Bad Turn of Events
Nathan stayed and tended his patients all night and the other men took turns to help him so he could rest as well. JD was there in the early hours of the morning and the youngster sponged Ezra down gently.
The kid was concentrating very hard as he did his job and he suddenly frowned and said, "He squeaks."
"What?" the healer asked dazedly from where he sat dozing near Vin.
"He's squeaking. Come and listen."
Nathan rose wearily and strolled over to the gambler and squatted down beside him after JD had moved out of the way. He studied the gambler's sweaty face and listened quietly as he balanced on the balls of his feet. After a few minutes Nathan heard the high- pitched noise that JD was talking about.
"Did ya hear it?" the kid asked from where he stood nearby.
"Yeah. He can't help it, JD. He's in pain from where he was kicked and he's trying not to breathe too deeply 'cause it hurts so much. He can't help breathing properly sometimes though and when he does he's immediately stifling a groan and it comes out like a squeak. I've already given him some laudanum but I don't wanna give him any more of that at the moment. Is he keeping you awake, Vin?" the healer asked over his shoulder while still watching the gambler closely. He reached out a hand and ran his fingers through Ezra's matted hair and then cupped the man's face gently in his hand for a minute or two.
"No. I ain't tired anyway, Nate. I heard Ez squeaking too and I can't help but listen out for each one. Do you know what I mean?" Vin asked uncertainly as he turned over onto his side to face Nathan.
"Yeah, I understand exactly."
"It's kinda comforting really. Means he's still alive," Vin said quietly as he rubbed his eyes and sighed.
Nathan smiled and placed a damp cloth on the gambler's forehead. He then woke Ezra and gave him some more herbal medicine before settling him back on the bed. The gambler groaned loudly and raised a hand to his chest as he coughed softly into his pillow. The healer rubbed the man's arm comfortingly and Ezra eventually calmed and drifted off into a restless sleep. He tossed and turned continually, mumbling under his breath and still issuing the occasional squeak. JD took up residence beside the con man again and talked quietly to the gambler in an attempt to relax him.
Nathan stood up and put a hand to his back as he tried to ease the stiffness there. He then went to see to Vin again and asked automatically, "How do you feel, Vin?"
"I'm okay. Hurts a bit but I ain't complaining," the tracker replied and winced as he moved.
"Well, just drink this for me and I'll leave you alone 'til morning," Nathan promised as he held up another cup of potion.
"Promise?" Vin demanded as he fixed the healer with a penetrating stare and then eyed the mug with distaste.
"Sure I promise," Nathan said with a smile as he passed the cup to the tracker.
Vin took it and sipped the contents tentatively. He suddenly screwed his face up and said, "God! That's gotta be the worst one ever. What did ya put in it? Tastes like I imagine a mixture of horse shit, JD's socks and rotten eggs would be like."
"That's exactly right, Vin. Your sense of taste is as good as yer tracking skills. God you're amazing," Nathan said as he checked the injured man's leg while he was talking. He took the empty cup from the tracker's outstretched hand and walked away laughing.
"Yeah, laugh all you can now, healer. I'll get you back one day I promise and I never break my word," Vin said quietly, although just loud enough for Nathan to hear.
+ + + + + + +
At first light Chris visited the church and collected JD. The kid was curled up, fast asleep on the floor at the foot of Ezra's bed and Chris hated having to wake him. The blond squatted down beside him and shook his shoulder gently.
"Come on, kid. We're going for a ride. I wanna look at Adam's ranch," Chris informed the youngster as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
The two men left the building quietly after telling Nathan where they were going and hurried to the livery. They rode out of town within the hour and set off toward the ranch.
They dismounted when they got within sight of their destination and crawled to the top of the ridge so they could look down without being seen. Chris had borrowed Vin's telescope and he perused the buildings carefully but he could see no movement and there were no horses in the corral either. The blond scowled angrily and turned to head back to the horses with JD following behind.
"What did ya see?" the kid asked.
"Nothing and nobody. Reckon they've split but let's go and check it out anyway. We may find something useful that they left behind that may give us a clue as to who they are."
The two men mounted up and rode into the yard without being challenged. They dismounted and Chris went to look around the ranch house while JD studied the outbuildings. Chris found some of the medical supplies from the clinic and also a lot of bloodstained clothes scattered around the kitchen. He walked into one of the bedrooms and saw a man on one of the beds. He drew his gun and approached carefully but when he got closer he could see that he wasn't going to receive any resistance. The man was dead and by the feel of him he had been so for many hours. Chris recognized the man as Dan Rose, Adam's brother. He'd been a quiet man and Chris was surprised that he'd been involved in any wrongdoing. The blond sighed and collected the medical supplies together and packed them in his saddlebags to take back to town. Although it looked as though the house had been vacated quickly Chris could find nothing of value to aid the cause of tracking the men down. Chris stood and lounged besi! de his horse until JD eventually appeared from the barn and shook his head to signify that he'd found no horses or equipment.
