Ezra Standish breezed into the saloon peering anxiously over his
shoulder. The batwing doors swung close whooshing cool night air between
the narrowly gaped halves. With blue duck tails billowing slightly
behind him, the gambler slid through swirling smoke and drinking patrons
heading in a circuitous manner toward the back of the building. His
movements were brisk, economic and precise. He removed his hat as
he wove between mingling bodies conversing over drinks and cheroots.
The back door lay only a few yards and fifty or so more bodies away. With his goal insight the man of chance sliced his way through the haze of blue smoke and carousing cowhands.
“Ezra sure looks like he’s in a hurry,” JD pointed out. The others followed the young man’s gaze. Chris narrowed his eyes slightly...the movements and expression on their gambler’s face reminded him of a Puma running from a wild fire. The man cut through the crowd as if the devil himself was on his heels. Leave it to Standish to try and run off but attempt to appear unrushed.
Larabee did not miss the wavering smile that twinged at the corner of Tanner’s mouth.
“Hey Ezra! Where ya off too?” Vin called out. A chuckle laced his words.
He and the others sat at the round table near the back corner of the saloon. It was a large table, one the seven often commandeered on Friday nights or on the nights a cattle herd sat just outside of town. Tonight was one of those nights. The smell of beef fresh on the hoof permeated many a patron. Trail dust clung to clothing like a second skin. From this corner of the room they had an easy unobstructed view of both entrances/exits (depending on ones point of view) and bar but more importantly bar maid. Trail hands sometimes spent to much time chasing beefs...anything in a skirt became fair game. Though the working girls of the saloon eagerly filled those desires there were always a few customers wanting something not allowed.
“You gentlemen have not seen me.” The soft southern drawl had a touch of panic. This raised the eyebrows of not only the smiling tracker but also the four law men that sat with him nursing beers and the occasional whiskey.
“How come?” JD asked failing to notice the gambler was trying to make a hasty retreat out the back of the saloon.
“That...is not important,” Standish answered again glancing nervously over his shoulder at the half doors that slowly settled closed.
“It’s gonna cost ya,” Vin drawled out slowly.
Standish swung his head around and nailed the tracker with an unamused glare, “Yes, I imagine it would.”
“You take my patrol early tomorrow and we’ll call it even,” Tanner swung his gaze from the cornered gambler back toward the front entrance of the saloon. He leaned his forearms casually on the table top never letting go of his drink.
Buck Wilmington burst through the doors...hollering.... “EZZZRRRAA!!” This got the attention of the many cowpokes through out the establishment. The saloon door slammed against their hinges, were caught for a brief second and then started to swing closed. Buck grabbed them in a white knuckle grip and held them before finally brushing them out of his grip and entering the somewhat muted saloon.
Trail hands quietly stepped out of the taller man’s way. Though a few hands knew they could take the mustached cowboy none wanted trouble tonight. Their Boss would not tolerate it.
Chris raised his eye brows, Josiah and Nathan merely gazed at the southerner and JD quietly whispered, “Buck sure is mad about somethin’.” JD pulled his attention from his searching friend to the one trying to fade into the background. “Ezra ya want me to keep ya hat....cuz when Buck gits a hold of ya...ya gunna git blood on it.”
“Aww shit,” an ungentlemanly curse was uttered in a thick southern tone. Mr. Wilmington tried peering through the thick smoke and milling bodies. He swiveled his eyes searching the crowd...hopefully targeting a white pinstriped shirt and black crown hat.
“That will not be necessary Mr. Dunne,” Standish said in a slightly peevish tone. His slight camouflaged might actually work.
“What’s it gonna be Ezra?” Vin drawled out. He tilted back in his chair casually sipping his beer waiting for the inevitable acceptance of the wage.
“Agreed,” With that Standish turned to continue to thread his way through the crowd keeping his head low. It is always better to hedge one’s bets.
A knot of men prevented an easy escape forcing the southerner to circumvent them to the inside. With his head tucked low and shoulders hunched Standish melted in with the crowd. The moving press of bodies gently but persuasively waved him back within close proximity of his five...now six comrades.
Buck Wilmington plowed his way toward the table the seven normally claimed on busy nights. That low down weasel scum should be in here somewhere.....
“Where is he?” Buck hissed.
“Where’s who?” Josiah asked gazing up from his beer.
“That slimy, no account, wiry, son of a bitch, slithering, excuse of a snake, Ezra,” Buck fired back flustering under a litany of foul names for the southerner.
“Ain’t seen’im,” Nathan replied sipping from his beer trying to hide his smirk.
Chris stared from Buck to Vin back to Buck and finally settling on Tanner. Damn tracker.
“I don’t know Buck....might’ve seen’im..” Vin answered calmly fingering the handle of his mug.
“Where is he?” Wilmington bit out.
“Well ya see Buck...its gonna cost ya,” Vin replied.
Standish heard this and snapped his head around. Mr. Tanner you low down, cheating scoundrel.
Buck saw the flash of movement and fixated his sights on the midnight
blue duck tail coat. Ohhh so he tried changing clothes....nice attempt
ain’t gonna work.
“Save it Vin...I found the rat.”
Wilmington made a lunge for the gambler. Standish side stepped it moving into the crowd. He quickly circled around and placed himself on the opposite side of the table comfortably behind Larabee and Tanner....well as comfortable as a badger hiding from a wolf behind a pair of porcupines, could possibly feel...not very secure but useful.
Wilmington glared at Standish from behind Josiah and Nathan. JD watched somewhat amused between the two sides. He cherished his neutral position.
“What’s this all about Buck?” Chris asked quietly. His voice carried easily over the rancous laughter of trail hands, clanking glasses and voices.
“That low down snake told Molly I had the Clap.” Buck seethed.
A pregnant pause fell over the table.
