Vin left the room and headed to the jail, figuring on defusing some of Chris' suspicions, and leaving Standish and the Judge to sort through the puzzle. Standish had informed Travis of some of the possible scenarios he'd worked out, and backed them up with the articles from Mrs. Travis' newspapers. The judge agreed with the gambler's choices and he added another name to the list as well.
"Benjamin Chisholm is a respected lawyer, and his presence is expected in town next week. He and I are old friends."
Ezra shrugged his shoulders, and reluctantly agreed that he could be a target as well. This list is starting to get long, Ezra wearily thought, sighing heavily. He sat down on the bed between the clippings and bowed his head closing his eyes. Standish was starting to think it wasn't such a great idea to conceal his falsified demise, and that they should involve the others before it gets totally out of hand. He jumped slightly when he felt the large hand squeeze his shoulder. His eyes flew open and he mentally berated himself that he'd allowed the old man to startle him. He must be more tired than he thought.
"I'm fine, Judge Travis." Ezra looked up into eyes that continued to probe into his soul and found himself the first to look away.
Travis moved away and sat back down at the table. "We can do this anyway you like."
Now what's going on? The judge is reading me like a book. Must be showing way too much emotion for the Judge to pick up on his insecurities. Standish rolled his neck and straightened his shoulders as he put his poker face back on. "Sir?"
Travis saw the subtle change come over the gambler, and watched in fascination as the mask dropped back into place. He also knew that this was the best way to proceed, without Standish coming into more danger. One failed attempt on his life was enough; fortunately the badguys weren't aware that they'd failed in their attempt, which gave them the decided advantage. Assuming they could find out who the target is. Travis slowly raised his eyes and looked into the concerned green ones of Standish. Did he say something to me? His confusion almost mirrored the conman's.
"Judge... are you alright?" Standish crossed the room and crouched down in front of the older man who'd claimed the room's only chair. He handed the Judge a glass of water. "Judge?"
Travis was brought out of his reverie when he heard the gambler mutter something about getting Nathan. "Ezra... I was just rehashing the information you'd given me." And he smiled widely at the concerned gambler. Travis had to admit he hadn't expected Standish to react like that. The man kept to himself, a loner if ever he saw one. Although his loyalty to the other seven men seemed genuine, and by the turnout at his funeral, the man had obviously formed a strong bond within the community.
After scanning the articles for over two hours the judge had to admit his body had stiffened up, and they'd gone through all of the papers now anyhow. The judge lifted his arms up over his head. "Excuse an old man while I stretch out the kinks. You about finished with these?"
"I do believe we've amalgamated all the necessary information. Thank you for your time and assistance."
"What are you planning on doing now?" Travis voiced his concern as Ezra slipped his arms into the large overcoat and picked up the brown hat.
Ezra plastered an innocent grin on his face and slightly lifted his eyebrows. "Surveillance. And I can't very well do so from inside this... " and he waved his hand around to encompass the room, "damn room."
"Be careful," Travis warned. Ezra nodded as he escaped out the door.
Josiah jogged up to the healer and clapped his large hand down on Nathan's shoulder. "Well Brother, congratulate me. I've done my good deed for the day, and now I'll be able to sleep tonight."
"What cha talking about, Josiah?"
"I bought supper for a poor soul who was down on his luck," Josiah explained.
"And that's why yer grinnin' like a Cheshire cat?" Jackson shook his head but grinned anyway.
"A good deed paves the road to salvation. Besides," his arm stole around Nathan's shoulders and guided him up the wooden steps and to the saloon, "I'm ready to, as Ezra would say, have some 'libations'. Care to join me?"
"Sure. You paying?"
The two tall men entered the saloon, and while Nathan headed straight to the seven's table Josiah stopped at the bar first and procured whisky and some glasses. Noticing that the other four lawmen were there, he acquired two bottles of the redeye spirits. "Boys," the former preacher boomed, "got us a little medicinal nourishment." Sanchez held the bottles aloft.
"I ain't drinking no medicine!" JD objected. Buck leaned over and knocked the youth's bowler hat off sending it flying across the room and landing in the entryway of the saloon. "Dammit Buck! Look at what yer doing!" Dunne pushed back his chair to the howls of laughter of the other five men, and raced after the bowler. As his hand hovered over the headwear, another swooped down and snatched it quickly out of his reach. But just as quickly the hat was offered back to the rightful owner. "Ah... Thanks mister." A small nod was the only acknowledgment the man gave to JD. The young man stared after the stranger, following his approach to the bar. He watched for a few more moments when he heard Buck shout out to him. Restoring the hat to his head he clamped his hand on the hat and reclaimed his seat but sliding it further away from the ladies man.