"Well, I found the injured man that the supplies were stolen for. It was Adam's brother but he's dead and they just left him in the house. Did ya see any tracks that we could follow?" Chris asked hopefully.
"Yeah. Some heading south behind the barn but you ain't going after them are you? Looks like a fair amount of men and we can't handle them on our own."
"We'll follow them part the way just to see where they're headed."
Chris got back on his horse and waited for JD to show him the way. The kid set off with determination but within a few miles his horse had gone lame as it stumbled on the extremely rocky terrain.
"God ain't smiling on us, is he kid? Well, we obviously weren't supposed to find those bastards today. Never mind, we can come back later if it don't rain and wash the tracks away. Least we got Nate's stuff back so that's a blessing as Josiah would say." Chris sighed and headed back to town. He really was beginning to feel as if things weren't going to go their way at all.
+ + + + + + +
Midday came and still Ezra's fever hadn't broken. Buck had been with him all morning and the ladies' man was becoming increasingly concerned. He'd changed the sheets and Ezra's clothes twice as they quickly became soaked because of the man's feverish body. When there was still no change he stood and went out to find Nathan who was talking to Josiah outside the church. The two men heard him coming and turned to face him expectantly.
"Nate? Ezra's real bad. Ain't there anything else you can do?"
The healer followed Buck inside quickly and stood over the gambler. The con man was very flushed and was sweating profusely as he continued to toss and turn in agitation. The healer put out a hand and felt Ezra's brow and cheek with the back of his hand. He then felt round the back of the man's neck and shook his head worriedly.
"Nate?" Buck asked when he saw the look on the healer's face.
"The only thing I can try is a cold bath."
"What? Yer kidding, ain't ya?"
"No. His temperature's way too high and he won't survive much longer if it don't break soon, which it don't look like doin'," the healer said sadly.
"Putting him in cold water will kill him for sure," Buck said in horror as he shivered involuntarily.
"Maybe but it may prove the only way to treat him and he's definitely gonna die if we do nothing. It's his only chance, Bucklin. Do you wanna deny him that?"
Buck looked from Nathan to Josiah and back again. He moved his weight from foot to foot in agitation and then looked down at Ezra. "What do you want me to do?" he asked resignedly as he turned to look at the healer again.
"Get that old tin bathtub of Mary's, will ya? Josiah? Can you fill some buckets with cold water and then see if Chris is back. We could do with his help too."
"Sure, Brother Nate," Josiah said quietly, as he studied the healer and saw he looked fearful. Yet another soul in need of comfort, he thought to himself as he patted his friend's shoulder sympathetically. "Just leave it all to me. Everything will turn out fine, Nate. I ain't seen no crows today."
Nathan smiled and watched as his two helpers split up and went to comply with his orders. Buck struggled back with his burden and put it down where Nathan indicated. Josiah, meanwhile, filled several buckets and then ran to the jail to see if the blond was there. The big man saw Chris inside talking angrily to the prisoner so he opened the door and attracted the blond's attention.
"Did ya find anything at the ranch?" Josiah asked first when Chris turned to face him.
"One dead man but it was empty other than him and looks like the others left in a hurry. JD found some tracks and we started following them but his horse went lame and we had to come home. I was just seeing if Adam could shed some light on where they'd gone but he ain't being real helpful even though it was his brother that died."
"We need you anyway over at the church. Ez is in a bad way and Nate needs yer help." The preacher told Chris what they planned to do and the blond stood rapidly and ran out of the jail leaving Josiah behind.
The preacher hurried to catch up and when he drew upsides the gunfighter he could see the man looked none too happy. The two men arrived at the church breathlessly and Chris strode over to Nathan and put a hand on his arm.
"Is this really necessary?" he barked.
"Yes. It's his last hope. Just look at him, Chris. He won't last the day at this rate."
Chris looked down at the gambler and saw what Nathan meant. He stared at the floor and then ran his fingers through his hair before turning back to Nathan. "Okay. Let's do it."
JD ambled into the church and moved to sit on Vin's bed. He asked the tracker what was going on as he watched the frantic activity of his friends. The boy shook his head worriedly and stayed sitting with Vin after he had heard everything. The tracker couldn't work out whether JD wanted comfort from him or if he was actually offering Vin support by sitting by him. Probably a bit of both, Vin decided. He reached up and patted the youngster's back and smiled encouragingly when the boy's hazel eyes met his.
Josiah joined Chris at Ezra's bedside and removed the covers and nightclothes from the feverish man. He picked him up gently and placed him in the tub instead. The gambler sat and trembled and wrapped his arms around his body as if he was freezing. Josiah looked at Nathan and raised the first bucket over the gambler's head. He gazed at each of his friends, including Vin and JD who were watching anxiously from the sidelines. The tracker sent a hopeful smile to the preacher as the big man tipped the water over Ezra. The con man curled up as the water hit him and gasped as the cold liquid soaked his skin thoroughly. He coughed and spluttered and turned his head to try and avoid the flow. Josiah hated doing what Nathan had asked but he knew he had no choice if Ezra was to have a chance of surviving.
