Rest for the Weary

by Beth

Notes: I wrote this because it was a scene that I couldn’t get out of my head and I didn’t have any other story to stick it in. This is short, sweet, and full of angst. I mean seriously folks…this sucker is so full of angst it’s pathetic.

Spoilers: Too many to name!! Just think everything. 

Special Thanks: To Antoinette and Katherine for doing this on such short notice and giving me that extra encouragement to post this story…thank you ladies!!!  

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Chapter 1

Chris Larabee’s wrath was as forceful as a sudden thunderstorm that gave no warning to its arrival. One minute it was there and the next it was gone…as though it had never arrived. Except…there was the damage it caused during its wake. Like a storm, angry words left wounds that needed to be healed. Perhaps broken tree branches were reminiscent of broken promises…even those that were never voiced.

The long black duster could be seen long before the man wearing it. However, everyone knew who it was. Chris’ long determined strides sang as his spurs rang with each step. His wide brimmed hat hung low on his brow, shielding green eyes and finely chiseled features.

Vin tipped the brim of his hat up and watched as his friend and comrade moved closer to him and the others. A storm was brewing…and not just in the sky. Vin leaned against the canopy railing and crossed his arms over his chest. His hair blew gently over his shoulders and his intense blue eyes watched with suspicion and familiarity.

“Vin,” Chris acknowledged, looking to where Ezra sat reading a book and JD worked at throwing his knife.

“Somethin’ up?” the tracker asked, looking toward the end of town.

“Yeah,” came a long sigh.

“I’ll get the others.” Vin stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward Nathan’s clinic.

“JD, Ezra,” Chris said, his voice strong, “get over to the sheriff’s office…we’ve got a couple of jobs to do.”


The room was quiet, except for the subtle sounds of Ezra’s playing cards flying through his fingers. Buck leaned against the wall next to the window overlooking the street. Vin sat on the edge of the desk and nodded as Josiah and Nathan entered the room. Chairs were scraped along the floorboards, as bodies got comfortable in their surroundings. JD cleaned the barrel of his gun, preparing himself for the job ahead.

A sudden bout of wind caught dust and tumbleweeds as it moved down the main street with speed and aggression before spreading its arms wide and disappearing all together. Horses stood patiently tied to hitching posts. Their tails swayed back and forth, swatting at flies out of boredom and annoyance.

The door opened and a gust of wind entered as well as the soft jingle of spurs. The door was quickly shut, and for a moment the glass rattled and the sign on the door bounced. No one moved. Chris tossed his hat on the desk and ran his fingers through his blonde hair.

“I want JD, Nathan, Buck, and Vin to ride to Eagle Bend and ride backup for the sheriff there. They’re hauling a shipment of silver to Lion City and I want you all to follow from a distance. Judge says there might be problems along the way and to keep an eye out.” His order was taken seriously

“Is there any reason that the rest of us are not going on this excursion?” Ezra asked, slipping his cards into his breast pocket. He knew why he wasn’t going, but something deep down continued to gnaw at him. He’d hoped that the others had finally put his episode with the ten thousand dollars behind them. He hoped that they could find it in themselves to trust him…even with their money.

“You, Josiah, and I are headin’ to Lincoln to pick up a prisoner for Judge Travis…”

“What about the town?” JD inquired.

“It’ll be fine for three days without us.” Chris’ stern answer left no room for an argument. “You’ll be back before the rest of us.” He looked toward Buck and Vin.

“When do we leave?” Vin asked.



Vin nodded in Chris’ direction before following Buck and the others. Without voicing it, they wished each other a safe trip. Chris chuckled when Buck galloped his horse up next to JD’s and then tapped the back of the kid’s hat, knocking it off. The youngest in age, but not temperament, JD rushed after his mentor in retaliation.

Josiah and Ezra pulled their mounts up beside Chris’ big black.

“Ready, brother?”

Chris nodded and kicked his horse forward…hoping that everyone made it back safely.

Chapter 2

The trail to Lincoln was long and used primarily by outlaws and lone riders. Many sections of the path were overgrown with weeds, downed trees, and washouts. On several occasions, the threesome had to ride above rockslides. Winds blew through the canyons, stirring dust and debris, not bothered by the three intruders. It was places like this that reminded man that his place on earth was small and ultimately inconsequential. 

Ezra continued to shuffle his cards, paying more attention to his fingers than the land. He rode behind Josiah, feeling out of place. Usually, on prisoner exchanges, Vin or Buck would join Chris. However, the gambler assumed, because of the money involved, he was kept from participating. He couldn’t blame them really, but it bothered him to know he still wasn’t trusted. They all had their Achilles’ Heel. Josiah had, on more than one occasion, been known to drink himself into oblivion…sometimes to the point of risking not just his own life, but the others as well. Buck and his womanizing had turned violent on several occasions. Was it better to drink oneself into a stupor or sleep with married women than it was to desire money? Even Vin had his faults. The man had a fear of crowds that was almost comical…if not for the situation regarding the circumstances. Granted, he had impeccable timing…but it was a fault that could prove deadly. And JD…the young man’s blindness and willingness to be just as intimidating as the rest of them had, on many occasions, caused him to end up at Nathan’s. Then there was Chris…even three years after the death of his family, he felt he had the right to mourn Sara and Adam’s death. Granted he did. But he didn’t have the right to pull everyone else down with him. Losing a family member wasn’t all that uncommon in a time when whole families succumbed to illnesses, disease, and hardships. What made Chris so special that he could ride off and get drunk, threaten to kill without a second thought, or wear his grief like a badge?     

What had changed to make gamblers so…distrustful? There had been a time when a gambler was a well-respected man. He’d been regarded as honorable, respectable, and…worthy. As a boy, Ezra knew the difference between the lower class and the upper class. He knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, but somewhere along the line he’d fallen from his path. Was it something about him that made people distrust him? Maybe the way he looked, the way he dressed, or maybe it was the way he spoke that made people leery of getting to know him. Even Chris had asked him to ride with the rest of them to the Seminole Village because of his ability to cheat. Maybe that was all Ezra Standish was worth…a bullet when he got too annoying or unusable. Maybe he did deserve a bullet…at least with money it could be a gold one.

Ezra knew what it was like to be discarded, tossed away when he wasn’t needed. He knew what it was like to yearn for friends. Failure was a familiar companion—and a painful one at that. He’d never lived up to his mother’s expectations…and he knew he never would. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying. Ezra tried to think of the others as his friends, but on many occasions his old insecurities would rise up and make him step back. He’d even tried to talk to Josiah…when he walked into that church he was seeking answers for questions about himself—not money. And what did he get…all of his realizations about himself thrown back into his face. He’d never turn to a ‘friend’ for answers again. No, it was better to face life on your own, deal with pain in your own way.

It was easy being the jokester, the one who made the others laugh, the one who made fun of himself. It was easier to just ‘go along’, be the extra man in the lineup—that extra gun. He was never asked his opinion, and he rarely offered it. Oh sure, he complained on occasion, but if he hadn’t who else would have? Josiah would walk to England if asked—even cross the water. Nathan would go as well…seeing more than just the job ahead, but people in need. JD would go just for the excitement. Buck and Vin would go as well because of their loyalty to Chris…so that left himself. Would he go? He didn’t know…he was a paradox. Anyone in their right mind would prefer sleeping in, and on a down pillow rather than a saddle blanket. Who would choose to be uncomfortable…willingly? Who would want to meet their maker with a bullet hole in their head?

Nobody—at least nobody sane.

 Ranch hands made more money than him, and they didn’t face the firing end of a weapon every other day.


