RATING: PG-13 for rough language and violence
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra ... with bits of the other boys
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, The Hallmark Channel, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Global Gathering 2003 Zine
SUMMARY: Ezra is relaxing in the town of Prosperity, and begins to receive telegrams
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: small spoilers from the pilot.
FANZINE: Global Gathering 2003
DATE: June 11, 2004
The Price of Prosperity
Winner of the 2004 Diamond Ezzie Award for Best Old West Fic - General - Zined
Ezra relaxed at the Payroll saloon in the booming town of
Prosperity. It was a new town, still glowing under a fresh layer of paint
and the promise of things to come. There was a zest, an energy here.
The people had plans. They had ambition. They were going somewhere.
And Ezra P. Standish was there to take advantage of it. Yes, the people of
Prosperity were more than happy to sit down at his table, to plunk down their
hard earned dollars and try out their luck against a professional. He
smiled as he fingered his cards and gazed out at his opponents. The current
game, thus far, had been a pleasant diversion. The other players had fair
skills, but nothing extraordinary. He chose to play cautiously, learning
their tells, gauging their styles – it offered him a bit of a challenge.
And most pleasant of all, he was winning.
His eyes darted to his accumulating wealth and the smile grew. Yes, Prosperity was an aptly named town. He had arrived two days ago, entrusted with delivering an important package to the town’s banker. Not stupid, Ezra had rifled the pack during his travels and found it contained nothing that caught his eyes – just some land deeds for the area surrounding the town. Now that he’d spent some time in the environs, Standish began to wonder if one of those deeds should have been lost along the way. Owning property in this burgeoning town might be advantageous to a man who understood its worth.
There was plenty that a young gambler could achieve in Prosperity -- and, all in all, he felt comfortable to stay there. It was…fun. How wonderful it was to have his God-given skills honestly wanted. During his past two days at the Payroll Saloon, Ezra had drawn a crowd. The best players had all had a try at him. Spectators gathered, ordering drinks and meals -- staying for the evening to watch the entertainment. Men hollered and laughed, complimenting him after a particularly good hand. Folks would stroll up to his table while he was idle to ask him when the next game would start up -- eager to watch a professional. It made the cynical southerner smile.
And he was pampered. The owner of the saloon, Guy Patterson, had been very obliging – catering to his every whim. The best restaurant in town provided sustenance; brandy had always been close at hand; private use of the bathhouse and an upstairs room provided at a nominal fee. Patterson searched out the best players and the richest patrons, and set them at Ezra’s table. There was nothing that Guy couldn’t get for him if asked, so Ezra had no reason to travel any further than the Payroll.
Yes, Ezra had to admit, Prosperity was a lovely little town – full of promise. He wouldn’t mind coming again if business brought him this way. Hell, he could find an excuse for making an excursion of his own to this destination. It was good here. Maybe it wasn’t so silly to consider obtaining nearby property. It would be a good place to settle down.
He chuckled at the thought, making the other men at the table nervous. They seemed to be calculating, wondering what the merry expression meant to them: did Standish have an exceptionally good hand; or was he just trying to mislead them? With a wave of his hand, Ezra dismissed any speculation and raised the bid again and the game continued.
Theo Layton, a shopkeeper, was talking about the ‘big news’ around town. The blacksmith -- a large man named Jock Hammish -- had been found dead the previous week. Nobody knew for certain what had happened to him. Unable to find any evidence of a robbery, some speculated that a horse had kicked in his head -- but others figured it was murder. Ezra had heard it all before, the speculations, the stories of possible romantic trysts between Jock and some of the local ladies -- jealous husbands and unhappy lovers. Ezra tried not to look bored at the retelling. He hoped that the citizens would find something new to talk about soon. Anything… please.
Patterson passed by the table again, ensuring that everything was to his liking. Standish nearly laughed at Guy’s eagerness to please, to satisfy, to predict his desires. Patterson had been an able conversationalist and an exceptional host to Standish. Guy always had a good word for him, was quick to complement, flatter, to extol. Oh, the gambler was well aware of what was going on – he was being courted.
Yes, as delicately as a young man might spark a lady – seeking a wife, Guy Patterson was seeking an arrangement of his own. The Payroll Saloon -- an exquisite place with lovely appointments and first-rate gambling equipment – had been dead as a grave before Ezra Standish passed through those doors. The southerner had strolled in, regarded the quiet room, quickly found the best table, and had asked in a clear voice, “Would anyone wish to partake in a game of chance?” Heads had lifted, bleary eyes had opened, people had shifted, attention was garnered. Once he started plying his trade, business in the Payroll picked up considerably. People came. People stayed. Guy and his bartenders got busy and remained so whenever Standish held court.
Yes, it was obvious. The Payroll needed a resident gambler to draw in a crowd. Ezra had been through this before. The best casinos housed the best gamblers to offer entertainment to guests, to give fellow players a challenge – and the Payroll was wanting. Ezra was sad to recall that it had been many years since he’d been courted so arduously. It felt good to be pampered, to be flattered… to be wanted for what he did best. His finest skills had sat idle for so long, he was surprised he didn’t squeak like a rusty wheel as he shuffled.
To find people that accepted him for his gambling was -- well -- heavenly. It made his heart glad. He’d spent a lifetime honing these skills -- it was good to find a place that would accept him for what he really was -- a gambler, and a damn good one at that. It made him feel… happy.
For he hadn’t been happy lately in Four Corners. No, his gambling had been less than appreciated during his last few days in residence. First, Josiah had discovered the betting pool Standish had set up based on the length of his sermons. Neither the preacher nor the healer took too kindly to that. Then, Buck, JD and Vin found out that Ezra had been encouraging Josiah to longer soliloquies, to tilt the odds. So, in an attempt to avoid the injured parties, he’d missed his Sunday night patrol -- garnering the ire of Larabee. Standish had responded with cool indifference. It started a vicious circle that made his companions rather unhappy with him.
Then there was the shootout that followed a rather lucrative game of billiards on Monday. Apparently, Yukon Todd had thought himself proficient at the game, and had made certain jumps in logic after Standish’s comment that he didn’t care for it. It was true -- Ezra preferred cards to cues -- but he could conform. Bets were placed, a game was played. One man lost and one man won. Moments later, shots were fired in the street.
Someone could have gotten killed. Ezra dipped his head as he recalled the fierce look on Larabee’s face as the gunslinger helped Mary up. Yes, someone might have died -- but it was just one of the hazards of his profession. It was something that a man learned to live with. It was just unfortunate that Todd waited until he’d entered the street to let his aggression boil over. I should have just confronted the bastard in the back room, Ezra realized, and kept it in private.
Yes, this little mission to Prosperity cropped up at just the right moment -- it was time that he got out of town for a while -- time that he put some distance between himself and the other lawmen. Hopefully, when he returned later this day, things would have cooled off a bit. In all honesty though, Ezra wasn’t looking forward to returning.
It was always took such effort to return to a place where he wasn’t wanted -- and the disgusted looks he’d received there recently told him all he needed to know regarding their current disposition toward him. Well, Ezra figured, he’d always been adept at transforming opinion of himself. With a little effort -- with a lot of effort maybe -- he’d be able to get past this little misunderstanding and return things to an even keel.
Standish was just finishing a hand, raking in another pot, when he heard a shrill voice calling out, “Mr. Standish! Mr. E. Standish!” He turned to find a boy, about twelve years old, standing in the doorway, holding a telegram aloft. Patterson intercepted the boy before Ezra could gesture to him, grabbed the paper from the child and brought it to the poker table.
Patterson smiled warmly and offered the folded note to the gambler. “Don’t want to disturb you, Mr. Standish,” the saloon owner said softly.
“Not at all,” Ezra replied, flashing a smile, as he turned the telegram over in his hand.
“Hope everything has been to your liking,” Guy stated.
“Your service, sir,” Ezra returned. “has been exemplary.”
“Let me know if you want anything else,” Patterson continued. “I mean it. Anything at all.”
“Of course,” Ezra said cordially. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Good, good.” Patterson nodded. The other men at the table shifted about, checked what remained of their stakes and decided it was time to go. They said their good-byes, promising to return later if the gambler was still in residence.
With a wistful expression, Ezra explained that he had other commitments and would be leaving shortly. It drew groans from the other gambler and a sigh from Patterson.
Once they had gone, Ezra returned his attention to the saloonkeeper, since he hadn’t wandered off yet. “You have a lovely establishment,” Ezra said, gesturing to his surroundings.
“I’m glad you say that.”
“The décor must have cost you a pretty penny,” Ezra continued conversationally. “It is all so tastefully done.”
Patterson nodded. “I want the best of everything. Well, thinking on that, I was wonderin’ if you’d have a minute or two to talk.” His voice because serious as he said, “Got some important business to discuss. Might change your life. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Ezra nodded and said, “Of course. But first, allow me a moment to see if I have pressing business to consider.” He flipped open the paper, then scowled at the message presented to him. “Standish, you’re expected to return by evening. Tell me when you’re leaving. Larabee.”
Ezra let out a slow breath. Great, he thought, just great. He lowered the paper and sighed. Lord, he’d already told Larabee that he’d be leaving this afternoon. Why did Chris insist on asking the same question twice? Ezra hated reiterating himself.
Patterson, seeing the change in the gambler’s mood, inquired, “Trouble?”
Quirking a smile, Ezra returned, “Oh, there’s always trouble.” He held the paper against the table and contemplated it.
“Need to send a response?” Guy asked.
“Yes, I suppose one might be in order,” Ezra replied, thinking that if Larabee required another message, he’d might as well adopt a new response.
“I’ll get the kid,” Guy told him and turned to the door. Patterson wasn’t surprised to find the boy waiting just outside the door. The kid knew it wasn’t unusual to get an immediate response when he delivered a wire and he’d usually stuck around for a few minutes. With a gesture, Patterson ushered the young man inside. He trotted to the gambler’s table, holding his pencil ready.