Vin watched proceedings from where he lay quietly and he looked at his friends in turn. He could tell their innermost thoughts just by studying their faces and they all looked grim and scared. He looked back at Ezra and grimaced in sympathy as the water in the next bucket was emptied over him. The tracker shivered and fidgeted as he imaged what it must be like for the con man. JD felt the movement and he reached out a hand and Vin grabbed it gratefully. The tracker looked back at Ezra and clenched his jaw as he watched the next bucket emptied over his friend.
Vin sent a silent question up to God. Why? Why do you make him suffer but let the bastards that hurt him escape? He shook his head sadly as he decided that he didn't know what to believe in anymore. Every time he was confronted by injustice he couldn't understand why God allowed it. He was supposed to protect the good and punish the bad, wasn't he? Vin looked at Josiah and wondered how the man kept his faith after all the things he'd seen in his life. The sharpshooter's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of gushing water and he watched the continued efforts being made to save his friend's life.
By the end of the fifth bucket of cascading water, Ezra was sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. Chris thought the process was a form of torture on an innocent man and he moved to stop it.
"That's enough, Nate," Chris ordered as he put a hand on Josiah's arm and looked at the healer seriously. "He can't take any more and I ain't letting you continue."
Nathan saw how determined the blond looked so he nodded his head reluctantly in agreement. Chris very rarely interfered in Nathan's medical business but the gunfighter couldn't stand by and watch Ezra being treated in this way. The gambler and he didn't always get along but that didn't mean Chris liked to see him suffer unnecessarily. He knew that Nathan was doing what he thought was best but the blond didn't agree with his methods on this particular occasion. Josiah leant down and took the gambler in his arms and laid him on some blankets that had been put on the floor. He dried the man off as best he could and wrapped him in some more blankets after dressing him in a nightshirt.
"Put him in my bed, Josiah. It's dry and warm," Vin said as Nathan moved to help the tracker relocate. Vin put an arm round the healer's shoulder and hobbled away with a loud groan as his foot touched the ground.
Nathan asked anxiously, "Are you alright, Vin?"
"Yeah, never better," the tracker replied with a strained voice as he bit his lip to stop himself crying out. Chris had quickly made a bed for Vin to move to and the healer lowered him into it and helped him settle.
The preacher, meanwhile, lay Ezra down in Vin's old bed and covered him in yet more blankets. The gambler curled up like a baby in the womb and shook continuously as Josiah sat beside him and rubbed his arm comfortingly. An hour passed and the man still trembled nonstop.
Buck shook his head and pulled Josiah out of the way. "God, I can't stand this. Come on, pard. You gotta fight this, Ez."
The tall gunman lay down beside his friend and pulled him into his arms. He hoped the gambler might be comforted by the human touch. Ezra lay against Buck's left side with his head and one arm on the man's chest. Buck tightened his grip and thought he felt the gambler relax slightly although he didn't stop shaking. He rubbed his hand up and down Ezra's back and could feel the man's ribs quite plainly under the skin. No excess fat on you, is there Ez? the ladies' man thought as he held his friend gently.
The rest of the men tried to catch up on some sleep of their own but they all stayed in the church in case Ezra took a turn for the worse. There was nothing more they could do for him now but pray. Needless to say none of them got much rest.
Some time during the early hours of the morning the con man ceased quivering and slipped into a deep sleep as the fever finally broke. Buck didn't notice as he had fallen asleep hours ago even though he had tried hard to stay awake. When the ladies' man finally woke he looked down and saw Ezra's eyes were open and clear. The injured man still lay against the gunman and looked comfortable and content.
"Ez? Can you hear me, pard?"
"Hello, Bucklin. Hope you're not going to make a habit of this. I dreamt I had a beautiful woman in my arms and the image was well and truly shattered when I woke to find you sharing my bed instead."
Buck disentangled himself and sat up. "You sure had us worried, pard. Thought you were gonna point yer toes up to Heaven and die."
"Why were you in my bed, Bucklin?"
The ladies' man looked embarrassed and turned slightly red. "Well, I thought the feel of another human might be comforting and help keep you alive," he admitted shyly.
Ezra stared back at him silently before saying, "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. Your ministrations obviously were beneficial. I don't think anyone has ever cared much about whether I lived or died before, except Maude of course. I thank you again."
The gambler looked quite upset so Buck patted his shoulder and smiled. "We all care, Ez. Everyone's taken a turn in sitting with you and Josiah and JD worked real hard to get you home safely in the first place."
"Yes, I remember part of that but it's all rather hazy," Ezra replied quietly as he wiped his eyes.
"You stay there and I'll get Nate," the ladies' man said kindly. Buck felt a hand on his arm and looked back at the gambler anxiously.
"Please tell him in an hour, Mr. Wilmington. He'll only start poking and prodding me and I'm so comfortable at the moment."