As the sun started to descend, the beautiful shades of night’s twilight filled the sky. Pinks, reds, and blue hues cascaded downward past cotton-like clouds. Ezra noticed the stars twinkle long before the darkness of night started to set. Chris had stopped his mount and started preparing for the evening. Josiah started a fire for coffee and beans while Ezra saw to the horses. They seemed to be in a void of some kind, locked inside a bubble with no way out.

Chris’ mood was somber, but quick to ignite. Josiah rested on his bedroll, watching the fire consume the dead leaves and pieces of wood. It was strange how a small blaze could heat such a large place. The horses snorted and pawed the ground out of boredom, their tails swaying back and forth slapping flies away.

Ezra squatted down next to the fire and poured himself a cup of coffee. He was taking the first watch.  He sat back on the log he’d claimed as his own and pulled his cards from his pocket.

“What did this Levi Thomas do?” Josiah asked, looking toward Chris.

“He raped and murdered two young girls,” Chris answered flatly—angrily.

Ezra’s throat clenched and he winced as though in pain.

“You all right?” Josiah asked.

“Fine,” Ezra answered, “I’ll get some more firewood.” He stood up, placing his cards in his pocket and then quickly headed toward the wooded area.      

Chris watched him go; feeling on many levels the same. Levi Thomas may deserve a fair trial in Judge Travis’ eyes, but not his own. Any man who killed or brutalized a woman—a child, deserved to rot in hell. He looked up and met Josiah’s eyes. “We have a job to do,” he said sternly.

“I’m not arguing with you.”

Chris nodded and looked toward the flames of the fire. It was times like this that he hated his job. He hated the fact that a murderer of children had the right to stand trial…had the right to speak on behalf of himself. Chris shook his head, angry with himself and the world. Life was precious…a gift that everyone should cherish, a gift that wasn’t meant to be taken for granted.

Josiah watched the younger man and saw the turmoil in his eyes. Chris had a right to feel angry. He had that right because he’d lived it. “Maybe you shouldn’t have come.”

Sharp green eyes looked up and pierced the older man’s hazel ones. “Our job is to get Thomas to Travis…” he sighed, “...and we’ll do it.”

Ezra stepped back into camp, feeling the tension in the air like moisture on a humid day. He let the logs fall from his arms and carefully dusted the sleeves of his jacket. He noticed Josiah shake his head and Chris get to his feet before storming off into the black of night.

“He’s a might riled at the moment,” Josiah said softly, watching the flames with a sadness that wasn’t familiar to Standish.

“I’ve never known him not to be,” Ezra responded coldly. He reclaimed his seat next to the fire and retrieved his cards from his pocket.

Chapter 3

After two and a half days of riding and Chris’ quick temper, Josiah and Ezra were ready to arrive in town and enjoy a meal and perhaps a hot bath. They weren’t expecting a barrage of people gathered in the street, many holding clubs and rifles pointed toward the sky. They yelled, demanding the release of Levi Thomas…demanding the right to execute him in the manner he deserved.

The sheriff and his two deputies stood outside the office with their guns pointed toward the crowd.

The standoff had begun.

“You ain’t got no right protectin’ that—!” came a yell from the crowd.

“Release him, George!” came another yell. “Save the circuit judge the trouble!”

“He butchered those two babies!” a woman’s cry pierced the air, causing the men to once again raise their voices in anger.

The sound of a gun blast filled the air, echoing loudly as people stopped what they were doing and turned to look at the man in black. He stood like a statue carved by Michelangelo himself. Chris’ jaw clenched and muscles protruded past pale skin and strong bones. His eyes looked over the crowd…looking for any kind of a threat. Though normally green, his iris seemed darker than usual—too dark, like the Angel of Death himself.

Josiah stepped forward with Ezra and quickly they ushered the sheriff inside while Chris watched the crowd. Their horses stood ready to bolt at the edge of the walkway. Their shod hooves pounded the ground rhythmically as their heads tossed up and down, their reins moving in all directions.


Ezra moved to the cell and opened the door, all the while listening to Josiah explain their plans to the sheriff. He quickly secured Thomas’ hands before him and then unceremoniously pulled him from the cell.

“My men and I can’t hold back this mob—you’ll be on your own once you’re outside these walls,” George Kline said, reloading his rifle. “If you don’t mind me sayin’ so…” he turned angry eyes toward the suspect, “…I hope he gets nailed before you’re able to haul his sorry ass outta here.” His words were clear and spiteful.

“I didn’t do it,” Thomas said sternly, all the while avoiding the windows. He was a strong man, yet older than anyone in the room. His hair was white and trimmed short, matching his beard and mustache. Under any other circumstances, he would have been able to come to Four Corners and been treated like any other person…but not now.

Kline’s eyes angered and he clenched his jaw in anger. He returned his gaze to Josiah. “I’ll help keep this mob back for as long as I can… You boys just mount up and rush outta here as fast as you can.” He looked outside and shook his head. “Don’t look back for no reason.”

Josiah looked at Ezra: “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” he replied. He pulled his Remington from its holster and then grabbed Thomas’ arm.

Josiah left with the sheriff while Ezra waited for his cue. Kline stood on the boardwalk and pointed his weapon toward the crowd. He’d taken an oath to uphold the laws and protect his town…unfortunately that meant everyone. Josiah grabbed the horses and mounted his own. He was thankful the sheriff had already seen to an extra horse for Thomas…making their escape slightly easier. He led them to the front of the office and waited until Chris was mounted. Both men held their weapons on the crowd. Chris’ piercing eyes and reputation seemed to keep most away, but there were a few that wanted to challenge him.

The sheriff ordered everyone back as the office door was opened. Ezra pushed Thomas past the deputies and quickly helped him onto his horse. The crowd went wild: yelling, screaming, and banging their weapons on the ground, walls, and posts. Gunshots echoed throughout the air and Ezra pulled himself up onto his mount and kicked him forward. Josiah had taken the reins of Thomas’ steed and urged his own onward.

Chris fired at the feet of those who tried to rush him and his men. He didn’t want to kill anyone. He too, could have been one of those people at another time in his life. He glanced back and saw Josiah urge his horse forward with the prisoner right behind him. Ezra took up the rear, leaning forward in his saddle.

The sheriff continued to fire as the three lawmen rushed from the scene. Horses squealed and dust flew upwards. Some of the crowd dispersed; rushing for their own horses…they wanted Thomas dead and would stop at nothing to see it happen. Others ran for cover as the scene turned violent.

Ezra fell forward after feeling a sudden burst of pain in his back and side, but quickly recovered from his loss of balance. He grasped the saddle horn and urged his mount to gallop at full speed. At this moment in time he felt as though he was flying as his horse’s stride increased.

They had made it.


Chris pushed them as far and hard as he could before pulling his horse to a stop. His big black gasped for breath as sweat and foam dripped from his neck and shoulders. His sides heaved from the exertion, but he continued to gnaw at the bit…he was ready to continue.

Josiah pulled up and turned to look at down the path they had come. “We can’t keep goin’ like this,” he said, gasping for breath. His hand burned from holding the reins of Thomas’ horse tightly in his grasp. Both animals hung their heads and their sides heaved from exhaustion. Josiah turned and watched as Ezra slowed his own mount; both were looking flustered and worried.

Chris looked up the road and back to where the lynch-men would come. “There’s an abandoned cabin down past the peak. It’s an hour from here, but I’ve used it a few times.” He really wished Vin were here. “It’ll take us a while to get there and put off returning to Four Corners for a day at least.” He looked hard at his men.

“We can’t outrun a posse,” Josiah said earnestly.

“Ezra?” Chris questioned, wanting the his opinion. He noticed Ezra still slumped over his saddle horn, obviously tired from the hard ride.

“Let’s go,” he breathed out, wiping his brow. He felt tired...numb.

Chris nodded. He knew they needed to get to cover before nightfall, and before they could no longer hide their trail.


