Special thanks again to NotTasha for the rushed Beta
The Muse for making the delectable picture above for me.
Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009
Throughout the course of the
night the wind howled in ominous fury, whipping up loose dirt from the
compacted road and swirling it high into air, clouding and blanketing
the frontier town. Shutters strained and creaked against the
invisible hostile, eager to gain entry into the homes of Four Corners.
Above the roar of the wind the church bell sung, ringing occasionally
as it too was buffeted in the gale force winds.
In the semi-darkness of pre-dawn,
a sinister form battled furtively through the tumultuous conditions
toward the back entrance of the Four Corners’ Gem Hotel. With
a comfortable ease, he held a Colt .45 securely in his rough and
callused hand. The stranger slithered stealthily along, hugging
the wall of the hotel until he reached the entrance. Looking
fervently over his shoulder while opening the door, he stepped quietly
inside. The wind sought access into the hotel for a moment when
the door opened allowing entry to the stranger.
Treading lightly over the wooden
boards he briskly climbed the staircase; ever present in his mind was
the thought of exposure. Without a source of light, he had to
depend on his other senses; these had become more alert over the years
due to his less than stellar occupation. His hand slid along the
brass rail that clung to the hallway guiding his movements as he crept
to the room he sought. Tracing nimble fingers over the knob of
the door he slowly turned it. A smile of satisfaction lit his
countenance as he silently opened the unbolted door and stepped over
the threshold into the room. He briefly let his eyes adjust to
the darkness before raising his weapon and without hesitation,
ruthlessly shot the sleeping man in the bed.
Blood immediately spread quickly,
darkening the sheet that lay covering the victim’s chest. The
killer stepped closer and held the gun to his target’s head and once
more pulled back the trigger. His quarry was dead after the
first bullet entered his body, stopping his pulsing heart, but the
stranger seemed to get some morbid satisfaction at putting another
bullet between the unseeing eyes of the dead man. After the
weapon discharged the second time, the murderer turned the bloodied
head to the side and sliced off his victim’s ear. He stowed
the morbid souvenir in a pouch then slid over to the door, opening it
a fraction to peer out through the crack. The hall was still
deserted, though not likely for long, so he made his escape of the
room in the aftermath of confusion, closing the door behind him on the
way out. He slipped inside a utility cupboard and waited
patiently for the curious heads to slowly steal a look from behind
doors in adjacent rooms, obviously woken by the gunfire. Afraid,
or undaunted, they closed their doors and ignored the rude awakening
when nothing obscure was sighted in the hallway. The murderer
then left, unseen and unhindered from the hotel.
The callous killer stood in the
shadows waiting for the seven protectors to reveal themselves, as he
knew they would. He’d then depart town while they searched,
and collect his payment.
The Southerner lay sprawled on
his bed, restless and irritable from the lack of sleep. The
windstorm outside his room howled and buffeted, shaking the
windowpanes and whistling through the minute gaps in the walls.
Retiring early the night before had certainly not been one of his
better ideas, but with the saloon emptying out early there left little
opportunity to increase his funds further. Unable to sleep
because of the natures’ wailing, Ezra gave up the façade of sleep
in defeat. He lit the lantern and opened a book that rested on
his nightstand and began reading. He had only read a few pages
when, through the boisterous winds, the familiar report of a gun
exploded, followed closely by a second. “Good Lord,”
the gambler exclaimed, absently tossing the book aside.
Muttering under his breath Ezra groused, “This better not be one of
Buck’s practical jokes.” He promptly stepped into his boots
and donned his jacket over his bare torso. Standish gathered his
weaponry before racing out and joining the seven in the street below.
The long-haired sharpshooter had
abandoned his wagon many hours previous for the comforts of the
saloon, his wagon had rocked and swayed with the restless caress of
the wind. A man accustomed to the harsh environs of the
wilderness, Vin Tanner had to admit he didn’t enjoy the rocking
sensation of his abode. He’d dragged a blanket with him,
and set up camp on the floor of the saloon. No one would be the
wiser come morning.
“Hell and damnation,” the
tracker swore, jumping to his feet in response to the gunfire.
He was the first of the seven to reach the main street.
Squinting through the darkness, Tanner raked the main street with
careful inspection. Expecting to find some evidence of the
gunfire he was momentarily baffled to find none. Turning back to
the saloon he saw Ezra step out. Arching an eyebrow at the
conman, Vin couldn’t restrain his surprise at the promptness of the
gambler’s arrival on the scene. Probably couldn’t sleep
either, Vin mused. “Ezra,” Tanner greeted, calling over the
roar of the wind.
“Mr. Tanner?” Vin shook
his head negatively, indicating he’d seen or heard nothing since
arriving on the street.
Chris Larabee and JD Dunne
arrived on the street within seconds of each other and Nathan and
Josiah both appeared together. All, but Vin, were in various
states of undress. Buck Wilmington was the last to arrive, in
nothing more than his red union suit and gunbelt. Ezra grinned
wickedly, lighting his features as he regarded Wilmington’s apparel,
or lack of. Bare feet peeped out below the long legs of his long
johns and his gunbelt slung low around his middle. Standish heckled
the scoundrel, whistling suggestively at him. In return, the
ladies’ man gestured widely with his arms, attempting to affect a
curtesy, while bestowing a roguish smile, not at all embarrassed or
uncomfortable by his attire.
“You two cut it out!”
It was four in the morning when
the sharp report of the gun discharged, mingling with the howling
strains of the wind. The seven peacekeepers of Four Corners
reacted instantly to their call to protect. Gathering in the
main street in the semi-darkness and swirling wind they prepared to
search to town for the culprit - and the victim. Larabee
surveyed his mismatched group; some would call the Larabee gang, yet
others dubbed The Magnificent Seven. Chris lifted his voice over
the roar. “Split up…” the blond ordered, “and be
careful,” he warned.
The groan of the wind distorted
the origins of the gunfire, giving no indication as to which direction
they should begin their search. Save for the seven protectors,
the street was empty; no one else had joined them outside to offer any
useful information. JD and Buck paired off together, carrying a
flickering lantern between them. Nathan and Josiah left in the
opposite direction, leaving Vin and Chris to check along the buildings
that lined the main thoroughfare through town.
Sighing deeply, Ezra, left to his
own company started checking the darkened alleyways.
The seven lawmen spread out.
Their eyes squinted against the blinding wind and the pre-dawn shadowy
darkness. Moving with determination and precariousness, the law
enforcers began the futile search.
The stranger hovered close, but
strained against the baying wind to hear the gunslinger’s words.
He shuffled his feet on the ground, alert to each man’s chosen
direction. Keeping his back to the wall, he stole along it,
among the shadows and overhangs he made his way to where he’d
tethered his horse. The killer glanced down in amusement at the
wanted poster that had wrapped around his leg; he smirked as he
recognised the sketch of the felon depicted on it. Bending down
to remove the offending piece of paper, another gust picked it up and
carried it away before he could reach it.
A shrill scream echoed loudly in
the early morning dawn, drawing the seven men like a magnet to the Gem
Hotel. They bolted to the rooming establishment from various
parts of the town, all arriving within minutes of each other.
Vernon McGee was an Irishman
who’d left his home years before in the hopes of finding adventure
in this American soil. He was a pasty faced, diminutive man, who
was uncomfortable among people that towered over him. Such was
the case with most of the seven peacekeepers that protected the town.
He waited cowardly; shivering in fright, for those brave men to
appear. McGee knew who had screamed, it was one of the hotel’s
cleaning maids, and he had no intention of investigating the reason
for her sharp cry. The bleary eyed manager sat askew behind the
counter, blinking owlishly through his thick rimmed glasses that sat
perched on the end of his nose.
Chris barged into the hotel,
crashing through the closed doors and threw a speculative look at the
snivelly Irishman cowering behind the counter.
At the abrupt intrusion, McGee
scuttled back. Nervously fingering the inkwell on the counter
top, he directed the men upstairs with a tip of his balding head.
He would not escort them up, nor would he follow.
Larabee instinctively felt the
presence of Tanner by his side as he bolted up the stairs two at a
time. The heavy footfalls on the stairs confirmed that the
others were directly behind. As the blond-haired gunslinger
entered the hallway leading to the rented rooms it became apparent
where to head. Six lawmen piled up behind him when he abruptly
came to a standstill.
Sitting in the open doorway,
shaking, with her knees drawn up to her chest was the young cleaning
maid, Susan Murphy. The woman had taken the job in desperation
after arriving in Four Corners three months ago, missing her valise
and all its money that had been secreted in its false bottom. Finding
herself penniless and with no means of support, she had reluctantly
accepted McGee’s offer of cleaning maid of the hotel.
Chris took a step toward the
frightened girl, but seeing the wide-eyed teary expression and her
heightened fear at his approach, he stopped. Quietly calling
over his shoulder, he motioned the healer forward. “Nathan.”
The dark-skinned man edged his
way past the other lawmen and slowly neared the distraught woman.
Crouching low, Nathan held out his hand, nodding his head as he
watched the girl’s gaze drop to his outstretched palm.
“Ain’t gonna hurt you none,” Jackson softly coaxed, offering a
white handkerchief for her to wipe her tears on.
she stuttered, wringing her hands painfully together.
“Shhhhhh…gonna be all
right,” Nathan consoled. Gently taking her elbow, Jackson
helped Susan stand. “Ma’am…How about we get you over to
the clinic…” He spoke as though he were addressing a child.
She could hardly be more than twenty, little more than a child, he
mused. “Josiah you wanna help me?”
Once the girl left with Nathan
and Josiah, Chris swooped into the room, his face a mask of controlled
indifference. The blood-splattered linen and the corpse staring
vacantly at the ceiling came as no surprise. He’d suspected
all along that they’d be finding a body at the end of their search.
The remaining four joined him in the room, seeing for the first time
the young woman’s grim discovery.
“Seems like we have found the
unfortunate victim of this morning’s untimely events,” Ezra
“Yep,” Larabee agreed with
the Southerner. Chris dispassionately catalogued the man’s
features. Not recognising the deceased, he rubbed his thumb over
his chin thoughtfully. “Anyone know who he is?”
Buck edged closer to the bed,
deliberately placing himself in front of JD to shield the naive youth
from the grisly sight. “Nope, I ain’t seen ‘im
“Get outta my way, Buck!” the
young gunslinger whined, pushing against the solid barrier of the
larger man’s back. “How am I s’posed to know if I’ve
seen him if yer in my way?” JD complained.
“Ain’t nothin’ here for you
to see,” Wilmington stated, roughly propelling JD towards the door
to prevent him from witnessing the gruesome sight. Buck tended
to treat JD like his kid brother, one that he’d never had.
But, if he did have one, then Buck would not want him to view the
scene in the room. So in a vain effort to shield the young
gunslinger, Wilmington inadvertently mothered the boy, much to JD’s
“Ah geez, Buck. I’ve
seen lots of dead people.” Dunne sidestepped past the ladies’ man
to get his first glimpse of the deceased. Gasping in shock he
sucked in a shaky breath and turned a shade paler. Dunne
swallowed past the lump that had lodged in his throat “He’s
missing an ear,” Dunne gulped, pointing at the bloodied
disfigurement, with a trembling hand.
“Now ya see why ya didn’t
need ta see him?” Buck admonished.
“I ain’t a kid, Buck,”
Dunne protested weakly. The young gunslinger turned toward the
leader of their group, gulping down the rising bile. “I think
I saw him arrive on the stage a couple of days ago.”
Larabee nodded his head, but
addressed his oldest friend; “Buck, you take JD over to
Before the black-clad gunslinger
had finished, JD interrupted. “I’m alright! Don’t
needa go see Nathan!” the younger man defiantly announced, both
angry and embarrassed at his reaction, and Larabee’s response to it.
“JD, I want you to talk to that
woman, find out whatever she knows while it’s fresh in her mind.
You know, find out who he was, and what he was doing here, that sort
of thing,” Chris tried to placate the kid.
“Oh yeah, well I can do
that,” Dunne confidently boasted; proud that Chris trusted him
enough to get the information he wanted.
Chris bestowed the boy a rare
smile, encouraged by his youthful enthusiasm. “Buck, why
don’t you find something more ta wear, before you start a commotion
of your own.”
Wilmington grinned widely.
“What, you saying you don’t like what I’m wearing, pard?”
Buck started spinning in a circle, holding his arms outstretched.
“Reckon I could start a new fashion trend,” he flaunted.
Ezra Standish stood just inside
the room, leaning against the wall with his right leg crossed over his
left at the ankles. Raising both eyebrows in awe at Buck’s
display of conceitedness the Southerner shook his head. “Mr,
Wilmington, parading around in only your undergarments could hardly be
described as a fashion trend, and I dare say that it won’t easily
Looking from Larabee to Vin for
affirmation, Buck chortled, “He just say he didn’t like my
“Reckon that’d be my guess,
Buck,” the quiet tracker drawled. Picking up the edge of the
sheet, Tanner dragged it up to cover the victim’s head; they’d all
had long enough to view the body.
“Just get outta here Buck, and
take JD with you,” Chris groaned in exasperation at the tall man.
“Fashion critics, the lot of
ya’s,” Wilmington grumbled, dragging Dunne from the room and down
the stairs. “Not like I even try ta dress like Ezra does.
Geez! With the hard time everybody’s been giving me, ya’d
reckon I had nothin’ on!” Wilmington protested. “Not that
that ain’t such a bad thing,” Buck added with a mischievous grin,
“given the right company.”
Buck’s complaints could be
heard as the two friends descended the stairs. The three
remaining men in the room heard JD say something to the ladies’ man,
but couldn’t determine what was said. But Buck’s
raucous reply bounced off the walls, and they had no trouble hearing
his loud response. “Hell kid, what cha expect me to wear
“Vin, Ezra, you know ‘im?”
Larabee queried the two remaining men.
“Nah.” The tracker
shrugged, shaking his head. He hunkered down and looked under
the bed for any clues.
Standish inwardly winced when
Chris Larabee’s infamous glare focused solely on him, waiting for
him to respond. “I concur with Mr. Dunne’s revelation.
I too, observed the deceased’s arrival on the stage a few days post
The wind flicked something up
hitting it against the windowpane and distracting the gunslinger from
any further contemplation. Rubbing his tired eyes with the back
of his hand, Larabee challenged the gambler, “Think you can get a
name for this guy?” .
Ezra nodded once and departed the
room, glancing back at the door to ascertain the room number.
Standish stepped closer to the door and fingered the brass metal
number, swinging on only one screw. He flipped the number, and
sent it spinning loosely on the one holding screw. When it completed
the journey it finished back in its pervious position - hanging upside
down. Checking the adjoining rooms to the left and right, Standish
confirmed that it was indeed a number 9. Satisfied, the
Southerner sauntered down the hallway, endeavouring to complete the
task expected of him and rubbing at the nape of his neck.
Sighing audibly, Chris ran his
fingers through his tousled hair, looking up into the gaze of Tanner.
“Guess you ain’t gonna be able to track ‘im, huh?”
Vin shrugged his shoulders,
confirming what Chris already suspected; “More’n likely won’t be
able to. With all that wind gustin’ around out there, woulda
blowed all his tracks away.”
“Figured as much, reckon we
round up the guys, and start askin’ around. See if anyone seen
or heard anything.” Chris thinned his lips, turning back to
take one last look about the otherwise undisturbed room before heading
to the door. “Ya know of anyone who hacks off ears?”
“Can’t say that I do,”
Tanner grimaced in disgust.
Chris shrugged. What did he
expect? “This was a hit!”
“Reckon so,” Vin agreed.
“Poor bastard didn’t stand a chance.”
Ezra marched down the stairs and
approached the counter where the manager still cowered behind.
“Mr. McGee…” the gambler called out, announcing his arrival.
When all remained quiet, Ezra tapped the bell impatiently on top of
the solid oak bench. “Mr. McGee?” When he still
received no acknowledgement from Vernon McGee, Ezra leaned bodily over
the bench top, and again called for the manager’s attention.
“Mr. McGee, I need to review the register to ascertain the
gentleman’s name.” McGee remained hunched in the corner, sitting
on the floor shaking, chewing on his fingernail and lost in a world of
his own. The Southerner couldn’t resist rolling his eyes
Without waiting for further
consent from the frightened man, Standish whisked the registry book
around and thumbed back a few pages until he reached the date he
sought. He ran his finger down the column of names, coming to a
stop at the scrawled signature of Clarence Hogan. Tapping his
index finger on the page, he briefly perused the other names in the
leather bound book.
Chris followed on the heels of
Vin down the wood stained polished stairs. He slid his hand down
the aged banister rail that travelled the length of the stairs,
feeling the knots in worn timber. The staircase was once the
focal point of the Hotel; its fine imported mahogany timber was the
purchase of an over-exuberant owner. Now it was due repairs, and
at the very least a coat of varnish.