“If I may?” Ezra inquired, taking the pad and pencil from the child, writing the message himself. “What’s your name, sir?” Ezra asked the boy as he wrote.
Startled by the ‘sir’, the boy stuttered for a moment before he uttered, “Eng..Englebert Richardson.”
“Really?” Ezra paused in his writing, and considered the name. He collected “E” names and debated adding this one to his arsenal. He tossed aside the idea almost immediately. “Interesting name.”
“Folks call me ‘Bert’,” the boy explained. He took the message from the man when it was finished and silently read it -- as he always did in case there was question about the meaning or handwriting -- and to count up the cost. “Mr. Larabee, the tables are faring me today. I shall return on the morrow. Perhaps, if the Fates allow, I shall continue through the weekend. Yours very truly, Mr. Ezra P. Standish.”
The boy gave the man the total and Standish handed over the appropriate money, along with a handsome gratuity. With a tip of the cap, the boy was gone.
Patterson, having read both messages, gave the gambler a curious look. Ezra responded with a laugh. “Oh, I do intend to leave shortly. No need to worry about the room. I simply wanted my ‘boss’ to simmer a bit.”
“Your boss?” Patterson tried, confused by this information. “You work for someone?”
With a long-suffering sigh, Ezra responded. “Some might call it such. Let’s just say that he makes up the duty roster and those that do not comply are met with a harrowing reprisal.”
“He don’t like you much,” Patterson observed.
Ezra paused, stilling his lips before saying, “I believe he finds some of my skills worthwhile.”
“What do you do for him?”
“For him?” Ezra pondered, realizing that Judge Travis was the man who ultimately employed him. “Honestly, I work for another, but he has somehow attained the lead responsibilities in our group. The job entails mostly drudgery and occasions of excitement.”
“Hmmm,” Patterson exhaled, rubbing his chin. “You ever think of giving it up?”
Ezra responded quickly with, “Constantly.”
Guy beamed. “Well then, I have an offer that you might find interesting.” He sat down quickly as the gambler shuffled. “I think we can come to an agreement regarding a position here -- for you.” Quickly, he rattled off his offer -- the best room reserved for him, a table always ready, food and drinks at a discount while he kept a game going. All Patterson required in return was that Ezra remain exclusive to the Payroll Saloon and that he offer up 10% of his winnings to the management. Losses would be covered to a certain dollar amount. “So you’d lose nothing!” Patterson declared. “It would be all gravy for you.”
Ezra smiled throughout the sales pitch, feeling satisfied and proud. Ah, to be wanted again! It had been so long since someone worked so hard to gain his presence. However, the longer Patterson talked, the lonelier he felt. In Guy’s scheme, Ezra would be sequestered in the saloon during certain hours of the day -- required to remain at the table to draw customers. His entire life would be centered around being at his game at the appropriate time. Nothing else would be asked of him.
It all seemed rather hallow as Patterson laid it out like that.
As the cards flew through his fingers, Ezra recalled sleeping outside, eating the horrible camp food, getting shot, half-killed -- it was all horrible, wasn’t it? No sane man would want that type of lifestyle. What Patterson presented him was indeed ‘gravy’. It was exactly what he was fit for.
Patterson kept talking, telling him about all the wonders of Prosperity and all the promise it held, but Ezra’s mind kept wandering back to Four Corners and the position he held in that town. As Guy spoke -- eyes glinting with excitement, promising everything that Ezra should respond to – Standish hesitated. This was good – this was very good. He should jump at it. His thirty-day obligation to Judge Travis had been long satisfied. What was possibility holding him back? Did he honestly prefer being a rough-and-ready peacekeeper to being an urbane and genteel gambler?
Standish had to admit, there was a certain rush that came with taking on the ‘bad guys’; it felt good to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with good men, there was something pleasing about helping people… but what did it truly gain for him? Yes, he was respected in Four Corners, but there were other ways of gaining respect. Being rich was the best way. Yes, one of the lessons his mother had drilled into him -- money brings respect, and there was no way in hell that he’d ever gain prosperity in Four Corners.
Playing ‘lawman’ had only been a game to him anyway -- an amusement. He owed Four Corners nothing. Ezra glanced at Guy, seeing the excitement grow in the saloonkeeper’s pale eyes. Yes, Ezra thought, this proposition should have him salivating. Why wasn’t it? What was the matter with him?
With a congenial smile, Ezra set the deck on the table and picked up his hat. “I’m sorry, sir. Your offer is most appealing, but I must turn it down.” He spoke the words without even understanding exactly why they were said.
“W..w..what?” Patterson stuttered. “But I thought… I thought…” He watched as Ezra stood and picked up his winnings. “Look here, it’s a good offer. You ain’t gonna get much better.”
“I do have a better situation available for me,” Ezra replied convincingly.
Ah, the irony of it. Ezra allowed himself no hesitation as he responded, “Four Corners.”
“What do they got that I can’t give you? Just tell me and I’ll get it set up!” Patterson promised.
With a sad smile, Ezra tried to put into words what Four Corners gave him -- esteem? A sense of self worth? A reason to wake up in the morning? a possibility of redemption? Friendship? He protected people there -- he protected the town. Perhaps they needed him. “I’m afraid you can’t offer what I find there,” Ezra finally told him.
“What do they got that I don’t? What makes Four Corners different?” Patterson hounded him as the gambler headed to the back stairs.
Furrowing his brow, the gambler turned to the casino owner and said, “They need me.”
“I need you?” Patterson responded quickly. “Look, we can discuss the particulars. Is 10% too high for my percentage? I can go lower. Might need to consider …”
Ezra lifted a hand and smiled softly. “I must be going.” His smile grew warm as he extended a hand. “It’s been a pleasure staying here, Mr. Patterson. I would hope that if I came this way in the future, I might partake of your services again.”
“Yeah, sure,” Patterson returned. “You’d always be welcome.”
They shook hands and Ezra headed up the stairs. The gambler berated himself with each step -- stupid, stupid, stupid. How could you pass up a chance like that?
Moments after he entered the room for the last time, he heard a knock, and opened the door to find Bert. “Mr. Standish, sir,” The boy said, holding the message to the gambler.
Ezra sighed at the sight. He hadn’t expected such a quick response. Ezra took the message, opening it to read: “Standish. I’m not in the mood. You’ve been gone long enough. Leave now.”
Ezra grimaced. Well, that was most unkind. He motioned for the pad. Bert handed it over, watching the gambler carefully. “Mr. Larabee, I shall go as soon as it is favorable. Regards, E.P. Standish.” No one pushed him around, Ezra thought as he handed the pad back to the boy with payment for the service.
Standish packed slowly, finding no reason to hurry now. Still, he’d been surprised to hear another knock and find Bert already returning with a response. The note read, “Ezra, I’m fed up with your miserable attitude. Leave now or forget about coming back.”
Was this necessary? Ezra thought. He was expected back that evening. Didn’t Larabee understand that he wouldn’t shirk his responsibility? Well, he had already proved that he shirked responsibility, didn’t he? Yes, he’d missed that patrol on Sunday night. Of course, he’d only been trying to avoid possible strangulation by Wilmington or Sanchez. On the other hand, Larabee might have thought that the shootout on Monday was reason enough for Ezra to stay away. Surely there was a lot of hostility about town for that little misstep.
Still, Ezra wouldn’t just run out on them. Ezra laughed to himself as he considered that particular thought. Well, his history provided the answer to that question.
Well, Larabee was exceedingly literal at times and didn’t always understand a joke. With a sad shake of his head, Ezra gave in and responded, “Your comments have been heard. I am leaving immediately.”
Finished packing, he gave the room a sad glance before he left. He would miss the extra comforts there here. His rented room in Four Corners, with its feather bed, was nice -- but didn’t match the elegance here. He was leaving the saloon when the boy sidled up to him. Bert, who had looked so eager before, seemed anxious as he handed over the note.
“I’m tired of your sarcastic remarks. you don’t care about anything but yourself. Either come home immediately or don’t return.”
Ezra stared at the note in his hand in disbelief, feeling a flush of anger and embarrassment. He glanced at the boy and contemplated staying in Prosperity. Why should he want to hurry back now? Why should he want to do Larabee any favors? Patterson had offered him an excellent position -- so why bother going back to that sort of hostility?
He crumpled the note and shoved it into his pocket with the others. Well, might as well take his time now. Yes, let Larabee stew a bit in his own juices. Maybe he should stay a week at the Payroll. But, he’d made a decision and he was going to stick to it. At least he would meet up with Larabee -- face to face -- to discuss this matter. If it meant he’d have to leave town afterward -- so be it. At least he would have settled things like a gentleman.
He kept his face passive as he wrote the words: “Mr. Larabee, I am in the process of leaving at this moment. We will discuss this upon my return.” Discuss, yes, they’d discuss… maybe with words, maybe with a bit of fisticuffs, but the situation would indeed be ‘discussed’. More money was shelled out.
He then went to the general store to replenish his supplies for the trip. He spent more time than necessary in the store -- loitering a bit as he considered essentials -- not really wanting to get underway. Bert caught up to him at Ma Bailey’s store. “Got another one for you, Mr. Standish,” he said, extending the latest note.
“Standish. I’m fed up with your whining and complaining. Shut up and behave like a man. I won’t tolerate your laziness any longer.”
Ezra balled up the note, jammed it into his pocket. He closed his eyes as his hand dug through the previous messages, crunching each one in turn. He should have known better than to poke a lion with a stick. His earlier messages were only meant as a joke. Didn’t Larabee understand that? The response seemed hardly appropriate. Ezra continued rolling the notes in his pocket.
He had two choices now. Stay in Prosperity and forget all about Four Corners -- or to leave immediately to diffuse the situation. Ezra Standish didn’t want a hot-tempered gunslinger out for his blood, and he’d always prided himself at his ability to sweet talk his way out of any situation.
