DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!
Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire
Ezra took the photograph and pursed his lips in his consideration of the man Larabee had tersely identified as “Cletus Fowler.”
“All right,” Buck said, his mustache bristling over his shot glass. “All right, so what do we know about this Fowler fella?”
“He’s arrogant,” Josiah mused. “Posing for this picture reeks of hubris.”
“Hangin’ that man in Chris’s closet, that’s just like a cat playing with a mouse,” Nathan pointed out.
“He’s close by,” Vin stated.
“Indeed,” Ezra said thoughtfully, flicking a glance at the seething Larabee and tossing the picture into the middle of the table. “We must assume that the walls have ears.”
Chris’s eyes narrowed. After a moment’s consideration, he heaved an angry sigh.
“I need a drink,” he growled, shoving himself to his feet. He adjusted the brim of his hat as he went and Ezra lifted the index and long finger of his right hand off the table in acknowledgment of Larabee’s agreeing with him.
‘What,’ Buck wondered, and not for the first time in the last four months, ‘are you two thinkin’?’
“Such a pity,” Ezra sighed, a deck of cards appearing in his left hand from out of thin air. “Although ah’m sure a man of your experience has seen it many times, Mister Steele.”
“Pity?” Jock Steele repeated, conjured into being at Ezra’s elbow in much the same manner as the cards had arrived on the table.
“Let us just say that Mister Larabee is not the man he once was,” Ezra hedged with a mournful shake of his head, cutting his deck in two. “I fear that the symbiotic relationship his anger at his family’s murder has forged with the devil whiskey will be his undoin’… and perhaps ours as well.”
“Chris ain’t no drunk!” J.D. protested, outraged that Ezra would even suggest it – and in front of Jock Steele to boot.
“I’m not so certain of that anymore, Mister Dunne,” Ezra murmured, shuffling the cards together in a blur of white and red.
“I’ve known Chris Larabee for twelve years,” Buck growled. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with him that putting a noose around Cletus Fowler’s neck won’t cure.”
“I doubt he’ll find Mister Fowler at the bottom of a bottle of Red Eye. Are you playin’, Mister Wilmington?”
“Go t’hell, Ezra,” Buck answered, throwing his whiskey down his throat before standing up from his chair and heading toward where Chris leaned heavily on the bar, a bottle of bad whiskey open in front of him and a glass in his hand.
“Undoubtedly,” Ezra replied, his smile genuine. One by one, his fellow peacekeepers followed Buck’s example, leaving Ezra at the table with Steele. Josiah and Vin faded to the corners of the saloon to watch the doors, while Nathan and J.D. sat at a table where they could keep their backs to the wall and their gazes on Chris and Buck.
The seats at Ezra's table weren't empty for long, rowdies eagerly crowding into them to take him for every dollar they could, confident that their cheating wouldn't be spotted – unlike Standish's last victims. Ezra kept the grin off his face, having already ascertained there wasn’t a better card player than himself in the place.
“Chris Larabee has a drinking problem?” Steele prompted.
“It’s his grief that drives him to drink,” Ezra replied. “Are you playin’, or foldin’?”
“Never mind that,” Steele said, dismissing the cards Standish had dealt him without a look – an occurrence Ezra had rather counted on. “Does he get drunk often?”
“It’s a pitiful sight,” Standish sighed, pleased at how the pot was growing. Steele’s generosity in buying rounds for the house was proving profitable. “He drinks himself into a fallin’ down stupor, then starts shootin’, cryin’ out for justice for his dead family. Mister Wilmington or Mister Tanner scrape him up off the floor and let him cry it off in jail. I had hoped that the possibility of findin’ his family’s assassin might give him the strength to resist the call to oblivion, but I am afraid that whiskey has gotten the better of a good man once again.”
“Oh, this is great,” Steele enthused, scribbling madly away on his notepad. “I can use this! My readers will love it!”
“The peddlin’ of vicarious thrills…” Ezra shuddered. “Hell of a way to make a livin’…. Your bets, gentlemen?”
“Fowler!” Chris howled, drilling bullets from J.D.’s second-best gun into the ceiling of the Eagle Bend saloon. He’d paid attention to the script for the con Ezra had spun for the listening walls and was following it straight down the line.
