PG-17 for some harsh language -- someone is steamed
The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic
By NotTasha...who rarely plays fair
“Looks like the fireworks are about to start,” Josiah said as he gazed over his mug of beer and out into the street.
“Yup,” Chris replied, setting down his whiskey glass. He readjusted his duster, getting ready for whatever was about to happen and looked out of the front window of the Redbird. He figured it wouldn’t come to gunplay, but when tempers flared, one had to be prepared for anything.
“Darn fools,” Nathan groused. “Well, if that idiot southerner just thought first, none of this sort of thing would happen.” He bit into his sandwich and settled in for the show. “Hope I don’t gotta do any patchin’ up when all this is over,” he said as he chewed.
Josiah chuckled. They’d seen the cardsharp's return to town -- had been watching for it. Sanchez had felt a wave of relief when Standish finally rode in, on a strange horse, trailing a familiar one behind him. He’d been gone too long, drawing only consternation from Chris and a darker mood from Vin.
Ezra had ridden in with an undeniable slope to his shoulders. Fool must have run himself near ragged, Sanchez thought, and was glad that the tracker hadn’t immediately noted the return. Ezra needed a moment to get the horses properly seen to, to get on his feet, to wake up a bit after the lulling ride. He wasn’t so lucky as he left the livery.
They’d all noticed the abrupt movement of Tanner’s head, had seen him glare toward the window, had watched him jump to his feet and rush out the door, sending the bat-wing doors flapping. His tread was fast and his face set.
Ezra walked along the boardwalk, a saddlebag in one hand and his bedroll tucked under the other. He was wearing his tan jacket, usually reserved as his ‘back-up’ when on the trail, and a different hat. Everything about him spoke of weariness, from his slow gait, to his drooping head. He yawned, trying to draw one hand up to cover his mouth and failed because of his burdens. He hardly noticed the tracker’s approach.
“Ezra!” Tanner’s sharp voice called out.
Ezra paused, and turned to face the sharp-shooter. “Ah, Mr. Tanner. I was going to commence a search for you after dropping off my possessions. Thank you for making this an easier task for me.” He nodded and tried to adjust his bags. “I doubt I would’ve lasted long if you’d made yourself scarce.” He smiled slyly. “Might not have made it out of my room again.”
Vin shifted back and forth, obviously agitated. “Yeah, I bet. Figured you’d sneak past me, huh?” His voice rose in his irritation. “Thought you'd just get away?”
“Not at all. You’d be able to find me eventually, I suspect. You know where I lay my head.” He raised an eyebrow and said, “You’re looking more like yourself. I’m glad to see that you reached the town in one piece. Did you run into any unforeseen difficulties after our parting?”
Vin’s eyes narrowed as he came toe to toe with the gambler. He used his higher stature to stare down at the conman. “Where you come off askin’ a question like that? Who the hell do you think you are anyway? Goddamn it, Ezra! I asked you for the honest truth back there in Greeley and you told me fucking lie!”
“Fucking lie?” Ezra echoed, looking bewildered at the statement. “I don’t believe that what I said had anything to do with…”
“Shut the hell up!” Vin bit back, his face growing red with rage. “Damn it, Ezra! Don’t you care who gets hurt when you start playin’ around with stuff? Anythin’ could have happened! I trusted you! You don’t treat your friends that way, Ezra!”
Ezra smiled tiredly. “But everything worked out for the best, as is evidenced by the fact that you are there talkin' to me.”
“Ya ain’t even listenin’ t’me!”
“Oh, I find it difficult to ignore you, as you’re speaking directly into my face.” Ezra stepped back, and Vin stepped forward, closing the distance again and nearly shoving Ezra off the boardwalk.
Vin’s face screwed up in a look of further aggravation. “You don’t give a damn about what happens when you pull crap like that, do ya? You don’t give a shit what I felt. Damn it! You got no idea what I went through!”
“I didn’t think that your feelings were the most important factor to weigh at the moment,” Ezra admitted.
“Ya didn’t think any of it through.”
“On the contrary, I spent what I felt was ample time on the matter,” Ezra said and then shrugged philosophically. “I analyzed the possible outcomes and found my plan to be acceptable. The trade was justifiable and little would be affected in the long run if something went awry.”
Ezra made a move to step off the boardwalk just as Vin’s anger got the better of him. He swung at the gambler. Ezra -- exhausted, burdened with his belongings and looking the wrong way -- saw the movement at the last moment. He had no recourse except to try to dodge the flying fist, succeeding only in unbalancing himself. His foot missed the step as Vin connected with his jaw and he went down like a sack of potatoes, his head striking the wooden step with a loud 'thunk' as he landed in the street.
It happened so fast. Vin stood in shock, his hands at his sides and his eyes wide as he stared at Ezra’s prone form. “Damn!” he exhaled and moved forward to help, just as a pair of strong arms grabbed hold of him and jerked him back.
“That’s enough, Vin,” Chris growled in his ear.
Nathan and Josiah were beside Ezra as Chris yanked Vin further away. The gambler raised a hand to his head and mumbled something.
“You okay, son?” Josiah asked, concern filling his deep baritone.
“Take it easy, Ezra,” Nathan spoke softly as the gambler blinked and shook his head. Ezra looked up quizzically at the healer and preacher. “Think you can sit up?” Nathan asked.
Ezra stared up at the sky and asked, “When’d it stop rainin’?”
“Ezra, you okay?” Josiah asked, his concern only growing.
“Seems it was stormin’ a second ago.” Ezra’s gaze met Josiah’s and his eyes grew wide. “Mayor, sir, if you’d put down that mallet, we could talk. I swear, I’ll make this right.” And he squeezed his eyes shut. “Tarnation,” he uttered, his voice changing entirely. “I ain’t never played much at cards b’fore. You fellas better go easy.”
“Come on, Ezra,” Nathan said softly, “Let’s get you up.”
“Just played fer pennies and setch with my sisters,” Standish continued with a heavy twang.
“Upsy-daisy,” Josiah rumbled as they tugged the toppled gambler upright.
“Don’t look too bad,” Nathan muttered, making a quick examination of Ezra’s head for blood, finding none.
“Why’re ya’ll spinnin’ like that?” Standish continued his squint as he sat on the boardwalk. “This isn’t an occasion for waltzing.” Finally he settled his gaze on Nathan. “Sir,” he said in a soft voice, “I have no idea where that extra Ace came from.” He blinked and added, “Must ‘ave fallen from someone’s boot. Perhaps it was the miscreant who won the last hand.”
“How many fingers do I got here?” Nathan asked, waving his digits in front of the sharp’s face.
“Three,” Ezra responded without looking. An astonished expression reached him as he stared at the street. “Who took the boat?” He gestured in front of him. “How am I going to make it to the Mississippi now?”
Nathan smiled. “We’ll figure that one out later, Ezra,” he said. “Let’s get you looked at.”
The southerner smiled then and chucked, muttering, “A desk of fiddles.” He lowered his head and rested it in his hands finally and spoke in a hushed voice, “Captain, they’re movin’ closer. I can hear the howitzer now.”
“They’re a long way off,” Josiah replied with a quick glance to Vin as he helped Nathan get the dizzy gambler to his feet. “You gonna be able t’walk?”
“Certainly, certainly,” Ezra responded. “‘Long as the tightrope isn’t too high, my dear. I haven’t your skill in tumbling.”
“‘Tumbling’ is the right word for it.” Josiah shook his head in amazement as he snagged the dropped belongings. “Ezra, you’ve led an interesting life.”
“Indeed,” was Ezra’s response. “I always try to keep from the mundane.”
Vin tried to follow, but Chris held him back with a firm grip. “I’m sorry,” Vin called after them. “I didn’t mean to…” He paused as Ezra stopped and turned toward him, smiling merrily in spite of the bruise that was already forming on his jaw. He doesn’t even know what’s hit him, Vin thought. Probably hasn’t figured that I would ‘ave done that.
Josiah and Nathan turned Ezra and got him walking toward the clinic. The gambler stumbled and nearly fell to his knees, but the preacher and the healer kept him upright, Josiah talking to him in a soft soothing voice. Ezra continued to chatter, changing topics and accents constantly, drawing bemused and startled expressions from Jackson and Sanchez.
Chris shoved Vin away from the scene and propelled him into the Redbird saloon. “Sit!” he ordered when they reached a table, and Vin sat. “You done now?” Larabee queried.
“Good,” Chris returned. “I get to have a round with him next. Damn fool southerner!” He poured them both a glass of whiskey.
Vin downed the offered drink as he flexed his hand. It wasn’t supposed to have happened like that. He was just going to talk to Ezra, but the long wait had gotten the better of him. The anger had only grown as the gambler grew tardier.
“Goddamn, lying, son-of-a-bitch,” Vin muttered. “Someone could ‘ave gotten killed.”
“Yup,” Chris responded.
“If he’d tol’ me the truth to begin with, none of this would ‘ave happened.”
“Hard to say for sure what would ‘ave happened.”
“Never can trust him.”
“Doesn’t play fair.”
“Not his style.”
“Always playin’ some sort of game. Sneakin’ about. Cheats.”
“Just goes and does what he pleases, and damn everyone else.”
“Thought after all we been through, he’d ‘ave done things different,” Vin complained. “Thought things had changed.”
Letting out a breath, Chris said, “Hard to change a man.”
Vin ran his fingers around the glass. “I could ‘ave killed him just then. Damn.”
Chris shrugged. “I think ya just woke him up. His skull’s too thick for any permanent damage.”
tried to smile, but couldn't quite. Instead, he thought about what had happened
over the past three days.
THREE DAYS EARLIER
“Mr. Tanner,” the sharp-dressed gambler said as entered the room they shared. The hotel in Greeley had been fairly comfortable, but Ezra had spent most of his time in the saloon. Vin preferred the quiet of the room -- away from the crowd, and had enjoyed relaxing in the well-appointed space.
“‘ey, Ez,” Vin responded, leaning back in the comfortable chair that gave him a good view of the street. He always felt best when he had a clear view of any situation and could see what was coming at him. Not much had caught his interest in the busy streets.
“I have an…important issue to discuss with you.” Ezra frittered about nervously, tugging at his maroon jacket.
“What’s about, Ez?” Vin asked.
Ezra sighed and looked away. “I’ve run into a situation.”
“Trouble, huh?” Vin responded.
“Yes.” A chagrined smile formed. “Somethin’ happened while at the gamblin’ table.”
“Why’s that not surprise me, Ez?” Vin said with a laugh. "Don’t tell me you were cheatin’?”
Ezra scowled in response. “Please, sir. There’s no need to expend such energies here. I’m quite capable of winnin’ fair and square, especially against the players available in this town.”
Vin expected as much. “You win more than was smart?” There was no malice in his question, just a simple gathering of information.
Ezra licked his lips. “There was a rather green player. I believe he was lookin’ for some gamblin’ lessons and paid for them rather handsomely.”
“Yeah?” Vin stood and faced the gamester. “You figure he’ll come fer ya?”
“Not precisely,” Ezra drawled. “He just isn’t the type. I’m not kidding about the lessons. He seemed determined to draw from me some of my expertise. He quizzed me incessantly and watched my every move, talked a blue streak about his own adventures and wanted the same from me.” He rolled his eyes and said, “In short, he bored me to tears. I believe he’ll follow this jacket all the way to Four Corners.”
“So you want to us to start off in some other direction when we go?” Vin shrugged. “Not a problem. We can head on ‘round to Four Corners after we get out of sight of town. Might have to spend a night out if we leave after lunch like we planned, but it won’t hurt nothin’.”
