Disclaimer: All recognizable characters herein belong to MGM, Mirisch and Trilogy. Not mine, no money.
Whit just happened to glance up at the right time to see the stranger ride in. Straightening, he laid down his hammer, slowly took the nails from his mouth.
The man was dark. No, Whit thought as the man rode closer, he just seems dark. Black hat, long black coat, tall black horse that he sat with grace and easy authority. The man guided his mount around the crosses, uneven and scattered, that marked the simple graveyard, then urged it to a trot, heading for the town.
Whit studied the man with cautious eyes as he made his way down the dusty main street. Strangers in a town as small as Coldwater usually weren’t good news. At least the man that had arrived yesterday seemed harmless enough. This one…Whit rubbed the back of his neck, trying to get the hair to lay down flat. There’s gonna be trouble ‘fore too long, he thought, and looked back at his hammer and nails.
The sudden sound of running feet drew his gaze, and he saw young Billy Reilly sprinting down the alley next to the saloon, one hand on his hat to keep it from coming off. Whit knew just where he was off to in such a hurry; he was going to tell Jed Banks there was a stranger in town. Jed always gave the kid a coin or two for information like that.
Looking at the newcomer again, Whit saw that he had noticed Billy as well, staring in the direction the kid had run. Then, as if feeling Whit’s eyes on him, his head swiveled back. Quickly, Whit turned away to pull another cut board from the pile, and pretended to position it against the others.
All the while, though, he watched the man from the corner of his eye, waiting until he glanced away before abandoning the wood altogether.
The stranger halted his horse in front of the saloon. As he swung off, Whit’s eyes narrowed. The man’s duster had flared out slightly, revealing he wore a mighty big gun high on his right hip. The belt was black and studded with flashy silver bits that caught the eye. Whit studied the man again. Only one kind of man would have a rig like that, he thought, and figured he was looking at a wanted man, on the run from whatever law there was south of Coldwater.
With an absent pat to the horse’s neck, the stranger stepped up onto the boardwalk and pushed through the swinging doors into the saloon.
Whit hurried across the street, slowing before his feet pounded on the boardwalk, and crept up to the doors to peer over.
The man in the black coat paused just inside the swinging doors, as if appraising each man there in his own turn. He had an air about him that spoke of confidence, something that said plainer than words that he knew he had nothing to fear.
The other new feller in town – the one who’d arrived yesterday, a smooth-talking son of a bitch in a fancy red coat – looked up from the poker table at the clink of spurs as the stranger moved forward. His eyes widened slightly. When the man in black turned to look at him, the one in the red coat nodded civilly, but his hands didn’t appear too steady as he continued to deal the hand.
The black-clad man strode to the bar. “Whiskey,” he ordered, his voice low and raspy from trail dust. The barkeep served him quickly, took his coin and retreated to the far corner of the bar, well out of the way of any trouble, or so he clearly hoped.
Picking up his whiskey, the stranger twisted around so his back was to the bar, pushing his hat back a little as he did, and Whit got his first look at the man’s face. It seemed very stern, like he was a man who didn’t smile much. His eyes were crinkled at the corners from staring into the sun, and seemed… hard, somehow, or maybe steely, though the hazel color should have made Whit think of warmth. Though he leaned against the bar, not quite slouching, there was still a sense of watchfulness and waiting that gave the lie to his relaxed posture. Those hard eyes drifted back to the gambler at the poker table, but the man in the red coat avoided his gaze.
The man’s mouth twitched downward, and Whit had a moment of fear that, despite not saying anything, the gambler had somehow been mortally insulting. But the man in black finished his drink without another word and walked back out onto the boardwalk, nearly hitting Whit with one of the swinging doors. Grabbing the horse’s reins from the hitching post, he led it toward the livery, spurs chinging brightly with every step.
Almost as soon as the man had left, one of the players at the poker table leaned forward. “Mister Standish, do you know that man?”
The man addressed as Standish – the dandy in the red coat – blinked at the question. “You mean you didn’t recognize him?” The soft southern drawl grated on Whit’s nerves, but he pushed through the doors to listen more closely.
When the others at the table shook their heads, Standish sat back, closing the small fan of his cards. “Gentlemen, that is Chris Larabee.”
Whit shivered with a sudden chill.
Surprise and awe dawned on each face, and more than one neck craned toward the saloon’s entrance, as if a hint of this Larabee’s presence might be found. “Ah,” Standish continued quietly. “I see you have heard of him.”
One of the other players nodded. “Gunman. Heard he’s fast.”
“Deadly aim, too,” another muttered, tapping his cards against the table. He hadn’t torn his eyes from the doorway.