“Where are you?! Fowler!”
Crashing to the floor, he curled up and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Fowler walked through the front door of the saloon, followed by at least six other men.
“Get up, you drunk. You found me.”
‘Finally!’ Buck silently exulted from his perch above Chris. ‘We finally got you, y’sumbitch.’
“You killed my wife and son. Why?!”
‘Patience, Mister Larabee!’ Ezra silently directed from his hiding place. ‘You need the bastard breathin’ t’get what you want from him….’
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. At least the money was right.”
‘Easy, Chris!’ Buck counseled. ‘Don’t kill the fucker yet….’
“Who hired you?”
‘Subtlety is not your forte, Mister Larabee…’ Ezra sighed, minutely adjusting his grip on the hilt of his Colt.
“Son, I’m a professional, I guarantee the anonymity of my clients. What I can tell you is… I was hired to go after you. Your little family was just unlucky. I do apologize for killing them but… I have to admit I enjoyed it. I’d have enjoyed killing you, too… but you ran off.”
‘Stay in control, Mister Larabee…' Ezra urged. 'Play the bastard – don’t let him play you!'
“You ran off! I’ve been looking for you for three years! You ran off!” Chris sobbed.
“However… it was good enough for my client. But now you’re back and I’m back on the payroll.”
‘Back?’ Buck repeated. ‘What the hell do you mean, ‘back’?! He never left.'
‘Back?’ Ezra wondered, his eyebrows meeting over the bridge of his nose. ‘Who wanted you to leave three years ago, Mister Larabee – and why?’
“What about Blackfox?”
“Blackfox? He’s local talent. Hard to find good help these days. I had to eviscerate him in his cell. I see you’ve got a symbiotic relationship going with that bottle. Too bad. Makes a man sloppy. Could get him perforated.”
‘“The walls have ears,”’ Buck remembered. ‘I wish you two would stop thinkin’ the rest of us were as sneaky as you!’
“You look like you brought an awful lot of men to kill one drunk.”
‘Great,’ Ezra frowned. ‘The sadistic bully hired an audience…. And no doubt a very well-armed one….’
“Yeah, well, I have no problem delegating authority.”
“Hey, Cletus. You sure do use big words for somebody so stupid.”
‘Here we go…!’ Buck told himself. Chris’s Peacemaker barked and Wilmington ducked out of his cover.
‘Jesus –!’ he thought, counting six men plus Fowler. Taking aim, he brought the number down to five. He heard rather than saw the others join the fray, his eyes too busy trying to keep track of Chris ducking and weaving through the tumbling furniture and the bullets. He was heading for Fowler – and Fowler was going out the door….
‘Like hell,’ Buck promised, taking aim on the assassin.
“Buck!” Chris bellowed. “Don’t kill him! Cover me!”
Wilmington obeyed, switching his aim to lay down a crossfire with the rest of the boys that allowed Chris to follow Fowler out the door.
“Throw down your guns!” Ezra bellowed. “Do it – or y’all are dead!”
Ezra’s magnanimity was rudely turned down by a hail of bullets that chewed up the wood of the wall he was hiding behind.
“Suit yourself,” Standish muttered. Within minutes, the fight was over. Buck was the first out the door after Chris, hurdling over the bodies in his way.
“God…” Buck said, his charge momentarily slowed by the sight of flames rising out of the stable across the street from the saloon. Inside the burning building, Chris and Fowler were doing their level best to beat each other to death. “Chris!”
“Cut off the back!” Ezra yelled, waving Vin and Josiah around to the rear door of the stable. He reached Buck’s side a second later, grabbing the bigger man’s arm, keeping Wilmington from charging into the fray.
“Chris is winnin’,” Ezra hissed in his ear. “Y’gotta let him win, Buck!”
“Damn it, Chris…” Buck muttered, shielding his eyes from the glare of the building flames, trying to see what Standish was telling him was happening.
Chris threw Fowler out of the stable, into the safety of the street, and Buck started breathing again. He felt Ezra squeeze his arm, then let go. Buck threw him a grateful look before positioning himself opposite Standish, ready to cut Fowler off if he somehow got away from Chris and tried to run for it.
“Come on, Cletus!” Chris ordered, hauling Fowler up by his lapels. “Get up! Get up!”
