Vin rode Peso, pressing himself close to the animal as he sought the tracks of the thief. Following them was an easy chore, as the culprit had not bothered to conceal his escape. His anger welled inside of him, and he welcomed the confrontation between him and the thief. Taking his anger and grief out on the unsuspecting horsethief seemed to help him deal with the hurt that he was feeling at the loss of the gambler. And Vin looked forward to thrashing the sense out of him.
The trail led directly to the old abandoned homestead of the Henson's. Folk who really should not have made the journey west, as they were ill equipped to shoulder the responsibilities of life in the harsh environs of the west. After only a short six months stay they had become broke, Mrs Henson was expecting another little one and they couldn't cope. So they up and left. Leaving the house and farm behind, a bitter memory for them as they headed back east. The house had been empty now coming on three months.
He wrinkled his nose as smoke assaulted his senses before he saw the white plumes drifting lazily into the blue sky. He knew instantly that this was his final destination. Sliding off Peso he ground tied the horse and went in on foot the remainder of the distance. Vin entered the barn and was drawn to the chestnut that was tethered in the stall. "Hey Chaucer, you okay?" The horse nickered, recognising the familiar scent of the man. Vin gently ran his hand over the bay's back and patted him as he lifted the animal's legs and inspected them for any injury. "Don't you worry none. gonna get you back home safely where you belong." The tracker continued to pet the horse as he spoke in soothing tones. He turned his attention to the house. "Why'd he stop here?" Confused at the strange behaviour of his quarry. "Ya think he'd a kept a goin'. This is weird... like he wanted to be caught." Giving Chaucer a final pat he left the barn and stealthily crept towards the house.
Vin watched the house for almost half an hour... in that time no one came outside. He'd walked the perimeter of the house and determined which room he would enter when he made his move. His noise twitched as the aroma of food cooking assailed him, wafting on a faint breeze. Realising he'd foregone breakfast that morning, the smells alerted his stomach to the fact and it growled loudly. Determining that he'd waited long enough, and that in all likelihood there was only one person inside, he approached the house. Pushing up the window, Vin winced when a scraping noise sounded, but hoped the man inside had not heard it, and he pulled himself inside.
The room was small, probably a child's room. Dust and cobwebs coated the abandoned furniture. Obviously the intruder had not entered this room. Vin opened the door and headed for the kitchen, his mare's leg raised in readiness. Tanner craned his neck around the door, saw the unattended pot on the stovetop cooking, and the empty room that stared back at him. "Damn!" he silently swore. He felt the business end of a gun at his neck; it wouldn't do to make any sudden moves with the gun's barrel pressed firmly against his neck.
"Drop the gun," the southerner drawled, a grin crossed Ezra's features as he realised who'd actually followed him. Actually it wasn't any real surprise, as he'd made no effort to hide his trail to the Henson's place; it was only a matter of time before Vin showed up. Ezra had to admit he wasn't expecting the man for breakfast though.
Vin heard the southerner's words but couldn't fathom what was going on. Instead of doing what Ezra had requested, he swung his weapon around in a rush and brandished it like a club at the man's midsection. As he pushed backwards, they both ended up sprawled on the floor. Vin heard the man's gasp and smiled, readying himself for the next round.
"Ugh! Vin, it's me... Ezra." Standish gasped.
"Ezra?!" Tanner stared in shock, shaking his head as if to clear it. Who was this person? He resembled Ezra Standish and the accent was the same, though he wasn't clean-shaven and he was wearing a tan jacket, not what he normally associated Ezra to be seen in.
"Yeah. Now get off of me!" Standish pushed at the stunned tracker who'd yet to move.
"We buried you yesterday... I must be going mad... you a ghost or sumthin'?" Vin stuttered, frowning at the illusion his mind had conjured up, and worried he was loosing it.
"Hardly... I was unaware that your beliefs delved into the paranormal?"
"What the hell's para... whatsit... ?" he asked, but before Ezra could answer, he closed his eyes, rubbing them and voiced his concerns regarding talking to dead men. "Now I'm talking to the ghost." Vin shook his head in disbelief.
