RATING: PG for language and some violence
Winner of the 2003 Gold Ezzie Award for Old West Fic - General - Medium
The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic
By NotTasha...who needs no introduction.
Two months had passed since Ezra had fooled Vin into switching clothes to escape a band of bounty hunters, and nearly a month since Ezra had returned from Skunkwater to meet up with Orville Bennett. When the con man returned from the trip, he’d found the tracker, expressed his feelings over being conned, and then dismissed the whole episode.
Standish didn’t say much about the meeting. Apparently Bennett had become concerned when he found out that the name his sister was buried under was not the name that was currently employed by her husband. When asked how the situation was resolved, Ezra had shrugged and said, "I guess we both decided to live with it. Sutton or Standish, whether they match or not isn’t the end of the world, is it? Perhaps it's best in the long run." And he said no more on the subject.
And life in Four Corners returned to normal, or at least the semblance of normality. Vin was perceptive enough to note a subtle change. Although Ezra seemed just as friendly as before, something was missing. He was more restrained, less likely to search out Vin’s company, more likely to say absolutely nothing when they conversed. Oh, Standish could talk up a storm, but somehow he didn’t say anything at all. He trusted Vin with none of his thoughts.
Vin didn’t know how to fix it. Ezra had told him that all was forgiven regarding the lie that led him to Skunkwater. The cufflink was returned to seal the deal. Yet still, there seemed an odd distance between them. Ezra had shrugged off apologies from Vin regarding the one-sided fight that left the gambler with a concussion and a swollen jaw. "I should have protected myself better," Standish declared. "And besides, I believe my actions did deserve some recourse on your part. I did, after all, mislead you and a certain amount of trust was broken." All was pardoned.
And yet, Ezra went back to using ‘Mr. Tanner’ far more often than ‘Vin.’ Where Vin had once felt as close as a brother to Ezra, he had again become a mere acquaintance. Someone who would receive a smile and a cheerful greeting, but wouldn’t be brought in any closer than arm’s length. He’d been shunned.
Larabee figured Standish was just carrying a grudge -- give him time and he'll come around -- but Vin was a tracker. He knew how to read signs, how to tell where a man was going, and Ezra was wandering away. Lose track of a man and you’ve might never find him again. Waiting wasn’t going to resolve this. Vin realized that he'd have to be observant and figure out where this trail would lead – try to head it off before his quarry got away.
Vin decided that if he could just get Ezra to go on a ride with him – spend a couple days on the trail – talk a bit – he might be able to fix it. Just got to get him alone where he’ll talk some -- and listen, too. Hopefully Vin would be able to figure out what had gone wrong.
Unfortunately, there'd been little need to send the lawmen out of town on a mission, and Larabee was strangely reluctant to send them anywhere together. The days dragged on as Ezra continued his ways, growing distant and quiet, even as he talked his head off.
The opportunity finally arose when a family needed an escort to Copley. Vin had quickly volunteered himself and Ezra for the job. There’d been hesitation on Chris’ part, but Vin had been able to smooth that over – pointing out that there was little that could happen on the way to Copley and back.
Ezra didn't seem to care one way or the other. He'd shrugged when Vin told him the news and then left to pack. The two made the trip with a man and wife, five children, a cow, a pair of horses, half a dozen dogs, two goats, a raft of chickens and a cock-eyed cat. The boisterous mob left no room for conversation between the two lawmen.
They left the family outside of town, at their homestead, and continued to Copley to find a room in the local hotel. After settling his belongings, Ezra quickly left to try the tables with hardly a word to his roommate. Vin made use of the time and took a nap, hoping that something would be resolved on the way home. Got a long ride in front of us, he thought as he dropped off to sleep. I’ll get somethin’ straightened out.
It was just after midnight when the lock on the door clicked. Vin snapped to attention, and recognized the familiar silhouette of the gambler as he slowly entered the room.
"How’d it go?" Tanner asked the shape, as he stowed his gun.
"I’m sorry, Mr. Tanner," Ezra responded, holstering his own weapon. "I didn’t mean to wake you."
"Cain’t help it," Vin replied. "Part of my trade. I don’t keep sleepin’ when someone comes slinkin’ into my room."
"Ah, something else we have in common." Standish patted his holster. "When I see a weapon, I have a tendency to act."
Tanner leaned over the bedside table and lit the candle. A yellow light flickered and illuminated the downcast gambler. "Didn’t go well?" the tracker asked.
"That’s an understatement." Ezra sighed and sat down on his bed. "Mr. Tanner, since you’re awake…"
"Yeah, what?" Vin started and sat up.
"I have a bit of a… favor… to ask of you."
"It got somethin’ to do with puttin’ on your clothes and leadin’ a greenhorn on a goose-chase?"
Ezra laughed quietly. "No, no, not quite." He pulled off his hat and ran his fingers along the brim. "I’m afraid the favor is only for me this time…only for me."
"I made a less than favorable impression on several of the players," he explained. "I feel that I’d best leave town immediately."
"Run in with some toughs?"
"Yes, I’m afraid so."
"Yes, yes, well…" he sighed. "I played judiciously for most of the game, but during the final hand things became a bit…heated. One of the gentlemen bet far more than he could afford."
"Thought he had a winner and figured you was tryin’ to bluff him?" Vin suggested
"That’s just the point. I won the pot on a bluff with a pair of tens." Ezra returned. "I won a considerable amount, I lightened the pockets of most of the players, cleaned out one of the them and embarrassed him rather excessively." He shook his head woefully. "One must never embarrass another player if one would rather continue the game, but I’m afraid there was nothing I could do about it. He was determined to make an ass out of himself."
"Some folk just cain’t help it."
"Indeed. Well, he and his friends figured that the only way I could possibly have won so much was through the art of deception."
"Not hardly," Ezra huffed in response. "I had played fairly throughout the evening. They played like half-witted amateurs."
"Ah, they were idiots, Ez. Should learn to take their medicine."
Ezra gave Vin a chagrined look. "Unfortunately, their assertions of ‘fraud’ were enough to bring the rest of the house onto their side. I left the table with nothing, giving up even my own stake to assure that I could escape un-perforated."
Vin swung his feet out from under the covers. "Figure we got trouble?"
"I have plenty of trouble," Ezra muttered. "Although the local law let me leave the table, and the rest of the house seemed satisfied with my leaving my winnin’s, I’m afraid those ruffians who lost will not allow me from this town unscathed. I feel it’s best that I leave under cover of night."
"All right then," Vin responded. "We leave now?"
"I need … a favor."
"Okay. What d’ya need?"
"They’re watching the livery. Would you be so kind as to bring the horses out? I could meet you at the well just outside of town."
Vin chuckled. "Long as you’re not leadin’ me astray, I figure I’d do that. You ain’t, are ya?"
"No, Mr. Tanner. I’ve learned my lesson." Ezra rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"On my mother’s grave."
"Ez, we both know…"
"Figure of speech," Ezra cut him off. "I tell you in total honestly, I need to leave town to avoid personal harm." His head was down and he held his hat in his lap as he spoke.
