No good deed goes unpunished.
With thanks and apologies to Walter Mirisch, John Watson, Trilogy Productions, CBS, and Warren Zevon, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission...
It's none of my business
Maybe you simply criticized
How you gonna pay for
THE SIN ~ Warren Zevon
Such days did not come often to Four Corners, but the crossroads was at the end of a long, wearing week of them. A hot dry desert wind blowing down out of the malpais had scoured people's nerves as raw as the clapboard buildings, sparked static electricity that shocked the unwary with every touch of metal to metal, and drove gritty dust into everything ... buildings, clothing, gun barrels, eyes.
The seven men who watched over the town were not spared the edginess blown in on that unrelenting wind. The saloon was no longer a cool, dark haven in which to while away a summer afternoon, but a watering hole where wild animals maintained a grudging, uneasy truce. Most patrons kept one hand on their drink and the other near their gun, and the bartender found himself wishing he was in another line of work. But it was more than the hot wind and the driving dust that fueled Chris Larabee's foul mood as he stood on the boardwalk and watched Ezra Standish hand Mary Travis up into the Butterfield stagecoach. He did not miss the small smile and the squeeze of the hand that the gentleman in the burgundy coat received before he closed the stage door and latched it tight.
The widow was travelling to her in-laws' for a few days, ostensibly to spend time with her son Billy, but also to get away from memories for a while. The anniversary of her husband's death was a difficult time for Mary her red-rimmed eyes and her less-than-perfect hair betrayed what her determined composure tried to conceal. Chris Larabee was well aware of the date, and had been avoiding Mary because of it. The pain in her eyes made him far too mindful of his own ... it made the devils whisper harsh words in his brain and, worse, sometimes made him speak those words out loud.
"Your friend Buck told me you lost your wife and son in an accident. I lost my husband. I know something of what you've been through."
"No, ma'am. You don't."
She did, of course. Chris knew it. But the devils whispered nonetheless....
Watching Ezra Standish heft Mary's bag up into the boot of the stage, Chris' guilt was overcome by a simpler emotion, one with which he was far more intimate, almost comfortable with after all this time ... anger.
As the coach passed, Mary glanced up and, by chance, met Chris' eyes. Taken by surprise at the emotion in her gaze, he returned her look with a cold stare, a cover for his embarrassment at being caught watching. Mary cast her own eyes down and the cloud of dust thrown up by iron-shod wheels filled the widening distance between them as the stage headed off down the road out of town.
Chris' carefully casual posture did nothing to hide his agitation from the two men who walked up behind him. Buck stepped forward to put a hand on the black-clad shoulder, but Vin stopped him with a tight-lipped expression and a shake of his head. Wordlessly Buck acknowledged the tracker's wisdom, and the two instead disappeared together into the dark of the saloon, leaving Larabee standing alone on the boardwalk. Chris' jaw worked as the bar doors' hinges creaked, aware without having seen it of Buck's advance and the pair's retreat. Just as well ... his knuckles were white inside his leather gloves, and he wasn't altogether sure he wouldn't have taken a swing at his friend.
The hinges on the saloon door continued to complain after Buck and Vin pushed through them, as the wind teased them in and out in small arcs. The two men blinked in the dimness before spying Josiah, Nathan and JD; their boots raised a low haze of dust as they walked over to their friends' table. JD had his leg up on an extra chair, nursing a bruise on his shin from the hoof a cranky horse. His pride had been wounded as well, as the faint smell from his dungarees bore witness to where the kick had landed him. He and Nathan were watching Josiah worry a splinter out of his knuckle with the tip of his long knife. Josiah looked up from his task to peer from beneath his prominent brow at the newcomer. Seeing Buck's face, the corner of the preacher's mouth quirked into a bitter grin.
"I'd steer clear of Chris for a day or two, if I were you," he said.
"Yeah, well, you ain't me," Buck shot back. "If we don't do somethin', he's gonna climb into the bottle until she gets back."
"If that's where he's comfortable, then leave him be," Vin said softly. "He'll be this way as long as she's gone." Neither Buck nor Vin mentioned a name, but all five men knew who they meant. Josiah nodded and turned his attention back to the stubborn sliver of wood.