"Damn it, Vin, I'm quite alive... who the hell do you think you hit?" and the gambler rubbed his midsection to demonstrate this fact. After a moments pause, he hastily got up off the floor and raced into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder as he departed. "Now I'm burning my breakfast," he moaned.
Vin followed the gambler into the kitchen, listening to the cursing and swearing that this look-a-like Ezra Standish was rattling off, in awe. "Our Ezra never cussed like that," Vin commented bemusedly from the doorway, still unsure.
"Hah! I am, 'your' Ezra. I am not dead... yet... although when I get my hands on those son of bitches that did this to me, I'm gonna kill them. Now, for that, I require a little assistance." Glancing in the direction of Tanner, he raised his eyebrows at the man. Then he couldn't resist adding, "Being dead and all."
"Thought ya said ya weren't dead?" Vin was still rather confused and wary. He'd lowered his gun but still held it, prepared to use it if necessary.
"I'm not!" Standish raised his voice in frustration. "But everybody in town thinks I am, and at the moment I prefer to keep it that way."
"No problem, pard. Between the seven of us... "
"NO! Absolutely Not! You mustn't inform the others." Standish harshly decreed.
"Why in the hell not? They're yer friends, they'll want ta know yer alive."
Standish sighed loudly, and ran his hand distractedly through his sandy brown hair. "Vin, it's not that I don't value their friendship, but, because of our publicised kinship that I baulk at their involvement."
Tanner was unconvinced, "So if you're telling the truth, what's this? Some kind of con?" he asked suspiciously.
Hurt flashed through the green eyes for a moment, but it was quickly replaced with his normal poker face. "This is NOT a con, Mr. Tanner," Ezra emphatically declared. "Not one of mine anyway. I do believe that my demise is part of an elaborate plan, but to what purpose I have not determined."
"So what happened to ya?"
"I don't KNOW!" Standish rubbed his hand over his tired face and fell heavily into a chair. He'd not eaten in over two days; he'd barely slept, although his body didn't respond to him in that time his mind was on overload, frantic in his desperation to communicate. Resting his elbows on the table, he let them slide outwards, until the palm of his hands met in the middle. Ezra lowered his head down and pillowed his brow on his outstretched forearms then closed his eyes.
Vin watched in fascination. He was still confused, but was beginning to accept that this was really Ezra and he was alive. Walking up behind the gambler, Vin clapped his hands down on the southerner's shoulders and squeezed ever so lightly. Bending his head down, he whispered into Ezra's ear, "glad ta have ya back, pard." Tanner saw the slight nod, and felt the beginnings of a smile form on his face. "How bout I get somethin' on ta eat. Missed breakfast myself this mornin', could do with somethin' ta eat." Ezra again nodded his head in agreement, but didn't lift it from his hands. Seeing how rough and bedraggled the gambler was Vin hastened to add, "You slept any?" And Vin began to wonder at the shear exhaustion that he must have been fighting to keep at bay.
"No," was the simple reply.
"Then why don cha get cleaned up while I do this, then you can tell me what cha know," Tanner cajoled, when he got no reply to his suggestion he added, "okay?"
"Thankyou, Mr. Tanner, that would be most appreciative." Ezra slowly pushed back the chair and trudged wearily out of the room.
Vin prepared more food and when it was ready he went searching for the absent gambler. He'd expected Ezra to have returned by now, and when he hadn't Vin began to worry that he didn't really exist, other than in his mind. The tracker pushed open doors that led off from the hallway, swinging them wide as he scanned the rooms. On his Third try he heaved a sigh of relief as he found the gambler fully clothed and sound asleep prone on a bed that took up the whole room. "Guess I'll be eating breakfast alone." Grinning to himself he closed the door on the sleeping man and returned to the kitchen.
Six hours later the gambler emerged from the house to find Vin on the verandah with his hat pulled over his face deflecting the dying rays of the sun as it set below the horizon.
"Thought you'd never wake up." Vin tilted his head upwards and addressed the southerner as he pulled up a chair along side him. Tanner eyed the gambler suspiciously, concerned that he'd slept for as long and deeply as he had. "You okay?"
"The best I've felt in days. Thankyou for your concern."
"Ya slept through breakfast." It was a statement made out of his concern for the enigmatic man.
"Hmm... It appears as if it's almost suppertime. Did I detect something cooking?"
