Disclaimer is and always has been I don't own 'em wish I did. Haven't made a plug nickel off 'em either. 12/9/01
The sun just coming up over the horizon, the morning was still cool but the day promised to be another scorcher. One lone figure sat up on the roof of the livery, a weary man who had spent the early hours sitting under the stars with a lot to ponder on. Plain and simple as it was he liked ole Ez. Most folks would think the pair was as different as night and day. The citified southerner was an educated conman and gambler. A dandy, some said, in the way he dressed and talked. In spite the man's use of confounding words Vin had little trouble understanding his fancy friend. Tanner, longhaired and scruffy, never had much use for schoolhouse learning instead was knowledgeable in the way of the land. Yet the two men enjoyed an easy friendship. Not at all like the solid unspoken bond he shared with Chris that was there the minute he first laid eyes on the dark gunslinger. A frown creased his face. Tensions between Larabee and Standish had grown out of control the past week. The leader of the seven didn't fully trust the gambler and both men knew it. Hell half the town knew it after last night. Chris had been on edge lately, a foul mood had settled over him and Ezra was just being...hell Ezra. A fact that seemed to at first annoyed then enraged the black clad gunslinger. Vin felt stuck in the middle, he didn't know what was eating at Larabee but Standish hadn't done anything outside what he normally did to egg him on until last night.
Last night... shit...last night it went too far.
Buck and Josiah had left town three days earlier to escort a prisoner to Red River. Day started off with Chris knocking back a bottle a red eye 'fore noon and he didn't show any signs of slowing down any as the evening wore down. Memories had a lot to do with the volatile mixture of anger and despair that emanated off his lean blond friend threatening to explode. Unfortunately Vin and JD had been out on patrol together when it did. Darkness had long settled over Four Corners when Inez rushed out into the street to tell them what happened as they rode back into town. The pretty bar maid tried her best not to lose her composure as she told JD and Vin that the drunken Larabee had shot Mr. Standish. Not many patrons had been in the saloon at the time Standish had only been there to help Inez to clean up after a particularly busy evening. Apparently the unspoken message the man sent off all day they one to clear stay out of his way, was ignored foolishly by two hapless cowhands who decided it might be fun to poke fun at the drunken man. Idiots 'bout shit their drawers when the pissed off Larabee pulled his guns on them... luckily for them Standish stepped in trying to calm not so lucky for Ez. Those fools ran off leaving the gambler to bear the brunt of Chris' fury. The smooth talking conman did his best to defuse the situation but it only made matters worse when Ezra blocked his path and pursuit of the two men only to have Chris wave the gun at him. The situation seemed to settle down after Ezra held up his empty hands.
"Please Mr. Larabee..."
The lawman growled before lowered his weapon and stumbled back to his table. Feeling everything was under control she returned to her tasks in the storeroom. Moments later she rushed back in after hearing a shot fired to find Chris kneeling beside Standish, pistol gripped lightly in one hand. The gambler lay barely conscious on the hardwood floor as blood spread underneath him.
Now Larabee was passed out in the jail and Ezra was fighting for his life under Tanner's feet.
Thoughts of the dusty town of Red River were left far behind, a single telegram early that morning had changed everything and the two lawmen could only wonder what await them when they returned home. Scarcely seemed that the town could be called that anymore, what the hell had happened in their absence. Simple words... Ezra was in a coma, Chris was in jail charged with his attempted murder. Buck had known things had been strained between the pair but this... spurring his gray on a little faster he glanced over at his companion.
The big man was distraught unable to bear the thought of losing his friend, especially one he loved as a son. He regretting having to leave town knowing the violent clashes had escalated in size and frequency between the regulators leader and their black sheep since the incident in Red River. Sanchez pushed his mount, urging the beast to pick up the pace. No matter how much ground they covered it still would be another day of fretting before they would see Four Corners.
Nate was tired it had been almost dawn when he finished patching up Standish. Like the man was a patchwork quilt he wished it were that easy. Made more difficult by the fact that it was his friend that he was stitching back together. Hell he knew that mixed together as well as oil and water at times with Ezra less than scrupulous schemes to get money. As time had passed by the urbane southerner didn't seem as obsessed with money, now Nate that Ezra's card games reaped in a tidy sum there was no longer the desire to come by it at any means. The man was changing... or at least revealing a better part of himself. That's way he was stunned when... he couldn't say let alone think it. Why would Larabee haul off and shoot Standish? There was no other explanation...was there? Jackson stared down at his patient. Only Ezra and Chris knew neither of them would be saying anything anytime soon.
This was one of the times that JD Dunne hated being sheriff, bad enough that his friend was shot but now he had to watch over the man he... Chris why? Why did you do it? According to Inez the man hadn't said a word just stared on as the giant blacksmith pulled him away watching quietly through glassy eyes as Nate tried to help the fallen gambler. The young man was thankful to Yosemite and Mr. Green, they had helped out Nate so he wouldn't be torn between his two duties toward the town. Mr. Green in fact was still watching over Chris Larabee when they returned to town. Larabee was out, Dunne on several occasions had tried waking him but had failed to do so, he was afraid that the man might have poisoned himself with all that whiskey JD had even wanted to get Jackson to be sure but Tanner had been by earlier and assured him that wasn't the case. The gunslinger would have to sleep it off. Dunne sighed as he left a bucket by the jail cell's cot for when he did wake up.
The morning had begun in the town. The rumors flew across the small town in whispered voices and hushed tones. Nobody had seen Chris shoot Ezra, but the freshly spent shell casing in Larabee's pistol told otherwise. Vin felt guilty. These men were supposed to be his friends why hadn't he seen this coming? He shook his head. No... No... No.... I won't believe that 'til I talk to them. He climbed down from his perch and went to check on his friends again.
The streetlights were lit, their ambient glow filtered through the bars in the window. Larabee blinked and blinked again as he tried to clear his fuzzy vision wondering why his head hurt so monumentally bad that his teeth ached. The bile rose quickly an instantly later he was violent heaving off the side of the cot into a conveniently placed wooden pail, he felt like he lost every meal he had eaten and the last month as he rolled onto his back. Chris was hung over. Shit he couldn't remember drinking let alone... Jail? Last thing I remember... The man couldn't recall returning to Four Corners. Why am I? His thoughts were interrupted as the acidy contents almost came out through his nose and he spewed up what remained in his stomach before dry heaving for five long minutes. He glanced up with watery eyes, the darkened sheriff office looked empty no one seemed to be around. Larabee jumped back a bit when Tanner stepped out of the shadows and unlocked the cell door and carried in a ewer of water and a basin setting them on the floor by the cot. Chris watched as his friend removed a tin cup and a towel from the basin before filling it with water. Vin soaked the towel and wrung it out wiping down the man's face and hands before he repeated the process eventually placing it on the back of Chris' neck, then poured water into the cup.
Larabee slowly levered himself up on one elbow before accepting the drink. He sipped at the cool water unsure if it would stay down.
The man had a larger question in mind.
"We'll talk in the mornin'." Was all Tanner would say as he took back the empty cup dropped it into the basin carrying those and the pitcher water out before securing the door. Leaving Larabee baffled as to why he was being held.
The low light cast shadows in the clinic, making Ezra appear... dead... no not dead not yet... Nathan shifted in his seat his large hand rest lightly on Ezra's pale chest, reassuring himself that the man still breathed. A fever was beginning to take root. The bare skin under his fingers was overly warm. The former slave doubted his abilities from time to time and this night was no different. Sending for a more qualified doctor hadn't been an option. Ezra almost bled to death on the saloon floor. The bullet nicked an artery. Thankfully the blacksmith had helped him haul Standish quickly into the clinic and they managed to get the bleeding under control, the giant man applying pressure to the thigh wound by time while Jackson gathered his kit together to stitch up the life threatening injury. Still the man could die, he had gone into shock and slipped into a coma before had even reached Nate's clinic. The dark healer had wired Cedar Ridge Old Doc McHenry would be arriving there in the morning to look over Ezra. Until then he had the southerner's arms and legs propped up to increase the blood flow around the man's innards. Hopefully it would be enough.
The clinic's door quietly opened. Tanner stepped inside looking at the frail figure that lay in Nathan's bed.
"Still with us."
The healer answered the tracker's question before he had a chance to ask.
"Chris woke up."
Vin replied in kind.
"He say anything?"
"Nah... I told 'im we'd talk in the morning."
Vin finally moved across the room. Another day had passed without knowing what had happened or why. The Judge would arrive in the morning maybe everything would sort itself out then. Tanner doubted that as he took one of Ezra's hands into his own gently rubbing his thumb across the knuckles. He sent a silent plea. Ezra ya gotta wake up... running his other hand through the gambler's sweat soaked hair before he set the lax hand down.
"Need anything Nate?"
The healer shook his head. One of Josiah's miracles...and watched as Tanner left again to patrol the town.
The town settled into another morning. The rituals were the same on any other given day except the gossip as Tanner walked toward the jail conversations dropped into silence as he stepped past. JD was asleep. Vin was thankful for that, the young man idolized Chris Larabee and he shouldn't be there when they found out. Chris was but a man with faults. The Texan also wanted to have a few words with his friend before the judge arrived.
Larabee was awake, hunched over on the edge of the cot with head in hands.
"Fuck you Tanner..."
The croaked words were barely a whisper. Tanner unlocked the cell and stepped inside with a tin cup.
When the man didn't move Vin reached down pulled one of the hands away and placed the cup in it. Watching as the bowed head gingerly sipped the tepid water before asking.
"Mind telling me what happened?"
"Why did I do something I'd regret?"
Chris didn't look up when he answered his aching head throbbed unmercifully.
"You shot Ezra."
Chris shoulders shook slightly as he let out a muffled chuckle.
"Funny Vin... did I ruin his fancy clothes..."
"Chris, he almost died..."
The soft angry words finally understood Larabee snapped up his head with a panicked look across his face an action that quickly spurned a fresh bout of vomiting. The tin cup clattered across the floor. The man barely made it into the fetid container that stood by his feet before he purged the water. Tanner did nothing to interfere as he stood inside the cell door and waited for him to finish.
"Judge will be here in a while best if I knew what happened..."
Looking up with bloodshot eyes Chris opened his mouth but quickly shut it and said nothing just lowered his head back into his hands. Tanner let an audible sigh and pulled the door shut before inserting the key twisting it around once again securing the door in place.
By the time Chris called out to the empty jail the tracker was gone, leaving the dark gunslinger to wonder. What had he done?
Tanner almost collided with JD on the boardwalk outside the sheriff's office. He had to get away and think. Just wasn't possible. He apologized to the younger man.