"Hey, can we get some beers over here?" Surprised at the harshness of the demand from normally easy-going Buck Wilmington, the barkeep hurried over with five foaming mugs. He placed them carefully on the table, collected those emptied by the three earlier arrivals, and retreated. Buck took a long pull at his glass and looked back over his shoulder at the saloon doors. But it was Ezra Standish who made the hinges groan next as he entered the darkened room. Buck scowled, and turned back to his beer. "Jeezus! Josiah, can't you do somethin' about them goddamn doors?"
"I repair God's house in penance for the sins I commit here, Buck. It don't work in reverse. Hey, Ezra, come on over," he invited.
The gambler removed his black Stetson and regarded it unhappily ... a gentle tapping against his shirt sleeve threw a small cloud into the air where it swirled gracefully in a shaft of sunlight. He hung the hat carefully on the pegged board by the door, shook his head in decline, and instead took a seat at the card table in the far corner. The bartender brought him a full glass and Ezra emptied it in a single swallow, set it on the table and said softly, "Bring the bottle back with you." He ignored the men he had just snubbed.
"Well hell, ain't we good enough to sit with?" Buck growled.
"Guess not," muttered Vin, turning his back on the gambler.
"Get the burr out from under your saddle blanket, Buck," murmured Josiah.
"Leave him be," said the big man, fixing firm blue eyes on Buck. "Chris Larabee ain't the only man who has ghosts. Ezra shows us the courtesy of keeping his to himself most of the time ... when they do insist on coming to call, let him deal with them alone."
"Ezra?" muttered Vin derisively. "He's lived the good life ... gamin for a living, no responsibilities ... nothin to worry about but one of his swindled marks catchin' up with him."
"Walked a mile in his moccasins, have you, Vin?" questioned Josiah. The tone of his voice made it clear that he thought Vin had not.
"Don't have to," Tanner shot back. "I've known a hundred men like him. He'll light out of here one of these days ... he's done it before. When the pickin's at the tables get slim and his fancy duds start wearin' out, he'll disappear. We'll be lucky if it ain't right before a big dust-up."
Josiah's mouth twitched into a hint of a humorless grin, and he turned his attention back to his wounded knuckle.
The saloon doors groaned again. Chris Larabee walked into the bar and stopped just inside the door, scanning the room.
"Chris," said Josiah, nodding. "Join us?"
Ignoring the preacher, Chris walked to the bar and took a stance at the end closest to the table at which Standish was keeping company with his bottle.
The gambler seemed not to hear him, instead focusing his full attention on pouring a fresh drink. The bottle recorked, he lifted the glass and regarded its translucent contents with humorless eyes.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?" he said finally.
The man in black was blunt. "You were with Mrs. Travis at the stage."
"Indeed." Ezra emptied his glass and refilled it with studied care.
"Why, sir, do you ask?"
"Answer me. Why were you seeing her off?"
"I think a more pertinent question might be, why weren't you?"
"That ain't your business."
"You seem to think that my business is open to inquiry," replied Ezra dryly. "But I'll answer your question, Mr. Larabee. Mrs. Travis lives alone, and as no other 'gentleman' in town had offered to assist her," his southern drawl wrapped itself around the word 'gentleman,' and for the first time he looked up and fixed his eyes on Chris, "I put myself at her service. And, being the lady that she is, she kindly overlooked the fact that I am no gentleman myself, and graciously accepted my help." Ezra lifted his glass and drained another drink.
"You got something to say to me, just say it," growled the man in black. But the man in burgundy turned his attention to his empty glass, turning the bottle upside down over it to drain the last drop. "Barkeep," he called, "I've a dead soldier here. Please send another forward from the ranks."
With a worried look at Larabee, the barkeep placed a fresh bottle in front of the gambler and retreated hastily behind the bar. Ezra lifted the bottle, but seemed suddenly transfixed by the sight of the big turquoise ring on his right index finger. He stared at it, but his eyes seemed to be looking at something far away. Finally he spoke.
"I've known many women in my lifetime, Mr. Larabee." His tone was pleasant, but distant. "But I've only had the pleasure of knowing a few women like Mrs. Travis."
"Don't doubt that."
"I daresay it's a rare privilege, Mr. Larabee, whether we are respected members of society or tread the lesser boulevards of this life," drawled Ezra, pouring himself another glass. "There are very few women like her. Their civility is their misfortune ... too proud to ask for help when they need it, too well-bred to tell a man that he's the one they want that help from. And so they suffer as lesser women never would, struggling along on their own. Do you know what all too often happens to women like that, Mr. Larabee?"