Josiah’s eyes grew wide as beer spewed slightly impeded from partially closed lips. He inhaled trying to catch his breath, snorted the alcohol sending it up through the nasal passages in a retrograde fashion and out his nostrils. The giant preacher leaned forward coughing.
Vin pounded his back...giving himself something to do and avoiding eye contact with the two people who could read him best...Larabee and Standish.
Ezra’s green eyes widened, “I certainty did not....” He unconsciously straightened his jacket trying to recapture some of his lost gentlemanly air.
Chris ignored the nervous body behind him. Larabee figured if Standish was the culprit he would let Wilmington go. It would be fun to watch a good wrestling match. For now, Larabee waited. Tanner seemed too smug.
JD had leaned over toward Nathan and whispered a question...the lost and confused expression that had dominated JD’s features became furrowed and then alarmed, “No way...Buck you have....” Dunne cringed....that’s really gross.
Josiah paused and faced Ezra, “How do you know brother Ezra?” His voice was hoarse and scratchy. It did the soul good to fuel the flames of dissension once in a while....besides he figured he would eventually have to intervene on the gambler’s behalf before Buck dismembered him.
Standish blinked widening his eyes unable to comprehend what Wilmington just uttered. He missed Josiah’s question until Chris finally asked, “Yeah Ezra how’d you know?” The gunslinger gazed up over his shoulder at the sputtering conman. Chris did not miss the knowing leer on the Tracker’s face. The glass beer mug could not hide all.
The gambler did not seem so eloquent now.
“What?....” he seemed confused as if he had taken a blow to the head. Then conscious thought snapped back into place and a bewildered exclamation followed, “I assure you that I did not know...” The unbalanced expression fell to Larabee and then back to Buck, “I had no idea..Mr. Wilmington has contracted gonorrhea.” Standish shuttered at the vile thought...Good Lord had he visited any of the same ‘ladies’ as Mr. Wilmington.....recently?
“Buck ya want me to check ya out?” Nathan asked slightly repulsed at the prospect. Jackson figured it had been only a matter of time before something like this happened. Nathan was a healer after all.... but maybe tonight he would renounce his benevolent intentions and drown his disgust in a vat of beer.
“What?......” Buck stared at Jackson as if he had suddenly sprouted horns. Then Jackson’s remark finally settled home, “What?....NOOO! I don’t have it....”
Vin sat back in his chair a smug half smile creasing his shadowed
features, “Prove it.”
The two words spoken in a soft cadence hung over the table.
The small statement stalled in the air for a long indeterminable amount of time.
“No!!” Chris, Josiah and JD hollered out afraid the Ladies Man just might drop his pants.
“Buck that’s disgusting,” JD remarked thinking about the quick description Jackson had given him. He had heard of something like that back in Boston and though it was just stable talk he wondered if the rumors were true, “Is it really gonna rot off?”
Josiah having just wiped his nose and face attempted another sip of his beer to wash away the burning sensation brought on by the rough coughing. Once again beer sprayed the table covering Larabee, Tanner and Standish.
“Sorry Brothers,” Josiah coughed out again trying to gain control over the beer foaming from his nostrils.
Standish wiped his damp hand on Chris’s shirt. Larabee glared at the gambler.
“I don’t know kid....probably,” Vin answered maintaining a very, tragic expression.
“Oh my gosh...” JD whispered in fear creating a little more distance between himself and Buck.
“I’m gonna kill you!!” Buck lunged across the table trying desperately to grab the gambler.
Ezra saw the murderous look, understanding why the large Midwesterner wanted revenge but not understanding why Buck fixated on him.
Standish back peddled into another group of men mumbled his apologies and headed for the saloon steps.
Two large cowpokes blocked his path. Unable to finagle a clean route around the obstructing individuals and unable to go over or under them Standish quickly changed direction.
Wilmington pushed Chris and Vin out of his way...stumbled over the hacking preacher and ignored Jackson’s soft promises of complete confidentiality when it came time for an exam.
Buck’s stretching fingers just missed the dark blue coat collar.
Ezra finding his exits blocked by large immovable and disagreeable drovers found he had nowhere to go but up. With a running leap he jumped up onto a crowded table spilling beer and whiskey, and lunged for the second story banister.
It was a good effort. Chris and Vin silently applauded the southern man’s attempt at self preservation and unwillingness to easily give into a painfully slow death at the hands of a friend.
Swinging his legs upward Ezra hooked his boot heels between the picketed poles of the railing. It creaked and wiggled but held fast, if not a little unsteady.
“Think the railing ken hold’im?” Vin asked leaning slightly toward Chris.
“It should,” Larabee answered. Standish hung like a ‘U’ the tails of his coat falling toward the floor. Ezra might make it after all. The man did have some grit...
Wilmington spotted Standish and with a deep growl ran and leaped. Outstretched fingers latched greedily onto the gunbelt.
But...Chris mused....Buck could be awful persistent if properly riled. The gunslinger cast an accusing glance at the tracker...
“Think Ezra can hold’imself and Buck?” Vin asked watching the spectacle of two men hanging from the railing like monkey’s in a barrel. He ignored Larabee’s scrutiny.
“Yup,” Chris returned. Maybe Vin was finally getting revenge on those two for last months wagon accident....Tanner did stink for a long while after. No one could stand to be near the tracker...Whatever possessed those two idiots to pull a joke on the bounty hunter was beyond Chris...they just never learn.
Standish groaned under the sudden added weight. His grip would not last long. With feet hooked to the bottom of the railing and one hand wrapped tightly but tenaciously around a post he used the other to try and loosen the gunbelt.
“Think the railin’ can support both of’em?” Vin asked before sippin’ from his beer.
“Nope,” Larabee answered taking a swallow of warm beer never diverting his eyes from his two ‘peacekeepers’. This stunk of revenge...
The creaking, complaining railing had given all it could. Wood
splintered and popped.
A look of horror crossed Standish’s face when he realized the carpentry was about to fail him.
The railing gave way.
Buck felt vengeance was his.....Then they started falling.
