Better Man

by Jade

Notes: the song lyrics quoted in Ezra's letter are from A Better Man by Clint Black

Ezra awoke to a blinding headache and the realization that his arms were outspread and tied down. He slowly opened his eyes and blinked repeatedly, trying to focus through the sun's glare. Suddenly, a face came into view above him.

"Well, the fancy man's finally awake." When Ezra didn't speak, the man kicked his side and Ezra groaned as two of his ribs cracked. "Now, tell me when the prisoner transfer is, and I might just let you go."

Ezra coughed, flinching as the action only made the pain in his ribs flare. "I take that to mean that you are some relation to young Mr. Evans?"

The man's lips twisted up into the mockery of a smile. "The four of us here are his brothers."

Ezra groaned again. "Why must they always have brothers?" He quickly turned his attention back to Evans when he pulled his foot back for another kick. "I am afraid, sir, that I am unaware of the particulars involving your brother's transfer."

"Well, that's just too bad, fancy man. Guess we get to have a little fun with you after all." After delivering another kick to Ezra's injured side, Evans motioned for his brothers. "Lift 'em up, boys."

Through the pain, Ezra felt himself being lifted upright, his breathing becoming labored when his legs refused to hold his weight. He looked down and his breath came faster when he realized just what he had been tied to. The Evans brothers were planning to crucify him.

"You might wanna lock your knees, fancy man. Wouldn't want this to end too early, would we?" The man laughed as Ezra struggled to pull himself completely upright. As soon as the gambler's breathing eased, Evans pulled his gun and fired, the bullet striking Ezra in the thigh. He sagged as his right knee buckled, but managed to keep most of his weight on his left leg. "Now, are you sure you don't know when the transfer is? If you tell us, we might just cut you down and let you live while we go kill your lawman friends."

Ezra merely shook his head. "I already told you, I do not know when your brother is being transfered. Even if I did know, I would not tell the likes of you miscreants." He suddenly spit at the oldest brother, hitting him square in the eye.

Evans just calmly wiped his face and pulled his pistol again. A moment later he fired, hitting Ezra in the shoulder, causing him to slump even further in his bonds. "Well, fancy man, guess we'll be on our way now. Too bad your friends don't know where you are. You could hang out here for a couple days before you finally die. Hope you enjoy yourself in hell. The rest of the Seven will be joining you shortly."

The four brothers then mounted their horses and rode off, leaving Ezra hanging from the wooden cross and bleeding. He found himself praying for the first time in years, not for himself but for the others. He had no hope for his own survival, and could only hope that the others would not fall prey to the Evans brothers the way he had. The pain in his leg and shoulder soon had him slumped as far as he could and still breathe. Through the sun's glare, Ezra thought that he saw riders heading in his direction before he passed out from the pain and the heat.

* * *

Chris and Vin were riding on patrol, hats pulled low to shield their eyes from the sun. Vin suddenly pulled his horse up and had his spyglass out, looking at something in the distance. Chris had just come to a stop and started back toward Vin when the tracker cursed loudly and kicked Peso into a gallop. Chris glanced up at the sky. "What now?" Then he kicked his horse and started after Vin.

As the two lawmen came closer, Chris was able to see just what had set the Texan off. A large wooden cross stood outlined against the setting sun and the gunslinger could see the slumped figure hanging from it. He and Vin pushed their tired horses faster when they recognized the red coat that the unconscious figure was wearing.

As soon as they reached Ezra, both men leapt from their horses and rushed over to the gambler. "We gotta get him down, now. He's not breathing too good."

Vin nodded and climbed up the back of the cross, his knife clamped between his teeth. When he had a good grip, he began to cut through the ropes holding the gambler's arms to the cross. As soon as the second rope was cut, Ezra fell limply into Chris's waiting arms. He moaned slightly as Chris put pressure on his cracked ribs, but remained firmly unconscious.

Vin scurried back down and helped Chris try to make Ezra comfortable. "There's blood stains up there from his leg. They had him hanging up there and they just shot him."

Chris looked up, the anger in his eyes matching Vin's. "He's got a couple of cracked ribs, too. They're not makin' his breathing any better. We gotta get him back to town, and fast. There's still a bullet in his shoulder."

