Maverick Men 2: High Stakes
By: Monica M.
Disclaimer: The M7 characters in this story belong to MGM; the Maverick characters belong to Warner Bros. and I’ve made no money out of it.
Notes: This is a sequel to my first story, Maverick Men. Again it deals with the idea of Bret Maverick, as played by Mel Gibson in the movie Maverick, being Ezra’s father and Annabelle Bransford, as played by Jody Foster, being a young Maude Standish. And once again a great deal of this story is narrated by Maverick so anything in italics are his thoughts.
Thanks: To Debbie who took my comment that maybe there could be a sequel somewhere to be a promise and held me to it! You are the best, Pard!
Comments To: firstname.lastname@example.org
Special Thanks To: Ninheve for the wonderful collage of those Maverick Men!
High stakes. Ordinarily I’d have to say that those two words are music to a gambler’s ears. But not these kinds of stakes. I’ve willingly gambled with my life many times in the past. But never have I gambled with another person’s life. And most certainly not when that other person is my one and only son.
I took part in the All Rivers Poker Championship, all those years ago, because I had to know if I was the best. Had to take part in this Poker Championship because I couldn’t admit to myself that my renown was waning. And even though I wasn’t invited to play, I had to come, had to be around those who are considered today’s best and brightest. I thought I’d be satisfied just being around them. Being part of it somehow. But how I itched to play, to show them that despite my years I was still better than any of them. After all, a gambler never wants to think that others find his skills to be wanting. And now, I’d give anything to not have to play this hand.
I’ve won and lost countless fortunes over the course of my lifetime. But I only have one son. And so for the first time in my life I truly know the pressure of a high stakes game. If I lose, there will be no returning to the table tomorrow night to win that life back. It will be lost forever and the loss of that will take my own from me. Two lives destroyed by the unfolding of events that somehow always managed to be one step ahead of both of us.
Orrin Travis watched Chris Larabee lean back into the high backed chair in the jailhouse and throw his long, black clad legs on top of the sheriff’s desk. The judge allowed himself a small smile at the gunslinger’s act of insolence that in no way took away from the authoritative power the man simply oozed. Travis may pay Chris for his and his men’s protection of the town, but Chris was not one to be bossed around. The judge sat across from Chris and considered for a moment matching the gunslinger’s posture, but decided against that action, knowing that his old bones probably would not bear it. He glanced back at the slender form of Vin Tanner who leaned nonchalantly against the jailhouse wall next to the door. There was another one whose posture spoke volumes of casual indifference but was somehow still ready and alert for anything.
Turning his attention back to Chris, Travis asked, “Things
Chris cocked his head to the side as his green eyes slid sideways to look at the cells. “Well, the jail’s empty.”
Travis laughed at that remark. He often wondered what went on in the town when he was not around. Mary told him some things, but the judge often felt that she left out a few details. “So I see. I just left Danza del Rio. Seems like the town is attempting to make a name for itself. A local businessman, owns the main saloon and hotel in town, is holding an invitation only poker championship. Danza del Rio is only slightly less backwater than this town, if you forgive the expression.” Travis paused as he acknowledged that enigmatic smile of Chris’. “It seems to be outreaching itself in wanting to have such a high stakes game. I volunteered you boys to help out with security.”
Chris dropped his feet to the floor as he leaned in closer to Travis. The judge fought the urge to move away from the dangerous look in the gunslinger’s eyes. “You want us to protect a poker game?” Chris asked disbelievingly.
Travis shook his head. “I wanted you to protect a poker game, but the organizer, one Timothy Herrick, was adamant that he did not need that much security, especially from hired gunslingers. I finally convinced him to allow me to send one of you.”
Chris considered the judge’s words for a moment or two. Then looking over at Vin he said, “Go and get Ezra.”
The Texan nodded as he uncrossed his legs and pushed himself away from the wall. He gave a nod and a pull on his hat brim to Travis as he stepped out into the bright sunlight. Travis looked back at Chris. “You’re thinking of sending Ezra? Don’t you think he might get a bit distracted?”
Chris smiled again but it revealed nothing to Travis and he knew that the man in black would not share his ideas with him until Vin returned with the gambler. Travis sighed inwardly and shifted in his chair, attempting to get a bit more comfortable as they waited.
Vin swung open the saloon’s batwing doors and his eyes immediately fell on Ezra’s crimson jacket. The gambler sat at the table closest to the door, where he could take some advantage of the daylight to read without having to sit in the heat. His pale green eyes looked up briefly at Vin before falling back down to his book on the table. The look in Vin’s eyes must have suddenly registered with the southerner as he quickly looked back up at the Texan and held his gaze.
“Ezra, Chris wants to see you at the jail,” Vin told him.
The gambler looked back down at his book, “Well, if Mr.
Larabee has anything that he needs to discuss with me, he can join me in the
saloon. I was under the impression that he prefers it to the jail anyway.”
Vin entered the saloon all the way and stood over Ezra’s table. “Judge Travis is with him.”
Ezra widened his eyes. “Oh, well then I suppose I should take myself to the jail with all due haste,” he drawled sarcastically.
Vin shook his head as the gambler then returned to his reading instead of getting up. A mischievous twinkle glittered in the Texan’s cool blue eyes before he struck quick as a rattler and grabbed the book from the table.
Ezra’s eyes flashed indignantly. “Mr. Tanner, I was reading that!” he exclaimed as he rose to his feet.
Vin smiled as he backed out towards the exit. He held the book up over his head and glanced up at it. “Well, I don’t see what you’d find more important in this here book than the poker championship that Judge Travis has been telling me and Chris about.”
Ezra froze in mid grab and Vin had to duck his head to hide his grin at the confused look on the gambler’s face. Ezra’s eyes blinked rapidly as his mouth moved for a moment before sound finally spilled out, “Poker Championship?”
“Yep, in Danza del Rio. It’s invitation only, though,” Vin said with a smug smile as he moved out of the saloon and began walking toward the jail. The tracker wondered if Ezra was even aware that he was following him there. Hesitantly he lowered the book and handed it back over to him. The gambler took it and tucked it into his coat pocket without seemingly realizing that he did it.
“Invitation only,” Ezra repeated softly. “But I have not received any such invitation.”
Vin laughed as he led Ezra inside the jail. The gambler immediately focused his attention on Judge Travis. “What is this I hear about an invitational poker championship in Danza del Rio?”
“It’s being organized by a local businessman who wants to make a name for the town,” Travis supplied.
“Well then, how could I have not been invited?” Ezra demanded.
The judge coughed to hide his laugh. “I’m sure it was an oversight,” he smiled. The gambler nodded in quick agreement, forcing the judge to cough again. Ezra was normally very astute in picking up the nuances of people’s speech or body language. But the southerner was too caught up in his outrage at not being invited to pick up on the judge’s sarcasm.
Chris ignored the byplay. “Ezra, the judge wants one of us to work security at the game.”
Ezra pulled his head back in shock, “Surely, Mr. Larabee,
you do not believe that I should be the one to provide those services? It would
be a waste of my talents.”
Chris shook his head, but it was Vin who spoke up first, “Not to mention being as smart as leaving a robin’s nest to the care of a snake.”
Ezra spun to glare at the tracker as the others laughed. The southerner started to make a retort, but Chris interrupted, “No, Ezra. I want to know if you think you can get into the game even without an invitation.”
Ezra managed an indignant look even as a sly smile crept across his face as he began to respond. Then with the quicksilver striking of a new thought to his cunning mind, he whirled suddenly and faced Judge Travis. “Who is organizing this poker championship?”
“A local businessman, Timothy Herrick. Ever heard of him?” Travis responded, managing to keep a straight face despite the lethal glare Larabee tossed the unaware gambler.
Standish turned thoughtful, his thumb rubbing softly at his lower lip. “I don’t believe I have ever heard of this gentleman. What type of business is he in?”
“What difference does it make, Ezra?” Chris asked harshly. “Can you get into the game or not?”
The southerner shook his head as he slowly exhaled. “Knowing your opponent is always of extreme importance, Mr. Larabee. For example, I am interested to know if Mr. Herrick will himself participate in the game or if he has merely arranged it to further his own business enterprises.”
Travis nodded. “He’s right, Chris,” he said, ignoring the smugness that lit up Ezra’s eyes coupled with raised eyebrows. “Herrick owns the saloon the game will be played in and he’s sure to fill his hotel with the people who will flock to see this game. He never mentioned actually playing in the game, but that is always a possibility. One I never considered.”
“So you see, Mr. Larabee, there is far more here than meets the eye. And yes I can most assuredly get into the game,” he asserted. Then in a mumble he added, “But surely my invitation was delayed or even lost.” Gathering himself back into the moment he asked, “When exactly is this championship game to be played?”
“It’s a three day event, from May 20th to the 22nd,” Travis supplied.
Ezra nodded his acknowledgement of the information as he slowly paced the length of the jailhouse, one elegant hand absently toying with a coin as he began plotting a strategy. The others watched him curiously. There was an energy that came alive when Ezra became enmeshed in any type of money-making scheme. It was an interesting transformation, most noticeable in his body language, as the normally reposed southerner became almost agitated in his eagerness. Stopping suddenly in his tracks, Ezra again turned to the judge, “How much is the ante?”
“Twenty thousand,” Travis answered with a look to Larabee that said the judge would not be able to provide those funds.
From his post at the doorframe, Vin let out a whistle of amazement. “You got that kind of cash, Ez?” the Texan teased.
The gambler tossed him a crooked smile as he tilted his head to the side. “I am afraid that sum is a bit out of my grasp at the moment. Unfortunately the, uh,” he shifted his sly gaze to Chris briefly, “cowboys who grace my table do not bring with them any considerable amount of funds.”
Chris sighed as he stood from behind the desk. “Then it looks like you won’t be playing in the championship.”
“Now, Mr. Larabee, I only stated that the funds were out of my grasp at the moment. However, when one needs capital for a new endeavor, one only has to know where to look, or ask, as the case may be,” he responded with a self-satisfied smirk affixed on his handsome face.
A sense of foreboding filling his gut, Chris asked, “And just who are you going to ask?”
The smirk slipped into Ezra’s best professional smile, “Why I intend to take out a loan.” With that the gambler nodded to each of them and then moved to exit the jail. Vin, still leaning against the wall, threw an arm across the doorway, blocking his exit.
“And who do you think’s gonna lend you $20,000?” Vin asked, his voice harsh with suspicion.
Ezra calmly pushed Vin’s arm up and out of his way. “Mr. Tanner, I have connections far beyond the scope of this rather quaint municipality.” Slipping under Vin’s arm, he added, “Now if you will excuse me, I have an ante to raise.” Sage eyes flashing merrily, he chuckled at his own play on words as he walked back towards the saloon.
Vin turned back to Chris and Judge Travis. “Want me to follow him?”
Chris shook his head. “I don’t care where he gets the money from as long as he don’t take it from anyone here in town. And since, no one in this ‘backwater town’,” he shot Travis a smirk, “has that kind of money, I figure he’s calling in some old debts or making some new ones of his own.”
Vin nodded as he relaxed back into his lean. Travis, too, seemed to accept this as he faced the black clad gunslinger. “So if you’re sending Ezra inside the game, who are you sending as security?”
One half of Chris’ lips twisted into a smile as he simply stated, “Me.”
Travis could not hide his surprise and if he did not have his back turned to the Texan he would have been rewarded with the sight of Vin straightening slightly with his own amazement. “You are going?” Travis asked slowly.
Chris nodded, “Yep. But, Vin, I’m gonna want you with me. The more I hear about this championship, the more I don’t like it. I’ll want you there to watch our backs, especially Ezra’s. If someone’s gone through all the trouble of inviting only certain players, they’re not gonna like someone trying to force their way into the game.”
Vin nodded, agreeing not only with Chris’ instructions but the need for them. Not to mention that he was interested to see how their resident gambler would fair in a championship match.
“Alright, gentlemen,” Judge Travis stated as he stood and collected his hat from the top of the desk, “since you have everything worked out, I will go and enjoy what little time I have with my daughter-in-law and grandson as I will be leaving on the morning stage.” Returning his hat to his head, he nodded to his two peacekeepers and left the jail.
“Alright, hoss,” Buck asked as he watched Ezra pick at his food and wondered why the southerner even bothered to order anything, “you gonna tell us where you got the money from?” They sat in the restaurant with Nathan, Josiah, and J.D. as they ate breakfast. Vin had left the previous evening to get a feel for the town of Danza del Rio and Chris had left in the early morning. Ezra himself would be leaving on tomorrow’s stage.
Ezra looked up at Buck and shrugged. “I believe, Mr. Wilmington, that I have stated time and time again that is none of your business.”
“What he means, Buck, is that he’s probably too ashamed and embarrassed to tell us where he got it from,” Nathan said with a slight smile to take some of the sting out of his words. He and Ezra still had their differences, but they had found a grudging respect for each other. They might never be able to express it straightforwardly but each was aware of it. Nathan, however, did still feel it was necessary to point out the error of Ezra’s ways, and Ezra, for his part, had to continue to keep the healer guessing about his motives.
“I believe, Mr. Jackson, that I am quite capable of clearly stating my position if I was so inclined,” the southerner said, the tightness in his voice hinting that he was tiring of this line of questioning.
“Hell, Ez, nothing you say comes out clear,” Buck laughed, knowing it was time to shift the conversation. Ezra had disappeared for a few days, simply saying that he needed to meet someone in order to collect the money. He had not told them where he was going or who he was going to meet. He had returned, found Chris in the saloon, and had simply told him that he had the money for the ante. After that the others had been attempting to find out where the money came from. But the normally verbose Southerner had been uncharacteristically closed mouthed.
Ezra flashed him a grin and then returned to shifting his food from one side of the plate to the other. “I’m hoping that you win, Ezra. After all, your dad won the All River’s Poker Championship. It only seems right for you to win this one.”
Ezra leaned back in his chair, his face falling into an impassive mask as he considered J.D.’s words. Those very thoughts had filled almost every one of his waking moments, and sometimes even his dreams, ever since he had learned of the championship. Until a couple of months ago, he had not even known he had a father. Now he found himself desperate to make him proud and live up to his legacy. “It would be quite an accomplishment to follow in my father’s footsteps, Mr. Dunne.”
The others nodded. “You have nothing to prove, Ezra,” Josiah stated as if reading his thoughts.
The gambler inclined his head in appreciation to the sentiment but made no reply. Instead he easily changed the subject. “I have a favor to ask of you gentlemen.”
“What kind of favor?” Nathan asked suspiciously.
“Nothing untoward, I assure you, Mr. Jackson. Just a matter of misdirection or the simple omission of certain facts,” Ezra responded with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You see, my mother may be arriving in Four Corners shortly. And for her own good, I believe it is best that she not learn of the poker championship in Danza del Rio. Therefore I need the four of you to keep my whereabouts a secret from her.”
“She’s your mother, Ezra. How are we not supposed to tell her where you are?” J.D. asked incredulously.
“Oh, I’m sure you can be creative,” the gambler answered with complete confidence.
“What if Maverick comes with her?” Josiah asked gently. None of them knew how the southerner felt about the relationship between Maude and Maverick. He had been certain that they two would remain together despite their abrupt and angry departure from Four Corners. The other six regulators all knew that Ezra received separate missives from Maude and Maverick, but none knew if the two had gotten back together or not and were afraid to question Ezra directly.
Sadness covered Ezra’s face very briefly and his voice was low and soft as he answered, “He will not.”
Seeing that it would be best not to push the gambler on this subject, Josiah grinned and said, “Well, I believe that I will do my best in distracting the lovely Maude.”
Ezra chuckled, “I would appreciate that, Mr. Sanchez.”
Chris rode into Danza Del Rio and his first thought was how different it was from Four Corners. There was nothing sleepy about this town. But the gunslinger could only wonder at how much of that was due to the championship set to start in a few days time. To his eye the town did not appear to be much bigger than the one he had begun to think of as home. Banners adorned the main thoroughfare, touting the “DANZA DEL RIO POKER CHAMPIONSHIP”.
Chris brought his horse to a halt outside Belle’s Saloon, smoothly dismounted and tied the reins to the hitch. He had met with Vin outside the town and the Texan informed him that Timothy Herrick conducted most of his business from within the saloon he owned. Vin then gave Chris a list of men to keep his eye on. Most Vin remembered from wanted posters that the ex-bounty hunter continued to keep up to date on. Events like these tended to attract the small time pick pockets as well as the deadly robbers. Vin had not seen any that he considered to be outright threats, but it was always good to be prepared.
Slipping into the saloon, Chris paused in the doorway allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He could feel himself fall under intense scrutiny and as soon as he was able he returned the favor. The corners of his lips twitched in amusement at the sight of the saloon filled with so many fancy dressed gamblers. Ezra would no doubt feel right at home when he arrived. Almost as one they all seemed to dismiss him as unimportant, or more likely, as not having enough cash to be worth their time and attention.
Striding to the bar Chris ordered a shot of whiskey and asked where he could find Timothy Herrick. The bartender eyed him more closely, his eyes resting on the revolver on his hip. “Who’s asking?”
“Chris Larabee. Tell him Judge Travis sent me,” he replied.
“He’s been expecting you. He’s in the office, back there,” the bartender replied pointing Chris toward a room under the stairwell.
“Thanks,” he said with a nod and then downed the whiskey, slamming the glass back down on the bar. As he reached into his shirt pocket for the coin to pay, the bartender shook his head. “Mr. Herrick’ll take care of that one. Might take care of more, depending on the job you do.”
Chris paused as he raised his eyebrows, “Well I like the sound of that.” Nodding, he turned, the forced smile fading rapidly from his lips. He had to agree with Vin’s assessment of the town. It definitely had a bad feel to it.
Striding over to the back office, Chris knocked on the door as he slipped to the side of the door out of the way of any possible bullets fired at the new arrival. Life saving habits were hard to break. But there was no need for that as the door was jerked open.
Chris had been given a description of Timothy Herrick from Judge Travis. A sturdily built man in his late forties or early fifties with graying brown hair and blue eyes. Even so, Chris could not have been prepared for the face that greeted him at the door. Bret Maverick. Ezra’s father.
Alright, now I consider myself a mighty brave man. Well give or take the self-preservation inclinations that come to the fore every now and again. But, all in all, I’d have to say that I’m a mighty brave man. But when I’m doing something as mundane as opening an office door and come face to face with a scowling, glaring Chris Larabee…well Damn if it don’t take a couple years off a man. And I don’t have a couple to spare. My first instinct was to slam the door in his face and look for a back exit. Not that I have anything to hide or even fear from Chris, but there’s just such a coldness and wickedness in that man’s eyes that can make you second guess yourself. But I managed to restrain myself and actually threw the door open to usher him inside. He tossed me a questioning, and almost accusatory, look as I still had him blocked from the rest of the room. I gave him my best “just trust me” smile to which he rudely sneered at. But he did nod slightly so I guess there is hope for him.
“What do you want?” I asked as I tried to convey to him my desire for us to pretend not knowing the other. Offhand I couldn’t say why. But I always trust my instincts.
“I’m Chris Larabee. I was sent here from Four Corners by Judge Travis,” he responded, obviously having received my message.
I opened the door wider then and offered him my hand. “Bret Maverick. Nice to meet you, Mr. Larabee. Your reputation precedes you.” Chris shook my hand giving it a harder squeeze than I felt necessary, but I suppose it was payback for the comment on his reputation.
Chris looked away from me and focused on the other occupant of the room. “Mr. Timothy Herrick, this is Chris Larabee,” I stated.
“Judge Travis must indeed be concerned about the safety of my poker championship if he has sent the leader of his seven hired peacekeepers,” Herrick stated. I could feel Chris stiffen at the words and knew that the gunslinger’s reaction to his first meeting with Herrick was the same as mine, he did not trust or like him.
“I volunteered,” he said flatly in that dangerous low growl of his. Herrick did not have the common sense to heed the warning in it.
“Really? And why would you do that? I did not think a shootist like yourself would be interested in a simple poker match,” the man pressed as he motioned for Chris to take a seat. And I had to admit to agreeing with him. Chris would have been the last of the seven that I would have thought to volunteer for security at a poker game. Long years of practice helped me stifle the laughter as I wondered what Chris had to do to prevent Ezra from coming. I brushed the thought aside quickly. I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted with thoughts of my son and how I was overdue for a visit with him.
“Let’s just say that I knew I wouldn’t get distracted from the job. Wasn’t sure I could say the same of the other boys,” Chris answered with a smirk.
