Chris pushed his way through the batwing doors of the saloon and paused as his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the interior which was at odds with the bright day outside. He smiled as his gaze settle on the table on the raised platform where Vin, Buck and Ezra were playing poker. Chris knew their resident gambler didn't cheat his friends but it was a rare game that saw Ezra losing to the other peace keepers. Still, sometimes it was hard to believe he was simply just that good.
Chris sauntered over to take the empty seat at the table between Buck and Vin.
"You keep smiling like that," Buck grinned as he poured Chris a drink, "and people are gonna start thinking you might be a happy man."
"Quickly followed by a loss of dread for our leader," Ezra added. "A happy gunslinger does not bode well for convincing bandits that you are a fearsome presence."
"Knock it off," Chris commanded as the smile broadened on his face. He raised his drink, glass poised at his lips as he realized they were staring at him with matching grins. "What?" he demanded, uncomfortable with their scrutiny.
"He used walk around like that all the time after Sarah said yes." Buck leaned toward Ezra as he spoke. "Guess Charlotte saying yes has him grinning like an idiot too."
Ezra nodded, his gaze taking on a more studious air. "So that is what love looks like. I have noticed a similar besotted look on my cousin's face. But while on her visage I find it a great source of joy, on Mr. Larabee's it is quite disconcerting."
"Get used to it, Ez." Vin nodded in sympathy. "He ain't stopped smiling since they set the date."
"You finished?" Chris asked, pouring himself another drink.
"You know, something has just occurred to me," Ezra said as he rubbed a thumb along his jaw, but he failed to continue his thought.
Chris knew he shouldn't ask but couldn't help himself. "What?" He glared at the gambler, fully aware that it had little effect given his positive disposition these days. He'd have to work on fixing that if his men were going to take his threats seriously again.
"You are to marry my cousin in two weeks," Ezra paused and Chris knew he was drawing it out just to annoy him.
"Know that. What's your point?" The equally stupid grins on Vin's and Buck's faces alerted him to the fact that he was being set up. Too late now as he'd already asked the question.
"Simply that you and I will be related after that blessed event," Ezra said, adding a belated, "Cousin."
"Cousin?" Chris gulped as he set his empty glass back down on the table. He hadn't really registered that fact. Ezra and Charlotte were not truly blood related but that didn't matter as they were as much family as any two people he knew.
Vin and Buck were unsuccessfully trying to stifle their snickering. Chris glared at them, which did nothing to silence their good humor. He really was going to have to work on that.
Buck slapped Chris on the back. "You and Ez are going to be cousins, ain't that great?"
"Shut up!" he commanded, but the three at the table apparently had no intention of listening to him.
"Now, Chris, I am disheartened to hear that being related to me would cause you such grief."
"It ain't that." Chris tried to retreat from the implication that the relationship was undesired. "I just hadn't thought about it before."
"I'm sure not," Ezra chuckled.
Chris noticed silent encouragement from Vin for Ezra to continue and Chris groaned inside wondering how much more of this teasing he would have to endure.
"It had occurred to me," Ezra paused as he looked between the two troublemakers at the table, the twinkle in his green eyes matched by two sets of blue ones, "that since Charlotte is like a mother to me, that once you two are married it would make you something of a stepfather to me."
Chris leaned forward over the table, while encouraging Ezra to come closer which the gambler did. "You ever call me Pa and I will shoot you."
Ezra reclined back into his chair, laughing, "I am afraid that isn't much of a threat."
"Have at it, Chris," Vin said, gesturing toward Ezra. "But he's just gonna wake up and annoy ya all over again."
"Mr. Tanner, I am hurt that you find me annoying," Ezra said, throwing a hand to his chest, adding to the drama of the statement.
"It ain't that you're annoying but you'd make damn fine target practice," Buck assured him.
"I do not appreciate being volunteered as a target," Ezra said as he collected the cards from the table and proceeded to shuffle one handed while feigning an air of indignation at Buck's suggestion.
"You're the only one that makes sense when Chris starts threatening," Buck said, reaching for the bottle on the table to pour himself another drink. "Might as well let him do it once."
"Yeah, Ezra, let me get it out of my system." Chris smiled as he shifted back in his chair, allowing his coat to fall open so that the gambler could see his gun. This wasn't the first time one of the others had volunteered Ezra as a target whenever he threatened to shoot someone, but he'd never actually taken the opportunity to do it.
The shuffling stopped as the gambler's eyes met the gunslinger's. A small impish grin graced Ezra's features. "You will of course replace whatever garments you damage," he said laying his cards on the table.
Chris hadn't expected him to actually agree, but he could see that Ezra was serious. Well, he was game if Ezra was. Besides it was an opportunity to prove to his men that love hadn't softened him. Though truthfully he was pretty sure it had. He was finding it harder and harder to find that black place left behind by Sarah and Adam's deaths. While their memory would always be a source of sadness, his newfound love for Charlotte had successfully begun to fill the emptiness inside of him in a way he never thought would ever be possible again.
"Of course," Chris replied. "Care to step outside?"
Vin sat up straighter. "You ain't really gonna let him do it, Ez?"
Ezra didn't answer either man; instead he tilted his head as if listening for unseen voices. Chris had noticed the gesture before when Charlotte was near and knew it was a sign that Ezra felt the Immortal presence of his relative.