"The trip back's gonna hurt him something fierce, 'specially with those ribs." Vin glanced around, then turned back to Chris. "Who do you think did this to him, pard?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't know, Vin. But when I find out, they had better watch their backs. No one messes with one of my men."

Vin swung up on Peso and helped pull Ezra into the saddle in front of him, holding the reigns in one hand with the other arm wrapped around the unconscious gambler. The two lawmen turned their mounts toward Four Corners, going as fast as they could without causing Ezra even more pain. It was after dark when they finally arrived, but the town quickly awoke to Chris's shouts for Nathan.

Chris and Vin were already carrying the gambler to the clinic when Nathan and the others appeared. Once Ezra was on the bed, everyone except for Chris and Vin were kicked out of the room as Nathan began removing Ezra's coat and shirt. "What happened to him?"

Chris glanced at Nathan in disgust. "Someone tried to crucify him, then shot him twice, once in the leg and once in the shoulder."

Nathan jerked his head up. "They what? Someone was crucifying him?"

Vin nodded. "Yep. His breathin' wasn't too good when we found him. Don't know how long he'd been up there, but he wouldn't have lasted much longer."

Once Ezra's shirt had been removed Nathan checked his shoulder, frowning when he felt the fever that had already taken hold of the gambler. "I've got to get this bullet out now. It's already startin' to get infected."

Chris held Ezra's shoulders while Vin held his legs as Nathan began probing for the bullet. The gambler moaned but never woke up and only barely moved. Nathan grunted as he finally found and removed the offensive piece of lead.

"I'm gonna have to clean and stitch this and the one on his leg. We'll just have to hope that the heat didn't cause too much damage."

Chris grabbed Ezra's coat from where it had been thrown to the floor. "Is he gonna be all right, Nathan?"

"I don't know, Chris. It's all gonna be up to him now."

Chris gripped Ezra's coat tighter and frowned when he heard something crinkling. He reached into the pocket and pulled out a letter with his name, written in the gambler's handwriting. He glanced at Nathan, who just shrugged. He unfolded the letter and began to read aloud.

Dear Mr. Larabee

If you are reading this missive, then I am more than likely deceased. In either case, it is my supreme hope that I have gone down alone. I also hope that neither you nor the rest of your companions are suffering from any sense of guilt because of my departure. It was in an attempt to quell any guilt that I wrote this letter.

What do you say when it's over? I don't know if should say anything at all. One day you're rolling in the clover, the next thing you know you take a fall. But still I think about the years since I first met you, and the way it might have been without you here. I don't know if words from me can still upset you, but I just have to make this memory stand clear. I know I'm leaving here a better man for knowing you this way. Things I couldn't do before, now, I think I can. I'm leaving here a better man. If you remember nothing else of me, Chris, remember that I chose to remain here because I had finally found something to believe in; the seven of us. If I fell in the line of duty, then that is all I could ask for. Please think of me fondly.

Your friend,
Ezra P. Standish

When Chris looked up from the letter, both he and Nathan had tears in their eyes. "I didn't know he felt that way."

Nathan shook his head. "I don't think any of us did. That man is just too secretive. We only know what he wants us to."

Chris refolded the letter and placed it back in Ezra's coat pocket. "Is there anything we can do to help him, Nathan?"

"Talk to him. Most doctors think that even when patients are unconscious, on some level they hear what people say to them." Nathan sighed. "With everything he's been through, you're probably gonna have to convince him to wake up. He may think that we'd be better off if he just let go and died."

Chris's eyes hardened. "As soon as you get him taken care of, go back to bed. I'll stay with him tonight and tomorrow we can start setting up shifts until he wakes up."

Nathan nodded and silently went to work cleaning Ezra's wounds while Chris sat by the gambler's uninjured shoulder, one hand clasping Ezra's and the other smoothing back his chestnut hair. The healer soon finished and left the clinic, nodding goodnight to the gunslinger on his way out.

When Chris found himself alone with Ezra, he was at a loss for words. Nearly an hour passed with only the sound of the gambler's slow breathing echoing in the room. Finally, Chris began to speak.

"I know that we haven't made life easy for you here, Ez. There's no excuse for it; but then you haven't really made it easy on yourself, either. But we do trust you, Ezra, and we have for a while now." Chris smiled. "We didn't think you'd appreciate it if we showed you how we felt. We'll do better from now on. I promise you, Ezra."