"Ya don’t think it’s worth callin’ those fella’s out?"
"There are four of them, Mr. Tanner, local men. I’m no fool. I know when it’s time to leave the table and find more pleasant surroundings. Sometimes one must simply walk away and leave what one fought for. I value my own life a wee bit more than that pile of cash."
Vin gave him a curious glance, remembering a time at Ella Gaines’ ranch when Ezra had leapt into the middle of a gunfight, searching for a lost diamond, remembering their first meeting when Ezra held off a whole room of unhappy customers. "Figure they’d come after me too if ya started causin' a ruckus?"
"Hard to say," Ezra replied. "With a few inquiries, they'd be able to ascertain I had a traveling companion. They don’t know where I’m from, of that I’m certain. Still, we must be cautious."
Well, that made more sense. Vin figured that Ezra would hang around and try to weasel the money back if he could, but he had a ‘wanted man’ in his company. Probably didn't want to draw too much attention. "Okay, we’ll be goin’ then." The tracker got to his feet and immediately began picking up his belongings. It didn’t take long. He was always ready to move quickly.
"Take this," Ezra said, pressing something into Vin’s hand as the tracker moved past him. "It should make the process easier for you."
Vin smiled and quickly pocketed the small packet; clearly it was peppermints for Ezra’s troublesome horse. "Yeah," he responded. "I’m gonna need it, that’s for sure. Think it's enough?"
There was a short pause, as Ezra turned away to pick up his bags. "Well, it's all I have left."
"I guess it’ll have to do then," Vin responded. "Figure it won’t be worth tryin' without it. A man's gotta have somethin' to work with."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, I know," Ezra said softly,
grabbing onto his belongings.
Vin strode out to the livery. A tough-looking hooligan looked him over as he made his way through the doorway. Vin nodded to him congenially as the sore-loser sneered. Tanner suppressed a laugh, wondering how Ezra managed to cause trouble so easily. Just follows him, he decided.
Hell, Vin thought most the time it hardly seems called for. People just seem to take Standish as an easy target. Gamblers weren't supposed to have folks who’d back them up. They work alone. Strangers tended to see a man of leisure, soft and unused to the wilds of the West, loaded with cash. They figured that there was nobody who’d miss the lone man. Who'd care if something happened to him? Professional gamblers, after all, are little better than thieves. They deserved it, right?
The thought caused Vin to pause as he felt through the darkness. Figure that explains a lot about the way he acts sometimes, Vin considered.
He lit a lamp and traveled into the livery, finding their horses quickly. Peso nickered and stomped, ready for whatever Vin had planned for him. Chaucer tried to sleep. Quickly, quietly, Vin got Peso ready, and then proceeded to Chaucer’s stall.
The chestnut looked at him skeptically and closed his eyes again. "Oh, no you don’t," the tracker muttered. "We’re goin’. Your papa’s lookin’ for ya."
The horse snorted and didn’t open his eyes.
"You’re just as bad as him," Vin muttered. "Ain’t never seen a man an’ horse that liked nappin’ as much as the pair of you." He reached into his pocket. "Figure I got somethin’ that’ll change your mind." He withdrew the paper, expecting the packet that usually held sweets. Instead, the flickering lantern picked up a green hue. Stunned, Tanner stared at the fold of money in his hand.
"Damn," he whispered. "Goddamn it." He counted it quickly, finding over $100 dollars.
He paid me, Vin thought, staring at the money. He paid me off to help him. Chaucer looked on him with an accusing air.
Suddenly it all came clear to him – the reason Ezra had been so distant to him over the past two months. He rubbed his forehead dolefully as he jammed the money back into his pocket.
Damn it! Damn it all!
He was out of the livery in a moment, riding his blazed black
and trailing the chestnut behind him.
He waited, anxiously, at the well. All around him the world was dark. The nearby town shed only a little light as most of its inhabitants were asleep. The moon was half formed, allowing enough light to function by, but not enough to fathom any distance.
"Come on, Ezra," Vin growled. "Get your ass over here so I can get ya straightened out."
He felt that he had to pay me, Vin thought as he held the reins of the horses. Figured I wouldn’t do nothin’ for him without money – and it’s my own fault. I’d made him pay me back Greeley. Why? Well, to figure out how badly he needed my help.
I didn’t need the money, didn’t want it. Only meant to gauge his need – and to play a bit of a joke on him. Well, it came back to bite me, that’s for sure.
Ezra’s always expected this sort of crap out of people. He grew up figuring only money would be comfort to him. He didn’t have very many folks in his life that’d care for him properly, but a pocketful of cash could get you the best of anything.
Probably had to shell out money for the smallest kindness. Then he falls in with us and maybe …just maybe… starts to find out that everything doesn’t come with a price-tag attached. Then I go and screw it all up by makin’ him pay when he comes to me for a favor.
He's figured that I'm no better than the rest of them, that I'll only be a friend if there's gain involved.
Vin squinted, waiting. At least he got it figured now. It could be fixed. "What the hell’s takin’ ya so long?" he whispered. With a careful hand he stroked his horse, wondering how much longer he should wait before heading back to look for the fool.
Something came out of the blackness, the form of a man, running with a curious gait.
"Ezra," Vin hissed.
The man didn’t answer and Vin pulled his mares’ leg, holding it ready as the form came closer. "Halt!’ he ordered, aiming the weapon at the lurching figure. "Stop, I tell ya!"
The form reached him, gasping harshly and nearly collapsed upon him. Vin had to grab at the man to keep him from toppling into the dirt. The fabric of the jacket and the low-crown hat were too damn familiar. "Ezra! What the hell? I was just about to stop waitin’…"
"Stop waiting?" Standish sounded bewildered…hurt.
"Yea, I was gonna get on my horse and…"
"Go," Ezra gasped, just a black shape in the dark. "Go. Gotta go."
Out of the darkness, Tanner could hear the sound of others running toward them. Ezra pushed past him, grabbing the reins of his horse and hoisting himself with a grunt into the saddle. It only took a second for Tanner to pull himself onto Peso.
Men were shouting – obscenities filled the air.
"Where’d that little shit go?"
"There! There! He’s got a horse!"
"That son-of-a-bitch is gettin’ away!"
The two horses took off at a quick trot, across the dark land, as men continued to shout. There were four of them at least … maybe more. It was too dark to be sure.
"That’s right, run!"
"Get the hell out!"
"Ezra," Vin called, hearing the gambler gasp again. Tanner pulled alongside the horseman and regarded him in the moonlight. Standish was hunched, one hand pressed to his stomach. "What happened?"
"In spite of my best intentions…I was unable to make a clean getaway," Ezra responded, closing his eyes. "I’m afraid…one of the miscreants… carried a knife."
"He stick you good?" Vin asked, unable to see well enough to tell. The tracker reached across and grabbed hold of the con man's jacket,
Ezra shook his head. "A scratch… a mere scratch." He attempted to disengage Vin's hands, but the bounty hunter held firm.