Herrick nodded, seemingly satisfied with that response. “Well then, I will leave you and Mr. Maverick to discuss the details of security. You see, I have hired Maverick here to officiate over the game. Make sure everything is played cleanly.”
“Oh, so you aren’t here to play?” Chris asked, turning back to me.
I caught the glint in his eye and knew the man was teasing me. You had to get to know the man to see it, but he has the most wicked sense of humor. I was both irritated at the jab and pleased to find that I was someone he felt to be ‘worthy’ enough to be on the receiving end of it. “No, I’m afraid not. I suppose it’s time to let the younger generation have their moment in the sun. Besides if I did play, we all know that there really wouldn’t be any doubt as to who the winner would be. And what fun would a championship be that way?” I grinned at both of them.
Chris shook his head at me, but Herrick nodded his eagerly. “Too true, Mr. Maverick. Which is why I am so grateful that you have agreed to do this. I do so want this to be most successful. And for that to happen, I need the competition to be absolutely fair. And speaking of faring, I believe I will have a look as to how preparations are faring. Good day, gentlemen.” And with that he slipped out the door and left Chris and I alone.
We eyed each other for a moment. “Before you ask,” Chris started, “Ezra is on his way here. He’s gonna try and work his way into the game, so we can have someone on the inside as well. Judge Travis just didn’t like the feel of things in town. Meeting Herrick, I can see why.”
My heart jumped a bit at the knowledge that my son would soon be arriving. But again I had to push my joy aside as I nodded at Chris’ ending words. “Yeah, there’s something about the man that I just don’t trust. I think it’ll be best if no one knows about Ezra and me, either.”
Chris agreed, “I’ll warn him about you being here and not to let on that you know each other in any kind of way. You think he’s got a shot in getting in the game?”
I grinned, “He is my son, Chris. Of course he can get in the game. As long as Herrick is willing to give him a slot, Ez shouldn’t have any kind of problem.”
The gunslinger shook his head at me again. “So just what is the setup here?”
He and I discussed the details of the game for a couple of hours. The man has a mind for details. Again I found myself easily seeing why Ezra had come to respect him as much as he had. And I was proud to know that Chris, no matter how grudgingly he gave it, respected my son and his talents as well.
Ezra was extremely grateful when the stage finally arrived at Danza del Rio. He had gotten far too accustomed to traveling by horseback where he had complete control. The stage ride would have been tedious all on its own, without the added irritation of a young couple eager to be present for the championship. The gambler had been forced to listen in detail as the wife begged for her husband to share his own gambling stories, from when before they were married she had added. “In his wild days, before I tamed him.” Ezra had nodded politely, tipped his hat down over his eyes and attempted to doze the journey away. But their incessant chatter made that impossible.
So, despite his knowledge that a true gentleman would allow the lady to exit first, Ezra jumped off the stage as soon as it came to a halt. Sometimes, Mother, appearances must take a back seat to self preservation, he thought with a grin as he waited for his baggage to be handed down.
“You need a hand there?” a familiar voice asked.
Ezra had expected Chris to find some reason to meet him at the stage, but he had not expected to find his father there instead. Fortunately, he was momentarily speechless long enough for Maverick to lean close and whisper, “You don’t know me, I don’t know you.”
Ezra gave no outward sign that he received the message but Maverick knew that he had when his son replied, “I can handle my own baggage, thank you, sir,” and gave him a mock look of disdain. At least Maverick hoped it was feigned.
“I’m sure you can,” he countered. “My real question is what you are doing here, Mr….”
“Bransford,” Ezra supplied easily, though there was an edge to his voice that let Maverick know there was a particular reason for his choice of alias and he knew that it did not bode well for him. “Well, oldtimer, perhaps it has escaped your failing vision, but there is a poker championship here and I intend in partaking in the game.”
“Well, maybe you’re too young and stupid to know that this game is invitational only. Do you have an invitation?” Bret could not help but return Ezra’s attitude. This was not what the older man had hoped for in a reunion between them. It was obvious to him now that Ezra was mad at him and he could not begin to think why.
“No, Mr…” Ezra paused waiting for the name. His pale eyes when they met Bret’s blue were hard and cold.
“Maverick,” Bret ground out, “Bret Maverick. I am the officiator at this championship.”
“Too old to actually play in it? Your skills deteriorated? I seem to remember something about you winning a championship match once upon a time. But that was an entire lifetime ago, wasn’t it?” Ezra asked venomously as his bag was finally handed down to him. He gave his speechless father a tight, humorless smile as he began moving away from him toward the hotel.
Maverick fought the urge to grab hold of his son and demand to know what was wrong with him. They needed to keep the ruse up, but he would look for any opportunity to pay Ezra back for the insults. Instead he called after him, “I will be keeping an eye on you, Mr. Bransford. And I will see to it that, Mr. Larabee, who’s in charge of our security, does as well.”
“Yes, one would assume from your failing eyesight that you would need a backup,” Ezra called over his shoulder before entering the hotel.
Maverick heard a snicker
to his left and turned an accusatory glare on Chris. “Looks like we’ll have our
hands full with that one,” the gunslinger stated, all too aware of the eyes and
ears of the passersby on them. “But then the irritatingly cocky ones usually
have a reason to be. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Maverick?”
Bret’s anger melted off as he laughed at that. “I was never irritating,” he said defensively.
“Of course not,” Chris retorted. “Care for a drink?”
“Always,” Maverick answered as he followed Chris into the saloon. The two men took a corner table where they could converse without fear of being overheard.
“Any particular reason Ezra be upset with you? Even I could tell he wasn’t just pretending out there.” Chris prodded.
Bret took a healthy pull from his drink then shook his head. “None that I know of.” He paused a moment before asking sheepishly, “But do you know if he’s talked to his mother recently?”
Chris’ already stoic face hardened, “This is not the time to be having a family squabble.”
Maverick brought his hands up and waved them at Chris in a warding off gesture. “No, nothing like that at all.” He swallowed a bit heavily and added, “I hope.” Seeing that the gunslinger would not be satisfied until he got at least a little more information, he continued, “Maude and I just had a little misunderstanding is all.”
Chris shook his head. “And apparently Ezra has learned about it. Find a way to work it out without calling attention to yourselves.” His tone left no room for argument and with that he stood and strode out of the saloon.
Now I’ve stated time and time again how much I admire Mr. Larabee. And I’m sure I’ll say it again. But there are times when the man can be a downright idiot. I mean, asking a couple of Mavericks to work out a disagreement and not call attention to themselves shows a clear lack of understanding of what type of man a Maverick is. I can almost see where he would make his mistake. After all we do possess the two best poker faces that have ever worked a bluff or con. But when it comes to arguing…well we are prone to outbursts and displays of fits of temper. And the louder we can get the better.
So when Ezra entered the saloon after changing from his traveling clothes, I decided it would be best to stay away from him. Or at least try to. Maybe he just needed a little time to cool off. And playing a couple of hands of poker certainly would help his mood. I know that winning a couple of hands always cheers me up and makes me forget whatever I was dwelling on before.
Unfortunately, Ezra obviously inherited Maude’s capacity for holding a grudge.
He started off playing the other hanger-on gamblers who had come to Rio del Danza without an invitation. But his unstoppable winning streak quickly drew the attention of those gamblers who had been invited. He played well into the evening. I had to laugh at myself when I found myself growing concerned at the fact that he had probably not eaten all day. Yep, despite the fact that I, myself, had done the same thing countless times before, I was worried about my son’s health. Funny, the things that happen to you when you learn you’re a parent.
Chris and Herrick eventually joined me at the table. “Who’s the young upstart?” Herrick asked.
“Said his name is Bransford,” I answered. “And he has been winning since he sat down.”
“Cheating, is he?” Herrick laughed.
I shook my head to hide the anger welling in me at someone accusing my son of cheating. And I kept my voice low and level as I answered, “Not that I can see. And I have been watching him carefully.”
“Really? So you’re saying that he is someone that I may have overlooked when sending out invitations?” Herrick asked.
“So it would appear,” I answered truthfully.
Herrick smiled craftily at that. “Do you think he could beat you?”
“I didn’t come here to play,” I answered letting my displeasure at that show. “Or at least so you told me.”
He laughed then and leaned back in his chair, nodding his head. “True, Mr. Maverick, very true. I wouldn’t want a display of your skills discouraging the younger gamblers. However, it appears that one of my invitees will be unable to attend and so there is an opening. Perhaps I will fill that opening with Mr. Bransford. I do want to ensure that all the best players are accounted for at my inaugural championship. Why don’t you invite him over to our table, Mr. Maverick?”
I didn’t dare look over at Chris, but I could feel the black clad gunslinger’s eyes on me. He was obviously worried that the air had not been cleared between me and Ezra. And he would be correct. But there was nothing to do for it, but hope that my boy would be smart enough to behave. A man can dream.
I walked over to the table and my distraction was welcomed by all the players except for Ezra who was winning yet again. He looked up at me with a sideways tilt to his head and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Maverick? Surely you do not wish to join me in a game. I would hate to embarrass you in front of these gentlemen who apparently hold the exploits of your younger days in awe.”
I smiled congenially at him but let him see the warning in my eyes. He smiled at me, flashing his gold tooth and dimples. I wanted to strangle him. But knowing that was exactly the kind of reaction he was attempting to draw from me, I refrained. So I ignored his remarks for now. “Mr. Herrick would like for you to join him at our table.”
“Ah, obviously a man who recognizes quality when he sees it,” he stated as he stood up from the table and began collecting his money. He paused and gave me a look over. “Well, except in your case, of course.” Then adding with an apologetic air to the other gamblers, “Forgive me gentlemen, but you will have to continue without my company.” We left to the grumbles of the gamblers that they were better off that way.
I took the opportunity to hiss out in his ear, “If you want to see thirty, you’d better stop this nonsense now.”
“Why? Are you jealous because you can’t even remember what thirty was like? I know it was quite a long time ago for you,” he retorted.
“What is it with you and my age? It’s not like I’m a decrepit old man. I’m still in my prime,” I said emphatically.
“Really? How sad for you,” his drawl thickened with his sarcasm.
“Ezra,” I started to warn threateningly, but was cut off as he introduced himself to Herrick.
“Zane Bransford at your service, Mr. Herrick.” He shook hands with Herrick then Chris. Herrick didn’t see it, but I saw the intensity of the warning glare the gunslinger shot Ezra. Either my son was all too aware that Larabee would have no compunctions about following through on that threat or he decided that it was time to settle down for the business at hand. Either way he did begin to behave himself ever so slightly.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bransford. I understand that you’ve been cleaning out my gamblers before the championship has even begun,” Herrick said.
Ezra smiled with fake modesty, “I’ve had an extremely profitable string of good luck.”
“Fortune favors the foolish,” I said under my breath.
“What was that, Mr. Maverick?” he asked with a knowing smile.
“I didn’t say anything, Mr. Bransford,” I replied with an answering smile. “You must be hearing things. It’s a shame when that happens to someone so young.”
Leaning back in his chair, his face hidden from Herrick’s view, Chris tossed me another meaningful glare then swept it over on Ezra. I felt like a scolded child. But it was Ezra who was acting like a petulant child, not me!
“And so your string of good luck continues,” Herrick said, oblivious to everything going on around him. “It just so happens that one of the gamblers that I invited to this championship is unable to attend. I have an opening that I would like for you to fill.”
Ezra’s face lit up, his pale eyes alive with avarice. It was a look I knew all to well from glimpses in the mirror. “I’d be incredibly honored, Mr. Herrick.”
“And I’ll be incredibly interested to see how you do. That is if you have the $20,000 for the ante,” he answered.
“Yes, of course,” Ezra reassured. “If you require proof, your man here, Mr. Maverick was it, could accompany me…”
I could not contain the look of outrage that flashed over my face at being called Herrick’s man. Ezra was enjoying his role far too much and I was determined to put him back in his place.
But Herrick laughed softly and spoke up before I could. “Bret Maverick is our reigning champion, so to speak. He won the All Rivers Poker Championship that I have modeled my own championship after.”
“Oh, you’re that Bret Maverick,” Ezra said dismissively as if it were easy to confuse me with so many others. The sheer gall of the child. Then he asked smoothly, “So tell me, Mr. Herrick, will you also be participating in the game?”
“No, my talent is only for organizing events such as this. I have no gift for the game, as I learned very early on.” He stood from the table. “Now, if you will excuse me, I shall retire. I would also suggest that you retire early. The next three days will be most challenging. Good evening, gentlemen.”
Ezra and I both called out to him somewhat urgently. “Wait, Mr. Herrick!” Neither of us wanted to be left alone with Chris and the mood we had put him in.
Startled, Herrick turned confused eyes on us. Ezra recovered quicker, much to my chagrin. “I merely wanted to express my gratitude once again for your allowing me to participate in this championship poker game.”
“Well, I’ll expect big things of you, Mr. Bransford, in return,” Herrick said enigmatically. He left, leaving Ezra and I to turn wincing countenances toward Chris.
He took a very deep breath as he regarded us with those steely green eyes. “I’m not even going to ask why the two of you are acting like children.” He leaned forward now and Ezra and I involuntarily leaned back away from him. “I’m just going to tell you to stop it now,” he hissed the last out and there was no mistaking his deadly intent.
We both nodded our acquiescence, but I knew Chris was not quite satisfied with it. But he had little choice but to give us the benefit of the doubt. The poor man.
“Alright,” Chris said, “I haven’t found too much that’s suspicious, have either of you?”
“I inquired about our host and learned that most of my fellow gamblers have never heard of him,” Ezra drawled out.
“That’s not surprising since he just said that he has no ‘gift for the game’,” Bret stated.
Ezra shot him a look for interrupting, drawing a slight cough from Chris to remind both of them to focus. “Yes, I was present when he made that statement,” Ezra continued, “and my purpose in asking him the question in the first place was to discover his response and the truth in it. I also made inquiries as I registered at my hotel about the one that Mr. Herrick owns. It appears that he has only recently acquired both the hotel and saloon.”
“That’s right,” Bret said, “you weren’t here when I first shared that information with Mr. Larabee. You see, those of us who were invited to the game got here early and had more of an opportunity to learn things.”
Ezra gave an exaggerated and patronizing nod. “Ah yes, you have been here longer. But look! In the space of a few hours I have learned all that you have learned in…what? A couple of days?” He ended with a broad shrug of his shoulders.
Maverick laughed a nervous sounding kind of laugh as he considered how wrong it might be considered if he killed his own son. He was sure he had cause, and Judge Travis was all to aware of what an irritating ass Ezra could be, so he might be able to get away with it. But he contained himself and remained silent.
His son could not do the same. “Or perhaps you have learned something more?” he asked. When Maverick remained silent, Ezra prodded again, “Well have you?”
“No!” Bret said harshly, “I have not learned anything more about the man. But I do have his confidence so it is only a matter of time.”
Ezra nodded again, “Yes, that is a good thing. Except for one small detail…the championship begins tomorrow night so you are effectively out of time.”
Chris’ hand clamped down on Bret’s hand before the older man could raise it in frustration. Glaring at Ezra, the gunslinger stated, “The game is three days long, so we still have time. If the two of you will put whatever is between you to rest and start acting like the professionals you claim to be.” Getting sullen nods from both men, Chris released Maverick’s hand. “Alright then. Maverick, you learn what you can about Herrick and why he came up with this little idea. Ezra, you learn what you can from the other players. Somebody has to know Herrick from somewhere, I want to know where.”
“How is Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked suddenly.
“He’s just outside the east end of town. He hasn’t seen anyone more suspicious than the regular pickpockets and thieves that usually hang around these events. But I’m sure you boys would recognize them easily,” Chris answered with a smirk.
Ezra and Bret were uncertain on how to take that remark, but knowing that they were already on Chris’ bad side, took the best course and said nothing. Chris nodded at both of them; not at all satisfied with the small amount of information they had been able to acquire but knowing that it was most likely all they would gather for the night. “Alright, we’ll start fresh in the morning.” He eyed father and son harshly for a moment, but neither would hold his gaze for longer than a second. “I’m going to enjoy my drink, and the company, over at the bar. I want the two of you to make nice.” Both Mavericks snorted their contempt for that. Chris leaned forward again, forcing Bret to meet his eyes. “I’d like to count on you as well here, but Ezra and I at least have a job to do. So don’t get in our way.”
Seeing the start of Ezra’s smug smile, Chris swung his gaze on him. “And you, you remember that we are here to do a job. So if that means that I’m gonna need you to lose, then you WILL lose.”
Ezra’s mouth hung open in shock as he blinked rapidly, trying to process that information. Bret turned a smug smile and raised eyebrows at his son, but any retort he was about to make was cut off as Chris stood up from the table. The gunslinger warned one last time, “Remember, make nice,” before straightening and striding over to the bar where he promptly made himself cozy next to a barmaid.
They sat in silence for a little while, each stewing stubbornly. Ezra’s eyes roamed around the saloon, refusing to meet his father’s gaze. Unfortunately they once again met Larabee’s hard stare. Swallowing hard, as some measure of his pride went down with that swallow, Ezra turned to his father and in as much a pleasant and congenial tone as he could manage between clenched teeth asked, “Tell me, how is Mother?”
Bret’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as he considered the question. The older man shrugged and stated in a calm, but coated in sarcasm, voice, “Why don’t you tell me?”
“Why would I answer my own question?” Ezra asked, his tone and facial expression rich with implications of sincere doubts to Maverick’s sanity.
“Because you are the person you most like hearing talk,” Bret responded.
“Well, of course,” Ezra answered easily, his growing irritation becoming apparent in the thickening of his drawl. “Especially when I’m the only one making sense.”
“You know what I mean,” Bret stated firmly, leaning in closer so that he could still speak in a low voice while his tone carried all of his frustration.
“I can assure you that I have absolutely no understanding of what you are implying,” came the condescending reply.
“ ‘I can assure…’” Bret mocked, his head rocking from side to side with each word. “Don’t give me that. You know exactly what I mean, since you were the last one of us to see Maude.”
Despite the anger that was rising within him, Ezra eyed his father benignly and kept his words calm and controlled. “What would ever lead you to believe that?” he asked.
Bret paused as he realized the trap that he had just stepped in. He had let Ezra know that he expected him to be upset at him after talking to Maude. His quick mind searched for an answer that might rescue him, but failed as he was too flustered to concentrate. So he stubbornly remained quiet, but Ezra was determined to press him. “I’m waiting,” he smiled, his pale eyes gloating. “Are you perhaps feeling guilty?”
Bret snapped, “Your attitude from the moment I met you at the stage. That’s what!”
“Well what kind of attitude did you expect after Mother told me about what you did,” Ezra questioned, finally letting all his anger and irritation make itself known in his voice even though he lowered his volume.
“What I did?” Maverick exploded, somehow managing to keep his voice down but drawing attention to their table by his expression of complete disbelief. Leaning back in toward Ezra he repeated in a tight whisper, “What I did? What about what she did?” Seeing that there was not going to be an eruption of violence at the table, the bar patrons all turned back to their own concerns in disappointment.
“I believe her actions were completely reasonable considering your behavior,” his son stated with absolute conviction.
Bret threw himself back in his chair, his head rolling back in absolute disgust. “My behavior!” He threw his hands up in the air. “My behavior?” he repeated. He paused for a while as he struggled to gather his thoughts so that he could express himself fully. Then suddenly changing moods and tactics, he leaned back in and asked suspiciously, “What exactly did she say?”
Ezra sighed, leaning back in his chair, his arms limp at his sides. Of course both of them would have to blame the other and attempt to gain his sympathy. Would anything ever be easy between the two of them? Closing his eyes briefly and exhaling sharply, he forcibly calmed himself before meeting his father’s eyes once more. “Let’s just forget this for the time being. As Mr. Larabee stated, he and I have a job to do, and it will be easier to do if you and I can at least agree to be civil to one another.”
“Forget it?” Bret paused after voicing the question in surprise. One of the dangers about being a Maverick was that few, if any, people trusted you. Despite the fact that Ezra had not taken the name Maverick as his own, Bret knew the genes still ran true in his blood. And the person least likely to trust a Maverick was another. So Bret regarded his son carefully, searching for any hint that he might be hiding something. He realized that in his anger over Ezra’s accusations he had missed something else entirely. “So where and why did you see your mother?”
The change in tack threw Ezra off completely. His eyes widened, as it was his turn to struggle to find a response. He went with indignation. “I can see my mother wherever and for whatever I want!”
“Of course you can,” Bret stated reasonably, knowing he had the upper hand and enjoying it. “You just are not inclined to. So something had to make you want to see Maude recently.” He paused, “Or you needed something from her.”