Branches slapped against legs as the four riders rode single file through the rough terrain. Chris stopped his horse after moving off to the side. “Keep to the trail…” he said, pointing in the direction. “The cabin’s just up the way a bit. I’m goin’ back to make sure we weren’t followed.” He nodded to Josiah as the big man rode past. Thomas kept his head down…too tired to say anything, and just thankful he was alive. Chris watched Ezra for a moment, noticing he hadn’t moved much. Still leaning over his saddle horn, and looking more exhausted than he should have. “You all right?” he asked, genuinely concerned.

Ezra nodded, but didn’t say anything. He continued to follow the last horse, not bothering to look toward Chris or his worried expression.

Larabee sat back and watched his two men ride up the trail a ways. He was concerned for both—hell, he was worried about the four he’d ordered to ride backup for the sheriff in Eagle Bend. But he couldn’t be worried about that now. At the moment, he had a posse to be concerned about, and the possibility of hanging along with Thomas—should they get caught with him. He kicked his mount forward; he needed to cover up any tracks they might have left for someone to discover.


The cabin looked more like a sod hut, having been built years ago. Bullet holes and arrow markings scarred the exterior. The front porch was falling apart; the awning had come down and now littered the ground. The door hung off its hinges and most of the window shutters were gone. Weeds had grown up through the flooring and around the cabin; many had died there, creating a fire hazard. The distant sound of water running behind the home caused Josiah to be thankful. As hard as the horses had worked, they wouldn’t make it much longer. Their sides already gaunt and their refusal to grab bites to eat only confirmed his suspicions of their thirst.

Josiah pulled his horse to a stop and then grabbed Thomas’ arm, pulling him from the saddle. Without patience or sympathy, he hauled the man inside and looked for a decent place to keep him. He pushed him into a back corner and secured his shackled hands with a rope to an exposed pole. He wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“I need some water,” Thomas said, testing the strength of his ties.

“You’ll wait,” Josiah snapped. He moved to the entryway and looked out, seeing the large black clouds hover over the land like Eve’s hand over the apple. Lightning lit the sky and moved through it like the proverbial serpent in the tree of life. The crash of thunder echoed and the rain started pouring down, hitting the moisture deprived earth with a vengeance.

Josiah jumped down off the porch to care for the horses. He noticed Ezra slowly ride up, but he didn’t stop and concern himself with him. Josiah tossed off saddles and bridles, securing the horses with their halters. He then took them down to the creek for water.


Ezra watched Josiah’s sluggish movements, wondering why the big man’s actions were so slow. The gambler’s big chestnut stopped and waited for his next cue. Ezra looked toward the ground, amazed at how it moved upwards…greeting him. He didn’t feel the rain hit his jacket or hat...he didn’t feel anything. Slowly, he slid to the ground, collapsing in a heap. His hat fell off as his head hit the ground. He blinked a few times, looking in amazement at his horse’s hoof, the angular shape, the strength of tendons and simply the dainty size of it.  


Josiah brought the horses back up from the creek and he searched the area for a brief moment. A man like Thomas was a death sentence for all who went near him. The crimes he’d committed were worse than any other. He was lucky he was still alive—he was lucky that Sheriff Kline had been faithful to his badge…many wouldn’t have been. The big man entered the cabin and found Thomas still sitting against the wall, trying to keep his feet out of the water that was gathering on the floorboards. The whinny of Ezra’s horse caused Josiah to take another look outside. The dark of night was upon them like the closure of cellar doors.

“EZRA!” Josiah called, noticing the lone chestnut’s white blaze in the distance, still saddled and bridled. He stepped down and walked toward the animal, apprehension in every step. He looked up when Chris’ big black galloped quickly toward him. “Everything all right?” he asked, still moving toward Ezra’s horse.

“Think they gave up,” Chris said, slipping down off his saddle. “Might have some trouble on our way back when the weather clears.”

Josiah nodded: “Haven’t seen Ezra—”

“—He wasn’t lookin’ too well earlier,” Chris cut Josiah off before he could finish. He had known something was wrong with Standish before, but he hadn’t had time to find out what—not with a posse on their heels.

The big chestnut gelding tossed his head as the two lawmen grew near. The devoted steed refused to move from his position. Josiah rushed forward when he saw a hint of red from Ezra’s jacket on the ground. He knelt down and gently rolled Ezra onto his back and took a deep breath.

“Shit,” Chris snapped, looking from his downed man to the cabin. He squatted down next to Josiah and ran his hand over his face. “How bad?” he asked softly, placing a hand on Ezra’s slack brow, then reached out and picked up his black hat.

Josiah shook his head, wishing Nathan were here. “Let’s get him inside,” he whispered, a hint of fear laced his words. Carefully, the big man worked his strong arms under Ezra’s knees and shoulders, slowly standing with the gambler hanging limply…lifelessly in his arms.

Chris grabbed the chestnut’s reins and followed the pair…hoping and praying for the best.


Josiah carefully pealed back the blood-soaked material while Chris started a fire in the stove. They’d managed to discover one lamp that still had kerosene left in it. The light was minimal, but at least it worked.

“If he’s gut shot you better—” Thomas started to say, but was cut short by the stick being thrown at him. He ducked and covered his head with his arms. “I can help!” he pleaded, while trying to protect himself.

Chris’ jaw clenched and he tried to pull strength from within to stop himself from killing Levi Thomas outright. He wasn’t worth it…he wasn’t worth it…he continued to say to himself. The man murdered and raped two young girls. He was a monster in a man’s body. 

Josiah gently rolled Ezra onto his left side after removing his jacket, vest, weapons and holsters. The once white shirt was tattered and stained…there was no salvaging this one.

“Shot in the back,” Chris said angrily, getting to his feet. This happened because of Thomas…

“CHRIS!” Josiah yelled, stopping Chris from moving any closer to the murderer. “I need your help.” He looked up and pleaded with him, now wasn’t the time. Josiah reached around and grabbed his damp bedroll and gently lifted Ezra’s head onto it. The big man noted the entrance wound was low on the back of Ezra’s right side. It was small and bled little. However, it was the exit wound that continued to bleed freely and gaped with torn flesh and brutalized muscle just below his rib cage.

Ezra shook uncontrollably as his body tried to deal with the wound. The cool breeze entering the room did little to aid the situation, and his clothing was wet from the rain.

Chris reached down and removed the derringer rig from Ezra’s arm and watched as Josiah poured the remaining whiskey from the silver flask onto a clean cloth. Hazel eyes met green and Chris nodded as he placed a hand on Ezra’s hip and shoulder.

Josiah took a deep breath, his nerves on edge, and he placed the handkerchief on the gaping wound high on Ezra’s side. Knees were pulled upward and a fist tightened around Chris’ arm. Ezra’s face contorted with pain as he tried to close in on himself. He didn’t utter a word, yell, or scream. Only his harsh breathing filled the air.

“Bullet’s obviously out, so it’s just a matter of getting the wound clean and wrapped,” Josiah said, breathing hard. He shook his head and wiped his brow on the sleeve of his shirt. He laid his palm on Ezra’s head, his fingers hidden beneath the dampened locks of Ezra’s hair. His other hand remained pressed to the wound.

Chris grabbed his saddlebags and pulled out a couple of shirts. The sound of cloth ripping tore through the cabin. Josiah pressed a bundle against the wounds on Ezra’s back and side, wishing all the while that he’d paid more attention to Nathan while he’d worked. With Chris’ help, he managed to sit Ezra up and wrap his middle, hoping and praying the bleeding would stop.

“Blankets are wet,” Chris sighed, tossing one on the floor. “Damn it!” he swore, unable to control the situation.