"Damn…damn," Vin muttered as Ezra kept a tight hand across his stomach. In the darkness he tried to figure out the extent of the injury. Ezra drew in a sharp breath when Vin ran a hand near the worst of it. His vest was wet and when Vin drew back his hand, he could smell the blood. "Damn it, Ez! How bad?"
"I'll be fine." Standish glanced over his shoulder. "We’d best keep moving."
"They’re on foot. Won’t catch us 'les they go runnin' back for horses. You done anything that'll make 'em keep after us?"
"I don’t believe so," Ezra said with a sigh. "I did nothing that deserved..." He trailed off and then continued, "I believe…they only meant… to teach me a lesson."
Vin pursed his lips. "We gotta get you taken care of."
Ezra nodded, accepting this statement. "If we come across an adequate shelter…"
"Come on," Vin called, knowing of a shack not far from them. They traveled through the dark, Vin anxiously leading the way and Ezra holding on. Finally, they came upon the old structure. Vin kept a close watch on his companion as Ezra bent over in his saddle. Standish was breathing raggedly by the time they stopped, clinging to Chaucer for all he was worth.
"Ez," Vin called, dismounting immediately and coming to the con man’s side. "Ez?"
"We here?" Ezra asked, his voice soft and weak.
"Yeah, we’re here." Tanner reached up for the gambler. "Let’s get you down."
Ezra nodded dumbly and nearly fell on Vin as he attempted to disengage himself from the saddle.
"Damn it!" Vin shouted as he did his best to keep Ezra from hitting the ground. It took a second to find his balance and get Ezra steady on his feet. Standish leaned heavily on him, gasping, and clinging tightly to his buckskin jacket with one hand. Ezra sagged, his eyes closing.
"Ezra?" Vin lightly slapped his face. "You with me?"
"Just a scratch…" Ezra murmured
"Yeah, just a little bitty ol’ scratch," the tracker muttered.
He dragged Ezra to the little building, kicked open the door and settled Standish onto the dirt floor. A quick summation let him know that Ezra was still breathing, still conscious enough to keep one hand firmly on his stomach. He patted the gambler reassuringly on the knee.
"Gonna get a fire started so I can see what’s going on," Vin stated as he moved toward the wood stove. "You gonna hang on a bit longer?"
"Hanging on," Ezra echoed, resting his head against the wall as he sat on the floor. "I have no intention of losing my grip."
"Well, keep it that way." Vin grimaced as he searched for something to burn, finally busting apart a crate with an angry kick. "I'll be right there, Ez. I’ll get you checked."
"Sure," Ezra said, his voice becoming a quiet slur.
The tracker quickly shoved the bits of wood into the stove and lit it. The grate would allow enough light to see by and the flame quickly came to life. "You still with me, Ez?" Vin asked.
"Still here," Ezra responded. Vin could hear the gambler moving behind him. "Lord, I wish I wasn’t. What is this place?"
"Well, it ain’t as ritzy as you’ll find in town. Not as good as that room we gave up. Hell, ain’t even as nice as my wagon. But it’s snug." The fire burning, he shifted back to the gambler.
Ezra had slipped from his sitting position and was curled up on his side, his back pressed against the wall, looking pale and pained. He trembled.
Vin squatted next to the shivering conman. God, he looked bad. "Gotta see it, Ez," he said softly, clasping at Ezra’s wrist. His shirt-front was dark with blood. "Gonna let go?"
Ezra nodded and -- almost apologetically -- let Tanner pull the hand away, revealing the torn and blood-soaked vest. Quickly, Vin rolled Ezra onto his back and undid the buttons, pulling back the ruined garments. He winced when he saw the nasty-looking wound, a long slice along Ezra’s abdomen.
"Bad?" Ezra asked, his eyes tightly closed.
Vin grabbed some cloth from his bag, pressing it against he still-oozing cut. Ezra hissed in response.
"You’ll live," Tanner declared, thinking, if I don't screw up and if he don't get a god-awful fever and his guts didn't get all sliced up and if he didn't already lose too much blood.
Tanner pulled back the cloth for a moment to examine the wound. "Don’t think it’s too deep," he stated. "Cain't say that anything vital got cut -- just a long son-of-a-bitch. Ya lost a lot of this red stuff so we gotta be sure t' keep the rest inside ya."
"I’m in con…currence," Ezra replied haltingly, his hands clawing at the earth beneath him as Vin returned the pressure.
"You still got that sewing kit?"
Ezra glanced up at him, his green-eyes gleaming, before squeezing his eyes shut once more. "Lord, must you?"
"’Les you want to lose your innards, we’d better get ya stitched."
"Whiskey!" Ezra demanded in an explosive exhale.
One-handedly, Vin pulled a bottle from his bag, yanked the cork with his teeth and pressed it into Ezra’s bloody hand.
Ezra took a gulp and sputtered, eyes open again. "This is…unconscionable. Rotgut?" Ezra held the bottle up so that he could see the label. Finding none, he frowned. "The least you could do… was locate my own…"
"Yeah," Vin consented, "But I figure I’ll make use of that later once yer sleepin’." Honestly, he didn’t want to release his grip on the makeshift bandage. The wound looked ugly and the sooner he stopped the bleeding the better. The flask in Ezra’s jacket was close at hand, but Standish had ended up half-laying on the pocket where it was hidden. Tanner saw no need in trying to shift Ezra over just to find a smoother blend.
Ezra sucked back again on the bottle. "Gah!" was all he was able to get out as Vin increased his pressure.
"Just a couple more seconds, Ez," Vin reassured,
watching as Ezra’s free hand fluttered like a bird at his side. "It'll be
Vin nervously wiped his hands off as Ezra tried to even out his breathing. "Ya still with me, Ez?" Vin asked expectantly.
"Managing," Ezra murmured and tipped back the nearly empty bottle. Most of the alcohol had been used to clean the wound, but the rest had proved to be an acceptable analgesic. "Better by the moment." Standish smiled at Vin, his eyes dimmed with a mild drunkenness and a less-than-mild pain.
"I think the stitchin’ will hold. Not as good as Nate’s, but should keep you from leakin’." Vin ran the bloody needle along his pant leg and then carefully placed it back into the sewing kit and shoved it into Ezra's pack.
God, he hated doing that work, sewing a man's skin back together, causing more hurt -- but at least the cut had been a clean one. The knife must have been razor sharp.
"My thanks," Ezra responded, emptying the bottle.
Vin sat back on his heels, and rested one hand on Ezra’s shoulder. "Try to get some rest, okay?" He carefully took the bottle from the gambler, and then handed him a cloth to clean up the blood that had dried onto his hands.
"Thank you," Ezra murmured.
Vin grunted in response. Ezra still felt so cold to the touch. At least there'd be no more bleeding and maybe the gambler would stand a chance. Tanner looked about at their supplies. They weren't set up for an overnight journey. Both were trail-smart enough to always bring what they needed to spend a night out, but he'd used up all their spare cloth. They had only trail rations for food and Ezra was going to need something nourishing. He could hunt, but, only Ezra's flask was left for alcohol. If the wound started to go putrid, they'd need more.
"Tomorrow," Vin decided. "I’ll go back to Copley and get some help."
