"A seed of doubt once planted, sown deep had begun to grow and crack the very foundation that united them. Although they had face a myriad of dangers together -- everything from the Coleson gang to the wrong end of a hangman's noose -- Tucker began to look at his partner with new eyes.
"And he wasn't too certain he liked what he saw."
"What're you readin', JD?" Nathan asked as he walked into the jail.
JD lifted his eyes from Tucker and Trent's exploits. He smiled and showed Nathan the cover. "It's called 'Double Doubt'. Just arrived on the stage yesterday. It's pretty good."
Nathan just grinned. JD and his dime novels.... "I'm heading out on patrol, just wanted to let y'all know if Carol Miller comes in hurting, take her upstairs and soak her ankle."
JD nodded. "It no better?"
"It would get better faster if'n she'd stay off it," Nathan grumped.
Another nod, and JD watched Nathan arm himself. "Patrol, you said?"
"Yeah, with Ezra."
JD whistled. "I'll get Josiah to pray extra hard." At Nathan's look, he smiled. "You two together? Unsupervised? You're gonna need it."
Nathan scowled and left the jail.
Ezra and Nathan rode the first leg of their patrol in silence, punctuated only by Ezra's yawns.
At last, Nathan sighed heavily. "If my company is so boring, maybe I should go back to town."
Shooting him an acid look, Ezra retorted, "Three hours of sleep does not make one well-rested."
"Three hours? What, couldn't you tear yourself away from fleecin' some poor rube long enough to get some sleep?"
Hurt went all over Ezra. Not even bothering with his poker face, he shot Nathan a look of such venom that for a split-second Nathan found himself wondering if Ezra wasn't related to Chris in some way.
Then Ezra touched his heels lightly to Chaucer and galloped ahead. Nathan caught up with him just shy of a ridge top. "Ezra--"
"Shhh!" Ezra held up a hand and pointed over the ridge. "Look," he whispered.
Nathan peered over the ridge and saw a group of five whooping men riding in a circle around an open wagon. In the wagon was a man, shouting at them in a language Nathan didn't recognise, trying to shield a woman and a young girl amid the barrels in the back.
"Damn," Nathan whispered. "Five to two..."
"Which is the least of our misfortunes," Ezra whispered back. "That language is Italian. He's screaming at them to get away from the oil."
"There's oil in those barrels?" Nathan gasped. "Shoot, if'n one of those idiots fires an' bullets hit those...."
"As Mister Dunne would say, we'll go out in a blaze of glory," Ezra sighed. "Literally."
"Somehow we've--" Nathan began.
But Ezra was on the move, guiding Chaucer over the hill. "Follow my lead," he said over his shoulder.
"Ezra...." Nathan hissed, following him.
Ezra guided the chestnut up to the wagon at a leisurely lope. "Hallo, the wagon!" he called when he was close enough.
Nathan saw the child's face light up. She let out a string of words, the only one recognizable to him Ezra's name.
Ezra smiled and called back to her in the same language. Her face became solemn, and she nodded. So did both of her parents.
Still smiling, Ezra then addressed the five riders, who were slowly encircling them. "Is there anything we can do to assist you gentlemen?"
One of them jerked his head toward the wagon. "You speak these--"
"I understand their language, yes, sir," Ezra said before the slur could be said. "Perhaps there is some problem of communication I can facilitate."
"Maybe I can translate."
As the leader's face lit up, Nathan hissed, "Ez, what in the name of--"
"Trust me, Nathan," he hissed back.
"Do I got a choice?" Nathan grumbled.
"Do you want to get out of this alive?" Aloud, Ezra said, "Just tell me what you need."
The leader jerked his head again. "Them barrels."
Ezra asked a question, and the man replied. Ezra's face registered surprise, then amused understanding, then the poker face slid back into place. "Oil. Every barrel is filled with oil."
The leader whistled. "Ya hear that, boys? We got us some oil!" They whooped again, but hushed when the man in the wagon spoke again. He rattled off something for several moments, pointing behind the men.
"Grazie," Ezra said. "He says an entire strike is to be found in those rocks. He has given explicit directions -- I can take you there."
"Ezra!" Nathan hissed, not liking this turn of events.
"How do I know I can trust you?" the leader growled.
"I propose my companion and one of your men guard the Torelli family until we return. We shall need their wagon to haul our oil." Ezra was cool under pressure.
Too cool. Nathan realised he was watching the conman at work.
The leader nodded. "And how do you propose to get to this strike?"
