The Hunters had been in town two days. In that time they talked to just about everyone. They took a look around the village, the surrounding area, the countryside. Vin was an expert tracker, but he kept losing the dragon's trail in the forest. They'd also paid a visit to Baron Royale. He was somewhat angry that they hadn't come to him first, but Chris didn't care. It wasn't his job to make Royale happy. The Hunters served all the people and answered only to the king. After leaving the man's company, he was even less inclined to concern himself with Royale's welfare. The baron made a show of being the benevolent lord and protector, but Chris wasn't a fool. The man didn't care at all about what happened to the village. He was more worried about his own life and his own property.
Chris sat in the tavern with his men, nursing a drink while they contemplated their next move. He really wanted to talk to Billy Travis, but his mother was insistent on Chris not upsetting the boy. He looked up to find Vin watching him from the bar. With a jerk of his head he motioned for Chris to turn his attention to the door. A stranger had just come into the room. He was perhaps in his late twenties, brown hair, green eyes. Deep, luxurious green velvet and gold brocade adorned the newcomer. A fancy hilt sword hung at his waist and Chris was pretty sure from the bulge in his fine leather boots that he had a dagger hidden in each one. His clothes were too fancy for the people of Four Corners. Not on the level of a prince, but maybe a rich merchant or minor noble. He walked with a self-assured air, glancing around as if surveying his domain. This was the man they were waiting to talk to. The foreigner who claimed he could find the dragon's warren.
Buck made to go over to the stranger's table, but Chris grabbed his arm and shook his head. Not yet. He wanted to observe this man for a while, get some impressions. The two of them slowly made their way over to the bar instead to get a better view.
Buck turned to the pretty barmaid who'd just brought him another drink. "Hey, beautiful. Can you tell me who that man is over there in the fancy clothes?"
"That's Ezra Standish. He is new in the area."
Buck shared a look with Vin and Chris. "Does he come in here a lot?"
"Every few nights or so. He gets into card games and has a drink or two. Mr. Standish is very good with the cards."
Vin noticed the man sitting across from Standish who didn't look like he was too happy to lose to the fancy man. "Who's the fella wearing the red tunic with the gold sun on it?"
The woman practically spit. "Craddoc Pells. He's the the captain of Baron Royale's soldiers."
"Not one of your favorite people, huh?"
"No. He and his men think they own the town. They ride in and do whatever they want. They take my ale without paying and then they get drunk and wreck the place. Everyone is afraid of them."
"Don't look like he's doing too good against that Standish."
The woman smiled. "He always loses to Mr. Standish."
Just then Captain Pells slammed his cards on the table and jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair. "You dirty cheater!"
Ezra Standish merely smiled at him, unperturbed by his outburst. "I?"
"Yeah, you! You've won every hand. You've got to be cheating."
"Perhaps you have simply been bested by a superior player."
"You may be good, but you're not that good. Everybody knows I'm the best card player around!"
"My good sir, that may be because you were playing against simple village folk. I'm a master at the game."
"You won every hand! No way you did that honestly."
"Ah, I see. Because I won each time against you, it follows, at least in your mind, that I must be a cheat. I've heard that when I am not here to challenge you, you win every game. So tell me then, are all your other successes the result of, shall we say, creative card handling techniques?"
The barmaid leaned over to whisper to Chris. "Pells probably does cheat, but he usually doesn't need to. Everyone's afraid of him so they let him win."
"Why does anybody play with him then?"
"When the Captain invites you to join a game with him, it's not wise or healthy to refuse."
Vin pushed away from the bar. "Maybe we better step in. Wouldn't want Standish to end up dead before we get a chance to talk to him."
A small smirk graced Buck's face. "Can't have that now, can we?"
Chris caught Josiah's eye. He jerked his head towards the card game. Josiah got up and headed over, Nathan and JD right behind him. The six men walked up to the table together. Chris could see that Pells had his hand in his cloak, ready to pull out some kind of weapon. When Chris and his men stared him down, he put both hands on the table, empty.
The Captain looked them over with disdain, but there was a slight hitch of fear in his voice, as well. The one dressed all in black could've been the Devil himself the way he glared at Pells. "What do you want?"
"We need to talk to Standish here."