Ezra laughed wryly, the whiskey making him gay. "I doubt you’ll find any." He handed the rag back to Vin and lay one hand over his bandaged torso and winced. "It seems that my kind are unwanted there. They made that more than clear. Mention my name in those environs and you're certain to bring about a response. You may be introduced to more than just a knife."
"What the hell happened, Ez?" Vin picked up a blanket and lay it over the southerner, hoping to still the shivering that hadn’t left him. "You weren't tryin' to pull somethin' on me, were ya? Lettin' yourself get hurt on my account."
Ezra snorted. "Hardly! I was trying to save my own skin, and ended up losing some in the process. I had a fairly decent plan in mind. I only had to slip past them in the night. A child could have performed that task."
"So what went wrong?"
A half-smile touched his lips as his eyes closed. "I had maneuvered past most of the Neanderthals unseen. They were intent on watching the livery and main street, not knowing that I might attempt to leave the town without my horse, not realizing that I might try an alleyway. Unfortunately, one must have been lost and stationed himself near the far end of town. A man named Turk, if memory serves." He drew in a quaking breath. "A bit of fisticuffs followed. I believe I may have caught him once in the eye, but …before I knew what had happened… my shirt was rent."
"Well, good thing you didn’t let him catch ya any deeper."
Standish grimaced and added, "I was barely able to get clear of the man. He seemed … determined to make his mark. But, when he saw my gun…suddenly he lost his nerve."
"Why didn't cha just shoot him?"
"I'd rather take my chances on foot than at the end of a hangman's noose or by the hands of a mob of vigilantes."
"Would 'ave been self-defense."
"You tell that to the locals."
"Well, good thing you managed t'get away."
Ezra’s voice was slower and softer as he continued, "Luckily he was not fleet of foot. He rallied his friends to his side." He sighed deeply. "I managed to evade them… and make my escape to where I asked you to wait." His hand found its way free of the blanket and hovered in the air above him.
Vin caught the hand and clasped it, feeling the chill again, the subtle tremble.
"Thank you, my friend," Ezra whispered. "I know it was a temptation."
"What're you talkin' about?"
"I understand why you'd want to go. Thank you …for waiting."
Vin felt the cool hand go limp in his grip as Ezra succumbed
to sleep. Tanner swore at himself, remembering that he'd told Ezra that he'd
nearly given up waiting, and then he swore at Ezra for misunderstanding.
Vin cared for the horses quickly and efficiently, finding a lean-to at the back of the shack to shelter them. There was no hay, but they’d eaten well in town. Later there’d be time for grazing.
Vin mulled over what Ezra had just said – there’d been doubt – Ezra had thanked him for waiting – as if he harbored the fear that his friend would be gone when he most needed him. He frowned, imagining Ezra stabbed and running through the dark, unsure if anyone would be there to help.
Ain’t never gonna get it fixed in his head, the tracker complained to himself. What’s the matter with that son-of-a-bitch? Doesn't have a clue about what it's like to trust people…to count on them.
After finishing with the horses, he hurried back into the shack, to find Ezra awake again and staring at the battered ceiling. The southerner moved his lips as if he’d been speaking to someone and jerked his head toward the door when Vin entered.
Vin grimaced. "Ain’t you drunk enough for sleep?" he asked.
"I’m afraid the…discomfort…surpasses the effects of alcohol," Ezra said dreamily. "I’m rather sober."
Vin sat down with a sigh beside the gambler, noting his distant eyes and his pale skin. "Yeah, sober as a judge."
Ezra grinned lob-sidedly. "You’d be surprised…" he responded. "The judges I have known are not the most lucid among us."
"Ezra, we gotta talk," Vin started.
"Please, Mr. Tanner…" Ezra started and paused. "I really am not up for a conversation… at this moment. As you have noted… I’m somewhat inebriated. And you know through experience… that I am not right-minded in this state. Forgive me."
"Inebriated, yeah." It was the wrong time to say anything important, but maybe a good time to ask a few questions. Who knows what the gambler would let slip by. "Can I ask ya some questions?"
"Ask if you wish," Ezra stated. "I might not …be able to find an answer."
"Well, when you came back from Skunkwater you told me that Bennett was bothered that you got a different last name then the one he got his sister buried under. You said that it might be better that way. Why'd you say that?"
Ezra let out a long sigh. "Too tired, Mr. Tanner."
"Just takes a second to answer."
"Not up to it."
"It's the only one I'll ask ya tonight. I'll letcha be if you answer."
Closing his eyes, Ezra grimaced and said, "She deserved a better fate than to be linked eternally with me."
"Please," the gambler whispered, low and weak. "No more." There was a catch in his voice. "I can't." He raised a hand to stall him.
"I just need to tell ya somethin’."
"Perhaps you could read instead?" Ezra contrived. "It would prove… calming." The raised hand fell onto Vin’s knee. "I need 'calm' at the moment. Talk later, when I’m up to responding."
Vin regarded Ezra skeptically. He knew that Ezra had a way of diverting conversation when he wanted to be left alone, and he could see that the gambler was having trouble staying awake. His voice was too soft and slurred with sleep. The cut was bad, but had been treated. The stitching would keep it closed, but he'd already lost a lot of blood. What Standish really needed at the moment was sleep. If Vin were to get anything through Ezra's head, the con man would have to be awake enough to understand him.
They’d talk later. "Okay, I'll read. You got anythin'?"
"Do you still carry that book, Travels in South America?" Ezra withdrew his hand from Vin’s leg, bringing it back under the warmth of the blanket.
"Yeah," Vin admitted. "Figured you were tired of that one though."
"I find it strangely appealing."
"’Spect I could read it a bit. Mighty familiar with it if nothin’ else." Vin reached for his bag and pulled the battered book from the bottom. "Where do you want me to start?"
"Perhaps the beginning?"
Vin nodded and thumbed past the first pages. "It has stuff about the Indians here…"
"No," Ezra said softly, watching Vin through slitted eyes. "Begin at the beginning -- first few pages."
"These first pages? It ain’t got much to do with South America," Vin explained. "It’s called an ‘Introduction’ and it ain’t too exciting."
"Please," Ezra whispered. "I’d like to hear…"
Vin gave the pale face a glance and then sighed. Blood was matted into his hair from when Ezra had run his hand across his head while Vin was stitching him, giving him a macabre look. He’s gonna want that cleaned off, Vin figured. Well, that’ll wait.
Tanner found the first page and started to read by the light of the wood stove:
"It is my pleasure to comply with the suggestion of my good friend, Mr. Harry W. Stanton, and write the introduction to his interesting and instructive work."
Reading never came easily for the tracker. He had to fight and force his way through anything. It took him twice as long as anyone else to finish anything. Determinedly he attacked the words and forced his way through the paragraph.
It was through my insistence that he began his adventure in South America. Many long nights in my warm library were spent in discussion of this area, and proved to be the impetus that compelled him into traveling togs and into places unknown. Without my urging, he never would have left home."