He let go of Fowler with one last shake, confident that he wouldn’t get away this time, not with the fire at his back and his boys surrounding them.
“Now you tell me who hired you. Tell me!”
“I will,” Fowler mumbled, searching for his cheroot. “It was, uh…. Let me think now…” He glanced behind him at the building flames, putting the thin cigar between his teeth. “It was, uh…. His name was…. No. On second thought, go to hell,” he sneered.
'Nooooo!' Chris screamed as Fowler moved out of his reach back into the flames.
“Chris!” Buck yelled, making a grab for Chris and stopping him just short of the stable door.
"Hold up!" Vin cried, arriving just in time to tackle Chris back into Buck's arms.
Right behind Tanner, Josiah, Nathan and J.D. made a human wall between Larabee and the stable as Chris fought like a wildcat to get loose - until a rising howl just shy of a rebel yell stopped him in his tracks.
Ezra flashed past them, the tails of his jacket flying behind him. He leapt through the flames belching out of the stable, tackling Fowler and sending them both to the ground and out of sight behind a wall of fire.
“Ezra!” Wilmington cried, and it was Chris’s turn to hold Buck back from running into certain death.
A moment before the roof caved in, Ezra threw Fowler out of the stable ahead of him. The two men slammed into the ground hard, the impact guttering the flames licking across their clothing. Oblivious to the fact that they were on fire, they continued their fight, punching, scratching and biting in their efforts to kill each other with their bare hands.
On the dim edges of his awareness, Ezra kicked out at whoever was raining blows on his back and legs. Fowler’s hand grabbed his chin, pushing him backwards. Ezra bit the tips of his attacker’s fingers hard, but the damage was done: Fowler had shifted him enough that he could get to Ezra’s Colt. The Remington had been emptied in the bar fight, but his Colt had two bullets left. Ezra grabbed Fowler’s arm, twisting his fingers into the other man’s muscles to try and make him let go of the gun’s hilt. Fowler seemed impervious to the pain that should have been numbing his fingers beyond function and Ezra could feel the weight of his snub nosed pistol leaving his shoulder holster.
The muffled sound of a gunshot snapped louder than the crackle and pop of exploding pitch and splintering wood.
“Aw, hell…” Ezra sighed, his body dropping on top of Fowler’s.
“Ezra!” Buck gasped, grabbing Standish by his smoldering jacket and his trouser leg, tossing him off Fowler and onto his back a few feet away. His jacket fell open, revealing dark blotches where the light from the fire didn’t glint off the gold brocade of his waistcoat.
“Ezra?” Dropping to his knees on the ground, Buck pressed his hands against Ezra’s heaving chest, searching for a wound.
“Off…” Standish panted, pushing Buck away from him. “Off, damn it!”
“Fowler!” Chris growled, sliding to his knees beside the hired gun. Fowler’s eyes were wide open, staring up at Chris.
“See you… in hell… Larabee…” Fowler said, his laugh rasping into the last rattle of breath out of his lungs.
“Fowler!” Chris bellowed, pounding on the corpse.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Buck barked, abandoning Ezra to pull Chris off Fowler’s remains. “Let it go, Chris! Let it go!”
Chris sagged in Buck’s arms, his head hanging down to hide the pain creasing his expression.
“I know,” Buck told him, turning his restraint into a supportive embrace. “I know…”
Chris raised his head, glaring beyond Fowler to Ezra. Standish sat on his knees, carbon streaking his face, the metal of his derringer sparkling in the dancing light of the flames.
“You had to kill him?” Chris demanded, his anguish getting the better of his common sense.
Ezra flinched, ducking his head to drop his face into the shadows thrown by the fire.
“Easy now,” Buck soothed, turning Larabee away from Standish. Ezra didn’t deserve to have Chris’s disappointment taken out on him.
Vin patted Ezra’s head, holding his hat out to him.
Ezra ignored the courtesy and the comfort, shoving himself to his feet and putting his back to his concerned associates. The effort of standing up doubled him over in a coughing fit, and once again hands were thumping his back, pounding on him in a misguided effort to be helpful.