They strolled over to where the
Southerner had stretched out in one of the comfortable sitting room
chairs. His eyes closed and head tilted backward resting on the
high back. Standish had positioned another chair directly in
front of him and had his feet propped up on that.
Vin flashed a wicked grin in
Chris’ direction, which basically said, ‘Watch this!’
Tanner grabbed hold of the chair and whipped it out from under the
gambler’s feet, dropping them to the floor with a thud. Tanner then
returned the seat and slouched into the chair himself.
The Southerner’s boots thumped
noisily on the floor waking the semi-recumbent gambler and the tracker
grinned sheepishly, attempting an expression of innocence, but not
quite succeeding. Ezra opened his tired eyes and glared his ire
at the sharpshooter. Vin stared in return at the gambler for
almost a full minute, while the gambler maintained eye contact with
him, but the tracker finally dropped his gaze, unable to stare down
the conman. Chris inwardly smiled to himself at the mind games
these two men were playing.
“What happened to the
manager?” Vin asked in curiosity. He had expected to see the
manager with Ezra. Tanner had a few questions he wanted to
discuss with the manager himself.
“He seems to be somewhat,
indisposed,” the gambler rolled his eyes and flicked his head in the
direction of the still cowering man. Standish directed his next
statement to Larabee. “But I did ascertain the information
that you required. The man’s name is… rather was,” he
corrected, “Clarence Hogan.”
“He tell you anything at
all?” Chris stood between the two seated men, and scowled in
the direction of manager.
Ezra shook his head, but then
realised the gunslinger was not watching him to see the negative
response, so he voiced it. “No, he seems to be having
some difficulty accepting a murder has occurred in his hostelry.
Far be it for me to assume, but how he even became aware of the
transgression is beyond me. I don’t think he’s moved from
that position since the young lady’s vocal outburst.”
“So, this Clarence Hogan,”
Chris arched an eyebrow, questioning Standish whether he had the
correct name, “he someone important?” Chris queried; reasoning
that if he was indeed a prominent member of the community then that,
in itself, could be a motive for his murder.
“I have never heard of him
prior to his demise. Perhaps Mrs. Travis could possibly
enlighten us further,” Ezra suggested, but instantly wished he’d
kept his mouth shut as the gunslinger glared contemptuously at him.
The gambler couldn’t understand the gunslinger’s open hostility
towards him. All he suggested was that Mary check her files for
Clarence Hogan, to discover if he was someone of recognition. It
could help to possibly discover who was involved in his assassination.
Perhaps save some of their valuable time, by not having to cover the
same groundwork that may already be known.
Cursing under his breath, Chris
didn’t want to bring Mary into this mess. She seemed to
find a way to involve herself in enough dramas as it was. He
scowled at the Southerner for bringing her name into the conversation.
Chris hunkered down next to Vin and changed the subject.
“Reckon we oughta have Nathan check him over,” the dark-clad
gunman indicated the manager.
“Guess so,” the former bounty
hunter agreed, but made no move to leave.
The Southerner stretched his arms
out and then brought them high above his head, trying to release some
of the tension that had bunched up his muscles across the top of his
shoulders, letting his jacket fall open and expose more of his firm
torso. Feeling the effects of the sleepless night and early
morning, he couldn’t stifle the yawn that escaped his mouth.
He was tired, and needed a decent night’s sleep. He brought
his arms back down by his side, using one to cover that yawn.
Sighing audibly, reluctantly he volunteered. “I will endeavour
to attain the services of Mr. Jackson for our…friend over there.”
“Nah, he can wait. Get
everyone to meet up in the saloon,” Chris gruffly ordered.
Ezra stood up from the comfortable chair and wearily exited the hotel,
heading for Nathan’s clinic where he’d find the rest of his fellow
The sleepy town lethargically
stirred to life. At six in the morning the exhausted and fatigued
townsfolk began their chores for the day, battling against the wind
that still threatened to demolish their town. The seven lawmen had
gathered together in the saloon, quietly discussing the events of the
The undertaker had removed the
deceased from the room and Susan Murphy now slept peacefully in
Nathan’s clinic, once he’d given her something to settle her.
Josiah and Nathan took the opportunity to visit with the undertaker
and view the body.
Buck Wilmington shovelled his
breakfast urgently into his mouth with vigour and JD watched with
distaste. “Don’t know how you can eat after what we saw this
morning,” the younger man grimaced in abhorrence. He’d yet
to touch the breakfast that had been placed on the table in front of
Unconcerned by Dunne’s
outburst, Buck shrugged and between mouthfuls stated with calm
indifference, “Gotta eat sometime, kid. May as well be
The Southerner relaxed against
the bar, nursing a mug of steaming hot coffee. Amused at the
comical bantering of Buck and JD, he refrained from commenting,
content to watch the byplay between the two men. Downing a sip,
he hoped the noxious brew was strong enough to keep him awake.
Ezra looked up when he heard the blond gunslinger question the kid
about what the young woman had told him. He was curious to hear
the answers also.
“She said his name was,
Clarence Hogan,” JD eagerly informed. Chris nodded his head,
he knew this already. “And he was a travelling salesman.”
JD lowered his head to hide the red flush that coloured his cheeks and
mumbled his next words under his breath.
Buck slapped him on the back.
“Speak up kid, ain’t nobody heard what cha said.”
Scooting his chair out of the
reach of the jovial ladies’ man, Dunne, in heated embarrassment,
repeated his unheard words for the six men. “I said…” the
young gunslinger paused, “…he sold lady’s, um…underthings.”
jaw dropped. In reality, it wasn’t that he’d misheard the
sheriff’s announcement, but more the absurdity of it that stunned
the normally voracious man into a stupor.
“Dammit, Buck! Don’t
cha listen?” JD groused. Taking Wilmington’s incomprehension
at face value, he attempted to explain further. “The guy sells
lady’s corsets and petticoats… and stuff!” Dunne practically
Wilmington started to snicker and
immediately covered his mouth with his hand, but when a snort came
from Tanner, Buck roared loudly with laughter. He laughed so
hard tears ran down his cheeks. And when Vin fell out of his
chair, clutching his sides and continuing to laugh rolling on the
floor, laughter erupted around the table, lightening the tense mood
that had settled over the sombre group.
Chris still had a smile on his
face when he prompted JD further. “She tell you anything
“Um, yeah. She was
s’posed to wake him up early this morning, so he could get an early
start. You know… to sell his stuff…”
“Just who was he planning on
showing his wares to?” Jackson queried. “Ain’t like we got
anywhere in town that’d sell that kinda stuff.”
“Reckon, he mighta been gonna
hit the working girls over at Digger Daves,” the tracker grinned
Buck chuckled, and toed his boot
on a nail that had deemed to shimmy its way out of the floorboard.
“Didn’t realise you’d know about them girls, Vin?”
“Hey, I’m only human,”
Tanner objected. Between the sniggering, Vin drawled, attempting
to set the course of the conversation back on track. “Why
would anyone wanna kill a salesman? It don’t make sense.”
“Perhaps he wasn’t the
intended victim?” the Southerner opined from the bar.
“What, you think it was just a
mistake? He had two bullets in him and his ear sliced off,”
Jackson reminded. “No!” Nathan dismissed Standish’s claims
as absurd. “Somebody wanted him real dead!”
The killer easily slipped away
from town undetected. He was even grateful to the horrid
swirling winds that stirred up the red desert soil and concealed his
exit from town. Once he was beyond the town limits, the killer
increased his horse’s pace.
He didn’t concern himself with
covering his tracks because the wind swept them away as quickly as
they were made. The stranger dropped his head, and pulled his
hat lower, trying to protect his wind-burned eyes against the sting of
the blinding surges. He guided his mount with erratic leg
movements, forcing his mount to plough on through the gales.
The horse was jittery and not
familiar with travelling in such extremes of weather. The mount
sensed its owner’s lack of control and that confused the animal.
The sorrel snorted, pulling against the reins that were held loosely
in narrow fingers and baulked at continuing on.
The stranger’s horse was on the
verge of refusing to go any further when a sizeable branch from a tree
hurled in their direction. The rider was unceremoniously
deposited on the desert floor, unconscious with a newly formed lump to
his head as a result of the branch hitting him. The horse
lowered its head and nudged his rider, but the killer didn’t move.
Then a loud crack splintered and another massive branch was thrown at
the horse. The terrified horse reared; eyes black with fright,
it squealed in terror. When the nervous animal came back down on
all four legs he bolted back the way it had come, abandoning its
The seven regulators stepped from
the saloon. Prepared to turn the town upside down in search of the
killer when the riderless horse galloped back into town. The
animal snorted hard and its side’s heaved with exhaustion; it had
obviously been running hard.
JD and Vin circled the frantic
and winded horse, easily gathering the reins that dangled on the
ground. Tanner soothed it with reassuring words and gently rubbed his
hands over the skittish animal. “Reckon this could be his
horse.” Who else would be stupid enough to be out in
this weather? “Guess he didn’t plan on hanging around for us
to find him.”
The man in black nodded in
agreement. “JD, take the horse to the livery, then get back
here. We’re going after a murderer!” Larabee ordered.
They’d been riding the better
part of an hour and the wind still wreaked its havoc. Eyes stung
from the biting wind and from lack of sleep. The seven lawmen
searched the surrounding areas of Four Corners for the murderer of
Clarence Hogan. They held little hope of actually finding him,
but they were required to at least try.
Chris pulled on his black duster
in an attempt to keep out the bitter cold. Debris swirled around
them and decreased what little vision they had to almost nought.
Larabee glanced back, seeking the tracker. Vin was behind and to
his left, fighting his own battle with the demonic wind. Chris
yelled to be heard over the deafening roar. “Do ya think we
should keep going?”
Vin strained to even hear the
words that Larabee spoke and most were swept away on the wind, but he
managed to pick up a few words to get the gist of the question.
“He ain’t got a horse, could be hurt, and in this…” he waved
his hand skyward. “He can’t be too much further.”
Larabee nodded in agreement, but
thought that he should at least get some of his friends out of this
weather. “Buck…” he shouted hoarsely over his shoulder,
and he waited until the ladies’ man nudged the grey level with his
black. “Buck… I want you, JD and Nathan to head on back.
Vin, Josiah and Ezra will stay with me and keep looking.”
“No argument from me, pard.”
Wheeling Brutus around to the direction they’d come, Buck roared
over the wind to the bundled up youngster. “JD, let’s go
home.” And then to Jackson. “Nate, you come too.”
JD’s fingers were almost frozen
with numbness, and the reins in his hands began to slip. When
Wilmington hollered over the roar, Dunne snapped the reins back
tightly and pulled back his horse’s head. He shivered in the
billowy coat and glanced down to find his knuckles had turned white.
His whole body ached with stiffness that the cold biting wind had
chilled, and his face had reddened with windburn. A brightly
coloured scarf adorned his neck and throat, a gift from Casey the
Christmas before, never before was he more grateful to the girl’s
needlework. He never felt more relieved when he heard Wilmington
demand that they head home. He was beyond speech and could only
manage half a smile in response, but with a driven determination led
Padget to follow Buck and Nathan.
Standish shivered in his own coat
while watching the exchange between the black-clad gunslinger and the
ladies’ man. He rubbed a hand up the length of his thigh
trying to stroke some warmth back into his frozen leg. The heat that
was generated only took off the initial chill, but as soon as the
movement stopped, the leg felt all the more sensitive to the biting
cold. “Perhaps I might be permitted to accompany the others
back to town…” he jumped at the chance. He really didn’t
enjoy being frozen.
“Ya staying here, Standish,”
Chris snapped ominously over his shoulder. Not expecting any
objections from the gambler, he dismissed Ezra without further
thought, turning his attention to Josiah and Vin.
“Let’s keep moving.”
The Southerner watched, staring
longingly at the departing backs of the three men Larabee dismissed,
returning home and escaping further exposure to the weather. He
sighed deeply when another shiver racked the length of his body.
What on earth possessed him to be out here? If this was what was
involved in being a protector of the town, then they could have it.
Who in their right mind would be out in this hellacious weather?
What was to stop him from turning around and leaving right now?
At least he’d be warm back in town.
He felt no loyalty to the
blond-headed leader. None what so ever!
Or did he?
Standish felt a large gloved hand
cover his arm squeezing it. He’d not heard the approach of the
man or horse, but that was highly unlikely over the raging windstorm.
Ezra redirected his gaze and looked into the blue eyes of the fatherly
man. Was that concern for him? The gambler dropped his
gaze to where Josiah’s hand gripped his forearm. Dazed, Ezra
followed the rhythmic movements of the gloved hand that rubbed his own
arm, as though he was mesmerised by the action. He’d swear
that the preacher was about to hug him. This scared Ezra more
than he’d admit, so he abruptly pulled his arm out of the grip the
preacher had on him.
Josiah Sanchez silently watched
the Southerner, left stationary as the wind buffeted about him.
He could see the indecision etched in his handsome face and worried
that Ezra would throw it all in and leave. Chris and Vin had
gone on together, they wouldn’t be too hard to follow. What
Josiah needed to do now was offer some comfort to the gambler who was
hurting, not only from the cold, but the cold that wrapped around his
heart. Sanchez guided his mount back to the Southerner, and
stopped within a hair’s breath. Still the man didn’t
acknowledge his presence. The older man reached out and touched
the gambler’s arm, squeezing it to gain Ezra’s focus. The
gambler appeared startled by the contact, and his hazy gaze sought out
his own. Sanchez smiled and rubbed the arm clasped within his
grip. He thought for a moment that the Southerner accepted the
touch of concern, but when Standish abruptly pulled away,
disappointment filled Josiah.
“Come on son, we best catch up
with Chris and Vin.” Josiah saw the scowl cover the
gambler’s face at the mention of the word son. Why did he say
it? He wasn’t sure. Did he want Ezra for a son? Or
was it the age old yearning to have offspring by the time your reach a
certain age? Whatever it was, the Southerner seemed to fit
Josiah’s need. That the man didn’t have a father, as far as
Josiah knew he didn’t, or that Standish seemed to need that guiding
hand that a father could provide, Sanchez didn’t care. All he
knew was he had this hole in his heart that ached to be filled, and if
allowed, Ezra could do that for him.
“Josiah unless you know
something that I don’t, than its highly unlikely that you are indeed
my father,” Standish admonished a little lamely, but this weather
was playing havoc with his emotions. Wheeling Chaucer around he
reluctantly followed his fellow lawmen. Sanchez smiled warmly at
the gambler’s retreating back, happy with the Southerner’s
Another hour flew by with very
little conversation passing between the four lawmen. This lapse
was broken by the gambler’s heavy accented voice lilting through the
howling wind. “Of all the accursed luck…” Ezra
complained, as the first droplets of rain started to fall.
“Oh, this is just marvellous,” he groused. Behind him he
could hear the roar of laughter that Sanchez erupted into.
Standish contemplated ignoring the outburst, but his frustration and
fatigue overpowered his good senses, and he shot a look of contempt at
the preacher. Unfortunately this only caused Josiah to burst
into further hysterics.
Within minutes of Ezra’s
declaration, the sky opened its heaven and the rain fell in torrents.
Sheets of rain quickly soaked the four lawmen and still the wind kept
its pace. Now the frigid air was not only depressing, but now,
also wet. Droplets ran down Ezra’s face and he futilely wiped
them away. The driving rain made their progress more difficult,
and even the stoic gunslinger was on the verge of halting the search
and returning to town.
The horses’ hooves splattered
in the ever-increasing puddles, and snorted shaking the water from
thoroughly drenched silhouettes trudged through the downpour.
Instead of being seated in their saddles, they led their horses by the
reins, as they navigated hopelessly against the wind and rain. Vin
led, having only momentarily changed positions with Chris, who now
followed behind the lanky tracker. Josiah was a few paces behind
Larabee, and Standish brought up the rear.
finally declared that they end the search and head for shelter.
And if Chris was expecting some jubilant witticism from the gambler,
then he was sorely disappointed, as his only reaction was to merely curl
his upper lip - more of a snarl than a smile.
turned the mounts around and were leading them back to town. It
was more than possible that they’d missed the murderer by a fraction,
as the lack of daylight and swirling debris severely limited the scope
of their search.
lifted his soddened legs with a lazy lethargy. His hat sat low on
his head and the rain fell off the brim. His boots sloshed in the
puddles that still held the muddy imprints of the three men and their
horses before him. A shiver travelled down his spine and the gambler
pulled his burgundy jacket around his body a little tighter, which did
little to diminish the numbness that had invaded his body.