"He awake yet?"
Dunne nodded towards the jail.
"Have anything to say?"
Vin sat in one of the chairs that were set just outside the jail and Dunne joined him. It was obvious to the young sheriff that the tracker was angry.
"Then why you mad?"
"Didn't ask about Ez!"
I shot Ez?
No I couldn't have...
Then why am I sitting in jail?
Why didn't I ask?
Memories of the past week came flooding back. He and Standish had been at each other's throat. No that wasn't true he was gunning for the slick conman since there return from Red River. He winced at the words that ran through his mind. Ezra did nothing, hell the man didn't even try to defend himself when he lunged after him outside the saloon. Chris had gotten several punches in before Josiah pulled him off... that was how many days ago. He wasn't sure what day it was let alone how much time had passed by. Even had a vague recollection of drinking redeye for breakfast before after that nothing, he hadn't been this drunk since... since Sarah.
An irritated drawl came from just outside the cell.
"Is he okay?"
"Don't rightly know Doc McHenry should be here soon to look at 'im."
Tanner let the news settle on the man.
"Christ... that bad?"
"Bled so much Nate didn't think he'd make to the clinic let alone through a whole day... still could die... he gots a fever in him..."
"Don't know what to tell ya Vin... don't know what happened... I don't know what day it is?"
"Friday Chris... it's Friday."
"Last thing I remember was sitting in the saloon Wednesday morning..."
"Hell Chris afore ya ask couldn't been no one else 'cause you an' Ez were the only ones in the saloon and when Inez walked in you was next to him with a gun in yer hand. Don't matter Chris... whole town seen ya bird dogging ole Ez... ya been after him since we got back...Somethin's been eaten at ya... Why? Why did ya do it?"
"Chris yer my friend but so is Ez... since we started up here ya have had a problem holding back yer tongue and times yer fists when it comes to him. I'm tired of being stuck in the middle of ya'll. Ya gone too far this time Chris..."
He didn't get a chance to answer before Vin had turned on his heel and left.
Like I have an answer...
What have I done?
The tracker was still fuming when Buck and Josiah returned to town later that morning. He still sat in front of the jail. JD had left moments before to check on Ezra now that Doc McHenry was there besides the young man hadn't wanted to be around when the judge talked to Larabee.
The concern was evident on Sanchez's face as he posed the one word question.
"Doc from Cedar Ridge is up in the clinic... Travis is in with Chris."
Buck asked as his dismounted.
"Chris don't recall much 'bout that night... no one else there... 'Cept Miss Inez an' she was in the back room at the time."
"Lord, have mercy..."
Josiah muttered as he stared at Vin, the truth of the telegram was finally setting in. The big man strode off in the direction of the clinic leaving Buck and Vin in silence on the boardwalk. Wilmington pulled a chair closer to Tanner's and sat down.
"Vin?" The ladies man knew there was more so he waited for his friend to speak.
"Buck... everythin' went to hell after you left... he finally did it...after all them words...he really tried to kill him..."
The older man remained silent while Tanner continued.
"We shoulda known... Chris didn't seem that bad off jist his regular surly self when JD and I went out on patrol even Miss Inez was shocked, 'cause after them cowpokes left he got all peaceful and sat back drinkin' at the table agin... then she heard the shot. Buck, he was kneeling over him... not even trying to help..."
Aguish gripped the tracker's features. Wilmington draped an arm across Tanner's shoulders and gave him a squeeze. "Worse thing is Ez ain't woke up and Nate don't know..."
A strangled sob was choked off as Vin heaved in a breath. A shocked and wordless Buck sat there numb trying to feebly comfort his friend.
A pain jolted out of the darkness, he could hear voices in the distance. Ezra tried moving but his limbs failed to obey his wishes. He let out a deep breath.
McHenry had Nate pulled off to the side of the room. JD was trying to follow their conversation so Josiah was the only one who noticed the change in breathing and he leaned in close.
He was rewarded as Ezra slightly rolled his head in the direction of Sanchez's baritone voice causing the older man to smile. Lashes fluttered but the eyelids never opened.
The dark healer strode over with McHenry on his heels.
"He moved..." The former preacher returned his attention to the frail man. "Son... can ya hear me?" The brow wrinkled as the dull green eyes opened briefly then slid closed.
"Sit him up..."
Nate waited with mug in hand as the larger man lifted up the pale Standish so that he could give the man water. Once the cup was drained Josiah lowered the limp gambler back on to the bed where he remained unresponsive.
"This good ain't it Nate?"
The healer nodded his head without turning around. Doc Mc Henry had joined Jackson at Ezra's side forcing Josiah to move out of the way. He smiled at the young sheriff.
"Might want to inform our other brothers of the good news."
The two men were brought out of their dismal thoughts as Dunne came down yelling from Nathan's clinic.
"HE WOKE UP...." The almost breathless dark haired youth panted out again. "Guys he woke up... he ain't in a coma no more...."
The other lawmen broke into grins. Maybe just maybe the gambler would survive this.
"Whoa kid... settle down."
Wilmington restrained the younger man with a loose grip on his wrist.
"Nate said it was good. He's sleeping now though..." Dunne's broad grin quickly dimmed. "But he didn't say a word... we still don't know what...."
"Chris done it..." Came the soft reply from Tanner. "Whether he meant too or not..."
Vin didn't get to finish before JD shot out a question.
"Did the Judge come out yet?"
The scoundrel shook his head watching the townspeople walk by.
"That ain't good..."
The dark haired youth dipped his head down for a moment then looked up the street as well he wanted to do anything that would keep his mind off this mess. Doc McHenry was exiting the clinic with leather bag in hand. The trio watched as Yosemite brought around the old doctor's horse and buggy.
""Scuse me boys I'm gonna check on Ez."
Tanner left his chair to jog down the boardwalk.
"Well Kid care to join me?" Buck grinned up at his friend.
"Yeah I want to know what the Judge has to say."
The youth took the recently vacated seat and stretched his legs out while he waited.
The sun shone brightly into room where Ezra Standish was trying gamely to wake up. Struggling to open heavy eyelids. A sense of urgency filled his mind as continued to fight the dregs of exhaustion. Important that he say something, ask something that eluded his waking mind, if only he could rouse his sleep-ridden thoughts.
"Son you have to rest..."
Josiah soothed as he ran his hand down a sweaty cheek.
The slurred word barely reached the former preacher's ear. "I know..." The older man leaned closer listening to whispered word.
"Son you're safe here... no one can hurt you."
"Chris.... Wh..where is Cc.. hris?"
"In jail...he can't hurt you again."
"Ezra please you have to rest..."
Nathan finally interrupted the conversation when he saw the southerner's agitated state.
The effort of talking was taking its toll on Ezra but he fought hard to ask the questions.
"He shot you..."
" No... no... no ... accident... ." The words were barely audible but Ezra repeated himself. " Was ...accident...please... where's Chris? Please... please... "
"Go get him Josiah... fool won't rest 'til he sees him."
Jackson knew there was no way the weakened man would settle down until he saw Larabee. Neither of the men had seen Tanner enter the room, he leaned silently against the wall listening to Ezra's hoarse pleas a frown creased his face. Nathan wiped the sweat from the gambler with a damp cloth trying to calm him but the injured man resisted his gentle ministrations.
Less than five minutes later the preacher return with Larabee and Judge Travis. Standish visibly relaxed when the dark gunslinger stepped through the door.
" Judge? "
The formidable man stood by the bed.
"Son you should rest..."
" Waas... accident... " The pain filled eyes stared up at Travis before asking again for the lean blond. "Chris... " Larabee moved closer to Standish as the others watched on. "Private...want to talk to Chris... alone please... "
Jackson shushed the others from the room in an attempt to get Ezra to quiet down.
"We'll be outside if ya need us... and Chris keep it short..."
The clinic door clicked shut. Larabee hadn't moved he stood there gaping at the pale man.
The black clad man blinked back tears that threatened to fall. Gone from him was the anger and rage only to be replaced by guilt and despair.
What had he done?
His strength was waning and he had to make sure Chris understood. He flexed his fingers in a failed attempt to raise his hand. So he tried again to reach the man with his failing voice.
"Chris... please...not ya fault... "
The pained entreaty broke him from his rigid stance and he took a seat by the bed pulling the shaking hand into his own.
"Gawd Ezra... I'm so sorry..."
"No need...did nnnothing wwrong... "
Ezra's body weakly slumped back. After trying so hard to remain in the conscious world he gave into the exhaustion not hearing Larabee's soft confession.
"But I did..." Leaning forward he pressed his forehead into their entwined hands repeating the words. " But I did..."
The five men returned accompanied by Orrin Travis to find Chris asleep his head resting on the bed at the southerner's side.
"Gentlemen I see no further need to detain Mr. Larabee, though I expect an interesting story from our resident gambler. Now if you would excuse me I'd like to visit with my grandson. Mr. Jackson, please keep me apprised of Mr. Standish's condition." The judge left the lawmen to care for their own.
"Come on Brother..."
Sanchez pulled Chris up from the bed. The man roused enough to be bodily steered onto the nearby cot where Josiah slipped off his boots and set them on the floor.
"Now what?" The honest query came from JD as he watched the others settle Chris into the cot.
"I don't know kid... I don't know."
Buck slapped his hat against his leg in frustration. They were falling apart at the seams and there wasn't an easy fix.
A gentle breeze fluttered through the curtains, Larabee rolled over slowly his head still ached and his mouth was dry as the desert. He sat up setting his bare feet on the floor it had only taken a moment to realize he was still in the clinic. A quick look across the dimly lit room revealed Jackson asleep in straight back chair by Ezra. Quietly padding across the wood floor he poured drink of water, which he quickly down before pouring himself another.
"You'll make yerself sick doing that Chris."
"Guess I can't sneak by you?"
"No... I almost killed him Nate..."
"Ez said it was an accident..."
"I don't see how that could be..."
"You'll have to take his word on it... at least 'til he gets his wind up... and drink a little slower 'cause I'm too tired to nursemaid you too." The gentle healer graced Larabee with a broad grin. "So go back and lay down 'fore you fall on yer face." The smile quickly faded when Chris just stood there staring at Ezra who lay deathly still in the bed covered by a thin sheet and whispered.
"Problem is I don't remember anything except being angry at him."
"Chris ain't gonna lie to ya... I thought ya tried ta... hell he was shot up close... that's what caused all the damage..."
"Yet he says it was an accident..."
"Best you try ta sleep..."