"Just sumthin' I threw together. Ya gonna stay awake this time to have any?"
Ezra grinned broadly at the tracker. "Most assuredly. How is it that the others haven't come looking for you? Surely your absence from town would not have gone unnoticed?"
"Didn't expect to find ya as easy as I did. Told 'em I weren't coming back till I'd found Chaucer. So's they ain't gonna be worried... leastwise for a few more days." Tanner stood and grabbed the southerner's arm pulling him out of his seat and dragging him back inside. "We may as well eat now, then ya can tell me what's goin' on."
The bounty hunter watched in amusement as Standish shovelled the food into his mouth; he'd barely stopped since Vin placed the plate before him on the table. And now he was on his third helping. Tanner had never seen the gambler eat so much before.
Standish finally pushed back the empty plate, and patted his stomach in contentment. "Mr. Tanner, that was the finest meal I've consumed in days."
"Ezra, thats the only one ya've had in days," Vin reminded him.
"Then my statement holds." Ezra flashed a wicked grin at his companion, showing his gold tooth in doing so. "I need to return to town, Vin... "
The tracker interrupted not allowing the gambler to finish. "Ya think that's such a good idea? Specially iffin someone's already tried to kill ya once?"
"Whoever they are, they would already assume I'm dead and buried; therefore they will not be on the lookout for me. I can stay out of sight and keep an eye on everyone's comings and going without any suspicion."
"Ezra, what happened? You were dead! I watched ya get buried. Ain't nobody come back from there. How'd you do it?" Tanner frowned.
"Vin, all I know is that I walked into the saloon, felt a sharp pain in my arm and then nothing till I awoke several hours later. I couldn't move; not even open my eyes and I couldn't speak. I heard y'all talking, but concentrating on what was said was difficult. I didn't regain any movement until the casket was in the hole."
"How'd ya get out?"
"Fortunately, I managed to escape that tomb before the gravediggers returned to fill the hole."
Tanner nodded. "Why'd ya take Chaucer?" Vin's curiosity got the better of him.
"Chaucer has been with me for a substantial time, and I was wont to abandon him to the subjugation of mother. Heaven knows when I'd see him again if she were to gain custody of him." Ezra visibly shivered at the thought. Vin was watching the man closely, and had to restrain the smile that threatened to show itself at the southerner's lack of trust he placed in his own mother.
"You take that book too?"
"And which book would you be referring to?"
"The one you took off the table by ya bed."
The gambler raised his eyebrows in question, studying the relaxed composure of the tracker as he leaned his lithe frame against the sparse wall. "And you know of its absence by... ?"
"Hell, that's simple. Dust had settled on the book and table over the last few days, when ya took it, the table underneath didn't have any dust on it. Just guessed it was a book by the shape left behind," Vin admitted this with a shrug of his shoulders.
Standish had to admit that the tracker's observation skills were impressive. "Amazing," he deadpanned. "Yes, I have it in my possession. Again, I was reluctant to have it thrown out."
"We weren't gonna throw out yer stuff, Ezra." Tanner was offended but felt obliged to inform the solitary man.
"No? Perhaps not... but that would not prevent mother from doing just that." Vin shook his head in resignation.
It was well after midnight when the two peacekeepers returned to town. The street fires were burning and lined the quiet street. The full moon guided the way on the journey home, and the steady clop of Peso's shoes on the hardened track echoed in the stillness of the night. Vin had given Ezra a ride back to town, leaving Chaucer stabled safely in the Henson's barn. He'd go back and check on his steed personally in a few days time. There was enough food and water to last until he returned to replenish the supplies. Hopefully by then he'd have a grasp on the situation and some idea how long he'd need to remain incognito.
Ezra was now stationed in a room in the Four Corners Hotel. Having woken the manager, Vin acquired the room for the southerner while he remained hidden from the prying eyes of the inquisitive man. Once the manager had gone back to his own room, Ezra and Vin headed for the designated room.