Ezra shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Mother and I have merely had a recent correspondence, that is all,” he said offhandedly. Then regaining his composure, “Not that it is any concern of yours.”
“Really?” Bret asked, sitting up straight and proud. “I am
the officiator at this poker championship. If I have any concerns as to if any
of the antes were ill gotten, it is my duty to question them.
<![endif]>“Ill gotten?” Ezra’s indignation knew no bounds; neither did the volume of his voice. Bret immediately reached for his arm, pulling on it to remind his son that they were not supposed to draw attention to themselves, especially if they were firing off accusations. And of all the words Ezra could have chosen to state loudly and angrily in a saloon filled with gamblers, those two had to be some of the worst. The saloon did not come to a standstill, but enough eyes and ears turned toward the two men at the table that they immediately became conscious of it.
Maverick clasped Ezra, who continued to glower at him, around the shoulders as he looked around the saloon. Struggling to speak around his laughter he said, “I said ‘gotten ill’.” Raising his voice and speaking to the crowd of people at large, he added, “Young people these days, always flying off the handle at every little thing. I said that Mr. Curry, a sometimes partner of young Mr. Bransford here, had gotten ill from something within his latest shipment of goods from the Far East.”
Ezra picked up his cue, gasping for air as he suddenly laughed hard and said, “And I thought he said that Mr. Curry had ill gotten goods from the Far East.” The two men leaned on each other for support as they erupted into a renewed fit of laughter. The dubious crowd of gamblers continued to watch them carefully but returned to their gaming or drinking. Ezra glanced over at the bar and was extremely relieved to see that Chris had already left the saloon. The southerner also noticed that the barmaid was nowhere to be found either.
They sat together for a
little bit longer, discussing their "mutual acquaintance", Mr. Curry, loud
enough to appease those that might not yet be completely convinced that it had
been the topic of their conversation.
Ezra, seeing the chance for his escape from Bret and his questions, quickly stood up and said, "I believe I should retire for the evening, seeing as how the next three nights will most likely prove to be long and arduous."
Bret looked up at him and knew that he could not pursue his line of questioning at the moment, but gave his son a look that promised he would not forget. And indeed, Maverick would not. He had far too many questions of just where Ezra did manage to come up with $20,000 and what Maude may have told him. But he would have to do it carefully, so that he did not arouse suspicion that he and Ezra were more than strangers. And with Chris watching both of them, which Ezra would likely use to his utmost advantage, Bret knew he might have to really wait for his opportunity. And he could be patient. In the meantime he settled for saying, "Yes, get your rest. Otherwise you might not be up to the games ahead."
Ezra laughed insincerely as he shook Maverick's proffered hand in farewell. "Good evening. And I assure you that there is no game that I am not equal to."
"I look forward to testing that, Mr. Bransford," he retorted, emphasizing the last name.
"I'm sure I'm up to the challenge, Mr. Maverick," Ezra responded, also emphasizing his last name. The two men held each other’s eyes for a moment as if hesitant to turn their backs on the other. Finally with one last meaningful look at his father, Ezra turned and strode out of the saloon. Maverick watched him and gave a slight laugh at the sheer cockiness of his walk. At the same time, though, his heart swelled with pride. That was his flesh and blood that strode out of the door. And while he was currently constrained from revealing that fact, he hoped that it would not always be so. He wanted the world to know that Ezra Standish was his son and that there was nothing that he had done in his life that gave him more pride than that fact.
J.D. gave Buck’s ribs a sharp nudge with his elbow as the stage rolled into town. The tall man unfolded himself from where he leaned against the hitching post and glared at his young friend. “I ain’t deaf and blind, kid,” he said, “I know the stage is here.”
“Well do you see all that baggage on top? And do you recognize it?” J.D. pressed.
Buck squinted over at the top of the stage and noted that it did look particularly overloaded, mostly due to a matching set of carpetbags. A groan escaped the lanky peacekeeper. “Looks like Maude’s in town.”
J.D. nodded sadly, then brightening slightly told Buck with a grin, “I’ll just go tell Josiah and Nathan. You go greet her.” With that he quickly turned and, while not quite running, moved very, very quickly toward the church. Even so, Buck’s attempt to snatch at him was too slow.
Buck cursed at the younger man even as he ran a hand through his hair and brushed at the dust that covered his clothes in an attempt to make himself presentable. Then with the air of a man marching to his own funeral, he strode over to the waiting stage. He arrived just as the driver helped a young, beautiful blonde from the stage. “Why, hello,” he practically purred in his low voice as he stepped up.
The girl smiled coquettishly as she turned her gaze down and away from him. Her voice was colored with a barely contained giggle when she answered, “Hello, sir.”
Buck smiled broadly as he opened his mouth to introduce himself. But his name came from a different source entirely. “Why, Mr. Wilmington, how kind of you to meet me at the stage,” Maude stated as she peeked her head out the stage door and offered her hand for Buck’s assistance out. The smile that played in her eyes spoke volumes for her knowledge of what she was interrupting.
With a look of apology to the young lady, Buck moved past her and took Maude’s hand and helped her from the stage. “Mrs. Standish, it is a pleasure, as always, to see you.” His voice betrayed that the exact opposite was true and Maude knew it.
She smiled graciously at him. “I only wish that I could say that it was a pleasure to visit, Mr. Wilmington. But the appeal of a small, dusty town is lost to me. A mother does what she must, though, in order to see her one and only dear son.” A frown touched her face only briefly. “And speaking of my son, just where is Ezra?”
And so it starts, Buck thought with a heavy, internal sigh. “He had to go with Chris and Vin on a job for the judge.”
Maude’s frown was deeper and longer this time. “Really?” she asked as she linked her arm through Buck’s as they both waited for the men to unload her baggage. “When did he leave? And just when is he due back?”
“He left yesterday, ma’am. As to when they’ll be back, well, I don’t rightly know. Just depends on how long it takes for them to do what they got to do,” he answered as he watched the continuous unloading apprehensively.
“And just what exactly is their business in…” she paused, “Where exactly did they go?”
“Well…” Buck squirmed under Maude’s undivided attention. His mind had gone completely blank with the question. He could not think of any plausible reason for the three men to have gone off or where he could even say they had gone. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I better help them unload. Wouldn’t want any of your stuff getting damaged by their clumsy hands.” He tried to step forward and away from her, but she refused to unlink her arm from his. He pulled up short and glanced down at her, an embarrassed smile peeking from under his full mustache.
A tight smile crossed Maude’s face but there was no humor in her eyes, “They are doing a fine job, Mr. Wilmington. Now please, I believe I have a right to know where my son is.”
Buck nodded, but kept his eyes firmly fixed on the ground at his feet. They lifted in joy as he heard Josiah’s welcome voice say, “Maude Standish. To what do we owe the honor of your presence?” The older man strode over to them and easily took Maude’s arm from Buck’s. “Why don’t you and I go somewhere cooler than out here in the sun and dust while Buck sees to your baggage?” Buck was so grateful to be off the hook, that he did not even mind the fact that he was now the one who would have to carry all of Maude’s baggage. He looked around but J.D. was nowhere to be found. The kid was learning far too quickly about how to get out of the dirty work.
Maude met Josiah’s greeting with a beautiful smile, but silently cursed his arrival. Buck had obviously been trying to hide something from her, most likely exactly where Ezra had gotten himself off to. But with a little bit of time she was certain that she could have easily gotten the tall man to crack. The ex-preacher was a different story altogether. She would have to try another tactic. “Why thank you, Mr. Sanchez. It was a very long trip in that dreadful stage. I could use a bit of refreshment.”
Josiah practically beamed at her, “It would be a privilege.” Her arm still tucked tightly to his side, he led her off toward the town restaurant.
Buck could not help but roll his eyes as he heard her stress to Josiah, “Now, you, Mr. Sanchez, are indeed a true gentleman.” Muttering under his breath, he began trying to find ways to gather up all of her luggage so he could just make one trip. How scrawny Ezra did it, he would never understand.
Maude was quite happy to make small talk as they ordered breakfast and waited to be served. But once their plates were set before them and she was reasonably certain that they would not be interrupted, she began, “Would you be so kind as to tell me where my son has gone?”
“Your motherly concern is admirable, but unnecessary. Ezra’s out with Chris and Vin on prisoner escort duty to Lincoln. They left two days ago, but there’s no telling how long they’ll be. Chris might decide that he and the boys are due for a change in scenery for a bit.”
Maude sat absolutely still, her eyes widening and filling with tears at Josiah’s words. “Oh my! So it could be several days before my boy returns? And here I was hoping…” She paused, sniffling loudly, “Oh but I shouldn’t bother you with that.”
Josiah contemplated the woman across from him. His mind was reminding him that she was the master con woman who had taught Ezra. Everything she said or did was always up to suspicion. He was sure that she had manipulated many a man by crying prettily as she related some tale of woe. At the same time, his heart ached to see a woman as strong and self-assured as Maude reduced to tears. He decided it would be best to go along with her for now and see where it led. “You are never a bother to me.” He handed her a handkerchief. “I may not be Ezra, but I have a good ear for listening. I may not have any answers, but I’ll do my best to help.”
Maude nodded as she inwardly seethed. Josiah was proving difficult to get information out of and was apparently prepared for her attempts at manipulation. But instead of writing him off as a lost cause, she decided to use him to help her set up the others. She was sure he would relate everything to the other three. She would then just have to wait to catch one of them alone and unawares. She was certain she would get the truth of where Ezra was out of one of them. And she now knew for a fact that they were hiding something from her since Buck had said Ezra left yesterday and Josiah said he left two days ago. Amateurs! Maude thought in disdain.
The tears burst forth then as she realized that she would have to pull out all the stops for Josiah. And as always, she knew that a lie based on truth was always the most effective. Through her shuddering breaths she managed to state, “It’s Bret. I’ve lost him.”
Josiah’s mouth dropped open as that was one of the last things he had expected her to admit. He had known from Ezra’s stating that Maverick would not accompany his mother that there was a possibility of trouble between Maude and Bret, but he never would have thought that if would affect her so deeply. “Now, Maude,” he began soothingly, “you thought you had lost Maverick all those years ago. Surely…”
She shook her head violently, the handkerchief still held firmly up to her face. “No, Mr. Sanchez, I’ve done far worse than steal his money this time. He left and said that he would not be looking for me again. And that I should not waste my time looking for him.”
“There is no deed that can not be forgiven,” Josiah stated firmly as he reached out and took one of Maude’s hands into his own and squeezed it gently.
“That may be true of our Lord, but not of Bret Maverick.” She was finally pulling herself together, managing to stop the flow of tears but her speech was still halted by small hiccupping sobs.
“Now, Maude, I can’t believe that. Maverick loves you too deeply to just walk away. Look at all those years he spent searching for you.”
Bless your heart, Josiah, Maude thought, you have just opened the door for me to play the self-pity sympathy card. “All those years, he has been in love with the idea of me. Now he has come face to face with who I really am, and the real me has been found sorely lacking. And I have tried. I do love him. He is still so very much the man I loved all those years ago. But I can no longer be Annabelle. And I’m just not worthy of him anymore.” The tears started anew.
Josiah sighed heavily, his eyes searching skyward. He was in desperate need for divine intervention or inspiration. He was not at all sure if Maude was speaking the truth or giving the performance of a lifetime. He decided to comfort her as best as he could and then at the earliest opportunity fill the others in and get their opinions. Together he was sure the four of them would be able to handle Maude Standish. He resigned himself to the fact that it was going to be a long morning. He could easily see now why Ezra hated mornings so much, especially when they began so unpleasantly.
Ezra woke late the next morning with the reluctant laziness of a true night owl. He stretched languorously as his mind slowly sifted through possible ways that he might manage to remain in bed all day. After all, it was a rare day indeed that he was not forced to rise early in order to complete one task or another of the peacekeeping duties he shared with the other six. With that thought, he shot upright in bed as realization struck that he was not home in Four Corners. Suddenly alert, green eyes swept his hotel room but found nothing amiss. A rueful smile crossed his face as he reflected on his previous thoughts.
There was no denying it now. Four Corners was his home since it was the one place that he had ever felt truly comfortable in. He was accepted in Four Corners and could even look on his work there with pride. He still saw himself as the man he had always been; good at a con, amazing at poker, charming beyond belief, but now all that was tempered with a conscience. And he had to admit, he was a better man for it.
He went through his morning ablutions, shaved, and dressed. He smiled, flashing his gold tooth, as he checked his image in the mirror. He was immaculate, the perfect image of a successful riverboat gambler. The smile faded at that thought because while he had gambled on a riverboat a time or two and had been successful, he was not truly a riverboat gambler. It might even be a stretch of the imagination to call him a gambler of any sort, since his name was not well known. Not like his father.
Bret Maverick was known far and wide, anywhere men shuffled a deck of cards one had only to whisper the name and the stories would start. And it did seem that everyone had a Maverick tale to spin. And those tales were told with pride, even though the teller always ended up losing to Maverick; the mere fact of sitting at a poker table with Bret being an honor in and of itself.
Ezra, on the other hand, had never made a name for himself at the tables. He soothed himself with the fact that it was merely because he rarely used the same name twice. But the doubt was there. Doubt that even if he had, if he had traveled the road his father had as a wandering gambler, that he would have been as great as his father. He had beaten Maverick once in a fair game, but it was not enough. That feat had gone uncelebrated, its importance lost when he learned that the man he so admired was his own father.
He knew it was his own decision not to take the Maverick name as his own. It would be too easy. And Ezra wanted to make a name for himself, wanted that to be the one thing that he earned completely honestly. Not to mention that Ezra Maverick was a bit awkward of a name to toss around. There was a part of him, though, that was hurt that his father had not pushed the issue further. The fatherless little boy that was still deep inside him, needed to know that Maverick had no reservations in letting all the world know that he had a son.
Ezra sighed as he buckled on his gunbelt. Things were even more complicated now; what with the difficulties between Maude and Bret. He had found himself truly wanting his mother and father to reconcile completely. The two were absolutely made for each other; there was no denying that. And yet the only obstacle standing between them was each other. He was not truly surprised by the latest news he had received from his mother. Ezra had just figured that Bret would have a little more sense in knowing exactly how far he could push Maude.
With one last glance at his polished and immaculate image in the mirror, Ezra exited his hotel room. As he made his way down the stairwell, he decided that he would just have to do his best to help the two work things out. He would have to start by learning the truth since neither his mother nor father had been too forthcoming. That would be a feat in and of itself.
Ezra had until four o’clock that afternoon to wander around the town and see what he could learn. At that time all the participants would learn the guidelines and structure of the contest itself. The gambler remembered Chris’ admonishment that he was here to do a job and if it required him to lose then he would have to do it. Ezra could not even begin to consider what he would do if that order came from his leader. He could not possibly be expected to throw the game he had waited all his life to play. He paused for a second at the foot of the stairs, squeezing his eyes shut briefly to push aside that thought. He would just have to work hard and see what he could learn, so that the possibility was eliminated. He would prove to Chris and his father that he could do both the job he was sent to do and still manage to win the most important game of his life.
I spent the entire morning and afternoon with Timothy Herrick and intermittently with Chris as well. But our host was an incredibly tight-lipped man. And the more I was around him, the less I liked him. There was something oddly familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite make out what that was.
Chris and I had no contact with Ezra throughout the day. Although we both did see him several times, chatting with townspeople or other gamblers. I’m glad to see him going about the work Chris set him to do. I’m hoping that there will be at least a truce to our hostilities. Of course, I would also still like to know what exactly we are fighting over.
Around two in the afternoon, Herrick called me and Chris over to his office in the saloon to go over the details of the upcoming championship. The saloon itself was already being set up and decorated. Seeing it brought back some memories for me and a deep longing to sit at one of those tables myself tonight. But I shrugged that feeling off as I nodded my greetings to both Chris and Herrick. Chris and I learned that our host is also very meticulous and thorough. I could tell that Chris was not pleased with some of the rules just like I wasn’t. It would be interesting to see how the participants and Ezra reacted to them.
Four o’clock sharp was our opportunity to find out. Fifty gamblers, plus myself, Chris and Timothy Herrick gathered in the saloon. The gamblers were a motley bunch, with all manners of dress, from the conservative to the extremely outlandish. For once, Ezra in his crimson coat did not stand out in the crowd.
Chris and I flanked Herrick as he stood upon the makeshift stage. The proof in how eager these gamblers were to get the game started was found in how quickly silence fell as Herrick motioned for it.
“Welcome to Danza del Rio and to her first annual Draw Poker Championship!” he exclaimed, his arms thrown wide in invitation. “Each of you was handpicked by me to participate in this championship. Each of you has proven yourself worthy!” Smiling broadly, he added with his voice only slightly teasing, “And each of you has brought $20,000 for the pot!” He waited a minute to let the little bits of laughter that fluttered around the room to quiet. “There’s fifty of you in all. For a total pot of one million dollars.” Genuine cheers filled the room at that announcement. “That means that there’s gonna be forty nine broken hearts.” I frowned briefly at that as again a sense of déjŕ vu hit me. Chris must have caught it because he gave me a questioning look but I shrugged it off.
“Let’s make it a great contest. An honest, great contest,” Herrick continued. “And for that very reason I’ve brought in two gentlemen whose reputations precede them.” He gestured toward Chris, who obviously did not like the attention but did not shrink from it. “First Chris Larabee. He will be guarding the money and will not hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later, as I’m sure you are all well aware.” Chris glared at Herrick, but our host managed to continue. “So do not test him, gentlemen. One of you will walk out of here with that money soon enough.”
“That brings me to a gentleman that I know each of you has heard of before. He will be acting as officiator at this game and will not tolerate any form of cheating whatsoever. He was the winner of the first, great poker championship nearly thirty years ago. As such, I like to consider him as our reigning champion. Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce, Bret Maverick!” He stepped down and motioned for me to address the gamblers.
I was greeted with a healthy round of applause that I allowed myself to bask in for a moment, or two. Alright, maybe it was a little longer than that, but it’s not everyday that a man gets applauded by his peers! “Thank you, thank you very much. And I do appreciate your support. And I will expect to continue to receive it. There are, of course, several rules that each and everyone will be expected to follow. First, there will be no cheating, naturally. Anyone caught cheating will forfeit their entry fee and be banned. We’re not on a riverboat, so I can’t throw you overboard. But you will be ridden out of town.
“Now then, Mr. Larabee and I will be wearing the only guns allowed in this saloon. Again, anyone breaking this rule will forfeit their entry fee and be expelled from town.
“The saloon itself will be closed to everyone except for those of you participating in the game, Mr. Herrick, Mr. Larabee, myself, the dealers, and the waitstaff. We will have no spectators other than those I just listed. That means your wives or girlfriends, or both,” I paused feeling it was necessary to attempt to inject some levity into things. I forgot how gamblers waiting to start a million dollar game have absolutely no sense of humor. “will have to wait elsewhere.
“Now, just to ease some of the temptation any of you might feel, Mr. Herrick has one small provision. Any time you are sitting at the gaming tables during the contest, you must remove your jacket and keep your sleeves rolled up to the elbows.” I paused, knowing that there would most likely be an outcry of protest. And indeed the gamblers shuffled around a bit as they looked to each other for confirmation. Ezra threw Chris a concerned look. The two of them had been relying on Ezra’s derringer as an extra gun in case things went bad at some point. The black clad gunslinger gave my son a nod of reassurance and Ezra quickly glanced away. Several other gamblers in the crowd began murmuring their protests.
Herrick motioned for me to step down so that he could take the stage again. “Gentlemen, gentlemen, need I remind you that we are playing for high stakes, very high stakes. I believe it is a small concession that I am asking of you. If any of you are unwilling to follow this stipulation, please feel free to leave right now, your entry money still your own.” He motioned to the door and waited.
I have to admit the man is smart. One of the most valuable commodities a gambler has is his reputation. Each and every one of them knew that if they walked away now it would be believed that it was because they were cheaters who recognized they did not have a chance of winning honestly. That would mean no one would ever sit down to a game with them. And so they would rather remain, keep their reputation and the possible future it held and kiss goodbye twenty thousand dollars. Hey, we are gamblers; we have to play the odds. Or as my pappy used to say, ‘You got to lose some, to win some.’
Seeing that no one would dare leave, Herrick smiled grandly to his participants. “Alright, gentlemen, now let me explain exactly how we are going to go about playing this game over the next three nights. Shortly, Mr. Maverick will bring around a hat and each of you will draw out a slip of paper. On that paper, you will find two numbers. The first will either be a one or a two. That signifies the night that you will be playing. The second number will be one to five. That designates the table you will be seated at. As you can see, I have taken pains to ensure that everything is completely random. So who you play during your first round is up to Lady Luck.