“Ah’m fine,” he choked, stumbling away from Vin and Josiah. With a practiced flex, he sent the derringer back into its place, hardly noticing the warmth radiating from the barrel because of the heat its metal rig had already absorbed from the fire. Limping over to Fowler’s body, he bent down and retrieved his Colt Conversion from the dead man’s hand. He had to bite his tongue to keep from groaning out loud when he straightened.
“You sure you’re all right?” Nathan demanded
“Ah said ah’m fine,” Ezra replied, warning Nathan off with a lethal glare. “Just fine an’ dandy!” He punctuated his declaration with a kick to Fowler’s head, the dead man’s neck bones snapping loudly enough to make Buck look back over his shoulder to see what was the matter.
Running his hands through his singed hair, Ezra stalked off into the night.
“Oh, he’s fine,” Nathan muttered, shaking his head and looking over at Vin. “He’s just fine.”
“Uh, guys…” J.D. called. “Here comes the sheriff… I don’t think he’s too happy.”
J.D. was right. He wasn’t.
At first light, the seven peacekeepers were on their way home, escorted to the Four Corners road by the sheriff of Eagle Bend. Chris took point, leading Fowler’s big gray horse with its master’s body tied to the saddle. Ezra brought up the rear, riding like an officer on parade. The rest bunched together in between them, fenced in by the bad moods ahead of and behind them.
Their arrival in Four Corners was much like their journey home had been – silent and brooding. Everyone but Ezra followed Chris’s lead in leaving their horses for the livery boys to tend. He stayed with Chaucer, preferring to groom the bay rather than go with the others taking Fowler’s body and tack to the undertaker’s, to go through it with a fine toothcomb.
“Nothing.… Not one damn thing!” Chris swore hours later, banging his fist into the wooden table where Fowler’s stripped body lay.
“We’re all tired, Chris. Let’s get some food, some sleep, look at everything with clear heads tomorrow,” Buck said.
Chris didn’t answer, just punched the table again with his already torn knuckles and headed for the door.
“Saloon?” Vin asked Buck quietly.
Buck nodded and followed Larabee. He knew better than to try and stop Chris from drinking himself into a stupor, but he owed it to his best friend to make sure he wasn’t facing a rope when he sobered up.
Amelia Potter intercepted Buck in the middle of the street, the handle of a covered basket over her arm and a worried frown on her young face.
“Mr. Wilmington? Is Ezra all right?” she asked.
Buck exchanged a quick glance with Vin.
“What makes ya ask that, darlin’?” Buck dodged.
“He’s not hungry,” she answered, her chin wobbling dangerously.
“Well, we ate a big breakfast in Eagle Bend,” Buck lied. “He’s probably just full.”
“But he didn’t want any pie,” she protested. “He’s always got room for pie.”
“Is the pie in your basket there?” Buck enquired, feeling a distinctly empty pang from his stomach.
“Tell you what, darlin’, why don’t I just take it up to him?” Buck offered, relieving her of her aromatic burden. “I needed to talk to him anyway.”
“But is he all right?” she demanded. “He was cross with Josh – and he’s never cross with Josh! It makes Josh stutter so…”
“He’s tired, darlin’. We had a long ride home. Don’t you worry – I’ll go see Ezra and make sure this pie gets et.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Wilmington!” Amelia cried, brightening immediately. Giving him a quick hug, she skipped away across the street.
“Hey! You look both ways, now!” Buck called after her, making sure she reached her mother’s mercantile safely.
“Need some help with that?” Vin offered, getting his hand slapped away from the basket for his efforts to be of assistance.
“I cin manage,” Buck assured him, switching the basket to the arm farthest away from Vin.
“I’ll meet ya downstairs,” Tanner grinned, letting Buck know he would keep an eye on Chris while Wilmington went to check up on Ezra.
“Ezra!” Buck called, giving the door one good bang before throwing it open and ducking over the threshold.
A bullet whined reassuringly over his head, lodging into the wall above the doorframe.
“Leave me be, Mister Wilmington,” Ezra greeted him testily from his bathtub.
Buck replied with a sneeze, the scents of lavender soap, apple cider vinegar, cigar smoke, and corn liquor assaulting him.
“Phew!” he exclaimed, waving a hand in front of his face. “This place smells like a New Orleans whorehouse!”
“I’ll take that as the opinion of an expert,” Ezra snapped.