Vin was pacing back and forth in the small room. Nervously flicking his gaze from the gambler to the door then back again. "Don't know this is such a great idea, Ezra." He stopped pacing long enough to offer his opinion then started once more. "We should at least tell Chris... "
"NO!" Standish raised his voice. "No one else is to know! Especially Chris! He is the leader, and if anything happened to him because he became involved in this, I would never forgive myself. It is bad enough that I have been forced to involve you." Standish studied the tracker's face, and it clearly showed that he wasn't happy with Ezra's decision. "Do we have an agreement Mr. Tanner?"
Vin rubbed his stubbled chin as he retraced his steps around the room disappointed that Ezra felt he couldn't trust the others with his secret. He knew the man had little experience when it came to relying on others for help, and that he'd always depended solely on himself. But at the risk of his own life, couldn't he see that Chris and the others would be there for him? They'd help him. Even at the expense of their own lives... was that it? Was it not that Standish didn't trust them, but more that he was afraid that they'd willingly lose their lives for him? Tanner had yet to answer the gambler and his absent pacing of the room eased the strain while he contemplated his problem.
Standish was becoming distracted with the constant irratic movements that the tracker was making while he waited for Tanner to comply with his wishes. "Please desist," Ezra ordered.
"Stop! I can barely hear myself think."
"Now, Mr. Tanner, are we in agreement?" Vin shrugged his shoulders, but when he saw the tired disposition of Standish he reluctantly nodded and Ezra continued, "then I don't require your further assistance, now that I'm here. Perhaps if we could rendezvous in the morning, preferably at a decent hour. We could then discuss our next course of action? As for myself I would like to get some sleep."
"Reckon that'll be alright," Vin agreed, not entirely sure what he agreed with though.
"Good. Shall we say ten in the morning?"
"Yeah, that way I can talk to the boys, let 'em know that I lost yer trail." Vin smiled sheepishly at the southerner.
"And how exactly are you going to do that?" Knowing as well as the others that Tanner's tracking skills were almost infallible.
"I'll think of sumthin'." He nodded his head and took his leave.
"You lost it?" Chris Larabee growled his disbelief as he scrutinised his friend, unwilling to accept his failure.
"Yeah, guess he knew sumthin' 'bout covering his tracks." Vin shrugged his shoulders dismissively. "Did a good job too." The tracker continued to shovel his breakfast into his mouth, while his mind whirled as he tried to adequately cover the lie.
Chris heard the admiration in the trackers voice, but still was hard pressed to understand the trackers easy compliance, especially after he'd been so roiled the day before when he set out after the horse thief. "You didn't find anything?" Chris queried in astonishment.
"Nope." Vin lowered his eyes unable to maintain eye contact with the gunslinger. Lying was not easy for him to do, and the longer Larabee questioned him over the matter, the higher the chance that Vin would be caught out in the lie. Pushing back the half-finished meal, Vin finished off his coffee in a gulp and pushed back his chair from the table. "Ah... gotta go, Chris. Need to check Peso. Think he mighta picked up a stone last night, or sumthin'." Relief flooded his features as he hastily departed the contemplative manner of the blackclad man.
Chris frowned as he watched the tracker nervously disappear out through the batwing doors of the saloon. His frown grew, drawing his eyebrows together and forming a single line across his forehead, as he considered the man's reluctance to discuss the unproductive mission. Chris drew the coffee mug to his lips and sought an answer to the unusual behaviour of his friend. Now if it were Ezra, he'd be inclined to suspect that the gambler was up to some scheme, but Vin didn't usually present like that. Although the more Chris thought on the matter, the more he became concerned at the wary nature Vin was exhibiting. He was brought out of his reverie when Buck and JD burst though the doors, and he smiled at their antics. His smile left his face as he thought that things were getting back to normal, when he recalled that with the absence of Standish that it was not likely to ever return to normal.
"Hey Chris! See, Vin made it back in one piece." The moustached man loudly proclaimed to the near empty room.
"Yeah, he's back. Didn't find the bastard that stole Ezra's horse though." Both Buck and JD's reaction to that news was predictable. Both jaws hung agape and they stared at Chris in shocked silence.
"He lost 'im?" JD asked incredibly.
"So he says. Something don't seem right though." Larabee looked at his oldest friend for confirmation of his suspicions. Wilmington shrugged his shoulders but didn't offer any comment. "He say anything to you guys when ya saw him?"