Standish grinned… and was that a gold tooth showing? “All true,” he confirmed almost happily. “But what you may not have heard is that he’s the law in a dusty little place in the road a few days south of here.”
“Is he lookin’ for you, Standish?” the first player asked, more than a little fearfully. “‘Cause he sure didn’t seem pleased to see you.”
“Mister Larabee and I have had… encounters in the past,” Standish replied, his grin widening until dimples winked in his cheeks, but Whit just couldn’t fathom the reason why that was so amusing. “However, as I’m fairly certain I didn’t get caught breaking any laws in his town, I very much doubt I’m the reason he’s here.”
Whit backed quietly out of the saloon when Standish invited the others to continue the hand already in progress. The street was empty.
Further down the street, Larabee’s tall form exited the livery. He crossed to the dry goods store, but didn’t go in, just stood casually on the boardwalk, thumbs hooked into his gunbelt, slowly glancing around. Whit didn’t look away fast enough, and felt the man’s glare hot on his face.
Calmly, as if he hadn’t just been caught staring, Whit meandered back to his workshop. If he’s the law, he thought, he’s probably here for Jed. Jed was down south a few days ago. He musta passed through this Larabee’s town. For a moment, he stared down at the wood and nails, then sighed. Like as not we’ll need this ‘fore too long. Picking up his hammer once more, he set about finishing the coffin.
After all, he reflected while he worked, twenty other lawmen have already died trying to take Jed Banks. Looks like Larabee will be number twenty-one.
Most of the people in town didn’t like having Jed Banks around. They talked under their breath, calling him trouble and a bad element and other things that his Ma told him never to repeat if’n he didn’t want a taste of soap in his mouth. But they were too scared of Jed to do anything about him.
Billy Reilly wasn’t sure he really liked Jed. Jed always seemed to have a smile for him, and he liked it when Billy came to tell him about any strangers that came to town. He usually gave Billy money when he did, especially if it was someone like the man in black.
But there were times when Jed was downright scary. When he drank too much, he liked to point his revolver at anyone in range and make pwew-pwew sounds, like he was pretending to kill them. Made a body wary. When he got angry, ‘specially at something someone else had done, he cursed them at the top of his lungs, then got real quiet and shifty-eyed, and Billy knew that Jed was just thinking of ways to get even.
Ma didn’t like him being around Jed, even though Jed gave him money. Ma had been awful worried about money since Pa was killed, though, so Billy was determined to help however he could.
He’d already described the stranger to Jed, but Jed hadn’t paid him. Instead, Jed had sent him back to find out more about the man in black, had told him he’d be paid when he knew the stranger’s name.
Jed had sounded excited, as if he already knew who the man was, and just wanted to make sure.
He trotted quickly from the boarding house and back up the alley, but as soon as he’d reached the boardwalk, Ma grabbed him by the arm. “Where have you been?” she demanded, her voice a harsh and worried whisper.
“Leggo, Ma,” he protested with all of an eleven-year-old’s sense of dignity, trying to jerk his arm away. “I gotta find out more about that man on the black horse. Jed won’t pay me until I do.”
His mother’s face went stark white, and the sight was enough to stop him from struggling. She tightened her grip on him, her fingers digging into his arm until it hurt. “Ma,” he gasped.
She shook him once. “You stay away from Jed Banks, you hear me?” she hissed. “That stranger is after him. He’s from a place called Four Corners, said he was looking for him to do with a robbery. Got a warrant from a judge and everything. He came into the dry goods store to ask Mr. Nelson about Jed.”
Billy’s eyes grew wide. Ma loosened her hold on him, but didn’t let go. “You come with me, Billy,” she said, her tone more normal, but still angry. “I’m not letting you out of my sight until… until it’s all over.” When she tugged his arm, he followed willingly, even though he knew he wouldn’t get that coin Jed had promised.
He knew what she meant, even though she didn’t want to say it. Until Jed killed the lawman.
He knew Jed would. Killing was wrong, the preacher said, and so was stealing, but that hadn’t ever stopped Jed before. Probably wouldn’t this time, either.
A shiver ran down his back, and he cast a look over his shoulder. The man in black was looking at him, eyes narrow and keen, leaning casually against one of the posts supporting the overhang that shaded the boardwalk. One corner of his mouth was curled upward. The right side of his duster was draped back to expose his gun. Confidence rolled off him in waves. So did something else, something that Billy couldn’t name beyond rightness, a sense that this man was here because he was doing what he thought was right.
He stumbled forward as Ma yanked on his arm again. Don’t seem right, he thought dazedly. Just don’t seem right for Jed to want to kill a man like that.