With a glance, Vin checked to see if Ezra was listening. There was a slight crook to the corners of the gambler’s lips and he seemed to be resting easier. Standish just liked hearing people talk – as long as they weren’t trying to confront him with anything.
"Hey, Ez," Vin said softly. "The fella who wrote this part got his friend, Harry, interested in South America -- sorta like you got me interested in readin’ about it."
"A wise man. Does he have a name?"
"No, Stanton wrote the book. The Introduction was… written by another." Ezra paused and licked his lips. "Perhaps…it's noted somewhere near the top of the page?"
Vin scrutinized the book. "Ah, I think it’s Hun Gordon G. Barlow."
Ezra softly voiced, "Hun?"
Vin pointed to the book. "Says his name was Hun…H.O.N."
"Hmmm," Ezra pondered and then smiled. "As in ‘Honorable’?"
"Heck, Ezra. This man thinks he’s so honorable he’s gotta put it right there by his name? That kinda stinks."
After a restrained chuckle, Ezra replied, "I suspect he’s a judge. Just like the Honorable Judge Travis. It’s an official appellation for the profession."
Vin snorted. "I always figured you were just yankin’ Travis’ chain when you called him that."
Ezra returned, "I'd prefer to keep the judge's name off my list of adversaries."
"You got a lot of names on that list?"
"That's part of the reason I keep changing my own." His gaze met Vin's. "It might prove to be a good choice for you as well. A change of names might make life easier."
"Hell," Vin stated. "I'm a 'Tanner' and proud of it!" He leaned closer to the gambler and asked quietly, "You got a real name?"
Ezra smiled sadly and said, "Not as such." When Vin gave him a puzzled look in response, he waved a hand and said, "But perhaps Ezra Standish would suffice?"
Vin shrugged. "It's how I know ya, so I guess it's good enough."
"Ah yes, well then it's more than acceptable." Standish shifted slightly, stopping immediately with a gasp.
"Keep still, will ya?" Vin chastised, leaning over the gambler and helping him to find a comfortable position. "That better?"
"Much. Thank you." He winced.
"Gonna be okay?"
"Of course. Little more than a scratch…"
"Mighty big for a scratch." Vin shook his head, and lay a calming hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Seen cougars scratch like that. Ya gonna fall asleep?"
"Eventually." Standish paused and added, "Continue, please. Your reading helps."
Vin sighed, and picked up the book again.
Honorable Gordon G. Barlow was longwinded. Vin yawned as he settled in beside the gambler. He tried stopping more than once, but Ezra’s eyes would flutter and he’d partially awake, only to fall asleep when Vin continued his reading.
Likes to listen to folk, Vin thought as he continued reading aloud. The Introduction was mainly concerned with how Barlow and Stanton had met. Barlow had been the scholar and Stanton an adventurer when they’d both been young men. They’d had little in common outside of their interest in ‘unknown places’. In the introduction, Barlow gloated on how he’d stoked the fires that sent Stanton on a trek through South America -- to see the Amazon and the Andes, to sleep on the Pampas, to travel across Panama and see the Atlantic and the Pacific within the course of a few days, and spend years in journey to Tierra del Fuego.
"He traveled for ten years, leaving behind the comforts of home, forsaking our debates and discussions for the wilds, leaving his lovely and capable wife to manage his estate. His children grew up without him, replaced by a doting Uncle Gordon. Constantly, he promised me that he was working on a catalog of the places he’d seen and yet I saw no proof of it. He kept traveling. How I envied him."
Ezra coughed softly and Vin paused, watching. His hand touched the canteen, ready to provide it if Ezra should awaken further, but he stilled.
Tanner took a moment to check for any signs of fever, to make certain that the wound wasn't bleeding through the bandage. He moved slowly and carefully, as if he was facing some wild creature that might snap to life if he made a wrong move.
Ezra started to stir, murmuring quietly and moving his hands as Vin replaced the blanket.
"S'alright, Ez," Vin spoke softly. "Hang on a bit and I'll get back to the readin'. Just wanted to check you. Make sure yer okay."
As far as he could tell, Standish was doing well. The stitches would hold. Keep him still and quiet for a bit, and he'll be fine. Vin gave him a friendly pat and sat back to continue his reading:
"When my dear friend, Harry, returned from his travels, grinning at my doorstep, I hardly recognized him. He’d grown leaner and older in the years that separated us. His hair was longer, yet thinner, and he’d gained a scar or two. I thought he was some gypsy come to peddle wares at my doorstep, or perhaps a wild-man escaped from an institution. I did not know him. Yet, he stepped forward and presented himself, saying ‘Let me introduce myself, I’m Harry Stanton – explorer and adventurer…and friend to Gordon Barlow.’ I laughed for joy of his returning. He handed me the rough copy of the book you now hold in your hands and told me that he’d finished the work that I had so doggedly forced him to pursue.
Ezra muttered again, incomprehensible and quiet, but not seeming to wake any further. Vin waited, making sure he needed nothing before he picked up the book again.
He’s witnessed the things I’ve only dreamed of, and brought to life the places I’ll never see with my own eyes. I have enjoyed this book immensely, and hope you find some degree of delight from it as well. Tread warily, as you are about to travel to places you never realized existed, Be prepared to find more than you thought imaginable.
Vin stared down on the completed page, wondering what he should do next.
It was getting late. Reading these few pages had taken the tracker much longer than he'd anticipated, plus there'd been the constant stops as Ezra fitfully tried to reposition himself. "Ain't gonna make it any better," Vin had whispered to him. "Gonna hurt no matter how ya sit, so you'd best just keep still." Or "Don't worry none. I'm here. I'll watch out." And that had been enough to quiet the con man.
In the lonesome shack, Vin listened to the fire pop and to Ezra's deep breathing. Nearby was a pile of Ezra's bloodstained clothing. God, there was probably more blood outside him than in him at that moment. Hopefully it would only take some time and he'd be okay. Vin lay a hand across Ezra's forehead, looking again for fever, making sure he wasn't getting sick. He was a bit too warm.
"Ya ain't gonna get sick," Vin told him. "Ya hear me? You're gonna be fine. Yeah, you'll be up and walkin' around in no time. You can count on that."
Ezra didn't stir under the weight of Vin's hand, finally getting some real rest.
"Don't think I could stand it if ya got yourself killed. I'd miss your weaseley, conniving face." Vin moved his hand, brushing back the blood-stiffened patch at the side of Ezra's head. He frowned, knowing that Ezra would hate it, but not wanting to wake him by messing with it just then.
"Scared the shit out of me when you fell on me back by the well. Weren't too happy when I saw all that blood and what you got done to yourself." Vin bit his lip and reiterated, "I mean, what that son-of-a-bitch done to you with no cause."
He felt an anger building in him at that thought. "Had no right to take a knife to you. Bastard's got a lesson or two comin' to him."
"What kinda profession you got anyway, Ez?" he asked the unresponsive man. "I mean you put out your money and work all night to get nothin' out of it besides of a knife to the gut."
He grimaced. "Wish I could 'ave been there to help instead of waitin' outside of town."