“The five winners from both nights, ten in all, will play again on our final night. Two groups of five. Again these groups will be selected completely at random. The two winners from those tables will then face off to crown our final champion.” With that he motioned for me to circulate through the crowd and allow the gamblers to select a slip of paper. I watched each of them carefully. Offhand I couldn’t see any reason why anyone would want one night over the other, but that did not mean that they might. Ezra showed no reaction when he picked the second night, but I’d bet that he was eager to get the game started.
“Alright, gentlemen, now that you have a day and table, please step up and deposit your entry fee. Those of you playing tonight, please pay Mr. Larabee. He will take your ante and mark down your table position. Those of you playing tomorrow, please see Mr. Maverick. I will be here in case any of you have any questions. Otherwise I shall see you all at eight o’clock sharp. Once you enter, there will be no leaving until the last hand is played. Except of course for those of you who lose. They may leave if they like, but there will be no returning.”
With that Herrick stepped down and the first of the gamblers pressed forward. I have to admit I found it a bit funny to watch Chris get pressed into conversations, albeit very brief ones, with the eager gamblers. He told me earlier that we should attempt to talk to them as often as we could so that it would not look so odd when one or the other of us was able to speak to Ezra. I’d have to say that he was sincerely regretting that now.
Speaking of my son, Ezra strolled over to my table and with a smug smirk on his face, slapped down his twenty thousand dollar entry fee. I glanced up at him and taking the money into my hands began to count it slowly. A frustrated sigh escaped his lips as his eyes rolled heavenward. “It’s all there,” he drawled angrily. Then his eyes filled with a teasing glint. “Besides, I’m not quite certain that you can count that high.”
I allowed a smirk of my own to be my response to his remarks, and I shot him a glare even as I continued counting. Then sighing heavily myself I made a big show of losing count and having to start over again. I was deeply surprised at the chuckle that came from behind me along with an arm that reached over and took the money from my hand. Twisting around in my seat, I found Herrick smiling down at me. “I’m sure it’s all here, Mr. Maverick,” he said as he placed the money aside with the other entry fees. “And Mr. Bransford, I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed to see you will not be playing tonight. I was looking forward to seeing how well you truly can play.”
Ezra grinned, flashing those dimples that were really starting to irritate me. “Then that makes two of us who are most eager for tomorrow night.”
Herrick nodded, but then hovered over me as if waiting for Ezra to leave first. With a nod to both of us, my son turned and walked out of the saloon. Herrick, however, stayed close until I had collected all the money and added it to Chris’ stack inside the safe brought in special for the occasion. Finally Herrick left after ensuring that everything was in our capable hands.
As soon as the echo of our esteemed host’s bootheels on the boardwalk faded away, Chris cocked his head at me and asked, “If this thing plays out cleanly, what do you think of Ez’s chances?”
“Oh, I’d have to say better than average,” I answered honestly. “My only concern is where he got that money and if he can afford to lose it.”
Chris nodded thoughtfully, and I could tell that it was something that he had considered himself. “Any ideas on where he could have gotten it?”
“My first guess would be Maude, or she at least helped him get it.”
“You think she’d lend him that kind of money for a poker game?” His tone was definitely incredulous.
I laughed outright. “Hell no! I’m sure he didn’t tell her what it was for. Or at least not the truth. If Maude knew about this game, nothing could keep her away from it. Ezra would know that. He’d have to come up with a convincing story to get her to buy it. And even then, I’d have to wonder if she really did buy it or just let him think she did.”
Chris shook his head, obviously not wanting to get too deep in the misdirection and lies that were a daily part of our lives. “So you mean to say that you didn’t tell her about where you were going either?” He smiled wickedly as he already knew the answer.
“No, I did not. Trust me, Chris. I believe it is better for everyone involved that Maude stays blissfully unaware of this championship. The woman was a menace at the first one.”
“A menace, huh?” Chris asked with that particular smirk of his. “Way I remember you telling it, you and that ‘menace’ got a bit carried away. In fact, isn’t that where li’l Ezra came into the picture?”
I was stunned for a half a second, I can admit it. But I’m a Maverick we have to think fast on our feet as well as having fast feet. “You’re right, Chris. Hmm, maybe I should have invited Maude to come along on this one. Who knows there might have been a new addition to the family.”
Chris laughed softly then, shaking his head at my teasing, but did not respond to it. But I bet his head was swimming with the very idea of Maude with a newborn baby. Have to admit that thought got me a little woozy, too. After all, I’m having a hard enough time dealing with a fully-grown son. Course, just ‘cause he’s fully grown doesn’t mean he’s mature. “At least if Ez did get the money from her and ends up having to lose, we won’t have to worry too much about protecting him from someone looking to break even.”
The naiveté of some people. “If it is Maude’s money and he loses it, I can assure you that she has a way of making people wish she would just kill them outright instead of making their life an absolute misery. Believe me, Chris, when Maude gets anything into her mind, I pity the person who doesn’t give her what she wants.” I’m still not quite certain but I think a hint of sympathy shone in the gunslinger’s eyes briefly as he realized that I knew of what I spoke.
If J.D. were aware of Maverick’s words, he would have agreed with the man wholeheartedly at this moment. Josiah kept Maude occupied most of the time yesterday. Today, though, the young man felt like he had been waylaid by the woman. He was strolling around town, making sure that everything was as it should be, as was his usual custom when she suddenly stepped out of the hotel and greeted him warmly. Despite the depth of his desire to do just that, J.D. knew that he could not ignore her and walk away.
Maude was absolutely fuming. She could not believe that the four peacekeepers managed to keep her son’s whereabouts from her. Josiah listened sympathetically to her entire tale of woe but had not let slip any more information about Ezra and the others. But she just knew that there was more to the story than they were giving her. And that positively frustrated the woman. Especially since she knew that Maverick was missing as well. Her instinct was telling her that somehow this was not completely coincidental. And if she found out Ezra was having anything to do with his father, she would kill him.
First though, she would have to find him. Maude’s attention turned back to the young man in front of her who was prattling on about the weather or something else equally mundane. She smiled, outwardly it was warm and sweet, but inwardly it was the smile of a predator knowing that her silly, little prey was stepping right into her clutches.
“I sent a telegram to Lincoln for Ezra this morning,” she stated suddenly, knowing it would completely throw J.D. off guard.
The young man blinked at her in confusion, so she continued quickly, “I told him that I was in town and that I needed him to return here as quickly as possible.”
“Do you think that he’ll get it?” J.D. finally managed to ask even as his eyes darted around him, desperately hoping that one of the others would be around to bail him out.
“Well, I also sent a description of him and instructions that it was fairly urgent for him to receive the telegram,” she responded.
“Now, Mrs. Standish, I don’t think you shoulda done that. Ezra’s got a job to do out there and I don’t think that you should be distracting him,” he protested.
“But Mr. Sanchez said that they were simply escorting a prisoner to Lincoln. I just want to ensure that Ezra, at least, does not delay his return here, especially since his mother needs him.” The young man was such an open book that Maude could almost feel his nervousness. She decided to up the ante a bit and lay the groundwork in case J.D., too, proved uncooperative. Suddenly she grabbed at his shoulder, squeezing it hard for support as she swayed on her feet. J.D. quickly steadied her and moved her over to a bench.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Standish? Should I go get Nathan?” he asked urgently.
Shaking her head, she reached out and took his hand, patting it reassuringly. “No, no. I’ll be fine. I’ve just had so much going on lately.”
J.D. nodded but was not thoroughly convinced. “But if you keep feeling poorly, you should at least go talk to Nathan. He might have something that can help you.”
“The only thing I need right now is my son!” Maude cried out plaintively. She absolutely detested showing any kind of weakness, but knew that if she wanted to learn anything she would have to try every angle. And there was absolutely no way that she would allow these lawmen to pull one over on her. She decided that it no longer mattered if Ezra was with Maverick or not. She would kill her son anyway for making her have to go through all this just to find him.
Ezra found himself feeling oddly misplaced with nowhere to go once he exited the saloon in this strange town. Back in Four Corners if he wanted company it was simply a question of which of the other six he found first. He shook his head slightly but knew that he could not truly deny the realization that he missed the others. The boisterousness of Buck, the jocularity of J.D., the justness of Josiah, the nobleness of Nathan, the virtue of Vin, and the character of Chris. He ducked his head to hide his private smile at his own word game. He was a little amazed at how easily complimentary adjectives came to his mind for his fellow peacekeepers. His smile faded away as he began to search for one for himself. Earnest was definitely out, although perhaps not quite as much as it might have been in the past and he was continuing to work on it. Eager was also definitely out as he saw no reason to rush into anything, especially if someone else might just go ahead and do it for him.
He continued to wander about the town as his nimble mind searched for an adjective for himself. Elegant certainly had possibilities, but he had to admit was a bit shallow. And he wanted, no truly he needed, to find one that touched a bit more on who he was or was trying to become. He did like to think that he had a certain edge to himself but edgy was not quite what he was going for either. He winced as the word eccentric popped into his head. He was not odd or whimsical, merely different than the others. He shuddered slightly at the thought of that appellation being attached to his name. He did have his endearing qualities, of that he was certain, but that was not exactly the tone he was going for. He paused in his walking as his mind tripped over the word enterprising. Again a private smile graced his face. It did suit him and on a couple of levels. He liked that those who saw him as shallow could merely see it as applying to his tendency to involve himself in moneymaking schemes. But he himself appreciated it because he saw it applying to the fact that he was undertaking the greatest enterprise of his life by remaking who he was and, he hoped, even how people saw him. Well perhaps not exactly how people saw him, he admitted. He did enjoy remaining a bit enigmatic. Now there was another good word for him.
Deciding that he simply was far too complicated to be pigeonholed by a single word, Ezra gave up on the game. He made his way back to his hotel room, deciding that it would be best to rest a bit, perhaps even catch a nap before the game tonight. He knew that he had slept in a bit and so was still fresh and normally that would be enough, if he were playing tonight. But he was not. Instead he would be required to watch and listen to every little thing that could give them more information on the intent of Mr. Herrick. And so, he would rest for just a bit and then catch up with his fellow gamblers and see what he could learn about their host. Of course, if he also learned the weaknesses of his fellow competitors he saw no harm in that.
J.D. felt a little bad about leaving Maude to eat her lunch alone. But truth be told, he did not feel it for very long. She had such a forceful personality, the like of which J.D. was not used to dealing with in a woman. And so he quickly moved to find the others so that he could tell them of the newest developments. He found them in the saloon and wasted no time by starting to speak even as he walked over to them. “She’s gone and sent a telegram looking for him.”
All three of them stared up at him in surprise as he hovered over them. Josiah spoke first, “Hold up there, son. Don’t you want to give us the who’s and what’s in that statement?”
J.D. shook the long bangs out of his eyes as he sat down at the table with them. “Mrs. Standish. She’s sent a telegram to Lincoln looking for Ezra. She even sent a description of him so that they could try and find him for her.”
“You sure about that, J.D.?” Buck asked. “Did you go and see if she actually sent a telegram?”
“Now why would I go and do a thing like that, Buck?” J.D. questioned as he looked around at the others, his eyes laughing with disbelief at the stupidity of Buck’s question. His face fell when he noticed that the others were not looking at Buck sadly, but at him. He paused, then studied them again, his expression crestfallen. “You don’t mean that you think she would lie about something like that?”
Buck and Nathan chuckled as Josiah’s eyes bored into J.D.’s, though there was a touch of sympathy in them as well. “I believe that we all think that Maude will say or do just about anything to get the information that she wants. And right about now, what she wants…oh Hell!” the older man broke off suddenly and ducked his head as if he could disappear right where he sat. Or at least really wished that he could.
“And right now, what I really want is to know exactly where my son is,” Maude Standish proclaimed as she stood just within the saloon entrance, her hands set firmly on her hips.
Nathan was the first to be able to gather himself, stand, and offer her a chair. “Now, ma’am, we’ve told you exactly where Ezra is at the moment. He can’t come right away, but I’m sure that he’ll get here just as soon as he possibly can.”
Maude glared at Nathan as she remained rooted in the doorway. Finally she shook her head slightly, a hand lightly smoothing her perfect hair as she haughtily took a step forward to join them. But before she could reach their table, she suddenly crumpled to the ground in a dead faint. Nathan, being already on his feet, was the first at her side, though Josiah was a close second. Buck quickly moved to get water, towels, and whatever else he thought Nathan might need. J.D. stood near their table, his eyes wide as saucers as he watched Nathan gather the unconscious woman into his arm, lifting up her head and lightly patting her cheek and calling her name.
Very soft moans issued
from Maude's lips as her head moved slowly and her eyelids began to flutter.
Nathan reached a hand up behind him as he heard Buck return and was given a
cool, damp cloth. His sure hands pressed the towel against Maude's temples and
then to her neck as she continued to come around. With Josiah's help they moved
her to a fuller sitting position and then picked her up and sat her in a chair
that J.D. dragged over to them.
"She got a little dizzy earlier, Nathan," J.D. said softly, suddenly ashamed that it had not been the first thing he had reported about Maude. "She had to grab me for support before she sat down. But she said it wasn't anything, didn't want me to get you. She said it was just all the excitement."
Nathan's kind brown eyes caught and held J.D.'s worried ones. "And that's probably all it is, J.D.," he said soothingly. "I've seen it before in some of these high strung women. They just get themselves worked up over nothing and make themselves sick."
Inwardly Maude seethed at being labeled high-strung, but she made no outward sign that she was fully conscious and aware of what they were saying. She was a perfectionist at her craft and had always lived by the rule that no matter what it took to get the job done, the job had to be done. And right now she was bound and determined to find out exactly where her son was or to make these men bring him back here immediately. She had merely been curious at first as to where Ezra had gone so soon after their last correspondence. Then when she had sensed that these men wanted to hide information from her, she became intrigued. But now, that they had actually managed to keep that information from her despite all her efforts so far, she was challenged and she had never given in to a challenge before in her life.
"She'll be alright, J.D.," she heard Nathan continue. "Just needs a little rest is all. Maybe a little something to eat."
"I left her at the restaurant," the young man responded a little defensively.
"You can lead a horse to water, J.D., but you can't make 'em drink," Buck quipped in his soft, yet teasing voice.
Maude decided then and there that there would be no mercy for Ezra when she finally got her hands on him. And she would find retribution for these four as well. She moaned a bit louder to ensure that a laugh did not escape her lips as her crafty mind already began to devise the perfect means of affecting her revenge on them. But her moan only managed to increase the amount of attention that Josiah and Nathan gave her and failed to stop Buck and J.D.'s exchange.
"Buck, you can't compare a lady like Mrs. Standish to a horse!" For a brief second Maude considered that she might have to give the young man a bit of leniency.
Outrage filled the taller man's voice, "Now you know well and good that I wouldn't ever do a thing like that! I was just trying to say that just like you can't make a horse drink the water you've taken 'em to, you can't make a lady eat just cause she's in a restaurant."
"See! You did it again. You said 'just like'. You're comparing them again!" J.D.'s voice cracked as it raised in triumph and laughter.
Maude heard the pounding of bootheels on the wooden floor and then the swinging wide of the batwing doors of the saloon. She was amazed to hear Buck ask with true concern if she would be all right. Then when he received an affirmative from Nathan, his bootheels pounded on the wooden floor as he flung wide the batwing doors in his pursuit of J.D. She sighed almost inaudibly at the thought that she was finally free of at least those two. Of course that left her with Nathan and Josiah who were much more mature, and also the ones least likely to give away any information. And while she normally delighted in dealing with imbeciles as they made a con so much easier, in this case she would much rather deal with the challenges of the relative intellects of these two.
She made a show of attempting to push Nathan's hands with the damp cloth away from her face. "Looks like she's coming around, Nate." Josiah’s rumbling voice stated almost in her ear. He truly did have the most amazing voice, but Maude did not allow herself to be distracted from her true purpose.
"Why, what happened?" she asked in a much thicker drawl than she normally plied.
"You fainted for a minute, ma'am," Nathan answered as he stepped away from her, giving her a bit of room to gather herself.
"Oh my! Why that's never happened to me before," she proclaimed a bit breathlessly, but she still caught the exchange of looks between the two men. Obviously they were unsure if the whole episode had been feigned or not. That merely meant that she could not let them dwell on it for very long. "Could I have a glass of water?" she asked, motioning with a trembling hand. Nathan nodded as he moved to comply.
Josiah gently took her trembling hand and folded in within his own. "You're going to be just fine, Maude. You just need to slow down a bit. Ezra will be back soon enough, you'll see."
She shook her head, blinking rapidly. "But you just don't understand. What if...what if Bret talks to him first and turns him against me? Oh, Josiah, I just couldn't bear it," she clapped his hand still holding hers to her breast, "if I lost Ezra as well."
"Now, Maude," Josiah began but found himself searching for words as he could feel the quick beat of her heart with his hand pressed to her heaving breast.
"Please, Josiah, if there is anything you can do to get Ezra to come back here sooner, or at least tell me where he is, do it for me?" she pleaded, her drawl thick and breathless.
The ex-preacher swallowed heavily as he again struggled to put his voice to use. A cough from Nathan pulled his eyes away from Maude's imploring ones. "I'll see what I can do," he promised in a whisper as he straightened and then reluctantly pulled his hand from hers.
Maude smiled gratefully up at him even as she inwardly gloated at her triumph. Nathan stepped between them and handed the glass of water to Maude who obediently began to drink. She had Josiah at least now. If she could just find a moment more alone with him she was certain that she could find out exactly where Ezra was. And then it would only be a matter of time before she caught up with him.
The championship began promptly at 8:00 p.m. as promised. Chris and Maverick circulated around the room, but never paused at any of the tables unless they suspected someone of cheating. But the gamblers played true, which for several meant that they were out of the game very early. Those were escorted from their seats to the spectator gallery made up of the gamblers waiting for their turn the next night. Herrick himself did that job. The man seemed to be everywhere at once chatting easily with the other gamblers who waited their turn the next night, wandering the tables with Chris and Maverick, or even pausing to speak with the dealers and the gamblers themselves.
After the first hour or so of play, Ezra had already picked out the men from each table that he believed would be the ones to advance to the next round. He was certain that they were not quite the caliber of player that he was, but were still very good. He grudgingly had to admit that Herrick’s rule about sleeves and having a dealer were paying off immensely. Well that and the fact that not only did the famed Maverick have his eyes on the players, but also Chris Larabee stalked among them with his baleful glare. There was not likely to be much trouble.
He had chatted with as many of the gamblers as he could, but still received the same response. None of them had heard of Herrick. His one gleam of hope came with the news that one of the players in tonight’s game had claimed to have played and beaten Herrick at a hand of poker many, many years ago. Ezra knew that as soon as the gambler lost, and he knew it would not be too much longer now, he would question him about it. It was the closest he had come all night to learning something new about Herrick and he was not about to miss his opportunity.
As he waited, Ezra allowed himself to imagine actually winning the championship. Oddly he found himself at a loss for what he would do with a million dollars. He would, of course, have to repay his loan with interest. Still, that left him with more money than he had ever dreamed of. He would be able to buy the grandest of saloons or gaming hall in a city of far greater renown than Four Corners. He would finally be able to have the life that he had imagined for himself. He was nudged out of his reverie by Chris’ hard shoulder.
“Keep focused,” the gunslinger warned in a whisper before moving off again.
Ezra nodded to himself. Yes, he needed to keep focused. No sense spending money that was not even his yet. And so he pushed aside his thoughts on winning the money and continued chatting with his fellow gamblers who were waiting for their turn and eagerly watching and learning from those who now sat at the tables. And it was within the hour that Mr. Henri Lafayette was escorted over to the gallery by Herrick. Ezra impatiently waited for their host to move back among the tables before quickly striding over to the losing gambler.
His expressive face quickly filled with sympathy as he called the other man’s name. The southerner had grabbed a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses from the bar when he had first seen Lafayette stand from the table. And so while the Frenchman first turned sorrowful eyes on Ezra, they brightened slightly at the sight of the bottle in his hands.
"It is a poor
consolation prize, I will admit," Ezra stated as he held up the bottle and
peered at the label only to have it ripped from his hands by Lafayette. The
southerner blinked away his surprise as the man drank directly from the bottle.
"Yes, well I suppose you're right. We will just have to make do," he stated
drolly to himself.