“Actually, I believe an immediate departure might be in order.” Ezra leaned against the small dresser, grinning. “And my plan is more involved. It will require a little more subterfuge.”
“Subterfuge, huh? You mean lyin’? Long as it gets us where we need to go.”
The dimples showed as the gambler continued, “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear! Hand me your hat, Mr. Tanner, and your jacket as well.”
Tanner’s brow furrowed. “What you got in mind, Ez.”
“You and I, my friend, are changing places.”
Vin smiled, waiting for the punch line. “Yer kiddin’.”
“Not at all. It will be a distraction that should thoroughly befuddle the young man,” Ezra replied as he removed his jacket and carefully laid it across the bed. “You should leave town an hour or so before me. Head toward Clarkston, then turnabout and come toward Four Corners once you’ve lost the lad. I’ll take a different path, for I am nothing if not different.” Vin snorted as Ezra continued, “And I’ll meet you back in town.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard.”
“Good,” Ezra responded and gave Vin a punch in the arm. “We should hurry.”
Tanner regarded the conman carefully before he asked, “This greenhorn of yours ain’t gunnin’ for ya, is he?”
“Oh, not at all,” Ezra said as the vest came off next. His nimble hands removed one cufflink and then the other. “He was a perfect gentleman. A little too talkative for my tastes, but harmless.”
“You ain’t got the law after you then? I hear tell you got some sort of trouble in Fort Laramie.”
Ezra laughed. “Oh, not to worry about that.” He spread his arms wide as he stated, “I’ve been pardoned by the Honorable Judge Travis. And besides, it was nothing more than a misunderstandin’ regarding a bet. What followed was a remarkable set of circumstances that the people of that area are still talkin' about today.”
Wondering if he should ask for more details, Vin raised an eyebrow, then decided to keep the questioning on track. Ezra did have a tendency to reroute a conversation if one wasn’t careful. “So you just want t’get clear of this fella? That’s all?”
Ezra responded, “There’s only so much babble a man can take. I think you know what I mean. You’re a man who can understand the need for quiet.”
“‘Spect I am.” Vin ran his tongue over his teeth as he thought about the situation, and then pulled off his hat and set it on a post. “Figure I could do somethin’ like this for a friend.”
Ezra smiled at these words, and then made a face as Vin handed him the fabled buckskin jacket. Standish held it with the tips of his fingers before laying it over the headboard, treating it as if it was infested. Vin removed his red shirt and handed it over. The cardsharp wore his best pokerfaced as if to keep from becoming ill as he tentatively put it on, followed by the jacket.
“You’re lookin’ good,” Vin commented as he picked up Ezra’s white frilled shirt. “Better than Marley did when you shoved him into my coat.”
“Please,” Ezra said with a gasp. “Don’t remind me. Lord, to think you haven't had it cleaned since then.” He pulled discontentedly at the jacket.
“Got the elbow fixed at least,” Vin commented, watching as Ezra sniffed at the buckskin and grimaced.
“Lord,” the gambler muttered. “The things I go through…”
Vin put on Ezra’s shirt and buttoned the front. “Man alive, Ez.” The tracker frowned as he examined the sleeves. “How d’ya work with these things? They’re floppin’ all over.” He demonstrated by flapping his arms and letting the loose cuffs flutter.
Ezra shook his head and handed over the cufflinks. “You’ll need these.”
Vin squinted at the gold jewelry for a moment before attempting to tag the cuffs into place. Tanner tried without success to spear both ends of the cuff with the link. “Don’t know how you kin do this with just one hand,” he muttered. “Don’t seem possible.”
With a shake of the head, the gambler stepped forward to help him. “It takes a little practice.”
Vin held out his arms so that Ezra could work on them. “Sure is a pain to get this stuff on.”
“I don’t mind taking a moment to dress properly.” Standish exhaled and added, “Otherwise one might end up looking like this.” And he gestured to the clothing he wore before finishing the second cuff.
Vin tugged at Ezra’s shirt. It fit him well enough, though it was a little too short in the sleeves. The material was definitely softer than what he was used to. He put on the maroon jacket and found that it had a nice feel to it too. Rubbing his hand against the sleeve, he understood why Ezra liked the feel of fine fabrics so much.
Ezra sat down and pulled off his boots. “Trousers are next, Mr. Tanner. I’m afraid our look won’t be complete without them as well.”
With a frown, Vin commented, “I ain’t givin’ up my drawers. I got ‘em worked in just right.”
The gambler turned a little green as he mumbled, “Heaven forbid!” He shook his head abruptly to chase away the horrible thought and added, “No, my friend. I believe the trousers will be enough, because we are miserably mismatched without the exchange. My jacket and those pants?” He looked aghast as he gazed at Vin’s outfit. “That will never do. But, I suggest we keep our own boots.”
“Yup,” Vin agreed, knowing that having the proper footwear in the desert was often a matter of life or death. If they had to walk out of some god-forsaken place, it would be smart to wear what fit them best. He watched as Ezra plucked a wad of money from his boot and set it on the bed beside him.
Vin grinned devilishly. “How much is this worth to you, Ez?”
“Come again, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked.
Vin nodded toward the money. “You’re wantin’ this distraction and all, how much is it worth t’ya?” The money wasn’t an issue to Tanner, but it was a good barometer in judging just how far Ezra was willing to go to get something. Parting with cold cash was never easy for the gambler. “Figure I should be gettin’ somethin’ out of this.”
A somewhat disturbed expression hid behind Ezra's eyes. He regarded the tracker, and Vin silently returned the stare. Both seemed to be calculating. Ezra turned his head one way, as if he’d come to a decision, then turned it the other way. He looked miserable when he finally declared, “Perhaps $20 will be sufficient.”
“Aw, Ez, you got a lot more than that in yer wad there.”
“$20 is more than you need.”
"Well, Ez. I can use a lot if I got a mind to.”
Scowling, the southerner decided, “I’ll give you half of what I have -- $150. That’s far more than the situation deserves.”
“Figure it’d do. Must be some awful annoyance for you to go that far,” Vin responded, wondering now if something more was afoot.
Ezra seemed to cheer up as he said, “Oh, Mr. Tanner, I’ll have it all won back from you in a matter of hours after our return to town. It’s of little significance.” Ezra peeled half of the bills off the wad, trying to seem nonchalant about the exchange, but his fingers hesitated over the bills before he held them out to Tanner.
Vin almost waved them away, but figured that if Ezra truly wanted this badly enough, he’d go for it whole hog. He picked the bills from Ezra’s extended hand. “Thank ya kindly,” he said. “Pleasure doin’ business.”
“Highway robbery,” Ezra muttered in response.
In a matter of a few minutes, Tanner and Standishr had exchanged clothing. Gambler and tracker stood shoulder to shoulder to gaze into the room’s small mirror, looking like a tracker and gambler. “Perfect!” Ezra stated. “As long as no one comes too close, this should work.” He frowned and added, “Your boots could use a polish and you…a shave…and a bath…and a haircut.”
“Hell,” Vin replied, raising his hands to halt the conversation. “That’d cost ya the rest of yer packet, and I ain’t gonna cut my hair! I got it tied up and I think that’s far enough.”
Ezra scowled. “Well, keep your hat low,” he uttered.
Vin complied by tugging down on Ezra’s black low-crown hat. “What’s this fella that’s houndin’ you look like anyway?”
“He looks as if he’s just stepped off his father’s farm, wearin’ his Sunday best -- brown hair and eyes, and a forever-earnest expression on his face. He’s about as tall as Buck, but skinny as a rail. He wears blue and rides a roan with one white sock and a blaze. His name is Trevor Woollock.”
Vin nodded, putting the description to memory. “Why don’t ya just say ‘so long’ to this fella and be gone?”
“He doesn’t seem to take the hints I’ve thrown him.”
“Well, you were never known to go about things the easy way. Always got to do it crooked.” Tanner reached for his saddlebags and asked, “I’ll be ridin’ your horse?”
Ezra nodded. “Chaucer will behave marvelously as he is a gentleman. I believe you know most of my verbal commands, so you’ll have no trouble with him. Besides, he likes you.”
“Don’t go spoilin’ Peso. He won’t be no use to me if ya do.”
“There’s peppermints in your pocket if Chaucer becomes contrary. Usually, that’s all it takes to put him into a agreeable mood.”
Vin smiled, remembering Christmas Eve, when he and Ezra had rode double on Peso, leading a limping Chaucer through the snow, enticing him all the way with candy -- damn spoiled nag!
He picked up his bags, figuring that they’d might as well keep their own kits. He smirked when he looked at Standish again, finding it terribly funny to see him dressed so disreputably. Strangely enough, Standish now looked totally comfortable in the outfit.
“You ain’t lyin’ t’me are ya, Ez?” Vin asked. “Seems like yer goin’ through an awful lot of trouble for almost nothin’.”
“But that's what I do, Mr. Tanner.” Ezra raised his hands. “I find new and interesting ways to perform mundane tasks. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane.” He smiled and his clear green eyes met Vin’s blue. “I give you my word that Mr. Woollock will not harm you in any way, that you will suffer nothing from this endeavor. On my honor, you will return home safely -- barring unforeseen mishap.”
Vin nodded, accepting that.
“Now, please. You should get going. Head immediately toward Clarkston, but make your way toward Four Corners as soon as viable. If you feel Mr. Woollock is following, please do your best to loose him.”
Vin smiled. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll lead him on a goose chase.”
“As long as you don’t waste too much time on it.”
“Figure it won’t hurt to lead him ‘round a bit. You headed straight home?”
as possible for a man like me,” Ezra returned, smiling from beneath the slouch
Vin immediately left town, riding his companion’s chestnut gelding. Chaucer had looked a little confused about the change in riders, but gave Tanner no trouble -- for as Ezra had said, Chaucer liked him…and the peppermints came in handy.
The departing tracker watched the saloon, and noted the man that Ezra had described was sitting near the front window. The tall gambler sat up sharply and got to his feet, then ran toward the livery as Vin brought his heels to Chaucer’s sides. The horse shot away, into the open country.
He kept the horse at a gallop until he was well along the trail to Clarkston, and then turned off at a place where Woollock would be sure to see him. Yeah, he thought, the kid would have an interesting ride ahead of him.
For the morning and afternoon he kept ahead of Woollock, catching sight of the young man from time to time as the kid struggled to catch up. When they reached rocky terrain, he missed having Peso beneath him. Although Chaucer was fast, Peso was the superior animal over difficult surfaces, and they had to slow to accommodate. Luckily, Woollock’s horse faired no better and he kept a steady distance between them.
Vin amused himself by losing the young man from time to time, only to let himself be found again. He figured that he’d draw Woollock away to allow Ezra’s departure, and the longer he pulled Trevor along, the better. He kept to a route that brought him closer to Four Corners without ever heading exactly in that direction. No sense in ending up far from home, he reasoned.
As he rode, he thought about the strange situation. It did seem odd that this young pup, Woollock, was more than the cagey gambler could handle. The money resting in his pocket struck Tanner rather strangely, too. Ezra was up to something, but Vin couldn’t quite figure out what. Certainly, the gambler wasn’t trying to endanger his life. No, Vin figured he knew Ezra better than that -- Standish wouldn’t purposefully do anything to hurt any of the Seven. Besides, Standish had given Vin his word -- and that meant something.
So what then?
Was this situation only because that Standish wanted to be rid of Woollock and would rather unload him on a friend than do it himself? Yes, that was quite possible. Vin knew that the southerner prized his comfort and had been known to offload ‘annoyances’ onto others -- but he also prized his money, prized his clothing. Was this situation dire enough for the gambler to don the outfit of a no-account tracker?