Vin sighed as he remembered the money in his pocket. "Sorry, Ez," he said quietly. "Sorry about takin' your money in Greeley. Wish I'd just said, 'yup' when you come to me askin' for that ass-backward-favor of yours, 'stead of makin' ya pay for riskin' your neck. Wish I could change it somehow."
He waited again, patiently, to see if Ezra would wake, but he had slipped into a deep sleep.
The book still lay open across his lap. Vin turned the page, to reveal the Dedication, another part of the book he’d previously ignored from lack of interest. There, he read the following inscription out loud:
I, Harry W. Stanton, dedicate this book to my good friend, the Honorable Gordon Barlow. I say with all honesty, that none of this would have been written without him. I owe him so much. He reminds me that dear friends are worth more than gold or jewels. Thank you, Gordon, for believing in me.
It was late. Ezra was obviously asleep. Nothing more needed to be read that night. With a sigh, Vin set the book aside.
"Sorry that you felt you had to give me money so that I'd
help you today," he said softly before he stretched out beside the gambler
and tried to get some sleep. "Sorry 'bout what happened in town. We'll get
this fixed somehow."
"Hey," Vin said, gently shaking the gambler's shoulder.
Ezra came awake, bleary eyed and confused. He blinked, tried to stretch and groaned in pain as he remembered his current state.
"Be better if you didn't move on your own."
"Agreed," Ezra voiced.
"How ya doin'?"
"Better," Ezra blinked at the face above him, illuminated by the afternoon light.
"Ya look better. Seems you rested well enough once you let yourself sleep. Figured ya would ‘ave slept for another day if I let ya." The gambler had slept deeply as Vin waited. Thankfully it seemed to do Ezra a world of good. He woke up looking much better than the night before.
He'd listened to the quiet murmurings of the southerner. Sometimes he seemed to be recalling entire poker games, or lists of numbers, bits and pieces of conversions, poetry and the lyrics of songs. Vin wasn't able to understand much of what was said, but often he caught a sad longing, a loneliness to the otherwise indiscernible words.
"Figured you needed some rest."
"Well, I hardly feel refreshed." Ezra grimaced. "In fact, I feel rather like a rabbit that had been run to ground and skinned."
"Figured as much," Vin commented. "Let's get ya up."
Ezra grunted and sucked in his breath when Vin helped him sit, and thanked the tracker as he was handed a canteen.
Vin lay a hand across Ezra's forehead as the gambler took a drink. "Ya still got a bit of a fever." Ezra flinched out of his grip, more for show than anything. "Been givin' me some pause, but don't seem to be gettin' worse. I 'spect I saved ya from any infection." A glance to the bandage told Vin that nothing had sprung a leak during the night.
"Hmmm," Ezra replied as he drank greedily, and then added as he lowered the canteen. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I believe I owe you my life… again."
"Well, I figure we'd best not keep score on that account."
"Wise thinking," Ezra responded, thinking , I'd have much to answer for if that was the case. He furrowed his brow as he took in Vin's appearance. "Are you leaving?"
The tracker wore his jacket and hat, his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. He adjusted the bag and said, "We ain't got enough supplies. I figure I'd head back to Copley and get stocked up."
Ezra made a face at the mention of the town's name. "Delightful place." He looked speculative and said, "I would think that we’d be able to manage without that journey. Your skills at ‘roughing it’ certainly aren’t lacking. Is there truly a need to return?"
"We’re outta whiskey. I drank what you had in your flask while you were sleepin’."
For that, Tanner earned an evil look.
Vin continued, "I gotta send a message on home and let 'em know we'll be a bit late."
Ezra sighed and stated, "That would probably be for the best. I imagine that Mr. Larabee may be in an unsatisfactory state by this time."
"Yeah," Vin agreed. "Bet that vein if his forehead is throbbin' like crazy."
"No need to alarm them concerning my condition. I'm feeling considerably better this morning. Please, save me from Nathan's ire."
"Figure I could do that," Vin said with a shrug. "Make it sound like you got nicked while you were sharpening your razor."
Ezra smiled. "I'll be ready to ride tomorrow morning, no doubt. I'd consider even starting tonight, but I doubt that we'd get very far."
"I'll let 'em know we'll be back tomorrow," Vin nodded, accepting this plan of action. "Well, I'd better get goin' then. You gotta piss or anything? I can give ya a hand out of here before I ride out. Be gone for a while."
Ezra made another face, which Vin took as an affirmative. The tracker grinned. "Come on, big guy. Let's get cha to yer feet. Don't want you to split yerself open."
"Lord," Ezra grumbled. "The humiliation of it all…" He ran his hands through his hair, as if it mattered that he be presentable before leaving the shack. His hand glanced upon the blood-stiffened section, and he frowned. "I’ll need a brush."
"You can pretty yourself up while I’m gone. Give ya somethin’ to do, ‘cause I ain’t got time to wait for ya to get pretty."
"Ah! I'll need clothing," Ezra said, sounding alarmed at his state.
Vin chuckled, not heeding him, glad to hear that he sounded fairly strong and was able to be annoyed at all this. "You gonna be okay while I'm gone?"
"Certainly," Ezra responded and then glanced to the tracker. "How much trouble to you suppose I could get into on my own?"
Vin laughed and refused to answer.
Ezra continued, cocking his head, "Be careful. They're less than amiable in that town, as I've discovered. Don't do anything stupid."
"Stupid? Not me," Vin replied as he assisted Ezra to
his feet. "Sounds more like you."
After he stowed the new supplies in his saddlebags, Vin tied Peso to the hitching post outside of Copley’s largest saloon. He strode in with determined steps and greeted the bartender. "I'm lookin' for a man named ‘Turk’," he said in a voice loud enough to be heard by those nearby.
There was a nervous rustle and a big man with a think mustache, an olive complexion and a black eye responded, "You found him."
With dangerous slowness, Tanner turned toward him. His eyes narrowed and he moved through the afternoon crowd until he stood before the man in question.
"You got a problem?" Turk questioned with a sneer.
"You knifed a man last night," Vin stated.
Turk laughed, showing a mouth full of gold teeth. "That gambler? Yeah, I 'spect I did." He watched the tracker carefully, waiting for some sort of response. Tanner only glared back at him. Patrons in the bar drew back. Turk chortled, and continued, "He spent all night laughin' and chattin' away with the rest of us like he was our closest friend. Then he cheated us out of our pay. Deserved what he got."
"Cheated ya, huh?" Vin replied darkly. "Maybe you just didn't know how to play worth shit."
Turk growled audibly. "That little prick tried to take what was mine!"
"So you took what he won fair and square -- took everything. He gave it up so there'd be no trouble. Then met him in the street when he was tryin' to leave town."
Turk made a dismissive gesture. "He weren't nothin' but one of those stinkin' con men. They come through this place and think they can take everything we got. Bastard thought he was better than us. I showed him though." He grinned again, the gold in his mouth was dulled and the remaining teeth were rotten. "Wish I would'a gotten that knife in a bit deeper, but he was as slick as any of 'em and got away from me. Then he pulled that gun from his sleeve. Typical. They always cheat."
