"I hear you're some kind of healer," Ezra said, as he pushed open the door to the ramshackle clinic.
The man inside looked up, his hands full of the bandages he was rolling. Ezra didn't miss the reaction to his voice, the same look he'd seen on dark faces in other places where he'd travelled, his accent an unexpected and unwelcome reminder of things best left behind.
"Some kind," the man said. "You hurt your arm?"
"My shoulder," Ezra said, crossing to sit on the nearest cot without being asked. "Dislocated."
He made himself hold still as the other man approached, even though he knew what was about to happen would hurt like hell. It always did. Thrown from his horse when it spooked at something or nothing, Ezra's shoulder had popped out like it often did and this time he'd been half-stunned by the fall as well, coming to only when he knew it was too late to deal with the dislocation by himself. The ride into town had been agony, each movement of the horse sending a jolt of pain through his body.
It took an effort not to flinch. Ezra kept telling himself he didn't feel threatened by the man who was now standing over him; nobody who had the reputation of being the closest thing this town had to a doctor would risk losing that by hurting anyone unnecessarily. Right up to the point hands were on him he almost believed it.
"You really messed your shoulder up," the other man said. "This is gonna hurt."
Ezra nodded. He knew what it would be like, from past experience, and hurt was an understatement if ever there was one. The last thing he felt were the healer's broad hands gripping his arm and shoulder before darkness rushed up to meet him and he dived right in.
When he woke, the clinic was in semi-darkness and Ezra was alone.
The healer knew what he was doing, at least. His shoulder had been popped back in competently enough by the feel of it, the arm firmly strapped to prevent a repeat performance any time soon.
It was a good thing he was ambidextrous or else his earning capacity for this town - what was its name again? - would be severely jeopardised. As it was, Ezra reminded himself with a small grin, he'd have marks lining up around the block to play cards with the one-armed gambler. One arm or two, he was still a better poker player than anyone he was likely to meet round these parts.
"You got a name?"
Ezra was glad of the darkness; it hid the worst of his reaction to the sudden discovery that apparently he wasn't quite as alone in the clinic as he'd thought. The derringer Ezra had popped instinctively into his hand retreated back into his shirt sleeve as easily as it had come.
He recognised the voice of the man who'd fixed his arm. No matter how strong his instincts, he couldn't find it in himself to believe the man who'd taken such care not to cause him additional pain before had any intention of hurting him now.
"Jackson. Nathan Jackson."
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, with as much snake oil in his voice as he could manage. "My name is Ezra Standish."
"And you're a gambler."
What the other man thought of that particular profession was quite clear from his tone - for some reason the attitude rankled a little more than usual. Ezra wondered why he should care what anyone in this one horse town thought, but particularly this man.
"That is, indeed, my most undervalued profession."
"Undervalued?" Jackson echoed, disbelief limning every syllable. "Separating folks from their hard-earned money?"
"One of the fundamentals of a healthy economy, sir, is the circulation of capital. I am merely a tool of the economic process."
"How's your shoulder now?" Jackson asked, his sudden change of subject enough to tell Ezra he wasn't convinced by the other man's argument.
There was silence for a moment and then the dark shape moved again, this time to light the lamp that stood on a nearby table. Jackson's face was unreadable, the light not strong enough to illuminate his features even if Ezra had known him well enough to know what his tells were. In the half-light the clinic was as dingy as he remembered, his jacket the one spot of colour as it lay neatly folded at the end of the bed he currently occupied.
Once he'd got up from the bed, Ezra offered his hand in silent thanks. There was a long pause, Jackson eyeing his outstretched hand as if he was being offered a snake, before he accepted it. Jackson's hand was calloused, cool in Ezra's grip, the strength his sturdy build proclaimed tempered by the kindness even the dim light couldn't hide.
When the handshake ended, Ezra reached for his jacket, all the time wondering whether his action had really been that surprising. Jackson had been startled by it, that was apparent; a Southerner offering that gesture of unspoken equality to him was something he hadn't been expecting. Ezra was also surprised to discover that it hadn't been a calculating gesture on his own part, merely a response to the fact that he truly appreciated the assistance with his shoulder. It wasn't as if dealing with that particular problem was something he could have done on his own, after all.
"You staying at the hotel?" Jackson asked, coming over to help him with his jacket after the second attempt to pull it securely over his injured shoulder had failed. He couldn't put it on properly, the strapping didn't allow for that.
"That is my intention."
"Better get yourself over there, then, before folks start to talk."
Talk about what? Ezra pondered that as he opened the door.
Outside, the lights from the saloon flickered brightly down the street and showed Ezra where he needed to be, his own shadow now helping to mask where Nathan Jackson still stood in semi-darkness. The lights drew him inexorably, as he'd somehow known they would, but Ezra found he couldn't leave without a final gesture, even if he couldn't have said where that idea had come from.
"My thanks for your assistance, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan didn't reply and Ezra couldn't wait any longer. He headed down the stairs as carefully as he could, conscious of the other man's gaze with every step he took.
His shoulder took longer than it usually did to completely come right, but Ezra had expected that to be the case this time. He didn't think he'd hit anything on the way down but the fall itself had been enough to do some damage. How he'd felt the next morning had been sufficient to tell him that his plans to set himself up as a one-armed gambler had been more than a little optimistic.
It was frustrating to be unable to gamble, or at least not for the lengthy stints he was used to when fully fit, but he'd enough money right now that it wasn't a necessity. The vagaries of his usual lifestyle meant that whenever he had enough for a comfortable hotel room, regular meals and a place in the livery stable for his horse, Ezra was content enough.
By the time a couple of days had passed, however, he'd read all the editions of the local newspaper he could lay his hands on and boredom was starting to set in.
Ezra's shoulder twinged as he shifted on the bed, reminding him of the terse but oddly interesting conversation he'd had with Nathan Jackson. The healer was an enigma, that much was certain. How had he found his way out here?
Ezra reached for his watch, extracting it from his vest pocket, and glanced at the time. He wondered where Jackson was right now - did he eat his meals alone or at a secluded table in the small restaurant Ezra himself frequented? He'd never seen the other man in there on the occasions he had been present, but that didn't mean he didn't dine there. There were few enough alternatives in this town for a man without a family and he certainly didn't recall seeing anything like the usual domestic disorder in the clinic.
Mind made up that this was an appropriate pastime, Ezra pushed himself upright and free of the mattress' embrace.
It was ridiculously easy to ascertain Jackson's routine. A chair outside the saloon, hat tipped over his eyes far enough to shade them, and Ezra could watch the healer's comings and goings with impunity. It didn't take long to figure out that Jackson was pretty much friendless in this town, for all that the inhabitants seemed to treat him with a cursory kindness. That, he decided as he watched someone's terse nod at the healer as they passed him on the street, was probably more due to what he could do for them than anything else.
He wasn't sure why he cared so much, why the thought of Jackson being isolated this way affected him as it did. The thought was like a loose tooth Ezra couldn't help returning to, even though he knew it was none of his business.
Perhaps it was because he'd grown up alongside people like Nathan Jackson and had spent those years he valued the most, the ones that had proved the happiest of his life to date, being raised by someone who could have been Nathan's mother or older sister. As Ezra had grown, he'd found himself trying to balance the things that he experienced with the rhetoric he heard. He'd come to the conclusion, helped by his own choice of profession, that people found it incredibly easy to judge on first impressions. But while Ezra could dress differently, Jackson couldn't change the colour of his skin and that was all that most people saw when they looked at him.
He didn't consider himself a liberal, he would have run a mile from anyone who wanted to question him too closely about his activities during the recent unpleasantness, but Maude Standish didn't raise a fool. Ezra had learned to judge people by what they did, not how they looked, so it soon became his steadfastly held opinion that Nathan Jackson deserved better than he was currently getting from the people of Four Corners.
He kept telling himself that gratitude was all it was, nothing more. And perhaps in time, Ezra hoped, he'd come to believe that things could ever be that simple where he was concerned.
The relief Ezra felt when he was able to remove the bandages and have both arms working perfectly once more was incredible. Ezra surveyed his small kingdom, as he'd come to consider the gambling tables of the saloon, smiling to himself at the number of new faces he saw there.
He'd been careful not to dress too flashily, to talk with regret about how his injury would slow him down, watching as avarice overtook common sense where a number of his would-be opponents were concerned. It was his experience that people rarely kept their cool when money was involved and that could be an expensive lesson to learn. For them. Not, of course, that Ezra found himself in any way reluctant to teach it, regardless.
Currently he was considering another approach, as he pondered whether it was worth his while to stick around and continue to fleece the poker players or if he would be better off attempting a different way to liberate money from the unwashed masses before leaving town. Ezra found himself reticent, for once, to move on; an odd feeling of enjoyment washed over him. It was a novelty to be in one place for a reasonable period of time and at the moment he was savouring it.
It didn't escape his notice that, other than those who wished to pit their skills against him, he was still essentially as friendless as he'd observed the healer was. That was no novelty, merely a fact of life for one such as he.
Ezra had just downed another glass of mediocre whisky - that was something he would need to rectify if he planned to stay in town for a while - when he heard the shouts in the street. He'd already considered and turned down the trick shot con he'd used so successfully elsewhere - his bridges weren't burned here, not yet, and there was still money to be made before he chose that as his finale. He recognised what was going on immediately; the sound of a mob was pretty much unmistakeable. And if he was still in here, not outside waiting to be tarred and feathered, that narrowed down the list of potential targets considerably.
Ezra checked his Remington, its weight familiar and comforting against his side, as he headed over to the saloon door.
Outside there was indeed a mob, as he'd already suspected. And there was Nathan Jackson, head held high despite the fear he must be feeling, in the middle of it attempting to reason with them. Ezra could have told him how futile that was - mobs didn't want answers or excuses, they only wanted a crude revenge for whatever it was they thought Jackson had done. He was lucky they hadn't beaten him senseless first, in preparation for the lynching they clearly intended to have.
If there was anything Ezra Standish hated, it was a lynch mob.
He reached beneath his jacket for the Remington once more, for a final check of his ammunition, more habit than anything else. The mob was already sizeable, and growing as the minutes passed, but not so large that a few well-chosen bullets couldn't dramatically reduce their desire for a lynching. If he was lucky, Ezra told himself, he could nip this stupidity in the bud and pay back the healer for the unexpected kindness he'd shown.
He couldn't think about the alternative, that didn't bear consideration.
Ezra took a couple of steps forward, letting the double doors swing closed behind him, then off the boardwalk in front of the saloon and onto the dusty main street of Four Corners. Nobody seemed to notice him - the more respectable townsfolk had all but evaporated, recognising that discretion was the better part of valour. The only exception to that was the newspaperwoman, who had just come into view and looked definitely the worse for wear. Ezra wondered whether she'd tried to stop them, and decided she probably had, getting struck at least once for her troubles if the way her hair hung loose on one side was any indication.
Jackson didn't see him approach; he was too busy, still embroiled in futile argument with the mob as a couple of the ringleaders took hold of his arms in preparation for dragging him elsewhere. Nobody else seemed to be paying him much attention either, which was good for him and not so good for them. It was now or never.
Ezra's first bullet struck the main ringleader squarely, taking a good chunk of his head with it - his body spun away from the healer as he fell. Jackson, he noticed, dived in the opposite direction from the falling body, as if he'd immediately realised what was happening. That was the kind of reflex response Ezra expected to see from someone who'd been in the war and he filed that thought away for further consideration at another time when he wasn't in imminent danger. His second bullet took out the other man who'd been preparing to drag Jackson away, the hoarse scream that dwindled to a horrific gurgling sound as he dropped to the ground a sure sign the shot to his chest had done serious damage.
The rest of the mob were already backing off even as Ezra turned his attention back to them. He watched them go, Remington still ready in his hand just in case one of them unexpectedly discovered a backbone. None of them did and he wasn't sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. Within moments, the street was all but deserted.
"Untie me," Jackson said from behind him, the desperation in his voice making Ezra look round. The healer was crouched over the second man, his bound hands pushing down onto the wound that steadily worked to pump his would-be hangman's lifeblood across the dusty street. "I can save him."
Ezra holstered his Remington, after one more quick glance around, then crossed to where the two men's bodies lay.
"No, Mr. Jackson," he replied. That kind of wound was unmistakeable - he'd hit an artery, the blood was spurting out between Jackson's futilely grasping fingers. "I don't believe you can."
It was ironic, really. This nameless member of a would-be lynch mob lay twitching in his death throes and his intended victim wanted to save him. Ezra stifled a laugh at the irony of it all, knowing how out of place such a reaction would be even as the incongruity amazed him.
But he'd done the right thing in saving Nathan Jackson, he was sure of it, and Jackson's reaction only served to reinforce that view.
In the end, he'd just turned and walked away, watching the citizens of the town re-emerge and cluster around where the two men lay as he headed back to the saloon. One member of the mob lay with a part of his head gone, a sight which made the more squeamish local ladies blench and turn their heads away, while the other had quickly bled out despite Jackson's best efforts. Ezra passed the newspaperwoman, her expression curious, but he'd schooled his face as he walked back towards the saloon. He had no intention of seeing his name in print - that kind of publicity was nothing if not bad for business.
He was already at the bar and trying to decide how much whiskey would be a good idea when the buzz of conversation stopped behind him.
In the fly-specked mirror that hung on the wall behind the bar, Ezra could see why. Nathan Jackson, covered in blood that Ezra knew for a certainty was not his own, stood in the doorway, hands still tied in front of him. He looked uncertain, as well he should. Chances were that he'd rarely set foot in the saloon before, unless summoned for some kind of medical emergency, and then only grudgingly. Alcohol and prejudice made for poor bedfellows.
He shook his head minutely and saw in the mirror that Jackson caught the movement. This wasn't the place to have whatever conversation they were about to have, even if Ezra had wanted to. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear what Jackson had to say anywhere, but particularly not here. After a moment, Jackson backed out of the saloon, the doors swinging closed in his wake.
A glass had appeared on the bar in front of him by now and Ezra concentrated on that, concentrated on the burn of the cheap whiskey sliding down his throat, the left-over adrenaline buzz as the reality of what he'd done sank in.
He'd just killed two men to save another, one quick and one slow. Men who might well have friends and family in town, even as Nathan Jackson had neither.
He couldn't find it in his heart to regret either death regardless of the possibilities of revenge; Ezra regretted more the fact he'd probably now have to explain himself to the man whose life he'd just saved. He'd taken an awful risk and for what? The gratitude of a man he didn't even know. Assuming Jackson was grateful and didn't want to lecture him for the way the second man had died, that he hadn't helped in any way to ease that man's suffering.
They were worlds apart, the two of them, even if he suspected they'd been born in the same place. The colour of Jackson's skin would always stand between them, a chasm created by history.