He placed a hand under the other man's elbow and led him toward the back of the gallery area. Since most of the gamblers were far more interested in watching the playing skills of the others, he was able to find a slightly private table. Sitting the man down, Ezra moved around and sat down beside him. The southerner looked at the glasses still in his hand and pushed them to the other side of the table. He had lost his thirst after watching Lafayette down a considerable amount of the whiskey.
"I'm broke," Lafayette stated finally, his misery evident in every syllable. "Flat busted.
"But you have your health and your wits," Ezra interjected though he noted that if Lafayette continued this drinking rate, the man would not have his wits or even possibly his health for much longer.
The older man sighed and took another large swig of the whiskey. "Oh, but not my skill. No, that is long gone. I should have known. I should have listened."
Ezra regarded the man briefly. He felt sorry for Lafayette but could not allow himself to get caught up in his sorrows. He forced a wide smile upon his face. "But I have heard of your skill. I'm sure it was merely a run of bad luck and not lack of skill that finds you here with me so soon."
A glimmer of hope touched the older man's dark eyes as he looked up at Ezra. "You had heard of me?"
"Yes indeed," he nodded eagerly. "Henri Lafayette, the man who bested our host."
A gentle smile touched the Frenchman's face as his eyes drifted back into his memories. "That was many years ago, young man. I'd dare say perhaps even before you were born." He paused, realizing that he had not even gotten the younger man's name.
"Zane Bransford," Ezra introduced himself smoothly.
"Well, Mr. Bransford, I would say that it was indeed before your time. In fact, Herrick and I would have been about your age back then. Two young pups trying to make names for ourselves." He paused again as if grasping for something just beyond his memory. "Now that I think back on it, I don't believe that he was going by Herrick back then."
Ezra leaned in closer at that information but attempted to hide his extreme interest. Instead he affected a nonchalant air as he asked, "Really? What name was he using?"
Lafayette's look turned sly. "You sound surprised. You mean to say to me that Zane Bransford is your true name?"
Only years of discipline in insuring that he did not give away more than he intended kept Ezra from leaning back away from the Frenchman in surprise. Instead indignation crossed his pale green eyes as his chin snapped up proudly. "I will have you know that I am indeed named after my grandfather."
Lafayette nodded almost imperceptibly after a moment of intense study. Ezra felt that the only thing that stopped the suddenly perceptive man from seeing through his subterfuge was the fact that he truly felt a great deal of pride in his grandfather Zane Cooper, though he had not had the fortune of actually being named after him. A wry smile threatened to tease up his lips but Ezra contained it. Still, he did have to wonder, and would ask his father at the next best opportunity, as to whether Cooper or Maverick was his proper surname. But he supposed it did not matter as of yet, because he did not feel that he was entitled to either.
"Then I offer you my apologies, Mr. Bransford," Lafayette replied. "But perhaps there will come a time in your life when you feel the need to select a name other than the one you were given. And when you have done so for many years, you will learn that it is often hard to remember all the ones that you have used, let alone those that others employ."
Ezra nodded as if simply agreeing with the man to get him to continue his story. He wondered, though, what the Frenchman would think if he knew that Ezra had already gone through more names than he could remember in his lifetime. Even as a child, he had learned to respond to just about any name Maude called him and to avoid using a name for her, even mother, until she had sent him a signal that it was all right to do so. The southerner did not feel like dwelling on those thoughts, so he prodded irritably, "But if he did not have the same name, then how do you know that it was him?"
"You will find that there are things you remember more about a man than just his name," Lafayette stated softly, almost wistfully.
Despite himself, Ezra found himself caught up in the older man's words. Never before had he sat down with a fellow gambler to talk unless it was over a hand of poker. And most often conversations during a poker match were as full of bluffs as the game itself. But Lafayette was being candid with him, and Ezra could hear some of the regret in the older man's voice, as if he was looking back on his life and finding it to have been an empty one. But he had to continue his role of disbelief and push the man to give him more information about Herrick. "And what would have been so extraordinary about Mr. Herrick as a young man that you would remember him?"
The Frenchman smiled as he again took a long pull from the whiskey bottle. "He was a young man with a lot to prove, as I recall. Or at least that was the way he felt. He's an abysmal poker player. But apparently his father was a wealthy man who had made his fortune at the tables. Mr. Herrick was eager to do the same, but he sorely lacked the skills and the ability to know when to leave the table. I beat him fairly but he insisted that I had cheated. Rash words were spoken before Herrick finally stormed out of the room. I never saw or heard from him again until I received this invitation. Did not know it was him until I met him, but he did not seem to remember me. Of course, I used a different name back then as well."
"Do you remember who his father was?" Ezra asked.
"No, I have no gift for names, only faces, and I never met him. But I seem to recall him being a military man. Perhaps a Colonel or a Brigadier. More than that, I can not say. Why do you ask?"
"Just curiosity," Ezra answered quickly and easily. Then still seeing the suspicious look on the older man's face added reluctantly, "And I know something about wanting to live up to a father's reputation."
Lafayette nodded knowingly as if that was exactly what he suspected, then the man turned back to the bottle of whiskey. The two men sat there in silence, one pondering his future, the other reminiscing on his past. Knowing that he would not get any more information out of the Frenchman, Ezra stood up to return to watching the games. He wondered, though, if Herrick did not truly recognize the man who had beaten him all those years ago. He mentally shrugged as it was unimportant. He would get the new information to Chris and Maverick as soon as he was able and hope that maybe it would mean more to them than it did to him.
I never thought I would say this, but here I am standing in the midst of the poker game of the century and I am wishing that I could be anywhere else but here. None of these so-called “professional” gamblers that I am watching deserve to even sit at these tables. And it is just torture, pure torture, to have to stand around watching them instead of cleaning them out of every red cent in their pockets.
Ezra seems to be fairing better than me, but then he at least knows he will play tomorrow night. I saw him watching the players intently at first and then grow bored as he already picked the winners from each of the tables. I wonder if our list of five would match. But considering his skills, I’m pretty sure that they would.
My eyes scan the spectator gallery but don’t immediately find Ezra. Another thing I have to admit, that made me a little anxious. I know he’s more than able to take care of himself, but just can’t help the worry. Makes me wonder how Pappy managed it with me.
Finally I catch sight of Ezra talking with an older gambler who had just lost at the gaming tables. A flash of jealousy fills me as I note the rapt attention that my son appears to be giving the man. He is most likely working either to learn what he can about the men still at the tables or about Herrick himself. That’s exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. But it’s also at that moment that I realize that he and I have never shared a moment like that. We’ve had precious little time together, let alone any that was relaxed and easy. We’ve corresponded, but mail is slow and often unreliable in these parts. Even if it weren’t, though, it still wouldn’t be the same. I want to be able to hear the tone of his voice, see what is going on behind that expressive face that can both hide so much and so little.
A bit of a stir at one of the tables calls my attention back to the job I’m supposed to be doing. But before I can even start in that direction, Chris is already there and things immediately quiet down, even as one of the gamblers stands up, eliminated from the game. As always, Herrick is also there, taking the man by the arm and leading him away from the tables and the fortune he just lost. I wonder what he tells them and then decide that I don’t want Ezra to have to find out tomorrow night.
My eyes go back to the table he was at, but find only the other gambler sitting there drinking from a bottle of whiskey. I can tell that he is lost in the past, remembering days when he was strong and sure of himself; days when he never lost. He’s probably risked it all and has come face to face with the knowledge that he is no longer up to the challenge. He’s probably wondering what skills he can fall back on or quickly develop. I’ve seen it happen before. Gamblers who can’t afford to lose their money shouldn’t sit down to play. They always end up losing so much more than money.
Ezra steps into my field of vision and with a slight toss of his head lets me know that he needs to speak to me. I give him an answering nod before moving around the tables once more so as to not to garner suspicion. The tables are emptying now. Three are down to one-on-one games and the other two have only three, but will not be that way for much longer.
I walk over to where Chris leaned one arm on the top of the safe and his other hand rested easy on the butt of his gun. I match his posture on the other side of the safe and whisper, “Ezra’s got some information for us.” The gunslinger did not even turn toward me but gave an almost imperceptible nod. I start to push myself away from the safe but freeze as I feel a hand clap my shoulder.
Herrick steps up behind Chris and me. I almost laugh out loud as I see him reach a hand to clap Chris on the shoulder as well. But the black clad man simply flicks his eyes over at Herrick and the hand is halted before dropping onto the top of the safe. “I want to thank both of you for a job well done. This has to be the best behaved bunch of gamblers I have ever encountered,” Herrick said.
Chris’ eyes continually scanned both the gamblers at the table and those in the gallery. “Night’s still young,” he observed.
Herrick nodded even as he laughed off the comment. “You are quite right, Mr. Larabee. Still, I believe that you and Mr. Maverick’s presence will continue to insure a fair and uneventful championship.”
“Someone winning one million dollars doesn’t sound too uneventful to me,” I say.
Herrick turns his crystal blue eyes on me. “One million dollars is an amazing amount of money, isn’t it? Double the amount that you won at the original championship, isn’t it?”
I nod but look away from Herrick and his goading. After a moment of his working out that I’m not going to rise to his bait, he continues, “The money is actually what I want to talk to you about. I think the two of you should stay with it at all times. I’ll have cots brought it for you to sleep in shifts. And you will be well paid for this inconvenience.”
This time Chris turned his full attention on Herrick and regarded the man before giving a slow, thoughtful nod. “Alright,” the gunslinger said simply and turned back to watching the proceedings.
It was only because I was watching Herrick carefully that I saw him blink back his surprise at the ease to which Chris agreed to his proposal. The man recovered quickly and turned to me. I smiled easily at him. “I don’t need much sleep.”
He laughed and might have said something more but we then had our first winner at a table. Herrick left to give whatever words he had to the loser and to congratulate the winner. Chris and I both watch him though we can’t hear what he’s saying. Since all the attention is focused on that table for the moment we know we have to keep an even closer watch on the other four. But we also take the time to speak.
“Weren’t you going to meet with Vin? Find out if he’s seen anything?” I ask.
“I was. But I told Vin that if I didn’t make it out there before sunrise for him to find a way into town. If he’s got any information for us, he’ll find a way to get it to us. Right now, I’m gonna see what Ezra’s got for us.”
And with that he strolled around the tables and through the gallery until he found Ezra. I watched them share just a few words before Chris continued making his rounds of the room. But whatever information he had to share with me, would just have to wait as Herrick called for me to join him as yet another gambler won his way into the next level of competition. And then for the rest of the night, Herrick seemed to want me by his side. Chris seemed to find it humorous, the way the man kept pulling me back to his side and conversations. So I figured that the information that Ezra had for him was nothing that needed my immediate attention.
As the hours continued to wear by, those gamblers who had lost this night filtered out of the saloon. They moved on to the next town, the next game, the next fortune to be won. The rest of us stayed, waiting anxiously to learn which five men would be the only ones watching and waiting tomorrow night. It was not until a bit past three in the morning that the five were completed. I could not help but toss a questioning look over to Ezra who met it with a smug nod. He had picked the same five men that I had. It’s good to know that his instincts are as good as mine.
Herrick brought the five men forward and made a speech congratulating them on their victory and musing about which five from the next group would join them for the final night. Then he finally dismissed everyone and said he looked forward to resuming the championship tomorrow at eight. But even after everyone else left, Herrick remained, ensuring that Chris and I were made as comfortable as possible. And when all those arrangements were settled, he stayed. He questioned us on how we thought the championship was going. I could see the irritation flowing off Chris in waves, but Herrick remained blissfully ignorant as he continued to chat. The beauty of dawn was approaching when one of Herrick’s dealers burst back into the saloon shouting, “There’s been a murder!”
Ezra finally made his way back up the hotel stair after spending another hour or so with the other gamblers discussing the game. He had not really intended to, but fear that something of importance would get said kept him there. That and the hope for an opportunity to talk to either Chris or Maverick. In the end, neither happened. And so he made his way back to his room, grateful for the opportunity to sleep well into the day once again.
He shut the door behind him and as was his custom, took his hat off and tossed it on the bedpost. But before he could take more than a couple of steps into the room, a firm hand clamped over his mouth as a strong arm wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his sides. Ezra struggled, attempting to free himself even as he cursed the fact that he was weaponless.
But his assailant was strong and tenacious as a low voice whispered, “It’s me, Ezra.” There was no mistaking that Texas drawl and Ezra relaxed. As Vin released his hold on him, the southerner glared at him and made a show of straightening his clothing.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked with sarcasm lacing his own drawl.
Vin grinned broadly as he responded, “I wanted to hear how ya did.”
Ezra rolled his eyes as he sat on his bed after removing his jacket. He could not contain his yawn before answering, “I do not play until tonight. But I’m sure you already knew that. So why are you really here?”
Vin shrugged before leaning up against the doorframe. “Chris was supposed to have met up with me sometime after the match. I ain’t seen him, but saw a bunch of men, gamblers by the look of ‘em, riding out on horseback. So I figured that the game was over but that Chris couldn’t get away.”
Interest replaced the sleepiness in Ezra’s pale green eyes. “Have you learned anything?”
“When I came into town I didn’t have anything. But while I was waiting to find Chris, I learned that there had been a murder of one of the gamblers from the game last night. I believe his name was Henry Lafayette.”
“Henri,” Ezra corrected in a whisper as he bowed his head at the news.
“You knew him,” Vin made it more a statement than a question. The astute Texan could see that the gambler was affected by the news.
“Actually I only met him this evening. But he was a most interesting gentleman.” After a moment, Ezra lifted his gaze and met Vin’s sympathetic gaze. The southerner’s features were impassive but there was still a glimmer of sadness that he could not hide in his eyes. “Where and how was he murdered?”
“From what I heard, knifed in his hotel room,” Vin stated simply.
Ezra ran a hand through his hair as he considered this latest development. “I do not know if this has anything to do with his murder, but I did just learn that Henri Lafayette was the only gambler at the championship who actually knew Mr. Herrick previously. That was, in fact, what he and I were discussing this evening. He said it was over thirty years ago that he played a hand or two of poker with Mr. Herrick. Apparently our esteemed host does not play the game of poker as well as he organizes it.”
“You saying Lafayette beat Herrick?”
“Yes, that is what I’m saying. And Herrick did not take his loss gracefully as he accused Lafayette of cheating. Henri said that despite all that, Herrick did not seem to recognize him when he arrived for the match. Of course, Lafayette admitted that neither of them were still using the names that they had originally met under.”
Vin shifted his position against the doorframe slightly. “So what name was Herrick going by back then?”
“Lafayette could not remember,” Ezra answered with a shake of his head.
Vin gave a soft snort, “Kinda strange, don’t ya think? That the one man who knew Herrick is suddenly killed?”
“Strange indeed,” Ezra agreed. “I’m sure Chris and Maverick will be informed of this latest development. I only hope that they are able to learn more.” He looked up at Vin again. “What are your plans?”
“I think I’m gonna stay in town, but out of sight. Y’all ain’t gonna have much of a chance to do anything but get ready for the game tonight. I’ll see what I can find out between now and then.” He pushed himself away from the doorframe. “I’ll find a way to let y’all know if I find out anything.”
The southerner nodded, “I would appreciate that. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to rest up for tonight’s festivities.”
Vin nodded as he moved over toward the window to exit the same way he entered. He paused and met Ezra’s eyes once more. “I’m sure you’ll do alright tonight. Hell, you’d better. My money’s on you.”
Ezra nodded distractedly before the meaning of Vin’s words registered on him. “Wait! You mean someone actually bet against me? Who?”
Vin flashed a mischievous smile as he slipped out of the window. He poked his head back in only to say, “Guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.” And then he was gone.
Ezra sighed, a half smile creeping up his face, as he found himself wondering which of his associates would be so dumb as to bet against him. His thoughts were interrupted as he yawned yet again. As he prepared for bed, Ezra’s thought shifted back to Henri Lafayette and the words that they had shared. The last thoughts the southerner had before falling into a quick sleep were gratitude for not only having finally found the truth about his father, but also for having found the friendship of his fellow peacekeepers. With them and his mother, Ezra knew that, unlike Henri, he was at least guaranteed to not leave the tables tomorrow night empty handed.
Maude’s moment of triumph gave way to an impotent rage as she realized the depth to which she had been deceived by her own child. She had spent the rest of the day after her fainting spell under the watchful and attentive gazes of the four remaining peacekeepers. But despite all her best efforts she never had another moment alone with Josiah. In frustration she had finally retreated to her hotel room and remained there through the evening.
Her break came the following afternoon when she went to visit Mary Travis. Maude could not believe her own oversight. She had been so determined to get the information out of one of the lawmen that she had completely lost sight of the objective of just getting the information. There was just no other explanation as to why she had not gone to Mary in the first place. After all, women were the worst at keeping secrets and women who made their living as newspaper editors were some of the best gossips.
And so, Maude had gone to her as one mother to another. As Maude had suspected, Mary had already heard about her fainting. And so it was not difficult at all to play on the younger woman’s sympathy. Mary even made it easier by asking about Bret. Maude did not go into details but stated that she was very eager to have Ezra return so that she could speak to him. And it had been as simple as that for Mary had replied, “Tomorrow night will be the last night of the poker championship. I am sure he will return just as soon as it is over.”
Maude had been stunned momentarily, even though she could not fathom why. Everything fell into place now. It was obvious that Ezra had instructed his friends to not let her know where he was because the last thing he would want would be her finding out about the championship. And she had little doubt now that Bret would be there as well. But she had masked her surprise and with a few well asked questions learned the name of the town, Danza del Rio. She had remained polite throughout the rest of the visit, even as she plotted her next course of action.
She faced another setback when she learned that she would have to wait until morning for the next stage that would lead her to Danza del Rio, to her son and his father, and most importantly her revenge. But now that she had the information that she needed, she could be patient and use the extra time wisely. Ezra and Bret would learn a hard lesson about conspiring against her. She would definitely see to that. Yes, they would pay dearly for the most heinous crime of excluding her from the greatest poker game jackpot ever.
Maude was back in her hotel room, packing her belongs. Since meeting with Mary she had avoided talking to the four men who had denied her the information. But she decided that she would pass the remainder of her time in Four Corners with a bit of fun at Mr. Wilmington’s expense. After all she owed each of them some payback. She would merely start with him and wait for the opportunity for the others. And then she would merely slip away in the morning and they would not know she was gone until it was far too late.
Chris and I were at the end of our patience with Herrick. Both of us had gone almost a full day without sleep. But to make matters worse, both of us were anxious to speak to the other in private. Herrick, though, seemed to be immune to our irritation as he remained with us long after the news of Henri Lafayette’s murder reached us.
When Herrick was not looking Chris tossed me a look that told me that he had information that was connected to all this. I wondered if Lafayette was the same gambler that I had seen Ezra speaking with before he had motioned that he needed to speak to either me or Chris. I had a feeling that pieces of the puzzle were being laid out nice and neat. The shapes were beginning to match but it would still take someone actually picking them up and making them fit. We just needed to get Herrick out of our hair.
Finally I grumbled, “You know, Mr. Herrick, Chris and I aren’t going to be any good to you tonight, if we’re too tired to stand up, much less watch the players carefully.”
His apology was quick, but insincere. “You’re quite right, Mr. Maverick. It just seems as though so much is happening. Poor Mr. Lafayette. He lost twice this night.” He picked up his hat and coat and nodded at us, “My apologies, gentlemen. Rest well, for I will indeed need you very sharp this evening. We will have to insure that this horrible murder does not cast a pall over the championship.”
It was hard to get the words out, but I managed, “I’m sure one thing doesn’t have to do with the other. Once the games get going again, that’ll be the only thing on everyone’s mind.”
Herrick smiled appreciatively at me as he moved toward the door. “Thank you, Mr. Maverick. Again you are quiet right. Good day, gentlemen.” And with that he left finally.
I turned quickly to Chris. “So what is the
<![endif]>The black clad gunslinger shrugged his shoulders. “Ezra had just spoken to Henri Lafayette and learned that Lafayette once played Herrick. But that was years ago and Herrick didn’t seem to remember him, though Lafayette beat him at poker.”
“Losing to someone is hardly a motive for murder,” I stated.
A brief smile lit Chris’ eyes though it did not truly touch his lips. “True, otherwise you’d be long dead.”
I inclined my head slightly at his comment, but continued, “Still is odd that the only man who even had any awareness of Herrick before this championship is the one who ended up killed. Did Lafayette tell Ezra anything else about Herrick back then?”
“No. Just that he didn’t go by the name Herrick and that he thought his father was a military man.”