Dan always found comfort in taking care of the horses at the livery whenever the town got tense. And boy, were things tense now.
That feller that everyone was talking about – the one with the tall black gelding in the front stall – had really stirred things up. Dan could easily tell that the horse hadn’t been ridden hard, but his rider had still taken care of him like he had, hooves and legs checked for heat, carefully counting swallows of cool water before taking the bucket away.
Had to admire a man who took care of his horse like that.
He was brushing one of the horses in a stall further down – just a livery hack, he knew some would say, but the horse needed care like any other – when the black’s rider came back in. Dan, knowing his short form was hidden by the horse’s body, was about to step out and ask what the man wanted when Larabee pivoted quickly away from the door, keeping his back to the front wall of the livery, and pulled his gun.
What’s this now? Dan’s fingers tensed on the horse’s neck under the fall of its mane, and the horse shifted its feet, setting the straw to rustling.
A second figure appeared in the light of the livery door, gun already in hand. Oh, Lord, Dan thought, freezing at the sight, are they gonna start shootin’ in here? How the hell am I gonna get the horses out?
But unaccountably, Larabee holstered his weapon and reached out to the second man. “Ezra,” he said quietly, long before his hand touched the man’s arm.
It was the rider of that ornery chestnut gelding who had arrived late yesterday. The newcomer’s – Ezra’s – hand twitched as if he intended to bring his weapon to bear. But then something registered with him, though whether it was his name or the sound of Larabee’s voice Dan couldn’t tell, and he relaxed, lowering the gun to his side.
“Almost didn’t expect to see you in the saloon at that hour,” Larabee said, and there was a definite note of amusement in his tone.
“You were quite explicit about the time I should expect you,” Ezra replied, his words clipped, and holstered his weapon. “I was simply fulfilling my duty.”
They’re workin’ together? Without thinking about it, Dan stroked the neck of the horse, trying to ground himself. Maybe this Larabee ain’t no lawman after all. Came to the wrong town, boys, if you’re plannin’ to rob us. Ain’t even got a bank. He gave a soft, horsey-sounding snort, and continued to peer at them around the horse’s neck.
They moved away from the door, in a complicated step and slide that made Dan think of that dancer he’d seen in El Paso on his way here. Larabee now stood with his back to the stable, facing the door, while Ezra had his back to the wall, facing into the livery. It seemed to Dan that they’d done this kind of thing before, watching each other’s back while talking, and slightly off to one side, so that they wouldn’t interfere with the other’s gun hand.
“My fellow gamers had nothing but disparaging remarks about this Jed Banks,” Ezra said, and he sounded much less abrupt now, the words a slow and honeyed drawl. “Among everything else they said, I gleaned that as many as twenty other lawmen have come to bring the man to justice, but they did nothing to help any of them.”
“The townsfolk are too scared of Banks to help anyone,” Larabee replied. “Could see it when I started askin’ about him.”
“That agrees with what I’ve seen and heard as well.” He paused, as if considering his next words. “Chris, everything that was said leads me to believe Mister Banks is both vicious and a killer, and should be put down like the rabid cur he is.”
“I ‘spect the judge wouldn’t much care for havin’ a dead body at the trial,” Larabee – Chris? – said, and that dry humor was back.
Slowly, Ezra grinned until Dan could see a golden glint in his mouth. “Oh, hell. I suppose we’ll have to save the judge from such an odious and corpse-ridden event then, much as it offends my sensibilities.”
“Ezra, there’s damn little that offends your sensibilities if it ain’t about money.”
“You know me so well, Mister Larabee.” And damn if that don’t sound just like a cat purrin’, Dan thought, unable to tear his eyes away.
“Yep,” was Chris’s reply, sounding well satisfied. Then he added, “So what ain’t you sayin’?”
Even Dan could see that Chris’s question was unexpected; Ezra’s good humor slipped away as if it had never been. It took him a moment to answer. “Chris, everyone I spoke to seems to think Mister Banks is fast.”
Dan blinked, and his hand stilled on the horse’s neck. There was something about what he said – or maybe the way he said it – that made him think that there more to it than just the words.
Chris put his hand on Ezra’s shoulder and squeezed a little. “Yeah, I heard that, too. Don’t mean it’s true.”
“I know.” He was looking right at Chris, Dan realized, not even watching the rest of the stable any longer. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be, either.” His voice was steady, as was his gaze, and again, Dan had the sense that more was being said than he could hear.
Chris huffed, the sound almost a laugh. “You ain’t takin’ bets on me, are you, Ezra?”