Encouraging Chaucer along, Vin decided that it wasn’t too outlandish an idea. Ezra had worn costumes more than once in order to get what he wanted. Funny, the fussy gambler would put on a dress, or a Union uniform, or a beat-up, smelly, old buckskin jacket if he felt the reward was big enough -- but heaven forbid if his own clothing became soiled in some daily activity.
He’s a peculiar sort, Vin decided. Ain’t quite right in the head, but that ain’t so bad.
Vin enjoyed the friendship he shared with Standish. It was a strange relationship, really. Never would he have thought that he’d have a con artist as a friend -- a quick-talking, over-educated, conniving, persnickety gambler. It just didn’t seem to fit. People like Ezra were the type that Vin had looked at with a mix of irritation and envy. People like Ezra rarely gave people like Vin a second glance -- and if they did, it would only be a look of distrust, revulsion, fear or pity: shifty Indian-lover; unwashed savage; unpredictable bounty hunter; poor illiterate boy.
They were thrown together by a set of circumstances -- a village in need of help, a chunk of gold, a battle with ghosts -- one man walking away and yet turning about.
They’d found like souls in each other, under all the layers that differentiated them from each other. It had taken a while for them to become friends – and longer for either of them to admit such a friendship existed. Even today, Ezra seemed hesitant to accept any connection with another.
Vin knew that the sharp had a difficult, lonely childhood, and an often-indifferent mother. Probably rarely got anything without having to pay for it. Remembering the money in his pocket, Vin felt a flush of shame. – never should have made him pay me to help him, he thought.
He figured that the folks Ezra ran with most of his life weren’t the most reputable sort, the kind of fellas that no one ever really trusted. Still, Tanner was pretty sure that Ezra trusted him. Heck, he trusted Ezra well enough. The tracker shook his head as he pulled down the brim of Standish’s hat. Yeah, I must trust him a bit to go through with this.
The fact that Ezra had asked Vin for this favor meant a lot. Ezra seemed, at times, to feel that it was okay for him to act the part of a friend to Vin, but somehow the door didn’t swing both ways and he never expected the same in return.
Gonna fix that someday. Gonna convince him otherwise. Maybe this little adventure would help. Vin smiled as he kept Chaucer moving along. Yeah, maybe the little weasel will realize that I'm willin’ to do somethin’ to help him out, even if the whole idea sounds hare-brained. This should be a step in the right direction -- get him to understand that I can be a friend to him, too.
The tracker nodded as he rode the gambler’s horse on his trek, glad that he could do something for his friend.
Dusk was falling and Chaucer was tired. Hell, Vin was tired too. It had been a long day on the trail, switching back and forth, losing and finding Woollock. They’d stopped a few times, letting Chaucer rest, giving Vin a chance to stretch his legs, and letting Woollock catch up -- but soon enough they took to the trail.
Night was nearly upon them -- and night was not a time to be taken unaware. Vin decided to get rid of his tail. He’d grown tired of the greenhorn, too. Ezra must be well on his way home and there was no need to worry about the gambler meeting up with the troublesome amateur anymore.
Tanner figured that there was two ways to go about it. One was to lose Trevor once and for all -- but they were in the middle of nowhere and if the young man were left wandering out here, there’d be no hope for him. Woollock probably had no idea where he was and Vin didn’t want to see the fool get killed because of this prank. His other choice was to let Trevor catch up to him -- to take the young gambler on his terms. A better option, Vin decided.
Vin stopped when he found a good place, and set up camp for the night. If the man was as harmless as Ezra said -- then there’d be no trouble. Tanner would explain the circumstance, tell him to stop pesterin’ people. He’d put the kid to bed, tuck him in and hope Trevor didn’t snore. In the morning he’d point him back toward Greeley and hope for the best. If Woollock proved to be less a gentleman than Ezra supposed, well then -- Trevor wouldn’t live long.
Vin had just lit a fire and started rooting through his saddlebags for dinner when he heard the horse’s approach. He stood stiffly, wary as a man should be when approached by a stranger, and waited. He brushed at Ezra’s jacket, hoping that he still looked the part and then chuckled because he’d forgotten that the jig was up and he was setting aside the charade. He stepped out of the fire’s light to let himself be caught up in shadow.
“Hello, camp!” a voice came out of the dark, and the man road in on a white-stocking roan. Up close, he looked as young and earnest as Ezra described, and as lean as a rake. He looked around, surprised to find the camp abandoned. “Hello?” he called again, raising his hand over his eyes as if to shield them from the sun that had set.
“Hey,” Vin responded from the shadows, pulling his mare’s leg free -- at least Ezra had agreed that they’d both keep their own armament.
The newcomer grinned at the partially obscured man. “Hey, there! I’ve had the devil’s own time keepin’ up with you!” He dismounted with a tired grunt.
“I had a devil of a time keepin’ you behind me,” Vin replied. “Thought I’d lost you out by Dead Horse Hill.”
The man laughed, gazing into the dimness. “He told me you’d say somethin’-o-that. You sure do know some tricky stuff. We must’a crossed by Dry Fall a dozen times. Smart. That should’a done the trick.” He stretched out a hand. “Trevor Woollock,” he introduced. “And you must be Vin Tanner?”
Tanner felt a cold flush reach him. He stepped clear of the shadows. “What did ya say?”
Trevor eyed him carefully. “You are Vin Tanner, ain’t cha?”
“Who told you that?” Vin asked quickly.
Gesturing in the general direction of Greeley, Trevor said, “Well, Ezra did, of course.”
“Ezra?” Confused, Vin paced back toward the fire. “What the hell’s goin’ on here?”
Trevor grinned, looking as pleased as punch. “Ezra asked me to follow you out of town, to be sure that nobody come after you. He told me you’d be tryin’ to lose those fellas and I might have a heck of a time keepin’ up. Said that you’d be watchin’ for me and make sure that I stayed close. Sure enough he was right. Dinnent lose me and sure made it hard for those fellas to follow.”
Vin felt his heart constrict as Trevor spoke. “Fellas? What fellas?”
“I was beginnin’ to worry that I wouldn’t reach ya b’fore night. Ain’t like I never slept out in this area, but it ain’t exactly safe alone. I was born near here. Know the land pretty well. Anyway, b’fore it got real dark, you let me catch ya. I kept a good watch out, Mr. Tanner. Not a soul followed.”
“Who would ‘ave followed?” Vin yelled, catching Trevor by his blue lapel, and yanking him down an inch or two.
His eyes growing wide, Trevor replied, “Them bounty hunters that were lookin’ for you.”
“Oh God,” Vin gasped and let go of the young man as he realized what had happened. He paced past the fire, toward Chaucer. “Son of a bitch!’ He spun back toward Woollock and demanded, “What do you know about those bounty hunters?”
Hooking his thumbs into his belt, Trevor took a deep breath and said, “Well, Ezra and I were havin’ a friendly game in the saloon when these two fellas started to talkin’. They were askin’ folks if anyone had seen this fella name of Vin Tanner. That’d be you.” He pointed a finger at the tracker. “They had a poster with your face on it, I guess. One of the folks in the place said he’d seen ya with a fancy gambler from the south. We was sittin’ on the other side of this partition thing, so nobody could ‘ave seen us there ‘les they come around. I seen Standish look real queer when he heard what they were sayin’, and he just sat there for a bit. I figured he might have had some sort of fit or somethin’ ‘cause it didn’t look like he was breathin’ for a while. But then he drank down what was left of his whiskey and grabbed me by the arm, sayin’ he had a proposition for me. We slunk out real quiet.”
Vin pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes as he listened.
“So he and I go out in the alley and he tells me that he figures I was a straight shooter.” Trevor nodded. “And I am. He told me how he was gonna have you hid by gettin’ you to put on his clothes so you could get out of town safe. He told me he wanted me to follow.”
“Son of a bitch,” Vin murmured again. “He put you after me so I’d keep a’goin’ and believe his damn story. Son of a bitch!” He swung about, wanting something to punch.
“Hey, now,” Trevor said, holding up placating hands. “No need to get angry at me, Tanner. I was just doin’ as a friend asked me. Figured Ezra was an okay guy and I could do this for him. He taught me some moves and I figured I owed him. Plus he gave me fifty dollars to do the job.”
“He’s dressed like me,” Vin muttered. “And there’s a couple of bounty hunters lookin’ for Vin Tanner!” All his previous thoughts came back to haunt him. Here he thought he was doing something for Ezra’s sake only to find out that Ezra had turned it around again.
Trevor frowned as he realized what Vin was saying. “He didn’t tell me that he was gonna dress like you. I might've advised against it.” He shrugged and added, “I guess he didn’t think I needed to hear the whole thing..”
“Tell me somethin’ I don't know,” Vin returned and moved toward Chaucer again. The tired horse regarded him with skeptical eyes.
“You ain’t thinkin’ on headin’ back now?” Trevor asked.
“I ain’t leavin’ him there to be shot in my name!” Vin growled.
“It’s hard country at night. And, he won’t be in Greeley,” Trevor informed him. “Said he’d be headin’ out after you left town.”
“Out? What the hell does that mean?”
“Said for me to tell you to go on home lickety-split.”
“Like hell I’d do that! I’m headed back.” Vin’s stomach twisted at the thought of what might have happened. Don’t let him be dead, he thought as he grabbed the saddle.
“Said that he’d ride out for a day or so, and come on ‘round when it looked like a fine idea. Told me to say, ‘Don’t be throwin’ good money after bad’.”
Vin closed his eyes. Good money after bad? Hell! Where does he get off sayin’ that? Who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad? Who gets to make that decision anyhow? Why’s he gotta make everything go back to money?
“I took his money,” Tanner whispered. “I made him pay me $150, and he took my place.” He glanced out into the darkness, realizing that a whole day had passed since he’d switched places with Ezra -- a whole day with bounty hunters at Ezra’s back. “Forced him to pay me for the pleasure of gettin’ killed in my name. Gonna do what I can to stop it.”
Trevor scuffed at the dirt. “Look, Tanner, the horses are plum tired after that ride, and I know we’re nearly to Four Corners now.”
Vin wasn’t listening, his mind was working too quickly, trying to figure out how in the hell he had let this happen.
Trevor continued, “It’d make more sense to spend the night, and start off tomorrow. He said he was gonna be fine.”
“Did you catch their names?”
“The bounty hunters, dammit!”
“Oh, Bailey and Cox.” Trevor looked triumphant. “Heard that earlier from them. I ain’t stupid, Tanner. I hear stuff and remember it.”
Vin nodded. He remembered the names, too, but it didn’t make him feel any less stupid.
Bailey and Cox were the type of men who’d usually do the right thing. They were in the “bring ‘em back alive” category of bounty hunters. If they were to catch up to a man and found out that they were trailing the wrong person -- they would probably be okay with it, release the wrong man, and go on about their business. Ezra most likely knew that and counted on the gentlemen to behave that way and let him go unscathed.
But things didn't always go as planned. Tanner had heard that Bailey had a temper -- that Cox sometimes got a little crazy. Their bounties usually came back alive, but not always in one piece. Sometimes, Bailey and Cox couldn’t help but kill the men they followed.
Good guys really… when it came to dragging in the bad guys. Any hurt their bounties got was earned, wasn’t it? They were fine guys, as long as Bailey didn’t get upset and Cox didn’t get crazy when they found out that a weasely, lying, quick-talking, son-of-a-bitch conman had tricked them out of a bounty.
Bailey and Cox -- they were dead men if anything happened to that gambler.
Vin spent the night haunted by terrible dreams. He slept in snatches waking often to the stars and Trevor’s rattling snores. “Damn,” he’d whisper and try again to find sleep.
