A ray of light hit Vin square in the face, causing him to stir from his fitful sleep. Blinking rapidly against the bright intrusion, he tried to focus on the face behind the oil lamp.
Blackston stared at his prisoner, pleased at the discomfort the young man was experiencing. "Feeling a bit stiff are we? I wouldn't be surprised...you did take an awful beating."
Vin glared at the con artist, his body racked in pain. He knew at least a couple of ribs had been broken, along with various other bruises and swelling. His blue eyes defiant, he twisted away from the searching hands. Every prod and poke only inflamed the insufferable torment he was in.
"Now now...," Blackston chided in false sincerity, "you mustn't move around so much, it could cause more damage." To prove his point, the heartless man grabbed Vin up by the shoulders, slamming the tracker down hard on the bed, over and over again.
A sharp hiss of pain escaped Vin as he lost consciousness, the pain overwhelming.
"See?" Blackston shrugged. "You and Larabee are two of a kind...too stubborn to know when to back off. I'm afraid you boys will have to learn the folly of that kind of thinking." He paused before leaving the room. "I hope you didn't damage yourself further...." The tall man grinned as he surveyed his deed, the desire to inflict more pain flooding his soul. It would have to wait. What fun would there be if the victim was unable to feel it?
+ + + + + + +
"You think this will work?" Nathan asked, the concern deep in his voice.
Ezra took the powdered drug and placed it inside the bottles of alcohol. "It will have to Mr. Jackson. This is one instance where Ah cannot rely on my finesse alone."
The healer nodded. "Does Chris know?"
"He knows my objectives, not the plan," Ezra admitted. "Some of the details may appear as the situation unfolds."
"There's an awful lot of danger in this here plan," Nathan couldn't help but point out. "To Vin...to you...."
Lowering his head, the gambler sighed. "My welfare is a minor concern at the moment. Mr. Tanner will perish if Ah attempt a failed emancipation or not. Ah would prefer to try than to not try at all."
His eyes searching into the emerald green, Nathan found himself stirred by something he never imagined he would feel for the southerner...pride. Ezra was willing to sacrifice his life to save another. Holding back his emotions, the former slave offered out his hand for the con man to shake. "Bring yerself both back."
With a small smile, Ezra shook the hand warmly. "That is my fullest intention."
+ + + + + + +
Chris fought the sleep his head wound was demanding. All his thoughts warring with each other. Doubts and questions came up fast and furious, challenging his decisions, both past and present. Had he made a mistake in allowing Ezra...alone...to rescue Vin? What if the rescue failed? Not only would Vin suffer, but Ezra as well.
Shifting under the blankets, the gunfighter cursed his uselessness. He should be riding out after Blackston, finding Vin, and shooting his old enemy right between his cold eyes. Ezra's words quieted his intensity. Blackston wanted him to come after Vin. This was the only way to save his best friend. As much as he hated to relinquish his unspoken promise to Vin, Chris would have to trust another to watch the sharpshooter's back.
+ + + + + + +
A hazy vagueness came to Vin's pain muddled mind as he fought his way back to consciousness. He knew he shouldn't be off alert, his senses tingling of a known danger. What had happened? Where was he? Why was he in so much agony? Two men's faces came into view, one blonde, one brunette, both with green eyes. The tracker searched his memory...their names not forthcoming. Unable to concentrate, Vin lolled his head to the side, feeling the comfort of the goose-down pillow. He was in a bed, but why couldn't he move?
Trying to lick at his dry lips, Vin felt the presence of fabric. A gag? Gingerly moving the arms pinned behind him, he then felt the restraints holding them in place. A shard of pain ran through his body at the motion, causing the young man to buck, bringing another troubling realization....his feet were bound and connected to his wrists. He was a prisoner? Overriding the newest bout of torment, Vin tried to calm himself. Somehow he would have to get his bearings and find some way to escape. The faces he recalled seconds ago...where they the ones responsible for his situation?
Blackston slowly creaked open the door to his captive's room, noting the confusion on Vin's face. Beads of sweat were broken out over the handsome face, telling the cold hearted killer his victim was running a high fever. He smiled to himself as he entered inside.
Two blue eyes turned to the stranger, no recognition given. Seeing no animosity from Vin, Blackston moved closer to the bed, placing a fatherly hand on the sweat soaked head. "Are you all right?" he asked in mock concern.
Vin could only lie there, unable to move or speak. He heard the man's soothing voice, felt the long fingers untying the gag before being greeting with a cool glass of water. The tracker drank greedily, his parched mouth needing moisture in the worst way.
"Take it easy," Blackston half cooed, enjoying the new twist in the game. The high fever was causing temporary amnesia. Pulling out a pocket knife, he cut the ropes holding Vin in place. He knew the young man wouldn't be able to fight back if he did regain his orientation.
"What....what happened?" Vin managed to force through his lips.
"We'll talk about that later," Blackston answered, "but first we need to get you more comfortable. I was hoping to find you all right." The tall man gave a coy smile as his captive soaked in his words. As gently as he could, he lifted Vin's bent legs and straightened them out, causing the sharpshooter to groan in pain. With that accomplished, he took the afghan at the foot of the bed and covered the young man.
"Were lookin'...fer me?"
"Shhhh...." Blackston wiped at the sweaty brow with a handkerchief. "You don't remember the bank?" Perceiving no cognizance of the incident, the card sharp continued in his deception. "You were beaten unmercifully and taken hostage. Chris Larabee robbed the bank and kidnaped you for insurance."