"Too late, Ez. He heard ya talking," Buck said with a grin as he got to his feet and moved aside.
The healer loomed into Ezra's line of vision and looked at him critically. Nathan automatically reached out a hand and felt the man's brow. "How do you feel?"
"Comfortable as I said but I admit I hurt all over."
"Not surprised after the kick you got but at least you're looking better."
Ezra tugged Nathan's sleeve and said, "That reminds me. Who owned that poor unfortunate creature I borrowed? I need to give them recompense for their loss."
Chris wandered over as he heard the question and he smiled down at the gambler. "Good to see ya, Ez. Don't you fret about that 'cause it's all been sorted out. Judge Travis is paying 'cause the horse was used on law business. The owner was all for stringing you up from the nearest branch like a horse thief but I managed to persuade him otherwise."
"Bet that was a sight to see," the gambler grinned and then nodded in gratitude. He closed his eyes for a minute as he rubbed his chest distractedly and tried to catch his breath.
"You okay, Ez?" Josiah asked anxiously.
"I will be in a minute. Just hurts and I find it hard to breathe after talking. My body feels as though it belongs to someone who's twice my age at the moment."
"Well just take it easy. You've still got a long way to go before you're fully recovered," Nathan cautioned as he patted Ezra's shoulder.
Chris turned to the healer and put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry about earlier Nate. I was wrong. You did the right thing and you saved his life but it was just too hard to watch."
"It's alright, Chris. I didn't like doing it neither but it was his last chance," the healer said, accepting the apology without question.
The blond nodded and turned to the other men and said, "I wanna go and have another look at Adam's ranch. Are you coming, Bucklin? JD found some tracks that I want to follow again. You did real good, kid. Yer getting as good as Vin at following sign."
"I had a good teacher," the youngster replied as he looked at Vin and smiled before moving to stand beside Buck.
The ladies' man looked at the kid and smiled and then noticed his own reflection in the window. He clicked his tongue and shook his head before licking his hand and flattening his hair back into place. He checked his reflection once more to make sure he looked presentable and turned to Chris with a grin.
"I'm ready, Chris. I caught up on some sleep with Ez."
"Mr. Wilmington! Please don't tell the world we shared a bed. I do have a reputation you know," Ezra pleaded from where he lay.
"And I don't?" Buck laughed. "I sure as hell ain't gonna be spreading the word, pard. You can be sure of that."
Chris laughed and said, "Josiah? Can you stay in the jail and you'd better stay and look after the terrible twins, Nate."
"I ain't Ezra's twin! Jeez, fancy looking like him. I'm real offended by that comment, Larabee," Vin said disgustedly.
"The feeling is mutual, Mr. Tanner. You're certainly no white hen's chicken and I wouldn't want to look like you either."
"What the hell you talking about? I ain't no chicken," Vin complained vehemently.
"He means you ain't perfect neither, Vin," Buck explained as he smiled.
"Well, I still don't like being called his twin," Vin said with a pout.
Chris grinned and said, "I was just meaning when one of you gets hurt, the other one ain't far behind with an even bigger and better injury. Like you'll stub yer toe so Ezra breaks a leg in sympathy."
"Hogwash!" Ezra said as he yawned, turned over and fell asleep.
"Well, you three take care," Nathan cautioned as the gunfighter, ladies' man and kid headed for the door.
Josiah followed them out the door and set off to the jail leaving Nathan with his two charges. The healer checked them both over again and then sat down with a book to help pass the time.
The three other peacekeepers collected their horses from the livery and headed out of town. After watching them leave five men emerged silently from hiding places around the town. They met up in front of the livery and then two of them set off to the jail, one went to collect their horses and the other two went to the church.
Out on the trail, Buck kept looking behind him nervously. Chris let it go for a while but in the end asked in exasperation, "What the hell's the matter with ya, Bucklin? You leave somethin' behind? A woman maybe?"
"No. I just think we oughta go back home."
The blond frowned as he looked across at his oldest friend. "Why?"
"I'm sorry, Chris. I know you wanna go to the ranch after the gang but I've got a real bad feeling that they're actually behind us in town. Can't explain it but I think we should go back." The ladies' man stomach did a somersault as he spoke and he shivered for absolutely no reason.
The blond pulled his horse to a stand still and studied the man seriously. "Yer real worried, ain't ya? You ain't usually one for premonitions."
"I know but somethin' just don't feel right. I had a weird feeling we was being watched when we left."
"Alright. Let's go back," Chris decided instantly as he turned round and kicked his horse onward. They rode back at pace and the nearer they got to town, the more the unsettled feeling grew in Buck.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah lit the lamp in the jail and took up residence behind the desk. It was a dreary day and although it was getting lighter he still felt the need of some extra lighting. He settled back in the chair and began looking through the new wanted posters to keep himself occupied.
In the church, Nathan checked his patients once more. He moved to look at Ezra and he reached out a hand to look under the bandage to study the man's shoulder wound.