"Ya gonna sit like that all night, kid?" Wilmington snorted into his beer.
"If I haf ta!" The young man felt his cheeks grow red as the others again roared with laughter. "Ya know what, Buck? One of these days you're gonna get what's coming to you!" JD stated with conviction, and to prove his point, the kid let his hand leave his hat and accidentally knocked Buck's beer off the table and landed it in the rogue's lap.
"Hell! JD!" Buck bellowed out in horror as the amber liquid spilled all over the front of his pants, and dripped down onto the floor forming a puddle beneath his seat. He frantically rubbed at the sodden mess, as he stood up he felt the moisture run between his legs and a groan escaped his mouth at the uncomfortable wet feeling the brew created. "Kid, I'm gonna get you for that!" Wilmington threatened, as he strode out the saloon with his legs wide apart, to the chuckling chorus of the others.
"Judge wants us to keep an eye on a fella. Comin' here with his family in the next few days, goes by the name of Hale," Vin announced after the laughter died down.
"L C Hale?" Josiah queried the younger man.
Larabee frowned, wondering why the Judge hadn't come to him with that information.
Lawrence Carter Hale the Third, his wife, Mira, and children arrived in Four Corners early the following morning. Their carriage was large and spacious, comparatively speaking, and was pulled by an impressive selection of six horses. The gentleman himself rode a large black, with shock white stocking legs. He sat tall and upright but rode the animal with the ease of one born in the saddle.
Hale, now in his mid-forties, had enjoyed his life as a bachelor and had been in no rush to enter the bonds of matrimony. He'd wed a much younger woman, Mira, in his later years, who was only now twenty-five years old, and now had been married for six years. Their two children, a boy of five, Charlie, and a girl, Maggie who was three, completed their family.
A tall slim man by the name of Gibbs drove the carriage. Harold Gibbs had been in the employ of Hale for the better part of the last twenty years. He found the pay good and the benefits outstanding, never once since he'd taken on the position of valet to a young Lawrence Hale had he ever considered giving it up.
Gibbs' wife, Ester, was the maid to the young Mrs Hale, and also the nanny to the children. Mira and the children referred to Ester as Mrs Gibbs, only Hale addressed her by her Christian name.
The ornate carriage pulled up in front of the Hotel, and Gibbs jumped down from his high seat in front and grandly opened the door with a florish then pulled down the step. Mrs. Hale stepped out and shielded her face with a white silk embroidered handkerchief as the dust still lingered in the air. Taking the offered hand of the valet, she stepped onto the street then turned to supervise the disembarkment of her children. Although they technically had a nanny, she found that she enjoyed the pleasures of her children too much to allow their total rearing to be done by Mrs Gibbs.
The two children followed their mother and gladly left the carriage. They immediately began energetically running around the carriage and horses, chasing each other. Their mother and father indulged them as they'd been cooped up in the small carriage for far too long.
Although it was unusual for him to be up at this ungodly hour of the day, Ezra Standish had to curb his natural desires for the present, and accordingly wake as the morning sun peaked its head over the horizon. And as much as he'd made the effort and was literally out of bed, his body was still in the state of limbo. And to prove this point he cupped his hand to cover a yawn.
Ezra followed the progress with his eyes, of what he suspected to be the Hale family, from a discreet position across the street. He scanned the surroundings for anyone else that might be intently watching their arrival, but as yet found no one. He winked at Vin when the tracker crossed his line of vision, and the Texan in turn slowly curled up the corner of his mouth into a deceptive grin. Standish pulled the hat down lower when Chris turned back and looked in his direction.
The disguised southerner remained in the same position until well after Vin and Chris had approached, and talked to LC Hale; after following him into the Hotel where he'd garnered accommodation.
"Sumthin' the matter, Vin?" Chris asked the tracker as he glanced behind him for any clues as to the strange behaviour of his friend.
"Nah. Let's get this meetin' over with, pard." Vin directed Larabee's attention back onto the newcomers. "That fella dresses better'n Ezra." He paused then grinned widely. "Sure hope he don't talk like Ezra."
The gunslinger frowned as he listened to the tracker idly talking about the southerner as though he were not dead. Maybe he needed to get Vin to talk to Josiah, Chris thought. The two men, although they were loners, surprisingly had forged a strong friendship. Maybe Vin wasn't coping with Standish's death as well as Chris had thought. Might explain the weird things that Tanner had been doing of late, he mused.
Larabee came to a halt in the middle of the road, and Vin turned back with a frown of his own on his face, as he silently questioned the gunslinger. Taking advantage of Vin's confusion, Chris decided now was as good as time as any. "You missing Ezra?"