The group of men who occupied the table that had acted as a launching point for both escapee and pursuer found themselves succumbing to the dubious role of a landing area.
Buck’s long legs hit the hard wood planked floors. The warped boards easily absorbed the force. Knees buckled but handled the shock of supporting its own body weight. The added mass effect plus momentum of the accelerating gambler was more than over taxed knees and lower back could handled. Wilmington, for a brief suspended moment, supported their combined weight arching precariously backward. Like a great tree about to topple there was minute pause before both men careened toward the table.
In a flash of pure unadulterated fear, Ezra realized he lay within Wilmington’s vengeful grasp. Worse yet he was within proximity to an individual who supposedly was the harbinger of a scandalous disease.
Spurred by ignorance and well grounded fear Standish struggled desperately over the upright form of The Ladies Man.
His efforts toppled the unbalanced lanky gunslinger backward into the growing hostile tempers of four weary, over worked, short tempered trail hands.
“Shit,” Chris muttered quietly pulling another drag from his beer. He would strangle Tanner for this mess.
Standish would not be cowed by such obstacles and continued to crawl and claw his way over people and furniture in the single minded obsession of escape.
Ross had had enough of being pushed around. He was not a bad man really. Not at all...just sometimes he invoked the wrath of his Trail boss and for the last few days had had to ride drag. It was hot grueling work and he ate dust from sun up to sun down. The nights were cold and sitting watch on a chilled leather saddle did nothing to soothe raw nerve endings. This was his one and only night in town. His first in almost ten days and would be his last for the next two weeks. He had toiled and slept in the same clothes for over five days...shaved with warm water for the first time in as many weeks and now tried to enjoy a relaxing beer.
It apparently was not to be. His beer was up ended over the front of his shirt as a fancy dressed man tried to climb over him as if he were a ladder. The beer cascaded down the front of his only clean laundry. It soaked through to his skin...the very skin he had scrubbed and scoured trying desperately to remove the layers of dirt and stink that 5000 beefs could kick up on a dry hot summer’s day. He wanted to make a good impression on one of the working girls...lay by a warm soft body and enjoy having a mattress between himself and the ground.
He had spent a days wages on a bath and soaps...and now this fool acting like a monkey, ruined it.
Ross lost his good graces. He could wrestle a steer to the ground, he could flip a weanling calf on its side and with only a second thought ride a bull if the bets were high enough.
The scrambling antics of this dapper gentleman did not promise to be a challenge.
Ross grabbed one dark pinstriped leg and pulled it down. He forcefully stopped the forward momentum of the body that had half clawed its way up over his shoulder almost making it to freedom.
Ezra was yanked down unceremoniously by his lower leg. One minute he was climbing over a mountain of a man in attempts to elude the irate Mr. Wilmington and the next moment he found himself held off the ground by the front of his shirt by a man that could have been marked as a small geological formation by surveyors.
Vin and Chris slowly climbed to their feet. Figures Buck and Ezra would start a brawl. Both men peered at Josiah. The preacher remained sitting almost unconcerned. Larabee had come to expect the large preacher to intervene when the black sheep of their group became embroiled in a scrape.
Josiah answered the questioning stares with a simple shrug, “Sometimes it is best for one to learn some of life’s lessons the hard way.” Sanchez lifted his near empty beer mug in the direction of the Southerner who stood precariously balanced on his tiptoes.
Vin shrugged. He felt partially responsible...not guilty just...felt a moral obligation to help untangle a few strings he might have pulled.
Larabee paused and scooped up his beer. It would probably be the last one he would be allowed to indulge in for a while or at least until this building storm blew over.
Buck struggled to his feet trying to gain purchase on a floor covered with spilt beer and over turned chairs. He clung to the first body he felt and pulled on it trying to haul himself to his feet. The body lost its balance and toppled onto the ladies man knocking him back to the ground.
Tanner crossed the floor quietly, unobtrusively as if he were on his way to gather a cup of morning coffee. He stopped behind Standish peering over the blue coated shoulder at the man who held the gambler somewhat captive.
The tracker could never figure why Ezra had to pick on the biggest guy in the saloon. It never made sense to Vin.
“’Ey Pard’ ya don’t wanna do this,” The Texan drawl was relaxed...no threat or alternatives offered...a simple request.
Ross was angry and the gold tooth wise smirk on this dimpled face
was irritating him to hell.
He cocked his arm and threw a punch.
Ezra was relieved to have escaped the vile clutches of Mr. Wilmington but found himself within the fire. Vin’s soft voice echoed through his head. He silently wondered if Mr. Tanner had anything to do with the misguided assumption that dictated Buck’s wrongful pursuit of himself. His thoughts were cut short when he saw the change in his captors demeanor.
He moved before he actually saw the punch. Ezra slipped his head to the left just as the meaty fist whistled past his ear.
Tanner’s head snapped back forcing the long haired Texan to take a staggering step backward. His head rebounded forward only to meet a second blow. Eyes dilated, jaw slackened, his knees turned to jelly and he crumpled to the floor like a wet noodle.
“Ezra!!” Chris hollered placing his beer down with a crash. He watched as Vin fell to twin straight punches. The tracker lay face down unmoving on the floor.
“Me?!!” Standish hollered back, “it was this monstrosity that hit’im!!...I’m innocent!”
“Innocent my ass,” Nathan muttered under his breath. Josiah chuckled low beside him.
Ross frustrated that he had missed his target not only once but twice picked the southerner up over his head and tossed him onto a near by table.
Bodies, chairs, mugs and cards scattered to the far reaches of the saloon. Standish moving listlessly, found himself littered amongst the debris. A large lump immediately started growing on the back of his head. The ground heaved and wavered in and out of focus. With grim determination he climbed to his knees.
Josiah lumbered to his feet, “That was uncalled for.”
Nathan quietly shook his head and continued to nurse his beer. JD quickly left his side and tried to help Buck.