"Larabee?" Vin tried to concentrate...the name familiar. The blonde man's face came back into his mind. "Look....like?"
"Blonde hair, cold, green eyes, wears black." Blackston paused. "Do you remember him?"
Giving a slight nod, Vin sunk his head further into the pillows. "C'n see...see his face...."
"Don't you go worrying on him. You're safe now. Just rest up and we'll get revenge on that bastard...you have my word, Boy."
Closing his eyes, Vin gave in to the desire for sleep. He was safe....
+ + + + + + +
Saddling Chaucer, Ezra readied himself for the most dangerous con of his life. Failure meant death, and looking heavenward to the God he had shamelessly used as profit in the past, the gambler asked for guidance and help. He might need a miracle to pull this off.
As he left the livery, Ezra noted the presence of the remaining four peacekeepers, watching in various different places along the boardwalk. Each man giving their friend their support with a silent nod or small smile. The gambler noticed another face as well, his bandaged head pressed against the window of Nathan's clinic. Larabee gave a light nod, letting Ezra know that no matter the outcome, there would be no hard feelings.
Tipping his hat in salute, Ezra vowed he would not fail, that their complete trust in him would prove worthy. His foot dug gently into his steed's side, urging the horse into a faster pace. Time was of the essence.
+ + + + + + +
His mind swimming, Vin barely felt the hand wiping down his face with a cool cloth. Turning fever glazed eyes to the man beside him, he let his guard down, realizing this was the man who had helped him earlier. He licked at his lips, wishing to quench the burning in his throat.
"Let me get some water," Blackston said, quieting Vin's movements.
Satisfied, Vin then sought answers, still unable to remember what had happened. "Where's...Larabee?"
Giving a soothing smile, Blackston shrugged. "No doubt he ran back to that town where he hides as a sheriff."
"Oh yes...that's how he gets away with robbery and murder. Unfortunately, you somehow found out his identity and when he realized I was on his trail, he took you as a hostage. He goes back to his little town and no one's the wiser."
"You...a lawman?" Vin's eyes began to droop, his fever zapping any strength he had.
"No, but I want justice...to end his tyranny. I've been wanting him to pay for a lot of years." Watching his victim's eyes closing, Blackston lowered his voice to a whisper. "When you're well enough to move, we'll go back and you can exact your justice on Larabee. Wouldn't he be surprised that the sheriff he left for dead came back and got him?"
"I'm...I'm a sheriff?" Vin mumbled wearily.
"Yes...of course you are. You were only trying to stop him after he had murdered the innocent customers...."
The sapphire orbs threw open in horror. Innocent people were inside the bank? Vin implored more information with his eyes, his mouth too tired to speak.
"I'd say there was ten or more, but they were gone by the time you accidentally stumbled in through the back door." Blackston shook his head sadly for effect. "You were only there to help the bank manager with some repairs, and you walk into a robbery."
Vin slammed his eyes shut, wondering if the revulsion of the scene at the bank was what had caused his memory loss. It would explain some things. "I want that son of a bitch," he squeezed out of his hoarse throat.
Blackston gave the sharpshooter another drink of water. "You rest. Larabee won't escape this time." Rising, he left his prey to ponder on his carefully played words. This was working out better than he hoped. Larabee wouldn't be able to come anywhere near the young man in his condition...not without a bullet between his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
An exhausted Ezra reached the outskirts of Eagle Bend, his mind and body drained by the long ride there and the myriads of possible scenarios that had yet to be executed. Would Blackston even allow him near? Pushing his doubts aside, the con man continued on through the early dawn, praying fervently that his friend was even alive to rescue.
The small cabin came into view, with it, a rush of bad memories. Ezra had to give one thing to Blackston, no one would have found this place easily. Dismounting less than a mile away, he led his steed to the front door, expecting a cavalcade of guns to be appearing at his arrival. He wasn't disappointed.
Ed Snider slunk out of the front door, his eyes hard while he trained his rifle squarely at Ezra's chest. "You're trespassing, Mister."
"Excuse me...sir, but Ah do know exactly where Ah tread. Is Mr. Blackston perchance in your company at the moment?"
The robber's mouth fell open in shock, but his rifle stayed in place. "Who the hell are you?"
"The name is Ezra P. Standish," the gambler smiled tightly. "If you would be so kind as to mention my moniker to Mr. Blackston, there would be instant recognition."
"I'll handle it," Anvil Grant said to his comrade, walking outside with his colt .45 raised. "You go inside." Snider threw Ezra once last glance before entering back in the cabin. Not too many people knew this place existed.
"Are we supposed to know this Blackston?" Anvil grilled their unexpected guest. Larabee or one of his men didn't know about this place...at least that's what Blackston had told them. Larabee would be looking for Tanner miles from here, and probably not this quickly. The black clad gunfighter was hurt pretty bad, in no shape to be riding.
Ezra gave an exaggerated sigh. "Please, Ah am one of few who know about this abode. If you would get Mr. Blackston's attention...."
"You've got it, Standish," Blackston said warily, motioning with his head for Grant to leave them for the moment. The lead robber did just that, his body and gun placed directly in the window in case the intruder tried anything.
The gambler put on his best poker face, trying to appear relieved to see the card sharp. "When Ah heard what happened in Four Corners, Ah knew you would come here."
