by  Yolande   


Special thanks again to NotTasha for the rushed Beta

& to

  The Muse for making the delectable picture above for me.

Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009

Part 1

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. 


Part 2 

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!”  Larabee chastised. 

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. 


Part 3 

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.   

“H…h…he’s… he’s…” 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?” 

“Sure, Nate.”   

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 drawled. 

“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 around before.” 

“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 disapproval. 

“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 Nathan’s…” 

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 catch on.” 

Looking from Larabee to Vin for affirmation, Buck chortled, “He just say he didn’t like my underwear?” 

“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 to bed?” 


Part 4 

“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 hence.”   

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.”   


Part 5 

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 heavenward. 

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 lawmen. 


Part 6 

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 morning. 

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 him.   

Unconcerned by Dunne’s outburst, Buck shrugged and between mouthfuls stated with calm indifference, “Gotta eat sometime, kid.   May as well be now.” 

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.”    

“Huh?”  Wilmington’s 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 yelled. 

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 else?” 

“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 innocently. 

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!” 


Part 7   

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 owner. 


Part 8 

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 decision. 


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 their eyes. 

Part 9 

Four 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. 

Chris 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. 

They’d 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. 

Ezra 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.  

Standish 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. 

Josiah 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.” 

Larabee and Tanner exchanged glances and stepped back to Sanchez.  Looking down the slope Tanner asked, “Can you see him?” 

“Nope.”  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 base. 

“Josiah,” Standish gasped out, struggling for a breath.  Pushing with all his power, Ezra couldn’t lift the heavy man from his chest.   

“You 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.

“NO! …Now get off me,” Standish rasped out. 

The older 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?” 

Finally 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.” 

“You check if he’s got the ear?” 

Ezra shuddered at the thought.  “I’ve hardly had time for that,” he drawled, “with you pummelling into me.” 

“Not Squeamish are you Ezra?” Josiah teased, emptying out pockets of the unconscious man. 

“Hardly,” 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. 

Josiah accepted the pouch and grimaced at the unattached ear that was found inside. 

From up 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 constantly did. 

“Not a problem, pard,” Wilmington replied. 

“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 saloon.   

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 it. 

“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 shift. 

“Got it!” Ezra snapped, turning his back on the three remaining men and resuming his climb up the stairs.  


Part 11 

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 shut-eye myself.” 

“By all means, Mr. Sanchez,” the gambler wearily dismissed.  “I will no doubt be seeing you in the morning.” 

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 apt description.   

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 town. 

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. 


Part 12 

“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 in here.” 

“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 better option. 

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 prevalent time.” 

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 tilted. 

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. 


Part 13 

“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 of that.  

“I want to know when he wakes up,” Chris directed at the healer, before taking his leave of Nathan’s clinic. 


Part 14 

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 movement.   

“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 headache?” 

“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 him. 

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 Seminole Village.   

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. 


Part 15 

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 individuals. 

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 gunslinger’s head. 

“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 hat.” 

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, “…anymore.” 

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 the table.   

“Now Nathan, that ain’t fair…” Josiah began in Ezra’s defence. 

“No, he’s only stating the truth,” the calm Southern accent interrupted. 

Part 16 

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. 

“Immeasurably,” Standish 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. 


Part 17 

“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 very little. 

“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?” Tanner confirmed. 

“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 Southerner.  


Part 18 

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 find anything?”  

“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.” 

“Wooeeee…” Wilmington 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?” 



Part 19 

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. Wilmington?” 

“I told him I was comin’ ta check on you, so he said he’d go and see if Miss Murphy was doin’ okay.” 

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 accompany me.” 

“I ain’t.  Need some supper myself.  Reckon the others’ll be here soon, anyhow.” 


Part 20 

“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 chaotic jubilance. 

“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 the others?” 


“Sorry…um…oops.  Ah, 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 patrons. 

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.  “What happened?” 

“I found him… but he seemed to recognise me before I had the opportunity to apprehend him.”   

“Ah huh.” 


Part 21 

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 killer. 

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 front door.” 

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 wound. 

“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 on.” 

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 promised. 

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 at him. 

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. 


Part 22 

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 healer warned. 

“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 should.” 

“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 of him.   

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. 


Part 23 

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 absent. 

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 own. 

“How is Mr. Tanner?” Standish inquired softly. 

“Still sleeping.” 

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 conversation. 

“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.


Part 24

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 Vin. 

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 man.   

