By Jeanne Marie
Laughter echoed through the clearing as three of the legendary Seven took a much needed break from the trail. As soon as the lake came into view Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner took off at a run. Within seconds they were stripped down and trying to see who could dunk the other first. Ezra Standish, on the other hand, settled himself on the ground for a short nap, using his saddlebags as a pillow.
Three days of hard riding with another day and a half to go had left them covered in dust, baked by the sun, and near the point where they forgot they were friends. Someone had to pick up the prisoner Julestown had languishing in its jail, however, and so they went, with only a modicum of grumbling.
Judge Travis had sent a telegram from Bitter Creek telling them of Martin Cole, who had been caught in Julestown on suspicion of murder, a murder which occurred in Eagle Bend. Sheriff Bernard Stains, the onerous individual who masqueraded as the law in Eagle Bend, couldn't leave his town unprotected for over a week, so the task had fallen to the regulators of Four Corners. The sheer length of the trip had spurned Chris to send three men instead of the usual one or two, and the tracker, the womanizer, and the gambler had drawn the short straws.
"Remember any prayers, Tanner?" Buck asked, winding an arm around Vin's neck.
"One or two," Vin gasped, clawing at the offending extremity in an attempt to get free. "Why?"
"I'd say 'em now, boy." Buck fell backward into the water, taking Vin with him.
Vin came to the surface sputtering and rubbing his eyes. "Bastard."
"Yes, I am," Buck admitted with a wink and a splash. "Why don't you get in on the action, Standish?"
Ezra sat up and squinted at Buck. "Simple numbers, my friend."
"Numbers?" Vin asked.
"Such as three, the number of days it has been since we have used a real privy, or five, the hours we have ridden nonstop since our morning repast. The most important of them all is thirty, the number of minutes you gentlemen have been cavorting in that body of water, and I don't recall anyone stopping to answer nature's summons before getting in."
Vin and Buck looked at each other curiously then glared at Ezra. "We didn't piss in the lake, Ez!"
"Y'all sound so convincing," Ezra replied with a chuckle. "Nevertheless, I am content to remain exactly where I am."
It was a hard twenty-seven hours between the trio's little sojourn at the lake and its arrival at Julestown. Without having to say a word to one another, the men left their horses at the livery and trudged along to the nearest saloon. That murdering Martin Cole could damn well wait one more day.
"Barkeep," Ezra croaked, "Whisky: one bottle, three glasses."
"Two bottles!" Vin interjected hoarsely.
"Three!" Buck shouted. "Forget the glasses!"
Ezra paid the amused bartender, grabbed the whisky bottles, and joined his friends at a table against the wall. "To your health, gentlemen," he offered, raising his own bottle. Then he shrugged philosophically, seeing that the gentlemen in question were already drinking.
The initially sour-looking strangers were in high spirits, trading good-natured insults when Andrew Shimkus and Billy-Don Moulder approached their table. By that time, each of the three men had been mellowed by several shots of whisky.
Billy-Don cleared his throat and pointed to a fortyish, thick-waisted saloon girl hanging around the bar. "Had a talk with Irmalene over there; she claims to know you boys."
"She ain't lying," Vin answered as Buck grinned. Wilmington had met the woman a time or two when she'd been plying her trade in Ridge City.
"She says y'all are the law in Four Corners," Andrew said, eyeing the group with undisguised hope. "Is that true?"
"Sure is," Buck replied enthusiastically, placing his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "In fact, this here's the sheriff!"
Ezra snorted derisively. "How very droll, Mr. Wilmington," he muttered under his breath.
The three lawmen shared a moment of amusement, not noticing the eager smiles on the locals' faces.
"That--that's perfect," Andrew declared.
"What is?" Ezra asked, glaring at Buck.
Billy-Don stooped down to meet Ezra's eyes. "We need your help, Sheriff."
As Ezra's anxiety grew, Shimkus and Moulder sat down at the table and laid out their situation. It seemed the man they paid to keep the peace had fled several days before, having been scared off by the prisoner.
"Cole claims his family won't let him hang, and he says they know where he is," Andrew said quietly, casting his gaze over his shoulder to check for anyone listening in. "He kept tellin' Sheriff Hicks what they'd do to the man who locked him up and Josh just couldn't take it. He was jumping at shadows for a week afore he decided it wasn't worth dying over."
"How do you know all this?" Ezra asked skeptically.
"We're deputies," Billy-Don explained. "Between the two of us and my brother Pete, we've been keeping an eye on Cole. Luckily nothing's happened so far."