"And how did you hear about it, Standish?"
"May Ah recall my tale inside?" Ezra dared to suggest.
The tall man stiffly stood his ground, his eyes unreadable. "You can start it out here."
"Then it's true, the unfortunate defacto sheriff is inside."
Blackston fingered the gun in his holster, his demeanor threatening.
Ezra threw his hands up in agitation. "Ah have been threatened by four men in the past 24 hours, and indeed Ah am extremely exasperated by it. If you hadn't implicated me in the first place, Ah would not find myself on your doorstep."
Eying the con man suspiciously, Blackston lowered his hand from the gun. "Four men? Who?"
"Four of the so called lawmen of Four Corners," Ezra pretended to scoff. "It seems after their tracker was taken, they searched high and low for me. Thought Ah might know something."
"And? Did you?"
"Ah directed them to your former abode in Temperance, and immediately left in the opposite direction."
"Why come here?" Blackston asked icily. Did the gambler turn on him and bring the others to his doorstep? Waiting to pounce at the right moment?
"If you are fearful Ah was followed," Ezra said with a grand sweep of his arm behind him, "please feel free to peruse the landscape. Ah watched the four buffoons head towards Temperance. Ah did not wish to be nearby when they discovered my ruse."
"But why come here?" Blackston insisted.
His face lost the cool affability as it turned more bitter. Ezra turned his emerald eyes to Blackston's. "You got me into this situation, you are going to help me out of it."
Blackston threw his head back and laughed. "They must've got pretty rough with you to come running to me for help."
"Ah do not understand why you felt the need to inform them of my past with you," Ezra feigned hurt. "Ah would not have been harassed in such a demeaning way."
Slapping his hand on Ezra's back, Blackston gently pushed the con man inside. "I was trying to get them off my trail and to get you out of town."
"Well, it succeeded," Ezra frowned. "Ah barely escaped Four Corners before they came busting down my door."
"We both got the better of those idiots," Blackston grinned. He pulled out a chair for Ezra to sit in. "Sit back and maybe we can all play some cards tonight. I suddenly came into a windfall of cash."
The gambler forced a small smile. "Oh yes...the robbery. Ah must admit Ah was shocked to hear you instigated it. You were never a petty thief."
"The money was just a ploy to get my little prize." Blackston jerked his head in the direction of a closed door. "I should check in on him, care to peek in?"
Without appearing too eager, Ezra agreed, looking anxiously over the tall man's shoulder as the door opened and Blackston's oil lamp illuminated the room. His heart sank when he viewed the perspiration clinging to his young friend's unmoving form. He didn't need to be a doctor to know Vin was seriously hurt.
"C'mon Boy," Blackston said to his captive, gently tapping the face to arouse Vin, "you should get some more water in you."
His glazed eyes opened to slits, recognition slow in coming. Vin only laid there while Blackston lifted his head and poured the precious and cool water down his throat. He was so hot. A flicker of movement past his caretaker caught Tanner's attention. The eyes grew large when he recognized the man as the other face who floated in and out of his dreams. Who was he? What was his connection?
"What? What is it?" Blackston asked, looking behind him at Ezra. "Do you know him?"
Vin managed a slight nod, his eyes never leaving Standish. "Larabee...," he half whispered.
"He's with Larabee?" Blackston asked softly, his eyes searching his old acquaintance for any response.
Ezra steadied his limbs, trying his best to hide his astonishment. His secret was going to be revealed and by the man he was trying to save!
Ezra could feel the cold sweat on his back as he stared on helplessly. Vin was so bad off he couldn't see the threat Blackston posed. What if Tanner remembered his role in the seven?
Vin closed his eyes tight, trying to remember this newcomer. Suddenly, an impression came faintly to his mind. "Larabee....Larabee was mad at 'im."
The gambler almost sighed out loud in relief. For the time being his secret was safe. Blackston would be pleased with that information.
Blackston looked back at his old acquaintance and grinned. "Ezra, why don't you go out with my other friends and I'll join you in a moment. I want to give Vin some more water and make sure he's comfortable."
Surprised by the killer's concern for his friend, but unsettled by it as well, Ezra hesitated. "Maybe Ah can help?"
Blackston shook his head. "I'm not going to let any harm come to this one, so don't worry about his safety."
Unable to come up with another reason to stay, the gambler unwillingly left Vin in Blackston's care. His gut clenched at the sight of the lithe tracker looking so frail and sick...and the man responsible catering to his needs. What was going on? Was he deliberately keeping Vin well so he could kill him in front of Chris? He repressed a shudder, willing his emotions in check. By heaven and earth, Blackston was not going to get the chance.
Hearing the door close, Blackston turned back to Vin, giving the young man more water. He noted the questioning look in the blue eyes and decided to weave some more deception. "Ezra is an old friend of mine, that's why Larabee was mad at him. Do you remember how you know that?"
Vin could only shake his head no, unsure how he came by that feeling.
"Ezra was in town the same time I was, and he knew about Larabee, and Larabee knew who he was. He had to flee for his life in case Larabee decided to shut him up."
The young tracker's face screwed up in mild anger. "Not right...."
Fiddling with the blankets, Blackston tucked them under his captive's chin. "I won't let anything happen to you. I let me guard down once with Larabee, and a young man was murdered...not again."
"Is that what ya meant ta that fancy feller?" Vin asked, recalling the remark Blackston said about his safety.