‘No need to get snippy,’ Buck thought, wondering again where the hell Standish kept the king size, fully backed tub in his small room.
‘It folds up, y’ignorant behemoth,’ Ezra thought, scowling darkly at Wilmington.
Buck ignored the warning glare, walking further into the room to get a better look at Standish.
“Y’look like some disgruntled Apaches staked y’out in the sun,” Buck observed critically. Bright red patches glowed across Ezra’s arms and legs, burns that had stopped just short of deadly.
“Go away, Buck,” Ezra sighed, putting his cigar back in his mouth and trading the Remington in his hand for the open bottle of whiskey sitting on the round wooden table beside the tub.
‘No flask, no glass – and Jesus Lord! He’s drinkin’ Red Eye,’ Buck realized.
“That ain’t your usual, Ezra.”
“The one redeemin’ virtue of this scorpion bile, is that one is not tempted to let it linger on the palate any longer than demanded by absolute necessity, thus expeditin’ inebriation.”
The mouthful of five syllable words confirmed what the missing third of bourbon had indicated: Ezra was well on his way to a Chris Larabee sized drunk.
Ezra blew a stream of cigar smoke in Buck’s direction.
“What,” he slowly and clearly asked, “do you want, Mister Wilmington?”
Buck raised the basket. “Amy Potter brought you some pie.”
Ezra’s expression turned ugly. “Ah’m not hungry!” he snapped. “And I am gettin’ less appreciative of the draft from the hallway by the moment, suh!”
Buck shut the door, turning back to the tub with an innocent grin on his mustache. Reflexes developed over 12 years of knowing Chris and honed in the last three allowed him to catch the whiskey bottle Ezra hurled at his head.
“Y’missed,” he informed Standish cheerfully, relieved that Ezra was still an amateur drinker; a true professional like Chris would only ever throw empties.
“Bettah luck next time,” Ezra growled, picking up another bottle from the side of the tub Buck couldn’t see.
‘Always the ace up the sleeve,’ Buck admired, strolling over to the bed and making himself comfortable.
“How’s your back?”
Ezra bounced the cork from his new bottle off Buck’s forehead. “Out!” he ordered.
“Y’sure you don’t want any pie?”
“Buck…” Ezra groaned, the back of his head clunking against the tub’s rest. “Just leave me to my ablutions – please?”
The courtesy caught Buck by surprise. “All right,” he agreed. Putting the basket down on the bed, he rose to leave.
“And take the goddamned pie with you.”
Without a word, Buck picked up the basket and left. He lingered in the hall outside the door, wondering what it was about fires that made Ezra so damned surly.
‘You’re not gonna find out today, old son,’ he acknowledged with a shake of his head. Turning away from Ezra’s room, he headed down the stairs.
“You smell like a New Orleans whorehouse,” Chris told Buck when he sat down beside him.
“That an expert’s opinion?” Wilmington countered. Chris grinned, turning the empty shot glass in his hand end over end. Buck frowned at the full bottle of whiskey sitting on the table in front of Larabee, its cork still in place.
“He’s right,” Chris admitted, turning the shot glass he held in his hand over one last time and setting it upside down in front of him with a decisive thunk. “I ain’t gonna find out who killed my family at the bottom of a bottle.”
‘You sonovabitch!’ Buck thought up at Ezra. ‘Three years of me bitchin’ and punchin’ and beggin’ him, and he listens to you!’
“You still got that pie?” Vin asked, poking hopefully at the basket.
“Why,” Ezra enquired plaintively of the bottle of bourbon he held in his hand, “can ah still taste you?”
Sighing, he put the bottle back down by the side of the tub. His back still hurt like hell, but no worse than a bad sunburn would. He would, in short, live to face the repercussions of his failure.
‘Had Mister Larabee been in your place, Fowler would be just as dead,’ he reminded himself stubbornly.
‘But killin’ Fowler was his prerogative, not mine,’ he countered. ‘And were our positions truly reversed, it is a presumption I would not forgive him.’
“To hell with him,” Ezra said aloud. “Why should I care about the opinions of a man with such execrable taste in whiskey?”
Picking up the bottle he took another swig, just to prove his point.
‘Sobriety ain’t what it’s cracked up to be,’ Chris grumped to himself, looking into the oily surface of the coffee that was failing miserably as a substitute for a brutally sleepless night.