Beyond caring, Standish stepped sluggishly into the puddle that spread across the entire width of the trail. One minute he was upright, the next he was sliding down a slight incline. He came to rest at the bottom as something solid stopped any further slide in the mud. Cursing in fluent Spanish at his ungraceful slip from the path, Ezra thumped his fist in frustration into the soft and uneven ground.
groped in the semi darkness to ascertain what had stopped his descent,
and discovered a very wet and muddied body. Pulling himself
upright, Standish leaned over the body and felt for a pulse. With
a wry smile the gambler realised, that in all possibilities, this was
the very man they were seeking. He gazed back up the slope and
opened his mouth to call out, when Josiah’s large frame slid down the
slope and slammed bodily over the smaller man. Groaning audibly,
Standish pushed at the mass that now had him trapped between an
unconscious killer and a want-a-be father.
turned as the gambler slipped from sight and shouted his name in
desperation. When he received no reply, Sanchez shouted a warning
to the men in front, “Chris, Vin!” He stopped and waited for
them to acknowledge his cry. “Ezra’s gone down, I’m going
down to get him.”
and Tanner exchanged glances and stepped back to Sanchez. Looking
down the slope Tanner asked, “Can you see him?”
Sanchez started down the incline. Unable to see a foot in front of
him, the preacher tentatively plunged down, but with the wind and rain
the ground had turned to mud and his feet slipped beneath him as he lost
his footing. Startled by the sudden fall, Josiah let out a harsh
cry and slid to the bottom, rolling over the top of the gambler at the
Standish gasped out, struggling for a breath. Pushing with all his
power, Ezra couldn’t lift the heavy man from his chest.
hurt?” Sanchez remained perfectly still. He could see the
gambler struggle for breath, but was reluctant to move in case he
injured the Southerner further.
…Now get off me,” Standish rasped out.
man complied, and was relieved to hear a significant change in the
gambler’s breathing. Noticing for the first time the unconscious
man, Sanchez asked, “Who’s yer friend?”
able to draw in an adequate air supply, the pain in his chest
disappeared. In answer to Josiah’s query Standish surmised,
“He could be the miscreant we’ve been pursuing.”
check if he’s got the ear?”
shuddered at the thought. “I’ve hardly had time for that,”
he drawled, “with you pummelling into me.”
Squeamish are you Ezra?” Josiah teased, emptying out pockets of the
Standish snorted and pulled off a leather pouch from the man’s belt
and pulled loose the drawstring. “Aug!” he exclaimed, handing
the item over to Sanchez.
accepted the pouch and grimaced at the unattached ear that was found
above, Larabee shouted down to them. “You two okay?”
Josiah grinned at the gambler and slapped him affectionately on the shoulder. “We’re fine, Chris. We might need some help to get back up,” he added ruefully looking up the slippery path. “We’ve got the killer down here with us too.”
P art 10
The return trip to town was
somewhat faster, but still stole three hours out of the day. Chris
ordered that the murderer be slung over Ezra’s horse, while he rode
with Vin on Peso. Without any protest, Standish did just
that. Wet and bedraggled, the four peacekeepers sighed with relief
as Four Corners came into view. Without a doubt, they all shared
the common desire to get out of the weather and enjoy the comforts of a
warm bath and dry clothing.
Buck, dry and swathed in a warm
overcoat hung just inside the swinging doors of the Saloon, anxiously
peering out through the downpour for his friends to return. He
combed his fingers through his moustache and licked the foam from his
lips. The half finished beer was thumped on the closest table and
he raced out onto the sidewalk to greet his returning friends.
Wilmington felt guilty leaving the others while he had gone to seek the
warmth of the town. Of course, the guilt was minimal, because JD
had almost succumbed to the icy conditions and was now snuggled under
his covers in his room at the boarding house. That boy needed more
meat on his bones; he had no insulating fat to ward off the cold.
Smiling widely, the gregarious
ladies’ man raised an inquiring brow when he saw Ezra wasn’t riding
Chaucer, but doubling with Vin. And another man was bundled
over the gambler’s mount. “Is that him?” Wilmington hollered
out to the arrivals as they steered their mounts towards the hitching
rails in front of the saloon. Buck shook his head in awe.
With all the howling wind and the raging rain, how had they managed to
find one man, when seeing a foot in front of you was impossible?
“Yeah.” Chris tossed the small
pouch to the ladies’ man.
Wilmington opened it and glanced
inside. “Thanks, pard,” he sarcastically responded and
returned the pouch to Larabee.
“Buck you up to taking first
shift with him at the jail?” Larabee wearily requested. At least
Buck wouldn’t question his orders, not like a certain Southerner
“Not a problem, pard,”
“Reckon Nathan might wanta check
him out, and I’ll have to git Mary to wire the Judge to come.”
Larabee climbed down from his black horse and stepped onto the
boardwalk. The rain still whipped in under the awning and
the wind buffeted against the man in black, but he sighed deeply as he
wiped the tendrils of rain from his face, relieved that they’d finally
made it home. “Guess we’ll be babysitting him ‘til Travis
can get here.”
Buck herded the semi-conscious
felon to the jail, and Josiah, Vin and Ezra followed Chris into the
Standish had every intention of
taking a bath, getting into warm clothing and having something warm to
drink. He’d started to climb the stairs to his room above, when
Larabee’s clipped tones halted his progress. “You got the midnight
to dawn shift at the jail.”
Standish turned and gaped at the
man as though he had two heads. He was tired beyond exhaustion,
cold and hungry, and now Larabee wanted him to play guard dog as well.
He opened his mouth with a ready retort, but the gunslinger beat him to
“Everyone’s taking a turn, so
you better be there. Got it?” Chris watched as Standish
turned and faced him, rebellious green eyes flared with defiance.
Chris had seen the slump to the Southerner’s posture and the heavy
slow steps. But hell, if he let Standish off the hook, what’s to
stop him from doing it again? All of them were tired! Damn,
Vin had practically walked most of the morning looking for signs that
had been blown away. It was mid afternoon, Chris reasoned, that
was plenty of time for the gambler to clean up and be ready for his
“Got it!” Ezra snapped, turning
his back on the three remaining men and resuming his climb up the
The Southern gambler made it in
time to relieve Sanchez at the jail, with only minutes to spare.
He covered a yawn with a cupped hand as he sauntered into the jail.
Giving the sleeping form a cursory glance, Ezra asked, “He asleep?”
“Yep. Has been for the last
couple of hours. Nathan came by earlier and checked him out, -he
ain’t hurt too bad. He’ll probably sleep through ‘til
morning. But if he does wake up, then give him some of this herbal
mixture.” Josiah picked up a mug from the desk and sloshed the
contents, spilling a few drops onto the floor. He held out the mug
for the gambler to take, but Standish ignored it, leaving Josiah to
return it to its former place on the desk. A dried outlined circle
showed clearly where the mug had been resting, but Josiah didn’t
return it exactly, and another wet ring would soon dry beneath the mug.
“Marvellous,” Standish drawled.
“Not only am I being subjected to monitoring the miscreant’s
confinement, but now I also have to play nursemaid to a comatose
degenerate,” he complained pacing the small confines of the room.
Sanchez chuckled softly, but
stopped immediately at the quelling glare Standish gave him.
Smiling weakly, he amended, “He ain’t comatose, just sleeping is
all.” The older man stretched his arms above his head and closed
his eyes trying to lessen the tension that pulled across his neck and
shoulder muscles. “Reckon I’ll be heading to bed and get some
“By all means, Mr. Sanchez,”
the gambler wearily dismissed. “I will no doubt be seeing you in
The preacher stood by the open door
for a long minute, staring out at the empty street. He turned back
to say something more, but changed his mind when he saw the defensive
stance the Southerner had assumed. Josiah knew this was not the
time to get into a discussion, especially one that was bound to become
heated. He smiled half-heartedly with regret, determined to talk
with the stubborn man soon. “Night, son.”
Standish glared at the preacher’s
large frame, silently sending daggers into his retreating back.
Sighing deeply, the gambler retraced his steps and swung the uninviting
seat around to the opposite side of the table and sank into the chair
with his arms resting along the back. He cast a glance into
the cell. Satisfied at finding the prisoner still in the same
position, Standish laconically let his gaze drift around the small room,
ultimately concluding his scrutiny at the two exits. The back door
was bolted, but the front door was not. Standish considered
pushing closed the bolt, but didn’t deem it worth his while.
There was no need to lock himself in with the prisoner. And who in
their right mind would be up at this ungodly hour anyway?
Yawning for the umpteenth time, the
gambler spread the pasteboards face down over the rough-hewn surface of
the desk. He’d already worked through a dozen games of solitaire
and decided he needed a change of game to focus on. To say he was
disgruntled was an understatement. Weary to the bone was a more
After returning to town, Standish
had every intension of recouping his lack of sleep from the night
before, but an extremely overzealous cowboy, wanting to recoup his
monetary losses from the previous night confronted him, on his return
from the bathhouse. And only a little persuasion was
required before the gambler acquiesced. And
there was something that niggled at him in regard to the cowboy, that he
couldn’t fathom. Wilson Myles, he called himself, a fairly
newcomer to the area and with an attitude. Standish had played
poker a number of times with him, when he came to town on the weekends.
Over the past month, Standish had wiped the testy cowboy clean to his
last dollar four times. Still the wrangler came back for more.
Ezra got the impression from their conversations that Myles had another
agenda that he was working to when he visited town, but the younger
uncouth man held his cards close to his chest and revealed none of his
plans to the Southerner.
Of course it was his fault entirely
that he spent the afternoon winning the cowboy’s last dollar, but at
three o’clock in the morning Standish was not in the mood to accept
the blame. Especially, as it was Larabee’s decree that this
shift of guard duty belonged to him. He figured that it had been
important to keep Myles busy and was miffed at himself that he’d not
accomplished his set gaol to determine the younger man’s business in
Eyes gritty with sleep, Ezra laid
his head down on the desktop for a moment, closing his weary eyes.
What harm would it do? He slid the cards into a pile, planning on
continuing with them shortly, after he’d rested for a few minutes.
Rough hands pushed annoyingly at
his shoulder. He moaned softly and muttered under the heavy veil
of sleep. A sharp pain erupted in his left shoulder and he cried
out in pain, drawn rapidly from his slumber. Sleep? Good
Lord, he’d fallen asleep? Standish shook the clouding cobwebs of
sleep from his mind and twisted in his seat. Who had woken him?
And why had he been hit? Oh God, please let it not be Larabee?
A presence stood behind him. The gambler pushed back the chair
from the desk ready to stand and account for his lack of wakefulness,
but a crashing blow across his back sent him sprawled onto the desk.
A grunt echoed in the cold room, but the assailant remained quiet.
Ezra lifted his head attempting to catch a glimpse, but another solid
blow to the back of his head took away his senses. Standish
tumbled to the floor. With his last coherent thought, he glimpsed
the unique silver buckle that adorned his attacker’s boots.
“Hell!” Sanchez swore as he
took in the sight that greeted him. He’d come early, planning on
accompanying Standish to breakfast when Vin relieved the gambler.
But the sight that met him was not entirely one he’d expected.
With the cell door swinging open and their killer strung up, hung from
the rafters. His face already a deathly shade of white and a map
of agony displaying his final struggles as he fought for every last
breath. The preacher closed his eyes and paused to take a breath.
What a way to die - strangled.
Snapping open his eyes, Josiah
anxiously searched for the gambler. “Ezra?” The softly
spoken word more a plea. “Son?” His eyes widened when he
saw the crumpled form on the floor partially hidden by the desk.
Sanchez hunkered beside the gambler and gently rolled the smaller man
onto his back. A soft moan accompanied the movement.
“Ezra…wake up son,” Sanchez prodded.
“What the hell?” Tanner
announced in the doorway.
The preacher glanced up briefly,
and seeing Tanner hesitate in the doorway, ordered the younger man into
action. “Vin, go fetch Nathan.” He paused, thoughtful as he
wiped the stray curl off Ezra’s brow. “Then ya best tell
Chris.” This was not going to please the man in black, and worst
of all it had to happen on the gambler’s watch.
The dark figure stalked into the
jailhouse, his black duster billowing behind him. Larabee ignored
what was happening with the Southerner, but instead fixed his gaze on
the killer hung up in the adjacent cell. The corner of his mouth
twitched. “Vin.” He barely spoke the word aloud, but the
tracker heard, leaving the group surrounding the gambler and joining the
man in black. “Ya had a chance to look around?”
“Yeah, ain’t nothin’ ta find
“Let’s cut him down then.”
Tanner nodded in agreement and drew
his seven-inch blade from its scabbard and entered the cell.
Standing on the bed Vin reached above his head and sliced through the
thick coil of rope. Chris helped lower the murderer to the floor.
Apart from the rope burn about his throat, the deceased had no other
visible injuries. They laid him out on the floor; a frown furrowed
a grove between Vin’s eyes. “Reckon he woulda kicked up a fuss
at being hung,” the tracker frowned in confusion. “But he
don’t look like he struggled at all, other than once the rope was
about his neck.”
Larabee rubbed at his chin.
In a hushed voice, so only Tanner could hear, Chris asked, “Ya reckon
he knew his killer?”
Chris bit the inside of his cheek,
his mind wrapped wholly around this new twist, when the gambler’s
thick Southern drawl, stated that he was fine, intruded on his thoughts.
All reason fled and a burning rage grew in intensity. In three
quick measured strides Larabee hovered over the Southerner, glaring
malevolently. Nathan nudged Josiah and agreeing silently between
them to leave the feuding men in privacy, they stepped out of the cell
and out of the room. The others took the hint and hastily
followed, not wanting to be caught in the crossfire. For such a
mass exodus, the five lawmen did it rather quietly and unobtrusively.
Standish propped up on his elbows
was puzzled by Larabee’s hostile approach. His shoulder and back
ached with a passion and his head throbbed mercifully. Having
already used his complement of persuasiveness to keep Nathan at bay,
assuring the group that he was not seriously injured, his supplies were
running thin when he was forced to contend with an irate Larabee.
Instead of calling him on his intent, Standish decided waiting was a
Chris’ anger grew, when the smug
conman stared up at him in a mockery of innocence. “What the
hell happened, Standish? You were supposed to be guarding him!”
Ezra glanced at the deceased lying
on the floor; the knotted rope still tightly cinched around his neck.
He lifted his gaze back to Larabee and shrugged his shoulders in
confusion. “I seem to have been otherwise occupied at the
Chris lifted the smaller man from
the cot and dragged him upright. Clenching his fists against the
white ruffled shirt, Chris held the gambler within a breadth of his own
face. Snarling vehemently, the man in black began his tirade.
A knot of apprehension filled the
gambler. Up until that moment he’d convinced both Nathan and
himself that he was indeed unharmed. Even the ever-vigilant
Sanchez had been convinced. But that was his vocation, to convince
others of some deception. But when his feet hit the floor,
Standish’s world began to spin. It seemed that the weight
resting on his legs had increased a hundred fold, and they began to feel
leaden and numb. It soon became apparent that the man in front of
him was his sole support, as his own limbs refused to take his own
weight. Whatever Chris was ranting at him flew over the top of his
head and he could only mutely stare back. The pain at the back of
his head overrode everything. His vision swam and the ground
Larabee stalled mid-sentence, his
hold on Standish had gotten heavier and Ezra was staring at him in blank
bewilderment. “Ezra…” Chris wasn’t sure what to do when
the gambler didn’t respond to the softly whispered word. When
Standish’s eyes rolled to the ceiling, Chris frantically called out
for Nathan. Wrapping his arms around the Southerner’s upper body
as Ezra crumpled, Chris hugged the unconscious gambler to his chest,
sliding to the floor with his charge.
“He gonna be okay?”
Chris’ worried frown almost made the former slave chuckle.
“Now that I’ve got a good look
at him, least I know what’s what.” The dark-skinned man
continued as Larabee raised an inquiring eyebrow. “Looks like he
took a couple of blows, one across his back, another across his left
shoulder and a nasty one to the back of his thick skull. Ain’t
nothing broken, but he’s gonna be plenty bruised. And judging
from his reaction earlier, guessing he’s got a concussion.”
“He was took from behind,”
Tanner correctly pointed out.
Jackson nodded in affirmation.
“Yep.” The healer assumed the gambler had to have been asleep
at the time of the attack, but he’d leave that announcement for
Standish to deliver, when he came to. Let him try and wriggle out
“I want to know when he wakes
up,” Chris directed at the healer, before taking his leave of
The fog slowly lifted as
consciousness returned to the gambler. Without opening his eyes
Standish was aware that he was no longer in the jail. Inhaling
deeply, certain scents more consistent with Nathan’s clinic registered
through the haze of confusion. The gambler lifted his arm
and draped it over his brow, a soft moan surfaced at the transitory
“How ya doing?”
Jackson’s deep rumble penetrated his mind; the concerned words
didn’t match with his stilted tone. “Ya gave us a bit of a
scare ya know.”
“Mr. Jackson…” Standish
paused, swallowing tightly at his dry raw throat, “Is anyone else in
the room?” Or was he a lone with the moralistic man?