"What's the problem?" Buck asked. "We're taking Cole with us tomorrow. You should be fine once he's gone."
"But who's to say his people will be informed enough to know not to come here raising Cain?" Ezra countered.
"And if'n they do know..." Vin's voice trailed off. "How many did Cole say'd come for him?"
"I've met his four brothers," Billy-Don offered.
Buck raised an eyebrow. "Have you now?"
Billy-Don nodded. "The family had a ranch nearby, but they went broke and left years ago...Anyway, them four plus Isaac--the father--and his two brothers, that makes seven."
Vin looked at Ezra. "A bit more'n I'd like to meet out on the trail, pard."
"I concur," Ezra replied thoughtfully. "Merely leaving with the prisoner as we had planned is not an option, nor is taking these men with us on our journey. The reprobates might choose to visit their wrath on the town whether their brother is contained herein or not."
Buck glanced at his friends, trusting them to be better at strategy than he, especially following half a bottle of red-eye. He knew they needed to concentrate and that they wouldn't appreciate any intrusive questions from someone who admittedly had nothing to contribute. After a full minute of silence, however, he exploded. "What are we gonna do?"
"Patience, Buck," Ezra soothed. He turned to the deputies. "How well does the Cole family know the current citizenry of this town?"
"Not a one of them has shown his face here in close to ten years," Andrew replied. "Until Marty, that is. Hicks himself had only been in town for two."
Vin cocked his head at Ezra, who sighed before he could stop himself.
"You got an idea, gambler?"
"Fortunately, yes, Mr. Tanner. I only hope that after four days of eating dust we are all up to performing in public."
Pete Moulder leaned heavily on the desk and rubbed his face tiredly. Cole's threats had only gotten more graphic with Josh Hicks' departure. Once the man knew his efforts had scared one of them off, he began working twice as hard on the remaining three. He enjoyed detailing what each member of his family would do.
"Robby, now that boy is even scarier than me," the prisoner crooned. "After he's done with ya, nobody'll be able to tell you even were a man, much less which one. Prob'ly won't leave enough to fit in a cigar box, neither. I seen him work on this whore in Lobo County..."
Pete shuddered and began to hum the first song that came to mind, "Greensleeves".
Ten minutes later, the door to the jail opened with a bang, shattering the tentative sense of calm he'd created. Pete drew his Navy Colt and pointed it in the direction of the disturbance while Cole eagerly jumped to his cell door.
"Just me, Pete." Billy-Don stepped into the jail, dragging a tall, mustached man by the collar.
The two previous occupants of the jail both sat down heavily, one in relief, the other in dejection.
"Who in the Hell's that?" Pete asked as Billy-Don shoved the other man into the cell next to Cole.
"Caught the rat bastard trying to cheat folks in Merle's saloon," Billy-Don explained, making a big show of locking the cell door. "Rather than run him outta town, Andy and me thought it'd be more fun if we kept him here and sent out a few wires, see if he's wanted anywheres."
Pete nodded agreeably, until he noticed that Billy-Don was using the key to his trunk at home.
Billy-Don responded to Pete's wide-eyed stare with a wink that only Pete could see. "Why don't you get on outta here, little brother? Andy's got a whisky waiting for ya back at Merle's. I can watch these two desperadoes."
"Ya *sure*, BD?" Pete gulped.
"Go on, Petey." Billy-Don opened the door and physically pushed his brother out of the jail. "We'll be just fine."
The next day passed quite uneventfully as Buck distracted Cole with stories of his expertise with cards and women and Vin and Ezra helped Shimkus and the Moulder brothers stand guard over the town.
Midnight saw them both at the lobby of the Julestown Hotel with Pete and Billy-Don.
Vin scratched his head, took a long pull from Ezra's flask, and passed it on to Pete. "Maybe the Coles ain't done nothing yet 'cause they been waiting to catch us leavin' town."
"But how would they know when?" Billy-Don asked. "Might have a couple spies around town."
"I wouldn't put it past the murdering sons-a-bitches," Pete admitted.
Ezra leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I believe it's time we implemented the second phase of the plan."
At ten am, Ezra, Vin, and Billy-Don stood in front of the general store facing the late morning traffic down Main street.
"Go ahead, pard," Vin said, giving Ezra a slight shove. "News won't announce itself."
Ezra coughed politely and adjusted his posture. "Good people of Julestown, I have need of your help," he shouted, stopping a good portion of the passersby.