"That's exactly what I meant," Blackston replied. He patted Vin lightly on the shoulder. "I'm going to let you sleep some and go talk to Ezra. I'll check on you soon."
Despite his pain, the exhausted sharpshooter relaxed and was soon asleep. Blackston's face beamed in the lamp's glow. His young patient was totally unaware of the threat hanging literally above him. In an instant the tracker's life could be snuffed out by the man whom he thought to be his protector.
"Sweet dreams," Blackston cooed before closing the door.
+ + + + + + +
One card after another flew swiftly through the deft fingers to the amazement to the other men at the table. They had never seen such speed in shuffling a deck of cards. The three men watched entranced as Ezra continued his show. The gambler had no idea how impressed his audience was, his mind wandering to the bedroom where his friend lay hurt.
"A game of chance?" Blackston asked Ezra as he walked into the open area.
"My specialty," Ezra said with a tip of his head. His eyes rested briefly on the closed door. "And your guest, how is he faring?"
Chuckling, the tall con artist pulled up a chair and sat down with the other men. "Why are you concerned?"
A frown creased Ezra's winsome features. "Ah do not wish to relive another situation which had dubious beginnings such as this."
"That always was your problem, Standish. Sometimes your chivalry interfered with your senses."
"Ah perceive it as self preservation," Ezra stated, throwing some cards Blackston's way. "Poker?"
"Preservation? How so?"
"If Ah should happen to observe too much, Ah may find myself in danger from two camps. Ignorance is bliss...isn't that what they say?"
Blackston took up his cards, his normally lifeless eyes sparking. "What are the stakes?"
With a coy grin, Ezra glanced at his hand. "We start off with the normal small currency and see where the playing takes us."
"Even got some booze," Wilson Snider said, pointing to the two bottles Ezra brought in.
"It is more than mere booze my good Sir," Ezra replied. "It is the finest whiskey a man can obtain. Far above the drivel they serve at your local drinkery."
"Well then, we best start so I can get a couple of hands in before I check in on our guest."
Anvil Grant cast a furtive glance in Ezra's direction. "Shouldn't we leave certain things in private, Blackston?"
Dismissing the concerns with a wave of his hand, Blackston smiled. "Ezra and I go back a ways. We don't have to watch what we say around him."
"I don't trust him," Anvil persisted, his mouth fixing into a snarl.
"Grant, if you did trust him, I'd be worried." Blackston resumed looking over his cards, signaling the end of that particular discussion.
In spite of the hammering of his heart inside his chest, Ezra nodded his head in the con artist's direction, his outer features completely relaxed. Things were going as he hoped...so far.
+ + + + + + +
"Josiah, try'n git this fool ta lay down in that bed," Nathan said to the preacher in exasperation. For the fifth time that evening, Chris had tried to leave the confines of his mattress.
"Brother, I know you're worried...we all are...but you re-hurting yourself ain't going to help when Vin gets back."
Larabee gave a small growl of protest, but allowed the larger man to help him back into his bed. He couldn't rest, his insides twisting in turmoil over Vin's plight. Would Vin even be alive when Ezra found him?
Sinking back into the pillows, Chris closed his eyes in frustration. "Dammit Josiah..., I can't lay around while Vin's in...."
Josiah shook his greying head. "Oh...I can just see it now.... You on your black steed, barely able to sit upright in your saddle...riding off to rescue our brother in peril. Your eyes squinted against the pain throbbing in your head, your vision blurry as you lead your horse in the direction of our missing friend. For days you ride on, barely able to keep going, but moving nonetheless, knowing Vin's out there, even though you have no real clue where...."
"I get the point!" Chris scowled.
A soft smile came to the older man's face as he placed a hand on the gunfighter's shoulder. "Ezra will bring him back. If anyone can out con another con man...it's Ezra P. Standish."
+ + + + + + +
"He damn near won back all our bank loot," Wilson Snider complained to his employer.
The tall card sharp intertwined his fingers and laid them upon his lower abdomen. "Can I help it if you three are lousy poker players? No one forced you to bet so high. If you loose your share of the bank money...it's through no fault of mine."
Ezra looked around the table, tr
ing hard to hold in his secret pleasure at fleecing Blackston's three accomplices. Not only would he bring Vin back, he'd have the added bonus of most of the town's lost funds. Blackston held the rest of the bank's money, and his friend's life. He would have to play a more clever game with his old acquaintance.
Anvil Grant lifted one of the whiskey bottles. "It's getting to be dusk, can we open one of these now?" Blackston had forbidden any early drinking, wishing to save the liquor towards the evening, much to Ezra's dismay. He had hoped to have spirited Vin away much sooner.
The tall man smiled and nodded. "I am feeling a bit thirsty. Pour me a glass while I check on our friend."
Watching his leader leave the table, Ed Snider gave an indignant huff. "We go to all that trouble of catching the runt, and Cole treats him like he's his son or something."
"Did the lad offend you in some way?" Ezra asked absently.
"Then why do you wish for his suffering?"
Grant threw down his cards and gave a hard glare in Ezra's direction. "And why do you care?"
The gambler only grinned, his gold tooth gleaming in the soft light of the recently lit kerosene lamp. "Like Ah articulated before...self preservation."
"I still don't get why this kid's well being matters to your preservation."
His emerald eyes scanning over his adversaries, the southern gentleman shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "Have you ever been threatened with malignant physical harm?"