But the kindness Jackson had shown him, the sense of obligation Ezra had felt in return and what it had driven him to do, those actions made that chasm just a little less wide.
Ezra downed a couple more glasses of whisky before he left the saloon. Nobody else had dared to talk to him but he'd been more than aware that he was watched carefully as he headed for the door. It was alternately entertaining and infuriating to have developed a reputation, Ezra decided, and would doubtless cut into his profit margin. If anyone would have the balls to play cards with him after that little display of his prowess with a handgun.
The clinic was in semi-darkness once more and once more it was not deserted. Ezra wouldn't make the same mistake twice and certainly wouldn't assume he was alone there when he was anything but. The door closed behind him, his fingers falling instinctively to the butt of his holstered pistol even as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom.
"You must save yourself a fortune in lamp oil, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, choosing to break the silence first and gain control of the situation.
"Clinic ain't much to see." Jackson's voice came from where the doorway into the other room was. Ezra supposed that was the healer's private room, attached to the clinic so he could monitor any patients and be available, but giving him some semblance of privacy if he chose it. "Tell me why you did that."
Straight to the chase, with no further beating around the bush.
"I never had much taste for lynch mobs," Ezra said. "No matter what the reason."
"I didn't ask for your help." The words weren't anything like as harsh as Ezra had thought they'd be, even though he'd expected to hear them - instead there was a tone of resignation lacing them that was puzzling. "Don't need that kind of obligation."
Ezra smiled to himself, glad now of the darkness. If Jackson thought he'd done what he did to get some kind of leverage, he had no intention of disabusing him of that notion. Not that this stopped him from feeling vaguely guilty about the deception, for the first time in longer than he could remember. There was something about the other man, a basic honesty he'd picked up on even in the brief time they'd spent in one another's company, that he found almost compelling.
To his horror, Ezra found he wanted Jackson's good regard, no matter how absurd and unlikely a notion that was.
"Let me be the judge of that," he said. "And perhaps you ought to stay away from the saloon," Ezra added as an afterthought.
"You think I'm the only one who's gonna be unpopular there?"
"I can look after myself."
Jackson hadn't so much as mentioned the man who'd bled out and they'd parted on amicable terms. Ezra hadn't made it back to the saloon, however, before he was accosted in the street.
It was the newspaperwoman, her face slightly flushed as if she'd run to try and catch his attention, wisps of hair waving around her face. If he was interested in women that way, Ezra supposed that she'd be considered attractive, though many men would still have difficulties coming to terms with a woman running her own business even in this relatively enlightened post-war age.
"Your servant, ma'am," Ezra said politely, as he waited for her to catch her breath. He didn't wonder that she knew his name - hotel clerks were notorious for their willingness to accept a bribe and journalists for offering one.
"I saw what you did," she said, after a moment. "Intervening where Nathan was concerned. That was a remarkable act of bravery."
Ezra snorted to himself at the comment. While he wouldn't consider correcting a lady in public, particularly one to whom he had yet to be formally introduced, he had his own opinions about the bravery or otherwise of his actions.
"My father-in-law is the circuit judge for this area and I know he's looking for a few good men to take on the responsibility of keeping order," she continued. "Would you be interested in such a role?"
"I regret that I am merely passing through this municipality, Mrs..." He hesitated, giving her the cue to supply him with her name.
"Travis," she said. "Mary Travis."
"Mrs. Travis." Ezra paused, as if he was really considering the offer when he was actually doing nothing of the sort. "Besides which, I doubt that your father-in-law would much appreciate your suggestion that he employ someone such as myself, even if I were interested in the position."
"It takes a good deal of courage to face down a lynch mob," she persisted.
"Courage or foolhardiness, Mrs. Travis, either will suffice. And now I must bid you good day."
Ezra tipped his hat, then turned and walked away from her without a backward glance.
He had quite enough to be going on with already without a potential job offer - in law enforcement, of all things! - to complicate matters. Rumours of his heroism would doubtless precede him to the gambling table and that could do him no good. People gambled because they thought they could win and his own demonstration of prowess with a side arm would likely do nothing other than unnerve a sizeable proportion of his would-be opponents.
After a couple of days had passed, days in which he'd pretty much kept himself to himself and watched the rest of the town go back to what passed for normality, Ezra ventured back to the gaming tables. The people there didn't seem to have heard what he'd done and he wasn't inclined to inform them. He kept his mind on business, took a sizeable pot and headed back up to his room with his winnings.
There was a limit to how long he could continue this, Ezra knew that, but at the moment the pickings were still rich. There was a good turnover of suitable marks and Ezra was loath to leave town before he'd taken advantage of everyone he could. He wanted to ignore the small voice in the back of his mind that told him he didn't want to leave for other reasons, that he actually liked the place, so it probably was time to leave town after all.
The next day, he checked his revolver before heading down to the saloon. It was time for something a little different today, if the audience would suit. What he had in mind would make a fitting finale before he shook off the dust of this backwater and headed somewhere infinitely more entertaining.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Ezra did his habitual check of the saloon's occupants and noted a number of new faces. A couple of heads turned his way as he entered, their expressions telling him the misconceptions under which they already laboured on the basis of his clothing alone. Ezra smiled to himself, ignoring them completely as he headed for the bar. It was all starting to come together, a suitable audience for a grand exit.
After a couple of drinks for show, Ezra pushed himself away from the bar, stumbling slightly as he headed towards the nearest group of cowboys. From the combined reek of cheap liquor, they'd got a headstart on him in terms of their alcohol consumption - that would make things much easier.
"Would any of you gentlemen be interested in a wager?" he asked, deliberately stumbling over the words and thickening his accent to enhance the impression of intoxication.
"Wager?" one of them asked, as if he'd never heard the word before. "Wager on what?"
This was like taking candy from a baby, really it was. The skin between Ezra's shoulder blades prickled slightly and he had the uncomfortable feeling he was being observed. A surreptitious glance revealed nothing out of the ordinary, however, so he returned to his would-be marks.
"Why, on my prowess as a marksman, sir," he said, as if it were obvious. "I wager I can put all six bullets through the same hole in a single target, or I'll pay you double what you chance."
"That's impossible," another of the group scoffed. "Nobody could do that."
That feeling of observation returned, even stronger now. Ezra spun on his heel as he made a wild gesture towards the nearby dartboard and took that opportunity to try and spot who was watching him, but still in vain.
"Here," he said, producing the ace of spades from his jacket pocket. "This is my target." Ezra could already hear the mutters of disbelief as he walked over and pinned the pasteboard up; he didn't need to turn around to know what expressions he'd see on the faces there. "Anyone care to take my wager?" he asked as he headed back to where he'd stood before.
"Man'd be a fool to take you up on that," a voice said, one Ezra hadn't heard before. The crowd parted, allowing a dark-clad figure to emerge from between them, an individual he'd seen round town before and heard of by reputation. "When any good shootist could do the same."
"Is that so?" Ezra asked, wondering if this man was the source of the unease he'd felt before. The newcomer's blue eyes were penetrating, their expression well in keeping with the reputation of the man - Chris Larabee, gunslinger. "Would you care to venture a few dollars on the proposition?"
Larabee had the look of a man who didn't back down, one who used his gun with alacrity. Ezra wondered just how good a shot he was - did he rely as much on speed as on accuracy or did he expect his fearsome reputation to unnerve his opponents? He certainly hoped never to find out for himself.
"Allow me to demonstrate," Ezra said, pulling the Remington from his shoulder holster and aiming it at the pasteboard ace with an air of disdain. He snapped off a shot, knowing it had hit the target - he'd practiced for many hours shooting from greater distances than this and hit what he was aiming for more often than not. Another followed, or at least the semblance of it. "Can you emulate my prowess, Mr. Larabee?"
It was a dangerous proposition, bearding the lion in his own den, but some devillish streak made Ezra dare to challenge the gunslinger anyway. Larabee looked almost amused, though his face barely changed, and Ezra wondered if he'd made the last mistake in a life-long catalogue of errors.
"Lend me your gun," Larabee said, crossing the distance between them in a couple of strides and holding out his hand. "And we'll see just who can shoot the best."
That close, the amusement in Larabee's eyes was clear for Ezra to see. He found himself relaxing a little; the former death grip on the pistol's stock eased as Ezra toyed with the idea of refusing, of making Larabee shoot with his own revolver instead. Except that the demand meant the gunslinger had an idea of how the trick was done and was making his request deliberately, daring Ezra to expose himself by refusal.
"Here," Ezra said, slapping the pistol into Larabee's hand as if it didn't matter at all. "Do your worst."
As he'd expected, Larabee wasted no time in emulating both his true shot and the fake that had followed it, seeming to snap two more shots into the same small piece of card.
"Good thing I didn't take your bet," Larabee said, returning the pistol. Ezra said nothing, the carved wood and forged metal in his hand still warm from Larabee's grip. "Folks might get the wrong idea about me."
With that, the gunslinger turned, the crowd parting once more to allow him through.
"What just happened here?" Ezra asked himself as he holstered the pistol, slipping it back beneath his coat without a second thought. That had been an unexpected development, to say the least, Larabee spiking his con with an ease that spoke volumes of his understanding of the game. So much for his grand finale.
By the time Ezra emerged from the saloon, a little sullen muttering still in his wake, Larabee was already halfway through a cheroot, leaning back against one of the uprights as if he'd grown there. He didn't even glance at Ezra though it was clear Larabee didn't miss much that was going on around him. That was a pre-requisite for a gunslinger, at least one who lived beyond his teenage years.
"Seen another man do that trick," Larabee said, without looking round. "Seen him get tarred and feathered too, once they figured what he'd done."
For once, Ezra found himself momentarily lost for words. He wasn't used to someone seeing through his schemes so easily, particularly not a laconic gunslinger like Larabee. His motivation remained a mystery and that was one question Ezra knew he was unlikely to get an answer for.
"That is an unpleasant sight," Ezra agreed. "I once had the misfortune of witnessing such an act and subsequently make it a habit to leave town whenever people begin to accumulate the necessary."
Larabee nodded, drawing the last puff from his cheroot and then dropping the butt. Ezra found himself fascinated by every movement, against his better judgment, watching the economy of motion as the gunslinger ground the butt beneath the sole of one scuffed boot then turned and walked away down the sidewalk without a backward glance.
Ezra had made a habit of watching the stage roll in, taking that opportunity to watch the town's inhabitants and newcomers interact and consider whether any of them might afford him richer pickings than he'd already gathered.
It was definitely a habit, taking the same seat every morning at the same time, and he found himself becoming restless if he didn't keep his appointment. Some mornings he'd see Jackson pass by and they'd nod at one another - nothing more, as if neither of them knew how to talk to another, if there was even a desire on both parts to have a conversation at all.
Ezra told himself that he needed to get out of here before any such conversations took place, before he started putting down roots he'd never established anywhere else since his childhood. Because he wanted to do so, with an unexpected desperation, and that was reason enough to deny himself.
That didn't stop him taking the same seat the next morning, leaning back against the wall and tipping his hat forward a little over his eyes as if taking a mid-morning siesta. That pretence had served him well on more than one occasion, in protecting him from the inquisitive gaze of Mrs. Travis - she still had intentions of persuading him into public service, Ezra was sure of it.
"Waiting for someone?"
Larabee's voice, so close to his ear, startled Ezra and his chair tipped forward, front legs striking the boardwalk with a judder. He hadn't heard the gunslinger approach and it took a moment for Ezra to regain control of himself, pulling his customary nonchalance on as if it was another jacket.
"Not at all, Mr. Larabee," he replied, looking up at the other man. "I was merely taking forty winks," he continued. "Odd sleeping patterns are an occupational hazard in my profession."
He could tell Larabee didn't believe him and wondered why it mattered that he didn't.
Larabee turned, a small smile changing his face as Ezra watched fascinated. He glanced towards the man whose voice had made that change happen, then back to watching Larabee watch the other man approach.
"This him?" the newcomer asked, jabbing his thumb towards where Ezra sat. Ezra tensed, hand straying slightly in the direction of his revolver, even as Larabee nodded. He had no intention of going peacefully, if foul play was what they intended. "Buck Wilmington," he continued, with a roguish smile. "Pleased to meet you."
He loomed as efficiently as Larabee did, the two of them effectively cutting him off from the view of anyone else not standing there on the boardwalk with them, and Ezra decided he didn't like that at all. Ignoring the hand that was stretched out for him to shake, Ezra started to get up, only for Larabee to slap Wilmington on the shoulder.
"Let's go wash out some of that trail dust, Buck," he said. Wilmington nodded, turning as if it was automatic for him to follow where Larabee led. Ezra settled back into his seat once more and watched the two of them till they disappeared into the saloon. They seemed an unlikely pair - one dark and dangerous and the other jovial. Not that he was all that interested in either of them, or at least not as interested as they apparently were in him.
By the time the stage finally arrived, Ezra was leaning the chair back against the wall once more and had almost forgotten the unsettling feeling that had overtaken him before. He wasn't used to being at a disadvantage in any way and somehow he was certain that little scenario had been staged for his benefit. He knew a set-up when he saw it, even if only in hindsight. Larabee had some plan, something that involved Ezra being off balance, and he had no intention of falling for whatever it was.
Only one passenger alighted, an older man carrying a large battered leather case. He looked tired, his suit rumpled but obviously of good quality, and he looked around himself as if he couldn't quite believe he'd finally arrived in Four Corners. By the time the rest of his luggage had been removed from the roof and piled up beside the boardwalk, Mrs. Travis had arrived - the greeting between them settled any doubts Ezra might have had that this was her father in law.
Unfortunately, while it had been a couple of years since he'd last seen Judge Travis and the years had not been kind to the other man, Ezra realised now that he recognised the face if he had forgotten the name.
"Mr. Standish?" That was Mrs. Travis, before he could even think about beating a hasty retreat - it seemed his usual attempt to pretend he was asleep wasn't going to work this time either. "Orrin, this is the man I wrote you about."
Ezra let the chair tip forward, pushing back his hat as he sat up. Travis had the advantage of him, that was for certain, and he wasn't sure whether he'd sufficiently changed since the last time they'd met. He also wasn't quite sure what name he'd been using at the time but a cold sensation in the pit of his stomach told him it was Standish.
"Standish?" Judge Travis repeated, taking a step forward as he spoke. "I know that name."
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure," Ezra said, getting up. The expression on Mrs. Travis' face told him the kind of things she'd probably passed on in her letter to the judge and Ezra was glad he was wearing one of his less ostentatious outfits this morning, sheer chance of course. "Ezra Standish, sir," he continued, extending his hand in an attempt to brazen things out. "At your service."
Travis looked down at Ezra's hand as if it was a poisonous snake and then up again at his face.
"I rarely forget a name, Mr. Standish and never forget a face."