Because Chris was still standing slightly off to one side, Dan could clearly see Ezra’s face, and the unmistakable stamp of hurt across it, just for a heartbeat, before it was wiped clean. He didn’t look away, but despite how close the two men were standing, Dan suddenly felt that there was a sudden, incredible distance between them.
Apparently Chris had seen it, too, or felt what had happened; he stiffened, then leaned forward, his hand sliding up Ezra’s shoulder to cup the line of his jaw, thumb brushing his cheek, fingers curling into his hair. “I know you’re not,” he said, his voice low and intense, like he somehow needed the other to believe him. “I was only teasin’ you.”
Dan hardly dared breathe, afraid now not just of having overheard their discussion, but having seen a hint of another, greater secret. They see me now, he thought, biting his lip, and I’m dead.
For a tense moment, there was silence, and then Ezra let out a breath. “Just for that, I ought to,” he muttered, so quietly Dan almost didn’t hear him over the rustle of hooves in straw. “You should know better.”
Chris’s head dipped in what looked like a nod. “I do,” he answered in the same tone, “an’ I’m sorry.”
Just like that, it seemed Chris was forgiven, and Ezra smiled. “If I were takin’ bets,” he drawled, “I’d probably end up with all the money there is in this dustbowl, ‘cause I’d be the only one wagering in your favor.”
Dan heard a rusty chuckle. “Good thing you’re not, then. Wouldn’t do to leave the entire town destitute.”
Ezra didn’t laugh, but his grin widened even further. “And Mister Jackson says I’m a bad influence on you.”
“You are,” Chris confirmed softly. “But I like it.” His fingers trailed along Ezra’s jaw as he pulled his hand away. “Banks has had enough time to stew, and he’ll probably call me out soon enough. Let’s go.”
Ezra took a deep breath, then nodded, standing a little straighter.
All business once more, Chris strode toward the livery door, paused there. “Watch your back, Ezra,” he said, his voice warm. Then he disappeared.
“No, Chris, I’ll watch yours,” Ezra said, very quietly, and when Dan looked away from the doorway, it was right into Ezra’s eyes, cold and hard and green as glass. He shrank back against the partition between the stalls as Ezra stalked toward him. The horse shook its head, and one of its hooves connected loudly with the stall door.
“I can’t imagine he didn’t know you were here,” Ezra said, and Dan couldn’t contain his shiver at the chill in his voice. “But I promise you this – if the merest whisper of what went on here ever arises to haunt that man, I will personally make sure you live to regret it.” With that, he spun and made his way to the door, and didn’t glance back.
Dan stepped out of the stall, brush forgotten in his off hand, and wondered whether Larabee was really the one Jed Banks ought to fear.
Jed Banks had heard of Chris Larabee before the man had ridden into Coldwater, though he hadn’t seen him while he’d been around Four Corners. Nothing of what he’d been told, however, had spoken of the sheer presence of the man. An air of utter confidence hovered around him, as if he hadn’t heard of all that Jed himself had done, how dangerous he was.
Jed hated that, was livid that someone could dismiss him as unimportant. And now he was facing that razor-sharp stare down the length of dusty street, trying to calm the way his heart pounded in his ears.
But it wasn’t fear, oh, no; it was excitement. It was the thrill of almost risking death. Only almost, though, because no one could match him on the draw. His pistol had twenty notches to prove it.
Gonna be twenty-one soon, he thought, and wondered just where he’d put Larabee’s mark. He studied the man, his narrow glare, the faint aura of tension cloaking his body, left hand holding his duster behind him, away from the big gun on his hip.
He’d heard Larabee was fast; hard to not have heard, with that fool in the red coat jawing about it. Probably just blowin’ smoke, tryin’ to make me think I got no chance. He grinned, fingers splayed above his pistol. But he’s got no chance.
The excitement peaked in him and he knew it was time. He dove for his gun, the familiar feel of the grip a caress to his hand, and pulled.
Opposite him, down the street, Larabee was a blur of black motion.
The barrel of his gun was still inside the holster when a sudden hot agony spread like fire down his arm. Unable to hold back his cry, Jed staggered backwards, then tripped over his own feet to land on his rear in the middle of the street. Almost without thought, his opposite hand lifted and clamped down on the bloody wound.
He shot me, he thought, panting a little from the pain and staring down the street at the other gunman. He fuckin’ shot me!
Larabee slipped his gun back into his holster, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and took his damn sweet time to cover the distance between him and Jed. Not a foot away, he stopped, as if surveying his handiwork. The brim of his hat threw his face into shadow.
Jed kept his teeth clenched tightly against the sounds of pain that wanted to escape, and glared up at Larabee. “You shot me,” he managed.