Tanner was not prepared for this and almost blurted out that he wasn't, but caught himself in time. "Ah... Sure. Ain't you?"
Larabee ducked his head lower, and very quietly muttered. "Yeah, never thought that I would, but I was kinda used to havin' him around. Still expect to see him every time I walk into the saloon, sitting at his table, and suckering money out of some fool. Or planning some scheme or another. Instead that McBride fella's there in his place... Ain't the same without 'im," Chris finished lamely. "Come on... better go have a talk with Hale."
"Reckon Ez woulda liked to 'ave known that, cowboy." Tanner muttered under his breath as Chris walked away, but the gunslinger was too far away to hear the softly spoken words. The tracker stood motionless for a minute, cocked his head at the southerner then followed Larabee's course into the Hotel.
With both Chris and Vin protecting the Hales for the time being Ezra took the opportunity to head out of town and check on Chaucer. As Hale was the first of the possible victims to arrive he felt it necessary to check his horse before Clarke, Michigan and Chisholm also arrived.
Although he didn't totally discount the others as possibilities, his first instinct directed him to the Hales. If he were running a con, LC Hale would make a worthy target. And as someone had gone to a lot of trouble to get him out of the way to plan this event, then he was more inclined to follow his instincts. Now the judge's friend Benjamin Chisholm was the only one that Ezra did discount, not that he was willing to voice that thought to Travis. The territorial Judge claimed to be acquainted with the man for two decades, but somehow the man's resume didn't fit with, in Standish's opinion, as a prospective target for a con. Can't see a lawyer getting taken down, unless it was by some disgruntled stooge he'd sent to prison that wanted payback. Then why involve Standish in the scheme? Payback is not a con.
The chestnut horse had missed the gambler, and nickered contentedly as Ezra entered the stall. The southerner had also missed Chaucer with a furore. He brushed the horse until the coat gleamed, and he stroked the horse's velvety nose, and laughed at the antics of his friend. He offered an apple that Chaucer had taken immediately, crunching the juicy fruit and swallowing the prized sweet. The horse pranced and snorted then pushed the gambler in the chest with his impatience. "We'll be on our way momentarily, Chaucer." Ezra smiled widely, at his friend's restlessness. He was pleased that Chaucer seemed to genuinely miss him.
Standish threw the blanket on Chaucer's back then followed it with the saddle. After tightening the cinch, Ezra climbed into the saddle, patting the animal as he stepped into the stirrups. He held the reins and guided the horse out into the open, and with a quick nudge of his legs, let Chaucer have his head. The gambler yelled out a 'whoop' in pleasure, as the two raced wildly out through the fields. Knee high grass was trampled and squashed to the ground as Chaucer flew, legs pumping and his neck outstretched, the shoes thundered on the solid ground.
All too soon the southerner had to return and secretly hide Chaucer once more. "I'll be back to get you real soon, my friend. Don't go talking to any strangers while I'm gone." Ezra wrapped his arm around the horse's neck and rested his forehead against Chaucer's silken coat. He wrapped his other arm up over the top, until he was hugging the animal. "You be good! Do you hear?" As the gambler unwrapped his arms the horse nodded his head as though he understood the commands that his owner spoke, and agreed to his every word. Standish grinned as he left the stall, closing the door behind him.
Standish returned to town on his rented horse. He was particularly disgruntled, as the horse continually pulled its head, snorting and doing its damnedest to unseat the gambler. Ezra held the reins tightly in his grip and muttered under his breath about 'undisciplined beast' and 'temperamental horse', the gambler's mood soured immensely. After having spent precious time with Chaucer, he was more aware of the non-persona of this riffraff. Grinding his teeth, Ezra dug his knees into the horse, anxious to return back to town.
Thank God for Chaucer! What would he do without him?
"Tell me again why we're doin' this?" JD whined as his boredom grew. They'd been watching the Hale family now for three hours, and if they added up the hours that Chris and Vin had spent with them, then in total, eight hours had been attributed to protecting the family.
"Kid, the judge wants us ta keep an eye on these folks, so that's what we're gonna do." Wilmington was just as bored as the youth but he wasn't letting on. He shifted his weight on the chair for the umpteenth time, and sprawled his long legs under the table, kicking JD's chair in doing so. This earned him a scowl but nothing more.
"But, why does the judge want us to play bodyguard to 'em?" Dunne persisted. "Other than being filthy rich, they're just a family."
"I think that's exactly why, kid. All that money! Likely somebody got a mind to relieve him of it."