Ezra let his hand drop to his side, since it was clear that common courtesy alone would not get him through this situation unscathed. He began to calculate how long it would take him to leave town, glad to have chosen somewhere without a sheriff already in post to take matters to an unpleasant and obvious conclusion.
Travis frowned, seeming to realise suddenly that they were all still standing on the boardwalk.
"Mary, would you excuse us? I need to speak with Mr. Standish. I'd appreciate it if you could arrange for my luggage to be collected."
Unexpectedly, Mrs. Travis just nodded and then hustled away, obviously used to doing what her father in law said, even if that behaviour was at odds with what Ezra had seen of her nature previously.
"You and I need to have a serious talk, Mr. Standish," Travis continued, turning his attention back to Ezra even as he'd contemplated making a break for it. The judge's eyes were still sharp, despite his age, and the look he gave Ezra pinned him in place. "I certainly never forget a face that has appeared before me, particularly the face of someone who then left town regardless of a little thing like bail."
"Perhaps a drink to wash away the trail dust," Ezra said, indicating the door of the saloon. "My treat, of course."
Travis eyed him for a moment much as he'd eyed Ezra's outstretched hand before, then nodded tersely and led the way into the saloon. Ezra followed - now, at least, he had an idea why Mrs. Travis had been so meek about the idea of doing as the judge said, it was obviously much easier than the alternative.
Larabee and Wilmington were sitting at a nearby table and Ezra felt the weight of Larabee's gaze once more as he crossed to the bar, following in the judge's wake. He could have made a break for it, rushed upstairs, packed with the long experience of leaving town quickly, and have been out of here within a matter of minutes. Instead, he'd meekly followed Travis and was about to be involved in a conversation he was certain he wouldn't like very much at all.
Once a bottle and two glasses had been acquired, the two unlikely companions found themselves a nearby table, Ezra sitting with his back to the wall as was his habit.
"Listen to me, Standish," Travis said, once he'd taken a long swallow of whiskey. "My daughter in law seems to think you're the man I should be talking to about carrying a badge around here."
"I have no idea..." Ezra began.
"I'm the one doing the talking," Travis said. The now-empty glass in his hand thumped on the table in punctuation and Ezra obediently shut up, well aware that they were now the focus of everyone's attention. "You don't have a say in this."
He filled his glass again, took his time emptying it, and then replaced it on the table top, quietly this time, with an expectant look. The saloon's usual buzz had returned by now but Ezra pitched his voice lower than usual anyway, aware that Larabee at least was still watching the two of them though he wouldn't have been able to say how he knew.
"Mrs. Travis has a fertile imagination, sir," he began. "I am no more suited to a career in law enforcement than..."
"From what she tells me, you're more than qualified," Travis said. Ezra sighed, already more than a little annoyed with being interrupted. "Did you, or did you not, break up a lynch mob outside of here, rescuing the man they were planning to hang?"
Ezra thought for a moment, wondering if there was an answer that would let him evade Travis' plan - what had Mrs. Travis put in her letter if a circuit judge had travelled all the way out here just for this? The worst kind of exaggeration and hyperbole that her literary mind could craft, he had little doubt of that.
"I confess to a momentary aberration in that direction."
"That settles it, then." Travis shoved the other glass, which Ezra had been ignoring up to now, in his direction. Ezra picked it up and drank automatically; the trap had closed on him and there was no way out. "Congratulations, Sheriff."
"And if I refuse?" Ezra asked, replacing the empty shot glass back on the table.
"There's still a matter of an outstanding warrant, Standish." Travis didn't even look at him as he spoke, didn't need to. "That's at least 6 months hard labour by my reckoning." He was trapped. "A dollar a day, with room and board," Travis continued.
"10 dollars a week," Ezra countered. "Room and board goes without saying." He had no intention of letting Travis think he'd got the upper hand, even if it was patently true.
"If you survive the first month, we'll discuss it."
There was already a jail, but nobody seemed to know what had happened to the last sheriff. Ezra had taken up residence in due course and found the sheriff's badge in the topmost desk drawer, sure sign that the previous incumbent had skipped town as he'd suspected. He had no intention of copying that behaviour unless he was certain Judge Travis' wrath wouldn't follow him and there was little sign of a pardon with his name on in the immediate future. Still, Ezra reasoned, if he didn't get himself killed in the next couple of weeks, there was always time.
There was a pile of wanted posters on the desk, a thin layer of dust marking the amount of time that had passed since anyone had looked at them. Ezra swept them all into the trash without a second glance.
"Sheriff?" Ezra found himself wincing a little at the title and hoped it wasn't obvious how uncomfortable it made him. He forced himself to smile as he turned.
"Mrs. Travis," he said. "What can I do for you?"
"I was hoping to run an article in this week's edition," Mrs. Travis said. "Heralding the return of law and order to Four Corners."
"A little premature, perhaps," Ezra said. He found he was absently fiddling with the badge, making it run between his fingers despite its awkward shape, only realising he was doing so because that was where Mrs. Travis' gaze was directed. He stopped himself with an effort. "After all, I've barely been sheriff for a day."
"I have every confidence in you, Mr. Standish." She was smiling an almost predatory smile and unaccountably Ezra felt his stomach make a slow steady roll. He was certain that wasn't the response Mrs. Travis was looking for. "And won't you call me Mary?"
"That would hardly be appropriate, Mrs. Travis," he said. What was next, an invitation to dinner? "After all, I am working for your father."
Indirectly, but still true, even if it was hardly likely to put off such an obviously determined woman. Mrs. Travis frowned, obviously unused to being thwarted. How unfortunate for her that Ezra was the last person in town likely to succumb to her charms.
"Is there anything you'd like my newspaper article to say?" she asked, the change of tack almost palpable.
"At present, no." Ezra pinned the badge to the lapel of his jacket, taking a moment to adjust it. "I hardly wish to announce my intentions to all and sundry, only to have the lawless hordes descend upon town. Wouldn't that be a little counter-productive?"
This time he managed not to flinch, didn't even react as Larabee fell into step with him, a little amused that the other man was taking the trouble to match his longer strides with Ezra's own.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said. "To what do I owe the honour of your company?"
"Thought I'd come see if the rumours were true."
Ezra had a good idea what the rumours were, but it never hurt to play dumb and see what everyone thought. Not that he thought Larabee would buy the act, but it didn't hurt to try.
"The last man who wore that badge didn't last a month."
Well, at least that told him a little more than he'd already known, though Ezra found himself wondering just why Larabee was bothering with this conversation in the first place.
"And you came to see if I intended to outlast him?" Ezra turned into Larabee's path, forcing the other man to stop. "I have every intention, Mr. Larabee. Will that be a problem, with you being such a notorious gunslinger?"
"No problem at all," Larabee said. That glint was still there in his eyes, a joke unshared, and Ezra found himself suddenly wishing to be let in on the secret, for no reason he could fathom. "I don't go looking for trouble."
"I'm sure it finds you easily enough without any effort on your part."
Ezra turned smartly and walked off, well aware that Larabee was watching him leave. He resisted the urge to say anything further - he'd had the last word and that was something not many people seemed to manage with Larabee. Someone passed him on the boardwalk, slouch hat pulled well down over his eyes, dirty buckskin clothing the rest of him, and from behind him Ezra heard his name spoken but kept on going.
"He's sheriff now?"
Larabee certainly seemed to be gathering a little group around him - maybe that was something he was going to need to keep an eye on.
In his new role as sheriff, of course.
After a few days, when the novelty of his new post had worn off a little, Ezra found himself settling into a comfortable routine. He didn't particularly care for having to get up in the morning but somehow he couldn't see the townsfolk accepting a sheriff who wasn't visible much before noon. That meant no late nights over the poker table, if he played at all - there was little enjoyment left in the game for him at the moment, without the possible adrenaline rush of a big win followed by a hasty exit. Ezra knew he'd been building up to leave and the fact he was still here left him at a loose end, hardly knowing what to do with himself.
On the other hand, the novelty of being part of a community for the first time in longer than he could remember had yet to wear thin. He found himself being nodded to, tipping his hat to the ladies of the town and receiving an accepting smile in return, and that unexpectedly warmed something long cold inside him. Ezra knew he'd put no roots down anywhere since he was a child, and while he'd dutifully accepted his mother's admonitions that being part of somewhere was a weakness, he now found himself doubting that.
He was also starting to get an idea of who was who in Four Corners. It hadn't taken him long to figure out that, as he'd always suspected, some of the most respectable men and women there were the ones with something to hide. Whited sepulchres the interminable preachers he'd been forced to listen to as a child would have called them.
At least he'd never pretended to be anything other than what he was, other than disguising the unnatural leanings he appeared to have been born with, and that only for self-preservation. Try as he might, Ezra couldn't bring himself to include another in that pretense, his peripatetic lifestyle helping the charade continue. And as long as he had enough money to ensure some privacy, or room and board provided, he could pretend to be disinterested in anything but profit and a good hand of poker.
There was little true acceptance, after all, for the truly different.
That was a lesson Ezra Standish had learned early, surrounded by those who did not look like him, and one he was likely to carry to his grave. Strange that in this all too ordinary town he seemed to find himself drawn to those who were most out of the ordinary - a healer whose skin set him apart and a gunslinger whose deadly skill kept him separate - in very different ways.
Now he was sheriff, of course, visiting the clinic was an eminently respectable thing to do, Ezra told himself as he climbed the stairs in broad daylight for once. He'd seen Nathan Jackson return, watching unobserved a few minutes earlier, as he'd climbed these self-same stairs.
"So, you're sheriff now?" Jackson said when he opened the door to Ezra's knock. Hardly the greeting Ezra might have been looking for. "I guess I should congratulate you."
"Rest assured, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, "I hold you at least partly responsible for the initiation of the chain of events that led me to this role."
"What did I do?"
"You know where the jail is, I surmise?" Jackson's expression didn't change but Ezra saw something in his eyes, a wariness that wasn't there before.
"Been there a couple of times, treating drunks the previous sheriff brought in."
"My door is always open, Mr. Jackson." He couldn't say it plainer than that - eloquent as he usually was, Ezra didn't have the words to make the invitation in a way that wouldn't be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The first step was taken but Ezra knew he couldn't force his acquaintance on this obviously proud and similarly solitary man. "A good cup of coffee is even better with company, I've always found..."
He let the statement drop into the silence between them, watching Jackson's face as the other man chewed over its significance.
"Who says I'd be good company?"
"We share more history than you might think, Mr. Jackson," Ezra continued. He half-turned towards the stairs as he spoke, throwing the words back to where Jackson still stood in the doorway. "I recognise the reflexes of a soldier when I see them."
Jackson didn't deny it - Ezra hadn't expected him to. But he didn't expect they would be talking about the war any time soon.
If there was one word he would be forced to use to describe Mary Travis, Ezra decided it ought to be 'persistent', though he could think of other, less flattering words to describe her as well. Regardless of his caution, she eventually ran an article in her newspaper about the town's new sheriff and all Ezra could hope was that it wouldn't attract attention further afield. He'd already been haunted once since his arrival in Four Corners by his past, which had led him to the position he now found himself in, without someone or something else dogging his heels.
His annoyance with that article had been tempered by the unexpected arrival of Nathan Jackson at the jail door the next morning, only four days after Ezra had issued the invitation to come and drink his coffee. Ezra smiled to himself as he pulled another tin mug from the cupboard - he'd thought it would take at least a week before Jackson would feel comfortable enough with the idea to put in an appearance.
"Please, take a seat," Ezra said, as he poured coffee for both of them.
"You saw the paper?" Jackson said, as he pulled the other chair around, away from the wall where it usually stood.
"I did indeed, Mr. Jackson." He placed one of the mugs in easy reach, then took the other seat, resisting the urge to push himself back and rest his booted feet on the desktop. There was such a thing as pushing matters too far. "Mrs. Travis has quite the imagination."
"So, you're not a 'crusader for justice' after all?"
"Hardly." Ezra took a mouthful of coffee to prevent himself from saying more without thinking. There was something about Jackson, something in the way he looked at Ezra as if he couldn't quite figure out what to make of him, that made Ezra want to tell him the first thing that came into his mind. "I didn't volunteer for this position, after all."
"So why do it?"
"Obligation, Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied. "Surely you understand what that feels like."
He could have kicked himself the moment the words were out of his mouth. Usually Ezra guarded his tongue like the asset it was, but he'd allowed himself to relax with this man, this man who owed Ezra Standish his very life, and had forgotten just how big a fool he could be. Jackson stiffened in his seat, the hand which had been reaching for his mug of coffee frozen in mid-air for a moment before it dropped to his lap.
"I apologise, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, his own coffee now forgotten. "That comment was both indelicate and thoughtless on my part."
"True, though." Nathan was staring down at his lap, his large hands clasped together there as if he'd spin apart otherwise. "And maybe you should call me 'Nathan'," he continued. "Ain't hardly right for you to keep on calling me 'Mr. Jackson' when you saved me from getting my neck stretched, is it?"
"On two conditions." Nathan looked up at that, his expression clearly readable to anyone who cared to see - he didn't like being obliged to Ezra but was stuck with it. It wasn't as if what had happened between them could be undone, after all, so he was forced to live with it, even if it choked him. "First off, I want you to tell me what you think of my coffee. And secondly, I insist that you call me Ezra."
By the time Nathan had left, they'd re-established some kind of equilibrium between them once more. Ezra could see that the obligation Nathan felt was a heavy burden for him, one that chafed on him every time he recalled its existence, but he couldn't bring himself to wish the other man was not obliged to him. After all, the price of that freedom would have been the end of Nathan's life.
That didn't mean he couldn't wish for things to be different, of course, it was just there was no way of making them so.
Ezra knew just how that felt. He hadn't wanted to be sheriff, wasn't enjoying most of what it meant, but so far he couldn't see a way out of the situation he found himself in. Judge Travis held all the cards and Ezra knew he wouldn't hesitate to use them - while there was always a chance he could evade the other man, those weren't odds he was particularly impressed by.
So he'd stayed on, putting on the role of sheriff as easily as he'd donned the badge, and to date it had mostly been petty annoyances he'd had to deal with. A couple of drunks, some missing cows, and that was about it so far. Not that Ezra was unhappy about that - a dollar a day wasn't much to be risking his life for - peaceful times were absolutely fine with him. And if the locals gave much more weight to his office than he did, that could only be helpful when crises eventually arose, as he was sure they would.
The only problem with being sheriff, though, apart from the obvious impact on his opportunities for gaming, was that Ezra found he was effectively isolated from the rest of the community. Ironic, considering how much he felt a part of this place at times, no matter how much he might try to deny it to himself. Even more isolated than he'd chosen to be before, the tin badge making him a symbol of something greater, something Ezra himself didn't actually believe in.
The latest batch of wanted posters had arrived courtesy of Mary Travis and Ezra scanned them in a desultory fashion, but none of the faces looked familiar. The day was cool, clouds scudding across a grey-blue sky, and everyone in town seemed to be making the most of the pleasant weather.