"No." The tone of Chris' reply made it clear that Ezra was not being invited to explain. The five men sitting nearby watched as men without weapons might watch a rattler coiling in the road, powerless to prevent its strike.
"I can tell you what happened to a few that I've known," Ezra continued. "One of them was a rancher's wife. After her husband died, she tried to keep running the place on her own. A neighbor found her dead one afternoon ... it seems she'd been trying to chop her own firewood. Did you know that Mrs. Travis often chops her own firewood, Mr. Larabee? You probably didn't ... at any rate, this lady was a slender woman, sir, not unlike Mrs. Travis, and the axe was difficult for her to handle. It slipped and hit her leg. She bled to death, alone, there in her own backyard."
Chris turned away, but Ezra continued to speak in a quiet, detached voice.
"Then there was the wife of a man I used to turn a card with, now and then, back in St. Louis. Of course, he was a successful businessman, not a member of my profession. But he treated me with respect nonetheless, and I dealt with him in kind. He often invited me to his home, and his wife welcomed me there. When he died of the influenza, she took over the business. One night she stayed late in the office to go over the books ... in the morning, neighbors found the place rifled. She was never seen again."
"Another delightful woman of my acquaintance, a widow I knew in Charleston, was beaten to death by--"
"Goddammit!" Chris reached out, grabbed Ezra by the lapels of his coat and dragged him from his chair. "What's your point? Mary ... Mrs. Travis will never come to harm as long as I'm in this town."
Blue eyes met green eyes, cold and hard. "A woman like that needs more from a man than his gun, Mr. Larabee. Unfortunately, you're too damned yellow to offer her anything else."
It was over before the others could get to their feet and stop it, mostly because Ezra did not resist but simply surrendered himself to Larabee's rage with an apathy that went unnoticed by his assailant. Nathan held JD in his chair while Buck and Vin leapt at Chris, grabbing his arms and pulling him back. But blind fury had already done its damage.
Chris stood, chest heaving and fists still clenched tight, looking down at the man sprawled on the floor at his feet. Without a word, Josiah crossed the room in measured steps, tension visible in his big frame. He stalked past Chris, close enough for the breeze of his passing to cool the sweat on the dazed man's face; kneeling, he reached out and gathered up the limp and bloodied gambler as gently as if he were a sleeping child. Ezra groaned softly, and Josiah settled the weight of the semi-conscious man more easily in his arms, then stood and faced Chris.
"Sometimes, tellin' the truth will buy a man just as much trouble as tellin' a lie will. Happened to Mrs. Travis' husband. I'll wager it's not a common experience for Ezra." The big man spoke softly, but the edge in his voice was clear.
He looked across the room and met Nathan's eyes. After a moment's hesitation, the healer left JD at the table to follow behind as Josiah carried Ezra Standish from the saloon.
Silence settled with the dust around the four men left behind.
Ezra woke to the sound of water splashing in a basin. It was a pleasant sound ... cool and soothing. He concentrated on it, trying to ignore the less pleasant sensations that were overwhelming his slow return to consciousness.
"He's waking up." Nathan's voice sounded far away.
"You go on and get some dinner, Nathan," murmured Josiah. "I'll sit with him a while."
Ezra felt a cool cloth on his forehead. It hurt ... that didn't make sense ... then a pungent scent invaded his nostrils, and he snorted. That hurt too. He tried to protest.
"Tell Nathan to keep ... his noxious weeds ... out of my ... washbasin."
Josiah's quiet laughter rumbled in Ezra's sore ears. "Glad to have you back with us."
"Have I ... been away?" Ezra couldn't figure out why his eyes wouldn't open. He tried to sit up, but changed his mind immediately and fell back with a low groan.
"Be still. You've been foolish enough for one day," chided Josiah.
"I thought ... I was being ... gallant," Ezra protested through swollen lips.
"Same thing, a lot of the time," Josiah said, with a touch of humor in his voice. "Gallantry has many rewards, some in heaven, some on earth. You got the usual earthly ones. Whatever made you think Chris would take kindly to your advice?"
"I regret to admit ... that my bottle ... was doing my thinking ... for me."
"So I thought. Be still, I said.... You know, in my experience, the bottle may occasionally do the talking, but it rarely does the thinking. What was that all about, Ezra?"
The patient groaned again as herb-infused water was sponged onto his bruised jaw. It stung, and the fragrance made Ezra dizzy. "No good deed ... goes unpunished," he murmured.
If Josiah replied, Ezra did not hear him.