"Huh?" Ed Snider wondered, Ezra's large vocabulary confusing him.
"A threat to kill you," Ezra restated gracefully. "The four friends of this guest will take it very personally if anything negative befalls their compatriot...or in a more general term...friend."
"Still don't explain why well enough for me," Grant frowned, pouring himself out a drink.
Ezra looked at the man, unfazed by the obvious distrust. "Ah only wish to stop history from repeating itself...for all our sakes."
Rising from his seat, Grant left the table, his brown eyes boring into the Southerner's. Something didn't sit right. He wasn't going to put any trust in this Standish guy. As soon as Blackston emerged from the room, he was going to make his suspicions known.
The opening of the door brought the head robber to attention. He waited for Blackston to close the door before motioning to his boss to follow him outside. Ed and Wilson Snider exchanged smirks, guessing their friend was going to get this fancy pants gambler in hot water. The grins disappeared when they threw a furtive glance Ezra's way. The newcomer was smiling! The two men looked at each other, perplexed. Wasn't this guy worried about it? They busied themselves with liberal doses of the whiskey as they waited for the fireworks.
Blackston returned 15 minutes later, his face clouded. Grant stood behind the tall con artist, his mug showing confidence. The two brothers looked back again at Ezra, still confused as to why the man wasn't scared. His life could be over in two seconds.
"I've been hearing that you might be planning something?" Blackston asked Ezra point blank. As much as he admired Standish's ability to weave an elaborate con, he didn't like to be on the receiving end of one. No one double crossed him and got away with it.
"May Ah be frank with you gentlemen?" Ezra said as he neatly re- stacked his deck of cards. A cocky grin encompassed his generous mouth as he laid his gaze upon each man in the room.
The card sharp shook his head in amusement as he sat across from Ezra. He should have known Standish had something more up his sleeve that running from Larabee's gang.
"When Ah disclosed earlier that Ah wished for you to help me out of my predicament, Ah meant just that." The attractive gambler leaned back in his seat. "Your men's horrendous poker playing has helped me greatly in one endeavor."
"The bank money," Blackston answered, trying to hide the grin playing at his thin lips. "You always were a greedy one, Standish."
A small chuckle escaped as Ezra shook his finger up in the air. "No, Ah have far grander things in mind with that currency than to squander it on myself."
"Just get to the damn point," Grant huffed indignantly, his boss's reaction not what he had hoped.
"When I retreated from that humble berg known as Four Corners, Ah was perceived in a less than favorable light. Imagine what would occur if Ah returned with the money...and the hostage." Ezra felt the temperature in the room plummet as an eerie silence took over. He didn't divert his gaze from Blackston, knowing that doing so would show fear, and the murderous card sharp would pounce on it.
Blackston stared at the man in front of him, unbelief greeting his emotions at first. "You want the money...and the boy?"
"I told you he was up to no good," Grant threw in to the mix.
"No good?" Ezra raised an eyebrow. "From where Ah sit, it is very good...for my position. Ah was verbally accosted for something Ah didn't participate in. If anything should befall their little tracker...Ah would suffer retribution. If Ah should happen to bring back all that was taken...would it not spare me future retaliation? Of course Ah would not divulge how Ah came upon such luck, but Ah don't assume they'd be all that concerned in those trivial matters at that moment. And by the time they do, Ah will have vanished to another town, or perhaps another coast line. "
"You came here to take the money and Larabee's friend?" Blackston repeated again.
"Of course Ah wouldn't dream of just taking him," Ezra lied effortlessly, resisting the urge to glance at the drugged bottles of whiskey....the insurance plan. "Ah was hoping to have won the bank money back before offering this...but since all is out in the open...."
Blackston found himself laughing out loud, much to the consternation of his men. "Damn you have grit, Standish! You were planning all along to play me for the tracker? So you could go strutting into Four Corners a big hero?"
"A very alive, and healthy hero," Ezra corrected.
"Yeah well, what's in it for us?" Wilson Snider demanded. "You'll have taken our money!"
"Ah all ready have taken your share," Ezra pointed out. "You'll receive my silence and not to mention, avoid the ire of Chris Larabee and his men. They would hunt you to the bowels of Hell itself to revenge their friend...Ah'm sure of that."
"You knew it wasn't about the money, Wilson," Blackston reminded his co-hort.
"No it wasn't," Grant agreed angrily, "but you ain't thinking of letting go of the reason we did do it?"
Stretching out his lean frame in his chair, Blackston pondered the possibilities. "The boy's in a bad way...he ain't going to make it for Larabee to arrive if he don't get medical help. My original intentions have been destroyed anyway." The card sharp gave a cruel smile. "What's my reward for winning?"
"Ah would leave your hospitality, cleansing my memory of all that transpired. You shall also receive your currency back in full, and my assurance that Ah will never breathe a word of your whereabouts to Larabee or his men." Ezra began to shuffle the deck of cards. "The tracker Ah will leave to providence."
Blackston nodded his acceptance. Had Standish gotten any better over the years? The games they played back in Four Corners and today were small time. Any good card sharp could win easily over his associates. Besides, with his captive growing worse, maybe it would benefit him to have Standish take the young man off his hands. Wouldn't it be something if Larabee got his friend back...only to experience death?
"You...you can't mean you trust him to keep quiet!" Grant sputtered in disbelief.