“Could have killed you, kid,” he replied, the words quiet but rough. “But the judge prefers folks to be alive when they go on trial.” With that, he spun back around, looking at the buildings lining the street. “There a doctor here?” he called.
All the pain in his arm disappeared for a moment, replaced by a blinding rage. Trial? he thought furiously, staring at the man’s back. Like hell! I ain’t gonna stand no trial! His gun still lay in the street just a few feet away, where it had fallen from nerveless fingers, and that was his way out of this. Just gotta shoot that son of a bitch… Somehow, he got his good hand to unclench from around the wound in his arm, and stretched it out, searching for the surety of wood and metal.
The click of a gun being cocked sounded very loud in his ear, and he froze.
“I would suggest, Mister Banks, that you release your weapon.” The voice was soft, flat and cold, almost as cold as the ring of metal that touched just behind his ear. He hesitated, just for one rapid heartbeat, and the barrel of the gun pressed harder. “I assure you, I have no compunctions against killing you… especially since you apparently see fit to shoot a man in the back.”
Slowly, Jed let go of his pistol; he hadn’t even had a chance to pick it up from the dirt. He looked up to find Larabee a few yards away, directing a truly fearsome scowl at him, then rolled his eyes, trying to get a glimpse of the man who’d foiled his plan. As if to oblige him, the man stepped around and grabbed his arm, kicking his gun out of reach as he did. He wore a brilliant red coat, just like…
Jed felt his jaw drop. The gambler? That dandified ass got the drop on me?
“I don’t believe you’re so injured you can’t stand,” the gambler said, and hauled him upright; Jed groaned as the movement jarred his injury. “Mister Larabee,” and suddenly, the man’s voice held warmth. “Your prisoner awaits.”
“Thank you, Ezra.” Larabee grinned; it was a feral thing, like a wolf’s when it scents its prey, and Jed suddenly realized that the man was much more dangerous than he had thought.
Not only that, he had friends.
No more than an hour after the shoot-out, and they were already riding southward, their prisoner a sullen presence behind them, hands bound. Chris held the reins for Banks’s horse, towing him along.
He glanced to his left, though he didn’t need to look to know Ezra was there.
“A week wasted,” Ezra said with a sigh. “And there wasn’t even a decent game to be had.”
Chris said nothing. Sometimes, he thought, carefully making sure his lips didn’t twitch, it’s just best to let him get it all out.
It had, of course, been Ezra’s plan to begin with – to go into Coldwater, pick up some information on Banks, and then, after Chris’s arrival, talk about how fast Chris was on the draw. He had been hoping that the word would get back to Banks and unnerve him. But even though it had been his idea, he had clearly not liked that so much had hinged on Chris being in danger, especially if Banks had not backed down.
And if he slept a wink last night, I’ll walk back to Four Corners. Chris snuck another look at Ezra through narrowed eyes. Ezra had been in the saloon waiting for him, just as they had agreed. He hadn’t been surprised to find him there, even though he’d hinted otherwise in the livery. But it was Ezra’s reaction to his teasing that told the tale, more so than the circles under his eyes. Gets touchy like that when he ain’t slept. Shoulda known better than to say anything about takin’ bets. He hadn’t meant anything by it, not seriously, but he knew that Ezra had seen it as a lack of trust.
That, in a way, was why he’d turned his back on Banks. He’d known the criminal would go for his gun, just as he’d known Ezra would be there to watch his back. Guess there’ll be some words on that, anyway, he thought a little grimly. Probably deserve ‘em, too. After a moment, he brightened in anticipation of what might happen when the shouting was over.
“… forsaken town. And it’ll be nearly another three days before we arrive home. I can’t begin to contemplate my losses.” Another forlorn sigh, but Chris reckoned it was more for dramatic effect than anything else.
All of his instincts said now was the time to speak. He gave Ezra a slow smile, and quietly offered, “I’ll make it up to you.”
And he got what he wanted; that charming rogue’s grin, dimples and all. Ezra urged his mount closer, until their knees nearly touched as they rode. Then he reached down to take the reins for Banks’s horse, sliding his fingers against Chris’s as he did.
Chris shivered a little at the caress, hidden in plain sight as it was from their prisoner.
“You will indeed,” Ezra replied so softly Chris could barely hear him over the beat of hooves on the hard ground. Then he tugged the leather free of Chris’s suddenly slack fingers and urged his horse ahead, ignoring Banks’s yelp of protest at the sudden change in pace.
Ezra’s eyes were full of humor when he looked back at Chris over his shoulder, and Chris couldn’t contain his grin. At the touch of his spurs, his horse surged forward, and they began their odd race for home.
July 17, 2010
© randi (K. Shepard), 2010