He needed to get out of town, if only for a couple of hours, before he suffocated. Mind made up, Ezra headed out of the jail in the direction of the livery stable, walking swiftly across the street before anyone could intercept him and get him involved in some saga concerning a missing cat or purloined sewing basket.
Inside the stable, he was greeted by the familiar smell of horses. His own mount was at the end of the row, intelligent head already turned to view whoever had come in, but Ezra took his time to get there. It was quiet there, or at least as quiet as half a dozen horses would allow, the only sounds the shifting of hooves on straw and the occasional snort or nicker.
By the time he'd finished saddling his horse, Ezra already felt more relaxed. This really had been the right decision. He didn't want to make it look like he was in a hurry to leave town, though, in case people got the wrong impression, so Ezra forced himself to keep his horse at a walk as he headed down the street and out towards the hills. A couple of people nodded as he passed them and Ezra put a finger to the brim of his hat, acknowledging their greeting even as he continued on his way out of town.
Only once he had passed the last house did he urge his horse into a canter, admiring as he always did the smoothness of its gait. Ezra wasn't one to form attachments too easily but this particular horse had been his for over two years now and he'd always thought it worth every penny he'd spent.
And now he got to make the most of it for a couple of hours. If he was clever, Ezra could even tell himself it was part of his duties as sheriff, checking up on some of the local farmsteads and making himself generally indispensable. He might not like being sheriff but he had every intention of making sure nobody had any complaints for Travis to hear - the last thing he needed was a circuit judge mad with him for any reason.
First stop the old Miller farm, though he'd heard mention it had been sold in recent weeks. Ezra vaguely remembered passing it on his way into town, what seemed like a lifetime ago, and it had been all but falling down even then. He didn't envy whoever had bought it, since even his untrained eye could tell it would need a lot of work to be truly habitable. Still, the land itself was green and fertile looking, a loop of a small river running close enough to the house to be convenient but not so close that there was danger of flooding.
He knew he was close even before he turned the bend in the road that led to the Miller farm. There were sounds of industry, the familiar sound of a saw cutting through timber. It was almost lunch time, the sun high in the sky, but the same wind still blew, raising dust eddies along the road, swirling around the hooves of his horse.
By the time he'd reached the bend, the sound of sawing had stopped. No chance of sneaking up unobserved, then, Ezra told himself, even as he remembered his badge meant he didn't need to sneak any more. As sheriff he had what amounted to a licence to pry, permission to be where he wasn't officially welcome, and he intended to use it to the best of his ability. He had always been curious and he wondered that it had taken him so long to realise there was an upside to his new job.
He'd slowed his horse to a trot as the house came into view. Outside there was a sawhorse, a length of timber still lying across it. Whoever had been working had either gone inside or through the trees and down to the river. Ezra pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted, leading it towards the house, his other hand dropping instinctively onto the butt of his pistol. It didn't pay to be careless, after all, since there were still people out where who would shoot first and notice his badge later.
"Anyone at home?" Ezra called, as he reached the stoop. The silence told him that, as he'd suspected, there was nobody in the house - he checked anyway, the one big room that comprised the small house giving few places for anyone to hide.
Satisfied, Ezra sat down on the step to wait, taking off his hat as he did so. Here, out of the wind, the sun was warm and the heat reminded him of a number of places he'd once expected to call home. He turned the brim of his low-crowned hat idly in his hands as he heard someone approaching through the brush that still grew round the small clump of trees between the house and the river.
"You here in an official capacity, sheriff?"
The words came as no real surprise, even if he hadn't been sure who it was would be speaking. It made sense for it to be Larabee, Ezra decided, since the gunslinger seemed the kind of man who'd want some privacy, the kind of privacy you could only get by owning your own place.
Ezra looked up from where he still sat as Larabee stopped in front of him. The gunslinger was shirtless, the sweat from where he'd been sawing wood still gleaming on his chest and arms. Ezra's mouth dried up even as he found himself staring at the other man, every thought and fantasy he'd been denying himself over the past weeks and month coming back to his conscious mind in a rush. Larabee was the living embodiment of everything Ezra had tried so hard to resist.
"I... No." It was all Ezra could do to string together a sentence. "Just passing through," he said, finally.
Larabee shifted his weight, the movement emphasising the tightness of the black jeans that made his long legs look impossibly longer. He was carrying a bucket of water and, after a long shrewd look at Ezra that made him squirm a little though he tried to hide it, Larabee crossed to where Ezra's horse was tied and poured the contents into a small trough.
"If you're staying for lunch," he said, as he threw the now-empty bucket in Ezra's direction, "we're going to need more water."
Ezra found himself focussing on the bucket, on the way his hands gripped the rope handle, as if it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. Anything to stop himself from thinking about Chris Larabee half-naked. Sweaty and half-naked. Ezra was already on the move, headed through the brush down to where the river had to lie, before he could say anything foolish - his face was red enough already, though at least Larabee could think that was due to the sun.
By the time he was headed back up to the cabin, a full bucket of water swinging heavily by his side, Ezra had composed himself a little. At least he knew now what it was about Larabee that made him feel so unsettled, even if he wasn't sure whether the gunslinger knew - the fact that Ezra was still walking around without more holes in him than god intended was a good sign that he'd been able to keep his own counsel on the matter.
"Where do you want the water?" Ezra asked, as he reached the stoop. Larabee was waiting for him, still shirtless, a cloth slung casually over his shoulder - he reached out his hand and Ezra handed the bucket over, admiring the way the muscles bunched and slid under smooth-looking skin as Larabee adjusted to the weight.
"Take a seat," Larabee said. "Make yourself at home, sheriff."
There were a couple of ancient looking chairs stuck against the side of the house and Ezra eyed them cautiously. One of them looked as though it could fall apart at any moment and he pulled out the other, sitting gingerly on it till he was certain it would hold his weight. He wouldn't think about Larabee sitting out here, on the stoop, smoking one of his foul-looking cheroots of an evening and pondering whatever it was gunslingers pondered when they were alone. In fact, Ezra decided, the less he thought about Larabee the better. Words to live by.
"Here," the person he was trying not to think about said. "Hope you don't mind beans."
The plate that was in front of his face did indeed look less than appetising but Ezra had been the subject of so many lectures in his youth on the need for politeness on the part of a guest that he took it anyway. Larabee seemed pleased by this lack of protest, heading back into the house apparently in search of his own lunch. Ezra rested the battered plate on his lap, then picked up the equally battered fork which lay across the meal. He was no culinary expert, but he was sure beans weren't supposed to be that texture or colour - Ezra prodded the beans experimentally and then forked a couple into his mouth.
"Good, eh?" Larabee had returned and was pulling the dangerous-looking chair over beside where Ezra sat as he spoke. Ezra nodded - he hadn't wanted to lie but couldn't see a polite way of explaining that his lunch was apparently trying to burn its way out through his throat. "I picked up a couple of bottles of this sauce last time I was down south. It's got a real kick to it."
Ezra tried to reply, but the beans seemed to have lodged. It took a moment before he could swallow them and meanwhile, out of the corner of his eye, Larabee was still shovelling down his own lunch like he hadn't eaten for a week. Finally, Ezra was able to make his throat work properly and the beans went down. He dropped the fork onto the plate that was still on his lap and gasped for air.
"Are you trying to kill me?" Ezra gasped the words, even as he shoved the plate of beans back towards Larabee. "Those beans..."
"Too hot for you?" Larabee asked, with what looked suspiciously like a smirk. "Not to everyone's taste, I guess, like most things." He'd taken Ezra's plate and was currently employed in adding the contents of it to his own. "You sure you don't want this?"
Ezra shook his head as he got up from the chair and headed into the house in search of the bucket of water he'd brought from the river earlier. Two mugfuls later and he was starting to get the sensation back in his mouth, all the while wondering just what kind of constitution Larabee had if beans as hot as those didn't affect him at all.
The knowledge that the gunslinger was still safely outside, eating his own and Ezra's lunch, gave him the confidence to pause for a moment and look around properly. It was different, looking around someone's house when you knew who they were, compared to when you had no idea. Ezra compared the interior of the one-room cabin with what he knew, or at least thought he knew, of Larabee.
The contents of the place looked like a man lived there on his own, that was certain - there were no frills or frippery, nothing that wasn't functional. The only minor exception was the bedspread and that was patchwork, blue and white, done in a design Ezra remembered one of his aunts calling 'Prairie Queen'. Still, there was no reason Larabee couldn't have a sister or an aunt who'd make something like that for him before he headed out west. Even gunslingers had to come from somewhere.
"Find what you were looking for?"
Only good reflexes stopped Ezra from jumping at the words spoken almost in his ear. He wasn't sure how Larabee had managed to sneak up on him that way or what it said that he'd been so curious about how the man lived that he'd neglected to listen out for him moving from the stoop.
"I think I've seen everything," Ezra said. When he glanced over his shoulder, he realised just how close to him Larabee was, so close that he could feel the heat from the gunslinger's body and that thought made particular parts of his body react in not completely unexpected ways. "I should be getting back to town," Ezra continued, glad that his own trousers hadn't started off as tight as Larabee's had, otherwise he'd have been singing soprano by this point in their encounter.
"Well, you're always welcome here, sheriff," Larabee said, the smirk back in his voice if not on his face.
The ride back to town was something of a nightmare for Ezra. Once his libido had realised just how close Larabee had been, and how little clothing he'd been wearing, it had gone into overdrive. In the end, he was forced to detour off the trail and find somewhere secluded to take care of business. It was all Ezra could do not to moan Larabee's name when he came, an embarrassingly short time after his usually-deft fingers had released his aching erection from his trousers.
He couldn't help the association he made, though, between the nearness of the gunslinger and the hardness of his dick. Ezra thought back on their encounter and wondered just what Larabee was up to - he seemed to be aware of Ezra's reactions to him and if anything was behaving in a way that encouraged them. Certainly he hadn't rushed to put a shirt on, as most men would when visited by someone who was all bar a stranger. Instead he'd seemed to enjoy tormenting Ezra.
All he could hope was that Larabee had no intention of sharing his exploits with Wilmington. Ezra frowned at that thought, even as he tucked himself back into his trousers and gathered up his horse's reins once more. That was the last thing he needed. From what little he knew of Wilmington already, there was not much chance that anything told to him, even in confidence, wouldn't be halfway round town before the end of the day. And while Ezra might not like his current job all that much, he had no intention of being hounded out of it by any kind of rumour that Wilmington might want to circulate.
Then again, Ezra considered, as he turned his mount's head back towards town, Larabee didn't strike him as the kind of man who'd take too kindly to his personal business being spread around town either. So maybe it wasn't that much of a problem after all - only time would tell.
He was still certain Larabee was up to something, he just didn't know what it was and whether his behaviour at the cabin had been a part of that or something else.
As engrossed as he was in those possibilities, Ezra couldn't help but notice how different things seemed when he rode back into town. When he'd left, only a few short hours earlier, everything had appeared peaceful but now the expressions on the faces of the few townspeople who were around could only only be described as tense.
Ezra turned at the sound of his name being called, still surprised at the familiarity although he recognised the voice immediately. He turned his horse in Nathan's direction, meeting him halfway between the saloon and the clinic.
"Nathan?" Nathan's face wore the same tense expression as the others. "What's happened?"
"A bunch of folks rode in while you were gone," Nathan said. "Said they'd heard about the new law in town. They shot up the jail pretty bad."
"Was anyone hurt?" Ezra couldn't see any blood on Nathan's hands but he still had to ask.
"Nothing much," Nathan replied, his face relaxing a little as if the presence of Ezra there was enough to make him feel less worried. Ezra himself wasn't sure whether he should be worried that his being in town was a reassurance. "Cuts and bruises. We were lucky."
"This time," Ezra said. He could tell there was something Nathan wasn't telling him, though he wouldn't have been able to say how he knew. "What is it?"
"Ain't seen nothing like that in a long time," Nathan said, eventually. "They were wearing uniforms. Confederate uniforms."
One thing about jails, Ezra reminded himself, as he stood on the boardwalk and surveyed the damage, was that nothing short of some dynamite would really do that much damage. It was an annoyance, though, an event that ruined a perfectly good day and caused him unnecessary work; for that alone Ezra was determined the culprits would pay, regardless of their motive.
There was broken glass everywhere inside the jail itself, but fortunately the cells had been empty - not even the town drunks had been in residence when their latest visitors had come to call.
Inside, there were bullet holes in the back wall, a rolling line of them adorning the plaster. Tattered remnants of wanted posters hung from the wall as well, torn to shreds by the passage of lead meant to send a message to anyone trying to bring order to the chaos of the territory. If only Ezra had a choice in the matter.
Still, staring at the damage wouldn't get it cleared up any quicker.
Mind made up, Ezra crossed the street to the general store. A few minutes later he was already back and had started to sweep up with the broom he'd bought specially for the purpose - Mr Potter wouldn't hear of charging him for it, though he'd insisted on taking the broom their hired help used instead of a new one.
The expression on the man's face when Ezra had taken the broom from him was still a source of amusement, even as he concentrated on getting rid of the shards of glass.
"Need any help?"
Ezra paused, leaning on the broom for a moment as he contemplated his visitor, who'd clearly followed him back across the street.
"I'm almost done," he said. "But I appreciate the offer, Mr..."
"Tanner." It was Potter's hired help - Ezra hadn't recognised his voice but he knew he'd seen the man around. With Larabee, if he wasn't mistaken. "Vin Tanner."
"You don't do enough sweeping up for Mr. Potter?" Ezra asked. Tanner had the look of someone who had something to hide and Ezra was sure that the offer he'd made to help out wasn't completely altruistic. "Or is it something you particularly relish and so would seek to do more of?"
Ezra plied the broom once more, while he waited for Tanner to reply. He wasn't sure what Tanner was doing in town anyway and he didn't have the look of a man who swept floors for a living; there was a keenness around his eyes that Ezra had seen only in men who scouted for a living. It reminded him of times he'd rather forget but once he'd seen that expression he could never quite put it out of his mind, or his memories of the kind of men who wore it.
"Pays for my keep," Tanner said, with a half-hearted shrug. "What happened today, weren't right."
"You are correct, Mr. Tanner." Ezra disposed of the last few shards of glass, then passed Tanner in the doorway to knock the broomhead on the boardwalk in case any splinters were lurking there. "And I intend to ensure there is no repeat performance."
He wasn't much of one for speeches, except as an adjunct to playing a mark, but this time round Ezra was riled up. He should have been there to stop this, seemingly trivial as the incident was, before anyone got seriously hurt. The destruction of the jailhouse windows was an insult as well; the message it gave to the people of Four Corners was that the law wasn't there to protect them, that people could ride into town and do what they liked with no fear of reprisal. Ezra might not have chosen this job but he had every intention of giving it his all, regardless.