He kept playing out scenarios in his dreams…. Ezra racing away, trying to outrun Bailey and Cox, but somehow, Standish just couldn’t get away. Vin couldn’t move in the dreams -- he was frozen in his tracks and could only watch and shout at Ezra to stop -- but the gambler paid him no mind.
In one dream, the bounty hunters cornered Standish, captured him, roughed him up, thinking he was Vin Tanner. Yeah, they roughed him up a lot -- then tied him to a saddle and carried him away. The damn fool, too hurt to talk, let them take him all the way to Tascosa. They towed him to court and the quick-witted conman, dazed from his beating, was be unable to save himself. Vin could only shout from the shadows as they brought him to the gallows. Tanner awoke with a frightened gasp as the floor dropped away from under his friend’s feet. Ezra was hung until the life was choked out of him because he dared to be a friend to Vin Tanner.
He dreamed again, but this time Cox and Bailey caught up to Ezra and discovered the ruse. They were angry -- seeing their $500 disappear with the taunting smile of a green-eyed, southern bastard. They hurt him for that, hurt him for tricking them, for deceiving them, for leading them on -- for losing their money. In his dream, Vin could only stand by the side as they killed the devious lawman -- all because he helped Vin Tanner.
And again he dreamed, and they’d shoot Ezra as he tried to keep ahead of them, hit him between the shoulder blades and send him sprawling. He’d somersault over the shoulders of the borrowed horse, to be trodden beneath the hooves -- because he did his friend, Vin Tanner, a favor.
Again and again, he woke with his heart racing, sweat clinging to his face, to stare at the heartless stars, to hear Trevor sawing mercilessly, hear the ceaseless sounds of the desert insects…and then drift off again.
When morning finally came, he welcomed the light. It was time to go. There’d be no more waiting around. He put away Ezra’s things and pulled his extra clothing from his bags. He’d have no jacket, but the day was mild. “Damn fool!” he kept muttering, as he dressed. “Son of a bitch.”
Trevor listened without commenting, not wanting to get in the way of the tracker. He fiddled with his own belongings, waiting.
“Why’d you go along with this fool idea of his?” Tanner demanded finally. “Couldn’t ya figure he’d just end up getting hurt?”
Trevor snorted. “I ain’t the one that put my clothes on him. I ain’t got a bounty on my head,” he responded indignantly. “And he paid you more than he did me.” He crossed his arms over his navy jacket.
Vin turned away, blinking his eyes. Damn, he thought. I didn’t need the money. I didn’t want it. Just done it to see what he’d do. Now he’s got Cox and Bailey on his ass, chasing him down. He gave me half of what he had. He's only got $150 left -- well a bit more if the little bastard cheated me. Would that be enough to bargain with? Not when those two have just lost $500.
He sat down beside the nearly-dead fire and started bringing it back to life. He’d throw something together for breakfast, just enough to get him started. Soon as he could, he’d be on his way back to Greeley.
“Son of a bitch,” Vin murmured again. “Never asked for that. Never!” He rubbed at his eyes, thinking, I’m gonna kill him when I get my hands on him. Gonna wring his neck. Looked me right in the eye and lied. Why couldn’t he just tell me that he'd seen a couple of bounty hunters in town and felt we’d better be cautious? “Son of a bitch!”
“You don’t have a very big vocabulary, do ya?” Trevor asked as he sat down beside Vin and set a coffeepot on the fire. His long thin legs looked like sticks as he bent his knees and drew them close.
“Who’s askin’ you?” Vin shot back.
Trevor shrugged. “I figure he did you a favor. Figure he done you a good turn. We both made out okay in it.” The young man grinned at him. “I know I’m gonna end up with more than I started with.”
And I’ll have less, Vin thought in return. “Gamblers,” he complained aloud. “Goddamn gamblers!” He stood, abandoning the fire, and walked toward the horses. “I’m headin’ back to find him.” Bring his body back if nothing else. Make sure he gets buried decent. They ain’t takin’ him to Tascosa.
“Look,” Trevor said. “I ain’t one to go talking, but I figure we should just wait this out. We should go on to Four Corners and he’ll show up in a bit. Figure we’d get there in a couple hours. He’ll get there by night.”
“Why the hell d'ya want to go there?” Vin barked. “You done what you’re supposed to do. Now, scat! ‘Parently, you know your way.”
“Well, I’ll get another fifty dollars if I get you all the way back.” Trevor smiled broadly.
“Goddamn gamblers!” Vin spat out.
Trevor let out a long breath and muttered, “Least he’s learned a few more words.” His gaze followed Tanner as the tracker paced. “I figure if we go on to Four Corners, we can find out if he’s sent a wire,” Woollock stated. “He said he would. Find out where he’s gone. If there ain’t no wire, you can get those friends of yours and go off after ‘im. It’d make more sense if there was a bunch of you instead of just one.”
Vin stared at the young gambler who worked at the fire, bringing the embers to flame. The man seemed to know a thing or two about camp life. You never can be sure what you’ll get when you run into a gambler --- they tended to surprise him.
tracker mulled over what had been said. “Figure it makes sense to head
home,” Vin stated at last, wanting to see that wire. If there was no message,
he’d need the others to help him hunt down Bailey and Cox. Might not want the
others around once he caught up with the bounty hunters. It just wasn’t good
to have friends around at times like that – wouldn’t want them to suffer the
consequences of his actions -- as Ezra probably had.
"We're goin'," Vin suddenly stated.
“Good!” Trevor rejoined. “We just got to get to town and make sure that both of us get seen together. That way I can be sure to get my money.”
Vin shook his head. Damn fool, he thought. Sends a shadow after me to get me all the way home. He glared out across the open land and prayed that Cox and Bailey had been forgiving, that Ezra had been wily enough to outthink them, that his worst dreams would not come true.
The wire was waiting for Vin when they reached Four Corners. It had been received earlier that morning and read only, ‘VT. STAY PUT. WILL RETURN BY NIGHTFALL. EPS.’ The wire came from Westover. An inquiry was sent to the Westover telegraph operator for more information about the sender, trying to find out if the gambler was all right, but the response told them that a farm boy had brought it in that morning.
It was decided that they would wait. No one could be sure about where Ezra was at that moment, not even if he was still near Westover. He’d be back before dark. It made sense to wait, Chris and the others had reasoned. So, that’s what Vin did.
But night came without the ill-dressed gambler returning. Vin slept, mostly because he was so tired after the restless night before and the stressful day. He slept and awoke and climbed down from his wagon to wait again.
Morning dragged and still there was no sight of Standish. Ezra wasn’t a morning person, but out on the range, the gambler tended to wake as early as any of them -- the hard ground wasn’t exactly as enticing as his feather bed. With any luck, he’d show up before lunch.
But, lunchtime passed. As the day rolled on, Vin haunted the saloon, watching the livery for sign of Ezra's return. Tanner packed a bag and prepared to go after the gambler. Larabee forcibly stopped him, making him understand that waiting was the best option at this point, especially with bounty hunters in an active search. A message was sent to Greeley, demanding any information they had on the parties in question, and a message was returned to let them know that a man fitting *Vin Tanner’s* description had left town about an hour after the man who fit *Ezra Standish’s* description. Bailey and Cox had quit their residency shortly afterward, but no one knew where any of them had headed after they left town.
“We’re gonna wait and see,” Larabee had insisted. “He’s a big boy. He got himself into this mess. He’ll take care of himself. There’s no telling where he’s gone after Westover and we’re not going off half-cocked, not knowin’ where to look."
And so Vin waited, and got angrier with each passing minute: angry because he couldn’t do anything; angry because he’d put his friend in danger; angry because Ezra had lied and maybe sacrificed himself; angry because they hadn’t worked out something else; angry because Ezra might be dead at that very moment -- dead because of Vin Tanner.
Finally, he ended up simply angry. That’s when Ezra returned, a day late and just in time to catch Vin in a rage.
“You calm down yet?” Larabee asked from his seat beside the tracker.
Vin grunted in response.
“Not like you to take a swing at a man who ain’t ready to defend himself.”
Vin muttered, “Didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“Damn fool probably needs someone to take a pop at him every so often just to get his head adjusted right.”
“I just wanted to talk.”
“Didn’t seem like much of a discussion.”
“Wanted to find out why he done it like he did.” Vin shook his head sharply. “If he hadn’t said that crap, ‘bout how it would ‘ave been a fair trade if somethin’ went wrong, I wouldn’t ‘ave had to...” Tanner slammed a fist on the table. “Damn it!”
“Frustratin’ little son-of-a-gun, ain’t he?”
“Don’t know where he gets off sayin’ stuff like that.”
Chris looked long and hard at the tracker. “He’s tired,” Larabee said finally. “Probably didn’t mean to say it.”
Vin slung down the drink. “I know. Usually he’s got enough wits about him to keep that shit quiet…but he thinks it.” He glanced up at his friend. “The fact that he thinks that way ain’t right. Hell, Chris, I figured we was friends, him and me. Thought I got him set straight on that. Don’t he know what it’d do to me if somethin’ happened? I’d have to live the rest of my life knowin’ I got him killed.”
Chris smiled and replied, “I don’t know, Vin. Seems that he hasn’t had too many chances at friendship.”
“Yeah,” Vin admitted. “Ain’t right.”
The gunslinger nodded. “Just keep workin’ on him like you have. Some folks take longer than others to come around.” He refilled their glasses saying, “Done good so far.”
The saloon doors swung open and Josiah strode in, walking easily to their table. “Boys,” he said as he sat.
“Is Ezra okay, J’siah?” Vin asked immediately.
Josiah picked up the bottle and took a draw from it, as there were no more glasses on the table. Not wanting him to drink alone, Chris downed his glass. Vin watched the preacher, waiting for a reply.
Sanchez wiped his lips on the back of his hand and finally answered the question; “He’ll be fine. Sleepin’ now. More exhausted than anything. Nate will bring him around every so often, make sure he can wake him.”
“So, he ain’t hurt?”
Chuckling, Josiah responded, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. He got his head rapped pretty good and probably won’t be seeing straight for a while.”
Vin let out a held breath and worriedly rubbed his forehead.
“He tell you anything about what went on?” Chris asked.
Josiah shook his head. “Once he got his head clear and stopped talkin’ nonsense, he asked if his clothing was all right and said he wanted everything back, properly laundered and pressed. Said that he’d raise a fuss if anything smelled like the items he had to wear.” Sanchez smiled. “I figure that’s a sign that he’s going t' be fine.”
“That all?” Vin asked.
“Yeah, that would be about it,” Josiah responded. “Fought pretty hard just to say that before he finally fell asleep.”
“He didn’t give you no reason for doin’ what he did?” Vin kept at it, his voice becoming sharper.
The preacher shrugged. “Didn’t seem to be botherin’ him enough to say.”
Vin stood abruptly, only to be caught by Chris. “Where ya goin’?” the gunslinger demanded, noting the fierce look had returned.
“Gonna check on him.”
“Josiah just told you he’s fine,” Chris said as he let go of Vin’s arm and pulled the bottle from Josiah’s grasp. He refilled his glass and snagged another from a nearby table, filling it for Sanchez.
“Just the same…” Vin muttered.
“Sit,” Larabee ordered. “Sit your ass back down until you get yourself calmed.”
Vin slumped back into his chair and glared at the glass in front of him. “I’m not fixin’ t’hit him again, Chris,” Vin pouted angrily.
“Yeah, but you ain’t gonna do him any good right now.” Larabee polished off his glass. “Stay here, Vin. I’ll go check on him.” He glanced to Sanchez. “See that he does.”