He wrote out the next note, writing slowly to quiet his temper. “Mr. Larabee. my previous messages were meant in jest. allow me to explain over drinks upon my return tonight. Yours sincerely, E.P. Standish.”
Yes, Ezra, swallow your pride and let it go at that. You can take your revenge at a later date, when he expects it less. Standish had learned that there were times when it was best to roll over and admit defeat. It wasn’t worth the effort to fight against a superior foe. It was better to be a living coward than a dead hero.
He handed Bert the note and the money as he waited for Ma Bailey to total up his purchases. She was a brisk woman, who hardly said a word to him. Ezra felt as if she had scrutinized his every move, expecting a theft. He nodded cordially to her and paid his latest bill.
Bert met him at the door as he left the small store. Ezra let out a long sigh as his eyes met the boy’s. The kid tried to look apologetic as he handed over the message. With a heavy heart, Ezra read the latest missive from Larabee.
“I’D RATHER SHOOT MYSELF THAN SIT DOWN TO DRINKS WITH YOU. YOU HAVE PROVEN YOUR WORTHLESSNESS. STAY IN PROSPERITY. NOBODY HERE WANTS YOU BACK.”
Ezra stood stock-still -- stunned at this latest message. Bert watched him, with a dubious expression.
“Bert,” Ezra managed to get out, his mouth nearly too dry to speak. “One last message before I go.” He took the pad from the boy and held it, poising the lead pencil over the page. He bit his lip as he tried to think, but words wouldn’t come. Finally he jotted down, “I WILL RETURNING IMMEDIATELY. PLEASE LET US DISCUSS THE MATTER. AGAIN, I APOLOGIZE FOR EVERYTHING.” He paid Bert again, amazed at how much money had already gone toward these messages.
The boy nodded sharply and ran back toward the telegraph office. Standish watched him go, his heart fluttering. He didn’t understand why Larabee was so mad at him -- but he was determined to figure it out and make it right. With a determined step, he headed across the street. His head swam with thoughts of what was happening. He didn’t look forward to returning to Four Corners. Lord, it looked as if it would be a dreadful reunion, but he couldn’t leave things like this.
As he crossed an alleyway, he paused. An unsettled feeling reached him. Something was wrong. The streets were quiet. Nothing seemed amiss. He turned, looking to see if someone was behind him. Black and fast, a figure flew at him. Ezra tried to reach his Remington, but he couldn’t move fast enough. He was struck down before he had a chance to truly see what had come at him.
The man moved quickly, swinging the heavy board and striking the gambler across the side of the head before Standish could turn and see him. The board, connecting on skull, made a strangely hollow sound -- and Standish hit the boardwalk like a sack of potatoes. He sprawled there only for a moment before the attacker dropped the board and grabbed Standish, to quickly drag him into the alley. Another man picked up the dropped weapons – one, their crude board and the other, Standish’s expensive and un-discharged Remington. The board was tossed into the alley, the gun was jammed into a pocket. The second man stepped in to help the other. They pulled him, yanking Standish over the discarded cans, broken bottles and dog turds that always built up in this place, pulling him until they had reached the dim recesses where no one would notice anything. The roof of the neighboring stable extended over this place, keeping it in eternal darkness.
Quickly, the two men – one tall and blond, the other thickly-built and dark-haired -- rifled through the gambler’s possessions. Pockets were yanked out and anything of value was snatched up. Saddlebags were confiscated. Frantically, the taller man grabbed at the gambler’s boots -- wrenching them free and gleefully grabbing up the wad of money that came loose. He tossed the footwear into nearby barrel, where they plunked wetly.
The dark-haired one yanked rings from Standish’s limp hands, took his watch, his tie-tack and cufflinks, and kept searching. Anything of any value was plucked from the prone man. The taller man grabbed one sleeve of the expensive jacket and tugged, roughly rolling the man out of it and yanking it loose. The stout man took the remaining weapons and their holsters, took the silk cravat and unbuttoned the exquisite brocade vest. He pulled the vest loose, letting the man rotate out of it until he slammed against a box, giving it a final jerk to free it from the other arm.
The taller man sucked in a breath. The dark-haired man grinned deviously.
Glancing back toward the opening of the alley, the tall man held up a hand to still the other, and they waited as a few townspeople passed. They bided their time. The gambler slumped against the crate, half-stripped. Standish would be no threat to them. They could take their time.
They waited, breathing harshly -- more from excitement than any physical activity. The tall one moved nervously from one foot to another, watching the passersby. The other, built like a wrestler who had gone flabby, kept his greedy glance at the vulnerable southerner.
Once the small crowd moved past, the fatter man squatted down beside Standish, slowly turning the unresponsive head to see the raised welt that bled down his neck, noted where his back had been cut by glass. He kicked the gambler onto his back, onto the garbage-strewn floor of the alleyway.
The blond man looked a question at the other one. His eyes were wide and he wrung his hands. The fat man grimaced and whispered, “Not enough.”
Considering the possibilities, the dark-haired man looked about until he another board. He weighed it in his hands and the taller man stepped back. The dark-haired man stood, and raised the board like a cudgel over his head and swung it at Standish’s legs. It made an odd, muffled sound as it made its harsh impact onto flesh.
The gambler gasped but didn’t awaken.
The tall man swallowed as Standish unconsciously tried to roll away. He smiled stupidly at the dark-haired man who had increased his grin. There was a strange light in the fat man’s eyes. He raised the board again, higher, grinning toothily. He breathed deeply, inhaling as he held the board over his head and wanting to swing it with all his might this time. When the blond man grabbed hold of the board, stilling him, the other nearly fell over.
The fat man tried to jerk the board away from the taller one, his frustration evident in his eyes. The blond man glared, shoving the other man back. He shook his head severely. With a grimace, the dark-haired man dropped his hold on the board, letting the taller one toss it away. Annoyed, the dark-haired one kicked at Standish’s chest, leaving a dirty footprint. He smiled with satisfaction, having gotten what he wanted as the once-pristine gambler gasped painfully and tried to move away, rolling in the filth. He kicked again, snickering as the toe of his boot struck with greater force. Once more, he kicked at the prone man, a laugh escaping him before he stifled himself. The other man wrung his hands and nodded.
When the fat man drew his foot back once more, the taller one touched the other’s arm and a calculating look passed between them. The fatter one frowned like a petulant child, then nodded and grabbed Standish by his collar. He dragged the unresponsive gambler purposefully over a broken bottle, into the middle of the alley. The taller man followed, carrying the saddlebags – now stuffed with loot. The dark-haired one dropped his hold, letting Standish fall, and stared down on the man that they’d attacked. With a grin, he kicked him again, onto his stomach so that his face was half in the debris. He waited, watching … listening to the quiet moan that escaped the unconscious man.
The taller man grabbed the big man’s arm again and gave it a tug. The dark-haired one nodded curtly and they turned away, abandoning Standish in the garbage and going their separate ways.
Slowly, Ezra became aware of his surroundings. God, his head hurt. His mouth felt dry. He felt godawful. Hunching his shoulders and tried to roll onto his side, but a wretched pain in his chest stopped him. “Oh Lord,” he gasped feeling the familiar ache that came with damaged ribs.
Tentatively, he opened his eyes and glanced out a familiar room. It was the place he’d just vacated -- the room at the Payroll Saloon. He looked around, finding only furniture. It was a small shock to see no one waiting for him to awaken -- but then he remembered that he was alone in Prosperity. There’d be no obstinate gunslingers waiting by his side.
Hell, would they even want to?
He took a slow assessment of his situation. The back of his head throbbed -- someone had undoubtedly struck him. His vision was blurred -- he felt hot and disconnected. A deep breath made him see stars. He didn’t think his ribs had broken, but they were definitely bruised. Oh Lord, his legs hurt fiercely. He wiggled his toes tentatively, deciding that the bones were sound. When he tried to find a comfortable position, his back let him know that it hadn’t escaped harm either. Good God, what had happened to him?
Ezra blinked and swallowed, trying to focus as the world swam around him. God, he felt like shit. He rubbed his forehead, finding a bandage wrapped around his head. Attacked -- attacked in a strange town and waking up alone. It was disconcerting, to say the least. He touched his face, feeling the heat. Fever, too. Just one more thing to worry about.
He pulled back his hand and stared at it – stared a long time at his unadorned fingers. No… oh no. He tried to convince himself he was dreaming. However, no matter how long he stared, the gold band didn’t appear. He gave up a mournful sigh as he made a fist. Gone – it was gone. He closed his eyes. No. Not that. He’d kept it safe for five years. You should have figured it would happen, Ezra told himself. What with the life you lead, you would have pawned it eventually. Still, when he opened his eyes, he could only stare at the out-of-focus ring-finger on his left hand.
If the ring was gone, what about the watch? He felt his chest as if he might still be wearing his waistcoat. Nothing. They were gone -- the only two objects that meant anything to him.
Nothing you can do about it now. Give it up. He let the tired hand drop. You knew it was only a matter of time before you sold them off.
Downhearted, he glanced about. With the lack of equilibrium, the hurting ribs, the aching legs, and his ripped-up back, he decided it would be better to simply lie still for the time being -- catch his breath and then make decisions. He felt strangely lonely -- terribly alone -- as he blinked and waited. He didn’t even have his deck of cards to keep him company. Usually, someone was thoughtful enough to provide him with such.
He waited, not knowing how long. Beyond the curtained window, the sky began to dim. Hours must have passed in the nearly empty room. Beneath him, Ezra could hear the enticing sounds of the saloon. A glass of water sat at his beside. Sitting up was a torture, but his thirst needed to be assuaged.
The room grew dark as night approached and still he was alone. He slept in fits and starts. He dozed and woke again when the light came in through the window with morning. The drinking glass had been refilled -- someone must have been here. I must have been too damn sick to notice, Ezra thought. I can’t just stay here like this. I must do something. He forced one arm under him, leveraging himself upward and pausing as the room tilted, blinking against the vertigo, swallowing the nausea that tried to assail him. God, he felt horrible. He sat up long enough to drain the glass again, before lowering again to the pillow. He hissed as his hurt back touched the sheets, and turned onto his side. His ribs were sore, but his back was burning now with pain.