“Help me get him closer to the stove,” Josiah said, wrapping his arms under Ezra’s shoulders and around his chest.

Chris grabbed Ezra’s legs and carefully the two men moved the third. Ezra remained unconscious, but still shivering. He never felt Josiah’s coat being thrown over him or Chris’ duster. Josiah continued to push Ezra’s hair away from his brow, checking for the impending fever. He watched Chris hang the blankets near the stove, trying to get them dry.  

Josiah pulled Ezra close to his chest in a last ditch effort to keep him warm. “Get some water boiling,” he said sternly…if they didn’t do something fast, they were going to lose him. “You should have said something,” he whispered.

Chris stepped out with his canteen and a cast iron pot that had been left by someone who’d been here before.

“I can help him,” Levi Thomas said, with more force in his voice.

“Why should we believe you?” Josiah challenged, trying to still the trembling form.

“Because if you don’t…he’ll die.” Thomas met Josiah’s eyes. “I didn’t kill those two children…I’m a doctor for god’s sake…I save lives, I don’t take them.”

Josiah’s brow furrowed and he shook his head. His friend was dying… “You were found with their blood on your hands…”

“I tried to save them,” Levi pleaded. “You can stand over me while I work.” He moved his hands, emphasizing his position. “Your friend is bleeding to death…I can help him.”

Josiah looked at Ezra’s lifeless hand lying on the floor. He listened to shallow breaths that came quicker and quicker, then pause, before starting again. He could feel the fever already start in his unnaturally pale features. “How do I know you won’t hurt him worse?”

“If he dies…you can kill me.”

“Then it’s a win-win situation for you,” Josiah said, looking hard at the prisoner.

“No,” Thomas said, “it’s not.”

Chris entered the cabin and placed the iron pot on the stove. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take too long to boil. He looked to Josiah, seeing the despair written on his face.

“He’s getting worse,” Josiah said, swallowing hard. “Thomas is a doctor…he said he could help.”

“No,” Chris snapped, without offering to listen.

“Ezra’s dying, Chris…he’s lost too much blood to keep fighting…”

“That man,” he pointed to Thomas, “raped and killed those babies!” Chris snapped, anger embraced his soul like whiskey did his stomach.

“NO!” Thomas yelled. “I DIDN’T!” He looked hard at the two men. “But I know who did.” His words shook and he hung his head in shame.

Chris’ jaw clenched and he looked toward Standish, feeling as though his world were falling apart. “They were just babies,” he whispered, looking at Thomas. “If you so much as make him whimper in pain…” his words were heard and taken seriously, “...I’ll break your fuckin’ legs…one…at a…time.”

Thomas swallowed hard, seeing the fragility of his own mortality. This time it was real, and closer than ever. “I can help him,” he said softly, “but we can’t wait any longer.”

“Chris,” Josiah pleaded.

He grabbed the key from his pocket and released the shackles. “One wrong move,” Chris warned, before letting Thomas move past him.

Josiah started to move out from behind his charge, but Thomas stopped him. “Gently,” he stressed, “lay him on his side,” he said, washing his hands with some of the water Chris had brought in.

Josiah did as he was instructed, tossing Chris’ duster and his own jacket into a pile, and then carefully positioned the bedroll under Ezra’s neck and left cheek. He remained still, not once offering to move. “Hang on, son,” Josiah repeated, hoping his prayers were being heard. He kept one hand on the Ezra’s shoulder and the other on his hip.

Thomas carefully removed makeshift bandages and then ordered the gunslinger to quickly rip up more shirts. “Is there anymore whiskey?” he asked, looking carefully at the swollen, brutalized wounds.

Josiah stood and grabbed Ezra’s saddlebags, hoping he’d find something. Chris squatted down next to the doctor and watched the man’s movements, ready at any minute to pull him off Ezra should he do something…intentional. Ezra’s left hand moved along the floorboards and then went still. His fingers moved slowly toward his palm…searching for something. Chris reached out and grasped it, trying to offer some comfort.

Thomas wet a cloth in the heated water then rang it before pressing it against the exit wound. Ezra squeezed Chris’ hand and pressed his face into the bedroll. His jaw clenched and he sucked in a shallow breath. A deep sigh from Josiah caused both Chris and Thomas to turn and look at him. He held up a half full bottle of whiskey and a small bag filled with bandages.

Nathan had thought ahead…for everyone.

Thomas flushed the wound and Ezra tried desperately to push himself away. It took both Josiah and Chris to keep him down. “He needs as much water as you can get down him,” Levi said, looking at the blood- soaked material that had been gathered into a pile. He reached out and touched Ezra’s pants, relieved to find them dry. “He also needs to be kept warm.”

Josiah moved in behind Ezra like he had before and pulled him onnto his chest, wanting only to offer warmth.

Chris grabbed a couple of the blankets that had dried and laid them over Ezra’s form. Josiah pulled the corners upward as Standish remained against Josiah’s chest. Ezra still shook, and on occasion, he’d roll his head away from the crook between Josiah’s neck and shoulder. He continued to breathe heavily, but Thomas had said it was due to the fever that had fast approached.

Thomas was pulled up by his shoulders and secured to the post by Chris, who wasn’t taking any chances. The rain continued to hit the roof of the cabin, seeping through in spots, while thunder and lightning filled the sky. He had seen to the horses, securing them to some trees out back, wishing all the while that he had a better place for them.

Chris squatted down next to the stove and filled it with more wood. Even without shutters on the frames, the home stayed relatively warm. Josiah remained positioned behind Ezra, almost refusing to let him go. He’d managed to get half a cup of warm water down him, but that was all. Josiah rested a hand on Ezra’s quivering shoulder, trying to offer some sort of comfort but knowing it wasn’t being felt. “I had a son once,” the big man said, looking up to meet Chris’ eyes.

Chris nodded in understanding…he knew about the pain and loss of a child. He knew that tone Josiah spoke with. Chris turned toward the fire and watched as the flames danced in rhythm with rain pouring out of the sky. He missed Sara…he missed Adam.

“His mother was half Cherokee who lived alone in the mountains near Sacramento.” Josiah pushed his hand over Ezra’s brow before letting it rest on his chest. “She saved my life after my horse took a fall and broke its leg. Can’t remember much about what happened after that…just that when I woke up—here was this angel smiling at me.”

Chris looked up and met Josiah’s eyes, he too, could remember waking up, only to see Sara looking at him, an angel indeed. “What happened?” he asked, out of character.

“We were together for five years. We named our son Seth…” he paused, remembering a different time, “…he looked like his mother.” He smiled. “Black hair—blacker than JD’s—and he had the biggest eyes.”

Chris smiled, remembering his own son.

“He’d be about Ezra’s age now…if he’d survived.” He lowered his head and shook it. “Scarlet fever took them both…doctor wouldn’t treat them because they were Indian.” Josiah pressed the palm of his hand against Ezra’s forehead, forcing his head back and against Josiah’s neck.

Chris watched him, seeing for the first time the heart and soul of a compassionate father. He wasn’t just a former preacher who’d been disillusioned with his god, or that strong-arm that sometimes got ‘Old Testament’. Josiah was a father…just like himself, who knew the pain of loss.

“I almost killed that doctor,” Josiah admitted, looking up at Chris’ eyes. “But I didn’t…I couldn’t.”

“Why?” Thomas asked, hoping he wouldn’t get shot for listening.

“At the time, I thought I still believed in doing the right thing,” the preacher admitted sadly, securing his hold on Ezra.

