Josiah directed his question at Dulcie. She thought about this for a few moments before answering, "Reckon about seven or eight years...Yeah about eights years ago."
"What the same time as Florence Carter turned up?" Chris queried; a bad feeling was beginning to grow in the pit of his stomach.
"Yeah...I think they came here about the same time, within a month of each other."
"Figure they knew each other before hand?" Josiah turned his question to Chris, who just shrugged his shoulders in return.
"Guess that's some more of the puzzle solved."
+ + + + + + +
Ginny looked to her mother first, and getting a nod to go ahead, she blurted out in a rush of words tumbling over each other, "I know where the deed to the saloon is...I have it. George gave it to me before he left for Talon Creek."
Ezra nodded his head, realising he'd already assumed Ginny held the deed, he returned the poem to the girl, when she reached to take possession of it, Ezra asked if she knew why McTaggart wanted to speak with him? Lovingly caressing the worn prose in her hands, clasping it to her chest, her brown eyes filled with tears as she sought out those emerald green ones that awaited an answer. "Mr. Standish, George wanted you to help him find out if Joe was really his son."
Not long after that Dulcie and Ginny Wainwright left the restaurant leaving the three men to ponder the situation. "So Murgon killed McTaggart and planted the watch?" Josiah queried, however there was some doubt in his mind as to the veracity of his allegation.
"Got no proof of that Josiah," the gunslinger warned.
The local sheriff arrived at the building and motioned Larabee with a jerk of his neck to meet with him. Chris walked over to where the sheriff was waiting. The news he gave Chris was not good. Apparently the two men that had assaulted Ezra the day before, had been murdered in their cell during the night. The Sheriff admitted to not leaving a guard on them, because he fully expected them not to be any trouble. Seth Hagen and Gunther Brody were found dead, with their throats slit open early that morning. The sheriff questioned Chris about the whereabouts of the gambler during the night. The black-clad gunslinger glared ominously at the Sheriff warning him that he was not to proceed with that line of investigation, considering Ezra was in no fit state to attempt any form of payback. It was ludicrous to even suspect the gambler of such a violent from of retribution.
Chris dismissed the sheriff with a curt nod and ran a hand around his jaw line. He remained motionless in the doorway in introspection as the sheriff weaved a path through the citizens of Cannon Falls; a thoughtful expression clouded his mind as he considered the new problem that had arisen. He was really beginning to hate this town, and all its complications. Knowing this was not the gambler's fault; he was hard pressed not to blame the man for dragging them halfway around the country into this mess. Cursing under his breath he looked over at the Southerner who was talking quietly with Josiah. "Damn!" Standish was probably already taking full blame for everything that had happened, he sure as hell didn't need Chris to blame him as well.
Before the gunslinger could reclaim his seat with his companions, a weaselly man stopped him, ambivalently holding out a telegram. Once he had given Chris the telegram he retreated hastily, stumbling over his own feet in his endeavour to escape. Chris read the wire on his way back to the table.
"That a wire from Vin and JD?" Josiah shifted in his chair, trying to find a more comfortable spot.
"Yeah," Chris looked from the older man to the younger man, both waiting in anticipation of what the news would be. "Murgon wasn't in Talon Creek the same time as McTaggart."
"Guess it might have been too much to ask for that theory to have been proven correct." The disappointment was clear in the gambler's words and slumped posture, heaving a heavy sigh; he abruptly pushed back the chair in preparation to leave.
Chris grabbed his arm and stopped him from going anywhere, "Wait, there's more...you'll never guess who was in Talon Creek?" Chris paused for effect, not expecting a reply from either of them.
"Miz Florence Carter," Ezra stated with confidence.
"Ah...yeah." Chris was always surprised at the deductive reasoning that the gambler possessed. He seemed to be able to come to the same conclusions with little or no actual proof. Following that discovery he then informed the other two men of the murders of Seth and Gunther the night before. They decided that a visit to Floss and Murgon would be the next step.
The three men spent the next few hours searching high and low for the unlikely duo. But both Floss and Hal Murgon had abandoned town, of course Joe, Floss' son was also missing. They informed the sheriff of their findings and asked him to keep and eye out for the couple if they should return. It would also be wise to suspect them for the murders of Seth Hagen and Gunther Brody.
"I think it's time to leave." Chris stated.
Josiah concurred, "Yep, let's go home."
"Home?" The Southerners voice almost cracked on the one word. Fear and hope leaped to flame, as a tight fist took hold of his heart and squeezed. His breathing even sounded raspy as he fought to control the surging emotions that swirled around inside of him.
Josiah winced as he saw the longing in the man's eyes. He couldn't stop himself from putting his arm around the smaller man's shoulders and hugging him. "Yeah home, son," and when Ezra didn't immediately move, the ex-preacher pulled him around into a full hug. Holding him in a tight embrace he whispered into the gambler's ear, "There's strong ties that bind us all together, we won't let ya go so easy."
Vin and JD had waited in Talon Creek for the three other lawmen to rejoin them so they could all return to Four Corners together. That was two days ago, and it was still another two more days before they would be home. The return journey was considerably slower and more relaxed, a feeling of camaraderie enveloped the group of men. Vin had sent a telegram to Buck and Nathan informing them that they were on their way back, including Ezra.
JD's youthful enthusiasm was unquenchable. "It was Miz Carter who killed McTaggart right, and put the pocket watch on him?" At the affirmative response form Chris, Ezra and Josiah the boy continued, "and you guys think Hal Murgon is the father of Miz Carter's son Joe? Did he also hire those two guys that attacked Ezra, and then killed 'em?"
"Don't know for sure JD, but they did leave town in an awful hurry, kinda makes ya wonder." Josiah answered.
"So what's gonna happen to Floss and her son, and that Murgon fella?"
"They'll have their faces plastered on wanted posters and have bounty hunters and lawmen searching for them." Chris replied this time.
"Reckon it's no way to rear a child, being on the run." The quiet tracker predicted.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the child was abandoned with some relative and just forgotten," the harsh tone from the gambler was not lost on the other four men, but they made no comment.
JD realised the mood was slipping so he asked about the saloon, and who was gonna run it.
"Miss Virginia has the document regarding ownership of the saloon, it seemed to be the reasonable option to let her retain it. Her mother will assist with managing the establishment."
Four men sat around the blazing fire watching the gambler who sat alone away from the campsite. Concern for him was clearly expressed on all faces. Josiah glanced up at the expectant gazes of the three others, "what?" Knowing what they wanted he stretched the kinks out of large frame and closed the distance between him and Ezra. "What ya doing over here by yerself Ezra?"
"Just reflecting... a moments introspection," was the vague reply.
"Hey son, you gonna join us?" Josiah threw a wicked smile to the gambler with his invitation. The large man winced when he saw the indecision that crossed the face of the smaller man, "son you remember those strong ties we talked about?" Ezra nodded his head, almost imperceptibly; "Hell we're your family. Can you give that up?"
"You know we are not related," the dimples showed as he smiled broadly. Josiah draped his arm affectionately around his shoulders and led him back to the others.
"I know." The giant ruffled the Southerner's hair and grinned roguishly back at him.
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