"Well I wish they'd hurry up, 'cause my backside's getting sore with all this waiting," the younger man grumbled.
The well-to-do family had been informed of a possible robbery. But Lawrence Hale was not willing to subject his family to be closeted up in the safety of a Hotel room, no matter how elegant the trappings were, just because some lawmen thought that they might be the victim of foul play. And he openly told Chris Larabee that. So Chris and Vin offered the man the best that they could, and promised, albeit grudgingly, that they would be protected to the best of their ability. Hale snorted at this declaration, and told them they could do what they wanted, but not to come in direct contact with his wife or children. Then he threatened that he would take matters into his own hands if anything did happen to them.
Larabee was still confused about the reasons behind the judge's interest in the wealthy man, and he'd questioned him at length that morning without success. What surprised him just as much was that Judge Travis had spoken to Tanner about this and not directly to him. Not that he had anything against the two of them discussing things; it's just that they'd done it without him.
He fervently wished that the slippery conman were still here. Without a doubt, he'd be able to spot trouble a mile off. Hell! Standish probably wouldn't have riled Hale in the first place, and would have had the man begging for the services of the seven without blinking an eyelid.
Ah, that wasn't to be!
It was late when the gambler returned to Four Corners and the streetlights were already lit. He returned the hired horse to the livery and hastily made his way to the bathhouse. He rubbed at the growing whiskers with distaste, but decided he'd have to leave them in place for the moment. Ezra paused in his stride as he looked into the saloon, a wistful look covered his face, "soon," he promised himself, "I'll be back in there soon." His boots clipped on the hardwood planks as he turned away and headed for the bathhouse.
It was mid morning and the ruckus was only just starting. Outside was all but deserted but in the foyer of the hotel it was crammed with many of the town's citizens and others from around the area. They pushed and shoved against one another and vied eagerly for the few chairs that had been set up. There was a shortage in seating and at last it was decided that more would be required. A scavenger hunt was set into motion to garner more chairs and fit them into the already impossibly tight quarters.
A few women were present, including Mary Travis, Nettie Wells and Gloria Potter, but in general the males far exceeded the females. A long table was set out in front of the audience with a single chair behind it. A glass and a jug of water rested in the centre of the table. A block of white paper under a paperweight received some curious stares as to what was held between the folds. The person to be the centre of attention had yet to arrive, and the crowd was raucous with impatience. Lawrence Hale the Third was to be the speaker that so many of the crowd had come to listen to.
Chris was leaning indolently at the back and shook his head at the hullabaloo Hale was creating, and he wasn't even here yet! Larabee sought out his friends, and finding Vin on the stairs he rolled his eyes heavenward and forced a smile that the tracker returned. Buck he could see to his right pushing some cowpoke down into a vacant seat. Josiah was easily seen, his height eclipsing the common folk with ease. Nathan just entered through the back door and was at this moment threading his way through the crowd toward the gunslinger. Ezra, where the hell was he? Damn! He swore under his breath as he realised that he was, out of habit, searching for the deceased gambler. How long was it going to take? Chris closed his eyes, and sent up a silent prayer, that hopefully the gambler would some how hear, miss you pard, and wish you were still here.
When Chris opened his eyes he continued his search. Only one more to find. Where was the Kid? Chris craned his neck and squinted, as he sought the young gunslinger. He looked to Vin who was in a better position and mouthed, JD? Vin nodded and searched the floor full of sweaty bodies. Chris watched as Vin's eyes flew over the bobbing heads for a full five minutes. The tracker turned back to the gunslinger and signalled his failure with a shrug of his shoulders.
It was just as Larabee was starting to worry when the black-headed easterner came into view, and waltzed up along side of the lawman. "Where you been, JD?"
"I've been looking for more chairs, but I think they're all here, 'cause I couldn't get any more."
Trust the kid to offer his help. "None here from the saloon," Chris pointed out.
"Inez wouldn't let me take any of them," Dunne pouted.
"Hell the sooner this is over the better, far as I can see." Chris called out the warning to him as the youth moved away. "Keep an eye out, JD."
Hale finally showed, and as far as meetings went, he was favourably received. The six lawmen were in attendance but didn't pay a lot of heed to his dissertation. They scanned the room for trouble and when nothing untoward happened the six men relaxed.
Afterwards the crowd vying for his revelations mobbed Hale.
Tanner was tired! Another late night, following a long and tediously boring day. The warm night air swirled around his legs, picking up the loose dust in its weaving course. He reached his wagon and pulled back the oiled cloth that hung from the top and flipped it out of the way, and readied himself to jump into it, and make his bed for the night.