Josiah nodded his acceptance of duty. Chris gave Vin one last glance before he pushed himself to his feet and left the Redbird. Sanchez regarded his drink, not knowing if the glass Larabee had found was dirty or not -- and decided that the alcohol would have killed anything still living in it, and drank it down. Once he’d finished, he gave Vin a serious look. The tracker was slowly turning his glass with an irate expression.
“You blindside him again like that, Vin,” the preacher stated, “and you’ll have me to answer to.”
Vin glanced to the preacher. Josiah’s face was mild, but his eyes held a severity that was difficult to ignore. All the members of the team had learned to respect that smoldering anger -- knew that the soft-spoken and gentle man could become a raging grizzly if prodded in that direction. One or two of them had met that anger head-on and had felt the results.
“You could have killed him,” Sanchez continued. “If he’d hit his head any harder…”
“I know,” the tracker cut him off. “I know.” And slumped further into his chair.
“Hey, bruiser,” Buck called as Vin walked along the boardwalk the following morning. The ladies’ man leaned against the wall to the assayer’s office and grinned. “I hear tell that you knocked out our gamblin’ friend.”
“Dang, Vin,” JD added, slouching beside him. “You really hit Ezra like that? You knock him to the ground? He’s usually pretty fast with his fists. Never seen anyone take him out so easy.”
“‘Les of course someone whacks him ‘cross the back with a chair or somethin’,” Buck completed, remembering a brawl in a saloon. “He got took by surprise that time, too.” Wilmington gave Vin a meaningful look. “Seems a friend of ours didn’t give him much of a chance. Actually, it seems more like the sort of thing that sneaky little bastard would do -- not you.”
“Must ‘ave hit him really hard,” JD added unhappily.
“Taught him a lesson, didn’t ya?” Buck smiled.
“Seemed like the thing to do,” Vin muttered as he glared at Wilmington.
Buck chuckled and stepped back. “Well, if you hadn’t done it, Chris might ‘ave. Heard him spoutin’ off at Ezra most of last night at Nathan’s. Any time that poor son-of-a-bitch opened his eyes, Chris had a thing or two to say. Figure ol’ Ez ended up by playin’ possum, hopin’ that Chris would give up and wander off.” Buck laughed. “Chris can be just as stubborn and didn’t let him be.” Wilmington rubbed his chin. “Listenin’ to what he said, I couldn’t quite figure if Chris was mad as hell about the whole thing or kinda proud of that son.”
“Proud of him?” Vin interjected. “For nearly gettin’ himself killed?”
“Heck, that didn’t happen, Vin. Ezra got ya both home without gettin’ anyone hurt,” JD reminded.
“Yeah,” Buck included. “‘Cept for when he got a welcome from you.”
“I dunno. It seemed like he had a good idea, Vin. Don’t know why you got so upset about it.” JD shrugged. “His plan worked fine.”
“Yeah,” Vin said with a sigh. “Seems that way.”
Buck clamped an arm around Vin’s shoulder and nearly tugged him off his feet. “Time you let bygones be bygones, pard. Ain’t worth feuding over him savin’ your fool life.” Congenially, he shoved Vin’s head under his arm and rubbed his knuckles across Tanner’s scalp.
JD laughed as Vin struggled his way out of the headlock.
Nathan approached, pausing for a moment as he saw the scene. He chuckled and greeted them with a, “Mornin’.”
“Hey, Doc,” JD returned.
“Nathan,” Buck responded, releasing the tracker.
Vin tried to shake his hair back into position. “Nate, how’s he doin’?” Tanner asked when he was able. “Ezra’s okay, ain’t he? I didn’t hurt him real bad, did I?”
The healer shrugged. “He’s fine. Got a swollen jaw and a pretty good goose egg on his head, but he seems to be seein’ straight and talkin’ sense now. Don’t look like you’ve done any permanent damage to him. Finally got Chris to give him some peace ‘round midnight,” Nathan said with a smile. “I’ll let him go later today, once he catches up on his sleep. Probably didn’t get a wink since you last saw him in Greeley.”
“I’ll go up and check on him,” Vin decided.
“Let him sleep, Vin,” Jackson declared, laying a restraining hand on the tracker’s arm. “He’s plumb tired out and Chris didn’t let him rest much last night. Woke for a bit this mornin’, long enough to order breakfast but not to eat it. You can talk to him later.”
JD shoved his hands deep into his pockets and said, “Seems like a pretty poor way to treat a man who done you a favor.”
Vin, exasperated, spat out, “You’all just don’t understand. That bounty’s on my head. It’s somethin’ that I got to deal with. Never asked no one to step into my place and take it up. He should ‘ave talked to me about it, ‘stead of runnin’ off with his own ideas that might ‘ave gotten ‘im killed.”
“The man does seem to have a problem with tellin’ the truth,” Nathan admitted.
Buck grinned. “Well, that’s just the way Ezra is.”
“I dunno, Buck,” JD put in. “Can’t remember him ever lyin’ to me.”
“Well, he doesn’t always lie outright,” Buck commented. “But he sure has a way of twistin’ things around so you end up thinkin’ he’s said something that’s the plumb opposite of what was truth.”
“Man shouldn’t live like that,” Nathan said, crossing his arms. “Figure he owes his friends the truth at least.”
Vin stepped back and hunched his shoulders, letting them talk. They just didn’t get it. How could Ezra have pulled this stunt on him? He lied. He cheated. He did what he pleased. And, he didn’t understand that Vin wanted no part in that trade? It didn’t make sense that the well-mannered, educated, expensively-dressed southerner could rate himself as something less than a tracker in a beat-up jacket.
Just don’t understand it, Vin thought. Makes no sense a't all.
Yeah, he’d let the fool sleep, but sooner or later the gambler would emerge. Then he’d have a talk with him -- get this all straightened out. He gazed toward the Redbird as if he expected to see the brightly-dressed confidence man amble toward them.
As if on cue, another gambler appeared. Trevor Woollock stepped out of the saloon. He glanced about, and then recognized Vin. With a smile, he strode up the boardwalk until he’d joined the group. “Hey, fellas,” Trevor greeted. “You seen Standish anywhere?” He looked between them, rubbing his hands together. “He’s got that money he owes me and I aim to get it t’day. I’ve waited long enough, I figure, and done all I had to do. You see him anywhere with my money?”
Vin sighed, “Gamblers,” and continued on his way as Nathan related Ezra’s current circumstances to Trevor.
“Ezra,” Vin started as he approached the gambler’s table. It was late in the afternoon. He’d heard that Nathan had released the gambler shortly after lunch, but hadn’t been able to find him until now. Standish did have a tendency to disappear if the mood suited him. Of course, when he wanted to be found -- it was difficult to miss him. The Redbird was an obvious place to look.
Standish, who’d been quietly drinking a mug of beer and idly flipping over cards with one hand, stood abruptly. “Mr. Tanner.”
The tracker winced seeing the swollen and bruised jaw, the tilted head and narrowed eyes -- a sure sign that the cardsharp was suffering a headache. The southerner would get mighty bad headaches from time to time, and Vin had learned to recognize the symptoms. He watched Ezra’s tense movements and saw that Standish kept his hands ready to defend himself.
Damn, Vin thought. After all we’ve done over the past two years, it’s come to this? Used to be friends, now it looks like we’re ‘bout to pummel each other just for breathin’ funny. “I ain’t gonna hit cha,” he sighed with a note of defeat.
“And I, for one, am glad to hear that,” Ezra replied, not changing his position.
“Just want to talk,” Vin explained.
“Very well,” Ezra responded. “If the discussion is the same as yesterday’s, then I would prefer to do it out of doors. I’d rather not have to pay the costs of refurbishing this saloon. I spent far too much the first time.” He shifted his stance like a boxer in a ring. “Shall we adjourn? I’m certain to fare better at this meeting. You will not take me unaware again.”
“Sit down, Ezra,” Vin said as he pulled out a chair. What anger he’d harbored had leached out when he’d seen Ezra’s reaction to him. It was hard to believe that this was the same man who’d sat with him at Dolby’s Crest, taking care of him when his leg was busted up and he couldn’t move. Difficult to conceive that this was the same man that sang carols with him in a ramshackle house on that snowy Christmas, that had patiently helped him with his reading, that had talked with him on the balcony of the Redbird on a starry night. Vin recalled the recent experience of being unable to do anything when Ezra was trapped beneath that stagecoach -- that horrible helpless feeling.
Sort of like now -- sort of how he felt earlier -- helpless and unable to change the situation his friend had ended up in.
“Sorry I hit cha, Ez,” Vin muttered. “It wasn’t my meanin’.”
“Hmmm,” the cardsharp returned. “I guess your fist just slipped.”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that,” Vin said with a sigh.
Ezra kept a careful eye on the tracker, watching as Tanner sat down. Once Vin was settled with his hands on the table, Ezra returned to his seat. “I suppose you have something to say about the incident that occurred in Greeley,” Standish began. His voice had a slurred quality, due to the uncooperative jaw.
“Yeah.” Vin twitched his lips. His voice remained soft as he said, “You should’ve told me. Ya should’ve said it outright that there were bounty hunters in town. Weren’t no cause for tricking me, for lyin’.”
“I did inform you that subterfuge would be involved.”
Vin muttered, “I didn’t think you meant that I was the one you were lyin’ to!”
Ezra shrugged. “I don’t believe that I told you an outright prevarication, Mr. Tanner. I simply omitted elements.”
“Omitted a damn lot.”
“Would you have gone along with my plan if you knew all of the factors involved?”
“Hell no!” Vin shouted. “We could ‘ave figured something out. Maybe you and me could ‘ave just taken on those two guys.”
Ezra took a sip of his beer and then set it carefully before him, his eyes always on Tanner. “There was more than two,” he said offhand.
Vin paled a bit. “Trevor said it was Bailey and Cox looking for me.”
“They were working in concert with the Foley Brothers.”
“Max and Linus?” Vin's hands tightened into fists as Ezra nodded in response. The Foley Brothers were small-time bounty hunters. They were farm hands when it was the season to harvest farm-goods, and they harvested bounties the rest of the time. They’d never been much of a threat to Vin’s income, and weren’t known for being terribly clever -- but had brought in a few bounties over the years -- some alive and some dead.
“Damn it, Ezra. Four of ‘em?” The tracker stood, paced to the door and back to the table. When he swung back, he noted Ezra’s stance-- he was still seated, but his hands were flat on the table as if he were ready to push himself to his feet, to defend himself. Vin growled, “Should ‘ave told me! One man can’t take on four! That makes no sense!”
“Exactly, Mr. Tanner. One man cannot take on four when one plays fairly. But, one slightly-crooked man can cheat his way past four. You recall our first meeting?” The gambler smiled unevenly, one side of his face swollen. “There was more than four in that saloon and I managed to handle them quite handily on my own, using a few simple tricks.”
That’s just another time when I didn’t give him no help, Vin thought, remembering his first contact with the wily conman. We let him get out of that alone -- with one man tryin’ to gouge his eye out and other gonna shoot him in the back. We would ‘ave jumped in if things took a turn, but probably not without ‘im sufferin’ for us bein’ late.
“Damn it, Ezra. This ain’t the same thing. Least you got yourself into that brawl yerself. This wasn’t your fight. Weren’t none of your business.”
“The fact that they were set to bring you to justice…” Ezra made a face as if he’d tasted something bitter. “…made it my business.”
“Hell, we could ‘ave snuck on out of town at night.”
“There were four men actively searching and watching the town for you. We would’ve been located if we waited about too long and wouldn’t have gotten far without some manner of plan.”
“Well, we could ‘ave figured out something sneaky -- together.” He gave Ezra a knowing look. “I could ‘ave just put on your pretty tan jacket and a nice shirt, bought a new hat. If puttin’ on a costume is all it took, we could ‘ave rode out t’gether without you havin’ to put on my stuff.”