After a long moment Larabee gave in and tumbled back in a fitful sleep unaware of the other occupant that sat in the shadows of the room. Vin glanced over at the troubled man, his friend, and a brother in every way but blood. Still angry he hadn't spoken to Chris since their words in the jail. The man had treated Ezra like dirt... hell dirt got treated better than the gambler had. Worse of all was Standish let him for reasons Tanner couldn't fathom. Did it on purpose was more like it, always distracting and drawing that fury on himself.
He wasn't going to get any answers tonight and settled back into his corner resting his head against the wall while watching Jackson try the impossible task of getting comfortable in the straight back wooden chair.
Three days had passed and Standish recovered slowly from his injury. His fever had broken the morning following Chris' release and he made no further mention of what transpired the night he was shot, other than being adamant that Larabee stay by his side as he slept the days away. That particular morning the gambler noticed that the gunslinger had yet to retrieve his weapons from Dunne. The black clad man stood staring out the clinic's window watching the people walk on the streets down below. They were alone Nathan had finally taken up Chris' offer and was sleeping in the man's room over at the boarding house.
The weary man called out to him. "Yeah Ezra..."
The blond replied while turning to face the gambler.
"My injury was a misfortunate set of circumstances ..."
"An accident... you've said that...then how come I have a hard time believing it?"
The southerner weak from the blood loss struggled to sit up farther in the bed. Chris was at his side in an instant helping him pulling the man forward to rest against him while he stuffed the pillows behind Ezra's back. When he went to lower Standish back down he found a feeble hand grasping feebly to his shirt as the words poured out.
"That moment was the one time that week I didn't suffer your ire..."
"How can you say that???"
"Let me finish...." Standish eyed his distraught companion before continuing. "Miss Reicillos and myself were cleaning up behind the bar. You were in the process of getting completely inebriated when those filthy uncouth miscreants entered our fine drinking establishment with an ill gotten notion that agitating you would be entertaining. To say the very least their overtures were not well received, for a moment I thought that they would loose control over their bodily functions when in your intoxicated state you drew your weapon on them... I interceded on their behalf.... for which I received the famed Larabee growl and you waved your firearm in my general direction. I truly loathe a mess... after you settled down at your table... I informed you of such... a fact you found high amusing... in your amusement you knocked your bottle of spirits over and ... well in a vain attempt to retrieve it... your weapon discharged."
"Simply put I was drunk and my gun misfired?"
"Yes... your only impropriety being inebriated and handling firearms."
"Nate was right you only needed to get your wind back."
"Ah Mr. Larabee welcome back..."
"Ez... I'm sorry... I was jackass... was treating ya like horse shit..."
"There is no need for apologies...."
"Christ Ez you're acting like I bumped into you accidentally on the board walk...you could have died."
"Surely we can let the matter rest? There was no real harm done..."
"Hell yeah there was... otherwise there wouldn't be a big blood stain in the middle of the saloon and you sure as hell wouldn't be under the clinic's roof... Don't matter if were an accident ...I've been out to get ya... might as well have shot ya out right the way I've been behaving lately..."
Larabee watched the southerner wince then try to sit up on the bed. Chris held him firmly in place with one hand.
"But you have been distressed..."
"I had no call to take this out on ya...none what so ever..."
"Chris please... I accept your apology... can we let the matter rest?"
If it were only that easy...
Noticing a light sheen of sweat had developed on the gambler's pale face Chris relented knowing that the man was physically drained.
He felt Ezra's tense muscles relax under his touch and watched as the pained green eyes closed giving way to the exhaustion that gripped his body. As Larabee sat back the southerner's tenuous hold on him fell away. He sat there for a while watching the younger man sleep. Standish had spoken to the Judge privately the day before about what had transpired in the saloon, that conservation had sapped the frail man's limited energy. It was the gambler's desperate insistence he stay nearby that troubled him the most, more than the fact he had barely spoken two civil words with Vin since he woke up in the jail. He hadn't really spoken to any of his friends, Nate was the exception and their conversations were centered on Standish's care. Chris had yet to face the townspeople never wandering far from the clinic even taking his meals within its walls they were supplied by Mrs. Potter at Ezra's request. The gunslinger hadn't been eating and the con man had remedied it when the woman stopped in to see him.
Oh how the mighty have fallen...
Just over a week ago it had been Standish's ethics and morals under scrutiny, Larabee wondered how he did it. How could the man walk through the streets with folks questioning his intentions...hell no ...not just that alone but having his 'supposed' leader suspecting ulterior motives in his every word and his every action. Now Chris' own actions were suspect. Not much fun being on this side of it at all.
Easier to run from it...
He finally understood and hoped for the courage that Standish showed on a daily basis.
As the days passed Ezra was taking time to speak to the other peacekeepers one by one as they came by the clinic asking and wanting to know the facts themselves, about what had happened that fateful night and reluctantly accepting what Standish said as fact. Forgiveness was a little harder to grant to the man that led them but if Standish could stand by him then some how they would find a way too. Nine days and Standish still felt weak but he was up on his own two feet, he hadn't gotten far just outside the clinic sitting in the sun. For the first time Larabee wasn't by his side, he insisted the man get back to the business of protecting the town. The pain in his leg was dulled by one of Nathan's vile concoctions. Tanner was nearby sitting atop the first step on the stairs silently gazing down the main street.
"Mr. Tanner?" He tried again when he failed to get the other man's attention. "Vin?"
"Ya wanna go back in?"
The tracker still surveying the town hadn't looked in his direction.
"No... not just yet... might I inquire about lack of camaraderie between Mr. Larabee and yourself..."
Ezra changed tactics.
"Why aren't you and Chris talking?"
Finally the scruffy Texan had looked in his direction and Ezra quickly translated.
"I's still right pissed at him..."
Tanner stared at him for a long moment before he answered.
"Still a friendship like yours should not be tossed away..."
Still the patient gentleman prodded on.
""He coulda have killed ya..."
A pained looked skittered across Vin's face.
"My dear man I am alive and well on the road to recovery and I'm asking you to please find a way to get around this dreadful happenstance. I could never forgive myself if your relationship with Mr. Larabee fell into ruins because of this..."
An elaborate gesture was made towards his healing leg.
Vin wanted to just say to hell with it but the adamant gambler was refusing to let the issue go.
"I'll think on it..."
"That's all I'm asking for my friend..."
A dimpled grin graced his wan features.
"How are you feeling son?"
Ezra had been dozing outside the clinic when Josiah took over for Vin. He didn't seem to notice the endearing term.
"Dandy...Just dandy Mr. Sanchez..."
Grimacing as he tried to shift to a more comfortable position.
"Would you like me to help ya back in?"
"I'm rather enjoying the warmth..."
The older man frowned. Normally the Southerner had trouble keeping warm, but a chill had settled in him since his injury. Nathan was still out on one of the out lying ranches the Colby woman had just been blessed with twins, the babies were delivered the night before. The healer was reassured by his fellow lawmen before he left that Standish would be watched over. Despite Ezra's proclamations that he was well Sanchez was deeply worried about his friend. The gambler usually fought his way out of the clinic but he hadn't mentioned so much as a desire to leave a testament to his weariness.
"What's troubling you son?"
The inquiry was made Josiah never expected much more than a convoluted answer.
"And in the middle I fell into the clutch of circumstance..."
"Josiah, ever wonder what the fates would have dealt us had we not met here?" The man didn't answer instead he waited for Ezra to continue. A long moment later he did just that. "I myself have been pondering on the very subject as of late and do not wish for all of this to be for naught... so I ask will you help me?"
"How can I do that?"
"By not allowing our merry band of regulators to fall victim to these circumstances..."
The desperate look in Ezra's eyes gave Josiah pause to wonder why... but he knew the answer each man had given into their anger at Chris. They would have fallen apart and taken a new path if it hadn't been for the southerner survival. His quiet determination to reunite the seven was evident, Josiah sighed knowing that there had been a time the gambler would have cut his losses and run. Wiping a callused hand across his face Sanchez grinning as he did so.
"What can I do to help you?"
Sanchez watched the pensive man for a moment. Unexpectedly the gold tooth glinted in the sun as Ezra returned the smile.
Hushed voices woke him.
"Don't know kid.... he was sleeping when I came up."
With out opening his eyes he recognized his companions. The affable pair was in close proximity to his... the clinic's bed.
Hell I've been spending far too much time with in theses walls.
An acknowledgement to their presence was quietly put forth without opening his eyes.
"Hey Ez..." The light tone belonged to Mr. Dunne. "Josiah said you wanted to see us."
The day was already taking a toll on him. Nathan would have had a fit if he found out, ah but he wasn't there so he persisted with his plan and with bleary eyes opened he struggled to sit up.
"Whoa pard lemme help ya..."
The ladies man leaned in and gently pulled Ezra up and forward waiting while JD stuffed the pillows against the headboard so that he could rest against them. When finally settled the flush of embarrassment had risen in the southerner's pale cheeks.
When would this damnable weakness leave him?
"What did ya want?" Dunne's soft brown eyes were watching him intently, as Ezra steadied himself, the normally verbose man nervously quietly picked at the blanket under the scrutiny of his friends before returning the gaze.
Indeed what did he want?
"Well..." The word was drawn out a bit before he continued. "I was wondering what your intentions were?"
"Fer what Ez?" Buck answered concern laced his words.
"Regarding Mr. Larabee..."
"Ain't got none..." JD bit out and Buck sat back in his chair with a contemplative look on his face as he stared at his young friend for a second before sinking back even farther. Buck had known Chris long enough to know the dark forces that swirled around the man. He had seen his long time friend struggle with these demons and understood the black tide that had threatened to pull him under. Larabee had fought and kept them at bay. But some how he slipped and fell under their control if only briefly and Standish had paid a heavy price. The damage was done. The question being was it too late to repair.
"Mr. Dunne?" The gambler carefully prodded. Dunne's head hung low clearly unable to look his friend in the face. Ezra's shaky hand snaked out and lifted the young man's chin, watery eyes looked into his own. "JD, all I ask is that you remember he's just an ordinary man..." Dark lashes blinked back the tears before the young man nodded. Ezra let out a tremulous sign of relief. Buck broke into an easy smile and rubbed 'dust from his eye' before clamping a comforting hand on the back of the kid's neck while thinking maybe just maybe they had a chance.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan Jackson wrung the excess cold water out of another cloth and after wiping the sweat from the man's brow he placed it across the back of Ezra's neck. He sat on the bed next to his patient. Asleep the southerner lay limply on his side, the injured leg cushioned by blankets. The tall man weary shook his head his patience had been tested thoroughly upon his return from the Colby ranch. The gambler had relapsed into a fever. Damn him, the man hadn't rested much since the healer's departure the day before. At least he had been slumbering now for several hours thanks to one of Nate's potent herbal teas. A smirk graced his dark face as Ezra gamely fought to wake up. Heavy lids unpeeling as eyes rolled around in a vain effort to focus on the fuzzy world around them. The thick sleep laden confused words drawled out.