“Nope. They done gone over
to the saloon. Figured you’d be out to it for a bit.” Nathan
scooted the chair and reached over the gambler to lift his arm off his
face. Jackson liked to look into a person’s eyes when he talked
to them. Standish didn’t resist the gentle manipulation, but
still clamped his eyes shut. The healer asked, “Ya got a
“Nothing I can’t tolerate,”
the Southerner confirmed.
Jackson ignored the affirmative
answer. Let him suffer, then. “Good, then I got some
things I want ta say to ya afore Chris does.”
Standish blinked his eyes open in
mute silence, stunned by the healer’s zeal. The gambler winced
at the intrusion of the light, but held an appraising gaze on Jackson.
“Please proceed,” Ezra prompted, eager to get this over with.
He and Nathan had had these little talks before, sermons more like.
Standish was always left with the impression of falling far below the
high moral standards that Jackson seemed graced with.
“Ya know it ain’t just me, but
your gambling and conning ways affect everybody in town. Chris was
depending on you to guard that prisoner, and what do you do…” Nathan
jumped from his seat and stamped about the room, throwing his hands into
the air. “Fall asleep and let somebody come in and hang the man.
Hell, yer lucky ya weren’t killed too. Can’t see why Chris
lets ya stay. Come to think of it, don’t know why you
bother to stay.”
Standish mumbled under his breath,
“Don’t know the answer to that myself.”
Nathan continued on, missing the
gambler’s self-depreciating comment. “Hell, I don’t know
that Chris should have even trusted ya to guard him. All the
others were just as tired, the least ya coulda done was prepare for ya
shift, instead a wasting the afternoon gambling…stealing that
cowhand’s last dollar. Yeah, I saw ya.” Jackson took one
last look at the gambling man and stormed out, slamming the door behind
Standish winced at the painfully
loud noise of the door slamming and the repeated echoing in his ears.
He rubbed his temples at the increased spasm of pain in his head. Lord,
he hoped this headache soon abated. Ezra was stunned and perplexed
by the furore of Jackson’s summation of events and stared fixedly at
the closed door, frozen on the spot. Nathan’s judgement of his
lifestyle bristled at already sensitive nerves. Stung by the
accusations, Standish swung his legs off the bed and cupped his head in
his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. Waiting for the
spinning sensations to stop, he reflected on the one-sided conversation
he’d just had. Nathan, of course, was correct on all points.
Ezra didn’t understand why he was allowed to stay in town, or why in
fact he hadn’t taken it upon himself to leave. Chris barely
tolerated him and never went out of his way to speak to him and he
certainly didn’t trust him, especially after the incident at the
Gathering together his apparel Ezra
hastily dressed, unwilling to wait for the wrath of Larabee to erupt.
He would meet Chris head on, and on his terms. There was no escape
for the moment, but once the mystery of the murders was solved then he
would be free to take his leave.
The weather outdoors had calmed
considerably since the demise of Clarence Hogan, but still the wind blew
in gusts. During the day the main street had been unusually
deserted due to the inflective weather. Only out of necessity had
anyone willingly braved the elements. If not for the voracious
gales, Four Corners seemed to have slumped into a void of melancholy.
The street was peppered with puddles from the storm the day before, the
deep ruts in the road swollen with murky water.
The five remaining peacekeepers
were together in the saloon quietly discussing the events.
Wilmington settled his glass on the round table, licking the white foam
off his lips. “What we gonna do now, pard?” The
ladies’ man directed his question to his blond friend.
“Not much we can do, Buck, ‘til
we can talk with Standish,” Larabee shrugged indifference.
“Ain’t like it was his
fault,” JD Dunne protested. With the gambler absent, Dunne felt
it was his duty to stand by the Southerner. Besides, JD liked the
roguish Southerner, he leant a certain charisma to their elite group of
Larabee raised a speculative
eyebrow at the exuberant youth’s declaration. “Ya know
something that we don’t know, son?”
“All I said was that Ezra
wasn’t ta blame,” Dunne slowly emphasised each word clearly.
Nodding his greying head, Josiah
mumbled his agreement. “Coulda happened ta any one of us,
falling asleep. I’m guilty of that sin myself,” Sanchez
acknowledged, referring to his lapse while protecting Olivia.
“But it didn’t,” Chris
gruffly pointed out. Now they had two dead men at the undertakers,
one without a name, and an unidentified killer on the loose.
“Maybe he saw something,” JD
suggested, hoping for the gambler’s sake that he had.
“Like what kid? He was hit
from behind,” Wilmington snorted and clipped the back of the young
“Ouch… damn it, Buck!
What cha haf ta do that for?”
Buck grinned broadly, never one to
miss an opportunity. “That hat of yours is letting yer brains
fall out yer ears, nothing ta hold ‘em in. What ya need is a
real hat, something with style…”
“Like yours I suppose?”
Dunne wrinkled his nose in distaste.
“Yep. The best there is,
ain’t that right Josiah?”
“Boy oughta be allowed to pick
his own headwear, Buck,” Sanchez conceded.
“See? Josiah likes my
A small deceptive grin formed on
Sanchez’ lips. “Ain’t exactly what I said, son.”
Wilmington snorted and thumped the
beer glass down to the table, doubling over with laughter.
Nathan chose that moment to enter.
He strode with determination to join the others; a grim expression
clouded his features. Standing behind Tanner, Jackson glanced from
Buck’s good humour to Dunne’s pout. “Glad y’all got
somethin’ ta laugh about,” Nathan hissed surly.
Between bouts of laughter, Buck
asked, “What’s got yer dander up, Nate?”
Jackson dropped wearily into a
vacant chair. “That man…” he paused searching for the
appropriate words to describe his frustration. “Augggg!” he
finished lamely, dropping his head to the table with a thud.
“Standish awake?” Larabee guessed.
Jackson lifted his head.
“Yeah. We gotta do somethin’ about him.”
“Just what are you suggesting we
do?” Sanchez growled.
Jackson didn’t relish getting
into a debate with the preacher, but he had to be made to see reason.
“I’ve said it before, what good is a cheat to us? He never
wants ta get his hands dirty, or lift a hand to help out. He’s
always complaining about one thing or another. We can’t depend
on him, and we never know when he’s gonna run out on us next.
Then there is his conning innocent people out of their hard earned cash.
And this last incident showed his true colours - again. It’s
only a matter of time afore he gits one of us killed. Standish
looks out for number one - him. Reckon it’s time we gave him his
marching orders. Least then he won’t be able ta con us or any
other of these good folks,” Nathan swung his arm wide,
Larabee stretched back in the
chair, crossing his legs at his ankles. He’d not seen or heard
Nathan come down so hard on the Southerner before. He knew there
had been tension between the pair since the start, but he thought
they’d come to an understanding. Chris pursed his lips
thoughtfully, sending an appraising blue gaze around the occupants of
“Now Nathan, that ain’t
fair…” Josiah began in Ezra’s defence.
“No, he’s only stating the truth,” the calm Southern accent interrupted.
Standish stiffly manoeuvred his way
toward them. Ignoring Nathan, Standish deemed it unnecessary to
comment further on the healer’s judgemental character assassination.
Besides, he wasn’t positive he could come up with a convincing
argument against Jackson’s accusations. “Mr. Larabee, I seem
to recall some pertinent facts that may lead us to the perpetrator.”
Chris sat forward in his seat and
rested his elbows on the table. “You’d best join us then.”
Tanner kicked out a chair with his
boot. The gambler looked downright awful. He appeared on the
verge of collapse. “Ya feeling better, Ezra?” Tanner let
the concern for the cocky gambler show in his voice.
confirmed as he sank gratefully into the offered seat.
“So, what cha got to tell us?”
the ladies’ man pursued, eager to resume a new line of conversation.
He wasn’t sure what had gotten into Nathan, but it didn’t bode well
for Standish. Might be best to keep ‘em apart, least ‘til
it’s all over.
“He was wearing a silver buckle
on his boots.”
Silence surrounded the table as
they all considered the gambler’s revelation. “That ain’t a
lot to go on, Ezra.” Tanner’s soft Texan drawl expressed the
thoughts of the entire group.
“But it was a very distinctive
design. I myself have never seen anything of its like before.
I’d wager it was custom made,” the Southerner persisted.
Larabee drummed his fingers on his
knee. “Reckon ya can draw us a likeness?”
“I guarantee that I can
appropriate an adequate facsimile,” Standish boasted. Larabee
nodded and pushed his chair back. “There is one other piece I
have to impart,” Ezra spoke quickly. Chris turned and raised a
speculative brow at the gambler. “I think I can supply a name
for you…at least an assumed one,” Ezra gloated, smiling smugly.
“You know him!” Jackson
accused. “Hah! Now why don’t that surprise me?
What did ya do? Meet up with him on one of yer cons?”
Jackson’s deep brown eyes seared the gambler with a quelling look, his
mouth twisted sardonically.
Standish’s poker face slipped and
his eyes widened in astonishment at the healer’s defamatory comments.
“No, Mr. Jackson, I don’t personally know the man in question.”
Standish dropped his head a fraction, pausing to reassert his poker
face. Once the mask was back in place the gambler continued, but
deliberately ignored Jackson’s caustic gaze. “It is
simply a matter of deduction, but not entirely conclusive.”
“Go on,” Chris prompted.
“Our travelling salesman, Mr.
Hogan was murdered, by our now deceased killer. The room with
which Mr. Hogan was allocated was nine, but the uppermost screw was
removed, so instead the brass number read six.” Standish
stopped, glancing around the vacant faces. Sighing, Ezra continued
explaining his theory. “I conclude that Clarence Hogan was not
the intended victim, but whoever was residing in room six,” he
finished on a triumphant note.
Larabee was actually impressed with
the gambler’s deductive reasoning. Why hadn’t any of them been
able to work that out? “And who was that, Ezra?”
“The name in the register was
Lyle Manning. I put to you, that this is the murderer of whoever
now resides at the undertakers.”
Chris smiled for the first time
that day. Standish certainly cut through the crap. “Buck,
you and JD get over to the jailhouse and look through the wanted posters
for a Lyle Manning.” The gunman sought eye contact with the
Southerner to acknowledge his thanks. With a repressive sigh the
man in black added, “See if ya can find one on our body that’s at
the undertakers too. Need a name for him when the Judge comes.”
His blue eyes swivelled to the two larger men of the group.
“Josiah, Nathan. Go and check, on the off chance, that Manning
is still stayin’ at the Hotel. Get him over to jail if he
is.” Finally Larabee turned back to the gambler; he chewed on
the inside of his mouth, assessing the Southerner’s state of health.
“Ezra, I want a copy of that buckle.” Standish nodded wearily
and slowly headed up the stairs to his room.
Buck and JD bolted for the swinging
doors in a mad rush, pushing and shoving at each other. Josiah and
Nathan followed in their wake at a more civilised manner.
Tanner crossed his arms, stealing a
quick glance at the man in black. “What are we gonna do?”
“I want you to get that drawin’
off Ezra afore he crashes.” Larabee grinned at the bounty
hunter, knowing full well what his reaction was going to be.
“Yer gonna owe me big time for
that, cowboy,” Tanner groaned in resignation.
“Mr. Tanner…Vin, would you
please stop,” the Southerner pleaded. The constant pacing in the small
room was aggravating his headache and taking its toll on the gambler.
The floorboards creaked beneath Vin’s feet and his boots clipped
whenever he turned. The vibrating boards echoed so loudly that
Standish was ready to physically restrain the former bounty hunter. The
only reason he resisted, was the fact that once he fulfilled Larabee’s
request then the tracker would depart, and he didn’t relish getting on
the bad side of any more of his friends. Ezra’s head ached
abominably, and added to that he was feeling rather poorly. All he
wanted to do was fall into bed and sleep for a week. He rolled his
shoulders and applied the finishing touches to the drawing. He’d
expected that Larabee would send Tanner after him to ensure he’d
complete the drawing, but why they couldn’t trust him to finish the
simply task without the watchdog approach was beyond him. He’d
agreed to produce the facsimile, but obviously his word was counted for
“Here, if you would be so kind as
to pass this on to Mr. Larabee, I’d be most grateful.”
Standish handed the long-haired man the sheet of paper with the drawing
of the requested buckle. Now go! Standish wished the
plainsman would hurry his departure.
Vin accepted the page and studied
the drawing for a long minute. He was no judge or what was good or
not, but the former bounty hunter was duly impressed by the gambler’s
artwork. “Yeah, sure. You gonna come with me?”
“Now, what plausible reason would
there be for me to escort you? No. I’ve made plans that include
snuggling up to my down pilla and welcoming the arms of Morpheus.”
“Yer gonna stay here right?”
“I believe I just stated that,”
Standish testily replied.
Holding up both hands in front, Vin
backed up. “Just checking. I’ll go an’ show Chris and
the others this.” Waving the page, Tanner gratefully left the
The sun was lost behind the shadows
of the heaving dark clouds, a few stray rays managed to peek through,
but they did little to warm the day. The wind had picked up
once more, this time with a biting chill, leaving the townsfolk
wondering if they were plagued by the hellish weather.
Vin stepped off the sidewalk; the
white paper flapping in the wind reminded him why he’d ventured
outside. His long hair was whipped frantically about his face
obscuring his view. In irritation, Tanner gripped the windblown
locks and tied them up into a ponytail wrapped in a length of leather.
Satisfied with the result, Tanner glanced, firstly up the length of the
street and then over at the jailhouse. Taking a punt, he opted for
the sheriff’s office. If Larabee wasn’t there, then at least
Buck and JD would still be sorting through the wanted posters.
“Hey, Buck, JD. You boys
“It ain’t no use, Vin. We
ain’t even got a description to go on,” Dunne complained. The
stack of wanted posters had shrunk in size as they sorted through and
discarded the most obvious candidates. Another pile grew on the
top of the desk, as possible candidates.
Tanner nodded his head in
understanding. “Maybe Josiah and Nathan will come up with
somethin’. Give us somethin’ more ta go on.” Vin
slipped Ezra’s drawing onto the table between the piles of wanted
posters. “Take a gander at this.”
whistled in delight. “That thing would sure as hell stand out.
Did Ezra draw this?” Tanner nodded his head in response, and
smiled as the ladies’ man shook his head in awe.
“Wow!” JD exclaimed, eyes
widening to saucers. “That musta cost a mint, done in silver.”
Dunne shook his head, picking up the page and examining it closer.
“Man! How did Ezra remember all this?” Answering
his own question with another, “Reckon he can see all the
details in his mind, like havin’ a photograph ta look at?”
“Would explain his propensity
with cards,” Sanchez light-heartedly chuckled as he entered the
jailhouse. “Let me see that, son.” Josiah held out his
hand for the page. Once he’d studied the picture he handed it
over to Nathan, who’d joined him at the door.
“Guess’n Manning ain’t still
registered at the Hotel?” Tanner drawled, leaning against the
sidewall. Why was nothing ever easy?
“Nope,” Nathan replied.
“That manager, McGee, he couldn’t give us a description neither,”
he sighed regretfully.
“What about Miss Murphy?
She mighta seen him.” The young gunslinger jumped off the chair
as he came to this realisation.
Wilmington clapped the younger man
on the shoulder and whopped with joy. “Now ya talking.”
A roguish smile lit his features, and with a twinkle in his eyes he
winked suggestively. “Reckon I can find the little lady and help
her to remember.”
Larabee heard the tail end of the
conversation as he stepped through the door. “So long as ya
don’t go using any of your animal magnetism on her, Buck.”
After Buck left, Chris sat on the
edge of the desk, idly fingering Standish’s drawing. This
can’t be all that hard to find. It’s a dead give away.
Someone wearing this ornamental buckle on his boots was bound ta be
noticed. Chris wondered at the craftsmanship of something like
this. Looking up from his contemplation, he returned Tanner’s
appraising gaze. “Where’s Standish?”
Buck Wilmington, as expected, paid
court on the lovely, Susan Murphy. Although the young woman had
been exposed to a callous murder, after resting she was recovered from
her initial shock. And, to the surprise of everyone, the ladies’
man came up with a fairly adequate description of the Manning. The
cleaning maid described their suspect as tall, around 6” 3, ruddy
complexion, brown wavy hair, trimmed beard and moustache. She
couldn’t confirm that he wore boots that had the silver buckle
Standish had described, but her input would narrow the field.
The six regulators split up into
pairs and began another search of the town. As usual, Chris and
Vin teamed together, Buck and JD and Nathan and Josiah. Ezra had
yet to come down from his room.
Three hours later found the gambler
rocking back in his chair. He’d come downstairs only a few
minutes earlier and discovered the saloon packed with faces of
strangers. After sleeping the majority of the day Standish was
sorely tempted to remain in his bed as his head was still throbbing with
persistence, but after Nathan’s scathing remarks earlier that morning
he needed to fulfil his role as a regulator and assist in the capture of
Manning. Once that task was completed then he was free to leave.
Standish rubbed the nape of his
neck, fingering the lump that the murderer had bestowed on him.
How had he not heard anything when the man entered the jail?