Chris nodded in understanding. He knew those feelings…that pain. But Josiah had taken a different path…perhaps it had been because his family hadn’t been ‘directly’ murdered, or it was just a testament to who he was. Chris had entered the bottle after the death of his family. Closed himself off from the world, became angry with everyone and everything. He wore black as a marker to his loss…and now it was a label to who he was. Josiah…Josiah had opened his arms wide and spread his love of mankind in the form of a preacher. Perhaps he’d been young enough to know the difference…or old enough not to care. There was a dark past in Josiah that he wouldn’t even speak of, and Chris knew not to ask. But there he was, that big man with the strength of an ox and the heart of a lion, offering warmth and affection to a man who wouldn’t receive it under any other circumstances. Ezra fought his own demons, and some of those included his lack of trust, and his inability to show emotions to people. Josiah wasn’t afraid of that. If he felt angry, love, hope, or even revenge…he showed it.


Like Chris, Josiah drank to hide his pain. The large man who gave hope to hundreds, suffered from grief and loss like everyone else…he also spread faith in the human spirit. He could be gentler than a day old kitten, or as ferocious as a mother bear protecting her young.

“I never figured I’d be lucky enough to have a child…”

“You’re still young enough, Josiah,” Chris said softly, more for himself than the older man.

“I’d like to think so,” the preacher admitted.

Chris stood up and looked out one of the windows. The rain seemed relentless as it hit the roof on the cabin. The ground drank it up, like the desert floor on a hot summer’s day.

Ezra stirred, causing everyone to look in his direction. He bent his knee, pulling it upward and then letting it fall back to the floor. Josiah’s grip increased as he replaced his hand on the gambler’s forehead. The fever had started. The preacher looked up and met Chris’ eyes.

“First thing in the mornin’, I’ll take Thomas back to Four Corners and bring Nathan back…”

“He won’t make it that long,” Josiah said softly…knowingly.

“It’s goin’ to take more than a bullet to put an end to Standish,” Chris said firmly. He wouldn’t stand by and watch one of his men die…he couldn’t.

“He needs food and water,” Thomas said, voicing his opinion. He sat in the corner, shivering from the chill in his bones.

“If we want your opinion…we’ll ask for it,” Larabee snapped, turning angry eyes toward the prisoner.

“I didn’t kill those two girls…I couldn’t…”

“That’s for the circuit judge to decide.”

“Why should we believe you?” Josiah asked in earnest, wanting…needing an answer.

Thomas looked down shamefully. “My son…” he sighed, “Durin’ the war, I spent a lot of time in field hospitals…looking for…looking for my son. He was seventeen when he joined up…wanting to be a soldier…wanting to kill.” His voice softened. “I was a doctor and decided to go looking for my boy when his mother and I feared he’d been hurt, or worse, killed.” He looked up and sighed, noticing he had everyone’s attention. “I saw my son at South Mountain…” He looked up with tears in his eyes, the memories of his past still haunting him. “He was mad. He had this necklace…” he motioned to his neck in the shape of the object he was speaking of, “…made from twine and the ears of Confederates.”

Josiah looked away, not wanting to hear anymore.

“They took my son away in this wagon…tied like a dog.” The man sighed, and rubbed the knuckles of his hands. “He was away for a long time…until he escaped.” He looked at the faces of the men around him. “I’ve been searching for him since then.”

“Where is he now?” Josiah asked.

Thomas looked away, as though he were someplace else entirely. “I killed him…buried him…”

“Tell it to the judge,” Josiah said. “He’s a fair man.” If Thomas was innocent, Judge Travis was just the man to set him free.

Chris moved toward his saddlebags and retrieved a tin cup and a small satchel of sugar. He wasn’t sure what to think…just that he had a job to do. He knew what happened to many soldiers during the war… He’d been one of them. The war had scarred him, left angry wounds in its wake. It wasn’t just a memory for everyone. For some, it was a living—breathing soul—that demanded attention.

“He came to me,” Josiah said softly, looking toward the window…feeling like a failed father. “I pushed him away.”

“Who?” Chris asked. He knew whom the big man was talking about.

“Ezra,” the preacher paused. He pulled the blankets up further on the gambler’s shoulders. “He needed guidance and I pushed him away…”

Chris looked up, feeling Josiah’s guilt.

“His whole life has been based on what he could get…he saw his mother marry man after man because of how much money they had… What kind of impact does that have on a child’s mind?” He looked hard at Chris.

“He’s not a boy anymore, Josiah.”

“No, but he’s still searching for that equality that he’s been taught only comes from money… He’s still trying to succeed in gathering recognition.”

Chris nodded, understanding more than he had. In many ways, there weren’t many differences between himself and the gambler. For Ezra, money was easy to trust. It didn’t fail you when you needed it. Chris knew that feeling. Not because of his lack of funds or basic need for the dollar, but because he put the same amount of faith in his guns as Ezra did his cash.

“Money, in Ezra’s eyes, can buy him that respect, admiration, and love that he so desires…just like that gun on your hip buys you respect, admiration…and the fear in the eyes of your enemies.” Josiah looked hard at Chris, knowing he understood. 

“We all have out Achilles’ Heel, Josiah.”

“Yes, Brother, we certainly do,” the preacher agreed.


He felt as though someone was shoving a branding iron through his side. The pain was excruciating. He didn’t dare take a deep breath, feeling as though his lungs would collapse. His body felt heavy, like he was being held under water. He caught a moan in the back of his throat and felt someone move behind him.

Why was it so cold? Ezra’s brow furrowed, trying to answer his own question. He coughed and reached up, only grasping air. He scraped the floor with the heel of his boot. He wasn’t at Nathan’s…he knew that much.

“Ezra?” a faint voice sounded in the back a dark tunnel. “Ezra…can you hear me?” There it was again, getting closer. “Come on, Son.”

“J’siah,” he choked, trying to lift his head.

The big man moved just slightly, propping the gambler’s head up with his shoulder. “Hand me that cup of water, Chris,” Josiah said, holding Ezra’s chin up with his hand.

The gunslinger squatted down next to his men and looked hard at the situation. He grabbed Ezra’s hand that kept trying to push Josiah away. “Drink it,” he ordered sternly.

Ezra took a few sips before turning his head away. “No…more…” he barely managed to say through shallow breaths of air.

Josiah put the cup down and secured his position. He looked up and met Chris’ worried eyes. “We need Nathan.”

Chris nodded. He knew that.

“It’s…cold,” the gambler muttered.

Chris stood up and grabbed Josiah’s heavy coat and his own duster. It wasn’t much, but it was all they had left to offer. He laid them over the prone form, all the while shaking his head. He then moved to the stove and placed more wood on the fire.

“He’s not going to make it,” Josiah whispered, trying to encase the trembling form. He knew from experience the likelihood of Ezra’s survival…he’d seen it, many times before.

Chris nodded: “I’ll leave at daybreak.” His jaw clenched as he looked toward the doctor. “If you didn’t kill those babies…who did?” He wanted answers…answers to something that had logic to it…unlike death.

Thomas sighed and leaded against the wall in defeat. “My son,” he answered softly, turning sad eyes from the men.

Josiah looked toward the form: “Can we save him?”

“It’s up to him,” Thomas answered honestly.

Chapter 4

Chris changed places with Josiah, allowing the older man a short break. Ezra remained lifeless; his only movement was his occasional tremor. Chris looked toward Thomas who slept like a baby. The sight of him caused the gunslinger’s stomach to turn. How could a man, accused of brutally murdering two young girls, sleep as though he didn’t have a care in the world?

“Did you serve, Josiah?” Chris asked softly, listening to the distant thunder.

Josiah nodded, pouring himself a hot cup of coffee. “All four years,” he sadly admitted. “You?”

“Yeah.” Chris pressed the palm of his hand to Ezra’s forehead and clenched his jaw when he felt the heat. “Think JD’s the only one of us who didn’t.”

“I was thirty-five when the war started…and too damn young for it.”