Wilmington at first thought Chris had come to help him up. Instead Larabee stepped over him on his way to check on Tanner.
The tracker had rolled over onto his back and stared at the saloon ceiling. He blinked a few times trying to figure how the wooden beams could rotate clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. Stars flashed at the corner of his vision and a dull roar filled his ears. Near a stream maybe?...no not in the saloon...maybe Inez was filling a bucket at the hand pump...Bodies seemed to come into view....a few stepped over him..a few stumbled into him ...and a few actually trod up on him. Vin tried to move out of the way but as soon as the thought to move became prominent it left.
Then Larabee was staring down at him talking. Vin wanted to tell Chris he could not hear him..the damn roaring was louder...but Chris appeared in one of those moods...worse than a woman sometimes....
Chris stared at the owl like expression in Tanner’s face. The unequal pupils and lack of response did not bode well. Standish you pain in the butt. Larabee knelt down to gather Tanner from under the shoulders and drag him out of the way when a force struck him from behind.
Two grappling cowboys rolled over the top of him down the length of Tanner and then out of view.
Larabee was shoved forward. His nose squished against the dusty floor boards of the saloon. Chris found himself laying on top of Tanner with his head between Vin’s knees. Weight pinned him to the prone tracker for only a moment and then it was gone.
Really Chris...people are gonna start talking....Tanner tried to move out from under the oppressive weight.
Larabee rolled quickly to his left jumped to his feet trying to regain some composure. A chair crashed down over his shoulders and lower back sending him back to Vin and the floor.
Ross noticed the blue coat struggling to his knees. If he was going to land in jail at least he would earn it. The large cow pusher ambled toward the slowly rising form unaware that something likened to a slow moving freight train headed his way.
Buck was hauled to his feet by a drover. “Thanks par...” a fist collided with his jaw. Wilmington’s head snapped around to his right shoulder. He stumbled but maintained his feet. The drover pressed his luck and threw a heavy roundhouse punch. Buck easily bobbed and weaved coming up under it landing a solid uppercut to the offending midsection. He buried his fist wrist deep into the soft belly. An ‘ooof’ punctuated his move.
Wilmington tried to straighten up when clasped fists crashed down between his shoulder blades driving him back to his hands and knees. Nausea gurgled threateningly.
JD saw Buck go down for the second time. In a panic Dunne climbed a table and jumped Wilmington’s second attacker from behind.
The man blindsided by the sudden weight windmilled his body around trying desperately to dislodge the added burden.
JD clung to the drovers back like a mother cat to the haunches of a deer. Dunne dug in with scrappy determination and snaked his arms around his opponents neck and head just like Vin had taught him.
Nathan watched from his table. He cringed occasionally when a solid blow found its mark. He casually lifted his beer off the table when bodies slid over the wood chipped surface. At one point he was even forced to fold his long legs under his chair when Buck and two drovers crashed to the ground in front of him.
“A little help here Nathan?” Buck asked breathlessly as he knocked one man down with an elbow and lashed out at the other with his foot.
“Keep your left up....yer eye’s got a cut that’s gonna need stitchin’ don’t want it gittin’ tore open any more than it is...” Jackson offered helpfully.
“Thanks....” Buck paused to land another snapping jab to the young cow hand that rushed at him. The punch stopped the young man in his tracks. He teetered for a second and then toppled over like a felled tree..... “Ya seen Ezra?” Wilmington hoped that maybe amongst all this distraction he could have a little revenge.
“Ya he flew over that way...”Jackson pointed toward the East wall of the saloon. Buck headed in that direction... “Be careful Buck, Josiah’s over there somewhere,”Nathan warned. He raised his beer and took another sip. The young cowboy that Buck had knocked down pushed himself up onto his elbows. Nathan rested his boot heels on the young man’s chest forcing him back to the floor, “Ya jist stay put I don’t wantta have to fix ya up too.”
Josiah intercepted Ross just as the big man hauled the Southerner to wobbling legs. Ross lashed out with another punch. It never landed...instead it became trapped in a grasp he could not shake. The cowpusher turned and saw a man that equaled his height and girth. Someone who would be a challenge.
Ross let go of the blue coated man with a shove and turned and faced the new challenger.
Josiah watched from the corner of his eye as the Southerner tumbled backward into another knot of men.
Ross took a swing.
Buck climbed onto a chair hoping to see over the wrestling and fighting bodies trying to locate the dark blue coat. He found it. The gambler had himself a peck of trouble. Standish’s attention was divided between two men. One that held his arms and the other that landed punches alternatingly to his midsection and occasionally head. Every once in a while a punch would miss and hit the poor fellow trying to contain the gambler.
Wilmington cringed and bent over when Standish brought the toe of his boot up and solidly connected to the groin of the man hitting him. Buck’s attention was diverted from the gambler when JD circled past him clinging doggedly to another’s back.
Like a gnat in a whirl wind...Damn kid couldn’t stay out of trouble....but he sure was tough.
Vin decided it was time to get to his feet. Another set of boots collided with his sore midsection. Chris had finally left...thank God...the man had no decency at all...really to fall face first into anothers.... Tanner shook the thought off. The tracker rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself wearily to his knees. His vision swam...shapes melted in and out of focus. He reached out for a chair he thought was right in front of him but somehow missed it. He nearly collided back to the floor. With the floor bulging and breathing with a movement all its own Vin gamely tried to push himself to his feet.
A piece of the railing smashed down on his shoulders plunging him back toward the floor. His cheek collided with the unforgiving wood, brilliant lights flashed briefly and then all went black.
The cowboy, who swung the broken piece of railing like an ax at Larabee, missed. His despair grew as the gunslinger in black simply slid in front of him and landed a volley of quick punches. The man’s head snapped back and forth in rapid cadence to striking fists. The offending cowpoke stumbled backward bonelessly sliding to the floor.