Tired out from this simple exercise, he realized that he was going nowhere soon. He could only lie in bed, wishing for company. Still, he would have to get up on his own soon – to find someone who could explain all of this to him, to search for more water to quench his surging thirst… and to use the chamber pot.
Finally, the door creaked and the familiar face of the saloon owner peered in. “Oh!” the man exhaled. “Oh! Mr. Standish! You’re awake. Thank God!” Guy smiled as he approached. “How’re you feeling?” he asked as he sat down beside the bed.
“Like hell,” Ezra admitted, drawing a hand to his forehead.
“Oh!” Guy exclaimed. “You drank the water again. I’ll get you some more.” The thoughtful man frowned as he stared at the man in bed. “I think you got a fever.”
“Yes,” Ezra sighed. “I’m afraid so.”
“Oh dear, oh dear,” Guy jumped to his feet. “I gotta go get Doc Haley.”
Ezra raised a hand, stopping him. “What happened?”
Guy sighed, looking at his guest with a fretful expression. “Mr. Clawson found you in the alley beside the livery. Someone attacked you!”
“Seems highly likely,” Ezra muttered, considering his injuries.
“Probably the same man who done in Jock Hammish! You’re lucky to be alive. They took all your stuff. Really is terrible. Don’t worry though, you can pay me when you get some money. I got you signed in under a false name here, too, just in case anyone’s looking for you to finish you off.” Patterson smiled at his forethought. “You’re Mr. Reginald Kyle now. As far as anyone in town knows, Ezra Standish is gone and you’re Reginald Kyle.”
Ezra didn’t seem to hear him, focusing on other things. “My ring?” he whispered, holding up his hand for emphasis.
The man shrugged. “It got taken, I guess.”
Standish let out a breath, glancing to the table. “My pocket watch?” he asked, not seeing it there. His head ached so badly and his vision blurred -- it might be right in front of his face and he would be unable to see it.
“Gone,” Patterson replied, drawing a long face. “Really, they could have killed you. They took everything that had any worth. Got all your money, too.”
Ezra felt sick, thinking of those losses. Everything was piffle, except the ring that dear Gertrude had once placed on his hand, and the watch that his grandfather had entrusted to him. He closed his eyes, half to quell the throb that was overtaking him and half to hide his eyes that threatened to tear.
“Took your horse and tack, too,” Guy added in a quiet tone.
Ezra shot up in his bed – spinning the room, nearly exploding his head. His chest and back cried out their own admonishments. “What?” Ezra’s hand caught Patterson’s shirt. “Chaucer?”
Startled, the saloonkeeper tried to get away, but Standish’s grip was fierce, adding his weight as the gambler started to collapse. Recovering from his panic, Patterson grabbed hold of the clutching arm, and helped support Standish until he could get him settled on the bed. Standish had gone pale from the sudden movement -- his eyelids fluttered as he fought to remain conscious. Quietly, Guy continued, “The men who hurt you, came back. They must have taken the horse and gear during the night. It’s all gone.”
Chaucer… oh God… Chaucer. How could they? Those sons of bitches! Those goddamn sons of bitches!
Guy was still talking – had been. Ezra needed to focus, to hear what was being said, but the words sounded like water flowing over rocks and he couldn’t understand. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He’d have to let these losses pass – for now. He had to. It made no sense to drive himself to distraction over mere things.
Aw, Chaucer…I should have done better for you. Trudy, my Trudy, forgive me. Grandfather -- dear Lord, how I have disappointed you. How could I have failed everyone so completely? I suppose it was to be expected. It was bound to happen, in the end.
He opened his eyes again, staring out at the room. When he was able, he resolved to search until his feet bled for that horse -- to look everywhere for that ring and watch. He wouldn’t give up. He would get them back. But for now… now… there was nothing he could do. His head hurt too fiercely to think deeply. He felt as if he couldn’t form a wise thought if he tried.
It took several moments for Ezra to catch up with Patterson’s conversation. “…But Doc Haley patched you up, and I said I’d look after you. Told me to fetch him if you took fever. Said for you to keep quiet and a’bed for a week.
Ezra sighed. How was he to search if he was bed bound? It might take weeks to find his things -- and he was losing time now. And then there was Larabee. How would Chris take that latest bit of information? He’d have to get to Four Corners as soon as possible. Standish’s face went blank as he recalled the telegrams he’d recently received. “How long have I been here?” Ezra demanded.
“Since yesterday afternoon,” Patterson told him. “Clawson found you about two or three hours after you left Ma Bailey’s. Doc said you’d probably be okay.” Guy smiled slightly. “Gotta tell you, you scared me something fierce. Glad to see you waking up. Do you need anything?”
Ezra nodded. “Can you check with any known horse traders and ask about recent acquisitions? I need to find my horse. Also, the pawnbrokers or any shop that might resell merchandise -- if you could speak to them regarding some of my possessions? I would be willin’ to reimburse any expenditures.”
“That might prove a problem,” Patterson said sadly. “They took your money, Mr. Standish…or maybe I should call you ‘Kyle’ now?” When Ezra’s expression fell, Patterson continued. “But I could loan you what’s needed.”
Ezra grimaced, hating this. “If you would be so kind, I would be obliged to you.”
Guy nodded encouragingly. “Just let me know if you need anything and I’ll see that you get it.”
Ezra frowned, knowing that he’d have to ask for Guy’s help in getting up to see to his morning needs, but there was something that he required first. “I need you to send a message to Four Corners,” Ezra explained. “Make clear what happened. I need to describe the circumstances surrounding my delay.”
“You already got one from a Mr. Larabee,” Patterson said, pulling a paper from his pocket and holding it out for the sick man.
Lord, not another telegram, Ezra thought with a sigh. How much more could he take? He took it from Guy, trying to ignore the tremble in his hand as he tried to read -- but his vision blurred too fiercely and he felt suddenly sicker.
Thoughtfully, Patterson took it back. “I could read it to you,” he suggested.
After a tight nod from Ezra, Patterson cleared his throat and timidly read aloud: “STANDISH. I KNEW YOU’D RUN OUT. YOU ARE A COWARD AND A LYING SNAKE. STAY AWAY FROM FOUR CORNERS IF YOU PLAN TO KEEP LIVING. LARABEE.”
Oh Lord, Ezra thought as he sunk his throbbing head further into the pillows. What have I done?
“I sent a wire back to him,” Patterson told him. “Lettin’ him know why you got delayed. That you were hurt.” Dismayed, Patterson picked up another notice. “This is what I got back,” he explained. “PATTERSON: DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME ON HIM. HE GOT WHAT HE DESERVED. GET RID OF HIM. IF HE RETURNS TO FOUR CORNERS HE WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT."
Ezra exhaled slowly, looking away from the tavern keeper. He’d lost it all. He’d lost everything.
“Doesn’t sound too good,” Patterson said empathetically.
Ezra pressed his head into the pillow and squeezed his eyes shut.
Chris Larabee was mad. He was more than mad, he was furious. He sat at his usual table in the saloon and glared at the pile of telegrams. “Son of a bitch,” he murmured under his breath. “Goddamn son of a bitch.”
“Chris?” Josiah tried, gauging the gunslinger’s mood and finding it as poor as it had been the night before.
Larabee glared at the preacher as he fingered one of the pieces of paper.
“Has our brother Ezra sent you any new love notes?” Sanchez asked as he found a seat.
“Ain’t seen one today,” Chris growled. “Damn it, what the hell got into that little snake?”
Sanchez shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I thought a couple of days in Prosperity would have done him a world of good.” He smiled, remembering the days before Ezra’s departure and the ruse the conman had pulled on all of them regarding that betting pool. Josiah admonished himself that he should have realized that something was up when Ezra tried to get him to prolong the sermons.
Then there was that unfortunate situation with the fool who’d tried to gun down Standish in the street. Ezra had brushed off the incident without much comment -- but it had scared years off the rest of the peacekeepers.
Yes, a couple days away from town should have worked wonders for Ezra. So, what had transpired the previous day made no sense at all. It had started easily enough. Chris had sent a telegram asking Ezra when he was going to be returning to Four Corners: “Standish, you’re expected to return by evening. Tell me when you’re leaving. Larabee.”
The returning message had been as expected. “Larabee, the tables are faring me today. I will return when I feel like it. Standish.”
Larabee had snorted in irritation and sent a quick reply. “Standish. I’m not in the mood. WE’RE SHORT HANDED. COME HOME AS WE DISCUSSED.”
The following message from Ezra had been even more abrasive. “Mr. Larabee, i do not abide being ordered around. I’ll leave when I please. Standish.”
Tired of playing games, Chris had sent his third wire: “EZRA, LET ME KNOW WHEN TO EXPECT YOU SO WE DON’T HAVE TO WORRY.”
The message that followed had shocked Larabee. “DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND ENGLISH? I WILL LEAVE WHEN IT SUITS ME AND GO WHERE I PLEASE.”
Chris was used to the often ironic and bedeviling telegrams that Ezra would send him, but this one seemed unnecessarily harsh. He showed it to Josiah and Nathan who were also amazed. “Maybe he’s drunk,” Nathan considered.
Josiah wasn’t sure of that. He’d rarely seen Standish drink more than he could handle, and when Ezra did go too far, he tended to be more jovial than anything, more likely to be self-effacing than belligerent. “Let him stay the night, Chris,” Josiah finally said. “Won’t do anyone any good to put him on the trail today. It seems that he needs another night away.”
They were short-handed, with Buck and Vin away, too. Chris would have preferred to slam the irritating southerner into a wall, but instead he responded, “EZRA, YOU MAY REMAIN IN PROSPERITY THIS EVENING. RETURN IN THE MORNING.”