“They were looking for you, Mr. Tanner. If you’d just disappeared, do you think they would’ve given up? They knew you were in my company so anyone riding with me would be suspect.”
“Hell,” Vin muttered. “I could ‘ave put on some of your stuff and just rid off alone. Weren’t no need for you to put on my jacket and hat. You could ‘ave put on something else -- a dress even! -- just anythin’ but my stuff. We would ‘ave gotten off clean.”
“But they were looking for you, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra stated. “And, must I repeat, they knew you and I were traveling together. Someone, at some point, would have followed ME if they didn’t have YOU to follow instead.” He rubbed his swollen jaw and closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “I was able to lead them off course for a few days. Meanwhile, your merry chase with Mr. Woollock left a difficult trail for them to attempt if they decided to follow you upon learning of the ruse.”
“I should ‘ave just rode off by myself -- in my own stuff,” Vin grumbled, tired of thinking about disguises and misdirection. “I could ‘ave just rode out and let them try to catch me. Gone off alone so there was no need to put you in danger, too.”
“Ah, you see,” Ezra responded. “That’s the problem right there. Your honesty and integrity would have gotten in the way. Certain to save my life, you would’ve left town on your own to try your luck in outrunning them.”
“Yeah,” Vin said with a nod. “‘Spect that’s how it would ‘ave ended up.”
“And you do understand that I couldn’t let that happen? I had to come up with a plan that would keep you from yourself. If they caught up to you, then your life was forfeit. If they caught up to me, then chances were that they’d let me go.”
“Damn it, Ezra, it was a fool idea! You could’ve gotten killed or hurt or somethin’.” He pounded his fist into the table. “You think I wanted you to get yourself killed on my account?”
Ezra watched the action with raised eyebrows. “I’m not dead, Mr. Tanner. The plan went almost exactly as conceived.”
“Idiot plan,” Vin muttered. “What the hell was your idea? Get me out of the way and then throw yourself at the wolves when I wouldn’t be ‘round to help?”
“I threw myself at no wolves, Mr. Tanner. I had no designs on dyin'. From the moment we parted ways, I did everything possible to remain with the living.”
“What the hell didja do?”
“Well, I suppose I can tell you the tale.” Ezra touched his chin again, manipulating his jaw as he gathered his thoughts. “I engaged Mr. Woollock, as you know. Then, I revealed part of the plan to you.”
“Lied your damn head off, ya mean.”
Ezra waved a hand. “Nothing was an outright lie, Mr. Tanner. I did promise you that you’d be in no danger, which was entirely on the up-and-up. Also, Mr. Woollock was honestly trying my nerves. I did want to be free of him.” He frowned and added, “I suppose I still owe him $50. No doubt he’ll be looking for me.”
At that comment, Vin pulled a fold of money from his pocket and set it onto the table. He said nothing, but his eyes filled with the discontent he’d felt ever since he’d taken the money from the sharp. He pushed it across the table. Ezra eyed the wad for a moment, ran his thumb over his bottom lip thoughtfully, and then picked up the fold and returned it to its proper home. Not a word was spoken during the exchange.
“What happened after you sent me away?” Vin asked quietly. “What’d you do?”
“Well,” Ezra drawled, “I had a bit of an adventure.” He sat back in his seat and smiled. “I remained in the hotel room for some time after your departure, an hour perhaps, to ensure that you and Mr. Woollock had covered some distance. Then I took a quick stroll to the livery to saddle your faithful mount and leave the town, bein’ certain to keep your hat pulled down low. I was able to get somewhat ahead of the gentlemen pursuers. They’d been delayed because some miscreant had damaged their saddles to the extent that they no longer could be used.”
“Funny how things like that happen,” Vin uttered.
Ezra looked baffled. “And it seems that all their horses had overeaten and couldn’t be taken on a hard run. Pity really. Well, once that problem had been overcome -- new horses found and saddles obtained -- I had been able to get some distance away.” He sipped again at his drink. “The rest was simple. Upon reaching the outskirts of Westover late in the day, I found a young man, and I asked him to take a message into town that would be wired onto Four Corners. The note was to assure you and the others that I was well. From there, I continued on toward Regal and set up camp. The Foleys and their friends caught up to me the next morning as I was preparing my breakfast.”
Ezra yawned as Vin sat forward. “What happened?” Tanner demanded.
Ezra continued in a disinterested tone, “I was wearing your preferred uniform. They came at me in an ambush. Cox got a gun up to my head while one of those Foley’s nearly twisted my arm off.” Ezra rolled his shoulder at the memory. His accent changed as he spoke, switching from the lyrical and erudite mix of southern tones that Vin was used to, into a flat, mid-western accent. “They got me down on my knees with my hands b’hind my back b’fore I could say anythin’. When they called me Vin Tanner, I told them my name was Arnold Wickfield. I told ‘em that I was on my way to Regal to get a job on a ranch out that-a-way. They spent part of the mornin’ askin’ me all sorts of questions. They liked askin’.”
“They hurt you any?” Tanner asked, setting his jaw.
“Well, not so much,” Ezra responded. “I figure they only meant to subdue me. The fact that they nearly dislocated my shoulder was probably due to my own poor construction than from their designs.” He smiled and added, “I was unharmed by the encounter.” He winced slightly as he finished, his eyes narrowing further, reminding Vin who had been the one that had driven the gambler’s head into the ground.
Tanner said nothing, lowering his head and listening to Ezra’s tale.
Ezra continued in the odd accent, “I think they were tryin’ to trip me up, as they were askin’ all manner of fool things, but I held my ground and soon they figured that they’d made a mistake, followin’ the wrong fella all day. Made ‘em a bit ornery, I think, but what could be done?” He shrugged.
Shifting his position, Ezra continued, “I packed up my camp and headed out. Then, I met up again with my new friends. Ya see, they hadn’t gone far. They’d waited down the way. Apparently they weren’t as convinced as I thought, ‘cause they followed me, at a distance, all the way to Regal. T’keep up the act, I had to find some poor rancher that might ‘ave been lookin’ for help. They caught up with me again oncest I finished my interview.”
“Yeah, what come of that?” Vin asked since Ezra paused.
“If I tire of my work here in Four Corners,” Ezra said in his usual accent. “I can always return to Regal and begin my position as a cook’s helper.” He smiled as broadly as his damaged mouth would allow, the tilt of his head becoming more pronounced.
“What happened to Bailey, Cox and the Foleys?” Vin asked sharply.
“Oh, they wired Greeley once they reached Regal, undoubtedly, and were told that ‘another’ man matching Vin Tanner’s description left town shortly after they ended their residence. Apparently THAT Vin Tanner was headed toward San Francisco.”
“How’d you arrange that?” Vin asked skeptically.
“Oh,” Ezra said. “Every man has his price. Lucky for me, the telegraph operator in Greeley has low standards.” He sighed. “And one would think that wire operators would stand on higher principles than us mere mortals. The men that disseminate information and form the communication backbone for our nation should behave better than that.”
Vin frowned. “We wired Greeley and nuthin’ was said about two Vin Tanners leavin’ town.”
“Please,” Ezra scoffed. “I’d ensured that he wouldn’t make such a foolish claim to anyone in Four Corners.”
Vin harrumphed, and then asked, “So you come on home after that?”
“On a circuitous route,” Ezra said twirling one finger in the air. “After deferring the offered position at the ranch to a later date, I purchased one of their horses and used that as my mount on the way home, resigning poor Peso to the position of pack animal. He wasn’t pleased, but it was necessary to change to a new horse to complete the charade -- as I had changed my clothing to something a bit more presentable and presumed the role of a surveyor for the railroad. I needed to make a few purchases to complete the act. I doubt if many know what proper surveyor’s gear looks like, but one never knows – one should be as accurate as possible in such circumstances. Now, I’ll need to find a buyer for the equipment and the horse as well. Oh, you may want to give Peso a bath as I had to mark out his blaze.”
“So that’s it? You come on home without any trouble?”
“I was delayed more than I cared to be. I figured they might be looking for Cooks-helper Arnold Wickfield, so I did my best to behave like Surveyor Adrian Deverall. After surveying a certain stretch of open territory, I spent another night on the range. I had no desire to lead them back to you after all I’d done to avoid it.” Ezra closed his eyes and unconsciously rubbed the back of his head.
“You sleep at all while you were out there?” Vin asked pointedly.
“Well, Mr. Tanner. It was necessary to keep on my toes and ensure that the bounty hunters weren’t about to pounce upon me.” He yawned and added, “All in all the plan worked famously. The fact that we both made it back to town in one piece speaks leagues for it.” He carefully touched his bruised chin and winced again. “Of course, my plan didn’t include what might happen upon our rendezvous.”
“That’s just it, Ezra. Ya didn’t stop to think how I’d feel about the whole thing.”
“But, it worked,” Ezra said with a note of finality.
“Ya should ‘ave asked me for my opinion on it. It was my problem.”
“My plan was the right thing to do.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
Ezra folded his hands and said, “We shall never see eye to eye on this matter, Mr. Tanner, so let’s simply end the disagreement here. What’s done is done. We are both still alive and well. Now, are we still friends?”
Vin paused. “I don’t like it when you pull crap like that -- like the time you rode off with Marley’s body, tryin’ to draw fire. Like when you got up on that armored wagon with a bottle of whiskey -- where anyone could ‘ave shot you down. You do stuff like that and then act like it ain’t no problem if you get yourself killed.”
“I haven’t been killed,” Ezra reminded. “As you can see, my plans -- although somewhat alarming in nature -- succeed. We survive."
“But ya risk yerself when there might be other things that’d work.”
“I always measure the odds, Mr. Tanner. I only place my bets when the odds are in my favor.”
Vin said nothing immediately, regarding the conman who seemed to be having trouble even opening his mouth. His eyes were almost closed by this point. “It’s not just a bet you’re riskin'. Yer worth more than ya think. Ya know that, Ezra?”
“And you are, too, Mr. Tanner. Which is why the effort is justified.”
“Not more than you, Ez. You ain’t worth less than me.” Vin leaned across the table.
“Why, Mr. Tanner,” he said, hooking his thumb under his vest. “The very cost of my waistcoat outweighs the amount you spent on your entire outfit.”
“That ain’t what I was gettin’ at.” Vin scowled.
“I know,” Ezra said with a tired smile. “And I understand. Neither of us holds a position of greater value. I am fully aware of that fact. Worth is not an issue here. It’s not as if one can set a dollar value on another’s life.”
Vin furrowed his brow and said softly, “Damn sorry about takin’ that money, Ez.”
“It was a justifiable…”
“No it wasn’t. It was plain meanness on my part.” Vin swallowed. “Wasn’t the act of a friend. I’m sorry I took it.”
“I know,” Ezra responded.
“I fucked up with askin’ for that.”
“It’s not an issue, Mr. Tanner.”
“It sure as hell is an issue, Ezra.” Vin met Ezra’s tired eyes. “Fact that you don’t see it drives me crazy. Hell, you should ‘ave slugged me back in Greeley for even askin’.”
“Forget about it. I led you to believe that such a fee was deserved.”
“No! No it wasn’t.” Vin shook his head in frustration. “Damn it! It wasn’t right. I make ya pay me when you come askin’ for help, and then I go and hit cha, too. Nothin’ I did was right, and I ain’t gonna justify any of it, but ya shouldn’t have lied to me, Ez.”
“But I didn’t,” Ezra responded. “Not really. I chose my words very carefully, sir.”
“Ya led me astray.”