“Fowler’s money was new,” he said abruptly. “From the Philadelphia mint…”
Buck chewed his bacon and beans a little slower. “Think that means somethin’?”
“Hell yes, it means something,” Chris snapped. “I just can’t figure out what!”
Vin shoved his empty plate away from him, pulled his napkin from his collar and tossed it down. “Gonna take another look at Fowler’s horse,” he explained, taking his coffee with him.
Buck looked sideways at Larabee, hoping that something would come along to focus the other man’s attention before he said to hell with his newly found resolve to stay sober. He saw a flash of red in the corner of his gaze and he lifted his chin to look over Chris’s shoulder at Ezra arriving on the ground floor landing.
‘Right on time,’ Buck thought gratefully.
Ezra stayed on the landing longer than usual, studying the interior of the saloon, the activity in the street, looking at anything and everything but the table where Chris and Buck sat.
‘Best to get this over with,’ he told himself firmly.
Chris looked up from contemplating his coffee, surprised to see Ezra awake by seven in the morning. He was standing at attention, his hat in his hand and, even more surprisingly, he looked like he’d slept in his clothes. Ezra always slept in his clothes, of course, but he never looked like he did.
“Ezra?” Chris acknowledged.
Standish cleared his throat, but didn’t shift his weight from foot-to-foot as Chris had grown accustomed to seeing when Ezra’s sneaky mind was cooking something up.
“I would like to apologize for my clumsiness in Eagle Bend. I appreciate what my actions have cost you, and I quite understand if… you can no longer see your way to place the lives of our associates and the rest of this town at the risk of such carelessness in the future,” Ezra said stiffly, not quite meeting Chris’s eyes. “After all, any obligation incumbent upon you to continue my involvement in the current arrangement with His Honor was dissolved some time ago – ”
Chris’s fist slammed into Ezra’s chin, the uppercut sending Standish sailing into the table and chairs behind him.
“Ezra…” he asked, looking down at the shorter man. “Did you just apologize to me because you’re alive?”
“No, suh…” Standish gasped, cradling his jaw. “I’m apologizin’ to you because Fowler’s dead.”
“What the hell kind of man do you think I am?!” Chris demanded angrily, kicking the sole of Ezra’s boot before stalking out of the saloon.
“Whew,” Buck said, hauling the confused Standish up off the floor. "Lord, you do know how to get under a man's skin, Ezra…."
“Is that a request for my resignation?” Ezra asked, gingerly tapping the point of his chin.
“Nope,” Buck replied, a quick sweep of his foot taking Ezra’s legs out from under him and sending him crashing back into the ruins of the table and the chair. “It ain’t – and you asked for that, Ezra.”
Sitting up amidst the debris, Standish stared after Wilmington, watching the batwing doors of the saloon swing long after Buck had disappeared from his view. Finally, he shook his head, grinning.
Chris waited for Buck across the street from the saloon, fury shimmering off him like heat. Buck waited for the stagecoach to pass before he eased up beside Larabee, keeping an eye out for any innocent bystanders – like Mary – who might accidentally put themselves in Chris’s sights.
“What the hell kind of man does he think I am?” Larabee demanded again, pointing an accusatory finger back at the saloon.
Buck considered the question. “I think…” he said slowly. “I think he thinks you’re a man that he let down.”
“Because he didn’t let that bastard kill him?”
Buck tilted his head, squinting at Chris and waiting for his memory to squiggle past his hurt feelings.
“Aw, hell…” Chris dismissed. “I didn’t mean it like that! He knows I didn’t mean it like that! He’s just lookin’ for someone to take the blame for him weaslin’ out of his promise to the judge, isn’t he? If the little bastard wants to leave so damn bad, why don’t he just pack up and git the hell out of here?”
Chris kicked the side of the boardwalk. “What the hell is a man like that doing in a backwater nowhere like this, anyway?”
“He likes pie,” Buck chuckled.
Speechless, Larabee glared at him for a moment, then turned his attention to the people getting out of the stagecoach a few yards away. It was a small group, just Mr. Svenson returning from his father’s funeral in Denver and a little man in a tan wool serge suit and short-brimmed soft hat, carrying a black book in one hand and toting a carpetbag in the other.