"Mr. Jackson, do you mind? I'd just got to sleep after your last prodding session and you have to wake me up again for the same purpose. Don't you like seeing your patients resting? Are you perhaps feeling a trifle neglected now we're recovering?" Ezra asked disgustedly.
"No. I'm allowed to worry, ain't I? I'm just making sure you're alright. Would you rather I left you to fester?" the healer asked with a smile.
"Well, you can take it from me that I am totally fine and not festering. Now will you please go and annoy Mr. Tanner instead?"
Nathan grinned and moved away to the tracker, knowing Ezra must be feeling much better if he was complaining heartily. As he drew near the other injured man he could see that Vin was already awake after being disturbed by Ezra's loud moaning.
"Go away, Nate," the tracker mumbled as he heard the healer approaching him. The man wrapped himself up even more in his blankets and hoped the healer would leave him alone.
Nathan was just about to reply when two men came bursting through the door with guns drawn. Nathan recognized them immediately and muttered, "Shit."
"Yeah, shit is right, fella. Didn't expect to see us again, did ya?" one of the gang members asked as he approached the healer and relieved him of his weapons.
"What do you want this time?" Nathan asked. The healer flicked a quick look toward the tracker and saw Vin peeking out from under the bedclothes to see what the problem was.
"You ask the most stupid questions, don't ya? We want our friend released from jail, don't we?"
The healer looked from one man to the other and considered what they were going to do if he didn't help them. He watched as one man approached him and the other one went toward Vin. The man pulled back the covers from the tracker's body and hauled the injured man upright.
"Come with me," the man instructed Vin as he passed him a coat to put on.
"He's hurt. Take me instead," Nathan pleaded as he saw Vin hobble when he got to his feet.
"Since you ask so nicely, you can come as backup," the man covering him said with an evil grin.
"What about the other one?" the second man asked as he indicated Ezra with a flick of his gun.
"We don't need him." The man raised his gun and aimed it at the still form in the other bed and fired twice. The two peacekeepers heard a grunt and no more. Feathers flew in the air from where one bullet hit the pillow and silence fell over the room.
"Ezra!!" Vin yelled. "You bastard. How can you kill a defenseless man?" The tracker struggled in the grasp of the man who held him as he tried to reach his friend.
"You saw how. It was easy. Point the gun and pull the trigger. Simple and if you don't shut yer mouth, you can go and join him in eternity," his captor said as he struck out with a foot and caught Vin on the leg where he'd been shot.
The tracker slumped to the floor with a cry and clutched the injured limb in both hands. He groaned and bowed his head as he rocked slightly back and forth to try to ease the pain. Nathan looked at him in concern and saw blood seeping between his fingers again. He moved to help his friend but was stopped roughly by the man guarding him.
Vin eventually looked up and flicked a glance toward Ezra's bed sadly. He could see no movement and he bowed his head in regret. The man with him pulled him savagely to his feet and hauled him toward the door. Vin couldn't keep his balance and fell to his knees when he got halfway to his destination. The man holding him tugged him upright again by his hair and the tracker shoved an elbow in the man's stomach to try and get him to loosen his hold. It only made matters worse because he just got a fist in the face for his trouble. Vin was shoved outside onto the top step and the sharpshooter fell down the remainder as he lost his footing when his captor let go of him deliberately. He landed with a grunt in the dirt and looked up to see the man grinning evilly. His aggressor ambled down the steps, knowing Vin was in no condition to escape. He reached down and dragged Vin along the ground until the sharpshooter managed to regain his feet. Vin felt a gun pushed against his spine n! ow he was upright and he was forced across the street roughly. Nathan followed along behind them and the two peacekeepers were taken toward the jail where the other gang members were waiting in a nearby alley.
The hour was early and there were few people in the street. Those that were about failed to notice what was happening to the peacekeepers.
Nathan was taken into the jail first and Josiah looked up and then rose hastily to his feet as he saw what was going on. The preacher chastised himself as he realized he'd made a grave error. He'd heard two gunshots earlier and had looked out into the street but he'd seen a solitary group of cowhands and assumed it had been them. Now he knew the truth. He looked at Nathan quickly and for once couldn't read his expression. He frowned but the healer finally met his eyes and Josiah felt his heart go cold with what he saw in the depths of those dark windows of the soul.
"Stay where you are preacher or your friend ends up like that fancy- dressed gambler. Deader than God."
Josiah looked at Nathan again and saw the healer nod slightly to confirm the information. "God is omnipotent, son. He'll never die and neither will Ezra. He'll live on in our hearts and minds and you'll pay for your sin because I'll see to that myself."
"Shut up preacher and open the cell or we'll kill the other one as well. We didn't come for a damned sermon."
There was a commotion out on the boardwalk and Vin was pushed into the room and fell to the floor at the preacher's feet. Josiah looked down at the tracker and saw his leg was bleeding and that he looked very pale. Vin also had a developing black eye and a bleeding lip and nose from his rough handling and the preacher winced in sympathy. Vin's eyes met his and Josiah could see the sadness there. The big man's attention was drawn to the street and he transferred his gaze to the window. He heard the sound of hoof beats outside and he had a feeling of hope envelope him and he smiled.