"Why, sir, I have dynamite in my saddlebag." Ezra suffered a man looking in his bag.
"He's right, he does! They're on the level!"
The leader nodded. "Simms, stay with the darkie!"
Ezra visibly struggled to maintain his poker face at that. He rode to Nathan's side. "Be ready to disable Simms and ride hard."
"You know what you're doin'?" Nathan whispered.
"We'll soon find out." Ezra smiled and gave him a two-fingered salute before calling something to the Torellis.
Mister Torelli nodded and climbed onto the buckboard, lifting the reins as his wife and daughter braced themselves.
"Hold on--" the leader began.
Ezra nodded. "No need to fret -- he's merely keeping the horses under control."
The leader saw this was true. Torelli was using the reins to calm the skittish animals. Giving a satisfied nod, he said, "Let's go."
"Wait," Simms called. "Are you sure you can--"
"Four of us, just one of him." The leader smiled. "Not a problem."
And they rode away.
During the short ride to the pass Torelli had pointed out, Ezra's mind went back to what the Italian had informed him. There was no oil where he was leading these men.
There was, however, a possible means out of this. Mister Torelli said he had shown his daughter one of the West's more spectacular, and more deadly, sights.
Ezra was gambling Torelli wasn't exaggerating or misremembering.
When they got there, Ezra rode slightly ahead, peering into the crannies. He couldn't suppress the smile when he saw eyes looking back at him from several of them. Wheeling Chaucer around, he headed back to the strangers.
"Find it?" the leader called.
"Light the dynamite, boys," Ezra called breezily. "It's everything he said and more!"
With whoops and cheers, stick after stick of dynamite was lit and thrown. The rocks blew away with a thunderous crash and the greedy four surged forward.
Ezra hung back, listening. Whoops and cheers filled the air, then a strange silence. The air filled with an eerie buzz.
Then the screaming and shots began.
Ezra smiled, wheeled Chaucer around, and raced back to the wagon.
Nathan looked up as Ezra came galloping up, screaming for Simms.
Simms turned his horse to face Chaucer, his eyes wide as saucers. "What's happened?"
Ezra's eyes were wild. "Torelli double-crossed us!" He drew his gun and pointed it at Torelli, who blanched. "There was a literal den of vipers there! They swarmed -- all dying -- go help them!"
Without a word, Simms rode away. Ezra nodded and put the gun away. He barked a sentence in Italian.
Torelli smiled and cried, "Hey-ah!", setting the horses in motion. The girl cried to him, "Ciao, Ezra!"
"Ciao, sweetheart," Ezra called back, smiling fondly.
Behind them, there came another bone-chilling scream. Ezra looked back, nodding. "It would appear Mister Simms has discovered the vipers."
Nathan frowned at Ezra. "What happened?"
Turning Chaucer back toward Four Corners, Ezra waited till Nathan had joined him. Then he spoke: "Torelli told me he'd found several dens of rattlesnakes in those rocks. He'd shown Julianna -- that's the child -- the serpents from a safe distance. When we dynamited the rocks, the serpents were -- understandably -- disturbed and they took our their perturbance upon those nearest." He smiled. "So I made certain I was far away."
"So that was what that speech was about," Nathan nodded. "Think we oughta go back and see what we can do?"
Ezra opened his mouth, and was interrupted by a single gunshot from where they'd come. As they were getting their horses calm, Ezra sighed. "My guess would be that it's too late."
"I think you're right," Nathan sighed. They rode in silence for a bit, then Nathan added, "Somethin's puzzlin' me, though."
"That oil in them barrels...."
"Was infinitely more precious than crude oil." At Nathan's expression, Ezra smiled. "It was what Torelli called 'oil of life'. Olive oil."
Nathan's eyes widened. "You mean to tell me we risked our lives to help a family get away with a wagon full of food-stuffs?"
Ezra nodded. "To them, olive oil is a basic staple of their diet." He prodded Chaucer faster. "Besides, poor Julianna needs rest as soon as she can. She had nightmares all night last night -- dreaming their vessel sank en route from Italy."
"How would you know what she--" Nathan blinked. "That's why you only got three hours' sleep, isn't it? You sat with her."
Ezra shot him a look. "Don't be ridiculous, Mister Jackson. You said it yourself, I was at the tables fleecin' some poor rube."
Nathan studied Ezra as they lapsed into silence. A smile touched his lips as he began to see Ezra in a new light.
And he was absolutely certain he liked what he saw.
Return to The Realm