A smile slowly came to Blackston's face. "Oh, he'll keep quiet. Won't you Standish?"
Ezra didn't return the smile, his face grim. "Ah feel Ah've passed that test."
"You have, Ezra. You have with spades." Blackston fixed his dark eyes on the younger man.
"Five card stud," Ezra announced, watching the others quickly consume one of the laced whiskeys. If there was one good thing his mother taught him...it was to never enter a situation without a backup plan.
"Deal," Blackston demanded. "A man's life hangs in the balance."
Ezra dealt out the cards, unable to quell his gut instincts. Had Blackston agreed too readily? A heavy feeling overtook his heart. Maybe Vin was so bad off that Blackston knew he'd be dragging back a corpse. Concentrating on his hand, Ezra pushed back his fears, remembering what he had told Nathan before he left.
"Ah would prefer to try than not to try at all."
And try he would.
Ezra viewed the cards before him...a 'ten of spades',... ' jack of spades', ... 'queen of spades',... 'king of spades', and 'ace of spades'. A royal flush. The gambler took a deep breath. Surely he had won. He looked over at Blackston, who remained unreadable as always.
The second whiskey bottle was half gone, sending a new alarm rising in Ezra's mind. Blackston hadn't drank more than two shot glasses of the liquor. The others would succumb quicker than their leader would. What if they passed out before he could get Vin to safety? Blackston would become suspicious and foil any attempts at leaving.
His fears diminished slightly as Ezra watched the tall con artist pour a more generous amount of the drugged alcohol, chugging it down in a few swallows. He preferred to take Vin with Blackston's blessing, but the more whiskey consumed, the harder and longer the sleeping draught would hit. Any extra convenience was appreciated.
"You weren't kidding about this whiskey being good, Standish," Blackston said as he poured himself another glass. "Why ain't you had any? Bottle's almost done."
Smiling with a confidence he didn't inwardly feel, Ezra raised his gold flask. "Now you must recall Ah prefer my imported Scotch over whiskey any day. You were the one who required whiskey."
Blackston chuckled. "I did forget. Always had to be different."
"It makes me more appealing to the masses," Ezra replied smoothly.
"Makes you more snobby if you ask me," Grant said bitterly.
"No one did ask you," Ezra replied cooly. He turned his gaze to Blackston. "Are you as satisfied with your hand as Ah am?"
The con man eyed the southerner with curiosity. "Think you have this won?"
A brown eyebrow raised. "Ah can hear the cheers of the crowds all ready."
Blackston splayed his cards across the table. "A straight flush."
"Very impressive," Ezra grinned like a cheshire cat. "But Ah do believe a royal flush is superior in this situation."
"How...how'd he do that?" Wilson Snider uttered in disbelief.
"Lady Luck has graced me with her presence," Ezra said with a twinkle in his eyes. He and Vin would soon be on their way.
"He had to have cheated," Grant muttered to his boss.
"Yeah!" Ed Snider chimed in.
Throwing up a hand in a show for quiet, Blackston glanced over at his acquaintance. "Cheating can be a fine art too, the better the cheater, the less likely you can prove it. Either way, Mr. Standish has either finessed me in card playing or in cheating. He won."
"Thank you, Mr. Blackston," Ezra acknowledged. Pushing back the nagging doubts of the easiness of his victory, he rose from the table. "Ah would like to take my winnings and leave for the nearest doctor."
The gambler froze. After all this, would Blackston renege? "Did you not say yourself the lad needed medical attention?"
"I want you to take him straight to Four Corners. Surely they have a doctor there."
"Yes, but it would take hours to reach it."
With a cold smile, Blackston leaned in towards Ezra. "I'm sure Larabee and his men would like their friend back as soon as possible. Taking him to a local doctor could delay your return for days. By that time Larabee should be healed enough to come looking for his little buddy. I want to be able to slip away without having to worry about him breathing down my neck."
"The tracker's not able to ride, especially for a trip like that," Ezra reminded the tall man.
"Take the wagon we used in the heist. He should be all comfy in there. Do I have your word not to stop anywhere until you reached Four Corners?"
Ezra nodded his acceptance. Refusal could put Vin in jeopardy, and traveling in the wagon would mean less stress on his friend's body. He would make the oath. "Ah will not stop anyplace else."
"Good." Blackston turned to Grant. "You and the boys get Ezra's money ready for him, and I'll see to our guest."
Ezra began to follow after Blackston until the card sharp stopped and shook his head. "I have to prepare him for the trip...he might get upset with someone new messing with him till I can explain what's happening. I'll get you when he's ready."
"He trusts you that implicitly?"
"Hell," Blackston chuckled, "he's so out of it, he'd trust the devil himself if he offered some comfort."
Ezra felt his body grow numb from the callous comment. Blackston was deliberately taking advantage of Vin's injuries...getting some sick pleasure from his captive's unsuspecting fate. He begrudgingly went back to the table, sitting at the chair he recently vacated.
Stifling a heavy yawn, Wilson Snider angrily thrusted his share of the bank money into a satchel, giving the southern gentleman a dirty glare. "Don't know who the hell you are, but you sure must know something about the boss to be getting away with this!"
The con man forced a tight smile. "We go back quite a few years...worked together on a few cons. Consider it a professional courtesy."
Wilson knitted his eyebrows together in consternation. "I see it more like robbery."