I took off my hat and jacket and sat on the cot to remove my boots, but thought better about it and left them on. I lie back on the cot and sighed. “There’s still far more questions than answers.”
Chris nodded before walking around the room. I
watched him for a moment. “Do you really think one of us needs to stay
awake to guard the safe?”
The lawman turned his thoughtful gaze to the safe before frowning and shaking his head. “No, but I’m hoping that I might still catch Vin. Right now he’s the only source of information we have with any kind of freedom to move around. I need to know what he’s seen or heard.”
I yawn and nod simultaneously even as I turn my head into the pillow. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any of the long night poker matches and it has caught up with me. I’ll be fresher after I’ve gotten some sleep. Maybe then, I’ll be able to just snatch up those puzzle pieces and make them fit.
Ezra eyed the four other gamblers seated at the poker table with him. Two of them he easily dismissed as not even being truly worthy of being at the championship. And of the other two, only one of them really gave him any pause. Raymond Powers had the cold demeanor and dead eyes of a shark. He would be hard to read, but Ezra was not overly concerned about that. His confidence was high that he would prevail over his competitors and would sit at the final table tomorrow night. After all, both his mother and father had been the final players in what had once been the greatest poker game of their lives. It was his destiny; it had to be.
Yet again, he had been denied the opportunity to talk to either Chris or Maverick in private. But by their glances he had ascertained that they were just as suspicious as he was about Lafayette’s murder and the championship. But he had to force those thoughts out of his mind and focus on the task at hand.
The two gamblers that Ezra had seen as weak, did indeed cash out of the game fairly early. Then he and Raymond Powers made quick work of the third gambler at their table. The money at the table was pretty evenly divided between himself and Powers so Ezra knew that he would have to settle in for several long hands. But this was his element, even though he did feel a bit odd without the reassuring presence of his derringer. He even would have liked wearing his red jacket, though he would scoff at anyone’s suggestion that it was his lucky coat.
Every so often, he could feel the presence of Maverick or Chris as they circled his table. Both of them kept their faces carefully schooled in neutrality, though his father did once manage to toss him a knowing wink. Ezra knew it was his way of reassuring him and deep down he hoped that it might even be a sign that his father was pleased with him.
The hours passed and Ezra’s pile of chips was increasing rapidly. Powers seemed to be losing steam and Ezra capitalized on his every mistake. Then it came down to a final hand for Powers. Everything he had was in the pot. He laid his cards down, three of a kind. Ezra could not help the wide grin that split his face and flashed his dimples and gold tooth, as he laid down his flush. Powers closed his eyes and exhaled slowly before standing and offering his hand to Ezra. The southerner took it and returned the man’s “Good game,” in kind.
He sat at the table for a moment, just to bask in the feeling of having won and advancing to the next round of play. He looked up when he felt someone hovering over him. He had expected it to be either Chris or Maverick, but instead it was Herrick, having returned from saying his goodbyes to Powers. “A masterfully played game, Mr. Bransford,” Herrick told him.
Ezra smiled as he stood from the table. “Thank you, Mr. Herrick.” He had more to add but was interrupted by Maverick.
“Let’s just hope you didn’t burn it all up tonight, and that you have something left over for tomorrow night,” his father teased.
Ezra smiled condescendingly. “I do not get burned out so easily, Mr. Maverick. But thank you for your concern. Obviously you speak from personal experience.”
Herrick laughed as Maverick searched for a proper retort. “You know, gentleman, I am beginning to sincerely regret that Maverick here is not playing in this championship. I think I would pay just about anything to see the two of you against each other over a hand of poker.”
Ezra and Maverick spoke as one, both of their voices filled with eagerness, “That could be arranged.”
Herrick laughed all the harder as the two gamblers shot each other dirty looks. “Forgive the pun, but you are two of a kind.”
“No need to be insulting,” Ezra stated. Herrick clapped him on the back, sending the smaller man stumbling a bit. Maverick reached a hand out and steadied him. Ezra shrugged off his father’s hand, though Bret could tell that there was no anger in the gesture. And with that he went to join the other seven gamblers who watched the games from the gallery. Only two more games had yet to be decided. And tomorrow night only one man would stand up from the table as the winner of one million dollars. Ezra saw no possible way that that man would not be him.
I lock the saloon door behind Herrick and turn back around to see Chris, with that damnable smirk plastered on his face. “What?” I ask a bit irritably.
“You know,” the gunslinger states with a little laugh. He moves over to the bar and pours himself and me a shot of whiskey, the good stuff.
I have a feeling I know where this is leading, but try for a bit of misdirection. “Well, I am grateful that Herrick did not decide to hang around for very long this time.” And Herrick hadn’t really. He did his speech again congratulating the next five to move on to tonight’s final games. But that was all, he left when everyone else did.
Chris placed the shot glass in my hand, “So am I. But you’re proud of him, aren’t you?”
And despite my best efforts, I grin and nod my head. I know exactly what he’s talking about and really, how could I not be? “I never doubted him for a minute.” I answer as we knock glasses and then both down the shots.
Chris inclined his head to acknowledge that truth. “Still, nothing better than actually seeing it happen.”
“He’s a chip off the old block, that’s for sure,” I laugh. “But, he’s got two more rounds to make it through before he can claim that million.” I stop and regard Chris for a minute. “Do you have any regrets about this?”
Chris turns his back on the bar and leans back against it. “Regrets?”
“We haven’t found anything untoward about the game itself so far. Tomorrow night, Ezra will most likely be a million dollars richer. Aren’t you afraid that’ll mean that he won’t return to Four Corners with you and continue his peacekeeper duties?” The thought had just struck me and concern filled me. It was an incredible conflict of interest. I wanted Ezra to win, but I did not want him leaving the six friends that he had found. People who accepted him for what he was and challenged him to become a better man.
Chris fixed his gaze on a distant point in the saloon, but I knew his sight was even further away. “Ezra’s the only one who can decide what is best for him. Not that long ago, Bret, I was willing to turn my back on Four Corners to be with a woman that I once loved and thought I still did. The others didn’t like the idea too much but they accepted it, because that’s the way it was gonna be. We’re not bound to each other. We’d ride through hell and back for each other. But if something better comes along for any one of us, the others won’t stand in the way.” His piercing green eyes turn back toward me and I suddenly understand a bit more about the man. There’s grief and wisdom burning in those eyes, the mark of a man who has experienced the hard truths of life and survived by the grace of his indomitable will. “That’s the way it has to be,” he finishes and I know without a doubt that he speaks the truth. If any of the seven found some manner of happiness, no matter what its origins, the other six would never do anything to hinder them. After all the seven of them came together as peacekeepers. If somewhere along the way one of them found some small measure of peace, it would be a job well done.
I nod my thanks to Chris, letting him see that I understand him completely. “He’s still got to win it first. And we still have to make sure it is a completely honest game. There’s a connection to that murder, I can feel it.”
We sat down at one of the tables then and went back over everything that we knew for sure and the things we suspected. Somehow from yesterday morning to today, the puzzle pieces had all been stirred around and I was no longer sure of what the picture was supposed to be.
Ezra paused at the top of the hotel stairs. He thought he had heard a noise coming from his room. A sly smile crossed his handsome face as he decided that this time he would turn the tables on Vin. The Texan had been lucky in catching him unawares once. Ezra was determined that fortune would not favor him tonight as well. Stealthily he crept to his room and in one fluid motion unlocked the door and threw it wide open. He rushed into the room and with a triumphant grin turned to face where he believed Vin to be hiding.
Surprise registered briefly on the southerner’s face before his senses flooded with the pain of the slash across his chest by his knife-wielding assailant who most definitely was not Vin. The big man stepped forward and Ezra stumbled backward, attempting to remain out of the reach of the knife. For the second night in a row, Ezra found himself grasped by strong arms from behind, though this time he found both his arms pinned behind him.
The gambler knew the odds were against him, but he also knew that this was not a game he could just walk away from. And so he struggled for all that he was worth. Ignoring the painful stress it placed on his arms and his wound, he kicked both of his feet up in the air and managed to knock the knife from the first thug’s hand.
“Damn it, T.J.,” the man behind him cursed even as he managed to keep his hold on Ezra, “you weren’t supposed to cut him.”
“He surprised me,” T.J. defended himself. “Almost like he knew I was gonna be there.”
The second man managed to keep his hold on both of Ezra’s arms even as he freed one hand to cuff the gambler hard against the side of his head. Ezra’s legs went slack as the blow dazed him and took some of the fight out of him briefly. His captor pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and attempted to gag him one handed. “You gonna stand there, or are you gonna help me?” he demanded of T.J.
As T.J. stepped forward, Ezra recovered enough to kindle anew his survival instincts. He kicked out again at the man, but T.J. was prepared for it this time. He sidestepped the blow and then moved in and threw a hard, solid blow to Ezra’s midsection. The breath exploded from his body in a harsh exhale from his nose as the gag was now firmly in place. His pale green eyes were wide with pain as he doubled over, struggling to regain his breath. T.J., an obvious childhood bully, took the opportunity to land another blow against the already subdued gambler. But, his partner was turning him toward the window, so T.J.’s hard blow, intended again for Ezra’s midsection, instead connected with the gambler’s ribs and he felt them give beneath the force of his punch. Ezra’s groan of pain filtered even through the gag and his breathing was harsh and quick.
“Shut up,” the second assailant said as he again cuffed Ezra. This time the blow was hard enough to send the gambler into a painless oblivion. T.J. picked up his knife and sheathed it before grabbing Ezra’s legs and helping his partner get their captive through the window.
Chris and I had both tried to get some sleep, but I
think something was nagging at both of us. Instincts that both of us had honed,
though in completely different ways, were screaming for us to see what was right
in front of us. And so after a couple of hours of sleep, we both got back up and
just began talking about what we knew and did not know about Herrick. It was not
long before Vin joined us. Now there is another one with finely honed
instincts. But there's something uncanny to Vin's, like he's working on a
deeper level than any of the rest of us will ever hope to achieve.
Sometimes you can almost see it in his eyes that can be older, wiser than his years in one instant and sparkling mischievously in the next; that knowledge, that balance. In so many ways, he reminds me of my friend Joseph. He wants only to live a simple life, to do no harm, but life has not been so benign to him. And yet neither one of them have let it ruin who they truly are.
My thoughts drift now to Joseph and I wonder what he has been getting up to and if he did finally manage to find a spot of land that was not taken from him. I decide then and there that Ezra has to meet him. My son was denied ever getting to know his grandfather, but I can at least let him know someone as amazing as Joseph. I can’t help but wonder wistfully about what it would have been like if I had been able to take Ezra as a little boy out to Joseph's lands. But there's no sense in those thoughts now, that time is past. I can only work on the future. And if his future is to be a million dollars richer, who am I to complain. I'd make a damn good adviser. For a fee, of course.
Anyway, Vin saunters by the front window of the saloon and somehow Chris just looks up and sees him. And though their eyes never meet, it's like they both somehow know that the other is aware of the other. Uncanny, like I said. Chris goes around to the back of the saloon and lets the Texan in.
Vin greets me with a nod and then capturing both me and Chris in his gaze asks how Ezra had done in the championship. But his look showed that he already knew that Ezra had prevailed. He told us about his visit to my son yesterday morning and how he had reacted to the news of Lafayette's murder.
"Ez and I talked about how it was kinda strange that Lafayette's the only one who knew Herrick and then ends up dead." The Texan paused as if gathering his thoughts deliberately. You can tell that Vin is not one to make false accusations. He wants to get all the facts, study them, dissect them until he can know without a doubt that his conclusion is true. "But why would Herrick want to kill him? He's throwing this whole championship just to attract people to the town. Nothing wrong with that. He owns a saloon and hotel in town. It make sense for him. So why would he risk it by killing someone who beat him at a hand of poker?"
But I actually stopped listening to Vin once he mentioned the hotel and saloon that Herrick owns. My mind suddenly latches onto their names, Belle's Saloon, and the Hotel Lauren. Puzzle pieces right there in front of me, but because I never put them side by side, I never saw it. The Lauren Belle. The name of the riverboat where the original championship was played. Those thoughts take me immediately to the man who organized that original game, the Commodore. And just like that it all snaps into place and I see all too clearly the entire picture. I stand up abruptly, startling both Vin and Chris who go for their guns but I'm not even really paying attention to them. My thoughts are now only focused on my son. If Timothy Herrick is the Commodore's son, then the person he would most want revenge on was me. And he would know that the best way to satisfy that thirst for revenge would be through my son. My eyes close with a wince. Ezra could not have chosen a more damning alias than Zane Bransford. Those two names were most likely as familiar to Herrick as my own was.
"We’ve got to warn Ezra," I finally blurt out, snapping both pairs of intense eyes, on me. "Herrick’s father was the Commodore. The All River’s Championship was held on his riverboat, the Lauren Bell. His plan was to win or steal the half million prize but my father and I exposed him, ruined him. If he suspects that Ezra is my son then he’ll be in danger.”
Chris nodded to Vin who moved unerringly to my side. "I'll stay with the safe," the gunslinger stated reluctantly. "But I'll expect you back here no matter what you find." His eyes lock with mine and again I feel the intensity of the man and I nod, though my reluctance is evident to him as well.
Vin follows me out of the front of the saloon and while the townsfolk are already out and about, no one or no thing was going to slow us down. Whether they were afraid of our grim determination or merely oblivious to us, I don’t know or care. I, myself, was pretty much oblivious to everything around me. Seeing my son, knowing that he was alright; those were the only things I was focused on.
When we reached the hotel, without a word to me Vin moved around to the back. I took the front entrance and took several steps at a time, but came to a dead stop when I saw that the door to Ezra’s room was ajar.
Considering that I was completely unaware of Ezra’s existence for little over a quarter century, I’m probably the last to be able to claim any kind of parental instincts. But this was like being struck over the head, there was just no way to walk away from it. Once again I had endangered my son
I drew my gun, even though I had little hope of finding anyone inside, and stepped forward warily. I reached a hand out and pushed the door open slowly. And even though I thought I was prepared for it, all my breath and feeling left my body at the emptiness of the room. A sharp pain pierced me only to be replaced by an all encompassing empty ache. I had failed my son and he was gone.
Vin’s steps sounded on the balcony outside the window and I knew that the only reason the tracker made a sound was to ensure that he did not get mistakenly shot at. I holstered my weapon as he peeked his head into the room. Neither of us said a word, but for a moment I caught a glimpse of that understanding that Vin shares with Chris as I briefly read sympathy in his sharp, blue eyes. But behind that I could sense his resolve. Like me, he wasn’t even considering for a second that Ezra was gone forever. There would be too much hell to pay.
Still not speaking, both of us swept our eyes around the room, looking for any clues that might lead us to Ezra. Vin pulled back away from the window as he searched around on the balcony. Again his sympathetic eyes met mine. “There’s some blood here on the window sill. Not much. I’d say a flesh wound,” he said, reassurance coloring his drawl.
But I really heard nothing past the fact that there was blood, my son’s blood. I managed a nod to Vin, then spun on my heel and started out the door. If Vin called for me to wait, I didn’t hear it. But I soon felt his firm grip on my arm, spinning me to a halt as he demanded, “Where’re you going?”
I felt nothing but a hardness within me as I stared back at him and said, “To get my son back.” I saw Vin’s protest before the tracker could even voice it. “I know who has him, Vin. But it’s me he wants. Well he’s going to get me!” I spat out the last harshly.
But the Texan was not so easily turned aside. “We’ll get Chris first. Then we’ll all go see Herrick.”
I shook my head and jerked my arm free. “You go get Chris and meet me at Herrick’s.” Again our eyes met and held. “He’s my son, Vin.” He must have read everything I was trying to say with that, because he stepped back and gave me a brief nod. I returned the nod and then moved purposefully down the stairs.
As I marched down the street the only way to describe my feelings was a murderous rage, though I was oddly at my calmest. Nothing forces you to recognize the true priorities in your life like having your family threatened. Getting Ezra back was all that mattered to me. Hurting the man who had taken him would be a beautiful bonus. One I intended to savor.
But I was stopped dead in my tracks by the lean form of Chris Larabee striding out of the Hotel Lauren’s doorway. I have to wonder at what kind of unholy fire I had burning in my eyes because I actually made Chris pause in his step as his eyes met mine. But then I got an idea because something equally as deadly kindled in his eyes as he continued toward me.
“Herrick’s gone. Clerk says he never showed up after the championship,” he answered my question before I could voice it. And we both knew what Herrick’s own disappearance meant. I have to admit to a little surprise at Chris beating me to Herrick’s. But I suppose he knew it would be best if Herrick had actually been there. Still I’ll have to remember that Larabee can be quite crafty himself.
Chris tried to read me then simply asked, “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking Herrick has my son and I want him back. No matter what I have to do.”
The gunslinger nodded, “Good thoughts.” His eyes drifted over my shoulder then back. “But remember you’re not alone. We need a plan. If you’re right and Herrick is after revenge on you, then he’ gonna come after you, using Ezra as bait.”
I scrubbed at my face not wanting to meet that knowing look. Chris knew that I had no reservations about giving myself up if it had even the slightest hope of setting Ezra free. And I could see that Chris was not about to let me do that, not if he thought there was any other way. Still I was not going to be dissuaded. And I had no qualms about having to deceive Chris and Vin if I felt it was necessary.
Chris tossed a nod back over to someone behind my shoulder and I figured it had to be Vin. I turned around but the Texan was already melting back into the press of people on the boardwalk, probably going back to Ezra’s hotel room to see if he could find any clues or trails.
“Let’s go back to the saloon, let Vin see what he can find and wait for word from Herrick.”
“I’m not good at waiting,” was my reply.
“You think I am?” he asked with just the hint of a wry grin. Then he motioned for me to move with him back to the saloon. I went without a word, but my mind was already fashioning plans to lose both Chris and Vin so that I could take care of things my own way.
“I can’t believe you left the money alone,” I force myself to tease as we walk back into the saloon.
Chris shot me a look but I merely blinked back at him innocently. He searched my face and I could see that he was looking for a motive for my comment. I cursed myself for forgetting that the man dealt with Ezra on a daily basis. He may not have a complete understanding of the workings of a Maverick mind but he was getting familiar with some of our ways. But he said nothing, just continued inside and sprawled into a barstool, his back to the bar.
There’s no way I can sit still, so I pace the floor a bit, moving from one table to the next, until I stop at the table and chair that Ezra had sat in. My hands move almost independently of thought and begin to arrange the huge pile of chips into neat stacks. I’m sure Chris is watching me, I can feel the strength of his gaze boring into me. But neither of us say a word as we wait.
I would have preferred waiting longer if it would have meant better news. But Vin enters the saloon and by just a shake of his head lets us know that he found nothing useful. “It’s been too long. Whatever tracks they might’ve left got all mixed up when the town woke up and people started moving around.” His eyes were apologetic and sincere.
“No one can follow a trail in a busy city, Vin,” I try and console him. No sense in more than one of us feeling guilty.
“We can’t just wait around for Herrick to make the next move,” he insists vehemently, impatience flaring through his drawl. It always makes me wonder if the heat of the Texas sun has burned its way into the veins of its people, so hot-blooded they can be. Sure, Vin has a laid back, laconic way about him on the surface. But threaten any of those close to him and you find one of the fiercest and deadliest men around.
“You got a better idea?” Chris asked pointedly.
And suddenly I did. But I was not about to share it with Chris and Vin. It was starting to become clear to me that Herrick might have known about Ezra’s connection to me even before he had come to this town. Which means that he probably knew that Chris and Ezra were coworkers of sorts. The man had been very crafty and patient. I could only wonder on how long he had worked on his revenge. Anyway, I had a gut feeling that Herrick would not make his move against me if Chris and now Vin were anywhere in the vicinity. And I always trust my instincts. It’s why I’m still alive.
I finished my task with the chips, not wanting to look as if I’m in any kind of hurry or anything. Then I resume my pacing, fidgeting with my hands, running them through my hair and scrubbing them across my face. Projecting as much nervous energy as I can. Vin has moved over to lean against the bar next to Chris and the two of them are talking quietly. But I can tell that my actions are disrupting them somewhat. Out of the corner of my eye I can see them glancing over at me. Finally I move toward the back of the saloon and Chris calls out to me, “Where do you think you’re going?”
I stop and smile at him. “Just need some air.” He gives me that long look that tells me that he suspects that I am up to something. But I don’t wait for his approval, I’ve been on my own for far too long and have just a bit more experience in the world than he does to need it. I know what I’m doing.