Surely he hadn’t been asleep long. Obviously long enough,
a little voice nagged at him. He quickly whipped up his head in
response to JD’s hearty shout. Regretting it instantly as his
vision blurred and dizziness washed over him.
“Hey, Ezra!” JD smiled broadly.
He was taken by surprise to see the Southerner downstairs; Dunne had not
expected to see Standish at least until the morning. The young
gunslinger’s smile faded a fraction when he saw the gambler blanch,
turning a shade paler before his eyes. Concerned for the gambler,
Dunne crouched beside Ezra and pressed a hand to the conman’s
forehead, which Standish immediately jerked back from. “Should
you be outta bed?”
“I’m fine, JD. Just moved
a little too quickly,” he conceded with a dimpled grin. “Tell
me, what has transpired in my absence?”
Dunne took a seat at the table and
filled the gambler in, including the description of Manning that
Buck’d got from Susan Murphy.
“How is it you’ve escaped Mr.
“I told him I was comin’ ta
check on you, so he said he’d go and see if Miss Murphy was doin’
Ezra slowly grinned. “Tell
me again, whose idea was this? Your’s or Buck’s?”
JD opened his mouth and it formed
an ‘O’. He rehashed over the conversation he’d had with the
ladies’ man. He frowned in concentration. “That slug!”
Dunne stuttered in annoyance. He remembered Buck wondering out
loud how the gambler was, and Dunne automatically responding, saying
he’d check on the Southerner. Buck counted on the sheriff’s
generosity, knowing that JD would offer to check the gambler; he played
on this so he could court the young lady. “Augggg,” he
growled, thumping his flat hand on the tabletop.
“Thankyou for the concern, Mr.
Dunne,” Standish drawled.
Embarrassed by his outburst, JD
mumbled under his breath that it was okay. Feeling the need to
make it up to Standish he offered to stay with the gambler while he
waited for his supper.
“Don’t feel obliged to
“I ain’t. Need some
supper myself. Reckon the others’ll be here soon, anyhow.”
“Ezra! Oh my gosh!”
Dunne excitedly jumped to his feet, dragging the gambler upright beside
him. Pointing through the crowded room at the floor, he tugged at
the Southerner’s jacket. “He’s here!” JD ducked his
head and scrutinised the myriad of passing boots. “I saw that
buckle!” he jubilantly announced.
“Where?” Ezra searched
the bobbing heads for someone who matched Buck’s description. He
shook his head in despair when Dunne sank to the floor and crawled
through the crowd. “I am NOT, getting down on the floor,” he
emphatically stated after the retreating sheriff.
At that moment Chris and Vin pushed
through the batwing doors of the saloon. Ezra waved a hand in
their direction, and they waved back, but didn’t approach him.
Over the din of noise, his voice would be lost if he’d tried to call
them over, so he did the next best thing and put his thumb and
forefinger into his mouth and ripped off a shrill whistle. The
saloon became ominously quiet and everybody turned, gawking at the
gambler. Standish held a hand to his head and groaned at the
further pain he’d just caused himself. When Ezra glanced back
up, Chris and Vin where frowning in his direction, questioning with
their eyes. At least he got their attention. After the
initial stunned silence of the crowd, the overpowering noise increased
in volume again. Standish mouthed, “He’s here.”
Larabee spread his hands out, palms
up and mouthed back, “Where?”
Standish shrugged his shoulders and
started pushing his way through the sea of bodies following in the
direction that Dunne had initially pointed out.
“Did Ezra say he’s in here?”
Tanner looked over his shoulder and quickly back at the mass of patrons.
He groaned audibly. It was gonna be murder, sorting through the
“Yeah. Get over by the door
and check everybody who leaves, and don’t let anyone else in.”
The gunman studied the faces closest to him, hunting for his prey.
“Gonna get the bastard,” he swore determinedly. “Don’t let
‘im get away,” he called back to Tanner. “Where the hell are
excuse me,” Dunne apologised from the floor. His knees ached
already from crawling on his hands and knees, but he was not going to
let go of this chance to prove to the others that he was a valuable
member of the group. At this level he could easily spot the
silver buckle, if only he could find it again. Surely the man was
still in the saloon. He couldn’t have left without the young
gunslinger finding him first. Or so he hoped. He squeezed
through the forest of legs, JD repressed a cry of pain as a body from
above roughly stumbled over him and stamped heavily on his extended
hand. Cradling the bruised hand, he muttered an oath, but was
undeterred with his unorthodox search. “I’m gonna find you
soon, mister,” Dunne boasted proudly.
“My apologies…” Standish
bumped against another body; the crush in the saloon was incredible.
He looked up into his victim’s face and was taken aback for a few
seconds as he catalogued the man’s description. To confirm his
suspicions, he glanced down at the man’s boots, and was satisfied to
find the matching pair of silver buckles. A triumphant look swept
over his façade, but was quickly lost when the murderer recognised the
gambler and slammed a fist into the Southerner’s jaw, catapulting him
across the room and landing on a table, disrupting a game of chance
between half a dozen cowhands. The table collapsed beneath the
unexpected addition of the gambler’s weight, crashing to the floor.
Finally! JD hissed
victoriously and dove, hugging the legs of the murderer and tackling him
to the ground only moments after he’d hit the gambler. They
disappeared in a tangle of arms and legs, hidden in the cluster of
Larabee caught a glimpse of the
Southerner as he flew across the table, landing in a sprawled heap
surrounded by the disgruntled hands. He pushed his way through and
lifted the smaller man to his feet and out of the rubble. He
glared at the cowpokes and dared them to make something of it. But
they instantly backed down.
Standish rubbed at his jaw and
winced. “Thankyou, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra panted between the
words. Glancing over his shoulder at the agitated cowhands,
Standish added, “Impeccable timing.”
Chris kept a hand at the
Southerner’s elbow, noticing that he was swaying on his feet.
“I found him… but he seemed to
recognise me before I had the opportunity to apprehend him.”
JD was as pleased as punch.
He’d nabbed Manning, and he wouldn’t let Buck hear the end of it.
He pulled out his gun and couldn’t prevent the foolish grin that
he’d plastered on his dial. “Ain’t no use, Mister. Yer
goin’ ta jail.” The larger man beneath him wriggled to free
his legs. “So quit yer squirming!”
Manning managed to draw a leg from
Dunne’s grasp and raised it back, kicking the gunslinger in the chest,
knocking the breath out of him and throwing him back into the crowd.
JD groaned as the heavy foot struck his chest, and he hugged both arms
around himself and rested his head on the floor. “Why ain’t
nobody helpin’ us?” Staggering to his feet, with an arm
wrapped firmly about his chest, JD whipped his head left, then right,
trying to find Manning, but the man had slipped out of sight.
“JD, son are you hurt?”
Chris asked, dragging the Southerner behind him.
“I had him!” Dunne claimed, a
pout forming on his lips, disappointed that he couldn’t hold on to the
Larabee shook his head.
“Come on, he knows we’re after ‘im. He’s probably left by
the back door. JD, go let Tanner know. He’s over by the
Chris barrelled his way through the
squash, pulling the gambler behind him. He released the Southerner
when their feet hit the slim decking out back of the saloon.
Larabee glanced quickly in both directions and cocked his ears for
rapidly departing footsteps. The outhouse was directly out back
and beyond that, the ground dipped severely into a gully. He could
have gone anywhere. Chris pushed the gambler to the right
and signalled he’d go left.
Standish nodded in acknowledgment
and let his eyes search the darkened rear of the drinkery.
A horse’s squeal rang starkly
through the poorly lit streets. Both lawmen raced to the front of
the saloon in time to see the departing rider and horse disappear into
the night. Lying, contorted in pain on the dusty road, Vin
Tanner clutched at his shoulder. A bloody gash streaked across his
forehead. JD hovered over the pained man, shocked and disturbed he
couldn’t move his feet.
“JD, what happened?” Larabee
knelt by the writhing sharpshooter and placed a calming hand on
Tanner’s leg. He heard the Southerner’s rapidly departing
footsteps and his hurried words that he’d fetch Nathan. Chris
drew a clean handkerchief from his pocket and held it over the bleeding
“He was headin’ straight for
us,” Dunne stuttered, dazed by the amount of blood. Staring
blankly into the distance he shivered. “Vin pushed me outta the
way,” the young gunslinger whispered.
Chris nodded, only paying half his
attention to the kid. “Vin, ya gotta lie still. Nate’s
gonna be here shortly.” Just as the words left his mouth the
dark skinned healer squatted down next to him.
“Vin, where do ya hurt?”
Tanner drew his legs up, trying to
curl into a ball. He groaned as a sharp pain lanced through his
shoulder. He closed his eyes, squeezing the tears back under his
eyelids. “Wilson!” Tanner sitting bolt upright, screamed
at the top of his lungs. “Shoot the bastard!”
“He’s confused,” the healer
explained pushing the lean man down to the ground. Tanner screamed
in agony at the pain that ripped through his shoulder. “Need ta
get him back to my clinic. Can’t see for shit out here.”
Jackson twisted about urgently looking for something to carry the
injured man on, but couldn’t see anything. He glanced to Chris,
“Gonna hurt him worse, if we don’t find something solid to carry him
Dunne woke from his stupor to hear
the healer’s request. He called over his shoulder as he bolted
from the scene. “There’s a basket at the undertakers. We
can use that.”
“That’ll work,” Jackson
grimly replied and knelt down and squeezed the tracker’s arm
reassuringly. “Get ya fixed up real soon,” the tall man
Ezra hovered in the background
watching his friend writhe in agony. He shook his head in disgust;
this was entirely his fault, none of this would have happened if only
he’d stayed awake at the jail. Vin might not blame him, but he
was certain that Larabee and Jackson would both point the finger solely
JD returned with the basket and
Nathan and Chris lifted Vin in. Standish stepped forward and took
position at the front right hand side. Chris took the
other front position and JD and Jackson brought up the rear.
Chris Larabee waited on the landing
outside the clinic for Jackson to come out and inform them of Vin’s
injuries. He waited with the gambler, Dunne and Sanchez.
Wilmington had yet to turn up. He’d send JD to go and fetch him,
but he didn’t think that the younger man was in any fit state to leave
just yet. Chris rested his hip on the railing and lit a cheroot,
the thin trail of smoke curling above his head. “JD, where’d
you say Buck was?”
“Um…” he nervously played
with the sole of his boot and glanced to the Southerner for support.
Standish sagged against the
wooden wall in weariness. “I believe Mr. Wilmington has retired
for the night,” the conman interrupted.
Chris shifted his inquiring gaze
from the younger man to the gambler. Even in the subdued light
Standish would have recognised the gunman’s change in expression.
“You saw Buck tonight?” Doubt swam in the blue grey eyes,
demanding an immediate reply.
Ezra opened his mouth to confirm
the lie just as Nathan joined them on the deck. He turned his
head, as did the others, to hear the healer’s assessment.
“He’s got a broken collarbone
and shoulder blade, a couple of cracked ribs and plenty of bruising on
his lower back. I stitched up that gash on his head, weren’t as
bad as I first thought, but he’s got a concussion and he ain’t
waking him. Reckon he collected it on the horseshoe as it skipped
over the top of him. He’s gonna have plenty of bruising, and I
just don’t know…if…when” he corrected for Dunne’s sake,
“he’ll wake up.”
“Can we see him?” Dunne was
already at the door holding the knob in his hand. He hadn’t had
the chance to thank the former bounty hunter for pushing him out of
harm’s way and felt that he was to blame for Vin’s injury.
“He ain’t awake, JD,” the
“Yeah, I know. It’s just
that…well… I reckon I ought ta be there…you know, when he wakes
up,” Dunne pleaded.
“Sure, JD. Go on in,”
Nathan relented. He was certain the kid wouldn’t be the only one
to stay in his clinic tonight.
“Is there anything I can do?”
the Southerner asked hopefully.
Both Nathan and Larabee looked at
the gambler in disbelief that he’d even offer. Josiah nodded his
head in approval. Jackson shook his head, “You oughta go to your
room and get some rest. Ain’t been all that long since you were
lying on that bed in there yerself.”
If it had come from anyone else the
Southerner may have heeded the advice, but coming from Nathan, after
he’d so viciously put him down only that same morning, Ezra ignored
him. “I’ll stay out here, if you’ve no objections.”
Jackson shrugged his shoulders; he
didn’t care where the man was. He’d done his job and
unsuccessfully tried to steer the stubborn man to his own room, but it
didn’t surprise him that Standish rebuffed his idea. “Chris
you wanta come in? ‘Spect he’ll what ta see ya when he wakes.
Josiah, think you could give me a hand for a minute?” He
returned to the warmth of the room expecting the gunman and preacher to
follow him in.
Ezra’s shoulders sagged and he
dropped heavily into the cane chair, pulling his jacket more snugly
about his body. He rested his eyes on the large chest that
invaded his vision.
Josiah hunkered beside the conman.
“Can’t stay out here, son.”
“I am not returning to my
abode,” he iterated, ignoring the paternalism Sanchez used.
“Wasn’t sayin’ that ya
“Mr. Jackson will be waiting for
you,” Standish huddled closer into the coat, but it afforded little
protection from the piercing wind. Its hungry gales whipped
through the thin material and ate away any resistance that the gambler
had gained from his day recuperating in bed.
“Ain’t going in unless you
do,” the larger man bargained.
Standish groaned in frustration.
“The room is already crowded, Mr. Sanchez. Another body in there
will have us sitting in each other’s laps.”
“One more ain’t gonna hurt.
Come on,” he pulled the tired man to his feet and ushered Ezra ahead
Jackson glared at him when they
walked through the door, making the southerner feel totally unwelcome in
the little group. Sanchez squeezed his shoulder reassuringly and
pushed him further into the room. Ezra lowered his
head and sought a corner where he would be out of Jackson’s
reproachful reach, but still near the slumbering tracker.
Chris Larabee let his eyes roam
about the room. The light had been turned down and dim shadows
haunted the wooden walls. Dark calico curtains covered the windows
and held out the dawning light that would have naturally entered if not
for the heavy drapes. The gunslinger shifted slightly in the chair
and smiled at JD. His head was buried in the comforter that
covered the sleeping tracker’s bed. The younger man was almost
in a state of panic the night before and Jackson slipped him some
sleeping power into a mug of coffee. The drugged man succumbed
quickly to the medicine and hadn’t moved an inch since he collapsed
over the edge of the bed.
Chris watched the gentle rise
and fall of Tanner’s chest. Bandages adored his whole upper body
and he grimaced even in his sleep. His young friend was propped up
against the headboard; a dozen pillows padded the hard backdrop.
The blanket had slipped off his shoulder during the night and fallen
just below the bandages. Chris gently reached over and readjusted
them, pulling the blanket back up under the tracker’s chin.
Nathan sat at a table by the far
wall, sleeping lightly over open medical books. The healer had
only fallen asleep a short while ago. Sanchez had left an hour ago
in search of Wilmington and had yet to return. Chris was concerned
that the ladies’ man hadn’t appeared. Although, Buck could be
distracted easily, and Larabee hoped that was the only reason he was
Huddled in the recesses of the
shadows, Standish sat on the floor with his knees drawn up under his
chin and his head resting on his knees. Larabee watched intently,
trying to ascertain if the gambler was asleep or just resting. Had
to be mighty uncomfortable sleeping in that cramped position all night,
especially after being assaulted in the jail the previous morning.
He was probably in quite a bit of pain; it was a nasty blow he’d taken
to his head. A small smile crept across his lips as the man under
his scrutiny looked up and returned the appraising gaze with one of his
“How is Mr. Tanner?”
Standish inquired softly.
Ezra nodded and slid his legs
out in front of him and winced visibly.
“You get any?”
Standish raised his eyebrows in
surprise, not expecting the gunslinger’s query. He shrugged non-commitally
and flinched at the viperous tone of Jackson’s that joined the
“Woulda had no trouble sleepin’
iffen you’d stayed in yer own room.” Jackson made his opinion
on the matter clearly evident; he hadn’t wanted the gambler to stay in
his room. Nathan stretched his arms above his head and pushed the
chair back from the table. He scowled at the gambler as he made
his way over to check on his patient. “He ain’t gonna want you
here, so ya may as well leave.”
Standish sighed and pushed off
the floor, climbing to his feet. “You are probably correct in
that assumption, Mr. Jackson,” he answered curtly. After all, it
was his fault. “I shall endeavour to assist Mr. Sanchez in his
search for Mr. Wilmington.” His sad eyes glanced at the still
form on the bed before he stepped out of the room.
Chris shook his head; obviously
the conman was awake when Josiah announced he was leaving to look for
Buck. He’d been surprised again when he caught a fleeting
glimpse of melancholy wash over the Southerner. “What
makes ya think Vin won’t want ta see Ezra?”
“Aw, come on, Chris. You
don’t really reckon Vin would, do ya?”