Pointing at the satchel, Ezra grinned. "Ah can perceive why you would. Is robbery a specialty of yours?"
"Don't bother with him, Wilson," Grant admonished his co-hort. His boss surely had something up his sleeve. Blackston gave in too easily to this stranger's demands. There had to be more.
+ + + + + + +
Ed and Wilson Snider gingerly carried the barely conscious bundle out to the wagon, their eyes meeting in confusion and fury. Why did they go to all that trouble getting Larabee's friend? It didn't seem like the Cole Blackston they had worked with for months. Even if the young man was in a bad way...Blackston wouldn't care. If he died, he died.
Ed grinned at his brother. That fancy gambler would be bringing a corpse back to Larabee. That had to be it. Nothing else made sense. Looking down at the pale face peeking out from under the bunch of blankets, he winked at his older brother, drawing his sibling's eyes to the fevered man.
Wilson understood his brother's smirk. Their captive was real sick, probably due to internal injuries. They had worked him over pretty hard at the bank.
"Get those blankets down before we put him in," Blackston instructed Grant. He turned his face to the two Sniders. "Place him gently on them, it could further damage any injuries he has."
Ezra watched the scene in front of him with bewilderment and worry. Why Blackston was so concerned with Vin's welfare after putting the tracker in this horrible state was beyond comprehension, and it was that lack of understanding that bothered him the most.
Several scenarios flew through the gambler's mind as to Blackston's motives. Was Vin expected not to survive his trip back to Four Corners? Hence the promise to stop nowhere..even to a doctor? Or was Blackston planning on coming back to Four Corners later and then kill Vin...and Chris? Would he and Vin even arrive in Four Corners before Blackston and his men attacked? Whatever the cruel man's plans...the doctored whiskey would put a damper on them. Already they were showing signs of being lethargic. A perfect cue to leave.
"As much as Ah've enjoyed your company, Ah'd like to leave with my spoils while he's alive," Ezra said as unconcerned as he could make himself. Inside he was terribly troubled, Vin's slack features speaking volumes of his true condition. He climbed in back of the rig, making sure his friend was secure for the long trip ahead. Speed would be of the essence to get Vin the help he needed.
Watching Blackston talk soothingly to the stricken tracker, Ezra wanted to beat in Blackston's face, stopping the appalling scene before him. He forced down the rising indignation that threatened to surface. There'd be time for retribution later.
With a long yawn, Blackston left his position beside Vin. "Make sure you stick to the main roads. The ground's uneven around here, and a lot of bouncing won't be good for the boy."
Literally squelching the urge to vomit at his foe's saccharin concern, Ezra grinned tightly and tipped his hat in parting. "As always, it's been interesting Mr. Blackston."
The four men watched the gambler's departure with different feelings. Wilson and Ed Snider were staring in confusion, unsure why things changed so quickly. Anvil Grant noted his boss's content features, his ire building. He didn't want to go up against Larabee in the first place, but Blackston persisted, and now after they obtained their goals, the tall man had thrown it all away in a stupid card game to a man he hadn't seen in years.
Unable to hold his fury in check, Grant glowered at Blackston. "What the hell is going on, Cole? Dammit, you can't tell me you care what happens to the tracker! Why the hell did we go to all that trouble?"
Blackston only smiled, his gaze still upon the horizon. "I must admit, things didn't go exactly as I planned...so I changed them."
"Thought you didn't want Larabee's friend alive?" Wilson asked. "Is that it? He's gonna die on the trip back?"
"Oh, I hope our little hostage makes it," Blackston replied with a sneer. "I want Larabee to see what his actions in the past cost him before death strikes." The card sharp turned and walked back into the cabin without another word, his cryptic message echoing in his men's minds.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah heard the rumbling of the wagon before he saw it. The large built man hurried to the side of the street, awaiting the rig's arrival. Who ever was driving it, they must've had the hounds of Hell on their heels. Buck and JD had also joined the preacher by the time the swirls of dust settled around the wagon and it's handler.
"It's Ezra!" JD exclaimed. His next words echoed the thoughts of the other two with him. "Did you get Vin?"
Ezra's face was grim as he jumped down from the buckboard. "Mr. Sanchez, Ah am in need of your services."
Instantly Josiah leapt into action, following the southern gentleman to the back. Vin's pale face greeted him as he carefully lifted the limp figure into his strong arms. He looked up wordlessly to Ezra, his eyes asking the question he was afraid to say. Was Vin going to survive?
With a slight shrug of his shoulders, Ezra was unable to answer. A black blur in front of Nathan's clinic caught his attention. His eyes moistened as he watched Chris' anxious expression while Vin was being carried inside. If Vin didn't make it....
The morose thoughts were interrupted by the pressure of a hand on his left shoulder. Ezra turned to find Buck standing behind him.
"No matter what happens...ya did good, Ezra," Buck said solemnly. "I ain't gonna let nobody say different."
"Ah...Ah must finish what Ah started," Ezra replied, the warmth of Buck's words reaching his tired and cold body. He turned to leave for the telegraph office and stopped. "Thank you....Buck...," he said before continuing his trek.
JD came up beside Buck, his hazel eyes questioning. "Isn't Ezra going to see Vin like the rest of us? Where is he going?"
Buck only smiled. "Looks ta be the telegraph office. Said he had to finish somethin', and I aim ta let him do just that." Giving his young friend a friendly smack on the back, the ladies' man tilted his head in the direction of Nathan's clinic. "Let's go see how Vin's doin'."