“I remember my first Christmas out there. The regiment I was with, was stationed behind this ditch and rock fence…all of us could hear those confederate soldiers singin’ Christmas carols,” Chris smiled sadly, “so we joined in.”

Josiah sat and listened.

“There wasn’t a shot fired all Christmas Day,” Chris shook his head, “We even shared meals.”

“Maybe you were fortunate and shared a meal with Ezra,” Josiah said softly, looking toward the gambler who would have been just a boy.

Chris just nodded: “Maybe.” Could have been Vin too. He looked at the fire, watching the flames dance. “After the war,” he started softly, “I lost myself with…life…I guess you could say. Buck and I moved from town to town, drivin’ cattle…chasin’ women.” He chuckled and shook his head. Those had been some wild times. “Then I met Sara…” he sighed, a painful past crushing his chest. He readjusted his grip on Ezra and continued, “She was everything I wasn’t.”

Josiah smiled. For some reason, he could see Chris Larabee as a doting husband and father. “There isn’t a one of us who’ll stand before you and say your pain isn’t disheartening. But even the idea of sharing your life with someone in this rugged country provides a warm feeling for many. They may be gone, Chris…but they’ll never be forgotten.”

Chris’ jaw clenched. “I told Buck a while ago that I can’t remember their faces anymore…they’re fadin’.”

Josiah knew that feeling. “Sadayi’,” he spoke of the mother of his son, “used to…” he laughed, trying to cover his mouth, “she used to fart after drinking beer.”

Chris shook his head and laughed along with Josiah.

“She used to be so free…” the big man sighed and shook his head, no longer laughing. “I don’t remember her face, but I remember her.”

Chris nodded and smiled tightly. A sudden bolt of lightning lit the air like a flash of the midday sun. A crack of thunder shook the cabin and Chris jumped when he felt Ezra move within his grasp. The gambler’s back arched and the heels of his boots started to scrape the floor. He reached out, searching for something that wasn’t there. His breath came faster and harsher. Chris increased his grip, trying to calm the Southerner.

Josiah jumped up and quickly removed the bandages around Ezra’s chest. He shook his head at the sight of more blood. Relying on instincts, Josiah grasped Ezra’s face between his hands and forced unseeing eyes to look at him. “He’s burnin’ up,” he gasped, pushing wet hair away from the gambler’s forehead. Josiah looked up and met Chris’ eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”

Chris looked toward the Thomas who continued to sleep peacefully. “Wake him up,” he ordered, moving out from behind the Southerner.

Thomas jumped when he felt the shackles around his wrists move. He looked up in fright at the large man hovering over him. “Are you going to kill me?” he asked softly…fearfully.

“No,” Josiah replied, helping the man to his feet. “We need your help.” He pushed Thomas forward.

Chris rested on his knees and heels of his boots while trying to keep Ezra from hurting himself. Another bolt of lighting and crash of thunder caused him to gasp and pull his knees to his chest. His fists tightened and knuckles turned white as he tried to cover his head with his arms.

Would the war ever end for those who’d lived through it?

Blood raced through Chris’ veins as the situation continued to grow out of control. He’d been around men that were dying—he knew what it was like. But before, things had been different. Before he was in a war and didn’t have time to concentrate on those around him. Before, he’d been the killer…leaving those dying in the dirt. Chris looked at Ezra with pleading eyes…now it was different. It had all started when he rode into that God forsaken town, when he’d locked eyes with Vin Tanner and changed the fate of Nathan Jackson. It had changed when he stopped JD Dunne from shooting a man in the back, and again when he watched Buck Wilmington fall from the roof of the hotel. Chris’ oldest and best friend had shared the bad and good times with him, and knew better than anyone who Larabee really was.  He hadn’t known what would happen when Josiah Sanchez refused to ride with them at first…he hadn’t known that a family was building. Chris shook his head; he never thought that a conman would be a member. He hadn’t thought that Ezra Standish, a man shooting blanks in a saloon for cash, would belong.

But he did.

Just like the rest of them.

Josiah squatted down next to Chris and watched Thomas kneel down in front Ezra who was now curled on his side. The doctor pressed the palm of his hand against the Southerner’s forehead. Another crash of thunder caused all four men to jump…remembering a different time. Ezra reached for his hip, searching for his weapon. Josiah grasped the straining limb and prayed for help.

“He’s too hot,” Thomas gasped, pulling the blankets and coats from the gambler’s form.

“So what do we do?!” Chris snapped, angry at the situation.

“Get him cooled down,” Levi replied, looking for a cooler place in the room. Lying so close to the stove wasn’t helping.

Chris stood up, grabbed a blanket and his canteen and then headed out the door into the rain. Thomas watched him for a moment before slipping his arms under the injured man’s. Josiah slipped his arms under Ezra’s knees and together they moved him toward the far wall. Josiah then pulled off Ezra’s boots.

Chris reentered the cabin with the blanket now soaked with cold creek water. He tossed his canteen to Josiah who grabbed it and then helped the gunslinger cover the gambler with the cold cover. Rain continued to pour from the sky while the lightening hovered like the hangman’s noose. Chris’ jaw clenched as he watched Josiah bathe Ezra’s face and neck. Sweat poured from the Southerner as fits continued to rack his body. Muscles cramped and clenched as dehydration took over. Josiah’s deep voice whispered in the room, moving about like the soul of an unknown spirit. Prayers seeped past his lips as he relived a scene from his past.

Levi Thomas moved toward the stove, leery of the two men watching him. He poured some warm fluid into a cup and stirred a couple spoonfuls of sugar into it. His hands shook as he remembered South Mountain. The thunder was reminiscent of the roar of cannons. Only here and now he couldn’t quite hear the screams of dying boys and horses. The whimpers of pain and agony weren’t as loud as they used to be…over time they’d lessoned, but never faded.

“Thomas!” Chris snapped, pulling the prisoner out of his reverie.

“He needs water…and lots of it,” Levi said, moving toward Josiah.

They propped the gambler up, hoping he would drink. A warm tin cup was pressed to dry lips and fluid moved slowly into his mouth. Ezra choked and was quickly pushed forward. Josiah shook his head looking at Chris.

The blonde gunslinger pushed Thomas out of the way and squatted next to Ezra. “Damn it!” he swore, pulling the gambler back toward his chest and forcing the cup back to his lips. “Not like this,” he whispered, “not like this.”

Ezra weakly tried to push the strong arm away but he failed. He swallowed a mouthful of fluid and turned his head, trying to avoid the obstruction. His head was forced back and again his mouth was filled with water. He swallowed again and squeezed his eyes shut as the pain continued to rack his body. “St…stop…stop,” he muttered while coughing.

“Take it easy, Chris,” Josiah warned, seeing the Southerner’s distress.

The gunslinger’s jaw clenched and he looked at the big man, pain etched in both their eyes. He turned his attention back to Ezra who was gasping for breath. “You have to drink,” he said sternly, hoping the gambler heard. He pressed the cup to Ezra’s lips.

“J’st le…let me die,” came the quiet plea from the Southerner’s lips.

An old but familiar sensation bit harshly at Chris’ throat. “No,” he responded sharply. He forced Ezra to sit up straighter and again pressed the cup to his lips. “Drink this or I’ll pour it down your damn throat!”

Josiah reached out to stop the gunslinger from carrying through on his threat but quickly pulled back after seeing a fierce look in those normally sharp eyes.

Ezra swallowed slowly, but he finished the cup. He breathed heavily from the simple exertion.

Chris handed the now empty cup to Josiah. “Fill it,” he ordered, leaving no room for doubt.

The big man stood up with a heavy heart and moved toward the stove. He watched as Thomas quickly arranged some new bandages and then moved quietly beside Ezra and Chris. Josiah knew without a doubt that the blonde gunslinger wouldn’t give up…

Not ever.