Larabee swung around and tried to account for his men. Vin lay at this feet...JD was once again airborne...heading back...oh shit...
Dunne slammed into Larabee sending both men crashing into the bar. Dunne, blinking with wide eyes, tried to coordinate his movements. Chris shoved the young man off him and climbed to his feet. He put a foot on JD’s back holding the sheriff down....ok now ...Vin, JD...Nathan was still enjoying his drink....Buck?, Standish?...He found Josiah matching blows with the giant cowboy who had tossed the southerner like a feed sack across the room.
Both goliaths landed and absorbed blows. Chris shook his head wondering what possessed men to stand and simply take being hit. There was no finesse in the brawling giants. Both stood toe to toe through lazy punches with leadened arms.
Josiah was accounted for....Buck? He found the Ladies Man...Wilmington had one cowboy in a side arm headlock while another dove into him from the other side. The three went down in a tangle.
Chris looked to his left and then over near Josiah....a flash of blue caught his eye...He ducked just in time...The gambler sailed over his shoulder into the shelving behind the bar and crashed to the floor...Larabee leaned over the bar top staring down at the gambler. He lay unmoving amongst bottles of whisky and glasses...Ezra was accounted for....
With a sigh Chris pulled his gun and fired it into the ceiling. Dust, dirt and wood chips rained down on his head. Larabee lost his footing and nearly went down when JD rolled into him reacting to the gunblast. The black clad gunslinger splayed his elbows on the bar top and kept his feet.
The noise in the saloon only paused for a moment...the fighting resumed.
A second gunblast stopped all activities. A large chunk of ceiling with a little of the flooring from Standish’s room above came crashing to the ground showering the littering bodies with splinters and roughened, buckshot marred boards.
Inez leaned against the bar holding her double barrel shot gun..one hammer was still cocked back. The barrel was no longer aimed at the ceiling. The young proprietoress had had enough of these gringos. They were ruining her saloon.
Chris stared briefly at the riled barmaid, ascertained the shotgun was not aimed in his general direction, and then faced the stunned crowd.
There were few cardinal rules that men followed without question...one such law....Never mess with a lady holding a loaded firearm....Gawd only knew what she would hit.
“All right that’s enough...” His voice though soft carried across the room. With one eye left un-swollen he glared at the standing patrons forcing them into submission. A few stares strayed to him but most fixated on the one unspent barrel of the wavering shotgun. No one was safe.
Inez cursed the weight of the large gun as she watched the long end of the barrel dance in her straining grip.
Ross and Josiah still traded punches...Chris let them go..They were forces of nature he wanted nothing to do with at the moment. Inez seemed content with the two at the moment...they were only damaging themselves not the furniture.
Buck wrestled himself free of the two cowboys that still held him. Gawd he loved that little lady.
“You boys either go back to your herd, spend the night in jail or find some rooms,” Larabee dictated. He could not see incarcerating the brawlers...hell he would have to lock up his own men himself included.
“What about them that started it?” A trail hand challenged. He had only wanted to get lost in some whisky and a fine young woman.
“Ain’t Buck’s fault...” JD answered groggily slowly climbing to his feet... “He’s go the Clap..” Dunne’s eyes promptly rolled back in his head and collapsed to the floor.
The conscious cowboys stared suspiciously at the strangers around them until Wilmington shouted out in indignant rage, “I do NOT!”
The trail hands created more distance between themselves and the mustached man.
“Senor Buck...” Inez whispered the shotgun barrel tracing the path of her eyes.
Nathan slowly stood. He righted the table that had once rested before him and placed his empty beer on the scarred table top. He stepped over a few groaning bodies and made his way to Chris.
“You alright?” Jackson asked wearily.
“Yeah..” Chris answered. He watched as the cow hands trickled out the door pushing and pulling one another. A few were slung like feed sacks over shoulders but they left without argument. A few girls followed. The hotel and boarding house were swelled to capacity. Though the owners of both establishments beamed with excitement of ready cash, the smell of the trail permeated the premises.
“Well lets see what these fools have broken now,” Nathan knelt beside JD. The kid weakly struggled to his hands and knees.
“JD?...JD?...You hear me?” Nathan asked. The healer waited a moment while the young man fell back against the bar with thud but at least sitting up.
“Nathan...” Dunne whispered out slightly confused. The world spun at a remarkable pace. Almost as if he were caught with in a dust Devil.
“Ya think ya can make it up to ya room?” Jackson easily noticed the horizontal nystagmus. The kid was either still reeling from being swung around or he hit his head pretty good. The healer ran his hands quickly over the dark haired scalp. “You’ll live.”
“Yeah..” Dunne replied not sure what he was agreeing too.
“Buck git over here and help JD up to his room,” Nathan hollered to the ladies man. Wilmington took a few unsteady steps using the few upright tables to maintain his balance. His gait improved only slightly as he moved.
Jackson stood up and peered over the bar. Standish lay twisted amongst the bar stock a small trick of blood meandered across his forehead dripping to the dusty wooden floor mingling with dirt and whiskey.
“Inez ya wanna put a rag on his head so he don’t make a mess of yer floor,” Jackson asked politely. He would deal with that trouble maker later. The Southerner was breathing his color was satisfactory and besides he started this mess. Ezra could wait.
Vin was another issue. The tracker weakly tried to push Larabee away. His efforts were uncoordinated and as slurred as his speech.
Nathan knelt beside the Texan, “Vin how many fingers I’m holdin’ up?” The healer held two fingers before the tracker’s unequally dilated eyes.
Tanner ignored the obstruction in his view and continued to stare at the rotating ceiling. The stars and flashes of light had started to impede closer to the center of his sight. They too swung clockwise and counter clockwise...like a carousel Ezra had shown him in a book. What would the saloon be doing with one of those? He thought it would only be fair to share this view with the others.
“Looook,” He mumbled trying to raise an impossibly heavy hand to point at the rotating boards. An innocent benevolent smile crossed his features and he sighed.