“Yeah,” he paused looking
directly into Nathan’s dark brown eyes. “Yeah, I do.”
For such two obviously different men, both the tracker and the
Southerner had found a common cord. He wasn’t entirely certain
what drew them together, but he believed it had something to do with the
fact that both of them were loners. And the one thing Chris was
certain of, was Tanner’s friendship with Ezra.
The Southerner pushed through
the swinging doors of the saloon. He glanced about the near
empty room and seeing Josiah at one of the tables headed toward the
older man. “I see you found Mr. Wilmington.” Standish
had passed the ladies’ man on his way to Nathan’s to visit with
Sanchez chuckled. “He
was at the boarding house.”
“Not in his own room I’ll
wager,” Ezra smirked, but the expression was forced.
Josiah barked with
laughter. “Nope, that he weren’t.” The older man’s
smile left his face as he took in the haggard appearance of the
Southerner. He wondered if Jackson had kicked the gambler out of
the clinic. “Come for breakfast?”
Standish sank into the offered
chair and didn’t contradict Sanchez when he ordered for the younger
“Wind’s still whippin’
“Ya saw Manning last
evening.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.
“JD and Vin too,” he added.
“You’ll have to confirm
with them as to whether they can identify him. I don’t
think Mr. Dunne had a very good view while they were grappling on the
floor, he may have gotten a better look when they were outside, but it
was dark. And as to Mr. Tanner, he may not even remember his own
name. I doubt whether he’ll be of much help.”
Sanchez leaned back in his
chair and rubbed at the stubble on his chin. The waitress
balanced a plate on her hand and weaved her way through the tables and
set it down in front of the gambler. He heard Standish mumble a
thank-you and the swish of the woman’s skirts as she waltzed
Ezra regarded the breakfast
with little appetite. He picked up the fork and broke the egg up
into smaller pieces, but couldn’t bring himself to deliver it to his
“You gonna eat that, or just
Standish glanced up and pushed
the plate across the table. “I’m not hungry,” he
A hand reached over the table
and picked up the plate and returned it in front of Ezra.
“Best if ya eat it, Ezra,” Larabee ordered, taking up a seat next
to the Southerner.
Josiah covered the smile and
watched as Standish reluctantly did as he was told. “Vin
“Nope,” Chris shook his
head and wiped a hand over his tired face. “Been talking with
Buck. Should probably organise a roster to protect Miss
“That how Buck explained
what he was doin’ last night?”
Larabee grinned. “We
all know that wasn’t his first intention, Josiah, but it does make
sense that she might need protection since she can identify
“You gonna give that job to
Buck?” Sanchez queried, with a smirk.
The gunslinger snorted.
“Put Buck in the same room with a pretty lady and all his sense goes
flying out the window. Might be safer if you take first
The older man agreed.
“What about JD and Vin? You think they can identify
“Already asked. The
kid didn’t get a good look at him, and we can’t ask Vin at the
moment.” Chris turned in his seat to face the gambler, who by
all accounts was not paying any attention to the conversation that
occurred about him, but Larabee would be a fool if he thought
that. “Ezra,” he paused, waiting until the conman looked
from his plate. “Manning recognised you, didn’t he?”
“If you are inferring what I
think you are, then the answer is no.” Ezra sat straighter in
his chair and glared defiantly at the gunman.
Larabee glanced up at the
older man then back to the obstinate Southerner. “You got no
choice in the matter, Standish. I want you over at the
clinic. You can help Nathan with Vin and Nathan can keep an eye
on you at the same time.”
It was worse than he’d
suspected. “No!” Ezra emphatically refused.
“I don’t have time to
argue with you…”
“Good, then don’t.
Chris interrupted, slamming
his fist onto the table, shaking the crockery and bouncing it to a new
position. “I don’t give a damn what you want!” he
shouted. “I don’t have enough men to guard you and Susan
Murphy at the same time. With Vin and Nathan already out of the
equation, and you for that matter, that only leaves Josiah, Buck, JD
Ezra’s emerald green eyes
simmered with indignation. “I am quite capable of fending for
myself, and refuse to have a sentry watching over me.” Particularly
Nathan, he silently added. “And there is no plausible
reason that I should be secluded away in the clinic when I can take a
shift guarding the lovely Miss Murphy.”
scowled. “Josiah, take Miss Susan over to the church.”
The larger man took his leave
and patted the gunslinger on the shoulder in understanding as he
passed by the back of his chair. Chris had a mammoth job
ahead of him to convince Standish that he was a contender as a
possible next victim.
The man in black pointed his
index finger at the stubborn man, shaking the digit irately.
“I want you over at the clinic, now!”
Standish pushed back the chair
in a rush and it clattered to the floor. “This is getting
monotonous. I’m going to my room.”
Answering without facing the
gunman, Standish continued to head for the stairs. “No, I
“Guess we do this the hard
way,” Larabee muttered quietly, stalking after the retreating
Southerner. He followed behind and they were a foot apart when
Ezra turned to face him. His mouth opened to continue the
protest, but the gunslinger slugged him across the jaw. Ezra
crumpled under the blow and sagged to the floor.
The door shuttered open, under
the massive kick it received from the outside. Nathan jumped to
his feet, reaching for the knives at his back; he halted the action
when Larabee crossed the threshold with the Southerner slung over his
shoulder. “What happened to him this time?” Nathan groaned
“I did,” Chris
snapped. “Where do you want him?”
“Down,” the gambler
The gunslinger lowered
Standish back to his feet and stepped back so Jackson could assess the
Glancing at the double bed,
Chris walked to the side and lifted Tanner’s limp hand and turned it
over and squeezed it. “He wake up?”
“Not yet,” the healer’s
concern for the former bounty hunter was evident in his
tone. Jackson led Standish to a chair and pushed him
down. He bent at the waist and looked invasively into the
gambler’s green eyes. Satisfied that the pupils weren’t
enlarged, he gripped Ezra’s chin and turned his head to the side so
he could re-examine the day old wound.
Standish swung his head out of
Jackson’s hold and curled his lips defiantly. “Now
that you’ve manhandled me, may I leave?”
“Nope,” Larabee answered
with vigour. “Nathan you’re gonna make sure he stays
“What?” he exclaimed in
abject horror. “I got a sick man to tend. I don’t have
time to baby-sit him as well,” he protested.
“Wasn’t a request,
Nathan. ‘Sides Ezra can help ya with Vin.”
“Why here?” Jackson
“‘Cause everyone else is
gonna be busy elsewhere. I need to know I can depend on
you to put your problems with him aside, and if it comes to it,
protect him. Can I?”
Jackson glanced at the gambler
with distaste and curled his lips showing his pearly white
teeth. “Sure,” he replied curtly.
smiled. “Get some rest while you’re here, Ezra.”
Standish saluted the gunman
with the customary two fingers, but the snarling expression with the
gesture let Larabee know full well that Standish was less than happy
with the arrangements. He was certain the only reason that the
gambler hadn’t escaped already was his growing concern for
Vin. Chris left, and the animosity between the two remaining
lawmen continued to thicken.
Jackson handed the gambler a
wet cloth. “Here, make yourself useful.”
“By all means, Mr.
Jackson,” Ezra drawled. He heaved a heavy sigh and sat on the
edge of the bed.
Larabee returned to the
saloon. Josiah was absent, but Buck and JD had their heads bowed
to the centre of the table deep in concentration. Chris joined
them in a few strides and remained standing at the side of their
greeted. “You been to see Vin?”
The gunslinger nodded.
“He’s still the same. Took Ezra up there to stay with Nathan
‘til this is all over.”
The ladies’ man
smirked. “Bet he wasn’t too enthusiastic ‘bout that
idea?” Either of them, for that matter.
really got a grudge against him,” the gunslinger admitted, finally
realising the depth of the resentment that the former slave held
against their Southern lawman.
“He ain’t never got past
the fact that Ezra’s a Southerner,” Buck sighed. “Reckon
he blames Ezra for every atrocity that has ever been done against
him. Like it was Ezra that done ‘em all.”
Chris shrugged; he didn’t
have time to dwell on that at the moment. Hooking the leg of the
chair, he dragged it out from under the table and dropped into it
heavily. Rubbing his whiskered jaw in thought he barely
registered the shot glass that was set down in front of him. The
bartender slipped away and Wilmington filled the glass from the bottle
on the table. Automatically reaching for the glass, he swirled
the amber liquid close to the rim before bringing it to his mouth and
downing the fiery substance. It burned a path down his throat,
but that didn’t stop him from refilling the glass and swallowing a
Buck watched with curiosity as
his oldest friend drank in silence. This was nothing new; he’d
seen Chris do it a thousand times before. But this time he
pondered what thoughts were behind the dark hooded eyes. He knew
that Vin and Chris had an affinity, a friendship that overshadowed his
with the black-clad gunman. That had to be some of the reason
Larabee was so pensive. Did he even consider the gambler in his
distant mood? Chris didn’t attempt to hide his irritation for
the Southerner at the best of times and with everything that had been
happening in the past few days Buck wondered where the two men stood
with each other. It hadn’t surprised him to hear that Chris
had punched Standish, but what did surprise him was Larabee’s reason
behind it. It seemed like something the old Chris would
do. He missed the way Chris used to be, before Sarah and
Adam’s deaths. He was a different man then. One that Buck
found hard to find in the sombre and brooding man that now claimed to
be Chris Larabee. “You got any idea how we’re gonna catch
Larabee glanced up from his
introspection. He stilled the glass in his hand, dazed blue eyes
lifted to the ladies’ man. He’d forgotten for a moment that
he wasn’t alone. As much as he didn’t want to involve
Mary Travis, he thought it was the best solution to the immediate
problem. And for that, he’d need Ezra’s
cooperation. He frowned at the thought and
considered not even mentioning it to him, but that would be unfair to
the gambler, especially if the plan backfired and he was hurt.
Or worse. “Need to talk to Mary,” was the obtuse answer the
ladies’ man received.
Wilmington dimpled, elbowing
his friend in the ribs suggestively. “Go and talk to the lady,
Chris. When ya finished, come back and we’ll work somethin’
Chris felt the heat rise to
his cheeks and looked self-conscious at JD, quietly absorbing the
conversation. Swallowing the sudden lump that bobbed in his
throat, he glanced with irritation at Wilmington. With a snort
of disgust he clarified the ladies’ man’s misinterpretation of his
previous statement. “Gonna get Mary ta put an article in her
paper. A story about Clarence Hogan, his killer and
Manning. Get her to make it real obvious that Ezra got a good
look at him and is the only one who can clearly identify him.
Should bring him out of whatever hole he’s crawled into.”
A slow smile creased the
gambler’s cheeks. He lifted the damp rag off the tracker’s
forehead and leaned over in line with Tanner’s unfocused line of
vision. “Welcome back,” Ezra greeted.
Vin blinked his eyes and
frowned as a wave of pain ripped through his head. A muffled
moan left his lips, which turned into a cry of agony when he attempted
to sit up.
Standish pushed Vin back down
to the bed. “You best remain still. You’ve injured
your shoulder and some ribs.”
Tanner groaned, and frowned at
the white bandages that covered a good portion of his upper
body. “What happened?” Everything was foggy, and the
pounding in his skull overrode everything else.
“You saved JD the misery of
being in your predicament,” Standish grinned.
“Manning’s horse barrelled
into you, last evening. Don’t you remember?”
“Yeah. Seems ta be
coming back. Last night?”
“How you feeling,
Vin?” Nathan stepped up to the edge of the bed and sat on the
corner. He’d been surprised to find himself asleep at the
table. Doing that a lot lately, he mused. That’s the
trouble when someone else is sleeping in your bed. And someone
had draped a blanket over his shoulders. Surely Standish
wouldn’t have bothered? Dismissing the idea as ludicrous
he questioned the injured tracker further. “You got a
headache, feeling dizzy or gonna be sick?”
“Yeah,” he drawled,
leaving the healer in quandary as to what exactly Tanner was agreeing
with. “Damn, shoulder hurts somethin’ fierce,” he
“Yer got a broken collarbone
and shoulder blade, it’s gonna be mighty sore ‘til it heals.
You’re gonna have ta wear your arm in a sling for a while too.
Them ribs are gonna keep you in bed for at least a number of days, but
now that you’ve woken up I can start givin’ you something for the
pain. It’ll help you get some more sleep.”
“I don’t want none of your
creek water, Nathan.” Seeing the smile drop from the
healer’s dark face Vin added, “No offence, but I reckon I can
“Quite a noble gesture, Mr.
Tanner, but perhaps one of Mr. Jackson’s concoctions is in order, at
least until you can hold a conversation without scowling the entire
time,” Ezra interrupted, trying to make Vin see reason.
“Ain’t scowling,” Tanner
protested weakly, and struggled to sit upright only collapsing into
the pillows with a sharp hiss and muttered curse.
Jackson slapped Vin on the leg
and moved off the bed to mix some herbs at his bench.
Standish supported him in convincing the stubborn tracker to down some
of his mixtures. That alone was amazing. Especially, as
the Southerner was just as reticent to take his advice as Tanner
was. Nathan returned to the bed and held out the tin mug.
When Vin didn’t take it, Ezra removed it from the healer’s
The gambler brought the mug to
Vin’s lips and raised his brows drolly. “You are going to
Vin shook his head and
obstinately clamped his lips closed.
Standish lowered the mug a
fraction. “Can you identify Manning?” Once more Tanner
shook his head negatively. “And the horse?”
Vin closed his eyes and
remembered back to the previous night. “Dark brown, or a
black, hard to tell. Had white socks, but I can’t recall if
they were on all of the legs. At least two of them,” he
Ezra nodded. “Anything
“Stirrups were hung low,
reckon he’s kinda tall, huh?” Vin glanced at the Southerner to
back up his thoughts.
“About six two or
“We already knew that from
Miss Susan,” the former slave interrupted.
“Can’t hurt to have a few
more witnesses,” Larabee announced from the open doorway.
“Hey cowboy!” Tanner
“Hey yourself. How ya
“Like shit,” Tanner
“Reckon that drink’ll help
ya to feel better,” Chris eyed the mug held by Standish.
With a sigh of defeat the
tracker agreed and downed the bitter liquid in one long swallow and
shuddered dramatically after finishing.
“Now that weren’t so bad,
was it?” the healer asked, returning the empty mug to the
Vin glanced at the Southerner,
who returned his incredulous expression with one of wicked
satisfaction. He yawned and blinked owlishly attempting to fight
the medicine. Damn! Jackson put somethin’ in it to make
him go to sleep. Tanner hated sleeping in the middle of the day,
even if he was hurt. His eyes closed, unable to hold them open
When Tanner’s breathing
changed from a raspy ragged breath to a steady rhythm, the man in
black drew a chair off the back wall and motioned both Standish and
Jackson to join him at the table. “He gonna be all
“Plenty sore for a time, but
now that he’s woke, that’s a good sign.”
Chris thinned his lips and
rested his elbow on the tabletop. It’d been hell the last few
days. “I’ll send JD up first opportunity. He’s
pretty anxious to see Vin.” Chris lowered his head and stared
at a spot on the table. Without looking up, Larabee posed his
question to the Southerner. “Got a plan to flush out
Ezra arched an inquiring
brow. “And what is my part?”
“What makes ya think that Chris needs your help?” he sarcastically
Larabee ignored the former
slave’s outburst and smiled warily at the conman. “If
you’re willing, I’m gonna get Mary ta write a story…”
that I am the only witness that can identify our killer,” Standish
“Yeah. You agree?”
“Whatever it takes,” Ezra
sighed in resignation.
The sun edged high into the
sky and slowly turned its head back down to the earth, barely making
an impression on the wintry conditions that haunted the western
town. The cold nip in the wind gusted, flipping up the hems of
skirts and tugging at the tails of long coats. A lone hawk
glided on the wind currents drifting high above, searching and seeking
the ground for its next meal. A shrill call broke through the
whistling wind and the bird dove skilfully toward the earth in a
flurry of feathers, disappearing from view behind the backdrop of the
town’s structures. Landing beyond the town limits to capture a
hare that hadn’t found its burrow in time to prevent capture.
Buck Wilmington stood watching
the graceful bird’s flight, until he lost sight of it behind the
buildings. He continued on his path, casually strolling past
Potter’s Mercantile. A gregarious grin lit his face as
Gloria’s little girl, Amelia, stepped out from the store onto the
sidewalk with a large piece of boiled candy in her mouth. The
ball of candy bulged out her cheeks in a fat mound. Buck saluted
mischievously at the youngster and backed away, chuckling at the shy
smile the girl bestowed on him.
Lost in thought, the tall
gunman wasn’t paying particular attention to the shadow that crept
along behind him. The ladies’ man jogged down the narrow path
between the Bucklin’s groceries and the undertakers, determined to
reach the church incongruously as possible and relieve JD the task of
watching over Susan. What a woman, he smiled.
Once the kid had gone, Susan and he could take up where they left off
the other night.