A hand snaked out and trapped his shoulder, and Vin automatically curled his hand into a fist, tightening his muscles Vin spun with a sudden swiftness and threw his hand into the body behind him.
It wasn't like him to be so on edge, but things of late just didn't fit with his idea of normal. He heard the oomph of air expelled as his fist hit into the intruder's midsection and then the muttered oath as the man fell to the ground, landing on his backside. The accent was decidedly southern. "Ezra?" Vin whispered in guilty embarrassment, as he looked down into green eyes that tauntingly stared back at him. "Ah Hell!" Tanner stretched out his hand and hauled the gambler to his feet. "Ya could warn a person." Vin grumbled through the ever-increasing smile.
"Oh forgive my imprudence," was the gambler's sarcastic reply as he absently rubbed his abdomen.
"We can't talk here." Tanner pulled the cardsharp along behind him and down the darkened alley between two buildings. "Sumthin' wrong?"
"Other than having the six of you, and the rest of the town converging on my place of cohabitation, what could possibly be wrong? Hell, I had to climb out the window to escape then traipse along the roofs like a common degenerate. Then you take it upon yourself to pummel me to death... "
"It weren't that hard, Ezra," the tracker defended.
"That's easy for you to say, you were not on the receiving end of it." Standish glared his indignation at Vin.
Vin smirked, he knew that the southerner was trying to irk him, so in deference he ignored it. "So... ?"
Standish informed Tanner that he'd followed a well-dressed gentleman that had been talking enthusiastically with Hale at the meeting, and that the gentleman, furtively met up with an unkempt stranger behind the livery. Ezra explained that he couldn't hear what was being discussed, but Hale's name was mentioned more than once. "I think we've found our adversaries."
"You recognise either of 'em?" Tanner queried.
Vin leant against the building wall and screwed his face into a frown. "If these are the ones we're after, how'd they know to dispose of you?"
"Perhaps my reputation precedes me, or... "
"There's a third person," both Ezra and Vin finished together.
"Great! You gonna tell the judge?" Tanner pressed.
Standish shook his head as he answered Vin. They could inform Travis when and if the other person made his presence known. As much as the gambler trusted the judge he was hesitant to involve the older man in any further activities. He didn't want to risk the man's health or his life if it could be helped.
The tracker touched the gambler's arm, and called his name in a hiss though his teeth. "I'll take the well-dressed dude. You wan ta take the other one?"
"Affirmative." Standish edged closer to the end of the alley and poked his head around the corner, to check his safety of departure. "Sleep well, Vin."
"Ya need a hand to get back up to yer room?" Tanner chuckled at the thought of the gambler scrambling over the rooftops.
"I'm quite capable of accomplishing that minor inconvenience."
The morning sun was ascending into the sky, and other than a few white clouds that skitted across the blue sky, the day was set to be fine and clear.
Thomas Jones roused early from his bed and performed his morning ablution and dressed in his fine clothing. Fingering the lapels of his dark grey woollen jacket, he smoothed them down flat and admired his image that reflected back at him from the mirror. Smiling benignly at his likeness, he was grateful that his job involved the necessity to wear decent clothing and have accommodations in better surroundings. His grin grew as he thought about Morris, who'd been hired on only to help him accomplish this job, and the rat infested barn that his accomplice had chosen to reside in for their stay in Four Corners. Jones visible shuddered at the gross conditions.
Strange fellow Morris! Jones didn't know if that was his first or last name, as the man only supplied the one name. The man never really looked at you. Always had his eyes lowered, or looking off in another direction. But when Jones did manage to gaze into the black eyes, he'd shivered at the cold and ruthless evil that lurked behind them.
Sometimes Jones wondered if Morris was totally sane. He'd break out in laughter at the oddest of times, for no apparent reason. Then there was that knife he was always playing with, stoking it along the sharpening stone as though he were making love to the damn thing. Still, he'd accomplished the simple task of disposing of Standish. And he'd even done it just as he'd been instructed to, without adding his own theatrics to the situation. Thank God, Morris didn't pull that knife out on Standish that day. They'd never got away with it. As it was, Ezra Standish was now dead and buried six feet underground and he sure as hell couldn't interfere with their plans from the grave.
Or so he thought.
Thomas Jones adjusted his tie, and vanity forced him to take another view in the mirror before departing his room. Smiling broadly he descended the stairs and headed for the restaurant. His plans for today had finally come to fruition. With the former conman of Four Corners not here to witness the con, he'd suspect no one else would be privy to the deal, and he'd walk away from his encounter today with the majority of Lawrence Carter Hale the Third's inheritance.