“He’s got ‘is bell rung..” Nathan said gazing up at Larabee, “think ya can get him up to the clinic?”
“Yeah..” Chris breathed out trying to figure if he should just toss the tracker over his shoulder or try and make him walk. “What about the others?”
“Buck’s taking care of JD,” Nathan said. He gazed over at Josiah and Ross who were still slugging it out slowly but methodically, “ain’t much I can do for them until they fall down....Ezra’s passed out behind the bar. I reckin’ he best spend the night up in the clinic too...”
Chris noticed Nathan did not sound at all pleased with that prospect. The gunslinger could not blame him. Vin and Ezra under the same roof was just an explosion waiting for an excuse to happen. Normally...Buck...happened.
“Don’t suppose I ken git Josiah to haul his southern butt up there...” Nathan remarked. Both Larabee and Jackson looked up when they heard a crash.
Josiah swayed dangerously on his feet. Ross had finally succumbed to a heavy lumbering blow to his jaw. The large man had staggered backward into an over turned chair and stumbled to the floor taking a table with him.
Sanchez smiled victoriously before sitting heavily in one of the few up right pieces of furniture left in the room.
“Give’im a few moments and I think he might be able to help ya out,” Larabee answered as he hauled Tanner to melting legs.
With the healer’s help he draped the tracker over one shoulder and headed out the batwing doors toward the clinic.
Jackson cringed when he heard the sounds of retching and then Larabee curse Tanner. What a sticky mess.
Josiah stumbled under his burden. He fell against the wood clap siding of the saloon. His shoulder and Standish’s exposed rib cage acted as guides as he slid his way down the boardwalk.
“Sorry brother,” Sanchez mumbled to his unconscious bundle. He had slung the gambler haphazardly over his shoulder. He bumped into a few wooden crates. Josiah cringed...that had to have hurt...though the Southerner was no where near coherency, he would be paying for some of Sanchez’s unfortunate lack of balance.
Something snared on a corner of a crate but with a sharp twist of his shoulder Josiah pulled free. A soft moan escaped from somewhere behind him. Sanchez labeled it penance.... After all this wayward soul draped over his shoulder did ignite a rather spectacular brawl. With a wobbly gait and softly uttered apologies Josiah lumbered down the boardwalk toward the clinic reeling and rebounding off stationary objects.
JD lay on his belly staring at a wooden bucket. This was not helping him any. Buck had dropped him on the bed as if he were a sack of laundry. He remember with some difficulty his boots being pulled off...his guns being placed on the dresser and his coat somehow was tugged roughly from his body...then the wooden bucket.
JD blinked tried to focus on the spinning floor beside it and ignore the bucket that called a sirens song to his gurgling stomach. Saliva pooled in his mouth....he feared swallowing. Closing his eyes did not stop the spinning, it only increased the sensation.
Damn you Buck...why did you put the Bucket there....Dunne lifted his head maybe by facing the other way he could beat this thing.
His stomach revolted at the simple movement. With an arched back ,closed eyes tearing and clenched fist, the stomach answered the call of the wooden receptacle resting innocently by the head of the bed....answered not only once or twice but multiple times....Between bouts JD lay sweating and panting feeling none better knowing he was in ‘for the long haul’. Dunne cursed Buck, Ezra and Vin...he did not know why...did not understand what those three had done...but there were only so many people in this world that could wrought such agony onto his body...It had to be that combination...
With thoughts of diabolical revenge...JD leaned and heaved once more into the bucket....he would have to remember later to search for some organs with in the slimy mess...He knew...absolutely knew that a lung had to have fallen victim to one of his last set of dry heaves.
Buck’s departing words before closing the door did not reassure the young man at all.... “Don’t worry kid you’ll live...”
Dunne sighed...he would give anything to volunteer for a hostage situation...anything with a quick painless end. ‘You’ll live...’ was not comforting....not at all....
Buck quickly left JD in his room. Wilmington’s stomach had sympathetic tendencies and the Ladies Man feared if he stayed behind he would be sharing the bucket with his young friend. Wilmington moved down the hall a few yards and leaned against the wall trying to get his bearings. Things were fuzzy, his vision not quite as sharp as it should have been...He rubbed absently at his sore midsection, his ribs particularly painful.
With a sigh he rubbed at the sheen of sweat that covered his forehead
and face. He closed his eyes gathered his wits and promised retribution
on that lazy, no good, lying, southern, bastard.
Energy fueled with revenge Wilmington pushed himself off the hallway wall and headed down the boarding house steps. He had a job to finish.
Chris leaned against the clinic’s open window. With his arms crossed he watched as the healer cleaned and checked Vin’s wounds. There was no blood, no broken skin...his brain had just bounced around in his skull to much....or so Nathan explained. Larabee had half a mind to argue the diagnosis...one would need a brain to bounce around.
What the heck was Vin thinking?
Larabee’s gaze landed on the smaller form on the cot. Josiah had managed to haul the Southerner up here...they had only fallen twice on the outside stairs. Chris thought about helping them....but Josiah seemed to be handling his difficulties with nothing less than brute strength and determination. Standish was better off in Sanchez’s caring hands....Larabee was afraid he just might haul the Southerner up here by a foot and not the coat collar as the preacher had done. Chris might have even been tempted to stop the bleeding head wound with a tourniquet around the neck.
Chris sighed and reminded himself that Standish as well as Wilmington probably fell to Tanner’s revenge....still if those two morons had not got the ball rolling with that little stunt a few weeks ago...
“Well..” Nathan said straightening up, “Vin’s gonna be fine...jist have ta wake’im up every so often to make sure he don’t sleep to deeply.”
“Ezra?” Chris asked. Josiah had passed out once he unceremoniously dropped his charge on the cot...
It was Nathan’s turn to sigh. He stepped over Josiah and peered down at the serene features of one of the most troublesome human beings he had ever met. “Damn man is more trouble than a.....”