"Easy Ez... go back to sleep... you over did it ya fool..." The healer good-naturedly admonished the ailing man. He had to lean in to hear the words the man barely got out before succumbing to sleep once again. "Was important... "
Yes Ezra it was but you needn't kill yourself trying.
The water sloshed as Nathan dipped the cloth back into a basin, wrung it out to wipe down Ezra's bare arms and chest before throwing a light blanket over him, a small measure of comfort as well as warmth to fight off the chill that seemed to constantly plague the southerner, an after effect of the blood loss. Satisfied his patient was indeed asleep he lightly rested his fingertips on the man's neck and frowning at the rapid pulse before he pushed himself off the bed to busy himself making up a medicinal brew. While he did he thought back on the conversation with Josiah. They had talked about the gambler's desire pull them back together so that they could to put this disaster behind them and remain as friends. Jackson chuckled to himself
Lord, help us.
Standish had a plan.
+ + + + + + +
So far the tenuous ties that had threatened to unravel held fast as JD was brought back into the fold. Of the seven he and Vin had remained the angriest even after finding out the shooting was an accident. His image of Larabee had been shattered. Ezra in his own way found a way to encourage the young man to view the man in a different light. Buck had been Chris' friend far too long and had seen the results of the man's darker side accepted this and moved on. If Ezra had died that acceptance would have ended with the southerner's life. Josiah believed that if Ezra could forgive Chris well so could he. Nathan had in the clinic with Chris as the man anguished over his actions seeing first hand the guilt and remorse the man endured while remaining at Ezra side. Only two of the seven remained on the outs. And they had five friends where hell-bend on reuniting them. Wouldn't be easy Larabee and Tanner had avoiding one another. The men had fallen into pattern when one arrived the other quickly departed. The routine was about to repeat itself again when Inez rushed into the saloon.
"Mr. Standish, I went to bring him up his lunch... the clinic was empty..."
"I'll check the livery..."
"I'll check upstairs..."
The two men separated and searched through town asking anyone they had met up if they had seen Ezra. Tanner eyed Chris stepping out of the jail ten minutes later with Josiah at his heels. The Texan trotted towards them panting out.
"Chaucer's not in his stall..."
"Mrs. Potter thought she saw him ride out not more than fifteen minutes ago..."
The only other peacekeeper in town was Josiah and he was guarding their prisoner Lem Perkins until a deputy from Mule's Bluff could pick him up. Buck was on patrol. Dunne had been sent to Cedar Ridge that morning to retrieve a package for the Judge and Jackson headed back to the Colby's apparently there was trouble with the twins.
"Better find him quick...Josiah, stay here when Buck gets back let him know what happened."
"He ain't up to riding... come on."
The duo jogged down the boardwalk towards the livery. Sanchez waited, holding his post in front of the sheriff's office, until he saw the men astride the mounts disappeared from sight before walked inside and pulled open the cell door. Buck whipped the blanket off him as he got off the cot and wiped the sweat from his neck.
"Think it'll work?"
"I hope so brother...Lord I hope so."
"Ya pick up his trail?"
Chris pulled his mount next to Vin watching as the tracker squatted down next to Peso eyeing the ground. Tanner popped up barely able to control his anger, snapped out. "I ain't yet!!!" Glared at the dark gunslinger before he swung back into his saddle with a quick kick and a slap of the reins his horse was moving down the trail leaving the man in the dust. Following the tracker's lead Larabee spurred his own horse forward.
An agitated chestnut gelding was reined in after it spent the better part of twenty minutes galloping down the well-traveled road. The rider's black hat slipped forward as they stopped. The man slipped it back into place before urging the equine off the trail, carefully picking their way down the slope and into the brush. Chaucer whickered woefully as he plodded through the rough scrub. Two riders came thundering down the road passing by just as both the red-coated rider and horse disappeared from view into the ravine below.
Vin muttered under his breath. He had once again clambered down from Peso and as he held the animal's reins loosely in his hand he scanned the rocky earth.
Chris had gotten off his own mounted and walked next to Vin. The buckskin clad man snarled at him. "Shut up Larabee ... I lost him..." Chris stepped back slightly but said nothing. Watching the man he considered a brother as the anger threatened to boil over while growled out. "Have ta back track..." Tanner climbed back on his horse. Grimly nodding the silent man followed suit as they turned around frantically trying to find out just where Standish had left the main trail.
Forty minutes later Nettie Wells sat on her porch waiting. The skies were darkening, a fast approaching storm loomed overhead, and in the distance she saw a horseman. The familiar flash of red unmistakable was riding in a steady pace and heading straight for her homestead. Finally both rider and horse stood before her, the young man climbed down with a happy grin.
"Howdy Miss Nettie..." The dark hair youth removed Ezra's black low crown hat carefully, handed it to Mrs. Wells while he shucked off the gambler's coat and did the same. The old woman smiled as she folded the fine garment over her arm, was amused by the sound of the exuberant chatter used by young JD Dunne, as he spoke to Standish's prized animal while leading him towards her barn. After a moment she stepped back into her home.
The deep voice of Nathan Jackson greeted her as he strode out of the bedroom.
"How's Mr. Standish?"
Nettie hung the fancy coat off a peg by the door and rested the hat on her mantle.
"Sleepin' finally...I take it JD jist rode in."
"Yes, he's settling the horse in."
Lightening flashed across the blackened sky as the thunder rolled in and the rain began to fall gathering in intensity as each moment that passed. The two men walked along the slick muddy trail with heads hung low, their mounts trod slowly behind. Lagging far behind Tanner, Larabee stumbled and fell into the mire where he lay motionless as the Texan moved on ahead.
The rain fell unabated as a small laugh escaped Nettie when the younger man explained how he managed to elude the formidable pair. She was busy preparing the evening meal. "Not like Vin to miss signs like that but they were arguing when they passed me..." JD stood by one the home's windows and gazed out. He could barely see the barn as the water fell from the skies
"Least their having words."
"Think they'll be okay there by themselves Nate?"
"JD, they're grown men maybe... maybe since they are lookin' fer Ez might be enough to keep the peace but I don't know fer how long. With those two I don't know how long 'fore some one gets busted up..."
The muddled words filtered through, his body reused to heed them. The words were repeated again. Someone rolled him over and he could feel the raindrops fall onto his face as a gentle slap hit him. "Come on cowboy...." Larabee opened his eyes. A very drenched Vin Tanner hovered over him. Dazed he stared as the water sluiced off the man's hat. "That's it...oh no ya don't..." His eyes rolled then fluttered closed only to snap open when Vin slapped him harder. "Come on..." The sodden man growled at him grabbing hold of his shirt hauling him into a seated position. The ability to remain up right deserted him as he threatened to topple sideways. A firm hand held him steady. A steady stream of obscenities flowed out of the worried tracker. "Damn ya... stupid jack ass...shit...shit...shit..." He haphazardly yanked the muddy blond up onto unsteady legs. Tanner slipped and slid through the muck and sludge dragging the stunned gunslinger with him twenty yards farther down the path. Dropping him in the shelter of a rocky over hang before stalking off to fetch the horses.
The lanterns were turned down low. Ezra tossed his head, sweat soaked hair clung to his scalp as Nate laid a steadying hand on his shoulder. Jackson was worried. He shouldn't have given into the gambler, but the man was working himself into a tizzy, so he had offered to help if Ezra swore to follow his orders. The storm howled around the small home in nature's full fury, the pitch-black sky rumbled overhead and when lightening struck close by the light burst jolted the fevered man from his sleep. The quiet chatter in the next room stopped briefly then renewed. Standish's eyes roved wildly around the room finally settling on the dark man the tension seeped away as the realization as to where he was sunk in. Nathan sat there watching over his ailing friend. The muted conversation from the kitchen caused a furrow in the weary southerner's brow. Came the harsh whisper of... "Are they back?" was followed by Nathan's quiet answer. "No they're not... Ez, can I sit ya up for a minute."
Without waiting for response Nate lifted Ezra up, allowing the man to lean into him as a mug filled with cool water was pressed to the man's lips. Patiently waiting for the conman to drink his fill the weight against him began to steadily increase. Standish was clearly too exhausted to finish as the remaining water dribbled down his chin. A tired sigh escaped as he settled the man back into the bed.
+ + + + + + +
By the time the rain-soaked tracker returned from tying down the unhappy animals in the shelter of nearby trees, the mud covered gunslinger had levered himself up against the rock wall and was barely visible in the squall. He sat slumped in the shadows, dizzily wondering where the gambler and had he managed to evade the storm when Vin lunged for him.
The dark man shushed his companion by placing two fingers on his lips, adjusting the blankets around the fevered gambler before he walked out with the young man into the main living area gently closing the door behind him. Miss Nettie was sitting by the fireplace humming a little tune as she worked on her mending. Young Casey was washing up the dinner dishes as the two men spoke.
"Ezra just went back to sleep..."
"He worried about Chris and Vin?"
The former slave nodded. The day hadn't gone as planned, their two friends were out there somewhere caught in this deluge with no telling what might happen because of the bad blood between them. The consequences from that awful night left Ezra paying the heavy toll physically draining him without allowing him the time to recover from his injury as he strove to pull the seven men back together, the strain alone was just about killing him.
JD frowned as he saw the worry in the Jackson's face and stared at the floor. After a moment he trotted off to join Casey. Nettie stood up setting her stitching on the chair as she admonished the weary man.
"Nathan Jackson you better lay down in Casey's room for spell and rest. That fancy fool ain't the only one who has overdone it. Go on now I'll take care of Mr. Standish."
The wiry old woman shooed the tall healer towards the small bedroom.
A brilliant flash lit up the sky, momentarily confusing the gunslinger as his was unable to block the blow that had his head bouncing off the rocky formation. The enraged tracker managed to land several more solid punches before Larabee threw him off balance sending the scruffy man flying. Vin landed painfully on his back with a thud, the air whooshed from his lungs.
"Damn it Tanner..." Chris panted out as the buckskin clad man struggled to his feet. "Ain't gonna find Ez like this... ya can beat the shit outta me later... after we find him." The angry man sagged back onto the wet ground and ran a filthy hand over his matted down hair as he considered the offer.