"Nah. He was heading to the livery. Called out, but didn't think he heard us cause he kept on going," Buck answered. "What cha thinks goin' on, pard?"
"Ain't sure as yet. Think I'll keep an eye on him, see what happens." With that decision made Larabee pushed back from the table and left the saloon. He crossed the main street and took up position in front of the jail, allowing greatest visibility of the town without appearing as though that was his intent.
He'd only just settled himself in the chair when Vin exited the livery. He watched the tracker circle around the back and slip out of sight. Larabee sat up straighter in his chair when he lost sight of the man, scanning the buildings for his familiar form. As he was almost resigned to give up this task, he spotted the man slip into the Hotel. Once again a frown marred the features of the blond-headed man. "What the hell are you up to, Vin?" he whispered under his breath.
Tanner knocked out the code on the wooden door and stood nervously fidgeting from one foot to the other while he awaited its opening. Looking back over his shoulder he peered down the deserted hallway and his gaze continued down the stairs to the empty foyer below. "Come on Ezra," he hissed through his teeth, in annoyance. He was about to rap on the door again when it opened out onto the room. Its occupant hung back behind the door out of view as the tracker slipped quickly inside, closing the door behind him.
"You're early," Standish sleepily grumbled his complaint.
"Chris was breathing down my neck. Hadda get away."
Eyes widened suddenly and the sleepy man was instantly alert. "You didn't apprise them of the situation did you?"
"Everythin's alright, nobody's the wiser," Vin assured the gambler. Ezra heaved a sigh of relief and sank down on the dishevelled bed. "D'I wake you up?"
"Yes you most certainly did. I seem to recall mentioning ten o'clock last night. It must have slipped your mind?" Glancing at the pocket watch on the dresser and noticing that is was only seven thirty he groaned in dismay.
"That's half the day gone if I'da waited till then." He winked innocently at him as the gambler growled his discontent. Ezra resumed his morning ritual while Vin leaned his lithe frame against the closed door. "What cha got planned?"
Ezra watched the tracker through the reflection in the mirror while he doused his face with the water in the bowl then wiped the droplets from his face. Screwing up his face as he rubbed his hand over the three-day growth he turned back around to face his accomplice. "I need for you to appropriate the last... shall we say, three months of the Clarion News and any other paper that Mrs. Travis has in her possession for that same time frame. If you could drop them off at the room, I'll attend them tonight."
"For the moment."
"How am I gonna explain what I need with all them papers? 'Speshly since she knows I can't read? And where are you gonna be anyhow?" Tanner watched in stunned silence as the man transformed before his eyes.
Standish slipped his arms into the dark blue shirt and tucked it into the dark pants that covered the dusty boots, then reached for the tan jacket that has slung over the only chair in the room, and shrugged into it. He lifted his eyes to meet those of his friend when the silence penetrated his thoughts. Ignoring the original questions Ezra raised his left eyebrow at Tanner, "What?"
Vin folded his arms across his chest and stared in awe. How can something as simple as a man's wardrobe being altered totally change the appearance of a man? He shook his head, knowing that Ezra would have no trouble hiding in full view. The few days' growth obviously would cover the normal clean-shaven features and the plain clothes contributed to the effect. Deciding to change his tack he asked, "Where'd ya get the clothes?"
"These," Ezra patted the clothing as he said this, "are mine." Watching Vin's expression show that he didn't believe him, Standish added, "one is always in need of the appropriate clothing if one is to successfully partake in a con. Hence the need for articles that blend into the surroundings."
"They're really yours?"
"Yes, Mr. Tanner. As to your other queries, perhaps you could tell Mrs. Travis that the papers are for yourself, and that you wish to practice your reading." Seeing the nod of approval he continued, "I myself am going to the saloon. Once I've procured a repast that is." Standish pulled the large overcoat over his jacket and pulled the worn brown hat over his eyes and motioned with his arm for Vin to proceed him. "One more thing, Vin," hearing the serious tone of the southerner, Tanner turned back to face the gambler. "Please desist in approaching me while I'm at the saloon. I'd rather not have to contend with the extra attention from the others as to why you're associating with someone of my dubious character."
"Ya mean stay away from ya." Tanner stated.
"Then why din ya just say that?"