Chapter 1: Arrival
The three men rode into the small town of Dry Gulch while the sun still stood two hands above the horizon.
An audible sigh of relief was heard from Ezra and a much softer one from Chris. Even Vin who had known what they would face along the shortcut had to admit his relief at seeing the town. All he wanted now was a room where he could wash off some of the dirt and a good meal. Anything more than that would have to wait.
Leading the way up the main street, he pulled to a stop in front of the livery. A man stepped out of the shadows and approached the three figures. “Afternoon,” he greeted, grinning. “You lookin’ to board your horses?”
Ezra sized up the man before him. Standish’s livelihood relied on his being able to read and evaluate people quickly. The man before him struck him as knowing his business well.
“Three horses for the night,” Chris replied gruffly.
The man nodded. He gave them a price to which Chris agreed. Dismounting, Chris and Ezra grabbed their saddlebags and relinquished their horses to the liveryman. Vin had warned the man about his horse’s unsociable behavior and insisted on tending Peso himself.
Glancing down the street, Chris set off toward the only hotel in town, Ezra behind him. Entering the building, Larabee paused a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the darker environs. A blond eyebrow raised in appreciation. It wasn’t, perhaps, as fancy as some city hotels, but it was obvious the owners had gone to some trouble to make it look nice.
Ezra stepped into the hotel behind Chris. Glancing around a small sigh escaped. It really was a shame to have to stay in such dingy run-down places, especially when one knew the luxury and comforts of the finest hotels. Still, he supposed it would do for a night. Besides, he was too tired and sore to much care where he slept this night. At least it wouldn’t be on the trail. A slight smile played at the corners of the gambler’s mouth as he wondered what his mother would have to say about such thoughts.
Stepping around his leader, Ezra moved to the desk and the eagerly awaiting clerk. Taking in the man’s appearance, he saw a spark of intelligence in the eyes and a desire to present himself as a gentleman as shown by the suit coat he wore with a handkerchief in the pocket and the shine on his shoes. Smiling, Ezra carefully selected his words. “Good day, sir. Perhaps you may help us. We’re looking to acquire a habitable abode for the night.”
The clerk brightened at the words of the gentleman before him. It was always good to have customers, but rare to find one who obviously recognized his own superior breeding. Usually the clerk dealt with barely literate riff-raff whose most challenging query was “Saloon?” “Certainly, sir,” the clerk beamed. “And how many rooms do you require?”
“Actually,” Ezra began, leaning in slightly in a conspiratorial manner, “I was wondering if a fine establishment such as yours would possess a suite?”
The clerk smiled broadly. This was just getting better and better. “As a matter of fact,” he began, looking down at the register apparently checking availability, “we do have our Sunshine Suite available. It possesses two bedrooms, a sitting room and a washing closet, something a man of your quality will certainly appreciate.”
“Indeed,” Ezra said distractedly, not showing quite the interest the clerk had been hoping he would.
The clerk’s excitement dimmed slightly. He hadn’t been expecting this sale to be a challenge, but he should have known that a man of such obvious breeding would be used to the best. Deciding he would be better off trying to make the sale than not, he continued, “Yes. In fact, the original owners used the suite as their living quarters for several years and made a number of improvements. All of the appointments were brought in by special carriage and the mattresses were replaced just last year prior to the sale with the finest that could be bought. I assure you, you will not find a more comfortable night’s rest anywhere in the territory.”
Ezra allowed himself to appear caught by the clerk’s description. And if the mattresses were even half as nice as he said, it would be well worth whatever the man asked. Still, Ezra abhorred spending his hard-earned money, even if it was the expense money Travis had advanced to them. So, by first appearing excited and caught and then disappointed when the price was revealed, he knew he could convince the clerk to cut the price of the room. “It sounds quite suitable,” he observed, excitement shining in his emerald eyes. “And the charge for this room?”
Chris had stood back and watched Ezra take control of accommodations. It was a pleasure to watch the con-man work, especially after a long day in the saddle. He shook his head and chuckled silently to himself as Ezra worked the poor clerk into allowing them the use of the suite at what must be about half the normal cost. Still, by the end, the clerk looked like he had won a victory and they got the room they needed. As the clerk turned to retrieve the key, Chris felt Vin slide up silently beside him.
“Ez getting’ us the best room in the house?” the tracker asked.
“Yep,” Chris replied. “Just about to head up there now. Good timing.”
Vin sighed a note of disgust in the expulsion of air. “Sure. Just in time to carry Ezra’s bags, ya mean.”
Chris chuckled and slapped the disgruntled man on the shoulder as they set off after Ezra and the clerk up the stairs to the suite.
Taking in the contents of the room, Chris had to admit, he was impressed. Though some of the items showed a certain amount of wear, the gunslinger figured it was about the nicest place he’d ever stayed.
The suite itself was bright an airy. The sitting room and one of the bedrooms faced toward the street, with the sitting room in the corner of the building. Off of one of the other sides, there was a second bedroom and off of that was the washing room the clerk had mentioned.
While the clerk remained to make sure everything met their approval, Chris and Vin had checked every room as well as lines of sight from the windows. With a brief nod to Ezra, the Southerner smiled at the clerk and passed a reasonable tip to the man.
With the clerk gone and the door locked, the three men settled down into the comfortable furniture to discuss their plans. Even though no one in town knew who they were or what they were carrying, they felt it would be safest to have one of them alert and on-guard at all times.
“So who shall remain while the others seek to gain sustenance?” Ezra inquired.
Chris really didn’t want a fight on his hands tonight, but he didn’t feel comfortable in this town. He didn’t know the people and didn’t want to try their luck as to whether someone would recognize Vin or not.
Vin read the concern in his friend’s eyes. He really wanted to go get a drink at the saloon he’d spotted, but giving into his desires hadn’t kept him alive with a bounty on his head. With a sigh he said, “Y’all go get dinner. I’ll stay here to guard.” The Texan read the sincere thanks in Chris’s eyes and sent his own message of you owe me.
Ezra stood and straightened his cuffs. “Wonderful. Thank you Mister Tanner.” Looking up and seeing the weariness and disappointment on Vin’s face, he made a decision. “What would you like us to have sent up for your dinner?”
Vin looked up, startled. He figured he’d be eating trail rations. Ezra’s offer had taken him by surprise. “Chicken and dumplings would be nice if they have them with some peach pie on the side.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Standish assured as he headed for the door.
Chris stood with a smile on his face and nodded to Vin.
Closing the door behind himself, Chris heard the lock slide to and smiled as he thought on Ezra’s gesture. Leave it to the gambler to take them by surprise. Stopping beside Standish, Chris heard him order the meal for Vin as well as insist a glass of their best whiskey be sent with the meal.
Once the meal was set, the two men headed out of the hotel and toward the saloon, walking side by side in companionable silence.
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