The bullet that buried a
blazing trail of hot fire threw the ladies’ man off his feet and to
the soft ground. With tremendous effort, Buck rolled on his side
and drew himself to the protection of the wall. Sweat streamed
into his eyes and he gasped, searching the laneway for the obvious
threat, but the direction from which the gun fired was empty.
All that remained was a diffuse cloud of smoke that was lessening even
as he watched it.
He threw his head back against
the wooden planks and reached around his back to feel the sticky blood
that seeped through his coat. “Geez, that hurts,” he
winced. The rapid approach of pounding steps drew a relieved
breath from Wilmington.
“Buck?” Josiah called down
the passageway with concern in his voice.
Chris knelt by his
friend. “You get shot?” He drew his fingers out from
under the brown coat and frowned at the fresh blood that coated the
“Looks that way,” Buck
agreed, wincing as Sanchez helped lift him to his feet.
“Come on. Nathan’s
gonna want ta have a look at that,” Josiah steadied him.
“You see or hear anyone,
Buck?” Larabee glanced up the length of the narrow path.
Wilmington groaned and shook
“Gettin’ mighty crowded in
here,” the preacher mentioned squeezing past the healer and sitting
down on the end of the bed Tanner occupied. Vin slept through
the invasion on the clinic.
“Well, as Buck was
Manning’s victim, I don’t see the necessity to stay here any
longer,” Standish crept toward the door, but Chris barricaded it
with his body and glared at the Southerner. “Or perhaps I’ll
just wait over here,” he conceded, stepping out of the way.
Jackson tugged the bloodied
garments off the ladies’ man and dropped them in a heap on the
floor. Nathan rolled up a wad of white cloth and pressed it to
the wound. “Think you can hold that in place, while I get
Buck hugged the folded cloth
to his back and watched with trepidation as Jackson methodically
washed his hands and returned to his side to clean the
“Ain’t so bad, just grazed
really.” The healer looked over to Larabee by the door.
“He’ll need a few stitches, and to rest up for a bit.”
Facing back to Buck, Jackson wagged his finger in stern warning,
“That means by yerself, too. Ya can’t be resting if
your…um…you know…wrestling with the genteel folk.”
Wilmington barked with
laughter and clutched his side as a bout of pain seared through his
side. “Hell, Nathan, those lovely ladies you’re talkin’
about, will take it as a personal affront if I don’t show up.
And I’ll still be in bed,” he grinned broadly.
Standish snorted and shook his
head. “I don’t think doing the horizontal twostep is Mr.
Jackson’s interpretation of rest.”
Chris ducked his head, letting
the brim of his Stetson cover the smile that spread over his
face. Horizontal twostep??? He’d have to remember that
“Reckon I might mosey on
over to the church. Imagine JD’s got himself tied up in a
lather not knowing what’s going on.” Wilmington gathered his
shirt off the floor and made to leave.
“You ain’t going
anywhere,” Jackson ordered. “You’ve just been
Josiah held his large hand up
and pushed the scoundrel back into the chair. “I’ll go tell
With so little room in the
clinic, Nathan and Chris decided to move Buck to the church, where
both Josiah and JD could protect him and Susan.
“As I am uninjured, perhaps
it would be more appropriate if I went the church instead of Buck?”
Larabee shook his head.
“That’d leave Nathan to look after Vin and Buck. And with
both of them hurt, that’d practically leave him on his own.”
He hoped this argument satisfied the Southerner, because in reality,
the gambler was in need of decent nights’ rest himself and was still
recovering from various injuries. A small grin surfaced when
Standish reluctantly complied with the arrangements.
“And what pray tell are you
planning to do?” Standish inquired.
“Well after I help Buck over
to the church,” the gunslinger held up his hand to forestall any
complaints from the ladies’ man, “I’ll be keepin’ an eye on
there, here and the town in general. Now that I’ve been left
so shorthanded, guess I’ll be watchin’ as best as I can,” he
Standish rolled his shoulders
for the umpteenth time and wriggled restlessly on the narrow width of
the seat. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes. A
minute later he had to shift his weight again and unfold his crossed
legs. Quietly, he stood and stretched his arms to the ceiling,
straightening tired and stiffened muscles. What he’d give for
a stiff drink of bourbon, and as if on cue, he licked his dry lips in
appreciation. Ezra stole softly across the floor and gently laid
his palm across Tanner’s brow, finding it cool to touch he edged
closer to the door.
The room was stifling and well
in need of ventilation, but he could hear Jackson’s opinion on that
idea, even as it pushed its way through his mind.
And if he did open the door and let in some fresh air it would chill
the room and then he would be blamed for that. Glancing
wistfully at the closed window, the Southerner slipped quietly over
and pressed his face against the cool glass. Ezra stared blankly
out the window and pushed it up a fraction to allow some of the
midnight air to enter the room. He dropped his face to breathe
in the fresh flow of air and immediately smiled as it entered his
lungs. The gambler startled at the deep-throated words that
broke the silence.
“I can give ya something to
help you sleep,” Jackson offered. He’d woken with Standish
fidgeting in his seat and with hooded eyes followed the man’s
tormented incarceration with bewildered concern. He knew that
Standish had barely slept in the past couple of days, and now with the
time well past midnight, he was still awake. Nathan looked at
the dark smudges under the conman’s eyes and the haunted expression
that played across his face when he thought that he was alone.
He felt an increasing guilt that perhaps he had been the cause of at
least some of that distress.
Ezra’s eyes widened for a
fraction of a second and belatedly brought up the walls, hiding behind
a mask of indifference. The gambler smiled, but the
gesture was forced and didn’t reach his eyes. “That is not
necessary. Thank you for the offer, Mr. Jackson. I
apologise for having woken you.” He turned and faced the
healer, although he was uncomfortable under Jackson’s scrutinising
Nathan’s mouth twitched
while he waited for the Southerner to finish with the expected
refusal. “How’s Vin?”
Jackson nodded and turned back
to the table and glanced up at the bottles and jars of potions and
herbs that lined the shelf. “Won’t take much to fix somethin’
up,” Nathan smiled at the gambler. “You could maybe get more
comfortable if ya laid down too,” he encouraged. “We could
make up a bed of sorts for ya.”
Standish rubbed at his tired
face; he wasn’t up to having a discussion at this hour of night, but
he could see the effort that the healer was making and he wasn’t
about to dismiss the tentative opening so easily. “Mr.
Jackson…” but the sentence remained unfinished as a flaming bottle
smashed through the window and showered the room in shards of
glass. Ezra instinctively ducked and the bottle only missed him
“Hell!” the healer shouted
and shielded his eyes from the spraying glass. The heavy calico
curtain had quickly ignited in flames and the hungry fire started to
eat its way up the wall. Nathan pulled the Southerner out of the
spreading flames and roughly pushed him to the door. “Get Vin
outta here,” he ordered.
“What are you planning to
Ripping his coat off his back
Nathan dove into the circle of flames and beat at them. “I got
my life’s work invested in this place, I ain’t about to just let
it go up in flames.” Even though he only rented the
room, he had his treasured medical books and his medicines that had
been painstakingly sought. “Now get Vin the hell outta
here,” he demanded.
Standish stepped back
uncertain what to do. He didn’t want to leave Nathan to fend
the fire alone, but he couldn’t let Vin stay in the burning clinic
while he had a chance to survive the blaze. The fire was
moderately small at the present; if he stayed and helped it would
easily be extinguished. Ezra growled and pulled Tanner from the
bed; rolling the tracker up in the quilt he dragged him out and left
him on the landing. Standish removed his jacket and rolled it
into a bundle and deposited it under Tanner’s head. The
tracker blinked owlishly at the gambler. “Just
redecorating. Don’t go anywhere,” Ezra quipped and raced
back through the open door.
Spying a wooden crutch in the
corner he snatched it up and wielded it at the burning mass of
curtaining. Ezra knocked the pole off the rung and with a neat
twist sent the blazing remanets out the broken window to land on the
road below, where the flames eventually died.
“What are you doing
back? Where’s Vin?” Nathan’s dark brown eyes bored
“He’s safe. And I
could be of more use in here.” Ezra whipped up a bucket of
sawdust and threw the contents in the middle of the fire, then joined
Nathan at beating the remaining flames into oblivion. With the
two dissimilar men working side-by-side, the flames were brought
quickly under control.
With a crocked smile Standish
grinned, panting as he gulped in precious air. He stepped back
and with a discerning glance, surveyed the damage.
Nathan bent over at the waist
and rested his hands on his knees. Without the Southerner’s
help the clinic would surely have been destroyed. He lifted his
head and scowled at the blackened walls. The broken window drew
in the frigid night air and smoke gathering in clouds at the ceiling.
They would not be able to stay here for the remainder of the
night. They’d have to go elsewhere. He briefly wondered
where Chris was, and who threw that flaming bottle. “Thanks,
Ezra,” the sincerity in his voice surprised the enigmatic
conman. “But we’re gonna have to find somewhere else to go,
‘cause we can’t stay here.”
Standish arched his eyebrows,
he’d not expected any gratitude from the former slave, but he felt a
small amount of pleasure that he’d finally done something that met
with Jackson’s approval. He nodded his head in appreciation
and in agreement. “We could use my room at the saloon,” Ezra
suggested even as he walked out the door and knelt by Tanner’s
side. The injured tracker had succumbed to the effects of the
laudanum that Jackson had given him and remained asleep in the same
position where Standish had left him.
Jackson took up on the
opposite side and checked over Vin. “Nah,” he rejected,
“that’d be the first place Manning would look.”
“Then the hotel. We
can’t leave Mr. Tanner out here all night while we discuss it.”
“Good as place as any,”
Nathan shrugged. “I’ll take his legs, can you manage at that
The young Bostonian swung his
legs backward and forwards, his hands clasped the edge of the table on
either side. “What do ya s’pose they are talkin’
about? Buck said he needed to find out more details about the
murderer from Susan, but they coulda done that out here so we all could
hear. They’ve been in there for hours,” Dunne questioned the older
man. His face a confused façade of naivety.
Sanchez glanced at the closed
door and rolled his shoulders, a heavy sigh passed his lips. The
older man resisted the urge to roll his eyes and continued stacking the
hymnbooks on the shelf. After each sermon on Sunday they would be
collected at the end of the service by Amelia and Jeremiah Potter and
left by the pulpit for Josiah to restore to their former place. He
took great care looking after the books, after all they were the
Lord’s property and should a genuine preacher ever preside over the
small congregation of Four Corners, then he would be happy in the
knowledge that he’d passed on books that were in good condition.
JD stared impatiently at the
large man. He knew that Sanchez had heard his question because
Josiah had reacted, but he sure was taking a damn sight longer in
answering. “Josiah…” the youngster jumped off the table and
“Hand me that hymnbook,
JD dutifully picked up the stray
book from the stool and passed it over. “Ya reckon I should go
check on ‘em?”
Sanchez stood the books on their
ends and lined them up. “JD,” the older man licked his lips,
“do you remember the sweat lodges, when we visited Kojay’s
Dunne curled his mouth.
“Yeah, I remember…what’s that got ta do with why Buck and Miss
Susan are…” he paused, “Ahhhhh. Ya mean
they’re…?” His brown eyes bulged. “But…but,
we’re in a church…”
Josiah rubbed his goatee and
walked around the blustering youth and began sweeping down the
“Ya really think that
they’re…um…you know?” he ended in a whisper, following the
larger man down the aisle.
Sanchez turned back and scowled
at the impetuous man.
“Ya reckon we ought ta let ‘em?”
At Josiah’s inquiring brow, JD stumbled on. “I mean with Buck
being shot and all. Nathan did say he was to rest.”
Sanchez shook his head and swept
the dirt along the floor toward the door. “Get the door,
Dunne stepped round Sanchez and
flung open the arched doors, a blistering wind billowed through the
opening and blew the pile of dirt back into the church. “Geez,
sorry, Josiah,” JD repentantly apologised.
Sanchez handed the straw broom
to the young gunslinger and stepped out on the steps. He glanced
down the length of the street and raised his arms to the black
heavens. “Why me, Lord?” He wiped his hand over his
tired face and searched the night shadows for Larabee and found the
orange glow of a cigar burning across the road. He couldn’t see
the gunslinger’s features from this distance, but he was certain that
the person watching the church was indeed Chris. Sanchez lifted a
hand into a recognised greeting and stepped backward through the arched
No sooner had Josiah re-entered
the church and the distinct sounds of glass shattering redirected him
into action. For a large man, Sanchez could certainly find speed
when he needed to. He barrelled back out the opened doors, roaring
an order to Dunne as he departed. “Tell Buck to get some pants
on.” He flew down the stairs, not landing his feet on any of the
steps, but totally skipping them and landing on the ground in full
stride. He raced down the side street and sighted the offender
The attacker, not seeing the
steaming bull targeting him, hefted another missile and threw it at the
lead-light windows, sending the broken decorative glass crashing inwards
on the interior of the church. Sanchez bellowed in agony and tackled the
man between his massive body and the earth. “We got you now,
Manning,” he claimed.
Larabee watched cautiously from
the shadows, acknowledging Josiah’s greeting with a short nod, though
he would have been surprised if the larger man had seen the
response. He’d been standing guard over the church for over an
hour and had planned on swinging past the livery when the attack came on
Josiah’s ministry. Chris flicked the short stub from his mouth
and sprinted down the side of the church, following on the heels of
Josiah. “Don’t kill him, Josiah!”
Sanchez ground his fist into the
soft body, rendering the assailant semi-coherent. “You got a lot
of nerve, mister. Killing and hurting people,” he gripped the
cotton shirt and pulled the man to within a breadth of his face.
“Friends of mine have been hurt, too many of my friends for you to get
out of this unharmed,” he threatened.
“Don’t know what yer talkin’
about,” the tall man slurred.
JD, Buck and Susan joined the
group around the side of the church. Wilmington rested a
comforting arm about the young woman and prevented her from looking at
the felon. “We got him now,” Buck soothed, letting the
frightened girl bury her face into his chest.
“Susan…” the captured man
wailed as he was led down the road. “Susan…” he screamed at
the top of his lungs, twisting and squirming in the gunslinger and
Sanchez’ grips. “I wouldn’t hurt her,” he vowed.
Wilmington stepped forward
leaving Susan with JD. “That what you call scaring the girl half to
“You can debate it all you
like, from the inside of the cell,” Larabee separated the feuding
“Seems like we ain’t the
only ones up at this hour,” Josiah frowned at the growing crowd that
gathered in their nightclothes in the street. Sanchez and Chris
pushed their captive through the bodies.
“What’s going on?” the
A few murmurs greeted the
question, but no one stepped forward and replied. Chris let go
custody of their prisoner and hauled the closest body up on his toes,
held by the steel grip of Larabee. “I said, what it going
The man under assault from Chris
was the saloon owner of Digger Dave’s. “Just came out myself,
Mr. Larabee,” he stuttered.
“And?” Chris prompted.
“There was a fire in Mr.
Jackson’s… clinic,” he gulped.
The saloon owner was dropped and
Chris pushed through the crowd, glancing up at the clinic as he came
closer to the structure. “Nathan!” Chris frantically searched
over the heads of the crowd. Oh God, let them be safe.
“Nathan! Ezra!” He slid to a stop in the centre of
the circle and watched his friends struggle down the last of the stairs
carrying Tanner between them. “Nathan, is Vin all
right? What happened?”
“Yeah,” Jackson answered
with a grin. “Slept through it all. Thought we’d take
him over to the Hotel.” They lowered their burden to the
ground. Tanner moaned softly, but his eyes remained closed.
“Some curmudgeon threw a
flaming bottle through the window,” Standish answered the second part
of the gunslinger’s question.
Chris glanced at the remnants of
the curtain on the road and up at the broken window. Must have a
pretty good throwing arm. “Fire out?” At Nathan’s lethargic
nod, Chris sighed in relief. “We got Manning. He was
throwing rocks through the windows over at the church.”
Josiah and Buck parted the crowd
with their attacker in tow.
Ezra rubbed the nape of his neck
and frowned as he recognised the man held captive in Josiah and Buck’s
tight grip. “He’s not Manning,” Standish declared.
Chris looked the felon over and
even glanced at his boots, but there was no buckle like the one Standish
had drawn them. He could have removed it, Larabee reasoned, but he
hadn’t up until that point. “Then who is he? And what
the hell was he doin’ over at the Church?”
“Wilson Myles, he works out at
the James’ spread. Likes coming to town on the weekend and lose
his money at poker.” Standish drifted his gaze back to the
gunslinger. “But he isn’t Lyle Manning.”
Myles struggled, fighting
against the restraints. His face paled and sweat beaded on his
forehead. “I didn’t mean ta hit him,” Wilson faced
Wilmington, pleading his innocence. “I just wanted ta scare ya,
Chris strode over and glared at
him. “You admit to shooting Buck?” This was getting
“Was an accident…just wanted
him to stay away from Miss Susan. What chance would I have for her
to see me, if he,” Myles nodded at the ladies’ man, “was always
hanging around her?”