Chris frowned as Ezra's breathing quickened, but relaxed when he saw the green eyes blink open for a moment. The gambler's lips curved up in a smile and his eyes closed again as he surrendered to a healing sleep. Chris had to strain to hear the words that were whispered as Ezra fell asleep.

"Thank you, Chris."

Chris leaned back in his chair after he pulled the blanket up and tucked it under Ezra's chin. He smiled as he realized that the Seven were still whole. "No, thank you, Ezra. We'll find the men who did this, and they will regret it. You're family, Ezra, and no one hurts my family."

The next morning Ezra awoke to find Chris sound asleep in the chair beside the bed. He smiled and was about to return to sleep when he suddenly remembered the events of the previous day. "Aw, hell." His voice was low and raspy, but it was enough to wake Chris.

"Ezra, how are you feeling?"

Ezra just shook his head. "That doesn't matter. What does matter is the transfer of young Mr. Evans." When Chris just looked at him, he sighed. "Mr. Evans has four brothers who are most upset with his plight and are going to take extreme measures to insure that he is not incarcerated for any longer than necessary."

"You must be feeling better if you're using that many big words." Chris suddenly frowned as exactly what Ezra had said sunk in. "His brothers are gonna try to break him out, aren't they?"

"Not exactly, Mr. Larabee. They informed me that they intended to free him during his transfer, and to kill any lawmen who were with him." He grimaced as his injured ribs finally made themselves known. "They made quite a good start of that by attempting to kill me."

Chris's frown quickly evolved into a dark scowl. "Well, if they're lucky, they just might not live to regret what they did."

Ezra's eyes widened at the pure rage in the gunslinger's voice. Before he could say anything, the door to the clinic was opened to admit Nathan.

The healer broke into a sincere grin when he saw that Ezra was awake. "You had us all worried there, Ezra." When he turned around for a moment, he missed the look of utter shock on the gambler's normally impassive face.

Chris didn't. "I know we haven't shown it much, but we do care about you." He suddenly blushed. "I didn't know what it was at the time, but I read the letter that was in your coat pocket."

Ezra groaned. "There was a reason that the letter was meant to be read after my death, Mr. Larabee. That reason was to save me the embarrassment that I am undergoing at this very moment."

"There's nothin' to be embarrassed about, Ez. We feel the same way about you." When Ezra turned to him in shock, Chris grinned. "And don't you think we've known each other long enough for you to call me Chris. It's not that hard a name. Even Buck can handle it."

"Fine, Chris. Are you happy now?" He hissed as Nathan checked his ribs. "I do believe that you did that on purpose, Nathan." Ezra smirked as Nathan's head jerked up. "It certainly would not be right of me to only call one of you by your Christian names. I must be fair after all."

The light mood was shattered by the sounds of gunfire. Nathan and Chris both rushed to the window, then Chris dashed out the door, pulling his pistol as he went. Nathan turned back to Ezra just long enough to glare at the gambler.

"Stay in this bed, no matter what. You're not well enough to do anything except make yourself worse." When Ezra nodded, the healer also grabbed a pistol and left, slamming the door behind him.

As soon as Ezra was certain that the others were all out on the street, he pulled himself out of the bed and limped over to the open window, his pistol clutched in one hand. The six lawmen were holding their own against what looked like the Evans brothers, and probably some of their cousins. However, there was no sign of the eldest brother.

The clinic door suddenly burst open to admit the missing Evans brother. "Well, fancy man, looks like you're stronger than you look. So, how long did you have to hang there before someone finally noticed you were missing?"

Ezra's green eyes hardened as he struggled to raise the heavy pistol, determined to ignore the pain radiating from his injured shoulder. Evans just laughed, aiming his pistol directly between the gambler's eyes. Ezra flinched as a gunshot roared through the room and Evans fell, revealing Chris standing behind him with smoke still rising from his gun barrel. He stepped over the body just in time to catch Ezra as his knees buckled.

"Easy, pard. We got 'em all." He eased Ezra back into bed, smiling when the gambler almost immediately succumbed to the exhaustion that still had a strong hold on him. He smoothed Ezra's hair back from his forehead. "I told you, pard. No one hurts my family, and like it or not, you're part of it."

The End

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