"Alright Larabee... after that I'm calling ya out..."
The saloon was nearly empty. The late hour and inclement weather kept the patrons to a minimum. Wilmington sat at one of the back tables rolling an empty whisky glass between his hands. He had sent the lovely Daisy off to bed without him as his worry continued to grow through out the evening with no word from the others. Sanchez stepped out of the wet night through the bat wing doors. He shook the rain from his hat as he strode across the room to join the ladies man.
"Haven't heard a thing...you?"
Buck poured a drink for himself and his friend as they sat in the quiet saloon, unhappily resigned to fact the treacherous weather and time of night prevented a search for their missing friends until the morning.
The question slipped from Tanner's lips following hours of silence, unable to start a fire, spent cold and wet huddled under a damp dark precipice. He was sure Larabee wasn't asleep, a few long moments passed before the man replied.
"I don't know..."
"Yes ya do.... Chris ya were pissed at him all week... what the hell happened in Red River?"
Even as the soft words drawled out into the night he was thinking about that dusty town. The events of the journey had bought him to this. It had been no secret to anyone that Standish hadn't wanted to go, he had just returned from night patrol when the judge requested two men be sent to Mule's Gulch to pick up a prisoner then escort him to Red River. Sounded simple enough. He had been wrong.
Feeling cold, he tried vainly to pull up the blanket, his arm was twisted up in the sheet and the other for some reason was trapped beneath him. A gentle hand assisted him smoothing a quilt over his shoulder, squinting his burning eyes the blurry figure in front of him focused enough to realize it wasn't Nathan.
"Easy son go back to sleep..."
The no nonsense tone of Nettie Wells voice was unmistakable. He stiffened as the memory of where he was and why he was there flooded back.
"Are they here?"
"Not yet..." The answer had Ezra struggling to sit up, Mrs. Wells held him in place with a single hand. "They're grown men... they'll work this out..."
The response only caused the southern to resist more Nettie could handle him. Standish hadn't the strength to keep his eyes open let alone rise from the bed.
"Mr. Tanner doesn't understand what happened..." the last few words were barely audible as he succumbed into a dreamless sleep.
"Nor does anyone else..." Nettie gently patted his chest before returning to her seat as she continued to watch over him through the long tumultuous night.
"Everything went to hell..." Chris' statement revealed little and he didn't elaborate. He couldn't justify his actions to himself let alone Vin. The dark rage had twisted and instead being directed inward targeted the only one who knew. Standish hadn't done a thing wrong. Larabee, the man who lived for years wallowing in a pit of anger and despair allowing his hatred for life to flow his weapons and it was he who had failed. No amount of words could explain that away. Ezra didn't ask. Nor did he say a word to the others about what had happened outside that dusty little town. The southern fool had accepted the brunt of his fury at times actually redirecting the focus of that anger from others back onto himself. Chris tried to push the thoughts aside and concentrate on what was important, finding Standish.
Not getting a response from the gunslinger Vin settled back against the rock wall, closing his eyes as he listened to the rain waiting for morning to come.
Dawn was hours away, when Nettie woke to the sound of Ezra's muttering in a fevered dream.
"Please... don't do it please... Cchhris...no...no..."
Quickly sitting down by his side, she laid a reassuring hand on him gently stroking his damp cheek while whispering a steady stream of soothing words. Remaining by him until settled back into an easier sleep. Her heart clenched as the truth behind the revealing words chilled the old woman down to her bones. Leaving her wondering as to why Mr. Standish had lied
The hot spell that had enveloped the land had dissipated with the rain. The early morning sky was over cast and gray as the two men set out on their mounts again to resume the search for their missing friend. Vin's anger had died with the coming of the light, Chris never explained what had happened between him and Ezra in Red River but the anguish was evident in the man's every breath. Tanner had decided since the Wells ranch was nearby, they would stop by to see if she had seen the gambler.
A grin spread across his dirty face, an unsaddled Chaucer was in the middle of Miss Nettie's vegetable garden munching away oblivious to their approach. A bemused snort slipped out when JD Dunne slid out the front door in a futile attempt to catch the scavenging beast. The chase had begun in earnest with the young man running full bore after the animal. Each time he stopped to catch his breath, Chaucer would move in close and stop just out of his reach. Each time the dark haired youth went to grab for the animal it would merely gallop off then patiently wait for JD to catch up and start all over again. The two riders were almost at the house before the younger man noticed them.
"Hey Kid mind telling me just where Ezra is?"
The soft Texas drawl had Dunne blushing, by now Tanner knew they both had been duped. He and Chris had been too busy fighting to notice that this little ruse reeked of Standish. The young man panted out. "He's inside with Nate..." The simple reply had made Vin realize that more than a few of their friends had been involved in this scheme. Larabee hadn't said a word as Tanner climbed off Peso tying him to a porch post before he did the same and followed him inside the small homestead. Only to be greeted by Nettie herself, she ushered the men into the kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and a breakfast of biscuits and eggs.
+ + + + + + +
"Where is the little weasel?"
"Vin Tanner mind your tongue ... and before ya start fretting Mr. Jackson is watching over him in my bedroom. Neither of you are going any where near him until you eat and wash up. "
Nettie had a mind to say a thing or two to Chris Larabee, but she said nothing. The man looked forlorn almost lost as he sat at her table hadn't touched a bite of the food or drank a drop of the coffee while Vin almost wolfed his all of his down. He just stared at the door that hid Ezra from view.
"Mr. Larabee is there a problem with my cooking?" The tone of voice made him turn to look at her after a moment he answered. "No Ma'am."
Tanner had the good sense not to gawk, instead he rose and poured himself another cup of coffee as Larabee took a few bites and swallowed some of the bitter brew. After Vin quickly downed the second cup he smiled at the older woman and excused himself.
"Mizz Nettie I'm gonna see if JD needs help catching that nag 'fore I wash up." Truth was the tracker wanted to see Ez for himself, but he had a feeling that Chris needed to see him more.
The room was quiet save the sound of the southerner's breathing. Nathan had heard the two men enter yet chose to remain where he was. Some things were best left to run their own course since no one called for his aid he safely assumed the idiots hadn't throttled one another. Grateful that they had shown up, Ezra had been resisting going to sleep. No amount of cajoling seemed to work and the healer didn't want to force more herbs down the man in his weakened state. A noticeably cleaner Chris opened the door and peered in. Ezra stirred and noticed his arrival.
Jackson stood up and stretched with joints popping he excused himself. "I'll be back..." Fully intending to get some of that breakfast Mrs. Wells had prepared as he slipped from the room.
"Ezra, you're not looking so good..." Chris was shocked the younger man's appearance, Standish had relapsed. A fevered hue tinged his pale features.
"Neither are you..."
"I suppose my ride through the rain was your doing..." The weary man barely moved his head as he smiled. "Thought as much..."
"Are you and Mr. Tanner on speaking terms?"
"Aw hell then all of this was for nothing..." A tired sigh escaped him as he failed to raise himself farther up on the bed. An exhausted Ezra slumped back onto the pillows. A fine sheen of sweat now coated his skin.
"He's stop trying to put my head through a wall...It's a start"
"There is that...might I ask are you faring well Mr. Larabee?"
The frail man's gaze bore through him.
No he wasn't... not at all...
As soon as it was light enough Wilmington and Sanchez were on the trail. Heading out to the Wells Ranch to see their wayward brothers themselves. The thoughts of what happened almost three weeks earlier weighed heavily on their minds. The rumors flew around on just what exactly happened on the journey between Red River and Mule's Gulch.
What Josiah knew for sure was that the prisoner Marcus Duncannon had escaped, two innocent people had perished and several more were seriously injured before the man was recaptured two days later outside Four Corners. Only four people knew what had transpired just hours after the lawmen had left Mule's Gulch that day with their prisoner. Larabee, Standish, Duncannon and Judge Orrin Travis. None of them were talking.
+ + + + + + +
The mustached ladies man keeping his own counsel as he rode silently beside the former preacher, his thoughts were along the same line. Wilmington had been shocked when Chris and Ezra had showed up unexpected in Four Corners with a bound and gagged Duncannon slung across the back of a horse. They were bruised and dirty, Larabee was in a foul dark mood and Standish was uncharacteristically silent. Once the prisoner was secured in the jail and a wire sent off to the judge the two men retired to their room without so much as an explanation.
Less than two days later Sanchez and he were on their way to Red River leaving behind a passive Ezra in the sights of a surly and drunken Chris. Buck grimaced at how true that thought had been. Which made Ezra's mindset since first waking up after being shot all the more confusing. Instead of being afraid of Larabee, he was desperate to keep him nearby. Determined to make sure the man in black was all right and being taken care of. Now all Buck wanted to be sure of was that Chris and Vin had made to the Wells ranch in more or less one piece.
Leaning against front porch post Vin chuckled as he saw JD plodding through the mud as he led Standish's chestnut gelding in to the barn. The youth was splattered head to toe with wet grime and the animal was huffing and snorting the entire way. About that time Chaucer decided to balk and sat down on his hindquarters, the beast was in a decidedly surly mood that morning.
"Hey JD was coming ta see if needed any help..." The Texan laughed even harder as normally refined mount suddenly lay on its side and rolled around in the mire, proceeding to give itself a hardy back scratch as he snorted his pleasure while kicking his hooves wildly in the air. Only to cover Dunne with more of the muck and slime when Chaucer abruptly stood up and shook off of filth. The JD glared at Tanner, then cringed when more howling laughter came from behind him. Buck and Josiah had arrived in time to see the crazy horse's performance.
"Hey Kid having fun?"
By then Wilmington was roaring, tears screaming from his eyes and didn't see the clod of wet earth coming until it smacked him in the side of the head. He slipped and as he slid out of his saddle he desperately tried to grab on too late. Buck fell down into the sludge with a wet thud. The chase was on. A quiet oh no escaped from Dunne's lips and he took off running with Wilmington slipping and sliding behind him. The raw tension they had felt moments early had lifted as the mud fight ensued between the pair with Josiah and Vin tried their best not to get involved, but the muddy ladies man accidentally plowed into the chuckling preacher as the sodden youth streaked by. The pair toppled into the already dirty Texan and ended up a tangled heap in the mud, Dunne having made his escape across the yard.