With a shrug, Ezra commented. “Ah, but that’s the sort of man I am. All my training is in the art of deception. It happens without effort. I have never hidden that particular truth. I let everyone know exactly the sort of man I am.”
“You know what you are, Ez? Ya really want to know what you are?”
The gambler looked unsure. “Go ahead,” he suggested. “I’m open to your opinion.”
Vin drew in a breath, not knowing exactly what do say. “I figure you’re a guy that’s been screwed over a few times too many -- so you don’t got your head screwed on quite right anymore. Figure you’re the kinda guy that’d do just about anythin’ for a friend, but you ain’t had many that deserved you.”
Ezra chuckled and shook his head. “Well, I always have gotten what I deserved in the end, Mr. Tanner.”
Vin didn’t let the conman sway him. “You’re a good friend -- a damn good one. One of the best I’ve ever known. Ain’t just anyone that’d do what you done for me. It’s a hell of a shame that no one’s seemed to have noticed that.” He wished for once that Ezra would hear him and would understand. “Figure you haven’t had too many people you could count on in yer life.”
“There’ve been a few,” Ezra admitted slowly. He looked away, rubbing his jaw again as if to keep from saying anything else.
“Well, I’m one of ‘em, Ez. I got to get you to understand that.”
“Okay, then.” Ezra turned to Tanner. “If we’re such good friends, let’s end this argument between us.” Standish extended one hand. “Friends?”
“You understand what that means, Ez? Friends? We don’t pull crap like this on each other.”
“Certainly. I’m in complete understanding.”
Vin accepted the hand and they shook. Tanner wanted to end this matter in any case, to go back to the friendship they’d had before. “You agree that you ain’t gonna do this sorta thing again?”
“Oh, I assure you, I never try the same stunt twice. You’d be expecting it next time.”
“Well, at least I got that much out of you. It’s done. We won’t argue ‘bout it no more, but you’re gonna tell me next time ya get a cravin’ to kill yourself.”
“Ah, but you know I always value my safely above all things,” Ezra said with a sigh. “No more shall be said about this matter.”
“And you’re gonna understand that you and I are friends, right?”
“Of course, Vin.” Ezra stood, and laid a companionly hand on Vin’s arm. “Now, if you forgive me, I believe I shall go have a lie-down. My head is pounding incessantly.”
“Take care of yourself, Ez.”
With a smile, Ezra responded, “I always do.”
No, you don’t, Vin thought as he watched Standish make his way to the back stairs, and then disappear from sight. With a frown, Vin leaned backing his chair, wishing he could just get Ezra to truly believe what he’d said.
Days passed. Weeks passed. A month trailed by. Trevor Woollock stayed in town long enough to get the rest of his money, and then left. Ezra sold off the horse and gear he’d obtained during the charade, gaining a profit -- enough to cover what he’d paid to Woollock. The bruise on his face faded and he stopped squinting against the headache. He suffered no lasting effects from his run in with Vin's fist and the boardwalk.
Chris tried to take Ezra to task for his actions, but ended up laughing about it, and shaking his head at the conman’s audacity. Josiah was more successful in getting ‘Old Testament’ on the card sharp, drawing promises from Ezra that he’d never try that same thing again -- but Vin had already been able to get that particular promise -- for as much good as it’d do. Ezra could always find a new way to skirt his given word.
Buck, JD and Nathan seemed to accept things as they were and pressed no issues.
Life in Four Corners returned to normal.
It was a mild, quiet day when Vin stood on the boardwalk, fingering the cufflink he’d found that morning. It had fallen off of Ezra’s shirt when he’d hastily packed away the disguise on that angry day on the trail. Ezra had asked about it shortly after their return, and Vin had searched, but had come up empty. They decided that it must have been lost along the way. Ezra was obviously disappointed. He’d sent out inquiries to some of the nearby towns, hoping that if someone came upon it, they’d try to sell it immediately. It was personalized, after all, and of little use to anyone unless they had the initials EPS and the need for only one cufflink. “Perhaps a one-armed man named Ernest Pablo Salt has it now,” Ezra had said at one point, shrugging about the loss.
Vin chanced across the piece of gold jewelry as he cleaned out his saddlebag, wedged in a dark corner of the pouch. He’d find the gambler and give it back to him. But, Ezra had been scarce all day and his horse was in the livery. That meant one of two things – either he was sleeping very late -- or he was up on the rooftops again.
Vin noted the arrival of the stagecoach and watched as a big, rough-looking man stepped down. The stranger raked the town with his gaze, obviously intent on something, then spotted Vin and headed toward him.
“Hey!” the man started. “You wouldn’t be that tracker would you?”
Vin regarded the man -- his close, beady eyes, his sweaty face, his tight mouth -- and shrugged. “I do a bit of tracking,” he replied.
“Well I heard about you.” The man snorted. “Don’t know your name, but mine’s Bennett -- Orville Bennett. I’m lookin’ for a fella that’s goin’ by the name of Standish.” He bit off the name. “Last I heard it was Sutton, but now it’s Standish.”
Tanner leaned back against the railing. “Never heard of Sutton,” he responded.
Orville pursed his lips. “What about Standish? You know him?”
“Heard the name,” Tanner replied. “Why you want him?”
The man twitched his nose. “Got a matter to discuss with him -- a family matter.”
“Why you think he’s here?”
“Fella named Woollock told me about Ezra Standish, told me all about a stunt that Standish pulled. Sounds a lot like Ezra Sutton.”
Vin regarded the big sweaty man. Bennett had an intensity to him that set off alarms in the tracker. Everything about him seemed ready to pounce, to attack. Orville barked out his words, his eyes darted around the town as if murderously searching out a conman he knew as Ezra Sutton.
“What sort of trouble you got with him?”
“None of your business,” Orville said with a sneer. “It’s between me, Sutton and my sister! Gotta talk to him ‘bout somethin’ in regard to her.”
So, Vin thought, it’s that kind of trouble. If a girl was in trouble, Vin figured, Standish should do the right thing for her -- but he wasn’t going to let this big thug get to Ezra. No, let Ezra come to a decision on his own. He didn’t need Bennett breaking a bone or two to force it.
“Left town,” Vin lied. “Couple weeks ago. Gone to San Francisco.”
Orville’s face fell. “You kiddin’ me?”
“Nope,” Tanner stated. Then, since he already knew Woollock had provided information, he added, “Trouble with some bounty hunters. Had to go.”
“Bounty hunters,” Orville mumbled. “Figures.” He frowned. “You talk to him a lot?”
“A time or two.”
“He ever mention Gertie? Or Topeka?” Bennett asked leadingly.
“Cain’t say I heard him talk of those,” Vin answered honestly.
“Yeah,” Orville grumbled. “Probably wouldn’t. Not his style is it?”
“Damn, came a long way for nothin’.” Orville jammed his hands into his pockets and scuffed his feet. “Hell!” he finally exclaimed and turned on his heel toward the stagecoach to make arrangements for an early departure.
Vin watched until the horses were swapped out on the coach and the passengers finished milling about and boarded again. The stage went along its way with Orville Bennett, scowling out the window.
After the coach had gone, Vin sought out Standish, finally finding him atop the flat roof of the feed store. “Hey,” Vin called as he scrambled onto the roof through the trapdoor.
“Good day, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said, glancing over his book. “Did the stage have any interesting passengers?”
“Yeah,” Vin responded. “There was one in particular that was interestin’-- a fella named Orville Bennett.”
Ezra set down the book and met Vin’s eyes. “Orville Bennett? You’re certain?” He stood and glanced off in the direction the coach had gone. “A big man with a glandular problem, shifty eyes and less than simpatico disposition?”
“That’d be him.”
Ezra stood taller, as if it would give him a better view over the tops of the buildings. “Orrie Bennett. Imagine that. Here.” He turned to Vin, his eyes full of wonder and a strange sadness. “Imagine that,” he repeated. “Out of the blue, he shows up here.”
“Said he was lookin’ for you, or a man named Sutton,” Vin said as Ezra, with a stunned expression, sat down again. “He talked to Trevor at some point and found out about you livin’ here. Come lookin’. I told ‘im you were long gone. That fool Woollock must be spoutin’ his mouth off somewhere. 'Least he seemed smart enough to keep my name quiet. Weren’t so smart about yours.”
Ezra didn’t look at Vin, as he started twisting at one of his rings. “Orrie Bennett,” he repeated softly.
“Said something about family business and his sister -- Gertie, and Topeka.”
“Gertie,” Ezra said and smiled softly, his eyes grew distant. “Dear Gertie,” he whispered. "My Trudy....my Tru."
“She in some sort of trouble, Ez?”
“Oh, Vin,” Ezra said, his voice solemn and his mouth drawing out in a sad expression. “She’s beyond trouble now.”
Vin watched Ezra’s unconscious movements, how his hand continued to manipulate the simple gold band on his ring finger. Tanner was familiar with the ring. Ezra had a cache of jewelry that he swapped around regularly, some of the pieces were graced with large stones. The flashy stuff, Vin figured, was to draw attention away from what the hands were actually doing. But, the significance of the simple band had long puzzled the tracker. He knew that it rarely left the card sharp’s hand and figured it had to have some sort of a purpose. He understood what it meant now, as he noted his friend’s solemn and lost expression.
Vin said nothing as Ezra kept his gaze on the path the stagecoach had taken.
“Orville isn’t such a bad fellow, you know,” Ezra said softly. “He just comes off poorly, especially when he’s tired, uncomfortable and disappointed.” Ezra shifted his gaze to the ring and held out his hand for a moment to look at it before making a fist and lowering it out of sight. “Like the first time he came to visit us. You should have seen the look on his face.” Ezra smiled again, but his eyes remained sad. “He was disappointed…so disappointed. She deserved much better -- better than a run-down house in the bad part of Topeka, better than the moth-eaten furniture and the borrowed dishes, better than me.”
He sighed and Vin stayed silent, sitting down beside the gambler. He edged over until they were side by side. “We saw him a few times, enough for him to remind me that I wasn’t quite up to grade. But his sister loved him, so he was always welcome. I did my best to live an honest existence, to make her proud, but….times were hard and we never seemed to get ahead. I wasn’t made for honest labor. I’m just not that sort, I suspect.” He pressed his lips tight for a moment. “Orville expressed his opinions of me, but she didn’t listen.”
He stared at a spot on the roof. “She’d just laugh at his words and try to bring him around. She loved to tease him, loved to laugh. She should have listened to him instead. If she only had …” Ezra's voice trailed off, and then he added, “There’s so many things I regret -- so many. She should have run when she had the chance -- should have just run.” He wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “The last time I saw him was after she was gone.”
For a long minute there was silence.
Finally, Ezra took a deep breath. “Orrie was good, you know -- very good to me then. Their father didn’t come. He’d given up on her, though she never deserved it. But Orrie came, and stayed until everything was done. He took care of things. He’s a good man.”
Vin rested one arm over the gambler’s shoulder and drew him close. Neither said anything, gazing out across the rooftops of the town. Ezra sat stiffly while Vin kept him near. Finally, Ezra said in a low voice, “I haven’t seen Orville or their father since then. I figured they preferred I kept my nose out of it, left her in peace.”
“Sorry, Ez,” Vin muttered. “I didn’t know. He looked like trouble. Shouldn’t have sent him off like that. I should ‘ave asked you first.”
“It’s understandable…” Ezra replied flatly.
“Look, we can go after ‘im. We can catch that coach at its next stop.”
“No,” he said softly. “No, it’s better this way.” He nodded as if convincing himself. “It’s better that I just disappeared from their lives. I made a concerted effort to do that five years ago and I shouldn’t give that up now.”
“We could follow,” Vin insisted. “He come all the way out here to find you.”