Tanner was still watching him, his face making Ezra think he was about to pass judgement on the quality of his brushwork, but in the end he said nothing about that.
"You often get new wanted posters?" he asked, instead, as he crossed over to the selection of new ones Ezra had put up on the wall to replace those destroyed. They were a motley assortment of cattle thieves and general blackguards, the sketches making them look much like one another to the point where Ezra wasn't convinced their respective mothers could have told them apart.
"Often enough," Ezra replied, as he shoved the broom into a nearby corner. "Now if you don't mind," he continued, "I have a jail to get fixed."
By the time the windows had been replaced, Ezra's wallet was a good few dollars lighter. It was only luck that meant the general store had sufficient glass in the right size to make the necessary repairs - he'd fully expected to have to order glass in from Denver and that would have been a definite nuisance.
Somehow Ezra couldn't see any scenario in which Judge Travis would approve the kind of payment that would require or the likelihood of him ever being reimbursed for what he'd already spent. If he couldn't get three more dollars a week out of the old skinflint, broken windows were hardly likely to be high on the list.
The sound of horses coming down the main street made him head quickly across to the door, only to discover it was Larabee and Wilmington. Larabee was at least fully-clothed this time, with a much more familiar expression on his face, one promising death and destruction to anyone foolish enough to mess with him. Somehow that didn't have the right effect on Ezra, though, but instead sent an unexpected judder of attraction through his body. He took a few deep breaths, concentrating on not letting the gunslinger know what was going on, even as Larabee and Wilmington pulled their horses up outside the jail.
"Heard what happened," Larabee said, without bothering to get down from his horse. Ezra felt his arousal fade, replaced by annoyance. Wilmington, his face split by a smug smile, hadn't wasted much time spreading the news, had he? "Anyone hurt?"
"Not this time, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied. He could see Larabee didn't like the tone he was using, but two could play at that game. "Are you disappointed to have missed all the excitement?"
"Must have cost you a good few dollars." Larabee nodded at the windows, the shine telling everyone just how new they were. "Hope these last longer."
"I intend to make sure of it."
"Well," Larabee said, as he turned his horse's head towards the saloon, "there's help here if you need it."
He was already moving before Ezra could reply and he wondered if that was deliberate. Ezra hated this, hated being obliged to anyone but the extent of the damage the outlaws had done unchallenged was enough to tell him he probably shouldn't face them alone if they returned. Not that he was ever going to like asking for help - the possibility of just accepting what was offered was somehow much less galling than the idea of going cap in hand to Larabee and his associates.
"I'll remember that," Ezra said, loud enough for them to hear, as he watched Larabee and Wilmington ride away.
He didn't bother to patch the bullet holes. If it hadn't been for the fact that a jail with broken windows was hardly secure, Ezra knew he probably wouldn't have got them fixed either. Except that he had some responsibility to keep up appearances and the cosmetic qualities of the jail were as much of a reassurance for the town's inhabitants as the presence of their sheriff. Never mind that the sheriff in question had hardly had the chance to prove himself, they trusted him anyway and that was enough.
In the days that had followed the attack, Ezra kept himself busy. While he was still itching to get out of town, he knew that wasn't a good idea - he needed to be seen, his presence a reassurance that there wouldn't be a repeat performance, as he'd promised Tanner.
Instead, Ezra found he was back to his previous occupation, watching the people who lived in Four Corners and the ones who were just passing through. Watching Tanner as he earned his keep over at the general store, then drank most of it away with Larabee and Wilmington in the saloon each night. He couldn't figure out how the three of them had come to associate with one another - Wilmington and Larabee had that casual way with one another that only came from knowing someone for a long time, but he had yet to figure out how Tanner fitted in.
For the first time, though, in longer than he cared to think about, Ezra found himself envying what someone else had. Maybe this being responsible was having an effect on him after all, the result of which was that it made him want things that were bad for him, things like the chance for a quiet drink with people who he thought he might like to associate. Things his mother had always told him would make him weak.
Instead he kept to his solitary table the other side of the saloon, his back to the wall where he could watch everyone come and go, and tried not to watch the three of them as they drank and occasionally talked. Wilmington did most of the talking, of course, and Larabee most of the drinking, while Tanner didn't seem to do as much of either. Ezra noticed, however, that when Tanner said something Larabee seemed to listen more intently and he found he didn't like that at all.
He finished his whiskey, the slow burn barely enough to wash the bitterness of seeing Larabee associating so easily with someone else from his mouth. It was ridiculous, Ezra told himself, as he resolutely ignored the three men and headed upstairs to his room. He had no hold on Larabee, he barely even knew the man. For all Ezra knew, that business at the cabin could have been completely innocent and he'd misinterpreted the other man's intentions, getting himself all worked up over nothing. It wouldn't be the first time he'd had a run of bad luck, after all.
Once inside his room, Ezra removed his jacket, hung his holster carefully from one corner of the bedstead, pistol butt well within reach. His shirt was next, before Ezra toed off his boots, letting them drop beside the bed.
This unsettled feeling was a sensation Ezra wasn't used to, like so much about still being in Four Corners.
Usually when he got this agitated over what he couldn't have, Ezra would head for somewhere with a little more life to it, somewhere that a few dollars could buy pretty much anything someone could want, even if that want was an unusual one. But here, in the middle of nowhere, he was restricted to the use of his own right hand and even that he'd have to do quietly if he didn't want everyone else in the place to know exactly what he was doing.
One of the few positives about staying in the rooms above the saloon was the bed - a thick feather mattress, it cushioned Ezra's weight as he lay down, letting him sink into its embrace. Even as his eyes closed, he wondered what it would be like to share this bed with someone, not a stranger he'd paid to be there but someone who wanted to be, someone all lean strength and wiry muscle. Someone like Chris Larabee, someone dangerous.
Ezra felt his dick respond to that thought and he opened up the fly with one hand, lifting up a little to let the material of his pants slide down his hips. There was nothing quite like the possibility of danger to make his libido sit up and take notice and who could be more dangerous than a notorious gunslinger like Larabee? It could be his imagination, telling him that Larabee was interested, but how could he ever take the risk inherent in finding out if he was right or wrong?
If it was a case of skipping town to avoid embarrassment that was one thing, but Ezra knew any kind of misjudgement on his part and he'd be dealing with one of the few men in town who would stand a good chance of killing him where he stood.
If he was wrong.
And if he wasn't, Ezra knew that there was no chance of anything overt happening between them - anything they did together would be secretive, furtive meetings away from Wilmington and Tanner. Maybe a discreet rendezvous at Larabee's cabin, that quilt covering the two of them as they tussled on the bed? Ezra thumbed the head of his erection, letting his hand slide down its length as he closed his eyes and pictured Larabee, half-naked as he'd been the last time he'd seen the man alone, but this time Ezra was helping remove those too-tight jeans.
Ezra bit his lip to stifle the moan that his over-active imagination caused, the thought of sliding his hands across the skin beneath, Larabee's skin, almost too much to bear.
When he opened his eyes again there was an odd light flickering across the window and only moments later he heard the cry from outside.
His erection fled faster than it had grown as Ezra levered himself out of the embrace of his mattress and went across to the window. It wasn't the saloon itself that was on fire, it was across the street - the livery stable! Smoke was already billowing from the loft. Two men were wrestling with the stable door, which was probably locked at this time of night.
Ezra was already buttoning his trousers back up halfway to the door - instinct made him pick up his holster as he left the room, even as he considered and rejected taking the time to put on his boots. This was too much of a coincidence, with what had happened only a couple of days before.
Half the town seemed to be gathered on the boardwalk, while the other half had at least bothered to try and do something about the fire. The terrified whinnying of the horses from inside the burning building made Ezra's blood run cold. He realised that his own horse wasin there and pushed past the people gathered outside the saloon. The people he'd seen from upstairs trying to force the main door open had succeeded and were bringing out the horses, one by one, rather than risk a stampede.
"Last one," a voice said, even as Ezra reached the door, and Buck Wilmington emerged leading Ezra's horse. It was tossing its head fretfully, a shirt tied around its eyes - Wilmington's shirt if the top half of the red union suit he was wearing was anything to go by. "Your horse is as hornery as you are, sheriff," Wilmington continued, as he handed the halter rope over.
There was a groaning sound from inside the building, the sound of the upstairs falling into the lower levels, even as the people fighting the fire with buckets seemed to realise how futile their efforts were.
The two of them had crossed to the other side of the street together, to join the other horses that had been rescued from the burning stable. Ezra wasn't surprised to see Tanner there, his face blackened with soot and the smell of burnt hair surrounding him. It was hard to tell whether the smell came from the horses or him. He was holding the halter of a small bay mare who trembled against him, head still pressed against Tanner's chest as he ran his hand reassuringly over her.
"Are you unharmed, Mr. Tanner?" Tanner nodded, his attention still on the mare more than anything else. "Mr. Wilmington?"
"My thanks to you for saving my horse," Ezra said. "I would be hard-pressed to replace him.
"We couldn't save the sadddles though," Wilmington replied. "Sorry 'bout that." He paused then, as if suddenly noticing how Ezra was dressed. "You usually run around with no boots or shirt on?"
"I was getting ready for bed."
"With your gunbelt still on?" Wilmington laughed. "You'd be an uneasy companion and no mistake."
"In more ways than one, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said. Though his horse was starting to fidget a little, he couldn't leave Wilmington's shirt on its head forever. Ezra tugged at the sleeve, pulling it loose. He gave it a thorough shake. "I'll have it laundered for you, of course."
"Don't be stupid," Wilmington said, as he took hold of the other sleeve. "It was clean on today, don't need laundering."
Ezra shrugged, then surrendered the shirt. If Wilmington had no qualms about smelling like Ezra's horse, who was he to argue?
"And where is Mr. Larabee?" he asked, as he realised suddenly who was missing.
"Oh, he left." Wilmington looked at him, his expression more perceptive than Ezra liked. "Said he had a hankering to sleep at his place. Left just after you went upstairs."
Ezra had been so busy watching everyone else that he hadn't thought his own movements were of that much interest to anyone else. Apparently he had been wrong. At least one inhabitant of the town was paying attention.
He'd had no option but to tie his horse to the saloon rails for what remained of the night, then Ezra trudged back upstairs to get at least a couple of hours sleep. Tanner was still standing there with the mare he seemed to have adopted - when questioned, he said that his wagon was parked near the livery stable and stank of smoke so he wouldn't be able to sleep there till he could get everything cleared out. Wilmington had headed off to the boarding house without a backward glance, pulling his shirt on as he headed down the street.
He needed to be at his best, or at least as close to it as he could manage, in case the fire at the livery stable was no coincidence. Ezra hadn't felt that they were being watched, no prickling sensation between his shoulderblades like when he'd first come to town, but he couldn't be too careful.
He wouldn't be able to tell till the morning if the fire had been started deliberately and possibly not even then. It was no secret that Wilson who operated the place had more than once fell asleep with a disgusting-smelling pipe in his mouth. There was no sign of Wilson either, but they'd have to wait for the remains of the stable to stop smouldering before they could search it properly, if the man didn't turn up in the meantime.
Ezra draped his holster back over the same bedpost it had previously occupied and climbed back into bed. As he rested his head back onto the pillow, he couldn't help thinking about what the cries of fire had interrupted, but he was too tired to continue with what he'd been doing before. He wondered what Larabee was doing, whether he was asleep, sprawled under that quilt whose handiwork he'd admired so much, and it was with those thoughts running through his mind Ezra fell asleep.
Much too soon, Ezra was awake once more, a slammed door making him wake with a jolt. He'd slept for a couple of hours, at least, even if his eyes felt like someone had removed them and rolled them across the street.
Once he'd washed and changed his clothes, Ezra felt more human and headed downstairs in search of copious amounts of coffee and some food to go with it. The last thing he expected was to see Larabee there, in the saloon, sitting at his usual table as if waiting for Ezra to emerge from his room.
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra knew he was scowling a little, but being baited before he'd had his coffee tended to have that effect on him. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning?"
"Heard about the livery burning down last night," Larabee said. Now that Ezra looked at him properly, he didn't look like he'd slept much either. "Think it was an accident?"
"That, it would seem, is a question unlikely to be answered until well after I have consumed some breakfast," Ezra said. "Would you like to join me?"
"Already ate." Larabee's face was unreadable, but his eyes, tired as they were, told another story altogether. "But more coffee would work," he contined, as he got up from his chair.
It was ridiculous, Ezra told himself as they headed out of the saloon together, how pleased he was that Larabee had taken up his invitation. A schoolboy with a crush would have had more decorum.
Larabee wasn't saying much, which was no surprise, but he didn't object when Ezra made a slight detour via what was left of the livery stable. It was still smoking, little more than a pile of charred wood and twisted metal. If Wilson had been in there, Ezra could only hope he hadn't known much of what was going on. He'd heard that you could die of breathing in smoke and never wake up - that seemed far better than the alternative. If there was a good way to die, burning alive wasn't it.
"Nobody's seen Wilson since the fire, leastwise not that I heard." Larabee's voice startled Ezra from his maudlin thoughts.
"He could have been in there," Ezra said. "We'll know soon enough."
They walked the rest of the way to the restaurant in silence. The few diners already in residence were quiet, the overall atmosphere subdued - maybe they too were wondering if the livery was an accident, a coincidence, or a herald of more trouble on the way. There was a cup of coffee in front of Ezra almost as soon as he sat down, the woman who ran the place knowing his needs, and he took a first grateful mouthful with pleasure. Beside him, Larabee was doing the same, the look on his face showing that he really had needed that.
Ezra was about to say something, he wasn't sure quite what, when the door to the restaurant opened again. Nathan was framed there in the doorway, looking hesitant - if the place was as quiet as this, usually Ezra could persuade Nathan to join him but he wasn't sure how Larabee would react. There was, of course, only one way to find out. All Ezra could hope was that Larabee's eclectic taste in friends showed some tolerance.
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, as he pushed one of the other chairs back with his boot, "won't you join us?"
Nathan already had his hands full with a plate wrapped in a checkered cloth, even as he looked in Ezra's direction. Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra watched Larabee, looking for a response, but the gunslinger's expression was inscrutable.
"Ought to get back," Nathan said, obviously reluctant and unsure of the welcome he'd receive. Ezra knew it wasn't him, since Nathan had dined with him before, so it had to be Larabee he was wary of. And with good reason, if the man's bloodthirsty reputation was to be believed. "Much obliged."
Ezra glanced across at Larabee. Obviously Nathan required more persuasion than he was able to give.
"Don't rush off on my account," Larabee said. He gestured towards the empty seat Ezra had shoved out from the table with the hand that wasn't holding his half-empty coffee cup.