“Vin started it,” Larabee explained quietly. It was not that he did not agree with the healer. The Southerner alone was worse than a paper cut on one’s inner lip. Buck and Vin were just the salt in the wound.
Nathan gazed up at the gunslinger in askance. The lamp light flickered occasionally reshuffling shadows and throwing shades of grey about the dim room.
“What would Ezra hopefully gain by starting a rumor like that?” Chris asked. He rubbed his face tiredly and gingerly explored the swollen tissue of his right eye. The gambler was motivated simply by greed and self preservation. This little game seemed profoundly lacking in any monetary advancement and it certainly did not promise a flourishing future.
It stunk of Tanner.
Nathan agreed...but... “Who told Molly?” He rolled Standish’s head to the side inspecting the wound. A shallow cut with a good size lump and some bruising graced the side of his head.
“Probably Vin jis sassin’ her...git’n back at Buck for standin’ her up and Ezra jist because Vin asked her too.” Chris pushed himself up off the wall and grabbed Josiah by his boots. He dragged the big man out from under Jackson’s feet. The effort left him dizzy and with a growing headache.
Jackson thought about it. Molly had been mighty upset for Buck standing her up. She had made a picnic lunch and everything. Poor ole Buck had the wrong day and was in the lovable arms of Pansy. No amount of groveling, no matter how sincere made amends with Molly. She was a feisty girl not one to take being treated in such a manner. Nathan had to concede that Buck did feel right bad about it and had gone to great lengths to make it up to the angry woman but as Josiah had told him that fateful afternoon, “There’s nothin’ like a woman’s scorn to behold...”
Ezra had laughed out loud....Molly don’t like being laughed at....
Nathan stared down at the gambler, he would have to remember that important piece of information. Jackson cleaned the laceration wondering if he was going to have to baby-sit these two and Josiah for the next few days.
The clinic door burst open. Buck’s swaying silhouette filled the door frame, “Alright where is that no good son of a bitch.” Wilmington took an unsteady step forward, stepped on Josiah’s prone form and stumbled into the room. “ sorry ‘osiah..didn’t seeya there,” Buck muffled out an apology.
“Leave Vin alone,” Chris ordered quietly. His head was really beginning to hurt. He set himself half on half off the window sill and kept an eye on the Vin. The tracker was a passel of trouble. He would have to remember in the future to separate these three. They fed off each other. Standish more times than not whispered or unobtrusively lit the match that started things. Chris gave him credit.... the correct word in the a volatile ear...and wham..you got a situation much like tonight. Damn those three.....
Buck paused...Vin? What’s Tanner have to do with Standish? “Chris I ain’t aimin’ for Vin,” Wilmington tried to stare at his oldest friend but found Larabee’s shadow shimmering just out of focus.
“I don’t think Ezra told Molly anything,” Larabee explained trying to figure out why Wilmington was staring at him like a side of beef.
“Well that’s what she said...Molly wouldn’t lie to good ole’ Buck.” The Lady’s man said with some indignity. He tried to step over the preacher but found his balance to precarious. What the heck was Josiah doing laying on the floor? The big oaf had a room of his own...unless he was playing watch dog to the slimy good for nothin’ yella bellied snake on the cot. Preacher should be helping him instead of watching Standish’s back...darn fool never knew what was good for him....neither of’em did.
Nathan snorted, “After ya stood her up the other week....Buck she
was madder than a drenched alley cat.” Jackson was in the process
of working Standish out of his coat and shirt. It would be unusual
if the gambler had escaped the evening with out some sort of trauma to
“ ‘Sides...I think Vin’s jist finally gittin back at you two for the fool stunt ya pulled on him....” Jackson rolled Ezra over onto one shoulder while he worked the shirt off...Yup midsection had the same coloring as the middlin’s of Blue berry pie....damn fool...to busy protecting that face of his.
Buck paused stared at the healer then Larabee and finally to the unconscious form lying on the bed across the room... “Aw hell that was over three weeks ago.” Wilmington still chuckled occasionally when he thought about the burning refuse they had placed under the wagon. Never in their wildest dreams did they think the wagon would actually catch fire. Vin seemed awful appreciative that the other boys got the fire out before the whole thing burned down. Lordy did that rotten stuff stink...who would have thought burning hide and garbage would smell so foul....Buck couldn’t help but chuckle...It had worked better than either Ezra or himself had planned....and they did not even have to participate in the bucket brigade.
Vin stunk for days.
“Ezra ain’t got nuthin’ to gain by startin’ rumors about ya...” Nathan paused and gazed up at the promiscuous gunslinger, “It is a rumor....ain’t it Buck?” Jackson would rather hold Ezra’s head in a bucket when he got sick than exam Buck’s for signs for the reported illness.
Chris’s laughter broke the night.
Jackson sighed when he stitched Wilmington’s head....he would gently
interrogate him again...without coherent witnesses present.
JD stumbled across the street. He shielded his eyes from the bright rays of the mid morning sun. Why he decided to get out of bed was beyond him. He crossed the deserted main thorough fare hoping maybe a stray runaway stage coach or maybe an unseen assassin would put him out of his misery. With great disappointment he made it to the other side of the street unscathed. Walking was a miserable chore, blinking hurt and it felt as if someone was pulling his hair out by its roots. How did Buck and the others drink night after night. Though JD did not think that his misery was not wrought on by the evils of drinking...a simple blow to the head was no better. He did after all have a lump beside his ear. No wonder Ezra let people beat on his midsection instead of his face.
Dunne headed for the clinic. The staircase seemed impossible steep and it felt as if the clinic had been elevated a few more steps. The young sheriff could not remember it taking so long to plod up the wooden warped stairs. With hand resting on the railing JD pulled himself up to the landing.
He heard voices inside.
Dunne pushed the door open with a trembling sigh. His stomach still promised retribution. JD was convinced he had blown a blood vessel in his head last night. If misery was money the sheriff was certain he would have been a rich man this morning.