“And Fate moved him on. It’s best that I let him go on his way. We all must move on with our lives. I’ve done my best to follow that advice.” Ezra pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blotted his eyes, as Vin looked away and blinked, but didn’t remove his arm from the gambler.
Five years ago… Vin thought, realizing that this happened at about the same time that Chris lost his family -- three years before they met up. Funny, how different they both were about it. When he first got to know Chris, Vin could tell that Larabee was a man eaten up with guilt and pain -- a blackness had filled him which was only recently lightening.
If a man were to look at Ezra, all he’d see would be a fast-talking conman, a glib gambler, a cultured southerner, a fun-loving charmer. Conned us all, Ezra, Vin thought.
Tanner tried to keep his gaze from Ezra’s face to provide him some privacy, but from the corners of his eyes he could see the miserable and lost expression. Ezra's face was twisted up as if he was desperately trying not to cry. Vin didn’t know what to say. He never was very good at words, but sometimes silence was the best thing a man could give.
Vin remained silent, his one arm holding Ezra. Ezra closed his eyes and bowed his head and for several minutes, nothing was said. Man should cry, Vin thought -- but Ezra didn’t make a sound.
Finally after the pause, Ezra folded the handkerchief and said, “I apologize, Mr. Tanner.”
“Hell, Ezra, ain’t nothin’ to apologize for,” Vin said, squeezing his shoulder.
Ezra shook his head and moved out from under Vin’s grip. “No my friend, I wish to apologize for my actions of last month.”
Vin was stunned by this comment. Did Ezra finally understand how angry he’d been that the gambler had taken matters into his own hands? He watched as Ezra stood on the rooftop and fussed with his jacket. The tracker put two and two together. Finally, in a low voice, Vin said, “I should ‘ave kept my nose out of your business with Bennett. Sorry about that, Ez. I really am.”
Ezra responded, “No need to feel that way. You were obvious looking out for my well-being and I appreciate that more than you know. It’s good to know that someone’s willin’ to watch my back. Thank you.”
Vin got to his feet. “I never can understand what you’re gettin’ at, Ez.”
“What I’m sayin’ is that there’s no reason for either of us to be upset at each other. We both did what we thought was best for the other. And we’re both fine. What I am apologizing for is that I didn’t understand your point of view before. Now I do.” He nodded. “It won’t happen again.”
“Shake on it?” Vin asked as he extended his hand and they shook on the matter. “So you ain’t gonna go off on some half-assed plan without askin’ my opinion? Ain’t gonna risk yer neck to save mine? Ain’t gonna cheat or lie to me again?”
Ezra shrugged as they released their grip.
Vin ignored the gesture and smiled smugly. “I’ll keep you to that promise.”
“I’ll follow through as long as I feel it’s conscionable,” Ezra added.
Vin shook his head. “Yeah, same here. Long as I feel it’s good for ya.”
As they headed for the trapdoor, Vin said softly, “She must ‘ave been somethin’ special.”
Ezra halted, his eyes again taking on that sad cast. “That, she was,” he whispered.
Vin crouched down by the trap door, holding the handle as he looked at Ezra. “Bet she didn’t think you were no good, that you were a disappointment. Bet she wouldn’t have gone in for any sort of trade concernin’ you.”
Ezra looked away. “She was one of those very rare people that actually made me feel as if I was worth something.”
Dang it, Ezra, Vin thought. That ain’t right. “Bet she would ‘ave knocked ya silly if ya did anythin’ as foolish as what you done back in Greeley.”
“She could be fierce at times,” he said with a sigh. “But she had such a wonderful heart, my Trudy. It was so good to be with her -- so good. Oh, she was rather plain looking and a little plump, and she came from no money, but she was the most beautiful woman in the world.” A wistful smile played across his lips. “She was funny and smart, and never complained -- not once. We had nothing, but we were happy. She made me happy.” He bit his lip and then added, “She’d sing when she cooked or cleaned, and she was always doing silly little things for me. Yes, she was fierce sometimes, but only spoke to me in kindness. And she loved me. Me, of all people.”
Ezra looked to Vin, with a thunderstruck expression. “I can’t quite comprehend it to this day. I had nearly a year in her company. She was so beautiful, especially when she smiled.” Ezra’s gaze returned to his ring, and he rubbed it gently with his right hand. “She was so amazing… perfect. Wish I could see her just once more. Wish I could hear her voice.”
“We can still catch up with her brother if you want.”
Ezra gazed out longingly after the stagecoach. “They laughed the same way, you know -- Orville and Gertrude. If you’d heard Orrie laugh, you’d understand what a good man he was. He has a great deal of kindness in him -- just like her. But it’s too late now.” He wrung his hands, saying in a voice that was almost too low to hear, “Everyone that I’ve ever cared about has left me somehow. I just can’t go through that again.”
Vin froze for a moment, hearing the words that were never meant to reach him. He threw back the trap door. “Come on, we’ll catch him when they stop at Vail for the night. I’ll come along,” he said casually. “I kin watch your back. Heck, I’ll even wear your coat for you so Bennett will be mad at me first. It’s my turn to bite the bullet. I’ll draw his fire, then, I can wander off a bit and letcha jaw a bit. I won’t get in the way at all.”
“It wouldn’t work,” Ezra whispered.
“Sure it would,” Vin replied. “We’ll make it work.”
“No, Vin,” Ezra responded quietly, his face screwed up as if he were in pain. “It’s over. It’s done. She’s gone. Let it be.” With that, he darted down the ladder and disappeared.
remained for a minute longer, as the sound of the gambler’s hurried footsteps
grew further away. “Damn,” he muttered.
It was late in the day when Vin stood outside telegraph office, one hand on the doorknob as he tried to think things through, then he pushed the door open to find the operator at his desk.
“Good Afternoon, Mr. Tanner,” Winston Juje said in an official sounding tone, picking up a pencil. “You looking to send a wire?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tanner said as he sidled up to the desk. “Need it to go to Vail for a Mr. Orville Bennett.”
“Is there one T or two in Bennett?” Winston asked as he licked the lead of the pencil and found the next blank spot on his official notebook. When Vin shook his head to show he didn’t know, Winston wrote what he thought was right. He continued, “Where’s he stayin’ in Vail?”
“Dunno. He just went through on the stage. It’s stoppin’ there for the night. Just gotta make sure Bennett gets it before he heads on in the morning.”
Winston nodded and made the proper notation. “Sender: that would be you?”
Vin nodded again.
“What do you want it to say?”
Vin cleared his throat and gripped the edges of the counter. Keeping his eyes on his hands, he spoke, “ ‘Ezra Sutton found in Skunk Water, STOP. Leaving Tomorrow, STOP. If you’re quick you’ll catch ‘im, STOP’.”
Juje raised an eyebrow as he wrote the note, not asking any questions. A good wire operator said nothing, but remembered everything. “Anything else?” he asked, wondering where this would lead.
“Yeah," Vin responded, keeping his gaze on his hands. “I need you to receive a wire, too”
Juje smiled thinly and said, “I do that all day long, Mr. Tanner. It’s my job.”
“I need you to get one from Skunk Water and say it’s from the guy who runs the general store. What’s his name?”
“Taylor,” Juje responded, narrowing his gaze. “Gerald Taylor.” He quickly reconsidered his pledge to keep his comments to himself. “You’re not askin’ me to fake a message, are you, Mr. Tanner?”
Vin raised his eyes and met Winston’s. “Yeah,” he replied. It wasn’t his practice to lie, let alone bring others into the fabrication, but there were times when one needed to bend the rules.
Juje crossed his arm over his chest. “Mr. Tanner,” he said imperiously. “You’re asking a man who’s sworn an oath to deliver accurate and…”
Tanner raised his hands. “Winston, I’m askin’ a favor.” The wire operator frowned deeply. Vin continued, “Remember a few months ago when you thought your wife had somethin’ goin’ on with Buck?”
Winston grunted, tightening his arms at his chest. It was his turn to look down.
“Remember how you was plannin’ to cause some sort of trouble for him? Send Buck a faked-up wire from a made-up girl in San Antonio?”
With a snort, Winston said, “Never should have confided in you.”
“Naw, you did the right thing when you tol’ me, ‘cause I was the one who set you straight, wasn’t I? Ain’t I the one that tol’ you that Buck’s always talkin’ to ladies that way and that you shouldn’t think nothin’ of it. Nadine is too good a woman to go after the likes of Buck."
“She looked…” he murmured unhappily.
“Every girl looks at Buck. The thing is, she done nothin’.”
Winston grumbled and sucked his teeth, but finally nodded and picked up his pencil again. “I guess since you helped me then, I’ll help you now.” Instead of writing in his notebook, he picked up the message pad. “This isn’t going in anythin’ official,” he said. “If anyone comes back to me, askin’ questions, I’ll deny it all. I’ll say someone took a page or two from the pad, and I had nothing to do with it.”
“I’ll own up when the time comes. Say it was all me.”
“I’m not going to deliver it and neither is anyone in my family.”
“I’ll do that part.”
“What is it then,” Juje muttered.
“It’s to Ezra Standish, from that Mr. Taylor in Skunk Water. It should say, ‘Found gold cufflink initials EPS, STOP. Come to identify, STOP’.”
The operator sucked his teeth again. “What do you got up your sleeve?”
“Best if you don’t know too much,” Vin said as the operator wrote out the note.
Winston held the paper for Tanner. “Heard you and Mr. Standish had a falling out a few weeks ago. He’s one of you lawmen, and I don’t need him gunning for me. You aren’t gonna cause him any trouble with this, are you?” he asked.
“A bit,” Vin admitted. “But it’ll be good for him in the long run and I ‘spect he’ll get over it in time. They got that mineral spring there in Skunk Water in any case. He likes his baths so it won’t be a trip lost. ‘Sides, he probably wants to get away for a bit right now.” He took the illegal paper from the telegraph man and asked, “How much?” as he fiddled with the coins in his pocket.
Juje snorted. “I’m not takin’ anythin’ for this bit of business.” He made an irritated gesture. “I’m gonna get that message to Bennett and then we’d best just forget about all of this.”
Vin nodded, tugging at the brim of his hat. “Thank you,” he stated and left the small office. Juje hastily cleaned the counter before he sent the wire, using a piece of wadded linen against the hard wood, as if the dust might hold a clue to what just went on.
As Tanner walked along the boardwalk he sought the gambler. Fingered the lost cufflink in his pocket, he thought that Ezra really should have a chance to talk to Bennett. Maybe Orville would set him straight on a thing or two. Maybe not. Either way, Vin figured, Ezra needed to see him.
Ezra trusted Bennett, said he was a ‘good man.’ Vin didn’t doubt that. Ezra usually had good judgment about such things. He’d be safe.
He just hoped that Ezra didn’t get too mad with him when he figured out the ruse. Might not like it a’tall, Vin decided. But that’s what friend were for, wasn’t it? Sometimes a man just had to do what was best for his friend and damn the consequences. Sometimes one faced death for helping a friend, and other times just the possibility of anger and distrust. It might take a while to repair the hole. It was a fair trade if it helped the other.
He’d long thought that Ezra didn’t understand how to form a friendship, but he finally realized something with Ezra’s quietly voiced comment. It wasn’t that Ezra couldn’t -- rather he was afraid to -- afraid of what would happen in the end -- afraid he'd get comfortable, happy, and end up alone again.
Vin wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.Vin understood that now. He’d lie and cheat a bit this time for his friend to let him find some sort of closure with Bennett. It wasn’t Tanner’s usual way, but it was right, he figured. It’s what a friend would do. And besides, turnabout was fair play.
THE END -- by
CONTINUE on to An Introduction
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