When he woke the second time, Ezra found he was able to open his eyes, but he still could not see. After a moment of panic, he realized that night had fallen, and relaxed.
In a corner of the room, the subtle clink of metal ... instinctively, Ezra reached out to slap his right wrist. But his Derringer was not there, and the movement cost him an inadvertent yelp of pain.
"Easy," said a low voice. "Just me."
Chris Larabee. If Ezra's blackened eyes had felt better, he would have narrowed them. He said nothing. An uncomfortable silence settled around the two men ... after a while, it began to feel heavy to Ezra, as if it were physically pressing down on him, making it hard to breathe, causing his bruised ribs to ache. He was almost relieved when Larabee spoke again.
"How you doin'?"
"I don't mean to disparage Mr. Jackson's skills, but I've felt better," the gambler replied.
Silence settled in once more. After a moment, Ezra heard the chair scrape on the floorboards as the visitor got to his feet.
The spurs clinked again, the door to Nathan's room opened and closed, and Ezra was left alone in the dark.
Even after ten days, the cuts on his lower lip still stung in protest. But Ezra had concluded that coffee without chicory was not to be settled for, and stubbornly took another sip. One of the five men sitting with him in the row of chairs outside the saloon wrinkled his nose.
"That stuff stinks, Ezra," complained Buck. "I don't know how you can drink it."
"Ever tried it, Buck?" asked Nathan, taking a deep whiff of his own fragrant mug. "Mighty fine on a cold mornin'."
"Well, it ain't cold, and it's damn near ten o'clock ... that's only barely still mornin'. I'm gonna go get a beer, myself."
"I'll join you, Buck," said Vin. The two of them stood and stretched, and Nathan rose with them. JD, ever Buck's shadow, got up from the boardwalk steps. "You comin', Josiah?" asked the boy.
"Perhaps later," replied the preacher. "I think I'll wait around for the stage." He looked expectantly down the street.
The jingle of harness and the rumble of wagon wheels preceded the coach as it rounded the corner and approached the hotel, drawing up with a squeal of the handbrake. Buck settled his hand casually on his gunbelt. "You expectin' trouble?" he asked.
"No," replied Josiah, smiling. "I'm expecting ... a miracle."
Buck snorted, but Vin elbowed him in the ribs and tilted his head, directing Wilmington's attention to the other side of the street. "Holy cow," breathed JD.
Down the boardwalk walked Chris Larabee. His boots were polished, his spurs were shining, and his hat was newly brushed. A black string tie was neatly knotted at the throat of a spotless brown shirt, and his black duster was nowhere to be seen. In one hand he carried a bouquet of wildflowers.
The coachman tied the reins to the armrest of the driver's seat and climbed down, patting one of the blowing horses on its lathered flank before rounding the stage and opening the door. Mary Travis, looking windblown and weary, blinked in the harsh sunlight, then blinked again when she saw the man waiting to greet her.
A strong hand reached out to help her down from the stage, and the flowers were offered with a few murmured words that the six men watching from across the street couldn't make out. Neither could they hear the reply, but the glow that burned the weariness from Mary's face spoke volumes. Chris extended his arm almost shyly, and after a moment Mary slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. Digging in his pocket, Chris flipped a coin at the stage driver and spoke a few words. The man smiled and nodded, then started pulling Mary's luggage from the stage boot.
Arm and arm, Chris Larabee and Mary Travis walked off down the boardwalk together.
"'... and some have entertained angels without knowing it.' Hebrews 13:2," murmured Josiah, looking pointedly at Ezra.
The others didn't notice. After a moment of shocked silence, Buck let out a whoop. "Well, this calls for a drink!" He clapped JD on the back so hard that the young man nearly tumbled off the boardwalk. "Hell, it calls for a lot of drinks! On me!"
"You've got no money, Buck," Vin reminded him.
"Don't matter. We'll put it on Chris' account!" laughed Buck. "Come on, friends!" He ushered Vin, Nathan and JD through the saloon doors.
Josiah stood and looked down at Ezra, still sipping his coffee in silence. He placed a broad hand on the gambler's brocade-clad shoulder. "You've made two people very happy, my friend," he said softly.
After a moment, Ezra nodded. Pouring the remains of his coffee out onto the dusty boards, he got stiffly to his feet and looked after the couple walking arm in arm down the street.
"Well, Josiah, I guess two out of three isn't bad," he said, and walked slowly in the opposite direction, toward the hotel, alone.
~ 30 ~