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched Nathan furiously check over Vin, the dark skinned healer's silence rattling his inner core. Was Vin as bad off as he looked? He could feel the heat radiating from his friend as he sat on the corner of the bed, unwilling to be even an arm's length away.
The minutes ticked by, the anxiety demanding an answer. Stopping Nathan by grabbing a hold of his arm, Chris stared hard at the man. "Is it bad?"
Nathan lowered his head. "Internal bleedin'...he's slowly bleedin' ta death...."
Rising from his sitting position, the black clad gunfighter glowered at the healer. "Stop it!"
"I ain't got that kinda skill!" Nathan shot back in frustration. "I'd have ta open him up, and pokin' 'round could kill him faster."
"I'm not going to stand by and watch Vin die!" Chris lashed out. He regretted his words instantly. Nathan would do whatever was humanly possible to save Vin. "I-I didn't mean...."
"I'll have someone fetch the doctor over in the next town. Heard he spent some time with a surgeon back East. Might know something. It's Vin's only chance."
"Nathan, the nearest town is over an hour away," Buck said, walking through the clinic door. He and JD had overheard the last part of the conversation. "Can Vin survive that long?"
"No," Nathan replied, closing his eyes. "I'm not sure I can do this...."
"You're Vin's only chance, Nathan," Chris managed to say quietly.
"I could kill him, Chris."
Chris glanced over at his best friend, the weight of his next words hanging upon his soul like a millstone. "At least it'll be better than dying slow like this."
"Ya best all git out," Nathan ordered, praying for the strength and wisdom to perform the delicate operation. It was hard enough dealing with the lives of strangers, but to have one of your friends depending on you...it was almost unbearable.
"I'm staying," Chris inserted without anger.
"I'll help you in the procedure, Brother Nathan," Josiah offered.
The black man nodded. Josiah had helped him in his medical practice many times before, and the fact he was a preacher was an added bonus. He would need all the spiritual help he could get.
Arranging his instruments, Nathan met both men's gazes. "Let's get started."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra left the telegram office, a burden lifted off his shoulders. He had wired the sheriff in Eagle Bend of a certain band of robbers and kidnappers located in that area. A tiny smile came to his mouth. The promise not to tell was only for Larabee and the other regulators. A lawman in another territory didn't count.
His smile fell when he caught the gloomy faces of Buck and JD leaving Nathan's clinic. The fears he had of Vin's condition were true...the tracker was dying. "Did you garner any information from Mr. Jackson?"
"It's pretty bad, Ezra," Buck answered with a heavy sigh. "Vin's got some internal bleedin'. If Nathan don't open him up, Vin'll slowly bleed ta death, but he's doubtin' his ability ta do the operation."
"Wanted us to go to the nearest town and get some doctor, but like Buck said, it'll take an hour to get there," JD added.
"And surely another hour to come back," Ezra mused sadly. "A two hour trip...granted the good doctor is even there." He looked between the two men. "Is Mr. Jackson going to attempt the operation?"
"Chris told him to," Buck replied. "Said if Vin was gonna die, he'd rather it be quick than draggin' it on."
Ezra dipped his head. Vin wasn't the only possible casualty in Blackston's scheme. Chris would take the passing of his friend hard, maybe even reverting back to the man he became after his family's murder. A man filled with bitterness and anger, not caring if he survived another day. Would Larabee sink that low again?
Buck gently nudged Ezra towards the clinic. "Why don't we grab ourselves a couple o' chairs and wait till Nathan fixes Vin up?"
Ezra gave the loveable rogue a grin. "The good Lord did grace Mr. Jackson with curative hands."
Winking, Buck smiled. "Well, whatever kind of hands Nathan has...let's ask the Big Guy ta give him some extra help."
The three men situated themselves directly in front of Nathan's clinic, preparing to stay as long as it took. If they couldn't be inside lending support, they'd be as near as possible, banging on the gates of Heaven for Vin's life.
+ + + + + + +
Wearily Nathan lifted his head. The operation was over. He took a quick swipe at the sweat beading at his forehead, a prayer of gratitude being sent up. At least Vin hadn't died during the procedure...but the young tracker was still deathly ill.
Chris met Nathan's gaze first. "Well?"
"I stopped the bleedin'," Nathan explained, "his broken ribs punctured his lining."
"Then our young brother will be fine," Josiah said confidently. "Praise the Lord!"
"Best keep askin' Him for help," Nathan hurried to say. "He's still weak, and his fever's high. If we don't git that down, we could still loose 'im."
"We'll get the fever down," Chris replied forcefully.
+ + + + + + +
Out in the moonless night, a tall figure stole silently through a smattering of trees, eluding the ones seeking his capture. His aquiline features were set in hard lines. He had been made a fool of once again...and those responsible were to be found...and punished...in Four Corners.
A wicked smile came to the thin lips as he made his way to a nearby farm. He'd borrow a horse and make haste to the small town. Maybe he'd make it in time for the show he set in motion. Fighting the sleep that threatened to overwhelm him, he continued on.
Sneaking into the large barn, he quietly led a horse to the open road, mounting the saddle-less animal without much effort. First he would have to insure his escape would be kept a secret until he could fulfill his goals. He glanced up at a nearby pole. A wire was attached, connecting it to Eagle Bend's telegraph office.
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