"You know Mr. Jackson, of course," Ezra said, more than a little relieved that Larabee had backed up his invitation by issuing even this taciturn one of his own. "Mr. Jackson, the notorious Mr. Larabee."
Nathan sat, still obviously more than a little on edge, almost perched on the edge of the proffered chair despite the fact he'd been invited to sit there by both the town's sheriff and the most notorious gunslinger for fifty miles around. As he took another mouthful of coffee, Ezra pondered once more what life must be like in Four Corners for Nathan Jackson - tolerated because of his skills but nothing more, nervous of his own shadow despite the obvious courage of his character.
"Our paths ain't crossed," Larabee said, his tone wry. "And that's the way I'd like it to stay."
"Seen enough gunshot wounds to be going on with," Nathan replied, as he unwrapped his meal. The smell wafted across the table, making Ezra's stomach growl in response and he turned a pleading look at the restaurant's proprietor, who was making her way across the room with his breakfast. "Smells real good, as always, Mrs. Brown."
"Thank you, Nathan," she replied, with a small smile, as she placed Ezra's meal in front of him.
He was digging into it, enjoying Mrs. Brown's excellent cooking as usual, when the other chair scraped backwards across the wooden floor and Wilmington slumped into it. He looked like he hadn't slept much either, a smear of soot across his face serving as a reminder to Ezra of just what had happened the previous night, if he needed to be reminded. Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra glanced over at Nathan but he didn't seem any more perturbed about having breakfast with three white men than he had with two - obviously Larabee was the intimidating one at this particular table.
"Good morning, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said. He owed the man, after all, and an effort to ensure any friend of Larabee's thought well of him probably couldn't go amiss.
"Morning, sheriff," Wilmington replied with a grin, an expression that widened when Mrs. Brown approached the table with another plate of food. "Why, thank you Mrs. Brown."
"You're welcome, Buck," she replied.
Wilmington looked completely at home, not once asking why Nathan was eating with them - apparently if it was good enough for Larabee, he didn't need to bother asking about it. Another day, Ezra might have wondered why someone could happily join him at breakfast without an invitation but this morning Wilmington taking a seat like he owned the place hardly seemed out of the ordinary.
"Think the stable's cooled down enough for us to have a look-see?" Wilmington asked, after he'd apparently inhaled about half of his substantial breakfast. Ezra was about to ask for more coffee when the proprietor arrived by their table, coffee pot in hand - she refilled everyone's cups and then just left the pot there without a word. "That's one good woman," Wilmington continued, his eyes following her with more than a culinary interest as she headed back towards the kitchen.
"It can wait," Ezra said. Larabee was watching him, he knew that, though he couldn't figure out how it made him feel. Uneasy, that was for certain, but not that prickling feeling of being observed he'd felt early on in Four Corners. It was a comfortable unease, though that seemed a contradiction in terms, a sense that Larabee was somehow watching over him rather than just observing. Oddly enough, Ezra found he liked the idea of that. "We're likely to have more pressing business soon enough."
"If you're talking about the visitors town had the other day." That was Larabee, his tone laconic but the words heavy with implied menace. Obviously he was the only one who got to be notorious around here and disliked the idea of competition for the title. "I heard they wore Confederate grey. It ain't right."
"That it is not, Mr. Larabee," Ezra agreed. He pushed his chair back from the table. "And I intend to see that the culprits do not get the opportunity to provide us with a repeat performance."
As he stood, Ezra was conscious of Larabee once more, of the gunslinger unfolding himself from the chair and standing as well.
"Sounds like a plan, sheriff," he said.
Despite their plans, all they could really do was wait. The cause of the fire at the livery stable proved impossible to determine, despite Ezra's best efforts. The weather had been hot, the wood and straw that constituted the livery stable as dry as tinder, and Wilson hadn't turned up in town as yet. There was little left but rubble and that could only be examined properly when what was left was demolished, a job slated for some time in the next few days.
Other than that, the town was quiet. A little too quiet, maybe.
There was no way to tell if those unwelcome visitors who'd wrecked the jailhouse would return so Ezra was left in limbo; this pause in proceedings also gave him time to think and that was rarely, in his experience, a good thing. He was aware of Larabee's presence, the other man joining him for at least one meal a day as time passed. Sometimes Wilmington joined them as well, Tanner appeared on occasion and often Jackson could be cajoled into sitting down as well, but the majority of the time it was just the two of them, eating in unexpectedly companionable silence.
He was losing his initial jumpiness around the gunslinger and Ezra wasn't completely sure whether that was a good thing or not. He'd catch Larabee looking at him when he didn't expect to be observed in return, his face all but expressionless. Ezra could only wonder what was going through the other man's mind, though surely it was nothing bad - he couldn't be lucky enough to discover his interest returned, could he? Larabee gave nothing away, but then Ezra didn't expect him to. That would be tantamount to professional suicide for a shootist, a weakness that could not fail to be exploited if word got around.
Frustrated by his own lack of interest, Ezra saw Mrs. Travis briefly turn her attention to Larabee as quiet days rolled into quieter weeks, the heavy weather making them all seek distraction wherever they could find it. He'd been in the right place to overhear their conversation, an unintentional eavesdropper for once, and something deep inside had reacted with pleasure to Larabee's clear-cut dismissal of her.
That didn't mean, of course, that lack of interest in Mrs. Travis meant interest in Ezra Standish. But at least the possibility gave him encouragement, even if Ezra had no idea how to broach the subject, even if he wanted to take the risk.
Even though the memories of visiting Larabee at his homestead provided Ezra with ample source material for fantasising about the other man, he wasn't sure he wanted to chance destroying what he'd already achieved. There was something about this place that made him feel more at home than he'd felt in longer than he could recall - if Larabee rejected his advances, as he probably would, he risked both his own wellbeing and the chance of continuing on in town.
The thought of Larabee laughing at him, at best, or drawing his gun at worst, was mortifying. While his nocturnal considerations of their previous encounter didn't diminish, Ezra found himself deciding that he couldn't take the chance. The odds were so much stacked against him that he didn't feel the risk was one worth taking any more.
Morning found Ezra Standish in his accustomed place, waiting for the stage. As was often the case, his seat was tipped back against the saloon wall and his hat over his eyes while he listened for the telltale sound of horses approaching at speed.
The stage was due in any time now, this particular coach carrying a caseload of considerably better whisky than the town had ever seen before, Ezra's gift to himself when the judge's promised money had finally arrived. He'd been all but ready to throw in his badge and take his chances, his terse telegraph to Travis threatening resignation receiving an even terser reply directing him to the bank. It had been a long time since Ezra had been quite so overjoyed at being told he had funds to hand.
What was left of the livery stable had been pulled down the previous afternoon and that had turned out to be a dirty and quite tedious job. A job Ezra had been glad to supervise, rather than be personally involved in, particularly as it allowed him to watch Chris Larabee at work once more. His only regret, in hindsight, was that not being involved meant he didn't get to join Larabee and Wilmington when they headed off to get clean afterwards. That had been a miscalculation on Ezra's part, he'd decided later, regardless of his determination not to get involved with the man.
There wasn't much left of the livery stable to demolish - the building had been mostly wood and the combination of that and the straw inside had made the structure burn hot and bright, leaving little in its wake. They'd found what was left of Wilson, as Ezra had somehow expected they would, but there was no way of telling how he'd died. It was obvious to everyone, from the state of his skull, that he'd sustained a massive blow at some point but that could have been from a falling rafter long after he was already dead.
"Mr Standish?" Mary Travis' voice shook Ezra from his consideration of Wilson's possible fate. "I need to speak with you."
"You would be more than welcome to do so, Mrs Travis," Ezra said, as he sat up and tipped his hat back from over his eyes. He'd rarely seen Mary Travis look so flustered as she did now, at least since the time when she'd almost got herself killed trying to intervene in a lynching. Something told Ezra that whatever it was she had to say, the street was not the place for it to be said. "Would you care to accompany me to the jailhouse?"
Getting up from his seat, Ezra offered Mrs Travis his arm politely - she took it with a smile and a nod of thanks. The jail was empty still, the new windows still shiny and his desk still clear of work.
"Please, take a seat," Ezra said, as he headed over to the other side of the room. He didn't really want anything but it was an excuse to allow Mary time to compose herself. Would you like some coffee?" he asked, as he relit the stove.
"Thank you, no," Mary said. "Mr Standish, I discovered something this morning that I felt you needed to be aware of." Ezra had turned now, and crossing over to the battered desk, he took a seat behind it. "I have reason to believe that what happened with the livery stable was no accident."
"You'd better tell me everything," he said. "From the beginning."
By the time Mary Travis left and Ezra sat down again behind his desk, a cup of coffee in hand, he'd already started to put together the pieces of what she'd told him with what had happened earlier.
Now there was only one way to find out if there was any truth to his theories, but it involved some degree of confrontation.
He'd been right, though, when he'd told Nathan that the former Confederates would be back in town - he just hadn't known how soon they'd return or that the second time around they wouldn't ride boldly down the main street. This time, if Mary Travis was correct, one of their number had set fire to the livery stable instead and all Ezra needed now was confirmation of that theory.
The coffee was still hot, a little too hot to drink, so Ezra placed the cup carefully on the top of the desk. He had some talking to do with Mr Potter and by the time that was done, he'd probably need as much coffee as he could handle.
He gave Potter his due though. As Ezra walked in through the front door of the grocery, he didn't try to look surprised at a visit from the sheriff.
"Have you been expecting me?" Ezra asked. Potter nodded, his expression a little shamefaced. "It would have been easier if you'd told me yourself, not left it to other people to figure out what was going on."
Ezra followed Potter into the small back room behind the counter. It was piled high with crates, some open and half-empty, while others had obviously been there for some time.
"I thought it was some kind of joke at first," Potter said, sitting on a rickety-looking stool and gesturing towards the other with one hand. Ezra took one look at it and decided to trust his weight to the edge of one of the crates instead. "I couldn't believe..."
"That you were being blackmailed?" Potter nodded, looking down at his shoes as if he hoped the answer was written down there. "Tell me what happened."
"The day after those men rode into town, I received a letter to say I should speak with the other shopkeepers in town. That if we paid up promptly, there'd be no more trouble."
"And did you?" Potter looked up at the question, clearly puzzled by it. "Speak with the others?"
"How much did they ask for?"
"One hundred dollars," Potter replied. "The letter said that I should telegraph someone called Elzey at Eagle Bend by the end of the week. He'd tell me what to do."
"Elzey? Like the Confederate general?" Ezra asked. Potter's face showed he had no idea who he was talking about so Ezra pressed on. "And then what happened?"
"The day after the livery stable burned down, I received another letter. This one said 'pay up or the next place to burn will be your store' and it asked for two hundred dollars."
"Other than that, the instructions were the same?" Ezra asked.
"It said I had till the first of the month to follow orders or we'd all live to regret it."
The first had been yesterday and the mulish expression on Potter's face told Ezra everything he needed to know about what had happened next.
"And you didn't think to mention this to anyone?"
"What would have been the point?" Potter asked, the mulishness still there. "Everyone knows the law's so new in this part of the Territory it's hardly capable of dealing with minor troubles, let alone this kind of thing." Potter's mouth snapped shut and he seemed to realise just who he was talking to. "No offence," he added hastily.
Ezra just watched him for a moment, thinking over what Potter had said. The irony of it all was that only a few short weeks ago, he would probably have agreed with what the shopkeeper was saying. Or he'd have counselled Potter and the others to pay up.
There was nothing quite like a neatly executed protection racket - Ezra had to hand it to whoever these Confederates were, they'd got themselves a nicely wrought scheme and it had probably worked well elsewhere, if anyone had dared to admit they'd been blackmailed this way. Rip off one small town and move on, that was the way to do it, minimising the risks and maximising the chances of getting the most out of each small town as they worked their way around the relatively lawless Territories.
It was almost admirable, if Wilson hadn't died as a result of it. If it hadn't messed with Ezra's own plans, even in the slightest. And things were different here now. Like it or not, he had a job to do. Like it or not, there also seemed to be people around town who wanted to help him do it, who thought his badge wasn't just for effect.
"I expect you should get ready to board up your windows, Mr Potter," Ezra said, pushing himself up from where he was perched. "I dare say we'll be receiving visitors in due course."
Tanner fell into step with him even as he left Potter's store, hanging his apron on the rail as he followed Ezra down the steps and across the street towards the jailhouse.
"Can I help you, Mr Tanner?" Ezra asked, without looking round or slowing his step.
"No," Tanner said. "But I think I can help you."
"How so?" They were across the street and headed into the jail by now, where Ezra's cup of coffee still stood on the desk. Tanner dropped into the chair which earlier had accommodated Mary Travis, looking as comfortable as if he reclined on the finest horsehair sofa. "I suppose you'd like some coffee?"
The words were out of Ezra's mouth before he could help himself, the small smile on Tanner's face grew as he nodded.
He didn't have time to entertain Larabee's friends, that was certain, but maybe this way he could get them to leave him alone? Ezra handed Tanner a cup, before heading back round to his own seat. The coffee he'd left behind had cooled and was just about drinkable now, if a little bitter. He'd spent so much money on whiskey, while a similar investment in better coffee beans might be an idea.
If he was around to make such an investment by the time the Confederates had visited once more.
"Heard what Potter said," Tanner began, having swigged half his coffee in one gulping mouthful.
"Eavesdropping is impolite, Mr Tanner," Ezra said.
"But effective," Tanner replied. "Like blackmail."
"Indeed." Ezra took a mouthful of his own coffee and contemplated the man who sat across from him. On first impressions, Tanner and Larabee made unlikely friends and he had to wonder just what it was that drew the two of them together. "I expect we'll be receiving company in our lovely township in due course," he continued.
Tanner nodded. "Reckon they'll be back, today or maybe tomorrow. Depends on how long it takes 'fore they get word from Eagle Bend."
"You said you could help me?" Ezra asked. "I fail to see in what capacity."
"Ain't it obvious?" Tanner said, then swallowed the rest of his coffee. He leaned forward and placed the empty cup carefully on the scuffed surface of Ezra's desk. "Reckon you need a deputy and I'm just the man for the job."
He hadn't agreed with Tanner, though Ezra said he'd think about it. Somehow, Ezra had found himself agreeing to Tanner staying there, in the jail, without quite knowing how the other man had managed to talk him into it.
He didn't have the money to pay for a deputy, even if he wanted one - that would be up to Judge Travis and Ezra himself would have to justify the cost. He couldn't help noticing, though, as he left the jail, that there was already someone else sweeping up outside Potter's store, a young lad wearing a bowler hat who looked barely old enough to be let out alone. That was enough to make him turn on his heel and head back into the jail.
"Did you quit your job?"
Tanner shrugged in response, not looking up from the pile of old wanted posters he was feeding into the stove. Ezra shook his head and let the door swing closed, wondering as he walked away just what it was Tanner thought Ezra had agreed to.