Still fuming, Chris walked up to the coach.
“Any trouble on the way?” he asked the driver hopefully.
“Nope,” the man replied, tossing the mail sack down to the telegraph operator who was trying to shuffle away from his proximity to Chris.
“Mmm,” Buck murmured, sniffing the air. “Can’t miss Maude Standish’s perfume,” he pointed out to Chris. “Wonder how much a dose of mother-love is gonna cost Ezra this time?”
“Whatever it is, he better not try and take the cost out of this town,” Chris answered grimly, shifting his attention from the driver to Vin jogging down the boardwalk toward them.
“Little feller’s back,” he announced when he reached their side. “Wants to know what happened in Eagle Bend…” Frowning, Vin took a sniff of the air. “Ezra’s mother in town?”
“Mail call,” Buck explained.
“Where’s Steele?” Chris asked, rather liking the idea of having someone to kick.
“Josiah’s talkin’ to him.”
Teeth grinding together, Chris headed out for the church. Vin looked at Buck; Buck lifted his chin to where the mailman was disappearing into the saloon. Vin took himself off to shadow Chris and prevent murder if he could, and Buck crossed the street to make sure Ezra’s mother didn’t leave him naked and broke again.[i]
“Reckon he’ll be back?” Vin asked Chris, watching the stagecoach carrying Jock Steele out of town.
“Not if he knows what’s good for him,” Larabee replied with satisfaction.
Chris and Vin cranked their heads around toward the saloon at the warning cry, the diminutive pain in the neck forgotten in the reality of bodies flying out of the batwing doors. Vin had to trot to keep up with Chris, and was a step behind him when they entered the saloon. The place had gone to fist city: punches, bottles, and bodies flying everywhere. Buck was lying on the floor – on top of a redhead[ii] Tanner hadn’t seen before. Ezra was in the thick of things, gleefully laying anyone flat who came within his reach.
Pulling his gun, Chris fired off a shot over his head.
“That’s enough!” he bellowed.
Ezra obeyed with the alacrity of a Plebe, turning towards him and coming to attention.
'Waiting for orders,’ Chris realized, wincing as a burly cowboy splintered a chair to pieces across Ezra’s back, sending him crashing to the floor.
“Bet that hurt,” Vin murmured, walking past Chris to kneel beside Ezra.
‘Shit,’ Chris thought, following Vin slowly and glaring at the men shrinking back into the shadows and melting out of the saloon.
“You all right?” he heard Buck asking.
“Just fine,” the woman under him replied. Neither one of them showed any inclination to move from where they were.
“Yoo hoo – Ezra!” Vin called. “You in there, pard?”
“Sorry,” the burly man who’d sucker-punched Standish apologized to Larabee.
“Sit,” Chris ordered, using his gun barrel to point the townsman into a chair. “I’ll deal with you in a minute.” Bending down, he picked up the sheet of expensive linen stationary lying on the floor a few feet away from Ezra. He blew on it, trying to shake loose the dirt of the boot prints that had trampled the back of it. Turning it over to see what damage had been done to its front, he couldn’t help reading the words,
‘Leave your dust bowl behind, dear son, and become my partner in St. Louis’s new historic riverfront casino….’
Chris read the letter twice from beginning to end before folding it back into its thirds and looking over at Standish, sitting up now with his jacket on the floor beside him. He bent over and picked up the coat, slipping the letter into its inside pocket and silently offered it to Ezra.
(Now, go watch Serpents.)
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[i] I was fortunate enough to be given a copy of a script for “Serpents”, or as it was known then, “Temptation”. It was written by Melissa Rosenberg, Mark Haskell Smith, and Richard Keller. In the script, on page two, after Ezra says the aired line “The ante is a mere two thousand dollars”, there is a wonderful exchange of dialog that alas, did not make it to air: BUCK (shakes his head): “Seems every time you get tangled up with that mother of yours, you come out of it broke and naked…”; EZRA: “It’s true my mother has taken advantage of family ties in our past business dealings. But this is the first time she has offered me a full partnership.”
I found this lost dialog delightful, and so allude to it here, with appropriate credit.
[ii] Louisa came on a private conveyance belonging to the Governor rather than the public stage.