One of the gang heard the same sound and looked out too and saw Chris and the others hurrying toward the jail. "Dammit. They're back." He fired a quick shot that sent his targets running for cover.
The gang leader got hold of Vin by his arm and forced him to his feet and held him in front of him as he opened the jail door. The man walked out onto the boardwalk and shouted, "Don't shoot or we kill yer friend."
Chris held up a hand to stop his two companions from intervening. He didn't want Vin to get hurt so he waited to see what the gang would do next before acting. Buck moved up next to him and signaled that he was going to run round to the other side of the street so the men were caught between them. Chris nodded in agreement and then indicated for JD to move further down toward the jail. The kid waved and disappeared behind the buildings to carry out the order.
Inside the jail, one of the gang collected the cell keys from their hook and released Adam quickly. Josiah made moves to prevent the jailbreak but stopped and put his hands in the air as the man aimed his gun and sent a bullet into the floor at his feet.
The gang leader let out a shrill whistle and the man guarding the horses rode along with the spare mounts. The gang mounted and then Vin was put up on the remaining horse and his captor got on behind him. They rode away from the jail with a couple of men watching for any movement from the remaining peacekeepers.
The gang got to the end of the street near the church when suddenly a shot rang out and the man holding Vin fell to the ground. The tracker reacted quickly to his newfound freedom and kicked his horse away from the other men. He swung round the back of the church and out of sight of the gang. He was just in time to see a man, whose presence the other peacekeepers knew nothing about, disappear into the church through Josiah's room. He had obviously been placed to ensure the gang's safe escape but Vin meant to change that. Unbeknown to Vin, the man he was going to confront was Hank, the gang leader.
Back out in the main street, Chris and his two friends sprung into action now Vin appeared to be out of harm's way. They picked the gang off one by one and within a few minutes every man was dead. The three peacekeepers walked out into the open now it was safe and went to make sure the gang were definitely dead. Chris did a quick body count and couldn't decide whether all the men were accounted for or not. Nathan said there were six in the group he saw and there's also Adam, Dan and Hank on top of that. So that makes nine that we know of for sure. Adam and Dan are definitely accounted for and also the five here so there are two missing men then. Wait a minute, Josiah killed one man outside town too so perhaps there's only one man to find but what if I'm wrong? Chris shook his head in exasperation.
Josiah and Nathan, meanwhile, hurried out onto the boardwalk and met up with Chris in the middle of the street.
"You both okay?" the blond asked as he turned and studied their grim faces worriedly.
"Yeah but they killed Ezra," Nathan said quietly as he wiped his face wearily.
"What?" Chris asked, stunned. Before any further comment could be made, the sound of gunfire erupted from the church and the three men whirled round to look toward the building.
+ + + + + + +
Vin dismounted and managed to keep his feet but he hissed loudly at the pain that erupted in his leg. He followed his quarry into the church slowly and was just in time to see the man enter the main church and head toward the front door. Vin continued to follow but he was reduced to hopping along and Hank inevitably heard him coming and fired a shot in his direction. Vin dropped to the ground as he felt the bullet hit his arm and he shuffled backwards awkwardly until he was hidden behind one of the pews. He heard footsteps approaching him and he took a quick look and saw Hank rapidly getting nearer his hiding place. Vin had no weapon so he looked round frantically for something to use against his foe.
"Excuse me," a disembodied voice called from the far side of the church. "I wonder if you'd be so kind.....?"
The gunman turned and gasped in surprise as he sent a shot toward where he thought the person was positioned. Vin heard a grunt and the words 'obviously not' from the darkness and he smiled as he thought he recognized the voice. The tracker used the distraction to dive at Hank now he had his back toward him. He knocked him to the floor and punched him hard before he could retaliate. The gunman struggled violently and began to get the upper hand against the injured sharpshooter. Hank ended up sitting across Vin's chest and the tracker fought desperately as he tried to dislodge him. Hank got hold of Vin's hair and started slamming his head against the floor. Vin's vision blurred and he felt as if he would lose consciousness any minute. Suddenly another gunshot sounded and Vin's attacker fell to the floor and moved no more.
The tracker lay still for a moment while he recovered his breath and came back to his senses. He then crawled out from beneath his attacker's body and sat up slowly with a hand clamped to his head. He got to his feet shakily and held onto a pew for a while before limping toward where he thought the killing shot had come from. He saw someone slumped on the floor and he quickened his pace as much as he could.
"Ezra?" the tracker said as he saw it really was his friend. He smiled in relief and helped the man to sit up. "Are you okay? I thought they'd killed ya."