The crowd rumbled inquisitively, which Ezra decided to take as a good sign. "I am Edward Simpson, the sheriff of Eagle Bend--the location of Martin Cole's most heinous act of murder--and this young man here," Ezra gestured towards Vin, "Is Victor Jacks, my deputy. We have just received word that Circuit Judge Travis has decided to hold the hang-" Ezra smiled innocently and blushed. "-I mean trial--here and is en route."
Those in attendance whistled and roared their approval. "Justice for my wronged towns-person will wait no longer," the southerner announced proudly.
Nearly deafened by the shouting and applause, Vin had to bite his lip to keep from smiling as Ezra instructed the men in the crowd on how to become a prospective juror. When he looked at Billy-Don, he could see that he wasn't alone in his amusement.
"Nice slip there," Billy-Don remarked after he and Vin stepped away from the group. "Your friend sure knows how to get his point across."
"That's our Ez," Vin said laconically. "Ain't no man better at riling folks up either side of the Mississippi."
Billy-Don ran a hand through his hair and kicked a stone on the ground. "So now what?"
"With me and Ezra added to the pot, we keep shifts. Two at the jail, and two keeping lookout." Vin paused to spit. "'Side from that, all we can do is wait."
Ezra dealt himself a fourteenth game of solitaire as he heard a knock at the jail door. "Most likely our late dinner from the restaurant," he informed Pete. "But do check at the window first."
The deputy nodded and did as he was told. "I see a yellow dress," he said. "It must be Etta with our food."
Pete opened the door and was bludgeoned on the head by an intruder.
"Teach you to imprison my boy!" the assailant shouted, ripping off the dress to reveal the heavily armed man underneath. He was completely absorbed in spraying Ezra's corner with bullets.
Seeing his opportunity, Buck ran out of his cell and tackled the man, slamming his head against the edge of the desk. Daddy Cole went limp as a rag doll.
"Ezra? Ez, you all right?"
The silence was broken by a vehement but low-pitched string of curses.
Buck circled around to his friend's position and grimaced. "Hoowee! That has *got* to hurt, pard!" Ezra had been hit twice in the right leg as he'd leapt for cover, in the ankle and the shin.
"Do you...really...think so?" Ezra's eyes shot pure green fire.
Buck plastered an uneasy smile on his face and tugged at his shirt-sleeves until they came off at the seams. "Bad guy in ladies' clothes, huh? I done seen it all now."
Ezra stoically kept his Remington trained on Martin as Buck tied each cloth around his leg.
"Pa?" Martin called loudly to his father's still form for several moments before the evidence finally added up in his mind. "I am gonna enjoy watchin' you die, lawdog!"
"I'd keep my mouth shut if I were you, Cole," Buck advised, walking over to look out the door. "Your people ain't won yet."
"Do you see anything?" Ezra asked.
"They're right outside." Buck kept the door open a crack. "Coles, give up now! Your father's dead and your brother's got two guns on him!"
He shut the door and dropped to his knees as gunfire erupted in the street.
Across the street, on the third floor of the boardinghouse, Vin grabbed his rifle and fired a warning shot out the window. The sound of shots from the general store told him that Andy was in position as well. Without any moonlight, visibility was almost zero, but he could see a dark shape headed straight for the jail. Once the shape reached the building, the lights from inside showed that it was Billy-Don. Vin took out the form that aimed at the deputy, allowing him to get in the door. A man shot at Vin from behind a wagon and was hit by one of Andy's bullets.
Vin wrinkled his brow and shot at a man stalking outside the general store. Two for him, one inside the jail, and one for Andy meant there were still three left. Vin's windowsill splintered from the outside, giving away the other shooter's position. Cover fire from Andy allowed Vin to pick his target off without too much trouble.
To the men in the jail the shooting seemed to have stopped. Buck glanced at Ezra, who was gamely keeping Martin covered, and Billy-Don, who was trying to rouse his brother. They hadn't heard anything from Andy or Vin since before the fire-fight started. "I need to check outside, boys," Buck announced. "This might not be over."
"Good idea," Billy-Don said.
Ezra took a deep breath and nodded at Buck. "Be careful, my friend."
"Same goes for you, fancy pants." Buck crouched down on the ground and crawled out the door on all fours.