The gambler smiled, revealing his gold tooth. "Consider it a wedding present," he said. "But I do hope that you are ready to explain to your paramour why you felt it was necessary to shoot her beloved cousin."
The color drained from Chris' face. He hadn't considered that. Charlotte probably wouldn't appreciate that is was all in good fun. Chris turned anticipating Charlotte's imminent arrival in the saloon.
The batwing doors parted, but it wasn't Charlotte who entered.
Ezra wasn't sure why he had volunteered to be target practice for Chris, but he sensed it might prove illuminating. There was a part of him that was curious about what lay beyond death. He had been killed twice but there had been no enlightenment. There had been no white light beckoning him towards heaven or demons waiting in the shadows to drag him to hell, but then he hadn't been expecting either death. Aside from the pain, he'd felt simply as if he'd gone to sleep and woken up with a terrible hangover. He wondered if he were prepared for death, would he learn what lay beyond the veil; it was an intriguing concept. As an added bonus, it would be fun to watch Chris try to explain his behavior to Charlotte, and a flustered Chris was always entertaining.
As the batwing doors swung back, Ezra realized that the Immortal presence he felt was not his cousin but instead the man who now stood staring at him from the entrance of the saloon.
Ignoring the questioning looks from his friends, Ezra stood slowly, never taking his eyes off the stranger. The man was dressed for the trail; bandana at his throat, checked shirt, brown pants, and Ezra suspected there was a sword sequestered within the folds of the man's tan duster.
"Ez, is he?" Chris hissed
Ezra moved his hand ever so slightly, a silent request that Chris remain quiet while also signaling an affirmative to the question.
The three sat up straighter in their chairs, indicating that they would back him if he needed it.
It felt as if the entire Saloon was holding its collective breath waiting to see why their resident gambler was so interested in the newcomer.
Ezra thought back to when another Immortal had wandered into town. Methos had been Charlotte's friend and mentor, so there had been no threat of challenge. In fact, Methos had taken over his cousin's job as Ezra's teacher. A role Charlotte was happy to relinquish to the more experienced Immortal. He'd just started warming to the old man when Methos had disappeared; breaking his cousin's heart in the process. Ezra was beyond angry at Methos and was in no mood to have their lives disrupted by another of Charlotte's Immortal 'friends'.
On the other hand, if the man wasn't a friend, then there was only one other reason the Immortal had entered this establishment. Challenge.
The man stared at Ezra, finally breaking into a feral smile. Ezra read the man clearly. The stranger had taken in his fancy dress, smaller stature and protective friends, quickly coming to the conclusion that he was easy pickings.
Ezra might not possess Methos' skill level but even the older Immortal had been impressed with how far he'd come in such a short period of time. With a little cunning, Ezra was sure he could determine if the odds in this duel would be to his favor.
Ezra nodded hesitantly, inviting the other man to climb the two steps to their table. As the Immortal approached, Chris, Vin and Buck stood, and while they didn't draw their weapons they made it perfectly clear that they were willing too. Ezra was pleased by the gesture not simply because of the friendships it implied, but more because it would cement in his opponent's mind that Ezra was in need of the others to protect him.
The man ignored the three gunslingers focusing all his energy into menacing Ezra. "Karl Jaeger," he said curtly.
"Mr. Jaeger." Ezra tilted his head in a gesture of greeting. "Ezra Standish, and these are my companions, Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner."
The man barely acknowledged the introductions. "I believe, Mr. Standish, that we have some business to discuss."
Ezra took note of the heavy German accent. It could be a sign of a newer Immortal, one who hadn't had time to lose the indicators of his homeland.
"Now?" Ezra squeaked, putting an appropriate amount of fear into his voice; after all, image was everything. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to have a drink or perhaps a game of poker before we get down to business." He only hoped his friends would not ruin the façade he was building by opening their mouths.
Karl smiled, taken in by the false meekness that Ezra was projecting. "I'm sure your friends won't mind giving us some privacy while we have that drink."
"I - I agree," he began hesitantly and cast a look toward his friends, building on the idea that he would be vulnerable without them, before retuning his gaze to the other Immortal. "Some things should be discussed in private."
Chris and Buck seemed uncertain as to what to do. Vin turned toward Ezra, taking a step closer so that his face was hidden from Karl. "You sure you want us to go?" The tracker asked, the concern for abandoning his friend to this stranger clear in his voice. When he followed the question with a wink, Ezra had to suppress the urge to smile at Vin's perceptiveness.
"Thank you, Vin," he said. "I believe that Mr. Jaeger is correct. Our discussion will require some privacy." He reached out to touch Vin's arm, an uncharacteristic gesture for him, as he said softly but loud enough for Karl to overhear. "Please, don't go far."
Vin nodded slowly then tilted his head toward Buck and Chris indicating that they should leave. "Don't worry. We'll be right outside iffen ya need us." Vin punctuated his performance with a menacing glare for Jaeger.
Ezra watched them go, allowing Karl to see the distress that their departure caused him. He was quite enjoying this character of reluctant participant that he was building for the German's benefit. It had been too long since he'd pulled a proper con. The glint of satisfaction he saw in the man's eyes told Ezra that he hadn't lost his touch.
As the three gunslingers exited the saloon, the other patrons returned to their previous activities, figuring that if Chris Larabee was unconcerned for the gambler's safety who were they to worry.