That’s why he was the ‘unofficial’ leader of the seven, that’s why the responsibility fell on his shoulders. Maybe that was why he was still alive…despite the odds. Chris was a fighter like the rest of them, but unlike the others, there was a vein so strong it yielded to no one. Maybe that vein was gold…and each of them had staked their claim to it: drawing from it when they needed strength, offering it to those that required it, and saving it for later in life.

Josiah smiled, even as the lone tear made its way down his grizzled cheek. He filled the cup with sugar and water then stirred the contents. He watched as the white, life-saving crystals dissolved. What would happen should one of them die…it wouldn’t matter who it was, Josiah suspected, because they were all a part of each other. Would they fall by the wayside? Disappear forever? Would they continue on? No, the big man thought, they wouldn’t. 

Chapter 5 

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Chris said, while cinching his saddle.

Josiah nodded and helped Thomas onto his mount.

“If he doesn’t make it…”

“I’ll bring him home,” Josiah said softly, looking toward the opening of the cabin where a door used to be.

Chris nodded, unable to speak. He mounted his horse with a firm jaw. He hated this…above all else, he hated the ‘not knowing’. He took a moment and looked toward the cabin, wishing above all else that the cocky, stubborn, and sometimes reviving Southerner would step out and shake his head. Maybe even complain about riding in the rain.

That wouldn’t happen.

“Be careful,” Chris said, taking the reins of Thomas’ horse from Josiah.

“Pray for guidance…and a miracle,” Josiah replied, taking a step back as the gunslinger turned his horse and rode out. The older man looked up toward the gray sky and closed his eyes, praying that his god heard his pleas…praying that his god would be merciful. He looked toward the cabin and sighed. He was afraid to enter…afraid of what he might find.


The fire in the stove continued to blaze, offering the only light within the room. The gray skies wouldn’t allow the suns light rays to permeate through the windows. The kerosene in the lamp had run out an hour before dawn. Though the rain had stopped, its scent still filled the now moist ground.

Josiah stepped closer to the door and paused for a moment before entering the cabin. Ezra lay on his side, covered in blankets and coats. His eyes were open and were staring blankly at nothing. Josiah’s chest closed in on him and he grasped the doorframe with his hand…trying desperately to stay on his feet. He looked up and met the gambler’s eyes.

Ezra blinked slowly, trying to clear his vision. He could breathe easier and for that he was thankful. His mouth felt dry and his limbs heavy.

Josiah stepped into the room wearing a smile that Buck would be proud to call his own. “Welcome back,” he said softly, kneeling down beside the Southerner’s head.

“Where’d I go?” Ezra asked confused, his words were thick and heavy.

Josiah laughed, and pressed the palm of his hand against the gambler’s forehead. “To hell and back, Son…to hell and back.” He noticed the fever was still there but not nearly as high. Carefully, he moved in behind Ezra and helped him sit up. “Feel like eatin’ somethin’?”

Ezra shook his head, still trying to get his bearings. He felt Josiah place a cup in his hand and it took him a minute to try and lift it. Still weak from blood loss and fever, the cup slipped from his fingers and landed with a crash on the wood floor. The Southerner sighed and slumped back in defeat.

Josiah grabbed the cup and refilled it. He gently slipped his hand behind Ezra’s neck, tilting his head up, and helped him drink. The big man felt hands weakly grasp his arm and he pulled the cup from the gambler’s lips. He wiped Ezra’s chin free of the excess water. “Thought for sure we were goin’ to lose you,” he said softly, making sure the blankets and jackets were still covering the Southerner’s form.

Ezra chuckled once and shook his head, not having the energy to reply.

Josiah nodded in understanding and pressed his hand to the gambler’s cheek. Ezra kept his eyes closed and took a deep breath. The preacher watched him for a moment before moving toward the stove. He’d stoke the fire and cook something palpable that Ezra could easily eat.


Josiah watched as the gambler succumbed to a restful sleep. A wave of relief filled the former preacher’s soul, thankful that he wouldn’t be taking a body back to Four Corners. Ezra was too young to die…hell, they were all too young to die. He shook his head and continued to bake the apples he’d managed to find.

The sun had taken a chance and started to peak through sections of parting clouds. Even the horses calmed down as the weather settled. Birds chirped and sang, welcoming the morning sun. The air had never smelled so fresh.

Josiah sprinkled a small amount of sugar on the now smashed apple. It’s seductive aroma reached his nose and he smiled despite himself. He moved toward the gambler and squatted down next to the sleeping form.

He was alive.

“Wake up, Son,” Josiah said softly, gently patting Ezra’s cheek.

Eyelids separated and then closed. Ezra was comfortable, and he didn’t even have his down pillow. He groaned when strong arms pulled him into a sitting position and his head lolled to his right shoulder. Too weak to protest, and too weak aid Josiah, the gambler lay against the big man’s chest, relieved by his warmth and compassion.

Josiah chuckled, knowing that the gambler would object to his situation if he were fully aware of his surroundings. Being spoon-fed and coddled were not on Ezra’s ‘appearances’ list. However, that didn’t matter, the simple fact that the stubborn Southerner was eating and drinking without an argument was the highlight of Josiah’s day.

“Is this amusing?” Ezra asked softly, willingly resting his head against the preacher’s neck and shoulder.

“No,” Josiah responded, shaking his head. “Not in the least.” He sat the small tin plate on the floor next to the cup and sighed.

“Where’s Chris?”

“He took Thomas back to Four Corners early this morning…” Josiah moved out from behind the gambler and pushed him gently up against the wall. “He rode to get Nathan…we weren’t sure you’d make it.”

Ezra shut his eyes and rested his head against the wall. “If we leave now…”

“You’ll never make it,” Josiah admonished, heading for the door. “You’re barely able to sit up.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“As you would call it…” Josiah chuckled, “…it’s an observation.”

Chapter 6

Ezra sat in the saddle, leaning slightly over the pommel and horn. Covered with Josiah’s heavy coat and Chris’ black duster, he felt as though he were carrying a load of wood on his back. His horse moved gracefully over the terrain while Josiah rode next to him. After sleeping for two days and living on a minimal amount of supplies, it was thought best to start back to town. Even if Chris had made it to Four Corners in record time, he was at least two days away…probably more.

If he hadn’t run into trouble.

They stopped on occasion to rest. Josiah hovered over the gambler like a hen did her chicks. The injury was healing and was now beginning to itch incessantly. The former preacher had threatened to tie Ezra’s hands if he didn’t stop scratching at his wound. The gambler obliged, too tired to protest.

The scenery blended together: greens, purples, blues…it didn’t matter which because it all looked the same. The rain had left its mark as the pair of riders rode passed washouts and puddles of standing water. The sun’s rays glistened off the dark plane, reflecting the surroundings. Josiah’s horse’s hooves struck the puddles, creating small waves and ripples. The softened earth muddled the normally crisp sound of hooves striking the hard ground.

“Do you think he did it?” Ezra asked, keeping his eyes on the path ahead. He remembered parts of what was being said around him. 

Josiah shook his head, unsure of how to answer. He knew what Ezra was speaking of. “I don’t know,” he admitted reluctantly. He looked so…normal. “Listening to what he had to say…how he appeared…”

“Unlike Chris?” Ezra replied with a hint of misunderstanding in his voice.

The big man nodded. Chris carried the persona of a killer, his guns, dark clothing, steely eyes…all of it indicated to anyone who cared to look that Chris Larabee, if pushed, would kill. Levi Thomas didn’t. He was quiet, unassuming, kind…helpful. He’d lived through a war and then moved forward to find his son…knowing what his boy was capable of…perhaps though, that’s what made him dangerous.