“And the others?”
“No, ain’t been no
others. Ya gotta believe me.”
Larabee gripped Myles by the arm
and circled him to face the clinic. “You do this? Maybe to
distract us, so you wouldn’t get caught?”
The tall cowboy shook his
head. “I was over at Digger Dave’s. That’s were I
heard where you were hiding Miss Susan,” he searched the crowd for the
young lady’s face. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do when I
got there, but I saw this rock and I just sorta picked it up…”
Larabee rolled his eyes.
“Lock him up, boys. Judge can sort it out when he
comes.” Chris noticed that a majority of the crowd had started
to disperse, but still others remained. “Go Home! Show’s
“Nathan, Ezra, let’s get Vin
to the Hotel,” Chris stepped closer and bent at his knees to check the
tracker. Not that he didn’t trust the healer, but he just needed
to confirm in his own mind that Tanner was unharmed. “JD, take
Susan back to the church.”
Standish swept the departing
crowd for a familiar face. He could feel the uncomfortable
sensation of eyes, that watched him with more than just the casual
interest. He furrowed his brow and spun a small circle on his heel
ignoring the insistent call from Nathan and Chris. He gasped and
his eyes widened a fraction. Ezra sprinted off behind the livery,
giving chase after fleeing murderer. “Manning!” Standish
hollered, and was the only warning he gave before pursuing the
Chris Larabee jumped to his
feet. Damn that Southerner! Can’t he ever wait for
“I’ll be fine,” he
interjected. “Go help the fool. And make sure I don’t
have any more work to do. Got enough patients as it is at the
moment,” Jackson groaned.
He could still see Manning,
which was at least to his advantage. The murderer hadn’t veered
off into any side alleys, and that helped the trailing Southerner to
keep him in view. Of course, that only meant that the killer had
some alternate plan and was heading directly toward it, and leading the
gambler there also.
Standish was gaining on the
killer, and shortly, if given the opportunity, Ezra would apprehend
him. He could hear the pounding steps coming up behind him, but
didn’t dare look over his shoulder to ascertain who it was.
Although the slight ping that echoed with each step indicated that it
was possibly Chris, the spurs rolling as he ran.
The gambler slowed, hesitating a
moment as he watched Manning duck right, disappearing down the side
alley into the dark tunnel between the two buildings. Ezra panted,
his breath coming in gulps. His heartbeat pounded rapidly and the
wind pushed at his back edging him closer to the passageway. Standish
took in a deep breath and calmly controlled his erratic breathing, then
stepped down the side-street. The gambler drew his Remington and
slid his back along the building’s wall, sidestepping
cautiously. Ezra was partway down the street when his pursuer
stood silhouetted in the entrance.
Chris squinted into the night,
swearing inwardly. Damn, it was dark tonight! The gunslinger
could make out Ezra’s lean form hugging the building’s wall and knew
that the Southerner had this end covered. He couldn’t see
Manning; hell, he had trouble just spotting Standish. Not daring
to call out and alert the killer to his presence, or Ezra’s for that
matter, Chris gestured with his hands that he’d circle around and come
in from the other end and pray that nothing serious happened before he
reached his destination. He waited at the mouth of the side-street
for a full beat wondering if Ezra had seen him, then took off at a
gallop to head off Manning before he eluded capture once more.
The Southerner edged closer to
the opposite end, a glow of light from a street fire leading him
onwards. His boots shuffled softly in the dirt and he paced
himself for a confrontation. Manning was taking extreme care with
remaining hidden in the shadows and keeping his movements silent and
undetectable. But as the killer neared the exit he rushed ahead,
plunging off the wall and vying for the opening. Ezra smiled
half-heartedly, his lips curling upwards. He had the bastard
now! “Stop!” the Southerner commanded and dove headlong at
Manning, tackling him after a few stretched out strides to the
ground. “I said, STOP, dammit!” Standish demanded, landing a
blow to the killer’s midsection and following it with an uppercut to
the jaw. Ezra straddled the subdued murderer and struck him one
final time before Manning capitulated into oblivion.
“Nice job,” Larabee
congratulated, standing in the open end of the alley. He’d
arrived just in time to watch Standish subdue Manning.
Standish glanced up and grinned
at the gunslinger leaning casually against the wall. “All in a day’s
JD Dunne jubilantly hopped
through the batwing doors. He glanced around the quiet room of the
saloon and widened his smile at seeing the remainder of his friends
seated together eating breakfast. “I found it!” the
enthusiastic young man grinned.
“Found what, son?” Josiah
asked when it became apparent that no one else was going to.
“Well, Buck and I found it,”
he admitted. “But he let me come over ta tell ya.” At
Larabee’s inquiring eyebrow JD dug out a poster from his jacket pocket
and laid it on the table and unfolded it. Smoothing out the
creases he stood back and patted his belly. “So what do ya
Tanner tilted his head and
frowned at the badly drawn caricature. He fidgeted in the chair
and hoped that Nathan was not paying particular attention, or he’d be
back holed up in the clinic…no not the clinic, it needed to be cleaned
after the night before’s fire. “Could be him,” Vin agreed
tugging at the sling. “Hey, Ezra!” Tanner lifted his
chin and called loudly in the empty saloon to the Southerner who was
only just this moment climbing down the stairs. “Come and have a
look.” Anything to get Nathan’s studious eyes off him.
Standish sluggishly descended
and wondered what had possessed him to be up at this ungodly hour.
Probably the fact that after finally turning in for the night to his
room, he tossed and turned and only slept in short spurts. He
stepped off the last step and joined his fellow lawmen. “Mr.
Tanner, I hadn’t expected to find you up this morning.”
Tanner looked quickly at Jackson
and then back at the Southerner. “We can’t all spend the day
in bed like you,” he teased in return. “Now, seeing you up so
early…now that’s something.”
Ezra sighed wearily.
“What do I need to perceive?”
Dunne tapped the wanted poster
on the table and Standish duly tilted his head and scrutinised the
drawing. “Mince Slavin…?” Standish read the name from
the banner with a note of questioning curiosity. “And he would
“Hired assassin,” Larabee
spoke for the first time since Dunne’s arrival.
“Oh,” Ezra answered none the
wiser and sank gratefully into a seat by the preacher.
Josiah chuckled and slapped the
younger man on the shoulder. “Ain’t awake yet, are you
son?” At Standish’s murderous glare, Sanchez barked with
amused laughter. “The fella over at the undertaker’s.”
When the Southerner still returned a blank look, Josiah continued.
“The one who murdered Clarence Hogan, the salesman.”
“Ahhh,” Ezra nodded in
understanding. “So how does that help us discover who hired,
this…” he waved at the poster, “Mince Slavin?” What a
moniker, he mused idly.
Larabee shrugged, he didn’t
know how to get that information from a dead man. And Manning was
no help. He’d questioned the killer for over two hours last
night, but he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, supply them with any names to
go on. Ezra had been there in the jail the entire time, silently
listening to the interrogation. Chris wondered what the
gambler’s thoughts were on the situation. “Travis will be
comin’ on the stage this mornin’,” Chris announced. Let him
figure it out. “JD, why don’t you take Buck back to his
Dunne willingly nodded, then
remembered exactly where he’d left the moustached man. “But
he’s over at the…”
“I know where he is, JD.
Ezra and I are gonna go relieve him at the jail,” Larabee smiled at
the young man. “Nate, you oughta get him,” Chris nodded his
head at the tracker, “back to bed, ‘fore he falls into that
“Real funny, Larabee,” Vin
scoffed, even though he was starting to feel slightly
The man in black rose from the
group and walked around the table and tugged on Ezra’s sleeve,
beckoning the younger man to follow. “Come on. Buck needs
With a heavy sigh the Southerner
complied, dutifully following the gunslinger through the swinging doors,
keeping pace with JD.
Chris paused for a moment and
poked his head back through to the saloon. “Josiah. Could
you send breakfast over to the jail for Ezra?”
Sanchez held his breath and
listened at the closed door. It was quiet inside, not what he was
expecting, but then, he’d been surprised by Larabee’s request that
he bring a meal over for the gambler. Maybe they were talking.
There’s hopeful thinking.
The large man kicked open the
door and carried the tray inside depositing it on the desk.
Standish sat at the desk and Larabee stood almost on the opposite side
of the jail. As far away from the Southerner as one could get in
the small room. This was not looking good.
“Hey! Is that for
me? Ain’t had nothin’ ta eat since I been here,” Manning
bellowed from the cell, his loud voice waking the prisoner in the
“Don’t recall any rules
about having to feed prisoners,” Larabee tormented. “You
“Nope, can’t say I do,”
Sanchez replied, then turned to Standish and arched an eyebrow.
Standish bit his lip to suppress
the smile that tempted to surface. Shaking his head was the best
he could muster.
“That ain’t right,”
Manning growled. “We got rights.” He waved at Myles, who
after waking, had drawn the blanket over his head and feigned
sleep. Or maybe he had gone back to sleep.
“You got none,” Chris
sneered coldly, turning his back to end the conversation.
“You can’t stave us!”
“Suggest you keep real quiet
from now on,” Sanchez directed, stepping closer to the bars, “or
Chris might just shoot ya, and we don’t have a doctor in town.
Could be real painful way ta die, bleeding all over the floor…” The
preacher left the sentence unfinished and to the imagination of
Manning snorted, “There’s
that darkie fella…”
“Oh, Nathan’s not a
doctor. And besides, can’t expect him to help murdering scum
like you,” Sanchez snarled.
Manning immediately settled back
on the single cot, scowling contemptuously, but refrained from
Josiah turned and smiled broadly
at the two lawmen who watched him with awe. “I brought you a
meal, son. You gonna eat it?” He waved his large hand in
the direction of the untouched meal.
Ezra glanced at the meal and his
stomach tightened, churning with queasiness. Any wonder he usually
abstained from eating at this time of day. Not that he was
generally awake at this hour, but when he was, he didn’t eat
breakfast. The eggs where pale and overdone, the bacon was
dripping in a thick layer of grease and the beans swam uninvitingly in
the centre. He swallowed back the lump in his throat, but
didn’t think the meal would go down as easily. The coffee! –
Now that he could tolerate. And he reached for the mug and sipped
at the lukewarm beverage.
Sanchez sighed. Shaking
his head he rolled his eyes. “Thought you might like to read the
paper, while you’re here.” He dropped the newspaper beside the
tray and nodding at the gunslinger, made his exit.
Standish glanced over the rim of
the mug and unfolded the Clarion to reveal the headlines. Mary’s
editorial about the murders was the prominent feature on the front
page. He read the bold heading - WITNESS TO KILLER’S IDENTITY,
and shifted uncomfortably in the chair, glancing at the prisoner in the
cell. He felt Larabee’s intense gaze without even looking up and
folded the paper back in half to conceal the story from eye’s
sight. Ezra didn’t want any reminders that he’d been used once
again, even if it wasn’t by his Mother this time. That Chris had
been the one to put his life on the line to capture Manning. An
end justifies the means. He sighed and dropped his gaze, unable to
meet the blue eyes that seared through to his soul. The printed
story had been unnecessary, because here it was, fresh off the print
rolls only that morning. And yet, they caught Manning last
evening. The murderer never had the chance to read the story,
inviting him into the trap.
“You gonna stay?”
Larabee sat his hip on the corner of the table.
“How did you come to the
conclusion that I am leaving?” Ezra hedged.
Chris picked a rasher of bacon
off the plate and brought it to his mouth. “Been a rough few
Standish shrugged and leaned
back in the chair, ever mindful of his collection of bruises. Vin was
near trampled to death, Buck was shot, Nathan’s place could very well
have been burnt down and the church needed new windows fitted. Not
to mention the fact that a ladies’ underwear salesman was murdered,
accidentally, and his killer subsequently hung, murdered by his intended
victim in the jailhouse while under guard from Ezra himself. Then
there were the injuries he’d incurred. He smiled weakly and
wished the mug held something stronger than coffee. “I,
ah…um…” Standish stumbled, but was cut off by the abrupt arrival
of the hotel owner, Vernon McGee.
“Mr. Larabee, Mr. Standish.”
The Irishman fidgeted and shuffled from foot to foot nervously.
The short man pushed his glasses back on his face and chewed his bottom
lip. He pulled his hat off his head and fingered the brim.
“Something we can do for you,
McGee?” Chris invited, curious as to why the man was at the
McGee glanced into the cell that
housed Manning and flinched at the cold stare the prisoner bestowed on
him. He stepped back and bumped against the door.
“That’s him?” he questioned, a mixture of awe and fear in his
voice. “Lyle Manning?” he whispered the name.
“You want to talk to him?”
Standish inquired, frowning slightly. He was also attempting to
fathom why the hotelier was here.
“No!” McGee squawked.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweaty
brow. “I just wanted to see him…he was in one of my rooms, you
know…at the hotel…” he finished lamely.
Ezra glanced up to Larabee in
bewilderment and back at the Irishman.
“You best get back to your
business, McGee,” the gunslinger directed eager for the pasty faced
man to depart.
“Um…yes,” he agreed and
backed hastily out the door.
Ezra smiled warily, still
fixated on the empty space left by the Irishman. “What just
Chris rubbed at his chin and
reflected on Vernon McGee’s visit. “Dunno.” He lowered
his voice to a whisper, so the prisoners in the cells could not hear the
words. “Reckon ole Vernon might know a little bit more about all
this than he lets on.”
Ezra sat forward in his
seat. “You think McGee was behind the attempted murder of
Manning?” The gambler glanced over at the prisoner. “Do
you think Manning is aware who set him up?”
“Got no proof,” Larabee
shrugged, “and Mince Slavin, he ain’t coming back from the dead to
tell us anything.”
“So, what are we going to do
“Reckon all we can do is have
a friendly talk with him. Tell him that we know what he did.
Law can’t touch him, but I figure he’ll be wanting ta leave town
after out little chat,” Chris snarled.
Chris Larabee folded his arms
and leaned against a support post. He glanced at the sky from
under the brim of his black Stetson, its cornflower blue sparsely dusted
with white clouds. The still air hummed with activity, missing
from the past windy days. The morning stage had been delayed, but it
finally arrived just after midday. Judge Travis stepped off the
coach and after a few polite words with the gunslinger he went off to
visit with Mary and his grandson, Billy.
The stage would be leaving Four
Corners in half an hour, and already the Irishman was pacing nervously
waiting for the vehicle to depart. His bags were hastily packed
and sat perched on top of the baggage rack of the stage. McGee
tugged his suit coat down firmly over his torso, and glanced nervously
at the stern dark eyes. Unable to bear the scrutinizing gaze any
longer, McGee boarded the stage and waited inside for the driver to
return so his journey to begin.
Larabee crossed his left ankle
over his right and watched the weasel squirm under his gaze. McGee
was getting off lightly, and had been made fully aware of this
fact. A wry grin crossed his features when the hotelier boarded
the stage to hide from sight.
The Southerner joined him on the
sidewalk and followed the gunslinger’s visual path. “McGee on
“Yep.” Chris dug in
his pocket and withdrew a sheet of paper, and handed it to the
gambler. “Here, this is yours.”
Ezra unfolded the torn scrap and
a brief smile touched his lips. It was the drawing of the silver
buckle, which the gambler had drawn so long ago. Ezra crushed it
into a ball.
“Better not toss that just
yet,” Chris advised. At Standish’s inquiring eyebrow, the
gunslinger pointed at the crumpled drawing. “Judge’ll probably
want it fer evidence.”
“Oh,” Ezra responded and
smoothed the creases out of the page on his thigh.
“There’s eight hundred
dollar reward out on Manning,” Larabee lit a cheroot and idly blew the
smoke out in rings. “You planning on spending it on that
Standish whipped his head up in
“You caught Manning, so the
reward is yours. It’ll take a week or so for the money to come
through, but it’s all yours. Was just wondering if you were
Eight hundred dollars? And
it was all his? Ezra stood open mouthed staring at Larabee.
It wasn’t a fortune, but enough for a deposit if he added to it.
But he’d already gone down that path once before and his mother had
ripped his dream out of his grasp. Of course there was no need to
inform Maude that he had reacquired the saloon. If that was what
he intended. That would hold him tied to the town on a permanent
basis. “Eight hundred dollars, you say?”
Chris nodded; he could see the
wheels turning, even as Standish said the sum of money.
Ezra turned full circle and
looked thoughtfully at the front of the saloon. Could he do it
again? Maybe he could have it turning a profit before Mother’s
next visit. He wouldn’t let her take his dream from him again so
easily. Ezra tipped his hat and saluted the gunslinger with his
customary two-fingered salute.
“Where you going?” Larabee queried, but already had a good idea where the gambler was heading.
Chris chuckled and leaned back against the post. Reckon they were still gonna be seven for a while to come.
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