“ ‘Ey JD,” Vin called out from his place in the clinic. The tracker was dressed but sat stretched out on the made bed. His eyes were blackened and the bridge of his nose slightly puffy. All in all Vin looked better than JD felt.
Standish still lay within the comforts of the cot and quilt on the
“Ahh Mr. Dunne you have finally decided to greet the day,” Standish’s voice was low and slightly strained.
JD figured more bruised or battered ribs. Dunne resolved next time he would try that tactic instead...this was unbearable. Though he could see a small cut on the side of the gambler’s head...it must not be so bad if he were already smiling.
Ezra raised an amused eyebrow at the sheriff and then directed his attention to Tanner. The tracker smiled wolfishly.
“Ya don’t remember JD?” Tanner sat up slowly letting JD take a seat on the side of the bed. The kid looked rough.
“Not much anyway...just maybe spinnin’ and then I think Chris stood on me or something,” JD sat down on Vin’s bed. His legs quivered with exertion and his hands shook. He wondered if the headache would ever go away. He almost had the urge to ask Nathan for some tea or something but then his stomach would probably just return it in a hurry.
“Ohh that is most unfortunate,” Ezra purred out. He stared past the hunched figure of their young friend to the tracker.
Tanner read the look and started, “Well ya see JD...ya had one to many whiskeys last night.”
The young sheriff stared shocked at Vin and then over to Ezra seeking confirmation. Ohh Gawd he went and got drunk and done something really stupid....
“Tis a shame when the bottle grabs one so young,” Ezra singsonged sympathetically in the background shaking his head at the assumed tragedy. Ohh the loss....
“Yeah well anyhow...there was this little chiquita....” Tanner began weaving a sordid tale of drunken debauchery and JD’s wild whiskey soaked adventures.
JD hung his head in embarrassed shame...until Nathan and Josiah ,who sat in the tiny apartment next door, could no longer bear any more.
“JD they’re lyin’ through their teeth...” Nathan’s voice shouted out as he came through the door. Vin told a mighty fine tall tale.
“Don’t let our wayward brothers fool you son...” Josiah glared from Tanner to Standish back to JD. “These two fools started the whole mess....you were just kind enough to come to their rescue.”
Both tracker and gambler began stuttering about not needing rescued. Their protests were cut short when Jackson asked them to recount how they managed to get to the clinic.
Josiah held his tongue...he was not to sure of that himself...
Buck sat in the boarding house waiting to be served. He waited over three-quarters of an hour fingering the small sutures that graced his eyebrow. No one would come near him. With a patient sigh, Wilmington finally went to the kitchen to speak with Mrs. Whitmore himself.
Chris entered the dining room of the boarding house just in time
to hear Buck exclaim from the kitchen, “But ma’am I don’t have it....honest...”
There was a pause a soft but firm voice and then Buck’s voice again, “It
was Vin....he’s jist gittin’ back at me and Ezra for that little fire under
Again a pause filled with the soft tones of a gentle hearted older widow.
“Well no ma’am....I guess it ain’t to funny we nearly burnt down’is little home...but it ain’t like Vin’s innocent either...ya know he can be a real....” His sentence was cut short. A second or less later he rushed from the kitchen. Mrs. Whitmore hot on his heels with a cast iron skillet.
“Don’t you talk bad about none of my boys...” she was saying brandishing the skillet as if it were a paddle.
Larabee held his mirth when Buck high stepped past him, “A little help here Chris...”
“Don’t go to the clinic...JD’s a might upset with you too,” The gunslinger smiled sweetly to the matron of the boarding house. “Mornin’ ma’am.”
“Why good morning to you Mr. Larabee...Steak and eggs?” She asked sweetly as if running regulars out of her establishment was an everyday occurrence.
“Yes ma’am...if it ain’t to much trouble,”Chris smiled as the small portly woman turned on her heel and headed back into her kitchen. She considered all of the seven her boys.
Twenty minutes later Chris sat quietly enjoying his late morning meal. He looked up when Josiah and Nathan came over and joined him at the table. Sanchez appeared better than most of the other five. How he managed it Larabee could not be positive.
“They alright?” Chris asked quietly.
“Vin’s doin’ better, still dizzy but that’ll last fer a while yet. JD’s not much better than Vin, them two will be sleepin’ alot fer the next few days. Ezra’s got his ribs all banged up again..ain’t gonna be horse back fer a week or two at least. Josiah ‘n me poured some Laudanum down’im just a few minutes ago.” Nathan relished the peace and quiet of the next twenty-four hours to come. With JD and Vin sleeping off head wounds...and if he could keep Ezra safely wrapped in a drug induced haze..he should have an easy couple of days.
“Well so much for Ezra taking Vin’s patrol...” Chris muttered quietly. Damn man would do just about anything to get out of having to work in the morning.
“We’re gonna have to do something for Buck though...a rumor like that really has the town talking,” Josiah pointed out. The three younger men were sometimes more trouble than a horde of locus. They weren’t even awake a full hour before those two were trying to fool poor JD. Sanchez shook his head in dismay. There was no rest for the wicked.....
“I’ll talk to Vin and have him straighten this out,” Chris answered. He did not want to have to deal with retaliations. He would convince Tanner to see his side of things and bring this thing to a close. Either that or he would have to put one of the terrible threesome in jail. It was after all one of the sturdiest buildings in the town...other than the bank. Chris sighed...couldn’t stick Standish in the bank....be like asking the fox to watch the hen house.
Chris would just talk some sense into Vin and see this matter closed.
In Mary’s newspaper that following Wednesday..Vin had taken out a full page advertisement....at the expense of a week’s pay..
“Buck Wilmington does NOT have The Clap...” In smaller letters but just as clear , “Visual confirmation sworn by Ezra Standish...”
Tanner had then disappeared into the surrounding hills for a weeks