“I just don’t know,” Josiah said again. Under any other circumstances, Levi Thomas could have been his friend. He looked hard at Ezra and sighed, “What do you think?”

The Southerner gripped the horn of his saddle and tried to find a more comfortable position. It was part of his lifestyle, knowing how to read people, knowing what they were thinking by the looks on their faces. But he honestly didn’t know if Levi Thomas had done what he’d been accused of. “I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what Judge Travis thinks.”

“An accusation like that could destroy a man…even worse…”

“But if he did do it…?”

“May he rot in hell.” Josiah looked forward into the distance, wishing and hoping Chris and Nathan would ride up.      


Josiah smiled when he saw the two familiar riders come up over the edge of the plateau. Their horses galloped over the ground, keeping in pace with each other. Chris’ black duster billowed out behind him as he urged his horse forward.

Ezra looked up and nodded, knowing whom it was. He pushed the brim of his hat up past his brows and sat up straighter in the saddle. It was good to know the gunslinger had made it back to Four Corners without trouble.   

Nathan slipped out of his saddle as soon as his horse came to a complete stop. He grabbed his medical bag and rushed to where Ezra remained seated. “How’re you feelin’?” he asked, pulling back Standish’s jackets and shirt.

“Tired and uncomfortable, Mistah Jackson, but alive.”

The healer looked up and smiled, patting Ezra’s thigh. “Thought for sure you’d be dead,” his words were soft spoken, but sincere. “It’s good to see you up and around.”

Ezra smiled: “It’s good to be up and around.”

Nathan nodded and looked toward Josiah. “How’re you feelin’?”

“I’m ready for a hot meal and a soft bed, Brother.”

Chris looked hard at the two men he’d left behind three days ago and took a deep breath. He thought for sure he’d be burying one of them. Ezra definitely looked worse for wear. Dark circles embraced his eyes, his cheeks were hollowed out…almost gaunt, his fingers grasped the horn of his saddle…knuckles white. At least he was alive. “You want to camp here, or ride a ways?” he asked, looking toward Josiah.

“Let’s camp here,” the big man said with a wink, knowing they needed to stop for a while.


Nathan wrapped the gambler’s middle while he sat leaning against a tree stump. Chris and Josiah worked on making a fire and cooking up some beans and coffee.

“Can I assume you made it back to Four Corners with Thomas intact?” Ezra asked, wrapping up in the blanket Nathan had tossed over him.

“Yeah,” Chris admitted. “The trial will take place in Eagle Bend two weeks from now.” He handed Ezra a cup of coffee and then rested back against his saddle. “Nobody in Four Corners knows who he is…people find out what he’s goin’ on trial for…” Chris shook his head. Even the accused were hung…if they were lucky.

“Does the judge think it’s goin’ to be a long trial?” Josiah asked.

Chris shook his head. “We’ll see.”

Chapter 7 

Chris sat with the others at the table in the saloon. A brisk wind caused the batwing doors to swing gently. Inez continued to move around, cleaning the bar, collecting used mugs, and empty whisky bottles. Buck tossed his cards to the table, disgusted with what he’d gotten.

Six men looked up when Judge Travis entered through the batwing doors and paused a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust to the light. He sought out the table in the back of the room and slowly made his way over. He nodded to JD who quickly vacated his seat, allowing the judge to take his.

The room was relatively quiet as the seven men looked at each other…

“Where’s Standish?” Travis asked, keeping his voice low.

“Upstairs,” Josiah answered. “Sleeping, like he should be.”

Travis nodded, maybe that was for the best. Even after three weeks, Ezra still needed time to heal.

“I thought you were going to wire us with the results?” Chris asked, taking a long pull from his beer.

“Under the circumstances, I thought it would be best if I told you all first hand.” The judge folded his fingers together and rested his forearms on the table. “I found Thomas guilty and sentenced him to hang.” His words were flat and emotionless.

“What about his son?” Josiah asked, having hoped that the man who helped save Ezra’s life may have been innocent.

“Levi Thomas’ son, Jesse Thomas, was shot and killed on September 14th, 1862 at the battle of South Mountain.” Travis sighed and looked hard at the men around him. “I discovered this after listening to several discrepancies in Thomas’ testimony. I wired a friend in Washington, who kindly wired me the casualty list from the battle.”

Chris and Josiah locked eyes, a simple understanding passing between them.

“Thomas admitted to killing the children after being confronted with the facts of his son’s death…” Travis sighed. “He then tried to justify the killings…at which time I had him removed from the courtroom and spoke with the attorneys and informed them of my decision.”

“Was he mad?” JD asked, trying to understand what was happening.

Travis shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he admitted sadly.

“He’d have to be…to do what he did,” Vin interjected.

“I believed him,” Josiah whispered. He looked hard at the amber fluid in his glass. “He seemed so…normal...”

Vin looked over at Chris and saw much of the same turmoil in his eyes as he did the preacher’s. Chris had believed him as well…only his devotion to Travis had kept him from acting on his instinct: letting Thomas go.

“His manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation. Observing him in these moods, I often dwelt meditatively upon the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin—the creative and the resolvent.” Travis looked around the table in understanding. “I believed him too,” he admitted forlornly. “But the evidence was there and undeniable.” He stood up and patted Josiah’s shoulder and then quietly left the saloon.

“Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Josiah responded to the unasked question. “As much as all of us have seen…I believe our esteemed friend and judge, has seen more than anyone.” He watched as the batwing doors slowly stopped swinging, coming to a complete stop.

“We gonna tell Ezra?” JD asked, understanding what had been said.

“I believe our dear brother already knows.”

“Why’d he help?” Buck asked, speaking of Thomas. “If he’s such a monster…why’d he save Ezra’s life?”

Chris shook his head and stood up. “I’ll see y’all later,” he said softly, placing his hat on his head while leaving the saloon. He needed to think about things, how they’d worked out. He paused a moment, looking at the table where his friends sat…he trusted them. All of them, and, in return for that friendship, he’d keep their secrets, their pains, and their confidence…just like they would his.

Vin watched him go, understanding and feeling that uncertainty of man, the vulnerability of faith. “Don’t s’pose why it matters…just that he did it.”

Nathan nodded in agreement. “Seen a lot of things in my life—as a slave, but I never understood half of it. Don’t think it matters what we think…just what we do.” He looked at the men he called brothers. “I reckon there’s been a lot of men I’ve been friendly with that’ave acted less like men and more like animals…but a lot of those folks—black and white—good and bad—helped get me here today…”

“You can’t justify what that man did, Nathan,” Buck said.

“But it don’t make Ezra, Josiah, or Chris any less than what they are because they got help from ‘im.” Nathan turned pleading eyes toward his friends. “The only one that can make a choice for you…is you. Way I see it…there ain’t a one of us who’s made a wrong choice in gettin’ here. Thomas was the murderer…it ain’t our fault he did what he had.”

“But we believed him…” Josiah said softly, still not believing his own emotions.

“We believed Poplar too,” Vin said, locking eyes with the older man.

Nathan stood up and patted his friend’s shoulder. He smiled and gently squeezed JD’s arm as he left the saloon. “I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”

Josiah nodded and shook his head. Nathan was right. The preacher stood up. “I’m goin’ to check on our wounded brother…and then,” he took a deep breath, “I’m goin’ to go soak in a hot bath.”

“I’ll buy you a drink when you’re done,” Buck added, watching the big man head up the stairs. He grabbed the cards and started dealing out to Vin and JD.

Vin grabbed the cards and looked them over briefly before looking toward the stairs. It was impossible to tell what a man was by what he looked like. How he acted. Vin nodded to himself…thanking whatever force had brought the seven of them together…for brothers he never knew he needed. “I’ll take two,” he said, tossing two cards onto the table.

The End

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