The response came rather quickly. When Winston Juje, the telegraph operator, handed Chris Larabee that note, he cringed as if expecting an explosion. “HOW DARE YOU TELL ME WHAT I CAN DO. I DO NOT NEED YOUR PERMISSION. YOU DO NOT OWN ME. I WILL NOT HAVE A DRUNKEN NEANDERTHAL GIVING ME COMMANDS.”
That son of a bitch, that son of a bitch…Chris thought when he’d stalked back to the saloon. That son of a bitch… I’ll throttle him! I’ll kick his pompous ass in!
He showed the note to Nathan, and the healer sighed when he read it. “Ezra is sure trying his luck.”
“What the hell’s going on with him?” Chris asked, honestly perplexed. The southerner could certainly be a gadfly when he wanted to, but this wasn’t normal for him.
Jackson sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe he’s just tryin’ t’stretch his limits a bit?”
Larabee sent another note: “EZRA, WE’LL DISCUSS THIS MATTER WHEN YOU GET BACK.”
There was a ten-minute lapse before the next message. “WORK OUT YOUR OWN PROBLEMS. I’M SICK OF YOU AND YOUR FAILED ATTEMPTS AT LEADERSHIP. THERE IS NO REASON TO DISCUSS ANYTHING WITH YOU. I DO NOT INTEND TO RETURN TO FOUR CORNERS.”
The message had startled Larabee more than it offended him. A worry began to form in him. What was wrong with Ezra? Why was he behaving this way? He returned the message with: “EZRA, I WILL MEET YOU IN PROSPERITY IF YOU WISH. IS THERE A PROBLEM?”
The last notice of the evening came nearly an hour after Chris’. “MR. LARABEE. HOW CAN MAKE THIS MORE CLEAR? I HAVE CHOSEN TO LEAVE THE CONFINES OF YOUR DYING TOWN. I CANNOT STOMACH ANOTHER MOMENT OF YOUR UNFAVORABLE COMMAND. MANIPULATE THE OTHERS AS YOU PLEASE BUT I HAVE ESCAPED YOU AND SHALL NEVER RETURN. I’M CERTAIN YOU SHALL LEAD THEM ALL TO THEIR DEATHS WITHIN A YEAR. I PLAN TO LIVE. CEASE YOUR ANNOYING MESSAGES.”
Larabee got drunk that night, the words running through his head. Damn that Standish, he thought. Goddamn him! Chris had never planned to lead anyone -- it just happened that way. How in the world did he end up in charge of this group? Ezra, he knew, had every right to leave, nothing truly held him here… but damn…what had made the conman so angry?
The truth of the words settled on him, as Chris contemplated what he was doing. Had he condemned the others to death? He’d spent the night with those thoughts -- and now, with the morning light, nothing had come clear. He stared out at Josiah and didn’t know what to say to him. He chose silence.
“Thought he was happy here,” Josiah said finally. “Guess I didn’t understand him at all.”
“Lot of that going on,” Chris agreed.
“Are you going to try to talk to him?”
“Sent another message this morning,” Chris said with a sigh. “Asked him if he’d calmed down yet. Told him to get his ass home.”
They looked to the door when Nina, one of the telegraph operator’s children appeared. She slunk to the table and handed Larabee the note, disappearing silently before he had a chance to offer any response. Chris smiled grimly, thinking that Winston was a coward, sending his sweetest and smallest child on this task, knowing that he could offer no anger toward the little angel.
Chris sighed and unfolded yet another vitriol-filled message: “I ALWAYS SUSPECTED YOU WERE AN IDIOT. I WILL SEND FOR MY POSSESSIONS WHEN I AM ABLE, BUT I SHALL NEVER SET SIGHTS ON YOUR RAMSHACKLE EXCUSE FOR LIVING QUARTERS AGAIN. KEEP THE OTHERS ALIVE IF YOU CAN. I WILL FEND FOR MYSELF. DO NOT SEEK ME. STANDISH.”
Chris tossed the telegram on the pile with the others and muttered, “Shit.”
Ezra waited for Patterson to return. In the dim room above the Payroll saloon, he was fiercely lonely. His whole body ached – from his battered legs to his throbbing head. He was hot. He was cold. He tossed his head against his pillow in the quiet room. The day just dragged on. Evening was coming, the sky was dimming again. How many days would pass before he was up on his feet again? How long would he be alone?
He liked the saloonkeeper. Patterson was always kind, always helpful, quick to get him anything he wanted – well, that is -- Guy was attentive whenever he found time to visit. Patterson had helpfully written down what Ezra had wanted to say to Nathan, JD and Josiah, had personally delivered them to the telegraph office and had delivered the return messages to him. Patterson had listened to him as he talked out his confusion over the telegrams that had been received – had helped him see clearly. Ezra realized his mind was muddled – it was all too confusing on his own. The others – he pinned his hopes on the others. JD, Nathan and Josiah – one of them would help him. Buck and Vin, they weren’t home yet, were they? So he sent telegrams to the others and waited for their responses.
Josiah’s response came first. “SHOW SOME BACKBONE AND DON’T DISAPPOINT ME ANY LONGER. HEED THE WARNINGS AND GO. YOU AREN’T WANTED.”
JD’s wire was next: “EZRA, I USED TO COUNT ON YOU AS A FRIEND, BUT NOW I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. YOU AREN’T THE SORT OF PERSON I WANT TO BE AROUND. DON’T COME BACK."
And finally, Nathan returned with: “STANDISH, YOU’VE PROVEN EVERY BAD IMPRESSION I’VE HAD OF YOU. STAY AWAY OR YOU’LL BE SHOT DOWN.”
Ezra’d held his breath as Patterson read the missives – held his breath and stared at the wall, trying to comprehend it. It made no sense. It baffled him. Why were they treating him this way? Weren’t these his friends? His compatriots? Sure, they’d had some disagreements, but nothing justified this sort of treatment from them. Patterson helped him understand… Patterson explained it all. The people of Four Corners didn’t want a gambler in town. Larabee and the others were tired of losing to him. They were jealous of him. They were tired of him. They wanted only decent people in their town. Throughout it all, Patterson assured him that there would be a place for him in Prosperity. Over and over again, Patterson told him that he could use a resident gambler, he talked about percentages and bonuses. The saloonkeeper had been kind when mentioning the mounting debt. Ezra could understand that Patterson needed to be repaid. They were both businessmen after all. Ezra was a man who understood the value of things.
“It’s getting to be quite a large bill,” Patterson had said glumly. “But we can work it out. You can pay me out of your winnings once you’re at the tables. Just work it off.”
Ezra had forgotten how nice it was to have free room board, and medical services. Everything cost money. Everything had a price. He had to learn to live that way again – he had to leave that other life behind.
Doc Haley came, reeking of liquor. The cuts at Ezra’s back were doused haphazardly with carbolic acid and the bandages were replaced with fresh ones – but his fever remained and the pain didn’t lessen. The doctor could only shake his head and tell Patterson to keep an eye on him. Patterson brought him water and too much food. Patterson had the sheets changed and kept a tally of expenses. “Don’t worry,” Guy would say as he made another notation. “You’ll work it off later. I’ll take care of everything. You’ll be so happy here.”
Patterson, was the only person who seemed to care about his well-being. Ezra waited, hoping the saloonkeeper would be back soon.
As evening fell, Guy Patterson sauntered down the boardwalk, hands in his pockets. He’d kept busy that day. The bar always took up much of his time, but he’d needed take care of some business out in the countryside and had to look in on his guest. Standish, feverish and in pain, remained hopeful. But Standish’s hopes had fallen considerably after he’d heard what the others had to say. Guy had tried to keep any emotions from his voice as he read the telegrams, glancing to the bleak face that wouldn’t look at him.
Casually, Guy turned when he reached the little office used by the telegraph operator, and pushed open the door. Frank Harper looked up from his equipment and nodded to the saloon operator. Bert sat on a wooden chair in the corner, banging his legs as he read a dime-store novel.
“Bert,” Harper called, flipping the kid a coin. “Why don’t you get yourself some dinner at Liddy’s.”
The boy easily caught the tossed coin, marked his page, shut the book and scuttled out of the office. He was used to coming and going without being noticed.
“So,” Harper started, fussing with the pages of his log. “How’s your little guest?”
“Pretty much the same,” Guy explained.
“He get those wires from Sanchez and the others?”
“Yeah, I brought them right up when Bert delivered them,” Guy responded. “Didn’t let them get cold. He was waitin’ for ‘em.”
The telegraph operator kept his head down. “How’d he respond to ‘em?”
“Didn’t say a word. Just laid there. Stared.”
“That’s different,” Harper responded. “He sure do have a lot to say when he writes. He should have figured that the others would side with Larabee. Don’t know why he bothered sendin’ messages to those others.” Harper continued knowingly, “I figure if Wilmington and Tanner were in town, they’d be gettin’ somethin’ from him, too.”
“You sure know a lot about what goes on in Four Corners.”
“It’s my business,” Harper stated proudly, laying a hand on the telegraph equipment. “I know everything that goes on there. I hear it all.” He turned to Guy and stated, “You’d be amazed at how much I can figure out when I listen to messages all day long.” He puffed out his chest for a moment, thinking about how wise he’d grown since he started listening to the wire. “And everyone who comes in here to send out a message has a story to tell me. They talk my ear off.” He cocked his head, supposing that Patterson wasn’t really impressed. Changing the subject, he asked, “So you think Standish is going to be okay?”
Guy sighed and leaned on the counter. “Don’t look too good. Still can’t see straight or stay awake for long. Doc says he should be up before the end of next week.”
“Good… good.” The telegraph operator saw the note in Guy’s hand. “He’s tryin’ again?”
“Yeah,” Patterson commented as he held up the paper. “It’s to his mother this time. Don’t think he knows for sure where she is. He wants to send the same note to five different locations.”