“Wind’s still whippin’ about.” 

“Indeed,” Ezra nodded. 

“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 away.   

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 mouth. 

“You gonna eat that, or just mangle it?”  

Standish glanced up and pushed the plate across the table.  “I’m not hungry,” he announced. 

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 wake?” 

“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 Murphy.” 

“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 Manning.” 

“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 watch.” 

The older man agreed.  “What about JD and Vin?  You think they can identify Manning?” 

“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.  I’m not…” 

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 and myself.” 

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.” 

“NO!”  Larabee 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.”  

“Ezra,” Chris growled. 

Answering without facing the gunman, Standish continued to head for the stairs.  “No, I refuse.” 

“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. 


Part 25  

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 impatiently.    

“I did,” Chris snapped.  “Where do you want him?” 

“Down,” the gambler moaned. 

The gunslinger lowered Standish back to his feet and stepped back so Jackson could assess the conman.   

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 here.” 

“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 whined. 

“‘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. 

“Good,” Chris 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.   


Part 26 

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 table.   

“Chris,” Wilmington 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. 

“Yeah.  Nathan’s 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 second.   

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 this bastard?” 

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’ out.” 

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.” 


Part 27 

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.” 


“You need something?” 

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 groaned. 

“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 manage without.” 

“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 hands. 

The gambler brought the mug to Vin’s lips and raised his brows drolly.  “You are going to drink this.” 

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 confirmed.   

Ezra nodded.  “Anything else?” 

“Stirrups were hung low, reckon he’s kinda tall, huh?” Vin glanced at the Southerner to back up his thoughts. 

“About six two or three.” 

“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. 


Part 28 

“Hey cowboy!” Tanner welcomed. 

“Hey yourself.  How ya feeling?” 

“Like shit,” Tanner confessed. 

“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 bench. 

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 any longer.   

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 right?” 

“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 Manning.” 

Ezra arched an inquiring brow.  “And what is my part?” 

Jackson interrupted.  “What makes ya think that Chris needs your help?” he sarcastically sneered. 

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…” 

“…Ultimately mentioning that I am the only witness that can identify our killer,” Standish finished. 

Chris shrugged.  “Yeah.  You agree?” 

“Whatever it takes,” Ezra sighed in resignation. 


Part 29 

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 digits. 

“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 his head. 


Part 30 

“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 organised?” 

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 wound.    

“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 one. 

“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 shot.” 

Josiah held his large hand up and pushed the scoundrel back into the chair.  “I’ll go tell JD.”   

“Thanks, Josiah,” Wilmington sighed. 


Part 31 

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?” Standish appealed. 

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 admitted. 


Part 32 

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 gaze. 

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 by inches.   

“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 do?” 

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 into Standish. 

“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 end?” 


Part 33 

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 joined Josiah. 

“Hand me that hymnbook, son.” 

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 village?” 

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 aisle. 

“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, son.” 

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 doors. 


Part 34 

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 immediately.   

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 death?” 

“You can debate it all you like, from the inside of the cell,” Larabee separated the feuding men. 

“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 gunslinger asked. 

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 on?” 

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, is all.” 

Chris strode over and glared at him.  “You admit to shooting Buck?”  This was getting totally confusing. 

“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?”  Larabee sneered.   

“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 over!”  

“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.”   


Part 35 

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 killer. 

Chris Larabee jumped to his feet.  Damn that Southerner!  Can’t he ever wait for help?  “Nathan…” 

“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. 


Part 36 

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 work.” 


Part 37 

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 reckon?” 

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 be?” 

“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 room.” 

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 plate.” 

“Real funny, Larabee,” Vin scoffed, even though he was starting to feel slightly light-headed. 

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 his rest.” 

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?” 


Part 38 

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 adjacent cell.   

“Don’t recall any rules about having to feed prisoners,” Larabee tormented.  “You Josiah?” 

“Nope, can’t say I do,” Sanchez replied, then turned to Standish and arched an eyebrow.  “Ezra?” 

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!” Manning shouted. 

“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. 

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 commenting further. 

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. 


Part 39 

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 days.” 

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 jail. 

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 happened there?” 

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 about McGee?” 

“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. 


Part 40 

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 the stage?” 

“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 Saloon?” 

Standish whipped his head up in shock.  “Pardon?” 

“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 gonna stay?” 

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. 

“The bank.” 

Chris chuckled and leaned back against the post.  Reckon they were still gonna be seven for a while to come. 


The End


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