He was headed down towards the newspaper office, purely to check whether Mrs Travis had heard anything else useful before heading in search of a little supper, when a movement in one of the alleys that ran off the main street caught his eye. Ezra pulled his gun from its holster as he headed into the alley. If the arsonist was there, maybe looking for the chance to repeat his former performance, he had no intention of being caught flat-footed.
The sound of a match striking made him stop in his tracks. There, in the semi-darkness of the alley, was one Chris Larabee, taking the first few puffs on one of his obnoxious-smelling cheroots.
"Evening, sheriff," Larabee said. His face was in darkness, lit only for a moment as he raised the match to his mouth and blew it out. Ezra could make out the long shape of his body, black against the shadows for the most part, looking as relaxed as if he'd grown out of the ground there and then. "I hear you got yourself some back-up."
As he spoke, Larabee jerked his head towards the lights of the main street, as if indicating the jail where Ezra knew Tanner was bedding down for the night.
"After a fashion," Ezra replied. He holstered his gun, giving that action more care than it really needed so he could ignore the response of his own body to this man. If anything, though, he was beginning to realise just how tired he was, tired of trying to figure out just what was going on when it seemed that maybe the townsfolk didn't trust him quite as much as he'd thought. "If it's any of your business."
He wasn't sure what had made him say that; the words were uncharacteristically rude and had slipped from Ezra's mouth before he could stop them. Larabee's only response was to laugh, a low dark chuckle that made the short hairs on the back of Ezra's neck stand on end.
"I'm making it my business," Larabee said. He took two quick puffs of the cheroot then dropped it to the ground. The lighted end flickered for a moment before a well-placed boot crushed it and Larabee had moved. Ezra stood his ground, determined not to let the gunslinger intimidate him, certain this was Larabee's plan. "I'm making you my business."
He was fast, as fast as Ezra would expect such a notorious gunslinger to be, though the darkness probably helped more than a little with the element of surprise. Larabee grabbed the front of Ezra's jacket the moment he was within arm's reach, pulling him forward and off-balance even as his mouth was on Ezra's. All he could taste for a moment was the cheroots, just as vile as they smelled, then bad coffee and even worse whiskey. Ezra was torn between going for his gun and grabbing hold of Larabee and not letting go - in that moment of indecisiveness Larabee stepped back and the choice was made for him.
"You can tell me what's going on over supper," Larabee said, then turned and walked away.
Ezra found himself heading back towards the street, alongside Larabee as the other man headed that way, as if drawn by an invisible cord binding the two of them together. If he'd thought himself confused before, that was nothing to the way his head spun now and he was glad of the chance to pull himself together and figure out just what the hell was going on. His hand brushed absently at the lapel of his jacket, straightening its line where Larabee had grabbed it, the only evidence other than the taste in his mouth that anything had actually happened.
By the time they reached the restaurant, Ezra knew exactly what the problem was. Larabee had taken a liberty with him, no matter that it was one he would have freely granted him only days before, and he couldn't allow that to stand unchallenged. To do so would be to allow the other man dominion over him in a way he couldn't bear, regardless of his role in this community. He had to put the matter straight and he had to do it now.
"Your assistance with my current predicament," he said, as the two of them took their seats, "would be much appreciated."
"But?" Larabee cocked his head to one side, as if he expected a corollary to that statement.
"But let me make this clear to you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra continued. "I am in charge here." He tapped the sheriff's badge with one finger. "And what I say goes around here."
Larabee raised his hand, one finger tapping the brim of his hat momentarily in brief salute, before he removed it and hung it on the back of an adjacent chair.
"Whatever you say, sheriff."
He'd told Larabee everything over supper, aware all the time that he spoke of those sharp eyes watching him, assessing him at the same time the gunslinger was taking in all that he said. It was an odd feeling, Ezra decided, a heady mixture - the idea that Larabee was on his side was a strangely comforting one, yet the way the other man had basically taken over was nothing if not annoying. He'd sworn to himself he wouldn't let the other man get to him this way and that vow had barely lasted a matter of days.
So much for not allowing himself to be swept away by his feelings for Larabee, whatever those really were.
"You need us," Larabee had said, generously including Wilmington's aid whether he knew it or not, "then we'll be there."
The jail was dark as Ezra walked back past it to the hotel, so Tanner was probably asleep. He'd left Larabee at the restaurant, back when it seemed as though the man had taken root there with interminable cups of coffee, and walked out of the place without a backward glance. He wasn't so cowed after all, or at least that was the message he was trying to send to Larabee. Not that Ezra couldn't help wishing Larabee was heading back with him, back to the hotel room to warm his bed, not that either of them would likely be much good to the town in the morning if those Confederates decided to pay a call.
All in all, Ezra reminded himself firmly, this was probably for the best. He was still telling himself that the next morning, when he came down from his room in search of coffee.
"Morning, sheriff!" Tanner's overly-cheerful voice made Ezra wince a little even as he closed the jailhouse door behind him. "Coffee's just made."
He accepted one of the battered mugs with mumbled thanks, before almost choking on its contents.
"What is this?"
"Too strong for you?"
It must be something contagious, that was the only possible explanation. First Larabee with his damn beans and now this. Ezra took another mouthful of coffee, grimacing at the bitterness.
"What was your first clue?" he asked. It seemed to be working, though - he was starting to wake up. There was little evidence, at least, that Tanner had actually moved in and for that Ezra was oddly glad. He didn't want people to know he was as easily persuaded as all that, especially considering that usually wasn't the case. It must be something in the water. He looked down at his coffee thoughtfully. "I expect we'll have company some time today."
Tanner nodded, his face suddenly grim.
"You told Chris what's going on?" Ezra looked at him, then decided he really didn't want to know how Tanner knew the two of them had eaten supper together. "Figure you need all the help you can get," Tanner continued.
"We should have suitable assistance," Ezra said, trying to ignore the small spark of pleasure generated by Tanner's use of 'we'. "If they come today."
"Whenever they come, we'll be ready."
He was on his second cup of coffee, regardless of how vile it was, when Wilmington arrived, breathless.
"Riders coming," he said, having almost slammed through the door in his haste. "A dozen, maybe more. Fast."
"Get Larabee," Ezra said. Tanner was already checking the ammunition, loading his rifle with intense concentration. His own revolvers were always loaded, a comforting weight. "Meet me outside the saloon."
Wilmington nodded and was gone.
"I'll be on top of Potter's store," Tanner said, without looking up. "Best position to cover the street."
They hadn't discussed tactics and now it seemed there would be no time to do so. The thought of facing down a dozen men on horseback, just the four of them, wasn't one that filled Ezra with much confidence, but it was something he had to do. Maybe he hadn't signed up for this job, but he had it now and if there was one thing Maude Standish hadn't raised her child to be, it was a coward.
"Good luck," Ezra said, then left the jail without waiting for a reply. The main street was deserted, which was good - he didn't have time to deal with explanations now. Ezra headed down the boardwalk towards the clinic, then turned the corner and almost walked into Nathan.
"Hear we got trouble coming."
"You heard right," Ezra said. "I expect there'll be some doctoring to be done, afterwards." Nathan nodded, his face drawn with concern. "I'll see you at supper, then," he continued, for something to say. It was inane, he knew that, but for once the words failed him.
"I can shoot a rifle as well as the next man," Nathan said, his expression changing from concern to mulishness.
"I would expect that you can, Nathan," Ezra replied. The thought of Nathan standing beside him would be a comforting one, but even better would be the knowledge he'd be there to stitch them back together again, assuming any of them survived this encounter. "But there are other things you can do that are more important. Too important to risk."
Nathan's eyes examined Ezra's expression for a moment, as if searching for the truth in what he said, then he nodded sharply.
"I'd better go boil some water," he said. "Try not to get your fool head shot off, Ezra." He wiped his hand on his trouser leg, then stuck it out.
"I will endeavour to heed your words," Ezra said, as he shook Nathan's hand.
By the time Ezra returned to the main street, walking quickly towards the saloon, he could see the cloud of dust on the horizon that signalled their visitors were almost upon the town. Wilmington was there, leaning against one of the uprights that held up the porch, Larabee in a chair on the boardwalk beside him.
"Sheriff," Larabee said, as he touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement but otherwise didn't move from his seat. "Hear we've got a spot of trouble coming."
"It certainly looks that way, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said. "And I propose that we make a fine welcoming committee for our visitors."
They made no move to follow him into the saloon, Wilmington idly checking the sights on his rifle and Larabee reloading one of his pistols, as Ezra headed up to his room. His own rifle was where he'd left it, long leather case still stuffed under the mattress so it wouldn't be immediately visible to anyone who chose to ransack his room. Ezra pulled the Winchester repeating rifle from its case, loaded it with ammunition from a box he removed from one of his saddlebags. He had no need to check his revolvers - they'd been carefully loaded that morning, part of the ritual he did every morning before he left his room. Satisfied that he was as ready as he was going to be, Ezra left his room without a backward glance.
He couldn't see where Tanner was, but Ezra had no doubt he'd found himself a position overlooking the direction their unwelcome guests were headed from, and that small certainty was enough to make him feel considerably better about everything. That and the menacing pair that Larabee and Wilmington made, as they stalked at his heels towards the middle of the street.
They stood there, the three of them, and Ezra noticed an uneasy silence about the town. It was rarely all that quiet, what with the saloon and the steady buzz of people going about their usual business, but the street was deserted, the saloon quiet, as if everyone realised just what was about to happen and had chosen to take cover. Even Mary Travis was nowhere to be seen, which seemed to Ezra a minor miracle - she was probably watching from some safe location, since he was certain it would take more than a threat of violence to dissuade her from covering this potential story somehow, but as long as she was out of the way, he didn't have to give her a second thought.
"Here they come," said Wilmington, somewhat unnecessarily, as the first of the riders made the slow turn into town. They were, as Nathan had said, dressed in ragged Confederate grey, and they carried an equally ragged flag with them. Both riders and flag had seen better days, long before this. Ezra couldn't help remembering last time he'd seen that flag, the last time when he himself had worn a uniform not dissimilar to that, and the thought took him back to times he'd rather forget. "Ugly fellas, ain't they?"
Wilmington's words acted like a release, reminding Ezra just why he was there, and what this ragged band's true purpose was. He took a step forward, raising his rifle till it pointed into the sky, and fired a warning shot. Neither Wilmington or Larabee had moved, but he felt their presence at his back anyway.
The visitors came to a halt a respectful distance from where the three men stood, fanning out across the street - a dozen men, that was all.
"So," said one of them, a grizzled looking man with only one arm, "you got yourselves a sheriff. Where were you hiding last time we rode into town, boy?"
Ezra didn't bother to answer him. It was clear that the man didn't want an answer, only an audience. He eyed the assembled Confederates, all of whom looked like their best fighting days were long in the past. He didn't remember pinning on the sheriff's badge that morning but he apparently had, out of force of habit if nothing else. Regardless of his motivations, Ezra decided, it was a mark he wore with pride, conscious of the trust the townspeople placed in him to do what was right.
"Your behaviour, sir," he said, "and that of your men, debases and degrades the proud men who fought and died under that flag and wearing those self-same uniforms."
The man laughed, a racking cough of a laugh that gave notice just how close he already was to death's door.
"Better and better," he said. "You sure you ain't on the wrong side?"
"Completely," Ezra said, as he brought his rifle round to take careful aim at the Confederate's leader. "Are you?"
The man spat, then reached for his own gun, hand moving faster than Ezra had anticipated was possible. He was still dead before he hit the floor, though - his mount jinked out from under him as Ezra's shot took him in the shoulder and a stray hoof caught him in the head with a sickening crack.
The others had moved for their guns too, a flurry of grey and metal, and as Ezra dived for cover, he was aware of Wilmington and Larabee doing likewise, and of the couple of grey-clad bodies that already twitched and jerked on the dusty ground. A too-close shot raked the edge of the water trough Ezra was crouching behind, sending a shower of splinters in his direction even as he threw himself sideways. His head hit the edge of the boardwalk with a thump and for a moment, Ezra felt his stomach roil and rebel.
The roar of weapons fire came to a stuttering close, the last couple of Confederates deciding to turn tail and run, the tattered flag dragging in the dust behind them till one of them tossed it aside.
Tanner had been instrumental, it seemed, his suspected prowess confirmed by the number of bodies littering the street with just a single bullet-wound, usually through the neck or upper chest. Like the man who Ezra himself had killed in this very place, what seemed like a lifetime ago, it hadn't taken them long to bleed out and this time there was no Nathan trying to interfere with nature taking its course.
"Ezra?" He turned, that was Larabee's voice calling his name. First time ever, as far as he could recall, a warm feeling replacing some of the adrenaline-driven sentimentality that was threatening to overwhelm him. "What the hell?"
Larabee was there, even as Ezra stepped out unsteadily from behind the water trough, one hand touching the wood near where the almost-fatal shot had ripped away splinters. . His face hurt - Ezra raised his hand to his cheek and it came back red. He stared at it for a moment, then felt a hand grab his chin, turning his face for inspection even as he realised just how close he'd come to being one of those bodies too.
"You're bleeding, sheriff." That was Wilmington, voice sounding far off, as a hand grabbed Ezra's wrist and peeled away his Remington from his grasp. It was replaced by something softer, his hand then manoeuvred up to press against his face. "We'd better get him to Nathan."
The world bucked and swam, pounding in time with his steps, as Ezra allowed himself to be led in the direction of Nathan's clinic. He'd only taken a couple of steps up the stairs before he found himself pitching forward and darkness swallowed him whole.
The next few hours were a blur. Strong hands held Ezra's head as he vomited, as he was made to drink so he'd have something to vomit up the next time around, all the time punctuated by the incessant throbbing of his head. He wanted to sleep, but his tormentors wouldn't allow him to do more than doze; echoing voices exhorted him to wake up every time he was about to drift off, until all he wanted to do was escape from them. Not that they would allow him to get up from the bed either, so there was no respite there.
When he was finally fully aware of his surroundings, head still aching but at a more tolerable level than the cacophony of earlier hours, Ezra found he was alone. Or almost alone, since by turning his head a little he could see Nathan where he was bent over the stove, stirring something that was heating in a small pan. Ezra's stomach rumbled loudly and the sound made Nathan turn his head, his hand still stirring whatever it was.
"Thought I told you to keep your head down," he said. "Want some water?"
"Coffee," Ezra croaked. He grimaced at the soreness of his throat, testament to the fact that the blurred memories of the night were a true enough account of what had happened. He didn't want to think who might have witnessed his being laid low that way, it was altogether too mortifying to consider. "Please." His voice was pitiful, but maybe that was a good thing. He might get more sympathy that way.
"Water first," Nathan said. He'd put down the spoon, moved the pan from the heat, and was now pouring water into a battered cup. "If you can keep it down this time, then you can have coffee."