Harper chuckled as he took the message from his friend. “Well, that works out well.” He glanced at the words, and didn’t seem surprised to find the message came in a code. “Figure he won’t find her,” Harper responded. “How’s he aiming to pay for these? I hear someone robbed him of all his valuables. He has nothing left of any worth.” He grinned a little too widely. “Nothing,” he repeated. “Telegrams aren’t free, ya know.”
Guy smiled back, leaning more of his weight on the counter. “I got a tab going. I let him know how much he’s cost me already. What with the doctoring, the room and board, the telegrams, gratuities, he’s building up a pretty steep bill. Keeps adding to it. He said he’d make good on it.”
“I bet,” Harper returned.
“It’ll take him a while to work it off, I figure.”
“Too bad, huh?”
"Yeah," Guy replied, his smile growing.
“He ask for anything?”
“Well, he seemed pretty torn up about some of the stuff he lost. Keeps asking after his horse. Wants me to look all over hell for it.”
“Gotta do some askin’, I guess. But a man won’t need a horse if he’s stayin’ put. That horse won’t be found.”
“He’s really concerned about a ring and a watch.”
“If the reward is enough, they’ll turn up.”
“That’d probably be good. I’ll make sure he understands that. A man don’t get something for nothing around here. I can loan the money to him – I figure the reward will have to be pretty good though to get them back.”
“Nothin’s free.” Harper gestured to his workspace. “A man’s gotta make a living.”
“Yeah, ain’t that the truth.” Patterson commented. “I’ll take good care of him. He won’t want to leave by the time we’re done with him.” Patterson grinned at Harper, and laughed nervously.
Harper crumbled the note that Patterson had given him, having already read the destinations, and tossed it in the trashcan. “I’ll get some responses to you in a day or so. Figure I’ll draw it out a while. The last one will take a few weeks to come in.”
“That’ll be good. Keep him waiting. I figure she won’t be found?”
“Won’t be a word from her,” Frank foresaw. “Figure he needs another note from Larabee?”
Patterson shrugged. “Been depressed since he got those notes from Sanchez and the others,” he responded. “Can’t get him to eat that food I got for him today. It was the good stuff, too – not cheap. Keeps wanting to know if I’d gotten any news. Seemed hopeful.”
“I’ll fix that.” Harper shook his head and picked up his message pad. He quickly wrote out a note. And handed it to Patterson. “You like it?”
With a quiet giggle, Patterson read: “PATTERSON: WE WANT NO FURTHER INFORMATION REGARDING STANDISH. HE’S A WASTE OF TIME. HE’S NEVER BEEN WANTED HERE. IF HE RETURNS TO FOUR CORNERS HE WILL BE SHOT AND LEFT TO ROT LIKE THE GARBAGE HE IS.”
The two men -- one tall and blond, the other, dark-haired and built like an out-of-shape wrestler -- smiled at each other. “Business will boom once I got my own professional gambler in house,” Patterson declared.
“He ain’t ever going to leave,” Frank Harper, the co-owner of the saloon, declared.
“We’ll make sure of that,” Patterson continued. “Me and you, we’re gonna make a mint! It’s going to be great!”
“Oh yeah,” Frank agreed. “We’ll make sure.” He smiled thinking about what he would do to Standish if he tried to leave again. That rich son-of-a-bitch deserved a lesson or two. They all did. It wasn’t fair that some men had all the money, and that people like Frank had to work for a living. Yes, Frank thought, they’d make sure. If there was any doubt, legs could be broken. Hell, it made sense to cripple the gambler permanently -- force him to stay in a chair. There were ways to hurt a man so badly that he’d never walk again – Frank was eager to try a few.
Nathan, JD and Josiah sat together at their usual table in the saloon. It had been a rough couple of days – what with Ezra’s telegrams and Larabee’s foul mood. The three of them had each sent their own messages to Prosperity that morning, trying to get a decent answer out of Standish. The messages they had received in return contained as much vitriol those sent to Larabee.
MR. SANCHEZ: I REFUSE TO TAKE ADVICE FROM ANYONE AS HYPOCRITICAL AS YOURSELF. STOP TRYING TO SAVE THE WORLD AND LEAVE ME ALONE.
MR. DUNNE: IT’S TIME THAT YOU GREW UP AND LEARNED THAT LIFE ISN’T FAIR. IF YOU WERE A MAN YOU’D REALIZE THAT I WOULD NEVER RETURN TO THAT HOLE. CONTINUE TO PLAY SHERIFF AND LET THE OTHERS PRETEND TO HONOR YOUR TITLE WHILE THEY LAUGH BEHIND YOUR BACK.
MR. JACKSON: LEAVE ME ALONE. I DON’T NEED A DARKY OFFERING ME ANY ADVICE. NOTHING YOU’VE EVER SAID TO ME HAS BEEN WORTH YOUR BREATH. DESIST.
After that, only silence. Standish had journeyed onward from Prosperity. He was gone for good.
So the three sat, and mourned in their own ways. None of them really understood it. Ezra had been his usual cocky, pain-in-the-ass self before he left Four Corners. However, after spending a couple days in Prosperity, everything changed. What had happened to him? Why was he so angry with all of them? JD was confused as hell. He’d always liked Ezra, but the churlish message that Ezra had sent him had stung him to the core. Josiah had tried to reason with him, but the note Ezra returned literally made him step back when he’d read it. Nathan had met the same. It hurt the healer because he’d honestly liked Ezra. Oh yes, they’d had their differences – but Ezra hadn’t spoken to him like this since their first meeting.
The three men sat at their table, drinking their beers and licking their wounds. Larabee sat at the far end of the bar – away from everyone. Buck and Vin were in Eagle Bend and should be returning shortly. God, they needed them back. JD sighed, wondering what would become of all of them – now that Ezra had left in such a caustic way. It felt as is they’d been ripped apart like a tattered cloth.
It felt like hell.
As Ezra rested, he ruminated over everything, trying to get his reluctant brain to cooperate, trying to dissect and interpret everything that had happened. Ezra’s mind, dulled by the blow and the fever, couldn’t figure anything out. Something was wrong about all this, wasn’t it? Nothing made sense. A niggling thought had reached him -- the telegrams hadn’t even sounded like Christopher Larabee. But no, Patterson had explained it all. Patterson had made it clear. Standish was unwanted – a pariah. Four Corners had expelled him. Larabee was enraged, and that was the reason for the strange wording. The fine people of Prosperity would take him in though – Prosperity wanted him.
Standish would never see Four Corners again – never again could he laugh with Buck, chat openly with JD, philosophize with Josiah, argue with Nathan, sit quietly with Vin, battle with Larabee. It was gone. All gone. They didn’t want him. Lord, what had he done? Certainly, he’d done something horribly wrong to have lost so much. Larabee would shoot him if he were to see him again, probably all of them would. He closed his eyes at this thought -- his sweat-soaked head still throbbing. They’ll kill me if I come too close.
And his ring -- he tried not to sob at the thought of its loss. The simple gold band that Trudy had given him was gone. The watch that his grandfather granted him before death took him. Gone… all gone. And Chaucer. Oh God, he’d lost his horse -- his oldest friend -- his confidant. The animal had relied on him to take care of him. Where was he now? Was he well-treated? Was he cared for? Had anyone hurt him - Chaucer?
Everything had gone to hell.
He struggled to sit up, to get up and away, but the room tilted and his head buzzed. He fell back to the bed. God, he was pathetic -- trapped in this bed. His heart thudded in his chest. This was all so wrong -- everything was terribly wrong.
In the empty room, he thought about the telegrams and tried to rationalize them. He wished Patterson was there to help make things clear -- but he had only himself now. Alone, he couldn’t fathom why Larabee would react in that manner -- why the others behaved similarly. Why did they write those words -- those words that didn’t really ‘fit’ them. Why? Something was wrong. Something was dreadfully wrong.
Something was wrong in Four Corners.
With that realization, he forced himself upright. He breathed sharply as his head spun and his chest ached. Good Lord! Something was wrong in Four Corners. It explained everything! Either Larabee had gone loco, convincing the others of some fabrication. Or perhaps the lawmen had were in grave danger and someone had sent these telegrams to keep him from returning. But that would mean that Winston Juje was somehow in on the deal. Ezra couldn’t imagine Winston sending such a message. No, the man was too dedicated for such behavior. Perhaps Mr. Juje was dead. Maybe they all were – dead or hurt or in some sort of trouble.
Something was very, very wrong in Four Corners.
Ezra hunched, feeling the bandages tight against his healing wounds. He swung his aching legs off the bed and sat, breathing deeply. Black bruises became evident on his leg. He had to go back. Had to help them. They needed his help. They needed him.
He glanced across the room, setting his sights on the clothing that rested on the dresser. Patterson had kindly made the purchases for him – adding the latest expense to his ever-expanding tab – now he just had to get to the trousers and shirt. Bracing himself against the mattress, Ezra promised himself that it wouldn’t be bad. He counted to three and shoved himself to his feet, nearly crumpling at the pain that shot through his legs. “Lord,” he gasped, as he fought for balance. Bones might not be broken, but his bruised legs screamed with the sudden weight. He staggered across the room, doing his best to move without making undue noise. One step at a time, he closed the distance until his hands grasped the top of the dresser. He gratefully rested as he eyed the clothing.
Wondering how much Patterson had charged him for this latest acquisition, he grabbed the items and pushed away from the dresser, hobbling back to the bed to put on the simple garments. He had to go home… to help them. The town was in trouble. Those fine men were in trouble. It was the only explanation. And sending a telegram obviously would do no good. No, he had to go there in person. He had to go.
He pulled the bandage off his head in annoyance. The dressing at his back pulled uncomfortably, so he left it in place, not wanting to deal with peeling the cloth away from the healing cuts. He felt drenched in sweat, but couldn’t let that stop him. He pulled off his nightshirt, dabbing the already damp cloth at his forehead before tossing it to the floor. Carefully, he pulled on the shirt, swaying as he sat on the edge of the bed. Good God, what was the matter with him? He stood again, to pull his trousers up all the way. His legs nearly buckled and he needed to lean against the bed to keep his balance. He could do this. He blinked as the sweat ran into his eyes.