“You think he knows what he’s doing?” Vin asked as Maverick disappeared .
Chris shook his head, “He thinks he knows what he’s doing.” The gunslinger paused, coming to a decision. “Herrick wants to use Ezra as bait to get Maverick. We’ll use Maverick as bait to get Herrick.”
Vin nodded and pushed himself away from the bar, as he understood exactly what Chris was telling him. He started off towards the back door to follow Maverick only to stop when Chris called out to him. “You trail them only to a point where you know you can pick up the trail again. Then you come back for me.” With his back still turned to the man in black, Vin nodded before moving out of the saloon.
Maverick walked over to the Hotel Lauren, his intent to find out if the hotel staff had any idea of a home that Herrick might keep outside the town. He was surprised to have the clerk greet him by name before he even introduced himself. But that quickly faded as the clerk handed him a note left for him by Herrick. With a nod of thanks and an easy coin toss of a tip to the clerk, Maverick ripped the note open as he turned back around and exited. He paused a moment at the top of the short flight of stairs leading down from the hotel entrance. His eyes swept the crowds and doorways of adjacent buildings. He had a feeling that Chris might have sent Vin to follow him. But he could not catch a glimpse of the tracker anywhere. He did not mind Vin shadowing him, felt a little more secure knowing that he probably was out there. He just did not want anyone else to spot Vin.
Stepping down to the street, Maverick returned his attention to the note in his hands. It made no mention of Ezra, only giving directions for him to meet someone outside of town. With new purpose in his stride, Maverick headed for the livery. The gambler prided himself on his ability to think quick on his feet, to go with the flow and come up with a plan as events unfolded around him. He knew that ability was about to be sorely tested. Normally he might even welcome the challenge. But this time there was something of far more importance than even his own life riding on the outcome; his son’s life.
Vin had watched Maverick ride out of town before gathering his own, already saddled and waiting, horse from outside the livery. The tracker did not doubt that Bret would suspect that he was being followed. But the gambler was no fool. He might figure that his best chance of finding Ezra might be alone, but he also knew that the best chance of getting both him and Ezra free would be in Chris and Vin knowing where they were.
Still, the old gambler was a wily one. He might have feared being watched and made a show of trying to hide his tracks. He obviously knew a few tricks that might throw off an ordinary tracker. But they were tricks that Vin knew all too well and the Texan had to wonder if Maverick had spent some time with the natives of the land. Seemed a bit incompatible with the dapper gentleman image Maverick presented. But then, he was Ezra’s father and there was just no telling what all was in the man’s history.
Vin watched from a distance as two men, neither of them Herrick, rode out to meet Maverick and promptly disarmed him. They bound Maverick’s hands after allowing him to mount his horse again. Then ponying the animal, they rode off. Vin waited until they were well out of sight on the open plain before he moved to the spot they had just left. The tracker dismounted and carefully studied all three sets of tracks, ingraining them into his mind so that he could be certain to not miss them when he returned with Chris.
Vin swung back into the saddle and kicked his horse into a gallop back into town. He slowed the animal only shortly before arriving, not wanting to draw attention to himself or startle the townsfolk. He had expected to find Chris waiting impatiently, or at least as close to impatient as the stoic man got. Instead he found that Chris was dealing with the waitstaff and dealers who had arrived earlier than usual. The Texan cursed as he realized that this was just going to cause a delay.
Maverick was shoved first through the ranch house doorway then down the hallway and finally into a back bedroom. Relief flooded the gambler as his eyes immediately locked with the pale green eyes of his son. Ezra sat in a chair in the empty bedroom. His shirt was gone and his entire torso was swathed in makeshift bandages and his feet and hands were bound to the chair itself. Maverick felt a tightness in his own chest as he realized that while Ezra might be a little worse for wear, he was alive and well. And his heart nearly soared out of his chest when he saw matching relief in his son’s eyes at the fact that he was still alive as well. Understanding passed silently between them. They were Mavericks. They bucked the odds for a living. They only had to learn the game before seeing the way to beat it.
His captors had told Maverick nothing as they had ridden out to the ranch, so he decided to see if they would betray any of what they knew. “Why is Mr. Bransford incarcerated as well?”
The one that Ezra had learned was named Charlie answered, “I think you know why. And I think you know that his name ain’t Bransford neither. It’s Ezra. Ezra Standish, though it really ought to be Maverick, now shouldn’t it, Ezra?” He emphasized the first name repeatedly and shot a mocking look over at the younger gambler.
Ezra rolled his eyes and threw an accusatory look over at Maverick.
“Don’t you look at me
that way, young man!” Bret spat out indignantly. “I had nothing to do with you
being named Ezra.” He paused a moment as if seriously considering this for the
first time. “As a matter of fact, I would have named you Bert.” His look
turned wistful, lost in memories. “Yes, Bert Maverick does have a nice ring to
it, I can see why your mother seemed so fond of it.”
"Well obviously she wasn't so very fond of you, if she couldn't get your name straight," Ezra retorted.
"Now, now, don't be bitter, Ezra," Maverick taunted. "I'm sure your mother had a perfectly good reason for naming you Ezra. You ever ask her?"
Again the green eyes rolled. "No, I have not been exceedingly inquisitive into ascertaining the significance of the moniker that my mother has bestowed upon me."
Maverick blinked slowly at Ezra before turning to Charlie who looked equally befuddled. Finally Maverick swore softly, "Damn, Ezra. I know your mother is a horrible cook. But were you really so desperate once to actually eat a whole thesaurus?"
Charlie burst out laughing at that question as Ezra fumed, suddenly unable to find a proper comeback. Finally he stated huffily, "I simply don't see how this information is pertinent to our current situation."
Maverick caught Charlie's eyes as the man recovered from his laughing fit and shook his head. "He's gonna sulk now. It's really sad when a man his age sulks, don't you think. Kinda pathetic."
Ezra's jaw dropped then snapped shut. "Wonder where I could have gotten such
an appalling habit. Most likely comes from my father's side of the family. Fortunately intelligence runs on my mother's side."
It was Maverick's turn to drop his jaw for a moment. Charlie had stepped back away from the two men and simply stood in the doorway watching them. He had to admit that they were kind of amusing even if they fought in a completely different manner than he and his pa did. The other man, T.J. had already moved outside to keep guard. "Are you calling me dumb?" Disbelief colored the older man's words.
"Well I am amazed that you managed to catch that inference."
"I'll have you know that I outwitted your mother on several occasions," Maverick said proudly.
Ezra blinked over at him. "And yet, she waltzed off with half your prize winnings and managed to elude you for quite some time."
Maverick inhaled deeply as he searched for a proper response. Not finding one he turned over to Charlie, "You know, you really ought to gag him. You know how mouthy these Southerners can be."
"He does tend to spout off quite a bit," he agreed.
Maverick dropped his voice, but knew that Ezra would still hear him as well. "I hear that babbling runs in his family."
"I ain't got no doubt of that. But we got orders not to gag you. Something about letting you have your last words or something," Charlie responded with a malicious glint in his eyes. "But no one said I had to listen to your mouths all day." And with that he walked out into the relative peace and quiet of standing guard with T.J.
Maverick allowed his true concern to fill his eyes now that he and Ezra were alone. "Are you alright?"
Ezra eyed him a moment. "I'm guessing you mean aside from the cut across my chest, what feel like cracked ribs, and the fact that I'm held against my will? Then yes, I'm quite alright." The young man paused and then concern touched his drawl as well. "How are you?"
"Fine, aside from the being held against my will thing. Did they tell you anything?"
"Herrick was here for a brief time after I arrived. He did not say too much, but knew that I was actually Ezra Standish and that you are my father. I gathered that he wants revenge against you, but he did not say why," he answered.
"I told you how I went to the championship to prove to myself that I was the best poker player ever - "
"You mean at that time," Ezra corrected.
Maverick sighed and reluctantly nodded. "Fine, at that time. Coop went because he knew of the Commodore's treachery and wanted to expose him. Turns out Herrick is actually the Commodore's son."
"The military man," Ezra stated as the puzzle pieces fell into place for him as well. "Herrick's obviously been planning this for some time." He shook his head in amazement at the depth of the man's desire for revenge. "Where are Chris and Vin?"
"Back in town," Maverick admitted almost sheepishly.
"What?" Ezra fairly exploded with disbelief. "Please tell me that you did not just turn yourself over to these men under the misguided notion that they would simply let me go once they had you? Please tell me that you actually have some type of plan to extricate ourselves from this situation."
Silence reigned in the room for several long moments as Maverick avoided meeting Ezra's eyes. "Good Lord! You truly are an idiot. You have two of the best men to have as backup and you leave them in town?"
"Show a little respect will you? I am still your father, remember?" Maverick demanded.
"How can I forget. That is exactly why I am even in this situation," Ezra snapped back and then immediately regretted it as Maverick turned wide, wounded eyes on him. Unused to ever having to voice them, an apology was slow coming to his lips and then it was too late as laughter echoed down the hallway, announcing the arrival of Herrick.
"You are quite right, Ezra," Herrick stated as he entered the doorway, "it is only because you had the misfortune of being born with the Maverick name - " The man paused, a mocking sneer affixed on his face as he eyed first Maverick and then settled his gaze on Ezra. "Oh, but that's right. You don't use the Maverick name. Is it because you are too embarrassed by the name or because you are not worthy of it?"
Ezra glared over at the
man, hoping that he could not see just how close to a nerve he really was.
“You’re the only one embarrassed by your father’s name,” he said boldly, yet
easily. “Or isn’t that what this is all about? Trying to get back the ruined
reputation of your family.
Herrick stepped further into the room so that he stood towering over Ezra. His fingers twitched but he did not raise a hand to the bound man. Instead he whirled to face Maverick. “Tell me, Maverick, what did it feel like to learn that you had a son, to meet him for the first time?”
Bret locked his eyes on Ezra but did not respond to the question. But Herrick was insistent as he moved in front of him and squatted down so that they were face to face, blocking Ezra from Bret’s vision. “What kinds of hopes were you filled with about the kind of man that he would be? Did he meet up to your high standards?”
Maverick narrowed his eyes, filling them with a grim intensity. His voice was low and threatening, “Don’t confuse me with your father, who was disappointed in his own son before you even were a joke at the poker table.”
Herrick backhanded Maverick, then stepped back away from the bound man. Ezra cursed their captor but Herrick ignored him, his attention focused fully on Maverick. He composed himself, getting his breathing under control and then began to chuckle. “A joke at the poker table? Is that what you think?” Herrick demanded. “Maybe a long time ago. But I’ve worked long and hard at it, working myself toward just one goal. To play against the man…no…the legend that is Bret Maverick.”
“That’s it?” Maverick questioned incredulously. “That’s been your goal for all these years? To play a hand of poker with me?” He choked out mocking laughter of his own. “Did you miss the whole point of my being a gambler? If you invite me to a game, I’m gonna play against you.” He enunciated each word slowly and clearly, “It’s…how…I…make…my…living.”
Herrick shook his head, laughing softly as he moved around the room, pacing slowly and deliberately in front of both men. “But you see, I wanted the stakes to be something truly worthwhile.” He stopped behind Ezra and both father and son felt a suddenly sickening feeling in the pits of their stomachs. Herrick nodded as he saw the realization dawn in Maverick’s eyes. “That’s right. I’ve heard you are only interested in high stakes games these days. I’m more than happy to oblige in giving you that.”
I don't think I've ever truly known despair in my
life, until right at this moment. Herrick chuckles again and strides out of
the room. Silence hangs between me and Ezra for a long moment, but I can feel
his shrewd gaze on me. Finally I look over and meet those pale green eyes that
are wide and searching. And suddenly the despair disappears and that odd
calmness fills me again as I'm beyond rage at this point. All I want to do is
reassure him, almost as if he were still but a child, the child I never knew.
But he's a grown man, one who was raised to take care of himself and so his eyes
harden, the emotions that had been briefly on the surface are pulled back behind
an impassive face. Still the words fall from my lips, "We'll get out of
He gives me a quick nod of the head and a very small quirk of his lips passes for a smile. And then something warm glows in his eyes and very softly he answers, "I know we will, Dad."
Our gazes couldn't hold. Both of us are far too new to these kinds of feelings. And it was then that I knew for certain that God has a perverse sense of humor. Because my first thought at Ezra’s love for me actually shining in his eyes and his calling me dad was that I could die at this very moment and be a happy man. I mean, obviously dying was the very last thing I wanted to do at this moment. I wanted to get free, get Ezra free and then get the Hell out of here.
Finally I catch my son’s eyes again and give him a sheepish grin and he returns it in kind. And then we both chuckle. I have absolutely no idea what either of us found so humorous, but I suspect that it was ourselves. There we were, two grown men held captive by an insane man who wanted revenge against us, and neither of could quite express how we really felt though I’m sure both of us wanted to. And even though no words were spoken to that effect, I’m certain that we both knew anyway.
And then there was no time to even think about saying anything else as Herrick returned followed by his two henchmen carrying a small poker table. Ezra and I exchange looks again. Somehow the sight of that poker table gave us both a sense of self-confidence. After all, we both had spent most of our lives at those tables, mostly winning. So you can’t blame us for feeling a bit easier at seeing that table. Of course little did we know exactly how insane Herrick was.
Herrick, as if sensing our renewed confidence smiles broadly at both of us as he sets a deck of cards on the table. His two men grab my chair and push me over to the table so that my back is to Ezra. Herrick pulls a chair over to the table and sits across from me. We lock eyes for a long moment each of us trying to read the other.
Finally he turns back to his men standing in the doorway and says, “Charlie, keep watch outside. If you even think you see anything, fire a warning shot.” The man nodded and left. Herrick then motioned to his other man and he came and cut me loose, but he stepped back quick and kept his hand on his gun. But I ignore him and make a big show of returning the circulation to my hands.
“Well, Mr. Maverick, I’m sure you are eager to begin the game. But first let me spell out the stakes.” He paused a moment and began to shuffle the cards. "If I win, I kill your son and you go free. If you win, then I kill you and your son goes free.”
And just like that all the self-confidence that I have always known while sitting at the gaming tables completely leaves me. I have to remind myself to breathe. The man is diabolical. There’s no other way to describe him. I hear Ezra’s surprised exhale of air and know that he is just as amazed as I am. But the only thing that fills my vision is Herrick’s thoroughly pleased, smug smile.
“So what do you say, Mr. Maverick,” Herrick asks, again shuffling the cards loudly, “are you going to play to win?”
I heard Ezra struggling with his bounds even as he sputtered in outrage. And for once, neither me nor my son had a proper retort or insult. Herrick’s man strode purposefully over to Ezra and I made a motion to rise from my chair even though my legs were still tied, but Herrick had a gun in his hand, cocked and aimed at me. “Don’t worry, I want your son to watch this game. After all, he has just as much at stake as you do. I just don’t want any distractions.”
Ezra’s voice became muffled and I knew before I even turned in my chair that he had been gagged. His guard double-checked his bindings before resuming his post at the doorway. I could almost feel Ezra’s anger as he continued briefly to test the ropes tying his hands to the chair. But when our eyes met, he went immediately still, his wide, green eyes almost pleading with me. And again I was filled with the bitter taste of despair. There was no way either Ezra or I would win in this game.
I turned reluctantly away from my son and found the strength to bring my poker face to bear as I glared at Herrick. My hatred for the man I could not contain, but I let it blaze there in my eyes, hoping that at the least it would unnerve him somewhat. “I always play to win,” I growled out. And I saw it then, a small nervous twitch in the man’s eye as he leaned back away from me. It was a small victory for me, but one I hoped to exploit. Herrick’s weakness was the same as his father’s; he was underestimating the Maverick will to win.
“You going to play with those cards or are you going to deal?” I asked, suddenly lightening my tone and leaning back in my chair. Herrick believed himself to be completely in control. And while he might really be, I could make him start to wonder if that was true. Inwardly, my gut was twisting and tightening in on itself at the very thought that I might lose Ezra. The fact that saving him meant losing my own life did not even really enter my mind. Despite how little time we have spent together, he has become the most important thing in my life
Herrick slowly, deliberately begins to deal the cards, but I keep my eyes locked on him and don’t even glance down at the cards he pushes toward me. I even wait until he has set down the remaining deck and picked up his own dealt hand. I continue to stare at him as he peruses his cards. He shifts slightly in his seat, but I hide my smile of satisfaction from knowing that I am getting to him. I pick up my cards, one by one, but leave the fifth lying on the felt table, untouched.
Herrick looks from me to the card and raises his eyebrows. “You forgot one,” he states.
I shrug my shoulders as I keep moving my four cards around in my hand. “I don’t need to look at it,” I say easily.
Telltale beads of sweat begin to appear on his upper lip and forehead as he considers my words. “I know all about your little game at the championship, Maverick. The way you wouldn’t look at your card even as you bet everything you had. Your little mind games aren’t going to work on me.”
I nod my head even as I say, “Of course they won’t,” and smile brightly at him. I watch him swallow and then return his attention to his cards.
He drops two cards to the table and reaches to take two off the top of the deck, but my voice stops him. “So, just tell me this. Why the whole championship? You have someone in the final ten who you think can win the whole million? What’s the story there, Herrick?”
He smirks, again pleased with himself. “You’re not too far off the mark there, Maverick. You see, I had everything planned out, I was going to do everything that my father didn’t do. I was going to take care of you once and for all and get away with all the money. That was all that I wanted to do. But then a few weeks before the championship I learned about your son. And I knew then, that it didn’t matter if I got the million dollars or not. I’d much rather take everything away from you that I can. One way or another, you’re going to die today, Bret Maverick. Because if I don’t kill you myself, then my killing your son will do the job for me.”
It takes all the self-control I possess to not lunge across the table and wrap my hands around his neck and slowly choke the life out of him. “So why didn’t you just invite Ezra to the game?” I asked instead as if I was only slightly curious.
Herrick’s hand still lay lax on top of the deck of cards as he answered, “Because I learned of him a little too late. It wasn’t until Judge Travis came around with his suspicions. He wanted to send all seven of his lawmen over here to guard the game. That was the last thing that I wanted. But I had to give him something so I agreed to one man. But now I needed to know all that I could about these seven men, see if their loyalty or silence could be bought. So I sent a man to Four Corners to see what he could learn. Imagine my surprise to learn that you had recently spent some time in Four Corners, most noticeably in the presence of a young gambler there. So I started digging a bit deeper. Discovered that the young gambler was your and Annabelle Bransford’s, though now Maude Standish, son. I had to change my plans. I had to hope that maybe, just maybe the man Travis sent would be Ezra himself. When that didn’t happen, I had to make an opening among the players. Or I should say an unfortunate accident created an opening among the players. I figured that if we were short a gambler that Larabee would suggest his own man. But luck was on my side as Zane Bransford arrived, all ready to play.”
Fate can be quite the bitch sometimes. She had played Ezra and me directly into Herrick’s hands. I made no reply, so Herrick finally took his two cards and settled them into his hand. I looked at my own cards and threw one to the table. Herrick again looked from the still untouched card face down on the table to me. I smiled at him and said, “I’ll take just one card.”
Herrick again swallowed nervously as new beads of sweat popped up on his forehead. Slowly he pushed the top card over to me. I snatched it up and placed it in my hand. He opened his mouth to say something but a gun shot made anything he was going to say moot. He turned in his chair to instruct his man, but I was not about to let this opportunity go by. My legs were still tied to the chair but I threw my upper body as far as I could and grabbed hold of Herrick and pulled him to the ground. I heard a loud thump and knew that Ezra had thrown himself to the ground as well, and hoped he was able to get any kind of cover.
I struggled with Herrick, my only thought was to get that gun away from him, but he has the use of his legs and knows that he is a dead man if he doesn’t get away from me. More gunfire sounds from outside the house and relief washes over me as I know that it is finally Chris and Vin. No matter what happens now, I know that Ezra will be safe, his friends will see to that. But in my struggle with Herrick, I forgot about his henchman. I had expected him to run out and backup his friend. Instead he remained with Herrick and as we fought, he drew his gun and waited for a clear shot at me.
Then all Hell broke loose. Or I’m sure that’s how it must have looked to Herrick’s man as the twin demons of Vin and Chris burst into the house. In desperation he fired and I rolled away from Herrick as pain laced through my shoulder. I heard another shot and the grunt of pain from the man as Vin’s expert shot spun him to the ground, dead. Herrick scrambled to his feet and started to draw his gun. It never cleared its holster as Chris’ clean shot dropped him, dead as well.