By then Nathan and Nettie had stepped out onto the porch to see what the ruckus was about. The mud fight was in full swing, four supposedly grown men were slipping, sliding as they chased and wrestled one another down into the muddy earth. The healer and old woman were wise enough to stay clear of ensuing mess and were joined by a somber Larabee. He was supporting the ailing Standish who stood on shaky legs with a loosely wrapped blanket around him. Jackson said nothing instead stepped inside and quickly returned with a chair, which the wavering Southern accepted graciously, his mirth barely contained from his seat as he watched his faithful steed prance around in the thick of it, bumping into and knocking over the sodden lawmen. A small smile even crept across Chris' face as the much smaller sheriff tackled the big preacher and slamming him down face first to the ground. The smile turned into quiet laughter as Josiah sat up spitting out mud.
The action stepped up a notch with Tanner running trying to lose Wilmington, kept circling around the water trough trying to avoid the man. Buck thought he had Vin, but was knocked into the trough by a blur of horseflesh. Water flew. The sopping man sputtering as he broke the surface of the water.
Vin had fallen in the mud howling, when the drenched Wilmington towards him and the fact he couldn't stop wasn't helping. Allowing Buck the upper hand, to bodily throw him in the murky water.
Nathan leaned back against the house with a huge grin on. He had been observing both Larabee and Standish as the antics in the yard continued, God how they had sorely needed the distraction.
Twenty minutes later the last of them was dunked in the water trough, in the end it had taken all three to get Sanchez into the water.
He noticed although the smile was still there Ezra was quickly losing the battle to stay awake. "Come on Chris help me get him inside." To which was answered Standish softly uttered. "No I'm fine..." Not at able to resist being pulled to his feet. The unsteady man supported under his elbows by Nate and Chris was guided back into the home on unsteady legs. Mizz Nettie had the bed ready, the linens had been stripped away and fresh ones were in their place. The gambler was still mumbling as they laid him down.
"I assure you I am quite alright..."
"Yeah sure ya are..." Nate chuckled as he flipped the blanket over him. "Listen to me ya fool... ya better sleep... Chris can you keep an eye on him, with them idiots outside I never did get a chance to eat."
The dark gunslinger didn't answer instead he took a seat by Ezra and Nate once again left the room Larabee's solemn disposition had quickly returned. He stared blankly the wall, after a moment he realized that Ezra had been calling him and turned his head in southerner's direction unable to meet his gaze.
"Please cease your self denunciation..." Chris dipped his head down and said nothing.
There was nothing left to be said.
"Please..." The exhaustion that gripped him was stealing his voice. "There has been enough tragedy in this melodrama..."
Rising up from his seat a weak hand grabbed his own. The glazed green eyes revealed the emotions that the inscrutable man tried so hard to quell as he whispered.
Without saying a word Chris sat down again Standish's feeble grip only relaxed as he slipped into a fevered slumber.
'Do ya think that is wise?"
"Leaving them alone..."
"Mizz Nettie... Ez won't have it any other way... that southern cuss hasn't let Chris out of his sight for fer long not since he woke up..." He paused for moment while he took a swig of coffee. " Fool worked himself into a state night 'cause he figured Larabee have been gone too long."
"Last night Mr. Standish said some things..."
"Whilst he's dreaming?" Mrs. Wells nodded to the healer's inquiry. "I know... I've heard them too an' when I asked him 'bout it, he jist says it were an accident."
"The others know?"
"No ma'am an' I'd appreciate if ya kept it quiet don't need to have Ez fretting any more than he is."
"I ain't gonna wash him off..."
The waterlogged tracker was straddling the fence watching the young sheriff trying to capture the uncooperative Chaucer. A chuckling Buck and Josiah were with him standing next to the small corral watching the game of tag the horse was playing with the unhappy youth.
"Aw come on Vin please I need some help here..."
An equally wet Dunne pleaded with him.
"Yer the one that went chasing him in the mud."
"Not my fault he knows how to get outta a stall..."
"But ya knew he could when ya put him in, coulda tied the stall closed."
The last words almost sounded like child's whine at being caught fer not doing a chore proper. Finally Josiah had some mercy and grabbed the gelding's bridle as he trotted by.
"Come on Brother Dunne I help ya..."
The mismatched pair more or less led the rambunctious animal back into the barn leaving Tanner and Wilmington alone.
"How'd it go?"
He wanted to know because other than a couple bruises between them it seemed to Buck that they came through remarkable unscathed.
"He ain't talkin'... I was so mad... I wanted to bash his head in... tole me I'd have ta wait 'til we found Ez."
When a soft chuckle escaped from the ladies man he found himself on the receiving end of an angry glare. Vin shifted around to look at his friend.
'Yer gonna have ta pry Ez away first..."
Wilmington turned grim as he tried without success to push the wet hair off his face.
"I know... something went bad awful on that trail..."
Tanner stared at him as if Buck had the answer.
"Yup neither of them had a word to say 'bout it...so are ya gonna stay pissed at Chris?"
"Don't seems like I can..." He said as he jumped down from the fence. A yell from the barn had the pair laughing as a loud string of obscenities followed. "Guess ole' Chaucer got a piece of Josiah..." Wilmington didn't say anything instead his sudden burst of laughter filled the air.
All the noise had started Casey giggling, she had tried to be mindful and get the morning dishes started but she couldn't stop laughing long enough to finish them herself. Her Aunt smirked before she tried unsuccessfully to smother her own humor enough to properly scold her
"Young Lady its not polite to stand there gawking, since you can't seem to get the dishes done why don't you see if Mr. Larabee wants some more coffee..."
"Yes ma'am" And she went off to do as she was bid, the door was partially closed. Casey quietly looked inside her Aunt's room. The man in black was asleep, awkwardly hunched in the chair that sat beside the bed. His hand loosely clasped around the ailing gambler's wrist. She returned to the kitchen to let her aunt know.
The sudden rush of rain hitting the roof woke Larabee, for a brief moment he didn't know where he was. Then it came back in painful clarity, unsure of how much time had passed, the change in light and shadows told him little. Outside the window it was darker but the could have been from the storm that was pushing in. The house was quiet and he wondered for a moment he was alone. Chris shifted his gaze to Ezra who laid flat on his stomach sweating in bed. The lean body sprawled out and tangled within the sheets, a familiar position that reminded him of his son, when he had been ill. The gambler should have been uncomfortable lying on his healing leg but in his exhaustion he was oblivious. Larabee reached up carefully and placed his hand on the damp face. Still felt overly warm but Ezra's fever was not as high as it had been. Tiny tremors started under that hand as the southerner grimaced as the man fought to come out from under the dregs of sleep, his blood shot green eyes cracked opened and looking at his companion mumbling. "Thirsty..."
A pitcher of water had been left on the bed stand. After helping Standish into a more comfortable position Chris quickly filled a cup and held on to it as Ezra drank his fill then with a satisfied sigh sunk farther back in the pillows.
He watched the normally stoic man turn away from him and could find no other way to broach the difficult subject than straight forward.
"Chris... about what transpired in Mule's Gulch.... No one's to blame..."
The quiet statement caused a pained expression on Larabee face. The man hadn't moved to look in his direction. Instead Larabee got up, strode across the room and stared out the window. Trying to ignore the soft plea coming from the man behind him, he tightly gripped the sill.
"Look at me... please..."
Not getting the desired response Ezra struggled out of the bed managing to swing his bare feet to the floor. A wave of vertigo washed over him and the room suddenly tilted as he stood for an instant before his legs buckled and a pain shot through his leg. His rapid descent abruptly halted when strong hands caught him and helped him lay back down. Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, Ezra waited for the world to stop spinning. He could hear Chris talking to him.
"If only it were that simple... I am to blame... as much to blame for that as for shooting you." Ezra finally managed to open his eyes and as he lay there transfixed by the open display of emotions of the man who sat next him. "I could've killed you."
"Truth is ... given your reputation ... Mr. Larabee ... if you had... wanted me dead... we wouldn't be having his conversation." Ezra pushed on despite feeling completely wretched he needed to make his friend understand. The quiet halting admission stunned Chris he was getting another rare insight about the southerner gambler. Standish spoke the truth.
"You almost died..."
"But I didn't... and you are side stepping the issue my dear man... Duncannon was a monster..."
"But he wouldn't have escaped if..."
"Chris... you honestly would have me presume to believe that you did not do your utmost as a representative of the law to detain this criminal..."
"You sir are deluded, that is not at all how I recall the tragic set of circumstances that befell us..."
Of all the people the man in black he had a feeling that he understood the fancy red-coated conman the least.
"Then what the hell did happen Ez?"
"The unadulterated truth... the plain unvarnished fact, Christopher Larabee, is you're a man just as prone to fallibilities as the next..." Chris stared at him as he continued. "Lest you forget I accompanied you on that disastrous journey and I've not been stricken blind to anguish that you have undeservingly subjected yourself to since."
"No, let me say my piece..." Obviously very weary the gambler continued on. "I believe the fact I didn't want to venture off did not set well with you my kind sir..."
"Ez, shouldn't have made you go... dammit... you just got off patrol..."
"Mr. Larabee, must I remind you who is recounting this particular tale? You asked me what happened so please do me a kindness... Let me finish."
Standish thought back to that day and began quietly to tell his version of events.
On that hot dusty day that seemed to have happened several lifetimes ago, Ezra Standish rode back into town bone weary and tired to find his irritable leader waiting for him. Seemed to him the man was almost goading him into an argument over why he shouldn't go along to Mule's Gulch. Truth was on that day Ezra didn't want to fight so he quickly relented and went along. The trip to the dusty little burg had been unremarkable other than the usual clashing of personalities. Both men were in equally foul mood when they finally rode in. A title it didn't seem deserving of because of its size. There was less than half a dozen establishments that comprised the town. Of those the jail was the only permanently erected building, the rest were various tent and other sorts of temporary abodes.
The men headed directly for the small stone structure that served as Mule's Gulch's jail. An older gentleman sat dozing in a chair tilted back against the wall within its musty confines. The man didn't open his eyes when he acknowledged their presence. "How may I help you?"
Larabee spoke first barely able to hold a civil tongue and growled his words. "We're here for the prisoner transfer."
The wooden chair creaked forward as the man shifted and lowered the two airborne legs gently to the floor. He rose to unlock the cell. A man lay on the cot inside his large frame barely hung over the small bed.
"He's all yours...Duncannon git yer ass outta that bed."
The gambler tried not to show his surprise at the man's stature as he rose from the cot, standing just over seven feet tall and a few biscuits shy of four hundred pounds. The mammoth man stepped across the cell and waited for the door to open. The handcuffs barely fit around his immense wrists. The biblical Goliath came to mind and Ezra wondered what David took this giant down. Larabee said he would accept the charge of the prisoner but only after they secured a mount for the man. Sheriff Cooper supplied a name a scant directions. All hopes of a rest were gone as Ezra quickly realized Chris had no intention of staying instead he intended to continue of towards Red River. They would be there only long enough to restock on supplies and before heading out. The day had gone from bad to worse in the space of a few moments. Standish didn't think it could get any worse but it did.