He felt like shit. Tremors ran through his muscles as he kept his feet. It hurt to breathe in too deeply. All he wanted to do was to lie down again, but there was no time. He had to get moving. Had to get back to Four Corners because something was dreadfully wrong. He wasn’t sure that he could even walk to the livery.
God, he had to try.
Tired from a long ride, two horsemen left the livery in Four Corners and ambled across the street to their favorite saloon. The batwing doors to the saloon swung open as Vin and Buck came into the doorway. They paused, reading the temperature of the room before slowly making their way to the regulators’ table. “JD, Josiah, Nate,” Vin greeted them all in turn. “Seems like things are in a bit of a ruckus ‘round here.”
“Hey fellas,” Buck called, tilting his head as he regarded them. “What happened?”
Nathan snorted and shook his head, feeling betrayed and sick. “Ezra,” he muttered.
Buck laughed. “He’s stirrin’ up trouble since he got back from Prosperity?”
“That’s just it, Buck,” JD said, wiping his chin. “He ain’t back.”
“Why ain’t he?” Vin asked, finding a seat. He looked from one man to another. Something about their expressions alarmed him. “He okay?” He glanced toward Larabee, who watched them from the bar, but gave no sign of approaching the group. “He’s okay, ain’t he?” Vin demanded when the others didn’t answer.
“It would be difficult to say if there’s a right answer to that, Vin,” Josiah said offhand. “He’s not acting like himself.”
“Sent us some telegrams,” Nathan put in. “Said some pretty hurtful stuff. He ain’t coming back.”
“He what?” Buck exclaimed.
“He’s gone,” JD voiced softly.
“And done burned all his bridges behind him,” Nathan added. “Figure Chris would shoot him if he showed his face.”
Buck shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”
“You haven’t seen the messages,” Nathan muttered. He dug his from his pocket and handed it to Wilmington. Josiah gave up several of Larabee’s and his own.
Buck read silently. He offered them to Tanner, but the tracker just shook his head, not even wanting to look at them. “Why?” Buck finally asked, looking confused.
“Dunno,” JD commented, keeping his gaze on his beer, not letting Buck read the message he’d received -- not wanting anyone to see it.
“I can’t believe he’d say things like that,” Buck declared.
“Well, there it is in writing. You know Winston ain’t gonna mess up something like that,” Nathan said with a nod.
“It’s not like Ezra,” Buck tried.
The three men shrugged and didn’t look at him, each feeling the raw hurt if those words.
“Gotta be a reason,” Vin decided. He shoved himself back from the table and approached Larabee. The other men watched, waiting for fireworks. “Gonna go to Prosperity in the mornin’,” Vin told Chris.
“Ain’t no reason to,” Larabee returned with a growl.
“There’s a reason,” Vin returned sharply. “Gonna ask after Ezra.”
“He’s gone,” Larabee responded.
“Gonna find out what the hell happened then,” Vin declared.
“You didn’t read those messages,” Larabee said darkly.
“Don’t need to,” Vin returned. He was a man who followed signs – who looked for the most logical path, and so far, nothing about this was logical.
Ezra hobbled his way into the livery, his head swimming as he swayed alarmingly. The streets had been empty and he made his way unnoticed. Gasping, he leaned against a roof support and regarded the stable. “Gotta go… back,” Ezra whispered as he looked at the horses. He ran a hand across his clammy forehead as he rested. He closed his eyes and pressed his head against the wood. God, he was tired – so goddamn tired. His legs hurt. His head hurt. His chest hurt. His back hurt. He didn’t understand any of it. It made no sense.
He felt empty. He felt alone -- hopelessly alone. He glanced at his hand, sorrowful about the loss of the ring. He touched his chest, looking for a vest pocket to hold his treasured pocket watch -- gone. And Chaucer? His eyes sought out the faithful steed. Not here. Gone.
Panting, he tried to figure out what to do. He couldn’t just abandon Chaucer. The ring and watch -- as much as he cherished them -- were just metal and glass. The ring was simple… the watch was not really up to his standards. He should just forget about them. This was nothing new. He’d left beloved objects behind before. But Chaucer -- he blinked, feeling so damn hot. He couldn’t abandon his trusted steed. Have to find him, Standish thought as his head pressed against the support. He depends on me. Ezra looked about the dim livery, his gaze falling on the straw in an empty stall. It would make a comfortable bed. If he could only lie down for a while, certainly he’d feel better. He chuckled ironically. And how would that gain him anything? Feeling ‘better’ at this point meant nothing.
He had to go back to Four Corners… find out what was wrong…help them. Then… he could rest… he could feel better. Then, he could look for Chaucer… make things right. He nodded once, convincing himself of this plan. There was nothing else really worthwhile.
Maybe it was all a cruel jest? Maybe it was a prank? He tried to imagine the peacekeepers all sitting around a table, hooting with laughter at their little joke. Perhaps they were in horrible danger -- and he didn’t want to imagine that. Maybe they were going to shoot him upon his return. Maybe nobody wanted him. But, if they were in trouble, he had to help them. He had to try.
A sorrel mare looked to be a decent mount. He staggered toward her, realizing that stealing a horse was a hanging offence. And he didn’t give a damn.
First light found Vin in the livery, preparing Peso for the ride. He looked up when a shadow moved through the door and smiled at Buck. The ladies’ man shrugged and stated, “Figure we’d better go check up on what happened to that weasle, huh?”
“Yup,” Vin agreed. “He do get into trouble.”
Buck chuckled as he approached his horse’s stall. “Wiser words ain’t been spoken. Gotta go save his bacon, or at least figure out why it fell in the fire.”
“Bacon?” JD called, shuffling into the building. “You guys lookin’ for breakfast?” He chomped on a sausage as he strode in. “Mrs. Combe’s got some good eats goin’ at her restaurant. She can fix ya up. You all headed to Prosperity?”
“Figure we would,” Vin responded.
“Well, I figure I’ll go, too!” the kid declared. “Somethin’ just ain’t right about all this.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Josiah added, striding in with Nathan at his side. “It’s time we checked up on our black sheep.”
“And knock some sense into him if we can,” Nathan included.
JD looked about as they prepared their mounts. They worked in silence and were quickly ready. It felt good to be working as a team -- to try to resolve this issue instead of just ignoring it -- instead of just wishing it away. “Where’s Chris, ya reckon?” Dunne finally asked worriedly.
“Ah, don’t worry ‘bout him, kid,” Buck said confidentially. “He’s fine. It’s just that Ezra’s done burned him good so you can’t expect ‘im to forgive so easily.”
Nathan nodded. “He said some pretty bad things to Chris.”
“And although the Lord asks us to turn the other cheek,” Josiah put in. “Not everyone is that accommodating.”
Vin said nothing, as he was the first to exit the livery, leading Peso behind him. He nodded to the man just outside the entrance. “Figure we’ll get underway,” Vin told him.
“I’ll catch up,” the man-in-black returned, watching the shame-faced others as the exited behind the tracker.
“He’s gone!” Guy shouted as he slammed open the door to the telegraph office.
Frank leapt to his feet, quickly scanning the room to ensure that Bert wasn’t skulking around. He flung up the hinged counter, grabbed Guy’s arm and yanked him closer. “What?” he hissed. “Where’d he go, huh?”
“I don’t know!” Guy gibbered. “He was too sick to get out of bed. He was too sick, Frank!”
“Didn’t you keep an eye on him?”
“I got a life, Frank. I got things to do. I had to sneak that horse of his out of town on the first night, and I had stuff to do around the bar last night. Dang it, Frank, I can’t watch him all the time.”
“God! You’re a moron, Guy!”
“Well, you didn’t help AT ALL!” Guy shouted back. “I’m the one spending all that time convincing him to stay!”
“Who do you think’s been handling the telegrams? You idiot!”
Patterson scowled. “Well, I guess it’s done then. Our great idea… just didn’t work. It’s over. We aren’t gonna get us a gambler to save the Payroll. It’s done.”
“Hell, Guy, it’s not done!” Harper exclaimed. “Standish is on the loose.”
“He’s probably dead by now. He was so sick, Frank.”
“Might make it. What if he hooks up with those folks back in Four Corners?”
“Aw, Frank, he ain’t gonna go there. Between the two of us, we got him convinced they’ll shoot him if he goes back. You didn’t see his face when I read him those notes.”
“Still,” Frank murmured. “If he figures any of this out, we’ll both swing.”
Guy gasped, and grabbed at his throat. “No, Frank! It was just a gambler. We just beat him up a bit. They wouldn’t…”
“What about Jock Hammish?”
“What about him?”
“If Standish shoots his mouth off and tells people that we jumped him in that alley, Sheriff Davis will pin Jock’s murder on us.”
Guy went pale at that thought. “Oh God!”
Harper frowned. “One of us should go looking for that damn gambler. Finish him off ‘cause it won’t do no good to keep him.”
“We can find him and bring him back. Keep with the plan!”
Frank shook his head sharply. “He ran out on us. I ain’t gonna risk my neck on a chance that he won’t do it again. It’d be better if we end this permanently.”
“But he owes me all that money! I won’t get any of it back if we kill him!”
Frank snorted. “You’re coming out ahead. Doc can’t remember to bill anyone and I’m takin’ care of the wires.” He patted his pocket as he added, “Plus we got all the money and crap that we took off him.” He laughed at Guy’s unhappy expression.
“Yeah,” Guy grunted. “But I had a pretty good thing going. He would have been paying me off for months.” His expression became more petulant. “We would have had the cake and eaten it, too. God, it would have been perfect!”
“You gotta kill ‘im, Guy.”
Patterson shook his head. “Not me! I can’t do that.”
Frank curled his lip at the squeamish saloon man. “Killin’ ain’t that hard, Guy,” he purred. “It’ll be a kick.”
“You do it then,” Guy shot back.