The big dark man paid no heed to the tracker, but others in the room backed further away, seeing the simmering rage in the longhaired and compact stranger. There'd be trouble today -- and it looked like Turk would find most of it.
"You should 'ave seen the look on his face when I got him. Looked like he got a big surprise!" Turk sucked his teeth thoughtfully. "If I'd killed 'im in the street it wouldn't have made no difference. One less sharp in the world to plague us," Turk said, with a chuckle. "No one would 'ave given a shit if that bastard got his guts dumped in the dirt. Probably no one would have even slowed down to check on 'im, see if he was breathin' still. Nobody would 'ave cared."
It was as if a stick of dynamite had gone off in the room. One moment, Turk was rattling off like a moron, with Vin Tanner standing before him, tensed and still. In the next second, the saloon was in an uproar. The patrons leaped away in mortal fear as Tanner flew at the bigger man.
Horace Grace (also known as Turk) was thrown into a nearby table by the blow. His landing launched the table and all its contents across the room. People yelled and shouted, trying to avoid the missiles, and more tables were overturned, glassware smashed. Bar patrons tripped over each other as they scurried to safety.
Before Horace could realize what had happened, Vin was on him again. Tanner got in four solid hits to one from Horace. Turk spun and managed to finally break free, crawling through the broken furniture and spilled beer. The sound of a rifle being cocked stopped him.
"Don't move," Vin stated coldly, looking down the sights of the mare's leg.
Turk froze. "I give! I give!" he moaned, holding up his hands in defeat. His nose was bleeding and his lips split. Both of his eyes would be swollen shut before too long. "Please, don't hurt me!"
"Give me a reason!" Vin kept his aim. "He was trying to leave town, you bastard! Didn't want any trouble! What right did you have? What right?"
"I didn't think anyone would care," the whimpering Turk gibbered.
"I want the money," Vin stated. "All of it. I want what he won."
"I…I…I…" Turk held up his hands. "I only got some of it. We split it up… me and the boys."
"Get it all," Vin ordered.
Trying to look as innocuous as possible, making obsequious gestures, Turk pulled a wallet from his pocket. "Toad, Bubba and Stinky got the rest."
"Better tell 'em to give it up," Vin declared. "Elsewise they might get the job of mopping up the mess after I'm done with ya. Brain ain't easy to get out of fabric." He jerked his head at the curtains behind Turk.
"Guys?" Turk tried, looking around the room in distress.
Elsewhere in the room, someone shuffled. Vin changed his aim, drawing in the three men that made their way toward him. "All of it," Vin stated. "On the bar."
Stinky grabbed the cash that Horace held in his trembling hand, and took another wad from his own wallet. He placed the cash on the bar. Toad and Bubba included more.
"Get over by this one!" Vin demanded and then backed toward the bar as the three men complied, slinking toward Turk. "Get on your knees. Don’t want no trouble from you." They did as they were told.
The other patrons of the bar watched in silence. Their expressions were frightened, stunned and some seemed a little happy, too.
Without looking behind him, Vin grabbed the money and shoved it into his pocket.
"Don't you ever hurt any of my friends again," Vin growled at the four as they cowered on the floor. "If you do, I'll come back and shoot your goddamn heads off."
Turk gulped. Toad and Bubba cowered. Stinky did something disgusting that probably had earned him his name.
As Vin backed toward the door, Horace asked in a high voice, "Who the hell are you?"
Vin cocked his head, and regarded them. The whole room was focused on him, waiting for a response. The wanted-man smiled and introduced himself, "I'm Ezra's friend."
And then he backed through the doors and was gone.
"You doin' okay?" Vin asked as he glanced across to Ezra.
The southerner nodded. He rode stiffly, one arm across his stomach and the other on the saddle-horn. He was obviously in a certain amount of pain, but he seemed to be managing well enough. A dose of whiskey had taken the edge off, at least. He still had a fever, but it hadn't worsened.
Vin kept a close watch -- making damn sure that the southerner didn't get any sicker.
Standish wore a new blue shirt that Vin had purchased in town and a pair of dungarees giving the card sharp an unusually casual look. Ezra had said nothing about the choices when they were presented, apparently accepting the fashion statement that Vin had made for him. The clothing was, if nothing else, comfortable and warm.
They left the shack behind them, traveling at a pace set by Chaucer. The well-attuned steed seemed to know the exact speed his rider could handle, gauging it against the urgency in Peso's demeanor. The two horses traveled side-by-side, heading home.
"Might I ask," Ezra started after they'd traveled some distance. "Why you decided that our immediate departure was necessary?"
Vin shrugged and glanced behind them. He'd been cautious on his return to the shack, making sure that no one could follow his trail. There'd been no sign of pursuit. "Figured it was time."
"Another few hours of ease might have done wonders for a wound such as mine," Ezra continued. He gestured with the hand that had been pressed to his abdomen. "Certainly, there must be some sort of crisis that would demand this discomfort."
Vin gave Ezra a meaningful glance. "Hurtin' too much?"
"Nothing more than I can stand."
"You let me know if we gotta stop," Vin said sharply. "Won't make no sense to get those stitches ripped 'cause yer too much of an ass to say it's time to quit."
Ezra made a soft sound of agreement.
"I mean it," Vin continued. "I just wanted to put a couple miles behind us. We ain't gonna be travelin' long."
"Did you meet with some trouble? Perhaps there are people in that town that knew you were somehow affiliated with me?"
"Yeah, I figure there's a damn lot of 'em that know about that now."
Ezra slowed his horse and drew it to a stop. A good trick, because he wasn't handling the reins. "Mr. Tanner." He watched Vin's movements suspiciously. "You met with…difficulty because of me?" He narrowed his gaze on Vin's hands noting the careful way he held them. "Were you hurt…because of me?"
Vin turned toward Ezra, seeing the gambler’s shamed expression. He doubled back until he was alongside the southerner. Vin flexed his hands. "Wasn't a problem," he replied.
Ezra's gaze followed the movement, seeing scraped knuckles, noting the way he held his arm – bruised probably. "Mr. Tanner, I beg your forgiveness. I had no intention of drawing you into this imbroglio. Please, this is entirely my fault."
"Damn it, Ezra," Vin growled. "Shut up about that," He drove his hand into his pocket and pulled out the wad of money. Impatiently, he tugged open Ezra's saddlebag and shoved the money within. Ezra could do nothing but watch, his hands fixed on his saddle horn and midriff.
Ezra followed Vin's actions with wide eyes. "What did you do?" Standish winced as he moved his hand and fumbled with the flap on his bag.
"Got it back," Vin replied. "Found the bastard that knifed you, and dusted my knuckles on him." He smiled as he watched Ezra's shocked expression, realizing how pleased the gambler must be to have all his money back. Money's important to him, Vin knew. He's gonna be glad to get it.
"How can you be so stupid?" Ezra spat out, thumbing through the cash. "Of all the half-witted, moronic, asinine, ill-conceived, nonsensical, pointless…"
"Now, wait a minute!"