After purchasing a mule, no one would rent a horse to them proclaiming the sheer size of their prisoner would ruin their mounts, they paid for their staples and mounted up just past noon and left Mule's Gulch behind them. Not at all how Maude's son envisioned spending his days. The trek there had been almost full day's ride. After having spent most of the day before in the saddle Ezra was quite vocal about his discomfort. The ensuing arguments grew in size until both men were seething. Duncannon although he seemed thoroughly amused by the situation said nothing. As the hours passed the situation reached a head.
"Mr. Larabee I simply cannot bear another moment in the saddle..."
"Standish so help me you move a hair off that saddle I'll put ya outta your misery myself."
Reining in Chaucer, the gambler started to dismount and shots rang out. Chaucer held true and didn't startle. Ezra would have kept his seat under fire except the mule and its behemoth rider had other ideas. The heavily burdened beast plowed into the gelding knocking the southerner off balance and he plummeted to the rocky earth below narrowly missed by the animal's shod hooves as it took flight.
"That's not what happened and you know it..." Ezra was broken away from his tale interrupted by Larabee. "I damn near knocked ya from the saddle myself..."
"My dear sir... I am tired and I'll remind you that this is what happened...you did ask me to recount my memories on the matter did you not?" Standish lay quietly with eyes closed, his fingers plucked at the sheets that covered him. Chris shifted around in close proximity where he sat on the bed. Ezra felt the man's eyes watching him. Heard a sigh followed by a quiet reply.
"Very well then I'll proceed with my recollection of the events and I may concede that you might handled my apparel harshly, but that...did no harm."
"Ezra..."Chris' tone reflected his disbelief because his own memories reflected something different.
"You asked me to tell you what the hell happened and I intend to relate that information...so you must cease your interruptions....Now where was I?"
"Mule knocked you on your ass."
"It was my back not my posterior... my dear man but I am not going to argue with you about that particular detail and continue." This time when he paused he did look up at his friend and when he saw that he wouldn't be disrupted again he began anew.
"Mr. Larabee I simply cannot bear another moment in the saddle..."
"Standish so help me you move a hair off that saddle I'll put ya outta your misery myself."
Reining in Chaucer, the gambler started to dismount only to hauled back into his seat by the irate man held in firmly place by Larabee. The man had grabbed a fistful of the fancy shirt and brocade vest as leaned in from his own mount. He was almost nose-to-nose with Ezra as his hissed out. "God damn it you low life snake...I don't want another word outta ya 'til we get to Red River or so help me I shoot you myself...Understand!" The man in black watched southerner for a moment before he dropped his hold and led his horse forward.
Shots rang out.
After being forcefully knocked from his saddle, Ezra hit the ground and rolled into a tight ball as he tried to push himself away to avoid being stepped on. Duncannon's mount was off running with the seven's leader is pursuit leaving the gambler in the open. Not waiting for the dust to settle he skittered behind the nearest shelter a clump of brush sprouting from a cluster of large stones. Somewhere in the melee Chaucer had run off, the man hoped under good cover. The prisoner and Mr. Larabee were nowhere in sight. At least the gambler had recovered his wits enough to brandish his Remington and he scanned his surroundings wondering where their attackers were.
Fearing for the safety of his compatriot Ezra set out on foot following in the direction he had seen Chris disappear. He was relieved when after twenty sweaty minutes of walking he came across his equine companion trotting down the trail. Once the animal noticed him its pace picked up almost galloping towards him neck outstretched and nickering a greeting. At quick once over of the chestnut gelding assured the gambler that Chaucer was no worse off for the experience. Patting the muscular neck as he climbed back into the saddle mumbling. "Old friend where did they go?" There wasn't a sole in sight. He hoped he was following the correct set of tracks as he pushed on.
"Ezra ya weren't there..."
He was disturbed from his reverie by Chris' soft words. He saw the anguish filled eyes as the man looked down at him.
"I thought you were going to let me finish?"
A dull ache had settled in his head and his eyes burned but he fought off the weariness and continued.
"But ya don't know what happened because ya weren't there..." The formidable man's gaze never wavered, the hazel eyes bored into him.
"Ah but I was..." The gambler felt his body was too heavy to move but the flow of his words continued their importance pushed beyond his need for rest.
Coming over the crest of a hill he heard the shots coming from a homestead down below him. The screams that followed almost brought him back to a time in his life he preferred to forget. Standish had stopped pulling his mount to a halt just as the unknown man crumpled to the ground. Before he had even pulled out his rifle and aimed it was over. The woman had backed away from the escaped prisoner as well as another rough looking man, her shrieks were cut short as a bullet from the second man's weapon felled her, and she crumpled down in silence. Ezra's own shot took out that man while Duncannon moving surprisingly fast had found cover as the southern frantically sought out Larabee presence. Galloping down the slope towards the small house his eyes came across the gunslinger slumped against a wall just outside the wooden structure and was down off his horse by Larabee's side in an instant. Blood trickled down the man's lax face.
Ezra heard chickens squawking right before the barn door slammed open and Duncannon rode out on a distressed plow horse that was still rigged out in full harness, brutally kicking the animal to achieve the desired speed away from the lawmen that pursued him. A decision had to be made quickly whether or not to pursue the outlaw. A nearby groan swayed him as he left the black clad gunslinger's side to check on the others. The middle-aged couple was dead and the unnamed miscreant was seriously wounded. With Larabee down the decision was simple. Load up the dead and injured into a wagon and head back to Mule's Gulch.
"You couldn't prevent what happened..."
Ezra sighed heavily the memory of that day would forever be burned into his brain.
"I did nothing..." Chris' words were strangled in heavy emotion.
"You were not in the conscious realm..."
"That's not... I should have been on the alert... instead I was too busy being pissed off at you for no good reason.... If I was paying mind like I should have been... we have never got ambushed and Duncannon wouldn't have got away..."
"Chris ...I believe at assault was planned long before we got to Mule's Gulch. They were waiting for us to pass by that point in the trail and the result would have been the same, nothing could have altered the outcome. Do you blame me for not going after Duncannon? Two more innocent people were injured after he left my sight."
"No... I know I was angry with you.... but one lawman by himself..."
"Exactly if you can understand my choice now why can't you forgive yourself?"
"I don't know..."
"Please promise me that you'll think about what I've said..." Ezra reached up and grabbed Chris' hand. The hold was feeble but it held Larabee at the gambler's side as he slipped back into an exhausted slumber.
Vin leaned heavily into the wall outside the open bedroom door. The tracker had gone to check on his friends after a lightening flash lit the sky and stopped where his was when he heard their quiet conversation begin. Not moving until he heard Ezra's last few words as slumber took the man away.
With that thought in mind he stepped through the door to face Chris Larabee... a man he had condemned without knowing the entire truth. Guilty of the act he accused the gunslinger of doing with Ezra.
The blond head jerked up at the quiet drawl.
"How long you been there?"
A shocked look passed over Larabee's face.
The longhaired Texan stepped lightly across the floorboards as he entered the room. Chris for the first time in weeks didn't break eye contact with his friend when he spoke and added. "Trouble is he left out a few things..."
"Hell might well say yer piece Larabee... I'm still gonna kick yer scrawny ass fer not saying it earlier." Tanner plopped down in the chair next to the bed waiting for the man to begin. Although his gaze never wavered the gunslinger was no longer at Tanner rather through him to the place and time where all this began.
Never once did occur to him on the long hot trail out to Mule's Gulch that he should had taken another of the peacekeepers along. Larabee was an irritable frame of mind from the onset and he took some twisted pleasure out of drawing the same mood out of the gambler. They bickered almost the entire way, the silences only held up as long as Ezra could hold his tongue. The dark gunslinger prodded him until the arguing renewed, the cycle continued even after they left the small dirty town behind them. Standish's temperament soured quickly with no rest or proper refreshment.
"Vin...I was 'bout to haul off and slug him when we were ambushed..."
"Cowboy.... ole Ez is probably right thems fellas were laying in wait fer ya all..."
"I left him behind an' chased Duncannon's bunch into that homestead...."
"No... that is my fault..."
"Did you shoot those folks?"
"Did ya pull those triggers on those outlaws guns?" Larabee didn't say a word allowing the scruffy Texan to continue. "Okay... I don't rightly see how its yer fault then. Now iffen some other lawmen had gone and down that prisoner pick up... same thing woulda happened...maybe they'd be dead... hell you coulda gots yerself killed... you best think on that..."
Tanner rose up, patting Chris on the shoulder as he walked by him and out of the room leaving the troubled man alone with his thoughts. Vin strode into the dimly lit living area where five sets of eyes met his own. Apparently his wasn't the only who had heard the late night conversation, the four remaining lawmen and Mizz Nettie had heard those quiet words as well.
Another gray morning came in with the dawn Larabee was still asleep when Vin entered the tiny bedroom surprised to find the southerner awake. His fever had broken an hour earlier and the tracker figured the man wouldn't wake 'til well past noon. The gambler, still drenched in sweat, was lying on his side dully staring at the black clad figure that rested awkwardly in the chair at his bedside. Tanner sat down next to him resting a hand on a blanketed leg as he did Ezra blinked and turned his head to face him.
The exhausted man breathed out. "Fer what Ez?"
Hair hung in his face he leaned forward to hear the tired voice.
"Thank you for imparting a measure of sensibility to our friend."
Green eyes were valiantly trying to stay open.
"Ya sly... yer playin' 'possum last night weren't ya..."
Vin chuckled when he realized that Ezra had been awake during his talk with Chris.
"It seemed appropriate at the time..."
Ezra yawned as his eyes rolled around and kept sliding shut.
"Why didn't y say something sooner?"
An amused tracker watched the struggle the conman was putting up to stay in the waking world and smile spread across his stubbled face. "Well I did..."
The words softly uttered as the recovering man's breathing became relaxed as he started to lose to battle against sleep.
"All ya kept saying was he weren't ta blame... coulda said a speck more."
Standish's eyes snapped open trying to figure if the scruffy Texan had insulted him.
"It was best Mr. Larabee explain."
A hurt look flittered across Ezra's face and Vin stopped teasing him.