"Well maybe I'm not done with him."
"You're done with him now."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at the man in black's tone. Then he reached across the table to gather his winnings towards him. He smirked at the soldier in front of him. "Perhaps next time, Captain Pells."
Pells looked at the men around him. Who did they think they were? "This isn't any of your business."
"We're on a mission from the king. If we say we need to talk to Standish, it's the king's business."
The king? Hunters! Pells should have known. He'd heard the king was sending someone, but he didn't know it was going to be his five Hunters plus some kid. The Captain had come straight into town after patrol or else one of his men would've warned him. "Of course, Hunter. I didn't realize." He glared at Standish who was now filling his money pouch with the Captain's gold coins. "We'll continue our game another time."
Standish gave him a mocking bow. "You can count on it."
Buck watched Pells leave in a huff. "Well, now. You sure do know how to make friends, don't you?"
"It's a special talent."
Chris turned his glare on the gambling man. "We hear you have another, more useful talent. You've been telling people you can find this killer dragon."
Ezra stiffened almost imperceptibly, then smiled casually at Chris's hard look. "I know where the dragon's warren is."
"And have you actually seen this dragon there."
"We need you to take us there."
"My fee is ten gold monarchs."
Nathan's face furrowed in anger. "You want to make money off these people's misery?"
Ezra brushed a trace of dust from his sleeve, never looking up at the dark-skinned man. "Hunting dragons is dangerous. I should get something for the risk to my person."
JD couldn't believe somebody would be so selfish. "The people of Four Corners would be mighty grateful to you."
"Gratitude is all well and good, but it doesn't provide the comfort of gold."
A dark fury was building in Chris's eyes. "We could command you to take us in the name of the king."
"You could also command the sun to stop rising, but I expect you'd get the same results."
"You arrogant little..."
"Chris." Josiah grabbed his arm to keep him from attacking the young man. "We do have some extra money given to us by the king for unexpected expenses."
Nathan waved a hand in Ezra's direction. "You want us to actually pay him?!"
"If it gets us the information we need." He turned to Ezra. "We can't pay you ten monarchs, however. I'll give you four."
"Six monarchs and two quarins. Half now and the other half after you've take us to the dragon's warren."
Ezra stuck out his hand. "Done." Josiah counted out the money and gave it to him.
Nathan walked away mumbling something about "no decency or compassion". None of the other Hunters looked happy, either.
Ezra fingered the coins lovingly before slipping them into a small pocket of his vest. "We will need to leave early in the morning since it is nearly a two-day walk and..."
JD frowned. "Two days? Walk?" They'd just ridden a week to get to Four Corners!
"Yes, two days and yes, walk. The terrain in this area in not conducive to horse travel. We will have to go by foot. I'll meet you all here at the livery at sunrise. Usually, I wouldn't think to rise so early, but for the money you gentlemen are paying me I'll make an exception." He turned and walked away, a happy perk to his steps.
Chris nodded to Vin. "I'll relieve you in a few hours." Vin slipped into the shadows, following Ezra. Chris turned to the others. "Nathan, you relieve me, regular watch hours. Buck, you relieve Nathan. I want someone with Standish every step he takes."
Buck looked at him in amusement. "Aw, what's the matter, Chris? You don't trust our new friend?"
Chris didn't even look at him. "A man that would disregard the welfare of a bunch of helpless villagers in order to line his own pockets is the kind of man that would run out on us in a heartbeat. So, the answer is no, I don't trust him."
Josiah stretched his older bones, thinking of the two-day trek ahead. "Well, now. I, for one, have faith in Ezra. He'll be here come morning."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because he hasn't received the other half of his payment yet."
All of them laughed at that except for Nathan who just didn't see anything funny about having to pay someone to help others. Even Chris chuckled at the older man's words. Josiah was probably right. Standish wouldn't leave without all of his money. Still... Chris wasn't going to take any chances. Ezra Standish wasn't going anywhere without a shadow.
Captain Pells watched from the shadows of the mercantile. They were actually going to pay that cheat? Did they know something he didn't? Could Standish have been telling the truth? Pells was more than a little worried. He'd assured the Baron that Standish was a conman who had no idea where the dragon was.
The Baron was not going to be happy to find out about this.