Harper surprised him by looking content at this demand. “All right. I’ll get Bert to watch the office and then I’ll go after the bastard.”
Guy nodded, realizing the wisdom in Frank’s decision. It would be better to just give up on their original plan -- finish of the gambler to shut his mouth permanently -- leave no loose threads. They’d divided that wad of cash they’d found on Standish, already made some money off the horse, and would be making a pretty penny from the rest of the stolen items. Guy bit his lip as he thought. “But, Frank, what if one of those lawmen in Four Corners wires another question while you’re gone? And what if Bert…”
“I got Bert so scared he’ll wet his pants if I look at him funny,” Frank shot back. “All I gotta do is tell him to record all the incoming messages – but not give any out. And then, save the outgoing ones for me to send when I get back. I’ve done that before when I need a break. He knows his stuff. He knows I’ll knock him silly if he disobeys me.”
Guy wrung his hands. “I hope Standish is dead already,” he muttered. “I hope he just crawled off and died somewhere alone.”
Frank smiled toothily. “I prefer to find him alive,” he uttered. He turned, feeling a flush as he considered the possibility. “I’ll kill him,” he whispered. “It’ll be fine.” He closed his eyes, imagining how many different ways that a man could kill another.
Ezra blinked up at the morning sky. Somewhere during the night, he’d lost his horse. His mind had wandered as he road. He’d been unable to stay awake. Whether he drifted in and out of consciousness, or if he simply slept, Ezra couldn’t be sure. He just knew that his head pounded, the wounds on his back throbbed, his legs ached -- it hurt to breathe. He’d held onto his reins, tried to keep his seat, and did his best to keep the mare on the trail to Four Corners.
He hadn’t been successful. More than once, he’d startled out of sleep, hardly able to stay in his saddle. The mare just kept wandering. Finally, finding a little creek, she bowed her head to drink and shifted her unaware passenger. Ezra slid from her back before he knew what was happening. He landed with a yelp. The shock and the shout was enough to send the horse running – leaving Ezra by the water.
He’d tried to struggle to his feet, but his bruised legs would carry him no further – his throbbing head wouldn’t stand for the change in position – his chest hurt too much to shift. He rested by the creek and let the water rush past. He had to get back to Four Corners -- to fix what had gone wrong -- but he couldn’t. No, he could hardly move.
Just goes to prove, he thought, that you were never meant for that sort of work. You should have just stayed in Prosperity. You should have forgotten about Four Corners -- should have heeded their telegrams. But were the telegrams real? Was any of this real?
The rocks were real. The creek was real. The pain was real. Everything else -- it drifted around him. He couldn’t even be certain of his own name. Hadn’t Patterson said it was Reginald Kyle? Yes, Kyle. Maybe he should just be Kyle from now on -- forget about Ezra Standish and Four Corners.
He’d lost the watch so there was no reason to cling to such silly things as the initials “EPS”. Why did you even keep up such a mockery? Just because they were your grandfather’s initials was no reason to carry them. The old man probably would prefer if you stopped that tradition, allow him to rest in peace.
You should have just stayed in Prosperity, and became Reginald Kyle, the resident gambler at the Payroll Saloon. It would have made sense. It was what you were reared to do. You’re better at being a gambler than a lawman.
But something was wrong in Four Corners. He couldn’t just abandon them. His hands clutched at the gravel as he tried to force himself up on hands and knees.
Annoyed, Frank Harper rented a horse and headed out of town. Mort, the liveryman, had informed him that one of the other hacks had been stolen during the night. A passerby had told Mort that he’d seen the horse and man gallop out of town at an odd hour. Mort had pointed the way to Harper. The telegraph man had nodded his thanks and kicked the horse to a trot.
He grinned as he headed after the gambler. Patterson had come to him when the gambler first arrived in town, excited about the prospect of keeping him around. Patterson thought he could keep Standish in house by using flattery and persuasion. Guy had come to his partner for advice.
“Look, Guy,” Frank had told him. “After what happened to Jock, no one will be surprised if another man gets attacked. We just knock him flat – enough to keep him a’bed for a while.”
“Oh, I don’t want to hurt him too bad,” Guy had whined.
Frank snorted as he recalled that meeting. Guy was a fool. Later, Guy was tickled with the notion that Standish’s general confusion was a helpful coincidence. “Guy, I hit him in the head for a reason!” Frank had snarled at him. “He’s a smart man. We gotta keep him confused long enough to get him settled. We got to get him convinced that they’ll kill him if he goes back to Four Corners. You gotta make him understand that he’s safe here. He’s got a new name. They ain’t gonna find him. If he decides to move on after he gets better – we just gotta break a leg or two. If he starts figuring things out, we just gotta break his neck.”
Guy didn’t like the idea, but he agreed to it. Guy had no guts. No wonder the Payroll was suffering. That saloon should have flourished! They should be rich men by now! Instead, Frank spent his days scribbling messages for no-account nothings and Guy poured drinks for the same.
Should be rich. Should have everything I want, Frank thought as he followed the wandering trail. He could pick out the tracks of the only other horse that had recently come this way. It would be easy to follow. Frank had frowned when he discovered the direction Standish had chosen, wondering why in hell Standish would want to go back toward Four Corners. There was nothing for him there. It only redoubled the need to kill him -- end Standish before he was able to reach that town.
With a grumble, Harper thought, I should have everything I want. Instead, I’m looking through the desert for that damn gambler. We had a good plan. It would have worked fine! It’s Guy’s fault; he me stop! I know I should’ve broken Standish up a bit. He wouldn’t be going nowhere if I had done it right. Gotta stop that piece of shit before he gets too far. He’ll pay for this. He’ll pay.
Frank smiled, thinking about everything he’d do, considering how long he could make the man suffer. He thought about Jock Hammish. He smiled, recalling every vivid detail. Jock had died too quickly. Who would have thought that the big man could stand so little? One blow to the head with an iron pipe and it was over. For years, Jock had tried to belittle him every time they’d met in the street. Jock should have suffered for hours, but got off easy. Frank had beat the body to pulp with that pipe -- but it wasn’t the same once the man was dead. He’d use wood the next time – stun the man – leaving him alive to suffer.
Frank Harper would make Standish pay for every slight he’d ever received from those rich popinjays that slid through town. He rubbed the corners of his mouth as he followed the trail, hoping he found Standish before he died – hoping he’d have a part in it. It would last longer this time, he promised himself -- hours and hours. He’d take time to relish every moment.
He kicked the horse to a faster pace – excited to get there.
It was afternoon by the time the six gunslingers rode into Prosperity. They eyed the place like wolves, set after prey. The Payroll Saloon was easy to find. It looked like the sort of place Ezra would like -- a little less rough than what Larabee and the others might enjoy. They’d start there – ask questions at the Payroll – and spread out from there.
A tall blond man stood behind the bar, wiping bar glasses when the six stormed in. He set down a tumbler and nervously tugged at the rag. “Can I help you, sirs?” he asked congenially.
“You,” Larabee started, striding to the bar. His spurs rang as sharp as gunshots as he crossed the distance. “Remember a man named Standish?”
The bartender laughed nervously. “Standish? Ah, well.” He glanced at the men who crowded around him. “Don’t know for sure. Lots of folk come through here.”
Josiah smiled, trying to look pleasant, but the expression had a chill to it. “Josiah Sanchez,” he introduced. “Me and the others, we’re the law from Four Corners.”
“Guy Patterson,” the bartender returned, eyeing them skeptically. He swallowed and laughed again. “I own this place.”
“Ezra Standish stayed for a couple days,” Josiah informed him. “Figure you might remember him.”
“Dunno,” Patterson stated, looking from one man to another, his eyes large.
“Oh, you would have remembered him,” Buck assured. “Fancy lookin’ fella, about so high.” He held out a hand to emphasis Ezra’s height. “Brown hair. Green eyes. Southern fella. Talks a bit too much.”
“Ha ha,” the bartender barked. “Yeah, he was here.”
“Was he winning?” Buck asked, knowing that this was a good way to gauge the gambler’s state of mind. A string of losses might unhinge him a bit.
“He was doing right good,” the bartender told them. “Damn well, actually.” His expression was almost proud at that comment.
JD put in, “He tell you anything about Four Corners or his friends there?”
“Oh,” Guy said with a knowing expression. “He had lots to say about Four Corners. Told me he was never going back to that hellhole. He told me that since he’d made him some money, he could move out of that pit and start a new life.” The bartender was warming up, talking in an easy manner. “Said the men he worked with were beneath him and that he never wanted to lay eyes on them again.” He glanced up quickly, losing his casual disposition when he saw the dark look from Larabee. “No offence! I was just, you know, repeating what I heard. Standish is long gone.”
“When?” Chris demanded.
“Left on Thursday. Gone!” Guy made a gesture with the rag.
“Sure it was Thursday?” JD asked. He looked to the others for agreement. “We got more telegrams from him yesterday morning, Friday.”
Guy fussed with the rag. “Well, that’s when he left my place. Might have gone someplace else for Thursday night.”
“Any idea where he went to?” Dunne asked, leaning forward on the bar. He tried to look encouraging, but his companions were ready to spit nails.
With a shrug, the bartender said, “Gee, I don’t think he said anything. Just wanted to get the …ah… ‘stink of Four Corners’ off of him.”
Larabee jerked his head at Nathan and Buck. “Ask around,” he told them. “Find out where he went.”
“Wait! Wait!” Guy said and laughed. “I remember. Said he was goin’ to Ridge City. Yeah, on his way to Ridge City. I remember.”
Vin shook his head and turned to go. “Where ya headed?” Chris asked as he watched Tanner move toward the door.
“Livery,” Vin responded without stopping. “Figure Ezra had to get his horse. Might ‘ave said something there.” Buck and Nathan glanced to each other and then went with him.
The bartender continued to smile as he picked up the glass again, rubbing it for all he was worth, as Josiah, JD and Chris set up a course of action to check the rest of the town.
Continue on to the Second Half