By the time he'd reached Ezra's bedside, Ezra had pulled himself up onto his elbows. There was something itching on his face and he raised one hand towards it, tentative fingers finding stickiness where he'd expected the smoothness of skin.
"Leave that alone, Ezra," Nathan said. He held out the water and Ezra took it from him. It was luke-warm, as tasteless as if it had been boiled then left to cool, but he drank it gratefully anyway.
"Coffee?" Ezra asked again, as his stomach roiled a little and then settled. "And what happened to my face?"
"You don't remember?" It seemed as though Nathan was satisfied the water wasn't going to come back and he took the empty cup back from Ezra and walked back to the stove. Ezra could smell the coffee from where he lay, along with something else.
"Is that oatmeal?" he asked. His stomach chose that moment to repeat its earlier demands and Nathan smiled, reaching into a nearby cupboard to pull out a bowl and place it on the small table that stood close to the stove. "I don't want to deprive you of your breakfast, Nathan," Ezra continued hastily.
"It needs to cool anyway," Nathan said. He handed Ezra the coffee, smile widening as he saw the reverent way in which Ezra took it from him. "You got a face full of splinters yesterday. As well as that crack on the head. Took me over an hour to get them all out, once you'd stopped throwing up enough for me to work."
Ezra sipped the coffee, pulled a face at its bitterness, but drank it down anyway.
"And everyone else?"
"We got lucky." Nathan didn't mention the dead Confederates but there was no need - Ezra could still see them in his mind's eye, lying sprawled across the dusty main street in a familiar tableau. That was one thing that he did remember clearly about earlier events. "Good thing your head is as hard as a rock."
"I'm led to believe it's hereditary," Ezra said. "Is there any more coffee?"
As Ezra had expected, it took him a couple of hours to talk his way past Nathan and out of the clinic. He'd eaten some oatmeal, had been pleasantly surprised that he managed to keep it down - Nathan had pronounced himself pleased with Ezra's progress and that despite his best efforts he hadn't addled whatever little good sense god had given him in the first place.
He'd been visited during that time, hesitantly, by both Wilmington and Tanner, the latter screwing his face up when forced to recount how he'd been the one holding Ezra's head while he vomited. That, Ezra was determined, was a memory he was glad to have put to the back of his mind and Tanner seemed equally relieved at the prospect of pretending that none of it had ever happened.
No sign of Larabee, though, not that Ezra had expected it. This seemed to fit within Larabee's way of dealing with things - his modus operandi was to get out of town when the going got too much, only to reappear and harass Ezra a little more later on, once the proverbial dust had settled. He tried not to worry about it too much, telling himself that it was just the gunslinger's way and that he was glad Larabee hadn't been there to see him nauseous and incoherent, but Ezra found he couldn't even completely convince himself of that. If anything, he was almost as angry at Larabee for bailing once more as he had been at the Confederates for what they'd dared to do.
"Mr. Standish?" Mary Travis' voice broke into his thoughts, just as he reached what he had hoped would be the sanctuary of the saloon doors. "I heard you'd been injured."
"I'm fine, Mrs. Travis," Ezra said, taking off his hat as he turned to greet her. "Just a few scratches, that's all."
"I'm writing an article for the paper on the gunfight yesterday and I'd appreciate a few words from your perspective, sheriff," Mary continued. It was clear that she wasn't particularly interested in Ezra's injuries, now they weren't dramatic enough to make a good story, and Ezra found himself becoming annoyed with her too. "What it was like to face down the mob, and so on."
"Perhaps later," he said. He didn't want to be rude with her, since her position as the judge's daughter in law meant that rudeness was a luxury Ezra probably couldn't afford even if he could be that rude to a lady, but he found his patience with her doggedness was growing thin. "I find that I have something of a headache." He took a couple of steps back as he spoke, one hand now resting on the saloon door.
"When you're feeling better then, Mr. Standish." It seemed miracles could and did still happen - she had taken the hint, for once.
Ezra nodded, tried to ignore the way the world spun a little as he did so, and pushed open the saloon door. Inside, the air seemed to be full of cheap cigar smoke, flickering blue around the gas lights that lit the darker corners of the room, a smell that was now familiar to Ezra. A smell that said 'home' to him, at least for this short space of time. Most of the faces were familiar and a couple nodded to him as he headed towards the door at the back that led to the stairs.
He wanted his room, his bed, and the chance to sleep without being woken every hour or so by an over-anxious healer. Was that really too much to ask for?
When he reached his room, Ezra searched his vest pocket for the key and didn't find it. His hand then slipped into his other pockets, but there was no sign of it. He frowned. The key had definitely been there when he'd left the room to face down the Confederates the previous day, so maybe it had fallen from his pocket at the clinic.
Ezra groaned. He couldn't face walking back to Nathan's place, the possibility of being ambushed by Mrs. Travis on the way, when all he wanted to do was take to his bed. He leaned forward, resting his forehead on the cool wood of the door. Was there a chance he hadn't locked it for once? Ezra knew that was unlikely, since he kept to a strict routine, but it was always possible - he tried the knob, smiling to himself when it turned, the door creaking open.
He could ransack Nathan's clinic for the missing key later. Much later, once he'd had a couple of hours of sleep and was ready to face the world again.
His room was dark, the shades drawn, and Ezra paused in the doorway, frowning. He'd left the shades open yesterday - in fact, he'd opened one of the windows to let the room air a little. Ezra glanced at the door, checking the number. It was definitely his room, but things were not as he'd left them.
"Ezra?" His hand dropped to his gun. How many people who wanted to kill him would know his name, and how many would be saying it in such a sleep-dulled way? Ezra's eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the room by now and a small movement made him look towards the bed. "Close the door."
Ezra took a couple of steps into the room and closed the door behind him. This side of the door, he found the key - his missing key - in the lock and he turned it before he looked at the man who was now sitting on the edge of his bed.
"Comfortable?" Ezra asked, as he reached out to turn up the lamp a little. Larabee squinted as the light level rose. He looked awful, even dimly lit - unshaven, clothes rumpled as if he'd slept in them, a strong smell of cheap cigars and bad whisky hanging around him. "What are you doing in my bed?" Ezra continued, though he had a funny feeling he wasn't going to like the answer. Or maybe he would, only time would tell. This wasn't any scenario he'd imagined involving Larabee being in his room, that much was certain.
"Waiting for you," Larabee said. At least he'd taken off his boots, if nothing else. "And here you are."
"You look like I feel." Ezra found he was staring at Larabee's feet, surprised by how white they were when compared to the tanned skin that covered the man's torso. That day at Larabee's cabin seemed like a lifetime ago now, as did their late night encounter only days earlier. The room spun a little and Ezra wondered if this meant he was about to pass out or throw up again. "I need to sit down."
He sat on the bed beside Larabee, who had moved towards its foot to give him space. Ezra closed his eyes, took a couple of deep breaths in the hope that would persuade his stomach contents to stay where they were, and then was suddenly aware that Larabee had moved. He was kneeling on the floor and taking off Ezra's boots - he peeled off his socks, then stood and removed Ezra's jacket. The shoulder holster was next, carefully unbuckled and its familiar weight removed, then the other holster followed suit.
"Lie down." Larabee's voice was low, almost a whisper, but it was clearly not a request.
For once, Ezra couldn't find it in himself to argue. His head was throbbing once more and he kept his eyes closed, certain that even the light from the oil lamp by the bed would be too much to bear. He felt the mattress dip once more under their combined weight, Larabee stretching himself out alongside. It felt strange, the unfamiliar sense of sharing his bed with someone else after so long sleeping alone, but it also felt oddly right, and it was that rightness that pursued Ezra down into sleep.
When he woke, Ezra wasn't sure how much time had passed. The room was still mostly in shadow, the shades still down and the oil lamp beside the bed shedding just enough light to see by - after a moment Ezra could tell that there was no sunlight outside, his stomach telling him that he'd slept past lunch and possibly past supper as well.
At least his head had stopped aching, though the throbbing pain from his face where Nathan had pulled the splinters from had started to take its place. Ezra reached up a hand, fingers tentatively touching whatever it was Nathan had slathered there. It was still sticky, brownish-green in the light from the oil lamp, and Ezra decided he had no intention of asking what it was any time soon.
He was lying on his back, on top of the covers, in shirt and pants and barefoot. In bed with Chris Larabee, who was currently lying on his side studying Ezra's profile, as Ezra discovered when he turned his head a little that way. It was all starting to come back to him, the sensation of discovering Larabee in his room, waiting for him, and how good it had felt to have someone care enough to stay with him. How easily he'd gone along with everything that Larabee had done, as if the blow to his head had indeed removed what little good sense he had after all.
Ezra groaned, bringing up one hand and dropping it over his eyes. He was an idiot, some kind of fool to accept this so easily when nothing good could possibly come of it. Who knew what Larabee thought of him now, having to be put to bed like a recalcitrant child? Images of Larabee pulling off his boots, kneeling in front of him to remove his socks when the gunslinger should only be on his knees in front of him for some other purpose much more adult, made Ezra redden with embarrassment.
"Feeling better, Sheriff?"
He nodded, without removing his hand. Maybe if he just lay here, like this, Larabee would get the hint and leave.
"And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.
He felt Larabee's slip his hand up his thigh, heavy and warm on the material there, then under the edge of his now-untucked shirt and across the skin of his stomach. Ezra heard Larabee's laugh, dark and low, as the calloused fingers spread out, his hand just lying there as if he was staking a claim.
"Guess I didn't do too good a job of looking out for what's my business," Larabee said, his tone as casual as if he were discussing a thrown shoe or a broken strap. Ezra lowered his hand from his eyes - he looked at Larabee, whose gaze was unblinking. "Scared me half to death when I saw that blood."
"I believe you'll find the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of this fair country adequately dealt with that matter, Mr. Larabee." It almost seemed a nonsense to be so formal with a man whose fingers were currently stroking his stomach but Ezra was determined not to weaken, even as his imagination unhelpfully supplied him with images of just what else those fingers could do, given half a chance. "It has quite a lot to say about the illegalities of one person owning another."
"You know what I'm talking about, Ezra," Larabee said. His hand moved then, a little, describing slow, lazy circles across the skin of Ezra's stomach that made his breath hitch a little despite his best efforts to ignore the movement. "No amount of fancy words will hide the fact that you know exactly what I'm talking about."
Larabee's hand stilled once more, then slid downwards till it hit the waist of Ezra's pants, shifted a little across then till its destination was no secret to either of them. It took all Ezra's self-control not to move under that pressure, the warmth of the gunslinger's hand as it curled slightly over an even greater warmth beneath. Larabee's eyes held a challenge, one that Ezra wasn't sure he wanted to accept, no matter how big a gambling man he might be outside this room.
"Do you realise, Mr. Larabee," Ezra began, in as much of a conversational tone as he could possibly manage despite how aware he was of just where Larabee's hand presently lay, "just how thin the walls of this hotel really are?"
He'd only discovered that when his immediate neighbour had demonstrated an unexpected variety of imaginative obscenities after a little too much rotgut, but it had been a salutory lesson for all concerned. If there was any possibility of engaging in what Larabee seemed to be offering, then Ezra was certain his hotel room wasn't the place and that quite possibly this wasn't the time. At least not if his pounding headache had anything to say about it.
"What I realise, Ezra," Larabee said, his voice as dark and low as his earlier laughter had been.
"Is that we're a little too far down the trail for you to be calling me Mr. Larabee." His hand shifted a little, fingers curling till Ezra hissed with mingled shock and pleasure at the movement. "Don't you think?"
"I can't say I disagree with your interpretation of the facts," Ezra replied.
He was still fast, as fast as the gunslinger even in this awkward position, and this time Ezra was the one manoeuvering the other man to a place where he could be kissed. As thoroughly and ruthlessly as Ezra could manage, all things considered, which ended only when his head began to pound in earnest and he found himself wincing a little. He flopped back onto the pillow, trying not to grin at the momentarily pole-axed expression that had appeared on Chris Larabee's face. The expression he had put there.
"This ain't the time for that kind of thing," Chris asked, "is it?" He removed his hand from Ezra's groin, a rueful expression on his face. "Your head still hurting?"
"All I need is some sleep," Ezra said, as he struggled to keep his eyes open. He hadn't realised quite how tired he was till he'd had to move fast, and now it was all he could to do keep awake. "There'll be plenty of time for that kind of thing. Chris."
Back bowed, skin slick with sweat where their bodies met, Chris moaned as Ezra pushed deeper into him. Ezra could see his hands, their white-knuckled grip on the patchwork counterpane, but he was lost in the heat, the tightness, drawn into a rhythm as old as time itself, utterly subject to its commands.
He'd never expected anything like this, back when he'd accepted that sheriff's badge and tied himself to one town for the first time since he could remember. He'd certainly never expected to find himself tied to the place by more than just Judge Travis' attempts at judicial extortion, but by friendship and more with the men he'd met there.
Ezra shifted his weight a little, slowing his thrusts till Chris was moaning almost continuously, the drawn-out sound that told of his impending climax. He was close now, teetering on the edge, one hand loosening its death grip to slide between himself and the bed. Too slow, though, it seemed, if the sudden tightening around Ezra's erection was anything to go by. Ezra wasn't long in following him, his own rhythm stuttering as he spent himself.
They lay slumped together for long minutes as their breathing slowed, still joined. This wasn't the first such encounter and if Ezra Standish had anything to do with it, it wouldn't be the last. Larabee's ranch, what work it had required now fully complete, was a refuge for both of them when things in town got too much. Not that they left together, of course, because that would be a little too coincidental for Ezra's liking, but they always ended up there eventually.
He wasn't sure who else knew what they got up to, and where once Ezra would have been more than a little horrified to consider himself the subject of any speculation, now he found himself unconcerned as long as their friends kept their mouths shut when it mattered. Wilmington, he'd discovered, wasn't the most discreet of men, but Chris had spoken to him about the consequences of talking to anyone about this and any other aspect of his private life and seemed to have got the message across.
They'd all fallen into a comfortable routine, though none of the men he now called friends seemed all that inclined to really help Ezra out by taking on the role of deputy. Somehow he couldn't imagine Chris doing anything that involved him wearing a badge and both Wilmington and Tanner had proved equally reticent - Ezra was sure Tanner had something to hide but as long as the man didn't break the law in Four Corners then his past was somebody else's problem.
He wasn't fooling himself, though, that things would always be this way. Ezra couldn't recall the last time events had conspired to give him what he wanted for more than a few weeks at a time but he also wasn't one to get up from the table in the middle of a winning streak. Whatever it was about being part of this place, part of this group, he liked the results. Maybe the whole idea of settling down in one place, of willingly shouldering the obligations of a job he'd never signed up for and friends he'd never expected to find wasn't quite so bad after all...