I forgot the pain as I turned to see how Ezra was, but I couldn’t see his face. He had thrown his chair over backward and then on its side so that his back was to me. I croak out his name even as I feel Chris’ hands on me, untying me. My eyes close in relief as I hear his gag garbled reply. Then I watch as Vin moves to him and uprights the chair. Pale green eyes immediately find mine and concern fills them as he takes in the blood spreading across my shirt. I wince involuntarily as Chris presses hard against my shoulder to stop the bleeding. “It’s alright, Ezra,” Chris reassures, “it just winged him.”
By this time, Vin has Ezra untied. The next thing I know my son is kneeling next to me, his hand finding and gripping my own. And I have no idea which of us is more relieved than the other. But neither of us says a word. There’s no need. We both just know what the other is thinking. Ezra takes over for Chris even though I see his own wince of pain. My first thought is to reprimand him, but I can’t. I just want to have my son close, to feel his warmth and know that he is no longer in any danger.
As one we both see Vin and Chris’ interest drawn to the poker table and to the two hands of carsd that lie on it. Vin reaches out a hand to flip the cards that Herrick had dropped as Chris does the same for mine. Ezra speaks up first, “Please, that is one game that I do not want to know the outcome.” I vigorously nod my concurrence.
Chris and Vin share a look and then shrug as if deciding they will never understand us. Ezra and I share our own look and smile, for we never want to be understood. But the two peacekeepers humored us and scooped up the cards and placed them into the deck. And with that they insured that neither of us would ever have to know which of us would be sacrificed. Like Ezra said, some things should remain a mystery. And the last thing I ever wanted to know was how close I might have been to losing my son.
Chris and Vin rode back into Danza del Rio a short time later. After a long discussion Chris decided that while he would always stand a chance against one or the other of the Mavericks, he would never have a prayer when the two were united against him. And so, after realizing that neither were seriously injured, he reluctantly left both of the wounded men at the ranch house while he and Vin returned to town in hopes of catching the last man that they believed to have been part of Herrick’s plot.
Vin ducked his head to hide his grin at the looks of relief on the dealers and waitstaff who had remained in the saloon. When he had returned to gather Chris so that they could follow the trail to Ezra and Maverick, Vin had found Chris explaining to the dealers that they would have to be responsible for keeping the million dollars in the safe secure. If the Texan himself had not been in such a hurry to get going he might have found it more humorous then. Now that Maverick and Ezra were out of danger, Vin decided he could enjoy himself. So he found himself a seat at the bar and prepared to watch the festivities. And, of course, to provide any back up that Chris might need.
It was drawing near to the time for the final night of the championship to start and so the remaining gamblers began arrived. Vin knew it had been hard for Ezra to decide to stay behind, to not have his chance to sit at the table and win a million dollars and prove himself to be the best poker player of his generation. But the Texan was proud to know that Ezra had made the right choice in staying with his father until they could return with a wagon. Vin smiled again as he realized that Ezra probably already knew the outcome of tonight and had decided that it was not worth the pain of riding in with busted ribs.
Because in the end, no one walked away with the title of Champion or with one million dollars. Everyone had immediately demanded to know where Herrick, Maverick, and Zane Bransford were. Chris informed them that he had no idea where Mr. Bransford had gone and that Herrick and Maverick had sudden business pop up that needed their attention. He added that they would both be joining them shortly and wanted them to get on with the game. And so they had set up the tables even though one would be a player short. But one player by the name of Preston Lee could not hide his nervousness at Herrick’s continued absence. Both Chris and Vin could easily see it and so the two men made it a point to hover near him as much as possible.
Vin supposed that the man could handle the high pressures of gambling, but not of hiding his guilt. Right before the game was set to begin, Preston made a move for the exit, but Vin easily blocked him. “You know the rules. Once you leave, you’re out for good,” the tracker warned in his low voice.
Preston nodded as he stammered out, “I know. But…but…”
Vin could not resist as he drew his mare’s leg, “Don’t feel lucky tonight? Cards not in your favor?”
It did not take a lot of prodding before Preston Lee confessed to having plotted with Herrick to win the million dollars, even cheating if necessary. But the small man swore that he knew nothing about the murders or the plot against Maverick. Vin had to hustle him over to the jail and lock him up when the remaining eight gamblers started to raise a ruckus about the entire game being fixed. He was stepping up to the boardwalk when a single gunshot had him again drawing his weapon and rushing inside.
Chris Larabee stood on the makeshift stage, reholstering his own weapon. From the startled, and slightly shaken, looks on the gamblers’ faces, Vin guessed that Chris had enough and fired a warning shot. The gunslinger caught his eyes and Vin had to find a great deal of control to not even let a smile slip out at the expression on Chris’ face. The man was obviously at the very end of his patience.
It did not take long for Vin to learn why. The gamblers did not remain subdued for very long. Chris had told them about Herrick’s revenge plot against Maverick and his subsequent death. Now the gamblers were demanding that because the game had been fixed they should each be refunded their entrance fee.
“Shut up, all of you!” Chris yelled suddenly, bringing immediate silence. “If I have to shoot my gun again I’m not wasting the bullet this time,” he warned with a threatening glint in his green eyes. He waited a moment but not a single sound came from the gamblers.
“Alright,” he nodded, pleased with his progress. “Here’s what’s going to happen. The money is going to remain locked up in the safe until Judge Orrin Travis arrives in town. Then it will be up to him to decide how to return the entry fee.”
Low grumbling filled the saloon and Chris tossed his glare around the room to silence them. But one foolhardy soul questioned, “What about the $40,000 of Lafayette and Lee? Lee shouldn’t get his money back.”
Chris started to step down off the stage to usher the gamblers out of the saloon and Vin quickly stepped to his side. “That’ll be for the judge to decide,” Vin stated. Facing the two grim lawmen, the men quickly dispersed without any further complaints.
Once they were alone, Vin smirked, “That went well.”
Chris did not even bother looking at Vin as he responded, “I told you, I wouldn’t waste another bullet.”
Vin chuckled at the empty threat, but when that caused Chris to actually stop and turn his glare on him, the Texan had to wonder just how empty it was. He followed Chris out of the saloon so that they could ride back out and retrieve Ezra and Maverick. Neither of them wanted those two to spend a night out at that ranch house on their own.
The next afternoon, Ezra leaned back into his hot bath and could not contain the soft 'ah' of pleasure that escaped his lips. He heard his father chuckle softly from the tub across from him but ignored him for a moment. It had been hard enough getting into the tub with his hurt ribs and he was not going to let Maverick ruin it.
Maverick smiled as he watched his son relax under the thick suds of the bath and close his eyes. The older gambler knew exactly how Ezra felt, though he was sure his son would not fully appreciate a hot soak until his bones began to ache with age. Maverick’s eyes closed in relief at the fact that Ezra was still among the living and would have an opportunity to grow old. Unfortunately he could not quite enjoy his own bath as much as Ezra, as the bandages wrapped around his shoulder forced him to remain more upright. He compensated by enjoying the finest cigar the town had to offer, which of course mean that it came from Herrick’s private stock.
Maverick waited a few moments to allow Ezra to get good and relaxed before he finally asked outright the question he had been wanting to ask since Ezra first arrived in Danza del Rio. “So just what did your mother tell you that had you so angry at me?”
“Well I believe that I would be the better person to ask,” a laughing and feminine voice stated from the bathhouse entranceway.
Both men turned quickly to see Maude Standish smiling smugly at them. Ezra sank a bit deeper into his tub as Maverick sat up a bit straighter. His blue eyes twinkled with joy at the sight of her. “Do you make it a habit of walking in on a father and son when they are bathing?”
“Only when that father and son are attempting to hide something from me. Like this poker championship that both of you neglected to tell me about. And I see that once again my darlin’ boy has become injured while in your company, Maverick.”
“Now, Maude, as you can see I was injured as well this time,” Bret protested.
Maude maintained the unimpressed look on her face but concern and sympathy did touch her eyes as she looked from one man to the other. Seeing them injured had taken a great deal of animosity out of her, but she still had a point to make. Plus, she had learned the truth behind the championship from Vin and Chris, who had also pointed out where Ezra and Maverick were. So she knew that no one had profited from the game and that she had, in fact, almost lost the two men who meant everything in her life. “Well that’s because you boys did not have me around to keep you out of trouble.”
Maverick knew that Maude was not about to let that go, so he quickly brought out his best defense. “Well you and I were not exactly on speaking terms at the time that I learned about it, so you can’t really blame me for not telling you,” he said innocently.
Maude grudgingly nodded before turning her accusatory look on Ezra and raising her eyebrows. “I suppose you’re right, Bert. But that means that my own son conspired with his friends to keep me in the dark about this championship. And all that after I was the one who helped him raise what I am guessing is the ante into this championship.” She finally stepped down from the entranceway and started toward her son.
Maverick laughed. In all the excitement he had actually forgotten his curiosity as to where Ezra had gotten the $20,000 ante. He would definitely have to use this to tease his son. The laughter died quickly, however, as he then had to wonder where Maude had gotten that kind of money and how he had not known about it before.
reacted, mostly out of embarrassment but also out of hope of a distraction.
“Mother! We are bathing!” he protested loudly.
<![endif]>Purposefully Maude took a step closer to him. “Why, Ezra, darlin’. I’m your mother. I’ve seen you au natural since you were an itty-bitty baby. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Ezra groaned in dismay but Maverick came to his defense. “Now, Maude, there are several phrases that a man does not want to hear when he is bathing, and itty bitty is foremost among them.”
Maude grinned as she turned back to Maverick. “I said were – past tense. But really, Bert, he’s my son. If anyone has any concerns about measuring up, I believe that would be you.”
Ezra’s heavy sigh was lost under Maude’s indignant shriek as Maverick splashed water at her. “Now you just stay away,” he laughed but his tone and eyes said the complete opposite.
Maude’s smile turned predatory as she brushed at the droplets of water on her dress. “Oh you will have to be punished,” she promised.
Maverick silently repeated that last word with raised eyebrows. But Ezra broke the mood by slapping at his bath water, sending a spray of water and suds up and out of his tub, as he declared, “I am still in the room!”
“Of course you are, darlin’,” Maude replied. “But don’t you want your mother and father to reconcile?”
“I don’t want to witness it,” their son mumbled under his breath.
“What did you say, Ezra dear?” Maude pretended not to hear as she started to turn back around.
But Ezra halted her, “Stop! Don’t move. Just stay right where you are, Mother. I’m getting out of here to leave you two to do…” disgust colored his voice, “whatever.”
Maude and Maverick exchanged looks as they both attempted to stifle their laughter. But the splashing and mumbled cursing from Ezra as he struggled to get out of the bathtub in a hurry and dress was too much for them.
Maude crinkled her nose and smiled at Maverick, “He’s so excitable, isn’t he?” she asked with a laugh.
Bret managed to get his answer out deadpan but could not keep the huge grin off his face. “He sure is.”
“He gets that from you,” both parents accused at the same time then erupted into laughter.
“That is hardly funny,” Ezra stated indignantly as he gave up momentarily and settled back down into his now churning bath water.
Maude started to turn around to defend herself, but Ezra again called for her to stop.
She sighed and rolled her eyes before tossing a wink at Bret. “Good Lord, boy, just how long does it take you to dress?” she asked. “Maybe you should just let me help you.”
“Mother!” Ezra yelped as she turned around.
Maverick covered his eyes with his hand, shaking his head as the rest of him shook with silent laughter. When he was able to speak again, he said, “One thing you should have learned by now, Ezra, is that being a Maverick means that sometimes it’s hard to hold onto your dignity.”
Ezra tossed him a glare and had a scathing remark prepared, but was silenced when he noticed the suddenly thoughtful look on his mother’s face before she turned back to regard Maverick. Taking the opportunity of her turned back, Ezra finally managed to stand from the tub and grabbed a towel to wrap around himself as he quickly gathered his clothes, all the while cursing the cracked ribs that painfully slowed him down.
All trace of humor left Bret as he found himself under Maude’s intense scrutiny. Suddenly she knelt down beside his tub and took his hand in her own. “Speaking of that, I still would like very much to become one. A Maverick that is.”
Ezra dropped the boots that he had picked up after donning his trousers. It would be incredibly hard to judge whether father or son was more surprised, but Ezra found his voice first. “You mean to tell me that you were the one who suggested marriage, Mother?” He could not believe it. When he had last spoken to her she had told him that she and Maverick were on the outs and that the subject of marriage had come up. He had assumed that it had been Maverick who had wanted to marry. After all he had heard all too often his mother’s views on wedded life. And she had let him believe it and let him be angry at his father. She was truly an amazing woman.
Maude answered slowly but kept her eyes locked on Bret. “Yes, I was the one who said that your father and I should finally get married. I believe the shock was too much for him then.” She waited anxiously, as did Ezra, to hear Maverick’s response.
Maverick squeezed her hand tightly between both of his. “I would like nothing more than having you as my wife.” The smile slipped into a sly smirk. “Except having you now. In this tub.” With that he pulled her into the bath with him. Maude’s shriek evolved into laughter as she splashed back at Bret. But he caught her hands and pulled her towards him until their lips met in a deep kiss.
Ezra’s eyes rolled heavenward but a grin was firmly affixed on his face as he silently made his way out of the bathhouse. There was no two ways about it. The two of them had always belonged together. He was simply grateful that they had finally come to realize that themselves.
Ain’t it odd how sometimes it takes near catastrophes to bring people back together? Now, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have eventually come to my senses and gone back to Maude. The woman just threw me off, is all. I just needed a little space to clear my head. And then I’m sure she enjoyed Ezra automatically believing that I was the one pushing for marriage. No wonder he was so irritated with me. He thought I was trying to push her away. Course now he can’t hide how much he wants for Maude and me to be together. Yep, Pappy, things are certainly coming together, even after all this time.
We stayed in town for a couple of more days, until Judge Travis could arrive and preside over the refunding of the entry fees. I believe that Ezra got to hold his refund for all of two seconds before Maude snatched it from him. I know I shouldn’t but I just can’t help but laugh every time I remember the look of confusion on his face. But amazingly that was the extent of their hostilities. I think they had come to a silent agreement for a truce until our upcoming nuptials.
Now we haven’t set a date or anything. Heaven forbid that Maude be rushed. Not that I really mind. I’ve been a lifelong bachelor after all. I’d like some time to get used to the idea myself.
Course, it is pretty interesting to see the others’ reactions as well. Well, I’m guessing that it will be. Chris and Vin are not the type to give big reactions. Although Chris has that sly smirk on his face as if it was something that he suspected all along. And I just bet that he did. Vin’s response had been simply “About time.” Still I could tell that he was pleased.
The judge decided to stay in town for a bit, but the rest of us packed up and headed back to Four Corners. Ezra, Maude and I rode in the stagecoach and I’m sure the other passenger was glad to have us as Chris and Vin rode along as escort. Only the most desperate of stagecoach robbers would not give second thoughts to even approaching us with those two riding alongside.
Ezra and I were getting around a lot better. But I’m sure no one would blame me if I didn’t immediately let Maude in on that particular fact. With a woman like Maude, a man has to get his coddling in when he can. Of course Ezra was still not overly appreciative of our behavior so he either slept all the way or pretended to.
He and I actually had a long talk finally, the night of Maude’s arrival. After Herrick’s taunting about the possibility that I might find any disappointment in him, I had to let Ezra know that there was nothing further from the truth. Now, he’s not one to open up and I have to admit that neither am I. But I made it clear to him that with Maude and I getting married I was going to make sure everyone knew that he was my son and the successor to the Maverick name and talent. I think that eased whatever insecurities he might have had. At least I certainly hope so.
What matters most to me is that we arrived in Four Corners as a family. And the rest of Ezra’s other family were there to greet us. Fortunately Chris had telegrammed ahead to let them know what our delay was and what had happened with the championship. Still the seven of them had a lot to catch up on, so I pulled Maude away to give them an opportunity. I still have all my persuasive charm.
The seven peacekeepers sat in the saloon and shared a drink as they caught up on all that had transpired over the last few days. Ezra waited until the others had filled Chris in on the inconsequential goings on before he sat back in his chair and asked, “Well, gentlemen, might I inquire as to how exactly it is that the four of you failed so miserably in the relatively simple task of keeping my whereabouts from my mother?”
The four men in question exchanged sheepish looks as each of them tried to get the others to speak for them. Finally Buck piped up, “Actually, Ezra, it wasn’t any of us who told her.” The other three quickly nodded and added their murmurs of agreement.
A corner of Ezra’s lips twitched up in a smile. “Really? So then just who is to blame?”
Buck paused a moment as it went against his nature to blame a woman. “Well now, that don’t really matter, now does it? What’s done’s done. No use placing blame no how. No harm done.”
Ezra held Buck’s gaze, waiting. The southerner actually knew the whole story but he could not help the urge to torment and tease Buck and the others. He probably should not have been, but he was a little surprised when Vin seemed to pick up that he was attempting to get Buck to admit to something more. The Texan leaned in toward the taller man and simply repeated his last words questioningly, “No harm done?”
Buck flashed a grin that quickly died as Vin’s blue eyes remained intent. The mustached man turned to Ezra who merely raised his eyebrows at him. Buck looked next to his oldest friend, but Chris sat back in his chair, his body language stating that he was merely an observer. “No offense, Ezra,” Vin continued, “but I hardly think of a couple of days with your ma as harmless.”
“Oh, none taken, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra agreed.
Buck again looked from one man to the other before turning back to the other three men who had remained in town with him. Disbelief colored his eyes and he started to protest further, but Josiah leaned in and smoothly turned the conversation. “Speaking of your mother, Ezra, I noticed that she and your father have seemed to reconcile.”
The southerner smiled and for once they could all easily read the joy in his face. “As a matter of fact, they will soon be announcing their nuptials.”
A second of shocked silence settled over the men as Ezra’s words sunk in. Then suddenly, J.D.’s exuberant laugh rose loud and clear. Despite their looks of concern over their youngest’s sanity, it took J.D. a little while to be able to answer Ezra’s affronted question, “Just what do you find so hilarious about that?”
“Oh no, Ezra,” J.D. managed between gasps of air, “I’m really happy for them and you.” He paused to take a breath again.
Buck leaned close to him and growled between grit teeth, “Shut up, Kid.”
But J.D. was not about to be intimidated. “Buck thought your mother was interested in him. He said that last day she was here, it was all he could do to try and make her keep her distance.”
The mustached man groaned loudly as J.D. burst out laughing again and five pairs of stunned eyes fell on him. Although Ezra was not truly surprised. He had suspected that his mother would not have taken kindly to having the truth kept from her. And she had tossed a few hints that she was eager to return to Four Corners for some unfinished business. He decided that it would be far more fun to see what Maude had in store for the other three than to warn them of her intentions. He also knew that he would have to keep his own guard up as there was no telling what she had planned for him as well.
But right now he was going to enjoy this. He blinked rapidly at Buck in disbelief, even as the other man quickly came to his own defense. “Now, Ezra, you know I would never try to woo any of my friends’ women or…” he gave a slight shudder, “mothers.” When all he saw were skeptical looks from them, Buck did the only thing he could, he tried to shift the focus to someone else. “Hell, Josiah’s always been the one after her!”
All eyes turned to the
older man to see how he would react to the allegation. Shamelessly he gave them
all a wide grin. “That is all in the past. Today I will offer my services to
join the two of them in holy matrimony.”
“I’m sure Mother will appreciate the offer, Josiah, but she may already have other ideas. In fact, I can only begin to imagine what all the ceremony may entail.” With that he downed his shot of whiskey.
Maude and I enter the saloon arm in arm. We both pause as we take in the sight of our son sitting at a table, laughing with his six friends. And for a moment none of them look like the near legendary and fearsome team of peacekeepers that they are. Instead, they look just like seven friends, sharing a moment as only true friends can; by teasing and joking with one another. And among those men is my son who fits in without quite fitting in. I feel Maude squeeze my arm slightly and with just that little gesture, I know that she is just as proud of him as I am.
I’m not one to want to jinx myself, but I can’t help but think that life can’t get any better than this. My son is a man that I am honored to know, as are his friends. And I’m about to make an honest woman out of the love of my life. Well marry her at least. Maude and I walk over to their table and they quickly make room for us. And in no time at all we are laughing and joking with them.
I’m an old gambler. I can’t even begin to think of how much of my life has been spent at one kind of gaming table or another. I’ve bucked all kinds of odds. Won and lost more than my fair share of fortunes. In all that time, though, I’ve never gambled on love or family. It’s about time that I ante into this game. I don’t think there’s a losing hand in the deck.