"Oh, I'm very much alive but not quite kicking, Mr. Tanner. Sorry if I left killing that fool rather late but I am somewhat lacking in energy at the moment. Pulling the trigger felt like I imagine lifting Mr. Sanchez with one finger would be like. The pain created by the gun's recoil is not something I wish to experience again either. I must have rather a weak constitution because I can feel the effects even now."
"You ain't weak, Ez. You had to be pretty damn strong to have survived what happened to you," Vin said as he studied his companion, still marveling in the fact that he was alive.
"Are you well, Mr. Tanner? It can't have been very pleasurable being forced to walk when you are in pain. I should have asked after your health before. I do apologize for continually complaining and becoming self-absorbed. How's your head? I saw what he was doing to you. Did he mistake your head for a hammer do you think?"
"Yeah, must have 'cause he sure was trying to bang something into the floor with it. My head's pretty hard although it does seem to be bleeding. Feel like shit but what the heck, least I'm still alive," Vin smiled as he patted his friend's shoulder.
The gambler smiled weakly and then looked down at his arm and said in exasperation, "Look at that. Another nick on my arm from that idiot's bullet to add to my tale of woe."
"Yeah, I got one too. Hurts like hell, don't it? Let's get you into Josiah's room in case there are any more of those bastards hanging around. Thanks for the distraction by the way. I hadn't got any weapon to use against him and you intervened just in time."
"Glad to be of service, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with a weary smile playing on his lips.
Vin dragged the gambler into the room and left him sitting against the wall. Vin stood bent over for a moment as a wave of dizziness swept over him and he then tried to ease the pain in his leg and arm. The tracker finally straightened up with a groan and went to collect any weapons from the gunman's body. As he was kneeling awkwardly beside him he heard the sound of running feet rapidly approaching the church. He picked up the gunman's weapon and headed back to Ezra in case it was another gang member seeking refuge in the church. He pushed the connecting door to Josiah's room gently once they were inside but didn't quite shut it. He left a small gap so he could see what was happening outside and he held the gun ready for action.
+ + + + + + +
Outside in the street, the sound of gunfire from the church suddenly ended and the peacekeepers ran toward the building.
"What the hell's going on in there?" Buck shouted.
Chris put out his hand and opened the door cautiously and flicked a look inside before stepping in. The men entered quietly behind him and saw the dead gunman on the floor toward the back. Buck then ran to Ezra's bed after seeing there was no one else there and found it empty. He turned to Nathan questioningly. "Nate?"
"We saw him shot, I swear," the healer said in disbelief and then pointed. "Look, there's the bullet hole in the sheet."
"Well, there ain't no blood. Where the hell is he?"
"Not in Hades, Mr. Wilmington despite your assurances that I will end up there when I'm dead," Ezra said quietly.
Buck swung round and saw Josiah's room door open to reveal Ezra slumped on the floor just inside with Vin beside him. The ladies' man ran over to them and knelt down anxiously.
"Hey pards. Are you okay? Did ya get hit?"
"Didn't hit anything vital although neither of us will be able to play poker for a while. Don't think those fools could hit the side of a barn even if they were inside it. Terrible marksmanship. Would you have missed me, Mr. Wilmington if they had succeeded in killing me?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah. I think I would, Ez. Gotta have someone to take the blame in my place when I play a joke on Chris," Buck said with a grin as he patted his friend's shoulder in relief.
"Glad I am useful to you in some capacity. It makes remaining on the Earth so much more rewarding, Bucklin," the gambler said wryly. "Anyway did the other felons meet their maker? I'm afraid I wasn't on my feet for the finale."
"Yeah. Vin nearly had to go with them but one of the boys got a lucky shot and killed the man riding with him. Which of you did it, by the way?" the tall gunman asked as he turned to study his friends. He got negatives from all of them. "Who did it then?"
"I did," Ezra said.
"Well, what do you think I've been doing in here? I have got other uses than just taking the blame for you. I shot him through the window here using Josiah's spare gun, which I found in the drawer there and then I'm afraid I fell over."
"He saved me again when he shot that man outside," Vin explained quietly as he sat beside the gambler exhaustedly. "I really appreciate you helping me out, Ez."
Nathan walked into the room and squatted down beside the two men to see how bad their injuries were. He pulled up Ezra's sleeve and the gambler hissed.
"There he goes again, poking and prodding me. I bet it was you who shot me and not that villain, just so you could have someone to treat. I think you were feeling lonely and needed someone to cosset," Ezra complained.
"Na. He'd give you an injury to stop you talking nonstop, Ez. You gotta be the noisiest patient ever. What with groaning, talking and squeaking you could start yer own one-man band," Vin said as he patted his friend's arm.
"Mice and floorboards squeak, Mr. Tanner but I definitely do not," Ezra stated emphatically.
"You do. I heard ya and so did Nate and JD," Vin disagreed with a broad grin on his face.
The gambler looked at the two named men and received nods in reply. The con man sighed and looked slightly embarrassed.
Vin tapped Ezra's shoulder and smiled when the man looked at him again. The tracker had been dying to ask the next question and he blurted it out quickly, "Ez? How did that man miss when he shot at you in bed?"