Isaac Cole, father of Charlie, Robby, Martin, John and Floyd and brother of Bart and Damon, opened his dark eyes a slit and turned his head fractionally. He'd heard the tall one who'd taken him out tell his family that he was dead. Martin, still locked in the cell, was being watched by the lawman in gambler's clothes. Isaac moved again to make sure that no one was paying attention.
No one was, he found. There were two men against the wall, but one was out cold and the other was busy trying to bring him around. As for the gambler, he was growing paler by the second from the holes Isaac had kindly given him. The time was more than right.
A feral roar came from Ezra's left side, causing him to tear his gaze away from the prisoner. The late Mr. Cole, senior was somehow charging straight at him. Without thinking, Ezra shakily brought his Remington up and fired six times in rapid succession.
Isaac Cole fell to the floor mere millimeters from his goal.
"Ezra?" Billy-Don croaked.
Ezra leaned painfully forward and grasped the elder Cole's wrist. "Not to worry, Mr. Moulder," he said. "The man is now well and truly dead."
Not blaming Billy-Don in the least for his skepticism, Ezra smiled reassuringly. "You have my word as a gentleman, sir."
Charlie Cole stared at the bodies of his brothers and uncles on the ground. He knew his father was dead, Marty was still locked up and under armed guard, and he and Robby were the only ones left. Charlie chanced bringing his head out from under the cover of the water barrel to spy Robby emerging from behind a wagon.
"I ain't dying just 'cause he's too crazy to know when to quit," Charlie muttered to himself, stealthily making his way to the saloon where he'd hitched his horse. The animal had miraculously survived the battle unscathed. "Just get me outta here, Star."
The mare snuffled at her owner almost in agreement and broke into a run.
Vin turned around just in time for the last remaining Cole to bring a bowie knife to his throat. He'd been so distracted by the man fleeing the town that he hadn't even heard anyone approach. Vin dropped the rifle.
"Smart man," Cole remarked with a smile that made Vin's skin crawl. The outlaw picked up the rifle.
Before Vin could even open his mouth, Cole hit him over the head with his own gun and tipped his dazed body out the window. Vin's right foot hit the ground first and he could feel his leg twist underneath him as he landed.
When his world had color again, he could see his attacker hanging his head out of the window and grinning like mad. "Ha! Thought I'd turned tail like my lily-livered brother Charlie? Robby Cole never runs!"
A gunshot from Andy silenced Robby for good and the next thing Vin knew, Buck was kneeling over him, his bushy head only a few inches from Vin's face.
"Dad-blamed mudsill! You just had to go and break your leg, didn't ya?"
"Where's Ez," Vin grated out, turning his head to look across the street at the jail. "He get hit?"
"Yeah, but don't worry none." To Vin's relief, Buck's grin was completely genuine, though slightly strained. "They didn't hit nothing vital, he's not even bleeding too bad. He'll just be damn useless for a while--just like you."
"S'good." Vin closed his eyes, too worn out to rise to Buck's bait.
"Hey, you didn't hear how Cole's pa got into the jail."
Vin shook his head silently, wondering dizzily why Buck sounded so amused.
"Well, let me tell you, I *never* seen its like before..."
The town hadn't been happy to learn that there would in fact be no trial held within their limits, but they had adjusted when Ezra had explained the integral role they had played in the demise of the murdering Cole family.
Buck climbed into the wagon and nodded at the deputies. They were already almost two weeks behind schedule and going by wagon would double their travel time. The thought of how pissed Bernie Stains was likely to be when they finally arrived and the fact that he was the only ambulatory member of the group besides Cole kept Buck in a moderately bad mood. Looming before him was a week of doing all the hunting, the driving, and probably the cooking and cleaning as well. "Say good-bye, gimps."
Ezra waved his farewells and frowned. "I thought we managed quite well, regardless. Didn't you, Vin?"
"Oh sure," Vin replied, stretching his good leg out in front of him. "What do you think, Cole?"
"You bastards will burn in Hell!" Cole shouted, his voice seeming to carry through the whole town.
"The gag is always an option, son," Buck warned distractedly.
Ezra grinned as they began the long journey to Eagle Bend. "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
I did my best to sew up any plot-holes or nonsense, so anything you found questionable, I either missed or left in on purpose. Like, having Buck arrested for gambling was somewhat incongruous--it was originally supposed to be Ezra. I was going to change it to suit the character, but then I figured, "Eh, why not?" It's pretty much understood that all the guys spend a lot of time playing cards, right? Oh yeah, and if this seems like an absurdly long-winded defense of an infinitesimally minute part of the story, forgive me. I'm insane.