Ezra slapped down the flap of his saddlebag and turned to Vin with fierce eyes, his voice sharp. "What the hell do you think you were doing? Did you get in a fight with that man? In public? Demand the money from him and his cronies in front of God and everyone?"
"Yup, yup, and yup," Vin returned.
Ezra looked crestfallen, as if he'd been hoping for as least one negation. "You do remember that you're a wanted man? That any one of them might bring you in for $500? That this little demonstration of yours might have cost you your life?"
Vin shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. "Didn't say my name. I figure they don't know me. No one's followin'." He grinned.
Shaking his head sharply, Ezra stated, "Damn it, Vin, you didn't think this through. This ridiculous episode of yours might have ended with your hanging."
"I'm fine, Ezra. No one knows who I am or where we come from. Nothin' will happen."
"Pfft!" Vin returned. "You worry too much."
"I think things through! I analyze the subject, plot possible outcomes, weigh the odds, measure the rewards, and plan accordingly."
Vin regarded his friend. Ezra was still pale, and obviously in some pain. His skin was pale with his fever. Vin remembered some of the stunts Ezra had pulled in the past and tried to rationalize his comment. It wasn't that long ago when Ezra risked being hung in Vin's name.
"Me too. I measure odds. I analyze," Vin responded. "I figured that stuff out, too. That son-of-a-bitch tried to kill my friend."
Ezra blinked. "I got away."
"He wanted to gut ya and leave ya in the street to die, alone." Vin's gaze narrowed until his blue eyes took on the look of stones. "Weren't gonna let him get away with that. Nobody treats my friends like that and gets away with it."
"It was foolish," Ezra said in a low voice, his head down, not meeting the sharp glance. "We had escaped. There was no point in returning. There was no reason for you to risk your life. I had already come to accept the loss of the money. As William Shakespeare said, ‘The better part of valor is discretion’."
"I don’t care what Bill Somebody says," Vin groaned. "Don't you understand? Don't cha get it?"
"I won't have you killed seeking vengeance for a trifle." Ezra gestured with his hand, but quickly pulled it back to his stomach with an intake of breath. "If the money had been that important, I would have retrieved it myself."
"Ya would have done somethin’ about it if I weren’t in town."
"Exactly, I weighed the odds. I took every factor into consideration."
Vin shook his head. "You really don't understand, do ya? Ain't cha ever had someone stand up for you?"
The look on Ezra's face told him the whole story; he looked shocked, shamed and leery, and…most telling of all… said nothing.
Vin sighed. "Friends don't do this," he continued, pulling money from another pocket. He held the fold of $100 in front of Ezra's face. "You understand me?"
Ezra glanced from the money, recognizing it. He checked Vin's face, gauging again, trying to figure out what he'd done wrong this time.
Seeing that look, Vin stated, "I was wrong, Ezra. I screwed up. Me!" He touched his chest. "I shouldn't have asked for money when you came to me for a favor. I don't know what I was thinkin'. A friend don't do that to a friend."
"You've already apologized…" Ezra started.
"I know, and you accepted." Vin sighed. "Problem is, you accepted my apology too damn easy. You just seem to think that crap like this is normal." He waved the money. "You figure that ya gotta pay any time you ask for anything. Ya don't. If I could, I'd get ya to realize how sorry I was about doin’ that to you. But I can't."
Vin shoved the money into Ezra’s bag along with the rest. "I know it ain't easy for you to ask a favor of another. It doesn't help when someone makes ya shell out cash for it on top of that." With a jerk, he pulled the flap back into place and fastened the buckle. Chaucer snorted and gave him a backward glance.
Vin stated, "Wish I could just go back and erase that bit."
"I'd rather you went back and refrained from hitting me," Ezra responded.
Vin smirked. "Naw, you kinda deserved that. You admitted it yourself." He shrugged. "Since I can't go back, maybe we could start over." He frowned and then thought of something. He extended one hand and said, "Hello, my name's Vin Tanner."
Ezra regarded Vin warily and moved his hand from its protective position. "Ezra Standish, at your service, sir."
Vin accepted the hand. "I'm a tracker by trade. Got a price on my head. Know a thing or two about Indians and their ways."
Ezra was cautious, still holding onto Vin's hand and trying to figure out what he was after. "I'm a gambler and confidence man, well skilled in the art of deception and misdirection. I, too, am wanted in several localities."
"I'm a peacekeeper in Four Corners."
"What a coincidence, so am I." Ezra dropped his grip and tipped his hat.
Vin smiled. "There's a group of men I work with. Gotta say, I like 'em all. Some of the finest men I've ever known. It's an honor to ride with 'em."
Ezra returned the grin. "Ah, another subject we can agree on."
"That includes you, Ezra," Vin continued. "You're a damn good friend to me."
The smile changed, looking more forced than before. "Ah yes. Of course."
"And I'd be willin' to do just about anythin' for ya." Tanner's expression hardened as he added, "But you try and pay me for helpin' you, and I'll hit cha again, understand? You've got leave to do the same if I ever ask for money."
"Anyway, we're gonna forget all that." He moved his hand as if wiping something way. "We're not gonna mess around with that crap no more."
Ezra nodded. "Very well, I'm willing to let certain chapters in our history be forgotten. But, I still have a word or two to say about your actions of this morning."
"Just shut up and accept the fact that I watch out for you." Vin started Peso in motion again and Chaucer fell in alongside.
"Watching out and seeking vengeance are two different things!" Ezra commented
"Ah, he pissed me off," Vin replied. He dropped one hand on the gambler's shoulder as they rode together. "And you're my friend. Anyone who tries to hurt a friend of mine is gonna pay." Vin nodded.
"Even it means…"
"There ain't no conditions on that, Ezra. Ya don't deserve to be treated like crap. Since I can't get you to understand that, I figger I gotta get the rest of the world in line." Then he stated, "Just got a couple things to get clear before we get too far."
"Dear Lord, why do I fear what's coming next?"
The horses came to a stop again, as Vin gave Ezra a sharp look. "She loved you, that's why she married you. That's why she took your name."
Ezra bit his lip, obviously startled by this comment. "You don't know the whole story," he finally responded.
"From what you tol' me, she loved the hell out of you," Vin stated. "But you're right. Don't matter that you used a different name then. She'd 'ave probably took any name ya had. Been proud to call herself Mrs. Whatever-the-hell-you-chose."
Ezra's lips twitched and he shrugged.
"She deserved a good man and she got one." Vin gave the gambler a gentle shake, careful of his healing wound. "Some day I'll get ya to accept that fact. Won't give up on the matter." He nodded, calling an end to that particular discussion. "And another thing…"
"Oh, there's more?"
"The other night, when I was at the well, I told you I was almost through waitin' for ya. It wasn't because I was gonna pull up and head home without cha." Vin paused, making sure that Ezra was listening. "I wouldn't 'ave done that. It was because I was about to go back lookin' for ya. Wanted to get that straight before we go any further. I wasn't gonna leave you behind. You got that?"
Ezra tipped his head. "Yes, sir," he responded.
"Ya ain't gonna be left behind," Vin promised. And
they rode side-by-side as the day grew warmer, back to Four Corners, starting a
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