"Ez, I swear sometimes I jist don't understand ya..." The remark caused Standish to raise a single eyebrow. "Course this ain't one of 'em." The words caused the gambler to smile. "Best get back to sleep 'fore Nate comes in to pours one of those 'concoctions' in ya... ya know the kind ya like so much." No sooner then those words were said Ezra Standish was asleep, resting peacefully for the first time in weeks.
Time passed quickly as life in Four Corners returned to normal beginning the day a certain fancy red-coated gambler came back into town transport there in the back of a buckboard exactly two days after the night late confession. Those confessions made on that dark stormy summer's night revealed secrets that had almost destroyed a man's life and nearly took another's. Knowing was enough to help the seven men through the weeks that followed. Chris had taken back on role of the seven's leader the moment he had stepped back into town. Ezra had recovered enough that by the weeks end he was once again gracing his table in the saloon. A week after that he had returned to his regular duties as a lawman. Seven diverse men that had found their way into a trust and friendship almost tragically lost what bound them together something beyond blood. They survived and these ties were strengthened by the troubles so recently endured.
The saloon had begun to empty out. The gambler was still engrossed in a poker game with three ranch hands. The man in black sat at nearby table nursing a glass of warm beer watching the dimpled grin grown as the southern lay down his cards and raked in the money. One thing was eating at the dark gunslinger. The lost memories of one particular night troubled him more than he let on. Ezra insisted rather adamantly that what happened that night was an accident. Chris wasn't so sure, never in his life had he mishandled a weapon even during the long dark tumultuous years after his wife and son died. It wasn't even like the man was lying. Ezra had done plenty of that in his time spent in the growing town. No... the man was just not imparting all the facts. For the life of him, Larabee couldn't figure out why. Those thoughts were in his mind as he left the gambler to his craft and headed to his boarding house room. Where he took off his gun belt and boots in hopes of getting some sleep knowing that morning patrol was only hours away.
Chris woke less than an hour later in a cold sweat choking back a scream as he bolted upright in bed. Gasping for air shuddering as his heart beat wildly in his chest. The sound of a gunshot echoing through his waking mind coupled with Ezra's haunting words.
"Please... don't do it please... Cchhris...no...no..."
Was it just a guilt-ridden dream? No... not a dream because he sat on the edge of his bed doing his best to will his hands to stop shaking, a hazy memory flittered through his mind. A fuzzy recollection of Ezra trying to talk to him, pleading with him and hearing the loud pop as the gambler fell away from him. Blood was everywhere. Then nothing try as he might he didn't recall what happened next.
Oh My God...
Larabee quickly pulled on his boots, consciously leaving his weapons behind as he set out for the saloon.
The poker game had broken up. Inez was cleaning up as Mr. Standish cleaned his winnings off the table before he proceeded to help her wipe down tables setting the surrounding chairs atop them. Together they managed to get the floor swept and ready for the next day and where busy putting away the bar glasses when an agitated Chris Larabee walked through the bat wing doors. The sweaty man looking every bit like he just rolled out of bed with damp unkempt hair and rumpled clothing that clung to him. It hadn't escaped his attention that the man was unarmed.
"Mr. Larabee is something wrong?" Ezra stared as the obviously distressed man strode towards him stopping a few short of the gambler.
"Miss Reicillos?" Standish turned to the dark haired beauty with an unspoken plea for privacy.
"Are you sure senor?" Inez asked as she dried off another glass receiving an immediate nod from the southern gentleman wiped her hands on the towel and disappeared into the back. Ezra studied his companion for a moment before asking.
"Why what Mr. Larabee?"
"Why did you lie? I... it wasn't like you said."
The man in black stood there in the darkened saloon wavering as his fists nervously clenched and unclenched at his side.
"You remember?" a quiet question was softly drawled out.
"Yes... No... I'm not sure."
The bewildered gaze was averted to the floor.
"Then what do you remember?"
The careful words gently pried trying to get at the truth.
"You begging me not to shoot, the gun going off and your blood it was..."
Larabee raised his head to stare at the gambler as he recounted the dream.
Another soft query came forth laced with concern.
"Isn't that enough... I tried to kill you..." A distraught Chris stepped away from Ezra but didn't get far before the man had latched onto his arm. "Let go of me..."
"Not until you understand what happened was an accident."
Determined green eyes locked with pained hazel ones but Ezra refused to loosen his grip.
"That's not possible..."
Bewilderment mixed with guilt etched the lean blonde's face as he stopped pulling away from the smaller man.
"Do you remember the events prior to gun firing?"
The carefully worded question confused Chris further and he whispered out.
"I told you..."
"Before my plea?"
It was another prodding question that left Larabee unsure of what was real.
"Care to partake in a cup of coffee Chris?"
A smile graced the gambler's face speaking in manner as if this were like any other evening.
"I admit to trying to kill and you want to have coffee?"
Baffled by the unexpected response Chris hissed out.
"Yes I do so that I can convince you that you didn't intend to harm me at all...so will you join me?"
Standish seemed neither frightened nor upset but was insistent that he stayed.
He relented as he pulled two chairs off the nearest table.
"I'll be back in a moment ..."
With that said Standish disappeared into the back. True to his word less than two minutes later he returned with two mugs and sat down across from Larabee while sliding the coffee in front of him. He took a sip of the bitter brew before speaking. In Larabee's mind it seemed like Ezra was treating this like idle conversation over dinner.
"Miss Reicillos has left for the night...I thought we should talk privately."
"Chris... I'll tell you what happened that night." The black in man opened his mouth as if to say something but changed his mind. Ezra took the opportunity and continued. "I was hoping... ah ...I suppose there is little choice as where to start but with what occurred after your arrival at the homestead."
"Not much to tell, Ez... two people died..." The perplexed man intently studied Standish, no malice in his gaze just sorrow.
"What happened just before that?" The gambler never broke eye contact when he replied. The prying question caused the other man to drop his eyes down.
"I would hardly call it that...under duress you gave up your weapons... because you were alone facing Duncannon and his lackey who had a pistol pressed against the woman's head..." The blond head raised and sad hazel eyes met Ezra's questioning look. "Like I said before my dear friend I was there.... Unfortunately not near enough to assist when you were kicked in the head by that behemoth. Within a moment of when you were felled by that blow the husband came out brandishing a rifle and was brutally gunned down. Somehow the wife bit the second miscreant and fled, her brief escape cut short by a bullet. You did nothing because you couldn't...."
"Yes... you don't think I carry my own share of guilt?" The gambler shot a look in the other man's direction watching as Larabee was silent as he absentmindedly rotated the mug on the table.
"What's does this have to do with me shooting you?"
Standish had become uncharacteristically quiet. When Chris looked back up he was staring out into the dark saloon for first time since the odd conversation began the gambler looked troubled. After a few uncomfortable moments of silence Ezra cleared his throat.
"Ah...I didn't want... aw hell... I didn't want you to remember what happened that night..."
"Dammit Ezra, what happened was I shot you down..."
The blond man hissed back and tired to leave his seat. The southerner lunged pinning his arm to the table preventing his escape though if the distraught man wanted to he could have easily shook the other man off.
A protest that went ignored.
"While ya begged me not to do it..."
Forcefully spoken words intended to mentally jar the gambler when the choice of physical action was not a option.
"NO! That's not true at all... Chris you weren't yourself ..."
The smaller man tried to get a word in.
"I've threatened to do it enough...I finally carried through...why did you lie?"
Larabee sank back in the chair watching the normally verbose man stumble through his thoughts and words.
"I didn't...God...just...you have no idea...I thought..."
Snapped out of troubled gunslinger and he became in more as he saw cringe briefly away from him. Chris stopped and waited for the man to speak.
"Chris Larabee you are man known for his actions...shush ....let me finish..." Ezra saw his friend open his mouth and merely held a hand up. "Something changed during the time from when we left the bodies in Mule's Gulch and recapturing Duncannon during his failed stagecoach hold up. I suppose I was so busy dealing with my own guilt that I didn't realize... well when we returned to town and your mood was foul... not that mine was much better. The situation spiraled downward from there..."
The words tumbled out, minus were the fancy five dollar ones, the gambler desperate to get them out.
"Standish you haven't said anything I didn't all ready know..." Another interruption came as Chris became increasing unsure to where this goin, it was almost as if the man was stalling for some reason.
"Please..."The entreaty came quickly along with awkward halting explanation. "You haven't left the saloon much since our return and that morning you started drinking again... actually I don't think you stopped... growling at everyone... they steered clear of you except later when those ranch hands... you a bit perturbed that I chased them off."
"I shot you for that..."
The retort was almost whispered out. Ezra's own response was louder and poured from him.
"Shut up and listen to me... after they left... I tried to convince you to go back to your room but you didn't move instead you started talking...waving your gun around as you did... mumbling about how you failed your wife, your son, your parents, your friends and finally those unfortunate people that those monsters had slain...I thought..." Standish felt muscles tense under his grip and headed off Larabee before he spoke up. " I couldn't let you... I begged you... finally I was close enough to pull the gun away...I thought that... the gun went off when I pulled it away."
Ezra refused to relinquish his hold, not now not ever. He held tightly onto his friend's arm watching him digest the shocking revelation as a stray tear tickled down his face. Larabee laid a shaky hand over the firm hand that held on to him. The feeling of immense loss and dark sorrow were the only memories he had from that day. "I couldn't let you shoot yourself... I'd die first..."
"Why didn't you say something..."
The hoarse words were whispered.
"Tell the truth?"
The gambler smiled a little.
The affirmation was spoken along with a slight nod.
"But I did... It was an accident."
The hold he had on Larabee lessened as he watched the overwhelming sorrow and grief slowly melt away from the man's face.
"How about the rest?"
A hesitant question was asked even though he knew the answer.
"It didn't matter before."
"Because I forgot...but what about now?"
"Depends on you."
"I don't understand?"
"A second chance."
"I could have killed you."
"And I you when I rode away from the Seminole village yet you gave me another chance you deserve to give yourself the same." The sky was beginning to lighten with the approaching dawn. "Care to join me for some breakfast?" For a man skilled in the art of deception his effort was poorly veiled as he stood and stretched.
"What about the others?"
Larabee wasn't willing to let the subject rest yet.
"When and if you choose to tell them I'll stand by you. Now my dear man, will you accompany me to the restaurant I hear the have quite the fare available at this early hour?"
Larabee nodded and rose following Standish out the door. The answer would be enough for now.
"I do have something I must discuss with you."
Ezra spoke as they stepped out the door.
"There is the small matter of Mr. Sanchez's rough handling Chaucer...he is a fine animal and should be treated as such..."
"That ornery horse of yers bit him in the ass..."
The two men walked down the boardwalk unable to suppress their chuckles.