"I heard them come in and listened to the conversation. I decided they might not be good for my health so I slid out of the bed onto the floor while they were concentrating on you. I felt terribly compelled to stay alive after all your hard work to save my sorry soul. Once you'd gone I managed to get to Josiah's room and found his gun and then waited by the window to see if I could be of assistance."
"Well, you were a great help and you don't owe anything to no one for quite some time. Things coulda got real nasty for Vin if you hadn't intervened. Come on. Let's get you to bed. Do ya feel okay?" the healer asked as he stood up to let Josiah take his place.
"Bit tired. I don't think I was quite up to fighting bandits but I managed alright all things considered. I admit my hand was shaking somewhat when I fired the gun but I think God was guiding the bullet to make sure it hit the right person."
"I'm sure he was, son," Josiah said as he picked the gambler up gently and took him back to bed and tucked him in after Nathan had dealt with his new injury.
"Right, that's one terrible twin seen to, now what about the other. Vin, come on, get back in bed," Chris ordered.
"Can't you describe us in better terms, Mr. Larabee?" the gambler complained.
"Yeah, damn right. I think I'd rather be compared to my horse's ass than Ezra," Vin agreed as Nathan helped him back to bed and started re-stitching his leg wound carefully. The tracker groaned as Nathan worked and the healer looked up and smiled in sympathy. When he'd finished he passed a mug of medicine to the longhaired man and for once Vin accepted it without comment. The healer then examined Vin's head and cleaned and carefully stitched the wound there too.
"Yeah, fine thanks Nate. Got a hell of a headache but that pales into insignificance up against you lot continuing to compare me to Ezra. We ain't nothing alike."
Chris smiled and studied the gambler and tracker seriously but with a twinkle in his eye. He said, "Sorry, Vin. I don't agree. You're looking more like one another as each hour passes and I bet by tomorrow you'll wake up and we won't be able to tell which one of you is which. You've both got black eyes and now matching arm injuries too."
"Yeah. Now you mention it, I think they should be called the gruesome twosome instead," Buck laughed.
"Oh, God. I asked for that, didn't I?" Ezra said disgustedly as he punched the pillow and imagined it was Buck's face instead. He smiled after taking out his revenge on the unfortunate pillow and curled up comfortably with a sigh. "Well, I suppose it's better than being a libidinous lothario, a demonic doctor or a grotesque gunfighter."
"He sounds delirious to me," Buck commented with a broad smile. "What do you think, Chris?"
"Too right. Especially after that description of me. I think some more of Nathan's brews are called for," the blond grinned.
"No, no. I surrender. I take it all back. No more potions," Ezra pleaded with a shaky, halting voice.
"Leave him be, boys," Josiah ordered as he saw Ezra was tiring rapidly.
"Ah, a saintly savior. Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said as he drifted off to sleep while the others laughed.
The men left their injured friends to sleep and caught up on some rest of their own. Chris and Buck volunteered to watch over their two friends but they had a hidden agenda to their generous offer. The two men waited until all the others were asleep and then swapped the gambler's and tracker's clothes. Buck dressed Vin while Chris dealt with Ezra. Luckily neither patient stirred as they were manhandled into the garments and the two pranksters stepped back and admired their handiwork when they were done. They took seats away from the two sleeping men and waited impatiently for them to wake.
Dawn came and Vin was the first to open his eyes and he woke up Ezra with his shouting. "Ahhhhh! You bastards. What the hell have you done to me? If you've cut my hair, I'll kill ya!" the furious tracker yelled. He looked down and saw Ezra's fancy vest and claret jacket covering his torso. "Jeez, I think I'm gonna faint from the shock of being dressed up like a damned peacock. Just wait 'til I get my hands on you, Larabee. I'll cut out yer tongue and use it for a fly swat."
"Well, he don't talk like Ezra, does he?" Buck observed dryly as he and Chris turned to look at Ezra when he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Oh, good God! It's true. I've turned into Mr. Tanner. I'm his twin! Mr. Jackson, I feel an attack of the jitters coming on. I need a whiskey....someone give me a whiskey. I'll even have one of your potions as a last resort, Nate. Help me someone, please," Ezra begged as he put a hand to his brow in anguish.
JD decided to play along with the deception and he stood and wandered over to Ezra with a mug in his hand and said, "There ya go, Vin. Nathan said for you to drink some of that when you woke up. What the hell happened to yer hair? It's short. That's real strange 'cause Ezra's has grown real long overnight and it sure looks funny. Have you seen it?" The kid pointed toward the tracker as he spoke.
"I am Ezra, you buffoon. He's Vin."
"Na. Yer funnin', ain't ya Vin? I'd know you anywhere." The kid looked toward the real Vin and then back to Ezra again and said doubtfully, "Now you mention it you do both sorta look the same." "There you are," Chris said in satisfaction. "I told you they'd wake up looking like one another. Even JD's confused."
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